Monthly Archives: August 2017



A sensitive priest will reassure you that seeming distractions – all the unbidden sensations, anxieties, stray and sometimes unworthy thoughts that crowd in as soon as you bend a knee – are actually part of prayer, or should be made so. Poetry is like that as well. In its idealised form, it should be an address to the Almighty, in whatever form he comes to you.

The late Roy Fuller, a former Oxford Professor of Poetry, told me on a postcard that while his poems were always intended to be about ‘one Big Thing’, they generally concerned themselves with ‘bits and bobs’.

Douglas Dunn, who has also professed poetry in the academy, at the University of St Andrews, is not merely a noticer. The bits and bobs are usually connected to something larger, whether a strong memory of someone loved and lost, or a lifelong commitment to social justice. Significantly, his cue in this 75th birthday collection is a passage from a John Donne sermon. ‘I throwe my selfe downe in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore…’ Isn’t that a perfect description of the eternal compromise the poet has to make, eyes lifted up, but conscious of nothing more elevated than ‘a straw under my knee’?

So is the idea here that Dunn – who shares the spoken name – is a kind of ‘meta-physical’ who finds profound or salacious meaning in a fleabite, who has the ability, in the words of that famous put-down, to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together? There’s a less famous definition of so-called Metaphysical poetry which characterises it as ‘strong-lined’ and that works much better for Dunn, as indeed for Donne. Both have the ability to think rhythmically, to make the idea and the expression of it equal. Dunn had the misfortune to have a kind of succes d’estime with his very first collection Terry Street, and the double misfortune of embarking on his public career as an apparent protégé of Philip Larkin, his sometime boss at the university library in Hull. In 1964, with T. S. Eliot in his final weeks of life, and W. H. Auden reduced to pottering About The House, Larkin and Ted Hughes were the new headline voices in English poetry and the Faber catalogue. Dunn has made it clear that while he shared certain things with Larkin, a love of jazz and of whisky maybe foremost, there was little overt tutelage (Larkin would occasionally drop in unexpectedly just to make sure that his junior was at work and not just ‘posing in a dressing gown’) and very little meeting of minds. Larkin’s cold and unwelcoming universe had little room for God and certainly not for a listening God. Churches were for awkward visits, not spiritual communication. Prayer was what came out of a saxophone bell.

And yet, Dunn has always had something of Larkin’s ability to invest the most conversational of lines with music. His seriousness of purpose and occasional dourness of aspect led him to be rechristened by Clive James as ‘Douglas Dunge’, who appears in ‘Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World’ as a ‘moralising bard of wide remark’. That was both spot-on and strikingly wide of the mark, for Dunn doesn’t much indulge in moralising. He simply collapses the distinction (which old Eliot said was an invention of the generations after Donne) between thought and the aesthetic sense. Dunn feels ideas as concretely as he feels straws under his knee.

There are flies, and other insects, in the new volume. It begins with four lines about unhearable and unreadable things – ‘The flap of a butterfly. / The unfolding wing of a resting wren. / The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost. / A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.’ – and enters its final sequence fifty pages later with a childhood memory of writing verses in invisible ink on paper his uncomprehending father brought home from the tyre factory at Inchinnan. There’s a fly poem, in both senses, called ‘Bluebottles’. This is Dunn-as-Donne, done with a pawky brilliance. ‘A black piece of innocence, commonly found irritating’, and associated with death and shit, but closer up found to be rather beautiful, ‘Metallic but weightless energy, black with a blue shine, / One-hundred-per-cent committed to / Its singular identity, its life-without-options’. It’s hard to read the description without thinking about a bottle of blue-black Quink on the poet’s desk, and the bluebottle’s ‘frantic patrols’ as the poet’s desperation to visit and taste every part of experience, and fly-spot it with his verbal leavings. Dunn has always written beautifully about the business of writing. There’s an earlier poem, from 1993’s Dante’s Drum-Kit but also in the New Selected, where he meditates on ‘Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History. Faber & Faber, £14.99’, a nod across the publisher’s lunch-table to a fellow-writer, but also an indication of how profoundly Dunn, maybe thanks to Larkin, regards poetry as work, an artisan trade that requires tools. And also a certain workman-like solidarity. At the end of ‘Bluebottles’, like a cheery-grim Beelzebub – Lord of the Flies, another Faber reference! – he despatches his familiars to ‘dine where you can, / And pester the cruel ones of mankind.’

There is inevitably a somewhat elegiac tone to The Noise of a Fly, since it comes from a period during which Dunn has downed tools as an active professor, though he continues to teach and supervise. It is a different elegiac mode to that of his tenth collection, dedicated in 1985 to his late first wife Lesley Balfour Dunn. Elegies introduced the wonderful term ‘Transblucency’, and the recognition, confirmed by Duke Ellington and by the blues, that sorrow will crush you unless you make something beautiful with it. In the same way, The Noise of a Fly declines to be valedictory, or even creaky with advancing age. Instead, transblucently, Dunn has fun with growing old. ‘An Actor Takes Up Gardening’ is a brilliant caprice on one of those ‘born into the ranks of Rep’, who’s had maybe a couple of parts on radio and played ‘a week-dead corpse / On Morse’, who’s now ‘Part Donald Sinden, part gardening tosspot’. It’s brilliant, knockabout stuff, part-Larkin, part-Prufrock. There’s equally good characterisation in ‘An Alternative Map of Scotland’, in which Dunn explores the secret geography of a professional tramp he encountered in boyhood, who leaves behind a little text, a note of no metaphysical import but with the vital knowledge that the old dear who lives by the bridge will repay a simple task with a generous supper.

There’s no clearer sign of ageing than the feeling that remembered childhood experience is more vivid than what happened last week. But Dunn isn’t finished with the world and love yet. For all his studied insistence on his own Polonius-like verbosity – there are a lot of teacher poems in this collection – and meditations on mortality like ‘Remembering Friends Who Feared Old Age and Dementia More Than Death’, there is a steady turning towards experience, even erotic experience, and not, like Prufrock, shudderingly away from it. One of the best, but easily over-looked, poems in the sequence is ‘Senex on Market Street’, which starts with an unattributed line from Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 1’. Dunn perfectly evokes that poignant reaction of the old who suddenly find themselves in the presence of the young, and of sex. He’s being overtaken by a new generation, quite literally so. ‘Posh totty totter past on serious heels’. These are St Andrews students, and some of them really do turn up for Shakespeare seminars in Louboutins. And the teacher, who just a couple of pages earlier in ‘Thursday’ has been rhyming deprecatingly about his own boring delivery, this time addresses the students more personally: ‘Young women, and young men, I, too, was young – / Believe that if you can – but years go by / Until, one day, you find your songs are sung’. It would be worth dwelling for a moment or two on the punctuation of those three lines. As Dunn knows from listening to Lester Young solos, it’s where you place the pauses that makes the music. The ending of the poem is devastating, and each time I’ve looked at the book I’ve had to put it down at this point. ‘I loved a woman who dressed as well as you;’ – no commas needed this time – ‘But I can’t give the past false emphasis, / For even old love is for ever new. // When she walked out she dulcified the air; / And so do you. To say so’s only fair’. Here, the only valid descriptor is ‘Shakespearean’, and in years to come ‘Senex in Market Street’ should be printed in new editions as Sonnet 155.

Though not exclusively a noticer, when Dunn’s eye is in he’s unbeatable. The Forth Bridge, seen on the approach to Edinburgh Airport, is a ‘queue of dinosaurs’. Perfect. More arresting, though, is the ability to recreate the personality of another, like the tramp in ‘An Alternative Map of Scotland’, or the dead old friend in the long ‘Near Myths’, which is a kind of love poem, full of honest admiration, laddish recall, shared experience too private for other eyes but laid out for us generously by Dunn ‘In my Zhivago hut, nursing arthritis / With whisky, note-book, pen, and ink,’ wearing a Churchillian siren-suit and writing with his gloves on. He’s reached a peak of art and wisdom that now means he doesn’t really need to write with the gloves off.

Some of the most arresting lines in Terry Street were like the wind that blows into Hull (and maybe St Andrews, too) straight from Siberia, lines about tarts and trawler-men, dog-shit frozen on the streets. The gift of sympathy, if not always of empathy, was already there, but it has deepened and extended over the years, and with it a steadily strengthening conviction that the poem, or the picture, or the music isn’t everything but it’s pretty much all we’ve got to mitigate the chaos and pain. Back in 1974, in a wonderful poem ‘I Am a Cameraman’, which manages to allude to the Auden/Isherwood generation, Dunn recalled the insufficiency of mere observation, of observing suffering with documentary detachment. Film, he says, there, using film as a metaphor for all kinds of ethical and artistic response, is ‘a silent waste of things happening’. There is no call to arms here, no injunction to become engaged. ‘Politics softens everything. / Truth is known only to its victims. / All else is photographs – a documentary / The starving and the playboys perish in. / Life disguises itself with professionalism.’ This is the best possible pre-text for The Noise of a Fly, whose core insistence is that life can’t be professionalised; it just has to be lived. The only item here that smacks of a public poet writing public poetry is ‘English (a Scottish essay)’, which in striking ways recalls the long prospectus-poems of his St Andrews colleague Robert Crawford. It isn’t so much out of place in this collection as worthy of a chapbook, broadside or pamphlet of its own.

For the rest, the cadences and rhythms of The Noise of a Fly could hardly be more perfectly realised. Roy Fuller used to say that verse should be read in exactly the same way and at exactly the same pace as fictional prose. Here’s an example for which that sometimes wishful injunction really works, a poetry book that cries out to be read and re-read, end to end, with just a little eye-prickling stutter at the end of the sonnet on page 19 and a chastened sense that, in the words of the other Donne, ‘So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world’. This is his gift on his own 75th. Happy birthday, Douglas Dunn. Happy birthday, us.

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Farewell to Tibbie’s

Tibbie Shiel Inn stands on an isthmus between St Mary’s Loch and the much smaller Loch of the Lowes in what was once a densely-forested part of the Scottish border country. These days almost all of the trees have disappeared, long since supplanted by sheep who spend much of their brief lives munching grass and looking out for predators. Shortly after Easter, in the area on a house-hunting quest, I arrived at the inn around lunchtime.

All was eerily quiet, though the hills were thickly populated by newly-born lambs which stuck like burrs to attentive ewes. On Peat Hill, I spied a hiker religiously following the flow of the Whithope Burn. He was descending at a lick, as if being pursued, like Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, by men of evil intent. John Buchan was one among many celebrities who frequented the isolated inn. For him, this was the holy land’, a place of refuge and escape. Then, people were relatively few; now, they are even fewer. Nor, at least on a weekday, are there many more cars, especially on the narrow and twisting B roads that connect somnolent hamlets with towns such as Peebles and Selkirk, Hawick and Galashiels.

The inn owes its name to its original keeper, Isabella Shiel. Why she was known as Tibbie is unclear. My dictionary says that a tibbie is Scots for a sandpiper, which are fairly common hereabouts. It may be that she looked or even sounded like one. She was born in 1782 and had little education. For a while she worked on farms in the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, one of which was owned by the family of Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg, the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In 1806, Tibbie married Robert Richardson, a molecatcher. They had six children – three boys and three girls – and, in 1823, moved to a cottage on the shores of St Mary’s Loch. No sooner had they settled in, however, than Robert died and his wife became the sole breadwinner.

An inn was Tibbie’s resourceful reaction to imminent poverty. At first, fishermen were the main source of custom. Soon, however, the inn became attractive to the Edinburgh literati, drawn to its idyllic setting and by the image of it, cultivated by Hogg and his cronies, of a rustic and convivial salon, a flavour of which was caught by ‘Christopher North’ (the pseudonym of John Wilson) in the long-running and hugely popular series, Noctes Ambrosianae, which first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle were among those who eventually made the pilgrimage to Tibbie’s. All, by necessity, were prodigious walkers. Thomas de Quincey, who was no mean walker himself, calculated that Wordsworth, by the age of 65, fifteen years before his death, had covered in the region of 180,000 miles, and thought nothing of tramping thirty and more miles a day.

I know this untameable countryside well. My mother and her forebears were from these parts. She was born in Hawick, the largest of the border burghs, which, when she was growing up in the 1930s, had a deserved reputation for its production of fine woollens. This afforded the locals a sense of civic superiority, prompting them to opine that a day out of Hawick was a day wasted. Everywhere – Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York – was measured against Hawick and invariably found wanting. I assumed it was a joke until I mentioned it to a native who was adamantly of the view that while these metropolises may have their attractions they were of nothing compared to delights on offer in his home town. Whether my mother shared this rosy opinion I have no idea. Certainly, she never in my hearing suggested a return to her roots. But we did regularly visit relatives in the Borders and countless were the humdrum Sundays when my younger brother and I would amuse ourselves skimming stones across the glassy surface of St Mary’s Loch before we went for afternoon tea at the Gordon Arms, another of Hogg’s haunts, in the Yarrow Valley.

The house I had been to view turned out not quite to be as advertised by an imaginative estate agent. Situated deep in the Yarrow Valley, it was seven or eight miles as the crow flies from Tibbie’s. It was near here that Hogg had rented a farm for a nominal sum from the Duke of Buccleuch. This, as Karl Miller noted in Electric Shepherd, his insightful ‘likeness’ of Hogg, was as much the ancestral land of ‘the Ettrick ragamuffin’ as it was that of the immensely wealthy aristocrat. All around are places that seeped into the pages of the Justified Sinner, whose resuscitation in the mid-twentieth century owes much to championing by French novelist, André Gide. There is no evidence, though, that Tibbie, who knew Hogg well, read it, or indeed was able to read it. But it may have been it that she was referring to when she said of its author: ‘for aa the nonsense he wrote, Hogg was a gey sensible man in some things’.

Some years ago I booked a room at Tibbie’s. I was following the Southern Upland Way, the 212-mile trail that crosses Scotland from Portpatrick on the west coast to Cockburnspath on the east. The month was May and the temperature unseasonally high. Day after day the sun shone pitilessly. From Beattock – memorialised in Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ – it was twenty and more miles to St Mary’s Loch and as the hours went by and my feet felt as if they were plodding over hot coals, I hallucinated about a cold pint of beer in a shady snug.

It was around six in the evening when I staggered into the inn, a rucksack glued to my back, sweat-stained, mud-covered, sunstruck, and as parched as a camel. Behind the bar, as rigid as a guardsman, stood an elderly woman who might have been Tibbie’s ghost. She did not look pleased to see me. No word of welcome was uttered. Nor did she rush to assuage my thirst. On the contrary, she stared at me as if I had a horn growing out of my head. In the hope of prompting her to leap into action, I mentioned the distance I had travelled and the torture I had endured to reach her venerable establishment. ‘Nobody,’ she said finally, ‘asked you to do it.’ If I’d had my wits about me I should have replied that, in fact, someone – the editor of Conde Nast Traveller – had asked me to do it but I was too dead beat to offer any resistance.

On the day of my most recent visit winter was still lingering. On north-facing slopes was a thin covering of snow and it felt that there could probably be more on the way. I strolled from the car park to the inn, in the front of which was a 4×4. Of its owner, though, there was no sign. The inn was shut and peering through a grimy window into the small bar I saw chairs piled on tables and other evidence of abandonment. The whitewashed exterior walls looked as if they could do with a coat of paint. A nearby yard was home to rusting pieces of junk, unsightly litter and a couple of caravans in an advanced state of decomposition. In a field in which campers used to pitch their tents still more sheep grazed and deposited their droppings. It was not the kind of spot where you would want to spend a night under canvas.

The inn’s owner, I learned from the website of the local paper, the Southern Reporter, had closed it with immediate effect in November, 2015. He was fed up, he said, with wild campers who upset his staff and his guests with their antisocial behaviour and intemperate drinking. There were reports of a gun having been fired and of the mysterious disappearance of a cat. The only action taken by the local authority to put a stop to this was a sign in the car park saying ‘No Overnight Vehicular Parking’. Thus, after nearly two continuous centuries in business, the legendary hostelry seemed destined never to reopen. There was no public hullabaloo, no bemoaning the fate of a national monument.

I skimmed a stone over the water in remembrance of days past then walked across the road to the statue of the Ettrick Shepherd, erected in 1858, twenty-three years after his death in his 65th year. Inscribed on the plinth are lines from one of his poems: “At evening fall, in lonesome dale,/ He kept strange converse with the gale:/ Held worldly pomp in high derision,/ And wandered in a world of vision.” Above them sits Hogg, crook in hand, legs crossed, plaid draped over his right shoulder, collie crouched at his feet, with a peerless view of the loveliest of lochs and the mouldy inn.

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Edinburgh’s Endarkenment

Two celebrations were wrapped up as one in the recent exhibition of Hugh Buchanan’s watercolours of Georgian Edinburgh in the Scottish Gallery. The New Town was born 250 years ago, its birth certificate being the ground plan by 28-year-old James Craig, nephew of Augustan poet James Thomson.

Craig was also closely acquainted with the great Augustan architectural dynasty, the Adams, while John Adam advised the Lord Provost on the selection of his competition entry. The other celebration is that of the Scottish Gallery, founded 175 years ago as Aitken Dott’s. Despite several changes of address and its variant name this has always been a much loved New Town fixture for those who recognise a good painting and appreciate fine ceramics and jewelry.

Buchanan’s haunting, lyrical images could not have found a better setting. They were clearly never intended to be orthodox portrayals of Edinburgh’s well-ordered classical buildings and palace-fronted tenements, for this is a civic psycho-drama recalling the grand guignol interior tableaux of James Pryde or the dreamily composed high-ceilinged salons of Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell. There are, for sure, no comforting cloud-scudded urban vistas in the style of Sandby, Nasmyth, or engraver Thomas Shepherd.

The New Town may be a rationally planned civic masterpiece of the post-Culloden Enlightenment, but shades of Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde linger yet in its elegant shadows. Buchanan, in some cases, imposes a contemporary twist, presenting a number of his streetscapes as images reflected on the bonnets and windscreens of parked cars. This is, after all, the eighteenth century viewed from a twenty-first century vantage point.

Several paintings break the New Town theme, however, if not by much. Robert Adam’s Old College on South Bridge is a quintessential part of that ‘kind of revolution’ which he and his brother James declared in their joint folio publication Works in Architecture, while Playfair’s Surgeons’ Hall provides evidence that the Southside, too, had its place in the development of Neo-classicism, as did Thomas Hamilton’s Dean Orphanage, halfway to Blackhall and leafy suburbia, and now part of the Gallery of Modern Art.

‘Tail lights, South Bridge’ presents the facade of the Old College in a contemporary context, the rain-soaked black stone of the facade reflecting the red glow of car brake lights. The twenty-two foot high column monoliths – once blonde white and closer to the cream Pentelic marble of Athens than North European slate-black – were raised and placed with much ingenuity after being hauled by sixteen horses apiece from Craigleith. Some feared this might test the North Bridge to destruction. The trepidation was understandable; the first North Bridge had collapsed in 1769, killing five people, and causing its architect, William Mylne, to flee to the debatable lands of Georgia and South Carolina rather than face the wrath of the Scottish courts.

The Old College may not be in the New Town, but it has a happy circular link with the Dott family, founders of the Scottish Gallery. The Huguenot D’Otts had settled in Anstruther and Cupar in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the eighteenth many were living in Edinburgh. Aitken Dott, the framer, gilder, and colourman who, as a sideline, offered hanging space to his artist-clients, established the business in 1842. Then aged 27, he was the son of a stone mason, Henry Dott, while his grandfather had been employed as a stone carver on the Old College, and probably took part in – or at least witnessed – the arrival of the aforementioned Craigleith columns. The family link with Old College was rekindled 150 years later, when Aitken Dott’s grandson, Norman, became one of the world’s first Professors of Neurosurgery at his alma mater.

There is a quirky hint of that medical legacy in a carefully composed image ‘Old College Steps’. These must have felt the impress of generations of collegiate feet, Darwin’s, Carlyle’s, Stevenson’s, and Conan Doyle’s, as well as Norman Dott’s. The author of Sherlock Holmes, as it happens, has already made an appearance in the Buchanan oeuvre, being featured in his 2015 National Library of Scotland exhibition, Hugh Buchanan paints the John Murray Archive. In a chiarascuro Old College image which sears itself into the mind, a sharp shadow cuts obliquely across the end of each step, evoking a set of surgeon’s scalpels, or perhaps – for those studying law or philosophy – Occam’s razor.

Back in the New Town, variations on the theme of the anthemion patterned ‘Playfair balconies’ of Alva Street and Darnaway Street raise an awkward question. Why Playfair? I once hauled a section of such a balcony from the rubble of East Register Street, which was built seventeen years before Playfair’s birth. It is now in the Museum of Scotland – possibly the sole architectural object by Adam in the national collection of his native land, which tells us something about the low regard in which we hold our true heroes.

But the anthemion’s authorship is a minor quibble: the Adam brothers, after all, were copyists too, and possibly derived this particular design from a sketch sent to them from Rome by the antiquarian James Byres. Besides, Playfair made liberal use of the anthemion motif in his own work, as evidenced by Buchanan’s detail of stonework in ‘The Royal Scottish Academy’, featuring a bas-relief anthemion between two Doric columns. An anthemion balcony also appears in ‘Playfair Window’, a variant series of external views culminating in one with an orange blind pulled down, a bar of yellow light just above the sill. This is presented as a homage to Cadell’s ‘The Orange Blind’, now in Kelvingrove, which shows the interior of the artist’s Ainslie Place flat with his favourite model, Miss Don Wauchope, in her signature wide-brimmed black hat. This time Buchanan keeps us outside, not quite looking in, evoking a sense of an imagined past from which we are forever excluded.

It is tempting to look for underlying meanings and curious moments of revelation in this bifurcated series of images in which all exteriors are shown in twilight, or enveloped in darkness, while interiors have sunlight streaming in. Not all is gloom, however. Dundas House, now the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew’s Square, is flooded in artificial light, the statue of the Earl of Hopetoun and his horse silhouetted before it, suggesting, perhaps, a scene from Don Giovanni. Could this be Buchanan’s subtle nod to yet another anniversary, that of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947? The black columns of Surgeon’s Hall, which, perhaps appropriately, are opposite the Festival Theatre, likewise affect theatricality against the inner portico’s suffused artificial lighting.

The all-pervasive sense of drama is by no means monopolised by grand buildings. In ‘At the Dentist’ the artist leads us towards a typical New Town doorway, its lunette fanlight set over a glazed door and dimly lit from behind, eerily redolent, perhaps, of a scene from the 1955 Ealing classic, The Ladykillers. Another doorway, this time in demi-monde Broughton Street – ‘The Barony’ had long been associated with religious dissenters and witches – looms out of the darkness as a spectacular fragment from ancient Greece in the form of a double doorway with doric columns and laurel wreath entablature.

If the underlying message of this exhibition is meant to be that Edinburgh’s Enlightenment is now an Endarkenment, the point is well made. Today’s Edinburgh is a city with a council which seems happy to mark a quarter millennium of Augustan civic glory not by celebrating buildings, but by handing out planning consents to demolish and desecrate them. What was once, in the era of planning theorist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes, a city in evolution with a living resident community, is now one in disintegration, reduced to a list of opportunities for predatory developers and vanity-fuelled architects who seem, for the most part, to regard the heritage, and indeed the traditional resident community, as a nuisance.

Examples of the defilement of a once noble vision crowd in fast and thick. Consent has been given for the construction of a ‘copper spiral’ hotel next door to Robert Adam’s Register House, the developer TIAA being a US pension fund for teachers and professors founded in 1917 by Andrew Carnegie which prides itself on ‘doing the right thing’. It beggars belief that a design which would probably have a problem getting a planning consent on Las Vegas Strip, and which the writer Candia McWilliam has suggested ‘resembles nothing so much as what citizens are coyly enjoined to pick up after their dogs’ is part of a commercial scheme in receipt of a £61.4 million public subsidy.

Whatever Carnegie might think about his name being taken in vain in that particular case, he would certainly have been incandescent at the council’s disposal of a tract of land adjacent to the French-renaissance Library, which he endowed in 1887. He paid for an area behind the library to protect its light, air, and views. In 2002 there were wonderful plans to improve the building, which was recommended for A listing. In 2004 Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO World City of Literature, and all seemed set fair, but the council delayed the listing recommendation by fifteen years, taking the opportunity meanwhile to sell the land off for yet another hotel development.

Most egregious of all is the bid to add ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ modernist extensions to one of the world’s most significant neo-classical public buildings – Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School, a gateway of which appears in Buchanan’s exhibition. The intention is to create an ‘international luxury hotel’ for a super-rich elite whom the end-user’s New York-based CEO, Sonia Cheng, describes as ‘affluential explorers’. Strangely, she forgot to mention her Royal High School interest in an interview in Focus Magazine: ‘Our essence is an all-embracing commitment to “a sense of place.” Our entire team devotes itself to immersing in the local culture of each market, then shaping something precious and unique that celebrates each city.’

Edinburgh is now a city ashamed of its history largely because of its failure to live up to it. In 1759, at the laying of the foundation stone of today’s City Chambers, David Hume’s playwright cousin, John, declared with unbridled optimism ‘Scotland’s youth salutes the dawning of a brighter morn’ as the ‘Last of the Arts, proud Architecture comes, to grace EDINA with majestic domes, BRITONS this day is laid a PRIMAL STONE.’

This may help to explain why there has been no official attempt to recognise the anniversary of a triumph of enlightened civic planning which was, after all, an inspiration for Catherine the Great’s St Petersburg, as well as a spectacular city on the Potomac River, Washington DC, first promoted in The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser by a ‘Citizen of the World’, Falkirk-born and Georgetown-based merchant, George Walker.

There will be no official exhibition in the manner of Dream City, held at the City Art Centre in 1993, and no sponsored publication. True, in 2014, there were Anthony Lewis’s Builders of Edinburgh New Town and Alexander McCall Smith’s A Work of Beauty, followed in 2015 by the anthology Edinburgh New Town: A Model City. As for 2017, the 250th anniversary year, there is nothing of such note. Instead, we are promised a light show. For a gleam of enlightenment in the current Scottish Endarkenment we must look to A White House of Stone by William Seale, architectural historian to the White House Historical Association. This wonderful publication tells the story of the Edinburgh stonemasons who took their tools and their skills across the Atlantic and set about constructing the President’s Mansion on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We should be grateful for Dr Seale’s insightful enthusiasm, as we should be, too, to Hugh Buchanan.

The catalogue of Hugh Buchanan’s New Town exhibition is available from the scottish gallery, 16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HZ.
Tel: 0131 558 1200
The exhibition is now closed.

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No country has been described in terms of another to the extent that Canada was by Scotland. From the Dunbar area of Vancouver to Inverness in Nova Scotia, Scots festooned Canada with familiar toponyms. One relatively small corner of southern Alberta, for instance, has a Calgary, a Banff, a Canmore and an Airdrie. If you include the personal naming of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, the number of places in Canada that have names derived from Scotland runs to the thousands.

But one person’s renaming is another’s theft; a way of staking out territory to justify its possession. The Scots were never shy about their presence in Canada and, beyond dishing out Scottish names, endlessly inventive in finding ways to announce it. Stanley Park in Vancouver is named for an Englishman, but in 1928 Ramsay MacDonald unveiled a Burns statue there. It is modelled on the one in Ayr and the plinth is dug into high ground at the heart of the traditional territory of three Coast Salish Nations – the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. The statue celebrated the poet but it was also a way of saying ‘this is ours now’.

Scots renamed people too. A close friend in British Columbia had the surname Bruce when she was a member of one First Nation community and became Wallace when she married into another. Bruce came from her great grandfather who was an Orkney fur trader and Wallace from an Indian agent registering people for the Canadian government who, her husband told me, ‘either didn’t want to or couldn’t be bothered writing down our real names.’ The people of her community are Wallaces to this day and the removal of their names begat the removal of everything else, including their culture and their children. Their community is now one of the poorest in Canada, but close to one of the richest – the ski resort of Whistler, British Columbia.

‘Jamieson is a writer of endless narrative invention and soaring prose’

None of this has stopped writers from whitesplaining First Nations’ experiences. John Buchan’s Sick Heart River includes some problematic First Nation characters, routinely excused as Buchan being a man of his time. More recently, it’s almost impossible to escape the British Columbia school system without reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Written by American Margaret Craven, it is set in the First Nations village of Kingcome on the West Coast, home to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. Both novels are concerned with sickness and death. Buchan’s Sir Edward Leithen has advanced tuberculosis and has been given a year to live. Craven’s young Anglican vicar also suffers from a terminal illness and the Kwakwaka’wakw believe that he will die soon after the owl calls him.

It is a brave writer, then, who would broach any of these themes in a work of modern fiction, far less all of them. But Robert Alan Jamieson does just that in macCloud Falls. He has travelled a long way from his under-appreciated 2010 novel Da Happie Land which was set in Shetland but reached to the South Pacific. Now in British Columbia, he focusses on the province’s Scottish connections, First Nations’ land rights, illness and Burns. And if that’s not enough, the book has a love affair at its heart.

The narrative opens in medias res. Jamieson’s protagonist Gilbert Johnson, an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, has taken a Greyhound bus to a small town in interior British Columbia and Veronika is looking for him. They met when Gil’s flight from Scotland stopped over in Calgary. Both are cancer survivors and Veronika – whose resemblance to Sigourney Weaver confuses the locals – is afraid that Gil is contemplating suicide, perhaps influenced by ‘Sick Heart River’. Instead of Gil, she finds a journal in his hotel room which proves that her fears were not unfounded. It also contains a fictionalised account of the time they spent together in Vancouver and some information about Gil’s Canada quest. He wants to research and write about a migrant Scot called James Lyle to whom he might be related. To that end, he has hiked into a secret valley in the hope of discovering the cabin where Lyle lived with his first wife, a member of the Nlaka’pamux nation.

It’s soon clear that Lyle is a version of the real-life John Teit (or Tate), a migrant Scot who married a Nlaka’pamux woman and became fluent in several First Nations languages. Teit was born on the Shetland Islands and migrated in 1884 to Spences Bridge in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon. He initially helped manage a store on an estate owned by his uncle, John Murray, an enthusiastic renamer who called a local mountain ‘Arthurs Seat’ (now ‘Art’s Ass’ to some irreverent Canadians). Murray grew fruit and his orchard became famous for Grimes Golden apples when it was under the care of a ‘Widow Smith’. Teit eventually worked with anthropologist Franz Boas and was an advocate for First Nations’ rights in British Columbia, acting as a bridge to white officialdom. When Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier visited Kamloops, British Columbia, in 1910, Teit prepared the declaration that asserted land rights on behalf of the Secwepemc, Okanagan and Nlaka’pamux nations. His Susanna Lucy Antko and they lived together for twelve years Nlaka’pamux wife was until her death in 1899.

Jamieson’s Lyle shadows Teit in every important respect (if Tate and Lyle isn’t a clue, then it should be). Lyle’s uncle John MacLeod is clearly John Murray, Widow Smith becomes Widow Spark, Lyle’s wife is also called Antko and when Gil travels to ‘MacLeod Falls’ in search of their stories, he ends up in a place that sounds a lot like Spences Bridge. But Teit’s thin disguise allows Jamieson to move some geographical features around and insert Gil into Lyle’s story. Gil believes that Lyle, who made a trip back to Shetland after he migrated to Canada, could be his grandfather.

All this provides an early indication of Jamieson’s sensitive touch. Teit/Lyle is the kind of Scot sometimes used to assuage colonial guilt. The argument is that some Scots settlers were more sympathetic to the First Nations and more prone to intermarriage than others in the British colonial project and somehow partially atone for other Scots like Canada’s first Prime Minster John A. Macdonald, architect of the assimilationist Indian Act and the residential school system. Gil resists this exculpatory line and, instead, embarks on a voyage of discovery which reveals that the credit for Lyle’s actions really belongs to someone else.

The journal discloses the fact that Gil is aware of ‘the right to name, the language of power, the dominant narrative’ and, with the help of an elder and a young Nlaka’pamux woman, he learns to read First Nation silences rather than depend on the voluminous written testimonies that Scots tended to leave behind. However, he also feels the need to provide some lengthy formal explanations that interrupt the narrative flow. After he reappears, Gil has Veronika read a book proposal which includes a six page appendix entitled ‘A Chronology of the History and Exploration and Settlement of the territories known to early European voyagers ‘New Caledonia’. It is the kind of thing a British Columba high school student might use as a primer for his social studies exam. Later a group of tree planters rehearse some routine arguments about First Nations’ land rights while Gil listens from outside the hotel window.

After his Nlaka’pamux nation epiphany, Gil heads to Barriere, British Columbia to meet Gordon who thinks he has a first edition of Burns’ Kilmarnock poems. He had remote contact with Gordon while still in Edinburgh but the episode feels extraneous and unlikely. They travel to Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park to no obvious purpose other than to describe them. There’s a similar sense of randomness when Gil watches hockey games, all of them from the Stanley Cup series between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins in 2011. He never masters the vocabulary of the game and speaks of fouls and puckdowns. More importantly, he misses the key role that hockey plays in Vancouver by giving its ethnically-diverse population a cause to gather around. For once, this includes the First Nations. Algonquin Gino Odjick is a Canucks legend. I met my first First Nation Wallaces while watching a Canucks hockey game in the Legion Hall in Pemberton, British Columbia.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is unfair to expect Gil to understand hockey on such brief acquaintance or have him fully resolve the novel’s central dilemma: the provision of too much formal information for a British Columbia audience and not enough for a Scottish one. Jamieson is a writer of endless narrative invention and soaring prose and he tells an important story here. Scotland tends to view its Canada connections as historical but Jamieson’s pursuit of Jimmy Lyle makes it clear that they still influence the way Canada functions today.

Eventually everything else drops away from the story and all that’s left is love and illness. The final passages are very affecting and achingly familiar as a loved one turns towards Scotland and leaves you there in the Vancouver gloaming: ‘Tomorrow he too would fly above the city, on the first leg of the journey back to Scotland – across the Rockies where he first met her, then on across the vast wastes of Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the Atlantic, back to the North Sea, far from this strange Pacific shore. The day of departure would carry him through the night towards home, but also towards the end of this companionship. This love he now felt. He could call it that, on his side at least.’

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Back In The USSR

Back in the days when newspapers had money and could afford foreign correspondents, it was often felt that the best thing to do with these aristocrats of the trade was to shift them around every few years. That way, it was felt, they wouldn’t ‘go native’. As Angus Roxburgh makes clear in Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent he’d gone native over Russia even before he left Scotland. Consider the evidence: even as a teenager, he says, he spent half his free time listening to Radio Motherland on the Pye wireless in his bedroom.

He had no idea of what was being said in Russian, but loved ‘the dark, soft, sexy vowels, the clatter of its consonants, the susurrus of its fricatives and sibilants’ so much that he insisted on learning the language even though his school didn’t teach it. And why not: the Soviets dominated sport, space and much of Europe, and when Roxburgh finished his degree in Russian at Aberdeen, he decided to let them dominate his future too. ‘I longed for Moscow,’ he writes, ‘like Chekhov’s three sisters.’

Not, at first, though, as a foreign correspondent. Despite the book’s sub-title, about a third of it is given over to his first three years in the city (1978-81) when he was working as a translator. He had married Neilian, a fellow-linguist at Aberdeen, a month before they went to Moscow. His employers at a state publishing firm fixed them up with a fifth-floor flat on a soulless, muddy, halfbuilt estate by the outer ring road. The place was bugged – both with cockroaches and listening devices installed so carelessly by the KGB that their workmen didn’t even bother to clear away their cigarette butts. The local supermarket had sparrows flying about inside, the only old building in the area was a church used to repair tractors, the windows in their flat had ice up to a centimetre deep on the inside. None of this mattered: they were in love, and living the life they wanted.

Later on, Roxburgh will find himself at the epicentre of world politics. He will be kicked out of the USSR as a spy (a charge he vehemently denies). He will interview the politicians who called time on communism and relaunched Russia. He will be in the Baltic States when their thraldom to the USSR comes to an end. He will hear Gorbachev, his former hero, angrily explain how Yeltsin betrayed him. He will even be taken into the Kremlin to work as a consultant for Putin’s PR chief. Yet for all that closeness to power, seldom does Roxburgh capture the intensity of these early chapters charting his new life in Moscow.

Moscow Calling is at least two books in one – a memoir of those first years in Moscow, and a wider focussed story about covering one of the twentieth century’s biggest stories: the sudden decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Both parts are completely different in tone, almost as if the first were based on a diary into which he poured such discoveries as the boho seediness of Moscow’s Arbat district and the freewheeling vodka-fuelled conversations with artist friends like Garif Basyrov (now dead but eminently collectable). At leading translator and anglophile Volodya Korotky’s dingy flat, a feast is laid out in front of them that, because its ingredients could only have assembled by hours of queuing, is itself a testament to friendship. All of this is part of what ‘going native’ looks like. He’s living in the Russian equivalent of Leytonstone but gives the Soviets the benefit of nearly all his doubts. Yes, the shops might be empty, but who says consumer choice makes you happy? Freezing cold can be ‘exhilarating’. Those dull high-rises can look fine in spring. A snatched illicit radio signal can mean more than shelves full of western celebrity magazines.

Some doubts, however, remain. His employers insist he work on a piece of lowgrade propaganda rebutting claims in a new US biography that Shostakovich hated the Soviet regime. And when he is out mushroom-picking with Volodya, his translator friend asks him to tell him whether his own English is a bit, well, oldfashioned: someone at work had said it was, and he wanted to check. No it isn’t, Roxburgh replies, thinking to himself as he says so that that this was precisely what he had mentioned the other day to Neilian. Does this mean his friend is listening in to him – or is it all just a coincidence?

Uncovering such stories that explain the different realities of everyday life in the host country is a key part of a foreign correspondent’s job. Applied to his own pre-journalistic life, Roxburgh is good at it, nowhere more so than in describing the mind-numbing bureaucracy involved in leaving the USSR, which he does in order to work on a doctorate on Pravda and the Soviet mass media at Glasgow. But even by then, he had realised he wanted something more out of life, something he wasn’t going to find either in academia or as a translator. When he heard a BBC report in 1980 that the leading Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife had been arrested, he first felt the pull of journalism. The way he describes it, the lure consisted mainly of being on the inside, knowing something other people – his fellow passengers on the bus home, for example – didn’t. Getting to the story first.

His big break came in 1985 when the Sunday Times needed a profile of Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader. He’d been working at the BBC’s Monitoring Service at Caterham and, unbeknown to his employers, had approached the Sunday Times and offered his services as a freelance. Two years later, he was their man in Moscow.

These were the days of glasnost and perestroika, when the unsayable suddenly became sayable, and Roxburgh catches their excitement. Every night there was a new underground meeting to go to, at which Roxburgh would catch glimpses of the coming changes. The first crack in the ideological ice was about the past: Lenin had wanted Bukharin, not Stalin, to be his heir, readers of the Moscow News were told – in fact he had warned against Stalin all along. The collapse of the official version of history was only the start. ‘Every article you write,’ the editor of Moscow News told his staff, ‘should be one I could get sacked for!’
Roxburgh is good at showing how the unexpected rapidly became routine. The first demonstrations. The rehabilitation of dissidents. Unscripted television. In August, 1988, he witnessed a demonstration in a small town in Latvia. There were only a thousand people there, but they hoisted Latvia’s banned flag, demanded the official restoration of their language and called for economic independence. It was, he realised, the first spark in a revolution he would find himself chasing down, first of all in all three Baltic states, then over the rest of Eastern Europe.

In the middle of it all, on 21 May 1989, just as first meetings of the new parliament were turning the country into a democracy, he was told he was to be expelled. Technically, he had violated some travel restrictions while taking his family on holiday, but the real reason was that the Kremlin needed to make up the numbers to match the eleven Soviet spies whose expulsion Thatcher had just ordered. When a KGB officer guarding his Moscow home in the foreigners’ compound asked him if he’s had a good weekend, Roxburgh burst into tears. Would a real spy have done that?

Yet if that KGB man was shocked, so too is the reader. For the previous 200 pages this has been a memoir with not much ‘me’ about it. Even at the start, Roxburgh doesn’t bother telling us where he lived, what school he went to, anything much about his family or about himself other than that he grew up ‘halfhippy, half-nerd’. His private life remains just that – and that’s fine, because it’s the threading together of his Russian friendships and the times they’ve all lived through that give this book its greatest strength.
As it turned out, expulsion wasn’t the caesura in his career he feared. After covering the end of Iron Curtain communism for the Sunday Correspondent (he was the only western hack to witness Ceaucescu’s last hurrah at the 1989 party congress), he was allowed back into Russia – first as a consultant for the six-episode series on perestroika made for the BBC by Norma Percy and Brian Lappin, and then, from 1990, as Martin Sixsmith’s replacement as the BBC’s Moscow correspondent.

He is not, he admits, a TV natural, and certainly hadn’t the rhinoceros-thick hide necessary to be even an occasional war correspondent, as his new job required in the brutal second Chechen war, where he saw many horrors. The voracious demands of 24-hour news took another kind of toll, and he resigned after four years as the BBC’s Europe correspondent in 2002. After that, there was a small amount of work for BBC Scotland, and not much else. ‘For six whole months,’ he writes, ‘I did almost nothing except stare mindlessly out of the window…. When a psychiatrist tested me for depression, I scored top marks.’
In 2006, when a former colleague offered him a job as a consultant to the Kremlin’s PR machine, he took it, though he hated himself for doing so. He writes too briefly – a mere 15 pages – but with entertaining bile (‘I saw little to change my perception that PR was all charlatanism’) about the three years in which he saw the Kremlin from the inside. He only stayed because in the now-debased state of newspapers he couldn’t find an escape route: the best freelance rate he could find was the £100 offered by the Independent – and even then only for a page-lead story.

Towards the end of the book, Roxburgh comes across an article by Alexander Gelman, a playwright whose work blossomed under glasnost but who now ‘talked like the archetypal “superfluous man” – a Chekhovian ditherer, beating his breast in despair, wishing he could change things but powerless to do so’. Switch the state of the media for the state of the nation, and could the same thing be said about Roxburgh himself?
Perhaps, but Roxburgh has at least three things to throw on the counter-balancing scales. First: Putin, Russia and the West, the award-winning four-part BBC documentary series screened in 2012. In it, he helped uncover the kind of scoop he dreamed of in 1980 – that in 2007, the Russians and the Americans had actually agreed that Russia would be covered by the missile shield the US planned to build, only for this to be vetoed by the military and political hawks in Washington. Second, there’s all his other exclusives from the collapse of the USSR. And lastly, because he has found his own escape route – and it’s one I never knew about. In his memoir, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve at all. But in the songs he’s written – sung with tender, impressively sweetvoiced lyricism – and recorded in his album Harmonies for One, he most definitely does.

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The sights which met Robert Louis Stevenson when the yacht Casco landed at Nukahiva in the Marquesas inspired one of the most delicate, lyrical passages which even he ever penned. ‘The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart, and touched a virginity of sense.’

Stevenson undertook the voyage in the Pacific, which would end with his settling permanently in Samoa, as part of his life-long quest for a climate which would be beneficial for his health, but his experiences and observations changed him as a man and as a writer. He was accompanied on the cruise by his wife, Fanny, her son, Lloyd Osbourne, and his widowed mother, known on the trip as Aunt Maggie. All were changed utterly by their experiences, his mother no less than the others, but perhaps she had a longer internal voyage to make.

The transformation of Mrs Stevenson, née Margaret Balfour, can be evidenced by an event on Nukahiva, simple in itself but dramatic and enigmatic in its implications. The scene was recorded by Fanny, who always had a keen eye for incongruity and paradox. In a letter to Henry James, she expressed her amazement at the sight of her mother-in-law ‘taking a moonlight promenade on the beach in the company of a gentleman dressed in a single handkerchief.’ The tall, regal gentleman was, in the traditions of the islanders, covered in tattoos, and his modesty, a concept which did not trouble the Polynesians, preserved only by a loin cloth.

Fanny fastened on to the fact that the woman was the elderly daughter of a minister of the Kirk, widow of the celebrated engineer Thomas Stevenson, one time resident of Edinburgh’s New Town and adherent of the Calvinist creed of the Church of Scotland. Earlier photographs show her in the garb of a conventional bourgeois wife and mother, attractive and at ease in her role. All accounts agree that her marriage was happy and her life fulfilled. Her son did once write that the ‘children of lovers are orphans’, a mild if intriguing complaint which could be overturned into a recognition of the warmth of his parents’ relationship. He had the compensation of being looked after by his adored Cummy, Alison Cunningham, the nanny the couple’s affluence allowed them to employ.

In Edinburgh, Aunt Maggie was no rebel against prevailing standards, so what was on her mind that evening in Nukahiva? Western missionaries and administrators were shocked by the libertine ways off the islanders, but what sort of transformation had she undergone as she travelled from Heriot Row to the islands of the South Seas? Was there ever such a fracturing of habits of mind and culture as in her case? Is puritanism an outer shell that can be shuffled off when circumstances change? Aunt Maggie’s life changed in 1887 when her husband died. She was 58 and both she and her son were left sufficiently well provided for to enjoy independence, if not great wealth. When subsequently Thomas’ name came up, she dutifully repeated her devotion to her ‘dear husband’, and always wore the widow’s cap. In posed photographs in Samoa, she had an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria, but she was free of any restrictions now called ‘Victorian’.

If she is never completely absent in the biographies, she has been left largely in the shadows. There have been biographies of Fanny, née Van de Grift, later Osbourne by her first marriage and finally Stevenson. Cummy has been examined for the psychological impact on her young charge of her inculcation of strict Calvinist teachings and Covenanting history. Analyses have been made of Fanny Sitwell, RLS’s earlier love, but the woman with whom a socially acceptable relationship was impossible because she was married, however unhappily, and was in any case promised to Sidney Colvin once her husband finally shuffled off his mortal coil, which he took too long to do. There has even been enlightened or prurient speculation about Kate Drummond, a lady of the streets who may have been the object of RLS’s affection during his bohemian, ‘Velvet Jacket’, days as a student, whom he may have wished to marry, whose relationship with him may have caused ructions at home in Heriot Row, who may have borne him a baby but then again who may never have existed.

It can hardly be surprising if of the various women who played a significant part in the life of Stevenson, most attention has been paid to his wife Fanny. Theirs was a singular relationship, as enigmatic and troubling as the marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle or even Leo and Sonya Tolstoy. Fanny undoubtedly kept him alive with her selfless care, but she was an imposing figure and it is hard to avoid the impression that in the last years of their life together in Samoa he was not so much in awe of her as intimidated. In life, she divided opinion. Alice James opined that she had the ‘build and character that somehow suggested Napoleon’. Aunt Maggie never moved in circles which left her exposed to such merciless scrutiny.
Although not given to introspection, Aunt Maggie seems to have relished her new freedom and the opportunities to alter her habits and style of life and thought widowhood implied. In the manner of the times, both mother and son assumed that she would live with him and his wife, and the much maligned Fanny raised no objection. Perhaps that had always been the plan. Graham Balfour, his cousin and first biographer, quotes a letter by RLS to his mother, who had reproached him for not writing. ‘You must not be vexed at my absences. You must understand that I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days are done’ … but he adds, ‘Just wait until I am in full swing, and you will see that I will pass more of my life with you than anywhere.’

It was agreed that Stevenson could not survive in the climate of Edinburgh so the family group moved first to the freezing conditions in Saranac, in up-State New York. She was then one of the company who cruised in the Pacific on the yacht, Casco, whose passengers were a highly literate lot and prolific correspondents and journal-keepers. In a letter home, Maggie wrote with the excitement of a school girl on her first trip: ‘Fanny and I are dressed like natives, in two garments … As we have to wade to and from the boat in landing and coming back, we discard stockings, & on the sands we usually go barefoot entirely.’ Going barefoot then and in Samoa was akin to pulling down the pillars of convention. The two garments were the oddly named Mother Hubbard dress with an accompanying chemise, a liberation for the two women after the constrictions of becoming female attire in Britain, but an imposition for native women, accustomed to going around bare-breasted, when the missionaries compelled them don it, as Western modesty required.
Aunt Maggie was never likely to totally kick over the traces, but she was remarkably open-minded and uncensorious when faced with the customs of the islanders. Westerners, including RLS himself, were so taken aback by the overtly sexual nature of the dances practised all over the Pacific that they were shocked into silence and none was able to leave any description. Margaret was no exception in verbal restraint, but she was not given to moralistic denunciation. Her responses to new ways which clashed with what is expected of Victorian matrons was business-like. After sitting through a sexy welcoming dance, she limited herself to the remark that she now understood the Indian custom of early marriage.

The cruise on the Casco ended at Hawaii, and while the rest of the party continued on the trading schooner, Equator, Margaret returned to Edinburgh. There are no worthwhile accounts of her life there at that moment, but it is reasonable to assume she resumed her habitual way of life. It did not last. Once her son had purchased the land at Vailima on Upolu where his house would be built, she communicated her intention to join the family, or clan, as it became. Lloyd was dispatched to Britain to sell off the previous Stevenson home in Bournemouth, and to assist Aunt Maggie in making preparations for the move from Edinburgh to Samoa. It was a real Scottish flitting, meaning that she took her furniture with her across the oceans. When it arrived in Samoa, her wardrobes, chests of drawers and armchairs had to be loaded onto carriages and transported up the long hill from the port of Apia to Vailima. Once again, one has to admire the pluck and energy of this woman, elderly by the standards of her time, as she uprooted from all that was familiar and set off for a life in a land of which she knew nothing.

Once they were settled in, all the inhabitants of Vailima had an allocated task, except Margaret, much to Fanny’s annoyance. She observed life and politics on the islands, and her correspondence shows she was as appalled as her son at the rapacious ways of the whites and their contempt for the Samoans. Unlike many contemporaries, she never regarded them as inferiors. At the same time, there is a tone of sheer joy as she describes the lively social life of Vailima. ‘I have been quite gay (for me) this week, having been to no less than two entertainments,’ the one being a reception on board a visiting warship and the other a picnic near the volcanic Papaloa pool, although she declined an invitation to dive in.

This vivacious sybaritism, so far at odds with the greyness of the life she had known, was not a sign of a crisis of faith. She retained her basic Calvinist outlook and was instrumental in organising the Sunday evening religious ceremony in Vailima, with its fixed ritual of summons by a conch, readings from the Bible, hymns in Samoan and a specially written prayer by RLS. Most of the servants were Catholics, known on the island as ‘popeys’, and if Aunt Maggie could not quite shake off a prejudice against Catholic idolatry, she behaved with kindness to all. Her insistence that the Catholic servants attend the services in Vailima upset Fanny, but Aunt Maggie had her way.

Stevenson felt passionately about the condition of women in contemporary society. Lloyd Osbourne believed he deserved to be viewed as a feminist, and recalled him denouncing ‘the chastity enforced on women under pain of starvation’, wondering if any man had the ‘courage of a woman of the streets’ and growing outraged at the ‘obligation for women to be attractive at any age’. It would be good to have RLS’s views of his mother. He wrote an obituary essay of his father, Thomas Stevenson, but never wrote about her, although this may be simply because his father predeceased him. His father was a man ‘with a blended sternness and softness that was wholly Scottish and somewhat bewildering’. Was he as bewildered by his mother as he saw her in her later years? Or did he see her as a new ideal? Did she see herself as having escaped from a doll’s house?

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SRB DIARY: A Hoot on Skye

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is upon us, and with it the opportunity to spend a few moments in the company of writers famous and obscure. Having been on both sides of the pen, as both author and punter, I am fascinated by the etiquette of the signing queue. How long can one hog the writer before annoying the person behind? How many books is it appropriate to ask to be signed?

I once chaired the musician and fashion maven Brix Smith Start, whose memoir The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise charts an extraordinary life from childhood in Los Angeles through her marriage to Mark E Smith and beyond. Afterwards, there was a sizeable queue for autographs, and she’s a right gab so it took ages. Last in line was a sixtysomething gentleman, Tom Young, natty in a blazer, blue jeans, a miasma of aftershave, and a shirt patterned with hunners of guitars. Oh aye, he said to Brix, he used to be in a band himself. ‘Have you heard of O’Hara’s Playboys? We had a semi-hit in Germany, but then along came The Beatles and buggered us up.’

She sympathised, signed a book, posed for a photo. ‘Right, see you, son,’ he told me. ‘I’m buggering off back to Kirkintilloch.’

Brix is alright. Good for a glass of wine and some craic in the green room. Not all authors are such easy company. The memory of James Ellroy still gives me the screaming abdabs. Backstage, in the dressing room, he stood in the toilet cubicle, the door wide open, legs wide apart, urinating long and loud. Well, it must have been loud as I could still hear the stream despite the fact he was howling like a wolf.
My wife asked him to sign her copy of Silent Terror. He obliged with marriage guidance. ‘To Jo,’ he wrote. ‘Fear Peter Ross!’


Adventurer, soldier, bon viveur, entrepreneur, raconteur – one would be tempted to describe Major Ruaraidh Hilleary, the laird of Edinbane, as the last of his kind were it not for the suspicion that there has never been anyone quite like him and will not be again.

Major Hilleary lives in Skirinish House, an eighteenth century pile-ette at the end of a private road in the north-east of Skye. He has plump pink cheeks, and white hair swept back from his face; his blue eyes have a sparkle of mischief, like ice in gin. He has lived a life somewhere between James Bond and Falstaff, but now – at the age of 91 – the Falstaffian side has the upper hand. ‘A damn good supper of lobster or grouse, and beer for breakfast,’ is his idea of larks.

I drove from my home in Glasgow, setting off before dawn, rewarded for the early start by the sight of wild goats on the road at Shiel Bridge, satanic and majestic with sooty pelts and scimitar horns.

On the island, in the village of Upper Breakish, I passed a thatched cottage with whitewashed walls. This is where Hilleary’s maternal grandfather, Duncan, was born. One of ten children, he left for Liverpool and got a job selling lemonade, before moving to New York. ‘When he got there, it was about the time of Prohibition, and he realised that whisky was rather a better bet.’

He made a fortune, and the acquaintance of Al Capone, and moved back to Skye rich enough to buy an estate and Victorian mansion. Hilleary, born in 1926, spent his school holidays at the mansion, Skeabost, which brought him into an extraordinary social circle. Pop into the kitchen and you might find Harry Lauder enjoying a cup of tea with the Reverend George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. One vivid recollection is of the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli examining some local tweed. ‘She was quite a figure for a child. You could see her aura. I remember her in rather grand furs and smelling wonderful.’

Anyone with memories of this sort ought to write a memoir, and thankfully Hilleary has done so. It is called Whatever You Are Doing … Don’t! – a phrase which was often on his maternal grandmother’s lips. He was a spirited child with an innate distaste for conformity. The passing decades have not brought him into line. He remains a rebel to his bones.

School wasn’t much fun. His housemaster at Eton was the mathematician HK Marsden, a noted sadist known as Bloody Bill who seemed to take pleasure in caning the boys under his charge. ‘A big gangling sort of chap,’ is Hilleary’s recollection. ‘A pretty frightening figure. Extraordinary brain. He used to play pocket billiards with his balls while he talked, and he knew Bradshaw’s railway timetables by heart. I became very fond of him.’

The same could not be said of the man who tutored him in Latin one summer – the poet Robert Graves; ‘Dreadful chap!’ Hilleary soon saw him off – or ‘orf’ as puts it – by locking him in the squash court.

There is physical evidence to support this anecdote. On an old desk by the living room window at Skirinish is a tarnished silver cup full of pencils. Close examination reveals it as a squash trophy dating from 1937. Hanging from one of the wooden shutters is a fox’s brush from the same year. It was Hilleary’s first hunt, age eleven; his pony bolted and he found himself in at the kill. He was a great enthusiast for bloodsports as a boy. Schiaparelli’s perfume is not the most evocative scent from his childhood. That honour goes to ‘gun oil and the hill’. He shot his first stag at twelve, or rather his first four, having bagged that number on his debut.

This was all great preparation for later adventures in Africa. I had heard about these the first time we met. It was April 2015 and I was on Skye to cover the general election. I’d called in to ask Major Hilleary how he was planning to vote (Tory, naturally) but the conversation went off-piste. My notes: ‘I worked my passage out to South Africa on a cattle boat for a shilling a month … I got sacked from the ranch for putting a donkey in the manager’s room … I went down the Zambezi in a dug-out with a friend of mine. We were shooting crocodiles …’

He has three children, ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and ‘two more in the oven’. A fourth child, Iona, to whom his book is dedicated – ‘In loving memory of my darling daughter’ – died in a car accident while Hilleary was driving. He had been going too fast and will never forgive himself. ‘It’s been lurking in my conscience for a long time. It was a very difficult time. She was seven.’

It is an ‘eternal regret’ that VE Day came along before he had a chance to fight in France. He missed out by just a couple of weeks. He knows that he would very likely have been killed, but the influence of Churchill’s speeches had him aching to do his bit. ‘I couldn’t wait to get at them.’ Instead, in the early days of peace, he was posted to Trieste, where the Scots Guards were responsible for patrolling the line between Italy and Yugoslavia, keeping the peace.

‘It was very difficult to get fresh milk in Trieste, so I had a goat. Boadicea, it was called,’ Hilleary recalls. ‘One day, somebody, a Pipe Major I suspect, cut off its beard and painted it with purple stripes. And the Guardsmen used to give it cigarettes. It loved cigarettes, but they made its milk taste filthy.’ He also had a goose, Caractacus, which ate so much bread soaked in brandy that it became an alcoholic and could no longer be relied upon for eggs.

There is so much more to Major Hilleary’s life. Far too much to set down here. Joining the SAS, starting a salmon farm with Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, brothel-creeping in Brussels, tobogganing in St Moritz. A typical anecdote might begin – “When I took 230 people to dance reels in a palace in St Petersburg …” – and end, “And it turned out that the lady who answered the door was the sister of the Duchess of Rutland!” He is, in short, a hoot.

We say cheerio in the porch, surrounded by Barbours and wellies. Major Hilleary’s madcap days are behind him, sadly – ‘When I fall over, I can’t get up. Like a cast sheep. Bloody awful.’– but he intends to attend the Skye Gathering Ball this September. He has been going since 1947 and has been secretary since 1974. It is hardly a bacchanal, though one can still get a lumber. His kilt is rather tight these days, and his legs aren’t really up to dancing; nevertheless, he loves to stay up till dawn and watch the sun rise over Portree Bay.
‘I hope,’ he says, ‘to be remembered with some laughter.’


To London, to take part in an all-day public reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The venue is Senate House, a huge white art deco wedge rising out of Bloomsbury, which served as George Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth.

Fifty or so readers take a turn – journalists, activists, politicians, actors, academics and so on. Among them is Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, a rather Big Brotherish role, although the man himself is distinctly avuncular. He had been assigned a passage in which Winston Smith is tortured in the Ministry of Love.

Johnson is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about his latest volume of memoir, The Long And Winding Road. In Room 101 of Senate House (yes, really – it’s used for temporary exhibitions) we speak about his passion for Orwell, who he says has been a ‘pole star’ in his political thinking since 1964. A long-haired bohemian English teacher introduced Animal Farm to the class, and suddenly 14-year-old Johnson had a new hero to rival Paul McCartney.

At a certain point, shortly before Johnson read from Nineteen Eighty-Four, I found myself backstage in a very small room with him, Melvyn Bragg and Ken Loach. As my wife – unheeding of James Ellroy’s advice – later observes with a disconcertingly erotic trill, ‘Some women of a certain age would pay good money for that.’

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Another Time, Another Place

Asked to describe her upbringing, in an interview in later life, Jessie Kesson spoke of her ‘accidental’ birth in Inverness Workhouse. Her mother was not married, which was disgrace enough in 1916, and no doubt to escape the local gossips she had hightailed it to the city. As a result, her child, officially known as Jessie Grant McDonald, was privately called Ness. ‘We’ll nae bother aboot the Jessie,’ her mother used to say. The name and whereabouts of her father remained tantalisingly untold.

Much has been said about Kesson’s mother, who was a sometime prostitute and drinker. The ignominy of that, in Edwardian times, was so profound that the life of such a woman’s children was blighted from the start. Kesson uttered not a word of criticism or complaint about her mother – quite the opposite. That she rose above a childhood which, from the age of nine, was spent largely in an Aberdeenshire orphanage, without any prospect of further education, and that she would become one of the country’s notable writers, casts shame not on her origins but on a society eager to write-off the ‘fallen’ and unfortunate, and hustle them from sight. In our own times, her mother’s desperate straits brings a touch of salacious glamour to the novelist’s CV, a frisson of fascination that in its own way is almost as distasteful. Fortunately Kesson, who took her cottar husband Johnny’s name when they married, was blithe about all such crassness, remaining very much her own person, a woman of considerable talent who could not be patronised, or adulated.

Kesson’s first and closely autobiographical novel, The White Bird Passes, was published in 1958. It was immediately recognised as a rare and original piece of work. Norman MacCaig, who is quoted on the jacket of B&W’s new reprint, urged readers to ‘beg, borrow or steal this book’. How right he was. Deeply felt, beautifully written, and irrepressibly droll, it was a mark of Kesson’s fine mind and vivid artistic vision. It was also a voice from the north-east, bred in a dour Scottish town, but set alight by the countryside where, in her youth, Kesson roamed the woods and lanes, and in adulthood worked the land. Later, she was to take her husband and two young children to London, where she wrote over a hundred plays for radio and television, as well as short stories and novels while working full-time variously as a cleaner and care-worker, and in schools and hospitals, until she was sixty. Not until the film of her first novel came out in 1980, however, did she begin to receive the recognition she deserved.

B&W have produced attractive fresh paperback editions of this, Kesson’s signature book, and the novels Glitter of Mica (1963), and Another Time, Another Place (1983). With new introductions by Linda Cracknell, Jenni Fagan, and Candia McWilliam, they are intended no doubt to introduce this remarkable writer’s work to a new generation, and act as a reminder and a prompt to those familiar with her to seek her out again. Novelist Jenni Fagan, whose own troubled upbringing has inevitably led to comparisons with Kesson, ends her introduction with a plea: ‘The works of Jessie Kesson vastly enrich the European literary canon; she must not be forgotten or ignored.’

If only one could bridle at that. But while The White Bird Passes has attained classic status, and is in no danger of slipping off the radar, the same cannot be said of the other novels, or Kesson’s plays. Rereading this trio, and keeping The White Bird Passes till last, there is no denying its stature. It soars above the other two, in intensity and colour, in the indefinable lacing of a child’s-eye-view with a subtler apprehension of what everything means, and why it matters. It tells of young Janie McVean, brought up in a slum by her careless but clever mother. She loves the Lane, and its prostitutes, and their chatter, although the suicide of neighbour Mysie Walsh, whom she greatly loved, casts a terrifying shadow over the dark, long stairway where one of her mother’s clients importunes her, and she hurls his coins after him.

Showing the dreary and dismal conditions in which Janie lives, finding pleasure in everything she can and unaware that others would see her life as lacking, the tale is haunted by dread of her mother’s early death. ‘“Mam”, she shouted up the stairs, “Will you die soon?” And lest the dreaded answer should be in the affirmative, added, “Just say this one time that you won’t die soon.” The answer, when it came, was hurried and irritable. “I don’t know when I’ll die. For goodness’ sake run and play.”’ In the event, it is the Cruelty Man who deals a deadly blow by despatching Janie to an orphanage. Skipping across her eight years in care in the turn of a page – the only time that this book leaves you wishing for more – Kesson creates an indelible, nuanced, raw and plangent portrait of the underclass, of a mother and daughter, of the unkindness and opportunity the world deals out, as lightly as though they were cards in a casino.

Across all three books, the land speaks as loudly as its people. In this, it seems Kesson inherited her appreciation of nature from her mother, who on their forays out of the town taught her about wildlife, and the mountains and rivers. She and her mum are closest at these moments, as her fictional counterpart reflects. ‘And the times in the Lane never really mattered, because of the good times away from it. And I would myself be blind now, if she had never lent me her eyes.’
Decades later, when asked about the conciseness of her novels, Kesson spoke of her life’s ambition to create ‘the sma’ perfect’. In this, she called on her mother’s example. ‘Great credit to her, she was the one that had the poet in her – she really had – it wis her gave me my great love for all o’it, my mother.’ She also paid tribute to a dominie who loathed padding – ‘this is Angela Brazil stuff!’ – and to whom she dedicated The White Bird Passes.

Of the two later novels, Another Time, Another Place comes closest to it in effect and tone. Tightly composed, each word judiciously weighed, it was written as a novel to be simultaneously filmed. It is set on an Aberdeenshire farm in the 1940s, which takes in three Italian prisoners of war. A young cottar’s wife, who lives next door to the men, finds herself drawn to one of them, although it is another with whom she eventually consummates months of simmering desire. As with all Kesson’s work, the account is pervaded by the sense of otherness – that of the Italians, but equally of the wife who is possibly even more of a strangeling on the farm than the soldiers.

As Janie revealed with merriment rather than chagrin in The White Bird Passes, ‘Nor had she outgrown her affinity with what Grandmother would have called “Ne’er do weels”. The Lane “Riff Raff”, and Skeyne “Ootlins”. Skeyne’s word was the best word. The most accurately descriptive. Ootlins. Queer folk who were “oot” and who, perversely enough, never had any desire to be “in”.’ Not surprisingly, Kesson’s stories are filled with those on the edges: tinkers, beggars, prostitutes, petty criminals and the homeless. The cottar’s wife, however, is the odd one out only because of the way she thinks, or perhaps the very fact that she thinks at all.

The mood Kesson evokes in Another Time, Another Place, is burned onto the mind, and the delicacy of its telling, the restraint which could almost be accused of being tight-lipped were it were not so lyrically expressive, is utterly memorable. Candia McWilliam writes that it ‘works like a ballad and, like a ballad, it stays in the blood as well as in the mind, as the poems and songs of the mother of this rare writer abided in her own blood and mind to become her vivid coloured art.’

Less vivid or convincing or satisfying is Glitter of Mica. This was Kesson’s favourite of her works, which leaves one a little perplexed. There is a whiff of A J Cronin’s Hatter’s Castle about the remorselessness of its misery, and the coarse unfeelingness of the father Hugh Riddel towards his unloving wife and restless daughter. As in all her works, Kesson is never coy or sentimental about sex, knowing the difference between love and lust, and acknowledging a place for each. She passes no judgemental sentence on any of her characters, but in Glitter of Mica all of them emerge diminished, either by their response to circumstances or because of their imperfect nature. There is the feckless grandfather, his lonely, ruthless son, Riddel, head dairyman, and a calculating, sly local politician, Charlie Anson, with whom Riddel’s daughter is having a secret affair. Anson comes out with phrases such as: ‘We can go the whole hog the night, seeing as you’re filled,’ when he learns that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter she tries to commit suicide, though the reasons for this are not as simple as they sound.

‘Glitter of Mica’ would stand as a description of Kesson herself, who was a flash of brilliance from the stony north-east. It is ironic, though, that of her books, this is the least shiny, and the most leaden. It is not a bad book, but it suffers from a stiltedness and hardness by comparison with her others. This, despite it being written, as Kesson later revealed, at ‘white-hot’ speed. What it does, however, and more explicitly than elsewhere, is delineate some of the less tender fundamentals of the relationship between men and women. In this, it is as much about Hugh Riddel as about his tragic daughter. Sex and affection, protection and abuse, frustration and fury are the compass points between which is steers. With the possible exception of the vengeful Charlie Anson, nobody here is entirely bad, nor are they wholly sweet. Perhaps what this novel lacks has less to do with the drama that unfolds, and more with the absence of Kesson’s customary humour and wit. It is this which rings through the other two novels, sometimes subterranean, but rarely absent. From the outset of her published writing career, laughter, or drollery, is pervasive. A few pages into The White Bird Passes, a beggar with one leg is introduced. He knows he’s fortunate, because in the post-war years people are generous to wounded veterans. He, however, does not admit he lost his leg in a pub brawl years before the guns fired. He’d never have survived the trenches, he says, but now he’s coining it in. ‘That’s what I mean by “luck”,’ he tells Janie. And in that cameo appearance, Kesson’s canvas is spread out before us.

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Jackie Kay Five Poems


Yes, wee Rabbie, sma’, modest,
Unpolished, no pretentious;
Precious, yet no precious
In smairt but casual dress.

Yes, Rabbie, saft and hard,
Ploughman and Bard,
A boy afore the man on guard,
Afore life dealt its odd cards.

Yin hand clutches a poem;
The ither a flower frae home.
Years tae come and years tae go,
Years tae sizzle and tae glow.

The men he’ll be he disnae know:
Wee Rabbie: a lang way still to go.


Nothing mair he wud hae liked sin’ auld lang syne
Than to resume the plough, no mimes,
An’ find a spare hour or twa, noo and agin,
To write oot an idle or pithy rhyme.

Nothing mair he would have liked then
Than to work his rustic muse to the bone,
On the back o’ a keen westlin’ wind,
Awa frae polite society

And Edinburgh literary soirees,
Where he felt he maun be fair copy
The bard o’ old Scotia, some counterfeit
Some pirate, some duplicate.

He needed no more standing ovations!
No calls to represent his nation, no imitations!
Not even another flirtation! Not world domination.
He needed back tae his rustic station.


Had we never met like this, my luve, my lass,
Never kissed, never become all amorous,
Never hid, never split, never went on the piss,
Never kept shtum, played dumb, nursed secrets,
Never stared at the moon and wished, wished!
Never taken risks, never imagined this.
Had we never believed oor luve wad prevail,
We’d hae ayeways gone awol, or aff the rails.

Had we never been oot o’ this wilderness
We wad hae ne’er felt this quiet tenderness.
Had we never thought this day wad surely come:
Houghmagandie equality! A marriage; gay.
The guid day when me and my bonnie lassie
Might walk doon the aisle, and be free.


Bonnie lassie will ye go,
Will you go wi me bonnie lassie O
Will ye haud me closely, tight, And never let me go
And when the sun goes doon
And the moon is on the wane
Will ye ne’er grow weary, weary O

Bonnie lassie will ye stay
Through aw that’s coming tae greet us O
The loss, the grief, the wildernesses,
The blank faces and the hot ushes
The blootered days, the haze, the blaze, old age,
The dying light, the rage agin it,
Will ye ne’er grow weary, weary O

Bonnie lassie will ye tak
The squeeze o years, their weight, crack.
And across the banks and braes, we maun donder
Hand in hand, still fu o’ wonder –
Till the trees are bony, and the bonny banks
Spill, my girl, across the corn rigs and barley,
The unploughed elds, the green grown rashes O
Will ye ne’er grow weary, weary O


Had he ever boarded the Roselle
from Leith to Jamaica
(Like Nancy previously,
who he said he could have lived or died with;
And had Nancy’s husband never met Ann Chalon Rivvere
his so-called negro mistress
and had his ‘bonny octoroon’ daughter,
Ann Lavinia McLehose;)

Had he never come so close,
Stared madness in the face,
been misery’s most humble servant;
Had he not got the dairy maid pregnant
Had he not written
Will ye go to the West Indies dear Mary?
Had he not very nearly agreed

To be an assistant overseer on
a Jamaican Plantation,
out of whatever desperation.
Had he ever gone to the boiling house,
or ruled over the field gangs.
Had he not corresponded about the planting line;
Been fascinated by hypocrisy;
Had he been part of the ‘egalitarian tyranny.’

Had he not written the standard Habbie;
Not written To A Mouse or To A Louse –
O wad some pow’r the gift gie us
To see ourself as others see us –
Not seen misfortune’s cauld NorWest,
Not worried about esh eating insects
Earthquakes and wild hurricanes
Had he overseen slaves toil on the sugarcane;
Had he not written A Slave’s Lament…

Had his dream of lime and orange and pine come to fruition.
And had he finally boarded the Nancy
for Savannah Western Jamaica,
Heard his brother’s sigh, seen his sister’s tear,
Left his bosom freend, his wee daughter,
Departed for those ‘torrid climes’ or drowned.
Had he not quoted Othello ‘the tragic African’
Not been patronised, gawked at, or celebrated,
Had he not feared envious calumny;

Had he not been strong and course,
hair black and curly, worn a dark-coloured coat,
farming boots, a waistcoat, worked the hard land.
Had he not been the Bard o’ Scotland.
Had he never been seen like this,
Smashed on the floor of a national gallery,
Then who might he be? Not Rabbie.

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Who’d Be a Man?

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, sang Tammy Wynette. I’d like to think that her lyrics reach their emotional apotheosis when delivered at West of Scotland karaoke nights.

That is not meant as an ironic statement, nor do I suspect is it a phenomenon strictly limited to the West of Scotland, simply a recognition of both the myth and reality of that part of our country. That Was a Shiver, the ninth collection of short stories by James Kelman, the only Scot to have won the Booker Prize, illustrates that it’s pretty hard to be a man as well, and especially one of a particular generation and class. We might even extrapolate and say that being human is no picnic. If that makes the stories sound bleak, many of them are. As the ‘Have-not’ protagonist of ‘Pick up the Pieces’ observes, ‘One encounters personal difficulty in perambulating the highways and byways in a manner that suggests positivity.’ In this Hamsun-ish tale the tension lies in the gap between accepting that ‘God-given talents are rewarded by society and he believed he had these self-same talents’ (not to mention ‘the heavy stubble so beloved of Male Celebs’) and a resounding lack of the ‘old ho ho ho, the sarry heid, the breid, el casho’.

Kelman has never pulled any punches when describing the way things are for his characters, nor does he patronise his readers by condescending to commercial tenets of plot and readability. Fans will find familiar ground here, and will appreciate that there is space to take a pop at some of the usual targets, like the ‘general spirit of ignorance that infuses the British Broadcasting Corporation’. Some of the shorter pieces revisit mysterious Kafkaesque bureaucracies in a way that is redolent of earlier work. In ‘Volcanic Matters’ metamorphosis occurs when the narrator’s face falls prey to a massive plook. This can work well, and disturbingly, as when two men consider a dead body in ‘The Principal’s Decision’, but in general is less engaging than the finely drawn and meticulously observed stories set in a more realist world. The success of the collection overall lies in Kelman’s ability to approach the intricacy and Weltschmerz of human existence with insight and humour, while also saying things that, increasingly, are not being said often or loudly enough.

All the central characters here are male, and their state of masculinity is explored with a matter of fact masochism that avoids becoming too self-regarding. When wounds are exposed, rest assured the characters will tell us that it ‘doesnay matter’, ‘forget it’, ‘who cares’. The opening story, ‘Oh the Days ahead’, sets Andy and Fiona in bed together, wearing underwear as she has decided that there will be no sex. Gender relations are sharply but sensitively observed, playing out through the fact that Andy’s body has its own ideas: ‘the damn erection. Mind and body, just so so stupid… Flesh is not weak, it just operates at a different remove.’ Dualism pops up, as it were, repeatedly in this collection, here leavened by Andy’s preoccupation not just with the existentiality of erections but their linguistic quirks: ‘Do erections “go”? Where do they go to?’

‘That was what pockets were for but to carry stuff. Women carried stuff, men didnay.”

The humour can take a poignant turn. In the title piece, an older man called Robert visits the Barras with his wife Tracy, who makes him bring a polybag in case he buys anything that will not fit in his pocket: ‘That was what pockets were for but to carry stuff. Women carried stuff, men didnay. No if they didnay have to. Ye needed the fists free. What if something happened?’

In spite of the fitful qualities of masculinity that must be adhered to, these are not men who have a fragile sexuality that is defined in binary opposition to their homosexual counterparts; Kelman’s straight men have never been bothered about other men being gay. The relationships between them are delicately drawn too, from the elaborate and particularly masculine bullying suffered by Calum, a printer’s employee delivering political flyers after work in ‘Did the Pixie Speak?’. It’s a surreal situation, further complicated by Calum’s response to the other male characters: ‘It was just Gerry, it was only Gerry, if him, it was only him, if he thought, if it was something, what did he think, it was only him anyway who cares, who cares.’ It’s almost homoerotic, while the more straightforward love for the narrator’s deceased friend Hughie is described incredibly movingly in one of several stand out stories, ‘The Cartwheels of Life’.

Women tend to be portrayed as more capable, in the eyes of the men at any rate. In ‘One has One’s Weans’, another stand out, a man goes to complain about the noise from the flat through the wall only to discover his neighbour engaged in the Sisyphean endeavour of constantly trying to patch a massive crack in the building. Thinking of his wife Wilma, he says, ‘She kept me going. The woman and the children, husband as one of them, the other child.’ As usual with Kelman though, nothing is too pat or easy: ‘Or was I waxing sentifuckingmental; oh dear, mental as fuck, oh dear again.’ As Wilma holds him – her hands smaller and tapering compared to his, which are ‘of the male mass, born to shovel shite’ – he finds himself restrained physically as she kisses him, ‘Good god, powerless’ in a literal sense. There’s a complexity to the gender dynamics in Kelman that eschews the ‘strong women’ clichés of some other chroniclers of working-class life. It is a sensibility shared by Tom Leonard, to whom the title story is dedicated, a piece that offers a nuanced and often touching portrayal of a marriage, and of how anger can swing from justified to misplaced. My sense is that this approach is informed by a fundamental belief in equality. The characters may be male, and their experience highly gendered, but the condition is born of circumstance, and universal.

In ‘A Night at the Theatre’ Christine quite literally holds the hand of the narrator, another man paralysed by angst, experienced this time while considering the possibility of sadism and torture, and unable to watch the play taking place in front of him: ‘Christine would cope now that I could not.’ We become aware that the issue is a much larger one, bound up with ‘the concept where ye put all of yer trust in one other human being’; ‘Except she was engrossed in the performance, and I was alone.’ Many of the stories deal with the great frustration and failing of our individual existence: the impossibility of knowing others, or even of truly communicating with them. The result is angst, of course, but also a deep and relentless loneliness.

Individual existence is by nature insecure. ‘Maybe’, a beautiful word in sound and meaning, echoes like a refrain through this whole collection. Wives and families are desirable, but carry the risk – indeed the likelihood – that the women will recognise the failings in the men and end the relationship, leaving the children ‘unable to live with their mother except in a state of bemusement structured on the realisation that she married a fool, an absolute and irredeemable fool, that gem of a woman.’ It is notable that the future, in terms of the children and grandchildren that the characters think about and respect most, is decidedly female. The narrator here, in ‘Items Precarious’, can only hope that the children will emulate their mother rather than him, and that he will not die ‘in a condition of intellectual dishonesty’. Dread of losing one’s ‘intellectual energy’ is another theme that recurs in ‘That Was a Shiver’. For this narrator, and for many of the characters, the struggle is to try and find ‘ways of being, honest ways of being, ways of being honest, ways of living our life, lives, the space in between mine and yours, this is truth, a balancing act, like all clichés’.

The subtlety with which emotional effects build in the longer stories is impressive. In ‘Words and Things to Sip’ a salesman in a bar muses that his ‘line of work destroys the intellect’ while nursing the ‘working drink’ of vodka and water. With both a dead wife and an ex-wife behind him, his hopes are pinned on a new relationship with Anne, who is running late for their assignation. Everything is quietly, carefully paced, no revelations are put into words even when Anne arrives, but the emotional punch of the ending is startlingly intense: ‘I shifted on the seat, edgily, although there was nothing wrong. If anyone had asked me, nothing.’ When the salesman suggests that ‘The only reliable method of knowledge is literature’ it’s tempting to take it as a clue as to the nature of Kelman’s entire endeavour.

Tied to that is a theme of witnessing that which is often overlooked due to biases of class, or race. The narrator of ‘Back in that town’ escapes an unpleasant pimp in a North American street by paying entry into a charity store. While looking at the impoverished clientele he wonders why, ‘Things that should be stories arent stories.’ Even if people tell their own stories, ‘How come nobody listens?’ That Was a Shiver proves that James Kelman retains an exceptional faculty for looking, and listening, and conveying what he has discerned with a freshness that can stop us in our tracks. The pleasure for us as readers is that we have the chance to occupy his characters and their world from the inside. Our challenge, maybe, is to look a little harder ourselves.

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