Monthly Archives: August 2018



Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the last reading Charles Dickens gave in Edinburgh. On 26 February, 1869, the most fêted English writer of his generation appeared at the music hall in George Street. It was a homecoming of sorts. Dickens was no stranger to the Scottish capital; it was where his wife Catherine was born and brought up.

The crowd laughed and wept as ‘Boz’ performed scenes from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, the latter featuring the grisly episode in which Nancy is murdered by Bill Sykes. The Edinburgh Evening Courant’s reviewer awarded him five stars. Dickens’ performances, he recorded, were ‘marvellous exhibitions, which are unique in themselves, and in their combinations of power and elocutionary felicity which have probably never been rivalled’.

A little over a year later Dickens was dead, aged just 58. It is perhaps fair to say that as well as being a great novelist he was also the first writer to seize the potential of public appearance and capitalize on his celebrity. What cannot be disputed is that he started a trend which many of his peers fell over themselves to follow. A couple of decades later, Mark Twain enchanted his fellow Americans with a routine that would now be recognized as stand-up comedy, regaling thousands in his trademark white suit with his iconoclastic wit and pungent story-telling. Later, in the twentieth century, the author’s tour became a rite of passage, in part to help bolster reputations but also because it was financially attractive. Dylan Thomas’s exploits on the gold trail on the other side of the pond are the stuff of legend. In Dylan Thomas in America, John Malcolm Brinnin relates how the Welsh bard would fortify himself with ‘several pre-performance highballs’ before taking to the stage. For one tour he disembarked at New York in relative sobriety but after a couple of days of drunken debauchery he was bedridden with gout and a broken arm, having fallen down a flight of stairs while leaving a dinner party to attend a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Thomas’s misadventures did not, how-ever, deter others. The poet Hugo Williams travelled to the US in 1980, giving readings from east to west, often to audiences which struggled to reach double figures. The blurb to No Particular Place to Go, his hilarious account of his journey, is eloquent in its evocation of an era that now seems as distant as that of the dodo: ‘There are girls and more girls from lip-smacking California-fresh April Stanley to Vicky in Manhattan with the weight of a thousand affairs on her shoulders.’ Nor were Scottish writers immune to the allure of life on the road. Paisley-born Gordon Williams – no relation to Hugo – produced a novel, Walk Don’t Walk, which lightly fictionalized his own western odyssey.

Having said all of which, until quite recently writers were more read than heard. This began to change shortly before the advent of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which became a fixture in 1983. Before then, of course, there were book events in Scotland, many of which were organized by public libraries. One such was held in Renfrewshire where writers read and jousted, not always verbally. While not the most edifying of sights it was a sign that the participants took their jobs seriously; flyting and fighting, back in the day, were not mutually exclusive. Nowadays, alas, such shenanigans are rare and most authors – or at least those who are invited to festivals – comport themselves with diplomatic decorum. The idea that one writer might call another ‘metropolitan scum’ – as Hugh MacDiarmid did his fellow Scot Alexander Trocchi at the 1962 Writers’ Conference – would doubtless now be labelled a ‘hate crime’.

Be that as it may. There is a need in this time of fake news, online manipulation of the democratic process and politicians whose economy with the truth far outstrips any competency they might have to run a nation’s affairs, for book festivals to become more than mere polite debating chambers and reflect the anger and frustration countless of us feel at the way things are being conducted. Having attended book festivals in various parts of the globe we appreciate that those who attend them are from the more civilized crannies in society. Audiences listen in respectful silence and, on occasion, ask questions which, while interesting, rarely challenge the sentiments and opinions expressed by a speaker. We can count on the fingers of one hand, for example, the number of events at which the person on the podium has been taken properly to task for any rubbish he or she has been spouting. This is particularly the case with politicians who, having retired from the fray, do the book festival circuit as if it were part of their pension plan. Safely covered by a canvas counterpane, they are no longer reviled or remembered for their misdeeds or lost promises but respected as national treasures and cheered to the rafters even by those of us who would never have voted from them. Is that not the very definition of niceness?

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There was not much trouble in that goodbye
—in the saying of it, I mean. But the way
was that untrodden one, that lay
over the thick of the older wood,
and not very often had I gone there,
but mostly by one where the grass was bare
and footpath clearer, with sometimes the eye
of a cottage lamp to point the way.
But this was a night I wanted away
to a different place, in my different mood.

So I left the road for the higher places
and found the wood—but the path was strange,
having no known tree-trunks to mark its range.
It was dark, for the boughs shut out the sky
where they bent close over. And owls would call
to the world that the snow was beginning to fall
Oh my steps were slow there. Ways, like faces,
grow dear with knowing, and going through
is easy. But this was strange and, I knew,
was bound to be dark where I’d said goodbye.


No, I will give you only shadowy things,
and everything in tides, with a tang of the sea,
broken glass for your toys, or feather free
gull-skeletons sunk in the sand, sea-shiverings,
snatches of sleepy song, a laughter-gust,
and weird wind-wrinkled sailors’ eyes, and cries
strange from the swirl, and drownings, and goodbyes,
bare feet blue with the cold, eyes red with rust,
and stinging tears from the windy whine, and a bare
shelter scratched in the sand, wet nets that flap
forlornly, tales from the tides that, lonely, lap
your shadow, winds that wither your words to air,
laughter for your love—oh hide your head
in dreams, forget what the sea, once sorrowing, said.


O child, I watched your gentle eager eyes,
bright with the firelight and the gold spun story
of that old traveller’s word-woven glory,
and watched the colours of a far sunrise
glow in your little soul, and new dreams brighten
in the gay opening palace of your heart.
When tales are told and travellers depart,
the fires go out. But dreamed-of dawns still lighten
this air of fantasy, your child-sweet breath.
Child, do not listen. I will tell you stories
of these far lands, and dim your dreaming joys,
of cities built of dust, poor painted glories,
children who dream as you, but have for toys
hunger and pain and blood, and tears and death.


Call back the days, the heedless happy days,
the winter-white delight, the summer joy,
the light forgotten laughter of the boy,
the gathering world, the new discovered ways,
the waking mind, the first strange stir of knowing.
Turn back awhile to pages lit with laughter,
turn through the chaptered years, and coming after,
feel the first touch of time, the growth in going.
Remember—then the wondering sad years
come suddenly with their sound of falling days
where wandering has blurred familiar ways.
Come out of time awhile to the sunsweet places
where there are no sad shadows, no time-tears,
only the songs, the dear remembered faces.


I saw the footworn track,
and knew that now there was no turning back,
no time to pause, or wait
for lingering backward glances from the gate.
The rippling meadow-grass
hissed out a hushed farewell on seeing me pass,
and round my venturing feet,
the sunspots danced. The pinewood scent was sweet.
Oh, it was hard to leave
a happiness that time might not retrieve,
hard, too, to leave you there,
your brown eyes sad, and summer in your hair.


This deepening quiet comes with the afternoon,
and some men, lying back, forget to gaze
at that one spot their eyes have fixed all day,
and close their wondering minds, and sink to sleep.
Others gaze restlessly about the ward.
Their minds move with their eyes. They wonder where
to turn to now from their white-sheeted prison.
Somewhere a wireless plays itself to sleep
behind the scratching of the nurse’s pen.
Some old tune, tiptoeing on the atmosphere,
calls and then dies. But men, lying there, will hear,
will feel this fresh wind through their dusty dreams
and cast their thoughts on it, and feel them blown
through the new opened windows of the memory.

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The naturalist and journalist, Michael McCarthy, comments in his book The Moth Snowstorm – Nature and Joy, on the luck of coming from a ‘special place’; as lucky, he thinks, as coming from a happy family. McCarthy’s ‘special place’ was the marshland of the Wirral; Alastair Reid’s was Galloway, where he was born, ‘in the warm south-west, a gentle, kindly beginning, for we were bound by the rhythms of the soil…’

He describes Galloway here (‘Digging Up Scotland’) – or his portion of it around Whithorn – in Edenic terms, and it remained for him a touchstone, as the tiny island of Wyre in the Orkneys was for Edwin Muir. Both were cast out early from their Edens, but, in ‘Digging Up Scotland’, Alastair writes that ‘the landscapes of childhood are irreplaceable, since they have been the back drops for so many epiphanies, so many realizations.’

Alastair was cast out to Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. His father, a Church of Scotland minister, had accepted a charge there, in 1931, when his son was starting school. For a man, one of whose main themes as a writer was change, it was ironic to be living in a place where a parishioner once told his father, ‘We’ve tried change and it doesn’t work!’ Alastair found the democratic ‘land-life relations’ of Galloway replaced by a deference that made him uneasy; a growing awareness of how Calvinism snuffed out joy. Perhaps, part of the attraction of St. Andrews as a university for him was the coastal situation and the human scale. Certainly, the town (though not ‘The Academy’), and more especially the East Neuk, became another of his ‘special places’. As it became mine. In fact, I was a student there when the census-taker knocked on Alastair’s rented house outside St. Andrews to be answered by the blind Argentinian fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges. I didn’t meet Alastair at that time, but over the years we met and talked often – in Edinburgh, in New York, in the Dominican Republic, where he lived for some years, and in the ‘warm south west’, where he and his wife, Leslie Clark, came each spring and to which Leslie still does.

His studies at St. Andrews, in Classics, were disrupted by the war. He describes his experience of the war as an interruption to the natural ‘flow of time’. In ‘Hauntings’, he writes ‘…forgetting made the war much easier to survive than remembering. It scarcely arises now, either in memory or in dream, for I have instinctively enclosed it in a warp outside real time. It makes no more sense in the memory than it did in its nightmare reality.’ I never heard him make reference to the war, apart from the fact that he was glad it ended when it did – he had no desire to have it prolonged by the Japanese. Leslie has furnished me with an account of his war years. He was in the Royal Navy, from the age of seventeen — first on a mine-sweeper in the Irish Sea — then on what is called a Sloop in the Indian Ocean. Home port was Colombo in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. He was an able seaman, then became a lieutenant and a cipher clerk. (Cipher clerks had their own office.) In August of 1945, while in the South Moluccan Straits, he decoded the message: ‘Cease all offensive operations against the Japanese.’ It was repeated several times and his ship was then ordered into Singapore. It was the first Royal Navy ship into Singapore. After the war, his ship was ordered to ‘show the flag’ in Basra. He didn’t get home until 1946.

Back in St. Andrews, the atmosphere was febrile; there was lost time to be made up, an impatience to resume ordinary lives. One ex-army Captain, Alastair told me, visited his lecturer before exam time, pistol in hand. The message was along the lines of, ‘Look, we’ve wasted enough time already. Give us the exam questions or I’ll blow your brains out.’

Alastair was also in a hurry. In 1949, he had 12 Poems printed privately. They are, for the most part, the poems of a young man catching up on a young man’s pursuits – falling in love, being love-lorn, the poet’s words mocked by the ‘troubled touch of time’. There is a Georgian elegance about these particular poems, but little to suggest that Alastair would go on to become such a memorable poet concerning the transforming power of love – and of its demise. The 12 Poems are not his first published poems; five poems appeared in Scottish Student Verse 1937-1947 with an introduction by Eric Linklater, stating that, ‘The newest poets in the Scottish universities have not shrugged off their experience of war, but keep it to live with; and a consequence of their bitter association is that these pages offer more than “university verses”. They sometimes offer poetry.’ This short poem, ‘Torchlight Procession’, appears in both Scottish Student Verse and 12 Poems:

Along the way the torchlit column goes

wildly. And watching, I remember those

who marched along with me to the last sad turning.

They bore no torches, but their hearts were burning.

Nevertheless, true to his word, his war experiences as material for his poetry remained unknown, ‘closed in a warp outside real time’, for me at least, until I began the work of editing his collected poems, starting with his archive at the National Library of Scotland. There, I discovered that 12 Poems is partly drawn from a series of over fifty poems, the majority unpublished, which bear the cover sheet, ‘Poems’ at the top and at the bottom, ‘Alastair Reid, St. Mary’s Manse, SELKIRK’. The folio is not dated, but the subject matter, and the fact that his father left Selkirk to take up a charge in Holywood outside Dumfries in 1948 when Alastair Reid was 22, lead me to believe the poems were written roughly between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two. Many of the poems touch on his war experiences, outlined by a single sentence in ‘Hauntings’: ‘When I joined the Royal Navy, in the later years of the war, I was projected abruptly out of Scotland and to sea, on a series of small ships, around the Indian Ocean – endless ports of call that were all astonishments.’ Several of the poems draw directly on place – ‘To Arab Boatmen, Heard Singing on the River’, ‘Dhows Passing’, ‘For An Indian Lady’. For works such as these and others, there might have been a place in an afterword section of juvenilia – a traditional site for early flawed poems of interest. But this would be to do a disservice to a grouping of poems among them that are powerfully achieved, poems that show remarkable gifts for understanding the relationship between form, tone and meaning. These are poems worthy to include in the main body of his work, as poems in their own right and as a vital part of his development as a writer. It is several of these that are published for the first time in the SRB.

The most successful poems concern a more reflective response to his experiences. These press against the tight forms he chooses, as in the sonnet, ‘Travellers’ Tales’, whose ending echoes ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’:

Child, do not listen. I will tell you stories

of these far off lands, and dim your dreaming joys,

of cities built of dust, poor painted glories,

children who dream as you, but have
for toys

hunger and pain and blood, tears and death.

Nor is it by accident that his poem, ‘The New Way’, should carry echoes of Edward Thomas (and Thomas’ mentor, Frost). For the First World War was present in the experience of his household. In Notes to ‘My Father Dying’ in the NLS, Reid writes, ‘His [father’s] wound from World War One had kept him from ever being strong. A few years ago, on his eightieth birthday, he gave me the bullet which had been removed from his chest, and which he had kept as a talisman of a kind.’ In fact, there is an undertow of the past throughout these poems that is unusual in Reid’s work, as in the opening lines of ‘Call Back The Days’:

Call back the days, the heedless happy days,

the winter-white delight, the summer joy,

the light forgotten laughter of the boy,

After the war, however, there is a determination not to be caught up in the shadows of the past: the direction of travel will be through time, not back in time. In ‘Poem for My Father’, in his first full collection, To Lighten My House, he will write, ‘I choose to achieve spring, to work against winter.’ Again, much later (1975), among the notes to his draft of ‘My Father, Dying’, he writes, ‘I decided early/ to make my own fate, not assume the one that weighed on Scotland.’

To Lighten My House was published four years after 12 Poems. Yet the difference in tone and in ambition from the earlier gathering is significant. There is a spreading of wings here – a delight in exploration and in new-found freedoms. Part of this can be explained by his recent experiences of post -war New York. He writes to his friend, John Main, from Iowa in 1949:

This America is something.

New York has all the excitement of tall buildings and a kind of magical atmosphere. I met hundreds of delightful people, wrote some things and generally lived in all senses, stimulated, intrigued, fascinated, interested and sharpened…’

However, I think the advance cannot be explained only in geographical terms; but rather by an appreciation of the craftsmanship evident in the strongest of his early poems. The best of them are tense and muscular, dependent on individual, lived experience in a way that 12 Poems are not: the latter feel like the work of a poet relaxing into experiences he has been denied, following in the grooves already made for him. It is the poems he ignored which show of what he was truly capable and so, in a Collected Poems, they are the place to start reading.

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James Buchan’s biography of John Law is a thing of biblical proportions but it still comes with a bonus card inside. One side of the card has a series of short hymns to Buchan’s abilities as a writer and his facility for making difficult subjects accessible. The other has some ‘facts about John Law’.

These include the fact that Law was from a family of Scottish silversmiths; that he killed a man in a duel in London; spent his life as an outlaw on the continent; lived from gambling and financial innovations and was taken on by France in 1716 where he attempted to repair its finances by launching the greatest stock market speculation of all time, i.e. the Mississippi Bubble. He was briefly the richest private citizen in the world, owning twenty-two private estates in France and tracts of North America. Law was caught up in a ‘Jacobite web’ and fled France pursued by creditors. He died impoverished in Venice. Fact number six says that Law ‘developed ideas about the nature of money that, though considered diabolical at the time, have since the 1970s all been adopted’.

These ‘diabolical ideas’ included the notion that money has no intrinsic value and does not require specie. Law embraced the use of banknotes and foresaw such ‘modern’ economic ideas as Keynesian stimulation and ‘quantitative easing’. He was a rake, a speculator, a millionaire, a convicted mur-derer, an economic theorist and Controller General of the Finances of France which should make him a natural subject for biography. The facts card, however, seems to imply that Law is a neglected figure whose story is in need of priming.

There are relatively few accounts of Law’s life and the ones that exist approach him from particular angles. His contemporary Daniel Defoe, with a typical absence of humility, set out ‘The Case of Mr Law Truly Stated’. More recently, Irish academic Antoin E. Murphy’s John Law: Economic Theorist and Money Maker was concerned with restoring Law’s reputation as an important economic theorist. This approach contrasts with that of the National Film Board of Canada which produced an animated short called John Law and the Mississippi Bubble. Here Law is portrayed as the leader of the most sensational ‘get rich quick scheme’ in history. He arrives in France playing the bagpipes and lumbered with an accent that lurches between Stanley Baxter and Sean Connery. His paper notes and inflated share prices makes paupers into princes but, when the process reverses, he slips away. He is last seen still carrying his bagpipes, now silenced.

Somewhere between academic diligence and animated frivolity there’s a place for a well researched, popular, comprehensive biography of John Law and Buchan’s is certainly that. Five years in the making, it ‘was written from unpublished sources in eight languages, including court documents in Edinburgh, the Jacobite papers at Windsor Castle, French and Venetian police reports, Genoese and Dutch bank ledgers and more than two hundred autograph letters in family archives and municipal collections in Europe and North America’.

The first thing Buchan does with all this is to re-establish Law in one of the places where he is most neglected – his homeland. Law became Law of Lauriston after inheriting the family estate his father purchased at Cramond. There are only two portraits of him in the National Galleries of Scotland, one by a German and another by a French artist. Plug his name into the recently published Sustainable Growth Commission (or indeed the 2013 White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future’) and you will come up empty. Yet three centuries ago, Law has something to say about the control of currency which, both the commission and the white paper concluded, should be held furth of Scotland. Law believed that you should not limit the industry of the people by acquiescing in the use of a currency that someone else controls. Rather, it should be managed close to home and in the national interest.

Money and Trade Considered; with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money was published after Darien and before union. As Buchan puts it Law ‘asked what money is and then asks how to create it for the exigencies of the Kingdom of Scotland in 1705. He proposes an issue of paper money, secured not on deposits of silver (as in the Bank of Scotland) or the promises to pay of the King (as at the Bank of England) but the direct and indirect source of all wealth at the time, which was land’. Not just land, but productive land which would stimulate ‘trade’ by which Law meant the economy. Scotland, he believed, had natural advantages over places like Holland ‘but men and women, “arts-men” (craftsmen), lands, buildings and vessels lay idle for want of money to set them in motion or use’.

The idea that Scotland does not make the best of ‘the labour of its people and the fruits of the earth’ echoes down the centuries, but by the time Law made a pitch to the Scottish Parliament his proposal had been watered down to the appointment of forty commissioners with the authority to ‘coin notes’. It was heard against the wishes of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun who considered such things ‘shoals and shams to ruine the country and enslave the nation’. Others believed that Law’s project distracted from the main question – whether or not to enter the treaty of union. Law reworked it to include a joint stock company and a ‘Land Mint of Scotland’ but to no avail. His ideas were rejected as ‘unfit for the nation’ and he left Scotland six months before the articles of union were signed.

Buchan assiduously tracks Law through Holland, Genoa and France as he continues to pitch his economic theories and offers to establish private banks and make stock issues. He was an inveterate gambler who bet on the outcome of real tennis games in Scotland and developed his facility for dice while moving through Europe. He not only played lotteries but insured others against the possibility of not winning them. Buchan reproduces an advert Law took out in the Gazette d’Amsterdam in 1712 in which he ‘offers to insure prizes for those who have tickets in the Lottery of the Genarality to be drawn on the 12th of this month’. His skill at odds-weighing was later analyzed in a treatise on probability written by a Dutchman. Buchan considers that Law paid for the treatise himself as an exercise in self-promotion.

Law’s ‘all-in’ character, as Buchan puts it, appears to be his one consistent trait and was both the making of him and his undoing. In France his ideas on banks, paper money and trade finally found a willing listener in the form of the d’Orléans, Regent during the minority of Louis XV. France was crippled by war debts and Law promised fast relief. However, he was now in thrall to absolutism which underpinned his establishment of a national bank, provided the initial support for his ultimately disastrous Mississippi adventure and protected him from his enemies, including those in the Parlement of Paris.

As the Canadian animation suggests, the general outline of Law’s Icarian flight across France is relatively well-known but Buchan’s skill as a researcher throws all kinds of fresh light on the man himself. Anyone who was anyone in France seems to have had something to say about him. He was being spied on by fellow Scot and British envoy the Earl of Stair and Buchan uncovers various cross-channel communications that consider Law to be a threat to the political and financial stability of the newly formed union. Voltaire couldn’t quite make his mind up about Law. He asked if he was a God, a crook or a charlatan and dismissed him in verse as ‘a crafty Scot… who writes on scattering leaves our lot’. However, Buchan notes that Voltaire eventually came to see Law ‘as a forerunner or Baptist of his own mission to lift France from its mental torpor’.

Buchan describes Law at the height of his powers as having transformed the France of kings and convents into a corporation of his own devising, answerable to a board of directors and an assembly of shareholders’. This is a nice tip of the hat to Jean Brodie’s notional ancestor William who ‘died cheerfully on a gibbet of his own devising’. Law was fortunate to escape a similar fate as the Louisiana colony he established as the trade arm of his economic ‘System’ became a dumping ground for ‘vagabonds, vagrants, smugglers and criminals’ and his paper money and shares were rendered worthless. The most powerful man in France after the Regent became the ‘most hated man in France’ and Law fled the country with his reputation shredded and his fortune disparu.

Even with the benefit of this wonderful book with its wealth of new information and masterful storytelling, it is difficult to know what to make of John Law. At 16 he sued his widowed mother in Edinburgh for failing to support him though she claimed that he ‘without any offence or provocation has laitely deserted my famlily’ (sic). In Bloomsbury Square eight years later, he stood over a man whom he had just mortally wounded in the stomach. In France he left a trail of personal and financial destruction. Any of these could have put him beyond the pale.

Yet his personal courage was often remarkable. His original vision for Scotland’s economic future had a common humanity in it with the country’s success depending on the active contribution of all. In France he provided financial relief for destitute Jacobites and the plague-stricken city of Marseille even though he was not a Jacobite and there were those who believed that it was his international trading that had brought plague to Marseille in the first place. In Venice his last acts included trying to make provision for his family.

In one of the portraits of Law held by the National Galleries of Scotland, he has an expression that might be described as enigmatic. It could also, perhaps, be interpreted as a smirk.

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