Monthly Archives: February 2010


Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Reviews

The Grudge – Scotland v England, 1990

Tom English

YELLOW JERSEY, £12.99 pp258, ISBN 9780224082761


17 March, 1990: Scotland v Eng-land at Murrayfield. “Us against them, boys,” said Jim Telfer, “it’s ours for the taking: the Calcutta Cup, the championship, the Triple Crown and the Slam”. “Nae worries, Jim,” said the Scotland hooker Kenny Milne, “we’re bound to win one of them”. It was a rare moment of humour in the run-up to what was arguably the most intense and emotion-charged international match in the long history of Scottish rugby.

For England and the English players, it was indeed only a rugby match, though a mighty important one. For many in the Scottish team it was only that too. They had their resentments, sparked by the assumption of the London Press and, they suspected, a number of the English players too, that Eng-land had only to turn up to win, a suspicion strengthened an hour before kick-off when they saw wives and girl-friends of the Eng-land team taking photographs of the players and each other on the pitch. English confidence was well-founded. They had been playing brilliantly and had destroyed Ireland, France and Wales in succession, scoring 11 tries in the process and looking better with every match. Scotland meanwhile had scraped victories in Dublin and Cardiff, and, though they had beaten France 21-0 their tries had been scored when France were down to 14 men.

But for many in Scotland it was much more than a rugby match. It was a feverish time. Nationalism was on the rise, the SNP boosted by Jim Sillars’ by-election in Govan. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and loathed by many Scots. It was the time of the Poll Tax. Anti-English feeling flourished, nastily, to the discomfort of many in the Scotland camp, Jim Telfer, and the captain, David Sole, among them. The atmosphere was intense, gripping or poisonous according to your opinion.

For many of us who were at Murrayfield that day, the politics were irrelevant – after all, the Murrayfield crowd probably included a higher percentage of Tory voters than you could find in most Scottish assemblies then. But they were passionate too. It was the belief that England had come north certain not only of victory but of a sweeping triumph that stoked the feeling.

Tom English has written a marvellous book, in its way as gripping as that season and the match itself. He is ideally placed to be its author, being not only the chief sports writer of Scotland On Sun-day, but an Irishman and therefore neutral, or sort of neutral; not only Irish, but a Limerick man and steeped in rugby.

It’s about more than rugby, and not only because of the political element. He offers a series of brilliant and revealing character sketches. As he says in the page of acknowledgements, the book “couldn‘t have been done without the support of the England team”, and chief among them their captain Will Carling and the hooker Brian Moore, who were, for many Scots, the chief villains: Carling as the epitome, it seemed, of English arrogance, Moore as the pitbull, hammer of all things Scottish. Both come out of his story very well, both more insecure and also generous than their image then. Incidentally relations between the pair were edgy at best.

On the Scottish side, Tom English has spent most time with Jim Telfer and John Jeffrey, and his portraits of them are brilliant. Some of the players remain enigmatic, notably David Sole. Though Sole stoked the atmosphere by his insistence that his team should follow him on to the field at a slow, martial walk (which incidentally most of the English players claim not to have been aware of until the huge roar with which the crowd greeted it alerted them), Sole, like Kenny Milne, was disturbed by the “anti-English feeling that went beyond a healthy sporting rivalry” – not only – perhaps even not at all – because, like two of his teammates, Paul Burnell and Damian Cronin, he was himself qualified to play for England as well as Scot-land.

English’s account of the buildup to the game is as riveting as his account of the extraordinary match itself. About it he gets everything right, concentrating on the series of scrums close to the Scottish try-line towards the end of the first half. Scotland was leading 6-4. England chose to take scrums and tap penalties when David Sole was penalised for collapsing the scrum, and there was the suspicion, which the book confirms, that the decision not to kick a goal was taken by Moore rather than Carling. Arrogance? Perhaps not. Nowadays a referee would almost certainly have awarded England a penalty try, and the New Zealand referee, David Bishop, might indeed have done so – if some of the English forwards hadn’t asked him to make that decision. Thereafter there was Tony Stanger’s try – perhaps the most famous in our rugby history (even if a video referee might have disallowed it – but, happily, there was no such person then) and Scott Hastings’ match-winning tackle on the flying Rory Underwood, and then defiance, defiance, defiance, till the final whistle and the moment of triumph.

If you were there, you will want to buy this book to bring the mood and match to life again. If you weren’t and were too young, buy it to know what it was like, for we will never see quite such a day again – for good reasons as well as bad. Finally, Carling and Moore had their revenge. Neither ever lost to Scotland again, and indeed we had to wait ten years for another victory over the Auld Enemy.

Waking up in Toytown

John Burnside

JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99 pp272, ISBN 9780224080736


“Not so long ago”, John Burnside’s seductive new memoir begins, “when I was still mad, I found myself in the strangest lunatic asylum that I had ever seen”. He goes on to describe the place in all its eeriness, his departure from it, and the nature of his ‘madness’.

It is gripping stuff, and madness is never more fascinating and even beautiful than when Burnside writes about it from the inside. I’d never heard of the condition known as apophenia, but it sounds like a special poet’s paranoia: it is the ability to view events and things as abnormally meaningful and connected. We could argue at this point that apophenia, aside from being a painful mental affliction, is also a requirement for being a great, wacky, visionary writer like Burnside – but let’s not get too tangled up in definitions of what ‘normal’ is. Already the protagonist-author is sufficiently tangled up in his struggle to escape his daemons and achieve normality in ‘the suburbs’. He soon finds out that the suburbs are far from normal, and some very seedy things are going on around him – for instance, one of his workmates is plotting the murder of his own wife. These are lives of quiet desperation, and we begin to sense that his struggle for normality is doomed, although “congenital mediocrity” may well strangle his soul in the process.

This epic inner struggle is the spiritual and philosophical heart of the story, and it is what gives this account of a troubled existence the unrelenting tension of a fine psychological thriller. Throw in Burnside’s sharp turn of phrase, hypnotic perceptions of inner and outer goings-on, and his trademark gift for creating an atmosphere of menace, and you begin to get an idea of just how compelling this book is. Here is his vision of what he calls, throughout the book, ‘the afterlife’ – a place perfectly and poetically pitched between this world and the other, memory and reality: “This, I think, is what troubles him, most, that person who used to be me: that the afterlife will be discontinued, along with everything else, and he will never see the light of a new morning, where the dead wait to welcome us like ushers at a wedding, guiding us to our appointed places as the organist takes his seat and the congregation falls silent for all eternity”.

The struggle to make the fractured self whole through intimacy with others gives the story its narrative drive, but also its powerful emotional charge. Here are exquisitely rendered stories of love and squalor where normality is neither possible nor wanted, because “love is an abandonment of order”, and we are never – and should never be – safe from chaos, Burn-side suggests, even when the price is unbearably high.

“Some miracles are purely personal and may be entirely imaginary, but they are miracles, nonetheless”, Burnside writes in his poignant stand-alone chapter on flying, but he may as well be writing of his love experiences. But something always comes to smash the magic moment, just as the boy’s childhood was broken by a violent father.

Although much of the material in this story of a man’s tormented twenties and thirties is shocking and extreme, for those familiar with his earlier memoir, A Lie About My Father, it won’t come as a complete surprise. Indeed, the book is haunted by the ghost of Burnside’s father. Towards the end, the protagonist looks in the mirror and sees his father: “his face in the glass, his predicament in mine, his ability to deceive himself in my ridiculous attempt to put on a normal face”. In another scene, he is at a party when he senses an invisible presence, and realises that he will never be rid of his own inner monster. And that ultimately, the inner monster is the other face of the inner child, that who we are is “a question of the soul, and the soul is murky and deep-rooted and wet…the dank mud where the lotus is anchored, the mud and the silty water and the spreading of the leaves and yes, the flower opening in to the light…not one good thing, not the higher thing, not the thing that can be cleansed or perfected”.

This is a psychological masterpiece and, yes, a triumph of apophenia and poetry over Home and Garden. In the end, the man who failed to deaden his daemons sufficiently in order to disappear into ‘the suburbs’, succeeds in keeping alive in himself that tragic and loveable boy with the dirty face of an angel who, “no matter how graceless and painful” his falls were, continued to believe “that willed flight was possible”.

Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland’s Twentieth Century

Catriona M. M. Macdonald

JOHN DONALD, £20.00 pp427, ISBN 1906566089


Detailed, door-stopping modern histories are very much in vogue. Messrs Kynaston, Hennessy, Marr and Harrison have already devoted several volumes to twentieth-century British history, with more in the pipeline. Their treatment of Scotland varies, so there has been a historical gap in the market.

Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland’s Twentieth Century by the Glasgow Caledonian historian Catriona Macdonald ably fills this gap. Although Richard Finlay’s fine Modern Scotland (2005) covered similar ground, and IGC Hutchin-son’s excellent Scottish Politics In The Twentieth Century dealt with one particular facet, neither matches this new volume in terms of scope or insight.

Macdonald departs from Kynas-ton et al by rejecting a chronological narrative (“a straightforward biography of Scotland”), instead treating the century thematically and breaking it into “economic, social, political and cultural fragments”. In doing so the author is aware that history does not fall into neat paragraphs, nor does a focus on the ‘big picture’ necessarily tell the whole story.

The strength of the Kynaston approach to bridging the gap between high politics and the humble lives of the governed comes through his use of sources, a subtle combination of political diaries and the (often as eloquent) written thoughts of normal Britons. Macdonald utilises a similar approach, drawing on an impressive range of Scottish sources.

It is also extremely well written, unusually so for an academic historian, not to mention admirably detached, judicious and fairminded, avoiding the sort of biased judgement that afflicts other accounts of modern Scot-land. Describing twentieth-century attempts at isolating “expressly Scottish social characteristics” to contrast with English “ways”, Macdonald correctly notes that it “is dangerous territory for the historian”.

Likewise, “the creation of contemporaneous, historic and futuristic ‘others’ against which Scotland could be defined too often took place in the realm of caricature and, as a result, engendered prejudices in the present, myths of the past and alternating unrealistic hopes and fears regarding what lay ahead. It is the historian’s job to try to avoid these pitfalls”.

Not only does Macdonald avoid them, she brings much-needed perspective to some prevailing themes of twentieth-century Scottish history. Her treatment of industrial growth and decline is a case in point. If the majority of Scots were “too apt to see nationalisation as a panacea for their ills, rather than the quack remedy it so often turned out to be”, equally that did not mean that “privatisation…was necessarily the best way out”.

The author is also perceptive on political themes, observing that “some of the roots of devolution were grounded in the same defensive self-interests that had generated and perpetuated the very office home rule sought to refashion”, while avoiding the Thatcher-baiting so beloved by modern Scottish historians (“creating political scapegoats is too easy”). “Perhaps the real tragedy of the recession of the 1980s”, writes Macdonald, “was that history had already given Scotland plenty of warnings of its arrival and many had seen it coming for decades”.

That said, Macdonald’s good sense deserts her for a page or two when dealing with the dreaded Tories. The party’s pre-Thatcherite commitment to devolution was hardly “short-lived”; it lasted eight years until Alick Buchanan-Smith resigned in 1976 (an event which goes unmentioned) and technically for another three years after that.

Finally, if Thatcherism made Conservatives “in the north nigh on un-electable” where did that leave the Liberals and SNP in 1987, when both parties polled fewer votes than the Tories? “It will take time for those years to be accommodated in a sympathetic rendering of Unionism,” concludes Macdonald. As someone who has attempted such a rendering, I know what she means.

Some other minor quibbles: the Monopolies and Mergers Commission did not report in 1979 on the proposed merger of Standard Chartered, the HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland (it was 1982), while the Earl of Home never had the privilege of being Secretary of State for Scotland in 1953 (he was actually Minister of State).

The only other thing that jars is the title. Extracted from Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, it suggests some volatile South American state rather than the stateless nation that was Scotland in the twentieth century. But one should not judge a book by its title, especially one as rich and rewarding as this.

Miss Thing

Nora Chassler

TWO RAVENS, £9.99 pp256, ISBN 9781906120467


Andromeda van Zandt is a thin, impossibly beautiful sixteen-year-old, in thrall to her own glamorous tragedy. Her mother, a feminist theorist and professor of film studies at New York University, has just hurled herself from the eleventh-storey window of their apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Andromeda copes with her mother’s suicide through a cocktail of drink, drugs and shoplifting, plus the odd injection of Kafka and Heidegger. Her maternal granny, who has purple hair and a busy sex life, has moved into the apartment in loco parentis, but soon makes family life even more dysfunctional. Meanwhile, through a window across the internal courtyard of the same building, Andromeda observes thirty-something Sam Taylor, whose marriage to the rapacious Lara is in freefall and whose writing career seems to be running on empty. A strange relationship – a mixture of magnetism and repulsion – develops between Sam and the orphaned teenager.

Events unfold in the months leading up to September 11 and are served up in a series of bite-sized portions, mainly first person journal entries by Andromeda and Sam. From the ‘Author’s Preface’, however, we learn that the controlling narrator is Frederico Esco-bar, an alcoholic Puerto Rican who wrote the story “from various points of view” when he was “in rehab for the zillionth time” – a detail that might explain the similarity between the individual voices.

Escobar’s unreliable narration is supplemented by a curious medley of documents – lawyers’ letters, restaurant receipts, pages torn from a Filofax, pharmacy prescriptions, greetings cards – and each small section has a top-heavy explanatory heading in bold. For example: “From Escobar to Rob, sociopathically written across both sides of a Hallmark card with a picture of two Labrador puppies on the front”; or “Granny, on a brown paper bag, left with Lew’s doorman on Bleecker Street”. This becomes irritating as well as a distracting, along with other tricksy devices, such as alrightnik Ameri-can references to consumer durables, experimental typography, weird spellings and spasmodic outbursts of UPPER CASE. (“I hadn’t noticed that the protagonist in The Judgement, uh, KILLS HIMSELF at the end. Plus, I like, REALLY LIKED IT. I read it THREE FUCKING TIMES”.) There are also signifiers and symbols aplenty, many of which will be lost on readers.

Hidden away in this rather solipsistic, bleak chic, post-modern tangle is the stiff misery of a young girl’s love and grief for her dead mother. The pitiful picture of Andromeda hugging her skinny knees are reminiscent of the infamous ‘monkey love experiments’ in which monkeys, deprived of their mother, cling to thin wire replicas. The neuroses and prejudices of Andromeda’s mother are also well-evoked: she was the hip, unhappy theorist whose nihilism became a kind of clinicised self-hatred. And there are amusing set pieces, between the social worker and the granny, for example, and again when Sam starts work at Barnes & Noble. But generally the funniness is less ha-ha than peculiar. And while Andromeda seems plausibly sixteen, Sam does not seem plausibly anything. He comes across as a smugly bitter, hating kind of person, yet the novel does not seem to know this and appears smitten by him.

Perhaps the biggest barrier for the reader is the narrative style, to which everything, including the vaguest sense of anything mattering on a human level, is made subservient. Chassler has no doubt tried hard to forge a genuine way of speaking for the knowing, lost little girl and her maladjusted cohorts, but there is something dispiriting and unrelieved about listening to these homogenised, foul-tongued voices. Language that is limited-by-experience can be very moving, but this sort of talk, limited-by-choice and beaten to a mush, fails to engage or create anything beyond itself.

From an obituary copied from the New York Times we learn that Andromeda’s mother dismissed her seminal work as “a bloated spoof”. If only Miss Thing were also a spoof; alas, it comes across as a tight-lipped sneer at the world. The blurb issues a health warning for unsuspecting readers: “an anti-novel that’s a foil for love stories and the facile definitions they peddle”– a bold declaration perhaps, but one that can easily backfire. By the end I regret to say I was longing for the graces and conventions of the traditional novel, and some readers might even have settled for a love story, facile or not.

Ties That Bind – Boys’ Schools  Of Edinburgh

Alasdair Roberts

SAVAGE, £19.50 pp223 ISBN 978904246299


Alasdair Roberts is the author of Crème de la Crème – Girls’ Schools Of Edinburgh whose title proclaimed a sensible strategy: twentieth-century female education in Edinburgh is naturally overshadowed by its impact on first-class literature, Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, a classic future students will find it an indispensable guide. Crème de la Crème dealt ably with what elite schoolgirls read as well as what they did, including humbler Edin-burgh authors of education-centred fiction such as Ethel Talbot and whoever wrote ‘The Four Marys’ for Bunty, and its subject in general stayed aglow from its Spark.

A sequel for boys has less chance. Neither Scott not Steven-son were precursors of Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, and other literary opportunities are neglected by Roberts, including Bruce Marshall’s hard-hitting George Brown’s Schooldays (Mar-shall, schooled at Edinburgh Academy and Glenalmond, made more use of the latter, but both feature here). Marshall’s themes such as homosexuality and attempted suicide prompt uneasy questions, and perhaps Ties That Bind is content to be an amusing exercise in comparative nostalgia valuably as well as volubly illustrated, the bland leading the bland.

Yet the book has its heroic moments such as Fettes’s first headmaster dictating his last words to his Head Boy to be read to the next school assembly, or Walter Scott’s headmaster at the Royal High dying in the classroom with the words, “But it grows dark, boys – you may go, we must put off the rest till tomorrow”. Edinburgh’s Chips knew how to say goodbye.

Naturally, for all of its undoubted charm, Ties That Bind makes us wonder how far the male crèameries constipated Scottish society, with their hunger for Oxbridge places rather than Scottish universities, their neglect of Scottish history and literature, their appointments of Anglicizers (which in the mid-twentieth-century George Watson’s took the form of an insistence on short trousers). The obvious result was an Edinburgh-born Tony Blair whose Scottishness had been so ably obliterated by his Fettes education that his critics never taunted him with Jockery, unlike his more straightforward successor. Scotched by the media from the first.

The answer lies in a book ironically also entitled Crème de la Crème (Canongate, 2001), edited by Gordon Jarvie and Cameron Wyllie, embodying creative writing from Scottish schoolchildren. Wyl-lie, a schoolmaster who would infect any school with his enthusiasm, boasted five successful entries from his own Heriot’s, but they were equalled by five from the non-elite Broughton. Stewart’s Melville college had its own creative writing competition in recent years, with outstanding results. These date since co-education was introduced at both colleges, and while Roberts has no problem conjuring exhilarating rugby triumphs, he would have found it more difficult to rescue schoolboy rather than schoolgirl authors from oblivion, as comparisons of Edinburgh school magazines show. Co-education can enable the girls to civilise the boys.

But the last laugh is at my expense. Roberts slightly conceals his own graduation from one of the elite schools under his affectionate if not uncritical scrutiny, and so we do not know which to blame for his appalling habit of inserting fascinating quotations without indication of their author. Could it be from where Mr Blair learned his cavalier regard for the provenance of dossiers? Unfortunately for me, Roberts does acknowledge his pupillage in History at the University of Edin-burgh. Would darkest Oxbridge have been more successful in training him to cite sources and list bibliography? Who can say, any more than we can judge whether it made Edinburgh’s more expensive school products less or more Scottish? After all, some of the strongest educational effects are achieved by irritating the students into rebellion.

Naming the Bones

Louise Welsh

CANONGATE, £12.99 pp389 ISBN 9781847672551


The name LOUISE WELSH only just fits on to the proof cover of her newly published novel, her fourth, so large is it writ. The title cowers beneath, down near the bottom, supplied almost like an afterthought. Yes, the author has been branded!

Her admirers will swoop, knowing what to expect. But they’ll find that the familiar elements have been distilled and refined to an even purer essence of Louise Welsh-ness: gripping story, shrewd characterisation, humour, eroticism, the macabre, a spattering of gore. The narration is even better paced than previously.

This is, I suppose, a literary thriller: I mean, a thriller about literary types. The main character is Murray Watson, a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Glasgow. Ever since making a find in a second-hand book shop in his mid-teens, Watson has been intrigued by the life and mysterious early death of a poet and Uni drop-out called Archie Lunan. He takes a sabbatical to research the entity behind the photograph on that original Seventies tangerine-coloured book jacket – “a Rasputin face”, “a thin man with shadows for eyes”. After drowning in drink among the soaks of Glasgow academia, Lunan ended his time on earth drowning in a stormy sea off the Argyll coast.

Archie Lunan represents the Scots psyche in one sense: not Jekyll and Hyde, but – as the National Library’s (fictional) head book finder explains – he had “two sides to him, the Glaswegian who wasn’t going to take any shit and the mystical islander”. (“Neither of them”, the book finder warns, “was a perfect fit”.) Extra-curricular Departmental duties dispensed with (coitus with the professor’s nubile wife on top of a desk, not interrupted but unfortunately spied upon by a stranger at the door), Watson goes off to garner what information he can from Lunan’s papers. Those documents aren’t very revealing, however. Watson is in two minds himself: should he even continue? The sex business is preying on his mind too – it will have ramifications much later on. Might it be that Lunan “was probably as big an arsehole as [the book finder] was implying”? He has to distinguish between the man and his creation, Moontide, one of the most remarkable and most neglected collections of poetry ever to come out of this country, we’re told.

Armed with a Moleskine notebook, Watson investigates. Trawling a largely rain-sodden God-damned Scotland, he stumbles upon some true horrors – jealous fellow West End “pish-poets”, crazed muses, existentialist-junkies, black arts fiends, plus all manner of murky goings-on in the bothies and abandoned limekilns of an island – Lis-more – which smiles for the camera on the tourist websites (take a look) but sounds a truly hellish place in this book. Perhaps only Oban fares worse, in a hilarious guide to its delights – “armpit of the universe”, indeed.

This also proves a journey of self-discovery for the scholar. Admitting to a predisposition to misery, ever since early childhood, he also has to work out his own relationship with his painter brother Jack (cue an enjoyable satire of the Edin-burgh art scene) and – ever present on a video installation in the Fruit-market Gallery – the towering shade of his father, who died in a care home being cared for others and not by his sons. Watson glimpses alternative lives he might have had (a very Scottish trait too). But it’s Lunan’s troubled history which possesses his researcher, claiming him. Watson feels he’s changing, in ways he hadn’t foreseen; if he could, he surely wouldn’t have continued. Also changing is Watson’s notion of what Archie Lunan represented – even befuddled by drink and wracked by drugs, Lunan surely blossomed into innocence. Lunan for all his excesses, as even his chief rival in the poetry stakes finally admits, had no edge to him, no sense of suspicion. Lunan trusting nature proved fatal to him.

A literary opus because of its subject matter, but there are no hey-look-at-me histrionics from our author. Just some spot-on droll asides: startled sheep “like fat ladies running downhill in high heels”, a gossip magazine’s “photographs of celebrities shopping on sunlit streets, large black shades and pained expressions”. Welsh is too intent on telling her story, handling the different strands with the deft assurance of someone who might be writing her fourteenth rather than her fourth book. It takes great confidence to insert into the accumulating grand guignol some very funny moments (best not to repeat the judgement on Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen): these moments manage to wrong-foot us and leave us unprepared for the next gothic shocker.

It was only after I had read to the end, faster and faster, fingers itching to turn the pages, that I realised here was a book focussed on a man that had been written by a woman, but so cleverly that it seemed to be Murray Watson telling his own story without anyone’s assistance. That’s another kind of sorcery, the Louise Welsh sort, which will capture your imagination and wall you up alive inside its 389 pages.

Impaled Upon A Thistle – Scotland since 1880

Ewen A. Cameron

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £22.99 pp448 ISBN 9780748613151


Presentism is in all things and in every way a curse on the historian of contemporary Scotland. The headlines of what is left of our national press; the policy priorities of our governments; the stylistic motifs of our literary makars and the fashions of our current celebrities all appear to dictate which themes from the past win the contest of longevity. It is tempting to think we know how the story ends, how it resolves itself in ‘now’. A simple approach would be to let these current obsessions establish our historical priorities, hallmark what is relevant, and offer us obvious endings. But it’s a trap, and one that this history successfully avoids … just.

With memory as our guide in life, it’s all too easy to rely upon it when it comes to history, and to read the story of the twentieth century backwards. Unlike historians of other periods of our nation’s past, it is a challenge for the contemporary historian to be open to multiple endings, to claim the wonder of what comes next. In a media blighted age, we are apt to think that we know it all.

To achieve distance and detachment, a number of approaches can be adopted, although none are fool-proof. Yet the choicesa contemporary historian makes in seeking to historicise a time-period claimed by memory as much as chronicle, are telling.

Dr Ewen Cameron has adopted a chronological approach to these temporal dilemmas in his book, Impaled Upon A Thistle – Scotland Since 1880. Having divided the period into two parts lying either side of 1945, individual chapters address shorter time-periods, making periodisation more manageable. In doing so he sketches in exacting detail an unfolding story of national development, and leads us through watersheds, continuities and turning points. He is a marvellous and masterly guide. This book is one of the most factually rich accounts of Scotland’s most recent history one could hope for, and is a valuable addition to existing work in this area.

Impaled Upon A Thistle is the final volume in the New Edinburgh History of Scotland series, the explicit purpose of which can be gleaned in the General Editor’s Preface: “Chronology is fundamental to understanding change over time and Scotland’s political development will provide the backbone of the narrative and the focus on analysis and explanation”. Cameron’s work is very much in keeping with the sense and spirit of the series. Therein lies its strength and also my slight reservations.

Politics take up roughly two hundred pages out of 372, and within the political chapters (encompassing seven out of fourteen) other themes – religion, health-care, and housing, for example – are at times addressed only insofar as they relate to the political priorities of particular periods rather than as themes of import in their own right. This priority given to political machinations in a nation which until recently did not boast a legislature is frustrating, particularly since some of the most compelling historical accounts of twentieth-century Scotland have eschewed elite narratives and traditional approaches. Over the years poor turn-outs at elections, and low political party memberships have also conspired to offer scant reassurance that politics – even in its widest sense – necessarily mirrors the will of the nation, or at least the bulk of its citizens.

Particularly in the twentieth century Scotland was an entity contested, imagined and real; its people singularly and collectively sang in various accents and were seldom in tune, and the land itself changed over time, and was understood in so many different ways that to privilege one voice in the search of a storyline risks being the chronicler’s accessory, conspiring in the myth that all that was known can be narrativised in the very singular expressions of a political elite or in the heightened moments of electoral battles.

Yet, we must accept that Dr Cameron was working within the confines of an editorial ‘brief’ that was perhaps more in keeping with the evidential base and approaches of earlier historical periods and address the book on these terms. When we do, it is clear that this book effectively distils the insights of generations of scholars from a vast range of disciplines, and integrates them sensitively with gleanings from an impressive array of archival collections. Dr Cameron’s mastery of the literature is impressive and the book’s bibliography is itself a most useful source for scholars of this period.

Dr Cameron appears most comfortable in the first half of the century, in particular the inter-war years. In these early chapters the pace of the book is engaging, the range of archival references most enlightening, and the blending of sources is at its most accomplished. This being the case, it is disappointing that so much space is devoted to the politics of the last forty years (three chapters), where the merits of this historical treatment – as opposed to a political science critique – are less convincing. One especially fears that the use of the present tense in the last chapter may make aspects of this work a hostage to the fortunes of the future. Having carefully sidestepped the deepest pit-falls of presentism to this point, it is here that Impaled Upon A Thistle  comes dangerously close to foreclosing on the multiple outcomes of the past.

The rich factual content of this work will, however, ensure its longevity on our bookshelves. Good scholarship never goes out of fashion. Should Dr Cameron be given an opportunity to revise this text for a future edition, however, I would encourage him to allow his prose more space to breathe, to write a final concluding chapter reflecting on the big questions that shaped what is a lengthy time period, and to foreground his analysis of key themes. (At present, analysis is at times somewhat overwhelmed by the strong evidence base.) By then, perhaps, the ending might also look a bit different.

Tuscany – A History

Alistair Moffat

BIRLINN, £17.99 pp269, ISBN 978841588315


In Alistair Moffat’s last book, The Wall, he wrote about Italian culture’s most significant presence in Scottish life down through the ages. No, not ice cream and chips. Hadrian’s Wall. As he revealed, the Wall was negligible as a military defence. It was intended as a border marker, and as such it has been remarkably successful over the centuries, transcending mere bricks and mortar to become the separating line mentally as well as physically between the English and their wilder neighbours to the north.

The Italians of course knew all about competing regions. Indeed, the bloody squabbles between English and Scots don’t quite pale but are put in their place by comparison with  the Italians’ extraordinary fissiparousness. And thank goodness for that, one might add. The Renaissance was one consequence of the intense rivalry between Tuscany’s city-states. Tuscany itself takes its name from its lost-in-time founder-people, the Etruscans, an early European civilisation thought to have played a part in the founding of Rome. Certainly, as the latest evidence collected in Moffat’s history of the region affirms, the Etruscans gave the Romans the alphabet. You could say, by way of their all-conquering neighbours to the south, the Etruscans gave writing to the world. Just who the Etruscans were themselves is not yet settled. Scientists who have studied Tuscan DNA say it is different from that of the rest of Italy. Although the Etruscans are known as traders and craftsmen, perhaps they are descended from ‘the Sea Peoples’, seafaring raiders who settled in the area. It wouldn’t be the first time in Italian history a crook has over time assumed respectability.

Nor were the Etruscans the last visitors to fall in love with Tuscany and want to stay as long as possible. Refugees from rainy-day Britain have fallen for Tuscany for centuries now; Moffat himself, who owns a residence in the glorious hill-top town of Pitilgiano, is a member of that particular club. For a long time, the Italian for ‘foreigners’, first used in the 1830s, was gli inglesi – the English. It wasn’t just the weather, it was the food, it was the art, and it was the less tightly bound morality too. Homosexuality, for example, was tolerated in Florence, despite the threat of bloodcurdling punishments. ‘Ein Florenzer’ in German slang meant a gay man, so synonymous did the city become with the practice.

This ease Tuscans feel circumnavigating past moral codes is something of a double-edged sword, literally as the many bloody occasions chronicled by Moffat shows. Tuscany was a region where even holy men might involve themselves in a lethal plot. One of the book’s more colourful passages describes the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici, a member as his names suggests of Florence’s powerful and history-changing clan. A power-play involving the Medicis and a rival banking family, the Pazzis, led to the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici within the Duomo of Florence in 1478. The plot was encouraged by the archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati, and for his part, he was hung by a Medici-friendly lynch mob in the aftermath of the ultimately failed plot. An entirely fitting, in its way, grace note: Giuliano’s illigitimate son grew up to be Pope Clement VII.

The achievements of the Medicis, the ultimate Tuscans arguably, are well known. Suffice it to say that their innovations in banking and accounting, as well as their patronage of the arts during the Renaissance, ensure their memory will continue to attract historians for as long, well, as long as there are historians. The Medicis are the heart of the story Moffat tells, and as the family were largely based in Florence, large parts of the mid-section of Tuscany: A History are less about the region as a whole than about its first-among-equals city. Which isn’t to say Moffat isn’t as good on the significance of the rise to prominence of cities like Lucca and Pisa, it’s simply a recognition of where the narrative gravity centres during this long era.

Moffat’s book is never dull, as Tuscany never grows dull to the eye. As a straighforward run-down of the region’s history goes, it brings home the prosciutto. It does rather whet the appetite for perhaps another variety entirely of book, something personal, hints of which might manifest in his tales of how he first encountered the region in the 1970s. A Sebaldian stroll through the playing fields of history, perhaps. A book as rolling as the Tuscan landscape itself; a book which matches the location in the way it sets up moments where personal and grander narratives intersect. As for the book we have, like one of the region’s fine wines, it doesn’t disappoint.

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Overlookeringstraat – A Short Story by Dilys Rose

REGARDING THE neighbourhood, Rona does her homework too late. Arriving ahead of the agreed meeting time with the agency rep, she kills the spare time in a canalside bar. It’s a dirty, desolate place. Marine theme junk is festooned with cobwebs thick as ropes, the barman gives her a far from friendly onceover, posters on the wall carry violent slogans amidst clenched white fists. The window overlooks a pissoir, a metal structure which barely covers the groins of a steady stream of not so steady guys. She won’t be frequenting the local.

On the way to the apartment, her eye is caught by a street-level window suffused with a deep red glow and plush curtains; very stagey and late night for a Sunday afternoon. With new-in-town dumbness she is wondering what the curtains might conceal when a woman in complicated underwear parts them and smiles out. At her! Rona returns the smile and is raising a hand to wave when it clicks: she blushes, blinks, scurries round the corner, dragging her suitcase and shouldering her weighty hand luggage. In town half an hour and solicited by one of the world-famous hoertjes!

On a previous visit to the city she accidentally wandered into the blaring, glaring tacky sleaze of the official red light district, where everything from keyrings to roadside bollards resembled sexual organs and XXX had nothing to do with the Heroism, Steadfastness and Compassion proclaimed on the city’s coat of arms.

It wasn’t her intention to rent in the red light district. According to the map, she isn’t in it and these quiet little canalside alleys don’t match her memory of the triple X experience. Perhaps the woman – if it is a woman, could be a transvestite, transgender or the other, intermediate phase, is it travesty? – is a one-off, a free spirit who has set up in business off the beaten track? Her naivety only lasts as far as the crossroads: to the left is the church she was told to look out for, to the right, a stone’s throw from her door, an alley decked out with quaint but decidedly rosy-hued lanterns.

From the tiny cracked skylight in the tiny toilet under the eaves Rona sees, through grime-speckled glass, a purple door open onto an external staircase which appears to be suspended in mid-air. A woman in fur hat, wool coat, boots and a festive red scarf drags out a bag of rubbish, secures it between two large potted plants, pulls the door to, clicks down the stairs and out of sight.

Above the rooftops, the sky is an overloaded palette of steel, pewter and leaden hues which shift, swill, dissolve. Another level up, framed by a square window, a caged yellow bird hops from perch to perch.

Goldfinch! she exclaims, though she’s pretty sure it’s a canary.

The cage quivers. This is a shaky city, built on peat bog, embraced by canals. Developments for the new metro system are causing havoc with the foundations of buildings which date back to the Golden Age. Somewhere out of sight a high-pitched drill rips through the afternoon.

As she negotiates the rickety toilet seat, Rona tries to calculate angles of incidence from skylight to purple door or yellow bird. Which parts of her might be visible – knees, thighs, the lot?

The sleeping area of her apartment has room only for a double bed and two wonky bedside tables. A black blind covers the wide window. Even with the lights on the space is dark and the bed has a severe, wrought iron frame, better suited to bondage than relaxation.

She rolls up the blind. Damp grey light seeps in and a number of nearby windows now overlook her unmade bed and, as she had a quick kip after the agency girl pushed off on her bike, her undressed self. At one window a heavily-tattooed man paces to and fro, smoking a fat cigar, jawing down the phone and jabbing the air with his smoking finger. At another, a sumptuous African woman leans through the open casement and snaps dust out of a rug. How many windows overlook her bed?

When she asked about the neighbourhood, the very young, pretty but not very well-informed girl showed her on the map just how near and easy to find the red light district is.

I’m not actually wanting to find it, Rona said. Though it looks like I already have.

At this point the rep’s English deserted her and having got what she’d come for – the credit card payment and a whopping damage deposit – she made a hasty exit.

In a country known for an overabundance of sky, little is visible. At the front of the Benedictus apartment, named after the church and affording it an undeserved aura of tranquility, a massive church wall runs the length of the alley. Though it blocks out the sky, the wall has compensations: the soothing umbers and ochres of old brick, moss greens furring the mortar; and more to the point, no-one can see in.

Well, no-one in the church. Where it meets the crossroads, another batch of windows faces her own. At street level, glass-fronted on two sides, is the office-cum-waiting room of the brothel, devoid of charm or comfort; functional as an autorepair shop. Two men fall out on to the street, throwing punches and insults, circling each other in a belligerent ring-a-rosy. Rona doesn’t understand the language but the tone translates: a hike in decibels, sudden roars, eruptions of plosives. Both men are stocky, shaven-headed and stubble-chinned. Passersby efficiently skirt the disturbance: kids on bikes, women laden with groceries, backpackers in search of ‘coffee bars’ and crash pads, and a string of solo men, hands in pockets, checking out the window displays.

Two floors up are more of the big plain, purposeful windows. For four hundred years furniture has been hoisted up exterior walls and swung through open casements. Still is: a sturdy hook swings on the other side of the glass.

She can see straight onto somebody else’s rumpled bed. A pair of red stilettos pokes through the downie; an empty bottle stands on the bedside table, double-cupped by a red bra. Otherwise the room is stark, clinical, the light harsh, the kind you might want for deep cleaning, for routing things out of corners. The open door leads to a shadowy hallway.

She can see a man and woman eating lunch. The bread is round and golden brown, the cheese creamy with a burnt orange rind, the crockery blue. The room is warmly lit, its furnishings earth-toned. The woman pours wine into the man’s glass, her gaze trained on the ruby flow between the bottle neck and the lip of the glass.

The Kitchenmaid! Rona exclaims but quickly reverts to irritation. Peace and privacy are what she paid for – and paid over the odds – only to find herself in a triple X satellite, and overlooked in every direction. She reminds herself that even in nicer parts of town, Amsterdammers have always overlooked each other, had an eye pressed to the glass, an ear to the wall.

The drilling persists. Carefully Rona edges down the stairs. The treads are so shallow she has to turn sideways, the staircase so narrow that an overweight person could get stuck. Have bodies ever been winched up and slung in the windows? What about coffins? Could you get a coffin down these stairs? As she passes the apartment below, a warm fug of incense and the canned laughter of a gameshow oozes into the stairwell. No name on the door, just a cutesy little sticker of a magic mushroom. Well, what did she expect, Van Gogh sunflowers?

The queue for the Rijksmuseum, still under reconstruction, stretches out of the gate and round the corner. It has begun to rain. Umbrellas are up, hoods pulled down, a cold wind blows. Like a packed-to-capacity car park, in order for people to enter, some have to leave but Rona, having paid in advance for a museum pass, can fast track. At the cloakroom, she is asked to deposit bag as well as coat, so, pen and notebook in hand, reading glasses on a chain around her neck, in she goes.

She has rationed herself to six paintings. No Rembrandts. Though the self portraits can get to her like little else, they’re not why she’s here. Besides, the Rembrandt room is chockablock, an echo-chamber of coughs and shuffles, no proper place for thought.

Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch (On loan from the Mauritshaus). The Dutch title, Het Putterje ,as the wall card explains, comes from the bird’s trick of being able to collect water with a bucket the size of a thimble. Clever bird.

The painting is breathtaking in its simplicity. Just a bird on a feeder attached to a pale wall, paint applied freely with a loaded brush, gold flash on the one visible wing the strongest note of colour. The soft contours of its body, angle of the head suggest movement, vitality but in spite of his teacher’s dictum: Follow life, Fabritius is more likely to have based it on a stuffed specimen than a live finch.

Trompe l’oeil? F’s illusion of real bird perched high in room also symbolic attempt ( by Rem-brandt’s pupil) to bring dead back to life?

A fine chain tethering the bird’s leg to the wall bar hangs in a loose arc. Rona needs to put on her glasses to see it clearly. In public, the tools of her trade make her self-conscious. She takes notes too quickly, shielding scribbles with an arm like a kid writing a Strictly Private! diary. Not that what she’s writing is intended, eventually, to be private. Far from it. She’s hoping to spread facts, opinions, theories and queries to as wide a readership as possible.

Mauritshaus built w slave gold from Brazil. Check date of construction.

Bird chained to feeder a form of social comment or neutral observation?

Beautiful, isn’t it? Beautiful and sad.

A tall man in a tatty, slate grey outfit stands beside her. Straggly grey hair, watery grey eyes. A smell of drink off him. Cognac.

All beautiful things are sad.

I could look at it all day, Rona says, but the gallery is only open for another two hours …

So you must make the most of your time. Feast on the many pleasures of the collection.

Too many for one day.

And you are not only here for pleasure, he says evenly, eyeing her notebook.

It’s always good to talk to another art lover, she says.

Ah, no. I am not art lover. Well, I go now. Goodbye.

He turns on his heel, crumpled coat swishing, leaves her to the Goldfinch. Her gaze slides from the bird to the wedge of shadow behind it.

When an Italian study group floods the room with expansive syllables, Rona goes in search of Gerrit Dou’s An Interior with Young Violinist (On loan from National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). A young man sits holding his violin. By today’s standards, it looks out of proportion. The violinist looks straight at the viewer, his expression a compelling mix of optimism and wistfulness. Surrounded by symbols of learning – books, a globe – and licentiousness – overturned flagon, pisspot – and the accoutrements of a gentleman – spurs on boots, a cloak and sword hanging behind him – he still has the mien of a humble lad who doesn’t know how he’s found himself in such cultivated surroundings. Dou, the fastidious, dust-defying Dou, painted this epitomy of harmony, peaen to wordly pursuits, hymn to optimistic endeavour when he was twenty four.

Is Dou the model? Same gaze, soft cheeks, girlish mouth, youthful seriousness. See self portraits. Trace use of musical instrument as sexual reference in visual arts.

Check history of violin, dimensions.

The violinist sits near the window. Anyone passing could have seen him – Dou, it must be Dou – striking a pose. The soft low light entering the room suggests water nearby.

Check location of Dou’s studio.

She glances around. No sign of the guy in grey. Just as well. In Gabriel Metsu’s The Sick Child (On loan from the Steengracht, The Hague), a child sits on a woman’s knee. Though there is great tenderness in the woman’s encompassing attitude, the child’s pose is awkward, as if she is uncomfortable but can’t summon up enough energy to adjust her gangly limbs and bony buttocks.

Wan child, worried woman. Though bold primary colours feature in the clothes, these only emphasise the child’s sickly pallor, the deep shadows around eyes fixed far beyond the viewer, the moment. Beautiful. And sad.

Woman too old to be mother? Hair going grey. Grandmother, nanny, neighbour?

On the surface, Pieter de Hooch’s work, A Mother’s Duty, has less emotional pull, is more a marvel of perspective and compositional detail. In the right foreground – and the painting splits down the middle – is an ordinary, domestic scene: a mother checking her child’s hair for nits. Art historians have suggested a moral message implicit in the action – combing a child’s head for sins as well as nits – but Rona is not convinced, not even by the reference to duty in the title.

People not individual enough, figures studies, stock poses. De H has put his creative energy elsewhere.

On the left, through an open door, in front of which a dog sits, entranced, we move through another room and, via an open window, to the world outside: trees in bloom; sunlight. Domesticity gives way to the draw of beyond.

De H died in madhouse. Dreams split down the middle?

I think de Hooch hit the wall running.

You again!

We’re on the same path. By coincidence or design.

I don’t read anything into coincidence, Rona snips.

Ah, but coincidence might read something into you … I wanted to tell you

my theory about this Pieter de Hooch: When a man gets too caught up in domestic interiors he has to open a door.


He has open a door and step outside. Or inside. But step somewhere else. The door de Hooch opened didn’t lead to better things.

Are you sure?

No. Not yet … So if you’re not an art lover, why are you here?

It’s a free country. But I am interrupting your train of thought – can you say

‘tram’ of thought? – and spoiling your appreciation of Old Dutch Masters. Farewell.

For a big man he is light on his feet, and quick off the mark. Rona returns her attention to de Hooch, fixes on a diamond of sunlight thrown down on terra cotta floor tiles.

Find out more about de Hooch’s family life, mental illness etc.

The intensity of blue in the skirt and yellow in the bodice of the woman pouring milk in The Kitchenmaid hits her from across the room. Such concentration of colour. As if Vermeer distilled paint for the viewer to drink to the point of intoxication. Rona elbows through the crowds buzzing around Girl with a Pearl Earring (On loan from the Mauritshaus), which the film of the best-selling novel has turned into a Must-See. Read the book, seen the movie, Rona glances at the Girl in passing, finds her too bright, flat, too winning. And too familiar from bookjackets, cheap prints and hanging banners.

Effects of overexposure?

The Kitchenmaid has her eyes focussed on the creamy flow from the spout of an earthenware jug to a bowl. Self-contained, preoccupied, she does not in any way invite the viewer’s gaze. Caught in this ordinary domestic action, cool light from the window picking up forehead, cheekbone, wrist, bodice, cap, skirt, the maid with her workaday features and solid frame is as serene as any madonna. The skirt, tucked up to keep it clean or just a fashion statement of the period, is a deep pool of blue.

Porridge in bowl or was breakfast bread and milk?

Shamelessly, Rona hogs her standpoint. At arm’s length from the painting no-one can comfortably cut in front of her and politeness prevents people nudging her out of the way. The longer she contemplates the still, wholesome scene, the easier it becomes to ignore the bustle of the gallery and the progress of time until an attendant cuts sharply into her contemplation and announces that the gallery will close in twenty minutes.

In Jan Steen’s Woman at her Toilet the subject sits on her box bed and removes a red stocking. The garter mark on her leg is unmistakeable. Holding her skirt above the knee, she flashes a generous expanse of inner thigh. A dog, featured in other paintings by Steen, is curled up, asleep on the woman’s pillow. On the floor is a used chamber pot and a pair of the heeled, backless slippers often left lying around Old Dutch Masterpieces. Style and symbolism. The woman is engrossed in drawing the red stocking over her ankle. She gives no sense of being observed, or overlooked. Except, of course, by Steen. It’s a work of intense, voyeuristic intimacy.

Rona scribbles quickly, one eye on the attendant and the exodus of visitors:

If the dog does represent lust, if the word for stocking, kous, is a play on female genitalia, and ‘darning your stockings’ a euphemism for sex, if pisskous is another word for slut and for three hundred years this woman’s thighs were modestly covered by a white petticoat, it would be difficult not to interpret the scene as a representation of loose morals. And yet the woman is painted with such affection: her downcast face, framed by kisscurls, so gently absorbed in preparing for bed.Vulnerability rather than titillation.Who was model?

As she writes, Rona glances round, half-expecting the guy – seedy or dishevelled chic, she’s not sure what his look says – to reappear, breathe down her neck, venture another opinion but the room has been cleared and the guard is eager to usher her out.

Jan rakes in his pocket for the key to the street door, which he was sure he’d left open when he went to the corner shop. Once inside, he leaves the door on the latch. The intercom’s broken and he can’t be arsed going up and down the stairs all evening. He steps over the pile of junk mail. Further up the stair, a lock turns, a door bangs. The new woman is back already. Only been out for what, three hours, when she could have been chilling in a cafe, getting into the vibe.

Mostly the Benedictus does short rents; city breaks, dirty weekends. The tourists are in and out, mostly out. Plenty to keep them off the premises and out of his hair. But the dame who arrived early afternoon and woke him before he wanted to be woken seems to have other things in mind than entertainment. He heard her lugging a dead weight of a suitcase up the stairs, and when she unpacked, the thud of hardback books. He knows what books sound like: worked in an antiquarian bookshop for a bit but the fusty smell did his head in and the crusty old punters, fussing about foxing and torn title pages, browsing for hours then buying zilch – not his scene.

His bed is directly beneath the Benedictus bedroom and sleep – deep close to comatose or shallow and dream-filled – is pretty much his favourite pastime. Sex is okay now and again and if he has a thing for one of the neighbourhood girls, there’s always somebody owes him a favour.

From the Benedictus there’s usually plenty of bump and grind, though by the time tourists get back from a night on the town, they’re mostly too spaced for a fuckathon. Once past the post, a nightcap maybe, final trip to the pisser then out for the count. That’s what the Benedictus is for.

He turns up the gas fire and unpacks his supplies from the corner shop: tea and coffee, pizza and cookies, tobacco and papers, a bottle of Jack. When the phone rings he’s skinning up.

Yeah, he says. Been shopping, man.

He does some weighing and bagging in the kitchen area, behind a bead screen on which the Virgin of Guadalupe shakes and rattles and separates into a thousand painted pieces. He likes his business. Keeps his own hours, doesn’t need to leave the house to make a living or have a social life.

Dirk and Otto accept a shot of Jack, make short work of a joint and are ready to split in less than fifteen minutes. Earlier in the day they were tearing strips off each other but apart from a bruise or two are happy clappy again. They didn’t

say and Jan


ask but with these guys money and girls are always the cause of a quarrel. Good to get them sorted early, know they won’t be back at the door for a bit.

His phone rings again.

Yeah, got the goodies. See you in ten.

He channel surfs. Are Brits only interested in quiz shows, ballroom dancing

and old guys in fast cars?

The lights in the church across the way are on and two tall, arched windows glow softly. In one, a knight in armour defends the Christian faith. In the other, a virtuous woman casts her eyes heavenwards. Rona finds the muted colours of the stained glass reassuring, a soothing counterpoint to the sudden spills of noise on the street: brash laughter, the waspy buzz of scooters careering down the narrow alley, the fracas of broken glass.

Maritsa straightens the bed, throws the beat-up red stilettos into the pile at the bottom of the wardrobe, picks out an electric blue pair which go nicely with the new black and blue basque. She snorts a couple of fat lines and fixes herself a vodka and blue Bols. Likes to be colour-coordinated. Still a bit of time to enjoy the high before her first customer.

Across the way Jan is sprawled on the sofa, as per usual. Dirk and Otto are settling up, closing their wallets. Lazily Jan rouses himself to see them out, floppy hair falling into his eyes. Maritsa likes Jan. Cute, passive, easy to please.

The lights are on in the Benedictus. Not everybody’s cup of tea, sharing a stair with Jan. Not as if the cops leave him alone all the time and he’s far from fussy about who he does business with. Earlier in the day, the new girl was hanging around the alley, checking out the competition. Doesn’t look like much but Maritsa’s walked past plenty off-duty girls on the street. Wigs, makeup, accessories, where would they all be without the tricks of their trade?

What she doesn’t get is all those big boring-looking books stacked up on the nice dining table Maritsa would like to get her hands on. If she had a table like that, she’d throw a dinner party, cook up a storm. What good are books around here? And backing off from the window like that, perching on a stool by the frigging cooker with your specs dangling on a chain like an old schoolmarm? The whole point of windows is to see. And be seen. To advantage.

Maritsa switches on the UV, transforming her room to a cave of dark light. The blue basque throbs like a clutch of electric eels. Her skin takes on a deep, blemish-free tan. Her fingernails glow like stars. She downs her drink, adjusts her stockings. Her first customer, a regular, is on his way. Dodgy but pays over the odds. Amongst other things, he likes a bit of costume drama. Golden Age caps and gowns. Millstone collars. Along with a snifter of cognac. Only drinks cognac. Maybe she’ll leave the blinds open. Let the new girl see what she’s up against.

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Look and Learn

RECENT YEARS have seen a groundswell in what we may loosely call Nature Writing. It is what travel writing was to the Eighties and biography to the Nineties. It ranges from Roger Deakin’s free-spirited Waterlog and Wild-wood, to Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains Of The Mind which intercuts a history of our concept of mountains, with narratives of his own climbing experiences. Kaye tips his hat to Jay Griffiths’ tumbling Wild, which is not so much an argument or an analysis as an exhortation. James Lovelock’s recent Return Of Gaia offers a terrifying prediction of our ecosphere’s breakdown in the near future; nearer to home we have Kathleen Jamie’s radiant classic Findings.

This surge of interest is a confluence of currents – the growth of ecological and environmental awareness, a hunger for some secular locus of meaning and value, anxiety about global warming, and as both our urban and virtual worlds grow, a hunger for their corrective opposite, for the Wild, for Spinoza’s God-as-Nature, for the Real.

In a waiting room I pick up a Scottish Field, or glance at the Nature Notes in a newspaper. I read about a sighting of the Greater Bar-tailed Crossbill, or how the glimpse of a wind turbine has darkened the writer’s day – and my heart sinks, eyes unfocus. I know it matters and I should be interested, but as with dreams and personal opinions, encounters with Nature are commonly far more interesting to the person who has them than the one who hears about them.

So though I am one whose best hours are spent on coasts and moors, forests and mountains, my heart sank a little when I read in the Author’s Preface “At last a troubled sun has shouldered through the bright lances of green striping the river fields…the sun’s courage is calling me out”. Is it pedantic to insist the sun is neither troubled nor courageous? I winced on meeting a “bosky shade”, and then reading of a spider’s web, “What stopped me was the beauty of the morning caught in the dewy eye of her device”.

In the attempt to get across the immediacy and power of one’s experience, Nature Writing too often leads to this over-emphatic, over-adjectival, overly figurative striving. And bosky shades are simply not acceptable.

This is not, I hope, literary snobbery. The point is it is very, very hard for those who are not poets, who are at heart naturalists or Green campaigners or alternative lifestylists rather than writers, to make words perform their function when that function is not to discuss experience but to conjure experience itself. It is one thing to call on Beauty, Terror, the intensely experienced moment – to make them come when you call is quite another.

Much nature writing, especially that which deals with the Wild (this book is subtitled ‘A personal quest for Wildness’), tends to have an implicit ideological bent. Wilderness good, cultivation bad; Nature sound, people sick; animals innocent, humans guilty. Whether other-accusing or self-flagellating, in environmental/ecological writing a dislike and contempt for people and cities often shows through. And though I may share the aims, ideals and cherished experiences in such works, blanket misanthropy is always a turn-off.

So my heart sank further early on in this book when Kaye drives from one of his shopping trips in the “tangled world” Gomorrah that is Inverness, homewards through “the euphemistic contrived greenness which, with the complacency of drab urbanisation, we have come to accept as the countryside norm”. What exactly is “euphemistic contrived greenness”?  Is “urbanisation” necessarily drab, and self-evidently complacent? And as for his dislike of farming, where does he think our food and his comes from?

He goes on: “I feel out of place and burdened, despondent for country lives locked into the orthodoxy of political systems and tractor cabs, suppressed by dull routine and duller necessity”. Though we can all recognise feeling out of place and burdened, this passage surely raises some questions. What is this yoking of political systems and tractor cabs? What is so wrong with tractor cabs, which bring some shelter and safety? Or is it the tractors that are at fault – should we go back to horses? And what lives do not have elements of dull routine and duller necessity?

The blanket hostility to cities, agriculture and technology expressed by some environmental campaigners leaves little room for dialogue or interest. One has to ask what such Utopian writers – those who yearn for a return to a Golden Age poised somewhere between hunter gathering and pre-industrial arts & crafts – really are calling for, and what proportion of the world’s population they would much rather were not alive.

Despite this unpromising start, At The Water’s Edge gets better, a whole lot better, as it largely lays aside over-writing and rhetoric to move on into Kaye’s real strengths.

John Lister Kaye has the good fortune to have lived for thirty years in a depopulated glen not far from the festering sore that apparently is Inverness. In this glen he has evolved a circular walk of just an hour or so, up a burn, round a small loch, across a bog, through woodland and home again. Through the years, in notebooks and journals he has noted, recorded and reflected on that walk, and this book is the distillation of what he has seen and thought.

The book is structured around the four seasons. Spaced between these four pillars are a number of reflective essays, combining particular witnessed encounters, memories and themes, drawing on material from his notebooks. The best of these, ‘The Claim’, ‘Pine Martens’, ‘The Goshawk’, are quite remarkable.

They work because Kaye is essentially a naturalist, not a poet or rhetorician. His interest, his gift, his vision and his knowledge converge on specific encounters. A pine marten met in a rainstorm is accurately, vividly drawn. We see its beauty, speed, nerve and agility. After amplifying previous experiences and knowledge of them, Kaye is on hand to watch it close in on a woodpigeon’s nest:

“The unhappy parent birds had made a sharp exit, but two fat, half-fledged squabs sat in the nest, dumb and defenceless – so much lunch…We could hear the crunch of soft bone, see the wet mouthing of hot flesh. The squabs’ limp red feet fell, one by one, to the needly forest floor. Then he returned for the second. He grabbed it, glared at us for a stretched moment of pure insolence with the squab clenched firmly in his teeth and then slid, swift, elegant and shadow-like, up and away into the wood. Only his scratchy claws rattling on the pine bark gave him away; a smoke-curl of tail, a bark flake falling to the ground, an empty nest”.

This is a world away from bosky shades. It is brutal, visceral, seen and heard, convincing. Kaye’s engagement with Nature is passionate, but his vision is tough and unsentimental as Ted Hughes on a dark day. Even the section ‘Spring at last’, which cries out for pathetic fallacies, makes it clear there is “no shared compunction between human and the wild, none at all. They are apart and mindless and prescribed”.

In this mode, he can enjoy the beauty of the wood warbler, while being absolutely clear “To a bird there is no poetry in birdsong…Once the breeding game is done, the urge to sing evaporates”. I sometimes wonder if this is as true for poets as for chaffinches.

Kaye notes, “There is no place for charity in the natural world…Here we all are, from the amoeba to Einstein, munching each other in glorious sunshine for all we are worth…We are all competing for space, light, food, mates and power, each and every last one of us – even naturalists”.

This reminds me of the gruelling experiences of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Pincher’s Creek, where a combination of remorseless seeing and Darwinian context drove her to some sort of nervous breakdown. A world away from the beloved transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson, this is as far from cosy as it is possible to be. There is no moral or spiritual lesson in Nature, only imperatives, ruthless opportunism and remorseless processes.

Like Dillard, Kaye watches the obscene diving water beetle ingest its prey, and rec-ognizes both the beauty and the horror are our creation. Nature simply is. We watch, we learn, we enquire, and our knowledge is not comfortable.

Kaye is an out and out Darwinist. So much so that he is prepared to undermine the self-flagellation of his own conservationist values. In our exploitation of all the resources available to us, animal, vegetable, mineral, we are behaving exactly as all life forms do. We are not deviant or ‘bad’, as many Green campaigners suggest. Bacteria and insects, more successful even than us, do the same, colonise and multiply to the limit.

This does not destroy the conservationist case, but re-contextualises it. In a similar way, knowledge of previous mass extinctions of life on Earth, and the many climatic shifts predating our arrival, does not argue against our working to mitigate climate change, but puts it on a sounder footing.

This tension between the fascination, wonder and uplift in Kaye’s glen perambulations, and his scientific understanding of the driven, compulsive, utterly amoral working of the natural world, drives this book. There is no easy comfort here. We often look to Nature for freedom, as if birds and animals are free because they don’t have jobs and don’t pay taxes. But free is the last thing they are.

I put down At The Water’s Edge thinking the value of our encounters with Nature lies in its radical Otherness. At the same time it re-affirms us as part of nature, animal and bound. As for conservation, the faculty that lets us project notions of Beauty, Joy, Disgust onto the world is the same as the one that lets us glimpse the consequences of our animal-driven conquest of our habitat. It may allow us to act un-naturally and circumscribe our domination, in the name of our own and our habitat’s better survival. Though I wouldn’t bet on it.

Close encounters with a dazed goshawk (“The eyes impaled me fleetingly and burned with inextinguishable murder”), a charging stag, a wildcat moving its young (“It looks around, alert and timelessly patient, but with the measured insouciance of a dictator”), inspecting gnats hatching in the pool left by deer prints in soft mud – Kaye’s close looking, informed by a naturalist’s knowledge, amplified by past experience, make this book special. We are awoken, disturbed, put in place, informed, left with notions and images that “burn in my head like a Roman candle”.

At The Water’s Edge – A Personal Quest For Wildness

John Lister Kaye

CANONGATE, £17.99 pp314, ISBN 1847674046

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Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry

The Hundred Thousand Places

Thomas A. Clark

CARCANET, £9.95 pp96, ISBN 9781847770059

The Hundred Thousand Places, inspired by walks across the isles and highlands, is a single poem in three parts. Time unfolds gradually in Clark’s verse. His short stanzas, some only a few lines long, illustrate a slow gathering of thought. The collection begins in the isles, at dawn: “once again/for the first time/morning”. Descriptions of sea mists, salt winds and sand bars transport the reader. The second section begins inland and guides the reader along the ground. Bracken, mica and thorns suggest the rough moorlands. The final section shares the first’s air of discovery and the second’s earthiness. The narrator climbs a summit, confirming his sense of self and his relationship to the land. What’s good about this collection is how the form is based on the narrator’s sense of direction. Clark is very aware of where his narrator is going: “you are not where/you are not there/ahead of the given/in continual revelation”. His use of second person also creates a sense of freedom and distance. Space, pace and wild beauty are on the reader’s mind throughout this tantalising collection. TM

The House of the Mosque

Kader Abdolah

CANONGATE, £12.99 pp400, ISBN 9781847672407

Iranian-born Abdolah has set his novel towards the end of the era of the Shah and the beginning of the rise in power of the ayatollahs, a beguiling tale of people struggling with the political context they find themselves caught in. Aqa Jaan’s family live in the house behind the mosque, where his brother, Alsaberi, is imam. We see his daughter, Sadiq, married off to a handsome young trainee imam named Khalkhal (remarkably, given they’ve only met him for five minutes). Radical and far more militant than Alsaberi, his sexual coldness makes Sadiq unhappy, and when Alsaberi dies, Khalkhal gets what he really wants: the position of imam in Alsaberi’s mosque. Abdolah shows the clash of cultures (Alsaberi’s son wants to watch the moon landings on TV, not go to prayers) in a family setting, where he also portrays the intimate moments that matter: Alsaberi’s widow, Zinat, finally experiences the kind of sexual satisfaction that her sister-in-law takes for granted, after the death of her husband, and the wickedly disrespectful Nosrat sneaks women into the mosque for sex. There is a healthy irreverence here, a recognition of the joy that life can bring, in spite of religious rules and fears. LM

To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon Richard Shelton

Atlantic, £18.99 pp288 ISBN 9781843547846

To Sea and Back explores the fresh and salt water lives of Atlantic salmon. Richard Shelton, research director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, combines both natural history and memoir in his discussion of this migratory fish. The narration begins under water as Shelton describes the plight of a grilse (a salmon which is returning to its spawning grounds after just one year in the sea). The presence of fishermen, the mating rituals between cock and hen fish, and the young fish’s return to the sea are richly described. Shelton also uncovers the salmon’s hidden ‘talents’: how they remember scents and what they tell us about the state of our rivers and oceans. As chairman of Buckland Society, Shelton also provides information about Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland, who had a taste for fried field mice and whose research on salmon behaviour was influential. Though Shelton’s chapters can feel randomly organised, his enthusiasm for the sea and its inhabitants is boundless. TM

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed

Mary Heimann

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, £25 pp432, ISBN 9780300141474

This dauntingly detailed history of Czechoslovakia is largely meant for scholars and students rather than for the general reader, but its controversial argument may pull in those who want a more demanding read. It’s Heimann’s contention that Czechoslovakia, far from being the plucky victim of Nazism and Stalinism that suffered after 1968’s ‘Prague Spring’, actually colluded in its own victimisation, and in certain cases, such as the transportation of Jews and the incarceration of gypsies, pre-empted the Nazis. To explain how a country which appears liberal and cultured one minute, before passing anti-Semitic laws the next, she traces Czechoslovakia’s history back through its fluctuating borders and myriad peoples. She discovers there what she believes is a fierce and chauvinistic nationalism. This she blames for many of the political decisions the artificial state of Czechoslovakia (created after the First World War by its victors) took during the twentieth century. A lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, Heimann shows the complexity and confusion of Czechoslovakia, its conflicting loyalties and bloody rivalries, while also breaking a few national myths. LM


Richard Price

CARCANET, £9.95 pp96 ISBN 9781847770103

Unanswered love is the underlying theme in Richard Price’s Rays. Doubt and obsession brought on by desire is conveyed through Price’s fragmented and syncopated forms. His heavily metaphorical language can move swiftly or at glacier pace, depending on the content. The collection opens with an evocative piece about insomnia. Repetition of “the thought – the thought – thought” conveys the slow, painful passing of time, as do the asterisks separating each brief, worried verse. Another poem, ‘little but often’, discusses miscommunication in relationships. Composed in alphabet form, each letter is the start of two couplets. A is for “absolute beginner, a little shy/asked directions – so did I”, which leads to the bewailing Q: “quested for you – ultimate, ultimate prize/is it wrong to lust and long? my saint, is it wise?”. Price’s greatest strength is his ability to improvise. He creates a medley of voices in his version of the canzone (medieval Italian ballad). ‘Melancholy Plumber’ is a playful song full of rhymes, jazzy rhythms and underlined words. ‘Two halves of nothing’ features succinct yet emotive verses and a charming chorus. These poems, and many others, illustrate Price’s talents. TM


Susan Irvine

QUERCUS, £12.99 pp320, ISBN 9781847249555

This collection of short stories focuses, as the title suggests, on the body, but not just the human body. It’s also about a body of work, a body of writing or art. Irvine has a sense of humour about the absurd needs and wants of the human body, especially when owned by a thirty-something woman, but she also understands the body’s limitations. In ‘Late’, a woman can’t stop and help a dog that some boys are trying to drown, or take time for a stricken friend, because she’s “got a novel to write”. In ‘Stories’, the legacy of parents, the stories that they can tell their children, disappear because one side won’t talk or the other side won’t listen. She can be caustic and cynical about the writing ‘industry’, about who becomes famous and who doesn’t, and how meaningless the notion of creativity is when certain lines are crossed. Scottish-born Irvine also likes to write in unusual ways, which largely pays off: straight Q and As, a play on lifestyle surveys and advice books, dialogue-driven narratives, all give her prose an unpredictable yet approachable feel. LM

Peatbogs, Plague And Potatoes: How Climate Change And Geology Shaped Scotland’s History

Emma Wood

LUATH PRESS, £9.99 pp288 ISBN 9781906307370

This book reminds us that climate change is not just a modern phenomenon. Emma Woods traces the effect of climate change from the “very beginning” of the lands now known as Scotland to 1860 when subsistence agriculture was being displaced by industrialisation. Her intention is to provide readers with “tools of understanding” which go beyond the time-span and territorial emphasis of her study and are applicable to the latest global climate challenge. This is no minor ambition but Woods is up to the challenge. Beginning with prehistory and the arrivals of humans and farming, she moves on to the effects of environment on human population and, finally, human effects on the environment. In the course of this broad sweep, she demonstrates how Bronze Age downpours and cold temperatures affected fertility and the Little Ice Age, which started in the fourteenth century, induced poverty and migration. And she reminds us that “natural Scotland” so beloved of tourist brochures is not natural at all, but the product of a complex mix of the effect of climate on vegetation, clearances (both of people and woodland), and farming. Even our animals are the end of a long story of extinction and introduction with the native auroch and wild boar gone and the pheasant and the domestic rabbit drafted in. TM

East Fortune

James Runcie

BLOOMSBURY, £7.99 pp256, ISBN 9781408800867

East Fortune’s premise is an interesting one: while driving home one night, Jack Henderson hits a young man who leaps out in front of his car. The young man dies, but Jack can’t help feeling responsible, and so he attends the funeral, where he meets the man’s girlfriend, Polish student Krystyna. Jack is alone, estranged from his wife, and unsure of people. But this story doesn’t go where you think it might. What looks like becoming an affair between two people drawn together by tragedy takes a different turn, and the book goes on to also explore the lives of Jack’s brothers: his younger, adulterous sibling, Douglas, and the eldest and steadiest of the three, Angus. Krystyna is already pregnant by her dead lover, and Jack’s father is dying: this is not so much a tale of illicit passion as one of family obligations and the gathering courage to face life, something Jack has never been good at. Matters come to a head when the three brothers make their annual visit to their parents’ home in East Fortune. Runcie is a sensitive writer, occasionally a little ponderous, but good at intimacy and the agony of not knowing when, or how, to begin again. LM

Cancer Party

Andrew Raymond Drennan

CARGO, £6.99 pp255 ISBN 9780956308306

This debut novel is one of the first offerings from Cargo, a Glasgow-based publisher committed to showcasing new talent. Hailing from Paisley, Andrew Raymond Drennan is also the founding editor of The Crowhurst Review, a cultural and political blog. Predictably, his first novel has a political tilt. Set in 1997 following the victory of New Labour, Dren-nan describes a circle of teens who hang out on the steps of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. The novel centres on Adam, a bookish young man who recently lost his mother to cancer, and whose father spends most of his time in the local pub. Adam looks for guidance in his English professor, and is dumbfounded when his mentor takes his own life. This event plunges Adam into a downward spiral of drink, drugs and depression. Cancer Party suffers from an unfortunate title and lacks characterisation. It has much in common with Trainspotting, but does not share Irvine Welsh’s gritty strength. Drennan’s main man is dreary and immature, and his mob of GOMA misfits are a weak supporting act. What Drennan did get right is the Glasgow weather: “rain poured down in fat greasy drops like chip


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The SRB Interview: Dan Rhodes

DAN RHODES was born in 1972 and grew up in Devon and Kent. Rhodes graduated in Humanities from the University of Glamorgan in 1994, returning to complete a MA in Writing in 1997. He worked in a number of jobs while he switched between writing what would eventually become his first three books. His debut, Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories, features 101 darkly humorous stories, each comprising 101 words exactly, on the subjects of love, romance, and sex. After a number of rejections, Anthropology was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. In his second book, Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, Rhodes developed Anthropology’s themes and comedy in longer, sometimes surreal, stories.. At this point, he split with Fourth Estate and moved to Canongate where his first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, was published in 2003. It describes a friendship between a disgraced English composer living in Italy, Cockroft, and a stray dog. In the same year he was chosen to be one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, an experience he did not enjoy. As the invasion of Iraq geared up, Rhodes tried to get his fellow BYBN to sign an anti-war open letter, abandoning it when it became clear he wasn’t going to get more than eleven of them to add their names. He published his next novel, The Little White Car (2004), under the pseudonym of Danuta de Rhodes. A pastiche of the chick lit genre, it provided an alternative explanation of the events leading to Princess Diana’s death. In 2007, Rhodes returned with Gold, which concerns the exploits of a half-Japanese holidaymaker in an out-of-season Pembrokeshire village. It won the inaugural Clare Maclean Prize in 2008. In 2005, Rhodes moved to Edinburgh , where he lived in Canonmills, near Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home, until 2009; he now lives in Derbyshire. His latest novel, Little Hands Clapping (2010), is a dark fantasy set in Ger-many. The following interview grew from email correspondence and over dinner in a Stockbridge pizzeria where the participants may have alarmed the waitress they didn’t notice for a moment because they were having a conversation about Scottish serial killers. Colin Waters also spoke to Dan Rhodes about the destructive power of beauty, what he learned from Chekhov, and what he has in common with Michael Jackson.


SRB: I was lucky enough to read Little Hands Clapping without knowing practically anything about the plot, which made its taboo-busting turns all the more shocking and funny when they occurred. I worry critics will reveal too much in their reviews. How would you précis Little Hands Clapping?

DR: So many critics are a pain in the arse when it comes to giving away the plot. Even some who are on the side of the book don’t seem to think twice about ruining it for the reader. My last book, Gold, had a very slight plot – one that could be blown apart by half a line in a review – and I could-n’t believe how many reviewers, some of them apparently friendly, just blithely gave away what happened. Maybe it goes back to a snooty and fairly modern notion that plot is somehow vulgar. The trouble is, once a book goes out into the world of Sales it has to be pitched somehow, and with the new book it’s hard to do that without giving away at least some surprises. If people ask me what it’s about, I give them a vague and facetious answer. It’s about an unusual museum. It’s about a bunch of Germans misbehaving. It’s about 300 pages.

SRB: I’m guessing you had begun writing Little Hands Clapping before the Fritzl case and the Natasha Kampusch case. What did you think when you read those stories in the news? Did you feel you were onto something?

DR: There’s always something untoward happening in suburbia but, to my eternal shame, when those stories broke I did feel for a moment as if I had a head start on everyone else. Good grief.

SRB: Humour is potentially a mine-strewn way to approach such dark material. Did that give you pause during the planning and writing of the book?

DR: Yes. Getting that balance was the hardest thing about writing it. The humour had to be woven in in such a way that it didn’t diminish the seriousness of the subject matter. And never mind any required sensitivity, from a storytelling perspective it was essential that there was nothing funny about the situation that the characters, one character in particular, are heading towards. Striking that balance was the hardest writing I’ve done, and I hope I’ve got it right, that the seriousness and silliness don’t tread on each other’s toes.

SRB: Another aspect of Little Hands Clapping I enjoyed was your analysis of how the media handles shocking stories like the one in LHC or the Fritzl case. Isn’t it ironic that newspapers, there to report the facts and offer analysis, most often in cases like these are reduced to producing shoddy speculation and spurious think-pieces?

DR: Whenever a lurid story breaks I enjoy watching the supposedly highbrow media reporting it. If there’s ever a House of Horrors, they won’t cover the house itself, but will focus instead on the media scrum outside, as if they aren’t a part of it. On the television the language they use is always evasive, and softly-softly. There’s something more honest about the shrieking tabloid articles that get straight to the gore.

SRB: Some years ago, a Scottish magazine ran a poll of the best 100 Scottish novels which managed to include titles by George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad. By which measure Little Hands Clapping (written during your time living in Edinburgh ) could be counted as a Scottish novel. It’s all spurious, I know, but….with its respectable characters living a double life, Little Hands Clapping reads very much like an Edinburgh novel in the tradition of Confessions And Memoirs Of A Justified Sinner and Doctor Jekyll And Mister Hyde. Were you infected by Edinburgh’s perennial double-life theme?

DR: I’ll let other people decide how Scottish the book is. I did the donkey work at home in Canonmills and at the magnificent central reference library, but I can’t say the city fed into it a great deal, not directly at least. I used to go to the Botanic Garden with my son almost every day though, and we would walk past Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthplace on Inverleith Row. When he was the age I was when I was writing the book, he was at his most productive – Jekyll And Hyde and Kidnapped came out in the same year, and he did-n’t even have Microsoft Word. The daily sight of his plaque certainly lit a fire under me.

SRB: Why Germany as the setting for Little Hands Clapping]?

DR: It grew out of a daft piece I wrote about Hamelin about fifteen years ago, about how strange it must be to come from there – that wherever you go people you meet are going to immediately make the obvious associations and engage you in interminable conversations about the disappearance of children from centuries ago. It appears in the book in a massively truncated form – it was a shame to see a lot of it go, but I had to reign myself in. Twelve pages of people explaining that the Pied Piper wasn’t the one who picked the peck of pickled pepper might have got a bit much. As I was writing it I thought about changing the location, which is something I always think about, but that would have meant ditching the Hamelin stuff, which I wasn’t ready to do. Incidentally, I tried to squeeze those pieces into an earlier novel – Timoleon Vieta Come Home – but almost immediately took them out because they seemed shoe-horned in, which they were. During the day or two they were in there I mentioned to my then-publisher (whose name escapes me) that I was toying with the idea of calling the book Little Hands Clapping, after a line from the Robert Browning poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, and they pounced on it, and without asking me they started listing Timoleon Vieta under that title on all the catalogues. Even after I told them I had taken the passage out, and that the title no longer made any sense, they refused to drop it – for about a year Timoleon Vieta was listed on Amazon as being forthcoming as Little Hands Clapping. That was eight or nine years ago – it’s been a slow burner, this one. Anyway, I eventually got the book away from them.

SRB: Timoleon Vieta takes place in Italy and The Little White Car in France. Why does your imagination keep flitting across the Channel? Do the countries embody certain characteristics to you, certain atmospherics?

DR: I suppose abroad is more intriguing and glamorous than home. I’ve tried to use more conventional settings, but to no avail. I set early versions of ‘Beautiful Consuela’, from Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, in the town in Kent where I was living at the time. It was a pretty boring story, and only came to life once I’d moved it to a highly fictionalised historical Spain. Also, I don’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good story. A lot of Little Hands Clapping takes place in Portugal, and I’ve never been, so I was able to just imagine how things might be there, and not be burdened by anything as cumbersome as reality. Likewise Germany, where most of the new book is set – I spent one day in Munich when I was 17, and that’s all. I just imagined what it might be like, and if I’ve got things wrong… never mind. One of the first questions writers are asked these days is ‘How much research did you do?’ Really, who cares? It’s fiction, dudes.

SRB: If as you say “abroad is more intriguing and glamorous than home” in your cross-Channel fictional excursions, what made a coastal village in Pembrokshire the right setting for Gold?  And wasn’t there a period when you were mistakenly described as “a Welsh author”?

DR: I’d wanted to go to Pembrokeshire for ages. I’d heard only good things about it, and as a huge fan of the music of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – who are the poets laureate of the Pembrokeshire coast – the place had risen to mythical status in my mind, and I thought I would try and set Gold there. I started writing the book before I’d ever set foot there, and one January (the month the book is set) I rented a little holiday cottage near the coast path, which is what the main character does. Normally I don’t have qualms about setting my writing in places I’ve not been to, but this time I did a bit – I go to other parts of Wales a lot, so it’s a bit close to home. I even had the idea of setting it in Pembrokeshire while I was writing it, then transposing it to Norway at the last moment. Anyway, I was living in Kent at the time, and on my way to the cottage I got to Charing Cross station and went down into the underground, and there was a busker there singing – of all the songs in all the world – ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’ by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Now, they aren’t exactly a big name act, and the song had only got to number 47 five years earlier, so it’s definitely not a busking staple. I turned hippy for a moment, and saw this as the cosmos’s way of granting me a license to write the book, and to set it there. And Pembrokeshire in January was even more stupendous than I had dared to hope. I was once described as being Welsh. I used to think that I wasn’t Welsh at all, but my mother’s been looking into the family tree and it turns out I’m 1/32nd Welsh. Or 1/64th, I can’t remember. Something I’ve known all along though is that I’m part German.

Dan Rhodes: “Beautiful women never go out of fashion, do they?”  Photo by Dorota Gaszccak

DR: How German are you?

SRB: Very slightly. My mother’s grandfather was German, and we recently found out that branch of the family were Jewish, and had converted to Catholicism. I had the idea of using this as the basis for a screwball comedy screenplay called Suddenly Semitic, where the main character finds out he’s Jewish and haplessly hurls himself into Jewish culture with hilarious and unexpectedly heartwarming results. But I just found out that David Baddiel and Omid Djalili have beaten me to the punch with a film called The Infidel – which is probably best for me, and for the world at large.

SRB: Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love is full of dark fables and Little Hands Clapping has several elements of the fairy tale plus that reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. What attracts you to the fairy tale form?

DR: I’ve been asked this in every interview since Don’t Tell Me The Truth came out. The first person to not ask it wins a pint. I do like folk tales though, and in my writing from time to time strange things will happen in the woods. If anything they have influenced me because there’s something plain about the storytelling, and they’re not afraid to shy away from the darker side of things, unlike much modern fiction, which has caved in to readers demands for happy endings. I suppose any beef I have with it is the word ‘fairy’. It makes it sound as if I’m writing about elves, and I really don’t want people thinking I do elf-lit. I do write about beautiful women and people coming to sticky ends though.

SRB: From Anthropology to Little Hands Clapping female beauty is presented as an entrancing, sometimes wonderful, but most often destructive element that usually ruins the protagonist, or in the case of your short story ‘The Painting’, an entire village. What is it about this theme that causes you to return to it?

DR: Beautiful women never go out of fashion, do they? They are endlessly fascinating, and whether they mean to or not they leave a wake of destruction. In my single days seeing one drift by would be a kind of torture, but now I’m able to observe rather than number myself among the victims. You have no idea how this has improved my quality of life. And of course it’s always intriguing to we mortals to wonder how it must feel to drift through life as a Beautiful Person. Who wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as Scarlett Johansson, just to see what it’s like?

SRB: My favourite character in Little Hands Clapping is the doctor. Although he commits some truly terrible crimes, he’s such a sad, lonely and pathetic character, you can’t help but feel for him. You have a lot of sympathy for sad, shabby ageing men (see Cockroft in Timoleon Vieta Come Home) brought low by life and love. Is that the flip side to the fascination and fear beauty generates?

DR: I’ve always felt as if I’ve been one wrong turn away from being a sad, shabby old man. Aspects of these characters are visions of how I could be. Cautionary tales. There’s an excellent documentary called The Wet House, set in a hostel for (for want of a better word) tramps, where they are allowed to drink Tennent’s Super. Most of the time they just do typical things like shouting into the air, and having really slow fights, but occasionally you see a glimpse of how they were before their lives went wrong, how they had jobs and children, and loved and were loved. For most people life is a struggle to stay on the right track, and people lose control in different ways. The doctor manages to convince himself that he hasn’t lost control, that he’s coping very well, but he’s lost his balance completely.

SRB: There are some moments of cruelty in LHC, but we at least get some understanding of why the characters act in that manner. Perhaps the cruellest thing in LHC doesn’t originate with a person but in the Bible. Hulda, the novel’s most put-upon character and a Christian, spends her time convinced she’s going to hell because she utters a blasphemy, a belief prompted by this passage from The Gospel According To Mark: “Whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin”. And this in the supposedly more tender hearted New Testament!

DR: That’s a wildly under-publicised line from the Bible. Basically, pretty much everyone is fucked beyond redemption if it’s true – it’s not a great recruiting strategy for the church, is it? Why bother turning up? It’s terrible PR – nobody likes a person (or deity) who won’t accept an apology. It’s pretty inconsistent too, isn’t it? The New Testament offers a fresh start for whores and thieves, but only if those same whores and thieves had never blasphemed. Er…

SRB: You were saying that it took three years to write LHC. Does that period go from your first conception of the novel to final draft? Is that three years of solid writing or were there periods where you broke off from writing? Did your original idea change greatly in those three years? And how long on any given writing day do you devote to writing? Do you have a routine or do you improvise as you go along?

DR: The donkey work took three years. I’d been making notes and forming it in my mind for twelve years before then. It was a real slow burner this one, and from conception to completion it took a lot of different forms. When I started the three-year marathon it was going to be a psychological horror novel with no gags – then the gags crept in, and it only became (in part) an action-driven suspense romp towards the end of the process. While I was writing it we were expecting our first baby, then he was 0-2 years old, so he dictated my working hours for this one. Sleep became precious, so I gave up my usual late night sessions. I would sit in the library for a few hours at a time, and apart from that I would improvise. I had to pounce on any quiet moment and get the writing done whenever and wherever I could. It was pretty ad hoc, but I knew I had to keep working. People with normal jobs have to keep going in spite of it all.

DR: It’s interesting to hear that LHC had a gestation period of twelve years. You’ve written other books in that time. Why does one project take predominance over another? Is it related to personal matters? Or do you have a writerly sense that tells you when you’re ready to handle a project? How many other projects are floating around your brain currently?

SRB: When I finished Timoleon Vieta Come Home I had two books cued up – this one and The Little White Car. Timoleon Vieta was very dark, as a story and as a writing experience, and I needed a break from such intense subject matter, so I wrote a frivolous action-driven romp instead, and I’m very glad I did. Also, I suppose I just had a feeling that this book wasn’t ready until after I’d finished Gold. I always knew it was going to be a tough one to nail, and I needed the time to be right – I think you can kill an idea by throwing yourself at it prematurely. I have several ideas at the moment – the problem is finding the one that’s right for now.

SRB: One of the things that have always struck me about you in conversation is that you’re not impressed by approved canons, received opinion and great-writer reputations. Your reading habits are idiosyncratic. What makes for a good book in your opinion? And what turns you off?

DR: I’m not completely contrary. I love a lot of the acknowledged greats, but I find a lot of the stuff we’re supposed to get excited about to be a bit…boring. And I like books that aren’t boring. At the moment I’m finding it hard to see beyond the Martin Beck series. Have you read them? They’re Swedish police novels from the 1960s and 70s, written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They wrote ten, and I’m on number eight, and really dismayed to think that they’re going to be ending soon. While I was writing Little Hands Clapping I was reading quite a lot of police fiction – I had a Rebus phase – and American suspense, particularly Cornell Woolrich. I think this fed into the novel – I put a fair amount of action in it. Hopefully it’s a page-turner. I tend to find myself drawn to books that are clearly not written to a publisher’s brief. My favourites of the last couple of years have been Dial M For Merthyr by Rachel Trezise (which is part memoir, part story of a real band that nobody’s heard of), Neverland by Simon Crump (demented stories about an imaginary Michael Jackson) and They Is Us by Tama Janowitz (a funtime dystopia), all of which gleefully do their own thing. Sadly, nobody knows what to do with books like this and they tend to be overlooked. The writer I’m most looking forward to hearing from again is the magnificent memoirist Sylvia Smith.

SRB: You name Michael Jackson. Your novels generally avoid mentioning brands, news stories, the sort of references that date quickly, and so on. At the same time, your novels delight in flourishing references to one-hit wonders, faded entertainers, and tawdry or simply silly showbiz stories. Little Hands Clapping for example features Austrian mullet-rockers Opus and a dispute over the exact nature of Michael Hutchence’s death. There’s something about fame, or rather the struggle to get it and then keep it, that again is terribly funny and sad both at the same time, isn’t there?

DR: It was trendy a few years ago for fiction to be loaded with very current cultural references. I was always too vain and ambitious to bother with this. If your writing depends on your reader having some knowledge of, say, Ant & Dec, or Gareth Gates, then how is it ever going to find an audience abroad? There are almost no cultural references in my first two books – only, I think, Paul McCartney, and he’s so famous it’s like writing about the Sphinx. Since then I’ve used them quite sparingly, and I hope unobtrusively – if somebody does-n’t know who Roxette is, it shouldn’t matter – you get the gist, they’re quickly gone and it’s no big deal. Yes, the struggle to succeed in showbiz is a grotesque and comical thing, and unlike a lot of other writers, I am happy to concede that I do fall into the showbiz spectrum. I am part of the entertainment industry, and I’m just as wretched as anyone else. That’s partly why I find the desperation and humiliation of X Factor contestants so compelling – I’m right there with them. The things you have to do to break into writing aren’t much different from singing in front of Dr Fox.

SRB: The comic and tragic bleed into each other throughout your writing. Do you agree with the idea that comedy and tragedy are essentially the same thing seen from different perspectives?

DR: I think they’re opposites, but that’s no reason why they shouldn’t share the same page.

SRB: Comedy and tragedy are opposites, and many novels feature both – but not often at the same moment. I mean, look at Cockroft, Timoleon Vieta’s protagonist. His story is frequently both heartbreaking and funny. The episodes which explain how his career was ruined by ‘accidental racism’ or when he’s apprehended spraypainting an obscene message on a bridge are comic because they are tragic (or tragic because comic?). To me at least, your books suggest a view of the world and its people as somewhat absurd though not in the condemnatory way one might encounter in a black farce.

SRB: That’s life though, isn’t it? The daft and the appalling are right there all the time. Chekhov had a handle on this, and he’s the boss. And what about The Smiths? I can never quite understand fiction without humour. Books seem so dry without it – so many writers seem to create a world in which not only is there no humour, but there also doesn’t even seem to be the possibility of humour. You have to wonder about these people’s lives. Almost all my favourite books have something humorous about them, and the ones that don’t are just really beautiful. I do think that for something to get away with not being in any way amusing it does have to be insanely beautiful.

SRB: You attended a creative writing course at university – was that where you first started writing? What did you learn on the course?

DR: It’s where I first started writing sensibly. I took a module under Helen Dunmore when I was in my first year at the Poly of Wales (later the University of Glamorgan), and carried it through to my third year. By the end I was writing stuff that was readable but unpublishable. They let me on the masters course a few years later, and that was when I wrote Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love. The course definitely helped. The tutors didn’t really teach, they were more like editors. My personal tutor, Sheenagh Pugh, was adept at weeding out the crappy and/or boring bits I’d written, and I got better that way. Also, it helped to have other people reading my stuff. I took an unpleasantly gladiatorial approach to the classes.

SRB: Unlike many writers you have largely avoided adding to your income with journalism, teaching creative writing, and residencies. Why is that?

DR: For lots of reasons, really. First of all, with journalism I just don’t think I would be much good at it, so I would rather not get involved. There seems to be an assumption that the skills are interchangable, but the mountain of lukewarm fiction by journalists would suggest otherwise. Also I’m short tempered, and would probably have murdered a sub editor by now. As for teaching, I find both writing, and making a living from writing, to be a struggle so I don’t feel in a position to advise other people. Maybe I would consider this one day, if I ever I find myself feeling like an elder statesman. But above all, time spent doing something else is time spent not writing, and I want to spend as much time as I can working on my stuff. If I need extra money to pay the bills I take on work outside the business – usually moving cardboard boxes around. I like to have a set system to work to, with no scope for creativity. I don’t like to think. And it does me good to have to be in a certain place at a certain time. If you lose track of what a real working day is like, it’s very possible to vanish up your own arsehole.

SRB: Received opinion is that the book marketplace isn’t keen on collections of short stories. With your first collection, Anthropology, you not only wrote a series of short stories – they were very short short stories. Did you entertain any trepidation as you approached publishers? I know from what you were saying earlier that you like books that don’t appear to be written to a publisher’s brief. Equally, writers write to be read, and if you can’t get published, well….

DR: It’s not just received opinion – it’s the way it is. Everybody told me I wouldn’t get my short stories published, and that’s completely understandable, but I was youngish at the time, and cocky enough to believe my stuff was different enough and would be spotted and published. There is growing support for the short story – there are a few festivals around, and a few prizes, particularly the new one in Cork – but I strongly feel that collections should be eligible for the big fiction prizes. The fetishisation of the novel gets my goat. If Chekhov was writing here and now he would be barred from the Booker Prize. What does that mean? That he’s not as good a writer of fiction as (insert the name of anyone who’s ever been on the Booker shortlist)? It’s nonsense. The Dylan Thomas Prize is a notable exception. Rachel Trezise and Nam Le have won that with collections, and that’s to the prize’s eternal credit.

SRB: You weren’t impressed to be nominated as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, were you? Did you get anything out the experience?

DR: Granta Schmanta. I could go on for years about why I wish that had never happened, but I’ll try and rein myself in. It was all a long time ago. I don’t want to end up like Morrissey – every time someone puts a dictaphone in front of him he complains about his former drummer. Let it go, Mozzer.

SRB: Is it fair to describe your approach to criticism as pugnacious? Visitors to your web site ( will encounter a section called ‘Dan Rhodes Is Disliked By’ in which you point out mistakes made in bad reviews of your novels. Is it true you used to play at readings a tape recording of a particularly cabbage-brained radio review by Maggie Gee of Anthropology?

DR: That was one of the countless things that made me uneasy about the Granta business – previous lists had included some of my arch enemies. When my first book, Anthropology, came out, it was reviewed on Radio 4 by a panel including Granta alumni Adam Mars Jones and Mag-gie Gee. My mother knew it was going to be on, so she’d rung around the whole family, getting them to tune in. So all my aunts and uncles, and even my grandparents, were glued to the wireless as those sniggering fuckers tried as hard as they could to strangle the book at birth. Why would I want to be associated with those people?  Bad reviews piss me off. Of course they do. They’re either telling me I should-n’t have written what I’ve written, or that I should have watered it down. I was giving a talk at the Aberdeen Word Festival a couple of years ago, and somebody asked about this. I made the point that Ian McEwan says that if you’re going to take your good reviews to heart, then you also have to learn lessons from the bad ones. When I pointed out that I thought this might account for Ian McEwan’s work getting steadily more unreadable, I almost got a standing ovation. Whenever you put something out there is going to be people who don’t like it. Why on earth would you shift your writing a millimetre to accommodate them? I don’t think people were necessarily applauding my point though, they were just fed up of McEwan being beatified. I mean, have you read On Chesil Beach? Ugh. I write for people who like my books, and everyone else can get stuffed. These days, now I have a child, I get even more angry about bad reviews because good reviews are just about the only advertising a book gets, and bad ones turn people away from the book and make it that much harder to support my family. I see them as an assault on my livelihood. Plain bad reviews we let go, but moronic ones – particularly ones with stupid made up ‘facts’ in them – come in for a pasting, and I applaud the volunteers on the web site who take these twerps to task. Why should they have the final say? Still, I’m anticipating blanket praise for my new one so it shouldn’t be a problem this time round. And yes, I would play the Mag-gie Gee quote at readings. It’s just jaw-droppingly inane – ten years on I’m still astounded by it. It always got a laugh – maybe I’ll put it back in the set.

SRB: Are you a political person? I know the story of you leaving your first publisher Fourth Estate when Rupert Murdoch took it over, and how you tried to organise an anti-invasion-of-Iraq open letter signed by your fellow Granta BYBNs. Generally though – correct me if I’m wrong – you don’t touch matters political in your books.

DR: My political activism over the last year has consisted of signing online petitions for the return of the powdered animal-free sausage substitute Sosmix, and for the BBC to reinstate the sitcom Not Going Out in its schedules. Well, my new local health food shop, the Wild Carrot in Buxton, now sells Sosmix, and Not Going Out is coming back this year. So that’s a 100% strike rate for my political activism. Maybe I should have used my powers to bring peace to the world instead, but there you are. Early drafts of my books usually contain political aspects, but by the time I’m finished they’re diminished to asides or even nothing at all. The closest to being overtly political that I get with the new one is a few pages about the way in which dodgily-funded research institutes announce biased and obviously fishy findings which are then presented as facts by the media. Maybe I should have made more of that, and written a John Le Carré-style novel around it. Maybe I will… The Granta pantomime happened just as Blair was gearing up for war. Bearing in mind the way he was so clearly mangling language to get his heinous point across, I thought it might be a nice idea to have a bunch of people who had just been officially declared Good With Words to stand up against him. Sadly, almost half were apparently either on his and Bush’s side, or indifferent to it all. What can you do? It would have given the list some kind of point, but no – it really was just a bunch of school swots standing on boxes. I’m not doing a very good job of not talking about it, am I?

SRB: Finally, why do you write? Is it to amuse and entertain yourself and your readers? Do you want to make moral or satirical points? Or are you more interested in awakening an emotion or sentiment in your readers?

DR: In my early days it was for four main reasons. Above all, it was in the hope of impressing pretty girls. Also, it was a way of making fun of my many romantic travails – it helped give me some much-needed perspective on my self-pity. I also hoped to make some money by doing something I was good at, and finally I wanted to entertain people. It’s showbiz, after all. I’ve been with my wife for six years now, so the context has changed. These days I still want to keep people entertained, and to make a living doing the one thing I can do to any level of competence. And trust me, the money isn’t great – if I don’t earn out my advance my hourly rate for writing Little Hands Clapping will be a lot lower than if I’d been a kid with a paper round, and that’s no way to raise a family. That’s why I tend not to offer vague words of encouragement to aspiring writers – it’s just irresponsible. It’s not much different from encouraging people to make a living by betting on the horses.


Little Hands Clapping

Dan Rhodes

Canongate, £10

pp320, ISBN 9781847675293

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Hearing Voices

The swither is Robin Robertson’s version of negative capability. It suggests a harder and perhaps more violent turning back and forth between certainty and inaction than the Southron habit of ‘dithering’. The cover of Robin Robertson’s third collection of poems Swithering showed a horned, metamorphic figure, a human outline crowned with a wildebeest skull. The image (which might be Kenyan art, or Zulu, but also suggests some Celtic/Pictish/Nordic icon from closer to home) immediately chimes Robertson’s long-standing fascination with Ovidian metamorphosis but also suggests that the mind and imagination are defined as forked with indecision, but also defensively armed with it.

Robertson’s poetry projects something, too, of a minotaur’s loneliness as he negotiates the labyrinth of words. Angry buglings, violent outbreaks, frustrated reversals out of dead ends made up the substance of many of the earlier collections, but with The Wrecking Light, whose voice is instantly recognizable in the way of a poet who found his voice at once and whose work is the refinement of it, one finds guiding threads everywhere, not just the renderings of Ovid (the stories of Pentheus and Dionysus and the Daughters of Minyas from books III and IV of the Metamorphoses), but in the forensically apt detail, the patient diction of a Nor’Easter who has made his way in the South, style-shifting amusedly among the crowds the way his Strindberg here fails to do in the urban hell of Berlin, and projecting a kind of loneliness that isn’t monolithic or monumental, but very much that of the horned man who has stepped aside from the tribe.

Robertson himself stepped aside, and has been offering explanations for it ever since. Originally from Scone, but raised in Aberdeen, he has for more than two decades now worked as an editor at Jonathan Cape with (by his count) more than 50 writers under his charge, the majority of them novelists. It seems an unlikely setting for a man of his sensibilities – withheld, rather than remote or withdrawn – but it’s clear that stewardship of language is a role he takes seriously indeed. While a substantial portion of his life has a metropolitan setting, it’s obvious that Robertson is differently engaged when he can reclaim some residue of an elemental isolation, whether on a Swedish island, almost unconsciously translating (as The Deleted World) the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, or in retreat in Italy, working on the poems in the present volume. His care with language is instinct with a care with language. He is no friend to therapeutic ‘self-expression’ in verse or modernistic experiment with deleted vowels or acrostics. Robertson’s poetry is, in Wallace Stevens’ sense, the “cry of its occasion”, deeply felt but with a stern music interposed between poet and reader. It is also, reassuringly, generously acknowledged. Robertson managed to beat (though only by ten minutes, he insists) his countryman and fellow-translator Don Paterson to a clean sweep of all the major poetry prizes. He won the Forward and Scottish First Book of the Year for A Painted Field.

Qua publisher, one imagines he takes the prize-giving and prize-getting busy very seriously indeed, but there’s a clue to his real feeling in a lovely collection he edited called Mortification, not a poetry book but an anthology of writers’ unfortunate and funny experiences ‘on the road’. It makes salutary reading, and one suspects Robertson himself may leaf through it from time to time the way an enlisting soldier might riffle through an edition of Goya’s ‘Misfortunes of War’ etchings, with a comfortable shudder.

It is no coincidence that The Wrecking Light– or more precisely its first section ‘Silvered Water’ – begins with a short poem ‘Album’ in which the speaker, the ‘I’, is “almost never there”, perceived as an absence from the party scenes and special occasions the album documents. It takes a moment, or a long, even-legged stanza to realise that no one else is there either, and the concluding section seems to reverse the emphasis by placing “the wedding guests, / the dinner guests, / the birthday- / party guests” one level of reality below hastily constructed snowmen with faces picked out in chips of coal. ‘Silvered Water’ refers to the tradition of placing a coin in a bowl before embarking on a journey or making a wish.

The collection begins in self-denial but with an air of hope that is neither specious nor sentimental. Robertson often alludes to crude anthropic forms – that rock art book cover, the calcified “stone-baby” of an ectopic pregnancy and the hare-lipped girls wax dolls and poppets, both in ‘By Clachan Bridge’; also, more remotely, in the “thumbed / maquette of a cat” in ‘Cat, Failing’ – and presents himself, or the persona of ‘Album’, as an almost shapeless blur in the frame. “Look closely / at these snapshots / all this Kodacolor going to blue” is an invitation with all the Movement’s deceptive intimacy and directness, but there is nothing and everything to see, for ‘I’ am everywhere in these unseeable pictures, “this smoke / in the emulsion, the flaw”. Even broken across a line-end the phrase is supposed to make us think of the “ghost in the machine”, and that is the very next word: “A ghost is there: a ghost gets up to go”.

This makes much of just one poem in a rich sequence, but it establishes a mood of not-quite-thereness that feeds Robertson’s procedures and imagery throughout a very various but remarkably consistent sequence. Reference to the Movement poets isn’t simply reaction to a reference to ‘Kodacolor’, but rather to the careful plainness of his vernacular, which comes not out of popcult and Admass, as was the case in the 50s, but from an epical quality of speech and narrative that surrounded him while growing up in the storied bowl between the romantic Highland west and the North Sea. His way of telling a story is more alert to the cadence of the narrative than it is to the content of the narrative. His environments are not imagistic, but defined by sound, like the sounding ice on the frozen lake in ‘Signs on a White Field’ where “a dobro’s glassy note” is what comes back when the speaker skites a stone over the solid surface.

“Robertson’s world is a mixed realm of magic

and reality, past and present, enchantment

and dis-enchantment.”

Sound and sense come together vigorously in ‘By Clachan Bridge’, where the harelipped girl anatomises beasts and falls pregnant to the blacksmith’s son in a story that has a prosey cadence Ted Hughes couldn’t have managed (though he’d have recognised a version of the story from the villages round Mytholmroyd) and a free, folkish music as well. Hughes dwelt on dismemberment as a reminder of urgent cycles of need. Robertson always makes it seem, not prettified, but logical and oddly attractive – and if that seems perverse, then anyone who walks the hills or moors will know that dead animals yield up not disgust but a curious beauty they never had in verminous life. So, the scarred girl cuts up fish to see how they work, “unpuzzled rabbits / to a rickle of bones; / dipped into a dormouse / for the pip of its heart”. Some part of one of these reappears as “plectrum of bone” worn near the throat, the object of a shy gesture with a hand wristed with suicidal scars.

Here, as elsewhere, Robertson’s world is a mixed realm of magic and reality, past and present, enchantments and dis-enchantments. It’s rarely clear what the time-frame is – see the North American imagery of ‘The Plague Year’ for a good illustration of how effectively he mixes it up – and the result is a pleasing confusion between the directly experienced and the read, both for the author and for us. Even when in the past he proposed very specific chronologies, as in the imaginary diary of photography David Octavius Hill, the ‘Camera Obscura’ section of his debut collection A Painted Field, there is a slippage of temporal unity, a bit like a movie maker who passively or deliberately mixes anachronistic elements into his scene-setting.

Of course, nowhere is this more obvious than in the renderings of classical poetry. Robertson’s blunt, unswithering version of the ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ in A Painted Field still has a power to shock, its mixture of classical genre-painting and gangster cruelty remains unsettling as the satyr is skinned and revealed in all his greasy animality (or humanity, if you consider the shaggy hide was a disguise) by men who in Robertson’s bravura version have all the lyricism of pork butchers.  There’s nothing quite as confrontational as that in his versioning of Pentheus and Dionysus, though the new Theban king is another ecstatic dismemberment, and some respects Marsyas, the player of the aulos, is a more appropriate subject for Robertson, who plays a double flute himself in all these poems.

The most obvious difference between A Painted Field and The Wrecking Light, apart from a matter of some dozen years though I suspect these poems gestate and declare themselves out of discernible sequence over time, is a simplification of the language. In addition to Yeats and the Movement, Robertson must also be aware of MacDiarmid as an example, and one to watch. He has stripped much of the polysyllabic and technical stuff away and when MacDiarmid appears, it is as the object of a neck-rub – “I felt, through the tweed, / so much tension / in that determined / neck, those little / bony shoulders” – that relaxes the great man so much he falls over.

Robertson has wisely rejected any sense of poetry as a form that might convey a message, but he does lapse back into something like the MacDiarmid manner in ‘Leaving St Kilda’, where the slow accumulation of Gaelic place names is almost parodic and, disconcertingly, as detached as a celebrity TV tour round the Scottish islands. There are superb shorter poems in the second half of The Wrecking Light. ‘Ictus’ again points to something violent – a seizure – beyond the music of the metre it proposes. ‘Tinsel’ recovers its original meeting of loss and dearth, but still confidently anagrammatizes ‘listen’. These are the work of highly musical poet at the height of his powers and they sustain a strong continuity that has run through Robertson’s work from the beginning, not just A Painted Field and Swithering but ‘Slow Air’ as well.

Most poets, even some of the greatest, are best read volume by volume, and ‘selecteds’ and ‘collecteds’ are only a buyer’s convenience. I suspect the opposite may be true of Robertson. So consistent is the double reed’s double song that he can only be appreciated in bulk. There’s nothing insubstantial about The Wrecking Light but it delivers its meaning in the presence of the earlier books and will sing out even more strongly when, eventually, they are all gathered in.

The Wrecking Light

Robin Robertson

PICADOR, £8.99

pp112, ISBN 9780330515481


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Queequeg No.4

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Donne Deal

In a now (in)famous review of G. Gre-gory Smith’s Scottish Literature: Character and Influence in 1919, T.S. Eliot asked, “Was there a Scottish Literature?” Had he been posing a similar question today, it might be, “Was there a Scottish Modernism?” Recent shifts in the critical terrain can be charted in two books by Marjory Palmer McCulloch: the first, Modernism and Nationalism (2004), was subtitled Source Documents for the Scottish Renaissance, as though, given definitions of modernism as the ‘cosmopolitan’, there was some uncertainty whether ‘modernism’ and ‘nationalism’ could actually be yoked together. The second Scottish Modernism and its Contexts, 1918–59 (2009) has no such hesitation, confidently asserting an extended modernism distinctively at home in Scotland.

The historical irony, however, is that Eliot’s conception of how English literature could be made modern was based on the work of a Scot — H.J.C.Grierson, born in Ler-wick in 1866, who became Professor of English Literature at Aberdeen in 1894 and then at Edinburgh in 1915. When Eliot sent Grierson a copy of his Collected Poems it was inscribed “to whom all English men of letters are indebted”: the debt was to Grier-son’s edition of Donne (1912) and his anthology of Metaphysical Lyrics (1921), which so radically revised the history of English poetry that they inspired new directions not only in the historical analysis of poetry but in its contemporary writing.

It was in reviewing Grierson’s anthology that Eliot developed his influential account of the “dissociation of sensibility”, which claimed to explain the failures of Victorian poetry: the Victorian poets did “not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”, whereas “a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility”. What distinguishes Donne is his ability to bring thought and passion together: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes”. The ability to link the apparently unconnected is the sign of a poetic mind “perfectly equipped for its work”.

Eliot’s argument derives directly from Grierson’s account of Donne. Earlier critics of Donne had denied that he was a great poet because “his songs and elegies lack beauty”, but Grierson insisted that Donne wrote a “dramatic” poetry which “utters the very movement and moment of passion itself”. More like a novel than traditional verse it presents passion with a “vivid realism”. What replaced beauty in Donne’s poetry was its echoes of European tradition: his “metaphysical” conceits were derived from “the subtlety and erudition of a schoolman”, his “imagery drawn from an intimate knowledge of medieval theology”, his poetic styles from Dante and Petrarch and from the revival of the classics.

Only those who could respond to this rich allusiveness could recognise the qualities of Donne’s work, a theme developed by Grier-son in his essay ‘The Background of English Literature’ (1915), in which he argued that the writer is connected to his audience “by a body of common knowledge and feeling to which he may make direct or indirect allusion, confident that he will be understood”, and the most important element in that “common tradition” is the shared tradition of literature that makes it possible for “the poet’s words [to] waken a succession of echoes” which will go all the way back to ancient Greece or Old Testament Israel. The “want of any traditional background” uniting poets with their readers makes the modern world a “difficult period” for the contemporary poet, because the poet “who wishes to give his work a literary background” must write “necessarily for a limited audience, and to some extent he creates his own background for himself”.

It is an argument elaborated in that founding document of Anglophone modernism, Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), in which he stresses that the poet must have “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. Eliot’s The Waste Land, produced in the year after his essay on the Metaphysicals, not only depends on the allusive method that Grierson had described in Donne’s poetry but is full of allusive echoes derived from Grier-son’s anthology of Metaphysical Lyrics.

Grierson provided Eliot with a tradition which could justify his own poetry by situating Donne as the “shaping and determining influence that meets us in passing from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century”, and by insisting that Donne was “in certain aspects of mind and training the most medieval, in temper the most modern”. The modern in literature is not an acceptance of modernity but resistance to it in the cause of a more coherent “metaphysical” approach to literature. Donne thus became the model for a modernist poetry which would appeal to tradition in order to challenge the dissolution of tradition in the modern world: Grierson’s version of Donne would come to dominate English-language criticism till the 1960s.

In England, for instance, I.A. Richards’s method of ‘practical criticism’, developed in the 1920s, was based on explicating what he described as the interinanimations of lan-guage – the “relevant interaction” between “units of meaning” that revealed how to unite “the whole man by the  affections and the faculties”, that is, to reproduce Eliot’s “unified sensibility”. ‘Interinanimation’, however, was a term that Grierson had discovered in Donne’s manuscripts and had reestablished as the best reading of Donne’s ‘The Extasie’: “When love with one another so/ Interinanimates two souls”. A rediscovered poetic paradox becomes the basis of a theory of what poems like ‘The Extasie’ achieve, and thus define what other poems should aspire to achieve.

Grierson’s notes to Donne’s poetry, analysing the interplay of different possible meanings, became the model of a new kind of criticism whose first great exponent was I.A. Richards’s student, William Empson. His influential Seven Types of Ambiguity specifically cites occasions on which Grierson’s editorial decisions are proven by the fact that they allow a greater play of ambiguity in Donne’s texts, and thus produce more complex linguistic objects. Christopher Norris notes that Empson’s own poetry while he was at Cambridge was “written partly in excited response to the current ‘rediscovery’ of Donne, encouraged both by Eliot’s criticism and Grierson’s classic edition”.

Meanwhile in Wales, the young Dylan Thomas was, according to John Goodby and Chris Wiggonton, “an avid reader of Donne”, and linked Donne’s technique to surrealism in order “to forge a semi-surrealised Metaphysical mode”. When Thomas was received rapturously on the campuses of North America after the Second World War it was because a generation of students had been trained on the analysis of Donne by the so-called New Critics, who followed Richards’s methods of close reading. Its exemplary version is Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947), whose title, taken from Donne’s ‘The Canonization’, acknowledges how central was the “passionate thinking” of Grier-son’s Donne to their understanding of literary history and poetic analysis.

Grierson was no less central to the development of Scottish modernism. Grierson emphasised the tension in Donne’s work between “the strain of dialectic, the subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism”. In Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, published in 1919 but first delivered as lectures in 1913, G. Gregory Smith adopted this opposition as the defining element in the whole tradition of Scottish literature: Scottish literature is shaped on the one hand by its “grip of fact”, its “sense of detail”, its “realism”, and, on the other, by its enthusiasm for “the horns of elfland and the voices of the mountains”. For Smith, “the modern Scot is all for observation or given over to dream, a realist or a fantastic”, producing a “zigzag of contradictions” to which Smith attributes the term “the Caledonian anti-syzygy”. It was a characterisation with which Christopher Murray Grieve was to endow his poetic alter ego, Hugh MacDiarmid, and the debt to Grierson was implicitly acknowledged when Grieve asked Grierson to write an introduction to his first collection of poems, Sangschaw, and dedicated one of the first poems in that collection, ‘I Heard Christ Sing’, to Grierson.

The course Grieve took in modelling Mac-Diarmid as a Scottish modernist followed the path laid down by Grierson’s Donne. If, for Grierson, Donne represented the source of the “modern”, Grieve went one better and insisted it was “back to Dunbar”. If Grier-son’s Donne represented a tradition linking medieval to modern, then, for Grieve, Dun-bar’s “unique intensity of feeling” derived from “Braid Scots” as “a great untapped repository of the pre-Renaissance or anti-Renaissance potentialities which English has progressively foregone”. If part of that continuity was Donne’s underlying Catholicism, then Scotland, too, had to rediscover its Catholic heritage – “the line of hope lies partially in re-Catholization”, Grieve insisted in 1927. If all great poetry was “Metaphysical” because it was “inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence”, then Grieve, through the medium of MacDiarmid, set out to create a “metaphysical poetry” in Scots.

So, when working on A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Grieve wrote to his former school teacher that  he was trying to recast his material “into a series of metaphysical pictures with a definite progression”, a “metaphysical” intent which was to be underlined when, in 1962, his U.S. editor of his Collected Poems asked for “titles” for the sections of A Drunk Man to make it easier for the Ameri-can audience, and MacDiarmid entitled a key, culminating section – beginning “I tae ha’e heard Eternity”  – ‘Metaphysical Pictures of the Thistle’.

Grierson had prepared the way for this “Scottish Donne” by many times emphasising that Donne’s only peer in modern love poetry was Burns: “it is only in the fragments of Sappho, the lyrics of Catullus, and the songs of Burns”, he wrote, “that one will find the sheer joy of loving and being loved expressed in the same direct and simple language”. If 2009 was the year of celebration of Burns, then 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of Grierson’s death, should perhaps celebrate the Scottish origins of poetic modernism.

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New Poems – Kona MacPhee & Cheryl Follon

Kona Macphee

Scarlet Fever

In the office, the slender plot-lines on the charts
conspire to veer the wrong way, down, and cross the border
into the rough terrain of in-the-red. Now heads
will roll, he knows, and of course it’s always the foot soldiers first,
no matter how loyal and true, how many years they’ve served.

On the 5:20 home, his mercury’s rising again:
he curses the plague of the mobile phone, and in his mind
the stubby handset clutched by Mister I’M ON THE TRAIN
a few rows down spontaneously explodes, takes out
that oafish head, and all admire the smashed remains,
the lovely splash of scarlet on the window pane.

This evening his wife’s indifferent back in bed is turned
to him, a bracket round the start of private thoughts.
He sleeps a while, then waking sweaty from bad dreams,
he doesn’t sleep. The embery glow of digits on
their squat clock-radio engulfs the corner of
the room, as though a private hatch to hell were waiting
open behind the bedside drawers: a crimson light
in the dark might be a guiding beacon or a warning –
it all depends on whether you know how lost you are.



Today, a mass assembly in the camp
before we get our bromide-tasting tea;
the visiting colonel scolds us, once again:
A military offence to get VD!

We stand in ordered silence for a while,
then Private Fenton, ever the lig, exclaims
Will we be clapped in irons, sir? is sent
straight back to the front-line duty for his pains.

Thus discipline and hygiene are restored;
tomorrow, another virgin soldier falls,
and Private Fenton claps his hands around
the shrapnel-wound that used to be his balls.



the mind pursues
a witless grind
beneath this caul
of lethargy

its constant mate
a fleet of thoughts
that race unchecked
but never free

until the day
(so sweet, so far)
when earth rains
down to lift from me

this brain, its choke
of branching veins,
exchange them for
a stone, a tree



Perfect Blue by Kona Macphee

Bloodaxe Books; £7.95

ISBN: 978 1 85224 866 6; pp63



Cheryl Follon

Voyage In

Oh aye, here’s the soft winds; the fifty-five
species of rock dove; the red fringed
dwarf mushroom; the majestic stork; the scalp.

The ten toes of wisdom; the nail varnish
taken up and applied just so; the old corals;
the pink brandies of the lips; the lappy gullies;


the fronded inlets; the bays where salt tigers go;
the soft winds; the calves and the shins
curved like a moon; the wicked cross currents;

the tug of the shallows; raccoons and their germs;
the soft winds travelling part way there and back;
the lips; the teeth; the filthy dirty fancy looks.


Wolf Called to Bird

I feel hot – do you feel hot? I’m thinking
a shower – damn! it’s hot. Icky.
What the devil’s got into me?
Maybe take a step into a chest-
freezer, cool me down a little –
hold down that lid, just you be a dear.


Those angel blooms sure do look nice up there
hanging off that big tree.
How about you pick a posy?
Women like that sort of thing.
Damn! Why can’t I get cool?
There’s a river running down past my neck here.

If I was your boyfriend I’d take care of you;
wouldn’t treat you bad at all.
I’d love to take care of you (rubbing
his crotch). You look so good
(licking his lips). I’d make sure
you got (drooling) spoiled. Keep you safe.


Damn it! What are you looking at up there
furry-face? I bet you can see
all the way to Grand Isle;
a couple of old codgers
leafing through some cookbook.
Just you get down here and give me a good time.


The Duel

(after the Gond)

My face is full of sin
His mouth is an axle turn
My lips are a spanner in the works
His fingertips are a cocker spaniel
My palms are white as snow
His teeth are lovely as marble
My eyelids are wild as a Turkish dervish dance His back is blond as a stone
My mouth is yellow as cornmeal
His mouth is beautiful as a river
He is the flint
But he has not got the better of me,
His flint has become the touchstone of my soul.



Dirty Looks by Cheryl Follon

Bloodaxe Books; £7.95

ISBN: 978 1 85224 865 9; pp63





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In Broonland

In Broonland

SINCE FIRST the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and Eng-land. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruins; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851.

Recently, after a day in my Kirkcaldy office, I got off the train at North Queens-ferry and walked up to where Gordon Brown’s house views the Firth and an odd, tapering metal tower – the railway bridge, seen end-on. I remembered  Fife sixty years ago, in the summer of 1949.

Then we were off to a family holiday at St Monance and as the train came out of the tunnel just below Brown’s eyrie, there on the right was a one-off panorama, dripping with symbolism. Two battleships were in Inverkeithing Bay: the Nelson and the Rod-ney. The Nelson was still intact, the Rodney was a cadaver, down to its keel and bilges, its armour and guns chopped up and being loaded into railway trucks. Only five years earlier they had been hurling high explosive at the Atlantic Wall.

Their fate was what awaited Turner’s Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth in 1838, though Dreadnought technology was that of the frumpish steam tug towing the three-decker of the Battle Trafalgar in an image of simultaneous triumph, destruction and foreboding, composed by that genius-juggler with light, then rephrased in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters as the apotheosis of Britain: “did any object more exemplify the genius of man than the three-decker warship?”

Every week or so, Gordon Brown would look out on the bay, the firth stretching out to the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law. But could he actually take it in? He was by training a historian. His university girlfriend, Margarita, was a Hohenzollern, of the dynasty brought down in 1918 by underestimating Britain’s capacity for industrialised warfare. Could he have made out the sequence, from Ruskin seeing in Turner’s work a projection of Britain’s progress and fate – successor to Tyre and Venice – to Kipling taking up the theme over fifty years later in ‘Recessional’:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

God of the nations be with us yet Lest we forget! lest we forget!

Brown was given to reading and quoting, and such connections would occur to him. Yet, like Kipling, he viewed the world through clouded sight – something that connected him to that other magus of Britishness: John Milton as Cromwell’s secretary for foreign correspondence, during the closest union that the islands had ever known: Scotland under the solicitous, costly rule of the Major-Generals. If there are power people and feelings people there are also the musical and the mute, word people and eye people.

In traditional culture the bard was blind, spared from battle but kept on as historian, recorder, celebrant. Tom Nairn’s squib on the beleaguered premier ‘The Bard of Britishness’ was well-aimed. Such deviations of the senses would, however, affect what Philip Larkin called the “myth-kitty”, the overall interpretation and use of the national museum. They were not utterly predictable. Churchill’s militarist obsessions were deflected by being a competent painter – expressionist, Mediterranean, ironic, a bit bohemian. Through Lloyd George, he knew William Orpen, Augustus John, Walter Sickert. Lloyd George, the most extraordinary and innovative of the lot, had a background utterly removed from British culture – he only started learning English at five – and a facility to co-opt the talented, wealthy, imaginative and downright devious. “Radical and Welsh home ruler” as Dod’s Parliamentary Companion still described him in 1919, he had signed the cheques for battleships like those in Inverkeithing Bay and used them to destroy German militarism; though in so doing he wrecked the economy of his own Wales and Scotland, triggered the Soviet experiment, the Hitlerian reaction and the Armageddon of 1939-45.

Gordon Brown, as well as the matter of Britain, was the upshot of such experiment, conscious of some ideas and personalities, ignorant of others: perhaps a concentrated image of that parallel Victorian opportunity-predicament – that work and effort would be succeeded by entropy and exhaustion – particularly concentrated in Scotland by the generation of Kelvin and Clerk Maxwell.

Most ironically of all, Scotland was the country he had helped recall to political life in his Red Paper of 1975, that commenced the process which would ultimately distort and condemn his own career. The British Sonderweg would, at the end of the Brown years, prove as cadaver-like as the redundant dreadnoughts. His monument would be – irony moving towards black farce – two huge aircraft carriers, as useless as they were vulnerable, to be welded together in the Rosyth dockyard visible from the other side of the Queensferry promontory. Scotland’s scarce stock of marine technicians would turn away from the North Sea’s life-saving bounty of renewable power and carbon capture to “stuff the carcases” of the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, cost five billions and counting: the Monarchs of Nowhere.

Resuming the politics of Scotland after thirty years – and getting off a bus or ferry meant asking myself ‘when last here?’ as some such distance opened up.  Wordman Brown’s literariness provided a perilous link between present and older, once resilient cultural unities, these days usually rendered by the near-meaningless word ‘iconic’.

2010’s circumstances required another icon. Francois Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451 made in 1964, is set in a future in which a totally visual culture has systemically evicted print. In its coda guerrilla book-people, in a wood outside Paris, have to turn into what they read: “He’s Weir of Hermis-ton; we’re Fathers and Sons …” By learning (from each other) they live. Brown’s whole being – and mine – had been fractured by the end of the Gutenburg age. The ‘“gunpowder, Protestantism, and printing” of Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin’s master and once a Kirkcaldy teacher, had ushered him into the political domain, only to deposit him in Eliot’s Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats …

To return to such high-print-capitalist imagery was simultaneously consolatory and alarming. The last sight we had of that more toothsome EveryScot, Neil Oliver, at the end of the BBC’s History of Scotland was of him stranded in another tract of stony rubbish, the scrubland that had been Ravenscraig Steelworks in Motherwell, as if waiting, not for national rebirth, but for Vladimir and Estragon to turn up, out of another post-protestant threnody, Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Think about the monarchs and even darker symbolism squelched out. The giant aircraft carriers got cross-party support. The SNP’s condemnations of Trident didn’t extend to them  because they brought jobs, just as every new supermarket descending on a Scottish town was greeted ecstatically because it brought jobs. Even if it closed down lots of local shops and businesses and replaced Adam Smith’s merchants and their self-regulating civil society, with microserfs doing the bidding of supervisers and marketing men, and business mortally dependent on petrol. What summed this up was an apparently random, freakish tableau from our temple of commerce, that Church of Shopping whose scripture reads: ‘Pile high. Sell cheap.’

Consumption in contemporary life is not marketing alone: it proceeds to deposition. Snowbound in the borders, I happened on a vast supermarket when its toilet had been visited by a man-mountain who had consumed carbohydrate and liquid sufficient to propel his weight of twenty stone. Evacuating some of this into the toilet, he waddled forth, leaving attendants to cope with a turd so gargantuan as to block the WC. For those of a morbid turn-of-mind the responsible statistic developments were seconded: overweight, obese Scotland breathing tobacco, swallowing carbohydrate, alcohol and sugar, excreting it, dying from it. Thus was brought to mind Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the other end of the avante-garde from Beckett’s Godot, prophet of the modern age at his inauguration in 1896, whose royal greeting was “Merde!”

* * *

APPROACHING a study of Gordon Brown’s statecraft and economics was straightforward enough within its own terms. Or appeared to be so, until the European context of this was factored in. I then found that my criteria had after nearly thirty years effectively migrated from Britain, become European. Symbolically enough, my editors excised my prefatory quote, probably correctly – who in Britain read Rainer Maria Rilke? Yet Rilke’s post-Christianity and its fate had given direction to my work and above all humanised its subject:

The knight rides out in his armour black Out into the windraging world

And outside is all, the day and the vale And the friend and the foe and the feast in the hall

And May and the maid and the wood and the Grail

And God himself a thousandfold, minding every road.


Yet in the knight’s armoured shell Behind the darkest ring

Death squats and plots:

‘O when will the blade come home through this ring of steel,

the fremd, piercing blade:

to take me from here

where I bide cramped, day-long

so I can stretch myself

and play

and sing?’

The poem and its translation preoccupied me; because it seemed relevant to part at least of the Brown disaster. Rilke’s knight, starting out in the florid vocabulary of romanticism, ends like Eliot in his waste land: that thin chant of hope wiped out by a final, physical but also mental, negation.

Scotland from its earliest dealings on the international stage balanced its Europeanness against its own internal cohesion, what Ernest Gellner called its “strong” civil society: church, law, burghs, learning. Goethe and after him Herder read MacPherson’s Ossian; Herder translated Burns, and Thomas Carlyle would publicise the whole Weimar galere, and German learning. Thomas Common of Corstorphine translated Nietzsche, William Archer of North Berwick Ibsen. Hugh MacDiarmid introduced Rilke to the British canon in the 1920s, following Eliot’s borrowing from J G Frazer’s Golden Bough and Herbert Grierson’s ‘Metaphysical Poets’ essay of 1921. If anything Scots Europeanism had strengthened after 1707 as a means of balancing the Union. Now, 2010, post-millennium England seems to us continentals to have acquired the same sort of exotic archaism that pre-1745 Scotland presented to the Whig English in Scott’s Waverley. Attempts to suggest a way out for the United Kingdom through the carpentry of constitutional and federal reconstruction had grounded on les barricades mysterieux, submerged cultural roads. Where now?

It was at this point that I found myself putting my own cultural geography into play, after thirty years of professing British and Irish Studies at the University of Tuebingen. To re-read Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus: Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh of the Chair of Things in General at the University of Weissnichtwo, on the Philosophy of Clothes, was at least to get a bead on a model of our discontents, and perhaps a way forward.

Our cultural paradox seemed akin to what confronted Carlyle: the dominance of unsubtle Newtonian scientism, the replacement in religion of organisation over reverence, the breakdown of society into economic competition. And most agonisingly of all, the sense that one’s own generation was responsible for the decline. For those of us who in the 1960s and 1970s bridged the end of the Gutenberg age and the experimental new media, every day had been Christmas: cheap literate paperbacks, Dennis Potter and John McGrath on the telly, adaptations of Sartre, Flaubert, Mann and Suedermann. Henry Miller at the Edin-burgh Literary Conference. Love’s pleasures came with a new reading list: Kate Millett, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing, Sheila Row-botham. Within months, there was the start of the Open University, and of the remarkable 1970s, something not conveyed in the taxidriverese of TV history – incessant strikes, unburied bodies, Maggie to the rescue, etc. – but stylish, independent, adaptable and, even on North Sea rigs, heroic. Scotland was poised to go somewhere new, and this poise was given a person in Gor-don Brown.

The 1980s were delusive, the 1990s pure loss. Brown thought he presided over a transforming “knowledge revolution” in British capitalism, but this problem child had mutated, matured, and incestuously impregnated its own offspring. Cultural capitalism elided the necessary boundary between cash return and moral discrimination. Carlyle’s “demon of mechanism” reappeared to impose a similar comprehensive agenda: everyone made to follow a syncopated Cool Britannic agenda – the new art galleries, the literary competitions, the book-to-jazz fests became Darwinian processes to select ‘Number One Best Seller’ winners, driven by the potency of profit; while outside the shrinking boundaries of the State of Gutenberg, the crazy plot-lines of the soaps merged with the even crazier variants of reality TV. ‘Reality’ and ‘iconic’ joined ‘celebrated’ in the supermarket dump-bucket.

The pabulum of Brown’s youth, say the original Doctor Finlay’s Casebook adapted from A J Cronin in the 1960s, had been Ibsen and water. The Scots Catholic panel doctor had after all inspired the young Aneurin Bevan in Tredegar. Forty years on, to watch Monarch of the Glen, based on another good-read author of the 1930s, the nationalist Compton Mackenzie, was to be force-fed with tablet. Ukania’s “cultural capitalism” had quite different criteria from the busyness of the Scots 1980s: Gray, Kel-man, Byrne et al., but Scots were apt learners of the argot. A fricative intellectual scene in the 1980s was sharply grossed up by the big booksheds into the ‘Number One Best Seller’ show, with J K Rowling co-opted as the Scots ubernovelist – and bankroller of Brown – because she was rolling in geld. Scotland had become a brand, and the brand was sales.

Parody was a control on this sort of thing. Someone mentioned recently the absence of any Scots cartoonist, akin to Carl Giles or Osbert Lancaster in the English past, or Bud Neill in the 1950s, created their reflectively manic private worlds. There was a useful Edinburgh guerrilla in Frank Boyle of the Evening News, but he didn’t empathise much with his feral shell-suits and hadn’t yet the cumulative subversion Posy Simmonds directed at Metrolit in Literary Life or Tamara Drewe. In the first, a slightly foxed critic at a party slurs over the girl with the canapés: “You’re so beautiful, you ought to be a novelist.” In Drewe, a nasty rock drummer slags off the put-upon heroine’s rustic litterateurs: “a bunch of deadbeats in elasticated waistbands”. Ouch.

“Scotland was poised to go somewhere new, and this poise was given a person in Gordon Brown”

We are in Tom Nairn’s Necrosis Country. Almost literally.  Holyrood got two million hits on Google; Grand Theft Auto IV 87 million. The mayhem of its screenplays made Hobbes’ State of Nature look paradisiac, while our political party world seemed as abstracted from their version of reality as Alasdair Gray’s ‘Institute’ in Lanark. Politics seemed no country for young men. Hardly anyone under 26 featured in them, outside the spads and gofers who revolved around the leaderships. At the last count St Andrews Nationalist Students numbered three, and this had been the nursery of Alex Salmond. Had Yoof downsized its reading to invest digitally? Maybe, though no-one had actually worked out the economics of this. Balancing my own online enlightenment against expenditure made me look like a one-man version of Fred Goodwin’s finest hour. Our ignorance of foreign languages, by now engrained, seemed to have spread to the native tongue. From time to time letters about complex subjects would arrive, even from authoritative bodies, whose meaning thanks to wayward syntax was anyone’s guess. Yoof faced huge challenges, particularly from its bosses: us. e baby-boomers had taken early retirement and expected the youngsters to work and save on our behalf -while presenting no reassuring role models.

* * *

BRITAIN was white-shrouded for the New Year satellites. On the box a blechlawine (tin-avalanche) of winking headlights supposedly reassured as some commuters headed home; but for how long? The economics of oil say it will run out before I do. The $10 barrel was in 1999 and it wouldn’t be back. The world’s new fields were in perilous places: Indonesia, Vietnam, the Caspian, Venezuela. Jaggy graphs showed ahead, each rise bigger than the last. The $300 dollar barrel by 2030? Our current political economy of transport offered, instead of apprehension, J K Galbraith’s vacuous “culture of contentment” with long fallow spells spent at the wheel, while bikes made you fit and small computers made buses into offices. The bill, when it came, couldn’t be met.

I found that Broonland, my study of Gor-don Brown’s economics, was pervaded by the sense of an ending. But whose ending?

Friends hoped my short political career would be influential and, though agnostic about my capabilities, I could sense, with the SNP government, a political drama into which my experience might fit, despite the inevitable public embarrassments when lecture-theatre and tabloid collided. The euphoria of gaining one’s way street by street contrasted with specific policy debates: not just about Scottish government business but anent the foregoing ‘Matter of Britain’. A historian who has been a political participant may be over-prone to metatheories of social change. The problem comes when these must be related to personal situations, individual capabilities.

The personal element came from going into politics deliberately and out of loss: of many friends and my wife. I first visited Holyrood only days after Virginia’s funeral and, prompted by lines out of R S Thomas – “those great glass towers which are laboratories of the spirit” – saw that it might give me the chance to take risks about a foreseen crisis. A fortnight before, V had been sitting up in bed – something out of Anglo-Irish stoicism and Buddhist practice made her an undemanding invalid – reading Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, which starts with Lady Glencora’s death and Omnium’s desolation but ends with him at about fifty joining a Liberal government in an advisory role. When Alex Salmond made contact we seemed in for an upheaval. I might be able to map it for the benefit of others, as a contribution from those to whom I stood as trustee.

Set against a continuously absorbing life: the Borders, Edinburgh, Oxbridge, London, boats and railways, the Open University, broadcasting, Germany, France, etc., and being able to experiment in teaching and writing through the OU and the German seminar system, was a circle halved by death. Not in any epidemic, predictable way, but from cancer, thrombosis, alcohol, suicide; the self-neglect of folk committed to ideas and politics. In 2007 the economic crisis came, which would bring the action before me, early every Wednesday, on the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. I found I had got there before the others; a critique of Gordon Brown’s economics being carried in the Guardian in May 2004. This in turn had been affected by Tuebingen seminars on political fiction in which economics students pointed out flaws in ‘light touch regulation’ which added up to what would later become known as ‘moral hazard’. A book which had come out in the same year as Brown’s Red Paper, John Mack and Hans-Juergen Kerner’s The Crime Industry (1975) argued that computers, globalisation and tax havens would blur the line between “robust business practice” and outright criminality. The space between them would be filled by various difficult-to-regulate-or-prosecute operations, up to and including substantial frauds, along with energetic money-laundering from the proceeds of international villainy: arms-and-people-smuggling, counterfeiting, and of course drugs.

My economics students were now increasingly alienated from a mathematical approach, which filleted the discipline of any social content. It proved quite easy to enlist them as fellow researchers: we had an impressive case in the next town, Reutlin-gen, where the boss of Willy Betz, Europe’s biggest road haulier, faced fraud, bribery and coercion charges running into several million Euros. By the time I came to contest Kirkcaldy the dot.bomb scandals in Britain were succeeded by the still uninvestigated Farepak failure, occasioned by an HBOS foreclosure: the first sign of something bigger falling apart. Even so the dimensions of the crash when it came, in autumn 2008, were overwhelming – not only to us, we soon discovered, but to most of Edinburgh’s financial community. Even in early 2010, the front line between the new plutocracy of ‘kleptocrat bankers’ and the public interest is only now becoming distinct. An earlier, more politicised, generation would not have taken so long to react: something sketched in two books by the BBC commentator Misha Glenny. In The Rebirth of History (1999) the new order in East Europe was heroically democratic, led by dramatists and samizdat journalists. In McMafia (2008) the change was down to the sharp-eyed, cash-seeking spawn of the nomenklatura backed up by redundant thugs from the secret police.

* * *

THE problem about Scottish and British political writing was not just that economics had gone asocial, but that historians and political scientists didn’t talk to one another, let alone to cultural interpreters. A crisis provoked by the mathematical, mega-nerd, deformities of the Chicago school, was unforeseen and hence uninsured against. Satire on the public service had denoted the novels of C P Snow and William Cooper, and in a more farcical sense Yes, Minister. But by the 1990s their objective correlative – power stations and new towns and motorways – had vanished from the public sector and business of statecraft, replaced by the statistical entrails of polls and house prices, degenerating to peak viewing figures and the votes for reality TV contestants.

Our Scottish national movement was also cultural: there to be fed on the one thing needful, not just to match other cultures but to overreach them: apt to clutch at random dishtowel screeds of inventors, which classed Michelle Mone, the lingerie entrepreneur, alongside James Clerk Maxwell, the pioneer physicist. Think about a rather driven critique of the SNP: Tom Gallagher in The Illusion of Freedom on Alex Salmond, seen as a milder version of Welles’s Citizen Kane. A key point in his indictment was the First Minister’s wish, asked about a favourite past, to live in Byzantium. Ah, says Gal-lagher, a yen for the arcane mysteries of Bamboozlium. Not so. Salmond knows his poetry, corresponded while a student with R S Thomas, and Yeats’ Byzantium was an obvious fascination:

The unpurged images of day recede;

The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed; Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song

After great cathedral gong;

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins.

Perhaps Yeats got the symbolism from John  Buchan, whose story ‘The Watcher by the Threshhold’  has a Scots laird haunted by Emperor Justinian. Tyrant in a city foetid with intrigue, he was also the restorer of empire, church-builder, founder of civil law. Yeats’ Byzantium is a totality and an epoch.

An interest in Yeats’ ‘System’ may be as suspect as populism, although it is little different from other Conservative cosmologies. Yeats saw the migration of worship from Greece to Constantinople as the end of his classic cycle, the beginning of law. At Olympia in the workshop of Pheidias, the Chryselephantine Zeus, his image of civilization, had been fashioned; it was captured and transported around 600 AD. The point about that surviving huge and unglamorous shed was that it was built to carry an overhead crane along its length: transporting parts – stone, ivory, crystal, gold – from the craftsmen’s workshops to the great statue. It was the first erecting shop, of a type multiplied along the Clyde in the nineteenth century. Which we thought until months ago we could do without.

Tom Gallagher got Salmond wrong; yet suggested that a more subtle decoding of complex symbolism could enable resilient national conversations. Carlyle, Buchan, Yeats and after him Salmond seemed to pace along the same path: trying to break out of a cyclic history, presently voiced by the doomed British state, concerned to explore the psychological truths behind religious and political systems, broadly defined. Such notions, of being able to move in and out of historical epochs, are not dilettantism but present on one hand images of ease and recuperation, and on the other maps of unexplored and potentially troublesome history.

Again one came back to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.  Amazed, of course, how anyone got through this cocktail of German Sturm und Drang and Calvinist sermon, but then dragged along by its sheer energy and insight. The ‘Everlasting Yea’ is knowledge smashing into the formulae of authority. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh’s “philosophy of clothes” is sociology without obscurantism, an exhilarating debate between ‘commonsense’ philosophy’s general rules and the panoramas of boundless self-education. Out of it comes the injunction: in a crisis like the present, don’t retreat into the habitual and quantifiable, which are discredited any way, but use the energy you reap from its chaos and new means of transmission to seek out pragmatic general theories and diffuse them.

In Carlyle there was a democratic kernel, nurtured in the wilds of Dumfriesshire, that he couldn’t ultimately live up to, so terrifying was the ambition and energy required. But it was infective: as if he combined with Burns to compass the achievement of William Blake – lyric inspiration and complex world-philosophy. Carlyle’s goal was something like Max Weber’s verstehen: a charting of possible futures, and global in its conspectus: His ‘Hero as Prophet’ in 1841 wasn’t Knox or even Luther but Mahomet. Timely, since coping with the last has been a task the technically-advanced West tried to filter through troops, money, febrile post-industrial social relationships and a media, broadsheet as much as tabloid, far gone in escapism.

What Carlyle had conveyed was the centrality of social science, and the multiplicity and interchangeability of cultural codes. It was better to hold matters together in a general forum, of practical and immediate value, than to allow them to drift apart into mumbo-jumbo and arcane specialism. On the other hand, it involved stripping the Scots of the comfort they derived from a largely confected nationality. ‘The Condition of England’ was the necessary reduction of the UK to its majority component, and ultimately Carlyle gave up on it. But out of his vast learning there emerged an alternative destination for Scotland: its institutions as part of a humane internationalism.

This ranged from ‘the Gods of the copybook headings’ – a proposition as unpopular among Victorian politicians as among any of their successors. ‘Two and two make five’ is not from 1984 but from Anthony Trol-lope, bequeathed via Kipling to Orwell. All institutions compel. To act like Truffaut’s book-people was to keep a dialogue alive, and if it was livelier outside Scotland, to connect with it.

There was the balance of public and private, home and abroad, literary and visual. Last year John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, first shown in 1987, was resurrected on DVD. This had taken over twenty-three years, a whole generation, for the BBC to do. Was Scotland all that different from England? Yes. Converting procrastination into life support/art form: as in German faculty life when the agenda dries up, preserve tedium by revising the examination statutes.

But back to Byrne and the Majestics. Bomba peers round the B & B door “What are you lot watching? Christ… Postman Pat in Gaelic!” To reappear an hour later, asking “What happened?” Indeed what has happened since 1987? At 9 am Pat and cat are still incomprehensible, though in real life declared redundant. The Gaelic-speaking population has dwindled further. But the bureaucracies have continued to grow, inside and outside the state system. What remains of the public service? What fraction of our conscience and initiative does its oligarchy consume? What use can culture be in springing it?

Where there might have been dialectic, there was instead too much information to digest or properly edit, except through the random, hazardous strategies of flyting and the dialogues of the Edinburgh pubs. Angus Calder, our greatest historian and a fine critic and poet, showed alcohol was, as ever, the worst of masters.  William Boyd got on the trail of the Scots and film culture in his novel The New Confessions (1987) with an innovatory link to the world of John Grierson and Sandy Mackendrick – the transposing of vastness and intimacy – which Scotland can and must manage, but then seems to have stalled. The importance of national myths ought to be, since they are wide-ranging enough – religious, aesthetic, scholarly, historical – to slap laziness and impose good behaviour. Otherwise the cockroach-like survivor will be post-modern irony, twittering and tweeting.

My own inclination at 65 would be to modulate to painting, long neglected, and a poetry akin to Brahms Ernst Gesaenge, which he wrote for himself. But my material had been about huge forces: universities, constitutions, steelworks, railways, oil rigs, ocean liners, all the apparatus on view at North Queensferry. If I set out to explain what all this did to each other and to us, who used them profligately but now have little to show for it, why stop?

Metrolit’s audience, however, was addressed by mass-artists, sometimes conjured into weird popularity by the political endorsement of “being seen on the telly’: William Hague on William Pitt, Fionn Hague on David Lloyd George, making millions, adding nothing new. I got the bum’s rush from the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004, after having impudently suggested that it was Waterstone’s, only bigger. Various members of our literaturist establishment wrote to the Scotsman, vociferous in condemnation if limited in literary production. At the end of that road are the trophy historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, ‘War’ weighing down Waterstone’s shelves, and dinner with the Browns. Enough.

Such an establishment depends on an oligarchy pre-empting political power, possessing the sitzfleisch of the bureaucracy, and the mastery of over-large governmental units.  Just as we need new and responsible finance capital, we need sheltering institutions bridging the arts and society, which will tend this fragile country as his friends looked after Angus Calder. Something local, that cannot coexist with the loutish extremities of wealth encouraged by recent orthodoxies and oligarchies.

* * *

AND so to an agenda, but one in which moderately-priced reforms, achievable within the present system, demand compensatory savings and an ecologically-minded framework.

Anticipate the approach of Peak Oil, and set in motion plans for a radical restructuring of fuel demand, diminishing transport’s dependence on oil drastically and safeguarding our informational/media resources, powered by high-efficiency means. Audit our need for complex financial products and associated structures, instead prioritising ‘narrow’ banking (state bank plus local savings banks) and housing funding for high thermal efficiency (reviving building societies). Introduce universal social service for eighteen-year-olds, using the gains from this to subsidise higher education, shifting it from Adam Smith’s “rental occupations” (law, public relations, which themselves have displaced the humanities) to the technologies we need to survive. Create an economy based on the valuation of carbon, positive in terms of energy delivered, negative in deterring carbon foot-printing. Increase the voluntary element in local government, by the creation of ‘energy and environment boards’ at small-town, city-district and region level.

This was what I believed in when, after the debacle of  the 1979 referendum, I left for Germany: and it was justified by what met me: the strength of the old traditions of lehrfreiheit and lernfreiheit: freedom of the academic to teach and the student to learn. For me this worked, in a way which the students matched – though unreflected in Ger-man faculty organisation, which remained, and alas remains, paralytic. Carlyle’s resource was the scholar’s ambition, something which welled up “frae unplumbed depths” as MacDiarmid put it. This drive to systematise and poeticise knowledge contrasted with the myopic over-specialisation too common in today’s Scotland. It went back to the philosophical first year of the Scots university tradition, something that sits well with the advances of modern digital learning and editing, and must return.

Against this? Here I misjudged. Back in 1977 in the first edition of Scotland and Nationalism I assumed that a specialist elite, the group to which Red Paper Gordon Brown belonged, could with devolution become a benign power elite. This was too simple. Power could continue to deal and pay without bothering to diffuse a democratic enlightenment; those worried about it could weigh up the risks and be of use elsewhere. Out of that experience I can help, but it will be up to others to build up continuing action.

“A deep and smooth river” had been Walter Scott’s image of the Union in Waverley. But on the Queensferry promontory Brown seemed out of Ibsen, from young tormented Pastor Brand to old tormented John Gabriel Borkman in his penultimate work of 1896. The dying Borkman, a banker jailed for fraud, struggles from his house up to a belvedere where he imagines his “Kingdom”: his steamers, his factories, and the gold he has animated to build them:

That blast is the breath of life to me. That blast comes to me like a greeting from subject spirits. I seem to touch them, the prisoned millions; I can see the veins of metal stretch out their winding, branching, luring arms to me … You begged to be liberated and I tried to free you. But my strength failed me; and the treasure sank back into the deep again.


Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown

Christopher Harvie

Verso; £8.99

pp256 : ISBN: 13 978 184467 439 8


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