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Letters – Scottish Review of Books


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Volume 5 Issue 2



SIR: Ronald Frame’s review of Sex, Lies and Shakespeare by Christopher Rush, full as it is of thinly-veiled disbelief, sarcasm and innuendo does him little credit. Was he ever a teenager himself? And where did he go to school? He is so totally out of touch with the spirit of the time the author is writing about and the particular location of the book that he is unable to appreciate either its humour or its lyrical prose. (Had I been Mr Frame, I would probably have written here “he is unable to swallow it, nudge, nudge, wink, wink”).

We were an idiosyncratic group, no doubt, mainly working- class, post-war children, greedy for life as it manifested itself in art, poetry, music, Shakespeare and sex, privileged to live in an idyllic environment, steeped in history, the sea ever before our eyes, in our ears and on our tongues, fields and woods at our backs. Mr Frame finds it hard to believe that such a school as Waid could exist; I can assure him that it did. Was it unusual in those days? I think not. Our teachers were exceptional – at the time we probably did not realise how exceptional. We covered the syllabus in the English department and ranged far beyond it, encouraged by two extraordinary men, Alastair Leslie and Alastair Mackie. On a prosaic note, some years later I had no trouble passing 1st ordinary English Lit. exams at Edinburgh University at one week’s notice, one of only onethird of the class who did and despite assurances from my Director of Studies that I would fail. We had done it all and much more at Waid Academy (cue more nudging and winking from Mr Frame, no doubt).

Chris is, of course, not the only successful writer to have been nurtured by the Waid Academy English department of our day: Harry Watson, author of “Kilrenny and Cellardyke” and a biography of William Tennant, Andrew Greig, poet, author and mountaineer, John Lloyd, former editor of the New Statesman, associate editor with the Financial Times and now Director of Journalism with Reuters Institute, to name a few. The late singer-songwriter Kirk McGeachy, son of the Goof and leader of the acclaimed Canadian band, Orealis, also acknowledged his debt to Alastair Leslie and Alastair Mackie.

Can you imagine the buzz of being taught by Alastair Mackie, a published poet, writing in Lallans, the forbidden tongue? Or the frisson of tension when you were asked to stand up in class and criticise his work? I still remember verbatim his scalding words as he shredded both my writing and my ego. Yet Alastair Mackie remained my beloved friend until he died. Alastair Leslie, also my very dear friend of fifty years remains so to this day; we see each other most weeks and still discuss books and poetry (and critics).

The East Neuk of Fife was geographically isolated when we were growing up: we were not distracted by the pleasures of the city, perhaps that made us more inclined to look for our pleasure in music and literature. Of course hormones raged then as now, but we were kept in ignorance of sex in a way unthinkable today. Sometime during our last year at school, “Granny Fergusson” arranged for a suitable lady to visit and enlighten us (only the girls, of course); I came away more confused than ever. One daring girl asked if sexual intercourse was painful and was assured that, done in the marital bed it was totally pleasurable, done behind the hedge or in the back of a car, it would be extremely painful. Ho-hum !

Chris’s portrayal of the teachers is, by and large, accurate. Ronald Frame feels many of the characters to be caricatures; perhaps he grew up in a blander, more homogenous environment than we did. Many people here were extraordinary, unfettered by the constraints and mores of a more sophisticated society, their idiosyncrasies were tolerated to a far greater degree, in fact such characters flourished and were even fêted. Chris’s descriptions often remind me of Stanley Spencer’s paintings, informed by biblical imagery and depicting larger-than-life figures, almost grotesques. His subjects were the inhabitants of the little village of Cookham, in Berkshire – I have not seen any reputable critic describe them as caricatures.

Mr Frame casts doubts on Chris’s total recall: I can vouch for his amazing memory, though I too have forgotten little of the endless argument, discussion and “seeking after truth” of those years. We read voraciously and committed much of it to memory, Chris especially, both to share with each other and to produce the quotations then required in exams. “Danny” Blair expected a lot from us; thank goodness the mediocre was not acceptable in our day. But to forget a night in a darkened church, listening to Bill Gowans playing Bach on the organ is scarcely credible.

Perhaps Mr Frame would simply rather have read Chris’s diary, as he has an overwhelming need to know what is lie and what is truth. I can assure him the book is no fantasy.

Christine Keay
Anstruther, Fife

SIR: Although fascinating, George Rosie’s article in the last Scottish Review of Books (‘1979 And All That’) seriously overstates Civil Service influence in “delaying” devolution for Scotland.

Rosie refers to Whitehall’s “strategy of minimising the powers of any elected assembly in Edinburgh” as “the secret history of home rule”. Yet while Whitehall was certainly opposed to devolution for Scotland, its influence on government policymaking was not as great as he implies. The most serious overstatement in Rosie’s article is the Treasury’s “idea” of slowing ‘the whole process down’ from David Walker in 1975. “Walker’s plea to put the brakes on devolution went down well,” writes Rosie. “It was another four years – far longer than was anticipated – before the devolution question was finally put to the people of Scotland. By which time they were weary with the argument.”

Reality was rather more prosaic, and the result of rebellious Labour backbenchers rather than scheming civil servants. Within months of Walker’s advice the government published a White Paper on devolution (mentioned by Rosie but apparently deemed unimportant) and introduced the Scotland and Wales Bill shortly after. Progress was delayed because that Bill fell on a guillotine motion, and another one had to be introduced (the standalone Scotland Bill) in 1977. This received Royal Assent in 1978 and was put to Scots in a referendum on 1 March 1979. Rosie also neglects to mention that the referendum – which he deems to have been “rigged” without any supporting evidence – was, in 1975, not part of the Government’s plan. That, too, was the result of a backbench Labour amendment, as was its “40 per cent rule”, not Whitehall intransigence.

Two Bills and a referendum were hardly the actions of a Government following Civil Service advice to “delay” devolution. Furthermore, few of Whitehall’s creative schemes to prevent a devolved or independent Scotland “laying claim” to North Sea oil revenue stood a serious chance of being backed by ministers. It was simply advice, and advice that was largely ignored. Rosie also implies that here, too, civil servants generally got their way.

“One way or another, the Whitehall mandarins succeeded in doing what they set out to”, claims Rosie, “ensuring that the oil money was kept away from the Scots and dragging things out until the SNP ran out of steam.” Rosie sees the two issues – North Sea oil revenue and devolution – as inextricably linked. “The hope was that this would be enough to satisfy the constitutional hankerings of the Scots and secure North Sea oil for the United Kingdom.”

Yet far from trying to stop a devolved Scottish Assembly, as Rosie writes, “get[ting] its hands” on North Sea oil revenue, at one point both Labour and the Conservatives promised to establish an ”oil development fund” (as negotiated in Shetland by its local authority) to give Scotland a defined share of North Sea oil wealth. The political debate was always about whether Scotland should receive its share of the proceeds through general distribution of government expenditure, or through a ring-fenced fund.

But, concludes Rosie, ”There was no prospect of the Scots getting at the oil revenues. Most of the money went to pay for the unemployment that Thatcher’s reforms brought.” Again, this is simplistic. Given that a lot of that unemployment was north of the border then surely, in a way, Scotland did “get at” the oil revenues. And what about regional aid? No mention of that in Rosie’s account, or of the fact that North Sea oil industry made the Grampian region one of the wealthiest in the UK. Rosie also implies that while infrastructure  in the south-east of England was rebuilt Scotland was neglected, a view which any Scottish Office civil servant from the 1980s would heartily, and correctly, dispute.

Rosie alludes to Yes Minister but omits a crucial point. Yes, Sir Humphrey often manipulated Jim Hacker into doing the Civil Service’s bidding, but equally the minister often succeeded in outwitting Sir Humphrey’s devious schemes. In the case of North Sea oil and devolution the old adage applies: advisers advise but ministers decide.

David Torrance

SIR: In ‘Call to Arms’ (SRB, Vol 5 No 1) Stuart Christie writes: “Command of the [British] Battalion had been due to be taken over by Scotsman Wilf McCartney, but he was shot and wounded, allegedly accidentally, by Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan […] McCartney was forced to return to Britain due to his injuries and command of the Battalion passed to an Englishman, Tom Wintringham.”

In fact McCartney had been the first Commander of the Battalion for a few months before he was recalled to London. In his biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, Hugh Purcell writes, “Then an extraordinary incident occurred. On 6 February [1937], Kerrigan entertained McCartney to a farewell dinner in Albacete during which he persuaded him to leave behind his big Mauser pistol in exchange for Kerrigan’s Belgian .22. The Mauser was loaded and accidentally Kerrigan touched the trigger, shooting McCartney in the arm and instantly rendering him unfit for combat. By such an improbable accident – for it was an accident, despite suspicions to the contrary – did Tom Wintringham become Commander of the British Battalion on the eve of its first battle.”

John Manson



September 4, 2009

Volume 5 Issue 2 Letters   SIR: Ronald Frame’s review of Sex, Lies and Shakespeare by Christopher Rush, full as it is of thinly-veiled disbelief, sarcasm and innuendo does him little credit. Was he ever a teenager himself? And where did he go to school? He is so totally out of touch...