Archive for ‘politics’

Sep 20, 2022

Africa has been the footstool of colonialism and imperialism, exploitation and degradation – one small incident in a land far away

Bechuanaland (Botswana) in Southern Africa once was a British protectorate. That means that for intents and purposes not much happened in Bechuanaland without permission of government in London. This was during the period of the British Empire, of which many in the UK are so very proud, when the continent of Africa was divied up between the more powerful European powers to be plundered, and Bechuanaland was brought to the notice of that rapacious old coloniser, Cecil Rhodes, for its potential as an economic link north and south, the fact it was not already coloured pink on world atlases as a British possession but most importantly, Rhodes believed it contained gold and diamonds. So, Botswana – renamed Bechuanaland by the British because of their laziness (and indifference) over mastering the pronunciation of the name of its native people, the Tswana, was made a British protectorate in September 1885.

Before the country had the union jack run up on its flagpoles British influence was at work. Education, that great moulder of character and opinion was making an impact. In Bechuanaland as in so many other places across the Empire, schools were set up by missionaries and many of them were started and run by Scots teaching Church of Scotland values. John Mackenzie from Knockando in Moray was an early missionary in southern Africa, from the 1830s, and while in Tswana territories he encouraged the British government to adopt the region as a protectorate in order to defend its people from racist Boers settling there. Mackenzie was made a Deputy Commissioner by the British government and he was replaced by Rhodes.

Students at Lovedale in 1892

At Lovedale in Cape Province, Tshekedi Khama attended the Missionary Institute secondary school that had been educating children of all creeds and including rescued slaves from its inception in 1841. A Church of Scotland missionary school, it was a non-sectarian and non-racial and open to all boys, including rescued slaves. This open policy continued until 1955 when South Africa’s apartheid system kicked in. A girls’ school followed much later, in 1868.

Scottish doctor and missionary, David Livingstone, lived and worked in southern African from the 1840s until his death in 1873, along with his family. He became a close friend of Shehele, an ancestor of Tshekedi, and when a memorial was planned to Livingstone in his home town of Blantyre, the Banangwato people in Bechuanaland were invited to contribute towards it. They gladly obliged and sent £150 that was used to create an illuminated tableaux, called the Last Journey, The Last Journey depicts Livingstone’s corpse being carried by native Africans to the east coast, a distance of 1500 miles, from where his body was shipped home to Scotland.

Bechuanaland was one of several African regions where horses were bred and when Tshekedi and a group of his fellow countrymen visited the Blantyre museum they asked to see the cavalry horses at Redford Barracks. For whatever reason they weren’t given access to the Barracks but instead were taken to Edinburgh’s Corporation Cleansing Departments stable of Clydesdales. The visitors were much taken by these large, docile animals – far larger than the horses bred in their own country – and spent a long time with them, stroking them and whispering into their ears, to the consternation of their British hosts.

Back in Livingstone’s day in Bechuanaland, mistreatment of native people by European settlers was rife. Livingstone detested this behaviour and that of the Boers in particular for they were infamous for outrageous acts of oppression and cruelty perpetrated upon peaceful villagers and he warned that people were arming to defend themselves from such assaults. Gun traders were everywhere so weapons were relatively easy to get hold of. Livingstone observed that attempts at halting the purchase of weapons was a failure.

…might as well have bolted the castle gate with a boiled carrot.

Boer leaders resented Livingstone and threatened to have him kicked out of their region. Livingstone explained in a letter to his brother, Charles, in 1849 –

The Boers or Dutch emigrants oppress these tribes and treat them almost as slaves. They would have contrived to do so to Sechele (his friend) too, but I succeeded in freeing the Bakwains (Bakens.) A considerable number of guns were purchased, and as this is the source of power of the Boers over the other tribes they began to be afraid that the other tribes would follow his example.

In 1850, Livingstone wrote to his father-in-law, Robert Moffat –

Can you get the bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham? Those which have an indentation behind fire much further, the dotted line marking the indentation. Sechele is very anxious to get the seven-barrelled gun. You seem to have forgotten it.

   He was helping arm his friends among the Batswana.

*

By the 1930s Botswana’s younger people had become frustrated with Britain’s grip on the country, with all that entailed with racist views of superior and inferior races and, consequently, lack of respect for native rights.

Tshekedi was already in power, having been made regent of the Bamangwato in 1926 following the death of his brother, Sekgoma II, whose son was too young to become chief. Twenty-one-year-old Tshekedi set about consolidating his authority as leader. Alarmed by this, the British commissioner in the area, Sir Charles Rey, attempted to rein him in. When in 1933 two white men were taken before the native court accused of assaulting (raping) native girls, Tshekedi sentenced them to be flogged in public, as any native perpetrator would be. Rey was outraged by a black man overstepping himself and judging a white person.

Top – Vice-Admiral Evans arrives to conduct the inquiry into the actions of Regent Chief Tshekedi, accompanied by a hundred marines and another hundred seamen from Cape Province.
Bottom left -The inquiry. Evans announces the suspension of Acting Chief Tshekedi of the Bamangwato, he’s the small man on the right of the group of Africans facing the whites.
Middle bottom – Phineas McIntosh, left with pipe, and McNamee, right.
Bottom right – Tshekedi a year or two earlier
 
 

The British government reacted with a show of strength. A Vice-Admiral Edward Evans was sent in to investigate the incident. He arrived with 200 royal Marines and seamen brought in from Cape Town along with howitzers to make it crystal clear to the natives that their laws were one thing but Britain was in charge and no native chief had a right to judge any white person.

Buglers bugled as representatives of the British Crown and government assembled under a fig tree. Before them, unshaded from the sun, stood 15,000 native men and women, to witness legitimate justice. Under Britain’s superior justice Tshekedi was not permitted to have anyone speak in his defence. He was found guilty of overstepping his power by not providing the white men accused of assaulting native girls, McIntosh and MaNamee, a choice over which type of court judged them. Tshekedi was stripped of his powers and banished from Francistown by the Acting High Commissioner, Vice-Admiral Evans. During the proceedings several white women in the crowd shouted, “Stop this” and they and other whites rushed to shake Tshekedi’s hand. Tshekedi’s removal proved fairly short-lived. Evans had him reinstated following a public outcry.

The British press were predictably racist – ridiculing Batmangwato’s ‘comic opera’ army. A sneering W. J . Makin of The Sphere (23 September, 1933) wrote –

500 members dressed in cast-off uniforms of Drury Lane and other musical comedy shows of London …Some even wear kilts, with dirty white spats over their black feet.

More serious journalists, especially among the South African press, ridiculed Britain’s high-handed actions of sending in marines and howitzers, calling it –

…a mere melodramatic gesture as useless as it must have been expensive.

Around this time the British government was getting jittery over the rise of nationalism in South Africa. That a black leader took it upon himself to flog a white man was unacceptable to many in Britain. Tshekedi was a symbol of the growing confidence of black Africans and so he had to be put in his place. He argued that both of the white men were notorious for their brutal behaviour and they had lived among the Batswana for some time and this was the reason he thought it appropriate to deal with them as he would any native guilty of a similar crime. One of the men, Phineas McIntosh had, in fact, accepted his punishment but Commissioner Charles Rey was determined to drive home the message of Britain’s supremacy over him and his people. Britian’s play of strength was considered far more important than the rape of native girls and punishment of the perpetrators. The British moved the convicted men, McIntosh and McNamee, to Lohatsi to the dismay of its resident white people who petitioned to have them removed, over fears for their daughters’ safety.

The Batmangwato army

The flogging episode and its aftermath highlighted the tensions that existed between native autonomy and British control. Tshekedi was never antithetical to the British, his own father having accepted ‘British protection’ in the late 19th century under threat from the Boers but those times had gone. His son Tshekedi having had a western education became the acceptable face of a native chief and trusted by many whites but he was no British lackey. Tshekedi was proud of his people and his country. He was a nationalist who well understood the injustices at the heart of colonialism – the leash that could and would be tightened as a reminder of where power really lay. He recognised that the protection offered to his father in the nineteenth century came as a double-edged sword – protection on the one hand and threat on the other. Westminster passed the Foreign Jurisdiction Act in 1890 that legalised the British monarch’s supremacy over native laws, rights and obligations. The British Crown’s agent was, of course, the British government. In other words, the British Crown was superior to any native power in its Empire and could countermand any court decisions. And given that the area fell under total control of Westminster, it could decide its future – whether that meant retaining Batswana chiefs or handing their country over to the British South Arican Company – and always racism was at its core.

Clearly when the protected territory is inhabited by native tribes the amount of internal sovereignty assumed by the protector is much greater than in cases where the protected State has a civilised government.

(Justice Watermeyer. A Boer judge and supporter of British imperial control in southern Africa).

So, Tshekedi was reinstated because of a backlash but his movements were restricted and he had to accept he would not act in any cases against whites. The autocratic Rey was replaced as Resident Commissioner in 1937 but his career was not harmed. Tshekedi’s Rengentship ended when the nephew he was acting for, Seretse Khama, became chief in 1949. That’s another story involving racism that resulted in both Seretse Khama and Tshekedi being exiled by the British in 1950, and subsequently banned from participating in politics.  

A correspondent to the Perthshire Advertiser in April 1952 complained about the harsh treatment meted out to Seretse and Tshekedi by the British government as a

… blot on our British sense of justice and fair play.

In 1952 Tshekedi was allowed to return to Bechuanaland as a private citizen and he helped organise the return of Seretse. The pair plus a third man eventually brought about Bechuanaland’s independence, as Botswana on 30 September, 1966. Tshekedi was dead by then. He died in London in 1959, following treatment there for kidney failure. He was 54 years old.

The title of this blog is a quote from Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, 1960,

Sep 8, 2022

The Day the Music Died – on the BBC. Glasgow Orpheus Choir.

It caused a great stooshie that got a mention in the UK parliament – the BBC’s practice of censoring opinions it doesn’t like. This has nothing to do with Emily Maitlis but occurred back in the 1940s.

Today, the BBC is far more unpopular in Scotland than it is in England with 13% of Scottish households choosing not to buy a BBC licence compared with 7% in England, 6% in Wales and 10% in Northern Ireland. In Scotland it is criticised for reflecting the corporation’s southern metropolitan bias and for its determined and continuing promotion of unionism that flies in the face of at least 50% of Scottish opinion.

We should not be surprised after all the BBC is unionist – it says so on the tin and is British establishment to its core. There is a pretence is that it reflects life in these islands. Of course, it does nothing of the kind. It does nowadays what it has always done – represent a tiny section of ‘British’ society and stuffs its management with dependable British establishment types to ensure it upholds the values of people like them.

Back in the 1930s, the choral master of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, Sir Hugh Roberton, seemed like a dependable chap. The choir, his choir, had a reputation second to none in the UK and were frequent performers on the BBC. However, come the Second World War it was drawn to the BBC’s attention that Roberton was not one of them. He was a socialist and pacifist and member of the Peace Pledge Union.

 War and art is an impossible combination, impossible as hate and love. War is in an insidious position. It scars and brutalises us unconsciously…Oh the vanity and hypocrisy and brutality of the world, oh the ignorance of the people.

The words of Hugh Roberton during World War One.

Come the Second World War, they banned him and his choir from broadcasting on the BBC.  

Roberton was portrayed as a disloyal citizen by Corporation – that moulder of opinions.  During the Second World War the BBC was the government’s powerful medium for disseminating government propaganda – George Orwell was part of that structure between 1941 and 1943 and used his experiences at the BBC in his portrayal of the propaganda arm of government, the Ministry of Truth, in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Roberton wasn’t alone in being proscribed by the BBC which has a history of denying access to mics to people it regards as not one of us. Michael Redgrave was among a number of actors whose services were not required during the war. Redgrave accused the BBC of –

…an unwarranted infringement of the civil liberties of the individual.

The BBC’s defence was that anyone with views ‘opposed to the national war effort’ as they described it – would not be allowed on the BBC. That members of the Orpheus Choir were on active service abroad or in the Home Guard or ARP carried no weight which drew this comment from one choir member –

 Joan of Arc has been a long time dead, but it appears that the English heresy-hunter still runs to type

It was not only his pacifist beliefs that made Roberton a thorn in the flesh of Britain’s most conservative elements. The custom was that concerts would close with the national anthem. Roberton would have none of it, and always ended the Orpheus Choir concerts with a rendering of Auld Lang Syne. Such behaviour enraged a Colonel W. Mellis from Aberdeen who wrote to his local newspaper, the Press & Journal, expressing his disgust that at a concert he attended God Save the King was not performed. For those of you too young to know, the national anthem used to be played at the end (and sometimes the start) of every public activity or performance and the audience was expected to stand up to listen to it. But people increasingly ignored this custom so it was stopped in cinemas in 1974. It carried on elsewhere until recent times and is still played at the end of BBC Radio 4 daily broadcasts. Mellis deplored that ‘a man like Sir Hugh Roberton’ (I think he meant such as Sir Hugh Roberton) be allowed anywhere near a microphone.

Ian Shaw MacPhail of Aberdeen, wrote a response to what he called Mellis’ ‘hysterically loyal support of the recent childish attitude of the BBC to the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and its pacifist conductor.’ He added that a man who ‘cannot enjoy a choir when it is conducted by a pacifist’ is no music lover and argued that music cannot be controlled by government, laws or opinions and asked if Mellis thought the choir would lure the public to their moral doom by the exquisiteness of its singing? He wondered if Mellis understood what the war was being fought for –

…men have died and are at this very moment dying in the belief that their sacrifice is made so that we may retain these precious rights of mankind – liberty of conscience and freedom of citizenship and speech

MacPhail, about to join the armed forces after graduating from Grey’s School of Art in Aberdeen, backed Roberton’s right to his opinions –

This black-balling of the musician is reminiscent of the unforgivable and dishonest attitude of the B.B.C. to that immortal animal lover Grey Owl* whose crime was that in his script he made a very pertinent indictment of the ‘sadistic cruelty’ of fox hunting.

He called the BBC doctrinaire – selecting who it allowed to broadcast and who it did not. For his part MacPhail wrote he was not concerned with whether –

…the milkman is an admirer of Stalin, whether the butcher has a moustache like Hitler’s or whether Sir Hugh Roberton is a pacifist.

(Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The BBC’s ban on the choir was raised in parliament. A Mr McGovern, MP for Glasgow Shettleston, raised the issue of ‘partiality of the propaganda and choice of propagandists by the British Broadcasting Corporation and the way in which it is being directed on totalitarian lines’ so eliminating different views on the BBC and instead of the BBC being ‘an instrument of democracy’ it was ‘one for the creation of an authoritarian regime in this country.’

Another Glasgow MP, Mr Stephen for Camlachie, said he noticed that after the ban on the Orpheus Choir had been lifted following the matter being raised with the prime minister, the BBC seldom put it on air. He described this as the BBC’s ‘victimization of this choir because of the anti-war views of the conductor.’

So, the BBC reduced its engagements of the choir after the ban was lifted. It was noticed it didn’t even merit a place on Scotland’s bit of the BBC, the ‘Scottish Half Hour’ which represented the BBC’s impressions of Scotland. The BBC’s regional director in Scotland was Melville Dimwiddie who in 1934 had issued a denial of an accusation from Hugh Roberton that the BBC was ‘an English institution with a branch office in Scotland.’ Dinwiddie’s denial was disingenuous since it most certainly was and is.

When the B.B.C. was formed it was formed with a charter akin to autocracy. Today the position of the governing body is that Scotland has no voice and Ireland had no voice. In two years’ time the charter is to be reviewed. I hope when this is done that Scotland will be given a certain measure of Home Rule.

(Sir Hugh Roberton, 1934)

Dinwiddie said there could be no better Scotsman representing Scotland than the Director General of Broadcasting, Sir John Reith. Trite nonsense and offensive to Scots with a brain. It was Dinwiddie who a decade later who told Roberton that if he changed his pacifist views he would be allowed to broadcast. Roberton insisted his views were his own business and not the BBC’s.

Hugh Roberton was unbending over substituting Auld Lang Syne at the end of concerts which he regarded was more in keeping with Scottish sentiment.  

We have a history, a tradition, all of our own … and I am sure it comes out in our singing…English choirs on the whole are probably more competent than Scottish ones: they are also more facile…their work wants root.

Roberton’s own roots ran deep in the soil of Scotland. He recognised the value of Scotland’s rich folk song tradition and rearranged many for his choir as well as writing his own songs based on old Gaelic and Scots ones.

All this happened between 80 and 90 years ago. A lot has changed at the BBC since then. Oh, wait: no, it hasn’t.

*Grey Owl was a Canadian naturalist who spent time in the UK giving talks on wildlife in the 1930s. He was the son of a Scottish father and Apache mother. One-time trapper, Grey Owl deplored hobby slaughter of animals and swapped his rifle for a pen.  “It took civilisation to teach us that killing was a sport” he said, which along with his condemnation of fox hunting, did not go down well with BBC chaps.

Feb 24, 2022

The Union Dividend: emigrate if you know what’s good for you

     Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character. If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for 50 or 100 or 200 years, some result will inevitably follow.

Edwin Muir, Scottish Journey, 1935:

Migrating Scots mother and children, 1911
(Library & Archives, Canada)

It is reprehensible that any government would regard its people as its main export but this was the fate of Scotland following the establishment of the Union – during the later 18 th century, 19th century and even into the 20th  century.

Without the broad shoulders of the Union, Scots are frequently told, Scotland would be a failing state – which begs the question, if Scotland has done so well from the Union how is it her population was compelled to abandon her in such huge numbers soon after the Union of 1707?

Either the Union has been devilishly good for Scotland and transformed her from a backward and struggling country into one both so innovative and confidently successful that she would have no trouble forging a bright future alone or it hasn’t. Which is it? We should be told.

Size seems to confound Unionists. Scotland’s population of about 5.5 million is too small, they argue. Successful nations with similar sized populations – Ireland, New Zealand, Kuwait, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Norway, Oman, Croatia might disagree and by now I’m getting into the 4 millions – Latvia, Bahrain, Estonia, Cyprus, Mauritius – below 2 million and could carry on to tiny Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Bermuda, Gibraltar – all of 33,000 inhabitants. But where was I? Scotland, unlike some of the above is richly endowed with potential for market-valuable renewables, is still an oil and gas producer, has unique and sought-after food and drink commodities, has an educated and skilled workforce and strong engineering pedigree.  If Scotland with all of this is not capable of standing on her own feet then the Union has failed Scotland and failed Scotland spectacularly, reducing our country to a pathetic dogsbody of a nation perpetually insulted and patronised and one whose interests are simply ignored by Westminster where the Union’s power is anchored.  

Bring on some goalposts. Not there. Over there. Where size is clearly not the issue it must be the economy that stops independence. Scotland isn’t rich enough. Remember the guffawing back in 2014-15 when oil prices collapsed? You’d be broke, Unionists crowed while simultaneously denying Scotland’s seabed was, in fact, Scottish. They aren’t laughing now with Brent crude prices back up in the 90s. Goalpost change. Climate change – you can’t open any more oil and gas fields – although this is a reserved matter and Unionist HQ, Westminster, is doing just that. Scotland’s large and expanding renewable energy sector is dismissed by Unionists who insist England will refuse to buy Scottish power and fresh water. Doesn’t sound like the actions of a friend never mind Union partner. But the Union has never been a partnership based on respect or trust.

From the inception of the Union government in Westminster operated on the principle that England’s industries and trade took precedence over Scotland’s. And in case we didn’t get the message Scots were told their country was poor and barbaric and we should sling our hooks and leave Scotland, the worthless nation, to rot. And many did. Some were forcibly displaced. Some chose to leave. The British Empire had spaces that needed filling with Europeans – so to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – ousting their native populations. Like so many of today’s migrants, Scots moved abroad in the hope of making a a better future for themselves and their families than was possible at home – because the Union dividend has always been a myth. Or they had no choice but to leave. Because the Union has been a disaster for Scotland.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, in the month of April 9,000 people left Scotland – just under 3,000 in a single week. In another week, in May of 1912,  3,520 Scots migrated to Canada or America from the Clyde alone. Other ports were available. On 1st June, again from the Clyde, a further 2,000 were shipped west. On 6th June 1912, a report claimed emigration from Scotland was running twice as fast as from England.

Canada was the favoured destination for Scots. Before the Union, Scotland established a colony in Canada in 1621. It was called Nova Scotia (New Scotland.) This colonisation proved brief, being surrendered to the French in 1632. Two centuries later, under the Union, the Canadian authorities employed squads of agents to sell Canada to Scots – to entice the brightest and best to settle there where farm land could be bought for the price of a year’s rent in Scotland and where industries required skilled men and women. Leaflets were pressed into hands and colourful posters pinned up in public places promising everything that was great and everything that was different from failed Scotland bogged down by hardship, low pay, high rents, filthy slums and poor food – the Union dividend.  

Lord Strathcona, a Scot who became a Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a big shot in Canada, enthused about the vast territory of Canada able to maintain 150,000,000 people – he wasn’t talking about Canada’s own indigenous peoples, you understand, he wanted Scots to up sticks and settle there where everything was “the best.”

“Anyone – even a lady – could succeed on the land there” Strathcona said by way of encouragement. He knew ‘ladies’ from Russia who were farming. 

Back in Scotland the Union had so run down the country Scots took little persuading to leave. In 1912 a flood of humanity boarded vessels, mainly for Canada and America, but also for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This flood was a continuation of the one the year before. In 1911, about 90,000 Scots packed up and left the old country. Across the rest of Europe emigration to America and Canada was slowing down but not from Scotland where it was accelerating because Scots could see no future in Scotland in the Union. In 1906 Scottish exceeded Irish emigration for the first time and did so again in 1911-12.   

In 1911 Scotland recorded its lowest death rate since 1855 (when records began) and lowest birth rate since 1873 except for 1890. The low birth rate might be explained by the drainage of young men, sometimes abandoning wives, and young women moving abroad. Scotland’s population depletion was only regarded with concern once rate payers discovered they were being asked to provide poor relief for deserted families. But emigration provided excellent business opportunities for shipping lines.

American bound from Aberdeen

Between 1830 and 1914 around 2 million Scots emigrated abroad and a similar number are believed to have moved to other parts of the UK. Throughout the 20th century Scotland’s population decline continued. Since 1851 the proportion of Scotland’s population to the population of the UK as a whole has diminished by 25%.

People, industries and company headquarters have moved away from Scotland. The oil and gas sector off the northeast of Scotland ran counter to this long-term trend and had a major impact on population, jobs and wage levels. Unfortunately, the immense wealth produced off Scotland’s coast failed to benefit Scotland. Instead, Thatcher ensured that London and the southeast of England profited with vast building and infrastructure spending there. Compare Europe’s oil and gas capital, Aberdeen, with London. You would never know Aberdeen was the hub of so much multinational activity. Scotland was prevented from benefitting from this klondike which is an odd sort of dividend – aka no dividend at all but cynical exploitation by a greedy partner.

James Annand, an Aberdeenshire journalist and soon-to-be Liberal MP (the shortest serving MP, dying within a couple of weeks of winning and never taking his seat) was campaigning in 1903. He buttered up his audience in St Fergus with references to townies who had no idea how tough life and work were for country folk and complained about the lack of affordable farms for rent. He reminded his audience that Scotland was a poor country – a poor country? Surely some mistake – after two hundred years of that Union dividend how come Scotland was still poor? The Unionist never explained but he did emphasise just how poor Scotland was and how it was understandable that so very many Scots migrated because they could not make a decent living at home. Annand supported Scots getting out of Scotland to Canada – the land of opportunity.

Canada still tempting Scots away in its quest for “suitable men and women to go there.’  Annand mentioned Texas with its “three million acres of land, owned by a single company, that was being offered in lots for sale at £1000 each” and Australia with its “incalculable opportunities for enterprise in connection with unoccupied territory” – where indigenous people didn’t appear to matter.

And so Scotland continued to be drained of many of its most “suitable men and women” – from countryside and cities – the populations of Edinburgh and Glasgow were also in decline. The tide of migration that swept “the best young men and women of Scotland” ashore in North America was detrimental to the economy back home as well as reinforcing how Scotland was failing its own people following years of underinvestment, attacks on its manufacturing, lack of opportunities, lack of hope and ambition over generations. The coming of the Great War placed a temporary halt on Scotland’s population depletion by emigration, replacing it with another loss, of many of its fine young people, in that disastrous bloodbath.

Early in the twentieth century when England’s population was about five times greater than Scotland’s its wealth was about thirty-six times greater than Scotland’s. That Union dividend, again.

Two hundred years of the Union, of the Union dividend, and the message was – emigrate if you know what’s good for you.                   

Westminster government statistics income 2014-16

For centuries England repeatedly attacked Scotland, in an attempt to annex it. It did not succeed until 1707 when a handful of Scottish nobles sold out their country for personal gain. That was the point that Scotland became an irrelevance in the eyes of the British monarchy and government except for the money it could raise from Scots taxpayers to help pay for England’s near continuing wars and her young men to sacrifice themselves as cannon fodder – for wars have a habit of eliminating people at a fearful rate. Peacetime taxes levied by Westminster favoured English industries to the detriment of Scottish ones. The Union was an English protectionist measure set up by the monarchy and Westminster. The myth it has been good for Scotland is just that. Westminster operates to benefit the city of London and this is why present talk of ‘levelling up’ is just talk. Ireland was treated in a similar manner to Scotland. The Irish woollen trade was destroyed to protect England’s and during the terrible famine years of the 1840s while 400,000 Irish people were starving to death the grain they grew on their land was carted away to fill British bellies. Destitute Irish could see no future at home and so left. Likewise in Scotland. Between 1840 and 1940 a little short of a million Scots went to live in other parts of the UK while more than two million emigrated abroad.

The Highlands and Islands Emigration Society encouraged Scots escape starvation during the Highland Potato Famine of 1846 by emigrating to Australia. In Westminster the Emigration Act of 1851 provided subsidies to landlords to ship people abroad like so much livestock. Queen Victoria and assorted aristocrats contributed to the costs to rid Scotland of Scots, though she, herself, decided to use the country as a holiday retreat.   

At the Union Scotland’s population was about 20% of the UK’s population. Today Scotland’s 5.5 million make up 8.2% of the UK’s overall population. According to the James Hutton Institute Scotland’s rural populations could decline by 33% in little more than 20 years.

While I was able to find sources that looked at the impact of emigration on Ireland I found none on the impact of emigration from Scotland on Scotland. Although not identical emigration from Ireland has comparisons with Scotland but in Ireland’s case destitution drove emigration much more than occurred in Scotland. The perception that migrants are always poor and low skilled has never been true. Of course people emigrate for different reasons and some impoverished and low skilled will take their chances moving abroad, often under duress, but these groups are those least likely to migrate while the educated, skilled and ambitious are more likely to voluntarily emigrate.

Migrants have also moved to Scotland. Through the 19th and 20th centuries they came mainly from Ireland, the Baltic countries and northern Europe (a reversal of 16th and 17th century Scots moving abroad to trade), Italians and, of course, people from Wales and England. With increasing global migration, the number of Scots born outwith Scotland continues to increase; in 2018-19 just under 40,000 moved to Scotland from overseas – 20,000 greater than left.

Fraser of Allander gross disposable household income across UK 2018

The return of some autonomy to Scotland through the partial resurrection of a parliament in Edinburgh provided hope for the future of the country. However, Westminster jealously guards its overall control of the whole UK and will chip away at Edinburgh’s authority and will as far as possible implement policies that protect and support that southeast corner of England, as it has done since 1707. These are dangerous times for Scots. If Westminster succeeds in extinguishing Scotland’s recently found confidence and optimism the country will again be plunged into a state of hopelessness that led to people leaving over three hundred years. The Union that needed heavily armed fortifications to ensure compliance in its early days, that ran down Scotland and drained it of “its best men and women” might have proved a dividend for Westminster but at a terrible cost for Scotland.

Jan 18, 2022

The Dud

Dec 12, 2021

What’s in a name: royalty a very English affair

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

British Air Force man Derek Neilson, who was fined £5 for throwing a tyre lever through a shop window stocked with British Coronation emblems. Following his court appearance he was locked up overnight at army barracks in Edinburgh for refusing to stand up during the playing of “God Save the Queen.” And his tie emblazoned with Elizabeth I, was confiscated.

Neilson was the extreme end of protest across Scotland from Benbecula to Auchtermuchty in the early 1950s over the naming of the queen. Reminiscent of the women’s suffrage movement protests, poster campaigns, petitions signed, windows were smashed and a pillar box in Edinburgh bearing the insignia, E.R. II, was blown up.

Back in 1901 similar protests had taken place in Scotland when Edward VII was named since there had been no Scottish kings called Edward, only English, how could he be Edward VI of the United Kingdom? Didn’t do any good then. Scots were told to just swallow it.

Then in 1953 a petition lodged with the Court of Session by the Scottish Covenant Association to veto the imposition of Elizabeth II as the queen’s title on grounds the United Kingdom of Great Britain that came into being in 1707 had no queen called Elizabeth since that time and as she was said to be queen of the Union she could not possibly be called Elizabeth II.

Dr. John MacCormick

The petition was rejected on grounds it was up to her what she called herself. This was challenged by Dr John M. MacCormick, chairman of the Scottish Covenant Association on grounds that the numeral was not a description of her Crown but of her, a person. He referred to an Act of Parliament on the subject –

Nowhere in the Act of 1953 has any authority been given to Her Majesty or her Ministers to adopt in her personal name a numeral which is contrary to the provisions of the Act of Union.

That it is well understood in England the numeral is to convey her as Elizabeth of England . . .

It cut no ice. Scotland was then fairly solidly unionist. At least those in senior roles in Scotland were solidly unionist and pleased themselves about constitutional matters irrespective of popular opinion.

Names do matter. And names do change. Place names tend to be changed to underline domination. The British Empire was famous for doing that but it’s a common practice among powers replacing traditional native names with ones honouring political, military or royal figures. Think of Volgograd becoming Stalingrad in honour of the Soviet leader or Maryburgh that became Gordonsburgh then Duncansburgh and finally, Fort William, in Scotland. The William being the bloody butcher Duke of Cumberland, himself. I hope in a future independent Scotland someone with a morsel of decency will arrange a competition to rename the place. There are 26 towns called Independence in the US alone and that has a certain ring about it.

Names matter or else place names wouldn’t be altered. Names mattered a great deal in 1953 when Princess Elizabeth came to the throne. Which ordinal number should be added to the new queen’s name, I or II, was debated in Westminster. It used to be that a description was good enough to differentiate monarchs of the same name – descriptive term like Alfred the Wimp, Margaret the Cow or such. Then they began to number them, like farm stock.

It is not compulsory for a monarch to be known by his or her given first name. Usually with royal types they have several to choose from. Queen Elizabeth’s own father chose to be George VI even though George was the last of his many names and he was Albert or Bertie before his coronation. Elizabeth might have chosen to be Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary (both her names.) Mary would was been an interesting choice, and legitimate since she was becoming the monarch of a union formed only since 1707. If it is, as was stated then, the UK was a successor state to England then equally the UK is a successor state to Scotland. But that was/is assuming the UK is an equal union and nobody but a dissembler would say it has ever been that. It was most definitely not regarded this way in London, where it mattered.

In the event Elizabeth Windsor – now there’s another example of changing identities for the House of Windsor and other similar wings of the family took their name from royal castles when their own names became too embarrassingly German during war with Germany.  So Saxe Coburg Gotha was dispensed with in favour of Windsor. It could so easily have been the House of Balmoral. But wasn’t. It’s an English/Scottish thing. Again.

As I was saying, in the event Princess Elizabeth and parliament decided she should present herself as a successor to Elizabeth Tudor of England – which she isn’t. Okay, let’s stop there for a minute. Elizabeth of England had no children. The English line of Tudors therefore died out with her. However, in that way that royals are inter-bred she is kind of related, wait for it, through the Scottish House of Stuart. So, no direct link with Elizabeth of the rotten teeth. Cut to the chase, Lena. The Tudors line ran dry. The Stuarts in the form of Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James VI, took up the English as well as the Scottish throne – Scotland and England were separate nations in 1603. A bit of cut and pasting heads and the Stuarts were replaced by the German cousins, the Hanovers – and hey presto we have the Saxe Coburg and Gotha dynasty that was renamed, Windsor. Hope that’s clear.

It won’t have escaped the notice of those of you paying attention that James VI is never referred to by the big 6 in England but the wee I since England had never had a King James previously. Sounding familiar? Rules are there to be broken, as they say in Westminster. Talking of Westminster the debates over the royal name chuntered on.

3 March 1953 –

After the passage of all this various legislation through the Parliaments of the Commonwealth the Queen will be as much the Queen of India and of Ceylon as she is of England or of the United Kingdom,” said Gordon Walker, Labour MP.

His conflation of England with the UK did not go unnoticed. Walker, continued

I think one is still entitled to talk about the “Queen’s English” and the “Queen of England.”

Labour MP, John Rankin, representing Glasgow, wanted to know who advised the choice of title pointing out it was incorrect in reference to Ireland and equally wrong in its reference to Scotland,

We in Scotland have always recognised the English as a very kindly and generous people” to which M. McGovern of Glasgow Shettleston piped up, “Who circulated that?”

Rankin ignored the comment. Referring to the man who was the accepted authority on all things coronation, Lawrence Tanner, Keeper of Muniments and Library, Westminster Abbey, who described the new queen as Queen Elizabeth II the sixth Queen Regnant of England. Rankin said this was

phrase that gives offence to many people in Scotland … where does Scotland come in? Does it mean that she is not Queen Elizabeth II of Scotland? If so then what is the position of Scotland in regard the proposed style and title?

The right honourable Gentleman the Prime Minister, dealing with the Coronation Oath, in a statement to the House on 25th February, said that the change to which he was referring was introduced “as a result of the act of Union with Scotland. Then he went on to point out that in the Oath Scottish religion was preserved as a right guaranteed under the Act of Union. But the right hon. Gentleman did not tell the whole story. There were more than Scottish religious rights defended as the result of the Act of Union. As a result of that Act, Scotland and England ceased to be independent countries. The Act of Union was not a merging of Scot-land into England. We are not a satellite of England. I am no Nationalist – I want to make that perfectly clear – but the Act of Union did away with England and Scotland as independent units. It substituted a new name, a new flag and a new Great Seal.

These are the things which have been consistently ignored, not merely in the attitude of England – and I forgive them for that – but time and again in this House. People look on us as taking a rather narrow attitude, but our attitude is defended by a treaty which established that Act of Union between two equals, not between one who was dependent and another who was a great Power.

Welsh member, Cledwyn Hughes, for Anglesey, reminded him there were three great nations in the Union.

It became clear that little consultation had taken place with any of the three other members of the Union and all consideration of the event was based solely on what suited England and conformed to English history and heritage or a cobbled-up version of that.  

A.C. Manuel, MP for Central Ayrshire –

At election time, the Prime Minister always likes to go to Scotland …to parade at huge meetings in big football stadiums…give pledges…he doesn’t appear to have consulted on this.

The second reading of the Bill took place on 11 March. Viscount Swinton prattled on about how inclusive the monarchy was and how it was based on what was contained in Bagehot’s English Constitution. The tunnel vision was and still is, stark.

There was ridicule over Scots getting hot under the collar about the royal title from people who openly admitted they knew little about Scottish history.

“Lawlessness and violence” that greeted the appearance of pillar boxes bearing ER II in Scotland was condemned. Representing the Scottish National Party’s view was Lord Saltoun though he was not a member. He explained that people in Scotland were angry at the country continued in being sidelined and not taken as an equal partner in the Union. He suggested that when Prince Charles (then a baby) came to reign he could choose a Scottish title such as David III or Robert IV, to demonstrate the UK was an equal union.   

On the 15th April Commons debate on Royal Style and Title, Lieut.-Colonel Elliot asked the Prime Minister whether,

. . . in advising the Sovereign to assume the title of Elizabeth II, he took into consideration the desirability of adopting the principle of using whichever numeral in the English or Scottish lines of Kings and Queens happens to be the higher.”

Notice what he did there? The principle he referred to had never taken Scottish monarchs into account – didn’t happen with James VI then I (by which he is universally known) and with Edward VII it was never contemplated he would be known as Edward I of the UK. Westminster’s love of tradition was/is its love of English tradition. It can’t handle unions because of something it calls the importance of its sovereignty. England doesn’t do compromise. Don’t mention the EU and Brexit.

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was quick to share out responsibility for this obvious stitch up, with the Accession Council. The Accession Council is a group comprising privy counsellors, members of the Lords, the Lord Mayor of London, aldermen of the City of London, high commissioners of Commonwealth realms and assorted civil servants – top heavy with south east England interests. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – less so. This was their speel back in the day –

WE, therefore, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of this Realm, being here assisted with these His late Majesty’s Privy Council, with representatives of other Members of the Commonwealth, with other Principal Gentlemen of Quality, with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Citizens of London, do now hereby with one voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart publish and proclaim that the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is now, by the death of our late Sovereign of happy memory, become Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom Her lieges do acknowledge all Faith and constant Obedience with hearty and humble Affection, beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign, to bless the Royal Princess Elizabeth the Second with long and happy Years to reign over us.

There was unease among many Scots at having a right royal rug pulled out from under them. Churchill (despised by much of Scotland for very good reasons and the feeling probably mutual) toyed with Scots when he suggested that a future monarch might choose a regnal number that represented past Scottish monarchs, such as a Robert.  

. . . thereby emphasising that our Royal Family traces its descent through the English royal line from William the Conqueror and beyond, and through the Scottish Royal line from Robert the Bruce and Malcolm Canmore and still further back.

Still further back! All those references to tracing monarchs back to 1066 England and all that is just an arbitrary stab into the past. It is meaningless gibberish in terms of tradition. Why not go back to the 10th  or the 9th century? Why the reference to the Norman Conquest? Why not a reference to the great Kenneth MacAlpin? We know why – a) it was likely Churchill, schooled in ancient and European histories knew next to nothing about Scotland and b) MacAlpin wasn’t English. Of course neither was William the Conqueror but back then people arriving in boats from France were able to settle in England, especially when equipped with a mighty bow and plenty of arrows. It’s pretty hilarious that accepted English constitutional rigmarolling stems from a French takeover of the land previously run by Denmark, Norway and rump England? Plenty shared sovereignty back then.

Churchill was pressed to to formalise his remark about considering Scottish monarchs in the future but he declined to have any such policy written down because it was all just so much hot air. He was at it. What about the difficulties in issuing Scottish currency given this was the first Elizabeth of Scotland? he was asked. Nothing.

As usual Wales was omitted from the conversation. A Welsh MP, Gower, piped up,

. . . what course will be followed if a future British monarch should bear the name Llewellyn?”

The PM prevaricated. As he did on many concerns of the union of equals.

Sir William Darling, MP for South Edinburgh, handed into the Commons police what looked like a bomb but was a machine gun cartridge sent to him by someone from Glasgow in response to a speech he made in support of the title Queen Elizabeth II. A Darling doesn’t change its spots.

Nobody listened to Scottish or Welsh objections over the monarch’s title but irritation over the high-handed behaviour of the Westminster clique has never faded which might help explain the greater support for republicanism in Scotland and Wales than in England. Will Charlie do a Robert? We’ll soon know. Oh, and the Queen got to keep her choice of title but the ER II post boxes got the heave-ho out of Scotland to be replaced by ones bearing the Scottish Crown. They tried it on again with an ER II post box in Dunoon in 2018. Still at it.

Let us end with a song, once very popular in Scottish folksong circles.

The Scottish Breakaway (Coronation Coronach)

Chorus:
Nae Liz the Twa, nae Lilibet the One
Nae Liz will ever dae
We’ll mak’ oor land Republican
In a Scottish breakaway

Noo Scotland hasnae got a King
And she hasnae got a Queen
How can ye hae the Second Liz
When the First yin’s never been

Her man he’s cried the Duke o’ Edinburgh
He’s wan o’ the kiltie Greeks
Och dinnae blaw ma kilt awa’
For it’s Lizzie wears the breeks

He’s a handsome man and he looks like Don Juan
He’s beloved by the weaker sex
But it disnae really matter at a’
‘Cause it’s Lizzie that signs the cheques

Noo her sister Meg’s got a bonny pair o’ legs
But she didnae want a German or a Greek
Poor aul’ Peter was her choice but he didnae suit the boys
So they sellt him up the creek

But Meg was fly an’ she beat them by an’ by
Wi’ Tony hyphenated Armstrong
Behind the pomp and play the question o’ the day
Wis, Who did Suzie Wong

Sae here’s tae the lion, the bonnie rampant lion,
An’ a lang streitch tae his paw

Gie a Hampden roar an’ it’s oot the door
Ta-ta tae Chairlie’s maw

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_Box_War

Jul 1, 2021

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

Books on a shelf Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noyan the Mongol leader and Ertugrul the Turkish bey

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will quote the first few lines of the book –

Allow me to introduce myself – first negatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s move on.

Time and his wife from The Uncommercial Traveller

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

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

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

The speaker is Gradgrind the school board superintendent.

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

Then there is Bounderby –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care till next time.

Jun 17, 2021

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

Books on a shelf Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am now reading the entire novel.

*

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

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

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

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

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

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

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

*

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

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

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

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

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

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

The hail clanjamfrie!

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

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

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

*

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

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

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

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

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

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

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

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

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

*

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

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

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

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

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

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

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

*

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

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

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

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

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

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

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

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

Charles does like to go on a bit.

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

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

*

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

Kipps – the story of a simple soul

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

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

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

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

Mr Shalford –

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

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

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

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

May 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.

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.