Archive for ‘politics’

Jul 1, 2021

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

Books on a shelf Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noyan the Mongol leader and Ertugrul the Turkish bey

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will quote the first few lines of the book –

Allow me to introduce myself – first negatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s move on.

Time and his wife from The Uncommercial Traveller

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

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

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

The speaker is Gradgrind the school board superintendent.

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

Then there is Bounderby –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care till next time.

Jun 17, 2021

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

Books on a shelf Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am now reading the entire novel.

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

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

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

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

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

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

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

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

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

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

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

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

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

The hail clanjamfrie!

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

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

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

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

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

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

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

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

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

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

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

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

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

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

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

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

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

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

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

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

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

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

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

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

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

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

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

Charles does like to go on a bit.

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

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

*

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.              

Jan 6, 2021

Unions and Alliances: Divorce and the Bidie-in

D I V O R C E sang Tammy Wynette, an expert on the subject.

Divorce, yes divorce. Divorce is in the air. Have you noticed? When the UK filed for divorce from the EU it was complicated because there were four partners in that relationship – five if you count the EU. Two of the partners got their way and three did not. Now it should have been possible in those circumstances for those three unhappy with the breakup to stay in the relationship; being consenting partners. Actually one of the partners has, albeit by quirk rather than design. The remaining one of the original four, hope you’re keeping up, has been told she must cut off all connections with the former fifth partner even though she really wants the relationship to continue because one of the four is less of a partner and more of a tyrant. Isn’t that so like many unhappy marriages – in which one partner is overbearing?

Let’s put some names to the partners. The four are, of course, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales and the EU that has already been identified as partner number five. It’s a poor sort of marriage in which one partner is controlling but that’s always been the way with the constitutional setup of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland did not want this divorce but they’re stuck with it – only NI is being treated with more care and consideration than Scotland and now embarking on a ménage à trois with the EU and UK.

It is not that Scotland is averse to divorce. The majority of Scots would love to divorce the UK and reinstate relations with her Continental suitors. She would not be against rekindling some kind of relationship with the UK but on a more equitable footing – not the current one under the domineering and manipulative partner, let us call him England. England holds all the cards and for three hundred years has been playing with a marked deck.

England and divorce has a troubled history. I’m talking personal relationships now for I think it reasonable to compare how a nation handles its personal relationships with the way it handles constitutional ones. In the case of England marriages have always been unequally skewed with men of power and wealth able to obtain an annulment whereas wives, on the other hand, have struggled to extricate themselves from an obviously failed marriage, even where the husband is controlling and abusive. English laws have been written by men for men. Even from the grave a vindictive rogue of a husband and father could continue to harm his wife and children by omitting them from his will so leaving them penniless and homeless.

Vindictive and controlling are the traits that mark out England’s attitude towards Scotland’s desire for divorce. Okay, so to begin with the attitude was more derisory – to belittle and discredit but the tone has got more shrill and tinged with threat. Only days ago in a debate in the Commons, former Tory minister Liam Fox suggested in the event of divorce between Scotland and the rest of the UK Scotland would be punished by blocks on trade (that is so close to the events in 1707 which led to the Union it’s uncanny.)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman [Ian Blackford MP]for giving way. Perhaps he could tell us what estimate he has made of the cost to the Scottish economy of losing access to the UK single market through independence. (Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset)

Dissolving the Union –

What? Nonsense! You can’t pull out of it now! Why? Surely not? What have I done? I haven’t done anything wrong! No, I won’t agree to any divorce! I’ll make your life miserable! I’ll punish you in every way I can! You’ll be made to suffer! Divorce me! How dare you even try!

These ridiculing and hostile attitudes have not gone down well with the majority of Scots who are expected to believe the Union is one of equals while experience shows it is nothing of the kind. This Union was always a marriage of convenience that quickly turned into a loveless trial. The dominant partner has never concealed his lack of respect for the other, denigrating and belittling her and keeping a tight hold on the purse strings to prevent her from leaving him. Confiscating the house keys will no doubt come next. Like almost every failing marriage there’s bad contemptuous behaviour, constant criticisms, secrecy, avoiding each other, arguments and the sex is lousy.

Scots attitudes to divorce have always been fairly liberal with both sexes tending to be treated equally and the assumption is this progressive perspective is shared. Far back in the mists of time Scottish marriages could be simply annulled or couples choose to go their own ways and lead separate lives while technically still married. Women as well as men could obtain formal divorces on grounds of adultery or desertion from the 1500s. When a relationship was shown to have irretrievably broken down the Scots were more pragmatic over the hopelessness of the situation and the union terminated. Threats of punishment and coercion were not considered suitable alternative actions.

Women’s standing has always been more robust in Scotland than in England. A Scots woman’s individualism did not get extinguished on her marriage, as was the case in England and you can see the majority of older Scottish gravestones display women’s own last name along with reference to her status as wife or relict of a man. Until relatively recent times that is. Now the English habit of a woman relinquishing her identity to her husband has become common here in Scotland. For a time it was the norm for a married woman to be addressed by her husband’s name – as in Mrs David Macdonald. That piece of nonsense is now hopefully relegated to the misogynist dustbin of the past.

You know why divorces are so expensive? Because they’re worth it. 

Scots women and children have always been better protected by the law than their English counterparts. For example a Scottish widow  could not be deprived of her jus relictae and the children of a marriage of their legitima – meaning they could not be written out of a husband’s/father’s will. A wife was entitled to one half of the movable assets of a marriage and her children to the other half and in the case of there being no children, the wife’s share comprised one-third. That should tell us about the type of society that operates in this way and the type of society that does not. As we’ve seen above this has never been the case in England.

A marriage in which one partner enjoys more rights than the other so able to restrict the rights and freedoms of the other partner is no worthwhile relationship. A union in which one member nation assumes greater privileges than another nation and gets to impose rules unilaterally is no worthwhile union. Under Scots law this union would have been dissolved long ago. Under English law Scotland remains a chattel of England’s.

The English state does not respect Scotland because Scotland’s status within the Union is so weak. Scratch a unionist and they’ll argue that Scotland’s position within the Union is comparable to an English county. Labour leader, Tony Blair, in 1997 epitomised this view when he described the Scottish parliament as having no more powers than an English parish council because sovereignty would remain “with me” i.e. the prime minister at Westminster.  So much for Scotland having an equal voice within the UK. This Union is nothing more than an abusive relationship but mentions pulling out of it and unionists are aghast then angry then more abusive.

Divorce after 300 years!

300 and a bit years. Call that a union?

Here’s a union. France, you know that country that a section of English xenophobes love to describe as their ‘traditional enemy’ (to which the obvious retort is – who isn’t?) has never been on the receiving end of such animosity from Scotland. Quite the reverse for links between Scotland and France are greater than those between Scotland and England.

This is a Union

The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, established in 1295, has never been formally ended so the Union with England is bigamous. England is the bidie-in. It has been argued the Auld Alliance was wound up in 1560. If this is so it means Scotland’s union with France lasted over 260 years, just 38 years shy of that other union with England.

When Scotland was badgered and blackmailed into the Union in 1707, against the wishes of the people who signed petitions, demonstrated and rioted their disapproval, Scotland lost her legislative powers, many of her public offices to London, with a knock-on impact on Scottish trade and commerce. Resentment within Scotland has simmered ever since with fluctuating degrees of support for independence or Home Rule.

Divorce is a piece of paper

Back in 1890 a piece in the Westminster Review described how the demand for Home Rule for Scotland was gaining popularity on the back of the movement for Irish Home Rule. The article went on to observe –

“But the grievance that impelled her [Scotland] to do it [go for Home Rule] have been long and severely felt.  And they have a deeper root than the English people seems yet to understand. It is not only that Scotland has been shabbily and unfairly treated in the matter of Imperial grants; it is not only that the Scottish people have been put to enormous and needless expense, vexation, and trouble in connection with so-called private Bills; it is not only that Scottish affairs have been grossly mismanaged in London; Scottish legislation trifled with by the leaders of both parties, and the verdict of the Scottish constituencies on Scottish questions reversed in Parliament by the overwhelming votes of English members knowing little, caring less, about Scottish affairs, and merely voting as their party leaders bid.”

Those observations could have come from yesterday in parliament at Westminster. In 1890 the two parties in question were the Liberals and Tories. Labour would later traipse along in their wake and with some notable exceptions follow the line of England knows best, back in your box Scotland – that has been the attitude of all the UK parties.

A feature throughout the life of the Union has been the English tendency to deride Scots and Scotland – as the Westminster Review put it – “wrong done thus and otherwise to Scotland’s life and honour and progress as a nation.” And nothing has changed.

“England seems scarcely to know that Scotland remains a nation.” (Westminster Review)

And nothing has changed. That is the position of Johnson, Starmer and their party acolytes. What the English know or think they know about Scotland comes from Anglicized Scots, the Westminster Review tells us. These people rarely represent their own country and so misrepresent the Union.

Divorces are made in heaven

Scottish Secretaries of State at Westminster represent Westminster in Scotland not Scotland at Westminster. Their role is to squeeze the life out of Scotland and ‘denationalise’ her. Scotland’s junior position within the Union has meant from the very start she was being milked for whatever she was worth by London, from the malt taxes to oil and gas.

Against the grain: Scotland pays the English Exchequer | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

As an illustration take an example from 1851 when Ireland’s revenue was just over £4 million Westminster took £153,547. About the same time Scotland’s revenue was just over £6 million and of that England took £5,614,847. Astounding. If astounding is another term for theft.

Heavy burdens in the form of taxes and customs duties and making Scotland pay for England’s national debt – if only England wasn’t such a xenophobic country it wouldn’t always be spending money on costly wars against other nations – kept Scotland indebted to England and diminished her freedom as a nation within the Union. Scotland had no national debt when the Union knot was tied and England made sure that she could never have England’s freedom to borrow money. That still applies today with Scotland having to balance her books while England can accrue as much debt as it likes and demand Scotland pays a share. What kind of Scot would have agreed to a contract like that? Not any kind of good one.

Article 15 of the Treaty provided a lump sum – the so-called Equivalent – was paid to Scotland as compensation for having to agree to take on a share of England’s national debt. That and to compensate Scotland for various disadvantages imposed on her by the Union such as a reduction in the value of Scotland’s currency to match that of England’s, winding up the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies so it was not in competition with England’s East India Company.  To quell the protests from Scottish businessmen London agreed to provide subsidies as compensation for Scotland’s lost markets for its successful exports such as woollen goods. In keeping with so many promises made to woo the handful of Scots nobles who played fast and loose with Scotland’s independence those subsidies were never paid out. You can see the direction of travel this Union was taking. The Equivalent was paid to 25 commissioners who first and foremost took care of themselves with the cash – and it was mainly cash. So you can imagine how widely this was (not) spread. The Union that England holds so dear was created on a catalogue of lies and deceptions.

In place of promised financial help came an increased tax burden for Scots. Prominent Scots, such as the eminent economist, Adam Smith, tried to prevent Scotland being penalised so heavily by England but to no avail. Why would England’s government aka Westminster relinquish the grip it had on Scotland? It didn’t want to risk having a rival and potential threat to its security on its border. Which reminds us this Union was a marriage of convenience. Time for the bidie-in to sling his hook.

 I don’t see divorce as a failure. I see it as the end to a story. In a story, everything has an end and a beginning.

References:

(Julian Hoppit, University College London, Scotland and the British Fiscal State, 1707-1800. )The Westminster Review (19th and 20th centuries)

The Westminster Review (19th and early 20th century editions)


 

Dec 12, 2020

It’s a Fishy Business – Scotland’s Plaice in Brexit

Brexit – England’s Declaration of Independence as penned by Homer (Simpson) – a fish oddity.

Jaculator fishmonger, Pufferfish Johnson, blowing out his well-exercised blowhole that Brexit is destined to lead to a national revival. The great Clownfish spouts blanks whether –

  • an additional £350m a week to the NHS
  • 40 new hospitals (that’ll be 6 plus some refurbishments)
  • 50,000 new nurses or in the real world 30,000
  • his ‘do or die’ pledge that Great Brian would be out of the EU by October 2019,
  • he’d rather be dead in a ditch than extend Article 50
  • he’d never suspend parliament to force through Brexit – before illegally proroguing it for the longest period in the modern era
  • squirming u-turns on proxy voting in the Commons
  • free school meals in England,
  • the NHS visa surcharge
  • dodgy NHS appp
  • face masks in shops
  • face masks in schools
  • England’s exam fiasco
  • England’s national lockdown
  • extension of the furlough scheme
  • world beating track and trace
  • millions of tests every single day
  • operation moonshot to combat Covid

Those not Zipfish-ed up the back Smelt a Ratfish at being led by the Elephant Nose fish to Flounder as flotsam and jetsam on the seabed of international prosperity.  Given Clownfish’s reputation to not give a Dogger Bank about anything, his only Porpoise in life being himself, they Otter have known Betta over his promises of Sea Pie in the sky.

Now we’re in for a Cat and Dog fish fight because a Bighead Carp of a Prime Minister, the Blowfish PM, doesn’t give a Bombay Duck about a Dealfish.

The Chubsucker PM’s Loosejaw Minnows; Moray Eel, Douglas Ross; Parrot fish, Andrew Bowie; chief Toadfish and Hogsucker, Alister Jackfish, are in the Halibut of Swordfish propagandising straight off the John Dory party’s handbook, as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.

Barracuda done Betta cry the people of Scotland, ye Bass! And when the Britfish and Mudsucker Flounders on the iceberg of destiny the Sturgeon (or Salmond) of Scotland will lead us Herring back to tell the EU we’ve Haddock enough of Batfish Englandshire and leave them Abalone to all their racist, supremacist Pollocks.

So Dab your eyes and open the Dory to a Brill Goldfish Plaice in the sea of opportunity that’s lapping at our shores.  

Sep 4, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Final self-isolation diary, week 24

 I’ve decided to close my self-isolation diary after this one because I feel so much has changed, and not changed, over past months and the diary is getting stale. We are also moving on in our lives and so I’ll be preoccupied for some time.

Way back on the 24th March we had just embarked on what was anticipated would be a few short weeks of self-isolation. Six months later we’re not exactly isolating in the same way or with the same intensity but our lives have been turned upside down and normal back then is abnormal today. I wrote then of my final visit to my hairdresser the previous day. I miss our chats as well as having turned into Rapunzel in the meantime but I’m still  disinclined to get my hair cut. It can wait.

 We did our ‘final’ shop in the village in March. I remember it as an anxious experience with the threat of Covid hanging in the air like some 19th century miasma.  We haven’t been back! Shopping for us now is confined to online deliveries. Following a sticky start due to pressure of numbers companies have learnt to cope with vastly increased demand and not driving to the shops has saved us a fortune in petrol. With so little reason to leave the house other than for exercise which we do locally there’s been very little reason to run the car so yet more savings.

 Back at the start of all of this we were both displaying symptoms of something – sore throats and coughs – but nothing developed and we both got better. Was this Covid? We have wondered ever since.

Harvesting the barley, buzzard flying, swallows on power lines, our Aberdeenshire, roe deer in the barley

We’re still reading the Saturday edition of the Financial Times online and I print out their crosswords every Friday or Saturday. It’s not so easy reading online and I read less of the paper but my husband reads massive amounts of it as the sub means we have access to the daily editions, too. Drawback is we no longer have any newspapers in the house for all those jobs old newspapers were used for such as putting down a piece of biscuit or chocolate for the cat if he catches us eating our evening square – well we are from Presbyterian backgrounds so one square is sufficient per day.

 The garden has been a godsend for us. We’ve grown our vegetables and eaten most of them. Tatties are just about ready now. Most of the gherkins, courgettes, broad beans, runner beans have been eaten. Still got lots of salad stuff in the greenhouse and dependable chard provides our daily green helping. Blackcurrants, rasps, strawberries have come and gone. The cherries are never available to us as the birds take them. Blueberries ripening now and with fewer plums on the tree they are a good size this year. Apples coming in abundance and a few pears but that’s a sign of autumn and every day we are out with shears and secateurs trying to control the jungle.

Politically things have changed. March saw the four nations of the UK working together, after a fashion, to deal with Covid. Since then there have been different policies emerging because the pandemic has highlighted that what works for London doesn’t necessarily work for Belfast or Edinburgh or Cardiff.

 Boris Johnson in March was seen as a dilettante fool. Now in September he’s proved himself to be a bone-idle fool.  Nicola Sturgeon has grown as a stateswoman demonstrating her hands-on approach to government and ability to stay on top of her health brief during Coronavirus. Ask Johnson a question about it and he’ll divert attention from the fact he knows nothing but squawk  Trump-like about how FANTASTIC his government is in coping with the pandemic when the evidence shows otherwise.

 September and Covid is still very much with as we hurtle towards winter with the depressing prospect of flu epidemics on top of Coronavirus. It’s hard to see how this won’t mean a return to much tighter restrictions on our behaviour once more. Not that everyone has been modifying their behaviour given the spikes in the spread of the virus in some parts.

 Here in the back of beyond we’re still not venturing too far from the old homestead but we can observe activities are far greater than they were a few short weeks ago. Plenty companies are still complaining the economy isn’t opening up fast enough but I’d rather be guided by Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leach on modes of behaviour than travel firms and airport chiefs driven by what’s in the best interests of their industries – especially a certain vociferous Scottish travel company that drove someone we know up the wall trying to get them to reimburse almost £1000 for a holiday the company cancelled at the start of the pandemic. They weren’t too proactive then. We haven’t seen her since then so don’t know if they ever paid her back. I can’t get myself to sympathise with travel companies and airport managers pushing for more air travel in light of Covid and global warming. It’s as though they live in a bubble where health and well-being are counted only in terms of cash not the nation’s health.

 On the topic of health what’s been a pleasure of late is walking our local highways and byways to the accompaniment of the rustling of broom pods, like water trickling over rocks, as the seed pods burst open distributing their seeds. And that wee roe deer has been back bounding through the barley field again, like Theresa May only cute and not at all dangerous. I should have my camera ready when going along that way to get a half-decent photo but I never do and so the results are dismal. Talking of dismal photographs, the heron flew up from one of the burns right over my head as I struggled to take my camera out of my pocket. I did eventually get a picture but it was of a flying M disappearing into the distance so deleted it. Herons and horses always remind me of dinosaurs which makes them magical in a deep-rooted kind of way, having that link with the earth’s distant (near) beginnings.

 Our house martins are still with us. Frantically feeding so can’t be long before they say their goodbyes. So many of them proving what a fine summer we’ve had here in northeast Scotland. Had some feedback on whether or not martins, swifts and swallows perch on power lines because I’d mentioned seeing one or other of them last time. I checked up and swallows do, so there are plenty of them round here, not swifts and I don’t know about martins. Swallow they were then strung out along the wires.

Graceful clematis and bold-as-brass marigolds

We haven’t settled into a new series on Netflix/Amazon Prime yet. Did have the unfortunate experience of sitting through a truly dreadful film, A Fall from Grace about a woman accused of murdering her husband. What was murdered was the film production. Surely the director has watched films but that wasn’t apparent in his messy and laughable handling of what could have been an interesting subject. The characters were transparent it was easy to work out the end right at the start. The acting was dodgy and the scene at the end where women walk out of a house is straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller while attempting to be empathetic. 

 Haven’t quite finished Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow yet, the psychology book that explains so much about how we think from automatic responses to more considered and logical ones, and the biases we’re largely unaware of when imagining we’re thinking rationally. Every time I try the experiments in it I fall into a trap. Which I still find funny.

 For those of you who’ve been reading this blog over the past six months thank you very much. I might return to self-isolation at some time but then again I might not. Latest book, much delayed publication because of Covid, is eventually coming out on 15 September, you might want to consider buying Aberdeen At Work

 Stay safe and for this sort of blog, that’s  all  folks. 

 

Aug 28, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 23

Boris Johnson was on holiday this week. Don’t know why he thought that was appropriate. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since he comes across as a guy who does virtually no work anyway – getting others to do it for him. He was in Scotland – allegedly, although some people thought he might have posed beside a tent in Scotland then flew off to Greece or vice versa. Who cares. He shouldn’t have been on holiday in the first place during this terrible pandemic. The British prime minister is a man whose moral compass, if he ever possessed one, broke a very long time ago.

See that badger! Domestic crisis last week meant we forgot to take in the bird feeders one night and, of course, by morning the stand inside its very heavy plant pot lay on their sides. The peanut feeder was later found empty and abandoned elsewhere in the garden – a virtually full container of nuts having gone down the badger’s or badgers’ gullet(s.) Both stand and pot were tumbled again the following night by Brutus the Badger but as no feeders had been left on it there would have been disappointment at Tubby Badger Set that night. Angry words have been targeted at the badger.

Last time I was wondering if the house martins, swallows and swifts flew south as early as August because ours seemed to have scarpered. Someone got in touch to confirm they did.  Days later we spotted about 30 – 40 swallows, swifts, martins strung out along power lines near us. A fine sight. As for our own martins they do seem to have abandoned their Scottish homes until next year but we still see a number take to the skies in the evenings.

We’ve missed out pheasants. Not so long ago lots were coming across to the garden to feed but then they all disappeared apart from an odd sighting. One day this week a scruffy young male with a bad leg turned up. He fairly hirples, poor thing. At least there’s plenty for him to eat once he makes it here from wherever he’s from.   

The woodpeckers have also returned. They are such handsome birds we get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing them. And there’s been a magpie. At one time magpies were breeding close-by and were frequently stopping off in the garden. We’ve even had on occasions a brown and white one but all vanished until I noticed a single one under the bark-peeling acer earlier this week.

Weather has taken a turn for the worse. We in northeast Scotland have enjoyed a lovely summer with lots of bright sunny and warm days and the recent cloudy skies and cool temperatures are disappointing but at least we haven’t experienced the torrential rain that is constant in many parts of the west of Scotland. Don’t go off with the impression it hasn’t rained for we’ve had some downpours but not joined together like western areas get them. With the onset of cooler conditions comes the impression of autumn’s approach – aided and abetted by summer flowers fading and dropping off. Gardening has altered with the weather and back-end of summer so that lots and lots of industrial levels of pruning are happening – in most cases not carried out by me but my trusty husband.

Still going strong is the chard crop. One of the most reliable, tasty and easy vegetables to grow it’s used just about every day by us, one way or another. Until recently ours escaped the unwanted attentions of snails and slugs but our mollusc fellow-gardeners are now chomping their way through our crop. They’ve been warned so they know the consequences of their actions. Broad beans are a welcome addition to home-grown produce as well. We don’t have many plants this year so the freezer won’t be packed with them but we do appreciate those that we have.  Broad beans are one of the most undervalued of vegetables.

The last of the gooseberries have been picked but there are still blackcurrants unbelievably. They are bigger than ever now, presumably having had longer to mature. We must have collected around 3 tons so far.

Last year was a poor one for apples with us – the previous year having produced big crops. This year is another bumper one but several branches on our trees are collapsing under the weight of fruit. What we need are clothes line stretchers to hoist them back up and keep them from breaking entirely. Husband heavily pruned a cooker, Lane’s Prince Albert, which produces muckle-sized delicious apples. The tree grows at a fearful rate and so he topped it but several young apples came off during the operation. Made an apple tart with one or two which has lasted us four days. A slice with a side helping of coconut yogurt or Swedish glace vanilla ice cream is just what the doctor ordered (my husband being a doctor – of the philosophy kind.)

It was my turn for chairing the family virtual quiz so I selected questions for their quirkiness and stuff Scottish. Most were difficult, I admit. Far too difficult for me were it not for having benefit of the answers. All that said our grandson won by a huge margin so he is officially hailed as a genius in addition to being extremely handsome and charming.

Dark – what can I say?  It is extraordinary how it demands total concentration so that it is virtually impossible to divert eyes from the screen while watching it. Characters come and go, the same characters over different periods of time, with most managing to pick up scratches and smudges on their faces as they travel between the 2050s and the 1880s. If you have access to Netflix watch it.

Bedtime reading is currently Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a fascinating look at how our brains respond to events, questions etc through initial responses to slower more in-depth consideration. It’s written with humour and is crammed with examples for readers to try for themselves – raising a smile and some head scratching. Here’s an example of some of the exercises:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Scroll to the end for the answer. Oh, this is the end. Most people immediately answer 10c.  Before thinking about it more closely. The answer is 5c. Another nice one consists of two words –

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 27, 2020

Break the Chains of Empire: nationalism and independence

The British Empire lasted some 300 years; about the same length of time that the United Kingdom has existed. The British Empire has gone. It is time the remnants of colonialism within the UK were also relegated to the past.

Good morning, Scotland. What is it you want?

Please, sir, I want some more.

What! More!

Yes, sir. I want more.

There is disbelief all round.

You already have devolution. What more could you want?

Independence, sir. I want my independence.

Independence? What nonsense is this? Not everyone can be independent. If everyone was independent nobody would appreciate it.

That’s not fair, sir. I want to be independent.  

Want! Want! It’s not your place to want! You’ll take what you’re given. Who ever heard of such a thing! There are people who make the rules and people whose duty it is to follow our rules. You are the latter. People who want, don’t deserve independence. And that’s the end of it.

The meaning of empire

The British Empire began as the English Empire although it adopted the name British before the Act of Union. England’s imperial expansion began in the 1500s, enabled by its aggressive navy expanded to break into the slave trade. Union in 1707 was sought by England primarily to remove potential support by Scotland for England’s enemy, France – henceforth Edinburgh was denied decision-making powers over foreign affairs and so has that remained. That the Union gave England control over Scottish trade was an additional, if secondary benefit. The Union of 1707 was not set up to benefit Scotland but to protect England politically and economically. And there was no whiff of democracy anywhere about the agreement struck between a few monied interests in Scotland and England’s parliament.

The Union of 1707 colonised Scotland in much the same way England then the United Kingdom colonised other parts of the world over three hundred years. As with its other colonies the Union parliament never envisaged equality between its heart, in London, and authorities in the peripheral parts of its empire. Power lay with London and there it would remain. That was the intention and nothing changed over three hundred years. Devolution of powers has not altered the conception of hierarchy and subordination within the United Kingdom. Within the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are subordinates which are not provided with the same levers of power provided to England.  

The idea the United Kingdom represents equality between the four nations is a chimera. Power lies with Westminster and in Westminster Scotland’s representatives are outnumbered 10:1. There has never been a time Scotland has been able to influence decisions in Westminster. And there never will be a time Scotland will be able to influence decisions made in Westminster, nor will Northern Ireland and Wales ever be placed on an equal footing with England.  

United does not mean equal

Like empires throughout history which have risen and declined so has the British Empire. Empires establish themselves when in a position to wield power against weaker nations and can crumble when their dictum of might is right is questioned by the powerless within their dominions.  

When under threat empires tighten their grip on the reins of power through brutality, corruption and threat. Opposition is condemned as treachery – anti-patriotic. In the case of the United Kingdom, loyalty means Britishness and Britishness has always been largely based on Englishness.

Not only does Scotland have no power whatsoever at the heart of England’s rump empire, the United Kingdom, for most of the past 300 years of its existence Scotland has scarcely been considered. Similarly with Wales and Northern Ireland – their representation at Westminster is as tokenistic as Scotland’s. Influence they have none. The populations in the three peripheral areas of the England’s rump empire are demeaned, patronised and the butt of humour as demonstrated in national ‘pet-names’- the equivalent of the racist term ‘boy’ in farther-flung parts of the empire – Scots are Jocks; Irish are Paddies; Welsh are Taffies. Jocks, Paddies and Taffies are invariably depicted as lacking sophistication, feckless, mean, chippy, grievance monkeys – ungrateful for the protection the ‘broad shoulders’ of the empire/UK affords them.  Empires evolve cultural myths. Given the hierarchical nature of empires it is the interests and culture of the dominant state that come to embody them.  Cultural values of the peripheries are defined as archaic curiosities and sources of derision and humour which tend to be abandoned in favour of those of the dominant power.  

Faced with ingratitude/challenge from within the peripheral nations the dominant power tends to act more aggressively. Troops might be sent in/ stationed in the troublesome periphery. We see this across the world and within the Union the population of Scotland was threatened and subdued by General Wade’s army in the 18th century. Empires might impose control through more sophisticated means such as installing bureaucracies into peripheral areas for greater control in parts far away from the centre of power. A recent example of this type of imperious incursion is Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, embedding Westminster-rule into the heart of Scotland in defiance of devolution and meant as a visible reminder to Scotland of who really is in charge; and it is not the Scottish people or their own parliament. 

It is an observation often made that the farther away populations are from the centre of power the less the centre represents their interests. Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth House may be a recognition of this but given that Scotland has never figured in its consideration of what is best for the Union as opposed to what suits south-east England it is more likely this hub is the equivalent of General Wade’s force – intimidation and reminder that authority rests with London.

Where threats to empire exist but are less threatening to the dominant power degrees of autonomy are sometimes used to diminish calls for independence. This gives an impression of a benevolent centre of power willingly sharing responsibilities but powers transferred are an illusion for the centre of empire retains the ability to withdraw those same powers whenever it decides. Remember the Union like any empire is a hierarchy in which ultimate authority is retained by the dominant nation; democracy is limited to partial self-government in peripheral areas. Democracy under the Union favours England’s needs and ambitions above those of other parts of the UK through the makeup of the Houses of Parliament and chain of command of government based in London.    

India was the British Empire’s greatest source of wealth. Britain’s ransacking of it began when England set up the East India Company in 1599 and by the 1700s Britain was imposing taxes on India. By stealth greater and greater controls were imposed until eventually Britain ruled India directly, governing it with a rod of iron and keeping the ‘peace’ through a policy of divide-and-rule in which divisions between Hindus and Muslims were encouraged.  A period known as the British Raj, notorious for luxury and moral decay lasted from 1858 to 1947. This was rule from London to benefit London, the heart of empire. Rarely were native authorities and peoples consulted on any matter. When the British prime minister declared war against Germany in 1939, the announcement was made without consultation with Indian ministers although India was expected to provide millions of troops and provisions for the war effort. High-handed, disrespectful, racist and xenophobic – qualities demonstrated by the British Empire.

Sick of centuries of exploitation by the racist empire, Indians demanded self-determination instead of being administered by London. In London this was regarded as outrageous ingratitude. Lord Linlithgow, the Empire’s man-in-charge in India at the time, a staunch British unionist, threatened India by further inflaming the very internal divisions that London had so adeptly used in the past to keep India in its place. He and London were implicated in the deaths of millions from famine in Bengal in 1943 because of Britain’s policy of destroying food supplies and requisitioning of boats and other means of transport that prevented the movement of goods and food within India. Ruthless and heartless government by Westminster encouraged support for the Quit India movement that demanded an end to British rule. It’s spokesman Mahatma Gandhi said,   

“I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.”

The Empire struck back. Gandhi and fellow Indian Congress members were arrested and imprisoned. Press censorship intended to silence the independence movement and the Empire’s human rights abuses could not happen now with social media but then lies spread about India’s independence movement were fed to a lackey press.  

There are different forms of nationalism just as there are different forms of democracy in the world. Empires exist to benefit a tiny portion of their populations. When people grow sick of being oppressed for the benefit of the few at the heart of empire they try to change the political structure to better reflect their interests and needs. Empires by their nature are parasitic, sucking the life-blood out of the peripheral areas they govern. So nationalist movements emerge offering hope in the shape of government that will take more cognisance of the desires of the affected people. John Maclean the great socialist advocated Scottish nationalism as the path to socialism and a better world for Scots.  

As more Indians saw through the desperate dirty tricks employed by the British Empire so the clamour for independence grew – for India to govern itself in its own interests, not those of the Empire/UK. The Empire/UK struck out – 1,000 Indians were killed during protests and movement leaders imprisoned (Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, died in jail.)  The Empire/UK lost the people’s respect. Once that has gone it is a matter of time before any empire falls. For 300 years India had been subjugated by the British Empire/UK. Soon, Pakistan, too became independent.

The British Empire was once the alpha power and London the alpha capital. This is no longer the case. The Empire created through violence and threat declined because of its arrogance, corruption, xenophobia and disrespect for its peripheral areas. Yes, it was Scots who largely ran the British Empire. It has been said this was because Scots were better educated than in other parts of the UK. Perhaps there is truth in that. It may also have been because educated ambitious Scots had few career opportunities available to them within Scotland because of how Scotland’s infrastructure was run down so that the majority of high-powered jobs were created/preserved for the centre of UK power, London, and Etonian Oxbridge friends of friends in the capital. That Scots participated to a high degree in the British Empire is neither here nor there. Scotland as a nation was as much a victim of the imperial motivations of London as other peripheral parts of the Empire. And while other colonies have won their independence, Scotland remains trapped in a Union founded on inequality.

The British Empire’s decline left behind a debtor United Kingdom, pressurised by the USA because of world war debt to open up access to its international markets. The rump of Empire/UK that remains – the union of the UK – still exhibits the predatory characteristics shared by all empires. They are ingrained in it. The alpha power lashes out whenever its authority is challenged. Whereas India and other former Empire nations were subjected to brutal repression in response to their demands for independence Scotland it is supposed will be subjected to a thrashing by propagandists for the UK. Threats of disaster and failure; of ingratitude have been and will increasingly be made.

Empires resist their loss of power. The mythical hand of friendship extended from the centre of empire to the peripheries is always in the end a fist. Threats escalate as an empire defends its authority. The UK built on violence and threats will die issuing still more threats meant to undermine confidence in the subordinate nation’s future success.

But as India proved, lying and threats, corruption and moral decay, far from saving a venal order leads to its demise. Once people stop believing the indoctrination; once they see it for what it is propaganda concocted to preserve inequalities of the Union/empire they have won – by realising they are the means of changing the world.