Archive for ‘Fiction’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

Aug 8, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832

Guest post by Textor

PART 1

On the 27 August 1832 cholera arrived in Aberdeen; its first case from a pandemic that had been moving westward from Asia since the 1820s. Cholera was and is a killer disease – currently afflicting war-torn Yemen with mass infections and death – as Yemen’s civilian populations suffer the consequences of murderous rivalries for control and regional domination.

Saudi Arabia, a friend and ally of the arms-supplying British state, has played no small role in creating the conditions for cholera to thrive: poverty, hunger and destruction of the country’s sanitary and healthcare infrastructure which are vital to prevent the spread of infectious-contagious diseases. The scale of the tragedy in Yemen, to coin an historical anachronism, is of Biblical proportions. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control between 2017 and February 2020 there were 2.3 million suspected cases of cholera with close on 4,000 deaths; children being particularly vulnerable. (https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/all-topics-z/cholera/surveillance-and-disease-data/cholera-monthly )

Cholera is a water-borne disease so disruption to supplies of clean water make spread largely unavoidable. Add to this poor sanitation and a population becomes highly vulnerable. The bacterium Vibrio cholerae, to be anthropomorphic, is the guilty party (but nowhere near as guilty as those responsible for bombing Yemen.) The comma-shaped organism was first isolated in 1854 by Fillipo Pacini. His work was little known within the scientific community and it took another thirty years and the research of Robert Koch to more firmly and widely establish the bacterium as the cause of cholera. Also in 1854 the physician John Snow satisfied to his own, if not other medics’ satisfaction, that an outbreak of cholera centred on Broad Street in London’s Soho district was related to the local water supply; hence his removal of the water pump handle so potentially hindering the spread of the disease.

Patrick Manson, physician, born in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire provided detailed descriptions of the disease in his seminal work of 1898, Tropical Diseases. He outlined its cause, history, means of spread and containment along with how it manifested itself in patients. Manson described it characterised by profuse purging and vomiting of a colourless serous material, muscular cramps. “Serous material” is watery fluid often likened to “rice water” – in plain language more solid and normal faecal waste becomes liquid. The accompanying cramps of an agonising character attacks the extremities and the abdomen. Of course, the fluids being expelled by the poor suffering patient contain virulent bacterium. In addition, such massive loss of liquid profoundly dehydrates a sick person, damaging the intestines and threatening organ collapse and eventual death. 

With Vibrio cholerae in the community, the break-down of sanitation, the destruction of clean water supplies in areas of high-density populations, such as in Yemen, mean an epidemic is almost inevitable. A product of war – collateral damage used to be the term, and for the barbarous perpetrators of conflict an additional source of fear and terror suffered by civilians which, if pushed far enough, can lead to the collapse of civil society.

When a cholera pandemic (often labelled Cholera Morbus) arrived in Aberdeen in 1832 its cause was unknown. The contagion originated in Asia and moved westward, carried along trading routes – as Patrick Manson observed cholera follows the great routes of human intercourse. Traders, whether overland or sea-going, might carry more than recipient nations bargained for. In much the same way the 2020 pandemic Covid-19 was carried country to country on motor vehicles, cruise ships and aircrafts transporting thousands of passengers across boundaries. Global movement of people and commodities existed long before the modern period but by the 19th century the reach, density and speed of travel accelerated substantially.

Aberdeen of 1832 was one thread in the web of global trade. Without any railway connection to the rest of Britain and with a very rudimentary national highway network it was the city’s port that was the main point of entry for infectious diseases. Imports and exports, particularly to and from the Low Countries and the Baltic along with coastal trading were Aberdeen’s main commercial arteries. Consequently, when cholera moved east into Russia and onto the Baltic ports an infectious line of transmission was established. Similarly with coastal trading the movement of people within Britain provided further points for potential cross-infection. In the event the first appearance of cholera locally was not in the city as such where it might have been expected but to its northern outskirts, at Cotton and Old Aberdeen.

Cholera had been “raging” in Russian territory since the summer of 1831 but like many contagions it moved in waves. The master of an Aberdeen merchant vessel berthed in Riga wrote home in July that year that the cholera morbus is much abated here . . . We are obliged to lay off work at 11o’clock a.m. Until 3 p.m. No sort of out work is allowed to be carried on in Riga, or on board ships during that time. This partial “lockdown” presented little defence to transmission of the disease but because it was thought disease was present in a miasma of bad air which could easily be transmitted from infected persons to others, the health measure made some sense.

Equally sensible for a Christian nation which believed in sin, retribution and atonement was the response of the Scottish clergy, ministering to coastal communities, who humbly called on God to forgive transgressions and stop this great calamity from our country. By late 1831 cholera was present in Sunderland and spreading. The Presbytery of Aberdeen petitioned for a day of national fasting and humiliation to be held. The call repeated in February 1832 for a measure more likely to induce the Divine Disposer to avert or mitigate the calamity with which we are threatened. Such spiritual pleas might boost moral but provided no barrier to the yet unidentified bacterium. Aberdeen’s weaver poet William Anderson wrote “The Cholera” in which he gave quietistic voice to the Christian vision: Our hope is not in man, nor in man’s aid;/In Heaven we put our trust, and shall not be dismay’d.

More effective and practical were the actions of the British government which set about establishing Boards of Health across the nations with the Central Board in London publishing guidelines for managing the spread of cholera and ways of caring for patients. Using the experience of previous epidemics quarantine became a key approach: identify and isolate those carrying the disease and at the same secure property, including clothing and furnishings, which might harbour cholera. Quarantine was also applied to shipping. Cromarty Bay to the north of Inverness, became a holding point for Baltic trade ships flying the yellow flag of infection aboard. Fear stalked the area’s byways. The Cromarty geologist and writer, Hugh Miller, records a decline in local trade, Occasionally, however, a few of the more courageous housewives might be seen creeping warily along our streets; but, in coming . . along the edge of the bay . . . struck up the hill if the wind blew from off the quarantine vessels.

Further south one of Aberdeen’s vessels, Thistle, sailing from Newcastle with a cargo of coals discovered a crew member displaying symptoms of cholera. By the time the ship reached North Berwick the unfortunate seaman was dead, leaving the master with the problem of disposing of the body. Signalling a local pilot he asked permission to bury the man on a local island. Permission was refused and he was instructed to bury the body at sea. In the event the master seems to have simply laid the seaman to rest in waters close by the shore.

In February 1832 Aberdeen’s Board of Health advertised for Active Men and Women [to become attendants on the sick] either in hospitals, or where they may be required. Reminiscent of recent events surrounding Covid-19 Aberdeen’s General Dispensary which gave aid to the city’s poor, warned that its facilities and finances, should cholera appear, were likely to be overwhelmed as the poor were expected to become the first and overwhelming victims of the disease.

The Central Board of Health provided guidance in November 1831 based on its observation that the poor ill-fed part of the population was most at risk also offered a moral judgement that this section of the population was most likely to be beset by the sin of intemperance, addicted to drink and spirituous liquors. Their weakened constitutions would do nothing to help the poor in tackling the pandemic but perhaps it was drinking water (contaminated) that posed the bigger threat of disease transmission than alcohol. Still, as has been found with the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown bars and conviviality weaken links in chains of quarantine.

Part 2 to follow.

Apr 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 5

Another week gone. Five down and we are now into our sixth week. So how did last week turn out?

Weather has been running hot and cold and very dry. Our last rain consisted of some light showers on 2nd April and we wouldn’t mind a good drenching because we don’t have water to spare for tubs and pots outside which this year will have to be used to grow vegetables and herbs. Bought seeds online and they have now arrived. Didn’t foresee this as after a lifetime of growing fruit and veg we recently got rid of our vegetable plot and this is the year it has become more vital than ever to grow our own this summer so will have to see how that goes. Some vegetable seeds are in as short supply as bread flour and yeast but in a way that’s encouraging because more people appear to be returning to growing plants in their gardens instead of hard-landscaping that has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years.

After deciding to cut down on fresh vegetables because of uncertainty about contamination since so much supermarket produce comes in from abroad, just like PPE, we have refreshed our stocks of gherkins, pickled red cabbage and sauerkraut (I know but it’s pickled) but I did order one or two British-grown apples, red and green cabbage and carrots and tomatoes. The cabbages are tiny wee things hardly worth a damn as my late aunt might have said. The tomato arrived. I stress tomato singular. Described as a British beef tomato it was quite a nice example but a single tomato between two people over a fortnight will take some mathematical calculations over the best way of dividing it up. Cost 85 pence which fairly astonished me. None of the vegetables that arrived I would have selected had I been able to do my own shopping but they are fresh – even having spent their three days in quarantine and undergone a warm soapy bath.

More essential items were sent out by an excellent health store in Aberdeen, although it only posts out a tiny fraction of its food. Our reserves of Vego chocolate and hazelnut spread have been supplemented by two jars. It is the nectar of the gods and just the thing to perk up folk in lockdown who receive a single tomato to last two weeks.

My confidence in the legal profession has taken a dive this week. I’ve had two experiences over recent months – dire and fairly dire but amusing. Dire has descended into dire hell in sheer incompetence. I suppose fairly dire has also but I’m more amenable to that solicitor. I suspect solicitors are finding their proofing skills are sadly lacking without their office staff to check details for them. Latest signed update went into the pillar-box today hot on the heels of another one yesterday. Professionals huh?

Having dipped my toes into the waters of picture communications I set up a WhatsApp account this week to speak with family and friends and have discovered the signal is much better than on our landline.

Still walking locally. Some days it can get a bit too busy for comfort although it’s always good to catch up with neighbours and folk we hardly know who live about the area. This week the cotton mask I ordered arrived. It’s well made and won’t be as hot as wearing a scarf as the temperature increasingly heats up. Lots of unfamiliar faces keep appearing to walk up the hill at the back, most presumably farther away neighbours who’ve always kept their distance till now. Heard from a social media friend that his wife who works in a care home had a run-in with people who had travelled some distance to walk their dogs in our local village park. Some people don’t seem to recognise the devastating impact of possibly carrying infection from one place to another. My friend now has Covid-19 and so his wife is also in quarantine. One of the women who had been delivering groceries and medicines to people in this area is now also self-quarantined.

Still reading Jack London but think I’ve probably reached my limit of stories about dogs and heroic canines taking down other animals. I suspect for many readers times have changed and the thrill of a kill is confined to a blood-thirsty deranged minority. However, London’s To Light a Fire is very fine piece of writing which I urge you to read.

As for our couple of hours of TV in the evenings we gave up on the BFI’s recommended films for a while. Like the parson’s nose, they’re an acquired habit. The final straw was The Long Day Closes by film director Terence Davies. Having spent an inordinate amount of time watching the opening credits scroll down the screen in a font that was all but illegible and around half an hour staring at a bit of a rug I asked my husband if the film was by that bloke that ruined Sunset Song?” It was. I won’t ever forgive him for that. He took one of the best books ever written misunderstood it totally and made a masterpiece into film kitsch. To prove not all directors are self-indulgent bores we watched two super films – The Guilty is a Danish drama largely comprises a single actor in a police control room. Perhaps a little predictable towards the end but enthralling nonetheless. That was on Netflix. On Amazon Prime we watched the Chinese movie The Farewell that explores eastern and western attitudes towards death – charismatic and charming film with the subject ably handled. On a completely different level we’ve started watching Breaking Bad. Yes, I know – so behind the times. But good huh?

And finally – my alter ego Alex Chisholm published the latest magnum opus on Amazon Kindle and paperback due out soon. The Durer Affair is set in the little town of Nuremberg in the year 1504 where the artist, the painter Albrecht Durer, lives in harmony with the world until strangers arrive who turn his world and that of his fellow townsmen and women upside down. It’s comic and it’s tragic – as is life. You can follow the adventures of Durer and his friends Willy and Otto who all have prodigious appetites for pork knuckles washed down by Ana Brauer’s blackest beer and there’s even a doggy aspect to this page-turning thriller in the form of a very un-Jack London little hound called Ulf.

Stay safe.

My blog on Davies’ Sunset Song

Nov 5, 2017

The Making of the NHS: from Tannochbrae to the Highlands and Islands

dr finlays

Dr Finlay’s Casebook, a hugely popular television series in the 1960s and ’70s, had something of a reputation for being a bit twee with a good dollop of Scottish sentimentality rolled in; human interest stories of everyday people and a heroic doctor who tried to turn their lives around; except, of course, he couldn’t.

The stories were set in a fictional Tannochbrae somewhere in Scotland during the 1930s – the hungry thirties of the Great Depression when vast swathes of Britain led a hand-to-mouth existence with very little help coming from the state. Those most badly affected were dependent on charities, local health schemes, friends and their own families.

Tannochbrae was not as obviously impoverished as other places – this was no filthy, ugly, disease-ridden inner city but impoverished it was – bonnie but disease-ridden this rural village shared with its urban neighbours hunger, poverty and ill-health. The taciturn Dr Finlay who assisted the inscrutable Dr Cameron was surely the author A J Cronin himself for there is much in the writer that appears in Finlay’s character.  

Underlying the stories is a strong sense of decency – of humanity, a benevolent outlook by Tannochbrae’s doctors who breathed air that was fresher and purer than many of their patients yet were driven by their sense of duty and consideration to ease their lives, as far as they were able; behaviour not always typical of their profession with its share of uncaring snobs, over-ambitious dilettantes and ignorant oafs, if Cronin’s characterisations are anything to go by.

Far from being happy-ever-after frippery the Tannochbrae stories exposed the bleak reality of life for so many before the advent of the National Health Service. Poverty not only produced despair but starvation, susceptibility to illness and premature and avoidable death. Poverty in a world where money is king and the king-makers include respected members of parliament often reluctant to change a system built on inequality because inequality benefits those at the top which often included them. Money didn’t guarantee you didn’t get sick but it did buy medicine and treatment and it did buy better housing, clean running water, a warm fire and with those came better odds, an improved chance, to avoid contagions, work-related accidents and to survive serious illness.

aj cronin portrrait

A J Cronin

Cronin dealt with much of the awkward social divisions that consigned the working classes to unbelievable misery for as a young Scots doctor he found himself thrown into working class communities where life was a daily grind that offered spartan comforts.  

I re-discovered Cronin when clearing out the house of a deceased relative and picked up a copy of The Stars Look Down that had belonged to my late uncle, also a doctor. I was captivated by the book, a tale of miners in northeast England who were victims of political opportunism and betrayal. It is, in my opinion, Cronin’s finest work – hugely impressive and its description of a mining accident is truly memorable. The Stars Look Down should be read by everyone in this country, and should be on school reading lists for not only is it well-written it is our social history in easy bites. But it is not this book that’s being spoken about at the moment. The Citadel has been resurrected for its influence in the debate that led to the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

The Citadel

Set in Wales and London during the 1920s and 1930s The Citadel draws from Cronin’s own experience as a doctor in both places. The young Cronin had his sights on a Harley Street practice and he did get there but by a circuitous route that opened his eyes to the dreadful impact on the poor of Britain’s ramshackle medical services – a rag-bag of medical chance – postcode lottery before postcodes.

Corruption features a great deal in Cronin’s works – the medical officer of health who doesn’t care a fig for the sick, the conscientious doctor driven to drink by a system that overburdens him as an individual, the ambitious practitioner blithely striding forward in his career at the expense of his patients, manipulative politicians on the make – they were Cronin’s colleagues and acquaintances and a rich source of characters for his writing.  

Hatter’s Castle was Cronin’s first book but it was The Citadel published in 1937 that attracted huge attention – and fame and riches for its author when it was made into a Hollywood film with four Oscar nominations in 1938. The Citadel was credited with shifting opinion towards a universal health care system – a national health service. In it a young doctor, much like Cronin, struggled to make a difference to the lives of his Welsh patients in a small mining community. Cronin worked in the Welsh mining town of Tredegar and was employed at the its hospital which was financed locally through contributions paid into Tredegar Medical Aid Society (MAS) in return for medical treatment for contributors and their families. Tredegar MAS was an amalgamation of smaller benevolent or friendly societies. Around Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries there were many similar organisations that helped their working class members – providing a doctor service and sick pay but as they were linked to particular industries and their members largely men women and children were not covered. The Tredegar MAS broadened the range of benefits to include payouts for work accidents, sickness, unemployment and death expenses. Doctors were attached to a society by a ballot of members and in turn he could employ an assistant, the role of Dr Manson in Cronin’s The Citadel.

welsh village

Welsh mining village

Local friendly societies were run by powerful individuals so open to corruption. Medicine was then near wholly privatised with everything having its price as it is in private practice today: consultations, examinations, operations, x-rays, scans, every pill and plaster. Young doctors cut their teeth working as assistants to more senior colleagues who sometimes creamed off a sizeable portion of the little income they earned. Such corrupt practices were exposed in The Citadel. By shining a spotlight on the paucity of health care in Britain Cronin was able to educate and influence people, to alter attitudes towards the ramshackle health (don’t) care system.

“I have written in The Citadel all I feel about the medical profession, its injustices, its hide-bound unscientific stubbornness, its humbug … The horrors and iniquities detailed in the story I have personally witnessed. This is not an attack against individuals, but against a system”

Cronin’s hero, Dr Manson – a Scot like himself – is shocked at what he finds on his arrival firstly at Drineffy, a little Welsh coal mining town. Underpaid and undervalued, Manson struggles to cope so early into his career as the only fit and sober doctor in the town but he also struggles against penury for most of his salary is retained by the senior society doctor. Driven to resign Manson finds himself in a bigger town where there is greater scope to practise and undertake scientific research into the lung disease that he has become all too familiar with since arriving in Wales for it was a major killer in the coal mining communities. Again Cronin draws on his own experience with Manson eventually building his reputation and moving into private practice in search of wealthy patients easily conned to shell out for useless bottles of ‘tonics.’ This was not meant to be a book review so I won’t reveal more of the story for the real value is in its description of an alternative system of health care that stood out amidst all the various styles practised around the UK.

The_Independent_(1849)_(14595849278)

Lord Northcliffe at work

But let us back-pedal a little. A National Insurance Act came into being in 1912, despite the British press loudly opposing it. Most of Britain’s major newspapers were then owned and controlled by Tory press baron Lord Northcliffe whose empire Associated Newspapers Ltd produced such titles as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Observer. They all used their columns to churn out propaganda against the scheme. Northcliffe had no sympathy for working class people and was hostile to old age pensions while at the same time he demanded, through his newspapers, increased government spending on armaments. There is little doubt he was an unpleasant and violent bully and not untypical of his class. He could not stomach a scheme to help protect the most vulnerable which involved employer and government contributions along with workers’ own in order to provide such basic benefits as sick pay, free treatment for tuberculosis, care by a panel doctor and maternity benefits. Despite fierce opposition from Northcliffe and other loud voices the Act became law but it was far from perfect. It was fine in urban areas and much of Britain but Scotland’s topography is markedly different from the south in that it is far more widespread (don’t go by weather maps on television) which meant the Act was unworkable across half of Scotland’s land mass and its crofting communities.

An answer here in Scotland came in 1913 with the establishment of a centralised state-run health service which operated across the Highlands and Islands as The Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS) and it continued until superseded by the UK-wide National Health Service in the summer of 1948. It was the Dewar Report of 1912 which revealed major problems in Scotland’s rural areas with the National Insurance Act so a bespoke alternative scheme was put in place whereby doctors, nurses and midwives were subsidised to live and work in sparsely populated areas with few opportunities to rake in substantial earnings. A medical laboratory was set up in Inverness (which Cronin would have approved of) and an air ambulance eventually provided. This bold endeavour became a model for similar schemes in rural Canada and the USA and in the 1940s influenced the design of the NHS.

The Highlands and Islands Medical Service was not identical to the later NHS for it was not free to patients but it did establish a body that attempted universality of cover and was a vast improvement in what had gone before.

Britain in the 1930s was riven by extremes of wealth and degrees of poverty unimaginable to us today. There was virtually no state help and having nothing then meant nothing to buy food, keep a roof over a head, buy clothing or keep healthy. Living conditions in towns especially were quite atrocious. Cronin’s candid writing about health inequalities helped raise popular awareness and highlighted a system that put patients at its centre. Such was the appetite for his books it was clear public opinion demanded change to lift Britain’s millions of families struggling against the odds out of perpetual misery and despair while others worked the system – political, social, industrial and medical – to amass riches way beyond most people’s comprehension. Then came the Second World War.

During the war a study into the provision of social care in the UK resulted in the Beveridge Report which identified five areas requiring attention by government: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Discussions between the government and the medical professions including the Tredegar Society and the Highlands and Islands Medical Service led to proposals for fundamental reforms in health and social care. At the end of the war there was such a groundswell of opinion for change that the Labour Party was swept into government on the promise it would set up a National Health Service. Central to this was Aneurin Bevan, one-time a health board colleague of Cronin’s in Tredegar. It should be said that Cronin did not support the NHS when it first emerged and his scepticism and opposition was shared by a fair number of the medical establishment. Reading his biography it’s fair to say he comes across as something of a snob, tediously religious in a judgemental way, attached to the very hierarchies that maintain inequality and he was vehemently hostile to abortion (and, yes, I recognise the time he was writing but there were many doctors in Scotland and elsewhere, his contemporaries, who recognised the need for offering abortion in particular circumstances [and in Scotland medical abortion was not the criminal act it was in England and Wales] .) I know from that same uncle that rekindled my interest in Cronin’s works just how split over the prospect of an NHS were doctors – many regarding it as socialism, an anathema to the mostly ultra-conservative medical profession. Cronin shared this view. And, contrary to what you might expect, the NHS was launched not with a bang but a whimper, certainly as far as newspapers I’ve looked at were concerned. The main story of the 5 July 1948 was Britain’s worst air crash or concern over the Russians. 

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Cronin was born in 1896 at Cardross in Dunbartonshire and as a schoolboy exhibited a talent for writing at Dumbarton Academy. Torn between a career in the church or medicine he said he chose the lesser of two evils, so medicine it was. He won a Carnegie scholarship and graduated from Glasgow University in 1919 and from there went on to obtain further qualifications. He practised medicine in Scotland, England and Wales where he was confronted by life in the raw in a dirty, alien village smothered in coal dust and scarred by distress. He was made Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain in 1924 which provided scope for his research into lung diseases brought on by breathing in industrial dust, such as coal dust, and rife among miners. The link seems obvious to us today but it was not when Cronin studied it. Once he found success as a doctor the work seemed to bore him; prescribing medicines and dispensing advice to his then wealthy patients in Harley Street and Notting Hill in London and he abandoned his medical practice for life back in Scotland to try his hand at writing.

Cronin’s itchy feet saw him move to more places around the world than there is room for here. He became a major name in the world of celebrity and wealthy as Croesus and I suppose it is an irony that he made his money from his gritty depictions of the powerless and exploited during some of Britain’s bleakest and most impoverished times. While not great literary works Cronin’s easy style of writing and his eye for detail makes reading his books a pleasure rarely a chore.

stars look down

I know one or two people, all male, who never – that’s never ever- read books. Literature is not only an enjoyable (mostly) pastime it is a vehicle to encounter experiences we would otherwise never know about. It offers us opportunities to confront issues in a palatable way which might alter our preconceptions. I hope some of you will pick up a Cronin novel – I recommend The Stars Look Down and be prepared to have your eyes opened to a world that is hard to imagine today. In the meantime when you next visit the doctor or are admitted to hospital spare a thought for how the NHS came about and worry that its days might be numbered in which case we might all be closer than we’d like to experiencing the pre-NHS world of Cronin’s sick and vulnerable patients.

Nov 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

lochnagar-crater

Lying at the hole’s lip the stonecutter marvelled at the works of men: he had after all spent his working life with granite and knew well what hard graft could achieve.

  Aye, it must hae teen a damned lot o explosives and muscle ti howk this ane oot.

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

  There’s jist something a bit different fae aa the places faar I’ve tyauved. There’s the rauchle aa roon, nae doot, bit the soonds, surely nae fit yi’d expeck? That’s nae steam craan wheezing as it heists steen, nae dreels and haimmers, and far’s the scraich o the blondin rope lowering the skip tae the fleer? I hear men richt aneuch, and aye it myndes me o yoking time wi a puckle chiels nae sae croose in the craa at haen ti ging back t’it, and ithers, resigned ti gettin on wi the jobbie in han; still an on it’s an unca sicht..

  His thoughts wandered off, seeking a firm foundation; bedrock of where and why. Back, back he went to his first day at work in the granite yard.

  Up and oot afore sax o’clock, I wannered doon the Gallowgate, and timorous as a moosie wis into Chairlie MacDonald’s Froghall Works (a queer like name it seemed ti me). Timid but prood, prood that I’d been gien a chance ti be a mason. MacDonald’s wis nae jist ony yaird Na, the wirks wis braw, lang boasting fine conditions even gaan as far as biggin sheds wi fower waas ti keep weet and snell wins oot. But that day wis fine and me a bauch-hertit loon faa kent nae muckle mair than fit a haimmer looked like.

  The foreman took me roon the wirks faar I expeck ti see mannies stannin, cutting and carving. I wis dumfoonert, hid I wannered into a dairk deevilish mull an nae a place of craft and skeel? On ae side o the shed a saa wis swingin back-an-fore, pechin at every lurch wi clarty watter pouring aneth the beast’s teeth. Jist ayont wis a thing like an airon brander fleein roon, wi sic a souch and mair clart (gie’n me a blink the foreman said it sang like Jenny Lind). Nae seener had I teen this in than my lugs caught the soond o a machine makkin a stoor, aneuch ti smoor a body: a dunter, a bauld thing that clouted granite sae hard that the steen surrendered.

  For the life o me I couldnae oonerstaan, faar were the steencutters? Telling me nae ti fash the gaffer said saas, polishers and dunters were needed as much as wis the man wi the haimmer and puncheon. But I wisnae there ti become a mere machineman I wis ti be a mason. And there, in the next shed, were the steencutters, ilka man at his banker, wirkin on crosses and heidsteens . Some hid han haimmers ithers were cutting wi pneumatic chisels; the din wis constant and dist aawye. This wis fit I wanted: ti maister steel on steen. But siccan skeels were nae easily won.

  An so I thoaled the years o it wi split thooms, raxed back, stoor in the een, aye and wirse in ma thrapple. There were times fin I thocht ti caa it a day and mony anither apprentice wis o the same myn. But they were peelie-wally craturs faa up-tail and were aff ti look for greener girse. Me, I’d hae neen o this. If it wis girse I wis aifter then I’d hae feed ti een o the fairmers that gaithered by Hadden Street. I hungered ti ken aathin aboot cutting granite and hid the gweed fortune ti be pit wi a cutter faa’d bin on the tools ower fifty years. An auld man, though he micht hae lost some o his speed he’d lost neen o his skeel. He could cut and carve by han in a wye that wid mak an airtist heave his mell ti the fleer. This wis the man faa telt me hoo ti ging wi the steen: “granite can only be gaared sae far and nae mair. Hans and een is the wye” he said, “feel and see the grist in the glintin granite. There’s a reed and a hem, find this and the wye ti cut is clair”. And damn if he wisnae richt.

  Above the hole, amidst the confusion, the stonecutter’s reverie continued taking him further back to his childhood when his grandfather pulled ghosts from memory.

  The images came, flickered in ma heid, as if back in the Alhambra packed into the het guff o the picter hoose. There’s granfaither, a douce lang-heidit man, wabster by trade, faa’d been brocht up in the Denburn. I’d sit wi him for oors as he telt me o the lang, slow deeth o han weaving and hoo the eenjustice o it aa guidit him into Chartism. He’d seen nae jist his skeel as a wabster connached bit wirse, hail faimlies beggin for wirk ti cam their wye. Nae muckle mair than a loon granfaither wis doon at the Links, miscaain the Provost and his cronies and aa the sichts and soonds o priveelidge. Oh he kent fine that the bonnie Chartists didnae win through but so fit? aa’s important wis that fowk widnae bou doon ti the laithsome few faa’d want coorse wirkers keep their moos shut. In his wye granfaither wis nae doot dooncast but being a man faad seen mony a warsle he wis gey stoical and kent that looms and wabsters and aa that wis the Denburn were awa. “Aye”, he telt me, “there’s been mony cheenges but this only means wirkers hae ti find new wyes o deein things. But ae thing disnae cheenge, the need for fowk ti stick the gither. Britherheed is aathin”.

  There’s me, jist a laddikie, sittin wi granfaither, like some drouthie nyagg aye gaan back ti the troch for anither suppie. Mither lauched telling me that I’d drink the Don dry an then sook the banks for mair. But granfaither hid me. Skeels and smeddum wis his wye and dang if it widnae be myne. Aiblins the auld man saw his youngsel in the loon wi mizzlet shins sittin at the reenge hingin on his every wird; and the tales kept comin, tales o muckle gaitherins wi aabody kittelt-up by the braw speechifying. But he took me back ayont his days ti lang, langsyne fin his faither hid been wi Aiberdeen fowk, fechtin agin thieving dealers faad beamfill their girnals, huddin meal back, aa the better ti mak extra siller. Great granfaither an aa the rest, weel breid wis there richt as they saa it. They micht be poor bit they wernae feart so it wis aff ti the hairbour faar they caad doon the doors o the thieves and tyeuk fit wis theirs even fan the militia wis on the streets.

  And that wis me, draain fae the kist o memories and then it wis on ti granfaither’s beuks. A smaa library but wi choice wirks. He wisnae Christian an put my wye Tam Paine’s Age O Reason a grand tale that made me suspeck aa the fine words o meenisters. There wis anither Tam, Carlyle, a Scotchman, a sage some said, and I’ve nae doot he was verra clever bit there wis something aboot the gabby man that made him seem mair feel than pheelosopher. The man seemed ti think that in times fin knights were galloping aa ower the kintraside, well he seemed ti think this wis grand and we hid ti find a wye of re-kinlin a gowden age. Granfaither was fair teen by him but for me keeking backwart an girnin about the wye of the warl wis jist wind. As the auld man said aboot meenisters and their hivven, you micht jist as weel look for partans in mosspots and puddocks in the sea. But ae thing Carlyle got richt, this wis his gweed words for skeeled chiels wi hans, hert and brain aa wirkin the gither; wis this nae jist fit a steencutter did? Granfaither’s library hid the poems o Wullie Thom, a wabster ti trade and an Aiberdonian. He’d kent the poet and said he wisnae the easiest body ti get on wi but the man’s words, weel they brocht haim ti me the muckle cheenges needed.

  Beuks and granfaither’s tales, maist o this wis fin I wis gey young and still withoot a noshun o foo the hale jing bang micht hing the gither. But a bit later I cam upon the screeves o Wullie Morris and for him the wye wis forrit, wirkers fechtin for socialism and haen han skeels that wid turn fit they made inti airt: a soond veesion, biggit on granite foons, nae sand.

  At the crater’s lip, the mason could see figures moving, struggling, far below. They appeared to him like quarrymen, working their way through the debris of an explosion gone wrong.

  Wrang – there wis sae much wrang wi the warl but noo that I’d served my time and become a journeyman, as I saa it, I wis ready ti dee mair than shape steen; noo I’d fashion wirkin men into socialists. I’d been gaan ti peelitical meetings o the SDF, ance Morris’s pairty, faa were verra keen on haen the bawbees fae the pooches o the weel-aff. I wis affa fierce and fit I widnae dee if I got hud o them but I foond that maist o the men in the yaird wid raither thole me than jine me. Fooivver, as a journeyman I could jine the operatives’ union, the finest craft society in the toon and fae there I began fechtin for better conditions in Aiberdeen yairds and in kintra quarries. Wi my brither operatives we tyauved ti get an extra maik or twa and even a shorter wirkin wik. Stoor fae dunters, that wis anither lang sair fecht. These muckle skelpers o granite were gweed at makin a profit for the maisters. But they turned men deef and wirse the stoor wis teen into their lungs Yairds were full of wirkers faas lungs wis rived by fit we caad the kirkyaird-hoast and fit the quacks said wis the soond o phthisis brocht on by dist. We tried ti gaar the maisters tak tent but verra little cheenged.

  Nae maitter, as my granfaither wid hae said, we hid ti keep trying. And I did. Fooivver, this gave me tribble. On ae han I wis trying ti win a hantle o cheenges ti mak things tholeable but on the ither I wis looking ti caa doon the maisters an aa their wirks. As you micht say nae seeking ti tak a puckle crums, gaan instead for the loaf and the gullie ti pairtit. Wis ther ony wye o yoking the twa sides the gither? At nicht fin I wis aff doon ti Belmont Street wi my SDF freens pittin the warl ti richts, kennin the maisters’ days wid seen be ower; well britherheed seemed affa easy. Then aifter the claik it was haim and up in the morning into the yaird wi the argie-bargie stairting again. This wis like haen twa heids, ain for socialism and anither for the tyauve o wirk and the union Aiblins I should hae seen the gate I wis on but ony anxeeity I hid wis seen through a damn mirkie gless.

  A puckle o my socialist freens said it wis aa for nithin, that I’d spend my time in the parlours o maisters, bunnet in han jist waiting for a han-oot. I widnae hae this. The union did mak things better, maisters supplied tools, wirkin oors were shorter and even wages had gin up. Wis this nae the wye forrit, and onwye britherheed amang wirkers surely this wis the union? Some o these socialist billies didnae unerstan. Maisters could be a hard-faced lot, a puckle o them widnae want ti gie onything ti the men, grippy disnae dee them justice, they would hae raiked hell for a saxpence. An fan this happened it wid be neives heisted, us threetnin strike and them lock-oot. But some of the employers were fair-hannit and we wid find wyes roon tribble: give-an-tak as you micht say. Och aye, we widnae win aathin but fit did my freens expeck: ging ti the maisters and demand socialism?

  What would his friends now think of the mason in a world where give and take had transmuted to something far beyond the tactful diplomacy of a negotiating table? His vision of internationalism and brotherhood dissolving and re-forming much as the dust around him settled and rose.

  Wirkers fae aa the airts gettin the gither, this wis my granfaither’s dream and it wis myne. The union, weel it wis a stairt. But the streetch o my veesion o britherheed wis sair tested faan steen fae Norway came inti Aiberdeen. Och aye some o the maisters were contentit, they wid mak some siller but nae aabody wis happy, especially merchants wi quarry interests. They said only oor granite should be wirked; or at warst Scotch, or at verra warst British steen. Aa foreign muck wis ti be stopped itherwise trade in yairds and quarries wid be lost. This vext me and like a thoom that’d been skelped by a haimmer ma conscience began ti stoon, winnerin far britherheed came inti this? I sair needed, something ti tak the pyne awa.

  I hid a freen Wullie, oot by Alford, secretary o the union at Cluny. A fine man, gweed at his trade and nae feart o stannin up for his preenciples and fyles he’d bin a soondin board for my thochts. So it wis awaa doon tae the station. On the rinnie oot in the train I hid a chance ti think aboot this britherheed. My workmates were unca happy tae fecht and tak fit could be won but a fair puckle o them were jist as contenit ti keep the men on saas and polishers doon (mere machinemen I’d aince caad them). Britherheed in a yaird seemed hard aneuch withoot takkin on the warl. Gaan oot in the train wis aye a trait and my speerits lifted as we steamed into quarry kintra faar fowk hid howkit at coorse and rochsome grun ti mak a living. Nature can hae a bonny face but only ance the faimly is hoosed and his mait on the table .

  Wullie had been brocht up in the Vale and he kent as weel as onybody the hardships o quarriers. Toon wirk, weel it seemed safter. For a stairt in Aiberdeen we didnae hae the fell winters that hit the quarries wi grun beeriet under deep snaa an men getting peyed by the piece for steen wirked and naething for staanin up ti their oxters in fite pouther. In Aiberdeen cutters were peyed by the day. I speired ti Wullie fit wye the Donside men didnae wint redd o piece work. This wis nae mystery, he telt me, twa gweed reasons for keeping it were, auld near-caad-deen quarriers were able ti tyauve on an mak a puckle bawbees and keep the maisters happy and anither thing, a chiel wi a craft could ging aff in a quait spell an wirk their lan and nae loss ti onybody. But I saw it as jist anither wye o the dirt o property skaillin the sharny-bree o oonjustice ower common fowk. Nae doot there were honest an gweed-hertit quarry maisters, but they were catcht in this guids-an-geer fankle. Wullie agreed that men like Fyfe o Kemnay were dacent aneuch bodies faa didnae draa bleed fae men, even if in winter wirkin in the slabber o snaa an dubs the bleed wid come. But there were ithers he said, lairds, men sleekit in their beesiness and faa gripped on tae lan and if they hid their road wid close the quarries and be rid o the dirt of quarrymen. “Fur and fedder o Bennachie and roon aboot”, said Wullie, “this is their interest nae men and wirk. Pheasants and rubbits dinna spik back. Lairds want the moos o quarrymen stapped and fowk ti beck an bou afore their betters.” Aa this wis hinnie ti my lugs, a sweetness o thocht but a clearance o the clart o lairds still left me raivelt aboot britherheed. Spikkin ti Wullie I felt a bit like a loon again, sittin in a neuk by the fire, a micht even had mizzlet shank. “Things in Donside”, he said, “arenae gweed. Dreelers, cutters, settmakkars are aa streevin for wirk, maist are fit wi caa loafin” and “men are gaan across the pond ti America in the howp o job. And for them that hinna shipped west it’s a maitter o inti an Aiberdeen factory or aff ti be third billies at twa-horse fairm toons.” Soondin like granfaither, Wullie raged at the eenjustice, “ if things ging on like this the quarries’ll be seelent, as if the warl had teemt the men fae the holes”. For a meenit I couldnae meet his een for I kent fine that like ithers I’d wrocht Norwegian granite and even if I’d makkit the grandest o heidsteens I jaloused that it could mark the deeth o the quarries. Faar wis britherheed here?

  Wullie calmed my anxeeity and for him the answer wis ae step at ae time. Socialism and britherheed wid hae tae start at oor ane front door. There wis nae eese in being vext aboot steencutters in Norway or ony wye else if the granite beesiness here wis feenished. We hid ti hud oot for oor ane fowk afore aathin else argued Wullie and ti mak his case he pynted ti the Navy buying foreign steen for biggin hairbours. Turning aa poetic he pit a verse ti me,

“If for our Fleet we feel it meet
With natives true to man it,
Why make a dock of foreign rock
Inferior to our granite?”

  It wis like licht gaan on in my heid: a wye forrit wis seen, ane that conneckit wi aathin I’d deen as pairt o the union. Fechtin that hid ti ging on, but fyles ca-canny and wirk wi the maisters for the steen industry itherwise we could wak-up wi, nae yairds and even fewer quarries.

  And as the dust around him settled and the noise ebbed and flowed he could see that the Cluny man’s arguments had been sufficient to propel him further along a path upon which he had already embarked. This was the path that led him to the hole.

  I teuk my thochts on aa men being brithers and union wirk and wupped them the gither ti mak a stepledder o richts and loyalties, wirken up fae the yairds ti aa the warls ayont. It wis at the Mairket Stance fan the fou meanin o the cheenge wis brocht haim ti me. Jist anither day, haen a dauner ower the plainsteens, keekin up at the braw sicht o the Toon Hoose, a work o airt in granite but wastit on Cooncillors. My scance at the fine Kemnay steen wis distractit by a stramash at the Cross. Gaithered there were kiltit sodgers surroondit by local billies an it wis plain as porritch this wis nae stoorie atween Aiberdonians an militia, scantlin an inklin o meal riots o langsyne. Aabody respectit the sodgers and winted ti jine them. Granfaither wid’ve been scunnered but I kent that ance a waar stairts fowk aften rin ti the flag. And a waar hid stairted. I got ti thinkin, and wis clair that I hid tae tak a puckle steps up the loyalty ledder and look ti britherheed wi fowk ootside the yairds. I widnae jouk the deecision aifter-anaa wis it nae the case it wis my ain kintra, and the great chiel Hyndman, ance o the SDF, hid screeved it wis a man’s duty ti fecht against the Hun faa wis ettlin ti pit Britons in thirl ti Germany. It wis only a step or twa ti the Barracks tae tak Geordie’s shillinn.

  Sic a few smaa steps but they took me a lang wye. On this new gate I wutnessed muckle things, men fechtin ower pooshened grun, aneuch ti mak a plooman greet. In the mirk o aa this I did find britherheed at least wi aa the Britons and French fowk but universal? weel that wid hae ti wait. Gey blaik noshuns swirled in ma heid as I watched britheheed gaither in heeps afore my een: some micht miscaa the waar, bit ae thing aboot this ledder o fraternities, at the hinner-en o the slauchter there’d be damn gweed beesness for masons an maisters, aa the heidsteens wid keep them at the bankers and the order beuks weel past the dainner oor. Ah weel I’d chosen my gate an I jist gid on wi it.

  The stonecutter was at Mametz when off to the west there was a sound of such force that even amidst the carnage he was awed. Distracted with his mind wandering to ghosts of far-off places and knowing not how, he found himself at the lip of the hole and the enormity of his journey all but overwhelmed him.

  I looked doon and I could see this wis nae quarry, nae a place far men tyauved ti win bonny steen fae the ooncarin airth – na this hole wis far caring men focht ti win ither treasures. And as I dwalled on this, like the grun aneath, I shuddered.

  I survived the waar and foond oot that the hole wis caad Lochnagar Crater, made by moudiewart men wi ower twenty tons o explosives. Neen o Byron’s frowning glories here, dairker than onythin the hirplin Laird could hae imagined; the braw days o spikkin tae granfaither, anither warl, sae far awaa.

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

Apr 2, 2013

Political killings, MI6 and flexible morality- Patrice Lumumba

Who killed Congo’s first elected Prime Minister and why was he killed? How involved was British Intelligence?

None of what hit the headlines today is news.

Here’s a passage from the novel Banana Pier published 2012

Robert Coulthard is in Berlin.  He’s about 22 years old and he and Dinger have arrived at the Wannsee.  Dinger is in great form, reminiscing about his time as a fresh young officer in 1960 when a serious young African is elected to lead the Republic of Congo’s Nationalist Party in government.  Thirty-four, bloody young for a Prime Minister, don’t you think, son?  Too bloody smart by half, is Bell’s verdict.  The ‘too bloody smart one’ was called Patrice Lumumba. Coulthard remembered because he thought it sounded like a girls’ name.  Bell is whispering, All a mistake.  Usual faction disputes, too bloody young!  Course the Yanks were up in arms, bloody commies and the like taking over.  Belgians as well.  Used to be their neck of the woods.  Suppose y’know all about that, don’t you, son?  Land of copper and diamonds, the Congo.  Couldn’t have that going to the commies, now could we?

    We?  Coulthard had asked, You said Americans and Belgians?

    Dinger had winked, For a start.  Some British boys thought Washington was going too far, dirty business.   But the President demanded they get him so Lumumba was kidnapped.  Gagged him, drove him somewhere, tied him to a tree and shot the poor bugger.  Created some hullabaloo among the usual suspects. Bloody great outcry for the body, then.  What did they do?  Panicked – dug him up, carved him up and dissolved the bits in a pit of sulphuric acid.  Protests of course, in Trafalgar Square. Wouldn’t you just know it?  Eisenhower took some criticism that they’d overstepped the mark but as the late Herr Hitler observed, one of the essentials for achieving your aims is the use of constant and regular violence.  The world’s not a place for dreamers, son.

    Adrenalin was pumping round his body. Could scarcely contain his excitement.  That remark Dinger had made at the Wannsee about violence and success.  Well, he wasn’t a dreamer.  If anything his world lay more in the field of nightmares.  The young version of Robert Coulthard only being moulded.  Fiercely loyal to Dinger and country.  Acquiesced with Dinger over what was morally acceptable behaviour to preserve the Union: Dinger’s moral map. 

from the novel Banana Pier http://www.amazon.co.uk/Banana-Pier-Alex-Chisholm/dp/1780880146

MI6 and the death of Patrice Lumumba  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22006446