Monthly Archives: October 2009


Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Reviews

Things To Make And Mend
Ruth Thomas
FABER, £10.00
pp356, ISBN 057123059 8


Poor Ruth Thomas!
So I was going to begin.

Chickens mature, and chick lit has – I’m told – aged into something called (what else?) hen lit. Faber and Faber have now gone into publishing ‘women’s fiction’, and here in front of me for review is one example. “A beautifully woven story of two women caught in the shadow of their teenage years …”

The cover, a melange of pink and lime-green, has the customary Tesco customer-friendly quirky typescript. And maybe the cover blurb does fit the bill.

“As teenagers Sally Tuttle and Rowena Cresswell were inseparable until a devastating incident changed their lives and destroyed their friendship. Now in their early forties, and both single mothers, they have remained estranged and are still haunted by memories of their lost intimacy. Sally, a needlewoman (‘the homelier sister of Wonder Woman’), works at In Stitches, an alterations shop. Rowena, against the odds, has gone on to ‘greater things’ as a translator travelling the world.”

So far, so good and predictable. But there’s a strained quality to the publicity hype – a sense that the publishers are afraid of demeaning themselves and underselling the author. The big push follows. “Things To Make And Mend is a strong candidate for literary prizes and also an ideal book for reading groups. Publication will be supported by a full PR campaign.” Ahead of previous eulogies by a couple of trendy critics, we read, “[Scot]Ruth Thomas has been compared to Muriel Spark and Shena Mackay …” Can’t the author just be allowed to be Ruth Thomas, I wondered? Already she has published two collections of short stories (‘award-winning’) – isn’t that enough?

Then I got to reading the novel. I did so in a couple of sittings, on Christmas Eve – when there are other demands on one’s time. I did-n’t want to stop. Very quickly I realised I couldn’t begin with Poor Ruth Thomas!

Forget the packaging. The book is excellent. It’s a quite brilliant analysis of a friendship which metamorphoses into something else – less than rivalry, but darker than camaraderie.

Is it a woman’s novel? Of course not: not in terms of readership, at any rate. Yet no mere man could write in quite the same way of feelings, of moods, of the emotional ‘weather’ – which can alter in an instant.

‘The nuances of the nuances’ (to hazard a quote). The author notices everything – while half the modern world drifts by wearing earphones, oblivious. Her social radar picks up on tiny details of accent and what-to-wear and table manners. She does embarrassment to a tee – Sally painfully realising she’s a gooseberry at a dinner for three, Rowena floundering at a DHSS ‘Into Work’ group session. (Self-belief is the unattainable holy grail for both women.)

Ruth Thomas doesn’t put a foot wrong, that I could see. The two main characters are utterly believable as they age, in how they think and talk: they seem to be alive. She sinks the teenage girls into the specific thereness of East Grinstead in the Seventies, and yet makes it a place we’ve all been to.

The story flits back and forth seamlessly between different periods in the lives of Sally and Rowena. Ruth Thomas creates rising suspense in the weft and warp of events, so that what in less skilful hands would be the mundanely ordinary material of life acquires cataclysmic force. No car chases, no murderer to be unmasked, indeed there’s a lot of embroidery (John Lewis as the mecca of haberdashery) – but your fingers itch to turn the page to see where the story is heading.

At one point Sally questions the word ‘charm’: it’s an estate agents’ euphemism to describe a house that’s too small. A pity, because I think the book has immense charm – and there’s nothing small about it, since the sheer pleasure of reading the story remains for days afterwards. It’s rare to come across a novel with a shocking enough occurrence at its core which can opt not to shock or offend in the telling. You’ve spent time with a fully mature writer who understands with perfect clarity the complexities of daily survival, who – unlike too many fellow practitioners – has genuine affection for her characters (even if both Sally and Rowena find it hard to pity and forgive themselves for past actions and opportunities not taken).

Ruth Thomas ‘arrived’ a while back. If there’s any justice in the literary world she should earn high honour for this fine book. No one needs to compare her to any other writer. My guess is that (like Rowena Cresswell) she is heading for even ‘greater things’ – and to her very own stretch of the bookstore fiction shelves marked plainly RUTH THOMAS.

The Brainstorm
Jenny Turner
pp183, ISBN 0224078046


Thank God for amnesia. Particularly in its more selective forms. Just imagine the boring lunch dates, christening parties and anniversaries in all their black and webby forms we’d have to leave the house for if we couldn’t, after the fact, plead temporary amnesia. Okay, a patchy memory is also the well-thumbed get-out-of-jail card from Westminster to the White House but, like interest free loans and letting your place of work pay your taxi fares, it wouldn’t be the first good idea ruined by politicians.

Lorna, heroine of Jenny Turner’s debut novel, suffers a sort of soft focus amnesia. It is not the memory famine faced by the heroine of Martin Amis’ Other People, amnesia so accomplished its sufferer doesn’t remember shoes or birds and mistakes a toilet for statuary. Lorna’s amnesia is more clubbable. When she comes to in an office before a computer, she has no idea who she is or what she does. She doesn’t know who has sent the abusive email – “Thief. Bully. Hypocrite” – filling her monitor, but she does at least recognise shoes. Shoes so expensive she realises her job must be well paid and determines to hold onto it. Quickly deducing she works for a media organisation, she determines to see how long she can get away with not telling anyone she’s suffered some variety of “brainstorm”.

But can you truly believe a woman would suffer spontaneous amnesia and then, instead of screaming the heavens down in uncomprehending horror or at the very least offering her services to the nearest documentary crew, decide to bluff it out? The concept is, like the planet Venus, attractive from a distance; the closer one gets to it, however, the more the terrain proves difficult to surmount. Satire is one way to manage such flights of sheer fancy, and as Lorna works for “a famously failing liberal newspaper”, satire is in the air. That she finds hanging onto her job no bother and that her colleagues don’t notice is comment enough on the media. One worries though that Turner is attempting to have it both ways when she gives Lorna enough amnesia to get the novel rolling but not so much as to set the plot in a direction she doesn’t want to explore.

Unlike Amis, Turner does not want to explore the pleated mysteries of memory and identity. She wants to explore London in the 1990s and its media from the position of the joint deputy editor of one paper’s “brainy section”. A potent disgust emanates from the centre of the book. “What the hell was she doing here, at this silly paper, promoting ignorance, foolishness, envy; silly women buying silly shoes in silly shops?” Later, when a weepy intern confesses she can’t do anything useful, Lorna says, “Well, I’m not sure that any of us do anything useful, exactly.” Liberal guilt abounds. “It simply isn’t possible…to be a decent citizen when you’re struggling to hold down a job of that sort.”

Not that Turner quite convinces the reader that anything that egregious has taken place at Lorna’s paper, beyond clichéd headlines, hypocrisy, blatant job jockeying, and general ignorance; headlines apart, one can find examples of each of the above brewing in most jobs. Perhaps though that is the point. There’s a jarring disparity between her workplace, a tower sited amongst Canary Wharf’s techno-swank, and the crummy streets she walks on her way home. “Wealth was getting more intense and more prevalent, and the world shone like television. Poverty was getting more forgotten, more marginal, more squeezed out by the day.” True, too true, but perhaps this is something the author should show rather than tell.

Despite the meeja setting, The Brainstorm, in its heroine’s plight and concern with class, reminds one of nothing so much as How Late It Was, How Late. The book’s epigraph is taken from Kelman too. The lower class, by the period in which The Brainstorm is set in, are no longer a social group with its own authentic culture but a resource to be exploited by journalists keen to display the stamp of rough authenticity. Lorna’s Scottish boyfriend, Robin, she discovers, is a columnist fond of citing his asbestosis-casualty “granda” in patronising reports on “Underclass Britain”.

Turner proposes that amnesia of various stripes – from the colleague who doesn’t know the year the French Revolution took place or the time-motion man who declares, “This organisation has been functioning without a memory…. [It] has not been functioning in an intelligent way” – is damaging. Despite my opening encomium for amnesia, it is a persuasive threat. If only the novel itself were quite so persuasive. Swallow Lorna’s amnesia if you can, but there’s more to come, including that plot device beloved of newspaper novels, the accidental or malicious slip that gets printed, a device at least as old as Scoop and its “great-crested grebe”, something I just can’t forget.

44 Things
Kirsty Gunn
ATLANTIC, £15.99
pp336, ISBN 1843545527


On the evening of her forty-fourth birthday, Kirsty Gunn’s husband asks her when she’s going to get back to writing her novel. Her answer: “You know, I can’t even begin to think that way now”. Gunn has two young daughters, Millie and Katherine, and she finds that she cannot contemplate shutting a study door on them. Instead, she wishes to situate herself at a desk on the landing where she can hear everything, “the clattering, the quiet, the doorbell, the calls for help, ‘Mum! Mummy!’”.

And on her landing, she decides, she will “make a different kind of writing altogether … A genre that at this moment doesn’t even exist”.

44 Things is the result of this manifesto: 44 pieces – one for each year she’s lived – snatched from her domestic life. There are poems; short stories; letters; journalistic essays and fragments – all of which arise from within the texture and priorities of her life at home, which, she says, “is a good life, an interesting life and deserves to be written about”.

I was ready to be interested – but found myself gradually and subtly distanced by the accounts of her beautiful, bright, universally admired children; her happy marriage; her wonderful friends – all very lovely to read about, but where is the flipside? In one of her essays Gunn discusses the Domestic in Literature, advocating this as a central rather than marginal subject and that’s fine and laudable – but let’s have an honest portrayal of domesticity. Most women – particularly working mothers, and even more extremely those who work at home amongst their children – will at least occasionally experience rage and despair at the mess, the noise, the muddle, the sheer maddening dirty drudgery of housework and childcare along with the joy and love. But not Gunn, it seems, or at least she’s chosen not to include any such moments – at which point ordinary mortal readers might have had room to experience the pleasures of recognition and empathy.

The prologue lays out the reason for and the process of making the kind of book this is. And so does the introduction – the first of the 44 Things. The concluding notes describe or explain the point of each of the things in order. This incredible self-consciousness formed another barrier for me. I was initially intrigued by the notion of the book and as a writer and mother certainly recognise the tension between the two roles (though my own response was to absolutely lock the study door and put earplugs in) and looking forward to see the result of this self proclaimed new genre. But should any writing need so much explaining? And even if, arguably, some of the notes do help illuminate, others seem actually to detract. For instance, the note on ‘Katherine in a Red Towel’ – a charming if slight poem about, well, the subject of the title – is accompanied by this note: “What is it about children and towels at bath-time? It’s like kittens on chocolate boxes, puppies under the tree at Christmas … Ridiculous but what can you do?” Another note, to ‘Sweeping Up Stars’, reads: “I wish every copy of 44 Things came with a pack of glitter for everyone to throw around.” If you are charmed by these notes, you will love this book.

That is not to say I enjoyed none of the contents. By far the most interesting writing appears in the short stories. ‘Coming Down Off The Hill’ is a fine and moving piece about returning home, after many years, to the funeral of a friend; and ‘Sisters’ is about two sisters and their children driving to the place they grew up in, to discover (or maybe not to discover) what happened to their mother. The sense of return to a forgotten landscape reverberates between these two stories and both of them carry delicate oblique resonances that are the antitheses of the obviousness of much of the rest of the ‘Things’.

These stories are so much more satisfying because within them the quotidian is mediated by imagination and rendered into art. Most of the other pieces, it seems, have not had the benefit of this kind of creative fermentation and appear in the book much as they may have arrived on the noisy landing. Thus the book has an undigested feel to it. A writer’s sourcebook, perhaps, rather than a fresh, new genre. It might be beneficial for Gunn’s children to have continual access to her but for the sake of the reader, I’d advise her to get back behind that study door.

The Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest
Gerard DeGroot
pp336 ISBN 0224075934


Kubrick and Wolfe: how does anyone interested in the history of manned space flight get beyond the auteurs? Werner von Braun – who dominates the early chapters of DeGroot’s fascinating book – is Dr. Strangelove, musing “It would not be difficult, Mein Führer … I’m sorry, Mr. President”. Von Braun appears again in The Right Stuff as the Grand Designer, once more in conversation with the President about “jimps” (as we learn from The Dark Side of the Moon the first American chimpanzee in space was nicknamed Enos the Penis); the Grand Designer boasts that ‘our Germans are better than their Ger-mans.’ It is hard to be more waspishly cynical than the giants of the field. Gerard DeGroot certainly gives it a try. He tells us that he became interested in the space programme after surfeiting on too much war; instead of chancing on a more heroic endeavour he encountered another march of folly. “I found”, he laments, “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants, and even a few criminals”. According to DeGroot the “Ameri-can people were fleeced” by the space programme, an endeavour of “little scientific or cultural worth”.

DeGroot gives due warning of his line at the beginning of the book, so the reader knows full well he is not in for a story full of moral uplift. How much one enjoys the tawdry dealings that unfold over the next three-hundred pages depends whether the seamy underbelly of the American Dream appeals. It has to be said that DeGroot delivers the unpalatable pill quite brilliantly. He writes so crisply, has such a good eye for a story that the time one spends with his cast of crooks and fantasists is frighteningly compelling. That The Dark Side of the Moon loses nothing against its famously satirical forebears is testament to its excellence. Behind the fine style DeGroot is a professional historian, so all the stories are properly pinned down and footnoted – he does not have the luxury of making up any dialogue, although he notes that some apocryphal stories, duly recorded and dismissed, do sometimes capture a greater truth.

DeGroot is also more nuanced than the satirists. Dr Strangelove was not the darling of mad militarists somewhere in the bowels of a Nebraskan missile shelter. He was instead the darling of the liberal darling, John F. Kennedy. True, the Americans rescued von Braun and his team whilst Kennedy was still a junior naval officer. DeGroot is very good on the whitewashing of the missileers’ impeccable Nazi pasts. Yet Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were deeply sceptical of their Germans’ grandiose plans for the use of missiles. They kept the programmes on a very tight lead, whilst pursuing restrained policies of containment abroad and fiscal responsibility at home. The problem was that the Soviet Union shared no such taste for caution, wrongfooting Truman – “that noisy shopkeeper” as Stalin dismissed him – by its rapid development of nuclear weapons, and then doing the same to Eisenhower with intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites. Neither President was panicked by short-term Soviet successes. Both believed that over the long haul the American way was better. They were right.

Whereas Sputnik was little more than a ball of whistling metal, the Americans soon after put the first weather satellite into orbit – and made the benefits available to anyone who wished to use the data. Such commitment to the common weal was followed by the more private success of the launch of the first spy satellites. Eisenhower got little thanks for presiding over these triumphs.

Two ambitious and unscrupulous Democratic Senators were determined to use space to further their own presidential ambitions. Lyndon Johnson saw space as a way of “blasting the Republicans off the map” whilst diverting attention from the KKK tendencies of some Democrats. John F. Kennedy was all too happy to steal Johnson’s clothes on his own ride to the White House. With Kennedy and Johnson installed in power as President and Vice-President, Dr. Strangelove came into his kingdom. Those who tried to cleave to Eisenhower-era rationality, such as Gerald Ford and Barry Goldwater were swept aside. In the 1964 Presidential election Johnson even managed to portray his opponent Goldwater as a mad bomber. Even before then he had used his titular headship of the space programme to bring home the pork to Texas. Apollo 13 had to tell Houston that they had a problem, but few mentioned that the problem was that the astronauts were talking to Houston at all. Mission control would have been in Florida, along with the launch facilities, if it had not been for Johnson spreading largesse to his home state.

DeGroot suggests that both Kennedy and Johnson, having sucked as much political benefit as they could from space, began to fear the monster that they had created. Neither, of course did anything about it. Special-pleading on Kennedy’s behalf sounds rather too much like the efforts expended by some historians to distance JFK from Vietnam. In both cases the mess was cleared up by Eisenhower’s former Vice-President, Richard Nixon. Although DeGroot has little to say about Nixon’s winding up of the manned space programme, his excoriation of Kennedy and Johnson rather implies that ‘Tricky Dicky’ oversaw a return to sanity and probity. Dr. Strangelove/the Grand Designer was certainly cut down to size. As DeGroot puts it: “Von Braun quit NASA and went to work … selling helicopters in South America. There were a lot of Germans down there who still revered him”.

When To Walk
Rebecca Gowers
pp235 ISBN 1841958921


Recounting the story of a blind woman who died walking through a glass door, Ramble suggests, “Isn’t it the case that death-by-plate-glass-door is truly piquant only if the person who cops it this way fails to notice the danger despite being able to see?” For Ramble, the narrator of Rebecca Gowers’ first novel, When To Walk, life is a series of plate glass doors, obstacles she cannot see yet anticipates; when she smacks into one a sense of futility and incompetence only adds to her humiliation.

Ramble knows about etymology, pigeon maladies, ice-sculpture, and honesty. She collects unfunny Browning jokes, prefers the 1840s above all other decades, and is a scrupulously exacting narrator, breaking off, occasionally, to correct herself, or alert the reader that what she has just said is not strictly true. The spectrum of honesty is one of the themes of the novel, from self-awareness, onto fraud, then theatrical confabulation. Through Ramble’s slightly panicky sincerity we recognise her need to organise and make sense of her confusion at being immersed in an insincere reality.

The novel is divided into seven chapters, one for each day of an eventful week which starts with her husband Con (short for Constan-tine) walking out on her after a lunch of sardines and oranges, and a long, unpleasant diatribe in which he lists Ramble’s personal failings – leaving his own unaccounted for. The remains of the meal and his vicious words echo through the book: the orange peel which she cannot throw away, skeins of pith drying out on the table; the phrase “‘autistic vampire”, which, in fact, he did not use. At least not in those exact words.

And exact words are important to Ramble, who writes for a living. She can explain, lovingly, the origins of the word ‘conversation’ (the original meaning referred to ‘sexual intimacy’), yet talking to someone, normal social intimacy, throws her: “I have problems, sometimes, understanding what people mean …Sometimes I just can’t work out how the words fit together”.

The rented flat in which she is abandoned – the “maisonette” as she refers to it, with depressed scorn – contains its own lies. There is the dodgy electric meter, which Con, with the help of the new neighbours, has set to run backwards; there is the sofa, underneath which they have moved all the carpet tiles which have suffered spills or damage, so that it “floats above a hidden terrain of mismanagement, filth and deceit”.

Ramble’s saviour is the splendid Mrs Shaw (not her real name) the glamorous downstairs neighbour who has run away from Bedford with her husband, several pairs of high heeled shoes and a hair-dryer. It is Mrs Shaw who recognises the amateur handiwork of the fixed meter and deals with it before Ramble is caught by the impending landlord, teaching her to disguise the suspiciously clean meter with dust from elsewhere, stuck on with hairspray. The two women spend the first five nights of the novel on each other’s sofas, and their accidental friendship is cemented when Mrs Shaw has to fetch Ramble’s back brace from her underwear drawer.

Ramble refers to herself as a “gimp” and a “cripple”, and the severity of her impairment (the after effects of septic arthritis, coupled with pelvic dysfunction) only gradually seeps out in the narrative. At first she seems merely to be afflicted by a limp, but gradually we are introduced to the constant pain, the intrusion into her sex life, the brace and the crutches and the painkillers. She has another disability, the ‘half-deafness’, she announces at the beginning of the novel, which she uses as a buffer between her and the world; when she picks up the phone she puts it to her deaf ear in case it is the runaway husband. She feels “noisily deaf in her head”, and the novel is punctuated with distant, tiny sounds, like the bell of the Mini-mart door nearby.

A deadline for a piece on ice sculpture for one of the corporate, glossy magazines Ramble writes for provides one of the few sources of urgency in the book. (‘Deadline’ – the line outside a prison beyond which an escaping prisoner can be shot, Ramble informs us). As well as trying not to use the word “ice” too often (which proves difficult, ‘gelid’ and ‘frigid’ she knows will be instantly disposed of by copy-editors), Ramble has to research and write her piece at the local library, down the stairs, along the street, dragged down by the unwillingness of her mind as much as by her infirmity.

In Ramble, Gowers has created an immensely likeable, human character whose quirkiness resists descending into caricature. Gower’s heroine’s humour and the originality of her creation lift the tone of this novel from a kitchen sink desertion into an affirming study of one woman’s realisation that, despite her handicap she can still walk away from her marriage.

The Gradual Gathering Of Lust And Other Stories
Toni Davidson
pp307 ISBN 1841958989


“Write only about what you know,” is the bad advice often given in creative writing workshops and writers’ retreats. The aspiring writers who follow this dreary programme churn out unimaginative novels and stories of breathtaking dullness. These ‘fictions’ – thick on detail and thin on interest – relate what are perfectly valid, but generally commonplace, histories of tears, joys and betrayals. Take a few personal experiences and humorous / tragic tales from the family archives, stick them into the third person, tart them up a bit with some street life and gossip, add a few political opinions and universal truths, then dump the resultant sludge into the ‘creative writing’ blender. Hey presto! you’ve turned genuine passion and feelings into a smooth homogenous flow of competent, well-crafted, soporific prose. And, with the right marketing, it might even sell.

Has Toni Davidson paid dutiful heed to these kinds of mind-numbing homilies? A first glance at the stories contained in his intriguingly titled first collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, would suggest not. Well, let’s hope not anyway. Here we find: ‘Affections of the Ejaculation Centre’, followed by ‘The Inert Penis of the Man Who Had Just Been Shot’ among other, less dramatically named tales.

A second glance shows that, in general, Davidson writes clear and satisfying prose. There’s virtuosity in his handling of voice – from the East European, quick-fire, media-savvy English of Miss Globe, a beauty queen, to the slower paced American English of the down-home narrator of ‘Some People Are Born to Be a Burden on the Rest’: “There’s dust and there’s dust, I tell ya, and that dust, those little specks and stones of horror and hurt, was being whipped up like the cry of the damned on a night for all souls.”

That said, Davidson has a tendency to the kind of clever wordplay that readers either relish and admire, or find simply clever. Take three examples from two consecutive pages in the title story: “That was history, that was the weak that was. . . .recreational hugs . . . It was-n’t so much the verve that had gone but the nerve.” Entertaining, or irritating – the choice is yours. The danger is that, repeated too often, this sort of verbal playfulness becomes mere trickery – an annoying distraction that threatens to obscure genuine creativity. Finnegans Wake is a classic example of this – a potential masterpiece of the human spirit reduced to a display of University Challenge – cleverness.

One of the less baroquely entitled tales, ‘Like a Pendulum in Glue’, tells of Louche’s night out at an orgy. The various episodes involve a rather cautious, but ever-curious narrator as he makes his way down the Street of Shame “a central corridor of the club, [which] was littered with couples in various states of sex”. These tableaux-vivants are presented like visions of hell – or is it paradise? – and are sensitively crosscut with scenes from Louche’s childhood. Not surprisingly, his voyage of self-discovery returns him to his formative experiences. For the most part, these memories involve his father – singing and dancing in the kitchen, showing him how to fly a kite, and so forth. A couple of them end in words of sound, fatherly advice: “Son, you have to learn to enjoy yourself” and “You could maybe try a little harder.” It is clear that the orgy has everything to do with sensations, and nothing with feelings. Clad only in rubber shorts and leather boots Louche ambles past the peep shows and cages, the suckers and groaners. He is often invited to participate: “‘C’mon,’ they urged, ‘it’s just a bit of fun.’” He decides, however, that although there is no harm done, it is certainly not fun. And yet he remains fascinated, and continues his journey to the end of the corridor where “the throb of music faded until all he could hear he was the snarl of a whip”. He has reached The Dungeon, where he sees a solitary, hooded man wielding a lash. Their eyes meet. Next thing, Louche finds himself being manacled to the wall. He doesn’t struggle. In fact, we can almost sense his relief, and excitement: “He opened his eyes, fully, taking in all the available light, taking in everything within the limited scope. It seemed the richest of views . . . The silence brought forward a surge of emotion, of tears and anger and laughter, rolling and gathering pace with each passing second.”

Davidson’s novel Scar Culture was extremely well-received. This first collection of stories confirms his role as chronicler of the distressed. Does he write only about what he knows? Let’s not ask. Does he write only for those who share this distress? Perhaps.

Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry And Politics Of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic
Scott Lyall
pp216 ISBN 0748623345


Scott Lyall’s study of MacDiarmid opens with a frontispiece of the Dear Leader looking stony. The content is far less fearful.

Mighty research has gone into this highly readable work, especially the pre-World War Two period: Lyall’s range of MacDiarmid’s technical, political, personal, and literary informants is fascinating. For example, he uses the Carcanet ‘Complete’ material, yet shows it not to be as complete as it might be: missed is the eugenicist ‘The Caledonian antisyzygy and the Gaelic idea’. Lyall’s work on the forgotten Red Scotland, rejected in 1936 by Routledge, is also illuminating, including not only Maclean-like revolutionary rhetoric, but prophesy of an Anglo-Scottish war.

In some ways, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry And Politics Of Place is over-researched: there is so much background on MacDiarmid’s journalism and local council work, especially in Montrose, that the poetry sometimes feels added on. Temporally, the book is top-heavy: we don’t leave the Twenties until we are into its second half. Methodologically, it reaches towards a new Scottish Studies, but often relies on older techniques of Eng Lit – biography, the strong canon, and psychological speculation. There are also technical problems: Lyall’s moves from argument to poetic quotation are smooth, lucid, and convincing, but there’s little discussion of the poetry as poetry: why, for example, did MacDiarmid abandon proper lineation – a question not answered by calling his later work ‘prosepoetry’.

Lyall’s thesis is that MacDiarmid’s national sense comes between and unites the local and the universal. The problem is we are not sure why the nation specifically should have this role. Lyall speculates in the introduction that Gayatri Spivak’s strategic essentialism can be used openendedly for Scottishness. But ‘Scot’ is not the same kind of thing as ‘woman’ – it is an elective identity, something people choose. And the assumption that Scottishness is in itself good haunts the book, as does the idea that ‘the Scot’ is unchanging (like, say, woman). This differs from ideas developed especially by Cairns Craig during the Nineties, seeing Scottishness as a flexible enabling myth. So “MacDiarmid wants contemporary Scots to find the dynamic diversity and internationalism of their pre-Union traditions”. But who are “contemporary Scots”? And why “pre-Union”? More generally, despite the title, there may be a confusion of republic and state. Lyall only has MacDiarmid talking about monarchy once, but it isn’t worth losing sight of a state to gain a republic: the UK has been made virtually unicameral (think of Iraq), and in some ways is already a republic gone wrong.

This Scottish Renaissance is deliberately ruralist, with MacDiarmid linking internal ‘islands’. This approach works in Montrose, where Lyall convincingly shows MacDiarmid working out Renaissance thought. The move to Scots language is “galvanised by his immersion in the local concerns of the Montrose community”, and contra metropolitanism, he “looked back in order to posit a modernist future for the nation”. Synthetic Scots was merely a “reconditioning” – Lyall follows Derrick McClure in stressing linguistic continuity, yet later admits that lexical overkill and archaism were central: MacDiarmid is both ‘populist’ and incomprehensible. This approach then struggles in Shetland, which MacDiarmid showers with abuse. And while “MacDiarmid’s anti-metropolitanism is a nationalist response to the violent perils of imperialism”, the value of small towns is not always clear, especially when they are described as conservative and Unionist, Langholm being a springboard for Mac-Diarmid’s anti-kailyardism.

Lyall’s MacDiarmid is pointedly pro-Irish, influenced by Connolly and Catholicism, and shaped by the dual events of 1916-17. Pre-Reformation aesthetics are stressed, as is MacDiarmid’s ostracism by anti-Irish party Nationalists. But the Nationalist MacDiarmid paradoxically scorns philistine Scots, and A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle is self-hating because of the stupidity of the masses, from which he suffers. MacDiarmid’s stance is anti-intellectual while he is an intellectual (though this ‘inconsistency’ has not been as criticized as Lyall implies). The impossibility of the rebel in the university, to which Lyall ingeniously links MacDiarmid’s authoritarianism, is nevertheless not a new phenomenon: it’s part of the makeup of the modern intellectual, and was central for example to Eighties postcolonial theory.

Lyall thus links MacDiarmid to Adorno’s, and more interestingly, Benjamin’s and Gramsci’s, problematic of the intellectual as the self-elected ‘interpreting class’. For Gramsci, the need for innate working-class values requires a radical authoritarianism: the interpreting class is too powerful because intellectuals are saturated in conservative faux debates. For MacDiarmid the whole of ‘culture’ is a pointless lie, and only individual genius can save the day. Wilhelm Reich however, on the fringes of the ‘Frankfurt school’ (meaning Adorno) would see in MacDiarmid a fascistic and defensive need for authority. In 1939 he supported the Stalin-Hitler pact against the British empire. Again showing exemplary research, Lyall shows that the British intelligence services had MacDiarmid under watch in Whalsay and regarded him as “a menace”.

MacDiarmid’s politics of place demanded the right to live anywhere and call its people useless, sponsored by tax from those same people. To argue that this should be the cultural form of a Scottish republic is not the aim of this subtle and even-handed study. Instead, Lyall widens out MacDiarmid scholarship, shows the poet’s subtlety of thought, and intelligently modernises and contemporizes his cultural-political position.

James IV
Norman Macdougall
BIRLINN, £16.99 339
pp. ISBN 0859766632


On Boxing Day last year, national newspapers published a list of eleven men and one woman, deemed to be of key importance in creating British ‘institutions’. The list was compiled by three historians, Michael Burleigh, Neil McK-endrick and David Starkey, for the Conservative Party, whose shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, explained that the list highlighted the Party’s concern that “the loss of national memory means a loss of national identity”. Included in this list, alongside the likes of St. Columba, (founder of Christianity in the British Isles), Robert Clive (the British empire), Millicent Fawcett (universal suffrage) and Nye Bevan (the NHS) is one Scot: King James IV (1473-1513).

The Scottish king evidently merited inclusion from his participation in the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ concluded between Scot-land and England in 1502, whereby James married Henry VII of Eng-land’s daughter, Margaret, the following year. A century later, the dynastic fruits of this ‘union of the thistle and the rose’ led to the Union of the Scots and English crowns through James’ great-grandson, James VI, in 1603. The list coincided with the reissue of Nor-man Macdougall’s biography of James IV. Macdougall’s biography provides a respected account of the life of this endlessly fascinating monarch whose activities, achievements and eventual failure make excellent newspaper copy.

As duke of Rothesay, and aged just over a year, James had been first betrothed to an English bride, Edward IV’s daughter Cecilia, aged three, in 1474. The dowry agreed for this abortive match was, however, greater than the £10,000 sterling that James eventually received from Henry VII on marrying Mar-garet Tudor in 1503, in what quickly proved a brittle and short-lived Anglo-Scottish alliance. As an adolescent, James had acquired the Scottish throne in 1488 through involvement in his father’s murder at Sauchieburn, for which he thereafter donned a penitential iron belt. Enormously energetic, James successfully handled the normal political, ecclesiastical and fiscal demands of medieval governance while contemplating international crusades against the Turks, acquiring what was briefly the largest warship in the world and dabbling in amateur dentistry. Moreover, as Macdougall observes, although “king of a small and relatively poor country … [James] invaded Eng-land again and again, and got away with it”, at least until the catastrophic strategic blunders that led to his death at Flodden in 1513.

Although expertly handled, this is not, however, a new biography. Instead, it is an unaltered reprint in which the author’s acknowledgements and preface remain as published in 1989, as do a number of unfortunate typographical errors. Whilst, in places, Macdougall’s elegant acknowledgements of earlier scholarship, by way of references to “Professor Duncan’s memorable phrase” or “Dr Nicholson’s memorable phrase” nostalgically evoke a passing world of academic courtesies, other allusions to James’ “most recent biographer” are conspicuously uncomfortable in referring to R. L. Mackie’s King James IV, published nearly half a century ago in 1958. Whilst it is inappropriate to review this book as if it were a new biography, earlier plaudits regarding Macdougall’s scrupulous objectivity and mastery of high political narrative were undoubtedly justified. For a 21st century audience, however, this is an inescapably dated work; indeed, the author’s preface, reviewing various advances in historical scholarship between Mackie’s biography in 1958 and the late-1980s painfully reinforce the point that this is a reissue, not a new edition.

The Scottish Secretaries
David Torrance
pp436, ISBN 1841584762


A basic trouble is that Scots are not much good at politics. It must be the Calvinism, yet again. According to John Calvin, humanity consists of a few who are to be saved and a huge mass who are to be damned: there is no room for compromise.

In contrast the English have, whatever else you say about them, a genius for politics which relies on actually not believing in very much, just like the Church of England. For hundreds of years they have sustained a parliamentary system specialising in constant adjustment to all and any opinions. There may be no durable philosophies, so that Tories can in the long run adopt Liberal policies and Labour can in the long run adopt Tory ones. But nobody in England will be forever cast into an outer darkness, where there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the other hand we know what the God of Scots said to the losers in the general election of life: “Weel, ye ken noo.”

This has inevitably affected what was, till devolution, the top job in Scottish politics, Secretary of State for Scotland. David Torrance, former journalist now in a political post at Westminster, gives here a most diligent survey of the 39 men and one woman who have held this surely soon to be abolished post. Most are forgotten, or will be, despite Torrance doing his level best to salve their reputations.

With a few exceptions, they remained rather a dull lot. For many, the Scottish Office represented the pinnacle of their careers. They never moved on or showed much desire to. Anyway, the last thing the British political system wanted was brilliance in its Secretaries of State for Scotland. To tempt them into playing the Scottish card all the time would have been asking for trouble. The solution was to choose people who never caused problems, or even dreamed of doing so.

An exception proving the rule was A.J. Balfour, who served right at the beginning of the Scottish Office’s existence in 1886-7. A nephew of the then Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, he would one day be Prime Minister himself. So he was going places. He used his first job in government to show as much. He browbeat other departments of state into handing powers to him that belonged to them. These he used to duff up the stroppy crofters, who were in revolt. Altogether, he was just the kind of fellow not to be Secretary for Scotland. Experiment with a man of destiny would never be repeated.

One alternative has been to appoint toffs. The first couple of decades saw a duke, two marquises, an earl, a baron and a baronet in charge of the Scottish Office. The tradition continued into modern times, taking in one chap with a distant claim to the Crown of Scotland, right down to `Gentleman George’ Younger, last of the breed. His bland charm, turned on as much to the bailies of Burntisland as to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, often proved just the job in the fraught circumstances he faced – if, arguably, for a little too long. At any rate, he was better than a dozen other Scottish Secretaries in living memory.

A second favoured category was the dinosaur, mostly though not exclusively from the Labour party. Nobody could be impressed by the horny handed sons of toil who served as Secretaries of State from the 1920s to the 1950s. One or two were indeed plainly incompetent: that probably explained their elevation. The same held true of some later Tories from the broad savannahs of the Scottish counties rather than out of deep black holes in Fife. It was possible to raise the dinosaur’s act into a finer art, as Willie Ross did in the Sixties and Seventies. But with him the species became extinct.

Perhaps the saddest cases are those of bright young things who arrived in the Scottish Office full of hope and expectation for a great future in government, only to find themselves shunted into a siding without an exit. One was John Sin-clair, the original land reformer, said by his boss H.H. Asquith to have “the brain of a rabbit and the temper of a pig”. Another was Walter Elliot, a brilliant man who got on the wrong side of Winston Churchill and never recovered from that. And maybe we have to include Michael Forsyth here too, trying to hold the bridge alone as the devolutionary hordes rushed on him.

Anyway the story is over now, and David Torrance tells it as well as it can be told, with perception into politics and comprehension of character. The next chapter will be different.

The Raw Shark Texts
Steven Hall
pp428 ISBN


Breakdancing with energy and ideas, Steven Hall’s first novel The Raw Shark Texts exfoliates the imagination. Although the novel reminds one of Lewis Carroll, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams, Hall’s voice is original. Adams’ Babel fish, small, yellow and leeching on brainwave energy, is the benign precursor to Hall’s terrifying conceptual shark, ‘the Ludovician’, destroyer of understanding. Its habitat is the stream of ideas created by the human imagination and it latches parasitically onto individuals to gorge on plankton shoals of memory.

This would appear to be the predicament of Eric Sanderson, who wakes up in a room that is absolutely ordinary but completely unfamiliar, with no idea who he is. Overtaken by panic, he discovers a driving licence that supplies his official identity. The picture matches his reflection in the wardrobe mirror – that of a stranger whose expressions are written in the language of unremembered experience.

Eric finds a note that prompts him to visit a therapist, who tells him that for two years he has been suffering from a rare dissociative condition. She emphasises that he must on no account open any letters that arrive from the “first” Eric Sanderson, or he will lose whatever identity he has salvaged all over again. Dr Randle might be sinister, manipulative, bovine or trustworthy, Eric hasn’t a clue, but he is so unnerved he does what the doctor orders.

Most of his time is spent at home clinging to a comfort blanket of ordinary tasks and bonding with Ian, a sassy ginger feline with Cheshire cat proclivities. Eric deals with his mail like a credit junkie in denial, leaving letters and packages to pile up unopened. Everything changes on the day he enters the mysteriously locked room in his house. It is empty, apart from a red filing cabinet containing a single sheet of paper. Because of what it says, Eric now examines the communications from his former self, all signed “with regret and also hope”, only to realise that if they tell the truth about the conceptual predations he has suffered, his present being, shredded and shambling as it is, remains in mortal danger. This device neatly carries the novel into its next phase. The letters also yield cameos of life with his lover, Clio, whom Eric has forgotten but whose death by drowning may be the source of his trauma.

From Eric’s plundered selfhood and bewildered introversion, the novel switches to an emotionally engaging register, tender, erotic, funny and painful. As the action twists on in a succession of dream-scape sequences, via “unspace” and the “quiet insomnia of smog, purple skies, puddles, rubbish and white and yellow sodium” that is Hall’s Manchester, the conceptual playfulness never lets up.

Unfortunately for Eric, there’s no point pinching himself. He’s awake. In a deserted hospital he encounters Mr Nobody, a decaying Super-string theory physicist, no more than “a concept wrapped in skin and chemicals”. The information he provides intensifies Eric’s sense that his world is a “Chinese puzzle”, demanding knowledge of just where and in what sequence to apply pressure to its secret springs.

The Ludovician suddenly lurches into physical presence and nightmare takes over. As Nobody is pulled through the melting floor, Eric is saved by a young woman called Scout who whisks him off, tossing a letter bomb into the shark’s path. With typical Hall humour, the letter bomb is made of fireworks, old typewriter keys and printing block letters, which don’t kill but explode associations and histories that “scramble the flow the shark is swimming in”.

Scout supplies information on a new existential threat, Mycroft Hall, who has turned himself into a parasitic super-computer. (He shares his first name with Sherlock Holmes’ brother, whose “specialism” was omniscience.) Although, like Clio, Scout has a smiley face tattooed on her big toe, her identity is yet another puzzle, “standing with all the others – huge and quiet, like the rows of strange stone heads on Easter Island”. With clarification a lost cause, they set off on a quest that leads to an ambiguous and very moving climax.

With excursions into graphics and “flicker-book” visuals, Hall maintains focus and finesse throughout. Like a Rorschach Test (say the title aloud quickly), The Raw Shark Texts can be read in different ways, all fascinatingly open to interpretation.

Taking You Home: Poems And Conversations
Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith & Andrew Mitchell
pp160, ISBN 1902831519


My first reaction was “Great! a new book on Derick and Iain, with some of their poems and thoughts. This should be interesting.” Having glanced through the book, my second reaction was “What a curious enterprise. Is it a sprat or a starling?” It is, in fact, a kind of compendium which includes selections of poems by Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith, interviews with the two Lewismen, some biographical material, and a poem sequence by the compiler (in English, but with translations into Gaelic) providing a coda.

The book’s genesis can be traced to two radio programmes presented by Andrew Mitchell. The first, The Island Is Always With You, was produced by Stewart Conn for BBC Radio 3 and Radio Scotland, to mark Smith’s sixtieth birthday in 1988. How Many Miles From Bayble took both poets back to the village of their upbringing in 1995 for Radio 4’s , Kaleidoscope. The central section of the book, ‘Poets in Conversation’, features extracts from those interviews, but only amounts to 13 pages.

These few titbits do give us some vivid glimpses of island life, figures of authority (schoolmaster and minister), skills that made the village tick, ceilidhs and open air dances. There are illuminating comments on language, and the delicate balancing act living between two languages entails, including the interesting detail that, while Glasgow-born Smith was a native Gael, Thomson, born in Lewis, spoke English first. Schooling began at Bayble, where some of their classmates went barefoot throughout the year, then to the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, both melting-pot of dialects from all the rural parishes and culture clash with monoglot English-speaking “townies”, who frequently displayed “quite contemptuous attitudes towards Gaelic” according to Thomson.

Aberdeen University, which both attended at around the same time, the older Thomson having done military service first, provided a further widening of perspective, with students being met “from Skye and Harris and various other Gaelic localities…. The Gaelic people tended to congregate and speak Gaelic practically all the time”. If they were socially defensive in that milieu of “foreigners of a kind”, the intellectual scope was boundless. Iain Crichton Smith sought out the works of contemporary writers, people like TS Eliot and WH Auden who were dealing with “Twentieth century phenomena”. He cites Camus and Sartre, and records having read some of Sorley MacLean’s work which would have been fairly recently published at this stage.

It would be difficult for any islander, particularly from Lewis, to deny the impact of religion on their lives. Both poets have pointed observations, historical and personal, to make on its impact on the social and cultural energies of their community. Thomson on “cultural survival” and Smith on “exile” effectively express the paradoxes they had to live with, but which provided rich creative seams for them to draw on. Introducing his poem ‘The Exiles’, Smith recalled an image provided by his mother, of an emigrant ship leaving Stornoway, while its passengers, and those they were leaving behind on the quay, together began singing the twenty-third psalm, an “extraordinary and poignant moment”.

Although the shortest in the book, that section seems to me to provide its heart. Being based on two programmes of at least fifteen minutes duration each, it does seem to have been reduced to highlights. There are references to other poems, Smith’s own ‘Stones of Callanish’ and Thomson’s ‘Coffins’ and ‘Scarecrow’, which Smith comments on, but there does seem to have been an opportunity missed, to have given us more of the poets’ own thoughts, particularly on process.

It’s difficult, in the context of its overall theme, to read Andrew Mitchell’s own poems, which conclude the book, without a certain sense of unease. That’s not to say that they are in any way inferior, as poems. They are well crafted, and ably translated by that fine Gaelic poet Maoileas Caimbeul. Those addressing his subjects, and their turus dhachaidh (trip home) display a warm empathy, which feels just a bit forced and vicarious in his approach to topics like exile and the Iolaire tragedy, themes so particular to the islanders themselves. There is, however, much to enjoy in Mitchell’s words, and in the rest of Taking You Home.

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Ane o’ Thae Beatnik Poets

WHILE BROWSING the other day in the Letters Of Hugh MacDiarmid, I came across a letter to Maurice Lindsay written in1965, concerning an anthology of Scottish poetry which Lind-say was co-editing with George Bruce and Edwin Morgan. MacDiarmid writes: “I deplore Edwin Morgan’s association with you and George Bruce. Morgan’s prominence in connection with ‘Concrete Poetry’ and with Ian Hamilton Finlay rules him out completely as far as I am concerned. I will not agree to work of mine appearing in any anthology or periodical that uses rubbish of that sort, which I regard as an utter debasement of standards but also a very serious matter involving the very identity of poetry. These spatial arrangements of isolated letters and geometrically placed phrases, etc. has [sic] nothing whatsoever to do with poetry – any more than mud pies can be called a form of architecture”. And this was 1965, in the decade of liberation, experimentation and inclusiveness. Labels have been glibly fitted in retrospect: they don’t often square with the actualities. The irony (to use a gentle word) in this case is that Morgan had become well-known as an advocate of MacDiarmid’s later ‘poetry of fact’ and thereby, was at odds with some of MacDiarmid’s earlier supporters.

The decade was crucial to Edwin Morgan’s own development. In 1963 he met the man who was to be his companion and lover for fifteen years or so; and, partly in the new confidence and impetus given by this relationship, he brought out The Second Life in 1968. It was this collection, his first to be widely reviewed, which brought Morgan’s poetry to a wider audience, and the poetry is appropriately wider. There are spatial and sound poems, fantasy poems, love poems and gritty Glasgow poems, some of which were to become the staple diet of a generation of school pupils being dragooned towards Highers. There is a celebratory piece ‘To Hugh MacDiarmid’ but it is pointedly paralleled with a facing celebratory poem ‘To Ian Hamilton Finlay’.

For Morgan, nothing was ruled out and most things seemed to be ruled in. In the title poem of the collection, he asks: “Is it true that we come alive/ not once, but many times?” and “Does every man feel like this at forty?” and asserts “all things are possible”. We tend to forget that he was forty-seven when The Second Life appeared: for those of us who knew him in his youthful sixties and seventies, in his light, untweedy jackets and with his rattling up-to-date intelligence, it seemed that Eddie Morgan must always have been the same, somewhat like his portrayal in Sandy Moffat’s time-warping choir of singing bards in his painting of the Poets’ Pub (How often was Morgan in Milne’s Bar?). But for all his precociousness as a youth – he kept a diary of his astonishing reading before he joined the army when he was 20 – and allowing for the interruption of the war, he was a relatively late developer. Looking back now at the earlier writings gathered in the Collected Poems, the reader can discern many elements which anticipate his later work, but it was only in the Sixties that he emerged as a power in the land. One factor in his development was the emotionally explicit and anti-academic aspects of American Beat poets, precisely the poets so castigated by MacDiarmid, as in his ‘Question to Edwin Morgan’:

Is there even ane o’ thae Beatnik poets

Wi’ which the place is sae raji rife Da’en mair than just feelin’ a lassie’s
And thinkin’ he’s seein’ Life?

Although Morgan had read Eliot and Pound with some pleasure and learned much from the Modernist collage style of The Waste Land, it was in Whitman, Hart Crane, Carlos Williams and the Black Mountain poets such as Olson that he found encouragement for his notion of the poet in relation to society and its evolution.

Throughout his long writing career, over fifty years, he has been intrigued with language in as many guises as he can consider. Intertwined with his own poetry have been extraordinary varieties of translation from many European languages, in a number of which he is fluent: Mayakovsky, Montale, Neruda, Brecht, Attila Jozsef, Petrarch, Beowulf ? the list goes on (but no Gaelic). There have been versions of Shakespeare in Scots, of the Baron Munchausen tall stories, simulated voices of animals, including the Loch Ness Monster, of creatures from other planets, as in ‘The First Men on Mercury’, of a resuscitated Egyptian mummy, and of several computers. Commentators on Morgan’s work have sometimes talked of his ventriloquism but often his speaking in tongues is less a projection of himself than a temporary adoption of an other identity or colouring. There was a time when it was difficult to grasp the ‘real Edwin Morgan’ or to see how the guises fitted together: too many surfaces, too much shape-changing, not enough steady focus. His poem ‘The Whittrick: a Poem in Eight Dialogues’, written between 1955 and 1961 but not published till 1971, consists of imagined dialogues between such pairs as MacDiarmid and Joyce, Marilyn Monroe and Galina Ulanova (the dancer), and a Buddhist sage and a Kabuki dramatist in 18th century Japan. The ‘whittrick’ (Scots for weasel) appears and disappears in the dialogues and represents shape-changing, facets of appearance, perhaps the only reality we can know. Something of the whittrick, its allusiveness and elusiveness, reappears through his later poetry, and is probably connected to his developing interest in plays and the theatre, a place of personae and illusion.

It is a quality he found and admired in Dunbar, Burns and MacDiarmid, as he said in an interview in 1988. He also identified energy and a mercurial spirit in these writers as aspects of the whittrick. It may be that in discovering poems in bits of newsprint and trying to offer unmediated reportage in what he called ‘Instamatic Poems’ he was freeing himself from traditional formal notions of the poem, as Carlos Williams and cummings had done in America and Apollinaire had done in France but, looking at some of them now, I don’t think they do much. There is a mechanical dullness in many. Yeats’ wise old dad warned his son against the practised poet’s “indulged facility”. Morgan’s fecundity has been amazing but sometimes a little less could mean a lot more.

Nonetheless, allowing for some lapses and wastage, the versatility has a sweep and vitality which are hugely stimulating. He has always shown a keenness for sequence poems and this has become more manifest as his career has progressed: ‘Glasgow Sonnets’, ‘The New Divan’, the book-length Sonnets from Scotland, ‘An Alphabet of Goddesses’, ‘From the Video Box’, ‘Beasts of Scotland’, several separate sequences in Cathures, Planet Wave; and his volumes Hold Hands Among the Atoms and Love and a Life are presented as sequences. The sequence gives licence to the whittrick side of his poetic nature, a kaleidoscopic or perspectival variety. Planet Wave was commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, set to music by the saxophonist Tommy Smith, and performed in 1997. It comprises twenty poems, each about a page in length, each marking a stage in the history of Earth. The opening poem describes the Big Bang when the universe came into being; the final poem, set in 2300, describes an expedition to establish a human colony on a newly discovered hospitable planet. The identity of the narrator remains vague: “Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there./ It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know/ what was there before, I came out with it…What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” We are enabled to see the end of the dinosaurs, the Flood, the sacrifice of humans to the Lord of the Universe Jaganath and his juggernaut in India in 1600, the destruction of the Twin Towers. The description of the juggernaut reminds me of a recurring connection between Morgan’s vision of the world and that of Shelley, the Shelley of Queen Mab, The Witch of Atlas, ‘The Cloud’, Prometheus Unbound and his final, unfinished and bleakly pessimistic The Triumph of Life, with their omniscient, visionary overview of our world. Morgan’s ‘completion’ of Shelley’s Triumph of Life in terza rima is the earliest dated poem (1949) in the Collected Poems and reveals his early poetic consanguinity with Shelley. A passionate desire that people, particularly poets, accept and relish the challenges of new knowledge, whether in chemistry or geology or technology or psychology, unites the two poets and both wish to see their poetry as a contributory factor in human advancement.

Planet Wave is included in the new collection, A Book of Lives, issuing from an invalid (but mightily valid) man in his mid-eighties, a collection packed with his characteristic inventiveness, forward-lookingness, largesse. The opening poem, ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004’, begins: “Open the doors! light of the sun, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!”. Unfortunately, the sun may have shone, occasionally, but the light of the mind has not really beamed forth. As with Shelley, the idealism is admirable, the actuality is depressing. Some of the poems in this volume derive from his position, first as Poet Laureate of Glasgow and later as Scotland’s Makar. ‘The Welcome’, written for the International Federation of Librarians meeting in Glasgow, applauds the stored past in libraries but also welcomes the new opportunities of accessing and adding to knowledge. It concludes:

From Mungo’s cell to cyberspace, reality
Is a tango of intertextuality.

Have a fine dance with it this week, unlock Your word-hoards, take heart and take stock
Of everything a library can do
To let the future shimmer and show

What is predictable about a new collection from Morgan is its unpredictability. Who else has written or is likely to write a dialogue between a cancerous cell (Gorgo) and a normal cell (Beau)? It is reminiscent of medieval verbal jousting as in Everyman, or the Faust debate with Mephistopheles, and Gorgo sounds like Milton’s Satan, seductive, dangerous, exciting and unbourgeois: “Evil, be thou my good”. Behind this debate, Morgan is mocking his own weakened condition but making something out of it. In the penultimate poem in the long sequence Love and a Life, the poet declares: “We cry but we create, we kill but we build./ Dante was sure the stars were all – even ours – rolled out by love. They gild/ A dark that would truly scare/ If there was nothing there/ The horror of there not being something, good or bad or neither, made or found, willed or self-willed.” Most remarkably for a man of his age and condition the dominant note in this collection is certainly not retrospective or elegiac but forceful, alert to possibilities, open to suggestion.

Edwin Morgan has been and remains an inspirational quester. As a teacher, translator, essayist, artistic collaborator (most recently with Roddy Woomble and Idlewild) as well as a poet, his achievement has been colossal. Scotland and beyond should cherish him. I finish by taking two quotations from Morgan writing about a fellow poet and applying them to Morgan himself (Iain Crichton Smith made the same connection with the first quotation): “What gives Mayakovsky’s work its peculiar character, and I think also its peculiar value, is its unusual combination of wild avant-garde leanings and flashes and something of central human concern. A grotesque and vivid comic fantasy is never lost; neither is the sense of pain, of loneliness, of longing, sometimes misguided by creative exhilaration; neither is the sense of history and the role and the duty of the poet.” And in his poem ‘To Hugh MacDiarmid’:

Somewhere in astonishment you would set man,

short-range or long-range confrontation or kinship

with all the world he changes and it changes him,

the greater changes he grows into making now,

the greatest like faint stars in the drift of smoke of thought.

Edwin Morgan
Carcanet, £9.95
pp96, ISBN 185754918X

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Dallas revisited

THE TOURIST TO DALLAS, Texas, can visit two museums in the neighbourhood still known as Dealey Plaza. This urban park, frequently used for parades, is bound by large office buildings, including the Texas State Book Depository and by a pergola and a grassy knoll. In this plaza on November 22, 1963, a sniper or snipers shot and killed President John F. Kennedy at exactly 12:30 p.m. local time. Both museums are dedicated to that event and about the only thing they agree on is the date and time.

The Sixth Floor Museum, in the Book Depository, subscribes to the premise that Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine with Communist leanings, acting alone, shot and killed the president from a “sniper’s nest,” which is now reconstructed for the visitor. This official version, established in 1965 by the commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, has never changed, in spite of six subsequent investigations into what else might have happened that day in Dallas.

The Conspiracy Museum around the corner is dedicated to the premise that something else did happen that day, involving possibly the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, Cuban president Fidel Castro, and the right-wing John Birch Society, all of whom have apparently covered up their conspiracy for more than forty years. Glass cases of photographs and diagrams, interview transcripts and newspaper clippings share the space with a large wall mural called ‘The Conspiracy Tree’ in which various American assassinations of the twentieth century, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, are linked in one masterpiece of paranoia.

When the Conspiracy Museum lost its lease and was forced to close at the end of December, there was much tongue-in-check comment in the press about whether this was yet another conspiracy to pervert justice. But, while it’s easy to mock the wacky theories of the conspiracy buffs, it’s not so easy to explain away the discontent that persists forty-three years after the Kennedy assassination.

Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK by Lamar Waldron and Thomas Hartmann aspires to be yet another of “the last word” narratives. With a pile of new evidence – documents only recently declassified and interviews with key figures in the Kennedy administration – the authors conclude that the president was killed by a conspiracy of Mafia dons whom the president’s brother Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, was prosecuting.

The historical background is laid out by the authors with facts that no one disputes. Soon after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, the United States government started plotting his overthrow. Besides the government, however, mobsters such as Santo Trafficante, Johnny Roselli, and Carlos Marcellos also wanted to get rid of Castro so that they could get back the casinos they had run profitably for many years in Cuba. Finding themselves in strange agreement, the Mafia and the CIA tentatively joined forces to try to kill Castro. These efforts culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 in which about 1,500 Cuban exiles were killed or captured and imprisoned by the Cuban government. All of these CIA-backed efforts drove Castro further into an alliance with the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1963, his new allies began to build silos for medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a critical test of the young President John F. Kennedy’s mettle. Though he passed the test, political conservatives continued to pressure the president to get rid of the Communist menace in the Caribbean.

At this point, according to Waldron and Hartmann, Bobby Kennedy provided the President with a plan. Working through Cuban exile groups in the United States, Bobby Kennedy discovered that Juan Almeida, a hero of the revolution and then head of the Cuban Army, was disenchanted with Castro, disliked the Cuban alliance with the Soviet Union, and was prepared both to overthrow Castro’s government and to kill Castro. Bobby Kennedy seized the opportunity. The coup would be quite public. The assassination, however, would be done privately and would then be blamed on an innocent, unsuspecting “patsy” provided by the CIA, someone with connections to the Soviet Union. This “patsy” would then be murdered to prevent any thorough investigation of the crime.

Following the coup, a large force of United States military would invade Cuba to “stabilize” the situation. To make certain it didn’t look like an American coup, Bobby Kennedy arranged for a small group of Cuban exiles to lead the military invasion in the way the Allies had allowed the Free French the token privilege of liberating Paris in the Second World War.

Waldron and Hartmann call Kennedy’s plan “C-Day” in order to distinguish it from the many other plans to overthrow Castro run by the CIA. This plan, the authors claim, was quite different from the others because he ran it out of his office at the Department of Justice, with only minimal involvement of the CIA, the Defense, and the State Departments.

At this point, the authors bring in the second strand of their story. While planning “C-Day,” Bobby Kennedy was also prosecuting Trafficante, Roselli and Marcello. The Attorney General knew that these men had previously worked with the CIA, but he thought that the association was finished. This was not true. The mobsters were still working with the CIA and, through their contacts, they were learning bits and pieces of Bobby Kennedy’s “C-Day” plot.

The three Mafiosi, along with Jimmy Hoffa, had previously considered killing Bobby Kennedy, the authors claim. But they were afraid that this would only bring the wrath of the President down on them. Instead, they had the better idea of killing the President, which would have the effect of removing Bobby Kennedy from his position as Attorney General of the United States. The Mafiosi then cast about for a way to cover up their own involvement in the assassination of a president. They then decided to use “C-Day” for their own purposes in two ways. Waldron and Hartmann believe that the Mafia dons hired professional hit men to assassinate Kennedy while he rode in an open car in a public parade. They would then pin their crime on the same “patsy” that the CIA had groomed for the murder of Fidel Castro on “C-Day.” The CIA “patsy” was Lee Harvey Oswald, who then became the mafia’s “patsy” for the killing of John Kennedy.

According to this theory, Oswald was planning to travel to Cuba on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, in order, he thought, to take part in the overthrow of the Cuban government. Instead, he found himself in the midst of the assassination of a president for which he was arrested and charged. Any chance that Oswald might have had to exonerate himself ended when Jack Ruby, a well-known mob associate, gunned him down in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters on the morning of November 24 in front of dozens of reporters, policemen, and a live television audience of millions. Meanwhile the actual assassins, mafia hit men who had operated from the pergola on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, escaped without detection. As the conspirators had hoped, there was no thorough investigation of the assassination, because Bobby Kennedy and the new President, Lyndon Johnson, knew that this would have uncovered the Kennedys’ plans to overthrow a foreign government and kill its leader.

Is any of this believable, or even likely? The book is written for those who already believe in a conspiracy, or, as the publisher calls these readers, the “passionate niche.” And who else would read over eight hundred pages of stupefying detail from questionable sources, with baffling leaps of logic, and theories that the authors admit often rest on spy fiction? Lamar Waldron was himself once the writer of science fiction comic books. Thom Hartmann has written other books about public affairs and is a regular on Air America Radio, a well-respected, left news network.

What the authors view as an intricate web of incriminating evidence appears to this reader as an inchoate tangle of miscellaneous facts thrown in to give the theory more heft than it merits. The authors revel in detail, piling it on, suffocating their story in minutiae. The narrative is held together with string and spit. Mafia figures and CIA agents are “linked” or “known associates.” “We believe that” and “we feel the evidence shows” are speculation, not proof. There are frequent references to countless pages of “assassination-related” documents awaiting declassification in the next decade. If they haven’t been declassified, how do the authors know that they are “assassination-related” or incriminating in any way?

Further, the assembly of material presented here comes from a wide variety of sources: National Archive documents, sworn affidavits, magazine articles, television broadcasts and secondary sources such as other books of conspiracy theory. These are treated as if they had equal weight and deserved equal respect. There is also a tendency to pick testimony that works with the theory, regardless of its source. Can the authors denigrate the Warren Commission’s investigation while also citing it as a source? Can they support their argument with Congressional testimony from CIA agents who have admitted to lying frequently to Congress?

Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann claim that Bobby and John Kennedy were trying to bring true democracy to Cuba. In the midst of all the silly and sinister American plots against Castro, theirs was of a higher order. Bobby Kennedy thought he had arranged for the Mafia to be kept out of his coup. He wanted no crime rings, drug trafficking, and gambling in the new Cuba. Cuban exile groups from all across the political spectrum, including socialists, would insure a freely-elected government there. John and Bobby Kennedy both knew that this effort would subject the President to the vengeance of the Mafia. The title, then, refers to the Ultimate Sacrifice that John Kennedy made for the freedom of Cuba. Is that believable? It isn’t.

The national security expert Gregory Treverton has written about the difference between puzzles and mysteries. More information will solve a puzzle. But a mystery requires judgment, analysis, and an appreciation of what we don’t and maybe can’t ever know. The authors of Ultimate Sacrifice assume that there is an explanation for everything. They do not allow that events can be ruled by chance, accident or tragedy – somewhere there must be an organizing hand and a few more documents will make that hand’s owner and motives clear. They have treated a mystery as if it were a puzzle to be solved.

So, again, is any of this narrative believable, or even probable? Strangely, parts of it are quite perturbing, if only in turning the official certainties into plausible mysteries. Presidential aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers claimed that they did indeed see a sniper on the grassy knoll, as did others. None of them had any reason to lie about what they saw and heard that day. The President’s own physician had serious misgivings about the autopsy results and what it revealed about the entry and exit wounds, and the trajectories of the bullets that killed Kennedy. Jack Ruby had well-documented dealings with the Mafia. Would such a man murder Oswald in front of millions of witnesses if he didn’t fear something far worse than a lifetime in prison?

Lee Harvey Oswald comes across as a Walter-Mittyish figure, enamoured of a television show, I Led Three Lives, in which an ordinary citizen, secretly a Communist, is also an agent of the C.I.A. When he is arrested in the Texas Theatre he is carrying half a box-top, just like a spy in a story. Did anyone have the other half?

by Lamar Waldron and Thomas Hartmann

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Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry

Patrick Robertson: A Tale Of Adventure
Brian Hennigan
POLYGON, £6.99
pp201, ISBN 1904598455

Travel, they say, broadens the mind, but what does it do to one’s morality? A case in point is the titular ‘hero’ (one uses that term advisedly here) of Brian Hennigan’s really quite amusing first novel. Patrick Robertson is a travelling salesman for the Twenty-First century, plane-hopping instead of hoofing it door to door. A machine-tools salesman, his chirpy manner is at odds with his booze cravings and confession of screaming in his sleep. His smooth life of business class and mini-bars is interrupted when in a case of mistaken identity he is kidnapped by a group of eco-terrorists in Bangkok. To his chagrin, he discovers he is not the first Patrick Robertson they’ve taken wrongly. Always ready with a nugget of workplace wisdom (“The best resources are, of course, Other People. Other People are the crash test dummies of effective management”), Patrick transfers his free market ideas from selling drill bits to surviving in the jungle his abductor take him to, with ruthless results. When his actions lead to the deaths of the eco-terrorists and fellow victims alike, Patrick fails to see any link between his actions and their consequences, a neat and unlaboured parallel with the way in which the business community Patrick calls home operates.

Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys
Magnus Magnusson
pp416, ISBN 1845962109

“Surely men with plenty of money and no brains were made for men with plenty brains and no money.” These words, written in the notebook of the Tichborne Claimant, one of the 19th Century’s more outrageous con men, could almost be a collective mission statement for the fakes and phoneys the late Mag-nusson profiles in this spry collection. I say almost because not everyone featured was a crook. Magnusson runs through the fake fairy photos that left Arthur Conan Doyle with a red face and, more compellingly, the tale of Ellen and William Craft, pre-emancipation African-Americans who escaped captivity by posing as a white master and his slave. On the whole however, Magnusson sticks with the criminals, posing but never really answering the question of what psychological forces drive a man to fake Old Masters or ancient poetic epics. Where Magnusson picks up points is the strength of his research. This reader knew about the so-called ‘Turk in the Cabinet’, a late 18th century automaton that played chess supposedly. The hoax travelled Europe and America for eighty years before Edgar Allan Poe, of all people, figured out how it was done. Fascinatingly, Edward Cartwright, it transpires, saw the Turk and was inspired to invent the weave-loom, boosting the Industrial Revolution.

The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox
Maggie O’Farrell
pp224 ISBN 0755308441

“You don’t get banged up for sixty years for nothing,” one character comments during The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox. The sad fact, as demonstrated by the fate of the title character, is that you can, or rather you could if you were a woman. As Maggie O’Farrell reveals, in the earlier part of last century, all you needed to lock up an awkward female relative was a doctor’s signature. The reader is as horrified to learn this as Iris, Esme’s grandniece. With a vintage dress shop to run and frustrated love for her stepbrother, Iris has enough problems without looking after an elderly relative she had no idea existed. But the institution Esme has been locked away in all her life is closing, and Iris can’t turn her back on the elderly woman, unlike her family who never mentioned her again once she was locked away. O’Farrell cuts between Esme’s childhood and the present day. The bleakly snobbish Edinburgh of the Thirties, where matrons patrol the streets with, to borrow Muriel Spark’s phrase, “predestination in their smiles”, is contrasted with our era. Although decidedly more unbuttoned, it has its own way of breaking the hearts of young women.

Collected Poems
William McGonagall
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp544 ISBN 1841584770

In the way that Ed Wood Jnr is often mistakenly described as the worst film director of all time, William McGonagall is not the worst poet. No one who has given so much pleasure, even if inadvertently, can be said to be strictly the worst. There are bores, sometimes celebrated bores, who are more convincing candidates for the post of ‘the worst’; that said, over five hundred pages of McGonagall is a bit much for anyone other than the most avid consumer of the bard of Dundee. Which prompts the thought that it was just as well he resided in Dundee; he was such a compulsive rhymer, he’d have been stuck if he came from anywhere less assonant (see his unhappy attempt to couple ‘Edinburgh’ with ‘sorrow’). Editor Chris Hunt provides a solid biographical introduction to the man he calls “Scotland’s alternative national poet”. Students were early ‘fans’ of his work, showing then as now their almost bottomless appreciation of kitsch. The serious point to make about MacG-onagall is that he was a handloom weaver who schooled himself in Shakespeare; one wonders how much of his student followers’ mockery was down to his verses and how much to the fact he was a working class man with literary ambitions?

Jennifer McCartney
pp256 ISBN 0241143446

McCartney’s debut is an appealing tale of young love. Bell is a student spending her summer working for the exotically-named Velvet, who owns a high-class restaurant on Mackinac Island north of Michigan. There, she falls in love with another waiter, Bryce, and the two spend a highly-charged few months together. Running parallel with this poignant teenage love story is another tale centred on an older Bell who has survived breast cancer. Her husband has died while her daughter is recently divorced. While she is waiting for bad weather to subside so that she can move out of her home, she reminisces over that summer and the catastrophe that occurred towards the end of an apparently idyllic time. A more sombre way of setting the hopes of youth against the disappointments of old age could scarcely be imagined, and McCartney handles it well, largely eschewing sentimentality for realism in the mature narrative, while successfully portraying the eroticism of young love in the younger one. The prose in both narratives can be a little too pared-down, however, giving her writing a flat register which is not always engaging; she also often includes irrelevant details. But, on the whole, this is a promising debut.

Writing In The Sand
Angus Dunn
pp480 ISBN 1905222475

The village of Cromness on the Dark Isle is the fictional setting for Dunn’s tale of fishy goings-on amongst odd island-types – a sort of Hamish MacBeth meets Doctor Who if you will, although without quite the appeal of either. Dunn assembles a massive cast for so small a place: there is the obese but formidable fortune-telling Alice and her phoney assistant Doreen, who prefers pleasuring the men of the village under boats in the dark to telling their fortunes; the pious Rev Dumfry who can’t resist Doreen’s charms no matter how hard he tries; the ruthless landowner Mr Mor who wants to improve the local football team’s chances by, shock horror, buying someone from outside the island; Jimmy Bervie, the fisherman who writes to the Dalai Lama with his concerns about the island; the uneasy, returning islander George

MacLear; the Celtic academic Dr Lorraine MacDonald who soon becomes entranced by Alice’s tales which undermine all her scholarly work. And that’s just to name a few of them. All in all, it’s a cacophony of voices that tends to drown out the larger picture Dun attempts to paint.

She Is But A Woman: Queenship In Scotland 424-1463
Fiona Downie
pp272 ISBN 085976656X

This is a truly fascinating account of a little written-about subject – medieval queenship in Scotland. Downie rightly points out the negative effect that the drama of the 16th century has had on discussion of those prominent women prior to Mary, Queen of Scots. But, apart from St Margaret, wife of 13th king Malcolm, few have received much attention. Downie takes Margaret as a model of the prefect medieval queen, who, along with Christine de Pizan’s advice manual to medieval courtly ways, The Treasure Of the City Of Ladies, provides a starting point for his analysis of the impact of two queens – Joan Beaufort, wife of James I, and Mary of Guelders, wife of James II. She does not attempt a feminist rewriting of history, but does show the importance of a ‘good’ queen in the medieval period, even one who was not ruling alone, but merely a partner. Downie delineates the powers a queen had, drawing a distinction between power and authority. She argues effectively for the political influence that Joan Beaufort in particular had with her husband. An accessible read that never simplifies its subject.

River Of Memory: Memoirs Of A Scots-Italian
Joe Pieri
pp240 ISBN 1841831069

Pieri has a wonderfully attractive voice and an easy story-telling manner which belie the difficulties he had growing up in Scotland, the country his Tuscan family emigrated to when Pieri was only three years old. The harshness of life before the Second World War, working alongside his brother Ralph in his father’s fish and chip shop, Glasgow’s famous Savoy, could barely have prepared him for the horrors of internment during the war, and it’s this period in his life which stands out in an otherwise upbeat account of the immigrant experience in 20th century Glasgow (hard work, some business risks, marriage to a local girl, raising a family). Pieri recalls in detail being arrested in the middle of the night after Mussolini’s declaration of war and being shipped off to Canada where soldiers barked orders at them in German because nobody told them their prisoners were raised in Scotland and spoke English. The looting of his family’s shop by an angry Glaswegian mob does not prevent Pieri form returning to the city to make a go of things there; ironically he says that after the war, racism was much less in evidence. Touching and unsentimental.

Queen Mary’s Women
Rosalind K Marshall
pp224 ISBN 0859766675

So much has been written about Mary Queen Of Scots it’s difficult to find a new angle to take on her. That Rosalind Marshall has managed to do just that is commendable, even if much of this material has been covered elsewhere (the story of the four Marys, her relationship with her first mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, her mother’s powerful Guise family). In addition to these familiar figures, Marshall introduces us to Mary’s French ladies-in-waiting, whose lives often followed a path just as colourful and violent as hers did; one lady, Anne Chabot, saw five sons die in duels, battles and drunken quarrels. With so much focus on Mary’s men (the Dauphin, Darnley and Bothwell), Marshall provides a refreshing take, reminding us just how women-centred the world was for a 16th century queen, no matter how much it was ruled by men. This is a straightforward account that does not seek to upset past interpretations of Mary, preferring instead to add to them.

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Known Knowns, Known Unknowns

IN 1960, PHILIP LARKIN wrote to twenty British writers (including Graham Greene, TS Eliot, and EM Forster), asking what were their experiences of selling their manuscripts. One author responded with an answer that was not only typical but has rung down the years: “The whole point is that England is not really interested in the manuscripts of anyone not securely dead.” Larkin’s letter writing was prompted by advances made towards him by an American purchaser of literary archives. As the bard of Hull discovered, American libraries and universities backed by impressive financial clout were buying up and shipping out the country’s literary treasures with barely a squeak of protest. So, in 1963, Larkin set up a committee, the National Manuscript Collection Of Contemporary Manuscripts, to stem the flow of writers’ raw materials. Something of the committee’s mixed success can be judged by the title he chose for a paper he wrote on manuscript acquisition in 1979: ‘A Neglected Honour’.

Undoubtedly Larkin would have been pleased to see in 2005 the National Library of Scotland secure the John Murray Archive, “a mini-British Library” as one put it and certainly the largest and most prestigious acquisition of its sort made in Scotland. No major library in Scotland today is without its own archive, with more attention than ever given to the subject, not only by librarians but also by writers themselves, their agents, various funding bodies, and even occasionally journalists. You wouldn’t have thought that the field could be dubbed “a neglected honour” anymore. And yet in an article published only last October, Andrew Motion, poet laureate and Larkin’s biographer, wrote that re-reading the poet’s article left him melancholy. Why? “Because so much has changed so little.”

Manuscripts are still slipping out of the country to America. In the last few years, American libraries have acquired the papers of Ted Hughes, Malcolm Bradbury, Julian Barnes, Tom Stoppard, David Hare, and John Osborne. Although this is less of an issue for Scotland – as Robin Smith, the NLS Curator of Modern Manuscripts told me, the Ameri-cans aren’t as interested in our writers as they are the English, something I’m not sure we should be glad or embarrassed about – one might still mention that Yale University has the manuscript of Boswell’s Life Of Johnson as well as most of the extant manuscripts and letters by Robert Louis Stevenson

It takes money to hold onto the good stuff, and it hardly needs saying that when it comes to the arts, not to mention society at large, there are more begging bowls than hands to hold them out. Given the extraordinary sums involved – the John Murray Archive was bought for £31.2 million, with the Scottish Executive providing £8.3 million – the public are entitled to ask: what do we get out of it? The answer on first look is not obvious. Unlike a painting or sculpture bought for the nation with their money – think The Three Graces – you cannot put an entire archive collection on view for all to appreciate. In an era where ‘accessibility’ has been raised to the level of fetish, this has on occasion stymied funding. One might also recall the stushie that followed the sale of the

Churchill papers in 1995. Although the argument wasn’t over the merit of the papers, which was evident, many felt as the state papers of a British PM, they should have been donated. Obviously this doesn’t apply to literary archives but there is a suspicion that a nasty niff of this particular imbroglio lingers in the nostrils of panjandrums fearful of loosening the purse strings for mere papers.

These objections rather tumble though once in the presence of the archives themselves. A book lover approaching the John Murray Archive or the Muriel Spark archive, both housed in the NLS, feels nothing less than awe tinged perhaps with voyeurism. Andrew Motion calls it “a primitive fascination”. Manuscripts “allow us to sit beside the author in the moment of creation”.

Larkin, again, with typical sagacity, divides types of manuscripts into two overlapping camps. The ‘magical’ archive references the almost childish excitement one feels on touching paper actually written on by one of the greats. The ‘meaningful’ archive meanwhile enlarges our understanding of an author. Spidery writing, dire first drafts – they matter not; knowing our heroes were human too, that their best works were not born complete from their head like Aphrodite, only excites our interest more. An example that broaches both the ‘magical’ and ‘meaningful’ is found in William Boyd’s essay on Oxford and the thesis he wrote there on Shelley. Here he remembers a moment in the Bodleian: “Sandwiched between some speculations on Democritus’ age and a rough draft of ‘The Coliseum’ in an uncatalogued folder of loose holograph sheets I came across a curious sketch, the significance of which was not immediately apparent. I turned the folder upside down and there it was: a page-sized phallus drawn with the all the attention to detail of a bog-door graffitist.”

Be that as it may, money to buy manuscripts is available in the UK; the Heritage Lottery Fund makes grants as does the Friends of the National Libraries who through its Philip Larkin Memorial Fund has spent £200,000 on buying modern literary materials. In Scotland, the Scottish Executive has helped out, chiefly that £8.3 million for the John Murray Archive. But the likes of Andrew Motion believe curators are still being hampered by regulations the Ameri-cans don’t face. While UK libraries debate whether they can or should acquire a collection, an American institution like the University of Texas can contact a benefactor. One cheque later the University has its papers and the benefactor gets a tax rebate, so the theory goes. One can quickly list the Americans’ other advantages: they realised swiftly the advantage of building and maintaining relationships with living authors; they tend to buy whole collections of papers rather than cherrypick them, which authors prefer; and bluntly, they just have more cash available, not only for acquisitions but for their rapid cataloguing post-sale.

Until recently, the Heritage Lottery Fund wouldn’t give grants for the purchase of papers less than two decades old. The rule has been relaxed to ten years. Amongst others, Motion (himself the beneficiary of a five figure sum from the British Library for his papers) argues this is still too long a period that gives the Americans a head start. I wonder though. Considering the no-marks and flash-in-the-pans that have excited attention only to demonstrate a lack of stamina, the ten year ruling sounds sensible – although Robin Smith insists “the number of dead-ends [she has bought]…has been small”. In his essay, Philip Larkin recommends a blanket approach, arguing it’s worth pursuing 99 duds if it means we capture the papers of one great new writer. That policy however is designed for an Eden of unlimited funds. Surely it’s more sensible to let time sift the great from the not-so-great. Their papers will cost obviously more by that time, but from not having wasted one’s cash on the proposed 99 clodhoppers, there should be cash available. And besides, there is no lack of older archives deserving of money first.

The Macclesfield Library provides a salutary lesson on what happens when money isn’t there to save a great collection. The first Earl of Macclesfield (1663-1749) built up an archive at Shirburn Castle of both medieval manuscripts and of then cutting edge scientific books, including Isaac Newton’s papers. Due to an unfortunate law suit, the estate had to be sold despite being, as Nicolas Barker described them, “the working tools of all the major figures in British science [of the period], many with their notes”. With no government money forthcoming the collection was broken up; the Macclesfield Psalter was refused HLF cash because it was “too small to be seen by a large public and made no appeal to Britain’s modern multi-ethnic society”. (The Macclesfield Psalter was secured eventually by the Fitzwilliam Museum with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.)

A happier fate awaited the John Murray Archive. Established by Edinburgh-born John Murray in 1768 and maintained by seven generations of the Murray family, the Archive contains manuscripts by authors published by John Murray as well as journals and over 150,000 letters. For bibliophiles, the list of authors whose names pepper the collection is eye-popping: Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Benjamin Dis-raeli, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, JM Barrie, Anthony Trollope, and Arthur Conan Doyle to name a few. There is also correspondence by scientists such as Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage, and Michael Faraday, and explorers like David Livingstone. Most famously the John Murray Archive incorporates the largest deposit of Byron material. The maintenance of the Archive over so many generations resembles a family penance for John Murray’s burning of Byron’s Memoirs after the mad, bad and dangerous Lord’s death.

Joan Winterkorn, an evaluator with Quar-itch the antiquarian booksellers, was hired by the NLS to evaluate the Murray Archive. “I give huge credit to the NLS because it would have been very easy to pull out once they realised the kind of money that would be involved, and I don’t think they had the slightest idea when they hired me that the final figure would be eight figures and that the first one wouldn’t be a 1,” she says. “But when I presented a report to the NLS on my findings and what sums they were looking at, they looked at each other and said let’s do this. It took courage knowing it would not be easy to find the funding that would be involved, but they recognised the impact this collection would have for the NLS would be huge.” Indeed. If Edinburgh was at all serious about being a World City of Literature, it needed this archive. The NLS’ possession of the John Murray Archive promoted it instantly to the research super-league.

Not that there wasn’t some carping. The charge that too much money was spent on the Archive wasn’t surprising; the person making the accusation, however, was: Professor John Sutherland. Writing in the TLS, he described the Archive, which he had never seen, as “a plumless pudding” and the Scottish connection as tenuous. “Chauvinism is essential to the forthcoming subscription campaign” he wrote, the irony being one suspects Sutherland’s pique rises from the Archive going to Edinburgh, not London. He stated also that the sum of money might force upwards the general price of papers to which one might reply – well, that’s capitalism for you. As a large part of the Archive covers material related to the running of the company and to its profitable travel books, which rivalled Baedeker, Sutherland declared it was of dubious literary or historical value, missing the point that business records bear the stamp of the country’s economic history while the travel books contain evidence of attitudes to the British Empire during the period. I mention this because it takes a sensitivity Sutherland lacks to fully appreciate what an archive contains, beyond the obvious boon of letters, journals and so on.

An example. One of the treasures of the NLS archive is its collection of Muriel Spark’s papers. As Robin Smith showed me the collection, she mentioned that at one point there was debate over whether to dispose of some of the less obviously literary items such as gas bills. However the fact that Dame Muriel had kept hold of and neatly organised ancient bills says something, I think, about her personality. There’s an obvious parallel between the scrupulous care she took over her own records and the manner in which she composed her novels. Compare her archive with, say, Gael Turnbull’s higgledypiggledy mash of papers (also at the NLS), and the point grows clearer.

The Murray papers are stored within the NLS archives which cover two floors of sunless corridors within the Library building itself. A steel fence separates the Murray Archive off, just in case you hadn’t got the point how important it was. Entering the NLS archives, the first image that comes to mind is the regrettably low culture one of the cavernous warehouse where alien artefacts were stored in The X-Files. And yet it is not an entirely vacuous image as here too is a true sense of mystery and possibility. Not least because the John Murray Archive, in common with many other acquisitions, isn’t fully catalogued yet. “This is why it is so exciting,” Win-terkorn comments. “There are around 450 boxes each containing something like 300 letters apiece. Mrs Murray always kept a record of researchers who had come to see the papers, noting what they had looked at. What was astonishing was to discover box after box of correspondence with no notes, and to realise that no scholar has seen this material before.” To echo Donald Rumsfeld, within the archive, there are known knowns, known unknowns and most excitingly, unknown unknowns just waiting to make some future biography glow. Recently, three unpublished novels were found in the late Robin Jenkin’s archive and these are now being looked at by Birlinn for possible publication.

Although the NLS archive contains all sorts of documents – photos, film scripts, sheets of music – unsurprisingly the largest intake is of literary papers. Fifty percent of Smith’s department’s budget goes on acquisitions; the other half on preservation and cataloguing. Although many manuscripts are donated (Iain Crichton Smith, for example, handed over Consider The Lilies gratis), Smith’s is the only department at the NLS regularly spending six figure sums. Given the money that can be made by selling manuscripts, it is unsurprising then that fewer and fewer authors are waiting until death before parting with their archives. Once viewed as a pension fund, it can now be seen as an alimony settlement or the kids’ education fund. “Selling their papers to us has sometimes been as important a source of funding for writers as the grants they were given by the Scottish Arts Council to enable them to do the writing in the first place,” Smith says. Smith tells me that agents are getting ever more involved in this process; indeed, flogging your manuscript is becoming as much a part of the modern writer’s tasks as going on a book tour. It’s not unusual now for a library to take possession of a manuscript before the book is published.

Another reason writers are attracted to selling their papers is that libraries are “a safe long-term option which will ensure free access to their papers” as Smith points out. Once papers are bought, some writers have acted as their own curators. At the NLS, Alas-dair Gray supervised his own collection, staying so long during the process that some staff members feared they might have ended up characters in his next book. There is also the ego boost of knowing your papers are considered important enough that the NLS wants to save them. Writers’ growing awareness of the importance of their files should be welcomed at least insofar that it wasn’t unusual for relatives of dead writers to bin their records, unaware of the gold mine they were disposing off. Maintaining a relationship with living authors then is becoming an ever more important skill for curators. Philip Larkin advocated taking extreme measures to hold secure papers; he recommended university libraries push for honorary degrees for writers if it helped close the deal.

Geography is a strong factor in where writers’ records land, with a local link of some sort favoured; Alasdair Gray, for example, donated the manuscript of Lanark to Glasgow University’s library. Authors often send in boxes of documents on spec, which a curator will evaluate on the basis of its future use to researchers and what prices the market has yielded for similar lots. The NLS’ criteria is based on the quality of archive and whether it has in some way a Scottish connection, which Smith admits can be defined in a very elastic manner. Finally, she asks, can we afford it? If the answer is yes, there then ensues a haggling process; if the price is too high for an outright purchase of a collection, the NLS has paid writers in instalments if they’re amenable. Very rarely does the NLS turn a writer down flat; often they’ll buy the bits that interest them. To turn away a complete archive, she says, it must be very boring. Judgement calls are made by Smith with her fellow curator Sally Harrower. The budget is open to public scrutiny though you have to make a Freedom Of Information request to see it.

What about accessibility? I ask. The public can of course go along to the NLS and request access to the various archives. Even so, there are areas off-limits. Robin Spark’s letters to his mother are off-limits until his death, and even then the permission of Dame Muriel’s literary executors is required. One might very well question what exactly the point is of using tax payers’ money to purchase documents that can’t even be looked at for up to two decades or so. Other legal pressures come into play. Where you have an author still alive or only recently dead, it is perfectly conceivable their records will contain references to living people. The Data Protection Act protects such people though at the same time, the Freedom Of Information Act grants other interested parties the right to look at sensitive documents. These conflicting laws have also scuppered moves to put onto the Internet in any serious way modern writers’ documents -though one also suspects that it’s hardly a priority, not when so much of the NLS archives remain uncatalogued to begin with.

The number of people involved in the trade tells a story in itself. Smith reckons there are no more than a dozen archive evaluators in the country and a similar number of full-time curators. There are no departments of publishing history, nor is there anywhere you can train to evaluate the value of manuscripts. Winterkorn, who comes from a library background, insists it’s a profession you can only learn by doing, while Smith says it’s not a job anyone imagines growing up to do.

Matters as they stand are moving forward though. Manuscripts are still slipping over the Atlantic but the latest generation of curators no longer, in the words of Larkin, “look like a convention of stable door-shutters”. A new group founded in 2005, the Group for Literary Archive and Manuscripts (or the unlikely acronym, GLAM) is compiling a database of who has what, one of the areas Larkin identified back in 1979 as holding back British libraries in their acquisitions. There’s also talk of ‘virtual reunification’; here, scanning and the Internet are brought into play to ‘re-unite’ the archives of writers split over different locations. Ironically, technology is coming to curators’ aid just at the moment it becomes apparent it could also damage the field. For writers are increasingly composing novels on computers. Where in the past writers went through numerous drafts, they can now constantly write and rewrite without any trace of the evolution their novel goes through. One can think it as a sort of ongoing cyber-bonfire.

Perhaps the threat is overstated. Or put it another way – computers are only making something explicit that has been taking place over a long time. The increased interest shown in writerly apparatus by scholars that began last century introduced a new note of self-consciousness in authors. Who knows what goodies were bucketed by authors only too aware an army of scholars was just waiting to tear into their effects and tell the world what they had found. One such writer was – irony of ironies – Philip Larkin. Not only did he censor his notebooks, famously he burnt his diaries before his death. Which, if you think about it, was Larkin’s greatest declaration of his faith in the power of literary archives.

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The King My Father

OF ALL THE FEARS that darkened my days, none was worse than the fear of my own father. Why I call him king I have no idea, but it’s clearly something to do with Hamlet. The king my father. He was more of the wicked uncle than the father, more of the cutpurse than the king, a usurper whose reign of terror I resented, an alien figure, ever absorbed by the culture that surrounded him, never woven into the fabric of my mother’s fishing upbringing.

Every Eden has its snake. And so let me bring mine out of the undergrowth, to supplant the beautiful Adam I longed for and never got, the intruding serpent who made my mother’s life a misery, and still haunts mine.

My father was born on 9 May 1919 in Mid-dlesborough, the son of Elizabeth Hicks, housewife, and Jack Rush, bricklayer, journeyman.

A small black-and-white snapshot falls out of the folder of documents along with the certificates of birth and marriage and death, and I can see now with a shock something of what produced me. My father has conveniently dated and inscribed it for me, ‘Dad and myself, 1937’, so I know I am looking at my eighteen-year-old father and my paternal grandfather standing at the open door of No. 24 Bank Street two years before the outbreak of war.

My grandfather Jack was a Lawrentian figure: out for the occasion in his stocking soles and braces and collarless shirt, metal sleeve-garters clamped around his upper arms. He’s a small man (I can see where my lack of height comes from) but his shoulders are like a bull’s. And there’s the belt he’d unbuckle to thrash his son. One hand is thrust in his pocket, the other is round my father’s less impressive shoulders. My father is not yet fully formed, though in two years he will be classed as able-bodied. He’s much more smartly dressed however, quite a dandy in fact. Wide striped trousers and waistcoat to match, and what looks like a nice silk tie, also striped. I can see the gleam on his shoes. He has taken trouble with himself for the photograph. His thick hair is full of waves, falling away from the period-style middle parting. Good pronounced eyebrows – I wish I had them. I have his nose, though, long enough and straight enough, and I’m grateful for that.

One thing is missing – the wedding ring that will be slipped on to his finger in 1944. And the smile of the proud father – he doesn’t know yet that I am waiting for him in the womb of time, to be delivered by Caeserian section from the belly of his Christina, whom he has not yet met. He’s probably never even heard of Fife, though he’ll have heard of Hitler. So the finger is ringless as yet. But I’m struck by the artistic quality of the hands. Perhaps that’s because he’s holding his prop to help conceal his teenage embarrassment that his father is gesturing apparent affection. The prop is a banjo – an instrument that will feature in this interlude, now that I have been visually reminded of it.

But it’s the faces that fascinate me in the end: my father’s is handsome, no doubt about that, and acutely uneasy. Why had he lost all that uncertainty by the time I knew him? Was it five years of war? Was that what brutalised him? Or had that been achieved already, by his father Jack? Jack too has good thick hair, but beneath it the battered face stands out like a relief map of the Himalayas (he once beat up two policemen, my father proudly told me, who’d come to tick him off for being drunk and disorderly), and though he’s probably fifty, he looks seventy. except for the black hair. The eyes too are black, black caves lost under bushy brows. The great gash of the mouth seems slack – but when I look closely, I can see that it’s pursed and firm and unforgiving.

Photographs are old emotional territories, maps of the past, charts of the heart. I lay the 1937 one of my father beside the one of my teenage mother, leaning against a now vanaihed iron gate. It was taken in the same year, though she’s two years younger, at sixteen. She too is innocent of what’s in store for her: a brief wartime romance, followed by marriage to a violent and venegeful drunkard. That’s why she smiles so sweetly, with unclouded eyes and wide grinning mouth. Outside No. 32 Gourlay Street, St Monans. Where ignorance is bliss.

My next photograph is of a wedding. It is February 1944, and my parents have met, courted and married. And somewhere along the way, to use that quaint old phrase, fallen in love.

So there’s the photograph, the visual accompaniment to the marriage certificate. It would have been a black-and-white photograph – except that the artistry I noticed in those banjo-toting hands was no illusion. The hands have tinted the wedding photograph delicately, allowing us to get close to the colours of the occasion. My father was skilled at this, and villagers would bring their family photos to him to be tinted, for a few shillings or perhaps a few bottles of beer. No amount of skill, however, can tint away the poverty, or colour in the absence of ceremony. It seems to have taken place in a guesthouse, not in the Congregational Church, though its minister, the Reverend Lodge, did the honours.

Six decades later I have a better understanding of my father, one of the millions of men who hadn’t gone to graveyards and to flowers, every one, but had gone to girls instead, surviving a five-year relationship with 32,000 tons of cold wet metal to enter a post-war period of much dreamed-of peace and plenty and to dig their hands deep into chronically empty pockets. But they were ripe for romance when they came up to the Scottish naval airbase of Crail, HMS Jackdaw, a few miles from my mother’s village and a few yards from where I live now, and met girls like my mother at the sixteen hops – girls who were equally entranced by the sudden disembarkation into their lives of shiploads of clean-shaven southern sailors. Can you wonder that they fell in love, in the way that people did in the forties? I used to thumb through those tinted photographs of my father, looking ridiculously lean and impossibly handsome, and saw at once why my mother had fallen for him, though I spent my childhood wishing she hand’t. But I’ve been busy unspending my childhood since it ended, and it has taken the death of my father and years of sweated prose to achieve this moment of – what can I call it – reconciliation? Not quite, but let’s say recognition.

My father is in a sailor’s uniform – which simply means he didn’t have to spend the money, which wasn’t there anyway, on a bridegroom’s outfit. The demob suit will come later. But his telephonist bride has no uniform to disguise the fact that she can’t afford a white wedding. Instead she does the best she can: a feathered forties hat, rather stylish actually, dark brown coat open to show the painfully thin pink dress, handbag and gloves found somewhere almost to match the coat, borrowed probably. If she’s wearing anything in blue, it’s not on show. And those shoes – too clumpy for her slender but shapely legs.God, she’s lovely! All slenderness and smile, a strawberry blonde, a beauty.

That night they take off all those wartime togs, my mother carefully removing the green leaf brooch pinned over her left breast, and suddenly he’s all over her. And a cold coming he must have had of it in the unheated accommodation in which I was conceived: rented rooms on a steep windy hill overlooking the harbour, a fishmonger across the street and a blacksmith next door. Once she told me she was a virgin till her wedding night, and urged on me the same restraint. I was off to be a student in the swinging sixties and I followed neither her precept nor her example, but her theory was that a man quickly loses respect for a woman who has submitted to him before marriage. An unfounded belief, but it reflected the starchier forties. What she didn’t know, on 25 February 1944, was how quickly her own matelot would lose respect for her, no matter how pure she’d kept herself.

Exactly nine months later (less two days) I was born, the punctual product of honeymoon passion. But well before then, the Emperor Hirohito had sent his greetings once again, and passion was put on hold until the end of the war.

That’s when the trouble started. The outbreak of peace spelt bad news at No. 16 Shore Road, where hostilities were waiting to happen. The sailor was home from the sea.

As soon as I could walk I used to join the cats in the gutting sheds before graduating to the fierier delights of the smiddy, watching the brief lives of sparks. Born in the forge, they flew out on the wind, where they died like bees in the street. Briefer still the stars struck by the hooves of the Clydesdales, clashing on the cobbled floors, the sound of iron on stone, mingling with the hooting boats, the screaming gulls.

My father soon realised that life in an east coast Scottish village was not the paradise he’d dreamed of, and he urged my mother to turn her back on her people and return with him to Middlesborough. It was asking the impossible. So the able-bodied seaman, who’d learned the art of signalling in the employment of His Majesty, settled for signalling of a different sort at the local railway station on the princely wage of two pounds ten shillings a week. Bricklaying in Bank Street or signalling in St Monans – there was little financial difference and not much else to do. He saw the trains in and out, and I saw myself as a two-year-old engine driver – till one day I was lifted on to the footplate, saw the red furnace roaring within, and looked straight in the mouth of Epp’s hell. Death by water seemed preferable and I returned to my first fancy, to be a fisherman.

But the earliest Christmas present I can remember was not a boat, it was a Hornby railway set. I can picture it nearly six decades later: the curved lines of the track that fitted together to form a circuit, the smart moss-green engine with pistons that actually operated the wheels, the tender, heaped with shining black plastic coal, and all the carriages with their doors and windows. It was beautifully made and doubtless expensive. A world of signalling and telephone operating had gone into its purchase. So it was a pity that I broke it on its first day. How was he to know that the son he had produced was destined to be useless with tools and a menace with his hands? Before the Hornby I had played with gas masks which looked, felt, and smelt mysterious. I took some stupefied and fleeting interest in the Hornby and then damaged it, not hugely or deliberately but through innate practical clumsiness. I was sitting on the floor at the time, holding in my hands two pieces that should have been one, when I looked up and saw a strange sight. My parents were dancing. No, they weren’t dancing, they were gently wrestling. Recollection has made sense of it. He’d made to strike me, and my mother, fiercely protective always, had intervened. grasping both his hands. I can see the sweet winning smile on her face as she looked up into his eyes, quietly pleading, and the reluctant smile on his as he submitted to her soft words and strokes, her face in his chest, so petite. She wooed him away from me and I was saved. He glared at me. “Next time you’re for it,” he seemed to say.

I didn’t have long to wait. As soon as I discovered language he discovered that his son, apart from being clumsy, was also a linguistic dunce who couldn’t pronounce the letter r – a malady common to two-year-olds. But in my case it was obviously a sign of stupidity or stubbornness, or it was just sheer laziness, the Scots, so he maintained, being slovenly in their speech through their innate indolence. They just couldn’t be bothered to get the pronunciation right. Later it was decreed by him that only English should be spoken at home, or anywhere else for that matter, and although I slipped into Scots in playground and street, and at my maternal grandparent’s house, it was always with my head turned over my shoulder, to ensure he wasn’t within earshot. Otherwise there would have been trouble. As a matter of fact he rarely visited my grandfather’s, but when he did I was struck dumb, unable to identify myself comfortably with either camp. Then I was accused of being a rude mumbler and told to speak up for God’s sake – “Or I’ll make you sing out, sonny boy, if I ’ave to clip you across the bleedin’ ‘head!”

Such was the noble English that rolled from his tongue. One day I unwisely pointed out that his omission of certain letters was not dissimilar to my own. I don’t suppose I argued a particularly cogent case, but I put my toddler’s point of view and was thrashed for bloody cheek.

Personal tidiness was another of his obsessions. A boy on the loose with other boys in the salt-and-tar environment of a working fishing village is not going to stay spotless. I was as physically adventurous as my friends and came home strained and torn. Each missing button, each scuff and snag were punished by clouts across the head, punctuating the tongue-lashings and the black looks. Complete bedragglement meant a belting.

“You come ’ome like that again if you bleedin’ dare!”

Even my injuries – bruised forehead, grazed elbows, skinned knees – were thrashing matters, whereas in grannie’s house they meant hot water and ointment applied with smiles and shakes of the head. Tender loving care had been left out of his vocabulary, perhaps as a result of his own experience of the father-and-son relationship. Not that I could have understood that at the time. I simply saw how other boys ran into their homes bleeding and begrimed. with never a hesitation or a tremble at the front door. I usually crept in the back.

Money – or the lack of it – lay at the gnawed heart of my father’s bitterness, and I suppose I symbolised the frustration of his hopes. He’d had five years of his youth ripped out of his life by the war, and had come up to Scot-land to settle for life as a railway worker. Not that there would have been any money in Middlesborough. The family he left behind could tell him that, and did. But it was natural and easy to blame the place he was stuck in, and to lash out at those who were nearest and most vulnerable. For some reason he had chosen not to be a fisherman, though his naval experience would have given him a good start. Possibly, like many wartime sailors, he was simply sick of the sea and had vowed never to leave the shore again. I don’t what was in his head, because he never told me. We never talked.

So here he was, a two-pound-a-week signalman with no prospects and a useless sort of son. Was this what victory amounted to? And those years of dodging torpedoes and dive-bombers – for what?

For some men, the love of a good woman is enough to banish discontent. But my father was a malcontent, and the good woman failed to satisfy him. My mother worked long shifts at the telephone exchange, also for a meagre wage, but somehow even their combined pittances couldn’t pay the rent and the bills and leave enough over to eat. Holidays were out of the question.

The other consoler of bitterness is the bottle – and this is what my father took to. But he who drains the bottle drains his pocket and his pride. And so the vicious cycle ran round us, closing tighter and tighter until it erupted in violence, violence that went beyond the level of the seemingly statutory thrashings, and embraced my mother too.

She was a thrifty and selfless soul who spent little on herself all the days of her life.

All her care and concern was for those around her, her mother, father, siblings, me -and even the man who abused her. Only once do I remember my gentle grandmother breaking out in black anger, when I was maybe seven.

“Look at you!” she addressed my father. “Waltzing in here all done up like a tailor’s dummy in your three-piece suit and your fancy tie! And your wife bare-legged and it bitter winter out there! Haven’t you got more need to go and buy her a pair of stockings and a decent pair of shoes!”

He walked out. And bought not a pair of shoes or nylons but a skinful of beer. When he came home that night, raging drunk, I could hear the slaps and shouts going on for so long, I got up and ran to the bedroom. She was cowering in a corner of the bed and he was over her with his arm raised.

“I’ll bleedin’ kill you! I will an’ all! I’ll bleedin’ swing for you!”

I believed him. In my terror I ran to the woodshed and came back with the axe. By the time I reached the bedroom he slipped in his stupor and was sprawled on all fours in front of the bed, his head lowered, as if for execution.

I lifted the axe and looked straight into the horrified eyes of my mother. She screamed and I dropped the axe. This roused him and he turned, reached up and seized me by the hair.

“You get back to your bleedin’ bed! And you get up again if you bleedin’ dare!”

Everything was bleeding – including my mother. That was the night that fear turned to hatred.

Extracted from HELLFIRE AND HERRING: A CHILDHOOD REMEMBERED published by Profile Books at £15.99

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The Union Unravelled

WITH THE APPROACH of the tercentenary of the Act of Union between Scot-land and England on 1st May 2007, a plethora of new publications on the topic are coming off the printing presses. Probably by accident rather than design, the anniversary is remarkably close to the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament. Given the current state of British politics, Gordon Brown’s promotion of ‘Britishness’ and the apparent growing reluctance if not hostility to a Scot holding the position of British Prime Minister in a post-devolution context, the Union is back on the agenda as a topic for discussion. It remains to be seen to what extent the historical context of the Union will be politicised by the parties campaigning in the 2007 elections. For nationalists the Union has remained the bête noire of Scottish history, whilst for ardent unionists it has been the symbol of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that allowed for the development of modern Scotland.

History is not written in isolation and it is in this context that a reappraisal of the circumstances leading to the 1707 Union is currently taking place among historians and political and cultural commentators. New books by Douglas Watt, Michael Fry and Chris Whatley form part of this reappraisal. Watt’s book focuses on the abortive Darien project of the late 17th century. Traditionally the failure of Darien has been regarded as one of the main economic motives on the Scottish side for union. It has also been regarded as a symbol of a failed dynastic union as well as representing English political and economic aggression towards Scot-land’s attempt, as an independent kingdom linked to England via a dynastic union, to establish a colonial empire. Along with Glen-coe it has often been regarded as one of the black marks against William of Orange as King of Scotland.

What we have with Watt’s book is a fundamental re-evaluation of the Darien project. For the first time we have a financial history of the Company of Scotland. Watt’s Edin-burgh PhD focused on the relationship between the Highland elite and the legal profession in Scotland c.1550-1700. Following the completion of his thesis, he worked as a financial analyst in the private sector. What we have here, therefore, are the opinions of a historian who became a financial analyst and who has worked in the world of Edinburgh finance. Watt uses his background to bring to life the history and the economics of the Company of Scotland, with particular relation to Darien.

This is a well-researched book. Watt can tell you the monthly debt repayments by subscribers, 1696-99, and the ratio of shareholders to population, tax and money supply.

Appendices provide details of the promoters of the 1695 act for the establishment of the Company of Scotland, the Company Court of Directors and their attendance data, a breakdown of shareholders (including women), institutional investors, and the cost of shipping and cargoes. Watt has used the archives of the Banks of Scotland and Eng-land, as well as the Royal Bank of Scotland. Important material in the National Archives of Scotland and the National Library of Scot-land has also been used. In terms of sources consulted, Watt has looked at a substantial amount of printed pamphlet material relating to the period. This is not a pedantic point. Often the writing of Scottish history has suffered from a ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’ mentality whereby modern day commentators write books based on a limited range of source material and the same secondary sources. Painstaking archive work and original research is required to drive forward our knowledge of the Scottish past. Reflection on the research conclusions of the new books on the Union is required.

Watt’s book can be regarded as the definitive work on the financial history of the Company of Scotland. The financing of the newly formed Company of Scotland initially was an Anglo-Scottish venture and was popular among English investors. The traditional perception of political sabotage on the part of vested political and economic interests in tandem with William as King of England is confirmed, indicating that the dynastic union was no longer working. The Company of Scotland and the Darien project was transformed from an economic and colonial venture to a symbol of national economic patriotism and a political issue for the opposition Country Party in the Scottish parliamentary sessions of 1698 to 1701. But this is not the whole story. Watt shows with devastating effectiveness the level of sheer financial mismanagement and poor and stupid strategic decisions on the part of the Company directors even before the ships for Darien set sail from Scotland. In the words of Watt, “The Company of Scotland was…an early example of a corporate cock-up on the grand scale.” Furthermore, “In the years from 1695 to 1707 the Scots experienced a painful journey from the idealism of independent empire to the realism of incorporating union”.

Michael Fry’s book, The Union, is of particular interest given his recent public statement of support for independence as the appropriate route for post-devolution Scot-land to take in the future. Devolution, Fry believes, is a flawed outcome. “The government of Scotland probably cannot and certainly will not deviate from the main lines of policy laid down in London. We have inherited a vast apparatus of state from the unionist past. It is all dressed up in tartan with nowhere to go. It wastes time and money on trivialities, on efforts at micro-management of personal lives. Deeper problems of the nation, of redefining its character and purpose are hardly even seen, let alone solved. We have done no more than contrive a revised version of the Union of the Crowns between 1603 and 1707 – which by any standards counts as the most wretched era of Scottish history.”

Fry’s book is an honest and fresh reassessment of the events and issues that lead to the 1707 Act of Union, but it is not “the first full definitive examination of the Treaty for forty years”, as claimed on the back cover. In this regard Fry is both culpable and unfortunate. The majority of books being published on the Union are the product of new and detailed archive research. Professor Chris Whatley’s The Scots And The Union falls into this category. Professor Allan Macinnes of Aberdeen University has completed a research monograph to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2007 while Edinburgh University Press is publishing a political biography of the Duke of Queens-berry by Collins McKay as well as a study of Scottish Presbyterians and the 1707 Union by Jeff Stephen. Popular protest and the Union will be the subject of a monograph by Karin Bowie of Glasgow University. The books by McKay and Stephen are based on doctoral theses. Hence we have the mixing of the established research scholar (Macinnes and Whatley) with the new researcher (MacKay, Stephen and Bowie). When the dust has settled next year, a new historiography of the Union will have emerged and Fry’s book is likely to be eclipsed by the conclusions in these research based monographs. Fry’s book does not have the research base and coverage that these books will have, although he has used collections in North America.

This does not necessarily mean that Fry’s book is a poor one. He offers a fresh reassessment and reinterpretation of events. Reinforced by quotations from contemporary sources, Fry demonstrates the flair of a professional journalist. In short, this is a damn good read. Fry’s flamboyant and controversial public persona is present in his prose and he doesn’t pull punches when comparing events of the early 18th century to the current crop of Holyrood politicians. Thus, the Parliament of 1703-1707 was “able”, but not “admirable”. According to Fry, many of the “best of Scotsmen” distinguished themselves in Parliament Hall. “A number of them left a mark on their country or even of their age, if perforce after 1707 outside that hall. This generation of Scottish public men would not be matched till the Liberals’ heyday before the First World War – and it still puts to shame the gruesome mediocrities that represented the nation for the rest of the twentieth century, not least in the restored Scottish Parliament of 1999”. Ouch.

Fry puts politics firmly back on the centre stage of the Union and he is right to reject the economic determinism of previous generations of historians who emphasised the primacy of economic issues in explaining the Union. Political personalities of the time are brought to life through his prose. Some emerge with greater integrity and their reputations intact, pro- and anti-unionists alike, more than others. Fry’s book emphasises several key points. In the harsh reality of the early modern world of politics, the Union achieved in 1707 was the best deal that was going to be offered from south of the border. In this respect, Fry echoes the opinions of pro-treaty contemporary commentators of the time. Yet, this was also the result of the actions of Scottish parliamentarians and their refusal to acknowledge the Hanoverian succession. What started from England as an insistence that the Scots acknowledge this succession resulted in a firm resolution that the only way to secure this objective was through an ‘entire’ union. Queen Anne agreed. Infighting and the desire of one political faction to outdo another gradually laid out a path for this to be achieved. Realistically, failure to acknowledge the Hanoverian succession would have resulted in a War of the British Succession, as part of a wider European conflict. Such a war would have resulted in a military conquest and the imposition of a forced union. Furthermore, the prospect of a Jacobite restoration was an unrealistic one.

From a different perspective, Fry argues that the major issues in the treaty negotiations were imposed by the English commissioners, but thereafter the Scottish side negotiated the best deal that they thought possible. Moreover, the final session of the last Scottish Parliament emerges with pragmatic integrity in the sense that it made successful amendments to the negotiated treaty which bolstered the defence of Scottish interests. Realpolitik was therefore exercised. Fry also clearly shows the divided nature of the opposition in the final session, whilst emphasising the discipline of the Court and its adherents (this has been emphasised in the work of other scholars). The pathetic figure of James Douglas, fourth Duke of Hamil-ton, emerges as the political patsy of the Union. Leader of the opposition and the darling of the Edinburgh anti-Union mob, his courage went when it was time to stand up and be counted for his country, as viewed from an opposition perspective. Hamilton still remains a dark and shadowy figure in the Union and it is probably about time that he was the subject of a political biography. Hamilton appears to have been playing a double game, but he did not cut the political mustard in the company of tougher Court politicians. Fry is also right to emphasise the fact Scottish Presbyterians and the Church of Scotland emerge as key winners of the Union.

A stronger claim for “the first full definitive examination of the Treaty of Union for 40 years” can be made for Chris Whatley’s book. The publication of this book marks an important historiographical development for a mature understanding and appreciation of the events and issues relating to the 1707 Union. It can now be regarded as the leading work on 1707 and it reduces P.W.J. Riley’s The Union of England and Scotland (1978) to antiquarianism. Our understanding of 1707 has been taken to a new level. In terms of the public spats between Whatley and Paul Hen-derson Scott, familiar to the Scottish history academic world and recently re-encouraged by the media, Whatley has gained the upper hand and perhaps delivered the knockout punch to Scott’s arguments for explaining the 1707 Union.

This is a well-researched book that owes much to the sterling work and archive based research of Derek Patrick, Professor Whatley’s research assistant on the project. It is a nice touch to see full acknowledgement given to Patrick’s contribution. Indeed, the research base for the book is impressive. It is strongly archive based and a lot of new evidence has been located, even within the usual archive bases and locations familiar to historians of Scotland. This is no ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’ book. It would be fair to say that Professor Whatley is probably the leading historian in Scotland whose work has previously argued that economic factors were the driving force behind Scottish parliamentarians acceptance of the Treaty of Union. But this work goes beyond his traditional domain in terms of the Union and a wider range of political, constitutional, dynastic, religious, military and cultural issues are considered. This is a mature and thoughtful book that deals with historiography and the arguments of other historians in a mature manner, often when he disagrees with them. An important emphasis is placed on evidence, as it should be, when dealing with those arguments.

With this book a strong and forceful case has been made for a historical rehabilitation of the reasons why the 1707 Union came about. But the book is more than a learned text on 1707. It should be regarded as a book on the ‘state of the nation’ in terms of where Scotland stood by the late 17th and early Eighteenth centuries. Whatley quite rightly argues that contemporaries of all political persuasions were profoundly aware that this was a critical juncture of the condition of Scotland and what the future of the country would be. In terms of the treaty itself, the traditional emphasis on bribery has been dismissed and the commissioners who negotiated the treaty have been rehabilitated in terms of the deal that they struck for their country. A case for their patriotism and pragmatism, as opposed to their treachery, has been made. Political factionalism, voting behaviour on the treaty and the activities, attitudes and careers of key individuals and institutions are addressed.

Chronologically the book covers the period from the 1603 Union of the Crowns before focusing in-depth on the later 17th century before proceeding to the treaty negotiations and the ratification of the treaty itself. Several wider themes of importance stand out within this chronological framework. First, it is strongly argued that there is a close link between the events of the Revolution of 1688-90 in Scotland and the 1707 Union. Thus, the securing of the 1707 Union marked the ideological victory, in terms of the key personalities involved, of a desire for a Union with England (and not a federal one) that was evident at the Glorious Revolution. This is something that historians will have to address, even if they disagree with the conclusions. Second, the sheer horror of the famine of the 1690s is brought to life and it may well be argued that this is indeed Scot-land’s forgotten famine. Third, a theme that is constantly emphasised and brought to life in the book, as evidenced in the sources, is the intensity of the divisions between Jacobites and supporters of the Glorious Revolution, Hanoverians and Presbyterians. Jacobitism does not represent Scottish identity in its totality. The lack of reality and unpopularity of a Catholic Jacobite Stuart restoration in Scotland is exposed, even when Jacobitism offered a vehicle for the expression of anti-Union sentiment in the 18th century. Inadvertently, Whatley makes a strong case for a recognition and rehabilitation of Lowland Presbyterianism and Presbyterians for Scot-land’s identity in the Union years and afterwards. This may well be a bitter pill for contemporary commentators to swallow and it is somewhat ironic that the year of the 300th anniversary of the Union is being marked and celebrated as the Year of the Highlands. Whatley’s book should be compulsory reading for all MSPs and media commentators, irrespective of their own political party allegiances and viewpoints, and for anyone who has an interest in Scottish history.

These three books will add colour, controversy and debate as we enter the tercentenary of the 1707 Union. The publication of books by Bowie, Macinnes, Mackay and Stephen will enhance the arguments further and one suspects that the monograph by Professor Macinnes will be a serious counterweight to the Whatley book. What is missing to date from this complex historical jigsaw is the full English historical perspective on these issues. 1707 appears to still be a sleeping issue as a historical event in English history. In common with the politics of the early 18th century, English political eyes have started to look north as Scotland and the Scots become a thorn in the side of the English body politic. That sleep may well be fully awoken should Gordon Brown become Prime Minister.

Douglas Watt
Luath Press, £25,
pp300 ISBN 1905222637

Michael Fry
Birlinn, £20
pp342 ISBN 1841585165

Christopher A.Whatley
Edinburgh University Press, £25
pp424 ISBN 100748616853

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Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Poems – Alexander Hutchison

S U O N A  P E R  T E

The bell strikes five from the tower of San Michele:

the seventeenth hour has slid away; a late September sun

has spilled along and off the south-faced wall, and soon this

beautiful, ravenous, vast city in the valley of the Po, its elegance

and industry, its desperate imprecations, the crowds that bay

and sway in the catafalque of San Siro, for Baggio, Shevchenko,

Zanzara, Volpone; intricate pinnacles and ladders of sound,

confections, conspiracies; minna di vergine on the pasticcio’s glass

counter shelf, somewhere with saffron risotto al salto, somewhere

a slit or truncheon, sirens and mayhem; all subtle, immediate

human exchanges – come va? come sta? or vaffanculo – matrons

encrusted in coral and amber, and anywhere, everywhere grace

of flesh and eyes and favour, ragazze with backpacks or Vuitton

or nothing; in a morning (God, less – take two stops on the metro)

perfection in appearance: innocent and wary, or down the stairs

in boots and hair, meretrix incarnate, blatant tits and vacant stare

(not this one), which even the dim or insensate must savour;

in the heart of the city, Stazione Centrale; O Santa Sofia, I’ve seen

your handmaidens, have worshipped abashed and chap-fallen;

dritto, sinistra, tenere la destra – what turn shall I take now? my soul

in the Duomo’s half-dark disconcerted, so I light a tall candle;

dove dovrei girare? alas the sad pigeons adrift in the piazza, alas for

the clapped-out green nag under Pepe Missori; O Lucifer, your

handiwork and artisans are legion, in CISCO and Squawk Box

and NYMEX, Komatsu; excepting, no question, the white flat-

topped sisters, or by Porta Romana in ‘the street of the orchards’

Piera’s trattoria (no nonsense, no menu, just stump up when she

asks you) – carpaccio, tortino, her gnocchetti verdi; O San Benedetto,

benedictions in return: each day, lips, tongue and throat slaked

by your watery benevolence; but all these, my brothers and sisters,

must founder: this night or next night we all will go under; if not

on the feast day of great San Michele, at four in the morning,

or in before lunchtime, or soon like the city in the hour that’s

just struck now; shuttered or shadowless, in the flatlands

of Lombardy, Milano, unparalleled, lies down in the dark.



It is an ideal occupation for children

on a wet afternoon

put them head to tail in an oven proof dish

and remove any pips

score as above or into little bars

do not roll for this also toughens

cover with foil with a weight on top

wrap the birds in the bacon rashers

melt the fat in a saucepan

turn over when little bubbles appear

whip the egg whites very stiff

then coat the other side

take out with a perforated spoon

add watercress, fried oatmeal or skirlie

when cut it is a soft pink butter

the gravy is served separately.



The last time I saw him

he was loath to take

his eyes off two frigorific

local fillies, pacing along

the Coogait – half way

between Bannister’s bar

and the mortuary gate.



(for Ian)



from shadow



and silver


no pounce-work

no grudge music


words are in

the breathing ground


this uncircum-

scribable air.



Of course there is an error

in the cleanness of the sea, and

for the landing of eggs outside the

compound something must be done.

Whereas tea and honey are merely

in decline, the lemon slice has

taken a holiday and may not return.


The wind in the chestnut trees

I assume has been taken for granted.

Conversely, firing of the jackhammer

at 7.15 occupied my full attention.


It is not that the women are not

wonderful – they are – but that

they are out of the question.

Elzbieta in particular has

legs that go nowhere.


What is the matter with the

butter on that dish? Is it possible

I will forget the mixing of cement

that followed my early re-awakening?


Agnieska could have been more

pleasant in a number of respects –

nevertheless, her lower lip has a

quality I do not discount: that is

as far as pinkness and durability

are concerned.


Can no one here fix a proper

time for appointments? The canal

is empty; the remaining ducks

are in a state of confusion.


As for myself, I would

take a tram. But number 6

runs away; whereas 13 and 12

come together, overcrowded with

unpleasant people. It is risible

what the taxi driver has suggested.

Well, nothing could be

further from the truth. I did try

the scrambling of egg; still the

marmalade was beyond my grasp.


What does Bo’zena think

she is up to? When she dances

it is plainly disconcerting.

Perhaps we should all sit down.


No it is not my turn.

I think after all there was

something funny about that slice

of sausage. Whatever unravelling

you had in mind will probably

now have to be postponed.


Disappointment is everywhere;

but when notice is short, displays

of pique are not unforeseen. Adjik

has gone off at a tangent once more.

What happened to his finger is no

longer our concern. I suspect the

biscuits have gone off with him too.


Unfold the map, and re-affix

the dog. Perhaps the jam will work.

I did spot some pickles and preserves

in the cupboard in the bathroom.


Port side is always best.

On the green part there is nothing

that will serve. If it comes to that,

take care to salute the quarterdeck

when piped on board. All hands take

great offence if this be neglected.



My friend, across the space

within this ancient hill-top town

everything gives breath to what

we wish or might aspire to.


Whatever the Volscians, whatever

those who built Cyclopic walls

before them felt, we feel.


Seeking beyond beauty or

ambition one at least to share

‘an unguarded joke’

fireflies at night.



Hospes et humus – guests

a little while then gone.



Broom, elder, lemon-flower

the fragrance of valerian.


All this in a loom of light

is shuttled back and forth.

Swifts and martins carve the air.

Each olive tree on every

slope is shaped to give its

tiny blue-green song of praise.



for GMB


Mist at midnight,

night-scented stock;


happily betrayed

in what we choose

to name or work:


in this case gilly-

flower cruciferous

in clove-scented air.


CARBON ATOM by Alexander Hutchison is published by Link-Light
(47 Camphill Avenue, Langside, Glasgow G41 3AX)

ISBN: 0-9554434-0-7

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Trivial Pursuits

HOME MAY BE where the heart is, but that organ could have been made of tin for all the interest historians have bestowed on it in the past. While battles, executions, dynastic feuds, political revolutions and the vagaries of the economy have been given devout consideration over the centuries, the locus of some of the most dramatic and important events in human life has been studiously ignored. Though the humble domestic dwelling witnessed – cumulatively – more violence and death than all but the worst battlefields and bombsites, and minutely reflected the impact of the country’s shifting financial and political fortunes, it has been as invisible to most of the historical fraternity as the thoughts and dreams of its frequently illiterate occupants.

In her introduction to Scotland’s Domestic Life, editor Susan Storrier reflects that “It may be that the patchy and oftentimes inadequate study of Scottish domestic life has been in part a reaction to notions of status. There is a long history of viewing the domestic arena as inferior to the public and dwellings have often been associated, correctly or not, with groups somehow regarded at times of being of lower status – women, children, older people, the unwell and the disabled. This home life may on occasion be considered a less prestigious focus of academic endeavour.”

Despite the notable examples of a handful of far-sighted social historians, starting with H G Graham, author of the ground-breaking The Social Life of Scotland in the 18th Century and, most recently, A Carruthers (who wrote The Scottish Home, which was the starting point for this present work), excavation of the domestic realm has remained for many a slightly feeble-minded enterprise, as if the universality of experience it represents automatically strips it of any mystery, fascination or intellectual stimulation.

A mere hour in the company of Scotland’s Domestic Life should not only dispel that thought, but send anyone with the slightest imagination or curiosity about their forebears to hunt down every other history on the subject available. Though it is magisterial in size, the book’s cover image is the first indication that what lies within is not dry, dreich or didactic, but entertaining. It shows a photograph, taken in Dundee around the middle of last century, of a father holding out a budgie on his wrist, while a chubby infant, held in the lap of her grandmother, reaches out to stroke it. That snapshot captures a crumb of 20th century social history, showing the working-class fondness for pets, especially those that didn’t demand too much room or money.

Scotland’s Domestic Life is only one in a 14-volume project, an awesome venture from the European Ethnological Research Centre. Earlier titles in the series include histories of Scotland’s education system, religion, buildings, and communities. The breadth of coverage is staggering, but in each of these, as in Scotland’s Domestic Life, the subject is broken down into short, digestible chapters, lavishly augmented by photographs, and written by experts who, keeping closely to their remit, offer an intensely instructional overview of their area.

What is immediately striking about this collection is that the most basic material or practical aspects of domestic life offer clues to the psychological meaning the home holds for its inmates. So, while Alexander Fenton discusses the methods of heating and lighting used over the centuries, or John Bur-nett examines the games and recreations pursued in leisure time, seemingly banal observations on fir candles or Trivial Pursuit can carry deeper insights. As Storrier writes, “dwellings and domestic life have profound importance beyond translation of the wider world…to study domestic life is to explore both the centre and the larger part of human experience.”

The picture thrown up by the 47 essays here is extraordinarily rich. Almost every subject could be expanded to book length. And those, like this reader, who prefer to read about the distant past will find themselves ineluctably drawn into discovering the allure of very recent history, as each chapter gallops from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. A small contemporary gem, for instance, is Hannah Avis’s study of young professional women living in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, who revealed their need for privacy in the one-bedroom flats they shared with their partners. Within the confines of restricted space, some managed to carve out personal zones for themselves, erecting invisible barriers around, say , a special chair or nook, where they could retreat to think and act in solitude. Though these women were living in comfortable accommodation that once would have been considered palatial for a mere two-some, space and solitude were still serious issues.

The feelings of cramped irritability these women confess to highlight the brutal standards of living that T C Smout describes in A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950, where he wrote of teeming one-end tenement living: “There was no privacy, no play space, no work space, no place to get out of the tensions of family life, to think, relax or sulk. There was not even space to die.” He quotes a horrified doctor of the time, who was on the sharp end of the high infant mortality rates in 19th century Glasgow: “Their little bodies are laid on a table or on a dresser so as to be somewhat out of the way of their brothers and sisters, who play and sleep and eat in their ghastly company.”

Although until recently the home was the domain where children were born (and too often died), where adults breathed their last, and where even today the majority of the women murdered in the world are despatched, usually by their partners, our attitude towards it, as Storrier writes, is tinged with nostalgia. This, she believes, reflects an innate tendency “towards maintaining comforting images of the domestic past”. Perhaps we like to imagine that home remains a sanctuary in contrast to the dangers and unpredictability of life beyond its doors. We prefer to associate the private hearth with the smell of newly baked bread rather than mould under the carpet, with raucous and happy family gatherings rather than wakes. It is a sentimental myth that has perhaps compounded the unwillingness to study the home with forensic rather than fond attention.

Not that the material in this book is predominantly disturbing or bleak. Nor does it set out to shock, though there is no escaping the conclusion, as the chapters unfurl, that life until recently has been at best harsh and troublesome for the vast majority; and even those who lived in rare comfort were as vulnerable to pain and fear as their less wealthy neighbours. In chapters on medicine or childbirth, for instance, the flimsy partition between life and death is dealt with matter of factly. Those who now opt for a home-birth probably cannot imagine the grime in which many children were once brought into the world. One midwife from the 1930s always carried newspaper with her “because it was cleaner than the sheets or whatever they had on the beds. There were these beds in the wall where they all slept and you had to turn father and all the children out whilst mother produced her thirteenth.” Yet even the cleanest of houses could still be deadly for a new-born, as on St Kilda where severed umbilical cords were commonly wiped with fulmar oil, thereby transmitting a potentially deadly infection.

One of the few areas well served by historians in the past has been food, yet in her chapter on this, Una A Robertson highlights the lack of knowledge about what children ate, especially those who were fed separately from their parents. The obvious answer may, of course, be that what was good for grownups was considered good enough for them. Certainly, Elizabeth of Rothiemurcus’s recollections of her father standing over her and her siblings with a whip in hand while they ate, suggests this may have been the case, but speculation is nothing compared to fact.

Home may have been an uncomfortable place for many by comparison with today’s standards, but for some it could be a haven. The son of a Jewish father recalls the relief he felt when Friday arrived, and his father came home from his week away, to oversee the Sabbath ritual: “We all ate together and there would be readings from the Jewish Bible. The tranquillity was bliss after a week of squabbling and shouting which sometimes got so bad that I wanted to pull a blanket over my head. On Friday evenings, even a slightly flippant comment by anyone would immediately be shushed by Father. I grew to love that atmosphere of calm.”

Among the more obviously painful areas analysed here is the chapter on Children’s Homes, some of which could have been lifted straight from Dickens. Home for those who ended up in orphanages, or the workhouse, was a memory. Many contemporaries were outraged by the conditions these abandoned children suffered: “children were degraded by hideous uniform, shuffling boots and prison-cropped hair. With overcrowding, vermin and skin disease spread like wildfire… No child had ever handled money; some had never eaten with a knife and fork. Workhouse children grew up permanently unfitted for normal life.”

The move to fostering rather than institutional care has eased the misery implicit in being separated from family, but in this traumatic area as with several others discussed here, it would be unreasonably optimistic to assume that all problems faced in earlier generations have by today been eradicated. Obvious examples include growing anxiety over the nation’s nutrition, despite the abundance of food available, the increase in feral children, and – more curiously – the rise of bed bugs, the scourge of previous eras, as pesticides lose their bite.

There are probably as many definitions of domesticity as there are latch keys, but Scot-land’s Domestic Life makes impressive inroads into the subject. Covering the physical, from building materials, furnishings and fittings to the overtly psychological, such as spirituality, hierarchy and security, it also addresses home in its more untypical forms – prisons, monasteries, even homelessness. Though I’d quibble over putting the chapter Living Alone under the section on ‘Less common types of household and home’, and found on occasion that the writer’s interest outstrips their perspective – as when David Jones in a discussion on storage tells us that many today don’t disburse rice or pasta into jars but keep them in the cupboard their packets – the quality and quantity of research and information this volume contains is dizzying and inspirational.

One of the most illuminating essays is that on Custom, by Gary J West, who explains the traditions households and communities uphold, from carrying the bride over the threshold, or taking a suicide’s corpse out by a window, to guising at Hallow’een. His conclusion could stand for the book, and this historical arena as a whole: “We have some way to go yet before our understanding of the full range of meaning we bestow upon our own homes is in any way complete.” On the evidence of these essays, however, the foundations and walls of the matter are already in place, even if the roof is still missing a few slates.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of The Herald

(Scottish life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology)
Ed. Susan Storrier
John Donald and NMS, £50
928pp, Isbn: 0 85976 649 7

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Prince of Profligacy

TO PARAPHRASE THE NAME of a classic Eighties band, in 2006 pop was still continually eating itself. Forty-somethings listened to the music blaring out of their daughters’ and sons’ PCs (or hissing out of the earbuds of their iPods), and felt strangely at home. The dance music sounded like synthpop; the rock music sounded like late post-punk. Rap and R’n’B stars were still sampling old soul riffs, bragging and warbling over the top of them: had anything really changed, artistically, since Eric B and Rakim got ‘paid in full’ in 1987?

Yet before the ennui of Gen-X’ers finally settled into cynicism, with children vowing never to talk to their ranting parents about music ever again, someone made a small but perfectly formed re-entry into last year’s mainstream – simply to remind you that some pop artists (as Brian Morton puts it with typical eloquence in Prince: Thief In The Temple, are just sui generis. These particular popsters don’t eat themselves; they provide endless food for the rest of pop to get fat on.

The man was Prince, and his single was ‘Black Sweat’. Not a great hit, numerically speaking, but it didn’t need to be. All we needed to see was that tiny, feline man, throwing shapes and squealing falsettos in his video as Amazonian women crowded round him, to a song that was like some scrambled re-transmission from space of the last fifty years of rhythm ’n’ blues. In a sound-scape dominated by beery boys and svengalified moppets, by sub-Whitneys (never mind sub-Arethas) and ersatz-Jaggers, it was literally an act of sanity to see and hear Prince again. How cool is that; how funky is that? Praise the Lord, and pass the diminution.

Yet as Morton notes, it is Prince’s sheer profligacy of talent – an endless, compulsive stream of music-making, the opposite of rock-star indolence, only occasionally surfacing in records or tours – which has been his undoing, both commercially and critically. ‘Black Sweat’ was like mountain dew in the desert because we hadn’t heard from him in a while. But there was a period in the mid-to-late Nineties where the man once described by Miles Davis as “the next Duke Ellington” (neither reference, of course, cutting much mustard with your average radio programmer) couldn’t get arrested, no matter how much work he pumped out. Worse, Prince seemed to have descended into cliché and repetition, as his self-established distance from the major record industry (appearing at awards ceremonies with the words ‘slave’ written on his cheek) stretched ever greater.

Unsurprisingly, given its polymathic author, Thief in the Temple gives a brilliant synthesizing account of the fundamental continuities of Prince’s art – whether a young doe-eyed jazz-funker in the doldrums of Minneapolis, or a world-straddling eroticised megastar, or the misunderstood genius seeking the limelight only on his terms. Morton convincingly explains the root of what always compelled me, as a musician and songwriter, to track Prince’s every move – his wilful yet awesomely skilled eclecticism. How was it that the classic Prince records – Purple Rain, Parade, Sign O’ The Times, Diamonds and Pearls – stretched so confidently across soul-funk and early rock ’n’ roll, plaintive balladry and electronic experimentalism? In my own music career, I’ve played or recorded at least five Prince songs – and to inhabit each is to
get a history lesson in popular music.

One strong determination seems to be familial: a largely absent father, John Nelson, who nevertheless – as a jazz composer in his own right – exerted a powerful force on young Prince Rogers Nelson (who was even named after his father’s jazz combo). Morton traces through Prince’s three thinly-veiled autobiographical movies, and sees (particularly in Purple Rain much anxiety of influence. Yet the complexity of Prince will out. Rather than use him as a defining polarity, Morton notes that the son collaborates with the father in what to my mind is the greatest Prince album, Parade, and unleashes an out-and-out jazziness in the rest of his records which confirms the stack-heeled one’s own estimation of his worth: “I can do what anyone does, but I got more music than they do.”.

Yet no great musician is an onlie begetter entirely: and Morton has been assiduous in mapping the various tribes and communities of musicians (apart from the symbolic father) who Prince has either marshalled in service, rivalled in virtuosity or (in the best Eliotian sense, of course) heartily stolen from. Strangely, there seem to be no major resentments, no significant lawsuits waiting to pull the purple rug from under the genius.

The wonder of YouTube, the now infamous video-clip sharing service, is that you can type in ‘Prince Live’, and see in only a few seconds what an incandescent talent he is. (The one where he’s sharing the stage with a stalking, be-wigged Miles Davis would put years onto your life, it’s so drop-dead cool). Any riff that Prince might adapt from any of your work would be mutated and funkified into something glorious that you’d only want to be a part of, not demarcate as your own property. As Morton puts it, he is a ‘thief in the temple’ of American popular music – and you couldn’t hope to be on the job with a more discriminating felon.

But part of Prince’s challenge, at least in his difficult later Nineties, was that he was never merely about music. Nelson George, the black music critic, has written often about the gap between the ‘soul’ generation, and the ‘hip-hop’ generation – the former organic, collective, shaped by the civil-rights movement and the gospel legacy, feeling itself part of a counter-culture that might build a new future; the latter fragmented, discontented, seeking to survive in the hostile environment of Reagan/Bushonomics (with Clinton only a faint respite) through criminality, macho sexism and stolen beats.

It’s so easy to see Prince as moving fluidly between these two eras of collective black consciousness. As Morton notes in a useful historical note, Minneapolis/St.Paul was one of the most racially quiescent conurbations in post-war America – few race riots, much sharing of social space between black and white. Prince’s instinct from the very beginning, even in the heart of his funkiness, was to employ on the basis of talent, not colour: “biracial” as Morton puts it. Yet Prince is still one of the most politicized of all black pop musicians – calling his bands ‘New Power Generation’ and his albums Emancipation or Sign O’ The Times. But it’s clear he’d rather attempt to create his social utopia through the crowded, multiracial, multisexual jamborees of his music and videos, than necessarily stand under any particular banner. (Although if you can find a more moving or direct anti-blood-for-oil song than 1991’s ‘Money Don’t Matter Tonight’, I’ll eat your purple shorts).

So on that side, he’s a soul man, through and through. However, from the Dirty Mind album onwards, Prince has also been open to the compensatory priapism that defines much black male popular culture – a response, as many black historians and sociologists have noted, to the conditions of discrimination and incarceration that still define far too much of the contemporary experience of African-Americans.

Yet even here, where he can be as pornographically-specific as any bechained gangsta rapper (and as Morton notes, he put much more time into his pneumatic girl group projects like Vanity 6 than he did with any other collaborators), Prince has always happily strayed into the ambiguous side of things. There’s still no more daringly strange piece of music than Sign O’ The Times’ ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, where a strangely helium-voiced Prince imagines the intimacies he’d share with his partner, if only he was her (we presume) lesbian lover. Prince’s most obvious current inspirees – Pharrell Williams and Out-kast – allow musical boundaries to blur like the master, but never sexual boundaries.

For all that Prince’s baroque sexuality eventually put him beyond the pale of most uptight rock critics (though now, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he seems well-behaved enough to be holding down a season at Vegas), I can’t help but see it as a sign of his authentic, open-souled genius. For some reason, I keep channelling William and Catherine Blake, practising voluntary nudism in a friend’s garden, when I look at his notorious Lovesexy album cover: a nude, airbrushed, elfin-bodied Prince, assailed by curving, helmeted stamens, resting on giant violet petals. Preposterous, vainglorious, surely vacuous dandyism – till you remember that the best cut from that album, ‘Alphabet Street’, is the most freewheeling, skid-starting piece of pop magic you’d ever hope to hear.

As a long-standing appreciator of the titans of the jazz canon – and a man who instinctively knows the truth of the Pharaoh Sanders’ axiom, “If jazz is the teacher, then funk is the preacher” – Morton is a relaxed but authoritative guide to the Prince aesthetic. Which is, more precisely, the Prince process. Because he raves un2 the joy fantastic. (And yes, didn’t u know he invented txt language 2?) If Prince stops, then we’re all in trouble.

Brian Morton
Canongate, £12.99
ISBN 1841958964

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