by SRB

The SRB Interview: Neal Ascherson

August 3, 2014 | by SRB

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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