Monthly Archives: March 2015

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Robert Zaretsky: Boswell’s Enlightenment (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press $26.95)

What a piece of work was James Boswell! His father, Lord Auchinleck didn’t rate him, objecting to his incessant journaling in particular. His mother was prone to mollycoddling and strict Calvinistic doctrine in equal measure. The son they raised was a welter of contradictions: vain and self-doubting; retenu and debauched; high spirited and prone to debilitating melancholy; physically courageous and terrified of ghosts. This, of course, is why he is so fascinating.

It is also why there is a frisson of doubt when Robert Zaretsky announces the plan for his book: “I have chosen to trace one particular aspect to the Scots life: his struggle with the great questions dealing with the sense and ends of life brought into being by the Enlightenment.” Boswell was not always at his entertaining best when he struggled with the big issues. In fact, the giant thinkers into whose lives he was invited, or insinuated himself, sometimes lost patience with his eternal nattering on the eternal questions.

Samuel Johnson, whose biographer Boswell became, cut him off on freewill and predestination with “Sir we know our will is free and there’s an end on’t’.”  Voltaire also ran out of patience when pressed by Boswell on the subject of the soul. “I know nothing of it”, wrote the great Frenchman to the irritating Scot, “not whether it is, nor what it is, nor what it shall be.”

However, any worries about Zaretsky drying out Boswell are assuaged by a colourful prologue when the author follows young James and his friend William Temple down Edinburgh’s High Street. The invisible companion is a device much favoured by American academics when describing 18th century Edinburgh and Zaretsky uses it here to fall in step with the two young men and point to the tumult that was Scotland’s capital: sellers and sewage, cathedral and tenements, Kirk and brothels.

Boswell and Temple are on their way to ascend Arthur’s Seat where, on reaching the summit, they yell “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!” Boswell is clearly in a state of high excitement but this is only one of several examples of his use of spontaneous declamation. On approaching London for the first time, for instance, he surprised his fellow travellers by loudly expressing his pleasure when the stagecoach ascended the Highgate rise.  In Utrecht, however, he “went out to the streets and even in public could not refrain from groaning and weeping bitterly.” Even when crying out, Boswell dealt in extremes.

Boswell, of course, was destined to meet not just Voltaire, and Johnson but Rousseau, Hume, Wilkes, the Corsican freedom-fighter Paoli and others. Whenever possible he made copious notes on their appearance, personal foibles and conversations. It was Johnson who inspired him to self-improvement through journalizing (his father was, an improver of a different sort who, when Boswell was in Utrecht, wanted “to be informed of the method by which they [the Dutch] keep their cows so clean”). Johnson also instructed his young friend on the task of the biographer which, he believed, is to lead the reader’s mind “into domestic privacies and minute details of daily life.” It was advice that Boswell put to good use even before he employed it on his mentor.

Zaretsky is a fine writer, but it is his incorrigible subject that ensures a constantly entertaining read. Boswell is never still, either mentally or physically, and carries the author along on tide of spirit and flesh. After reading fellow Scot Thomas Reid “On the Principles of Common Sense” and declaring it “a treasure”, for instance, Boswell seduces a young woman in Berlin. On discovering that she was both married and pregnant he declares “Oho! A safe piece.”

Boswell beards Rousseau and Voltaire at their retreats in Motiers and Ferney respectively, despite the two men being surrounded by other admirers and in the early stages of a prolonged enmity. The secret of Boswell’s remarkable access to great men is difficult to pin down. His explanation was that “I have the art to be easy and chatty” but there is surely more to it than that.  He declared on several occasions, that he was “no bigot” as far as religion was concerned (Boswell was drawn to Roman Catholicism much to his father’s horror) and he was liberal in his approaches to men of contending ideas. This was a stark contrast to his mentor Johnson who hated the very idea of Wilkes and considered that Rousseau and Voltaire were indistinguishable in their iniquity.

The book ends before Boswell becomes Boswell, as in the author of the “greatest biography in the English language”. One thing that he and Johnson had in common was the black dog of depression which, in turn, was fuelled by a mutual fear of death or “annihilation”.  Zaretsky leaves Boswell after the death of David Hume when he “drank himself nearly blind … and took a prostitute to the top of Castle Hill.” Boswell had previously visited the cancer-stricken Hume in the hope that he would renounce his scepticism in the face of death, but the philosopher confounded him with his good cheer.

Boswell himself would die at fifty four, reduced by the long term effects of gonorrhoea and drinking. But by then this romantic, rational, sceptical, believer had already ensured his own immortality. Not bad for someone that Horace Walpole once dismissed as “the quintessence of busybodies”.

 

[This review first appeared in the Sunday Herald]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

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Friends Reunited

READING this collection of poems, two thirds by Iain Banks, the rest by his friend Ken MacLeod, feels a little like picking up a fossil and going back in time.  Banks’s social and political position was clearly and repeatedly expressed in his fiction, his humanitarian rage at the way empires and regimes – even those supposedly democratic and benign – trampled on people without a thought. From The Wasp Factory, his debut in 1984, to his last novel, The Quarry, published shortly after his death in 2013, his opinions did not mellow. If anything, they burned more intensely with age. Here, however, in the company of his fellow science fiction writer MacLeod, one is introduced to Banks as a very young man, when his ideas are fresh minted, his observations not yet tempered by experience. The fifty works of his gathered in Poems were written between 1973, when he was 19, and 1981. They are youthful, frequently callow pieces, but they are also a reminder that in Banks’s case, the child really is father to the man. As those who knew him well attest, success and fame did not change him, or the way he thought.

The idea for this book, as MacLeod relates in his introduction, predated Banks’s diagnosis with the cancer that so swiftly killed him. Banks the mainstream novelist, and Iain M. Banks the science fiction writer need no introduction, he says. The same is not true, however, of Banks the poet, although he had been writing poetry since his schooldays, and his first published work was the poem ‘041’, in New Writing Scotland in 1983. As MacLeod writes about their poetic twinning, ‘He had the risible notion that my poems would provide his with some kind of covering fire. I think the truth is quite the reverse, but in defence of my works’ inclusion I can say that – because over the years we read and discussed each other’s poems – there is an element of dialogue and evidence of mutual influence.’

There is clearly no hubris in MacLeod’s part in the venture. It does not sound as if his arm was wrenched up his back, precisely, but there’s little doubt that without Banks’s encouragement, his poetry would still be lying in a drawer. Given the often raw quality of Banks’s poetry, one wonders if in some way his desire to see them in print was nostalgic, a chance to look back on his young self with a degree of pride, or find in his unfettered voice the energy and certainty that advancing years erode. Pride would be understandable, given the confidence of the earliest of these poems. Reading them, nobody could have doubted that their author was a writer in the making, though not necessarily born to be a poet.

The first poem, ‘Damage’, is a slice of social realism, a protracted, almost post-apocalyptic scene of domestic violence, written in a grandiose style that attempts to mask the poet’s age. ‘Bless the wind of no direction, that charms the flesh/ From the blackened bone, that teases the leaf/ From the ravaged tree, that demands the/ Child from the mother’s lap…’

Throughout these works, Banks’s imagination is seen reacting to the annihilation and terrors of his and recent times: echoes of Hiroshima, intimations of Cold War and the threat of nuclear bombs and famines are embedded in his imagery, whether he is directly addressing the world’s ails, or talking about a couple’s savage parting. In ‘9’,  for instance, he begins: ‘Hellfire, brimstone, torture, doom/An etcetera of presumed/ Catastrophe./ A sloughed-on mantle of/ Indulgent guilt./ Meanwhile, a certain lack/Of activity in prayers offered/ For the souls of slums, a dearth/ Of psychoanalysis for those enjoying/ Malnutrition, drought, bilharzias/ And so on./ (Not to mention real torture.)’

Some of these pieces feel more like lists of outrage than full-fledged poems. Yet, despite the corruption and cruelty that he rails against with faux world-weariness, one glimpses the urbane, wry tone that will later become a hallmark of his fiction: ‘Here we are the rhinestone age, the frivolously/ pragmatic now.’

It is not until Banks is a little older, in the later seventies, and has found love, that the pamphleteering, hectoring note evolves into something more true and poetic. In several of these later pieces, there are lines that come from the heart, stripped of adolescent posturing. In ‘041’ he movingly captures the effect his girlfriend’s voice has when she is on the phone to him. In ‘Song for J’, he pits his love against the perishing of time, and finds strange if cold consolation in knowing how brief and fragile human experience is. ‘No oceans,/Not a river,/Hardly a stream/Will dry/Before our eyes do,/And our hearts…’

MacLeod’s opening poem, ‘Erosion’, is if anything more precocious, another indication of the career he would go on to follow. Written in 1974, when he was about 20, it is a vivid piece of imagery, contrasting the ruthless forces of nature with those of puny mankind. It is a theme he returns to even more powerfully in ‘Faith as a Grain of Poppy Seed’, where he writes: ‘Yes, we are small./ Who/under that noonblaze or/high midnight/wouldn’t be?’

The influence of Banks on his friend’s work becomes apparent over the years, rather to the poetry’s detriment. The clarity and lyricism of the very young MacLeod, who had a natural, easy style and understated profundity, become denser and more clotted as he tackles current affairs and moves from philosophy to commentary. This is at its most noticeable in ‘A Fertile Sea’, his version of ‘The Waste Land’, in which he tabulates the horrors of wars and dictatorships and scientific exploration  – Chernobyl, the Iran-Iraq war, the space race and so on. In an aside, MacLeod lists the topics tackled, though he believes them too obvious to have been put into proper endnotes (not all of them are), and takes a swipe at T S Eliot’s extensive notes in the process, saying his own original explanations, which he later deleted, were ‘even more tedious, needless and pretentious’ than those that famously append Eliot’s masterpiece.

Such disrespect, though, is the least of the problems with this particular work which, as when Banks inveighs against governments and leaders, reads less like poetry than a series of joined-up ideas and images. ‘Don’t talk to me, you slaughtering saints – /I know these people, possessed/ of every human attribute but one: the State;/ and for this lack you compensate, provide/ the solicitude of more than one, supplied/ in an impressive range of delivery systems/ from I G Farben to Ilyushin.’

This clamshell of a collection is a literary curiosity. Like the proverbial game of two halves, it shows the authors’ well-matched sensibilities responding to a world blighted by war and destruction, hypocrisy and greed. To return to the fossil, it offers a glimpse into the beginnings of Banks a writer, the origins of his manifesto for life, and allows one to trace an emerging, uncertain voice that, when it turned to fiction, quickly found its proper register.

Separately and together, Banks’s and MacLeod’s poetry bears witness to the creative drive, political angst and compassionate convictions that fuelled their imagination from the outset. As Banks writes in one of his poems, ‘The thing no thing can ever learn,/  The first and final lesson: / Mortality is a quality of life.’ That line will bring readers to a halt, and its sentiment haunts the book. Uneven and ragged as much of this collection is, it has character and attitude in abundance. As in their science fiction, so in their poetry they acknowledge the smallness of the human within the perspective of outer space, and the paradox that, ant-like and unimportant as the species is, our capacity for destruction is almost as infinite as the universe.


Poems

Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Little, Brown, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-4087-0587-2, PP162

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Going Dutch

BEFORE he disappears down the rabbit hole George Newhouse curates an exhibition in Amsterdam of work by the seventeenth century minor Dutch artist Pieter Van Doelenstraat. It showcases The Absent Period: ‘dark paintings of empty rooms, abandoned kitchens. Empty beds and solemn, silent instruments’. There’s also a lot missing from Doelenstraat’s life story, and then there are his lost paintings. The exhibition is a success and Newhouse continues his research. He discovers a letter Rembrandt wrote to Constantijn Huygens. It references Doelenstraat’s lost masterpiece ‘The Blue Horse’, the title of Philip Miller’s debut novel. Rembrandt’s note is the start of a paper trail that could lead to the whereabouts of the original painting. Then Newhouse’s wife dies, and down he tumbles into grief, drink and derangement.

We first encounter Newhouse when he has re-emerged from his first fall, and while not exactly a spring chicken he’s definitely above ground. He’s been appointed the Dutch Golden Age curator at the Public Gallery in Edinburgh. His old friend Rudi and his old teacher Martinu both work there. Like any other profession, knowledge and expertise are not enough to succeed. You have to know people and, as Rudi reminds Newhouse, you have to be nice to them.

The Blue Horse clearly sets out to give the art profession a bit of a drubbing, although most of the satire is Horatian (a gentle poke). Rudi is obsessed with penises (including his own) and is preparing a new exhibition on ‘symbols of the resurrection in depictions of Christ’s genitalia’. Miller also has fun with the titles of research papers. Martinu tells Newhouse that a recently ‘defrocked’ academic called Wycliffe has published a study called: The Double Walker: Occult Nodes of Being in Art.In the curators’ meetings business speak dominates the conversations. Discussing the imminent departure of the gallery’s prized Ardrashaig Collection, a nameless bureaucrat says: ‘if we come up with a new plan, an attractive objective, a self-realisation, redevelopment and restructuring, can we convince Ardrashaig Holdings to change their mind?’ Another one chips in: ‘what we have here is target exhaustion…and that does not compete with shareholder value’.

Before it loses its bite, the satire is the best thing about The Blue Horse, and it mainly crops up during dialogue. As for the narrative voice, you would be forgiven for thinking it might be snappy – Miller’s day job is in journalism. However, the prose is frequently hyperbolic and melodramatic. There are episodes when Newhouse is so sad all he can do is remember other times when he was sad. On one such occasion he stops in some snowy woods to think about his wife Ruth: ‘in his ears, the tears from the night before, froze into jewels, into tiny balls of ice’. It’s a recipe for eternal sobbing. But this is a tale of two worlds. The writing can also be sharp and pellucid. For example, a train leaving Waverley is described as moving like ‘like a slow, heavy injection’.

Despite his attempts to clean up and move on, Newhouse isn’t sane for long. Soon enough he’s running around the warrens again, having hallucinations of dark beasts – most of them cloven-hoofed – and thinking about Ruth. Perhaps Edinburgh is the wrong city for a depressive. After a night of boozing he ends up at the docks, thinking about his new home: ‘the city rose from the sea to the mountain, the dull-eyed castle. Its rock streets and icy stones lay like a hard scab over something raw and weeping’. If Edinburgh is missing warmth, the Public Gallery is missing funds, and soon paintings. Ardrashaig Holdings is the ‘financial instrument’ which owns the Ardrashaig Collection. Newhouse is sent to convince its chief executive, Murray Murrey, that the Gallery should keep the artworks. But while he arrives at the meeting no one else does.

In the meantime ‘The Blue Horse’ is gathering significance. Martinu is the main detective, ringing Newhouse up to give him clues and express his own faith that the painting can be tracked down. We know the mystery object could be in transit somewhere. A short early scene follows a courier called Deepdale, who collapses in a nightclub in Amsterdam holding something that might be an expensive painting. When Martinu dies from what is patently not a stroke the plot seems to arrive on the scene, but then it leaves again for a while to let Newhouse do some more dreamy grieving, think about love, and disappear down his favourite burrow.

It seems nepotism is rife in the art trade; it is only apposite that the director of the Public Gallery, Thomas Colebrook, has a niece called Foster Flintergill who works for Melcombes, a top auctioneer in London. Flintergill is a femme fatale in a blue dress. She persuades Newhouse to write a paper on the existence of the ‘The Blue Horse’. It is supposed to refute one written by Martinu, which proved the painting never existed. We know Martinu thought no such thing and Newhouse knows something smells rotten. But, well, he’s distraught, so he goes along with her scheme. Soon Flintergill is leading him down into a grubby underworld where businessmen have grimy orgies in private clubs.

Seediness is always welcome but Miller’s chthonic realm is a little too shadowy. After all, we are not chained to Newhouse’s perspective throughout; if we were the obfuscation would be fine. All the same, the shadows are soon bumping off or disappearing people left right and centre. It is when Rudi starts having a bizarre episode that it transpires ‘The Blue Horse’ – or perhaps the very idea of it? – could have an occult power of its own. Thus the line blurs between dodgy goings-on in the art market and what could be esoteric interference.

There is nothing wrong with the flimsy wall of reality being torn asunder (good riddance to it), neither is there anything wrong with the metaphysical making its presence felt. But Miller’s satire loses what little bite is has when it is undermined by the world it is supposed to be undermining. For example, it is Rudi who promotes Wycliffe’s theories about the ‘power of objects’, and it is Rudi’s art historian friend Gillian who informs Newhouse that a painting called ‘The Equine Spirit’ resisted an exorcism attempt in Delft in the 1640s. Why on earth give the authorities back their authority?

Perhaps Miller stretches his canvas is too wide, although maybe ambition shouldn’t be discouraged in a first novel. Anyhow, by the time the carnival reaches a fiery denouement in Venice the whole thing is a terrible mess: blobs of satire here, streaks of noir there, amid splodges of spaced-out grief; the plot might as well still be in the palette. Nevertheless, Venice is a good place to end and in which to lose yourself. Newhouse is ostensibly there to oversee a new exhibition by the megalomaniacal Brick Macpherson, a Gnostic whose previous exploits include turning pornographic movie scenes into faux classical oil paintings. But while he’s in town Newhouse will probably run into Flintergill and Deepdale, he might find Rudi, and he might finally see ‘The Blue Horse’ (if it exists). Then again he might be too busy losing his mind in wonderland.


The Blue Horse

Philip Miller

Freight Books, £8.99, ISBN: 9781910449042, PP349

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In Pursuit of John Buchan

Christopher Hitchens thought that John Buchan marked the mid-point between Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming, and was superior to both in certain kinds of atmosphere, characterisation and sheer reading pleasure. It would make sense to add Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson to the lineage, but beyond the evolution of the spy story Buchan also marks a mid-point in the literary representation of the Scottish landscape between Sir Walter Scott and the twentieth century writers who sought to give that landscape a language of its own rather than the imposed – and imposing – rhetoric of Empire.

The Thirty-Nine Steps has now been part of our reading landscape for a hundred years. It was first published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, written while Buchan was laid up with the duodenal ulcer he generously passed on to one of his primary and most enduring characters. Buchan had already published Prester John, now much underrated, but it was with the creation of Richard Hannay (aka Cornelis Brandt, Cornelius Brand, Richard Hanau and other disguises) that he won a mass audience and began a literary trail as improbably beautiful as any in Scottish, or British, fiction. Buchan would have been aware, even amid the fog of war, of modest centenary celebrations for Waverley, which was published by another very public man but private author, in 1814.

It doesn’t do much to compare the books or run the same rule of veracity over them. They both work precisely because of their improbabilities – this is what Buchan meant when he referred to his books as ‘shockers’ – rather than despite them, improbabilities which are taken to extraordinary levels in the two wartime sequels, Greenmantle (with its chilly anticipations of radical Islam, Taliban, al’Qaeda, ISIS) and Mr Standfast (which puts Pilgrim’s Progress in uniform and on, or above, the Western Front).

It is easier to point to what is wrong with Buchan’s writing than to identify its strengths. At the beginning of The Three Hostages, the fourth Hannay book and the first post-war story, Dr Tom Greenslade steps downstage to ‘theorize’ on the making of fiction, having suggested with a nice little postmodern twist that Hannay might profitably spend peacetime writing about some of his exploits. The doctor picks up a detective yarn that Hannay has been reading and expresses both distaste and sharp diagnosis – ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it inductively. Do you see what I mean?’. ‘Not a bit’, I replied’ – before handing his friend the enigmatic verbal formula that will help unlock the fresh mystery that is about to unfold.

It is understood and accepted that a Buchan plot relies absolutely on a level of coincidence that Dickens would have dismissed as improbable. At the moment of crisis, it is certain that the car trundling along the lonely road will be driven by an old friend, or corporal, or clubland antagonist of Hannay’s, or that the soldier he squares off against on a Glasgow street will turn up again, but next time infused with admiration for the officer’s chutzpah. As Hitchens pointed out, one smiles and instantly forgives Buchan’s devices. Whether one also forgives his character’s deadly prile of ethnic racism, sexism and anti-Semitism (with homophobia as the covered card) depends how far one is prepared to take historical relativism and changing values. To hear a speaker at a peace conference described as a ‘buck nigger’ or the assertion that the Jews are at the root of everything, good and bad, still somewhat takes the breath away; nor is there any getting away from Hannay’s obvious recoil from the perfumed nancy-boys who consider khaki unflattering and affect bad lungs in order to get away from the struggle convulsing Europe. But on the third charge, it’s worth noting that the two strongest and in some ways most charismatic characters in the Hannay novels are both women, Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle, and Mary Lamington in Mr Standfast (who has become Mary Hannay before The Three Hostages), and that their author stood for Parliament on a woman’s suffrage plank in 1910, with anti-protectionism, Lords reform and the introduction of national insurance completing his platform. This isn’t quite the imperialist lackey we’ve sometimes been led to expect.

It is also understood that our perception of Buchan and specifically of The Thirty-Nine Steps is profoundly influenced by successive cinematic reworkings, one of which is deemed classic, the others mostly preposterous. The Forth Bridge sequence in Hitchcock’s version has no basis in the novel – different line north – and there is no ‘memory-man’ device in the denouement of Buchan’s version, which depends on some Dorothy Sayersish stuff about tide-tables and plain, blind luck. Hannay gets off the northbound train somewhere near Newton Stewart and into a version of the Scottish landscape that is both similar to and profoundly changed from Scott’s when Edward Waverley makes his fateful turn into the Highlands. For both writers, crucially, the very topography is ‘storied’, invested with the successive passages of its human history. To that degree, it is threatening as well as benign, but also benign as well as threatening to a man of Hannay’s veld-hardened sensibilities. It is the first mark of his moral superiority to his enemies that he can read and cross a landscape and not impotently rely on metalled roads. It’s a clear mark of Buchan’s intelligence that his Border lands and later his Highlands are not filled with rude mechanicals with Brigadoon accents (though there is a touch of that misty fugue from reality whenever Hannay crosses the border) but also with fiercely intelligent, warmly giving people and with a secretive class of sinister agents and agencies who hide in but stand out against the heathery landscape. This becomes acutely obvious when Hannay, tracking the pacifists and infiltrators of Mr Standfast, penetrates into the interdicted lands closed to non-official personnel and non-residents by the infamous Defence of Realm Acts.

The most striking and obvious difference between Scott and Hannay has to do with nearness of subject. Waverley is subtitled ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, a reflection back from the Regency to the days of the ’45. Buchan is writing about war-clouds in real time. The occasion of Hannay’s first adventure is the threatened, then actual, assassination of a Balkans leader. Greenmantle, published in 1916, reaches its climax at the battle of Erzurum, which happened in January and February of that year. At its beginning, Hannay and his friend Sandy Arbuthnot are recovering from wounds received at Loos. It explains the blatant anti-Germanism of the stories and the set-piece speeches about atrocity, poison gas and massacred innocents. That every major military encounter is dismissed as a ‘show’ is both part of Hannay’s upper-labial rigidity but also a secret sign from the author that the real-world settings are not necessarily what the stories are about.

All three of what might be called the wartime Hannay novels deal with secret enclaves, initiates and non-initiates, a tension between the esoteric and the exoteric. In all three books, some form of arcane text is the trigger to action: the American Scudder’s notebook in The Thirty-Nine Steps, the gnomic ‘Kasredin. Cancer. v.I’ that is the only substantive clue in Greenmantle; the ‘Bommaerts. Chelius. Cage Birds, Wild Birds’ of Mr Standfast;a similar quiddity in The Three Hostages which depends on the unconscious resemblance between Dr Greenslade’s ‘inductive’ recipe for writing a shocker – ‘an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard’ – and the taunting note sent by the kidnappers. It’s not quite true that Buchan doesn’t have a memory man, just in a different book. Greenslade is versed in Freudian theory and knows how the ‘subconscious’ works. Mr Standfast is extremely dependent on allegorical parallels with Bunyan’s tale of spiritual endeavour, growth and sacrifice.

This, I think, is the key to Buchan, not just as the ‘Presbyterian Cavalier’ of Andrew Lownie’s fine biography (to which Hitchens was responding), but as a kind of home-grown but well-travelled mystic, whose own ‘subconscious’ delivered conclusions and resolutions that were not planned in any overt way. There is a Sir Walter in the Hannay books. Bullivant, later Lord Artinswell, is the powerful government figure who lures Hannay away from home or more manly military duty to act out a deadly game that often requires the suspension of belief in the other sense. Just as we have to suspend belief to follow Buchan’s plots, so Hannay has to set aside every scruple and principle to reach his ends. We are conscious of Bullivant as the Unmoved Mover behind the scenes, but also that he has made the supreme sacrifice of a son to the Allied and the Christian cause. Harry Bullivant’s dying act is to bring out the ‘Kasredin. Cancer. v.I’ that sets the story along. Which makes Hannay, along with Peter Pienaar and John Scantlebury Blenkiron, the overweight dyspeptic American of Greenmantle who literally shape-shifts into a leaner and tougher man in Mr Standfast, into a kind of avenging archangel, not quite human.

Reading the Hannay books sequentially gives a very different and much deeper impression of their import. The final Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep, might be somewhat set aside, and The Three Hostages has something of the franchise about it, but the great trilogy marks an extraordinary spiritual progress, a deepening and widening of feeling that takes in questions of national identity versus friendship, common soldiery as against faceless command, sexual attraction and comradeship, and relates each of these pairings to their metaphysical equivalents as well. Hannay’s relationship with Peter Pienaar is explicitly homoerotic. As he nurses the wounded man while undercover in Europe, Hannay makes clear that even if the beloved Mary (who is at that moment facing severe sexual risk at the hands of the Moriarty-like villain who haunts the wartime novels) were to enter the room at that moment, he could not tear his eyes from the sleeping Peter.

Underneath the rattling good yarns (and they really do rattle) one hears a profoundly able mind meditating on ultimate things. And it was an extremely able mind, as politician, university chancellor, governor-general of Canada (where he died in 1940), but one which seemed to subject every secular consideration to the court of ultimate resort. Given how shaky the device is in the story, the thirty-nine steps, certainly in their titular form, might well be stages in an acolyte’s progress to wisdom. There is always a mystical component to every mystery tale and the shadowy Black Stone cabal that threatens Britain and Empire is of a piece with a whole line of Scottish literary villainy from Scott and Stevenson to J. K. Rowling. In terms of plot and character, Hannay and Potter are great-uncle and grand-nephew.

If a single trope from the Hitchcock film stands out in viewer’s minds it probably isn’t the Forth Bridge scene (which now looks tame in special effects terms) but the wasp-like, hovering autogyro that stalks Hannay on the moor. It is an ordinary aeroplane in the novel, but it is there to help dramatise a trajectory that emerges ever more clearly as the sequence advances. Peter Pienaar, the man of the South African plains, enlists in the Royal Flying Corps. He literally leaves the earth and soars upward from where he will make the supreme sacrifice and save the Allied salient in 1918. This chimes with me because my grandfather was a mining engineer (like Hannay) and geologist, who in 1915 enlisted in the RFC, going from dark, grimy underground to bright clean air. Buchan’s Western Front is very different from the received literary model with its roiling mud and obliterated geography. Through Pienaar, but also through a steady elevation of prose and of narrative confidence, the wartime sequence ends with a view from above. It is a criticism of a particular kind of romanticism that it extrapolates straight from aesthetics, individual feeling, straight to the feet of God, while excluding the social middle. It says something for Buchan’s extraordinary competence, as well as his only half-understood inklings of spiritual significance that he retained that good soldier’s ability to maintain human contact with men as well as command, an esoteric detachment as well as a profound democracy, geopolitics and love. There is no thesis to be written on Buchan the Mystic or ‘Richard Hannay: protofeminism and queer politics in the Buchan novels’ but the work demands and deserves a more inflected reading than it usually receives, without the kneejerks and without the intervention of Alfred Hitchcock and his successors. Taken together, the Hannay novels say much about Scotland and Scottishness, our place in it and beyond it, who we are, what we dream of, and what we ultimately aspire to.

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SRB Diary: On Becoming An Orphan

I broke a china cup in the kitchen this morning.

A plain tea cup, an old-fashioned salmon-pink in colour, too undistinguished to be confused with repro-retro. It had been part of a wedding present to my parents, a workaday tea-service. One of three pieces left, the cup had survived 64 years … until this morning.

For the past couple of decades it had been used to measure out porridge oats in the morning, and then it would be filled with cold water for the stirring pot. That was its sole raison d’etre.

I picked up the several pieces. The surfaces inside and out were hardly marked otherwise.

I wanted to weep over the cup. Perhaps I did.

It’s been a bad time. 

My mother died three weeks ago.

The cup was another, very small link to the past.

The loss wouldn’t have troubled my mother, who never fussed about damage done to inanimate objects. Once done it was done. ‘Nothing matters’ she would reassure me, even as various chronic medical conditions started to take their toll. (Before that, positive thinking had allowed her to get better quickly of any illness, because that could be cured.)

On fifth or sixth thoughts, I’m removing the next few paragraphs.

I had attempted to describe the protracted dying process.

But my mother shared my own opinion, that some people cannot resist telling too much.

…DELETE…

Parents don’t ask to have a writer child. I was very fortunate: I received every support from mine, I was given complete carte blanche about what I wanted to do after university. Exposing myself in print is one thing (that’s my choice), but it’s a fundamental decency that you respect another’s right to privacy, especially concerning the final passage of days when that person is most defenceless.

Behind me you can bet there’s a queue of family-memoir writers, too often exacting petty revenge or assuaging pent-up guilt on the page. In John Bayley’s wake a sub-industry has come into being: the dementia chronicle, author as sainted martyr, who as they poetically muse will only leave their harried readers – coping alone on the domestic front-line – feeling more inadequate than ever.

I had shared a house with both my parents. (I see evidence of my mother’s good taste everywhere my eye rests.)

 I loved them: but I also liked them, very much, as people. I believed that I understood my mother, and that she understood me as perhaps no one else did. All three of us were amused by the same things.

 After these three weeks, do people suppose I’m now ‘getting over it’? (The Jewish faith has an admirable custom: those visiting the bereaved during the first week don’t initiate a verbal exchange, they take their cue from their hosts – if nothing is offered, then nothing is said.) I’m aware that some acquaintances who lost their second parent thirty or forty years ago have never ‘got over it’.

 I’ll get used to the fact that I’m no longer off to the nursing home every day. Somehow I’ll adjust to having each stretch of 24 hours wholly to myself. There’s the potential now to up sticks and go settle anywhere I want, or wherever I feel I can afford to settle.

 At the moment I do feel terribly battered. An old friend wonders if I mightn’t have post-traumatic stress to some degree. Another good friend, a GP in Ireland, has advised, ‘Allow yourself five years’.

Back on the mental loop.

I’m very conscious that both my parents live on in me. I can’t simply, as some seem to be expecting, turn myself inside–out or do a reinvention job.

Something very curious happened. My father also died early on a Sunday morning. My mother took her last breath at virtually the very same minute. Given the thousands of minutes in a week, what were the chances of that?

* * *

During those final weeks I didn’t come back from the nursing home to read improving literature and listen to string quartets. I put on CDs of Julio (in Spanish) or Dalida (in French), 80s funk or Richard Addinsell film music, a motley selection. Ozu and Westerns were a godsend four years ago, when my father was dying. This time I sat down to immerse myself in the peerless films of directors Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, masters of the chic sophisticated comedy which was Hollywood at its best – plus a few favourites like Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning or Picnic on the Grass, which I can watch again and again. Those three directors, like Ozu, have great respect and affection for their characters, which is what helps to define them as humanists – and their art as timeless.  

* * *

This laptop is stuffed with novels I’ve written over the years and put away until I had a chance – the leisure, I was going to say – to bring them up on to the screen and re-read them. Some are half-forgotten, which doesn’t necessarily signify that they’re worse than the others.

My most recently published novel had been gathering cyber-dust for fifteen years.

I’ve jut finished reading a couple, from the last three years. They feature the same two lead characters.

They’re decidedly light fare. Long romps, or capers, set in the Edwardian age. They have nothing to say about the state of our current world, they have no political or social ‘agenda’. They’re intended as entertainment, pure and simple (well, the plots aren’t so simple, they’re chaotic, in the Sturges way).

Comedy is more difficult to pull off than ‘serious’ matter. I came across the son of an Italian composer who had written upbeat scores for light-hearted films, saying that ‘comedy goes against nature’. Human existence isn’t naturally humorous, I suppose he was meaning – that isn’t its bias – and so, wilfully, one has to seek it out, wrest it from the dense unyielding mass of matter-of-factness which life so easily becomes.

Perhaps comedy, or an airy mix of comedy/romance/fairy tale, is a bold blow against the sort of things I’ve been witnessing of late?

Cynicism and scorn are for the young. The years show you what a rotten deal so many have ended up with, even if that’s kept largely under wraps, and you learn compassion. (You also learn not to waste your time on those prepared to give too little back to you, but that is another harsh lesson in this process of adult education.)

Comedy asserts the absurdity of existence, yes, but the trick is somehow not to deprive life – and death – of grace. Comedy can also be infused with melancholia, and we all know the stories of its depressive practitioners. The best directors and actors of comic drama take it really very seriously.

Even in the mid-1980s I was writing in like vein – a novel called Sandmouth People, telling the saga of events in an English resort town one St George’s Day thirty years before, which someone (laughing at this and that) by coincidence mentioned to me in the aisles of ASDA a few days ago. I can scarcely recall the writing of it but I know I must have done it between visits, or hobblings, to an osteopath – one of the first things that went with a literary career, so-called, was my back – and on the Mozart Model (he composed some of his most uplifting – gayest, might one say – music when his life was plumbing the depths), I reverse-imaged my real state of affairs (a lot of pain, inability to sit for long, rolling out of bed in the morning, drawn features in the mirror) and retreated on mysteriously supple ankles, attempting the lightest touch I could, to the refuge of an imaginary town peopled by my invented characters who, except for one, faced down Fate (‘Catch me if you can!’).

 Because writing comedy can seem like an unreasonable ambition, the sense of achievement at having managed anything is all the greater.

* * *

It will be no joke clearing this house of fifty years’ worth of accumulated THINGS.

I’ll need to enquire about storage costs.

Meanwhile what to do with the bound copies of Look and Learn in the loft (sniffing them for dampness), or the child’s rusted tricycle circa 1958 in the garage (never let go of), or the garden tools and stacked plant pots in the outhouse (my patience for gardening has evaporated, well and truly), or the pile of not-worn-enough-to-be-thrown-out towels under the stairs (no, OUT with them! – not unless they should be kept for an emergency, for instance if the kitchen floods before I leave)?

All the hundreds of books out of the several thousand squirreled away which I’ll never open again. (Or might I need to, conceivably, for purposes of ‘research’? Just a very few of them: but which few?)

It’s much too much, in every sense.

And yet – and yet I obstinately persist with the notion that I could make do with the contents of a single suitcase. Ideally I’m occupying a hotel room (a small room, high up in the building, under the roof), above the cloudline somewhere.

Back to GO. My Life Part Two.

* * *

Something I’ve just remembered.

 I’m a great fan of Georges Simenon, the Belgian who was once the best-selling fiction author in the world. I’ve dramatised thirteen of his non-Maigret ‘psychological’ novels for BBC Radio 4.

His relationship with his mother, unlike mine, contained a lot of tension. As a writer he seemed to need her approval ahead of anyone else’s, and this approval – if it came – was hard won. He would have been closer to her if he could, but – Instead he was left forever justifying himself to her.

Henriette had a good innings. Finally, at 91, she died. One year later Simenon had stopped writing fiction. No further novels appeared. He would change tack, embarking on a monumental autobiography, his recollections and philosophy, which was to occupy several large tomes.

It was as if the taut novels had been a kind of battleground, where he tested his own will against that of his aloof but opinionated mother. Some of his fictional mothers are sympathetic, others are overbearing: they tend to be complicated, and secretive, and one senses they’ve got good reason to keep that far past hidden from view. Simenon could create, superbly well, a fictional terrain – consisting of many dozens of novels, scores of them – but that was pitted against a shadow world, Henriette’s which he must have realised she wasn’t ever going to allow him to breach.

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Pints and Pigeons

SCOTTISH football lacks for any number of things. One of the less remarked upon is the decline of the high-profile maverick player, those individuals distinguished from the journeyman pack by their playing style, actions or personality. Sometimes the three can combine to produce a figure who transcends the game, its fleeting results and quickly forgotten incidents. Two such individuals, Jim Baxter and Duncan Ferguson, are the subject of recent biographies by, respectively, Rangers TV’s Tom Miller and Scotsman sports journalist Alan Pattullo.

As a blanket description, the maverick label can obscure sometimes wildly divergent personalities. Baxter was buoyant, impish and eager to please. Ferguson, on the other hand, was withdrawn, sullen and prone to the sort of aggression that would culminate in notoriety and Barlinnie. Baxter loved football but cut his career short after allowing himself a bloated slide into the high-maintenance category. Ferguson, as a number of interviews attest, seemed to hate football. He just wanted to spend time with his pigeons, although the game at least allowed him to buy them £20,000 dovecots and floodlit runways. Baxter was a cultured player who regularly found himself in the company of legends such as Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano when a world select team was required. His confidence and imagination with the ball was, of course, epitomised by the keepie-uppies performed at Wembley in 1967, one of Scottish football’s enduring reference points.

Ferguson, as Pattullo makes clear, was a more than capable player with the ball at his feet but his game was defined by his height, physicality and ability in the air. Scottish football, or so it has been said, emphasises physical toughness from the earliest stages but it often seems to be the case that it really takes to heart those players who resist this conditioning. Ferguson was sometimes a two-thirds Hobbesian character on the pitch: He could be nasty and brutish, while Baxter played with a grace that endeared him to even some opposition fans. Ferguson, at various stages, was not even viewed with much fondness by his own.

The defining moment in Ferguson’s career was the head butt on Raith Rovers player Jock McStay, for which he would eventually serve 44 days behind bars, and it understandably features prominently in Pattullo’s book. In a short space of time, Ferguson went from being the most expensive player transferred between two British clubs to the first professional footballer jailed for something that happened on the pitch. Football thrusts incredible accelerations in circumstances on unreasonably young men but this experience must have been more damaging than most.

For all the apparent differences in the personalities and playing styles of the two subjects, it is nevertheless possible to identify common themes and traits across the two books. Baxter was the beating-heart of Scot Symon’s great Rangers side of the early 1960s, Ferguson was the dull headache of Walter Smith’s in the 1990s. Every action was measured against his £4m transfer fee and Ferguson was usually found wanting. The two men’s careers featured frustrating spells at clubs in the north-east of England: Baxter at Sunderland and Ferguson at Newcastle. They both found it difficult to deal with aspects of the football grind; Slim Jim with training and Big Dunc with games in which there was little at stake. Miller’s book suggests Symon and other managers were remarkably indulgent with Baxter, something which can probably be attributed to his charm and the leeway the one-time miner could extract on account of his ability on the pitch. But might his career have been prolonged significantly if he had been made to conform to the fitness standards of other players? Almost certainly.

Baxter enjoyed playing football and this, particularly in his early career, counteracted the effects of the previous night’s drinking and the lack of training. Miller has collected plenty of evidence from former teammates about his unorthodox fitness regime. Ferguson often toiled to raise an interest. Pattullo recounts a story from former player turned broadcaster Pat Nevin. It was half-time during Ferguson’s international debut in a friendly against the United States shortly before the 1992 European Championships. Ferguson had radiated indifference and, when challenged by then manager Andy Roxburgh to account for his performance, replied that he was unable to rouse himself for ‘park games’. Even the mini atom bomb that was Jim McLean struggled at times. Emptying himself of his renowned fury could often produce little more than a shrug of the shoulders or another quip. In Ferguson’s nonchalance, McLean found his nemesis. But towards the end of his career, through a combination of maturity and impending retirement, Ferguson seemed to become more engaged. In contrast to Baxter, he kept himself well-conditioned despite a reputation for hard-partying as a younger man.

Pattullo’s book ends on a note of redemption, giving it an unexpected uplifting feel. We learn that Ferguson has inspired a Finnish conductor to write an opera called Barlinnie Nine. It is first performed on the night Ferguson scores a winning goal for Everton against Manchester United, lending credence to the argument running throughout the book that it was the big games that brought out his best. By the book’s conclusion, Ferguson is back at Everton coaching youth teams with the sort of diligence he seemed consciously to reject for much of his playing career. Baxter’s life after football, some thirty years, is largely accounted for by his ownership of a pub and the speaking tours he took part in with Jimmy Johnstone, another mercurial talent.

Baxter’s talents were more extravagant and squandered more recklessly. Ferguson’s full potential was always out of reach because he was so susceptible to injury. Yet the former is held in higher esteem by the Scottish footballing public because he starred in iconic victories over England. To the extent that such a thing is possible, he was not defined by the Old Firm rivalry and Celtic fans marked his passing with a banner proclaiming he was simply the best. Yet, when dealing with an individual without Baxter’s qualities, would we be so forgiving of the shortcomings? The escapades and behaviour Miller chronicles suggest he came close to being an alcoholic with a gambling addiction. The case is reasonably made, however, that this was all coping mechanism to help him deal with a corrosive, half-exposed secret about his parentage – the couple he grew up calling his parents were in fact his auntie and uncle – which he was only forced to confront in later life.

Despite the difficult circumstances they provided Baxter with a stable upbringing in Fife mining country, the success of which is perhaps best demonstrated by the regular return visits he made as an adult and the anguish he experienced on their behalf when dealing with his biological mother’s late statement of her status. Ferguson’s childhood was spent in a Bannockburn that Pattullo depicts as a rough-and-tumble, working-class place few tourists would be impressed with. Ferguson’s high school is described ‘as a place that helped create a sense of alienation’ while the town suffers from perceiving itself as being in the shadow of Stirling. The reader is invited to draw the inevitable connections between place and character.

Ferguson was tormented by a sense of injustice about the way the Scottish football authorities had treated him in the Jock McStay case and he withdrew his labour. This was hardly a move likely to endear him to the fans of the national team given the paltry number of his appearances. Pattullo memorably suggests the Scotland fans craved a player who could replicate the ‘gap-toothed primal passion’ of Joe Jordan. The importance of the McStay incident in framing his legacy is difficult to measure precisely. Scotland, after all, is able to demonstrate a strange fascination with violent characters, while many football fans shout for worse on a weekly basis. Of more importance is the contrast between Ferguson’s profile and his hostility towards the media, that crucial channel of communication between players and fans. The broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove observes that with Ferguson ‘you never felt he was properly part of Scottish society’. Miller’s book, by way of contrast, boasts a testimony from Gordon Brown.

Pattullo teases out the complexities of his subject meticulously in what amounts to one of the most impressive football books of recent times. The writing is sharp, his handling of a complex character sympathetic without being sycophantic and the level of research is impressive. If someone ever crossed paths with Ferguson then Pattullo probably tracked them down and he weighs interview material effectively with his own analysis. The exhaustive list of interviewees did not include Ferguson himself, with a number of approaches being rejected. The section on Barlinnie testifies that Pattullo is an excellent journalist, not just an excellent sports journalist, if such a cases requires to be made.

Without knowing the details, Miller’s book feels like it had an ambitious deadline and word count. Chapters at the end reflecting on Baxter’s relationship with the likes of Willie Henderson and Willie Johnston are interesting but not essential. Likewise, there is a section on players who moved to Rangers in circumstances similar to Baxter’s that lingers too long to justify itself. Like Pattullo, Miller has spoken to an impressive cast-list but he doesn’t use the material with enough discretion. Not only should this last line have been removed by either Miller or his editors, but the value of the insight is rendered questionable.

The two books present interesting studies in the effects of football fame on the vulnerabilities of complicated individuals and they offer compelling evidence of the importance of playing style and personality in shaping carers and legacies. But more than all that, they leave you questioning whether Scottish football is capable of fostering characters able to combine excellence, controversy and weakness in the way it once was.


In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma 

Alan Pattullo

Mainstream Digital, £18.99, ISBN 978 1845963927, PP336


Slim Jim: Simply the Best

Tom Miller

Black & White Publishing, £9.99, ISBN 978 1845027834, PP256

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Volume 10 – Issue 5 – New Poems

Il Bambino Dormiente

Last Tuesday I nipped over to Venice for a day and a

night:

I needed to see one particular painting in the

Gallerie dell’Accademia

By Giovanni Bellini:

The Madonna Enthroned Adoring the Sleeping Child –

Il Bambino Dormiente. 

Needed to? Yes – needed to.

On the spit of dissolution,

Estranged from my family,

I needed to see again

The most affectionate yet sacred family portrait ever

painted.

Cheap Aer Lingus flight to Marco Polo,

Bus into the bus station in the Piazzale Roma,

Water bus down the Grand Canal to the Gallerie

dell’Accademia,

Half-price entrance fee for a European pensioner.

 

Not many visitors. In a vast stone hall

I linger alone before Bellini’s small picture

Of all that it means to be your mother’s son

In the mortal world, all that it means

To be a young mother doomed. I needed –

As we need to drink water to stave off death –

I needed to see myself as originally I was:

A naked male infant draped naked across my

mother’s knees,

Sleeping the sleep of death;

I needed to see her slightly prised-open eyes

glancing down

At his sleeping visage, his tall, thin, grey, aged

features –

Il Bambino Dormiente.

I needed to see again with my own eyes

Her apprehension of the inevitable;

To check again that she does indeed have red hair

Parted down the middle

In a white veil

Under the flat gold plate of her halo

And that her cheeks also are red –

Not with rouge –

But with all

That is most virginal, auroral,

Most purely West of Ireland peasant princess,

Palestinian Jewess,

Her slender fingers craned tall in prayer.

I linger – I linger all day.

 

I stayed overnight in a nearby pensione

On the Rio di San Trovaso,

‘The Villa of Miracles’, which between the two

world wars

Was the Soviet Russian Embassy.

(The concierge archly confided in me:

‘We still receive the Russian clients.’)

In the middle of the night, after a catnap,

Having churned back up the waters of the Grand

Canal,

To the bus station in the Piazzale Roma –

A young Chinese woman named Ya

From Yunnan Province studying in Manchester

HUMAN RESOURCES

Helping me find the bus to Treviso –

I got a Ryanair early flight back to Dublin

To settle my affairs and get ready for my own little

sleep,

Meeting my mother in the big deep.

 

Meeting the Great Consultant

After having fasted from midnight, I get a taxi at noon, Driven by an easygoing, affable Wexfordman from the

Hook –

He confesses that he finds modern hospitals ‘scary’ –

To the Hospital – Level 5, Day Care –

For what the Great Consultant’s secretary by phone

Has told me will be ‘a procedure’.

As with anything to do with Health, it’s a Stations of

the Cross

The purpose of which is to cause the patient maximum

humiliation and stress.

Reception: a mean-looking, middle-aged lady with

dyed blonde hair;

Canine, snub-nosed, dismissive.

Onward to the ward: two young female nurses –

One human and warm and gay and bright and helpful;

The other brittle, curt, bent on making a nuisance of

herself –

Flings open cubicle curtains, instructs me

To get into a trolley bed.

Having undressed and wrapped up in a surgical

gown –

The usual, humdrum, pre-crucifixion scenario –

I sit there in bed for an hour and a half – waiting

Before being wheeled at speed down corridors

To the day-procedure operating theatre.

In position, I can see the Great Consultant –

His back. He does not deign to greet me

But in his blue scrubs stands with his back to me

At a counter, mugging up his notes,

Or, as he would pompously snigger, ‘consulting your

files’.

Finally, he spins around on his heel,

Vaunting a glimpse of boyhood’s homoerotic hips,

A young middle-aged, grey-haired, baby-faced gang

boss

Who theatrically thinks of himself as the nurses

Think of him: as a God of the Hospital

(They refer to him never by name – only as HE).

Standing over me he gloats and glowers,

Informing me of the type of anaesthetic I’ll be injected

with.

I ask him a question, but he ignores me – after all,

He is a consultant and consultants do not consult,

Certainly not with a patient.

And so I am injected and a masked nurse

Clamps my mouth, and the Great Consultant

Shoves a sewer rod down my throat

And fifteen minutes later I am trolleyed back to the

cubicle.

No, this tight-bottomed, pint-sized, Dublin suburbanite

With his Dublin 4 Great Medical Family pedigree –

His Rugby or his GAA field cred –

All-Ireland Championship medals or Irish caps –

Will not be doing any consulting with me today.

A boorish, contemptuous, conceited bully boy.

Three hours later, as I am departing Reception,

He passes me by, pretending not to recognise me.

But I put a spanner in his swagger and greet him and

compel him

To say ‘Ah, Mr Durcan!’ and I say to him:

‘Do you know what? You are a perfunctory little bugger,

But you have just done me for 600 euro – enjoy!’

1916 Not to Be Commemorated

The Irish government has announced that 1916

Is not to be commemorated in 2016.

On account of their 150 per cent rollback

Of the principles and ideals of the 1916 rebels,

The authorities wish to proclaim

That they do not cherish all the children of the nation

equally,

That the people have no right to the ownership of

Ireland,

That the people have no God-given right to freedom,

That the nutrition of good government is inhumanity

and rapine,

That the testosterone of proper administration is the

pylon and the wind turbine,

That the people have no right to speak

Other than in celebrity cliché, media jargon,

smart-speak,

That all forms of humane speech are to be outlawed

In the light of the disgustingly visionary utterances

Of the poets Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett,

And the gay, casual words of the feckless MacBride,

That Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Are prohibited substances in Ireland;

In 2016 anybody caught proclaiming 1916 values

Will be sentenced to solitary imprisonment for life

In a windowless room in a ghost estate.

The 2016 logo of Brand Ireland will be

In fake, high-end Celtic calligraphy:

 UG OV

Signed on Behalf of the Provisional Government

THE OLD HAG OF BEARE


© Paul Durcan 2015

Extracted from The Days of Surprise 

Published by Harvill Secker at £12

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Collar The Lot!

The great influx of Irish into Scotland in the nineteenth century can sometimes obscure the fact that there were other immigrants arriving here in search of a better life. Notable among these were the Italians who began to arrive in 1890s, with their numbers increasing significantly after the First World War. Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and Italy’s participation in the Second World War as one of the Axis powers, however, brought unwelcome attention to the Italian community in Scotland. Families were sundered and men interned.

It is this situation that attracted the attention of Dan Gunn. A Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris,  Gunn is co-editor of four volumes of Samuel Beckett’s letters and the beautifully illustrated Cahiers Series, which includes works by Muriel Spark and Anne Carson. His research interests also produced Psychoanalysis and Fiction and Wool-Gathering, or How I Ended Analysis. And if that is not enough, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, in which he explores the predicament faced by the Scots-Italian community during the last war, is his third work of fiction, following Almost You and Body Language.

In a 2014 interview Gunn was asked if it is more challenging being a novelist or academic. ‘For me, writing fiction is the hardest thing,’ he said. ‘Nobody can indicate how long a story or novel should be, nobody can tell me in what accent or with what tone the characters should speak, nobody can tell me when I’ve written (or edited) enough, and in any case nobody is demanding the novel of me in the first place.’

It’s true. Nobody insisted that Gunn write a novel about an almost forgotten injustice, the internment of Italian-Scots in distant, disused mills in 1940. In it, he explores the life of Italian immigrants in the camps, but he is also interested in difference – ethnic, political, sexual – and what being perceived as different teaches us. The book is heavy on lesson-learning, historical detail and allusions to influential texts. The title, for instance, is taken from Wallace Stevens’ eponymous poem about death or, perhaps, the Brian Moore novel of the same name.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream centres on the fictional Pezzini family who migrated from the northern Italian town of Maclodio in the 1920s. They seem stereotypically Italian: passionate, argumentative and food-infatuated. Four children and their parents crowd into a top-floor flat on Broughton Street in Edinburgh, where Clydesdales still clop up and down the road. Papa is a Nativity carver while Mamma is a ghost figure; early on she announces she will die and then she quietly does. The oldest boy, Dario, is aggressive and pitifully dumb. He sets up a social club, the Fascio, in a run-down hut between Leith Links and Dalmeny Street. With other ex-pat Italians including the Edinburgh Consul, they don black shirts and pledge allegiance to Il Duce. Emilio is sickly and a bit useless, being an aspiring poet. Sweet and lonely, middle brother Giulio later renounces the Fascio and tries to save the world with his innovative blends of gelato.

Still a child, the youngest daughter, Lucia, is the unlikely narrator of these male power struggles. But as the token female, she is on the outside of a group of outsiders. She doesn’t have the tiresome obligation to prove her toughness in an already tough place, making her an impartial observer of male stupidity. She also has the freedom to create a blended personality of a true Italian-Scot, judging by her fluent use of local slang.

Gunn doesn’t describe Lucia physically, but I imagined a small and dark-haired girl traversing Edinburgh’s hills. I enjoyed her sage observations and her determination to find her own way. And I understood why she spends her days in McVitie’s cafe learning the ways of the world from Auntie Sandie, a good-time kind of gal. Lucia suffers from an absence of role-models, something this fellow newcomer to Edinburgh can sympathise with.

Gunn’s characters embody a lesson in the perils of immigration that I know only too well; they are always caught between places and contending notions of ‘home’. Underwritten by the Fascio, the Pezzini children are able to travel back to Italy and revel in how much they’ve changed. Lucia herself goes when she is a bit older and more opinionated: ‘Home for the very first time! Even if home is so small & everyone so poor & there’s such a pong…’ Holding a bow and arrow, she wears a Fascist tunic and marches with other girls in front of Mussolini. Later she meets Il Duce and her photograph with him becomes a prized possession. She also falls for a Roman boy named Valerio, who supports the novel’s themes of difference and human suffering by turning out to be Jewish. This information is mostly delivered in letters to Giulio, sent to Scotland with love.

Gunn uses these letters to compare life in Italy and Scotland when both places were on the brink of war. They cement the close relationship between Lucia and Giulio, who express their sibling tenderness with salutations like ‘tanti baci’ and ‘love and affection from your fondest’ and they create the necessary sense of distance and nostalgia so common in the recently migrated.  Yet the letters, which rise from the page in darker font, are also dissatisfying in their quick way of dispensing information. It’s like reading a flat series of emails between people you hardly know. Gunn, with his talent for gracefully describing the tone and tenor of landscapes, probably misses a trick here.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh, with its grime and its pigeons, is where the action is. Gunn accurately identifies the bizarre feeling that one can sometimes get in Scotland when something terrible and humiliating happens out of the blue. Lucia acquires a nemesis, a gormless idiot by the name of Ewan McEwen. His father owns the local fish and chip shop, which rivals the Italians’ new crop of chippies. Out of lust and violence, McEwen teases Lucia for years, first playfully, but then his advances become a violent obsession. One day when they are adults, he pushes her down on the street and sexually assaults her.

But not all Scots are portrayed as hostile to incomers. The Royal Bank of Scotland is a contentious brand today, but acts as a saviour in this novel, through an ice-cream loving bank manager called Mr. Morton. By now Lucia has graduated with a typing degree from the Pitman’s Training Institute. She becomes a dedicated RBS employee and politely inquires about a loan for Giulio’s business venture. But instead of ice cream she mistakenly utters that Giulio’s shop will be selling ‘Ice, Mr. Morton, ice’. With a stern face, the manager declines. Lucia is saved however, by his sweet tooth: ‘Now, had you said ice-cream that would have been a different matter.’

Eventually Giulio opens his Ice Palace on Annandale Street, an antidote to the testosterone-filled Fascio clubhouse. Through ice cream Gunn injects  some hope, beauty and sweetness into the story. In an interview, he recalled how when he was growing up Italian ice cream was a symbol of exoticism. His father used to drive him to Musselburgh, home to Luca’s famous ice cream parlour: ‘It’s hard to transmit now, in this era where the exotic is so instantly available, how big an impression these places made on me as a child, the sense that I was entering a world—a language and a group of people—that I could barely begin to understand.’

Hence the keen sense of wonderment in the sensual descriptions of ice cream. Giulio revels in the look and taste of the various flavours as if they are lovers’ bodies: ‘Stracciatella creamy with little flakes of dark chocolate. Walnut with lumps like tiny shrunken brains. Hazelnut so very smooth. Peach which as you remember is a fruit with a furry skin.’ It’s pistachio, though,  that reminds him of Scotland, ‘an amazing bright green colour’. Over time, the flavours become more evocative of the body and heightened human emotion:  ‘Bitter Cherry and Blood Orange so tart it sets the roof of your mouth on fire.’

In May 1939, Italy and Germany signed the so-called Pact of Steel, which in the months that followed was to have a grave impact on Italians living in Scotland. A little over a year later, Mussolini declared war on Britain and Winston Churchill is said to have ordered all enemy aliens, including Italians, to be interned. ‘Collar the lot!’ he is reported to have said. Gunn has recalled that while hiking on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, he happened upon a commemorative plaque to the sinking of the SS Arandora Star which was torpedoed off Ireland while transporting Italian and German internees to Canada. This episode is also cited in the novel which is strongly underpinned by real-life events. It may even have a template in the story of Leith-born artist sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi who was interned at Saughton Prison. Paolozzi’s family owned an ice-cream parlour and his father, grandfather and uncle were killed on the Arandora.

As a recent immigrant to Scotland, required to jump through hoops that sometimes seemed designed to exclude rather than welcome, I am drawn to stories about migration, belonging and identity. Gunn’s detailed research and graceful prose are employed on behalf of a community that faced challenges that make mine seem minor by comparison. But I occasionally found myself looking for the author in his characters’ thoughts and not finding him. I wondered about the novel’s parallel lives and how different it would have been as a work of non-fiction. Perhaps that work is still to come.


The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Dan Gunn

Seagull Books, £19.50, ISBN 13 978 0 85742 223, PP288

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Who Won?

THERE is a little exchange chronicled in David Torrance’s diary of covering Scotland’s independence referendum which inadvertently reveals the gulf that lay between what was experienced during that great debate by the nation’s ordinary citizens on one side and by we in the swollen political commentariat on the other. It occurs on Thursday, 17 July at Waterstone’s in Edinburgh’s George Street at the launch of another Torrance publication, The Indyref Idiot’s guide (co-authored with Jamie Maxwell). Torrance is describing an intervention by the historian Owen Dudley Edwards, a larger than life character whose warmth of personality matches the size of his big brain. ‘Owen got visibly angry,’ writes Torrance, ‘when talking about “weapons of mass destruction” (Trident, in other words), which made me a little uncomfortable, but then maybe that’s my trouble: I lack passion about politics (although educational stuff does get me a bit worked up). Otherwise a lady in the audience said England was keener on neoliberalism than Scotland (sigh) while a chap in a kilt rambled on about egalitarianism and folk songs.’

This passage is illuminating for in it is distilled much of the haughty disdain that professional commentators and political fluffers had for the opinions of the common man and woman. But is there not something else here too: a helpless bewilderment in the face of views passionately expressed no matter how untutored or unsophisticated? Elsewhere, Torrance nods in silent approbation at a piece by Kenneth Roy, all splenetic eloquence, curling his lip in at those commentators who allowed their own personal prejudices during the referendum campaign to come to the fore. Yet what is an opinion piece on the editorial pages of a newspaper for if it isn’t about allowing the writer the privilege of espousing his own… ahem, opinions?

The title of Torrance’s book is 100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum was Lost and Won. The 100 days were those in the final strait of what had been a two-year campaign. Torrance writes properly about politics, which is to say that he has the gift of conveying the gossamer nuances of economic and social policies in a manner which can be understood and digested by the rest of us. But in those mad, chaotic days of the independence referendum something was happening in the country which travelled well above the normal currency of policy and ideas. People who were used to having their politics handed down to them now found a voice and began actively to participate in the great events unfolding before them.

Throughout that period, though, Torrance exists in a state of silent terror that his vow of sacred political neutrality might be compromised, expressing alarm whenever a television or radio presenter describes him as belonging to the No side. But as anyone who is a regular reader of his comment pieces knows, of course he would be on the No side, and what of it? This was a political event like no other where your opinion could not be diminished by taking a side. There was room for dispassionate discourse as well as fiery invective; the normal rules of political commentating did not always necessarily apply.

Torrance himself became one of the themes of the independence referendum in his tee-shirts, tank tops and Brompton foldaway bike. In 2016, in a module on urban tropes at West of Scotland University or Abertay, students will be asked: ‘To what extent was the political commentator David Torrance responsible for introducing a hipster element to the Scottish Independence referendum?’ By morning we would encounter him either through his column in the Herald or contributing pieces on demand for assorted other publications. Meanwhile, by night he was a high priest in the ranks of the indyref demi-monde, a mendicant little tribe of commentators, activists and analysts who, at the witching hour, would twitch into life again and descend on television studios to suck every ounce of blood from the independence referendum. It was in these places where I mainly encountered Torrance, for I too became part of this political undead, feeding on the carcass of the day’s events and hoping all the while that my ignorance of currency, federalism and levers of taxation wouldn’t be too exposed by Sarah and Rona, those twin sirens who might lure unwary commentators on to the rocks of their own hubris.

Torrance’s book conveys in entertaining fashion something of what it was like to be one of these political phantoms, appearing in studios, hosting seminars, lunching with anxious Yes and No executives and exchanging knowing texts with others in the media bubble about polls and gaffes. He is good when waspish and gossipy in the upper rooms where nightly it seemed some political nonentity, eager to have his name in the footlights, was tilting at fame. Of one of these he writes: ‘It was a very Bufton Tufton gathering, complete with chaps in blazers and pink (even green) trousers, all harrumphing that Salmond was a cad and why weren’t people like me (i.e.) journalists exposing what a charlatan he was.’

Occasionally though, his disdain for anything resembling raw and unkempt passion can be grating – ‘some fluff in today’s newspapers about the LGBT “case” for independence ahead of Glasgow Pride tomorrow,’ he writes. We understand the need for a paid chronicler to operate above the excursions and alarums of everyday struggles but history will record that the importance of the independence referendum was not about currency or the European Union or sustainable deficit but about how the ‘little people’ began to dismantle the world of the ‘big people’ and gate-crashed their eternal black tie dinner party.

Iain MacWhirter was also one of those wraiths who took form every night at the threshing of the day’s events. His manicured cadences and linen threads were woven into the fabric of our experience of what happened in 2014 and it was good that he was there. His analysis and experiences formed a bridge to the lost referendum of 1979, which has scarred the landscape of Scottish constitutional politics ever since. His writing and broadcasting on politics in Scotland have been the benchmark by which many of us judge our own, more modest, contributions. His book Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland covers the same ground as Torrance’s work but is less of a diary and more of an attempt to understand the currents and eddies which made the independence campaign the greatest act of democracy in the UK since the dawn of universal suffrage.

It is clear that MacWhirter underwent something of a catharsis during the independence referendum. During it he went from being a lofty sentinel of the political commentariat, pronouncing, dissecting and quantifying, to becoming something much more universal. Along the way he broke the hitherto sacred vow of the commentariat, ‘thou shalt only hold the jaickets’, by stating that he had lately become persuaded by the Yes argument during the referendum. In so doing he didn’t lose any of his authority. Indeed in his book it’s clear that he eventually voted Yes despite his own analysis that ‘Scottish voters, while many found the idea of independence appealing, believed that it carried unquantifiable risks. Scots did not feel oppressed in any way by England, and they did not need national liberation from a Union in which Scottish identity was given free expression.’

Yet, discussing the renaissance of cultural and political ideas that occurred among the multitudes who were previously disengaged or excluded by Big Politics, it is evident that MacWhirter, unlike Torrance, discovered ‘passion’ in politics and I can’t be the only one of his regular readers who feel that this added a different dimension to his writing. Early on he describes the risks that many working class people were prepared to take in actually registering to vote in the referendum and condemns the 11 (mainly Labour) local authorities who used the newly-swollen voters rolls to pursue unpaid council tax. ‘But these working-class people participated nevertheless… because for once they thought that they could change something by creating a new society in a new Scotland.’ In this sentence MacWhirter is transformed from mere chronicler and disseminator of policy to one who is pleasantly surprised even as the ground is moving beneath him.

Not that his book doesn’t address Big Politics or indeed glory in them. The first sentence in Chapter 6 is: ‘It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that constitutions are dry and boring.’ He then devotes the next eighteen pages to the stuff, including an algebraic formula about the Quebec tax base of the type that once caused me to awake screaming in the middle of the night during my schooldays. MacWhirter though, is enchanted by the cultural conversation about what independence could mean and how it might affect Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK in the years after. He gets it, although in agreeing with Jonathan Freedland, ‘that the unitary United Kingdom as we understand it is all but finished,’ he adds: ‘It could still take a long time to die.’

Disunited Kingdom is at its most compelling when discussing the role of the press in the independence referendum and in seeking to unravel the reasons why the BBC was perceived to be so biased in favour of No during the campaign. The title of his concluding chapter ‘Independence Postponed’ chimes with this remark in the preface: ‘The Unionists didn’t quite win, and the Yes campaign didn’t quite lose.’ This book is the second in what, I hope, will become a trilogy. In the first, the excellent Road to Referendum, MacWhirter prepared the way for his referendum book by observing how we got here. Perhaps the third in the series ought to have the working title ‘The Beginning of the End’. In it he will discuss, with reference to the 2015 Westminster election and the 2016 Holyrood election, how a second referendum on Scottish independence was secured and how it was presaged by the death of privilege and deference.


100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum was Lost and Won

David Torrance

Luath Press, £9.99, ISBN 978 190885265, PP192


Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland

Iain MacWhirter

Cargo Publishing, £8.99, ISBN, 978 190885265, PP176

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Who is Nicola Sturgeon?

DAVID Torrance’s biography of Nicola Sturgeon opens in the Scottish Parliament. She is about to become the First Minister of Scotland and ‘appeared relaxed in a red one-piece dress (designed by Edinburgh design duo Totty Rocks). Sitting a few rows behind her was the man she was about to succeed, Alex Salmond, his big brown eyes beaming amiably.’ Try to imagine this the other way around: ‘Alex Salmond, appeared relaxed in a two-piece suit designed by George for Walmart/Asda while Nicola Sturgeon’s big blue (?) eyes beamed amiably.’ Nobody would write that. Nor would they if you replaced Salmond with any of his three male predecessors: Dewar, McLeish or McConnell.

Torrance then embarks on a gentle stroll through Sturgeon’s ‘polished and well-judged [acceptance] speech’ and highlights the interaction between Scotland’s first female First Minister and her family who were in the chamber to witness her big day. This comes to a screeching halt with a sentence that begins ‘Often criticised for being childless …’ Who often criticises her for that? What kind of people would?  

Torrance might be referring to the ravings of a former Scotland rugby player during the referendum campaign as reported in the Daily Mail. Apart from that, the only person drawing attention to the issue is the biographer himself who returns to it repeatedly. The presence of the biographer in biography is a well-trammelled area of study and it is already a problem here. The urge to identify with the sympathetic figure of Sturgeon is in tension with the desire to reject the testimony of a biographer who, by page four, appears capable of crass (and false) assertion.

According to Torrance, this shouldn’t matter. In his preface, he refers to the famous letter from Alex Salmond, the reluctant subject of a previous Torrance biography, which was published in the Herald. It included the observation that, ‘I hardly know David Torrance and, much more problematically for a biographer – he doesn’t know me at all.’ Torrance takes this to mean that Salmond doesn’t understand the nature of biography and argues that it is rarely about ‘intimacy’ in the Boswell and Johnson sense. Apparently, it should be about ‘detached assessment’ which he feels he is well equipped to provide. An alternative interpretation might be that the former First Minister thinks Torrance’s biography of him is a stinker. Either way, Sturgeon, like her predecessor, showed no enthusiasm for having her story told by David Torrance and declined to meet him for a ‘background interview’. In short, this is a ‘fully unauthorised biography’.

The idea that biographies are rarely about intimacy between writer and subject is, of course, highly contentious. Some would say the opposite: that the primary duty of the biographer is to become intimate with their subject and that there are a number of ways to do that short of trailing them around as Boswell did Johnson. In Torrance’s brief survey of Sturgeon’s formative years in Ayrshire, for instance, a day spent with the predominantly female staff in my sister’s school in Irvine would have revealed a lot about the First Minister’s upbringing and many of the reasons why she is so widely admired by women in particular. Instead Torrance, or his undergraduate research assistant, scour newspapers for scattered pieces of information and throw them all together.

In fact, ‘Chapter 2: A working-class girl from Ayrshire’ would be better titled ‘Ayrshire through the wrong end of a telescope’, such is the sense of distance between Torrance and what he is describing. When he does stumble on something interesting, he takes no interest in it. Is there a connection between the fact that Sturgeon’s father lived in a tied cottage in Dunure and land reform being declared a priority by the new First Minister? This isn’t even identified as a potential issue far less answered. Detached assessment isn’t very helpful here.

Torrance’s primary intention for the Ayrshire chapter seems to be to get it over with as quickly as possible and move Sturgeon into an environment where he is more comfortable. In this at least he is successful. Sturgeon’s first eighteen years merit only fifteen pages and suddenly she is at Glasgow University studying law and becoming involved in student politics on behalf of the SNP. Cue a conventional overview of Sturgeon’s student years devoid of new information or interesting insight. Her various activities at Glasgow University included supporting pop star/commentator Pat Kane’s bid to become university rector. He, in turn, was busy cultivating the SNP’s ethos as ‘a modern, intellectual, progressive nationalism which simultaneously maintained our sense of nationhood and connected it with other European cultures.’ Kane deserves kudos for that, not least because the quote comes from his 1992 book Tinsel Show and the ethos he described then is now the prevailing one. Kane is a big part of the story here and it would be interesting to hear from him almost a quarter of a century on, but he is eerily quiet.

In the same chapter, the phrase ‘anonymous interview’ starts to appear in endnotes. Soon these nameless interviewees are turning up everywhere and eventually they contend with newspapers as the prime source of Torrance’s material. They say things that, almost without exception, are so anodyne as to make one wonder why they required anonymity in the first place. Here, for instance, is a ‘political contemporary’ recollecting the Glasgow University days: ‘despite coming across as “earnest” there was also another side of Sturgeon that was ‘caring, warm, appealing’.’ Torrance doesn’t explain why anonymity is needed for such trivia, but his biography is starting to echo to the sound of doors quietly closing.

And so it goes. The chapters roll on in the style of a fleshed-out Wikipedia entry: Nicola as rising star; Nicola for leader; the return of Alex; Nicola for deputy; electoral disappointment/victory/ triumph; referendum; post referendum etc. There are gender offensive chapter titles – ‘Nippy Sweetie’, ‘High Priestess’ – and some handy reminders of details you might have missed if you weren’t paying attention the first time. It’s essentially a rehash. There might be some residual value for folk who, in generations to come, want to know from an anonymous source whether Nicola Sturgeon was shy, engaging, hardworking, independent, determined, funny, serious, kind, empathetic or distant. If so, they can perm any three or four from ten.

It is a relief when Torrance finally attempts some analysis. Poking around in search of political inconsistencies is one of his things and he returns to it in the last chapter. The apparent contradiction between the pursuit of social justice and the lowering of corporation tax is a particular favourite (even though Sturgeon has been making noises about dumping the latter). On the last page, he summarizes Scotland’s new First Minister thus: ‘although less cynical than her predecessor, she was in other respects as much a product of the professional political era as those she often criticised, comfortable with spin, triangulation, and the elevation of pragmatism over principle.’ Well perhaps, but that hardly explains her remarkable popularity. To others her political career is more obviously defined by its consistency – on nuclear weapons, for instance, or tuition fees, or inequality. This is in contrast to her prospective lead opponent in the Scottish Parliament who is busy reimagining his past and changing his tunes.

To invoke Dr Johnson, it is not done well but you are surprised to find it done all. At the most basic level, the speed with which the biography has been written is unseemly. In January 2015, Torrance conducted numerous interviews, including anonymous ones on 10th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 20th of that month. The most recent interview was with Sturgeon’s friend Claire Mitchell QC on 28 January. A publisher’s draft appeared in early February; barely enough time for the ink to dry on the transcripts or for the mysterious interviewees to shoot the craw. This inexplicable need for speed may be the reason why the text is so repetitive. If you didn’t know that Angela Constance was a university contemporary of Nicola Sturgeon, you will by the umpteenth time it’s mentioned. Ditto the various aspects of the SNP that remind Torrance of New Labour. Ditto his old chestnut about not blaming Margaret Thatcher for Scotland’s struggling communities because the rot has set in before she came along.

For someone who often uses his newspaper columns to accuse the SNP of simplifying complex arguments, Torrance has a strange way of belittling the big issues when they arise. He is right to point out that ‘it was not hard to see why the Deputy First Minister identified so closely with the hit Danish TV series about a female First Minister, Brigitte Nyborg, of a small, social democratic nation in northern Europe.’ But we need more on the attraction of fictional role models when there is a dearth of real ones (even with Helle Thorning-Schmidt becoming Denmark’s Statsminister a year after Borgen was launched). And we need much more on the challenges faced by a Scottish female First Minister in an unprecedented situation. Instead Torrance calls Sturgeon ‘a bit of a fan-girl’ – as if she had snuck in the side door at a Barry Manilow concert – and implies that her office was out of order when it arranged for her to meet Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen in Edinburgh.

In 2014 Sturgeon said, ‘We turn on the TV and very rarely hear people that sound like us. Subconsciously over the years you associate London accents with authority, with people who know what they are talking about.’ Torrance dismisses this as ‘old fashioned Nationalist chippiness’ relating to ‘the received pronunciation of 1950s broadcasting’. The biographer’s habit of using jibes to choke off potentially interesting themes is both irritating and self-defeating. About five per cent of MPs are from working-class backgrounds and this has obvious implications for the televised accent of UK politics. It also wouldn’t have taken much to broaden the discussion and consider the wider issues around power and its circumspection inherent in Scotland’s devolved political system. These issues concern Torrance’s subject even if they don’t him, and they extend beyond politics. It is too facile to say, as Torrance does, that everything is fine because Andrew Marr, Jim Naughtie and Kirsty Wark are BBC stalwarts.

Scotland’s first female First Minister deserves better and will surely get it. In the meantime, the main hope for Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life is that its existence doesn’t discourage anyone from doing the job properly. In the preface Torrance says that his biography is necessary because more ought to be known of governing men and women beyond an occasional newspaper profile or their ‘official CVs’, but he hasn’t delivered even at that level. He also says that this is an ‘interim biography’ which suggests the possibility that there is another on the way by the same author. Given the speed with which this one was produced, a new army of anonymous interviewees could be mustering in the woods even before this book reaches the shelves.


Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life

David Torrance

Birlinn, £8.99, ISBN 9781780272962, PP208

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