Monthly Archives: November 2010

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A Broad Nature – 100 Years of Norman MacCaig

If MacCaig doesn’t come to mind at once as standing in the front rank of Scotland’s poets of the twentieth century, the obvious question is: why not?

Virginia Woolf claimed that human character changed “on or about December 1910”. Norman MacCaig arrived on the cusp. He was born in Edinburgh on No-vember 14, and pretty much divided his life between there and Lochinver, which became the two chief landscapes of his imagination. If he’s modern – and that has to be the conclusion – then he’s modern in the way John Donne was ‘modern’, which is an aspect of character rather than nature; think how often Woolf is misquoted as announcing a change in human nature, which isn’t the same thing at all. MacCaig’s modernity was still unmistakably formed in an older cast, before character and perspective flattened post-impressionistically, before modern became Modernist, before poets started playing tennis with the net down. He processes ideas and sensations with equal parts seriousness and passion, but there’s no giveaway in that. Whatever T.S. Eliot might have said a decade later about ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, it isn’t possible to sort sensibilities into queues marked ‘dissociated’ and ‘undissociated’. Eliot’s intention was imperial, just as his manner was imperious, his historical perspective questionable and his sense of humour intermittent and cruel. Nothing defines or positions Norman MacCaig more completely than his classical laughter and stoic generosity, but it’s also what tends to marginalise him. Whether or not the change occurred on or about December 1910, humour became a mark of the minor, inferior to ‘irony’; whatever that is.

A centenary doesn’t in itself confer venerability, but is there still a need, almost a decade and a half after MacCaig’s passing, to make a case for him? If he doesn’t come to mind at once as standing in the front rank of Scotland’s poets of the twentieth century – which means in the same instinctive breath as MacDiarmid, Sydney Graham, Iain Crich-ton Smith, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown and Edwin Morgan – or if you find yourself saying “and, of course, Norman MacCaig”, where the reinforcer covers but also confirms a certain oversight, then the obvious question is: why not?

There is never a single reason why some writers become, if not neglected or obscure in reputation, quietly occluded. MacCaig’s vein of humour, as evident in performance as on the page, may offer a partial explanation. He is both teachable and was an approachable teacher, even in later years overcoming his doubt that poetry could be taught by meeting students at the University of Stirling and at Edinburgh. Perhaps more insidious, though, is the sense that, in contradiction to what the Marxists used to say, quantity dilutes quality. Like his prose counterpart and near contemporary Robin Jenkins, he may simply have written too much. The Collected Poems of 1985 included more than a hundred pieces that had not appeared in book form before, and when MacCaig died scores more unpublished poems came to light: not unusual, but it exerts a certain pressure on critical opinion.

A new selected poems, The Many Days, ably compiled for Polygon by Roderick Watson, gathers the best – but often the not-obviously best – of MacCaig’s work into a manageable compass, and illuminatingly breaks down the work into thematic areas that allow the poems to speak not only for themselves but also, in Watson’s arresting phrase, among themselves. If he didn’t go in much for the seventeenth century ‘reinvented poem’, in which the poet successively advances and discards ways of expressing his feelings, dramatising the effort of making the poem, he does something like this between one poem and the next. A section called ‘Ineducable Me’ attempts to catch something of MacCaig’s cheerful cross-grain. ‘Old Maps and New’ suggests how the verse, which always seems very particular, also coincides with an evolving understanding of Scottish history, while ‘Among Scholars’ puts Mac-Caig himself in a northern landscape.

His self-descriptions didn’t help much, even if they were interview throwaways, like ‘Zen Calvinist’ or the wry admission that he was only thought of as the man who wrote about toads and frogs. But then again, they’re probably the best and most accurate descriptions we have. Li Po appears more than once in name, and often in spirit, in the work, while that gnarly amphibian with its sumo wrestler’s crawl was an iconic figure in Anglo-American poetry long before he crawled under MacCaig’s door; ever since Marianne Moore stated that her aim was to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them, we’ve reacted strongly to their presence in verse, mostly missing the point.

We also maybe find in MacCaig a coolness, even coldness, where we are wrongly used to looking for warmth from a lyric poet. He is a master of the “irritations and icy ecstasies” that MacDiarmid said were the defining character of the poet in ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’, not the “warm heart-felt feeling” that invariably delivers banality. ‘Cool’ is better than ‘cold’ for MacCaig, and in every sense.

My father, also a schoolmaster, was very impressed by how clear and tidy MacCaig’s desk was, in contrast to his own fault-zone of marked essays, textbooks and newspaper cuttings. MacCaig also referred to his empty desk in interviews, hinting that it stood for something more profound about him: a lack of baggage and of intellectual clutter, perhaps. One might imagine a selection from Donne, or perhaps Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics in Penguin, tucked away in the back of a drawer, but our impression of him is disconcertingly clear of ‘influence’. He is hard to position because he doesn’t obviously follow or resemble. He wasn’t part of the Movement, and after Riding Lights in 1955 made it clear he didn’t want to be part of any movement. He disliked the Black Mountain Poets, humphed at the Objectivists (even if he seemed to resemble them in some particulars) and probably politely ignored the Martians. In later years, he might cite Her-bert or Holub as modern poets he admired, which wasn’t an affected cosmopolitanism so much as an aniseed trail to confuse the critical hounds. And it worked. I once tried to construct an argument that drew a line between the two Herberts, George and Zbigniew, in relation to MacCaig; it revealed nothing, but it gave Norman a laugh.

His mature classicism wasn’t merely a matter of style but a function of his university schooling. Just as Greek and Humanity started to lose their grip in Scottish education, MacCaig seemed to reassert their centrality, not to the extent of writing eclogues but in the confidence and deceptive simplicity of his form.

It wasn’t always so. The 1985 Collected starts some way into the story, MacCaig having disavowed his two earliest volumes and in the gap between The Inward Eye in 1946 and Riding Lights almost a decade later reshaped his conception of poetry as perception in the grip of rhyme. He is perhaps the finest rhyming poet of the last fifty years and his half-rhymes, quarter-rhymes and sometimes tricky sight-rhymes make Paul Muldoon, who is thought to have cornered this market (I once said Muldoon could rhyme ‘knife’ with ‘fork’; he did once pair ‘anorak’ and ‘Nairac’), read like a beginner. So: MacCaig could go as plinkingly as ‘grass/glass/shines/lines’ in ‘Summer Farm’ or he could be as subliminal as ‘up/deep … crans/chains … bag/Dog’ in ‘Drifter’, also taken at random from that first collection. It is tempting to suggest that this latter sort is poetry written with the qualities of prose, but exactly the opposite is the case.

He told me that he had no instinct for prose and was uninterested in novels. The only novelist I heard him mention approvingly was Tolstoy, who it occurs to me now, with such delight I can’t bear to check the detail, died the week MacCaig was born. If there was a crossover in the aether it imparted not just a span of generosity but a sense of how difficult and also how challenging it is to record not just landscapes and interiors

with figures, which are genrepieces, but figures in a landscape, interacting with it. He even seems to acknowledge this in ‘Sheep-dipping’ from the 1957 volume The Sinai Sort, but it’s prefigured at the very beginning of Riding Lights, among the earliest of the acknowledged poems, where in ‘Instrument and agent’ he writes, “In my eye I’ve no apple; every object / Enters in there with hands in pockets, / I welcome them all, just as they are, / Every one equal, none a stranger”.

It is a delightful representation of what a Freudian might identify as the therapeutic ideal of ‘evenly suspended attention’, which is perhaps the one sine qua non for a lyric poet. ‘Sheep-dipping’ extends and makes sceptical variations on the idea; It opens, “Eyes, with one glimpse, can gather in / The simple details of the scene / Yet cannot gaze enough at all / The figures in it.” I think this is a key poem, partly for how that stanza ends, which I’ll come to, but also because it helps to show how MacCaig’s first two acknowledged volumes relate to the strange pair that went before it.

* * *

I write a regular column for an American music web magazine. It is called ‘Far Cry’ and because the magazine in question, Point of Departure, features other similar jazz references among its furniture, it is assumed that my title is a homage to saxophonist Eric Dolphy. It does usefully suggest that, but the phrase comes from MacCaig’s first published collection (with an echo of Robin Jenkins’ A Far Cry From Bowmore). Mac-Caig published his Far Cry in 1943, under the influence of the New Apocalypse movement, the anthology of that name and its two overheated successors The White Horseman and Crown And Sickle. These were edited by Henry Treece, with Glasgow born J. F. Hen-dry and G. S. Fraser also involved. A reaction against the ‘engaged’ literature of the 1930s, the movement was premised on D.H. Law-rence’s elevation of instinct and the blood over logic and meliorism, and his belief that the rational man had to give way to the will, a mammalisation of ethics that didn’t so much imply a Woolfian change in human character as an assault, armed by Freud and Groddeck, on Enlightenment human nature.

That the MacCaig we know from The White Bird, Tree Of Strings, The Equal Skies or the later A World Of Difference should ever have subscribed to such ideas seems strange and improbable, and he seemed to regard it subsequently as embarrassing, but Far Cry and The Inward Eye shouldn’t be too readily dismissed. I tend to think there is some fine poetry in both of them, though it only makes sense retrospectively. In Riding Lights and The Sinai Sort we find MacCaig discovering his language. I still find the greatest pleasure in reading these two volumes (and make no apology for dwelling on them at the expense of later books), not because there wasn’t better work to come, but because they contain in kernel everything that he was to sow over the next forty years. Most importantly, they establish the position of the poetic voice in the poem, which is neither confessional nor, ironic nor studiously detached.

MacCaig made this clear in 1969 with A Man In My Position, some of which was commissioned by the BBC, in which he effectively sums up his various rhetorics and themes – the Li Po aura of the opening ‘Night Fishing on the Willow Pool’ immediately followed by a return to Old Testament quiddities in ‘Confused heretic’ – but also tips his hand a little: “Hear my words carefully. / Some are spoken / not by me, but / by a man in my position.” What follows is a kind of love poem rather than a standard disclaimer that the speaking voice and any opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the author.

“ He is perhaps the finest rhyming poet of the last fifty years and his half-rhymes, quarter-rhymes and sometimes tricky sight-rhymes make Paul Muldoon, who is thought to have cornered this market (I once said Muldoon could rhyme ‘knife’ with ‘fork’; he did once pair ‘anorak’ and ‘Nairac’), read like a beginner.”

The dominating principle of Riding Lights is time. If time seemed like a romantic abstraction in Far Cry, which like much of the Apocalyptic output suggests William Blake in the Blitz, it suddenly begins to tick in the 1955 collection. The page unfreezes, the voice establishes a cadence; time is not redeemed but set in motion. By contrast, The Sinai Sort attempts a kind of personal theodicy, in which the word – sometimes capitalised, sometimes not – does not exist as an absolute but only as it functions in time and context. It is always fascinating to track the progress of certain words in MacCaig’s poems. Highlighted, they form little mandalas of connected colour in a collected edition: time-describing words predominantly in Riding Lights, ‘green’, ‘Eden’ and its plural, and ‘purse’, which features again in the famous toad poem. The title of the second acknowledged collection is taken from an uncharacteristically long poem of the time, one that flirts with Apocalyptic language again: “If all the answer’s to be the Sinai sort, / The incorruptible lava of the word / Made alphabetic in a stormspout, what / Mere human vocables you’ve ever heard / Poor golden calf, could overbear, I wonder, // The magniloquence of thunder?” It’s clever, subtly musical and in context strangely funny.

It chimes, in my mind at least, with ‘Sheep-dipping’, whose opening stanza ends with “For even those / That stand in idleness reveal / A ritual significance.” Even the hirds and hands who stand about, spitting “wisely” on the ground, are part of a baptismal rite. The yowes have “Bourbon heads”. The tally-man is a “saint” inscribing numbers in his book. The unifying element is sound “Offended ass and lamentable / Contralto and passionate tenor, all / Quavering together, with one treble / Desperate and comical.” And comical it is. MacCaig’s language convinces us it is so, even as he nudges us towards some William Blake/Samuel Palmer/Illustrated Family Bible trope of shepherding as a gathering in of souls. These woolly souls are being rid of ticks. We are being rid of certain tics of interpretation. It is interesting that when MacCaig returns to the subject some years later in ‘Sheep dipping, Achmelvich’, there is none of this baggage except for the memory of the earlier poem. It is an evocation of a moment, with a man’s name (“John”) in the only human active part, but this time it is possible to take it all in, in a single poetic moment. In 1957, MacCaig was still self-satirising, still playing with us. By 1965, he no longer needs to. His Edinburgh poems are often unpeopled, too, or only thinly so, and, while one never senses any dreary opposition of country and city as archetype and phenotype, there is a different music for the city, suffused with a gentle desolation that is never evident in the Lochinver poems.

* * *

As I write, a blue tit flicks backward and forward between the fence and my windowsill, letting out its key-in-a-lock squeak. It’s almost too perfect and timely a reminder of ‘Blue tit on a string of peanuts’ from the 1980 collection The Equal Skies and included in The Many Days, nicely placed between ‘Toad’ and ‘My last word on frogs’ almost as an envoi to the ‘nature poetry’. Here, MacCaig is reminded that some stars are so dense a cubic inch weighs a hundred tons; in the same way, this tiny spark of bird seems to contain disproportionate vital force. “Your hair-thin legs / (one north-east, on due west) support / a scrap of volcano, four inches / of hurricane…” It’s hard to read this again and not think of Hugh MacDiarmid’s famous letter in which he admits he would rather be a poetic volcano and spew out smoke, dust, ash and rubbish along with the true magma rather than labour and labour to produce a tit’s egg.

MacCaig was happy to inhabit a volcanic landscape, or landscapes, since Sutherland’s geology is no less dramatic than central Edin-burgh, but he had fewer vulcanist pretensions and omitted to roar gaseously at the world; no ash of ego, no pyroclastic politics – after all Far Cry and The Inward Eye had been, among much else, an attempt to get away

from the political versestyle of the 1930s. He dedicates an early poem to MacDiarmid and emphasises the improbable strength of their lyric construction – not hair-thin legs, but seashells – and the forces that go to the making of them. Elsewhere, he is less inclined to run to James Hutton or Hugh Miller or any other pioneer of Scottish geology, but he is not afraid of polysyllables or the technical term, even if MacDiarmid’s ‘lithogenesis’ is not for him. Again, MacCaig makes consciously humorous use of big words in the very places where we are inclined to laugh at MacDiarmid for his solemn pretensions. In ‘Queen of Scots’, which is, incidentally, the best poetic rendition ever of a woman in the throes of her period or struggling with PMS, he ends with the redhead depressive lashing out with her foot at the spaniel who gazes at her “in exophthalmic adoration”. Such moments are quite rare in MacCaig, as is the diversion into Liz Lochhead’s territory. Mary recognises that she is acting in a real play, “with real blood in it” (shortly to be Rizzio’s), and we are asked to think how a “real play” is different from an imaginary garden – Mac-Caig’s Edens are never imaginary nor merely mythical – with real toads in it.

The tit and the star might now seem conventional enough oppositions and no bolder a juxtaposition than Donne’s flea. What distinguishes MacCaig is that the bird is never an occasion for anything other than itself and certainly not a stepping-off point for the metaphysical urge that allows for “heterogeneous objects [to be] yoked by violence together”, as Samuel Johnson sniff-ily complained in a famous put-down. The point about MacCaig is that he does not ‘ransack’ art and nature for his subject matter. It comes to him. And if the reader waits long enough and with evenly suspended attention, MacCaig’s imagery is unfailingly shown to be just and precise. There is a (very) early waxwing now at the cotoneaster, always a startling exotic in a Scottish garden and apparently nervous of his comb-over and quiff in the stiffening breeze that presumably brought him over early from Scandinavia. In Tree Of Strings MacCaig presents him as a “gaudy bank manager” just about to turn into a hungry lorry driver in a hurry – his migratory tachygraph will tell no lies! – who guzzles the berries and rushes on. No one has to have seen any of D.H. Lawrence’s hieratic animals to appreciate his imagery. It is almost always necessary to see the bird or beast in question to understand fully a Mac-Caig poem, which does not make them less literary or less confidently free-standing, rather more so.

He may be less than generously prized just now because he is deceptively ‘easy’. I’d say he’s not. The precision of observation in the poems, whether it is the ‘Metaphysical’ conceit of the treadmill mountain and leaping shadow of ‘Climbing Suilven’, one of his greatest single pieces (and rightly placed almost at the head of The Many Days; even if you didn’t read further, you’d have MacCaig’s essence right there), or the linguistic bestiary he animates in later volumes, is demandingly absolute and absolutely unsentimental. Even the tit’s legs are at exactly the correct angle. I sometimes look through MacDiarmid’s ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ and wonder how much of it he felt he achieved himself and where else his ideals might be discovered. As often as not, it’s MacCaig I think of. Is this him? Is this the work?

The poetry of one the Russians call ‘a broad nature’

And the Japanese call ‘flower heart’

And we, in Scottish Gaeldom, ‘ionraic’.

The poetry of one who practises his art
Not like a man who works that he may live But as one who is bent on doing nothing but
work,
Confident that he who lives does not work,
That one must die to life in order to be
Utterly a creator – refusing to sanction
The irresponsible lyricism in which sense impressions
Are employed to substitute ecstasy for
information …

THE MANY DAYS:
THE SELECTED POEMS OF NORMAN MACCAIG
Norman MacCaig
POLYGON, £9.99 128PP ISBN 978-1846971716

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Volume 6 – Issue 4 – Poetry – Elizabeth Burns

ELIZABETH BURNS

Elizabeth Burns has written three collections of poetry. Her first, Ophelia and other poems, was shortlisted for a Saltire Award. Her pamphlet The Shortest Days won the inaugural Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets in 2009. She lives and teaches creative writing in Lancaster.


 

THE ENFOLDING

As the potter enfolds air with porcelain,
making, in this new vessel,

a presence round an absence,
containing what’s invisible

and at the same time smoothing into being
something that the hands can cup,

so, walking though October woods
I find myself reaching out

in some ancient gesture
of holding and encircling

as if I clasped my hands
around your body in its sickness –

as if by this I could give you,
for a moment, strength,

fastening more tightly
your spirit to its fragile skin.

 

THE SHORTEST DAYS

How the low sun flamed on those afternoons
with their early dusks, how the crusts of snow
in the pasture cast their blue shadows
and the moon’s shape grew sharper,

land and sky just prised apart
by the horizon’s slit of paler light
like the way the colours meet in Black on Grey,
that luminescence, thread of light, so fine

it’s scarcely visible: the shred of a life
that’s almost swallowed up
by dark. His last days on earth:
the precious lightness of his breath.

 

THE SCALES

And if there were some way to take the weight
of all your sorrow, heavy as wet sand,
I would do it: our lives are tipped scales,
mine all air and weightlessness, yours leaden.

But these moments when I think of you
and a sense of your loss pours through me –
are they, like some form of prayer,
a shouldering of your heaviness,

a time when the grains of sea-sand shift
and you feel, so briefly, lightness again?

 

HELD

One year old, and he’s discovering the river,
dropping stones in at the edge, retrieving them.

He loves containers, says his mother,
then wonders, is a river a container?

The riverbed is: it curves its way from Roeburndale
down through these woods of wild garlic and bluebells,

letting the winding stony vessel of itself be filled
with springwater, meltwater, rainwater,

water which also contains things – you can plop
a stone into it, take it out again,

and here are glints of fish and floating twigs,
silt, insects, air-bubbles, ducklings –

and if the river’s a container, so’s a song,
holding words and tune; an eggshell

holds a bird, the atmosphere
enfolds the planet; everything is like a basket

says the basketmaker, the earth contains us,
we contain bones, blood, air, our hearts.

We are baskets and makers of baskets,
and fresh from the hold of the womb

the boy-child’s discovering how things
are held by other things: milk in a cup,

food in a bowl, a ball in his hands,
a stone in water, water in a nest of stones.

 

HER METAMORPHOSIS

Evening sun in the plum blossom – the lit tree
white, gold, haloed – but you’d look at it later.
Later the sun disappeared, later it rained,
the blossom fell. No more light on petals,
the tree is all leaf now, a different creature,

just as your daughter, in flux, is blossoming,
opening – impossible not to take this image,
as old as myth or story, but add to it this:
that while the young girl is transformed,
her mother is, fleetingly, looking away.

 

LETTER TO KATHERINE MANSFIELD

on having her portrait rejected by the National Portrait
Gallery, 1933

But you look great, Katherine, in your red dress
with your hair as black as the sea at night
when you peered from the deck on the long journey north
and your eyes so dark and serious, unflinching

in the soft Cornish light that falls on you
as you sit in her studio only months before your death.
Already your eyes are shadowed, your skin so pale
and, under the vermilion of your dress, your lungs
disintegrating.

Flowers surround you, golds and pinks, scarlet poppies,
creamy whites like the blossoms of the pear tree in your story.
Your cheeks and mouth are cherry red, there is so much red,
there is also blood red. She pitches you onto the canvas,

this artist, she makes you flame from it, there is no
ignoring you, wild colonial girl. But your reds are too bright
for the committee of the gallery who suggest perhaps
a pencil drawing? It’s this or nothing say your friends.

So the portrait languishes, unseen. Fifty years on,
I’m sitting in a garden of frost and sunlight
reading your letters and journals in a book on whose cover
is that portrait, staring up at me, showing me a writer’s life.

Years later, I will give birth to a daughter
and name her for the girl in your stories, the girl they say
is like you, the sparky one, the curious one,
the one who rolls in the grass and goes where she shouldn’t.

Still not in the gallery, Katherine, but here among us,
your character’s name on our lips, your stories read over and
over,
and you in that picture, defiant and vibrant, your reds
like the petals of tulips, crimson in winter.

 

HELD
Elizabeth Burns
POLYGON, £8.99 PP80 ISBN 978-1846971709

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Same Dog, Different Fleas

Alex Salmond has made a career out of avoiding the grip of his political opponents. Does he fare any better against his biographer?

The smartest guy in the room?

Another day, another book by David Torrance. Putting sarcasm aside, we should welcome the fact that it is Torrance, the journalist and historian, who is the first person to try to make sense of Salmond’s public and private lives. Most books on Scottish politics are dreadful. However, Torrance’s biography of George Younger was well received and his portraits of successive Scottish Secretaries were impressive.

The only surprise is that it has taken until 2010 for someone to write a biography of Alex Salmond. One of the dominant figures in Scottish politics over the last twenty years, Salmond has taken a ramshackle organisation from the fringes to the heart of government.

Torrance’s diligence and attention suggested he would produce a polished take on Scotland’s First Minister. However, despite Torrance’s qualities, Salmond: Against The Odds is a missed opportunity. The abundance of political biographies that litter dusty shelves in second-hand bookshops shows that the genre, while worthy, is nonetheless difficult to master.

In terms of charting the rise of contemporary politicians, two practitioners stand out. Andrew Rawnsley, the chief political commentator at The Observer, is the New Labour biographer who chronicled the Blair–Brown psychodrama. He has used his unrivalled contacts book to put together an insider’s account of the rise and fall of ‘the project’. Rawnsley showed himself in Servants Of The People and The End Of The Party to be the best fly-on-the-wall biographer of his kind.

Newsnight’s Michael Crick is the other expert in the field, albeit from a different perspective. Stranger Than Fiction, his 1995 debunking of Jeffrey Archer, is arguably the best biography of any British politician. With no access to his subject – only hostility– Crick pieced together the author’s bizarre life through a combination of textual sources and hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews. The ultimate outsider’s biography disproved the theory that access to a politician is a prerequisite for such a project.

Torrance’s work falls into neither category. This book offers no convincing evidence that the author has managed to obtain the inside track on Salmond’s life – either from enemies or supporters. He claims to have spoken to “friends and colleagues”, but you get the feeling these contacts constitute only a handful of true believers.

Apart from Torrance’s original research, particularly when covering Salmond’s early years, the author’s approach has been largely to stitch together nearly 300 pages from previously available newspaper articles and books. He does this competently, but at times Against The Odds reads like a patchwork of other people’s work interspersed with the author’s personal insights. In this regard, it’s more a chronicle than a biography.

Structurally, the book is standard fare: from cradle to happy childhood; from St Andrews University to working at the Royal Bank of Scotland; from forming the republican 79 Group to winning the SNP leadership in his mid-30s; and from establishing the SNP as the official Opposition at Holyrood, to becoming First Minister.

Torrance’s formula works well enough for the period until Salmond defeated Mar-garet Ewing to become SNP leader in 1990. His portrait of Salmond as a student is also illuminating, in so much as it depicts Salmond as an anti-establishment figure. Just as his political career has been characterised by failed attempts at sweeping away Labour in Scotland, his time at St Andrews was marked by distaste for the institution’s right-wing ethos and students. While there he developed two unfashionable campus passions: socialism and nationalism.

Torrance is enlightening on Salmond’s expulsion from the SNP over his membership of the left-wing 79 Group. A leading member of a group that included Roseanna Cunningham and Kenny MacAskill, Salmond’s iconoclastic tendencies were tempered by a caution some fellow 79-ers would never embrace. The book reveals that while certain comrades in the splinter group approved of a Sinn Fein representative attending a 79 Group conference, Salmond was lukewarm.

Ironically, the book falls flat at just the moment Salmond’s career takes off. As soon as the author reaches 1990, Torrance’s book can be critiqued in five words: “Don’t we know this already?” For instance, while he presents the definitive account of why Salmond and his one-time mentor Jim Sillars fell out, little light is shed on a decade that included the 1997 general election, the devolution referendum and the SNP’s shambolic campaign in the 1999 Holyrood poll. Controversies remain unexplained.

Consider the backdrop to the 1999 election. In the year running up to polling day, journalists were put on the scent of a baseless story about Salmond having gambling problems. If Torrance had dug deep into this smear campaign, he would have found that a third party had gone to the trouble of hiring a private investigator to examine the SNP leader’s financial records. Nothing untoward was found, but the episode was symptomatic of an attempt to unsettle Salmond before the election.

The author’s handling of perhaps the biggest mystery of Salmond’s career – his resignation as leader in 2000 – is similarly frustrating. While ill health and the party’s financial difficulties were hinted at at the time, Torrance never comes close to unlocking the truth.

But it is his treatment of the SNP’s election victory in 2007, and the following three years of SNP government, that most disappoints. Against The Odds offers a pacy run-through of the main events that have already been reported. At times, it is nothing more than a fleshed-out timeline.

The insights Torrance wraps around his narrative are a better advert for the book. In particular, he is adept at showing the extent to which Salmond’s political thinking has barely developed since he was kicked out of the SNP. Apart from ditching socialism for social democracy, as well embracing the European Union, Salmond has been banging the same drums – oil fund, renewable energy, multi-option referendum – for years. As the author puts it: “Salmond left St Andrews University with the basic political beliefs and tactical instincts that would remain with him for the rest of his career.”

While this can be read as an example of Salmond’s remarkable consistency, it is more likely evidence of intellectual laziness. Take his views on securing independence via a plebiscite. Between 2000 and the present day, Salmond has failed to budge on a policy which has never promised to deliver independence. There have been tweaks, such as embracing a multi-option poll, talking up a ‘social union’ and playing about with the timing, but these are minor changes. It’s the same dog but with different fleas.

Torrance is also correct to show that Salmond’s occasional policy rethinks have not always ended well. During his first spell as leader, Salmond announced that an independent Scotland would become like Ireland. In other words, a ‘freed’ nation would slash corporation tax in the hope that increased revenues would pour into a Scottish Treasury. To this end, Salmond and his advisers wooed the business community.

Fast-forward to 2007 – the eve of the biggest global financial crisis since the 1930s – and what is Salmond proposing for Edinburgh bankers? “We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the UK, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in ‘gold-plated’ regulation.” Put simply, at a time when the ‘financial community’ was wrecking the global economy with irresponsible lending practices, Salmond was calling not for regulation but deregulation.

Relatedly, Torrance’s identification of Salmond as a tactician, rather than a thinker, is the book’s most telling contribution. Whether it be the SNP leader’s approach to the monarchy, a referendum, or religion, Salmond’s positions always seem to be manoeuvres designed to outfox his opponents, rather than gut instincts that flow from basic convictions. As a tactician, Salmond has turned the SNP into a formidable political force. Beyond that, support for independence is stuck where it was when he first became leader. Being the smartest guy in the room may make you successful, but it is not a strategy for winning hearts and minds.

The reaction of Team Salmond to Against The Odds will be one of relief. Torrance never really gets beneath the skin of his subject. Instead of rushing out a biography, he might have been wiser concentrating more on subject areas. Does there remain more to be said about Salmond? The odds are even.

SALMOND:
AGAINST THE ODDS
David Torrance
BIRLINN, £20.00 384PP ISBN 978-1841589145

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Connery – Last of the He-Men

In his younger days, Sean Connery had the physique of a Greek god. Is his appeal to men based on attitudes equally ancient?

Separated at birth? Sean Connery… …and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm

What is it with men and Sean Connery? That’s what I’m pondering after finishing Christopher Bray’s Sean Connery: The Measure Of A Man. The title is slightly misleading. This book is not an intimate exposé of Sean Connery. How could it be when, as the author tells us with disarming honesty, Sean Connery contributed nothing to it, “few people were willing to talk about having worked or dealt with Connery” and Bray himself has “no wish to know Sean Connery”? This last is a fib. Bray may find Connery’s sporting obsessions boring and his nationalism “offensive and stupid”, but if you claim, as he does, that when Connery dies, “for a while, at least, the world will make a little less sense”, clearly your ultimate dream is a sibilant “Chrishtopher! Lunch?”

The book will not damage Mr Bray’s luncheon chances. It does not pry. Indeed, apropos Connery’s private life, it barely speculates, mentioning only in passing, as if anxious not to offend, the breakdown of Connery’s first marriage, the deaths of Con-nery’s parents and his dabbling in emotional plumbing through “orgone accumulation”. Judging by the bibliography, no book, no newspaper article, no magazine spread has gone unmined. He analyses Connery’s changing speech patterns. He knows Con-nery’s golf handicap in 1967. He has certainly done his homework.

Essentially, this book is about Connery’s films and film performances, the former dissected chronologically amid plenty of those darting references beloved of the dedicated film buff. “Good Lord!” you might well say in indulgent, if faintly weary, tones if you spent an hour or two in the pub with Bray. Was The Anderson Tapes really a “meat-and-potatoes heist picture laid over with a Kafka-esque conceit about the paranoia induced by the surveillance society”? Well, I never.

To quote another famous, if fictional, Scot “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” Yet before Mr Bray summons Oddjob to hurl his bowler hat, I’m not dissing his book. On the contrary. If your subject’s personal life is off limits, why not offer instead a lively, quirky filling-in of the blanks through his work? And since Connery’s own Being A Scot is a nationalist tome which, so one reviewer noted, says almost nothing about his film career at all, Mr. Bray has plenty of room. He uses that room well, setting out Connery’s films and characters in the appropriate context with admirable gusto. Moreover, with an irreverence he never quite manages to bring to the man himself, he cheerfully labels the films “as big a bunch of junk as the Bond producers ever threw together” (Diamonds Are Forever) or “somewhat less than spectacular” (The Hunt For Red October).

Yet the most fascinating thing about this book is not the information. The fascination lies in Bray’s bold assertion that “every … guy born in the past half-century” wants to be Sean Connery and that every woman wants to sleep with him. It’s this belief – unquestioned throughout – that surely encourages publishers to pay authors to beat the same unforgiving ground. But is it true?

I started my research at home. I asked my husband if he would like to be Sean Connery. He looked alarmed. “Would you like me to be?” I looked deep into myself. “No,” I said. Looking at the photographs in the book. Connery was, and still is, good looking. I don’t even take exception, as Christopher Bray does, to the monobrow. But the 1970’s moustache is horrid, and if Zardoz really was nothing more than a study in “the physical beauty of its star”, the Spartacus-type publicity picture is a bit iffy.

Actually, I think the physical Connery is a male fantasy. I don’t think men see Connery himself. Rather, they project onto him what they think women want to see. Hence, without a hint of irony, Bray gushes that Connery embodies “lethal grace” and “fatal elegance”. That’s not all. He’s “a dead ringer for Mi-chelangelo’s David or Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man”, only he looks “less like a man than a Greek god”. The prose purples. Connery is a man whose hands, in Dr. No, “dangle, claw-like in the air, in readiness to swat away their prey after they have given of their pleasure”. As a grand finale, in the caption under the Marnie photograph, Bray tells us that Alfred Hitchcock saw “through the glitz of Bond to the barely socialised sexual predator beneath”. In your dreams, Christopher Bray!

Beyond the prose, it boils down to this: men rightly or wrongly see Connery, or Con-nery/Bond if they can’t disentangle the two, as the last of the he-men, an alpha male who can still get away with behaviour in which Connery himself may well never indulge but which men long to emulate. A “barely socialised sexual predator” will – thrillingly – bang the table for his dinner and leave the loo seat howsoever he damn well likes. A Greek god spits on quiche and ironing. Hands ready to “swat their prey” don’t support a partner in an antenatal class while their owner em-pathetically breathes to whale music. And then there’s that last guilty secret: despite the furore, despite the lectures, despite the universal condemnation – and despite Bray’s detailed and slightly disingenuous insistence that Connery was misunderstood – men find it reassuring to hear somebody say that women can be bloody irritating and although “it’s not good” the rights or wrongs of striking a woman “depend on circumstances”.

This does not give men a licence to slap. But Connery does allow them a twinge of nostalgia for those times before feminists got going with the castrating irons. In short, whether it’s Connery’s intention or not – just looking at their idol makes men feel more like men.

Bray skirts around this thorny issue in his introduction. Instead, he focuses on the “increasingly second-hand lives” that dedicated moviegoers like himself lead. He freely admits “a need, in a way, to be that other being”, the other in his own case being a “big man … light on his feet” because Bray himself is “clumsy and heavy-footed”. “If part of wanting to be Connery is wanting to be Bond,” Bray says, “the whole of wanting to be Bond is wanting to be Connery.” So whether Connery is Bond, Shalako, Zed of the “prodigious erectile function”, William of Baskerville or Professor Jones, his main role is as the ultimate male avatar, now and for all time. I’d like the author to have dug deeper into this, but then the book is about Connery, not about Bray.

Also, I wonder. Is Connery really as unique and his appeal as long-lasting as Bray is busy persuading us? The movie world is filled with action heroes, both rugged and suave: Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt. To these must now be joined John Hamm of Mad Men, who received a ‘sexiest man alive’ accolade in 2007 – Connery was PEOPLE Magazine’s sexiest man alive in 1989 at the age of 59. Hamm has that all male look. His Don Draper is, in his own way, quite as icily cool as Bond and he doesn’t even have any gadgets unless you count whisky and cigarettes. Stick him next to Connery’s Bond and he does pretty well. But it’s true: he doesn’t do better. Perhaps Bray is right. Perhaps nobody but Connery has that solidity of body (best displayed, according to Bray, in the fight scene in The Untouchables) and ‘giant-killer’ stature which turn a moviestar into a moviegod. I’d love to see Don Draper take his children to see Dr. No or Thunderball (in Mad Men we’ve got to 1964) and watch him watching Connery. Would he, like Bray – although secretly, obviously, as the Draper character dictates – turn starstruck? Bray might usefully have devoted a whole chapter to how ‘the measure of a man’ has changed between Hell’s Drivers (1956) and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), and how men feel about that.

As it is, the reader feels for Bray in his struggle to tell us something new about Con-nery. Certainly, the author does his best, and in doing so offers two sharp insights. The first is that Bond’s film appeal, an appeal the books certainly don’t exhibit, is aspirational. Connery’s Bond “offered you a way of becoming classy while remaining classless”. In other words, you could wear a dinner jacket without being a stuffed shirt. The second insight is political. Why, Bray wonders, did Connery’s ambition to play Bothwell in The Immortal Queen come to nothing, since this might have done more for Scotland’s cause than “backing any number of SNP election candidates”?

And that, I suppose, is going to be the trouble with all Connery ‘biographies’. There’s a Connery-sized hole in them that cannot be filled by a fan, however diligent. As a consequence, Bray has written a book about film, which is fine, but not the book diehard fans crave. Treat em mean, keep em keen, eh, Sir Sean? Well, if Bray is anything to go by, it’s certainly working.

SEAN CONNERY:
THE MEASURE OF A MAN
Christopher Bray
368PP ISBN 978-0571238071

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Diary

JANUARY

The Highlands are blue with snow, I’m blue with recent farewells, and I know that neither will last. Already, in the eerie chill, new things are budding: a rose outside my window, a story inside my head. I have a year to write it. But God, where do I begin?

FEBRUARY

How about the beginning? It is now ten years since I became hypnotised by the music of Astor Piazzolla. It was obvious to me that I would one day write a ‘tango novel’. Naturally, it would have nothing to do with me. It would be about someone else and her tango quest. Her story would be the story of tango itself: a story of immigration, dispossession, longing, fighting for your place in the world, being knifed in the guts, triumphing against all odds – that sort of thing, to the tune of one hundred years’ worth of tango music. But I didn’t write a tango novel. Reality kept interfering, which I saw as an annoying distraction – until I realised, a few months ago, that the distraction was focusing my mind on the only authentic tango story at hand. My story.

MARCH

In Scotland, spring can be colder than winter. In non-fiction, the autobiographical self can be stranger than an invented character. Telling the naked truth can feel stranger than telling a fictional version of the truth. And yet someone said that if we want to truly know a writer’s psyche, we should read the fiction, not the autobiographical writings. And if the line between the two is blurred – as with Bruce Chatwin’s writing – all the more fun for critics.

But these are academic questions, and fortunately I’m under too much pressure from research and the writing itself to spend time pondering whether I am writing about Buenos Aires or my Buenos Aires.

APRIL

I am in Buenos Aires – my fourth visit to my favourite city. It’s no wonder I’m humming Gardel’s signature song ‘Volver’ (‘To Return’) – as soon as I arrive at Ezeiza Airport and breathe in the beloved fumes of the city. Leaving and Returning is one of tango’s – and Argentina’s – enduring obsessions. Those who arrived here as immigrants had to leave Europe forever. Their great-grandchildren left Argentina in droves to escape the dictatorial ways of Juan and Eva Perón in the 1950s, then the murderous colonels of the 1970s. Some of them returned from exile. Some – like Julio Cortázar – didn’t. Yet others – like Jorge Luis Borges – happily dined with the colonels.

I spend the nights dancing in semi-dark tango clubs, and the days walking down interminable avenues, past leery men and lurching buildings that belong in Borges’s ‘fictions’. He called all his writing ‘fictions’ because, according to his vision of reality, everything becomes a fiction as soon as you write it down.

In a city where every second building looks tripped out, my personal prize for weirdness goes to the Palacio Barolo, a twin building to Montevideo’s nightmarish landmark Palacio Salvo. At the time of its construction in 1935, the Barolo was the city’s tallest building. The eccentric Italian architect designed it as an architectural equivalent to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is 100 metres high – to reflect, the 100 cantos, and Hell is on the ground floor, where the offices of Argentina’s secret service are housed. Purgatory is the first fourteen floors, and before Argentina’s economy collapsed, Heaven was a cupola lit by 300,000 lights. After its completion, the architect returned to Italy to build Fascist masterpieces for Mussolini.

Who needs fiction in the city of the Aleph? The Aleph, according to Borges, is a place in Buenos Aires – I’m not telling where – at which all experience converges. To glimpse the Aleph is to glimpse the totality of human existence. I think the Aleph is also the point all stories – fictional, non-fictional, and anything in between – aspire to reach for at least a fraction of the writer’s and the reader’s consciousness. No pressure…

MAY

The Edinburgh International Tango Ball takes place in The Hub. 300 people turn up from all over Europe. The women in stilettos, the men in suits – these are people I have known for years. But I realise that they are becoming fascinating strangers in order to enter the larger tango story. Strangers whom I know intimately. I feel a stranger among them and yet I am them, with their heartbreaks, fantasies and hopes. This book is as much their story as it is mine.

As I wade deeper into the story, I drift further away from the immediate experience. And yet I am circling closer to the heart of the experience. Just as fiction has a licence to lie, factual writing has a licence to this hot-and-cold paradox.

The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky introduced the term ‘ostranenie’ (defamiliarisation or distancing), by which he meant the formal way poetic language – and art in general – renders the tired, familiar world magically fresh. Whether writers know it or not – and most of the time we don’t, because we write with the guts as much as with the brain – we are all practising distancing in order to get close to the truth. There is no other way to do it without being burnt to a cinder.

JUNE

At a Glasgow University conference on non-fictional journeys, I discover the work of American writer and journalist Vivian Gornick. I start with her ‘The Situation and the Story’, which is like a blow to the head – but a good one. Then I read her mother-and-daughter memoir ‘Fierce Attachments’, and that’s a second blow of the same kind, which makes the first one sink in deeper.

So this is what Kafka meant by saying that writing should be like the blow of an axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us – even in the middle of summer.

Gornick draws a crucial distinction between situation and story. The situation may be a place, a set of circumstances, a setting. The story, however, is what the hero or anti-hero goes through. In a personal narrative, the protagonist might be the author, or, rather, a specially crafted creation of the author’s inner self who becomes a ‘truth-speaking persona’. How did she discover that she was primarily a non-fiction writer? By rereading masters of the form like Joan Didion and going into “a trance of recognition from which I don’t think I ever emerged. I became enraptured, tracing out the development of the persona in memoir after essay after memoir. It was out of this rapture that I realised I was a non-fiction writer.”

The art of the personal narrative, according to Gornick, is to pull out a strong and trustworthy narrator from your “own agitated and boring self” in order to tell the larger truth of your story.

JULY

I travel to Spain’s coastal gay hub Sitges for Europe’s largest tango event. Six hundred dancers from all over the world turn up to strut their stuff. I go to Holland for a hippie tango camp in Austerlitz. Two hundred Dutch people with bikes and personal issues turn up to dance, knit and group hug.

The things we do for research.

AUGUST

A week of wholesome food and hill walks in the Devon countryside, at the Avron Foundations Totleigh Barton Arvon Centre. The course I teach – if teach is the word, which it probably isn’t, for all you can teach is the craft, not the art – is ‘Starting to Write’. Even though many on the course want to write A Novel, the most authentic writing emerges from reflected personal experience.

SEPTEMBER

I read a superb memoir of Soviet childhood and youth – A Mountain Of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova. The opening paragraph tells you everything about the personality of the narrator and why you’re instantly won over by her: “I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky … But she didn’t. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo … She came from where they lick plates.” You know you are going to trust this narrator, because she is afflicted at once by extravagant fantasies and kitchen-sink dreariness. Gorokhova’s book is several masterclasses rolled into one: Cold War history, narrative structure, and the truth-telling persona of Gornick – someone who is “you and at the same time not you.”

OCTOBER

Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m a fan of his eclectic fiction and his searing non-fiction. There aren’t many writers capable of the highest comedy and the blackest tragedy who have also run for president, punched Gabriel García Márquez in the face and maintained perfect hair and teeth. I also like him because he has written openly about sex and challenged the Latin American gender cliché (see Márquez’s Memories Of My Melancholy Whores) by having an attraction to older women, at least in his writing.

Vargas Llosa belongs to that rare omnivorous species, the literary polymath.

I have a penchant for polymaths. The specialist can be a little annoying, over time, like someone who eats only one type of food. But it takes a genius to be “a brilliant bunch of guys”, as someone said of Clive James, and Vargas Llosa is just that.

NOVEMBER

Winter closes in again. I must finish the first draft, but I’m wary of farewells. I’m wary of parting ways with my ‘other’ self, the one who rides the tide of the story with poise, and returning full-time to my messy, everyday self, who must stumble on through the messy business of living. The one who must chip away at the brute block of experience until a new shape magically emerges.

 

Twelve Minutes Of Love: A Tango Quest will be published by Portobello in 2012.

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The Route To Nowhere

Bringing trams to Edinburgh was meant to show what a modern European city it is. Many years and millions of pounds later, the tram project makes a statement about the capital – only it’s not the one they wanted to make.

The resignation last week of David Mackay from the chairmanship of the Edinburgh trams project came as no great surprise to anyone who has observed the progress of the tram scheme. It’s been known for some time that Mackay had been fretting about the slow progress of the work, the recalcitrance of the contractors, the quality of the initial contracts, the escalating costs, the complaints from the public and the sniping of the project’s SNP opponents. “Hell on wheels” was the phrase coined by Mackay in an interview with The Scotsman to describe his two-year tenure.

The part of Mackay’s litany of complaint that resonated with me came when he suggested that the project and the people of Edinburgh might have been much better served if the infrastructure contract had gone to a Scottish or British firm. “There was a cultural problem,” he claimed. “If we had been dealing with, say, Balfour Beatty, we would not be in this position. Bilfinger Berger was very risk averse, and they would do nothing until they had money in their pocket.”

It might seem odd for a Scotsman to be complaining about another nationality’s canniness, and I’m not sure that the German company Bilfinger Berger deserve Mackay’s charge of “acting in a delinquent manner” calculated to squeeze every last penny out of the Scots. When arguments between the parties were taken to the appropriate Scottish tribunal, most of the decisions were won by the contractors. Which suggests the contracts signed in May 2008 were not what they should have been to begin with.

Mackay’s concern about ‘cultural’ differences is worth bearing mind. Because Bilfinger Berger is far from being the only foreign company involved in the Edinburgh trams project. In fact, the extent to which the project is being put together outside of Scot-land is both worrying and shaming. Apart from the raft of transport professionals and one-time council workers who are trying to steer the work to completion, just about everything is being done by foreigners.

The designers of the tramway were Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York. The 25 miles of steel rail are being forged in Austria by Voestalpine of Vienna. The job of installing the system – rails, overhead lines, stops, cable towers, signalling, ticketing, electronics – has gone to German infrastructure giants Siemens and Bilfinger Berger. The 27 new 250-passenger tramcars are being built in Spain by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Fer-rocarriles (CAF). Even the running of the trams was originally awarded to the French firm Transdev until the council took the work ‘in house’ and gave it to a new council-owned body to be called TEL, or Transport Edinburgh Ltd.

Because it’s against the law to run a tram line over vital utilities – gas, water, electricity – 17 miles of services along and around the tram route had to be dug up, realigned and in places renewed. That particular task was awarded to Alfred McAlpine Ltd which was promptly taken over by the huge Wolverhampton-based engineering and construction firm Carillion. All these firms have their sub-contractors, of course, but very few are Scottish let alone rooted in Edinburgh or the Lothians.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, it strikes me as odd that no one appears to be worried that this huge, £600 million (probably) project is being designed and built by companies outside of Scotland. The only one who seems to have noticed is a blogger who calls himself ‘Flabskin’ who wrote at the end of October that “If Scotland had a domestic tram infrastructure builder and a domestic tram manufacturing industry, then spending 500 million on a tram scheme might make some sense. But we don’t.” In Flabskin’s opinion (pretty measured for a blogger) when the project is done and dusted all that money has “gone out of the Scottish economy never to return”.

It has to be said that is not the fault of the tramway bosses. They can only work with the tools at hand, and it seems that none of those are British, let alone Scottish. Could it be that we have become so used to having other people build our cars, ships and railways that we decide right at the outset, almost as a reflex, that foreigners will build them better, faster and cheaper? Have we come to the conclusion that we’re no longer up to the job? Maybe we’re just no longer interested. When the tenders went out for the 27 tramcars (at around £2 million each) no British company was deemed good enough to be shortlisted to build them. Four serious bids came in: from Bombardier (Canada), Alstom (France), Siemens (Germany) and CAF (Spain).

Edinburgh’s tax-payers increasingly feel discontented about the trams. This anxiety pervades the city. I was sitting on the top deck of a No. 16 bus which was crawling up Morningside Road. The traffic in front was backing up from a set of temporary traffic lights where the road had been dug up to repair some of the city’s ageing utilities.

“It’s these damned trams,” groaned one of the two well-dressed, Morningside ladies sitting in front of me. “They’re nothing but a nuisance. I can’t see why they’re bothering when we’ve got a perfectly good bus service. Which would be a lot quicker if it wasn’t for the trams.”

Her companion agreed with her. “I shudder to think what it’s going to put onto our council tax.”

The point is: the middle of Morningside Road is nowhere near the route of the new tramway.

Tramophobia, it might be called, and it’s widespread. It’s stoked by the local media, particularly the Edinburgh Evening News, as well as hostile bus drivers and taxi drivers. It’s probably at its most acute among small businesses in Leith Walk who’ve suffered years of disruption from road closures and traffic diversions. While tramophobes are thick on the ground, tramophiles are few and far between. Speaking out in favour of trams is just not done in Edinburgh circles, polite or otherwise. The council’s tram company Transport Initiatives Edinburgh has become the city’s bete noir.

Bloggers are furious. The tram system is seriously rivalling the building of the extremely late and over-budget Scottish Parliament in terms of the disquiet it has inspired. What people want to know is: who is responsible?

There’s an old saw that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Which may be why it’s so hard to pin down who came up with the idea of trams for Edinburgh. It’s possible that the honour belongs to Professor Lewis Lesley of John Moore’s University in Liverpool. At the beginning of November 1998 Lesley was in Edinburgh to try to persuade the council that what the city needed was a tramline running from Haymarket to Newhaven. The line to be built and operated by his company New Edinburgh Tramways Co Ltd (NETCo) for a (relatively) modest sum using NETCo’s patented ‘City Class’ tramcars and ‘LR55’ track.

It seemed a good enough idea for the council’s Transportation Committee to scrape together £75,000 from various sources and to ask the Edinburgh consultancy DTZ Pie-da for a ‘technical and financial assessment’ of Lesley’s scheme. By the end of 1999, however, NETCo were out of the game, although the idea of a tramway had stuck. Lesley was later to complain to an academic conference that when Edinburgh invited bids for the tramway NETCo were not even put onto the shortlist.

Almost at the same time Waterfront Edinburgh Ltd (WEL), begetters of glitzy waterfront regeneration projects in Leith and Granton, began to examine the prospects of a rapid transit system linking Leith Docks to the city centre. WEL’s consultants considered just about every mode of transport short of stretch limos. They looked at buses, a monorail, guided buses, a light railway, even a Shanghai-style ‘maglev’ (magnetic levitation) system. They came to the conclusion that guided buses or trams were probably the best option. Over time the feeling grew and hardened that trams were the way ahead.

In May 2002, the City of Edinburgh council set up Transport Initiative Edin-burgh Ltd, a wholly-owned, arm’s-length company known by its initials tie (note the modish lower case). Now headquartered in the top two floors of an upmarket new office building at Haymarket called City Point, tie is staffed by transport-industry professionals and ex-council employees, and has four Edinburgh councillors on the board. According to its last published accounts (in March 2009)tie’s 84 staff were paid £4.8 million (an average of £53,300 each) and saw their wages go up by 4.6 per cent.

With tie in place and with the enthusiastic support of a pro-tram Scottish Government (then a Labour-Lib Dem coalition) the Ed-inburgh trams project was under way. And not just the trams. It’s usually forgotten that the Edinburgh trams was one of a number of transport projects handed to tie to deliver. The biggest of those (and potentially even more expensive) was the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) which would have a sum in the region of £600 million and which was to prove a major embarrassment for tie.

Here’s how the tramway money-chain works: the cash is dispensed from the Scottish Government to the Glasgow-based quango Transport Scotland who pass it on to the City of Edinburgh Council who give it to their holding company Transport Edinburgh Ltd (TEL) who hand it over to tie who use it to pay the contractors. The tramwork for which the money pays is overseen by a number of bureaucracies: Transport Scotland, the Edinburgh council’s own Transportation Committee, TEL’s Tram Project Board and, of course, tie (which has its own audit committee).

The Tram Project Board (TPB) is another cog within these corporate wheels which has been given a larger role to play recently. Formerly one of TEL’s working parties, the TPB in February this year was given “delegated authority” up to £545 million which (it is still hoped) will be the final bill for the first stage of the tramway. The plan is for the City of Edinburgh to find the £45 million while the other £500 million will come from Holyrood.

In what tram bosses must see as the good old days, the plan was for a stately loop of tramway around the north side of Edinburgh, from the Firth of Forth to the city centre, with a long spur westwards out to Edin-burgh Airport and Newbridge, and possibly even as far as Livingston and Queensferry. There was also the prospect of a third line to run from the city centre southwards to the Royal Infirmary at Little France and beyond. By the end of 2009, we were told, we’d be travelling in quiet, clean, comfortable new tram cars that would be the envy of every city in Europe.

But before a single shovel could be wielded there had to be a consultancy period. Anyone who thinks, as I vaguely did, that a ‘consultancy period’ consists of a few chaps sitting round a table ruminating over tea and biscuits should disabuse themselves of the notion. Consultancy is an expensive business, or at least it was in the case of Edinburgh’s trams. Looking at one of tie’s early business plans, one can see more than 20 consultancies are involved in the project: lawyers, accountants, engineers, transport experts, environmental consultants, land advisors, public relations and legislation-drafting experts. All offering advice at a price.

In principle, it is understandable why a firm would pay experts to advise them. What is harder to comprehend are the two contracts that tie signed many months before the Edinburgh tramway had been given the final go-ahead by either the City of Edinburgh Council or by the Scottish Parliament. One contract was with the French company Transdev, signed in May 2004, to run the tramway. The other came in September 2005 and was with New York’s Parsons Brinckerhoff. Established in 1885, it is the engineering firm that designed Manhattan’s first underground railway line. It was asked to design the systems for the Edinburgh tramway.

The early spend was such that by June 2007 the consultancy and preparation period had cost tie (or rather, the taxpayer) £79 million. Around £17 million of that went to shepherding the council’s two private bills (tram Line One and tram Line Two) through the brambles and thickets of Holyrood. That particular process took almost two and a half years and came to a conclusion on May 8th 2006 when the Queen’s signature transformed the two tram bills into acts.

But the first serious impediment to the project was encountered the year before, in February 2005, after Edinburgh voted three to one against a London-type ‘congestion charge’ of £2 a day to drive into the city. The idea behind the charge was not only to reduce the amount of traffic flowing into Ed-inburgh, but to use the money raised by the charge (an estimated £50 million a year) to pay for the third tram line out to the southeast. That line is now gone but not forgotten: the council says it is keeping its options open with an eye on future development.

Two years later, in May 2007, the tram project faced its most serious challenge when the SNP took over at Holyrood. The new fi-nance secretary John Swinney looked at the costs and decided that Edinburgh could do without its trams. Suspecting this might happen, tie circulated to “all parties with an interest in the future of the tram project” a “post-election briefing note”. The paper pointed out that if the plug was pulled on the tram project, another £35 million would be added to the £79 million already spent bringing the total to £114 million. And dozens, maybe hundreds of jobs would be lost.

The briefing note also revealed that 250 “skilled designers” had been working on the project since 2005 and that “Construction work has commenced with 50 staff mobilised at Leith on utility diversion work and 30 staff undertaking excavation work for the depot site at Gogar.” All of which was under way before the tramway had been given the final go-ahead by either the Government or the City of Edinburgh Council.

At the beginning of June 2007 Swinney asked Robert Black, the Auditor General for Scotland. to look at the way tie was handling both the trams and the EARL projects and report back. Black was not long in reporting. While he found that the EARL project was in something of a mess he was happier with how tie had handled the tram scheme.

Black and his team reckoned that the Leith-to-airport line should cost just over £500 million, well within the sum available, and that there was a “clear corporate governance structure” in place that promised to deliver the trams on budget and on time. “Some slippage in the project has occurred,” Black wrote “but action is being taken to ensure that Phase 1a can be operational by early 2011.” In fact, he even put a date on when the trams would start rolling: Friday, January 21st.

Black’s favourable report on the trams did not persuade the new Government. Ministers wanted the trams (and the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport rail links) scrapped. But when the issue reached the debating chamber on June 27th 2007, an ad-hoc coalition of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and Tories fought the government. Swinney and transport minister Stewart Stevenson did their best to argue that the money earmarked for the trams and the railway links could be better spent. “We are being asked to take significant risks with Scottish taxpayers’ money,” declared Stevenson. “Quite simply I cannot recommend that we do so.”

That was when the SNP ran into the reality of minority government. Wendy Alexander, then Scottish Labour leader, got to her feet to denounce the SNP motion as one that “oozes with party prejudice and geographic grudge”. She tabled an amendment which “calls on the Scottish Government to proceed with the Edinburgh trams project within the budget limit set by the previous administration, noting that it is the responsibility of tie and the City of Edinburgh Council to meet the balance of the funding costs”.

When the votes were counted the Labour-led opposition parties had won easily by 81 to 47. Parliament had voted for the tram project to continue and there was nothing the Government could do about it. The work had to go on. More than three years on the SNP are still smarting over their defeat. “Sheer political spite,” is how one SNP activist described the opposition manoeuvre to me. “They all knew the Edinburgh trams weren’t worth the cost, but they didn’t care. They just wanted to get one over on the SNP.”

Every time another tram crisis appears the SNP administration goes into ‘don’t blame us, blame them’ mode. It’s an attitude that extends to the SNP group in the City of Edinburgh Council. The group leader and deputy council leader Steve Cardownie and his colleagues have never ceased sniping at the trams, although they now accept that the tramway is going to happen and have decided to abstain from voting on this issue.

The SNP may have done their best to dump the trams but they’re certain to carry some of the blame. So far as the disgruntled public is concerned the trams are being foisted on them by the ‘government’ and the ‘council’ and they just don’t like it. When I explained to one tramophobe on Princes Street (who didn’t want to be named) that the Government had tried to stop the trams but had been overruled by Parliament his reply was brusque. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “They should have tried harder.”

There was surely some relief in the tie boardroom after the SNP government’s defeat, but judging by the board minutes of July 10th 2007 there was no rejoicing. The successful opposition amendment had put a cap of £500 million firmly on the government’s money jar. If the council wanted any more tram money it would have to find it for itself. Which meant, the board decided, that “There is adequate funding for Phase 1a but insufficient funding for Phase 1b.” And that called a halt to the immediate prospect of a line running from Haymarket to Granton.

Those minutes make for painful reading. They suggest a board in a state of shock, not helped by the stance taken by Transport Scotland. The minutes for the 10th July 2007 note that “Transport Scotland’s involvement with the tie board has been withdrawn” and that the Glasgow-based quango had turned down an invitation to attend weekly meetings on EARL. The minutes also note that “We are moving to a single project company”, i.e. the Edinburgh trams. Barry Cross, the tie executive in charge of EARL, retired at the beginning of 2008.

Six months after the Holyrood vote, on December 20th 2007, the City of Edinburgh Council approved tie’s Final Business Plan and gave the tramway the green light it needed. By then tie had been up and running for more than five years and had spent large sums of public money. By May 2008 the main contractors were signed up, work began in earnest and by the end of 2009 there were tram lines (although no tramcars) back on Princes Street. In April 2010 a solitary Spanish-built tramcar did make an appearance, but only as a static showcase.

Since then, the original tramway project has shrunk markedly. The first part to go was the link between the airport and Newbridge. Then off came the westward leg between Haymarket and Granton and with it the mile of track along the shore between Granton and Newhaven harbours. The idea of a link with the Royal Infirmary to the south and Livingston to the far west began to look like some distant dream. By the beginning of 2009 all that remained of the project was a single line of 18 kilometres between the airport and Leith.

If, that is, the tramway makes it as far north as Leith. The current suggestion is that for a few years at least the tramway should stop at St Andrew’s square or perhaps Picardy Place. Councillor Jenny Dawe, the leader of the council, is determined that the line should get to the Ocean Terminal in Leith (if not to Newhaven) and if that means borrowing £60 million against future business rates then that’s what the council should do. It’s a financial strategy that has raised many eyebrows.

The tram project is now beset with questions. One of the thorniest is why do we need trams when we have one of the best bus services in Britain? Surely a smallish city like Edinburgh can manage on 630 buses and 57 bus routes? Especially since Lothian Buses is about to spend £12 million on 60 new Eclipse Gemini II buses to bump up its fleet. And if the trams fail to generate the ‘farebox revenue’ that’s expected (or at least hoped for) will they have to be cross-subsidised by the buses? And will that mean cuts to the bus services which serve those parts of the city (i.e. most of it) that the trams will never reach?

There is another question that the public would like an answer to: what has been going on between the German builders and the tram promoters? We got a glimmer of insight into that turbulent relationship in David Mackay’s resignation interview. He certainly didn’t hesitate to blame the delays on the Germans, especially Bilfinger Berger (Siemens is never mentioned). Mackay denounced Bilfinger Berger as a “delinquent contractor who scented a victim and probably greatly underbid, and who would use the contract to make life difficult for the city”.

For their part Bilfinger Berger and the other infrastructure builders did their best to divert the blame with an open letter to Ed-inburgh councillors a few weeks ago. While the letter hints that the firms are seeking extra cash (£80 million is the rumour), it’s for slow-downs and stoppages caused by events beyond their control. They mention “delayed utility work, changes in scope, certain key approvals, ground conditions and so on”, all problems that have “resulted in increased costs and delays for the Project”.

The delays part is certainly true. Ever since the dispute arose in January 2010 the project has been badly out of kilter. Some work has gone on to ‘off road’ sections west of Haymarket and the tram depot at Gogar, but that’s about it. The city centre itself has been quiet. But a lot of that stopping and starting is due to what David Mackay called “the crazy things” found under Edinburgh’s streets. And that’s hard to lay at the door of the Germans.

Certainly Carillion’s end of the project has proved more awkward and difficult than anyone anticipated. A book could be written about the progress of that work. In digging up the streets the workforce came across, inter alia, 100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.

These erstwhile Leithers were former residents of an extension to the South Leith kirkyard that had gone unmapped and unrecorded. “We’ve removed them all for forensic testing,” says John Lawson the city’s archaeologist. “We’ll be trying to find out something about the way they lived and what caused their deaths. It’ll probably take two or three years.”

Dead bodies and ancient buildings are just the kind of thing that brings work to a halt. They all have to be carefully examined by experts and removed for safety. In a city like Edinburgh, where people have been living for around 5,000 years, the possibility of archaeological finds like the 300 skeletons should have been anticipated. We don’t know how much stoppage and delay was caused by that kind of discovery and how much by poor planning and inefficiency. Somebody somewhere may know. So far they’re not saying.

After resigning, David Mackay accused the Germans of bidding low to get the contract and then playing stop-go to hike up their fees. A similar charge was levelled at Bilfinger Berger in Canada in the same month, May 2008, that it signed its contract with tie. That’s when Bilfinger Berger was “terminated” from a $100 million tunnelling job in Vancouver by the publicly-owned utilities firm Metro Vancouver. The Germans claimed that the conditions were unsafe and halted work. Their clients, Metro Vancouver,

argued that their safety plan was adequate and that the German company had “refused to proceed with work”.

“That dispute continues to this day,” says Metro Vancouver’s spokesman Bill Morrell. “We withdrew Bilfinger Berger’s right to work when it was about half-way through. Now we’re pursuing a law suit against the company to recover our costs. But we don’t expect the case to get to court until November 2012. We’ve had to put together another consortium to finish the work but the final cost of the job is likely to be well over $200 million. Maybe more.”

Not that Bilfinger Berger is taking Metro Vancouver’s lawsuit lying down. In June 2008, the Germans filed a counter suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia claiming that they’d been removed from the job “improperly” because they wouldn’t go along with Metro Vancouver’s safety plan. Bilfinger Berger asked for compensation of more than $22 million, plus interest and expenses, and the return of $30 million-worth of machinery that was still sitting on the site.

In Edinburgh, the delays and the acrimony have added to public concern over the trams. One stage on the tramway which is currently progressing and which is probably worth its £35 million price tag is the rail/tram ‘interchange’ at Gogar (next door to the new depot where the tramcars will be garaged overnight). This is where rail passengers coming from the north will be able to hop from train to tram and be shuttled out to the airport. But until the tram system is up and running, they’ll have to continue their journey into the centre of Edinburgh and then take a bus back out again through the traffic-clogged roads of Corstorphine and the rush-hour jams at the bottom of Drum Brae.

The saga of the Edinburgh tramway rumbles on. The search is now for a replacement for chairman David Mackay. The project’s past has been troubled and its future looks like being stunted. Economically we are not out of the woods. Our banks are still unsteady on their feet, our industry is sluggish and the public remains concerned about jobs and pensions. There’s drastic public-sector pruning on the way, while the threat of a ‘double-dip’ recession has not receded from economic forecasts. Once the present pile of tram cash has been spent that will be it for some time.

There are mutterings that the time has come to write off the trams project completely. That enough public money (probably £400 million) has been spent on a project dreamt up when the economy was buoyant. It won’t happen. Too much money, reputation and political capital has been invested.

Within a year or two we might see trams running between the airport and St An-drew’s Square (or maybe Picardy Place). It will take even longer before there’s money enough to run the line down from Haymarket to Granton, and longer still before we see trams making their way out southwards to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary or westwards to Livingston and Queensferry.

When the day comes the trams begin to operate (which the men from tie hope will be sometime in 2012) it will be worth remembering that we’re travelling on Spanish-built trams running on rails forged by Austrians and on a tramway designed by Americans and built for us by Germans. And to make sure that it runs properly we had to seek the advice of the French. Our job was to come up with the money, much of which is now held in banks in New York, Madrid, Paris, Man-nheim and Vienna.

It’s been a sorry saga. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, whether the SNP is punished for a project it never wanted to undertake. Perhaps it would have been an idea for a portion of the vast amout of money spent to have been used to educate Edinburgh’s populace on what benefits trams would bring the city and what inconvenience to expect before the digging began.

None of that is the fault of enterprising foreigners. The fault lies with us, with our lack of industrial capacity, shortage of commercial nous and the paucity of the engineering skills that once marked out Scotland as a nation.

George Rosie’s Flight of the Titan: The Story of the R34 is published by Birlinn (£9.99).

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The Route To Nowhere – George Rosie

Bringing trams to Edinburgh was meant to show what a modern European city it is. Many years and millions of pounds later, the tram project makes a statement about the capital – only it’s not the one they wanted to make.

 

The resignation last week of David Mackay from the chairmanship of the Edinburgh trams project came as no great surprise to anyone who has observed the progress of the tram scheme. It’s been known for some time that Mackay had been fretting about the slow progress of the work, the recalcitrance of the contractors, the quality of the initial contracts, the escalating costs, the complaints from the public and the sniping of the project’s SNP opponents. “Hell on wheels” was the phrase coined by Mackay in an interview with The Scotsman to describe his two-year tenure.

The part of Mackay’s litany of complaint that resonated with me came when he suggested that the project and the people of Edinburgh might have been much better served if the infrastructure contract had gone to a Scottish or British firm. “There was a cultural problem,” he claimed. “If we had been dealing with, say, Balfour Beatty, we would not be in this position. Bilfinger Berger was very risk averse, and they would do nothing until they had money in their pocket.”

It might seem odd for a Scotsman to be complaining about another nationality’s canniness, and I’m not sure that the German company Bilfinger Berger deserve Mackay’s charge of “acting in a delinquent manner” calculated to squeeze every last penny out of the Scots. When arguments between the parties were taken to the appropriate Scottish tribunal, most of the decisions were won by the contractors. Which suggests the contracts signed in May 2008 were not what they should have been to begin with.

Mackay’s concern about ‘cultural’ differences is worth bearing mind. Because Bilfinger Berger is far from being the only foreign company involved in the Edinburgh trams project. In fact, the extent to which the project is being put together outside of Scot-land is both worrying and shaming. Apart from the raft of transport professionals and one-time council workers who are trying to steer the work to completion, just about everything is being done by foreigners.

The designers of the tramway were Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York. The 25 miles of steel rail are being forged in Austria by Voestalpine of Vienna. The job of installing the system – rails, overhead lines, stops, cable towers, signalling, ticketing, electronics – has gone to German infrastructure giants Siemens and Bilfinger Berger. The 27 new 250-passenger tramcars are being built in Spain by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Fer-rocarriles (CAF). Even the running of the trams was originally awarded to the French firm Transdev until the council took the work ‘in house’ and gave it to a new council-owned body to be called TEL, or Transport Edinburgh Ltd.

Because it’s against the law to run a tram line over vital utilities – gas, water, electricity – 17 miles of services along and around the tram route had to be dug up, realigned and in places renewed. That particular task was awarded to Alfred McAlpine Ltd which was promptly taken over by the huge Wolverhampton-based engineering and construction firm Carillion. All these firms have their sub-contractors, of course, but very few are Scottish let alone rooted in Edinburgh or the Lothians.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, it strikes me as odd that no one appears to be worried that this huge, £600 million (probably) project is being designed and built by companies outside of Scotland. The only one who seems to have noticed is a blogger who calls himself ‘Flabskin’ who wrote at the end of October that “If Scotland had a domestic tram infrastructure builder and a domestic tram manufacturing industry, then spending 500 million on a tram scheme might make some sense. But we don’t.” In Flabskin’s opinion (pretty measured for a blogger) when the project is done and dusted all that money has “gone out of the Scottish economy never to return”.

It has to be said that is not the fault of the tramway bosses. They can only work with the tools at hand, and it seems that none of those are British, let alone Scottish. Could it be that we have become so used to having other people build our cars, ships and railways that we decide right at the outset, almost as a reflex, that foreigners will build them better, faster and cheaper? Have we come to the conclusion that we’re no longer up to the job? Maybe we’re just no longer interested. When the tenders went out for the 27 tramcars (at around £2 million each) no British company was deemed good enough to be shortlisted to build them. Four serious bids came in: from Bombardier (Canada), Alstom (France), Siemens (Germany) and CAF (Spain).

Edinburgh’s tax-payers increasingly feel discontented about the trams. This anxiety pervades the city. I was sitting on the top deck of a No. 16 bus which was crawling up Morningside Road. The traffic in front was backing up from a set of temporary traffic lights where the road had been dug up to repair some of the city’s ageing utilities.

“It’s these damned trams,” groaned one of the two well-dressed, Morningside ladies sitting in front of me. “They’re nothing but a nuisance. I can’t see why they’re bothering when we’ve got a perfectly good bus service. Which would be a lot quicker if it wasn’t for the trams.”

Her companion agreed with her. “I shudder to think what it’s going to put onto our council tax.”

The point is: the middle of Morningside Road is nowhere near the route of the new tramway.

Tramophobia, it might be called, and it’s widespread. It’s stoked by the local media, particularly the Edinburgh Evening News, as well as hostile bus drivers and taxi drivers. It’s probably at its most acute among small businesses in Leith Walk who’ve suffered years of disruption from road closures and traffic diversions. While tramophobes are thick on the ground, tramophiles are few and far between. Speaking out in favour of trams is just not done in Edinburgh circles, polite or otherwise. The council’s tram company Transport Initiatives Edinburgh has become the city’s bete noir.

Bloggers are furious. The tram system is seriously rivalling the building of the extremely late and over-budget Scottish Parliament in terms of the disquiet it has inspired. What people want to know is: who is responsible?

There’s an old saw that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Which may be why it’s so hard to pin down who came up with the idea of trams for Edinburgh. It’s possible that the honour belongs to Professor Lewis Lesley of John Moore’s University in Liverpool. At the beginning of November 1998 Lesley was in Edinburgh to try to persuade the council that what the city needed was a tramline running from Haymarket to Newhaven. The line to be built and operated by his company New Edinburgh Tramways Co Ltd (NETCo) for a (relatively) modest sum using NETCo’s patented ‘City Class’ tramcars and ‘LR55’ track.

It seemed a good enough idea for the council’s Transportation Committee to scrape together £75,000 from various sources and to ask the Edinburgh consultancy DTZ Pie-da for a ‘technical and financial assessment’ of Lesley’s scheme. By the end of 1999, however, NETCo were out of the game, although the idea of a tramway had stuck. Lesley was later to complain to an academic conference that when Edinburgh invited bids for the tramway NETCo were not even put onto the shortlist.

Almost at the same time Waterfront Edinburgh Ltd (WEL), begetters of glitzy waterfront regeneration projects in Leith and Granton, began to examine the prospects of a rapid transit system linking Leith Docks to the city centre. WEL’s consultants considered just about every mode of transport short of stretch limos. They looked at buses, a monorail, guided buses, a light railway, even a Shanghai-style ‘maglev’ (magnetic levitation) system. They came to the conclusion that guided buses or trams were probably the best option. Over time the feeling grew and hardened that trams were the way ahead.

In May 2002, the City of Edinburgh council set up Transport Initiative Edin-burgh Ltd, a wholly-owned, arm’s-length company known by its initials tie (note the modish lower case). Now headquartered in the top two floors of an upmarket new office building at Haymarket called City Point, tie is staffed by transport-industry professionals and ex-council employees, and has four Edinburgh councillors on the board. According to its last published accounts (in March 2009)tie’s 84 staff were paid £4.8 million (an average of £53,300 each) and saw their wages go up by 4.6 per cent.

With tie in place and with the enthusiastic support of a pro-tram Scottish Government (then a Labour-Lib Dem coalition) the Ed-inburgh trams project was under way. And not just the trams. It’s usually forgotten that the Edinburgh trams was one of a number of transport projects handed to tie to deliver. The biggest of those (and potentially even more expensive) was the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) which would have a sum in the region of £600 million and which was to prove a major embarrassment for tie.

Here’s how the tramway money-chain works: the cash is dispensed from the Scottish Government to the Glasgow-based quango Transport Scotland who pass it on to the City of Edinburgh Council who give it to their holding company Transport Edinburgh Ltd (TEL) who hand it over to tie who use it to pay the contractors. The tramwork for which the money pays is overseen by a number of bureaucracies: Transport Scotland, the Edinburgh council’s own Transportation Committee, TEL’s Tram Project Board and, of course, tie (which has its own audit committee).

The Tram Project Board (TPB) is another cog within these corporate wheels which has been given a larger role to play recently. Formerly one of TEL’s working parties, the TPB in February this year was given “delegated authority” up to £545 million which (it is still hoped) will be the final bill for the first stage of the tramway. The plan is for the City of Edinburgh to find the £45 million while the other £500 million will come from Holyrood.

In what tram bosses must see as the good old days, the plan was for a stately loop of tramway around the north side of Edinburgh, from the Firth of Forth to the city centre, with a long spur westwards out to Edin-burgh Airport and Newbridge, and possibly even as far as Livingston and Queensferry. There was also the prospect of a third line to run from the city centre southwards to the Royal Infirmary at Little France and beyond. By the end of 2009, we were told, we’d be travelling in quiet, clean, comfortable new tram cars that would be the envy of every city in Europe.

But before a single shovel could be wielded there had to be a consultancy period. Anyone who thinks, as I vaguely did, that a ‘consultancy period’ consists of a few chaps sitting round a table ruminating over tea and biscuits should disabuse themselves of the notion. Consultancy is an expensive business, or at least it was in the case of Edinburgh’s trams. Looking at one of tie’s early business plans, one can see more than 20 consultancies are involved in the project: lawyers, accountants, engineers, transport experts, environmental consultants, land advisors, public relations and legislation-drafting experts. All offering advice at a price.

In principle, it is understandable why a firm would pay experts to advise them. What is harder to comprehend are the two contracts that tie signed many months before the Edinburgh tramway had been given the final go-ahead by either the City of Edinburgh Council or by the Scottish Parliament. One contract was with the French company Transdev, signed in May 2004, to run the tramway. The other came in September 2005 and was with New York’s Parsons Brinckerhoff. Established in 1885, it is the engineering firm that designed Manhattan’s first underground railway line. It was asked to design the systems for the Edinburgh tramway.

The early spend was such that by June 2007 the consultancy and preparation period had cost tie (or rather, the taxpayer) £79 million. Around £17 million of that went to shepherding the council’s two private bills (tram Line One and tram Line Two) through the brambles and thickets of Holyrood. That particular process took almost two and a half years and came to a conclusion on May 8th 2006 when the Queen’s signature transformed the two tram bills into acts.

But the first serious impediment to the project was encountered the year before, in February 2005, after Edinburgh voted three to one against a London-type ‘congestion charge’ of £2 a day to drive into the city. The idea behind the charge was not only to reduce the amount of traffic flowing into Ed-inburgh, but to use the money raised by the charge (an estimated £50 million a year) to pay for the third tram line out to the southeast. That line is now gone but not forgotten: the council says it is keeping its options open with an eye on future development.

Two years later, in May 2007, the tram project faced its most serious challenge when the SNP took over at Holyrood. The new fi-nance secretary John Swinney looked at the costs and decided that Edinburgh could do without its trams. Suspecting this might happen, tie circulated to “all parties with an interest in the future of the tram project” a “post-election briefing note”. The paper pointed out that if the plug was pulled on the tram project, another £35 million would be added to the £79 million already spent bringing the total to £114 million. And dozens, maybe hundreds of jobs would be lost.

The briefing note also revealed that 250 “skilled designers” had been working on the project since 2005 and that “Construction work has commenced with 50 staff mobilised at Leith on utility diversion work and 30 staff undertaking excavation work for the depot site at Gogar.” All of which was under way before the tramway had been given the final go-ahead by either the Government or the City of Edinburgh Council.

At the beginning of June 2007 Swinney asked Robert Black, the Auditor General for Scotland. to look at the way tie was handling both the trams and the EARL projects and report back. Black was not long in reporting. While he found that the EARL project was in something of a mess he was happier with how tie had handled the tram scheme.

Black and his team reckoned that the Leith-to-airport line should cost just over £500 million, well within the sum available, and that there was a “clear corporate governance structure” in place that promised to deliver the trams on budget and on time. “Some slippage in the project has occurred,” Black wrote “but action is being taken to ensure that Phase 1a can be operational by early 2011.” In fact, he even put a date on when the trams would start rolling: Friday, January 21st.

Black’s favourable report on the trams did not persuade the new Government. Ministers wanted the trams (and the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport rail links) scrapped. But when the issue reached the debating chamber on June 27th 2007, an ad-hoc coalition of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and Tories fought the government. Swinney and transport minister Stewart Stevenson did their best to argue that the money earmarked for the trams and the railway links could be better spent. “We are being asked to take significant risks with Scottish taxpayers’ money,” declared Stevenson. “Quite simply I cannot recommend that we do so.”

That was when the SNP ran into the reality of minority government. Wendy Alexander, then Scottish Labour leader, got to her feet to denounce the SNP motion as one that “oozes with party prejudice and geographic grudge”. She tabled an amendment which “calls on the Scottish Government to proceed with the Edinburgh trams project within the budget limit set by the previous administration, noting that it is the responsibility of tie and the City of Edinburgh Council to meet the balance of the funding costs”.

When the votes were counted the Labour-led opposition parties had won easily by 81 to 47. Parliament had voted for the tram project to continue and there was nothing the Government could do about it. The work had to go on. More than three years on the SNP are still smarting over their defeat. “Sheer political spite,” is how one SNP activist described the opposition manoeuvre to me. “They all knew the Edinburgh trams weren’t worth the cost, but they didn’t care. They just wanted to get one over on the SNP.”

Every time another tram crisis appears the SNP administration goes into ‘don’t blame us, blame them’ mode. It’s an attitude that extends to the SNP group in the City of Edinburgh Council. The group leader and deputy council leader Steve Cardownie and his colleagues have never ceased sniping at the trams, although they now accept that the tramway is going to happen and have decided to abstain from voting on this issue.

The SNP may have done their best to dump the trams but they’re certain to carry some of the blame. So far as the disgruntled public is concerned the trams are being foisted on them by the ‘government’ and the ‘council’ and they just don’t like it. When I explained to one tramophobe on Princes Street (who didn’t want to be named) that the Government had tried to stop the trams but had been overruled by Parliament his reply was brusque. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “They should have tried harder.”

There was surely some relief in the tie boardroom after the SNP government’s defeat, but judging by the board minutes of July 10th 2007 there was no rejoicing. The successful opposition amendment had put a cap of £500 million firmly on the government’s money jar. If the council wanted any more tram money it would have to find it for itself. Which meant, the board decided, that “There is adequate funding for Phase 1a but insufficient funding for Phase 1b.” And that called a halt to the immediate prospect of a line running from Haymarket to Granton.

Those minutes make for painful reading. They suggest a board in a state of shock, not helped by the stance taken by Transport Scotland. The minutes for the 10th July 2007 note that “Transport Scotland’s involvement with the tie board has been withdrawn” and that the Glasgow-based quango had turned down an invitation to attend weekly meetings on EARL. The minutes also note that “We are moving to a single project company”, i.e. the Edinburgh trams. Barry Cross, the tie executive in charge of EARL, retired at the beginning of 2008.

Six months after the Holyrood vote, on December 20th 2007, the City of Edinburgh Council approved tie’s Final Business Plan and gave the tramway the green light it needed. By then tie had been up and running for more than five years and had spent large sums of public money. By May 2008 the main contractors were signed up, work began in earnest and by the end of 2009 there were tram lines (although no tramcars) back on Princes Street. In April 2010 a solitary Spanish-built tramcar did make an appearance, but only as a static showcase.

Since then, the original tramway project has shrunk markedly. The first part to go was the link between the airport and Newbridge. Then off came the westward leg between Haymarket and Granton and with it the mile of track along the shore between Granton and Newhaven harbours. The idea of a link with the Royal Infirmary to the south and Livingston to the far west began to look like some distant dream. By the beginning of 2009 all that remained of the project was a single line of 18 kilometres between the airport and Leith.

If, that is, the tramway makes it as far north as Leith. The current suggestion is that for a few years at least the tramway should stop at St Andrew’s square or perhaps Picardy Place. Councillor Jenny Dawe, the leader of the council, is determined that the line should get to the Ocean Terminal in Leith (if not to Newhaven) and if that means borrowing £60 million against future business rates then that’s what the council should do. It’s a financial strategy that has raised many eyebrows.

The tram project is now beset with questions. One of the thorniest is why do we need trams when we have one of the best bus services in Britain? Surely a smallish city like Edinburgh can manage on 630 buses and 57 bus routes? Especially since Lothian Buses is about to spend £12 million on 60 new Eclipse Gemini II buses to bump up its fleet. And if the trams fail to generate the ‘farebox revenue’ that’s expected (or at least hoped for) will they have to be cross-subsidised by the buses? And will that mean cuts to the bus services which serve those parts of the city (i.e. most of it) that the trams will never reach?

There is another question that the public would like an answer to: what has been going on between the German builders and the tram promoters? We got a glimmer of insight into that turbulent relationship in David Mackay’s resignation interview. He certainly didn’t hesitate to blame the delays on the Germans, especially Bilfinger Berger (Siemens is never mentioned). Mackay denounced Bilfinger Berger as a “delinquent contractor who scented a victim and probably greatly underbid, and who would use the contract to make life difficult for the city”.

For their part Bilfinger Berger and the other infrastructure builders did their best to divert the blame with an open letter to Ed-inburgh councillors a few weeks ago. While the letter hints that the firms are seeking extra cash (£80 million is the rumour), it’s for slow-downs and stoppages caused by events beyond their control. They mention “delayed utility work, changes in scope, certain key approvals, ground conditions and so on”, all problems that have “resulted in increased costs and delays for the Project”.

The delays part is certainly true. Ever since the dispute arose in January 2010 the project has been badly out of kilter. Some work has gone on to ‘off road’ sections west of Haymarket and the tram depot at Gogar, but that’s about it. The city centre itself has been quiet. But a lot of that stopping and starting is due to what David Mackay called “the crazy things” found under Edinburgh’s streets. And that’s hard to lay at the door of the Germans.

Certainly Carillion’s end of the project has proved more awkward and difficult than anyone anticipated. A book could be written about the progress of that work. In digging up the streets the workforce came across, inter alia, 100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.

These erstwhile Leithers were former residents of an extension to the South Leith kirkyard that had gone unmapped and unrecorded. “We’ve removed them all for forensic testing,” says John Lawson the city’s archaeologist. “We’ll be trying to find out something about the way they lived and what caused their deaths. It’ll probably take two or three years.”

Dead bodies and ancient buildings are just the kind of thing that brings work to a halt. They all have to be carefully examined by experts and removed for safety. In a city like Edinburgh, where people have been living for around 5,000 years, the possibility of archaeological finds like the 300 skeletons should have been anticipated. We don’t know how much stoppage and delay was caused by that kind of discovery and how much by poor planning and inefficiency. Somebody somewhere may know. So far they’re not saying.

After resigning, David Mackay accused the Germans of bidding low to get the contract and then playing stop-go to hike up their fees. A similar charge was levelled at Bilfinger Berger in Canada in the same month, May 2008, that it signed its contract with tie. That’s when Bilfinger Berger was “terminated” from a $100 million tunnelling job in Vancouver by the publicly-owned utilities firm Metro Vancouver. The Germans claimed that the conditions were unsafe and halted work. Their clients, Metro Vancouver,

argued that their safety plan was adequate and that the German company had “refused to proceed with work”.

“That dispute continues to this day,” says Metro Vancouver’s spokesman Bill Morrell. “We withdrew Bilfinger Berger’s right to work when it was about half-way through. Now we’re pursuing a law suit against the company to recover our costs. But we don’t expect the case to get to court until November 2012. We’ve had to put together another consortium to finish the work but the final cost of the job is likely to be well over $200 million. Maybe more.”

Not that Bilfinger Berger is taking Metro Vancouver’s lawsuit lying down. In June 2008, the Germans filed a counter suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia claiming that they’d been removed from the job “improperly” because they wouldn’t go along with Metro Vancouver’s safety plan. Bilfinger Berger asked for compensation of more than $22 million, plus interest and expenses, and the return of $30 million-worth of machinery that was still sitting on the site.

In Edinburgh, the delays and the acrimony have added to public concern over the trams. One stage on the tramway which is currently progressing and which is probably worth its £35 million price tag is the rail/tram ‘interchange’ at Gogar (next door to the new depot where the tramcars will be garaged overnight). This is where rail passengers coming from the north will be able to hop from train to tram and be shuttled out to the airport. But until the tram system is up and running, they’ll have to continue their journey into the centre of Edinburgh and then take a bus back out again through the traffic-clogged roads of Corstorphine and the rush-hour jams at the bottom of Drum Brae.

The saga of the Edinburgh tramway rumbles on. The search is now for a replacement for chairman David Mackay. The project’s past has been troubled and its future looks like being stunted. Economically we are not out of the woods. Our banks are still unsteady on their feet, our industry is sluggish and the public remains concerned about jobs and pensions. There’s drastic public-sector pruning on the way, while the threat of a ‘double-dip’ recession has not receded from economic forecasts. Once the present pile of tram cash has been spent that will be it for some time.

There are mutterings that the time has come to write off the trams project completely. That enough public money (probably £400 million) has been spent on a project dreamt up when the economy was buoyant. It won’t happen. Too much money, reputation and political capital has been invested.

Within a year or two we might see trams running between the airport and St An-drew’s Square (or maybe Picardy Place). It will take even longer before there’s money enough to run the line down from Haymarket to Granton, and longer still before we see trams making their way out southwards to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary or westwards to Livingston and Queensferry.

When the day comes the trams begin to operate (which the men from tie hope will be sometime in 2012) it will be worth remembering that we’re travelling on Spanish-built trams running on rails forged by Austrians and on a tramway designed by Americans and built for us by Germans. And to make sure that it runs properly we had to seek the advice of the French. Our job was to come up with the money, much of which is now held in banks in New York, Madrid, Paris, Man-nheim and Vienna.

It’s been a sorry saga. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, whether the SNP is punished for a project it never wanted to undertake. Perhaps it would have been an idea for a portion of the vast amout of money spent to have been used to educate Edinburgh’s populace on what benefits trams would bring the city and what inconvenience to expect before the digging began.

None of that is the fault of enterprising foreigners. The fault lies with us, with our lack of industrial capacity, shortage of commercial nous and the paucity of the engineering skills that once marked out Scotland as a nation.

 

George Rosie’s Flight of the Titan: The Story of the R34 is published by Birlinn (£9.99).

 

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Volume 6 – Issue 4 – Editorial

When the end-of-year ‘Best books of 2010’ polls are over, there are bound to be votes for David Shields’s Reality Hunger.In it, Shields outlines his discontent with the novel, going as far as to suggest it’s effectively finished. Or at least finished in the form most of us are familiar with, which is a descendant of the well-made nineteenth century classic realist text. He outlines a number of alternative modes, one of which is as old, maybe older (depending on how you date these things), than the modern novel: the essay.

Shields is but one of a growing number of writers expressing discontent with the current state of the novel. There’s a sense its practitioners have lost touch with the multi-stranded nature of reality. Too many books about Islington and adultery and childcare, the cliché might go. Or if you want the Scottish version, too much working class misery and addictions of various stripes. It’s not entirely true – but it’s not entirely false either.

The next few years are going to be tough economically. Normally at such times the hunger is for less reality, not more. Doubtless there will be novelists who will deal with the hard times to come. The question is, will publishers, who already have little stomach for finding ways to sell experimental or difficult books to the public, publish such novels? Will novelists, knowing this, consciously or otherwise, censor themselves?

The essayist might not fare any better commercially. Despite the demand for memoir and history, general non-fiction appears to confuse shops and readers. “Booksellers and customers often complain about the difficulty of knowing where to stock or find my books,” Geoff Dyer writes in the introduction to his thought-provoking new collection of essays, Working The Room. It says something about these times that not knowing how to categorise a book is a black mark against it.

Nevertheless the SRB will not be surprised when this period is over and the historians look for evidence of what life now was like, that they may find richer pickings amongst the essayists than the novelists. Because of the way publishing pressures writers who want to make a living out of their craft, there’s a certain sameness about the settings, mores, and characters found in fiction. Essay subjects are by their very nature highly variable. They reflect their author’s interests and events in his or her life, the combination producing works that are idiosyncratic and which map inner and outer realities.

You only need read this issue of the SRB to see this is the case. Within these covers, for example, you will read Kapka Kassabova on the tango and Martin Belk on rehabilitating youth offenders in Scottish prisons. Kassabova’s impressionistic piece reflects upon the nature of dance and the price writing demands of authors, a fee she is willing to pay for the insights it gifts and the places it takes her – but it is a fee nonetheless. Belk, on the other hand, passionately argues from his experienceof working with young offenders that the public needs to engage with them if it wants to see them turn away from lives of crime. Both pieces are essays; both are very different.

The essay is a highly malleable form whose potential only feels half-tapped at the moment, although it is centuries old. The field of essay-writing contains masters as diverse as Orwell and Borges. It can straightforwardly report on the author’s experience of travelling to a war zone or it can be a segment of childhood biography. It can be about something seemingly whimsical like a pet or postcards. You could say that the novel has the same scope for invention, and it does, but that scope needs infusions of new ideas, and right now, essays are making all the running.

With that in mind the SRB launched a competition earlier this year. We invited readers to write an essay with the title of ‘On Being Modern-Minded’. We take pleasure therefore in announcing that the competition’s winner is Terry Delaney from Stromness, whose interpretation of the subject is published in this issue. Ms Delaney’s essay does what all good essays do – it encourages us to regard something familiar in a fresh light, in this instance how we look at the past; how we pick and choose elements from the long-ago to flatter our sense of self today.

With lean times ahead, we hope and trust Ms Delaney, and Messrs Shields, Dyer, and our contributors, will continue to stay hungry.

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