Monthly Archives: March 2016


SRB at the Theatre

IN this case, there are two faces, two attitudes to life, two plays, both one-act, one-woman pieces, written by Peter Arnott, featuring identical twins, Isobel and Morag, played by the one actor, Janette Foggo, staged in successive weeks at Oran Mor, but begging for some imaginative producer to bring them together in the one bill. Maybe the pair are actually two sides of the one character, but overtly they are twins, as inward-looking as twins often are, linked by an intensity of exclusive relationship which other human beings cannot fathom, obsessed with that other quasi-self, driven desperately to be measured against the other, against her more than anyone else.

These are profound and moving pieces, featuring two people who are not very remarkable and not especially likeable, even if Isabel thinks she is. Morag plainly experiences moments of self-doubt, perhaps even self-loathing. A more mismatched pair of twins would be hard to imagine. The randomness of biology put them in the same womb at the same time, and they have to live out, in successive moods of resignation or resentment, stoicism or rebellion, the consequences of that chance. The imaginative exploitation of the same factor also provides Arnott with an opportunity to develop anew the age-old Scottish duality of character and vision, not quite Jekyll and Hyde but close to Robert Wringhim his doppelganger.

The play plumbs the depths of a complex relationship which is occasionally fond and affectionate, but for the most part lived as jealousy, rivalry, resentment, bitterness and even outright aversion. It is hard to think of anyone who could have embodied all these successive and conflicting emotions so convincingly and commandingly as Janette Foggo. She is marvellous not only in depicting two personalities or two angles on one dilemma, but in illuminating changing moods, reactions, hopes and disappointments. She expertly scales a crescendo of rising rage, then pauses, catches herself, looks wonderingly out at the audience, sinks back into herself, changes tack, alters mood and expression, before chatting calmly and reflectively, reproaching herself for her earlier lack of charity and moving on, taking every spectator with her as she probes into her deeper being.

She can be smug as Isobel and filled with loathing as Morag, for this work is not only about the ‘face’, if face is taken as the external mask which the world sees, but more about the inner being, the hidden personality which it is easy to take, or mistake, as higher truth. Isobel teasingly wonders if all those miserable people out there are maybe happy at home, an intriguing thought. If we deceive others with the face, whom do we deceive with the inner psyche? Ourselves? If Peter Arnott is interested in more than the face, he also avoids the glib conclusion that supposed self-knowledge is in fact any more reliable than conveying a public impression.

The two women come to different conclusions over the central, eternal question, put by Isobel – Am I not supposed to live? What am I supposed to do? In a sense the play deals with questions of liberation, and I cannot help wishing that Arnott had found some more resonant occasion for the epiphany, or for the path to better awareness, than a session Isobel attended of cognitive therapy. That encounter supposedly changed her life, but maybe she is cheating herself. Who can you trust in double works which give diverse responses to the same events? Arnott ponders deeply the burdens human beings are lumbered with, and avoids all the fashionable, clichéd solutions of this age on how to be free of them. Isobel and Morag are not weighed down by the false gods of consumerism or late capitalism, not by male-dominated society, nor even by Scotland and Scottishness, although there is nothing for comfort in the references to the impact of life in a Scottish culture.

For those of a philosophical turn of mind, it emerges, slowly and gradually, by implication and not by explicit statement, that the problem is being human. To be alive and reflective leads to an awareness of a dissatisfaction with the state of things, and a dissatisfaction with cannot be remedied. It is part of the world. It might be the fault of Eve or Pandora, but it is there. Arnott does not talk in those terms, but those who have read his recent novel, Moon Country, know that he is out to pick and prod beneath the surface of things, that he has a philosophical, not merely thoughtful nor superficially ideological, mindset. His characters come up against irritations which politics might exacerbate or, more optimistically, soothe, but which are stubbornly part of the world, or womb, which gives us birth. His outlook and his passions can be political, but he can also row in other seas.

The two women are twins, not clones, and undertake different journeys from their childhood days, but they are constantly looking over their shoulder at what the other is doing. It is always tempting to hone in on the decisive line, scene or incident, the ‘to be or not to be’ moment in the development of a play. There are several such here. Seated in the front row, Isobel mutters aloud, ‘When’s this bloody play going to start?’ She repeats the same line at the end, and maybe the play has never really started, or else it is not a play. Having uttered the line, Isobel does clamber onto a performing area, but this never constitutes a fourth wall to separate stalls and stage. The techniques are immersive. The audience are part of the action, compelled to listen closely to the urging and pleading, for the final judicial authority is vested in them. As Isobel, Foggo paces about on the performing area, but it seemed to me a mistake in the otherwise excellent directing by Stasi Schaeffer to allow her to walk about so much, meaning that the performer had to turn her back on sections of the audience, making her words unintelligible in some corners, especially when she was whispering confidentially to one section of a large room. Every word counts.

‘I hate theatre, especially when it is serious. Makes you cry.’ That sounds like a crucial line. It is spoken by Isobel, and raises a laugh, as it should, but it is misleading. To make people cry is not the modern way, and Isobel arouses laughter with her first, dismissive reference to Morag, ‘the culture vulture’ who likes serious theatre. Isobel was slighted at home, if her version can be trusted. She was the tearaway, the non-conforming one, the one who was picked on at school by pupils and staff. How could she know that chocolate should be given the Kelvinside or Bearsden pronunciation of choc-au-lait, and what made her deserve to have her ordinary spelling of that word on the blackboard rubbed out by the teacher who dragged her face over it? This is a beautifully observed moment, of the most deeply felt intensity and pathos.

Isobel marries, unlike Morag, and has children but she shows little interest in her widowed mother, whom Morag looks after. She does not like the idea of work, unlike Morag, who becomes a teacher, and a science teacher at that. There is something of pointedly arid and unsentimentally rationalist in the choice of the sciences rather than the arts. Morag is dry and precise, while Isobel is emotional and spontaneous. Both of them disapprove of the other, but who has more to disapprove of? Readers of glossy magazines will prefer the devil-may-care choices of Isobel, but life is harder and compassion makes other demands.

Isobel leaves her husband, and maybe that is liberation, but she also declines to take any part in looking after their mother. Her exposure to cognitive therapy persuades her that she is entitled to behave with flamboyance, to kick over the traces and to indulge herself. Is that the better way? Her position becomes even more privileged when her mother dies while she is temporarily looking after her, and leaves all her money to her, not to hard-working, conscientious Morag who had cared for her on a day-by-day basis. Isobel can then respond with the exultant cry that she is healthy and wealthy, and can do what she wants. She has been given the means for self-indulgent sybaritism, and who today would criticise her? However, her closing line remains – When is this bloody play going to start? The audience are free to wonder how it will end, really end.

Is she now free of all the lumber which weighs on humans? Her problem is still Morag, because Morag is part of her being. It does not matter who is good or who is bad, although this is a highly moral play, not a game of split personality. Morag has endured her own experiences, some identical to those undergone by her twin sister, and she provides her own answers in the theatre the following week when she strides from the back of the hall, and goes to take her throne-like seat against the stage wall, from where she addresses the audience as though she had gathered them around her in a corner of a pub. Initially she appears like the nuisance you cannot get rid of, or the sort of person who writes letters to the Herald complaining, always complaining. People disgust her. They can never live up to her expectations.

Is the world not good enough for her or is she, in spite of the face she turns outward, too good for the world? Obviously her main problem, and the focus of a bilious resentment which threatens to burst out like a river in spate is her sister, ‘a stupid selfish whore,’ she exclaims. She had left her husband, whom Morag had adored in a purely chaste way. She cannot help picking away at her own sores and scabs, even if she knows it will only make things worse. Isobel had everything and now she has even more. How could her mother have been so partial and so unjust?

Foggo is perhaps even more assured in this role, and gives a performance which grabs you by the throat. She even manages against the odds to arouse some sympathy for a woman who is in the grips of rabid hatred and self-hatred. The reflective, passive Morag and the instinctive, active Isobel are not two sides of one coin, but two ways of being. The two women share the same face, but Morag is considering cosmetic surgery to change her looks, so that she will no longer share a face with her sister.

These are mighty plays, raising huge, disquieting questions, humorous in part but never whimsical, inducing in an audience that sombre, meditative silence which is a sign of respect. They are more than domestic drama, but plays that widen out from the drama of one pair of sisters to confront problems that affect what would once have been called fallen mankind. They were staged as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint programme, which is now a well established part of Scotland’s theatre scene, and guarantee of challenging, innovative theatre. It is a unique arena which has created and continues to draw an audience of its own, and it is good that it has maintained its standards, even after the much-lamented death of founder-producer David MacLennan.

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SRB Diary: In the Rhine Valley

Auf dem Grunde des Rheines. The figures in the principal fountain of the little village of Goldscheuer, just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, are a reminder that, for more than two millennia, gold which had been washed down with other ores from the mountains of the Aar region of Switzerland was extracted from the river, as suggested by the title of Wagner’s opera cycle: das Rheingold. It was won by the old practice of shovelling and sifting masses of sand and gravel, ‘gescheuern’ being the old German expression for panhandling: about seven hundred tons had to be worked through to yield a piddling 3.5 ounces of gold. Strabo mentions the practice in his geographical writings, and the Romans made regular shipments south. According to David Blackbourn in his book The Conquest of Nature, ‘the Baden census of 1838 listed four hundred gold-washers on the right bank of the Rhine alone’.

When the Rhine was rectified and canalised in the 1840s, the profession died out, since the new hydrological conditions made it impossible for goldbeds to form and be exploited: the floodwaters came and went in the spring, and the river no longer meandered at different speeds in a way that allowed deposits of quartz and mica and the occasional nugget of gold to sediment out in some of the side channels and wetlands that used to sprawl the breadth of the Rhine valley. Wagner’s opera with its four-minute opening drone in E flat major was presented at the National Theatre in Munich in 1869 just as the Rhine goldwashers were disappearing from European history to stake their claims in the wilds of California, Ballarat or South Africa.

* * *

The other Germany. With the publication of WG Sebald’s A Place in the Country (Logis in einem Landhaus), with its separate essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller and Eduard Mörike, and given its author’s known lifelong affinity for lesser known Swiss and Austrian writers, it becomes possible to see what German literature (and perhaps even German culture) might have resembled had its centre of gravity not shifted from the Rhine Valley in the sixteenth century to Saxony, under the dramatic impact of Luther’s translation of the Bible into Saxon German. Perhaps the most interesting essay in Sebald’s book is on Johann Peter Hebel, who is best known for his poems in Alemannic – the middle high German spoken around the Upper Rhine, and which finds contemporary expression in the dialects of Baden, the Swiss city of Basel and across the Rhine, in French-speaking Alsace.

* * *

Echo of the universe. I distinctly remember, as a young boy, sitting, in moments of distress or worry (and there were plenty of them with the world about to end any day soon), on the bathroom floor, with my head propped on my hand, close to the toilet bowl. Was I praying? Or just lost in a daydream? With two brothers and an infant sister in the house and exasperated, fearful Brethren parents at the end of their tether (they were expecting the end of the world too, only even more so) the bathroom was the only place in the house I could find peace and quiet.

One of Peter Handke’s essays – Versuch über den stillen Ort (‘Essay on the Place of Stillness’) – is about visiting the loo, known in the ancient German euphemism as ‘the still place’: his narrator sees the toilet as a place of refuge where he can wait until the gales of unhappiness that are creating havoc elsewhere in the house blow themselves out. ‘Were my quests for those places of stillness,’ he wonders, ‘in the course of my life, all over the world, so often without a pressing need, perhaps an expression of – if not a flight from society – at least a resistance to it, a social exhaustion?’ The john is where he goes to recuperate from his initial muteness the powers of speech – and even the wish to speak.

The parallel is not lost on me now, unburdening infant worries and black dreams in my middle years to the receptacle reserved for lower uses, for physical purging. The Shanks is a large porcelain ear that never spills the secrets it hears. It drones in the key of E-flat major, that deep pewter-coloured sound which for Rimsky-Korsakov conjured up fortified towns and battlements and Wagner put to use as the cosmogonic drone setting in motion the four-day Ring cycle, the elemental stirring of the Rhine as it becomes the giant mythic river in motion: he elaborates a single chord over 136 bars. E-flat major rumbles deep in the ‘mystic abyss’, as the orchestra pit in Bayreuth is sometimes called. Wagner wasn’t the only composer who liked to imagine the Creation must have been audible before it became visible.

That must have been the pacifying ground-bass of a melody which Sir Thomas Browne in 1642 states is an echo of a harmony that ‘sounds intellectually in the ears of God’.

* * *

Migratory instincts. I was doing the washing up in the kitchen when I realised that the bird on the lawn was a striking one I hadn’t seen before. It was a solitary hoopoe, with its crest and striking black and white markings. It strutted around the lawn for half-an-hour while I tried to photograph it stealthily from the back door. My ornithology guide tells me it is seen on rare occasions in the Rhine Valley. It has certainly not been seen on our lawn since. This was the bird that Solomon sent to the Queen of Sheba.

* * *

An etiolated idyll. German literature has many instances of a genre that hardly seems to exist at all in English literature: the idyll. The presupposition of the idyll (which derives from the Greek image) is Arcadian: man exists in harmony with the nature around him and desire is never more than reason will allow. Goethe’s experimental fiction in Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years and Conversations of German Refugees provides, I believe, the deep model for Sebald’s stories, an impression which becomes stronger when it is remembered that Goethe’s loose collections of stories and adages are themselves parodies and travesties in the manner of Laurence Sterne. These miniatures established the novella as a reputable literary form in German.

The debt is perhaps most obvious in Sebald’s The Emigrants, which, in its four intertwined stories of individuals displaced by the Second World War, echoes the tales of those noble families who ‘abandoned their property in the region and fled across the Rhine in order to escape the afflictions threatening everyone of any distinction’. This bickering, aggravated, mutually inconsiderate world on wheels shuts out the threat of revolution yet seems on the point of disintegration itself, and its members have to learn to repudiate their personal interests if they want to survive. Good manners are the basis for a potential new society. But even in the early nineteenth century these novellas must have evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for a social order that was being eradicated by the new industrial order. It is not for nothing that Goethe’s subtitle to Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years is The Renunciants: part of what is being renounced is the big idea.

The displaced persons of Sebald’s stories, on the other hand, have already renounced too much of the world to leave them with anything more than a vestigial attachment to their own lives.

* * *

The hydrological budget. ‘The River of Lethe,’ Bacon remarks in Of Vicissitude of Things, ‘runneth as well above ground as below.’ That notorious river will be found underground certainly, where it is sludgy and slow, and even as the upper river infiltrates into riverbed the hidden groundwater percolates up to the surface through rock and sand, as crystalline as spring water.

We observe this phenomenon right next to us, in the various pools and tarns that are the residues of the meandering old Rhine: in one spot you can watch the currents laughing up from below to disturb the surface. (‘Lachen’, the word for laughter, is also the term for a large puddle in German.)

* * *

Decusate. I was reminded that the first thinker I sought out when I finally gained my student-reader’s card to the university library at Glasgow (this was the very best reason for going to university after all) was Nicholas of Cusa, the philosophical originator of ‘learned ignorance’. A Rhineland mystic, of whom there have been many.

* * *

Being an extra. On a balmy Sunday evening last August, my wife and I sat outdoors in the shadow of Strasbourg’s famous St Thomas church with about forty other people to watch an open-air projection of films and documentaries of local interest. The second film on the bill – L’Homme qui aimait les images – was a fifty-minute documentary made in 2002 for Ana Films by Jean-Marie Fawer; it featured a local actor Michel Rapin, who had made a name for himself, at least in audiovisual circles, by playing as an extra in over seventy mainstream French and German films, musicals and TV series in a career lasting thirty years. Rapin was a cook by trade, but he had made a career out of being an extra or as the French say figurant, without whom, as he remarked in the documentary, it would be impossible to make very convincing films at all.

Here was Rapin turning up in a film eating choucroute in a scene shot in a tavern with Gerard Depardieu in the foreground. Here was Rapin marching out as a recruit with the French 2nd Army Corps in one sequence, and returning to barracks with the Prussian Third Army in another. And here he was turning up as a nineteenth-century cleric or major in SS uniform or detective in leather raincoat; what these films had in common was that he almost never said anything very much at all – at best a command, a greeting, a request. He showed Fawer the contents of his archive, which went back to Fernandel and other wartime stars of French cinema. It contained signed photographs from almost everybody he had met on set: André Bourvil was his favourite actor – ‘un vrai gentil’homme’.

Now in his seventies and still living in the Krutenau, Rapin was in the audience, and fielded questions once the film had ended. As soon as he began to speak, it was clear why he had never been allowed to say more than a few words in all those films in which he had been an extra: his voice was high-pitched and nasal. He remarked on it himself. Then he quoted Truffaut in La Nuit Américaine: ‘Je suis amoureux des images, mais pas de la réalité.’

But it was his reality that suggested to me this was really a film about Alsace itself: the region as the eternal bit-player in history, the region with ideas above its station, the region self-conscious about its accent, the region called upon to show its mettle and colours when events bigger than itself were going on around it – l’acteur de complément. And what was the outcome? It could only be the passive aggression and pronounced depressive tendencies observed by Frédéric Hoffet in his now classic Psychanalyse de l’Alsace.

In fact, this film reminded me of one of my early experiences here, just after arriving in Strasbourg, when I paid a visit to the old-fashioned barber’s shop – long gone now – in the rue Boecklin. As I waited my turn, I heard the barber, Alsatian born and bred, say to his client, ‘Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés.’ To live happily, live hidden. He was quoting Descartes’ epitaph, which he had taken from Ovid: bene qui latuit, bene vixit…

* * *

River voices. Today it was so still while I was walking on the dyke along the French bank of the Rhine, the ground dusted with snow, the atmosphere subzero and cloudless and a weak sun oozing over the silhouette of the distant city that I could hear a couple of men talking to each other on the other – German – side of the river.

Then I recalled the old Chinese story about the man who could hear the noise of the fish swimming in the river.

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Crowd Power

FEW things are likely to leave me feeling less festive than a festival. Which is unfortunate: I live in Edinburgh, home of the world’s largest annual arts festival. Each year, the same, but worse. Ticket prices that could bring tears to a sultan’s eyes; egos observable from outer space; unpromising one-man shows, the one man referring here to the audience, not the cast; each journey taxed a full thirty minutes extra walking time because the pavements are costive with tourists and juggling unicyclists; the noise, the noise.

Literary festivals practise their own brand of awfulness. Wilde’s prison pensée comes to mind: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ It’s an odd way of demonstrating one’s appreciation of authors, making these solitary creatures who are not natural performers sweat their way through a reading that only reaffirms their choice of page over stage. Not to mention burbling chairs; shoot-me-now audience questions; criminally overpriced comestibles; and the omni-branding of corporate sponsors who wrecked the economy, ushering in an era of budgetary austerity which, amongst other things, has devastated public libraries.

A decade or so ago, you could still save your sanity by fleeing the city, but they’re everywhere now, festivals. There’s nary a nook without a bespoke festival of its own, from the highlands to the islands. And it is on such a festival-troubled island that Kevin MacNeil’s latest, The Brilliant & Forever, his third novel in just over a decade, takes place.

MacNeil’s first novel, The Stornoway Way, was set on an island, and MacNeil himself was born and raised on Lewis. In both his debut and his latest, the author dramatises his love-hate relationship with island life: ‘A small island is a sad, safe, familiar, nurturing place. I grew up wanting to murder everyone with loving-kindness.’ The island on which The Brilliant & Forever is set is unnamed, and isn’t necessarily Scottish even, though there are references to a language natives speak that could be Gaelic: ‘Our indigenous language has a singsong cadence that is often likened to the rise and fall of the sea. Its vowels are either long or v-e-r-y l-o-n-g.’

The narrator, unnamed like the language, says when spoken it ‘makes some sick or angry’, a satirical take on the mainstream’s attitude to Gaelic. We are, you see, in an alternate reality; you can tell we’re in an alternate reality, not merely because of a certain vagueness of time and place, but also the metaphors are positively glaring. The narrator’s best friend, Archie, is himself a metaphor. More accurately, he’s an alpaca, a talking alpaca. No one thinks it extraordinary alpacas can talk. To the contrary, alpacas are largely despised and a stand-in for every misunderstood minority.

The island hosts an annual event called The Beautiful & Forever, a one-day festival where natives and incomers tell stories. A panel of judges drawn from the trendier end of the literary world choose a winner who is awarded instant fame and a fairytale book deal. The reader is asked to believe this festival is hugely popular and important, attracting an audience of 20,000 and requiring the sort of stage rig more usually seen at a U2 concert; talking alpacas are more credible.

The narrator, Archie and their friend Macy all decide to tell a story at the festival. In all, thirteen would-be writers take part on the day, with the central part of The Brilliant & Forever a collection of short stories that owes a debt to Italo Calvino (there’s a character called Calvin O Blythe). Participants include Stella, a Katie Price-esque glamour model included so we can tut-tut over celebrity culture, and an American whose ‘autobiography of a serial killer’ signals MacNeil’s disapproval of crime fiction.

Archie wants to win because ‘it could mean the start of a new way of humans treating alpacas with better dignity and equality’. The narrator, a bit of a Buddhist bore, isn’t interested in glittering prizes. ‘So many writers seem to want fame, money, adulation. But I’ve learned that craving these things results in jealousy, desperation, egotism and the partial removal of the gift that is the present moment.’ One might also say that such qualities can result in rather fine literature. What motivated Shakespeare, Dr Johnson, Dickens or Hemingway?

In addition to the grand prize, the audience vote after the last story has been performed for ‘The People’s Choice’. Before the novel’s climax, what The People’s Choice might be is vaguely described, leading one to think it’s a consolation prize. It’s nothing of the sort. Spoilerphobes, look away. Whoever wins The People’s Choice is in fact torn to pieces by the crowd.

The bloody denouement points towards one of the novel’s two chief flaws. Firstly, it just doesn’t hang together. Why does no one mention the terrible risk contestants face before we witness The People’s Choice taking place? MacNeil presents the revelation as a coup de théâtre, but his move sacrifices credibility. Think about it. Would anyone, even a talking alpaca, enter a competition where there’s a 13 to 1 chance of being horribly and publicly murdered?

The further a story departs from a recognisable world, the more psychologically realistic it has to be. Take Kafka, who is namechecked in The Brilliant & Forever. Metamorphosis draws its power not from the imaginative feat of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a giant insect, but his description of the Samsa family’s reaction. Their anger, disgust and shame are brilliantly observed and strike us as being just what those people would feel.

The other flaw is a certain linguistic exuberance on MacNeil’s part that often gets away from him. His similes and metaphors sound sort of okay but often don’t stand up to more than a moment’s contemplation. The judging panel are described as ‘having the scruples of a Trojan cavalry’, a tortuous way of referencing the Trojan horse. Which you don’t have to be a student of the classics to know was built by the Greeks. Surely it’s the Greeks’ scruples that are in question, not those of the Trojan cavalry, of whom history and Homer have little to say, much less the condition of their honesty.

Equally, what are we to make of MacNeil’s (repeated) description of a severe headache as a ‘mind-graine’? It’s barely a pun, not even a play on words, really. To get it, you have to know what a migraine is, but if you know that, then you know it takes place in the mind anyway. It’s like describing an ‘earache’ as a ‘hearache’: pointless. To take a counter example, re-read the passage that follows Humbert Humbert’s seduction of his stepdaughter in Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert worries that while the act took place behind closed doors he might still fall foul of an ‘earwitness’. It’s a play on ‘eyewitness’, a witty reminder of Humbert’s paranoia that doesn’t merely repeat what the original word does already anyway. Really, an editor should have questioned ‘mind-graine’ and other quasi-puns, although I fear something of the editorial care taken over this novel is revealed by this sentence: ‘It was six in the afternoon, a fragrant summer’s evening….’ Well, what is it? Afternoon? Evening?

MacNeil is a talented poet whose solitary slim collection Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides is worth seeking out. The more lyrical passages in The Brilliant & Forever make one regret his decision to abandon poetry for prose. One applauds his ambition, and nods vigorously at his reservations about the state of contemporary publishing, but The Brilliant & Forever – like another Scottish novel that features sentient animals, Andrew O’Hagan’s Maf the Dog – falls apart beneath the weight of contrivance required to keep its plot afloat.


The Brilliant & Forever
Kevin MacNeil
Polygon, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-84697-337-6, PP245

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Still ‘Yes’?

IN case you hadn’t noticed, Scots are struggling to find consensus on the origins of modern Scottish nationalism. Supporters of independence see the roots of their movement as essentially civic: a political response to the alienating effects of Westminster ‘misrule’. Unionists, meanwhile, advance a different narrative. They view separatism as an expression of provincial grievance or, worse, deep-seated anti-English bigotry. To be fair, this disagreement is not helped by the fact that Scottish nationalism has surfaced in a variety of forms since the Act of Union in 1707. In the nineteenth century, Walter Scott was instrumental in reviving aspects of Scottish culture now associated with the (rapidly fading) White Heather Club wing of the Scottish National Party. Likewise, when the SNP was first established in the 1930s, its goal was a fiscally autonomous Scottish Parliament within the context of an imperial British federation, not a fully independent Scottish state with a distinct Scottish foreign policy.

Independence or Union is the fortieth book written or edited by Tom Devine and the second he has published since being awarded a knighthood for ‘services to the study of Scottish history’ in 2014. Like much of Devine’s work, it is empirical, informative, and pleasingly easy to read. It is also flawed. Although Devine provides a clear account of Scotland’s constitutional trajectory over the last four centuries, his attempt to explain the current dominance of nationalism in Scottish public life is, at best, patchy and inconclusive.

The book follows a chronological arc. Devine begins with the 1603 Union of Crowns under James I and VI – whose efforts to forge a lasting political relationship between his two kingdoms collapsed ‘amid a welter of anti-Scottish abusive racism at Westminster’ – before addressing the embryonic 1707 settlement. The English agreed to union as a means of securing their northern border, while the Scots exchanged their sovereignty for access to England’s expanding domestic and international markets. Initially, the Treaty, struck by feudal elites, was deeply unpopular. The Kirk feared a loss of institutional autonomy and ordinary Scots faced a raft of new English taxes on basic goods such as salt, leather and ale. Ironically, however, the ongoing threat of Jacobite rebellion, which carried the prospect of a restored Catholic Stuart monarchy, reinforced unionist sentiment among Scotland’s Protestant majority. By the late eighteenth century, after the final defeat of Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Union was, in Devine’s phrase, ‘embedded’.

In the decades that followed, Scotland reaped the rewards of its new strategic partnership. The lifting of trade embargoes and tariffs on the export of Scottish products to English colonies powered Scottish industrial development. Scottish linen flooded North American and Caribbean markets. Glasgow became the ‘tobacco metropolis of western Europe’. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Scotland was no longer a passive beneficiary of the British Empire, it was an enthusiastic participant in it. Professional Scots took administrative roles in India and East Asia. Poorer Scots, including large numbers of rural Highlanders, filled the ranks of the British army. Imperialism was the cement of the fledgling union state.

For the next hundred years, Scotland was staunchly British. In 1848, as a wave of liberal constitutional nationalisms swept the European continent, the Scots stuck loyally to Westminster. Scottish separatism had vanished from the political scene. In its place emerged a deeply romantic cultural identity, popularised by Scott and embraced by the British establishment, that drew on the myth of Scotland’s ‘ancient’ martial and clan traditions. ‘The sartorial nationalism of kilt and tartan provided a distinctive but inoffensive mode of differentiation from England’, Devine writes. ‘The link between tartanry, the Highland soldier, British patriotism and imperial service helped to lend a new emotional cohesion to union’. These were the first stirrings of what Tom Nairn later derisively called ‘The Great Tartan Monster’. During the first half of the twentieth century, demands were made, with varying degrees of emphasis, for Home Rule, but Scotland’s status as part of the United Kingdom was never seriously contested. The global instability of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s had a consolidating effect on the Union. It was only in the latter half of the century that the cracks began to open up again.

Devine maps the uneven decline of Scottish unionism from the 1960s to the present day, working rather functionally through the major historical flash points: the end of Britain’s post-war economic ‘miracle’; the secularisation of Scottish society; deepening industrial unrest; the discovery of North Sea oil; Thatcherism; the Poll Tax; the Claim of Right; the creation of the Scottish Parliament; the collapse of Labour’s credibility at Holyrood; and the SNP’s landmark victories at successive elections in 2007, 2011, and 2015. Readers of Iain Macwhirter’s Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland – or of other books on Scottish politics produced in the last few years – will find the material covered here familiar. Devine doesn’t claim to have unearthed any startling new facts but his treatment of the devolutionary era feels shopworn and, indeed, some of his observations about the period are incorrect. It is not true, for instance, that the Holyrood voting system was ‘carefully designed to ensure that nationalism could never threaten the Union’. As independence campaigner Isobel Lindsay acknowledged in a recent CommonSpace article, the SNP favoured the Additional Member System in the 1970s. Curiously, Devine also suggests that it was the SNP’s ‘good fortune’ not to have been blamed for rising levels of unemployment in the wake of the global financial crisis. But the SNP first assumed power in Edinburgh in May 2007, five months before the implosion of Northern Rock, and Holyrood’s control over Scottish economic policy was then (and remains) relatively limited. So the nationalists might have felt justifiably aggrieved if they had taken flack for the crisis.

Devine’s analysis of Scotland’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher is also problematic. His attitude is that of an exhausted social democrat wearily resigned to the logic of free market ‘realism’. ‘What was taking place [during the 1980s]’, he writes, ‘though very difficult to see at the time, was not terminal decline but a painful and compressed process of economic transformation … By the later 1990s, Scotland had a new economy … more varied, stable, and above all tuned to modern international markets’. Devine acknowledges the damage deindustrialisation caused to working class communities but seems oblivious to the wider critique of Thatcher’s economic policy. The Iron Lady failed on her own terms. When she left office in 1990, inflation was higher than it had been in 1980, growth was just as weak, and – despite massive annual North Sea windfalls – Britain’s current account deficit was significantly worse.

Moreover, the long credit-fuelled boom that stretched from 1993 to 2008 – and that is widely attributed to Thatcher’s deregulatory reforms – ended in an unprecedented crash, the consequences of which are still reverberating across Scotland today. Stability, however defined, was not one of Mrs Thatcher’s lasting achievements. Yet Devine barely mentions the Great Recession or, for that matter, the spending cuts implemented by the Conservative government after the 2010 general election. Both are almost entirely absent from his chapter on the independence referendum. Instead, he focuses on the media ‘air war’ fought between Yes Scotland and Better Together in the months leading up to September 18.

Of more interest is Devine’s breakdown of the referendum result. The data he amasses, much of it drawn from the respected Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, confirms a number of important trends. Large chunks of Scotland’s former industrial belt voted Yes. Edinburgh, which has ‘the highest gross average earnings of any city in the UK apart from London’, voted No. Left wing Scots leant towards Yes. Right wing Scots leant towards No. Voters who described themselves as strongly Scottish, together with Asian Scots and Irish Catholic Scots, were mostly Yes. Voters who described themselves as strongly British were mostly No. Scots at the bottom of the income scale, out of work, or without a mortgage backed independence. The most affluent Scots did not. Devine concludes that the Yes campaign wasn’t motivated exclusively by ‘demands for radical change [but] seems to have been driven both by identity politics and by radical ideologies’.

This is a reasonable assessment. However, it overlooks one crucial point: there is a clear link in Scotland between identity, class, and the constitutional question. In the 1979 devolution referendum, 57 per cent of working class Scots supported a Scottish assembly whereas 60 per cent of middle class Scots opposed it. Eighteen years later, 91 per cent of working class Scots endorsed the Scottish Parliament compared to 69 per cent of middle class Scots. Even in the early 1970s, when nationalists were regularly dismissed as ‘Tartan Tories’, the SNP’s voter base more closely resembled that of the Labour Party than it did the Conservatives. In other words, the dynamics that shaped the 2014 vote didn’t come from nowhere: modern Scottish nationalism is tied closely to the faultlines of Britain’s post-war economy.

In his concluding remarks, Devine speculates that, although Scotland’s future as part of the UK remains uncertain, the SNP’s 2015 tsunami ‘could well represent the high-water mark of nationalist popularity’. A second failed referendum, he says, would bury the prospects of independence for ‘many years to come’. He’s right. Without a realistic shot at securing independence, the nationalists’ current control of the Scottish political landscape would be difficult to maintain. Conversely, throughout Independence or Union, Devine argues that Scotland has traditionally viewed the ‘union project’ in contractual terms, as a marriage of convenience based on mutual pragmatic advantage, rather than as a lopsided alliance heavily weighted in England’s favour. Whether the SNP manages to engineer, and then win, a second referendum, that contract is now in an advanced state of disintegration.


Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present
TM Devine
Allen Lane, £20, ISBN: 978-0-241-21587-6, PP306

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The Moor’s Last Sigh

THERE is a good argument for saying that the capture of Quebec in 1759, and the subsequent absorption of Canada into the British Empire, was owed first and foremost not to the English hero, James Wolfe, who fell in the moment of victory, but to one of his officers, Captain Donald MacDonald of Clanranald. MacDonald was in command of the ‘forlorn hope’, the twenty-four volunteers who landed before dawn on 14 September from the St Lawrence River and first scaled the Heights of Abraham above Quebec. The cliff was being guarded by the local militia, Canadian lads no doubt eager to defend their homeland but no match for professional soldiers if only these could get to grips with them. From a sentry post the country boys called out in the darkness when they heard the scuffles from beneath: ‘Qui va là, Who goes there?’

It was MacDonald who answered them in perfect French, explaining he was in charge of a consignment of provisions for the besieged city. He bought time for enough of his own men to gather and overpower the sentries. This in turn let 5000 British troops climb the cliffs and occupy the heights. Doomed Quebec fell a few hours later.

Wolfe and MacDonald were on the same side that day but only thirteen years before they had been enemies at the Battle of Culloden, Wolfe as a young officer under the Duke of Cumberland. MacDonald was then one of the clansmen fighting for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender leading the rebellion to restore the House of Stuart to its British thrones, now facing final defeat. In the intervening years, Wolfe had continued to pursue his military career, but he was rather a misfit and perhaps his deliberately seeking death in battle offered him the only way he was ever likely to find to the glorious immortality he craved. MacDonald had after Culloden escaped to France, where he served in the army of King Louis XV and acquired his perfect French. But he longed to be home again: he took advantage of an amnesty to return and join up with Fraser’s Highlanders, a regiment raised from former Jacobites. The British government decided it was now safe to use their military prowess for its own purposes, and its purposes including winning global power through empire. Conquest of Canada was one of the first steps.

Trevor Royle’s Culloden leads us right back to this lost world of derring-do. There have been many books on the battle and his is one of the most objective and fair-minded of them. He will have nothing to do with the distortion of this into a struggle between Scotland and England. There were as many Scots in the Duke of Cumberland’s army as in Prince Charles’s. Even the Highlands were not unanimously Jacobite, and the royal ranks included Munro’s Regiment, largely recruited from the hardy Presbyterians of Scotland’s northernmost counties, Caithness and Sutherland.

Nor does Royle stereotype the commanders as some other authors have been guilty of doing. Cumberland was perhaps a little fatter than he allows (there is actually a sketch by one of his officers demonstrating as much), but he was far from being just a slob. He was an intelligent man and a courageous soldier. While he did indeed harry the Highlands after his victory, he did also worry about it, even though he had come to regard it as a necessity. He indeed sought authority from on high about how to treat the vanquished local population, but authority was giving nothing away. He had to decide for himself what to do, and take the rap if it came, as he well knew. Lucky for him that the rap came only from history. As for Prince Charles, he really had no redeeming features but charm and wit, and Royle does not try to endow him with any others.

As a military historian to trade, Royle rather shows a special interest in how Culloden shaped the development of armies, strategies and tactics. For such a small engagement, with no more than 5000 men on each side, the effect was amazingly big. In opening up this theme, Royle leads us well away from the usual lamentations over a lost Highland idyll that have marked the work of too many writers dealing with, and distorting, the subject before him. In fact his account of the battle itself is over before we reach page 100. The rest of the narrative give us much more original and valuable material.

For a century before Culloden, the Highland charge had been probably the most effective tactic available on any battlefield. Military engagements tended to be long drawn-out affairs because the loading of firearms, whether cannon or muskets, was such a laborious affair, and generals did not usually venture far beyond exchanges of shot till they had softened their enemy up and thinned his ranks. The clansmen cut through this tiresome process by casting aside their small arms, taking up their claymores and running full tilt at the enemy lines in front of them. The men standing there, still loading, were best advised to take to their heels before a blade cleft their skull.

This was the tactic that had won most of the Marquis of Montrose’s battles in the Civil War, had won also the crucial Battle of Killiecrankie for Bluidy Claverhouse, had indeed won the Battle of Prestonpans for Prince Charles himself. It might conceivably have won the Battle of Culloden too, if he had learned the right lessons. Instead he drew his clansmen up in ordered lines on Drummossie Moor, almost as if this had been a French or Austrian army. They stood in freezing wind and sleet being decimated by Cumberland’s artillery, calling out loud for the order to charge. It came too late and too uncertainly to bring them victory.

There was in fact to be one more example of the devastating Highland charge, and that was the charge by Fraser’s Highlanders on the Heights of Abraham. There the French had been the first to charge, this being probably their only chance to beat a superior British force. But their charge was brought to a halt by the disciplined volley that Wolfe organised, when hundreds of rifles fired with what sounded like a single crack. Then it was the Highlanders’ turn to charge. Heads and limbs flew from those Frenchmen who could not get back inside the walls of Quebec quick enough.

Yet this was also history’s last example of the victorious Highland charge. The real lesson of Culloden lay in the way Cumberland had disciplined his troops to stand their ground as the inevitable Highland charge came at them. They could hardly feel anything but terror as the horde of screaming brutes fell on them. But they were to keep cool, fix their bayonets and thrust the blade at the man not in front but to his left, who would be running with his sword-arm upraised so that he could therefore be skewered and put out of action. At Culloden the clansmen broke through the first line of royal troops and even reached the second. Yet the wall of bayonets forced them at last to fall back.

What, then, was to replace the Highland charge as the best way to win battles? It was precisely the ability of the trained infantryman to stand firm while death whistled or bounded towards him, in the form of a bullet or a cannonball, so that his formation held together till the time came for it to move forward and dislodge the enemy from his position. That was the rather boring way battles were to be won in future. Things were all the worse for the soldier if he was wearing a fancy uniform, in French silver or British red, which made him an even better target for the other side: there was no khaki, let alone camouflage, in those days. Waiting and taking it became in the ordinary soldier a capacity more important than going out and giving it. But in time, at Waterloo or in the Crimea, we could be sure the thin red lines would hold. Culloden had set a new pattern for the exercise of British prowess.

This complex process of gradual evolution in military tactics Royle explains throughout with crisp precision, as if giving a situation report to a general staff. But his true skills as a historian come to the fore when he leaves all the technical background behind and enlivens his tales with graphic sketches of the later careers of the men who fought at Culloden. They take us down to the end of the eighteenth century and in one or two cases even beyond. These characters assume shapes all the sharper because set against a moving background, of a United Kingdom that had only just learned to control the internal conflicts it inherited – Culloden was the last big battle on British soil. Yet almost at once this new polity set out on constructing a global dominion that stretched from the backwoods of North America to the sun-baked plains of India. It needed to create professional fighting forces, and the use of fighting techniques first deployed at Culloden was one of the things making that possible. It was imperial power that grew out of the soil fertilised by Highland blood on Drummossie Moor. Trevor Royle’s rapid-fire yet crystal-clear account does credit to the battle and to himself.


Culloden, Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire
Trevor Royle
Little, Brown, £25, ISBN: 978-1408704011, PP409

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We’re All Doomed

ON April 20, 1535, a strange cosmic sight appeared above the city of Stockholm in Sweden. For several hours, three suns seemed to shine out of the same sky, with haloes of light radiating out from each of them. It was a time of great religious upheaval, so it was natural the crowds that bore witness to this celestial display should regard it as a message from their maker. Twelve years earlier the country had gained its independence from Denmark in the Swedish War of Liberation and the leader of the rebel movement Gustav Eriksson (later known as Gustav Vasa) had been elected King. Vasa drove the country’s Reformation, divesting the Catholic clergy of power and privilege. Was this amazing light show God’s way of signalling His intent to wreak revenge on the sovereign and the city?

In an attempt to assuage public fears, the Chancellor and Lutheran scholar Olaus Petri commissioned a painting of the event. But – as one version of the story has it – when the completed artwork was unveiled, Vasa interpreted it as evidence of a conspiracy against him. He, the real sun, was under threat from two imposters. His suspicions festered. Eventually, he turned against Petri and fellow Lutheran intellectual Laurentius Andreae, accusing them of treachery, and what had been heralded as a portent of doom became one; a dark and self-fulfilling prophecy.

The three suns over Stockholm were, in fact, parhelia or sun dogs: an atmospheric phenomenon caused by the refraction of light through ice crystals. Often, the phantom suns are hazy, but now and again they shine so brightly they resemble giant torches setting the sky ablaze.

The cover of Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims – which shows three gold circles within a series of concentric rings – bears more than a passing resemblance to the Vädersolstavlan, the painting of Stockholm commissioned by Petri, and her story begins with the three main characters gazing up at the parhelia which have appeared above a caravan park in Clachan Fells, a valley surrounded by seven mountains, somewhere in northern Scotland. Dylan, an ‘incomer’, still mourning the deaths of his mother and grandmother, Constance, a woman who has scandalised the community and her transgender daughter Stella, are all outsiders drawn together by circumstance and destiny during the most severe winter for 20 years. They each see in the sun dogs a reflection of their own longing: the embodiment of love past, present and future. But for all of them – and for the reader – the parhelia are also an omen: a harbinger of plummeting temperatures, geological upheaval, an ice age, maybe even the End of Times.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is the latest in a flurry of so-called cli-fi novels, in which global warming replaces the nuclear holocaust as the instrument of our destruction. The genre’s origins may be traced to JG Ballard’s prescient masterpiece The Drowned World, published in 1962, in which melted polar ice caps turned cities into lagoons. But, as anxiety about the impact of greenhouse gases has eaten away at the public consciousness, so the number of novelists using it as a springboard for their fiction has grown. It features strongly as a theme in children’s and Young Adult books – Lionboy (Zizou Corder), Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities – and in the past decade, has been at the centre of dystopian novels by Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad).

If cli-fi authors can be divided loosely into two groups – those who are motivated by a desire to warn about the consequences of climate change and those for whom climate change is a means to explore character and ideas – then Fagan falls into the latter camp. Though she clearly intends to send a message about our reckless plundering of the earth’s resources, the odd passages in which she hovers on the edge of didacticism, are amongst the least interesting in a novel which uses elemental turmoil as a metaphor for emotional turmoil and the epic struggle to endure as a catalyst for self-discovery. This is not, to be fair, an original concept and there are scenes, such as the one in which Stella battles through a hail storm, where the external/internal angst metaphor feels rather obvious and heavy-handed. What lifts the novel way above the quotidian, however, is Fagan’s fascination with light and landscape and her effortless, incandescent prose. In The Sunlight Pilgrims, the earth under siege is not, as you might assume, a relentlessly bleak environment, but one sporadically transformed – by the sun(s), the stars, the aurora borealis – into a place of stark, razor-edged beauty. Where other cli-fi novels offer fetid floodwaters, Fagan gives us glittering haar-frost and ice-flowers.

The deadlier the earth becomes, the more it dazzles. When, towards the end, the three main characters catch sight of thousands of penitentes – tall, thin blades of ice that look like people bowed in prayer – apparently marching across the hillside, the effect is so visceral you feel the bitter chill of the wind against your face, see the glint of sun on snow and share in the sense of powerlessness that comes from gazing at a panorama too vast for the human mind to process. It reminded me of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: the way I wanted to do justice to the experience, to consume and preserve its splendour, but, in the end, all that was possible was to look at it and go home.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is steeped in mysticism. In Fagan’s highly-acclaimed debut novel, The Panopticon, Anais Hendricks, a girl who is has spent her life in care, moves through a world populated by mad monks, flying cats and the hallucinogenically-induced ‘Chief the Iguana’ as she struggles to escape her fate. Here too, everyday events are interwoven with myth to create something akin to magical realism. Dylan – who is six feet seven and has never known his father – is said to be a nephilim, the product of the sexual union of a mortal and a fallen angel. On his arm he has a tattoo of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of both creation and destruction, who wears a ball-gown made out of skulls. Above the skulls are death-wish comets that ‘blaze through the stars intent on total annihilation’. There are also visitations from ghostly figures, most notably Dylan’s grandmother Gunn, who tells Stella about the Sunlight Pilgrims: people who stare at the sun and absorb its energy ‘right down into their chromosomes, so that, in the darkest minutes of winter, they [will] glow and glow and glow’. Later, Dylan shares the story of seventy monks on a remote Scottish island said to have gone mad and thrown themselves off a cliff. All but one died. The surviving monk, Dylan recounts, was discovered on the mountaintop, naked and drinking in the light.

Light in all its myriad, and occasionally apocalyptic, forms is – as the novel’s title suggests – Fagan’s major preoccupation. All her characters are searching for illumination, for ‘clarity, most recently lost’. Dylan is a man who is emerging from the dark. Brought up in Babylon, an arthouse cinema, in Soho, London, he has existed vicariously through flickering images projected onto a screen. Only when he is exposed to the star-studded skies at Clachan Fells, does he learn to live life rather than merely watching it; only when his secrets are given an airing, does he begin to come to terms with his past.

When Dylan first glimpses Constance at the caravan park, she is cleaning in her sleep; he watches spellbound as she hoovers up the road, then reaches up with a rag to ‘polish the moon’. Fagan has a long-standing fascination with all things lunar. In The Sunlight Pilgrims, the moon is variously a reflection of the earth’s vanity and a source of power, allowing Constance to become her true ‘wolf’ self. The image of her, rag in hand, which previously featured in Fagan’s poem, ‘Watching from the Window at 6am on a Comedown’, seems to echo the lines ‘polishing the moon, cultivating clouds, I long for the ancient wind’, written by zen master Eihei Dogen. Is the moon, then, the channel by which Constance – who has defied social convention by having two lovers – gains inner peace and self-knowledge?

Stella is also struggling with her identity. Her father, Alistair, refuses to call her by her new name and school friends mock her transition from male to female. But it is the snow, rather than the any light-form, that helps her achieve self-determination. The scene in which she sledges down a steep slope brings to mind the opening section of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, but unlike the Austrian countess, Marie, Stella has no need to hold on tight. Whizzing through a herd of cattle, she is not only free, but autonomous.

Fagan also explores the conflict between our biology and our sense of self. It is no coincidence that Alistair is a taxidermist, a man who strips the pelts from dead animals. When he returns to his wife, he gives Constance a wolf head and skin she can put on and shed at will. As a transgender girl, Stella is, of course, ill at ease with her own anatomy. She toys with asking her father for a piece of road kill to skin so she can show her school friends ‘where a brain is and a heart is and that a body is just a body’. She wants hormone blockers to stop her voice breaking but is not convinced having her penis cut off will make her any more female. ‘A girl is a girl is a girl is a girl,’ she says.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is very different from The Panopticon so it is interesting that its most distinctive voice is, once again, that of an adolescent trying to find her way. It is Stella’s journey that is the most compelling of the three; her personality the one that imprints itself most strongly on the memory. In the prologue, it is Stella who – inspired by Gunn’s ghost – focuses on the sun dogs and tries to absorb their energy ‘deep into her cells’ in the hope that she can use it as fuel in the dark days to come. This is the question Fagan’s novel seeks to answer: as its protagonists live and love and enjoy fleeting moments of joy, can they soak up enough light to survive the dread chill of winter? Indeed, can any of us?


The Sunlight Pilgrims
Jenni Fagan
William Heinemann, £12.99, ISBN: 978-043023301, PP320

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Oor Willie

WILLIAM McIlvanney chose ‘Growing Up in the West’ as the title of his contribution to Karl Miller’s 1970 collection of essays, Memoirs of a Modern Scotland. ‘It is perhaps not too fanciful to suppose,’ he writes, ‘that special contour lines of experience invisibly demarcate certain regions from others or that the West of Scotland, where nature and industry contend along the seaboard, is one such region. Certainly, the towns there have always seemed to me to form a loose fraternity, to sport flora of matching colours and breed fauna of like habits.’ One of these habits, perhaps, is the need to begin by establishing credentials, which McIlvanney does by delineating his working class background and how he has ‘seen service on the fronts of Troon, Prestwick and Ayr’. The title too is a nod to the great Ayrshire writer John Galt, who proposed Tales of the West as a collective name for his writings, but its aptness isn’t entirely geographic. Ayrshire has always had a touch of the Wild West about it, a sense of being on the edge, with everyone else agin you.

Our metaphors are gleaned from endless reruns of cowboy movies, and it goes without saying that we like both kinds of music: country and western. The streets of McIlvanney’s Graithnock holds the dangerous possibility of ‘the wild frontier’. In The Kiln, Allison muses that ‘chaparral’ might be a handy word for the main street, and young Tam understands his burgeoning sexuality in terms of the Hollywood films showing in the town’s seven cinemas. The proximity of Maddie Fitzpatrick turns him into ‘an Indian in a Western seeing his first white woman’ – ‘How!’ – ­­­and the novel ends with his mind shouting ‘GERONIMO’. It isn’t simply a shared cultural reference; Westerns offer a parallel moral code. As Angus and Conn prepare to fight at the end of Docherty, Angus comments, with something like admiration: ‘Christ. A gunfighter in the family.’

When I read Docherty for the first time, I found it heavy going. I was in my early teens, had read Laidlaw, and decided to use my Christmas book token to buy another McIlvanney novel from Justin Theodas’s newsagent and bookshop in Wellbeck Street. While I must have guessed that Graithnock was Kilmarnock, it was an unrecognisable version of it. The fine old buildings of the town centre had been demolished and it was dominated by what Tam Docherty’s grandson would describe as ‘a kind of monumental slum they called a shopping precinct’. There wasn’t a Mairtin Docherty to ‘conjure exotic past out of mundane present’. The novel might have been set decades before, but it felt too close to the bone: ‘There was childhood, brief as a dragonfly. After that men worked, women had children and kept house.’ That ‘beating a wife unconscious one pellucid summer evening’ did not earn ‘permanent contempt’ because it was ‘too real’ seemed bleak beyond words. Getting out of the town was my priority, and pausing to look back seemed maudlin at best and risky at worst.

While it took me a few more years to get to grips with the novel, and even more to appreciate my home town, its author was a recognisable figure. Once I saw him ‘down the street’, and pointed him out to my friend. I was interested in writing, but the process by which bedroom scribblings turned into the bound pages of a book was entirely opaque. And yet, somehow, this person was a writer. He was from Kilmarnock, and you could buy his books in Theodas’s. I hadn’t yet read The Kiln, so I didn’t think of Tam’s recognition that Alexander Fleming was born in Darvel: ‘An Ayrshireman did that. There’s hope, there’s hope’. I did however convince my friend that we should follow this rare creature. Perhaps he would pull out a typewriter and start writing? He didn’t. He went to the General Post Office in John Finnie Street, where I bought a second class stamp and he withdrew cash. We trailed him down Bank Place and along Bank Street, where he disappeared into the Goldberry Arms. Our school uniforms precluded entry, although apparently it had once been quite the haunt of teachers and older boys from Kilmarnock Academy. The school magazine, which McIlvanney edited in 1954-5, was called The Goldberry.

I regret that we didn’t manage to hear the author hold forth on his home turf. Before the industry went, the culture of the town is described in The Big Man as being made by workers: ‘It was raw. It was sentimental songs at spontaneous parties, half-remembered poems that were admitted into no academic canon of excellence, anecdotes of doubtful social taste, wild and surrealistic turns of phrase, bizarre imaginings that made Don Quixote look like a bank clerk . . . the pub-talk flourished, the stories were oral novels and the songs would have burst Beethoven’s eardrums if he hadn’t already been deaf.’ Meanwhile ‘other people could get on with the higher things, what they liked to call “culture’’’. The Quixotic pub talk may still have been flourishing amongst the men propping up the bar at the Goldberry, but anything else resembling culture was thin on the ground; I’d have seconded McIlvanney’s earlier observation that ‘the mental climate in the West of Scotland is not conducive to the more delicate aesthetic pretensions’. Home my friend and I went, to do our homework and hope that one day our exam results would be enough to get us away.

Few writers have understood the – now much diminished – Scottish relationship with pubs and alcohol like McIlvanney. ‘The excuse of being drunk’ is available to men like Tam Docherty, just as Dan in The Big Man can ‘nip out and have a look at Indo-China’ in order to escape domestic life. In The Kiln, Tom uses the Akimbo Arms ‘to refresh his sense of himself and where he came from, while a very young Jack Laidlaw explains that he’ll have to practise being guttered: ‘Ah think Ah’ll get better at it.’ Not that pubs are always safe havens ‘for killing half-an-hour’. In his poem ‘Casual Meeting’, McIlvanney describes a chance reunion in which two men ‘exchanged / The names of mutual friends like conversation’, ending on the line: ‘People are suffocating, locked in smiles.’ By then the Old Men at Union Street Corner are ‘the survivors, defenders / Of a fortress long since fallen.’

The network of transversals that runs through the Graithnock novels (and beyond) is a masculine one, lubricated by drink. It is in the pubs, along with street corners, pits, Graithnock Academy, and the brickwork, that the paths of characters cross. The High Street of Docherty has ‘an invisible network of barriers and rights-of-way . . . behind it a deep and muffled sense of what it meant to be a man, a realisation that there were areas which were only your own, and that if these were violated formidable forces might be invoked.’ Most resonant of all is the mine. Near the beginning of Docherty we see Tam and Buff, ‘steeping in warmth’ by the fireside, speaking little: ‘Yet their silence was a traffic, more real than words. They had known each other a long time and both were miners. Their friendship was fed from numerous tubers, small, invisible, forgotten, favours like help with shifting furniture, talk in the gloaming at the corner, laughter shared. Intensifying these was that sense of communal identity miners had, as if they were a separate species.’ We need only recall the scenes when Kellingley pit in Yorkshire closed in December to comprehend how resilient that mining culture was, and the sense of loss when it died.

McIlvanney’s Graithnock is ‘an industrial town under siege from farmland’. The claustrophobia of that siege can be broken in two ways. For McIlvanney, ‘the country was an escape route, a place for divesting the identities the town imposed on me and going naked in my imagination’. The Crawfurdland Estate, where I used to walk my dog, becomes for Conn Docherty ‘Indian country’ (in this case an Africa populated by fierce Zulus). If nature is one form of escape, another is books. Conn’s son Tam, the one who will end up able to ‘howk wi’ his heid’ rather than go down the mine, feels the power of reading early on. He ‘became D’Artagnan and Ayrshire was Gascony. Called in for a meal that had nothing to do with him, he found it awkward to sit at the table with his sword on’. In the library – the Dick Institute, it would have been, opposite Kilmarnock Academy – Tam sees a woman ‘trying to find the book which, when she pulls it from the shelf, will – as in some Gothic castle – activate the secret doorway to admit her to a life richer and more dramatic than her own’.

McIlvanney once wrote that ‘to judge working class culture, once you have left it, by the standards of the established literary culture you have entered is to judge it by terms that were created to deny it. You have no option but to impoverish your past. The rules are made to work that way’. It’s an interesting thought, given the working class one-upmanship of much of the Scottish literary scene, and our good Scots tendency towards nostalgia. Wha’s like us? We might look instead towards McIlvanney’s epigraph for The Big Man, two lines from Camus, a writer he admired for the way in which ‘he tried to marry theory with real living, which to me was what socialism was also trying to do’: ‘What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.’

Being the first person in the family to go to university does impart that ‘sense of being outside any social norm’ that young Tam Docherty recognises. It is through writing that he realises that ‘You can’t disown your past without becoming no one. To challenge conditioning without trying to eradicate it, to modify it honestly in the light of individual thought, was to become yourself.’ In ‘Growing Up in the West’, McIlvanney writes of beginning to ‘see a marriage between my present and the past which had been mine before I was born’. That marriage is as complicated as any relationship described in the Graithnock novels, and it’s one that can’t take place without investing in the heritage of our towns, in our libraries and in our schools. The kind of education McIlvanney had at Kilmarnock Academy is long gone. Young Tam Docherty might have wondered what the use would be for his Latin and Greek translation skills in Graithnock, but at least he had the chance to acquire them. Here’s then to what McIlvanney considered to be social responsibility: ‘not the need to make sure that people keep their places, but the need to care that each one has the right to the conditions which will give him the chance to fulfil himself.’ That need is greater than ever, and we must hope for strong voices to articulate it. One such voice has been lost.

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Rebel Inc.

If you were planning to run a revolution from a post office now, you’d have to take a number and wait in line. The nodes of cultural communication as well as of social power have shifted since 1916, more democratic in some aspects, infinitely more entrenched and imperial in others. The editors’ timely purpose in this General Post Office of a book is to offer a one-stop-shop of Scottish perspectives on the Easter Rising, exploring not just forgotten dimensions of the Irish struggle and the Scottish part in it, but more generally a set of what Alan Riach sharply identifies as ‘elective affinities’ between two countries so inextricably bound together by culture, political differentiations from London politics and by shared internal divisions. All of this with at its heart a meditation on why a century ago Irish nationalism went down a violent and ultimately tragic route, exiting its imperial phase via a one-sided compromise that simply perpetuated inequality and violence, while Scotland a century later is moving through devolution and fiscal autonomy toward independence without so much as a shot being fired or a bridge blown. There are, of course, answers to this non-rhetorical question, some of them bound up in the contrast between an essentially agrarian society and a rapidly industrialised one, some of them going back to different experiences of imperial policing and ownership, some of them more airily ‘cultural’.

Irish and Scots history have always been told as much in contentious story and song, personal reminiscence and polemic as they have in orthodox historiography, but what Kirsty Lusk’s and Willy Maley’s book suggests, pace the testimony of some of their contributors, is that these democratic and vernacular approaches to a shared history have been quite fully assimilated and even colonised by the academy. James Kelman’s assertion – in an essay that marshals the philosophical perspective of George Elder Davie to frame the background of one of the Rising’s key protagonists – that ‘Radical history remains marginalised within our culture’ is both resoundingly self-evident and plain untrue.

Kelman is present here as an essayist rather than fiction writer, but Lusk and Maley don’t simply invite us to queue for stamps and licences. They’ve set out a broad range of goods and services, calling on fiction, poetry, literary criticism and memoir as well as historical analysis. A straggling line of contributors addresses the headline topic as efficiently and eclectically as one might expect from a book whose main drawbacks are an absence, apart from a laborious timeline, of unifying narrative – is it really safe to assume that every reader will be familiar with what happened on and around Sackville Street on Easter Monday 1916? – and a repetitious fixation on just the Rising’s key players.

It bears repeating that among a leadership that reflected the pan-Celtic and diaspora dimensions of Irish nationalism, James Connolly was not just a Scot by birth, but an Edinburgh Scot of a particular cast and caste, committed to democratic socialism as much as he was to Irish nationalism. Connolly’s execution, his broken body tied to a chair, is the Rising’s pieta, and has perhaps overshadowed the living Connolly’s complex relation to the cause that swallowed him. Raised in the Cowgate’s ‘Little Ireland’, he grew up watching the quality breathe better air on George IV Bridge above his head. Contributor after contributor attests to Edinburgh’s denial of paternity. An excerpt from Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs reflects on Connolly’s denied identity as a socialist. Maley teases out the same story more fully. The late Ian Bell claims the closest connection as Connolly’s grand-nephew, and remembers the moment when an unsanctioned plaque was belatedly installed near the great man’s birthplace. The original one was torn down by angry Loyalists.

More obviously neglected figures are brought forward, most notably the young Margaret Skinnider from Coatbridge, who saw heroic action during the Rising, but also offered a trenchant awareness of the social reality of Scotland’s cities: ‘… Glasgow is two fifths Irish. Indeed there are as many Irish there as in Dublin itself and the spirit among the younger generation is perhaps more intense because we are a little to one side and thus afraid of becoming outsiders.’ Given her contribution, the role of the Cumann na mBann and the Daughters of Erin, and the revisionist material set out by Alison O’Malley-Younger there isn’t much foundation to the more casually feminist notion that Irish nationalism was a male club. On the contrary, it often elevated its female adherents, and most notoriously Countess Markievicz, to undeservedly heroic status. The romantic and poetic dimensions of the Rising cannot be denied, even if WB Yeats had never coined that unhelpful line about a ‘terrible beauty’. Sorley MacLean’s ‘Ard-Mhusaeum na h’Éireann’ (‘National Museum of Ireland’) is a complex attempt to take on and debunk the Yeatsian strain. Connolly’s stained shirt is a holy relic turned into museum heritage. Connolly himself is fighting in the Post Office, but also ‘glanadh shràidean an Dùn Èideann’ (‘cleaning streets in Edinburgh’), which is not bathos, but the main point, for the brave action of the Easter fighters failed to ignite a reciprocal struggle elsewhere, just as the Bolshevik rising a year later failed to light more than a weak powder trail of revolution across Europe.

A number of essays focus on how the Scottish contribution to the Easter Rising, whether in fact or in more abstract solidarity, was both substantial and rooted in social conditions in the neighbouring country. Shaun Kavanagh’s study of Irish republicanism and Sinn Fein in Greenock is particularly fascinating. Richard B Macready does similar work on the Dundee connection. Michael Shaw, like Kavanagh, also concentrates on the now overlooked concept of Home Rule, which some pre-Easter 1916 regarded as an evolutionary inevitability interrupted by hasty violence. The discussion also has to negotiate the uncomfortable recognition that Scottish soldiery played a major role in suppressing the Rising and its aftermath.

The more personal contributions, by Phil Kelly and Aaron Kelly, by Kevin McKenna, and under the aspect of a long personal struggle, by Billy Kay, all add significant dimensions to the debate about Scotland vis-à-vis Irish nationalism, and Irish nationalism vis-à-vis its Scots equivalent. The sense of a distinct Scots-Irish identity as an actual and active force is made with gentle directness by McKenna, while Kevin Rooney considers the singing of ‘rebel’ songs against the background of the disastrously misconceived Offensive Behaviour at Football (Scotland) Act, which has politicised and debased the culture of remembrance and self-identification in the interest of a few cosmetic prosecutions, and which represents a direct assault not so much on Celtic or Rangers fans, republicans or Loyalists, but on working class football fans whose ritualised constructions of Irish/Scottish history are usually more accurate and inflected than the official versions. To this extent, at least, Kelman is right. This is territory more fully explored elsewhere by Stuart Waiton of Abertay University, who sees the Act as an infringement of free speech and a spur to a new kind of sectarian ‘offence’ based on a flimsily therapeutic model.

Though Scotland and the Easter Rising is an editorial shambles, it has a rich consistency of tone and Owen Dudley Edwards brings it all together with an essay that might in different form have served better as introduction than as afterword. In it he invokes the Irish past as a heuristic for the Scottish future, but only if the ideals represented are sustained without their obvious ‘agency for hurt’. A certain middle-class, middlebrow perspective on the Easter Rising holds it up as a stern vindication of how much more sensible the Scottish path has been, which somewhat misses the point. Dudley Edwards and the other writers here render that position finally untenable, but keep alive the heuristic. There was a predictable and nicely orchestrated chorus of protest when a leading historian called for the Easter Rising to be marked and even celebrated. Here are the reasons why, variously expressed, sometimes redundantly repeated, occasionally enigmatic, but absolutely and inescapably of the moment. Our common moment. Our number is about to be called.


Scotland AND the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916
Edited by Kirsty Lusk & Willy Maley
Luath Press, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1910745366, PP240

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The SRB Interview: Jackie Kay

Opening one of Jackie Kay’s books is like walking into a busy metropolitan bar that has accommodated within its walls the deep past, character and charm of a country pub. You know you will encounter stories comic and sad, that you will never leave thirsty, and that the mind will feel renewed with the spirit, musicality and colour of life.

Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. She was adopted at birth by Helen and John Kay, who lived, and still live, in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow. Helen was a primary school teacher who was also secretary of the Scottish peace movement and John worked full time for The Communist Party. When Kay was pregnant with her son Matthew she started a search for her birth parents, and this long experience, along with her Scottish upbringing, is recounted in her memoir Red Dust Road (2010). Kay’s writing style is as varied and vivid as her life, and her ability to inhabit voices and capture them on the page was demonstrated in her first poetry collection, The Adoption Papers (1991). It incorporated themes still prevalent in her work today: ‘what is identity? Is identity a shifting, fluid thing? How much are we made up by genes, and how much by stories? How much is it possible to escape the constraints of our own DNA and invent ourselves? How much does love define us, and make things possible? Does being loved change the shape of your face, or change the look in your eyes, or change your voice, or your body?’

Kay’s output is too prolific to give but a précis. Her second poetry book, Other Lovers (1993), explored the impact of colonialism and slavery on black culture, and it was a topic she returned to in her play The Lamplighter (2008). She has a written a sequence of poems about Bessie Smith, and she also wrote a biographical portrait of the great blues singer, which was published in 1997. Jazz and blues have been a lifelong love, and her novel Trumpet (1998), republished this year as a Picador classic, is about a jazz musician called Joss Moody. Upon his death, the trumpet player is found to have been a woman, and the novel refracts Moody’s life through the lens of those who knew him and the media eye. Kay’s short story collections include Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002) and Reality, Reality (2012). Her most recent poetry collections are Fiere (2011) and the pamphlet The Empathetic Store, published in 2015 by Mariscat Press. In progress is a new novel, Bystander.

Kay has lived in Manchester for the last twenty years, although she has said ‘in my mind I also live in Scotland’, and frequently is at home in Glasgow seeing her parents. Nick Major met Kay in HOME, a new arts centre and theatre space near Manchester’s old industrial centre. They sat in the upstairs restaurant beside tall glass windows that afforded a view of the sun. The room was baked in a heat that defied the cold winter’s day outside. They had a long afternoon lunch, punctuated with coffee to keep the mind fresh. The clatter of other lives, other lunches, was all around them. Small in stature, large in mind, she was wearing a red jumper that matched the city’s prevailing colour, and two silver discs hung from her ears, shimmering in the light. Kay is a fast talker, and often spoke in long looping sentences that circled every subject, always prodding and poking at it in a search for a newer, clearer understanding. As this edition of the Scottish Review of Books went to press she was appointed our new Makar.

The Scottish Review of Books: You’ve lived in Manchester for many years now, but do you still think of Glasgow as home?

Jackie Kay: I think of Glasgow as my home in the many ways that a person can think of a home. My parents live in exactly the same house I grew up in. Nobody’s been in that house except our family. It’s a Lawrence house. But Glasgow as a city is a spiritual home, and I love the robust energy of the place and all the contradictions. It’s a city of doubles and amazing contrasts. It often gets less attention because Edinburgh is like a beautiful twin sister, but Glasgow is beautiful in its own different way. It is a city that can still surprise you; you can keep getting to know it because it keeps on changing.

How has it changed since your youth?

The river has changed. The ships that used to sail the river have gone and the cruise ships are not there anymore. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders has gone, which was a big part of Glasgow. An industrial part of Glasgow has come and gone, and in its place have come all sorts of new and magnificent buildings down by the River Clyde: The Armadillo, the new BBC, the Glasgow Science Centre, the whole Quay area. But mostly Glasgow’s image of itself, the conversation it has with itself, has changed really dramatically over the course of my lifetime. It used to be a place some people were embarrassed to say they were from. Down in England, when you said you were from Glasgow, people would say, ‘isn’t it violent, scary, dangerous?’ All the buildings were really dark until they were all cleaned and the beautiful sandstone revealed. It’s gone from being that 1970s dark Glasgow into a new millennium and it has had a facelift. It’s become more culturally mixed than it was, and particularly if you’re in the West End, you see a bigger mix of people. Glasgow is still a city with a huge heart and a big sense of humour, a city that can shoulder tragedy with great dignity, that manages to bring people together, and it’s still a very political, vibrant city.

Your parents were very active communists. What was it like growing up in such a political household? 

For me it was a lot of fun. It was exciting. There were lots of people who came to stay from different parts of the world. You would come down in the morning and there would be different bodies on the floor or on the sofa. There would be Party socials in the house where people would sing songs and recite poems. It was a very social upbringing. We went out to the theatre, and saw all of 7:84’s plays, and Wildcat’s plays, we went to the opera, and to poetry readings at The Highland Institute. We went on loads of demonstrations. It was like the year had a calendar to it, beginning with the Burns supper, and ending with the Morning Star Bazaar every Christmas, and in between there was the May Day Rally, the Miners’ Gala down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, anti-Apartheid marches and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches, and Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders rallies, where I would meet the two Jimmies, Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid. They would admire my red trouser suit and say, ‘nice colour comrade’, and this was when I was ten! My dad stood for the Communist Party candidate in the Gorbals so I would go canvassing with him, knocking on doors.

How old were you then?

I was quite young really. I remember somebody at one time being quite horrible at the door, and saying: ‘do you even know what this is?’ They just shouted in my face and it was upsetting. It really went in because I thought: ‘do I know what this is, and do I agree with it?’ I joined the Young Communist League when I was fourteen and left when I was sixteen or seventeen.

Why did you leave?

I didn’t think they were feminist enough. After a while it didn’t feel like it was me anymore. I felt like I had grown in a different direction. I was still political, and I still had affinities with it, but I didn’t want to belong to any particular party. I didn’t think any party totally encompassed all of my beliefs, and I still feel like that to some extent. I’m not a member of any one political party.

But politics is still very important to you?

Yes, I’m still very politically engaged and I support different organisations, like Justice, Liberty, the Gatwick Detainees Group and the Scottish Refugee Council, and I support literature and libraries, from the Scottish Poetry Library to the Glasgow Women’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

In your memoir, Red Dust Road, your parents seem to nurture your political beliefs and help you stand up for what you believe in. They don’t constrain you or indoctrinate you, which might reinforce an image of communists some people have.

It’s an image that comes across in recent memoirs from David Aaronovitch and Alexei Sayle. I don’t recognise the communist upbringing they describe. I was allowed to celebrate Christmas! For me, my parents enabled me, and I wouldn’t be sat here if it wasn’t for them. I feel like they opened doors rather than pushed me through them, and I didn’t feel indoctrinated. I don’t think I would be so strong-willed had I been constrained!

One of the epigraphs in Red Dust Road is taken from a William Faulkner novel: ‘the past is not past’. Your parents are great raconteurs, recalling the stories in their lives, and you wrote that ‘for my parents their past is their future’. Does the idea of stories being alive help you as a writer?

I remember Toni Morrison once saying: ‘there’s more future in the past than there is in the future’. I like the idea that stories are active, that if you stepped on them they would become alive, like plants, and that the same memory can grow new shoots and flowers, and can change over the course of people’s lives. It’s a massive privilege to be with these parents who are now 85 and 90 and who have been married over sixty years. They’ve shared stories all that time, and reinforce each other’s memory. Although they are very different people, they have a shared mind, like a shared pot they’re eating from which keeps replenishing itself with flavour. I think that’s an amazing thing for memory, and a kind of memory booster for the old! But it’s also amazing that stories are made. It’s not so much that this happened and then that happened, but how you perceive what happened, and how that’s told. For me, being told stories was part of my life. I was told a story about myself: my father came from Nigeria; my mother came from the highlands; they were betrothed; they were in love. It all turned out to be a story. I don’t think any of it was exactly true, but it didn’t really matter. The good intent was there, and the kindness. I think of a story as something you can pass down, like blood or genes. Family mythologies are as important as family heirlooms, and they become part of a family’s identity.

You wrote that ‘the story of your own adoption seems like…the story of a fictional character’. Does it ever feel like the world conspired to make you a writer?

I think so. A writer is someone creative, [and writing is] something that involves stepping into someone else’s shoes, and it means you have to think about other people and how they interact. My dad says: ‘you could have been anything!’ Recently I have been nursing my mum and being in some ways like a carer as well as a daughter for them. I have quite a flair for being able to stay calm in the moment and deal with medical crises. I think of a writer as being several jobs all at once. We often have a medical empathy, and an empathy with people who are on the margins, or on the borders, or those who might have mental or physical health problems. Writers are often architects or gardeners, or people who are interested in the land and the seasons, and they are often cooks. There are poet doctors, like Dannie Abse and Chekhov. I find it interesting that every job you do has a shadow job and that there is another thing that lies under it to which we are also drawn. At the moment part of me likes engaging socially with the world, and sometimes it doesn’t feel enough to just be writing my novel. Sometimes I think: who would I rather be? The person who sat and finished the chapter, or the person who was there when [they were] needed? I am currently Chancellor of the University of Salford and I find that role an inspiring challenge.

When you were in your twenties you were a hospital porter. Was doing odd jobs how you survived as a young writer?

Yes. I couldn’t make a living just from writing. I did all sorts of different jobs. I worked for a children’s centre, for a publisher, and as a driver for a kids’ minibus. Hospitals are intense places for writers. Lucia Berlin’s stories are partly so rich because she also worked in hospitals. I think the ideal writer would also be a worker in a different job because you then have two worlds to draw from. If you’re just in your head all the time, and you’re not mixing with other people, and not seeing the difficulties that other people have, then you’re only relying mainly on memory and imagination, and that can narrow what you write about. Because our world is changing so much there are fewer books about ordinary jobs, books like [James Kelman’s] The Busconductor Hines.

In Red Dust Road you tell of a motorcycle accident which ‘made you write’. Do you think that close proximity to death was a catalyst for your writing life? 

I think the acknowledgement of the closeness of life to death is often the catapult that makes a writer write. Writers have often been created during a period of illness; it gives you another way of seeing time. A brush with death is sobering and can make you value life in a different way, particularly if it comes when you are young. It is almost as if you write to assert that you’re alive. You write to come into a consciousness that death could have annihilated. Perhaps being close to death gives you an empathy with the darker side and introduces you to an imaginative world that is quite different. You see at once how things could have turned out. Loss of one kind or another is our uncomfortable companion through life. Often writers have the black dog clicking at their heels, but often it’s something more subtle: there might be a darker consciousness to what it is you want to say. There is something in writing which is a call to the void, and I think that’s why people get such comfort and solace from reading. A reader is never truly alone. When you’re reading a book or a writer you love there is a feeling that you’re known and profoundly understood. There is a call and response between reader and writer that is timely and timeless. I do think that the accident had a massive effect on me! I don’t think the sense of having death close by has really ever left me. I couldn’t walk for a year and a half and it changed me physically. I suddenly went from being a sprinter, training four days a week, to being laid up. Some of that was brilliant because I read a lot and I took writing more seriously. It was something I could do.

Do you have a writing routine?

It fascinates me that we are so obsessed by writers’ routines. I love reading about other writer’s routines. We think the routine might hold the magic key to the formula for a masterpiece! Even people who don’t write want to know about writers’ routines. I am happiest when I am in a proper routine, so that would be to get up in the morning, have breakfast and start writing early, and write for three to four hours, and then break and read over the work I’ve done in the afternoon. I find that you need different routines for poetry than you do for prose. For long pieces of prose – not necessarily short stories – the more you don’t veer from your routine the better. Long prose almost wants you to stay static, wants you in the cellar or the attic, and wants you not to be on trains, not to be moving about the place. Whereas poetry is more portable, and the same with a story: you can contain a whole story in your head whilst you’re getting on and off a train. But poetry is less biddable than prose. So sitting down at a desk and saying: it’s ten o’clock in the morning and I’m going to write poetry for three hours is not so attractive. The routines are different depending on the form. I’m in a poetry phase of writing at the moment because my life demands that, and I find that poetry’s my old friend. It will come with me wherever I go and adjust to my conditions, like a faithful dog.

Some of your stories in Reality, Reality are about people who are often forgotten in society. Graham Swift once said he felt a duty to tell ‘the stories that don’t get told’. Do you feel the same way? 

I really do feel like that. Graham Swift spoke for the people of the fens, the marshlands and flatlands, and the mystery of that landscape. I think what writers often do is give voice to the voiceless. The voice might be a piece of land, or it could be an island or a kind of person who has been ignored, or whose story has not been properly told. I do feel like I’m drawn to creating characters whose stories are not familiar. Toni Morrison said she wrote the books she wanted to read. I feel like that.

When did you first read Toni Morrison?

I came across her really quite young, before many people were reading her. She published her first book, The Bluest Eye, when she was 48. I came across it in 1979 and after that I caught up with what she’d written and then read books as they came out, and still do. When she wrote Beloved she became a worldwide name: 124 was spiteful. Baby Suggs is amazing. So is Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead in Song of Solomon, who is still breastfeeding in his forties! The thing about Toni Morrison is that she can make you believe in anything. You can have a character like Sula, who has no navel, and you believe that, even though it’s impossible. That’s another part of the writer’s job: to make the impossible possible, and to make you live alongside those strange characters like people in your life. The characters you really love become beloveds, and they are dear to you.

Many of your poems owe a debt to folk songs and the blues you first listened to when quite young. Do you think those rhythms were imprinted in your mind from an early age? 

Perhaps those rhythms are just in me through growing up in a house of song. Some of them might have just been in me before then. You just don’t know what’s in you and what’s not. Poems are musical. A poem is not a song and we could debate for ages about what the difference is between a poem and a song, and that debate to me is a bit academic because what often draws people to a poem is its music: its particular arrangement, its cadences, its rhythms, its syntax, its repetitions, its use of stanzas and turns. But all these forms, whether the sonnet or lyric form, have echoes with musical forms. A twelve-bar blues will echo a sonnet because there’s a turn at the end, and it has a similar structure, and there is great freedom to be found in that structure. When I started writing – unless I was writing about black people – I couldn’t find a way of expressing my colour on the page because my voice is very Scottish, so I used a lot of blues forms and mixed them up with Scottish forms to create a blues-black voice or a Scottish-blues voice. I still haven’t done that to the extent I’d really like to. I’m struggling to find a voice that is unifying. There has to be a way linguistically of finding a voice that captures your own complexities. I envy writers that are half-Jamaican and half-English and who grew up with parents who already have that syntax and language to use, [but] I didn’t have any black people growing up around me – no Nigerian blethers, no Jamaican patois.

Your poems switch quite effortlessly between Scots and English. How do you know which voice to write in?

It depends on the poem. There is a poem in my new collection called ‘The Lang Promise’. I wanted to write a love poem that was an eventuality poem, like an ‘If’ but not a corny, Kipling ‘If’. Then that old Scots voice – ‘whether the weather be dreich or fair, my love/ if guid times greet us, or we hae tae face the wurst’ – came to me, and that voice was robustly Scottish, and the same with [the poem] ‘Fiere’. Sometimes I’ll be struggling to find a voice for what I’m writing, so it varies, and one poem doesn’t help the writing of another. It’s not cycling or swimming: with a poem it’s different. You might have a basic facility with language but your confidence can be attacked and you ask yourself: can I write at all? And I think that’s a disease that affects writers the most.


It’s different from writer’s block, or perhaps writer’s block can be broadened to include a writer’s form of extreme doubt, like a condition? I know so many writers that have that, where they are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

It seems odd that you should want to find one voice. Some poems – ‘Between the Dee and Don’ for example – seem to suggest that there is a freedom to be found living within different voices or different identities. 

I think it would be interesting if I could find a voice that didn’t have to make lots of choices. A voice that combined old Scots myth and say the Harlem Renaissance. A voice that found a home. I’m talking not about an accented voice, I’m talking about a voice that’s not embodied. I think that’s quite an interesting thing: that you might actually struggle to find a voicelessness, but in that voicelessness you find something that is just you. All writing’s a struggle to find a unique voice.

Is it difficult to write in Scots whilst living in Manchester?

You don’t need to live in Scotland to be Scottish, to have the language, to have a Scottish heart and a Scottish sensibility. If anything it can heighten those senses. A huge number of Scottish people live outside Scotland and those people cling on to a sense of being Scottish, sometimes in a more ardent and fevered way than you do if you’re living in Scotland. A lot of writers write more vividly about the place they are from by being outside it – James Joyce did, James Baldwin did – and lots of writers wrote about their societies from a slightly different angle. But I am there nearly half of the year so I get topped up. I’ve never fallen out of love with the way Glaswegians talk, with the way my mum and dad talk, and for me that’s bread and butter. But I like listening to how people talk in Manchester or in Salford. I like the voices of people, and their syntax, word orders and rhythms, and their particular vocabulary.

We were talking about the blues earlier. You wrote a book about Bessie Smith and there is a sequence of Bessie Smith poems in your book Other Lovers. Why are you so drawn to this particular singer?

I was given a double album by my dad when I was twelve, so she was an early love. She had a raw unplugged voice that pulled you right down to a place you’d never actually been, almost to an underground country. She was very different to what my friends were listening to in Bishopbriggs. They were listening to David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, and David Essex – it was all about the Davids in those days! I had one really good friend who was into jazz and dancing. She used to come over and my dad would put the armchairs aside in the wee living room and it would be transformed into a dance floor, and they’d get down and jive. My dad’s a really brilliant dancer, and a singer. He’s a jazz fanatic and he introduced me to loads of jazz, [but] Bessie was the first person he played me who I felt I had to have. Then I grew really fascinated by the stories the blues told. They were stories of murder, depression, drowning, broken-hearts. There didn’t seem anything that the blues didn’t include, and I was always fascinated by what went on behind closed doors. To me the blues was like knowing what went on behind those doors. Bessie just shone to me, and I started to imagine her alive. At one point she was the richest black woman in America, and because she got so fed up with Jim Crow segregation she got her own yellow Pullman train car. She would arrive at the station and they’d say: Bessie Smith’s in town! So that seemed pretty fantastic. I read a biography of her at fourteen, and it described these sexual relationships she had with women, and I was just starting to think about that then, so she was like a role model, although an unlikely role model that ate pig’s feet and roared at people.

In The Empathetic Store there is a poem called ‘Extinction’, which uses humour to undermine certain political ideas about immigration. Why do you find humour useful when writing a political poem? 

If you think of what a writer’s canvas might be, then humour is definitely a strong thing to play with. For me, tragedy and comedy live very closely together. They walk together on a narrow edge. Often people will find themselves laughing inappropriately, or laughing in situations that are truly morbid, and often people might feel joyful in situations that are very dark, so we are all full of Whitman-like multitudes and contradictions. If you’re writing a political poem humour is useful because whilst the reader is laughing you can slip in the wee knife. So it’s a writerly weapon and one way of disarming people. It’s also just the way I am. I’m a mixture of the joyful and the not so, and I think that’s quite Scottish, that Jekyll and Hyde mix. The theme of doubles runs through a lot of Scottish literature, and one double would definitely be comedy and tragedy.

In the same collection there is a series called ‘The Ardtornish Quintet’. The landscape seems like a place you have known in the past. 

I’d never been there but you’re right in the sense that I saw the landscape from a different angle because I’d been to the Isle of Mull and to that quite iconic ruin at Ardtornish Point – you can see that on the ferry from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline. Peninsulas and islands feel similar and they have particular identities. Even more so with peninsulas really. They are the bisexuals of land because they owe something to the land and something to the sea, and they see themselves as quite distinct! I loved it at Ardtornish: some landscapes you already have an affinity with.

In Red Dust Road you recall the joy of driving around the Scottish highlands. Do you miss living so close to the Scottish landscape?

I think landscape exists largely in your imagination, even when you’re in it. The land itself triggers off something within us, which can be quite deep, so I don’t need to be in it to have it. I have it in my mind and I carry it with me.

Your work returns to roads again and again, and it reminds me of Edward Thomas, who wrote about how roads are shaped by human feet over time, and how you can disappear into the road, and lose yourself. For example, in your poem ‘The Imaginary Road’ your footsteps are on a path before you’ve walked along it.

Roads are physical and metaphorical. We think of them as two things at once, roads we walk along with our feet and ones we travel in our minds, destinations we set ourselves, and things we need to learn on our road through life. There are roads that we have only imagined, and there are the forks in the road, and the roads you might have taken had it not been for this eventuality or that one. I’m really glad I didn’t go down the other road, I’m happy mine was the one less travelled by, but still the other road runs alongside, the low road or the by-way. The shadow life, the shadow road. There is something disquieting and at the same time exhilarating about that, the breath-taking road you might have missed.

You’re working on a new novel called Bystander. Can you give an intimation of what it is about?

Not really. In a way summaries of novels always sound a little silly or reductive, or too easily won. But I am interested in the ways in which people are active or passive about the things they are forced to witness…and whether the times we live in have made us into bystanders in our own lives.

Is it difficult to return to the novel form after so long?

For me, writing a novel is akin to having a long illness! I find it physically and mentally tough. It is probably the form that I find the hardest but at the same time I love it because of all the art forms the novel is the one that’s probably the most social, the most capacious, even though it requires you to be the most anti-social. It is a form that will expand and adapt itself to anything you’re thinking about. The trick is to think what to keep out! The novel can be a great big pot of soup, or a ‘loose baggy monster’. It is probably one of the most philosophical of forms, and yet it has to wear its thinking quite lightly.

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Panama Hell

WHEN rumours leaked out that the Scots were considering setting up a trading colony in Panama, the Prince of Orange, William III, denounced them as ‘raging madmen’. Even the Pope waded into the growing chorus of disapproval, condemning a venture that threatened to undermine the Catholic believers in the region, who would be at risk of moral corruption by the incoming horde of Presbyterians.

In the face of opposition from such elevated figures, quite apart from the more reasoned reservations of understandably cautious Scots, is it any wonder that those behind the scheme went ahead regardless? Annoying the Pope merely added piquancy to the adventure. And, while the Scots and English might share a king, old suspicions and enmities simmered, and even at times erupted into a angry boil – as was later to become the case when William’s patience with this presumptuous act ran out.

The Company of Scotland, whose project this was, wilfully interpreted their naysayers’ warnings as symptoms of jealousy and fear of their success. As the project’s founding father, William Paterson, himself a founder of the Bank of England, had assured shareholders, when Caledonia was established on the strategic giraffe’s neck of land that lay between the Atlantic and the Pacific, ‘Trade will increase trade, and money will beget money.’ He portrayed such a halcyon future, it is no wonder so many Scots poured money into it. If this bold colony would bring Scotland untold wealth, and sicken its trading and political foes in the process, why would anyone hold back?

The story of the calamitous Darien venture has come down the years as Scotland’s commercial equivalent of Flodden. Depending on your political or temperamental point of view, it is possible to cast it as the low water mark of Scottish hubris and ignorance, or of a covetous but courageous attempt to rescue the country from extreme poverty. John McKendrick’s new portrait of events, while deeply sympathetic to the colonists’ suffering, takes a judgemental position. Given how ill-conceived, half-baked and under-prepared the expedition was, one cannot altogether blame him. Where some readers will part company with him, however, is in the unionist drumroll that runs beneath the narrative. As he states at the outset, ‘The failures that befell the Scots in the green jungles of Darien were to push the reluctant Scots down another path, a very different Odyssey, that would lead them to greater fame, greater trade and greater riches: the Act of Union.’

Nor is he the first to see similarities between the bankrupting of the Company of Scotland, and by extension the rest of the country, and the near collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008, and its impact on the independence referendum: ‘The parallels to the effect on the Scottish economy of the collapse of Caledonia following the widespread subscription and the resulting need for Union in 1707 are obvious.’

What follows is a very personal take on the Darien scheme. McKendrick, who was born in Alexandria, schooled in Glasgow and went to the London School of Economics and Oxford University, is a barrister in England and the Caribbean, where he lives in Panama City. His history is interleaved by his own exploration of the tropical nightmare that was Caledonia in 1698-1700, as he finds the remnants of the colony, and hunts in vain for the graves of the deceased, of whom there were tens of hundreds. But it reads also like a voyage of political affirmation, bolstering his belief in the Union’s saving powers, and his incredulity that otherwise savvy Scots of the late seventeenth century could have been so reckless – as were those in 2014, he implies, who voted yes.

When you consider the backdrop against which the Panamanian colony was conceived, there is no mystery. By the mid-1690s there was an urgent need to find a way to fill the nation’s coffers, which were so empty they could have floated off down the Clyde behind the Darien fleet. Underdeveloped even by the standards of the time, Scotland had suffered a terrible run of famine years following disastrous harvests. Though the numbers are not known, it has been estimated that upwards of a quarter or even a third of the country might have perished as a result. In this context, the Darien venture as outlined by William Paterson promised the end to hardship. This might explain the lack of planning that went into it, and the overenthusiastic response by shareholders, who included not merely the aristocratic and merchant classes, but soap boilers, servants and even women.

‘The Scots’ timing was terrible,’ McKendrick writes. ‘Their appreciation of European diplomacy was inept… They completely failed to understand that they had placed themselves in the beating heart of the complex Spanish imperial system.’ Although he makes it sound as if the Scots were particularly naive in underestimating the Spanish when in fact it was a mistake many in Europe made at that time, believing the Spanish empire’s power to be waning, he is right to pinpoint the most crucial error the Scots made to effectively sticking their heads into the lion’s mouth. The Spanish considered the Darien peninsula theirs, and they would not lose it without a fight.

But there were many other errors too, and as the story unfolds they form a catalogue so woeful, it reads more like a lament or a cautionary tale than a slice of history. The nation that in 1696, when the subscription book for the scheme was opened, believed itself to be God’s chosen people was given much evidence to suggest the opposite. The first expedition, in which Paterson sailed, was beset by illness and hunger. Paterson’s wife was dead within two weeks of arrival, as were hundreds of others, countless tossed overboard on the outward journey. More bibles, wigs and alcohol were packed in the ships’ holds than food and water, and in the tropical conditions of Panama, where they had to hack down jungle to build their own huts and forts, and make alliances with native Indians who did not speak English, exhaustion and uncertainty took hold. The ‘poor leadership and bickering’ that typified the Company of Scotland in Scotland, were echoed among the men in Darien, leading to confusion, low morale and treachery. When it became clear that the Spanish were anything but relaxed about their arrival, fear was added to the brew, and rightly so.

William III’s provocative proclamation banning any English in the region from offering help to the colonists worsened the situation. For William, intent on protecting his alliance with Spain against the French, for fear of his native Holland being destroyed, this was an essential precaution. Of course it added fuel to the notion that the English were to blame for the Darien debacle. As McKendrick writes, with obvious if faintly anachronistic disdain, ‘nationalism was again used to deflect attention away from the failings of the Company of Scotland to the auld enemy’. But the English were not the culprit, or not entirely. The Caledonians were meddling with one of the most potentially lucrative emerging markets in the world, and would not be allowed to go unchallenged. Even without William’s implacable opposition, their aspirations of creating an international trading hub and defending themselves against rivals who felt their territory was being encroached upon, would have been hard to attain.

Weakened by malnutrition and depleted by disease, the remaining colonists left for good after seven months but, ignorant of this, a second expedition landed in November 1699. Rumours reaching Scotland that the colony had been deserted had been dismissed as scuttlebutt. Thus, a shock lay in wait for the new arrivals. Among them were four ministers, the Kirk being a staunch backer of the scheme. Fortunately for posterity, the hell-fire preaching Reverend Borland kept a diary, and records their landing: ‘Expecting here to meet with friends and countrymen, we found nothing but a waste, a howling wilderness.’

Things were to get a lot worse. There was a moment’s respite from bad luck when under the charge of Captain Alexander Campbell of Fonab the colonists trounced the Spanish at Tubuganti. This success was greeted with immoderate excitement in Scotland, especially among Jacobites who warmed to any news that might irk the Protestant William. The result was a night of carousing and mob rule in Edinburgh, when the tollbooth was broken into and prisoners set free. In one of a handful of pleasingly novelistic passages, McKendrick notes: ‘alcohol turned the anarchy of the night into the thick hangover of a grey Edinburgh morning’.

It would be an equally accurate description of the Darien venture. By March 1700, the colonists had been obliged to capitulate. Among the survivors, who sailed for Jamaica, was the Reverend Archibald Stobo. By good chance, he was on shore when fire broke out in his ship, and 200 drowned off Charleston, where he subsequently made his home.

This coastline is only one of McKendrick’s places of pilgrimage as he adds flesh to the bones of this often told, but still not fully understood story. Others include Bluefields Bay, in south-western Jamaica, where the colonists stopped off on their return journey, many of them to die. But most interestingly of all is Darien itself. In McKendrick’s hands, the sweating jungle comes alive, with spiders the size of saucers, heat ‘that was shocking, even frightening, in its claustrophobic intensity’ and inhabitants who veer from the friendly to the alarming. He is a congenial companion, a romantic, one suspects, who is passionate about his subject. As he follows in the colonists’ doomed footsteps, he is dogged in his attempts to imagine what a place where disease and malaria are still deadly, must have felt like to travellers 300 years ago who arrived without any conception of what lay in wait. His concern is palpable, as when contemplating the hundred or so women who were part of the second expedition, many of whom were unaware they had already been widowed: ‘we know little of the reaction of these brave women who sailed across an ocean to be with their husbands, women who found themselves not just alone in a foreign land but forced to grieve their loss under terrible circumstances.’

As a history of the Darien Venture, McKendrick’s cannot compete with the fluency and dramatic pacing of John Prebble, the master of popular history. His account is so heavily studded with characters it can grow confusing, although it is never less than gripping. But where he is at his strongest is in the contemporary chapters that throw a most enlightening angle from modern day Panama and the Caribbean onto the events of three centuries past. One is less convinced by his unionist perspective when it comes to using this part of history as a hammer with which to bludgeon today’s yes voters. Yet no one can deny that it was Scotland’s pitiful economic position that helped bring about this calamity, and ushered us into a union, for which fewer than one percent of the population wished. It was an alliance, as McKendrick rightly reminds us, out of which we did tremendously well. The more powerful and original message of this book, however, is to remember the human suffering and ordeal among the colonists, for whom this is a feeling epitaph.

What is not mentioned, though, even in passing, is that Scotland’s shame might easily have been England’s. In 1697, the year before the Caledonians set sail, the English Board of Trade produced a report whose conclusion was that it would be ‘no very difficult matter for any European Prince or State to make some secure settlement on the Isthmus of Panama’. We might have been deluded and desperate and greedy, but in that we most certainly were not alone.


Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire
John McKendrick
Birlinn, £20, ISBN 978-1-780027-320-4, 278PP

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