Monthly Archives: May 2014

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To Keep the Ball Rolling

Last year FIFA, world football’s governing body, asked Brazilian fans to vote for the name that should be attached to the match ball for this summer’s World Cup finals. More than a million took part, more than 78% of of whom opted for ‘Brazuca’ – a conflation of the name Brazil and Brasuca, the Portuguese word for the US anti-tank weapon the ‘Bazooka’. There were two alternatives: ‘Carnavelsca’ (a nod in the direction of Brazil’s renowned street thrash) and ‘Bossa Nova’ (the elegant Samba rhythm native to Brazil). But neither of those impressed the fans. They preferred Brazuca’s combination of Brazilian nationalism and rocket-powered aggression. So Brazuca it is. It’s a name we will soon be familiar with when the tournament kicks off on 12 June when Brazil play Croatia in Sao Paulo.

As footballs go, the Brazuca is a handsome model. Weighing around 437 grammes and with a circumference of 69 centimetres the ‘casing’, as the outer skin is called, is made up of six interlocking cruciform (or propeller-shaped) panels heat moulded together. Inside there’s an air-filled bladder of carbon latex. Fittingly, the Brazuca is a veritable Samba of colour – vivid swirls of green, orange, blue and black against a dazzling white background. This, FIFA says, is to ‘symbolise the traditional, multi-coloured wish bracelets apparently worn by Brazilians’.

Any artist planning a sound and light ‘installation’ should have a look on the internet at the way the German sports goods giant Adidas introduced the Brazuca to the world in December last year. The venue was the city of Rio de Janeiro in the Romanesque atrium of a nineteenth-century mansion in the Enrique Lage park. After a play of dazzling colour on the arches and a projection of the names of all 32 nations in the finals, series of giant hologram(ish) images emerge of the various balls that Adidas has supplied for the World Cup over the last 44 years culminating in the Brazuca. Any child born in Brazil on the day the Brazuca was launched is entitled to his or her own copy of the ball.

Needless to say, the Brazuca also bears the three stripes logo of its creator, the German sporting goods giant Adidas. It was founded in 1924 to make boots and shoes by the brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dessler, both of whom became ardent Nazis. After the war the brothers fell out and Adolf went on to create Adidas while Rudolf founded Puma. There are many other football manufacturers – notably Nike of the USA and Select of Denmark – but none of their balls will be appearing on the football fields of Brazil this summer. That’s because the German company has had a lock on the balls for the World Cup extravaganza ever since the tournament was taken to Mexico in 1970. In the 40 years before that, World Cup footballs of the old-fashioned variety had been sourced from a range of countries and companies – e.g. Kost Sport of Switzerland, Remmen of Sweden, Custodia Zamara of Chile, Slazenger of the UK. That ended in 1969 when Adidas and FIFA cut a deal which gave the Germans the exclusive rights to provide the balls for the world’s most widely televised single-sport event. And not just for the matches, but also for all the training and practice sessions. No team that qualifies for the final stages of the World Cup is allowed to kick anything other than an Adidas ball.

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Supplying the footballing masses with balls is big business. Exactly how big, no one seems to know. The market is dominated by four main corporate players: Adidas and Puma of Germany, Nike (the biggest of the four) and Select. A relatively new and still very small newcomer is Alive & Kicking of Kenya which specialises in making footballs for Africa in African leather. Few balls, however, are actually made in the USA, Germany or Denmark. Most of the manufacturing is done in Asia. This is not part of the recent stampede of western industrialists to greener (i.e. cheaper) pastures. The Asian ball-making industry is much older than that. For many decades 80 per cent of the world’s footballs were made in and around the ancient Pakistani city of Sialkot in the Punjab on the border with India. During those decades most of the world’s match-quality footballs came from villages that surround Sialkot, usually in small workshops and stitching shops peopled by families of men, women and children.

This industry dates to the late nineteenth-century when British troops based near the Northwest Frontier needed footballs to keep themselves fit and amused. Legend has it that an enthusiastic local cobbler and leather worker offered to supply the balls and Sialkot’s ball-making industry was born. At the partition of the sub continent in 1947-8 thousands of Hindu artisans fled Sialkot into the Indian end of the Punjab and set up stitching shops in the district of Jalandhar where most of the stitching work is done by poor and disadvantaged Dalits, or ‘untouchables’.

Sialkot’s grip on the market was loosened in the 1990s when it was attacked by UNICEF and western NGOs for employing young children in harsh conditions for next to no money. This resulted in the Atlanta Agreement of February 1997 when it was agreed by UNICEF, the International Labour Organisation and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce & Industry that no child under 15 should be employed stitching footballs together. Which was easier decreed than done, because Nike, Adidas and others had contracted out the work to firms in Pakistan of whom very few football fans would ever have heard: Talon Sports, Comet Sports, Capital Sports, Survive Sports, and AKI. And the new regime was not universally popular. Many Sialkot villagers relied on the rupees earned by their youngsters, scant though they were. Now the kids were being forced out to work in other, less amenable and often more dangerous industries, such as brick-making or scrap metal scavenging.

Adidas remains touchy about wage rates in Pakistan. In July 2012, its spokesman Bill Anderson posted a paper on the internet in which he argued that, ‘Pay has to be considered in terms of what it buys locally. With overtime pay, performance bonuses and other allowances a worker’s “take home” wage, as paid by our suppliers, is often double this number.’

For its part, Select of Denmark claim that neither it nor its Sialkot suppliers (AKI) has ever employed child labour and that what’s more it provides health and education ‘for all of the workers’ children.’ FIFA now insists that the companies who want the FIFA stamp of approval on their kit must sign up to the code of conduct laid down by the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industries.

By and large, however, the Atlanta Agreement prevailed. Wages for workers did rise, but output dropped and Sialkot’s share of the football market collapsed from 80 per cent to less than 40 per cent thanks to new, well-tooled companies in Thailand, Indonesia and China. Modern big-match balls are now a truly global product. For example, the ‘Jabulani’ ball that Adidas supplied for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was developed in England and Germany, made in Thailand with latex from India, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer from Taiwan and a whole cluster of complicated materials from China. The newly-fledged ‘Brazuca’ was similarly sourced.

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After striking its exclusive deal with FIFA in 1969 Adidas produced a new ball for the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970. It was the now classic 32 panel arrangement of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons, usually in black and white.

But it was not an Adidas design. The genius behind the 32-panel configuration was Eigil Nielsen, the goalkeeper in the Danish team which won a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Thereafter Nielsen set up a company he called Select to make footballs for the Danish National Soccer Association. Nielsen and Select were genuine innovators. At first they came up with an eight-panel ball, which was followed by a laceless ball. Then, in 1962, they designed the 32-panel classic. Twelve years after that Select produced the first ball made of synthetic leather.

Nielsen never patented his work. ‘As a goalkeeper he wanted to have a round and balanced ball which he could trust in its flight’, said Peter Knap of Select. ‘He never patented any of his inventions as he wanted every football player to have the benefit of a better ball.’ His design was inspired by the ‘geodesic’ domes contrived by that wayward American genius Richard Buckminster Fuller. In the mid 1980s, US and Japanese astronomers discovered a particle of carbon in our solar system whose structure is identical to Nielsen’s pentagon/hexagon design. That particle is now known as the ‘Fullerene’ or ‘Buckyball’. Other companies may have abandoned the Buckyball format but Select of Denmark continues to sell large quantities of balls based on Nielsen’s design.

And for 24 years and over six World Cup tournaments the Buckyball reigned supreme although with various Adidas-created titles attached. In the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, for example, the ball was known as ‘Telstar’: in 1982 in Spain it was dubbed the ‘Tango Espana’, the last of the pure leather balls. The World Cup’s first-ever synthetic leather ball was the ‘Azteca’, which featured in Mexico in 1986.

In 1994, however, Nielsen’s classic design was dropped, when for the first time the World Cup was staged in the USA. FIFA was anxious to promote soccer in the USA but the previous tournament in Italy had been a dreary, defensive affair. Reckoning that Americans used to high-scoring games such as American football and baseball would never buy into such a dull game, FIFA briefed Adidas to come up with a new, and hopefully faster ball. The result was the ‘Questra’, a heat-bonded 18-panel design wrapped in a polystyrene foam shell ‘making for a lighter and more responsive ball’.

It seemed to do the trick. In the US there were goals galore. ‘The World Cup 94 was not to be the goalkeepers’ “lucky tournament”,’ FIFA opined in its official report. ‘The stars of the teams in the USA proved to be the strikers. They notched up 74 goals (66.7%) between them, far out stripping Italia 90 or Mexico 1986… ’ Which, of course, delighted Adidas. It seemed to prove that the design of the ball itself could spark life into the tournament and help give fans the goals they craved. Adidas kept faith with its successful 18-panel design for 1998 in France when the ball was called, appropriately, the ‘Tricolore’ and was done out in red,  white and blue. It was the first ever multi-coloured ball. In 2002 the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea saw much the same ball but with different colouring. It was labelled the ‘Fevernova’.

Then, in 2006, for the tournament in Germany, it was all change again. Adidas produced the ‘Teamgeist’ (‘team spirit’), a ball made up of 14 ‘truncated octahedron’ panels which were heat bonded together and not stitched. Designed by Adidas’s Scott Tomlinson and Anatol Just, the ball was tested by the Sports Technology Research Group at Loughborough University who found it was ‘more round’ than previous balls. By all accounts the Teamgeist pleased players. But it also had its share of critics. During and after the tournament there were grumbles about the ball’s erratic behaviour by, among others, the Brazilian striker Roberto Carlos and the English goalkeeper Paul Robinson. But the mutterings about the Teamgeist were as nothing compared to the barrage of complaints that emerged about Adidas’s next set of design changes.

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For the 2010 tournament in South Africa the techies at the Adidas Global Technology Center at Scheinfeld in Bavaria came up with a ball they called the ‘Jabulani’, the Zulu word for celebrate. They couldn’t have chosen a more unfortunate title. The Jabulani gave Adidas little cause to celebrate. For this ball the number of panels was reduced to eight. The balls were assembled in Thailand from latex bladders produced in India, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer from Taiwan, plus ethylene vinyl, isotropic polyester/cotton fabric, glue and ink from China. The outer surface, the casing, of the Jubulani was pitted with what Adidas called ‘aerogrooves’ calculated to increase the ball’s lift. This is the so-called ‘Magnus effect’, named after the nineteenth-century German physicist Heinrich Magnus but which was first described in 1672 by Isaac Newton after he’d watched a cricket match.

The Jabulani was put through its paces on an array of testing devices and wind tunnels. It was also tested by an assortment of footballing stars including Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Kaka. Most of the players approved of it, as did the scientists at Adidas and FIFA. But when it came to the tournament it was almost universally declared a disaster. ‘It’s horrible. But it’s horrible for everyone,’ declared England goalkeeper David James. Diego Maradona, the Argentine manager, said ‘We won’t see any long passes in this World Cup because the ball doesn’t fly straight.’

The row rattled Adidas. It wheeled in the US space agency NASA to find out what went wrong with the Jabulani. The agency’s Aimes Research Centre in California tested the ball and came to the conclusion that the seams of the eight-panel design made the ball ‘knuckle’ (i.e. suddenly change direction) at speeds of around 50 mph. Which is hard for strikers taking long shots and hard for goalkeepers nearer the goal. In their technical report on the 2010 tournament FIFA acknowledged that many goalkeepers had problems handling long-distance strikes and suggested ‘a number of explanations for this, from the quality of the shots on target, to the goalkeepers’ positional play and possibly also to the ball itself which picked up incredible speed. The latter explanation was indeed confirmed by many goalkeepers…’ Whatever the reasons for the Jabulani’s unpopularity with players Adidas was determined that for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the ball was not going to be a flop.

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The Brazuca is the result of two and a half years of careful design and development. It is certainly a high-tech product and a far remove from the leather-and-rubber balls that soaked up rainwater and reduced many a centre forward to unconsciousness for trying to head it into the net. The Brazuca has a bladder made from carbon latex and a ‘casing’ made from a blend of ethylene vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes. The casing has thousands of tiny pits designed to enhance the Magnus effect. The ball is assembled by the Yayork Plastica Products Co. Ltd of Tian Liao Village in the city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Yayork is a subsidiary of Long Way Enterprise Co. Ltd which seems to be headquartered in Taiwan.

But even the highest of high-tech balls have to be proved to FIFA’s satisfaction by EMPA, the Swiss government’s test labs near Zurich. There, footballs are tested for weight, roundness, bounce, water absorption, durability and pressure maintenance. According to FIFA, every new model of ball that wants to carry the FIFA stamp of approval is tested almost (but not quite) to destruction.

Clearly, getting a new ball onto the park is a lengthy and expensive process. But there’s little doubt Adidas will get its money back. If all goes according to plan Adidas will be selling millions of Brazucas across the world, particularly before, during and after the finals. Just about every junior football club and Sunday player in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa will want their own copy of the ball. It’s believed that Adidas sold 10-12 million of the not-so-successful Jabulanis.

‘We expect the Brazuca to become the most popular match ball Adidas has ever produced,’ a company spokesman said. ‘Brazuca is our most tested ball ever. It went through two and a half years of testing in 10 countries across three continents involving more than 600 players and 30 teams. We interviewed 287 players – a third of which are not contracted to Adidas – and the feedback has been extremely positive.’

 

Where the design of the World Cup ball goes from here only Adidas knows. But the number of panels that make up every World Cup ball has declined since the 32-panel Nielsen design made its tournament debut in 1970. Moreover, each ball is said to be more spherical than its predecessor. It’s possible that the ball for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will have just four panels. In which case, the evolution of the football will have gone full circle. What’s thought to be the world’s oldest surviving football comprises four panels of deer-skin leather roughly stitched around a pig’s bladder. It has been dated to around 1540 and was found lodged in the rafters of the Queen’s Chamber in Stirling Castle. It conjures up an unlikely image of Mary of Guise and her ladies-in-waiting playing a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ until the ball got stuck in the rafters.It can be seen at Stirling’s Smith Museum where it is one of the main attractions.

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Union Blues

This mighty affair’ was the phrase Daniel Defoe used to describe the events which preceded and accompanied the approval of the Act of Union by the Scottish Parliament, and since he was in Edinburgh with a sackful of cash to help persuade legislative doubters or waverers, he should have known. Defoe is a character in Tim Barrow’s Union, but never uses that expression, being too shifty to allow himself such flights of rhetoric. He is a devious spy for the English court, a briber or corrupter, insinuating himself with the sly skills of his modern counterpart, the lobbyist, into the corridors, or at least into the howffs, of power.

But mighty the affair was, and if 2014 may see the end of the union, this play aims to examine the establishment of it in 1707. A massive, solid Union Jack, assembled like an outsize Lego construction, stands centre stage at the beginning. It’s clearly capable of being dismantled, although in the event not into the constituent flags or national colours but into a series of uprights, squares and angles. Upside down, it would be a sign of distress, but the contemporary distress of the union, this mightier affair, is hardly brought to the fore. Curiously the flag never makes any further appearance, although the temptation to use it as a metaphor by pulling it apart or binding it tightly together must have been strong. The refusal to do so and its disappearance after its initial visual dominance can be taken, generously, as a sign of the production team’s determination to remain disengaged or, less generously, as a symptom of a tentativeness which undermines the work. It is not a play which seeks metaphors to deal with the dilemmas of today. Any connection between views uttered in 1707 and those issued now is hardly coincidental or casual, but parallels in the issues under discussion then and now are left to emerge in the audience’s mind.

When the lighting with the colours of the British flag is dulled, the blocks originally used to make it up are spun round and video images played on them to represent the environments or locations in London and Edinburgh in which the action unfolds. Whatever reservations one may have about other aspects of the production, the staging unquestionably represents a triumph of the designer’s art. Andrzej Goulding is credited as designer/video artist, with Chris Davey and Tim Mascall as lighting designers, and whatever their individual input, their work produces masterly results. The flats become part of a mobile set which can be rolled round or reversed scene by scene to allow some new furnishing to come into view and some new video work to be played on them. That might sound gimmicky, but the effect is mesmerising, magnetic and magic. In the howff frequented by Edinburgh’s establishment as well as by whores and poets, images in the background suggest noggins of ale as well as piles of coins, not to mention torrential rain. It would appear that the extreme weather we are told results from climate change today had already afflicted Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Every scene in Scotland’s capital is accompanied by monsoon weather that would have defied any attempt to dry the loch under the castle. The noise of rain falling or of rolling thunder and lightning would be sufficient to transform Edinburgh into the ‘blasted heath’ where Macbeth acted out his tragic end. Switch to the genteel salons of London and the climate outside is, presumably, more mild, and a twirl of the set is sufficient to make the low-life drinking tables and barrels give way to an elegant chaise longue or console table, while the frescoed images portrayed are of baroque ceilings, exotic drapes and framed works of art. If theatre is a collaborative venture, the work of the design team is here a ravishing, highly valued element.

Every playwright in the modern age who attempts historical work which is more than mere costume drama has to face decisions which his predecessors were spared. Those who wish their work to be seen as a play of ideas have to decide whether to treat serious subjects seriously, or conclude that modern audiences can best cope with serious subjects when presented in the guise of comedy or even farce. Dario Fo, as well as John McGrath and 7:84 and others, has extended the range of farce, so instead of the good old knockabout or light fun with adulterous clergymen, modern theatre-goes have been introduced to didactic farce, moralistic farce, philosophical farce and politically correct or incorrect farce. There is also Samuel Beckett’s tragic farce but that is another dimension. McGrath’s Border Warfare covers some of the same territory as Union, and he employed a variety of techniques and approaches, including broad comedy, while the late Hector MacMillan with The Rising felt able to reproduce history and one historical disaster without recourse to the mechanisms of comedy.

Tim Barrow seems to have been unable to make a clear choice between these two options, choosing each in turn. The switch in tone and approach between the first and second acts is so massive that if this script had been found in a bottle, it would have been reasonable to believe they were the work of two different writers. In the first half, Barrow has chosen the big, vulgar, coarse, rollicking epic style of the romp, of the sort customarily described now as ‘in yer face,’ although it would be advisable to move yer face smartly aside. There are no subtleties of tone to indicate a split between the standards of aristos and plebs, between the pub and the salon, between Scots and English, nor between the male and female of the species. They are all down-to-earth types, who quaff large quantities of alcohol, swear and curse, lack wit and express themselves with little originality. In London, the Duke of Marlborough, perhaps to conform to the stereotype of the bluff military man, blusters and bawls, but so too do the Lords Stair and Seafield in Edinburgh.

Too many scenes in the first act drift in the search for laughs using tired clichés or familiar lines. ‘Look what the cat dragged in,’ someone utters in reference to the Duke of Queensberry when he enters the howff, while later in the court of Queen Anne, a lord is told he would be ‘none the worst of a good hanging’, and maybe he would not, but this is not sharp or even original dialogue. Too frequently Barrow has to rely on the employment of the shamanic word ‘fucking’ to ensure that an unremarkable line gains some kind of pseudo-comic charge. The actors, most of whom have to play multiple roles, are driven to declaim rather than speak as the characters identify each other mechanically, or exchange pieces of information they must have known, all in the guise of dialogue.

In the final scene of the first act, the tone changes and five of the prominent lords in the Scottish Parliament, two on either side of the Presiding Officer, stand in a line up to address the audience directly. The Duke of Queensberry and Earl of Stair speak hypocritical words of false regret, wondering how Scotland could survive on its own, if it was not better to seek shelter in a stronger union, how the economy and industry would prosper and whether the country could weather the disaster visited on it by the Darien Expedition, while Lord Belhaven and the Duke of Hamilton deplore the impending end of nationhood, of self-reliance, of the loss of a culture and a history. Any connection with Project Fear or between the eighteenth-century Darien fiasco and the twenty-first-century RBS debacle is left to the audience to make.

This dramatic, serious tone is dominant in the second act. There are still some scenes of farce, as when Queensberry is found lying drunk on a sofa in the royal palace and goes on to sing a lewd lyric to the queen, but for most of this act the author’s voice is carried in a different key. Barrow handles serious dialogue with greater conviction and seems more at ease with himself when free of the need to go clowning. In consequence, this act proceeds with greater confidence and assurance, although it would have been none the worse for a good snip of the scissors.

The author prefers to observe events associated with the political developments, particularly in rainy Edinburgh, from the margins, while in London he focuses on the central characters. His main focus is provided by two writers, the poet Allan Ramsay and Daniel Defoe. Ramsay, played by a young actor, Josh Whitelaw, has other worries other than Scotland’s loss of nationhood, since he is in love with a whore, Grace, played skilfully by Sally Reid. Ramsay tries to interest her in Catullus, who may have been similarly enamoured of a prostitute, and wishes to idealise her as his muse, while she insists that she is no more than a street tart. She also emerges, somewhat heavily, as an image of Scotland, sold to any bidder, falling pregnant, undergoing an abortion in spite of Ramsay’s entreaties and finally dying of a bungled operation.

Defoe is no bystander, and Ifan Meredith endows him with repellent, viperish qualities, without ever making him a caricature. He links the two centres, but in the later London scenes, Barrow loses focus as he pursues an extraneous interest in the personal affairs of the unfortunate Queen Anne. Queensbury (a mainly harlequinesque performance by Liam Brennan) arrives in London as High Commissioner for Scotland, and in the meeting with the monarch, coaxes her to abandon tea in favour of whisky. His drunkenness is manifested by pub songs;hers by a long meandering account of her unhappy life, of her miserable marriage, of her multiple pregnancies, of the frustrations of her wedding night, which led her to flee the marital bed for the consolations offered by Sarah Churchill (Rebecca Palmer), whom she loved but who later abandoned her. Whatever the historical facts, she is a somewhat odd presence who seems at times to have wandered in from another drama. Part caricature who indulges in petty fastidiousness over the varieties of tea offered her, part domestic tyrant and then desolate woman disappointed with life, Irene Allan gives her successive moods credibility. Her pompous Master of House (Mark McDonnell) is ensnared and then jettisoned, but these incidents take us far away from the shenanigans of the Union and weaken the dramatic coherence of the work.

The essence of course is the distribution of the English gold for which Scottish lords were bought and sold, as Burns had it, and by the time Belhaven reads out the list of sums disbursed it is too late. The Duke of Hamilton (Andrew Vincent), having initially opposed Union accepts the bribe and fails to turn up for the vote, blaming the pangs of toothache. Tony Cownie turns in a fine performance as Walpole in England and an even better one as the guilt-ridden Lord Stair. Barrow’s final problem is to know how to bring his work to a conclusion so, as often happens, he has about three concluding scenes, where one would do. He goes off down a final cul de sac by introducing a guard called Campbell who is warned by the howff-keeper, whose name is MacDonald to go into hiding to avoid the mobs rioting against Union.

The ending suffers from Barrow’s tendency to overload his work, to go down too many by-ways. Director Mark Thomson would have done him a favour by cutting out some of the weaker scenes. As it is, the company end up with a play of some good moments and some good performances, but ultimately, with a strangely bloodless work and a disappointingly missed opportunity.

Union

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Run ended

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High Fliers

It would be logical to assume that eagles represent a kind of pinnacle in nature writing. If any creature demands that a writer pulls out all the stops, especially the ones marked ‘poetic description’, ‘drama’ and ‘romance’, it would be this one. In the first two pages of The Eagle’s Way, with his lyrical description of a female golden eagle in Glen Dochart, Jim Crumley appears to have done just that. One sighs a little and wonders if this is a prelude to another 200 pages of eagle-induced grandiose prose. Mercifully not. Crumley writes in a way which is thoughtful, insightful and self-aware, and his descriptions of eagles range from poignant to downright amusing. When he does return to the same glen, and the same eagle, at the end of the book, he has more than earned a bit of lyricism. Indeed, after those opening two pages, the book settles down to the pace it sustains throughout, the pedestrian pace of the naturalist, with a destination in mind but always alert to what is happening around him. After thirty years of walking, looking and writing, Crumley is reflecting about what he does and what it means.

He is one of Scotland’s foremost nature writers and though his oeuvre of 26 books takes in mountaineering, a memoir and two novels, he is most often concerned with the wildlife of his home stamping ground, particularly the Trossachs. He has watched golden eagles in Scotland for three decades and has toyed with the idea of an eagle book for almost as long, but no story presented itself to drive the thing forward. Now it does, in the form of sea eagles on Tayside, a stone’s throw from where Crumley grew up in Dundee. After the successful re-introduction of the bird on the west coast after an absence of nearly 100 years, a project began in 2007 to introduce year-old birds from Norway to Forestry Commission land in north Fife. Crumley had a lightbulb moment when he observed four adolescent eagles in the trees above Loch Tay: three sea eagles and one golden. Something new was afoot in the eagle world which demanded his attention.

Scotland is presently home to two species of eagle, boundaries are being renegotiated. Golden eagles prefer to inhabit the wildest, loneliest places, shunning all contact with humans. Sea eagles, identified by their greater size and white tail, are much less choosy about where they live and whether they share that space with people. In the next ten to twenty years, Crumley predicts, they will outnumber golden eagles significantly. The next two decades will see a renegotiation of the relationship between eagles and people, and between eagles and eagles.

Thanks to the sea eagle, a country which has systematically hunted to death ‘all the prime movers and shakers of northern hemisphere wilderness’ has a new top predator. And we, the real top predator, can be expected not to like it. The backlash has started on the east coast – the appalled citizen who called the papers because she saw a sea eagle attack a swan, the (Crumley says exaggerated) claim that they will attack lambs, the hysteria: ‘What next? A child?’ Since it seems we are still a long way from the reintroduction of wolves, for which Crumley passionately argued in his 2010 book The Last Wolf, the eagle is ‘all the wolf nature has to work with’.

The beginning of his eagle journey is at the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister on South Ronaldsay, excavated to reveal fragments of bones of humans and birds, mostly sea eagles, from around 3000BC. Though little is known about their lives, the Stone Age people who built this tomb clearly had a close relationship with eagles, at a time when sea eagles were much more plentiful than they are now. Holding a handful of the eagle talons at the small museum at the site, he felt an ‘electrifying summons’: ‘the relationship between man and eagle is reborn, you too are part of this’.

Seeing the four eagles above Loch Tay began another line of thinking for Crumley. The east coast eagles have been travelling west – the first of them to breed did so on Mull, having hooked up with other members of its own kind. It may have gone there seeking them, or perhaps it just travelled towards the sunset – these are Norwegian eagles after all, and Norway has no east coast to speak of. In any case, there is eagle traffic going west, from the Tay estuary to Mull, and back again. Is this, he speculates, ‘a new thoroughfare of nature stretching across the waist of the country, being built by eagles’? In The Eagle’s Way, he traces that journey – which, incidentally, takes in much of his own best loved wildlife-watching territory – looking at the landscape as an eagle might look: water courses, roosts, nesting sites.

One of the challenges of writing about eagles is that they are not easy to find or to watch. Any eagle watcher must be patient in the extreme: the fly past described in the first two pages was the result of a dawn rise, an hour’s climb and four hours of waiting for five minutes of flight. There is plenty of space, then, for reflection, and for observing the show nature puts on while the watcher waits for the eagle to appear: a fox which seems captivated by the song of a ring ouzel, a beautiful description of a newly fledged osprey learning to fish. Crumley has a fine turn of phrase which makes us alert to familiar things in new ways: oystercatcher cries which are ‘strident variations on a theme of “piss off”’, a dawn vigil ‘watching the sky’s paint dry’.

He admits that, even after many years of fieldcraft, much of his success comes down to instinct (which is surely part of that long experience) and luck (which is not). Eagles, for all their size and grandeur seem to disguise themselves effectively as rocks (this book is full of ‘rocks that don’t look quite right’ which turn into eagles). And he is refreshingly honest about the moment when the sudden eagle appearance stirs him into action, causing him to drop his binoculars and trample them into the mud. Somehow, in a book which is all about the splendour of nature, it helps to be reminded that the watcher has his feet on the ground.

The Eagle’s Way is the product of a lifetime of eagle watching. But it is also about what it is that makes it worth doing. It isn’t heavy on ornithological detail – I’m still wondering why so few golden eagle chicks survive to adulthood – it’s more about the joy of eagle encounters, an appreciation of how the air changes when a pair of wings the size of fireside rugs unfold and glide above you, or the exhilaration of watching golden eagles accomplish aerial acrobatics no other bird can match. The sea eagle, by contrast, is more ungainly, ‘a massive apology for an eagle with all the grace of an airborne tank’.

How will golden eagles be affected by the increase in sea eagle numbers? One wonders if Crumley doesn’t make too much of this question, since the answer seems to be ‘not much’. The golden eagle, though smaller, is the better flier and would seem to handle itself well in a fight over territory, if such occurred. In Norway, the two coexist amicably enough, and, as evidenced by the four youngsters above Loch Tay, the young seem to hang out together. The more difficult renegotiation is likely to be between sea eagles and human beings. In Tayside, there is a mix of support and suspicion for the sea eagles and the latter, Crumley predicts, can only grow as the eagle population grows. While giving no quarter to the objections, he does concede that, when surprised by a sea eagle out of context (on the seventh fairway at St Fillans golf course) he did find the encounter somewhat menacing. There are glances back at the bad old days when eagles were shot, trapped and poisoned by those who managed sporting estates. This is now illegal, but still happens, and will go on, Crumley says, until a landowner is jailed. Yet he is equally cynical about how wildlife lovers romanticise eagles, give names to breeding pairs and use webcams to turn them into celebrities.

On the island of Mull, eagles have become a key part of the tourism economy. While Crumley writes, with some distaste, of ‘gimme-your-money-and-I’ll-show-you-eagles’ school of eco-tourism, the campervans and tripods lined up on the eagles’ flight path, at the same time he is wise enough not to be grudging. Since he finds great consolation in observing eagles, who is he to deny that to others? Behind much of his book is a question about what happens when people meddle with nature. Crumley approves of the sea eagle reintroduction, which after all is only righting a wrong that we were responsible for in the first place, but it is nonetheless creating an artificial situation. What does it mean to introduce year-old birds to another country, where they have no mature adults to observe and learn from? And he questions the value of tagging and tracking them: ‘the only ones of our own kind that we tag are criminals’.

This is, in some ways, a highly personal book. Though it raises pertinent issues, Crumley is also engaged in something deeper and arguably more difficult: trying to say something about what it means for him to watch eagles. He conveys the feelings involved – the excitement, the joy, the wonder of the natural world at its wildest – with honesty and passion and, yes, poetry, and this feels entirely appropriate.

The Eagle’s Way

Jim Crumley

Saraband, £12.99, ISBN 1098643471, 176PP

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From Waterloo to The Western Front

Michael Fry’s title appears on an alluring cover: transposing Baltic Ruegen to the Salisbury Crags. Gleaming chalk roughens into streaky red-brown lava-stone. From its lower centre a slight frock-coated figure looks away from us, not on the sea, but on the piled-up Acropolis of Edinburgh: Caspar David Friedrich, adapted by William Bell Scott. The point’s eloquently made: the painter being metaphysical in the style of Goethe … but he’s confronted by a city impossible to live in for the normal human span, let alone Goethe’s 83 years.

Germany in Goethe’s time was the land of the dialectic, and Fry has already conjured up Professor Tom Devine. The contest of Die Meisterhistoriker von Edinburg takes the stage. Devine has spoken in the Herald: a good flyting pleases us groundlings, and the contestants are Hans Sachs more than they are Beckmesser – but the recent books of both writers create lacunae as well as summits.

We badly need a narrative of the Scottish nineteenth century, something expressive of its grandeur, apparent stability – and the power of Walter Scott’s ‘broad and deep river’. It would have been a fitting lap of honour for our greatest historian, had Colin Matthew, editor and biographer of Gladstone and of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, lived. Or an autumnal essay for a guest such as Asa Briggs, in retirement at Whittinghame.

Here we have Fry, the grand fauve with this entrancing overture. Does the rest of it live up to it, and the dedication to George Elder Davie? The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century was launched in 1961 in a cased edition designed by John Mackie. Devine assaults Fry as unoriginal: a bit unfair as his own modus operandi has generally centred – like my own – on adapting learned articles into monographs. But there are problems for both contestants, as their period – centred on the ‘core 19thcentury’ of 1830-1886 – requires a high degree of chronological discipline.

Fry begins resoundingly at Waterloo, with the Scots’ desperate defence of Hougoumont Farm and Ensign Ewart hacking his way through the Forty-fifth. This would go on – in South America, India, the Crimea, the Sudan, commemorated in granite and McGonagallite doggerel – until it and the country’s hopes ended in the mud of the Western Front. But Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher not Ewart saved Wellington, and his story also has Scottish form, in the work of the brothers Keith in creating the Prussian army for Frederick the Great, waiting to be broadcast by Thomas Carlyle in fourteen volumes in the 1860s.

Fry’s narrative then breaks into theme mode – ‘Economy, Society, Margins, Politics, Culture’ – with no particular logic to this order, though several impressive episodes. Ought culture to take precedence, indicating point of view, strength of lens? Devine has a similar structure in To The Ends of the Earth (2011). There is no problem about relevance, but it can lead to indeterminacy and redundancy. V S Pritchett famously wrote of great novels requiring the ‘determined stupor’ of creation. Twenty years back I wrote Fool’s Gold on North Sea oil against a six-month deadline; so determined was my stupor that I’ve very little memory of the process, beyond my wife’s competence in interrogating and editing the weekly darg and one ten-day air-pocket in Washington, South Carolina and New Orleans where I got some insight into American involvement. But it seems to have stood up as narrative, because the author was bound continuously to the story’s chronology.

For both Fry and Devine the steamboat world of Kipling’s MacAndrew is central, but how did we get to the point of embarkation? Various fairly obvious techniques and places don’t turn up: the evolution of invention, collection and translation, the long partnerships with Scandinavia, Russia or Italy. Military Scottishness isn’t one of Devine’s strongpoints – nor does the theme persist in Fry – yet this was grounded in the ‘internal frontier’ of the Highland Line and the sociology of Adam Ferguson, a Gaelic speaker from Logierait, for whom ethnic difference and stylised conflict were guarantors of community integrity.

Ferguson’s teaching spread out from the ‘Scottish’ university of Gottingen, founded by George II in 1734, as well as the vast and qualitatively remarkable output of his protégé Walter Scott, from the Border Minstrelsy (1805) on. His Life of Napoleon (1827) was effectively a pioneering contemporary history, giving ‘imperialism’ its meaning until the 1880s. This is ignored by both writers, although there was a Union of Britain and Corsica under Lord Minto and Pasquale Paoli, Bonaparte’s first chief – as real as it was far-fetched, at least between 1794-96.

Could there be a sustained narrative? If our two authors had stuck to the powerful example of Eric Hobsbawm the way would have been demanding but more productive. Something echoed by Prof. Joseph Lee when he claimed the centrality of intellectual history to any national narrative in The Modernisation of Irish Society (1973) and he  triumphantly vindicated this in his Ireland, 19121985: Politics and Society (1989). This often depends on second-order interpreters – alas absent in both accounts – who generate and knit together epochs by engineering the information: the agriculturalist Sir James Caird, 1816-92, prophet of ‘high-farming’, Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882, between novel-writing and hunting setting up the Scottish Postal system which market weevils are currently gnawing away, George Bartholomew, 1784-1871, establishing Edinburgh’s dominance of world map-making, and Leslie Stephen, 1835-1905, of the Dictionary of National Biography. These people not only create account but also develop a sort of ‘niche history’ that foregrounds such apparent exotics as Scots-invented canneries, conservation and cable-trams in California or the speculator Lamont Young’s scheme in the 1880s to rebuild Naples as a Mediterranean transport hub (the Camorra burned down in the 1990sthe last of his Walter Scott gothic castles … ). These outliers demonstrate Leslie Stephen’s contention – writing on Trollope – that the character of a period shows itself not in normative behaviour but at the extremes, or the weird contrasts that Robert Louis Stevenson found in the Rockies between the speculators of his own dour country and the ‘impromptu cities’ that their money and mild ambition created.

As for flyting, I am reminded of Norman MacCaig’s line, ‘two rosy bourgeois howling at each other’. Like Carlyle against Macaulay, perhaps? In a way Devine and Fry are mutually dependent and a good thing, unlikely to degenerate to the level of today’s ‘quality’ journalists who replace descriptive craft with the slovenly ‘iconic’. Yet do they sometimes forget A J P Taylor on Carlyle: while academics could explain the causation of the French Revolution, ‘Carlyle would take you there.’ This visceral quality – which the incomparable George MacDonald Fraser had in spades – may account for the malign persistence of military history at your local Waterstones, but is still necessary. At this level written Devine is rather retiring, while Fry could use Edmund Wilson’s wrist-slapping fusion of ideas and journalist didactics in To the Finland Station.

A new race of men? Alas, only too true – not only for our two authors, but for most of us. Thirty-one women figure in Fry’s index: quickly equalled by the men whose names began with A and the first quarter of the ‘B’s. As to Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth, add all possible references (i.e. to ‘Marriage’, ‘Polygamy’, etc., as well as names) and you get about forty. I am actually worse in No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: twenty-one. No wonder its most succinct critique was ‘No Gods and Precious Few Women’. This I wanted to change for the forthcoming fourth edition, but my editor Prof Jenny Wormald won’t let me. 

Is a reflex of this (and an odd and not necessarily helpful one) the adoption of femininity by outraged male feminists? The best-selling Welsh – and also imperial – historian and essayist Jan Morris was formerly the explorer and reporter John Morris. Jo Clifford changed her identity from John Clifford after the death of her remarkable wife Sue Innes in 2005, and contributes a short but challenging essay to the recent Unstated symposium, which (as befits the author of Losing Venice) echoes the ‘housekeeping’ economics of Ruskin.

In this there’s a certain precedent in myth: what the novelist Emyr Humphreys calls in The Taliesin Tradition the Welsh facility of shape-changing, observable in his panoramic political-novel sequence Land of the Living centred on the Jennie Lee-like figure of Amy Parry: Taliesin being known as the ‘shape-changer’. ‘Fiona McLeod’ (the alter ego of the Celticist William Sharp) would fit in here, as well as Grassic Gibbon’s Chris Guthrie, observing the latter days of Fry’s world. We’re in for the Welsh-Liverpudlian Terence Davies’ film of Sunset Song, and not a moment too soon.

Ruskin doesn’t get into Fry, though Carlyle does. The Blackwoodsmen, W E Aytoun, George MacDonald and J M Barrie don’t crop up in either, nor do our other roamers: translators such as William Archer and Ibsen, Charles Scott-Moncrieff and Proust, Thomas Common and Nietzsche – or traveller-writers like Isabella Bird and Caroline Spence and landscape painters like David Roberts. Looked at practically, the sleep of narrative history brings forth some odd alternative growths. ‘Tartan Noir’ seems to coincide with the polis finding lots of historical cases to pore over. Yet responding to ‘There’s been a murrrder!’… some years back, we have missed out on the megacrooks of finance, or that Clan Murdoch which came from the ends of the earth – buccaneering as anyone in Fry – to tear deferential civil society to bits, while managing to run its own counter-culture in The Simpsons.

Neither Groundkeeper Willie nor Monty Burns – pace The Simpsons – exactly burnishes the Scots reputation. But the earliest tombstone I found on Boot Hill in Laramie, Wyoming (named by a Scot, the now-forgotten Thomas Campbell) was ‘Homer J Burns, 1873’, while his namesake’s epigraph to Tam o’ Shanter was ‘Of Brownyis and bogillis fule is this buke’ – borrowed from Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, from the unpropitious year of 1513. Troy itself wasn’t a model settlement, but we lose the great tale at our peril.

A New Race of Men

Michael Fry

Birlinn, £25.00, ISBN 978-1-780271-42-2, 448PP

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Mining Fife

According to a mid-nineteenth century gazetteer, Cowdenbeath contained exactly 127 inhabitants. Its compiler could not find much more to say about it beyond that. Lying to the south-east of Beath, it had a station from where you could catch trains to Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. South of the village was a bleachfield. And that’s about it. Almost a century and a half later nothing much had changed. In their entry to the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, John and Julia Keay drolly note that at some point in the intervening period ‘industrial optimists billed Cowdenbeath “The Chicago of Fife”.’ In the sixty or so years from 1850 to the onset of World War One the town doubled in size every decade thanks to the rich seams of coal which lay deep beneath Fife’s fecund surface. But, as the Keays go on to say, Cowdenbeath’s fall was as precipitous as its rise, and when the collieries closed it had lost its raison d’etre and many of its population took whatever opportunity they had to leave.

Among them were John Burnside’s mother and father, who removed their son and his sister to Corby in Northamptonshire. Corby was supposed to be everything that Cowdenbeath wasn’t. In 1950, five years before Burnside was born, it became a New Town, though signs of human settlement there have been traced to the eighth century. It was championed as ‘car-friendly’, verdant and open-spaced and, more importantly, there were jobs aplenty, especially in steel-making. Such was the influx of Scots to this employment nirvana that it was dubbed ‘Little Scotland’. Of late, however, Corby has notfared so well. As Cowdenbeath lost coal so, too, did it lose steel. It has since become a byword for regeneration; a couple of years ago Stephen Fry was engaged to do the voiceover for a video which hoped to entice people in the congested south-east to decamp north. How successful this was one is ill-placed to say.

Cowdenbeath and Corby are to Burnside what Auteil and Illiers – the models for the fictional Combray – were to Proust, an association that is at once pertinent and ridiculous. Burnside is certainly no Proust and the towns that meant so much to both men could not be more different. Burnside’s lodestars are places that existed as dormitories for workers; Proust’s where the bourgoeisie frittered away empty hours. Yet it is time past that hangs most heavily over the two writers, time that is gone and irretrievable but through memory and words on a page. Proust’s narrator is an onlooker, a witness to events and sensations and conversations he is trying in hindsight to make sense of. As time marches remorselessly forward, he is locked in the past, Narcissus gazing forever at his own fresh-faced reflection. Likewise, Burnside is condemned to revisit his childhood in places that are only magical because for him they were formative. The difference between the two writers, however, is that when one reads Proust, especially the first volume of the roman fleuve, one can’t help but sensethat his narrator would take the first train back to those years, to ‘Combray’; whether Burnside feels the same about Cowdenbeath and Corby is less certain.

I Put a Spell on You is his third memoir, following A Lie About My Father, published in 2006, and Waking Up in Toytown, which appeared four years later. A Lie About My Father, Burnside insisted, is ‘best treated as a work of fiction’, adding ‘I’m sure that it’s as true to say I never had a father as it is to say that he never had a son.’ Like that landmark in autobiography, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), Burnside’s book may be read as ‘the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs.’ His father, like his son, was a myth-maker, a teller of tales, which he had been telling for so long and so often theyhad come to wear the veneer of fact. In Waking Up in Toytown, Burnside’s focus was predominantly on himself as a young and directionless man finding solace (and suffering) in drink, drugs and sex. It has an air of desperation about it, its author being well aware of how close to the edge he is creeping. He is a dangling man, more a danger to himself than anyone else. Moreover, he is haunted by a childhood that was both dream and nightmare, innocent and hellish, who could have ended up in a very different place to that which he now occupies as one of the country’s pre-eminent writers and a  professor at St Andrews University.

This new book is freighted with an arguably unnecessary sub-title, Several Digressions on Love and Glamour. It comprises twenty-four essays, all of which could stand alone. Together, however, they provide a coda to their two predecessors and, to a degree, Burnside’s ever-expanding body of poetry and fiction. It is a wilfully and unapologetically digressive work, at the core of which is memory. Towards its end, Burnside writes, in one of many Proustian passages: ‘No memory happens in the past. To say this in so many words is, no doubt, to state the obvious – our memories happen now, in the madeleine– and tisane-tinctured present – but it strikes me as peculiar, still, that my recollections have so little to do with historical time. When I recall a golden or terrifying afternoon from my childhood, when the name of an old friend suddenly crops up in one of those private conversations I have with myself while driving or soaking in the bathtub, I rarely have a specific day, or a specific year, in mind. All the summers of childhood are distilled to one afternoon and everything that ever happened in sunlight or June rain happened on that one day. All the Christmases of my blithe teens take place in the space of one snow-lit and vaguely clandestine winter…’

Like Proust, like Updike or Kafka, Burnside is more interested in himself than anyone else. In some cases – Compton Mackenzie, author of a ten-volume autobiography, springs to mind – such solipsism, such self-absorption, borders on self-love and soon palls. That is not the case with Burnside. He writes about himself with brutal and beguiling honesty. He seems genuinely puzzled by who he was and how he came to be who he is. As he grows older, he changes, one consequence of which is that the anger he felt toward his father has mellowed and he feels more sympathetic towards that damaged man who, previously, he appeared to loathe.

Seven of his chapters are labelled ‘digresssions’, in between which he describes incidents from his life and animadverts on music, classical literature, movies, the photographer Diane Arbus and Mel Lyman, the American folk musician and film-maker who provided a link between Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.

The book’s title is taken from the much-covered song written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, another maker of his own myths. The version Burnside first heard as a nine-year-old was by Nina Simone and whenever he hears her or anyone else sing it he is transported back to Cowdenbeath. There, as a teenage barfly, he heard a girl called Annie sing it in a cafe, not long after which she was murdered, stabbed six times by the ex-girlfriend of the boy Annie was with.

Burnside’s life is not short of such incidents, the stuff of which regularly feature in Scottish news bulletins between the heavy duty stories and the sporting fluff. Simultaneously, he is attracted to and repelled by violence of the sort which flares up out of nowhere and without premeditation and dies down just as quickly. Often women are involved. In the seventh of his digressions Burnside recalls his admission to a mental hospital in Cambridge where he was being treated – successfully, it seems – for ‘psychosis of a paranoid nature’. There he met Cathy, a fellow patient, a schizophrenic. One night the two of them sneaked out and went to a nearby pub where Cathy threw a wobbly. Burnside relates how he helped manoeuvre her out the door without too much fuss but in doing so the pact that he and she had forged in the hospital was broken. Thereafter they lost touch and he learned some time later that she had killed herself.

The old Scots word ‘glamourie’, meaning to ‘bewitch’ or ‘dazzle’ is at the core of I Put a Spell on You. Indeed, it would havemade a more intriguing, if less recognisable and sellable title. ‘Glamourie,’ writes Burnside, ‘is a different way of being in the world, a sudden and frightening opennness, the soul like a door ajar, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the physical and intimate and erotic, invested with new energy and light and, at the same time, beautifully perilous.’ He suspects that we all ‘have a glamourie hidden away somewhere.’ He thinks in terms of corpses in cupboards, girls buried below floorboards, angels in the rafters. We have returned to Cowdenbeath, to the condemned house in which his parents lived when they were first married and where they had a child, a girl, who died before John Burnside was born. Thus he was aware of death before he began truly to live, his mother and father affected differently by their loss, one saying nothing, the other raging in his cups. It was as if a spell had been put on him and them, haunted as they all were by ghosts, wakened by phantom phone calls, pursued by demons, driven to distraction by memory, telling lies in order to survive.

I Put a Spell on You: General Digressions on Love and Glamour

John Burnside 

Jonathan Cape, £16.99, ISBN 24681097531, 272PP

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Tree Hugging

Contemporary authors, one theory goes, are drawn to the genre of historical fiction because it offers greater dramatic challenges for characters to encounter than the present-day can offer. In the past, this school of thought continues, the stakes were not only higher, but clearer. Power lay within the hands of competing dynasties and scheming cardinals; today, one struggles to locate its true source within a blurred and shifting nexus of career politicians, corporate lobbyists, and the media. In the long-ago, marriage couldn’t be undone with the help of a good lawyer. And people struggled with their faith, not their Facebook settings.

Prior to her latest novel Gone are the Leaves, Anne Donovan set her fiction – the short story collection Hieroglyphics (2001) and the novels Buddha Da (2003) and Being Emily (2008) – in the present. Her themes have remained consistent across her work, pivoting on the question: what do we owe to others – and what do we owe to ourselves? In Donovan’s fiction this is filtered through art and religion, the pursuit of both often coming into conflict with the loyalty owed to loved ones. The question is if anything, Donovan’s readers learn, more potent in medieval Europe than present day Glasgow, with a knock-on effect: Gone are the Leaves is more obviously plot-driven than earlier works.

If Gone are the Leaves suggests Donovan is a descendant of Walter Scott, her first novel Buddha Da gave the impression she was a graduate of the school of Kelman. Its premise is easy to summarise: working class man embarks on spiritual quest, with consequences for himself and those closest to him. At first the clash between a yearning for transcendence and worldly matters is played for laughs. Is there a better city on the planet than Glasgow for the contradictions and comedy inherent in this story to play out? The hero Jimmy McKenna is a painter and decorator who, as much to his surprise as to his friends’, converts to Buddhism. An early scene sets the tone. Jimmy accompanies a trio of lamas who believe they’ve located a reincarnated spiritual leader to a council house in Carmunnock. After bamboozling the grandmother watching the child, both sides slowly realise they’re mistaken. The ‘wifie’ shouts after the retreating holy men, ‘Tommy’ll kill you if he funds oot – he’s a good protestant, so he is.’

Elements of the novel, the moments where the cosmic and comic intertwine, are familiar from Alan Spence’s fiction, especially The Magic Flute and Way to Go. What Donovan contributed was a new focus on domesticity, on a wife and a daughter unsettled by Jimmy’s transformation. Buddha Da’s comedy grows subdued as the book progresses. After initially tolerating Jimmy’s new-found dedication to Buddhism, his family are steadily alienated. Jimmy swearing off alcohol is one thing; when he tells his wife he wants to be celibate, she feels rejected. Matters escalate until Jimmy finds himself ejected from his home.

Donovan’s second novel reworks elements of Buddha Da, but now with art replacing spirituality as the plot’s driver. Again Donovan locates her story within a Glaswegian family of Catholics of Irish descent, only this time religion is of less importance to the protagonist than literature and the visual arts. Fiona O’Connell’s spirit guide is not the Buddha, but Emily Bronte. Once more, this is played for laughs in the novel’s early stages. Her parents affect shock when they find her willingly undertaking housework; they’re unaware that she’s has just learned that Bronte read while doing her chores, and that Fiona’s cleaning is an unusual act of literary homage.

Bronte’s life and fiction become a template for plot-advancing incidents as well as Fiona’s soul-searching. Her mother dies in her forties, during childbirth: ‘Doesnae happen in a clean bright modern hospital with highly trained professional staff and all the technology you can imagine. In a Victorian novel, aye, but no on the eve of the twenty-first century.’ Later, her devastated, drink-fuddled father almost burns down the flat, recalling Branwell Bronte, who set his bed on fire. Amrik, the musician brother of her stolid first boyfriend Jas, has something of the Byronic hero to him too.

Over the course of Being Emily, Fiona, like Jimmy McKenna before her, finds it difficult to balance a governing passion (for her, the visual arts) with obligations to loved ones. Donovan inflicts an injury upon her novel, however, by referring to Bronte. It’s rarely a good idea for a writer to invoke a literary past-master uncritically; the reader may find himself thinking his time would be better spent re-reading one of their classics than the contemporary and subsidiary volume in hand. The reader is also liable to find the newer novel’s trials somewhat less strenuous after contemplating those of a Victorian heroine. Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw’s decision to marry Edgar Linton ultimately destroys both families. Fiona doesn’t exist in a world where the stakes are so high for protagonists. In her world (to summarise), they go out with someone, break-up, mope, and finally, they get a second chance.

Little feels at risk. Despite dark moods, Fiona grows up to be an award-winning artist. A talented artist himself, Jas successfully reconciles himself to becoming instead a chemist in order to carry on the family business, a pharmacy; he even forgives his brother Amrik for seducing Fiona. Amrik himself becomes a cult musician. His act of transgression isn’t related to his race, religion (Sikh), or even his bisexuality, which everyone gets over eventually; he perplexes people by his refusal to allow his music to be recorded, a truly bewildering act to the denizens of the digiverse.

This dissatisfaction is not unique to the reader. Donovan’s novels chronicle and celebrate a relatively well-adjusted, multicultural Glasgow, where difference can not only be overcome but eventually celebrated. What makes for a healthier place to live doesn’t necessarily make for better source material though, and Donovan herself appears to feel that. At the conclusion of Being Emily, she has Fiona think, while contemplating Wuthering Heights, ‘In the twenty-first century we don’t live like this, with a great love, with a passion as vast as the ocean and pure as the stars. We are tentative and conditional; all the get-out clauses are written fae the moment we set eyes on someone. We don’t believe there is one person for us – we try out partners as we send for things on the internet, knowing we have thirty days to return them.’

So where does the present-day novelist go for meaningful tales to tell? I can’t believe a talented author in our present era of austerity, of bedroom taxes and food banks, can’t reboot tragedy for the present – although I will admit that such attempts as I have read (such as Ross Raisin’s Waterline) were worthier than they were compelling works of fiction. The world of finance clearly needs a neo-Dickens or Trollope to reveal its mechanisms and machinations to a general audience, but what author has the time, connections, and sheer brain-power to take on that task? And so then, it is to the past we must go.

Gone are the Leaves takes place in an unspecified medieval period, possibly the early sixteenth century given an oblique reference to Da Vinci. The text is otherwise denuded of pointers that would identify the era, which rings true. The illiterate teenage narrator would have been unaware of the names of contemporaneous power-brokers in the court or church. The book also lightly wears the labours of its author’s researches. We are not treated to digressions on feudal tax schemes or mercenaries, how oil paints were made or typical courses during a baronial feast – for which this reader is grateful. What you might call the ‘never mind the story, feel the weight of research’ school of historical fiction is absent.

To the contrary, Donovan prefers on occasion to court the anachronistic over the slavishly authentic. Deirdre, who narrates the majority of the book, speaks in a sort of Burnsian Scots: ‘The cranreuch had been upon us for days and a haze of frosty air rose frae the fields. Our toes nipped wi cauld on waking and steamclouds chuffed frae our mouths.’ ‘Cranreuch’ is a word you may be familiar with from ‘To a Mouse’; etymologists date it to the 1680s. Donovan couldn’t replicate the language of Henryson’s and Gavin Douglas’ era, not without seriously limiting its potential audience (and as an accompanying press release likens the book to volumes by Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevallier and Joanne Harris, the publisher must be hoping to shift some serious units with this title). It’s as good a way as any of evoking ye olde way of speaking, and, as it happens, a Burnsian register is not the most jolting aspect of the language. One or two modern locutions slip in: ‘I would like a straight answer’, ‘I felt nauseous’, and so on.

The plot takes something from the Abelard and Heloise story, only the lovers are lowborn, and the conclusion of their tale is less a tragedy, more twisty, almost thriller-like, with a flourish of magical realism thrown in towards its conclusion. In other ways though, it remains recognisably an Anne Donovan novel. Like the majority of her short stories and novels, it is narrated by an adolescent girl. Deirdre is a seamstress in the service of her local lord. She’s something of a premature Romantic: ‘The trees long for us. Their branches dance in the wind.’ Her love of nature is disapproved of. As a nun thinks: ‘She thinks she is seeing God in nature perhaps, but in truth she worships false gods.’

Her nature-worship is shared by a new friend, Feilamort, a French orphan whose extraordinary singing voice has won him favour with Deirdre’s employers, the local Laird and Lady. So enamoured is the Lady she doesn’t want it to end. And so to prevent his voice breaking, she arranges for Feilamort to become a castrato, a process he submits to as it will give him a musical career in courts across Europe. Before losing his genitals, Feilamort and Deirdre make love, and although his voice is yet to break, he impregnates the girl. By the time she realises this, Deidre has joined a nunnery and Feilamort is performing on the continent. The lovers look set never to meet again – at which point the plotting grinds into action. A number of very hoary conventions, such as the foundling unaware of his noble blood, are brought into play to bring the pair of them into contact once more.

All good fun, but I’m not certain Donovan has gained more than she’s lost by translating her central theme into a historical context. The plot is, well, plottier and the consequences of exploring that theme are more serious for her characters, yet at the same time, it develops a cartoonish feel as it goes on; there is a vampirish creep of a villain, from whom the hero escapes via an invention that’s more steampunk than Hilary Mantel. The threats her latter-day heroes encounter might be small beer in comparison, but they at least feel rooted in something recognisably real to modern eyes. One can only hope Donovan might, for her next book, come back to the future.

Gone are the Leaves

Anne Donovan

Canongate, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-782112-62-4, 359PP

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Cannon Fodder

It may well be that 1914 was an unfortunate choice of year for a literary debut, as Isobel Murray and Bob Tait said of Gillespie on its second republication 35 years ago. Sometimes, though, ‘meaningless’ centenaries throw up coincidences and hidden patterns that go beyond journalistic convenience. How strange to be watching Putin’s sleekit annexation of sovereign territory and then to pick up J. MacDougall Hay’s dark masterpiece again and read its opening line: ‘Somewhat by east of the bay two of the Crimea cannon, each on a wooden platform, lifted to seaward dumb mouths which once had thundered at Sevastopol.’

The reference helps to locate the fictional time-frame of Gillespie. We know that ring-netting was made legal in Loch Fyne in the middle 1860s, a change in the law that Gillespie Strang has already anticipated and exploited, so the memory of a Crimean conflict would still have been fresh and its souvenirs prominent in the community. I’ve no idea if any vestiges of the Crimean cannon survive in Tarbert, which is the unhappy original of ‘Brieston’ in the book. It may well be that they were swallowed up by a hunger for metal in 1914 or in 1939. Though Tarbert remembers its human sacrifice in two twentieth century world wars, and in the South African conflict that began the century, Crimea is very far off now and past the event horizon of folk and family memory. In the past Tarbert has tried hard to forget Gillespie and the author who portrayed the town in such a bleak and unflattering light. It’s said that the book is not sold there, which given that Tarbert is not Wigtown and bursting with bookshops can’t be too great a surprise. But any suggestion of a Dooker Index Librorum Prohibitorum or red-faced fishermen burning copies on the foreshore is more than a shade exaggerated, stories put around with rivalrous relish in Lochgilphead, Carradale and Campbeltown. A scan of Tarbert public library’s online catalogue shows that multiple editions of Gillespie are held and that none of them is under lock and key.

The portrayal of Brieston is far from flattering. It lacks the affection that runs through, say, J. M. Barrie’s portrayal of the ‘wee red toonie’ in the Thrums novels, but it is shot through with a humour and a sharpness of recognition that couldn’t have pleased the real-life residents of Back Street and the denizens of the Pump but would surely have amused those who’d encountered them. Brieston isn’t merely a place of imagination. It exists on the real life isthmus where Bruce of Scotland once dragged his boats, in anticipation of another of this year’s centenaries. But the real weight of Gillespie doesn’t lie in its historical background or social satire, or even its detailed reconstruction of a fishing economy that also now seems as remote as Crimea cannon, but in its extraordinary modernity of narrative and literary style. Its year of publication may not have been the most propitious – though it did include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in serial form) and Dubliners, Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer along with a more accessible and fantastical diet of Saki, Baroness Orczy and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the sentimental/patriotic beginnings of ‘war poetry’ from Lawrence Binyon and Rupert Brooke – but even without benefit of hindsight it seems the perfect, representative book for the year in question.

Hay’s anti-hero Gillespie Strang has a Caesar-like conviction that the stars themselves oversee and confirm his human purposes. The novel’s plot is both easily laid out and too complex for easy summarising. Gillespie’s rise, and equally his fall, are absolutely instinct with a nineteenth century moralism that punishes success won at the expense of kindness, but the manner of Hay’s telling is unique and strange. His surface realism overlays a narrative of deep metaphysical abstraction. The treatment of time – always a shibboleth of true modernist writing – is extremely strange, with the outcome of actions not just ‘fated’, as Gillespie is thought to be fated by his superstitious mother, but played out in advance of their contexts. Hay constantly tells us what will happen and then backtracks through long periods of intervening time. A generation later, the approach might be characterised as ‘cinematic’. In its own time, it seemed vivid and relentless (and reviewers praised it for both qualities) but also fraught with inconsistency which turns out to be not that at all but a mark of Hay’s higher, and scarcely conscious, purpose, which is to set out a tale which also dramatises its own telling. For Gillespie is a figure of folklore as much as he is a flesh-and-blood man, and his birth and upbringing under the sign of a dagger at the ‘Ghost’, a former inn that sits a little west of the Crimea guns and languishes in its atmosphere of murder and madness.

Only – to pick a literary parallel a ‘little west’ of Kintyre – Nathaniel Hawthorne, or perhaps Edgar Allan Poe, could conjure up such a vivid impression of place and human architecture so thoroughly invested with fatality. Murray and Tait shrewdly liken Gillespie to Melville’s Moby-Dick. It has philosophy, language and, of course, the sea in common. But Melville, even in his masterpiece, stood on the example of his predecessors and Gillespie is unlike the search for the White Whale in lacking the American novel’s trundling inevitability. Once Melville’s metaphysical harpoon is in, his bloody ‘sleighride’ has begun. Hay, who was a Church of Scotland minister and well enough versed in Calvinist theology, evinces no such definite purpose. Every time he tells us that the end is foredoomed and certain, his text takes a turn that drives such an end out of the reader’s mind. He works at a deeper mythical level even than Melville, who clunked together the Book of Job, a manual on cetology and his own ambivalent experience before the mast. Hay watches a community watching its leading citizen take on the mantle of destiny, powerless to resist him, as much in admiration of his rapacity and ‘souple’ manipulation of circumstance as moralistically appalled by it.

And somehow we know, from the very beginning, that the silenced cannon are there to suggest something, and something different to the Chekhovian imperative to have a gun seen on the wall in Act One go off explosively in Act Three. Hay’s subversive message, which might well have seen him censured or cold-shouldered at the General Assembly, is to say that for all the rhetoric of divine predetermination that supports the narrative, the apparatus itself is rusted and spiked. God’s thunder, the metaphysical cannonade has been silenced. This God-fearing and God-bothering world is a one from which God is curiously absent. We somehow know from the beginning that the fundamental reality of this book is a community that will survive even its most prominent and self-serving members.

It is sometimes said that Mrs Galbraith, who Gillespie rouks of her farm even over her husband’s unburied corpse, is an example of Hay’s slackness of attention. She seems to age not an apparent moment in two decades, and for all her seemingly hysterical dependence on Holy Writ she exists in the novel as a representative of female power and its constant self-replication. Even Hay’s attempt to turn Gillespie’s wife Morag Strang, who we are told in the evasively explicit way of the time ‘made for love’, into a fallen Magdalene does not quite work. Mrs Galbraith may insist that ‘God is not mocked’, but God is constantly mocked in this book, whose morality is secular and Darwinian and overseen not by a Good Shepherd or a thunderous Jehovah but by a woman with a knife, an archetypal figure out of the collective unconscious. The ‘imperishable’ faith reasserted in the book’s final sentence is no Presbyterianism, or any other branch of Judaeo-Christian belief. It is the grim necessity of cultivation, a strange segue from Mrs Galbraith’s ‘earth to earth, dust to dust’ to a vision of a lone ploughman on the lea. Another subtext of the novel is the primal tension between hunting-gathering (Abel) and farming (Cain). Gillespie’s ‘fall’ begins when he turns from the one to the other near the beginning of the book.

All of this contained in a three-part structure that becomes increasingly ambiguous and haunted in the final section, where the sons (the almost-identically designated Iain and Eoghan) become the focus of action, not so much to suggest the sins of the father being visited down the generations but as representatives of a new and chastened reality. If one imagines the boys as wounded and traumatised veterans of a war that was only summer lightning and distant thunder when Hay wrote, it makes greater, almost prophetic sense of them.

The First World War was modernism on the move. It was conflict entirely dependent on the railway network and on an awareness of the relativities of time across regions. Hay’s world, with its new technologies, its atrocities and its timetabled capitalism, is the world of 1914 in miniature. If one were to recommend a book that best captured the atmosphere of that year and the world-changing conflict that began, it might seem perverse to name one that claimed no foreknowledge of trenches and mustard gas and the effects of machine-guns on crowded men. The book’s most visceral description is of a drowned man, which has a vividness comparable to anything by the ‘War poets’, but it is in terms of moral atmosphere that Gillespie seems so fitting a text for the centenary. It presents a world in which the old certainties don’t just fall apart but do so to an ever-heightening chorus of self-justifying rhetoric. There is a further tension in the book’s languages, not Scots versus English, though some of that applies, but between religious eschatology and the working-out of a much bleaker but also more democratic vision.

The summer of 1914 was, indeed, not a propitious time to be making a literary debut. Hay only published one more book and Barnacles seems as encrusted with literariness as its unfortunate title suggests, though maybe there’s scope for a revival. It’s worth noting that 1914 was also the year of Vorticism and of Raymond Roussel’s hallucinatory Locus Solus, in which an imaginary realm becomes the locus of story-telling itself. In Gillespie, John MacDougall Hay delivered one of the great novels in the Scottish canon, defined by its Scottishness and Scottish location but also a great European masterpiece that asks profound questions about how our narratives, personal and national, ought to be made.

Gillespie J. MacDougall Hay

Introduced by Bob Tait and
Isobel Murray

Canongate Classics, £12.00, ISBN 086241427X, 492PP

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Dancing, Kicking up her legs

Despite late April sunshine, spring was still holding its breath when I arrived on ‘her’ hillside. I was a thousand feet up at Abriachan, where a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pastureland below and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie where at the age of nineteen, writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) came after a year of virtual imprisonment in a mental hospital. She was ‘boarded out’, as the practice was known, living with and helping an elderly woman on her croft. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high and steep that, as she said, ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she rambled freely for the six months or so that she stayed. The visceral thrill of the place in springtime pulses through her writing in different genres ever after. 

It was curiosity about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the north-east of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair – a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. I knew from Isobel Murray’s biography Writing her Life that as Jessie ran and rambled across the hillside here she was followed by a stream of younger girls intrigued by her supposed ‘experience’. With its precipitous pathways of loose rock, I could see the lure for a gaggle of youngsters. This was at the far reaches of Abriachan, at the door to another world, edgy and dangerous and out of sight of the cottage and a watching old lady.

Rites of passage were played out here according to Jessie’s writing – a childish game came close to an early sexual adventure. Later, her courtship with her future husband, John Kesson, who quarried the red sand rock, involved meetings on Sunday afternoons. Lying in the shadow of the red rock, they used ‘The Book’, which she was required to carry on the Sabbath, as a pillow.

That day in late April I climbed above the red rock to where the open moor levels. The wind carved down the lochside, and the bare birches rang maroon against a clear sky. Deer poured uphill on winter-dusky heather whose wiry stems snapped at my bootlaces. I kept turning, wondering whose step it was that caught at the back of mine, half expecting to find a line of children in a giggling retreat.

Before dropping towards Caiplich I savoured the long views that Jessie wrote of in I to the Hills through the eyes of a character called Chris: ‘High up in the shadow of the Red Rock, she would lie, knowing that never in a lifetime could she absorb the changing moods and varying beauty of the vista unfolded below her.’ I gazed southwards towards Fort Augustus and the steep-sided finale of the Loch. On its east side, beyond water-pocketed escarpments, the Cairngorms displayed long low-reaching fingers of late snow. To the north-east, the Moray Firth and the sea’s horizon sparkled, the lure that perhaps took the young Jessie away to Inverness, next returning to Abriachan for her honeymoon, and repeatedly afterwards in words.

Up on the open moor, the curlew burbled its high lilt. Peewits crashed within a whisper of the earth as they performed their jitterbug aerobatic displays. The notes they beat in the air with their broad wings seemed reassuring heralds of the spring. ‘Soon, soon’, they soothed.

I was curious about this hillside for another reason. When I was first writing short stories, and about ten years before I came across Jessie Kesson’s work, I wrote Keeping Away from the Water. A young woman is returning to the area of her childhood home, above Loch Ness at Abriachan, and the visit provokes keen memories of growing up on this hillside playground, and of the loss of her father. I wrote about the child’s experience of the place as if it was animate: ‘Voices burble up with the Spring wind, with the sunshine, in the birch trees. I hear them best if I lay my head in the whipping grasses and close my eyes. They never quite let me hear them directly – who they are, what they’re saying. I crunch down on last year’s bracken by the burn, finding primroses amongst the rusty deadness, turning their pale faces to be licked by the sun.’

I’m surprised now that I set my story in a place that I’d only glimpsed at then, in passing. Perhaps it was reading Eona Macnicol’s The Small Herdsman, that prompted it. A native of Abriachan, similar themes find their place in her story. The memory of a terrifying childhood emerges against the backdrop of, ‘…pasture and bracken and trees, and the hyacinthine Loch glinting between them’. My story was personalised by memories of immersion in the wilder corners of my own childhood garden but when I re-read it now I feel a chime with Jessie Kesson’s hillside – the drop to the loch, the animation, music and spirit world of spring, and with her themes of childhood pain and loss. But it wasn’t until 2006 that I properly explored her work.

Commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to choose and dramatise a short story by a twentieth century woman writer, I beat a trail through my favourites from Katherine Mansfield, to Helen Simpson and Alice Munro, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Jessie’s Until Such Times that the project took off. It’s the tale of a young girl sent to live with her grandmother and envious Invalid Aunt, while her single mother (referred to as another aunt) searches for suitable circumstances to give her a decent home. The child waits, painfully, for the ‘until such times’ of the title. The story evokes the inner world of a lonely child who finds solace in woodland nature and the moments of her beloved grandmother’s full attention. The story’s conclusion suggests murderous triumph over the Invalid Aunt, making the story inherently dramatic, but it was something else which made it compelling for me.

I sought out her other writing, discovered more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years. The dull bass beat of pain was always there, but was somehow overlain with bright, poetic joys found in nature or brief moments of love and belonging. I began to realise that it was the intensity of the inner life of troubled children that I connected to. I wasn’t traumatised as a child but I was introverted, the inner world I inhabited keenly alive, and I’ve come to think of it as the dark inkwell from which my pen flows.

Jessie Kesson’s childhood is described by her biographer Isobel Murray as ‘a series of violent shifts of surroundings and circumstances, with no ongoing family support to provide stability or continuity.’ She was born illegitimate and lived in Elgin slums with her mother who recited nineteenth century poetry and shared her extensive knowledge as they walked barefoot through the countryside. Her mother was also a drinker and a small time prostitute and Jessie was eventually taken away from her to live in an orphanage. Unable to continue her education despite excellence at school, she took on various unsatisfactory jobs, performing poorly because she was enticed away by the outdoors, or lost in a book of poetry while the ironing scorched. At the age of eighteen she spent a year in Aberdeen Royal Mental Hospital following an attack on the matron of the girls’ hostel who had implied a slur on her mother.

Despite such early experiences she became famous in her lifetime, with two novels becoming feature films, including Another Time, Another Place. But it was writing for radio in which she was most prolific and successful. Ironically it was success in this medium – ephemeral, unarchived, largely unpublished – that now, unjustly, might allow her work to fade.

Thankfully the text of her short radio play, The Childhood, set at Abriachan, has been collected in Somewhere Beyond. Danny Kernon, a young lad removed from his alcoholic mother in Glasgow, to be boarded-out with an ‘aunt’ on this same hillside, is shocked by the sudden change of environment: ‘I had never seen a hill before. Nor have I seen one more terrible. It rose sheerly out of the Loch. It was full of deep, narrow gulleys, and covered with great rocks.’ The other boarded-out Glasgow youngsters, having had more time to adjust to the landscape, only increase his terror, goading: ‘The Loch hasna got a bottom… You jump it, Kernon… just one wee slip! He’s yella!’ The play thrums with Danny’s deep ache for his mother. Jessie Kesson evokes the emotional fragility of boarded-out children who had to laugh in whispers and never once knew ‘…what it was to be able to put their heads on the ‘aunt’s’ lap and sob out the bewildering hurts of childhood’

In time Danny stands up to the other boys, drawing strength out of his solitude, from song, and his intimate knowledge of the hill and the hundreds of burns that leap down it. ‘…I could have counted the flowers that grew on the hill by the Loch. I knew each stone. My hands became scarred with grasping the bracken. I discovered that the primrose cheats the eye: only its flower was softer than velvet, sweeter than any mortal things. Its leaves were rough and hairy and ugly.’

On my second visit I’m startled after only a ten-day absence by the progress of spring. It’s a day of sudden warmth and this time I take the sunny green slopes below Achbuie rather than the moor bristling above. The valley sweeps down between two rises. On one sits the most southerly cottage of the village at Balmore. The spur under the moor opposite holds the ruined crofts of Achculin. A burn begins its run to the Loch between them, shadowed on each side lower down by birches. 

The cropped greenness of the pasture and its angle invites me to run in Julie-Andrews-gladness; a child again. It’s here that I imagine Jessie making her own plunge to the Lochside in a joyful errand to meet the van that couldn’t get up the steep road, the van that was the grocer, butcher, and draper combined, to which she carried eggs in return for ‘the messages’. I imagine her, with her ear for the music and rhythm of song and speech, singing and laying her feet to a tune as she went. Perhaps it would be like the dance music heard by Isabel in Where the Apple Ripens, ‘following her all the way to Corbie’s wood, and echoing through her mind long after she had reached home. Dispelling sleep itself.

“And you shall drink freely

The dews of Glensheerie

That stream in the starlight”.’

Or perhaps she would be arguing with a shower as she hurried downhill:

‘Rainie Rainie Rattlestanes

Dinna rain on me

Rain on Johnnie Groat’s house

Far across the sea.’

I sit on damp grass near Balmore. Birdsong bubbles in a galaxy around my head. Long buzzard-mewls stretch high notes above me against the lighter, closer, chips, trills and warbles of stonechats, skylarks, meadow pipits. The passing buzz of a bee. An aeroplane drones from one side of the loch to the other, its hum eclipsed behind the rocky knoll above Achbuie. Then a crack of sound springs my eyes open as a jet banks behind my shoulder, tilts low over the Loch. It’s as if spring has lofted everything sky-wards.

Soft unexplained pops rise from the grass. A palm rested on a tender nettle tingles sweetly. On this north-facing slope, bracken heads have broken through the turf, heads still curled tight. They look strong and fleshy on their thick single stems, but innocent, belying their summer rampancy. Bracken, as Jessie pointed out, is called in Gaelic, ‘the lovely curse’. Few plants can compete with it, fending off predators, as it does, with an arsenal of chemical weapons including cyanide.

John McCarthy described the marvel of ‘walking into a cathedral of light in Oxfordshire,’ after his release from five years of captivity in Lebanon. And I imagine Jessie Kesson stepping from the deadened enclosure and stale air of the mental hospital into this cacophony of sound and the sense of elevation. Coming from a regimented institution with every thought and activity crowded by other lives, this could hardly have failed to provoke her free spirit and to animate her feet in exploration. Perhaps it recalled her to those barefoot walks with her mother and a sense of inhabiting again her wild self.

I’m pulled to my feet and into the valley to cross the burn, and up the other side onto south-facing Achculin where bracken has been sunned higher from the earth, now tall enough to brush my calves. Colour hums against colour – slate blue of hyacinth and Loch, lettuce-green of young bracken against the pink granite walls. The rusty corrugated iron roofs have been weighted with rocks except for one, burst off by the spraying branches of a rowan tree. Above the buildings is a steep rock outcrop. Below, the spur of hill runs towards the Loch, decorated with brilliant buttons of gorse bush or ‘whin’. In Gaelic the name for gorse comes from the word for ‘wrangle’ or ‘quarrel’ and like a brassy blonde wearing gold jewellery she’s here in a tussle with those around her, draining colour from the exuberant birch leaves, the Loch below and the bluebells. But perhaps you’re allowed to be a bit showy in spring. 

‘The smell of Spring in the hills is a blending of peaty thickness, bracken-mould, flowers’ spicyness, and clean, quick, purge of the wind’ Jessie wrote in the Scots Magazine, and her scents are all here. It’s the gorse that beguiles me to stop with its coconut-scented panting. Along with the heat, it licks the hillside promiscuous. Violets on the slope have opened their limbs wide to the sun to reveal their dark, secret clefts.

Sure of Jessie’s route down the burn, I follow a fence tented by a crisp brown cover of last year’s bracken. Down I go, into the shade of coppiced hazel woods where I lose the bold skyline of the steep lochsides. Without the gaudy whins, my eyes slowly adjust to wood anemones glimmering as pale stars on the ground and the green rise of bluebell tips. 

I hear the burn chittering on my right as I tumble out onto the steep tarmac lane that climbs to Abriachan from the Loch. It’s breezeless and shaded. I cross the burn, follow the lane a little south, wondering where Jessie would have found the next part of her descent. And there, between one burn and the next is a gate and a path marked by a scattered line of brown leaves, leading down between trees. It is unremarked on the map and delights me with the soft secrecy of its way. Here there is soprano birch leaf and the bronzy tenor of the first clusters of oak leaves. Lit from behind, caught by breezes, they jig against the dark interlocking antlers of the branches. Blaeberry bushes burst around my feet, already belled with round red flowers.

The burns on each side of me chant louder or softer according to the windings of the path between them. I walk slowly for fear of missing something. The Lochside clamour starts to penetrate the woodland. Motorbikes have been sprung from winter garages to roar along the A82. A voice so amplified it’s inaudible rises through the trees and I glimpse the white wake pulled behind a tourist boat. Would Jessie have been running at this point towards the grocer’s van, despite the eggs she holds?

The sense of a well-loved, shared path keeps pulling me Loch-wards, until it leads to a wicket gate in an unyielding high fence. Beyond it I see the purple flash of rhododendron, hints of laid paths, ponds and house roofs. I skirt the fence to the southerly burn, looking for another way, smashing through bramble and brush and over fallen logs. My legs are scratched and bloody, torn by the open edges of dead bracken stem. With soil and moss smearing my hands, I’m returned to my childhood garden, my wilderness of rust-glazed water and bracken. Hints of suburbia hang between birch branches and drone with the distant lawnmower.

Then I’m out onto the A82, shuddered by the wind-suck of juggernaut, bike, van. I cross, and retreat from the road to the pink shingle shore onto which vast waters splash. A heavy afternoon sky brings a few drops of rain from the south. The Loch sucks at the shore. It’s capricious – glittering blue when seen from one direction, then lashing in black and white troughs, monster-deep and dark from another.

I think of Kesson’s descriptions of walking to church along this shore, but having to stick to the road on a Sunday rather than ‘scushing through the soft, white sand by the lochside,’ laughing and talking with those of her own age once they were far enough ahead of the adults. This rattling chatter seemed to mark her time here too, despite ‘her sense of being an outsider wherever she went, an ‘ootlin’ as she called it, marching to a different beat from other people.’ I like this Scots word ‘ootlin’ – the territory of the writer perhaps. As a shy child, I always felt on the edge, peering in, choosing friends who were also outsiders, alienated by obesity, religion or other kinds of oddness.

My mother’s attempts to integrate me with other children by enrolling me at Brownies or in a summer holiday club at the local park both ended before they began – with her driving me away again, crying. I retreated to my garden refuge where there were acorns to gather and serve to my dolls at mealtimes, or I could dig for treasures and inhabit my own world.

Even before her year in mental hospital, when she was staying at the girls’ hostel in Aberdeen, Jessie wrote of an association between spring and rebellion: ‘It was only when I began to “break a rule” that the girls began to accept me and confided in me. But I didn’t break the rule for that reason. It was broken for no reason that I can give words to. I’d smelt the spring. A different thing altogether from knowing it was there. I smelt it almost before it came, as if it had told me it was coming.’

When she walked on this edge of land and water at the age of nineteen she was perhaps already becoming comfortable with the rebellious identity that would free her from unpromising beginnings and define her as a writer, bringing an intensity of self-awareness, a love of nature, a humour and spirit that overcame adversity. I like to think it was an extreme change of environment and the experience of spring here that propelled her into that self.

After six months, the sensuality and physicality of the place became overwhelming and she ran away.

Despite this, it’s clear that the hillside at Abriachan remained special. She chose it for her honeymoon. She chose it as the place where her ashes were to be scattered; a hillside so alive to her that she returned to it again and again in her writing. Perhaps from the rootlessness of her childhood years she found some stillness or sense of security here in proximity to nature. Perhaps it was for her as it was for Danny in The Childhood who drew strength from the permanence of what he found in the country, saying, ‘I was safe with all those things undying’.

As I turn away from the Loch and begin the climb back, I feel that today I’ve brushed shoulders with a character who, by her own admission, was like a ‘tornado’ at nineteen when she whirled into the life of the old lady at Achbuie making her ask, ‘is there no settle in you?’Alastair Scott described her much later in her life as a ‘one-woman riot’ and Isobel Murray’s biography suggests she stayed that way until her death. Quite apart from the sweet pain and joy of her stories, she’s bequeathed to me a spring day in her special place. I’ve feasted my senses.

With limbs swinging I laugh and pant, sweating up through the green song-tunnels beside the burn. Jessie’s granddaughter described how her grandmother would be remembered – ‘Dancing, kicking up her legs’ – and it seems an apt description also for this hillside in springtime.

Doubling Back

Linda Cracknell

FREIGHT BOOKS, £14.99, ISBN 978-1-908754-54-7, 272PP

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The Go-Between

In early November 1935 John Buchan, novelist, war correspondent, historian, essayist, lawyer, politician and publisher, arrived in Canada to take up the position of governor general. He had been appointed to his new role as John Buchan; he sailed up the St Lawrence as Lord Tweedsmuir. Not all Canadians were pleased at this transformation. Many, including Canada’s prime minister Mackenzie King, preferred Canada to be detached from archaic traditions of privilege and preferment, but Buchan was a representative of the king, and a title was deemed necessary.

These were interesting times on both sides of the Atlantic. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted Canada constitutional equality with Britain. A dominion with her own parliament since 1867, Canada was now, in theory at least, able to develop her own foreign policy and establish independent relations with other nations. But trouble was brewing in Europe and Canada’s immediate neighbour was the USA. For Britain, sympathetic relations with both her former and her current colonies were crucial. Britain’s man in Canada was required to be astute, tactful, wise and thick-skinned. Did Buchan measure up? J. William Galbraith’s account argues that Buchan not only proved a canny diplomat, but established an affectionate and unusual relationship with the Canadian people.

Buchan’s reputation as the author of best-selling thrillers was not necessarily an asset when it came to establishing himself in a vice-regal role in a vast territory with a scant (around ten million) but diverse population. But he brought with him sixty years of varied and often challenging experience. Born in 1875 a son of the manse, he had grown up in Fife and Glasgow, which acquainted him with both a small mining community on the shores of the Forth and the turbulent realities of an industrial and commercial complex on the Clyde. As Scotland’s gateway to empire, Glasgow perhaps suggested one of the directions Buchan’s life would take.

After Glasgow University Buchan went to Oxford, clearly aiming for an academic life. He was already a published writer, but was disappointed in his academic aspirations. He was called to the bar, but diverged from his legal career when in 1901 he was asked by Lord Milner, high commissioner for Southern Africa, to join his staff. He had two years in South Africa with responsibility for the controversial concentration camps – under his aegis conditions improved – and later for land settlement. It was an experience that would affect his writing and his outlook. ‘I began to see,’ he wrote, ‘that the Empire…might be a potent and beneficent force in the world.’

The eve of World War One saw Buchan a barrister and Tory parliamentary candidate, a husband and father, a regular contributor to The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement, and the author of a just completed novel which would confirm his reputation as a skilled writer of thrillers – The Thirty Nine Steps. Next year, the centenary of its publication in 1915 will no doubt be marked. Buchan’s fragile health kept him from service on the Front, but he had an important role in the years of conflict, both as an historian of the war and as head of the government’s Information Department, all grist to the fictional mill as well as adding to Buchan’s experience of public life. In 1927 he was returned as Unionist MP for the Scottish universities.

Although Buchan’s parliamentary career never brought him the cabinet appointment he wished for, in his various professional and public roles he proved himself highly skilled and adaptable. Thanks largely to his Oxford years, he also had numerous friends and contacts in useful places. When the question arose of who should succeed Lord Bessborough as Canada’s governor general Buchan was not an obvious candidate, which was part of his appeal to Canadians. Although of the establishment, he was also something of a maverick, a commoner without high political office, a conservative with independent views, a serious thinker and a popular novelist. His Scottish identity was perhaps also a factor. Mackenzie King, himself of Scottish and somewhat maverick descent – he was grandson of the volatile radical William Lyon Mackenzie, from Alyth – was leader of Canada’s Liberal opposition and later prime minister. He was keen to have Buchan, although their subsequent relationship would prove ambivalent. King misjudged the tenacity as well as the tact of Buchan’s interpretation of his role. And it was a role that required both, for Canada’s position both in relation to the mother country and on the international stage was evolving. Buchan had a clear perception of how it should take shape.

Part of that perception was his appreciation of Canadian identity. He believed that it was possible and necessary for Canada to be both distinctive and accepting of her dominion status. He helped to engineer the first visit of a reigning monarch to a dominion, in 1939, which presented George VI as king of Canada. As the possibility of war edged closer, the part that Canada might play in a European conflict was a key issue. Although Buchan himself resisted the prospect of another conflict and supported Chamberlain’s Munich agreement, once Canada had declared war against Germany, a week after Britain, his efforts were focused on ensuring smooth cooperation between Britain and Canada. His active and congenial association with President Roosevelt helped to pave the way for the US’s later participation in the war – in 1936, thanks to Buchan, Roosevelt had made the first official visit to Canada by a US president.

As governor general Buchan was an intermediary between governments, but he also sought to draw together the vast and disparate territory that was Canada. He travelled extensively and exhaustingly, often to the detriment of his fragile health. He visited the drought-stricken prairie provinces, the far west beyond the Rocky Mountains, the Maritimes in the east and, most challengingly, the far north. ‘I have been happiest among the men who spend their days on the outer fringes of civilisation,’ he said. If it was a sense of duty that propelled him, it was a love of wild country and its elemental demands that enticed him. But he also had a genuine interest in the people and peoples he encountered, the First Nations, the Inuit, and communities from different parts of Europe. His fluent French was a significant asset in Quebec, and of course wherever he went he encountered the legacy of Scottish immigration.

With the rise of Fascism and the approach of war Buchan stressed his belief in what he called ‘humanitas’, the heart of the Classical Mediterranean tradition and its Christian adaptation. ‘It represents in the widest sense the humanities, the accumulated harvest of the ages, the fine flower of a long discipline of thought,’ he said in a Montreal speech. His optimistic view of the twentieth century’s inheritance may now seem limited and misplaced, but there is no doubting its sincerity and no doubting that humanitas was what drove both his public and his private life.

Photographs of Buchan in Canada show a slight, dapper man often formally dressed for official functions, sometimes more relaxed in some wilderness outpost or indulging in his favourite activity of fishing. He managed to be simultaneously Lord Tweedsmuir and John Buchan, instinctively sensitive to the requirements of privilege and protocol and at the same time responding to the expectations of ‘ordinary people’. He drove himself hard. Alongside his official duties he was always writing, and his final work of fiction is both his best and the most revealing of Buchan himself. Sick Heart River, a tale of a dying man’s search for redemption in Canada’s most unforgiving wilderness, was published in 1941. Buchan had died in Montreal of a cerebral thrombosis in February 1940.

Galbraith’s account of Buchan’s years in Canada is meticulous and detailed – at times perhaps overburdened with detail. It is a workmanlike illumination of the intricacies of diplomacy, internal and external, at a time of great significance in both Europe and North America. It will be read as a useful contribution to imperial history, but it is – as the title suggests – a portrait of a governor general rather than of a man and a writer. (None of his books feature in the index.) Some readers may look for more exploration of the relationship between Buchan’s Scottish Presbyterian origins and his highly developed sense of fairness and responsibility, his judicious intellect and his creative energy. They will certainly flinch at some of the errors – when Buchan is summoned to visit the king he alights at Ballater station ‘near Buckingham Palace’. A sharp-eyed editor might have eliminated some of the repetition and the superfluity of exclamation marks.

In Alberta Buchan was made a chief by the Cree First Nations, who gave him the name Okemow Otatowkew, ‘Teller of Tales’. The echo of R L Stevenson as Tusitala is appropriate. Although very different in personality and in their attitudes to convention, Buchan and Stevenson shared more than their Scottish origins and upbringing, their physical vulnerability and a similarity in the manner of their deaths. They both had a powerful sense of obligation and empathy, often expressed and enacted outwith the country of their birth. They were both attracted by environments that freed them from constraint. They both used their writing to explore worlds unfettered by the quotidian. They both absorbed a new identity from the places where they lived their last years. And they both help us to understand the complex story of Scotland’s imperial role. In recent decades Stevenson has been rescued from the shelf marked ‘adventure stories for boys’. Galbraith’s book suggests, though perhaps inadvertently, that now it’s Buchan’s turn.

J. William Galbraith 

John Buchan Model Governor General

DUNDURN, £26.99, ISBN 978-1459709379, 544PP

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What’s up, Doc?

Long ago I asked a publishing house to pay me for a book called Independence: An Argument for Home Rule. My wife, a Scottish Nationalist, says writing it will be a waste of time. Readers who want Scottish home rule will have no reason to read it, and those who don’t want it will ignore it. But I wanted a self-governing Scotland so much that I undertook the job as a duty, while hating duties, even when the Higher Authority imposing them is my conscience. I keep evading that duty by only reading The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and magazines in my doctor’s waiting room. For over a month a slowly healing flesh wound has me waiting there for a few minutes of every weekday.

There is something fascinating in waiting room reading material. It was bound volumes of old Punch cartoons in my childhood, none later than the First World War, though there were hints of a war coming. One cartoon showed an officer’s mess where a Colonel asked a junior, ‘What, Captain so-and-so, do you see as the role of cavalry in modern warfare?’ and was told, ‘I suppose, Sir, it will add tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl.’ In another, officers were discussing a foreign country which was not named. One said, ‘Yes, sooner or later we’ll have to fight them. I only hope it isn’t in the grouse shooting and salmon fishing season.’ I found these fascinating in the immediate aftermath of two world wars.

In later years my favourite waiting room material was National Geographic, whose articles and pictures were always factual and entertaining. The only one with that name in my present doctor’s surgery is very small, and seems designed for children with a mental age of five. Most of the magazines are the glossy kind called fashion or style magazines, lavishly illustrated but cheap because advertisements mainly pay for them. I am attracted by these more than I like, because they have many photographs of glamorous women. A 79-year-old married man should have outgrown a taste for pornography. So I picked up Focus, a magazine for those interested in science and technology, and published by the BBC.

Like many who grew up before television I used to think the BBC a friendly institution. As well as the Radio Times it published The Listener, which printed radio broadcasts on literary, historical and scientific matters. In the 1950s it told me about discoveries of the Big Bang and continental drift. Ithad hardly any pictures, so in 1964 I was thrilled to see in it a reproduction of one of my paintings illustrating a review of a BBC documentary about my art by Anthony Burgess. Focus, unlike the long defunct Listener, has on every page bright photographs, computer visualizations and headlines that reduce the factual text to a series of sound bites. It is obviously for young folk interested in the future, and not for specialists or older folk. It explains that ‘Neuroimmunology reveals how our own body can attack the brain’,and about aNew British project set to renew the search for an alien civilization’, then asks ‘Could rising CO2 levels see Earth returned to the kind of climate not seen since the prehistoric era?’ Suddenly a full-page advert caught my eye.

Central was a photograph of an aircraft that technically-minded youths would know were one of the Unidentified Flying Objects developed by the USA. Radar could not detect them, so they were used to spy on the U.S.S.R when international agreements made that illegal. For decades the American air force fooled some observers into thinking they came from outer space. They are now called Stealth Bombers. Britain has them, for the Ministry of Defence placed this photograph under the slogan ‘We have the technology.’ Beneath it I read:

‘The UK requires modern, battle winning forces to defend its interests and to contribute to strengthening international peace and security.

These forces increasingly depend on scientific and technological advances to maintain their ability to operate effectively: this means the provision of technologies of tremendous speed, power and capacity to deliver a decisive operational edge.

We are The Ministry of Defence, Defence Engineering and Science group.

Organization Description: Government Department. The DESG is the team of thousands of engineers and scientists within the MoD.

DESG offers you many benefits including…’

Here follows a description of secure, well-paid careers for smart young science graduates. They are not invited to help defend Britain from invasion, but to defend British interests abroad – interests which can only be financial. The government of Britain once acquired an empire by doing that, and since then has not stopped fighting battles on the soil of poorer nations. The BBC advert announces that the UK government is still busy with the kind of arms race which led to two world wars. Yet it claims that the Ministry of Defence will ‘contribute to strengthening international peace and security.’ That is how Big Brother now tells smart young graduates: ‘WAR IS PEACE! JOIN US! THE MONEY IS GOOD.’ And they will join. Modern students are docile compared with pre-Thatcher students. Those without wealthy parents are heavily in debt when they graduate, so need well-paid jobs. How hellish!

So I tried escaping into magazines with most pictures of women. Their adverts and articles were mostly about clothes, jewellery, cosmetics and meals, and mildly excited me because even the covers suggest women want sexual fun.Under a picture of an excitingly dressed blonde, Style magazine announces:

NAUGHTY!

THE OUTFITS, THE GLITTER, THE GAMES, THE BOOZE:

How To Have The Best Time At A Party

WOMEN IN THE KNOW: Let’s All Move To Cheshire

BREAK OUT THE GLOWSTICKS:

Christmas Day, Raver Style

Marie Claire’s cover says:

HOT MEN, SEXY ACCENTS!

The Europeans Revving Up the UK Dating Scene.

FIT AND FABULOUS!

Busy women’s amazing body secrets.

BEACH BODY READY!

New quick fix ways to tan, buff and glow.

Both have articles about highly paid, visually alluring women, some emphatically married with children and good houses in pleasant districts. One has advice for those with too little time to properly adjust their make-up between leaving work and arriving at a party or dinner. It says most of us have several portable cosmetic cases (here called palettes) because single ones usually lack items we find essential, or have used up. The solution is to buy an emptypalette (available at a given price from a named shop) and fill it with just the cosmetics we need for that party or dinner. Since most readers cannot afford to buy such accessories as Prada handbags ‘surprisingly cheap at £450’, such magazines are mainly invitations to day-dream, though they must make some readers also feel inadequate.

British GQ is a similar fashion magazine intended for men. It has as many pictures of women, but they wear less, because women desire the clothes and appearance of the models in their magazines, but men desire their bodies. GQ articles never refer to marriage and home, and deal more obviously with money and politics. The cover shows a stunning blonde wearing nothing visible but an earring, and announces that inside we’ll be told why ELVIS LIVES! and why REAL MEN DON’T WEAR SHORTS, and HOW TO STAY SHARP AND COOL THIS SUMMER, and also (EXCLUSIVE) WHY GREED IS STILL GOOD byMichael Wolff. In the 1987 film Wall Street, the central character yells, Greed is good!’ to a roomful of cheering shareholders. He is a company director who acquires wealth through buying productive companies, removing their saleable assets then closing them. He is cheated by a young protégé with a conscience who brings in a richer asset-stripper. The film’s moral is spoken by a minor character who tells the young man, ‘Get a job where you make something’ — by which he means essential manufactured goods, not just money.

Michael Wolff’s GQ articleis headed YOU ARE WHAT YOU MAKE, by which he means nothing but money. His sub-heading says: ‘The Eighties changed the way the rich get richer. Now, despite financial apocalypse, we still have an appetite for incredible wealth— and it has become insatiable.’ He does not say appetites for incredible wealth are impossible because he says that for some people it will always be possible. He has a full-page photograph of a well-dressed handsome hunk of a man surrounded by eager reporters, for he is on the way to jail. It is captioned: ‘Michael Milken made, in a year, as much as $500 million. This made him much closer to folk hero than criminal.’

Yes, we have always enjoyed stories about highwaymen, pirates and successful train robbers. How many have wanted to become one of them? Do many fantasise about being fraudsters and pension-fund robbers like a former director of the Guinness company and Robert Maxwell? I doubt it, but without admiring them, folk in national and local governments emulate them, selling to each other and associates the public properties and organizations decried as The Welfare State. If less than half GQ’s readers are in these governments, the majority must also use it to foster daydreams. What a lot of imaginary living headlines invite us to do! On a Times supplement cover I read:

THE RISE OF THE £100,000 HOLIDAY

Yachts, private islands and a plane for your luggage:

inside the wild world of the six-figure getaway.

One or two millionaires have started a company which now sells the kind of holidays they enjoy to people equally rich. This may stimulate some to become richer by working harder for promotion in banks or by juggling investments through the stock exchange, which Michael Wolff says is the one sure way of doing it. I cannot be the only visitor to National Health surgeries angered by so many magazines enthusiastically boosting incredible wealth. My doctor’s waiting room has no information about Glasgow’s ruling Labour Party, which is funding a Commonwealth Games event by shutting centres that help the disabled.

My doctor’s surgery is too respectable for magazines that advertise the sexual adventures of the rich and famous, nowadays called celebrities, and which would be shortened to slebs if that did not resemble plebs. Pleb has recently been publicized as a curse word. But since fashion and style magazines also have articles about food they certainly promote gluttony, lust, pride, greed, jealousy and (in jealous folk like me) anger. An old-fashioned Christian would notice these are all the deadly sins except sloth, unless holidays costing £100,000 are opportunities for that. But the MoD advert for United Kingdom war mongering disturbs me most, though I know the sale of weapons is now Britain’s biggest export industry. Many pension funds are invested in that, including those of our academic principals.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a French film I enjoyed as a child. Though mainly silent it has a pessimistic political broadcast on a radio which according to the subtitle asks the question, ‘Is there, upon the horizon, one ray of hope?’ On my horizon the ray of hope is, that if Scotland gets the independence the present Holyrood government wants, she will get rid of the Trident submarines based on the Clyde. I had better start trying to write my book advocating Scottish independence.

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