Monthly Archives: May 2014

image

A Plague on all their Houses

Thanks to railway construction workers and their mechanical diggers, a pit was discovered in London last year, beneath Charterhouse Square, where victims of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century had been buried. Though they were laid to rest in a cemetery, beside a monastery, one imagines there would have been little ceremony about their interment, the earth shovelled over them fast, as if that could contain the disease that had killed them. 

The results of analysis on this collection of skeletons were published last month, and showed that the victims had lived desperately hard lives, many of them suffering malnutrition, and some bearing wounds from conflict of some sort. The implication was that one reason the plague took such a hold on the city – and the entire country – was that people were already weakened by famine and exhaustion. Around 60 per cent of the populace across Europe died during the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague, a horrifying toll, whose culprit was for centuries believed to be ship rats and the fleas they carried from the Far East. Only recently have scientists revised that opinion, believing that such was the speed and spread of the plague, it must have been transmitted from human to human. So quick was the onset of the illness that, as Italian poet Boccaccio wrote, the afflicted would ‘breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world’.

Rats were bad enough, but the thought that a germ capable of killing someone in a matter of hours was passed by breath alone is even more alarming. Despite regular outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague in remote areas of the world, most of us think of it as a medieval death, something that will never touch us. The spectre of sars or bird flu is more likely to keep us awake at night than the prospect of contracting the plague. How wrong we may prove to be.

Into this scenario, ripe for fictional exploitation, steps Louise Welsh with her deeply unsettling novel A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of a projected trilogy called ‘Plague Times’. One could not accuse Welsh of glee, but there is a decided relish in the way she revisits the plague upon modern London. Her modern malady is more like a version of norovirus with bells and whistles, its symptoms so unpleasant that one of her characters commits suicide when he knows he is infected, rather than suffer to the end. By that point, London is emptying fast, people evacuating in the hope of outrunning the disease.

At the start of the novel, however, no one realises what is about to be unleashed upon them. On her way to work by tube, Stevie, a former journalist lured into a lucrative post as saleswoman on a television shopping channel, is aware of people around her coughing. Even though it is sweltering high summer, it seems a lot of people are coming down with the cold. Already the reader is pulling a metaphorical mask over their face, braced for what is to come. Meanwhile, Stevie is thinking only of that evening’s date with her boyfriend, Simon, a children’s surgeon. They’ve been seeing each other for four months, and things are going well. Or at least, they seemed to be until Simon does not appear, and she leaves the uber-trendy Soho bar alone, disgruntled, but flashing her best sales smile at the pitying staff.

A few days later, when Stevie still has not heard from Simon, she decides she’d better collect her things from his flat. Clearly the relationship has ended. And she’s right. When she gets there, she finds Simon dead. After calling the police, and making a statement, she returns to her own flat, where she becomes violently ill with, as we learn, the new disease, which social media is calling the sweats, for obvious reasons. Stevie is one of the lucky few survivors, living to carry on the tale. Barely out of her bed, she receives a visit from Simon’s sister, who brings her a letter Simon had left for Stevie. In it he tells her that if anything happens to him, she is to take a laptop he has hidden in her attic to his colleague Martin Reah at the hospital. He writes, ‘It may be that something has already happened and that your first instinct is to turn to the police. Please don’t. Malcolm will know what to do.’

When Stevie gets to the hospital, she learns Reah is also dead, as soon will be a growing swathe of London. In his place are other of Simon’s doctor associates, each of them authoritative and persuasive, and none of them – as Simon warned her – to be trusted. It doesn’t take long for Stevie to realise that Simon’s death is not natural: he was not carried off by the plague, but was murdered. The problem is, in a city where hundreds are dying every day, finding a killer is no longer important to anyone but her.

Falling squarely into the apocalyse school of literature, in the company of peddlers of eschatological nightmares such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn is both a page-turner and something more subtle and thoughtful. Quietly but evocatively written, as if Welsh is paying elegaic tribute to our own times, this work has an energy and enthusiasm that suggests she has found a subject that enthralls her. Perhaps the freedom of a trilogy is liberating; certainly Welsh writes with conviction, and a lack of sentimentality that makes the grimness of what she portrays all the more terrifying and believable.

The story of a desperate search or enquiry, which has been the motif of her previous work, Welsh convincingly creates a claustrophobic theatre, with several stages on which the action takes place: the streets of the city, which are becoming empty and threatening, filled with vigilantes and looters; her own flat, which might seem like a sanctuary but is soon proved otherwise; and St Thomas’s Hospital, which is about to come under siege as the plague takes hold. One of Simon’s colleagues, asked if they can find a cure for whatever this ailment is, is pessimistic: ‘There’s not a physician alive who isn’t regularly reminded that we’ve failed to find an effective cure for the common cold.’ It’s not what readers want to be told, because it is frighteningly true. And that indisputable fact is what Welsh so cleverly plays on.

Two stories intertwine, that of Stevie trying to find out what information Simon’s computer contains, and what to do with it; and the bigger tale of London in meltdown, as panic ensues. Stevie’s story moves at a whip-cracking pace, this tenacious, tough young woman an ideal protagonist for such perilous times. Able to fend off an assassin, or clamber over high fences, she is a survivor in every sense, knowing how to use her wiles to best advantage. ‘Her face was a weapon that had served her well,’ writes Welsh, ‘and it was important for her to maintain it, just as it was important for a soldier to maintain his gun.’

As Stevie begins to realise that her boyfriend had been involved in something less than reputable, the moral murkiness of the novel deepens.There’s a pleasing inversion about this tale, the heroic children’s doctor not just dead but perhaps less saintly than one would have presumed; and a pretty woman from the meretricious end of the media charged with the role of detective and of salvaging his reputation.

The plot fizzes, as it must, though with occasional clumsiness, as when one villain snarls, cartoon-style, ‘You talk too much!’ Conveying Stevie’s illness when the fever is at its height, Welsh runs words together for half a page, as if they were thoughts, but while this device ought to work, it doesn’t, slowing the reader down just when the character’s mind is spinning at a dizzying rate.

Compelling though the storyline is, it acts best as a means of propelling Stevie into the underbelly of the city and the medical world, the eerily drawn backdrop of the novel giving it much of its power. Welsh’s imagining of armageddon taps into everyone’s fears, and her eye for nasty detail is unerring. ‘A rat was scurrying down the stairs towards her, fat and sleek, busy as a working mum in her lunch hour.’ A young soldier, guarding a convoy carrying corpses, ‘gave her a smile that made him look like a child soldier, young, but already marked by symptoms of an old age he would never reach.’ A child clings to his mother’s back, ‘his arms and legs still stretched tightly around her, like a spider trying to subdue a much larger prey.’ Master of the macabre, she rolls these unsettling words around the reader’s tongue, leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste.

Echoes of downtown New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are caught in the police’s door to door hunt for survivors or bodies, so too of the London riots, as the streets turn feral. It is partly the sense of recognition that makes Welsh’s nightmare scenario so chilling, that and the economical clarity of the writing. Nor is there any proselytising, as so often with end-of-the-world fiction. Welsh is not judgmental. Instead, she is a portrait painter of our frantic, fragile times, for whom the warts – and buboes – are as fascinating as the fancy clothes.

A Lovely Way to Burn takes its title from much-covered song ‘Fever’:

They give you fever, when you kiss them

Fever, if you live and learn,

Fever, ’til you sizzle

What a lovely way to burn.

As Welsh shows, however, plague is a far from lovely way to die. One is all too aware by the end of this, the trilogy’s first volume, that the thermometer, and the fever, are likely to mount higher still.

A Lovely Way to Burn

Louise Welsh

JOHN MURRAY, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-84854-651-6, 358PP

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Volume 10 – Issue 1 – Political Poems

DECLARATION

My name is Scotland. I am an alcoholic.

Sexism runs through me as through a stick of rock.

For all my blotchy pinkness, I am determined

To be less prim about my gene-pool, more airily cosmopolitan;

To love my inner Mary, my Floral Clock and John Thou Shalt Knox.

I can live fine without nuclear subs.

I’ve built far too many warships.

All I want now is my dignity back,

To stand on my own unsteady feet,

Sobered up, but not too sober, to renew

My auld alliance with this tipsy planet,

My dependence

And my independence.

 

POLE DANCE

Flapping unflaggingly in the brisk wind,

Sub specie aeternitatis,

Saltire spun from the words ‘almost there’,

Proud flag of our neverendum.

 

IN MEMORY OF DONALD DEWAR AND ENRIC MIRALLES,
ARCHITECTS OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT

Standing-stone-thin man, though you have fallen,

You marked our path beneath the Merry Dancers,

And Scotland found the measure of your name

Between mirage and miracle, Miralles.

 

DAVEHEART

St George o’ Osborne tae his richt

And SamCam by his side,

Daveheart has ridden thro’ the nicht

Tae flatter Scotland’s pride.

He sing the joys o’ Union lang

And loud through shitty weather.

His een are bricht. His voice is strang,

‘We’re better aff thegither!’

O Daveheart, man, bewaur the wiles

O slippery Smart Alex

Whose henchfolk mibbe seem aa smiles

But sound like Gaelic Daleks.

Aw Daveheart, will ye muster men

At Cumnock or Port Seton?

Nae every battle’s won, ye ken,

On the playin fields o Eton.

The Paps o Jura are yir ain,

Though nae the chaps o Govan.

The faithfu, met in Bearsden’s rain,

Look awfie like a coven.

Daveheart, your michty sword aloft

Shines like a nuclear weapon,

But as ye gang by coo an croft

Tak tent o whit ye step on.

‘Welcome tae Scotland!’ as is said

By yon auld guy in Skyfall.

Our Leader’s thrawn, an’ overfed.

Our scenery’s an eyeful.

For aa the Cabinets ye’ve chaired,

Trust neither man nor wumman.

We arenae scared. We’re just prepared.

The Camerons are coming.

 

MARCH PAST

First up tiptoe a bunch o wankers

Wi placards, ‘GOD SAVE SCOTTISH BANKERS’

Aw whit a big parade

Johann leads aa the unemployed,

A wee bit pinched and underjoyed

Aw whit a big parade

Proud Edward Milibrand and Sir Ming,

Join arms tae dance a Hielan Fling

Aw whit a big parade

The polis mak a great co-ordon

‘Och, let me in!’ cries Zombie Gordon

Aw whit a big parade

And next as far as een can see

Special Advisers check IT

Aw whit a big parade

The woofers woof, the mikes aa screech,

Big Alex blatters oot his speech

Aw whit a big parade

Wee Ruthie croons, wi mony an oath,

The Declaration o Arbroath

Aw whit a big parade

Pairched STV and BBC

Slink aff wi Nicola for tea

Aw whit a big parade

Frae Jenners, Harvey Nicks, and Thrums

There’s gamelans and pipes and drums

Aw whit a big parade

Kids chant frae Duns tae Aiberdeen,

‘We’ve got the vote at sweet sixteen!’

Aw whit a big parade

A monumental line o floats

Revs up: ‘Noo, gie us aa yir votes!’

Aw whit a big parade

Ma frien says, ‘Let’s get hame at last!

We’ve seen the end o’ yon March Past,’

Aw whit a big parade

But then dark-suited, tiptoein men

Come roun the corner aince again…

Aw whit a big parade

 

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Jewel in the Crown

would hazard that it is rare these days for an author to celebrate completion of a novel with a trip to Tiffany’s for a Schlumberger original. Few advances stretch that far and even fewer of us have the poise or indeed the daywear to carry it off. Muriel Spark did, to the delight of her American publisher and fellow jewellery enthusiast Barbara Epler. In Hidden Possibilities: Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark (edited by Robert E. Hosmer), Epler recalls the ‘fabulous brooch in a fish shape’ Spark wore pinned to a ‘gorgeous gown’ on her first visit to New Directions Press in New York. Spark confided that she’d also like ‘an Order of the Golden Fleece collar’.

The first twenty-five of those were made by Jehan Preut of Bruges in 1432, as we learn in one of Spark’s earliest essays, written some four decades before she met Epler. ‘The Golden Fleece’ now lends its title to a much-anticipated collection edited by Spark’s long-term companion Penelope Jardine. Far from the sparkly excess of Schlumberger, the earliest insignia of the chivalric order, ‘was in no sense a rich ornament lavishly set with precious gems . . . The collar was made of steel’. The ring from which the badge of the Golden Fleece hung bore the legend, ‘Not an unworthy reward for our labours’.

Spark must have put a lot of work into her public image, what with the jewels and the designer duds and the ‘wit and charm’ that according to Hosmer, ‘made her long the sought-after dinner guest when Sir Harold Acton or Gore Vidal or cardinals at the highest reaches of the Vatican entertained’ (although she did not, she told SRB editor Alan Taylor, ever need to ‘touch up’ her trademark red hair). Unlike Annabel Christopher, the actress in her novel The Public Image, Spark remained in control and had no need to use her looks and style to conceal a paucity of talent. She did however have to be vigilant about the dangers and distractions of the world beyond her favoured James Thin notebooks. In Hidden Possibilities, Taylor describes visiting the author at Jardine’s house in Arezzo, a situation chosen not because Spark was a recluse but because she had to ‘remove herself from temptation and supplication, away from the hangers-on, pub bores, and spongers who would cling to her like barnacles’. Spark drew an analogy with the work of Tuscan firefighters: ‘that’s what I’ve had to do with my life; make a counter-fire, to stop the encroachment of really devouring demands’. Jardine notes in her introduction to The Golden Fleece that Spark, ‘took literature in a sense as a religion. She believed in her talent for writing and had plenty to say, so that she devoted herself to it as a calling.’ No collar required in the service of art, and who would grudge her the not unworthy reward of a bit of bling after each novel?

Even the gorgeous gowns became tedious. In ‘The Celestial Garden Party’, written for a Telegraph fashion special, she explains that during her ‘phase of haute couture’ she found the ‘numerous fittings that the Diva-like dressmakers demanded piteously ate up my precious working mornings’. Off the peg it was from then on. This essay is vintage Spark: ‘In the ’twenties and early ’thirties in Edinburgh, where everything was passionless and only the weather was full of consternation, nobody left home hatless’. There is even a tantalising glimpse of early life chez Camberg, when Spark recalls coming home with her mother – who ‘could never pass a hat-shop, particularly if the milliner gave her cash-credit’ – to discover her father engaging in ‘reasonably innocent fun’ with a family friend and Mrs Camberg’s hat collection. ‘I felt something in the air,’ Spark writes, with the wonderful, maddening composure familiar to anyone who has read Curriculum Vitae.

Spark did not, as planned, write another volume of memoir. Novels got in the way, and she was always suspicious of the practice of autobiography. Jardine writes that latterly, ‘I think she really wasn’t inspired enough to write about herself and all the difficulties as well as all the joys of her life. She knew them, they were past, they no longer interested her.’

The Golden Fleece is arranged in four sections: Art and Poetry; Autobiography and Travel; Literature; Religion, Politics and Philosophy. By including short pieces and pensées as well as essays, Jardine hopes to ‘in some measure, fill the gap of Muriel’s unwritten memoirs.’ Some of the ‘curiosities’ included here do not add a great deal: we learn little of what Spark thought about tattooing, for instance, or about her most memorable New Year’s Eve. We do learn about lots of other things, including her ‘Ailourophilia’: ‘If I were not a Christian I would worship the Cat. The ancient Egyptians did so with much success.’ The ‘flower and consummation of the species’ was her own cat Bluebell, immortalised in her second novel Robinson. The description of Bluebell’s untimely death is very touching, and later (in the Herald magazine) Spark mused more seriously that, ‘The animal creation ennobles us; we cannot survive without it; it makes us whole.’ I will leave readers to discover for themselves her thoughts on the sex lives of hares and horses.

Spark wished for her essays to be collected, and The Golden Fleece has been so many years in the making that surely it counts as a labour of love. Jardine begins her preface by recalling that it was in the summer of 1991 that she ‘spread out a lifetime of Muriel’s essays and reviews.’ As an epigraph she chooses one of Spark’s own lines: ‘Good literary essays, in particular, have sustaining and stimulating qualities, like deep wells and clear rivers’. Many of the stand out pieces here deal with writers and writing: there’s the ‘drug-like charm’ of Proust (‘My Madeleine is an empty notebook,’ Spark observes); gin and pineapple with Edith Sitwell (once reviewed by Spark as a lesser poet than Yeats, much to Sitwell’s displeasure); sheltering from an air raid in the house of Louis MacNeice (‘There’s always something special and something simple about a writer’s house. I’ve never met a really good writer who lives in high style’). A truly hilarious account of the Brontës’ forays into teaching ends with the most apposite advice to aspiring writers: ‘Perhaps the lesson to be drawn, for any writer with the necessary will of iron, who lacks only the opportunity to write, is that he should prove himself no good at anything else.’

Picking over such gems and nuggets is illuminating and fun; I can almost imagine how Barbara Epler felt when the contents of Spark’s jewellery safe – ‘little velvet pouches, little suede boxes, larger gold-trimmed leather boxes’ – were strewn over her bed in Tuscany. Inevitably, some essays have been trimmed or combined, but the few frayed strings and sticky clasps set off an otherwise dazzling array.

Epler’s is one of the gushier tributes in Hidden Possibilities, but unsurprisingly in a collection conceived as a celebration, there aren’t any dissenting voices. Robert Hosmer has collected or commissioned eleven essays on ‘The Work’ and five on ‘The Life’. Many, as intended, contextualise Spark in a wider European tradition of modernism and other experimental fiction; some succeed in offering fresh perspectives on her Scottish identity and influences. Particularly noteworthy in the former category is John Lanchester’s excellent ‘In Sparkworld’ (originally published in the New York Review of Books); in the latter, there is Gerard Carruthers’s attack on ‘the essentialism of the Scottish literary critical mind’ and compelling re-evaluation of the influence of Hogg (‘“Fully to Savour Her Position”: Muriel Spark and Scottish Identity’). Admiring her language in ‘Stonewalling Toffs’ (taken from The New Yorker), John Updike suggests that, ‘Perhaps as Spark ages, her gnarly Scots roots thrust up through the ground of her long Continental residence’. He is referring to her English idiom, but we might just as easily say that in imaginative soil this rich, all manner of influences are seeded and take root. Carruthers ends by writing that, ‘Scotland is a place conjugated by Spark with many other sites and cultures in her work, and Scotland should be grateful that she utilizes it in her art so universally’.

General readers (if I can use the expression without conjuring Edwina from Loitering With Intent and her exhortation to ‘Fuck the general reader!’) may be drawn towards the more personal material. Taylor’s essay, ‘Muriel Spark: Scottish by Formation’, sits alongside Barbara Epler’s recollections, an entertaining conversation with John Mortimer (‘The Culture of an Anarchist’), an enthusiastic interview by the editor, and a more restrained memoir by Doris Lessing (which is almost as revealing about Lessing as it is about Spark). The title of the collection is taken from the scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in which Jenny recalls falling in love with a stranger in Rome. Although nothing came of it, she was left with ‘a sense of the hidden possibilities in all things’. As one might expect from a publication by University of Notre Dame Press, there is a slight bias here towards spirituality, conversion and Catholicism. All of those things concerned Spark greatly, of course, along with myriad other hidden possibilities. Her own essays, collected by Penelope Jardine in The Golden Fleece, illustrate beautifully another of her concerns: that the ‘purpose of art is to give pleasure . . . that element of pleasure which restores the proportions of the human spirit, opens windows in the mind.’

The Golden Fleece: Essays

Muriel Spark
Ed. with a preface by Penelope Jardine

Carcanet, £16.99, ISBN 978-1-847772-51-0, 226PP

Hidden Possibilities: Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark

Ed. Robert E. Hosmer Jr.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Vlad the Invader

Anyone seeking to understand the current crisis in the Ukraine would do well to remember that the Russian eagle is double-headed. The people see themselves as part of Asia as much as Europe. All Russians are still either Slavophiles or Westernisers, and many are both. Moreover, they divide all humanity into two categories: Russians and foreigners, and no-one can be both. The question being asked today, from the Kremlin to Kamchatka, is who are Russians and who are foreigners, and which of those foreigners – specifically those holding Ukrainian citizenship – are or should be considered Russian?

This dichotomy goes to the heart of Russians as people. It is a psychological as much as a political condition. Two stories from my own experience may help to illuminate it. The first one concerns a close friend whom I was trying to convince of the ‘Protestant’ virtue of steady labour in one’s trade or profession, rather than indolence and last-minute furious work that is more normal among Russians.

‘Do you know the story of the hare and the tortoise?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course. We heard it in school.’

‘Well, then?’

‘Well then what?’

‘Slow and steady wins the race. That was the moral of the story.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘But the tortoise wins.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but only because he got his brother to wait by the winning post so he could impersonate him before the hare came running along. We were told that the moral of the story was that if you want to win, you have to be prepared to cheat.’

The second story concerns a village on the banks of the upper Volga where I have spent many a happy weekend with a friend who has built a second home there. Until recently, three of his immediate neighbours were elderly women, but a year ago they all reached the age when they had to move into the nearby town to stay with their children.

The result was that three houses were put up for sale at about the same time. They were almost identical, built solidly of thick logs for collective farmers in the 1950s. They had electricity and about an acre of ground. The general feeling was that the properties were worth about half a million roubles each (about £11,000 then; £8,000 today).

Tyotya (Aunty) Tanya’s one was bought by a relative for half a million. But as it was a family transaction this fact did not become known for a few weeks. During that time, Tyotya Katya had a friend of another neighbour’s in when he was visiting for the weekend. This person, from Moscow, was shortly to be retiring and was looking for a house in the country. Tyotya Katya mentioned that her house was for sale. That was ideal as it was next to his friend’s place. Clearly this was the moment to open the vodka bottle and get down to some serious negotiation.

By the time the bargaining was completed it was nearly midnight and the bottle had been finished. The deal had been done, with the visitor having agreed to pay a million roubles for his retirement home.

He woke up the next morning with only the vaguest memory of what had gone on the night before. He asked his host what had transpired over at Tyotya Katya’s house.

‘You agreed to buy it,’ he was told. ‘For a million roubles.’

‘Oh, no! Did I really? It’s not worth that.’

‘I know, I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.’

Later that day, they went over to see Tyotya Katya. She said that she knew he was drunk when he agreed to pay such a high price for her house, and she would accept a lower one. But the man was insistent. No, he had agreed to pay that price and the honour of a real Russian man demands that he never cheat family, friends or neighbours.

And he did, despite the fact that he had to raise a loan to make up the full price. The transaction went through, and he lives in Tyotya Katya’s old house to this day, happy in retirement, even though his wife is still in Moscow, having had to delay her retirement for a year or two to pay down the loan.

Meanwhile, Tyotya Galya’s house is still for sale. Why? Because the asking price is one and a half million, three times the generally accepted market value. Tyotya Tanya had one daughter, and she got half a million for the sale of her mother’s house, and Tyotya Katya had two sons, who also got half a million each. Tyotya Galya had three daughters and they consider it only fair that they get half a million each too. Being Russian, and therefore stubborn, none will budge. So their house remains unsold.

I quote these stories because the most important thing to understand about the present situation in what might be called ‘the Slavosphere’ is that, unlike in Britain, there is a substantial disconnect between public and private morality. We tend to think our statesmen should be honest. The height of that fad was Robin Cook’s so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’. Russians do not want their own country to behave so stupidly. Many would consider it idiotic, possibly to the point of treason, to treat foreigners as being inside the ‘no-cheat zone’– especially Americans. An important Russian who falls for American plots is ‘an enemy of the people’.

Take Mikhail Gorbachev, Nobel Peace Prize winner. To most Russians, he is the quisling above all quislings. Most think he was paid by the Americans to destroy the Soviet Union. I know a politician who is invited with perhaps a hundred other Marshals and oligarchs to the Kremlin dinner that Vladimir Putin hosts every year on 9 May to celebrate Victory Day.

The year before last, Gorbachev was one of the guests. After the formal part of the dinner was over the guests got up from their tables and took their glasses over to another table to talk to someone else. People milled around the room in a ‘comradely’ fashion for hours – all of them, that is, except Gorbachev. Nobody came to talk to him. Not one of the hundred or so guests had enough compassion for the 81-year-old man in their midst to exchange a single voluntary word with him – or perhaps they knew that it would be a black mark against them if they showed him any respect. The former President spent the rest of the evening sitting by himself at a table for twelve.

One of the wisest points ever made to me about Russia came from a Swedish lawyer who ran the Ikea legal department in Moscow for ten years. He told me about his professor of Russian at university whose introductory words were: ‘You should all start your course with the clear understanding that, though Russians are very nice and interesting people, there is one major problem with them: they look like us. This can give the illusion that they are like us, when in fact they think completely differently. Really, they should be painted blue and have sticks attached to their foreheads to remind us how different they are.’

Most people, both Western and Russian, respond to that by muttering something about the ‘mysterious Russian soul’. I once put this to Natasha Perova, who edits the magazine Glas, the main publisher of contemporary Russian fiction in English translation. Natasha is bilingual and has an acute view of the differences between Russians and Westerners.

‘There is no such thing as the “mysterious Russian soul”,’ she said decisively, ‘only bad translation.’

Russians do not even agree about their own stereotype. That is a good place to start trying to unravel the complicated interaction of Ukraine, Russia and the West: who is inside the no-cheat zone and who is outside it.

* * *

RUSSIANS who know Britain usually feel closer in spirit to the Scots than they do to the English. Slavs tend to prefer their Teutons to be German. Within Scotland, the Russian preference is very much for the Highlands rather than the Lowlands.

I remember once reading about a Glasgow engineer who spent time in Russia in the 1970s when John Brown’s Shipyard was supplying the pumps for the Urengoy gas pipeline. Those were communist days and intimate conversation was as risky as smiling. This man wrote about his experiences in Russia, specifically seeking to answer the question of why the Scots and Russians seem to get on so well together. He told the story of how, on his last night in Moscow, he got drunk with his Russian ‘minder’ and they fell to discussing the source of this feeling of kinship. They worked their way through Burns, whisky, castles and the Loch Ness Monster – a subject of perpetual fascination to Russians. But they never seemed quite to get to the heart of the matter. Eventually, the Russian blurted out an explanation which the Scot thought pretty much on the money: ‘We are both people with a savage past, and are not ashamed of it.’

That is true of the past, but less so today as Russians, in many ways, have a savage present too. The reason is that there is no statutory basis for no-cheat zones. Each oligarch has his own, but none of them – not even the President – can expect to be inside all of them. And the oligarchy as a whole treats the ordinary people as being outside any form of serious protection – and the people reciprocate by treating state assets as if they were privately owned by a particularly loathsome neighbour.

Ultimately, it is a question of power: I do it because I can. This is reflected in the home, where domestic violence is widespread. In Britain fewer than 200 women a year are murdered by their husbands. In Russia, the figure is around 14,000, or nearly thirty times as many on a per capita basis. A further 50-60,000 are maimed. As Professor Velikanova wrote in 1995, ‘Women who run to the local police station crying, “Help, he’s killing me!” usually get a flippant brush-off: “So? If he kills you, come and see us”.’ I am sure the situation is better now, but I doubt if very much so.

The relationship between the powers and the people is the central feature of Russian constitutional, legal and social history, which is why I am researching a book to be called Russia and the Rule of Law. (‘It’ll be a very short book, then!’ my wittier friends observe.) It is also at the heart of the economic problem here. So what is the root of the Russian attitude to law?

I learned about this in a rather unusual way. I have a friend who is the billionaire owner of an aerospace engineering firm but whose main interest in life is history, partly because about a third of the men in his Stalin-era family were murdered by the state and another third killed in the war which Stalin fought and, as he thinks, partly provoked. We meet in the Irish pub near Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue) to discuss Russia now and Russia then and the relationship between the two.

We start from a shared assumption that in the very broadest terms you can make a distinction between the Continental (civil law) tradition and the Anglo-American (common law) one. The English-speaking world developed as an essentially maritime community which, due to distances, was quite loosely organised, while the European world developed as a more sophisticated and structured group of societies. It was more compact and more amenable to planning and design because it was based on land.

A sailor, especially before the age of steam, had no such luxury. The sea was trackless, so all navigation had to be, in one sense, original. You also had to wait for the wind, and to be prepared for anything when off-shore. This imposed a different psychology upon the whole community. Planning was subordinated to experience, and opportunism became a virtue. Expediency was axiomatic. Markets ruled.

The common law is a structure based on precedent, which in this context is another word for experience. By contrast, the civilian law tradition, with its Codes from Justinian through Napoleon to the EU Habitats Directive, represents a form of legal planning, with a clear ideal in mind to which all life has to be subordinated. Expediency is frowned upon. Both approaches have their virtues, and both have their faults. I assumed that Russia must be an extreme case of a land-based society. But, to my surprise, my friend disagreed strongly.

‘No,’ he said emphatically. ‘It is a third case. It is like a maritime society on land.’

The starting point for this view is the domination of Russia by the Mongols, the steppe warriors who ruled the country for a period equal to the whole history of the United States. They had a profound influence, not least upon the Russian attitude to power. Towards the end of this period, the power the Mongols had acquired gradually devolved onto the Russian princes who had acted as their agents in controlling and taxing the Russian population.

The first of the princes to act independently of the Great Khan was Ivan the Great (Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather) who ruled from 1462 to 1505. Ivan was a powerful, clear-headed ruler who did many things, often frightful, during his long reign. From the point of view of law, his most important act was to destroy the independence and traditions of the city of Novgorod.

Novgorod was a Hanseatic trading outpost in the north-west of Russia. St Petersburg was established by Peter the Great in 1703 as his ‘window on the West’. Novgorod had been destroyed by Ivan the Great centuries before that precisely because it was a window on the West and, more ominously for him, a place where German law was applied.

My view – which few if any historians share – is that the core problem for Ivan was not Catholicism, the expansionist Lithuanian state, or even the semi-democratic nature of the government in Novgorod. The greatest threat for the Muscovite Grand Prince lay in the law of contract. The reason is relevant to the whole of Russian history, right up to the current problems in the Ukraine. Here’s why. The Hanseatic League was a loosely-organised trading community that operated throughout northern Europe, from Novgorod in the east to Bergen, London and Bruges in the west. It was held together by an explicit body of law, the north German Skra, which was an outgrowth of the law of the Baltic city-states. Within the Hanseatic trading quarter of Novgorod all traders had to accept the jurisdiction of the (German) Court of St Peter. As in any market, the most important rule was Dictum Meum Pactum (my word is my bond).

It is plain from Ivan’s approach to government that anything which created a duty not relevant to the ruler was to be treated with grave suspicion in a private context, and destroyed in a public one. And anything which allowed a foreigner to exercise legal power over a Russian was especially abhorrent. There was to be only one source of law and that was the Prince. So Ivan invaded Novgorod in 1471, and thereafter dispersed the city’s traders, exiling many of them to Moscow. Finally, in 1494, he closed the Hanseatic Kontor altogether.

Three years later, Ivan promulgated a new law code. The few lines devoted to the question of suits between individuals describe a system so primitive that it would render the sophisticated commercial arrangements, from insurance to banking, that were by then common in Western Europe, completely unworkable. There is not one word about corporate rights, for the very good reason that corporations, as independent entities with serious rights in state-supported private law, were, with the exception of the Church, unknown in the Grand Principality of Muscovy – no guilds, no colleges, no communes, no universities, no city-states, no merchant companies.

Not only that, this law code started the process which eventually led to the enserfment of 95 per cent of the Russian population.

For all those who say that autocracy and Russia go together with a sort of historical inevitability, the existence of Novgorod before the Prince of Moscow destroyed its institutions should be a warning. Autocratic Russia was not some sort of cruel accident of history, or a manifestation of the mysterious Russian soul. It was the product of the collective labours – or lack of them – of the Russian people over half a thousand years.

Today the result is an approach to law which means that in order to get an important contract honoured you have to have influence at ‘court’ – that is, with the ‘khan’. This gives protection. It was a major feature of the argument in the case of Berezovsky v Abramovich. In 2012, I sat in court in London and listened while Roman Abramovich explained what he understood the term to mean. It is as alive today as it was in the fifteenth century.

So what was the essence of Ivan’s system? It is what my friend in the pub calls stepnoye pravo, or steppe law. This is law which came from the area which was dominated by the Great Khan for so many centuries, and which the Russian Grand Prince adopted and preserved. And the steppe, like the sea, has no roads. In Russia, much of the more northerly, forested zone is largely without roads too. Over most of the country, a compass is more useful to the traveller than a map.

Mongol law was primitive. Its essential characteristic is best described in my friend’s words: ‘Where is the Khan? There is the law.’ That is what law was reduced to: the locus of power. Today it is Vladimir Putin.

* * *

THE Ukraine is where the steppe meets the rolling countryside of Eastern Europe. It should be no surprise that it is in the Ukraine that the Ivano-Russian attitude to government and law is clashing with modern versions of the Hanseato-European approach.

By chance, I happened to visit Kiev three weeks before Victor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s President from 2010 to 2014, was ousted. Although the atmosphere was friendly, the people occupying the square known as ‘Maidan’ seemed very determined. It was -22C, with a biting wind blowing, yet at 10 p.m. the protesters were preparing to bed down in plastic tents warmed only by smoky, pot-bellied stoves. As we now know, those people were very determined, but determined on what?

In the few conversations I had, I heard only one theme. It was not anti-Russianism, or pro-democractism. The sole hope of the people supporting the demonstration was that Ukraine could move from being an ‘Asiatic’ kleptocracy to having a ‘European’ type of limited government. By this they meant that they could go to work and make some money without having anything stolen by the Great Khan, or his associates. People seemed instinctively to understand that what was needed to become a civilised society was to establish the sanctity of contract, and thereby reverse the five hundred years of damage done to east European commerce and culture by Ivan’s closure of the Novgorod Kontor.

The Ukraine is the new frontier for the battle to make that part of the world safe for markets. The result of Ivan’s destruction of the Novgorod republic was to establish a bazaar mentality amongst the Russians, rather than a market one, and the distinction is crucial.A bazaar opens when the caravan rolls into town, laden with treasures. Tomorrow the carpets will be rolled up and the tents struck. The caravan will roll out of town in a cloud of dust, never to be seen again.

A market, by contrast, is a permanent institution, or corporation, in which you can trade only if you have been admitted as a member. The essence of the Hanseatic League was that members could trade freely with each other, knowing that they had legal recourse if they were sold defective goods or if any provision in a contract of sale was breached.

Both Russia and the Ukraine suffer from a second consequence of a bazaar approach to the economy rather than a market one: extreme ‘short-termism’. One of the reasons for the steady decline of both countries’ industrial sector has been a lack of investment. In a situation where you do not know who will own your business next year, you do not forego present satisfaction in order to invest for the future. The rational businessman takes his money and runs.

Russia, at least, is trying to address this problem. If you talk to foreign business leaders in Moscow, you will find that most consider the Commercial Courts – a separate system in the Russian jurisdiction – work well. They are fair and independent, and litigation goes through them faster and more cheaply than it does in the higher commercial courts in England. But that is only if the litigants are on a similar level in the hierarchy of power. If one of the sub-khans is a party to a case, then things work quite differently. Most probably, he will never have to come to court, since he will find himself in jail on a semi-trumped-up charge of tax evasion or whatever seems most convenient to the police, who will have been either ordered or paid to ‘open a case’. That is why oligarchs still prefer to litigate between themselves in London.

Today’s challenge for the developed world is to get the Russian Khan and his sub-khans to play by a set of rules which they do not believe to be to their personal advantage. So long as a kleptocratic elite rules, it never will be. But change is inevitable, since almost every educated Russian wants to bring up his or her children to be both honest and successful. The same is largely true, it would appear, of the eastern Ukraine. Ordinary people aspire more to having a German car than a Russian ruler, and the local oligarchs want a weak regime in Kiev which allows them to continue to plunder their fellow countrymen. They fear control by Moscow will bring the more powerful Russian oligarchs onto their patch.

The main fault-line which the Ukrainian upheaval has revealed is not political, much less racial or national. It is the fissure between two incompatible legal-mental universes. This is made immeasurably more complicated by the fact that the Great Khan of the moment does not even see this as the issue. Putin thinks it is mainly a question of who is and who is not Russian, when in fact most of the Ukrainians towards whom he is directing his poisonous benevolence are not interested in this distinction. However, the vast majority of Russian citizens support him. They are proud to have a leader who has cocked a snook at the Americans and made the Europeans look clumsy. Since the seventeenth century, it has been they who have progressively made the world (relatively) safe for the law of contract. So the Russian response to Yanukovich’s defeat in Kiev can be read as a celebration of support for Ivan the Great’s approach to law, economics and foreigners.

That is further proof of the fact that the real fault-line is the one which divides the atavistic legal-mental universe of the inheritors of the state of Muscovy from most of the rest of the modern world. Russians may look deceptively like us, but the differences are profound. For all their love of computers and smart cars, they like the fact that a fundamental fissure in the global community is becoming apparent.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Shrouded in Myth

Scotland is changing. This is a long story and a more immediate one which stretches beyond the constitutional debate. It is about the kind of society, nation and people we are and aspire to be in the future. For many people this is disconcerting, bewildering and even incomprehensible. There is an element of disorientation as some of the defining landmarks of Scottish public life fall and fade away. For others, mostly pro-independence supporters, there is the opposite: a sense of hope, excitement and even exhilaration about this opportunity. Is it possible to aid these different spectrums of opinion to at least understand each other in the coming months and years? What then is the emergent Scotland, who can lay claim to it, and where is it going? What consequences does this have for the independence referendum and the Scotland which comes out the other side?

It is important, first of all, to look at the superficial explanations for why Scotland has arrived at this point. In some accounts, this is all about the vanity and ambition of one man: Alex Salmond. Or, it’s about the SNP and ‘separatism’. Or, the decline of Scottish Labour. Even that it is concerned with ‘narrow nationalism’ – meaning Scottish nationalism. Or the waning of Scotland’s other nationalism, namely unionism. Finally, there is the call and evocation of the past: Bannockburn, Braveheart, Wallace and Bruce.

All of these soundbites misunderstand modern Scotland and the scale of changes we have lived through and are still experiencing, and of which the independence referendum is but one manifestation. In recent times, Scotland has experienced a crisis of many of its traditional institutions and authority. This has happened across large swathes of public life, and are part of a wider set of changes which can be witnessed in the rest of the United Kingdom and West. These include greater individualism, fragmentation of communities, secularisation, and the decline of many established identities and forms of authority.

In the last few years this has reached epic proportions. There has been the implosion of the Royal Bank of Scotland, pre-crash the fifth largest bank in the world. There was the liquidation of Glasgow Rangers FC, historically the dominant and most successful football club in Scotland. And there has been the miring of the Catholic Church in a series of sexual scandals which have reached its highest levels. Mainstream Scotland, in the media, politics, public life, has been consistently caught asleep at the bridge or, worse, colluding with these institutions. There has been an absence of challenge and questioning of those with power – Fred Goodwin, David Murray, Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Since these crashes, there has been a conscious attempt to get back to ‘business as usual’ which entails presenting any errant behaviour as that of a lone individual misbehaving at the top.

Beyond this there are deeper myths which define modern Scotland. In Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland I identify six myths. These include that we are an egalitarian country, a land of educational opportunity, a place that systematically holds power to account, and the notion of ‘open Scotland’ – that we are pluralist and at ease with diversity and multi-culturalism. The reality is rather different and jars with these myths. Take the idea that we are egalitarian. Scotland has the worst health inequalities in western Europe. A Save the Children Fund report last year found that a child born in the East End of Glasgow lived 28 years fewer than a child born in Lenzie a few miles away.

On income inequality the gap between the poorest and wealthiest households as calculated by ‘Oxfam Scotland’ is 1:273. In relation to educational opportunity a whole generation of working-class children are finding it harder to get on. Across the country there is an educational apartheid. St. Andrews University allowed entry in the last year to nineteen children from a working-class background, and that is when it has an access programme. This figure is probably related to the 40 per cent of its entire intake who are privately educated – the highest of any higher education institution. Next is Edinburgh University with 30 per cent.

Two further myths reinforce the above. One is the idea that Scotland is a fully-fledged, rumbustious democracy dating back through radical Liberal Scotland, ‘Red Clydeside’ and the Scots’ love of argument. The second is that we are social democratic: a place of centre-left values and even consensus. Instead, we live in a society which is neither a fully-fledged democracy or a social democracy. ‘The missing Scotland’ have gone unnoticed in public life until the independence referendum came along and their vote might just count. They represent the generation of disproportionately poorer and younger voters who have been almost permanently excluded from politics and public engagement. According to figures from the Electoral Commission Scotland they number 989,540 voters.

Then there is the comforting idea that Scotland is a social democracy. It is useful to put this powerful perception of ourselves in wider context and compare ourselves with our near-neighbours Ireland. Fintan O’Toole wrote two penetrating books – Ship of Fools and Enough is Enough – on Ireland, the causes of the economic meltdown, the after affect, and what lessons might be learned. In both he looked at the myths of Irish society which he believed had contributed to the disaster. In the foreword to Caledonian Dreaming, O’Toole makes a comparison of contemporary Ireland and Scotland. He observed that Ireland’s foundation myths post-independence which endured up to the crash were reactionary and regressive. Scotland’s on the other hand, he assessed, are warm and welcoming. They present a picture of us as ‘progressive, tolerant, social democratic’.

What is not to like or feel pleased about in these stories? Firstly, they are myths and not the accurate picture of modern Scotland. And in their attractiveness lies their problem: for they offer a picture of ourselves we want to believe and which many of us do believe. An honest examination of the character and limits of Scottish public life would concede that despite having few Tories in elected positions, conservatism is alive and well across Scotland and to be found in the most unlikely places, including left and nationalist Scotland. An illuminating example recently was when Hugo Rifkind in the Spectator implored ‘posh Scotland’ to emerge from its secret networks and proclaim its love for the union and Scotland. A common response to this argument on social media – from many supposed left-wingers and nationalists – was to deny that there are any elites in modern Scotland. This can only be described as a denial of reality.

Historically, Scotland has been defined by institutional elites and power. Take the 432 estates that own more than half of Scotland’s private land. Then there is the 25 per cent of Edinburgh’s secondary school children who attend private schools. There are the legal, educational, health and business elites who represent a closed order Scotland, who grew up inter-connected and intertwined, going to the same schools and universities, serving on the same public boards and bodies, and often sending their children to the same schools and universities. It all has the hallmark of a self-perpetuating order and self-preservation society. Strangely Scotland seems to be content to be only vaguely aware of such patterns. Instead, we comfort ourselves in the familiar stories that we are not Tory, didn’t vote for Thatcher, and that because of this we are the inheritors of a radical Scottish tradition. Our elites and its advocates pander to this: recently, Magnus Linklater stated that it would be ‘very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’ or a ‘notion of clubland’.

In many respects, however, Scotland is a less hierarchical, ordered, conformist society than it used to be. Yet the accounts we have chosen to tell ourselves about recent times, the scale and implications of change, are partial, limiting and at points, self-deceiving. In an age of turbulent change, collapsing institutions and vainglorious, self-absorbed elites, we cling to selective stories. These give a black and white account of the last thirty or so years, suggesting that the roots of nearly all of our problems have been and are external, or the fault of those two hate figures, Thatcher and Blair.

How do we escape out of the myths we have created and told ourselves and which are repeated constantly? We have to understand power, who has it and how they got it, and who doesn’t and why. We have to understand that Scotland has historically for as long as anyone can remember been a society shaped and run by elites, closed orders and vested interest groups. It was the ‘holy trinity’ of the Kirk, education and law which were preserved in the 1707 union settlement and whose autonomy maintained a sense of Scottishness for centuries. But elites they were; not some expression of some pre-modern golden age of Scottish democracy.

There are several obstacles in this. The first is our lack of interest in our own history: of how Scotland maintained and reproduced itself in the union. Much better to have a version of our past filled with romance and wrongs done to us. The second is the power and reach of establishment Scotland – which has not just incorporated the usual and obvious suspects – but those who also think they are radical. So as well as Tories and official Scotland, left and nationalist society has bought into these myths, along with ‘civic Scotland’.

Third, there is the ease with which many people describe the changes they didn’t like of the last thirty years simply by namechecking ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Blair’. These totems prevent us having an informed debate which addresses the scale of change we have experienced in recent decades. Invoking them allows people to feel a politics of empowered opposition and rejection of their values and ‘me first’ attitudes; it also sadly aids a sense of victimhood and denial.

Fourth, there is a problem with politics which is two-fold: one, that it is seen as the answer to everything and another being how narrowly it is drawn. Politics isn’t the be-all and end-all. There has to be a public and private life beyond it, otherwise the consequences are totalitarian. In Scotland there is still a propensity to believe the answer to everything must be political. This is linked to the narrow gaze of what is deemed political in public conversation which is tightly constrained. Not so long ago society was marred by all kinds of no-go areas not to be mentioned in public: religion, sectarianism, sexuality and the issue of homosexuality to name the most obvious. While much progress has been made, we still live with this legacy and shadow: politics is about parties, politicians and parliaments. Even independence is shaped by this, being defined as ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ or as one pro-Yes group put it ‘completing the powers of the Parliament’. This strait jacket of what is political misses the power of the cultural, and how deep-seated political change isn’t just about institutions, but about attitudes, mindsets and collective psychologies.

Finally, the last and biggest obstacle Scotland faces is what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called ‘the danger of the single story’. Adichie has observed the universal truism that ‘when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise’. Don’t we recognise part of ourselves in this description? The pull of an essentialist, singular, monochromatic Scotland has been a potent one. It has been expressed through the power of the Church of Scotland when it was the omnipotent power in the land, the reach of Victorian liberalism, the mid to late twentieth century grip of ‘Labour Scotland’ and the early twenty-first century politics of Nationalist Scotland.

This independence debate has arisen because the old traditional order has retreated, hollowed out and is in crisis. Scottish society has dramatically changed. The reference points that we have known and grown up with have either gone or mean completely different things. This offers the prospect of an opening, a set of movements and fluidity, and the recognition that there is no one over-arching story or political project. It is about us as a nation growing up, maturing, taking responsibility, and seeing this opportunity as a debate which is about something more far-reaching than ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ which is a restrictive, top-down idea of change. It is about an independence of spirit and the mind about much more than politics and institutions, centred on individual and collective mindsets and psychologies, and about stopping the easy options of blaming others for our own shortcomings and seeking the capacity to change in ourselves.

This isn’t an abstract observation. Instead, it would entail looking at the institutions and areas of public life Scotland has been self-governing for decades: education, health and law, and the decisions Scots have made collectively and the consequences which flow from them. The potential of this opening can be seen in the flowering of the self-organising, self-generating ‘third Scotland’ and its DIY culture and very different take on politics. This is embodied in groups such as National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign and Jimmy Reid Foundation to name but a few. Something fascinating is going in on in this ‘third Scotland’. It is an expression of a very different kind of power and authority from traditional norms. It has witnessed a whole new generation of voices, spaces and ideas emerge who seem to be not waiting as people once did for permission to do something but seem to be just saying, ‘I have authority’ and ‘I can do something creative’. In this such groups are very much a product of the post-Thatcherite, post-Blair environment of modern Scotland whether they realise it or not.

One fundamental change which has huge implications has been that the idea of independence has gone from the margins of society to the mainstream; that it has become normalised and something which has entered the public consciousness of the nation. Up and down the land you can hear snippets of conversations at bus stops, train stations and public places about the state of the currency debate, the European issue, the prospect of Scotland being governed by a future Tory government it did not vote for, and the public policy choices we would be faced with in the event of independence. In a sense, people are beginning to inhabit, no matter how sketchily, the contours of what Scottish independence looks and feels like, and that may well turn out to be an irreversible change whatever the result in September.

The current debate – our hopes, fears, anxieties, even the bewilderment and incomprehension of some – has to be seen in a longer timeframe. This is of the managed elite autonomy which preserved the very ‘idea’ of Scotland post-union. This made possible the emergence of a layer of Scottish administration and government from late Victorian times onwards which has evolved into what it is today: an embryonic Scottish state. This Scottish public space used to be exclusively about a society of the few: a ‘high politics’ of the well-to-do and supposedly respectable opinion. Yet as the organs of public administration expanded over the twentieth century so the pressure grew for democratic control and accountability. The campaigns to achieve a Scottish Parliament and then independence have to be seen in this environment: as a means to an end of democratising Scotland, calling time on the rule of ‘high politics’ and nurturing an era of ‘low politics’, namely popular control. This illustrates the potential and pitfalls of the present debate. Holyrood with all its ‘new politics’ hype in the early years, proved under Labour, then SNP control to be about going with the grain of prevailing opinion. It witnessed the making permanent of an insider devolution class who knew how to maintain their position and voice. They are the Alphabet Soup Scotland: CBI, IoD, STUC, SCVO, SCDI that all of us in public life are meant to know the importance of and what each set of initials stands for.

The independence and self-government debate can only produce fundamental social change if there is a demand and pressure for it. This requires a critique of the limited politics and vision of what has passed for politics pre- and post-devolution, and the collusion of our mainstream political classes – the constitution apart. It is true that Holyrood hasn’t gone down the route of market vandalism, stigmatising the poor and vulnerable, and appeasing xenophobia and Euroscepticism which now characterises Westminster. But that isn’t enough to make what has been and is a conservative political culture into one that is dynamic and bold. Instead, it is a politics defined in the negative by what we are not.

For some turning our back on this broken British order is enough. But it isn’t enough or even possible for Scottish society is very different from that past age: one which is undergoing unprecedented change, remaking public life, politics and institutions. All of this informs the current debate. We can use this opportunity as one stage in the route of narrowing choice and minimising risk, or we can embrace the world of uncertainty, fluidity and hyper-change. The old Scotland – the old world of institutions, knowing your place and believing in the stories told by our elders and elites – is disintegrating before our eyes. Let’s not try and pretend otherwise, or worse, attempt to put it back together.

Caledonia Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Bus Party 2014: Listening Across Scotland In The Run Up To The Referendum

Bus-Partyresized.jpg

The Bus Party

 

In the week leading up to the 1997 referendum on devolution, a group of artists and writers led by William McIlvanney, Neal Ascherson and Billy Kay toured the country by bus, using music and poetry to open conversations with communities throughout Scotland about their hopes for the future.

 

Now, as the referendum on independence approaches, the Bus Party is going back on the road – not to preach or convert, but again to offer the opportunity for discussion. The Bus Party’s mix of celebration and conversation aims to encourage people to exercise their vote, by asking,

 

“What kind of Scotland
do
you want?”

 

The question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ generates further questions and elicits a wide range of responses. As one artist has said, ‘It’s time to put on our listening lugs.’

 

Listening Lugs Tour

 

On the May leg of the ‘Listening Lugs’ tour the artists in the Bus Party will explore these questions with local communities from Stromness to Stirling.

 

Artists on the Bus

 

The 2014 tour will be in two phases, a northern one in May and a southern one in September. Along with ‘97ers William McIlvanney, Neal Ascherson and Billy Kay, it will involve over thirty artists of different backgrounds, working in music, literature, the visual arts and drama.

 

Music 

Karine Polwart

Mairi Campbell

Ricky Ross

Jamie MacDougall

Michael Barnett

David Francis

Rod Paterson

Fin Moore

Hamish Moore

 

Literature

James Robertson 

Janice Galloway 

Andrew Greig 

Sara Sheridan 

Janet Paisley 

Karen Campbell

Robert Crawford 

Ron Butlin 

Bashabi Fraser 

Aonghas MacNeacail 

Matthew Fitt

 

Visual Arts 

Sandy Moffat

Carolyn Scott

Will Maclean

Andy Sim

 

Listening Lugs


ITINERARY MAY 24 – 31, 2014

 

24           WICK7.00pm: Pulteney Centre

25           STROMNESS2.00pm: Pier Arts Centre

26           INVERNESS 2.00pm: Waterstones Bookshop

26           ELGIN7.00pm: Elgin High School

27           MONTROSE 12.pm: Walls Projects II @ The Old Rope Works

27           DUNDEE 7.30pm: Gardyne Theatre

28           LOCHGELLY11.00am: Lochgelly Centre

28           HOWE OF FIFE7.30pm: Kingskettle @ Kettle Kirk

29           FALKIRK 11.00am:  Waterstones & Busking in Town Centre

29           LIVINGSTON 2.00pm: Waterstones Bookshop

29           COATBRIDGE With Interfaith Scotland @ Conforti Institute

30           CLYDEBANK10.00am: Clydebank Library

30           ALEXANDRIA2.00pm: Alexandria Library

30           DUMBARTON7.30pm: Dumbarton Library

31           DALMUIR 10.00am: Dalmuir Library

31           STIRLING7.00pm: Church of the Holy Rude

 

 Full details and updates on all these events: facebook.com/busparty2014

Twitter: @busparty2014    Website: www.busparty2014.org

 

A Brief History of the Bus Party

 

The idea of a ‘Bus Party’ came originally from the German novelist Günter Grass.  Enraged by the dullness and self-censorship of a West German election campaign back in 1964, he organised a busload of writers, independent thinkers and musicians to tour round the ‘back country’ of north Germany – the small towns and villages, not the cities.

   

At each stop, a reception committee organised a meeting followed by a party with local people.  The slogan was that ‘we haven’t come to tell you how to vote. We are here to ask you what you think and dream of, and to say the things which the main campaigns daren’t say’. 

 

Neal Ascherson, then a journalist living in Germany, followed Grass’s bus party round.  He saw afterwards that – for many ordinary Germans – what Grass’s friends said and sang and wrote and drew on that journey were the only things worth remembering from that election. Much later, he reported on the dismal 1979 referendum in Scotland. When the 1997 referendum for a Scottish Parliament came round, there was a real danger that the same pessimism and sense of alienation could produce another inconclusive result. So it seemed to him and Will Storrar that Grass’s brilliant idea could work in Scotland too. A bus party was organized – writers, journalists, singers, musicians – to follow Grass’s lead by going round the small places, by coaxing people to speak of their hopes instead of being preached at, to ‘vote for their aspirations, not their fears’, above all to sense and enjoy their own citizen power.

 

That tour, headed by the novelist William McIlvanney, travelled round Scotland from Inverurie and Huntly to Lesmahagow and Galashiels, ending up on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill on the eve of the poll. Some travelled all the way; some – as fits a bus – rode for a day or two and were replaced by others. We were everywhere made welcome. Not only that: the bus riders themselves – by questioning and above all by listening – learned to know their own country better.

 

And now, facing the most important and historic choice of all, in a Scotland alive with excited self-questioning as never before, there’s once again a bus to catch.

 

Neal Ascherson

 

 

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

James Tait Black Awards Shortlists Announced


An international line-up of respected novelists forms the shortlist for Britain’s oldest literary awards, the James Tait Black Awards. 

Novels based around an 18th century English village; a family’s response to a terminal illness; a young woman’s obsession with motorcycles; and the daily toil of a shepherdess are contenders for this year’s James Tait Black Prizes.

Works by American authors Kent Haruf and Rachel Kushner join the latest books by acclaimed British writer Jim Crace and Australian novelist Evie Wyld in the shortlist for the £10,000 fiction prize.  

Contenders for the £10,000 biography prize include fascinating accounts of Joe Ranz and fellow members of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China for almost half a century until 1908, Booker prize-winning novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald; and an account of the biographer’s aunt, a young woman in Nazi-occupied France.

Two prizes are awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh for books published during the previous year – one for the best work of fiction and the other for the best biography. The 
winners will be announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. 

The four novels competing for the fiction prize are: Harvest by Jim Crace ; Benediction by Kent Haruf ; The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner; All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

The shortlisted works for the biography section are: The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin by Daniel James Brown ; Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang ; Penelope Fitzgerald: A life by Hermione Lee; Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare. 

The nominations have been chosen from more than 350 books worldwide by English Literature academics and 25 postgraduate students at the University.  

The James Tait Black Awards, awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband’s love of good books. 

Fiction judge Dr Lee Spinks of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures said: 
“This is an exceptional short-list, showcasing four original prose stylists, each with a distinctive gift for narrative suspense and revelation.  Any one of these four novels would be a worthy recipient of the James Tait Black Award for Fiction.”

Biography judge Professor Jonathan Wild of the School of Language, Literatures and Cultures said: “These biographies represent the cream of a truly remarkable year for writing in this field.”

The prizes are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students. The James Tait Black prize for drama, announced earlier this month, was launched last year. 
Past winners of the fiction awards include figures of global literary distinction, such as DH Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Last year, Oban-born author Alan Warner was the winner of the fiction prize for his book The Deadman’s Pedal. 

Tanya Harrod, co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft, was the recipient of the biography prize for her book The last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture.  

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

Farewell to Alistair MacLeod

 

Farewell to Alistair MacLeod

I met Alistair MacLeod only once and it was under remarkable circumstances. A friend and I were heading to Nova Scotia to start a cross-country project linking same-name towns in Scotland and Canada. We were speaking of MacLeod’s work as we traversed Heathrow and ran into him walking in the opposite direction.  I remember the bunnet and sonsie Scottish face but, most of all, his generous response when accosted by two total strangers. As it turned out, he was going to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and was about to board the plane that we had just departed. The fact that he was heading for our neck of the woods, and we for his, added a pleasing symmetry to an already memorable encounter.

I have read Alistair MacLeod’s entire oeuvre twice – once while living in Canada and again since I returned to Scotland. This is not as impressive as it might sound. MacLeod wrote only two slender volumes of short stories (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories) and one novel (No Great Mischief). In 2000 his short stories were collected into a single volume called Island making it possible to read MacLeod’s output in just two books.

MacLeod’s ancestors were Highland Scots. In a Scottish Review of Books interview in 2009, he revealed that they came from the Island of Eigg in 1791 – six generations ago. His short stories are mostly about Cape Breton Island in Canada but Scotland is the still point in many of them. I admit to a time when I found his portrayal of Scotland mildly troubling. It was a place forever defined in old stories and old fiddle tunes. It seemed unlikely to me, for instance, that Calum’s sister in the novel No Great Mischief would meet an old man in Moidart who talked almost exclusively about 1745 rather than someone who had relocated there from London or Edinburgh. Or that the grandmother in The Road to Rankin’s Point would use her remaining strength to scratch out ancient tunes on the fiddle.

However, I see MacLeod’s Scotland differently now. It is the Scotland of so many MacLeods, Sutherlands, MacLeans and Stewarts in Canada who are in search of their roots. But beyond that, his stories require an unchanging Scotland as a bulwark against the modernising forces that threaten Cape Breton from the other direction. There are numerous references in MacLeod’s stories to the road that leads across the Canso Causeway and off Cape Breton to the rest of Canada, the world beyond and the many temptations to be found out there. His modernity seems almost quaint now – high rise living, microwave ovens, common-or-garden professions – but it removes Cape Breton’s young people and threatens its traditional existence.  

It is Cape Breton and MacLeod’s sense of the place that make his stories sing. I defy anyone to read his short story The Boat – about a father and son lobster fishers – and finish it with dry eyes. His characters work in the old ways and in isolated communities and they die out there and alone; drowning, falling through ice or off cliffs. Only mining represents any kind of technological advance and even here the mines are sometimes crude and illegal, cut in tunnels under the sea.

As a member of the modern Scottish diaspora, one of the interesting aspects of MacLeod’s stories is that so many of them are about a second diaspora. The Scots who migrated to Cape Breton are moving on again – to Boston or Toronto or Vancouver. MacLeod was part of this process himself. He was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan before his parents took the family back to Cape Breton. Later he taught English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor, Ontario. He knew the feeling of living in one place and longing for another.

There is a third diaspora at work in MacLeod’s work though it has received far less attention that the first two. Some years ago Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien sent me a speech he delivered to the graduates of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. It was a plea for young people of Scottish descent to return to Scotland and help kick the life back to a dying mutual friend, or words to that effect. O’Brien’s entreaty seemed a bit peculiar but served as a reminder that MacLeod’s Highlanders are also part of a Scottish Catholic diaspora and that FX was one of their portals out of Cape Breton. MacLeod is a distinguished graduate of the university though the characters in his stories don’t really advertise their religion. Catholicism is occluded by Highland spirituality (in Rankin’s Point, for instance, the MacCrimmons are said to have had ‘the gift of music and foreseeing their own deaths’) but it is there nonetheless.

Many of the strands in Alistair MacLeod’s life and writing came together when he died in Windsor on April 20. He was buried in Dunvegan, Inverness County, Cape Breton, after a funeral mass at St. Margaret of Scotland Roman Catholic Church. He wrote some of his stories at Dunvegan in a cliff top cabin looking east towards Prince Edward Island. The original Dunvegan, home of the Chief of Clan MacLeod, is several thousand miles in the opposite direction – on the Isle of Skye, a few miles north of Eigg. 

[Alistair MacLeod image is by Glasgow-based photographer Iain Clark] 

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories