Monthly Archives: September 2013


As Scotland prepares for referendum, Scottish Poetry Library presents an alternative A to Z of British Isles

I will wear your tartan
With the pride and strength
Of my history and tribe.
I will weave in its pattern
The breadth and length
Of five rivers that subscribed
To my wealth, which I will now
Lend to your tartan
and make it mine.

‘Tartan and Turban’ by Bashabi Fraser

September, 2013 – At an interesting moment in the constitutional history of Scotland and the United Kingdom, the Scottish Poetry Library and Bloodaxe Books bring you an alternative A to Z of the British Isles.

Co-edited by Jackie Kay, Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe) is an inventive reworking of the map of Britain as viewed by its black and Asian poets. On Thursday, 24 October, a selection of the poets featured in Out of Bounds will perform in the Scottish Poetry Library. Poets taking part include Vahni Capildeo, Bashabi Fraser, Irfan Merchant and Tawona Sithole.

Occasionally disturbing, often funny, and even hopeful, the poetry of Out Of Bounds depicts a Scotland whose various people already embody the change the debate on Independence is exploring. From Irfan Merchant’s humorous and proud account of how the chicken tikka masala was invented in Glasgow to Kokumo Rock’s account of experiencing racism on a trip to Tesco; from George Murevesi’s miserable experience of the Scottish weather to Bashabi Fraser’s vision of the cultures of her native and adopted homelands blended in a tartan turban – these poets explore notions of Scottishness at a crucial period of self-examination for all Scots, whether pro- or anti-Independence, as we consider what the country will look like in the future.

Out of Bounds takes place on Thursday, 24 October, 6.30pm, at the Scottish Poetry Library. Tickets are £5 (£4 concessions). Tickets can be bought in person at the SPL or online at

For more information on the Scottish Poetry Library, visit

About the Poets

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad in 1973 and currently lives in the UK. At present she is a Contributing Editor at the Caribbean Review of Books and a freelance researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. She is a member of the extended Capildeo family that has produced notable Trinidadian politicians and writers (including V. S. Naipaul). Her third collection is Dark & Unaccustomed Words (2011).

Bashabi Fraser was born in West Bengal and lives in Edinburgh with her husband and daughter. She is a lecturer at Napier University. Her last collection was Tartan and Turban (Luath, 2012).

Tawona Sithole was raised in Zimbabwe with oral traditions that celebrate the values of his ancestral family, Moyo Chirandu. He is the co-founder of Seeds of Thought, an arts collective in Glasgow.

Irfan Merchant was born in Liverpool in 1973, and brought up in Ayr.  His poetry has been published in diverse places, including Wish I Was Here: A Scottish Multicultural Anthology and The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry.

About the Scottish Poetry Library

The SPL is one of three poetry libraries in the UK, but the only one to be independently housed. It is the only poetry house in the world to have an extensive lending library at its core. It seeks to bring people and poetry together in many different ways.

For media information, images, or to arrange an interview with the Out of Bounds poets, contact:


Jennifer Williams
SPL Events Manager

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Volume 9 – Issue 3 – Classifieds

ART & Architecture

The Artist and Nationality

Meaghan Delahunt

SALTIRE SOCIETY £5.00 PB 9780854111114

The Artist and Nationality sees Saltire Award winner Meaghan Delahunt reflect on her own sense of nationality and what that may mean for the artist. It’s a powerful and moving account that embraces the personal and political. It doesn’t shy away from the key issues.

Waiting for the Magic

Oscar Marzaroli, with essays

by Anne Marazoli, Jim Grassie,

Robert Crawford and Peter Ross

BIRLINN £25.00 HB 9781780271484

This book celebrates Marzaroli’s extraordinary talent with a number of specially-commissioned essays and a selection of previously unpublished photographs, as well as many of the iconic, much loved work for which he is renowned. It features the images from an upcoming touring exhibition of Marzaroli’s work scheduled for 2014.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

Alistair Moffat, Susan Mansfield, foreword by Alexander McCall Smith

BIRLINN £30.00 HB 9781780271606

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 Making of John Lennon

Francis Kenny

LUATH PRESS £20.00 HB 9781908373908

To many people, the history of The Beatles is a fairy story. The Making of John Lennon reveals new insights into how his personality was shaped by his childhood in Liverpool. A lifelong Liverpudlian, Francis Kenny has a unique perspective on the culture and background that ultimately made John Lennon the icon he is today. Due for publication October 2013.

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.


Five Poems about Gh…Gh…Ghosts

Various poets, including Charles Causley and Walter de la Mare


Five poems to make children’s hair stand on end (and tickle their funny bones). Perfect for Hallowe’en and beyond. For children of all ages. Colour illustrations throughout. The first children’s title in a new range forthcoming from Candlestick Press. Due for publication September 2013.

Sgeulachd nan Coineanach Caomha

The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies

Beatrix Potter; Gaelic translation by Catriona Murray

GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £5.99 HB 9781907676253

The book is number 10 of the Original Peter Rabbit Books translated into Scottish Gaelic. In this tale Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny have grown up and Benjamin is married to Peter’s sister Flopsy. But danger still exists in Mr. McGregor’s garden and it threatens Benjamin’s children, the six little Flopsy Bunnies.

Nan’s Rabbit

Mary Bromilow, illustrated by

Alexa Rutherford

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781908931245

An adventure story for 5-8 years olds.

The Tattoo Fox

Alasdair Hutton

LUATH PRESS £5.99 PB 9781908373939

A little fox makes her home by Edinburgh Castle and with the help of her new friend, the Castle Cat, she settles in well. But there is one question the Castle Cat refuses to answer. What is the Tattoo? This heart-warming tale was inspired by a real-life encounter between the Producer of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and a fox, late one night on the Castle Esplanade.


Trains & Lovers

The Heart’s Story

Alexander McCall Smith

POLYGON £7.99 PB 9781846972638

A bestseller since it was released last year, Trains & Lovers is a stand-alone novel by Alexander McCall Smith charting the intertwining tales of love of four strangers who meet on a train. As always with McCall Smith’s work, the stories are simply told, but with beautiful language and a real heart-warming feel to them. This beautiful special edition paperback will be the perfect stocking filler for loved ones.

Ballad of the Five Marys

Donald Smith

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373892

This contemporary prose ballad weaves history and emotion into an engaging and truthful multi-layered narrative of Mary Queen of Scots’ legend. Exploring the distinctive characters of the five Marys and their complex relationships, this is a refreshing and vivid account that will surprise even those who consider themselves well versed in Mary’s story. Due for publication October 2013.

The Heart of Midlothian

Newly adapted for the modern reader

Sir Walter Scott; adapted by

David Purdie

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373809

Wrongly convicted of murder, Effie Deans has been sentenced to death. Jeanie, her older sister, sets about walking to London to beg for her pardon from the queen. A gripping tale of religious piety and filial devotion, this new edition of The Heart of Midlothian has been expertly reworked for modern readers by David Purdie. Due for publication September 2013.

Black Middens

New Writing Scotland 31

Carl MacDougall and Zoë Strachan (eds)

ASLS £9.95 PB 9781906841140

This latest collection of excellent contemporary writing, from more than ninety contributors, features new work by – among many others – John Burnside, Stewart Conn, Jen Hadfield, Alison Irvine, Pippa Little, Kevin MacNeil, Raymond Soltysek and Eleanor Yule.

Robert McLellan

Playing Scotland’s Story

Edited by Colin Donati

LUATH PRESS £25.00 PB 9781906817534

This collection brings together – for the first time – all of McLellan’s principle plays including previously unpublished works and his poems for radio and television. His works are an exploration of the history of Scottish identity and the journey it has made, fearlessly confronting the unattractive aspects of Scottish culture with refreshing honesty and humour.

The Guga Stone

Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda

Donald S. Murray

LUATH PRESS £12.99 HB 9781908373748

Acrobats, airmen, cormorants, cragsmen and angels leap, climb, shimmer and swoop through the pages of The Guga Stone. With subtle humour, Donald S. Murray mixes mythology, fiction and history to recreate St Kilda’s tales and legends for our time.

Testament of a Witch

Douglas Watt

LUATH PRESS £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. Due for publication September 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 HB 9781908373779

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 of, 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.


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.

A Lone Star Weeps

An Inspector Gloria Mystery

Joseph Glackin

Thirsty Books £8.99 PB 9781908931382

The first novel in this insightful and compassionate series. The Inspector Gloria thrillers are rooted in the dark side of human struggle for a better life.


Arbroath Smokie Bible

Ian R. Spink; Illustrations by Bob Dewar

BIRLINN £4.99 PB 9781780271361

The book of recipes devoted to one of Scotland’s most famous foods. Iain Spink’s Arbroath Smokies have won numerous awards, including the 2007 Waitrose Small Producer Awards, and are the 2012 Great Taste Awards 3* Gold Winner. Arbroath Smokies are now officially recognized and protected with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.

Scottish Salmon Bible

Claire Macdonald; Illustrations by

Bob Dewar

BIRLINN £4.99 PB 781780271811

Acclaimed cooking guru Claire Macdonald, author of seventeen best-selling books, presents a cookbook containing forty mouth-watering recipes which demonstrate the enormous versatility of the fish. Salmon can be eaten any time, and makes excellent starters, main courses, breakfasts and snacks, and there are suggestions for all of these in this book.

The Good Scots Diet

Maisie Steven

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £7.99 PB 9781908931344

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


Dementia Positive

A Handbook Based on Lived Experiences

John Killick

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373571

John Killick, in this thought-provoking and heart-warming book, challenges the negative assumptions many of us have regarding dementia. Writing from two decades of experience of working with people with dementia, he shows us ways in which we can help, and make lives better for all concerned.

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.

The Magic of Words

James A. Simpson

STEVE SAVAGE PUBLISHERS £6.95 PB 9781904246411

Former Moderator James A. Simpson has produced another great collection of stories and anecdotes that amuse, illuminate and lift the spirits. He has long been fascinated by language and the power of words. Dr Simpson has a real gift for picking stories that add something to life.


Glory and Honour

Andrea Thomas

BIRLINN £25.00 HB 978 1 84158 872 8

The Renaissance was the pre-eminent cultural and intellectual movement of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century mainland Europe. However, the relatively remote kingdom of Scotland received its own remarkable renaissance too, detailed in this book. Illustrated throughout with over 100 full colour images, Glory and Honour follows the Stewart monarchy and the Scottish aristocracy.

Calton Hill

Journeys and Evocations

Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith

LUATH PRESS £7.99 PB 9781908373854

Following on from the success of Arthur’s Seat, the Journeys and Evocations series continues with a look at the history and folklore surrounding Calton Hill. From this small hill in the heart of the capital city, a fascinating spread of Scotland’s landscape can be seen, reminding us that even in the heart of a modern Edinburgh we are in the midst of the deep traditions and vibrant history of this ancient country. Due for publication October 2013.

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.

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


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.

Conan Doyle

Writing, Profession, and Practice

Douglas Kerr

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS £30.00 HB 9780199674947

This first general and comprehensive critical study of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle provides a unique cultural biography of a fascinating individual. It is a full account of all of his writing, and an investigation of the role of the author as he practised it, as witness, critic, and interpreter of his times.

Treasure Neverland

Real and Imaginary Pirates

Neil Rennie

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS £25.00 HB 9780199679331

Describes the facts of real eighteenth-century pirate lives and investigates how these facts were made into realistic and fantastic fictions, from historical novels to Hollywood films. Based on extensive research of fascinating primary material, Treasure Neverland is a study of a Scots-American literary tradition and a comprehensive account of the pirate’s various generic shapes.

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 in the Great War

Colin Campbell

ARGYLL PUBLISHING £25.00 HB 9781908931276

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



Calum Colvin and Rab Wilson

LUATH PRESS £12.99 HB 9781908373915

In a unique combination of art and poetry, Wilson’s witty and insightful verses are a direct response to Colvin’s intriguing artworks. At times witty, controversial and tender, the images and poems equally reflect on the life and aspects of Burns to dwell on who we are, and where we have been, toward what we may become. Due for publication September 2013.

Tam O’Shanter

Robert Burns; Illustrated by Alexander Goudie; Introduction by Edward J. Cowan

BIRLINN £25.00 HB 9781780270364

This reprint of Burns’ classic poem, Tam O’Shanter, will be published in January 2014. With illustrations by Alexander Goudie and an introduction by Edward J. Cowan, this is a stunning book that will enchant readers young and old. Goudie’s gothic artwork brings Burns’ tale of witches and dark nights to life as never before.

Scottish Cats

An Anthology of Scottish Cat Poems

Edited by Hamish Whyte

BIRLINN £9.99 HB 9781780271392

This gorgeously presented book will be an excellent gift for any cat lover, or any lover of poetry for that matter! Hamish Whyte has gathered together a fantastic selection of poems by Scottish writers including J.K. Annand, George Bruce, Valerie Gillies, Kathleen Jamie, Maurice Lindsay, George Macbeth, Brian McCabe, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Tom Pow, Iain Crichton Smith, Allan Ramsay and more making Scottish Cats a must have for every home.

The Twelve Poems of Christmas

Volume Five

Carol Ann Duffy (ed)


Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy selects twelve Christmas poems for 2013. This is the glittering half-way point in the series of ten, one mini-anthology of Christmas poems for each year that she is Laureate, a ten-year office. Includes poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Bishop, Vernon Scannell and Paul Henry.


Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £9.99 PB 9781907676390

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, an up and coming young poet, released his first collection of Poems in Scottish Gaelic. This book is fully bilingual Gaelic–English. Martin MacIntyre says: “(His) poems take us to many places, both physical and emotional, and they do so in carefully crafted apposite language. Fear, darkness and regret are there but also joy and hope and pursuit of a richer world.”

Made in Edinburgh

Tessa Ransford

LUATH PRESS £9.99 PB 9781908373847

Award-winning poet Tessa Ransford shares her reflections on and evocations of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, inspired by over thirty years as its near neighbour. The collection is structured around the four seasons, keenly observed by Ransford, and rendered even more vivid by fantastic images from Mike Knowles, which are interspersed throughout the text. Due for publication October 2013.

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.

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.

Ten Bedtime Poems

Volume One


Novelist William Boyd chooses his ten favourite (adult) bedtime poems. The first in a series in which literary figures are invited to choose ten bedtime poems. Actor Tamsin Greig writes, “…instead of your usual nightcap, William Boyd offers you the chance to take a different poet to bed with you each night! Let their words becomes your dreams”. Includes poems by W H Auden, Craig Raine, Philip Larkin, Mebdh McGuckian.


View from Zollernblick

Regional Perspectives in Europe: A Festschrift for Christopher Harvie

Edited by Eberhard (‘Paddy’) Bort

GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £14.99 PB 9781907676376

Christopher Harvie is a most remarkable man, combining a detailed knowledge of Scottish railway timetables, a civic nationalist and greenish republican (own words) whose ‘social beliefs owe much to Marxism as modified by Gramsci, the sociology of Patrick Geddes and a continually nagging if eclectic Christian socialism’. This book is a collection of celebratory essays (which) reflect Chris’s own very diverse interests (review by P. Salveson).

The Case for Left Wing Nationalism

Stephen Maxwell

LUATH PRESS £9.99 RPB 9781908373878

Spanning four politically and socially tumultuous decades, Stephen Maxwell’s writings explore the origins and development of the modern Scottish Nationalist movement. As an instrumental member of the SNP and a lifelong socialist, Maxwell’s work provides an engaging contemporary insight into the debate over Scottish independence, setting out clear ideological and practical arguments for a socially just Scotland. Due for publication September 2013.


What Scotland Needs to Flourish

Lesley Riddoch

LUATH PRESS £11.99 PB 9781908373694

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. This is a plain-speaking but incisive call to restore equality and control to local communities and let Scotland flourish.

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 inter-communal strife involving the use (and many would say misuse) 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.


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.


The British

A Genetic Journey

Alistair Moffat

BIRLINN £17.99 HB 9781780270753

In The British: A Genetic Journey, acclaimed historian and author Alistair Moffat traces the story of the genetic roots of Britain with some surprising results. Just as he did with The Scots: A Genetic Journey, Moffat focuses on ordinary people and presents us with a completely new way of looking at our history – weaving a fascinating tale in the process.

World War I

Scottish Tales of Adventure

Allan Burnett

BIRLINN £4.99 PB 9781841589329

Allan Burnett’s And All That series has sold over 53,000 copies. World War I: Scottish Tales of Adventure is a gripping collection of true-life stories from the battlefields of WWI. It recounts the struggle for survival in trenches and brings to life the thrills and spills of the Royal Flying Corp.

If History was Scottish

Norman Ferguson

LUATH PRESS £7.99 PB 9781908373670

If History Was Scottish takes an alternative look at notable figures and events as seen through a unique Caledonian perspective. The attributes associated with being Scottish are applied to well-known quotes and events. Covering topics such as war, politics, cinema, religion and more, the text will be accompanied by light-hearted and witty illustrations by Bob Dewar. Due for publication October 2013.

Nell Hannah

Aye Singin an Spinnin Yarns

Margaret Bennett and Doris Rougvie.

GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £7.50 PB 9781907676383

In conversation with folklorist Margaret Bennett and long-time friend and fellow-singer, Doris Rougvie, Nell Hannah shares a life-time of reminiscences and songs. In recalling the hey-day of an industry that shut down in the 1980s, she constructs an oral history of life in war-time Perthshire.

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.


White Gold

England’s Journey to World Cup Glory

Peter Burns

ARENA SPORT £16.99 HB 9781909715080

England had always been the richest rugby country in the world in terms of money and talent pool, yet major titles eluded them. Then Clive Woodward became manager, and changed not only the fortunes of the national side, but the face of rugby forever. White Gold charts the transformation of the England rugby team from amateur to professional, including the change in tactics and introduction of sports psychology, culminating in their triumph at the 2003 World Cup.

Masters of Men

Ken Venturi, Rory McIlroy … and Their Epic Journey from Augusta to Bethesda

Liam Hayes

ARENA SPORT £16.99 HB 9781909715097

Masters of Men tells the stories of two of the most naturally gifted golfers of all time, set against the backdrop of the Masters Golf tournament. Venturi & McIlroy may be playing in different eras, but the parallels in their careers are uncanny and this book is sure to interest any fan of golf, or of the drama of sport.

Scottish Rugby

Game by Game

Kenneth R Bogle

LUATH PRESS £30.00 HB 9781908373885

Researched and complied by Bogle, Scottish Rugby: Game by Game contains an accurate account of every match played by Scotland since 1871 right the way up to June 2013. Accompanied by a match analysis as well as introductory sections, readers can follow the sport’s rich history from its humble roots as a primitive ball game played in the streets to a sport watched and adored by many millions of fans across the world. Due for publication October 2013.

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

An analysis of the issues from the perspective of those who care most, this is the story of how one the world’s most successful football clubs found itself in the Third Division, and of the loyalty that has already started to propel it back to the top.


Nature’s Peace

Peter Wright

LUATH PRESS £25.00 HB 9781908373830

Nature’s Peace takes the reader on an original and spectacular visual journey along the spine of Scotland, presenting a full colour portrait of the breathtaking landscape of the Watershed. Due for publication October 2013.


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


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.


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.


Should Have Gone to Specsavers, Ref!

Allan Morrison

LUATH PRESS £7.99 PB 9781908373731

Enjoy a laugh at the antics and wicked humour of Scottish referee Big Erchie, a powerhouse at five foot five, and a top grade referee who strikes fear into the hearts of managers and players alike as he stringently applies the laws of the game. But Big Erchie is burdened with a terrible secret… He’s a Stirling Albion supporter. Due for publication October 2013.

More Holy Wit

James A. Simpson

STEVE SAVAGE PUBLISHERS £5.95 PB 9781904246404

A revised edition of the 1990 sequel to his bestseller Holy Wit. ‘Nothing gives a readier clue to a person’s character than samples of what he regards as witty and worth a laugh,’ writes Dr Simpson. The royalties from this book will go to Cystic Fibrosis charities.


Plank on Frame Models

Volume 1

Harold A. Underhill



Contents: Plans and Preliminaries; Building the Frame; Planking the Hull; Planking the Deck and Bulwarks; Deck Erections, Fittings and Finish; A few Alternatives in Frame Making; List of Plans. 170 pages, 28 illustrations from Photographs, 95 Sketches, 7 Plates of Plans.

Plank on Frame Models

Volume 2

Harold A. Underhill



Scale mast and spar making, and complete rigging, is covered in great detail.

Contents: Masting the Brigantine; Standing Rigging; Running Rigging; Clinker-built Models; Sawn-frame Construction. 160 pages, 28 illustrations, 89 sketches and 5 plates.

Masting and Rigging

Harold A. Underhill



Containing 50 full-page working drawings and 200 detail sketches, fully covers the whole subject of spar construction and rig of nineteenth and twentieth century sailing ships. The book, which runs into 300 pages, forms the most complete guide to square rig yet published.

Deep-Water Sail

Harold A. Underhill



A book for all students of sail and lovers of the windjammer. Contents: Development and Design; Small Fore-and-Afters; Topsail Schooners and Small Barquentines; Brigs, Brigantines and Snows; Barquentines and Small Barques; Ships; The Big Full-Rigger; Big Barques and Barquentines; Big Schooners and Wood Barquentines; Oddities, Deck Fittings and Details.

Sailing Ship Rigs and Rigging

Harold A. Underhill



For the identification of types the actual sail plans of many famous ships are reproduced with a brief description of each rig. There are 32 illustrations. A complete range of sail and rigging plans from the five-mast full-rigged ship Preussen to a Humber keel.

Sail Training and Cadet Ships

Harold A. Underhill



There is much of interest in the story of sail training, and this book covers the histories of the many vessels, both past and present, which have been, or still are, employed in this service, from the little Swedish training brig Magnus Stenboch, first used in 1838, to the British three-masted schooner Prince Louis II.

How to Make Clipper Ship Models

E. W. Hobbs



There are detailed instructions for the building of a characteristic and world-famous clipper, the Cutty Sark. Two chapters are then devoted to methods of building hulls in general for any type of Clipper Ship model. Separate chapters are devoted to Masts and Spars, Sails, Standing and Running Rigging, Deck Fittings and so forth, and the work concludes with chapters on Painting and Finishing, making Showcases and Stands.

How to Make Old Time Ship Models

E. W. Hobbs



The vogue for medieval ship models prompted Mr Hobbs to write this book so that all those who may have an interest in these decorative vessels may indulge in the hobby. As in the book on Clipper Models, the work of cardboard modelling is first explained, and then the craft is taught by easy stages until the finest models are described.

Ship Models in Glass

Peter Hille and Barry Young



Everything is arranged alphabetically under topic headings, and the whole work is cross-referenced to make it easy for you to find your way around. With over 300 line drawings and illustrations the book has been written in an easy informal style in simple everyday language.

Fully Illustrated Plan’s Catalogues

Harold A. Underhill


Powered Craft List (P) = Descriptions for 120 plans. Sailing Ship List (S) = Descriptions for 230 plans.

The drawings described in these lists have been produced to meet the needs of those wishing to build authentic scale models, and every care has been taken to ensure accurate detail.


Scottish International Storytelling Festival: Once Upon a Journey

18 – 26 October 2013

Scottish Storytelling Centre

The world’s leading storytelling festival celebrates the myths and legends carried through wanderlust, exploring the legacy of David Livingstone, John Rae, Mary Slessor, Martin Martin, John Muir, St Columba and more. Journey with nomads, pilgrims and voyagers in 10 days of spoken word magic and enjoy sessions weaving song, music and story together, as in fireside tradition.


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SRB Diary: A Barbarian in Charlotte Square

Transition rather than continuity marks the thirty years that have passed since the Book Festival first appeared in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Jenny Brown, as Director, instigated it in the summer of 1983. Princes Street Gardens were not available. It was a modest but glorious success, not the ‘worthy little affair full of weary authors’ dismissed by self-promoting Muriel Gray two decades later. It was an ambitious and determined effort to place Literature in its autonomous place among the then collective festivals of Jazz, Film, Art and Theatre.

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I was in a singular position to remember it as such. In 1978, curious about the impending devolution referendum in Scotland, and having just lived and worked in post Franco Catalan Spain and a divided Berlin, I decided to settle in Edinburgh for the first time in 1979. As a literary editor (Broadsheet 1967-78), critic and broadcaster I had already covered the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe in Ireland for some years, having encountered the wonder of it as an undergraduate in 1966. In 1980 the then Irish Times’ Arts Editor, Fergus Lenihan, father of the newly appointed International Arts Festival Director of the same name, created an ‘Arts Correspondent in Scotland’ post for me which allowed me a unique entree to cultural Scotland. When in 1991 the novelist John Banville was appointed Literary Editor in the paper I was given exclusive space in the ‘book pages’ to cover the events in Charlotte Square. This was to continue for over twenty years.

‘Admiral Jenny’, as my typo of twenty years ago designated her, ran a tight ship with a splendid crew of Valerie Bierman (Children’s Fair) and Jane Ellis as Administrator. In 1987 Shona Munro came aboard and in due course became an amiable and effective Director herself. Between 1993-1997, in tandem with Press Officer Faith Liddell, she organised a series of events which, in my opinion, constituted ‘The Golden Years’ in Charlotte Square. In 1997 Jan Fairley was Director and in the following year Faith Liddell herself took over before handing on to Catherine Lockerbie in 2001. After 1998 it became an annual event. In 1999 it was renamed the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2009 Richard Holloway stood in for a year when Lockerbie was unwell and in 2010 Nick Barley took over.

These, in chronological order, were the people who organised and programmed the event. They were responsible for the invited authors and as the years went on tried to match quality with quantity, not always successfully. When the Festival went annual a system of rotation emerged and unfortunately some authors took their audiences for granted and ‘simply turned up’. Jenny Brown in a non-judgmental retrospective piece in the Scotsman recalled the changes down the years. There was one ‘tented theatre’ for performing visitors in 1983; now there are eight. Her ‘first skimpy programme’ boasted just 120 writers. This year saw Charlotte Square host 800 from over 40 countries. Initially there was a £1.00 entrance fee to the gardens at the insistence of local inhabitants mainly from the business world. This disappeared in the 1990s.

Two of the stars in 1983, Liz Lochhead and William McIlvanney, reappeared this year in very altered circumstances. Lochhead is now Scots Makar and political pundit. The man from Kilmarnock is just emerging from a period of comparative neglect and is wryly celebrating the long overdue reissue of his early novels. In acknowledging this he was gracious and generous of Brown who is now his literary agent. McIlvanney also suffered one of the most inappropriate epithets in Festival history when his chair, Ruth Wishart, without a glimmer of irony, described him as ‘coy’.

This year, with much furore, some of it contrived, the thirty years since its instigation was celebrated. A caveat. As you will note from the above it was biennial until the late 1990s. So those, and they were an irritating multitude, claiming to have been at ‘all thirty’ Book Festivals were being somewhat specious if not misleading. Similarly the Guardian, a sponsor of this year’s event, got it wrong on several points when stating that Val McDermid had ‘spoken at 29 of the 30 annual International Book Festivals’. In fact I would think that McDermid waited until the mid 1990s before revealing herself as the consummate performance-writer that she has become. Rant over.

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Well that one anyway. There was an element of political posturing ahead of next year’s independence referendum present throughout the Festival. On the second weekend Liz Lochhead lambasted Jonathan Mills’ perceived lack of interest in Scottish culture. Inconveniently for her this coincided with a four-day Dance Odyssey from Scottish Ballet, which was one of the highlights of my Festival ‘proper’. Mills had declared that his programme for next year would be free of referendum-related performances. I acknowledge Lochhead as a fine poet and prominent presence in this part of the Archipelago of Near Nations but fortunately for us Mills’ remit goes further afield. It is an extensive international programme and he rightly emphasises that that includes references to the ‘Great War’ and the Commonwealth of Nations gathering next year for the Games in Glasgow. The independence referendum next year is of course important. But equally important is the autonomy of a Festival which since 1947 has been inclusively international while being gloriously, exclusively placed in the Scottish capital. Somewhat diverting in Lochhead’s argument were her claims for her own play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Has she been carried away by critic Mark Brown’s favourable comparison with Schiller last year? This eye-opening opinion had echoes of the public acclaim for John Home’s 1757 play Douglas – ‘Whaurs yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’.

Watching and listening to a gaggle of BBC notated ‘celebrities’ appearing in Charlotte Square before surrounding the Well of Narcissus that is the TV Festival reminded me of Humphrey Lyttelton’s bittersweet sketch of John Humphrys and his Today colleagues in a George Street Hotel at the end of the last century. The clever but not particularly intelligent Welshman became Richmal Crompton’s William Brown and his gang as personified on radio by Martin Jarvis. That moment has on many occasions since prevented me throwing radios out of windows.

To return to the McIlvanney event and the intrusive nature not only of Alex Salmond but also chair Ruth Wishart. The First Minister’s dry and wooden reading of an excerpt from The Papers of Tony Veitch, published in 1983, made the book appear dull despite the twee stress by politician and chair that it was selected deliberately to avoid the ‘swearie words’. There was a poetic intensity and rhythm to McIlvanney’s own reading of his work that finally rescued this event.

However some readings involving other poets are all too often hijacked by over zealous chairs and often vacuous question and answer sessions. Could I ask for the example of Stuart Kelly with Robin Robertson on the morning of the second Sunday to be followed in the future? Following a brief introduction to let the poet or poets know that they are in the right place and reassure the audience that they are at their desired event, let the poets live or die by their words. Throughout the Festival’s history this has been a successful procedure, from Charles Causley in 1987 to Paul Durcan and Yehuda Amichai in 1995 and Seamus Heaney’s unforgettable ‘rendering’ of Sorley MacLean’s ‘Hallaig’ in 2002.

Throughout the years my August pleasure, both seasonal and sensual, has been to allow myself to move across the festivals on offer and assimilate. Book Festival, Galleries and the Fringe (usually Traverse and/or Hill Street programmes) during the day and the Music/Dance/Theatre offerings in the International Festival in the evenings. Down the years I have found it a rewarding way of gaining, in a somewhat leisurely way, ‘a further education’. Yet, paradoxically, in a year that has seen some fine interpretations of his work from the Gate Theatre Dublin, I recall as a near warning against such complacency a letter from Samuel Beckett to his American publisher Barney Rosset in 1957: ‘If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lie down’.

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Time has not yet come for me to lie down. I am in transition. So the question is how to choose and ‘extricate’ to the greatest advantage. My one time editor John Banville, wearing his novelist hat (a somewhat fetching straw boater on his day in the tent this year), extolled the imagination as superior to memory. Illusion rather than delusion. So I recommend Book Festival organisers take a long look at the 1991 ‘Writers’ Conference’, which for three days focused on ‘Aspects of the Novel’ in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Neil Gunn. Among the speakers were Brian Moore, Amos Oz, Victor Astafyev, Caryl Phillips, David Malouf, Ivan Klima and the aforementioned William McIlvanney. The tone was intense and sometimes exhausting. Of course politics entered the discussions but not in a fixed agenda for a specific purpose. Rather as an integral part of life itself. Maybe that is where Nick Barley could and probably should find inspiration for events next year. Better that, certainly, than the selective, over-long ego-trip that constituted last year’s designated ‘World Writers’ Conference’ series. That was presumed as marking an event in pre-Book Festival Edinburgh in 1962. In 2012 it became parochial and at two hours per session quickly lost the attention of its non-participating audience. Let’s consider 1991 and leave the politicians and self-promoters outside the gates. We literary Barbarians are with Cavafy and wish to mingle with our own. Let imagination and illusion feed the mind.

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Not All About Oil

The second part of the title of this fine book, ‘The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards’, is important. The three authors are throughout refreshingly balanced and fair, so much so that they do not actually try to tell us what exactly will ‘happen afterwards’. They do point out, obviously enough, that a Yes vote in September next year would mean that Scotland would become, in due course, an independent country, separate from the rest of the UK; but the process of disentangling Scotland from the rest of the UK, and creating a new sovereign state, would be exceedingly complex.

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Indeed, they think the process would take at least a couple of years, and they examine the many detailed matters – defence, including Faslane, welfare, currency, financial controls, citizenship and so on, that would have to be carefully negotiated before independence became a reality.

They further admit that if Scotland does vote, as currently looks probable, to stay in the UK there will also be significant change, ‘but it is likely to be incremental rather than immediately radical.’ I’m not so sure about that; a No vote would surely not settle anything, even in the short term.

Indeed the authors state quite categorically: ‘Further devolution would take place’. My own view is that the squabbles about this inevitable ‘further devolution’ would be intense and that the pressures for a second referendum on independence would soon be very strong. In a way, I reckon that a No vote would be a prescription for uncertainty every bit as much as a Yes vote undoubtedly would be.

Committed as I am to the independence cause I searched in this book for any sign of bias, one way or the other. I congratulate the three authors, who are all Oxford-based academics, on their fairness and scrupulous objectivity. Equally commendable is their lucidity; the book is written in plain, available prose. How I wish more contemporary academics would write like this. But now for an important qualification. Unfortunately, the key chapter in the book is the seventh, and it is simply entitled ‘Oil’. Iain McLean and his two colleagues suggest that without North Sea oil Scotland would probably not be facing the choices that it now is. I’m sure that is correct, but I think this is doubly unfortunate. ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ was a brilliant slogan, coined by Gordon Wilson, that helped to transform the SNP’s fortunes in the 1970s. There can be no denying that, but I would be unhappy were Scotland’s future to be decided on the basis of a debate about oil.

For a start, as the authors bluntly and correctly state, nobody knows how long the oil will last. We can surely all accept that; but there is further uncertainty, concerning for example the future price of oil substitutes, such as gas. In the US the price of gas has plummeted because of extensive and controversial fracking (extraction by hydraulic fracturing). Is there going to be extensive fracking in the UK? And in any case the price of oil depends on demand, which is in turn dependent on the price of oil substitutes.

There is, incidentally, a mini-scandal relating to oil in the the 1970s and 1980s, when UK governments worked hard to ensure that, in the phrase of our three authors, ‘it was not Scotland’s oil.’

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Further, the tax receipts from North Sea oil were treated as windfall, a kind of unexpected gift from the gods, and no sovereign oil fund was created. Locally, Shetland did set up a kind of local sovereign fund – and most of the recoverable oil was and is in Shetland’s waters rather than Scotland’s, if such a hypothetical distinction can validly be made – and this in turn raises the mischievous scenario of Shetland possibly deciding in the future to opt out of Scottish independence and remain in the UK. The authors state this would be theoretically possible, but is probably fanciful. That’s as may be, but it is a good talking point nonetheless.

Of course oil is important. But my commitment to independence is predicated not just on our undoubted current oil wealth. Indeed I think that an overemphasis on oil could diminish the essential nobility of the cause. As I read this excellent book I was travelling round the far north and west of Scotland inspecting various religious sites for a forthcoming book. Everywhere I encountered pleasing evidence that Scotland’s hospitality industry is improving, in many cases dramatically. And this particular industry is operating in the context of some the most varied and heart stoppingly gorgeous scenery anywhere in in the western world.

Scotland is a small country of only 5.2 million people, which would make it the ninth smallest state in the European Union if it were independent. There would be 18 bigger countries, the biggest being the UK (minus Scotland), Spain, Italy, France – and of course Germany, biggest of all. Scotland would be placed between Finland (very slightly bigger) and Ireland (slightly smaller). In terms of actual area, Scotland would have less than 2 per cent of the total land of the EU. But although it is undoubtedly a wee country, it has a rich history, and it is blessed in its cultural and environmental diversity, in its natural recreational potential, and in the most important resource of all, its people. These, allied to our fast developing indigenous food and drink industry is surely where our future lies (and yes, our future partly lies in our history) – every bit as much as in the remaining oil fields. So let’s not obsess too much about oil. In the mid and long term, Scotland’s prosperity and self-belief will be based on other resources, other strengths.

Meanwhile those, such as myself, who ardently wish for independence, must be realistic. In the event of a Yes vote, negotiations with the rest of the UK would be delicate and complex. The UK government would inevitably have to put the interests of the remaining parts of the UK – England, Northern Ireland and Wales – ahead of those of Scotland as it negotiated. On the other hand, it would – as once again, the authors carefully note – be in the long term interests of these three countries to help Scotland to become a prosperous and stable country. That is sheer basic pragmatism. But the ‘new Scotland’ would also be looking for flexibility and goodwill from our neighbours. I’m pretty sure these qualities would be forthcoming, but that might not be the case if the referendum campaign is not conducted in a proper manner.

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So far, I think the signs are pretty good. The debates and discussions have been perfectly civilised, if surprisingly low key. I may be biased but it seems to be that the Yes campaign has been fair and positive (it is of course somewhat difficult to see how a Yes campaign could be particularly negative, unless it were to harp relentlessly on the past rather than the future) whereas the No camp has been unremittingly negative. Maybe that’s exactly what a No campaign should be.

There has certainly been little presentation by the so-called Better Together team of any vision of what the future of the UK would be like if the four component parts remained together. That’s possibly because they are really arguing for the status quo, the current dispensation. And that dispensation is not delivering very much, certainly not in terms of social justice, equality or economic success. So my advice to the Yes campaigners would be to paint a realistic picture of how things could indeed be better if Scotland separates from the UK.

Right now, the campaigns have yet to take off in terms of generating real political excitement, or any sense that the Scottish nation is walking with destiny. The crucial period will be the summer and early autumn next year, so perhaps they are holding their fire for that very testing time. There is also a slight sense that the SNP was taken by surprise by its remarkable victory in the last Scottish general election; few in the party expected to gain an outright majority at Holyrood. One of the consequences of that extraordinary victory was that the party had to press ahead with a referendum when they were perhaps not quite ready to do so. Certainly the SNP performance so far has verged on the lacklustre.

Yet if you survey the history of the SNP over the last 50 years or so, the one clear lesson is that you should never, ever write it off. It surprises itself, and it certainly surprises its enemies. It has used the devolution settlement quite brilliantly, to transform itself from a fringe party of protest to a mainstream party of potential power and now a party of very real power. I’m occasionally asked by foreign journalists visiting Scotland to predict what is going to happen. I am careful not to do so, but the one thing I always do say is this: don’t underestimate the SNP, and certainly do not underestimate their leader.

Meanwhile this book will be very useful to both camps as the debate progresses. It will also be a most helpful guide to all the neutrals and the undecided, the inhabitants of the crucial, soggy middle. And we should always remember that while it is we in Scotland who have the task of making this momentous decision, it will directly affect not just Scotland but three other countries as well. It will also have serious implications for the EU and for organisations such as NATO. Scots are being granted not just a colossal opportunity, but a colossal responsibility. And if the Scots do wish to contend for their independence, they do not have to fight for it. They simply have to mark a ballot paper. How many people, across the globe, must be envious of us.

Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards

Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge

Edinburgh University Press, PP240, £12.99 (pbk),
ISBN 9780748669875

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Talent Spotting

once taught an undergraduate Scottish literature survey course in a North American University. A young man in a heavy metal T-shirt and long shorts of many pockets appeared for the first class and promptly disappeared for the next six. He resurfaced for the module on Trainspotting then hopped it again. Sometime later, he boarded a downtown bus that I happened to be on, apologized for missing almost all the classes and produced a rolled up copy of Trainspotting from one of his pockets. He told me he had read it three times. It was, he said, the best book he had ever read.

Sometime before that, there was a feature in the local paper called ‘The Hots for Scots’. Written by a young female journalist, it included this: ‘I want to be Scottish. I want to be pasty-faced and in imminent danger of losing all my teeth. I want to eat deep fried mars bars. I want to be skint. I want to use anatomical terms to describe my fellow human beings. I want to ken things. I want to collect the giro. I want to have punched out veins and say I canna, I wisna and I willna. In other words I want to be hip….I imagine being Scottish as being a kind of foulmouthed, drugged-out nihilist.’

The inspiration behind this transformation in North American notions of the Scot – previously a kilted warrior, ‘cheapskate’ or running joke – was, of course, the same book that fired the imagination of the absentee student. We may have worried briefly about the replacement of one set of Scottish stereotypes with another, but the overwhelming feeling among the Scots I knew in North America when Trainspotting arrived there was one of relief. Rather a junkie than a joke.

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Not everyone agreed that this development was a good thing. In a short piece in the New Yorker which accompanied Richard Avedon’s 1995 photograph of Welsh and nine other Scottish writers, Alan Taylor wrote of an ‘efflorescence’ in Scottish writing. Alexander McCall-Smith, however, regarded this new wave of Scottish writing as more effluvium than efflorescence. The ‘foul-mouthed, drugged-out nihilist’ was not an image that he thought Scotland should be exporting.

All this and much more is the ‘Trainspotting Phenomenon’ that John Neil Munro promises to explain in his latest book. Why the phenomenon needs another explanation after twenty years of people trying to explain it, is not obvious until it turns out that this is the author’s default position. Munro originally planned a ‘conventional biography’ but could not persuade his subject to go along with it. That forced him to accept a lesser mission: ‘this is a book that I hope explains how the Trainspotting book, stage play and film were made, and the remarkable impact each had’. Welsh initially said that he would not contribute even on this basis and then, apparently, relented. After repeated readings of the book’s introduction, I still could not figure out the degree to which he was eventually involved.

Munro overcomes the fact that Welsh did not want him to write a biography by simply treating the early part of the book as if it were one. A standard chronological approach has him in Edinburgh’s Muirhouse scheme in the first chapter where he visits the local library and searches for records to prove that Welsh grew up there. This is a strange quest given that nobody seriously doubts Welsh’s former residence in Muirhouse. In fact, the visit to the scheme reveals more about Munro than it does about Welsh. He gives the locals a wide berth, calls their pub ‘one of the most intimidating hostelries in the western world’ (Bosnia? Belfast?), and piously hopes that a proposed revamp of the area will include bulldozing their mall. He quotes (actually slightly misquotes) William McIlvanney’s character Laidlaw who said similar Glasgow schemes were ‘just architectural dumps where they unloaded the people like slurry’, but doesn’t note the lines that follow: ‘Glasgow folk have to be nice people. Otherwise they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.’

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By page 15 Munro is speculating on ‘when Irvine first got drunk’ and his quest to explain the Trainspotting phenomenon seems already forgotten. We discover that Munro and Welsh met when they both worked at Edinburgh’s Telford College in the mid 1970s. Munro has, by his own estimate, twenty letters from Welsh and mines their contents to the core seemingly oblivious to the possibility that it is this kind of exploitation that might have put Welsh off cooperating with him in the first place.

With such scant personal resources and limited access to subject, Munro is forced to depend on newspaper articles and the testimony of other people who knew Irvine Welsh. In the early part of the book, his main source is Sandy Macnair who met Welsh while working at Edinburgh’s housing office. In 2011 Macnair wrote an Irvine-and-me memoir called Carspotting, apparently with Welsh’s best wishes. He included media-attracting stories about his pal’s drinking, drug taking and the submission of a fake CV for the manager’s job at Hearts. Welsh’s sanguinity in the face of these revelations only deepens the mystery of why he drew a line with Munro. Munro eventually finds other people to talk to and, fortunately for him, most of them are interesting. Alan Warner is one primary source, Robin Robertson another. However, neither says much that he hasn’t said before. Robertson’s part in bringing Scottish writing to the attention of major London publishers, in particular, is well-trammelled territory. The narrative only lights up when Munro unearths more unusual voices. One of these is Dr. Roy Robertson who has been a GP in the Muirhouse area since 1979 and led the fight against heroin addiction and HIV infection in the area. Another is Lesley Bryce, a junior editor at Secker when the Trainspotting script was passed to her and ‘the paper still had those little perforations down the side’.

Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon is neither one thing nor the other. The early indication that is it going to be some kind of unauthorized biography eventually gives way to a rather dutiful examination of the process by which Trainspotting went from book to play to internationally acclaimed film. Interesting though this process is, it doesn’t really shed any new light on the ‘phenomenon’. The book has elements that are nothing to do with anything. For instance, Munro has a recurring interest in how much Welsh earns and whether he is a millionaire or not. This reaches its nadir when he takes to calculating the relationship between sales, royalties and projected income. He also seems to have to have a problem with some of Welsh’s friends. By the final chapter Munro is bemoaning his exclusion from Welsh’s company as ‘he always seemed to be surrounded by people with the evil eye, eager to be seen with Irvine Welsh though strangely unwilling to buy a round’.

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There are numerous Edinburgh bars mentioned in the narrative and it is a pity that more of the author’s energy wasn’t expended on the part played in the Welsh/Trainspotting story by Scottish pub culture. One pub of particular interest is Robbie’s Bar on Leith Walk which is only mentioned in a picture caption of Sandy Macnair enjoying ‘a quiet drink with the author’. A former neighbour of mine in the Leith authority housing across the road said that he didn’t go to Robbie’s because ‘it’s owre snobby for me’. Snobby isn’t an adjective normally applied to Robbie’s, but what he meant, I think, was that it is one of those Scottish pubs where folks gather who have moved on from situations similar to his. It is no coincidence that Robbie’s is also a place to meet many former students and employees of Telford College (now amalgamated into Edinburgh College) which was one of those ’70s portals through which people processed from one life to another often without obvious outward changes and while continuing to drink in the same bar.

In 1994, American journalist Lesley Downer foregathered in Robbie’s with Duncan MacLean, Alan Warner, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie and Rebel Inc. publisher Kevin Williamson. Downer is now a bestselling author in her own right, but back then she was writing her first piece for the New York Times Magazine. It eventually appeared under the headline ‘The Beats of Edinburgh’. Understandably Downer had no feel for the complex culture of Robbie’s and simply described it as a pub in a working-class area. Three days earlier she had met Irvine Welsh in London and was surprised to find ‘that there was none of the foul language that peppers his writing. He was articulate, intellectual, intensely serious, speaking not in Edinburgh dialect but in educated Scots’.

Without realizing it, Downer was approaching the point where any analysis of the ‘Trainspotting phenomenon’ should begin. Scots understand bi-linguality very well (see Sandy Craigie’s fine poem ‘Bilingual’) and many in the Central Belt especially have made the same journey as Welsh from scheme to Telford (or equivalent) to another life. His was an extreme version of a common process. Like Downer, Munro doesn’t seem to see this ‘class-merging’, for lack of a better term. If he had, it would have saved him from some pretty awful stereotyping. It may be, for instance, that Welsh once disdained theatre though that doesn’t necessarily ‘befit a working-class boy from Muirhouse’. And some of Welsh’s attacks on the denizens of Charlotte Square and readers of the Guardian don’t get a rise from Munro despite the fact that he faithfully records Welsh’s appearances at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and often quotes him from the Guardian.

In truth, Trainspotting needed just about everybody to make it a phenomenon. It sold well in prisons, but depended on Guardian readers and their equivalent in North America to support it in order to create ‘the phenomenon’. Munro quotes Renton to the effect that he was ‘too fuckin’ poncy tae be a proper Leith gadgie n too fuckin’ schemie tae be an arty student type’ which gives a sense of the character being trapped. For his creator, having a foot in both of these worlds, and others besides, worked the other way.

Surprisingly, Munro makes no reference to Welsh having taken all this into cyberspace. From his base in Chicago, the author of Trainspotting has tweeted 27,000 times to 94,000 followers alternating between Scots, Standard English and ‘foul language’. His subjects include Hibs, sports in general, literature, telly, Bowie, shagging and bevvying. The spirit of Leith is alive in the Windy City. To those of us who dabble in Twitter, that really is phenomenal.

Lust for Life! Irvine Welsh and 

the Trainspotting Phenomenon 

John Neil Munro

Polygon, PP220, £12.99, ISBN 9781846972423

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Zen Master

It’s a long way from Govan to eighteenth-century Mount Fiji. Or is it? It’s the journey that Alan Spence’s fiction has made, one marked not merely by miles or years but by gradations of cosmic awareness, the author’s interest in Zen flowering ever more openly until it blossoms fully in his latest, Night Boat, a bildungsroman about one of the key historical figures in Japanese Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku. It’s a far cry, one might think, from the early short stories that draw on his Glasgow childhood, tales fitted with the post-war iconography of grubby Scottish social realism: steamies, outdoor toilets, chibs, flute bands. But then Spence has spent his writing career reconciling where his mind is at with where he came from – a surprisingly cohesive match.

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He has inched towards writing Night Boat, which one suspects is his most personal novel, despite taking place in a setting far removed from our own in period, geography and culture. If you are possessed of some knowledge of Spence’s background, you might think that a curious remark to make. Born in Glasgow in 1947, he made his name with Its Colours They Are Fine, a collection of short stories published in 1977 that impresses readers with an authenticity that can’t be researched. His mother died when its author was 11-years-old. ‘I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.’ The extract is taken from ‘Blue’, the last story in Its Colours They Are Fine, which is narrated by a man remembering the death of his mother when he was a child.

Echoes of his life dot Spence’s fiction. After graduating from the University of Glasgow with a degree in English and philosophy, he spent time in London, the experience feeding into the capital-set sequence in Way To Go. He lived in New York in 1980, an era described in the final section of his first novel, The Magic Flute. Wanderlust is a recurring characteristic of his characters, uniting Hakuin and that otherwise dissimilar protagonist Thomas Glover, the Aberdeen-born trader who ran guns and imported opium into nineteenth-century Japan during a period of civil war, and whose life Spence dramatized in The Pure Land (2006).

Night Boat’s Hakuin spends a great deal of his life travelling, searching for enlightenment. Hakuin, who was famous for his poetry and art as well as his religious teaching, found, like Wordsworth, that walking, spirituality and creativity were linked. Before becoming a monk, he is the son of an inn-keeper in a village at the foot of Mount Fuji. Hakuin has a saintly mother who guides her child towards Zen Buddhism after a hellfire-preaching monk scares him with his sermonising. Despite his stern father’s disapproval, he leaves home at the age of 15, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, to become a Buddhist monk, thus initiating a lifetime of journeys, haiku and meditation.

Night Boat is subtitled ‘A Zen Novel’ but could as easily have been described as ‘Scenes From the Life of Hakuin’. The plot is as seemingly simple or clear as a haiku. Spence, in fact, has been refining it throughout his career – a combination of the coming-of-age tale with picaresque passages, whether it be the story of Neil McGraw, the ageing backpacker returning home to reluctantly run his late father’s funeral business in Way To Go, or of Thomas Glover, the adventurer who travels to the other side of the world to make his fortune, only to change the course of history by the force of his hunger to succeed.

Night Boat is, after The Pure Land, the least autobiographical of his novels – and most personal, for here we find the purest treatment of his spiritual concerns. Previously, spirituality was important in his books, but it was part of a range of a character’s interests. Tam in The Magic Flute is also a musician in a struggling relationship; Way To Go’s Neil has a spiritual side, but his personality is also weighed down with conflicting feelings about his father and undertaking.

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Spence isn’t a confessional writer; his use of personal material has been sparing and at the service of a grander scheme, a goal greater than the photorealistic depiction of a certain strand of Scottish life. He is in fact that rare thing, a religious writer, although we might not always think so. He is not, for example, a James Kelman figure with Zen trimmings. If readers haven’t quite come to terms with this aspect of his writing, it’s possibly because they don’t know as much about Buddhism as about other world religions; Buddhism is also not as obnoxious as its faith rivals, meaning a modern, secular readership doesn’t have to confront or even acknowledge the author’s beliefs in the way it does when, say, reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or Minaret by Leila Aboulela.

With Night Boat, however, the reader encounters Spence’s most sustained dramatization of his beliefs. It’s certainly more meditative than The Pure Land, which was slick and cinematic but felt more like a ripping yarn whose dramatic narrative positively begged to be turned into a novel rather than a vehicle for the ideas that have propelled Spence’s writing since Its Colours They Are Fine. The story of Hakuin, who is as documented a historical figure as Thomas Glover, travels in a different direction from The Pure Land. The wars here are internal, the prize not money or power but enlightenment.

Hakuin is an appealing character who tells his story in a first-person narrative. In addition to being a monk and a painter, he is, like Spence, a poet. Haiku, chiefly. ‘Sometimes it seems the fragments contain the whole; and every moment is eternity, every little thing is infinite. And the moment itself is its own significance, its own meaning.’ That quote, from Spence’s short story ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reads like a description of haiku. One master whose wisdom Hakuin seeks, Bao Rojin, runs a retreat that is as much a poetry workshop as it is a monastery. ‘Poetry is what is happening here, right now, in the moment,’ Bao says. What is being observed is less important than the act of observation, of being and remaining in the moment. Hakuin frequently finds it useful to teach by way of haiku.

Sick on a journey −

my dreams go wandering

across a withered moor.


The incense stick burns down −

a heap of ash,

the fragrance.

I’m troubled by the haiku. The thought expressed often strikes me as banal –

The winds blow −

the mountain

is unmoved.

– or odd enough to make me think something has gone awry in translation:

Here’s the cure

for your haemorrhoids −

a little fire!

These haikus are found in Night Boat and are – I presume – versions of Hakuin’s work. Perhaps the English language itself is resistant to the form. I’ve not been able to take English-language haikus seriously since reading Ian Bell’s criticism of Kenneth White’s in the first issue of the Scottish Review of Books: ‘Some day, sooner or later, someone will get around to admitting that you cannot write a haiku properly in English. It doesn’t work. The language does not take well to syllabic verse-forms, not least when filched from ideographic Japanese, even if we can all count out the 17 syllables required. What looks easy is, in fact, all-but impossible in a culture whose poetry, whose natural voice, is stubbornly accentual.’

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Haiku is not enough for Hakuin either. ‘Becoming a poet was all very well, but even if I surpassed the greatest poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, it would not save me from the fire or grant me that poise in the face of it.’ Despondent, Hakuin takes to the road again. After suffering ‘zen sickness’ (some scholars believe it was in fact a nervous breakdown), he found some equilibrium once more by retreating to the mountains by himself to work on his self and his salvation through meditation. As characterised by Spence, Hakuin is insistent that this will in turn better humanity, but – and I acknowledge that this may be a consequence of a less than comprehensive knowledge of Buddhism – I can’t see how isolating oneself from mankind can help it (save for if you’re infected with a highly contagious and dangerous disease). When told that his father is dying, Hakuin believes it is ‘ludicrous’ to leave his retreat to be with him. ‘The best thing I could do for my father, and for all humanity, was to stay in the mountains and continue my meditation. Set things in order!’

One detects in Hakuin at this point something of the post-Sixties thinking of disillusioned baby boomers looking to find a focus for their energies in the wake of the death of the hippie dream. Can’t change the world? Change yourself! And if enough of us do that, we change the world! That turn inwards is charted in The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute begins with its four protagonists auditioning to join an Orange Order marching band, the boys’ characters revealed in how they handle for the first time a flute. Over the years, as the boys grow into men against the backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s, music and metaphysics come to the fore, the pair joined, not always in constructive ways – the use of drugs as popularised by rock stars proves destructive after initially promising a Blakean revolution of the self and society, as well as being a shortcut to nirvana, ‘a couple of pounds’ worth of eternity’, that Hakuin surely wouldn’t have approved of – although Spence’s occasionally equivocal feelings about music fall far short of the chilly examination of its destructive aspects seen in The Piano Teacher, both the Elfriede Jelinek novel and Michael Haneke film. He pulls back because, despite some qualms, Spence is essentially committed to the idea encoded in the book’s title: ‘the idea of music as a magic power’. The novel closes in 1980, just after the murder of John Lennon, a totemic figure throughout The Magic Flute. It was the day the music died, and, with it, some part of his characters’ better selves. Mark Chapman’s pistol wasn’t just a murder weapon; it was a starting pistol, beginning the 1980s race to the bottom. One character attending a course on selling insurance is advised to use Beatle John’s death to help sell policies. In Way To Go, Neil McGraw’s nemesis is the logical conclusion of a decade that swapped an interest in alternative philosophies for an all-trumping obsession with the bottom line: an uncaring undertaking conglomerate, their callousness underlined, perhaps a little heavily, by their treatment of a young man who has died from AIDS.

Spence didn’t publish a book of fiction during the 1980s (he did write plays and poetry). Presumably a great deal of his time was taken up by running the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre in Edinburgh. It’s interesting to speculate that this was Spence’s equivalent of sitting it out on a mountain, the very grain of the decade proving inimical to his and Hakuin’s prescription for the soul. Hakuin did eventually come down off the mountains. He returns, as the novel describes, to restore a monastery with a family connection and is installed as abbot of the ruin of Seiken-ji. Spence too returned, with The Magic Flute in 1990, which reaffirmed and reworked some of the themes and characters seen in Its Colours They Are Fine. The Magic Flute concludes with Tam, its musician character, who is returning to Scotland, reading a short story (very much like one you might encounter in Its Colours They Are Fine) written by his friend Brian, a teacher and a poet. The conclusion’s atmosphere, post-Lennon, pre-Thatcherism, is somewhat despondent. If one thinks art might provide some sort of comfort in the years ahead, one should recall Hakuin’s words on the relationship between art and the soul: ‘There are those who say … that when Zen teaching is flourishing, it has little to do with art. But when the teaching is in decline, the reliance on the arts increases. So instead of monks we produce poets and painters and tea masters.’ Art, in this light, is just displacement activity during spiritually arid periods.

After reading Brian’s story, Tam picks up The Bhagavad Gita, where he reads ‘Be thou an instrument.’ In his next novel, Way To Go, Spence takes this image to an extreme conclusion. A man contracts its narrator, Neil, to turn his corpse, when he dies, into musical instruments; his thigh bone becomes a flute. Neil himself is born from death, having killed his mother in childbirth, which his father can’t forgive him for. Spurning the chance to take over his father’s undertaking business, he begins to travel, like Tam and Hakuin: ‘To keep moving, not settle for less. To live. Cheat death. Or at least not settle for death-in-life, the grind. Keep moving. A moving target. What the travelling was about.’

Finally, Neil is called home by his father’s death and finds himself, against his will at first, becoming a funeral director – with a difference. Having seen the various ways in which death is marked and celebrated around the world, he decides to inject some distinctly un-Scottish colour into the service he provides. His coffins are works of art, built to order: a Star Trek fan is buried in one shaped like the SS Enterprise, a woman buries her abusive, alcoholic husband in one that resembles a whisky bottle. Gaudy as these creations are, Neil sees his service as spiritual in so far as he refuses to allow death to be swept under the carpet. If you don’t pay attention to death, what will you?

From his childhood, Neil asks over and over, ‘What happens when you die?’, acknowledging it as his own particular koan. Koans are questions or short tales that sit somewhere between parable and riddle, that don’t have a correct answer or interpretation to be figured out so much as they are meant to provoke thought that guides Buddhists towards enlightenment. Some koans are famous: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’, for example, a line that appears in several of Spence’s books. Even an arch-materialist like Thomas Glover is, in The Pure Land, intrigued. ‘Some of it was baffling, enigmatic,’ Glover thinks of koans, ‘some of it outrageous, ferociously illogical. It was often very funny, and much of it … seemed grounded in a kind of enlightened common sense.’ Hakuin teaches largely through koan. ‘Once you became a monk, everything, everything was a koan.’ When an earthquake and tsunami devastate the area he was brought up in, he thinks, ‘This too was a koan, beyond comprehension.’ Soon after, he falls into a spiritual crisis that elicits the Beckett-esque line: ‘I couldn’t go on. I had to go on. Life itself was a vicious koan I couldn’t solve.’

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On occasion I found myself thinking Zen Buddhism as presented by Night Boat was itself a koan. There aren’t a great many concessions made to those not familiar with the tradition. It isn’t merely that there is no glossary of terms, for one can work out, for example, what a koan is (or consult the internet, failing that). What, though, is one to make of passing references to ‘the lower tanden, the cinnabar field’ (which, apparently, wards off demonic attacks) or conversations where the following advice pops up: ‘Your illness arises from letting your heart-fire rush upward. This is against the natural flow. The energy has to be directed downward, otherwise you will never regain your health and composure’? I described Night Boat as Spence’s most personal book, and it is, although I fear there are moments when it is so personal, so keyed to his beliefs, that I wasn’t sure I was following.

Hakuin himself remains an approachable figure, humanly grappling with his faith, no saint but instead an artist, an eccentric, a man struggling to perfect his faith and who doesn’t, like other Spence characters, ignore or attempt to domesticate the cosmic: ‘Billy pulled on the trousers of his best (blue) suit, hoisting the braces over his shoulders, and declared that without a doubt God must be Protestant.’ Hakuin can be wily too. The title of the book is taken from a story the monks tell, ‘Night Boat on the Shirakawa River’, which is about a man who lies about travelling by night to Kyoto on a river which is in fact, if he had but known it, a stream. There is more than one hint that Hakuin might not always have been entirely truthful during the recounting of his own tale. ‘Some illusion leads to liberation, some just leads us deeper into the mire.’ Hakuin is quite sure which camp his tales fall into. ‘If they dupe one human being into wakefulness, they may just be worth the paper they’re printed on.’

One wonders whether this duality, this openness to the universe while acknowledging that earthly powers may be required to sustain it, isn’t another manifestation of that standby of Scottish literary studies, the proverbial Caledonian antisyzgy. With that in mind, perhaps Night Boat should have had the alternative title of The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Zenner. Okay, as puns go, it isn’t the best, and it doesn’t match for concision and humour a haiku by Spence that neatly summarises the philosophy worked out in his fiction:


‘On the oneness of self and the universe’



Night Boat

Alan Spence

Canongate, £14.99, PP448, ISBN 978 0 85786 852 7

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Nationalism and the BBC

In the run-up to the Scottish referendum many followers of the Yes campaign for independence accuse BBC Scotland of editorial bias in favour of the Better Together movement to maintain Scotland’s place within the Union. In the face of a mainstream press, both London and Scottish based, that is almost exclusively unionist and often aggressively opposed to independence Yes Scotland supporters have focused their media criticism at the BBC, arguing that its own editorial guidelines require the broadcaster to be fair, impartial and objective in its coverage.

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Nationalist supporters allege that despite such regulations BBC Scotland is guilty of misleading and negative reporting and displaying ‘institutionalised political prejudice’ against the independence campaign. The evidence for such claims include a failure to provide equal representation for both sides in debates and discussion programmes and giving prominence to unionist inspired stories while burying or ignoring reports favourable to independence. The BBC, inundated with complaints of unionist bias, has stood firm rejecting these and maintaining that its reporting and commentaries are fair and impartial.

Perhaps inevitably, given the paucity of coverage on this issue in the print media, the debate and the arguments both for and against have primarily been played out online where nationalist and Yes Scotland supporting websites such as Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia publish regular examples of what they claim is BBC unionist bias. Neither the SNP controlled Scottish government nor the official SNP has joined the general condemnation of the BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaigns although the fractures between nationalist politicians and the Corporation were laid bare when the Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee decided to investigate BBC Scotland’s capacity in resources and staffing to cover major events such as the referendum. In its final report the Committee concluded that it was a matter of considerable regret ‘that BBC Scotland had initially declined our invitation to give oral evidence’. It also raised concerns that because of staffing cuts BBC Scotland may be unable to deliver high quality coverage of events over the next 18 months (i.e. the referendum).

Broadcasting is one area not devolved. It remains within the control of Westminster, while it is SNP policy that a separate broadcasting authority should be set up in Scotland. However similar calls from politicians, commentators and academics will go unheeded, certainly this side of the referendum, and if a majority of the Scottish people say no to independence broadcasting powers will stay in London. In 2005 the then Scottish Executive, controlled by Labour, rejected a recommendation from the Cultural Commission that Edinburgh and London should revisit the regulatory arrangements for broadcasting in the 1998 Scotland Act. It was, Labour maintained, rightly a reserved matter and the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A separate Scottish broadcasting channel was not required.

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It would be a mistake to believe that any unease within the BBC towards the Yes Scotland campaign and Scottish nationalism itself is a modern manifestation of the political landscape of the early twenty-first century, motivated only by the current threat to the union. The BBC is the definitive British national organisation – one of the few remaining pillars of the British establishment and, arguably, of the very concept of Britishness itself. It is inconceivable that it would be other than a standard bearer of the status quo, in essence a unionist body. When the former Director General John Birt resisted Scottish demands for a ‘Scottish Six’, to opt out of the Six O’Clock News, he merely reinforced this reality. He said later, ‘Opting out of the Six would be a powerful symbol of Scotland moving away from UK-wide institutions. It could encourage separate tendencies’. The BBC’s position was backed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, wrote Birt in his memoir The Harder Path, was ‘quick, as ever, to grasp the case’. ‘Let’s fight’, Blair told Birt. Alasdair Milne recalled in DG Memoirs of a British Broadcaster that when he was appointed Controller of BBC Scotland in 1968 he was given a ‘polite wigging’ from Tory politicians like George Younger and also ‘jittery’ Labour MPs who believed that there was a ‘strong SNP cell in Queen Margaret Drive’. The emergence of the nationalists as a political force in the late 1960s unnerved the unionist parties and they naturally assumed that the BBC would be anti-nationalism.

The BBC as a beacon of unionism is deeply ingrained and stretches back through the decades to the period between the two world wars when the Scottish National Party was created from the merger between the left-leaning National Party of Scotland and the right-wing Scottish Party. In 1935 the BBC refused the SNP‘s application for pre-election broadcasts, and it was not until 1965 that the SNP had its first party political broadcast. In 1936, when the National Programme broadcast a series Three Nations – A Historical Survey, looking at nationalism in England, Scotland and Wales, the BBC developed specific internal editorial guidelines to ensure that no part of the programmes could be used as a propaganda vehicle for Scottish nationalism.

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The guidelines, laid out in an internal memo circulated by the Director of Talks, J. M. Rose-Trump, insisted that there should be no emotional appeals, ‘no references to the distant past with its alleged injustices. One gets out of the realm of purely propagandist talks by the nationalist in Scotland, intended to attract more Scottish people to their side,’ Rose-Trump wrote. He insisted that the series should focus on practical matters, particularly those which highlighted the problems faced by nationalism. These included issues such as the administrative and constitutional difficulties of producing a workable scheme for devolution and the ‘inconsistencies of the nationalist case’. However, pleasingly, Rose-Trump did concede that the series should not deny ‘that Scotland has its own separate culture’.

These efforts to silence or control political appeals to Scottish nationalism came at a time when the SNP had little popular support and posed no threat to the mainstream unionist parties. But Rose-Trump’s apparent nervousness merely reflected concerns within the BBC that had been in place since the early 1930s when the political establishment in London and Scotland feared that nationalism might present problems for the union.

In the wake of industrial and economic collapse, large-scale unemployment and mass emigration in the 1920s, quickly followed by the Depression, the ongoing debate about the condition of Scotland, and Westminster’s apparent indifference to it, caused concerns in many unionist circles. Calls for home rule were supported – at least for a period – by the two most popular daily newspapers, the Daily Record and the Scottish Daily Express. The emergence of a dissident and breakaway unionist group in Cathcart on the south side of Glasgow alarmed the political establishment, particularly when this led to the formation of the Scottish Party made up of unionists who demanded some form of home rule. The angry public debate over Scottish home rule spread from the Scottish press to the London newspapers with The Times leading the broadsides warning that ‘the malcontents’ were sufficiently numerous and important to carry weight with impressionable Scotsmen, and that the Scottish Party ‘cannot easily be dismissed’.

It was against this background in June 1932 at their monthly meeting in London that the BBC Governors decided to dispense with the services of their Scottish Regional Director, David Cleghorn Thomson. One member, Lord Gainford, described Thomson as very capable but unsuited to his position because of personal faults, ‘such as conceit, egotism, tactlessness and so forth’. Another board member, Lady Snowden, said that from what she had heard from ‘outsiders’ broadcasting in Scotland would never prosper so long as Thomson was Regional Director. The Board instructed the Director General, John Reith, to see Thomson and explain that he was ‘considered unsatisfactory, request his resignation, one year’s notice being given’.

Some governors also believed that Thomson supported Scottish nationalism, which was unacceptable to the BBC and in particular to a Board filled with hand-picked establishment figures, many of them, like Gainford and Snowden, political appointments. Gainford, a Liberal, and former Postmaster General, had been the first chairman of the British Broadcasting Company before it became the BBC. Snowden, the wife of the Labour politician and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, was the main force within the Governors to remove Thomson from office. The BBC historian Asa Briggs said Snowden brought cultural and political clout to the Board, ‘she was one of the most controversial governors’. She was a constant irritant to Reith who took to calling her ‘the Scarlet Woman’. In his diary he remarked, ‘what a poisonous creature she is’.

Snowden’s antagonism towards Thomson and his alleged links to Scottish nationalism surfaced four years later, when Thomson had been removed and Snowden was no longer a governor. In December, 1936 a note on Thomson’s case marked ‘Staff Private’ which was sent to the Postmaster General, George Tryon, said he had been asked to resign or accept dismissal because he had exhibited ‘certain defects’ as the public representative of the BBC in Scotland. These included ‘violent quarrels with certain public men’; and a ‘general feeling of untrustworthiness and inability to handle staff’. Lady Snowden, the note said, had become aware of the situation in Scotland ‘and the prejudice to broadcasting which was resulting from Mr Thomson’s bad public contacts and from his enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism’.

In addition to the Tyron note there is other substantial documentation in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham to confirm that it was Scottish and London establishment fears about Scottish nationalism and Thomson’s suspected nationalist sympathies which finally convinced the Governors to sack him. Thomson left his position as the first Scottish Regional Director of the BBC on 10 April, 1933. The BBC announcement was brief, stating only that Thomson had resigned his appointment with the Corporation. In a separate statement, Thomson claimed his resignation was due to disagreements over matters of policy in Scotland, ‘and a consequent unreadiness on my part to continue to work in the face of obstacles which have proved insuperable’.

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The story of Thomson and his fate holds a mirror to the response of the Scottish and British establishments to the surge of interest and enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism in the early 1930s, but particularly its apparently increasing attraction to the unionist middle class. Thomson was an intellectual and cultural connoisseur of the time; to all intents and purposes he was an establishment figure. Yet his passion for all things Scottish and his closeness to many leading commentators, some nationalists like Compton Mackenzie, William Power, George Blake and George Malcolm Thomson, caused concerns in some circles in Edinburgh and, fatefully, also at BBC executive and boardroom level in London.

Thomson had been chosen personally by Reith and sent to Scotland in 1926 as Northern Area Director, subsequently appointing him as Scottish Regional Director in 1928. He fitted Reith’s ideal profile of a BBC executive, particularly one to lead the Scottish operation. Thomson was a classical product of upper middle-class Edinburgh, the son of a doctor he had attended Edinburgh Academy and gone on to Edinburgh University and then Baliol College, Oxford. He had trained as a lawyer but had opted for a career in journalism and twice stood, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal candidate, all before he was 24 years old.

He had a high regard of his own abilities as a playwright, poet and composer, qualities which he pursued in Scotland both personally through various theatre, musical and arts organisations and professionally by opening up the airwaves to cultural broadcasts. As a journalist he also responded to the economic and social difficulties with important current affairs programmes such as What’s Wrong with Scotland? in which over several weeks in late 1929 Scottish politicians, authors, businessmen and commentators were invited to recommend ideas and solutions. By any measure Thomson was a key figure in the formative years of broadcasting in Scotland. Yet histories of the BBC make few mentions of him; in W. H. McDowell’s 1992 officially approved history of BBC Scotland Thomson rates one reference, his appointment as Regional Director.

Thomson, if sidelined in the BBC memory, has been noted by some historians, particularly for his angry opposition to London’s much-heralded regional policies and also for the concerns he raised about BBC centralisation which he regarded as contrary to Scottish interests. In the late 1920s the BBC launched the Regional Scheme aimed at centralising and securing the authority of London over the Regions, which included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its effect was to remove much of the autonomy and decision-making away from the regions. One BBC executive was dismissive of the Regions, ‘their local culture is considered inferior to the universal culture of the metropolis’. The voice of the BBC became London-centric, as Reith wished it to be, a strategy supported by his senior staff who were wholly convinced of their metropolitan superiority and who resisted any attempts to pander to regional variations in taste, ‘which, in any case, they considered to be merely capricious. The BBC gazed out of its metropolitan base on to an audience which it regarded vaguely or sometimes with indifference’, said one historian.

Eventually Thomson himself understood that his clashes with colleagues in London had weakened his position in Scotland but he was unaware – at least until later – that forces in Scotland outside the BBC were attempting to undermine him or that there was a growing belief that he was personally sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. Increasingly he found himself isolated and when Reith eventually confronted him and told him he could resign or be sacked he appealed to him to find him another post in London, such as Editor of the Radio Times. He did so by reminding Reith that he had only agreed to the original posting to Scotland at Reith’s personal request. ‘I said I should like an opportunity to take John Buchan’s advice –to which you replied, “Why was I not satisfied to be advised by you?”’

The view that Thomson was sacked because of personal and managerial failures is perpetuated in a recent ‘insider’s look’ in The BBC in Scotland: The First 50 Years, written by the retired BBC executive Pat Walker. Walker claims that among staff ‘dislike for Thomson was growing’ and ‘the Scottish director’s lifestyle and pyrotechnic displays of management had wearied London colleagues in general and Reith in particular. It was his short fuse in dealing with colleagues that caused the greatest concern’. There is no dispute that Thomson frequently clashed with executives in London, and that he was arrogant, often acting without tact or diplomacy, and regularly complained to Reith about London’s interference and control over the Scottish Region. However this version takes no account of BBC internal documents which challenge the issue of staff morale, their loyalty to Thomson, and which also open up further the issue of nationalist sympathies within the BBC Scottish Region. Reports on Thomson and the Scottish Region, written separately in the months before he left by two London executives, provide an alternative and positive view of him and the Scottish operation.

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Lindsay Wellington, the Regional Co-ordinator, charged with investigating alleged shortcomings in programme building and business controls, reported that he found the Scottish station ‘in a more lively condition and potentially a source of better programmes than any other region I have visited’. Wellington, while recommending a structural reorganisation to deal with the business issues, praised Thomson’s external relations work, ‘he is essentially a man of public affairs, which seems to be what Edinburgh wants at the moment. He is a figure in Edinburgh, which is all to the advantage of the Corporation’. In March, 1933, Rose-Trump, who as Director of Talks had been asked by Reith to investigate staff morale and specifically the strength of support for nationalism, wrote that his general impression of the station and the staff was extremely favourable, ‘I was struck by the enthusiasm of everyone I spoke to and by a sense of loyalty both to the BBC and to the Scottish Regional Director. The output of energy and ideas is remarkable’. Rose-Trump told Reith that he found the station a great deal more favourable than he had anticipated, ‘Thomson deserves credit for having got together a staff with such abilities as I have not found in any other regional station’. Rose-Trump told Reith that the nationalist sentiment was ‘clearly very strong among some members of staff’ and in some quarters ‘over-strong’. However, he added, this was ‘a healthy manifestation and quite easily capable of reasonable control’.

With the exception of a question mark over Thomson’s business skills, both reports appear to be at odds with the personal views about Thomson expressed by two governors and later by the BBC to the Postmaster General. And Rose-Trump’s questioning of the staff about their nationalist leanings provides further evidence that Reith and the board of governors were concerned about possible connections between the BBC Scottish Region and Scottish nationalism

Thomson, himself, unwittingly or naively, gave some legitimacy to links to nationalism when he edited the book, Scotland in Quest of Her Youth, published in 1932. Described as a ‘scrutiny’ of Scottish consciousness and cultural identity, it included contributions from leading Scots, among them nationalists such as Neil Gunn, Robert Hurd, Eric Linklater and Compton Mackenzie. It was unlikely to have been greeted warmly by the BBC governors. In the introduction Thomson described the then National Party as ‘a very virile young political party’, a ‘significant force in politics’ and he connected political nationalism and the cultural revival with the development of regional broadcasting. ‘Broadcasting’, Thomson wrote, ‘has provided an increasingly valuable platform for the views of those who, whether nationalist in politics or not, are vitally interested in the future of Scotland as a cultural entity’.

Most of the writers in the book had taken part in one or more of the various series focusing on the problems of modern Scotland which Thomson had broadcast on the Scottish region during the previous three years. He wrote, ‘all have been actively engaged in the general movement which has brought about a sudden revival of interest in Scotland’s destiny’. Thomson does not at any point in the book express personal support for nationalism, only indicating that he welcomed the arrival of political nationalism as an adjunct to the Scottish renaissance. And in a letter to Major W. Gladstone Murray – a senior advisor to Reith – Thomson said he had enjoyed a unique experience in his own country during the emergence of the political national movement, ‘a movement with which, incidentally, I am wholly out of sympathy’.

In the weeks before the announcement of Thomson’s forced resignation the BBC was anxious to control what he might say in public. In return for assurances from him that his departure would be professional and dignified the Corporation agreed to give him an ex-gratia sum of £1,000 in addition to all severance, redundancy, holiday, pension and expense payments due to him. Val H. Goldsmith, the Director of Business Relations, was given the task of finalising the financial arrangements and controlling the public and press aspects of Thomson’s departure. On 8 of April, 1933, two days before the announcement, Thomson assured Goldsmith that, whatever his personal feelings, he would not display any unpleasantness or bitterness in public, ‘you can rely on me absolutely to honour my word regarding my actions at this juncture with regard to a dignified bearing’.

Thomson and Goldsmith had also agreed that in making any public statements Thomson would refer to ‘policy differences’ about the Scottish Region between himself and BBC in London. The phrase was suggested by Goldsmith and when Thomson wrote asking what these might be Goldsmith replied: ‘for example you had backed the nationalist policy strongly’. Thomson, in response, said he was grateful to Goldsmith for letting him know that the Governors ‘disagreed’ with his nationalist policy, ‘it is to me privately a matter of great importance to have found out at last part of what the Board considered a substantial reason for their decision’. Goldsmith’s reaction to this was to attempt to separate his own words from the Governors. ‘I do not know that the Governors have ever mentioned your nationalist policy’, he wrote. He had mentioned that Thomson had backed the nationalist policy strongly because ‘it is very definitely an issue between two sections of the Scottish press’. Thomson wrote again to Goldsmith reminding him that he had repeated his remark about backing the nationalist policy. ‘Every intelligent person in Scotland knows that I have often repeated in public that I am opposed to the nationalist policy, and no careful follower of the programmes in the past seven years could accuse me of backing the nationalist policy’, Thomson said. He sent this letter to Goldsmith one day after he had officially resigned; only at the end did Thomson discover that no matter his protestations of innocence the BBC Board of Governors had decided they did not want someone in charge of the Scottish region who, it was believed, was close to the Scottish nationalist movement.

Through the summer months of 1933 the BBC sought to assure influential Scottish political and business opinion that the Corporation was not supportive or sympathetic towards Scottish nationalism. In October 1933 the BBC Programme Board received a report from the Director of Programmes which claimed that this had proved a successful exercise. ‘Responsible opinion in Scotland was apparently unanimous…that the dis-association of the Corporation with the Scottish nationalist movement was welcomed’, the report stated. Reith and the Board of Governors may well have been legally and editorially at arm’s length from the political position towards nationalism taken by its unionist opponents in London and Scotland but in such matters the BBC hierarchy could be depended upon to ensure that broadcasting protected the interests of the government. Reith’s dictum that ‘broadcasting should be established under the auspices of the state, but certainly not conducted by the State’, did not mean that on occasion broadcasting policy decision-making could not be conducted in the interests of the state, interpretated simply as being the interests of the government of the day. The name on the door was the ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation, and Reith ensured, with the support of the Governors, that listeners in London, Cardiff, Belfast and Glasgow had ‘gentle but frequent reminders of their nationality, their membership in the British nation’. The BBC strived to develop a unitary and consensual version of Britishness, ‘to make Britain a community of listeners’.

In The BBC and national identity in Britain 1922-1953, published in 2010, the American historian Thomas Hajkowski suggests that between the wars the Corporation played a pivotal role in sustaining and reinforcing ‘a complex sense of national identity in Scotland’, that it existed to reflect the politics, society – the culture – of Scotland. The evidence for this analysis is that ‘special days’ such as St. Andrew’s Day or Burns Night ‘allowed for the expression of Scottish patriotism, and that, despite its admitted hostility to political nationalism ‘it did permit expressions of cultural nationalism, and debate of political issues’. In the early 1930s the BBC Governors and its Director General’s dispensation on what was ‘allowed’ or ‘permitted’ did not extend to accepting that its Scottish Regional Director might have political views with which they disagreed, and if he did, finding the evidence to support the charge. The BBC’s fear of nationalism even extended to issuing instructions to a London executive to investigate feelings of nationalism among the staff; and in the wake of the sacking of Thomson to carry out soundings across the Scottish establishment to confirm that they were now assured that the BBC and its executives in Scotland were not sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. Expressions of Scottish patriotism had limits.

Thomson embraced cultural nationalism. The programmes he pioneered on the BBC Scottish Region and the arts and education organisations he joined – a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a director of the Scottish National Theatre – provide evidence of his passion for Scotland and the arts. Thomson’s other representation of ‘nationalism’ during his tenure as Scottish Regional Director was focused on the autonomy of Scottish broadcasting and the threats to it he perceived from the BBC’s policy of centralisation. Following his departure he continued to argue this case in press articles, pamphlets and books. In October, 1935 he wrote, ‘Scottish broadcasting will never, be really worthy until the task of its programme board is in essentials something more than a skilful process of chink-filling applied to a structure devised and dictated from the South’. In 1937 he asked ‘Why should Scots hear only the metropolitan utterance in comment on and criticism of contemporary events and works of art and letters?’ The fact is that Thomson cared more, and said more, about internal BBC politics surrounding centralisation and regionalism than he ever did about external political nationalism. The accusations made against him by the governors and others, both at the time and later, were false. There may have been other good corporate reasons to sack him – his arrogant behaviour and alleged poor business management skills – but no evidence exists to support the case that he either sympathised with or supported Scottish nationalism.

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Like most of the interwar intellectuals Thomson was politically aware but although his political and social views changed between the early 1920s and late 1930s he was never a member or active supporter of any nationalist party or group in Scotland. His political commitment and journey took him from the conservatism of Edinburgh and Oxford, and post-war Liberalism to the post-depression Labour Party and socialism. At the 1935 General Election he stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate in Leith, and again at a by-election for the Scottish Universities seat in 1936. His conversion to socialism is likely to have occurred after he left the BBC and spent six months with the Rev. George MacLeod – later the founder of the Iona Community – at the Pearce Institute in Govan, working with the poor and unemployed in the district’s slums.

The BBC’s first Scottish Regional Director labelled by the BBC establishment as an enthusiast for Scottish nationalism did have views in common with other Scottish intellectuals and commentators. But it was not with those calling for home rule; he turned to the left and found shared ground with such writers as Edwin Muir and Lewis Grassic Gibbon who argued that the solution to the interwar condition of Scotland was to be found in socialism.

When Thomson left the BBC he was still only 33 years old. In middle age he cut an increasingly frustrated figure continually badgering BBC producers for work, to write and present arts programmes. His successor as Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie and other BBC executives in Scotland adopted a compassionate and patient attitude towards him. When one religious producer found himself under pressure from Thomson Dinwiddie admitted that many others had faced similar requests, adding, ‘it has been very difficult to deal with them. London registry has many files on him, both confidential and otherwise’. In 1957, when Dinwiddie retired, Thomson, then aged 56, applied, unsuccessfully, for his old post then re-designated as BBC Controller Scotland.

George Malcolm Thomson: The Best-Hated Man

George McKechnie

Argyll Publishing, PP286, £15.99, ISBN 978 1 908931 32 0

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Shopping For Tartan

Something Hugh MacDiarmid said in his book, Scottish Eccentrics, is the interpretive key to this elegantly constructed and beautifully written collection of essays, but before turning to MacDiarmid let me first say something about the author of Scotland the Brave. Bliss Carnochan is the Richard W.Lyman Professor of the Humanities, emeritus, at Stanford University in California; just as importantly, he describes himself as a fifth-generation Scottish-American. He tells us in his foreword that at the turn of the nineteenth century, three Carnochan brothers made their way from Dumfries and Galloway in the south-west of Scotland to the New World, first to the Caribbean and then to the American South. One of them was his great-great-grandfather John. Clock the hyphens in that ‘fifth-generation Scottish-American’ description as I turn now to MacDiarmid’s famous words.

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In his chapter, Three Skeptics: Lord Monboddo, Robert Chambers, Richard Holloway, Carnochan reminds us that the final chapter of MacDiarmid’s bookis called ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy’. My dictionary defines antisyzygy as the presence of two opposing or contending polarities in the same entity. MacDiarmid said of the Caledonian version of this phenomenon that ‘in the make-up of almost every distinguished Scot’ there were present ‘contradictions of character’ and ‘antinomies and antithetical impulses’. Since I am cited by Carnochan as an example of this well-known Jekyll and Hyde theory of Scottish character, I feel obliged to offer here a personal response to his analysis of my own history and personality.

The first thing I want to say is that, while he may be considered too generous in his assessment of the way I handled my own struggles with faith and doubt, I think his diagnosis is correct: I am a divided man. But that, I suspect, is true of many of us, and not just Scots. It is why I am fond of Graham Greene, another dodgy double-minded man. He claimed for himself some lines from ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ by Robert Browning:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious atheist…

That’s why many of Greene’s characters are double-agents of one sort or another, traitors to the values they revere even as they subvert them. But I think MacDiarmid was right to identify this capacity for living with antinomies and antithetical impulses as particularly Scottish. The secret lies in refusing to resolve the antinomy by flight into the absolute certainty of one of the opposing poles, which is what dogmatic religion and dogmatic politics do. As Charles Williams, another celebrant of the Christian antisyzygy, put it: This also is Thou; Neither is this Thou. However, even if you are bored with or have never bought into this classic reading of the Scottish character, it does, as I said at the top of this review, provide us with a useful key to interpreting Carnochan’s book, so let me jump to some examples.

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And where better to begin than with the invention of Highlandism? A key event in the formation of one of Scotland’s most potent myths was the visit to Edinburgh of George IV in 1822, the whole pantomime stage managed by the great impresario himself, Sir Walter Scott. We know that the corpulent monarch wore pink tights under his kilt as he was helped off the boat in Leith where he was met by Scotland’s elite, themselves wrapped in the tartan that had been proscribed after Culloden, but was now the official brand of the Highland Regiments that were the shock-troops of the British Empire, of which the Hanoverian monarch was the primary symbol. While Carnochan is aware of the absurd side of this invention of Highlandism and Tartanry, he is a man of generous judgements, so he compares Highlandism to the invention of Thanksgiving as the American national sacrament, and asks how a tradition ‘can not have been invented’ if it is to fulfil its purpose. It’s obvious that Walter Scott knew an antisysygy when he saw one. A firm supporter of the Union of 1707, he wrapped Scotland in the very plaid that had been the badge of opposition to the House of Hanover, whose perspiring representative he was now welcoming to his northern kingdom. Thus the myth of Highlandism was born – and potent it remains.

I was doing something recently for the BBC at its Edinburgh HQ near the bottom of the Royal Mile. With time on my hands after the recording before my next engagement, I decided to go into some of the shops promoting Highlandism as I made my way back up the Canongate. I haven’t counted how many there are, but Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is the Fifth Avenue of Tartanry. Winter and summer, the shops are hoaching with tourists trying to get in touch with their ancestors and the precise tartan they would have worn. Being a Galloway man, Carnochan knows that Lowland Scotland never wore the tartan and despised the savages of the north who did; but he also knows a potent myth when he sees one, so he plays the game like the rest of us. Someone ought to create the ultimate Scottish tartan, the MacAntisyzygy, a blaze of competing colours and clashing patterns, and the myth of Highlandism in all its contradictions will be complete.

Tartanry may be fun, but Carnochan won’t let us forget that the shadow side of our fabled duality made its way across the Atlantic where it assumed its own colours. He tells us that the Cape Fear region of North Carolina is the heart-land of American Highlandism. It was here the romance of the Highland story intersected with the romance of the antebellum South and brought forth darkness. He quotes a founder of the Klu Klux Klan who says they chose that name because the founding members ‘were all of Scottish descent’. Carnochan sums up: ‘The good and the bad of Highlandism, as happens in any reversion to the values and virtues of an imagined past, tangle in obscurity beneath the conscious surface. Highlandism is many things, depending on circumstance and the disposition of the observer: on the one hand, costume parties, theme parks, and kitsch-laden tourist draws; on the other, forces that shape individual and national identity, shelters against the storms of loss…’ Ah yes, the storms of loss: they are still a potent element in the Caledonian Antisyzygy and it is far from clear where they may yet drive us.

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But this book is not all heavy and brooding. Antisyzygy can be fun. What about McGonagall, who has a chapter to himself in Scotland the Brave? Again, MacDiarmid is the best guide: ‘…he was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet. He was not a poet at all…There are no other writings known to me that resemble his’. Carnochan thinks McGonagall was a holy fool who, mocked in his lifetime by the multitudes, turned mockery into a belated triumph.

Maybe we have to push a bit to find the antisyzygy in McGonagall, but Carnochan is in no doubt it is there in the game we invented and which now threatens to engulf the whole of our fabled landscape, golf. Carnochan asks: ‘What is one to think of a people who invented so masochistic and yet so sociable a sport?’ Then he makes one of his most inspired leaps: ‘If golf is Scottish sport’s royal and ancient equivalent of Highlandism, its Glaswegian antithesis is ‘The Old Firm’, the collective name for the football clubs Celtic and Rangers, a rivalry more pronounced than any in North American sport’. Yes, but that’s because it’s about more, much more, than a mere sports rivalry. The Auld Firm is the toxic residue of Scotland’s religious duality, and many of us hope that as we become increasingly secular it will fade into insignificance. Unfortunately, it is probably too much to hope that the Auld Firm itself will fade away, football having become for many Scots the closest thing they have to a religion.

I have only touched on a few of the themes explored in this engaging book, but it would be criminal to avoid the most potent element in the Caledonian Antisyzygy, England. Carnochan thinks our southern neighbour is the irritant that makes us what we are, so the referendum worries him. ‘Might Scotland’s creative energy, especially its literary energy, suffer if the union were dissolved? The observer on this side of the Atlantic…might hope for a no vote if only because friction generates more creative fire than reconciliation. Alistair Darling, founder and leader of Better Together, has been called the most boring politician in Britain. Better Together? There’s a yawn. I end up in doubt.’

That’s Caledonian Antisyzygy for you!



Galloway Hills Press, PP162, £6.64, ISBN 1490989862

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Domestic Drama

When does sadness become depression? Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the emotion is medicalised or not. Very sad people can be passive, boring, and dislikeable. I say this as someone who has been clinically depressed. What a drip I must have been. I cannot imagine trying to write about those crushing, cotton-wool days. It’s a real literary trick. If happy people don’t make ideal subjects for fiction, sad characters are not short of challenges. The conventional approach is to counteract potential dullness with intensity of style and a sprinkling of excess. Bleakness can attain a dark glamour when the misery is leavened by altered states and ferocious carnality. Sex and drugs and rock and roll; or failing that, postpunk dirges.

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That Ruth Thomas avoids all but the most fleeting mention of Joni Mitchell in her new novel The Home Corner should not come as a surprise. Although already well-regarded for her short stories, it was her debut novel that gained her wider attention. Things to Make and Mend was praised for the subtlety and gentle humour with which it illustrated the relationship between its two central characters, Sally and Rowena, friends from a girls’ school who meet again at an embroidery conference after a long estrangement. It won, amongst other accolades, the Good Housekeeping Book Award for Most Entertaining Read. I don’t imagine Alissa Nutting is going to receive one of those for Tampa, aka ‘the sickest, most controversial book of the summer’ (according to Cosmopolitan). So is Thomas’s work too cosy?

I don’t think so. Eschewing standard tropes and literary fashions can be seen as a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet. Whether nineteen-year-old Luisa McKenzie is depressed is moot, but Thomas sets out her stall early on. The epigraph associates Luisa with the rabbit from Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s collection of child’s eye verses, Under the Tree, and on page one the narrator explains her situation: ‘I was stuck, I suppose; I was fixed, and I didn’t know how to alter things.’ We continue reading to discover why Luisa is stuck, and whether she’ll ever hop away, bright eyed and bushy tailed. I am not straining the leporine motif; Luisa, a frustrated artist, recalls her first painting of a bunny, and a conjuror’s white rabbit appears later on.

That Luisa has artistic leanings influences one of the great strengths of this novel. Luisa’s aptitude for ‘looking very hard’ is suggested in the epigraph and the observational detail is strong throughout. Luisa, having drifted into a job as a classroom assistant, notes that, ‘sometimes the mothers – still standing there after their children has gone in and the doors closed behind them – made me think of teenagers hanging around a swingpark after dark. Loitering; waiting for something – though it was hard to tell for what. To be reunited, maybe, with something they’d let go of by mistake.’

So why is Luisa stuck? After an interview with an unimaginative career adviser, she decides not to attempt to pursue her talent by applying to art college. Nor does she pick up her grudging second choice, studying geography. The root of her passivity is intimately connected to the fact that she has had an early medical abortion (i.e. through taking two hormone tablets to bring on miscarriage) after an unfortunate liaison in a utility room at a party. That isn’t all: Luisa really liked the boy, Ed, and afterwards he hooked up with her best friend Stella. Ed and Stella succeed in being thoroughly dislikeable without being remotely depressed. After a chance meeting, Luisa discovers that her former best friend is having a whale of a time over Sunday night dinners and Monday morning dissection with her ‘body buddies’ from vet school, while Luisa is living at home with no social life whatsoever. What’s more, Ed was merely a passing fling for Stella.

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While Stella pursues her ambitions, Luisa finds herself responsible for playpieces and ‘the wherewithal’ for vomiting children (a euphemism for the sick bowl). Their trials are greater than nosebleeds and skint knees – greater, perhaps, than Luisa’s – and their reactions are finely drawn. When a father’s affair is revealed, his young daughter comments on the woman’s hair grip and, ‘folding her hands together in her lap, like a very young and small old woman, she peered out of the coach window.’ It transpires that the ‘poor wee sausage’ nobody will sit next to on the bus is grieving his mother. He confides: ‘I don’t tell people her name. But it floats in the air above my head. Her name, and all the things I think about her. It sort of floats, like a cloud. And I hold onto its string.’

The job is not one that Luisa particularly likes or wants. After all, she is nineteen and left behind while everyone else is off doing something more exciting. All she does is go to work (late), report on the quirky things the children say, and return home to be moody with her nice but dull parents. She suffers a kind of arrested development, a perpetual childhood in which nothing is quite satisfactory, even her packed lunch: ‘Lunch for a six-year-old. The Golden Delicious apple was neither golden nor delicious.’ Thomas is not afraid to make her narrator dislikeable, and there is veracity in Luisa’s focus on her disappointment, and in the way she becomes ‘jangled’ by the most banal of events; a staffroom interaction with a slightly embarrassing colleague. Most of us know people like this, and will recognise them in Luisa.

A larger issue is the use of abortion as the major plot prompt for Luisa’s disappointing life choices. She is eighteen, single and at school when she becomes pregnant. The decision to terminate the pregnancy is, as seems reasonable, fairly automatic. Sorrow then ‘followed me around like a ghost for a nearly a year and a half.’ I am not sure whether the sorrow at the abortion is a metaphor for the greater sorrow of failing to create in an artistic context. If so, it becomes rather strained. If not, then there is a sense that the trauma that persists beyond the blood ‘flowing and flowing for days like a rebuke’ is a typical symptom, rather than something specific to Luisa in her circumstances. There is also sorrow at losing Ed, and then again at realising that maybe he wasn’t worth it, that his ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ T-shirt did not reveal some great and hitherto undisclosed insight into the human condition: ‘I’d never said anything to Ed McRae that I should have said.’

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Whatever its cause, there are poignant moments of insight into Luisa’s experience of sadness. Small details spring into absurdly sharp focus while the world around her is fuzzy, as if Luisa is separated by a layer of polythene. Aside from a few place names, we wouldn’t know it was Edinburgh. It feels like placid, claustrophobic suburbia: the box-ticking headmistress lives along the road from Luisa and has an Astroturf lawn to save the trouble of mowing; the only escape comes in a school trip to the Scottish Waterways Visitor Centre. The highlight of Luisa’s week seems to be the supermarket run with her mum. In conversations with others that cotton wool feeling of dissociation is captured perfectly. Aware that she is as taciturn as the pupils when her mother asks what happened at school that day, Luisa tries talking about a boy’s playground tumble: ‘my mother was looking at me a little anxiously… She seemed to think I might have something else to say. But I didn’t.’ A moment later, Luisa hears, ‘the familiar, slightly sour note appearing in my own voice – I had developed a tendency towards sourness that summer.’

Subtle, accurate, and it is difficult not to sympathise with the mother rather than Luisa in this clear exposition of the kind of teenage misery that seems almost unbearable at the time but then dissipates in adulthood. Even Luisa’s Topshop skirt seems to conspire against her. Some readers will identify with this, and with Luisa’s odd mixture of despair and envy at the garden centre visiting, Bergerac-watching lives of adults. Others will be irked, but it is worth remembering that the dark times we experience in life rarely come with a side order of decadent dissolution. While Luisa’s life may be devoid of joy, Thomas strives to include witty observations.

Once in Type, an independent bookshop in Toronto, I was thrilled to see a section devoted to the plotless novel. Lack of story is fine when plot is sacrificed in favour of style, experiment, art. Very little happens in The Home Corner. We wait until page 173 for the promised trip to the Scottish Waterways Visitor Centre, and the events that follow are minor, but affect Luisa deeply. Don’t expect any children falling in canals or other tragedies. Instead, the domestic situation of one set of parents provokes the long-awaited break in Luisa’s passivity. Thomas remains concerned with the subtleties rather than the dramas of life. There is courage in this, in narrative terms, and in the closeness of the focus on her first person narrator. There is also risk. Youthful characters don’t command unlimited indulgence, and charm is a subjective quality; as Luisa discovers when she dyes her hair pink.

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We could compile a long list of literary women whose sadness makes them irritating, from Emma Bovary to Elizabeth Wurtzel and beyond. The thwarted female artist is a genre in herself, most recently explored by Claire Messud in The Woman Upstairs, and indeed one can imagine Luisa growing up as a version of Messud’s Nora, into a life of ‘quiet desperation’. The difficulty I have with The Home Corner is not that Luisa’s passive sadness becomes frustrating, but there aren’t sufficient compensations to make her compelling company for 276 pages. Ruth Thomas is an accomplished writer. Her style here is fluid and natural, and Luisa is a well-realised character. The mother-daughter relationship is interesting and believable, and exerts an emotional pull. And in the end, Luisa does do something. Unfortunately by then I had empathy fatigue, and it was too little, too late.

The Home Corner

Ruth Thomas

Faber, PP256, £12.99, ISBN 9780571230617

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Fringe and Official

A railing in Laurieston Place carries a peremptory sign, ‘No idling’. All right, the sign is not a Calvinist edict against sloth, but a bureaucratic, hypermodern warning against leaving the car engine running, and yet during the Edinburgh Festival only the dull of imagination could fail to see some deeper moral-metaphysical undertone. And of course everything connects. I saw the sign en route to Peter Straker’s Brel, which turned out to be a high energy, entrancing performance of Jacques Brel’s best numbers, with a lively backing trio. Wise epigrams pronounced by the Belgian singer flashed up on a screen, one of which announced that there was no such thing as talent, only endeavour and determination, while another declared, ‘Idleness is stupidity’. The connection with the notice on the fence induces a ponderous sense that uncanny forces beyond mere coincidence are at play.

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Idleness cannot be tolerated at Festival time, and while endeavour and determination are much in evidence, they are no substitute for genuine talent. On that day in Laurieston Place I was coming from the Assembly Hall in an already reflective mood induced by the glowering statue of John Knox, a continual reproach to frivolous idleness, a mood deepened and darkened by the work on offer there, An Actor’s Lament, written and performed by Steven Berkoff, who will never be accused of idling. It is a sobering, not to say toxic, hors d’oeuvre for anyone about to embark on a round of theatre-going. Mercilessly and arrogantly, Berkoff dissects the inadequacies of those bereft of talent but who make theatre or prowl around it. Critics, ‘who crawl across the page like ants’, are obvious targets, but he also savages the egos of fellow actors and the power games of directors. However, if at times this rhymed script is an indulgent, closed glimpse at backstage life, at others it attains Pirandellian status in its questioning of the reality of theatre and the sham of life, and of the toll it takes on the personality of actors who don and cast aside the personalities of fictions. Berkoff himself performs with panache and majesty, strolling about on stage and speaking with authority, ably assisted by Jay Benedict and Andrée Bernard in all the other parts.

So, where is the talent and what is theatre, asks Berkoff, anticipating weighty questions raised in the courtyards of Summerhall, the Pleasance or in George Square near closing time. Better to skip that issue, and be prepared for various, vicarious experiences on offer around the city. It is not all beer and skittles. The determined theatre-goer will be invited to contemplate the dilemma of a randy threesome whose sexual experiments end with them involuntarily swopping gender and identity (Daniel Jackson’s Threeway), the chronicle of a Prussian lesbian who marries and joins the army but is executed when outed (Executed for Sodomy, by Danny West and Ben Fensome), the tribulations of two Irish brothers at the hands of a tyrannical father (Morning and Afternoon, written and sparklingly performed by Andy Hinds).

There are other trials which have no evident savour of pleasure, for instance with Anna, at Summerhall. Anna Politkovskaya was a brave, campaigning Russian journalist, eventually murdered for her courage in exposing outrages committed in Chechnya. To make audiences relive her experiences, Badac company forces them to stand pressed against the walls of a white-washed corridor, while commissars walk, run, taunt and hound Anna, shouting relentlessly at an intolerable pitch. It is uncomfortable, as it is meant to be, but after a time the production becomes self-defeating, for it is a fiction and it is reasonable to ask if this is the best technique for communicating the stifling fear dissidents suffer, and to wonder if some variation might not be dramatically more effective. Overall, the admirably ambitious and cosmopolitan Summerhall programme was a great platform for talent.

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The weather this year helped create the mood that more blessed festivals like Avignon’s can effortlessly generate, but there was still some carping. It was suggested in some quarters that there are maybe just too many critics wandering about (including this one.) Some managers objected to the lack of experience of scribes taken on by the dailies, and at the proliferation of amateur online sites. Inexperience expresses itself not in scathing reviews but in ecstatic columns peppered with words like ‘visceral’, ‘raw’ or ‘ingenious’ and ‘a marvel’. One show was able to list eight separate four-star reviews. The annual meeting of the Fringe Society expressed concern over ‘the cancer of high costs’, meaning that companies and individuals risked being priced out. A speaker proposed that the Fringe venture into territory currently unaffected by Festival activity, an idea mooted, to general derision, by a pre-Blairite Labour Party when it first came to power in Edinburgh.

And then there’s the Scottish question. Stands Scotland where she stood? Afraid so. On the wings. Curiously, I have never before been struck not just by the spontaneous cosmopolitanism of the Fringe or the conscious internationalism of the Official Festival, but by the extent to which Edinburgh in August has become an artistic and national showcase for so many countries, so that coming to Edinburgh receives official national backing. It would be possible to identify, for instance, separate South African, Irish, Italian festivals, all promoted by their national cultural organisations. Florence now runs a competition called Florence for Fringe in which the prize for the winning company is a subsidised trip for the three weeks. This year’s winner was a powerful one-man performance, Fists of Sulphur, by Maurizio Lombardi, depicting the plight of sulphur miners in Sicily. The intense heat of the mine added to the misery of the labour, so Lombardi, bent double in a narrow tunnel, appeared dressed only in underpants, and deftly switched voice and demeanour to double as one of the boys as young as seven who were compelled to work underground.

Underlying this political decision in foreign ministries lay another debated issue, on the role of arts in society and on theatre as forum for discussion of the issues that affect society. In any other place, this discussion would be about means, but this being Scotland, the very issue is contentious. With Scotland facing next year the decision which will shape its future, it was an odd time for Director Jonathan Mills to announce that he would not create a space for this debate in the 2014 Festival programme. Surprisingly, the SNP minister Fiona Hyslop defended the policy, albeit in a wordy statement that twisted and turned to the far reaches of comprehensibility. The National Theatre of Scotland, on the other hand, has announced that it will be sponsoring a series of events from both sides of the argument, the one arranged by Dave MacLennan, for nay-sayers, and David Greig, for the aye ayes. This year, the NTS limited itself to putting on a Fringe show, Ménage a Trois, a delicate dance fantasy, executed by Claire Cunningham, who is herself, astonishingly, disabled and uses crutches. Crutches and words and images projected on curtains are her only props, but with these she created an inner world of longing and desire. Crutches for Scotland? No, that’s not what she meant.

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There was a curious silence on the referendum this year, although there were angles on the Scotland question in works at the Traverse, which had a good festival. David Harrower’s play Ciara was not, he said, about Scotland but about Glasgow, ‘and its mythic, scarred proud history’, as he put it in his foreword. It is an engrossing enough tale of aspirations, disappointments and warped sexual desire, featuring a woman who is determined not to be a victim, but who gets dragged down. It could unfold in Liverpool or in the Bronx, with no special insights into Glasgow.

Scottish critics loved it, moving Lyn Gardiner in the Guardian to wonder whether they ‘are protecting their own?’ It is easy to counter attack and dismiss this as another instance of the closing of the metropolitan mind, but she might have a point. Initially it seems to present a different image of Glasgow and its folk, since Ciara is middle-class and lives in a pleasant suburb, rather than in some mean slum. She runs an art gallery, and has used her space to promote Torrance, an aspiring artist with a high conceit of himself and a displeasing personality, but in the background lurks Ciara’s Dad, a man with a violent past and thus a recognisable type from Glasgow’s literature. There is also Dad’s friend Bobby, equally violent, a potential rapist, or abuser. The woman is played by Blythe Duff, and there is no doubt that her magnificent, deeply felt, perfectly timed one-woman performance will silence any doubts, for the duration of the play. She wears a long, violet dress which makes her look as though she was attired for a Greek tragedy, or myth. She commands the stage, and when she moves to lounge against the concrete pillars, she makes the spectator believe these could be columns of a temple as much as wreckage in Glasgow.

The Traverse was also the venue for the production of I’m with the Band, a play by Tim Rice about the issue of Scottish independence, put on by a Welsh company. There were four members of the band, an Englishman, a Scotsman and … no need to go on. The titles of the individual scenes were listed on a screen, the first one called We’re all in this Together, and if one of the cast had come forward with a banner reading METAPHOR, the drift of the play could not have been clearer. The Scottish guitarist wants to leave the band, causing dismay among the others, especially the English member. The Irish player has a fondness for intoxicating drink, while the portrait of the weedy Welshman would have been the subject of legal proceedings if the production had not originated in the Principality. It will surprise Scots to discover how indispensable their presence is, since once the guitarist leaves, the whole thing descends into mayhem, with players battering each other ferociously. ‘People would die to be in this band, and we’re fighting over what?’ says Damien, the Englishman. There is nothing here that would clarify that point, or any point.

The Traverse also staged The Secret Agent, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, and created by Theatre O and Matthew Hurt. I could not make out whether it was actually intended to relate to today or whether it was an exercise in stylised play-making. It included a Charlie Chaplin episode, a musical number and puppetry before settling for melodrama. David Greig’s The Events was an altogether deeper, more powerful attempt to struggle with the problem of human malice evil which has been at the core of drama since the Greeks. The central event, although never referred to specifically, is plainly the slaughter of the young Norwegians by Andrei Brevik. Claire (Neve McIntosh), a priest and a good woman, a rare creature on the stage, struggles to comprehend the murder of her partner in that massacre, but carries on with her duties, notably with the choir, who fill the stage. The only other actor, referred to as The Boy (Rudi Dharmalingam), plays the other parts and if the discussion between the two has the tenour of Shavian debate, the Boy also takes the work to the threshold of myth. He wonders what he would do if as an Aborigine he saw the first European ships arrive. ‘Kill them all?’ Where does the impulse to hurt spring from, or as he suggests to Claire, ‘What if bad things just happen?’ Greig is amazingly prolific and his reputation grows with every play he writes.

Many bad things do happen on stage, and some times it is easier to take refuge in a wonderland where only gentleness rules. That seemed to me the case with On Behalf of Nature, by Meredith Monk, puzzlingly listed as theatre in the Festival programme, although it was a work of music and dance expressing an aspiration for a greater ecological balance. The performers were identified only as voices, since they wordlessly intoned sounds, but the work was insubstantial and drifted from mind when the music stopped. The Chinese Coriolanus received some astonishingly negative notices from critics disconcerted by its mixture of modernity, with the rock band wheeled on during the crowd scenes, and tradition, with a style of acting and delivery which seemed of the Laurence Olivier school. Brecht rewrote this tragedy to emphasise the class struggle in Rome, but the Bejing People’s Art Theatre preferred to focus on the clash between the Roman and Volscian heroes, as well as on the encounter between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, after he had gone over to the enemy.

Volumnia, if Mr Mills permits, could be the symbol for next year’s festival. Debate in theatre, when conveyed with talent, can change minds, unless of course they are irretrievably idle.

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