Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

Jun 17, 2021

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

Books on a shelf Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am now reading the entire novel.

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

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

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

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

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

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

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

*

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

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

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

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

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

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

The hail clanjamfrie!

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

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

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

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

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

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

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

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

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

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

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

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

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

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

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

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

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

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

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

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

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

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

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

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

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

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

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

Charles does like to go on a bit.

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

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

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

Kipps – the story of a simple soul

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

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

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

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

Mr Shalford –

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath that ancient maple on the ground

My marble twin* lies broken, listless,

Her face turned ever to the pond

As to the rustling leaves she listens. 

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

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

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

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There’s an ominous knock behind the wall:

A ghost, a thief or a rat…

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

During the war 1941 –

Now of all the plenty of this world

What is left? Only one’s daily bread,

Someone’s word – a gently human word –

And the lark’s pure singing overhead.

*

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

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

The Father

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

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

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

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

The Son

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

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

Their marriage was perhaps platonic and stormy but endured.

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

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

*

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

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

Chapter 1

How my mother got her soft face

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

Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs.

Was there ever a better beginning to a biography?

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Farewell my old friend.

May 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horoscope

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

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

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

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

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

March 31

what larks

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

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

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

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

a deterrent

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

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

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

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

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

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

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

May 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six of us once, my darlings, played together,

Beneath green boughs, which faded long ago,

Made merry in the golden summer weather,

Pelted each other with new fallen snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Here’s a flavour from my five minute read –

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

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

Leo Jogiches

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

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

You horrid monkey!

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

   Kisses, though you aren’t worth it.

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

*

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

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

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

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

The Conscripts

We go to war in various ways

From farms and factories, the usual ways

Of life suddenly distorted to terrible

Experience. This fear becomes the visible

Coffin at the funeral.

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

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

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

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

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

World-peace goes leaden-footed between the wars,

Limps wearily between the roars

Of iron days

But in among the murder-rays,

A brighter flame,

Peace, enters singly as she always came

When she desired Eternal rest:

It is her singleness impressed

Upon a soul, a soul, a soul,

That shall in time give wisdom to the whole.

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

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

Apr 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 4, 2021

Flagopolis and the British Radge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scottish post-union flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 8, 2021

Eels – like them or loathe them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass eels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 27, 2021

A Scot in Africa – victim of Blackwater Fever

British East Africa

 

Background to Roderick James Munro’s story

In the days when the world map was daubed with British Empire pink signifying its dominions, colonies, protectorates and so on men and women from the home nations sought work and investments in each of them. One such territory was British East Africa; an area of about 639,209km2 /246,800sq ml in the vicinity of the African Great Lakes.

Towards the end of the 19th century Eton-educated Englishman, Lord Delamere, turned up in Kenya where he became the lucky recipient of a huge swathe of land, a gift from the British Crown. Delamere had recognised the potential of this area to create agricultural prospects for Britain – monocultures and exports became the modus operandi in British-controlled estates. Single crops – sugar and rubber for example – small local farms growing essential food were swept aside so that the land could be used to grow raw materials for UK industries leading to food shortages and starvation for people who then became dependent on wages to buy food.

Not only did colonies tend to have the sort of climates that made it ideal for the production of raw resources for the mother country they came with plentiful cheap or free labour to boot – all of which hiked up profit levels both for private and government businesses.

Apart from some basic manufacturing most complex industrial operations took place back in Britain, creating jobs for British workers on rock-bottom wages certainly but these were still far in excess of what was paid to native labour in the colonies. 

Vast fortunes were made by some individuals. Little wonder successive British governments resisted demands for independence from its colonies for so long. Sustained exploitation of overseas territory became an established asset to the British economy its knee-jerk response to parts of the Empire daring to demand independence usually took the form of denigration – they were too ignorant and immature to succeed. Where humiliation failed there was recourse to violence. Terrible violence. The British establishment was/is always up for a fight. Times have not changed.

Britain was not alone in being quick to exploit the treasures of Africa. The Scramble for Africa was a late 19th century movement in which European governments disgracefully competed to divvy up the African continent. Portugal was involved in Mozambique in what was called Portuguese East Africa. The Sena Sugar Estates became one of the largest sugar plantations in the world and home to the largest sugar factory in Africa. One man who found work there as an overseer on the agricultural estate was a farmer, a young Scot from the Black Isle, Rod (Roddie) James Munro, and it’s correspondence on his life and death that inspired this blog and will follow.

The Sena Sugar Estates were set up by another British migrant, Peter (Pitt) Hornung. Hornung was the son of Transylvanian migrants to England where they established businesses in coal, iron and timber. Young Pitt moved to Portugal and from there to Portuguese East Africa where he tried to establish an opium farm but when that failed he turned to sugar cane. The result was the Sena Sugar Factory established in 1906 which became the Sena Sugar Estates; operating over 14,000 square miles. The family grew fabulously rich on the back of their African sugar venture. The little township of Beira where it was situated became an important port of entry for deep up country and  was the focus of western commercial activities – a considerable change from 20 years earlier in the 1880s when it was a military post with one or two corrugated iron huts sitting on a sand spit at the mouth of the Pungwe river.  Roderick James Munro was born at the end of 1882.

Less rich, well to be honest, not rich at all were many of the Europeans who went to work abroad, exploited in their own way though not nearly as exploited and misused as native labour living and working under the cosh of the Empire. For some the prospect of adventure was the lure to going abroad, some to see the world and for others a basic need to go anywhere to earn a living. For the majority of people living in Scotland in the 18th, 19th and into the 20th century as well life was hard and poverty never far from the door. As Dr David Livingstone put it in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa – always at home “the anxious housewife striving to make both ends meet.” The 10-year-old David Livingstone was already working in a factory between six in the morning and eight at night to help his mother make both ends meet but like so many poor Scots he benefitted from the elementary parish schooling available to all – precisely the educational blocks that made so many Scots ideal candidates for jobs within the Empire. Levels of pauperism were high across Britain through the 19th and into the 20th century but in the Highlands where Rod Munro’s parents eked a living from the land poverty was extreme.

As a rule of thumb wages in Scotland were lower than in England and in Scotland the lowest incomes of all tended to be in rural Highland communities such as that Rod Munro came from. Most impoverished of all in any communities were its women and children. Widows, women who lost husbands to military service or death, struggled to cope with life for themselves and their children without a husband’s income. Essential to the success of the British Empire was its military – the stick of persuasion to yield to the British crown. From the end of the 18th century the British military predominantly comprised of Scots. Poverty, lack of employment and large families pushed lots of men into the military and both men and women but mainly men to seek work abroad as a means to escape destitution. One in five Scots aged 75 and above experienced extreme poverty. Let no-one tell you the union has been positive for Scotland and her population. That is a myth.

***

A Scot in Africa 

1 9 1 2 

Roderick-James Munro was born at 9.30 in the evening of second December, 1882, at Burnside, Rosemarkie in the County of Ross.  His father was John Munro, a farmer and his mother, Margaret Munro nee Hossack whose occupation before her marriage I don’t know. They married on 10 December 1869 at Rosemarkie and Roderick was one of several children born to them.

Roderick James Munro’s birth certificate

Along with many of his Black Isle neighbours, Rod left Scotland for work abroad. He spent time in Demerara, a former Dutch colony in South America, now Guyana, that later became absorbed into the British Empire, as British Guiana. A century before tens of thousands of people enslaved and brought to the island rose up in revolt, led by plantation cooper, Jack Gladstone. The rebellion was put down and Jack sold and deported, like the disposable property he was. Others were executed. You might know the name Gladstone for this was future British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s family. These Whigs or Liberals raked in huge fortunes as estate owners and later in compensation when slavery was abolished in British colonies.

Men such as Rod Munro desperate for work turned to job adverts in the local press – jobs in cocoa, sugar, coffee and rubber plantations in exotic sounding locations. So a young Roderick James Munro set off into the world, leaving behind the poverty of farming in the Highlands, said goodbye to his parents, siblings and friends and looked one last time at the familiar communities around Rosemarkie, Fortrose and Avoch then headed off, first to South America and then to Africa. He worked some years in Demerara, on farms and there he suffered a serious attack of malaria.

By 1912 and at the age of twenty-nine Rod Munro was an employee of the Coia Estate at Villa Fontes at Chinde, Zambezia in Port East Africa, working for the Sena Sugar Factory. Chinde was developed as a port by the British for people and goods destined for and from the British Central Africa Protectorate.

Rod and his brother John, a farmer at Blairdhu, Killearnan in Ross-shire were in frequent correspondence. Spellings of places varied then and now.

John seated aged 16 with his brother Rod at his side. Rod is then 14yrs old

7 July 1912 letter to John from Rod c/o The Sena Sugar Factory Ltd, Coia Estate, Villa Fontes, Zambezia, Chinde, Port East Africa.

My dear John,

I am very glad that I have heard from you at last with your new address.

Of course I can quite understand your writing and not mentioning it, but it kept me from replying to you. Well I suppose you will be getting settled at Blairdhu by this time. I hope you have been lucky with your valuations at both places.

I am enclosing a bank draft for £150 which will help you a little. I want you to give me an I.O.U. for it, just to keep things square. I am also sending home four lion claw brooches, one for each of my sisters and sisters-in-law. I am sending them all to you so you might pass them along for me.

It is very cold here just now at nights and the mornings it makes one fairly shiver, and glad to sleep under blankets.

We are very busy here just now as this is our crop time, and we have a lot of other work on hand besides.

I am at present making a railway out to the new land we are taking in. We have to make it through about 3 ½ miles of forest before we come to where we want it and it will be going five or six miles after that. However that last part won’t be bad, it is the forest part that will take the work as we have some heavy cuttings and embankments besides the trees. We have only about half a mile of it done, and have struck stone in our second cutting, so there is going to be some sport before it is finished.

Now John, I don’t think I have any more news this time so I will close with love to all from

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro

John and Bella Munro on their wedding day in December 1911

John Munro had recently married Bella Millar of Whitebog near Cromarty and the couple became tenant farmers at Blairdhu near Muir of Ord. John had been a tenant farmer at Feddonhill (Feddiehill) above Fortrose.

15 November 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My dear John,

I must really apologize for being so long in writing this time, but I have been very tired when I come in at nights, and a bit worried besides.

He had previously worked for another sugar plantation, the Beira Rubber & Sugar Estates at Inhanguvo near Beira, East Africa before moving to the Sena Sugar Estates and when he was approached by Beira to return to them as a head-overseer he thought he was free to do so and so accepted the offer.

Unfortunately, Sena’s general managers refused to let him go and there was a disagreement over whether Rod was free to leave. Beira then came back with an enhanced offer of £5 more than he was earning with Sena plus offering him responsibility for 2,500 acres. Sena then offered him more money to stay and when Rod insisted he wanted to leave his boss at Sena, a Mr Durward, lost his temper and refused point blank to allow it. Rod accepted the Beira job, insisting he would leave at the end of the month (November.) Still the General Manager, Schmidt, refused to let him go. During an argument Rod told Schmidt he could do what he liked but he was leaving, as arranged. Schmidt referred the matter to company’s Commandant who suggested Rod leave half-way through the month, taking into account when he had first told them he was leaving, though not officially on paper, but Schmidt refused to accept the arrangement. Rod worried he would be prevented from leaving quickly and that Beira might not hold the position for him – and if it didn’t he would have no job because Sena would not want to keep him.

As it happened a compromise was reached and soon Rod had taken up a position as Chief Overseer at Inhanguvo.

19 December 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My Dear John,

I am afraid I have been rather neglectful in writing of late but things were a bit topsy-turvy and I was always putting it off till they had settled down.

He found the company had changed since he had last worked for them and “not for the better” and suffered regrets at leaving his last position for he found the Inhanguvo estate poorly run. The weather had been extremely dry which did not help with the crop but commented that the rains had begun so he hoped that soon there might lead to improvements in output. The company projected making about 8000 tons of sugar the following year which in Rod’s opinion was wide of the mark for he calculated about 5000 tons or even 4000 being produced. That current year production stood at 4300 tons.

Leaving aside his employment concerns, Rod congratulated John and Bella on the birth of their first child, Christina (Chrissy.) Rod regretted missing another New Year back at home in Scotland. He would never make it home for one again.

The letter ends on a light note with him welcoming the laying out of a nine-hole golf course due to be opened on Christmas Day by one of the directors, a man called Rennie. Rod kidded John that when he got home he would be regarded as “one of the ‘bhoys’” and signed his letter in his usual way,

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro.

1912 Christmas Card to John and family from Rod. His last one to his brother.

Inhanguvo Christmas Day 1912. Rod is 4th man from right marked by X.

Rod had just celebrated his 30th birthday.

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10 February 1913 letter to John from Rod.

Rod scolds his older brother for being a worse letter-writer than he was.

My Dear John,

You are even more careless than myself in writing I think.

Rod complains about the food provided by the Estate,

“nothing fresh here, not even meat or vegetables. Fowls are very scarce and as a result we have been living almost entirely on tinned stuff for the last 2 months and I am beginning to get fed up with it as it is hardly the best thing for the liver of the stomach.

He blames the poor quality of food in part for the amount of sickness among Estate employees.

The weather as “fearfully dry” as he begins the letter but he lays it down and when he next writes there has been a heavy fall of rain of about 7 inches. One extreme to the other.

He mentions an acquaintance of theirs, Sandy McDougall, an old man who died alone – presumably at home in Rosemarkie or Fortrose.

5 Mar 1913 letter from John to Rod.

The envelope has been re-addressed from Inhanguvo to c/o the British Consul.

Dear Rod,

We have no letter from you now since four weeks, I hope that there is nothing wrong with you.

I have been a little irregular in writing lately, but there is really very little to write about apart from the usual daily round.

I see in this week’s paper that McKenzie, Kildary has bought a house in Alness, and that he will live there after Whitsunday and also that he is sailing this week for Brazil to report on some land there. I expect that Fraser will have arrived in Africa again by this time. Alex Ferguson (a cousin) was up at Edinburgh lately getting an operation done on one of his eyes. They were all here for a weekend after coming back. I hope that he will now feel better, but we have had no word from them since a week.

Flora’s bairns (Flora was their sister in Fortrose) were all laid up with measles. I saw Rory (Flora’s husband) in Dingwall today, and he told me that they are now on the recovery.

I am kept pretty busy just now with the cattle and sheep. The sheep are now getting cut turnips, which means a good bit extra work, but I am looking forward to a big price in a few weeks, which will make up for the extra trouble.

Both cattle and sheep are selling very well this season, but I expect the profits will be all required, as the expenses are very much more here than at Janefield. (the family worked here as tenants, at Rosemarkie.)  Labour especially as we have to keep two men, and a boy, besides a girl in the house.

Bella and I were at Munlochy at the Scouts Dance a week ago. It was very good, as usual. The only dance or entertainment of any kind we have been at since coming here.

The Mason’s Dance comes off in Avoch on Friday. I don’t think we will go. It is rather a long drive, and the weather is very rough at present.

I have had no word from the Junors (cousins) since six months but sometimes hear that they are still alive from Tom McDonald. Jamie and they are still near each other, and I suppose they have horses of their own on some Government work. I suppose they will be so busy making their pile that they will have no time to write.

The baby is growing fast, and is doing her best to keep us lively.

Now, as I have really no news I must close, hoping to hear from you next mail.

With Love from all,
I remain,
Your loving brother
John Munro

John’s concern at the start of the letter is prescient. His brother Rod was by then gravely ill at Inhanguvo.

18 March 1913 a typewritten letter to John from Rule H.B.M Vice Consul, Beira.

Sir,

I regret to have to inform you that your son (confusion here over which John as Rod’s and John’s father was also called John) Roderick James Munro died at Inhanguvo on the 16th inst. of heart failure following an attack of blackwater fever.

The sad news has just reached me from the General Manager of the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates, where your son was employed, and I trust that the address furnished me will find you.

(The letter arrived at John’s farm of Blairdhu near Munlochy since he was the one in correspondence with Rod and his address would have been found among his belongings.)

The effects of the deceased will be disposed of in the usual way by the Portuguese authorities, and any balance that may remain after administration of the estate will be handed over to this office in due course for transmission to the next-of-kin.

With sincere sympathy in your sad loss.

I am,
Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
F. Rule
B. M. Vice Consul.

18 March letter to John from Don Mackenzie at Inhanguvo.

Dear Mr Munro

It is with the deepest regret that I take up my pen to inform you of your poor brothers death which occurred on the 16th instant.

I am very sorry to say that he had Black Water fever and his illness only lasted 15 days, he had all the attendance that he possibly could get there was a nurse and myself looking after the poor fellow but it was God’s will to take him away from us. I was looking after him when he died at 9pm he went unconscious and at twenty past he was dead.

He was a great favourite by all how new him and every body is very much cut up indeed. He was a very great friend of mine and I can’t express how I feel the loss of such a valuable friend. These will be sent straight home his Album Bible  and Prayer book also a small toilet case which he got a present in 05 and his ring. All this will be sent direct home this mail.

Yours faithfully
Don MacKenzie
of MacKenzie
Late Blackstand

20th March 1913 letter to John (John senior, although the letter was sent to Blairdhu) from Beira’s General Manager, Mr. O. Walpole.

Dear Sir,

It is with very great regret that I have to advise you of the death of your son Roderick James Munro.

Rod had been taken ill on second of March and was said to have been successfully treated for the fever but complications affecting his liver and heart set in. He was attended by a doctor and a nurse who nursed him day and night along with help from Donald Mackenzie (who I think was his cousin and also employed by the Estate) and they were with him when he died.

Towards the end of his illness death came suddenly and unexpectedly, his heart failing at 9 o’clock in the evening of Sunday 2nd March.

He was buried in the cemetery at Luzitania the next evening.

Days later another letter arrived, this time from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London.

25 March 1913 letter to John from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London, England.

A typewritten letter acknowledging a telegram sent to them by John urgently inquiring about his brother’s death.

The letter contains a reference to a cablegram from a Mr Murdo Grant on the subject of Rod’s death. The letter writer explains the delay in responding to John’s telegram was because the London office was shut up for Easter.

The cablegram reads:

“Regret to inform you that Mr. R. Munro died March 16th heart failure after blackwater. Advise relations.”

To the point.

The letter from headquarters explains that Rod’s body had been buried and that his illness must have been short for there was no reference to him in the weekly medical reports. It also reports that the doctor attending Rod was a Dr Somershield. The secretary who signs the letter finishes by saying he had met Rod before he went out to Beira and “formed a very high opinion of him” and asks John to pass his deepest sympathy onto their parents.

East Africa under British Administration included the port of Beira in Portuguese territory where Rod worked. Beira was an important and bustling port and point of access deeper into the interior of the continent. Situated on the estuary of the Pungwe river, the harbour was capable of berthing very large ships while smaller lighters were used to load and discharge cargo from the great vessels. Harbour facilities were split between ones operated by a Mozambique Company and others under the authority of a British South African Company.

Even in this one small area within the Empire it is apparent the large scale of jobs available to British subjects. And they were attracted abroad in their tens of thousands. But while ordinary British people were employed in a host of positions on estates such as the Beira Sugar and Rubber Estates and Beira port the men who ran things and who whose bank balances benefitted as a result came mainly from the British establishment. Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor who was appointed to Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates was the 1st High Commissioner of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate amongst other positions. His death, suicide, was blamed in part for effects he had of Blackwater fever and malaria.

30th March 1913 letter to John from his brother Alec, a doctor in Kilmarnock.

Enclosed with the letter is another from the Beira Office in London and Alex requests its return once John has read it. He writes that he intends contacting Dr Somershield, the doctor attending Rod through his illness and asks John to forward any letters he receives from Beira.

Alec writes how depressed he is feeling and clearly concerned for their parents, enquires about their health, as well as that of John and his family.

2 April 1913 letter to John from Rule.

Typewritten letter from the British Vice Consul at Beira referring to the letter sent by him on 18th March to Rod’s father informing him of his son’s death but sent to his brother John instead. In contrast to the letter of the 18th this one is strictly business-like even arrogant, certainly insensitive. No apology for the confusion instead the Consul passes responsibility for the error onto someone else, anyone else except the man who sent the letter, the Consul himself. This is how the British government treated ‘their own’ people. We can only imagine the disdain they had for local people.

“Your letter of the 5th March which was opened by me is enclosed.”

15th April 1913 letter to John from Alex.

This letter in the form of a mourning note and envelope, black margined was sent along with two letters he had received from Beira in London (John returned those letters so they are not available.) Alec asks after their parents; their mother presently being looked after by their sister Flora, and their father.

“We had a letter from Flora today in which she says mother has been in bed but is up again. Is it a cold or what? I hope she is better. How is father?”

The rest of the letter continues in a similar vein, on family matters. The whole family must have been suffering the sudden loss of Rod with him so far away, knowing they can never attend a funeral for him or bury him at home.

Alec ends –

“There is nothing else to tell you or at least I can’t think of it just now. Everything is overshadowed by Roddie’s death.
We shall be glad to hear from some of you soon.
Hoping you are all well,

I am
Your loving brother
Alec.

On 14th May letter to John from Oliver Walpole, General Manager at Beira.

Typewritten letter from Walpole in response to one sent by John on 17 April enquiring about Roddie’s effects. The belongings of any worker who died in harness to the British Empire, though perhaps not at board level, were sold to pay for expenses incurred by them prior to their deaths, such as their board and lodgings. Walpole tells John that he went into Rod’s room and removed some little personal items before a local judge was placed in charge of Rod’s possessions ordered the effects be listed and removed to the judge’s office and Rod’s room sealed. Creditors were invited to send in their claims which would be met from the proceeds of an auction of his property and cash found in his possession. Any balance after debts had been met would be handed over to the British Consul who remitted any money remaining to the family – eventually.

“This in Munro’s case should be I think a fair sum, as he was a careful man, and had, I believe, a considerable balance at Beira.”

Walpole took one or two items away before Rod’s room was locked and other bits and pieces he bought at the auction – a very few items he thought the family would value having, watches which may have been family pieces, private letters, a bible and hymnal – those items presents from his mother, and the ring he was wearing at the time of his death. Walpole explains he did not see any need to purchase Rod’s clothing and travelling trunks. Those possessions retained would be sent on to John at Blairdhu.

The paltry number of Rod’s possessions at his death were split into three auction lots –

Clothing
4 watches
Letters and papers
1 cash box
1 Bible
1 Hymnal
2 pocket books
1 hydrometer in case
1 ring
1 album
1 toilet case

A handwritten addendum reads:

“If I find the parcel will be too large for post I shall send it by first steamer.”

Pocket book with his initials belonging to Roderick James Munro

14 May 1913 letter to W. Murray Bemister at Beira HQ in London from Oliver Walpole at Inhanguvo.

This letter is in response to one sent him by Bemister and in it Walpole refers to the death of “poor Munro” and tells Bemister he has already written giving Rod’s father a brief account of his son’s death but was busy at the time so had not gone into detail about his funeral. In the meantime, a letter was received by Dr Somershield at Inhanguvo from Alec Munro – who the writer notes “is a medical man” asking details of the illness. Walpole says the doctor (Somershield) will get in touch personally with the family. Walpole is careful to emphasise the care and attention provided to Rod, possibly in light of the fact that Rod’s brother Alec is a doctor and so covering their own backs in a way they might not have generally done over the deaths of employees. The letter is a fulsome account of Rod’s last days presumably so Bemister will be forearmed for any future enquiries from the family.

He was taken ill on night of Sunday 2 March. On that afternoon he had been playing golf and was apparently well. He sickened later in the afternoon and went back to his quarters and to bed. His room is in the double story building near the office known as the Towers (not according to Rod, for the Scots there referred to their lodgings as the Crofter’s Arms.)

When Walpole saw Rod the next morning it was clear that the blackwater fever had set in. The doctor was called and by the following Thursday when a

“Mr Rennie saw him the Blackwater had disappeared although Munro was naturally in a very weak condition at this time we had no doubt about his ultimate recovery, and as I believe I mentioned in one of my letters it was arranged that he should proceed to England as soon as he was fit to travel.”

By the following Monday, 10th, he was ‘not so well.’   On the Wednesday his condition had worsened and a nurse, Walker, was put in charge of his case and Rod’s friend and compatriot, Donald Mackenzie, was then relieved of his duties looking after him full-time but he did continue to stay with Rod overnight while the nurse did the daytime shift.

“Every convenience and comfort was supplied.”

However the ice machine was ‘temporarily out of commission’ and Walpole explains he arranged for ice to be taken up daily from Beira to treat Rod’s fever for Rod was constantly asking for ice or cold soda to slake his thirst.

Dr Somershield visited Rod morning and evening and Walpole claims to have looked in several times. He was chatting with Rod about 5.30 that last Sunday evening when Rod appeared quite cheerful and was joking about the good time he would have on board the boat home. But by 9pm Don Mackenzie sent a message to Walpole. Rod’s condition had deteriorated. Walpole and Nurse Walker attended and found him unconscious and close to the end. Don Mackenzie said he had taken a drink of barley water at 8.30pm and grumbled that it was not “sufficiently salt.” He then fell asleep and passed away. The time of death was given as 9.20pm.

The majority of the Estate’s staff were said to have attended Rod James Munro’s funeral. His coffin (made on the Estate) was draped with the union jack and carried by his fellow overseers from his room to the landing stage on the Pungwe River, then referred to as the Biera River by the white immigrants there, placed in a boat and towed by motor launch with its flag flying at half-mast and on to Luzitania.  There the coffin was taken ashore and carried the mile or so the cemetery. A trolley had been laid on but Rod’s fellow worker’s chose to carry him all the way on their shoulders. No church minister was available to read the service so Walpole did it. Fifty-four people of all nationalities were at the graveside as Rod’s body was lowered into the grave “as Munro having been here for some considerable time was well known to everybody in the District.”

31 May 1913 letter to John from Oliver Walpole .

Typewritten letter and receipt for the box containing Rod’s effects. Walpole lets John know how much he paid for those of Rod’s possession he bought for the family at the sale and the cost of postage for sending them to Scotland – 10/6 (ten shillings and six pence.)

June 3rd 1913 letter to Alex from Dr Somershield, Inhanguvo, Beira, Port East Africa.

John retained his own handwritten copy of the letter sent to his brother Alec in Kilmarnock. The letter goes into some detail of the care of Rod since Dr Somershield took over his case on 5th March.

He saw him on three occasions when Rod was suffering from malarial fever. On 8th March the Blackwater symptoms had disappeared and his temperature had returned to normal two days later. On 11th March Rod had a relapse of malarial fever but his temperature never got above 101 and only reached that on a few occasions. His relapse was complicated with congestion of the liver which had suffered from attacks of malaria and was enlarged, as was his spleen. In his final hours Rod was perfectly lucid and he spoke about looking forward to getting home to Scotland and the Black Isle when his heart suddenly gave out, explained Somershield, and he died from an accumulation of carbonic acid the blood in about twenty minutes; describing his death as peaceful under slowly increasing drowsiness.

Walpole mentions how well Rod was looked after by an excellent nurse and one of his friends,

“In this neighbourhood no patient had ever been so well looked after.”

“He was buried on the other side of the Biera River, at Nova Luzitania, and his funeral was the most imposing seen here.”

16 June letter to John from his brother Alec in Kilmarnock.

Alec writes to John enclosing a letter he has received from Bemister, of Beira HQ in London. He says he has not yet heard from Dr Somershield but will pass any letter he does get onto John. He tells John that what he does know as a doctor is that Blackwater fever is ‘very fatal’ and he thought a result of malaria – “probably Roddie got it in Demerara when he was so long ill there.”

Alec recognises Bemister’s kindness and asks John to let their sisters Flora and Mary read Bemister’s letter. He asks after their parents and tells John he sent a urinal to their father who was ill so that their mother would not have to rise so often in the night to help him to the lavatory. In closing he mentions his own wife, Annie, who he describes as very well and wondering if a bonnet she sent to their mother fitted and if not to send it back to be altered or exchanged.

Rod’s sister Mary (left) holding Bella’s (next to her) baby Chrissie. Rod’s mother extreme right and sister Flora behind her. The boys are Mary’s sons.

 Sept 19th 1913 letter to John from Walpole at Inhanguvo.

In this typewritten letter Walpole acknowledges John’s receipt for the safe delivery of Rod’s things. It is clear that John asked him about money in Rod’s possession and Walpole tells him the British Consul is handling that and it should have been forwarded to the family.

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31 Jan 1914 letter from John to F. Rule, British Vice Consul in Beira.

John replies to an earlier letter from Rule informing him the proceeds of his brother’s estate will be transmitted by Rule to H M Consul General at Lourenço Marques for distribution to the next of kin. Neither his father (staying at Blairdhu) nor John have heard anything about this.

“I understand that he had a balance at Beira, as you would no doubt have seen on going through his papers, as well as any money in his possession or due him by the estate where he was employed at the time of his death.

“Mr Walpole informs me that you have paid his expenses in connection with the things which he so kindly sent here, for which I sincerely thank you.

“My father and I would consider it a great favour if you would send us particulars regarding the administration of the estate, or communicate with H.M. Consul General at Lourenço Marques inquiring into the cause of the delay.”

He signs the letter –

“I am, Sir
Yours very respectfully
John Munro Jr.

3 Mar 1914 letter to John from H M Vice Consul, F. Rule.

Typewritten letter in reply to John’s letter of 31 January. Rule informs John that the balance of funds of his late brother’s estate have been forwarded to the Consul at Lourenço Marques for distribution.

He has copied the Consul General into this correspondence and expects he will contact John.

Date unknown letter from John to Walpole.

John is very apologetic about contacting Walpole once again but he says in an earlier correspondence Walpole had mentioned a movement among the overseers to erect a stone to Rod. He asks if this has been done. If it has not he says he would be pleased if it could be done and he would send the money required in connection with it.

“I would also consider it a great favour if I could get a photo of his grave, and the house where he died, or any other photos in connection with this work.

I was glad to see by your last letter that your expenses in connection with the things which you so kindly sent have been paid by the Consul.

I have not yet heard anything from the Consul regarding the administration of the estate but I am writing to him by this mail.

Again apologizing for troubling you, and thanking you for all the kindness and sympathy you have shown towards us in our bereavement.”

Finding the money to pay for a gravestone would not have been a simple affair for John. The Munro family were by no means wealthy and he was a recently married, small tenant farmer setting out on his own with a young family. The heartbreak he feels at Rod’s death is apparent in this letter. And the desperate need to place what has happened in some context that John can comprehend of a young brother dying in a place he cannot imagine and is so different from all that is familiar in the Scottish Highlands.

27 Mar 1914 letter to John from Walpole.

In it Walpole confirms receipt of John’s letter of Jan 31st 1914 in which he asked about plans to have a memorial stone erected on the grave. It’s clear he has heard no word on the subject from East Africa. Walpole admits nothing has been done to date, adding that many of Rod’s friends have left Inhanguvo – implying most who knew and cared for him enough to see the work through had moved on but he names an accountant, Mr Jess, as being most likely to ensure a stone is erected. Walpole, himself, has also left the company and Inhanguvo and will be returning to England shortly. He also mentions the firm has recently ‘disposed’ of property. So things have changed in several ways with Beira Sugar and Rubber. Ending, Walpole tells John he will forward his letter to Jess and ask him to take up the matter and provides John with his address in Derby if he can be of further assistance.

4 April 1914 letter to John from R. Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter confirming Walpole has forwarded John’s letter to the writer, R. Jess, an accountant at Beira.

Jess explains the Estate has been recently taken over by a new syndicate and Walpole has left but that he, Jess, would make enquiries about the cost of getting a memorial stone from Durban and hopes to be in a position to let John know how much that involves in a few weeks.

There are only six white men now on the Estate who knew your brother and most of them could only give a pittance towards the cost of erecting a stone, however, I shall let you know about this when next I write.”

Jess tells John he knew his brother, Rod, well – both living in the same quarters until Jess married. Both being Scottish they tended to spend a lot of time together. He describes Rod as a man who knew his own mind and that often the two argued politics over the dinner table in the evenings. Rod, he says, was always cheery “and appeared to me to be particularly solid and well.”

Referring to the days before his death, Jess describes visiting Rod almost daily throughout his illness and reiterates reports of the good care provided to him after his relapse.

“It was then the trained nurse was brought in – or perhaps a day or two after – when it was seen he was not making the usual recovery. I was in his room the day before the nurse took up the case and he was then for the first time depressed; complained of weakness, and having to lie in bed. Of course I tried to rally him, gave him the usual little attentions one does in a sick room and he appeared cheerier when I left him. That was the last time I saw him, as I went straight from his room to my bed with a serious attack of malaria. I only recovered in time to attend the funeral.”

Jess adds to what Walpole had to say about the funeral. Not only was Rod’s coffin carried by his companions to the cemetery but his friends and companions insisted on filling in the grave instead of leaving it to the gravediggers. Walpole who gave the readings and conducted the service according to the English Church broke down towards the end and it was Jess who took the book from him and finished the readings.

Jess informs John that he and his wife later visited Rod’s grave and tidied it up with his wife intending to plant flowers around it. Describing her as an amateurish photographer, Jess promises John he will try to send him photos that might interest the family and finishes by assuring John the quarters occupied by Rod were in the healthiest place on the Estate with the exception of the manager’s house.

3rd June 1914 letter to Jess from H. L. Davis, Manager at J. H. Wade & Son of West Street, Durban (funeral managers and monumental sculptors.)

This communication was to obtain suitable designs of memorial stones for Rod’s grave.

Wade provides a few examples varying in price from £15 to £45 for stone and base and kerbing. Stones were mainly offered in marble and there was a polished black granite cross. Inscription was extra at 7 shillings per dozen letters incised into marble and 9 shillings per dozen in the harder granite. Delivery to Beira was on top of this. All in all a great deal of money for the young tenant farmer. 

9th June 1914 letter from R. Jess to John.

Typewritten letter with the heading The Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates scored through and over stamped Beira Illovo Sugar Estates.

Jess encloses the information he received from Wade & Son.

The prices, from an African point of view are very reasonable” Jess notes and if John selects a stone, he, Jess, will see it gets moved from Durban to Beira. He has also “approached the white men here and they have promised to assist in this way.

“Mr Harper, our new Manager, has kindly promised to have the Stone brought here from Beira and will also provide the labour and material necessary to erect it substantially.”

Jess reassures John he will make any arrangements that are needed to the memorial stone erected on Rod’s grave and while he still has no photograph of the grave he is enclosing photos of Inhanguvo so that John might see for himself where Rod lived and worked. He asks that John return the photos which presumably he did.

Unknown date letter from John to Mr R. Jess.

John acknowledges letters from Jess of 4th April and 9th June on the subject of Rod’s memorial stone. He thanks Jess for his involvement and thanks, too, to Mrs Jess for both had been tidying up Rod’s grave and sent photos to John, “which I prize very much.”

John apologises to Jess for his delay in writing back but his father died about the time Jess’ first letter arrived and he was busy with family matters. John also notes that since this, the family’s second recent bereavement, he was “not now in a position to spend so much on my brother’s memorial, as I formerly would have done.”

The family’s limited resources had to stretch to two gravestones – one for their father and one for Rod. John does, however, select one of the stone’s offered by Wade & Son in Durban – a Houlton Cross priced at £12. 12s. He advises Jess to have it erected without surrounding kerbing (to reduce the cost) and encloses a money order for £17, to cover stone and inscription.


The inscription to read:

In Loving Memory of
Roderick James Munro
Born 2nd December, 1882
At Rosemarkie, Rossshire
Scotland
Died at Inhanguvo
16th March 1913
Peace, Perfect Peace

John asks to be informed if the £17 does not cover all the costs incurred.

“Please convey my warmest thanks to Mr Harper, and others out there who have assisted with the arrangements.”

He ends apologising for the trouble he’s putting Jess to and asks him about Donald MacKenzie and if he is still at Inhanguvo, commenting that he only knew him slightly but knows his father well. The MacKenzies lived about 20 miles from John, at Fortrose, and may have been related to the Munros.

7th September 1914 letter from Wade & Son.

Confirmation of order for memorial stone for Rod’s grave.

24th September 1914 letter to John from John T. Rennie Son & Co, Aberdeen Direct Line of Steamers London Natal and East African Ports.

Business letter requesting receipt for parcels “duly endorsed for the box ex s.s. “Inkosi””and enquiring if it should be locked for the key to be sent to them (to check contents) after which they will forward the item to John, according to his instruction.

29 September 1914 letter to Wade & Son from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter refers to their communication of 3rd June, and confirming Jess has now heard back from the late RJ Munro’s relatives who have commissioned him to order the Houlton cross and bases – and provides Wade with the inscription written by John.

1st October 1914 letter to John from Jess at Beira Illovo Sugar Estates, Inhanguvo, near Beira, East Africa.

Typewritten letter acknowledging the safe receipt of John’s money order for £17 and confirmation he has ordered the memorial requested and arranged with the Durban agents for the work to be carried out properly. He also promises to let John know when that work is completed.

And sadly,

“You mention Donald McKenzie in your letter, but you will probably have since learned that the poor fellow died on the 29th of July last of Blackwater. We laid him side by side of your brother.”

11th November 1914 letter to John from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter in which Jess lets John know the cross and base have arrived at the Estate but not been unpacked. He assures him the stone will be erected as soon as a man is made available for the task. Jess paid the stonemasons at Durban £16-6-8; £12-12/- for the stone plus £3-14-8 for the inscription. He also had to pay £1-6-3 for transporting the lot from Durban bringing the total up to more than the £17 provided by John but says he is not asking him for the 12 shillings and 11 pence difference, as this cost will be carried locally (by company or men it is not specified.) Jess adds that he (and his wife it appears) visited the cemetery the previous Sunday and tidied the graves of Rod and his friend Donald MacKenzie and photographed them. He ends by informing John they were leaving Inhanguvo at the end of the year, with him going on active service in German S. W Africa but he would try to get a photo of the raised cross taken before leaving.

18th December 1914 letter to John from Jess.

Typewritten letter from Jess informing John that the stone has now been erected and inscribed, as requested, and promises photos of it. He mentions that they have been suffering “very trying weather” there and yet another employee was buried last week – “Blackwater as usual. I shall be glad to get away from the place.” Jess ends by providing John with his new address in Johannesburg.

27th December 1914 letter from John at Buckden, Huntingdon, England to Jess.

John has a different address, in England, a reminder the year is 1914 and John is undergoing military training hundreds of miles from home, as a member of the Lovat Scouts.

John as a Lovat Scout in 1915

He refers to Jess’ letters of 1st October and 11th November, welcoming the delivery at Inhanguvo of the memorial stone from Durban and reacts to the tragic news of Rod’s friend and colleague Donald MacKenzie.

I was very grieved indeed to hear of Donald McKenzie’s death of which I heard some time before receiving your letters.

I am afraid I am putting you to a great deal of trouble, but I know that you are doing it willingly, and I feel that I can never repay either yourself or Mrs Jess for all you have done and I daresay you will note that I have changed my address but it is only temporary, as I have been on Service with the Lovat Scouts since the 5th of Aug, and we are shifted about a good deal. I am pleased to note that you are also going to don the Khaki. We expected to have been sent abroad before now, but I understand that mounted troops are not so urgently required as this seems to be a war of artillery and trenches but we expect to be sent out early in the spring. 

I shall be pleased to hear again from you at any time, and any letters addressed as formerly to Blairdhu, Killearnan, Rossshire will be forwarded to me if I am away from home.”

He thanks Jess for all his kindnesses and wishes he and his wife “all happiness in the New Year.

“I remain

Yours very sincerely

John Munro

 1 9 1 5 

30th August 1915 letter to John from Commercial Bank of Scotland in Muir of Ord.

This typewritten letter came in response to one John sent to the bank on 25 August in which a cheque was enclosed drawing on his account the sum of £150 in favour of Dr Alexander Munro, as Executor of Roderick James Munro, for a loan of that amount paid to the Farm. This must have been money lent to John by Rod when John took up tenancy at Blairdhu farm, to help him with initial expenses and was now being paid back into Rod’s estate. Bank charges on the cheque came to 1/11d which the bank requested John pay in the form of postage stamps.

 

John’s and Bella’s wedding in Inverness. John and Bella seated centre, front row. Alec is seated to the left of John. Their father, with beard, is seated on front row 4th from right. Rod does not appear to be in the group.

Blackwater  Fever

Blackwater fever continues to be a dangerous disease in tropical areas of the world with a death. Haemoglobinuric fever caused more deaths and chronic illness than all other diseases among Europeans and Chinese labourers in West Africa and East Africa in the 19th century.

The eminent German microbiologist, Dr Robert Koch, described it as a disease creating the greatest havoc amongst Europeans in German East Africa which he attributed to quinine poisoning following treatment for malaria. The ‘father of tropical medicine’, the parasitologist from Old Meldrum in Aberdeenshire, Dr Patrick Manson, was first to bring Blackwater fever to the attention of western medicinal authorities and it was his work which led to its inclusion in English language medical textbooks late in the 19th century. But it was Dr John Farrell Easmon, an illustrious Creole doctor and Chief Medical Officer at Cape Coast in Ghana who was from Sierra Leon who, in the latter 19th century, wrote a treatise on The Nature and Treatment of Blackwater Fever in 1884 which first linked Blackwater with malaria and who gave this horrible disease its name, Blackwater fever.

Dr John Easmon, seated

Blackwater fever was characterised by haemoglobinuria, jaundice and vomiting. Its name comes from the darkness of urine passed by those affected; coloured by the presence of haemoglobin or methaemoglobin.

Blackwater fever was not confined to Africa but reported in a host of places including China, Italy, Sicily, New Guinea and Java. It was promulgated that its suspected increasing prevalence in Africa was in part due to disturbing soil and opening up waterways that accompanied the drive of colonists to increase farming areas and build ports, factories, houses, stores etc.. Bad outbreaks coincided with long very hot dry spells which included lagoons and ponds drying up then being heavily disturbed by eventual heavy rains.

Given Rod Munro’s complaints about lack of fresh food it is interesting that doctors suspected Blackwater was a greater threat during shortages of fresh meat and vegetables.

The Blackwater victim experiences fever often to over 103F with the patient fitting on the second or third day of the fever but it was noticed in many fatal cases the temperature had often returned to normal. As mentioned above the urine turns dark – but varies in colour between light red to very dark. In addition to fever and darkened urine patients often experience nausea or vomiting and diarrhoea which tend to cause most distress because of their persistence and mean that victims find it difficult to retain medicines and nourishment.  Vomit is often bright or olive-green colour. Headaches tend to be severe and there is pain felt in loins and limbs with numbness in hands and feet. Both liver and spleen are enlarged, causing further discomfort. Of those affected by this horrible illness it proves fatal to about twenty percent. 

When chloroquine replaced quinine as the medicine administered to tackle the disease its incidence declined, from the 1950s but more recently resistance to chloroquine has seen a rise in cases.

Nova Luzitania, now Búzi, where Rod James Munro was laid to rest was devastated by cyclone Idai in 2019 killing 534 people so even if his granite cross survived a century of upheaval in Mozambique it is unlikely anything of it remains today.

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.