Monthly Archives: May 2015


Breaking Bad

JONATHAN Swift’s Laputans had a very singular cast of vision, with one eye turned down to the ground, the other directed steadily at the zenith. This was meant as a satire on the vogue for the microscope and the telescope respectively, and of a scientism that excluded the human middle in preference for minute detail or cosmic scanning. Laputa may also have have referred to Britain’s ‘other’ island – Swift’s Irish birthplace – which floated in and out of focus in eighteenth century politics in time with its changing demands and tribulations. Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages were a reflection on and of an age of exploration and colonial settlement: America entered the British imagination with Shakespeare’s last play and hovered uneasily in the national unconscious from then until the Declaration of Independence.

It can usually be assumed that whatever their immediate object Swift’s satires were in addition directed at religion and the churches. As an illustration of what Freudians later called ‘the vanity of small differences’ it has rarely been bettered. To the prejudiced, or merely jaundiced, eye, the whole Protestant communion seems afflicted with the Laputans’ extreme strabismus and a Lilliputian willingness to fall out and then walk out over minor matters of doctrinal detail. One of the over-determining myths of recent Scottish history, now partly replaced by the Braveheart alternative, is that Presbyterianism laid a cold and denying hand on the national heart. John Knox always gets the blame, with misogyny added to the charge sheet. He’s the subject of a definitive – which inevitably means revisionist – new biography by Jane Dawson, which is noted here rather than reviewed, as being somewhat prior to the main subject. ‘Calvinism’ is adduced as part of the pathology, usually with scant understanding of what the term means.

The ocular imperfections of the Reformed churches are apparently self-evident: an obsession with small beer liturgical detail, pettifogging matters of ritual or social behaviour, and the vaguest address to an impossibly distant Almighty, viewed down the wrong end of the telescope. Add to that a cheerless compulsion to tie up swings, close pubs, moor ferries on the one day of the week most working people have a chance to get out, and above all an intrusive obsession with what those same ordinary people do with each other before they get up. Sex-denying, joyless, punitive. It’s a heavy reputation to carry. The most famous Laputan had spent eight years trying to extract sun-beams from cucumbers to be put in vials and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. No such benefice from the Scottish churches, who seemed to prefer the rain. This was the spirit that supposedly lay behind the Kailyard, the much-derided school of Scottish writing, seemingly dominated by ministers, that was swept away by Hugh MacDiarmid (from whom the phrase about the wrong end of the telescope is pinched) and the early twentieth century Scottish Renaissance, which threw back the dusty curtains, let in the light, and scared away the ghosts of Knox and Calvin and S. R. Crockett.

So it runs. But no less revisionist than Dawson’s Knox are the two other books here. They both give prominent place to that splendid word ‘fissiparous’ and Andrew Muirhead in particular gives substance to it with a sometimes bewildering but brilliantly presented history of Scotland’s many sects and secessions. He also re-presents the history of the Scottish churches, largely omitting the Roman Catholic and giving only a minimum of space to the Episcopalian, as a complex locus of serious intellectual endeavour, dogged social activism and considerable generosity and freedom if spirit. Fissiparousness, whether of religion or of left-wing politics, tends to be dismissed as a token of small-mindedness, when very often it is an expression of honesty, courage and principle. And when viewed on a larger scale, it becomes clear that what were in their country of origin demographically tiny sects often wielded considerable influence when translated to the young United States. A remarkable number of influential American communions have Scottish origins.

Alistair Mutch, albeit with a much shorter historical sweep and geographical sample, goes even further. If it seems improbable that a history of eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterianism should be written by a professor of information and learning, all becomes clear when Mutch sets out (in a chapter he perversely invites some readers to skip if it doesn’t appeal to them) a methodology and background that intends to concentrate not on the confessional aspects of religion but its micro-contexts and on religion as a social practice, ‘especially on the routines that were necessary to put beliefs into effect’. His argument, to compress it considerably, is that the modern Scottish spirit has been shaped significantly by the Church of Scotland’s habit of systemic accountability. Another significant but often forgotten aspect of Scottish exceptionalism was the existence of a unique ‘O’ grade in arithmetic. Accountability has acquired a narrow definition of moral answerability, but it also involves accounting (narrative) and accountancy (making the pennies add up). Robert Burns was for a time bound for a career as bookkeeper in the Caribbean and would have been no less representative of his race if he had sailed. Central to both of these accounts, though, is a national inclination to document and, where necessary, disseminate activities from the smallest and most local level to the top. To widen the focus sharply again, Mutch allows the possibility that the principles of voluntarism, careful separation of doctrinal and political issues, and an organisational structure that runs from parish (with its freely chosen minister) to presbytery to General Assembly made a significant impact not just on the emergence of democracy in the colonies from Rhode Island to the Carolinas, but more generally on the constitutional formation of the United States.

Both Mutch and Muirhead depend heavily on what the historian Tom Devine has identified as a national propensity to publicize achievements widely in press and in books. It is noted that the very first book on management theory was published in 1832 by a Glasgow mill owner and devout Presbyterian, James Montgomery. This willingness to disseminate good practice gives both authors a massive archive on which to draw. Muirhead uses an impressive array of denominational records. Mutch concentrates substantially on the pattern and content of parochial visitations and the questions asked about ministers: ‘Preacheth he sound doctrine, so far as you understand?’, ‘Spends he in his sermon much time in repetition of what he had before?’, ‘Studies he to be Powerful, and Spiritual in Preaching sensibly to your Consciences…’

The two ancestral figures who loom over Mutch’s methodology are Max Weber, whose main thesis connected The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Michel Foucault, who anatomised social power not through abstract intellectual history but through the minutiae of everyday practice. Weber’s application has been challenged, on the grounds that Calvinism (here we go again) was in place in Scotland as early as the sixteenth century while capitalism only emerged a century and more later. Mutch leaves the original thesis pretty much intact, arguing again for ‘a systemic cast to Scottish thought and practice that seeks to work from first principles and build elements into a coherent system’. He is rightly cautious about making general reference to a national spirit or tradition, citing the amusing example of Jethro Tull vocalist and flutist Ian Anderson, who was described by a band member and fellow-Scot as reflecting the ‘Presbyterian’ morality of his upbringing, albeit Anderson is an agnostic and possibly atheist. His family was also, inconveniently, Episcopalian, suggesting that caution in the broad-brush usage of ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Puritan’ as descriptors is advised.

On the face of it, Muirhead has a less formidable task and in style Reformation, Dissent and Diversity offers a more straightforward and less academic survey. But it has four centuries to cover and a cast-list of denominations and secessions that requires frequent reference to a flow-chart at the back of the book. Who, for instance, can confidently trace the narrative of the original eighteenth century Secession from the Church of Scotland, the subsequent division into Burgher and Anti-Burgher parties, each with their own Old Light and New Light wings and the return to the established fold of the Old Light Burghers just before the great Disruption of 1843, while the New Lights of both persuasions reunited to form the United Secession, drawing in the marvellous Relief Church to form the United Presbyterians who met up with the Free Church in 1900, leaving in all cases rumps and residues who declined to swerve from the path of doctrinal purity or have any truck with establishment? 

To this may be added an astonishing array of smaller denominations and in some cases non-trinitarian churches that have had some impact on Scottish life. Muirhead gives us something on (and this is a partial list): Apostolic Faith Churches, Bereans, Cameronians, the Catholic Apostolic Church, Chartists, Christadelphians, Churches of God, Congregationals, Covenanters, Elim Pentecostals, Gibbites, Glasites, Mormons, Quakers, Unitarians, the Evangelical Union, Church of the Nazarene, and a score more, larger and small. He intersperses longer historical overviews, brilliant in chapter seven’s run from ‘Disruption to Diversity’, with more specific accounts of individual denominations and their relationship (or not) with the established church or the dominant Free Church. He stops at 1960, frustratingly but for the hope that he has the energy for a further volume, but logically in that it finds the Church in Scotland at a high water mark, the evangelical spirit recharged by Billy Graham’s Tell Scotland mission, and pre-Conciliar Catholicism poised ready for its greatest self-examination since the Council of Trent.

In the process, Muirhead demolishes a good many toxic myths about the Reformed churches in Scotland. That in the nineteenth century ‘everyone’ went to church: simply not so, and the best estimate is that only about a third of the population was formally churched. That the Church of Scotland was obsessed with sex: again, the evidence is against, and while the stool of penitence was used and sackcloth kept to hand, neither were used quite as much or as obsessively as the received image would suggest; present-day tabloids are far more prurient than the Church. That the Free Kirk has always been conservative or at worst a seat of intellectual narrowness: in the late nineteenth century parts of it were, in Muirhead’s words, ‘at the leading age of radical theological thought’. The case of William Robertson Smith, who argued that the Bible should be examined critically, not believed word for word, is illustrative; he wrote for and became an editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica and was initially only admonished by the Free Church for his ideas. That the churches of Scotland were entirely male-dominated: not the least interesting aspect of Reformation, Dissent and Diversity is how often women come to the fore; seldom representing a majority and sometimes kept firmly in the background, but always actively part of the story.    Two remarkable books, then, and in Dawson’s a reminder of what a formidable and many-dimensional man Knox, who stands at the beginning of it all, actually was. All three read the more strongly in the present situation for their insistence, implicit and explicit, that the Kirk and its offshoots have represented, for good and/or ill, a major force in the creation of Scottish civil society, imposing not just liturgical protocols and sometimes obscure social practices and taboos but a shaping a cast of mind that for five centuries has made Scotland punch far above its weight, intellectually and creatively, on an international stage. Neither Lilliput nor Laputa after all.

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Flower of Scotland

TO a younger generation of Scots, Ronnie Browne is probably better known as that guy fae the fitba (or rugby) rather than the guy from The Corries. His vigorous pre-game rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ has become something of a trademark in recent years. In fact, Scotland’s unofficial national anthem was written by fellow Corrie Roy Williamson who died in 1990. The first international sporting event Browne sang it at was a boxing match – Pat Clinton versus Isadore Perez at the Kelvin Hall in 1992 – and the last was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Over the years, he took to inserting a parenthetical ‘C’MON’ early in the song, raising the crowd to ear-piercing levels of dissonant enthusiasm. And the early indications in this remarkable life story are that he intends to write as he sang, holding nothing back.

In the opening chapters, for instance, we discover that he was the recipient of more than his fair share of ‘arse-skelping’. Skelper-in-chief was his mother Anne and ‘maybe that’s why I seemed to spend the rest of her life not getting along with Ma’. Browne returns to this theme periodically: fleshing it out, so to speak, with the various ways in which his mother expressed her disapproval of his wife and at least one of their children. Anne was a spiritualist and Browne later concludes that ‘being a spiritualist medium does not necessarily make you a nice person’. The portrait of his father John is more sympathetic. He was a talented artist but ‘suffered all his life from lack of confidence in his own ability’, preferring to nurture a similar talent that he detected in his son.

Browne clearly has things he wants to get off his chest. Another unjust arse-skelp takes place in full view of a medal for excellence he had just won at Edinburgh’s Preston Street Primary School. He discovers two siblings that he didn’t know he had. His father’s sister, Aunt Fanny, ‘never liked me and I reciprocated’. There are villainous neighbours called the Weinsteins and a bully who arrives at his school having been expelled from everywhere else. He reveals that he has had two, ‘maybe three’, nervous breakdowns in his life. Apropos of nothing, he introduces the fact that his mother called his penis a ‘wumpy’. Forty pages later the word appears again; this time in the context of a sexual advance made to him by a man in a cinema toilet.

The combined weight of these things can’t help but make the reader worry for him, but salvation is at hand. Browne first meets Pat Elliot, his wife of 52 years, at Boroughmuir High School and her appearance in the story has an immediate calming effect. His parents – this time his father is implicated too – think that she is taking him ‘above his station’. But as they move on together ‘the curtains were drawn on one part of my life [and] another much more hopeful and pleasant part, was about to open up’.

By now Browne is working from sources – the Corries business diary which he kept from 1963, Pat’s personal diaries and a scrapbook given to him by one of the many Corrie fans around the globe – and these provide narrative substance and stability. He meets Roy Williamson in art school and stays in touch through teacher training and art teaching at Boroughmuir and Musselburgh Grammar School. Eventually Browne joins Williamson in ‘The Corries Folk Trio and Paddie Bell’ in circumstances that would be difficult to invent. Four eventually became two and The Corries took their place in the folk scene, mixing with the likes of Tom Paxton, Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl in concerts and television studios.

The stories come thick and fast. In Ireland Browne meets Barney McKenna – or ‘Banjo Barney’ – founding member of The Dubliners who regales him with Cromwell’s depredations undeterred by ‘the head of a tiny black kitten [that] poked out from the fastenings of his overcoat’. In Edinburgh, the cast of characters included Davey Johnstone who became Elton John’s musical director. Browne describes him on a return visit to Carrick Knowe from London wearing ‘blonde hair down [his] back and huge black sunglasses atop a tight denim jacket, the whole ensemble finished off with skinny blue jeans with flapping flares at the knee, belted with a monstrous buffalo-head buckle. The Edinburgh boy had slightly outpaced Edinburgh’.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that The Corries were able to find a niche despite the rise of British rock that Johnstone symbolised and the huge, trans-Atlantic, popularity of the North American folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Browne doesn’t attempt to explain how it worked, but simply charts their progress from living room to pub to capacious theatre. In Scotland, The Corries seemed to walk a fine line: forever in danger of being taken too seriously or not seriously enough. To his credit, Browne cites ‘The Curries’; a spoof involving Rikki Fulton as Ronnie and Gregor Fisher as Roy which is available on YouTube. The great Scottish diaspora, however, had no such concerns. Even the most democratically-inclined, Presbyterian ex-pat found songs about a Roman Catholic, absolute monarch irresistible when delivered with gusto and a dash of tartan. Posters of Ronnie and Roy with his ubiquitous combolin (a sound fusion instrument of his own invention) appeared in halls and theatres just about everywhere that Scots gathered.

Browne’s autobiography is fascinating in a general way but it also works on another level. His free range story-telling means that, at least for Scots of a certain age, there is a better-than-even chance that his life will eventually intersect with theirs. His agent in Canada was a man called John McCuaig. I knew John very well in later life when he was, in his own words, ‘on his uppers’ and living on his memories. These memories involved Billy Connolly, Max Bygraves, Andy Stewart and numerous others acts that he imported along with The Corries. McCuaig flits in and out of Browne’s story: booking The Corries into big Canadian theatres or commissioning Browne to do a portrait series in Toronto that included Bygraves and Scottish actor John Cairney. McCuaig once told me that taking acts like The Corries to Canada was a ‘no brainer’ but Hector Nicol (and, to a certain extent, Connolly) was a different matter. He worried that Nicol’s blue Glasgow comedy would offend swearing-averse diaspora audiences. As it turns out, it was Browne who introduced McCuaig to Nicol ‘whom John wanted to take out to Canada’.

Closer to home, I am writing this review in a house in Edinburgh that was once the canteen and social club for Nelson’s Printing Works, located in a building across the road. Browne’s favourite Uncle Johnnie worked there for many years and would have lunched within a few feet of where I’m sitting. Later his uncle’s connections provided Browne with the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship at Nelson’s after his third year at high school. Had he accepted it, he too might have spent years having his piece here and The Corries may never have happened.

Even without these personal connections, Browne’s story can be read as social history. Nelson’s is gone (Scottish Widows now stands on the site). Ditto the Newhaven fishwife who had her stall at the junction of Nicholson Street and West Richmond Street when he was a child, the Edinburgh Sabbath strictures that were still in force and the circus that paraded elephants past the Browne family flat and provided dung for his mother’s allotment on ‘The Meedies’. The great post war Scottish diaspora that embraced The Corries is barely clinging on; numbers and resources diminished, children and grandchildren looking elsewhere for entertainment. I wrote John McCuaigs’ obituary for the Herald newspaper two years ago. ‘Those days are past now’ would have been a fitting subtitle for the book.

In the last few chapters some of Browne’s stories, while still interesting, become slightly strained. He comes close to apologizing for listing the numerous ways in which tenants damaged a flat that he was subletting. There’s a sense of something being deferred, but when it arrives it is devastating. Pat died on April 22nd, 2012. Her last days were ‘too painful to relate’ but, addressed obliquely, the pain produces some of the most evocative passages in the entire book. The final chapter sees Browne sitting alone in one of the two conservatories attached to his house. Scanning the 180-degree view of the garden and the sky that surrounds him, he writes: ‘If I paint an idyllic picture, idyllic it is. People ask me if I’m still physically painting. I look out on a garden which is constantly a changing picture so, lazy bugger that I am, except when I move pots of acer, magnolia, Pieris, and peony up and down, thereby creating still-lives, I don’t paint.’

On the next page, he dedicates the book to ‘the lady who made my life, the lady who accorded me the highest honour of my life when she agreed to change her name to mine, Patricia Isabella Elliot, my Pat’.

Ronnie Browne

That Guy Fae The Corries

Sandstone Press, £20, ISBN 978 1910 124369, PP400

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Detroit: How Motown became Mowtown

AN obsession with polished aspirational black music finally carried me to Detroit. Poking my nose against a high window in the MGM Grand Hotel I survey this strung out city. Michigan Central looms in front of me, the morose emblem of the city’s mutation in death. Through the perforations in its eviscerated carcase I see smoke signals rising up from the Poletown Incinerator. No train has left the station since the 353 to Chicago on January 5, 1988. Above Bagley Street, where Henry Ford had his first garage, the people carrier skirts around the ‘Notown’ hub connecting the city’s new casinos with its historic glass dollhouses. On Michigan Avenue a dude on a Detroit Bike gives me the finger and shouts ‘What’s a cocksucking whitey doin down here?’ A few blocks from Campus Martius Park next to a coffee shop, a joker has written ‘Free Coffee with Purchase of Wurlitzer building’ on a clapboard. I enter the Greektown Casino where an unhealthy candlelight and a total absence of clocks confronts me. Solitary jaded smokers man a flashing conveyor belt of gears, brakes and levers while the money-obsessed automations scoop up the last profits. Nigga is still the code name for Detroit but it’s hard to find a friendly dog that likes Motown in this burnt out forest.

Back at the MGM Grand I hire Thomas Bell to take me for a spin in his Ford Cherokee. Thomas is massive, bearded and wears a slate blue suit with matching bow tie and pocket square. When I ask him where it all went wrong for Detroit he chuckles defensively, ‘Kilpatrick was a bad dude that stoled from the 313 but it aint his fault’. Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s former mayor, is presently in prison having been sentenced in 2013 to 23 years on multiple charges; 313 is the area code for Detroit.

I ask Thomas to drop me off in Midtown at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the fifth largest gallery in the United States and home of the city’s crown jewels. The Italian Renaissance marbled hallways that lead to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are deserted. The almost life size workers on the North Wall of Rivera Court are portrayed as vital cogs in the Highland Park factory wheels. In his memoirs Rivera enthused about his first meeting with Henry Ford. The wealthiest industrialist in the world and the Marxist painter were united by a passion for mechanical precision and technological beauty: ‘In my ears I heard the wonderful symphony, which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.’

I am still thinking of Ford and his influence on the trajectory of this melodramatic city as Thomas drives us north up the Automotive Heritage Trail past the Wayne State University Medical School campus and the old General Motors building in Cadillac Place. Loyalty, hard work, patriotism and family orientation were all virtues Ford associated with rural agrarian life. In his column in The Dearborn Independent he declared that the city as the pinnacle of civilization was finished: ‘The modern city is a classic illustration of what ensues when we fail to mix the arts. The three great arts are Agriculture, Manufacture and Transportation.’ By the time of his death in 1947, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse with a population of almost two million and had risen to become the fourth largest city in the United States. It was the shining city on the hill, an innovation crossroads where highways converged on a river that connected to the Great Lakes and the sea. Detroit’s car companies dominated the global market and produced four out of every five cars manufactured in America. But there was a price to pay for the gains in productivity. Ford’s workers had become part of a vertically integrated process and dispossessed of their creative individuality.

‘Destination; Anywhere’ by the Marvelletes is playing on WOM-SEE radio. Hitsville USA’s groove with its blaring horns, clinking chains and pounding jackhammers had got a whole generation dancing in the street. Fifteen minutes down the road we arrive at the Model T heritage site on Piquette with its museum of vintage cars and Henry Ford’s secret office. A few months earlier an urban explorer in search of hidden treasure had found a mummified corpse in one of the rotting hulks. Thomas who has been silent since I got back in the car comes out with ‘Berry Gordy produced music like Henry Ford shaped metal’. As every school kid ought to know, Gordy was Motown’s founder.

By the early 1970s ‘white flight’ had reached epidemic levels in Detroit and the packs of ‘jits’ – young thugs – left behind in the fragmented hoods were killing for fun. Escalating oil prices had started to make gas-guzzling cars with V-8 engines less attractive and Gordy had moved to Los Angeles. The ‘City of Champions’ had become decadent, seedy, overgrown and dangerous. Its streetlights had gone out, and its overworked underfunded police were slow to respond even to homicides.

Into this vacuum rode Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, three black adolescents with a futuristic robotic musical manifesto. Cast adrift in the leafy suburban metropolis they rejected disco and employed analog synthesisers and sequencers, a Roland TR-909 drum machine, robotic vocal tics and a prominent black hole bass to create sonic grooves. Their music, conceived in garages and played at suburban parties, was a way of subverting the assembly line, the alienating effect of mechanisation and the inexorable march of corporate plutocracy. Machine Soul, as it came to be known, turned anger and rage into a rare beauty and brought a glowing future out of a chilling past. A dreamy otherness kept a generation of forgotten young Eastsiders sane. The new music’s repetitive cadences and sophisticated minimalist melodies were the ideal soundtrack for cosmic car journeys on the virtual autobahn. Electronic technology had blown away the last vestiges of Tamla Motown. Detroit Techno was on the edge of forever. It was what Ford and Rivera had dreamed of, euphony created by machine and man for the benefit of the human race.

Down Gratiot Boulevard, Thomas pulls up and points out a middle aged black man with a torn face, sitting on a crate in a parking lot under a solitary tree. Next to him is a sign saying ‘WHAT IT DEW lawnmower repair and sales.’ Behind him two hangers-on wait like vultures for easy pickings. ‘That guy works six days a week every summer, charges a flat 45 dollar fee and usually has the job done in an hour. On a good day he gets through twelve machines but bro, does he put up with some shit’.

Eight Mile Road is six lanes wide and runs east to west for thirty kilometres. It is lined with cemeteries, bungalows, strip clubs and a few run down businesses. Off the main drag many of the wooden single storey houses are derelict and boarded up. Others have bed sheets as curtains and there are several fly tips. In one of the bereft zones someone has painted on the side of a bombed out crack house, ‘Baltimore Murder Capital of the World’. Nearby some youths are playing golf on a plot where knee-high grass sprouts through the asphalt. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile. Cocooned in the Cherokee I start to think Detroit has got what it deserves for its unequal segregation of diversity. A man with Savannah Syndrome is mowing the lawn of a deserted house. The viridescent postage stamps help to keep up appearances and impose shape and meaning on a broken city. In the historic affluent east side neighbourhood of Indian Village there is talk of the dangers of close cropping and the best way to avoid white clover and crab grass infestation. A craving for a green grass suburban respectability has also spread to some of the abandoned districts where the gentle hum of cylinder and rotary mowers evokes lost summers. Swathes of Detroit now smell of a volatile green.

We keep going up Woodward out into the cornfields and hanging gardens of Michigan. Twenty miles out and still on a four-lane highway we wind through wooded parkland past vast stretches of manicured grass. Independence Township and Romeo resemble hillbilly rifle camps where wolverines and northern bears are known to prowl. Birmingham has a fresh, raw expensive look with stylishly decorated mansions and fancy drive-in restaurants. There are plenty of spoilt white chicks in the streets of Bloomfield Hills and an overpowering smell of new money.

Although haunted by an irrational sentimentality for the old neighbourhoods these expatriate suburban sprawlers return to their ‘Paris of the West’ only on special occasions —and always with extreme caution—to watch the Red Wings at The Joe Louis Stadium, buy potted chrysanthemums at Eastern Market or disinter their distant ancestors from the desolate bone yards. For most of Metropolitan Detroit downtown might just as well be an Indian reservation.

On the way back to the MGM Grand we make a sightseeing stop at American Jewellery and Loan.Outside on the forecourt a man in a cowboy hat is talking up the virtues of his beaten-up Lincoln in an attempt to raise enough money for a Honda ride-on mower. Thomas tells me that Les Gold, the proprietor and star of the television reality show Hardcore Pawn, now has more grass cutter collaterals than plasma televisions or vintage guitars. The lawn is a divine American sacrament but here in no man’s land I have started to associate it with bad karma.

Ford’s missing art has arrived in Detroit. A few Detroit exiles are now trying to reclaim the streets through which I had tramped this morning. Healthy lines of broccoli, rows of okra and patches of Napa cabbage flourish in black soil allotments. A creeping green quilt tended by an army of guerrilla gardeners is spreading over the corroding carapace of bulldozed grey steel and even invading the lawns. The hub is going back to the farm. Beautiful hydroponic ‘grass’ farms and orchard paradises brimming with forbidden fruit fill the void. The grass roots of a higher consciousness are sprouting in the gaps exposed by ferric disintegration. Watched over by angels in the arrivals hall of Michigan Central, you can now buy a rail ticket to the open sea.

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Closet Correspondent


Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?

Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.

MY O Grade English class did not respond well to a recording of Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. Chairs were scraped and faces pulled, until all succumbed to outraged laughter. Needless to say, they didn’t start us on Kurt Schwitters anytime soon. On we plodded, believing ‘My Last Duchess’ to be the zenith of prosodic accomplishment. If only we had known we could write to the poet to demand an explanation, as did American high school student Bobbie Hinson when bemused by the poem ‘Orgy’: ‘The poem is about an anteater eating ants,’ Morgan replied, kindly, before providing a lucid and utterly uncondescending explication of Concrete Poetry.

Morgan often kept carbon copies of letters in which, ‘he was conscious of making a strong and reasoned statement of his position, as if to preserve it for posterity,’ writes James McGonigal in his 2010 biography, Beyond the Last Dragon, ‘although it may also have been part of the normal self-reflectiveness of the artist’. From the late 1980s onwards the poet sent these copies to Special Collections in Glasgow University Library. For The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950 – 2010, McGonigal joins John Coyle of University of Glasgow to present a good deal of the source material for the biography, arranged by decade with biographical and bibliographical notes. While Morgan kept ‘much that a weaker personality might have concealed’, it does amount, of course, to another authorized version; he burned all personal letters before leaving to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1940 (he was a conscientious objector but wanted to contribute in a non-violent capacity).

Back then he was likely thinking of his parents rather than future biographers. The Midnight Letterbox offers ample reminder, if any is needed, that even those considered major writers today struggled to see their work in print. We see Morgan smarting from TS Eliot’s response that he isn’t sufficiently well-known to attract sales of a translation of Salvatore Quasimodo, and in one letter he tears a strip off book dealer Kulgin Duval for not going into publishing – ‘I think it is terrible that you should sink back into that artificial rackety world of fine bindings and t.e.g. [top edge gilt] when you might have been launching out into something that would have been of service to Scottish literature’ – while at the same time insisting Duval helps in getting his poems published elsewhere.

Although a socialist by inclination, Morgan was brought up in a middle class household and for the majority of the time covered in this collection he is either a lecturer or professor at his alma mater, Glasgow University. The urgency is not that he needs to place a poem to pay the gas bill (and, as is evinced here, he tended to support those who did) but because he wants to add his voice to a wider conversation opening up in poetry. The passages that discuss what he is reading, writing or translating sparkle amongst more mundane lists of those to whom review copies must be sent and complaints about academic workload: ‘Life is really very difficult – one in the morning, two in the morning, trying to catch up but never quite making it . . . And even though it is the Easter vacation, I have 200 papers to mark.’

Writers and academics alike will recognize Morgan’s frustration, but the earlier letters are thrown into sharp relief once the Swinging Sixties exert their liberating effect. In 1962 Morgan began a relationship with John Scott, whom he had met at Green’s Playhouse; clearly a landmark on the gay map of Glasgow, if the sign from the management recalled in Enricco Cocozza is to be believed: ‘Patrons Who Persist In Changing Their Seats Will Be Ejected’ (and Morgan was). He also moved to the balcony flat at 19 Whittinghame Court where he was to live alone, and write, for most of the rest of his life. By the 1970s, his tone is positively chirpy. Editor Robert Tait is told about an entertaining supper in Edinburgh at the Festival Club: ‘I love men dressed as animals, don’t you? No need to answer that kinky question!’ Particularly of note are the letters to Morgan’s supportive new publisher and sometime collaborator Michael Schmidt at Carcanet. At one point Morgan agrees that ‘it is hard not to fall into [Laura Riding Jackson’s] extraordinary prose style when writing to her’, and I wonder if something similar happens with Schmidt. Puns and pet names abound, and Morgan loosens up considerably. On preparing new lectures on Swinburne, he observes with glee: ‘Switch to Swinburne, ha . . . And so he adjusted the gas jet, poured himself a stiff absinthe, and pulled down his Lesbia Brandon . . .’ He likes Carcanet so much, he buys shares in the company.

The legalisation of homosexuality between men in Scotland in 1980 makes a difference too. For much of his career, Morgan was at risk of losing his job or worse. By 1981 Kulgin Duval (who was also gay) is privy to delighted little boasts: ‘at the moment I wouldn’t dare take my shirt off, being black & blue with bites from a friend who got slightly carried away on Friday’. Once Morgan takes early retirement at sixty to concentrate on his writing, it is onwards and upwards. When he is almost seventy, he uses an interview with Christopher Whyte to speak openly about his sexuality, writing in gratitude: ‘I owe it to you that I found it so easy to talk about things I hadn’t talked about in that way before. It was strangely liberating, once I had made the decision to do it.’ There is a temptation to see Morgan’s coming out as overdue, but it was six years later, in 1995, that Whyte made his famous observation that, ‘to be gay and to be Scottish, it would seem, are still mutually exclusive conditions’. The Midnight Letterbox makes various fleeting references to the Scottish men who were forced to live their sexual lives on the frontline – Robert MacBryde, Bill Gibb, Eddie Linden and others – reminding us that there is a larger story still waiting to be told.

Morgan remained productive in his later years, even after being diagnosed with cancer. He was also able to fall in love with a vigour that should impress even those in the first bloom of youth. He writes to Richard Price in 2001 about meeting twenty four-year-old Mark Smith, who asked a question after an event: ‘Even from a few yards off I was hit by that old bolt, that coup de foudre, and I was shaking (like Sappho) as he began to talk to me. I never thought it would happen again at that age.’ The one complication, that Smith was not gay, didn’t matter; they managed ‘quite an intense relationship’ all the same, with Morgan confessing his feelings and Smith taking it ‘in his stride’. Being in love seems to have suited Morgan creatively, and in 2003 he thanks Mark for ‘a new lease of life . . . without you there wouldn’t have been the last book or the recent sequence’.

At the beginning of Beyond the Last Dragon, McGonigal says that he decided to call the biography ‘‘a life’, but not the full or only life’, noting that the title of Morgan’s final major collection (A Book of Lives, 2007), ‘reminds us that no-one’s life is simple, but a creative person’s life is often multiple’. The Midnight Letterbox is intended as ‘an intellectual biography’, but it is at its most engaging when the intellectual blends into the emotional, in responses to poems, in letters to Mark Smith and others to whom, perhaps, Morgan felt he could reveal more than one side of himself at a time. Back in 1960 he had written to Michael Shayer, the editor and poet, that while he was sure ‘there is a lot of truth in your suggestion that organic creative activity and wholeness of character (“acceptance of oneself as a sexual being”) are connected’, a writer might overcome in his work the ‘deficiencies and frustrations . . . in his private or sexual life.’

The Midnight Letterbox suggests he became more convinced of this connectedness as time went on, but one of the reasons that Morgan is such a compelling figure is that often he does hold himself at arm’s length, displaying the ‘gift for warm and humorous contact at a distance’ that the editors pick up on in their introduction. In Sandy Moffat’s painting ‘The Poet’s Pub’ he sports a white suit and sideburns and sits quietly aside from the fervent conversations fuelled by pints and pipes. For every correlation with his peers there is also a potential difference, be it to do with sexuality, poetic form, politics, an enthusiasm for Alexander Trocchi, or his more temperate tastes; he didn’t smoke and ‘I never saw him drink more than a half pint,’ wrote Angus Calder, in an obituary for the Independent.

The final letter in The Midnight Letterbox is to the LGBT Age Project: ‘The most important thing now is to see things clearly, and to discuss things openly’. Anyone in doubt should read the chapter appended by McGonigal to the paperback edition of Beyond the Last Dragon. On a reconnaissance trip to Cathkin Braes to prepare for the scattering of the Makar’s ashes, he was accosted and questioned by policemen who suspected him of cruising. Morgan did title his first collection The Vision of Cathkin Braes for a reason, and as we imagine him in that ‘endyir starnacht black and klar’, we might recognise that if we want to get closer to the man, we need only read his work. A letter to Mark Smith dismisses the idea of needing ‘personal immortality’: ‘if a few poems survived it would be enough – I’d be in the poems.’

The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950- 2010

Ed. James McGonigal and John Coyle

Carcanet, £19.99, ISBN 978 178100797, PP534

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Sink or swim: The Venice Biennale

THERE are 89 nations represented in the official pavilions of the Venice Biennale, clustered partly in an area known as the Gardens and partly in the old Arsenal, and 44 semi-official fringe, or ‘collateral’ events as they termed,  distributed in deconsecrated churches, palaces, and courtyards all over the city. Every nation, irrespective of population or politics, has to be there, so newcomers this year included the Seychelles, Mauritius and Mongolia and they occupy stands alongside San Marino, China and Vatican City.

For all the grand language used, the initial draw to individual events is likely to be the lavish hospitality offered at the opening ceremonies which are now de rigueur. I dropped into the Philippine venue, hosting a show entitled Tie a String Around the World. The garden fronting the Palazzo Mora was a crush of the art-lovers downing strawberries, chunks of Parmesan, slices of salame and glasses of prosecco, while ignoring a valiant trio of musicians playing ragtime numbers. The party was open to all-comers, as used to happen at the great balls in the eighteenth-century Venetian carnivals when the mask made it impossible to distinguish between prince and prole. Near the gate, stood the anxious husband of an Austrian artist, Beatriz Gerenstein, who was showing off her sculpture, a work mounted on a red board, consisting of two stainless steel tubes which come together in a knot to form a triangle, leaving one tube to slant upwards, ‘towards heaven’, as she explained. She was delighted when it was suggested that spectators could see their reflection in the material of her sculpture, but I had the impression that she would have been equally delighted with any form of reaction as proof that her work was speaking to someone, whatever it said.

There is no point in asking if it is art, for art now is anything claimed to be such by someone who declares him/herself to be an artist. What is new is that they want it to carry a meaning, whether that meaning be political, personal, metaphysical or scientific. The artworks on display all over Venice make completely new demands of viewers. There was a time in the heyday of post-surrealism when artists and critics scoffed at the very idea of interpretation. Art existed in its own dimension. Perception was all. I was once told by a curator of an exhibition on followers of Matisse that there was no more justification for searching for signs of a coherent vision in a modernist work than for demanding the meaning of wallpaper patterns. Jackson Pollock, whose work was on display at the Guggenheim museum at the same time as the Biennale, made great play of the accidental element in his creations, even writing that while painting he ‘was not aware of what (I) am doing’. Similarly, Alexander Calder created his mobiles or kinetic sculptures, and left people to make of them what they would – and they did. Some art historians even saw them as representing the end of a tradition stretching back to Renaissance Humanism and its notion of ‘man as the measure of all things’. Calder, they said, established a link between his creation and the wind, skipping humankind. When told of this, Calder is reported to have grinned.

Wandering around Venice, I could not help being struck by the contrast between contemporary art language and that of the twentieth century, as well as with the outlook of the great painters of the Venetian tradition. That remark will seem beyond banality, but bear with me. One of the incidental advantages of the Biennale is that it allows access to many noble palaces which are normally shut but which the ‘impoverished’ (inverted commas obligatory) owners are glad to let out to raise some cash. The eye can wander from the bronze plates over which water flows meaningfully into a bucket, from the canvases of flower (dis)arrangements, or from corpses in the Guatemalan Sweet Death exhibition, up to the frescos on the ceilings depicting mythological gods and goddesses or of arcadian nymphs and shepherds at play.

The curious thing is that unlike what could be termed the Jackson or Calder generation, these new artists are as keen to be understood as the great Renaissance masters. They have a vision, or a passion and want to be understood, but they do not communicate by clarity of visual language. They communicate through curators or by the manifestos available in every venue. These curators are a new migratory breed, who travel the world from festival to festival, curating and fostering birth, like brooding hens. However, small countries can rarely afford the cost of a whole venue for the Biennale which lasts from May to November, and so the curators invite other contributors. The curator of the Costa Rica show was sacked when the government found that he was charging large sums to guest artists but had not given space to even one artist from the home country.

My moment of epiphany came in a visit to the Grenada venue. The Caribbean artists on show had created canvases or images which demonstrated the growth and development of chocolate on their island, as well as the injustices suffered by those who worked on the estates. The curator, Susan Mains, herself an artist, used the cloisters of the religious institution where the exhibition was housed to scatter on the ground articles of clothing, an act of protest, she explained, against the slaughter of innocent people in Nigeria. Not being a wealthy country, Grenada gave space to other artists. A giant, plastic statue of Mickey Mouse by the Italian, Giuseppe Linardi, caught my eye. A large, imposing, upright, perfectly forged piece of work, it has the cheery grin and features which any visitor to Disneyland will have seen. It looked like something created by Andy Warhol, or by some proponent of pop art, but it transpired that it was not conceived as a fond or admiring homage, a word to which the French pronunciation gives a touch of class. 

An explanation was forthcoming. This Mickey Mouse was not intended to be seen as an affectionate, cuddly creature but as a protest against the emotional aridity of the age, of the failure of parents to engage with their children and to offer them toys or mechanical devices instead, a trend which was growing in strength, we were told, in the internet age. There was no element of caricature in the sculpture, no defacing of the original such as a smirk or frown in place of the well known smile. I asked the lady giving the explanation how the average viewer could be expected to make the expected interpretation merely by looking at the work. I invited her to ask a random section of visitors for their spontaneous response, and doubted if even one in a hundred would see it as a debunking work. She conceded that I was free to view the work as I wished but what she had outlined was what Linardi intended.

There is, in other words, one canonical interpretation, and the artist and his PR employee wished it to be disseminated. Where is the art, in the work itself or in the accompanying hand-out? Elite visitors to these shows fall into two main categories, the initiated and the phoneys, with professional critics floating between the two. The majority of visitors are merely mystified. It was not ever thus. The habitués of the palaces in Venice’s golden days could admire the Tiepolos on the ceiling, with varying levels of appreciation depending on their aesthetic sophistication. The difference is not a question of style, but of expected response. Art of the sort produced by signor Linardi, to use him as an exemplar, paradoxically requests recognition of its aims and meaning, yet conceals them in a closed code which only initiates speak. Phoneys give themselves the airs and graces of connoisseurs, because that is what phoneys do. And phoneys, especially the moneyed, international yacht-set type, abound in Venice at this time of the year.

Politics this year are all around, with questions of identity and concerns about the decaying environment uppermost. There is a strange literalness to many exhibits. The line between science and art frequently evaporates. The direct statement overrides the quest for metaphor. Videos and documentaries are prominent. One artist showed herself flying in a small plane to the heights of Mount Agassiz in the Alps, bearing a plaque to change the name of mountain from that of a racist Swiss ethnologist, Agassiz, to that of the black man he had demeaningly photographed in a plantation in South Carolina. Not all installations have any artistic aims, even if created by an artist. The most controversial, and cosmopolitan, site was the Icelandic. The group rented the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria della Misercordia, entrusted it to the Swiss artist, Christoph Buchel, who transformed it into a mosque which he handed over to the Muslim community, whose attempts to acquire a mosque of their own had always been turned down by the Venetian authorities. Cardinal Moraglio complained he had not been consulted. Since it is officially an installation, religious ceremonies cannot be held there, but will it be closed down when the Biennale stops?

And then there is Scotland. Peter Doig, now resident in Trinidad, has a one-man show of his recent work, with enigmatic lions and a range of the fantasy characters which people his wayward imagination. He exhibited on his own, but the sponsored show, official from a Scottish viewpoint but collateral in Venetian eyes, featured the work of Graham Fagen. Breathes there a man with soul so dead whose heart did not within him quicken on seeing the large hoarding on the Strada Nuova proclaiming Venice + Scotland with an arrow pointing to the late Renaissance-style Palazzo Fontana on the Grand Canal?

There is plenty to be pleased with in the exhibition itself. The works were all specially created for this space, so the first room houses a grand bronze coir tree whose roots stretch over the floor and whose branches neatly fit in between two Murano glass chandeliers. I struggled more with the series of drawings in the second room which were grotesques based on the artist’s teeth, but was touched by the puppet-like death masks hanging on another tree. Many viewers settled delightedly in the final room where there were four screens, three with string instruments and the fourth with a Jamaican singing Burns’ Slave’s Lament in a new arrangement by Sally Beamish. There is no complete theme linking all this work, but indignation at slavery is powerfully felt.

And outside, there is Venice itself, light doing its best to sparkle on the greenish water, a city inhabited by ghosts, built where no city should ever have stood, made more beautiful age after age until now when it provokes indignation at the neglect, human stupidity, pollution, mass tourism and monstrous cruise ships which threaten its survival. All the World’s Futures is the slogan for this year’s Biennale. The message of hope was lost in all the muddled protesting, but it was there.

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Remember the Referendum?

THE referendum was a model of simplicity. The people of Scotland were asked a straightforward question to which there were two possible responses. But to reduce it to a momentary act in the privacy of a voting booth would be to discount too much. It was also the accumulation of developments spanning decades, distilled into a campaign that was short only in comparison. For all that its universal quality has been remarked on, there were endless individual and collective perspectives. This applied to the roads taken as much as the roads yet to be travelled. How did Scotland arrive at the referendum at that particular moment in time, what was really at stake and how is the result to be explained? These are just three of the questions with which future historians must contend.

In his book The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum, Peter Hennessy offers the first account of the referendum campaign from the perspective of someone close to the centre of the UK Government machine. A short book, it comprises mainly diary entries from the weeks immediately before the vote and the days after. These are interspersed with more detached analysis and autobiography, although the ordering feels a little jumbled. Hennessy writes from the outer perimeter of the inner circle, a place where the effect of the referendum campaign on the performance of the pound is regularly commented upon. His days are spent bumping into political notables or dining with former or still-in-post Permanent Secretaries. He likes titles and insists on using them correctly, although telling nicknames are scattered about to indicate his intimacy with powerful figures in politics and media. For instance, there are references to ‘Kev’ Tebbit, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and ‘Andy’ Marr. Off-the-record comments are attributed to ‘well-placed’ figures and Tam Dalyell phones regularly to convey his increasing pessimism. This, then, is a work by Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield as much as a Professor of Contemporary British History.

The emphasis he places on the world of Whitehall occasionally leads to strange conjunctions. Painting a picture of the wider context of the referendum campaign, he lists Russia’s aggressions against the Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State and the hunt for a new Clerk of the House of Commons. One of these issues, perhaps, posed significantly less of an armed threat to the geopolitical order than the other two. It is impossible to forget this is an account of the referendum campaign as it was experienced among the higher echelons of the UK state, although Hennessy says he does not consider himself to be a member of the ‘ruling elite’. Suffice to say, he makes no mention of the likes of National Collective or the Radical Independence Campaign. At least Hennessy doesn’t try to take cover behind academic neutrality or stiff upper lip detachment. His position is stated regularly and with emotion: he wants the Union to persevere. You are seized by fear when he discovers, just before running a bath, that the Times has led with a poll suggesting it may not. Six weeks after the referendum, he writes that ‘the three mainstream parties had, so far, singularly failed to rise to the level of events on seeking to remake the British constitution’. History will not be in a hurry to revise this judgement.

It is probable that Hennessy’s account will long rank as the most candid portrait of how the referendum was experienced in Whitehall and its environs. Its author is not particularly concerned about individual or institutional reputations. He is incredulous, for example, that no contingency planning took place in anticipation of a Yes vote, seeing in this a dereliction of the duty to maintain the proper functioning of the state. One strength of The Kingdom to Come is its brevity. Individual entries in the diary section are generally short, statements are matter-of-fact and developments are often covered in a sentence or two. The overall effect is to convey an appropriate sense of drama. Events that were worked over by politicians, journalists and social media until they had the quality of old chewing gum seem significant again. Indeed, this book is the best effort yet at capturing the sense of immense occasion that settled on the UK in the final stages of the campaign. It has the gravitas and sensibility of a diary charting the last days before the outbreak of war, and it’s all strangely thrilling.

No such garlands can be presented to Gerry Hassan for his efforts in Independence of the Scottish Mind etc. Here, the writing is often convoluted and turgid to the extent that sentences have to be read twice to catch their gist. In the opening pages he writes: ‘These chapters analyse the origins and development of power from ancient times to the beginning of the modern age, then addressing the challenges for power theorists, of the age of the new elites, endemic inequality and market determinism.’  He also has a tendency to add more than is required to any given comment as when he writes about ‘Scotland – with its history as a voluntary partner in Empire, Britain’s “Empire Project” and “Scotland’s Empire”’. Nothing is gained from the inclusion of the second and third terms. The upshot is that a day in the life of Peter Hennessy often feels shorter than a sentence in the hands of Gerry Hassan.

While Hennessy tries to stay afloat of the surface of events, Hassan’s book suggests the waters below are deep, dark and forbidding. The objective is to explore how Scotland has reached this moment of constitutional tension with reference to issues such as the quality of public debate, the role of the Scottish media and the ways Scotland’s has been differentiated from the rest of the UK. It is clearly a work of serious research across a number of academic fields, including political science and media studies. The bibliography alone takes up 26 pages. This multi-disciplinary approach is justified on the ground that it ‘allowed for connections and insights that would otherwise have been less possible’. But it might be suggested that it’s just as likely to lead to a loss of analytical focus. Hassan is to be commended, however, for the ease with which he synthesizes academic concepts and brings them to bear on Scottish society, as when he links the work of Jurgen Habermas on the public sphere and civil society with the idea of ‘civic Scotland’. Civic Scotland is often presented as a proxy for the people in contests with the UK Government but it is suggested the reality is more like two different elites facing off.

Independence of the Scottish Mind is concerned with interrogating the role of the commentating class in Scotland that is, by and large, all too happy to buttress popular myths about Scotland’s social democratic character at the expense of scrutinizing unpalatable realities. The main part of the original research consists of interviews with 50 media figures including Joyce McMillan, Ian Bell, John Curtice and Pat Kane. Hassan offers a number of criticisms. On one occasion he seems incredulous that Ruth Wishart can write about networks running major arts organisations ‘without acknowledging her own role’. He argues that there are too few detailed critiques of the way power is exercised in Scotland, mentioning Andy Wightman’s work on land ownership as a notable exception. A key insight, albeit unintentional, on the prevailing attitudes and perhaps lack of self-awareness, comes when Magus Linklater tries to set out what Hassan calls ‘his supposedly anti-establishment credentials’. When – as Hassan notes – ‘people in elite or influential positions want to give an impression that they are not part of an elite or establishment’, it says something about how they perceive the popular mood. But it also suggests an element of self-preservation. Advocates of independence would do well to set out how replacing the Westminster establishment with Scotland’s own establishment is a significant improvement, particularly if journalists are unable to hold it to account.

But the book is also about Scottish society more generally and, perhaps controversially, Hassan concludes this is not a social democratic country in terms of its priorities and policies. This could have been given an empirical foundation if he had engaged with data produced by the likes of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey rather than having certain observations measured against academic theories. Research such as that undertaken recently by the Financial Times’ John McDermott on Scottish Government policy would also have been useful. And for the author of a book that concerns itself with challenging easy assumptions, Hassan is  guilty of a few himself. Problematic assertions, such as unionism is British state nationalism, are at least deserving of scrutiny rather than being presented as established fact. 

Like Hennessy, Hassan is not immune from bizarre lapses in perspective. One example:  he charges the daytime television presenter Richard Madeley with ‘diminishing the possibilities of pan-British conversations about the state of the UK’ because of comments made on a chat show. This is deemed so significant it is mentioned twice. But to suggest that Madeley has such authority is misguided, to put it mildly. In addition, and for all that Hassan is commendably upfront about his own position as a member of the commentating class he analyzes, there are lines that give cause to squirm. Discussing events such Changin’ Scotland, which he organizes with the Highlands & Islands MSP Jean Urquhart, he writes: ‘These spaces could be seen as the nearest Scotland can get to a zone of liberated conversation and belonging, which is quite an achievement.’

Hassan would doubtless agree with Hennesy’s assessment that, ‘The Union is no longer a fixed map in the collective UK mind; no longer an automatic pilot guiding shared consciousness’. This state of affairs has been a long-time in the making. It has been aggravated, however, by short-term tactical manoeuvres intended for party political gain and gestures informed by a superficial reading of the public mood, such as the proposal to establish a new, independent Scottish Labour party. It is hard to believe many of those who feature in Hennessy’s book will be at all familiar with the shifting dynamics in Scotland explored by Hassan. Such ignorance is the artillery of separation.

The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum

Peter Hennessy

Haus Publishing, £7.99, ISBN 978 1910376065, pp178

Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation

Gerry Hassan

Palgrave Macmillan, £65, ISBN 978 1137414137, pp280

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Northward Ho!

TRAVELLING to Scotland has a long tradition in English letters. In 1803, for example, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge embarked upon an expedition north in the aftermath of their Lyrical Ballads. Similarly, their fellow Romantic poet John Keats carried out his own foray into the Highlands, exposing himself to a harsh climate which may have been the initial cause of his fatal tuberculosis. Daniel Defoe, albeit incognito, tread a similar path from south to north. The English novelist’s role as an agent provocateur of the pro-Union parliament from 1706 to 1708 remains one of the most fascinating aspects of his multifaceted biography. Perhaps most famous of all Anglo-Scottish jaunts, is the journey taken by Samuel Johnson and his amanuensis, biographer and friend James Boswell in 1773.

Such experiences proved fruitful grounds for literary harvests. Keats composed several sonnets on his travels, most notably ruminations on the sight of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast and the sublimity of Ben Nevis. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s trip was recorded by the former’s sister, their fellow traveller Dorothy. In Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, the lesser-known Wordsworth provides a vivid journal marked by a voice sensitive to the geography of rural Scotland and its inhabitants. Defoe’s activities in Edinburgh included the publication of what the author himself described as ‘plain, naked, and unbyasst accounts both of persons and things’ via politically-inflected titles such as An Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with Scotland (collected in 1731) and History of the Union of Great Britain (1709). Boswell and Johnson, meanwhile, would produce their own travelogues. Chronicled for posterity in Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, their works testify again to the ability of travelling in Scotland to inspire writing that is lively and vibrant, subtle and sophisticated.

Nearly a century before Johnson was his near-namesake, the great Jacobean essayist, playwright and poet Ben Jonson. Jonson’s journey north in 1618 took the low road: setting out from London in July, the playwright and his companions (we are not exactly sure as to their identities, or indeed number) travelled though Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Durham before reaching the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in early September. Once in Scotland, they visited the castles and mansions of local prominent noblemen such as Sir John Home at Ayton,  before finishing his journey in Edinburgh on the 17th September.

The journey was in part inspired by an attempt to get back to his roots. During his trip, Jonson stayed with the poet and pamphleteer William Drummond at Hawthornden Castle for several weeks. One of the pre-eminent writers in Scotland at the time, Drummond’s fame had grown steadily in London in the 1610s, coming to the attention of prominent literary figures such as Jonson and Michael Drayton. Drummond recorded Jonson’s visit and their conversations, noting that his guest believed himself to be of Scottish lineage through a grandfather who he assumed came originally from Annandale in Dumfriesshire.

However, the trip also had a literary motivation. Jonson, it seems, had intended to produce his own versified literary travelogue relating the events of his trip: Drummond notes that Jonson ‘is to write his foot pilgrimage hither, and call it A Discovery’. Such an account, sadly, was probably destroyed in a fire in Jonson’s study in 1623. In the event, the venture was recorded by an anonymous author who accompanied the playwright on his journey. Entitled My Gossip Jonson His Foot Voyage and Mine Into Scotland, this interesting account has been published for the first time by Cambridge University Press. At a little over six hundred lines, it is, in comparison with its literary descendants, relatively short. Unlike Wordsworth’s Recollections or Defoe’s letters, it lacks any in-depth consideration of the country, landscape and socio-political circumstances. Instead, the style of the account is marked by a rapid ambulatory pace, with each mile covered by just over a line. In the narrative, the author and Jonson (‘my gossip’) move from place to place with alacrity. Little time is dedicated to elaborating on the sights and sounds of their experiences.

Yet even in its fast-paced narrative there are snatched glimpses of what it must have been like to travel from London to Edinburgh in 1618. In an incident redolent of the episodic picaresque of Don Quixote, Jonson’s party, barely ten miles into their trip, are accosted by a colourful band of wanderers: ‘Thence to Hogsdon, where a lunatic woman met us by the way and went dancing before us, and a humorous tinker of whom we could not be rid etc. There also three minstrels thrust themselves upon us, asking whether we would hear a merry song, which proved to be the life and death of my Lord of Essex.’

Such events, with their comical appearance and underlying reminder of the fraught politics of the age (the ‘Lord of Essex’ Robert Devereux had been executed in 1602 for a failed coup) are brief but entertaining impressions of the lively world of early-seventeenth century travel. In addition, and more interestingly, we get glimpses of Jonson’s amiable, impish character. In Leicestershire the party are confronted by a dipsomaniac parson whose pestering is quickly despatched by Jonson with ‘low courtesy to his red nose’. In an instance which demonstrates why he may be judged one of the best civic tourists alongside one of the finest writers in the language, the playwright invited the whole town of Pontefract ‘to his venison’. And then paid the considerable bar bill too. 

Similarly evocative are the descriptions of Jonson’s reception as a celebrity as he moves from town to town. In addition to provoking the local gentry to wine and dine him – copious amounts of alcohol are consumed on the journey – his visits brought out the crowds. In an amusing pastoral interlude in the Borders, Jonson, under the direction of a local aristocrat, goes out to visit some farmhands who had heard of his stopover and wanted to meet their famous visitor. ‘So he walked up into the fields where was a number of them with a bagpipe,’ notes the author, ‘who no sooner saw my gossip, but they circled him and danced around him.’ Comparable welcomes were encountered elsewhere – in Berwick for example, the local councillor ordered that the bells be wrung in the city upon Jonson’s approach.

The scenes greeting Jonson in Edinburgh were even more frenzied. On their way into the capital, the itinerant party was pursued, rock-star fashion, by women attempting to ply them with sugar, sack and whisky. The next day, with word having got around, the whole town seemed to turn out to catch sight of him. The crowd was ‘so thick in the street that we could scarce pass by them, they ran in such throngs to have a sight of my gossip’. As well as the streets, the buildings were teeming: ‘The windows also being full, everyone peeping out of a round hole like a head out of a pillory.’

It is difficult to imagine such a reception for a writer today. Yet Jonson was, even by the standards of his own extraordinary age, no ordinary writer. With the death of Christopher Marlowe in a bar room brawl some twenty years earlier, the passing of Shakespeare in 1616 and the publication of Jonson’s first folio in the same year, he had ascended to the esteemed position of the country’s premier playwright.  This ascension to something akin to a poet laureate perhaps explains why, alongside his literary and personal motivations, Jonson undertook the journey in the first place. In travelling north, he was not only visiting the land of his ancestors and seeking poetic inspiration, he was also visiting the first kingdom of his monarch, James I.

Primarily, the trip was no mean physical feat for Jonson, now in his mid-forties. Tall and lean in his youth, he had, to borrow a line from his delightful lyric ‘On Gut’, ‘made[…] himself a thoroughfare of vice’. Twenty stones and expanding, the litheness of his youth was being rapidly supplanted by a ‘Mountaine belly’ and ‘rockye face’. A walking trip of over 450 miles would have been an arduous undertaking, and Jonson’s course is telling. Apart from one or two deviations, it follows the same progress as the Stuart monarch’s own journey the year before. 

Ostensibly, this effort to follow James’s route reflects the habit of travellers to tread well-worn tracks – nearly four hundred years later, the way is marked by the current East Coast Main Line railway. More significantly perhaps, it suggests a conscious attempt on Jonson’s part to enhance his knowledge of his latest patron. In going to Scotland, and more particularly Edinburgh, he would have had the opportunity to acquaint himself with the environments which shaped the young king before his accession to the throne of England. Such awareness was important, for insensitivity to the reigning monarch’s sensibility could prove costly, as Jonson himself knew only too well. He had, after all, been imprisoned by the Elizabethan regime in 1597 for collaborating on the apparently treasonable play The Isle of Dogs. (This was Jonson’s first of two spells in Clink, the second provoked by the more weighty matter of his murder of the young actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel – perhaps appropriately for the son of priest, he was released by invoking the benefit of the clergy.) Maintaining position at the heart of the court required tact, especially with regard to his ruler and his background.

In reproducing the narrative, the editors James Loxley, Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders have presented to a new audience this often overlooked affair in the life of one of these island’s most entertaining writers. The edition is given context by three informative essays which discuss the seventeenth century walk more generally, Jonson’s journey in particular and the various vistas of hospitality described in his account. Alongside this elucidatory editorial input is the copious annotation attending the travel narrative itself. Through this new publication, we gain an insight into Jonson’s experience, his popularity in the fluctuating socio-cultural landscape of Britain in the aftermath of the Union and also the eventful life of the early modern traveller.

Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage’ 

Edited by James Loxley, Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders


Cambridge University Press, £65,  iSBN 978 1107003333 0, PP256

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SRB Diary: Reading the Runes

A few days before the General Election a friend who had been campaigning on behalf of the SNP in Edinburgh South texted to say he’d placed a bet on the Nationalists to make a clean sweep and win every seat. If I recall rightly the odds were 5-1 which at the time did not seem to me to be overly generous. Like everyone else, of course, I was reading the polls rather than the runes, spending inordinately more time in front of a computer screen than out and about talking to ‘real’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, doing their damnedest to feed their ‘hard-working’ families and  to stay afloat in a sea full of sharks and charlatans. My best guess, transmitted to a fellow journalist in Hong Kong, was that the SNP would do well to take forty seats and that the other nineteen in Scotland would be divvied up between Labour, the Tories and the LibDems. There were, I added, only two certainties in this election. The first was that Alistair Carmichael, the LibDem Scottish Secretary of State, would retain his constituency in Orkney and Shetland and, second, that the only party leader guaranteed to hold on to his or her job when the dust had settled was Nicola Sturgeon, both of which came to pass. But, as we now know, Labour’s vote collapsed and the SNP came within a whisker of capturing all 59 seats in Scotland. Ironically, the one seat Labour did hang on to was Edinburgh South, where the candidate, Ian Murray, increased his majority from 316 in 2010 to 2637. This in an area which encompasses pukka Morningside, Newington and the Braid Hills and which, by rights, ought to be prime Tory territory. But even here, with a less than satisfactory candidate, the SNP came second, which was consolation of sorts for my empty-pocketed friend.

* * *

ON my way to cast my vote in Musselburgh, in the church hall where I used to drill with the BBs, I bumped into a former provost of whom I am fond. A Labour man, he had just come from doing his stint at the polling station, where he had been hoping to sway switherers. Until lately Musselburgh was part of the East Edinburgh constituency, when it invariably voted Labour. Since 2005, however, we have been embraced by East Lothian, which was also relatively safe Labour territory. At last year’s referendum the county decisively rejected independence which, according the cognoscenti in Staggs, our local bar, did not bode well for the SNP at this election. But the former provost did not look like someone whose party was on the cusp of victory. With a good ten hours to go before the polls closed he looked decidedly glum and railed against Alex Salmond, calling him ‘deceitful’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘unpopular’, and other cruel epithets. In no mood for an argument, I gently remonstrated. Was Salmond any more deceitful and untrustworthy than his Labour or, indeed, his Tory and LibDem counterparts? Unlike Gordon Brown, for example, he had not stomped off into the sunset after the referendum. Would Labour, I asked, be in such a pickle had Brown and Darling, who were credited with saving the Union, stuck around? This cut no ice with my friend who continued to insist that Salmond was unpopular, the basis for his argument being that  a lot of people don’t like him. That may be so, I conceded, but equally as many people do like him, for how otherwise does he win elections? The ex-provost shook his head as if he would rather lose it than revise his opinion.

* * *

WHEN the polling stations closed and the BBC could finally, legitimately, release the results of its exit poll I went to bed thinking, like Paddy Ashdown and Alastair Campbell, that there must be some mistake and that the SNP could not possibly achieve the result that was predicted. At five the following morning I woke to the pleasing, north-eastern burr of Jim Naughtie, sounding as chirpy as a blue tit that had just caught a worm, and the news that what had been forecast was fact. During the preceding days I’d noticed that a number of anti-Nationalist commentators had begun to peddle the line that we Scots had fallen under some kind of spell and that no matter how sensible the arguments put to us we were determined to ignore them. The insinuation was that because we did not wish to do as they demanded we were a nation of dopes and delusionists and that we deserved everything that was coming to us. This view has been in the ether since the mid-1990s when the possibility of devolution found its way on to the agenda. What is remarkable is that so many of those who resisted the idea of a Scottish parliament and everything that has followed since, including minority and majority governments led by the SNP, continue to pour out the same scornful drivel in the vain hope that it will scare us into the retaining the status quo. As history has shown it is a tactic that has had limited success. In the meantime, Scots, while not yet prepared to favour independence, increasingly think independently and are showing that loyalty to any one party is provisional, not tribal.

* * *

OVER the past few months I have been struck by how many folk, in the media and in civvy street, have switched allegiances, usually more in sorrow and frustration than in anger. I detect in these confessions a deep note of regret and a sense that they are somehow betraying someone, be it their peers, their party or their parents. Regarding the last-mentioned, my mother died before I was of an age to engage her in political banter. My father, however, showed a deep interest in politics and I recall many even-tempered if passionate arguments when we explored the pros and cons of the miners’ strike and whether Arthur Scargill and Mick McGahey, whom my father, who worked for the National Coal Board, knew quite well and admired, were likely to prevail against Ted Heath. Now I come to think of it, though, I have no idea how my father voted. He certainly never told me and it was hard to tell from what he had to say on which side of the fence he stood. The choice then, in the 1970s,  was much starker than it is today. You were either for Labour or the Tories. The SNP was peripheral. No one in our neighbourhood ever mentioned the Liberals. My father took his news from the Daily Express which, like the Tower of Pisa, leaned to the right. He was also a kirk elder which suggests he was conservative with a small ‘c’. Would he have voted for the big ‘C’? It’s possible, even probable. 

* * *

EAVESDROPPING on vox pops I am struck by how the BBC always finds someone who insists that he or she has always voted Labour and always will. This is not true of other parties. It reminds me of 1966 when, after just seventeen months in government, prime minister Harold Wilson held a general election and campaigned under the slogan ‘You know Labour Government Works’. Wilson, like Salmond, was the kind of politician you either loved or loathed, like an Islay malt. My father was a Wilsonian, principally because he, too, was a pipe smoker. Wilson’s gamble paid off and he increased his Commons’ majority from four to 96. The poet who best reflected the era was Christopher Logue who died in 2011 at the age of 85. Logue was an active leftie, contributing to the New Statesman and Private Eye and eager to bring poetry to workers on factory floors. His great achievement is his adaptation of Homer’s Iliad as an epic, modernist poem, War Music, which appeared in five volumes. But he is best known for his poem ‘I shall vote Labour’, which perhaps party apparatchiks should commit to heart as they attempt to define their purpose. Here are its last few lines:

I shall vote Labour because if I do not
vote Labour my balls will drop off.

I shall vote Labour because

I am a hopeless drug addict.

I shall vote Labour because

I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.

I shall vote Labour because Labour will build

more maximum security prisons.

I shall vote Labour because I want to shop 

in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.

I shall vote Labour because

the Queen’s stamp collection is the best

in the world.

I shall vote Labour because

deep in my heart

I am a Conservative.

* * *

WHICH was the most remarkable result? Most folk, I guess, would opt for that in Paisley and Renfrewshire South where Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and co-ordinator of Labour’s doomed UK campaign, lost his majority of 16,614 to Mhairi Black, a twenty-year-old student, who took a majority of 5,684 to Westminster. Jim Murphy’s demise in East Renfrewshire was less dramatic but, given his position as his party’s Scottish leader, no less emblematic. My vote, however, would go to Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath where Gordon Brown bequeathed his successor a majority in excess of 23,000. Come 8 May – the 70th anniversary of VE Day – that had metamorphosed into an almost 10,000 majority for the SNP. K&C’s new MP is Roger Mullin, who previously had fought and lost four elections. He is a professor at the University of Stirling where he specializes in ‘Applied Decision Theory’ which, says Wikipedia, helps ‘a person make simple decisions in the face of uncertainty’.

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SCOTTISH by formation, Mick Imlah was an Oxbridge critic and poet and a member of the London literary establishment. With his twin sister Fiona, he was born in Aberdeen in 1956. The Imlahs lived in Milngavie for ten years until his father, who worked in insurance, moved the family to Kent in 1966. Imlah attended Dulwich College — alma mater of PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler and, ahem, Nigel Farage — and won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught as a Junior Fellow. Imlah also attempted a PhD, on Arthurian influences in Victorian poetry, but abandoned it. Thereafter, he was an editor, first at Oxford Poetry and later as Andrew Motion’s successor at Chatto & Windus. From 1993 onwards he was a critic at the Times Literary Supplement where most of these essays first appeared.

Imlah’s poetry is humorous, darkly brooding and provocative, and was on occasion influenced by his criticism. One can see a relationship, for instance, between his review of Walter Scott’s novels and his verse biography ‘Diehard’ or his review of Tom Leonard’s biography of James Thomson and the gloomy elegy ‘B.V’. In his early years, Imlah may have been overly meticulous with his poetry and admits, ‘… I revise, much too much. In the quest for polish or evenness you can rewrite the life out of a thing’. He produced just two collections twenty years apart; Birthmarks appeared in 1988 and The Lost Leader in 2008, after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and which won the Forward Prize. He died the following year.

Prefaced by his close friend Mark Ford, the essays here indicate that Imlah’s criticism and poetry are grounded in literary history and context. It is often the writer’s background that informs his opinions and leads him later to produce a stanza on their imagined histories. The editors of this volume are themselves poets and critics: André Naffis-Sahely is a translator and editor of a book of essays on Michael Hofmann and Robert Selby wrote a PhD on Imlah. Having picked the cream of Imlah’s prose, they present a triptych of his critical voice: a series of literary musings, followed by essays on rugby and cricket and ending with the poet’s own gently self-deprecating remarks in a brief interview with Oxford Poetry.

The most interesting section of the volume are the essays and reviews, selected over a ten-year period and compiled under the heading ‘On Writers’. Two dominant characteristics emerge. The first is Imlah’s revisiting of canonical figures such as Tennyson, Scott and Larkin; the second gives due praise to writers often of Scottish extraction such as Douglas Dunn, S.R. Crockett, Edwin Muir and J.M. Barrie. In these essays he explores the tensions in his own Scottish identity, describing his enthusiasm for Scots language and modernist literature while dismissing urban, working-class writing. It must also be said that each piece features a male writer; women are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps this is an example of the ‘fraternal tenderness’ that’s mentioned in the preface.

A ‘traditional, conservative poet’ himself, Imlah admired verse which had a strong lyrical style. He remarks: ‘I’ve always liked Tennyson more than most people seem to. I don’t write like him though’. In his essay on him, he provides personal and evocative details such as Tennyson wrote ‘Crossing the Bar’ in twenty minutes as he sailed across the Solent and found landscapes ‘glimmering’ because his eyesight was so poor. Imlah points out the contrast between Tennyson’s depressive temperament and his eventual fame, adding: ‘Tennyson’s problem in presenting poems to the public was that his deepest experience was unsocial, painful, and shaming to a degree; this was no ordinary reticence.’

Imlah reviewed with kindness and flair when he fond poetry that excited him. Considering Douglas Dunn’s Dante’s Drum-Kit, for instance, he points out that the poet ‘likens his craft to gardening’. Meanwhile, in a review of Christopher Reid’s The Echoey Tunnel, he states: ‘Tidy, subtle, faintly surreal poems of a domestic character have established Christopher Reid as a master and advocate of the diminutive’. Imlah wrote extravagantly when he felt he had unearthed literary treasure. His essay on S.R. Crockett, the prolific novelist of the Kailyard school, for instance, feels unnecessarily crammed with facts about Dumfries and Galloway. ‘Not every schoolboy knows, even today, that Galloway is the long-standing name for the south-west corner of Scotland… With a coastline of smugglers’ caves, saltmarshes and mudflats fringing the Solway Firth…‘ He speaks openly of his roots and partially submerged Scottishness: ‘My family moved south from Glasgow when I was ten, so the most important part of my upbringing was English; I developed an inconspicuous accent quite quickly, though I still have the other one up my sleeve like a dirk for tight comers. I suppose I only feel Scots on major sporting occasions now. It’s not something I’d write about.’

But Imlah does write passionately about Scottishness, albeit from an expatriate perspective. In his essay ‘Auld Acquaintances’, he says: ‘It must be a healthy nationalism that can produce a volume as big-hearted as Angela Cran and James Robertson’s A Dictionary of Scottish Quotations’. However, he chides the editors for omitting what he called ‘most potent sentence of the Scottish History’ as delivered by Bonnie Prince Charlie to his forces at Ruthven after Culloden: ‘Let everyone seek his own safety the best way he can’. This could have been Imlah’s mantra. He has little patience with contemporary Scottish literature’s obsession with subculture, specifically the ramblings of marginalised males. Reviewing James Kelman’s short story collection The Good Times, he seems baffled as to why Kelman would want to write about men whiling away time in the pub: ‘His politics now seem to require that his stories should deliver the least remarkable hours of these unregarded lives’. Irvine Welsh, however, gets the sharpest slap as Imlah sees only selfishness and depravity in Ecstasy: ‘Until Irvine Welsh can extricate himself from this community and apply himself more generously to the task, his reader will feel at once put upon and excluded.’

The book closes with a brief interview. Conducted in 1983 when Imlah was twenty-eight, it reveals a clever, sometimes defensive young man offering his opinions on poetry. When asked about styles in contemporary poetry, he replies: ‘Today’s poet is a bit like a Victorian architect; there’s no single staple native style available (as, say, the heroic couplet was for Pope) so he has to choose a model for each piece of work: Middle Pointed Gothic, neo-Egyptian, blank verse, this or that kind of stanza, silly one-word lines, whatever’. If posed the same question today, perhaps he would express a different opinion. Sadly, we will never know.

Mick Imlah: Selected Prose

Edited by André Naffis-Sahely
and Robert Selby

Peter Lang, £25

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Sixty Degrees North

Driving through the hamlets of Bigton and Ireland at the south end of the Shetland Mainland, the sun was icy bright and the sky a polished blue, barely troubled by clouds. Half a mile away the Atlantic lay like a desert, and beyond, the horizon, a soft, blunt edge interrupting a view that might otherwise stretch all the way around the world. On days like this it is hard to think of leaving. Days like this extinguish all other days.

The narrow road I was on stooped towards the coast, then faded to an unsurfaced track. A mile or so beyond the last house I stopped, parked the car and got out. The air was still and quiet, and warm enough to leave my jacket behind. It felt good to be there, to inhabit the day. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, the sixtieth parallel tied the ocean to the island, passing unmarked between land and water. A few miles or so to the east, it would meet the sea again, connecting Shetland to Norway. As I reached the cliff top, I pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it, exploring the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. The lines on the map were solid and stark, dividing the blue water from the white land. Everything on the page was certain of itself, but the world in front of me was nothing like that. It took a moment to pull these two images together, to merge them, and imagine how they might be reconciled.

I was standing at the top of a steep-sided cove, a geo, perhaps thirty metres above the water. From there the land fell sharply towards a bouldered beach, and then the sea, where a thick mat of kelp was tousled by the ebbing tide. Half a dozen seals, alert to my silhouette, abandoned their positions on the rocks and heaved themselves back into the waves. Once safe, they turned to look more carefully at this figure above them, unable to restrain their curiosity. Just offshore, three skerries lay littered with cormorants, black wings outstretched, as the sea around them shivered and shook in the sunlight. Far beyond, to the northwest, the island of Foula lay like a great wave on the horizon. If my map-reading skills were to be trusted, these skerries were the Billia Cletts, which would place me just a few hundred metres south of where I wanted to be. As I walked carefully along the cliff edge the seals were still visible below, their thick bodies dark in the clear water. I stepped slowly, on grey rocks glorious with colour; each stone was splashed yellow-orange by lichen, every crack and crevice was speckled with sea pinks.

Driving through the hamlets of Bigton and Ireland at the south end of the Shetland Mainland, the sun was icy bright and the sky a polished blue, barely troubled by clouds. Half a mile away the Atlantic lay like a desert, and beyond, the horizon, a soft, blunt edge interrupting a view that might otherwise stretch all the way around the world. On days like this it is hard to think of leaving. Days like this extinguish all other days.

The narrow road I was on stooped towards the coast, then faded to an unsurfaced track. A mile or so beyond the last house I stopped, parked the car and got out. The air was still and quiet, and warm enough to leave my jacket behind. It felt good to be there, to inhabit the day. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, the sixtieth parallel tied the ocean to the island, passing unmarked between land and water. A few miles or so to the east, it would meet the sea again, connecting Shetland to Norway. As I reached the cliff top, I pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it, exploring the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. The lines on the map were solid and stark, dividing the blue water from the white land. Everything on the page was certain of itself, but the world in front of me was nothing like that. It took a moment to pull these two images together, to merge them, and imagine how they might be reconciled.

I was standing at the top of a steep-sided cove, a geo, perhaps thirty metres above the water. From there the land fell sharply towards a bouldered beach, and then the sea, where a thick mat of kelp was tousled by the ebbing tide. Half a dozen seals, alert to my silhouette, abandoned their positions on the rocks and heaved themselves back into the waves. Once safe, they turned to look more carefully at this figure above them, unable to restrain their curiosity. Just offshore, three skerries lay littered with cormorants, black wings outstretched, as the sea around them shivered and shook in the sunlight. Far beyond, to the northwest, the island of Foula lay like a great wave on the horizon. If my map-reading skills were to be trusted, these skerries were the Billia Cletts, which would place me just a few hundred metres south of where I wanted to be. As I walked carefully along the cliff edge the seals were still visible below, their thick bodies dark in the clear water. I stepped slowly, on grey rocks glorious with colour; each stone was splashed yellow-orange by lichen, every crack and crevice was speckled with sea pinks.

The cliffs along this part of the coast are heavily pitted with caves, hollows and geos. In winter, this side of Shetland meets the full weight of the Atlantic and the southwesterly gales that thunder their way across the ocean. Waves that began life thousands of miles away find their way to these shores, growing larger and more powerful as they go. Water carves itself into the land, and throws giant boulders up the cliffs like marbles. Summer visitors may imagine these islands to be only a timid north, a place protected from the climatic severities of other northern lands. But bring that visitor back in the middle of a winter storm and they would feel differently. This is one of the windiest places in Europe, and recounting stories of storms past is a favourite occupation for islanders. 

There is, for instance, the ‘Hogmanay Hurricane’ of New Year’s Eve, 1991, in which gusts of over 173 miles per hour were recorded before the anemometer was torn from the ground. Then there is the month of January 1993, which brought a record twenty-five days of gales, and saw the oil tanker Braer wrecked on the coast, just south of the parallel. Wind is the dominant and most extreme element of Shetland’s climate. It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful. 

It is this violence, of wind and sea, combined with its glacial past, that makes Shetland’s coastline what it is: a ragged, fractal form. ‘Hardly anything can be imagined,’ wrote John Shirreff in 1814, ‘more irregular than the shape of this island.’ According to the Ordnance Survey, the coastline of Shetland amounts to almost 1,700 miles and a glance at the map shows why. The largest of the islands, known as ‘the Mainland’, is fifty miles long, north to south, and just twenty at its widest point. But nowhere is more than three miles from the sea. This southern end is a peninsula, almost thirty miles in length and rarely three wide, which extends like a finger from the fist of the central Mainland. Further north, the coast is a panoply of beaches, coves, steep sea cliffs and narrow inlets, known as voes. These voes, like mini-fjords, are deep valleys, flooded by the rising sea after the last ice age. They bite into the land, creating distance, and making the ocean always, everywhere, inescapable.

When Shetland emerged from beneath the ice, 12,000 years ago, it was an empty place. There was no vegetation, no birds, no mammals, no life at all. It was a blank space, waiting to be filled. And as the climate steadily improved, that process of filling began. Lichens, mosses and low shrubs were the first colonisers, followed by sea birds, exploiting the abundant food resources of the North Atlantic. As more birds arrived, they carried with them the seeds of other plants, on their feet and in their stomachs.

The first land mammals in Shetland were people, who arrived around 6,000 years ago. The islands that met these original immigrants would have looked very different from the islands of today. Low woodland dominated – birch, juniper, alder, oak, willow – as well as tall herbs and ferns, particularly around the coast. It was a lush, green and mild place, and the lack of land prey, of deer in particular, was more than compensated for by the lack of predators and of competition. There were none of the wolves and bears the settlers had left behind in Scotland. Here they found an abundance of birds, providing meat and eggs, as well as seals, walrus, whales and fish.

This early settlement of Shetland coincided with the latter stages of a major change in lifestyle in northern Europe. Agriculture, which began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, had gradually spread west and north across the continent as the climate improved and stabilised. Land that had once been scoured and scarred by ice was being transformed by the hands of people. Forests were cut down and burned, and the space given over to domestic animals. The early Shetlanders were also early farmers, and it is hard not to be impressed by their achievements. That they managed to cross the dangerous waters between Britain and the islands in their fragile, skin-covered boats, and in sufficient numbers to build extensive communities, is astonishing enough. But that they also managed to take considerable quantities of livestock with them – pigs, sheep, goats and cattle – is doubly so. These animals, and the people that brought them, were to prove the greatest factor in altering and reshaping the landscape once the ice retreated. 

Shetland was at the very far edge of the world for these settlers. Beyond the edge, in fact. It was as far north as it was possible to go through Britain, and the people that came took huge risks. So why did they bother? What pulled them northwards? Could it be that the spirit of adventure was enough – that the cliffs of Shetland, just visible on the horizon from Orkney, taunted people until they could resist no longer? Was it simply human beings exploring the limits of what was possible?

There was a light breeze now, spilling up and over the cliff top, and fulmars were clinging to it, riding like fairground horses up and down on the shimmering air. One bird lifted higher, close to my head, and hung for a moment against the wind. He seemed almost to float there, and as I watched him I was sure he was looking straight back. For those few seconds we eyed each other, fascinated: me by his sublime disregard for gravity, and he by my clumsy bulk and strange attachment to the earth.

Further along the cliff top I reached the Burn of Burgistacks, where wheatears scattered at my approach, each clacking like pebbles in a cloth bag. As I walked they kept their distance ahead of me, hopping a little further with every few steps I took. The burn here clambers hastily towards the sea, down a rocky slope and then a brief waterfall, lined with sopping green moss. Beyond the burn were the Burgi Stacks themselves. And then, according to the map, I was almost at the parallel. 

I stopped, and looked carefully at the contours of the land. It was harder than I’d expected it to be to distinguish one point from another, and to be sure exactly where I was. The map showed a cave, over which my line appeared to cross, but from where I stood the cave was entirely hidden. I walked north until I was sure I had crossed the parallel, then retraced my steps. As I peered over the edge of a steep scree slope, the map’s clean lines were shattered into stones and grass and waves. The angle of the cliff and the jutting rocks prevented any kind of certainty.

I was hot and thirsty, and annoyed at myself for not bringing a GPS to make things clearer. For a moment it all seemed arbitrary and pointless; there could be no real certainty like this. But still I wanted a fixed point, a starting block from which to begin. So I looked again at the paper, read again every word of the surrounding area: to the south, the Burgi Stacks, the cave, then the Seat of Mandrup and Sheep Pund to the north. Just east was the Green of Mandrup, the field behind me.

And then I saw it. Almost completely hidden by those words – ‘Green of Mandrup’ – but just protruding from behind the letters on either side, was a solid, straight line: a fence. And as it reached the cliff, it corresponded with the parallel. I stood and faced east, following the posts that ran through the field and up the hill, and then looked back to where the fence ended in a muddle of wire and wood hanging over the cliff edge. So this was it: sixty degrees north of the equator. This was my starting line. Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?

* * *

UNLIKE internal or ‘story’ maps, early world maps were intended as scientific or philosophical exercises rather than navigational guides. Their practicality was limited by two significant factors. Firstly, the ancient Greeks who pioneered cartography had limited geographical knowledge. Centred on the Mediterranean, their maps extended eastward only as far as India, with their westward edge at the Strait of Gibraltar. Beyond these boundaries the world was more or less unknown, though speculation about the grotesque barbarians dwelling in northern Europe and Africa was widespread. The other major problem for the Greek map-makers was their lack of a practical means of representing distance and shape accurately. What was required to do this was some kind of scale or grid, which could be applied both to the spherical surface of the Earth and, potentially, to a globe or a flat map. That grid was provided in the second century BC, when Hipparchus of Nicaea devised the system that we still use today: measuring the Earth in degrees of arc. Although similar methods had been proposed previously by the Babylonians, Hipparchus’ achievement was to divide a circle into 360 degrees of arc, and so provide the foundation stone for trigonometry. 

A degree was a measurement of the angle at the centre of a circle, between one radius and another, like the hands on a clock. If the time is three o’clock, the angle between the two hands is 90°: one quarter of a full circle. On the outside of the circle, the points where the two radii, or hands, touch the edge can also be said to be 90° apart. This measurement could further be applied to spheres, like the Earth, with the north-south angle denoted by one measurement – latitude – and the east-west angle by another – longitude. It was then possible, at least theoretically, to give co-ordinates for any place on the planet, and that information could further be used to represent geographical space accurately on a map. This was a revolutionary step for navigation and for cartography.

Whereas longitudinal lines, or meridians, are of equal length, running through both poles, and dividing the planet like the segments of an orange, circles of latitude are parallel lines, progressively decreasing in size, from the planet’s full circumference at the equator to a single point at the Poles. They are represented as an angle up to 90° north or south of the equator. At 60° north, where I was standing, the parallel was half the length of the equator, and two thirds of the way to the Pole.

For the Greeks, the pinnacle of their cartographic tradition came in the mid-second century AD, in Roman Alexandria. It was here that Claudius Ptolemy created his Geographia, a work that gathered together the geographical knowledge of both the Greeks and the Romans. Ptolemy gave co-ordinates for around 8,000 places, stretching between his Prime Meridian at the Fortunate Isles (Cape Verde) in the west, China in the east, central Africa in the south and Shetland, which he called Thule, in the north. This was the known world, reaching 180 degrees in longitude and eighty in latitude, and Shetland then was at its very edge. Despite all but disappearing for more than 1,000 years, the influence of this book, eventually, was immense.

Today, we need only consult a map to learn of our location, or just press a button on our handheld GPS or phone, which can tell us our longitude and latitude in degrees, minutes and seconds of arc. But still somehow that question feels unanswered, still it gnaws at our certainty. Where am I? This is a strange place up here, this landscape of peat and heather. Often called generically ‘the hill’, it forms the core of Shetland, covering more than fifty per cent of the land. From that spot I could have walked to the north of the Mainland, forty miles away, and hardly stepped off it at all. It is a place separate from the places of people, a semi-wild moorland, divided by fence and dyke from the croft land below. It has also been, and in many parts of Shetland remains, a shared place – a common ground – with grazing and peat-cutting rights held collectively by crofters in adjacent communities.

Like those who dwell in the shadow of mountains, Shetlanders live with the constant presence of the moor and the hill. It is a presence that is as central to the character of the islanders as it is to the islands. For just as we inhabit the landscape, the landscape inhabits us, in thought, in myth and in memory; and somehow the openness of the land invites us to become attached, or else attaches itself to us. Our understanding of space and our relationship to that space are affected, and so too is our understanding of time. 

We are used to imagining time as a fixed dimension, through which we are moved, steadily and unfalteringly. But there are places where this image seems inadequate, where time itself seems to move at another pace altogether. There are places where we sense the moments rush by, unhindered, so close and so quick that we feel the breath of them as they pass. And then there are other places, such as here on the hill, where time seems to gather itself, to coil and unravel simultaneously. Here the past is closer. We find its memory embedded within the earth, like the eerily preserved bodies, centuries old, drawn out of peat bogs across Europe, with clothes, skin and hair intact. Or like the peat itself, a biological journal of the islands’ history. Things move slowly here. Change is stubbornly, solemnly recorded. To examine the land closely, and to take into account its own life and the lives upon and within it, is to be faced with a multitude of other times and other worlds. Here on the hill, where land and sky open out, past and present do the opposite; they wrap themselves tightly together. There is, here, a native timelessness.

* * *

I first visited Shetland when I was about five years old, on a holiday with my parents. My mother’s elder brother had moved to the islands from Belfast in the late 1960s for work, then married a Shetlander and had a family. My other uncle had followed and stayed, and we came to visit them several times. My mother and father had considered moving north before I was born. Both of them felt drawn here, away from the south of England where I spent my first few years, but it was not until after they separated that my mother eventually made the move. My memories of those early trips are vague, and have mingled with photographs from the family album, which fix them more solidly but less certainly in place. They are images more than they are true memories, snapshot moments that carry little weight. A boy on a beach, playing and swimming in the sunshine; games and tears in the Lerwick street where my uncle lived.

When we moved north permanently, my mother, brother and I, I was ten years old. My parents had separated some time before that, but family life in Sussex had otherwise continued much as I had always known it. I was too young to really understand the significance of their split, and was anyway surrounded, always, by love. The idea of a relocation felt like an adventure, as such things always do to a child. From the moment it was first discussed, I was excited and eager to go. The reality though was different, like going away on holiday and discovering, while there, that you can never go back home. That half my family were with me did not detract from the sense that I had been lifted up and dropped in an alien place, a place that was not and could not be my home. The word for it, I suppose, is deracination – to be uprooted. That was how it seemed to me. My past was elsewhere, my childhood was elsewhere, my friends, my grandparents, my father were elsewhere.

That feeling of division and separation cut deep into me then. A sense that who I was and what I needed were not here but somewhere else grew inside me, and continued to grow. That sense evolved, over time, into the restlessness that dogs me even today and that triggered, in part, this journey. It evolved too into an unshakable feeling of exile and of homesickness, and a corresponding urge to extinguish that feeling: to be connected, to belong, to be a part of somewhere and no longer apart. My separation from Shetland was, I thought, as obvious to others as it was to me. And my antipathy, I believed, was reciprocated. According to the twin pillars of island identity – accent and ancestry – I was an outsider and would always be so. Growing up in Lerwick I imagined myself unable ever to truly fit in. I was often unhappy in school, sometimes bullied, and it was those differences, naturally, on which bullies would focus. For the first time I discovered that I was English, not because I had chosen to be so, but because that was the label that was tied around my neck. For a while I wore it proudly, like a badge of distinction, but in the end it didn’t seem to fit. My unsettledness in those early years, my sense of exile and longing, did not find a positive direction until I was sixteen, when I decided to go and study music and to live with my father. To make that choice – to decide the place where I would be – was enormously important.

Shetland, like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape. Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them. They are the islands’ memory. From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling croft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly. For some, these rocks reek of mortality. Their forms are an oppressive reminder that we, too, will leave little behind us.

The island of Mousa was once a place of people. It was once home to families, to fishermen and farmers, who lived and died there. But now the people are gone and their homes deserted. The island has been left to the sheep, the birds and the seals, and, in the summer at least, to the tourists. On the day I visited, there were fifteen of us – British, Scandinavian and North American – making the journey on the little ferry, Solan IV, which carries passengers between April and September. It is a short trip from the stone pier in Sandwick to the jetty on the island, and as we galloped across the grey sound I looked about at the other passengers. One, a man wearing beige combat trousers, checked shirt and red baseball cap, consulted a handheld GPS for the full five minutes of the crossing. He never looked up, never looked out at the water or the approaching island, just stared at the little screen in front of him. It was an odd way to experience the journey, but I was jealous of his gadget, and of the accuracy it promised. I wanted to see what he could see.

A remote island of just one and a half square miles might seem an unusual tourist attraction, but people come to Mousa for several reasons. First, there is the opportunity to explore an island once occupied, now uninhabited (what you might call the St Kilda factor). There is, too, the chance to see birds and seals, which take advantage of the lack of people to breed here in large numbers. But most of all, people come here for the broch. While Mousa is just one of around one hundred known Iron Age broch sites in Shetland, it is nevertheless unique, for only this one still looks much as it did when it was first built, over 2,000 years ago. For this fact alone Mousa would be impressive, having withstood two millennia of human and climatic violence; but no less remarkable than its longevity is the actual structure itself, standing at forty-four feet: the tallest prehistoric building in Britain. In shape, it is rather like a power station cooling tower, bulging slightly at the base, where its diameter is fifty feet, and slimming gently, then straightening to vertical towards the top. Constructed entirely of flat stones, the broch is held together by nothing more than the weight of the stones above and the skill of the original builders. It is an outstanding architectural achievement. Inside is a courtyard, separated from the world by double walls more than three metres thick. And between the two outer walls a stairway winds upwards, giving access to cells at various levels, and ultimately to the top of the tower, where visitors can look at the island spread out around them.

Will Self has called Mousa Broch ‘one of my sacred sites. For me, comparable to the pyramids’. And that comparison is understandable. The broch is beautiful and mysterious, imposing and tantalisingly intact. Yet we know almost nothing of the people who decided to build this structure. It is safe to assume that the architects of Scotland’s brochs were a militarised people, for the towers’ defensive capabilities are obvious. But there is something about this broch that implies more than simply defence. Its massive size seems beyond necessity, and the sheer extravagance of it suggests that, if security was the primary concern, it must have been built in a state of extreme paranoia. So perhaps a more likely possibility is that the brochs were built not for defence alone, but as acts of self-glorification by Iron Age chieftains. They were status symbols, born of a bravado much like that which created skyscrapers in the twentieth century: a combination of functionality and showing off. That this particular example has survived so perfectly for so long is partly a result of its remoteness, and partly because nobody has ever had the need to take it to pieces.

The people who built this broch, who lived in and around it, seem far out of reach to us today, an enigma. Archaeologists and historians examine the available clues carefully and they make assessments, suppositions. But in our desire to eradicate mystery from the past, and to understand and know these people, we forget one crucial point. We miss the real mystery. Sitting on the grass beneath the broch, looking back towards the Mainland, I scratched my wrists and brushed the midges from my face. There was no wind, and the insects were taking advantage of the opportunity to feed. The clouds hung low over the sound, and draped softly onto the hills across the water. What struck me then, as I leaned back against the ancient stone wall, was not the great distance and difference that lay between now and then, nor was it the tragedy of all we do not know. What struck me was the sense of continuity, and the deep determination of people to live in this place. Rebecca West once wrote that certain places ‘imprint the same stamp on whatever inhabitants history brings them, even if conquest spills out one population and pours in another wholly different in race and philosophy’. This stamp is what Lawrence Durrell called ‘the invisible constant’; it is the thread that holds the history of a place together, the sense of sameness that cuts through the past like a furrow through a field.

* * *

AS I walked slowly back towards the boat, a cloud of arctic terns – called tirricks in Shetland – billowed like a smoke signal from a beach just ahead. Some of the birds drifted southwards, swooping then hovering above me, pinned like little crucifixes against the sky. Everything about the terns is sharp – beak, wings, tail – even their cries are serrated. And their tiny forms belie an aggression that can terrify the unwary walker. Like the Arctic and great skuas that share this island with them, tirricks attack without hesitation anyone who seems to threaten their nesting ground. There is no subtlety in their assault.

It occurred to me, almost too late, that I had forgotten why I was here on the island. The departure time for the ferry was approaching, but I pulled the map out of my bag and tried to locate the parallel on the paper. I was only a hundred metres or so from the line, it seemed, so I hurried ahead to find it. But when I turned the next corner I stopped again, for standing just where I was heading was the man in the red baseball cap, staring down at his GPS. Clearly he too was looking for the parallel. The man took a few steps back, and consulted the gadget again, head down. By this time he was only ten metres or so away, and soon noticed that I was standing watching. He turned, as if to ask what I was doing. I smiled the best smile I could muster, which probably looked more half-witted than friendly. He didn’t smile back. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could have spoken to him, told him that we were both looking for the same thing, but somehow the seconds passed and we continued to stand there, each hoping the other would just go away. I had no particular desire to explain myself, and he, it seemed, felt the same way. It was an awkward moment, and in the end it was me who gave up and moved on. I nodded, then put my head down and walked towards the jetty, where the little boat was waiting. 

60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home 

Malachy Tallack 

Polygon, £12.99, ISBN 978 1846973369, PP208

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