Monthly Archives: March 2017



A man walks into the Mitchell Library:

Reader: Have you got a book on Glasgow, mister?
Librarian: Aye, 4000!
Reader: Well, it’s the north of the city.
Librarian: Oh, aye, here, there’s this, there’s that.
Reader: It’s round about Maryhill.
Librarian: Well, there’s a wee history of it.
Reader: No, I want tae know if ma sister in-law’s still in Shamrock Street.
Librarian: If you’d said that first, I would have looked it up in the valuation roll or the voters’ roll.

Joe Fisher, former Librarian of the Mitchell’s Glasgow Room, recalls that man fondly. He is an amalgam of readers whose requests had to be interpreted by means of interrogation, deduction or second sight. In this, the librarian’s role is not unlike a doctor’s, probing the patient for their symptoms, searching between the words for what they are really saying, and occasionally making wild or inspired guesses. All in hope of getting to the point before closing time.

Fisher is but one of the fourteen engaging interviewees in Ian MacDougall’s unexpectedly fascinating collection of oral memoirs in Voices of Scottish Librarians, but he stands out, with one or two others, for his love of telling stories. His evident enjoyment of the job, however, is a feature of all the subjects of this latest work from the Scottish Working People’s History Trust, which is building an invaluable repository of recollections of those in lines of work at risk of being forgotten. Thanks to Fisher we know of the official at the Mitchell with poorly fitting dentures, who would sometimes lose them down the hoist shaft in which books were shuttled from one floor to another. ‘Every now and again you’d be told, “Go down to the basement and take Bernard’s teeth back up to him.” It was Fisher and his colleagues who, when the Stone of Destiny was stolen, thought to check who had recently been browsing guides to Westminster Abbey, thereby identifying the culprits. ‘I don’t know whether to be proud of that or not,’ he reflects.

The librarians who feature in these pages were born between 1911 – Dorothy Milne, County Librarian in West Lothian – and 1946 – John Hunter, Chief Librarian in Shetland. In between are men and women – mainly men, despite this being a predominantly female profession – from all parts of the country and all kinds of backgrounds, though only one from truly rural, agricultural origins. What they all share is not, oddly enough, their love of reading or a passion to become keepers of books, but a strong and even campaigning awareness of the importance of books to society. Most come from modest homes, some indeed from poor families, such as M W (Bill) Paton from Alloa, whose father was a miner. As an ageing man, Paton talks lovingly of the good home he came from, and ‘what moving to a council house did for the spirits in the house’. Another whose beginnings were also far from affluent is John Preston, whose parents worked themselves into an early grave in their fruit shop in Glasgow. He recalls, ‘they gave me a wonderful upbringing. Anything I got, I treasured.’  Gavin Drummond, MBE, from Perth, who went on to become County Librarian in Angus, recounts that his grandfather, a policeman, died from his injuries at the hands of a Glasgow gang.

Some of these librarians served in the armed forces during World War Two. Andrew Fraser, later Chief Librarian of Midlothian, was a prisoner of war, working in the mines in Silesia for three and a half years before making a run for it, though he and a fellow escapee were eventually caught. Tom Gray, later Chief Librarian for Ross and Cromarty, had been in the RAF. When the war ended, he says ‘I went back to the library as if nothing had happened.’ Nor had anything changed in the library while he’d been gone.

Only a handful of this array of high-performers were obviously of the middle classes.  There is perhaps a lesson there, if the authorities were willing to see it. Those for whom libraries are particularly valuable, and indeed essential, recognize their worth, and want not just to protect but to nurture them. It is a message to which councils and government, north and south, are growing stone deaf. In his spirited account of rising to become the youngest and possibly most confident Chief Librarian in Britain, John Hunter is blunt: ‘Councillors are totally unaware of the quantity and quality of information that libraries provide. They still think it’s issuing two or three Mills & Boon romances. I don’t know how one can change that, short of dragging every councillor into the library to see what happens.’

Although only now seeing the light of print, the first of these interviews was conducted in 1996, the last in 2002. As a consequence, the time lag between observations on library services at the point at which the interviewees retired, and the current situation, is pronounced. Most valuable about these voices, however, is not their predictions about the future of libraries, but the way they illuminate the period when they were in the profession, and the personalities who made libraries what they were.

Under MacDougall’s probing, they reveal the social and political conditions in which they were born and raised. The oldest have never forgotten whether their earliest homes had electricity or hot and cold running water, or an indoor or outdoor toilet. John Preston, whose family lived in a Glasgow close, says, ‘I can remember quite clearly the old lady lamplighter comin’ in, lightin’ up.’
The incidental detail they offer about their parents and grandparents means this book reaches back into the nineteenth century, an era in which some of the libraries where they found themselves eventually working were still mired. Margaret Deas, who left school and started as a typist in the National Library of Scotland in 1951, describes her first impressions: ‘The first day was awful: this great big place: silent, and a grandfather clock went tick-tock – Sir Walter Scott’s, incidentally. There was three steps down into this great big room, and I went in and it was so quiet… That was when the Library had the books in the Laigh Hall – all these bookcases with wire on them, a great big coal fire and old Giles, the messenger. Then these men appeared with black gowns and a white wig who had their offices in the Library along that corridor. You couldn’t distinguish the National Library from the Advocates use of it. It was very nineteenth century.’

Deas worked in the NLS until she retired, 42 years later. During her time there, she was not impressed by Gordon Brown, the first student Rector of the University of Edinburgh, who was offended at the library’s strict rules about who could and could not use it. ‘He didn’t come in very much but he was saying that they [undergraduates] should be allowed in’. She reiterates here, as throughout her career, that as a conservation library, the NLS was ‘thinking of future generations, not just the present’.

Another who was hooked from the start, was John Preston, who rose to become Regional Librarian of Dumfries & Galloway but, like several others, fell into the job. Leaving school to start earning a living, he was asked by the careers advisor if he had thought of becoming a librarian. ‘It had never even crossed my simple wee mind. So I started in the Mitchell the next week and that’s been me in the library world until I’d to pack it in.’

From the most august and forbidding library in the country – possibly on these islands – to branches in Methil, Tranent or Riddrie, these champions of the printed word brought intelligence, foresight and commitment to offering the best range of titles, and most accessible modern service possible to the people they served.

‘Many librarians felt they were pioneers,’ remarks Andrew Fraser. To Scotland’s fame for inventing penicillin, tarmac and television should be added another notable first: the mobile library. Thanks to this winning idea, readers in rural districts not only could read anything they asked for without stirring beyond the village green, but could also have parcels and eggs and Christmas gifts ferried from one village to the next by obliging librarian-couriers who recognized  – and relished –  their wider role in the community.

The serious educational, literary and academic function of libraries is never underplayed, but nor is their role as a haven. Future Chief Assistant Librarian in charge of Edinburgh Central Library, Alan White started out in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge branch, whose newspapers and board games allowed the homeless and drop-outs a respite. On quiet evenings, he would join them. ‘For years afterwards I would be walking along Princes Street trying to look respectable and out of a doorway would lurch a terrible, old, smelly drunken tramp saying, “Hello Alan. Nice to see you!” These were all denizens of the newsroom where I played dominoes.’

Alongside the wealth of information these librarians offer in easy conversational style, is the picture of a profession that in their time rose to its zenith. The earliest librarians had no formal qualifications – ‘They were good librarians, by Jove,’ says Andrew Fraser. Most, not all, of these interviewees took the new librarianship course, first available in Glasgow, under the direction of the famous librarian-teacher W B Paton. This was soon followed by a degree course at Strathclyde University and the  opening in the late 1960s of a Library School at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen. Whereupon librarianship became a bona fide profession, requiring diplomas and degrees. In line with this formalizing, the arc of the library world’s fortunes rose to a peak between the 1960s and 1990s. In this too-short halcyon age, when libraries were adequately or even generously funded, librarians, whether in small branches or world-class reference departments, were recognized as priceless assets and adjuncts to a nation’s educational, social and intellectual aspirations. (Not that their salaries reflected the esteem in which they were held.)

That time is long gone, as any librarian will tell you, sotto voce. In the years since the first interview was conducted and now, libraries have lost their glister, as philistine bureaucrats take control of budgets and are too ignorant to appreciate what a library is, and can be, and does. John Hunter believes librarians are in part responsible for this: ‘we, too, as a profession have not blown our own trumpet loud enough’. As this collection of interviews shows, however, librarians are more given to being thoughtful and droll than boastful.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



It is one of the mysteries of human endeavour that a Golden Age is only recognised when it has passed. Like happiness, it appears in the rearview mirror. When it is in full swing, insiders are oblivious, but with hindsight, what seemed like the usual grind and turmoil can be seen as a halcyon period of grace, forevermore to be talked of with wonder and nostalgia.

In the heyday of newspapers, for instance, journalists were too busy chasing stories, meeting deadlines and creating headlines to realise they were enjoying the darling buds of May. Not for a moment did they consider that autumn, and indeed winter, would soon be on their heels.

The same is true for libraries. For an all-too brief period – less than half a century – the business of gathering and navigating books and information for the public good was elevated from an unqualified amateur position to a profession. As a result, the library service was finally accorded the respect and resources commensurate with its place as one of the engines of any civilisation that aspired to being cultured. Between the late 1950s and 1990s, libraries became synonymous with the post-war political will for all citizens to have the means by which freely to be informed, entertained and intellectually nourished.

Among their many qualities, librarians are so well trained they can direct readers to the most authoritative sources on any subject, in print or digital form. Not only this, but they can advise, for example, on which entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica to treat with caution. Needless to say, such knowledge is not aquired overnight. It can, however, be lost alarmingly rapidly. Whether through intent, negligence or ignorance, Scottish libraries are now as mortally endangered as those in the south. When the SRB learned of the library authority in England whose online catalogue directs users to Amazon if the book they want is not available, there was dismay, but not surprise. The commercialisation of information, the assumption that everybody can afford to buy books, or access prime online sources, is a disgraceful flouting of the original promise of public libraries: that there should be no charge for knowledge and entertainment.

Libraries’ guardian angel, Andrew Carnegie, hoped to bring books directly to the people, whatever their class or income. When Edinburgh heard this idea, however, it baulked. Reluctant to implement the Public Libraries Act, despite Carnegie’s sweetener of £25,000, it was the last city in Scotland to do so. The industrialist doubled his offer, which did the trick, and in 1887 he laid the foundation stone of Central Library on George IV Bridge.

One can imagine his response if he were to learn of the current travails of this once magnificent institution. Last month, Edinburgh City’s councillors – clearly of a similar breed as Carnegie encountered – announced plans to close the library on Monday and Wednesday mornings, drastically cut its opening hours, and reduce its mobile service. For some years now staff have been steadily departing through redundancy, and significantly more such losses are impending.

This treatment would be shocking enough given that this is among Scotland’s most prestigious libraries. That it is in the world’s first City of Literature, however, makes such an attitude incomprehensible. A plaque on the entrance reads: ‘Central Library is proud to be at the heart of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature’, yet there has been no outcry either from this body or from other literary organisations within the capital. Thus, while authors have been quick to champion the library service country-wide, some speaking out specifically in Edinburgh Central’s defence, the silence on other fronts has been telling.

If these cuts go ahead, how can Edinburgh justify its UNESCO title? Surely it is now in danger of being stripped of this badge of honour, and all the benefits and status it confers? We would urge the council, before ratifying these indefensible proposals, to consider the long-term consequences of tarnishing one of its civic jewels, whose influence and stature add immeasurably to the city’s lustre.

Asked by schoolchildren why his government allowed libraries to be closed, David Cameron replied that technology meant we no longer needed libraries. Yet in what could be called our Plutonium Age of fake news, not to mention the oceans of online material to be fished in search of trustworthy sources, the wisdom and experience of librarians are as important as ever – arguably even more so. With an education system struggling to meet its obligations, and ever more pupils leaving school without the qualifications to advance in life, is it not myopia of the most self-defeating kind to close libraries, reduce their hours, and downgrade and dispense with the staff who run them? This might not be, as Ford Madox Ford would have it, the saddest story we have ever heard, but it comes close.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Eskdale Tam

Hanging on the staircase wall of my grandmother’s house in Wick there was a sepia-tinted photograph of Wick harbour in its heyday, chock-a-block with fishing boats and schooners and with quaysides lined with thousands of barrels.

She loved to tell us that in those days (the late nineteenth century) anyone could walk across the boats from one side of the harbour to the other ‘withoot ever getting their feet weet’. It was an image from the days when Wick was probably the biggest herring port in Europe, when fish-laden barrels were shipped from there to markets all across Europe and even into Russia. And it’s fair to say that none of this would have happened without the work of two men: politician Sir William Pulteney (born William Johnstone) and engineer Thomas Telford.

They are the reason why the south side of Wick is known as Pulteneytown and streets down by the harbour are called after Telford. Pulteney had been governor of the British Fisheries Society which, at the turn of the nineteenth century, set out to exploit the herring shoals off Scotland by ‘improving’ a string of fisher towns. It was Wick’s good fortune to be one of them. Pulteney hired for the job his protégé and fellow borderer, Thomas Telford. Between them they transformed the town into a thriving port with a double harbour from which some of my recent ancestors made a decent living, by Highland standards.

I thought of that picture while reading Julian Glover’s absorbing biography of Telford. In his preface he writes of his subject: ‘He matters to our age. He knew that what we call “infrastructure” shapes lives and nations…. He built things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom so that people from even the remotest valleys, such as the one in which he was born, could share in the British adventure of industry and empire.’ He might have added, or from remote coastal towns like Wick.

As an account of a hugely talented and ambitious architect-engineer and the times in which he lived Glover’s book would be hard to better. Drawing from a wide range of sources – personal letters, old biographies, press reports, diaries plus Telford’s autobiography – he paints a vivid picture of a man who was at once massively gifted, restless, ambitious, arrogant and utterly relentless in pursuit of his projects. It’s difficult to think of an architect or engineer who compares with Telford, unless perhaps the Welsh-American genius Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the process of describing Telford’s career Glover evokes a Georgian Britain that’s a long way from the demure idyll presented by Sunday evening TV. ‘Everything was in flux,’ he claims, ‘ideas, technologies, identities. Vulgar fortunes; foreign flavours; atheistic thoughts; terraced streets; London; novels; newspapers; MPs; city dealers; the Royal Navy; turnpike roads; iron, canals, coal and steam – all of these and more came together to fuel the new belching, swaggering Great Britain. To its critics – inside and out – the nation was something of a hooligan on a spree.’

It was amid this turbulence that young Telford emerged and then thrived. Born in 1757 in the upland parish of Westerkirk in what was then Dumfriesshire, he was raised by his widowed mother, and worked as a shepherd boy before being apprenticed to a local stone mason. Fiercely intelligent, and with ambitions to be a poet (he sent his efforts to Burns), in 1780 he walked the eighty miles to Edinburgh where he spent an unsuccessful year before returning to Eskdale. In 1782, like so many young Scots before and after, he took his talents and ambition onto the high road to London.

From then on Telford’s rise was almost inexorable. There’s no doubt he was an accomplished hustler with an eye for the main chance. He made the most of every contact he made. Among them were architects Robert Adam and William Chambers and of course the aforementioned William Pulteney. It is also true that Telford surrounded himself with first-class resident (i.e. site) engineers: Matthew Davidson, Thomas Rhodes, John Rickman, William Provis and John Gibb (great-grandfather of the famous British consultant engineer Sir Alexander Gibb). They were crucial. Without them Telford might never have achieved what he did.

‘Pictures of him from this period show a bluff man in a heavy coat with a thick mop of hair falling over his broad forehead and wide cheeks,’ Glover writes. ‘You can imagine him out in the rain, or helping to fix a loose shoe on a horse, or lighting a fire. He could see how something ought to be bolted together, could sketch out a rough calculation; could draw a structure with a practised eye and a pen. People enjoyed his company, loud-voiced and curious. They respected his dedication and his knack of getting to the practical heart of a problem, working it through until he found a solution.

Telford did not go in for so-called ‘signature’ buildings beloved of many ambitious architects. Just about every kind of man-made structure was grist to his mill. Eskdale Tam, the stone mason-turned-architect-turned-engineer produced what Britain needed: stone bridges, iron bridges, roads, canals, aqueducts, harbours, drainage schemes, new towns, churches, water works, railway schemes, even a prison, a courthouse and the restoration of a castle. Not to mention a canal cut through the centre of Sweden (his only foreign job).

No other engineer worked across Britain and Ireland in the way that Telford did. He left his stamp from the far north of Scotland down through the Highlands, into the Borders and all the way down through the Midlands of England to Wales and London. All of which involved endless, often brutal, travelling. ‘A shifting spirit ran through him, like a restless iron shadow,’ Glover claims. ‘He never settled. He kept on the move, year after year, on foot, by horse, by coach, observing, thinking, testing, designing, chivvying. He didn’t have a partner – man or woman – or any sort of close family, or even seem to need one.’

Thomas Telford: His talent ranges far and wide.

For all that, Telford was not unsociable. He had his circle of friends. Some of them – like Andrew and William Little – were from his home patch in Eskdale. He liked to visit them at least once a year, and corresponded endlessly with Andrew Little. Telford was well known to the gentry and aristocracy of England, many of whom appreciated his work. The austere Sir William Pulteney was more than a mentor, he was a genuine friend and admirer. Telford seemed to get on with most of the engineers with whom he worked. A few became his most loyal friends Engineers have been arguing for many years over which of Telford’s projects should be considered his masterpiece. To an extent, it’s a chalk and cheese exercise. How do you compare a high-soaring structure like the Menai suspension bridge in Wales with the locks and cuts of the Caledonian Canal? Or the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte (which Walter Scott described as a ‘stream in the sky’) with the crucial road from London to Shrewsbury? Or the causeway known as The Mound just south of Golspie to the waterworks in Liverpool? It can’t be done. The man’s talent ranges too far and too wide.

One of the lighter chapters in Glover’s book is his account of the foray into the Highlands that Telford took with his friend and colleague John Rickman and arguably Britain’s worst poet laureate, Robert Southey. Southey liked Telford a lot but hated Scotland and the Scots (who he thought were as ugly as the French). But Southey’s almost Boswellish account of the journey around north Britain makes enjoyable reading. And he does seem to have been impressed by Telford’s works, particularly the iron bridge at Craigellachie and the great locks at the Inverness end of the Caledonian Canal.

In his appendix Glover lists everything that Telford created, supervised or consulted on. It’s a testimony to the range and quantity of the engineer’s work: 104 bridges (stone, iron and timber), 37 docks and harbours (from Wick in the north to Dover in the south), 17 canals (the Caledonian and the Ellesmere being the most important), 25 road projects (including the connection to the Irish ferry at Holyhead). He lists four river ‘improvements’ (on the Severn, Clyde, Weaver and Dee) and four urban water supply works (in Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London), plus three railway projects (a technology which never caught Telford’s imagination). Glover does not list the 32 churches and 41 manses that were also built, probably because most of them have long gone.

In 1820, at a meeting of the newly-formed Institution of Civil Engineers it was decided that the body needed a prestigious president to give it more clout. Inevitably Telford’s name came up and after a month’s reflection he accepted the role and donated 31 books to get the Institution’s library started. He remained President of the ICE until his death 14 years later. In his will he left it £2000 and his enormous collection of technical papers. These days the ICE numbers many thousands, operates from rather grand premises in Westminster and every year presents a Thomas Telford Medal for work of engineering distinction.

There’s sadness in the story, too. When Telford died at his home in Westminster in September 1834 his death may have made the front page of The Times but, as Glover points out, the day had gone ‘when he could be counted as the country’s leading civil engineer’. That role was assumed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who went on to become the icon of ninteenth-century engineering. And Telford, the shepherd boy from Eskdale who became Britain’s go-to engineer quickly faded from the scene, to the dismay of his friends like Rickman and Southey. But why did that happen?

‘The reason is not hard to find,’ Glover writes. ‘Technology shifted; newer creations came along; the purpose behind the things he built fell away; and the Victorian age found fresh heroes. Even as he died his era was passing. He built roads and canals but the craze which followed his death was for railways.’

I have one minor complaint. For some reason Glover describes Telford’s masterly Dean Bridge in Edinburgh as ‘remains’. Some remnant! That beautiful, four-arched structure still forms part of a main road out of Edinburgh. It carries loads that Telford could never have imagined: double-decker buses packed with passengers; 40-ton lorries laden with machinery; multi-wheeled loaders piled high with cars; an endless torrent of vehicles of all shapes and sizes. And Telford’s 165-year-old bridge copes with it all with surpassing ease. It is late Georgian engineering at its finest.

Man of Iron is a superb biography. Lengthy but rewarding, it sets Telford in the clash, clamour, stink and roar of Britain in the Georgian era. Now that the word ‘infrastructure’ seems to be on the lips of every government minister Glover has done well to revive the saga of Tam Telford. If nothing else, he shows how it was done 200 years ago when life was much more difficult, technologies far more basic and money just as difficult to come by.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Labour Pains

On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh.

Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle forbidding in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain.

Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understood this country’s singular commitment to social justice. But as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive or subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said, Labour would slip screaming into a Caledonian abyss.

Scottish Labour has been circling the abyss for the best part of a decade, but every year it seems to inch slightly closer to the brink. In 2016, the party slumped to an abysmal third place, seven seats behind the Tories, at the Holyrood elections, and there is a decent chance it will suffer another, equally humiliating defeat at the local council elections this May.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to picture Labour as the dominant, almost unassailable force it once was. In 2007, there was a widespread assumption that the SNP’s experience in government would be brief, and that normal service would resume when Scots next returned to the polls. At one stage, Iain Gray fully expected to succeed Alex Salmond as first minister. Yet at almost every subsequent test of Scottish public opinion, Labour found its popularity markedly, and often dramatically, reduced.

When Kezia Dugdale took control of the party in the aftermath of the 2015 ‘nationalist tsunami’, she inherited an organisation structurally and intellectually exhausted, outmanoeuvred and outpaced by its rivals. Like her recently dislodged Westminster colleagues, and her beleaguered, demoralised activist base, she was left wondering: how did we get here and what did we do wrong?

In The Labour Party in Scotland: Religion, the Union and the Irish Dimension, Queen’s University academic Graham Walker offers an explanation, of sorts, for Scottish Labour’s decline. In this astonishingly slim work, Walker argues that the party’s formative relationship with Irish Catholic Scots has broken down and that the traditional class dynamics of Scottish politics have been eclipsed by a more fluid and elusive focus on ‘identity’.

According to Walker, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future has been framed by the Irish Troubles, the cessation of which finally allowed Scots to confront the issue of independence on a responsible, coherent basis.

‘Such were the chastening effects of violence across the narrow sea through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that the climate for expansive consideration of the Scottish national question [was] forbidding,’ he writes. ‘And it was probably no coincidence that serious contemplation of Scottish independence … took place when the “peace process” in Northern Ireland got underway.’

This is, to say the least, an unorthodox reading of Scottish political history. The national question was expansively (some might say exhaustively) considered throughout the period Walker cites. The discovery of North Sea oil and growing unrest in key sectors of the Scottish industrial economy fuelled demands for independence in the 1970s. In the ’80s, as efforts were made to bring the Irish conflict to an end, Scottish civil society coalesced around the need for an Edinburgh parliament – an obvious indicator of Scotland’s weakening ties to the Union. In the ’90s, the election of a Labour government made the creation of that parliament inevitable and with it, as many prominent anti-devolutionists warned, a referendum on the break-up of Britain. Nothing in this sequence was dependent on events in Ireland.

Walker’s thesis is stretched to destruction by his insistence that Scottish Labour’s fortunes have been governed by the relative strength of Scottish religious affiliations. He may be right that many Scots of Irish Catholic descent have abandoned both Labour and the Union in recent years, but that shift reflects a broader change in political, not religious or cultural, attitudes. As Labour triangulated under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, progressive and low-income voters found a plausible centre-left alternative in the SNP, which had become adept at championing classic centre-left causes, and in independence, which offered a convenient escape route from an increasingly punitive and reactionary Westminster establishment.

Walker interprets this shift in the reductive language of ‘identity’ (an expression he never properly defines), but it’s better understood as a sober response to the long-term transformation of Britain’s political circumstances.

Ultimately, Walker’s analysis echoes one of the chief consoling myths of modern Labour politics: that Scots have exchanged something substantial and realistic – British parliamentary socialism – for something inscrutable, superficial and dangerous: nationalism. This is the party’s favourite catch-all excuse; an apolitical get-out clause for its failure to win elections and its complicity in an economic experiment – neoliberalism – that has undermined the constitutional and social unity of the UK.

The problems with neoliberalism are discussed at length in Tackling Timorous Economics: How Scotland’s Economy Could Work Better For Us All, a collection of essays by Katherine Trebeck, a senior researcher at Oxfam, George Kerevan, the SNP MP for East Lothian, and Stephen Boyd, the former STUC assistant secretary turned Scottish Government adviser.

The essays vary in emphasis: Trebeck argues that the modern obsession with economic growth has undermined sustainable development; Boyd criticises the paucity of radical economic thinking in Scotland; and Kerevan explores the overlapping challenges posed by capitalism’s investment ‘glut’ (in which the global economy has accumulated more capital than business is able to use productively), low wages, and workplace automation. But the book’s motif is a deep-seated frustration with the small-c conservatism of Scotland’s political leaders.

‘If Scottish politicians are serious about tackling inequality they need to start developing a seriously analytical approach to the subject,’ Boyd writes. ‘Posturing, sound bites and bad policy are very poor foundations on which to build a new Scottish model, which should not only be fairer and more equal but less prone to systematic crises.’

Boyd rightly admonishes the SNP for failing to acknowledge the link between low taxes and high rates of inequality. But the posturing and the sound-bites are not new – they were the standard currency of centre-left governments across Europe in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash. New Labour, in particular, proudly burnished its radical credentials while simultaneously attacking the foundations of its own support. Inevitably, Blair’s hostility towards trade unions, his enthusiasm for financial deregulation, and his reckless foreign policy decisions proved toxic: between 1997 and 2007, the party’s membership slumped from 400,000 to 170,000, while millions of predominantly working-class Labour voters found new political homes or abandoned the electoral process altogether.

At Holyrood, Scottish Labour simply replicated Blair’s mistakes. During the early stages of devolution, it clashed with unions over pay and working conditions for nursery nurses and fire fighters; it struck private financing deals that exposed Scottish public services to market forces; it demoted left-leaning MSPs and replaced them with more disciplined but less talented party operatives; and it alienated sympathetic media commentators by refusing to break with London over the war in Iraq and the renewal of Trident. By the 2003 devolved elections – at which it haemorrhaged 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, largely to the Greens and the SSP – its collapse was already well under way.

If guided by a more adventurous leadership, Tackling Timorous Economics could almost serve as a blueprint for Scottish Labour’s revival. Commitments to a reduced working week and a citizen’s income, for instance, coupled with a less dogmatic approach to the constitution, would put clear red water between Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon, forcing at least some left-wing Yes campaigners to reconsider their backing for the SNP. Instead, Dugdale has chosen to compete with Ruth Davidson for the votes of irascible middle-class unionists, apparently forgetting that no party is more irascible, middle-class or unionist than the Scottish Conservatives.

To be fair, Scottish Labour isn’t entirely to blame for the situation it finds itself in. To some extent, it has suffered an accelerated version of the fate now faced by mainstream social democratic parties in other countries, notably France, Spain and the United States. Even in the traditional strongholds of post-war European labourism, such as Denmark and Norway, the left has been pushed out of power. Twenty years ago, a majority of EU states were run by (nominally) leftist governments. That is emphatically not the case today.

The crisis of western social democracy has churned up new and unexpected forms of anti-establishment populism. The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, by Alex Nunns, is a pulpy, entertaining account of how the far left seized control of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Nunns explains that Corbyn’s candidacy, launched in the summer of 2015, benefited both from long-term structural trends (the leftward tilt of the trade union movement) and simple good luck (the decision of some centrist MPs to nominate Corbyn for the leadership ballot in the interests, ironically, of party unity).

For Nunns, Corbynism was propelled by a deep sense of resentment among Labour members at the centralising, disciplinarian, and – latterly – losing habits of the party’s sclerotic right-wing elite. In the eyes of the membership, he writes, ‘[the] Blairites were ideal villains. Ideologically they exhibited all the signs of rigor mortis. Their thinking had become inflexible, their presentation stiff. Having once been associated with the future, they now harked back to a past tainted by war, financial crisis, and party atrophy.’

Nunns sees the Corbyn phenomenon as a grassroots salvage operation designed to reverse that atrophy, but he doesn’t say whether he thinks it has worked. It hasn’t. Eighteen months in, Labour’s poll ratings are as dire as ever. In the event of a snap general election, it would lose dozens of seats, with the Liberal Democrats, refreshed after the Brexit referendum, hiving-off pro-European Remain voters in the south of England and UKIP challenging for staunchly euro-sceptic Labour constituencies in the north.

It’s tempting to conclude that the current conditions of British politics are objectively stacked against Corbyn. His task – to remake socialism for the post-crash era, in the context of a party whose historic purpose has been to contain and institutionalise radical dissent – is obviously huge. But it is equally evident that, on a personal level, Corbyn isn’t well suited to the demands of leadership (he was essentially conscripted into the role) and that large chunks of the parliamentary party will never accept his authority

Still, Corbyn has achieved something valuable: he has galvanised the left in England, drawing tens of thousands of new activists into his movement. In Scotland, by contrast, most of the voters that might have helped Labour to rebuild – or kept it afloat in the face of the nationalist challenge – have already committed themselves to other things, namely, socialism in an independent country. Kezia Dugdale doesn’t have anywhere near enough time to change their mind.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


The SRB Interview: Denise Mina

Modern crime writing is guilty of various misdemeanours. One is the creation of male detectives who bear a remarkable similarity to each other.

Denise Mina is a writer who bucks the trend. Born in East Kilbride in 1966, she lived an itinerant childhood. Her days spent studying law at Glasgow University were a kind of apprenticeship for her writing life.

When her first novel, Garnethill, was published in 1998 she abandoned a PhD at Strathclyde University and became a full-time author. From early on, her work has undermined stereotypes of character and narrative. Maureen O’Donnell, the protagonist in the Garnethill trilogy, is an ex-psychiatric patient. When we first meet Paddy Meehan in Field of Blood she is a plucky copy-girl turned detective working for a Glasgow-based newspaper in the 1980s. The Dear Green Place has been Mina’s novelistic territory for most of her writing life and she has a nuanced approach to its many shades of seediness.

A versatile writer, she last year made a radio documentary about Henry Summers, a Leith man who was found dead in his flat three years after his demise. She has also written plays and comics, including a graphic novel adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Since 2009, Mina has written five books about police detective Alex Morrow, including End of The Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts. Her latest novel is a departure: a thrillerish noir that draws on the tradition of true crime. The Long Drop is about the serial killer Peter Manuel, the third-last person to be hanged in Scotland. In 1957 he murdered the family of businessman William Watt. The novel follows two branches of this remarkable story. The first concerns a meeting between Watt and Manuel on the evening of Monday 2 December 1957. The two men drink and talk through the night. As they move from bar to bar Manuel’s crime illuminates Glasgow’s dark and corrupt body politic. The second branch of the story follows the murderer’s 1958 trial, in which Manuel fires his lawyer and conducts his own defence.

Nick Major met Denise Mina in her house in Glasgow. She lives high up on the edge of Kelvingrove Park. From her front steps you can watch the north and east of the city going about its business. When he arrived, Mina’s door was wide open to let in the crisp winter air. She was wearing a dark pink dress that matched her character, which is good-humoured yet serious, intelligent yet unpretentious.

Her most noticeable feature is her grey hair, which spikes up at all angles. The interview took place in her large light-filled kitchen. Over the course of the two hours, Mina threw mints into her mouth, clipped her nails, and once stood up to demonstrate what ‘actual violence looks like’. She talked with speed and spark, with a kind of frank wit, and swore with easy abandon.

Scottish Review of Books: How long have you lived here?

Ten years.

How old is the house?

It’s Victorian. It was built in 1868. The whole circus was designed by a guy called Charles Wilson. It’s supposed to be a circle within a circle but a section wasn’t built because the builders ripped him off.

You spent some of your childhood in Glasgow but you moved around a lot. Why was that?

My dad worked as an engineer for a North Sea oil company. The oil companies were based all over the place and they were mostly American. So we lived in Paris, Holland, London, Bergen and Invergordon. It was a circuit of oil engineers who would travel around and it was often the same people, so it was like a gypsy camp. And they were all working class – even the Americans were blue collar guys – and they’d become engineers through apprenticeships.

Those companies were awash with money, and they treated us all as if we were upper middle class. So we were sent to really expensive private schools, but we were from a working-class background. It was a fascinating social experiment and a real social disruption. I was at a school in Paris and Princess Michael of Kent did the prize giving, then I was at a school in Barlanark that looked like Fort Apache.

And you lived in Paris in the 1970s?

Yeah. Paris in the 1970s was amazing and very strange. You had to go to the American Hospital if anything happened and one day we met Jackie Onassis in a lift. She was going up to visit [her husband, Aristotle] Onassis, who’d had a heart attack.

Have you read a book called The Beautiful Fall? It sounds terrible, but it’s mesmerising. It’s about Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in the 1970s and what the politics of the city was like then. It’s beautifully written.

We lived in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, where Marine Le Pen lives now. There was a wall across the street from our house and on the other side the Vietnam peace talks were taking place, so we used to see the cavalcades of limos going past. It felt like we were at the centre of everything.

It must have felt like you were living in history.

It really did. There were abandoned machine-gun posts from the war all around us, and there were monuments to members of the resistance who had been shot at street corners. The neighbour downstairs still had Louis Quinze furniture in her house so no-one in the area trusted her because they knew she must have collaborated. It just felt like all of history was happening in Paris at that time.

Were you reading anything then?

No, I couldn’t read until I was about ten. I just couldn’t get the hang of it, but I spoke three languages. I was always in the remedial class because my teachers thought I had learning difficulties.

When I was about seventeen I went on an Ibiza Uncovered-style holiday with two girls. I was so vanilla; I thought we were going to see churches in Corfu. They just got drunk and picked up guys all the time.

But one of them had brought One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Master and Margherita with her.

She went to nightclubs and I sat and read those books, and I got really addicted to reading. It was the sort of addiction where you think someone is telling you something. I think if you learn to read that way you own it and it’s a real, secret joy.

Why did you choose to study law at university?

I left school at sixteen and worked, then I thought I should go to university because you can earn more money per hour and that would leave more time for reading. All my family are lawyers and they’re very religious and good living; it was felt that you should do something useful. So I went to university thinking I was going to start the revolution, and I’ll tell you now, Glasgow University Law School is not where you’re going to start the revolution. At that time it was mostly solicitors’ kids who were just going to work for their dad and they were into corporate law. It was very middle class and quite posh.

When did writing usurp your studies?

I was doing a PhD at Strathclyde and I kept thinking, what I really want to be is a writer. I was coming up to 30 and I had to commit to one thing: I either had to be an unsuccessful writer or an academic. So I wrote the start of Garnethill, sent it off to an agent and pretended I had written the whole thing. The agent wanted to see the rest so I had to write it. I could justify my writing though because I thought I was telling stories nobody had told before and that I was doing something socially useful. I think narrative is a better way to disseminate information and narratives than writing a PhD thesis, which not many people read, and nobody enjoys. I knew if I took my ideas and put them in a mainstream narrative form then a lot of people would have access to it and read it for fun.

I used to read a lot of really right-wing American crime fiction where the police would find a huge amount of evidence then just shoot the criminal at the end and that was justice. I was appalled at myself for enjoying them so much. I wanted to write something about a woman who had agency. Women in crime fiction at that time never had agency; they were always being saved. If they were a rape victim they always got a better boyfriend at the end, as if it was the wrong man that was the problem. People who had been sexually abused were cast aside as husks, and nobody in mental hospitals still had pals or relationships or networks, and detectives were never worried about their mum, do you know what I mean?

There are better stories than that. So I dropped out after Garnethill was published. I told my supervisor and he thought it was brilliant. At Strathclyde Law School we were all really interested in narratives of crime and justice. We had a film club and were interested in crime fiction.

So it wasn’t such a different path to take?

No, it felt like a continuation. Strathclyde was very socio-legal, which is quite an unusual discipline. Glasgow was very black letter law. At Strathclyde we were really looking at the impact of law and how law is interpreted. So my PhD was about how courts interpret mental health categories and how language use changes once you get into the court, and how the world of law co-opts the language of mental health and uses it for its own purposes. So, for example, women are much more likely to be labelled mentally ill and treated with compassion because they are not a physical threat. But I argued myself into a Derridean locked room. I thought, if language isn’t fixed, then why are you writing a thesis? You might as well write fiction. Language is always read through the prism of the reader; I think Foucault said, ‘a book is different every time somebody reads it’. I don’t believe in all that original intention stuff, that the writer can correct everybody. Writing a book is an interaction. It’s not as though you write a book and everybody is allowed access to your inner workings. I think that’s very much a crime fiction interpretation of reading, but poetry reflects the interactivity of the process of as well. Literary fiction strives for that original intention.

A lot of your characters are preoccupied, in and out of the courtroom, with shaping the story of their lives. In The Long Drop you write that Watt ‘doesn’t want justice but an ending to this story’. Can stories deliver greater truths than the courts?

Well, it’s an interesting point. I watch court cases a lot. In The Long Drop there’s a section about Laurence Dowdall [Watt’s lawyer] and how he presents a story. My cousin is a lawyer and I often go and see him. He always says to me, ‘I tell stories as well’. There are conventions within that form of storytelling: the way you present the story, what you leave out and what you highlight. It’s in a different forum though and you have to make it emotionless. I think people misunderstand the purpose of the courts. The courts are not really about the truth. The reason it’s ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘not proven’ is because you want a clean answer. You don’t want a nuanced answer, which is what’s so frustrating.

There’s no room for doubt.

No, the courts need a blunt conclusion. Last year, somebody did lots of research on contemporaneous references to Christ, and whether or not he existed. They said there are absolutely no references. Christianity was bumbling along as an underground movement and all of a sudden Christ appears in the story as a central character and Christianity takes off. The story doesn’t work without a central character. That tells you something about the power of a narrative to convey messages and profound truths. If you talk about somebody dying people want to know how old the person was. They want the narrative to have a good curve. They want you to say the person was 95 and they were delighted to go. They want that narrative to work for them. People want death to make sense. I think we understand everything through narrative.

To return to your first book. When it was first published, did you think of yourself as a crime writer?

God no. In fact, I got married in 2004 and I found our wedding certificate the other day and I had written ‘researcher’. I couldn’t even imagine myself as a writer. It’s a big thing to be, and I think most of the crime writers of my generation didn’t realise that if your first book was a crime novel then you would always be a crime writer, but if your first book was a literary novel you could move into crime writing, but you wouldn’t be a crime writer. Crime writing wasn’t a thing then. There weren’t loads of us.

There were no festivals of crime writing.

No. For me, being a crime writer meant writing accessible narratives that would be fun. Patricia Highsmith said, ‘that’s the promise of crime writing, that you are going to enjoy it’. You’re not going to be elevated; you’re not going to be able to boast that you have read something; you’re not going to learn about history; but you’re going to enjoy it and if you don’t you shouldn’t read it. I think some crime writers don’t like that subordinate status, but I love it. I think it’s really precious. People come to you for comfort, and no one feels excluded. No one reads a crime novel and says, I didn’t understand that. I’d love to know how many people don’t finish crime novels and how many people don’t finish literary novels. I think more people don’t finish crime novels.


Because they know what they want. At the same time, it’s like pop music. It’s such a broad church. Some of it’s really gory, some of it’s really tense, some of it’s very mild, and some of it is old ladies finding stuff out. People know the general narrative but there are a lot of variations within the form. I think it would be a shame if crime writing was taken terribly seriously because that sense of entitlement readers bring to it is really precious.

Why are there so many crime writers now?

There was a period about ten years ago when I used to say, if you chucked a brick in Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday you would hit someone writing a crime novel. I think Ian Rankin sold so well that people suddenly thought it was something you could actually do. I think some people who would have written brilliant literary novels before are now writing brilliant crime novels. Books that wouldn’t have been marketed as crime novels before are now being marketed as crime novels.

There is a demographic difference between people who write crime novels and those who write literary novels. Crime novelists are often more working class, and you don’t have to have so much affirmation. If you wrote Ulysses and gave it to your pal, they’d say, ‘that’s rubbish’. But anyone can read a crime novel and say if it works or not. Publishers are also looking out for the next Ian Rankin. As a result of his success publishers are also more likely to take a punt on a Scottish crime writer. And as a result amazing people are writing, people who wouldn’t have done otherwise. There are an enormous number of us. Even now, people say to me, I’m going to write a crime novel, when at another time you know they would’ve been writing poetry.

I’ve talked to a few dedicated readers of crime fiction. One thing they agree on is that there is too much gratuitous violence in modern crime fiction. Do you agree?

I think they [the books] are getting more gory. I think a lot of writers and readers are getting hardened to that. There is a spark of danger or revulsion that writers are trying to evoke in a reader. Writers are often very embarrassed about it, but there is something about prompting a sense of moral turpitude in the reader that we are trying to evoke, and that builds up; it’s cumulative. So now, you wouldn’t kill a sex worker, you would kill fifteen sex workers.

But that’s the attraction of crime fiction. People in war zones don’t read about murders. I think it’s to do with living in a very safe society with a rapidly declining crime rate. That’s what makes violence [in books] interesting. Do you know a Japanese director called Takeshi Kitano? He’s basically the Bruce Forsyth of Japan but he also makes art house movies. His movies are incredibly violent, but he doesn’t really show violence, he shows the aftermath. He also shows that violence is a dance; it’s not a real thing.

My friend was down on the Great Western Road and there was a fight in a pub that broke out onto the street; everybody was fighting. He said, ‘these fat drunk guys were trying to kick each other but they were so fat and drunk they couldn’t get their legs above their knees.’ That’s what actual violence looks like. If you see actual violence, it’s not the violence you read in books, the violence of serial killers.

That was one of the reasons I wanted to write The Long Drop. I was interested in the serial killer narrative. Patricia Cornwell said, ‘serial killers are monsters who are not like us. They are the mysterious Other who commit these appalling acts and they have a framework of reference that’s their own.’ But that’s not what serial killers are like. They are basically arseholes with knives. They are really not impressive human beings.

Peter Manuel comes across as pitiable man.

They are all like that, but the narrative is never told in that way. It is always told as though they want to get caught and they know exactly what they’re doing. I have a friend who’s a psychologist in the prison service, and he said, ‘psychopaths are the most pathetic people you’ll ever meet’. So why are we telling ourselves this same story over and over?

There is a fantastic Israeli sociologist called Eva Illouz and she writes about romantic narratives. People who read romance novels read five a week, but it’s the same story every time. Why do women read narratives of romance over and over again? Why are people reinforcing these narratives that are unrealistic?

It’s the same with the serial killer narrative. Serial killers are not just damaged chaotic people among us that we have failed to treat or catch. They don’t just come out of nowhere. The reiteration of these narratives tells you a lot about how people want to read the world.

Why did you choose to write about Peter Manuel?

I didn’t really choose him. Somebody asked me to write a play about him; it was on at Oran Mor. In the play Watt doesn’t know anything about what’s going on. It [the play] sold out and people were really interested in him, but pensioners who remembered Manuel came up to me afterwards and said, ‘you’ve got the story wrong’. They said Watt knew something about the murders. I met someone who was at a party with Watt – this was long after Manuel had been hanged – and they said Watt was incredibly drunk, and that there was a police car outside watching him all the time. So the echoes went on for people. These people knew him; they used to go to his bakery because the scones were slightly larger – this was just after rationing had ended.

I kept going to watch the play with the director, Graeme Eatough. At the end of the run I said to him, ‘there’s a scene missing from this’. The story doesn’t make any sense if you assume Watt is completely innocent. In truth, they met the night after their bender and Watt gave Manuel 150 quid. That never came out of the court case; a load of things people said in court don’t make sense. So there are all these lost stories and all those pensioners wanted to put themselves in the story. If you talk to anyone in Glasgow about Peter Manuel they want to tell you what they know.

It’s a dark collective memory for a city to have.

Did you know that almost every major serial killer in Britain has lived in Glasgow at some point? Fred West moved here, Peter Tobin was from here, Ian Brady grew up here. I was desperate for Denis Neilson to have come to Glasgow but he never did.

What is it about Glasgow that attracts psychopaths?

I think it’s known as a really chaotic place.

In the novel Glasgow feels like a completely different city. It’s shadier and grimier than it is now.

In the book there is a map of Glasgow from 1958 and you do need it. While I was writing the novel I used to go down to the centre and try to imagine where everything used to be in the city. I was standing on the south side one day and I could feel the whole old city coming up around me. There’s a brilliant picture in one of the books I used for research which shows the smog over the city. My father-in-law lived here in 1970 and he remembered when the smoke-free fuel ban was introduced. It was brought in on the south side of the city first. He could drive along the south side of the river and see a wall of smoke on the north.

It must have been useful to set a noir in such a murky place.

When I was young Glasgow was black and funereal and very foreboding. It felt like the ultimate setting for a noir novel and people spoke like they were in a film noir; they used lots of language from the movies. So people here call each other ‘guy’. They say things like, ‘check that guy’ and ‘doll’ and ‘janitor’. People used to talk like James Cagney. In Glasgow they call that talking out the side of your mouth, which means pretending you’re a hard man. That narrative really infused Glaswegian culture.

Reading the novel is like entering a strange Americanised Glasgow. It’s interesting to know there’s a real truth to that.

And Watt really did keep saying, ‘I turned detective’. He obviously saw himself in a detective narrative. He thought he would resolve it all and drive off in a yellow car with a better-looking woman. At that time the only working-class people in films in Britain were servants and stupid, whereas in America working-class guys were heroes. Those kind of representations were revolutionary. Apart from that in Glasgow all you had was No Mean City, which was about incest, raping your neighbours, and being in a knife fight. And nobody wanted to be that guy.

Why did you write this story of the past using the present tense?

I was reading a book called The Trouble with Tippers to my kid. It was an aid to learning to read. It is written very simply and it’s incredibly funny. It goes something like, ‘the tipper is not tipping, the architect is angry, the workmen are having their tea, that hole should not be there, oh no she’s fallen in.’ It’s all told in the present tense and that gives it a real immediacy and there is a great rhythm to the language. Also, in The Long Drop there are time slips. Some things are in the past and some are in the further past, and I wanted to avoid being clumsy. But The Trouble with Tippers was the main reason for the style.

How does your writing routine work with having children?

Sometimes I’ll stay up all night, sometimes I’ll get up before they go to school. I love touring because I can work on tour, which most people can’t. But I can work anywhere as long as I’ve got music on and a laptop. If I don’t have a laptop, I’ll use a notepad.

Do you do any general research, on forensic techniques or police procedures, for example?

I think that’s a really good way to waste a lot of time. Actually, what you need to do is write your book, work out what questions you need answered, then go and ask somebody. If you are being very disciplined then you make sure it’s a yes or no answer. I don’t think people read crime novels to find out about new forensic techniques. For the Alex Morrow books I did very little research, and I’ve got one or two things wrong. But people always write and tell you…for this book I did loads of research. I read the transcripts of the trial. If you’re writing something historical, a great thing to do is read the newspapers from that time. They give you things like the kind of fags people smoked. But you can waste a lot of time.

You made a documentary on Edgar Allen Poe. I remember being told at school that he was the founding father of detective fiction.

I don’t think Poe was the originator of the crime novel. I think all art starts as craft and then a middle-class person does it and everyone thinks something new has been invented. Have you read Henry Mayhew’s London Poor? It’s first-person interviews with Victorian people. Street sellers used to write true crime stories that were happening, print them and sell them.

Penny dreadfuls?

Yeah, they were precursors of the penny dreadful. They had [titles] like ‘Ghastly Murder in Lambeth, Beautiful Girl Found Dead’. If there weren’t enough murders they would make them up. They always followed the same very familiar form. They would tell the story, then they would write another one about the murderer being caught, then write a sorrowful lamentation, which was a long first-person poem written by the murderer saying how sorry he was. That’s where Murder Ballads come from. That whole history has been whitewashed over.

What makes a good detective in a novel?

I think they have to be relatable but extraordinary. They have to have some sort of superpower, and apart from that it’s all to play for. It’s such a broad audience. True crime’s all men, and crime writing all women, and who the audience are is what determines what’s relatable. For some reason the thriller end of the market where the men are superheroes but can’t fly really appeals to a certain age group of men. But people read for different reasons. Sometimes they are reading to find out who they are or because they hate their family and they are on holiday with them and want to numb themselves.

When Manuel’s sentence is read out you describe the crowds lining the streets. They can’t wait for him to be hanged. They’re celebrating because they know that once he’s dead their ‘troubles will be over’. Perhaps people read crime fiction with a similar hope.

Humans have an innate, childlike belief that the world is fair and they form stories to reinforce that belief in a just world. Actually, the world is not fair. But it is very satisfying to have that belief reinforced. I love it when a bad person comes a cropper. Imagine if [Donald] Trump shot himself; you’d feel great, wouldn’t you?

Recently, you turned detective yourself. You made a radio documentary about Henry Summers, a Leith man who lay in his flat for three years after he died. His life seemed to remain a mystery. Has anything new come to light?

Lots of people got in touch after the documentary. We now have photos of him. He worked at the same shipyard [in Leith] for years. He was a right laugh. He was just an introverted guy and never talked about his personal business. The yard where he worked got in touch and said he was a really skilled joiner. One guy who got in touch said he wasn’t introverted. This guy used to see him at the bus station with his fishing tackle. He’d ask him where he was going, and Henry would say, ‘wherever the first bus takes me’. He had a fantastic retirement but he didn’t drink, and that was a way you used to archive your life then, by going into pubs. There’s no mystery. He had a great life, apart from the last moment.

Perhaps he didn’t want to be remembered.

To take it back to what we were talking about before: we think of things in narrative terms. You think someone’s death tells you something about their life. But it’s just random. Whenever someone tries to commit suicide people always try to extrapolate back as though it means anything about them. Maybe they were just really down. The world’s full of people who tried to commit suicide, failed, then went on and did other things. It’s not a summation of his life that he died that way. It doesn’t mean he was always lonely. If anything, it means he was good at admin.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


SRB DIARY: Tarred and Feathered

We,’ says Thomas, his face all soot, ‘have creosote in our blood.’ In their blood, on their hats, on their boots, down their backs; Thomas Ross and the other men of the Clavie Crew have creosote everywhere, with the exception of their whisky. They take that with water; fine for quenching a thirst but a terrible thing to allow near a bonnie flame.

I am in Burghead on the Moray coast for the Clavie, an annual ritual in which a large wooden barrel full of creosote and tarred staves is set on fire and paraded through the streets. It takes place in the town on January 11th to mark the end of the old new year. When Scotland switched from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1600, the people here, known as Brochers, refused to change, meaning that their ‘Hogmanay’ comes eleven days after the rest of the country. This is the only place in Scotland where Pictish carvings of bulls have been found, and no better beast could represent Burghead folk – born to be thrawn and refusing the yoke.

The barrel is built and carried by the Clavie Crew, led by the Clavie King – a position of great honour held since 1988 by Dan Ralph. At 68, he has no thoughts of retiring. Popes may retire; Clavie Kings do not. ‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘You go until you die.’ As the local undertaker, he should know.

His Crew had gathered, the evening before, in the family workshop. Twenty men, young and old, crammed inside rough stone walls, wood shavings softening the sound of boots on the floor as they stamped against the cold. Rusty barrel hoops hung from the ceiling like an ogre’s bracelets. Dan’s son Lachie had started to build the Clavie just before Christmas, and tonight was the ritual of the finishing touches. Donald Tolmie – retired from the sea and ‘a great Free Kirk man’ – climbed atop the work bench to bang in the nail that connects the barrel to its pine pole. He used as a hammer the ceremonial round stone which, according to the legend, was thrown by Picts in their trials of strength. The nail, too, has a long history; it is a boatbuilder’s nail which each year is picked from the embers and reused.

‘Anither dunt, Donald,’ calls a member of the Crew, encouraging Tolmie as he works. ‘An’ anither ain yet.’
‘Wob’s watchin’ ye,’ says someone else. ‘Big shoes tae fill.’

About Wob. This was the nickname of Gordon Robertson, a great old character who died in October at the age of 89. It was, for many years, his task to hammer in the nail. Tolmie, an ingenue at 71, was taking on the role for the first time. The nail and the stone, venerated objects, have passed through the hands of generations of Clavie men. As one man falls another takes them up.

The finished Clavie is, essentially, a six-foot-tall torch. One can imagine some Doric Statue of Liberty holding it aloft at the entrance to the town’s harbour: Give me your fire, your stoor, your Burghead masses yearning to breathe fumes. When full, the Clavie may be as much as 130 kilos. But no one is quite sure, and in any case the question of precise weight is academic. ‘It’s heavy and it’s on fire,’ Lachie said. ‘There’s aboot an inch of oak between yer heid and the flames.’

Oh, it’s wild, the night of the burning. Sleety gusts of 65mph. Waves bursting over the sea wall, spending themselves in spindrift. The 1000-strong throng following the Clavie through the streets are bridesmaids bearing a train of sparks and smoke. The full moon is all but eclipsed. You could choke on the reek. Each member of the Crew takes a turn carrying the barrel, taking on his head and shoulders the physical burden and the weight of tradition. Firelight dances on Burghead’s low stone houses, casting a sign on King Street – ‘If the Lord will, the Word of God will be preached on Sunday’ – in an orange glow that does not feel entirely Christian. The Clavie is thought to be rooted in paganism, a casting out of wicked spirits. Its meaning these days has more to do with affirming Brocher identity, but there remains something ancient and uncanny about it, too.

They carry it to Doorie Hill, overlooking the sea on three sides, where the crowd cheers as the flames burn higher than ever until, finally, burning out. We push in for a prize – a piece of the blackened embers, which are said to bring luck. Afterwards, I wish happy new year to Donald Tolmie. His face scorched red and black, his white hair smutted dark, he looks exhausted but happy.

‘Och,’ he says. ‘Once a year is enough.’

* * *

Stan Laurel’s mother lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery behind my house. Visiting the spot recently, I chanced upon a pink granite stone marked with these words: ‘Mark Sheridan, Comedian.’

Sheridan was a music hall star. His real name was Frederick Shaw and he came from County Durham. A fading photograph shows a man in heavy make-up wearing bell bottoms and a comically oversized bowler hat. That we all know ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ is because of the popularity of his 1909 recording. Nine years later he was dead, taking his own life in Kelvingrove Park while on tour in Glasgow.

A visit to the Mitchell Library furnishes the Glasgow Herald report, from January 16, 1918: ‘There was a bullet wound in his forehead and a Browning revolver was lying beside the body.’ Sheridan had left his hotel in time to attend a noon rehearsal, but never arrived. At 2.20pm, his corpse was discovered by two men out walking. ‘The spot where the tragedy occurred is an unfrequented part of the park on the west side of the Kelvin. The body was lying on the footpath.’

Sheridan’s burlesque Gay Paree – in which he played Napoleon – had just opened at the Coliseum on Eglinton Street. His daughter and two sons had parts in the show, and his wife, Ethel, was on the road too. Shortly before 7pm, the curtain was about to be raised when police informed the theatre manager of his leading man’s death. He made a sombre announcement and the audience filed quietly out. Sheridan was buried in Cathcart Cemetery two days later.

Received wisdom has it that this desperate act was prompted by bad notices for Gay Paree, which is odd as the Glasgow Herald’s review on the day of his death observed that it ‘admirably fulfils its purpose of mirthmaking, and is in every way an attractive entertainment’. The following November, in a court battle with an insurance company, lawyers for Sheridan’s widow argued, unsuccessfully, that he had not intended to end his life. Ethel Shaw claimed her husband had gone into the park to rehearse a scene in which he had to fire a pistol, and while doing this ‘the unfortunate accident’ occurred. George Robey, later famous as Falstaff in Olivier’s Henry V, gave his view that Sheridan ‘was not the man to commit suicide because his play was not a success the first night’. It is all very curious. Little wonder there are rumours he was murdered.

A fellow performer once recalled: ‘When you saw Mark Sheridan sing ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’, it was something more than someone singing a good, rousing song … As he strode across the stage, singing lustily in his Tyneside voice and slapping the back-cloth with his stick, he was a man full of fresh air and vigour and health, striding along the promenade.’
Strange – as we approach the centenary of his mysterious passing – to think of this fellow of infinite jest buried so far from home, beyond the sound of the silvery sea.

* * *

Driving over the Kingston Bridge, kids in the back, we see four swans flying upriver in formation, a clutch of feathered Concordes. They must be eighty feet above the Clyde, about to pass overhead, and we’re mid-gasp at this glorious sight, when, horribly, one clips a streetlight and tumbles, neck twisting, to the road. The car in front has to brake and veer around the injured bird. The bridge is too busy for anyone to stop, and what could we do in any case? So we drive past, slow and sorry. One of its wings looks broken, and we later hear that it has died.

This feels karmic, a balancing of birds. Not so long before, I had been walking along a beach in Northumberland, a hop and skip across the water from Lindisfarne Priory, when I heard a scuffling coming from near the dunes. It was an oystercatcher, caught in orange plastic netting stretched out to keep people from stepping on tern eggs, which are hard to distinguish from pebbles.

I love oystercatchers and had never been so close to one before. So here was a task but also a gift. I sat down and put out a nervous hand. That long bill can shuck shells; what could it do to fingers? The bird flapped around a little, but was hopelessly tangled, one wing bent backwards, wire biting its legs. I picked it up. We regarded one another. Its eyes were an astonishing haemorrhage red. I could feel its heart racing – or was that my own pulse? – but it allowed me to carefully begin to unfankle the knots. It took ages. I worried I was hurting it. At one point I had to set it down and scrabble around for bits of razorclam shell to saw through the net.

One last cut and the bird felt itself free. It flew straight for the sea. Oystercatchers can live for a long time, thirty years or so, and it would be pleasant to think that mine is out there now, pecking at the strand where St Cuthbert knelt and prayed. It seemed at the time like I had saved a life, but it appears to me now that it was just a trade. Death, reaching out for a sea bird, had settled for a swan.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories