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SIX of the best – Scottish Review of Books
by James Robertson

SIX of the best

August 3, 2014 | by James Robertson

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.’


‘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.


‘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…’


‘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 


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