Carl MacDougall (2001) Painting the Forth Bridge: A Search for Scottish Identity.

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I’m sure I’ve got a Scottish identity. You might have one too.  I wasn’t looking for mine, but here it is. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.  It doesn’t lie in that ear squeal we hear on every channel when counting down to New Year. Or the cheuctering twirling plaid and stripping the willow. Or the Scottish and Rye of The Still Game. These to me are fanny water.

Listen instead to Anton Chekhov in A Dreary Story which sounds to me very Scottish, and not just a remark about the weather, he offered the observation ‘Tell me what you want, and I will tell you who you are’.

Funnily enough as Roman Catholic of quasi-Irish parentage I want much the same as the individual described by Edwin Muir ‘as the most important figure in Scottish history’.  I want the same as John Knox. ‘I want a school in every parish, a college in every town and a university in every city…and regular, organised provision for the poor.’ In other words, I want to be Norwegian.

The only thing that seems to unite Scots is summed up by Sorley MacLean in the fact we’re not English. We’re not a Braveheart nation, but we are a nation. The future in not in the cheviot, the stag or the black, black oil, even although more of the black stuff has been found in the North Sea. Fossil fuels are the past. The future is green. Scotland can be one of the greenest nations in the world. Let us adapt to it together and stop listening to rich men’s lies. And in the words of Norman MacCaig let Scotland and its people be like its ballads and poetry of the people and for the people:

All of them different –

Just as a stoned crow

Invents ways of flying

It had never thought of before

No wonder now he sometimes

Suddenly lurches, stalls, twirls sideways,

Before continuing his effortless level flight

So high over the heads of people

Their stones can’t reach him.





Carl MacDougall (1993) The Lights Below.

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Carl MacDougall’s grandfather was a head waiter in a hotel before the Second World War. What’s that got to dae with anything? you might be asking. Well, it changes the nature of time and the ordinary working day. When other workers are knocking off service staffs are going to work. They have a different sense of time. Andy Paterson was a waiter before he was fitted up on a drugs charge and sent to prison. Prison also changes a man’s sense of time.  He shared a dormitory with a couple of blokes that weren’t too bad, although one of them, Charlie Sloan, had killed his wife. Wullie Shakespeare might get away with The Taming of the Shrew, but Charlie Sloan, the press nicknamed the Nebbed Killer didn’t do much for a man’s reputation. Andy Paterson doesn’t know what to do with his life. Set during the Poll Tax debacle in Scotland, he wants to know who fitted him up and why. More than that he wants to know how his life fits together, even though it doesn’t.


At the back, when they opened the door, he rocked himself forward, back and forward on his feet, trying to empty his mind.

Just me, he was thinking. Only me.

Narrative and time in The Lights Below is like pebble dash and memory. Jacob, Andy’s father was also in the waitering game. He was killed by Malky his mum’s lover, but his dad’s ostensible killer was found Not Proven at Glasgow High Court and marrying his mother he creates the kind of family problems that make for a convoluted present.  His sister Eileen went to live with his mother and Andy went to stay with his granny, his dad’s mother. Andy’s granny has a sideline in making soup and selling cardboard for homeless people to sleep on. Ten pence for a comfortable-uncomfortable bed.  She is not a charity but is charitable. A wee Glesga women ready to take on the world. She creates a new extended family for Andy. But a rhapsodic Glasgow is The Lights Below real celebration. A place we know and characters we can trust if not to be honest, or likeable, at least to be themselves.

*Disclaimer I bought this book in good faith from Amazon and don’t want to end up in Dungavel or Barlinnie. It’s got the imprint of Castlebrae High School. Whatever wee thief stole this book it wasnae me. Own up ya book stealing rat and shame the devil.

Zenit St Petersburg 3—0 Celtic.

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Last Thursday night Celtic showed what they are all about. Defended stoutly. Hard into the tackle. Passed the ball really well and scored a sublime goal. Dorus de Vries even made a save in the first leg. Goalkeepers makes mistakes. Let’s start with that. But they also makes saves, but de Vries doesn’t. He’s no great saves in the bank that fans can look back on and give him a bit of leeway in the way they do Gordon or before that Artur Boruc. Celtic have a history of signing dud keepers and he is probably top of the pick right now. To talk of Daler Kuzyaev’s ‘knuckleball’ is knuckleheaded.  We’re not buying that nonsense. The second Zenit goal was gifted by what de Vries didn’t do which was make a bog standard save. Amateur would flatter him.

The first goal after eight minutes set the tone for the night. Amateur defending. Branislav Ivanovic has been out injured and initially Tierney down that flanked looked to have the beating of him. Here Ivanovic was given a free header from a corner and scored from around eight yards. It’s not as if we’ve not got anyone big enough in the Celtic team to mark Ivanovic. Our back line is all over six foot tall. Simunovic is about six-foot four.  I’m not sure who was meant to be marking Ivanovic but Jozo was quicker to blame others, most notably Lustig than he was to get to the ball.

Lustig was involved in giving away the third goal, ball watching as Kokorin sneaked in at the back post to bundle the ball into the net. Lustig’s had a shocking season, and his European performances, in particular, have been marked by poor passing and slack defending. Only Tierney achieves passmarks and that is for his early marauding. This performance reminded me of the twos and threes that a Parisian newspaper gave Celtic players after they’d been gutted by PSG in the first leg. Here they were playing a mediocre team and slummed below mediocrity.

I’m a great believer in the dog’s chance. I’m that rubbish at games like snooker and pool  and most other sports (I’ll put that in the past-tense) I was stupid enough to believe we could sneak it. Celtic here, even at 2-0, had a dog’s chance. Zenit looked a poor team that defended deeply that had been gifted two goals. Yet we were still in the tie. We gave away a third goal then chased the game for the last ten minutes Unacceptable in so many ways. Players shrinking from playing for the Hoops. Accepting they are inferior. There are no positives from last night’s game. None. Ranger’s supporters are sniggering. It’s up to our players to wipe the smile from their faces. If they’re not good enough, and on this evidence de Vries never was and Jozo is on a shoogly peg then we need to start there. Bye-bye to Europe and bye-bey  to those that shrink away from the responsibility of representing Celtic.

Zenit St Petersburgh v Celtc


While others feast on Champions League Celtic finds themselves in the Europa. The first leg at Parkhead was a brilliant team performance. I watched it in the pub and was that twitchy way. I kicked every ball. But as John Urquhart said ‘if you kicked every ball Celtic would be at least four doon’. Fair enough. You can’t argue with that. But look at De Vries. He hasn’t made a save for about seven years, yet there he was making a vital save bang on 15 minutes. Look at Jozo, gifted goals against Hearts and Partick Thistle, but here you’d think he was Robbocop.  Calumn McGregor, never good enough for Celtic, but awright. He was man of the match. Eboue Koussai is best known for coming on as a sub and going off again without anybody noticing he’s been on the park. He was outstanding as was the other midfield trident. James Forest, flatters to deceive. No he didn’t. Brilliant. Dembele, never a thirty-million- pound player. He was here. All over the pitch Celtic were smiles better. Charly Musonda cameo got us that goal. Let’s hope the first leg is repeated in the second.

Carl MacDougall (1996) The Casanova Papers

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I’m a duff reviewer. The narrator is a former Glasgow journalist trying to make sense of his life after his wife dies, but I don’t know his name. I’m not sure he has a name. Let’s call him every-man adrift. His background is on the page. And I like to play detective and mitch and match with the author.

She was a second-year student and I was her tutor; a disgraceful state of affairs, as popular then as now. I was attracted by the difference. My own background was poorly genteel, with Scottish qualities of hard work, thrift and hypocrisy. She was an Edinburgh girl away from home.

The recognition of hypocrisy is what makes a writer. We’re all at it. But some of us don’t care to look. Others look the other way and distance themselves and blame others. I do that too. But at least I know, or think I know.

What keeps the writers sane after the death of his wife is his work –and an affair with AnnA in Paris. The former journalist has nicked papers, diaries and journals related to Giacomo Casanova de Signault from a former Nazi sympathiser during the Second World War. Most everybody knows who Casanova is, but hardly anybody knows what he was really like. The former journalist has the jigsaw of Casanova’s hand-copied edition of My Life in front of his as well as reports from courtiers and spies. As the narrator puts together the jigsaw of Casanova’s life he hopes to put his own life in order.

Two stories running in tandem. One then. One now. I liked the nitty-gritty of leeches being applied for almost any illness and Casanova saving someone from certain death by taking a mercury poultice from the man’s chest. Some patients paid for their medicine by offering their hair and teeth in advance payment.  I’ve heard of an arm and leg (also convertible currency) but that takes the biscuit. My preference was the Glasgow stories, the narrator running after his daughter, his beautiful daughter, who turned out to be a junkie and disappeared. Common humanity is often muck, but that’s where things grow. Read on.

Heather Morris (2018) The Tatooist of Auschwitz

On the flyleaf Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz is ‘based on the powerful true story of Lale Sokolov’. You see that kind of affirmation attached to film titles. Lion, for example, was based on the screenplay of a book by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose and it’s Saroo’s story that is told. Morris’s book is based on the screenplay she wrote based on the life of Lale Sokolov (Ludwig Eisenberg). Gita (Gisela Fuharmannova [Furnam]) also features as the love interest. The reader knows before reading the book that both survive the Nazi concentration camps. So this should be a life affirming book on the model of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and it’s worth quoting Wiesel here.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.


The problem I have with Heather Morris’s book is I find it forgettable. It’s a remarkable story of love and survival spanning countries and continents. We are at the heart of the Nazi genocide that killed six million Jews and millions of others. Lale was transported to Auschwitz on 13th April 1942 and his number was 34 407. Low numbers were a mark of success and it was Lale’s job to tattoo numbers on others. Gita was transported on the same day from Slovakia and her number 34 902 indicates they were on the same consignment of cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz. Think about that. Lale would be tattooing increasingly long numbers 6 666 666 before both of them escaped to the advancing Russians. In between their low numbers and the high numbers that follow is human ash. Those that have been forgotten and this book seek to commemorate.

My problem with reading it can be summed up with this sentence take from an extract set in May 1943. ‘The selection process is taking place a small distance away.’ That jars with me. It should read ‘short distance away’.

The passage goes on,

‘They are too busy to pay attention to it. An arm and a piece of paper appear before them and they do their job. Over and over again. These prisoners are unusually quiet, perhaps sensing evil in the air.’

People that have been starved, beaten, stuffed into a cattle truck with no water or food, with not enough air  and have to stand and pee and shit themselves, standing among the screams of those that die and are left among them. People that are shot and babies ripped from their arms. People that are ripped apart by guard dogs. These are not people that sense evil in the air. They are living it.

‘Lale looks up at Leon, who has turned pale. Barteski materialises behind them.

‘What do you think of our new doctor?’

‘Didn’t really introduce himself,’ murmurs Lale.

Barteski laughs. ‘This is one doctor you don’t want to be introduced to, trust me. I’m scared of him. The guys a creep.’

‘Do you know what he’s called?’

‘Mengele, Herr Doktor Josef Mengele. You should remember that name, Tatowierer.’

In the film version of this after the appearance of Doktor Mengele there’d be scary music. Here no need for scary music. It reads like a film script to me. Scratch the surface of the characters and you get more surface. Barteski in particular lacks depth. He’s not a character, he’s an ethnic German that arrived in Berlin and joined the Nazis Party and convicted mass murder. Here he talks like an American, ‘that guys a creep,’ and although he does commit the odd murder the way Lale manipulates him make him sound like a knockabout kind of guy you’d find in Abbot and Costello.

Jargon-filled prose is a kind of authorial self-harming. Here we have Lale going weak at the knees when he sees or meets or makes love to Gita. Cliché city. It gives me no pleasure to say authenticity deserves better.





Viktor E. Frankel (1959 [2004]) Man’s Search For Meaning.


Why should we listen to Viktor E.Frankel? Well, he’s a scientist, philosopher, a psychiatrist and author, but the real reason we should listen to him is because of the time he spent as an inmate in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. That gives what he says heft, he’s walked the walk and suffered the indignity of being regarded as less than human and treated as a throwaway thing. His life and death as a Jew having little or no meaning for larger society.

So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense.

Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.

And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

I’d fling in global warming and the threat of Trump and nuclear war, but I think Frankl covered it in his twofold sense, but such has been the propaganda war against the poor, common decency has been drowned out by the blaring voices, greed and sense of entitlement of the super-rich who have learned little or nothing of what it means to be human.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps cannot be summed up in trite phrases, but he calls for a ‘tragic optimism’. In other words how it is possible to ‘say yes to life in spite of everything’. Life can be made meaningful if a human being learns he has ‘nothing to lose except his ridiculously naked life’. But there must be purpose in suffering. We must come to realize the truth of Nietzche: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ [I’m not a fan of that idea] but the truth or in jargon-speak the will to meaning of the Nietzchean precept: He who has a WHY to live can bear any HOW.  In other words, how you live can be determined by outside forces, for example, the Nazis or Kapos in concentration camps, or President Trump’s persecution of poor people in America, but you choose how to interpret this.  Only you can be judge and jury of your better self. My better self says I’ve read this book before, but forgotten many of its lessons.

The prisoners were only average men, but some at least, by choosing to be “worthy of their suffering” proved man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate.

Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, we make choices. They determine the kind of people we are. In Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, he remembers his mother as being a great one for offering up her suffering to God. As a Catholic that’s something I recognise. Cal was unemployed. Frankl deals with unemployment neurosis as putting themselves in the wrong box. The unemployed are not useless but equate being useless as having a meaningless life. His answer they should volunteer and their depression would disappear. As should the tens of millions of the working poor. Because as Frankl says, ‘man does not live by welfare alone’. One way of viewing this is putting Frankl in the same box as Jeremy Kyle, get a job, even if you’ve got one. But that is to pander to my lesser self. To pander to a hatred of those Nazis that rob the poor and call it natural justice. There is wisdom in this book but if you search for meaning you’ll find what you look like. I once wrote a story (I think) in which the protagonist judges his own life. No god or the devil needed. I guess we all do that day by day. But I’m only happy when I’m unhappy. I’ll give the last words to Frankl.

‘Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful it not only renders him happy, but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.’