Monthly Archives: November 2015


Saltire Society Literary Awards

Michel Faber has been named as the winner of the Saltire Society Book of the Year award, 2015.

The writer, who has been based in Scotland since 1993, won the prize for The Book of Strange New Things. Faber previously won the Saltire First Book of the Year award in 2000 for his debut novel Under The Skin.

Commenting on his win, Faber said: “When I emigrated from Australia to a remote part of Scotland in 1993, I never expected that it would be the beginning rather than the end of my literary career.

“I’m so moved and grateful that this honour has been bestowed on my work. You’ve made an alien feel very welcome.”

The Saltire Society Literary Awards celebrate “literary and academic excellence” across seven categories, with the winners of individual book categories going forward to be considered for the Saltire Book of the Year award.

The Book of Strange New Things has also won the 2015 Saltire Society Scottish Fiction Book of the Year, beating competition from a shortlist that included the latest works from Irvine Welsh, Kate Atkinson and Gaelic language writer Norma Nicleoid.

The winners in other categories were:

  • Scottish Research Book of the Year – Clubbing Together: Ethnicity, Civility and Formal Sociability in the Scottish Diaspora to 1930 by Dr Tanja Bueltmann
  • Scottish History Book of the Year – A Chasm in Time: Scottish War Art and Artists in the Twentieth Century by Dr Patricia R. Andrew
  • Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award – The Good Dark by Ryan Van Winkle
  • Scottish First Book of the Year Award – On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
  • Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award – Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
  • The Saltire Society Publisher of the Year Award – Freight Booksfreight-books-logo-large

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Free at last!

I started writing my one-and-only novel Dalriada during the third ‘Chamber’ reading of the Housing Tenures (Scotland) act on my second-last day as an MSP at Holyrood, February 2011. Fergus Ewing was on his legs. Clause after clause of a sort that made Anthony Trollope’s Potted Peas Committee look like the Court of the Borgias thudded onto the Holyrood carpet. To keep awake I summoned up dour shipbuilder Duncan Muir and another Fergus – Magic MacIvor of Waverley – as Lord Westermain. It was either that or snoring on camera. By the end of the day, and curtain fall of the Third Parliament, I had a plot.

A Bud Neill moment from that now-shrivelled rainforest of the Glasgow press? Be clippie-comic about ‘cheeky wee men wi six dugs’? Or Scots-melodramatic:

‘Quiet the day. Ah wish a bug-eyed monster wi fortysix legs wid cum ootae the canal and sterrt eatin’ people.’

You take your choice. I had come back from the centre of industrial Europe to the Caledonia Eventide Home, witnessed the SNP takeover in May 2007. Our Ukanian version of democracy resumed its reign – like metal fatigue breaking-up a supertanker: the cargo bit drifting off while the bridge, crew, engines bit threshed wildly about.

I did what I could to warn. Even before the election Farepak was hurting our most vulnerable savers, the Christmas Club folk. They never saw  their cash again. The Scottish bank heist got me and various journos working out how you did a citizen’s arrest on you-know-who. Billionaires rose tenfold. The BBC’s Robert Peston totted up the impact of the smash at ‘£13 billion’ – or out by a factor of thirtyseven. ‘We all make mistakes,’ Peston told the Economy and Energy Committee. But hey he’s cute! That crazy hair …

Literature and history kept me going. Books could be read on the X95 bus from Gala. So thanks at this point to First Group drivers and the two people who gave me a proper university start in 1962-64: a former Czech socialist, the late George Hammersley, and Oliver Ford-Davies, the only actor I can think of with a PhD. George taught the skills of planning history-writing, Oliver how to put it across.  Making something of a student who scraped into Old College with two Bs and three Cs. Impossible these days …

* * *

Dalriada reflects the Scotland that produced, besides superlative spanner-men, women who wolfed foreign languages. Both had the teaching gift and rare humanity. Mum’s best friend Nan Gillespie went to Bletchley and translated Alan Turing’s decrypts. Nan would go on to marry Vincent Buranelli whose father drank in Minsky’s Bar with Damon Runyon. 

In 1986 I interviewed Harry McShane, last of the Clydesiders and still red as hell. In 1918, on the run from the cops, he stopped off to repair a bust Bridgeton steam-engine whose ‘disgusting condition’ offended him. The broader post-1960s industrial breakdown disgusted our universities so much they passed by on the other side. Where they have stayed.

Read about that when the fourth edition of No Gods and Precious Few Heroes comes out next year. First published in 1981 – Ah telt ye then! – I feel furious now because overdue university reform is being rubbished by its well-heeled elite: people whose ‘achievements’ leave me cold. Our universities subvert the ‘democratic intellect’; our Principals are on three to four times the salary of their German equivalents, but what’s their social impact? German manufacturing runs at over twenty per cent of GDP; ours scrapes ten per cent. 

Where, in the scowling silences of Holyrood’s seminar rooms, were youngsters like those in Tuebingen, or in the old Scots ‘philosophic first year’ – when I scrambled through Moral Phil and the classical economics of Sandy Youngson? It kept me afloat when helping Arthur Marwick set up Open University history in 1969-80. Now it seems spectral as an iceberg. 

* * *

In early 2008 I used these tools and gained notoriety by bad-mouthing Tesco-towns and Scottish yoof. Getting onto the front pages of both tabloids – fully dressed and not a footballer – was something of a record. The Herald made me ‘Free Spirit of Holyrood’ and then abolished that gong in favour of ‘Councillor of the Year’. Its first recipient fell like Lucifer within weeks for snorting coke.

Given parents in their tenth decade, politics rushing the SNP’s way, nothing for it but to grasp what the Holyrood committees dished up, try to interpret it, and reference our social-critical tradition: the drama rather than the comedy. Not easy. We Scots approve what flatters us. Who has seen Bill Forsyth’s wonderful Housekeeping, based on the 1980 novel by Marilynne Robinson, or offered him more films to make? Why did it take two decades to put tragicomic Tutti-Frutti on DVD?

Scott’s Waverley and Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps are behind Dalriada, also Allan Massie. As in that Ridley Scott movie, we have been duellists for decades, and can’t give up. But the plot demanded the Laughing Desperadoes: Carlyle, Disraeli, Peacock, Shaw, Linklater, MacDonald Fraser.  And most of all James Bridie, ignored now but the man whose fingerprints are all over the Scottish – and British – theatre, from Tyrone Guthrie’s great Thrie Estaites to Local Hero.

In Scotland, survive by writing comedy. But follow Mick Jagger. Paint it black. Or, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) blackandwhite ….

* * *

I edited Buchan’s original ‘shocker’ for Oxford in 1993. Then I chased after Hitchcock’s famous Robert Donat-Madeleine Carroll caper made in 1935: where else but north by northwest to St Fillans, tweed-clad and with a small, black, cryptic notebook? Dodging agents of a certain foreign power? You never know. Last time I visited was in 1963, trying to stop Sir Alec Douglas-Home from getting elected. But now I reached it in a morning, starting from Scott-and- Buchan’s Tweedside on our bright, wildly-successful new railway, and by the 10.35 train to Perth, birthplace of Buchan.  No, I didn’t jump from any train on the Forth Bridge; though a Thirty-Nine  Steps reliquary at Perth Station (next door to the birthplace) awaited my arrival. Travel to Loch Earn was by bus, as the wonderful branch-lines into the western Highlands were killed off by bureaucrats – and spivs like Ernest Marples – between 1950 and 1965.

In the movie Hannay has to get over the hills to Killin, helpfully named on the scrap of map clutched by stabbed ‘Miss Smith’ in that London flat (Hitch loved awful puns) on the only possible route that crosses the Forth. But he finds a Scotland different from 1914, crawling with boorish crofters, Nazi spies, collaborators, bent lawmen.

* * * 

This was more authentic than Buchan’s Scotland. No German spies in summer 1914 got west of Rosyth, according to Christopher Andrew’s MI5 history Defence of the Realm. Even in the Red Clyde ‘crisis’ of 1915-16 Whitehall and the Scottish Office used kid gloves as well as the law to keep the Scots loyal, especially after the slaughter of Territorials at Gallipoli and Loos.  Buchan’s shocker was, as much as Ian Hay’s First Hundred Thousand or RW Campbell’s Spud Tamson, a salve for the Volunteer Halls of Kelso or Selkirk: famous for cheap beer and the welcome annual muster: a fortnight away from wife and bairns. Deaths of those from such places were up to six per cent of total population, compared to under two per cent in Glasgow where ‘reserved occupations’ served the armaments industry.

Hitchcock’s own Irish became important:  building munitions works and serving in them. After Easter 1916 they got concessions – notably a Catholic-controlled public education system and a huge franchise extension in the 1918 Reform Act. They rejected Sinn Fein’s republicanism, voted for the Lloyd George coalition or Labour. Many stayed on in Scotland, though Scots attitudes were at best ambiguous. Tories scapegoated them. Buchan, writing Mr Standfast after Glasgow’s George Square riot in early 1919, cited his ‘Gawly’ (Galashiels) trade unionist Andrew Amos lambasting the incomers as little better than the Germans. Did this change?  

Donat’s Hannay found in 1935 a Scotland – the louche commercants, the edgy Perthshire cocktail-party, the bent Procurator-Fiscal – out of his director’s East End childhood impressions. No ‘naïve but nice’ Buchan aristos: instead devastating post-1920 unemployment, the powerful anti-Catholic populism of early 1930s Glasgow and Edinburgh, and awareness that some Conservatives and right-wing Catholic gentry – Douglas-Hamiltons,  Maule Ramsays, Douglas-Scotts – were aligned with Mussolini and Franco. Two of Scotland’s biggest industries, chemicals and cotton, were controlled by the cartels I G Farben based in Germany and Cantinieri in Italy.

Rather like Scott’s ‘Young Lochinvar’  Hannay runs off with a girl from this lot. Though this rebellion may be derived from another Buchan novel, A Prince of the Captivity, in which the hyperactive hero Adam Melfort keeps on saving European civilization and dies fighting Nazis in the Alps. After making love to Jacqueline, his girl? The couple spend a night together in an Alpine hut; afterwards 

‘Her eyes were the lit eyes of a bride.’  Buchan hero has sex…? But why not…the line of decent fellows has to continue to the crack of doom – roughly where we are now.

* * *

Theatreland’s Thirty-Nine Steps is now box office. West Enders want jolly parody, not morality. But left-wing critics such as Mervyn Nicholson in the Monthly Review have remarked on Hitchcock’s warmth towards ordinary folk earning their keep: the balletic waiter in the restaurant car saving his full drinks tray from the scrum of Hannay and his pursuers, the dying Mr Memory gasping out his aero-engine formula: ‘Did I get it right, Sir?’ Peggy Ashcroft as the auld crofter’s young wife saving Hannay’s life (twice) by giving him the coat with the bullet-stopping Bible. 

These are decent people, as Buchan and Hitchcock both knew. If my Dalriada has a hero it’s ‘Mister Memory’ – Watson Wilson, human tape-recorder – bright, witty, randy as Flashman, broad as the now-near-desolate Clyde.  He may save us yet.  We will look in vain for such mercy from ‘bankers’ tanks’ foraying over Soutra, caddie cars lockered in pricey clubhouses, empty yachts bobbing in western marinas. Our real tartan noir waits its last trump.

Dalriada: A Romance of Invention 

Christopher Harvie 

Capercaillie Books, £8.99

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The Many Lives of Guy Burgess

AFTER Guy Burgess, the celebrated ‘Third Man’ in the Cambridge spy ring of the 1930s and ’40s, had fled to Moscow, he said, ‘My life ended when I left London.’ He lived the remainder of his life out of context, in a land where politics was supposed to be about policies not personalities. ‘The Comrades,’ he wrote to a friend in England, ‘tho’ splendid in every way of course, don’t gossip in quite the same way about quite the same people and subjects.’

The general understanding of Burgess has been that he was just that – a compulsive gossip who contributed little or nothing to the socialist cause of making the world safe for anti-Americanism. But Andrew Lownie cites considerable evidence to show that, far from fluttering frivolously in the shadow of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, Burgess was actually the most productive of the three spies. ‘The material he was supplying was dynamite,’ Lownie writes, referring to the Anglo-American planning of the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, and British plans for an attack on Soviet forces in eastern Europe, curiously code-named Operation Unthinkable.

In the late 1940s Burgess had ‘access to almost all papers that came to the Foreign Office ministers, including the minutes of meetings of the Cabinet, the defence Committee and Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff’. He handed the Soviets two thousand documents relating to the merging of the British, American and French zones in Germany to create the Federal Republic and the Berlin airlift. Moscow paid him a bonus of £200 for that. But he was supplying so much paperwork that he asked to be given a suitcase as well, simply to carry it all. To facilitate travelling on the Soviets’ behalf, he was also given more money to buy a car. While other spies were sheltering in doorways with the brims of their hats turned down, le Carré-style, Burgess bought a ‘gold’ Rolls-Royce which he used to drive at terrifying speed, justifying his choice of brand by saying it would protect him in the event of an accident as Rolls-Royces are ‘solidly built’.

The irony of all this was that Stalin and his kommissars, being secretive, suspicious and cynical, disregarded much of what Burgess sent, fearing a plant by British Intelligence. However, his main Russian contact in London, Yuri Modin, summed him up by saying that he was really the leader of the Cambridge spy-ring, being the most energetic, enterprising and imaginative. ‘He was the moral leader of the group,’ Modin wrote. ‘He was the most outstanding and educated [important word in Russia] among all the five.’

Why did Guy Burgess do all this? His answers varied, but they had a common theme. Modin summed them up by saying that ‘Burgess believed that world revolution was inevitable. Like his Cambridge friends, he saw Russia as the forward base of that revolution. There was no alternative… he saw the Soviet Union as the world’s best hope.’ A left-wing American friend described Burgess’s view of Communism in the 1930s as akin to a belief in the dawn of a New Age. ‘The old age was dying – disintegrating economically and socially.’ In the 1950s, Burgess said he was in Moscow ‘preventing World War III’.

There was also a strong element of anti-Americanism in Burgess, as there was in Philby and Maclean. He thought any country not protected by the Soviet Union, whether communist or not, would be ‘kicked around by the Americans’. Burgess thought the Americans were ready to risk starting another war in order to make the world safe for anti-Communism. He also said prophetically, ‘There is no such thing as a European policy. You’ve either got to choose America or Russia… Europe is something wishy-washy that simply does not exist.’

If that well summarises what might be called the ‘public’ aspect of Burgess, Lownie is clear and coherent on the ‘private side’ too. Though geopolitics explains why Burgess became a spy, it was family circumstances which explain why he went about his spying in the grotesquely unconventional way he did. For a start, he often used to say, when drunk, that he was working for the communists. Not only that, he never kept to any office schedule (except for one period in the 1940s in the Foreign Office when he had such enormous opportunities for intelligence-gathering), neither did he wash very carefully, nor allow many hours of the day to pass before he started drinking. He stank of nicotine, and chewed garlic continuously. Sometimes he slept in his clothes. Goronwy Rees’s wife said he ‘delighted in knowing everything and everybody, making the most noise, making himself felt…. But his words often contained a malicious sting and one was left feeling uncomfortable’. Goronwy Rees himself wrote, ‘He was persistent in a way a child is persistent, who always knows it will have its own way if it is willing to behave badly enough. And in this persistence there lay a formidable power of the will, which because of the general disorder and absurdity of his personal life, for the most part went unnoticed.’

The ‘disorder and absurdity’ of Burgess’s private life centred around his aggressive, uncompromising and wholly undisguised homosexuality (in an age when it was criminal). Lownie notes the absence of his father, due to war service, and then early death, saying, ‘from an early age, the young Guy Burgess began to develop a very close relationship with his mother and it was one without a balancing masculine influence’. Burgess’s own brother, Nigel, said Guy had an ‘unhealthily close’ relationship with his mother. Most years during his sojourn in Moscow, she visited him there, often accompanying him on holiday to Sochi where they would stay in a swanky Party sanatorium, while their friends put up in a local hotel with ‘the Comrades’. Even in the New Age, class distinctions remained.

However, the final point about Burgess, which is in a way the most interesting one, and which Lownie stresses throughout his well-researched and comprehensive book, is the issue of political gossip. Burgess lived at a time in history when politics was more human than bureaucratic, that is to say it was about personalities more than policies. Who is in? Who is out? What is the mood of the House/country/Capitol Hill/Kremlin? Of course, public personalities are associated with particular policies, but the dark world of political algorithms, focus groups and extreme party discipline had not yet arrived. Bliss was it still in that dusk to be alive.

W.H. Auden once wrote that gossip is a form of art because it is about the same subject as all art, which is the human spirit and how it copes and adapts to life and change. Burgess—who was friend of Auden’s—illustrated this principle well. He was one of the world’s great networkers, and it helped that he had affairs with some of the better-connected men of the day, from Anthony Blunt and Harold Nicholson to James Pope-Hennessey and Sir Steven Runciman (with whom he stayed on Eigg in the 1930s). He would sleep with anyone aged between 17 and 75. The only person he drew the line at was Donald Maclean. That, Burgess once remarked, would be like sleeping with a ‘great white woman’ (though Goronwy Rees said that the two had once been lovers).

It was purely due to the personal nature of political life in the mid-twentieth century (and before) that Burgess was able to gather so much information for his friends in Moscow. In a more modern, depersonalized society, it would have been extremely difficult. Ironically, the Soviet Union was also a bit like this, despite its image of being a coldly technocratic society. Personalities counted there too, and under Stalin, personalities’ wives were also a factor, as was the behaviour of their children and friends, even parents.

Today we live in a world which likes to pretend that it is impersonal, rational and more interested in policies than personalities, as Tony Benn used to say ad nauseam, and Jeremy Corbyn is still saying. In terms of political style (not policies, of course), Guy Burgess would have had more in common with Donald Trump or Nigel Farage than either of the two socialists. But he had something which all of them lack, which is a sense of humour. If there is a weakness in this otherwise fascinating book, it is that Lownie does not laugh with Burgess enough. This is a shame because he was one of the greatest existential rebels of twentieth-century British politics. Most of his friends were, by modern standards, seriously eccentric or something even better. Take Lord Faringdon for example. In the 1930s Burgess often used to go down to Oxfordshire to stay with Gavin Henderson in his grand house at Buscott, where his butler was the chairman of the local Communist Party cell. Henderson, the 2nd Lord Faringdon, was ‘an effete Old Etonian homosexual Marxist’ (who later calmed down and joined the Labour Party). During dinner the butler would perform his duties with appropriate deference, reminding his Lordship that there was a Party meeting afterwards in the library. There, the butler took the chair, ordering ‘Comrade Henderson’ to read the minutes of the last meeting since his Lordship was only the branch secretary.

A good part of Burgess’s popularity, and therefore his access, derived from his unembarrassed enjoyment of the company of such unconventional people. He had nothing of the po-faced, pharisaical sanctimony of so many modern politicians and pundits, especially on the left. In a wishy-washy world, it is good to be reminded of such people.

Stalin’s Englishman: the Lives of Guy Burgess

Andre Lownie

Hodder & stoughton, £17, ISBN: 978 1 473 62736 9, PP448

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Inside Project Fear

WHEN Henry McLeish questions the clarity of your position on the constitutional question you are probably in trouble. The former First Minister was responding to the suggestion made by Kezia Dugdale, the recently elected leader of Scottish Labour, that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for independence if there is another referendum. This prompted the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, to announce that he too would allow his colleagues to support independence. Someone viewing these generous offers from the vantage point of the morning of 19 September might assume the two leaders were being safely hypothetical, with victory for the No side having quietened debate about independence.

The ideological contortions and electoral obliteration suffered by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats since the referendum have commonly been attributed to the campaign for a No vote with less attention given to the deeper historical currents pulling the two parties out to sea. The allegedly negative tone of the Better Together campaign was inevitably informed by the referendum question but also its focus on the economic uncertainty associated with independence. If this was a sound strategy based on evidence about the importance of the issue to undecided voters, it was nevertheless one destined to engender little in the way of warmth from even those inclined to oppose independence. If securing the future of the UK was the primary objective, many No voters were also looking for Better Together to imbue it with a sense of purpose.

In Project Fear, the political journalist Joe Pike does little to challenge these popular perceptions of Better Together. If anything his book will fortify them with tales of infighting and incompetence culled from an impressive number of interviews. The charge of negativity is accepted by a senior figure who is quoted as saying ‘we struggled from the start and never really succeeded in creating a positive frame for the campaign’. Pike’s account is gossipy and full of fizz, and many will revel in the recriminations it records. They will serve as confirmation of the corrosive effects of the unholy cross-party alliance on those who sold their souls at the crossroads but got an even worse deal than Robert Johnson. But desensitization occurs quickly, partly because the impact of the comments is blunted by having them attributed to ‘a senior adviser’, ‘someone involved’ or ‘one experienced hand’: too often, the knife being wielded is still covered in the toast crumbs from breakfast.

In hindsight, it seems ominous there was difficulty recruiting a figurehead for the campaign. John Reid was reclining in London, Gordon Brown was considered to be in hiding and neither Jim Murphy nor Douglas Alexander wanted to relinquish their Shadow Cabinet roles. Alistair Darling, erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer, out of frustration and a sense of duty, took responsibility. He emerges well from this account, not least because of the effort he committed to a position he was initially reluctant to assume, as do others if not entirely. In the early stages, Blair McDougall, Better Together’s Campaign Director, was running operations from his mother-in-law’s living room and using his own credit cards to cover expenses with no clear idea of when he was likely to be reimbursed. Former Secretary of State Michael Moore choreographed the legislative work required to hold the referendum before being unceremoniously dumped by Nick Clegg. Jackie Baillie, as an extension to her role mediating internal conflicts, would often disappear and return with 60 cakes for hard pressed staff. Taking into account the contents of Pike’s book – the small and hard-pressed core staff, the cross-party egos, financial difficulty, communication failures, and unprecedented media scrutiny – more ought to be made of the fact that Better Together was able to not only keep the show on the road but finish on the winning side.

For a campaign that was often accused of being in league with big business, Better Together was a financial disaster. Contracts signed before the date of the referendum was known were not renegotiated when the date was set so some employees were paid for doing no work between 19 September and the end of 2014. Salaries were increased during the regulated spending period, while Pike suggests there was disquiet among board members that Director of Communications, Rob Shorthouse, was given a starting salary of £100,000. An advert costing £50,000 was commissioned but never used. With Alistair Darling’s wife, Maggie, calling the campaign Nightmare on Sauchiehall Street, £27,000 was spent on the results night party and equipment was taken from its Savoy Centre offices. A further £800,000 was spent on polling from Populus which was established by Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s Director of Strategy and a Better Together adviser. Three marketing firms were employed over the course of the campaign but, as Pike contends, ‘there was little to show for the vast sums of money spent’. The first company was called Grey London.

Despite this largesse and probably contributing to it, the campaign did not employ a book-keeper or, for a period, a member of staff dedicated to fundraising. When Phil Anderton was recruited to address the latter problem, he was paid £5,000 a month plus expenses but the typical donations he was able to secure were generally not a great deal more than his take-home money. In mitigation, Pike contends significant donations were hard to come by because of the poll lead the No campaign enjoyed. Darling had to ask donors to meet a shortfall of £200,000 when the campaign was over, although it should be said that this looks somewhat better when it is recalled the SNP provided £825,000 in funding to Yes Scotland.

While it is a pacy, readable and politically salacious account, Project Fear’s faults tug at the elbow like an incessant child. As well as the numbing effects of anonymous knifing, some of the detail and anecdotes flirt with frivolity. Pike recounts how Elspeth Campbell, the Coronation Street-loving wife of Sir Menzies, helped overworked staff at the Liberal Democrats headquarters in Edinburgh. Asked by a staff member if she would have a glass of wine or gin when she got home, Elspeth replied, ‘Oh, I’ve got a bottle of champagne I just nip away at.’ It is also revealed that John McTernan, Jim Murphy’s chief of staff, decorates his office with posters of Chelsea players with Tony Blair’s head photo-shopped onto them.

Notwithstanding such diverting anecdotes, Project Fear can also be charged with lacking in historical depth and analysis: it is like a stone skimming over a large body of water. The referendum campaign fails to assume its proper form as a long-brewing crisis of Unionism against which the organizational dysfunction of Better Together appears insignificant. Some enticing ground could have been opened up by analysing comments made about the Orange Order by Murphy and McDougall. Murphy’s position might have been informed by the same sentiment that later led him to claim his Irish Catholic background precluded his identification as a Unionist. This is to invite a view of unionism framed by identity and cultural considerations instead of the utilitarian socio-economic formulation that dominated the No campaign.

The second part of the book covers the period from the referendum to the General Election that was characterized by the seesaw fortunes of Labour and the SNP. Despite playing a role, albeit a minor one, on the winning side, Johann Lamont departed shortly after the referendum, agreeing the wording of her controversial ‘branch office’ resignation statement over dinner at a five-star hotel with the editor of the Daily Record and two of her advisers. Murphy leapt off his Irn Bru crates and into the job, just as many observers predicted. During the leadership campaign he met with advisers and select MSPs so he could who ask ‘who’s good and who isn’t?’

Anyone considering Pike’s treatment of the General Election to be somewhat perfunctory should turn to Five Million Conversations, an account of Labour’s UK campaign by the BBC Political Correspondent Iain Watson. It ostensibly focuses on the period from mid-March to polling day but its sophisticated analysis covers the development of issues over a longer period. Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn are highlighted throughout the text but occasionally these feel like impossible attempts at achieving the immediacy of daily news when the events covered are recent enough to ensure its relevance. Five Million Conversations is comprised of short chapters often taking a single day’s campaigning as their basis before ranging out to provide some background. This diary style is well suited to the relatively short period of time under consideration. Given the length of the chapters, however, having the main points of each summarized in a bulleted list seems redundant. Other issues of presentation serve to take off some of the shine. The images of Corbyn and Ed Miliband used on the front cover are smudged while former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray might feel he has cause for complaint given his surname is misspelled twice on the same page.

Scotland features prominently because Labour had to contend with fears about the influence of a ‘pimped-up fuel injected SNP pantechnicon’ on a future government. Labour was beset by problems of personal conflict and the difficulties of reconciling different views on the handling of the SNP threat. Jim Murphy did not get on well with either Ed Miliband or Douglas Alexander, Labour’s General Election campaigner. One insider remarked in reference to a Labour gathering in Edinburgh that ‘Ed, Douglas and Jim were all in different rooms barely talking to each other’. Murphy attempted to persuade the pair that ruling out a coalition with the SNP would grievously undermine Scottish Labour’s attempts to win back support of Labour Yes voters and ‘soft’ SNP voters who wanted a Labour Government at Westminster. Alexander, as Watson makes clear, favoured rejecting a coalition ‘early’ and ‘hard’. Murphy triumphed in the initial skirmishes but a statement rebuffing a coalition was eventually required to counter the damage being done in England. A confidence and supply arrangement was later explicitly ruled out but at least one member of the Shadow Cabinet questioned whether Labour’s position was believable.

In a move from the referendum playbook – the Edstone, incidentally, was partly inspired by the Vow – Labour emphasized the dangers of full fiscal autonomy but Watson cites one SNP strategist saying this was playing badly in focus groups. Meanwhile, Labour’s own focus groups were saying the warnings were credible but people were willing to pay the financial costs in return for more powers for Scotland. By most measures, the SNP out-fought Labour. Its canvassing was more determined, its information gathering more sophisticated, its use of social media more imaginative and its messaging more compelling. Watson makes clear Labour’s get out the vote system was obsolete in the face of shifting allegiances, while Joe Pike recounts that in Tom Clarke’s Coatbridge constituency only seven people had been canvassed and only then accidentally by a team working for Gregg McClymont, then Labour MP for Cumbernauld. The Labour leadership was compelled to start rationing resources in favour of younger candidates, those who worked hard and big names like Margaret Curran but this was like fortifying a beach shack in the face of a tidal wave. As a mournful footnote to the whole business, Watson claims the Scottish party began to value visits by Miliband because he was seen as less divisive than the leader it had elected only months before.

In Notes of a Newsman, STV News presenter John MacKay presents a personal history of Scotland using a mixture of sources including broadcast and interview transcripts, diary entries and retrospective commentary on events. It covers his career at the Sunday Post, BBC Scotland and STV, where he has established himself as the Cronkite of the Clyde. A division of sort emerges with the diary material and commentary generally far more engaging than the reproduced transcripts which are best considered as narrative framing devices. It’s pleasing to be able to get behind the armour of professional neutrality, with MacKay revealing himself as a man of good judgement, decency and considerable political foresight. Writing in his diary after George Osborne’s set-piece speech in Edinburgh ruling out a currency union, MacKay remarked: ‘Why they think that coming north, making pronouncements and then running off again without explaining themselves is going to be persuasive to the Scottish electorate is beyond me.’ He accuses cybernats of ruining social media with their ‘herd mentality’ and charges BBC Scotland with being ‘shameless’ by copying Scotland Tonight when launching Scotland 2014 as the replacement for the ‘inadequate’ Newsnight Scotland. An academic claiming bias in the coverage of the referendum is dismissed as suffering from the ‘usual lack of insight or understanding of the media they claim to analyze’.

It now seems remarkable that someone  so close to events was unable to detect any sense of historic occasion in the run up to the first elections to the Scottish Parliament. Yet even in the world of politics, subject to much undeniable change, there are continuities to be found. Thus before the 1992 General Election, Alex Salmond was telling people, ‘We’re the Tory busters in Scottish politics because we are going to end Tory rule in Scotland, not just for one election, but we’re going to end Tory rule in Scotland for good.’ Before the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007, Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s political editor,  observed Labour had fought a negative campaign based on the prospect of independence and after 2011 Iain Gray conceded ‘we have fundamental questions about the structures and organisations of the Labour Party in Scotland’. Elsewhere, the seeds of later change are recorded being sown, as when MacKay writes in his diary about the apathy of voters in Drumchapel ahead of the 1997 General Election: ‘it’s clear Tony Blair holds nothing for them’. The Radical Independence Campaign would sweep through places like Drumchapel during the referendum campaign giving such disillusioned people a reason to seize politics by the neck again.

Much used to be made of the sophistication of the Scottish electorate but with stakes in the constitutional game still so high, room for manoeuvre has arguably reduced significantly. Elections now take the form of proxy wars between unionism and nationalism. The SNP has been boosted significantly by the coalescing of Yes sentiment in its favour while unionism fatally divides its favours between three parties. Yet with the pronouncements of Dugdale and Rennie, unionism is becoming untethered from two of these parties. If it is slipping its party political moorings, how might it regather? Scottish Labour had the furthest to fall after the referendum and duly fell most of the way at the General Election. Its strategy at present seems to involve gambling with some of its remaining supporters in the hope of regaining the favour of a number of those who have concluded independence and the SNP are the best means of achieving social democratic objectives. As John MacKay remarked in his diary after the recent General Election, however, it would appear that the SNP has ‘replaced Labour as the party of the left’. With the constitutional waters churning, every day is like Friday for independence supporters. The heart of unionism, in contrast, is in the hands of Anubis awaiting judgement.

Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided

Joe Pike

Biteback Publishing, £12.99, ISBN: 9781849549318, PP288

Five Million Conversations: How Labour Lost an Election and Rediscovered its Roots

Iain Watson 

Luath Press, £12.99, ISBN: 9781910745267, PP278

Notes of a Newsman: Witness to a Changing Scotland

John MacKay

Luath Press, £14.99, ISBN: 9781910745045, PP251


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Silver Darlings

IT was hard in the 1970s, even as a Glasgow Highland boy, to get away from herring. A vast salted bucket of the beasts sat in the back porch. Each Saturday they were boiled for noonday dinner, regardless of our protests, served up with steaming potatoes. We could only endure them with lashings of tomato ketchup. We choked incessantly on the tiny bones. I much preferred them kippered or – a rare treat – fresh, uncured, fried in oatmeal.

At home, on Lewis on holiday, herring were everywhere. They swam on Stornoway Town Council’s coat-of-arms, above the certitude of its motto, ‘GOD’S PROVIDENCE IS OUR INHERITANCE’. And they were landed, of course, daily (save for the Sabbath) and in vast quantities; lorry after lorry lining up, the suckers spewing forth thousands of the silver darlings from hold to truck. Silver they were, shining as mercury; abundant they seemed, as if the bounty of the Minch and the sea-lochs were inexhaustible. You grasped dimly how long they had shaped the island culture; made Stornoway rich. And you learned of grandmothers who, before the Great War, had toiled at the gutting; followed the fleet after this restless, nomadic fish in the circumnavigation of Britain. Gnarled Lewis relatives who had married quietly in the likes of Peterhead or Fraserburgh; fisherboy to fishergirl. Mantelpieces everywhere still sported china with such greetings as ‘A PRESENT FROM LOWESTOFT’…

And then the herring just vanished. The tap turned off. The Scottish Office finally, belatedly, in 1977 imposed a ban. The countless shoals became a trickle; and have remained a trickle ever since. Into this world – not just locally, but internationally – Donald S Murray, with a teacher’s diligence and a poet’s acuity – has now swum, exploring in his Herring Tales the whole biology and culture of herring in an incredible European journey, almost casually opening windows you had never thought on to reveal things you had never imagined.

Herring made men rich; a commodity essential to early northern-European capitalism. They are consumed (as Murray lusciously relates) in a myriad ways. We like them salted or smoked. Edward VII loved fried fresh herring as part of his vast daily breakfast. The Dutch joyously eat them raw. Swedes champ them, half-rotten, from bulging gassy cans; Norwegians knock back, like mother’s milk, mugs of the liquor they are cured in. Or, more bravely, chew them air-cured and dried. ‘Requiring the full force of my molars and incisors to make any real impression on its flesh,’ Murray stoutly recalls of a blokish ritual feast in Norway. ‘I finally bit my way through it, aware it was like a mixture of kipper and beef jerky, a dry piece of salt leather, difficult to chop or swallow. One could imagine that, far from it being eaten, the fish might have been used in the past as a restraint for a Norwegian fjord horse, a halter to hold and control the dun-shaded breed that was used for centuries to carry loads and men, and plough barren acres in this far, north-western edge of Europe. Or perhaps, too, a string of dried herring might have harnessed a boat to harbour, rendering it impervious to the threat of any storm…’

So much of Scotland herself has been defined – even shaped – by Clupea harengus, the humble herring. It’s the fish that built Tarbert Loch Fyne; Mallaig; Ullapool; Lochinver… and The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn, about a Highland boy growing to manhood as he goes forth to sea in search of them, is one of Scotland’s greatest post-war novels. The herring is besides a fish that, even more than the salmon, seems almost maniacally to possess those who pursue it. For it is a sociable, shoaling fish, moving in vast and exuberant companies up and around this or that given coastline; it is beautiful to look on – a radiant, scaly silver; and it was an exceptionally good, healthy, affordable source of protein (readily salted or smoked too) when other fish could not readily be preserved, the deep freeze for the future and meat to most a rare treat.

And no fish in these islands has inspired more traditional song. Most of us had to lisp ‘Wha’ll Buy My Caller Herrin’ at some point through primary school.

Other ballads, from Ewan MacColl through The Corries to Kathy and Wallace Dempster, have extolled the brave men who went out to catch them, and the young women (very many from the Outer Hebrides) who, at the edge of living memory, toiled at the gutting… wielding a sharp square blade with such extraordinary speed their hands blur in the old cine-footage:


With our nets and gear we’re faring 

On the wild and wasteful ocean. 

It’s there that we hunt and we earn our

As we hunted for the shoals of herring.

O it was a fine and a pleasant day, 

Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring, 

As a cabinboy on a sailing lugger, 

For to go and hunt the shoals of herring.


Until the 1500s, as Donald S Murray records in his brilliant book, they splashed in the Baltic by the million and the might and clout of the German-dominated ‘Hanseatic League’ was built on trade in them. Then they simply vanished, to the bafflement and desolation of a hundred ports. And a key market for the early trade in cured herring from Scotland was for the feeding of wretched slaves in Caribbean sugar-plantations – and the later, great market in Tsarist Russia was brought to a shattering end by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and with dire consequence for the north of Scotland. But herring returned to the sea of the Hebrides and elsewhere and, after the Second World War, fat new markets revived.

Traditionally herring were caught in the Minches by drift-netting; a sustainable method that snared only large, adult fish and let juvenile Clupea Harengus swim free through the mesh. But voracious, murderous new methods swept in – ring-netting, purse-netting, seine-netting. And the last drift-netters in the islands – men like Murdo MacLennan of Marvig on Lewis; John Mackinnon of Scadabay in Harris – could get no one on high to listen, even as ring-netters and purse-netters and sinister factory-ships from beyond the Iron Curtain hoovered up herring on a fantastic scale. These were creepy vessels – in just one detail cast almost carelessly forth by Murray, the crew of one Romanian ship alone included forty secret policemen – but Scottish Office experts continued to insist there was nothing at all to worry about. Until the same experts imposed the ban; and that they had been wrong and MacLennan and Mackinnon proved right was scant consolation for the end not just of an industry but a way of life.

Murray’s incredible journey begins in Norway, sweeps by the east coast of England and the Western Isles, jaunts by Shetland and Germany and the Netherlands and to climax in Iceland – which boasts a vast Herring Era Museum. He explores everything from the traditional knitted fisherman’s ‘gansey’ of Eriskay to the keen, stern Protestant faith invariably associated with herring country; muses – time and again – on the catastrophic incompetence of modern  government, everywhere, when it comes to stewardship of the sea.

There’s a sense of exile in Murray’s offering. He himself, Lewis-reared, teaches on Shetland. But his book is as much about that poignancy we all sometimes feel: that you can always go back to the ‘where’, but never the ‘when’. There’s a Gaelic word for this, ‘ceanalas’ – an inchoate yearning for the past and an ideal; a conscious estrangement even as you try and live in the moment. For Murray, the great days of herring are entangled with his own lost youth; it is no coincidence that he so frequently evokes past melodies and lyrics (‘Nothing,’ said Noel Coward, ‘is as potent as cheap music,’) and that each chapter is entitled after some rock-song or other – all binding a fine, scholarly, restless and keen-brained work.

In SY StorY: A Portrait of Stornoway Harbour, a beautifully produced and silky little paperback, Murray unleashes himself in disciplined, at times seething verse about that island world he remembers and which has largely gone – some very funny, most hard and thoughtful, much about love.


Small boats in the harbour.

bow and keel lashed together, steel

fastened against steel

so no matter how much either wind or
wave might reel,

they can withstand the season’s clamour,

their place of safety sealed

by knots hands tied around a bollard,

the tight loop of an iron hawser.


And you and I must be like that,

mimicking the buoyancy of boats

that come together in the shelter of this

bound together not by steel or

but by a bond much stronger far than

the tie of love that keeps the human heart

the loop that brings us both together in a


Here is serious talent; here are two sparkling, most masculine books.

Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History

Donald S Murray

Bloomsbury, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1472912169


SY StorY: A Portrait of Stornoway Harbour

Donald S Murray

Birlinn Ltd, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1906270018, PP240

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Collecting Mania

TEN years ago, by way of a leaving present from his post as Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford commissioned from himself a book which formed the basis of a remarkable exhibition. Choice, sub-titled ‘Twenty-One Years of Collecting for Scotland’, was an unashamed celebration of Clifford’s tenure in charge of the nation’s art collections. In particular, it focussed on works acquired during that period, including Sandro Botticelli’s deeply affecting Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child at a cost of $26 million and Antonio Canova’s sublime sculpture The Three Graces, which the NGS prevented from going abroad by sharing its acquisition with the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Those were heady days on The Mound. Clifford, a peacock among the pigeons of public service, was the kind of man who could always be relied upon to create news, wittingly or otherwise.  His accent was such that he made the Royal family’s sound common and, as he toured the National Gallery, its walls recently painted bordello-red, he exuded orgiastic delight in the many treasures in his keeping. In his valedictory essay in Choice, Clifford was no less ebullient, revealing in teasing detail how he operated and the various successes in which he had played a not insignificant role. His, he related, was a family immersed in art. His father, Derek, was a poet, a painter and a collector. Clifford himself won art prizes at school and attended the Courtauld Institute where he studied History of Fine Art. Thereafter he sought employment in galleries, becoming, at 32, director of Manchester City Art Galleries. In 1984, he took over the helm of the National Galleries of Scotland.

It was just five years after the débâcle of the rigged first devolution referendum and not long after his arrival Clifford did not endear himself to the natives when he described Scottish art as ‘inferior’. The remark was typical of him – rarely did he have his foot out of his mouth – and upset many in the northern art world. In an editorial in the Scotsman, then an influential organ, there was a call for him to be deported forthwith. Unsurprisingly, this injunction was ignored and Clifford went on to become one of the National Galleries’ most successful and prominent champions. As he indicated in Choice, it was never easy for a Scottish gallery to compete with those in London and elsewhere. The annual purchasing budget was small – never much more than £1 million – and the art market was increasingly inflated, with prices reaching stratospheric levels. In 1988, for example, a Van Gogh painting of a bowl of sunflowers changed hands for $74.5 million.

Clifford was in his element when wheeling and dealing. Always confident in his own expertise and judgement, his view was that if ‘a bona fide dealer makes a mistake in attribution and I want to acquire it for my gallery, I do not have to point out his error’. He was also assiduous in identifying potential donors – hearse-chasing is part of the job description – and courting and charming wealthy and discriminating collectors. The NGS, as he indicated, are full of paintings on long-term loan which may become part of the permanent collection. Others, however, are liable to be sold should necessity arise. It is a fact of gallery life. The collection of almost every public gallery grows like Topsy, through a combination of gifts, loans, and purchases. In Clifford’s era, two of the most significant benefactors were the artist, historian and poet, Sir Roland Penrose, and the collector, Gabrielle Keiller, who in part owed her fortune to marmalade. Thanks to Keiller, the Gallery of Modern Art (one of the NGS’s two sister galleries, the other being the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland) was enhanced with works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte.

What strikes one now browsing through Choice is the breadth, depth and quality of the work accumulated from 1963 to 1984, ranging from the head of a bearded man sculpted at a time when the Romans were throwing Christians to the lions (‘accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estate of the 9th Baron Kinnaird’) to a slicer which could be used for dissecting giant onions made by Mona Hatoum. Both contribute to the palimpsest that are the collections in the NGS. Their well-being is now in the hands of Sir John Leighton, who returned to Edinburgh, at whose university he had studied and taught, via the National Gallery in London and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Since his appointment as Director-General, he has made a number of mouth-watering acquisitions including Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and overseen several outstanding exhibitions. The economic and political climate he inhabits is very different from that of his predecessor. One notable aspect of this is the influx of visitors the galleries welcome each year, which is around 2,000,000, with countless cultural tourists now flocking to Edinburgh from the Middle and Far East.

Meanwhile, ever more works have been added to the collection. Undoubtedly, the biggest beneficiary has been the Gallery of Modern Art which in 2008 took possession of the eclectic collection of the gallery owners, Anthony and Anne D’Offay, which is housed in what are known as ARTIST ROOMS. By any standards, the D’Offays’ gift, which comprised around 1,200 works by thirty-two artists, including Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long and Bill Viola, was generous. ‘At a stroke,’ writes Leighton in the introduction to his 100 Masterpieces, ‘the ARTIST ROOMS donation transformed the representation of contemporary art in Britain and created what is in effect a new kind of national collection. From the outset it was always envisaged that ARTIST ROOMS would be widely shared with museums and galleries across the United Kingdom’. Another development in Leighton’s era has been the National Collection of Photography, which comprises around 40,000 items. What there is not, however, is a Scottish National Photography Centre which a decade or so ago was mooted to be based at the Old Royal High School in the lea of Calton Hall. That inspired idea, alas, came to nought, who knows why, and the building seems fated to become yet another hotel.

In 100 Masterpieces, which includes work from across the NGS, Leighton makes no attempt to explain his selection. Is it meant to be representative or personal? One must assume a bit of both. What is clear, however, is that within little more than a square Edinburgh mile there is work to be seen of extraordinary beauty and accomplishment. Leighton’s choice opens with Bernardo Daddi’s gorgeous fourteenth-century Florentine triptych, probably produced to a patron’s specification, and closes with Martin Creed’s installation, Everything Is Going To Be Alright, which ‘consists of an entirely empty gallery space that is either illuminated or thrown into darkness at five-second intervals’. What a Medici prince or Strozzi banker would have made of the latter would be interesting to learn. Proportionately, Leighton gives more space to modern artists than Old Masters, which may be a reflection of his taste. In that he surely differs from his immediate predecessor. He writes lucidly and informatively and refrains from over-interpretation. Referring to Christian Hook’s ‘portrait’ of Alan Cumming, he writes: ‘Hook’s portrait was painted in New York while the actor was performing in a leading role in a Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. Cumming is shown semi-naked, lying on a stage in front of a row of footlights, with a top hat nearby to evoke his current role. The kilt draped around his neck is in the tartan of the “Yes” campaign which Cumming supported during the referendum on Scottish independence held in 2014. The empty honey jar is a reference to the name of a much-loved and recently deceased pet dog.’

Much of the work chosen will be familiar to art lovers but for anyone to whom it is new it must be a revelation. Portraiture is particularly well represented, testimony to the contribution of successive keepers of the National Portrait Gallery. On the cover is John Singer Sargent’s ‘dazzling and unforgettable’ painting of Lady Agnew of Locknaw, painted in 1892 when the sitter was recovering from a severe bout of flu (‘which may account for her slightly ghostly pallor’). She doesn’t look too poorly to me. Other wonderful portraits include examples by Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Ken Currie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Angela Palmer and John Byrne. Inferior Scottish art may have been when compared, say, to the Italian renaissance but there has been much to cheer since and not just because of chauvinism. And, of course, there is Henry Raeburn, whose portraits of the great and good and not so good defined his age as did Scott’s novels and Burns’s poetry. At No. 23 is his masterpiece, our Mona Lisa, Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, which it was impertinently claimed was not painted by Raeburn but by a French artist who was briefly resident in Scotland. Clearly, John Leighton is not of that persuasion. ‘It is a remarkable painting,’ he concludes, ‘and, unless some as yet undiscovered document or evidence comes to light to prove otherwise, the skating minister’s position as an icon of Scottish art seems secure.’ Justice has at last been served.

100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland

John Leighton

National Galleries of Scotland, £35, ISBN: 978-1906270018, PP240

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SRB at the Theatre

What Goes Around went around Scotland in autumn in a touring production by Cumbernauld Theatre Company. The NTS has done sterling work in taking theatre to theatre-starved parts of the country, but somehow this particular work brought back memories of the good old days when several companies, Wildcat, 7:84 and Borderline most notably, travelled the land, performing at different venues and moving on. The Cumbernauld show stopped at established theatres such as the MacRobert, Dundee Rep and even the Traverse, but it seemed better to see the impact in a less frequented theatre space, like Greenock.

The Beacon Arts Centre was constructed some ten years ago. It is described as ‘purpose built’, which when decoded places it in the period when architects had lost the ability to design exteriors. Seen from the road, it resembles a giant dice, covered with light green squares which give it a certain stolidity. It is positioned in one of those little historical corners which, having somehow survived the destructive planning craze of the post-war years, can still be located in Scottish towns. The interior of the Beacon complex is relaxing and stylish, with a fine little bistro looking onto the craggy hills on the far side of the Clyde, which is still surprisingly busy with tugs, ferries and assorted cargo vessels. There are two theatres, a grand 500-seater and a smaller studio theatre.

Regrettably, the smaller studio was more than adequate for the audience which turned up to see Liz Lochhead’s version of Arthur Schnitzler’s once controversial, fin de siècle work, Reigen in German but normally known in English as La Ronde. Schnitzler was Viennese and Jewish and one of the most talented representatives of that glorious flourishing of revolutionary art and innovative thought which accompanied the twilight years of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His contemporaries included Sigmund Freud, who suggested that Schnitzler had grasped by instinct all that he had acquired by laborious effort, Gustav Klimt, Karl Kraus, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Robert Musil, Alban Berg and the list is far from complete. At the same time, an older, leisured fairyland of Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar and Blue Danube operetta lingered on, but it is not too much to say that the culture of modernity was brought to life in those years in that city.

Schnitzler’s theatre work shows a preference for the vignette, or a series of swift scenes cunningly linked but not exactly constituting a fully plotted play. He suffered the strange fate of slipping out of public memory, while his work continued to fascinate and intrigue theatre professionals. David Hare, Tom Stoppard and David Harrower are among playwrights who have done adaptations of his work, while Max Ophuls adapted La Ronde for the screen and Stanley Kubrick used one of his short stories as the basis for his celebrated, enigmatic, Eyes Wide Shut. The playwright may express the underground spirit that subsequently emerged into daylight all over Europe, but at times, especially with La Ronde, he was unsure of his own projects and fearful he had gone too far.

The play could only be staged once it came out of copyright. Although seemingly written as early as 1900, it was performed in public in 1920, but was then withdrawn from circulation by the author after a production in Berlin caused riots and led to a trial for obscenity. The poisonous aspect of this trial was that it was motivated by anti-semitism. The Archbishop of Vienna denounced the play and took the opportunity to attack Jews as corruptors. Needless to add that the Nazis were even more venomous and vocal, so Schnitzler’s books were among those thrown into the flames as corrupt and corrupting, although the author himself died well before Anschluss.

We complacent citizens of the twenty-first century smirk benignly at what we believe to have been the small-minded prejudices of previous generations. Facile terms like ‘Victorian’ or ‘bourgeois’ customarily describe their subservience to inhibitions and taboos as against our superior, libertarian openness. Nothing can shock us now, can it? ‘I write of sex and death,’ Schnitzler once declared, but of sex overtly and of death with more subtlety. Death is not for us, so we focus on the sex.

Sex can be funny, embarrassing, tender or casual, as Liz Lochhead, the latest writer to tackle Schnitzler, shows in this new ‘version’. Neither a translation nor even an adaptation, the version scorns the notion of a fixed text and has become a genre in its own right in British theatre today. It encourages high creativity and requires an ability to plunge, like a swimmer into cleanness leaping, into another age or culture to bring up pearls from the depths. It entails radical re-thinking and re-creation, and may be compared to the process of adoption, where an author takes in a refugee text from another culture, gives it some house training before releasing it in a form familiar to the neighbours. There is, of course, nothing remotely sinister or even innovative about this process.

Nobody has made more fruitful use of the ‘version’ than Lochhead. The works of Molière in particular have provided her with material that she has refashioned, burnished and polished, embellishing the final script with layers of wit and touches of poetry of her own. Molière’s Le Misanthrope became Misery Guts, and does not suffer in comparison with the French. The structure of Schnitzler’s play allows her to riff on the script, so that if the new work is wrenched from the original culture, where it can continue to shine in its own light, it is placed in a new niche in the ragtag and bobtail tradition of Scottish theatre.

In What Goes Around, directed deftly by Tony Cownie, Lochhead maintains Schnitzler’s use of overlapping episodes and recurring characters, sometimes producing some new scenes and characters but at others reproducing original situations and turns of mind. She employs a contemporary Scots idiom which avoids any risk of audience alienation from the portrayal of a sexual culture which is seemingly familiar, but uncomfortably so. The people depicted are strangely lacking in self-consciousness, and are driven, not by anything as sublime as love, but by lusts and desires. They are without scruple in betrayal of relationships, fearful only of being found out, although Lochhead also suggests in certain exchanges that casual sex is never entirely casual, that even fleeting intimacy can be followed by disappointment and damage, only not all the time and not necessarily for both partners.

This new version is still liable to upset certain sensibilities. All the interlocked scenes end up with the couples rolling about in bed, joyously or joylessly, having been coaxed or coerced, leaving one of the two to move blithely from that engagement to a further encounter where different attitudes will be dramatized, but the result will be the same. Some passages, such as a long, anxious dialogue about Stendhal’s theories of love, come from Schnitzler, but more commonly Lochhead treats the original like a maypole for her text to dance around, glancing at it over her shoulder, commenting on it, coming close to it but then seemingly ducking and traipsing away.

Schnitzler opens with an encounter between a soldier and a prostitute, while Lochhead opens with an actor and an actress in the green room where they debate superficially the merits of a play they are about to stage, La Ronde. They note with disbelief the better resourced days in Vienna when an impresario could hire ten performers, while in our more straitened time the two of them have to play all the parts. The two actors playing actors, Nicola Roy and Keith Fleming, rise splendidly to the multiple challenges, from the first vignette where Roy plays the naïve luvvie, star-struck in the presence of Rob, the cool, off-hand celebrity. She wonders if the play they are staging is not ‘a wee bit cynical, far-fetched’ but is willing to go along with her co-star that ‘directors are all dicks,’ while her swooning attitude plus the beer they sip make her willingness to submit quite credible. They scuttle off to the first of the evening’s acts of coitus, if not exactly love. For her this will be decidedly bad sex.

Another male of the species has a harder time later with Natalie, his ex-wife, when he turns up clutching a teddy bear, hoping to see his daughter, but meeting bitter reproaches for neglecting to provide agreed financial support or to show up when he had promised. The most agonized reproach is over his having slept with her best friend, but past conduct is no guard against present desire, and the two pull off clothes to the ironic accompaniment of Et je t’aime. The body, not the spirit, is king. Women can be as casual, manipulative or prone to lie, deceive and cheat as men. Loyalty until death or divorce do us part is for losers.

The coupling in bed of the separated couple is not the prelude to a fresh re-start, because, desire satisfied, Natalie orders him out, telling him that she has met someone else. Any suggestion that her new relationship will be golden is dispelled when she and her new partner, Stephan, whom she had met on-line, are seen in bed together. He had plainly been a disappointment, so the two have an awkward, embarrassed, hesitant discussion of contemporary dating etiquette, exchanging tentative references to their different sexual histories. This is perhaps the most touching moment of the evening, but it holds no hope for a better tomorrow. Natalie sends Stephan packing, after telling him that the necessary spark is lacking. What do women want, Freud is alleged to have asked on his death bed? Good sex and magic as well, seems to be the reply. Men will make do with good sex.

Stephan is then left to eat a lonely take-away meal in his flat, with only his transistor for company, until his lodger arrives, and she is young, attractive, seductive and an actress who has a part in La Ronde, rounding off the merry-go-round. ‘It’s about sex,’ she explains helpfully, asking Stephan to give her a hand by reading the male part while she tries to memorize her lines, perhaps in the scene with a prostitute and a soldier, she suggests? He wishes to display his histrionic abilities, but she tells him just to read straightforwardly. The comedy of the scene fades as art merges into life, or perhaps the reverse, and the two end up clinging to each other.

Fleming can also be a joiner on call to the house of a randy, well-to-do housewife, who invites him to her bedroom to the accompaniment of If I were a Carpenter and you were a Lady, before she turns anxious as the time draws near for her husband’s return. From scene to scene, the characters change but props on stage are the same – a double bed and some clothes baskets. Nothing else is needed. But this is not all human life. Or is it? What Goes Around makes for a splendid piece of theatre, wry, amusing, biting, uncomfortable and provocative.

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On Camusfeàrna

IN 1987, at the age of 18, Dan Boothby made his second visit – pilgrimage, really – to Sandaig in Wester Ross, the former home of the writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell, who had referred to it in his books as Camusfeàrna. Here Maxwell had lived with his otters – Mij and Edal – and wrote about them in Ring Of Bright Water, the 1960 memoir which made him famous and, for a while, rich. His ashes are buried on the site of what was once his house, beneath a boulder, and it was there, in the midst of a storm, that the teenage Boothby, his head swirling with magic mushrooms, left a blackberry as an offering for Maxwell’s ghost. Finding shelter from the rain in a filthy old barn, he told his friend the story of the writer and his adventures, ‘how I wished I’d met him and come to live at Sandaig with him in the black-and-white photographed world of his books’. In fungi veritas – Boothby is obsessed by Maxwell, in love with the idea of him, and the reason Island Of Dreams throbs with a sorrowful ache is precisely because he can never draw closer to him than the pages of his writings. Where he craves flesh, he finds paper; in place of blood, ink.

Island Of Dreams: A Personal History of a Remarkable Place tells the story of the year or so, beginning in the summer of 2005, that Boothby spent living and working as caretaker on Eilean Bàn, the lighthouse island beneath the Skye Bridge, that had been Maxwell’s home from January, 1968, until his death from lung cancer, at the age of 55, in September, 1969. ‘I felt drawn to Kyleakin as I had to few places in my life,’ Maxwell wrote of the island. ‘I felt as if I were coming home.’

He had moved there amid a serious decline in his health and finances, and following a fire which destroyed Camusfeàrna and caused the death of the otter, Edal. He believed himself to be cursed, writing in Raven Seek Thy Brother that, following a quarrel, the poet Kathleen Raine – who loved him intensely and was not loved in return – had placed her hands on the trunk of the rowan tree at the burn beside his home and begged of the fates, ‘Let him suffer here as I am suffering.’ The Kyleakin lighthouse must have seemed a beacon to a man who felt he had been caught on the tide of one woman’s hatred and was drawing ever nearer to the rocks.

Raven Seek Thy Brother is the book which began Dan Boothby’s obsession with Maxwell. He chanced upon it mis-shelved in the library during a half-term break from boarding school, and something about it spoke to him. He sought out the other titles in the Camusfeàrna trilogy – Ring Of Bright Water and The Rocks Remain – and found himself filled with desire for the Highland landscape described, such a contrast with the Norfolk flatlands where he lived. More precisely, the 15 year old Boothby felt pulled towards Maxwell himself – the middle-aged man in the jacket photograph, asleep with an otter on his lap – who was assisted and kept company in his seeming idyll at Camusfeàrna by a succession of teenage boys, the best known of whom was Terry Nutkins. ‘I wanted to be in Gavin Maxwell’s stories,’ Boothby recalls. ‘I wanted the life I imagined those boys had.’

What else did he want? A father figure, perhaps; one whose rootlessness reflected his own. Early in Island Of Dreams, Boothby writes that, ‘My brother, sisters and I had been brought up to all intents fatherless, and for the first four years of my life we had lived with our mother in a gypsy caravan by the side of various roads.’ From the age of four until 12, his home was Shrubb Farm, sometimes known as Larling, a hippy commune which, in 1974, was the subject of a BBC documentary called A Different Sort of Family in which Boothby, then four, appeared. As a shy ‘commune kid’, at school he felt the stigma of being different, so retreated into a world of books and imagination, dreaming his way to a better future.

In Raven Seek Thy Brother, Maxwell muses that ‘the secret of keeping one’s vision was to always be a nomad, never to remain long enough in one place to allow time for the deadly clouding of sight, the creeping cataract, that is composed of preoccupation with past mistakes and their present results’. Boothby doesn’t quote this passage in his book, but it may well have resonated. Maxwell had built a life, career and personal philosophy on being a wanderer, and by following in those footsteps – and in those otter tracks – so, surely, could he. In June 2005, when he first walked into the cottage on Kyleakin where Maxwell had once lived, he felt, quite explicitly, that their stories were merging: ‘I was entering the myth that had gripped me all those years ago as a boy.’

Boothby had been taken on by the Eilean Bàn Trust as a warden and tour guide. The position was unpaid, but he was allowed to live on the island, to put down roots for the first time in his life. He planned to work on a book of his travels, but more important was the sense of purpose the job gave him. In no time, he fell in love with the place. It could hardly have been otherwise. Visiting a few years previously, he had felt jealous of the man who showed him around. ‘You’ve got my job,’ he thought, ‘and you’re living in my house.’ There is a strong sense of Boothby taking ownership of what is rightfully his. He felt, one senses, that the duration and intensity of his obsession with Maxwell made his stay on the island a sort of earned destiny. That homecoming sensation which Maxwell experienced on his first trip to Eilean Bàn, Boothby felt it, too.

What Boothby wanted, most of all, was to belong somewhere. One evening, he fell into conversation with a woman in the Lochalsh Hotel. ‘Where do you belong?’ she asked, and he didn’t have an answer for her. He could tell her where he lived, but belonging was a different matter. Later, hunting deer in the hills, he spoke to a stalker who explained that he was the third generation in his family to do that job. The stalker was as much a part of the land as the deer and the hill and the heather. Boothby could not make any such claim. No matter how correct it felt that he should be living in Maxwell’s former home, he continued to see himself as an outsider in the area, an English incomer paranoid that centuries of enmity will be held against him. By the time he left Eilean Bàn, at the end of November 2006, his job having come to an end, his sense of dislocation was complete: ‘I didn’t even believe I belonged in the Highlands.’ He wanted to be like Gavin Maxwell, but he was more like Kathleen Raine, suffering from unrequited love and unable ever to get as close as he would like to the man he so admired.

Island Of Dreams is a melancholy book. Boothby seems thwarted and unhappy. Although he professes sorrow, heartbreak even, at having to leave Eilean Bàn, one wonders how healthy it was for him to live there, a Miss Havisham of the Misty Isle, especially in winter. ‘I’d sit long on Maxwell’s old sofa in Long Room,’ he writes, ‘mostly alone, feeding logs into the fire and watching shadows play across the curtains and walls, across Raef Payne’s portrait of his friend, across Maxwell’s furniture and pictures, his wall hangings and desk …’ There is a tremendous sadness in this living not just in the past, but in someone else past; not just a lonely life, but in someone else’s loneliness. Boothby spent his days unearthing the detritus of the past: old photos and letters from a filing cabinet; a broken watch from a tangle of bracken; the initials of a nineteenth-century lighthouse keeper scratched into a rock. ‘I know every inch,’ he says of the island. ‘I’m in love with it.’ But what he loves is the shadow of a cloud that passed over long before.

Reading Island Of Dreams, one keeps waiting for an epiphany that never comes. Late in the book is Boothby’s realization that Maxwell is the ‘surrogate father that, all along, subconsciously, I’d been searching for’. But the astute reader will have understood, long before, that this was what he was seeking. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that Boothby did not grasp it sooner himself, especially when one considers that Maxwell, too, had been a fatherless boy, his own parent having been killed in action in October 1914 when Maxwell was three months old.

Any book written about Gavin Maxwell risks suffering in comparison with his own writing, and Island Of Dreams is no different. It does not transcend its subject. It is, however, an interesting and worthwhile addition to the growing canon of literature about Maxwell, one to place alongside John Lister-Kaye’s The White Island, Richard Frere’s Maxwell’s Ghost and Douglas Botting’s Gavin Maxwell: A Life. It is just another stone on that cairn, and given what a fascinating and complex figure Maxwell was, it seems unlikely that it will remain uppermost for long.

Island Of Dreams: A Personal History Of A Remarkable Place

Dan Boothby

Picador, £14.99, ISBN 978-1-5098-0075-9, PP320

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Best of Times, Worst of Times

HERE is our story, not as the proud unfolding of an inexorable national logic, nor in the Eeyorish tones of a people that ‘always’ manages to give away a dodgy penalty in the last minute, but far more interestingly as a ‘recurring sequence of uncertainties’. Alistair Moffat ends his tight, brisk account – just 500 pages for the long span from vulcanism and mad tectonic clashes to the referendum result – with the reminder that there was never anything inevitable about Scotland. We could just as easily have become Pictland, Alba, Norseland or Northern England. We may yet end up as part of a future Scandinavian Confederation, or if Putin has his way, as Russia’s Atlantic dockyard.

There is more than classical doubt and good methodology to Moffat’s insistence, though. We all know that history is written retrospectively, and if not always by the winners, then certainly always with the scores already known to us. Reading him at some speed, which is what both narrative and style invite, one becomes aware as never before just how partial, suspended, ambiguous and plain uncertain how much of our history was. There were periods of extraordinary stability, in regnal terms at least. William the Lion practised kingship for nearly half a century and between 1165 and 1286, the Scots only had three monarchs. And yet, one is always made aware how often leadership fell to beardless children and to regents, leading to long years of minority rule; in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was about 50/50.

There are plenty of good books on – or of – Scottish history. Jenny Wormald, Bruce Lenman, Tim Clarkson, Michael Fry, Trevor Royle, T. C. Smout, Tom Devine have all made signal contributions to both scholarship and cultural debate about national identity. For significant detail and sheer texture, there is nothing to match Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: The Autobiography, and she is generously acknowledged in Moffat’s bibliography. There is also a deep salaam to Michael Lynch’s 1991 ‘new history’ of Scotland, but it comes with the recognition that 1991 was nearly a quarter of a century ago, more than a generation by the usual sociological measure, and that the twenty-five intervening years have witnessed enormous change in Scottish life, politics and self-identity. So Moffat’s book, far from merely adding another couple of handsome inches to the stack already on the desk, could hardly seem timelier.

That would only be the case if it offered something original, and not just a complect of previous sources, carefully balanced between points of view: Whiggish, neo-Marxist, revival-of-narrative. There are actually three unique selling points. The first and perhaps most striking is Moffat’s interest in that Private Eye bogey, our national DNA. Except Moffat doesn’t use the term metaphorically or as shorthand for ‘how we are’. He also runs a testing company called BritainsDNA and is previously the author of a book called The Scots: A Genetic Journey. He can show, for instance, that Darnley was paranoid in believing that the future James VI and I was David Riccio’s child. It was his own part of an unbroken line from Sir John Stewart of Bonkyll who died at Falkirk in 1298 to the present Duke of Buccleuch.

Moffat’s other previous convictions give a useful guide to his highly individual perspective. There are books on the Highland Line, the Roman wall, on Tuscany (everyone needs a bit of sun and olive oil), and on the ‘sea kingdoms’. But one title stands out. Moffat writes as a borderer and not just with proprietary affection. He knows that how things fell out between the Solway and the mouth of the Tweed played a disproportionately large role, even if there are no cities there, in the determinations that led us to Scotland rather than Pictland, or Alba, or Norseland, or Northern England. And it was, by no means incidentally, in the border country that Scotland’s most detailed and complex – and still only awkwardly understood – modern myth was played out in the novels of Walter Scott.

Scott, with his astonishing cultural gravity, stands on this side of an event horizon that closes off a lot of national history to all but serious students. A straw poll in a Kintyre pub this week scored high for awareness, and some strong views, on Jacobitism, on Culloden, and on the Scottish contribution to imperial history, intellect and science, but only won spotty reaction to bullet-point dates and events – Bannockburn, Flodden, the Declaration of Arbroath, and Columba (who’s a brand name in old Dalriada) – and none at all to either William the Lion or Alexander III (‘he sounds Russian’) and none to Columba’s patsy Aedan mac Gabrain, the first anointed king of Scotland, who some claim is buried just beyond that pub car park. And nobody had heard of the 1461 Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish, potentially a turning point in national life or potentially the moment when Southern Scotland became Northern England for ever. There isn’t even a signpost or a plaque at Ardtornish now, so the pub regulars aren’t alone in their ignorance.

The great thing about Moffat’s account is that, for all its emphasis on uncertainty, it rattles along with complete narrative certainty, to the extent that great events consistently take even a historically literate reader unawares. There’s no curtain-twitching or incidental music, just a plain explication of what happened as we understand it now and what the immediate consequences seem to have been.

The third unique selling point is that Moffat understands history to be a linguistic and literary phenomenon and not just a recitation of ‘facts’. Just as the geology is wildly eclectic, so too Scotland was and to some degree remains a linguistic patchwork. The ostensible politics of early kings and their proxies is often less important than, or may be determined by, their language loyalties. Some were clearly polyglot. The creation of universal literacy made Scotland unique in and beyond Europe for a couple of centuries. It also led to some astonishing intellectual achievements. The four-day creation by the Six Johns of the twenty-five chapters that make up the ‘Confession of Faith of the Kirk of Scotland’ is an achievement that almost rivals the King James Bible and remains, as Moffat says, ‘one of the most radical documents ever to be written in Scotland’.

It’s worth going back to Moffat’s introduction after the 500 pages have been breached and the referendum result – just the latest in that recurring sequence of uncertainties – is in, for it’s here that he makes explicit the quality that makes his book so compelling. ‘The history of Scotland should never be thought of as remote but rather a deeply personal matter, the only really worthwhile context against which we can see our short lives under these big skies.’ This is simple, but honest. In The Borders, Moffat made clear where his heart lay. Here again, he insists that Scotland’s default landscape isn’t Schiehallion or the Black Cuillin (I feel a strong personal pull to the modest summit of Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian), nor any castle or cluster of clan stones on a bloody moor, but to the fields that tabulate the ‘memory of uncounted lives lived on the land, a patchwork of day-in, day-out labour somehow best seen in the evening, lit by a westering sun’. And yet there is no sense of the elegiac in Moffat’s Scotland. It is highly significant that there is no terminus ad quem in his sub-title, which might quite legitimately have gone ‘From Earliest Times to the Independence Referendum’. Just a page or so after suggesting that dimity and gloaming might be the best lights by which to view the country, he is talking about sunrise again, ending his book with characteristic openness with the thought that, ‘For Scotland now, it seems that several dawns are possible’. Never was a plural better deployed.

Scotland: A History From Earliest Times

Alistair Moffat

Birlinn, £25, ISBN: 978-1780272801, PP576

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What Did Oil Do For Us?

FEELING sorry for the oil companies is something I normally leave to Chancellors of the Exchequer but, after devouring Mike Shepherd’s highly entertaining and informative new book about the past 45 tumultuous years in the North Sea, I think I have a better idea of how Gordon Brown and George Osborne (to say naught of John Swinney) came to have such misplaced sympathy for some of the largest, richest and most ruthless corporate conspiracies in the history of the world. Corporations like BP were indeed in trouble during the early 1970s after ‘their’ oil in countries such as Kuwait and Iran was nationalized. It had never really been their oil, of course, although they had discovered and exploited it; the British Empire and its oil-fired gunboats existed precisely to protect and promote the interest of companies such as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP’s original name) and to ensure the local tribes got as little of the profits as possible. Hence the UK/USA-sponsored coups d’état in Iraq and Iran, way back then.

With the great surge of nationalism in the former colonies after the Second World War, most of the world’s oil reserves were taken over by the new states stumbling out of the ruins of the British, French, Dutch and Belgian empires. Today over ninety per cent of the global supply of oil is nationalized. So was BP, of course, with the British Government holding a majority stake in the company from an early date, for obvious strategic and financial reasons that Winston Churchill understood, if Margaret Thatcher didn’t. The same reasons lay behind the 1974 Labour Government’s creation of the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) when North Sea Oil came on stream, emulating the Norwegian Statoil. That was before the sado-monetarist epidemic of 1979, which led to BNOC (now re-badged as Britoil) being engulfed by BP, and BP in turn being wholly privatized. This resulted in massive short-term and long-term losses to the Treasury. Thatcherism sold out the national interest, in both senses.

Even now, though, it’s the government (in theory, us) that actually owns the oil under the seabed; that’s why oil companies have to bid for licences to prospect for and extract it. The situation is the same in the United States, where the government still owns vast tracts of oil and gas reserves onshore and offshore in Alaska, for example, and the state of Alaska itself has a major tax take, on top of the Feds’ imposts. Let’s not be too sorry for the masters of Big Oil; in return for those taxes they do choose to pay, they always have Big Government rooting for them if things get slippery. When the oil price dips now and again, as it did recently, then the companies run bawling to the Treasury, forecasting the end of the world unless they get even more tax breaks. Tame journalists echo the hysterical cries of alarm. George Osborne, like all his predecessors, has obliged once again. Meanwhile, the latest blip in the oil price gives the oil moguls the chance to tighten the screw on their contractors, cut wages, tell some awkward staff they’re NRB (Not Required Back) and put the frighteners on the offshore labour unions, long since co-opted into the same script.

Even so, the oil companies can never feel secure. There are various reasons for this: one is the slow but steady rise of sustainable energy which, if it were ever allowed the same favourable tax treatment by the Treasury, would quickly become a much more serious competitor for BP and the rest. The second is the continuing state of war, or the threat of war, in many of the world’s oil provinces. Then there is the escalating cost of finding and getting oil in more and more remote parts of the world, as Shell just found out in Arctic Alaska and as Total is discovering with its much-delayed and way over-budget gas project in the wild Atlantic west of Shetland. Worse than any of these problems is the fact that no oil company ever actually knows exactly how much oil and gas there is in the reserves it controls, or how much of that unknown quantity it might realistically be able to extract and sell. This affects the valuation of the company and that in turn affects the share price. Guess the reserves wrongly and you’re in serious trouble.

The geological puzzles behind this fundamental uncertainty about recoverable reserves, and the worry it causes shareholders are what Mike Shepherd has spent his working life trying to solve. In one of the most fascinating sections of Oil Strike North Sea, he describes the geological detective work involved trying to predict the presence of oil from maps of seismic echoes bounced off layers of clay, salt, sandstone and chalk, far below the North Sea. ‘The search for oil is a chancy business,’ he writes. ‘You sweat the data for months, agonizing over whether there might be some oil in a moderate-sized bump 3,000 metres underneath the sea bed; you convince yourself and everybody else there could be oil there; and then the oil company spends £25 million on a well which doesn’t find anything. Not a sniff.’ This is his expert conclusion, after 35 years in the business: ‘Evaluating how much oil is left to produce in any one field is in the realm of arm-waving prediction…Nobody really knows how much oil we have got left to produce.’

Shepherd is an oilfield production geologist and, just as importantly for this story, an Aberdonian who knows and loves the Granite City. We must be grateful to his Ph.D. supervisors at the City of London Polytechnic who fell out so badly with their postgraduate student that in 1980 he returned to his native city without a planned doctorate on the volcanic rocks of Rum and joined an oil service company, working as a mud logger. This sounds a lowly, dirty trade and it is, but without mud loggers we would have no fuel for our internal combustion engines. Their job is to pick over rock fragments brought up with the drilling mud from thousands of feet below the seabed, to raise the alarm if there are signs of a blow-out, and to look for traces of oil in grains of sandstone. Shepherd’s account of how this is done, how drill bits are steered through the strata, and how the oil and gas got into the rocks in the first place, is one of the best I’ve read. He has that rare skill in a professional specialist – he can tell a complicated story in plain language. Not surprisingly, his textbook, Oil Field Production Geology, is the standard industry reference on the subject, partly because it is so well written.

Shepherd did not stay a mud logger for long but when promoted to production geologist he still had to get his hands (and most of the rest of him) dirty on the drilling floor when core samples came up from below. In time he became one of the foremost experts but never a company man; he’s worked for BP, Occidental, Elf, Amerada Hess and others during his career. He has a realistic view of what they are and why they do what they do. Now he’s about to retire he can be blunt: ‘I sell my labour to oil companies. I don’t answer for them,’ he writes in his introduction. In ‘Big Money’, a chapter about ‘equity’ disputes – where companies owning adjacent and interconnected oil fields try to decide how to split the takings – he describes ‘extremely bad-tempered meetings’ with ‘strategic trickery and total mistrust on an epic scale’, as Statoil and its British neighbours argued the toss for thirteen  years because ‘a few per cent difference in who owns what where can turn out to be a very large sum of money’. Hundreds of millions can be involved and, ‘as oil companies think money, breathe money and are covetously desirous of money, this is as deadly serious as it gets for them’.

He recounts a famous ‘telling conversation’ when Armand Hammer, the boss of Occidental, visited the Piper Alpha platform, some time before it blew up. In response to an assistant mentioning that there was a distinct rumbling sound coming from underneath the platform as they stood on the deck, Hammer said: ‘I can just feel those dollars going through underneath me and that’s what it’s all about.’

I feel sorrier for the whales: after several centuries of being hunted for their oil, in the mid-19th century James ‘Paraffin’ Young famously discovered a cheap substitute – by fracking  the oil shales of West Lothian (at the surface!) and then burning them to release the oil. Despite that, the whale extermination campaign continued but, just as the world started to protect the great cetaceans from this insane and unsustainable harpooning, along came the offshore oil and gas industry’s exploration boats, letting off bangers over the ocean shelves, to deafen and disorientate those leviathans who had somehow survived the onslaught and imagined they now had only the Japanese and the Norwegians to bother them.

Those subsea seismic bangs, and the microphones towed by ships to record their echoes from far below, were and are the basic tools of Shepherd’s trade. The seismic sensing kit has got a lot smarter than it was in the 1970s, when long print-outs of seismic plots could take up yards of office space. These days oil company geologists use three-dimensional maps on computer screens to work out where the oil and gas may be lurking between source rocks, reservoir rocks and cap rocks, but the data still comes from the bangs. With no seismic bangs there would be no bucks. Shepherd is not an uncaring person but he doesn’t go far into this aspect of his industry’s environmental effects. He does, however, face up to the climate change question. His own role in the carbon enrichment of the atmosphere is explained, if not excused, by the necessity of keeping the oil and gas industry going until we have affordable, sustainable alternatives. Few would disagree that we are a piece off that yet. Nor does Shepherd flinch from describing the horrific accidents that have killed so many in the rush for oil and gas revenues; the sections on the Piper Alpha catastrophe, the Alexander Kjelland rig capsize, the Chinook helicopter disaster and serial tragedies in the offshore diving industry are particularly well and sensitively done. But he does not dwell on the obvious conclusion that these incidents had a common theme: they all happened because of cutting corners to save money, whether it was using equipment that wasn’t up to the job (e.g. the design of the Alexander Kjelland), or economizing on maintenance (e.g. the fatal crack in the spiral bevel ring gear of the Chinook), or not following safe repair schedules (e.g. the faulty gas valve on Piper Alpha), or the financial pressures on diving contractors to use poorly maintained and unsuitable equipment and to employ inadequately trained divers. None of the incidents he describes told us anything new. In all of them there was existing knowledge and expertise that, if properly followed, would have prevented disaster.

Shepherd is at his best when writing from first-hand experience. He is particularly good on what life on rigs and platforms is really like – for example, trying to sleep in a cantilevered accommodation block called ‘The South Truss’, hanging over North Sea storm waves that send shudders through the entire structure. He is clearly still captivated by his subject and the book’s last chapter is a masterly piece of time travel, down 4,400 metres of drill string and 299 million years of geological history, into what the eighteenth-century Scots geologist James Playfair called ‘the abyss of time’. This piece is in the John Gribbin class of science writing, describing ancient landscapes and cataclysmic convulsions, from which ‘emerges an overwhelming feeling of human frailty in the vastness of geological time’.

The author is less sure-footed on recent politics, when he admits that the 1974 McCrone report (which confirmed that an independent Scotland would be viable, due to oil and gas revenues) was kept secret by the then Labour government and its Tory successors but then asks us to believe that ‘the reality was more mundane than a conspiracy to deceive the Scottish public’ because at that time most people didn’t believe there would really be an oil boom. This is lame, not to say disingenuous. An unexpected treat, however, is the very amusing chapter on the clash of management styles when his American employer Occidental was taken over by the French company Elf (later swallowed by Total in one of the many acts of corporate cannibalism mentioned in the book).

The section on the Shetland council’s oil deals in the 1970s is workmanlike and accurate as far as it goes but ignores the fact that senior Labour Party figures tried to stymie the agreement that gave Shetland an oil reserve fund and a charitable trust fund which together now total some £400m. His account is marred by the persistent use of the solecism ‘the Shetlands’. It’s not ‘the Aberdeens’ so why would it be ‘the Shetlands’?  It is also a pity that the publisher did not hire a proof reader to remove all the irritating comma splices. The map is more or less useless but that is normal these days in cheaply-produced hardbacks. The chapter references are excellent but the book could also do with an index.

These are minor quibbles. Having spent a good part of my own career chronicling the ‘sagas’ of the ‘pioneers’ opening up ‘challenging’ new ‘frontiers’ of oil and gas in the north-east Atlantic and in Alaska, I have grown weary of oilmen’s memoirs echoing the testosterone-laden language once favoured by oil company press officers and other boosters. Oil Strike North Sea is different. Shepherd tells an extraordinary story in plain words, without talking down to the lay reader. The result is a rattling good yarn that is a major contribution to public understanding of what goes on out there, over that cold, grey, storm horizon.

Oil Strike North Sea: a First-hand History of North Sea Oil

Mike Shepherd

Luath Press, £20 hardback, ISBN: 978-1-910745-21-2, PP187

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