by Alasdair Gray

What’s up, Doc?

May 26, 2014 | by Alasdair Gray

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:



How To Have The Best Time At A Party

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


Christmas Day, Raver Style

Marie Claire’s cover says:


The Europeans Revving Up the UK Dating Scene.


Busy women’s amazing body secrets.


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:


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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