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SRB Diary – Scottish Review of Books
by Harry Reid

SRB Diary

September 15, 2014 | by Harry Reid

Tuesday, 5 August

Our Italian friends arrive, just in time to see the first Darling-Salmond clash on STV. I say Italian, but Margaret is actually Scottish, though she has lived and worked in Italy for over forty years. Her husband Antonio is quintessentially Italian, a retired Rome businessman. He speaks excellent English and is gracious about having to watch our very Scottish spat.

I’m fascinated to hear how he, a genuinely objective outsider, assesses it. He reckons that Salmond just wins, by the narrowest of margins. (The next day, the nay-saying media strongly disagree.) He also says that Salmond comes over as a much more pleasant personality.

Tuesday, 19 August

My intention, at this time of reflecting on the future of my country and of course its past as well, had been to reread my three favourite Scottish novels: Flemington by Violet Jacob, Witch Wood by John Buchan and Gillespsie by J. MacDougall Hay. Each has a tremendous amount to say about the Scottish psyche. And each is very dark, though Flemington is written with a supple, light touch. All of them are of course historical novels; Flemington and Witch Wood  go quite far back. Whereas Hay wrote Gillespsie in 1910-13, and set it in the Tarbert (the Loch Fyne Tarbert), of about thirty or forty years earlier. 

But I suddenly decide to go for something that is as far away from Scotland as possible. I once read that The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch was the favourite novel of Albert Camus. I was vaguely aware that  it is an eccentric picaresque written by a young American, educated at Yale and Cambridge in the 1930s, who became a minor but respected novelist. The thought occurs: Could this elusive novel provide the necessary diversion, and some elegant escapism? It does, and how.  Having tracked down a copy, I’m soon entranced and indeed mesmerised.  The style is lush and dark. I’ve never read anything like it; smooth and beguiling, yet, as you come to realise, deep and disquieting too.

Thursday, 21 August

Lunch with Seonag Mackinnon and Rob Flett, two excellent journalists who left the BBC to put some much needed smeddum into the Church of  Scotland’s communications effort. As a long time critic of the Kirk’s inadequacy in this area, I’ve been impressed by their efforts. Yet at this time of all times, can the BBC in Scotland afford to let two such good journalists go? The organization seems to be constantly cutting back rather than expanding in Scotland, which is peculiar.

Friday, 22 August

To Fife, for the funeral of a distant relative, a 98-year-old farmer’s widow who had a contented and useful life. The service is pleasantly and warmly conducted by the Rev Liz Stenhouse. It is a pleasure to record this; too often folk are upset by what they regard as the inadequacies of ministers taking funerals. I have some sympathy with the clergy. Funerals cannot be planned; sometimes two or three or even four have to be taken  in the same week. And folk who may not have darkened a church door, to use that peculiar phrase, for many years can be very critical indeed – sometimes far too critical – when the minister does not get every detail of a life exactly right. At the purvey the proceedings are enlivened by one of the guests (not myself) going round asking people how they intend to vote on September 18. Few seem prepared to tell him. Of those who do, more say Yes than No. But he admits  later that he suspects that some No voters may be reluctant to admit their intentions publicly.

Saturday, 23 August

To Perth to see my team, Aberdeen, playing St Johnstone at the trig and pleasant McDiarmid Park. I’ve been supporting the Dons for over fifty years and cannot really complain; there have been some fine teams, and plenty of memorable moments. But there have also been plenty of dull, dispiriting periods. I sometimes wonder exactly how a football club can take such a hold of its long- suffering supporters,  why its performances and results matter so much. Surely in few other aspects of life would you tolerate for so long so much mediocrity, so much frittered-away potential. Is a Scottish football club the ultimate lost cause? But then I’ve been lucky: as I say, I’ve been privileged to see some magnificent  players and at least one superlative team.

On the other hand Pittodrie on a freezing February afternoon must be one of the grimmest places on God’s earth. I’ve sometimes told the story of how, when I was quite young, we hovered near the Merkland Road End, not knowing whether to leave or not (there were about 15 minutes of an excruciating game against Clyde remaining). An ancient  Dons supporter  was more decisive. He shuffled angrily past, cast a final rancid glance at the pitiful proceedings, and then enunciated a single bitter word: ‘Putrid!’.

Then he spat, spectacularly. The snell wind caught the globule, which described a parabola of unlikely beauty and then splattered definitively against the granite wall of the old Merkland stand.

Right now the team remains on a cusp; it has potential, but it doesn’t seem to know whether it can improve or just sink into mid- table lethargy. This particular game at Perth is marginally better than dour. The home team win 1-0, with a well taken late goal. The crowd is just over 6000, which is disappointing, especially as almost half of  those present are Aberdeen supporters. McDiarmid Park is a splendid place, situated a mile or so west of the old Muirton Park, where I used to watch great St Johnstone players such as John Connelly and that underestimated and very wily winger Fred Aitken playing inventively against Aberdeen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was my favourite away ground. There were some really great games at Muirton. Often the Dons struggled at Pittodrie but played with far more confidence and flair away from home. For some reason they tended to play particularly well at Dens Park, Dundee, and Muirton.

Monday,  25 August

The second TV debate, this time on the BBC. These debates are much trumpeted and discussed, but in the long run, are they really significant? Nick Clegg did very well in the TV debates prior to the 2010 UK general election, and look what’s happened since. Anyway, my wife Julie, who has been a thoughtful supporter of Scottish independence for much longer than I have, and is both ardent and balanced in her commitment to the cause, is no doubt a little biased. I, a later convert, most certainly am. But even allowing for all that, our mature conclusion is that Salmond utterly trounces Darling, who is poor in the debate and sour in his demeanour.

This is, more or less, the verdict of most of the media over the next twelve  hours or so, but the admission that Salmond won is often grudging. There is also much emphasis on the bad temper, the shouting and the interrupting, as if these somehow diminish Salmond’s victory. Have these ultra-fastidious critics never listened to or watched Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster, when the House of Commons becomes an unedifying and grotesque bear-pit, with the massed ranks of demented MPs baying, jeering, chanting and screaming, totally drowning out the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? And have they never contrasted the egregious behaviour at Westminster with the comparatively douce behaviour at at Holyrood? But then some people think Westminster must be superior, because it’s not in Scotland.

Thursday, 28 August

Old friends from Tillicoultry visit us for lunch, and a long and invigorating blether. Both are retired educationists. George is a former professional footballer (with Partick Thistle) who then found a new career in education and worked his way up to become a head teacher. Fiona first taught English, then became a special needs teacher, and from all I have heard, a very good one. They are on either side of the current great divide, George being a convinced No voter and Fiona being very much in the Yes camp. But there is no bitterness in their banter. Away back Fiona’s father was the solitary, and brave, SNP councillor in Aberdeen. He was a flamboyant figure, but I’m not sure how effective he was as a local politician. Even so he – and others like him up and down Scotland – deserve enormous retrospective credit for keeping the SNP flames burning when they seemed, so often, to be about to sputter out, the final forlorn flickers of a lost cause.

Such men and women were giants. We are where we are today because of them. I salute them. Of course the current Yes Campaign is about much more than the SNP and we are not going to be voting for a political party. Nonetheless, the SNP must take much of the credit for getting our nation to the exciting place it is at today. So too, I believe, must the late Donald Dewar. Of course he did not believe in Scottish independence. But he did believe fervently in the necessity for a devolved Scottish parliament, so much so that he was prepared to take the risk that it might just pave the eventual way to independence. He was a truly great man, though I have my doubts about the statue of him at the top of Buchanan Street. And if there is ever to be a statue of Alex Salmond, where should it be placed?

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