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IN 1970, there appeared a collection of essays in honour of Hector MacIver who taught English at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. MacIver, who was born on Lewis in 1910 and died in Midlothian in 1966, was a man of many parts. He was a writer, broadcaster, producer of plays, a talker and a speaker. He was also much liked and greatly admired and an immense influence on many of those who fell under his spell. The collection was called Memoirs of a Modern Scotland and its editor, Karl Miller, had been student of MacIver.
‘He was not famous in the usual sense,’ wrote Miller, though there is no doubt he was well-known in certain circles. The essays which followed were not all concerned directly with MacIver but with things he had been interested in: politics, poetry, history both national and personal, the intellectual life, the state of the nation. Among the contributors were Sorley MacLean, Hugh MacDiarmid, William McIlvanney, Muriel Spark, Alastair Reid and Miller himself. By any standard, it was a stellar lineup. If you want to know what it was like to be a questioning, imaginative person in Scotland forty years and more ago then Memoirs of a Modern Scotland is as good a place as any to start.
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Rona Munro was born in Aberdeen. Primarily a scriptwriter for the stage, she has also written for radio, television and film. Her theatre credits include Bold Girls (7:84 and Hampstead Theatre), Dear Scotland and The Last Witch. Little Eagles, a play about the space race, was produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company, and Iron was staged at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and won the 2003 John Whiting Award. Her writing for television includes the dramas Rehab and the BAFTA–nominated Bumping the Odds for the BBC. She wrote the screenplay for the Ken Loach film Ladybird Ladybird and the 2010 Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine. She is co–founder with actress Fiona Knowles of The MsFits, a feminist theatre company which has been touring since 1986.
Her latest project is The James Plays, a trilogy about three, fourteenth and fifteenth century Scottish kings. Directed by artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland Laurie Sansom, and staged with one company of actors, it is a joint production by the NTS and the National Theatre of Great Britain. James I: The Key will Keep the Lock follows the return of James I to the Scottish throne after being imprisoned in England from the age of thirteen; James II: The Day of the Innocents is a dark investigation of how Scottish feuding nobles manipulate a child–king. James III: The True Mirror is a lighter Renaissance comedy about the hedonism of a reckless ruler and a queen’s struggle to choose between different forms of love.
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After a very fine reading by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, I found myself seated at dinner with a mixed crew of Scots and Canadians – writers and festival-goers. It wasn’t long before the analogy arose, between secessionist ambitions in Quebec and the longings for an independent Scotland. What struck me, however, more than the confluence of political interests and leanings, was how easily the conversation flowed, how small the gap seemed between them and us, divided as we notionally are by a very wide ocean and a lot else besides. I could summon some reasons for the companionability – historical, ideological, genealogical – but they didn’t exhaust my surprise at the suddenly shrinking world seated round that table.
Some of those Canadians have since got in touch with me: expressions of condolence, in the main. They may not have realised that, as a long-time resident of Paris, I did not have a vote; they certainly did not know how, had I had the vote, I would have exercised it. Nor are they the only ones. The highly overqualified janitor in the building where I teach gives me a sad smile of recognition when I pass him in the morning. He wants me to know he is on my – defeated – side. My email inbox is full with messages from friends and acquaintances from far-flung states (from Oregon, from Japan, from Australia), all offering the same consolation. When I buy my baguette, I begin to believe I detect the same sympathetic gaze on the face of my friendly baker. Almost none of my sources of sympathy could say if in fact I’m in need of it – I’ve lived away from Scotland for nearly forty years, and politics have rarely been on my lips. But they all want me to know, unequivocally if not always explicitly, that they are sad: a flame has been extinguished in their hearts.
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In The Father, August Strindberg’s harrowing account of the protagonist’s descent into paranoid insanity, the problem that initially obsesses the Captain is how to control Laura, his wife, and have her comply with his wish that their daughter be educated as a teacher and not as an artist. Laura counterattacks by announcing she has informed the doctor her husband is insane, and telling him he has ‘fulfilled his function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner’. Most damningly, she malevolently suggests that he has no rights over the girl since he is not really her father. It is this accusation that disorientates the man, sending him to consult the Bible and writings of classical authors to find great men undermined by similar fears and causing him to conclude that ‘we men have no children’. Undoubtedly Strindberg’s play was prompted by his own misogyny, for he was one of the few writers deserving a label now too casually attached to many male writers, but the Captain’s conclusion is one which Alan Cumming might be glad to share, even if his problem is the opposite. He wishes to detach himself from a father he views, reasonably, as odious.
Cumming is one of the most outstanding actors in a gifted generation who are Scottish by background but cosmopolitan in ambition and achievement. He has won prizes and plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, has addresses in New York and Edinburgh, and took an active part in the referendum campaign in support of the Yes side. His awards include an Emmy for the long-running TV series, The Good Wife, and a Tony for his portrayal of Emcee in Cabaret. In recent times he has given deeply moving, bravura performances in two NTS productions, as Dionysus in The Bacchae and as Macbeth in what was virtually a one-man version of the tragedy.
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WHEN Alex Ferguson arrived at Aberdeen in 1978 to take charge of the city’s persistently underachieving football club, few anticipated the spectacular success he was to achieve over the next eight years.
I certainly didn’t; I had been a committed Dons fan for 16 years and had grown too used to false dawns. Yet the foundations were in place. The club’s chairman and vice chairman were exceptional men who balanced each other perfectly. They were maybe Scottish football’s classiest ever double act. Both had played for the club: the chairman, Dick Donald, was wealthy, shrewd and a canny man manager; his vice chairman Chris Anderson was a football visionary, a progressive far ighted administrator who had been intensely frustrated at Aberdeen’s failure to realise its potential as the sole league club in Scotland’s third largest city. Further, Ferguson inherited a fine squad; the basis of it was the central defensive partnership of the supreme Willie Miller and the younger Alex McLeish. There were two other exceptional players, Gordon Strachan and Steve Archibald, who had been signed during the brief but impressive reign of the previous manager, Billy McNeill, and several other very good ones.
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IT has been twelve years since the last anthology of contemporary Scottish LGBT writing appeared, a period of enormous change, legally, ideologically, and socially. With that in mind, Zoë Strachan has assembled Out There, a pick ’n’ mix of Scottish fiction, nonfiction and poetry which, according to GScene.com, is only the third such collection ever published. The idea came to Strachan a few years ago at Ullapool Book Festival, when she was speaking about how the gay experience finds expression through her work. A number of questions cropped up: ‘about the unpublished manuscripts that might be mouldering in attics; about the lack of gay male counterparts for the generation of world-class Scottish women writers who are lesbian; about whether we can talk meaningfully about gay or queer fiction; about how new writers will embrace, subvert and reject such labels and themes.’
Who here?, to paraphrase Harold Ross. There are poems and stories from Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Louise Welsh, Jo Clifford, Ronald Frame and Ali Smith, as well as Val McDermid, Damian Barr, Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan and Nicola White. Among the less familiar names are Janette Ayachi, Shane Strachan, Tat Usher, Katherine McMahon, David Downing, and Marcas Mac an Tuairneir. It is worth noting, as Strachan does, that most of the better known names belong to women.
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AMID the chatter and babble of the referendum debate, certain words and phrases rang out and were repeated, over and over. But among those echoing words, surely few were used as inconsistently or confusingly as the one around which, in a sense, the whole conversation revolved: nationalism. This inconsistency was most striking among Yes campaigners. For while some were keen to defend the virtues of the ‘civic’ from the reputation of the ‘ethnic’, many were equally keen to distance themselves altogether. ‘I am not a nationalist, but…’ was as common a refrain as ‘I hate all nationalism, so…’.
What was clear throughout, then, was that this remains a difficult and, for many, a dirty word. What was equally clear was the lack of thinking that surrounds it. Over the past five decades, Tom Nairn has worked to counter this lack of thinking. Few have written as cogently and comprehensively about nationalism, and few have explored so thoroughly this country’s ‘odd historical sidestream’ or its slow crawl back towards self-rule.
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WHEN in 1817 Walter Scott was visited by the American author Washington Irving, he did not expect to be told that his guest was unimpressed by his beloved borderlands. On hearing Irving’s reservations about the ‘monotonous’ landscape, Scott paused before replying with admirable restraint: ‘to my eye, these grey hills, and all this wild border country, have beauties peculiar to themselves. I like the very nakedness of the land; it has something bold, and stern, and solitary about it.’
Those are the qualities that Ian Crofton soon discovered, on his self-imposed walk along the border last year. However, by the end of this journey, having picked his way along the demarcated line between Scotland and England, he seems very unlikely to have concluded, as did Scott, that ‘if I did not see the heather, at least once a-year, I think I should die!’ One’s impression, rather, is that by the time he reaches the North Sea, Crofton would be only too glad to hang up his boots and sink into an armchair.
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I am sitting in a bookshop’s small cafe, waiting for Tolu Ogunlesi, my exchange writer. While rain stots off the car roofs, I listen to two women in their thirties discussing Lagos life. One, let’s call her Braids, is advising a newbie, recently returned from many years in NYC. There is a discussion about public transport. Braids never uses it; she can’t stand being touched by strangers. NYC says that some of her friends tell her it’s OK – and she can’t pay for taxis all the time. But she’s been told never to be seen arriving for a meeting in public transport. NYC describes the confusion she feels at times trying to get a ‘fix’ on Lagos. ‘Nobody knows Lagos,’ says Braids. ‘Everyone just makes it up.’
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If I have to, then let me be the whaler poet,
launcher of the knife, portioning off
the pink cut, salt trim and fat, tipping
the larger waste off the side of the boat,
and then to have the poem in the drawer;
or, perhaps, let it be the poet nurse,
hearts measured by a small watch, balmer,
washer of old skin, stopping by the door
in the night –
or the oil-driller poet, primed
for the buried flame and heat, lips to the black,
aware how the oilfields in the evening
are lit like our own staggered desks.
Or, the horse-trader or the smith, or the waiter poet –
offering the choice wine, polishing to the light,
the bringer of the feast and the bill.
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IT has been the fate of British polar explorers to be glorious in defeat. Our most famous contribution to the genre is still Robert Falcon Scott’s ill tarred Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Next to Scott comes Ernest Shackleton, best known for bringing his men back alive when his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice at the beginning of a trans-Antarctic crossing which never got off the ground.
For much of the twentieth century, Michael Smith explains in his new biography, it was Scott who was the hero. He was a gallant, military man, a man of the empire who died in pursuit of a noble goal. Shackleton, by contrast, was a dashing buccaneer with a touch of blarney and a gift for coming back alive. In the tiny close-knit world of polar exploration, there wasn’t room for both of them.
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IN July 2011, two months after the SNP secured majority control of the Holyrood Parliament, I interviewed Neal Ascherson, the Edinburgh-born political writer, in central London. For Ascherson’s convenience, we met at the Euston Hilton, a short walk from where he worked, somewhat incongruously, as an Honorary Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Our conversation centred on the brewing row between the Scottish and UK governments over independence. ‘The Salmond strategy is to bear down on the whole devolution structure in such a way that it can be shown not to work and a situation arises in which Westminster continuously blocks Scottish demands,’ Ascherson said. ‘But now things have moved so fast that his plan may be to just spin things out until devolution breaks down of its own inadequacy.’
‘Either way.’ he added, ‘I can’t see a million people gathering in Princes Street shouting “freedom”. I don’t think that’s how Scotland operates.’
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While writing War and Peace, Tolstoy spared a few words for his diary: ‘I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.’ Patricia Highsmith wrote every day as well, first bribing herself with sugary coffee, cigarettes and a doughnut, and then in her later years slugging vodka upon waking to take the edge off the morning. Her biographer Andrew Wilson suggested that, ‘she had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible’. Auden’s routine wasn’t dissimilar: Benzedrine in the morning, Seconal at night, with plenty of writing (and a few cocktails) in between. Many such examples can be found in Mason Currey’s fascinating collection Daily Rituals, How Artists Work. As he notes in his introduction, there’s a superficial quality to our obsession with such routines: ‘It’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.’
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DEMANDS for independence are turning up in the most unlikely places, none more surprising than Sarah Browne’s new history of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Scotland. Browne concentrates on the heyday of ‘women’s lib’ in the 1970s. Using oral history interviews with women involved at the grassroots, and archive material from the Scottish Women’s Liberation Movement, she succeeds in freeing the story of the Scottish movement from what she claims are worn-out narratives, southern biases and the movement’s enduring ‘identity crisis’.
The persistent demonising by the media and others of ‘women’s libbers’ as bra-burning, humourless man-haters has long co-existed with the UK movement’s hagiography of its doyennes, and its desire to keep their narrative and legacy in protective custody. Meanwhile the story of the Scottish WLM has slumbered, untold, in people’s memories and dusty box files. The tale is well told in this thoroughly researched and illuminating work of historical scholarship which lives up to its author’s claim of ‘complicating our understanding of feminist politics in post-1945 Britain’.
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August 1914, Vienna: Leon Trotsky watches the patriotic crowd fill the square in front of the War Ministry, the men clamouring to enlist. He wonders what motivates them. Surely not nationalism, since Austria-Hungary was ‘the very negation of a national idea’. The answer must lie in the type of existence from which even war makes a welcome interruption: ‘The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course – what can seem worse… than “normal” conditions?’
August 1914, Glasgow: William Gallagher observes similar scenes, in another great proletarian city, but on the other side in the conflict. Nevertheless, he comes to remarkably similar conclusions to those of Trotsky about ‘the terrible attraction a war can have’: ‘The wild excitement, the illusion of wonderful adventure and the actual break in the deadly monotony of working-class life! Thousands went flocking to the colours in the first days, not because of any “love of country”, not because of any high feelings of “patriotism”, but because of the new, strange and thrilling life that lay before them.’