Monthly Archives: September 2013

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Across The Great Divide

Call me Ishmael. In 200 days I shall have spent exactly half my life as a reluctant Presbyterian and half – the more recent – as a Roman Catholic convert, albeit one who as a remarried divorcee is denied the Eucharist. Small matter that the conversion was formalised at St Patrick’s, Soho, an outcasts’ church if ever there was one, or that the divorce preceded it. In terms of the two main ‘sectarian’ tribes of Scotland, this was to put oneself nowhere at all. Family disapproved, sorrowfully; friends were mystified (apparently unable to see that some restorations of mystery was exactly what was sought); colleagues in that other sectarian tribe, the media, thought such a conversion was inconsistent with my professed politics (which also remain resolutely left-footed); with all these people religion remains, if not the elephant in the room, then certainly the white whale off the port bow.

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Tom Gallagher does many valuable things in Divided Scotland. He removes the quote marks from ‘sectarian’ for a start. Gallagher’s definition is plain and upfront: ‘It [sectarianism] refers to ideas, assumptions and myths about the behaviour and worth of individuals and the groups to which they adhere’. He refuses to accept the growing consensus that religious hatred is predominantly a one-way street and predominantly anti-Catholic. Nor does he accept that sectarianism is simply an epiphenomenon of football rivalry, which is one of the stupider rationalisations of the recent rise in tension. A standard middle-class reaction to sectarian hatred is to point out, without much actual demographic sampling and with as much social/class prejudice as religious understanding, that few on either side attend their respective churches and few could, if pressed, explain the doctrinal differences between them. This is where the ‘tribal’ argument creeps in. Gallagher broadly accepts that tribalism is a reality, but he takes pains to give it proper historical footing in terms of Irish immigration (which was both Catholic and Protestant), shifting economic and political hegemonies within Scottish society, and a net change in the positioning and intensity of sectarian conflict since devolution and in anticipation of next year’s independence referendum.

Gallagher has covered much of this ground before, in his short-lived 1987 book Glasgow – The Uneasy Peace: Religious Tension in Modern Scotland (and to some degree in its contemporary Edinburgh Divided, published by Polygon in that same year). There is little sign that he has changed his views substantially on the back-story, which covers the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1878, the curious fact that open hostility and ‘ethnic cleansing’ were never part of the Scottish urban experience despite the depth of hatred involved, the 1918 scandal of ‘Rome on the rates’, when that endlessly kickable political football, the ‘denominational school’ became a matter of fierce controversy, and the geographical and historical contiguity of Scotland to Northern Ireland, where open conflict did flare up. He’s very good at showing how willingly Irish, or Scoto-Irish, settlers flocked to the imperial colours in wartime, until the Easter Rising, that is, and how shifting loyalties were corralled and politicised by a congeries of churches, faith groups, football and social clubs. And he rightly identifies the emergence of Scotland’s last-but-one Cardinal Thomas Winning, who was in his very different way no less controversial than the recently departed Keith O’Brien, as a key moment in a newly emergent social and political confidence among Scottish Catholics.

One telling moment in the story is told by Gallagher thus. Describing the reluctance of certain constituencies to put forward Catholic parliamentary candidates, he recalls a famous moment in the 1959 general election. ‘A showdown occurred in the normally safe Labour seat of Coatbridge and Airdrie when Labour nominated James Dempsey, a Roman Catholic, to fight against Mrs C. S. Morton a sister of the great Rangers football hero of the inter-war years, Alan Morton, who was standing for the Tories.’ Even allowing for syntax that implies it was the ‘Wee Blue Devil’ and not his sister-in-law who was standing, the point’s well taken. Sectarian issues, and the charisma of the Wembley Wizards, made a profound difference to the Airdrie count. Mrs Morton lost by just under 800 votes, a squeaker compared to the 1955 election, at which a small turnout delivered Labour a nearly 12 per cent lead, cut to less than two per cent four years later. Tribalism isn’t often so easily quantifiable.

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Alan Morton was my father’s uncle, and my first conscious introduction to the tribes was the new year Old Firm game at the start of that hustings year. I watched from the Ibrox directors’ box, looking down enviously but a little naively at the boys’ enclosure, which looked more fun but much less comfortable. I remember someone pointing out that the Celtic end was thinly populated, a direct result, a friend of my grandfather assured me, of the Catholic disposition to strong drink. There were curiously worded songs from the crowd. None of the directors or guest sang along, but they tapped their feet in time and smiled at one another indulgently. A tribe at ease.

Four years later the family moved to Argyll, where the issue of denominational schools, soon to become a major political cleaving point, was no longer relevant. There was a school, with a small Catholic enclave. In 1970, in one of the Labour Party’s main electoral suicide notes of the next decade or two, the Glasgow City party passed a resolution calling for the termination of segregation in schools. Few political issues remain quite as inflammatory, a curious irony in a country which along with most of the developed West appears to be going through an unstoppable process of secularisation. With church attendances falling, fewer people spontaneously identifying as having any denominational loyalty and a steady defection to the spectrum of new social ‘religions’ and blunt atheism of the Dawkins/Hitchens sort, it shouldn’t make much difference. But…

The main polemical thrust of Gallagher’s book is the present situation. It’s also the point at which the earlier material from Glasgow – The Uneasy Peace betrays a certain partiality of perspective because quite understandably both books are more sympathetically inflected toward the Catholic side of the story, and because much of the current discussion of religious and ‘sectarian’ issues in Scotland has focused on the Catholic community, both as victim of religious hatred and as perpetrator, by commission or omission, of some pretty egregious wrongs. That story continues to unfold, and unfolds in the context of a new political autonomy in Scotland and the question of how that autonomy is either consolidated or extended. At which point, the exact demarcation of any and all political hegemonies, which includes the churches, becomes a very live issue.

How the story has unfolded is, of course, very much part of the story. The media tribe is now the most powerful of all. Gallagher has elsewhere identified a small group of what he calls ‘post-modern’ Catholic journalists, essentially secularists but secularists who hold on to enough of their natal ‘pieties’ to be able to criticise the Church’s failings, cover-ups, obfuscations as if from within. It is a double irony, as Gallagher points out, that much of the criticism directed at Keith O’Brien, during and following his fall from grace came from apparently secular Catholics waving the blunt instruments of ‘inconsistency’ and ‘hypocrisy’, while much of the sympathy expressed for O’Brien’s insufficiently vigorous struggle with his physical nature came from within the Protestant community.

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The various arguments at play here – which run an absurd gamut from child sexual abuse to whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, an issue which doesn’t really belong in the same moral universe – have become as bogged down as that 1959 Old Firm game. Unlike it, which was over as a spectacle by half time, the present controversy shows every sign of becoming a muddy field on which competing interests play out their differences according to obscure rules which have very little to do with the Gospel of Christ. Sectarianism in Scotland is not about the ‘vanity of small differences’ any more than it is about the doctrine of real presence as opposed to symbolic presence, homoousian versus homoiousian, or any other doctrinal crux. It is, in highly concentrated form, a representation of what is wrong with society at large.

Gallagher cites (but possibly second hand, since he doesn’t quote him directly?) the American social critic Christopher Lasch, whose book The New Narcissism and earlier study of ‘the intellectual as a social type’, are required reading. Lasch saw, as Gallagher seems to intuit, that both left and right are complicit in extinguishing human liberty, allowing corporate interests to create dependencies (which could involve addiction to drink or possessions, slavish devotion to the social rather than spiritual manifestations of creed, or supporting the blues rather than the greens, mutatis mutandis) that over-ride the everyday grace of community, mutuality and self-help. It is argued that Cardinal Winning promoted such a vision, but was thwarted by his own clergy. With the election of a Pope who identifies as Bishop of Rome rather than Supreme Pontiff, there is fresh relevance to Lasch’s argument, which was that the neglect of family and community values left people confronting an inner emptiness and indulging in destructive social experimentation. Gallagher even suggests, ‘Some of these observations may be relevant for Cardinal O’Brien, part of whose conduct suggested that he may also have possessed such an inner emptiness’. One prays that wherever he is passing his exile, he is going some way to refilling it.

At times, the Catholic hierarchy almost resembles the directors’ box at a football ground, embedded in but cut off from its community, indulgent and authoritative in equal measure and yes, regrettably, casting envious glances at the Boys’ Enclosure. The Church has to acquire the humility to heal itself, but it also must at the same time counter the impression, common to ‘sectarian’ opponents and ‘post-modern’ adherents alike, that the Church now only functions as a vast mechanism for promotion of social harm, obsessed with moral intervention and hypocritical proscription rather than promoting a gospel of hope. Gallagher points to shoots of hope in the Scottish scene, figures like Magnus McFarlane-Barlow, founder of Mary’s Meals and, on the ‘other side’ Kirk moderator Lorna Hood, whose own triumph over adversity is genuinely inspirational. There are others. It isn’t all darkness. And it certainly isn’t all about gay marriage or gay ordination.

As one might expect from a book which attempts to come right up to the minute, there are some signs of haste in the editing and proof-reading of Divided Scotland. Syntax slips here and there. There are too many typos and literals. There’s no proper bibliography; would it have contained anything by Lasch, or just someone else who’d read him? But it’s an urgent and vital book, its shortcomings instinct with its air of immediacy. Whatever foot you kick with, or neither, it’s a book you can’t afford not to read.


Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis

Tom Gallagher

Argyll Publishing, PP288, £15.99, ISBN 9781908931283

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Volume 9 – Issue 3 – New Poems

UPHOLSTERY

The sofa in our sitting-room, long the worse

for wear, is newly back from an upholsterer

by royal appointment who announces

that to preserve the caché of age, ‘old money’ 

insists on less padding; whereas rather

than boast a pedigree of bottoms, ours

curves in the centre like dough rising.

A couple of days later we read how

the couch in Freud’s consulting room

so sags under the weight of over a century

of recollected terrors, phobias and dreams

an appeal has been launched for its repair:

surely of greater interest to retain the imprint

of the Wolf Man and those hundreds of others?

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FOX


Since dawn my binoculars have been trained

on a vixen burrowing frenziedly in a cage

at the foot of next door’s garden. When

the pest control man appears, he cloaks

himself in a brown blanket, to mask the kill.

Now the cubs, too, have gone: vermin

after all, the passageway still stinking.

Yet I retain a sense of connivance, unable

to dispel the memory of that hooded form,

cross between a ghoul and a crazed Capuchin.

A HAIR IN THE GATE

Whenever they shot the perfect scene

he would hear the cry, “There’s a hair

in the gate, stand by to take it again”,

and like as not he’d end up distraught, the light

fading, the cast’s concentration gone. Then

his thoughts would turn to the wintry day

when crouched behind a dry-stane dyke

clutching his first box Brownie, he’d seen

that snowy-white creature, ears pricked,

and in the split second before it lolloped off,

clicked and caught it, a perfect hare in the gate.

HYDRANGEAS 

In broad daylight a black girl in a white

dress crosses the street to caress one

of the tubbed hydrangeas burgeoning

on our front steps. On tenterhooks

behind net curtains, until she gracefully

recedes I fear she may snip a flower-head,

strip the plant bare even, provide each

in her troupe with a sumptuous corsage.

Such exoticism scarcely outdoes the claim

of one neighbour, then in her nineties,

that a Ghanaian woman on moving in

transformed our front room into a haven

for damaged birds, central a lime in leaf,

where crows’ broken wings could mend

before their release on the lawn, pairs

of mallard squittering on the floorboards,

Such malodorous squalor long since gone,

all we’d faced on a preliminary reccy

were lobster-creels stacked in the porch,

the seller about to embark on a career

as a fisherman up north, but facetiously

seen as a severe case of rising damp;

and in our term, no more than vagrant foxes

and squirrels, a sparrow-hawk on the clothes-line.

No way of guessing what may be ingrained

of ourselves and our perceived eccentricities, 

from a vulgar Victorian longcase to the stone 

lion with blue glass eyes sited in the garden;

or whether, some ultimate owner vacating

the premises, the hydrangeas still all the rage,

a wan household god, no-one left to preside

over, will pluck a bloom to adorn his cortege. 

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TRANSPLANT 

Of the operation

he remembers nothing,

or what preceded it,

only on coming round

swathed in bandages

to dream he is one

of Cadwallon’s knights

ordered to bind

their legs together

under their horses’

bellies so that they’d

remain mounted even

when mortally wounded.

THREE POEMS
FOR ELLIS

Celebrants

The hitherto pent-up song-thrush

in our shrubbery relays the news

that mother and son are both well.

May you, assured of loving nurturing,

grasp in these tiny yet perfect

hands whatever the future may bring

and the world, no matter in what crazed

manner it may spin, do you no harm

but provide solace and protection.

Meantime in the family Bible the section

recording the passage of the generations

awaits your name’s neat inscription.

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Visitors 

Others are praised for their lavish plumage and fancy

call-notes, but this bullfinch settling in next door’s

garden will do fine for me, his trademark black cap,

white rump and whirring-in-air a miracle of nature –

while the visit of another, more complex and wondrous,

is announced by a ring at our front door. Who knows

but some day, the one may marvel at the other?

Meanwhile let us love him for what he is, regardless

of whether in due course he is noted for his song

and fearless acrobatics or like the homely sparrow,

keeping our peckers up, companionably chirpy.

Stone Lion

Among fragments of debris dispersed

on the muddy verge of the walk-way –

vandalised or stolen from a nearby garden,

no way of knowing – lay the head and torso

of a yellow stone lion with blue glass eyes.

A shame to let it lie, I returned next day

with an old rucksack and after a wobbly

cycle-run, found it a shady spot under

our cherry tree, an al fresco addition

to our accumulated lares et penates;

guardian of the precinct, enabling me

at any hour to look down at those eyes,

imperialist, like fixed stars. No sharper

contrast than with yours at four weeks,

fathomless pools as yet impenetrable

while the world waits for you to find

focus, and subject ourselves to scrutiny.

So great the expectation, as you mature.

On you meantime, whatever that future,

 

be all the blessings the gods can muster.

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The SRB Interview: Kirsty Gunn

Kirsty Gunn was born in 1960 in New Zealand. She was educated at Queen Margaret College and Victoria University, Wellington, and completed an M.Phil. at Oxford University. Her first novel, Rain, was published in 1994. Her second novel, The Keepsake, followed in 1997 and the short story collection This place you return to is home appeared in 1999. Featherstone was published in 2003 and in 2007 The Boy and the Sea (2006) won the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award.

Soon after came 44 Things, a collection of essays, memoir and meditations. Her most recent novel, The Big Music, is moulded on piobaireachd, a classical composition for the bagpipe. It was published in July 2012 and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Gunn is currently a Professor of Writing Practice and Study the University of Dundee. She lives in the north-east highlands with her husband and children.

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Nick Major met Kirsty Gunn on a bright morning at Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was on her way to Melbourne, Australia, to give a lecture as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. Dressed in blue check shirt and blue jeans, she had a red bag slung over her shoulder and an armful of papers. They found a shady corner in Charlotte Square to sit, drink coffee and discuss her work. Her demeanour was assured and steadfast. Her voice full of the eloquence and energy recognisable from her writing. She spoke of an intense commitment to art.

Scottish Review of Books: You’ve come down from Sutherland?

Kirsty Gunn: Yeah, plucking heather out of my ears.

And you’ve lived there all your life?

No, not at all. I’ve had a very complicated life. I have a house in Sutherland very close to a part of Scotland where my father’s family are from, the Gunns, and a part of Scotland where my husband has been fishing since he was a boy. And in fact when we first met our conversation fell on this very particular little road and how much we loved the highlands and as the conversation went on the road came together. The road he was talking about and the road I was talking about was the same road. We both know this part of the world very well and so it’s magical for us now to have a house in exactly this area, off this same road.

What’s it like?

It’s right up in the hills. North-east, inland from Brora. What they are now terrifyingly calling ‘wind farm country’. The area, because it’s so beautiful and so remote, has been deemed a red zone for the development of wind farms and it’s absolutely dreadful to see what the plans are for these beautiful empty hills of ours. This place of unspeakable beauty with a plangent sense of aloneness is being made busy with the turbines of industry and economy and private gain – and it’s got nothing to do with bringing down our electricity prices.

This idea of a particular aesthetic to the landscape is important to your work. It is inhabited by individuals who are isolated and find a beauty in and connection to the land. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes. I was talking about this with China Miéville recently – about the concept of the uncanny. He was talking about it in terms of science fiction and fantasy novels. The idea that you would take a very strange idea and find a home for it by creating this genre. But there is another kind of uncanny which is the sort of sentence that needs to find a home in a particular kind of narrative. I think what you’ve defined there is that my sense of the uncanny is often located, or the metaphor I have for that, is an individual in that empty landscape and kind of unhoused there so that the place itself, the enormity of the landscape, becomes the home or the place that’s inhabited. So it’s a very clear theme throughout all the work. And that sense of place is normally what I begin with when I start a book. I have always had a very clear sense of where a book is set and what it looks like there. For a very long time, years before I wrote The Big Music, I knew I was going to write a Sutherland novel. I knew I wanted to make a highland novel.

The Big Music has a recursive structure and the characters express a yearning to return home, except they know home is not a place of comfort. I’ve noticed it in your short stories as well. Where does that come from do you think?

I’m never interested in thinking about the link between the life and the work. I’m always more interested in the work. But to press that idea about where home is, it’s a very complicated answer for me in terms of my own background. Born in New Zealand, living in London, Scotland very much home…but so are other places…it’s like this notion of home and homelessness all at once. I was introduced once at a festival in New Zealand as having a liminal status.

Of being in between places?

That’s a very good place for a writer to live in. I think the artist – let’s make a distinction between the artist and the writer because there are of course many different types of novels, different kinds of fictions – but the artist needs to be unhoused, un-homed, needs to exist in this other place that allows one to constantly create a home in the work. Kundera talks about that – making the books out of the rubble of home.

You talk about the complications of belonging in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. You don’t want a false sense of belonging. You don’t want your belonging to be a result of government propaganda. 

Art has no passport.

Do you have a political allegiance to any party or credo?

No. I love the thing that Woolf said: the writer’s home is in the empty page. And that’s very clear to me. To make the work you make it new. It’s my whole kind of modernist aesthetic. The place where the work and the artist lives is the place that’s made.

That brings us back to The Big Music. It reminded me of the great modernist novels: James Joyce’s Ulysses; Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is similarly structured on the rhythms of music. Could you talk about the structure of The Big Music? 

My father’s a piper and so I know about bagpipe music and for a long time I’d known there were very beautiful things about the piobaireachd form that I wanted to investigate in fiction because the form of the piobaireachd is very lovely and it’s very clear. You have these movements and these movements do certain things.

Could you give an overview?

There’s the Urlar, which is the ground, in which you lay out your themes and your major musical ideas. And then there’s the development of the Urlar, a Taorluath, which is a leaping off away from the ground, a leaping off into something unknown but also with elements of that ground at your feet. Then you have the Crunluath, the Crown, and this is where all those themes that have been traversed in those earlier two or three movements are lavishly embellished and made rich and the full expression of them is developed and shown. Finally there is the Crunluath A Mach, which means a kind of reflexive thing wherein the musician and composer expose the makings of the whole work. And then you return to the simplicity of the Urlar. So this is a fixed structure and all piobaireachd is very grave important music. It’s Ceol Mor, which is Big Music. It’s not only music that’s made to be outside. It’s for big occasions, it’s for laments and salutes and formal public occasions. As opposed to Ceòl Baeg which is small music, the fun music of dances and céilidhs – the sort of music you hear on street corners being played by buskers. I always knew I wanted to explore that huge scale which is inherent in the form and I knew I wanted to make a highland novel that had all of my endless interests in invented spaces and imagined space. And although the book is very real, in the sense of having real places and real place names, it’s also a made up place. To return to that modernist prescription of the thing that is made: the world of The Big Music is made and it lives between the covers of the book. That’s the place that’s real – it’s not a version of Sutherland.

The two are a part of each other.

They look at each other.

There are long appendices at the end of the book. I can imagine people thinking: why are you giving me this?

I’ve never wanted my books to seem like any other books. I’ve always wanted them to feel strange and new. I loathe that thing about being compared with someone else.

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But you had must have formative influences.

The modernist tradition. Mansfield and Woolf, Chekhov and the Russians. Everybody has a formative tradition. That’s quite kind different from being…

From expressing your own voice.

Yeah. That’s what I’m looking for as a reader. Aren’t you? I don’t want to read endless versions of the same thing and now that we’ve got films – which they didn’t have in the nineteenth century – neither do I want to read endless books about things happening one after the other. I don’t really believe you can get inside people’s heads and expose them. There are a few writers that can do that but on the whole people can’t do it. And then you’re left with ‘what happens next’ stories and we’ve done that and we’ve read them ad infinitum. I don’t want to read those sorts of books.

It’s interesting you said we can’t get inside other people’s heads. Reading The Boy and the Sea seems to contradict that. 

My books are about praxis. They are about what happens. This happens and that means that another thing will happen. And we have points of view and we have narratives that show certain feelings that might pass across a character but to get right inside, to show those fine fluttering gradations of feeling and change and psychic underpinning, I think is the work of genius. From my own reading I can really think of about four writers.

Who?

In English recently it’s only William Maxwell. Great American writer. But the point is that none of that detracts from the project. This all goes back to the way the novel is in thrall to a particular idea of itself and with that comes this notion of characterisation. Yes, there was a time to explore character…think of Tom Jones. Fielding’s job was to explore the many different kinds of people in society and how they might be. But to really get inside someone’s head and show what it was to be that person is a very different job from showing who they might be.

If someone hasn’t read many experimental novels and they’ve just read Ian McEwan-type novels obsessed with the psychological development of character, The Big Music might seem quite strange.

‘Experimental novel’ suggests something that is somehow uncertain or not tried which privileges the status of that other kind of novel. Woolf didn’t use the word novel. She called her works elegies. And I myself resist the word novel because of the association it carries, which is to do with its connection to the marketplace and its status in society as a commodity bought by the leisured middle classes. That is the history of the novel. There is that kind of writing and we all enjoy it. There are versions of it for all kinds of reasons but there is another kind of fiction – not experimental but that is also clearly itself – which has its own status. And that is fiction that is art, made to explore the boundaries of its own self, to explore the relationship between content and form, to explore the status of the reader within the work. None of this is experimental in the sense of what that word suggests to the general reader. It’s very rigorous and it’s tested on the rocky shores of Modernism upon which Woolf and Joyce and the rest of them all marched. It’s very very real. The sadness in our culture is that kind of fiction is so marginalised. When we talk of fiction we think of the very traditional novel and by that I mean the basic mimetic model of telling a story and pretending that it’s real – making something that is like something else and then pretending that the made thing is the real thing. And there’s another kind of fiction that is about the reality of the words on the page and our relationship with that.

The sort of art you’re talking about requires readers to sit down and work at it. There’s a sort of reading culture, exemplified by the deck chairs around here, that sees reading as a leisure pursuit. 

A version of the entertainment culture and that business of the reader being in a very passive position spoon-fed all this content – sitting back and passively taking it on.

People often see me and they’ll say: what have you done all day? If I tell them I’ve been reading they’re often confused. 

There’s a great Bill Hicks joke about that. A waitress comes over to him and says: what ya readin’ for?

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Yeah. What are you reading for?

One of the things I do at Dundee University is turn people on to reading. I don’t really believe you can teach writing. I don’t believe in the concept of creative writing classes. What I believe you can do is turn people on to full reading. That phrase of Eliot’s about something that’s fully written? Well in the same way: to fully read with all your senses open and for there to be a sense of terror about the enterprise. Because god knows what could happen! And for a while that might be apprehending, might just be sensing, it might years before you know what the meaning of that reading is. But to have all your senses alive to the implications of the text – that is my job at Dundee as far as I can see it. And to turn people away from the idea of the commodity that has been purchased and known about and is part of the capitalist economy, towards something that is dangerous and anti-social.

I’ve attended creative writing classes. One of my old lecturers taught that we should write-to-sell first and only when you’ve secured an income can you write what you want. That struck me as a strange and horrible thing to do to young aspiring writers.

It’s a wicked thing to embed in a literature degree.

How do you write? Is it a disciplined endeavour?

Yeah, because if you wait until the time is right or the idea to come or the confidence to hit then you might be waiting until doomsday so what you do believe in is the routine. What you do believe in is that the page can be covered in words and those words can be revisited and set right. So yeah there is a routine and the last book took a huge amount of time to write because it was very complex and because I had lots going on. My children were very young when I started it and I took on the job at Dundee. So my life was very broken and I had to come away from the book to do short stories. My book 44 Things begins with my husband saying to me: ‘when are you going to get back to The Big Music?’ But the routine is everything and that thing of the discipline of sitting at the desk. And you carry on doing it and even when I was working into years six and seven, working away every day for hours and thinking: ‘no one is going to publish this’. There’s just this kind of inevitability about the routine that makes the book. It’s like tending a machine.

It must be frightening to want to be an artist and know you have to live from your work.

You can’t make that sum. Some people have been very lucky and have been able to make exactly what they want and they are able to achieve some success from that which means they don’t need to do anything else. But for most of us making the art and making the income are two separate things. Who writes about this really well is Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift. So, no, from the beginning I made that a very clear distinction. I don’t have any expectation that the two things are going to match.

The Big Music was published in 2012. What’s next?

I have a collection of short stories coming out next year. These are stories that I have been publishing in little magazines but there are some new stories as well. That’s next November. But I know what it’s like to get to that phase in your life and think: how many more hours are there going to be in the room on your own, away from the people you love? When my book came out and I held it in my hands, The Big Music, my husband asked me: ‘was it worth it?’ That’s a hard question, isn’t it?

And you couldn’t answer that?

No. The artistic impulse is strong and it takes you up and it’s hungry and it takes time and it needs to be fed and all of that is time away from thinking about your family and being with your family and friends and our life around us.

So the art has an antagonistic relationship with your everyday life?

It must. If it’s not part of the world, in the sense of the economy of the world’s needs, it’s this other thing that’s sitting outside it all the time. So if we return to this capitalist model: all the time I’ve spent writing my books is time that I’m not looking after my children, therefore someone needs to be doing that job. It’s time that I’m not earning money to buy things in a capitalist society, which itself is a hugely anti-social act. And on a more profound, important note it’s time away from people and places you love. Everything about the work is in opposition to the status quo.

Is that an intractable problem?

It’s part of my sense of myself as a feminist. The number of times I’ve said: ‘I need a wife!’ If I had a wife in the way that so many male writers have the privilege of a closed study door and then be able to step out of that quiet place and re-enter the home and the world and to have that re-entry facilitated by a wife? I emerge from what is never a closed space. For a long time I wrote at the top of the stairs. I write in a room where the door is open and it must be open and it should be open to my family. But when I emerge from that space I emerge into a world in chaos and then I must as a woman manage that and traverse to the professional space and manage that. So, intractable in the sense that certain feminist issues are intractable. But one wants to think: no. One wants to think one’s life is a constant engagement with these things.

Have you always had that sense of being a feminist? 

I grew up in the seventies and everything was happening, definitely in New Zealand. But by the time I was a teenager I took all that for granted, what women deserved. I didn’t think about it until the birth of my children and then the whole thing flared up again and I realised that it had never gone away at all. And then all the issues I thought were sorted weren’t sorted. I remember I fell on Adrienne Rich and I’d kind of read Rich when I was seventeen at uni and thought: what was she making a fuss about? We’ve done all that…being very blasé..and then I came back to her and it was like food.

The birth of your children was the re-birth of your feminism?

Yeah, because then I thought: we’re completely different. Up until then I thought men and women were the same and it’s all about a discussion. And then there was the moment of realisation: absolutely not! And the minute you have children you realise how extraordinary the maternal force is and you realise how society regards that activity. That was when I came raging back into the discussion. And of course teaching, university life, keeps the fire bright. It’s often the case that I’m the only woman in the room during meetings. I’m a professor so I’m right in the heart of the church of patriarchy.

Aren’t universities meant to be progressive places where everyone is on equal terms?

You see it with the students. They are. But, no, it’s the power structure that leads to a white middle-aged man at the top. Although Dundee is more advanced than other universities I’ve come across. Part of the huge pulse of The Big Music – and none of these things are willed – but what emerged in the writing of the book was the power that comes from Margaret and yet in so many ways she’s inhabiting a traditional female space – she’s the housekeeper. Yet everything about her character, that female principle, enlarges and enlivens the emotional landscape of the book. Her life is propelled by love and ultimately nothing could have happened, the book wouldn’t have come into being, the story of John wouldn’t have come into the light, if it hadn’t been for Margaret’s daughter Helen. So that enlargening energizing procreating feminine principle is at the heart of this book of fathers and sons.

There’s a wonderful line in The Big Music: ‘the history of women in these places is a quiet story, quietly told.’ It reminded me of what Woolf said, that literature has been dominated by white patriarchs for so long it’s time to tell the women’s story, and you need a new way to tell it. 

Yeah, the idea that the stories that need to be told don’t need to be of kings and queens but there can be these other stories that have their own imperative.

Talking of doing things differently, you had a unique way of launching The Big Music. You launched the book at Dundee University?

The book is real. The place of the book exists between its covers. The world of the book is in the words and everything that’s told about it is real and so that’s part of what we wanted to bring to Dundee. There was an archive of papers and domestic artefacts and objects from The Greyhouse and notebooks that were brought together to be an exhibition and my sister created a beautiful banner which was the history of the Sutherland pipers at The Greyhouse, but also the names of the women who were associated with those men. She used wax and pigments and fragments of Sutherland tartan and we had a film that was made by a colleague at Dundee and my father had composed music and the actor Brian Cox came together in this film. So Brian read sections of the book against the background of my father playing the music. We had this lovely interdisciplinary event. So that was a lovely way to launch the book – out on to the sea. We had a piper who played ‘Lament for Viscount of Dundee.’ He played it outside because of health and safety. We were piped out to the foyer where there was the exhibition. But pipes should be played outside.

If anyone wants to listen to good bagpipe music what’s the best approach?

It’s the sort of music that should be heard live. The best place to go would be to contact the Glasgow College of Piping or the Piobaireachd Society in Edinburgh or London and go to a concert. Or the Highland Games always have piobaireachd competitions and the standard is always good.

In The Big Music bagpipe music is associated with a specific landscape. Do you need to go to a particular place to get the full experience of the music?

No. You can hear it anywhere.

Do you speak Gaelic?

No. I wasn’t brought up with Gaelic.

Do many people speak Gaelic up there?

God no. Absolutely not. Especially up in the north-east. It’s Viking territory. But very few people speak Gaelic. It’s a whole separate project – it’s great but it’s got nothing to do with The Big Music. There are Gaelic place names and concepts that infuse the book as they do with everything in Scotland but it wasn’t a sort of modus operandi.

We were talking earlier about where you write. What’s your writing process? 

I write on a computer. But I do the first draft by hand. I work in tiny increments. I’ve always done this with all my books. I don’t sit down and write the whole thing. I write in sections which I polish and refine and have finished and have put there and I do another section. And there’s a sense of arranging and rearranging about the sections. And once I have the whole there is a degree of re-writing.

That makes sense, especially considering you’re not overly concerned with plot. The Big Music is subtitled Selected Papers.

It was my editor’s decision to have Selected Papers because there is a sense of them being a selection from a much larger collection of papers. And it’s true, there’s much more material than what’s included.

Will that extra material ever see the light of day?

I don’t know. I have that with all my books. I have that with Rain.

The Boy and the Sea and Rain are very slight. The Big Music is the biggest by far. I guess there was no rationale behind this largess?

Only in the sense that I knew in my waters, as it were, it was going to be, because it was going to be about piobaireachd. Those other two books are about a kind of tremulousness and a kind of frailty and an adolescent sense of becoming. They are about how you imagine and understand things, as much a sense of the form of them, the overall shape, as the words that make them up. I’m going to be talking about this in Melbourne. They’ve asked me to talk about style and content but really what I’m going to talk about is form. I don’t think form is given nearly enough attention.

The Boy and the Sea and Rain are very difficult to explain to people. The publisher’s blurb on the back imposes a plot on the books, which I guess they had to do. 

Publishers will always do that. On my paperback of The Big Music the front line is: ‘the story of fathers and sons and a culture in peril’. It’s this business of what a novel is, sitting in the shop.

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What would you do if you had full authorial control over this?

I did with the hardback. I was very firm about the hardback. Because I had a very clear sense that the book had to have about it the tradition of High Modernism I didn’t want to have anything about it to be tricksy. I wanted it to be very formal. What publishers do is they say: ‘we want you to be very involved in the whole process of the cover’ and the next thing you’re called into a meeting and they say: ‘we’ve got a cover we all really like’. And there was this awful moment when the cover for The Big Music was laid out and I just went: ‘no!’ It’s an unattractive moment. But then it went through various versions. But I love how that hardback looks. It’s done well and Faber published it carefully and they put money into making it a very beautiful object. They had a small print run. The paperback is doing a different job. They’re my publishers, they know what they’re doing and that book has to sit alongside big-selling novels in the marketplace and so of course they are going to say ‘a story of fathers and sons and a culture in peril’.

You’re about to leave for Melbourne to give a lecture. Could you give us a preview before you go? 

I just think people don’t address form. People address the content of a book and the way it’s written – the words and the voice – but people don’t address form, which is the kind of raison d’être of the whole project. Form is the mother of style and content. If you don’t have a sense of form the style can be completely unhoused. Most books I read I don’t rate because there’s no consideration of form. I’m now referring to a book that’s done fantastically well, critically and on the tills: it’s a book about a woman set in the nineteenth century who is deemed to be insane and is locked away on her own, completely uneducated, and writes her journals. Now I immediately have a great big gaping question about the form of such a project: how can an uneducated woman write lengthy letters and journal entries that come garlanded with the language of her educated author? There’s no sense of form. There’s a story but there’s no sense of the overall raison d’être. To my mind form is the beginning of everything.

People might be confused between form and style.

The first question I ask myself about any work of fiction is who’s telling the story and by what authority? If that question can’t be answered there’s no sense of form about the project. It means it’s been made up of disparate ideas that have been yoked together. The great stuff has a sense of its overall unity of shape and purpose and there’s a rigour in the bringing together of the content and the way that content’s been expressed in that overall project. Again, there are some very successful writers who have taken on the world of childhood and have not authenticated that project with a sense of form, i.e. how would that story then be told if it’s by someone who has a very limited sense of the world, perceives and apprehends the world in very different way to the adult writer?

Is it about an author inhabiting the characters as much as they can?

No. It’s about the author thinking about where all of it comes from. If I’m going to write a book about piobaireachd that is about its own making, that is about how this particular piobaireachd comes into being and that I want to have at the centre of that book an old man who is at the end of his life, whose never expressed himself emotionally or intellectually and only culturally through his music, how can I give that man voice and gravitas and emotional range while expressing things from his point of view? How do I make all of that as authentic as though he had really lived and was telling the story? I don’t want to use indirect narrative. I don’t want to cheat the reader in that way. So I thought about it and I knew it couldn’t be told as a narrative shape…because that would presuppose a narrator moving that character through the landscape of his life. I couldn’t expose him if it was clear there was an author pulling his strings. So I thought about this idea of papers being found that were about his life, some of which were written by him and some of which were gathered together by someone else and the person who would do that would be someone who knew him very well and someone who inhabited that landscape and knew everything about it and was thoroughly authorised to tell that story. That’s a sense of form.

When I was reading The Big Music there are voices that almost slip into one another. I couldn’t help but think: how do you write that and ensure it doesn’t come across as utter chaos?

I wanted that to be part of the reader’s journey and to have these questions come up and for you to debate them rigorously as you’re reading. Where’s this come from? Is this real? That opening was real. I’m talking about Gavin Wallace [Creative Scotland’s [portfolio manager for literature who died earlier this year] later and it’s absolutely true. Gavin was a lynchpin in this book, in the way that he provided inspiration that encouraged me to apply for a bursary, which enabled me to write the book. And all these people I name at the beginning are all real people – my father’s real – but that’s a bridge that then takes us into this fiction. And those bridges between the real and fictional are constantly being crossed and what I want is that with each crossing the real and the fictional come together. Because in actual fact reading is real. If you read stuff that’s been properly made it’s as real as anything that’s happened. Everything in War and Peace is as real as anything that’s happened in my life.


The Big Music

Kirsty Gunn

Faber, PP472, £20.00, ISBN 978 0 571 28233 3

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North and South

When I stepped off the train in Inverurie, the first word I heard – spoken with glee – was soothmoother. It was then I realised there are many degrees of north. I came from the Scottish lowlands, so far south that those in Aberdeenshire, with whom I’d gone to stay, considered it another country. We spoke differently there, as they bluntly intimated. Maybe so, I thought, but not as impenetrably as the man selling butteries in the bakery outside Aberdeen train station, or my host’s son who, after hearing me utter a single sentence, pinned that label around my neck, where it has swung gently ever since.

His language was so guttural and strange, I felt I’d landed in Finland. No-one else in his family spoke in the Doric, but Duncan, at nine the baby of the house and a little younger than me, rolled it around his tongue as if it was a gobstopper. This briar of a dialect was as clear a marker of northern identity as an arctic fox or an inuit’s furs.

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Every summer thereafter I spent a few weeks with Duncan and his older sisters in their granite manse. We lived outdoors, playing in the shadow of Bennachie, which rose purple and forbidding above the River Don, where I finally learned to swim. This was my initiation into a place that felt far distant from the south. Even the air smelled different, clear and sharp as if it had reached this part of the country entirely unbreathed. The blaeberries tasted like sweetened ink. Bracken and willow herb shimmered with pollen and bees, and an occasional startled adder would slither out of sight into pinewoods so dense and quiet they felt as if they had hushed themselves at our approach.

This was the north in its halcyon days, a fleeting few weeks of warmth and lingering evening light in Aberdeenshire’s restless calendar. One understands why Peter Davidson imbues this season with almost magical qualities. In his hypnotic evocation of the corner of the north where he lives – also in the lee of Bennachie – Davidson reflects on the essence of this terrain, the way weather and light – ‘an aesthetic of fugacity’ – change like mercury by the hour, or minute; the way old kinships, with the Baltic and beyond, keep a deeper hold on this part of the world than newer, less heart-felt bonds with the south.

Davidson has written about the north before, both in his non-fiction The Idea of North, and less directly in his recherche collection of poems, The Palace of Oblivion. In one, he is the spirited academic, making links over centuries and countries and drawing on his knowledge of art, as Professor in the Department of Art History at Aberdeen University, to illuminate these outer regions as depicted and immortalised in paint since Breugel’s time. In the other he is a romantic and aesthete, in love with his place near the top of the world.

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For this reader, however, Distance and Memory is finer than either, fusing the lyrical, hummingbird eye of his poetry with a broad and scholarly overview. In the process he creates something even more powerful and personal, more exquisitely polished and profoundly felt. A book of hours, a work of memoir, almost of meditation, it comes close, at times, to elegy. It therefore is no surprise when, towards his conclusion, Davidson writes, ‘melancholy is one of the pleasures of the north’. Throughout he has been unabashed in his conjuring, constant as a refrain, of fading light, lost summer, long-gone parties and friends.

* * *

There are, of course, many norths. It all depends where you stand. There is the explorer’s merciless playground, a territory of ice and fear far beyond ultima Thule, where normal life is unsustainable, and only those prepared to meet death dare venture. Such a north is the extreme. It shares as little in common with what you might call the domestic north, such as Aberdeenshire, Orkney or Norway, as the depths of the Pacific Ocean do with an Olympic pool. One is an exercise in superhuman endurance, of hyperbolic adjectives and eye-watering statistics; the other is a subtle and constant negotiation between habitat and nature, civilisation and the forces that daily work to undermine it. In the one there is outright defiance of God or the odds, in the other an invigorating sense of precarious existence, and a bone-deep affinity with the peerless beauty of this unsung land.

‘To choose to live here,’ writes Davidson, ‘is to choose the luxury of living in a rural Scotland that preserves a level temper, a temper which in the more populous Lowlands is only remembered. It is also to accept remoteness for good or ill…’

Apart from the cruellest days of winter, this remoteness is plainly a boon to one of Davidson’s temperament. It seems to suit those who prefer to observe what surrounds them at leisure and in peace, rather than be jostled and crowded, the air around them stale from a thousand lungs.

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The north, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the true heart of winter. Certainly, few of us who live in northern lands, be it Shetland or East Lothian – which to a Londoner is far beyond their national north – would be able to tolerate the lack of warmth or sunshine did we not appreciate the austere pleasures of the darkest months. To southerners, be they from Cornwall or Crete, north equates with winter. Yet for us northerners, full-blown winter occupies only a fraction of our annual clock. Even so, the gradations of light and clime when the year is at its lowest are closely, almost reverently observed, each frost or fog or thaw significant to that day’s business and mood. It is the season when we must be most alert.

Davidon’s winters are harder than many, not only because of his location but since he appears to dread them. ‘When autumn draws towards its inevitable end, how best to respond to the assumption that I am one “Before whom winter opens like a grave”?’ he asks, quoting Louis MacNeice. It is a terrible question, and yet, on the evidence of Distance and Memory he, like so many, finds something cathartic and cleansing in the unrelieved darkness and cold. Something amusing, too, as he pictures himself like the host of a remote house in a Buchan thriller, ‘where the protagonists spend the last night before they take to the wilderness, the frozen heather, the rocks above the snowline’.

Yet there’s no denying the toll winter’s grip takes on him, and perhaps all of us. ‘I am still weakened and tired out by it all, longing for orchards and music and company. The scoured dimness on the hillsides, gashed with snow, is hardly a colour, more an aspect of life which has to be endured.’

Scoured, in fact, is the word he believes best sums up paintings of the Scottish north. Through each chapter, he draws explicitly or subliminally on the ideas and perspective of artists who have turned their attention to the cooler colours of cold, or who refused to flee their homeland. Of all the artists he mentions – Casper Friedrich David, Philips Wouwerman, Eric Ravilious – no-one is more akin to Davidson’s literary palette than Henry Raeburn, with whom he shares an affinity of poignancy, truth, emotional depth and authority.

A master portraitist himself of landscape and sky, Davidson writes with mesmerising clarity, the poetry of his prose as much like music as art. Thus he writes of midsummer’s endless twilight, ‘It confuses even the birds: at nine o’clock, larksong is still bubbling down from the sky, the oystercatchers are whistling, and the buzzards circle, mewing sweetly, invisible in the upper air. The swallows are out catching gnats, and as the dimness comes down, they will be joined by the pipistrelles, flickering through the air like scraps of burnt paper.’

Davidson’s book is a hymn to the countryside and culture that nourish and diminish him, but not in equal measure. Gloriously idiosyncratic, illuminating and wise, it is one of the most beautifully written works you are likely to read in a decade.

* * *

The geography of north is an individual matter. No sat-nav can point out where it begins. From the viewpoint of a Roman, north is Milan. For the Milanese, Britain is almost at the polar cap, and Scotland a mere splinter of ice. Living as I do within sight of Fife, I am forever reminded that I lie south of the rest of Scotland. I rarely think of myself as a northerner, yet on a train to London I feel dislocated, less at ease once it pulls out of York, as accents and attitudes change. On the return journey, the sight of Inverness or Aberdeen on the King’s Cross departures board brings a pang of pleasure, but it is not until the carriage window fills with the bleakness of Northumberland moors that I know home is finally drawing close.

North is not, as some might claim, an attitude of mind, but living there does shape one’s outlook. Remoteness, as Davidson suggests, fosters rebellion, dissidence, and disobedience. Whether it was Jacobite rebellions or enclaves of diehard Catholics within a stormy Protestant sea, northerners are especially allergic to being told what to do or think. Distance from authority is the key rather than any compass point or latitude, but one cannot escape the thought that remoteness is a two-way street, from which the northerner reaps more. Those who are considered cut off consider themselves firmly at the centre of the things that matter. Perhaps because their location is so often impressed upon them, they know their place and are glad of it. When their eye turns south, it is more with suspicion than envy, less in sorrow than in pity.


DISTANCE AND MEMORY

Peter Davidson

Carcanet, PP178, £14.95, ISBN 978-1-84777-155-1

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Bulldog Bond

In 1996 at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in London the playwright and director Martin McDonagh, nominated for best newcomer award, was slightly worse for wear when Max Hastings, editor of the Evening Standard, proposed a toast in honour of the Queen. McDonagh in his own words started ‘taking the piss’: ‘next thing I know there’s a hand on my shoulder and Sean Connery is standing over me saying, “Shut up, or leave”, in that James Bond voice of his. It was surreal. I mean is this guy supposed to be a Scottish Nationalist, or what?’

McDonagh highlights a peculiarly Scottish brand of contradiction, or alternatively, hybridity, duality or ‘concentric loyalty’. Connery has been arguing for Scottish self-determination since the 1960s and in 2008 remarked that independence would move Scotland ‘out of the shadows of our friends and neighbours in England and forge a new partnership based on equality’. Connery’s idea of equality does not extend to the inequitable and elitist British monarchy, adding that both countries would ‘have a shared head of state in the Queen’.

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For republicans, Connery’s position is untenable; nevertheless his attitude is held by many in Scotland, few of whom have a knighthood to justify. Billy Connolly, Scotland’s other foremost celebrity export and unofficial king, boasts is a Commander of the British Empire and a personal friend of members of the royal family. In a recent interview promoting the film Gulliver’s Travels in which he played a king, Connolly indulged his regal status by declaring that if he ‘…was a king, [he] would be the way Prince Charles would be if he was a king. I’d be cool about it, you know… grow organic food and be nice and involved. I would get people together and show people that you care about them, the way prince Charles does. So, that’s what I tried to be… an easy going guy who thought he had landed on his feet.’

While Connolly’s knighthood is surely only a state funeral away, his regal pretensions may explain why a self-confessed unionist would voice the character of King Fergus in Brave, a conspicuously pro-independence movie which was, according to Robbie Coltrane, ‘hijacked’ by the SNP. However, neither Connery, Connolly nor Coltrane should be concerned about the future of the monarchy since Alex Salmond in a speech on January 25, 2012, declared: ‘With independence we will have a new social union with the other nations of these islands and will continue to share Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State’.

The comparisons and contrasts between Connery and Connolly are symptomatic of Scotland’s wider identity issues. One is from Edinburgh, the other from Glasgow; one a nationalist, the other a unionist; both have working class origins, both are royalists and both are from Irish Catholic backgrounds. It is interesting to note that, notwithstanding George Galloway’s sensationalist and failed attempt to bring religion into the national discourse, the thorny subject of religion has been largely omitted from the independence debate, partly because the SNP commitment to retain the monarchy has stunted any debate on republicanism and any debate on republicanism will inevitably expose Scotland’s divisions around the culture of monarchy. In Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, James Kelman points out that ‘the Scottish nationalists’ support for such an intrinsically British institution will appear as a sop not only to unionist sympathisers but to “the Protestant vote”. Traditionally Protestants are anti-republican unionists… [whereas] Roman Catholics are believed to favour republicanism… the subtext to their pro-unionist, anti-republican stance is sectarian racism: anti-Catholic, anti-Irish. Others in Scotland will view the nationalist retention of the British monarchy in these terms.’

Clearly, to be Scottish is to be many things and the independence referendum, if it accomplishes anything, may reveal the acknowledged but little discussed realities of the complex and often divisive nature of Scottish identity. Certainly the impact of the British project on Scottish identity has been insufficiently examined. I would argue however that the Bond movie Skyfall, which I consider to be influenced by and, in part, a response to the Scottish referendum, shows signs of the often conflicted nature of Scottish identity.

* * *

When James Bond made his first appearance Britain was emerging from post-war decline and loss of Empire. Since then no fictional character has embodied Britishness to the same degree, nor been so encumbered with the mission of preserving (however fictitiously) Britain’s standing in geo-politics. The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, shared its birthday with the coronation of that other paragon of Britishness, Elizabeth II and like her, ‘Bond… functioned… as a site for the elaboration – or, more accurately, re-elaboration – of a mythic conception of nationhood.’ In the aftermath of Suez, James Bond was tasked with the mission of ‘maintain(ing) the myth of British… particularly English – superiority’.

In 2012 the franchise celebrated its fiftieth birthday, sharing its anniversary with the Queen’s Jubilee. In common with Casino Royale, Skyfall was released during a period of pageantry and austerity and at a time when the future of Britain was in doubt. Consequently Skyfall unashamedly wears its patriotic heart on its sleeve, or perhaps more accurately, the bulldog on its arm. The monarchic and Olympic events of 2012 undoubtedly influenced the film’s success, becoming the highest grossing British film ever and the first of the franchise to win a Bafta. Evidently Britain needed James Bond.

A review in the Daily Telegraph described Skyfall as ‘a true British film, with a true British hero’. Similarly, in the London Review of Books, Michael Wood described Bond as a ‘rough-’em-up bulldog’ and suggests that patriotism may have influenced the ‘wildly enthusiastic critical reactions’ Skyfall received in England. Its overt patriotism, however, is not to everyone’s taste and has been described as ‘a 143-minute-long party political broadcast for “Britishness”’. Skyfall performs a similar function to Danny Boyle’s opening Olympic ceremony and, like Boyle’s ceremony, it features iconic British locations, institutions, brands and symbols: the London Underground, Westminster, Whitehall, Range Rover, Aston Martin and the indomitable British bulldog. James Chapman, author of Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the Bond Film, has remarked that Bond’s Britishness ‘has been central to the ideology of national identity which the films project’. His Britishness however is typically reinforced using English signifiers. London provides the setting for more than half of Skyfall, and through its repeated use of English locations and cultural referents such as the union flag, England and Britain coalesce.

The most prominent British symbol in Skyfall is the union flag. Of course the union flag pops up in many Bond films, most famously the parachute stunt in The Spy Who Loved Me and also the title sequence for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which features a woman holding the trident and shield of Britannia against a backdrop of the union flag being squeezed through an hour glass. The hour glass suggests that time is running out for Britain, and Bond – who is silhouetted dangling from the hand of a giant clock (presumably Big Ben), which is turning anti-clockwise – is the only one who can save it. The title sequence of OHMSS supports the observation of Tony Bennett and Janet Wollacott in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, that Bond ‘supplied a point of reference in relation to which the clock of the nation had been put imaginarily into reverse’.

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In Skyfall, I would argue, it is the uncertainty surrounding the future of Britain that Bond attempts to reverse. Skyfall is, to some extent, an expensive promo for Britain and attempts to do for the British/English paradigm what Braveheart and more recently Brave did for Scottish nationalism. In fact, the advertising campaign for Skyfall ran a parallel campaign with VisitBritain, the slogan of which was ‘Bond is Great… Britain’. However, while Skyfall endeavours to transmit a pro-British ideology, such patriotic posturing during a period of enforced austerity, welfare cuts, food banks, the bedroom tax and the demonisation of the unemployed and immigrants, complicates a straightforward transmission of its patriotic message. In addition, there is the impending Scottish independence referendum lurking in the shadows.

* * *

In an article for Newsweek Simon Schama remarked that ‘James Bond was dreamed up as the British Empire was on its last legs.’ With the release of the 23rd Bond it is no longer the empire but the British union which may be on its last legs and Skyfall is accordingly introspective and nostalgic. In one scene Bond pulls back a sheet to reveal his famous Aston Martin, first seen in Goldfinger in 1964 and again attempts to reverse into history: ‘Where are we going?’ M asks. ‘Back in time’ replies Bond. Skyfall vacillates between the Britain of Bond’s cinematic origins and ‘the brave new world’ Bond speaks of after meeting the new Q for the first time. As this ‘brave new world’ may be one in which Britain no longer exists Skyfall seems determined to get good use out of the union flag while it can. Interestingly, the first time we see the union flag there are several draped over coffins, reminding us of the sacrifice that some must pay for the cause of greatness. Alternatively, it also suggests that the idea behind the symbol is dead.

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Despite being played by a Scotsman, an Australian, an Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman, 007 has become the archetypal English/British spy. Bennett and Wollacott describe Bond as ‘first and foremost an English hero’, who personifies the ‘myth of Englishness.’ Of course, as aficionados well know, James Bond is not English but Scottish. Inspired by Connery, Fleming chose to give Bond a Scottish back-story in the novel You Only Live Twice, in which he added an obituary which explains that Bond’s father was a Scot, Andrew Bond of Glencoe, and his mother Swiss. Bond’s Scottish origins, both literary and cinematic, grate against the overtly British/English appropriation of Bond post-Connery. This has produced a dissonance in Bond’s identity, problematising elements of the films which involve Britain and Britishness. Fifty years later this dissonance is still in evidence in Skyfall.

For the majority of Bond’s cinematic existence there has been a tussle over his national identity. Traditionally this has been based around the Anglo-Scottish debate about who is the better Bond, Connery or Moore? The distinct characterisations of Bond by Connery and Moore can be viewed in terms of the clichéd constructions of Scottish and English identity. Whereas Connery’s Bond is masculine, animalistic and abrasive, Moore’s is urbane, charming, distinctly English and could get away with wearing a safari suit. The contrast between Connery and Moore’s Bond is in many ways a continuation of the national/cultural differences represented in sixteenth-century treatises, seventeenth-century drama and eighteenth-century political caricatures.

In our own time the traditional political and cultural friction between England and Scotland has been aggravated by the impending independence referendum and the intensification of right wing politics in England. Unsurprisingly, the espousing of national stereotypes has become more apparent and less playful. For instance, following Nigel Farage’s ill-advised media gathering in Edinburgh, a UKIP candidate in Plymouth tweeted that he was ‘amazed that 50 Jocks could get out of bed that early’, adding ‘it’s not signing-on day, is it or is the chemist open?’ In the eighteenth century the propagandist prints of John Wilkes were motivated by a perceived Scottish threat to the English/British way of life; in the 1950s Ian Fleming reacted to the decline of Empire by creating an indestructible British hero; and Sam Mendes in 2012responded, intentionally or not, to the possible loss of England’s internal empire and by association the core of British identity by producing Skyfall.

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In the Connery films Bond’s Britishness is much less in-your-face. Bond’s overt Britishness/Englishness really emerged when Roger Moore’s eyebrows took the role in 1974. For example, in the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, moments before the union flag parachute stunt, Bond is enjoying a romantic tryst when he is suddenly called into action. ‘Something came up’ he tells the girl. ‘James I need you!’ she pleads, to which Bond replies ‘So does England!’ The juxtaposition of Moore’s ‘old-fashioned construction of Englishness’ and the union flag fuses England and Britain. This slippage between Britain and England is evident in Farage’s response to the Edinburgh demonstrators who chanted ‘shove your union jack up your arse’. A visibly wounded Farage declared that the advice was ‘clearly… anti-British, anti-English’, adding, ‘they even hate the Union Jack’. His interpretation of the demonstrators’ disdain for the British flag as anti-Englishness tells us less about the real intent of the demonstrators and more about his perception of whom and what the flag represents. Farage overlooks the Welsh, Northern Irish and the Scots who currently have made no complaint. While it is politically expedient to label the protestors as ‘anti-English’, the position of UKIP’s leader, particularly his conflating of Britain and England, is consistent with historical and contemporary patterns. As Murray Pittock points out, ‘the cultural semantics of “English” and “British” have become ‘interchangeable’. There is a revealing moment in Skyfall when Bond, taking part in a word association test, is prompted by the word ‘country’, to which he immediately and resolutely replies ‘England’.

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In light of the present debate on Union, Bond’s choice of England over Scotland or Britain is suggestive of the current political situation wherein Scots are faced with a similar choice which, to some extent, will be based on their sense of national identity. Bond’s nemesis in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, has no divided loyalty. A former agent of MI6, Silva was betrayed by M and is now bent on destroying his former chief, at one point blowing up her office – including the porcelain British bulldog on her desk. When Silva tries to convince Bond that he is being manipulated by M, Bond tells him ‘I make my own choices’. Silva replies, ‘You think you did, that’s her genius.’ The confrontation between Bond and Silva is in effect a confrontation between someone who still strongly identifies with Britain and someone who no longer does.

After Bond’s own Glencoe massacre he returns to London and we find him standing on a roof, like a sentinel looking out over the city. In the distance the Union Flag flaps defiantly and in his hands Bond grips a last gift bequeathed to him from M: the slightly burned British bulldog from her desk. Britain has survived, but not unscathed. In the final scene the new M asks Bond if he is ready to once again do his duty, to which Bond replies ‘with pleasure… with pleasure’. Her Majesty would be pleased by her secret servant’s continuing subservience.

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Volume 9 – Issue 3 – Editorial

The independence referendum is now a year away. The debate will thus intensify over the coming months and, it is to be hoped, will be conducted in a civil and enlightened (and enlightening) manner. Divorce is never an easy matter and after more than three hundred years in a union that has been generally harmonious those keen to separate need to make their case articulately, passionately and persuasively. The same, however, is true for those who would prefer things to remain the same. Simply promoting paranoia and insisting that should Scotland decide to go it alone penury and isolation will rapidly follow is neither helpful nor convincing. Fear, as victims of domestic abuse will attest, is never a good reason to stay in a marriage when there is a more congenial alternative.

In this issue of the Scottish Review of Books various contributors touch on the forthcoming plebiscite. For instance, reflecting on the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival, Hayden Murphy refers to the debate over the decision by the outgoing Edinburgh International Festival’s director, Jonathan Mills, to avoid any inclusion in next year’s programme that might be interpreted as political. Apparently, this was denounced by Liz Lochhead, poet, playwright and Scots Makar. ‘The independence referendum… is of course important,’ writes Murphy. ‘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.’

That, it would appear, is incontestable. But the fact is that while the Festival has embraced its international remit with teenage zeal it has also had a tendency to, at best, marginalise the culture of the country in which it is held and, at worst, ignore it. This is a curious state of affairs but one which is seemingly tolerated, perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps because of something less definable. Whatever the reason, it does appear bizarre that in 2014 the EIF will pretend that a vote which will determine the future direction of the country is not going to happen.

We would not of course advocate that the Festival should go out of its way to commission partisan performances. That would be absurd and deserve only derision. But it is surely not beyond the wit of the artistic community to produce illuminating and imaginative shows which have a bearing, however tangential, on the referendum. The sole criterion should be excellence. If a play or an opera or whatever fits that bill then why not put it on and leave the audience to decide what message, if any, to take from it? That, though, is not the way those charged with running the Festival think. Whereas in the past there was a desire, a need, an imperative, to rouse, to disturb, to provoke, the aim these days is not to upset anyone in the stalls. Therein lies apathy and boredom, art that matters not a jot, and half-empty halls.

Meanwhile any debate about culture in the context of the referendum is stifled. We are pleased therefore to run two pieces in this issue which attempt to invigorate the topic. The first is by Christopher McMillan and tackles the issue of the James Bond movies and their part in the unionist cause. Of Scottish extraction and educated at Fettes – also Tony Blair’s alma mater – Bond, argues McMillan, has trouble distinguishing between Britishness and Englishness. The British Broadcasting Corporation, it has often been said, has a similar problem. In his essay, George McKechnie looks at the BBC’s attitude to Scottish nationalism with reference to David Cleghorn Thomson, its Scottish Regional Director in the early 1930s, who was dismissed for allegedly – and, as it transpired, wrongly – being in favour of independence.

Thomson, writes McKechnie, was a ‘cultural nationalist’ who realised more than seven decades ago that Scottish culture, as represented by the BBC, was being dictated from elsewhere. ‘The BBC’s fear of nationalism,’ observes McKechnie, ‘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.’

These days the BBC is religious – or so it insists – in its adherence to impartiality. But it is clearly in its interests that it remains a British Broadcasting Corporation, not least for its international credibility. As is often mentioned it is one of the few surviving identifiably British phenomena. James Bond is another. It is little wonder therefore that they are so cherished by those who wish to uphold this most fragile of unions.

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Volume 9 – Issue 4 – Editorial

YOU’ve got to read it to believe it.’ says Amazon of its Kindle Paperwhite. It is but one among many Kindles, several of which are called Fire. Why we know not. Once you’ve taken the plunge there are countless ‘accessories’ with which you can embellish your Kindle and ‘customise’ it. There are styluses, chargers, and ‘skins’, which protect it from the elements and your own negligence. For example, you can buy a ‘zebra’ skin or a ‘blossoming almond tree’ skin or a ‘moon meadow’ skin. Alternatively, if you’re the kind of person who is eager to broadcast your patriotism, there’s a Union Flag skin.

We own a Kindle and were enthused by the idea of carrying it on our travels where, we were told, we would have instant access to a library the size of that of the Mitchell. What we did not quite grasp was that every time we wanted to add to it we would have to pay. Nor were we told that we would not be able to pass on our purchases to friends. Nevertheless we added a few out of copyright titles to it and prepared to embrace the reading future.

And for a while we were enthused as we invariably are when we acquire something new, such as a breadmaker. The Kindle was light, looked smart in its green leather cover which cost little more that fifty quid, and was loaded with enough high-minded and previously unread literature to last a lifetime. We then had fantasies about the amount of space we could recover by dispensing with the paper we had accumulated over the decades and the dust-free environment in which we would soon be living. There was much, it seemed to us, to be said for the Kindle, which was no bigger than Bill Gates’s wallet.

But after that first flush of enthusiasm there were days when the Kindle lay inert. While others swore by it and insisted their lives had been transformed we felt nonplussed. We wanted desperately to love our Kindle but we simply could not. Every time we wanted to use it we had to switch it on. Moreover, we had to ensure it was charged, which, frankly, was a pain. Nor did it have anywhere we could stick things – postcards, newspaper cuttings, restaurant recipes, gallery tickets – for which we had no handy home. On top of which, we were now considering a future with bare and undecorated walls. For all its manifold advantages, a Kindle certainly did not furnish a room.

We are not, we hasten to add, Luddites. We use computers, are addicted to digital radio and have a television which, while not as ‘smart’ as some, receives more stations than we care to watch and, moreover, in colour. However, when a friend in the SRB’s favoured howff waxed hysterical about the joy of reading the latest Andy McNab on his phone we began to feel queasy and inclined to panic, our way of life under threat. It was at this point that the SRB’s resident full-time gizmo correspondent spotted an article in a magazine devoted to geeks which offered us hope. In a spirit of bibliographic fraternity, and with Christmas on the horizon, allow us to share with you the full report:

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‘Last week came the announcement of a new product which is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. Called the Built-in Orderly Organised Knowledge device (BOOK), it is compact and portable, it can be used anywhere – even sitting in an armchair by the fire.

‘Here’s how it works: each BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fitted device called a binder which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence. Using both sides of each sheet cuts the costs in half.

‘Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. The BOOK may be taken up at any time and used merely by opening it. The “browse” facility allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Most come with an “index” facility, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

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‘An optional “BOOKmark” accessory allows you to open the BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session – even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKS by various manufacturers.

‘Portable, durable, and affordable, the BOOK is the entertainment wave of the future, and many new titles are expected soon, due to the surge in popularity of its programming tool, the Portable Erasable-Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language stylus.’

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Volume 10 Issue 6 – Editorial

IN 1933, the novelist Eric Linklater contested a by-election in East Fife on behalf of the National Party of Scotland which, a year later, amalgamated with the Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party. Linklater, who was born in 1899 in Penarth in Glamorganshire of Orcadian stock, recalled that the election was ‘full of comedy’. Indeed, as he added, ‘At one point, in a fevered gloom, I even saw the possibility of  a Nationalist victory’. But it was not to be. Of five candidates, Linklater came last. The seat was taken by a Liberal, James Hamilton-Stewart, who in his victory speech complained bitterly of the ‘wrecking tactics’ of his rivals. He held it until his death in 1961.

Linklater, however, put his disappointment to good effect, and immediately produced Magnus Merriman. Rather disingenuously, he was at pains to point out that no one should make the mistake of confusing fact and fiction. Magnus Merriman was not, he insisted, modelled on him, nor was his caper in ‘Kinluce’ ‘a replica’ of his own in the Kingdom of Fife.

We may take all of that with a generous dose of salt for Magnus Merriman draws heavily on Linklater’s own failed attempt to become an MP and contains caricatures of several prominent figures of the day, including the redoubtable Wendy Wood, founder of the Scottish Patriots, and Hugh MacDiarmid, who in the novel becomes Hugh Skene. ‘Those who admired his writing declared him to be a genius of the highest order,’ Linklater wrote of the latter, ‘and those who disliked it, or could not understand it, said that he was a pretentious versifier who concealed his lack of talent by a ponderous ornamentation of words so archaic that nobody knew their meaning’. MacDiarmid, it is perhaps worth pointing out, was delighted with this vignette.

Re-reading Magnus Merriman recently, we were struck by how well it holds up. Mock-heroic, it declines to take politics seriously. In particular, nationalism, at the beginning of the 1930s, is seen as something of a joke which, given Linklater’s own leanings at the time, added to the novel’s joie de vivre. Having said that, there is much in it that is pertinent to our own era and the inextinguishable debate over independence. The dilemma for Nationalists, as the eponymous Magnus saw it, was that Scots were not suffering from violent oppression and, moreover, could not point to any ‘gross or overt ill-use’ by the English. ‘The Nationalists’ arguments were many,’ concedes Magnus, ‘and many of them were sound, but they had small chance of influencing people who had forgotten or not yet learned or were by nature disinclined to think for themselves. Economic reasons and valid patriotic sentiment are both insufficient, without assistance from some sensational train of incidents, to overcome the inertia of a modern democracy…

Fast forward eighty years and how much has changed? Quite a lot if recent events are anything to go by. In the past couple of decades we have voted for devolution, built a parliament, seen the Scottish National Party form a majority government and, earlier this month, witnessed it achieve an amazing result in a general election, winning 56 out of a possible 59 seats in Scotland. It is not just the Chinese who live in interesting times. Who knows what the next couple of decades will hold but what is clear is that the clamour for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament is unlikely to abate and that those who favour independence will continue to argue for it.

All of this, we might be forgiven for thinking, would be manna to the nation’s writers. But with one or two exceptions we have yet to see much evidence that they are inclined to follow in Linklater’s footsteps. By and large, those whose job it is to tell our story have been silent for whatever reason. Instead the field has been left to diarists and pundits, social scientists and historians, many of whose books are already out of date by the time they reach the bookshops. Perhaps it was the same when Linklater was beginning to make his mark.

Fiction, however, when it is done well, tells us more about what it was like to live at a certain period than any other form of literature. Read Magnus Merriman and you are instantly transported to the 1930s when poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, fogs turned Edinburgh into a set for a spooky film and pubs were smoke-filled debating chambers. As Linklater describes it, more heat than light was generated but underlying the farce you get a sense of something important stirring, of a movement beginning to come to life, of change. At a hustings, Magnus declares that, ‘The National Party is the only party that poets are proud to join.‘  Has there ever been a better pitch to the electorate?

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Volume 10 Issue 5 – Editorial

In 1912, a profile appeared in the Bookman of a Scottish author who, it was said, ‘has breathed a new life into the moribund art of the novel; he has made the short story what a cameo might be when it is cut by the hand of a master, and he has even contrived to make the light essay and occasional article an entertaining and scholarly production?’ It concluded: ‘Mr John Buchan has now attained his literary majority; we still wait for the great work; the more ambitious flight of his matured imagination.’

More than one hundred years on, we know now that Buchan never quite lived up to those high expectations. In part, this was because he was temperamentally disinclined to innovate. He was not, for example, stylistically driven, as were his near contemporaries, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Buchan, it seems, was content to be a spinner of yarns of the kind which were allowed to unfold at leisure over port and cigars after a dinner of comfort food in the secure surroundings of a gentleman’s club or a Highland shooting lodge.

When the Bookman’s article appeared Buchan was 37. Born in Perth, the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, he was educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow and thereafter at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. His parents’ families had homes in the Borders, at Peebles and Broughton, and he often spent summer holidays visiting grandparents and roaming the surrounding hills. Like Scott and Stevenson, he was immersed in the Border Ballads and the violent and rapacious history of that part of the country.

He began writing when at university; his first book was a critical introduction to the works of Francis Bacon. In all, he wrote thirty novels, seven collections of short stories, sixty-six non-fiction books, including a number of biographies, umpteen  pamphlets, and countless articles, introductions and reviews. He is best known, however, for his short novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which he described as a ‘shocker’ and which was published in 1915, since when it has never been out of print.

In this issue of the Scottish Review of Books, Brian Morton comes neither to praise nor knock Buchan. ‘Underneath the rattling good yarns (and they really do rattle),’ he writes, ‘one hears a profoundly able mind meditating on ultimate things.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps was written before the outbreak of World War I when Buchan was ill with an intestinal complaint, which was to plague him for the rest of the life. In the early months of 1914 the dogs of war were beginning to yap. Towards the end of June Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo. The following month Buchan told a friend that his new novel was finished but he did not send it to his publisher, Blackwood, until December, by when Britain and Germany were at war. Its provisional title was The Black Stone. ‘It has amused me to write,’ he said, ‘but whether it will amuse you to read is another matter.’

As Andrew Lownie, Buchan’s biographer, has noted, it did indeed amuse and thrill the publisher, who quickly serialised it in Blackwood’s Magazine before issuing it in hard covers. Interestingly, it was first published under the pseudonym ‘H de V’, why no one has yet discovered. ‘Review coverage was limited,’ reports Lownie, though The Athenaeum, considering it in tandem with DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, an unlikely pairing, thought it had ‘a literary flavour, and a distant echo of Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights’. Sales, however, were brisk; within three months they had topped 25,000.

All novels should be read in context. That of The Thirty-Nine Steps was one in which Britain was a nation engulfed by German spy fever and jingoism was at its most fervent. Richard Hannay, its hero, is a patriotic adventurer who is relieved from boredom by an encounter with an American spy. Scudder tells him he has found out about a conspiracy ‘to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads’ and a plot to murder the Greek prime minister when he is in London in a few weeks. Hannay, he hopes, will help him thwart the evil doers but before any plans can be put in place Scudder is murdered. By way of a bequest, he has left Hannay his notebook in which mention is made of  ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’.

Thus is set in motion a chain of events which tests readers’ credulity to the limit and in which coincidence is raised to a risible level. If one is inclined to criticise Buchan there is plenty to go on. What is less easy to explain is why The Thirty-Nine Steps has retained its freshness and popularity. Much, surely, is due to the obvious warmth with which Buchan writes about the Scottish countryside and the characters Hannay encounters. Nor should the appeal of nostalgia be underestimated. As Hannay seeks to elude the Black Stone’, the German spy ring, he heads for sweet-smelling, bosomy-hilled Galloway, where in those halcyon days trains stopped in every out-of-the way place and there was not a wind turbine in sight.

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Volume 10 Issue 4 – Editorial

IN 1970, there appeared a collection of essays in honour of Hector MacIver who taught English at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. MacIver, who was born on Lewis in 1910 and died in Midlothian in 1966, was a man of many parts. He was a writer, broadcaster, producer of plays, a talker and a speaker. He was also much liked and greatly admired and an immense influence on many of those who fell under his spell. The collection was called Memoirs of a Modern Scotland and its editor, Karl Miller, had been student of MacIver.

‘He was not famous in the usual sense,’ wrote Miller, though there is no doubt he was well-known in certain circles.  The essays which followed were not all concerned directly with MacIver but with things he had been interested in: politics, poetry, history both national and personal, the intellectual life, the state of the nation. Among the contributors were Sorley MacLean, Hugh MacDiarmid, William McIlvanney, Muriel Spark, Alastair Reid and Miller himself. By any standard, it was a stellar lineup. If you want to know what it was like to be a questioning, imaginative person in Scotland forty years and more ago then Memoirs of a Modern Scotland is as good a place as any to start.

We thought of Memoirs of a Modern Scotland when the deaths were announced earlier this autumn of Alastair Reid and Karl Miller, both of whom were in their eighties. Two very different characters, they shared a common love of literature. One, Reid, was creative, while the other, Miller, was a critic. Words was the currency in which they traded and they were not profligate in their use. Both left Scotland in their twenties and never returned to live here permanently. Nevertheless (as Mrs Spark was wont to say) they never lost interest in the country of their birth and formation and always stayed in touch. Miller went on to edit the Listener and the literary pages of the Spectator and the New Statesman and to found and edit the London Review of Books; Reid, meanwhile, wrote around one hundred essays and poems for the New Yorker over a period of fifty years. 

Their contributions to Memoirs of a Modern Scotland are well worth revisiting, not least because of the portraits they paint of their upbringing. Miller’s essay is largely concerned with MacIver and Edinburgh. Not without cause, it is titled ‘Romantic Town’ and so, it seems, the capital must have been even to a young, bookish boy coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s. Through his inspirational teacher, Miller met Dylan Thomas, then in his pomp, and came to know Norman MacCaig, another alumnus of the Royal High, who became a lifelong friend. Edinburgh, then, was truly a literary city in which poets reigned unchallenged. Once, recalled Miller, he met MacCaig at the General Post Office (now the HQ of Creative Scotland), where they spent an hour talking about Lorca. ‘MacCaig did not seem to mind spending an hour talking about Lorca with a schoolboy he hardly knew…, and the encounter was typical of the town as I knew it then, of its grave interest in literature and of its private courtesy.’

In his essay, ‘Borderlines’, Reid wrote more consciously from the point of view of an exile. Whereas Miller settled in London, Reid was antipathetic to the notion of settling anywhere. Perhaps of no one is it more accurate to say that he was footloose and fancy-free. Having left Scotland after the Second World War, he roved wildly, living for prolonged periods in the United States, Spain, Central, South and Latin America. With distance, he wrote, ‘Scotland became more and more incredible to me, I had to return to verify it, if you like – that, and to have a whiff of the growing landscape, since I was born and bred there, and childhood landscapes are irreplaceable. My feelings about Scotland now all come from a distance that is not just geographical; I would never live there again.’

Both Miller and Reid were drawn to the Borders. Among other books, Miller wrote a peerless biography of James Hogg, aka the Ettrick Shepherd, best known for his novel, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In particular, he was intrigued by Hogg’s double life, that of a literary man who tended sheep, of a rough, rural type lionised in the smart salons of the nascent New Town. ‘Many writers,’ wrote Miller, ‘have pretended to be shepherds. Hogg really was a shepherd, while also, at times, a pretender, a role-player.’ Interestingly, Alastair Reid makes no mention of Hogg in ‘Borderlands’, nor does his name crop up in other of Reid’s writing. Born in Whithorn,  Reid was not a Borderer by inclination but went to live there as a youngster when his minister father was given a parish in Selkirk, out of which, he ruefully remarked quoting a local worthy, ‘a day oot o’… was a day wasted’.

It was not a view to which Reid subscribed. For him, Borderers were too much concerned with local rivalries and the past than what the future could be like and what it might hold. It did, however, allow him ‘to cultivate a conscious disrespect for the place’ which, in turn, helped him live the life he did and write the books we look forward to reading over and over again.

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