Jul 16, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 7 – culture, cannibalism and courage

I ended last time with Charles Dickens, a wonderful writer whose novels and commentaries evoke Victorian England in all its captivating awfulness to the extent they found a new lease of life in the guise of the television serial and Christmas special. If it isn’t Dickens then it’s Austen. And if it’s Dickens or Austen it’s Christmas. Except nowadays Christmas tends to be cheap and trashy dancing shows and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. The progress of civilisation, huh? With both Dickens and Austen we feel we know their worlds for we’ve been exposed to a succession, a very long succession, of directors and scriptwriters who’ve reinvented their characters and storylines, adapting them to the mores of the day. Of course, we don’t. We have not the faintest sense of the privileges and suffering they wrote about. Suffering we’ll come back to but none can deny that many a Dickensian character sticks in our minds as clear as any picture because of his sheer ability to distil their persona onto a page of letters. Pictures are a powerful medium – I feel a link coming on.

Think Renaissance with a capital R and you are probably thinking pictures and characters. First book up is The Penguin Book of the Renaissance edited by J. H. Plumb. Plumb had a long and glittering career as a historian. Not your average working historian for a glance at his Wiki page explains how this well-connected academic was so successful he was able to ‘indulge his taste for fine food and wine, build a collection or rare porcelain; drive a Rolls-Royce’ and had residences in England, France and New York. But this isn’t about him.

I used this little book when studying History of Art at university and for some reason while other books from that time went the way of many things, this one has stuck fast to a book shelf, possibly because it is small and can be squashed in between other books. Anyway, renaissance art was one of the major topics in my degree cannily chosen to overlap with aspects of my history degree which included Renaissance Italy. Art was intrinsically mixed up with the treacherous, inspiring, enlightening social and political events of that tumultuous period – ever fascinating and exciting.

It is impossible to isolate the art: painting, drawing, etching, sculpture, architecture from dynastic struggles between feuding families who were the main patrons of the arts. This was the world of political murders and unquenchable corruption that affected religious and lay life: the Borgias, Sforzas, Medici, Machiavelli. Ruthless tyrants and immoral politics. The wealth and privileges enjoyed by the great families associated with the renaissance was only made possible because of the craftsmen and women who manufactured items, agricultural labourers who worked their lands, their guards and militiamen who protected them from equally rapacious rival clans or families. Not that any Borgia or member of the Medici would have acknowledged they were dependent on anyone so low.  

Fifteenth century Italy – magnificent and cruel. Artists who stood on the shoulders of their forebears of classical Rome and Greece in developing their specialisms that so beguiled their unsavoury patrons continue to fill us with awe and admiration today – indulgent, ravishingly beautiful – often providing pictorial evidence of that period. Architects designed homes for the powerful, fortresses, chapels and churches. They painted their portraits positioning them alongside saints as though they were part of the narrative of Christ’s life and work. They flattered and massaged the egos of Italy’s elites. And that got them more work.

The book looks at many works in detail: The Tribute Money by Masaccio – researching Scottish farming many years ago I chanced on a bull in the Scottish Highlands called Masaccio. I liked that. But back to the art. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his figure of David, Fra Angelico’s Life of St Nicholas.

The arts at this period flourished to a level that was astonishing and inspiring despite or was it because of the back-stabbing that was happening in pursuit of power both religious and secular, including in the Vatican. Whereas now rich and powerful individuals and families indulge themselves and show off their wealth through owning fast cars, enormous yachts, racing horses, properties in the world’s chic destinations, trips into space and art collections – but often collecting art created by long-dead artists who starved to death in the proverbial garret. Fine art consumption, a bit like hoarding bitcoin. Back in the renaissance living artists were given contracts by princes and tyrants keen to bask in the glory of an outstandingly beautiful cathedral or sumptuously painted ceiling. Okay, so they didn’t pay much but usually they paid something.

Paintings, sculpture, architecture and other associated crafts were rarely just seen for their intrinsic beauty but as property and narratives that carried a message to influence behaviour.

Nowadays? Well, there are pally newspapers and TV editors to massage the egos of the great and the good (sic) and mould a public impression of them that flatters and deceives. Different times, different media but essentially buying an image has been around for a very long time.

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And from the old world to the new – or so those Europeans who settled in what became America would have us believe was new. A new world to them, certainly. Again, there are comparisons with today. We’ve become inured to flimsy vessels taking to the seas packed to the gunwales with the scared, the frightened and the ambitious. It was ever thus. Where do you think we in the British Isles first came from? Under a cabbage leaf? Think boats and migration.

The factors that influence people to up-sticks and migrate to another country or a different part of a country vary but for most it is in the hope of a better life – somewhere safer, more pleasant, land available, work available, exploration. The ‘pioneers’ who took to a temporary itinerant life to travel westwards across America from east to west, to California, were following their own individual drives but surely all shared the belief they were heading towards better times.

Ordeal by Hunger by George R. Stewart is one of the most harrowing books you will ever read. He tells the story of the final group of the 500 wagons that left Independence Illinois for California in the spring of 1846. The pioneers tailing onto this huge body of migrants came to be collectively known as the Donner-Reed Party. Stewart’s account was first published in 1936 but our copy is from the press of Ace Star Books, 1960 edition, which we bought from Old town Books in Tempe, Arizona in April 1991.

During that spring of 1846 hundreds of people; single people, servants, whole families (there were many children), rich and poor thought to undertake a journey of more than 2,000 miles for a host of reasons – to escape difficulties, to find land to farm, to forge new businesses, to find work, to find religious freedom, for adventure – all adults had their own reasons. They were not the first to head westwards and of those who made it through some sent letters to their folks back east or in other parts of Europe that California was a fine place to settle and bring up a family. So, under the leadership of George Donner and James Reed this last group set off along the Oregon Trail. They would have anticipated reaching California by fall, all going to plan but the plan was altered. Instead of continuing along the established trail as those ahead of them had done it was decided they would take a largely untried route recommended by Lansford Hastings, an explorer who had never attempted to take a wagon across this inhospitable and unbroken diversion. On the map it appeared Hasting’s trail would shorten the journey and because of earlier mishaps that had held up the wagon train the Donner-Reed party was behind in their schedule and winter was fast approaching in the high territory that lay ahead. This decision was their undoing. They became completely bogged down in the mountains in treacherous conditions. Snow tens of feet deep prevented wagons progressing, oxen disappeared and horses couldn’t cope. What hope was there for men, women and children on foot, fast running out of food? Practically none. These were not mountain men and women but people used to the plains of the east. They did not have the knowledge of folk living in extreme conditions who in any case would not have considered embarking on moving people, the majority children, and goods across untamed boulder and tree strewn mountainous landscapes with snow, ice, gale-force winds and swollen rivers.  

It is impossible to imagine the extent of miseries experienced by the men, women and children who found themselves stranded in a living nightmare.  One by one they weakened, grew sick or got injured and began to die. Some of the stronger ones endeavoured to scale the mountains to make contact with help. One or two made it. They were met with enthusiasm from settled Californians who volunteered food, money and animals and some risked their own lives to rescue those trapped across the Continental Divide who were dug into rudimentary shelters completely submerged under deep snow with nothing to eat.

Well before this stage because of the delays in crossing the lower part of the trail food was in short supply and water frequently unavailable for many miles. To try to prevent their mouths feeling so dry distressed children were given a flattened bullet to chew on. With food supplies dwindling to non-existent some folk were reduced to eating grass. That was fine, in a sense, until heavy snows piled feet high over the ground. Animal hides, used as tent covers and cut into strips to make fastenings for quickly manufactured snowshoes from ox yokes were soaked and cooked over fires and eaten – a choice of food over shelter. They ate tallow and mice. Then it was decided they would have to eat human flesh. One can only imagine the tensions ensuing during a discussion about how this might be done. It’s almost unbearable to read a passage describing two men contemplating firing loaded revolvers at each other until one is shot dead instead of black-and-white murder. When it came to eating human flesh revulsion prevented this for long and some never would touch it except to keep children alive.

Stewart is a good story-teller. His descriptions of landscape and horror are well-done. And, too, his accounts of kindnesses for this is not simply a horror story but one where adversity brought out the very best in people as well as the worst. There are so many characters involved it is hard for the reader to keep individuals in focus but there’s a roster of the Donner Party at the end and a condensed itinerary plus other notes on people and incidents to assist.

Accounts of their harrowing trial came from survivors and diaries kept by some of the migrants. Forty-eight of the ninety pioneers who set out made it to California. Some fared well in their new lives but for others so deeply were they affected by the horror imposed upon them they were never able to reconcile what they lived through.

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As though there was method in the madness of filling bookshelves the next book along is also about the land featuring above, only thirty years later and from the experience of a lone traveller – I offer you A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.

There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

Okay, so I’ve cheated. The passage above comes from a blog I wrote some years ago on the intrepid Ms Bird and being someone who doesn’t believe in wasting energy reinventing the wheel I’m reproducing a fragment from my earlier piece, A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks. For the whole blog click on the link:

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermillion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

If you haven’t yet read it then give this one a go. I’m not a great one for re-reading books, with a few exceptions such as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Bird’s tales of the American West. Her book on China I didn’t like as much.

We’re just about there, folks. Next time should do it. End of a bookshelf. Till then forget Freedom Day. Being free to contract Covid is no kind of freedom so take care and keep well.

Jul 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 6 – Facts, facts, big balloon, hard times, Ibn Khaldun to Charles Dickens

Books on a shelf Week 6

Hullo again. I have four books for you this time around. Next up along the shelf is Yves Lacoste’s Ibn Khaldun: The birth of History and The Past of the Third World.

Ibn Khaldun was an eminent Arab historian born into a wealthy Andalusian family in Tunis in 1332. He died in Cairo in 1406 and between these two dates he was an eminent diplomat, a distinguished soldier during a period of near-incessant wars and one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. We in the west inhabit a strange cocoon existence blissfully ignorant of so much that is important in terms of people, events and inventions outside of our cocoon – assuming whoever is out there simply isn’t as smart as us.

Who hasn’t heard of sociology – the study of society? No-one reading this, I would guess. And the person behind sociology was? … the French philosopher Comte is frequently named as the mind behind the social science but while he never used the term, sociology, it was the diplomat and soldier, Khaldun, whose work on civilisation and economics who created the groundwork for sociology a long time before Comte.

It has also been said of Ibn Khaldun that he was the father of History with a capital H. While his interests were mainly confined to North Africa his influence extended way beyond there. And in any case North Africa even during Khaldun’s time was no backwater but an area where extensive trading took place that –

… stretched from the Mediterranean coast to India, China and Japan and which also took in the eastern coasts of Africa and the Western Sudan.

Christian merchants met the Maghrebian traders who brought gold across the Sahara from the Sudan.”

I should mention the author of this book on Khaldun, Yves Lacoste, a French Moroccan geographer and geopolitician. He attracted criticism from the USA for calling out its bombing campaigns intended to cause widespread flooding with subsequent civilian deaths during the Vietnam War. In this book he settles some myths about Arab invasions of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) which emerged through historians’ misreading of Khaldun’s works.  

Such was Khaldun’s reputation that Tamerlane, the fearsome 14th century Turco-Mongol nomadic conqueror and emperor, asked him to become his historiographer and adviser.

In the 14th century the greatest political entity in the world stretched from the Danube to Annam. It was made up of the various Mongol principalities that had emerged from the empire forged a century earlier by Ghenghis Khan.”

Khaldun’s adopted Egypt enjoyed great prosperity from its pivotal role in the mercantile economy that went along with widespread trade between Asia and Europe. It also had a highly productive agricultural sector.  

… the Ottoman Turks drove Byzantines and crusaders out of Asia Minor and invaded Thrace, Serbia and Bulgaria.”

We can watch that happening in Netflix’s Resurrection – Ertugrul in real-time – or so it seems.

Noyan the Mongol leader and Ertugrul the Turkish bey

The Balkans remained under Turkish rule for 400 years. A tumultuous period of great political rivalries and frequent wars to establish political states – the Mongols driven out of China by the Ming dynasty which lasted into the 17th century; in India Mongols frequently battled Turkish Muslims and Hindus; Seljukian Turks resisted repeated onslaught from the Crusaders (Mongols killed one Caliph by rolling him up in a rug and riding their horses over him for they feared if they simply bludgeoned him to death and his blood touched the earth it would be offended.)

Hard Times. I could go on. Brutal and fascinating this period certainly is. And unfamiliar to many of us. And you’ll note I confined myself to history, not sociology. And while I might dip into the book again I’m more than content to pick up my Turkish history from Resurrection – Ertugrul.

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Did I mention Hard Times? Hang on in there for first up is Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller, The Lamplighter to be read at Dusk, Sunday under three Heads, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.

Opening this fine illustrated copy from 1906 I learn it contains a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences written by Dickens between 1860 and 1861, initially for his journal, All the Year Round. They comprise the writer’s impressions of life as found on his travels locally and internationally. Here was a man with itchy feet who was constantly on the road. It opens with a hint of mystery over who the person is that is being described. It is, of course, Dickens himself.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. During his boyhood he came to know poverty and suffering; famously his father was jailed for debt when Dickens was twelve and the child taken out of school and sent to work at a boot-blacking factory to contribute to the family’s income. The privations suffered by his own family made him sensitive to that of others – and there were plenty others in Britain in the nineteenth century.

That said and however magnificent a writer Dickens was, and he was, his works express many of the prejudices of his time. There are racist asides and assumptions that grate with today’s readers (vast majority of) as well as much that is acutely observed and pertinent. I don’t dismiss or excuse his racism on grounds that British society was so steeped in it when Dickens was alive for not everyone then was racist so he is responsible for his own bigotry but neither will I reproduce passages that I regard as offensive to all good people.

I will quote the first few lines of the book –

Allow me to introduce myself – first negatively.

No landlord is my friend and brother, no chambermaid loves me, no waiter worships me, no boots admires and envies me. No round of beef or tongue or ham is expressly cooked for me, no pigeon pie is especially made for me, no hotel-advertisement is personally addressed to me — I am both a town traveller and a country traveller, and am always on the road.”

Dickens visits a workhouse in London’s east end where he encounters –

… two old ladies in a condition of feeble dignity, which was surely the very last and lowest reduction of self-complacency to be found in this wonderful humanity of ours. They were evidently jealous of each other, and passed their whole time (as some people do, whose fires are not grated) in mentally disparaging each other, and contemptuously watching their neighbours. …they would fly at one another’s caps”

There he finds a young woman also incarcerated who is evidently depressed and who will never mix with outside society. Who will never be someone –

…who is courted, and caressed, and loved, and has a husband, and bears children, and lives in a home, and who never knows what it is to have this lashing and tearing coming upon her?”

There were many babies here, and more than one handsome young mother. There were ugly young mothers also, and sullen young mothers, and callous young mothers.”

He saw people who were forced to pick oakum.  Picking oakum involved inmates of workhouses (or prisons) splitting heavy tarry ropes, the sort used onboard wooden ships, to reclaim the oakum by hitting each strand with a heavy mallet. The oakum was then sold for caulking wooden ships, timber buildings, plumbing and so on.  

At Liverpool docks Dickens encountered Poor Mercantile Jack and the celebrated entertainer

Mr Banjo Bones, looking very hideous with his blackened face and limp sugar-loaf hat; beside him, sipping rum-and-water, Mrs Banjo Bones …”

Let’s move on.

Time and his wife from The Uncommercial Traveller

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Hard Times is set in the fictional Coketown in the north of England. This is a town where everyone is expected to work – everyone that isn’t rich that is – so that children must do their bit to add a few pennies to the abysmally low family incomes of the time. It’s not pretty and it’s not kind. This is brutal England where the very lifeblood and breath of the poor is sucked out for profit. There’s Josiah Bounderby – bumptious and lying scoundrel quick to take advantage of the vulnerable. And Gradgrind – facts, facts, Gradgrind. Hard Times – what it says on the cover is what we get.

The novel opens with my favourite Dicken’s lines that reflect the dullest of minds –

Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

The speaker is Gradgrind the school board superintendent.

In this life we want nothing but facts, sir. Nothing but facts!”

Then there is Bounderby –

A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.”

Tucked inside at page 51!! I found a note from my dentist – three dentists and three addresses ago, in 1994. It’s an actual written letter, begads, when patients were written to and not texted. On the back, because I don’t believe in wastage, is a phone number for Port Meirion that I can only think had something to do with arranging a visit there during my one and only Welsh holiday. You know the place where that weird TV series, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan and a muckle white balloon, was set. Nowadays we employ a muckle white balloon as prime minister. And because I really don’t believe in waste on the paper is a list, quite a long list for fruit and veg. It’s so long I suspect it covered two weeks – or two months? and directions to the holding off the South Deeside Road where the organic veg box scheme was run from. And then the note became a bookmark.

The Dickens Picture Book says it all on the volume’s spine. Inside are 466 pages stuffed with 600 black and white illustrations from many familiar Dickens’ stories and characters. The author, J. A. Hammerton, a Scot, liked to create bold brushstroke narratives for publication – histories and geographies and so on. There’s also lots to read in it about all things Dickens – on the man, himself and his attitude towards his illustrators, the most famous, probably, being Boz, as well as the low-down on many Dickens’ novels.

Hammerton collaborated with Arthur Mee in producing the Children’s Encyclopedia early in the 20th century and he was behind the big-selling Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia.

Harry Furniss was a hugely successful illustrator and caricaturist. Born to a Scottish mother and English father in Ireland he regarded himself as English. He contributed to the Illustrated London News, The Graphic and Punch as well as illustrating books for some of the 19th century’s major British writers, Dickens and Lewis Carroll.

Time, then, to draw this blog to a close. We’re getting there – to the end of the shelf. A couple of weeks should do it. A couple of weeks and how many more cases of government corruption? Lots and lots, I expect.What would Dickens have made of today’s Westminster bunch? A great deal – puncturing pomposity, exposing hypocrisy and sheer evil, I expect. He would have relished getting his pen stuck into them – today’s Bounderbys and Gradgrinds.

Take care till next time.

Jun 17, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 5 – Men-Lizards, Serge and Men in Prison and pathetic women

Books on a shelf Week 5

Last time I left you to carry on reading H. G. Wells’ Kipps. Finished it. Life teaches Kipps some hard lessons, as might be expected of an uncultured ‘little person’ finding fortune smiling down on him, if only briefly. Mrs Kipps’ socialist brother and his wife named their child Master Walt Whitman Pornick who is

a cheerful young gentleman of one and a half, who was given a spoon to hammer on the table with to keep him quiet…

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I really don’t know the reason why but so many books on this shelf have some association with the 1940s – the majority are second-hand but that can’t explain it. Possibly there is no explanation beyond coincidence for the house is choc-a-block with books as I repeatedly explain and they surely can’t all fall into this category – I know they don’t.

First published in Prague in 1936 Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts is a satire on the ruthless exploitation of colonies by European imperial powers. As well as historical examples Čapek was living through a time when this was still very much to the fore – European countries pillaging resources of militarily weaker nations and exploiting native populations for cheap labour. Czechoslovakia was threatened by German chauvinistic nationalism and their was not dissimilar behaviour by Britain (England) and France so the author has plenty material to hand to work from. In War with the Newts he exposes and ridicules the crushing ruthlessness of colonialism and needless to say his novel fell foul of Nazi censorship.

Captain van Toch recognises the value in exploiting Sumatra’s giant newts – for they are intelligent and skilful creatures. All goes to plan for a time but the plan has a flaw – the very intelligence that attracted him to exploit the newts means they are capable of out-smarting  their human enslavers. Like all the best exploited creatures – they rise up against their tyrants.

War with the Newts has a complex and innovative structure and is divided into three books. Book one examines the ‘Strange Behaviour of Captain van Toch’ – a man who casts a cynical eye over his fellow humans – or are they human? This Dutch ship’s captain is savagely racist and xenophobic. When informed the native Bataks are devils, Toch retorts –  

Man, there aren’t any devils. And if there were, they would look like Europeans. That thing must have been some kind of fish or something.

Eventually we discover more about the Men-Lizards from the Pacific Ocean through scientific study and reports written about them which, it is claimed, will not be read by many outside the scientific elite. A case is made for exploiting the newt population similar to all justification used by imperial powers. First overpower through armed superiority then denigrate the native population to create an impression of providing benefits instead of taking advantage of them. The pseudo-science used to justify capitalising on the newts makes up the second book within the novel. The final book introduces the war of the title.

A cleverly constructed piece of fiction that is not so far-fetched as the title may suggest for it is really about European powers in the 1920s and 1930s riven by racism, social divisions and ambitious militarism.  

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Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler is short; a novella. Schnitzler died in 1931, five years before War with the Newts was published. Born in Austria in 1862, Schnitzler’s family name was Zimmermann (as in Bob Dylan’s family name.) He was an author-dramatist who gained a reputation for his openly sexual works – which impressed fellow-Austrian, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. The explicit nature of his writing led to accusations of him being a pornographer – this was certainly the opinion of another fellow-compatriot, Adolf Hitler, who as Germany’s chancellor, dismissed Schnitzler’s books as Jewish filth (not Austrian filth) banned and had them burned.

Dream Story aka Rhapsody was written in 1926. The protagonist, Dr Fridolin, attempts to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies about another man while he puts himself about a bit. If this sounds familiar it may be because Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based on the novella. I haven’t seen the film but understand that Nicole Kidman plays the doctor’s wife as a woman confident of her own sexuality unlike Albertine in the novella who is a bit of an innocent in these matters – impassive as her husband makes love to her – well, has sex with her. You can see how this ties in with Freud’s view of women; women were inferior in all ways to men and men were anatomically superior to women inducing their penis envy. In their dreams.  

At first she gently raised her hand as if to prevent him, but he seized it and held it in his own, both questioning her and pleading with her as he looked up, so she nodded her consent and he began.

She lay there quietly, her hands behind her neck, and remained silent a long time after Fridolin had finished.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for today’s women to be confronted by such obvious misogyny. Women now, as then surely, were not the vulnerable submissive creatures Schnitzler and Freud fantasised about – their women docile as a means to an end. Will I read all 98 ½ pages of the book? I doubt it.

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Victor Serge’s Conquered City is one of a trilogy of novels that includes, Men In Prison and Birth of Our Power. George Orwell described Serge’s writing as –

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle …

Serge’s biographer, Susan Weissman, Professor Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California wrote of him –

Victor Serge is one of the most compelling figures to have emerged from the history of the Soviet Union. A lucid observer and a great writer, his is the story of a course set on hope, a pursuit of truth, dignity and human justice set against some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Forty years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR because his writing was critical of the state, Serge was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported. He travelled to Brussels (where he was born to Russian émigrés who fled Tsarist Russia) then to France. Forever hounded by the communist state he refused to stop criticising it and was constantly slandered as a result. From one persecution to another he also fled the Nazis and his final years were spent in Mexico where he died in 1947 at the age of just 56.

As Victor Livovich Kibalchich he left Brussels for France where as a youth he joined a French anarchist organisation and edited its magazine. He escaped the guillotine in 1912, unlike three of his comrades, but was jailed for five years for his political activities. Briefly in Spain on his release from jail he arrived in the newly established Soviet Union in 1919 where he became acquainted with the American journalist and communist, John Reed. Reed covered the October Revolution in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) and wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World. He died in 1920 of typhus, unable to get medicine because of a blockade against the Bolshevik government. He was thirty-two.

Conquered City is set during the civil war, the Terror that followed the Russian Revolution – terror inflicted by both Reds and Whites in 1919-20. Set in Petrograd in 1919 the story opens on a chilly night with frost clinging to all the familiar statuary and elegant buildings in that city, beautifully described. This is a political novel – how could it not be? – set when and where it is but it is no dour piece of writing. Far from it.  

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? but the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Anderson’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak house tops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store; “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No. 23 on the ration card …” How sad life is without flying carpets!

There is a lecturer whose monotone voice “fell like a fine rain” and who “was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it.”

I am now reading the entire novel.

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Our copy of Birth of Our Power has the feel of a book never opened, far less read, though my other half assures me he has read all three. Let’s take a peek at book two.

As with Conquered City, Birth of Our Power is set during revolutionary upheaval not only in Russia but also in France and Spain and not during the better-known Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 but the brutal period of the barbarous Great War when revolution broke out in Russia and Spain.

Spain entered the twentieth century, after its stunning defeat by the United States in 1898, as a backward, corrupt, priest – and soldier -ridden monarchy.

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

Recent events in Catalonia have demonstrated Spain continues in that tradition of cruel repression of its citizens which can be traced as far back as the Inquisitions that began in the 15th century. Serge’s hope was that eventually Spaniards might be freed from the iron clad fists of governments that tortured and murdered so many of them, if not in the period in which the novel was set then in the near future. I feel he would be sorely disappointed with how that country has turned out.  

The guardia civilis went forth on horseback, in rectangular formations, black on black horses, shoulders square under their black capes, towering over the crowd with their tricornered hats and their stiff heads, as impassable as painted wooden figures. Their vigilant eyes searched into the corners of alleys, into dark doorways, into tightly pressed groups, into anything that might hide deadly aggression, bullet or bomb, the sudden great stride of death over frightened heads towards the tense horsemen riding towards their fate. Theirs, ours!

The Spanish revolt of 1917 ran out of steam but in Russia revolution succeeded, though at a terrible price.

*

Finally, Men in Prison – it is 1914 – a political activist has been sentenced to a term in prison where brutality mirrors the savagery of outside society.

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be usefully compared … The truth for Serge was something to be undergone.

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

Though he shared many of their aims, Serge was always wary of the Bolsheviks – of their authoritarianism and openly criticised their abuses. He had friends who suffered terribly under the pitiless hand of the Cheka (the Bolsheviks’ political police) while Serge, himself, was imprisoned, deported and constantly slandered by the Soviet state.

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

Chapters come thick and fast: The Lockup —Yet Life Goes On —Capital Punishment —The Will To Live —The Years —Dying — Surviving —More Deaths —About To Be Discharged —

Three gray straw mattresses on crude cots – gray with filth, spattered with all sorts of stains, stinking of dust, old straw, sleeping animality –The mattresses and the drinking cup are apparently never cleaned. After the first hour, I wanted a drink. I was clumsy enough to shake the jug, and a greenish slime rose to the surface where wisps of straw, odd leaves, hair, bits of threat, and a broken match were floating.

Serge used his own prison experiences to paint his vivid descriptions of life in Soviet jails. He writes so well but the material is by its nature harrowing to read.

This blog post should have been up days ago but one or two passages from Serge’s books stuck in my head though unfortunately not sufficiently to quote him and, of course, I didn’t write them down at the time of reading. There was a comment about hope which struck me as the sort of clever statement I fancied pinching to use on social media. Again, I failed and now am doubting the remark was Serge’s at all. Note to self – always write down references and don’t chuck the scrap of paper into the recycling before reading it again.

Finally on Serge a word about his translator, the American Marxist, Richard Greeman, now 81, whose whole life has been spent in left politics as a writer, lecturer and, of course, translator. He was befriended by Serge’s son, the painter Vlady, an encounter that led to him translating Serge’s novels, including this trilogy.

Finally, finally – I’ve become so fascinated with Serge during this preliminary encounter with him and a his writings that once I finish Conquered City I intend reading Susan Weissman’s biography of the man. People who are brave enough to stand up to rotten regimes deserve attention.

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 4 – MacDiarmid, freedom of speech and watered beer

I’m listening to the elderly Johnny Cash while writing week four’s book selection so forgive me if I get maudlin.

Think I might be stretching credulity to its extreme if I try to link first up author and book, Hugh MacDiarmid and Songschaw, to Cash in any way but that won’t stop me trying. MacDiarmid, a major Scottish poet, made an enormous contribution to Scottish culture while American culture has been enriched by singer-songwriter Cash, a man who had good Fife blood flowing through his veins. And as culture has no barriers so everyone can appreciate both men and their talents.

Enough of this distraction. MacDiarmid might have been an awkward beggar in life but his role in the restoration of Scottish literature from the trough of its inferiority complex cannot be denied though I bear a grudge for his bloody-minded one-time dismissal of Doric, the rich dialect widely spoken in Aberdeenshire and Angus, possibly through his unfamiliarity with it though if my memory serves me correctly he became a good friend of that wonderful poetess, Helen Cruickshank, whose works are written in the Doric – they were near exact contemporaries.

The young Christopher Murray Grieve was bibliophile; his massive head stuffed full of knowledge from the time he was a boy. Political too, the teenager joined the Independent Labour Party and after the Great War in which he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps he married and lived for a time in Angus where, under the pseudonym MacDiarmid, he began to write poetry so lighting the touch paper of a new Scottish literary movement that expressed itself through the language spoken by Scots and not some affected airy-fairy literary construct. Vernacular Scots writing shamed into silence with the Act of Union has not shrunk out of a sense of inadequacy since the 1920s, thanks largely to MacDiarmid.

MacDiarmid’s best works were arguably his early poems, before he grew into an irascible grouch – and masculine. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is masterly in any language in any time – described by Kenneth Buthlay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as –

without quite bursting at the seams, is able to hold all or almost all of MacDiarmid—which is to say that it is crammed full of fine lyrics, satire, flyting, parody, burlesque, occasional verse, Rabelaisian jokes, metaphysical conceits, translations and adaptations, sustained meditations and speculations on philosophical and religious problems, elemental symbols, and allusions recondite and otherwise.

Lallans, the synthetic Scots, most associated with MacDiarmid’s writings was dispensed with towards the end of his life for English although he expressed the view that Scots was a greater medium for descriptive language than English.

Sangschaw he dedicated to his mother. This is from the preface by the author John Buchan.

Once upon a time the Scots vernacular was a national speech, and men like Henryson and Dunbar used it for the highest matters of poetry. But at the Reformation it was rusticated from court and college, and by the eighteenth century it had become a tongue only for familiar conversation, and in literature it was confined strictly to the homlier humours and affections. It was still capable, as Burns showed, of heights and profundities, but its lateral range was narrow . . .

 And Buchan added that MacDiarmid – and Robert Burns – did not confine the language they used in their works to a single dialect but selected words as appropriate from the Doric of Aberdeen in the north and all dialects south the Cheviots.

D. Cleghorn Thomson of The London Mercury wrote this of MacDiarmid in November 1924 –

Mr Hugh MacDiarmid’s little snatch of eight lines, The Bonnie Broukit Bairn is the rarest of things, a poem not to be measured by its length – humour, wit, magic, and revelation mingled as in an April rainbow.

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun

The hail clanjamfrie!

Crammasy – crimson; gowden – golden; wheen o’ blethers – lot of nonsense; broukit – neglected; hail – whole; clanjamfrie – worthless lot.

The poet is looking up into the night sky to Mars, the red planet, green Venus and the golden moon. The broukit bairn is Earth – not considered to be in the same illustrious company as the grander Mars, Venus and Moon yet the poet’s concern is with Earth and not the din coming from the three more acclaimed celestial celebrities. Earth where humanity is found – in us.

MacDiarmid was a Scottish nationalist who longed to live in a Scotland that was better than the place it became after the Union. As with his politics, MacDiarmid’s poetry was filled with certainty. No mere pretty verses satisfied him, they were vehicles for ideas in pursuit of the political and social equality he yearned for.

*

Next along is John Milton, Selected Prose. That took the smile off yer faces. Or is that the philistine in me surfacing? Likely, because there’s no argument about Milton’s place as a giant of English literature and immense influence in the development of ideas and behaviour in Britain.

I wasn’t however enthusiastic about this book and less so after a quick read through the flowery introduction by Malcolm W. Wallace, Principal Emeritus at University College, Toronto. I had a bed to change and worldly things to get on with so lost patience with Mr Wallace and went straight to the nitty-gritty – ah, Of Reformation Touching Church-discipline in England and the causes that hitherto have hindered it. It’s complex and anti-semitic? I’m thinking about which sheet to use. Turned to his advocacy of press freedom and freedom of speech, Areopagitica A speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing To the Parliament of England.

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise,

Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace;

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spririt, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

also from Areopagitica which can found above the Main Reading Room of New York Public Library and the work has been frequently referred to in court judgements – including in America restrictions over the rights of members of the US Communist Party to free speech.

The title, Areopagitica is a reference to a speech by the 4th century BC Greek rhetorician,  Isocrates, while Areopagus itself is a hill in Athens formerly used as a court for settling disputes.

*

Nestled up along alongside this little World’s Classic volume is its twin from the series of Milton’s work, The English Poems of John Milton.  The dust jacket provided me with a biography of the man – son of a scrivener, born in London and educated at St Paul’s school and Christ’s college, Cambridge. Milton was a pamphleteer – his Areopagitica appeared as a pamphlet when first published in 1644 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (usually abbreviated to the English Civil War.) Milton was a Latin Secretary to Cromwell and arrested at the Restoration (of the monarch.)

A touching piece to his deceased wife took my mind off sheets and pillowcases.

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

He’s best known for Paradise Lost but I’ve selected one or two lines from Death of a Fair infant Dying of a cough

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

I think it’s fair to say, Milton creeps up on you. That said I was hoping the next book wasn’t another of his. It wasn’t but be careful what you wish for.

*

The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb is a wee volume packed with all sorts of writing from the English poet and essayist.

First up is The South Sea House followed by a wide range of topics such as Valentine’s Day, The Praise of chimney-Sweepers, a Dissertation upon Roast Pigs and Confessions of a Drunkard.

The South-Sea House is a slow burner and doesn’t get beyond smouldering – for me, at least. Actually, Valentine’s Day isn’t much better though I liked the line

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

And it’s a case of pity the poor postie struggling under the weight of all those Valentine cards

The weary and all forspent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own.

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

I like to meet a sweep – understand me – not a grown sweeper – old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive – but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek – such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young sparrow . . .

Charles does like to go on a bit.

I reverence these young Africans of our own growth – and from their little pulpits [the tops of chimneys], in the nipping air of a December morning, preach a lesson of patience to mankind.

Lamb is amazed at the ability of the home-cultivated Africans to climb a chimney and survive to peep out the top.

*

I was fair longing to get down the sheets after sampling the stodge and expansive wordiness of Lamb but my spirits soared on seeing H.G. Wells was his neighbour. That’s more like it.

Kipps – the story of a simple soul

Until he was nearly arrived at manhood, it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he had come into the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other little boys.

Kipps is a grand read. Apparently Wells’ own favourite. Absorbing, funny it demonstrates Wells’ facility for observation of the human condition. He has such an eye for behaviour and the eloquence of his language carries the reader along on a magic carpet of amusement. I’m currently reading the whole thing.  And loving it.

‘Orphan’ – illegitimate Artie (Arthur) Kipps is brought up by an aunt and uncle who run a shop in the south of England. Kipps is educated to a degree below that of anything remotely recognisable as education and subsequently is packed off to learn the trade of draper – when that was a trade and not something intuitively picked up by anyone in off the street.

Kipps is signed up to seven years apprenticeship with Mr Shalford – sufficient time to fill the youth’s head with all that is necessary to know about black elastic, rolls of ribbon and silks – and a type of commercial shorthand that is essential to the drapery trade. But above all Kipps learns servility.

Mr Shalford –

What he put into Kipps was chiefly bread and margarine, infusions of chicory and tea-dust, colonial meat by contract at threepence a pound, potatoes by the sack, and watered beer.

The average late 19th century Briton’s diet to a T.

Not maudlin at all I hope you agree but then lots of different music has passed across my ears since beginning this. Stravinsky’s just packed up and left the CD player and The Doors have stepped up to see this through to the end.

Get vaccinated. Carry out the twice-weekly Covid tests at home – they’re free! Stay safe and keep us all safe.

May 22, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 3 – love and loss

Week three of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom finds me in a melancholic mood which I’ll come to later.

First up this week is a copy of poems from one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Gorenko, that contains text both in Russian and English. On opening the book three coloured photographs of northern Canada dropped out which probably indicates the book was bought there some years later than its date of publication, 1976. Every journey is a book purchasing opportunity.

I was born on June 11 (June 23, Old Style), 1889 near Odessa (Bolshoi Fontan). My father was at the time a retired engineering officer on The Russian Navy. At the age of one, I was taken to the north, to Tsarskoye Selo, where I lived till the age of sixteen.

My first memories are of the damp, green grandeur of the parks, the common where Nurse took me for walks, the racecourse where little bright-coloured horses galloped, the old railway station, and some other things that later formed part of the “Ode to Tsarskoye Selo”.

Beneath that ancient maple on the ground

My marble twin* lies broken, listless,

Her face turned ever to the pond

As to the rustling leaves she listens. 

    * a sculpture of a milkmaid with a broken jug by the sculptor P. Sokolov in Tsarskoye Selo park.

Anna Akhmatova was one of six children. Her maternal grandfather’s aunt, Anna Bunina, is said to have been Russia’s first poetess; certainly the first Russian women to make a living solely from her writing. Akhmat was our Anna’s great grandmother’s name and according to family legend it could be traced back to Khan of the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde refers to a state under khan leaders dating from 13th century territorial disputes between Mongols and Turks. And for consecutive weeks we are swept up in the myths and legends of the Netflix series Resurrection – Ertugrul which is about just this. What was golden about it? Apparently the tents lived in by some of the Mongols were golden in colour.

Like Anna Bunina, Anna Akhmatova also became a significant poet. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. In common with so many Soviet writers Anna’s work was criticised and censored under Stalin but unlike some other writers and artists she chose to live on in the Soviet Union, despite the difficulties that caused her. Her first husband was shot by the Soviet secret police – the Cheka.

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There’s an ominous knock behind the wall:

A ghost, a thief or a rat…

Her son was frequently imprisoned in Soviet labour camps. So too was her partner Nikolay Punin (a writer and art historian) imprisoned in the Gulag – dying there in 1953. On his arrest in 1949 (for criticising many of the portraits of Lenin churned out by what Punin described as talentless painters.) Akhmatova left his coat hanging in its place in their flat as a memorial.

During the war 1941 –

Now of all the plenty of this world

What is left? Only one’s daily bread,

Someone’s word – a gently human word –

And the lark’s pure singing overhead.

*

From 20th century Russia to 19th century Scotland and one of the most celebrated couples of their time, the Carlyles.

The Carlyles is the title John Stewart Collis gives to his biography of the illustrious pair, the historian, essayist and translator, Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane.   

The Father

He was among the last of the true men, which Scotland (on the old system) produced, or can produce.

So wrote Thomas Carlyle of his father, James Carlyle, a builder at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. And again,

This birth into a family of Lowland Scottish peasant stock is very important, for such families were often aristocratic in their demeanour and their values.

Carlyle remembered his ‘uneducated’ father, a master-mason and builder, of having a prodigious facility for expressing himself ‘though not on paper.’

The Son

James Carlyle ensured his son, Thomas, was more formally educated and he was able to read as a very young child who at five excelled at arithmetic and Latin. He attended Edinburgh University at fourteen, not unusual in 19th century Scotland where education and learning came next to God in worship.

Jane Carlyle was Jane Baillie Welsh. She was from Haddington in East Lothian, daughter of a doctor and his wife, Grace Caplegil. Jane was also a precocious learner, specialising in the classics before she was five. She loved to express herself in prestigious letter-writing, remarked upon by Virgina Woolf.

Their marriage was perhaps platonic and stormy but endured.

Thomas Carlyle’s writings included satirical attacks on the abolition of slavery at a time when British men, women and children were being dreadfully exploited in the United Kingdom. Among his histories his work on the French Revolution is regarded of great importance. But revered as he was for his writing among the poor children in the neighbourhood of Chelsea in London where the Carlyles moved to from Edinburgh he was better known as the man who supplied them with extravagant quantities of sweeties.

Carlyle’s criticisms of the social setup in the United Kingdom made him unpopular with some in the establishment and on a more mundane level both Carlyles experienced that common prejudice experienced by the Scot living in England, ridicule of their coarse Scotch accents which he and Jane retained throughout their lives.

*

Next up is the work of a fellow-Scot who like the Carlyles decided his literary future was best served in England. J. M. Barrie from the home of Scottish gingerbread, Kirriemuir, is best known as author of Peter Pan. He was also from a working class home – his father was a weaver – and like Carlyle he also studied at the University of Edinburgh. Also like Carlyle his marriage was said to have been unconsummated. I don’t know what that says about the University of Edinburgh.

I’m not going to write about Peter Pan as I’m not even sure we have a copy of the book any longer but Barrie’s biographical novel, Margaret Ogilvy. Margaret Ogilvy is a charming account of the author’s mother’s life.

Chapter 1

How my mother got her soft face

On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) – I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked…

Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs.

Was there ever a better beginning to a biography?

Both the child Barrie and his mother were devastated by the death of James’ brother David in an ice-skating accident a day before his fourteenth birthday.  James Barrie tried to protect his mother from the feelings of loss that stayed with all her life and as a small child he wore David’s clothes and imitated his whistling in an attempt to assuage some his mother’s despair. The lost boys and the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter Pan can be linked to David’s death.

 It was from his mother that Barrie learnt the art of the story-teller and when he set out as a writer he revived several of those tales told to him by her of her life as a girl and young woman. Barrie’s fondness for his mother is demonstrated in the touching way he writes of her. Here he describes her approaching death.

They knew she was dying. She told them to fold up the christening robe and almost sharply she watched them put it away, and then for some time she talked of the long lovely life that had been hers, and of Him to whom she owed it. She said good-bye to them all, and at last turned her face to the side where her best-beloved had lain and for over an hour she prayed. They only caught the words now and again, and the last they heard were “God” and “love.” I think God was smiling when He took her to him, as He had so often smiled at her during those seventy-six years.

*

And finally, the reason for my own melancholia (probably not the correct description since I know its cause) is our gorgeous and sweet-natured cat was put to sleep on Monday following a short illness and stroke. The Dude was about eighteen years old, a rescue cat who chose us at the Cat and Dog Home. He came home with us a poor wee specimen of a beastie, severely ill but we nursed him through that bad time and for fourteen years he was our beautiful companion who adopted the sunny front spare room and would settle down on the floor next to me while I read my daily five-minutes and more of books from the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door.

Where we lived in our last house, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, we were semi-adopted by two feral cats who looked very like wild cats. We sometimes fed them and looked out for them. These cats were different generations and one followed the disappearance of the other. Both of these cats we called Murdoch. The first Murdoch and the Dude got on particularly well. One early morning Murdoch appeared as usual in the garden and the Dude ran out to see him. We saw nothing of either of them the whole of that day. It was into the evening before Dude turned up, hungry and exhausted and went straight to bed. He slept soundly that night and most of the following day after his adventure on the road with Murdoch – or more likely across fields and woodlands. Where they got to we never discovered but life on the road didn’t appeal to the Dude and he never again followed his friend beyond the end of the drive.

The younger Murdoch was never such a close companion but he was a frequent visitor and we watched him over the years as his health failed. Cats never give up and so it was that Murdoch would drag his clearly arthritic body around the area he frequented, presumably for food from households such as ours.

One day he turned up at the back door obviously unwell. It was winter but there was some warmth from the sun against the south-facing wall of the house and Murdoch cooried in to rest there. When he went to drink from a little pond he lost his balance and it was obvious he was having a stroke and had lost control of his hind legs. The vet was called out and we managed for the first time to get hold of the poor animal and he was put to sleep on garden bench. Now the two Murdochs and the Dude can roam cat heaven together.

Farewell my old friend.

May 13, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 2 – Guy Bord? You won’t be.

Hullo again. Here I am with week two of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom. If it occurred to me week two would find me on easy-street having completed my initial book blog I was wrong. What certainly occurred to me was to cheat when I realised which books were next in line but that would have been to stoop to cowardly behaviour which I’m not normally averse to but – well a blog is a bit public, even mine. Anyway I’d included a photograph of the shelf in my first blog so such dirty tricks were out of the question.

For any who don’t know what I’m on about this series of blogs emerged from a challenge I set myself to read at least five minutes a day from a book on one shelf in one bookcase in one bedroom of my house. Before I start I should say that I am now reading the Margaret Dewar book I introduced last time and enjoying it though I don’t think she’s a particularly admiral person she doesn’t shrink from opening up her character flaws to her readers.

Not being able to find my notes on the next book along, today’s first book, The Conquerors by André Malraux, had me scranning through the recycling bin and sifting a small mountain of shredded paper through my fingers like an over-confident MI5 agent. Nothing for it but to dust myself down and start all over again.

Until a few mornings ago I had never read Malraux. Never heard of him. Like Margaret Dewar André Malraux was born at the start of the twentieth century. French, he went to Indochina on an archaeological expedition where he became embroiled in the politics of the area.  Later a spell in China then home to France to oppose fascism in his homeland where he would subsequently join the French Resistance and get involved in the Spanish Civil War, that training ground for the German fascist war machine.

His writings earned him many literary prizes though as far as I know, nor for this novel.  

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

The bulletin has been posted since yesterday, underlined in red.

As far as the horizon, the Indian Ocean lies glassy, lacquered, not a ripple. A cloudy sky presses down like the fug in a bathhouse, wraps us in humid air. The passengers pace the deck methodically, careful not to wander too far from the white-framed board where bulletins monitored tonight will be tacked up………

And so on with the author developing a setting for the civil war between the Kuomintang and communists in 1920s China, the parts played by a Bolshevik, an anarchist and pacifist and the war’s impact on many more. As political novels goes it has to be said le Carré it ain’t. I gave it a go but nothing about the story grabbed my interest which no doubt says more about me than the novel but I no longer feel a book begun must be a book finished and so with a great sense of relief it went back onto the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door in the spare room. I exchanged it for Margaret Dewar’s autobiography, and don’t regret it.

Malraux’s cover picture is more captivating than the inside although I don’t know the symbolism of the fly, likely it is explained in the book. Malraux was influenced by Nietzsche and the philosopher’s ideas of uberman or superman – that ability of a hero figure to do something great and so make him all-powerful. Nothing to do with DC Comics superhero, superman – well, I say that but what do I know? It just could be since Superman was a 1930s creation that Jerry Siegel may well have been a Nietzsche afficionado.

All heavy going but wait…hold the front page…Monsieur Malraux it emerged from my googling his name was a tealeaf of some notoriety. In 1923 he was arrested for the theft of 10th century Cambodian temple relics which he intended to sell for cash, being broke at the time. He got a suspended prison sentence. Now I have to ask which crime is greater – art theft or writing a tedious novel?

Was hoping to move on to something lighter but oh, oh next up is Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy (1976.) I’ll keep it brief. Habermas has the reputation of being Germany’s most influential thinker currently. He’s still alive, at ninety-one. His ideas were popular in the 1960s and to give you an impression of what was making it big in the world of philosophy and sociology back then along with Beach boys and Beatles are a few lines from the start of the book – two lines since I feel for you.

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

To use the expression “late capitalism” is to put forward the hypothesis that, even in state-regulated capitalism, social developments involve “contradictions” or crises…

What I did find fascinating is Habermas’ explanation that the commonly-applied term “crisis” was first used in the context of illness. That we can all now appreciate in these Covid-19 times. Crisis in terms of illness suggests helplessness of the patient with very little influence on how the illness affects him or her. Yes, definitely appreciate that nowadays.

He goes on to consider the extent of crisis in other areas of life, the passivity of people affected and loss of individual sovereignty – fatalism. Now we’re talking because we’ve been captivated by Netflix apparently never-ending Turkish series Resurrection-Ertugrul where fatalism dominates life and death – en-shala (if it is the will of God) and if ever there was a heroic figure it is Ertugrul – one that I bet Malraux would have killed for, or at least stolen off someone.

Look, I have to lay my cards on the table – this selection, random I’ll remind you, is as light as a pan loaf sans yeast. This is me preparing you for book number three, Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue from 1954.  The title comes from a vision the 16-year old Koestler had home in Buda in Hungary where he imagined a super-arrow streaking into the blue sky and onwards through space – to infinity. The Koestlers were Russian who like so many thousands before and after them fled first from the terrifying Tsarist regime then the violence of the revolution in hope of a better and more peaceful life in Europe or America which is how the Koestlers came to settle in Hungary.

Arthur Koestler was an interesting man. A near exact contemporary of André Malraux, the name is German but this Hungarian-born writer is classed as British. A one-time communist, Koestler abandoned the party over the ruthlessness of Stalinism and his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon published in 1940, is set during Stalin’s great purge and Moscow show trials.

Goodness knows where our copy of Darkness at Noon is; certainly not on this shelf so let me get back to Arrow in the Blue which begins with –

Horoscope

From the beginnings of civilization man has held the belief that the constellation of heavenly bodies at the moment of his birth had an influence on his fate. (Back to Habermas.) It occurred to me that the constellation of earthly events at that moment might also be of some significance and, one day in 1946, I decided to cast my secular horoscope.

Koestler took himself off to The Times publishing offices in London to pore over a copy of the newspaper published on 5 September 1905, his birthday. What he was faced with were all kinds of mundanity. Just what impact any of the mundane events he discovered had on his future Koestler wasn’t certain but his life turned out to be anything but mundane. He was a member of the KPD, German communist party; a member of a Zionist duelling club; was a farm labourer in Palestine; sold lemonade in Haifa; edited a Cairo newspaper; was a foreign correspondent; a science editor in Germany; a Cold War propagandist in Britain and perhaps most exotically of all he flew to the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin in July 1931. After becoming terminally ill he and his wife, Cynthia, committed suicide in 1983 in London.

I can’t leave matters on that tragic note so will squeeze in a duo of books by John Aberdein. First up is Strip the Willow proving the slapdash storage of books because if there was any order on this shelf his first novel, Amande’s Bed, would be to the left but it isn’t so let’s take a look at Strip the Willow after a brief word about its author, John Aberdein – from Aberdeen.  

Because of the impact made by Amande’s Bed on the reading public Strip the Willow was eagerly anticipated. The book delivers savage satire and splenetic venting through the medium of the Doric; the language rich with its own vocabulary that is spoken from Aberdeenshire to Angus.

The strikes, occupations and demonstrations of France in May 1968 form the background of Strip the Willow which is set somewhere not unlike Aberdeen – in a city called Uberdeen. Uberdeen isn’t a nice place. The rapaciously ambitious LeopCorp dominates everything that goes on in it. For those not familiar with Aberdeen its emblem comprises a pair of leopards. Everything is up for grabs in Uberdeen, everything turned into a money-making opportunity by LeopCorp’s Rookie Marr’s gofer – the wonderfully named Guy Bord, a man who has come though almost as many political groupings as Arthur Koestler. Rookie Marr might be a shoe-in for Nietzsche’s and Malraux’s uberman but they never imagined turning Uberdeen’s majestic granite main street into a giant bowling alley – it’s impossible to overstate the whole bizarre jamboree that is Strip the Willow.  Guy Bord is a nod to the French Marxist philosopher and filmmaker, Guy Debord, and is typical of Aberdein’s clever wordplay.

March 31

what larks

A lemon UCKU plastic bag, flat on the tar, lank in the air, hopped and gusted towards her. According to the latest story, plastic bags were the root of all badness.

Nobody will be free until the last financier is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

L’imagination c’est le pouvoir, Imagination is power. Such was the calibre of slogan she and others had printed and glued to the walls of Paris.

Mort aux sacs plastiques! It didn’t quite fit somehow.

My copy of Strip the Willow was personally inscribed by John in 2009 at a book event at Aberdeen University which is very nice. The novel won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Award for Fiction in 2010.

All this takes me to my final book for now, Aberdein’s debut novel, Amande’s Bed which took the Scottish literary world by storm – a tour-de-force of the Scottish novel that won the Saltire Book of the Year prize in 2005.

Amande’s Bed attacks the ‘plasticated’ incursion of Americanisms into our lives resulting in de-junking of local traditions and values. It is a tale of love and internationalism, European naturally, with the eponymous Amande – a French-Scot – discovering the northeast is well in need of revolution and ripe for it. Aberdein’s entrance into Scotland’s cultural scene if not quite as sensational as the coming of the messiah was nevertheless dramatic. He was immediately compared with, among others, our own Ali Smith and Jackie Kay and James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

No idea if any of the above, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges have tackled the varied occupations that John Aberdein has – herring and scallop fisher, teacher, parliamentary candidate, political adviser… kayak coach, the first man to kayak around the Scottish mainland.

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

His mother woke several times that night, over-sweaty to sleep now with memories stirred. Finally she upped and padded from the bed-recess to the scuffed porcelain sink. She poured herself a cup of cold water, standing and nursing it, her candlewick robe over her nightslip. Dee water it was, Dee water that had come eighty miles from the roof of Scotland into the tenement.

a deterrent

I took the bus up tae see Ludwig. Ward 8.

O, that was good o ye. Ye hardly ken him.

I’ve met him afore. He was gey dozent wi the anaesthetic. I left him a pound o fudge.

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

Better than maist folk that’s just lost a haun. Aye, an far you then?

And we waited after Strip the Willow but John Aberdein didn’t feel obliged to continue indulging us with his raucous and hilarious jabs at authority and exploitative and ruthless capitalism for there have been no more novels.

Enough of this. Till next time, take care a’body.

May 3, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 1 – What Katy did and revolution

Dusting down one of the bookcases in the spare bedroom one day I thought it might be an interesting challenge to read just 5 mins from each of the books along one of the shelves every day. There has to be a start somewhere. Many of our books I have read, some several times over, but many more I haven’t and thought it might be an exercise in discipline to force myself to pick up a volume or several I’d normally walk by.

We’ve had most of our books for a very long time, although our recent flit meant several hundreds were given away to charity shops but our new house was partly chosen on the amount of space available for books, pictures and finally us (who don’t take up much room.) We didn’t quite make it and there are several filled bookcases stored in the garage and a box or three yet unopened. We have books on just about every subject under the sun, or did until the flit clear-out, and apart from history, cooking and mountaineering most of those that have found house-room have been shelved fairly randomly.

It wasn’t more than a few days into my 5-minute reads when it struck me this might make for a blog in the way just about everything is a blog opportunity. Clearly what I pick up in 5 minutes hardly allows for much context and I had no intention of doing book reviews so these blogs will be whatever I dig up on the subjects or authors of the works, and their ideas where I can understand them.

So here we are. Blog 1 on the books on shelf three of the bookcase next to the front bedroom door.

I hadn’t read What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge since I was a child. The copy I have now belonged to my late mother, a school prize won when she was twelve years old, the same age as the novel’s protagonist, Katy Carr.

Katy was a young tomboy as girls who didn’t conform to established mores of what was deemed feminine behaviour in the near past. Nowadays she would probably be encouraged to change gender and become Keith Carr since stereotypical behaviour is again becoming rigorously applied. Katy’s life is turned upside down by an accident that has her re-appraise her behaviour and she transforms and conforms to the idyl of womanhood, obedience. Coolidge’s tale, written in 1872, is set in the American mid-west where Katy’s father, a widower doctor, secures the services of his sister, Izzie, to help bring up his six children.  

The book begins with a poem, To Five (Katy’s siblings)

Six of us once, my darlings, played together,

Beneath green boughs, which faded long ago,

Made merry in the golden summer weather,

Pelted each other with new fallen snow.

The tale proper finds Katy sitting in a meadow when she overhears a conversation between two tiny pale-green creatures wearing black goggles and each with six legs. They seem to be discussing her.

“Katy did.” “Katy didn’t.” “She did.” “She didn’t.” “She did.”  “She didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.”

Walking home Katy reflects on those words and the many wonderful things she planned to do with her life and the little she achieved but in consolation there were other things she did which proved better than those in her first dreams.

While Katy Carr was submitting to the limitations imposed on women by American society actual American women were standing up to oppression and laying their lives on the line in pursuit of women achieving equality with men. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth were both arrested for making the case for women’s right to vote.

Susan Anthony entered the fray when she discovered she and her fellow-female teachers were being paid a tiny fraction of that given to their male colleagues. So began a lifetime commitment to activism and she was instrumental in the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association in America.

At her birth in 1797 Sojourner Truth was already a slave. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree but she chose to change it to Sojourner Truth. Right from the start of her life Sojourner learnt how unfair life could be. Born into bondage, Sojourner was bought and sold like a piece of disposable property and was frequently physically attacked and beaten. In 1872 having been denied her promised freedom Sojourner one day walked away from her master,

I did not run away, I walked away by daylight…

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Sojourner Truth was active in the antislavery movement and campaign for women’s rights. I suspect the young Katy Carr would have admired both Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. As for the later Katy, she needed to listen to those little green creatures with black goggles to remind her who she really was.

*

Another radical woman is the subject of my second book, The Quiet Revolutionary by Margaret Dewar.

The year was 1904. We were travelling in a kibitka through the snow. Sitting snugly on straw in the depth of the sleigh, wrapped up to the tips of our noses in rugs, our nanny, my sister Helga and I were following the kibitka carrying my parents, on our way from the port of Arkhangelsk to Ust-Tsylma, some 300 miles further north-east, less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. Suddenly our kibitka turned over and we all tumbled into the deep snow. No harm was done except for the shock to our parents. My sister was just over a year old, I was three. These are my very first memories.

This is a biography of Margarete (Rita) Watz born in Latvia into a Latvian-Russian-German family. Her childhood was spent in Riga, Siberia, St Petersburg and Moscow during the period before the Russian revolution. Descriptions of her early life in Russia are a joy to read for they are filled with all sorts of magical details about places, children’s toys, foods eaten and the sorts of clothes people wore but this was no fairy tale.

Young Margaret lived through the terrible Tsarist period with all the uncertainties that brought and then there was the upheaval and violence of the revolution and reaction. Margaret’s family left Russia for Germany in the early 1920s and between her life in Latvia and Russia and experiences in in post-war Germany it is little wonder she became politicised. The rise of fascism in Germany was a real threat to her survival and so once more she fled, eventually reaching Britain hence her British-sounding name, Margarete anglicised to Margaret and Dewar from her Trotskyist husband, Hugo.  

*

Book three is about yet another strong woman. Unlike Margaret Dewar one whose life became dedicated to revolutionary activism from an early age. Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, around the time What Katy Did was being written, a daughter of a timber trader and his wife she was encouraged to read widely, a passion shared by Margaret Dewar. By the age of fifteen Rosa was involved with the left-wing Proletariat Party and soon active organising a general strike. Her political activities drew her to the attention of the state and she came under constant surveillance and intimidation. Dangerous times and four of Rosa’s comrades were executed for their activities.

The book Comrade and Lover, Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Leo Jogiches, translated by Elizbieta Ettinger, concentrates on personal aspects of Rosa’s life as suggested by the title.

In much the same way as Margaret Dewar, Rosa sought safety by fleeing her home. Initially she went to Switzerland where she attended the university of Zurich and left it with a Doctor of Law degree, a rare achievement for women back then.

The Leo Jogiches referred to was a fellow-Marxist and Rosa’s lover to whom Rosa wrote nearly a thousand letters. She was always an inveterate letter-writer and the  book features a small selection of them.

Here’s a flavour from my five minute read –

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1870, in Zamość, a small town in Poland under Russian rule. The youngest child of Elias Luxemburg and Lina Löwenstein, she had a sister, Anna, and three brothers, Mikolaj, Maksymilian, and Józef. Polish and German culture permeated the family’s life. The Luxemburgs had no connections with the Jewish community of Zamość, which was one of the most cultured in Poland. When they moved to Warsaw in 1873, they left nothing behind – not ties, no regrets. Elias Luxemburg, a well-educated merchant, identified himself with the Polish patriots who, in two unsuccessful insurrections (1830 and 1863) sought to overthrow the hated czarist regime. Lina Luxemburg, a cultivated descendant of a long line of rabbis, was enamored of German poetry and music. Each parent leaned toward a different way of shedding Jewishness, although neither way was mutually exclusive.

Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with Jogiches, a Latvian (Latvia was then part of the Russian empire), lasted many years but was largely secret even from her family for a long time because while they often lived together they were not formally married. Rosa and Jogiches were often apart, hence the letters, with him largely in Switzerland while Rosa lived and worked in France and Germany. Both were involved in the Spartacus League, a German Marxist organisation aimed at an international proletarian revolution (it changed its name to the German Communist Party [KPD].)

Leo Jogiches

The early letters are mainly love letters typical of any young people but Rosa and Leo Jogiches lived under constant strain of state surveillance. Germany in the early years of the twentieth century was a hostile environment for anyone daring to question the direction being taken by the state, the left being singled out for particular scrutiny and intimidation. For Marxists like them life was positively perilous, as they along with many of their comrades discovered to their cost. Later letters lack the intimacy of the early ones and tend to concentrate on aspects of the couple’s activities and Rosa’s dependency on the wealthy Jogiches for money.

Here’s a flavour of a letter sent from Rosa to Jogiches when she was in Berlin in June 1899.

You horrid monkey!

   Again you’re furious! And why? Because I must wait a few days for a letter from my father. You seem to forget that my father hasn’t seen me for 10 (ten) year. And from what I hear about his health, it’s clear that this is going to be our last meeting… As I wrote to you, I’m leaving on Wednesday, and will meet my father in July. He is very ill and I’ll have to put him up in a sanatorium. I’m on my way to K [autsky].

   Kisses, though you aren’t worth it.

Katy Carr’s fictional spinal injury that led to the transformation of her character from rebel to obedient young woman has resonance in the life of Rosa Luxemburg who really did suffer from bone disease that was badly handled by doctors and left her with a permanent limp. But Katy’s life lacked the adversities faced by Rosa for whom interrogation and prison became increasingly her reality. During one interrogation in 1919 she was very brutally beaten by the extremists from the  rightwing freikorps (German paramilitaries – the sort of people who created the fascist state in Germany within a few short years.) On 15 January 1919 Dr Rosa Luxemburg, philosopher, economist, anti-war campaigner and revolutionary socialist was beaten while held in prison, her skull smashed with a rifle butt and she was shot through the head before her frail body was dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr canal (a fate shared by her fellow-KPD comrade Karl Liebknecht.) Leo Jogiches, too, was murdered while in prison in Berlin a few weeks after Rosa.

*

The Germany Rosa Luxemburg fought to alter descended through years of terror and oppression into fascism and Nazism. Eventually Europe then the world was once more at war.

My final book for now just happens to be on the subject of the Second World War. Poems of this War by Younger Poets, edited by Patricia Ledward and Colin Strong.

Published in 1942 this anthology features verses written during the first three years of the war. As the poet, Edmund Blunden, writes in his introduction the 1914-18 war was reflected in some very great poetry and this second world war inspired a fresh set of young poets to express their feelings having to endure the fear and unknown future of the then current war.  

The first poem is by Emmanuel Litvinoff, We saw doom patterned in the ordinary sky

The Conscripts

We go to war in various ways

From farms and factories, the usual ways

Of life suddenly distorted to terrible

Experience. This fear becomes the visible

Coffin at the funeral.

Litvinoff’s recurring theme is the sky – from doom patterned in the ordinary sky to birth patterned in the deathly sky. Hope? I imagine so yet we know the killing would continue for another three years.

Litvinoff was from a Russian Jewish family that had fled pogroms in Tsarist Russia in 1914. Within three years his father would return to Russia to fight alongside the Bolsheviks in the revolution – and so he vanished from young Litvinoff’s life.

Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, Emanuel Litvinoff celebrated his Jewishness which was integrated into his writings. From an inauspicious start in life, brought up in a working class Jewish community in London’s east end, Livinoff went on to become an significant poet and novelist portraying Jewish struggles in Europe. He died in 2011.

The works of several women poets are also featured in the volume, including Margery Smith. My efforts to discover something, anything, about the life of Margery Smith have fallen on fallow ground. Her name crops up in some poetry reference books with examples of her verses but of her life, I’ve drawn a blank.

This is a fragment of her poem, Peace from Poems of this War

World-peace goes leaden-footed between the wars,

Limps wearily between the roars

Of iron days

But in among the murder-rays,

A brighter flame,

Peace, enters singly as she always came

When she desired Eternal rest:

It is her singleness impressed

Upon a soul, a soul, a soul,

That shall in time give wisdom to the whole.

One can hope. There is that word again. We all need that.

Till next time when I open up what comes next on the shelf.  

Apr 23, 2021

St Mary’s of the Storms – 14 hundred years in the lives of the folk of Cowie

Charming and ever-edging towards the beach below sits St Mary’s of the Storms. The church, the last of a number spanning fourteen centuries, is derelict but the graveyard surrounding it remains the eternal home of many of Cowie (Kolly) and district folk – a great number dependent on the sea and coast for their livings, as is apparent from motifs on their memorials.

There are splendid views from the site, grass-covered Old Red Sandstone cliffs stretching up from the North Sea where in the distance elegant white turbines harness the wind. To the south is the bonnie town of Stonehaven and just beyond it another ancient ruin, the renowned Dunnottar Castle, a mere stripling by comparison with the first of the kirks at Cowie, having been built seven hundred years or so later, in the 14th century.

Cowie’s holy site was established by St Nathalan/ Nachlan/ Nauchlan. From Tullich* east of Ballater where he also set up a church and where he is buried (c. 678AD) as well as one at Coull. Legend has it the enterprising St Nachlan had a treasure hoard which he wrapped in a bull hide and buried “between the kirk and the kirk’s ford” at Cowie but I imagine that’s a cock-and-bull story.

Early chapels would have been constructed of timber and turf with the first stone one taking shape during the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the 11th century; the broken-down church seen today dates from the 13th century. At some point in its past it is believed St Mary’s was a creel kirk; a church where a creel (basket carried on the back for carrying fish, tatties, cut peats and babies) was passed around the congregation to collect offerings of food and clothing for local poor.

Hundreds of years of being blasted by coarse winds straight off the sea it is hardly surprising the poor state it’s in but then there was the small matter of an Archbishop of St Andrews who during the Reformation in the 16th century ordered the removal of the roof – and that was that. Having set a precedent other people followed his example and began taking away stones so the dereliction continued. Attempts to stem the tide of stone theft included a legend that whoever dared build a home from kirk stones would suffer bloody retribution.  William Rait of Redclock (sic) shrugged off the threat and helped himself to part of the church roof but soon it was said his house “rained drops of blood.” At least that’s how the story goes.  

Roll on three hundred years and it was proposed to sell the burial ground. Concerned individuals got together in February 1832 and formed a society “for the protection of the dead in the burying-ground of Cowie” – the upshot was a revival of the graveyard but given the times with resurrectionists (grave robbers who sold bodies to medical doctors and students for anatomical study before access to corpses was legalised) such a menace they arranged for a mort house capable of holding 20 coffins to be built to protect recent dead. Erected against the chapel’s west wall it was secured behind heavy doors that required three keys to unlock it. The three keys were kept by different men and all had to be present to open up the vault to receive and remove coffins. The dead were stored for several weeks until such time it was thought bodies were in such a decrepit state they would be of no interest to the anatomists. With the revival of the kirkyard came the acquisition of more land to cope with the demand for burial space and so an extension was consecrated in the 1880s.

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

The location of the kirk and graveyard meant access was precarious, along a track on the clifftop; difficult enough during fine weather for coffin bearers in particular but surely a nightmare in wet and snowy conditions.

St Nathalan’s became St Mary’s or Our Lady of the Storms in the 13th century, on the 22 May 1276 – the dedication carried out by another Bishop of St Andrews, William Wishart. Never a parish church, St Mary’s was part of the parish of Feteresso. Several Scottish kings worshipped in the Cowie chapel. Scottish kings used to be itinerant – travelling around their realm – and when in the Royal Burgh of Cowie they would stay in Cowie Castle – its existence now reduced to a few stones a couple of hundred yards to the south of the kirk and graveyard. Cowie Castle stood on its promontory for 400 years. Malcolm Canmore, the king already mentioned, was behind the building of the castle in the 11th century.  The castle was in time occupied by the Frasers and from 1369 the powerful family of Keiths of Dunnottar (Earls Marischal of Scotland.) Once Dunnottar was built royalty made that their northeast residence. Both Cowie and Dunnottar castles along with nearby Feteresso were raised to the ground on 21 March 1645 during the Covenanting wars.

Travellers from the south heading towards Aberdeen passed through this area – a dangerous stretch of dirt road called the Cowie Mounth that was nothing more than swamp and gulleys until eventually filled with boulders to provide a better surface. It later became a turnpike road. The early highway ended at Kincorth and from there travellers and goods crossed the river Dee by ferry boat to the town of Aberdeen.

The earliest stones, their inscriptions and symbols are lost to us but there are plenty standing to fascinate anyone visiting this charming place. Lots of stones show symbols of the fleeting nature of life (hourglasses, crossed bones, skulls) and trade marks including boats, anchors, ploughs, shoemaker’s knife.

Most of the inscriptions on the table-stones are illegible now but well-known is one –

“To the memory of Raymond Stewart, a Black Man, a native of Granada, who lived for thirty years in the service of the late Mr Farquharson of Breda, in this country, and was much respected. He died at Elsick the 3d January 1834, leaving money which he had saved for charitable purposes.”

Another flat slab records the death in 1763 of John Thom, a tenant in Elrick, his wife, Ann Burnett who died in 1779 and their nine children.

Several ministers are buried at Cowie including the Reverends John Troup, John Petrie and Alex Greig, three Episcopal ministers who defied a law prohibiting them from preaching to more than four people at any one time and were jailed for six months in Stonehaven’s Tolbooth in 1748. Troup played the Jacobite air, O’er the water to Charlie on the bagpipes as he was marched to the prison. Defiant throughout they preached from their cell window to supporters gathered in the street, even baptising babies held up for blessing.

Several illustrious folk are buried at St Mary’s and at least one declared genius. William Kilgour who in addition to being a “superior weaver of bed-covers, and table-cloths, etc” constructed 8-day clocks from beginning to end.

Northeast Kilgours became world-renowned textile manufacturers. I don’t know if William was one of them. Possibly.

A memorial to the crew of Stonehaven’s lifeboat, St George, who died on 27 February 1874 while attempting to rescue the barque, Grace Darling. The lifeboat capsized as it entered Aberdeen harbour with the loss of coxswain and three crew. Two are buried at Cowie, one at Nigg and one at Belhelvie. Memorials such as this are a reminder of the ever-present danger of life at sea. Another tragic incident occurred on 21 April 1880 when a strong gale sprang up from the southwest and three local fishing boats were lost.

A simple gravestone marks the deaths of several members of the Christie family of Skateraw when their yawl, Brothers, went down within sight of land. There were six of a crew onboard: William Christie, sen., William Christie, jun., Thomas Christie, Andrew Christie, sen., Andrew Christie, jun., Peter Christie. Four were seen clinging to the mast spars and two more desperately holding onto the bow of the boat. A rescue craft was sent out and William junior was able to grab hold of a lifebuoy thrown to him but before any others could be rescued the boat turned over trapping them and they drowned. The older men were brothers and each left large families.

*(‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com) )

Apr 4, 2021

Flagopolis and the British Radge

Look, look, look – here’s a flag. This is who you are. Look. Closer. Can’t see it? Here, I’ve got more. How many flags will it take you to recognise yourself in it?  Look. Just bloody look. We’re British. A proud sovereign nation. Look what the union has done for you. See this bit of blue under the cross of St George – that’s you Scotland. This is what 300 years of union has given you, a place behind England on a flag. 

Nothing expresses the shoogly peg that’s only just haudin’ up the union than the appointment of a minister for the union in London – a minister plus a union unit, which carelessly lost its first two chairs in double quick time. Perhaps they discovered there really is no case for retention of the union after all.

No such thing as a cooling off period back in 1707. Once the ink was dry on the agreement that was it. A nation sold out in a scandal that makes 2020’s PPE under-the-counter deals appear the embodiment of integrity. Nor was there democracy but that’s another story. Since then there have been reasons/excuses after reasons/excuses as to why Scotland should not be able to pick the lock on the shackles that fetter this outdated and shady merger.

Now is not the time. Now is never the time.

Brexit was to have been the deal breaker. But then there was, um, Brexit shambles – Brexit where sovereignty was everything (except for readers in Scotland.) England was largely in favour of Brexit, Scotland was largely against Brexit for the disastrous impact it would have on our largest trading market. On that 50:50 basis England always wins because – well, England always wins. England sneezes and Scotland gets covered in snot.

Brexit arrived with promise of more powers for Scotland and better trade deals – the best trade deals in the whole wide world, nay, the whole wide universe. It would be FANTASTIC! Win, win, win. Or, in the real world  – the removal of powers from Scotland’s parliament and as for trade – well, is this what success looks like?

Scotland’s fish exports down nearly 90%; salmon down 98%; whisky down 40%

Scotland has lost £5.4bn of potential EU funding to recover from Covid-19 while being denied the ability to borrow money to maintain services and plan for the future, unlike Westminster where chancellor Sunak has borrowed, borrowed, borrowed to cover the bare essentials.

With 8.4% of the UK population Scotland outdoes itself in natural wealth for we contribute (or did) 34% of the UK’s natural wealth – renewable power, water, timber, fish, oil and gas and the like. Between 64% – 70% of the UK’s fish and seafood were landed are Scotland.

Make that was – pre-Brexit. Post-Brexit Scotland has been devastated by us being dragged along in England’s wake.

Scotland is home to 40% of the UK’s offshore wind and tidal power, industries which are the future. That’s Scotland that unionists try to tell us is too wee economically to succeed.

Scotland’s whisky exports make up a whopping 21% of the UK’s food and drink exports worth £5bn to the UK annually. That’s a straight £5bn that should come back into the economy of Scotland to fight child poverty and deprivation but is diverted to Sunak’s money chest instead.

Remember Westminster’s promise that Brexit trade would be FANTASTIC for Scotland? Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland exports a huge amount of its products and services across the world – 100% more than the rest of the UK. Unlike the rest of the UK Scotland exports more goods than we import providing Scotland (2018 figs) with a surplus in international trade in goods in the region of £5bn. The rest of the UK’s deficit stands at £135bn. Put that in your pipe Andra Neil.

Now is not the time for an independence referendum. Now will never be the time. There is no appetite for a referendum in Scotland spouts every other Britnat MP from somewhere south of Hadrian’s Wall and a number from north of the wall who echo whatever is said by their Westminster superiors. Concentrate on your terrible education system, is the cry of the south. Most of those shouting most loudly to condemn Scottish schools know nothing about Scotland’s education system. Here goes.

Scotland’s population is the most highly educated in Europe with 47% having a college, university or vocational qualification. Don’t hear Keir Starmer repeating that stat. I’ll spell it out for him – that’s 5% more than in the rest of the UK. Your bit.

Pre-England’s Brexit Scotland’s GDP was £32,800 per head – £900 higher than the average throughout the UK at £31,900.

Scotland’s potential wealth as an independent nation is obvious. David Phillips of the Institute for Fiscal Studies acknowledges Scotland’s wealth enables her to succeed as an independent state – read behind the headline https://www.ft.com/content/ff6c0f6b-2d65-4a4e-bbba-878e2260cf3e

In addition to her natural resources there are Scotland’s newer and growing sectors including IT, biotech and space. Then there is tourism; Scotland is a magnate for visitors because not only are we smart and talented but we’re richt bonnie, too.

In September 2020 Boris Johnson said in the House of Commons:

“…this House acts to preserve one of the crucial British achievements of the last three centuries: namely our ability to trade freely across the whole of these islands …unfettered access to the rest of the UK” which is a fairly comprehensive definition of insularity further illustrated by his boast that producers can “move Cornish pasties to Scotland, Scottish Beef to Wales…” – is this really a positive case for the union?

Selling to johnnie foreigner is still an ambition. Apparently. It seems an age away since all that talk about Canada-style trade agreements. Is Canada still a thing?

Unable to construct any case of persuasion through reality or reason that the union should be preserved Johnson’s Tories have decided to blitz Scots (and others) with the jack, the union flag. The flag of the empire. It worked once so why not again seems to be the argument.

Look, look, look – here’s a flag. This is who you are. Look. Closer. Can’t see it? Here, I’ve got more. How many flags will it take you to recognise yourself in it?  Look. Just bloody look. We’re British. A proud sovereign nation. Look what the union has done for you. See this bit of blue under the cross of St George – that’s you Scotland. This is what 300 years of union has given you, a place behind England on a flag. 

Boris Johnson rolls over in bed, farts and belches simultaneously, reluctantly removes his hand from beneath the duvet and reaches for the phone. “Govie (Henry Dundas reincarnated), Murray Ross, Alastair Jack – this isn’t working. Dominick – where’s Dominick Raab, the johnnie in charge of foreigners? He must know how to deal with these uppity Scots. Do any of you have Gordon Brown’s number? No wait, that man’s never the answer. Just get me another flag.”

Flagopolis is coming to a UK government building near you. Aberdeen Council Chambers (oh, it already is) and BBC Scotland (sic) at Pacific Quay in Glasgow and other such Westminster mouthpieces will hoist a jack and in direct competition with the Scottish government’s baby boxes Westminster will provide each new born with its very own union jack. Scots will have flags rammed down their throats in a display of how much the UK government cares for its northern outlier. There will be no point in resisting for increasing London’s trade links with China is dependent on flagopolis Britain.

The jack, its name is (probably) a corruption of jacques, Norman French for jacket – the tunic carrying the symbol of whichever authority was being followed, such as the Knights Templars’ red cross from the period of the second Crusade.  Anyone who has seen the Netflix Turkish series, Insurrection Ertugrul, will know how bloodthirsty and terrifying those adventurers were. And ugly.

In 1606 following the union of the crowns the red cross of St George was superimposed on the white diagonal of St Andrew on its blue field. The English flag as we’ve seen derives from the 12th century and the Scottish saltire from 832AD, making it the oldest continuously used flag in the world which is neither here nor there but interesting.  The diagonal cross of St Andrew is said to have been his decision to distinguish the cross on which he was crucified from that of Christ.

Although English kings controlled Ireland from the 12th century Ireland was not included in the flag flown in England until James VI introduced the Hibernian harp onto his royal standard in 1603. Under the tyrant Cromwell Scotland and Ireland were forced to submit to adopt a different union flag that included the George cross, the saltire and Irish harp with Cromwell’s family badge of a silver lion rampant in its centre.

In 1707 the Scottish and English parliaments were joined, or rather the Scottish parliament ceased and a token representation of Scots was permitted to sit in England’s parliament. Various versions of a union jack were put to a committee comprising the queen, Anne, and her privy council. A design from Scotland had the cross of St Andrew superimposed on England’s St George cross. A far bonnier flag, I think you’ll agree, than the brash and hideous version we have today. However it was decided it was more appropriate that England’s cross dominated the union which in truth was more realistic of the state of this union.  

Scottish post-union flag

With the Act of Union of 1800 (so many unions so little sense of union) – this was when the union parliament ( with me?) of England and Scotland (the Kingdom of Great Britain) united with the parliament of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – hence the UK came into being. This union necessitated a different jack. A red saltire representing St Patrick of Ireland was added and an already busy-looking flag got a whole lot busier. As for Wales, nobody seemed to care that it was omitted altogether.

The union jack has flown across the whole British Empire to stamp Britain’s authority over its colonies and protectorates and leave them in no doubt who was in charge. When India succeeded in freeing itself from the British Raj in the 1940s it replaced the union jack, that symbol of its oppression, with a tricolour displaying the Ashokan wheel to mark the country’s emergence as a democratic and secular nation of different peoples.

India’s flag reflected the country’s battle in shaking off the shackles of a foreign power. Empires don’t usually relinquish power and authority over their subjugated peoples without a fight. The British crown and governments were strongly against Indian independence and fought tooth, nail and dirty to prevent it. Britain used carrot and stick tactics. Well, mainly stick. It dropped forcing India to pay for the British garrison on Indian soil that had been used to impose British control. It used starvation and violence. It used ridicule and racist slurs against the people. Churchill, a man who didn’t mince his racist words, was freely abusive. He derided India’s leaders, men such as Gandhi, for having the temerity to believe they were as good as the average white man.

The India Defence League might be comparable to the Better Together movement that was such a feature of the 2014 Scottish independence campaign. Better Together, a coalition of unionist forces, was intent on preventing Scottish independence while the IDL was similarly a group of British politicians; councillors, MPs and peers along with the usual suspects from the military and law hellbent on stopping Indian independence and retain British control of its milch cow. Churchill was an active member, so, too, was author Rudyard Kipling, he of The Jungle Book and The White Man’s Burden – an overtly racist piece of writing which encouraged ‘superior’ civilisations such as the UK and US to bring ‘inferior ‘peoples out of their darkness towards the light of civilisation. His contention was that imperialism was positive for lesser folk who weren’t capable of governing themselves – thus this burdensome responsibility fell on the shoulders of white people, like him. It is pure evil filth. What Kipling, Churchill and the rest of that unholy alliance fail to mention is that empires exist, not to ‘civilise’ but to exploit and rob through brutality and terror.

Then as now the British press played their own dishonourable part in disseminating jingoistic nonsense aimed at preserving the Empire or in our own case, the UK. It won’t surprise you to know that the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, ensured his own propaganda broadsheet kept up the rant against Indian independence. And so highly did he regard his own bigoted beliefs he issued them as pamphlets, sold at a penny a time. His essential message was India never had it so good once Britain took it over and anything that was good in India came as result of Britain. India’s weakness came from its own feeble native people. Any of that sound familiar in relation to Scotland’s independence struggle? It should.  

Rothermere assured gullible and equally bigoted Britishers that it was the British India Defence League that represented the people of India not their own Gandhi and the Indian Congress. Better Together, or was it Rothermere? stressed the dangers of independence on grounds its people didn’t want independence/were too stupid to govern themselves/the economy couldn’t sustain it/the country would go to rack and ruin.  Sound familiar? It should.

Churchill was in denial about the support for independence in India. Sound familiar? He was warned that India could not be retained by force. Sound familiar? There were cheers in the Commons when in 1942 Churchill raised the possibility of bombing pro-independence rioters in India.

The truth that could not be told was independence would lose the British government valuable resources and income. Empire building is never altruistic. Empires come about through force – they are imposed; actual violence or threatened. Before the British government took over running India, the British East India Company didn’t take any chances when ransacking India’s industries so maintained an army of 260,000 men to impress its intent.  

When the marquess of Salisbury, secretary of state for India, said “India is to be bled” he spoke for politicians, Queen Victoria and thousands of British industrialists. Westminster would take and hold India as long as India proved a major source of revenue. And when Indians sick of this foreign tyrant demanded independence Britons were astonished at her ingratitude.

Britain’s desperate attempts to keep hold of India against the wishes of the majority of India’s population was a masterclass in racism and vindictiveness.  Winston (I hate Indians) Churchill was not alone in Westminster to hold these views but then you don’t have to listen very long to voices from the green and red benches today to hear xenophobic and racist slurs. Scottish MPs in the Commons are frequent targets for jeers and accusations of being “subsidy junkies.” An English Tory MP, Lucy Frazer, targeted the Scottish people for a particularly nasty attack when she encouraged her follow Conservatives to laugh at previous generations of Scots sent into exile and sold as slaves to the colonies. Racist filth like this has been a feature of Westminster politics for its whole existence. In the 1930s and 1940s MPs spoke about Indians who dared question the right of London to govern their nation as “a beastly people” “breeding like rabbits” – and of their leader, the pacifist Gandhi, that he should be trampled into the dirt.

In 2003 – 2003 mark you – historian Niall Ferguson in his book Empire was still peddling myths of the 1930s about the positive contribution of British rule to the lives of Indians. These same Indians whose native manufacturing and shipping industries were devastated to enable fortunes for British companies.

Scotland’s growing ambition to return to an independent state has made her a target for attack from government in London and British Radge mouthpieces around the four nations of the UK. In contrast to India and Ireland whose struggles for freedom involved violence Scotland’s independence movements have not turned to armed assaults against British rule. Both India and Ireland indulged in and were subjected to terrible violence and brutality, and in the case of India to enforced starvation that remains an indelible stain on the troubled record of the British Empire. When challenged the UK state will defend itself through its armed wings as well as using deceit and fabrications to undermine those who dare question its oppressive rule.

Westminster has not moved on from that day in 1928 when Tory Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, said, “we conquered India by the sword and by the sword we shall hold it.” And by god they did for far too long. Scotland is in for a helluva dirty fight for her right to exist as a sovereign nation, preferably within an economic bloc that values her voice as an equal partner – a society that values the collective voice of a nation in which justice and fairness are prized and where privilege is abolished. That is an ambition worth fighting for and fight it will be because the British Radge will try every dirty trick in the book to scupper our ambition and stuff its jack down our throats in its attempt to keep our country subjugated, as it has done for 300 years.

Mar 8, 2021

Eels – like them or loathe them

Eels have never been popular in Scotland. Elsewhere they’ve been fished and eaten. In the 1920s about 10,000 tons of eels were landed in European harbours, with a value of £2 million. Germans and Danes enjoyed eels, and the English back then who ate 7,000 tons of them annually. Today that amount has dropped to some 29 tons today.

I know of no Scots with a taste for them. That’s not to say there aren’t any but none I have ever spoken to who’s tried them. The verdict has always been something unprintable. I have tasted smoked eel, once. Not nice.

Highlanders who were very superstitious in past times regarded the eel as they did snakes, evil little blighters. It was said a Highlander would no more think of eating an eel as eating a serpent.  And they were not alone, Icelanders and Abyssinians and even ancient Egyptians all turned their noses up at a slithery eel presented as food.

Eels are weird. For long it was a mystery how they reproduced because no obvious reproductive organs were visible to the naked eye and so speculation took hold; they grew out of slimy mud, they were parasitic worms, they came from horse hair. Aristotle believed the mud theory and Pliny that eels reproduced by rubbing up against rocks. Some believed they grew from the carcasses of dead animals or that horse hair cut up and soaked in water would result in eels. That idea took hold in Scotland. I mean who in their right mind would choose to eat anything like that? Lots of folk as it turns out; the type of person who took handfuls, squashed them together to form burgers and fried them. Cartloads of tiny eels no bigger than darning needles were caught in eel buckets and sold throughout England. Or they were sniggled – on mop-like implements that tangled them up on threads of wool or lured them on baited lines

It wasn’t until the 18th century, in 1777, that the existence of an ovary with miniscule eggs, about one-hundredth of an inch and smaller, was first observed and it took another hundred years before any male sex organs were detected in the eel. But reproduce they could. The female eel it was estimated produced about 5 – 10 million eggs.

While Scotland turned its back on fishing wrigglers the English pursued them with glee – and shared eel collection stations on its rivers with enthusiastic German eel dealers. From the river Severn baby eels, elvers, were collected and exported to Germany to stock ponds and inland waterways for future eel fishingthere.

Eels are regarded as fresh water fish but the life of the eel tells a different story.

European eels are born in the western waters of the North Atlantic, around the Leeward Islands in the West Indies and south of Bermuda, on the Sargasso Sea. Only here are eel spawning grounds and it is here that every eel wriggling down every European river and stream goes to spawn in winter and early spring.

Glass eels

Adult eel dies once spawning is complete – at the end of this their second marathon swim – the first as minute eels emerging from the hatching grounds setting out across the great sea to regional waterways. Adults and elvers complete this journey in opposite directions twice.

The hatched eels are tiny and have colourless blood so they are transparent. These larval or glass eels embark on their migration across the Atlantic, north eastwards and eastwards towards the European coasts, a distance of 6,000 km (3,700 mls). These little creatures can’t do this in a flash, it may take three years to complete their journeys from salty ocean to freshwater rivers. The only areas of Europe they cannot make it to are those that feed into the Arctic Ocean and Black Sea.

They swim up Highland rivers and burns into lochs and up Swiss rivers and streams and into the high lakes there. Whichever territory they find themselves they remain, assuming they evade capture, for up to twenty years before embarking on the epic return journey usually beginning in autumn.  This eel is very different in appearance to the transparent little elvers that first swam the ocean. The mature fish are pigmented, very dark skinned above and silvery beneath and grows to around 2 – 4 feet, and they develop large eyes. No, that doesn’t make them any more attractive. Their bodies are loaded with fat to provide sustenance for their journey, completing about 200 miles in about 25 days; about nine miles a day.

Big eels go into that disgusting dish called jellied eels, loved by Londoners, while on the Continent even the tiny glass eels are trapped in baskets and eaten. Double couk.

If not captured eels can live a long time, up to a century it is claimed. Not many have that lifespan. The European eel is now a critically endangered species.

To encourage their spawning without the dangerous journey a Netherlandish project created a swimming machine aimed at stimulating eel hormones during a simulated journey to the Sargasso Sea to ensure eel stocks and maintain a food supply for those with a taste for the wrigglers that has become a critically endangered species.