Carl MacDougall (1989) Stone Over Water.

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This is an old book in that Carl MacDougall received a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council to write his debut novel. How quaint that sounds now. It’s like having a governess or a government that valued literature.  I ripped through the book quickly. The story pays homage to Jane Eyre. The hero and narrator of the novel is Angus McPhail. ‘Give me the child until and I will give you the man’ is the maxim of Aristotle, or Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits and the documentary series 7UP tested that idea. Here Angus is a foundling at Greenbank House, the next minute he’s told to pack his stuff, he’s to be adopted. He’s twelve, the couple adopting him wanted a child with blue eyes. Angus has blue eyes, his new mother and father are quite happy with him. His brother Cameron and sister Euphemia (Phammie) treat him as if he’s one of the family. Cameron takes Angus to school and introduces him to everyone as his long-lost brother. Angus felt wanted.

His new father works in a bank writes a diary and might be working on a novel of what it means to be Scottish. Angus works in a bank writes a diary and is working on a novel of what it means to be Angus McPhail. His mother takes wee white pills and can be forgetful. It’s the 1960s. Phammie goes to find herself, but gets a bit lost. Cameron embraces Marxist dialectic and the working class. He proves himself to be less bourgeoisie than others might think by robbing banks for the cause.

Part One, Part Two and Part Three, or the beginning, the middle and the end are prefaced by a different kind of Marx, Groucho. ‘The party in the first part will be known as the party in the first part.’

The party of the third part takes us up to Thatcherism and the rewriting of history and it seems vaguely familiar. Take, for example, the film Darkest Hour. And listen to what Angus is telling his bit on the side Miranda.

Fiction is so pessimistic, which obviously has the effect of making people like me feel powerless, which is what it’s supposed to do. We’ve been told we’re powerless and now we feel powerless. The bourgeoisie have taken over everything.

…They even won the war.

Churchill won the war. He had a little help from his generals and their officers, but the soldiers merely did what they were told, the men and women who did the fighting and died for fuck-all simply responded to good leadership. So how can you compete with that, how can you come to terms with, far less survive in, a system where everything is subject to reassessment and that revision is adopted and fed back as propaganda?

Amen to that. Angus McPhail is a prophet. I’ve been saying that for the last ten years. Here it is in print from 1980 before we had ever second programme on Channel 4 and 5 with the tag Benefit and the unwritten script – scum. And here we have the latest tale of Churchill saving Britain by writing a speech about Never, Never, Never. I guess like the recent hokum about the King learning not to stutter Britain would have lost the war if it wasn’t for wordpower. Dream on. I’m a McPhail. 1% own more than the bottom 50% in Scotland is not a headline that shocks, it’s something that passes largely unnoticed. That’s the power of propaganda.   Stone Over Water, aye.


Addicted Parents: Last Chance to Keep My Children, BBC 2, 9pm, BBCiPlayer.


I wouldn’t have watched a programme like this on Channel 4 or 5. I’m biased that way. Hate those that pedal welfare porn and mock sympathy with smattering of right-wing agenda. Trumpet at a them and us world and look at the money we’re wasting on scum. I’m not really sure this is much better. I know the script. Phoenix Futures Specialist Family Services in Sheffield offer addicts the last chance to keep their kids.

Drugs of choice: opiates, mainly heron and over-the-counter derivatives such as co-codamol. Amphetamines. Crack Cocaine. Alcohol. Cigarettes don’t count as an addiction.

Issues to be dealt with and confronted: physical and sexual abuse. That old favourite low self-esteem and low self-worth.

First up Tracey who has eight children, seven of whom have been taken into care. She provides the kind of parenting that politicians such as David Cameron and half man half slime George Osborne loved to put centre stage at Tory Party conference with the headline: Broken Britain. And she really is broken. She’s a mess. Her eight-year-old daughter acted as surrogate mother to the kids younger than her. That’s the real tragedy. She’s completed the first stage, been successfully weaned of co-codamol. It costs around £1000 a week, funding comes largely from local authorities, to keep her at Phoenix and her child out of care and progression to the next default stage of being put up for adoption. Three-quarters of those that attend Phoenix successfully complete the course and leave with their child or children.

Statistics like that always make me sigh. Of course taking addicts away from the environment in which they have ready access to drugs and into a leafy borough with a structured routine and…well, need I go on? If we are going to tell stories I prefer the one about rats weaned on cocaine took drugs obsessively, ignoring food placed in their cage, until  watered-down cocaine, killed them. Rats are social animals.  Placed in a different environment rats ignored the watered-down cocaine and drunk ordinary tap water and recovered. Those soldiers in Vietnam that came home no longer saw the need to get rat faced and take heroin. Most of them didn’t end up as popular myths or Tom Cruise. The best myth of all is it’s some kind of weakness, like a faulty ball-bearing, and they’re just happy to roll about in their own muck.

Another popular statistic those in the know have often quoted at me is a third of addicts remain addicts, a third float between addiction and non-addiction and a third make it to the promised land of sobriety and non-addiction. You know what I think of that? Go and waffle yourself.

So let’s put on our serious and concerned social worker faces and go down the bookies and put our cash on who will and who will not make it. After all this is entertainment. Tracey won’t make it. She’s had seven strikes and she’s out.

Sian, from London, two kids under two. Supportive family. She’s a maybe. Yeh, she’ll finish the Phoenix Course and she’s already detoxed and its blah, blah, blah. Let’s do what they did with 7-UP. Go back every seven years. I wouldn’t put money on her not relapsing.

Natalie and Natalie A. The first Natalie has two kids, one at fourteen, the other three. She seemed to do well. Made her way through the Phoenix programme. Good support from her parents. A good bet, until you hear her talking about going home to a small village. Ho-hum.

Natalie A is more straight forward. She relapsed while on the programme. Bought cocaine while out at the supermarket and tested positive. All residents are regularly tested. She was given another chance. She didn’t take it. But she was allowed to leave with her children. She was-temporarily- straight. Certainty to go back on drugs.

Five residents are filmed, can’t remember who the other one was. I’d guess three or four will relapse. We can’t save everybody, but we’ve got to act as if we can. It’s not just about the mothers. It’s about the kids. Between twenty-five to fifty percent of the prison population is made up of those that were in care. We really don’t care. Phoenix is a sticking plaster, but even that is better than nowt. As that old addict Whitney Houston used to warble. ‘Children are our future’. What we do with them now matters. I’ll watch the next episode with interest. Fingers crossed it’s a happy ending.  I don’t know the answer, but I do know that filming people changes their behaviour.  I’d be interested in what happens after.

Born on the same day, More4, 14th June, 9pm

7th March 1944, three babies are born in different parts of the Second World War is just finishing and there’s a population boom as the soldiers come back from the front. The format is familiar. Granada broadcast the original 7UP documentary series in what was meant to be a one off, World in Action programme, in 1964, directed by Michael Apsted. 7UP was meant to tell us something about class. And it followed the same cohort every seven years until we’ve now got 56UP. Michael Apsted shows how easy it was in those days; he went on to direct Coronation Street and the latest James Bond. It’s difficult to deal with that kind of longevity and glamour. Born on the same day is some snapshots of lives and its aim is to tell us something about our society.

The hook for the viewer here is the well-known figure of Ranulph Fiennes, distantly related to royalty and as we know a man that’s been on every pole with the exception of an ice-cream pole. His dad was killed in action at the end of the war. A commander of The Royal Scot Greys. We see a photo of him. Ranulph is determined to be on par with his dad and also command the Royal Scot Greys. The Eton connection is, as 7UP shows, a good place to start if you want to command a television station, an army company or the economy, but Ranulph has the drawback of being rather dim. Even though he serves with honour and distinction in the army, in the Royal Scot Greys (I doubt the regiment still exists) they’re not keen to keep him. By this time he’s married Ginny. She’s a good old girl that persuades him what he needs is a challenge. That’s what God made Englishmen and the Poles for. Ranulph loses a few fingers to frost bite and Ginny to cancer. None of these things are really his fault. Stiff upper lip. Memories such as ‘Antarctica, decided just to go for it’ are par for the course.  Conquers Everest and fathers another child at 62. No doubt that child will too conquer Eton and Everest.

Frances Kelly was born on the same day as Ranulph. Mum and Dad were shopkeepers in Leeds, with their home upstairs. Three years after the NHS had been set up Frances was a child patient. Her parents were sleeping upstairs and she strayed too near the open fire. Almost twenty years later the same thing happened to my brother. In his case he was playing with matches and it set his pyjamas on fire. Frances nightdress burst into flames. Third-degree burns. Both she and my wee brother’s faces were saved because the flames reached only to their chin before being smothered. But for Frances a policy of strict segregation in the NHS meant that children as patients could only see their parents once a month. That day had already passed, so it was two months before she saw her mum or day. She felt she would never see them again and felt abandoned. This marked her life as much as her stay in the burns unit. She didn’t feel anyone would want to marry her. But she does get married and have two children. She is the real hero of the programme, fostering 97 other children and adopting two of them, Andrew at twenty-one months and Helen at three. Helen has a hole in the heart and Frances is told by the paediatrician, ‘there’s nothing we can do’, she’ll not live long, make the best of it for her. In hospital Helen didn’t believe Frances would be back for her. Mirroring her own experience, Helen gave the little girl a bag and told her to keep a hold of it, ‘don’t lose it’, as she’d be back for it. That gave Helen belief.  She came back for the bag and the girl, making her one of her family, until Helen died, 1993, a beautiful summer’s day, at home with her –new- mum and dad.

There’s mirroring of a different kind following Ewart, a naturalised British citizen born in Jamaica. Mum and dad and their nine children swapping the sunny climate for the smog of Birmingham. Newsreel footage shows the reception they got, ‘niggers go home’ was the message to the camera, much the same message as today’s refugees from our right-wing, Brexitt supporting, white friends. They take all our jobs – don’t they? Yeh, yeh, yeh, it’s a familiar tune. There are familiar staging posts for each individual. 7th March 1962. Ewart is 18 and gets his first full-time job in a steel company. £2.12 shillings a week. The gaffer asks Ewart to come in on Saturday, unpaid, to wash his car. Because that’s what black people do. Ewart doesn’t. He gets paid off. The only way he can get steady work is to join the ground crew of the RAF. But he leads a double life. He’s also lead singer in a soul band, hoping to make it big. He doesn’t, but meets his wife and mother of his children through his nocturnal activities.    After the RAF he finds work as a salesman. He’s a natural, but he doesn’t find the promotions he’d hoped for. He switches to another company, less racist. He thrives and admits he’s had a good life.  An interesting programme, but not a patch on 7UP – to 56UP, the prototype and still the best, something we can be proud of.

Postscipt: I begged my mum not to bring my wee brother back from hospital, but she didn’t listen.