Monthly Archives: November 2012


The Other Livingstone

In 1863, Mary Livingstone found herself heading up the Zambezi on board the steamship Pioneer with two other women: Miss Ann Mackenzie, the unmarried sister of Bishop Mackenzie, leader of the frontier mission at Magomero, and Mrs Henry Burrup, the young wife of one of his recruits. Miss Mackenzie had brought her piano and a pet donkey called Kate.

It is a snapshot of Victorians abroad, both unflinchingly confident in the superiority of their culture, and utterly unequipped for the dangers awaiting them. The two women never reached Magomero. By the time they made their journey, both their menfolk are dead, victims of the region’s infamous malarial fevers, and the first Christian mission in central Africa was doomed.

Mary Livingstone, born and raised in Africa, and no stranger to the frontier, was rather better prepared than the other women. She succeeded in a rendezvous with her husband, David, whom she had not seen for four years, and the meeting seemed to be a happy one. Yet, within three months, she too was dead from acute malaria on the banks of the Zambezi. She was 41.

Julie Davidson, who aims to rescue Mary Livingston from the place where history has left her, ‘a whisper in the thunderclap of her husband’s reputation’, begins with her death. Though the unchronological approach will frustrate some, it neatly sets the tone for an idiosyncratic book. Davidson acknowledges early on that there is not enough primary source material for a conventional biography: in stark contrast to her husband, Mary Livingstone left behind no journal and very few letters. Yet she is there, the silent participant on the edge of her husband’s story, and she is worth recovering.

Because she left so little behind, any account of Mary’s life beyond the basic facts and figures must, of necessity, be speculative. Davidson admits this, but she applies careful insight, research and deduction, as well as acknowledging those who have gone before (Janet Wagner Parsons’ book, The Living-stones at Kolobeng, is a key reference point, as are various of the many David Livingstone biographies). Her historical account of Mary Livingstone is interwoven with her own travels in Africa, attempting to follow in her footsteps, beginning with finding her grave.

Davidson is very knowledgable about Africa, historic and contemporary, and is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, but one must at times be patient with her digressions on weaver birds, lion attacks and the King of Swaziland’s 40th birthday party. Her background in travel writing surfaces in occasionally overlong descriptions of bush lodges and their facilities, and entertaining as it is to read about the Swaziland princesses, accessorising their bare-breasted tribal dress with designer sunglasses and handbags, one longs to get back to Mary Livingstone, that silent voice waiting to be heard. However, to her credit, Davidson succeeds in using the present to stimulate the imagination about the past. We see and feel the terrain, much of it inaccessible even today, and begin to imagine what it would mean to travel not by air-conditioned 4×4 with an experienced safari guide, but by oxcart, through uncharted territory.

David Livingstone was inspired to become a missionary to Africa after listening to a lecture by Robert Moffat, a gardener from Ormiston in East Lothian who became a missionary hero, founder of the thriving mission station at Kuruman, the ‘Cathedral of the Kalahari’. The young medical man quickly abandoned his plans to go to China and set his heart instead on Africa. By the time the Moffat family returned to Kuruman, he was there waiting for them. Two years later, he married Moffat’s eldest daughter.

The nature of the Livingstone marriage is one of the central questions in Davidson’s book and, perhaps, like so much that is private, it is ultimately unanswerable. Still, the scant sources which do exist suggest that Mary and David enjoyed one another’s company and were mutually attracted. He described her as ‘my rib’, ‘my heroine’, ‘the best spoke in the wheel’, and at her deathbed was ‘utterly broken down and weeping like a child’. She hated to be parted from him. Davidson goes as far as to suggest that Mary had an ‘emotional dependency’ on her husband which was ‘almost pathological’.

But the Livingstones were also products of their time. In Victorian society, any woman was subject to the choices of her husband, and this was accentuated in missionary life where the man of God would tend to see misfortunes affecting his family as necessary hardships, perhaps even sacrifices made in a greater cause. George Seaver, one of Livingstone’s biographers, wrote that Mary ‘had no choices, just situations.’ Davidson goes further, adding that, as her husband’s religious zeal became subsumed in his ambition to be an explorer, Mary and her children simply became ‘expendable’.

The newly married couple started their life together in an outlying mission station at Mabotsa. Mary produced three children in three years – Livingstone called her pregnancies ‘the great Irish manufactory’ – and they moved house almost as frequently, each time further into the interior. By the time they reached the frontier mission of Kolobeng, in modern day Botswana, there are hints at conflicting desires: Mary’s for a settled home, Livingstone’s to push further on, finding new lands of conquer, new tribes to convert.

This being Victorian mission life, he would get his wish, but initially he needed to find a way of dealing with his wife and children. First, he sent them back to her parents at Kuruman, but she was unhappy and quickly returned. Then he took them with him, on two punishing treks across the Kalahari. Mary was pregnant both times: on the first trek, her daughter, Elizabeth Pyne, was born just days after their return and lived only six weeks. On the second, her fifth child, Oswell, was born in the bush, not before the whole party nearly died of thirst after becoming lost in the desert.

In 1852, Livingstone found a more radical solution: he sent Mary and the children back to live with his parents in Hamilton, thus beginning the most difficult period of her life. It’s not hard to imagine how the climate and society of Scotland could have depressed a woman who had lived most of her life in Africa. In a grey land, feeling abandoned by her husband, this capable woman struggled to cope. She quarrelled with the Livingstone family, squandered money, suffered from a depressive illness and developed a fondness for drink – though Davidson sensibly points out that she may have used brandy the way many women today use wine, simply to take the edge off  life’s hardships. Like so much in Mary’s life for which there is no evidence, we don’t know that she was an alcoholic.

In 1856, Livingstone returned, a hero, having crossed the continent of Africa, and she wrote a poem to welcome him home. While no great poet, she conveys sincere feeling, and begs that they will not again be parted. When he did leave on his next expedition, he resolved that Mary would go with him, though perhaps this had less to do with her happiness than his concern for her spiritual well-being. Mary’s letters written during their long separation (now lost), seemed to suggest that she was questioning her Christian faith.

Davidson points out that Mary would have found Christianity in Britain in a mood of some scepticism, with old certainties being shaken by Darwin’s theories. Even without that, there was enough in her personal experience to encourage her to ask questions. For a passionate Victorian evangelical like Livingstone, this was tantamount to disaster. It concerned the fate of his wife’s immortal soul. Perhaps, also, he was aware of the damage a faithless wife might do to his reputation. In 1859 they sailed for the Cape together, but by the time they landed, Mary was again pregnant, and had to divert to Kuruman where her last child, Anna-Mary, was born. So it was 1863 before she sailed up the Zambezi on the Pioneer to reunion, and her death.

Mary Livingstone is still a silence, a shadow at the heart of her own story, but Davidson’s book gives her a kind of a voice. She seems to speak not only for herself but for so many other women of her time who are similarly lost to us. And she is also interesting for the light she sheds on her husband. At times, the David Livingstone of this book seems remarkably loving, even solicitous. Yet we cannot forget that he dragged his pregnant wife and three young children across the Kalahari because of the diplomatic value she held with the local tribes as Robert Mof-fat’s daughter. Did he also, Davidson asks, destroy her letters to protect his own reputation? Surely, she writes, it is ‘more than carelessness that so many of Mary’s letters written during the various crises of her life have been lost to history.’

In truth, we cannot know, but Davidson’s portrait of Livingstone is not entirely unsympathetic. If he was impulsive, ambitious, selfish, he was also idealistic, and could be kind. He was no hero, but no monster either. And his wife, while strong, steady, courageous, was no angel. Both emerge from this book as complex and contradictory, in other words, real, messy, fallible human beings. In that sense, this book honours both of them.

Julie Davidson

SAINT ANDREW PRESS, £24.99 ISBN: 9780715209646

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The SRB Interview: Orhan Pamuk

When Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy credited him with discovering ‘new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’ That same year a Turkish court dropped charges against him, ending a well-publicised trial that had caused international outrage and cast a shadow over the country’s commitment to freedom of speech. Pamuk’s prosecution came after he gave an interview to a Swiss newspaper in the course of which he said:

‘Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it.’

Pamuk is a writer who does not actively court controversy but neither can he avoid it. Born in Istanbul in 1952, he clings limpet-like to the city, enchanted by its past, present and possibilities. ‘Istanbul’s fate,’ he wrote in Istanbul: Memories of a City, ‘is my fate: I am attached to this city because it made me who I am.’ He grew up in a large, well-to-do, dysfunctional family, in a five-storey apartment block known as Pamuk Apartments, surrounded by his large extended family, and constant noise.

 ‘I wasn’t sure what I was going to be,’ he wrote in Istanbul, ‘but if anyone asked, I said I would stay in Istanbul and study architecture.’

Architecture, however, was usurped by literature, which distressed his mother with whom he often argued while she waited for his father to return home from visiting his mistress. On occasion, Pamuk would himself wander around the city into the early hours of the morning, implanting in his memory its ‘consoling’ streets and discordant sounds and multifarious characters. Once he returned home and wrote, ‘I don’t want to be an artist. I’m going to be a writer.’

It is a vow he has kept, producing a stream of well-received novels which have been translated into more than fifty languages. His first book to be published in English was The White Castle, which was followed by The Black Book and The New Life. In 2003, he won the International IMPAC Award for My Name is Red and in 2004 he published Snow. The Museum of

Innocence appeared in 2010. In it, its hero, Kemal, collects objects which chronicle his obsessive love for Fusun. Always eager to identify with his characters, Pamuk  scoured Istanbul’s flea markets for the same objects out of which he, like Kemal, has created a museum which, he says, has received warm praise from the press and continues to attract a steady stream of tourists.

His latest book in English is Silent House, which was first published in Turkey in 1983. Set in a dilapidated mansion in a former fishing village near Istanbul, it features an elderly widow called Fatma who is attended by her loyal servant, a dwarf called Recep. Never far from the surface, however, is a question that has been long been at the forefront of Pamuk’s mind, namely Turkey’s painful transition from Ottoman past, which ended after six centuries in 1929 with the abolition of the monarchy, to western modernity.

The SRB’s editor, Alan Taylor, met Orhan Pamuk in London at the Bloomsbury office of his publisher, Faber, where they talked about living with relatives, painting and what it’s like to have a bodyguard, after which the interviewee asked his interviewer to pose with him for a photograph which, he said, he could not be guaranteed to forward.

Scottish Review of Books: You were 60 years-old earlier this year…

Orhan Pamuk: It’s a sad subject. I have so many books that I want to write and what worries me is that the time is getting shorter. I have a more relaxed vision of humanity and the world but I am still working a lot and getting older is all about writing the books that I planned for so many years. Also, living is a lot of work…

Would you ever consider taking  a sabbatical?

I have friends who see how much I am working and say, ‘Orhan, you have all the distinctions, all the awards, all the sales, what do you want to achieve, why do you continue?’ My answer – I really don’t know. But if you give me a break of five days what I want to do is the same, write another novel. God gave me this year, it is 365 days. What should I do? Maybe I write a story. Maybe I paint a bit more. Do I just sleep in the bed? No. I think that my creativity, my mind, my tentacles are open to work when there is a self-imposed deadline. I have to catch up with things, I have to do this, I have to prove something. And I still don’t know why I think that.

In an introduction to My Name is Red you wrote that when you were in London once you went into the British Museum, which is just across the road, and you sat in the Reading Room…

I read the books and I write the books. And that’s what happened. With that sense, that  logic, I should be the happiest person in the world.

But the problem is that in order to write the book you shouldn’t be happy all the time. You should have self-imposed criteria or standards for good fiction, identifying with people, jumping into the character or the atmosphere of the book – you sometimes cannot do this. It’s not like jumping into a sea. You simply cannot jump sometimes and that frustrates you, makes you resentful, angry, unhappy. Being a writer is managing these moods in a productive way so that you don’t waste much of your time.

And when one reaches 60 one is more conscious of the need not to waste time.

That’s why I’m impatient about political debates or attacks. It hurts but if it wastes time it is even worse.

Not to mention the amount of time that research and writing a novel consumes. Recently a crime novelist said he couldn’t understand how literary novelists take ten years to write a novel. He reckoned that nine of them must have been spent in a bar.

Okay. It really depends on the novelist.

You cannot accuse anyone for writing fast or slow. There is the story of Stendhal writing The Charterhouse of Parma in 42 days, probably he was lying the other way around, maybe he also went some places to drink, but wrote it, I guess in 100 days. Or Faulkner who said he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working in a power plant.

Fitzgerald said it took him the same time to write The Great Gatsby.

There’s nothing fancy about that. But you cannot write another Great Gatsby in the next six weeks. Shakespeare did it, sometimes Dostoevsky did it when he was in his late forties and early fifties. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, they were writing one masterpiece after another. I like to entertain thoughts about these subjects. In your youth you only desire to write great books, at my age you see the whole humanity. But I would not self-congratulate myself for being sixty!

Do you ever envy poets?


Because in general it takes much less time to write a fourteen-line poem than a 400-page novel.

I like being a novelist, the sense of a marathon, of a long-distance runner, I like that pace. I like that lifestyle, in fact, that it’s combined with other things, watching a movie at night, reading the newspapers late afternoon. But on the other hand  in the morning you have this immense, empty landscape of the novel which you will fill with characters. It’s like inventing a second world that you want to dwell in. I like it. It’s not that I have to publish a book; it’s that I have to write a book that I care about.

How much planning do you do?

Do you, for example, wait like Joseph Heller until you have the first sentence in your head and away you go, like a car going downhill with the handbrake off?

I agree with Joseph Heller about the first sentence. That you cannot plan it. On the other hand I read a lot of biographies. I have a lot of writer friends. Compared with what I’ve seen and experienced I’m relatively a novelist that plans a lot. Let’s imagine a novel is like a huge, old  tree with 10,000 leaves and a big trunk and branches.

All of us should get a sense of the trunk and some branches. I take notes but the human imagination – even Shakespeare’s or Dostoevsky’s – is limited. You cannot pre-plan a whole novel, it comes through the hard work of the execution of the idea. So lots of little branches, even some parts of the trunk and also many many leaves, their brilliance comes as you work intensely that day. There is no pre-planned novel. In fact, it’s a performance you do while following a plan.

So what you’re saying is that you have the general plan in your head or on paper but you can’t plan every detail. That comes spontaneously, as you write.

In the end what matters is, are you sure about the story and can you chapter it. Then you collect the leaves. Of course some leaves also give you some branches and parts of the trunk. I should know what’s going

to happen, because then I like to pick up details that legitimise that second part, the ending.

Some writers have suggested that sometimes characters take on lives they did not foresee while others, such as Muriel Spark, thought this impossible, that she was the only person capable of determining how the character that she had invented acted.

This is Nabokov answering E.M. Forster. Both are partly right. There is the fact that the book also has its own logic which you only discover when you write it. But it’s not the characters’ logic. I have a lot of respect for Forster but I have less respect for his theory of character. It is also a combination of the objects and the demands of the story, that you cannot pre-plan because the mind is limited. It’s like playing chess. You cannot see the consequences when you’re playing but when you begin to execute them – wow! – it’s obvious.

Stylistically, Silent House seems quite different from other of your books, though I’m not sure whether this is conscious or because of the translation. Istanbul seemed to me more Proustian in style while Silent House is more straightforward.

It’s a straightforward inner monologue though I think that is how we behave when we think we’re talking to someone. We don’t have a monologue with ourselves. What we call inner monologue is actually inner dialogue with some imaginary or real person, We don’t say, ‘don’t do this, Orhan’. We say, ‘look, I’m not doing this’, to someone who may not be there but we’re having an imaginary conversation. I think we have imaginary conversations with others in our minds and we call these things thoughts, actually. But they are addressed to someone, they are not addressed to ourselves.

You paint as well as write, which is quite unusual.

Victor Hugo did it! Strindberg did it!

Not always very well! What kind of pictures do you paint?

I have different energies. Japanese, Chinese, landscape painting, I like. I try to do something with that, combining maybe what 1920’s Italians called pittura metafisica, metaphysical painting that later developed Chirico and Dali. I like that kind of stuff. Surrealism. I would say I follow my own humours. I think it was Dr Johnson who said to Boswell, ‘I follow my own humours.’ I am happier when I paint but I engage more deeply with the world when I write. But both desires persist in me. When I am painting I can listen to music or sing a song or even drink. but when I am writing, no singing, no music. I am as playful as a child but much more seriously.

Your upbringing in Istanbul seems to have been a perfect one for a writer but not necessarily for a happy human being.

I feel so. First of all I feel so privileged to have been born into the city when I was born. There was a million people when I was born, now they say there are 15 million. It is one of the top ten big cities in the world. And I am so lucky to have witnessed this one million to 15 million from the inside. I was there! And so, an endless source of stories. I am self-consciously an Istanbul writer and I work and work and work. The change in the city that I have experienced in the first 45 years is less than what has happened in these last 15 years. So it’s also hard to catch up with the immense change and I want to chronicle that too.

Has winning the Nobel Prize made it harder for you to wander around Istanbul incognito?

In the last year people stop me and take photographs all the time. Some five years ago because of right-wing popular mania there was right-wing anti-western attack on me. That’s all levelled down, perhaps years passed, perhaps my museum, perhaps I wrote a love novel [The Museum of Innocence], and now I have a bodyguard but I am more relaxed, people tell me. But also I have the benefits of the bodyguard.

I wander round the city’s dark corners, go to places that are really a bit threatening or into courtyards that are people’s private property. ‘I am so curious, I am a writer, can I have a look?’ That kind of thing. I walk and walk. In fact, the bodyguard I have is also nice because I can go into every corner of the city with him.

Does he read your books?

I don’t want to go into that because he is a private person and whatever I say here will be in Turkish newspapers.

It’s very unusual for a writer to have a bodyguard.

Yes, but I’ve got used to it. At the beginning I was very upset but now the pain’s off.

Did you ever think of leaving Istanbul for good?

In 2005 all my friends were saying, get out, [that] I’d be crazy [to stay]. So I’d go out for a while then come back. I was also thinking of the museum; I’d go out and come back and didn’t tell anyone. Everyone thinks I’m in America, actually I’m in Istanbul managing the museum. So it was hard times but now that pressure is off, there is no question of leaving, or I go to America to teach for a semester, not running away from Turkey.

How would you describe your childhood and upbringing?

I don’t know about England – or Scotland – but the image of the Turk is heavily influenced by the immigrant workers in Europe, especially in Germany, France and some Scandinavian countries, and Belgium perhaps.

These are rural Anatolian people coming from the most dispossessed and poor places. But there is also the middle-class secular Turkey to which my family belonged who are not very different from middle-class, secular Italians of the 1960s and 1970s. I come from a very secular family who believed in Kemal Ataturk’s ideal of western civilisation, though sometimes I am critical of the new generation’s authoritarian attitude. So Scottish readers should know that there are secular, middle-class Turks who in many ways are not different from secular, middle-classes elsewhere. Of course, Turkey was much poorer than European countries. I started writing the stories of these families.

This is perhaps one thing that I should underline. What about the other thing? On the other hand I spent my childhood among the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Let us not forget that Ankara was not the capital of Turkey until 1919; Istanbul was the capital and until recently, until the mid-nineteenth century, all the riches of the Middle East and the Balkans came to Istanbul. When the empire collapsed I was living among the ruins of all this grandiose architecture but it was also sad, because we had Kemal Ataturk asking us to go west and they were not prestigious in our eyes. These old Ottoman ruins.

Because the Ottoman period was associated with failure?

Everything relating to that old Ottoman culture – no one thought it should be in the museums. There was a lot of exterminating of the culture. Anyway, so that was my childhood. I lived in an upper-class family in that poor town of Istanbul which, when I was born, had only a million people, with a sense of ‘nothing is happening here’, ‘no one is interested in us’, and a feeling of being out of history. An amazing feeling when you compare it with today. But the whole change happened in the last two decades; earlier it was always never-changing.

In fact, the mood of Silent House is that everyone is frustrated. They’re going inward and they’re angry and resentful, even of the west and of each other. That positive or self-confident feeling that comes from economic growth or affluence is not around at this time.

What comes across strongly is a sense of decay, reminiscent in many ways Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

I like that novel because it gives you the immediacy of history. The present as history. Also the characters are self-conscious about time.

Maybe Lampedusa gave to his aristocratic characters too much a Marxist vision of time.

Also what Lampedusa’s book has is an overwhelming sense of melancholy, which is a favourite word of yours.

Yes. When I was writing my autobiography, Istanbul, I explored – since I am painterly and like art – what is the dominant feeling when we look inside Istanbul, when we treat it as a painting. What is the feeling that a city generates from us? I asked myself, in order to pin down the identity of a city.

In my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s the feeling that looking at the landscape of Istanbul gave me was melancholy. So you go inward; you better not venture, because most probably you would fail.

Any man of about 35 is a sad man until recently in Turkey. I wanted to address these feelings in the poetry they deserve. Turkish melancholy, hüzün, is also a sort of a communal theory rather than private intellectuals’ demonic sensibility. Not only that, it’s also a communal ethics of not asking too much, not demanding too much, following in the footpaths of your elders, being obedient, also uncritical of the past. New life comes from venturing and asking questions. But you cannot generalise too much. There is the working class Istanbul, there is the poor Istanbul, there is the Istanbul of the 1950s, there is the tourist Istanbul.

As well as Istanbul, houses features often in your work. Pamuk Apartments, the building in which you were brought up, seems a gift to a writer, where there were several storeys and many stories, layer upon layer of storeys and stories. A Tower of Babel.

It’s a story of getting a lot lonelier and lonelier. I come from a big family – aunts and uncles and grandmother and cook, many, many cousins, fighting, eating together, everyone is cracking jokes. Though I liked it, it was also slightly too communal, too jokey, not private, not private space to imagine. Individuals, of course, cracked jokes about the would-be painter, the would-be poet. Also very down-to-earth and that kills some of the poetry

in you. I liked it but for me I sometimes said the best position is you have the sort of family which are in the next room while you write your stories and you can join them when you want. At first we were all living in a big mansion then we moved to apartments in a big apartment building. Then some moved to other places and the fathers and mothers died or separated. Now I’m coming to a lonely end. That house is now my archive. I have a penthouse at the top of that building. I lived there until recently but now I’m not living there any more. That neighbourhood also changed.

Everything changes. And you should not be nostalgic, you should accept it as you accept the world.

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Another Side of Dylan

Bob Dylan is that very rare thing, a completely genuine charlatan. He is defined by a peculiar kind of knowingness. He knows; we know he knows; he knows we know he knows. He always knows a little more than us, and specifically, he knows where he’s going next. The other thing that defines him is movement. He may not have started out as an authentic hobo, like the old bluesmen were supposed to be, like his twitching mentor Woody Guthrie, but he has been one ever since.

I’ve used that opening line before, an attempt to pin down another reclusive Mid-West minstrel, another ‘avant-garde conservative’. I argued that Scott Walker was a late example of the trubar clus, the small group of Occitan troubadours who instead of singing out their loves and loyalties, camouflaged them in obscurities and enigmatic inventions. It works for Walker. It works to a surprising degree for Dylan as well. The phrase, though not the argument, is stolen. It’s something that Isaiah Berlin allegedly said of an approaching colleague, allegedly George Steiner. This works for Dylan, too. The sombre sage of ‘liberty’ meets the extraterritorial quick-change artist. Bob could probably whip up a song out of that. He’s tried, over the years, pretty much every style of modern music, except jazz. There’s an interesting question right there. Why, when he has attempted rock and roll, folk, blues, bluegrass, swingbeat, Appalachian, Southern, South-Western styles, and why when he’s constantly presented as the polymorphously perverse Trickster of Americana, has he never attempted what most critics even now like to claim as the one unambiguously American form. The answer? Too much freedom, maybe. Or too many rules.

The Berlin line is stolen. Dylan also steals. The shorthand version is that his thefts, rather than mere borrowings, are the proof of his ‘genius’. He takes from the old bluesmen, from Woody Guthrie, from the border ballads – ‘Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?’ – from Jacques Prevert and Francois Villon, from Rimbaud. He took a Hank Snow lyric and passed it off as his own poem. Former friends will say he stole stuff from them as well. Most of his thefts inevitably involve some misreading or naïve misunderstanding. It’s thought that distinctive nasal (non-)singing voice, which is as different to the speaking voice as Michael Jackson’s was, or as fellow-Minnesotan Prince’s is, was borrowed from Woody Guthrie when Dylan mistook, as others did, Woody’s Huntington’s croak and quaver for the ‘authentic’ sound of the country blues.   Dylan not only steals, but colonises his surroundings with an almost autistic, or regal, intensity, and in doing so he seems to clinch the charlatanry, that inside the carefully arranged rags and tatters – the emerging Dylan used to spend hours in front of a mirror, making sure he was just raggedy enough – there is nothing real, that the persona of ‘Bob Dylan’ is a shell, that he really is, in the words of a recent film in which he was played by a woman, a black boy, etc, ‘not there’. His own film Renaldo & Clara played around sophomorically with masks and displaced identities, but played around with them so determinedly and for so long the sophomoric element melted into a bleak grandness that proposed at the very end that we will not know Bob Dylan until the masks are off, until right at the end, when he’s laid out flat with just his guitar, singing a song. Or is that another put-on?

‘Bob Dylan’ is the most outsize and enigmatic fictional creation in American culture since Moby-Dick. (That line is also pinched; Al Alvarez said it of Norman Mailer.) He is unreadable and unreachable. He may be in the grip of a psychopathy so profound he really has virtually no sense of self or home – try for a moment to imagine Dylan snapped candidly in a domestic situation: it’s almost impossible – or it may just be that he is the only American, apart possibly from Thomas Pynchon, who has found the answer to the problem of fame. Are drugs an issue? There are moments when the amphetamine gypsy predominates (everyone gets to invent one two-word tag for Dylan, something that might generate a study: Amphetamine Gypsy: The Pharmacology of Bob Dylan) and there are moments when either hallucinogens or narcotics are suspected, but these play a very small – weirdly small – role in the bibliography. His past is a black hole, represented by the vast pit left behind by the ore workings in the Iron Range that provided the only significant labour in Hibbing, Minnesota, but it is also a carefully/lessly inscribed palimpsest of legends, contradictory versions, repeated half-truths and factoids, putatively ‘autobiographical’ poems, or what Robert Lowell called half-poems crutched with a guitar. Lowell may not have met Dylan when he said it, but couldn’t have missed him on the radio or in the paper may have been aware that Dylan had taken a few classes at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman who had briefly been, in the strangely competitive world of American letters, ‘number one’.

The branch-line of Dylan studies (his literary seriousness, pace Lowell, who is both wrong and right with his assessment, was confirmed when he was touted for a Nobel Prize) is very similar to Pynchon studies in the 80s, an oddly airless and paranoid place, in the strict sense of paranoid that means a need for connectedness. I opened Once Upon A Time prepared – or possibly determined – to hate it. Another guidebook to the Never-Ending Tour. What virtue in another ghost-busting episode, another shuffle of the pack, another ID parade of influences and muses, another series of loyalty tests that would reveal nothing more than that the ‘real’ Bob Dylan isn’t vouchsafed to us, either in song or in person? And for a moment I really did dislike it. It seemed easily as long as Renaldo & Clara, and with just a touch of free-associatin’, talkin’-cure, Tarantula prose. But then, ten pages in, Ian Bell wrote down ‘adrenalised contempt’, and I was hooked and on board. The tone is properly sardonic. There’s no whiff of the lecture room, as there was in Aidan Day’s Jokerman, the last Dylan book of Scottish provenance that I can recall. There’s certainly more reference to the Scottish provenance of the songs. And there is more than usual merit in the way Bell hunts down his prey, a smiling, two-legged Captain Ahab.

* * *

On May 17 1966 (the day after Blonde on Blonde was released in the US) a young man called John Cordwell shouted ‘Judas’ at Dylan during a concert in Manchester when Dylan unveiled his ‘new’ electric sound to British audiences. It was significant that it was British audiences that protested against the amplified Dylan, rather than back home where there seems to have been less dogmatic tribalism attached to the new folk movement that Dylan had very largely represented, in the public mind, at least. Not the least reason to suspect the opening pages of Once Upon A Time is that Bell should have fixed on this strange, ambiguous moment for his opening tableau. It’s well-trodden territory. Some will tell you that the protests against Dylan had been orchestrated by the British left and that ‘Judas’ was meant to suggest Bob had forgotten the proletarian origins of his music and ‘sold out’ to commercialism. The consensus view has Cordwell (I don’t think Bell names him, but I may be mistaken) was protesting against Dylan’s use of electric instruments. The late Ian MacDonald and more recently Rob Young have pointed out that Cordwell was a folk singer himself and was objecting not so much to Dylan’s new repertoire as to the loud, snashy noise that accompanied it, an electric stew that in MacDonald’s version broke a long-standing contract between performer and audience. Oddly, Bell has MacDonald’s Beatles study Revolution in the Head in his bibliography but not The People’s Music. He doesn’t mention Young’s essential Electric Eden, either. Nor do any of them make much of the irony of these events taking place in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. The original bootlegs were wrongly provenanced to the Albert Hall, which suggests a more obvious imperial scenario. ‘Free Trade’ is delightfully suggestive. The cultural balance-of-trade between New World and Old is part of the Dylan story. So is cultural protectionism. So are the vectors of corn and cotton, iron and coal. There is a long-standing issue about who ‘owns’ this music. It has been levelled at everyone from Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin to Moby. Dylan simply put his name to and copyrighted what he wanted to make his own. In doing so, he found himself defined by other men’s lives. Owned in turn, if you will.

Though never a confident handler of hecklers Dylan responded to the shout. ‘I don’t believe you … You’re a liar’. Then someone says – and there is a suggestion it was a roadie rather than Dylan himself – ‘Play it fucking loud’, and they’re off into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and a new era in popular music. His spoken words were a strangely lame introduction to the epoch and the performance itself is lacking in production values. The mismatch has always allowed us to speculate what Cordwell (who wasn’t interviewed about this for a long time) might have meant, what ‘Judas’ stood for in the overall narrative of Dylan’s life. Did it have the anti-semitic resonance of ‘Christ killer’? Or did it make reference to Dylan’s having turned away from his own Jewish roots? In the first case, it makes an irony of Dylan’s later, apparently unexpected Christianity, and the two born-again albums Slow Train Coming (wonderful) and Saved (not). In the second, it serves as a reminder that somewhere behind ‘Bob Dylan’ was Rob-ert Allen Zimmerman and somewhere in the psychic hinterland of Robert Zimmer-man was Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, his bar mitzvah name. Perhaps like Norman Mailer, who spent a lifetime trying to get away from the ‘nice Jewish boy from Brook-lyn’ tag, Dylan’s career has been little more than a complicated escape from the internment of cultural inheritance, a ghetto of expectation. Or perhaps he’s more similar to Leonard Cohen, who owns property in Judaism, Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, and has even adopted monastic robes in the last of these. Dylan says he has ‘never felt Jewish’, but then Dylan plays interviewers better than he plays guitar and capable of playing a motorcycle crash (was it ‘near fatal’ or was it ‘minor’? accounts still vary) as a version of death-and-resurrection.

There’s another legend here. He started out playing rock and roll on piano. There was a Gulbransen spinet at home. Then he got an electric guitar. Only then did he unplug and start to play ‘acoustic’. It’s hard to remember now that everyone, the business included, thought rock was dead by 1959. Dylan’s adoption of folk music wasn’t an expression of the Steinbeck/Beat lifestyle to which he laid claim. It was simply where the energies were. Whether he was ‘discovered’ by John Hammond II or created by him is now hard to judge. Bell dwells long on the relationship and the strange artefact that put Bob Dylan (artist and title) on black vinyl and square packaging for the first time. It’s pretty clear, as Bell says, that ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ wouldn’t have been a hit, and certainly not a world-striding, universally adopted hit, at almost any other time in American history. It is a slight song, but it is in its way no slighter than the much darker song ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ that bookended the second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. They are claimed to be the words of a man facing the apocalypse. They are unmistakably lines lifted pretty much at random from a notebook, applied to a borrowed tune, as most of them were, and then assigned massive, disproportionate cultural value some way after the fact.

The other key to Dylan is longevity. He has been with us for most of our lives. Every generalisation and contradiction now moves backward and forward in time. We’re at the stage of post-post-post-revisionism. We might just as easily be dealing with four or five artists, instead of one. There’s nothing unusual in this. Paul McCartney made avantgarde music as ‘Percy Thrillington’. Prince went out pitch-shifted as ‘Camille’. But with Dylan, the imposture is the reality. Which makes a task like Bell’s impossible by definition. There are quibbles, or perhaps one big quibble that embraces them all. If Dylan set out in emulation of the Industrial Workers of the World, Once Upon A Time has all the marks of World Wide Web. The internet became the perfect vehicle for Dylan studies, with deep analysis of every line, every named location, every putative source. It is also a place that offers rapid and random assemblages of cultural data and from them any number of false teleologies. If ‘context’ is everything, most context is by definition retrospective. Bell’s too subtle a writer and too fastidious a researcher to rely even on those internet sites he warmly acknowledges in his text, but I would have trusted him to write a much shorter book on Bob Dylan and deliver just as much of the brilliance, pain, snarling joy, ‘adrenalised contempt’, old rags and emperor’s new clothes. Even as it bulkily stands, it’s the best reworking you’ll ever find of the cliché that Dylan is not one but legion, and that he comes perilously close, as we must have to say at the bottom of our allotted length, to being not a ‘latter-day Rimbaud’ or ditto Keats, but definitely and definitively a genius.


Ian Bell

MAINSTREAM, £20, ISBN: 97817805757735

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For the Good Times

At the beginning of the 1960s I was a 15-year-old schoolboy in the middle of studies at a selective all boys Catholic ‘senior secondary’ in Motherwell. It drew pupils from all parts of Lanarkshire: Shotts and Harthill to the south and Bail-lieston, on the outskirts of Glasgow, to the north. In the playground could be heard a cacophony of local accents, all of them Scots but also recognisably different. We were regarded as the intellectual crème de la crème of Catholic Lanarkshire, a tiny elite who had secured the right to six years of secondary education by passing the Eleven Plus examination; and then for an even smaller group, perhaps the glittering prize of a university place. The exam was the dreaded mechanism designed to deliver what the educationist, H.M. Paterson, called ‘the sieving of the working class’ through the selection of an absurdly small number of pupils deemed capable of academic study. At my own primary it had done its work with brutal efficiency. From the two final year classes three boys but not one girl emerged with a pass which alone secured entry into the senior secondaries, the schools which provided courses leading to the Highers. The vast majority of my contemporaries were consigned to the ‘junior secondaries’ and so denied any possibility of gaining entry to university. The abolition of the examination in 1965 was lamented by few while for the many the coming of the comprehensive schools represented a new dawn of educational opportunity which in the longer run transformed access to higher education.

By the end of the decade I was a graduate, had married and secured my first permanent job as an Assistant Lecturer in History at Strathclyde University (but only after a series of fondly remembered vacation employments which included grave-digging, working as a Bluecoat at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Filey, and uncertificated teaching of French in a number of Lanarkshire schools). In a sense, then, it was the 1960s which to a great extent made me what I am today.

As a professional historian I am only too well aware of the tricks that memory, recollection and nostalgia can play as we look back on our own pasts. Yet for me, and I suspect for most of that student generation in Scotland, the 1960s were a good time. The capacity of the universities doubled, fees were never on the agenda and there was even generous living support on offer, advantages unimaginable to the students of today. Most of my final Honours year received not one but several job offers on graduation. Today, doctoral students will normally have to aim for several years of postdoctoral experience and a number of publications before even being given consideration for interview for a university lectureship. I was hired by Strathclyde less than a year after my first degree and a mere few months into my doctoral research. I recall going home to give the good news to my parents after the appointment was offered me and adding that with a job I did not now have to finish the PhD – what innocence!

The new youth culture was everywhere with rock music providing its melodic syncopation: the Beatles, Stones and an army of other bands, and my own favourites, the peerless Shadows, whose haunting Fender Stratocaster – based instrumentals still encapsulate that time for many who lived through it. As one pop idol of later years put it: ‘ It was the cleanest sound I had ever heard, like it had been dipped in Dettol’. A whole generation of tyro guitarists was inspired; in the pithy words of George Harri-son: ‘No Shadows, no Beatles.’ We grew up in a world which had recently and finally cast off the postwar austerities of rationing and shortage and were also the first new generation to gain from the reforms of the 1940s’ Welfare State in health, education and social security. At least in the early 1960s, there was virtually full employment, rising wage levels and a seemingly irresistible flow of new consumer goods, from televisions to record players, washing machines to spin dryers. Lifestyles changed. The sexual revolution, availability of the contraceptive pill and the new affluence of teenagers and young adults, with more money to spend than their parents or grandparents could ever have dreamed of, became the motors of social transformation.

Meanwhile some of the most venerable institutions of the country were starting to lose much of their ancient grip on society. During the ‘Swinging Sixties’ many young people lost contact with religion altogether. The numbers attending Sunday Schools plummeted and there was also a significant decline in religiously solemnised marriages. Looking back, the decade can be seen a key watershed in the coming of a more secular Scotland. The most powerful and influential institution of the nation since the sixteenth century, the established Church of Scotland, was now in inexorable retreat.

The nation’s age-old hostility to the largest immigrant group of modern times, Irish Catholics, their children and grandchildren, was also beginning to ebb, albeit slowly and sporadically. A transformation in tribal attitudes could not be expected to occur overnight. Only a decade or so earlier, in 1952, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the country’s most prestigious forum and its so-called surrogate Parliament, had described Scottish Catholics of Irish origin as an ‘alien race’, a phrase which recalled the worst sectarian invective of the 1920s and 1930s. However, a key milestone on the long road to tribal reconciliation was Celtic’s famous victory in the 1967 European Cup Final in Lisbon. The club was the sporting champion of the Catholic minority but many other Scots rejoiced at its triumph which was widely seen as a national success story and not simply one to be celebrated only by a religious and ethnic minority. Much was made of the fact that the members of the winning team had all been born in Scotland and were brought up within a few miles radius of Celtic Park in the city of Glasgow and its hinterland. It helped too that Jock Stein, the legendary manager who led the club to the ultimate prize in European football, was a Protestant, as were seven members of his victorious team. Yet change in this fraught area, where old prejudices

and collective fear of ‘the other’ still flourished, was glacially slow. Not for another twenty years or so did Glasgow Rangers, one of Scotland’s most powerful institutions and the best-supported team in the land, finally end its long opposition to signing a player of the Roman Catholic faith.

Politics also seemed for a time to become new and more exciting. Winnie Ewing’s unprecedented victory in 1967 for the SNP in the rock solid Labour constituency of Ham-ilton briefly frightened the dominant parties out of their complacency As the veteran nationalist, Oliver Brown, memorably put it in the aftermath of Hamilton ‘a shiver ran along the Labour backbenches looking for a spine to run up’. Yet nationalism could hardly be described as confident or aspirational at that time. Nineteen sixty-seven was also the year that the Corries composed ‘Flower of Scotland’, a musical dirge of ancient wrongs done to the Scots which became instantly popular and survives to this day as the national song of choice for most people. The victim-history books of John Prebble, recounting an unrelenting series of Scottish tragedies from Darien to Culloden and the Clearances, became the source of a new narrative. The nation’s role since the eighteenth century as a remarkably successful imperial and global power could no longer be accommodated within that transformed national story. Collective amnesia was triggered. It did not help that the writing of the modern academic history of the country was in early infancy in the universities and the teaching of the Scottish past in schools was notoriously marginalised, patchy, dull and often deadly. Myth easily triumphed over reality.

Such cerebral matters, however, were less important to most Scots than their experience of the material improvement triggered by the enormous increase in the building of new homes by local councils in the 1950s and 1960s. The experience of my own family was probably typical. From 1945, when I was born, until 1950, I lived in a tenement in Motherwell, sharing a kitchen, living room (with box beds) and a bedroom with my father and mother, an elderly grandfather, bachelor uncle and, latterly, my infant brother. There was no bath and the toilet on the stairs was shared with our neighbours. Even by the standards of the time this was gross overcrowding. Yet, I cannot remember it being other than a warm and happy experience, mainly devoid of hardship or anxiety of any kind. It helped, of course, that both my father and uncle were schoolteachers with secure employment and steady incomes. Nonetheless, it was indeed a fresh beginning when we moved to a council house on the rural fringes of the town with three bedrooms, inside toilet and bath, and a garden at front and back. Like countless other families in Scotland, a country with some of the poorest housing standards in Europe, the experience was almost akin to a religious revelation. I can still sense the smell of the place after my mother had thoroughly scrubbed the floors clean after the builders had moved out as she prepared for the move to the new home.

I am, of course, now much more aware from my studies of the period in later years that my personal experience cannot necessarily be regarded as historically authentic in any generalized sense. In reality the 1960s were much more complex that I could have imagined at the time. Across the skies, the economic clouds were already darkening in the later years of the decade, with the growing and corrosive impact of international competition on the nation’s famous industries of shipbuilding, engineering, coal and steelmaking, jute and textile manufacture. Increasingly, they seemed to become like industrial dinosaurs rather than the manufacturing powerhouses which had once reached out to markets across the globe. The nation’s economic influence on the world was contracting. With hindsight it is possible to argue that the seeds of the later trauma of the bitter years of deindustrialisation in the 1980s were then being sown.

Again, few of my generation ever reflected on the huge scale of emigration from all regions of the country during the 1960s and what that haemorrhage might signify about the weakening condition of Scotland then and for the future. After all, joining the Scottish diaspora across the globe seemed normal; it had been that way for centuries. Perhaps above all, we who enjoyed the new freedoms and stimulus of student life, rarely thought about the uncomfortable fact that we remained a small, privileged group, relishing an experience well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Scots of our generation. Despite the national myths of egalitarianism and community harmony, Scotland in the 1960s remained a country scarred by entrenched problems of deep social division and profound levels of inequality inherited from the past. That at least would endure.

* * *

It was in 1957 that Harold Macmillan famously remarked, ‘Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good.’ His comment had particular relevance to Scotland which had endured a good deal of pain for much of the inter-war period. Unemployment, the curse of the 1930s, fell to historically low levels. Between 1947 and 1961, Scottish unemployment was remarkably stable and only varied between 2.4 per cent and 3 per cent of an insured labour force which had actually increased significantly by over 690,000 between 1945 and 1960. There were now jobs for virtually everyone who wanted to work. Full employment also brought rising incomes. The income of the average working-class household in 1953 was reckoned to be 2.5–3 times greater than in 1938. For a time, even the gap in average wage levels between England and Scotland narrowed. The nation’s health improved, not simply because of the new prosperity but also as a result of legislative changes and scientific advances. The National Health Service from 1948 extended free treatment to all, while by the Education (Scotland) Acts of 1945 and 1947 local authorities could insist on the medical inspection of pupils and provide free treatment. Antibiotics were introduced for the first time on a large scale in the mid-1940s and soon wiped out tuberculosis, the killer disease of young adults in the past. By the early 1960s, Scotland’s infant mortality rate was the same as that of the USA and close to the figures for England and Wales.

Rising living standards in the 1950s and 1960s were shown by the steady increase in the range of new appliances, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and electric cookers, which made homes easier to run. Leisure patterns were transformed by the television and, for a long time after its introduction, cinema audience figures tumbled. The number of TV sets grew from 41,000 in 1952 to well over one million 10 years later, an explosion that was fuelled partly by the huge demand for televisions at the time of the Coronation in 1953.

Full employment also had important effects on the impact of women in society. The 1961 census showed a marked increase in the proportion of married women in the labour force in relation to 1931 and by that decade the majority of female workers were married, a revolutionary transformation of the patterns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The trend towards smaller families, earlier marriage and the concentration of child-bearing in the first years of wedlock created new opportunities for many women to go out to work. As the new domestic technology became more widely available it was also easier for married women to combine domestic responsibilities with part-time work. There were more light engineering jobs, especially in the industrial estates and the expansion of the state bureaucracies, both at local and national level, after 1945 established many new openings for female and secretarial staff. Women were still paid less than men, though in teaching something of a breakthrough was achieved in the 1950s with the award of equal salaries for both sexes.

The better times helped to attract a new stream of immigrants. High levels of employment made it difficult to fill menial or unpleasant jobs and Irish immigration had dried up. Instead, Asian workers started to move into occupations such as driving and conducting in the transport departments of the cities and unskilled and semi-skilled work in bakeries, the building industry and the jute mills. Many of them were recruited from the industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire and by the 1960s there were already 4,000 Asians in Scotland. In the same period, Indian and Pakistani bus drivers and conductors made up more than half the labour force in the Glasgow Corporation Transport Department. One intriguing consequence was that when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965 the city fell into chaos. The public transport system came to a virtual standstill when all the Asian workers took time off to follow the momentous events on television and radio. By 1970 the Asian community had grown to 16,000 and now included Chinese migrants from Hong Kong. The reaction of the Scots was not always friendly. When Asian grocery shops started to appear, they were sometimes subjected to undisguised prejudice. Their eventual route to survival and prosperity lay in staying open late, often until midnight, and cutting prices. In time, however, the Pakistani corner shop became as much an accepted part of the Scottish retail scene as the Italian ice-cream parlour established many decades before. Racial tensions north of the border never reached the acute levels of some English cities, though this may have been mainly due to the relatively small number of coloured immigrants to Scotland at the time.

Ironically, at the same time as the Asian community was experiencing suspicion and some hostility, the barriers were starting to come down for the descendants of Irish Catholic migrants. The crucial changes came in the labour market. Until the 1950s and 1960s, Catholics were markedly under-represented in skilled trades and professional occupations. In some of the shipyards and engineering shops, the power of foremen with Orange and Masonic loyalties to hire and fire made it difficult for many Catholics to start apprenticeships. From the 1960s, however, institutionalized discrimination started to disintegrate. Now there was an acute shortage of skilled labour and religious affiliation seemed less important than the ability to do the job. Furthermore, the new foreign-owned firms which moved in were dismissive of old Scottish prejudices, while nationalization and the mushrooming growth of the public sector created many new avenues for upward social mobility for university-educated Catholics outside the historic citadels of discrimination in the heavy industries. Public employment tended to strengthen the loyalty of both working- and middle-class Catholics to Labour, which was seen as the main progenitor after the war of the vast expansion in state employment and public services and the political engine of increased social justice.

By far the most pressing postwar social problem was housing. The sheer enormity of overcrowding and squalor in parts of the nation’s cities and towns had been starkly revealed in several pre-war surveys. The restriction in house building during the war and bomb damage in Clydeside had simply made the problem more acute. By 1945 planning for the future was well under way. As early as 1940, the Barlow Report advocated the dispersal of people from the cities to relieve congestion through the planning and control of public agencies. The need for such a strategy was underscored by a report prepared by Glasgow’s Town Clerk revealing that 700,000 people were living in a space of 1,800 acres in the centre of the city. This meant that a remarkable one-third of the entire population of west central Scotland was squeezed into a space of three square miles in the heart of the region’s biggest city. The Clyde Valley Plan, prepared by Sir Pat-rick Abercrombie and a team of planners, sought to repair some of the social damage inflicted by nearly two centuries of rampant industrial capitalism by arguing that Glasgow’s population should be rehoused outside the city boundaries through overspill policies and the creation of new towns.

What transpired over the next two decades was nothing less than a housing revolution. Homes were built at a staggering pace, over 564,000 in the 20 years after 1945, an increase of around two-thirds on those constructed between the wars. The most striking feature was the overwhelming predominance of council houses. Some 86 per cent of those built between 1945 and 1965 were in the public sector. In cities such as Glasgow and in towns like Airdrie, Coat-bridge and Motherwell, the proportion was even higher. This was much greater than anywhere else in the UK, so much so that Scotland by the 1970s had probably the largest share of public housing of any advanced economy outside the communist bloc. The state underpinned this through a system of subsidies and rental controls, while private building was limited in the immediate postwar years because of materials shortage and elaborate licensing procedure. In the final analysis, therefore, the numerous Scottish tenants who benefited from the vast building programmes of the 1940s and 1950s were shielded from the economic realities and costs of housing. This, in turn, had considerable implications for the patterns of political behaviour of large sections of the Scottish population.

House building on this massive scale changed the face of many Scottish towns. The provision of decent homes was seen by councillors and planners alike almost as a religious crusade against the slums and all they represented in terms of poverty, squalor, disease and social injustice. In removing bad housing, local authorities believed they were also ushering in a new and better life for the people in general. Demolition became an unquestioned orthodoxy. Pat Rogan, the Edinburgh chairman of housing from 1962, recalled: ‘It was a magnificent thing to watch, as I did many times, whole streets of slum tenements being demolished, just vanishing into dust and rubble.’

It has become fashionable to criticize the massive post-war expansion in Scottish public housing for its monotonous buildings, poor construction, absence of amenity, pubs and entertainment in the large schemes around the cities, inadequate transport and the break-up of old communities. Evidence can certainly be found in abundance to support these claims. Billy Connolly’s description of the big estates as ‘deserts wae windaes’ rings true for many observers. But two points should also be borne in mind. First, the truly appalling scale of the housing crisis which had to be confronted, especially in Glasgow and some of the western industrial towns, made local authorities go for rapid construction of dwellings almost to the exclusion of all else. One housing official in Glasgow recalled, ‘I can remember an endless stream of older women coming to me in 1957-9, all with the same question: “When’s ma hoose comin’ down?” They just couldn’t get out of the old condemned houses fast enough.’ As late as 1960, Glasgow still had a housing waiting list of 100,000 families. Figures like these concentrated the minds of the politicians. Second, and not to be forgotten, for the first time large numbers of Scots had a decent home equipped to modern standards with an interior toilet, more living space and, for many, a garden.

* * *

But all was not as well as it seemed and by the mid-1960s the good times were threatened. A number of worrying signs started to emerge. Between 1950 and 1965, over half a million people left Scotland, roughly divided between those who moved overseas and those who settled in England. The persistence of the exodus to the south was confirmation that wages were still higher and unemployment lower there than in Scotland. In other ways Scotland was also lagging behind. Between the 1950s and mid-1960s Scottish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by 59 per cent, but British GDP outstripped that to increase by 70 per cent. It was now recognized by the early 1960s that the UK was growing at a significantly slower rate than some other European countries, but plainly Scotland was doing even less well.

Gradually it became apparent to the politicians and the planners that the nation was living, in the historian William Ferguson’s words, in ‘a fool’s paradise’. The economic boom was now seen to depend on the temporary conditions of post-war replacement demand and the virtual absence of international competition while the ravaged economies of Europe and the Far East took time to recover from the devastation of global conflict. There had still been precious little industrial diversification in Scotland.

However, the most serious concerns were voiced about the condition of the industrial staples. Coal in particular faced a bleak future. The once rich Lanarkshire field was virtually worked out, while many consumers were moving to electricity, oil and gas. The conversion of locomotives from coal-burning to diesel engines and steel furnaces to oil-burning cut deeply into much of the traditional market for coal. Steel was better placed. In 1957 Scotland’s first integrated iron and steel works, built at a cost of £22.5 million, was brought into production at Ravenscraig near Motherwell. Yet, by the 1960s Europe had recovered from the war, much more steel was being produced and, with a world surplus building up, price-cutting became a common strategy. Despite the Ravenscraig investment, the Scottish steel industry remained vulnerable because of its inland location and consequent high costs for ore and delivery of finished products. Again, even before the late 1950s, shipbuilding was losing much of its world ascendancy. In 1947, Clyde yards launched 18 per cent of world tonnage but this had already slumped to 4.5 per cent in 1958. Scottish shipbuilding, once a world-class industry, was in a sorry state and its many grievous problems had simply been concealed by the post-war replacement boom. Certainly German, Dutch and Swedish and Japanese yards had the benefit of more lavish state support, but it was still the case that many of the wounds of Scottish shipbuilders were self-inflicted. While their rivals adopted streamlined assembly-line techniques, invested extensively in mechanization and designed well-planned yards, the Scots stood still, apart from the replacement of riveting by welding and improvements in prefabrication. They were losing their competitive edge. By the early 1960s, German yards could frequently deliver ships in half the time quoted by Clyde builders. Indecisive management and workers caught up in numerous demarcation disputes bore a collective responsibility for this state of affairs. It was by no means inevitable but before too long it brought a once mighty industry to the brink of total collapse.

The emerging difficulties of the Scottish economy had immediate political repercussions. In the 1959 general election, Scotland voted against the UK trend and Labour emerged as the biggest single party in the country, with 38 seats to the Unionists’ 32. There was also more activity in the smaller parties. Liberalism had been little more relevant than Nationalism throughout the 1950s. But after 1957, under Jo Grimond’s energetic leadership, the party started to have much more public impact. On the face of it the SNP remained moribund, contesting only five seats in the 1959 general election, but the organizational foundations were now being laid for the party’s achievements in the later 1960s. Arthur Donaldson, leader of the SNP from 1960 to 1969, admitted at the time that all the party’s activists could have been carried in a small passenger plane which, if it crashed without survivors, would have destroyed the cause of Scottish independence for a generation. By the early 1960s, however, under the organizational direction of Ian Macdonald, local SNP branches were spread across the land. Before 1962 there were fewer than 20; by 1965 the number had risen to 140. The party first showed its electoral teeth at the West Lothian by-election in 1962. It was won by Tam Dalyell, the Labour candidate, but William Wolfe, later leader of the SNP, pushed the Unionists into third place, in the process attracting nearly 10,000 votes in a rock-solid Labour constituency. What was interesting was the changing composition of the activist group which supported Wolfe’s campaign. They were now mainly drawn from the skilled working class and lower-middle class and differed radically from the SNP old guard of professionals, writers, academic and upper-class lawyers: ‘these were more sober types, less interested in poetry than in digging out figures on the Scottish economy’.

That economy was once again at the centre of the political battleground and as fears mounted that Scotland might slip back to the dark days of the 1930s the Conservative government, under two successive Scottish Secretaries, John S. Maclay and Michael Noble, embarked on an ambitious programme of planning and intervention. The inspiration came partly from the 1961 Toothill Report, called after its chairman, Sir John Toothill of Ferranti Ltd. He identified the major structural weakness of the Scottish economy as the over-reliance on traditional industry, the inability to adapt to new world markets, and the failure of the new science-based manufactures to become established on any significant scale. In some ways the emphasis was unfortunate, since the Report tended to equate good with new and bad with old. Some diversification was clearly imperative but the ‘old’ industries, apart from coal, still had considerable potential if they had attracted government investment to the same extent as their overseas competitors and had attracted more imaginative and dynamic management strategies. In the event, the Tories did try to preserve traditional industry while at the same time generating new growth areas through the Scottish Development Department (established in 1962) and a Central Scotland Plan. Their strategy was designed as much to shore up their weakening political position as to halt Scottish economic decline.

Prodigious sums were poured into prestige projects. A loan of £50 million was virtually forced upon Colvilles Ltd in 1958 to encourage the firm to construct a state-of-the-art strip mill at Ravenscraig, and this despite the commercial judgement of the directors that the market in Scotland was not great enough to warrant such a vast investment. From the start the whole viability of Colvilles as a global steel-making enterprise was threatened by the burdens imposed by this major development. Then, in May 1963, the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Rootes car plant in Linwood, the first built in Scotland for over 30 years, amid a blaze of publicity. It cost another £23.5 million and was designed to reach a staggering output of 150,000 cars a year when in full production. Finally, in December 1964 the British Motor Corporation set up a massive truck plant at Bathgate. Yet whatever the economic future of these projects, they manifestly failed to repair Tory fortunes. In the same year as Bathgate started production, Labour won a narrow victory in the general election on Harold Wilson’s campaign slogan of ‘13 wasted years’ of Conservative rule. Scotland made a decisive contribution to this triumph by returning no fewer than 43 Labour MPs. Labour scraped home nationally with a majority of six. Wilson’s narrow victory depended in large part on the Scottish electorate who had turned against the Tories despite their extraordinary spending spree on great projects and industrial investment.

* * *

In 1967, Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election with 46 per cent of the vote. Her success put the SNP on the British political map and attracted huge press and television interest. It also sent shock waves through the other political parties. Hamilton was no freak result. At the local elections in May 1968, the SNP had won a remarkable 34 per cent of the votes cast, had performed strongly in the Labour fiefdom of Glasgow, which was afterwards ruled by an SNP-Conservative coalition, and made 101 net gains against overall Labour losses of 84. The Labour Party was now dependent on support from Wales and Scotland to counter the effect of the strong Conservative vote in England.

The Conservatives, already anxious about their declining popularity in Scotland, were the first to respond positively to the perceived nationalist menace. The Labour politician, Richard Crossman, noted in his diaries the comment of the Tory leader, Ted Heath, that nationalism was the ‘biggest single factor in our politics today’. As the party in opposition, the Conservatives may also have exploited the constitutional issue to put further pressure on the Labour government. This was the background to Heath’s remarkable Declaration of Perth in 1968 when, to the horror of many in his audience at the Scottish party conference, he committed the Conservatives to a devolved Scottish Assembly, thus reversing at a stroke a century of consistent Tory opposition to Home Rule.

After 1967 and 1968 Scottish politics would never be the same again. However, at first the SNP achievements did seem a mere flash in the pan. In the General Election of 1970, while the Nationalists doubled their vote, they also lost Hamilton and won only one seat, the Western Isles. The gains at local authority elections were quickly reversed as it soon became clear that many of the new SNP councillors were both inexperienced and ineffective. A vote for the SNP came to be regarded as an act of protest, a manifestation of Scottish discontent about government policy rather than any commitment to Scottish independence. All the opinion polls confirmed that only a small minority of those who actually supported the party in elections wished to see Scotland separated from the United Kingdom. Har-old Wilson’s policy of prevarication towards nationalism seemed to be amply justified by the course of events. He had appointed Lord Crowther to head a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969 but was in little doubt that this body would take a lot of time before producing a report and recommendations. The Prime Minister had once famously declared that Royal Commissions spent years taking minutes. The SNP performance in the 1970 general election, though its best to date, gaining 11 per cent of the vote but only one seat, confirmed the Labour government›s view that delaying tactics on the Scottish constitutional issue were by far the most effective approach to an irritating problem.

However, the nationalist challenge had not run out of steam. Early indications that the SNP were once again on the move came in March 1973, when it polled 30 per cent of the vote in Dundee East, and again in November of that year, when the charismatic ‘blonde bombshell and darling of the media’, Margo MacDonald, won the rock-solid Labour seat of Glasgow Govan. In the first General Election of 1974, the SNP broke through as a real parliamentary force in Scotland, gaining seven seats and 22 per cent of the vote. Within a week, the incoming Labour government had embraced devolution as a real commitment despite having fought the election on a platform opposed to it. Even diehard opponents of Home Rule such as the formidable Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, the ‘Hammer of the Nats’, were forced to eat their words. In the second election of 1974 in October the SNP did even better by pushing the Tories into third place in Scotland and achieving 30 per cent of the vote. The party still had only 11 seats, but more alarming from Labour’s point of view was the fact that the SNP had come second in no fewer than 42 constituencies. As Michael Foot confided to Winnie Ewing: ‘It is not the eleven of you that terrify me so much, Winnie, it is the 42 seconds.’ Within three months Labour published a White Paper, Devolution in the UK – Some Alternatives for Discussion, which set out five options for change. Even though many in the Labour Party in Scotland were opposed to this appeasement of the hated nationalists the Cabinet was determined to press for some form of change, not in order to improve the UK constitution, but to end the threat of separatism.

* * *

In the final analysis, the rise of the SNP and the new significance of the Scottish question in national politics by the end of the 1960s was based not so much on the party’s intrinsic attractions as the broader historical context of the times. Few Scots, even at the height of the party’s electoral popularity in 1974, wished to break the Union. Rather they sought to improve it to Scottish advantage. Opinion polls revealed that, while a third of Scots had voted for the SNP in that year, only 12 per cent supported independence. The SNP’s success alarmed governments and was seen by many as an effective way of drawing attention to Scotland’s problems.

At the same time, however, deeper changes were under way which were to the party’s advantage. ‘Britishness’ may have had less appeal than before. A key linchpin of the Union, the British Empire, was disintegrating at remarkable speed. India had gained independence in 1947 and a decade later the African possessions, starting with Ghana, were fast winning freedom from British rule. Other former colonies followed in quick succession. Britain was coming to be seen as a nation of declining influence on the world stage, winning the war but losing the peace.

Successive governments maintained great power pretensions but the façade could not disguise the real erosion of Britain’s standing. The Suez Crisis in 1956 conclusively demonstrated the international dominance of the USA, with Britain tagging along as a mere junior partner in the ‘special relationship’. In 1963 the British government of Harold Macmillan was humiliated when its application for membership of the Common Market was summarily rejected at the insistence of the French President, Charles de Gaulle, who dismissed the idea by claiming that the United Kingdom was unfit for full membership. Not until a decade later did the UK finally join the European project. A year later, John Mackintosh argued that whatever the other political parties offered to stem the SNP advance would not be enough ‘so long as there is no proper pride in being British’.

Ironically, it was the attempt to maintain Britain’s status as a world military power that helped to alienate some of the new generation of Scots. In November 1960 Prime Minister Macmillan announced that the country’s main nuclear deterrent, the Polaris submarine, would be based in the Holy Loch in Scotland, a decision confirmed in 1964 by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. These decisions boosted the membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Scotland. Opposition north of the border had a particular force because of the realization that the Scots would be in the front line in the event of nuclear war. This galvanized hostility across the political spectrum of the left. But the SNP was the only party to voice outright opposition to nuclear weapons in the 1960s, especially after Hugh Gaitskell succeeded in reversing the policy of unilateralism espoused by Labour in 1960. Some leading figures in the SNP of future years, such as William Wolfe, Isabel Lindsay and Margo MacDonald, had been members of CND. It was partly because of the success of the familiar CND symbol of the time that the SNP adopted what soon became its own equally recognizable image, the thistle-loop.

More fundamental – at least in the short term – than the issue of Britishness was the impact of economic change. Harold Wilson’s government had taken office in 1964 with the promise of bringing the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to bear on Britain’s growing problems. Planning was now to be the panacea for both economic decline and regional disadvantage. Willie Ross was the man responsible for ensuring that Scotland gained at least its fair share of the resources to be dispensed through this strategy. Ross was in office from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. He was the dominant Scottish politician of the day, an Elder of the Kirk, and a former army major and schoolmaster, who was a formidable champion of Scotland’s cause in Cabinet. A ferocious opponent of the SNP, who was fond of referring to it as the Scottish Narks Party, he was yet utterly determined to fight Scotland’s corner against all comers.

Under Ross, Labour in Scotland did deliver at first. Public expenditure rose spectacularly by 900 per cent to £192.3 million between 1964 and 1973 as the Secretary of State successfully extracted as large a share as possible from the public purse for Scot-land. Identifiable public spending per head north of the border moved to one-fifth above the British average. All of Scotland except Edinburgh was designated as one large development area with over £600 million of aid dispensed through a new Scottish Office Department.

The achievements were by no means confined to infrastructure and industry. Following the publication of the Robbins Report in 1963, the number of universities doubled to eight. Technical colleges also boomed. In the 1960s, comprehensive schooling was introduced into Scotland and, despite some growing pains, came to be much more positively accepted than south of the Border.

The social and economic impact of all this activity can hardly be doubted. Scotland was gaining from the Union as public revenues were relentlessly channelled north in the form of massive regional assistance and other benefits. Labour was duly rewarded with a general election victory for Wilson’s government in 1966 in which the Conservatives lost three of their 24 seats in Scotland. This, however, was the lull before the storm. Planning and lavish state expenditure had created expectations which could not always be fulfilled. The vast Labour spending on the National Plan made it difficult to balance the budget. This in turn led to wage restrictions and increases in duties on foreign imports. A dockers’ strike in 1966 compounded the problems and pushed sterling down further. The government was soon forced to devalue but Harold Wilson’s boast that ‘the pound in your pocket’ was still secure did not convince a sceptical electorate.

This was the political background to the SNP’s advances at the by-election in Pol-lok and the victory at Hamilton in 1967. Planning had now degenerated into crisis management and the state no longer could guarantee the employment levels and the material standards to which the Scots had become accustomed since 1950. This triggered support for the SNP in the short term, though much of it soon melted away. Articulate opponents, such as the eloquent and energetic Jim Sillars, then a prominent Unionist member of the Labour Party, were able to launch a devastating attack on the SNP’s absence of any coherent ideological position on social and economic issues. At the same time, the inept performance of many SNP councillors, some of whom resigned soon after their election, conveyed to the public the image of a party which had come much too far too fast. In the 1970 South Ayrshire by-election, Labour, with Sillars as its candidate, overwhelmed the SNP and effectively derailed their bandwagon. At the General Election later that same year, the Tories triumphed under Ted Heath. But it was unlikely that the constitutional relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK would disappear as an issue. Heath’s new Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell, was the first since 1945 to belong to a government that did not possess a majority of votes or seats in Scotland. Before long, this and other factors were to cause trouble for the new incumbents.

A basic cause of the growing prominence of the new instability in Scottish politics in the 1960s and early 1970s was the decline of the Tory Party as the most effective challenge to the hegemony of Labour in Scotland. The Conservatives had stood above all for Unionism. Indeed, it was only in 1964 that the Scottish party dropped the ‘Unionist’ label in favour of the more anglicized ‘Conservative’ one. For decades it had been a powerful vehicle north of the border for the expression of British patriotism. Now the decay of the party gave Nationalism its chance. The vote against Labour, which earlier might have gone overwhelmingly to the Unionists, now sometimes went to the SNP. The Liberals, despite their successes in rural Scotland, proved to be less significant than in England where in the two 1974 elections, when the SNP was at its peak, they took over 20 per cent of the vote compared to around 8 per cent north of the border. The decline in Unionist popularity was as swift as it was sudden. As recently as 1955, the Unionists had attracted just over 50 per cent of all Scottish votes, the only party ever to have managed that electoral achievement. But in retrospect, this was to prove a watershed in their fortunes. In 1959 the number of Unionist MPs fell from 36 to 31, then to 24 in 1964, and it dropped again to 20 in the 1966 general election. It was not a disaster on the scale of the later elections of 1987 and the 1990s, but it was nevertheless still an enormous humiliation for a party that had been the most successful in Scottish politics since the end of Liberal hegemony after 1918.

Increasingly the Unionists presented a remote élite and an anglicized image that seemed out of touch with current Scottish problems. In part, this was due to the combination of the difficulties of the older industries and the inexorable decline of indigenous control of manufacturing and enterprise with nationalization, numerous mergers and the penetration of American capital. The great Scottish captains of industry and leaders of the Clydeside dynasties who had formerly ruled the party were fast disappearing and their place was once again being taken by lairds and aristocrats who had received an entirely anglicized education. The huge changes in urban housing after the Second World War also affected the party’s fortunes. The massive working-class peripheral housing estates around Glasgow and Edinburgh established new Labour fiefdoms in former rural areas, while the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs eroded the Conservative vote in the heart of the cities. It may seem remarkable from today’s perspective, but as late as 1951 the Conservatives held as many as seven seats in Glasgow, only one fewer than Labour. By 1964, however, they were left with two, one of which was already very vulnerable.

The secret of Conservative success for much of the twentieth century had been the ability to reach out well beyond the middle classes to the respectable, skilled and semiskilled working classes in Scotland. To them the party represented Protestantism, Unionism and imperial identity. Even in 1968, 45 per cent of the members of the Church of Scotland claimed to vote Tory. In Dundee in 1968, nearly 40 per cent of Protestant manual workers voted Conservative, compared to 6 per cent of Roman Catholics of the same class. These figures come from the period when the pattern of voting along religious lines – at least for Protestants – was already in decline. It is very likely that in the early 1960s political and religious cleavages in Scotland went even deeper. Nevertheless, the bedrock Protestant working-class support for Conservatism was starting to crumble. Britishness had less appeal and the empire was fading fast. The influence of the Kirk was also ebbing. Church membership reached a peak in the mid-1950s and then went into serious decline. In 1956, 46 per cent of Scots had a formal Church connection. By 1994, the proportion had fallen to 27 per cent. The rate of decline for the Church of Scotland was even greater because, until recent years, the overall haemorrhage from the Catholic Church was much less. A ‘membership catastrophe’ occurred during the Swinging Sixties. That Scotland was becoming a more secular society was also illustrated, as already indicated, by the decline of sectarian employment practices, encouraged by the impact of new foreign-owned industry, the nationalization and/or decay of the older staple manufactures, where discrimination against Catholics in skilled occupations had flourished, and the effect of full employment in the 1950s and early 1960s on the labour market. As a result, the Protestant monopoly of many skilled jobs was broken. Mixed marriages and the growing integration of the Catholic community into Scottish society as a result of better educational opportunities in colleges and universities after 1945 also diluted, although they did not yet end, the bitterness of historic religious divisions.

It was a sign of the times when (the then) Archbishop Winning in 1975 became the first Catholic priest to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Seven years later, Pope John Paul II met with the Moderator under the statue of the great reformer, John Knox, during his historic visit to Scotland. There were occasional ‘No Popery’ demonstrations during the visit, but it was significant that most people regarded them as unrepresentative of Scottish public opinion as a whole. The Conservatives suffered most as a result of this growing tolerance and the associated secularization of Scottish politics. As early as 1964, when they suffered the shattering loss of the Pollok constituency in Glasgow, party managers first became aware that they were losing the old working-class religious vote. On the other hand, Catholic loyalties to Labour remained solid for another generation, while in the 1970s support for the SNP was reported to be overwhelmingly Protestant. The Tories were therefore squeezed by two forces: the desertion of many of their working-class supporters to new allegiances and the still unquestioning loyalty to Labour of the Catholic population in numerous west of Scotland constituencies.

None of these momentous changes was fully worked out in the day-to-day realities of Scotland by the end of the 1960s. Indeed, many were subtle and silent, emerging below the surface of life and only now picked up by later commentators with the signal advantages of hindsight. For the Scots of the time the decade was not one of drastic revolution but rather a transitional bridge between an old society, much of which was reminiscent even of the nineteenth century, and later modernity.

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Volume 8 – Issue 4 – Editorial

THE PUBLISHING SENSATION of the past few months was apparently J.K. Rowling’s first novel aimed specifically at adults. Having read The Casual Vacancy from cover to cover we are fairly confident in saying – in the words of Norman MacCaig – that ‘it was okay, as far as it went’. Had it been by any other author – we are also fairly confident in saying – its publication would have passed without buildings shaking and the earth moving. As it was, it was received with the kind of hysterical response which once attended the final installment of one of Dickens’s more mawkish serial novels.

If nothing else this was a triumph of modern marketing. How much it happened with Rowling’s blessing we know not. What we do know is that early copies of her novel were delivered by hand to reviewers while several journalists selected to interview the author had to read their copies in an empty office while vowing not to disclose a word of its contents before an agreed time and date. Unless one is a guest of Her Majesty this cannot be the most comfortable of circumstances in which to read a novel which stretches to 500 and more pages.

Amidst all of the hoopla it was easy to overlook the fact that the object of all this nonsense was a novel, and a not very remarkable one at that. The Casual Vacancy is set in the English West Country and is concerned with the kind of machinations that may excite editors of local papers but few others. There is no reason to sneer at this. Were such scenarios to be outlawed the novel would not be what it is today. But what was alarming was the response of the critical community which treated Rowling’s sophomoric creation with a respect it did not merit. This, though, is the effect of celebrity, which presently pollutes the publishing industry.

Of course, there still are – and hopefully always will be – publishers who care not a jot for pursuing the kind of sales and publicity which authors like Rowling engender. They tend to be small with few, if any, full-time staff and shallow bank accounts. Sales of their books may be counted in the hundreds and their authors are unlikely to get fat on their royalty cheques. Yet they occupy a hallowed space in the publishing firmament because their primary concern is not shareholders or the need to make a profit but the passion they bring to each book they produce.

One such is Mariscat Press which is celebrating its thirtieth birthday. It was founded in Glasgow by Hamish Whyte, a former librarian, and Kevin McCarra, who writes with uncommon poise about football in the Guardian. In the introduction to Cat’s Whiskers, a beautifully designed and printed anthology of highlights from Mariscat’s archive, Whyte writes how McCarra liked to recall an encounter between Ezra Pound and the publisher Elkin Mathews. ‘Ah, eh, do you care to contribute to the costs of publishing?’ Mathews asked of Pound’s Personae. To which the poet replied, ‘I’ve got a shilling in my clothes, if that’s any use to you.’ ‘Oh well,’ said Mathews, ‘I rather want to publish ’em anyhow.’

This, says Whyte, has been Mariscat’s ethos for three decades. Its first publication was XII from Catullus by David Neilson which was written on a typewriter borrowed from the Third Eye Centre and ‘copyprinted by an instant print shop’. Some 200 copies were produced and they sold well at 75p each. Thereafter, publishing poetry became ‘addictive’ and over the years Mariscat has added lustre to the nation’s literary scene, most notably in 1984 when it published Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland. Among the poets represented in Cat’s Whiskers are Gael Turnbull, Brian McCabe, Angela McSeveney, Douglas Dunn and Diana Hendry, whom Whyte married but not before accepting a batch of her poems for publication.

Periodically, Whyte has threatened to give up. But there is no 12-step programme for poetry publishers and he proceeds from one year to the next, spurred by the arrival of poems from someone whose work he likes the look of and the desire to share it with kindred spirits. ‘It’s the combination of poems, type and paper – there’s nothing like it,’ explains Whyte who, we hope, will go on and on, doing what he does best, irrespective of the fickle demands of fashion and the incurable tastelessness of bean counters.

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Volume 9 – Issue 1 – Editorial

Alasdair Gray, who is interviewed in this issue of the Scottish Review of Books, recently caused a stushie with an essay titled ‘Settlers and Colonists’. For many commentators that was provocation enough and Gray, hitherto regarded as a national treasure, was roundly denounced as, at best, anti-English, and, at worst, racist. Politicians of every hue, including the Nationalists, who had once embraced Gray, eagerly distanced themselves from him, as if he had a transmittable disease. But what few people did was read Gray’s essay in its entirety, a common failing when politics and literature collide. We are reminded, for example, of the case of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, which very few of those who burned copies of the novel and effigies of its author had ever read or had the capacity to read.

However we believe that Gray’s essay deserves to be read and commented upon soberly. ‘Colonists and settlers,’ he wrote, ‘may start with the same homeland and some loyalty to it, a loyalty dependant on support the homeland gives them. The difference between these two sorts of invader becomes obvious when they have subdued the local natives by exterminating many of them, as in Australia, driving them away, as in North America, enslaving them as in South America, or (more rarely) giving some of them equal rights, as may be the case in New Zealand.’

No one, least of all Gray, is suggesting here (or elsewhere in the essay) that Scotland is directly comparable to the places mentioned. But it could be argued that the 1707 Union with England led to a form of colonisation which pertains today and which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resulted in the Highland Clearances and the mass  expulsion of the indigenous population in a manner not dissimilar to that suffered by Native Americans. 

That’s what happens when a country is colonised. Its own people are marginalised and their culture is derided and relegated until it slips off the radar. Colonists do not want to nurture or promote indigenous culture, for they recognise its potential threat. Instead they prefer to mock or ignore or suppress it.  Native Americans, for example, were often discounted as barbaric and in urgent need of civilization, despite the fact that they were adept at husbanding their resources and protective of the environment, which is not something that could be said of their usurpers.

In contrast to colonists, settlers do their best to fit in, taking heed from the old adage that when one is in Rome it is perhaps a good idea to behave like a Roman. This requires patience and tolerance and a degree of sensitivity. As a newcomer to a foreign place it is never advisable to talk about it in public when one’s knowledge of it is poor. After all, it is only the rudest and most arrogant of guests who comment adversely on their host’s taste in furniture or wallpaper. But too often in recent years people who have been appointed to positions of power in Scottish culture have aired their views – on the ‘inferiority’ of Scottish painting, the lack of depth of Scottish drama – and paraded their ignorance with scant consideration of any offence it may cause.

This, we believe, is what Gray was alluding to when he referred to the appointment of a non-Scot as head of Creative Scotland. It was not so much that that person was English but that he admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture and said that he was willing to learn. As Gray said, ‘Ain’t we lucky.’ What he then went on to say was: ‘And if you feel these remarks are full of anti-English prejudice, remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own and people.’

As we move ever closer to the independence referendum is it too much to ask that serious consideration be given to such sentiments? For too long, it seems, Scottish culture has had to shriek to hear itself heard on its own cabbage patch. Does it not seem odd, for instance, that the Edinburgh International Festival is often notable for its resistance to Scottish content? Or do Scots simply not care? But if that is true then what is the point of independence? What would be good to have is reassurance from our political masters that they have thought more deeply about cultural policy beyond offering knee-jerk acknowledgment of the arts’ contribution to our economic well-being. Which, when is all is said and done, is insulting and embarrassing but, alas,  nothing less than we expect.

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Volume 9 – Issue 2 – Editorial

THE first mention of Scotland in Margaret Thatcher’s account of her tenure at 10 Downing Street comes on page 602 in her autobiography, which rather confirms the view of many that she had no feeling for a large swathe of the country of which she was soi disant leader. When next she addresses Scotland it is in a chapter entitled ‘Thatcherism Rebuffed – The Case of Scotland’. Her tone is one of bemusement tinged with fury. After all, Scotland was the birthplace of Adam Smith, ‘the greatest proponent of free economics till Hayek and Friedman’. Why, then, did it not embrace the Iron Lady’s ism?

Her lieutenant north of the border, and her cheerleader in chief, was Michael Forsyth, who was as illiterate in his appraisal of Scotland as his puppeteer. Her nemesis, and his, was Malcolm Rifkind who ‘fell back with a vengeance on the old counter-productive tactic of proving his Scottish virility by posturing as Scotland’s defender against Thatcherism.’ Rifkind’s success in this role was minimal. First came the poll tax, then the closure in 1992 of the Ravenscraig steelworks. In her autobiography, Thatcher makes no apology for either. She was, she conceded, a quintessentially English figure. ‘I am what I am,’ she wrote, ‘and I have no intention of wearing tartan camouflage.’

On her death earlier this year the media’s assessment of her was that she was someone who divided opinion. Like Marmite or River City, you either loved her or loathed her. What surely there can be no doubt about, however, is that because of her policies and her personality, she drove a wedge through Britain that was deeply damaging and potentially fatal to its survival. As prime minister, her job was to unite the country. Instead, she seemed hellbent on tearing it apart even as she bemoaned the rise in support for independence.

The spectre of Thatcher looms large in this issue of  The Scottish Review of Books and references to her crop up in several articles. David Torrance, in his judicious  review of two biographies, is more sympathetic toward her than the majority of Scots. Even he, however, acknowledges that she was not a consensual politician. She appears neither to have had the patience for persuasion nor the intellect to help her win arguments. Her fallback tactic was to raise the decibel level of her voice and thus silence opposition. She did not so much take people with her as drag them in her wake. Such behaviour does not inspire affection or obedience.

Damian Barr was a gay boy growing up in Carfin when Ravenscraig closed, throwing thousands out of work, including his father, and eviscerating the local economy, the effect of which is still cruelly evident. Barr’s memoir, Maggie and Me, which is reviewed in this issue by Peter Burnett, is an affecting story of a boy at odds with his surroundings, separated from his peers by his sexuality and living in a family which is a byword for dysfunction. It’s impossible to gauge to what extent this dysfunction is symptomatic of the situation in which the Barrs found themselves or a result of their own fecklessness and irresponsibility. What is clear is that there was no future in Lanarkshire for someone like Damian who’d rather visit the library than play football and who is attracted to other boys. In that sense, Maggie and Me is typical of such memoirs. Who wouldn’t want to turn their back on poverty, prejudice, ignorance and abuse? For Barr, Thatcher is both admirable – in her refusal to be cowed by the IRA – and despicable – in her revulsion of homosexuality.

This is a more generous reaction than most Scots would allow and may in part be explained by Barr’s residence in England. Were he to live within sight of the wasteland that the closure of Ravenscraig created he might take a different view. For countless Scottish writers, the poll tax and steel plant’s demise were confirmation of the Westminster government’s contempt for their country. The imposition of the former and the refusal to make any meaningful attempt to intervene in the closure of the latter was an insult too far. Thatcher’s was not a UK government but one ideologically constrained by her own Little England mentality.

It was this myopic, insensitive and unimaginative agenda  which reinvigorated the independence movement and which prompted to writers such as Iain Banks and Frederic Lindsay, both of whom died recently, to embrace it. In person and on the page, each demonstrated that there is only one way to deal with a bully, which is by tackling them head on and with gloves off. Neither Banks nor Lindsay was enamoured of Thatcher, as they were not of Tony Blair. They were fed up being told what to do by Westminster governments. They were sure that a Scottish government would not have imposed a poll tax (or, for that matter, a bedroom tax) and would have gone to war with Iraq on the basis of misinformation. The pity is that neither of them will be around to cast their votes in next year’s referendum.

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Tom Devine on Previously – Scotland’s History Festival

This week marks the second run of one of the most remarkable, if unsung, festivals in the land. Previously is Scotland’s history festival. Over the next two weeks more than two hundred events will take place in Edinburgh’s bars, churches and theatres, streets and coffee houses. The ambition of the organisers is to take history out of the university lecture theatres, museums and libraries and present it to the people in the places where they gather and socialize.

If the festival of 2011 is anything to go by, that of 2012 will be another stunning success story. Nearly 6000 people across a broad demographic profile turned out last time for 236 events held by 69 partner organisations in a city wide celebration of Scotland’s history. The audiences were educated, stimulated and entertained by a rich programme of original theatre, guided tours, film, historical re-enactments, poetry, family history workshops, comedy and debates involving public figures and renowned historians.

One would have thought that an achievement on this scale might have found favour with those who control the cultural purses of the country but it is not so. For the second year in a row Creative Scotland has further harmed its battered reputation by offering not a penny in support of this wonderful initiative. As the 2012 programme laments: ‘The history festival is rapidly becoming the tragic Dickensian orphan of the festival family, pressing a wee button nose up against the window gazing at the goodies other festivals have.’

It might be argued that such parsimony is simply the predictable outcome of the lack of imagination of public bodies which cannot immediately grasp the potential when something fresh and invigorating comes along. I think, however, that the causes run more deeply and widely and apply equally to other parts of the arts and cultural establishment in Scotland. Astonishingly at this historic time for the nation many arts administrators, journalists, institutions and ‘creative writers’ seem unprepared to grant history full admission to their self-proclaimed constellation of culture.

No historian, as far as I am aware, was approached to sign the recent petition of numerous writers and artists criticizing the performance of Creative Scotland. I cannot remember either the last time a history book was even shortlisted for the award of the Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. Even classic studies of the past have failed to find a place there while long-forgotten and remaindered works of fiction dominate year after year.

Time and again too in the arts pages of the press ‘creative writing’ is narrowly defined as encompassing only  novels, poetry, drama and, occasionally, biography, assumptions that would never prevail in any other European country. The scandalous failure to help fund the Festival of History is one consequence of this myopic cultural mindset.

Thankfully, the great Scottish public begs to differ. Family history is booming, television history an extraordinarily popular genre, and history books regularly make the bestseller lists. We can therefore anticipate that the Cinderella of Festivals will once again break box office records over the next fortnight. 

[The Festival of History takes place from 13 November to 3 December at venues across Edinburgh. For a full list of events and to book, visit]


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Event Review: What I Hate/Love About Poetry 08/11/12


David Greig, Stav Poleg, Gerry Cambridge, Liz Lochhead, Alan Taylor, Robyn Marsack

Event Review: What I Hate/ What I Love About Poetry

8 November 2012, Scottish Poetry Library

Poetry is a cultural phenomenon which, for some, enters life at school and is never seen again. There is a small number of dedicated readers of verse and an even smaller number who try to make an (impoverished) career out of it. But how do people really feel about poetry? Are the extremes of love and hate even applicable?

Organised by the Scottish Poetry Library, a panel met on Thursday 8 November to discuss this paradigm. Chaired by SPL director Robyn Marsack, it included Herald journalist and Scottish Review of Books editor Alan Taylor, Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead, poet and editor of The Dark Horse magazine Gerry Cambridge, poet Stav Poleg and playwright David Greig. The result was a terse and often hilarious discussion.

After a gracious introduction, Marsack read out some comments that she collected earlier from twitter: ‘I hate poetry. There are too many dry poets like Ezra Pound’ and ‘I love poetry because it’s the opposite of journalism’ among others.

Fittingly, journalist Alan Taylor began the proceedings with an erudite if slightly oblique view. What Taylor dislikes most is not poetry but poets: ‘There are too many. It would be good to have a cull’. Dressed in a tartan blouse Makar Liz Lochhead said, ‘What I hate about poetry is the poetic voice. It drives you to drink’ and illustrated her view by reading from Wendy Cope with exaggerated intonation. Gerry Cambridge read out a poem he had written in favour of poetry, citing its ‘eccentricity’ and ‘individuality’ and the fact that ‘you don’t have to take a creative writing course to like it’.

Stav Poleg said she liked poetry because one must ‘do something else in order to earn a living’ which may also be a ‘reason to hate it’. Poleg added that she doesn’t exactly ‘hate’ poetry competitions, but thinks them oxymoronic and more about the judges than the poems.

Playwright David Greig imagined poetry as a white muse, ‘that of a lover’, and said that poetry was like sex: ‘primal base need that comes with being human, being born’. He said he hated reading translations of poems because he knew he was missing out on the complexities of the original. He also acknowledged that he was the ‘Pollyanna of the debate’.

A discussion on poetry reviewing and the fact that it often involves poets assessing the work of peers was interrupted by an uplifting set by spoken word artist Miko Mysterio, who pleaded with an elite academy to accept spoken word as well: ‘I’m not saying dumb it down/ but let people in/the alternative’.

Further arguments ensued. Alan Taylor suggested that instead of having near empty venues at the EIBF, there should be a dedicated poetry gathering, the ‘Edinburgh International Poetry Festival’. Lochhead contradicted this, saying that she, Carol Ann Duffy and others are selling out their venues at EIBF: ‘Just as it’s not about size Alan, it’s not about numbers’.  The topic then turned to the clapped out debate about Creative Writing programmes at universities with some on the panel (inevitably) expressing their opposition to them. However, one brave audience member stood up and said: ‘I’m probably the most despised person in the room… I’m taking a Creative Writing Course… I’m actually quite nice and my poetry is quite good’.

Predictably a panel session hosted in a dedicated poetry library and with an audience full of poets and readers of poetry never did find a good reason to hate poetry. Eventually, David Greig produced a collection of Sydney Goodsir Smith poems which he borrowed in 1985. In another system, a fine of multinational-tax-arrear proportions would be on its way. But at the Scottish Poetry Library this is seen as a mark of love which, of course, it is.    

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Ronald Frame launches ‘Havisham’


Ronald Frame in conversation with Adrian Searle 

Ronald Frame eschews the uniform of the contemporary male Scottish writer:  untucked shirt, jeans and sannies. Instead, it’s Harris Tweed, pressed trousers and polished brogues. He’s a bit Richard Fordish or maybe a woolly Simenon, sans specs and pipe. The only blemish in an otherwise immaculate ensemble is that the sleeves of his jacket are a tad long. He’s wee.

He’s quiet too, even when amplified.  The audience involuntarily bends toward the microphone as he reads from his latest novel Havisham, a prequel to Great Expectations that takes Dickens’ ‘grotesque’ Catherine Havisham and imagines her life prior to the abandonment that defined her in the original.

There is magic in the reading for those whose hearing is acute enough to pick it up. Despite being dressed for television, Frame has more experience of radio where, he says, the audience has to be engaged quickly or lost. This principle has transferred to his novel. The prologue starts ‘Four loud blows on the front door’. Chapter 1 is ‘I killed my mother’. From there the writing is measured and precise:

‘I had turned round in the womb, and the surgeon needed to cut her open to let me out. He couldn’t staunch her, and by the end of that evening she had bled to death….My first days were lived out  in a hush or respectfully lowered voices as a procession of folk came to offer their condolences. My eyes became accustomed to the half-light.’

Words are carefully chosen and the sequences are seamless which is just about the opposite of the approach Frame adopts for the question and answer session that follows. Voice suddenly emboldened, he is all over the place though to fascinating effect.   Asked by his interlocutor if there is anything of himself in his female narrators, he replies ‘Well I wasn’t wearing crinoline when I wrote Havisham’

This revelation was followed by a peroration on Jan Morris, formerly James Morris, who had a sex change operation in 1972 and wrote about it in the trans-gender memoir Conundrum.  Women, says Frame, feel things differently on their skin and aren’t the right shape for sitting in sports cars. This came as a bit of a surprise to some members of his predominantly female audience who won’t be able to look at their Jaguar F-types in quite the same way again.

There were other surprises. For instance, he occasionally chases dog walkers with a broom at his Glasgow suburban house, though it is hard to imagine man or dog running in fear of that even if they are from Bearsden.  What’s not surprising is that Havisham is beautifully rendered, narrated by a woman, set in the past and outside of Scotland – elements that once threatened to sideline Ronald Frame but are now expected and embraced. He may even be a national treasure.  Wha’s like him?

[Havisham  is published by Faber and Faber]




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