Monthly Archives: June 2012


You Couldn’t Make it up

A conventional work of theatre begins, if it is really old-fashioned, when the curtain goes up or, in a more avant-garde piece, when the actors dawdle on to the stage, but it is more difficult to establish exactly what point marks the opening of The Enquirer. It might be when the intending audience is escorted into a lift and a helpful usher announces ‘third floor’ and pushes a button. A maximum of thirteen people, who are required by regulation to weigh less than 1000 kilos, are left awkwardly facing each other, wondering if this is some kind of theatrical stunt which will see them propelled indefinitely upwards, as on the lift in the Powell and Pressburger film which took David Niven into the clouds.

There is no such celestial exit, so perhaps the show begins when the spectators emerge and walk past neatly bound newspapers, enter a large hall with strategically placed desks behind which are seated human beings with anxious expressions. There are hillocks of shredded paper against one wall, and more piles of newsprint scattered around, some of it in waste-paper baskets filled to overflowing with rejected pages. The audience shuffles in to be told to take any seat they can find but to be prepared to free it if an actor needs it. This will be a promenade performance, so the message is to stay nimble.

Or again, perhaps the real beginning is when a hooter blows and a radio voice rings out to announce the Today programme, seemingly an obligatory item on the agenda at the morning editorial meeting of any newspaper. The actors crowd around a table for discussion, concerned to see if they had chosen to prioritise the same subjects as their radio colleagues, and then to mockingly dissect the previous day’s headlines of their rivals in the press. The conclusion is that they had done it better in any case. The business of reporting requires a great deal of glancing over shoulders.

The actors are playing journalists, as if anyone failed to know, and the truth is that this show had begun in the weeks leading up to the first night, not with the rehearsals or information-gathering interviews, but with articles and previews appearing in the dailies and weeklies that readers buy in the shops, rather than in the fictional Enquirer on which the actor-journalists work. These constitute the real first act and did the job a playwright normally has to do in the opening scenes, updating the audience on what had been happening before they arrived and introducing them to the action that will unfold and the issues to be debated while they watch. These pieces also shaped critical expectations and smoothed the way for the reception of this show. Since real, live journalists had prepared the show and fictional journalists were the subject of it, no theatrical work in recent times has found access to the media easier. The number of column inches the play commanded is probably without equal, certainly since Peter Brook came to Glasgow with the Mahabharata in 1990.

Presumably because the producers assumed prior familiarity, no programme was available before the performance began. The problem is that frequently the work as it exists in the mind of the creators differs from the work as it finally emerges. This carefully orchestrated lead-in work caused people to expect a high level of discussion of ethical and technical problems of the modern press. These have been amply exposed in recent times by the Leveson enquiry, while other pressing issues could include the excesses of tabloid snooping where the private has become the public, the possibility of an independent Scotland being left with no media of its own, the cohabitation of political and media power, the arrival of the twittersphere, the fear that apparent dizzying internet choice might mask greater homogeneity of information sources and the coarsening of popular culture through the media. These subjects are there, but the dominant element is a series of personal dilemmas.

A sense of professional duty compels me to repeat for someone newly returned from Mars how the work was assembled. Three journalists – Ruth Wishart, Deborah Orr and Paul Flynn – were employed as worker bees, tasked with carrying out interviews with fellow hacks. They brought the pollen to the king bee, or to the drones, who set about converting the material into honey. Seemingly every word in the performance was spoken by some journalist somewhere in these islands, and is then delivered by the actors verbatim but, for the most part, unattributed. There is no fiction and none of the unifying vision which would be given by a writer. The structure is loose, organised around a day in a newspaper office, but with inserted interview scenes and monologues.

Director John Tiffany has, in other words, followed the same procedure as for the much praised Black Watch. ‘Director’ is not quite the exact term, since Tiffany is credited as ‘director & editor,’ with writer Andrew O’Hagan down as ‘co-editor.’ The production is an exercise in what used to be termed ‘director’s theatre,’ making the playwright with his or her creative imagination, personal vision or idiosyncratic insights redundant. This is a pity at a time when Scotland has more talented playwrights than ever before. I cannot help thinking that there is some form of romantic fallacy in imagining that excluding individual creativity in favour of recording and reproducing words straight from the horse’s mouth gives greater access to truth and authenticity, but this seems to be the thinking at the National Theatre of Scotland.

The actors do not play specific parts and here, since there is nothing that could be called character development, the costume designer, Janice Burgos, comes into her own. Even although they will play a multiplicity of parts, the dress of each actor indicates their main role as surely as did the lozenge outfit of a Harlequin. James Anthony Pearson is bedecked in pink jacket, maroon trousers, checked shirt with white collar, and is clear that he will be the up-to-the-minute, cool, cheeky, chappy who spouts stuff about the new technology representing ‘citizens’ journalism,’ while Billy Riddoch has apparently borrowed Andrew Neil’s red braces to convey the notion that he will stand no nonsense, and John Bett wanders around under a panama hat, with tartan scarf, mauve waistcoat and corduroy trousers indicating that here we have a more louche, laid-back character. All the acting is of the highest standard.

The question then is what do we learn about the newspaper industry in a period of travail and uncertainty? In reality, we learn much more about journalists, and little for their glory. We learn first that they are an unusually foul-mouthed lot, incapable for the most part of pronouncing one grammatical sentence without the use, or multi-use, of the shamanic word, ‘fuck.’ They are prone to bouts of bad temper and shouting, and are strangely incapable of giving memorable, colourful or incisive expression to the passion they so frequently feel. Talking of the goals of his profession, one journalist opined, ‘All we want is for people to pick up their papers and choke on their marmalade.’ He was dissatisfied with that formula, so clarified his thinking with the words, ‘all we want is people to pick up the paper and go – “fuck me!”’ Plainly the word ‘marmalade’ here has a profound, metaphorical charge, and the combination of elegance of expression and well pondered insight in the second sentence would have an Oscar Wilde sick with envy.

They are a sentimental group, prey to nostalgia, probably with a misplaced heart of gold, conscious of slipping personal and collective standards but willing to put up with a great deal. Like bankers, they complain about the low regard in which they are held by the public but, again like the bankers who featured in Daniel Jackson’s recent Marriage of Figaro at the Lyceum, while they feel hard done by and want to be loved, they lack much understanding of why that fall in public esteem has occurred. One character inveighs against Stephen Fry for greeting an audience with the standard ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ but extending his words of welcome to take in ‘media scumbags.’ Another, more poignantly, asks: ‘how did we get here? How did we lose our fucking moral compass?’

They are fond of insider gossip. Great names, like that of Rebekah Brooks, turn up from time to time, with the significant revelation that she had organised a nightie party. Rupert Murdoch and Alistair Camp-bell are mentioned frequently. Murdoch has his defenders, but not Campbell. Murdoch retains the respect of his more obsequious courtiers, being praised by one for paying his round when he could have slipped off leaving the bill for others to attend to, and by others for his stance against the unions in the move to Wapping which reformed the publishing industry and so made the Independent possible.

Some of the words spoken indicate uneasy consciences, but the highlights of the evening, those with the most powerful dramatic and moral impact, are structured like traditional theatrical encounters. One such scene takes the form of a confrontation in an afternoon conference when one of the company kicks the traces and slams Alex Salmond for the cosy relation he sought with Rupert Murdoch. The other powerful encounters are separate slots when the day-in-the-office format is abandoned and actual, one-to-one interviews with a war correspondent and two editors are reproduced. The editors, Jack Irvine ex-editor of the Sun and other papers, and Roger Alton of the Times, must rue the day they agreed to be take part in the process. The words are their own, and rarely has anyone been more roundly ridiculed and condemned by their own speech. Ruth Wishart had done the original interview with Irvine and the meeting gives Billy Riddoch, who is excellent throughout the evening, the opportunity to provide a memorable portrait of Irvine as a complacent, smug prat of a man who self-satirises by his deprecating little smirks, by his delight in his own exceptionality and, devastatingly, by his bewilderment at the very idea that there could ever have been anything morally questionable about payments to policemen, social workers, ambulance drivers or servants at Balmoral.

The nonchalant arrogance of power hangs more evidently about John Bett’s depiction of Alton, who emerges as an unctuous, condescending individual who bumbles, rambles and flounders under Deborah Orr’s questioning. She probes him about Murdoch, new technology or illegal payments and reveals a man without capacity for self-questioning, brushing aside questions about the Guardian’s investigations of telephone hacking, or about the new technological challenges. He denies that there is any code that puts the private lives of editors off-limits even to the rivals who will splash the lives of politicians or, increasingly, of ordinary people over the front page. Bett makes no attempt to over-egg the pudding, since Alton had already slittered it all down his shirt.

The emotional and ethical peak is the testimony of the war-correspondent, Ros Wynne-Jones, who has reported on war and famine in many countries including Sudan and Kosovo. Presumably to give some theatrical edge to what was already overwhelmingly powerful material, she is somewhat curiously seated on a filing cabinet facing an interviewer crouched like an office Puck on another such cabinet. Played with beautifully measured, understated emotional force by Maureen Beattie, the reporter tells of the harrowing tragedies she had seen, and yes she does think her work had been worthwhile, but recalls her despair when, after seeing corpses of men, women and children slaughtered in an unreported massacre in Timor, she managed to get her report through only to be told that the paper was dedicating virtually the entire edition to the breaking news about Edward and Sophie. There is no way of knowing whether she would have fared better had she been filing her copy for the Enquirer, or what kind of paper it was, right or left, broadsheet or tabloid, and above all whether its standards would have been different.

Once it was an article of faith among journalists that they should report the news, not make it, but now they make it and there are special media columns of their doings. The rest of us have learned the arts, once needed only in dictatorships, of reading between the lines of reporting. At the end of the day, the paper is ‘put to bed,’ and the cast snuggle up, like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, under the shredded remains of newsprint, reminiscing fondly and looking forward fearfully. Maybe that is all there is to be done, but I left this show recalling the words of John Ruskin against Whistler, that the artist had thrown a pot of paint in the face of the public. Some of the paint makes striking images, but the whole never quite coheres into one unsettling critique or vision.


National Theatre of Scotland The Hub, Glasgow. Run Ended

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Lost in Translation

Translations are like women: when they’re beautiful, they’re not faithful, and when they’re faithful, they’re not beautiful,’ wrote Carl Bertrand in the introduction to his late nineteenth-century French translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Like most aphoristic truths, it exaggerates, but my possibly too faithful translation reveals that in English ‘beautiful’, unlike ‘faithful’, has a more restricted meaning than it has in French. Can a translation be beautiful in English? Is it even noticed?

To be sure, translation is not a flamboyant activity. Its practitioners are not required to dress either fashionably or in rags, to lead protests or disdain society altogether, or of course to drink absinthe late into the night. They are never extreme in their life style, because visibility is not only unnecessary – it is almost impossible to achieve. This is true even in countries where most books – certainly most novels – are in translation. It is truer still in the English-speaking world where translation is rare and mainly restricted to the classic novels of the nineteenth century.

This does not mean that translators are all self-effacing Saint Jeromes drudging away with no other thought than the propagation of great literature into other languages and cultures. On the whole, I suspect that many or indeed most of them resent the failure of readers, critics and indeed writers to acknowledge their presence in a work (with a few exceptions). A translator’s elegant sentence is exactly that, and the elegance may not have been present in the original. Equally translators must take personal responsibility for the clumsy or confusing sentences that issue from their pens or word processors. But then, what profession is there that does not feel undervalued? Translators should perhaps savour the freedom of their métier and its inconspicuousness.

And I know that I will have raised the blood pressure of not a few of my fellow professionals by insisting on calling translation a craft, while they would much prefer the more exalted category of an ‘art’, a palliative for their long hours and poor remuneration, which most certainly should be increased. A craft does not presuppose less skill than an art. Technically it is far more difficult to translate a poem than to write one, and translating a novel requires almost the same technical skills as writing one, but ultimately a translation is a copy.

It is, however, a very strange kind of copy, and this perhaps explains the persistent attempts to make an art of translation. If you copy a painting, you get out your easel, place your canvas on it and proceed to apply paint of the same consistency in the same colours as the original artist, hopefully in the same manner. If you copy a novel into another language, you are using a completely different material – one that renders it indecipherable to most of the speakers of the original language. To say that translation might be like copying an oil painting into watercolour would not do justice to the complexity of the process. It is difficult for monoglots to understand just how different languages are. Students at evening classes will often ask impatiently, ‘Why do they do it like that?’ With a single linguistic template it’s natural to perceive one’s own language as the standard format for human communication. Not only do languages do things differently (syntax and morphology), they also contain surprisingly different vocabulary.

In the sixties, a popular work on sociolinguistics claimed that Inuits have many words for snow, and it became a commonplace. More recently this highly probable factoid has been challenged. Whatever the truth of the matter, the point is well made: languages categorise meanings, in entirely different ways. In one language, there may be greater categorisation in a particular area, while in another, there may be greater use of collective nouns. Nor are abstract concepts free from this kind of difference. Until recently, there was no word for privacy in Italian. Intimità, as in English, was generally associated with human relationships rather than the relationship between individuals and their property. The adjective privato existed (as in proprietà privata, private property), so it was not too difficult for someone to coin the new word, privatezza, although I have never heard anyone make use of it. Finally someone just put out their hand and grabbed the English word, and ‘privacy’ became la privacy (that same person presumably also had to invent the new word’s gender in Italian). We have here the  three methods of inventing new words: expanding the semantic field of an existing word, coining a new word from an existing root, and bringing in a loan word. This demonstrates the problem for a translator but not the solution, because a translator cannot indulge in linguistic invention in the way a writer can. Translation is like a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces from two jigsaws have been mixed up.

Consider the following experiment in which researchers had three cards: one was a picture of a man (A) kicking a ball, another a picture of the same man (A) about to kick a ball and another a picture of a different man (B) kicking a ball. A group of English-speakers and a group of Indonesian-speakers were asked to pair off two of the pictures. Nearly all the English-speakers paired off the two different men (A and B) both kicking the ball, and nearly all the Indonesians paired of the same man (A) kicking the ball and about to kick the ball. These extraordinary results would appear to reflect the different tense usage in the two languages. English has clearly defined tense usage which is adhered to fairly carefully, and generally Indonesian does not use tense, although it does have some marker words that are very occasionally used. Thus the expressions ‘he’ll go’, ‘he’s going’ and ‘he went’ will follow the simplified pattern of ‘he go’. I have already argued that language is all about categorisation and this applies to syntax too. The manner in which a language categorises the world could surely affect the manner in which a speaker categorises the world. This is one of the fundamental ways in which language governs how we think, although the effects of language on our thought are almost certainly more complicated than suggested by this experiment, particularly in the area where language comes closer to wider cultural questions, such as the structure of argumentation, formal relations between social groups, hierarchy and the like.

The aforementioned researchers formed a third group of bilingual English and Indonesian speakers, and the result was a mixture. The tests also showed that bilinguals behaved differently according to whether they were interviewed in English or Indonesian. The results are, I think, quite convincing, but they do not fully convey the subtlety of linguistic difference, which is probably impervious to sociolinguistic methodology.

Given these difficulties, you may well think that precise translation is impossible. And you would be quite correct, but perhaps something much finer can be created: a brilliant approximation and a different perspective on the same work. A scientific paper on dementia can be translated without any loss or gain in the process, but a novel about dementia and how it affects people in a given society and language community cannot, because literature takes, or should take, language towards its limits, possibly subverting it as it goes. This process magnifies the mismatches between languages that I have just described. A copy produced through translation can be exact in a way, but its texture will be different.

A couple of years ago I translated a novel set in Gorbachev’s Russia by a prominent Italian author, Alessandro Barbero. In a way, this work was already a kind of translation: the author, a medieval historian, writes novels by immersing himself in the language and ideas of a particular society. He had never visited the Soviet Union or Russia (nor has he since), but he was able to understand that society by reading its newspapers, magazines and reports on archival material. Central to the novel, which I entitled The Anonymous Novel, was the narrative voice that cleverly reflected popular conceptions and prejudices in the Soviet Union shortly before its fall. As Italian is a more ‘formal’ language than English, in the sense that its uses more subordinate clauses, apposition, clauses in apposition and flexible word order, the same syntax that could appear to be that of a popular voice in Italian, became rather formal in English, undermining the author’s intentions. I resolved the problem by pushing the register of the narrative voice downwards, and effectively rewriting it. I sent a sample to the author, who has good English, and fortunately he immediately understood what I was trying to do and approved it.

I should perhaps be honest and also admit that this was not always the case, and during the translation of that novel of truly Russian dimensions (187,000 words to be exact), we had quite a few stand-up arguments, often over a single word: a phenomenon only understandable to other pedants like the pair of us – monomaniac writer and monomaniac translator. As an interesting aside on the sometimes fraught relationship between writer and translator, I should add that translators sometimes aver that the best author to translate is a dead one, followed by one who knows no English, and if it has to be a writer who knows English, then one who, like Barbero, knows English well.

Actually, the best writer is this last type, as long as he or she also knows how to delegate the task of translation. Moreover, the odd argument is not so bad a thing: translation can and often should be a negotiation; it only becomes abusive when translators are obliged to accept wordings alien to the languages they are translating into. Enough of this digression: the significance of my example is that by distancing myself from a straight translation using the original syntax I was being more faithful to Barbero’s original intentions. By rejecting word-for-word translation we can sometimes produce a ‘better’ translation. In translation, as in so many other fields, particularly in literature, it is not a matter of generalised rules or even guidelines; it is a matter of judgement on a case-by-case basis. And we could argue endlessly over each of those judgements.

The question of translators being forced to make changes alien to the language they’re writing in (under pressures from either writers or editors – who usually have been approached by the irate writer) is one that leads us to the core concept of this essay which, I freely admit, does contain an irresolvable tension: a good translation must follow the syntax and style of the target language but remain as faithful as possible to the culture of the source language. Amongst the best examples of this are two novels by the great Sicilian verist, Giovanni Verga, who also effectively translated one culture into another. I Malavoglia, which was translated into English as The House by the Medlar Tree, and Mastro Don Gesualdo are both set in nineteenth-century Sicily and its protagonists would therefore have been speaking Sicilian, a so-called dialect but really a different Neo-Latin language closely related to Italian. Very occasionally the author feels he has to use a Sicilian word, and declares his hand by putting it in italics, but principally he creates an impression of Sicilian language and culture entirely through the standard Italian of the time, albeit in a strange tone that underlies the foreignness of Sicilians seen through the eyes of mainland and particularly northern nineteenth-century Italians. Both books make ample use of free indirect discourse, and in the case of I Malavoglia, it is a kind of collective free indirect discourse – a choral voice that represents the fishing community in which the family of protagonists live, with all its beliefs and prejudices.
For this reason, I believe that a translation of I Malavoglia would be an extremely difficult task, more difficult even than Mas-tro Don Gesualdo, Verga’s masterpiece in my view, which, as it happens, was also translated by D. H. Lawrence. It would be a bold translator that would resort to Verga’s techniques to reinvent a culture and present it to another language community in a manner that allows them to understand that culture, perhaps for the first time. As the primary task of a good translation is to allow its readers to understand a culture free from stereotype, such boldness should on occasions be encouraged. However, this is not a simple process and the dangers are several, not the least of them being the opposite result – exoticism and condescension to that culture, although Verga avoided that pitfall admirably. Boldness requires very fine judgement, but even when it ends up misrepresenting the original, the literary result can be startlingly successful.

One such case is Edward FitzGerald’s very loose translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, whose distorting effect might, perhaps unfairly, be accused of Orientalism. I have a great fondness for the work, probably because my father quoted it incessantly, particularly the quatrains that justified his drinking habit. We should not be too precious, and FitzGerald was honest about his method. On the other hand, it would be quite reasonable to claim that his Rubaiyat is not a translation, but rather an original work heavily influenced by another. A translator, in my opinion, cannot go quite that far.

It could also be argued that poetry cannot be translated, although it would be more correct to say that some poems cannot be translated. Shakespeare translates wonderfully into Italian, unsurprisingly because the influence of Italian Renaissance literature and theatre is clearly there, although he develops it in an original manner, but Dante does not translate well into English, in spite of some valiant efforts. TS Eliot argued that Dante was at least as good as Shakespeare and you had to learn Italian to read him. Interestingly, Eliot wrote a superb episode for The Waste Land that was based very closely on Dante’s description of Ulysses’ demise close to Mount Purgatory (Canto XXVI of Inferno). Unfortunately the passage was removed on Ezra Pound’s advice. One thing is clear: the boundary between translation and creative reinvention is particularly blurred when it comes to poetry.

I hope that it is now becoming clear that translation is an integral part of a literary culture. In 2009, Nicholson Baker developed his theory of English poetics in The Anthologist. Whether or not you feel that this book works as a novel, he does have some interesting things to say about our poetic tradition. His principal theory is that a language has a natural rhythm, and the ‘four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.’ Throughout its history, foreign influences have taken English poetry in different directions, but always it has returned to that solid and inescapable four-beat line. For Baker this rhythm is not only natural but preferred, and here I differ. These foreign ways that break with the four-beat line are not an imposition but useful poles of attraction that have improved our poetry – and more arguably have provided us with our greatest poets. The influences, be they through translation or a writer’s knowledge of foreign literature, are essential to our literature, as they are to all literatures, which develop through a continual process of cross-fertilisation.

What are the ways that translation facilitates the growth of a literary culture? Firstly, it provides the best possible apprenticeship for prose writers. A translator of literary novels can shift 250,000 words in a year or more; other professions such as journalism might rival that figure, but it works in a fundamentally different way. Literary translation is not against the clock and writer-translators should take their time to twist those sentences around. In so doing they learn the mechanics of the sentence in their native tongue, a skill that serves them when they settle down to write their own work. Secondly, as I have already suggested with poetry, it introduces new forms to the translator and the reader of the translation.

Of course, the influence is more direct in the case of the translator. George Eliot, a translator from German, was one of the few Anglophone writers in the nineteenth century to make extensive use of erlebte Rede, which I have already mentioned. This function has a ripple effect, and some foreign ideas will be more successful than others, perhaps because of pure chance or perhaps because some ideas will discover a particular affinity within the new culture. Thirdly, as suggested by the FitzGerald case, translation can produce benign misinterpretations. After the Second World War, most Italian writers were translators and many translated from English. These people had learned English in difficult conditions under a Fascist regime; very few had been able to travel abroad. The United States was a mythical place, as much a product of their own imaginations as of their readings in and translations from a foreign language. The great thing about cross-fertilisation is that it increases the variety of literatures, while the current situation in which Anglophone writing influences other cultures in all directions but receives little feedback is leading to increasing uniformity on a global scale, ultimately something damaging for our own Anglophone culture itself.

I used to think that British and Ameri-can publishers were the villains of the piece – a problem of supply rather than demand. However, there have been some notable exceptions, which in recent times have included the heroic efforts of And Other Stories and Peirene, two English publishers who specialise in translated contemporary fiction. My own more eclectic foray into publishing in Scotland (through the imprint Vagabond Voices) has produced four works in translation, and I am now very conscious of the difficulties publishers encounter in this field. It is, at least in part, a problem of demand. In Italy, France and Germany, translation is viable in spite of the added costs, because translated works sell in vast quantities – not just translations from English, although they are dominant, particularly at the popular end of the market, but from a wide range of countries including some of Europe’s smaller nations. Exactly why translation habits vary so greatly (20-25% of titles in Italy and France to just above and just below 3% in Britain and the United States respectively) is not a question I can answer with any great precision. It must be in part about a very long season of cultural dominance, first by Britain and then by the United States. In the sixteenth century, there were two publishers in London specialised in Italian books only, in the eighteenth century educated Britons read French; patterns of dominance change, but America’s global reach is unprecedented. There is also something of the original insularity of English-language culture which survives despite its now planetary spread, but Scotland, as the smaller part of this island, has always been more European, something that shows in its architecture and literature. If it is going to make a meaningful contribution to European culture as an independent nation, it must regain that cosmopolitan edge.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


The SRB Interview: Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie was born in Renfrewshire in 1962 and brought up in Currie, near Edinburgh. She was a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh when her first poetry collection Black Spiders was published in 1982.

Since then she has gone on to become one of the most admired and original poets in the country, with collections such as The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-94 (2002) and The Tree House (2004). She has won many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the T S Eliot Prize, the Griffin Prize, the Forward Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize. She turned to essay writing with Findings, in 2005, which was widely praised, and was followed this spring with Sightlines, continuing in the same vein of reflective observations on the natural world. Jamie lives in a village in Fife with her husband and two teenage children, and holds the chair of creative writing at the University of Stirling. Later this year she will publish a new book of poems called The Overhaul, which she describes as a ‘midlife’ collection. Youthful-looking and simply dressed, she did this interview the week before her fiftieth birthday, which she was going to celebrate with a boat trip with friends to the island of Inchcolm. The conversation took place in the Scottish Review of Books’ west-end Edinburgh office on a gloriously bright morning. Her interviewer, Rosemary Goring, is a close contemporary, though marginally younger.

Scottish Review of Books: Could I begin with your upbringing in Currie, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and where your interest in writing started?

Kathleen Jamie: It was very ordinary. I was brought up on a Wimpey estate in Currie, as you say. It was remarkable for nothing, really. I don’t know what to say.

You’re one of three children I think?

I’ve got a younger sister and a younger brother. My sister works in a bank here. My brother’s a welder, he lives in Ireland. So we’ve got a poet, a bank manager and a welder. Somebody was remarking last night, that’s quite a mix.

How does your sister cope with being a banker?

My sister doesn’t acknowledge that she is a banker. When people ask her she says she works in Greggs.

Up until the banking crisis, it was probably harder to tell people you were a poet.

Yes, interestingly. The poor people in the branches are having a rubbish time. And actually, she’s with the Clydesdale, which have been more prudent than some of the others.

So I went to Currie high school, and  left at the end of fifth year with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I had a clear idea of what I didn’t want to do. My own kids are doing their exams the now, and what a difference those 30 years have made – the way they’re taught, the way they’re encouraged, the way they’re engaged with at school. It’s much more stress for them, but they come out of it with a better sense of themselves I think.

When we were at school, we were not given great books to read. There was so much wonderful stuff, and we didn’t get it. Did you enjoy English?

It was alright, yeah.

You’ve been writing poetry since…

Since I was at school. Most poets start at that age, I think. I remember reading a poem in class at school, and thinking, out of sheer youthful arrogance, I can do better than that. I can almost quote you the poem, I think I remember who wrote it. When you’re that age, if you have that sort of – it can only be arrogance – you felt it was doable. And I came here, into Edinburgh, and went to the Theatre Workshop in Henderson Place in Stockbridge – I just walked past it a moment ago. It seems to be all gone. And there was a writers’ workshop there, and that was the first I’d ever heard of writers’ workshops, creative writing. There was a poster put up in the school: Tuesday nights, creative writing workshops.
I thought, oh, I want to go to that. I got  the Number 52 bus in to town, down past here [the Scottish Review of Books office], down there, and met people there that I’m still friends with. Andrew Greig was taking it, Brian McCabe was a sometime tutor, Ron Butlin – those Edinburgh writers who are still here. This was before I became a student. I was about 16. I don’t know how long it went on for. Probably not long at all, but long enough to make those friendships and to understand that being a writer was a thing that was in the world, and possible.

That’s very young to know what you want to do.

It was a matter of knowing what I didn’t want to do. When I met those guys, it seemed a bit bohemian, you know, and that was very attractive, and it didn’t involve working in a shop, and it didn’t involve working in an office – these were the things that these people were striving to avoid. And I realised there were ways of bobbing and weaving and avoiding the dreaded job. If we’re girls of the same age, the options held out to us were not great. I was the first [to go to university in my family].

You’ve written about how it was hard if you didn’t have support, to go to university. How did that happen? You had time on an archaeological dig, and then time writing in Orkney. And then what?

I went to night classes, I went to Stevenson [College], and didn’t do terribly well. And then eventually, eventually I produced this book – Black Spiders – and I took it to the university, and saw somebody, it might have been the Dean, I don’t now know who it was, I saw a dusty person, and I said, look, I cannot get through my frigging Higher French, but I’ve published this book, I can do this, I can do that, will you let me in? And in those days they could say yes. So, I got in. In philosophy – not English.

You can see that cast of mind in all your work.

I wasn’t especially good at it, but I’m very glad I did it. It leaves you with a rigour of mind. I still don’t like English literature as a subject.

From the point at which you realised you were a poet – was it always poetry? Did you ever write short stories?

I think I wrote one short story as a teenager, and every so often in my younger life, whenever the Booker Prize came around and I realised that novelists could make actual money, I’d think, ‘Just do it, Kathleen, just do it.’ But it didnae work. So I’d write 30,000 words, then I’d think, I can do this in a poem, whatever this is trying to say, I can do it in a 20-line poem.

It’s the downside of the art form, isn’t it, to be good at it, you can distill anything. One of the things I noticed, in The Queen of Sheba, and in another poem ‘Arraheids’, you talk about that lovely Scottish thing of, ‘who do you think you are?’ Were you ever burdened with a sense of that?


From friends and family?

From the culture. It’s only in very recent years that I’ve accepted in myself that I am a poet. I’m still not entirely comfortable about it. One did feel embarrassed. You know that awful thing, that social faux pas, when you’re in a crowded room, and there’s going to be a speech, and everybody’s suddenly silent, and you hadn’t noticed, and you carry on talking? I felt like that for years.


Oh yeah, embarrassed about it. It’s possibly what saves one from being obnoxious, it might be a good thing.

Do you think there’s a slight woman thing in this?

It’s hard to remember now just how few women writers, especially poets, there were, and how few in Scotland. You know that Sandy Moffat painting [Poets’ Pub], which I hate and despise – I use it for teaching. I either give out postcards of it, or there’s a copy hanging of it in the corridor in Stirling. I take it to the students and say, that’s how it was. There’s one woman in that painting, and she’s unaccountably naked, and hanging over a banister.

I know the painting, but I’d never noticed.

Well, look in the top left hand corner.

From our perspective now, when the Poet Laureate is a woman, and the Scottish Makar is a woman, and the Welsh Poet Laureate is a woman, it’s hard to remember, but that’s how it was.

Even now in Scotland, poetry is the highest art here, but there are still relatively few women poets.

There’s not many younger ones. By this age, the age of 50, you’d expect somebody to be biting your arse, and there doesn’t seem to be, and I don’t know why that is.

All the men you mention at the Writers’ Workshop, and other men like Norman MacCaig were supportive –

In his way. He wouldn’t exactly give you a big bear hug and tell you you were wonderful, would he?

Was he one of the first people you ever showed your work to?

No, I don’t remember ever showing work to Norman. I remember him being around, in Edinburgh of the 1980s. I wish somebody would write a memoir – Andrew Greig would be good – of that time when these figures were still stotting about the street, Hamish Henderson I remember being about, people like Norman, and the scene was interesting. That would be interesting to write about, but I don’t remember showing the generation above my work. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that. I did show some to the writer-in-residence at the university, and that would have been Peter Porter, and he seemed to think they were all right – those were the poems that went into Black Spiders.

Did you see Andrew Greig, and Brian McCabe and the others as mentors?

I suppose so. I hadn’t thought of it. They were there doing it, being writers. There was still a bit of a hippy flavour about town. And they despised the old school stuff, like Hugh MacDiarmid, so because of that I didn’t come round to MacDiarmid and his
generation for a long time, I sort of blocked it off.

So basically you’ve beaten your own path.

I guess. Liz Lochhead was the only woman poet around and she was a very glamorous and remote figure. The way she dressed, in the most idiosyncratic manner.

Theatrical. She looked like a poet.  To go back to yours, there was lovely line in the poem Rooms: ‘though I love this travelling life and yearn like ships docked, I long for rooms to open with my bare hands’. I wondered, have you found those rooms?

I guess. Literally and metaphorically. Oh gosh, yes. It’s about possibility. I knew, I knew from an early age that the world was more plural, more interesting, more exciting and wider than we were ever telt, and I was impatient to explore and do that. Though geographically I haven’t gone very far, but the situation I’m in – these books under my belt, sitting here talking to you, prof of poetry – I couldn’t have imagined that at the time.

Did having children make a difference to the way you wrote and the way you looked at things?

Did it make a difference? I have to say  I’m very glad, very glad that I’ve had the children. And I remember the fear before they were born that a lot of women have, that this will be the end of your selfhood, the end of your creative life. That’s just baloney, absolute baloney. And the experience of having children can only deepen you out as a human being, and I think it did. And that in its various ways does feed into your writing. So yes, I’m
very glad I did it. But you’re still yourself, yourself with a baby. When you’re in the middle of it, baby days, life is just a heap of nappies, and you think, God Almighty, what have I done? And people say, it’ll pass quick, it’ll pass quick. And it does pass quick. My son is nearly at the door. A couple of years, and he’ll be gone. Oh!

Writing essays – it’s quite a jump from writing poetry…

Not huge. They’re related, they get called non-fiction, but they’re more related to poetry than they are to fiction. They’re not prose poems, but they’re more affiliated to poetry.

What was the impetus? Was it a commission that started you off?

No, I felt the need. I knew I couldn’t write fiction, I couldn’t write novels, but I did need another string to my bow, because poets do, you can’t only write poems. And I think I just liked the form. I took the London Review of Books, and I liked the diary section at the back, and I always turned to that first, and I thought maybe I could write such a thing. I think it was as simple as that.

Did writing in prose change the voice in your head?
It’s easier to access. Plain easier. You can sit at your desk at nine in the morning and work on a piece of prose until noon. You can’t do that with a poem. It’s more forgiving. And everything that one learns as a poet – if you do your apprenticeship
as a poet, it holds you in very good stead as an essayist. The things that people say they enjoy, and are unusual in my essays, I’m thinking it’s just poetry, it’s poets’ tricks!

Give me an example.

I’m not sure I should! I will change a sentence to alter the assonance and consonance, the same way I would with a line in poems, and I will play with the grammar, do quick handbrake turns with the subject, or put in a two-word sentence to pull it up sharp. My great analogy is that they’re like exploded diagrams. Do you know what an exploded diagram is in a car maintenance manual? No? You haven’t spent much time with car maintenance manuals.

Like an Ikea flat-pack plan?

Aye. That’s the prose. For a poem, you have to put it all together and make it spin. An essay is more like an exploded diagram than a poem. And it’s got some narrative arc to it which poems don’t have.

Has it changed you artistically, in what you are able to write about?

Mmm, possibly, yes. You can walk into any situation and any place, and think I could write a piece of prose out of this, if I so desired. Poems don’t come like that.

In the poems there are nuggets of autobiography, but you’re very open in these essays, at least to the extent that you’re giving away something.

In Findings, I felt like I was finding a home for a lot of little images and thoughts and ideas which had been kicking around in my head for a long time. There’s one image in here that I know has been in my head for 20 years.

Which one is it?

I definitely won’t say. When I put it down I thought yes, at last, it has found a home.

Why won’t you tell me?

It’s when birds suddenly bank, it’s like pulling a venetian blind. I’m good at similes, I can hear assonance and consonance in a sentence, that’s all it takes.

In terms of women, I can think of Nan Shepherd, but in the whole of the UK, I can’t think of any other women writers like this.

Nan Shepherd was unknown to me until I started working on this book. She was a bit of a cult figure. The Living Mountain was thrust upon me by an ornithologist. It was like it was being passed around in samizdat, she was out of print, almost unknown. I’m sorry she hasn’t lived to see that book get the attention it deserves. But I can’t think of other women… I’m sorry, I can’t even say the words ‘nature writers’, I can’t get it out of my gob … other women pursuing these interests. Why? Why? When women are botanists and birdwatchers and doctors. There’s a lot more women poets now than there are women nature writers. I don’t know the answer to that.

The more you think about it the less explicable it is. I’ve sometimes thought there are fewer women writers because maybe they lived in the countryside, not near a community of other writers, but you’d have thought that would be precisely the environment in which you’d start writing about what’s on your doorstep.

Or maybe you do need that community. Maybe that’s a good point. Because obviously I went into it from being a poet, in a literary community. But to start from scratch, out in the sticks on your own, maybe that’s not doable.

There’s always a kernel of a bigger thing you’re writing about, and I suppose it takes confidence to think you’ve got something worth saying.

It’s not that one has ‘something worth saying’. Then you’d be a newscaster. Something to explore, perhaps. But in terms of confidence, I’d had years as a poet, I didn’t have to get over myself, because
I’d done that already. And prose is socially easier.

Critics have said you’ve broken the mould of nature writing.

I don’t think that’s actually true. Some of the American writers are much, much stronger in this kind of form than we are, because they have more space.

More outlets, or more physical space?

Both. So writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, I like their essays, and I like their length and the shape of them. And they’ve got more places to publish them. Our idea of the essay got hijacked by academic discourse. So it needed reclaimed.

There was a sentence in ‘Sabbath’, in Findings – ‘If we work always in words, sometimes we need to recuperate in a place where language doesn’t join up, where we’re thrown back on a few elementary nouns. Sea. Bird. Sky.’ Could you explain that a bit and why you want to get away from words, and what you get from being outside.

I used to believe that language was what got in the way, and that if only we could stop thinking in language we’d have more direct access to the world, to the extent I could jump out of bed and go outdoors without getting my head into gear. But now I think that’s rubbish. I’ve learned now through reading that language is what we do as human beings, that’s where we’re at home, that’s our means of negotiating with the world. So it doesn’t get in the way, it enables. We do language like spiders do webs. So, that idea’s probably been superseded by other ideas.

That’s very honest. There’s somewhere else where you say, ‘this doesn’t bear scrutiny’. There’s a sense of you throwing things up in the air for other people to think about.

There was a man at a book festival said to me, ‘you don’t mind appearing stupid, do you!’ You’ve put it much more elegantly, but that’s what he was driving at – I’ll ask questions, but don’t feel obliged to know the answers. The puzzlement is more interesting than any ‘answer’ could be.

If you were Norman Mailer that man would have a broken nose. Just to nail the nature writing thing. I don’t like genres, I think they’re straitjackets, but you obviously have to have a corral of some sort. Sometimes what you’re doing is travel writing, sometimes the n– word…

… autobiography, memoir, travel, yeah, just stir it up.

Do you think we’re getting better at being looser in how we see things?

I think so. Cross-disciplinary studies are all the rage in universities. I did for a moment think we might be on the edge of a new enlightenment, at a time when people of different disciplines would actually speak to each other and want to know what each other were up to. Which would be a very good thing.

Are we going that way?

I’m not sure it is now, but there’s certainly a desire amongst the kind of professional people I meet to speak, both to me and to each other, and they get frustrated with being categorised and straitjacketed.
You mean archaeologists and scientists?

Yes. And speaking to me enables them to say things that their scientific discipline does not allow, and does not approve of.

So I can do that, I can say things on their behalf. And then you wonder, why are we in a situation where an ornithologist cannot say, ‘I love birds,’ because you’ve got to be a scientist. You think, this is a mess. If you’re writing a monograph about the decline in the population of larks, you cannot say, ‘I love larks, and the idea that they might be in trouble makes me cry’. You cannot say that in your scientific report, but I can say that in my essays.

So do people come to you – do they say, we’re doing this trip, we’d love you to come.

That’s the tricky bit, finding ideas. Having finished that book [Findings], one of the people in it gave it to a friend, and the friend said exactly that: ‘we’re going on a trip to North Rona, would you like to come’. I’d never heard of North Rona, so that introduction opened out this whole other world for me. And now, I’m waiting to see… It’s a wonderful calling card, to be able to give a book to people, to say this is the kind of thing I can do.

You’re able to anthropomorphise but you’re not sentimental.

That’s a good Scottish upbringing. Didn’t do sentimental. But I don’t trust the aversion to ‘sentimentality’ either, which can be used as an excuse to avoid real feeling, and literate emotion.

I wondered if there’s a slightly morbid side to you as well, because you’re fascinated by pathology and things in jars. Are you a vet or a doctor manqué?

I did want to be a vet when I was younger, yeah, and I think had somebody said to me when I was 17, ‘you could, with a bit of application, be a doctor…’, but nobody said that kind of thing to me. And I meet professional people today, like doctors, I have friends who are doctors, and I think, are you that much cleverer than I am? Yes – they probably are! But I wonder now and again, what could I have been?

I’ve been trying to argue with you in my mind, where you say ‘look inside for nature’ – I can’t decide if pathogens, the warped organisms that create disease, are part of nature.

But what are they?

But because they are anti–life…

Sometimes the natural world goes a bit bonkers. It has no moral duty to be otherwise. Bacteria that kill us are just doing their thing.

I suppose.

They’ll win in the end, bacteria.

That brings me to a line in Pathologies, which I wondered if you could explain? ‘We need disease to dance us on our way; we need to halt it if we’re to live morally.’

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live forever, and I don’t want my children to live forever. I can accept my mortality, it’s what we are, we’re mortal creatures. Come the day, if you’re suffering, I’d be glad for some disease to do the job quickly. So I have no problem with that. But, you can’t wish it on other people, or you can’t withhold, say, vaccines from third world children, you can’t say there are far too many people in the world, we shan’t inocculate them. That is an attitude you’ve got to keep an eye out for. Keep an eye on the people who say there’s far too many people in the world and the population’s too great.

Can I ask you about wilderness? You’ve said you sometimes have trouble with that idea. Robert Macfarlane said if there’s a tree in the middle of a city, that’s wilderness. What do you think?

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Wild Places. And he is a good writer; we are often mentioned in the same sentence, when the ‘new nature writing’ is being discussed. But I’m afraid I got a bit bad-tempered with his book.

What was it that annoyed you particularly?

That he came up from Cambridge into the Celtic countries, Scotland and Ireland in particular, and went around saying, ‘it’s so wild’. It’s so not! He said, very eloquently, very lyrically, that it’s empty. There he
was, striding alone across this wild empty landscape. Robert’s fine, he’s on the side of the angels, but I just got annoyed with this figure thinking that the only way you can participate in our landscapes is to be male and stride and swim and be macho. And the reason they’re empty – well, we know the reason why places are empty. And that’s only recently. There’ve been mesolithic people, neolithic people, bronze age people. These landscapes have been humanised for thousands of years. There’s nothing wild in this country. I’m afraid I reviewed his book, and said so. It started a bit of a conversation about what is ‘wild’.

How did he respond?

I think he got a fright because other reviews of his book were pretty rapturous. But I thought the project seemed like an act of colonial adventuring: strike north into ‘wildness’ and then scuttle back to Cambridge . But half way through the book he comes to that realisation himself, and is honest about it. So we’re talking about the same thing.

It seems to me that history is hugely important to you.

I wanted to be an archaeologist, after the vet! In my teens, I definitely did want to be an archaeologist and I think, if memory serves, I may have actually applied to do archaeology at university and didn’t get in and then changed to do philosophy instead. But working in a cold freezing field, with dentists’ tools, put me off.

Everything you do is informed by a sense of context, of continuity.

Yeah, a sense of past certainly. Deep past, not as deep as geologists’, say, but yeah, I was aware of it. When I was a teenager I used to like ley lines and stuff. Whatever happened to ley lines, they were good!

Where you live in Fife, is that inspiring?

Not really. It’s been good to us, but I don’t consider myself a Fifer. I pine for Edinburgh, but it was where we could afford to live.

Your husband is a cabinet maker?

Yes. A house big enough, and workshop, in Edinburgh, that just wasn’t going to happen. I still resent that.

Do you ever resent the fact you’re not wealthier?

I did for years. Deeply. Deeply, deeply, deeply.

Because writers should be paid better?
At all! I can’t complain, because the job I have is a very well paid one, compared with other folks, but yeah, it’s just galling. That’s the same for all writers. Most writers. I get bewildered by it, I must say.

By the lack of value that’s put on it?

That the value doesn’t translate into money. Maybe it’s just one shouldn’t believe one’s own publicity, but when I open the Guardian and see myself there, and the Sunday Times, and every other paper, I think, if I was an athlete, or if I was a lawyer, if I was anything else, I would be making a living from my work. That said, I’d rather be a writer now than 40 years ago, because there’s so much available to us. Universities in their own fashion have taken their responsibilities seriously, and for a while we did have a Scottish Arts Council.

What do you think of Creative Scotland?

What are they? What are they doing? No one seems to know. I benefited so much from the Scottish Arts Council, my whole generation did. We would not have the writers we have now without their support. And now it’s gone. You look back: the idea of filling out a small form and being given a grant, an actual cheque, and be trusted to go and get on with what you do – it’s gone, isn’t it? I don’t get the feeling we’re trusted. The Scottish Arts Council, as was, was stalwart for the 20 years I was associated with it. It was concerned to allow writers to lay down a national literature. And now, it’s ‘investment’ and corporate la-la.

You’re almost implying that universities have picked up the baton.

Yes, but they want their pound of flesh. Many writers teach now. The Arts Council bursary as was would just enable you to write your book. The universities are very keen you write your book, but they also want you to do everything else as well.

Are you full-time?

Part-time. But it means I’m in contact with the young, and with other writers. It’s good discipline.

You say at one point your students are waiting for you to go back and to be taught how to engage with the world in language, so are you conscious when you’re teaching that all these students want to become writers, or are you actually teaching them something more important for getting on with life?

I think the latter, nowadays. The best we can do for them is teach them how to be creative and engaged citizens in a world which might not offer them a decent job or a decent living, but it can make them happy fulfilled people. Writing is one of several things they’ll have to do to be happy, fulfilled people.

When you’re teaching, are you putting ideas into their minds or are you…

… sooking them out.

So can you make a writer?

You can give them space. It’s nine months out of a young person’s life, it’s not a great deal. They’re not designing missile systems, after all. You give them space and time, and as Margaret Elphinstone said, we give them each other. The university group will do for them what the theatre workshop did for me all those years ago, except they’ve got to pay for it. But if they’re lucky they’ll develop a wee group that could last them for the next 30 years, and it gives them time to foreground their writing, because as we all know one’s writing is the first casualty. So for a short space of time they can concentrate on it, meet each other, think about it, talk about it, before they get booted out into the world again.

I suppose it’s self-selecting, though, in that those who can’t afford to do it won’t be in those groups. Where do you think the next swathe of really good writers will come from? Out of what?

It’s such a good question, because we’ve got no factory floors left, have we, there’s no mills or mines for people to come out of. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, but I don’t know. It would be awful, it would be a cultural disaster if the only place a writer could come out of was a university creative writing course. I don’t think that will be the case. It’s an ongoing revolution, isn’t it? That’s the joy of it, you can’t predict.

A very tiny point: in an interview you did you said you were invited to the Arctic but you couldn’t justify it ecologically…

And then I went!

How did you square that with your conscience?
You just do it, don’t you?

It’s getting difficult now, going places.

If you’re concerned about the amount of aircraft fuel you’re burning up, yes of course. But we’re all in the same bind. You can’t take a holier than thou attitude.

You’ve had praise and encouragement from the very start, and you seem to make a step change with almost every book you do: How do you cope with praise? Does it make you self-conscious?


Does it affect you sitting down and writing the next sentence?

You can’t afford to bring it into your study, into your writing mind. That would do terrible things to your head. No, you can believe it, but you can’t inhabit that too much. What matters is your relationship with what’s on the page, and everything else is flim-flam. I don’t know what it would have been like to have had uniformly bad reviews all my life. That would be crushing.

It hadn’t occurred to me till now, but if you get so many good reviews, what would a bad review feel like?

It’s still shite, isn’t it? I get some snotty ones sometimes. This Sightlines was just ‘a nature blog’, according to Victoria Glendinning. That was in the Spectator, so we don’t care about that! So what. Actually, it’s not a blog, it’s a book, she should know the difference.

As you become established, and a name, are you conscious when you’re looking at something, do you in any way edit yourself, or start to…

… start to think as ‘Kathleen Jamie the Writer?’

Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say.

If I catch myself doing it, I would hope I’d soon stop. No, this interview with you is the last thing I’m going to do around this book. I’ll draw a line under it and try and enter a place of emptiness again, out of which a new piece of work may or may not come in the next decade.


Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


From Scenes Like These

80% of kids from Scottish technical colleges not even up to motor maintenance’. This came after a programme of PFI school/college building had  saddled local authorities with terrific debt and dodgy buildings, often, as in Earlston or Duns, duplicating recent construction that’s now lying derelict.

On the day the Scotsman ran that story I started on the new Oxford Handbook on the Munro’s bus to Kelso – whose lively town-centre shops are now challenged by a massive Waitrose where the ‘distant’ railway station once stood. At the back two grunge-clad teens effed and blinded their way from Borders College: not quite like their granddads in Gordon Williams’ From Scenes like These (1969) – for they were nerds not neds – and even that book’s weather-window of job opportunity has long closed …
… unlike that of Alex Salmond, whose SNP then had only one MP. His stint as oil economist of the Royal Bank had been 1980-87, the era of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) and John Byrne’s TV Saga Tutti Frutti (1987) and as cheerfully dashing and irreverent. That was half a lifetime ago, when the Royal Bank of Scotland, rescued in 1981, was run by Charlie Winter. ‘A banker’s banker’ was then a compliment.

Its 2008 collapse would rain on Salmond’s party but fail to quench its growth. But turn to the website of the Modern Studies Association: supposed to service the ‘past times and places’ that’s to replace history. Survey the winners of power-point presentation (for S3-4 grades): paste-ups of half-digested citations from Wikipedia, original only in their erratic grammar. The site is – without joining the MSA, only partially accessible – but this fairly represents the quality of its discourse. Not reassuring.

The new Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History ought to be helpful here. Of the two Old English Universities, Oxford has always been the more pluralist, with ‘local’ colleges like Scots Balliol and Welsh Jesus. A Scots academic director, the late Robin Den-nistoun, ensured Oxford University Press didn’t promote an Oxford Peterhouse: Niall Ferguson was self-made. It was, though national, always hybrid. Its grandest twentieth-century Chancellor, Alfred Viscount Milner, kingpin of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, attended Tuebingen Gymnasium, as son of the Lancashire-German doctor who founded my Seminar.

Such a Handbook must also explain malfunction within the Scottish establishment. The Reform Scotland thinktank opined that national wellbeing will improve if Scots local democracy were pruned even further. Tony Benn, women-in-general, and Thomas Carlyle were absent from the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Then, anent Waverley, there was the ‘Tapestry of Scotland’. Supervised by Alexander McCall Smith and Alastair Moffatt, it had 107 panels structured by Patrick Crummy, who designed Prestonpans, and was artistically well-conceived, and largely woman-powered. But of the names so far cited, 41 males are balanced by St Margaret, Lulu and Dolly the cloned sheep.

Such distortion is historic, the Scottish ‘estates’ – law, kirk, education, local government, sport – being alas enduringly male, with the result that the domestic, affective, and nurturing will unendingly be disadvantaged. There is a similar malfunction to the Handbook, despite the high quality of its contents, and a good shot at gender balance (a third of the contributors are women). It fumbles recent Scottish history, and fails the accessibility test. Michael Lynch’s Oxford Companion (2001) lost enquirers in an awkward reference system. TM Devine and Jenny Wormald don’t make this mistake but their index is too short to be serviceable: only 20 pages supporting a near-700 page text. Name references extend only to the Stewart monarchs. Up against the Wikipedia generation, the Handbook’s excellence is disadvantaged.

For the content is nearly all good and encouraging. Younger scholars contribute with originality, guided I think in the earlier period by Wormald’s long essay ‘Reformations, Unions and Civil Wars, 1485-1660’ which stood out from the dullness of a ‘British’ counterpart: Jonathan Clark’s symposium A People Apart (2010). She ought to extend it to 1715 as a study of Stewart confederalism, which will come in handy by-and-by.

But it wouldn’t be slighting to the main authors to say that the weight on interpretation has been in the early modern period. The recent past is more contentious and here the Handbook seems to take its cue from the divided sensibilities on show in Cairns Craig’s eloquent tour of a literary horizon defined, not always convincingly, by its bards, and Colin Kidd’s equally emphatic default position: the argument, made by the historian, William Lecky, for ‘nationalist unionism’.

Is this convincing? Interestingly Graeme Morton backs it up with the Victorian individualist Duncan MacLaren as typifier. But does this work? MacLaren wasn’t as Morton states a Free Kirk man but that quite different thing, a Scots-English Free Churchman, or nonconformist. He ended in 1886 by following Birmingham – John Bright (his brother-in-law) and Joe Chamberlain – into Radical Unionism. The MacLarens would become the Aberconway china-clay dynasts, bridging Cornwall, North Wales, and the Potteries, and Duncan’s grandson was the highly articulate F S Oliver, Managing Director of Debenham’s, biographer of Alexander Hamilton and associate of Buchan and Mil-ner. ‘Imperial federalism’ as a movement only lasted nine years from 1885 to 1894, vanishing even before the imbroglio of the Boer War, but it showed that a Scots myth could extend into, and exchange with, other places’ myths – the American frontier, Ger-man civil courage – and in due course take on a new relevance.

Kidd has ended up, like the Smiles family themselves, in Belfast: a position as the late A T Q Stewart showed, imbued with self-critical rigour, yet scarcely a broad field, rich in prospects. To look at another Edinburgh group, in St Peter’s Presbytery, Morningside, in which characters as various as Patrick Geddes, Charles Scott-Moncrieff, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon gathered around Father John Gray, is to get perhaps as close as Scotland managed to the ‘reorientation of European social thought’ (Durkheim to Proust, Weber to Mann) that H Stuart Hughes would identify – importantly for a later generation of nationalist intellos – in Consciousness and Society in 1958.

Catriona MacDonald opens up the history of the uphill task undertaken by women of Agnes Mure Mackenzie’s generation, surrendering – see above – their own cause to project that of Scottish patriotism. But more, more … we plead. Where in this come feisty but incalculable elements like Rebecca West, Naomi Mitchison, or Jennie Lee? Lee’s autobiographies were a remarkable seven-veil dance in which the pieties of Lochgelly gave way to the Wife of Nye and later to someone tough, sexy, hard-drinking and against the odds successful. See also Marie Stopes or – why not? – Fay Weldon, brought up in New Zealand, south Scotland, studying in St Andrews, and chucking politics and men about like grenades?

The editors echo Christopher Smout in registering that ‘economic history, formerly the catalyst, has now virtually disappeared into oblivion’. That was in 2007 just before it clambered from the tomb with a cleaver and made for the Scottish banks. The business basis of such history is of course business: when that gets taken over/closed down, the food chain is cut – just as the closure of Ravenscraig in 1992 chopped mechanical engineering lecturers at Motherwell College from 170 to single figures.

What post-historical economics then got up to isn’t alas recorded much in G C Peden’s  study of the economy since the 1960s. He has interesting things to say about the misfit between UK government policy and its indifferent northern implementers, but is made to do too much in too short a space, and alas can’t even start on the historiography.

In the 1970s, an inter-war lefty critique frantically spied neo-capitalism reviving in Scots boardroom networks. In the mid-1980s such ‘villains’ simply sold out their manufacturing interests, followed in the 1990s by their retail holdings. In the noughties the banks, spinning self-serving networks out of bonehead sell-offs like the railways, promoted First and Stagecoach, overdid it and imploded. On the figures connected with this not a finger has been laid, outside the journalism of the likes of Robert Peston’s uneven Who Runs Britain.
But the story needs to be told as, after reading through the Handbook, much undiscovered country remains that way. The charnel-house economics of West Coast Scotland stick around, in which drug-and-booze profit-recycling, incoming Falls-and-Shankill ghetto-gangsterism, periodic injections of ‘jobs on the tar’, get some distance towards south Italian levels of socio-politics: its journalism has declined to suit.

To Cairns Craig, admittedly, romantic Scotland seems totally dead and gone, though the obsequies are done with style. Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me and book-length essay The Death of British Farming get tantalisingly close to an imagination engaging, then back off, just when the migration of ‘sectball’ into the realms of financial finagling seems likely to cause a second Ravenscraig on the terraces. How many Scots, of all religions and none, will weep as ‘The Old Firm’ gives up the ghost? Probably most will cheer, but there’s nothing in the index on recreation, against nearly two pages on religion. The 2008 banking crash ought to have reactivated economic historians, but it may now be too late.

This isn’t however something that’s going to take root in a chamber like Holy-rood, where the ceaseless toil by bright young graduates over the fin-de-jour wine-and-canapes produces endless beautiful handouts, helping the colour pics of the country’s fading quality press. Does it  impact on the footbollocks of the Sun and the Record? Tabloid political writing has produced in Andrew Nicoll as good a comic writer as George MacDonald Fraser, but despite electoral high jinks, constitutionalism is defined by the poll stats of dour John Curtice: a zone where discursive history ventures at its own risk.

What’s not to find? Iain McLean on Scot-land’s now far-from-local government? In the 1970s he financed England’s best regional rapid-transit system: the Tyne and Wear Metro, so could have tackled Edinburgh’s Other Disgrace. He wrote illuminatingly of the Red Clyde and Aberfan; of working-class-heroes mutating into ‘Municipal Peter the Greats’. But a younger Nuffield political historian, James Mitchell, would have more to offer on the grandeurs et misères of devolution and the Salmond decade.

Assessing Scotland’s quangocracy is only marginal in the essays of GC Peden and David McCrone. 1970s Fabians, thought devolution would come from Labour’s extension of the state sector. Nor does the Scots tradition within the Open University figure or the oil boom of the 1970s. Until derailed by Scots local government and such ‘grand eccentrics’ out of a very British elite as Tam Dalyell and Lord Dacre. This would probably have bought a federal Britain as part of a tripartite social-democratic Europe: Eurocrats in hourly electric trains running the London-Paris-Bonn triangle. You get the character of this in Roy Jenkins’ unmannered and engaging European Diary, 1977-1981, for those young in the aftermath of the Prague Spring and the Dissenting Academy, annual rekindlings of high culture at the Usher Hall, anti-Polaris marches, the recovery of feminism. And despite the handsome work of a new generation, you look in vain for these here.

The problem about the Handbook’s wonky reference system is that you’re likely to start at the beginning with Smout’s ‘Land and Sea’ essay and this would be a terrible mistake. You might be too affected to read further. Save it until the end, because Smout writes like Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four but with such ease and wit that only afterwards do you register that ‘flash of lightning in a grocer’s shop’.
Its impact – from minute observation to devastating conclusion – is best summed up simply by quoting:

‘Sheep graze close and tread lightly, their small hard dung sits on the surface and oxidises in the wind, whereas the old black cattle had grazed high, punctured the ground with their hooves, and the runny dung got into the sward.’

‘0nly 6 per cent of the land surface was under wood in 1960, but 17 per cent is afforested today, mostly by conifers.’

‘… by 1939 there were reckoned to be 250,000 deer in the Highlands (but 347,000 by 1990) … Fraser Darling reckoned that sixty thousand was the highest population the land could bear without damage.’

‘Donald Trump in 2008 gained permission from the Scottish government to destroy the largest mobile dune system left in Scotland to build a golf resort.’

‘Scotland reckoned it got a raw deal in the allocation of catch quotas … but in the widespread evasion of quotas and ‘black fish’ the Scots were excelled by none.’

‘The productivity of the North Sea today is about one-tenth of what it was in 1883.’

‘Scotland in the early twenty-first century was apparently set on the road to  environmental disaster.’

It’s particularly depressing to calculate that Bambi – farting pure methane – is more of an ecological pest than all the cars in the Highlands. The wrecking of sustaining ecol-ogies by subsidised ‘enterprise’ and technical primitivism will have to be paid for. Trump was a comic turn flogging his toothsome schemes in the USA’s Springfields, selling out at the right moment to suckers. Attempts to warn Ministers about the pest … we tried, God knows we tried … failed against high-pressure PR, and Scotland got hurt.
Reading ‘Land and Sea’ ought to be compulsory for every secondary schoolkid, a skelp to comatose politicians and PR-drip-fed journalists.

The Handbook, however, costs a third of, and weighs twice as much as the ‘netbook’ on which I accessed the other material needed to write this. Its illustrations are few and arbitrary, and its index inadequate. More seriously, does it really enable younger writers with a launchpad for their own ideas, where wider-ranging interdisciplinary and international debates can be mounted?

Some blame can be put on the acrobatics of the Research Assessment Exercise’s ‘metrics’; more on the atrophy of bookshops, publishers and student literacy. We must reach the young men on the Kelso omnibus.

One possibility might be to organise such projects with the aid of the editorial staff of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, incorporating the sorts of internal reference that the ODNB makes possible. A virtual version of the Handbook coupled with shorter paperback volumes, might multiply its teaching effectiveness.

Devine and Wormald may have produced something akin to a projection of the First Minister: big, combining industry, power and style – but tending where? The incremental, clever blending of myth and ideology teased out by Cairns Craig, makes one reflect that history does not appear at all as any one of Robert Crawford’s Scotland’s Books (Penguin, 2008). Is Salmond Walter Scott’s Bailie Nicoll Jarvie, shrewd, strategic, word-skilled, or the equally perjink James Pawkie in John Galt’s The Provost, as clever yet thirled to a power network that he can’t open, and which could ultimately destroy him?

Devine’s two robust essays could valu-ably be attached to his The Scottish Nation as preface and To the Ends of the Earth as epilogue. His emphasis on the ‘sojourner’ both develops and cuts across Kidd’s legitimate but limiting preoccupation with the mythic, because it implies the processing of information acquired through travel and research, then recapitulated at the centre: the systematics of Edinburgh’s maps and encyclopaedias, the Murchisons, Bryces and Geddeses equally at home in the Arran hills and the Caucasus; the practical Jacobite Sir James Steuart writing to the proto-feminist Mary Wortley-Montagu from Tuebingen’s Ammertal in exile after the Forty-five: the necessary etatiste pendant to Adam Smith.

It’s important to reflect how much the Handbook owes to another Oxford Scot, Colin Mathew, remembered from May 1996, toasting with a generous Laphroaig the fall of the place’s last Tory councillor, a writer with the didactic imagination of Matthew Arnold and sharing his friendliness to Britain beyond England. As the shadows darken, one sets against the bogles of overelaborated myth and mind-forged manacles of ‘Britishness’ both Arnold’s intricate understanding of nature – deployed in Smout’s defence of ‘wildness and wet’ – and his brilliant metaphoric use both of The Wealth of Nations and the Scots creation-myth in the Arbroath Declaration, in the exhilarating coda to ‘The Scholar Gipsy’:

Then fly our greetings, fly our speech and smiles!
As some grave Tyrian trader, from the sea,
Descried at sunrise an emerging prow Lifting the cool-hair’d creepers stealthily, The fringes of a southward-facing brow Among the Aegean isles;
And saw the merry Grecian coaster
Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,
Green bursting figs, and tunnies steep’d in brine;
And knew the intruders on his ancient home,
The young, light-hearted masters of the waves;
And snatch’d his rudder, and shook out
And day and night held on indignantly O’er the blue Midland waters with the
Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily
To where the Atlantic raves
Outside the Western Straits; and unbent
There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come; And on the beach undid his corded bales.
Oxford University Press has provided more of a force for global good than more consciously-structured research bodies – as those shrewd Arran Gaels, the brothers Macmillan, did in Arnold’s own day. Getting the presentation right is thus all the more important. The handbook fails on this count, but the talent on show is immensely reassuring: ‘Our Scholar travels yet the loved hillside.’
* * *
And that’s enough rhetoric. Switch to Prof Alex Kemp’s Official History of North Sea Oil (Routledge, 2012) for a corrective taken from contemporary history. Turn to footnote 2 on p. 610 of Volume One:
‘Notable examples of files which have been destroyed are all those of BNOC (the British National Oil Corporation) and those of the Offshore Supplies Office relating to the period from 1982 onwards.’
These bodies were the UK’s equivalent of Norway’s Statoil, which will have brought the Norwegian people $ 717 billion by 2014. Those responsible for this act can only be regarded as subject to charges of treason.


TM Devine and Jenny Wormald, eds.
PP. 707, £ 95. ISBN: 978 019953692

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 8 – Issue 2 – Editorial

Is there any meaning in anything?’ Such was the understandable reaction of Rhea Mitchell, the wife of James Leslie Mitchell, who is better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, to her husband’s sudden death in February 1935. Gibbon was just 33 years old when he died of peritonitis. Writing to Hugh MacDiarmid, the recently distraught widow poured out her feelings. A life of such promise had been curtailed cruelly short with so much undone. ‘It’s such a pity for his own sake to have been cut off so young, so full of vigour and power,’ she wrote. Naturally, she was concerned for herself and her children. MacDiarmid offered help but he himself was strapped for cash. ‘I don’t know what I could ask of you,’ Mrs Mitchell wrote, ‘except it be your influence in getting either Spartacus or Sunset Song filmed. Both are being considered by [Alexander] Korda [the film producer] at the moment.’

What became of Korda’s interest we do not know other than that no film of either novel was made by him. Nor has one ever been. Eventually, Sunset Song was dramatised nearly four decades later by BBC Scotland in a still renowned production starring Vivien Heilbron as the heroine Chris Guthrie and including the first nude scene on Scottish television. Now, however, a feature film is to be made of the novel routinely nominated as the nation’s favourite, not, as you might expect, by a native filmmaker but by the English director Terence Davies. He has previously adapted novels by John Kennedy Toole and Edith Wharton. Playing Chris will be a young English model, Agyness Deyn, who has limited acting experience. Much is resting on her slim shoulders.

While we await the film’s appearance we have been re-reading Sunset Song and marvelling at its tungsten lyricism and unsentimental modernism. Chris, of course, is at the novel’s core, as Jean Brodie and Jeannie Deans are in The Prime and The Heart of Midlothian. In his introduction to the Canongate Classics edition, Thomas Crawford declared that she was ‘the most convincing female character in Scottish fiction’, by which we are not sure what he meant. In any case, how would he know? What is surely irrefutable, though, is that Chris feels real, that she talks and behaves and reacts in a manner that is believable and convincing and true to life. In short, we recognise her as a person, as we can all great fictional characters, be they Madame Bovary, Anna Karenin or the hypersensitive little boy in Proust’s roman fleuve who cannot go to sleep until his mother bids him goodnight.

The brevity of Gibbon’s life belies its busyness. He was born and brought up in the north-east of Scotland where farming was – and remains – a fundamental means of making a living. If ever a landscape can be said to have forged a literary style it did so in Gibbon’s case. His sentences seem to unfold like furrows in a newly-ploughed field, the richness of the soil reflected in language that pungently rejoices in its association with the earth. There is something fundamental and elemental in Gibbon’s prose, which is rooted in a time and a place that exists today only in a few memories and an evergreen novel. Chris loves and loathes it. ‘You hated the land and coarse speak of the folk,’ writes Gibbon of his heroine, ‘and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and the skies.’

Chris’s ambivalence towards her homeland was echoed by her creator. In his book Scottish Scene, sub-titled The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn, he divided the history of Scotland into three phases: colonisation, civilisation and barbarism. Writing from the perspective of ‘a pleasant village near London’, i.e.Welwyn Garden City, he had much fun at the expense of nationalism. ‘I like the thought of a Scots Republic with Scots Border Guards in saffron kilts,’ he joked. Gibbon was never mealy-mouthed or weasel-worded. He said what he thought and said it forthrightly.

In that regard, he was the equal of MacDiarmid and his passing perhaps put too much pressure on his friend single-handedly to drag Scotland into the modern era. The tragedy of Gibbon’s early death was that together they may have forged a cultural identity for a nation that is still in sore need of one in which it can put its faith and confidence. As it is, his flame flickers intermittently. Who among younger writers reads him today? Who among them knows much about him? Though he has his devotees, they are often non-Scots, such as Budd Schulberg, the author of On the Waterfront, who missed no opportunity to hymn him. There is not even a biography of him, as there is not of so many of our seminal literary figures. It is a common form of neglect hereabouts.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Macbeth and Madness

One of the most significant trials of recent times is underway in Oslo, where the defence team of mass murderer Anders Breivik is trying to have him classified as insane, against the wishes of the accused himself. He is boastful of his crimes, claims they were justified, or even that he was provoked into committing them by righteous indignation at the degeneracy of society. His murders, he believes, were carried out when he was in full control of his faculties, and he will not entertain the notion that he is in any way unbalanced.

His lawyers are not only doing their thankless job in defending a pitiless killer, but are in an odd way standing up for what passes as ‘common sense’ in an age which will accept the idea of evil acts but is queasy about the existence of people who can be branded evil. This outlook is justified by a circular argument. Wicked acts are committed by someone who is mad, because only someone who is mad could behave in the evil way he has.

So the creative team responsible for the National Theatre of Scotland’s very radical rethinking of Macbeth are in the mainstream when they make their Macbeth insane. They are well out of the mainstream in every other production and theatrical sense, but the underlying notion that the killer of Duncan was mad touches a chord. Of course, it is not altogether clear that the man who speaks the lines Shakespeare wrote for Macbeth, and indeed for all the other characters in the tragedy, is or is meant to be actually Macbeth himself. He may be a contemporary of ours with a ‘mind diseased,’ who has in his paranoiac psyche developed a private obsession which he has to play out by living the Shake-spearean work.

It is necessary to have a good knowledge of Macbeth to fully appreciate this production. This is not a version for a school party about to embark on reading the work. Shake-speare has long since become a creator of deeply resonant myths rather than of theatrical scripts. The audience is expected to have the familiarity with the tragedy that theatregoers in ancient Athens would have had when watching a new treatment of a mythological subject by Sophocles or Euripides.

A traditional interpretation saw Mac-beth as part victim, part self-destroyer, a basically good, public-spirited man who was willing to serve his king until evil, in the form of the witches, and the malice of a nagging wife preyed jointly on the malign inner force of ambition. Others saw the Scottish Play as depicting a Ceaucescu-like tyrant who mercilessly unleashed savagery on the land, a portrayal which reached its ne plus ultra in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, when during the massacre of Lady MacDuff and her children, bodies were glimpsed literally piled up in the corridor outside the room. There was a German production some years ago at the Edinburgh Festival set in a slaughterhouse, where servants poured buckets of blood into tanks at the front of the stage, and where Macbeth’s head was finally, contemptuously tossed in beside the human parts of his earlier victims. For others, the work is essentially a clash between forces of order and disorder, with order finally restored with the arrival of Malcolm in the play and the promise of real, lasting harmony with the ascent to the British throne of James VI & I, descendant of Banquo.

Whatever the identity of the protagonist in this version is, he is in a room in a mental hospital whose walls are covered with the aseptic tiles which the NHS considers beneficial for the healing process. The confined space in which he has his being is cluttered with beds, sinks, lamps, a bath, and he is under constant surveillance by CCTV cameras. The only means of entrance or exit is by a staircase leading to a door which cannot be opened from the inside. High in the wall behind him is a window from which two orderlies (Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig) look down on him and watch his every move. These are not gaolers, but humane nurses who go about the business of tranquillising the patient with comforting words, using injections only in the last resort. In the patient’s best interests, obviously.

The only extended speech they give is the recital of the words spoken in the original play by the two proto-psychologists who observe Lady Macbeth in her sleep-walking scene. They are, in other words, not an arbitrary intrusion or a directorial addition to the action, but are Shakespeare’s creations, given a centrality and a heightened presence they did not have in the Elizabethan age, where they were only on-lookers. Modernity prefers to seek medical solutions to moral questions as well as to physical or psychological infirmities.

No previous production has ever given such a sense of fierce, claustrophobic enclosure. When Macbeth speaks the words which open Shakespeare’s play – When shall we three meet again? – they have a resonance they could not have had in any conventional production which has the witches prancing around a cauldron, chanting their refrains and preparing to meet the newly victorious soldier. The words are spoken pathetically by the patient who has just undergone the process of admission to a hospital, who has been stripped – gently – of his own clothes and dressed in the standard outfit of the patient. He has been in some kind of fracas and has deep scratches on his chest, but in the medical unit his identity is taken from him, his freedom is restricted, so he speaks the words anxiously, fearfully to the disappearing orderlies. Am I left alone now? Who will speak to me? Will anyone come if I call? There being no other living soul on the premises, when will the three of us converse again?

In his own being, the patient re-enacts Macbeth, the tragedy. The witches are still with him, because the witches are not weird sisters on some heath, but projections of his own psyche. Perhaps the entire action takes place in his mind, perhaps we are witnessing delusions in which the other figures are emanations created by a state of paranoid schizophrenia of the sort experienced by the brilliant, Nobel Prize winning mathematician, John Nash, who in his disordered state saw himself a player in some Cold War drama. This production shows a mind unhinged, cut off from the moorings of society. It is not an analysis of madness, but is, as much as Hamlet, a portrait of a mind overthrown, even if it is not clear that this mind, unlike Hamlet’s, was ever ‘noble’ in the first place.

Lady Macbeth is first seen in a bath shortly after receiving her husband’s letter to announce his home-coming and to tell her of the witches’ prophecies. ‘She’ reclines languidly in the water, a glass in hand, talking in the patrician, indolent tones of a banker’s wife as she devises how to manoeuvre the pliable Macbeth. The ‘she’ needs the inverted commas because Alan Cumming plays all the parts, with only the occasional intervention of McFadyen and Craig. Other one-man performers, such as Dario Fo, strive to have the stage peopled in imagination by crowds of on-lookers or bit-parts, but however successful he is in switching part, Cumming always conveys alone-ness, with one glorious exception.

When Lady Macbeth sets out to cajole and entice Macbeth to seize the throne by murder, the two are lying on a bed, she on top and he prone beneath her. Cumming suggests seduction and femininity by a change of tone and register, by a switch of position, by having the femme fatale crawl over the body of the man who is not there until the actor stretches out on his back, permitting the ‘her’ whose existence we have to imagine to slide over him and tease him into compliance. This is acting of the highest expertise, where the actor can in turn suggest the foxy sensuousness of a Betty Davis and the prone gullibility of an indecisive but Machiavellian Gatsby.

It is easy to be convinced that this is a man who could see daggers in the air, easy to be terrified along with him by the vision of Banquo’s ghost, who comes into view wearing a nylon stocking over his face and paces about after the patient, causing him to cower under the staircase. Props are few but skilfully employed, the principal ones being the spectator’s memory and imagination. A child’s jumper dipped into the bath is sufficient to prompt recollections and arouse the horror normally provoked by the shedding of the blood of the MacDuff family. A wheelchair does service as Duncan’s throne and later, with a doll placed on it, becomes the jeering image of the emptiness of power when Malcolm finally ousts the tyrant. The most unsettling image of all is a dead crow, concealed in a wind shaft, but taken out when the witches are to make their second appearance, and then pulled apart by the patient, its bloody entrails hauled out, held up, dissected and examined for meaning.

These scenes will evoke different reactions in each individual. I once acted as interpreter for a man who had murdered the boss in the restaurant where he worked.

He believed he had been receiving orders conveyed by the rattle of water pipes or by scrawls on pieces of paper. He was not clear what these signs actually meant but was certain they were messages from some invisible authority and were meant for him. The consequence was catastrophe.

Maybe some such lack of definition is at the core of modern tragedy. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a willing and conscious agent, prepared to ‘jump the life to come,’ a life whose existence he did not doubt. He made a Faustian pact to surrender heaven in exchange for wealth and power on earth. His tragedy is that he finds he can have neither, since after his crimes his mind and conscience are tormented by horrible imaginings. Anders Breivik is similarly convinced that he was a free agent who behaved as he chose and who was right so to do, while his defenders, good men and women all, wish to view him as the victim of forces beyond his ken.

There is no respite here. The scene with the Night Porter is cut. Perhaps unremitting seriousness is a symptom of the fanatic, and might be undermined by humour. This is a deeply thoughtful, brilliantly devised production, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg. Natasha Chivers’ lighting scheme enhances the impact and Merle Hensel’s set is powerfully conceived. And then there is Alan Cumming. To say this is a tour de force is to damn with faint praise. He brings something of the Dionysiac force he showed in the NTS production of The Bacchae, and as a whole this is a performance which should rank with the legendary acting of the great Victorian actor-managers. Cumming is alone on stage most of the time, switches mood, emotion and thought process deftly, sketches in dark background colours with the skill of a Caravaggio executing a burial scene, commands attention for each tiny modulation of the inner action of an over-excited psyche and ends on a note, unusual for Macbeth, of poignancy shared with the audience when he reprises at the finale the words spoken at the opening – ‘When shall we three meet again?’ He is abandoned to an inner darkness.



National Theatre of Scotland Tramway 1, Glasgow, Run Ended

 {loadposition googleads}

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Burmese Days

Burma’s boy soldiers are the focus of Toni Davidson’s sad but electrifying comeback novel. Kidnapped by the country’s national army Tatmadaw Kyi, these boys are meant to cover the lack of adult recruits. Beaten, humiliated and given guns, the kid militia are forced to raze villages (even their own), causing a tide of broken families and displaced persons.

The title says it all. Its chillingly enigmatic phrase is lifted from a Human Rights Watch publication My Gun Was As Tall As Me: Child Soldiers in Burma by Kevin Heppner who toured the borders of Thai-land and Burma in 2002. ‘This thoroughly researched report details the harrowing and malicious use of children as coerced actors in the theatre of war’, Davidson states in the acknowledgements. Theatre is a good word to keep in mind because what Davidson has written is dramatic, full-scale and alive.

What’s immediately striking is the blend of contrasting climates. The novel opens in the Alps, where the son of a famous humanitarian tries to commit suicide in the snow. Why snow, one wonders. Perhaps it’s to provide a sharp yet comforting alternative to the dangerous heat of the Burmese jungles. Though Tuvol lies down in the same Alpine gully in which his parents once made love, he is rescued, saved by the sharp-tongued, NGO worker Dominique, with whom he falls for and follows to her clinic in Burma.

Parallel to Tuvol’s idealistic and indulgent narrative is a vicious and mystical one. The village in Burma’s Papen Hills is home to twins Lynch and Leer. Robust and intelligent, the long-haired boys had their tongues cut out by their mentally fragile mother. After her death, their stooped father Verlaine raised them alone. Lynch and Leer are delightful. They are constant mirrors of each other, shrugging in unison and speaking with their hands. Davidson focuses on their collective strength: ‘The boys nodded and put their fingers inside each other’s mouths. This was their sign of togetherness. This was what made them the same’. The village sees the twins as supernatural beings, a way of making sense of their deformity.

One day the twins’ playmate Jaffe comes back thin and scarred. Lynch and Leer welcome him home. Jaffe spills his story about the Sa Sun Tay camp: ‘If you cried the guards would come and beat you. If you got beat you would bleed and there was no medicine. Wounds just got worse and some of the kids got really ill. Two died.’ But Jaffe has returned with a plan. Soon a grenade whistles through the air and soldiers emerge from the bushes. As Verlaine grimly concludes: ‘Jaffe, our son, it is now clear returned only to betray us. If you see him slice him with your panga’. Such treachery provides a shocking entry into the cruel manipulation of Burma’s national armies.

Some writers would be reticent in their depictions of violence. Not Davidson. Jaffe’s home-front attack, along with other sadistic episodes, is described with precision and intensity. There is a horrific beauty and sense of choreography in Davidson’s unsparing war visions as he counts the shots: ‘Pewle. And so a cousin was greeted… Pewle. The old man who had begun to lose his thoughts while memories danced … Pewle. The Lew Ya sisters ran loose from their parents…’

Having fled their village, Lynch and Leer and other survivors move towards the city of Mae Rot where Dominique’s clinic is also located. Feeling too tall and wide, Tuvol is uncertain of his purpose at the clinic. He becomes a sympathetic listener to people who have lost everything, including several of their limbs. He holds a grown man, his face burnt in stripes, like a child. When the distressed Lynch and Leer arrive at the clinic, their encounter with Tuvol is filled with shouts, tension and eventually compassion. It’s such a commanding scene that one wishes the book would end there.

Essentially, Davidson has created a forlorn band of displaced people. Though from different backgrounds, his characters have similar tics and traits. Their language can be metaphorical and spiritual, as Verlaine counsels the village kids: ‘This is the forest of things, Le We, it has life in darkness and in day…’  They are also passionate and committed, seen in Dominique’s urgent whispers: ‘Come on, Tuv, concentrate. You have to listen to all this. Why is your head anywhere but here? Aren’t you tired of your own world?’

Tellingly, Dominique also advises Tuvol: ‘Everyone has a role to play. It’s the essence of survival’. It soon becomes apparent that Davidson has not devised characters, but a series of roles. Everyone has a function in his wider political design. Tuvol is the uneducated voyeur, Dominique the compassionate aide, Lynch and Leer the hapless victims, and Jaffe a prime example of the widespread problem. Burma’s wretched history defines each character’s actions and outlook.

If there is a quibble, perhaps the author has tried to tell too many stories. One such character Davidson could do without is Ruess, a radical journalist and Dominique’s former lover whose field notes are inserted within the text. Ruess’s first-person observations track his experiences living in remote villages and are meant to be an example for Tuvol to live by. However, since we never meet him face to face, his scrappy notes are easy to skim past. The narrative feels heavy enough with interchanging accounts from the clinic and from the twins’ village.

Simple subheadings such as ‘Village Life and Death’ and ‘Tuvol in the Tropics’ divide the narrative as the focus swivels from person to person. Minor characters share their stories then disappear. And yet, though the affinity between Tuvol and the twins is the main thread, this is not entirely their story. As the dedication suggests, My Gun Was As Tall As Me belongs to all ‘internally displaced people’ everywhere.


Toni Davidson

FREIGHT BOOKS, 240PP, £8.99. ISBN: 9780956613592

 {loadposition googleads}

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Thrust: A Short Story

That must be it there, Julie said.

Michael eased his foot off the accelerator and leaned forward, peering towards the place at the roadside his wife was pointing to.

In her other hand she held one of the leaflets she’d picked up in the tourist office in Lochinver.

Are you sure?’

There’s the sign. Look.

Her eyesight was better than his. Without his reading glasses he had to strain to make out what the sign said, but as the car drew nearer he read the name aloud:

Knockan Crag.

Julie had unfolded the leaflet and was reading it.

It says it’s a site of great geological significance.

Okay, let’s take a look.

In the car park they opened the boot and began to change into their hiking boots. Another couple with a camper van were also getting ready, the woman taking a couple of hiking sticks from the back of the vehicle, the man donning an Australian bush hat and buttoning up a bright red fleece. Further off, a man paced up and down outside his car, holding a clip-board under his arm and talking into a mobile phone.

He looked up at the dark shape of the hill above. It looked like a fair climb. His calf muscles were still a bit stiff and his hip joints still ached from all the walking they had been doing on the holiday so far. It had been his idea in the first place – a healthy week in Assynt would be good for both of them. Julie would have a break from her stressful job, and it would be good for his health, for his heart.  Most of the walks they had done involved some uphill slog over rough paths, and at times he’d felt like a comic little Sisyphus, doomed to push the burden of his own cursed body up and up, as on Handa island, from the hand-held jetty where the boat dropped them to the viewpoint at the Stack, to see the puffins nesting in the crevices of the cliffs. Then there was the walk to the spot above the Old Man of Stoer, where they had sat down to have lunch – not too close to the edge, because Julie got vertigo looking down at a steep drop.

The hardest one for him had been the climb to see the Clachan Falls up a rough, meandering path embedded with rocks and boulders. He hated lagging behind his wife, having to stop every few minutes to regain his breath and because his hip joints were beginning to play up, while Julie went on, apparently taking the ascent in her stride, until she had to stop and wait for him. Certainly she was younger, if only by three years, and she was much fitter, since she swam regularly and didn’t smoke as much as him. He wasn’t yet sixty but already he had suffered two ‘minor’ heart attacks and sometimes had attacks of angina if he over-exerted himself.

At one point on the climb, his frustration had boiled over as she stood above him on the hill, hands on hips, waiting for him.

Why don’t you just go on? He’d told her. I don’t want you to stand there scowling until I catch up.

I’m not scowling. I don’t mind waiting.

You are. You do

 I don’t.

And he forged ahead of her, driving himself up the rocky path as fast as he could until he really had to stop.

Can you stop this? She cried, coming up behind him. Why don’t we sit down, take a break? We need to talk about this.

And they had.

He stood up and stamped his feet in his boots, adjusted his socks and tucked his jeans in at the bottoms just in case there were sheep ticks around.

Okay, I’m ready, he said.

The man with the clip-board under his arm walked across the car park to them. He had put his mobile phone into a small pouch for that purpose which was fastened to his belt, and now he held a small hammer in his hand.

Excuse me.

He held the hammer into his chest as if to demonstrate that it was not a weapon. He wore a plastic I.D. card on a ribbon around his neck.

Hello. My name is Donald McLeish and I am a Geologist, employed by the National Geology Trust. Here’s my identity badge just to show you that I am who I say I am.

He held the I.D. card out from his chest towards Julie.

As you may know, this is Knockan Crag, a site of great geological significance. In a few minutes I am about to escort those people – with a nod of his hammer he indicated the other couple, who were locking up their camper van – on a guided tour of the site and you are welcome to join us if you wish.

Oh, really? Julie sounded guardedly interested.

Yes and it’s completely free of charge. This is my geologist’s hammer, by the way. I won’t be chipping away at any rocks with it today – I’m not allowed to, because this is a National Heritage Site – I’ll just be using it to point out things on the tour.

Julie looked over to him and raised her eyebrows, as if to say What do you think?

I think we were just planning on a short walk, he said.

Oh, well.

Donald McLeish sounded disappointed. If you change your mind, we’ll be leaving in five minutes or so.

How long would it take? Julie asked. Only about an hour and a half. We’ll be walking up to the Knockan Cliff to see what is called the Moine Thrust – I’ll explain it when we get there – then we’ll circumnavigate the hill to the summit of the crag and then on to Eagle Rock, coming back round the other side and down this path we see on the right…

As he spoke he gestured with the handle of his hammer, tracing the path of the tour up and around the hill and back down to the car park.

Michael looked at his watch.

An hour and a half, that would take us up to six o’clock, he said to his wife, he hoped with some meaning, then to this geologist with his hammer and his clipboard, he said:

Thanks but I think we’ll just have a quick walk and see what we can see.

That’s fine. As you wish. I’ll leave you to it then.

Now Donald McLeish sounded not just disappointed but faintly disapproving. As he walked over to speak to the other couple at the camper van, Julie turned to him.

Why don’t we do it? It’s a free lecture. We might learn something.

I don’t know. We could get round that hill in an hour at the most.

What’s the rush? I think we should do it. Why not? It’s free.

Excellent, said Donald McLeish. I just have to get you to sign my paperwork for me, purely a formality you understand, but Health and Safety require it. Then I’ll apply some sun screen and we’ll set off and have a fine educational walk around the hill. You won’t regret it.

Michael was already beginning to. The way Donald McLeish spoke to them, as if they were small children, was beginning to get his goat, and the way he stroked and brandished his little hammer, pointing at everything he could point at with the thing, was distracting and faintly disturbing.

If you could go and foregather with the others by the start of the path over there, I’ll just finish up here and join you in a moment.

As they walked over to join the other couple, he said in a low voice to his wife:

–  What if he’s a nutter? What if he’s going to take us up round the back of the hill then polish us off with his hammer?

– Shh.

But she smiled and laughed a little at the idea. That was good. It had been a while since he had made her laugh or smile, because of the stress she was under at work.

Her department was being ‘rationalised’, ‘restructured’, ‘streamlined’ – all euphemisms for cuts, and she was having to justify every paper clip they used in financial terms.

Nick and Val were social workers from the Wirral in Liverpool and were having a week’s holiday in the Highlands. They had rented a space on a campsite in Rosemarkie on the Black Isle and it had rained every day, so they’d decided to head west for the day where the weather was better.

How about you?

We rented a cottage in Stoer.

Julie was just about to start telling them

more, when Donald McLeish came over. His balding pate, slick with the sunscreen lotion, resembled one of the pinkish rocks smoothed by the water they had seen at the foot of Clachan Falls, his pale comb-over like the thin fronds of lichen that grew over them.

Do we all know each other? Have we done the introductions? May I ask you what you do?

Social work, us, Nick said.

We’re art teachers, said Julie.

Good. We’ll be seeing some art in a moment. Do any of you have an interest in Geology?

I did a Geology O-level, Nick said. I started the A-level but kind of …lost interest.

Hmm, I see.

Donald McLeish shook his head a little and a thin crease puckered his brow, as if losing interest in Geology was something beyond his comprehension.

Right, then I’ll just ask you to follow me. And the lesson began with the reddish brown rocks known as Fuccoid Beds – ‘It sounds as if I’m swearing but I’m not’ – and continued with examples of Pipe Rock  – ‘No, it isn’t a new Highland pop group’ – which he asked them to look at closely.

Notice anything about them?

They’ve got spots, said Julie.

Oh, yeh, like polka-dots, said Val, ‘Like me.’ She pulled the collar of her jacket down to show that she was wearing a polka-dotted shirt.

Exactly. But if we look at this rock here, which has been cut lengthwise so that you can see inside it, you can see that these ‘spots’ run through the rock, exactly like the letters running through those sticks of the rock we liked ruining our teeth on as children – you know, the kind that say ‘Edinburgh Rock’ or ‘Blackpool Rock’. These pale, tubular shapes in the rock are in fact –

It’s worms, innit? Nick said. I remember that from O-level. Burrowed into the rock, before it was rock, like.’

Donald McLeish’s mouth tightened and he looked piqued at being interrupted.

Yes, indeed, fossilized worms, formed when the rock was sediment under the sea, and the lowest strata of this land we are looking at is riddled with such fossilized forms. Any questions?

How does a fossil, like … get to be a fossil.

I mean, how does it happen? Val asked.

Interesting question. Fossils can form in different ways and there are many different types of fossil …

And Donald McLeish was off on the long narrative of compression, refrigeration, desiccation, carbonization, of casts and moulds, trace fossils and microfossils, trilobites, stramatolites and ammonites. When he had finished, he asked:

Does that answer the question?

Oh yeh, ta very much, said Val. Hadn’t

realized it were so complicated.

As Donald McLeish turned to lead the way up the hill, she made a ‘sorry’ face at them, widening her eyes and stretching her mouth into a grimace.

Right, let’s proceed to what we call The Puzzle.

The Puzzle turned out to be an artificial model of a cross-section of the hill, made of strata of different types of rock. Donald McLeish pointed at each in turn with the handle of his hammer, naming each – Fuccoid Beds, Cambrian Quartzite, Pipe Rock, Salteralla Grit, Durness Limestone, Tor-ridon Sandstone, and, at the topmost layer, last but not least, the highly significant Moine Schists.

Donald McLeish did not let the significance of the Moine Schists pass them by. He explained that in Geology in the past, rocks which lie above others were always thought to be younger than those below, but certain very important men – and they would ‘meet’ them in a moment when they reached the Rock Room – put forward the radical, even revolutionary idea that the Moine Schists were actually older than the layers of rock below them.

How could this be? Donald McLeish asked them. How could the Moine Schists, which have now been scientifically dated as being nine hundred million to a billion years old, sit above rocks five hundred million years younger? Had they moved, had they been brought here from elsewhere? Then what had moved them? This was a question that would puzzle some of the greatest minds in Geology in the nineteenth century and answering it would prepare the way for our modern understanding of the Earth’s history.

 It’s the tectonic plates, innit? Nick said. Shiftin round, like. Like at one time we was part of another continent, whassitcalled again, Avalon?

Donald McLeish’s lips puckered into a tight little smile.

Avalonia, yes you in England were part of Avalonia, but we in Scotland were part of a different continent altogether, called Laurentia –

Oh yeh, I remember that, Nick said. We got that in O-level.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s walk up the path to the Rock Room, stopping at each of the ‘milestones’ which actually show us the different geographical positions Scotland has occupied from five hundred million years ago until today.

They shambled up the hill after him, Donald McLeish stopping at each of the stones and pointing with his hammer at the location of Scotland at each stage of the earth’s crust’s movements – ‘near the South Pole!’ – until Scotland and England came together, ‘colliding’ over the course of millions of years – ‘if you can imagine this taking place at the rate your fingernails grow …’

In the Rock Room, Donald McLeish told them to ignore most of the stuff on the walls – the comic strips and the cartoons and the interactive displays and the computer screen with a CD-ROM loop allowing visitors to ‘fly’ through the area and look at views – which had been used to jazz up the Geology for kids – ‘Some of us don’t really approve of this kind of thing’ – and gathered them in front of some nineteenth century photographs of the Geologists who had studied Knockan Crag, Benjamin Peach and John Horne.

These men were pioneers of Geology. It was they who proved beyond question that the Moine Schists were older than the rocks below them and that they had moved here.

He put the hammer under his arm and pressed the knuckles of each hand together to show how the different strata of rock had collided.

If you can imagine the thrust, both land masses thrusting against each other, all this happening at the rate your fingernails grow, causing immense stress at the place they meet –

Donald McLeish’s knuckles were turning white as he pressed them against each other.

Until, finally, something has to give, and buckling takes place. The softer, younger rocks buckle beneath the thrust of the older and much harder Moine Schists…the way a snowplough curls old snow up and over fresh snow as it moves forward.

He let one hand unclench and buckle under the other fist.

And that is what we call the Moine Thrust. Any questions?

It’s the tectonic plates like I said, innit? Nick said.

Donald McLeish looked at the man from the Wirral with an indulgent smile.

Ah yes, you know that because you were lucky enough to learn about it in Geology O-level, but you have to remember that Peach and Horne didn’t know about tectonic plates, and it was their work which led to other studies of similar movements in the Himalayas and the Alps, and all of these studies together made us understand that the Earth’s crust was a series of moving plates…think of it as a moving jigsaw, with pieces coming together and breaking apart…

Is it still moving? Julie asked.

Michael wished she hadn’t asked a ques

tion – it would take at least ten minutes for Donald McLeish to answer it. He looked at his watch. It had taken them almost an hour to get this far and they hadn’t really started on the actual climb. At this rate they’d be on the hill for at least another hour. Don-ald McLeish was pressing his fists together again until the knuckles were turning white as his mouth tightened around the word thrust yet again.

The next stop was to see the art. The first was a relief sculpture on an upright piece of flat rock which had been set in the ground. It showed a long, linear shape with leaf-like forms branching from the top.

Any idea what it is? Donald McLeish asked them.

It’s one of them worms, innit, them that burrowed into the sediment, innit? Said Nick.

Yes indeed. Donald McLeish looked disappointed. Most people think it’s a palm tree.

Oh, yeh, it does, dunnit?’ Val said.

Then, at the foot of a rough, steep path

leading up the hill, they stopped to look at a larger, globe-shaped sculpture made from many layers of flat stones.

I once brought a group of fifth year boys from Ullapool High School here and I said I’d give them a fiver each if they could move it. Luckily they couldn’t get it to move an inch, but for a minute they had me worried.

He turned to Michael and Julie and asked:

So what’s your professional opinion of it as Art?

I quite like it, Julie said.

Michael nodded in mute agreement, and

thought of Sisyphus again, rolling his stone

up the mountain. Despite himself he asked:

How did they get it up here?

This time the answer was blissfully short: Helicopter. And now for the highlight

of the tour, follow me up to Knockan Cliff, where you can see the Moine Thrust for yourselves.

At last they were walking for more than a few yards at a time. He followed closely behind Donald McLeish, wanting to get the uphill part over with as soon as possible. The path grew steeper and when they were almost at the cliff, he turned to look at the others coming up behind. He saw Julie stopping suddenly and reaching for the ground above as if to steady herself. She looked like a person floundering in water when they suddenly realize they are out too deep to touch the bottom, and he felt a sudden pang of concern. He called down to her.

Are you ok?

I’m sorry but I don’t think I can go on,

she shouted up to him. I’ll have to go down. I’m getting vertigo.

Ok, wait there, I’ll come back down. Although he still felt concerned for

her, at the same time he was thinking: you beauty. It was the perfect get-out clause.

Don’t worry, I’m coming!

Donald McLeish strode down the path next to him, hammer wagging back and forth in his hand, as if he could maybe chip away at her vertigo with it until it disappeared.

Now. I don’t want you to worry about it. Lots of people get vertigo on land structures such as these. If you want to go back down, that’s fine, but I am quite a good guide, and if you like I can walk close by you all the way, I can follow closely behind you and make sure that you’re safe at every step.

No, it’s no good, I’m getting dizzy. I have to go down. Mike, you can go on.

No, I better come down with you.

I’ll be fine going down from here, I just don’t want to go up any further.

She apologized to Donald McLeish and the couple from the Wirral.

Na, you look after yourself like, said Nick. Hope you feel better soon, said Val.

I’ll be fine.

Would you like me to escort you down?

Donald McLeish asked.

 No, I’ll be fine.

I could come down with you.

But she said he should go on, at least to the cliff, so he had to go up to see the damned Moine Thrust – it would only take five minutes, Donald McLeish assured him. Still, at least then he’d be able to go back down rather than all the way round the hill.

Part of the hill had been cut away, exposing the rocks, and various slabs of stone had been arranged to create a mini classroom, with a circle of stone benches to sit on and a kind of raised platform on which Donald McLeish could perform.

This is a hallowed place in the world of Geology. We were brought here many years ago as Geology students at Glasgow University, and we were completely blown away by what we see here, the Moine Thrust itself …

What they could see was a stratum of dark rock above a stratum of lighter rock. Donald McLeish became more and more animated as he explained it all over again, pushing his knuckles together, pointing at the rocks with his hammer, and five minutes stretched to ten, ten to twenty.

So now you have seen the Moine Thrust for yourselves. Any questions?

They shook their heads, lectured into submission.

I better go back down, see if Julie’s ok.

Of course, but before you do, I want you

to come over to the rock face here and place your forefinger here and your thumb just here.

He did as he was told.

Now you can go down and tell your wife that you have held five hundred million years of the earth’s evolution between finger and thumb.

On the way back down the hill, he felt like Sisyphus on his day off, happy to be alive, and now that he thought about it, it occurred to him that although Sisyphus’s labour was endless, there always had to be the downhill stroll after the fruitless, uphill labour. Maybe, as time went on, Sisyphus made the downhill strolls last as long as possible.

Sitting on the ledge of the car’s open boot, they laugh about the stress and the knuckles and the hammer and the thrust as they change out of their hiking boots. He turns to take her face between his finger and his thumb.

What are you doing?

I’m holding five hundred million years of the Earth’s history between finger and thumb.

As they drive away, he says:

Those poor people are going to be up

there for at least another hour, hearing about the plates and the thrust.

Then he looks at the landscape speeding towards them as the car accelerates, its mountains and valleys and moors the surface of a thin, fragile crust which is moving over a molten sea beneath, cracking up and drifting together, forming and reforming, all at the rate his fingernails grow.

 {loadposition googleads}

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


The SRB Interview: James Kelman

James Kelman was born in Govan in 1946 and brought up there and in Drumchapel. He left school at fifteen, and was living in London when he published his first short story collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel (1973). This was followed in 1983 with another collection, Not Not While The Giro, and shortly after his first novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984). His novel A Disaffection (1989) won the James Tait Black Memorial prize, and in 1994, with How Late it Was, How Late, he became the first and as yet only Scot to win the Booker Prize. In 2008 he won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award for Kieron Smith, Boy. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Kelman met Rosemary Goring to discuss his new novel, Mo Said She was Quirky, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where his father had worked for the last eleven years of his life. Smartly dressed in crisp, striped shirt and jacket, he spoke openly and often amusedly  about his writing, and his own life. His eighth and latest novel, he explained, had begun life two decades earlier as a ten-minute film commissioned by a French film company which asked eleven international writers to create a noir-type story set in a city, in his case Glasgow.

Scottish Review of Books: Mo Said She was Quirky is a fantastic novel. I’m really moved by it.

James Kelman: That’s good, I’m glad.

 What was the inspiration?

Initially there wasn’t any inspiration. The gist of it began about 20 years ago when I wrote a very short screen play. I was quite happy with the short film, but I wanted to do it properly, and do it as a story – as I thought a short story. But it was quite complex, so much so that it never kind of worked. I realised I would have to spend time on it, more than I had thought. So I shelved the project, but I looked at it every now and again over the years, but it was never right as a short story and eventually I realised I would have to allow it to kind of breathe properly. And that eventually became a novel.

It never stopped being complex or complicated, because you know, when you’re doing it as a film you don’t have to operate within the psyche of the character in the writing itself, when you’re doing a film you can convey an interiority, if that’s the term, but once you’re working in prose it becomes trickier.

In the novel I kept the opening the same, so the point of the drama begins with the young woman coming home from work, in a quite innocuous way for a casino worker, just sharing a cab with her friends who are fellow workers. And the opening, that fleeting moment when the taxi has to stop, and she is in her own world anyway, not quite part of the conversation with her two friends, she sees this guy walking with his pal, he bears a resemblance to her brother but she’s not quite certain, she hasn’t seen him for a few years. It just seemed better to be situated in London itself.

 Because of its size?

No, not so much to do with size. It was the feel. There were different levels. One of them would be that the guy she thinks may be her brother, it was not his home either, he was displaced.

That’s how it began. It was a difficult novel to write. Not because it was from a woman’s perspective, that wasn’t the trickiest part of it. But operating within that inner dynamic is always difficult, when you’re working within a normal third-party narrative but you move from there, that transition to the inner being of the central character. Which I was working on elsewhere anyway around that period, the other two novels from then were A Disaffection and How Late It Was…

 The interior voice that all of us have in our heads can’t be translated onto the page really, because it is inchoate and sometimes almost wordless. So I wonder how you create art out of an idea.

There is a point where thought itself, as you say, it’s not even to do with transcribing. The inner musing of a human being is composed of more than language. Language will also be a part of it, but there’s other things – whether that’s images or sounds, very loose associations. So it is difficult, but ultimately as a writer you only have language to work in, so how do you use language to convey other forms of thought that are not just linguistically based?

 Yes, that’s what I’m meaning.

Well, the thing with a third-party narrative is it allows you to be external to the character too. So at that point when you can talk about her lifting a cup and moving within that to a subjective view of what’s entailed by lifting a cup. I see that now, I’ve come to see it, as being quite in the Scottish intellectual tradition. I had written an essay at that point, 25 years ago, trying to connect the Common Sense tradition with Noam Chomsky’s work. The more into the Scottish philosophical tradition you go, well, there is a point where you reach the conflict between David Hume and Thomas Reid, to do with apprehension. I find I’m moving between the external world and the subjective perception of it. So in a way,

I think the intellectual context is already there, within the Scottish Common Sense tradition, as it would be within the French or continental tradition. I can see that kind of coherence, or consistency.

 Do you think it was something you were already attuned to by being brought up in Scotland and studying philosophy as you had? And also, is there anybody in Europe doing something similar at the moment?

Technically I had already been involved in attempting these things in my earlier work, even from The Busconductor Hines, that movement of the outer world and how a human being operates within it, and how a character is seen operating within it. I think in some ways, even Hogg’s Justified Sinner is operating on that level when you have these different ways of looking at Gil-Martin, Hogg’s central character.

But I don’t see it as a Scottish thing only. I didn’t see it then like that either.

But I do think it’s one way of seeing it, it’s a context for people in Scotland. At that time I would have equated it more with the existentialist tradition and seen it more in relation to the writers and artists I really responded to as a young artist/writer. Thirty years ago I would have been inclined more to speak about Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground or The Devils. And I would have seen Kafka, the way Kafka worked in The Castle, very much part of this. Although the finished novel is a third-party novel, at the same time during his working processes he operated in the first person. Probably for me as a young artist I would have prefaced that by ‘of course’, because I thought that’s what Kafka would have been after, drawing together the two worlds, external and internal, that’s how I would have tried to argue it then, he wanted to put forward the one thing.

 You sometimes need that distance from your younger self to see quite what you were doing, or where it fits in.

Yeah, that’s right. But I would have seen it more through language at that point, and formerly would have seen the use of standard literary form in a sense as the objective world, the external world, and when you move into the phrases and rhythms of the ordinary language-user – ordinary human beings, they use language that’s not standard in that sense – it is a reflection of the internal world of the human being. Third-party narrative as the external world, and the thought processes or maybe dialogue as the internal, the subjective, belonging to human beings, how we use language, perceiving the world around us. So you have the two distinctive worlds there, as the outer and the inner.

 And the friction between them.

Yes. So for me, the formal issue as a young writer too, was how to marry these two, and how to get from the one to the other. These issues are to do with theory of mind, I would say, or philosophy of mind, but are part also of literary tradition.

 The closeness of the writing in this novel is fiendish really, the achievement of making it look as easy as if I feel I could sit down and write this – well, I don’t, but you know, the reader will feel this is so readable, and won’t actually see the mechanics of it. So how much do you sweat over it? Is it painful?

Well, it really is. That’s why maybe it took so long to do it properly. But you don’t want the mechanics or the nuts and bolts to be obvious to everyone. A writer friend of mine, Mary Gray Hughes, said many years ago to me, that is part of what we do. These are things for writers to enjoy or appreciate in the work of other writers, but it is like a craftsman looking at the work of another craftsman, and you do respect the way they manage to put a shelf up using only one nail! So if other people are looking at a good piece of furniture another carpenter might whisper to you, do you know the guy that made this never used any nails? You’ll go, what do you mean? Well he joined it so well that there are no nails. He only used one in the whole thing, then when he finished the joining he took the nail back out. It doesn’t stop you as a layperson enjoying the furniture, but your appreciation is slightly different from the joiner who was talking to you, that is the great craft but not for everybody to see.

 It’s not the intention.

It’s that sense that it’s to be seamless, it’s to be the great illusionist. Others might know how you’re doing it, but when the thing is presented nobody should see any of that kind of thing.

 Interesting that you mention Dostoevsky there. I was going to ask you a very fundamental question about the way you write – to what extent the novel is mapped out in advance, how you choose tenses and so on. And also, I think he drafted The Idiot something like eight times. Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?

Ordinarily I just begin, I work it out on the page. There’s never any plot, or anything like that, I never know what’s going to happen. I can only intuit something is maybe longer than a short story the more I get into it. And sometimes even after the third or fourth sentence I think, this is going to be quite long.

 As quickly as that?

It can be. Because I know that once I begin to unpack those sentences, that paragraph – nowadays the analogy would be that once you double-click on it, you find out that it’s a suitcase folder rather than just a folder of documents. And you can kind of intuit that, but not always.

So, there’s not any plot. I would have been quite happy in this particular novel if the ending had happened quite soon, and I’d had to continue beyond that. It wouldn’t have been unthinkable, and certainly wouldn’t have worried me.

 So if the very last page had happened a third of the way through?

Yeah, and continuing on, it would just have been different. But the more into it I got, I realised that the ending would probably be as I suspected it was going to be, but I was prepared for something else.

 I like that. You just trust your – is it your unconscious?

No, not unconscious. No, when you’re talking in these terms there’s major issues around creativity, around how we create art. I don’t have anything against using the term the unconscious or the subconscious, but I think it’s more to do with how we order things as human beings. When you get into talking about it this way very quickly it takes you into things like creationism, and why it is there’s a need to have a belief in god, or what do we mean by providence or fate, or is it a purely existential kind of process.

It takes you into issues around determinism. But if you look on it a different way, it is a bit easier, in terms of ‘how do we create art’. I think that the problem with writing is that because we use language, it seems to suggest – how can you say it – a kind of Platonic thing, that you are putting words to an idea that already exists. And that is a mistake.

If you look at visual arts, and how you compose visual arts, or even music, how a composer would operate, I mean if you take a piece of music, and it doesn’t have to be Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and it doesn’t have to be Miles Davis or a piece of jazz, it can be a good piece of rock music. Once you talk in these other Platonic sort of ways you have to be careful, well, you very quickly move into absurdity. It’s like, how did Cézanne know that this painting would end in that way rather than this? It takes you into something like painting by numbers. Because the painting alters with every brushstroke. As soon as Cézanne puts in a certain colour, or moves his brush in a certain way at one end of the canvas, that will alter what he does at the other end

of the canvas, and it becomes a process of pure composition. I think it’s best to think in these ways of story writing too, as a composition. So, when you get to maybe chapter eight in a novel, that allows you to go back and develop chapter three. It’s why a writer like Chekhov might say, if you’re having trouble with a story, destroy the first paragraph. What’s come out of it is the composition, and the thinking that’s begun it, seen in the earliest sentences, might be hindering the finished thing out. If you worry too much about these early ideas, you’ll put too many restrictions on yourself, you’ll stop the story breathing.

 That’s also great advice for aspiring writers. I’m slightly embarrassed by using the terms unconscious and subconscious, as you talk there, because it makes it sounds as if it’s beyond yourself. 

It does gives rise to that Platonic sense, you know, the idea that an idea exists, the ghost of the idea, and your words on the page will fulfil, or represent thoroughly the idea that already exists.

 You’re the conduit.

Yes. And obviously many writers and artists believe that’s the case, or have thought that’s the case. When they appeal to the Muse or to the hand of god, whatever it is, they believe they’re fulfilling something that already exists.

 Does that not make it harder, in a way, because then it allows something like writer’s block to come into it, because you could feel there’s something between you and something other?

Yeah, I think it does. It also stops the drama. It’s better when the drama keeps you going, you the writer, and you don’t know what will happen. When you open the door you don’t know who’s behind the door. It’s tricky, if you always know who’s behind the door, if you’re involved in that kind of plot, you’ll run into difficulties in the writing of it, because you’ll probably bore yourself.

 You once said that for most men women are a mystery, and the same works the other way round. I wondered if the fascination with the unknown was part of the challenge of writing this new novel?

What’s interesting is some of the male responses, them not knowing what’s natural. Do women act in this way? Do they feel this way? Is this how women react? These levels of anxiety? Is that how women are? So when males ask these things, implicit in that is their acceptance of unknowability. Whether or not I personally go along with that, it’s evident to me that they begin from that, because that is the questions they ask.

I don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s just that some of these things are gender-based. That’s a generalisation. In some of these obvious ways, a woman is, generally speaking in a more vulnerable position than a male, because she has to trust him. And she has to trust a male in situations where – and it’s not only in a sexual relationship, but that’s the most obvious – you have to give yourself, and you have to have faith in the man you’re entering into this relationship with, because he’s more physically powerful. And Helen has to do that not only for herself but for her daughter. She has to put her six-year-old daughter into situations with a male who is not even her husband. Some of her friends might say, you’ve left your daughter with this guy for how many hours? And he’s to dress her and put her to bed and to bathe her? So there’s these instances where women are more vulnerable than men, and a single mother even more vulnerable than other women, because of her kids.

 You talk about how children are patted and pawed, and patronised, and it’s absolutely right. I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of that myself, They’re like little animals – you forget they are adults in very small form.

Yes, they’re beings, human beings.

 They’re not someone you can encroach on.

Yeah, that’s right, they have their space, and if you do, that’s what you’re doing, encroaching.

 In this novel, it’s a household of very vulnerable people. With Sophie and Helen, and Mo, and Mo saying Glasgow and London are the only cities he could work and live, despite the fact he faces racism.

Yes. Helen’s anxiety also goes to that, because she’s very sensitive to the idea of going down the wrong street with her boyfriend. He’s Muslim, from a British Asian background so she’s already prepared to meet racism. And he treats it occasionally in too cavalier a fashion for her.

 He’s a very likeable character.

I hope I haven’t sentimentalised him. I think he is a likeable character, but I also want an unknowability about him, because the trust from her to him has to be true. She can’t know him 100 per cent.

 I began to wonder, when you talk about Helen’s brother Brian’s relationship to his father, and Helen’s with her mum, if you feel a lot of the problems that we face in society start in the family?

I suppose as a generalisation, yes. And often you might say an unjust system has unfortunately been propagated by its victims. I mean by that, an ordinary kind of working-class father will have great problems with a son who says this system is shit. A father might not want to hear it from a son, and will enter into great battles over something like that. This is probably a theme in my work, from earlier novels and stories of mine, the relationship between father and son, parents and young people.

 It’s maybe too personal a question, but what was your relationship like with your father?

In many ways it was a good relationship.

It was a good relationship with me being a young artist, because he was used to young artists, he was used to old artists too, because that was part of his work – he was a picture restorer, frame-maker and gilder. A lot of his clients were artists, so he was used to them, J D Fergusson, people like that, they were people he knew – Tom Honeyman – friends of my grandfather. Of course my father worked in here for the last eleven years of his life. So that side of it was not an issue for him, being a skint young writer, or wanting to be a writer, or rather an artist. He didn’t have a problem with that at all.

But the other side of it, he was an Eighth Army man and he’d been through all the Eighth Army battles, fought their way up through the African desert, through Italy. Then I would be a teenager, and older, talking from an anti-war position. So that became a struggle for myself and my father. Politics was an issue. As my wife remembers well, even before we got married, it used to cause us great problems.

 The casino in this novel stands in my mind as a reminder of chance and what a gamble life is. Was it a reminder to people that life can change on the flick of a card, or am I being fanciful?

No, I don’t think you are. That’s what Helen has to deal with in a day-to-day way. Also people working in casinos have to deal with the fact that they are on an ordinary working-class wage, they don’t earn bourgeois salaries, and they’re in touch with – acquainted with – people who are wealthy enough to lose large sums of money without worrying about it at all. They’re in a world of alienation. They have to deal with that. That world is obviously a world I knew about as a teenager, because I used to gamble too much, as a young guy. The experiences of A Chancer, that early novel of mine, a lot of those are semi-autobiographical. So I would have been used to that myself, but not from a working point of view.

 Yes, on the more painful end of it even, if you’re not lucky.

Yes, it’s not too much to say that!

 When you’ve sent a novel off to an agent, or publisher, how much advice are you willing to take from them?

I am kind of happy for any response. I don’t send off much nowadays. In the past occasionally I would send an early work or a work in progress, or even a finished thing to a few people, in the early days Mary Gray Hughes but then Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, they’ve been good friends for 35 years. Also Jeff Torrington, and Peter Kravitz – Peter is another reader I trusted. It’s good to get some kind of response, because sometimes you’re not sure. You don’t even need a response, really. It’s almost like gauging the silence!

I’ve got a good agent, Gill Coleridge. She’s been my agent for about ten years. I feel the same with her as a reader. And my recent editors too, I think I’ve been lucky. Not because any of them would come out and say something is not working, but the level of response is enough for me to make an inference that leads me somewhere, that will confirm something in myself, that really this is not working as well as I thought it was.

And that can happen, because sometimes my work’s on the edge, not always, but often it’s on the edge and even with people I trust, ultimately I have to make a decision myself.

 Do you look ahead to the e-book revolution as being to your advantage because it’s simply all text, or to your disadvantage, because you’re so careful about the way the page is laid out?

It’s not something I’m fearful about. In terms of story-telling I think it’s probably quite exciting. For somebody who tweets or does a blog, they have to make it interesting. It’s the same as being a good journalist, or a good feature writer or story writer, ultimately you have to make it as dramatic as you can, distinguish it from other pieces of writing, so someone will read it, otherwise they won’t.

 Denise Mina said that with ebooks, she thinks it will mean more working-class writers might get into print.

It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

It means there are repercussions for publishing, and for writers engaged in so-called literary fiction. I was in WH Smith a couple of days ago, and there are no Scottish writers apart from genre, there is not one. You don’t find any. Even in the old days when Scottish fiction was a genre in WH Smith – pigeonholed in our own country – at least we were there in the shop.

I had a Polish publisher, but they’ve just gone bankrupt, they’ve been liquidated, all their staff made redundant. Things are in a process of real deep-rooted change, and many writers of non-genre, we don’t quite know the way things are going. It doesn’t mean writers won’t go on writing. And there’s an exciting element to it. We should worry when art isn’t alternative.

 You’ve won so many prizes, and yet you’ve retained the mystery of the writer, you’ve not been sucked into the establishment as maybe you might have been in other countries. There’a strong sense of you remaining on the edge.

Do you mean in Scotland rather than the UK?

Yes, I do. 

In England, there’s been no prize for about 20 years, since the Booker Prize. In terms of Scotland, I think roughly speaking, Scottish writers are still marginalised in the UK.

I don’t have any problem in stating that. The issue is across the board in the arts: sometimes it’s best to look on Scotland as a colonised culture. The people who are in control don’t really know Scottish culture, although they do control it. It happens in the visual arts, as well as in literature. Not so much the old Arts Council. Individuals maybe within the old Arts Council knew something of Scottish traditions in art. I don’t think that’s applicable now.

So in a way you’re always on the periphery, Scottish writers, whether it’s Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens or Tom Leonard. They have places, but not like it would be in other countries, where there might be an excitement seeing your own artists. You’re never bothered by people saying, oh, there’s such and such, you very rarely get that here.

 Would you like that?

I don’t know. It depends on the setting I suppose. It’s nice to be able to walk around, of course it is, but there is a – not a knock-on effect – a kind of corollary, it’s how does a country value its art. In Scotland it’s not really valued in that way, not generally. Scottish literature in itself I don’t think really is known. But that goes across the board. Scottish people don’t know much about their own history at all I don’t think.

 That comes back to the old colonial thing of not being taught your own traditions, or being told they are secondary.

Well, there is that. There’s also the fact that to some extent Scottish history is a radical history, it’s a history in opposition to the mainstream. And radical history is marginalised, and not necessarily taught. Heroes who are radical heroes, like John Maclean, John Murdoch and Donald Macrae, James Connolly or Arthur McManus, Helen Crawford, Agnes Dollan, they’re not really known. In other countries they would be heroes, but they’re not known in their own country, they’re radical figures politically. In other countries everybody would know who Wilson, Baird and Hardie were, Thomas Muir – or Thomas Reid, or Ferrier, or Clerk Maxwell, Hugh Miller. In Scotland they don’t know these things. They don’t know about George Buchanan, they don’t know about these great Reformation and post-Reformation figures, they don’t know about the Scottish Latin tradition. They just seem to know these silly things, fantasies about royalty and religion, kilted super-heroes. It’s really shocking, in a way, pathetic is a better word.

I would very much like to have known Gaelic. My grandmother never passed on Gaelic to her sons, never mind her grandsons. For the usual reasons. This side of my family suffered the effects of the Clearances, from the parish of Lochs in Lewis; Keose village, where the Napier Commission was held in the 1880s. MacKenzies and MacLennans. They went to America mainly, my grannie came to Glasgow. I’ve got a typical Glaswegian family, immigrant to the core, about 85 per cent Scottish, a wee drop Irish, maybe East Europe too, and a great-grandfather from Gateshead. I don’t know how many clans I’m associated with – Camerons and MacNicolls. MacArthurs and Macleods are there too. Hebridean, Argyll, and the north east. The Kelmans are from the Cabrach traditionally, west of Rhymie, along the poitin trail. So both shades of Gaelic – p and q.

 Do you think the Gaelic strain has any bearing on your literary temperament?

It’s always interested me. I’ve always liked that side. I’ve been reading Tales of the West Highlands for forty years. The great work John Francis Campbell did, people like John Dewar, it is of fundamental importance to the Scottish and wider Gaelic traditions, tremendous collections of the old stories and tales. I suppose at an early stage reading them I was interested in the actual form the storytelling took. I liked the use of the verb, and used to relate it to Damon Runyon’s rst person present-tense narratives. That for me was, yeah, this is you telling me a story. That is the foundational structure of that form. That’s me sitting down at a ceilidh at the fireside, telling a story. So when someone begins, “I am walking down the road” – once I grasped the subtlety of that, the use of the oral form, it begins in the present tense, but is of the past, that for me has been very important.

Who are you reading now?

I read for different reasons. I don’t read as much fiction as I would like to. I’ve been interested in trying to get to grips with the Scottish intellectual tradition, and how movements in thought maybe give rise to movements physically…

 Scottish history is not nice history. It’s the history of subjection. We are so used to tipping the hat to our superiors. And that’s still the way things are, unfortunately. How many other countries do we know, how many cultures in the world do we know where there’s a debate about ‘should we determine our own existence or not?’ Such inferiority, it’s shocking. Independence is not an economic decision, it is a decision to do with self-respect. How we determine our own existence, this is what we do as adults for goodness sake, it’s our culture, ultimately it concerns survival. And we’ll see it literally, if the independence movement is set back again, emigration as usual, for those able to do it, spiritual demoralisation for others.

 I’m hoping that they start to put some intellectual weight into it. 

I think it’s up to us, up to the public, that discourse should go that way. I’m not saying it’s being deliberately manipulated, but the way the discourse is at present, it’s almost like, how many people in Scotland even know that those in favour of independence are not necessarily nationalists? Of course more so in England. It’s said of me, that I’m a nationalist. I’m continually having to deny that I am a nationalist but at the same time I am 100% in favour of independence. They don’t get it.

I was thinking there about the Edinburgh Book Festival. I am doing a reading there this year but eventually I felt nauseous about the Writers’ Conference, 50 years after the 1962 thing and commemorating that. I’ve withdrawn from it. Not the book festival itself. I don’t have a problem there. I don’t really see it as a Scottish literary festival, I see it as an international book festival that takes place in North Britain. What I really object to is the British Council and its involvement as co-organisers of the Writers’ Conference, I can’t stomach it.

 Because of what they stand for?

The British Council is the British State. I stopped being involved with them years ago. It means I don’t get many invitations abroad because they do most of the foreign funding. It turns my stomach to see them listed as co- organisers. I don’t think it bears scrutiny for long. It reminds me of 1979, when people were pushed into Scotland to take on positions of power, as in the BBC, preparing for the independence referendum, in case the Thatcher government failed to stem the tide. It reminds you of the old Russian aristocracy towards the end of the nineteenth century, pushing family members into positions of power with the radicals in case the revolution succeeds, or the defence industry and major financiers during times of war, backing both sides.

 You still feel this is not an open country.

The British Council is not some autonomous, free-thinking arts body. It is sponsored by and accountable to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It’s the FCO’s cultural wing, that’s what they are, and fair enough, they’re quite clear about their remit in terms of pushing English culture and English language – although of course their charitable status has allowed them to outsource English jobs to India to save money. These are the people who are co-organising these writer debates. The 1962 thing was important in Scotland, without overrating the thing that happened with MacDiarmid and Trocchi, but it has its place in a contemporary context, not a thing we should all think was great, because it certainly wasn’t and we shouldn’t glamorise it. I don’t think either MacDiarmid or Trocchi came out of it particularly well, to be honest about it, but there was more to it than that. There is definitely room for a healthy debate about these issues, what it is to be a writer in Scotland, to create within an inferiorised culture, the dangers of nationalism. Here’s an interesting thing. Alan Warner and Louise Welsh, Alasdair Gray, Keith Dickson and myself were on a panel in Montpelier in the south of France two or three months ago. Each one of us favours independence, and not one of us is a Scottish Nationalist, not as far as I know. Each of us has a different position, yet each of us favours independence.

There are all these different areas up for discussion, among people who share a basic feeling or sensibility, writers who have entirely different political positions from me, people on the right, unionists – who cares, just to see things debated properly, as an autonomous thing, where we know at the outset that it’s not being hijacked. How can we enter into such a thing, and having all these writers coming from other cultures, foreign writers – they don’t know what they’re walking into here. They think they’re walking into a debate grounded in contemporary Scotland, but are they, I don’t think so, they’ll be attending an event co-organised by a body subservient to the British State’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at an international book festival based in North Britain, at least that’s how I see it.

 Putting aside all your work obligations, and so on, if you could read any novel right now, who would you choose?

I would just go for contemporary writers.

Some of the younger short story writers I like. I can’t give you any names, also because I don’t want to, because it’s quite unfair in a way. I would like to read more contemporary prose altogether. There’s far too many projects of my own, far too many, too many stories, all kinds, novels, essays, plays. Christ almighty! And then I’ve got two grandkids.

 Is that who the book is dedicated to?


 You’re a family man.

Well, that’s always been part of my life, family.


James Kelman

HAMISH HAMILTON, PP220, £14.99. ISBN: 9780241144565

 {loadposition googleads}

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


It Never Rains But It Pours

All of us inhabit some nub of ‘environmental history’, whether we are aware of it or not. It has been Christopher Smout’s particular gift to humanise and bring home, in a very literal sense, aspects of what in other hands often seems a dismal science. Environmental history struggles between econometrics at one end of the spectrum and an excessive literariness at the other. To non-specialists, it can seem tangled and remote, or else caught up in a rhetoric of blame that is unanswerable but strangely paralysing and fatalistic.

The first essay in his plainly titled republished collection Exploring Environmental History suggests that Smout’s is a peculiarly Scottish gift. Not only has he knocked confidently on the oak divisions between academic disciplines, and mostly gained entrance, he stands in the same powerful Scottish lineage of syncretistic thinkers that begins even before Hutton and Miller and extends to Patrick Geddes, D’Arcy Thomp-son, James Ritchie and Frank Fraser Darling in the 20th century (the last of these English, but a Scot and then an internationalist by avocation). Smout is by no means a mere follower-on and re-reading these papers suggests that the most important public office bearer in our country, as it debates its future and future allegiances, is our Historiographer Royal.

 Here is how his book arrived: on the first friday of July it rained hard and without pause from just before midnight and through the morning. The burn rose, as it always does, with frightening speed and by breakfast time had the colour and movement of boiling chocolate. By noon, the water was just inches below the central spar of the footbridge, our only access. We felt the vibration through our feet, and watched the water facing upstream, having been told the story of a late farmer further down the glen who’d been swept to his death by a rogue stump tossed around in the stream. We’d seen his bridge. Could the water ever have come so high? It had been a freak fall of rain, apparently, a hundred-year storm, but as the climate shifts similar spates are ever more probable; more important, as forestry is shaved off the hillsides they may become more intense and destructive.  It’s interesting to note that the most solidly argued rebuttal to Smout’s 2002 essay on ‘The Highlands and the Roots of Green Consciousness, 1750-1900’ relates to the relation between tree-cover, run-off, siltation and erosion, all from an African perspective.

 The postman came at two, waved a padded envelope in the air and popped it into the parcel box on the other side of the footbridge. He wasn’t for coming across. I got it eventually. Even ten pages in, it became clear not just how urgently relevant Smout is, but how general the import of his work. Each essay in the book falls like a pebble, with ever-widening circles of significance. Some of this is familiar enough. Climate change has long since ceased to be a topic only for academic seminars or for patronising denials by a weatherman who told us our memories of dry, hot summers were false and wishful ones. The last several rainy years have been crash courses in hydrology, on new housing estates as well as isolated farms: ‘flood plain’ and ‘water table’ entered middle-class speak. Sharper winds have been a reminder that in global terms our climate is not defined as particularly wet, but as notably windy; we chose to reverse the emphasis.

From our own immediate perspective in a remote farmhouse, clear-fell forestry will expose us again to snell north-easterlies which will nip the early spuds that are already this year mushy with excessive rain. Saurian felling machines have been parked up the hill, ready to resume work when the rain eventually slackens to merely torrential.  Further down the glen, closer to where our neighbour was washed away, under hills browed with commercial spruce and larch, fields long cleared of trees and hungry for fertiliser offer no shelter and only seasonal feed for cows that are kept alive on silage through long, cold springs. We’re overrun with deer, roe and what may be Sika/red hybrids, and we check obsessively for ticks.

Draw out the focus on Google Earth and the picture becomes yet more complicated. A few miles up the road stands a small town that once boasted two dozen distilleries and a fishing fleet, but which was recently – and again – cited as an example of stagnation and decay, to the righteous fury of locals who invoke a strong sense of community. These days, the main trade at the quay is in the timber that trundles past the house and in towers for wind farms. Tourism holds out some hope. There is an airfield that brings golfers (and houses the bodies of crashed aliens, or so we tell the tourists peering through the chainlink at ‘Area Fufty-Wan’). On the way to it, one crosses the remains of a commercial canal and railway line, remnants of formerly burgeoning industries. At least the fields are not just unrelieved rape, the colour of mustard or of jaundice, but a mixture of barley, some oats, corners of potatoes and a good deal of black-bag silage, which is the real alien invasion into this economy.

Pass through town and up a long and winding road (in fact, Paul McCartney’s ‘Long and Winding Road’), where the verges are tagged with pink ribbon marking ‘alien’ species to be sprayed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam or that Triffid of Triffids, Rhododendron ponticum, there is a tiny village that was once to have been a great industrial city of the west, with manufacturing, a port and cathedral. It requires a further effort of refocus – Google doesn’t help, though it sometimes picks out the archaeological traces – to understand that the Scottish Highlands were not always considered sylvan and edenic but were believed to be the ideal location for big industry that needed nearby fuel and navigable or harnessable water: there are abandoned smelters and furnaces up and down the coast, and it was the dream of Scotland’s most charismatic Secretary of State, Thomas Johnston, that the country might become a net provider of hydro-electric power to the United Kingdom as a whole. The Cruachan scheme provides some of the background to Alan Warner’s recent ‘Highland’ novel The Deadman’s Pedal.

In a useful opening essay, originally given in Germany in 2005, Smout sets out parameters for environmental history as a discipline and offers some explanation of Scotland’s priority and pre-eminence in the field. Nature of early settlement, population mass, ratio of population to available natural resources all presumably have a role, as do later economic, political, legal and cultural factors. Geographical position and mixed geological identity promoted curiosity about the natural scene. Darwinism had roots in and took root in Scotland quite differently to elsewhere. Everyone understands that Romanticism marked a cusp in the evolution of Scotland’s natural environment but Romantic ideology, and the reinvention of Scotland as a place for sport, replenishment of the spirit and for observation of fragile nature, doesn’t float free of pre-existing economic necessities, which can also be divided into three: subsistence farming, aristocratic shooting and fishing, and a long-term history of industrial development, which goes back long before Johnston, with seventeenth century roots.

Public understanding of ‘environmental history’ leans heavily on boo-words like ‘sheep’ and ‘Clearances’ but lacks a matching understanding of how sheep, or deer, function in a landscape compared to cattle, or how semi-natural woodland was managed in the days before mass forestry planting and Brazilian solutions to felling. Knee-jerk opposition to forestry, hill farming and to hunting (for its opponents, shooting aristocrats means just that) is all done in the presumed and presumptuous interest of ‘the environment’, the biggest scare-word of all. What sets Smout apart is that he replaces an emptily rhetorical question with a highly detailed historical narrative: not ‘does the environment have a future?’, but ‘our environment has a very specific past, or pasts, and if it is to have a future we better damn well understand them’. Anyone who accuses Smout of quietism hasn’t been reading very carefully and certainly hasn’t got to the to the last paragraph of the closing essay on ‘Environmental Consciousness’ which briefly and uncharacteristically imagines a moral apocalypse that leaves the earth as bare and silent as Mars or Neptune.

Smout’s more usual style is unstrident and not always picture-postcard colourful. In this, he is different from someone like Fraser Darling, who could not avoid getting out his water colours and shading in backgrounds even to a quantitative study of birds, deer or seals. Smout acknowledges that Darling’s scientific credentials were sometimes undermined by impressionism or literariness, to say nothing of that damnable vice anthropomorphism, as does Darling’s greatest follower John Morton Boyd. But then Darling was writing in a very different scientific and political climate than ours and it is precisely anthropomorphism or at least some version of the anthropic principle that is at the heart of Smout’s engagement with the landscape, an engagement which cannot at any point, synchronic or diachronic, be divorced from dynamic human impact.

It has always seemed to me that Darling, though a modern in many ways, a scientist and a family man, was closer in spirit to the old Irish/Scottish hermits for whom nature poetry was as much practical and ‘scientific’ as it was aesthetic and spiritual. (Our house, five miles from Columba’s alleged landing place on Kintyre, was briefly occupied by three Black Hermits, whose itinerant mission is now elsewhere.) Another rebuttal to Smout’s opening paper takes task with his tendency to ignore a traditional Celtic philosophy of nature and a long tradition of Gaelic nature poetry like Duncan Ban Macintyre’s, but it’s possible that he almost deliberately overlooks this tradition, or indeed any cultural artefact that might be subject to sentimentalisation. For all Scotland’s preeminence in ‘environmental history’, there is no triumphalism or ‘here’s tae us, wha’s like us’ in his attitude to ‘traditional’ Highland values: ‘Tiree may be a naturalist’s paradise and Suffolk a barley baron’s desert, but that is not because the Gael is more in touch with nature than the Saxon. Given the chance to make money . . . ’ Smout also notes that the ‘traditional’ Celtic love of nature is further holed by Ireland’s appalling record in matters of conservation.  There is a national, but not a nationalistic slant to the work. Ironically, Darling’s principles were perhaps more easily applied in Africa, where the dynamic interdependency of human animal, nonhuman animal and physical environment retained more traditional elements.

It’s by no means news that the north and west of Scotland once supported substantial local populations at modest levels of subsistence that were sustained by what hyper-fed outsiders tended to view as indolence. When food and energy are scarce, ‘laziness’ is a good survival strategy. But some of this recognition goes no further than a vague perception that Scotland, as well as offering affordable manses and superior schools, is also a good place to dabble in ‘the Good Life’, without much understanding of the efforts required, now and historically, to maintain it. In place of the energy-rich communities of the past, we’ve become heavily accessorised and technologically dependent (without much skill in repair and refurbishment). Even a modestly ‘self-sufficient’ smallholder relies on strimmer, rotavator, chainsaw, and quad, not so much energy-poor as energy-overdrawn, and certainly less efficient than a family with a horse, a couple of strong sons, bow-saws and axes. Scaling down on gadgets requires certain compromises as regards time expended, but rapidly repays the extra effort involved. Lime and glyphosate are perhaps the only commodities that can’t be entirely eschewed, or so we argue, pretending that the sprayer hose isn’t part of our serpentless Eden.

It’s no accident that we use ‘landscape’ not just as a synonym for the physical environment, ‘natural’ or altered, but also for an art and photographic form. The latter meaning now predominates, in the sense that we tend to regard landscape as static, an unmoving tableau out of which we airbrush or Photoshop the unwanted elements; pylons, silos, wind farms. The old painters put in human figures for ‘staffage’ and scale, but they put in birds for movement, and nothing more solidly confirms Smout’s belief in landscape as a living dynamic, with man-the-animal in violent, pastoral, scientific, aesthetic or spiritual contact with other animals than his passion for birds. There is little scope for ornithology here, beyond a look at the little owl, once considered both alien and vermin, now rightly protected and working its way into Scotland, though only south of the Forth-Clyde line. The chapter on ‘aliens’ (not the kind housed at Machrihanish) is a good example of Smout’s eminent good sense in dealing with sensitive and controversial issues. Why, for instance, is ‘alien’ algae brought in with commercial ballast or bilge considered pernicious when algae brought in on the feet of migrating geese is not? Again, it isn’t merely a rhetorical question and the crux of it is whether man is accounted part of the animal kingdom, which is logical and necessary, or that he is not, which is illogical. Smout cites Ritchie’s 1920 masterwork The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland as a key text in the evolution of ‘environmental history’ and green consciousness. Like his own work, it isn’t a charge-sheet, but the account of a complex dynamic.

Birds may occupy most of what passes for Smout’s spare time. Trees have largely occupied his working life, often in collaboration with researchers from related fields. There is a special lift to his prose when he discusses native pinewoods – he surprisingly makes no acknowledgement here to Steven’s and Carlisle’s equally classic The Native Pinewoods of Scotland – or the wonderful Atlantic oakwoods of Argyll which have now returned to natural growth. The afforestation of Scotland remains a controversial topic. One still encounters schoolteachers who happily tell their charges that the whole country was once covered in trees. One can’t trust the old map-makers any more securely. Tree symbols were sometimes added later, put in without much reference to actual density of growth, sometimes, one suspects, added for decorative reasons. I have an old Argyll map that seems to show woodland that never existed, or for which there is now no evidence. We might casually assume that such a wood was hacked down by men for naval masts or spokewood or fuel, depending on its composition, but as Smout wisely points out, commercial exploitation of some Western woodlands accounts for only a tiny chronological fraction of their millennial histories. We are part of nature, and we are a guilty part of nature, but we are not the only or the most ruthless movers in the game. On the contrary, Smout seems to suggest that our historical exploitation of wood has always been quite specialised (spokewood, tanbark, domestic fuel and ‘treen’: all different drivers of need), rationally calculated (it was often more satisfactory to import masts from the Baltic, than to produce them even semi-locally) and driven by a clear if unstated commitment to what is now buzzed as ‘sustainability’, a term that still relates to maximising yields rather than protecting ‘the environment’, however one cuts it.

The allure of birds is that they do not observe boundaries, either geographical or political. Deer and cattle can be fenced. Birds can not. Their migratory habits are spectacular and complex. The tern you see in summer may have wintered in Africa or may be on passage from one circumpolar region to another. The blackbird you see in January may not be the same blackbird you see in June. Trees, on the other hand, seem static, monolithic (or monolignic?) and as permanent as we allow them to be. And yet, here is a perfect illustration of not being able to see the wood for the trees, for a forest is always a mobile thing, regenerating outside its boundaries wherever patterns of animal husbandry allow it to, and this is where the difference between cattle on the one hand, deer and sheep on the other, does make another significant difference. Smout emphasises both the exceptional mobility of pinewoods, but also their fragility, particularly in face of climate change. It may be that, left to its own device, Birnam Wood might well have come to Dunsinane, but that is to replace Shakespearean imagery with uncertain dendrology: I have a sense that oaks rather than pines are the issue in ‘great Birnam Wood’ and oaks also have a mythological significance that isn’t any direct part of Smout’s concern.

That isn’t to say that he works a specialism as carefully demarcated as a Victorian planting. On the contrary, Smout’s ‘subject’ draws on everything from literary sources on the ‘arts’ side of the quad (as in quadrangle, not bike) to dendrochronology and palynology on the ‘science’ side, but always with the understanding that both are branches of the ‘humanities’. He writes additionally about biodiversity, nature conservation, about the impact of ‘improvers’ on the Scottish environment, and on comparisons – which might seem obvious at first blush, but more subtly inflected the deeper we go – between the natural fuel economies of Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. We may all three be part of a North Atlantic system that is more than usually susceptible to vagaries in global weather patterns and responsive demographic changes, but the differences, which are historical and human as well as geological, are highly instructive and a brisk summary of how Smout’s constellation of methodologies functions.

This is great scholarship, as direct and mobile as the birds and as weighty and grounded as the trees. He doesn’t tax patience or waste paper with obsessively piled-up evidence but delivers salient points backed with representative detail. Above all, it redefines ‘environment’ not as the altar of nature worship, nor merely as the neutral background on which species plod or blossom and throw seeds, nor as something that can only be perceived from aloft, from the bird’s eye view. It is the matrix in which we live and with which we interact. The sense I get from these essays is that land is an inheritance, whether or not we are of the class that inherits land. Smout is not, like Edmund Blunden, ‘for the woods against the world’, but he is anxious to show that the woods, as symbols of a long and complex contract with nature, are always with us, were here before us and will be here after us.



T. C. Smout

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, PP256, £70. ISBN: 978 074 863 5139

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories