Monthly Archives: August 2016


Volume 11 – Issue 4 – Classifieds


Classifieds contains listings of new titles and events. Advertisers in this section include:

Angel’s Share – See Neil Wilson / Arena Sports – See Birlinn / Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS) – / Birlinn Ltd – / BC Books – See Birlinn / Edinburgh University Press – / John Donald – See Birlinn / The In Pinn – See Neil Wilson / National Galleries of Scotland – publishing / NMS Enterprises Limited- Publishing – / Neil Wilson Publishing – / Oxbow Books – / Polygon  – See Birlinn / Windgather Press – See Oxbow

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Wells of Holiness

MARTIN Luther hated pilgrimages. He wanted them stamped out – for the common people at least, because they encouraged ‘a vagabond life’, although he made an exception for the nobility. They would still be allowed to travel, he decreed in 1520, but not for any spiritual purpose – only ‘out of curiosity, to see cities and countries’. Tourism, in other words. Alastair McIntosh’s latest book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey, has a title that hints at a vagabond life but has a spiritual purpose too. A meditative and discursive account of a 12-day hike across his home island of Lewis, it was planned as a pilgrimage to its ‘sacred sites’ – its beehive shieling huts (some of which have been standing for two millennia yet remain firmly off the tourist path) and its similarly neglected pre-Reformation chapels and holy wells. It is also a journey into McIntosh’s own past, and his early 1960s childhood, the son of a doctor at the North Lochs practice, midway between Stornoway and Harris, is lyrically described. Though he now lives in Govan, he still thinks of Lewis as home, and treasures that part of island life which still holds out against anomie and materialism.

 Growing up in Leurbost, McIntosh writes, he was surprised to discover in his teens that there was indeed an academic subject called ‘human ecology’ – surprised because everything it said about how man should work with nature was already the Hebridean way of doing things: it was just commonsense that the seas shouldn’t be overfished nor the land overgrazed. As someone who went on to set up Britain’s first MSc course in the subject at Edinburgh in 1990, McIntosh is being disingenuous. He knows – and even the university authorities, who controversially closed down the course in six years later, would agree – that there’s far more to it than that.

 Without revisiting the stushie in detail, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that other courses in human ecology – a subject one would have thought more relevant than ever at a time of climate change and environmental depletion – were also scrapped in Hull and Brussels, though he was able to resurrect his course, now validated by the Open University, at the Govan-based Centre for Human Ecology. In a 2012 paper, he offers a succinct explanation for the vicissitudes his chosen subject has faced: ‘Once it moves beyond the relatively safe confines of population, resources, environment and development, it runs up against iceberg-like structures of money, power and epistemology which are largely invisible until struck.’

 What the Academy also finds hard to understand about McIntosh’s brand of radical human ecology is its tendency to critique subjects such as land reform and climate change from a pre-modern and spiritual rather than post-Enlightenment and utilitarian point of view. In both Soil and Soul (2001) and Hell and High Water (2009), he brings a dimension of spirituality to debates usually conducted in purely materialistic or utilitarian terms. To McIntosh, pressing for community empowerment (as in the Eigg buyout and the Harris superquarry campaign, in both of which he played a leading role) is, like challenging the consumerist mindset that underpins climate change, just part of a wider battle against spiritual disconnection.

 As recently as the 1970s, a friend who worked in the old Lewis Hospital in Stornoway told him, the main fridge used to be stocked with lemonade bottles labelled with the patient’s name, and containing water from their favourite spring or well to aid their recovery. In subsequent decades, that custom died away and many wells became overgrown. On his pilgrimage, McIntosh sought these out, and wherever possible, opened them up. Metaphorically, he is doing something similar to the island’s history, especially its religious history. He wants to reach behind the Calvinism usually associated with the Lewis to the pre-Reformation religion of saints and wells, contemplation and indeed pilgrimages.

Pushing past the ‘cosmic apartheid’ (the Elect versus the Damned) of Lewis Calvinism, McIntosh finds himself on the kind of island in which he is even more spiritually at home, where the concentration of sacred sites is ‘almost without parallel elsewhere in Britain’.  Whether the word ‘Hebrides’ is itself rooted in Eileana Bride (the islands of St Bridgit) there is no doubt that the whole of pre-Reformation Harris was once known as the parish of Kilbride (from cille, church or hermit’s cell, of Bridgit), and McIntosh’s pilgrimage across the island stops at several sacred sites devoted to the saint who has been called ‘the Mary of the Gaels’, the patron saint of poets, healers and blacksmiths who, in the Irish tradition at least, ‘turned back the streams of war’. It doesn’t matter that some of the sites devoted to Bridgit have sunk back into nature, or that their fallen stones are lichen-covered and rounded, that the shielings and wells are hardly recognizable any more. To McIntosh, that’s almost the point. ‘The less there is to see, the holier a place it be,’ he tells himself.

 His pilgrimage seems to be based on two competing instincts: to connect with others and to look deeper within oneself. Just as his walk across the island joins dots on the map, so it is also an attempt to connect with past generations of island worshippers whose spirituality wasn’t about personal salvation but instead had closer ties to the natural and supernatural world. At this point the rationalist reader has to part company with McIntosh, to walk, as it were, on the other side of the loch, where everything has an explanation. On his side, McIntosh’s path is altogether more poetic and mystical, as befits the traditional cosmology of Scottish Gaelic culture in which the dead might be seen alive again, faeries might have cast their spells on the land, and second sight is routine. Surely, we rationalists might think, he is only talking about faerie world as a metaphor for spirituality and connectivity, not a fundamental split in space and time. But no: he believes it, citing incidents of second sight he has witnessed himself and quoting approvingly those such as Iain Thomson, the author of Isolation Shepherd, who describe it as entirely normal. On our side of the loch, we rationalists do have our doubts, and think it’s a bit bonkers not to. Yet we feel conflicted at the same time, because when McIntosh reaches those deeper moments of connectivity which are the whole point of the pilgrimage, when he steps inside the remote St Bridgit’s Shieling and hears a voice in his imagination that says ‘I am with you always’, even rationalists might not – or indeed don’t – want to – believe that he is making up the experience:

‘I bow my head, ask blessing, step inside the ring and kneel.

Such sweetness. Tenderness. Holy, holy, holy.

And then I notice. A fresh-sprung fern is pressing through a cleft against the lintel. Not bracken, but a flush of verdure such as I have not seen elsewhere in all my walking.

A line from a John Martyn song comes willowing across my mind.

You curl around me, like a fern in the spring.

And in George Bernard Shaw’s Joan of Arc, the inquisitor puts it to the lass that God’s voice sounds only in her imagination.

“Of course” she answers. “That is how the messages of God come to us.”

The rain is coming on. I pull my hood in tight.

“I’m with you always,” says the voice in my imagination.’

That moment captures the essence of McIntosh’s pilgrimage.  He has entered a humble ruin of uncut stones, yet feels reverence for it, having in the preceding paragraph quoted God’s command to Moses about how only natural, uncut stones can make an altar holy. He has a sense of connectivity, not just with that particular place, but between the head (Shaw) and the heart (Martyn). And where is all this happening? Right in the middle of Lewis, beneath the lee of Rubha Leathann, far from any roads, on difficult terrain. For the fourth night in a row, he is camping – once again in the rain. ‘Civilization,’ he notes, ‘is only four days deep’: after that, it is easier, in a phrase he uses frequently, to ‘uncolonise the mind’. Stripped of the limitations of materialism and routine, the uncolonised mind will ask different – and yes, possibly even pre-modern – questions about what it is to be human. The most fundamental one McIntosh seeks to answer is posed in the Epistle of James: ‘These wars and fightings among you –  where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?’

 That’s the sort of thing McIntosh asks the top brass of the British Army, when they invite him, as they have every year since 1997, to the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham, to talk about his Quaker credo of non-violence. His arguments go far beyond the notion of the ‘just war’ introduced by St Augustine, which ultimately, he argues, locks the Church into supporting violence. What Christ preached was far harder: non-violence, pure and simple; and to McIntosh, nothing else will do. He makes a surprisingly persuasive case, although the Hobbesians, cynics and pessimists among us will never be convinced.

In 2003, McIntosh reveals, he attended a private dinner with two British generals. The war was Iraq is raging; on the front line, British men were killing and being killed. ‘If it turns out that Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction,’ one told him, ‘then Blair will have led us up the garden path’. ‘But would that not make you a war criminal?’ McIntosh asked. The general revealed that he had felt so uneasy that he went in person to see the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. At least one other person of a similar rank did the same, we are told. It is to the Army’s credit both that their generals had more doubts about the war than the politicians who ordered them to fight it and that they continue to invite a Hebridean pacifist to make the case for a strategy of non-violence rather than their own kinetic (bombs and bullets) one.

The ‘pilgrimage’ across Harris and Lewis happened as far back as 2009, and when McIntosh completed it, he didn’t think it had given him sufficient material, but ‘the walk just kept walking in me for the seven years it took for this book to find its final shape’. Apart from playing loose with time when telling some of the stories, he says, in one of the endnotes, ‘I have not assumed literary licence. Any magical realism is for real.’


Relics of a 12-day hike across Lewis.

Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey

Alastair McIntosh

Birlinn, £20, ISBN 978-1-78027-361-6, PP329

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Dancing to the Devil’s Music

Paul Mason continues to be much in the news despite having left his job as the Economics Editor at Channel 4. He is an itinerant prophet of post-capitalism and high-profile supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. If his prominence can be attributed to any single issue, then it’s the economic crisis in Europe.

He has proven himself equally adept at conveying the pummelling of calculators in Berlin and the sense of despair in an Athens coffee shop, and he can do the political equations linking the two with a style few can match. In short, he is one of the indispensable voices of our troubled times. But have you ever seen him dance? I have.

Not in person of course. In a 2013 documentary for the BBC, Mason dug into his youthful obsession with northern soul, gamely taking to the dance floor in an attempt to find a lost sense of rhythm. Perhaps youthful obsession is a misleading term: northern soul takes lifetimes hostage. Mason puts in a few cameo appearances in Stuart Cosgrove’s Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul, which testifies to the length and sharpness of the claws possessed by one of the UK’s most important musical sub-cultures. It should be understood that the emphasis is very much on the personal. The book is heavily autobiographical but that has certain advantages when combined, as it is, with passion and expertise. Cosgrove offers a candid account, with his own experiences and friendships thrown up against a backdrop of changes in British society. You can almost feel the literary strain as he pushes himself in a bid to convey the emotional impact of hearing a great song or visiting a great club for the first time. The results are mixed but usually entertaining.

The names of largely unknown artists glisten on page after page like beads of sweat on the forehead of a twirling dancer but you get the impression they come to Cosgrove without exertion. It all looks as easy as digging into the pocket of your jeans and pulling out a handful of smash but such levels of knowledge were apparently not uncommon. The northern soul scene thrived on the celebration of obscurity and the competitive acquisition of rare records from America. Indeed, there was a sense of status to be gained in going to extreme lengths to acquire music and fans thought nothing of travelling hundreds of miles to visit clubs and legendary all-nighters.


Stuart Cosgrove: Once helped himself to records in the Library of Congress.

When you pledge your allegiances so fiercely it perhaps isn’t surprising when social conventions fall by the wayside. The law of the land is there to be flouted and Cosgrove’s confessions include robbing from the Library of Congress. Led by a Professor of English at George Mason, Cosgrove and a group of students took crates of records from an archive hanger in Baltimore. In one of the crates, Cosgrove found an unpublished manuscript by Arthur Miller. This is an extreme example of the lengths collectors would go to get their hands on rare records. However, the need to dig ever deeper into the junk boxes of vintage-era soul was partly conditioned by the strict limits placed by some adherents on what was acceptable and what was not. For a time, the northern soul scene was riven by disagreements about authenticity.

Authenticity is likewise a prominent theme in Alan Harper’s Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads. The material for the book was collected during visits to Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s after which point an earlier project was shelved for reasons that are never explained. Harper’s knowledge of the blues had been massively expanded during his time at university where he had access to an excellent archive of blues recordings. He put this to academic use by writing a dissertation on the subject, also fronting a local radio show he seems convinced no one listened to. By the time he arrived in Chicago, its famous blues scene had shrivelled significantly from the days of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and others. A handful of club’s remained, with the work of musicians boosted by Living Blues magazine and Alligator Records. But these were small-time operations and no one was making much money. Harper’s account is easy-going and conversational but his deep knowledge is undisguised. It is an affectionate account of a cultural moment passing into memory.

Many of the people featured, it’s probably fair to surmise, would have done an Eleanor Rigby and taken their name to the grave with them if it weren’t for the likes of Harper and other keen fans. Something of his devotion to the music is conveyed by an appendix which lists all the club gigs he attended on his visits and the musicians they featured –  Sunnyland Slim, Hip Linkchain, Mad Dog Lester Davenport to name but a few. The book takes its title from the oft-advertised but rarely seen Buddy Guy, now an international star and by the time of Harper’s visits already an increasingly distant figure on the scene that launched his career. Even at the Checkerboard Lounge, which he part-owned for a time, Guy was elusive and the price of a can of Old Style beer was a more solid indication of his presence than the bill for the night’s performances: If the price increased, so did the chance of Guy appearing as advertised.

Despite some overarching similarities between the books, a couple of distinguishing features between the two music scenes need to be highlighted. First, the Chicago blues scene towards which Harper gravitated was anchored in live performances rather than the DJ sets of northern soul. Recordings were often found to be poor representations of live performances, Alligator being a rare exception, whereas with northern soul everything revolved around the records. Second, the communal relationship and sense of shared identity between northern soul fans were almost as important as the music itself. The primacy of the relationship between the fan and the musician in Harper’s account is largely unchallenged by other relationships. And yet the similarities continue to assert themselves. Like Cosgrove, Scottish-born Harper was eventually drawn to America after an apprenticeship of infatuation with its music. When he writes, ‘finding out about this largely forgotten and increasingly obscure music satisfied some urge I had to get to the bottom of things’, he could easily be talking as a northern soul rather than blues obsessive.

If both books address questions of authenticity in relation to music, that doesn’t mean the stakes are the same. Ian Levine, one of the best-known DJs on the scene, became the focal point of disputes about the definition of northern soul because he was willing to play new releases and disco at the Blackpool Mecca, much to the annoyance of those who favoured the 1960s stompers played at Wigan Casino. In principle, Cosgrove supported the move to ‘a more modern rare soul policy’ even if in practice the results were not exactly stimulating. The disagreements had the potential to get heated but it’s not clear that they contained within them echoes of any great social issues. The transformations on the Chicago blues scene, however, were closely bound up with racial anxieties. On the surface, the issues also seemed to be about musical form. Harper writes: ‘A lot of people like the blues because it was old. Just as certain songs were standard fare, so were certain phrases and certain sounds, while the primal feel and emotional connection that so engaged its devotees had to be regarded, surely, as non-negotiable.’ These were essentially the expectations of a typical white audience and their engagement with the music limited its evolution as their economic importance on the Chicago scene came to dominate. Harper found ‘this distorted view tended to isolate the blues from its musical hinterland, like a specimen in a jar’.

The harmonica player Carey Bell preferred white-owned clubs on the Northside because they not only paid better but because he believed the audiences were more knowledgeable and appreciative of the music. His son, Lurrie, however, had an ideological attachment to playing in black clubs but these had come to consider blues a diminished musical form in the age of soul, funk and disco, further compounding the importance of white tastes. Harper argues this attempt to capture a definitive form of blues was not only restrictive but ahistorical. Even Robert Johnson’s repertoire included ragtime and gospel songs but it was the early record producers who started the process of isolation by insisting performers discard other forms and record straight blues songs. The prohibitive impulse also extended from the music itself to the performers.

In conversation with a white, liberal intellectual, Harper faced an accusatory implication because he suggested a white player was one of the best in Chicago. This was the other side of the authenticity debate, where even the supreme skills of Eric Clapton didn’t quite make the cut against your run-of-the-mill performer from the Mississippi Delta or Chicago’s Southside. Like proclaiming the greatness of the white basketball player Larry Bird during the 1980s, this was precarious territory and everyone’s motives were suspect. But then, Clapton himself, at certain points during the 1960s, might have whacked you with his acoustic six-string if you’d suggested he was a better player than Robert Johnson. As Harper puts it: ‘The implications were at once racial, cultural, historical, geographical, and, for all I knew, culinary, but more important, this was a view that seemed to encourage a distinction between the musician’s credentials and the music itself.’ He reserves strong words for fanatical blues purists who considered only certain forms legitimate, promoting a ‘specious distinction’ and ‘imposing a kind of tyranny of white taste’. These attitudes crossed the Atlantic, possibly even had their roots here. European promoters wanted bands with black musicians, believing their punters had an iron-clad idea about what an outfit from the urban blues capital of American should look like.

These two books are products of obsession and it’s hard to talk about musical obsession without laying your hands a little on the concepts of religion. There were catechisms, initiation rituals and publications that served the same purpose as the Gospels. Clubs like B.L.U.E.S, Kingston Mines, the Checkerboard Lounge, the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch, Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca were places of spiritual uplift, occasionally even transcendence. Even the Allanton Miners’ Club near Shotts could be transformed from the mundane. Cosgrove frames northern soul as a variety of fundamentalism, a mentality he had been conditioned to adopt by a church upbringing led by his mother and his father’s socialism. As he recalls: ‘This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floors.’

One theme not explored in sufficient detail in either account is why these forms of music and their conjuring of America should take on quite such an emotional significance for specifically white youths in Britain. Without doubt the music must have spoken to their own cultural and socio-economic experience but if the reaction was in some way practical it must also have been imaginative as well. It might be a simple as saying poverty in Detroit or Chicago was viewed as being more romantic than its equivalent in Stoke or Manchester, even if that wasn’t the case. In this sense it’s important to note that Cosgrove and Harper would have been unusual in travelling to America in the 1970s and 1980s. For most British music fans, Detroit or Chicago would have been as unknown as Heaven or Hell. Indeed, the potential for music to act as an unreliable guide to complex realities is revealed in Cosgrove’s surprise at encountering members of the black middle class as a visiting student at Howard University in Washington D.C.

Young Soul Rebels ends, not inappropriately, on a high as he details the ways social media and YouTube have allowed northern soul to rise again. While Cosgrove was still at Channel 4 he had a meeting with two young graduates looking for a grant to promote their digital music platform Mixcloud which would go on to become a ‘favoured home’ for northern soul fans. The shift from a predominantly industrial economy to a digital one seems to have had the reverse effect, however, on the blues clubs of Chicago, further diminishing a scene that was already passing its peak when Harper first encountered it. What is left has been co-opted by the tourism industry and that spells the end of the road for any self-respecting music scene.

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No Belles de Jour Here

Whilst history may be one of the oldest scholarly disciplines, it has, until more recent times mostly averted its gaze from that other so-called ‘oldest profession’, prostitution, particularly in the Scottish context.

However, as Louise Settle’s history of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century shows, it can hugely benefit from the historian’s scrutiny.  The continuing and often heated contemporary debates about whether or how to regulate, legislate or obliterate prostitution in Scotland and elsewhere are almost as vigorous as those dealing with the ‘moral panic’ of ‘white slavery’ and the plight of ‘fallen women’ in the nineteenth century. The arguments among twenty-first century commentators centre on whether women involved in prostitution are victims of abuse in an unequal world or free agents making legitimate economic choices. Resolution looks a long way off. They might be missing a trick. Settle’s detailed and well researched book provides a welcome addition to our knowledge of this long standing and complex social issue, inviting us to look backwards to see how we got to here.

Settle maintains that working class women’s involvement in prostitution in the early twentieth century was a survival strategy when the social, economic and cultural odds were heavily stacked against them.  Prostitution may have been a ‘choice’ but it was one made in Scotland at a time when the available options for many women were severely constrained by prevailing economic conditions and social norms governing women’s behaviour. While the risks were high, the alternatives were worse. Prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century was not glamorous. There are no belles de jour here.

Research into police, court, prison and voluntary social service agency records reveals the reality of prostitution from the accounts of those charged with arresting, prosecuting and reforming the women involved. However Settle’s approach pulls off a remarkable coup. Despite the public nature of her sources and the inherent bias likely in accounts of women’s lives mediated through public officials, the reality of lives in prostitution emerges. A collective biography approach to previously hidden life stories provides much needed insight into the women’s lives. We see their reasons for working in prostitution, its impact and how this was often compounded by the efforts of those determined to prevent it.  We also hear the women’s loud resistance screaming through.

The distinctions between the European, English and Scottish legal systems’ approach to prostitution in the nineteenth century clarify the roots of the particularly Scottish approach which emerged in the early twentieth century.  The growth of state regulation of prostitution across Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century was closely linked to efforts to reduce the spread of venereal disease. While many European countries adopted the French system of licensing state-regulated brothels, England regulated prostitution in order to control the spread of the diseases among men in the armed forces. A series of Contagious Diseases Acts passed in England in the 1860s made compulsory the genital examination of women suspected of being ‘common prostitutes’ working in naval ports and garrison towns.  Prior to their eventual repeal in 1886, things had begun to take a moral turn with the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act which responded to British public opinion seething with ‘moral panic’ following reports of the sexual exploitation and abduction of young girls into ‘white slavery’.  The Act raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, made brothel-keeping illegal across Britain while the National Vigilance Association (NVA) in England and the Scottish NVA (SNVA) were charged with upholding and enforcing the new morality laws. However policing remained the key mechanism for tackling prostitution in Scotland.

The 1892 Burgh Police (Scotland) Act and individual Scottish city acts criminalized outdoor prostitution by ‘street walkers’ and ‘common prostitutes’ ‘loitering or importuning for the purposes of prostitution’ and stipulating fines and imprisonment. Licensing laws targeted publicans and others using their premises for prostitution and the 1902 Immoral Traffic (Scotland) Act targeted men who trafficked women into prostitution,  acted as pimps or ‘bullies’ or lived off ‘immoral’ earnings, imposed penalties of up to six months imprisonment and later introduced flogging for these offences.

The Scottish system included cautioning whereby a woman was only arrested after being caught importuning three times. Thereafter she was deemed a ‘common prostitute’. Police made a distinction between the ‘common’ or ‘hardened prostitute’ regarded as a public nuisance who were dealt with in the courts and younger women seen as ‘victims’ or ‘amateurs’ with the potential to be diverted from prostitution. Settle found a degree of sympathy among police officers for young women whose difficult life circumstances drew them into prostitution and whom officers judged as having the potential for change. In 1907, the option of probation became available to courts and with the discretion available to police on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, probation officers and the SNVA and the Magdalene Asylums took the opportunity to ‘reform’ the lives and characters of young women deemed to be at risk. This informal ‘penal-welfare’ system diverted women either to a closed institution or subjected them to close supervision by a probation officer in the community. They aimed to teach young women to conduct themselves in a manner more aligned with middle class morality and expectations of femininity in their working and private lives. While some women undoubtedly responded positively to this approach, others fiercely resisted the interference and all attempts at ‘reform’.

Who were the women caught up in this system? Unsurprisingly they were working class and experiencing considerable hardship.  Information about their backgrounds shows that many came from poor families and either struggled to find work or survived on very low wages. Once involved in prostitution the women suffered from extreme ill health, abuse, exploitation, homelessness and destitution; they often lived chaotic lives and many died young. Many were single mothers, deserted by their husbands, working to feed their children and avoid the poorhouse. There were many who attempted suicide, or were charged with drunkenness and often being ‘drunk in charge of a child’, breach of the peace, assault or theft; they were frequently in and out of prison, poorhouses, reform homes and hospitals.  In poor working class communities prostitution was regarded simply as a fact of life and a way to make some money – women were not unduly stigmatised. They took whatever paid work was available and in straitened circumstances prostitution could temporarily make ends meet despite the risks.

This pragmatism and sheer determination was at some remove from the opinions of the moralisers and law enforcers who condemned prostitutes as having pathological character flaws. The exploration of the social geography of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow charting the sites known for street prostitution and the location of brothels in both cities is revealing. In Edinburgh, street prostitution was traditionally centred on the Old Town and the Mound, in Glasgow around High Street and Glasgow Green. However by the early twentieth century women moved to the expanding commercial and entertainment centres of the cities to meet new demand. ‘Khaki fever’ led to a boost around the docks and railway stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the First World War. The number of brothels also increased during this period with women soliciting in the streets then taking men to flats or private rooms rented by the hour thus blurring the distinctions between outdoor and indoor prostitution. The police seemed unable to deter women from working in the city centres or to make many inroads in closing down brothels or prosecuting pimps. Settle shows that the relationships between the women working in prostitution, brothel keepers and ‘bullies’ was complex. Women working as prostitutes might rent rooms in their own houses for other women to use.  While some women had cruel, controlling and exploitative pimps, others had husbands who played no part as pimps.

The growth of clandestine prostitution based around Italian ice cream cafes and fish and chip shops in the 1920s and 1930s is a surprising revelation. So too are the links between prostitution and the new craze for dance clubs. This was highlighted by the high profile trial and conviction of Kosmo club owner Asher Barnard and his two managers in 1933 for using the venue to profit from prostitution. The trial shed light on prostitution’s ability to embrace changing technology, survive the economic downturn, capitalise on changing public mores, and expand its reach in novel ways. The Club at 20 Swinton Row in the east end of Edinburgh was one of a number in the city where men could ‘book out’ a ‘dance partner’ for thirty shillings for the whole evening by telephone – the origin of the term ‘call girl’. Telephone calls to a network of taxi drivers, hotels, lodging houses, or flats swung into action to whisk the man and his ‘dance partner’ off somewhere to have sex. Women witnesses in the trial described being coerced into being ‘booked out’, having no access to the telephone to make their own arrangements or control the bookings. Earnings from the ‘booking out’ system however far exceeded those working only as dance partners.  Settle argues that earning differentials, lack of alternative employment, coercion and the economic challenges women faced reveal how problematic the notion of ‘choice’ in prostitution at the time was.

Prostitution is described as the oldest ‘profession’ but its roots lie in one of the world’s oldest oppressions – women’s. ‘Profession’ implies choice. While its academic purpose is clear and important, the glimpses this book provides into the life of women is where it shines while debunking the myth of free choice by so-called ‘happy hookers’.  Early twentieth-century Scotland blamed the women for making bad choices yet failed to address the harm it caused or why men wanted to rent their bodies in the first place. Abuse victims or free agents? Probably both.  Prostitution was indeed a ‘choice’ for women desperately short of options; while dance clubs and brothels may have been preferable to the street, women often made the best of it despite the risks.  This complicated clandestine world was challenging to police. Women were ill-served by an unequal society which targeted them for being the wrong kind of woman whilst turning a blind eye to the men who paid for sex with them.

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In the Zone

‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ The title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting sounds like a series of questions plucked from Philosophy 101 – until you reach middle age.

After 40, the questions are not so much sober inquiries as white-knuckle wails, screamed by one’s inner voice seconds after your rollercoaster gondola begins its plunge from the peak life has slowly but surely been dragging you up and over. Geoff Dyer intended to borrow Gauguin’s questionnaire-title for his new collection of essays until it was changed to the demurer White Sands; ‘the title was so long even I couldn’t remember it’, as the author puts it on his website. A wise decision, and not only because the title is unwieldy. Questions imply answers, or an attempt to discover them, and Dyer is not so much interested in answering Gaugin’s cri de coeur as occupying the space they mark out and seeing what happens while he’s there.

Gaugin was on Dyer’s mind because he was commissioned by the Observer in 2002 to travel to French Polynesia ‘to write about Gauguin and the lure of the exotic in commemoration of the centenary of his death’. While Dyer is perfunctory about the painter – ‘His life was every bit as colourful as his paintings’ – he is at his funniest and most insightful when writing about another artist: Geoff Dyer.

At the outset of his journey, he loses his copy of David Sweetman’s biography of Gauguin, a loss which threatens to ruin the trip. Upon arrival, Dyer is disappointed instantly. Like his hero D.H. Lawrence, he is a former of snap judgements about destinations. From the leis placed around visitors’ necks as they exit their plane onwards, the islands reveal themselves to be touristy, obvious. The view from his hotel room is too nice: ‘Even though the view was fantastic, the ocean itself seemed manicured, as if actually part of an aquatic golf course to which hotel guests enjoyed exclusive access.’ Typically, the one thing Dyer is not disappointed by is his capacity for disappointment, which both counter-intuitively and typically he depicts as a positive life-force: ‘My enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory…. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.’

Where a more dutiful travel writer might have wrestled with their commission, Dyer remains in pursuit of Dyer. His gaze doesn’t settle on the paradisal vistas or Tahitian lovelies that inspired the Frenchman, but a tatty village football pitch, a ‘significant discovery’ he stumbles upon. Here, Dyer goes a little sci-fi, imagining what it will look like in a millennium: ‘The pitch induced a vision of its own demise, when it would no longer be here, when it would be indistinguishable from the vegetation that would engulf it: the long interlude of forgotten-ness that is a precondition for eventual rediscovery and reclamation.’

‘Where’ appears twice in Gauguin’s title, but the more appropriate conjunction for Dyer, despite being one of our finest living travel writers, might be ‘when’. He is interested in, to borrow the title of one of White Sands’ essays, ‘Space in Time’. He travels to remote areas to see – no, that’s too pale a verb – to experience land art; field visits include The Lightning Field in New Mexico and the Spiral Jetty in Utah. ‘These artists were thinking big, not just in size and space but in time.’ The land art, like the goalposts, have ‘nodality’, Dyer writes, borrowing the term from Lawrence. ‘There was a sense – all the more palpable in such a remote and empty place – of something gathering. We were in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience.’

Moments like these give regular readers of Dyer a start. Could it be that his matey voice, his fondness for Christmas cracker-level puns, and indiscretion about matters sexual has led you to overlook that he is in fact a dreadful old hippie. ‘I have always believed in the notion of the vibe: good vibes, bad vibes.’ He admits to liking ‘almost any alternative, New Age-inflected place’. One such place which he has written about in a number of books (it’s on page 197 of White Sands) is Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Nevadan desert that is part experiment in living, part communal art project; a music festival without the bands.

One could invent a game, Dyer Bingo. You cross off another square every time one of the following appears in his writing. Nietzsche. Rilke. Don Cherry. Barthes. John Berger. Don DeLillo. House! In 2005’s The Ongoing Moment, Dyer structures an idiosyncratic study of photography through essays on the way certain objects keep recurring again and again in photos. You could take a similar approach with the actors and locations that Dyer keeps returning to in his books. Burning Man recurs as a site of transcendence, a place where he finds ‘the Zone’, a concept inspired by Stalker, ‘not so much a physical space as a force field, a place that has stood its ground’. Areas where Dyer experienced similar nodality include Libya’s Leptis Magna and the WW1 memorial at Thiepval. ‘I always know when I’m in the Zone. When I’m in the Zone I don’t wish I was anywhere else.’

Dyer has a sense of himself existing not merely in deep time but within a pattern of shifting perspective, which is rare for a writer who works outside of popular science or philosophy. For Dyer here is never truly here; now is merely a staging post between two eternities. Judgement isn’t deferred but is continually evolving, with the direction of travel not solely forward; tomorrow can shape yesterday. As he wrote in his 1994 WW1 study The Missing of the Somme: ‘A photograph from the war is also a photograph of the way the war will come to be remembered. It’s a photograph of the future, of the future’s view of the past.’ Or consider a passage from The Search that anticipates his description of the football pitch in White Sands: ‘He imagined some archaeologist of the future recreating sequences of play and estimating the scores of games played here from the patterns of stud-marks on the pitch.’ More playfully, he even suggests the folk art masterpiece the Watts Towers somehow reached back in time and caused Watts to be built so that one day it would provide the Towers with an urban context.

Hippie Geoff is interesting but not as compelling as his angst-surfing persona; best of all is when the two sides rub up against each other. Travel, a frequent source of angst, is nevertheless essential to his conception of himself. ‘Moving back to England meant moving back into what…I referred to by the Lawrentian phrase “the soft centre of my being”. Being abroad – anywhere – meant being at the edge of myself, of what I was capable of” (as he writes in 1997’s Out of Sheet Rage, a self-conscious failure as a study of D.H. Lawrence, but a roaring success in unpicking what makes Geoff Dyer so Geoff Dyery). Travel is a challenge that inspires the same sort of questions that devilled Gauguin: ‘What’s the difference between seeing something and not seeing it? More specifically, what is the difference between seeing Tahiti and not seeing it, between going to Tahiti and not going?’ Or as White Sands’ blurb puts it more succinctly: ‘Why travel?’

There is an answer of sorts: ‘We are here to go somewhere else.’ Which is not merely a typically Dyer-esque paradox (‘This was the true purpose of maps: without one it was impossible to say with certainty that you were lost, with one you knew you were lost’); the reader detects traces of Dyer’s spiritual leanings, now with new, deathly overtones. The book that White Sands most resembles from his backlist, Yoga, was also marked by ‘the tug of middle age’. Where the earlier book sat in on recognizable midlife anxieties, specifically loneliness, doubt and regret, White Sands amplifies these human-sized fears into cosmic questions. What does it all mean? Where do we come from? Where are we, etc.? The answer, not to the questions themselves, but as to why they are being posed, comes in the final essay where we learn that Dyer, at the age of 55, suffered a stroke, a minor one to be sure, but enough of a jolt to inspire a new tone in his work.

The more enjoyable pieces in this book, however, are the ones that might at first appear slight – Geoff picks up a hitchhiker who he belatedly realizes might (or not) be a dangerous convict; and Geoff goes on a disastrous trip to Norway to see (or not) the Northern Lights. As comedies of embarrassment, they are small masterpieces. One snorts almost as loudly as Dyer cries with frustration when his Norwegian hosts suggest the Northern Light’s failure to appear is down to his negative attitude. ‘Claudio Magris identifies a recurring figure in European literature,’ Dyer records in Out of Sheer Rage, ‘the man who records all the little inconveniences life inflicts upon him and, in doing so, triumphs over them.’ Dyer, pace Magris, is thinking of Thomas Bernhard and Lawrence; he could also be describing himself.

It should be said that Dyer is one of the best quoters in the biz, especially when it comes to ferreting out lines that describe himself and what he’s doing his writing. One in particular seems especially relevant to White Sands. In The Ongoing Moment, he quotes the street photographer Joel Meyerowitz: ‘I’m not really interested in gas stations or anything about gas stations. This happens to be an excuse for seeing.’ ‘An excuse for seeing’ – at last, an answer to ‘Why travel?’

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God Bothering

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch,  Edward Casaubon laboured fruitlessly for many years over The Key To All Mythologies. Richard Holloway knocks it off in just 237 pages. The comparison isn’t quite fair, even if the preference for the real-life former cleric rather than the fictional minister definitely is.

Casaubon’s search for a syncretism that would reveal the common root of all religions is often seen as an exaggerated satire on dusty scholasticism, even if Eliot didn’t quite intend it that way. Her point was that Casaubon’s lack of German, of which he was guiltily and privately aware, denied him access to the very latest thinking on the subject, which Eliot admired.

The ambition was less at fault than the methodology. There have been serious attempts to provide a functional explanation or aetiology of religion, varying according to whether metaphysical belief and ritualised practice are regarded as naturalistic or pathological. Nietzsche and C. G. Jung probably thought the latter. Joseph Campbell, author of The Masks of God and the unfinished Atlas of Historical Mythology, secret author of the Star Wars universe, took a more sanguine and aesthetic line, asking us to ‘Follow your bliss’. The Canadian scholar Northrop Frye – who has some claim to having been the most important literary critic of modern times – spent many years searching for a key to all mythology, or monomyth, which he nicknamed ‘the Great Doodle’. The indefinite article and singular form ought to be noted.

It’s probably fair to say that Holloway’s book should be called A Little History of Religions, since his narrative deals with all the major traditions, one by one, in something like chronological order, right up to Scientology and the Unification Church, which also means engaging with the personalities who founded them, right up to Lafayette Ron Hubbard and the Rev Moon. There’s no quibble about the indefinite article. Holloway is a natural ecumenical as well as a natural humanist. He knows the narrative could go many ways, privileging one tradition as dominant and others as heretical; he himself chooses to proceed even-handedly and with gentle tolerance. There is no whiff of sarcasm when he describes the Golden Tablets of Mormonism or the genealogy of Scientological thetans, both of which could make a cat laugh.

There’s no whiff of false modesty either. I automatically distrust authors who talk about their current or forthcoming ‘little book’. They’re a bit like women who say ‘This dress? Oh, it’s just something I threw on before coming out’. Usually, ‘little’ books mask a large ambition and often a dogmatic spirit. Holloway has none of that. Nor does he have a ‘Great Doodle’ to offer. His introductory remarks on what constitutes religion, a religion or a religious sensibility might seem scamped, until one realises that his deeper thoughts on these matters are dotted throughout the book, brought up wherever the narrative seems to call for an excursus on natural and (or vs.) revealed religion, what means heaven and what means hell, is a church a belief, an institution or a building, or so on.

His personal encounter with faith, which has been both embracing and bracing or confrontational, is well documented in the twenty-odd books he has published since 1972, most obviously his moving memoir Leaving Alexandria, which appeared in 2012.  That this should be his next publication in line is interesting and significant, since having told his own life story he now seems able to return to the wider question of faith without much in the way of first-person intervention (though there are references to old church history lecturers in Aberdeen and to meeting pairs of Mormons on Edinburgh streets), and having described his own childhood and adolescence with such openness he is able to offer an account aimed primarily (I’d say) but not exclusively at younger readers.

The tabloid version of Holloway, which has never survived the test of encounter with the man or the work, is that he was once a high-flying cleric, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal communion, who lost his faith and then turned against it. This is as slanderous as it is silly. Holloway’s conscious uncoupling (to pinch the movie-star phrase) with his church doesn’t even fall into the same category as Bishop David Jenkins’ alleged ‘conjuring trick with bones’ remark about the Resurrection (he actually said the opposite, but was already noted for heterodoxy; anyway, God had the last word by setting fire to York Minster roof three days after his enthroning as Bishop of Durham). It was less about loss of faith, or a nineteenth-century German dismantling of faith into mythological components, as it was about a grown-up understanding of faith in the light of changing times, public literacy, scientific understanding and emotional maturity. Arguably, the two men share a certain appetite for the media spotlight, but with an ability to use that platform to make very serious points about what and how we believe. This is why Holloway’s book certainly doesn’t belong on the same shelf, and sits in a higher intellectual league, than Christopher Hitchens’ much-overpraised God Isn’t Great, which is great in a knockabout, good-old-Hitch way, but doesn’t actually hit many of its targets, or indeed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion which misses the point with such headlong self-confidence it’s easy to be taken in, only to realize chapters later that his premises are flawed.

As Holloway insists, religion is an art, not a science, and therefore cannot be ranged against science as if it offered a competing version of the same reality. His markedly gentle treatment of Hinduism and Jainism, his more robust and inflected account of Islam in its evolving and sometimes combative forms, never lose sight of this essential point. Religions are human constructs, made with the materials at hand and shaped in ways that appeal to eye, ear and heart, all in the interests of bringing us closer to some reality beyond available explanation and in hope of making us behave better in this world in full understanding that our time on it is limited. His attitude seems to be close to that of the American poet Wallace Stevens, who he doesn’t quote but who said that to believe in a fiction while knowing it to be a fiction was the supreme freedom.

My 12-year-old son (who has been raised as Roman Catholic) is reading A Little History of Religion now. I don’t have any sense that it will alter his observance or pour doubt on it. But it does mean that he is growing up with a fuller and more inflected understanding of religion in general and ours in particular than I did. Where we were asked to regard ‘the Bible’ – which is a historical complect, a library rather than a single book – as a slabby monolith of truth, he’s already aware that the Books of Daniel and Job, the former a very subtle piece of historical mythologizing, the latter a brilliant harnessing of folklore, are the key to the Old Testament or the Judaic project, rather than the first few beautiful pages of Genesis. He knows that the Gospels were retrospective accounts, written by men who were not witnesses, all the more moving and significant for that. And he understands that the Book of Revelation, with all its trippy strangeness, was a coded revolutionary text written during a time of savage repression when it was essential to speak and write elliptically. He can also tell you the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim, a frankly important distinction which still hasn’t fully penetrated the US State Department or CIA.

Holloway writes beautifully, with a homiletic simplicity that makes difficult points come alive.  He shows how a prophet does not so much foretell, as forth-tell, and he makes clear why all ages of philosophy come to an end: because it is inconvenient for an established religion to have to keep accommodating new text and add-ons when the printers are waiting. But how about this? ‘ . . . religions always look back to their early years with both longing and regret. Like a couple who get bored living together once the passion of their early love has faded they look back with longing to the days when it flowed effortlessly. That is why all religions spend a lot of time looking back to their early years in an attempt to rekindle that original burning love. But it’s hard going, because the voice of the divine lover has fallen silent and all they have left are his letters’. Beautiful. Or, this, more playfully, but again at random from more than two dozen that I copied out: ‘Confucianism may be easy to understand, but it’s a serious business. It’s not much fun. With Taoism, another Chinese tradition, it’s the other way round. Taoism is hard to get your head round but, once you get the hang of it, it can be fun’. Looking forward to The Fun of Tao, Holloway, R. (2017).

Quibbles are few and most are functions of restricted space. It seems a little strange that in describing the emergence of monotheism, he makes no mention of Akhenaten, particularly when there is the intriguing theory, promulgated by Ahmed Osman, that Akhenaten and Moses were one and the same person. And the discussion of Darwin and his impact on nineteenth-century religion is too conventional and broad-brush to stand up with the rest. Fundamentalism and religious violence are a running theme but the short chapter on the current situation feels a bit scamped.

Armageddon notwithstanding, does he see a future for religion? In a word, yes. He deals affectionately with the twentieth century’s often overlooked ecumenism, pointing to 345 separate Christian communities in the World Council of Churches, but nowadays a marked willingness to work together rather than to spat, or to ignore one another. Religion, he says, is an anvil that has worn out many hammers and therefore might even outlive secular humanism, which is a relative neophyte. The difference is that we are no longer in a command economy when it comes to faith. It’s a ticketed event now, and therefore a matter of individual choice, but ‘still the biggest show on earth’.

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Picture This

Memo for Spring, Liz Lochhead’s debut collection of poems, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1972, the first in a succession of awards and honours to follow her down the years.

When in 2011 she succeeded Edwin Morgan, as Scotland’s  Makar, then First Minister Alex Salmond, said: ‘As an author, translator, playwright, stage performer, broadcaster and grande dame of Scottish theatre, Ms Lochhead embodies everything a nation would want from its national poet.’ Fugitive Colours, her latest collection, brings together work done in her official capacity as Makar, with other previously unseen pieces. The collection is divided into five sections, covering distinct aspects of her work.

The opening one, ‘Love and Grief, Elegies and Promises’, is largely concerned with loss, the greatest being that of the poet’s beloved husband, architect Tom Logan.  ‘Favourite Place’ is a moving account of a visit to their caravan near Fort William.  The long poem, largely formulated in the conditional tense, describes how the trip would, and by extension, should, still be.  ‘We would be snaking up Loch Lomond,’ it begins, before going on to describe the journey in lovingly forensic detail.  It’s a great list of a poem, of the places passed, the texture of the trip with its music, companionable bickering and the happy repetitions and rituals of arrival: ‘we’d be lighting candles, pouring a dram/drinking the first cup of tea/from the old black and white teapot’.

The arrival heralds a marvellously vivid evocation of the beauty of the place, colour laid on the page with an artist’s attention to light, shade, and detail, a joyful depiction of the landscape, weather and wildlife of this much-loved destination: ‘Tomorrow there would be the distant islands/cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain in the great veils/coming in across the water, the earliest, tenderest/feathering of green on the trees …’ So the poem rises to a crescendo
with ‘the chrome-yellow straight-out-of-the-tube-and/laid-on-with-a-palette-knife brashness’ of the gorse. But we must remember the conditionality of all this, the would of it, when we come to a heartbreaking change of tone and tense, from the conditional to the simple present, from the wished for to the actual: ‘But tonight you are three months dead.’ This comes as a shock, a break, a heartbreak, a sudden absence of colour, an honest, imageless stanza in which Lochhead invokes the words of Sorley MacLean – ‘The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.’ –  but nevertheless finishes with a chillingly visceral cry of grief: ‘And this will not be a consolation/but a further desolation.’

The painterly attention to the visual world is a feature of Lochhead’s work – unsurprising in someone who studied at Glasgow School of Art and for whom making pictures is still very much part of her life. ‘A Handselling, 2006’ shows the couple sipping whisky and drawing the view from the window of Jura Lodge: ‘we sketch and scratch and scribble/not stopping till – late – all the last of the light is gone.’ Of course, this impulse to record, to capture on the page, to memorialize is one shared by writers, perhaps most particularly poets.  As Lochhead observes in ‘Persimmons’, of the fruit that Tom has drawn: ‘they’d have come and gone like Christmas/if you’d not put them down/and made them worth more than the paper they’re inscribed on’.  These lines are a key to this section in which the ache of loss is simply and baldly evident though leavened by details of the beautiful world and of the joyful idiosyncracies of a loving marriage.

The list poem, which works so well in performance, is a favourite form for Lochhead. It is particularly employed in this section: in ‘Favourite Place’, most explicitly in ‘Some Things I Covet in Jura Lodge’, in ‘Cornucopia’ with its list of questions, and the lists of notes in ‘Legacy’. In these tender poems, the lists serve as attempts to notice and to hoard and to honour those things that are precious, and thus render them precious to the reader too. The poems here are written in Standard English, but in the final poem, ‘A Cambric Shirt’, which precedes the section ‘The Light Comes Back’, the use of a more particularly Scottish register returns. This tender poem begins in English: ‘Because the sound of his daughter’s name’ and becomes increasingly Scots till it concludes: ‘the camrie sark/withoot ony seam or needlewark’. Though it is delicately personal it has thus a commonality with several of the later public poems in which Scots is employed with an appealing vigour and in which Lochhead’s performative voice rings out.

In the funny and inventive, ‘Nick Dowp, Feeling Miscast in a Very English Production, Rehearses Bottom’s Dream’, we have Nick’s monologue as he bemoans what he believes is Shakespeare’s attitude to Scots: ‘Shakespeare’s (excuse me for being cynical)/ Attitude to Scotch verse is that it’s kina like McGonagall’s/And only guid enough for thae Rude-Mechanicals.’ He proceeds to translate one of Bottom’s speeches into Scots with energetic brio so that: ‘I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was,’ becomes: ‘I have had a maist rare and unco and byorner Vision. I have hud a dream, – telling ye, I’m daunerin aroon in a dwamm like a half shut knife trying to shake mysel free o it, but och it’s beyond Man’s kennin to say whitlike a dream it wis,’ – which has the effect of making the words Shakespeare gives his rude mechanicals seem rather prissy.

One of the best-known features of Lochhead’s work is her linguistic playfulness, making a virtue of the use of familiar phrases and jumps in register, producing poems that beg to be performed. Take ‘Way Back in the Paleolithic’: a jazzy, rhythmic spree, which I’ve heard her perform with gleeful gusto. This poem takes us through the birth of art, with a refrain that asks the question: ‘Art, art, what is it for?’  Lochhead’s wit is evident in the jaunty rhymes:  ago/Lascaux; bacon/undertaking and the foot-tapping rhythm.  The poem is funny and irreverent and even – no mean feat with such a light touch – rather profound. The answer to the question comes in the second line of the refrain: ‘To bring into being what never existed before.’

Many of the poems in Fugitive Colours have an underlying concern with the making of art, whether visual or verbal. In the section ‘Ekphrasis, Etcetera’ Lochhead turns her attention to photographs and paintings, creating monologues for The Scullery Maid and The Cellar Boy in the work of the eighteenth-century French painter Chardin; turning her eye to the works of Willie Roger, Alan Davies, to the Glasgow School of Art and the reopening of the Kelvingrove Gallery. Several of these poems consider the meaning and purpose of art and poetry but it is in ‘In Gaia’s Poetry’, included in the section ‘Kidspoems and Bairnsongs’, that Lochhead seems most explicitly to expound her own views of prosody, including the pitfalls of rhyme: ‘To start to put down words that end the same – Soundwise – is to get on a horse/that’s going to take you where you might not really want to go.’ This poem charmingly encapsulates a mini poetry lesson with child-appropriate simplicity and humour.

Lochhead is a democratic poet. There’s nothing difficult here, nothing you’d need to read twice in order to ‘get’ though many you’d read more than once for the sheer pleasure.  Though she employs various forms, most of the poetry has an elasticity that uses voice as its control, rather than formal prosody.  This means that she might end a line on such null words as ‘the’ or ‘and’, relying on the impetus of the voice to carry us through. In this sense the poems can be read as scripts for voice, and since she is also a playwright this is unsurprising. In fact several of the poems in the final and most extensive section in the book, ‘Makar Songs, Occasional and Performance Pieces Mainly’, are dedicated to luminaries of the Scottish theatre. ‘The Theatre Maker’s Credo’, for instance, another poem in the form of a list, this time instructions for good playmaking, advises: ‘Tell it in prose/tell it in rhyme/Tell it in words of one syllable/Tell it in mime’ – again the foot-tapping highly performable lines.

There’s a wealth of fun, cheek and entertainment in this section and some hilarious indecency. One such example is ‘Song for a Dirty Diva’ in which the narrator shrieks her frustration at the lack of sexual opportunity with her gay male friends: ‘I could ball a rugby team and cream them all the orgasm./Take a caveman and his club to fill ma yawnin chasm.’ But it is in the first section of Fugitive Colours, in the poems that deal with the loss of her husband, that the strongest, most emotionally authentic and affecting work is to be found.  Here Lochhead accesses the truly personal and particular and communicates with her readers at the level of the heart in a way that is paradoxically more inclusive than the poems that explicitly lean towards an audience.

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EVA: Six Poems


Like a pet that comes in wet and muddy,
fur matted with adventure, you return,
bright-eyed and wild, from your nocturnal jaunt.
Load the pictures in,’ you say,
handing me your camera, cold as frost.
You’ve been haunting Invergordon’s shore,
photographing the rigs at Nigg.
I slot the memory card into the USB.
(Your work’s all digital now, and done at home.
At hefty cost, you print your own giclées.
You can’t be arsed with darkrooms or with labs.
Your trusty Topcon’s in the cupboard somewhere;
You’ve thrown your dusty chemicals away.)
‘Call me when they’re in,’ you say, and scoot
to the kitchen, footmarks trailing from your boots.

The images are blurry. They were bound to be –
hand-held, no tripod, in the wuthering night.
That’s how you want it. Twenty years ago,
you travelled with a swag of gear
and strove to get the exposures right.
Now you’re chasing arcs of feral light,
smears and shadows, eerie and mysterious.
You’re ready to evolve. You’re getting serious.

Onscreen, umpteen skies and oil rigs manifest
before us as you sip your drink. You note
the ones that might be worth the paper and the ink.
Then you begin to print. Most likely until dawn.
In your world, Art is never virtual.
It’s physical, a thing; it can be held,
you are compelled to make it real.
By morning, there’ll be rejects cluttering the floor
and you will ask me which, of several contenders,
is ideal. We’ll be agreed. This is ‘the one’.
The one which, when you’re gone,
will bear the seal of your approval.

If someone, passing by, observed us chatting,
they’d think we’re making no big deal of this.
A few prints shifted to one side, an omelette, a kiss.


In our twenty-six years together,
we did some mighty intimate stuff.
But I don’t believe we ever
pushed it further than the time
you sat stripped to the waist
on a chair in our bedroom,
me standing behind you
with scissors in my hand,
you looking straight ahead
at the Edinburgh rooftops
saying ‘Do it. Just do it.’
And those locks of limp dark hair
that still remained, plastered
to your pale and chemo-blasted skull –
I took them in my fingers, lifted them,
and meticulously
de-sexed you.


You have a new pal called Rakesh.
You send him photos of Scotland.
He sends you photos of a village
somewhere outside Delhi.
Scotland is beautiful, he opines.
So different, the sunsets.
You show him your paintings, spare him
the challenging ones; he’s a regular guy,
prefers landscapes to memento moris.
You chat expensively by phone, swap worries
about children. (When you die,
he’ll send condolences, call you
‘a kind soul’, seem genuinely upset.
‘It is true,’ he’ll concede, ‘we were having
business relationship and we never met,
but she becomes my good friend.’)
Such care Rakesh takes, when filling
your orders. He cuts polystyrene cubes
to fit the empty spaces in between
your packs of Thalimax.
He counts each ersatz Valium,
making sure you get your rupees’-worth.
He smooths potential snags with Customs.
He wraps the packages in muslin.
Seals them with a glob of wax.
You now have enough Thalidomide
to maim three hundred babies.
And Rakesh has photographs
of snow.


You tried to phone but
Dignitas was busy.
You begged me, so I wrote instead.
My typing fingers made vibrations
on your bed.
But Switzerland gave no reply.


So many of the people I’ve
informed that she is dead
have said
‘If there’s anything
we can do, anything at all,
don’t hesitate to ask.’

since you offer,
Would you mind driving me
headlong through the universe
at ten million miles and hour,
scattering starts like trashcans
scorching the sky?
Put your foot to the floor,
crash right through the gate of Fate,
trespass galaxies, straight over
black holes and supernovas
to the hideout of God.
Wait for me while I break
down the boardroom door
and drag the high and mighty fucker
out of his conference with Eternity,
his summit on the Mysteries of Life,
and get him to explain to me
why it was so necessary
to torture and humiliate
and finally exterminate
my wife.

But no.
These things I do not say
because I know
that by ‘anything at all’
you mean
a cup of tea
or a lift into town,
if you’re going
that way


You worked covertly,
nurturing by stealth.
You lifted people up,
nudged them to transcend
their limitations,
in sickness and in health.
Those you assisted looked around
to thank you, but you’d hide.
When your influence began to spread
too far, you died. I still hear
your whisper in my ear:
‘Let’s be going.’

If I could scan this planet
with X-rays that detect the presence
of your timely interventions,
I’m sure I’d find them
in places you would not expect.
You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
But you left lucencies of grace
secreted in the world,
still glowing.

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The Shock of the Old

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer becomes an artist after he transforms a failed barbecue pit into a much-admired objet d’art. Seeking inspiration he visits the local museum where he falls asleep. Finding himself in a surreal dream sequence, he wanders about in a world filled with melting clocks.

The elongated and oozing timepieces are lifted from the painting The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. This once avant-garde artwork is now so much a part of our visual landscape, together with the cultural movement with which is it associated, that references to it can feature in an admittedly highbrow cartoon without requiring any supplementary information.

 The liquefying clocks were probably intended by Dali to be a recognizable image placed in an unfamiliar context, rendered in an unfamiliar way, perhaps to suggest the unreliability of time, and as a consequence disturbing. Seventy years later, the image has been appropriated by popular culture and is the poster of choice for the bedrooms of students; as an undergraduate, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross took pride of place on my wall, a selection that was, even then, influenced by the pretensions that the painting was superior to the other more obvious Surrealist work: the runny clocks were a cliché.

Such is the general impression of Surrealism: it was cool for a while, but ultimately consisted of a thin political and conceptual content; that it is striking visually but immature. Today, much of the work appears derivative and dated; suitable for rock album covers or inspiration for advertisers, but tired. Surrealism seems to have lost the power it had to disturb.

 The movement deserves a reappraisal. Such an opportunity is presented by the superb Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, which brings together surrealist works from four significant private collections; those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It offers a fresh overview of Surrealism, featuring work by René Magritte, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dali, including his Mae West Lips Sofa, alongside the artists who inspired them: Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso.

The aim is to look at the way Surrealism was collected by individuals who knew and were close to many of the artists; how they took an active role in promoting and supporting them; and the impact they had on museum collections. The National Galleries of Scotland own a world-class collection of surrealist art and owe some of their finest and most popular exhibits to the collecting activities of Penrose and Keiller, a shy golfer, passionate about the literary aspect of the movement, who compiled a fantastic library and archive of rare books and manuscripts. Public art collections are often based on the decisions of private collectors whose influence years later is forgotten, rendered invisible. A few, like Peggy Guggenheim, may be well-known names, but others are eclipsed by famous artists who get most of the glory. This exhibition quite rightly writes them back into history.

Surreal Encounters illustrates the importance of collaboration between the collector and the artist; these collectors did more than just buy the finished picture, they shaped taste and engaged in the ideas of the movement. The relationship between Edward James and Magritte and Dali resulted in some of their most important work: Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite, which evokes the mystery that lies in everyday visible reality, and is considered to be a portrait of James even though it is just of the back of his head, and Dali’s Lobster Telephone.

Of all collectors in this exhibition, it was the English Quaker and painter Roger Penrose who was the most active in the movement and responsible for its introduction into the United Kingdom. Alongside the art critic Herbert Read and the patron Peter Watson, Penrose was responsible for acquainting the British public with the avant-garde movements that were shaking up the continent. Of the three, there was until now no biography of Penrose, even though he was the most influential and his life, most colourful. Fortuitously, James King an American-born academic, whose other books are lives of Penrose’s friends, the artist Paul Nash, and Herbert Read, has addressed the gap with an erudite and timely biography that documents Penrose’s life, his art and influence on the art world, and his great and many loves.

One reason that Penrose may not be as recognised as he should be is that his second wife was the photographer Lee Miller, who eclipsed him in artistic talent and fame. Their passionate love affair is the emotional heart of King’s book Roland Renrose: The Life of a Surrealist. Penrose and Miller met at a surrealist party in 1937, going to bed together soon after. Swept off his feet, Penrose wrote to her the following day: ‘I have slept and woken at last from a dream.’ Both were still married, Penrose to French surrealist poet, Valentine Boué; Lee to Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey.  They agreed not to hold each other to monogamy, both taking other lovers, talking about them with astonishing candour; in one letter Penrose told Miller that his latest girlfriend occupied their bed ‘so differently [to Lee] that I almost feel ashamed to make love with her’.

Though Penrose’s love life and artistic taste may not have been conventional, his upbringing was. He was born in 1900, a Quaker, into wealthy banking family, and educated at Cambridge. After graduating, he escaped Britain for Paris ‘with a cry of delight’. Leaving behind a ‘well-ordered life of soft carpets, fat woolly cats, porridge, roast beef for Sunday lunch and family prayers’, he aimed to become a painter during the early days of the Surrealist movement. ‘I was born again,’ he exclaimed in his autobiography, Scrap Book.

Penrose, King explains, ‘adopted surrealism as a style of art and as a mode of life’.  He was not a surrealist in the way the movement’s leader André Breton was.  For Breton, King writes, ‘surrealism was a political movement which found expression in works of art; for Penrose, surrealism was a style of life that he attempted to encapsulate in his art’. He said that he never set out to build a collection, but that it ‘collected itself’. He was in France pursuing a career as an artist, when, in 1926, he saw Max Ernst’s set of drawings. Histoire Naturelle, an encounter he compared to waking up in a new country. In due course he acquired work by Picasso (of whom in 1958 he wrote the first comprehensive biography), René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Paul Delvaux, Dorothea Tanning, Yves Tanguy, Eileen Agar, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. His eye was brilliant, though he often sold pieces to fund other artistically related activity.

Penrose continued to paint but devoted much of his time and energy to collecting and promoting surrealism. ‘I knew I would never attain the stature in the arts of my brilliant surrealist friends,’ he said, so he tried ‘to bring about a wider appreciation of the poets and painters who had inspired me’. In 1935 Penrose returned to Britain to organize the International Surrealist Exhibition, designed to put surrealism on the map in the UK. At its opening a year later, Breton gave a speech dressed from head to toe in green, smoking a green pipe. Dylan Thomas offered guests teacups full of boiled string, asking: ‘Do you like it weak or strong?’ The organizers were serious about their apparent frivolity. ‘Do not judge this movement kindly,’ wrote Herbert Read, in the catalogue. ‘It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant – the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilization to want to save a shred of its respectability.’ The press was fascinated, the critics divided, and 30,000 people visited during its three-week run.

 Penrose was the only Englishman, King posits, to ‘embrace surrealism over a long period of time’. ‘Only in his life can the various threads of that movement its influence in Britain be seen.’ Penrose opened the London Gallery on Cork Street in 1937, exhibiting Henry Moore as well as the surrealists, and he was instrumental a year later in bringing to Britain, Picasso’s Guernica. And together with Read he co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London after the Second World War.

So knowledgeable is King, he appears unable to decide what the reader doesn’t need to know. We have to wade through peripheral details: names of housekeepers, street names, father’s professions of passing acquaintances, and digressions about family members, to get to the good stuff. But thankfully there is a lot of that. Penrose once said, ‘I don’t think I would ever have become a Surrealist in the ardent way I did it I hadn’t been born a Quaker.’ King suggests he used the movement to explore his inner world; not as a platform for political battles, but the contradictions in himself. Penrose was a character who was conflicted, King reflects: ‘Quakerism was central to Roland Penrose’s intellectual and artistic formation, and that although his Quakerism encouraged self-evaluation and innovation and may have liberated him, it also hindered him and created a divide within him.’

 In 1966, the art critic George Melly wrote a bitter attack against Penrose when he accepted a knighthood saying, ‘I will never have anything to do with you again’; Melly couldn’t reconcile the conventional side of Penrose with the unconventional: but he was always both. Penrose’s upbringing, ventures King, shaped his life in all its complexities and oppositions. Quakerism stresses the individual’s search for their inner light and the importance of doing good deeds. It was these traits that lay behind Penrose’s restless search for fulfillment, experimentation, and, crucially, his willingness to put his career as an artist to one side to promote others.  We are lucky he did.

 Central to Surrealism was the idea of the marvellous, echoed in the title of the exhibition, initially coined by André Breton, who wrote the first Surrealist manifesto of 1924. ‘Let us not mince words,’ he said, ‘the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.’ There is much in this exhibition and in the life of Roland Penrose that is marvellous to behold.


The 1935 International Surrealist Exhibition: At its opening Dylan Thomas offered guests teacups full of boiled string.

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until September 11.

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No Statues to Critics

The late Robert David MacDonald, director, playwright, translator and one of the trio who ran the Citizens’ Theatre in the days which have already receded into myth, liked to say that they do not erect statues to critics. And indeed they do not, but critics play their part in having statues erected or demolished.

If journalism is the first draft of social history, reviewing may be the only draft of theatre history that will ever be written. Of course the great masterpieces will have their bones picked over, broken apart, sucked dry before fresh flesh is attached to them, but the routine plays drafted by estimable, talented writers, which gave pleasure and stimulated thought on what was perhaps their only outing, are given their monument, although hardly an enduring one, solely in the writings of those critics who sat in the stalls scribbling notes to be transformed into a brief notice for the next day’s paper.

A book has greater permanence, and this anthology contains the reviews and reflective articles on Scottish theatre written by Joyce McMillan over the years since 1981, when she first sharpened her quill and occasionally dipped it in blood. A play produced by 7:84 in 2004, for instance, was shot at dawn as ‘unambitious, not radical, not funny, not original and not even very dramatic.’ In her more appreciative moods, she can attain a level of poetic intensity, as when describing a cycle of Synge’s plays as ‘leaving us so much enriched – in our sense of the wonder of life, its terror, sweetness, dark humour and the huge power of language and storytelling to make it bearable.’

Some linking passages occasionally give the anthology the tone of autobiography, with the drawback of that genre, which is to impose a retrospective pattern on an often messy development, hers as well as the country’s. However, it is a stimulating and excellent work which covers the decades when McMillan had the joy – her word – to cover Scottish theatre in what is the most exhilarating and fruitful period in its history. There is no point in the self-delusion that theatre in this country has a glorious past that was suppressed or kept concealed by malign forces elsewhere, but from the late 1970s, writers, directors and actors have set about establishing a nation’s theatre, ensuring that it achieved the central purposes of offering celebratory enjoyment and providing an arena where ideas could be dramatised, debated, presented as narrative and then thrown back to governors by a no-longer passive public.

However, an arena for the Romans was a sand-pit where dust could be kicked in the eyes, where solid blows could be parried, where feints and foils could be passed off as straight thrusts. Here is a role for a sharp-minded critic, and as she shows in Theatre in Scotland McMillan is unquestionably such a one. The task is to pick out the dust from the eyes, and say eloquently – Look! It is said that every theatre goer is a critic, and that the views of a reviewer whose words happen to appear in print are no more pertinent than those of the person in the stalls, but if it is true judgement, it is a dull one. Some views carry greater authority, deeper insight and have greater impact. All professional reviewers will inevitably question themselves about the nature of their trade, and there have been thoughtful works written in recent times by Eric Bentley, Irving Wardle and Michael Coveney. Astonishingly, Coveney’s work had to be pulped when a fellow hack objected to the way he was depicted in the book.

Even in an age of the filmed recording, theatre is an ephemeral art, and if journalism hardly provides an anti-ephemeral levée, it’s all we poor mortals have. ‘Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist as long as we believe in them,’ McMillan wrote in 1991, as the Soviet Union was disappearing and she was addressing the question of Theatre and Nationhood for an event at Tramway. So who believes in a review? What gives it its value? Any future history which wishes to establish what theatre was like in a given age will have to rely on the records provided by reviewers, and that is as true of any attempt to reconstruct developing attitudes to Shakespeare or Greek tragedy as it is for original work commended or slated at that time. This was so both of the masters of the trade in the past, such as William Hazlitt, G. B. Shaw and Kenneth Tynan, and of the more run of the mill scribblers who eked out their own existence by reporting on what was going on when the lights went down. Critics will also be resented. Simon Callow talks of his annoyance at wasting time in the green room trying to explain away unfavourable notices on the grounds that the play in performance is not really so and so’s cup of tea, his annoyance arising from spending time dissecting the views of someone for whom, he says, actors have so little regard. But critics’ views bite, and last.

Every newspaper reviewer recognizes varying, sometimes conflicting, obligations, mainly to the play and to the readers, and must choose the balance between the two. For McMillan, it is clear that her prime obligations are to theatre itself and to her readers. Reviewers should not regard themselves as part of the theatre industry, since that makes them merely PR persons. The trend towards previews, especially in broadcasting, is inimical to independent, critical judgment. A good reviewer is an essayist who hopefully shares pleasure, but who is also called on to deliver judgments which may destroy the joie de vivre of the original theatre-makers. A pity, but the critic’s perspective has to be that of the person who will pay for a seat in the auditorium. Critics have to be, among other things, reporters who convey the news that if you buy a ticket, this is what happens, this is what you will see and hear, this is the topic, this is the approach adopted. They will report that they have seen a play about, say, the plight of red-haired dwarves in the South Seas, and may go on to exercise their power by stating that the work is simply appalling, but they will at least have conveyed the information that anyone with an interest in the South Seas, in dwarves or indeed in red-heads may find something of interest. McMillan is in this sense a reliable reporter, skilled at re-creating the visual sense of theatre productions.

Style has to be in critic’s portmanteau if their material is to be read. McMillan writes with punchy, crisp clarity of language and thought, without extravagant flourishes but with words trailing elegantly in a series of multi-claused, adjective-laden sentences, sometimes leaving readers anxious that the fabric will come undone, like the threads in a fading tapestry. They do not. She described Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (itself a straggling title) as ‘a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue’. She also praised that play for what it says about ‘Mary and us, about womanhood and about the nation,’ and this judgment exemplifies McMillan’s central strength, which is a combination of the political and artistic perspective, expressed by a search for the social and civic tone beneath the individual drama. Never before was it so true that all theatre is political.

McMillan has shown herself to be the ideal critic for the recent period in Scottish period history, the one who will give future historians the material they will turn to if they wish find how this age was presented by practitioners and received by audiences. The editor of Theatre in Scotland, Philip Howard, who as director was occasionally scolded by the critic, claims that she has ‘an unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play’. Come, come. Even the claims of papal infallibility have their limits. Personally I think she under appreciated Rona Munro’s James plays, but then I may be wrong. But so might she.

However, Vicky Featherstone, lately director of the National Theatre of Scotland, writes in a preface that all theatre-makers craved reviews by Joyce McMillan because of her ‘unrivalled passion and hunger for theatre’. Praise indeed. The prime attributes of a good review are intelligence combined with sensibility, an elegance of expression, a refusal of condescension, an ability to recognize the real thing and to say so even at the risk of the patrician scorn of fellow hewers of wood and drawers of water. Neither consistency nor the primacy of personal taste are admirable traits in a reviewer, who has to be able to appreciate all genres from pantomime to Greek tragedy. Criticism, unlike creativity, requires a heightened responsive quality based on imagination as well as intellectual insight.

Imagination is an invaluable attribute essential, not so that critics read into productions qualities which are in their mind and not on the stage, but to identify implications, trends, signals which the theatre-makers had grasped by instinct but not necessarily consciously. The late Kenny Ireland directed Macbeth in the Lyceum in 1999. It was plainly a bold, radical rethinking of the tragedy and, it appears, an ideal combination of the arts of the director, actor and above all stage designer. The roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were downsized to give more space to what are conventionally viewed as the lesser roles of Malcolm and his allies who led the counterattack against tyranny. McMillan interprets the production as ‘bringing a serious Scottish perspective and voice to … that old, tense Anglo-Scottish relationship, bred into the bones of this text (and) still capable of shedding a dazzling light on it, four hundred years on’. Ireland was a fine actor and director, but one wonders whether on reading those words he did not say to himself – What ho! – as a new vision was offered to him on his already sterling work. That is criticism at its best. And I wonder if anyone else detected in John Tiffany’s 2007 production of The Bacchae, dominated by Alan Cumming’s performance of the god Dionysus, parallels with ‘our own political culture?’

McMillan is also a crusading critic, which means that she does not operate, or not only, in the ‘Field of Dreams’ indicated by the subtitle. Her commitment is to safeguard standards in the theatre in the country in which we have our being here and now. She threw darts, mainly poisoned, at the Scottish Theatre Company during its brief life for their inadequate understanding of what their role could have been, and for an ill-advised choice of programme. When they put on Battle Royal by Bruce Daillie in Pitlochry in 1984, she wrote that they deceived themselves into thinking it was ‘simply a harmless piece of fun,’ whereas it was for her ‘reactionary, divisive and fundamentally damaging to Scottish life’. It should be added that she praised the same company when they put on Marcella Evaristi’s Commedia the following month.

She has championed the work of those who attempt to hew out a new path for themselves, or who raise questions of importance for Scotland or for minorities. Her pieces on Peter Arnott, Stephen Greenhorn, or her articles on Suspect Culture, the company established by Graham Eatough and David Greig, now Artistic Director of the Lyceum, were incisive and appreciative from the outset. She has also used her position as columnist to make life uncomfortable for those responsible for the ‘mean-spirited and often disgraceful’ funding context in what Scottish theatre has had to struggle to survive and thrive. She is at ease with comedy and pantomime, but her abiding quest is to uncover a moral seriousness in works of theatre, and woe betide producers who delude themselves that they can  provide a good night out by staging a giggly play where the humour lies in demeaning portraits of women, gays or minorities. They could expect to find their cover blown by a few well aimed jibes or rebukes, and the standard defence of the ‘ironic approach’, routinely trotted out by such directors, is invariably blown away.

I savour her appreciation of the poetry of such classic works as Othello, revivals of Beckett, or of Dominic Hill’s Peer Gynt, as well as her encouragement of positive signs in young writers still unsure of their path. By no means all the reviews are in this spirit, but this is a work on Scottish theatre’s past which is of value for today and tomorrow.

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