by SRB

Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Reviews

February 19, 2010 | by SRB

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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