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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Beginnings:

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.

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.

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.

 

Carl MacDougall (2006) Scots the Language of the People.

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This anthology of Scottish writers, illustrated by their poetry or prose, was a TV series. I’d quite like to have seen it. I’m not sure how it would have worked, off the page, but no matter. The piece that stuck a real chord with me, was from someone I’d never heard of James Kennedy ‘The Highland Crofter’ (below). It was a lament for the Highland Clearances. Kennedy, a blacksmith and evicted crofter left Loch Tay and settled in Doune, Canada. Scottish history you might think, but with Scotland’s Oxfam revealing that the richest 1% in our wee country have more wealth than the bottom 50% and the very poorest are pilloried for being poor and feckless, treated as subhuman, less valuable than sheep, I ask myself what has really changed. Those that owned the land own the people on the land, as they do now, but they have mortgaged other’s lives in new ways. The answer comes from Blind Harry’s description of ‘The Wallace’ and what it is to be fully human.

Woundis he had many divers place,

Of riches he keepit no proper thing:

Give as he wan, like Alexander the king.

 

The Highland Crofter  by James Kennedy.

Frae Kenmore to Ben More

The land is a’ the Marquis’s;

The mossy howes, the heathery knowe

An’ like bonnie park is his;

The bearded goats, the towsie stots,

An’ a’ the braxie carcasses;

Ilk crofter’s rent, ilk tinker’s tent,

An ilka collie’s bark is his;

The muir-cock’s craw, the piper’s blaw,

The ghillies hard day’s wark is his;

From Kenymore tae Ben More

The warld is a’ the Marquis’s.

 

The fish that swim, the birds that skim,

The fir, the ash, the birk is his;

The castle ha’ sae big and braw,

Yon diamond crusted dirk is his;

The roofless hame, a burning shame,

The factor’s dirty wark is his;

The poor folk vexed, the lawyer’s text,

Yon smirking legal shark is his;

From Kenmore to Ben More

The world is a’ the Marquis.

 

But near, mair near, God’s voice we hear

The dawn as weel’s the dark is his;

The poet’s dream, the patriot’s theme,

The fire that light the mirk is His

They clearly show God’s mills are slow

But sure, the handiwork is His;

And in His grace our hope we place,

Fair Freedom sheltering ark is His;

The men that toil should own the soil,

A note as clear as the lark is this;

Breadalbane’s land –the fair, the grand –

Will no’ aye the Marquis’s.