Monthly Archives: November 2015


Militant Tendency

THE plot of Ajay Close’s 2014 novel Trust turns on two modern political crises: the miners strikes of the early 1980s and the financial crash of the late noughties. The characters who garner sympathy struggle to maintain moral steadfastness in the face of an unjust political situation. There are the women who face a daily barrage of misogyny and general masculine brutality whilst working for the ironically-named merchant bank Goodison Farebrother; in such an environment moral purity doesn’t get anyone anywhere – apart from fired. Across the picket line there are the miners at a private colliery who are militantly holding firm against both the mine owners and the state. On the amoral side of things, there are the few characters – mostly bankers – who are motivated by pure self-interest and, if they’re male, a primitive dedication to certain lower organs. 

The female protagonist, Lexa, who works for Goodison, is brokering a deal to sell the mine and starts a relationship with a union official. When her moral boundaries start shifting considerably, she leaves the banking sector to pursue old-fashioned ideals of community. She does, however, retain personal ties to her female co-workers, who compromise themselves and cling on in the banking world. When Lexa is dragged back in to resolve a conflict at Caledonian Bank in the wake of the big bust she realizes that corruption, past and present, are not just restricted to a few bad apples. What is striking in Trust is the number of individuals either willing to abandon their ethics or those who simply have none, but also that in 2009 militant politics has become an anachronism. Political compromise is the best option in any situation, no matter how much it suits vested interests.  

Off the back of Trust Close has chosen another fiery turning point in British history, and another militant cause, for her new novel: the suffragette campaign that came to a riotous fervour during the years leading up to the First World War. Much of A Petrol Scented Spring seems very similar to Close’s 2010 play Cat and Mouse. The title takes its name from the notorious Cat and Mouse Act passed by H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government in 1913. This legislation allowed imprisoned, hunger-striking suffragettes to be released on condition they be re-arrested once they had recovered; as it happens, many of them smelt freedom and went on the run. Based on real events and set in Perth Prison, Cat and Mouse concerns the Chief Medical Officer called Hugh Ferguson Watson, who, in contrast to most of the medical fraternity in Scotland, agrees to force-feed imprisoned suffragettes in the spring and summer of 1914. 

If a play-turned-novel sounds suspect, it’s not particularly rare. Alasdair Gray turned some of his early plays into a couple of quieter and not-too-bad novels, either because he’d run out of ideas or needed to fulfil publishing contracts. This is something Close will know all about, having interviewed Gray in her previous life as a journalist. But whatever the reason for her return to familiar territory, Close’s fourth novel is a captivating and nuanced read, and one which takes on some of the more controversial and often forgotten aspects of the suffrage movement. It would quite rightly be blasphemous now to suggest that the suffragettes were anything but heroes, yet what is often overlooked is the chaos they were prepared to unleash, something which would be roundly condemned today. A Petrol Scented Spring opens with an example of one of their less extreme acts. A troop of women create a ‘cacophony of smashing glass’ by turning their ire, and their hammers, on a row of shopfronts. 

Close captures the plucky, gee-whiz spirit of the age without, as the title suggests, kowtowing to the idea of the Edwardian period as a long idyll before the world broke. If you were a suffragette at the time, society was no picnic in the park, and there was nothing innocent about the deep-seated and obstinate patriarchy that ensured women were delegated to second-class citizens. The suffragettes turned to the destruction of property out of frustration with the lack of progress in parliament. It was approached with a provocateur’s sense of fun, but there were strict rules: ‘No person, however vile, is to be hurt….there must be a clear message in the action’. So when Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is expected in Scotland, the rebels burn down a mansion in Perthshire owned by a prominent anti-suffragist. ‘A postcard, found near the blaze, bears the words A warm welcome to Lloyd George.’ 

The narrator at the love-sick heart of A Petrol Scented Spring is Hugh Ferguson Watson’s wife, Donella, who married the doctor in 1916, two years after the suffragettes were given amnesty as a result of the war breaking out. Close gives Donella a good punchy present tense authorial voice and a sharp eye. As Donella recalls her passionless years married to Hugh, she imagines what could have happened between Perth Prison’s Chief Medical Officer and a particularly fiery Scotswoman called Arabella Scott, imprisoned for trying to burn down Kelso racecourse. Although there are many reasons why Hugh and Donella’s marriage is a failure, one of them is that Hugh’s initial attraction to Donella was her resemblance to Arabella. Even after recounting her life, Donella is still unsure ‘whether the love story pieced together in these pages, is mine, or hers’. 

Unlike the suffragettes, Hugh is an extremist of the dangerous sort. He is a cold, dour individual from Ayrshire. Conservative to the bone, his theory of marriage is made clear in one of the conversations between him and Arabella: ‘Nature seeks a balance. Masculine and feminine, virility and tenderness, brain and womb. Your body, a woman’s body, is a part of Nature. Denied the balance of wedlock and motherhood, it must remain unfulfilled.’ If he wasn’t so passionless, it is the sort of thing one of DH Lawrence’s male characters might say. Hugh’s love is clearly of the domineering sort. One might even call it sadistic: ‘he loved a convalescent girl, weakened by long illness. He loved the way I bent in his hands,’ says Donella. Arabella’s imperviousness is partly why Hugh falls for her. She has the obstinacy to withstand his torture and the psychological acuity to outwit him. Arabella is one of those difficult characters: a hugely intelligent menace. She was rich enough to attend Edinburgh University, and by the time she is in Perth Prison, she’s had spells in Holloway and Edinburgh’s Calton jails as a result of her subversive activities.

What qualifies Doctor Ferguson Watson to force-feed suffragettes is his experience treating the ‘mad poor’, who at the time were housed in ‘public asylums, where they are strait-jacketed or strapped to their beds or thrashed by their infuriated keepers and, should they become so crazed that they will not eat, they are forcibly fed’. Hugh is also a specialist in syphilis, which he believes is a marker for insanity, and so one isn’t surprised to learn of his fear of sex. When he discovers that madness runs in Donella’s family he recoils from the marriage bed and – metaphorically at least – runs for the hills. His suspicion that Donella might have syphilis is only compounded when he finds out she once had a youthful affair with one of the sisterhood, the terrifically-named and anarchic Argemone ffarington Bellairs. Thankfully, Close doesn’t milk the age-old prejudice concerning femininity and madness, but lets it sit like a malign growth in the background. 

Like in any good love story, love reveals itself to be possessive, violent and deceitful. It’s a nasty business to get involved in, and the reader may wonder why Donella binds the ties of love by marrying such a brute. It is the least convincing part of the novel, and something which could have been given more depth. But Donella’s lingering fascination with the man she married, and the woman he preferred to her, shows a mind in doubt about the decisions that have affected the most important parts of her life. Events that are replayed in Donella’s head take on a sinister hue as she and the reader realize that during their courtship Hugh used Donella as a stand-in for Arabella. Their consequent marriage is no better, as testified by Donella likening holy matrimony to a fight between Hugh and Arabella: ‘the uninhibited passion in their voices, the murderous vigour in their limbs’. Donella, however, also shows herself to be an adept fighter. She blackmails Hugh and he pays for her to train as a doctor. He sends her to Canada, where he once promised to take Arabella. The inequities of marriage is a motif loosely holding the private and public together in the book: the suffragette’s destruction of property is a symbolic attack on what was once a way for a man to own a woman.

It’s not all despair. Amidst the shocking descriptions of force-feeding, a practice which wasn’t restricted to the normal digestive tracts, Close writes witty and humorous dialogue that has the duck, dive and jab of a boxing match between characters. This has been a trademark of her fiction since her first novel Official and Doubtful. In Trust the repartee was a way for male bankers to make sexist jibes, but in A Petrol Scented Spring it is the imprisoned suffragettes who get the best lines, using their wit to provoke and undermine the seemingly indomitable Hugh. There is also the occasional interference by Donella’s bohemian sister Hilda, who goes on to have a riotous lifelong relationship with Argemone. It is a shame more room isn’t made for Argemone, whose first words encapsulate her demeanour: ‘I say, is anyone up for fun?’ Instead, she disappears for long periods and this spiky extravagant figure is reduced to a plot device. Plot, however, is something Close has always controlled with a steady hand. The final intriguing scene takes place in Edinburgh during an air raid in World War Two, where a kind of revelation means one eventually begins to feel a hint of sympathy for Hugh. 

At its core, A Petrol Scented Spring is about what individuals will and will not sacrifice to hold on to their ideals. Hugh dedicates his whole life in pursuit of his obstinate and mostly flawed beliefs about madness and marriage. The imprisoned suffragettes are prepared to die for their cause. When Arabella is released after five weeks Hugh is furious and writes an emotionally-charged letter to the prison commission, which also proves that not only can idealists be defeated by history, they can also lose out to their own desperate hearts. As for Donella, she suffers the narrator’s curse and is doomed to be circumvented by the characters who shaped her life.   

A Petrol Scented Spring

Ajay Close

Sandstone Press, £8.99, ISBN: 9781910124611, PP255

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Who will be the next U.S. President?

NO post-war US president, including John F. Kennedy, holds a tighter grip of America’s political imagination than Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Democrats agree that Reagan’s presidency was ‘transformative’. For Republicans, Reagan rescued the country from decline after the disaster of Vietnam and at a time of flagging economic growth. For Democrats, he stacked the deck against ordinary Americans by cutting taxes for the richest, deregulating the labour market and liberating Wall Street.

Driving this summer from the home of a friend in Madison, Wisconsin to Brooklyn, New York, I encountered first hand the diverse effects of Reaganism. Pittsburgh, for instance, is thriving. Built by and formerly dependent on the Pennsylvania steel industry, the city is now a regional hub for advanced medical research and investment banking. Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, on the other hand, all bear the scars of Reagan’s supply-side reforms. Indeed, some neighbourhoods in south Philadelphia are semi-derelict, their streets lined with gutted factory buildings and abandoned housing blocks.

And that’s why Reagan matters: during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989, Reagan vigorously reshaped American society. Where he saw an ‘underfunded’ military, he ploughed money into it. Where he saw ‘over-powerful’ trade unions, he crushed them. Where he saw a ‘bloated’ welfare system, he stripped it back. Under Reagan, American politics shifted so decisively to the right that each of his three initial White House successors – George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – felt compelled to work within the ideological constraints he had set for them. Successor number four, however, had other ideas.

In January 2008, at the start of a Democratic primary campaign that would stretch on until June, Barack Obama, then the junior senator for Illinois, explained to reporters why he was running to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. ‘I think the 1980 election was different,’ Obama said. ‘I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it … I think we’re in one of those times right now, where people feel like, as things are going, they aren’t working.’

In other words, nine months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Obama had already cast himself as a Reagan of the left, determined to ‘change the trajectory of America’ as radically for the left as Reagan had for the right in the 1980s. But with Obama now in the penultimate year of his presidency, and the process of replacing him well under way, how confidently can the one-time Chicago community organizer claim to have achieved (or surpassed) this lofty historical standard?

* * *

Believer: My Forty Years in Politics is a memoir by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist between 2003, when Obama first burst onto the American political stage, and 2011, the third year of Obama’s first presidential term. Axelrod charts his ascent from longhaired teenage intern at the Villager (a popular Greenwich Village newsletter in the 1960s) to Chicago Tribune reporter, professional political consultant and then senior Obama adviser.

As might be expected from a journalist who cut his teeth covering Chicago municipal politics in the 1970s and ’80s, he knows how to tie a story together. His account of the election of Rod Blagojevich – a man currently serving 14 years in prison for corruption offences – as Illinois governor in 2002 is typically bracing. ‘The Blagojevich campaign was a masterpiece of political technique,’ Axelrod writes. ‘Armed with incisive research, Rod’s consultants had furnished him with a compelling rationale to match his boundless ambition. As a purely clinical matter, I admired their execution. They had deftly used the tools of our trade to compel into office [someone] who would prove himself thoroughly ill-suited to hold it.’

By the late 1980s Axelrod had left The Tribune and established a successful consultancy firm in downtown Chicago. A talented communicator and tactician, he helped orchestrate the election of Democratic politicians across the country. But he soon grew restless. Frustrated by the cynicism of the Beltway, he longed for a candidate with the same idealistic vision of America as his hero, JFK. He first met Obama in 1992 but only, he says, ‘as a favour to a friend’. Obama had recently returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School and was working for Project Vote, an initiative aimed at boosting voter registration numbers in poor black and ethnic minority communities throughout the city. Axelrod was impressed with the 31-year-old but not blown-away by him. ‘Bettlyu Saltzman, a longtime Democratic activist, called to ask me to get together with Obama. “He’s a really extraordinary young guy,” she said … While I didn’t exactly leave that first meeting humming “Hail to Chief”, I could see why Bettylu was so enthused about this newcomer.’

For the next few years the two had little contact bar the occasional chance meeting at a public event. Owing to the pressures of family life (he has three children, one of whom is severely epileptic), Axelrod turned down an opportunity to move to Washington and work for the Clintons, while Obama taught law at the University of Chicago before winning a seat in the Illinois state senate. Then, in 2003, Obama – who was gaining national recognition as an opponent of the war in Iraq – hired him to coordinate his bid for the US senate. From there, for reasons that Axelrod never makes clear, Axelrod and Obama quickly bonded as colleagues and as friends, marking the start of a remarkable political relationship.

Believer is at its most thrilling – and Axelrod at his most animated as a narrator – when recounting scenes from the 2008 presidential contest that launched Obama, against vertiginous odds, into the Oval Office. ‘Led by the Secret Service and Chicago police, we caravanned down a closed Lake Shore Drive past a makeshift security fence that separated us from the massive, cheering crowd,’ Axelrod recalls of election night on 6 November 2008, moments after John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent, had formally conceded defeat. ‘A stage was set up in the south end of the sprawling downtown park that is Chicago’s front lawn. In 1968 it had been the scene of bloody rioting at the Democratic National Convention … On this night, forty years later, the same park had become a moving mosaic of national unity.’

But the euphoria of Obama’s victory rapidly dissipated. Within days, the new president was being briefed by US Treasury officials about the scale of the crisis descending on the American economy. ‘Well, it’s too late to ask for a recount, so we had better figure out what we’re going to do about this,’ Obama remarked following one session with his advisers in late 2008. Once installed in the White House, and after some tough congressional bargaining, he authorized a $830 billion recovery package designed to reignite US economic activity, a decision that probably saved America from a catastrophic, 1930s-style crash.

Having ‘staunched the bleeding of an economy on the brink of disaster,’ as Axelrod inelegantly puts it, Obama spent much of the rest of his first term battling to implement healthcare reform. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – ‘Obamacare’ – finally passed into law in March 2010, extending the availability of health insurance to some fifty million uninsured Americans, it immediately became the signature achievement of the first Obama administration. Axelrod dedicates a chapter to it, including this slushy anecdote: ‘When I heard the cheers from next door [after the Senate ratified the bill], I began to cry – not little sniffles, but big, heavy sobs. Suddenly the political calculations and ups and downs of the previous year seemed irrelevant … I knew that because of what we had done, because of the president’s determination, [families] would be spared [an] ordeal.’

Axelrod left the White House in February 2011, four months after the Democrats’ infamous mid-term ‘shellacking’, which saw the Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives and make sizeable gains in the Senate. But he clearly believes that he had, even then, been part of a landmark presidency. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, new laws to combat gender pay discrimination, the expansion of college aid and an auto industry bail-out all feature prominently on his list of Obama’s early accomplishments. To Axelrod’s inventory I would add the draw-down of America’s military presence in Iraq and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, agreed with Russia in 2010, which has cut the number of nuclear missile launchers in Europe and the US.

Then, of course, there is the simple fact that Obama is the country’s first African-American president. His administration has been so plagued by external crises – and so dogged by right-wing obstructionism – that it is easy to forget how groundbreaking his election was. The string of racist police murders in recent months, and the shooting, in June, of nine black worshippers at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, discredit any suggestion that the US has evolved, under Obama, into a ‘post-racial’ society. But Obama has directly and repeatedly confronted the issue of racism in way that none of his white predecessors dared, or was equipped, to do. His eulogy for Mother Emmanuel’s pastor Reverend Clementa Pinckney, during which he broke into a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in front of a predominantly black audience, will be remembered as a defining moment in the history of the American civil rights movement.

Yet, while Obama has indisputably altered America’s ‘trajectory’ on certain key social issues, his record on economic ones is less impressive. The 2009 Wall Street bail-out was a reactive measure aimed at salvaging the US economy from the consequences of Reagan-era deregulation. Since then, progress has been illusive. Large financial firms still account for a massive – and unsustainable – percentage of US GDP. Pay and bonuses in the financial sector have continued to grow as average American incomes have stagnated or declined. The steady outsourcing of manufacturing jobs – championed by Obama in the form of new international free trade agreements – continues to depress communities in the former industrial heartlands of Detroit and Cleveland and Philadelphia. Reagan fundamentally changed the relationship between American capital and American labour in favour of American capital. Obama has not changed it back.

* * *

There is, however, one area in which Obama has unequivocally eclipsed Reagan. When George Bush beat Michael Dukakis to the White House in 1988, the Democrats responded by selecting Bill Clinton, a pioneer of the Third Way, as their next presidential nominee. When Obama – a black liberal intellectual with an Ivy League education – twice trounced Republican ‘moderates’, in 2008 and 2012, the Grand Old Party countered by swinging hard to the right, with the effect of making conservatives increasingly unelectable at the executive level.

If any evidence were required of Obama’s success at destroying his opponents as a respectable political force, we need only glance at the hopeless parade of gun-nuts and carnival-barkers that constitute the 2016 Republican presidential field. Ben Carson, a militant anti-abortionist currently polling at 17 per cent in the Iowa primary, thinks kindergarten teachers should carry firearms. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee believes that Obama’s recent deal with Iran, which secured international oversight of Tehran’s nuclear programme, will ‘take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven’. And the putative GOP frontrunner Donald Trump intends, if elected, to erect a 2,000 mile long wall along the Mexican-American border, and charge the Mexican government for its construction.

Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter – a diary of the writer’s years working for an anonymous governor of a ‘small southern state’ – offers an entertaining insight into the farce that modern Republicanism has become. Swaim, who joined the governor’s press team in 2003 after completing a PhD in literature at Edinburgh University, depicts a Veep-style culture in which administration employees were terrorized by their hapless, irascible boss. ‘[The governor] would get into heated exchanges with staffers over policy issues, and the whole time his eyes would stay half closed, as if he found the conversations slightly disappointing,’ Swaim writes. ‘Sometimes he would contend with reporters over the phone, the receiver clutched between his head and shoulder, and play video games at the same time. Aaron [the press secretary] couldn’t be shaken or hurt; he could endure the governor’s cruelest and most irrational criticisms as if he’d barely heard them.’

Before long, Swaim himself became a target of these attacks. On one occasion, he received a thunderous dressing-down for attempting to insert the word ‘impervious’ into a speech. ‘“After the Revolution, many Americans were starting to conclude that the Atlantic Ocean made the new nation more or less impervious to attack.” Instantly, I knew I’d blundered. “Impervious?” the governor replied, staring at me with a deadpan look. “Impervious to attack? … You’re-not-thinking-about the audience.” Now he was pounding his desk. “You’ve-got-to think-about-the audience … You’ve got to think about the truck diver at the feed-and-seed”.’

But the governor’s ego – and career – imploded when it was revealed that he had been having an affair with a woman in Argentina. Humiliatingly, in an effort to conceal an unexplained six day absence, one staff member told the press that his boss had been ‘hiking on the Appalachian trail’, a phrase now gleefully deployed by American reporters as a euphemism for high-level infidelity. ‘Over the next few hours, as colleagues gathered in the press office to express a variety of opinions about what had happened, I kept quiet and gathered the essential facts,’ Swaim recalls. ‘He had been in Buenos Aires, not on the Appalachian trail. His mistress was named Maria … The first lady had known about it for some time and fiercely disapproved. He’d said in the press conference that he’d spent “the last five days crying in Argentina”, which we all agreed was an unfortunate way of putting it.’

As any cursory Google search will confirm, Swaim’s boss was Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina between 2003 and 2011. In 2009, before the news of his affair went public, Sanford had already attracted the attention of the national media by threatening to veto South Carolina’s share of Obama’s stimulus money. Egged-on by the nascent Tea Party movement, Sanford denounced the stimulus as an act of fiscal irresponsibility in an age of over-indebtedness. ‘We will not be seeking the use of these federal funds for the way they put our state even further into an unconscionable level of debt,’ he said. But after months of pointless brinkmanship, Sanford relented. According to some estimates, 7,500 South Carolinians could have lost their jobs if he hadn’t, and this in a state with an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent, the second highest in the Union at that time.

Swaim doesn’t explicitly link the governor to a specific set of political beliefs. In fact, he doesn’t even identify him as a Republican. But it’s hardly a coincidence that Sanford is a Republican. Only a party as chaotic as the GOP could produce candidates such as Sanford, Trump, Huckabee and Carson with such chilling regularity. The Republicans’ crisis didn’t begin with Obama. But it has certainly intensified during his presidency, and the deepening neurosis relates not just to his ethnicity (although that is clearly a factor), but also to the threat he once posed – or seemed to pose – to America’s Reaganite consensus.

* * *

Watching the first of the Democratic Party’s primary campaign debates on 13 October, I was struck by how radical the language of liberal America had become. Speaking in the unmistakable brogue of his native Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders, the veteran Senator for Vermont and Hillary Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, set out the case for socialism in America. ‘What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of one per cent in this country own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent,’ he said. ‘That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 per cent of all new income is going to the top one per cent.’

In previous years, Sanders would have been dismissed by the Democratic establishment as a crank, or as the left-wing equivalent of the Republican’s hard-right fringe. But this year, ‘Hillaryland’  – which had assumed the 2016 nomination would fall automatically into Clinton’s lap – has been forced to take him seriously. As well it should. Sanders leads the former Secretary of State in the New Hampshire primary and is gaining ground in Iowa. The 74-year-old’s stump speeches have attracted huge audiences across the country. Crucially, for a candidate with no corporate support and scarce private resources, Sanders is raising massive amounts of money. Over the summer, his contributions totalled $26 million, 77 per cent of which came from small donors (individuals who gave less than $200 – by contrast, 80 per cent of Clinton’s cash comes from ‘high dollar donors’). Sanders now has the financial stamina to chase Clinton all the way to the finishing line, just as she chased Obama in 2008.

The seeds of Sanders’ insurgency were planted during Obama’s first bid for the presidency. Sanders has inherited large parts of Obama’s base, along with much of its radical grassroots energy. Paradoxically, ‘Sanders 2016’ wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiasm Obama generated seven years ago. But nor would it be necessary had the outgoing president realized the full extent of his initial potential. Sanders is campaigning in the space Obama opened up and then  failed to fill. Obama has almost been a Reagan of the left. Almost, but not quite.

Believer: My Forty Years in Politics

David Axelrod

Penguin, £25, ISBN: 978-1594205873, PP528

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

Barton Swaim

Simon & Schuster, £16.48, ISBN: 978-1476769929, PP224

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SRB Diary: Europe’s Last Border

Along an old drove road in the forest between Bulgaria and Turkey, there is a drinking fountain locals call Kreynero. It’s a distortion of the original Greek, kryo nero, cold water.

The stone still bears a faint Soviet star that someone carved in 1971 when the Cold War was never going to end. The spring itself can’t be dated, for this is a mountain 300 million years old. Kreynero is not only cold but heavy with iron; no matter how much you drink, you can’t be sated.

Drink from it thrice, locals say, and you’ll return to this spring that tells a story of three countries and two continents. Though it feels like a place without a country or a continent. Two years ago, I accidentally drank from Kreynero and my life changed. The water drugged me into a deep journey, now a book called Border. True, it wasn’t completely accidental, because to get here, you drive from the Black Sea coast through dense oak forest, reach the last village at the bottom of a valley where the road ends, abandon your car, run over a swinging bridge, and enter lush hills empty of humans. Vipers cross your path and jackals come out at night with eyes like lanterns from the underworld.

But nobody walks here at night. Nobody except the night walkers from Turkey, those souls who carry the remains of their lives in plastic bags, with no way back. Because this is the last border of Europe.

The natural border is a meandering river that empties into the Black Sea. Turkish poachers send boar across the river, and the Bulgarians send deer to their colleagues. Both sides dig for Thracian crafted gold three thousand years old. In brief, things are pretty friendly, and you can even swim in the river.

Not so in my childhood. The whole mountain was out of bounds because a wall of electrified barbed wire ran along the border: an easternmost cousin of the Berlin Wall. Its portals were locked well into this century.

When you wade into liminal places and wildernesses of history, you enter deep time. Although this mountain is untouched by the Ice Age and only home to a few thousand people, its human story is old. Here, then, is a diary of a drinking fountain that has seen it all.

* * *

The Ottoman Empire, ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the words of politicians, was so sick that its former subordinates wanted rid of it. Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria united against Turkey in what became the First Balkan War (1912) but should have been the last. The Second Balkan War (1913) became a precursor to World War I. Its immediate result: a macabre merry-go-round euphemised by politicians as ‘exchange of populations’, which sounds more like a game of Scrabble than a deadly march across mountains. Refugees darkened the drove roads, like the road of Kreynero. The Greeks who lived near Kreynero fled to Greece. The Bulgarians who’d lived in Turkey came here and moved into their houses. The Muslims of both countries were expelled to Turkey and moved into the houses of the Bulgarians. Brigands of all nationalities robbed the refugees and each other. You lost a homeland and most of your possessions along the way, gained an empty house in another country where the kitchen pots were still warm and winter filled your heart. In a few years, the centuries-old Ottoman quilt was unstitched to shreds by militant nationalisms, in what historians call ‘the unmixing of peoples’.

A hundred years is in living memory. I spent a month in the border village by Kreynero. Next to me was an abandoned Greek house with a missing door: the grandchildren had come as soon as the Cold War was over, to salvage something of a lost ancestral world.

In an abandoned Turkish village on the other side, I met a lone shepherd.

‘See that pear-tree?’, he said. It was next to a ruined Bulgarian house. Under the pear-tree, a local had dug up a pot of gold coins.

‘But those coins were not his,’ the shepherd shook his head.

‘Why did they bury the pot here anyway?’, I asked him and he looked at me, surprised. His parents had been kids when they were expelled from Greece.

‘Because every exile hopes to go back, one day,’ said the shepherd.

* * *

1980. Not far from Kreynero, behind the electrified barbed wire, were the border barracks of no man’s land. The buildings are now a wilderness of snakes, but a slogan remains over the gate:

‘On the national border, national order!’

Young recruits were drilled to shoot every moving thing in sight, even a hedgehog, but especially a person. For the hedgehog, you got no reward, but for the fugitive who could be German, Czech, Polish, or anybody who lived between here and the Berlin Wall, you got a medal with Lenin on it and extra leave. Or just a medal with Lenin on it.

Let me make this clear: the border was not there to stop people arriving. It was there to stop people leaving. That’s why the top of the barbed wall pointed to the real enemy: inwards.

One summer’s day in 1980, a corporal was on patrol with his mate. The corporal went into the bushes and when he came back, he saw his mate making a run for it across the river. This happened with border soldiers – being so close to the border, it looked so easy. The corporal had a moment of hesitation, or maybe he didn’t, then he lifted his rifle and shot his mate in the back.

On the Turkish side, the border barracks bore the profile of the father of the nation Kemal Ataturk and his slogan:

‘Happy is the one who can say I am a Turk!’

Near-by was a picture-perfect village full of orchards and half-empty of people. Because in the 1970s, the army moved in and locals moved out. I have a friend who grew up in that village and spent the summers grazing horses by the river. But parts of the river were a no-go zone. Soldier patrols were posted every few hundred metres and you didn’t want to meet them.

One summer’s day in 1980, a neighbour took his horse to the river. On the other side were people working in a field. He waved to them. ‘Merhaba’, he shouted, Hello. They waved back.

A patrol heard him; he was taken away in an army truck.

‘And we were too scared to ask where they took him,’ my friend said. ‘But his horse knew. She stopped grazing and died in the winter.’

The man was convicted of treason and jailed for fourteen years.

Near Kreynero, I met the corporal who shot his mate in the back. He is eighty and lives alone, wearing military camouflage. It’s not that I expected a confession (and I didn’t get one), but what I especially didn’t expect was this: that I would sit under his vine and cry with him. A few years after he shot his mate, his own son was serving in the army. That’s where an accident in a quarry tore him to pieces. ‘I had a son,’ he kept saying, ‘I had a son.’

You only had to scratch, for this border to throw up the sins of the fathers. Some said it hadn’t been an accident but a suicide.

* * *

2015. In a Turkish town near the border, there is a café called ‘Luck’ where you drink the last tea before Europe. It’s what the patrons do, because the patrons are about to board a truck. I came to this café where no woman comes, and spoke to the gallant but cagey owner who didn’t let me pay for tea. Meanwhile, unshaven men with rucksacks snuck into the back where wads of banknotes changed hands.

In the smokey fog, a clean-shaved guy in a Great Gatsby jacket stood out. He looked strangely out of place, like a philosophy drop-out, though he was a car mechanic. His name was Erdem. A few weeks later, I saw Erdem on the other side. He sat in a café near the border called ‘Dream’. He offered me a Bulgarian cigarette. A few weeks, many borders, and thousands of euros later, he made it to Germany. Some weren’t so lucky.

In the Turkish village with the lone shepherd, truckloads of people are dumped every week by Istanbul traffickers and told ‘Welcome to Europe’.

‘And they come running to me, crying Bulgaria, Bulgaria? And my heart sinks when I say No, Turkey, Turkey,’ the shepherd said. ‘Because the border is just over there, but see that forest? Not even boar can get through. Let alone a child.’

The good shepherd shared the little he had but their needs were beyond his means. The few who did make it over the hills would sit by Kreynero and drink its heavy water, before they were arrested by border patrols.

I will remember Erdem, and other night walkers I met, as a man whose destiny was out of joint with his nature. That’s what it is to be a refugee: to be pushed down the wrong corridor of history, narrow and one-directional like a birth canal unto the underworld. And all along, to carry in a plastic bag the hope of going back, one day.

In September, my harvesting of stories was over, and it was time to come home to Scotland and begin the effort of shaping them into an effortless narrative.

I returned to Kreynero because – you guessed it – I had drunk from it thrice. The Soviet star was fainter, but nothing else had changed in the last few thousand years. The water was still good but unquenching, as it was a century ago when the Greeks left their village temporarily with bundles on carts, and drank from Kreynero one last time. Though they didn’t know it.

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The SRB Interview: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith’s fingers must move faster than Alfred Brendel’s. Among the most productive and successful writers at work today, he has published in the region of 80 books (excluding academic works), among them The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (16 titles), which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide; 44 Scotland Street (10 titles), and the Sunday Philosophy Club novels, featuring Isabel Dalhousie (10 titles). He has received various awards and honours, including the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. In the past two months alone he has published The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Revolving Door of Life, the first of a new children’s series, School Ship Tobermory, and an introduction to a new edition of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. He lives in an elegant house, surrounded by trees and garden, in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, with his doctor wife Elizabeth. He has two adult daughters. He spoke to Rosemary Goring in his spacious study, where his desk is strewn with books, papers and spectacles. The walls are lined to the ceiling with books and paintings, among them, beside the large fireplace, an Italian Renaisssance portrait which he believes is of King James V. In a small adjoining room McCall Smith’s secretary, Lesley, is at work. She brings tea. McCall Smith is lightly tanned, dressed in chinos and shirt, and speaks in perfect and grammatical sentences. His voice is calm and soothing and could be marketed as an antidepressant; his conversation is punctuated frequently with laughter. His svelte Tonkinese cat, Augustus Basil, initially joined the discussion before jumping into a pink plush chair and sleeping through the rest of it.

SRB: Could you tell me a bit about your writing routine? 

MS: To a certain extent that depends where I am, in that I have to do a lot of touring and that changes my routine. Generally speaking if I’m at home, or perhaps staying somewhere else and writing there, I will often write very early in the morning. So, I would get up at three or four o’clock in the morning, and I would tend to work until about half past six. And then I go back to bed, and have a second sleep, so to speak, which I find very restorative. I’m not sure where exactly one is in the cycle at that stage, but I find it a pleasant stage of the sleep cycle.

And then I will write later on in the morning depending on what else there is to do. This morning, for instance, has mostly been taken with correspondence, and a lot of mornings are taken up with correspondence. Lesley will come through and we will deal with correspondence, that’s letters from readers, and associated things. I tend not to write in the afternoon but will perhaps write again in the late afternoon, early evening, and then may well write in the evening as well, depending obviously on what is going on.

When I’m actively working on a book, I will write anything between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day. Occasionally I might have a day where I write a little bit more. I write on a word processor, as I suspect most people now do. I find that there is a different voice if I use a pen. I think it’s a question of brain pathways. A word processor provides an opportunity to develop different brain pathways, a pen involves different processes, there’s a bit more hand-mind coordination, obviously, but I think there is in my view a different voice.

How would that manifest itself?

It would manifest itself stylistically. Word processing has made it easier to write perhaps more complex, longer sentences. I think that when word processing first became common there was quite a bit of interest in what effect it would have on prose. I think many people felt that word processing would result in logorrhoea setting in, in that it made it so easy to spew forth the words. I remember I read a book back in those days, called Electronic Language, which looked at the philosophical and linguistic implications of word processing, and the thesis that there were different brain states involved.

My own experience is that yes, it does facilitate expression, word processing encourages loquacity, prolixity, but you can still write tight, structured prose with it. I think it lends itself to casual ungrammatical prose, in that stream of consciousness writing is very easy with word processing.

So I use the computer. And generally speaking, it emerges in pretty much the finished state. I think that I possibly enter what psychiatrists would describe as a mildly dissociative state. In that I am aware of my surroundings – obviously I will respond to anybody speaking to me, the telephone ringing and things of that sort – but I am actually engaged in direct contact with the subconscious mind. Because I think fiction to a very considerable extent emerges from the subconscious mind. So I sit there, I don’t have to say to myself, what am I going to do next, what is going to happen next? There isn’t that cogitative process. It just comes, it flows. And that, I think, is because I am accessing the subconscious mind, which is creating the narratives. Because the human mind as you know is always interrogating the world and asking ‘What if?’ questions. We’re not conscious of that going on, but we’re doing it all the time. The mind is doing a whole series of rapid computations. With fiction, the subconscious mind is making it up. That explains why the writer can sit at the desk and begin to write something which surprises him or her.

And you get surprised?

Yes. Developments occur. And it had not occurred to my conscious mind that x or y is going to happen, but it happens, and that happens all the time.

So it’s a bit like going to the cinema not knowing what’s going to be screened. You get up, you sit down, and you are almost entertaining yourself?

I think so. It is like that. I don’t exactly hear a voice, because that sounds a little bit sinister. But I hear a rhythm. I hear a metre, and then the words fit into that.

Is that a musical thing or a poetic thing?

I think it’s possibly in the area of musical or poetic sensitivities. I hear – just pass me that book [he is given The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, and reads the opening sentence]. ‘Mma Ramotswe remembered exactly how it was that the subject of taking a holiday arose.’ I’m hearing tum ti tum, ti ti ti tum… and the words come.

Have you spoken to other writers about this?

I’ve spoken to composer friends, about how they compose. I remember one composer friend I talked to about that, he hears the music, the melody perhaps, or some supporting harmony, or whatever. I can’t do that. I can’t look at a musical score and hear it; I am full of admiration for people who can do it. But musical friends of mine can do that. Whereas I can plug into the flow, when it comes to prose. So that’s why it happens quite quickly. Because it’s 1000 words an hour, that’s the rate at which I usually write.

Do you think writers like Balzac or Dickens were similar? People are always very suspicious of productivity. Yet you look at some of the great writers of the past who have written as if it’s a continuation of them, almost.

I think that’s very interesting, and I certainly would agree with you that if I read Dickens that must be going on. Dickens has a flow. I get the strong impression of flow in Jane Austen.

She’s a string quartet.

She is, yes, definitely! But mind you, that raises all sorts of interesting issues about synesthesia, such as what colour you see when you read Jane Austen…

You were a professor for many years, then the arc of your career dramatically changed. Was it a comfortable process, or were you at times unsettled by what was becoming your other life?

I don’t think I was unsettled by it. There came a point at which I had to make a decision, that was a decision I made fourteen, fifteen years ago, when I decided I would become a full-time writer. I don’t think I found it unsettling. I found it a little bit difficult towards the end of my professional career, my other career. I found it difficult, I suppose, to cope with the demands that were beginning to be made, and that is what triggered the decision. Initially I took an unpaid leave of absence – universities are always very pleased when people take unpaid leave of absence, because it shortens the pay roll. But the University of Edinburgh was very good about that. I took unpaid leave of absence, intending to return, but then I realized I couldn’t, the other career had become too consuming.

I think that I found it interesting to be fully involved in a world that I had been involved in on the edges for years. I had a long association with publishing in Edinburgh, it did go back quite a bit. And that association with publishing in Edinburgh has actually been very important to me over the years. I’ve much appreciated it, and it’s been a very great privilege to be able to be involved with the publishing industry in a small way, a peripheral way. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been keen to keep my association with Scottish publishing. Obviously the books had acquired further legs, so to speak, which meant that I had publishers elsewhere. But the Scottish publishing side has been really important and I’ve always enjoyed that.

Have you found – because the intellectual stimulus of your first career must have been intense –  that this is as satisfying, or is it more enriching?

I would say it is perhaps more enriching, in my particular case because it enables me to get involved in various intellectual pursuits, which might have been not central to what I was doing before. I was Professor of Medical Law at the university, and that’s a very interesting discipline, because not only is it law but it also involves a very substantial element of ethical issues and public policy issues. So I was involved with those fairly heavily. I was the UK member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Commission, so we were dealing with bioethical issues at that world level, which was fascinating. For example the International Declaration on the Human Genome was that commission’s responsibility.

And another thing I did in my legal career was criminal law, and criminal law is very much concerned with issues of liability and responsibility and accountability. So I was particularly interested in the interface between notions of responsibility and accountability in the philosophical sense, namely, in what circumstances do we hold somebody responsible for an act? And indeed the analysis of human action I was  particularly interested in. My PhD was in the analysis of free action and forced action, which raises all sorts of interesting issues. So I had been working in these rather fascinating areas of philosophy of action and philosophy of responsibility. All of which I don’t regret, not only was it interesting, but it also provided me with, I suppose, a certain interest in human action, and that is something a novelist must be concerned about.

You can hear an echo of all this in your books.

And I think people are very interested in moral dilemmas. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Isabel Dalhousie series, because the Isabel Dalhousie novels are entirely about that. They are entirely concerned with questions as to how one particular person should live. And of course we are all interested in the major issue of how we should all live.  People really do take a great interest in that, although they may not realize of how much interest that is to them. If posed in a theoretical way, interest could be  killed stone dead if you were to say, ‘Let us consider the philosophical implications of…’

But you can actually explore that through fiction, and I think that is one of the principal roles of fiction, which is to enable us to experience vicariously the issues that are fundamental to our personal lives. When we read about somebody else’s difficulties and somebody else’s issues, not only is that sharpening our moral imagination, it’s defining the issues for us. So Isabel is always going on about what should she do. She can hardly walk to Bruntsfield to get a cup of coffee  without thinking of the…. Some of the readers might say, ‘Oh, here she goes again.’ But a lot of them say, no, this is what they like. The letters go both ways. We do get letters saying, this woman keeps going on about whether you can read a postcard addressed to somebody else or something of that sort. Why doesn’t she just do it! And others say, no, this is something I have really wondered about. Should I read somebody else’s postcard? Is a postcard a public document?

There’s such a philosophical and moral – not moralistic – mind behind all your work. The obvious question is, are you a religious person or is there any element of that informing your work?

No, I don’t think that is there. In fact, I don’t intend to put it there. I have a very vague position on that, in that I suspect it is very similar to a position that an awful lot of people have in this particular human era: that it is quite difficult for people in our society to say that they have firm beliefs of a religious nature. Yet at the same time I am sympathetic to that, and I am sympathetic to people who do say that and have that in their lives.

My position would be that I think it is very important to have a spiritual element to one’s life. Now, how you express that is, in my view, not the main issue. What language you use to clothe those spiritual feelings, those very deep feelings of  spirituality and appreciation of the world and of others, which are deep and profound matters that we all feel – and we all go through spells in our life when, if we aren’t aware of those, we’re probably not cultivating our personal internal garden as we might.

Having said all that, if you take the Mma Ramotwse books, Mma Ramotswe does actually go to church but the reason she goes to church is that in Gabarone in Botswana, where she is, probably something like 80-90 per cent of the population go to church. It would be quite unusual there to come across somebody who said ‘I don’t believe in anything’. It really would be. The actual statistics in Botswana are interesting. In the last figures I read, 50 per cent of the population were members of a church and went to church regularly; 25 per cent were members of a church and  went to a church relatively infrequently; and 25 per cent had a mixture of animistic belief and mainstream Christian belief. So those were people who had a vague  concept of the ancestors, etc, or were slightly pantheistic.

So Mma Ramotswe has that in her life. She doesn’t go on about it. But it’s there, and that is what you would find. So if you spoke to somebody like Mma Ramotswe in Botswana, and she’s a fairly typical Botswana lady, there are lots of people like her, if you spoke to her she would say things like, ‘God bless you’, or ‘May God look after you’, or something of that sort, meaning it very  nicely, it would be very comforting, She really would mean it.

I’m just making it believable, making it realistic that she has that. Isabel Dalhousie, by contrast, is more typical of a post-Christian era, in which she says she finds it difficult to believe any literal claims of religion. And yet she can go to a religious service and she would say there is a spiritual side to us.

That’s very long-winded answer to your question. The answer is, no, there isn’t a specific religious agenda, that would be inappropriate for my writing.

Does it partly explain your popularity, so many of us being post-Christian … 

… in this country.

You’re right. Not in America.

One can engage with people who have a particular religious faith, and say, I understand exactly. You can participate in ritualistic practice. You can look at a religious ritual and say that is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, though when you analyse it you think, this is meaningless.

So, something like prayer: you can say, I don’t think anybody is listening to this, but that’s not the point. The point is that somebody is expressing themselves in terms of a sentiment towards others, or a sentiment towards the world, which is very important, and that’s the significance of a ritualistic practice. If you look at a ritualistic practice from the outside, if you say, Oh come on, why don’t you eat pork, or why can’t you do whatever it is, that’s missing the point that what that ritual is doing for those people is saying something about the way they value the world and they value community and the value of who they happen to be historically.

Something like a Jewish dinner on a Friday evening, before the Sabbath, that’s saying an awful lot about what it means to be a member of that community. I have a lot of Jewish friends who do that, but if you said to them, does this say anything true, they may not actually even believe in God, but they still would go through with it. That’s the same with the Christian religion. You can go to hear a choir sing Evensong in a cathedral, and be immensely elevated and comforted by it. Or you can look at the words of that wonderful book of Cranmerian prose, The Book of Common Prayer, in the Episcopalian tradition. Look at the words of the marriage service: ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together…’. Now, that’s so powerful. Firstly it’s saying ‘Dearly beloved’, it’s addressing other people as loved. ‘We are gathered here together’ – there’s a sense of community. Beautiful prose. The funeral service: ‘Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live…’ All of this is immensely powerful. And of course linguistically powerful.

You can hear that, as you say it.

James VI’s great contribution to humanity, in my view.

Madman though he was.

I think he imposed a bit of peace and order that was sorely needed.

So long as you weren’t in any way witch-like, you were totally fine…

It’s very interesting to think of him as a gay king, which adds another dimension to him. And think of his dreadful childhood, he was the pupil of [George] Buchanan, it was a severe training, and he meets his cousin Esmé Stuart from France, who falls in love with him, his one moment of love and happiness taken from him.

To move on to a more cheerful subject, everything you write is infused with a droll, humorous or quizzical outlook. Is that how you see the world anyway, or is it only when you’re writing?

That’s an interesting question. It is probably the way I see the world. It’s distilled in the writing. I certainly see the comic aspects of the world. I think that you can look at world events today and in one way you can either weep over the sheer awfulness of the world, it is a vale of tears. Or you can see a lot of it as musical comedy. You can look at politics and you can either shake your head and say, this is terrible for whatever reason, depending on your political stance. Or you can say, now we’ve heard everything. It’s very colourful. UK politics, leaving aside Scottish politics for a moment, UK politics are extremely colourful.

But of course you have to be serious about it, and life is hard and difficult and there are terrible things happening. I think there’s no point in dwelling exclusively on the dysfunctional and the confrontational and the morbid, because that actually produces a morbid outlook. Okay, we know we’re almost into borrowed time on global warming and degradation of the environment. We know we are creating exactly the right conditions for the revenge of the microbes. We seem to be getting away with it by the skin of our teeth. People said HIV was going to be the agent of Malthusian doom. It wasn’t. Thank heavens we dodged that one. All of these immensely depressing problems, and the issue of informal nuclear proliferation is so awful as to hardly bear thinking about, it’s possible that somebody might detonate a nuclear bomb in a sort of freelance context. Let alone the possibility of the outbreak of World War Three.

So you could spend your time concentrating on that, and you could end up being thoroughly depressed about the prospects for humanity. If you wrote just about that, or you wrote in that register, you would really depress people even further. So I don’t think you make light of the human condition, but you can nonetheless say there are other strings in our life and we need those if we’re going to have the ability to carry on. And to tackle them. You can use humour to assert values. You can use humour to say something poignant about somebody’s little personal ambitions. which I try to do.

All of that is perfectly legitimate. At the end of the day you would hope you have affirmed the humanity of your characters, and that the readers engage with them in a sympathetic way, and the readers will see them as being an instance of the humanity we all possess.

One of the main dangers we face in our political and social life is seeing people as The Other, and forgetting that the people who are on the receiving end of injustice and deprivation and various forms of unhappiness are exactly like us and are our brethren.

I’ve just returned from Greece. I was sailing around the Dodecanese islands. And of course, there it was. And we saw it. We came across an abandoned large rubber boat, life jackets on the shore, etc. We saw these people in Kos. I went for a walk into the town, and there they were on the streets, families living on the streets, sleeping on cardboard. And then a column of about 150 people came round the corner with some Greek security people around them. We’d seen a Greek naval vessel coming in, they’d been picked up at sea. And now here they were. The Greeks were treating them perfectly civilly, the Greeks just want to move them on.

You see this tide of humanity. That raises all sorts of issues in Western Europe. Some of these were Syrians who were fleeing for their lives, and obviously you feel the greatest possible sympathy for them. But these things test our sympathy. While I was watching this, through my mind ran the lines of Auden’s wonderful poem ‘Refugee Blues’. He wrote a very moving poem about refugees in the 1930s, as spoken by a refugee couple, and the refrain, when they’re talking about the people talking in a hostile way about them, the refrain is, ‘He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.’

We have lots of tests of our charity. I think fiction plays a really important role in the  moral conversation that we have with each other. In that fiction enables us to understand the perspective, the experience of other people. That’s why children’s books are so important Because children’s books really create a moral imagination. Absolutely fundamental. If you look at what a children’s book is saying subliminally to a child, it is saying, ‘This is what it’s like to be…’ Sometimes it’s overt, sometimes it’s subconscious. Something like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie is such a sympathetic character. His poverty, described in the beginning, where his grandparents lie in bed to keep warm during the day, things like that. A child who reads that will understand that there are people who don’t have what they have.

That’s where you started, writing children’s books.

I wrote a lot of children’s books. I still do. I’ve just started a new series. Last night I just got the first copy of it. It’s based in Tobermory, as the title [School Ship Tobermory] suggests and it’s about a school ship. The kids go off  – it’s illustrated by Iain McIntosh – they go off to various places around the world, the ship’s based in Mull. It’s a boarding school story-cum Patrick O’Brian!  And we’ve got some very good baddies. We’ve got Geoffrey Shark, and Maximilian Flubber, people like that. Matron is wonderful. She was an Olympic diver. She’s married to the ship’s cook. I’ve signed up for three, the Americans have bought the first three.

Your talking about the morbid outlook earlier brings us naturally to Scottish miserabilism. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to  me you could almost see yourself as a one-man crusade against it.

No. I wouldn’t want to portray myself as against it, because I think there’s a role for every approach, and every view. So literature would be very blank if it were all Pollyanna’s latest observations. We have to, there must be writers who reflect the harsh face or the sadness of life, and who report dysfunction and who report all forms of social and personal pathology. I don’t say there isn’t a role for that at all. There is. All that I would say is that that shouldn’t be taken as the exclusive and only defensible position, or necessarily the best position or the default position.

I’ve been accused of being a utopian writer, or people say, ‘You look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles.’ I don’t, actually. I actually really deal with a lot of sadness in the books. It’s just that the overall tenor is affirmative. One contemplates the sadness or the bleak, and then you can work to overcome it. That’s a defensible philosophical position. So I’m certainly not engaged in any crusade against that at all.

All that I would say is there are alternative visions and the alternative visions form part of our reality. People also say to me, ‘Oh well, you write about  bourgeois Edinburgh or middle-class Edinburgh.’ I say, yes, I do. If you look at  Scotland Street we’ve got a range of characters. Big Lou wouldn’t want to describe herself as that. Angus would say he’s bohemian. Domenica would say that she, being an anthropologist, is above all descriptions. Irene would say she is way above it because she’s so advanced and progressive. Bertie would see through all of that. And Cyril’s just a dog!

Actually, if you look at Edinburgh and do an occupational analysis of Edinburgh, you’ll find it’s actually a very middle-class city. Something like four-fifths of the population earn their living through white-collar pursuits. Now I think therefore you can’t really look at me and say you’re not really reflecting reality, when obviously you are. I would say it doesn’t matter. Obviously you don’t want literature that reads like The Great Gatsby or something of that sort. But actually it’s not the point. You can write about people of any background, you should be open to any reality. The Botswana books are about very ordinary people. Mma Makutse comes from a very poor background, and her inner life is not dictated by that. That affects the way she looks at the world, and she’s strived and she’s been very conscious of her status, because she’s been so much at the bottom of things in the past. So my characters in my books are actually mostly, relatively ordinary people.

If you think about Edinburgh society and its stratifications, the richness of that is a gift for a novelist, is it not?

Edinburgh lends itself to all sorts of investigation. Edinburgh has changed socially really remarkably in recent decades. It’s a much more open city. It’s much less rigid than it used to be. I remember the rather old-fashioned, disapproving Edinburgh. There are still echoes of it around, just slightly disapproving of anybody who does … anything!

It’s often women who are disapproving.

Oh yes! This is an absolutely true story. I was walking up Churchill, a few years ago,  and there were two echt Edinburgh, Morningside ladies in front of me, and I couldn’t  help hear their conversation: ‘Would you look at the state of the pavements.’ And the other one said, ‘Yes. Just like the rest of the world.’ Now that really encapsulates it.

Obviously most beautifully the definitive statement of that is Muriel Spark. Jean Brodie. The problem is, that’s been done so beautifully in that novel, everything else is just watching her chariot wheels going past. When Jean Brodie says of the headmistress, ‘She’s trying to intimidate us by the use of quarter hours.’ Or the chemistry teacher: ‘We  must be careful. He has the means to blow us all up.’

Maggie Smith wrecked the role for anybody else. She just got it. I love the little echoes you hear of that, occasionally, echoes of that old-fashioned Edinburgh approach to things.

My editor wanted me to ask, if you could be a fictional character, who would you choose?

That’s interesting, really interesting. [There is a very long pause.] I’m not trying to filter them out, for one that will cause least embarrassment. [We can hear a hedge trimmer in a garden nearby.] I’m quite an admirer of Mr Woodhouse in Emma. Mr Woodhouse gets a bad press. He’s very fussy and disapproving, and worried about draughts. And damp. I could probably be Mr Woodhouse. Which isn’t a very heroic choice. Or – oh, well I mean, we’re all Jack Aubrey, from Patrick O’Brian. It’ll have to be a joint choice. Jack Aubrey at sea, from Patrick O’Brian and Mr Woodhouse. I’m a keen sailor, hence my admiration for Jack Aubrey.

And in fact you could be him.

That’s really kind but that’s really pushing it!  Jack Aubrey was obviously what Patrick O’Brian wanted to be. Because Patrick O’Brian made up a whole history for himself.

He left a wife, and changed his name, and all that…


Exactly, yes. Part of that was, he said that at the age of 16, whatever, he ran away to sea with a friend. Now that’s what the books are about. Those books are about friendship, between Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. But there’s a prolonged fantasy of going off on a ship, with a friend. It’s interesting. In fact, I know a lot of people, a lot of my friends would like to be Jack Aubrey. Very few of them, in fact none of them, would want to be Mr Woodhouse. Men love the Patrick O’Brian novels. They don’t like them for the action, so I don’t read Patrick O’Brian for the scenes of pursuit when the ships are chasing one another across the sea. I read him for the enclosed world, and the sense of being away, the sense of escape. They are great fantasies of escape, and indeed that’s what happens when you get on a boat. You sail off and you are actually detaching yourself from your normal world, and you become part of a self-contained world, and it’s immensely exciting.

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