Monthly Archives: August 2014

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Shuffling the Deck

Pick a metaphor, any metaphor. That’s right, madam, don’t let me or the audience see it. Okay, slip it back into the deck. Now shuffle them, and hand the deck back to me. Ta da! Is this your metaphor?

DILYS Rose’s new novel doesn’t hold its cards close to its chest. Its governing metaphor is encoded at the level of the title: Pelmanism. Not being a card player, I was unaware of the name of the game, but on reading Rose’s description of the game, I realised I have in fact played Pelmanism. The cards are spread out face down; during his or her turn, a player turns over two cards; if you find a matching pair (two sixes, two kings, so on), you remove them. It’s a feat of memory. Popular in the UK during the first half of the last century, Pelmanism was marketed not only as a way of improving the memory, but also of strengthening the intellect through exercise. No one working in mental health today would make such a claim, and by the 1960s even, according to Rose’s novel, it was chiefly played by socialising grannies, an entry-level card game, edgy as Snap.

Far removed from the glamour of poker or one of the other card games that have snagged the interest of authors, Pelmanism does at least provide a novelist with not solely a metaphor, but a way of structuring her story. Or rather stories. Pelmanism is the tale (or tales) of Gala Price, taking her from childhood to middle-age, although with more emphasis on her younger years, when she was subject to the whims and diktats of her father, a domestic tyrant who deludes himself he is an artist. The novel doesn’t develop chronologically, taking instead Philip Larkin’s description of the ‘classic formula’ – a beginning, a muddle, and an end – more literally than most. A framing device of the adult Gala returning home to visit her ageing parents after a period away encloses a jumble of non-chronological chapters which the reader is invited to make sense of. Gala’s memories come to the reader shuffled.

This structure plays to the strengths of a writer whose career is largely comprised of collections of short stories. Her first collection, Our Lady of the Pickpockets, was published in 1989, followed by Red Tides (1993), War Dolls (1998), and Lord of Illusions (2005). Pelmanism has a degree of kinship with other sort-of novels written by women whose reputation is based on their short stories, such as Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams.

Throughout Pelmanism, Gala is a neutral presence. Often she is not more than the disappointed or frustrated observer of the book’s most vivid character, her father, Miles. That he was born, as we learn, on the same date that Krakatoa went up strikes you as just given his volcanic tempter (with the surname hinting at his status-driven obsession with making money). His outbursts are triggered by the public’s – and his family’s – refusal to recognise his worth as an artist and businessman (his commercial instincts are so dull he ends up a dupe in a pyramid scheme selling a new cleaning product, Swipe!). He is forced to make a living as an art teacher, a post he is dismissive of, although he is thrown into another of his rages when passed over for promotion. The victims of his combustible moods are those closest to him, his piano-teacher wife, card-playing mother-in-law, and two children, Jas, his son and youngest, and Gala. The rest of the cast appear dim beside Miles’ tantrums and his ‘hare-brained schemes’ as his mother describes them.

If Miles’ moods are uncertain, so is the nature of memory. In an early chapter Gala remembers her father diving through hoops of fire into water. But did she really see it? She is uncertain the dive took place and it is out of character once we get to know Miles. In another scene, she recalls risking her safety in the sea: ‘Had somebody dared her, had she dared herself, or simply become impatient with the endless speculation?’

If memory is uncertain, so is mental equilibrium. Miles succumbs to a breakdown, while there is a suggestion the mental health of Gala and her mother is also weakened by a sequence of family dramas. Underscoring the point is the novel’s epigraph, a poem written by Rose herself – she is the author of three collections of poetry – called ‘Homage to R.D. Laing’:

whatever they do

they must not no matter what

let him know they think

something’s not right

Gala doesn’t let her father know ‘something’s not right’, which no doubt would have provoked another round of his conniptions, but drains something of the novel’s potential drama. Once she is an adult, she embarks on a series of travels, never slowing down, rarely returning; when she does, a journey undertaken in the novel’s opening and closing chapters, she fails once more to let her parents know ‘something’s not right.’

Laing diagnosed ‘madness’ as a social, rather than medical, phenomenon. His 1960 study The Divided Self argued that a breakdown was an intelligible response to the pressure placed on individuals by their family. The Prices are but one of many unhappy families that appear throughout Rose’s stories. Children not only bear the brunt of that unhappiness, Rose shows the way in which they are primed to carry then pass on that burden to the following generation. In her story ‘Child’s Play’, the young narrator’s speech is a misunderstood mash of adult cliché, evasion and snobbery: ‘Breeding makes you comfortable. Riff-raff rub shoulders.’ It’d be funny if the sentiment wasn’t so poisonous.

Two female contemporaries of Rose’s generation have tackled similar material, although they chose memoir over fiction. Janice Galloway (b.1955) in This is Not About Me and All Made Up and Candia McWilliam (b.1955) in What to Look for in Winter make Laing’s case for him. In these memoirs, or ‘memoirs’ – like Rose (b.1954), Galloway’s ambivalent titles foreground the unreliability of memory – the family is pictured as a neurosis-generator. Read together, the books depict the Scottish family of the 1950s and 1960s as uniquely suited to – pace Larkin once more – fucking you up, with the proviso you can’t be certain they may not mean to. Little wonder the psychologist who popularised the idea of the family as an engine of dysfunction, Laing, was himself Scottish.

Laing was an experimental psychologist. Rose, it could be said, experiments with form in Pelmanism, although its adventurousness is thrown into relief should one consider a novel with a similar conceit. B.S. Johnson’s 1969 novel The Unfortunates, famously his ‘book in a box’, is composed of 27 unbound sections that can be read in any order. In comparison, Pelmanism doesn’t feel shuffled enough. The order of the sections isn’t as random as a deck of cards or a disordered mind. The closer to the end the reader gets, the fewer random incidents intrude on the story of Gala’s passage through her adolescence. It may be the author intended this, her mind coming together as the plot does, but it felt like a missed opportunity. I wanted to be challenged, to cut the deck myself to see what effect it had on the plot.

Rose has some form with flirting with experiment and then pulling back. Freer perhaps in her poetry – her collection Lure contains some unapologetic sound poems – her sole previous novel Pest Maiden (1999) nods towards but doesn’t embrace a metatextual dimension. Her protagonist Russell Fairly is distressed to find himself fictionalised in a popular if terrible bonkbuster, Eating Passionfruit in Bed. His partner dumped him for an American novelist who shaped her criticisms of Russell, of his sexual prowess particularly, into a bestselling piece of character assassination. In Rose’s novels and short stories, she is often concerned with the victims of art. In ‘War Dolls’, a Mexican footsoldier in a Zapatista-style movement confronts a documentary-maker: ‘And your documental, how it help? Not your problem, eh?’ Another story ‘Human Interest’, about journalists covering an African famine makes the same point heavy-handedly: ‘You sit here stuffing your chicken into your faces while back there they’re filling their mouths with mud. Are you going to put that in your columns? Are you going to tell your readers that?’

Before the plot of Pest Maiden can become too Auster-esque, Rose pulls back, eschewing literary games, seeing instead in Russell’s powerlessness a metaphor for the way in which the majority of the world doesn’t get a chance to write their own narratives. This strand is developed through Russell’s budding relationship with a Filipino colleague who, we learn slowly, had to flee her homeland in the 1980s when her pro-democracy activism endangered her life.

As many of Rose’s stories are set outside Scotland as in it. The title story of her first collection Our Lady of the Pickpockets was about a homeless Mexican child picked up by an American couple. The question the story asks is – who is exploiting who? It’s one that recurs through Rose’s work, not least because while she has an affinity with the underdog, she is not sentimental. She knows those denied what they want will take it if the opportunity arises, forcibly if need be. In ‘A Little Bit of Trust’ in Red Tides for example a Moroccan carpet salesman who harasses a lone female tourist feels justified because of the slights he has suffered at the hands of rude, rich Westerners: ‘Later they would walk all over it [a rug] in their dirty outdoor shoes until it was dull and threadbare, by which time they’d be thinking about another holiday in the sun, about living it up in a place where for them everything was cheap, dirt cheap, thinking about buying another carpet. Tourists – he wanted to piss on them all.’

That story doesn’t end happily; few of Rose’s do. ‘Happiness is no more than a relief from pain,’ one character observes in ‘A Living Legend’. The ‘living legend’ of the title is a Marlene Dietrich-like trooper pounding the boards well past her prime. Miles Price, we learn, is a Dietrich fan. He uses the German chanteuse as a club with which to beat down his wife (‘The woman must be sixty-five if she’s a day and still looks like the belle of the ball. Whereas you are a frump’). Unsurprising, then, that the novel isn’t named after another card game, Happy Families.


Pelmanism

Dilys Rose

Luath, £12.99, ISBN 978-1910021231, 224PP

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SIX of the best

The News Where You Are

That’s all from us. Now it’s time for the news where you are.

The news where you are comes after the news where we are. The news where we are is the news. It comes first. The news where you are is the news where you are. It comes after. We do not have the news where you are.

The news where you are may be news to you but it is not news to us.

The news may be international, national or regional. The news where we are may be international news. The news where you are is never international news. Where you are is not international. The news where you are comes after the international and national news.

The news where you are may be national news or regional news. However, national news where you are is not national news where we are. It is the news where you are.

If the news where you are is national news it is only national where you are.

The news where we are is national wherever you are.

On Saturdays, there is no news where you are after the news where we are. In fact there is no news where you are on Saturdays. Any news there is, is not where you are. It is where we are. If there is news where you are but not where we are it will wait until Sunday.

After the news where you are comes the weather.

The weather where you are is not the national weather. The weather where you are comes after the news where you are, and after the weather where you are comes the national weather. Do not confuse the national weather with the weather where you are. The weather where you are comes first but is lesser weather than the national weather.

Extreme weather is news. However, weather that is more extreme where you are than where we are is not news. Weather that is extreme where we are is news, even if extreme weather where we are is only average weather where you are.

On average, weather where you are is more extreme than weather where we are.

Tough shit.

Good night.

Only Disconnect

First to go was the television. That wasn’t hard. It was mostly rubbish that came out of it anyway. And the news was better on the radio. No, not better, weightier. Yes, that was part of what she craved: substance.

Next, the computer. The daily wade through e-mails, the fatuous chatter of so-called friends on social networks – gone. She had to cancel her on-line banking facility, and arrange to receive bills by post and pay them by cheque, and this would be dearer but she didn’t care, there was something civilised about slowing down. She found her old typewriter in a cupboard but the ribbon was dry and the keys stiff, so she took it to the charity shop, and rediscovered the pleasure of writing with a fountain pen. Her first correspondence was with the TV licensing authority, who assumed she was either mistaken or lying.

The mobile phone went. One last text went out to everybody – AS OF NOW I AM NO LONGER AVAILABLE ON THIS NUMBER – and, once she’d chopped the SIM card up with the herb cutter and recycled the dead phone, she wasn’t.

For six days she lived in blissful tranquillity, sleeping, gardening, making soup and reading Anthony Trollope.

On the seventh day her daughter arrived, puce with rage. ‘So you’re not dead or lying helpless on the floor,’ she said.

‘It would seem not.’

‘And how would I have known? All my messages have bounced back and your answer-machine’s not working.’

‘It was, when I took it to the charity shop.’

‘What’s going on, mum?‘

‘I want to go back,’ she said. ‘I hate this world of gadgets. I hate that word “connectivity”. I don’t want that, I want human contact. And look, here you are. You’ve come to see me for the first time in months. I’ll make some coffee.’

‘This is pure hypocrisy,’ her daughter said. ‘I bet I know how you spend your days now – with your nose stuck in a book and your mind so far removed from reality that you don’t hear the phone ringing. What kind of human contact is that?’

‘You have a point,’ she said. ‘Come in and let’s talk about it.’

Spare

‘It’s simply not fair,’ the Minister said. ‘Here we have an elderly lady, a widow, and because she can no longer look after herself, the family home has to be sold to pay for her care. That precious place with all its memories, which she had intended her children to inherit, is going to have to be disposed of. It’s wrong, and that’s why we are doing something about it. In future the maximum that lady will have to pay for her care is £75,000.’

It was an emotional interview. He left the studio with tears in his eyes.

On the street, between him and the ministerial car, stood a woman. She looked about sixty, but it was hard to tell.

‘Could you spare a pound, sir?’ she said.

‘What?’

‘You see, if you give me a pound, and if I can get a pound from thirteen other people this week, then I’ll be all right.’

‘What do you mean?’ the Minister asked.

‘They’ve changed the benefit system,’ the woman said. ‘I live in a council flat, and because I have a spare bedroom they’re cutting my housing benefit by £14 a week. And if I can’t make up the difference I’ll have to move out, though God knows where to. But I just can’t afford to lose that kind of money.’

‘But surely you don’t need the extra room?’ the Minister asked.

‘It was my daughter’s room. She still comes and stays once a week, to help me out with things. It’s been difficult since my husband died.’

‘Your husband is dead?’ the Minister said. ‘Did you share a bedroom with him?’

‘Oh yes, right to the end. We loved each other very much.’

‘Then you not only have a spare bedroom, you yourself have a double bedroom, is that correct?’

‘Yes, but if you could spare a pound that wouldn’t matter.’

‘Matter?’ the Minister roared. ‘Of course it matters. Out of my way, you greedy, thieving, idle woman. How dare you waste my time for the trifling sum of £14.’

This story is grotesquely exaggerated, crudely simplistic and politically biased. At the same time, however, not a word of it is a lie.

The Total Eclipse of Scotland

On this day, the first recorded total eclipse of Scotland took place. Such events must of course have occurred before, but no one could say for certain when. Advances in astronomy and meteorology meant that for the first time the exact moment and duration of the eclipse could be accurately predicted. As a result there was mass observation of the spectacle.

Despite many scientific reassurances that the eclipse was an entirely natural phenomenon, it was an unnerving seven minutes for many Scots. As the sun, moon and Scotland aligned, the lunar shadow rapidly and ominously spread from west to east across the Outer Hebrides, the inner islands, Argyll, Galloway and Wester Ross, until the whole country was cast into utter darkness, and did not begin to re-emerge for some three minutes.

A not insubstantial minority was convinced that the event must carry some fateful meaning: some said it signified God’s displeasure in a backsliding and licentious people, while others thought it heralded the dawn of a new age for the nation. Picts, Druids and other practitioners of alternative lifestyles gathered at standing stones and similar prehistoric monuments. Several suicides and a number of never to be solved murders took place during those seven minutes, in places as far afield as Campbeltown, Cumbernauld and Arbroath, although no convincing evidence that the eclipse was responsible has ever been produced.

Civic Scotland responded in different ways. In Edinburgh, a fireworks display on the castle battlements marked the occasion. In Inverness, pubs were allowed, indeed encouraged, to stay open for 24 hours as refuges for the nervous or superstitious. Along the 96-mile border with England, relays of cyclists, runners and, in the Tweed, swimmers, ‘raced’ the eclipse from Gretna to Berwick, cheered on by thousands of spectators: those to the south, bathed in sunshine, enjoyed marvellous views, while those to the north, plunged in gloom, were unable to see a thing.

In a post-eclipse opinion poll, 35% of the population said the eclipse should become an annual event; 25% said they would prefer a total, and permanent, eclipse of England; and the remainder said they didn’t care what was eclipsed so long as they got the day off work.

The Acknowledged Expert

The Professor stood clapping like some circus animal, peering over his glasses to make sure that everybody else was doing the same. When the applause died down, he spoke.

‘Thank you, Dr Saunders, for such an engrossing and, ah, stimulating lecture on one of the undoubted geniuses of our literature. It is customary on these occasions for the guest speaker to take, ah, questions, and you have already intimated that you are willing to, ah, do so. Perhaps I might take advantage of my position as departmental head, as well as convenor of this seminar, to pose the first one?’

‘Just get on with it,’ Dr Saunders said encouragingly.

‘Ah, quite. I was surprised by your suggestion, made almost in passing it seemed, that Austen coined many new phrases. This is not something one associates with her. Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, yes – but Jane Austen? Could you perhaps elaborate?’

Dr Saunders rose again.

‘There are countless examples,’ she said. ‘Austen gave us so many expressions – either new words or words used for the first time with a particular meaning. Thanks to Austen we have macaroon, life cycle, bedroom eyes, crampon…’

‘Crampon?’ the Professor queried.

‘Yes, in Persuasion. After Louisa Musgrove falls at the Cobb Mr Elliot remarks rather unpleasantly that she should have been wearing crampons.’

‘Oh, I’d, ah, forgotten that. Any others?’

‘Yes, double jeopardy, jumpsuit, chainsaw…’

‘Chainsaw?’

‘Actually, no, that was Ann Radcliffe in The Romance of the Forest. I meant to say internal combustion engine. That occurs in Mansfield Park, when Henry Crawford says to Maria Bertram that he can sense that her heart is purring like one.’

‘Like an internal combustion engine? Are you quite sure? I can’t help thinking – ’

‘Chapter 34,’ said Dr Saunders. There was a furious turning of pages.

‘Well, you are, ah, the acknowledged expert on Austen,’ the Professor said. ‘You have, after all, written fifteen books on different aspects of her work.’

‘Sixteen,’ Dr Saunders said. ‘My latest is out next month.’ She stared at the serried ranks as if daring anyone to challenge her. ‘Serried,’ she said. ‘That’s another Austen coinage. As in serried ranks. It’s in The Watsons. Any other questions?’

None was forthcoming.

The Illiterate Hordes of History Have Their Say

You think you saved us from savagery with your lines and circles and dots. You think you liberated us from ignorance. You did the very opposite. We were alive and you killed the spirit of life that was in us. We roamed freely and you tethered us. We knew no boundaries and you fenced us in. We had a natural philosophy and you destroyed it and put utilitarianism in its place.

You built roads through our country where before were only paths and landmarks. We had songs and stories as our guides and you covered them over with maps. You tied down the stories, choked and shackled them. Books are their prisons. You hunted the songs, caught them with nets and traps, and then complained when they were wrongly sung, but it was you who wronged them.

You promised that the world of writing and reading would have no limits. You lied. You narrowed our vision, you clogged our minds with information we did not need and you destroyed our ability to remember the things we cherished most. Once, we knew our ancestors even to the twentieth generation, and they were with us always, through our days and through our nights. Once, our history was in our blood. Now it is dead, and our people squabble over the scraps and bones which are all that survive.

Once, we read the weather, the seasons, the prints of animals, the healing powers of plants, the mysteries and dangers of the forest. Once, the world was our library and we wrote messages among its stacks. The rain came, or the sun – storm or fire – and in the aftermath our library still stood and our marks could be written again.

Now everything is stored, yet nothing is secure. Time eats into us as worms devour books, and we fall apart. You have felled the forests of the world to flatter the vanity of knowledge, yet you know nothing of value that we did not know, and much more that is valueless.

We had wisdom: you gave us stupidity. We had faith: you gave us doubt. We had strength: you gave us fragility. We had life: you gave us books.

Read more 365 word stories at 

www.fivedials.com/365

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The SRB Interview: Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson was born in Edinburgh in 1932. He gained a scholarship to study at Eton and progressed to King’s College, Cambridge. Eschewing a life in academia, he became a journalist in the 1950s. He started as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, and later became commonwealth correspondent for The Scotsman. In the 1960s he was foreign correspondent for the Observer, reporting on central Europe at a time of great political upheaval. During the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland he was politics correspondent with The Scotsman. He has worked for the Independent on Sunday, contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and is currently honorary professor at the Institute of Archaeology in London.

His first book, The King Incorporated, about King Leopold of Belgium, was published in 1963. Other works include The Polish August, The Struggles for Poland, and Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism. The last-mentioned won the 1995 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. In 2002 Ascherson published Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, an account of Scotland’s deep roots and modern history. In it he recounts the Bus Party he helped co-ordinate with Will Storrar ahead of the referendum for a Scottish Parliament in 1997. It travelled around Scotland to engage imaginatively with the people on the ground, and was originally inspired by Gunter Grass who, in 1964, took writers, thinkers, musicians and spirited folk on the road to liven up political debate in Germany.

In May this year the Bus Party was resurrected for the current referendum debate. The first leg of the tour had not long finished when Nick Major met Neal Ascherson at the Institute of Archaeology. They sat in a small hot dry office on the sixth floor of a faded red brick building in Gordon Square, central London. Pinned on the wall behind the desk was a faded newspaper clipping of an article by Eric Hobsbawm. Ascherson tore chunks from a stuffed baguette and gulped down orange juice in between speaking eloquently of his life and times; occasionally he would hold back laughter or stare at the floor in concentration. In his white and grey striped shirt and plain black trousers, he combined humility of demeanour with wide-ranging knowledge of Scotland, Poland, European politics, revolutionary history, geology and archaeology.

Scottish Review of Books: At 18 you were conscripted into the Royal Marines and in 1951 sent to Malaya to combat Malayan Communist insurgents fighting British imperial rule. In Stone Voices you write: ‘From Scotland I brought two pieces of paper in my black tin trunk. One was a copy of the Scottish Covenant. This was a petition for a Scottish Parliament launched by John MacCormick and his “Scottish Convention” movement’. You asked an Aberdonian tin-mine manager in Singapore if he would like to sign it. He tells you to ‘put that piece of nonsense away’. Your interest in Scottish self-governance was evident at that age, but how did it start?

Neal Ascherson: I think it was always there from a child. My father was a naval officer for the whole of his life. My mother was something which hardly exists: a fanatical conservative nationalist. She would have been horrified at the idea of Scottish independence in its present form, the idea of breaking away from the Royal Navy and all that. But she was hotly patriotic and kept quoting to me when I was very small and impressionable things like: ‘breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself has said, this is my own, my native land’. She used to go on like that and constantly make rude remarks about the idea that Scotland was under English domination and wants to be independent. So I was brought up with this strange slightly incongruent form of patriotism. But by the time I was 18 I’d been to an English public school and I was aware of cultural differences – to put it mildly – with the great English upper class majority. It just seemed to me perfectly obvious when I heard about the Covenant that it was right. It is extraordinary to remember two million people signed that and it came to nothing whatever. It was a very intelligent dignified little document. We were staying at that time in Kilmacolm. I remember it being on the slab in the fish mongers. You shuffled up to the top of the fish queue and people were signing it before they got their haddock wrapped up in newspaper.

I want to return to the subject of independence. But first, after your time in the marines you went to study at Cambridge under the historian Eric Hobsbawm. He said of you: ‘I didn’t really teach him much, I just let him get on with it’. Was he being honest?

I think it was a kindly thing of him to say. I learned a lot from him about economic history but our interests were pretty different. I was interested in political history, religious history, that sort of thing, and indeed I was interested in revolutionary history, which we were unfortunately not being taught at that point in Cambridge, so I listened to him a great deal but economic history was not really my thing. He let me get on with things that didn’t interest him anyway.

So he didn’t help you form you in political outlook?

Well he helped me to confirm my political views. There was this episode: I came back from Malaya in a very confused state because whilst serving there I became more and more convinced there was something deeply wrong, that we weren’t exactly on the wrong side but that the people we were supposed to be fighting had an extremely good case. There was monstrous injustice going on and the whole Chinese population were deprived of all civil rights; they hadn’t got citizenship; they weren’t provided with schooling or anything; they had to do it all themselves. When I came back there was a feast at King’s College, Cambridge and I put on my campaign medal, which was a stupid thing to have done. I realised I wanted to be slapped down by somebody – I hoped to be. After this dinner somebody said: ‘oh we’re all going to Eric Hobsbawm’s rooms.’ Eventually Hobsbawm approached me and peered at me and said ‘who are you and what’s that?’ I said ‘that’s my campaign medal from Malaya.’ And he said ‘you should be ashamed to wear that.’ I had been waiting for this and it was very explosive. It released a lot of stuff and I tore it off and walked around the big courtyard in tears. But I had been hoping somebody would agree with me. I never became a communist – I was always on the left but never in the CP. So he had an influence on me, politically you could say.

And you could have stayed in academia but you decided to break out and become a journalist?

Having seen what I’d seen of the big world on my national service I didn’t want to just go back into academia and become a young don or something – I thought that suffocating.

Did you enter journalism as a political endeavour?

I went into journalism in a grandiose way. I thought maybe I’d do a little journalism whilst I write the great novel of all time you see – one has to keep oneself afloat. I became involved in a plot by somebody who lived near Cambridge called Guy Wint, who wanted to be editor of the Manchester Guardian, and – very English kind of thing – he collected around him a little cadre of very young promising kids who he would get jobs on the Manchester Guardian of some kind, and make them dependent on him so that when he moved in he’d have a whole cadre of people who would take all the leading jobs and support him. That happens a lot in British institutions – well, it used to. I then went to Uganda for nearly a year. I’d had Ugandan friends at King’s who I became very fond of, and they were involved in the nationalist movement trying to win independence from the British Empire. Independence once again, if you like. For the brief time I was there I became the propaganda secretary of the Ugandan National Congress. I came back and due to the machinations of Mr Wint I’d been offered a temporary job writing leaders on the Manchester Guardian. I soon realised there was something preposterous about somebody who knew as little about the world as I did writing leaders. So I said I wanted to be a reporter. They were quite surprised by that.

When you were a foreign correspondent in the 1960s what historical moments stand out for you as having particular importance?

After hanging around the Observer for a few years, in 1963 I became a foreign correspondent and was sent to Germany. I was responsible for both German states, but also for central Europe, so Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. In that period I moved the office, which was in Bonn, to Berlin and so I was involved in all kinds of things. The great student revolution 1967/68 in Berlin, which in Germany was terrifically theoretical. This new neo-Marxism of the whole ’68 movement – Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, that sort of thing. It was very intense and passionate and massive too. I was involved in the Paris May. I went there with the delegation from the SDS [German Socialist League] actually, so I was half a reporter and half a participant. So at the end of the Paris May – although I didn’t know it at the time – I was declared a prohibited immigrant by the French because I’d been, you know, haranguing mass meetings at different university departments about Germanic ideas of the technique of the demonstration provocation. As I didn’t know I’d been banned nothing much happened. Meanwhile the rest of Europe was in flames. Trouble had already started in March in Poland.

You reported and wrote about the Polish working-class movement Solidarity in the 1980s. Was that political struggle a continuation of this earlier one?

The whole thing was a continuum. I became very absorbed and obsessed with Poland and learned Polish. In fact I’ve been there every single year since 1957 with one exception. Broadly speaking the secret police didn’t like me but the government rather did because I was very critical of the German position and the Western Allied position towards Poland and the Western Frontier, which was unsettled at the time. I liked Poland very much, although its situation was a wretched one the Poles were just so tough, high-spirited and intelligent. I really fell for them and their literature. Even in the worst times people kept writing and talking, arguing and of course drinking, entertaining each other and writing brilliant stuff under the noses of the censor. You say was it a continuum? Yes it was. I mean from the Polish October back in 1956 right through to Solidarity in 1980 and the collapse in 1989. But that’s another story.

Are there any parallels between the struggle for national self-determination in Poland and Scotland?

Yes, occasionally I would have strange conversations with Polish friends after some disaster where everybody had been arrested and the newspapers had been closed down and people were saying: well, doesn’t look like we’re going to get our independence back yet, what about yours? It was obvious that independence for those people was of huge value. It was the moment at which they could sit down and say: here we are, this is – very Polish phrase – the landscape after the battle, covered with ruins and bodies and mess but now at last we’re independent and we can say: what sort of Poland? And get on with it. It was the legacy I was taught from T.G. Masaryk, the old pedant who was really the founder of Czechoslovak independence. Wonderful dignified old man who became the first president. The Czechs, the Slovaks they wanted to be independent. It was a popular idea but they didn’t do a great deal about it. Then suddenly the Habsburg Empire collapsed around them and they found they had to be independent. Oh God! So Masaryk said to them: ‘children, don’t be afraid and don’t steal’. For him independence was very much a moral thing. It was about: are you going to be responsible for yourself or are you going to lie around gurning about how bad you’re being treated and occasionally stealing something? The Poles did it a slightly different way. They had this idea that you create a space in which there is authenticity and in that space you just are independent.

But Scotland hasn’t been ruled by a tyrannous oppressive system in the same way those countries were.

Of course Scotland was not under a dictatorship, neither was it a colony. Scotland was a democratic country as part of a multinational state, which was in itself among the more democratic societies in the world, and that is still the case. So the business of trying to create an authentic space in which Scots can really be Scottish is not really relevant. What is relevant is the sense of freedom and what it can do for you. The sense of taking charge of your own affairs and making decisions for yourself. The connection of that sort of independence, which is also moral independence, with more concrete forms of self-government which is responsive to you – that is a way you can draw from the East-European, Central-European experience under communism some lessons, something interesting for Scotland at the moment.

Let’s travel back to Scotland. At the time of the 1979 devolution referendum you had been Scottish Politics correspondent at The Scotsman for almost four years. What was the journalistic climate like at that time?

In the devolution ‘70s the climate was complicated. In Glasgow for example I rapidly discovered that almost all journalists who wrote about politics for Glasgow-based newspapers were expected to become speech writers and leaflet writers for the Labour Party at election times, and nobody thought that was strange at all. I knew some correspondents who wrote about Scottish politics who were not really Labour supporters at all but they went along with that. In Edinburgh the situation was different. The old Scotsman formally was still a liberal paper, therefore it was committed to the dream of federalism in the United Kingdom, a Gladstonian vision – home rule all round, that sort of thing. Now it was confronted by a curious Labour plan for a Scottish Assembly and it was decided that the paper would go for it and back it up on broadly liberal principles. The staff on The Scotsman were very interesting because among them were people whose opinions were much more radical than that.

How does that compare with today?

I think there is still quite a lot of party control by Labour in Glasgow. The Sunday Herald has now declared for a ‘yes’ at the referendum, which doesn’t mean all the staff are for this. Similarly the Herald daily is keeping its powder dry and saying neither yes or no at the moment. But I sort of recognize the symptoms from old days at The Scotsman and there are clearly a lot of people on The Herald who are independista. There is also, which there wasn’t before, quite a lot of nervousness about trying to maintain an appearance of balance in the papers. That didn’t go on a lot in the ’70s. You see in the ’70s the No campaigners – people in London as well – said all this devolution campaign is got up by a pack of journalists, who think if there is a Scottish parliament they would have a whale of a time. You can’t get away from it, independence is very good for journalists. One of the really surprising things in the last few years is as devolution began to approach for the second time The Scotsman remained absolutely hostile to it, which was extraordinary because The Scotsman as the Edinburgh paper a few hundred yards from the new parliament was in a position to more or less monopolise contacts and political gossip and influence.

Two weeks before the devolution referendum in 1979 you embarked on a reporting tour around Scotland. In Stone Voices you write: ‘politically, only two weeks before the poll, nothing was happening.’ Did you mean the populace were unaware that this was happening, or that they didn’t want to engage?

The populace are always much more aware than you think they are, but they certainly weren’t showing it. There was a deep unwillingness to put up a poster or wear a sticky or even tell anybody what they thought. There were exceptions of course and I met them. I was reporting – I had to get people to talk – but you could have gone to several big cities and you wouldn’t have known there was a historic referendum coming up. Partly due to several things, one of which was the paralysis of the Labour movement, which was deeply split by devolution until 1979. The Labour Party in Scotland was politically raped into accepting devolution by the London leadership. As a result even the STUC, and many of the unions, were unwilling to distribute stuff, although they were supposed to. Masses of pamphlets saying ‘Vote for a Scottish Assembly’ were sent out but they were just stacked at the back of the office.

In Stone Voices you mention that an aspect of Scottish identity is that politics is a very private matter you don’t flaunt in public.

Well, yes, the most important question in Scottish political dialogue is: who’s asking? You know, so people are cautious and I think it’s probably slightly less so now than it was in the ’70s. But people didn’t often tell the truth to pollsters, they often concealed their opinions. You must remember this was a very strange period in which most people who expressed a preference for independence as a solid constitutional option also declared themselves to be solid Labour voters, so they would never dream of voting for anything other than a unionist party, which would never agree to independence. This contradiction stayed there for ages. What’s happening now in the campaign is you can see this particular cross-layering of opinions coming apart. People who have a constitutional preference for independence are going to vote for it. Of course at the last Scottish elections a lot of people who were loyal Labour voters actually voted SNP. We’ll see what happens. They may well vote Labour in the next Westminster elections, who knows.

Wasn’t one of the reasons for the defection to the SNP disaffection with New Labour, specifically because of the decision to go to war in Iraq?

It’s true but for maybe thirty years there’s been this substrata: if you went down below the solid floor of Labour support you would find yourself in this liquid mass of support for independence, emotional support for independence – very strange – which had no way to express itself.

Is that what you mean in Stone Voices when you talk of the St. Andrew’s Fault?

No that’s something different. I think Scotland – after 1750 – has been the victim of more uprooting, whirlwind transforming social change than any other country in Europe. Nothing like it until Stalin got going on Russian society. Certainly the most rapid urbanisation maybe anywhere in the world in the period between 1750 and 1850, and this huge uprooting I think – it’s just my theory – gave a great mass of Scots a lasting mistrust of people with bright ideas about how things could be improved and managed. All we have to do is change everything and we’ll stay the same and go on living in the same way, but we do because we’re clever advocates and politicians and landowners, just a wee group of us, but you scruff, you’re going to change completely and the landscape you live in is going to become unrecognisable. You’ll come back after twenty years from the city you’ve been moved to and you’ll say: where is my farm? Where are the place names? Where’s that village called this? Where is the house called that? Where are those fields? All gone. Different country, different land. This sort of transformation made people deeply suspicious of projects for radical exciting change that is going to improve everything. Now in one sense this is a fault, a St. Andrew’s fault between what you might call the prosperous enterprising bourgeoisie and the great mass of working people in Scotland who had inherited a tradition of, aye that’ll be right, deep suspicion about what the authorities are going to do to them. However, things may have changed. I know Tom Nairn used to say in 1979 it was the whole solid middle-class of Scotland which had voted against change, against devolution, and the working people by and large voted in favour of it.

In Stone Voices were you less concerned with debunking myths and more concerned with how their presence helped form Scottish identity. Is that accurate?

I’m always interested in debunking myths if they are untrue. But it’s also important to identify myths and how they function, what value they may have. I hope in the book I did say some self-congratulatory myths in Scotland don’t have all that much to back them up. Like ‘we’re not racialist’ and always welcoming to strangers and ‘Scots are much more pro-European than the English’. They are more pro-European but not all that much.

In 1976 you became a founder member of the SLP led by Jim Sillars. The SLP were committed to a ‘more full-blooded and powerful version of Home Rule, radical socialism, and full Scottish membership of the European Community’. The European community has changed a great deal in the intervening years, but if Scotland becomes an independent country what do you think its relationship with Europe should be?

Well, first of all the idea that the EU would agree to expel Scotland from the European Union is farcical. On the other hand if Scotland was prevented from or decided not to join the EU then there might be some benefits because on the outside they wouldn’t be subjected to certain Brussels restrictions I think Scotland would always be a very critical member of the EU as it’s currently constituted because the EU is on such a financially and economically extremely right-wing course. It was always conservative. It was dominated by Christian Democrats. In other words, a social conservatism. People who said: of course business must prosper and the state is there to help business and encourage it, but at the same time we recognize that the unrestricted greed of capitalism is deeply destructive and we have to protect people from these ravishes That was typical of the EU until fairly recently. Now the Reaganist, Thatcherist doctrines have bitten deep into the EU and Brussels thinking and somehow somebody has to get them out again and change this back or it just won’t work – it shouldn’t work either. So Scotland should be a difficult member of the EU.

Part of the problem in Ukraine and Crimea recently has been the split in political allegiance to Europe and Russia. Your book Black Sea is about the long history of settlers and nomads who have lived in that region, and how they identified themselves against and with each other. How can the current situation be understood within that longer history?

In one way it fits because for the umpteenth time somebody is going around saying Crimea is mine, and somebody else is saying: no it’s not, it’s ours. And the great thing about Crimea – more than almost more than anywhere else in the world – is that it’s so obvious it doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s just there. And people fall in love with it and grab it and want it terribly, but it isn’t anybody’s. It doesn’t feel as if it’s anybody’s. It never has been. There’s that line I’ve always loved, but I can’t attribute it – it’s a Norman MacCaig line except that it doesn’t occur anywhere in his published poetry, his family have never heard it, the Scottish Poetry Library can’t source it, and it goes like this: I hate a man who calls his country his.

Do you think the current referendum debate in Scotland is free from a blood-and-soil nationalism?

Well, if there is a spectrum between ethnic and civic forms of nationalism, which is a rather schematic way of looking at it, all nationalism contains elements of both, but Scotland is very far on the civic end of the spectrum. That is partly because nobody has ever been stupid enough to say that Scotland is an ethnicity in a genetic sense. A kingdom of Scotland existed long before anybody talked of a Scottish people. So that is one thing we have been spared. Also, closely linked, is the appearance of nationalism marshalled around the defence of a language. Scotland is quite lucky not to have had that. I know it’s a shame Gaelic is in decline and not many people speak proper Scots and I quite agree with all that. But politically it’s good the fight for cultural identity is not just laagered around the defence of a language. Scotland has always been what William Mcllvanney said: ‘a mongrel culture’.

After 1979 you decided to take a break from Scottish politics and secured a job with the Observer in London. You stayed away for almost twenty years. What made you decide to return?

Well I’ve only half-returned back yet. I shall start moving very decisively back if there is a yes. I don’t know what to do if there is a) a no, or b) Britain then leaves the EU. I think I’ll apply for Polish citizenship.

In Stone Voices what galvanised your return to Scottish politics was the 1997 devolution referendum. It was at this time you decided to initiate a bus tour in Scotland to engage imaginatively with the people on the ground. Where did that idea come from?

Well I was a columnist in these London Sunday papers in the 1980s. A lot of what I wrote was about Scotland. It gave me the space to exercise my own opinions and also to travel around Scotland and see what was happening and talk to people. I kept up the connection in that way and the more I did so the more interested I was in the way these developments were picking themselves up and continuing. First of all, 1979 turned out to be a complete wipe out of the Scottish political scene for a time. It set off this extraordinary cultural revival – quite angry but very impressive all over the place – painters, musicians, novelists and poets.

Was it that cultural flourishing that you wanted to take on the road in 1997?

I was already involved in stuff then because in 1992 there was this general election in which it was thought inconceivable that the Tories could survive, you know, and if they fell then Labour would come in and of course we would have devolution. People got their spirits up. By then there was a lot of excitement building up, there was a campaign for a Scottish parliament, there was a convention beginning to sit. There was this huge demonstration in ’92 when the Edinburgh summit of the European Union – the EEC as it then was – took place in Edinburgh in which people thought: well maybe a few people will turn out, and tens of thousands of people came out and marched up the Mound and into the Meadows. That was the moment McIllvanney said: ‘a Scottish Parliament starts here today’. He was right about that. Anyway, what happened then was the ’92 election, because by God the Tories won – narrowly, but they did. People were just angry and there was a series of extraordinary meetings. I went to one in Carberry Tower, which was set up by this organisation called Common Cause. Part of it was radical Church of Scotland elements but a lot of other people too. That’s when I met Will Storrar. By the end of ’97 the bill was on the stocks and everything was coming. They called the referendum and people I was in touch with, like Will Storrar, said: c’mon let’s do something. I said what we ought to do is a bus tour like Gunter Grass in Germany.

And William Mcllavanney was your Gunter Grass?

He was our Gunter Grass.

And the bus has been resurrected for this referendum?

We did it again. But things are never the same twice. It’s a very different feeling. In ’97 we were going round saying we think you should vote ‘yes’ but let’s talk about it: you tell us what you’d like a Scottish parliament to do. But this time we didn’t go round saying vote ‘yes’. We went round saying: look this is the biggest issue you’ll ever be asked to decide for your country and we’re not going to say vote ‘yes’ or vote ‘no’. We’re going to say, like the Poles: what sort of Scotland? If we do go through this gate into independence, what sort of Scotland do you want? And even if we don’t, still, the same question.

Every day it seems there is a new poll telling us how the Scottish people are going to vote in the referendum. Did you get a general sense about what people are thinking on the ground?

The brief way to put it is: the Yes campaign has won overwhelmingly, but that does not mean it will win the vote.

The first leg of the tour finished at the end of May. When are you going back on the road?

Well we haven’t decided about that. We’re re-thinking and it’s not certain what we’re going to do. The original idea was to do it on the last week of the campaign up to the 18th, but now some people have second thoughts. So we’re asking ourselves: are we going to get in the way of the really crucial last spurt of the main campaigns, you know? Some people in the Bus Party I think would quite like to take the gloves off and go round their communities saying vote ‘yes’.

We are in the Institute of Archaeology so I want to broaden our historical gaze. In Stone Voices you write: ‘Human settlement and activity are no more than a form of lichen which can take hold in the less exposed crevices and surfaces of the land’. Do you find the transience of human life that arises from this view reassuring?

Yes I do. I don’t draw from it some sense that the landscape is so vast and eternal that all human activities in this giant timeframe are reduced to insignificant nothingness. I don’t feel like that at all. I feel perhaps that the hills look down benevolently. Particularly the Scottish landscape, which is so special because of its combination of the human mark and the geological mark, the day before yesterday’s scar, and the thirty thousand year old scar, and the thirty million year old scar – they are all there together to be interpreted. Scotland will always look like that and human beings will always understand that and draw things from it – like Hugh MacDiarmid did. They’ll understand more about their place in the cosmos and be optimistic about it, not cowed.

When talking about archaeology you have adopted the notion of ‘cultural landscape’. Can you talk about that?

Well I’m interested in this kind of holism which says to separate category-wise the living from the dead, or the living from the inanimate, or the present from the past, is not legitimate. They do belong to each other. Hugh MacDiarmid understood this perfectly well – not perfectly well because no one can – but he got very close to some of these huge secrets in ‘On a Raised Beach’. One of the interesting things in archaeology is the idea about the history of objects. It’s a thought which has got more important when you are looking at a pot or something, which someone has dug up. The questions aren’t just: the people who made it, what did they use it for? What type is it? The biography of an object approach goes on to say: what happened to it then? They put it in a grave. I see, and then what happened to it? Well then it broke up under the pressure of the earth. Then what happened to it? Well somebody dug it up. What did you and I think we were doing? And now what are we going to do with it? We’re going to put it in a case and write something under it. What’s the social function of that label? What are we trying to make people feel? So the biography of an object just goes on and on. This is a very great improvement in archaeology.

You apply that method to the Stone of Destiny in Stone Voices. Could you give a brief biography of the Stone?

What it appears to be in the old literal sense is a just great slab of sandstone not far away from Scone actually. What was it first used for? It might have been anything, but it appears to have been used as a seat for the inauguration of Scottish kings. Some people think it made a connection with the earth, the rock – which is Scotland – and you took possession of it by standing on this stone. It was thought by Scots at different times to have come from Egypt with Prince Gadelus, who came from Greater Scythia and voyaged with his people to Egypt where he married princess Scota, daughter of Pharaoh. When he ran away with her she said: why don’t we take this stone with us, which is the stone Jacob lay on in the desert and had his dream of the great ladder going up to heaven? That was one of the fictional biographies. Edward I seized it because he thought it incorporated Scottish political identity. He turned out to be quite wrong because although the Scots revered the stone they didn’t worship it, they didn’t think it was sacred and they didn’t think you couldn’t have a king unless he sat on it. The Stone got put under the chair at Westminster.

The latest part of the biography is the English decided it did have magical properties so that a coronation which was not performed on top of it wasn’t truly valid as a sacrament. So they did attribute magical properties to it which the Scots didn’t. In 1950 it was stolen by three Scottish students. They handed it back in undisclosed circumstances and it went back to Westminster. Until Michael Forsyth and John Major. These two clowns decided to give the Stone back, and they thought they would get a lot of credit. What happened was the Scots were as ungrateful as only the Scots know how, while the Dean of Westminster went into fits about what was going to happen to the coronation. It was full of grisly comedy. When this queen dies and there is the next monarch they’ll bring the stone back and stick it under her or him for the ceremony. The last piece of the biography is the storm of Scottish denials in which people said: well it’s not the real stone. Edward I got the wrong one, we made sure of that.

The real one’s hidden somewhere in Scotland?

In 1950 they said well of course we didn’t give the real one back, that’s still in Scotland. So these are two myths; they are both quite untrue. A huge examination was done at the time when it was returned. It’s quite interesting, enigmatic really. There’s not a lot you can say about it. As they say: a great big cludgie lid really, full of dents and scars and a tiny piece of paper in the middle of it which must date from the 1950s.

It says SCO?

Yes.

And no-one knows what it means?

No, nobody knows. Well somebody knows, yes – they may be dead now.

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Volume 10 – Issue 2 – Visiting Scotland – New Poems

Doon the Watter, 1946

Overhead, wire baskets spill petunias.

Left and right, potted palms line the walls.

Far behind, our train’s gone back to Glasgow.

Somewhere ahead, the ferry must be late.

We’re on our Scottish family holiday.

My mother is already exhausted.

My sister Aileen nurses her new doll.

Its eyes click open, to catch me looking.

I am to be the man of the party.

My job is to manage the big suitcase,

my turn to carry baby Linda.

Over my head the talk is all of Glesca,

fitba’ teams, and doon the watter.

I know where we’re going, but where are we?

Among the palm fronds bathing beauties

rarely seen on Caledonian beaches

welcome us – where? ‘Say it “Weems Bay”,’

my mother tells us, ‘Welcome to Wemyss Bay’.

The family in front shuffles forward.

‘Wake up, Son!’ says the man behind us.

I shove the heavy suitcase its own length;

we all shuffle forward. Pick up your feet!

I shut my mouth on my father’s voice.

Where is he, I wonder? Our father

which art at the office, my mother says.

Perhaps he followed later – I don’t remember.

Now beach sand crunches underfoot,

and yes, we can smell the ozone!

A Picnic with Aunt Jean, 1947

One and two halves to Inverkip,

the station master there touched his hat

to Miss Jean Trotter, who ‘taught the piano’.

Our sandals followed her sensible shoes

to find from memory her perfect place

for picnics: dry grass, no cow-pats,

shade or shelter whatever the day.

We spread her tartan rug for the treats:

three rationed biscuits, one Spam sandwich,

an orange equally segmented –

‘You’re thirsty, there’s water in the burn!’

Hoping to catch its scales and arpeggios

Aunt Jean tapped her faulty hearing-aid,

but settled with her frowny smile

for practised Schubert and The People’s Friend.

One foot from our picnic, wildest Scotland

waited to be explored. I had an hour –

what would I find?

The Water-Wheel

Right where that boy

bored with picnics

would build a stone dam

to bomb it flat

the sill where a pool

powers the ripple

held a wonder:

a water-wheel

home-made from scraps

of salvaged offcuts

dowelling, balsa-wood

neatly assembled

a flicker of light

set running – abandoned

to windfall branches

or tomorrow’s fresh

but working then

pacing the current.

I let my stone drop

and it’s turning still.

 

At Arbroath

Around the marina a steel railing

ripples in waves into a crest, and falls

to mirror this morning’s flat silver calm.

At slack water of a spring tide low

in the harbour mouth a fishing boat

has gone aground. Suddenly idle

and waiting for his luck to turn,

her skipper tidies the deck, debates

his unexpected draught with locals

hanging out on the pier for excitement.

The other night the North Sea had flung

fistfuls of shingle at sleepless windows.

Time was, by ten o’clock next morning

the Master of the Signal Tower

who kept watch on the Bell Rock Light

would know by its mast-head signal if

their men had survived another storm.

No signal, and he launched a rescue.

Now the Tower is a museum,

open at ten, where Arbroath looks back,

and the Bell Rock looks back to its port.

No call for signals today; I think

that storm can have let nobody sleep.

But what if, tonight, with groaning rowlocks,

their clothing stiff with salt, dead tired, breathless,

the Keepers should come back to save Arbroath?

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SRB Diary: London calling

NOW here’s a fascinating question that’s guaranteed to amaze your friends and break the ice at the most frozen of parties – how many Scots live in London? Go on, take a guess. Number of Scots in London. I’ll have to hurry you . . . And the answer is – somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. The estimates may vary but they all make London the third biggest Scottish city. We must all be down here for the same reasons – the easy commute, the friendly locals, the scenery. That and the jobs, I suppose – that’s why I flitted to London in the late Eighties, swapping a life on the dole in Edinburgh for the chance to become a human sardine twice a day on the Victoria Line.

Hundreds of thousands of us expats in London, but collectively we’re invisible. Where’s our special area? Where’s Little Scotland gone? Every other ethnic minority in London has somewhere. Take the Portuguese – they have Stockwell and bits of Notting Hill. The Irish have entire postal districts. Even the Americans have St John’s Wood and the Japanese, inexplicably, suburban Colindale. Yet we Scots can’t call even the Caledonian Road our own. Where are all the shops and services catering for this huge community of exiles? Where can I and the possibly 349,999 other London Scots buy our Irn-Bru and deep-fried Mars bars, our clootie dumplings and Sunday Posts?

* * *

In honour of Gordon Brown becoming PM, Time Out offered a guide to Scottish London. It stretched to a page – just. A few shops selling whisky, the London branches of a couple of football supporters’ clubs, the Gay Gordons (‘London’s lesbian and gay Scottish country dance group’ ) – it was a bewilderingly brief list.

Compare and contrast this absence with the capital’s new wave of Polish immigrants. In the space of a few years they’ve acquired their own support networks and newspapers, their own supermarkets selling pickled foods. And Hammersmith.

But more than four hundred years after the two countries merged their monarchies and the Scottish migration to London first began in earnest, we have somehow failed to make any cultural impact whatsoever on the capital.

I suppose there are the occasional balls and flings in Mayfair for the kind of posh Scots who think they’re Scottish and who have lots of Scottish-sounding surnames and who happen to own substantial swathes of Scotland but whom most Scots regard as English. So I don’t think that the Highland hi-jinks of the Dalgliesh-Hamilton-Sutherlands and the Fyffe-Kirriemuir-Bethunes and their ilk really count.

For the rest of us London exiles, there’s the Gay Gordons, if they’re still on the go, a pub in Paddington which at any rate used to host the local branch of the Tartan Army for Scotland games – and that’s it.

Fractured, disparate, hundreds of thousands of individual exiles with no sense of community. Until recently, this absence of a Scottish enclave struck me as no more than a mild inconvenience, amounting basically to having nowhere to watch the football apart from that one pub in Paddington. But as the day of the Big Vote has crept ever closer, I really have felt the lack of any backup, having to cope on my own as I fend off the referendum queries of increasingly curious/puzzled English friends. Fortunately, the conversation can usually be terminated very quickly.

English friend: So which way are you going to vote?

Me: Neither. I don’t have a vote.

English friend (taken aback): Why not?

Me: It’s done by constituency, not DNA.

That’s usually that – a devastating point, delivered with an attractively supercilious smirk. But recently, that wasn’t that, and the English friend wasn’t put off by the devastation or the smirk. ‘Why not?’ he persevered. ‘You’re Scottish. If it was football, you’d play for Scotland, wouldn’t you?’

Which brought me up short. Obviously, it is a theoretical question – don’t get me wrong, it’d be an honour, and I’d give it 110%, but at 56, I have to admit that I’ve probably lost a bit of my youthful pace – but nonetheless pertinent. Because I would play for Scotland and would qualify only for Scotland. So why can’t I vote? And if I’m not Scottish for the referendum, what am I if the Yeses win? Will I be officially English? I could be caught on the wrong side of the border, clinging to the mesh of the steel fence at Berwick, calling piteously to my what the news would call loved ones on the other side, forever rent asunder. . .

I feel Scottish, right enough, but now that I’ve had to think about it, maybe I’d fail an SNP citizenship test. After all, I’ve lived in England for a total of 32 years, my wife is English, my two sons are English. Some of my closest friends are English. I’ve found out that not all of them are UKIP-voting landowners and pin-striped stockbrokers. Also, I rather suspect that not all of England is filled with cash and right-wing free-marketeers. There are indeed two distinct economic areas in the for-the-moment-United Kingdom: however, the border between the two runs not from the Solway Firth to the Tweed but from the Severn to the Trent. South of that boundary, it’s all million-pound, one-bed flats and 200k-a-year starting salaries; north of that line . . . . not so much.

* * *

The truth is that I’m secretly relieved I don’t have a vote because I’m in a tizz about the whole business. In my idealistic youth I was hardcore SNP, but now? Now, I’m confused, ill-informed, out of touch, veering between vague feelings and unthinking prejudices – this is how George W Bush must have felt in the White House, and it’s not nice, I can tell you.

Recently and completely out of the blue, my switherings and doubts and confusion about the nationalist issue gave way to crisis, when England began their brief World Cup campaign.I settled down, on my own, to watch the England-Italy game, with the usual, private squirm of anticipation, knowing full well what was going to happen next and looking forward to it all immensely. Then something truly weird happened. Three minutes in, Sturridge got the ball, and I felt my heart leap in excitement. Not that he’d fall over or pass to Pirlo. I was hoping Sturridge would score . . .

Preposterously, this continued for the rest of the match. I supported England. A one-off, I thought – a bad prawn the night before, a moment of madness, nothing to worry about. But then the same thing happened against Uruguay, and even plucky little Costa Rica – I supported England. Not with the visceral, gnawing intensity that I’d watch Scotland, but calmly, nicely, as if England were, say, Wales. I tried telling myself this had to be a good thing. It had been getting awkwarder and awkwarder fervently supporting whoever England were playing, leaping to my feet and doing a wee jig of delight around my devastated young boys every time an England goalie threw the ball into his own net. Awkward and possibly not very edifying.

But I don’t welcome this development. My footballing Anglophobia may well be a vice, but it’s one I’d much rather not give up. Partly because it’s been a source of great enjoyment. One thinks fondly of Seaman, lobbed from downtown by Ronaldinho, one thinks of Poland’s breakaway goal at Wembley in 1973, of the computer salesman Davide Gualtieri scoring for San Marino after eight seconds, of all those World Cups fated to end in goalkeeping blunders and botched penalty shoot-outs. Yes, there’s the long, often challenging preamble – ‘Trevor, just how good do you think this England side is? I’ve got to say, Gary, I think we can go all the way this time’ – which can be torture but made exquisite by the nurtured foreknowledge of the ‘Trevor, what went wrong?’ inquests due cherishably soon.

Happy days, happy days. Gone. Replaced by genuine disappointment and bafflement that Stevie G, Lamps and co. couldn’t quite make it this time around. Why? I do not have a clue. It’s nothing to do with personal maturity, and possibly everything to do with that particular England squad conspicuously posing no threat at all of success. But whatever the reason, I also feel bereft and bewildered. Take away my sporting Anglophobia and what Scottishness do I have left down here on my own? Maybe my Rs will be next to go. Maybe I’m doomed to going completely native – give it a year and I’ll be into morris dancing, singing along to ‘Jerusalem’, nurturing an admiration for Norman Tebbit and Nigel Farage . . .

So this is a plea for help. If it’s Yes, please could there be some sort of rescue plan for us poor, abandoned London Scots. Even those of us so lost and confused they wanted Sturridge to score.

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What’s the Alternative?

 few months ago I visited the Rangers supporters’ club in Sandy Row, a staunchly loyalist area of south Belfast where the pavements are literally painted red, white and blue. I went to talk about Scottish independence with the club’s manager, a pleasant, stocky, tattooed chap named Warren Miller, but we ended up discussing the community’s economic decline. These days, Sandy Row – once a thriving part of industrial, Protestant Belfast – is among the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, marked by high rates of poverty, unemployment and ill health. Inevitably, with this decline has come gradual depopulation, as Miller said: ‘Thousands of people lived here in the 1970s and ’80s, now it’s about 2,000 or 3,000. People couldn’t get jobs locally, so they went elsewhere. It’s a real shame.’

The Irish Question doesn’t feature as prominently in Scotland’s referendum debate as it could – or should. With all the talk of 1707, it’s easy to forget the United Kingdom has only existed in its current form since 1922, when 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties broke away from London to establish the Irish Free State. Few people north or south of the Irish border (that I’ve spoken to, at any rate) believe a Yes vote has the potential to reignite the Troubles, but they are wary of the impact such a profound rupture might have on Ireland. Given Alex Salmond’s plan to cut corporation tax, does the SNP intend to position Scotland as a free market competitor to the Republic? How quickly, if at all, would Sinn Fein try to capitalise on the new ambiguity surrounding the UK’s constitutional set-up by calling a border poll of its own? More to the point, what role would Northern Ireland play in a UK defined almost exclusively by English majority interests?

As David Torrance explains in his brief but engaging new polemic, Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union, the traditional response of British leaders to the demands of ‘peripheral’ (specifically Irish) nationalists has been federalism. According to Torrance, UK federalism reached its ‘high watermark’ in 1919-1920, when a Cabinet sub-committee was charged with ‘drafting a Bill for a federal UK that would square off Nationalist aspirations with (Ulster) Unionist fears’. A Bill was drawn up, some of which became the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but by then the wheels of Irish independence were already turning. When that independence (of sorts) was achieved two years later, the dream of a federal UK vanished, pushing, Torrance says, ‘the Ulster precedent from Tory minds [and replacing it] with premonitions of constitutional catastrophe’.

After a lengthy absence, however, and with the peripheries again agitating for change, federalism is back on the British political agenda. In June, Gordon Brown became the most senior UK politician yet to back a federal or quasi-federal settlement for Britain following a No vote in September. Writing in The Guardian, Brown said the Scottish referendum had ‘already sunk without trace the old idea of Britain as a unitary state’ and warned that, ‘If Britain does not change of its own volition, Scotland … could force upon the whole country a system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85 per cent of the population.’ Brown’s intervention echoed the findings of the Liberal Democrats’ 2013 report, Federalism: the best future for Scotland, which reaffirmed the party’s century-old commitment to ‘a modernised, federal United Kingdom’.

But what would federalism actually entail and why would it be preferable to either devolution or independence? For Torrance, as for Brown and the Liberal Democrats, Scotland’s position within a federal UK wouldn’t differ radically from its position now. Macro-economic policy, monetary policy, defence, foreign affairs and the constitution would all still be decided at the central state level, while Westminster would cede a greater degree of control over borrowing, tax and, perhaps, welfare and pensions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Crucially, sovereignty would be formally divided between the four home nations within the context of a written British constitution. ‘Since 1999 the UK has experienced federalism by stealth, so why not formalise it?,’ Torrance concludes. ‘After all, the leap between the quasi-federal status-quo and a … UK federation is much shorter than that between ad hoc devolution and independence as defined by the SNP.’

Torrance has a point. Federalism probably would be the neatest of the available constitutional options and, as the ‘Ulster precedent’ shows, the British state can, under the right circumstances, open itself up to relatively far-reaching reform. Moreover, unlike the other options, federalism actually commands something approaching majority support. For the last few years – since, at least, the SNP’s 2011 landslide victory – Scottish voters have shown consistently high levels of enthusiasm for an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament that would extend beyond ‘ad hoc devolution’ but fall short of ‘independence as defined by the SNP’. In this respect, federalism seems like the most practical – and in some ways distinctively British – choice.

But things aren’t quite that simple. For a start, the only parties capable of delivering a federal UK – Labour and the Conservatives – have already committed to less radical devolutionary alternatives. Indeed, Scottish Labour’s offer, when it finally arrived earlier this year, was a hopeless fudge which included granting Holyrood the power to raise income tax rates but not to lower them. And while the Tories’ proposals are slightly more ambitious, particularly with regard to those all-important ‘fiscal levers’, they too would leave the principle of Westminster sovereignty – the bête noir of nationalists and federalists alike – more or less intact. The fundamental problem with federalism, however, is its lack of overarching purpose. Ultimately, its justification seems to rest on the fact that it represents a workable compromise between independence and devolution. Yet there are many people in the referendum debate – most of them, it should be said, on the Yes side – who view 18 September as an opportunity to inject some much needed disruption and instability into Britain’s stuffy political firmament.

Two such agitators are James Foley and Pete Ramand, co-founders of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and authors of Yes: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence, a left-wing critique of the ‘Westminster consensus’. For Foley and Ramand, the referendum is not, as some unionists claim, a contest between narrow-minded Scottish separatists and benign British multiculturalists. It is a battle between competing nationalisms, one of which is more reactionary and jingoistic than the other: ‘The progressive elements of [British] welfare nationalism have been cut to the bone. Loyalties are preserved by jollying the population into a mean-spirited nationalism of the Belgrano-sinking variety … [British nationalism] revolves around invading and occupying other nation-states while warning that rival sovereignties are toxic.’ According to Foley and Ramand, this ‘neo-Britishness’ is as much a feature of Labour politics as it is Tory politics: ‘It was Labour who coined the phrase “British jobs for British workers”… Labour Home Secretaries who encouraged apocalyptic fantasies about immigration…Labour [who] used [patriotic] rhetoric against striking firefighters.’

Foley and Ramand detail the Blairite takeover of Scottish Labour during the early years of devolution. They explain how leftists and so-called ‘soft nationalists’ within the party were isolated and then unceremoniously dumped in favour of candidates who could be relied on to comply with London’s policy diktats. ‘The Iraq War,’ Foley and Ramand write, ‘proved a watershed. Six [out of 56] Labour MSPs rebelled against the party in a Holyrood vote … By contrast, 139 Labour MPs defied Blair at Westminster.’ It was at this point that Labour’s hegemony in Scotland began to crumble. These days, as Foley and Ramand point out, support for independence is highest in those working class neighbourhoods Labour would once have considered part of its natural territory.

Yet Foley and Ramand are as critical of the official Yes campaign as they are of the Labour Party. They view the Yes Scotland/SNP approach – ‘continuity plus optimism equals victory’ – as a political dead end. Only by exposing Britain’s structural and economic failings, they argue (convincingly), will a majority of Scots be persuaded to take the independence gamble: ‘Yes Scotland presents independence as an evolution … The existing social order will stay intact, but a few administrative tasks will move to Edinburgh. [This represents] a bloodless civic identity politics [when] our starting point should be the failure of the present settlement in Britain.’

Another critic of official nationalist narratives is Gerry Hassan. His latest offering, Caledonia Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, tackles the ‘Six Myths of Modern Scotland’, which include the notion that Scottish society is inherently social democratic. In Hassan’s view, Scotland is dominated by various self-regarding media and political elites who speak the language of redistribution but consistently refuse to take the radical steps necessary to reduce income inequalities, improve educational opportunities or make public institutions more transparent. For Hassan, Scotland’s opinion-formers and policy-makers inhabit a ‘fictional political and social community’ – ‘a kind of quasi-Brigadoon’ – entirely at odds with the reality of life for most Scots: ‘[Their] account [of Scotland] seems to embody a land which defines itself by not voting Tory, but at the same time supports the existing status quo, and the “settled will” of institutional Scotland.’

It’s a legitimate observation. Scottish progressives have been complacent about Scotland’s susceptibility to anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populism, and there’s little doubt Scottish society falls far short of mainstream social democratic norms. But Hassan has a habit of overstating his point. For instance, he accuses the Scottish left of believing there is a ‘natural socialist majority just waiting to be re-awakened by the right kind of leadership.’ Yet, in June, RIC staged a series of well-staffed and highly-publicised mass canvassing sessions in deprived communities across Scotland, showcasing the left’s commitment to grassroots level activism. Equally, the growing urgency with which the Scottish electorate voted against the Conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s didn’t stem from a culture of juvenile socialist (or anti-English or male chauvinist) ‘indignation’. It was a rational response to the effect Mrs Thatcher’s policies had on the Scottish economy. Scottish poverty and unemployment rates almost doubled during the Thatcher era. It would be astonishing if that trauma didn’t influence Scotland’s subsequent political development.

Nonetheless, Hassan’s central argument – that there exists a gulf between Scottish political rhetoric and action (particularly centre-left rhetoric and action) – is a good one. It also, of course, highlights the key difference between independence and federalism. With independence, Scots will no longer have any alibis or excuses. They won’t be able to blame their disgracefully low rates of average pay, or their high rates of material inequality, or their imbalanced economy, or their child poverty, or their ill health on Westminster’s ‘disregard’ for Scottish interests. Responsibility for tackling these problems will lie solely with Scottish people and Scottish institutions – and Scots alone will be culpable if they persist. Towards the end of Caledonia Dreaming, Hassan quotes from a piece by Dublin journalist Fintan O’Toole. Reflecting on Ireland’s own often messy and demoralising experience of independence, O’Toole writes: ‘You end up feeling more disillusioned but also more grown-up…There are still follies and delusions but at least they’re your own…Do you want to have the safety net of an auld enemy to rage at when policies don’t work and the world turns mean? Or do you prefer to look at yourself in the mirror, in all your glories and stupidities?’ When they head to the polls in a few weeks’ time, Scots would do well to consider these questions almost as closely as the one they are actually being asked.

In the midst of all this polemicizing, it’s tempting to ignore the large section (around 30 to 40 per cent) of the Scottish public that still hasn’t made up its mind about independence. For these undecideds, Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, by academics Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher (now an adviser to Better Together) and Guy Lodge, is a useful assessment of the main issues in the debate. Although written in a rather technocratic style (it dedicates ten pages to a discussion of ‘Horizontal Fiscal Equalisation’), Scotland’s Choices provides masses of detail on a range of complex subjects without swamping the reader with irrelevant information. Of particular interest is the chapter on ‘Welfare and Citizenship in the UK’, which explains how the devolution of certain political rights to Scotland has created ‘a platform for the articulation and expression of [distinct] social rights’. The question this raises is whether British citizenship, an idea tied closely to the UK’s shared system of post-war welfare provision, can survive another substantial decentralisation of power.

Somewhat less useful, however, and certainly much less interesting, is Enlightening the Constitutional Debate, a collection of ‘expert’ testimonies on independence and unionism drawn from a series of British Academy and Royal Society of Edinburgh seminars. Enlightening the Constitutional Debate simply describes the views of its contributors (more than three quarters of whom are men) in the plainest terms, as though all voters are looking for is a set of cool establishment heads to chaperon them through the referendum minefield. The problem with a book such as this – apart from its staggering dullness – is that it is essentially just a closed dialogue between the sorts of elites identified by Hassan. It gives no sense of being engaged in, or even aware of, the broader democratic discussion taking place across Scotland in the run up to September.

Closer to the spirit of that discussion is A Modest Proposal for the Agreement of the People, an intriguing, if chaotically structured, call for the UK to adopt a formal constitution. Written partly in tribute to Mike and Sheila Forbes, the Aberdeenshire couple who fought Donald Trump’s Menie estate development, A Modest Proposal is made-up of a handful of shortish essays, the best of which is by labour historian Mary Davis. Davis charts the history of popular opposition to illiberal and authoritarian governments in the British Isles, from the English Revolution in the seventeenth century to the Easter Rising and the feminist movement in the twentieth Legislative progress, she argues, is often the result of organised working-class action, but parliamentary reform is not in itself enough to secure lasting gains for ordinary people. Rights are only worth having if individuals can actually exercise them.

Unsurprisingly, the idea that nationalists are obsessed with ‘soft’ constitutional issues at the expense of ‘hard’ political and economic ones has become a prominent theme among unionists of late. Last year, Scottish Labour briefly adopted the slogan ‘Scotland On Pause’ to highlight what it saw as the Scottish government’s fixation on all things independence-related, while other unionist parties routinely attack the SNP for sacrificing the ‘everyday concerns’ of voters in order to pursue its ‘separatist pipedream’. Davis’s point is relevant here. There is no guarantee that shifting Scotland’s constitutional goalposts will have a positive effect on Scottish society. Nor can the SNP claim a written Scottish constitution will automatically alter or improve the lives of Scottish citizens.

However, on the basis of my experience up in Sandy Row, I would warn against trying to divide a country’s politics into opposing categories marked ‘the economy’ and ‘the constitution’. In the early the twentieth century, Belfast was the most industrially developed part of Ireland and had a strong socialist tradition. Who knows what Sandy Row might look like now, had Ulster followed the rest of Ireland out of the UK in 1922? Given Ireland’s general economic trajectory over recent years, it’s possible the community would be even worse off than it is today. On the other hand, without the liberalising influence of successive UK governments, perhaps it would have been better equipped to cope with the challenges of deindustrialisation. The same goes for mainland Britain: is it a coincidence that the structure of the British state (sclerotic and heavily centralised) so closely reflects the structure of the British economy (sclerotic and heavily centralised)? Or is it possible the concentration of political power in London feeds and reinforces the concentration of economic power in the capital?

With the referendum finishing line now very much in sight, most Scots still seem fairly relaxed about Scotland’s place in the UK. In the two years since the campaign kicked off, the polls may have narrowed somewhat but there hasn’t been a decisive shift in favour of independence. This is partly due to the way Better Together has relentlessly exaggerated the apparent economic pitfalls of separation, and it is partly to do with the contradictions in the SNP’s independence prospectus. Above all, though, it is because Scotland’s middle and professional classes see no reason to mess with a system that has served them so well. The status quo has made their lives comfortable, even if poorer Scots haven’t felt the benefits of Danny Alexander’s ‘Union dividend’ for a while. What are the chances middle Scotland will change its mind before September? Pretty low, I suspect. But there’s still a little bit of time left.


BRITAIN REBOOTED: SCOTLAND IN A FEDERAL UNION

David Torrance

Luath Press Ltd., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-910021-11-8, 108PP

YES: THE RADICAL CASE FOR SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE

James Foley and Pete Ramand

Pluto Press, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-753-3475-2, 153PP

CALEDONIA DREAMING: THE QUEST FOR A DIFFERENT SCOTLAND

Gerry Hassan

Luath Press Ltd., £11.99, ISBN 978-1-970021-06-4, 256PP

SCOTLAND’S CHOICES: THE REFERENDUM AND WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS

Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge

Edinburgh University Press, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-7486-6987-5, 256PP

ENLIGHTENING THE CONSTITUTIONAL DEBATE

The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy

ISBN 978-0—902198-27-2

A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR THE AGREEMENT OF THE PEOPLE

Angus Reid, Mary David and Others

Luath Press Ltd., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-9-910021-05-7, 190PP

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Bad Bankers and Bankrupt Banks

PEOPLE always meant it as a compliment to the late lamented leader of the Labour party, John Smith, when they described him as being like a Scottish bank manager: sober suit, subdued tie, polished shoes, bald head, owlish spectacles, slight frown as if contemplating a request for an overdraft he felt inclined to reject. This was the stereotype which till the year 2000 or so had allowed the Scottish banking system to survive, rather against the odds. It had lasted through not only three centuries of Anglo-Scottish Union but also the emergence of modern global capitalism, that all-devouring creature which grinds and minces inherited institutions of every kind, social and political as well as economic – grinds and minces, too, the people along with their institutions. A few years later, nobody could take comparison with a Scottish banker as much of a compliment. Bankers have joined politicians and journalists at the bottom of the scale of public esteem. For Scotland in particular, a cherished banking system more or less evaporated into thin air at the hands of a new generation of manic managers. Today it is owned by the British state and run from London, leaving behind in Edinburgh little but elegant classical buildings turned into wine bars.

Though any narrative of these events is bound to involve a lot of dry technical detail, it is still a dramatic story well served by the authors of the three books under review, two working journalists and one who has gone on to greater things. They do not, or not often anyway, get bogged down in the dry technical detail, but rather concentrate on the human factor, which is where the true drama lies. At its heart, as banks broke, companies crumpled and states shook, stood men of flesh and blood, some acting very badly, some rather better, most helpless and bewildered while the forces they had unleashed, but could not now control or even understand, bore them down to destruction.

Ian Fraser is the last of the three authors into print, but the wait has been worthwhile. It is always invidious to describe any work as definitive, but I do not see how Shredded: Inside RBS, The Bank That Broke Britain is going to be outdone. It is meticulous to a high degree, and I would guess Fraser has stored in his files as much material again that he has felt reluctantly obliged to leave out. The normal sort of banking archives will not usually in themselves reveal so very much to the researcher about an affair of such proportions as the crash of RBS assumed. It is from the personal testimony of the people involved that the truth emerges, and these people will not always be with us. For the fullest survey we are ever going to have, then, we need to read Fraser.

One figure eluded him, refusing to co-operate in any way with the writing of the book, and that was the most central figure of all, Fred Goodwin. Still, it is unlikely this will turn out to have been any real handicap to the finished work. Goodwin does not give the impression of enjoying much of an interior life, and his actions speak for themselves. He was the repressed, geeky kid from Ferguslie Park let loose into the adventure playground of high finance, with neither the professional knowledge, nor the intellectual capacity nor the steadiness of character to keep control over the experience even for himself. Vandalism resulted. He had the aggression and cunning to get his own way, yet without the discrimination to focus on what was most important. While his bank headed at high speed towards the edge of the cliff, he obsessed about the colour of the carpets in its new global headquarters at Gogarburn and dispensed inordinate amounts of patronage to motorsport.

Fraser gathers colourful testimony to all this from eye-witnesses, but still puzzles a bit at why much more sober and substantial figures such as George Younger and George Mathewson, successive chairmen of RBS, smoothed the path for Goodwin to take over from them. Probably it was because they did have a fairly clear and indeed ambitious concept of how Scottish banking was going to evolve. They knew that in its traditional form, with the branches in every high street and the managers who met the ministers and the dominies in the local rotary club, it could not survive in the long run. More agile and ruthless predators would pick off the individual banks and the system would just vanish. It had been saved during the previous crisis over RBS in 1981 but that, it became clear, was only a temporary reprieve.

Younger and Mathewson might either wait for the executioners to arrive or else might swing into action to forestall them. Both being in their different ways patriotic Scotsmen, they chose the second course. The trouble was that RBS lacked, as a result of its parochial history, the human resources to follow such a course through. Neither of its two leaders in this phase was himself a banker by background and training, while the man they anointed as chief executive, Goodwin, came up through law and accountancy. Both his masters and he still thought that with one leap – his – RBS would be free.

Fraser offers us plenty of narrative excitement in the subsequent episodes. Midnight oil is burned, sleepless nights follow and wives are not seen for weeks on end as RBS takes over first NatWest and then, fatally, ABNAmro, which seems to have been basically a cesspit full of toxic loans. But nothing could stop Goodwin. The hero with the fatal flaw defies the gods and at the end the gods wreak their revenge, in the greatest corporate failure of British history.

More to the point, though, there is a kind of moral force that keeps Fraser’s narrative going and makes the reader want to turn the page. He is scrupulously fair to the characters he puts before us, for instance to Mathewson, a good man who acquires a sort of tragic stature as he sees his dream turn to nightmare, even to Tom McKillop, the next chairman, who is pitied for his miserable inadequacy. Fraser understands and can even sympathise with human beings caught up in the events that overwhelm them. Yet in a final chapter, drawing up a balance-sheet of blame, he is quite unsparing in his judgments. This, amid an immense mass of detail, remains an extremely clear-sighted book: a great achievement.

If Fraser is that rare creature, a journalist who has produced a definitive work, Iain Martin’s Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy belongs more to the familiar genre of instant history. It is largely couched in the present tense and includes, doubtless only where appropriate, the F-word. Otherwise it is, surprisingly, not all that well written, so perhaps a bit too instant. And whereas Fraser’s work is obviously a product of Edinburgh – at least as it used to be – with everything careful and exact and weighed, Martin’s is obviously a product of the louche world of London in the twilight of the Blairite regime, with Gordon Brown biting his nails in dark corners as the sun went down. The author himself left Edinburgh for this world, and his delight in the political nitty-gritty reflects that. Indeed he reports how Brown and Goodwin are actually quite similar. ‘Both are quite introverted individuals and that expresses itself in sometimes extremely awkward dealings with others.’

Nor does Martin bother with Fraser’s painstaking build-up to the main scenes of the action. Where Martin is good he is very good, but he can get a bit bored with the detail and then passes over it as quickly as he decently can. Publishing and presumably aiming at readers in London, he does not worry much about the previous 300 years of Scottish banking or about the past lives of his principals, even Goodwin’s, before they step on to his stage. Still it is a pacy account of a complex subject, and that is perhaps as much as we can ask of instant history.

In Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked the Best Bank in Britain Ray Perman deals with the demise of the other Scottish bank, Bank of Scotland. His subject does not have quite the same inherent quality of high drama, and lacks any Grand Guignol villain such as Goodwin. But this is a very competent, well-informed, readable account such as we can expect from the former correspondent of the Financial Times in Edinburgh – now appearing in a paperback edition with additional material from the report of the parliamentary commission on banking standards which has been published meanwhile. They make Perman’s original conclusions look cautious, but here he has the chance to update them.

This is a tragedy not in a melodramatic but in a pathetic sense. Bank of Scotland was a great little bank, always secure and sensible, making excellent profits from sticking to what it knew it could do and doing that in an exemplary fashion. But amid the globalising financial system it became a minnow in an ocean of sharks and barracudas. The bank’s governor Peter Burt decided that if it could not in the long run survive in its existing form, then at least it should choose its future rather than have that future chosen for it. Alas, the partner he selected for joint expansion, the Halifax Building Society, proved the wrong one, though the subsequent takeover by Lloyds has proved no less dire. It was a sad end for Bank of Scotland’s three centuries of excellent service to its nation but, as Perman puts it with succinct elegance, by the turn of the twenty-first century ‘banks were regarded as either predator or prey: being efficient, dependable but unexciting was not an option’.

The dust from the great financial crisis is still settling. Though the most acute phase passed some time ago, and the banks only occasionally hit the headlines nowadays, it is perfectly clear from these three books that we are still only a fraction of the way to full recovery. For instance, an obvious lesson to take from it all would seem to be that investment banking should be separated from retail banking, in other words, that the business of the hedge fund managers should not in future impinge on the nest-eggs of people like you and me. That would stop in its tracks any repetition of the credit crunch, yet the UK government cannot bring itself to contemplate any such move because it might displease the bankers who want nothing more than to play fast and loose with our savings, and prompt them to up sticks from London to the Bahamas. The same argument applies to their bonuses. As for Scotland, we have in effect seen the death of a banking system that appeared part of the social fabric and represented the Scots’ ability to fend for themselves in a distinctive fashion even within a much bigger Union. Whatever takes its place  it will be unrecognisable compared to that which went before. But then, that seems generally true of Scotland in 2014.


Shredded: Inside RBS, The Bank That Broke Britain

Ian Fraser

Birlinn, £25, ISBN 9781780271385, 304PP

Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy

Iain Martin

Simon & Schuster, £20, ISBN 9781471113550, 352PP

Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked the Best Bank in Britain

Ray Perman

Birlinn, £9.99, ISBN 9781780271323, 256PP

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Northern Lights

IN my second year at university, in a tutorial that had touched on the work of Edwin Muir, I was asked a difficult question. Remembering that he had an islander in the class, our tutor – Dr Reid, he was – turned to me and grinned. ‘So,’ he said, ‘why has Shetland not produced a writer like Edwin Muir, or like George Mackay Brown?’ I can’t remember quite how I answered, though I do still recall the uncomfortable pause that preceded my response. Had I been more cocky I might have dismissed the question as ridiculous. After all, Shetland has a population of 22,000, roughly equivalent to that of Elgin or Bishopbriggs. Its lack of literary giants can be blamed, indisputably, on its lack of people. But what lay behind Dr Reid’s question was something rather more than good-humoured provocation. It was a point with a barb. For the failure of my home islands to produce writers of world renown is indeed notable, but only because Orkney and the Western Isles have produced so many. We have been shown up, if you will, by the success of our neighbours.

Over the past hundred years, Scotland’s islands have between them enriched its literature to a degree that far exceeds what might be expected from such limited populations. Consider, for example, Alexander Moffat’s painting, Poets’ Pub, which brings together eight of the country’s most significant literary figures from the latter half of last century. Of those eight, three are islanders – Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith – and the work of a fourth, Norman MacCaig, was strongly influenced by the culture and language of his Scalpay-born mother. The painting’s central figure, Hugh MacDiarmid, is not often thought of as an island writer but, according to Mark Smith, the poet’s nine-year residence in Whalsay should not be forgotten. It is an important chapter in his life, as well as in the story of Shetland literature.

In The Literature of Shetland, which tells that story, Smith does not attempt to answer Dr Reid’s lingering question. He does not begin from that defensive position. Instead, he acknowledges that the islands are ‘not a presence in any account of Scottish literature’, and then ‘addresses this absence’. In doing so, Smith explores a tradition that is entirely unfamiliar to most Scottish readers, and he brings to light writers who will rarely have been read outside the islands before. That is an important task, and this is a valuable and necessary book.

Shetland literature is young – barely two hundred years old – and it begins in loss. Before 1800, literacy was extremely limited and there was no local media in the islands. The native language, Norn, had died the previous century, and with it the oral poetry that once certainly would have flourished. The first Shetland writers of the modern era, then, did not have an indigenous tradition from which they could draw. They had an absence, and were forced to start anew.

The lack of a literary history was part of the islands’ appeal for Walter Scott. His novel The Pirate, which was largely set in Shetland, appeared in 1822, at precisely the moment that local writers were first considering how to imagine their place. To him, Smith writes, the archipelago was ‘a pristine canvas, a tabula rasa, onto which he could project his Scandinavian-flavoured tale’, and as one of the best-known authors in the world it was inevitable that Scott’s vision of the islands would be influential. Before The Pirate, there is no evidence that locals were eager to emphasise their Norse heritage, but afterwards there is no doubt. That history was to become a key feature of island writing in the years ahead.

The growth of local media and a local readership through the nineteenth century had two important results for Shetland writers: firstly, they could aim their work at an audience already familiar with its subject matter; and secondly, they were no longer restricted to writing in English. In the prose of George Stewart’s Fireside Tales, and the poetry of James Stout Angus, Shetlanders saw their dialect and culture reflected in a literature that was distinctly their own. And in Basil Ramsay Anderson’s poem ‘Auld Maunsie’s Crü’, published in 1888, shortly after his death at the age of 26, islanders had a work that was local in focus but sophisticated in its ideas and its use of language.

Among the writers of that century, the most successful (in financial terms, at least) was Jessie Saxby. Though her work is little read now, it was Saxby who truly took up Scott’s idea of Shetland as a place whose Norse identity was still intact (a place ‘more Scandinavian than Scottish’, as lazy journalists like to repeat). For Saxby, that identity and that history were not just of academic interest, they were about values – in her case, the values of empire. Like many Victorians, Saxby believed that the British Empire had parallels in that of the Vikings. When she said, in 1892, that ‘the Britons of to-day are wonderfully like the sea kings who came and conquered our islands centuries ago’, she was echoing the words of others, such as RM Ballantyne, who twenty years earlier had written that ‘much of what ismanly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!’

But while Saxby’s views were fairly standard among Britain’s ruling class (to which she belonged) there was, among less privileged writers, an alternative and more radical perspective developing. One of the most consistent and characteristic features of Shetland writing has been its political engagement: a socialist streak that sits alongside and often hand-in-hand with its nostalgic one. Among the earliest of these radicals was Laurence James Nicolson, whose single collection Songs of Thule (1894) combined turgid lines praising Shetland’s ‘lone majesty’ and ‘wave sounding shore’, with verses that railed against mainstream Christianity, and instead applauded ‘Fearless Science daring to be free’.

The poster-boy of the Shetland radicals, however, was J.J. Haldane Burgess, a teacher and linguist who, despite going blind at university, completed his education and went on to be one of the islands’ most revered writers. Burgess’ collection Rasmie’s Büddie (1891) was the first to be written entirely in the dialect, and his decision to express himself in that way was as political as it was literary. Shetland’s people and language had been oppressed, and to use that language in poetry, to use it to express complex ideas, was to act against that oppression. The poems’ eponymous narrator is a crofter. He is also intelligent and thoughtful. Both language and man are raised above their previous status in Burgess’ work. They are reimagined. Rasmie’s Büddie, Smith argues, ‘shows that the local speech can be used in complex, abstract and challenging ways … [and extends] the thematic and intellectual reach of Shetland dialect poetry’. Here, Burgess ‘really sets the agenda for what comes next’.

The longest-running literary journal in Scotland is the New Shetlander. It was founded in March 1947 by Peter Jamieson, and had its roots in the Marxist and literary circles which, since Burgess’ days, had very much overlapped. In its early years, the magazine published not only local writers but also those of current and future national renown, including Eric Linklater, George Mackay Brown and Hugh MacDiarmid. By that time, MacDiarmid had moved south. During his nine years in Shetland, he had barely engaged, if at all, with the islands’ writers and intellectuals. He had, indeed, been entirely dismissive, claiming that ‘not one … through all the centuries of human history has ever achieved expression on any plane of literary value whatever’. But when the New Shetlander launched, he was far more supportive, recognising the magazine’s place within the Scottish Literary Renaissance that he had spearheaded.

Despite the familiar characterisation of Shetlanders as ‘fishermen with crofts’ (as opposed to Orcadians, who were ‘crofters with nets’) it is not the sea that provides the central image of Shetland writing, but rural life. Burgess’ Rasmie was just one example of an archetype begun in the nineteenth century that continued long into the twentieth. Smith argues convincingly that this obsession with the croft allowed writers to explore themes of change, and often to descend into nostalgia. For unlike the sea, which ‘looked much the same to the Vikings as it did to trawler men in the middle of the last century’, he writes, ‘crofts, and the people who live on them, are often faced with a changing world … the certainties of their communities are under threat’.

That sense of recoil from the modern world, combined with the romanticising of a rural past, were a defining feature of the work of several New Shetlander writers, such as T.A. Robertson (who wrote as Vagaland), Rhoda Bulter, George PS Peterson and the Graham brothers, Lollie and John, who together would edit the magazinefor forty years. Though Smith’s tastes clearly lie elsewhere, these writers are among the most popular that Shetland has ever produced, certainly among local readers. Indeed, what is striking about this period, particularly from the 1970s onward, is the degree to which the magazine both tapped into and fed a genuine appetite for dialect writing in the islands. In print and in performance, poets were in real demand. It was a popularity that was linked to the general unease many felt in the early years of the oil industry. Fear of losing the dialect, fear of losing what was uniquely ‘Shetland’ about Shetland, fear of losing what Vagaland called ‘da aald true wyes’: poetry served to celebrate and to conserve those threatened things. It served as a marker of identity.

Smith does not go quite so far as to suggest that the New Shetlander itself was limiting literary ambitions during this period, but the hint is there. For the very health of the publishing scene in the islands meant that writers did not need to reach beyond Shetland; they had an audience waiting, and that audience knew what it wanted. There was, in a sense, a mirrored-room effect, in which the same ideas and themes were bounced back and forth within its pages. So while the magazine provided a platform for generations of islanders (the present reviewer included), it also, at least for a time, perpetuated what Smith calls the ‘bad things about Shetland dialect writing – nostalgia, sentimentality, an idealised view of the islands’.

There were, though, always exceptions, and for Smith there were two in particular. Though less prolific and less well-known than many of her contemporaries, Stella Sutherland is undoubtedly among the very best writers the islands have produced. Her poems are often more personal, more complex and more optimistic than those of Vagaland and others. And when she does tackle themes of rural life, such as in ‘At da Croft Museum’, Sutherland does not glamorise or romanticise, but instead focuses on the ability of people to keep going despite the hardship they suffered: ‘Dey yearned forever upward’ she wrote, ‘laek da flooers / bund i da seed under black tons o time – / draemin o light, strivin towards da light, / an dybin on an on becaase dey most’.

If Smith’s book can be said to have a hero, though, it is William J. Tait, who Hugh MacDiarmid believed ‘unquestionably deserves a high place in the ranks of contemporary British poets’. Indeed, Billy Tait is the one Shetland writer who could comfortably have sat among the eight in Sandy Moffat’s painting, and his portrait hangs today in Edinburgh’s Milne’s Bar. Although Tait was among the founders of the New Shetlander (and like the Graham brothers, like Peter Jamieson and like J.J. Haldane Burgess, was an ardent socialist) he was critical of the ‘mawkishness’ of some of his contemporaries. In ‘A Hogmanay Sermon’ he called for Shetland writers to ‘fin your tree! Poo ower your een / Nae mair ooey blankets’. Islanders, he declared, should write about things ‘as laek as no, / We canna mention in da New Shetlander’. Tait’s poetic language combines Shetland, Scots and even Norn words.

It is not the spoken dialect that others sought faithfully to reproduce, but an amalgamation, a creation, that serves the work he wished to do. Language, in Tait’s writing, is detached from identity. And while he engaged with his own place, he did so too with other places, and with images and cultures from far beyond Shetland’s shores. His first dialect poem was a translation of Villon that was unlike anything that others in the islands were doing. Like much of his work, it was adventurous, playful and intelligent. Smith does not fully disguise his disappointment when he writes that, while Billy Tait ‘was the most important poet of his era … subsequent writers have not followed the paths he cleared’.

The question of what is – and more pertinently, what is not – ‘Shetland literature’ is not so simple to answer as might first be imagined. How should we consider the use of Shetland in the crime novels of Ann Cleeves, for example? Cleeves lived in the islands for a short time and has been a regular visitor ever since. Her quartet of books set there may not be great literature, but are they ‘Shetland literature’? And what, for a very different example, of Donald S. Murray, who lives in the islands but writes mostly of his native Hebrides? On that second question, Smith is clear. Those considered in this book, he writes, ‘are brought together because Shetland is a presence in their work’. This approach makes sense, particularly for a doctoral thesis, as which this study began life. But it does lead to certain omissions. While it is no surprise that J.M. Ledgard is absent here – lauded by critics in Britain and the US, the novelist is hardly known at all in the islands where he was born – the fact that Willa Muir goes without a mention is more notable.

This is not a weakness, however; it is legitimate choice. If there is a weakness to this book, it is that its final chapter, on contemporary writers, is too short. The best-known of these, Christine De Luca and Robert Alan Jamieson, are allowed reasonable space. Paolo Dante Ritch is praised for his ‘rollicking energy and rhythm’; and Jim Mainland is given an enthusiastic introduction as an inventive writer in both dialect and English, and perhaps the closest literary heir to Billy Tait. Jen Hadfield – by far the best-known writer in the islands today – is galloped over in a few paragraphs. Alex Cluness, who has been described in these pages as ‘one of the UK’s best and most original poets’, here gets less than a sentence to himself. Others, such as James Sinclair and the late Lise Sinclair, go unmentioned. Smith acknowledges the difficulty of assessing contemporary writers within a study such as this one, and his decision to skimp is understandable. But readers will be left wanting to know more. My hope is that a second edition of this book will one day be necessary, and that it will come complete with an expanded final chapter. But I hope, too, that Shetland writers past and present will find a new audience as a result of Mark Smith’s commendable work.


The Literature of Shetland

Mark Smith

The Shetland Times, £22.99, ISBN 978-1-904746-88-1, 274PP

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Becoming a Scot

I COME from a family of immigrants, though I never thought of us that way until I became an immigrant myself. My father’s ancestors migrated to the Philippines from Madrid, taking the name Muñoz with them. My mother’s grandfather was from Taiwan. As legend goes, the family name was Tan but after arrival, my great-great grandfather changed the surname to Tansingco. The second part was derived from the Spanish word ‘cinco’, indicating that five Tans had made the journey. The change of name also had the effect of making it sound more Filipino and thus tapping in to the most basic desire of most immigrants – the desire to fit in:

Twenty-two (for my mother)

The age you and I immigrated to cities

we had never been, years apart

but some things might have been the same:

same church-like shuffle

down the jetway,

same keyhole window seeping light.

Same long-haul flight leaving us

sand-tongued, the chilled air

like a punch in the face

when you landed in Toronto mid-winter

shocked by the giant concrete towers,

and lost your first payslip

down a gutter,

the snow falling like large moths.

And me from Vancouver to Glasgow,

35 Kelvinhaugh Gate, a flat so damp

I slept in a wool hat for months

and got lost coming home from a place

I’d been twice, so in a pub’s doorway

I spread out my map, worn leaf-thin.

Once I heard you say,

twenty-two is the age I left Manila

left the only patch of land you knew

to wonder as I did, on that cold step:

should I go home now, or have I begun again?

My parents immigrated to Canada separately from the Philippines in 1969. They met in the stationery aisle at Simpson’s department store in Toronto. I often imagine them now as they were then: two small, young, dark-haired people who had never seen snow before they flew north. I wrote about them in a poem entitled ‘Simpsons Dept Store, Toronto’:

You laughed when I asked where.

Oh, it was in the stationery aisle.

Soft-tipped pens and bright paper.

Mom, you hunted a present for a nun,

a certain Sister Bernadine.

Dad, you spied tins of paper clips.

For the job selling insurance you just received.

Two years later, married at St. Michaels.

Dad in a loaned suit, Mom in a bargain dress.

Grasping a bouquet of winter roses.

In 2006, it was my turn to continue the family tradition when I moved to Scotland to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University with poet Tom Leonard as my tutor. I had never been to Glasgow before. In fact, I had never been outside of North America before. My mom sewed seven hundred pounds in cash into a secret pocket inside my jeans, perhaps imagining the worst. I ended up working two days a week at the Glasgow University gift shop, where again I explored the connection to my father in a poem called ‘Any kind of job’:

In a new country, any kind of job will do

my dad knew this already, he knew

in the Toronto YMCA

eyeing the corkboard for work:

a day in the eraser factory

or sweeping the bank in his clip-on tie,

his dark brow lifted, his pulse knocking

as he left quickly

for the relief of plenty,

the sour smell of cash in hand.

And I was the same, new to Glasgow

working days

in the uni gift shop,

selling monogrammed t-shirts

or silver jewellery

male lecturers gave to their wives,

and those square-cut magnets that shouted:

Via Veritas Vita, THE WAY THE TRUTH THE LIFE!

so masculine, rigid like the clock

eyeing me when I came in

on time, because my dad and I were never late,

never slept in

and stroked windows

slowly, completely

so the inside and outside glass

bore the same clear sheen

and if a passerby in the rain could see

blue shirts hung in the corners

or in my dad’s case, the bank’s long counter

lined with people yawning into a day,

it was a way

back then, to measure our worth.

I thoroughly enjoyed my course at Glasgow and afterwards I received the now-defunct Fresh Talent visa for two years, so that I could stay and work. I worked as an events planner for a new-age classical ensemble at the Centre for Contemporary Arts and freelanced for the Herald and the List. I then received a student visa and an Overseas Research Student scholarship to do a PhD in Scottish Literature on the work of Tom Leonard. In the meantime, I published a poetry pamphlet called Close and moved to Edinburgh where I work as a researcher and tutor.

Seven years and an array of wallet-crippling visas later, my partner and I found ourselves nervously waiting outside a New Town Edinburgh office. I was there to sit the ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ test which is a required part of the permanent settlement process. My partner took my well-thumbed copy of the official preparatory guide and waited for me in a cafe across the road. I opened the navy blue door feeling slightly bereft without my book which I had been studying from for weeks.

I am not the first person to take a close interest in the book’s contents. Dr Thom Brooks of Durham University found that it contains 3,000 facts, any of which can reappear on test day. Candidates are asked twenty-four multiple-choice questions and need to score eighteen out of twenty-four for a pass. Brooks also noted that the book suffered from gender imbalance and in an earlier edition, got the number of MPs wrong (later editions addressed this by simply removing it as a potential question).

As far as the test itself was concerned, Brooks conducted a withering analysis of its content in the New Statesman. He wrote that it had morphed from a test of ‘practical trivia’ to one of the ‘purely trivial’ where, for instance, candidates had to memorize five dates concerning Sake Dean Mohamet: birth (1759), first came to the UK (1782), eloped to Ireland (1786), opened first curry house (1810) and death (1851). The test has a failure rate of about 30%, not including David Cameron who thought that Elgar composed ‘Rule Britannia’, and did not know what ‘Magna Carta’ meant in English when quizzed by David Letterman, the American talk show host.

I found the book heavy on English history as I set out to learn it verbatim. Though there are focus questions at the end, it is difficult to know what is important and what is not. The test may be ‘purely trivial’ but that is no comfort to those who actually have to pass it. As much as anything, it seems to be assessing the applicant’s language level, which is another contentious issue in today’s immigration debates. I was disappointed that there is little evidence of Scottish life beyond Edinburgh. The few Scottish topics seeded through the index included: Edinburgh Castle, Bannockburn, Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and haggis. Our wonderful ‘Scottish Parliament’ gets only a brief mention. I think I also found a mistake to add to those identified by Brooks: the book contends that £50 is the highest currency denomination in the UK but Scottish and Northern Ireland banks issue £100 notes.

Still, there is no way around taking the test if I wanted to stay and I did get something from the fact retention process. I was happy enough to memorize some things about unusual people like Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, the group which became the first suffragettes. And the aforementioned Sake Dean Mahomet is forever committed to my memory. The curry place that he opened in London in 1810 was dubbed the Hindostane Coffee House. I will never again forget any of Henry VIII’s wives: three Catherines, two Annes and one Jane. I now entertain my pals with my 3,000 facts and look forward to employing them in debates and pub quizzes. I wrote about it in my poem ‘Life in the UK’

To take the test, I studied for days.

I know everything. I know the English Kings,

the rough coins of the Iron Age,

the rock steps of the Giant’s Causeway.

I know how many jurors on Scotland’s High court.

The age you can drive, the age you must stop.

Ladies, don’t stay married if he hits you.

What you do with a broken fridge.

I can tell you the time and day the Concorde first flew.

Back in the New Town, the test was administered by two kindly women who took time to register each test-taker beforehand. Upon seeing my passport, one told me cheerfully that her brother lived in Canada and he loved to ski. She seemed surprised that I was so keen to live in Scotland. I sat with other applicants in a gray, airless room staring at the thin-necked computer screens. Pens and lined paper were doled out. We were told there were no second chances: ‘Once you press start, there’s no turning back’.

I felt the way I used to before childhood races, when you stood tense before the line. I pressed start eagerly. Multiple-choice question emerged on the screen. As I clicked through the test, I was surprised to find that only 3 of 24 were directly related to Scotland. What is the maximum amount that can be dealt with in a Scottish small claims court? What is the function of the Sheriff Court in Scotland? Where did Bonnie Prince Charlie raise his army? In addition, ‘the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh’ provided a comedy option in a question about which British universities competed in the boat race. I was disappointed not to be asked one of the questions I had giggled at during a previous practice test: ‘The Westminster Government consists of the House of Commons, House of Lords, House of Fraser (pick two from three)’.

Everyone was given forty-five minutes, though I admit I finished in a lightning-quick seven. I alerted the administrators and was herded into a side waiting room, eventually followed by some of the other applicants. We sat drinking water from the cooler and tried to smile at each other, though the atmosphere was tense. A young woman said ‘Congratulations – you passed’. ‘What score did I get?’ I asked her. She said that they didn’t give out that information; they only let you know if you passed or failed. ‘So you can tell everyone you got a perfect score!’ she continued. Leaving the centre, I noticed that the 30% failure rate identified by Brooks was taking on a human dimension. Some people leaving the room looked distressed.

As I walked down the street to be re-united with my partner, I speculated about questions I may have got wrong. I was tripped up by one about the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. I didn’t include ‘policing’ as I was confused by the fact that it is on the Justice Secretary’s patch in Scotland. Also, does the Queen’s speech look forward or backwards? That was something I wasn’t sure about, though it is probably obvious to people born and bred here.

When word of my pass got out, well-meaning friends started to send me ‘welcome to Scotland’ messages. However, the process wasn’t quite over. The pass certificate was just another piece of paper that had to be added to the pile that my partner and I had been collecting for years. It already included gas bills, evidence of tax returns, pay slips, job contracts, rental agreements, doctor’s letters, photographs, and so on. There were long forms to fill in and the many pages or so of identity, solvency, residence and occupational proof had to be photocopied. A week later we presented ourselves and our life well-documented to the United Kingdom Border Agency in Brand Street, Glasgow. This too was a stressful day, as it feels as though the direction of your entire life is in the hands of a few people. Four hours later, I battled my way through the Govan wind and rain as a ‘New Scot’.

The system that took me in as an international student years ago eventually spat me out as a permanent resident, and I’m happy that it did. The question I am asked most frequently these days are ‘what are you doing here?’ or ‘why on earth would you leave Canada for Scotland’? It’s a good question. Canada is a multicultural country with low-cost healthcare, a very high standard of healthy living and excellent universities. I was born and raised on the West Coast with its rugged mountain ranges, orca-filled sea and warm summers. But while at university, I sensed a growing materialism and a desire to always have the best of everything: food, wine, holiday and house. And sometimes living in a city of such stagey, towering beauty can feel oppressive, or numbing. Its idleness seeps into your life and you are afraid to not be happy all the time. Everyone else makes a point of going on about how good life is. I grew tired of pretending after a while.

I was twenty-two when I packed two suitcases (one of clothes, the other of books) to come to Glasgow. I have been here seven years now and see so many things to love about living in Scotland. It’s liberating to be around so many people who take politics, culture, history and literature so seriously. There is an imperative in Scotland to be bold, honest, critical and not to be afraid to speak your mind. It’s true that people can speak gruffly or sharply which unnerved me at first, until I understood the inherent kindness in the voices. I see a lot of compassion for others here and people committed to making the place even better. People take friendships very seriously and that is something I have grown to appreciate and depend upon.

In Scotland, I feel supported in the literary arts. I love reading and writing and it has been refreshing to find others who value the same things. Here I have reviewed countless books by Scottish authors and have been able to interview Liz Lochead and Jackie Kay among other writers. I have even interviewed Canadian poet and two time Griffin Prize winner Anne Carson when she was on writer’s retreat at Cove Park near Helensburgh. Being a poet in Scotland has also been a positive and encouraging experience. My recent inclusion in the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems and my appearance at various literature festivals in Scotland help me to feel part of the current scene. These are things I never thought I would get the chance to do. The longer I stay, the more can feel myself being drawn deeper into Scotland.

But one thing I find puzzling is the absence of language for multiculturalism. Being a visible minority, I stand out in Scotland in a way that I never did in Canada. One afternoon while I was running to meet friends in Kelvingrove Park, a man leaning in the doorway of a pub yelled ‘nice tan’ at me. Other people around him laughed. Once when I was reading in a Glasgow coffee shop, three local kids plunked themselves across from my couch. I smiled at them and in response they pulled at the corners of their eyes, asking: ‘Are you Chinese?’. I am often surprised to be asked where I am really from when I answer Canada the first time. I am tired of having to insist that I am not Chinese (or a ‘Chinky’ as one taxi driver put it seemingly without intending to offend). Once, an elderly man in the public library in Dumfries asked me if I was from the Far East and I said ‘Yes, I’m from Edinburgh’. These things happen less often now than they used to and I wonder if I am presenting myself differently. Not so diffident perhaps, but pleased to be here, settled here, belonging here.

Still, the public narrative in Britain around immigration isn’t very helpful. Canada is a country of immigrants and it would be electoral suicide for even a right-wing government to suggest that immigration and multiculturalism aren’t good things. Here, the loudest voices often say the opposite. This can still occasionally get personal. Recently, I delivered a speech to a National Collective gathering in which I said some positive things about multiculturalism. When the text was posted to the NC website, someone commented that they wanted no part of this in Scotland (‘the country of my birth’). The anonymous person also told me that if I supported a multicultural society I should go live in London or, bizarrely, Pakistan. Last summer, I attended a panel session on immigration at the Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament and a handful of loudmouthed, ruddy-faced, rather scary, men in the audience made it quite clear what they thought about immigrants.

I take comfort, however, from the bigger picture in Scotland. At the same panel at the Festival of Politics, the rubicund men at the Scottish Parliament were opposed by almost everyone else in the room. I have heard MSPs of various political stripes speak out in favour of immigration and read, pro-immigration editorials in Scottish newspapers. I see the concern over Yashika Bageerathi, the teenager originally from Mauritius who was deported before finishing her A-levels and others like her. The immigration reforms that enabled my parents to move to Canada in the first place weren’t just about immigration. They allowed Canada to shed its ‘edge of empire’ legacy and become bigger in a metaphorical sense and better in every sense. This is something Scotland can do too if it chooses and more people can have the wonderful experiences I’ve had. And yes, I will be voting ‘Yes’.

 

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