Monthly Archives: March 2012


Warsaw Pact

Warsaw airport is officially called Chopina airport, which is scarcely in itself surprising. Many cities call their airports after celebrated citizens, Charles de Gaulle, Leonardo Da Vinci or, in Britain, John Len-non and George Best, but there is a special tone of assertiveness to the choice made by the Polish authorities. It is a reminder that the composer Frédéric François Chopin, as the name appears in encyclopedias, was actually Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, Polish by birth, culture, language and even by enduring affection. In his will, he decreed that his heart should be taken back to War-saw, where it is interred in the church of the Holy Cross.

The problem is, as I was told by a student at the University, ‘The French stole him, the same way they stole Marie Curie, who was also Polish.’ The French do have the habit of kidnapping distinguished figures. It is a surprise to them to be reminded that Samuel Beckett was actually Irish, that Eugène Ionesco was born Eugen Ionescu in Romania, and that the playwright Fernando Arrabal was Spanish. Poland has suffered a double depredation at the hands of France. There was annoyance in the country a couple of years ago when a French magazine ran a poll which gave Marie Curie the position of the second most important French woman of all time. She is buried in Paris among the greats of French history in the Pantheon, but was christened Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw. It seemed wiser at that point in the discussion not to mention the case of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, known in English as the novelist Joseph Conrad.

I am in Warsaw at the invitation of the University to teach British or Scottish cultural studies in the strangely named Institute of Culturology and Anthropocentric Linguistics. The academic world enjoys grandiose names, but the word ‘culturology’ does not exist in any language, and it is not clear what other kind of linguistics there could be. Zoological linguistics? However, the Polish students are alert and bright, and emerge from their education system with a level of knowledge and cultural awareness well beyond anything expected by ministerial educationalists of their counterparts in Scotland.

There is an unexpected keenness on the part of Poles to demand of visitors opinions on Polish life and culture. Their food is not likely to be numbered among the great cuisines of Europe. The way to insult a Belgian is to speak slightingly of their beer, since Belgian nationalism is centred on native beer, and the way to upset a Pole is to cast aspersions on pierogi, commonly translated as dumplings but more precisely larger versions of Italian ravioli but with less flavour and without the range of accompanying sauces. Every restaurant has them, every Pole will press them on you and every Pole will react with disbelief at any suggestion that they are less than the food of the gods.

It is not that the Poles are unduly prickly but the element of self-doubt can be surprising. Cuisine is only one aspect of culture, and any attempt to grapple with the culture of another country is bedevilled by what could be called the ‘rosebud factor,’ a name I take from the search undertaken by the protagonist of Citizen Kane to explain Kane’s life in terms of the last word he spoke. The rosebud turned out to be no more than a sledge used in boyhood and taken from him at a signifi-cant moment in his life, but the assumption that there is one key to a life, or a culture, is a persistent one. The search for a comparable element which will provide access to Polishness or Scottishness is futile, and is likely to end up with an external searcher wrenching one random element from a complex of similar facts and endowing it with unjustified weight. Still, there are some rosebuds to be plucked, and not only in Poland.

At the foot of Jerusalem Avenue in Warsaw, the artist Joanna Rajkowska has planted an artificial palm tree. The explanation for this act is couched in the higher twaddle that today passes for art criticism, with an invitation to look at the tree as a ‘monument-event’ or an ‘object-situation,’ but the site itself is significant. There is no need to labour the overtones of Jerusalem, but the tree stands between the faceless, tasteless, concrete building that was once the HQ of the Polish Workers’ Party and is now a financial centre – and there’s symbolism galore – and the Branicki palace, an 18th century aristocratic residence which later housed the British embassy until it was burned down after the outbreak of war. It is a place, says Ms Rajkowska, to provoke discussion on ‘tradition, history or politics.’

Tradition, history and identity politics are keenly debated in Europe today, mainly among smaller nations who live cheek by jowl with larger powers, whether it be Fin-land with Russia, Holland with Germany, Catalonia with Castile or Scotland with Eng-land. Poland is neither a stateless nation nor a small power, as its leaders remind their counterparts at EU gatherings, but it is a nation whose selfhood has been periodically under threat and which once disappeared from the map of Europe for a period of 123 years. It has also had to live within changing frontiers, always squeezed between Russia and Germany. It is hard to forget this past in Warsaw.

Finding one’s way around the city is easy because one building, visible from most points, cuts into the skyline and acts as a landmark. This is the huge, monstrous, grotesque Palace of Culture and Science, a gift made by that generous philanthropist, Joseph Stalin. Apparently, the Poles were offered either a subway or the Palace, but it was made known that Stalin’s preference was for the Palace. The joke at the time was that Stalin acted like God when he created Adam and Eve. God told Adam that he could have any woman he wanted. Adam pointed out there was only one, and God beamed benignly. And so did Stalin. The ‘choice’ fell on the Palace.

The response to other buildings which are merely ugly, like the monument in Rome to Vittorio Emanuele, is tempered by time and toned down by familiarity, but the Palace of Culture and Science remains forever an offence. The central tower stretches upwards, tapering at the top to a mast with a flashing, red warning light, while around it are clustered smaller versions of itself. But what is the warning? The architects were Soviet and seemingly incorporated into the design some elements of all previous architectural styles, but the result is a glowering, threatening reminder of the reality of brute power. When the communist regime ended, there were debates over whether the thing should be hauled down, like the statues of Lenin all over eastern Europe, but the grudging decision was that seeing it was there, it should be used to provide studios, workshops, art centres or anything. It is now losing its grand isolation as high-rise office blocks, shopping malls and hotels from American chains spring up around it. But it is always horrendous.

There are no problems with contemporary Germans, but reminders of the past power of Germany are visible not merely in museums and plaques on walls, but in the very fabric of the city. Poland regards itself as a nation wounded by history, and War-saw’s many monuments and plaques convey a vision of a race of heroes and martyrs, all from times when Poland’s nationhood was under threat. The most moving monuments refer to the two Warsaw Uprisings against the Nazi occupiers, the revolt by the Jews in the ghetto in 1943 and the rising by the city itself in 1944. Virtually nothing remains of the ghetto as it was, since the people were killed or deported and the buildings destroyed one by one by the Germans. A tiny part of the wall built by the Nazis round the ghetto area is still standing with the obligatory plaque. The boundaries of the ghetto were tightened as the Germans restricted the area available to the Jews and made the food rations lower. After the war the ghetto area was used for the house-building programme, but the city authorities are now moving to commemorate the Jewish presence which may have amounted to 30% of the pre-war population. One street, Prozna Street, somehow survived and is now being restored and nearby a museum to Jewish Poland is under construction.

When a year later, the city rose against the Nazi occupiers, the Soviet army was already in the Praga suburb, but they declined to move across the river to the aid of the insurgents, allowing the Nazis to do the work of eliminating all sources of opposition. Perhaps the rising was really as much against the Russians as against the Germans, since there was no willingness to move from Nazi to Soviet domination. The young historian Piotr Podemski puts it neatly by saying it ‘was militarily against the Germans and politically against the Soviets’.

The fighting was expected to last a couple of days before the Soviets arrived, but lasted instead almost two months. In reprisal, the Germans destroyed the city, with the result was that perhaps 90 per cent of the city was left in ruins. After the war the Polish authorities took one of the most astonishing of all decisions, to rebuild the Warsaw as it had been. They even used the urban scenes painted by Bernardo Bellotto, the 18th century Venetian painter at the royal court, to ensure total fidelity. Ryszard Stemplowski, a man of deep culture and malicious wit as well as first Polish ambassador to London after the restoration of democracy, savours the paradox that it was the communist PM, Edward Gierek, who oversaw the rebuilding of the Royal Castle.

The rebuilding programme means that the visitor to the gothic cathedral, to neoclassical halls in the University, to baroque churches or even to the 19th century church of St Michael the Archangel, itself built as an early protest against the Russification of the country and the spread of Orthodox churches, are not seeing the originals but carefully planned reconstructions. The philosophy behind this project was that the history in stone should not be lost lest a sense of national identity be damaged. That rosebud is more than Polish.

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Gay Caledonia

There’s a question I often put to gay friends of mine in Edinburgh – a predominantly informed, professional and therefore naturally anti-Conservative lot – which is, ‘when was homosexuality decriminalized in Scotland?’ Most can’t pinpoint a specific date but are reasonably sure it was during the liberalizing wave of Home Office reform in the 1960s. Furthermore, they’re usually confident this applied across the whole of the United Kingdom.

They would, on both points, be incorrect. Not only was Scotland specifically excluded (along with Northern Ireland) from Leo Abse’s Sexual Offences Bill of 1967, but the law remained unchanged north of the border for another 13 years. Robin Cook and Malcolm Rifkind joined forces in 1976 to try and bring Scots Law into line with England but failed (most Scottish Labour MPs voted against), while in 1977 – a few months before I was born – the indefatigable (and promiscuously bisexual) Bob Boothby tried again in the House of Lords.

Only in 1980, when Cook proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scot-land) Bill, did the House of Commons seem minded to support a change. George Younger, the then Scottish Secretary (and personally liberal, as I argued in my authorized biography), urged MPs to think ‘carefully’ before voting for the amendment; but they did, by 203 to 80. After almost a decade-and-a-half homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in Thatcher-era Scotland.

Curious to think that for the first three years of my life, what I would become – or rather how that identity would manifest itself – was still deemed ‘criminal’ within the eyes of Scots Law. Paradoxically, it was the first significant act of liberalization to take place under Mrs Thatcher’s government, not that the Iron Lady got any credit at the time, or since, for facilitating it. It’s usually this point that sticks in the throat of my (by this point irritated) Edinburgh compatriots.

It makes people squirm because it’s an inconvenient truth, one that contradicts a story most Scots like to tell themselves, of a more liberal, tolerant and – perhaps most flatteringly of all – egalitarian land than our larger southern neighbour. An equally uncomfortable point is that arguably, for most Scots, this legislative time lag was in line with public opinion. For until relatively recently, when Scots were asked for views on three key social indicators – homosexuality, divorce and abortion – their responses were significantly more conservative than those in England.

And it persisted beyond decriminalization in 1980. As the Scottish political classes battled against Mrs Thatcher and campaigned for devolution, the irony was that a significant chunk of them shared her small ‘c’ conservative instincts when it came to single mothers, gay people and terminated pregnancies. That this was the case until the end of the 20th century tells us much about heterosexual Scotland, and more specifically its prejudices, fears and aspirations.

This subtext has also been mirrored in the lives and works of Scotland’s poets and writers. Much was made of the fact that it took until 2010 for a mainstream Scottish novel to include an openly gay character, Mike Pendreich in James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still. In this, Robertson doesn’t flinch from tackling Scotland’s historically conservative attitudes while sympathetically incorporating sexual politics into his narrative. Scottish fiction’s rather tortured representation of masculinity – from R L Stevenson to William McIlvanney – was finally brought up to date.

Robertson took his title from one of Edwin Morgan’s landmark Sonnets From Scotland, and indeed the late Makar’s career neatly encapsulates the story of gay Scot-land. Although actively homosexual since his youth, for personal and legal reasons Morgan hid his sexuality via the non-gendered use of ‘you’ in his poetry. Thus ‘The Milk-cart’ (‘to wish for you, harder to sleep, useless to weep’) can be read as heterosexual or homosexual. His poems of love rendered sexual orientation irrelevant, but nevertheless concealed the truth.

Only in 1990 did Morgan ‘come out’, explaining his sexuality in Hamish Whyte’s (ed.) Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on his Work and Life. By contrast, the late Hamish Henderson not only gave no public declaration of his sexuality, but that aspect of the late folklorist’s life was dispensed with by his biographer Timothy Neat in a single paragraph. Female Scots on the other hand, most notably Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy (for a while lovers), not only embraced their sexuality, but made it a prominent feature of their work. But then Kay and Duffy (born in 1961 and 1955 respectively) hail from a different generation.

In Scottish Writers Talking 3 (John Donald, 2006) the writer Ali Smith (‘sexuality-wise I’m on the margins, supposedly’) tells Isobel Murray: ‘I know what happens to gay characters. I know what happens to them in soaps; I know what happened to them in A L Kennedy’s Everything You Need, I know what happens to them in books; I know what happened to them in Alan Spence’s marvellous Way To Go, which is that the gay character dies. The gay character dies, the gay character dies, the gay character dies…’

It’s a compelling point. To Smith’s list could be added Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers, in which Euan Bone, a gay composer living in a Scottish village, dies in a sting operation following a child molestation allegation, and perhaps Children of Disobedience (1989) by A. Findlay Johnson (actually Alison Johnson), whose bisexual character Alan Cameron doesn’t die, but suffers the grave consequences of a sexual liaison with an adolescent boy, again in a remote part of rural Scotland.

There are, of course, exceptions. Probably the first “gay” novel I read, Christopher Whyte’s The Gay Decameron (1998), was originally intended as a satire on well-heeled Edinburgh gay circles but grew into a sequence of ten dinner-table narratives which paid ‘tribute to the not often enough told or sung lives of gay men, their friends and those who love them, from classifieds to AIDS to meeting his mother’. Whyte’s novel in some respects echoed Alasdair Gray’s Something Leather (1990), which deployed a similar stylistic device, but with a different gender (four lesbians) and city (Glasgow).

By refusing to treat his characters’ homosexuality as something peripheral, while avoiding coded language for a more direct, realist, approach, The Gay Decameron anticipated, or perhaps more accurately mirrored, a significant shift in Scottish attitudes to homosexuality. As Gerry Hassan has argued, the row in 2000 over Wendy Alexander’s intention to remove Section 28 from Scotland’s (then relatively new) statute books, ‘unwittingly began the first ever public debate in Scotland on the role, status and rights of homosexuals’.

On the cusp of a new millennium almost half of Scots still believed sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong, while only 29 per cent felt they were ‘not wrong at all’. According to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, however, those statistics have more or less been reversed, something the ubiquitous pollster John Curtice has described as a ‘cultural revolution’.

Curtice has also charted a related shift in terms of attitudes towards gay, or ‘same-sex’, marriage, which in 2002 41 per cent agreed should be allowed by law (29 per cent disagreed), but support for which today stands at 61 per cent (with only 19 per cent opposed). Perhaps taking this as a cue, the Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on gay marriage (Alex Salmond having indicated that he’s minded to support it) that, if anything, highlighted Scotland’s changing attitudes.

The consultation prompted a mini-split within the hitherto ultra-disciplined SNP ranks, while the Catholic Church in Scot-land railed against the proposals, as did veteran Nationalist Alan Clayton. ‘The gay marriage situation is not what I fought for for 30 years,’ he explained to a journalist. ‘I fought for an independent Scotland, not to have a politically correct secular society.’ This muddled remark not only betrayed a socially conservative element within Scot-land’s National Party (although certainly a minority), but also the wrong-headed notion that constitutional change and public policy is necessarily one and the same thing.

Alex Salmond has, thus far, tried to rise above this while working hard to keep his party united and faith leaders on side. Interestingly, he recently selected And The Land Lay Still as his book of 2010, while lauding the contribution of ‘Eddie’ Morgan to Scottish cultural life (even before learning of the poet’s £1 million bequest to the SNP). Long forgotten, curiously, was another Nationalist writer’s contribution to liberalizing attitudes. Compton Mackenzie’s novel Thin Ice (1956) was not only ahead of its time in depicting a gay politician, but doing so sensitively.

If homosexual figures in Scottish public life were a rarity in the mid-1950s, today they remain relatively discreet; there are only a handful of ‘out’ gay or bisexual MSPs, while on the other hand Glasgow City Council has had two successive gay leaders in Steven Purcell and Gordon Matheson. Most significant, however, was the recent election of Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Being gay, she told one interviewer last year, ‘is not a big deal’. ‘To be honest, people of my generation just don’t care who you’re going home with,’ she added. ‘It’s a far bigger taboo to be homophobic than it is to be homosexual.’

In the bad old days, of course, gay Tories had to resign, their careers being terminated, in life as in art (as recently as 1997 the mere whiff of such a scandal ended Scottish Tory chairman Sir Michael Hirst’s political comeback). Similarly, when the narrative of And The Land Lay Still reaches 2008, Mike Pendreich feels he’s living in a more tolerant, open Scotland than was the case 50 or even 20 years earlier. As James Robertson says: ‘In my book the gay characters don’t die. At least, the main one and his lover don’t. They survive, and at the end of the book are stepping into what they think is a better future.’

For a nation that often delights in emphasizing differences rather than celebrating similarities, that Scotland has gone from being, as Gerry Hassan has observed, ‘a more conservative country than the rest of the UK, to a place rather like the rest of the UK’, is not considered noteworthy in this piously optimistic era of ‘moving Scot-land forward’. Instead we carry on much like before, expressing ourselves via referendums, constitutional reform and other worthy, but ultimately rather soul-less, means.

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Mother Courage and her Children – Four Songs by Bertolt Brecht translated by Tom Leonard

Mother Courage is a character who has inspired several writers. She appears in The Runagate Courage, a novel published in 1670 by the German author Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. The novel, inspired by the events of the Thirty Years War, tells the tale of a woman torn between making money out of conflict and protecting her children. In 1939, Bertolt Brecht wrote Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, reviving the character as a response to the Third Reich and the oncoming Second World War. As recently as 2007, Irish novelist Darach Ó Scolaí reworked the story as An Cléireach, the story now set in Ó Scolaí’s homeland. The songs here are from a complete translation of the play by Tom Leonard that Smokestack Press hopes to publish in 2014.


hawd yer wheesht there stoap yer drum
it’s mother courage this way come
oh have yer squaddies halt and buy
new boots and claes an aw forbye!
flearidden sojers who love their loot
still want the guns they need tae shoot
but how does yer squaddie march tae fight
in scabby boots that’s faur too tight?

It’s springtime noo! move on your way
the snaw’s aw gone. the deid lie deid
but you that huvny died as yet
the powers that be, they still do need.

wi no one sausage for to eat
yer squaddie’ll fight till he faws deid
gie him some forage on his feet noo
a drap a beer, wi a hunk a breid!
despite clapped oot guns despite empty stomachs
yer top brass still say that aw is well
oh get your squaddies fit and well here!
march them fit tae the jaws o hell!

It’s springtime noo! move on your way
the snaw’s aw gone. the deid lie deid
but you that huvny died as yet
the powers that be, they still do need.

(Scene Eight, conclusion)

From here to there, from there tae aw place
Courage’s cart will aye be seen
The war needs guns tae fill its bawface
For guns an bullets always keen!
But guns an bullets willny fill it
Its regiments they still need you
so join the ranks, get to your billet
sign up yir name tae fight the noo!

(Final Scene Twelve, conclusion)

Wi aw its dangers an stray bullets
this war drags on from day to day
the war could last a hundred years yet
yer common squaddie willny win.
pure crap his food, his gear his rucksack
the regiment docks hauf his pay
an though it might strike you a wonder
this war will never go away!

It’s springtime noo! move on your way
the snaw’s aw gone. the deid lie deid
but you that huvny died as yet
the powers that be, they still do need.


It was in the first hour of the day
that Jesus Christ was led away
like common murderer, they say
to Pilate, the heathen judge.

Though he in Christ could find no fault
no sign of treason nor assault
proceedings yet he would not halt
and sent Jesus to Herod.

At three they took Our Lord, God’s son
scourged him with whips bare flesh upon
crowned him with painful benison
—a crown of thorns.

Clad in mock regal robes of state
smitten with clubs and words of hate
given the cross of mankind’s weight
to carry to his death.

At six they stripped our saviour bare
nailed to a cross they hung him there
bleeding from wounds in want of care
he prayed, and gave lamentation.

On his either side two felons hung
who joined in the sneers with mocking tongue
Our Lord hung lone midst jeers among
and the sun left the sky.

At nine in anguish Christ gave cry
my God thou hast forsaken me. Why?
But mocking that now his mouth was dry
they gave him a cup of vinegar.

When Jesus died, all spirit spent
great tremors shook earth’s fundament
the sacred temple curtain rent
and many a boulder shattered.

Those thieves at dusk who hung beside
they broke their legs that soon they died
then took a spear to Jesus’ side
and plunged it in.

Both blood and water poured from thence
scorned him they yet without penitence
this son of man, whose recompense
was to save humanity.


For all the talk of war and glory
great vict’ries won, don’t kid yoursel
war’s nothin but a bit of business
that deals in cheese and boots as well

Some folk’ll look for quiet quarters
a place tae settle doon they crave
they want tae dig their hoose foundations
instead they dig an early grave

Some rush aboot like bees oot jamjars
a peaceful spot they’re searchin oot
but wance they’re deid I aye jist wunnir
what aw their rush was aw aboot.


(Scene Eleven: Kattrin dead in Mother Courage’s arms)

hushaby ma dearie
nestlin’ in the hay
neighbours’ weans are girnin
oors jist run an play
neighbours weans are clatty
oors are clean an neat
lookin like an angel
sae sweet.

neighbours weans go starvin
oors have cake aw day
an if their cake’s too crumbly
aw they need is say
hushaby ma dearie
nestlin in the hay
I’ve wan lay doon in Poland
the other’s faur away.

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Democratic intellectual: Remembering George Elder Davie

In one version of Scottish cultural history, you might say that contraception won out over metaphysics. Until the 1960s, philosophy was a rite of passage at the University of Edinburgh, understood as the magister vitae, and the compulsory cornerstone of a humanities degree. By the time I got to Edinburgh in 1972, the old Fraser lecture room in Bristo Place had been swept away as part of a reshaping of the South Side that the Luftwaffe couldn’t have bettered. The new, brutish Student Centre, universally known as the ‘Pill Centre’, was where one took unusual infections during the day and listened to indifferently mixed rock bands at night. American music had won out over Scottish philosophy. I heard bluesman Roy Buchanan long before I ever heard of the George Buchanan. Tutor to Mary, Queen of Scots and to James VI, historian, humanist scholar, he was said to be the last major thinker to write as if Latin were his native tongue. He would have been a central figure in the old philosophy survey at Fraser. By 1972 his reputation was in abeyance.

The very first book I bought at Edin-burgh was a shop-soiled copy of something called The Democratic Intellect, knocked down from 50/- in the old money to £1.25 in the new. I bought it for the title, not thinking perhaps that the subtitle Scotland and her Universities in the 19th Century promised something drier and less ringing, and because it came in a handsome slipcase with a stylised Edinburgh skyline. The illustrator ‘GM’ I only discovered much later to be George Mackie. The book’s author was identified on the case as G. E. Davie, and on the title page as George Elder Davie, a lecturer in logic and metaphysics at the University. I wondered vaguely if I would come across him. My first year courses were to include ‘aesthetics and general philosophy’, a rapid sweep from the Phaedo through Hobbes, Locke and Hume, to R. G. Collingwood, who picked up the ‘aesthetics’ thread at the end. My tutor was the urbane Peter Jones, the first adult ever to address me as ‘Mr’. Robust as Jones’s tutorials were, logic and metaphysics as distinct entities remained as remote as Ulan Bator and I never crossed paths with  G. E. Davie until after I ‘dropped’ philosophy, or, more accurately, it sorrowfully asked me to leave.

I did continue to read The Democratic Intellect, though, partly for its patient, unemphatic prose and partly in alarmed recognition that the Scottish education I had expected to receive had undergone some undeclared process of Anglicisation. As had the ‘English’ curriculum, which in my four years rarely threw up a chance to read anything Scottish. The confident generalism described by G. E. Davie as definitive of the old Scottish university tradition had all but disappeared, in favour of un-joined-up specialisms into which one was serially dipped, without context or connective tissue: Shake-speare one term, Thomas Pynchon the next. The democratic intellectualism – I learned later that the phrase came from Unionist politician Walter Elliot, who was a near-contemporary and friend of my grandfather’s – set out within those lilac, black and white boards seemed to have been traded in for a hyper-eclectic curriculum of fragments and like most of my generation, I found myself visiting an archipelago of spurious authorities – Gramsci! Guevara! Deleuze and Guattari! – set in a sea of blustery ignorance. Politics and faith – I was beginning a long, slow transition from family Presbyterianism to elective Catholicism – seemed to follow suit. Though the apparatus of the old Scots civil society was all around me – Old College, New College, the courts and banks – it signally failed to cohere and Davie’s vision of a national culture which had been surrendered by a divided church and devolved to the universities had quite obviously moved on since he wrote his book in 1961. At the beginning of the next decade, Scotland wobbled intellectually between the vaguest form of internationalism and a political evolution which would see the Scottish National Party evolve from English-hating, wha’s-like-us? triumphalism to valid political argument and practice. Whether or not Scotland would thrive within the ‘Common Market’ seemed at the time a more urgent question than whether Scotland should sever ties with England.

When I encounter two people with the same name, my working assumption is that they are not related. There may be a psychological reason for this. In 1973, I wrote politely to a novelist I greatly admired, Elspeth Davie, to ask if I might meet her. I enclosed the only short story I had then published. She wrote back to say the story had ‘good points’ and that while she was ‘not a great one for company’ she and George would be happy to see me one afternoon. I eventually found the address. It took an hour for me to work out that the fellow who sat in the corner drinking prodigious amounts of tea and reading a journal tear-sheet held two inches from the tip of his nose was, in fact, George Elder Davie. The Davies’ modest flat and painter Alexander Zyw’s studio, which was not far away, were the two places I always visited in Edinburgh after I left Scot-land for the South, and George also became a friend and supporter.

Ironically, I didn’t realise for years – not being, in spite of my loyalty to all things civilly Scottish, either in or of the nationalist persuasion – that The Democratic Intellect had become one of the iconic texts of the nationalist movement. When I did I immediately and unkindly wondered how many of the SNP hierarchy had ever managed to read past George’s ‘Introductory Essay’ or his first chapter on ‘The Presbyterian Inheritance’, and how many of them took seriously any of his argument apart from the perception that in education as in all else, the South-ron had encroached on a still-vital medieval tradition which elevated rationality above rule-of-thumb and principle over precedent, the old ‘metaphysical Scotland’ Davie identified in his very first pages. For me, as an ardent anti-nationalist so far as political arrangements are concerned, the nationalists seemed to accept the paradigms of the Anglo-Saxon (read: Anglo-American) modernisers as the basis of a new, autonomous, intellectually and cultural distinct Scotland. Meanwhile, in London, I met a succession of well-meaning people whose largely unexamined belief in the ‘superiority’ of Scottish education went hand in hand with the belief that old Scottish manses with eight bedrooms and well-maintained policies could be had for the price of a Kensington garage. Not a few of these friends expressed a kind of tender amazement that I had survived a Glasgow and West of Scotland upbringing – the Glasgow of No Mean City hadn’t quite given way to Dear Green Place or European City of Culture at that point – and seemed to regard my translation across the country to Edinburgh as a fraught return to Ithaca rather than matriculation in Athens. The English are far more sentimental about Edinburgh than the city’s natives.

I always think of George Davie when I read Thackeray – whose bi-centenary falls this year, as George’s centenary does next – and particularly when I come across the sharp, rubicund James Binnie in The New-comes, the strong-stomached disciple of David Hume who has come home from India with his liver and his single status unscathed. That’s how the Scots used to be seen in Lon-don, not just survivors of scar culture but as bright, shrewd and principled, not so much on-the-make as not to be messed with, instinctive philosophers with streetfighting skills. George Davie recognised that the principles traditionally espoused in the old Scottish universities were once again only tradeable away from Scotland.

As if in confirmation, Westminster politics in the 1990s saw yet another attempted monopoly of party leadership if not all high office by Scottish or Scottish-educated men. Fifty years after its first publication, The Democratic Intellect does read more like a period piece than it did in the 1970s or even in the run-up to Scotland’s restored Parliament when it was regularly cited. Its academic premises – Scotland’s long resistance to Southern specialism, classical in Oxford, mathematical in Cambridge, assorted –ologies in London and Redbrick – no longer reflect the reality. The old idea that a freshman year was a foundational course in great books, aimed at a younger and less specifically trained undergraduate than a typical English sixth-former, has long since vanished. In my day, Scottish ‘Highers’ were regarded a little like Irish puint once were, acceptable but quaint and low-value; by the same token English ‘A’ levels were seen as burgeoning international currency, aggressive and high-price; in reality, the two qualifications always reflected different needs and pedagogic priorities. At a time when one can go to university to study hospitality management, a grounding in metaphysics might seem like gilding the lily – does the pint exist before it is poured and after it is drunk? – and the unravelling George Davie described in his later The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect has almost completely come to prevail.

He was never honoured with a university chair, retaining the title of Reader until his retirement, and Emeritus thereafter. It sat well with him, I think. He was a reader, and a Dozent, rather than one who professes. He was also a remarkable writer whose mildness of expression only partly disguised the rigour of what lay beneath. When I first spoke publicly about George Davie’s book and its influence, on a BBC Scotland programme, I was surprised by the volume of feedback that said, in essence ‘What’s new? We all read that book at one time. Can’t say I’ve looked at it for years. Anyway, you’ve missed the point. We exported that style of education to the whole world.’ But few of those who claim to have read The Democratic Intellect display any convincing familiarity with J. F. Ferrier, or David Masson, or Edward Caird, or any of the old Scots men who people its pages and the book is often unintentionally caricatured as a political manifesto with some irrelevant business tacked on at the end. And almost none seems to appreciate that the ‘crisis’ which overtook Davie’s style of democratic intellectualism ended fatally. Davie’s arguments and desiderata emerge directly out of a complex academic narrative that refuses to yield to quick generalisation or political opportunism. As his centenary approaches, George Davie’s methods and mode of thought, the kind of education he espoused, seem as relevant, and as remote, as ever.

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Who Was The Lockerbie Bomber?

It happened in the second last year of the reign of Ronald Reagan. On the evening of 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 imploded above Lockerbie instantly killing the 259 passengers and crew. On the ground, in the Dumfriesshire town which then had a population of around 4,000, a further eleven people died, all residents of Sherwood Crescent, on to which fell the plane’s fuel-heavy wings. It was Britain’s, and therefore Scotland’s, worst ever aviation disaster.

The majority of those on board were American, returning home for the Christmas holiday. In Megrahi: You Are My Jury, which John Ashton has written with interjections from Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the bomb that ripped through the plane’s fuselage is compared to the opening of a tin can. In his novel, Rabbit at Rest, John Updike allowed Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom to offer a more colourful simile. It was, he reflected, like the ripping open of ‘a rotten melon’, which served also as a simile for the United States under Reagan.

‘Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls-Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and scattered screams this whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually feel still packed into the suitcases, stored in the pressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.’

Rabbit, alone among his Floridian golfing buddies, rather admired Reagan. What he liked in particular was the way he ‘floated above facts’ and his realization that there was more to government than facts. For Rabbit, a retired car dealer, heading towards a fatal heart attack before he was 60, life under Reagan was like being under an anaesthetic. By Rabbit’s lights, the world was a better place because of him. He had the magic touch. ‘He was a dream man.’

When Pan Am Flight PA103 blew up, Reagan was 76 years old. In his intimate memoir of him, Dutch, Edmund Morris makes no mention of Lockerbie and the plane with which it will forever be associated. Nor, indeed, does Margaret Thatcher in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years. It would appear that the two great leaders of the free world had bigger fish to fry. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Lockerbie was not on their radar. In Reagan’s case, however, the omission, the oversight, is curious. Throughout his presidency he had been preoccupied with rogue states, prime among which were Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya. In a speech in 1985 to the American Bar Association, he said: ‘All of these states   are united by one simple criminal phenomenon – their fanatical hatred of the United States, our people, our way of life, our international stature… The American people are not – I repeat, not – going to tolerate intimidation, terror and outright acts of war against this nation and its people. And we are not going to tolerate these attacks from outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich…We must act together, or unilaterally if necessary, to insure that terrorists have no sanctuary – anywhere.’

Arguably the most hated of Reagan’s ‘misfits’ was Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, whom he called ‘the mad dog of the Middle East’. Since he seized power of Libya, which has a population of around four million, in 1969, Gadaffi had acted as a ruthless and eccentric dictator.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was convinced it was Gadaffi who ordered the shootings in December 1986 of Americans at Rome and Vienna airports. There was, said Reagan, ‘irrefutable evidence’ for this. Less than a month later he ended all economic ties with Libya and ordered all Americans – about 1000-1500 – immediately to leave the country, telling them that if they stayed they would face repercussions when eventually they returned home.

Some interpreted this as a warning that force was about to be used against the Liby-ans but this was denied by the White House. As Richard Reeves, author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, noted, this was not true. ‘The President ordered the Sixth Fleet to once again conduct manoeuvres in the Gulf of Sidra, inside Gadaffi’s Line of Death along the coast of Libya. He wanted a repeat of the manoeuvres that had led to air combat and the shooting down of two Libyan jets in 1981. And he wanted assurances about a possible Soviet military response – “Could this lead us into trouble?” he asked the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Admiral William Crowe – but his military men were confident that action in the Mediterranean would not trigger a response. “All right,” the President said. “Let’s do it.”’

Every one of America’s allies thought this was not a good idea. Even Thatcher cautioned against it, deeming it a mere act of revenge and, moreover, a violation of international law that might stoke up trouble further down the line. Reagan went ahead anyway. Early in March 1986 US planes sank Libyan patrol vessels. Over the next few weeks, 56 Libyans were reported to have been killed and no Americans. On 5 April, in the early hours of the morning, a bomb went off in a nightclub in West Berlin killing one American and injuring 60 other men and women. Libya and Gadaffi were immediately identified as the perpetrators. The American response came ten days later. Deploying 18 F-111 bombers and the aircraft carriers America and Coral Sea, various targets in Libya were attacked. One parcel of bombs fell in a residential area of Tripoli, killing civilians and damaging the French embassy.

‘We have done what we have to do,” Reagan told the American people. ‘If necessary, we will do it again. Before Gadaffi seized power…the people of Libya had been friends of the United States. And I’m sure most Lib-yans are disgusted that this man has made his country a synonym for barbarism around the world… He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.’ Told by the CIA that Gadaffi used makeup and was believed to wear women’s clothes and high heels, Reagan quipped” ‘Maybe we could stop the terror by letting himself into Nancy’s closet.’

* *

Like Ronald Reagan and, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was not unduly exercised by what happened over Lockerbie. Or at least no more than he was by other airline tragedies. As someone who had spent much of his adult life in the airline industry, he says he remembers seeing on television the ‘unearthly scenes’ of the site of the crash and the ‘raw grief’ of the bereaved. Similarly, he empathized with the staff of Pan Am, who he knew would be ‘deeply affected’. However, he insists his concern was simply that of the interested, concerned bystander, industry insider and fellow human being. That he might one day be accused of planting the bomb which blew flight PA103 out of the wintry night sky never in his wildest nightmares occurred to him. Why would it? Was he not a caring, loving man devoted to his family doing his best to get by in troubled times?

In Megrahi: You Are My Jury, Megrahi says he learned of the disaster a day after it happened. On what he describes as ‘an otherwise ordinary day’, the only remarkable event he can recall was a family gathering to celebrate the birth of his week-old niece. Nor, it would appear, did he think he had any cause to worry. It was not until more than two years later, in the spring of 1991, that Megrahi came to realize that his fate and future would be ‘inextricably linked’ to the bombing. It was then, he says, that he took a call from an unidentified colleague in Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) who told him that he had been visited by representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and representatives of the Scottish and Swiss police who asked questions about Megrahi in connection with Lockerbie.  The colleague told them that Megrahi was ‘a normal, decent man’. For his part, Megrahi says he expressed a willingness to go to Switzer-land for questioning, which his LAA contact counselled against him doing.

Shortly thereafter, Megrahi says he received a call from a Maltese man named Vincent Vassallo, who ran a travel agency with Lamin Fhimah, who had formerly been an LAA colleague of Megrahi’s. Vassallo told him that the FBI and the Scottish policemen had visited his office and asked about Fhimah’s diary for 1988. Fhimah, notes Megrahi, was as ‘puzzled’ as he was over these developments. Nevertheless Fhimah said he was happy for the diary to be handed over and was willing to go to Malta, which is as near to Tripoli as Edinburgh is to York, for questioning. And there, says a ‘curious’ Megrahi, the matter lay dormant for several months. It was not until 14 November, 1991, and nearing the third anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, that he received news via the BBC’s Arabic radio service that he and Fhimah were being charged with the murder of 270 people. ‘In an instant,’ he writes, ‘I was plunged into a nightmare from which there seemed no escape. Amid the mental firestorm, all I could think was “Why us?”. We were loving family men, who respected all human beings regardless of their nationality, religion or colour.’

* *

Who is Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi? In his own eyes, and those of many others, including his co-author, John Ashton, he is the victim of one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated against someone who is innocent of the crime of which they have been accused, tried and found guilty. Among those who insist he did nothing wrong are the signatories to The Justice for Megrahi Campaign. They include Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of PA 103’s passengers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Others, however, are just as adamantly convinced that he is culpable, claiming that if he did not act alone, then he was a willing instrument of Gadaffi’s murderous state. After a long, costly, historic and unprecedented trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, three Scottish judges found him – but not his co-accused Fhimah – guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. In 2001, Megrahi unsuccessfully appealed his conviction. Still others remain to be convinced by either side.

Ashton, who was employed by Megrahi to work alongside his lawyers as they prepared the case to overturn his conviction, says that his ‘near certainty’ of his innocence is based on ‘my knowledge of the man himself’. That man, Megrahi reveals, was born in Tripoli in 1952, the third of eight siblings. His father worked for the Libyan customs service while his mother looked after the home. Initially, their house was shared with two other families. As a child Megrahi was sickly and had   twice daily injections for a chest infection.

‘Like most people in Libya,’ he writes, ‘I was brought up a faithful Muslim. Islam was, and remains, the binding force of our society; but, although we are a devout country, we have never been an extremist one. Sadly, that is a distinction that has been obscured by the hysterical rhetoric of the War on Terror. To me, and every Libyan I know, Islam is a religion of peace and charity, which can never be twisted to justify violence.’

After leaving school in 1970, he studied marine engineering at Rumney Technical College in Cardiff. Of his time there he offers few details. Marine engineering, it seems, did not greatly appeal to him but, in any case, he had no option but to abandon his studies and return home because of poor eyesight.  Back in Tripoli, he says he answered an advert for a job for a flight dispatcher with LAA – which has been described as ‘a known cover organization for Libyan intetlligence’ – and got it. Flight dispatchers are responsible for the safe and speedy turnaround of an aircraft. They must check that all the different departments have done their work properly to prepare aircraft between flights, including cleaning, refuelling and the loading of luggage. They must also ensure that other staff, such as cabin crew and engineers, have done their checks, and that all passengers have boarded the aircraft. Once satisfied that everything is as it should be the dispatcher is free to release the plane for ‘dispatch’.

Most of Megrahi’s training took place in Libya. At one point, though, he was sent to Pakistan to obtain a ‘Flight Operations Officers Licence’. Why Pakistan? He does not say. Nor does he explain why the training there ‘didn’t go well’. Subsequently, his training was completed in the United States. After four years in the job Megrahi had been promoted several times, first to Chief Flight Dispatcher, next to Controller of Operations at Tripoli Airport, and finally to Head of Training. Thereafter, he had a spell in academe but returned to work for LAA in 1979.

It was around this time, he says, that he got to know Lamin Fhimah. Like him, Fhimah had trained originally as a flight dispatcher, based at Tripoli Airport. Later, in 1982, he was appointed Malta Station Manager, where Megrahi would make a point of seeing him. ‘We would often go shopping together,’ he explains, ‘as he knew the best places to buy essentials and gifts that I wanted for my family. We were never close friends and didn’t socialise much together, but he was a nice man and good at his job. After the indictments were issued against us, one newspaper quoted an anonymous source who claimed he was a religious fanatic committed to destroying America. This was a total fabrication. Lamin loved life in Malta and the Western-style freedoms on offer there, including the chance to drink. He was popular and considerate, in short the last person who would commit mass murder in the name of Islam, or any other cause.’

In the months and years ahead Megrahi’s associations and history and ability seemingly to travel unimpeded (and on occasion unrecorded) from one country to another, without even using a passport in his own name, would be used as arguments to condemn him. The irony, of which he is not oblivious, is that one of his responsibilities as a flight dispatcher was to keep abreast of terrorists threats, on which he was informed by the Jamahiriya Security Organisation (JSO), Libya’s intelligence and security service, which many western observers believe pulled the strings of the LAA and which is usually glossed with the word ‘feared’. While Megrahi is eager to distance himself from any involvement with the JSO he does concede that at one time, when he was Head of Security at LAA,  he was on ‘secondment’ to the JSO.

‘It was the only time I ever worked for the JSO,’ he writes, ‘yet the US and Scottish prosecutors branded me a senior intelligence agent, a claim slavishly parroted by the world’s media ever since.’ Yet, a few sentences later, he relates how he became coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) in Tripoli, ‘which was the brainchild of the former Foreign Minister and JSO chief, Ibrahim Bishari, [and which] was intended to ensure the Government was better informed about world events.’

How well Megrahi knew Bishari, who throughout the 1980s was the alleged overseer of Gaddafi’s terrorism programme, and what his connection to him precisely was, he does not spell out. All he does say, is that the CSS, which did have at least three JSO members on its books, was a ‘straightforwardly academic’ organisation, its interests ranging from water resources in Africa to the economy of the Soviet Union. With one exception: a study of Islamic fundamentalism among young people in Libya: ‘There had been an upsurge of the phenomenon resulting in some violent disturbances, which had generated serious security concerns. The Centre was called upon to help the JSO, and the Government as a whole, to understand the problem. I met with some of the professors to discuss how they might best research the issue. It was agreed that we should gather as much international literature as possible on the subject. They also wanted to interview fundamentalists who had been jailed following the disturbances, but permission was refused, probably because the JSO didn’t trust the Centre to do its spying.’

Throughout Megrahi: You Are My Jury, the bulk of which is a meticulous, detailed and impressive piece of work written by John Ashton, Megrahi repeatedly insists his desire to offer his contribution comes not because he wants to point  blame at anyone for the killing of 270 people. That is understandable. If he didn’t do it that doesn’t mean to say he knows who did. It is odd, though, that in relating his own story he asks readers to take so much on trust. While one is not saying that men such as Bishari and Gaddafi are comparable to Nazis – though they may well be – they were clearly dangerous and had it within their power to decide who lived and who died, who thrived and who were deprived. At no point, however, in his account does Megrahi acknowledge this. Thus we are left dangling and wondering whether he was just another hapless cog in a terror-state’s wheel or whether he was much more savvy and involved than he would have us believe.

* *

For many Libyans, including Megrahi, Malta represented escape and refuge. You could buy things there, including nappies, bottled water, fruit and medicines, that you couldn’t buy in Libya where US-imposed sanctions often made life intolerable. Doubtless other, less savoury, opportunities presented themselves. For Megrahi, it appears to have become a home from home. On occasion, he says, he would travel there overnight, telling his wife, Aisha, that he was staying somewhere in Libya. She was not happy, it seems, with his frequent absences abroad, where he Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi: ‘You know me as the Lockerbie bomber. I know that I am innocent’was involved in businesses, such as importing cars, which entailed the transfer into his bank account of large sums of money. Sometimes he acted as a government intermediary, at other times he was engaged in his own interests. He says he did not like to upset Aisha by always telling her the truth about his whereabouts. Incredibly, he says he even managed to hide from her for a day the fact that he had been named as one of the prime suspects of the Lockerbie bombing. ‘I disliked deceiving her in this way,” he writes, regarding the foreign trips, ‘but neither did I wish to see her upset, so I considered it the lesser of two evils. At the time the Libyan telephone service was fairly poor, so, even if she wanted to, it would have been difficult to check up on me.’ Deception, it seems, came quite naturally to this Muslim family man.

It was because of his visits to Malta that Megrahi came to the attention of Scottish police. Items of clothing which were believed to have been wrapped around the fatal bomb were traced to a shop. As John Ashton puts it: ‘The Lockerbie investigation first tilted towards Malta on 22 May 1989, when RARDE [Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment] forensic scientist Dr Thomas Hayes examined a blue and white mass of fabric labelled PK/669, which had been found in Northumbria a week after the bombing. On untangling it, he discovered that it consisted mainly of a clothing label, which read “Age 12–18… height 86 com…75% modacrylic…25% polyester…Rib 100% acrylic…Keep away from fire…Made in Malta.” Two facts were clear: the item was heavily blast-damaged and it originated from a children’s garment. There was also a plastic tag in the label, suggesting it had never been worn.’

Hayes deduced that the garment had been placed very close to the bomb along with the other luggage in the hold of PA103. If it could be traced back to its owner the identity of the bomber might be revealed. After a few months, the manufacturer of the clothing was found, as, soon thereafter, was the shop, Mary’s House, in the Maltese town of Sliema in which it was sold. All that was needed now was for whoever sold it to identify who’d bought it.  To the jubilation of DCI Harry Bell and Detective Sergeant William Armstrong, Tony Gauci, the son of the owner of Mary’s House, said he had a vivid recollection of the transaction. It had stuck with him, he explained, because the man who bought it had also bought several other items, none of which took much persuasion for him to purchase. ‘It was as if anything I suggested he buy he would take it,’ said Gauci.

But what did he look like? Gauci, whose job it was to assess someone’s measurements in an instant, barely hesitated. This is what he initially told the Scottish policemen. ‘He was about six feet or more in height. He had a big chest and a large head. He was well-built but he was not fat or with a big stomach. His hair was very black. He was speaking Libyan to me. I can tell the difference between Libyans and Tunisians when I speak to them for a while. Tunisians often start speaking French if you talk to them for a while. He was clean-shaven with no facial hair. He had dark-coloured skin. He was wearing a dark-coloured two piece suit. I think it may have been blue-coloured. His overall appearance was smart.’

Gauci, who would later be described by Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the former Lord Advocate as ‘not quite the full shilling’ and ‘an apple short of a picnic’, was for the police the witness of their dreams. Having provided them with a portrait of the suspect, they now tried to get him to specify a date. A time proved easier. It was not long before the shop closed at 7 pm, perhaps about half an hour before. Gauci said that he was alone because his brother Paul was watching football on TV elsewhere. He also recalled that the bill came to £76.50 which, he said, was paid in cash.

Over the following few weeks Gauci was interviewed numerous times. Then, on 26 September, Gauci informed the police that the mysterious stranger had been in the shop the previous day. Again he gave a description, confirming many of the details he’d given previously, but adding that the clothes buyer was around 50 years old when Megrahi was 36. He was also a few inches smaller than the man Gauci said he’d served, lighter skinned and with a receding hairline. Gauci said he hadn’t contacted the police immediately because his father and brother had warned him that ‘something bad’ might happen to him. Meanwhile, Paul Gauci settled on 7 December, 1988, as the day he had been watching football, over which there would be much debate during Megrahi’s trial. Even then, however, he declined to make a formal statement. All Tony could say was that the date was either in November or December.

For the police, the key breakthrough in this many-tentacled investigation came on 15 February 1991 when they put twelve photographs in front of Tony Gauci and asked him if any of them showed the man who had come into his shop. Gauci, writes Ash-ton, ‘studied all the photographs, then told [DCI Harry] Bell, “They are all younger than the man who bought the clothes.” Bell asked him to try to allow for any age difference and to judge which most closely resembled the man. Gauci looked again, at one point picking up the card. He studied Abdelba-set’s photo three times. [DC] Crawford subsequently described thinking to himself, “He’s gonna pick him.” And sure enough, Gauci  did. “I would say that the photograph at No. 8 is similar to the man who bought the clothing,” he said, adding, “the hair is perhaps a bit long. The eyebrows are the same. The nose is the same and his chin and shape of his mouth at are the same. The man in the photograph No. 8 is in my opinion in his thirty years. He would perhaps have to look about ten years or more older and he would look like the man who bought the clothes. It’s been a long time now [two and a quarter years] and I can only say that this photograph No. 8 resembles the man who bought the clothing, but it is younger.” At the end of the statement he added, “I can only say that of all the photographs I have been shown this photograph No. 8 is the only one really similar to the man who bought the clothing…other than the one my brother showed me.”’

This, adds Ashton, is a reference to Mohamed Abu Tald, another suspect whose photograph had appeared in the Sunday Times and which Paul had shown to Tony. But the police were not interested in that. They had their man, or so they supposed.

* *

It would be wrong to suggest that it was only Tony Gauci’s testimony which led to the conviction of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing. Equally it would be wrong to say that his conviction would have been obtained and upheld without it. Reading his statements to the police, which are included here as an appendix, what is instantly apparent is their unreliability. Taken together, remarks John Ashton, ‘they reveal a man with an unremarkable constellation of excusable human frailties: uncertainty, suggestibility, eagerness to please and, above all, inconsistency.’

For the police, however, and the prosecutors, and doubtless some politicians, Megrahi   was the perfect fit for a horrible crime. For a start, he was Libyan, and the bone American wanted to pick with that country still had plenty of meat on it. As an employee of LAA, an organization umbilically attached to Libya’s intelligence security service, he could come and go as he pleased. Moreover, as a flight dispatcher, he knew his way around airports, especially Malta’s, and aeroplanes.

But what’s missing is irrefutable evidence to tie him directly to the bombing on PA 103. Unlike other suspects, such as those attached to the PFLP-GC, a violent Palestinian splinter group founded by Ahmed Jibril, Megrahi had no track record as a terrorist, and there is nothing in his CV to link him with other terrorists. He did not know how to make bombs or set them to go off at the right moment. It’s possible that he could have been acting under the orders of Gadaffi and Bashiri but again there is no paper trail to follow or evidence to back this up. Those seeking to absolve Megrahi of blame see the unprovoked attack on 3 July 1988 on an Iranian plane by an American battle cruiser, the USS Vincennes, as significant and timely. En route from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai, the plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf with loss of 290 people, many of whom were travelling to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Though George Bush, who was then vice-president, claimed that the ship had gone to the aid of a neutral vessel that was under attack from an Iranian gunboat, it was later revealed that the ill-fated plane was not descending but still climbing after take-off. It was also revealed that the gunboat in question was not involved in attacking another vessel but simply returned fire after the Vincennes – known, as even Updike’s Rabbit recalls, for its ‘aggressive and imprudent actions’ – attacked it. No apology or compensation, however, was forthcoming from the US. On the contrary, Ronald Reagan awarded the entire crew of the Vincennes the Combat Action Ribbon, and its captain later received the Legion of Merit for ‘exceptional meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.’ As John Ashton writes, ‘The Iranian government was, unsurprisingly, enraged by the slaughter.  State radio warned that the deaths would be avenged “in blood-spattered skies” and President Ali Khamenei promised that the country would employ “all our might…wherever and whenever we decide”.’

Whether that remained an empty threat or was fulfilled with the destruction of PA 103 we may never know. Certainly, Megrahi, who is said to be close to death (as he has been since his release from Greenock Prison in the autumn of 2009) is determined not  to point blame at anyone. All that concerns him, he says, as he waits in life’s departure lounge, is the pursuit of truth and justice. It is up to the readers of this book, he insists, to decide whether he is guilty or innocent. Some, surely, will be persuaded that he is innocent while others will be unable to see how three eminent judges could make such a terrible mistake. Still others may be inclined to opt for a not proven verdict.

My inclination is to believe that he is an honest and sincere man caught up in a nightmare from which there is no possibility of awakening or ever forgetting what happened to those 270 homeward bound for the holidays. ‘How much did they know as they fell,’ wonders Rabbit, as he awaits the arrival of his son and his family at Southwest Florida Regional Airport, ‘through air dense like tepid water, tepid gray like this terminal where people blow through like dust in an air duct, to the airline we’re all just numbers on the computer, one more or less, who cares? A blip on the screen, then no blip on the screen. Those bodies tumbling down like wet melon seeds.’

John Ashton
BIRLINN, £14.99.460PP.
ISBN-13: 978 1 78027 015 9

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Volume 8 – Issue 1 – Editorial

As this issue of the SRB was wending its way towards publication the death was announced of Marie Colvin, the war reporter. Colvin was in Syria on assignment for the Sunday Times in the embattled, besieged city of Homs. Together with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, who was also killed, Colvin had entered Homs well aware of the danger she was facing. With some thirty years’ experience of bearing witness to man’s inhumanity to man, she was under no illusions about the hazards of her vocation. But still she was prepared to put her life on the line. She wanted to tell the world what was going on. She wanted others to know what she had seen, albeit with one eye, because she’d lost her other one reporting from another conflict zone.

Not that there’s any shortage of those. When one war ends there’s sure to be a fresh one starting up somewhere. In his book, Going to the Wars, Max Hastings, the veteran war reporter, relates how he spent a career hopping from war to war. Writing in hindsight, Hastings says, ‘few things are nicer than to recall in middle age, warmth and tranquillity, past moments of youth, discomfort and fear.’ That is a luxury only afforded those who survive relatively unscathed. Too many reporters, however, do not live to tell their tales. Like soldiers and civilians, they are casualties of war, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In this issue of the SRB, David Pratt, himself a distinguished and brave war correspondent, reviews a new book on the war in Afghanistan. As Pratt observes, there are many books of war reportage not all of which are well-written or well-researched. The best, though, such as Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In a Combat Zone and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, both of which are concerned with the Vietnam War, and Sebastian Junger’s War, about the ongoing Afghanistan conflict, are not only formidable feats of reportage but can also be classified as great literature. Such writers – and we could add many more names to the roster – are following in the illustrious footsteps of the likes of Orwell and Hemingway, Vassily Grossman, Anna Politkovskaya and many, many more who could have stayed at home and safe but opted instead to put themselves in the firing line.

Perhaps the first modern war reporter was Sir William Howard Russell, famous for coining the phrase ‘the thin red line’, which he applied to the British infantry at Balaclava during the Crimean War. Writing for the Times, Russell’s reports were credited with inspiring Florence Nightingale. In 1854, he gave a first-hand account of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Thereafter he wrote about the Zulu War, the Indian Mutiny, the Prusso-Russian War, and the American Civil War, including a vivid and controversial description of the Battle of Bull Run. Having been the only reporter at the Crimean War, he was one of 500 at the American Civil War. Inadvertently, it seems, he spawned an industry and invented a genre.

What makes a good war reporter? It is surely useful if he or she has what Eric Linklater’s Italian soldier, Private Angelo, did not possess, il dono di coraggio, the gift of courage. That is not something that can be taught. A sharp eye, disregard for discomfort, innate intelligence, the capacity to make yourself look inconspicuous, the ability to see things objectively and a touch of madness, are also recommended. Then there is the question of the quality of the writing. War reporting needs to be under rather than over seasoned. The best war reporters are those who tell it straight, recording honestly and without intrusive embellishment what they’ve seen.

One such was Marie Colvin. Another was also American. The name of Ernie Pyle is not much heard these days but during the Second World War, his reports – from Berlin, Tunisia, Italy, Omaha Beach, Normandy – were required and influential reading. On a brief visit home in 1944 he was welcomed as a war hero which, of course, he was. A year later, he was killed by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa where the most bloody fighting between American and Japanese troops occurred. A number of Pyle’s reports are reprinted in the two-volume Reporting World War II anthologies published by Library of America. In the second of these, covering 1944 to 1946, there is a short appreciation of Pyle, a small, bewhiskered, ‘oldish-looking’ man in a woollen cap who, when asked what he thought of the war in the Pacific simply said, ‘Oh, it’s the same old stuff all over again. I am awful tired of it.’ It ends thus: ‘The island probably will be remembered only as the place where America’s most famous correspondent met the death he had been expecting for so long.’

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