Monthly Archives: June 2013


Volume 9 – Issue 2 – Classifieds

Publisher Advertisers

Classified contains a listing of new titles submitted for inclusion by publishers in Scotland. Advertisers in this section are:

Argyll Publishing

01369 820 229

Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)

0141 330 5309

Barrington Stoke

0131 225 4113

Birlinn Ltd.

0131 668 4371

Capercaillie Books

0845 463 6759

Candlestick Press

07500 180 871

Dedalus Books

01487 832382

Gibson Square Books

The In Pinn

See Neil Wilson Publishing

John Donald

See Birlinn

Luath Press

0131 225 4326

Neil Wilson Publishing

0141 954 8007


See Birlinn

The Saltire Society

0131 556 1836


0141 339 5030

The Scottish Text Society

Steve Savage Publishers

020 7770 6083

Thirsty Books

See Argyll Publishing

ART & Architecture

Gifted: The Tale of 10 Mysterious Book Sculptures Gifted to the City of Words and Ideas

Introduction by Artist

POLYGON £9.99 PB 9781846972768

One day in March 2011 staff at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh noticed a wonderful paper sculpture left on a table. Carved from paper and mounted on a book, it bore a tag expressing support for the Library’s work. Nine more sculptures appeared over the next 6 months, all carefully left in places with real significance. This beautiful book tells their story and immortalises an inspiring story.

Frissure: Prose Poems & Artworks

Kathleen Jamie and Brigid Collins

POLYGON £15.00 LIMITED EDITION HB 9781846972751

Frissure is an exquisite collection of prose-poems and illustrative work exploring healing, mortality, intimacy, memory and the natural world. It is a unique collaboration between two of Scotland’s leading artists, one a celebrated poet and author, the other a highly respected artist and illustrator.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

Alistair Moffat, Susan Mansfield, foreword by Alexander McCall Smith



The brainchild of bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith, historian Alistair Moffat and artist Andrew Crummy, the Great Tapestry of Scotland is an outstanding celebration of thousands of years of Scottish history and achievement, from the end of the last Ice Age to the modern day stitched into a giant tapestry by over 1,000 stitchers across Scotland.

The People’s Sculptor: The Life and Art of William Lamb ARSA (1893 – 1951)

John Stansfeld

BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781780271620

Tracing the life and work the life of Scottish sculptor William Lamb (1893–1951) this is a story of indomitable will and irrepressible creativity. Lamb overcame huge adversity to produce an enormous amount of work, most of which he left as a legacy to the people of Scotland – he truly was their sculptor.

These Faces: Photographs and drawings by Timothy Neat (1947-2013): Scotland, England, France, Spain

POLYGON £20.00 PB 9781846972775

These Faces is a book of encounters. The background to these encounters is Tim Neat’s lifetime’s work as a filmmaker, writer, researcher and storyteller in which he has followed the lives of individuals and communities normally qualified as marginal. In this collection of over 150 monochrome photographs Neat has gathered his subjects including tinkers, bards; workers in Yorkshire, and villagers in Andalucia.

Architecture: A Spotter’s Guide

Sarah Cunliffe and Jean Loussier

SARABAND £14.95 PB 9781908643094

Confused about the difference between Baroque and Rococo? Curious about the latest architectural trends (organic houses, critical regionalism, conceptual architecture and more) or maybe the ancient origins of Asian pagodas? This compact illustrated guide takes you on a globetrotting tour of our rich and varied architectural heritage.

Your Country Needs YOU

James Taylor

SARABAND £16.99 HB 9781887354974

The iconic image of Lord Kitchener with pointing finger is a design classic. In the run-up to the WWI centenary, Taylor celebrates the magnificent propaganda posters of the time. Drawing on fresh analysis of the archives, this richly illustrated book reveals a surprising new history of these enduring images.


Lust For Life: The Trainspotting Phenomenon

John Neil Munro

POLYGON £12.99 PB 9781846972423

In the mid-1980s Irvine Welsh’s life was going nowhere fast. His teenage dreams of being a footballer or a rock star were over, and he was stuck in a series of white-collar jobs which he loathed. With the last throw of the dice, he started to write. This is the inside story of how he penned the most talked-about book in a generation, and became a global cult figure.


Rose T. Clark

SARABAND £9.99 PB 9781908643179

A remarkable, honest and moving memoir of love alongside cancer, with its hope and despair, denial and eventual acceptance – and of bereavement and recovery. Both shocking and inspiring, this extraordinary account reveals the myriad ways that cancer affects lives.

Of Dogs and Men

John Barrington

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781906817909

Part autobiography and part history, Of Dogs and Men is a celebration of the long relationship between man and dog. Former shepherd Barrington mixes his own personal recollections with a history of the evolution of dogs from wild animal to man’s best friend.

The Best-Hated Man

George Malcolm Thomson, Intellectuals and the Condition of Scotland between the Wars

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £15.99 HB 9781908931320

Superbly researched and carefully written biography on the ideas of George Malcolm Thomson and their context. A core text for readers of Scottish cultural and political life.

Stirring the Dust

Mary McCabe

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781908931030

A superb mix of historical research, memoir and narrative, convincing in its detail of the lives of the author’s and our own forebears.

Red Sky at Night

John Barrington

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373373

A new edition of the UK number one bestseller. John Barrington was a shepherd to over 750 Blackface Ewes in the Scottish Highlands. In this evocative book, he mixes descriptions of his daily life tending his flock with a story of the glen.


Nan’s Rabbit

Mary Bromilow with illustrations by Alexa Rutherford

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931245

An adventure story for 5-8 years olds.


Testament of a Witch

Douglas Watt

LUATH PRESSS £7,99 PB 9781908373212

Set in the 17th century against the backdrop of political and religious conflict, the second of Watt’s John MacKenzie series is as historically rich and gripping as the last. MacKenzie investigates the murder of a woman accused of witchcraft and he must act quickly when the same accusations are made against the woman’s daughter. Superstition clashes with reason as Scotland moves towards the Enlightenment.

#freetopiary: An Occupy Romance

THIRSTY BOOKS £6.99 PB 9781908931214

‘Resistance is possible even for those who are not heroes by nature.’ Consumerism, passivity, apathy and distraction are challenged as Alan is introduced to the story of Bradley Manning.

Friend & Foe: A Hew Cullen Mystery

Shirley McKay

POLYGON £12.99 PB 9781846972171

The death of a young soldier leads Hew Cullen to both an astonishing discovery and his blackest hour, his fortunes inextricable from those of James VI himself. Set in 1583 St Andrews, real historical figures are interwoven in this fantastical tale of treachery, deceit and shadowy religious practice.

Glen Lyon

Kenneth Steven

BIRLINN £6.99 PB 9781780271774

Kenneth Steven tells the tale of Somerled Stewart – a timeless figure who arrives in Glen Lyon and builds his own house. He is a conflicted soul, struggling to deal with dark events in his past, but will his marriage to Anna help him to overcome these problems? Steven’s appreciation of the bond between nature and man, as well as his lyrical ability, are demonstrated fully in this wonderful book.

The Secret Knowledge

Andrew Crumey

DEDALUS BOOKS £9.99 PB 9781909232563

A lost musical masterpiece is at the heart of this gripping intellectual mystery by award-winning writer Andrew Crumey. In 1913 composer Pierre Klauer envisages marriage to his sweetheart and fame for his new work, The Secret Knowledge. Then tragedy strikes. A century later, concert pianist David Conroy hopes the rediscovered score might revive his own flagging career.

Nor Will He Sleep: An Inspector McLevy Mystery

David Ashton

POLYGON £8.99 PB 9781846972515

1887. The streets of Edinburgh seethe with youthful anarchy as two rival gangs of students, Scarlet Runners and White Devils, try to outdo each other in wild exploits. After a pitched battle between them, an old woman is found savagely battered to death in Leith Harbour. Enter Inspector James McLevy, a little more grizzled, but unchanging in his fierce desire to mete out justice. A third installment in the best-selling Inspector McLevy series.

A Capital Union

Victoria Hendry

SARABAND £8.99 PB 9781908643346

Edinburgh, 1942. Newlywed Ayrshire lass Agnes Thorne is gamely trying to be a good wife and fine Edinburgh lady, but aloof city folk and her husband’s preoccupation with the politics of Scottish independence are testing her spirit. When fate brings the war even closer to home, Agnes has to fight for her future.

Unfashioned Creatures

Lesley McDowell

SARABAND £8.99 PB 9781908643391

Mary Shelley’s real-life friend Isabella Baxter Booth is seeing ghosts. She meets a young doctor who is at the vanguard of the emerging science of psychiatry. Isabella intrigues him, and he becomes more involved than he knows he should… A Gothic tale of madness, sexual obsession and murderous impulses.

Rehab Blues

Adrian Laing

GIBSON SQUARE FICTION £7.99 PB 9781908096586

We have all seen celebrities behaving badly… wait until you see them getting better! The Place is a sanctuary for A-listers where all their hilarious antics are exposed. You’ll meet Huck, the cross dressing cage fighter; Tracey, the shoplifting soap-star; and Toni, the incontinent rock-star. ‘Merciless’ says the Daily Telegraph. Move over One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest!

A State of Fear

Robert Solent

GIBSON SQUARE FICTION £9.99 PB 9781908096364

Julie, a young doctor, is running late. She is about to pick up her daughter from school when she hears the deafening roar of an explosion. Sirens shriek. A police van tells everyone to take cover from radiation. Is she contaminated – and will the radiation spread to the school? As she helps the victims, a second strike looms. Will what Julie learnt that day help MI5 prevent another attack?

The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda

Donald Murray

LUATH PRESS £12.99 HB 9781908373748

Meet Calum. In 1930, the last remaining St Kildans evacuated their isolated outpost in the Scottish Hebrides. Calum returned, alone and troubled, the sole guardian of the islanders’ abandoned homes. Haunted by the memories that linger there, Calum begins to re-live the experiences of residents long past. The Guga Stone will be published July 2013.

Animal Lover

Raymond Friel

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373724

Danny is in trouble. A wannabe animal rights activist and modern day hero, none of this was supposed to happen. After his first attempt at animal liberation ends badly, things spiral out of control. The woman he loves is becoming more extreme by the day and his ratio of animals killed versus animals saved is changing rapidly. And not in the direction he wants. It’s treble or nothing time. And next week the Circus is coming to town. Due for publication September 2013.

Blood City

Douglas Skelton

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373717

Meet Davie McCall. Irrevocably damaged by the brutal regime of an abusive father, and troubled by memories of his mother’s murder, there is darkness inside Davie McCall. As Glasgow’s criminal underworld begins to splinter, battle lines are drawn, and friend and enemy become one as criminals and police alike are caught in a net of lies, murder and revenge that will change the city forever. Due for publication September 2013.

The Girl on the Ferryboat

Angus Peter Campbell

LUATH PRESS £12.99 HB9781908373779

It was a long hot summer…A chance encounter on a ferry leads to a lifetime of regret for misplaced opportunities.Beautifully written and vividly evoked, The Girl on the Ferryboat is a mirage of recollections looking back to the haze of one final prelapsarian summer on the Isle of Mull. Due for publication September 2013.


Ann Kelley

LUATH PRESS £9.99 HB 9781908373762

Sid’s running from a terror he doesn’t understand, to a town he doesn’t know the name off, to find people he doesn’t remember. That’s if they’re still alive. Nothing is certain. All he knows is that he has to keep on the move, heading west, away from the Territorial Army, away from the people who took his parents away. If he and his little sister are to survive, they must keep running.Ann Kelley’s thriller is set in a time not so very far removed from our own, a time in which nobody trusts anybody – even two children on the run. Due for publication September 2013.


The Good Scots Diet

Maisie Steven

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £7.99 PB 9781908931344

New edition of Maisie Steven’s classic on Scottish diet.


Dementia Positive

John Killick

LUATH PRESS £10.99 PB 9781908373571

This book is not about the past, which has gone, or the future, which is uncertain. But it is for those who want to improve the lives of people with dementia and themselves in the Here and Now. The book is not written by an expert but by a man seeking to find new approaches concerning dementia who wishes to share his discoveries. Due for publication August 2013.

Carnegie’s Call: Developing the Success Habit

Michael Malone

 ARGYLL PUBLISHING £7.99 PB 9781908931047

Recognising the achievements of emigré and man of achievement Andrew Carnegie, Michael Malone interviews Scots who have distinguished themselves and seeks to understand attitudes to success. He uncovers some fascinating insights into how we can develop the success habit.


Traditional Tales

Allan Cunningham; Tim Killick (ed)

ASLS £12.50 HB 9781906841089

A selection of folk stories steeped in the traditions of southern Scotland and northern England. Mixing the natural and supernatural, they blur the distinction between the oral traditions of the distant past and emerging ideas of literature and modernity. Originally published in 1822, these fascinating tales form an essential part of folkloric history.

The Union: England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707 (New Edition)

Michael Fry

BIRLINN £9.99 PB 9781780271552

In this fresh and challenging look at the origins of the United Kingdom, Michael Fry focuses on the years which led up to the Union of 1707, setting the political history of Scotland and England against the backdrop of war in Europe and the emergence of imperialism.

An Introduction to Scottish Ethnology: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology Volume 1

Alexander Fenton & Margaret A. Mackay (eds)

JOHN DONALD £60 HB/£25 PB 9781906566067/9781906566708

The publication of An Introduction to Scottish Ethnology sees the completion of the fourteen-volume Scottish Life and Society series, originally conceived by the eminent ethnologist Professor Alexander Fenton. Theory and practice are presented in an accessible fashion, making it an ideal companion for the student, the scholar and the interested amateur alike.

The Northern Earldoms:

Orkney and Caithness from AD 870 – 1470

Barbara E. Crawford

JOHN DONALD £25.00 HB 9781904607915

The medieval earldoms of Orkney and Caithness were positioned between two worlds, the Norwegian and the Scottish. This is a story of the time when the Northern Isles of Scotland were part of a different national entity, when links across the North Sea were as important as links with the kingdom of Scotland to the south.

A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815 – 1914

Michael Fry

BIRLINN £25.00 HB 9781780271422

In his new book, Michael Fry turns to a remarkable century of Scottish history, but rather than concentrate on how the nation assimilated to the UK, he looks at how it – and its citizens – differed. Throughout, for this exemplary era of Scottish individualism, he relies not on theories and statistics but on the experience of individual Scots men and women to bring out the essential achievement of Scotland’s greatest century to date.

Voices of Scottish Journalists: Recollections by 22 Veteran Scottish Journalists of their Life and Work

Ian MacDougall

JOHN DONALD £25.00 PB 9781906566630

The men and women who wrote for newspapers in the twentieth century started work in a ‘Hold the front page!’ atmosphere: hot metal, clicking typewriters and inky fingers. In this fascinating collection, Ian MacDougall has captured the memories of 22 veteran journalists from a wide range of newspapers and created a fascinating ‘swathe of Scottish social history’.

The Heart of Glasgow:

Jack House, foreword Jack McLean

NEIL WILSON PUBLISHING £14.99 PB 9781906000578

A seminal work on the city of Glasgow that has previously been released in hardback by NWP and now available in paperback. Illustrated with colour and black and white plates.

Scots in Canada

Jenni Calder

LUATH PRESS £8.99 PB 9781908373038

In Canada there are nearly as many descendants of Scots as there are people living in Scotland. This book follows the Scottish pioneers west from Nova Scotia to the prairie frontier and on to the Pacific coast. It examines the reasons why so many Scots left their land and families. The legacy of centuries of trade and communication still binds the two countries, and Scottish Canadians keep alive the traditions that crossed the Atlantic with their ancestors.

Scots in the USA

Jenni Calder

LUATH £9.99 PB 9781908373380

All over Scotland and the United States there are clues to the Scottish-American relationship, the legacy of centuries of trade and communication as well as that of departure and heritage. Scots in the USA discusses why Scots left their homeland, where they went once they reached the United States, and what they did when they got there.

Scotland: A Graphic History

Jeff Fallow

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373120

This is a concise history of Scotland in the form of a graphic novel. Both witty and informative, the book covers everything from the dinosaurs to David Cameron, with a plethora of battles, conspiracies, poets and politicians in between.

Glasgow Mosaic: Cultural Icons of the City

Ian R Mitchell

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373663

This book presents a broad view of Glasgow’s industrial, social and intellectual history. From public art to socialist memorials, and from factories to cultural hubs, Ian Mitchell takes the reader on a guided tour of Glasgow, outlining walking routes which encompass the city’s forgotten icons. Due for publication September 2013.

Scotland the Brief : Clan Scotland series

A Short History of a Nation (New Edition)

Christopher Harvie

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931191

A new edition of this brief outline for the beginner. Illustrated.


Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries

Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora & Ginger Stelle (eds)

ASLS £12.50 PB 9781908980014

The novels of George MacDonald (1824–1905) inspired later fantasy writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The essays in this anthology look at MacDonald’s engagement with the works of his contemporaries and at his interest in the social, political, and theological movements of his age.

Shakespeare : The Director’s Cut (New Edition)

Michael Bogdanov

CAPERCAILLIE BOOKS £9.99 PB 9781909305311

Essays on Shakespeare’s plays: includes essays from previous editions and four new essays on Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like it and Twelfth Night.

Theatre : The Director’s Cue (Thoughts and Reminiscences)

Michael Bogdanov

CAPERCAILLIE BOOKS £9.99 PB 9781909305342

Description: The theatre from the Director’s perspective: this is a series of theatrical insights, autobiographical anecdotes and a response to critics.

Shorter Scottish Medieval Romances

Rhiannon Purdie (ed.)


distributed by Boydell and Brewer ( £40 HB 9781897976364A collection of Scottish romances published together for the first time, this edition presents them with full scholarly apparatus and a lightly modernised text. The introduction is richly informative, discussing transmission and reception, sources and analogues and the place of this material in Older Scots. It is an edition that serves the scholar and the interested general reader.

Another Country

John Herdman

THIRSTY BOOKS £7.99 PB 9781908931351

Literary history of the 1960s to the 1980s by one of the central characters.

1814 Year of Waverley:

Clan Scotland Series

Christopher Harvie

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931238

The life and times of Walter Scott and the impact of the Waverley novels. Illustrated.


Engine of Destruction – The 51st (Highland) Division the Great War

Colin Campbell

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £25 HB 9781908931276

Detailed and touching account of the WWI experience of the 51st Division is an amazing book in tribute to the Scottish soldier.


Ten Poems from Wales: Fourteen Centuries of Verse

Edited by Gillian Clarke


‘Ten Poems from Wales’ offers readers who are new to the poetry of Wales, and those who are already in love with it, a glimpse of a rich heritage. The ten poems, chosen by National Poet for Wales, Gillian Clarke, give the reader a taste of a beautiful, ancient and continuing literature.

An Cuilithionn 1939: The Cuillin 1939 and Unpublished Poems

Sorley MacLean, Christopher Whyte (ed)

ASLS £12.50 PB 9781906841034

This major new edition of MacLean’s epic work includes 400 lines never before published, along with MacLean’s own English translation, and an extended commentary. Forty-five other previously unpublished poems by MacLean also appear here for the first time, with facing English translations.


Meg Bateman

POLYGON £9.99 PB 9781846972591

Meg Bateman is one of the most popular and sought after contemporary Gaelic poets. In this collection, she vividly evokes the landscape of Scotland, particularly the brooding presences of the Scottish islands and Sutherland, and touches on personal love and loss.

Play With Me

Michael Pederson

POLYGON £9.99 PB 9781846972607

Pederson is making a name for himself as a spoken word artist to watch, and from this eclectic collection of his work it’s easy to understand why. On the menu is everything from iced oysters and chateaubriand to pickled onions and Buckfast-soaked bread sticks. Like the man himself, these poems will tingle toes and raise eyebrows in equal measures.

A Song of Glasgow Town: The Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein

Marion Bernstein; Edward H. Cohen, Anne R. Fertig & Linda Fleming (eds)

ASLS £12.50 HB 9781906841133

The Glasgow poet Marion Bernstein (1846–1906) populated her poems with an array of ordinary citizens, from postmen and riveters to fishermen and street musicians. A Song of Glasgow Town contains all her published poetry, and provides a fascinating insight into Glasgow at a time of unprecedented social and economic change.


Scottish Independence: Weighing Up the Economics

Gavin McCrone

BIRLINN £7.99 PB 9781780271590

In autumn 2014 those living in Scotland will face the most important political decision of a lifetime and the outcome will have profound effects not just for Scottish citizens, but for the United Kingdom as a whole. In this impartial and thought-provoking book, economist Gavin McCrone addresses the issues surrounding the referendum.

After Independence: The State of the Scottish Nation Debate

Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell JOHN DONALD £12.99 PB 9781780271842 Scotland faces a historic and fundamental debate and choice: whether to become an independent nation or not. After Independence draws together over two dozen leading thinkers, academics and commentators to offer the most comprehensive and detailed examination of the terrain and possibilities of Scottish independence and self-government both constitutionally and beyond.

Saltire Series No 1. A Plea for a Secular Scotland


Richard Holloway, one of our most inspiring authors, has written the first of the new Saltire Society’s Series of pamphlets. ‘A Plea For A Secular Scotland’ is a timely discussion on how the relationship between the state and organised religion touches on our individual freedoms. A limited edition featuring a commissioned cover design by Alasdair Gray.


Lesley Riddoch

LUATH PRESS £11.99 PB 9781908373694

What will it take for Scotland to blossom? Dispensing with the tired, yo-yoing jousts over fiscal commissions, Devo Something and EU in-or-out, Blossom pinpoints both the buds of growth and the blight that’s holding Scotland back. Drawing from its people, history, and the author’s own passionate and outspoken perspective this is a plain-speaking but incisive call to restore control to local communities and let Scotland flourish. Due for publication August 2013.

Annie’s Loo: The Govan Origins of Scotland’s Community Based Housing Associations

Raymond Young

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781908931207

How a project to put inside toilets in Glasgow tenements in the 1970s developed into the community based housing association movement. Photos.

Divided Scotland : Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis

Tom Gallagher

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £15.99 HB 978190893183

Why has intercommunal strife involving the use (and many would say mis-use) of religious and national symbols enjoyed such an extended life in Scotland? This book is the first full-length study of Scotland’s ethno-religious discord that has appeared in the devolution era.

Afternow : What Next for a Healthy Scottish Society?

Postcards from Scotland series

Phil Hanlon & Sandra Carlisle

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931054

The authors look at health and beyond health to the main social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges of our times.

The Great Takeover: How Materialist Values Now Dominate Our Lives and What We Can Do About it

Postcards from Scotland series

Carol Craig

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931061

Where do these ideas come from and what can be done.

The New Road: Charting Scotland’s Inspirational Communities

Postcards from Scotland series

Alf Young & Ewan Young

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931078

A father and son take a journey to see some of the inspiring community action projects going on.

Scotland’s Local Food Revolution

Postcards from Scotland series

Mike Small

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931078

Horse burgers? There has to be a better way to produce and distribute food. Mike Small, Director of The Fife Diet project points one way forward.

The Scots Crisis of Confidence

Carol Craig

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781906134709

A brand new edition of Carol Craig’s successful exposition of Scots’ attitudes to and predilection for negativity. She offers a refreshingly different analysis of the big themes of Scottish culture. Rewritten in parts and brought up to date.

scottish interest

Largo’s Untold Stories

Leonard Low

STEVE SAVAGE PUBLISHERS £9.95 PB 9781904246398

Lively collection of historical stories connected to the Fife community of

Largo. From Picts and Romans in the distant past, through naval hero Sir

Andrew Wood, witch hunts, Alexander Selkirk and Daniel Defoe, to

shipwrecks off the Scottish coast and tragedy in search of the Northwest


The Hidden Story of the Kilsyth Weavers

Tom Crainey

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 HB 9781908931306

Thoroughly researched and accessible local history which turns around events of national significance in Scotland’s radical past.


Follow We Will: The Fall and Rise of Rangers

W Stewart Franklin, John DC Gow, Chris Graham & Alasdair McKillop (eds)

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373687

Published July 2013, this book describes and analyses, from a Rangers perspective, all the relevant issues and events from an unprecedented period in the history of Scottish football. This is the story of how the world’s most successful football club found itself in the Third Division and the loyalty that started to propel it back to the top.


The Traveller

Theresa Breslin

BARRINGTON STOKE £6.99 PB 9781781121986

As the old man by the fire tells the tale of a mysterious traveller, whose fury at the Lord Aleslan drove him into a wild night to seek vengeance, another unknown traveller arrives. Who is this young man? What does he want? An atmospheric teen tale with a story within a story.


Cat Clarke

BARRINGTON STOKE £6.99 PB 9781781122075

It’s the party of the year and Anna has big plans – her best friend Tilly has come out and Anna wants to set her up with the only other gay girl in school. But things start to spin out of control… A poignant teen story about growing up and coming out.


Our Hillman Imp

Paul Coulter

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781908931313

Fifty years since the Imp was first produced at Linwood. A fully illustrated celebration of the Imp’s enduring character.

Waverley Route: The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway

David Spaven

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £14.99 PB/ £20.00 HB 9781906134990/ 9781908931009 The story that says much about Britain’s railways in the late 1960s, and about the opportunities created by devolution of power in the last years of the twentieth century to right one of the great wrongs of the old model of London-based transport policy. A social history of the Borders as much as a transport book. Illustrated with numerous period and current photos never before published.


When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age

Trevor Braham

THE IN PINN £16.99 PB 9781906000530

The first edition of this book won the 2004 Boardman Tasker award for Mountain Literature. This new paperback edition follows the same format as the original. llustrated with colour and black and white plates.

Charlie, Meg and Me

Gregor Ewing

LUATH £9.99 PB 9781908373618

For the first time, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arduous escape of 1746 has been recreated in a single journey. Gregor Ewing, along with his faithful border collie Meg, retraces Charlie’s epic 530 mile walk through remote wilderness, hidden glens, modern day roads and uninhabited islands.

Of Big Hills and Wee Men

Peter KempLUATH £9.99 PB 9781908373304From the time he bagged his first Munro, Peter Kemp has remained an enthusiastic hillwalker and this book is a testament to his passion for Scotland’s outdoors and hillwalking culture. Accompanied by his life-long friends from Glasgow, he takes on the big hills of Scotland, finding both escape and companionship amongst the mountains of Scotland.

Scotland’s Mountains before the Mountaineers

Ian Mitchell

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373298

This work tells the story of explorations and ascents in the Scottish Highlands in the days before mountaineering became a popular sport – when Jacobites, bandits, poachers and illicit distillers traditionally used the mountains as sanctuary.

Call of the Mountains

Max Landsberg

LUATH PRESS £20.00 HB 9781908373700

Both a travel guide and a personal journal, Call of the Mountains is the story of one man’s passion for Scotland’s mountains. As he recalls his physical, emotional and spiritual journey amongst the Munros, Max Landsberg opens up the lost realm of the Gaels, now haunted by their spirits and the stag. Due for publication September 2013.


Michael Bogdanov the Shakespearean Director will be appearing at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday 17th August at 8.30 to discuss his two new books.

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What do Kids Know?

Neil Mackay’s debut novel is more Natural Born Killers than What Maisie Knew but it does have its Jamesian turn, and its Jamesian problem. The most problematic of all the windows in what the Master called the House of Fiction is the knee-high one that looks out of, and lets light into, the nursery. Henry James’s genius was that he could both inhabit the mind of a child and unsurpassably convey its limited perspective on a world of sex and sexual tension, money and divorce, but also be present in his book as its author. Maisie Farange knows and intuits a lot, but some of what we learn through her we owe to James entirely. Maisie is a human pawn who occasionally feels she is a queen, and sometimes moves as awkwardly and as devastatingly as a knight. Her understanding of events is almost pre-verbal but it grows steadily as the book advances. F. R. Leavis thought it was a perfect novel. James Wood in his How Fiction Works sees it as one of the great models for the ‘free indirect style’ that dominates modern narrative.

The problem that Mackay’s characters have is that they know too much. This is their problem as young people and also as literary characters. For the parallels with What Maisie Knew to work, the differences have to be clear. James’s novel was published in 1897, set in London and France, and concerned with a divorcing couple, weak and venal rather than truly vicious, who divide a solitary child between them. The book is quietly comic, its one (often forgotten) moment of actual violence the off-screen death of the grotesque governess Mrs Wix’s daughter Claudia Matilda, who goes under a carriage on the Harrow Road and is buried at Kensal Green. Mackay’s novel is set in the town of Antrim in 1980, and despite that dateline is in every way post-Dunblane, post-Bulger, post-Columbine. Its comedy is midnight dark, its violence overt and detailed.  Its two sets of parents have viciousness running through their various weaknesses and they are defined mainly by absence (gaol, whoring) or by brutality (thrashing a little boy, pimping out a little girl). Three of them (and a grandmother) perish by the book’s end, bloodily as with its other victims.

The book’s killers are not so much natural-born as made, children whose dysfunctional and ugly upbringing – as ugly in its occasional sentimentality as in its gruesome moments of actual physical harm – provides what might be thought an ‘inevitable’ trajectory to murder. Some critics have suggested a parallel between What Maisie Knew and Sigmund Freud’s slightly later ‘Dora case’. The analogy in Mackay’s case is a psychology conference with the screamer headline ‘WHY CHILDREN KILL’.

The problem with this lies in what we might after all mean by ‘post-Bulger’.  Anyone who has read Blake Morrison or the late Gitta Sereny on those terrible Liverpool murders will know that the more one looks into the background of a child killer the more mysterious, rather than clear, the act and its motivations become. There is actually a moment in All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang when a child, neither Pearse nor May-Belle, pulls the legs and wings off a cleg. This is the kind of thing serial killers are invariably remembered as doing in childhood, but of course so do the rest of us, and it provides no adequate explanation of why adults kill. Nor does the other fundamental drive. As Morrison showed, Venables and Thompson (perpetrators of the Bulger murder) talked hazily about sexual matters during their questioning, but these were largely overlooked in court, either to spare the victim’s family further pain, or else to preserve some sentimental attachment to the ‘latency period’. We’re all Freudians, really. But children grow up in a historical and social context as well as a psychic one and the background of the Troubles is an additional and additionally complex aspect of Mackay’s novel. It’s a scene he knows well and recounts with conviction: flags and Lambeg drums, sectarian graffiti, ould songs and Adam Ant songs, the day the wrong person climbs into the wired car and turns the ignition…

And yet the background doesn’t deliver what T. S. Eliot, borrowing from the art historian Washington Alston, called an ‘objective correlative’. Thinking of Hamlet and his madness, Eliot sought in vain for the ‘adequacy of the external to the emotion’, as if a murdered father returned as a ghost, a usurping uncle, faithless mother and bonkers girlfriend weren’t quite enough to explain a breakdown.

Dragging in Eliot isn’t just another deceptively flattering way to beat up Mackay with literary history. It’s to make the point that All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t a psychiatric or sociological tract – doctors, police and magistrates function oddly and remotely in it – but a sophisticated (in the way that Hamlet is sophisticated) revenge tragedy, and that its protracted form (in the way that Hamlet is ingeniously drawn out) has a specific and clever narrative function. We’re told in the first lines that something very bad has happened, but that the badness has gone into the realm of storytelling and has involved the most radical kind of separation.

The killers, to meet them at last, are eleven-year-old friends Pearse Furlong and May-Belle Mulholland, and aren’t those richly Jamesian names for two kids who’re going to torture and murder their peers and elders! The clever thing Mackay does is to give Pearse a long and richly storied family background and May-Belle none at all, in fact nothing to mitigate the horror of a mother who feeds her sleeping pills or sells her, all too horribly awake, to middle-aged men; nothing except a rich singing voice all the more wonderful for seeming to come from nowhere. Pearse, on the other hand, has inherited an entire family saga, one that suggests the present, as son of a downtrodden mother and a UDR man who stashes an illegally held gun in the family home (Chekhovian touch! it goes off several times in Act 5), is a falling away from a grand and affectionate past.

These are the stories he tells to May-Belle as they snuggle sexlessly in his bed. And they are a very large part of the book’s problematic. To quote one example. Pearse describes his Granda being gravely wounded, steamed alive, in a sub during the Battle of Jutland. And yet, apart from a few German wolves prowling the Firth of Forth there were no submarines in the order of battle at Jutland that I know of. The torpedoes came from surface ships. So is this misremembered detail, or is it invention. And if so, whose invention? Pearse’s? Gran’s? Mackay’s? The very fact that one pauses over a detail like this is a sign that there is something not quite right about the narrative voice of the book. It’s very nearly right, but there are moments when one feels that, in the other sense, Pearse knows too much.

It’s all grandly written, in both the usual and the Irish sense. There is a Joycean lift to some of the sentences – ‘In Pearse’s house back then there was a long hall, front to rear, that seemed to have no end to it – just a fizzing black hole at the very back of the house…’ – and there is a pulled-back, overarching perspective to the beginning and end of the book that tells us Pearse and May-Belle did not fall dead in a hail of bullets or simply pass into ‘the system’ and anonymity but are still with us, conjoined and inseparable, alive and in some miraculous way loving. That is the only thing that makes sense of Pearse’s grasp of Irish as well as family history, that he is still somehow here with us, a middle-aged man looking back at his own and his country’s past with the quietness and stillness that follows extreme violence just as often as noise and chaos do. Like Maisie Farange, Pearse and May-Belle are human pawns who make a sideways jump into chivalry of the most warped kind. They are also somehow aware, as great literary characters have always been, of being characters, on the page, in a book.

James, Eliot, Freud, Chekhov, Joyce; you might add any of the more confident purveyors of unflinching violence, Harry Crews, Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis; or compare the book with others, like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Member of the Wedding or The Catcher in the Rye, that rely on a precariously immature observer. None of these are gratuitous offerings for future drop-quotes but an acknowledgement that Mackay, a gifted journalist and broadcaster, is batting in some very heavy literary company indeed.

All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang
Neil Mackay
Freight Books, PP288, £8.99, ISBN 978 1 908754 288

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Bloody Nora! Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

The most famous door in stage history, the one through which Nora – in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – will exit to detach herself from her family and good society to claim her life for herself alone, is situated on the right as the audience enters. Attached firmly to it, and well in view, is the letter box which represents destiny as firmly and unshakeably as the prophecy made at the birth of Oedipus. Every other item on the set is dramatically redundant. The room as designed by Robert Innes Hopkins has damp patches on the wall and is rather dowdy for what turns out to be an official government residence. Of course in this production Thomas Vaughan, Torvald in Ibsen’s original work, has been only recently promoted to the Cabinet, so the family has not had time to hang their pictures on the walls, nor to unpack or put away the tea chests on which they squat and which presumably held their belongings. The place has a lower middle class look which appears at odds with the dignity and status Thomas repeatedly insists he has attained. 

The decisive moment which lingers in the mind and which has featured in generations of feminist tracts is the exit through that door made by the actress after declaring that she no longer loves her husband and that she wishes to leave both him and their children. This abandonment of the matrimonial home and wifely duties scandalised Victorian audiences, perhaps more than any other single scene in any nineteenth-century play. It was too strong for German theatre-goers, and Ibsen had, grudgingly, to change the ending for them. In this revised scene, Torvald drags his wife into the bedroom to look at the sleeping infants, and there she breaks down and her resolution falters. She cannot bring herself to leave, but this moving image of maternal devotion was not in Ibsen’s original scheme.

The central question for an actress playing Nora is how to interpret that final moment. As she walks out, she closes the door – on domesticity, on asphyxiating bourgeois life, on stifling convention, on a role as wife and mother, on subservience and dependence. But in his version of A Doll’s House for the Edinburgh Festival,  later seen in 1997 on Broadway, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness chose to underline the fact that rather than shut the door Nora was opening it – to opportunity, to independence, to self-realisation if also to uncertainty, self-doubt and a life where mistakes are self-chosen and self-inflicted. Some actresses have walked out confidently, slamming the door defiantly and noisily. Others have slipped out more hesitantly, suggesting an uncertainty over their abilities to live up to the beliefs in self-reliance Nora had so proudly declared moments before. For Amy Manson as Nora in the joint production by the Lyceum and the NTS, it is plainly a painful decision, and she hesitates for what seems like an eternity with the door open and the handle in her hand.

The problem in any modern production is how to overcome the fact that this decision cannot have for a modern audience the explosive impact it had in Victorian times. It seems to be an article of faith, at least in British theatre, that plays today  cannot be left in their original time frame and setting. Your spectator in the stalls would miss the point if Antigone were facing her dilemma in ancient Thebes, if Molière’s Misanthrope were behaving badly in seventeenth-century Paris or if Nora and her husband had their being in Norway late last century. There are now three accepted means of bringing foreign language works to British stages – the translation, the adaptation and the version. The translation assumes the audience is capable of coping with the strangeness of the situation and will make their own assessment of what unfolds, establishing for themselves parallels with the lives they lead: the adaptation involves a switch of environment, of period, even of character as determined by adaptor, all designed to make things easier for an audience assumed to be incapable of coping with anything too challenging. The translator is a figure distrusted in British theatres, so normally some established name is brought in to do what is currently described as a ‘version’, not exactly the play as conceived by the writer but rethought and re-packaged to clarify the core dilemma. The central figure in this production is, then, Zinnie Harris who was responsible for this version and who, presumably in an attempt to give some immediacy to the plot, has shifted the action from Norway to London, and from the late nineteenth century to the Edwardian age.

The advantages of this shift are not clear. Is the thinking of the Edwardian era nearer to contemporary attitudes than that of nineteenth-century Norway? In cultural terms, it was an amorphous, ill-defined period described by G K Chesterton as ‘the Victorian compromise’, when the rigid values and standards of nineteenth-century culture were subject to questioning, but not jettisoned. The ‘woman question’ was still unsettled and the shock of the war lay still ahead. However, whatever the intention, the choice of the Edwardian age as depicted here makes the work somehow comfortable, not challenging. If Ibsen aimed at shock and awe, Harris aims for familiarity. How very similar it all is! Where Torvald had just been promoted to manager of the bank in his small community, Thomas Vaughan has joined the government after a scandal had ended the career of the previous occupant of the ministry, Neil Kelman. Vaughan has the unamused, prudish attitudes of a Thatcherite, while Kelman is the type who would have had no scruples over fiddling his expenses. The press is in a decidedly pre-Leveson mood, and although no newshound appears, the fear of the media is all-pervasive.

But in this play it is the women who matter and who move the action. Ibsen’s genius is that, like Shaw, he could adopt and adapt conventional dramatic, even melodramatic, forms to convey radically innovative social and political notions, and the paradox at the heart of the play is that the two main female characters, both motivated by high ideals, go in opposite directions. Nora had borrowed money to allow her to take her ambitious politician husband away to Italy when he was suffering from depression, a mental condition which would have disqualified him in the eyes of the press and public from holding office. When she is blackmailed by the man who had lent her the cash, the same Kelman whose removal from office had left the way open to Thomas, she has to admit that she had forged the name of the guarantor on the promissory note. Kelman threatens to expose to Thomas the fraud perpetrated by his wife. His note revealing the facts is dropped into the letter box with the transparent front, in full view of the household and the audience. Can Thomas be kept from removing the letter from the box, and on Christmas day? What will be the consequences of cutting open the envelope? Victorian melodrama could not have contrived a more gripping situation.

Kelman, as played by Brian McCardie, is a black-hearted villain of the Iago type, the sort who would once have had the stalls at matinees hissing and booing. That is not a criticism, and certainly not a censure on McCardie’s acting. The production was sluggish until he invigorated it with his entrance. The doubts concern the motivations of the character. Ibsen’s Krogstad was undoubtedly clearer in his own mind. For exactly the kind of fraud Nora had been guilty of, he had been sacked from the bank where Torvald had been appointed manager, and was driven by a mixture of revenge, displaced ambition and fear of ruin, poverty and destitution for himself and his family. Kelman faces nothing so catastrophic, but declares that politics is his life, so somewhat implausibly he wishes Nora to nag her husband to write a journalistic piece in his defence. He torments Nora well beyond anything needed for his own rehabilitation. He is callous and sneering, and seems also to be as prone to sexual harassment as a BBC television presenter. Nora certainly seems open to harassment. Dr Rank (Kevin McMonagle) was in the original a good-hearted friend who only reveals his love for Nora when he is diagnosed as suffering from an incurable illness, but in this version he too is a lecher.

Help against Kelman is at hand, in the shape of Christine, Nora’s old school friend who providentially turns up after years of absence. Here too the coincidences in the plotting have elements of what in lesser hands would be viewed as melodrama. Kelman had been in love with her when they were young, but she had abandoned him because she had needed the financial security she could obtain with an alternative but loveless match. When, after the death of her unloved husband, she returns to find Nora, she aids her friend by taking a course which is the direct opposite of Nora’s. Nora opts for independence, but Christine strives to help her by giving up her own independence. She chooses domesticity and marriage to Kelman, who will in his turn be redeemed in the traditional way, by the love of a good woman. Nora slams the door on married life, just as Christine manages to prise open her door to embrace Kelman and domesticity.

Lucianne McEvoy gives a performance of restrained excellence as Christine, who is in many ways the axial figure in the drama. She has the power to resolve the conflict, she has influence over the course of events and she could have restored calm and convention had she not been frustrated by Nora’s change of heart. In Ibsen, this conversion means that the drama turns into a fable, as the tale of one woman becomes a parable for all women. This play ought to be more than the story of one man, who is good and loving according to his lights but oppressive and bullying in another light, getting his desserts, and of one woman representing all women on the path to fulfilment, but it never quite happens here. Hywel Simons gives a well measured performance as a Thomas Vaughan who is limited, somewhat pompous in his insistence on his own honesty, stunted but without guile, and whose façade of command collapses under pressure. There is no doubt that he and Nora are wildly in love with each other, and indeed it is doubtful if there has ever been a sexier production of this work. Amy Manson’s Nora may have been put upon, but she was certainly not repressed. Her rehearsal for the tarantella has the wildness of the dance of Oscar Wilde’s deliberately decadent Salomè, but this loss of control is a symptom of a mind increasingly unhinged.

It all makes for a good night out, but in this version the external events, well choreographed as they be, never quite stand as outward signs of inward developments, and the drama is no more than a slice of life, however compelling. Ibsen drops along the way indications of Nora’s growing dissatisfaction, and maybe in the Harris version this development is taken for granted, but the final crisis is precipitated by the hubris of Thomas when his wife reveals her well meant deception and by his outrageous decision to discipline his wife for her fraud, whatever the intentions behind it were. It is a sudden lurch rather than a dawning of consciousness. The opening and closing of the door in London is never as shocking as it had been in the Norwegian village.

A Doll’s House

(Co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum.) Run ended.

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Disinterring Pablo Neruda

We crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia. It was dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.

In 1949, the poet Pablo Neruda rode out of Chile in the opposite direction, on horseback, using trails known only to smugglers. Neruda himself was contraband, made outlaw by a government that had just criminalised the entire Chilean Communist Party, of which he was a member, an elected senator, and a dangerously popular spokesman.

What little I knew about his country I had learned from Neruda’s memoir, I Confess I Have Lived. Also, more obliquely, from his poetry, which seemed to give voice to everyone and everything within Chilean borders, from the rain, to the rocks, to the workers in the copper mines and nitrate fields. Obviously, those poems sounded better in Spanish, and I was trying to read them that way in a Penguin bilingual edition.

‘Noche, nieve, y arena hacen la forma de mi delgada patria,’ wrote Neruda in his Canto General, the epic poem-in-progress that he carried into exile, ‘todo el silencio esta en su larga linea.’ (‘Night, snow, and sand make up the form of my thin country/all silence lies in its long line.’) The phonetic pleasure of his words made them less of a chore to follow than the simpler Spanish texts that my teacher assigned me back in Buenos Aires; stories about pirates for six-year-olds.

In 1952, the warrant for Neruda’s arrest was revoked, and he moved back to Santiago, to build a new house for his then-lover and future wife Matilde Urrutia. La Chascona, as he named it, in reference to Matilde’s messy hair, was one of three homes that he came to own in Chile. For a poet, Neruda was conspicuously wealthy, and for a communist he lived quite contrarily to Lenin’s famous dictum that all property is theft.

All three houses are now museums and tourist attractions, managed by the Pablo Neruda Foundation. Over a few days in mid-February – late summer in the Southern Hemisphere – we visited each of them in turn. First, La Chascona, in the capital. Then La Sebastiana, in the hills above the port of Valparaiso. And finally Isla Negra, on the black volcanic coast, where Neruda was buried beside Matilde, and where his body would soon be exhumed by a team of court-appointed forensic scientists.

It was all over the national news. Judge Mario Carroza had given permission for a second autopsy, to help determine whether Neruda died of prostate cancer on September 23, 1973, or by poisoning on the orders of the military junta, who had seized power with a coup d’etat just 12 days before. As we toured La Chascona on our first morning in Santiago, an English-speaking guide named Alexandra told us that the Pablo Neruda Foundation was maintaining a ‘neutral’ position.

‘We are waiting for the new post-mortem,’ she said, walking us through the split levels of the house, with its playful landscaping and recurring maritime theme. Neruda had a thing for ships, and installed a ‘Captain’s Bar’ here that was salvaged from a decommissioned merchant vessel. He also built in a ‘summer bar’, as well as an ‘emergency bar’. By all accounts he wasn’t much of a drinker, but he was an outstanding host.

Standing in the so-called ‘French Room’, Alexandra explained that most of its present contents were sourced from the Chilean embassy in Paris, where Neruda had briefly served as ambassador for socialist president Salvador Allende. The original furnishings were looted and burned by junta soldiers on the night of the coup, September 11 1973.

Earlier the same day, those forces had bombed and stormed the presidential palace, La Moneda, where Allende had apparently shot himself. His supporters and family accepted the verdict of suicide, allowing him the honour of a brave final act of defiance and solidarity. But Neruda, among others, believed that his friend was assassinated.

He stated as much with the last words of his memoir – written in haste, anger, and illness from the relative safety of Isla Negra, before leaving for cancer treatment at the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago, where he too died shortly after. ‘Natural causes’ remained the official story all through the 17-year dictatorship that followed, and long into the modern era of nominal democracy.

But in 2011, the poet’s former driver Manuel Araya came forward to claim that Neruda was given a mysterious stomach injection at the clinic. According to Araya, whatever was in that syringe had made the poet ‘hot, red, and feverish’, and killed him within hours. The allegation was compelling enough for Neruda’s remaining relatives, and his former comrades in the Communist Party, to launch a criminal lawsuit, and for the government to open a formal investigation under Judge Carranza.

When I asked Alexandra about this, she sighed and turned ironic, reminding us that a similar inquiry had resulted in the recent exhumation of Salvador Allende. ‘The new post-mortem just confirmed the old one,’ she said. ‘So yes, of course, Allende shot himself twice in the head.’ (Sarcasm aside, ballistics still cloud this issue, as the weapon used was an AK-47, which could well have discharged two bullets in rapid succession even if the president did pull the trigger himself.)

Like many Chilenos, our guide seemed to doubt the government’s commitment to retroactive justice. The abiding legacy of the dictatorship is a mixed mood of cynicism and populism, where every attempt to address the junta’s abuses can be read as pandering to an electorate for whom the past is still a live issue. There’s still an edge of fear to their collective memory, and Manuel Araya gave this as his reason for waiting almost 40 years to speak up. Alexandra shrugged.

‘A lot of top people from the dictatorship are still in powerful positions today,’ she said, in a tone of scrupulous mildness. I suggested that she must have her own informed opinion as to Neruda’s cause of death. ‘Yes,’ she said, but did not elaborate further.

We moved on to Valparaiso, the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and his mortal enemy Augusto Pinochet – leader of the military junta and later friend of Margaret Thatcher, who famously invited the old general around for tea just days before he was arrested in London on charges of torture and murder.  In Neruda’s memoir, he described how Valparaiso ‘shimmered across the night of the world’, its hillside shanties hanging over the waterfront in ‘unfathomable snaking spirals and the twisting loops of a trumpet’. His own house was up there, La Sebastiana, made of air and tethered to a star, or so he wrote in the poem he dedicated to it.

This did not prevent the property from being ransacked after the coup, but many of Neruda’s curious personal effects had since been restored: his coloured glass bottles and nautical charts, a wooden carousel horse, an armchair he that called ‘The Cloud’ because it felt like sitting on one, high above the Pacific ocean. We toured the rooms wearing headphone audio-guides that added in sound effects such as Neruda’s snoring.

We later learned that this equipment had come to replace some of the in-house personnel, triggering labour disputes and strike action against the Pablo Neruda Foundation. Outside, in the gift shop, an assistant named Christian was prepared to venture his own opinion on the poet’s death.

‘From everything I’ve heard and read, I think it was murder,’ he said in English. ‘Yes, Pablo had cancer, but he wasn’t that sick. It wasn’t so … terminal.’ Decades after the fact, the new investigation had turned up anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to this effect – witnesses who testified to Neruda’s relative good health and plans to seek a second exile in Mexico, ominous remarks made on state-controlled radio stations the morning of his death, rumours of a ‘Doctor Price’, who supposedly administered the fatal shot and was never seen again and who the police have now been ordered to find.

Certainly, Pinochet and his accomplices had motive. Neruda was the rarest kind of poet: world famous in his own lifetime, his works widely read and respected, his voice heard by the masses. In those terms he was no less a threat to their new order than the popular folk singer Victor Jara, who was also killed in the chaos of the takeover, his guitar-playing hands broken at the wrists, and his body riddled with bullets.

It has recently emerged that the junta had the means too. In 2011, the corpse of former president Eduardo Frei Snr was also disinterred by court order (Frei was Salvador Allende’s predecessor, and a notorious political flip-flopper who supported military rule only to denounce it later). Subsequent forensic tests proved that he had been covertly killed with a lethal toxin in the same clinic where Neruda died.

For Christian in the gift shop, this was all he needed to reach his own verdict, though he stressed again that his employers did not necessarily agree. The Pablo Neruda Foundation, he told me, practically whispering now, was established by the same regime that had burned and banned his work. ‘Some people say that [the head of the foundation] Juan Agustin Figueroa was more a friend of Pinochet’s than Neruda’s.’

After the poet’s death, it took almost 20 years, and the end of the dictatorship, for his body to be moved from Santiago’s general cemetery to a plot outside his dream house at Isla Negra. He was reinterred there in 1992, a wish he expressed in the poem Dispositions:

‘Companions, bury me at Isla Negra/in front of the sea I know, to each wrinkled area of stones/and to waves that my lost eyes/won’t see again …’ Standing over the grave that Neruda now shared with his widow Matilde (who died in 1985) an attendant named Lorena told us that it seemed like a shame to disturb him again. The exhumation hadn’t started yet, and the burial mound looked untouched, but surveyors from the Chilean Legal Medical Service had already been out to measure the depth of the remains. One of Lorena’s male colleagues affected not to care. ‘I’m just glad that they’re not making us do the digging,’ he said.

Neither was employed at the house and museum itself – both were sub-contractors for the company that supplied the new audio guides, and much too young to remember the years of the junta. They had grown up in the new Chile, where every public service is privatised, and education has become more expensive than almost any other country, even as standards have dropped to some of the lowest in the developed world.

This too had been all over the national news, along with rumbles of middle-class discontent, and nascent signs of socialist revival. I wondered what would happen if the forensic team could prove that Neruda was poisoned. Prosecutions? Riots? Revolution? An unsurprised collective sigh? Alexandra Manescu, one of two outside observers from the International Red Cross, did not care to speculate.

‘It’s not our place to talk or think about what the consequences might be,’ she said. ‘We are only here to ensure that the process is carried out with respect for the dignity of the dead, and to represent the wishes of the family.’ Manescu’s background was in archaeology, and she had previously been assigned to African conflict zones, where she helped survivors find and identify their missing and murdered loved ones.

She had never worked a case as high-profile as Neruda’s, whose Canto General she read in her native German long before she ever spoke Spanish. But the essence of the job was the same. ‘What we often see is the great sorrow of people who cannot go on with their lives until they know what happened to their loved ones. Many Chilenos know this feeling very well, because thousands disappeared under Pinochet. And the dead, too, have a right to the truth, whatever it might be.’

In this case, even with a body to examine, a quick or clear result seemed unlikely, as the crashing salt spray from the beach below had corroded the poet down to bare bones. The hope was that those bones would show the extent of his cancer, or telltale traces of poison, where the marrow used to be. In either case, the public would believe what they wanted to believe. ‘That’s politics,’ said Manescu. ‘But it’s also to do with poetry I think. Nobody is indifferent to Neruda. No-one is without … sentiment.’

The exhumation was performed on April 8, the same day that Margaret Thatcher died, and several weeks after we had crossed back across the Andes. A final report is not expected until later in the year, and even then may not be conclusive. Even so, I called Manescu and asked her how it went. She had no complaints about the procedure as carried out by Dr Patricio Bustos Streeter and his colleagues.

But they were thrown for a moment, she said, by the Orchestra of San Antonio, who turned up unannounced and unapproved to play outside the sealed forensic tent around the grave.  ‘We were focused on our task of course,’ said Manescu, ‘but I’m quite sure that music had an impact on all of us.’ Then I asked her to describe what was left of Pablo Neruda. ‘It was him, but it was not him. It had nothing to do with the poet. In my opinion, a great writer’s work is independent of their biography. So, however he died, his poetry is separate from his body.’


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Intellectual Nomad

Earlier this year Kenneth White appeared at Aberdeen University’s Mayfestival, giving a lecture on ‘world literature’  and a poetry reading: at both events new books by him were launched, Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath, a set of essays on cultural renewal, and Latitudes and Longitudes, his first new collection of poetry since the publication of Open World: The Collected Poems in 2003. Another new book, The Winds of Vancouver, was launched at the international Irish-Scottish conference in Vancouver. 

At 77, White has reached the age when it ought to be possible to see his career, and his contribution to modern and to Scottish literature, in context, and yet, as the few pages devoted to his work in anthologies of modern literature, Scottish or British, make clear, he remains elusive to contemporary critics. His poetry, it appears, remains more appreciated in its French translations (mostly done by his wife, Marie-Claude White) than in its English originals. Equally, his role as a ‘public intellectual’, not only as a professor of modern poetics at the Sorbonne from 1983 to 1996 but through his establishment, in 1989, of the International Institute of Geopoetics in Paris, has, despite some local supporters, rarely registered in Scotland – the result, perhaps, of the fact that some of his key theoretical works such as Esprit nomade (1987),  Le Plateau de l’albatros (1994) or Dialogue avec Deleuze (2007) have appeared only in French. White remains somewhere in the margins of modern Scottish literature and yet if there is one Scottish writer with a truly European reputation, it is him: translated into many languages and the subject of many interpretive studies. His ideas on the nature of poetry and its relationship to the natural world (what he calls ‘geopoetics’) have been debated by some of the leading figures in the European intelligentsia and in radical politics.

Resident in France since 1968, White seems to be regarded as incidental to a period of Scottish literature dominated by the upsurge in cultural nationalism that was fired by the campaign for a devolved parliament. While other migrant poets, such as Douglas Dunn, and migrant intellectuals, such as Tom Nairn, were making their way back to Scotland in the 1980s, determinedly contributing to the cultural revival of which, at an earlier date, they might have despaired, White was taking out French citizenship and continuing to roam the world in search of places that defied the bordered containment of the nation. Being ‘marginal’ to a national and nationalist culture was, for White, an essential element of the modern intellectual’s inheritance from the figure whom he sees as the pathbreaking thinker of the modern era – Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘If we speak in terms of philosophical and cultural anthropology, the type of artist-philosopher or philosopher-artist, to which Nietzsche feels he belongs, which he manifestly represents, sometimes to the point of rhetorical grandiloquence, but most often with incisive irony, an aphoristic-anarchistic intellectual energy, and a poetic conceptualization, will in the first instance be expatriate, fatherlandless. How, he asks, can “a son of the future” feel “at home” anywhere today?’

The modern writer who accepts such an intellectual genealogy will necessarily find that ‘no ideal whatsoever can make him believe in the possibility of a homely settlement, whether it be an ideal of the past (conservative) or an ideal of the future (progressive), whether it be an ideal of general world-wide humanitarianism or an ideal of a specific nationalist identity’. Such an uncompromising perspective meant that White would not fit easily into the narrative of a culture still finding its way into nationalism rather than finding its way out of it.

The invocation of Nietzsche also underlines White’s lack of interest in what passes for ‘culture’ in modern societies, since ‘culture’ continues as though Nietzsche had never spoken: ‘Most of the literature, most of the art produced was not going to be up to the questions put by these individuals, a kind of “culture” was going to go on as if the questions had never been raised, all of this being, to a demanding mind, beside the point, and of no interest’. Having ‘no interest’ in what passes as ‘culture’ in modern societies, White chooses to define its lack of significance by pointing to the very phenomenon which modern Scottish literature takes to be its major achievement: modern cultures, he suggests, endlessly go on ‘producing yet another “renaissance”’ which is simply an excuse to ‘gather under its banner, for sheer numbers, all kinds of sub-standard work’. Those who regard the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ as the major achievement of modern Scottish culture have, in this view, simply failed to understand either poetry or culture.

White’s disdain for modern culture and his own ambition to transcend it are clear in an essay he wrote shortly after quitting Britain in 1968: ‘in recent times, many of the poets with the life-desire and intellectual demands that go with the production of the most powerful poetry have found it impossible to go on living within British precincts at all. We need only think of D.H. Lawrence, with his loathing of the “pettyfogging narrowness” of England – and if Dylan Thomas, another exemplary figure, remained, who would deny that it was the British set-up and cultural atmosphere that obliged him to turn himself into a kind of Divine Clown, playing incessantly a tragic-comic role and perhaps never reaching anything like his full development as a poet. And there is Yeats, considering that London is the enemy of all real culture, trying to ground a more fundamental culture around that lonely tower in Galway; and Joyce who, if he took the trouble to criticize Ireland, felt that England was beneath criticism; and MacDiarmid, who has been raging now in vociferous Anglophobia and hatred of “grey Englishry” (the cause, as he sees it, of what we might call “grey Scottishry”) for half a century.’ In the 1960s, White was on the side of the extravagant modernists from whose excesses English literature – led by Philip Larkin – had been retreating for two decades. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, each of them was an enthusiastic or a troubled  reader of Nietzsche and, like Nietzsche, saw poetry not simply as a branch of literature but as the summation of all knowledge. Leaving for France was, for White, a way of keeping open this potentiality of poetry, which he found in the surrealism of André Breton, and in those thinkers who had tried to come to terms with Nietzsche. Most important was Martin Heidegger whose writings represent an attempt to ‘unlearn the grammar of dictatorial principles which have made the West’ and to recover ‘a primordial way of speaking which the West no longer knows’. The poet who follows this track will be ‘transcendental’ in the sense implied by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, attempting to see the world without preconceptions, released from the categories of current systems of knowledge. As White puts it in Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath, ‘what the transcendental ego in its cogitation-meditation guarantees is a primordiality. For this primordiality to become a way and eventually a world, every effort must be made to keep the process unvitiated by presuppositions, prejudices and, of course, fantasies’.

Poetry is what keeps the mind open to the world but the poet’s mind will not be open if he is submersed in a particular social world, thus the poet necessarily becomes the ‘intellectual nomad’: ‘Intellectual nomadism meant moving, not only from country to country, but from culture to culture. Every culture is partial – developing in some aspects, neglecting others. Intellectual nomadizing from one culture to another is necessary if one is to arrive at the notion of something that can be called a complete culture.’ White’s ‘waybooks’ – The Blue Road (1983), Travels in a Drifting Dawn (1989), Pilgrim of the Void (1992) – are dramatisations of intellectual nomadism, travels through modern civilisation to those places where the primordial can still be encountered: the intellectual nomad is not carried along in the current of the history of a particular society, but passes transversely across societies, defying their history. In L’Esprit nomade White traced the intellectual tradition of such nomadism, in European, American, Chinese and Japanese culture, but at the heart of White’s account is Hugh MacDiarmid, who, having exiled himself to Shetland from a mere ‘Renaissance’ on mainland Scotland, poses, in poems such as ‘On a Raised Beach’, the ultimate question: ‘How to enter into this world of stones, this elementary world, rather than just describe it’. In Shetland, MacDiarmid had come face to face with the ‘primordial’ and discovered ‘a metaphysical vision of the Light as conceived by Plotinus: contact with the light that makes it possible to see’. It is this foundational ‘light’ that White believes poetry has to capture, a ‘poetry that “gets through to the white” and flows in open space’.

The invocation of MacDiarmid reveals that White’s journeying outwards from Scotland is also a journeying back to it, a journey which Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath continues in its essays on Neil Gunn and on those Ayrshire writers who share White’s boyhood territory. Scotland, not the national Scotland but the geological Scotland, is a place where it is possible to encounter or to acquire what White calls ‘edge-knowledge, not only because it’s concerned with the mind’s cutting edge, but because, up there on the ridge, a whole scape and scope is keenly opened, the contours of a possible new paradigm’ . As part of that new paradigm White reconfigures Scottish cultural history around the Scots as intellectual nomads to suggest that far from being marginal to Scottish traditions, he is, as a wandering Scot, in the very mainstream of a culture which has always been migrant, wandering, exploratory. Thus the prominence he gives to those Celtic monks who took their culture to Europe in the dark ages or who simply set out to see where they might get to; thus the centrality he gives to the theologian Duns Scotus who, after a career in France died in Germany, and who, ‘in the face of Aquinas’ institutional massiveness… is a wanderer in the desert, concerned with following tracks and pathways rather than building edifices’ and who, moreover, was key to the development of Heidegger’s philosophy in the twentieth century; thus the importance he gives to David Hume’s time in France – in ‘David Hume at Lorient’ – and his engagement with French culture:

quiet in my quarters

reading Montesquieu and eating oysters

delighted to see that brilliant intellect

gathering in light

from the most remote and unconnected

corners of the planet.

White’s Scotland is the Scotland of its intellectual nomads who, like Duns Scotus, ‘works not with beliefs, or with axioms, or with psychological realities, but with perceptions and insights, in a highly operative field. He has a fast and flickering way of thought’.

It is that ‘fast and flickering way of thought’ that White’s essays and waybooks seek: written in short sections, they zip between cultural contexts and experiences to set up unexpected lines of connection. They are modelled on what he describes as ‘an erratic logic’ that goes all the way back to a primordial world where people shared ‘the same great, unroaded, uncoded space, and the same perception of fast movement, whether it be of flickering fire, agile flanks or the fluttering of a bird’s wings’. White’s prose is an enactment of fast travelling, of travelling light.

This is where White distinguishes himself from the high modernist poets whose ambitions he defended in 1970. For them, the power of poetry lay in its density, in its capacity, as T.S. Eliot put it in his essay on ‘The Music of Poetry’ in 1944, ‘to insinuate the whole history of a language and a civilization’. Through the work of I.A. Richards and William Empson this notion of poetry dominated Anglophone criticism in the mid-twentieth century:  the criterion of the quality of poetry is how heavily freighted it is with meaning, how many ambiguities it can mobilise, how much cultural baggage it can carry. For White, however, there is no place for the ‘heavy’ in creativity. He has tried to remain light, ‘moving farther and farther away from thick, heavy literature’. The model of the poet is Basho, the master of the haiku, who united poetry with ‘the idea of the Zen-journey, or, let’s say, meditative travelling’.

Such a poetry might have been possible in feudal seventeenth-century Japan, but would it be possible in the west in the twentieth or twenty-first century? In 1975 White published a small book on the poetry of Gary Snyder, one of the Beat poets of San Francisco, and traced how Snyder, through Buddhism, had made himself, Basho-like, into the poet of a spiritual materiality, or a material spirituality. Snyder’s achievement, for White, was to use Haiku-like insights to create a poetry of ‘high, clear moments when all writings fade away and only clear light remains’ and, as he notes in ‘American Affinities’, Snyder is part of a line of American poets with whom he shares ‘a poetic that does not aim at closed artefact, nor is content to  simply comment on the sociological context, but is based ultimately on the idea of an energy moving across space’. The aim of this poetic is to capture that energy, to let art become the medium through which we can intuit ‘the ground language, the fundamental music, of an open world’, a world still unsubdued by the heaviness of human history.

If White remains marginal to accounts of Scottish literature it is, perhaps, because the scale and scope of his poetic ambitions represent a fundamental challenge to the notion that a writer’s significance is national: as he retraces wandering Scots like John Muir in The Winds of Vancouver, he has become, perhaps, the poet of a global Scotland, a Scotland determined not by national boundaries but by the energies of its global explorations. Which is why the Scottish tradition that he constructs, from Erigena and Scotus to MacDiarmid and Gunn, is one he sees as refusing the representational and the historical, one in which Scotland is:

… a rushing white flurry


of a wave-and-wind philosophy.

Latitudes & Longitudes
Kenneth White
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, PP140, £20, ISBN 978-1-906108-16-8

Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath
Kenneth White
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, PP215, £20, ISBN 978-1-906108-17-5

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Out! Out! Out!

Children experience external forces in their lives in the most unlikely ways. The BBC’s WW2 People’s War highlighted the memories of adults whose offspring remembered bright lights in the sky, holidays that they did not know were evacuations and making a bob from salvage.  The convergence of a child’s priorities during a disaster and what we know as real events can be surreal and it’s an effect felt continually throughout Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me.  The ‘blitz’ in this memoir is the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks, and although hundreds of workers left its gates for the last time in June 1992, what Barr’s book reminds us of is that the closure took over a decade.  The battle for Ravenscraig was already raging when Barr was very young, and as the book opens, with the Brighton bombing of 1984, his father is already worried for his job, even though there were another eight years of decline to go.

Ravenscraig’s demise represented one of Scotland’s worst employment disasters and wasn’t just drawn out and painful; it meant the end of all such heavy industry in Scotland.  In its current state, Ravenscraig, once an icon of Scotland’s industrial strength, is one of the largest derelict sites in Europe, an area equivalent to 700 football pitches, or twice the size of Monaco.  Twenty-one years on, Motherwell still suffers from what the Thatcher government did there, because even if the closures were an economic necessity, the Tory administration made no attempt to repair or rebuild the local economy.

Barr’s memories are vivid: playing in the slagheaps, hearing the noise of industry and witnessing the furnaces as an orange glow in the night sky.  The early moments of Maggie and Me are dominated by the steelworks, and Barr captures the community’s pride in ‘the Craig’ when he says: ‘My Dad makes the sun set twice.’ From this child’s point of view, we learn much about the protracted closure, and in the process unpick lingering questions about Thatcher’s relationship to Scotland.

In the banter of the adults, Barr focuses on the origins and impact of this economic disaster, and we get a sense of the deepening North/South divide, and the balance of power within Scottish society, and the privatisations of the era.  The backdrop to Barr’s young life is therefore incredibly sad, and populated with directionless men and women.  When British Steel was privatised in 1987, the new company gave an undertaking to continue production at Ravenscraig for seven years, but this did not happen.  Within half that time, an area of Scotland which already had some of the highest unemployment in the country, had lost another 11,000 jobs.

Barr grew up in the Buckfast Triangle…His mother, we learn, was prescribed Buckie by her doctor when she was pregnant ‘to build her up’.

The threat to the Craig escalates quietly in the background of Maggie and Me.  The young Barr calls the plant ‘Steelopolis’, and describes it fondly, with its cooling towers ‘puffing away together like old biddies at the bus stop.’  The steelworks are a ‘futuristic machine city’, with dancing sparks and men dwarfed by the majestic hugeness of the machinery.  This is not the sort of romantic language typical of discourse about Ravenscraig, and it takes a degree of bravery to describe it in such terms.  Yet there was a point when the plant was enchanting, with its ‘centipede vehicles’ and ‘spaghetti stacks’.  There is currently a new master plan for Ravenscraig—a £1.2 billion new town that will take 20 years to build, but which will supply three and a half thousand houses, a new town centre, retail space and shopping parks. We shall see how that turns out but, as Barr says, reflecting on the homosexual exploits of his adolescence, ‘They’ll never know what went on in their foundations.’

While Ravenscraig colours the physical landscape of Maggie and Me, it isn’t the steel plant that dominates the book, but Barr’s family, and to an extent his sexuality.  Whether his family’s disastrous collapse is down to the demise of the steelworks, or social ills beyond the blame of Thatcher, is a constant issue, and although the community is in a nosedive, they have more than their own share of self-inflicted problems.   For example Granny Mac, Barr’s grandmother, was a Catholic and his father’s family, the Barrs, were Protestant. Thus the separation of the family seems inevitable. Moreover Barr grew up in the Buckfast Triangle, in Newharthill, ‘where countless men disappear.’  His mother, we learn, was prescribed Buckie by her doctor when she was pregnant ‘to build her up.’

Barr himself suffers a daily diet of bullying.  There is a novelistic completeness to the way these stories are presented.  At first it seems clear that this is simply the norm, but as we approach 1988 and the codifying of homophobia in Section 28 of the Local Government Act we begin to wonder if the population really is being led into a darker future by the Tories.  In discussing privatisation and Section 28, Barr tackles two of the most unpopular landmark decisions made by the Thatcher government. He does so adroitly, becoming a champion of sexual rights simply by affirming to his teacher that he is gay.  The teacher is unimpressed but, he says, ‘There’s no punishment for her to dish out.’

Barr quotes Thatcher’s disappointment that children ‘are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,’ a sentiment that is wrong for many different reasons. But Maggie and Me is not a judgement on Thatcher. Perhaps this is because from a child’s point of view, there is no resolution to these subjects, and so hindsight and innocence share the page.  We can’t expect Barr to sympathise with the community losing its jobs (and its will to live), but what kind of empathy can hindsight provide?  The answer is plenty.  His accounts of the trials and amusements of youth show a real talent for reportage and he is as alive to the humour of the classroom as he is to the nuances of his fast-failing family.  His characters are well-drawn Guignols, presented at times in a most gruesome fashion. One is Barr’s dad’s girlfriend, ‘Mary the Canary’, a lipsticked country and western fan whose cooking exploits are hilarious. Then there’s Logan, his mother’s new bloke, who is more than just a child abuser, he’s an inventive sadist who casts an ugly shadow.

As narrator, Barr is devoid of irony and sorrow. As a child of the 1980s, what he seems to miss the most is the television.  Thatcher hovers in the background and quotes from her precede each chapter, but the reader is left to judge whether she is at fault for the collective ills of the era.  Descriptions of her emerging (‘like a Cyberman off Doctor Who’) from the rubble of the Grand Hotel in Brighton are dropped in to stitch the narrative together, but it’s the adults who are constantly battling her, and it’s this that Barr doesn’t understand. At one stage he half-heartedly joins in a chant of ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ because ‘hating her just helps me fit in.’

Even though he wasn’t able to achieve a positive gay identity in Scotland, by the end he has reached the age when he can leave the place forever.  Maggie and Me is not, then, a soul-searching awakening to homosexuality, and neither is it a depiction of how Thatcher’s politics took apart Scottish industry. That said, he jokes about one of the first rounds of redundancies she caused. Referring to the end of free milk for school children, Barr comments:  ‘… we won’t be needing milk monitors any more.  Amanda Ferguson might lose her job.  We all might.’

Maggie and Me
Damian Barr
Bloomsbury, PP245, £14.99, ISBN 978 1 4088 3806 8 


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A Soft Spot for Toffs

In the summer of 1941 a young girl called Margaret Roberts sat her School Certificate exam. Geography posed a particular problem. The first paper, based on work with Ordnance Survey maps, was not too bad, but another paper on the British Isles and ‘one continent’, as she later wrote in her earliest surviving letter, ‘was very disappointing’. America was the continent and Margaret thought the questions ‘not at all bad’, but out of the three on the British Isles, ‘there was only one we could touch’.

All the questions involved a fairly detailed knowledge of Scotland and Ireland. ‘Unfortunately we had not touched island [sic]’, Margaret recalled, ‘and had had precisely two lessons on Scotland.’ As Charles Moore – Miss Roberts’ authorized biographer – pithily observes, even at the age of fifteen, ‘the map of her future political sympathies’ had been laid out. ‘England and America understood, Scotland little studied, Ireland terra incognita and Continental Europe not even mentioned.’

Scotland and Ireland, nevertheless, would crop up throughout Margaret Thatcher’s long life, remaining subjects of bafflement and, during her lengthy premiership, sources of political strife. Both are also subject to mythology, even more potent than that which has shaped the pro- and anti-Thatcher narratives since her downfall in 1990. Indeed, the renewed debate about her legacy that followed her death in April highlighted this, her acolytes overstating her achievements and her detractors exaggerating her failings.

Two books, both with the same title – No Turning Back – but one authorized and the other, as biographers say, permitted, have made a good start in separating myth from reality. She was born and raised in Grantham, an unremarkable Lincolnshire town situated between London, the North East (of England) and Scotland. The geographical context is important, for it shaped Thatcher’s view of England – and importantly it was England rather than the UK – and its relative importance in the British Isles. The mandarin Robert Armstrong called it ‘a very English Englishness’; to Harris she was an ‘unashamed nationalist’, and it seems likely he means of the English variety.

Scots nevertheless crop up in Thatcher’s early life, though often in rather stereotypical ways. A teacher, Miss Gillies, a ‘fiery Scot’, thought, according to a contemporary, ‘that Margaret needed taking down a peg’, while Johnny Dalkeith (later an Edinburgh MP), whom Thatcher considered ‘rather a marvellous person’, raised money at Oxford to buy her a bicycle. She appears to have had a soft spot for patrician Scots Tories in the mould of Dalkeith (later the Duke of Buccleuch) and Alec Douglas-Home, whom Margaret always referred to in her overly familiar way as ‘Alec’.

Then there were potential suitors. ‘He’s about 35 and has a kind of naiveté that only a Scotsman can have,’ wrote Margaret of the earliest. ‘And being a Scotsman he left a nine penny tip for the waiter.’ William Cullen, known as Willie, actually belonged to a colony of Scottish farmers who had moved to Essex before the war to escape the poor state of agriculture north of the border. They retained, as Moore writes, ‘a strong collective identity’. Thatcher, however, appears to have perceived only his Scottishness. ‘He speaks with a frightfully Scotch accent,’ she wrote to her sister Muriel and, on another occasion, ‘My Scottie farmer met me off the train’.

Thatcher soon tired of Cullen and successfully fobbed him off on her sister, with whom he enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Later, when Muriel started producing children and giving them Scottish names, Margaret wrote with obvious irritation, ‘for heaven’s sake let one of your children have an English name as England is the country of William’s choice as distinct from that of his birth’. Another Scot took Cullen’s place, this time a medical superintendent from the Southern Hospital.

A blacksmith’s son from Clatt in Aberdeenshire, Robert Henderson had developed the British version of the US ‘iron lung’, which saved many lives. ‘He was a Scot,’ recalled Thatcher when prompted by Moore later in life, ‘a very good doctor, but he was very much older’. Asked if she’d hoped to become his wife, she added: ‘I wouldn’t disagree with that, but he was so much older.’ The relationship ended. Indeed, Margaret’s father told Muriel that her sister had been ‘very much’ upset at the news.

Did this colour Thatcher’s view of Scots and Scotland? It’s tempting to conclude as much, although of course that would be transposing later considerations on to Margaret’s early life. As Moore writes, ‘one rarely finds a good word for the Celtic parts of the British Isles in the life of Margaret Thatcher, although two of her boyfriends were Scots’. As an MP following the 1959 general election Thatcher worked with Sir Eric Bowyer, a ‘famously stern Glaswegian’ at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her feminine good looks also caught the eye of the future Scottish Secretary Willie Ross (whom Moore confuses with Willie Hamilton, the republican MP), who quipped: ‘We appreciate the honourable Lady’s statistics, but we do not like her figures – in the plural.’

It was over lunch on the Isle of Islay at some point in 1972 that another patrician Scot, Lord Margadale, predicted that ‘Mrs Thatcher is going to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and so she should be’, a remark considered by most present to be ‘very extraordinary’. Two years later, following two successive election defeats, Edward Heath was on his way out and, in the Sunday Post on 3 November 1974, Thatcher acknowledged she’d been receiving letters from members of the public urging her to stand. She did and won.

Moore records her first, oddly exuberant, visit to Scotland, actually a diary commitment inherited from Heath. On an early trip to the United States, the new Conservative leader also talked of Adam Smith and the Declaration of Independence (both dating from 1776). Indeed, many of her speeches referred admiringly to Smith. Her Iain Macleod Memorial Lecture in the summer of 1977 praised the Enlightenment economist for his view that ‘A moral being is one who exercises his own judgement in choice’, going on to argue that ‘economic choices have a moral dimension’. On a trip to the US in early 2013, Alex Salmond posited a very similar argument.

But while Thatcher also emphasised the importance of ‘community’ during an early interview for Scottish Television, she still represented a clear break with the more consensual style of her immediate predecessor. The political balance, in any case, was shifting. As Moore argues, the ‘cuts’ era usually associated with Thatcher actually began in 1976, when a Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, acknowledged the limitations of the post-war consensus (‘we cannot spend our way out of a recession…’) and the IMF demanded real-terms cuts (not repeated, contrary to popular belief, by Thatcher as Prime Minister). In 1977 unemployment hit 1.5 million.

When it came to Scotland Thatcher trod carefully. Under pressure from party grandees she reluctantly renewed Heath’s devolution pledge, but ‘contemplated the question’, observes Moore, ‘with quite a cold eye’. ‘Although she was certainly an instinctive Unionist, it did not engage her passionate interest. As with Northern Ireland…she always hoped the subject of devolution would go away.’ But unlike the province, uncontested by Conservatives in decades, Thatcher was conscious Scotland was an area of weakening Tory support, something she tried – successfully as it turned out – to remedy with three visits in her first seven months as leader.

In late 1976 she bit the bullet and ordered a three-line whip against the Labour government’s devolution proposals. Her Shadow Scottish Secretary resigned and she turned ‘in desperation’ to the pugilistic Teddy Taylor, an appointment she’d tried to avoid, and although the outcome was messy, no more than a vague commitment to devolution, it was to the Lady’s satisfaction. As Taylor remembered, there was never a vote to kill off devolution in the Shadow Cabinet, it ‘just quietly slipped away’. Moore judges her lancing of the devolution boil to have shown qualities her opponents claimed she lacked, chiefly ‘tact, the ability to listen, and a good measure of cunning’.

Something else that required careful handling was the new leader’s relationship with her predecessor. Even during the 1979 general election campaign Tory grandees feared their leader appeared divisive and extreme. Robin Harris records in greater detail than Moore an incident that took place after a particularly gruelling speech in Leith. Thatcher was informed that Peter Thorneycroft, the party chairman, had decided she should appear with Heath in the final broadcast of the campaign. ‘This she regarded as a wounding gesture of no confidence’, writes Harris, erupting with such force that ‘no one present ever forgot the occasion’. The broadcast, of course, did not go ahead.

Her victory in 1979 was marred by the loss of Teddy Taylor in Cathcart, although Moore takes too much at face value his explanation as to why: ‘I want you to destroy the SNP’ (said Thatcher); ‘If we do that, I’ll destroy my seat too’ (replied Taylor). Despite a modest swing to the Conservatives and a net gain of six seats in Scotland, urban Tory support was already in steep decline. Devolution, meanwhile, was parked. As Moore says, some later argued that by ditching it Thatcher had hastened the demise of Scottish Conservatism and ultimately produced the 1997 election result, but ‘that is probably to impose later problems upon those of the period’. This is perceptive, for the importance of constitutional politics is continually overstated in contemporary Scottish history.

Thatcher’s handling of Northern Ireland in those early years is also instructive. She had opposed direct rule for the province in 1972, telling Heath it would ‘suspend democracy in part of the UK’. She was rebuked, Heath telling her it would merely put Northern Ireland in the same category as Scotland and Wales. Then, as Prime Minister, she worried that restoring devolution in the province would lead to similar demands in Scotland. In response to the suggestion there should be an advisory council of Northern Ireland, she asked: ‘leading to a Council of Scotland?’ Thatcher insisted on substantial redrafting, ‘reducing hostages to fortune in relation to Scotland’. And when Jim Prior pushed devolution again, she remained unconvinced. ‘My main worry about devolved government’, she wrote, ‘is the effect it would have on Scotland.’

And there, as far as Moore’s authorized story goes, the narrative ends. He is a model biographer, fleshing out a diligently researched chronology with judicious analysis and a little light relief. And despite his obvious admiration for his subject, there is shrewd criticism. ‘Strictly speaking, Mrs Thatcher was ill equipped for intellectual battle,’ he writes. ‘Despite the brisk efficiency for which she was renowned, she did not have an intellectually orderly mind; nor did she have an original one.’ Similarly, Harris writes that anyone ‘who expected her to argue a case from first principles to its conclusion, rather than mixing up principles and conclusion in her introductory remarks and then remorselessly, endlessly, repeating the mix, was likely to be disappointed’.

So Mrs Thatcher clearly had her weaknesses, but also fully documented are her charms. Her patrician Scottish friends were clearly smitten. The Scottish genealogist, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, was the only man known to have made an indecent suggestion to her during her premiership, while Sir Hector Laing, chairman of United Biscuits, would dispatch notes he requested be placed under her pillow. She holidayed on Islay with the Margadales; a more popular guest than Heath, joining in activities with gusto, even though it was ‘not easy to get her into a pair of walking shoes’.

The narrative is at first repeated, and then extended, by Robin Harris, unlike Moore a close confidante of their subject. Harris, however, isn’t much interested in Scotland (indeed it barely figures in his recent history of the Conservative Party), which only warrants a mention when it comes to the infamous Poll Tax. ‘The history of the Community Charge in Scotland has been rewritten by journalists and the revised version accepted by politicians – even Tory ones,’ writes Harris, accurately. ‘The Scots have thus been depicted as passive victims of a remote, insensitive and Anglocentric Prime Minister. They were not.’ And while the reform ‘turned out to be bad politics’, it was, he adds, ‘Scottish politics for a’ that’.

Harris’s tome is less a biography and more a polemical defence of his old boss and her legacy, on which he is only partially convincing. She might have lacked a final ‘plan for society’, he argues, but the broader social changes associated with her premiership ‘owed rather little to her’, neither beginning with her time in power nor being accelerated by it. He’s also scathing about John Major, noting that Thatcher would screw up her face, adopt a ‘stage Scottish accent’ and say ‘Puir wee bairn!’, a phrase she directed at anyone, ‘however distant or close’, whom she thought was ‘being feeble’. This later included William Hague.

Biographically, however, the Harris book is valuable in charting – often surprisingly frankly – the later Thatcher era, the drinking (Scotch, ‘less fattening than gin and tonic’), mental decline, physical frailty and even marital problems in the autumn of her years. Alcohol had figured in her downfall. Peter Morrison (a son of the Lord Margadale who first identified her potential) ran her ill-fated leadership campaign in 1990. ‘He not only drank: he was an alcoholic,’ observes Harris. ‘By lunch time he was drunk on vodka and tonic, and even sober he was intellectually incapable.’ Ejected from office, Thatcher herself drank rather too liberally, although problematic dental work often gave the appearance of actual drunkenness.

I met her a few times during this period, usually accompanied by Michael Forsyth, a self-confessed Thatcher ‘groupie’ who, as Harris says, ‘showed great kindness’ in looking after her. The most memorable was the launch of my biography of the late George Younger, her Secretary of State for Scotland and Defence. Without doing anything in particular she still oozed charisma, though the mental decline was clear. Small talk was no problem, but anything beyond that was clearly an effort. At one point Forsyth ushered me over to talk about Scotland; the SNP, he explained, had formed a minority government in Scotland (this was late 2008). ‘Oh good,’ she replied in unmistakable tones. Not, I remember thinking, an endorsement Alex Salmond would have welcomed.

She seemed much the same the following year, when Lord Forsyth hosted a dinner in Glasgow to mark the thirtieth anniversary of her becoming Prime Minister. It struck me as curious that this was commemorated in Scotland, hardly a part of the kingdom that had taken her to its heart. Perhaps there was an affinity with that, and indeed Ireland, after all. Thatcher believed herself descended from Colonel Sir John William O’Sullivan, quartermaster general to Bonnie Prince Charlie during the 1745 rising. That, of course, had been a failed revolution. O’Sullivan’s descendent was rather more successful.

Not For Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher
Robin Harris
Bantam Press, PP512, £20, ISBN 978 0593058916

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Vol One: Not For Turning
Charles Moore
Allen Lane, PP896, £30, ISBN 978 071399 2823


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Here Comes Hitler

It is a terrible thing to see our lads marched off, generation after generation, to fight the battles of the English for them. But the end is upon them. When the Germans land in Scotland, the glens will be full of marching men come to greet them and the professors themselves at the universities will seize the towns.’ 

Thus spoke Miss Carmichael, the deranged daughter of a highland laird, to a bemused Guy Crouchback in Officers and Gentlemen, the middle novel of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy set during the Second World War. Gavin Bowd uses these lines as a prelude to Fascist Scotland though he offers no guesses as to whom she might have been based upon. His scholarly and hugely entertaining narrative does however serve to remind us that fantasists of her ilk were around in wartime Scotland. They were never numerous but had to be watched by the police and security services in the ‘invasion summer’ of 1940 and in the dark months of early 1941 when the war’s outcome still hung in the balance.

Some of their fantasies were brutal and anti-Semitic like those of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, Etonian, former Guards officer and member of the Royal Company of Archers, who was elected to Parliament as Conservative and Unionist member for the South Midlothian and Peeblesshire seat in 1931. For his openly pro-Nazi views he was interned under the Emergency Powers legislation in May 1940. Prior to that he had been active in bodies such as the Link and the Right Club both of which had vocal support from an element within aristocratic and Conservative Scotland. The plebeian fascism and street violence of Mosley’s movement made little appeal to them and Bowd gives an excellent summary of the reasons why the British Union of Fascists signally failed to create a real support base in Scotland. As he says ‘Scottish Fascism had to carve out a niche in a crowded market for bigotry’ but it was unwilling to associate itself with the politics of a Protestant sectarianism which achieved a toxic presence in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1930s.

They also found themselves outflanked by an emergent political nationalism. Mosley and his party had little to contribute to any debate on Scotland’s constitutional future though they did consider the case for Scottish BUF activists to wear kilts with their black shirts. Grey was the favoured colour, ‘tartan being impossible, as the fascist policy is to embrace all clans and classes’. Such support as they did mobilize could owe much to local power-brokers like James Little, bank manager and Town Clerk of Dalbeattie where for a time the local BUF branch claimed four hundred members. In Aberdeen funds and support came from William Chambers-Hunter, a landowner with African colonnial connections. There, as in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee the left was on hand to provide militant, often violent but effective opposition.

The left was also there in force to support the Spanish Republic after 1936 but Catholic Scotland largely espoused General Franco’s cause with enormous open-air masses and rallies at Carfin grotto. This, Bowd points out, was not so much an expression of overt fascism as solidarity with a church seen to be under dire threat in Spain though some Scottish Conservative MPs who were, like an element within the aristocracy, already on the far right ideologically were quick to take up the Francoist and Falangist cause.

Fascism, as Brecht famously put it, is a bitch that is always in heat. It will feed off and also stoke real or imaginary fears as readily as it will absorb whatever is on offer from the effusions of any flawed intelligentsia. Scotland gave the world David Hume and Adam Smith but also crude eugenicists and pedlars of bogus racial science like the anatomist Robert Knox and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They of course influenced what Fascism there was here and may too have had a corrosive effect on the discourse of early nationalism. Andrew Dewar Gibb held a chair of Law at Glasgow University as well as senior office within the Scottish National Party but in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse he wrote in obscenely racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland.

Gibb was someone whom Gerhard von Tevenar, a Nazi emissary to Scotland in 1937 and 1938 was anxious to meet though he had to settle for writing to him as part of his quest for ‘Blutsgefuhl’, i.e. a sense of race awareness within Scottish nationalism. He had to conclude that there was little of it but there was some, as the crass anglophobia of some contributions to the pre-war Scots Independent serve to remind us. An example of this was Arthur Donaldson and today’s SNP should surely take no pride in his post-war rise to a ten-year tenure as its chairman or indeed in still having an annual conference lecture named after him. Having been expelled from the party for his open support of Scottish neutrality in the war Donaldson, though not a Fascist in any card-carrying sense, was at the very least a defeatist in 1940 when Hamish Henderson and many more who thought as he did were already in uniform. In 1940 and 1941 Donaldson talked and wrote of a Nazi victory as a moment of political opportunity for Scottish nationalism. His careless talk and some of the company he kept led to his arrest in May 1940 and a six-week spell in Barlinnie during which he was allowed to wear his kilt. His release was sanctioned by the Labour Secretary of State Tom Johnston who felt there were insufficient grounds for holding him.

Like the poet and classicist Douglas Young, Donaldson continued to categorise as Quislings Scots who publicly made the case that victory over the Third Reich should take priority over Scottish self-government. The extent to which such views still had support within a small and fractious SNP brought the departure of its most able leader,the pro-war democrat Dr John MacCormick, but they were the views of fools rather than Fascists. Whether the fools and such Fascists as there were could ever have played an actively pro-German role would have had to depend very much on the ability of the Wehrmacht to land in Britain or in Scotland itself.

The possibility of this is a major concern of Gordon Barclay’s fascinating and lavishly illustrated account of how the defence of Scotland was planned, resourced and coordinated in 1940 and 1941. Only on 2 July 1940, he writes, did Hitler, still astonished by the speed of his armies’ victory in the West, order preparations to begin for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. This he then postponed in mid-September to clear the way for his onslaught on the Soviet Union but Britain’s defence planners had to assume an invasion was still on and that, after the fall of Norway, Scotland’s northern and eastern coasts would be prime target areas for it. Churchill always thought that the English Channel coast would be where the Germans would try to land but vast resources were nonetheless thrown into the defence of Scotland and large forces deployed there, some of them, after Dunkirk, poorly equipped for their role. General Sir William Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, confided to his diary in early July 1940 his doubts about being able to stop a German landing in Scotland and there was indeed a real chance that Hitler’s forces could at least have secured footholds in Caithness and the Orkney islands had they chosen to capitalise on their air-power and parachute troops the way they had in Norway.

They chose not to and thus gave precious time for the construction of strongpoints, stoplines and coastal defences, the location of which Barclay clearly knows like the back of his hand. By the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 an invasion of Britain could not have succeeded but elaborate counter-measures went on and remain the visible part of our landscape that this fine book shows them to be. As its author notes, ‘From being prudent precautions against an identifiable risk, defence preparations and the numbers of men making them became an impediment to the successful prosecution of the war, wasting materials and time better spent training for offensive warfare.’

An all-consuming fear at the height of the invasion scare was of the enemy within, the legendary and largely imaginary ‘Fifth Column’ that was supposed to have facilitated German victories in France and elsewhere. Barclay gives us a vivid account of how the Home Guard and locally based army units responded to a ‘Fifth Column’ scare in and around Montrose in mid-June 1940. Little came of a series of alarms but he points out that the local MP, a Lieut.Colonel Kerr, was a kindred spirit of Captain Ramsay and that his constituency had hosted lectures sponsored by the Link and the Right Club in which praise had been heaped upon Hitler and his Reich.

Internment in May 1940, though it scooped up many totally innocent ‘enemy aliens’, rightly took from political circulation Mosley, Ramsay and other Fascists. Only one Scottish nationalist, a minor figure, was arrested. Other nationalists remained under close observation and Arthur Donaldson might well have offered his tawdry services to the Nazis had they wanted them. He and the few who thought like him were however small fry from Berlin’s point of view. When Rudolf Hess landed near Eaglesham on 10 May, 1941 contact with Scottish nationalists does not seem to have been part of his agenda. The addresses he was concerned with, those of impenitent appeasers, were up-market ones in London and the English Home Counties and perhaps too within the extended Windsor family.

In fact, the Gestapo was rather more concerned with those whom it would want to arrest in and deport from an occupied Scotland. Gavin Bowd quotes from its ‘Search List’ which reveals predictable names such as those of James Maxton, Naomi Mitchison and the maverick Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl who had campaigned for republican Spain and against appeasement. Whether Hugh MacDiarmid was upset at being absent from the list is not known. His pre-war Communist Party membership might have earned it but as Bob Purdie shows in his recent study MacDiarmid – Hugh MacDiarmid: Black, Green, Red and Tartan – had also unwisely written in the 1920s of Italian Fascism embodying a dynamism and national pride from which a reborn Scotland might benefit.

He had too from his island fastness of Whalsay mocked Britain’s war effort in 1940 and revelled in his indifference to the German Blitz on London. He had also compared Churchill’s ministers to Gauleiters. By then he had already been under surveillance for ten years but having supported Donaldson and Young in their call for Scots to refuse their registration for war service he tamely accepted his when it came in 1943 and left Whalsay to work on the Clyde. As he later cheerfully wrote of himself, his intellectual and political life had been akin to that of a volcano emitting a great deal of rubbish along the way and he also made amends with a fine poem inspired by the Second World War names on the memorial in his old school in Langholm.

Neither of these authors can, by the very nature of what they have undertaken, avoid straying into some counter-factual history, such as whether Operation Sea Lion could have succeeded in 1940 and where it might have left those Scots who would have wanted to collaborate with it. They have opened up by their meticulous research and their stylish presentation of it issues which have a very real bearing on both how we view our past as well as what political future we want for our country. Bowd has come under vitriolic abuse, most of it online, for daring to look at recent history in the war and for reminding us that our body politic is not immune to the virus of racism and other forms of prejudice.

Finally, this reviewer as a Hibernian supporter of long standing has noted the fact that in 1935 Mosley’s men tried to leaflet a home game at Easter Road. There was a bigger and effective leafleting exercise there in October 1988 by home fans in protest at the vile racism which had greeted the Rangers player Mark Walters at other Scottish grounds which will be left unnamed here. This point could perhaps be included in a second edition of Fascist Scotland which it fully deserves.

Fascist Scotland: Caledonia and the Far Right
Gavin Bowd
Birlinn, £12.99, ISBN: 978 1 78027 052 4

If Hitler Comes: Preparing for Invasion: Scotland 1940
Gordon Barclay
Birlinn, £20, ISBN: 978 1 84341 062 1

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SRB Diary: Diary of a poacher turned gamekeeper

Authors are often asked what the inspiration was for their novels, and you can see their faces freeze into polite boredom at the question. It’s as tedious as being interrogated on what word processing package they use, or how many pages they write a day. What interests me is not the first spark, but the leap between idea and book. It can be a mere hop and a skip, or a taxing long-jump, but in each case the real work begins not with the concept, but with turning it into something so artful and freestanding that the original seed is as invisible to the reader as the fluttering key that becomes a sycamore. Sometimes, as time passes, it becomes invisible to the writer too.  

I’ve been thinking more about this since writing a novel of my own. After Flodden is set in the years running up to, and the months following, Scotland’s greatest military defeat. In two hours, on a September afternoon in 1513, the king, James IV, his son Alexander and a great many of the country’s ruling elite were killed, along with 10,000 or more ordinary soldiers. That wholly unnecessary, foolishly rash encounter had a devastating effect on the people of the time and, more subtly, on subsequent generations. Yet over the years so little has been said on the subject by historians and novelists, politicians and poets, it seems reasonable to infer that the subject remains painful or shameful.

The germ of the story came to me some years ago, when I was reading about James IV, and browsing the Lord Treasurer’s accounts for his reign, as one does on a quiet afternoon in Edinburgh’s Central Library. The daunting figure of James’s secretary, Patrick Paniter, began to emerge from the letters sent from James’s court across Europe, to kings and popes and diplomats. Paniter was a towering intellectual figure who conducted much of the king’s business as he saw fit. Such was his position that James once told Pope Julius II to trust no letter from him that did not bear Paniter’s signature as well as his own.

A scholar but no gentleman, a man of the cloth, despite no priestly training, Paniter was in charge of the guns at Flodden. He was an ebullient and perhaps an arrogant figure. His high-handed style of writing was described by one editor as displaying ‘a Corinthian glitter’. It was that phrase that first piqued my interest. Then, as quickly became apparent, it appeared that down the centuries Patrick Paniter has slipped through the net, meriting little more than cursory attention in histories of the period. It seemed to me that, given the power he wielded in James’s affairs, he was worth examining.

In his recently collected Spectator columns Allan Massie writes of historical fiction, ‘It gives you what all novelists seek – and often despair of finding: the outline of a plot … There are signposts along the way. You know you have to get Caesar to the theatre of Pompey by the Ides of March 44BC. You know your destination. What a relief!’ Yet while helpful, the signposts Massie refers to can also become hurdles, as reality interferes with fictional freedom. How much leeway dare a writer allow themselves, in changing or eliding or ignoring events, in reshaping character, or altering facts? Depending on one’s temperament, plotting the known against the imaginary can become a fiendishly difficult exercise. That dilemma took on a deeper significance for me when a retired librarian recently asked how much responsibility a writer feels when recreating history, given that many readers will use the novel as a history book, and never seek out the real facts. I suspect that if writers of fiction set in the past gave that too much thought, they would freeze before typing a word.

Writing After Flodden was an act of imaginative inquiry. I did not think of myself as writing a historical novel or righting ancient wrongs; rather I was exploring a set of characters and questions that interested me. That these figures lived half a millennium ago was almost irrelevant, except when it came to wishing I could move them about the country more quickly than by horse. To my mind, however, they were unknowable not because of their era but because of who and what they were, how they thought and behaved. One could feel the same about a contemporary cast of characters from a very different background or world, whose motivations or experiences feel equally alien, and thus as intriguing.

But it swiftly became clear that writing about the past immediately hangs a label around a book’s neck. Whether you are a Barry Unsworth or a Philippa Gregory, a niche has been found for your tale even before a page has been printed. It’s like naming a child before it has been born. What in my case was conceived of and written like any other novel, is now part of a genre. As I was soon to discover, there are countless online sites for readers of historical fiction, and shelves devoted to it in bookshops and libraries. One day no doubt there will be historical book festivals to compete with their criminal rivals – perhaps there already are. I am not complaining, but it is noteworthy that more than in any previous age of publishing, books need a category if they are to sell. Is it the readers who like certainty or is it the publishers, or booksellers? I do not want to believe it’s the writers.

* * *

September 9, 2013, is the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. Already preparations for a series of events in the area are well underway, not all of them sombre. A local ice-cream maker held a competition to come up with a name for a flavour to mark the occasion, its defining taste to be ‘bittersweet’. (The winner was ‘Rose and Thistle’.) There’s  also a commemorative Flodden marmalade, made from blood oranges and red grapefruits.

The usual Riding of the Marches that takes place every summer throughout the border towns will this year have a special significance. My partner’s nephew, who is Musselburgh’s Honest Lad, will be taking part in the Flodden memorial riding. While he trots down the high street of Selkirk on the first Saturday in September, I’ll be  looking on from the bookshop, where I’ll be signing copies of my novel. Despite the number of horses it features, I’m glad it’s that way round.

Late in May, when I visited the battle site to take photographs, a man sitting on what looked like a dodgem car was mowing the well-tended path along the battlefield trail. When he stopped to talk, he introduced himself as Clive Hallam-Baker, chairman of the Battlefields Trust, the organisation responsible for signposting the fields where the battle took place, and for turning a red phone box in the nearby village of Branxton, purchased for £1, into the smallest visitor centre in Britain, if not the world.

It is instructive that an English society has taken the trouble to maintain the site, and offer visitors a guide to what took place, when Flodden had no impact whatsoever on  English fortunes. I doubt many English south of Morpeth have even heard of it. When I asked Hallam-Baker if the village was getting ready to celebrate the event, then wondered if I should have used a less callous word,  he laughed.  ‘Celebrate is right!’ he said. ‘The English won!’

Is that why Scotland has done almost nothing to commemorate the battle, or the men who died? It cannot have been beyond the wit or ability of our leaders to join forces with our former enemy and turn the battlefield into a memorial worthy of the occasion it witnessed. The reason the site was neglected for so long is a reflection of apathy on the Scottish side. No doubt some felt that, since the site was in England, we could conveniently forget this most inglorious and unedifying event. I’d suggest that the near silence on the subject by the political establishment over the centuries is yet another symptom of the impact Flodden had on the Scottish psyche, draining optimism, and instilling a defeatist outlook.

Hallam-Baker, who was a founder member of UKIP, flies a St George’s flag from his house in the heart of Branxton village.  He once had a dog, he told me, which, whenever he was taken across one of the fields where the battle took place, refused to cross a particular patch. There was nothing distinctive about this spot, but whatever direction he approached it from, the dog would stop, stare, and then turn tail for home. He added that a New Age friend of his once offered to douse at the site, to find out what, if any, spirits still lingered. She set off, but after a very short time phoned Hallam-Baker and told him she didn’t want to continue. She sounded spooked. “There’s too much here,” she said.

Before I left, he directed me to the field where the battle is thought to have begun. Cannon balls have been unearthed there, and it’s believed to contain a pit of bones, which archaeologists might want to dig up. ‘Leave them in peace,’ was his philosophy. Mine too. And yet with After Flodden I suppose I have myself stirred the waters, or poked in the mud of this grisly subject.

* * *

A friend who lives in Kelso tells me he heard that corpses from James IV’s army were carried to Yetholm, the nearest sanctified ground in Scotland, to be buried. He sounds sceptical. As I am to discover, every conversation with a borderer, from either side, produces another story, theory or fact. I am glad my book is a novel. If it were history, the research would have taken a lifetime. A historian might of course ask, why make things up when there’s a wealth of information to write about? Yet that is surely the point of historical fiction. Where historians work with facts, novelists can play with them.

Only after finishing the novel did I fully appreciate that what seems like a far-distant time, is not so remote. The 500th anniversary records an event that happened only ten times my lifetime ago. When one considers that supposedly enlightened modern governments still go to war, that democracy is fragile even in the west, and non-existent for half the world; that human rights are routinely ignored, even in Scotland, and that violence, be it in the shape of terrorism, domestic abuse, or street brawling, is still rife, 1513 begins to feel familiar. What at first appears unspeakably barbaric and historic, is only a mirror of our own times in more superstitious shape.

After Flodden
Rosemary Goring
Polygon, PP331, £14.99, ISBN 978 1 84967 272 0


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Doubt and the Detective

The name is misleading. Laidlaw. Makes you think of a man of certainties, of cast-iron convictions, someone who lays the law. William McIlvanney’s detective hero, Jack Laidlaw, is distinguished, however, from the ever-multiplying scrum of fictional sleuths by his uncertainty. ‘The most certain thing about Laidlaw was his doubt.’ Not that he is a procrastinator or wishy-washy in his opinions. Doubt, in his case, is a philosophic choice. ‘If everybody could waken up tomorrow morning and have the courage of their doubts, not their convictions, the millennium would be here. I think false certainties are what destroy us.’

Jack Laidlaw is at the centre of a loose trilogy written across three decades: Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). The first part was published two years after McIlvanney won the Whitbread Novel Prize for Docherty. Critics expressed surprise that this promising young author, barely 40, should follow up a prize-winner with, of all things, a roman policier. His choice is logical, however. Read in a certain light, Docherty is a subversion of genre, in this case the historical novel; it gives a presence to the sort of people never ordinarily allowed admittance to the historical novel unless it is to play rude mechanicals: the Scottish working class. For his next book, McIlvanney, like Laidlaw, went rogue to achieve his goals, and in doing so created a sub-genre, ‘Tartan Noir’, that grew enormously successful despite – because of? – its practitioners rarely admitting into their fictions the intellectual currents that underpin the trilogy.

The Laidlaw books pose the tidy-minded a dilemma. From a distance, one might be tempted to call them detective novels; after all, that is the profession of the titular character.  And there’s the rub. Describing them as ‘detective novels’ suggests a whodunit, and McIlvanney’s trilogy only assumes the lineaments of genre when it suits his deeper purposes. For example, in Laidlaw, we know almost from the start the identity of the murderer. The trilogy can be described as detective novels only in the sense that the latter part of The Brothers Karamazov is one too. The dialogue and metaphors might give the impression a Gorbals Chandler had a hand in their composition –

‘Sometimes I get the urge to rearrange your face.’

‘You should fight that,’ Laidlaw said, not looking up. ‘It’s called a death wish.’

– but its substance is spun from the same dark thread Dostoevsky worked with. Consider the authors whose volumes the lawman keeps in his desk drawer ‘like caches of alcohol’: Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno. McIlvanney doesn’t raise the names of those authors as a sort of intellectual perfume, just a whiff to persuade you Laidlaw is a deeper character than you might expect in such a setting, a concession to the crowd the Whitbread Prize attracted. Camus especially was important to his concept of a moral cosmos, as the Frenchman had been since the start of McIlvanney’s writing career; his debut novel Remedy Is None is marked by the same struggles to make sense of the self as L’Etranger. Laidlaw doesn’t merely interrogate suspects; he continually questions the subject of how to live well in a godless world: ‘All we have is each other and if we’re orphans, all we can honourably do is adopt one another, defy the meaninglessness of our lives by mutual concern.’ Ironically, despite his advocacy of communal responsibility, Laidlaw – in genre as well as existential terms – stands alone.

Canongate, which is reissuing the Laidlaw novels, have made two mistakes in their blurb. Firstly, pandering to Tartan Noir fans, it describes their hero as ‘the original damaged detective’, when, if anything, with his love of literature and his children as well as his generous moral code, Laidlaw is the best-adjusted character in the trilogy. Secondly, each volume is branded ‘A Laidlaw Investigation’. It would be more accurate to describe them ‘A McIlvanney Investigation’. What does the author pass his magnifying glass over? The soul of Glasgow, the ills of masculinity, the nature of guilt: ‘…Born in Scotland, you were hanselled with remorse, set up with shares in Calvin against your coming-of-age, so that much of the energy you expended came back as guilt.’

Laidlaw, as his exasperated colleagues would have known, has a different take on the matter of guilt than the consensus view. A large part of Scotland’s post-WW2 culture wars have focussed on ameliorating the historical causes and consequences of its natives’ capacity to suffer and harbour guilt. Taking the opposing view, Laidlaw believes we all need to experience more, not less, guilt: ‘Who shouldn’t feel guilt? In our guilt is our humanity…. The acknowledgement of your own guilt shouldn’t be a means of absolving others. No scapegoats. Everybody shares.’

This lies at the root of Laidlaw’s anti-Manichean worldview. McIlvanney’s protagonist chases wrongdoers, convinced that it takes more than one man with one weapon to make a murder. Homicide, he might say, constitutes a radical critique of society. ‘I can’t stop believing that there are always connections,’ Laidlaw says. ‘The idea that bad things can happen somehow of their own accord, in isolation. Without having roots in the rest of us. I think that’s hypocrisy. I think we’re all accessories.’

The murder in Laidlaw is a consequence of two criss-crossing fault lines that emerge from the murk of masculinity, Glasgow-style: sectarianism and homosexuality. Tommy, the young man responsible, is gay but unable to accept his orientation, Glasgow’s emotionally and violently repressive attitude screwing him up enough to murder. Jennifer Lawson, his victim, is a teenager, the investigation of her murder complicated by the lies she told to conceal from her father, Bud Lawson, a Proddy hardman, that she was dating a Catholic. Interesting that the surname of Bud, a self-styled angel of vengeance as the plot progresses, should, like our investigating officer, contain ‘law’, as if suggesting that even these two characters, polar opposites in most ways, share something; that we all share something. For that reason, without ever condoning the crime, Laidlaw is unusually sympathetic towards its killer, and is clear that homophobia was largely responsible for creating the killer.

In the most political of the three books, The Papers of Tony Veitch, McIlvanney indicts the callousness of a society that, unlike Laidlaw, doesn’t see much point in investigating the suspicious death of a homeless tramp. ‘Laidlaw remembered that one of the things he hated most was elitism. We share in everyone else or forego ourselves.’ Recall the book was published in 1983 as the Thatcher revolution was moving into first gear. At one point, Laidlaw pursues a student suspect to Glasgow University where he overhears academics speaking, which reminds him why he left university after a year of studying to be a lawyer. Whereas Morse exited Oxford early because of a failed love affair, Laidlaw had been angered at the way in which the groves of academe bent language into a ‘private code’ accessible only to a few who could speak the same lingo. ‘A lot of what passes for intellectuality’s just polysyllabic prejudice.’

Practically no one shares Laidlaw’s point of view. His wife throws him out at the end of the second book, his lover at the end of the third. His partner, Harkness, respects him without always liking him but doesn’t accept his theories of ethics. Yet he gushes empathy compared to the rest of Laidlaw’s colleagues. Simply put, his fellow policemen dislike him. His would-be nemesis and fellow Detective Inspector Ernie Milligan puts it this way: ‘He thinks criminals are underprivileged. He’s not a detective. He’s a shop steward for neds’.

Interestingly, the criminals don’t agree with Laidlaw either. ‘Steal enough money and they put you away for thirty years,’ thinks John Rhodes a soi-disant ‘ordinary decent criminal’. ‘Kill a girl and they would try to understand…. Money bought everything, even the luxury of being able to pretend that everybody really meant well and evil was an accident. He knew better.’ An uneasy alliance of criminals, determined as everyone else to ignore their own small part in the climate out of which came the death of Jennifer Lawson, spend the latter part of the book hunting for Tommy, a race against time with the police that echoes Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. While M prefigured the rise of the Nazis, McIlvanney’s trilogy traces nothing so portentous, although it does at times hint at a change in the perception of society’s weaker members that has come fully to bloom in recent years with talk of strivers and skivers. When in The Papers of Tony Veitch, Laidlaw gives the ignorant Harkness a colourful lecture about the legendary street life of Glasgow’s past, it isn’t merely to entertain him; it’s an implicit reminder of a period when certain characters of the demi-monde were celebrated for who they were, rather than condemned for who they are not. By the time of Strange Loyalties, Laidlaw, finding himself at a stuffy party in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying Glasgow, reports: ‘I stopped myself from haranguing a group who were explaining to one another how the poor create their own problems.’

By the final part of the trilogy, the narrative has changed perspective from third- to first-person. Whereas the preceding volumes had departed from Laidlaw at points to build-up a portrait of the Glasgow underworld, here, the focus remains on Laidlaw, who, unsurprisingly, is subdued, given the recent death of his brother. Nor is the action centred on Laidlaw’s usual beat, but in a small semi-rural village, Graithnock, the fictionalised version of Kilmarnock that served as the backdrop to Docherty. One wonders what hardened crime fiction readers will make of it. To get the most out of it, you have to have read McIlvanney’s 1985 novel The Big Man, whose story Strange Loyalties concludes, while Laidlaw is even more speechifying idealist than before. The ‘case’ he investigates isn’t a murder or even criminal at all, but the events leading up to his brother’s death in a non-suspicious car accident. What he is actually investigating is Laidlaw himself, or rather his generation’s ideals and the mess they made of them.

One can’t be surprised that McIlvanney wrote no more Laidlaw novels after Strange Loyalties. Although Laidlaw figures out the mysteries at the centre of each book, the solutions, you realise, are consolation prizes. What the trilogy charts is the defeat of his values; his belief that doubt and guilt are better stars to navigate by than power and money. He ends the books exactly as he feared he might, alone in a bedsitter, a father by appointment, not friendless, exactly, but unable, seemingly, even to share a drink with colleagues after work; not so much hard-boiled as heart-boiled. Jack Laidlaw’s ideals have backed him into a corner his creator has yet to find a way to free him from. ‘My quarrel was with all of us. Where do you go to deliver that one?’

William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP280, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 986 9

The Papers of Tony Veitch
William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP298, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 992 0

Strange Loyalties
William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP362, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 993 7

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