Monthly Archives: November 2013


Was There A Scottish Renaissance?

For most of us, the question of whether or not Scotland ever had a Renaissance is academic in every sense. After all, so many centuries later, who cares, and why, indeed, should we? As Dr Andrea Thomas writes in the opening paragraph of her engrossing, eye-opening history, ‘the associations with Italy are so strong that the very idea of a Renaissance in Scotland has sometimes seemed absurd.’

How right she is. The leap of imagination required to bridge not merely the miles but the magnificence of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and those at work in the chilly, backward north – a place less famous for encouraging the arts than for censuring and stifling them – requires a mental athleticism few of us possess.

Fortunately, Thomas makes strenuous effort redundant. A natural storyteller whose relaxed style masks exhaustive research, with the help of sumptuous illustrations she lays out her cards, chapter by chapter, eventually to reveal a royal flush that demonstrates conclusively that not only did the Renaissance reach Scotland, but once over the border it actively flourished. This revelation may initially leave some lukewarm, but not the least of Thomas’s skills is her ability to turn the significance of a silver coin or a carefully carved corbel into something far more important than a single piece in a jigsaw. As Glory and Honour proceeds, the reader is not only quickly persuaded of her argument, but grows eager for further illumination of this period, which she brings alive with panache.

Under her hand, the century and a half from around the 1450s emerges as arguably the most fascinating in this country’s never dull history. Such is the vividness of the portrait she paints there are points when it feels as if until recently the past has been viewed through a fog, and only now is visible in full, glorious colour. That she is aware of that too, is evident. Commenting on two of the greatest poets of the sixteenth century, she writes, ‘through the vivid, varied and engaging poetry of Dunbar and Lindsay, the Renaissance courts of James IV and V may be reanimated for modern readers.’

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But as she shows, in other realms Scotland was also in full Renaissance mode, be it jewellery, tapestries, panel paintings, buildings, gardens, courtly manners or pageantry. Sadly, though, it is literature that has been handed down more safely to later generations than those arts and attitudes that were destroyed or extirpated by those self-righteous, moralising vandals, the Protestant reformers. Such was their distaste for any sign of Catholic excess that they tried to wipe the cultural slate clean in a bonfire of vanities that has yet to be rivalled. Not surprisingly, a constant refrain in this history is that had it not been for the Reformation, Scotland’s Renaissance heritage would be far richer. As scores were burned and song schools closed, one distraught composer of the period, Thomas Wode, wailed that ‘music shall perish in this land utterly’. Without doubt it was severely curtailed, simplified and stifled, and may indeed have been one of the arts worst affected by reforming zeal. And yet, despite the widespread destruction of what was seen as pernicious papist influence in art, philosophy, crafts and sacred music, sufficient traces of the Renaissance have survived intact, or almost.

Each chapter reveals the crucial role of the Stuart kings in cultivating renaissance art and attitudes. James IV has always been held up as a Renaissance prince and arch-moderniser, but Thomas shows that his father, son and grandson were each in their way instrumental in fostering links with Italy, France and the Low Countries from whence Renaissance ideas sprang. It’s notable that James IV’s Renaissance credentials blossomed after his marriage to Margaret Tudor, but none was more influenced by a spouse than James V, whose two French wives, one tragically short-lived, brought a strong flavour of sophisticated courtly France to their new home.

Starting with architecture, such as the magnificent courtyard facades at Falkland palace built by James V – ‘the earliest wholly Renaissance architectural scheme in the British Isles’ – Thomas picks her way through the rubble of centuries of wanton destruction, and innocent renovation or loss. Much of her evidence comes from royal houses or possessions, such as Stirling Castle or Linlithgow Palace, partly because royals were in the best position to commission new and expensive works, but equally because those of the aristocracy who also did so passed their lands, houses and possessions onto heirs, whose rebuilding and refashioning no doubt destroyed a great deal of work from this most exquisite and revealing period.

Only one arena, it seems, was safe from the fanatics’ flames. Portraits, Thomas tells us, were left unscathed, because Protestants deemed strength of character to be of vital significance, and portraits gave an insight into the sitter’s personality, or lack of. Thanks to this moral dispensation, some magnificent artworks remain, among them Hugo van der Goes’s Trinity Altarpiece (1478-9), in which James III kneels with a dour Saint Andrew at his shoulder, facing his wife Margaret of Denmark. Bringing a breath of the fading gothic age with it, van der Goes’s work, Thomas writes, ‘is a masterpiece of the northern Renaissance and gives some indication of a lost artistic heritage.’

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That notion of a world we have lost haunts this work, and it is impossible not to speculate about what sort of aesthetic culture Scotland might have enjoyed in the late sixteenth century and beyond had the Calvinists not gained the upper hand. In fact, to judge from an act passed in 1617, Parliament sometimes found it necessary to curb the Protestant passion for the spartan, as when it ‘required all parish kirks to provide at the very least a jug and basin for baptism and a cup for communion’. It was a far cry from the days of splendidly wrought Renaissance communion ware, as seen in the beautiful Galloway Mazer. This delectable open goblet of delicately tooled silver bears the decidedly inappropriate inscription: ‘Ane good name is to be chosen above great riches and loving favour is above silver and above moste fine golde’. At this point one feels some sympathy with the reformers’ ire, if not their methods.

While Thomas scores no cheap political points against the Protestants, she is keen to point out that although the scope of public education blossomed under the Kirk’s aegis, there was already a steady programme of improving access to education. This was in large part thanks to the intervention of William Elphinstone, the open-minded Bishop of Aberdeen. This towering intellectual and compassionate figure deserves a place as one of Scotland’s founding fathers for his emphasis on humanist ideals and the importance of education – not least, interestingly, for the landed and moneyed classes, who were clearly in dire need of cultural sandpapering. The Education Act of 1496 that he initiated specifically included the eldest sons of ‘barons and freeholders that are of substance’ in its exhortation to send them to grammar schools and university, in order that they might behave more peacefully, ‘through which Justice may reign universally through all the realm…’ Thus the importance of the commonweal was already acknowledged, giving a place to the needs of ordinary people – even women, whose education was advocated by the most enlightened, again for the good of all.

Talk of the Renaissance is most often dominated by discussion of the arts, but in one of the most illuminating chapters, Thomas looks at the influence of Italian and French ideas on an arena that was of prime political importance for the country’s fortunes. Renaissance warfare was to be the undoing of Scotland at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, thanks to James IV’s mania for modern gadgetry – among them ships, artillery, weaponry and battle formations. In his and his son James V’s love of jousting, and their fascination with the machinery of war, one catches a raw glimpse of these times: an era soaked in danger, sweat and blood. It’s a mood decidedly at odds with the artistic finery that decorated their homes, or the humanist outlook with which they tempered their commands.

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Thomas’s survey of ships, cannonry, battlements, fortifications and guns gets to the very heart of this treacherous and in many ways still primitive age. It is fascinating to read, for instance, that ‘for about a century, between the 1440s and 1540, the Scottish crown worked a minor miracle as it managed to keep up with European developments in ballistics, fortifications and naval power and to “punch above its weight” in international relations…’ Only when Scotland had switched allegiance from France and thrown its lot in with England, she writes, does Scotland drop out of ‘the Renaissance arms race’. It seems very Scottish however that, with its cannons relegated to the dungeons, and its foundries closed, the country’s locksmiths and clockmakers turned their talents to handguns. One of the most beautiful of the many stunning images in this book is a pair of brass pistols with fishtail butts, made for Louis XIII of France by James Low of Dundee in 1611. This is but one small example of the ways in which Scotland kept its head above water during the political travails of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That it did so not just with spirit but with great artistic elegance, shows that the lessons of the Renaissance had been taken to heart.

Glory and Honour: The Renaissance in Scotland 

Andrea Thomas

Birlinn, £25, 230pp hardback, ISBN: 978 1 84158 872 8

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The Govan Messiah

The managers of our grandest football institutions must soon be compelled to publish their collected memoirs in the manner of prime ministers, presidents and five-star cabinet secretaries. They would be made aware of this responsibility long before their tenures ended and would be provided with the appropriate paraphernalia. An encrypted Dictaphone would be the least of it. There would be a discreet personal secretary well-schooled in collecting and filing private and public correspondence and a suitably perjink publishing house would supply a permanent editor. As much as possible the manager would be encouraged to write down his own thoughts and remembrances rather than to deploy the dubious skills of an insipid and obsequious football chronicler. Such a semi-official process would ensure that an appropriately significant expanse of time would have elapsed between retirement and publication. Thus memories and opinions would be allowed to breathe and character analysis would bear scrutiny long after the tabloids had scattered their peremptory labels. As such the manager would be advised to delay taking up his UNICEF peace ambassadorship just yet. 

Of course only the memoirs of a gilded few football bosses would be deemed important enough to sit alongside those of such as Thatcher, Benn or Healey. In my own lifetime I can think of no more than seven or eight: Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsay and Don Revie; perhaps Brian Clough and certainly Alex Ferguson. It is easy to become facile and supercilious when attempting to quantify the impact men such as these had on British society let alone the world of sport. One is tempted to say that the influence and reach of each ‘transcended’ the worlds of sport and politics. They are all ‘working class heroes’ who, though lacking in a ‘formal education’ (whatever that is), were possessed of ‘street wisdom’. What we really mean when we discuss their achievements in our salons and on cultural away-days is that of course they’re not as bright as us but they carry a certain appeal for the masses. It’s like expressing wonder at the cognitive behaviour of dolphins or at the tender voices of Millican and Nesbitt, Hughie Green’s singing miners.

Being former footballers themselves, they would thus have been compelled to cancel Maths and English to pursue their dreams of immortality in the Glory Glory Game. So we’ll never know if Stein, Nicholson and Ramsay would have excelled in academia or in company boardrooms although, like many children from working class backgrounds in the immediate post-war era, they would have found it virtually impossible to have accessed either. What we do know is that these men became masters of a skill-set that, in normal life, gets you the top job at Ford Motors or Unilever. Moreover they had to deploy it strategically in an environment more competitive and capricious than the Bolshoi Ballet. The ability to coax magic and consistency from sullen and broken youths while jousting with boardroom hucksters and juggling the supporters’ moonbeams would have taxed even Kissinger or Mandelson and all their sepulchral insinuations and blandishments.

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Along the way they plucked aphorisms from their imaginations which, when collected, might have eclipsed the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker. ‘It’s not religion that’s the problem here – it’s the lack of religion,’ Jock Stein once said about Glasgow’s sectarianism. His great friend Bill Shankly needed just two sentences to sum up the Scottish psyche: ‘If you’ve got three Scots in your side, you’ve got a chance of winning something. If you’ve got any more, you’re in trouble.’ Brian Clough, old Big ‘Ed himself, said: ‘I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.’ Perhaps it’s overstating it to compare them with the money-changers and captains and kings of the Bilderberg Group but in careers spanning decades they provided leadership and hope to millions who were refused admittance to the traditional and exclusive seats of learning.

This royal line of football kings probably ends with Sir Alex Ferguson, who stepped off the carousel earlier this year after an unbroken playing and managerial career spanning more than 50 years. He had been a more than useful footballer with Falkirk, Dunfermline and Rangers before embarking on a managerial career, the bulk of which encompassed 34 years of astonishing achievement with Aberdeen and Manchester United. During this period he saw off the administrations of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown most of whom, at some point in their premierships, had cause to solicit advice from him.

Perhaps, when another few years have elapsed, Ferguson will make a proper attempt at publishing his memoirs which may yet include his post-football years. For I fancy that the Govan knight’s contributions to the life of the nation may not yet be over. This is not to do down Alex Ferguson:My Biography which was published recently with due fanfare. It’s Amazon’s most pre-ordered book and will doubtless break more records over Christmas and beyond. Publication was accompanied by a speaking tour of the kingdom which, in the quaintly archaic argot of the red-tops, was described as ‘whistle-stop’. Written with the assistance of Paul Hayward, one of England’s more eloquent football scribes, it was completed within a few months of the announcement of Ferguson’s retirement to ensure maximum sales impact. The publishers needn’t have worried though, as Ferguson’s candid and, at times, damning judgments on the characters of some of British football’s most primped and pampered superstars would always have guaranteed massive interest.

It doesn’t achieve anything here to adopt a disdainful tone in judging its literary merit. It is what it is: a book about football; written by a football man for a football audience and is no less enjoyable for that. Indeed, almost as enjoyable has been observing the reactions and reviews that have followed. Most of these conveyed resentment and hostility that Ferguson had chosen to criticise several of the young multi-millionaires who had passed through the Manchester United dressing-room. Among other criticisms Ferguson has been labelled ‘disloyal’, ‘unhelpful’ and ‘a hypocrite’ for choosing to divulge locker-room secrets and excoriate players, coaches and owners alike. What then would these people have made of the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher and her withering assessments of many of those with whom she shared the responsibility of running the country and waging a war such as Prior, Carrington and Howe? And what would Alan Clark’s diaries have been without his dismissal of Michael Heseltine: ‘The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture.’

The chief criticism that might be made of the book concerns the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazer family in 2005. This was secured only after the new American owners imposed £700 million debt on a previously debt-free club, the sum required to leverage the purchase. As my Observer colleague Julian Coman, a lifelong supporter of Manchester United, stated in his review of the book, ‘Ferguson has always maintained that the hundreds of millions of pounds in interest payments to service that debt did not affect his ability to buy top players. Very few fans believe him. Incontestably, ticket prices shot up, becoming too high for many younger supporters. The so-called green and gold anti-Glazer protests of 2010 mobilised much of Old Trafford against the predatory owners. They do not rate a single mention in this account of the period.’


There are many reasons why Ferguson is the last in a line of absolute rulers who helped form the character of football throughout the last century. These were all benevolent despots who preached the values of Presbyterian rigour, rectitude, industry and good husbandry as the coda for success in football and in life. They wanted their players to marry young and to girls who were reassuringly homespun. They demanded to be admitted into every shadow of a player’s domestic life and sought background reports and regular updates on his family and companions. There was something, too, which was almost Jesuitical in Ferguson’s approach: ‘Give me the boy and I’ll show you the man.’

Ferguson is also a political man whose social attitudes were forged among the rivets and blow-torches of Govan’s shipyards. He has never concealed his support for the Labour Party and, as a staunch unionist, his voice is likely to be heard often in the run-up to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. He is fond of recalling Jock Stein’s anger at the scab miners who broke ranks in 1984, waving his fist at the lorry-loads of strike-breakers. He may yet have something to say about the way in which the jobs of 850 Govan shipyard workers have been used as bargaining pieces in a grotesque game of Russian roulette between an unaccountable global entity with too much power and a government that sacrifices human labour to the fickle whims of markets and shareholders. Quite what he would make of the manner in which local Labour politicians used the jobs of Govan shipyard workers to blackmail the country over independence is anyone’s guess.

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Ferguson’s time has straddled the last two of the three ages of British football. When he first began to guide the steps of gifted young men footballers still belonged to the same communities as their supporters. They bought the same cars and holidayed in the same resorts. Now they own the resorts and employ chauffeurs. Parents and children could watch their favourite team for the price of a family cinema ticket. Now they must take out loans to buy season books and are fleeced shamelessly for sub-standard club merchandise manufactured in sweatshops by poor people living in flophouses. The same clubs think nothing of raking in yet more millions from the sponsorship of on-line betting firms and payday loan companies, the remorseless Scylla and Charybdis of the low-waged and the unemployed. The clubs in turn use the money gained from the predations of these firms to sustain the millionaire lifestyles of footballers who can scarce deign to acknowledge us idiot punters who yet allow them and their clubs to exploit us and take us for a ride.

The shadow of football continues to extend across the surface of the globe. Powerful countries and entire continents bend the knee before FIFA, the organisation that runs football and which has become a law unto itself. It shelters corruption on the grand scale and virtually ignores racism, sexism and homophobia. And if you have no interest in football then your opinion simply doesn’t count and you are simply swept aside. If you still doubt that then why don’t you ask BT, if that’s your telecom provider, why they have just spent almost £1 billion securing European football rights for the next three years.

Just the other week the gaze of the Sky cameras momentarily alighted on Ferguson as he watched his beloved United from the stands. He is still as alert and eager as a doe. He is young enough yet and possesses the global influence and contacts to build a power base at the top of the game. There are few others who could begin to acquaint football’s leaders with ideas of social justice.

Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography

Hodder & Stoughton, £25, PP416, ISBN: 978 0340919392

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Volume 9 – Issue 4 – New Poems – Beauty

One: Like a bird (for Kay)

Long ago, remember,

when we lived on the beach

at Takapuna, a Texan

teacher of maths bought a

fisherman’s dizzy wife for

one thousand pounds – a good

price, equal to one year’s

professional salary.

All three – the fisherman,

the Texan maths-man, the wife –

were pleased with the deal and

partied to celebrate.

We were there. I recall

the fact more clearly than

the party. Much wine was drunk,

and so, soon, were the drinkers.

There was a moon on the sea

right out to Rangitoto.

You were beautiful, and I

sang, as I could in those days

all the way home – like a bird.



Two: The telephone


The men he knew when young and worked with

were ten years older, sometimes twenty.

They envied him his beautiful wife and wondered

how he had won her, what was his secret.

He was clever but so were they, he wrote well

but they did too. He could stand on his hands on a table

his body horizontal slowly lifting

until his feet were over his head

but would a woman count that

more than a trick of balance?

And would it affect her choice?

They didn’t think so.

They talked about him, the young buck with the beautiful wife

and joked about it. He was skinny,

and losing his hair. One checked on him in the shower –

no explanation there. Life they concluded

was full of surprises and discrepancies.

It was like a telephone ringing

in an empty house – no one to answer.



Three: Terrible beauty


Yeats prayed his

daughter might be granted

‘Beauty’, but not


so much of it

she would drive suitors

mad, or herself


in the looking-glass.

Seeing her once

where the river


runs out from the

Lake of Innisfree

I thought she might


well have been

the plainest woman

in all of Ireland


who’d lived a long

life with a famous

father’s famous


and foolish

petition so patently

not granted.




Four: Not ever


We knew what we meant

– the lure, the lurch, the catch in the breath,

confusion of yearning and delight –

but couldn’t agree on examples.


‘A morepork in the night,’ she suggested.

‘Yes – but no. Unvarying, repetitious.’

‘Some sunsets?’ I didn’t think so.

I wanted to suggest Strauss’s four last songs

(ravishing!) – but knew she was a fan of Springsteen.


Shelley has a poem declaring his dedication

to an ‘awful Loveliness,’ which seems almost as bad

as Willie’s ‘terrible beauty.’

But Shelley’s instance is a good one –

moonlight on a midnight stream.


Hannah Arendt wrote of ‘the banality of evil’ –

there’s a banality of Beauty too:

Keats for example insisting it was Truth,

and that Truth was Beauty – the two big-name dummies

out-staring one another in a mirror.


There was a woman on a blog so beautiful

I wanted to put her into a poem,

but how would you do that?

She was Australian,

a writer. No Marilyn Monroe,

a hazel-eyed brunette,

long pale face, fine mouth, and eyes

that looked right past me, away into the future

where I will never go, won’t see, not ever.



Five: in Genoa (where the B.V.M. is crowned annually as the city’s Queen)


Here the Mother of Jesus

is painted often as if

by a sceptic soul who works

in secret from a model


or a sentimentalist

whose vision ratifying

faith’s most difficult demand

makes her a pretty Virgin.


Hail holy Queen do you hear

the streets of the city ring

with gratitude and praise for

your promised intercession


while the Ligurian sea

whose beauty came before yours

and will outlast it teaches

only to trust what is so?

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East Coast Blues

I’ve read Watership Down, Doctor Zhivago, The Year of Magical Thinking, Never Let Me Go, All Quiet on the Western Front and Tender is the Night – and none of these books has induced in me a mood of misty sadness to the degree that Nuala Naughton’s Barrowland – A Glasgow Experience has. This melancholy is not teased out by Naughton’s breathless history of the music venue or even the knowledge that her account is amongst the last volumes to be published by Mainstream. No, it is a simple list that inspired my tristesse: a spreadsheet-style rundown of every band to play the Barrowland, complete with date, ticket price and the name of the support band. I cannot resist the temptation to mention the words ‘Proustian’ and ‘madeleine’.

Although raggedly written, Naughton’s appendix engrossed me. Was it really in mid-December 1998 that I saw PJ Harvey for the first time, then touring an album featuring a song that shared a name with a woman I was on the verge of dating? I remember seeing it as a sign that this song was performed. The subsequent relationship was as doomy as the one depicted by Harvey; should have listened harder. I see listed the November 2002 Morrissey gig, which my friends and I left only to discover our car had been broken into. And did I really go to three Barrowland gigs in little over a week in 1999? I haven’t been to three this decade so far.

Referencing the high regard the Barrowland is held in by fans and musicians, Vic Galloway describes the venue as ‘probably the perfect live venue – somewhere between an intimate club and a big hall, with a sprung dance floor and easily accessible bars from which you can see the band’. A number of the acts he writes about in Songs In The Key of Fife have played the venue, including The Beta Band, the most remarkable outfit to emerge from the East Neuk micro-scene that somehow also produced Brit Award-winner KT Tunstall and James Yorkston (‘the songwriter of his generation’ said John Peel). At the heart of his narrative are the Campbell brothers, Een, Gordon and Kenny. Kenny eventually became King Creosote, the creative and business leader of the Fence Collective, a cottage industry record label that releases collections of music by Campbell’s friends. If accounts of contemporary Scottish music are almost always Glasgow tales, Fence and company represent an East coast counterbalance, shaming that perennial underachiever, Edinburgh, in the process.

This is a personal story for Galloway, a musician, Radio One DJ, music journalist and acquaintance of his book’s dramatis personae. A Fifer himself, Galloway calls Yorkston his oldest friend and he played in bands with many of the individuals he writes about. Galloway’s connections mean he can colour his narrative with the sort of detail an outsider can’t hope to bring into play, although the reader also comes to suspect he is holding back when recounting incidents that might reflect badly on acquaintances.

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The overriding impression one takes away from Songs in the Key of Fife, besides the passion and doggedness of its cast of characters, is that commercial music appears to be an even less lovely industry than publishing. Once a harbour for the eccentric, cussed, and over-medicated, the contemporary scene is an edgeless, conformist business that values deal-making over music-making. Galloway sums up the mindset perfectly in one story: Radio One’s playlist team tell The Beta Band, hungry for mainstream radio support, ‘We only play bands who look like our customers.’

Fence was conceived as a response to major record company disdain. With its folkish strains and unapologetic Scottishness, Fence and its satellites were seen as a hard sale by the London-based music business. A recent documentary The Great Hip Hop Hoax underlines the problems Scottish musicians face if they want to make it. The film tells the true story of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, two would-be rappers from Arbroath. After an audition in London, Bain and Boyd were dismayed when record company employees laughed in their faces, not so much because of their material but because of their accent. One suit dismissed them to their faces as ‘rapping Proclaimers’. Their response? To reinvent themselves as Californian hip hop frat boys, Silibil and Brains. Incredibly, despite merely passable American accents, they fooled industry insiders, to the extent they signed a record deal with Sony UK. When the duo became unstuck it wasn’t because someone figured out their true identities but the standard personality clashes and record company bean-counting that kills the majority of bands eventually. Their story is positioned as a remarkable one, yet British singers have in fact long adopted something approaching a mid-Atlantic style. For commercial reasons and because of a cultural cringe not unique to Scotland, there are few unrepentantly regional voices in the mainstream of popular music in the UK.

Coming at it from another direction, one can say that the value fans draw from Fence is largely based on its authenticity, its ‘homespun, homemade’ qualities. Pip Dylan’s country-flavoured albums failed to connect because he sang them as if he was born Stateside. ‘Americana and bluegrass don’t work in a Fife accent,’ he argues. Fence fans weren’t convinced, and the lack of success appears to have caused a strain in his relationship with his brother Kenny.

Galloway is even-handed in his approach to this part of the story, as he should be, what with his own prose being studded with Americanisms (one person is said to have ‘flunked school’; he’s forever paying bands ‘huge respect’). He also has a weakness for cliché: ‘With a major label, you take the rough with the smooth.’ Galloway unwisely structures the book so that each chapter follows one artist for a period rather than a chronological shifting of perspectives. As the musicians featured grew up together and have frequently collaborated, the narrative grows repetitive.

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Graham Forbes’ Rock and Roll Busker has an air of deja vu too, although only because he kept joining bands that one could tell from the name alone (Thundersoup, Greenfly, The Velvet Hammer Band) were never going to make it. While the majority of music books are about legends or at least glorious failures later rediscovered (and profitably repackaged by record companies), the majority of musicians are closer to Forbes: working men and women busking their way through sets in bars, hotels and wedding receptions. Forbes toured the States with the Incredible String Band in the 1970s, hanging out with Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Page. When that ended, he found himself playing wedding receptions in the Gorbals.

The pressures musicians face are such you frequently wonder why they bother. One can’t help noticing that almost all the musicians Galloway profiles took several false starts to get anywhere, when they did success was fleeting, and that along the way many suffered some form of breakdown. Steve Mason, The Beta Band’s chief songwriter, admits to driving around Fife looking for a tree to crash into following the band’s break-up. The most spectacular example is Gordon Campbell, whose nom-de-musique was the Lone Pigeon. His story involves walking semi-naked cross-country with the top bar of a cross after a religious vision, and a DIY circumcision during a stay in an Israeli prison, as well as making some wonderfully off-kilter lo-fi recordings. While Gordon Campbell’s problems are deep-rooted and pre-date his recording career, there can be little doubt that attempting to make a living through music is a precarious and thankless move that has unmoored the minds of many sensitive artists.

Kenny Campbell also suffered a period of mental turbulence prior to setting up Fence. Only once he had committed to making music purely for himself and a close circle, to reconciling himself to not making it, did he in fact begin to accrue a certain level of national recognition. When the briefly modish New Folk scene enamoured London tastemakers, King Creosote found himself being courted by critics and A and R men alike. Interestingly, when he recorded an album for major-leaguers Warners in the mid-noughties, artist and company were unhappy with the results. It didn’t sell; critics were lukewarm. Returning to releasing material under his own label, he quickly scored a Mercury Prize-shortlising and general critical esteem with his album Diamond Mine. Fans appeared happier too. Fence represents a creative, indeed, artisanal response to making a living as a musician today. The artfully shabby DIY aesthetic of the records’ packaging, the albums available only at gigs, the sell-out boutique festivals held in Anstruther – it’s an object lesson in how to inspire devotion in a certain kind of fan.

Besides a grim view of the music business, what the three books and documentary share is nostalgia. Naughton’s oral history of the Barrowland rings with the phrase ‘I remember’, while her interviewees are musicians (Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Stiff Little Fingers, Shed Seven) whose creative years are far behind them. The Beta Band were collagists who plundered their record collections for beats and samples, while their Fence Collective peers hearken back to a lost period of folkish authenticity. Silibil and Brains reference Malcolm McLaren’s notion of the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, while Forbes remembers his own youthful adventures on the live circuit.

The condition is endemic to popular music, with its endless rounds of heritage rock reissues and cut-and-paste genres. The music journalist Simon Reynolds diagnosed the condition as ‘Retromania’ in his 2011 book of the same name. You do see it in other areas of the arts, although none is as dependent as music on what has come before. Or as Forbes, a tribute band veteran, puts it: ‘Tribute acts are unique to the music business; you don’t find comedians dressing up as Billy Connolly and telling all their gags.’ One is bound to ask whether an art form so dependent on strip-mining its past can continue to remain relevant, especially when the industry that supports it has an untenable business model in the download era. Whether contemplating music’s past or future, a fan can’t help feel sad.

Songs in the Key of Fife

Vic Galloway

Polygon, £14.99, 978-1846972355 pp371

Barrowland – A Glasgow Experience

Nuala Naughton

Mainstream, £12.99, 978-1780576503 pp320

Rock and Roll Busker

Graham Forbes

McNidder & Grace, £8.99, 978-0857160188 pp304

The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Directed by Jeanie Finlay

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SRB Diary: Africa’s Wigtown

THE Great Karoo, the vast semi-desert at the heart of South Africa, holds near-mystical potency for South Africans, and tongue-twisting challenges for Anglophone visitors. The prevailing language is Afrikaans, which makes mischief with vowels and consonants. How could I possibly know that Matjiesfontein is pronounced Mikeys-fontayne?

Jimmy Logan got his tongue round it; not the late great comic actor, but an emigrant Scot from the Tweed Valley who bought three local farms when he was district superintendent of railways at nearby Touws River, which the line from Cape Town reached in 1878. He turned the farms into a 100,000 acre estate called Tweedside, and soon became known as ‘the Laird’. Another Scotsman on the make, and one who succumbed to ‘the spell of the limitless Karoo.’ By his early 30s he had made a fortune, transforming a small Khoikhoi settlement into a fashionable health resort, famous for the clear, dry air which fortified his own weak chest. European royalty visited, along with Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling. Matjiesfontein is a relic of Britain’s imperial past.

All this I learn at the Lord Milner Hotel, Logan’s most enduring legacy in the somnolent time warp village, which is now a heritage site. Three hours and a thunderstorm out of Cape Town International, reunited with an old friend, hauling a cargo of books in the boot of her car, we stop overnight at this museum piece on our road to another Karoo curiosity: BoekBeDonnerd, the sixth annual book festival of the little sheep town of Richmond. Loosely translated the Afrikaans means ‘book crazy’, although I’m told that ‘donnerd’ is also a rousing profanity.

There are other book festivals in South Africa but only one Book Town. In fact, Richmond claims to be the only book town in Africa, and its initiator, Darryl David, insists he was inspired not so much by Hay-on-Wye as Wigtown. ‘I’ve never been to either but I read an article about Wigtown which described it as the town that roared. That appealed to me.’ Darryl is an academic and his genealogy could be a paradigm for the Rainbow Nation. Ethnically he is Indian with an English name – ‘I think my antecedents must have been Christian’ – and teaches Afrikaans at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, in faraway Durban and Pietermaritzburg. But like Jimmy Logan he fell under the spell of the limitless Karoo, and bought a Richmond holiday home over the internet without seeing it.

‘The town was dying and property prices were low. By then I was committed to the idea of launching South Africa’s first book town, but I wasted time looking in the wrong places, getting no interest from towns which needed no saving by books. Then I met Peter, and found another enthusiast.’

Peter Baker, a Canadian-born vet from Johannesburg, is the other half of BoekBeDonnerd. He, too, has a holiday home in the little ‘dorp’ (town) and on the back of its new status opened the Supper Club, its best restaurant. Darryl and Peter, both incomers, both activists: a familiar history in communities like Richmond, where the austere landscape of muted colours could be Scottish moorland – until you look more closely at its low-lying shrub succulents. It has some of the same problems of our remote rural extremities, drift to the cities, unemployment. But it has others which can’t compare: grave levels of poverty among its black and mixed race people, who are Khoikhoi and San in provenance, with the slanting features of those whom Europeans called Bushmen. Once they had work on the great, lonely sheep farms of the white farmers, and lived on the land which supported them. But economics, politics and new legislation have made this form of patronage unsustainable, and many have been displaced to wander jobless in the streets of Richmond.

It’s a pretty place. It has its own river, permanent water which makes an oasis in the semi-arid Karoo, and streets leafy with mature trees. It is typical of many of the Karoo dorps, with a graceful white Dutch Reformed church and wide streets lined with the Karoo version of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, the buildings embellished with verandas and arcades. Until the bookshops began to proliferate many were empty, some were rotting; and despite its strategic site off the main highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg, drive-through travellers rarely lingered.

Now there are arts and crafts outlets, internet cafes, guest houses, three restaurants (specialising in herby Karoo lamb) and a pub run by an Irishman who used to be a ship’s chef; not to mention some dozen book shops – antiquarian, second-hand, specialist and generalist – to gratify the appetite of the most eclectic bibliophile. South African colonial history, the second Anglo-Boer War which left its mark on the Karoo in military blockhouses, is well covered, along with the region’s natural sciences. The heads of trophy game line the walls, and in one shop I flinch from the jaws of a stuffed crocodile. Wigtown was never like this.

Richmond was founded in 1847 to meet the religious needs of a growing farming community, and named after a duke of Richmond whose son-in-law was the new governor of the Cape. So there was a nod in the direction of Britain’s Cape Colony. But today it’s first language is Afrikaans and the second is Xhosa, the language of Nelson Mandela. Some 73 per cent of the town’s residents speak Afrikaans, 22 per cent Xhosa, and just over 2 per cent have English as their first language. Many of the 5000-strong population are bilingual and some speak all three. 

I see from the programme of BoekBeDonnerd 2013 that there is some parity between Afrikaans and English contributions, but there is no long tradition of written language among the indigenous people of the Karoo. What do Xhosa-speakers get out of Book Town Richmond and its sixth book festival?

Darryl has invited me to speak about my book Looking for Mrs Livingstone on the final afternoon of the three-day fair, which also allows me to do a journey I was unable to make when I was researching the book. It tells the story of Mary Moffat, wife of David Livingstone, through my travels to the key places in South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique where she lived and died, but until now I haven’t had the chance to take ‘the missionary road to the interior’ from Cape Town; an ambition now fulfilled in seven hours thanks to the well-paved highway and driving skills of my good friend Glenda Furst.

In the middle of the nineteenth century things were different. Four hundred miles north of the Cape, Richmond lies on the route trekked by Robert and Mary Moffat, Livingstone’s in-laws, as they travelled by ox wagon across the Karoo to the edge of the Kalahari and the people they called the Bechuana. Livingstone himself followed the same route through Beaufort West, capital of the Karoo, when he first arrived in Africa, and he, too, remarked that much of the scenery looked like Scotland. Ten years later, when his wife and four children had become excess baggage, he made the same journey in reverse when he took them to Cape Town to put them on a ship to Southampton.

‘Why me?’ I ask Darryl, when we finally meet. ‘How did you hear about the book? It’s only just become available in South Africa.’

He smiles knowingly. ‘Richmond is in the Northern Cape. Mary Livingstone was born in the Northern Cape. You talk about the Karoo in your book. When I’m planning the festival programme I like to include new works which involve the Karoo, and I use a search engine which is very good at tracking them down.’

Festival HQ is the public library, and the event expects some 3000 visitors over its three days, many of them regulars from the Western Cape and Johannesburg. Fortunately they don’t attend the 40 writers’ presentations at all once, as the library isn’t large. As with other festivals there are fringe events to distract them, guided walks, art exhibitions, musical evenings, biltong tasting competitions, farmers’ markets and barbecues and, for the local children, the dragkart parade. The creative children of the Khoikhoi and San are expert recyclers, using wire coat hangers and fence wire to make their own versions of traditional Karoo carts – modern motor vehicles.

The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, the organisation informal and a little eccentric. But the most striking eccentricity of Richmond Book Fair is that there is no entrance charge for the book events – unlike every book festival in the UK. How does it fund itself? This may become a problem as support from the Northern Cape’s community development programme dries up. ‘It was always our aim to make the writers’ events available to everyone,’ says Darryl. ‘We don’t offer fees, we provide accommodation, but all the writers pay their own transport costs, apart from overseas guests, like you.’

I’m a bit of a rarity, and BoekBeDonnerd has met me halfway on the cost of my flight from Scotland. The other half is well worth the richness of the experience. I share the final session with two of South Africa’s most vigorous literary activists. Although it isn’t billed as such Darryl has clearly mounted a woman’s event. I’m there to talk about Mary Livingstone, whose history of self-sacrifice has been smothered by her husband’s reputation. Diana Ferrus, performance poet and story-teller, tells us about Sarah Bartmann, ‘the Hottentot Venus’, who was lured from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded as a sexual freak in London and Paris, and give a reading of her famous poem about Bartmann, ‘I Have Come to take You Home’. And Sindiwe Magona talks about her play, Mother to Mother, which has travelled to Edinburgh and London, and the mothers who suffered when a young white American woman, Amy Beale, was murdered in a Cape Town township in 1993.

Diana is mixed race – what South Africans call ‘coloured’. Sindiwe is Xhosa, born into the same township which killed Amy Beale. What am I doing in such heroic company? Among women whose lives, although successful, have endured the long, arduous climb to education and recognition which faced any non-white during the apartheid years? That night, with Glenda, an affluent white South African who could be playing golf but chooses to devote her energy to the orphanage she founded, we sit down to dinner. We are all much the same age. Diana and Sindiwe have arrived by bus from Cape Town in the early hours of the morning. Glenda and I have arrived by Mercedes. Four women with nothing and everything in common, talking up a storm.

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Weighing up the Evidence

Books obviously mirror events, therefore it is possible to track the contemporary Scottish debate via various publications. By ‘contemporary’ I mean the period since Winnie Ewing’s by-election victory in Hamilton almost exactly 46 years ago. That SNP breakthrough was responsible for all the constitutional debate that followed, not to mention an awful lot of dead trees.

The specific study of Scottish politics actually preceded that Parliamentary upset, but only just. In 1966 Ian Budge and Derek W. Urwin published Scottish Political Behaviour, with the intriguing subtitle ‘A Case Study in British Homogeneity’. This can lay claim to being the first modern volume on Scottish politics, for it argued that such a thing as ‘Scottish politics’ existed.

At this point, there wasn’t much to go on. True, the Conservative vote had begun to decline in 1959 following its post-war high four years before, and at the 1962 Linlithgow by-election the SNP had shown its first signs of life in the Central Belt. Nevertheless, Budge and Urwin argued there were indications that Scottish political ‘behaviour’ was departing from the British ‘norm’ (the politics of Northern Ireland had obviously been a case apart since the 1920s).

What impact the book had is difficult to assess, although in 1967 – the year of Ewing’s by-election victory – the prolific academic Richard Rose published Politics in England: An Interpretation, a title all the more intriguing given the Missouri-born Rose was based at the University of Strathclyde. For him and others, Scottish politics was English politics. In their introduction, Budge and Urwin expressed hope it would ‘stimulate further work’ on ‘Scottish political behaviour’. 

Many subsequently rose to the challenge, and did so in roughly five phases. The first mirrored the initial period of SNP success in 1967-68, with H. J. Hanham’s Scottish Nationalism (1969) making prescient observations about the inevitability of some kind of Home Rule and Nationalist representation in the House of Commons, as well as arguing that Scotland warranted study as a ‘state within a state’.

A second phase followed the party’s breakthrough in the two general elections of 1974. There was a lull until the third phase in the late 1980s, again prompted by an apparent rise in the Nationalist vote and increasing agitation for a devolved Scottish Assembly (or Parliament). The fourth phase coincided, naturally enough, with the creation of that Parliament a decade later producing, among many others, Jo Eric Murkens, Peter Jones and Michael Keating’s Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide which, despite having been published in 2002, remains fresh and relevant even a decade later.

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We are presently in the fifth phase, and the reason is clear: not only did the SNP break through again in 2007 and 2011 but there is to be a referendum on Scottish independence. There has been, and will continue to be, a lot to write about. The current crop – easily the most fertile of the past half-century – has come in all shapes and sizes. Some, in the tradition of Budge and Urwin, scholarly, others polemical, a few historical and many a mixture of all three.

Oddly deficient are tomes written from the Nationalist viewpoint (there are plenty, on the other hand, about Nationalism), something the late Stephen Maxwell sought to rectify with his posthumous Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues. Elegantly written (as indeed was almost everything Maxwell wrote), it endeavours to rise above partisan point scoring (though there is the occasional lapse) and put the case for independence in a detached, informed way.

It succeeds, but only up to a point. Indeed, at points Maxwell’s argument is so logical that it’s difficult to detect what the actual case for independence is. There’s little evidence, he concludes, that an independent Scotland would be more radical or Scandinavian on welfare, for example, while he repeatedly acknowledges that what Iain Macwhirter calls the SNP’s ‘Caledonian neoliberalism’ makes constructing a cogent case for left-wing Nationalism much harder.

This is satisfyingly covered by The Case for Left Wing Nationalism: Essays and Articles, a collection of Maxwell’s writing edited by his son Jamie. The book would have benefitted from an introduction, but nevertheless the careful selection of essays and journalism speaks for itself. As with Arguing for Independence, Maxwell is at his best when bulldozing (always politely) sloppy thinking, particularly on his own side, and challenging well-worn myths about Scotland’s supposedly more egalitarian, more democratic and (above all) more left wing ethos.

Maxwell’s 1977 essay ‘The Trouble with John P. Mackintosh’ is a highlight (although it would have been interesting to see Mackintosh’s response), while the collection’s title alludes to a 79 Group Paper of the same name (that group is frankly assessed in a 1985 essay from Cencrastus). That 1981 pamphlet remains pertinent and quotable. For example this:

‘The Edinburgh advocate in his New Town Flat and the Glasgow bus driver in a Red Road high rise may share a sentimental attachment to Scotland on the football field or athletics track and feel a similar irritation when “England” is used for “Britain” by TV newsreaders. But in their everyday concerns – their jobs, their incomes, their hopes for their children, their anxieties about retirement, the quality of their housing, their health – they might as well live in different countries. When Nationalists talk of Scotland the nation they must expect the questions: whose nation, what kind of Scotland?’

An important theme of Maxwell’s work was the tension between the SNP’s apparent commitment to social justice and its curious (particularly post-2008) devotion to neoliberal economics (of which more below). Scotland’s Future: The Economics of Constitutional Change touches on this and indeed the wider economic arguments for and against independence. Edited by Andrew Goudie (a former Scottish Government chief economist, so he knows what he’s talking about), its essays are shrewd, thorough and politely contemptuous of simplistic political point scoring; probably not, however, for the general reader.

Scottish Independence: Weighing Up the Economics written by Gavin McCrone (another former chief economist), on the other hand, is. Lucidly written, it is to my mind the best (and admirably brief) account of the economics of independence – something McCrone has been writing about since the late 1960s – available. The author even sheds a little light on the (in)famous 1975 ‘McCrone memo’ beloved of Nationalist conspiracy theorists.

Of the academic tomes, Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards by Iain McLean, Guy Lodge and Jim Gallagher is also readable (and admirably even handed given the views of the authors), methodically exploring not only the present but – as the title suggests – the future. But if the book has a weakness it is its curious fixation on the past: it opens with a lengthy chapter on whether the referendum will have one or two questions, a matter resolved well before the book went to press. Still, another edition is due prior to the referendum, so ample opportunity for a restructuring.

Peter Lynch’s updated edition of his 2002 History of the Scottish National Party, meanwhile, blends political science with history to give an account of the party responsible (by and large) for next year’s referendum. The first edition of Lynch’s book looked at a party which devolution appeared to have killed stone dead, the second examines it at the peak of its powers as it approaches its eightieth anniversary.

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Much has happened since 2002 and this edition has been fleshed out accordingly. Lynch is particularly interesting on the SNP’s schizophrenic electoral performance, i.e. one that is ‘Holyrood-strong and Westminster-weak’, something that will no doubt be demonstrated by elections in 2015 and 2016. Paradoxically, also, the party is much more popular than its core aim, rather than the other way round, as many pro-independence supporters bizarrely claim. As Lynch concludes with considerable understatement, the SNP ‘has a great deal of work to do if it is to see Scotland become an independent nation-state in 2014’.

Less successful as a reboot is Andrew Marr’s The Battle for Scotland, which brings up to date the BBC journalist’s excellent 1992 book, to my mind still the best – and best-written – primer on post-war Scottish politics. Rather than properly extending the text, however, Penguin has simply reprinted the original book with a new introduction that hardly does justice to the topic. Riddled with errors (the SNP-Green coalition formed in 2007 was news to me) and only superficially insightful, it detracts rather than adds to the sum of referendum knowledge.

Fortunately another journalist, Iain Macwhirter, has produced the better, though curiously ungrammatical Road to Referendum, an engaging blend of history (perhaps too much), political commentary and personal memoir. Macwhirter’s Whig-like analysis of Scottish politics (which also permeated an accompanying television series) concludes in favour of federalism or confederalism, though this isn’t adequately defined (devo-max does not a UK federation make).

But it’s readable and fair, weaving elements of the author’s personal political journey into the narrative. At times it offers a very chattering class view of post-war Scottish politics, the firm belief that the population beyond Edinburgh’s New Town and Glasgow’s West End were fully engaged with the doings of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and Calman Commission. There are also a few unforgivable lapses, for example when a risible Yes Scotland statistic – that Scotland pays 9.6 per cent in tax but gets ‘only’ 9.3 per cent back in spending – is presented without any analysis.

Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish, also by a journalist, Lesley Riddoch, has enjoyed positive reviews and its appeal is obvious. Admirably researched and well written, it is however less clear what it’s actually advocating: if it’s supposed to be a manifesto for an independent or devo-max Scotland then it’s often eccentric; tenement dwelling (I’m not knocking it, I own one in Edinburgh) and tuition in Gaelic and Scots strike me as curious priorities.

Riddoch at least acknowledges obvious gaps – for example anything on economics – and also the limitations of independence for independence’s sake, observing that each ‘politician or activist who insists that “with one bound we shall be free,” diminishes belief in the independence proposition itself’. Nevertheless, Blossom is often better at describing the problem rather than proposing solutions, and the book is full of pertinent observations such as the fact many Scots live in ‘ghettos’, ‘quite unaware of how other people live across the great divides of class, gender, geography, occupation and sometimes religion’.

But at the same time the author buys into the usual myths about Scotland’s ‘social democratic consensus’ (surely the most abused notion in Scottish political discourse), while at the same time noting that Scotland’s is a ‘surprisingly elitist society’ (it’s unclear why Riddoch finds this point surprising). Stephen Maxwell was, as ever, perceptive on this point, observing of the SNPs professed ‘social democracy’ in the 1970s that it ‘carries a public relations gloss of moderation and even of conservatism which is convenient to a party proposing a major constitutional upheaval. It also sounds Scandinavian and SNP opinion is agreed on the merit of things Scandinavian.’

‘Yet the social democratic label was not enough,’ added Maxwell. ‘Certainly none of those within the SNP who have declared themselves social democrats have yet offered a systematic account of what they understand by the phrase.’ Later he championed a Third Way between the ‘Anglo-American model of free-market capitalism’ and socialism. ‘The record of the Nordic welfare democracies – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – in combining consistent economic growth with high levels of welfare and low levels of inequality and poverty is simply unmatched in the world.’

This also informs much of Riddoch’s prospectus, although at the same time she claims not to want Scotland to become a pale imitation of Norway. I can’t help feeling this sort of Nordic fetishism is often more of a hindrance than a help to the independence debate, encouraging the quixotic view that ‘social democracy’ can somehow be achieved via one election or referendum rather than through decades of concerted – and redistributive – government action.

A couple of books from the ‘Scottish Left’ tackle similar themes. Gregor Gall’s edited collection Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose is (typos aside) the best of these, an engaging selection of essays from those who, like Stephen Maxwell, are rigorous in their analysis, and not necessarily from a perspective hostile to independence. Indeed, a chapter by the pro-independence economists Margaret and Jim Cuthbert concludes that Salmonomics falls ‘far short of any meaningful concept of independence’, while the former Labour MSP John McAllion lacerates the idea that in an independent Scotland ‘we choose to embrace neo-liberalism ourselves rather than having it imposed upon us from the outside’.

Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland 2014, edited by Pauline Bryan and Tommy Kane, covers similar terrain, again with various contributions from those on the Left, including its current poster boy Owen Jones, who writes in a foreword that the ‘outcome of the current debate in Scottish politics has clear ramifications in Britain and elsewhere’.

Not that you’d know it from reading Matthew D’Ancona’s new book, In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, which relegates any analysis of the independence referendum to a few paragraphs towards the end of the book. The referendum, D’Ancona informs us, is really quite important and could change a lot of equally important things about the way the UK is governed. Although staggeringly obvious, this reflects the rather Westminster-centric mindset of an otherwise diligent and comprehensive survey of the Coalition’s first three years, although it does leave one wondering if the political classes in SW1 have really grasped the significance of 18 September 2014.

The Welsh Conservative Assembly Member David Melding has delved more deeply with a timely and far-sighted e-book, The Reformed Union – the UK as a Federation, which builds on his 2009 work, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?, in making the constructive Unionist case for a federal UK. Interestingly, federalism is a running theme in many of the books reviewed above: Iain Macwhirter cites it as a viable option in Road to Referendum; contributors to Scotland’s Road to Socialism tentatively raise it while Pauline Bryan, in the concluding chapter of Class, Nation and Socialism, explores (positively) whether ‘democratic federalism’ might deliver a left-wing Scotland.

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Melding’s book is unusual in that it constitutes a Unionist response to the current debate which, surprisingly, is otherwise lacking among the recent literature. There is no twenty-first version, for example, of S. Rosenbaum’s edited polemic, Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union (1912), which I recently came across in a second-hand Edinburgh bookshop. Intriguingly, many of its arguments are uncannily similar to those wielded against Scottish (rather than Irish) Home Rule.

Such historical parallels would no doubt appeal to the Dundee University historian Christopher A. Whatley, who kindly gave me advance sight of his The Scots and the Union: Then and Now, certainly the best account of the origins of the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union, which he has now updated with chapters responding to critiques of the 2007 edition and assessing the Act of Union’s pertinence to next year’s referendum. Davuit Broun’s Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain: From the Picts to Alexander III, also utilizing an ‘independence’ hook, reaches even further back in time.

The academic and former SNP MSP Professor Chris Harvie, is the impetus behind another book, or rather Festschrift, View from Zollernblick: Regional Perspectives in Europe. Affectionately edited by Eberhard Bort, it uses Harvie (who will turn 70 three days after the independence referendum) as a hook for a wide range of contributions on the ‘ever-effervescing’ Harvie, constitutional futures (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and German), regional politics and ‘Regional Cultures’. It’s as eclectic as its subject, and contains much of interest.

Finally, Dr Matt Qvortrup’s accessibly-written Direct democracy: A comparative study of the theory and practice of government by the people posits – without directly addressing 2014 – that the use of referendums can be viewed as a consequence of consumers demanding more direct influence in an age of e-petitions and social media. The splendidly named Qvortrup also argues that ‘mechanisms of direct democracy [could] provide a mechanism for upgrading democracy’; an interesting thought but, more to the point, would it mean even more books?

Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues

Stephen Maxwell

 Luath, PP192, £9.99, ISBN: 9781908373335

The Case for Left Wing Nationalism: Essays and Articles

Luath, PP192, £9.99 ISBN: 9781908373878

Scotland’s Future: The Economics of Constitutional Change

Andrew Goudie ed.

Dundee University Press, PP329, 329pp, £16.99 ISBN: 9781845861629


Scottish Independence: Weighing Up the Economics

Gavin McCrone

Birlinn, PP192, £7.99 ISBN: 9781780271590


Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards

Iain McLean, Guy Lodge and Jim Gallagher 

Edinburgh University Press, PP240, £12.99 ISBN: 9780748669875


History of the Scottish National Party

Peter Lynch

Welsh Academic Press, PP 320, £19.99 ISBN: 9781860570575


The Battle for Scotland

Andrew Marr 

Penguin, PP288, £8.99, ISBN: 9780241967935


Road to Referendum 

Iain Macwhirter

Cargo, PP384, £13.99, ISBN: 9781908885210


Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish

Lesley Riddoch

Luath, ISBN: 9781908373694, PP320, £11.99, ISBN: 9781908373694


Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose

Gregor Gall ed. 

Scottish Left Review Press, PP196,£7.99, ISBN: 9780955036255


Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland 2014

Pauline Bryan and Tommy Kane eds.

Glasgow Caledonian University Archives, PP197, £7.99, ISBN: 9781905866687


In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government 

Matthew D’Ancona

Viking, PP432, £25, ISBN: 9780670919932


The Reformed Union – the UK as a Federation

David Melding

Institute of Welsh Affairs, PP136, £6.18 (Kindle)


The Scots and the Union: Then and Now

Christopher A. Whatley 

Edinburgh University Press, PP448, £24.99, ISBN: 9780748680276


Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain: From the Picts to Alexander III

Davuit Broun 

Edinburgh University Press, PP328, £24.99, ISBN: 9780748685196


View from Zollernblick: Regional Perspectives in Europe: A Festschrift for Christopher Harvie 

Eberhard Bort ed.

Grace Note Publications, PP426, £14.99, ISBN: 9781907676376


Direct democracy: A comparative study of the theory and practice of government by the people

Matt Qvortrup 

Manchester University Press, PP160, £70, ISBN: 9780719082061

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A Dreary Kind of Talent

12 July, 1968

I arranged to photograph Hugh MacDiarmid at his home on 11 August 1968, his seventy-sixth birthday. I mentioned this to Marian McNeill [the folklorist] who said he was an old friend and hoped to visit him at Brownsbank before she was too old. I phoned MacDiarmid and asked him if I could bring Marian with me and he said he would be delighted to see her.

11 August, 1968

I drove Marian down to Brownsbank today and we were made very welcome. MacDiarmid was looking extremely well on his birthday and full of jokes, threatening to advertise Valda [his wife] for sale in the Scotsman.

As we walked up the path outside his cottage I admitted I knew very little about poetry and asked him where I should start. MacDiarmid suggested I read the book of Proverbs in the Bible.


24 January, 1969

I attended the 200 Burns Club supper at the Adelphi Hotel in Cockburn Street, Edinburgh. I was seated next to Al Strachan, chairman of the Dunedin Weightlifting Club, who was a great Burns enthusiast. We were seated near the top table and when Hugh MacDiarmid arrived and took his seat, Al leaned over and said to me, ‘See that man there, that’s Hugh MacDiarmid, Scotland’s greatest living poet.’ MacDiarmid looked over, waved a hand and said: ‘Hello Gordon.’


7 May, 1970

The first meeting of The Heretics was held tonight in the New Town Hotel when the Gaelic poet Derick Thomson was the main guest supported by Willie Neill and Stuart MacGregor. Stuart also acted as fear an tigh, master of ceremonies, for the evening. The event was a big success.


26 June, 1970

Willie, Stuart and George [Campbell Hay] submitted their poems promptly but Sorley [MacLean] had not confirmed if he would participate or not. I phoned several times explaining I hoped to publish before the end of the year, but he kept asking which year the book was to be published. Meanwhile, we discussed a possible title and Willie’s lady friend, Dodo Gilmour, suggested Four Points of a Saltire. We all agreed this would be ideal. There was also the question of an introduction and Willie suggested the poet Tom Scott, who was happy to oblige.


2 November, 1970

A brief letter from Sorley MacLean, Schoolhouse, Plockton, submitting his selection of poems for Four Points of a Saltire. ‘I hope they are legible. In a great hurry. Sam MacLean.’

Now all the material has been submitted I can send it to Econoprint for typesetting. I knew nothing about the functions of the Scottish Arts Council at this time and when someone said I should approach them for a grant I phoned the literature department and spoke to Douglas Eadie, who explained that an application had to be made before the book went into production. Considering the dearth of publishers in Scotland at this time, one might have expected the SAC to bend the rules. When Tom Scott heard this he suggested I print a note in the prelims: ‘Published in spite of the Scottish Arts Council.’

When the galley proofs for Four Points of a Saltire came back from the authors I was horrified to find they were thick with corrections. Stuart had even rewritten some of his poems. The poems in Gaelic were covered with accents, and it looked as if the whole thing needed resetting from scratch. I remonstrated with Stuart who was the worst offender and he eventually accepted that most of his poems should stand as originally submitted.

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22 February, 1971

Four Points of a s Saltire was published today [by Reprographia] at £2.00 for the cloth edition and £7.00 for the leather bound signed edition. A bookseller friend pointed out that the spine was reading upside down on the book jacket. When a book is laid flat on a table, face up, the spine should be easily read. This rule also allows anyone scanning a bookshelf to avoid tilting their head back and forward. I checked the shelves in Thin’s bookshop and found M Macdonald – who published Carotid Cornucopius [by Sydney Goodsir Smith] – were one of the very few publishers who printed the spines of their book jackets reading upwards.

To celebrate publication I arranged to take the authors out to dinner. Sorley was unable to join us but the other three were agreeable and I booked a table at the Howgate Inn. I collected Willie first and then Stuart before we called at George’s house in Maxwell Street. I drove an old Hillman Minx, a big roomy car on its last legs, and when I opened the door for George he stepped straight on to the back seat and crouched there beside Stuart. I explained that his feet should be on the floor, but he just stared blankly at me. With a bit of good-natured banter from Stuart we managed to straighten him out and got him properly seated. This was my first experience of George’s mental problems.

As word got round, Four Points of a Saltire started to sell quite well and I hurried home at lunchtime each day to see how many orders were in the post. Then the phone would ring. It was Stuart, asking for the day’s sales figures. He did this every day and became a bit of a nuisance but I could never ignore his call and had to make a dive for the phone before my mother picked it up as he always enquired, ‘How’s your cock, Repro?’ before I could say a word. ‘Repro’ was his abbreviation of Reprographia.


11 March, 1971

Stuart McGregor hosted a meeting of The Heretics at the New Town hotel tonight. After announcing a short interval he said: ‘And now Gordon Wright, the wealthy publisher, will buy us all a drink.’ Although a tongue in cheek remark, there were many times in the years to come that it was taken for granted that, being a publisher, I must be extremely wealthy. It was hardly the case.


12 March, 1971

I went to photograph Norman MacCaig at his home in Leamington Terrace today. We had our usual dram and chat before I shot a roll of film. When I returned home and made enlargements I noticed there was one shot in particular which stood out from the rest. It was something about the eyes. When I delivered prints to Norman this was the print that caught his attention and he delivered the memorable line: ‘You seem to have a dreary kind of talent for this sort of thing.’


17 March, 1971

I met Stuart MacGregor and Morag Park [a member of The Heretics] in Milne’s Bar this evening and Stuart invited us back to his house in Morningside. En route we stopped at the local chippie and bought suppers. After we had opened a bottle of wine and settled down to eat, Morag unwrapped her supper and eyed the white pudding. ‘They’re bigger than that in Kirkcaldy,’ she remarked disappointedly.


9 December, 1971

A brash young American woman approached me at a meeting of The Heretics tonight and said she had several volumes of poetry published in the US and wanted to know if I would publish her work in the UK. She then quickly pointed out that she was a lesbian and wouldn’t be able to sleep with me. I felt like saying, ‘Thank goodness for that.’


31 December, 1971

Hogmanay and I had invitations to a party at Stuart and Jane MacGregor’s house in Morningside. I bought two boxes of Black Magic chocolates and a bottle of malt whisky to toast the New Year and set off for the MacGregor’s house at 11.30 p,m. Stuart met me at the door and immediately grabbed the bottle of whisky. By the time I had greeted Jane, Stuart had topped up all the whisky glasses of the assembled guests and returned the bottle to me containing half an inch of whisky in the bottom. When it came time for me to move on to the next party, I had little to contribute to the drinks table.


26 February, 1972

John Schofield, an Edinburgh University graduate, masterminded a poetry festival called Poem ’72 at the Hume Tower in George Square. The size of the gathering and the variety of the performers was very impressive. I accepted the invitation to take a stall in the basement along with other publishers to sell books But I also managed to attend a few of the performances. When I heard Liz Lochhead read I immediately knew I could sell a book of her poems. I approached her and said I would like to publish her. I gave her my card and she agreed to consider my offer.

David Morrison, the librarian from Caithness, talked about the new binding process ‘perfect binding’, where folded sheets are trimmed at the spine and dipped in an adhesive before the cover is applied. When the adhesive dries the spine remains flexible. He then attempted to prove his point by holding a sample by the covers ad shaking it vigorously. Several pages fluttered to the floor.

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3 March, 1972

Dear Gordon Wright

Herein the promised copy of my poems. Hope you get the chance to read them anyway. Do please have me come through to read at The Heretics (wasn’t that the name of the monthly readings poetry club you were telling me about?) any time there is a gap to be filled. Thanks for the interest you showed in my poems – it was really very heartening.

Best wishes, Liz Lochhead.


14 April, 1972

The Heretics performed at the Pool Theatre in Hanover Street. Someone booked a folksinger who was also a bit of a comedian. Willie Neill sat in the front row facing him throughout without a flicker of a smile. It must have been quite unnerving. I was in Sandy Bell’s bar later speaking to Bobby Eaglesham [the folksinger] when Billy Connolly appeared and came over to join us. Two young girls dressed entirely in black appeared and stood next to us, staring at Billy and hanging on to everything he said. Suddenly Billy noticed them and enquired, ‘Does the Mother Superior ken ye’re oot?’


15 May, 1972

Publication of Liz Lochhead’s first collection of poems, Memo for Spring. Liz was dubious about signing a contract and it took the reassurance of Trevor Royle, the Scottish Arts Council’s Literature Director, before she would sign. She had obviously heard stories about unscrupulous publishers.

There was the also the question of the title I suggested which I had taken from her poem ‘Memo to Myself for Spring’. Liz didn’t know if Memo for Spring was right but during a visit to Norman MacCaig’s house Norman came to my aid and convinced her it was a good title.

Since Liz wrote in English I felt she had the benefit of a wider market so I decided to have her book saddle-stitched – which was cheaper to produce than a square back with a title on the spine – and print 1,500 copies retailing at 75p. When production was well under way, Liz phoned, sounding quite agitated and said she wanted a titled spine. I told her it was too late to make any production changes and tried to convince her that the option I had chosen would work to her benefit – at least I hoped it would.

The first print run sold out within a few months and I immediately ordered a 3,500 preprint. Liz kept me informed whenever she was booked to read in public and I would arrive and set up shop. It was not uncommon to sell 30-40 copies, making it a bit of a phenomenon. This was an important lesson for me. Strike while the iron’s hot after the author has given a reading. I still believe my decision to issue a modestly priced edition helped to launch Liz’s writing career.


June, 1972

Trevor Royle commissioned me to photograph Joan Lingard, Robert Garioch, Ronald Johnstone and Alan Jackson for a Scottish Arts Council poster. When I visited Garioch it was a fine day and he was in good spirits so I decided to take him into the gardens at Abercromby Place. He was wearing a brand new tweed hat and I asked him what had become of the famous hat that he had worn for years. He said, ‘I was walking along Princes Street when a band o’ keelies ran past and one of them grabbed it off my head.’ I got him seated on a bench, but before I could get my first shot , he noticed a large branch which had been ripped from a tree. He became very concerned, blaming local youths. He kept saying, ‘I’m awfy vexed to see the likes o’ that,’ and it was impossible to get him back into a good frame of mind.


24 June, 1972

I set off for two weeks in Jamaica as the guest of Stuart and Jane MacGregor. The family met me at the airport in Kingston and we set off back to their house, Stuart driving along the narrow causeway, which connected the airport to the island, at high speed. I remember noticing Stuart’s hand, which had been injured many years before, pressed open palm against the steering wheel and wondering if he had full control of the car. I was relieved when he reached the house safely.

The story of Stuart’s hand changed regularly. He told me he was repairing his car when a gasket exploded. He told someone else he lacerated his hand while fooling around with a bayonet during his National Service and he told someone else he was trying to open a window when his hand slipped and went through glass.

One evening I went with Stuart and Jane to have dinner with two of their friends in a very nice restaurant. Two gay men were dining at a table opposite and it was difficult to ignore the seduction process that was taking place. Later on they disappeared and when Stuart returned from a visit to the toilet he said he had seen them and, ‘they must be very drunk as they are holding on to each other.’


26 January, 1973

I was enjoying a drink with friends in Milne’s Bar when Doli MacLennan [actress and singer] appeared in front me, white-faced. She gripped me tightly by the elbows, said she had bad news and told me Stuart MacGregor had been killed in a car crash in Jamaica the previous day. I was stunned. I could imagine him driving with his bad hand flat against the steering wheel not fully in control.


2 February, 1973

Stuart MacGregor’s body was flown home from Jamaica and a funeral held in the University Chaplaincy Centre in Forrest Road, a short distance from his beloved Sandy Bell’s bar. I sat with Sorley MacLean and his daughter Catriona. There was a terrible sadness for a man who had always been so full of good humour. We then went over to Morningside Cemetery where he was buried as piper Hamish MacLeod played ‘The Flooers o the Forest’. I didn’t send flowers. I decided I would have one of my photographs professionally framed along with the lyrics of his song ‘Sandy Bell’s Man’ and present it to Sandy Bell’s bar.


A Great Idea at the Time by Gordon Wright is published as an ebook for iPads at £7.99

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Dancing On Their Own

There’s every opportunity here for wry reworking of some well-known phrases and sayings. The past is, indeed, another country and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Some rejigging of clichés may be required, though. As no historian of the 1960s fails to remind us, Philip Larkin thought something wonderful happened between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. But nostalgia, driven by wishful thinking and self-serving ideologies, truly isn’t what it never was. ‘If you can remember the 1960s, then you weren’t really there’ might be usefully recast as ‘nobody remembers the 1960s as they really happened’. There’s a revisionist spirit among those slightly too young to have benefited from the invention of sex at the start of the decade or old enough to have been an earlier adopter of that new-fangled pleasure. Sceptics and the merely envious (the usual reason for hating the Sixties is not having been there) take the position that the following decade was by no means as dull, disillusioned and compromised as it is routinely painted and just as committed to high purpose as any other ten-year historical slice. In retrospect, dullness may be worse than compromise, but even that isn’t so. There’s been a leap to defend the 1950s as well, partly in recognition of the truism that every cultural phenomenon has a back-story and prehistory, but also in response to clear evidence that most of the liberations attributed to the 1960s, political, social, sexual and aesthetic, are more properly attributed to the previous decade. This is an argument developed in W. T. Lhamon’s excellent 1990 book Deliberate Speed. Even so, it’s a position that enrages Sixties loyalists past measure: historian Arthur Marwick gets into quite a bate if anyone declines to accept that 1960 to 1970 was the most noble period in the whole history of humanity.

It’s often assumed that the 1960s simply passed Scotland by, that in Edwin Morgan’s bon mot ‘Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower people; in any case / who would be handed a thistle?’ One can imagine a voice from the crowd shouting ‘Me! me!!’. It’s Hugh MacDiarmid, of course, and between those perspectives, or between MacDiarmid’s tensely strung nationalism and Morgan’s and Alexander Trocchi’s aesthetic and moral internationalism, much adversarial energy has run. It remains a valid perception, though, that social and moral liberation was a high-end metropolitan phenomenon (Swinging London) that only slowly spread out from the centre. There’s reinforcement for this in the recently published first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s massive biography of the Beatles. With 950 pages barely taking the story to 1962, Lewisohn has the boys dabbling with Dionysus in Hamburg, but firmly rooted in a still-provincial Liverpool, still pinched and ‘post-war’, Laurentian in the restrictive rather than the libertarian sense. How much further behind were Edinburgh and Glasgow, for all the cosmopolitan culture of the former’s still-young Festival and for all the internationalist, Atlanticist urges of the latter. 

Recent commentators like Dominic Sandbrook have been more inclined to suggest that in the 1960s the majority of the population still lived a life defined not so much by Chatterley, the Pill and the Rolling Stones, but by bingo, Blackpool and Berni Inns. ‘Butlins’ deserves to be in there as well. Or it could be put another way: Liverpool, indeed a single Liverpool family, delivered not just The Beatles, but also The Scaffold. It’s an uncomfortable truth that our cultural perception is always tunnelled and flatteringly selective. We think of 1967 as ‘psychedelic’ and 1976 as ‘punk’ and yet a quick look at the pop charts, as a fine recent documentary on Easy Listening demonstrated, always shows a majority of cardiganned crooners, novelty acts and bubblegum. In one of the more tightly focused chapters of The Scottish Sixties, Alistair McCleery makes the fine general point that ‘The 1960s were not uniform or simultaneous throughout the UK’ , adding that Larkin wrote his famous lines while working as a librarian in… Hull.

The coincidence of the Chatterley trial coming at the cusp of a new decade has reinforced the view that the coming of the 1960s marked a ‘revolutionary’ expansion of human potential. Some felt this really was the case. Edwin Morgan is quoted as saying to Alec Finlay that his real life began not in 1920 but in 1960. But in reality the Chatterley trial marked the beginning and not the end of the war on ‘obscenity’. McCleery’s nicely researched essay about the trial of Trocchi’s Cain’s Book in 1964 was symptomatic of a tightening of stricture rather than a loosening; also of a widening of moral concern, in that the primary objection to the book (that lineal ancestor of Trainspotting and Filth) related to drug use rather than sex.

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Scottish exceptionalism often rests on very specific cultural differences. For instance, the Chatterley verdict didn’t immediately apply to Scotland, where it remained subject to McGrundyish assault. The cover of The Scottish Sixties shows the burning of a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover outside Jim Haynes’s legendary The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street, lang syne demolished to make way for the higher learning. Three young Bohemians stand about, dwarfed not just by perspective and the dip of the pavement but by the formidable figure of rectitude in the foreground, an Edinburgh lady armed with paraffin, matches and the genes of John Knox. Haynes’s shop, with its rhinoceros head and multilingual signs (‘Bokhandel’, ‘Quair-Howe’), also features on the cover of John Herdman’s Another Country, a republished study of the decade’s literary flytings.

It’s worth saying that much as the Chatterley trial was a London affair (the subsequent Trocchi prosecution originated in Sheffield), so the Edinburgh Festival was, like the pachyderm of Charles Street, irruptive rather than endemic. Its majoritarian story is one of protest and opposition. Nostalgia for the Festival, as for the early Fringe, the scandalous Writers’ Conference of 1962, the first incarnation of the Traverse Theatre (in which Haynes also had a hand) is the property of a coterie, many of whom were not native Scots or even Scots by formation. And one might say that the only substantively Scottish content of the infamous Writers’ Conference – I had this from Robin Jenkins – was the whisky that miraculously replaced water in the on-stage decanters and upped the temperature considerably.

Inevitably, the Conference features strongly in these pages. Also present was the young (in career terms) Edwin Morgan, still six years away from the breakthrough publication of The Second Life, an event that should always be on the list whenever the cultural triumphs of ‘sixty eight’ are itemised. Though the weirdly mixed sexual subtexts of an event that put William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid on the same bill must have been troubling to a man of Morgan’s sensibilities, he came away from Edinburgh much changed, not least in believing that Scotland’s cultural dynamo wasn’t running in Edinburgh at all but in westward-looking Glasgow. He was unmoved, as well he might have been, by MacDiarmid’s unconvincing embrace of the industrial proletariat. Was there ever a poet so utterly un-urban in spirit? As James McGonigal shows in ‘The Direction of the MacAvantgarde’, Morgan drew more from Mailer’s ‘existential’ recasting of the writer as someone who looks ever outward.

An oddity – or maybe not – of the period is that while much of the purely literary debate about the right direction for Scottish letters focused on poetry, public awareness of the clash between libertarian modernism and older forms and proprieties focused entirely on fiction. Few if any poets were had up for obscenity, while the hallmark of envelope-stretching modernity was the willingness to find new tropes for fornication. For me, and I don’t doubt many like me, the Sixties began, belatedly, mid-decade, between the lifting of a parental ban on A Green Tree in Gedde and the Beatles’ best LP. My father was convinced that I would be bored and confused by Alan Sharp’s novel before I was corrupted by it. How wrong he was. Heady stuff and from the most unexpected of provenances, just over the firth in Greenock. It even gave ‘Cappielow’ a literary role. It was, in its way, as revelatory as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Revolver, for the record, was the Beatle’s best LP, and don’t let anyone try to tell you different.

There’s maybe room for one more offering from the dictionary of phrase and fable. At almost every level and in often counterintuitive combinations, the Sixties were the best of times and the worst of times. The architecture was brutal, but what it swept away was infinitely worse. Utopian social engineering combined mischief with genuinely good intentions. I recently reminisced with a former colleague who’d shared a parallel career in research and teaching at the universities of Essex and East Anglia respectively: the former famous for hot-headed radicalism, the latter for hedonism. I expressed contempt for much of the student politics of the time with its mass-demo-followed-by-disco mentality and fiery kneejerking about any injustice not close enough at hand to require actual intervention, to be told that the Scottish universities had been shamefully quietistic during the period from 1965 to 1975; ‘too obsessed with independence’ to be involved in the ‘real’ struggle. Leaving aside the possibility that separation from a large and over-determining Union partner might well seem like the ‘real’ struggle to someone living in Scotland at the time, I suggested that maybe the style of Scottish student politics, even in places with a substantial English demographic in the student population, might have been simply different to that in the South.

There’s a hint of that, albeit optative, in a comment by that viscerally intelligent anarchist Muriel Spark whose ‘expatriate’ vision is neatly contrasted with Alexander Trocchi’s in an essay by Sylvia Bruce-Wunder. Spark said that she would like to see ‘in all forms of arts and letters, ranging from the most sophisticated and high achievements to the placards that students carry about the street, a less impulsive generosity, a less indignant representation of social injustice, and a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong’. My strong sense is that this is how the Scottish counter-culture really functioned, once one got out of earshot of ‘Whither Scottish letters?’ debates conducted in Lallans. As Herdman’s curiously structured memoir suggests, these debates were dominated by men, some straight, some gay, most of them obsessed by the difference.

There was, though, a newly feminised spirit abroad, just below the surface, something ‘deliberate’, something ‘derisive’, above all, ‘cunning’. If it looked like quietism from the outside, that again was an instance of division by a common language, and as such is perhaps acknowledgement that the big question for Scotland, from its political superstructure down to its floor of creative production, is what language we should after all speak. Compared to ‘velvet’ readings/rebellions/revolutions elsewhere in post-imperial Europe, Scotland’s libertarianism was not clearly enough identified with a demotic, and too deeply complicit in its own ‘colonial’ domination. In the 1960s Scottish culture still didn’t have sufficient gravitational mass to keep all the best and the brightest north of the border, but there were enough who stayed to plant the kailyard with exotic brassicas.

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The best of times and the worst of times. A great deal depends on the focal length and the sampling technique. A collection like Bell’s and Gunn’s almost inevitably over-promotes the literary. Tom Normand’s closing chapter on ‘Scotland’s Visual Culture in the 1960s’ feels like something of an afterthought but throws up enough of what was happening, thanks to the late John Bellany, Alexander Moffat, to the eloquent absence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, later to the arrival of such mind-stretching visitors as Joseph Beuys and Bernd and Hilla Becher, thanks to Richard Demarco in large measure, to give some sense of a country whose ‘counter-narration’ was both instinct with international movements and quite apart from them. Scottish visual culture had dependencies different from but often greater than those of its literary culture. Her music was in a more complex situation still, drawn inexorably to the over-determining styles of American pop, and its UK outpost in London, but still capable of delivering something highly distinctive.

Bob Anderson’s ‘Clan Balls, Luvvers and Incredible Strings’ looks at popular music in Glasgow during the decade. Lulu’s still ridiculously undervalued appropriation of blues and soul was one part of the story, but so was The Poets’ moody, threatening ‘Now We’re Thru’; so was the Incredible String Band’s extraordinary syncretism of traditional folk, improvisation and long-form (Whitman, Ginsberg) poetry. There’s scant room in the Bell/Gunn collection for George Bruce and not at all, in Anderson’s essay, for Jack Bruce, who might seem the archetypal Scottish musician of the period, impossible to pin down as to genre, mystically inclined but socially aware (how many people remember what Harmony Row actually was, or that one of Bruce’s finest songs was dedicated to Spanish immigrants round Charing Cross in Glasgow?). And, despite MacDiarmid and Ronald Stevenson hosting Shostakovich in Edinburgh in 1962 (the latter’s magnificent Passacaglia on DSCH has just been re-recorded), there’s not a peep about classical music, which was dealing with gravitational pull from Darmstadt and New York as well as from the Guildhall. Not much about jazz, either. Another strong contender for soundtrack to Scotland’s Sixties is saxophonist Bobby Wellins’ peerless solo on ‘Starless and Bible Black’ on Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood. An English bandleader and a Welsh inspiration, but an utterly Scottish response, full of flyted romanticism and aery cunning.

The spirit of improvisation surfaces in Angela Bartie’s brilliantly edited, which is to say, very lightly edited, interview with Tom McGrath. Here’s his best-of-times, worst-of-times riff: ‘The girls started dancing solo. That’s what I always remember about that time, to me that time’s symbolised by the girls starting to dance on their own, to express themselves as a single thing. It was a really freaky time but it was very, very dark and self-destructive at the same time, it was all beat and no hope and a bit of violence in it, often violence against the self and unhealthiness and people didn’t wash.’ Only a jazz musician, and McGrath was an excellent, intuitive one, could come up with lines as freighted as those. The remembered violence and self-destruction lead one to wonder why R D Laing, one of the decade’s most representative and problematic exports, didn’t merit a chapter to himself rather than two isolated references.

If audio feedback was one of the newer aesthetic experiences of the decade, there’s a strong sense of overload in many testimonies about the 1960s and in the case of the poets a craven failure of conventional poetic language to capture that sense. MacDiarmid’s great ‘Renaissance’ experiment took a long time to play out, as Herdman shows, though the intervention of a second, massively destructive war further delayed its implementation. The pastoral/syndicalist thrust of MacDiarmid’s odd form of modernity was already clashing with yet another wave by the turn of the 1960s and it was again Morgan, inspired by Salvatore Quasimodo’s ability to place poetic language at the service of a new socio-political reality, who called for new approaches that would allow poets to take account of ‘new towns’, ‘overspill’, hydro-electric and nuclear power, and – unspoken, but present – American weapons of mass destruction in Scottish lochs.

* * *

Fifty years on, we’re coping with another level of future shock, this time driven by the information revolution. Writing social history has become deeply problematic in the age of Wikipedia. When anyone can with a few nudges of the keyboard come up with half a dozen events that occurred on the same day, or week, or month, it is easy to sustain the illusion that the mere accumulation of contiguous detail amounts to social and intellectual history. An anthology of papers is not the same as an argued analysis, and The Scottish Sixties does not attempt or claim anything of the sort. It offers, nonetheless, a mostly fair and rounded impression of the decade. Herdman’s memoir, with its strong hint of pensée d’escalier, does usefully put in layers of retrospective rationalisation about the course of debate on Scottish literature and its languages, and shows a clear sense of how aesthetics and politics hi-jacked one another to different and intermittently successful ends.

It’s always possible, though, to recover a period of time without an informing dialectic. One notes before beginning Graham Fulton’s poetic memoir Reclaimed Land: A Sixties Childhood that the author was born in 1959 and that we can presumably not expect much in the way of sex or politics in what follows. What comes instead is a set of relatively disconnected snapshots, fond, wry, ranging from the highly personal to the kind of popcult detail – Ricicles, Creamola Foam, Caramac, Nesquik, Tree Top squash, Noggin the Nog, Fireball XL5, Christopher Trace, Bleep and Booster – that anyone of that generation might be able to deliver off the cuff.

The effect is not so much like looking into Eduard Paolozzi’s studio, at mass-production detritus preserved as art-material, and more like a glimpse into a rich ‘case history’, fin-de-siècle Vienna transposed to post-bellum Paisley, Sigmund Freud to

R D Laing. The text is surrounded by uncaptioned photographs, which add a certain Sebaldian shimmer to the text, since the people described and the people depicted don’t always seem to be the same. The journalist Paul Routledge wrote recently about the difficulty of reading the kind of social history that merely piles up period detail (‘another country’ in which the ‘otherness’ is largely defined by brand names) as if at some point quantity flips into quality and delivers historical understanding.

It’s easy enough to demonstrate, as the better social commentators like Dominic Sandbrook do, that there is always a parallel narrative, whether working-class, black, female, homosexual, ‘provincial’, insular (in the strict sense – how did the 60s feel on Barra or Foula, if indeed they got there?), and that Proustian compilation of sensory data just delivers a pixilated blur. That’s a poet’s gift and Fulton is unmistakably a poet. He’s not concerned with pulling off the Malcolm Bradbury trick of assembling twenty consecutive cues that point to 1976 or, ah, 1969. Instead, he’s after the Ray Bradbury trick of inducing an air of cognitive estrangement (the term actually comes from Darko Suvin) that makes one nostalgic for a time not yet come. Fulton’s un-Wordsworthian, perhaps deliberately blasphemous conclusion is that ‘The Man is Son of the Child’. Page 112 of Reclaimed Land seems to show a reading list that consists almost entirely of science fiction: Bradbury, lots of Verne, Asimov, Bloch, Shelley. Even before Armstrong and Aldrin made fact of it, we all lived in sure and certain understanding that the future was different and that the imagination was not about the Other, but about the Elsewhere. If utopian dreaming and regular, harsh awakening had been a part of the Scottish psyche, it was never more so than in the 1960s.

* * *

Nostalgia is exactly what it used to be: bittersweet, consoling and painful by turns, misleading, an illusion of collective experience that turns out to conceal a subjectivity so absolute it’s frightening. Science fiction is invariably about loneliness and science fiction scenarios – as Edwin Morgan discovered for himself – are almost always the responses of very solitary individuals or citizens of a thoroughly alienated society. The term ‘nostalgia’ was famously coined in the seventeenth century to describe the reactions of Swiss mercenaries on campaign. The connection with war is not incidental and one of the things insufficiently registered in all these books is how close the war – and the present threat of war – was in 1960s Scotland. Bomb-sites were a reminder of warfare past. Polaris was a grim manifestation of the last war that was yet to come.

If the times were out of joint, that’s only a truism, because time is always out of joint. At the straightforward narrative level, it’s possible to argue that much of what these books describe had already begun, and in some cases was almost over, when the Sixties began. Haynes’s The Paperback opened in 1959, the year of that carefully slanted anthology Honour’d Shade, sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain and edited by Norman MacCaig who pointed out, challengingly, that ‘The absence of any notable name is not necessarily due to editorial negligence’. The same might be said of any synoptic anthology or cultural history. Perhaps the most singular omission or mis-emphasis in The Scottish Sixties (doubly so given the gender of the editors) is the degree to which the decade belonged to women: not to that incendiary Edinburgh lady on the cover, or Lulu and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, or even Muriel Spark, who comes out of this as all the more representative for her apparent distance, but to the women, not yet published, recorded, hung in solo shows and retrospectives, who had come through the war or come of age in its aftermath and learned to dance on their own.

The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution?

Edited by Eleanor Bell & Linda Gunn

Rodopi, £60.30, ISBN 9042037261


Another Country

by John Herdman

Thirsty Books, PP119, £7.99, ISBN 978 1 908931 35 1


Reclaimed Land: A Sixties Childhood

By Graham Fulton

The Grimsay Press, PP128, £10.95, ISBN 1845301382

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Glasgow’s Forgotten Feminist

Hillary Clinton concluded her keynote speech at the 2013 Women in the World Summit by saying that ‘Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights’. A neat soundbite, and exactly what Catherine MacKinnon was getting at when she posed the question Are Women Human? back in 2006. Now, as then, it seems the answer is no. So let’s be glad that Clinton has reiterated the point, offering an idiot’s guide for those unable to grasp that feminism is a simple matter of equality.

Marion Bernstein, writing in the late nineteenth century, would not have been familiar with the term feminism but she was quite certain that women’s rights were human rights. She wrote about it in poem after poem, imagining how emancipated women would ‘give fair play, let come what might, / To he or she folk, black or white, / And haste the reign of Human Right’ (‘Human Rights’). Bernstein’s views were public too. Published mainly in the Glasgow Weekly Mail and Glasgow Weekly Herald, her poems could reach an audience in excess of 200,000 readers (the circulation of the Weekly Herald in 1880). Scottish newspapers today – and Scottish poets – can but dream, and yet Marion Bernstein has a good claim to being the greatest Scottish feminist we’ve never heard of.

That women have often been written out of history, literary and otherwise, is no surprise. That it is still happening is outrageous. In the Herald recently Rosemary Goring reacted with ‘disbelief’ and ‘the sort of fury that fuels volcanic eruptions’ to the announcement of a flagship arts programme for the BBC. In The Men Who Invented Scotland, Andrew Marr will tell us the story of Scottish literature; or at least the three chapters of it that relate to Boswell, Scott and MacDiarmid. Thank heavens then for scholars like Edward Cohen, Anne Fertig and Linda Fleming. The trio has been working for years to put together A Song of Glasgow Town. 

Bernstein collected some of her work within her lifetime, publishing a handsome volume titled Mirren’s Musings in 1876. There are only six known extant copies. One of these, in Paisley Central Library, came to the attention of the poet Tom Leonard when he was Writer in Residence there in the 1980s. He included seven of Bernstein’s poems in Radical Renfrew, saving her from obscurity and inspiring Cohen, Fertig and Fleming to begin trawling through the newspaper archives for uncollected poems. The seven pieces Leonard selected are forthright in their opinions, political, and accessible without being patronising; the perfect foil to his opening statement that, ‘poetry has been so defined in the public mind as usually to exclude the possibility of social conflicts appearing. The belief is widespread that poetry is not about expression of opinion, not about “politics”, not about employment, not about what people actually do with their time between waking up and falling asleep each day.’ Notable immediately is the theme of women’s rights as human rights: ‘Our claims are oft misunderstood; / We would but share with man / The human right of doing good / In any way we can’ (‘Women’s Rights and Wrongs’).

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Leonard’s rediscovery of Bernstein quickly won her another fan. When Edwin Morgan gave a lecture on Glasgow’s poetic heritage at the University of Waikato, New Zealand in 1992 (published as Glasgow Poets Past and Present: The Story of a City), he took care to mention Marion Bernstein as an ‘interesting exception’ to the sentimental verse of the later nineteenth century: ‘this is sharp, clearcut, clear-eyed poetry, much concerned with the place of women in society, & putting forward an early feminist point of view.’

High time then that we get to read her works in full. In A Song of Glasgow Town, we also learn that Bernstein’s advocacy of human rights may have resulted partly from circumstance. She was born in London in 1846 and her father, a Prussian émigré, struggled to earn a living as a tutor, translator, and finally, tobacconist. By the time Marion was nine years old he had appeared in court as an ‘insolvent debtor’ and he died penniless, in an asylum, aged just forty five. For a while Marion lived with her mother and sister Lydia in Hastings, where the girls somehow managed to train as music teachers, and by 1874 the family had arrived at Paisley Road, Glasgow. Marion’s life was further complicated by illness; as a child she was affected by some kind of paralysis (possibly polio) that was to persist through adulthood.

Despite often being confined to her bed, unable to walk, Bernstein found plenty to write about in Glasgow, ‘Where wealth and want abound’ (‘A Song of Glasgow Town’). When her health allowed she supported herself by teaching music; otherwise she tried to secure grants from the Royal Literary Fund, The Royal Society for the Relief of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland and Colquhoun’s Bequest for Incurables. La plus ça change, and the glimpses of her writing life resonate too: the worry that the muse has left her (‘And, oh, in many dreary hours / I’ve missed thy sweetly soothing powers’); her tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless serious efforts to promote her forthcoming collection (‘And a host of kind friends and assistants I’m needing, / To insure the success of my present proceeding’).

The newspapers that published Bernstein’s work were a rich source of inspiration too. Many of her poems about women’s rights were prompted by news stories, as the opening stanza of ‘Married and ‘Settled’’ attests:


Oh! I have sighed to read

The trials of this season;

Wife-murder seems indeed,

An everyday transgression.


The editors of A Song of Glasgow Town note that if we are to judge by reports in local newspapers, ‘instances of wife beating reached epidemic proportions in Britain’ during Bernstein’s lifetime. In the first half of 1874, ‘the Weekly Mail reported more than sixty accounts in which wives were pushed, punched, or pummelled by their spouses. In one case a woman died after she was kicked repeatedly and then thrown by her inebriated husband down a flight of stairs. Almost as appalling as the details of these assaults were the inconsequential penalties meted out to the perpetrators.’ Even in this awful context Bernstein gives the lie to the notion that feminists are humourless. In ‘A Rule to Work Both Ways’ she channels her anger into wit, exhorting her ‘sisters’ to employ the ‘kitchen poker’ when ‘husband-curing’:


And if you cannot cure them, ‘Kill!’

As coolly teaches the Wife-beater;

In widowhood no doubt you will

Find your existence somewhat sweeter.


One of the great pleasures of A Song of Glasgow Town is the picture it paints of lively prosodic debates, conducted in the Weekly Mail in particular, with its ‘interplay amongst poetry editor, the poets, and the readers’. On a wider scale, the editors suggest, these columns offer, ‘a unique snapshot of the public culture of Glasgow, for the poets and readers alike were chiefly Victorian working-class and middle-class men and women and their verses shaped – in Natalie Houston’s words – ‘a shared public discourse of current events.’ We might return to Tom Leonard, and his belief that Literature is ‘based on universal equality of human existence’, ‘the dialogue between one human being and another’.

Bernstein defended men too: to ‘labour beyond one’s strength / Turns work from a joy to pain’ (‘A Song for the Working Man’) and may be downright dangerous, as in the case of the railway pointsman obliged to work eighteen hours a day. Industrial action by the riveters of Govan receives shorter shrift. She condemns those ‘Who stay at home at ease, / And live upon the ‘strike fund’ / As idle as you please’, hence risking the trade success of Glasgow; I dread to think what she would have made of the situation at Grangemouth. Radicalism makes a welcome return in her support of land reform. ‘The Scottish Marseillaise’ urges Scots to rise together, ‘To set your native mountains free; / For wealth and greed, in base communion, / Enslave the land from sea to sea.’ Nor is she content with demands that the land be given back to tenant farmers: ‘’Tis yours; ‘take’ back the land!’

Although much of the interest in Bernstein derives from her subject matter and context, her poetry is accomplished and for the most part strong enough to stand alone. Much of it follows the pattern of the quatrains quoted above, with their emphatic rhymes and perky enjambments. ‘Characteristic of newspaper verse,’ according to Cohen et al, the poems also possess a ‘conversational quality that one associates with the best nineteenth-century English and Scottish poetry.’ Intensive reading may result in foot-tapping iambic overload, but the more personal poems often mark interesting shifts in form. While ‘Mirren’s Autobiography’ labours through couplets (with one extra line), the penultimate poem in the collection, ‘Sonnet: The Rainbow’, reiterates the faith that fuelled her social beliefs using an adventurous and atypical rhyme scheme. She is adept at Victorian melancholia too, and those verses dedicated to summer passing, the dread that the dark winter holds for the invalid, and friends now deceased, are extremely moving. Bernstein was dedicated to her craft, and wrote until the very end of her life. ‘Song of a ‘Shut In’’, her third last poem, repeats the line ‘Sweet summer comes, but not for me’ to poignant effect. She died in 1906, aged fifty-nine, having published 198 poems.

The best-known of these, again thanks to Radical Renfrew (now itself out of print), is ‘A Dream’. It presents a vision of the end of the nineteenth century heralding ‘a more advanced / And very much brighter day’ in which women’s rights are established, with (more than) equal representation in the Cabinet and the House of Commons, an end to war, and agreement between religious sects ‘That an erring opinion was not so bad / As a false word or wicked deed.’ In her chapter on Scottish women poets of the nineteenth century in the History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Valentina Bold sees ‘A Dream’ as emblematic of Bernstein’s ‘radical streak’, reworking ‘the visionary tradition of Ramsay, Burns and Hogg from a woman’s perspective’. It is a pity that Marion Bernstein’s dream is yet to come true, but the editors of A Song of Glasgow Town have done a great service in preserving and making available her words. Her voice – neglected for so long – is just the kind we need to hear as we consider the writers who invented Scotland, and the hopes we have for our country in the future.

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

Edited by Edward H. Cohen,

Anne R. Fertig and Linda Fleming

Association of Scottish Literary Studies, £12.50,

ISBN 978-1-906841-13-3

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Bookselling in Lapland

A work acquaintance – a born-again Christian – once charitably shared with me that he guessed I’d been round the block a couple of times. Perhaps because of my love of secondhand bookshops, I chose to take this as a compliment. The great thing about used books is that they’ve been round many blocks, and for me the marks they bear of previous relationships make them objects of desire. So I’m like the pig in the proverbial, being based at Main Point Books in the West Port, which has become known as Edinburgh’s book (and lap dancing) quarter – hence our slogan: ‘For only £5 a book will sit on your lap all night long’.

Our proximity to Edinburgh College of Art means that customers often have plans to transmute books into something else. The future destiny of a book never fails to fascinate me – often it’s nothing so simple as being read. Hamer Dodds, an artist who explores the interface between art and science, leapt on a 1960s I-Spy Wild Flowers as a source of inspiration. On the botanical theme, he likened our books to spores disseminating unanticipated ideas, connections and trains of thought. Another artist, Donald Urquhart of ECA’s ‘Land Space and Nature’, picked up three Scottish Mountaineering Club volumes, seeing them as elements in an exhibition he’s having in Japan next spring. Books with marginal notes were the quarry of a young art student, for a project exploring the relationship between handwritten and printed text. This triggered a conversation about Fermat’s Last Theorem, referenced concisely in the margins of Arithmetica; 385 years passed before the theorem was solved, in 1995, by Andrew Wiles. Buzzing with ideas, she left the shop with a copy of Amir Aczel’s account of Wiles’ impassioned quest.

 Conversations with customers – their unpredictability and variety – make secondhand bookshops fascinating places. I recently bought a small collection of books on the history of costume that had belonged to the late David Beeton, for many years a designer with the BBC. The ones on pattern and cut attracted the eye of Gavin May, a descendant of Samuel May, a leading theatrical costumier whose firm was founded in the early nineteenth century. It was great to see books from a real working library go into the right hands. Gavin opened a copy of a book on theatrical costume by James Laver and pointed out a picture of Edmund Kean as Richard III, in highly dramatic pose, bearing a sword – which Gavin has in his attic. 

Take a few strands of interaction from a single day. A Canadian beekeeper, fresh from a beekeeping conference in Ukraine that attracted an astonishing 10,000 delegates; he bought a 1980s manual, ‘for historical interest – beekeeping has completely changed since the advent of the Varroa mite’. Then in came the winner of the Golden Spurtle Award at the World Porridge Making Championships, John Boa, on his way to the Mod in Paisley and in search of a ‘smallish’ Gaelic dictionary because his Dwelly wouldn’t fit in his backpack. After much hunting, which gave us time for a chat about the new Gaelic Tin Tin (An t-Eilean Du), we found a concise MacEachan tucked at the end of a row of Highlands and Islands books. Strangely enough, the next person through the door was a member of the MacEachan clan – Alasdair MacEachan of the Islands Book Trust, making an Edinburgh detour on his way back to Lewis after attending the Dublin launch of the autobiography of Michael Carney, the last living person to have been born on the Great Blasket Island (another book for my list of customer recommendations). Later that afternoon an academic from Durham, editor of a journal on Victorian music, lamented the fact that the ancient cathedral city does not have a single secondhand bookshop. This he put down to the lack of a ‘critical mass’ of book buyers – then confessed to reading fiction exclusively on his handheld device, and older books free online (having noted the titles in shops such as Main Point). In tune with the bleakness of what he called the ‘real world’ (a place I am often advised to visit), I produced An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but he would not be tempted, though he perused it for while – memorising a few details for a Google search, I suspect.

I am becoming inured to the plight of a secondhand bookseller in the Age of Kindle and believe that, like the Death of the Author, the Demise of the Bookshop remains pending. This optimism flies in the face of certain facts. Across the UK hundreds of bookshops have closed in the last decade. This summer, for the first time in over twenty years, the PBFA Edinburgh Festival Book Fair did not take place.

No mobile phone in the pocket with internet access, no instant comparison of prices. In those days book hunters built up a cache of ‘points’ (who now knows by heart the precise selection of creatures on the endpapers of Jemima Puddleduck that show it’s a ‘first issue’?). Many booksellers were scholarly and delved deeply the history of printing and publishing. In competitive situations such as auctions, their knowledge gave them an edge; or in bookshops, where even the best bookseller might undervalue an item. One of my own best bookshop ‘finds’ was the very ordinary looking Histoires Extraordinaires (1856) by Edgar Allan Poe, translated by Charles Baudelaire – what they call a ‘sleeper’. That was back in the 1970s in McNaughtan’s Bookshop, when it was run by John ‘the Henty King’ McNaughtan and his wife Marjorie, an authority on early children’s books, who generously gave me a grounding in the trade. Of course I’ve made some bloomers myself, but none keeps me awake at night. You can always learn by your mistakes.

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Thanks to the internet, everyone now believes they have a handle on book values, equating the top prices being sought to actual values. Sometimes they actually are. Often it’s just someone flying a kite. And as anyone who has bought a book online knows, one seller’s ‘good condition’ is another’s ‘falling apart’. So I have to rein in my knee jerk scepticism when people tell me they have a valuable, rare ‘vintage’ book. More often than not these turn out to be tattered copies of the works of Robert Burns, but with family associations which might really interest young family members, so best not sold.

A piece of my own family history was recently brought to my attention by one of our customers. Stewart MacLennan, who is Chair of the Scottish Labour History Society, told me that my father, Donald Renton, is mentioned in A Bible of Discontent: The memoir of Hugh D’Arcy, bricklayer and trade unionist, which has just become available online. My dad fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, left the Communist Party in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution (when the contrarian MacDiarmid decided to join it) and later became an Edinburgh councillor. Both he and D’Arcy were Portobello lads from Pipe Street. In his memoir, D’Arcy recalls his science teacher warning him that Donald, who ‘showed good promise’ at Towerbank School, had become ‘a troublesome agitator and a person we should not get involved with’. D’Arcy’s eyes were soon opened to the fact that people like my father were responding, with social responsibility, to the dreadful hardship and inequalities of the Depression years. When filling in his Census form, I remember my dad entering under Occupation: Revolutionary Communist; and under Religion: Militant Atheist. But then, he didn’t read the Mail.

So yes, I do enjoy the connectivity offered by the internet. And also on the positive side, I’ve noticed that having such a barrage of words on electronic tap is making some of us seek out the discriminating bookseller or publisher, appreciating the results of the exercise of taste.

‘Don’t let me buy anything,’ some plead as they enter the shop. Or, ‘My flight luggage allowance is tiny.’ Or, ‘I’ve got all my books on my ******.’ My stock reply – ‘No worries, did you know I’m planning to turn the bookshop into an “installation” and charge entry at the door?’ – is in danger of being taken seriously. This has actually been done by a Dutch artist, multiplying the value of the stock by a factor of ten.

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I kid you not. At least once a month someone comes into Main Point, takes a deep breath and announces: ‘I just came in because I love the smell of old books.’ At such moments, homicide is never far from my thoughts. Putting on my marketing hat, that’s just given me a new thought. What about: ‘Wake up and smell the books’? Which brings George Orwell to mind. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he recounts his disgust at the smell of dossers’ socks, and in his ‘Bookshop Memories’ he mentions another nasal challenge: ‘the person smelling of old breadcrusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books’. He also reports that: ‘Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return.’ He has a mild gripe, too, about bookshops being among ‘the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money’, and the sometimes dubious clientele this attracts. But for my own part, I see browsing as one of the joys in life, and an essential part of what a good bookshop is about.

Trade seemed to be picking up the other day. A woman told me she wanted 200 books, and then added, ‘to make into clocks’. Unlike those who shudder at the thought of destroying a book, I can’t ignore the practicalities of bookselling. In a slack market, space is at a premium. Things must move on, or they become stale. The books she wanted had to have an attractive cover design and be very cheap. Perhaps my decision was cuckoo, but I decided to go for it and filled five boxes with potential candidates. Weeks passed, hopeful sounding emails arrived, but it looks as if Orwell was spot-on about what happens when you set books aside.

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