Great Scottish Writers, James Robertson (2010) And the Land Lay Still.

My pet theory is that authors write the same book again and again, until they get it right (write). James Robertson writes about Scotland. No headline there. He always writes about Scotland. He can mix it up a bit with Saints, God and the Devil, but you know where you are with him.

Here we have an ensemble cast that takes us from Scotland in the 1950s to the mongrel breed of Scottish Devolution nobody much wanted, but we settled for. The book kicks off with Michael (Mike). He’s gay and a photographer, but not half the man his father, Angus, was. He was also a photographer, but better. It takes a lifetime to admit it, but Mike’s got there in the end. His dad seemed to have married his mum for spite. That, and she was beautiful. The conceit is Mike is arranging an exhibition of his father’s best memorial photographs.

His da’s lost love (one of many) Jean Barbour, keeps a room for Mike in her Edinburgh home. Everybody that is anybody goes to Jean Barbour’s, including Dufflecoat Dick. Jimmy Bond, who changed his name to Peter Bond, after another spy, Ian Fleming, brought a book about with its eponymous hero, James Bond.

Jimmy Bond is testing the waters for MI5. The London establishment can’t quite decide if Scotland is full of windbags or real revolutionaries. Oil in vast quantities, off the shores of Scotland, to a bankrupt Britain makes that a pressing question. Bond is good at snooping, lying low in the background, but Jean Barbour susses him out. He’s an alcoholic that has long and detailed conversations with himself. It’s in the same manner as some of Robertson’s other narrators had conversation with Saints or, in Gideon Mack’s case, the Devil. The demon drink, even if kept in check, answers back more than it should. Scotland might have flushed its heavy industries down the toilet, but there’s still something worth saving even in fictional towns like Drumkirk and Borlanslogie that are just over the hill, near Lothian.  There’s a nod to The Great Disruption when members of the Kirk revolted about interference from their so-called betters about appointing ministers—which was surely—God’s work.

Don Lennie was thirty when he met Jack Gordon. In 1950, most able-bodied men had been in the armed services. Jack Gordon was a Japanese prisoner of war. That left a mark on him and he went walkabouts. Don stayed put, kept his job fixing lorries, and largely kept his mouth shut, about working conditions. He married his childhood sweetheart. They have two sons, but his youngest is nothing but trouble. His eldest boy is one he can be proud of. He hooks up with Jack Gordon’s daughter. The two of them school teachers and ban the bombers. Ticking in the background, the youngest son.

Then we have the aristocracy, washed up to be sure, but Michael Eddelstane has his father’s club in London and his father’s contacts, when Unionist meant not Union, but menial workers doing as you were told, while waving a flag for country and Queen. He’s got a sister, Lucy. She doesn’t understand how things work, and can easily be disinherited. And he’s got another brother, much like himself, but not as handsome and not as lucky. He doesn’t get to marry an heiress and inherit his father’s seat in the House of Commons. Michael has it all, but also that fatal flaw, and it’s not even booze or homosexuality (well, a bit of public school jiggery-pokery) or licking a woman’s toes as an Honourable MP for John Major’s government was found out by The Sun.  

It’s not James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.  Nor is it Nicola Sturgeon’s The Public Memoirs of SNP, but somewhere in between that heaven and hell. Scotland, aye.

The Trial of Alex Salmond, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, Director Sarah Howitt and narrator Kirsty Wark.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000lwld

Droit du seigneur

#MeToo in the Middle-Ages – A supposed legal right in medieval Europe, allowing feudal lords to have sex with subordinate women on their wedding night (or whenever).

#MeToo in the twenty-first century, Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond, March 2020, at the High Court in Edinburgh,  was found not guilty of thirteen charges of sexual misconduct, including an attempted rape in which the witness, ‘woman H’ (identities were kept secret and actor’s voices used for dramatic purposes) alleged that after dinner in 2014, at Bute House, she was sexually assaulted and Alex Salmond held her down on a bed and would have raped her, but he passed out drunk. This charge was found ‘Not Proven’ (a verdict that only exists in Scotland’s courts). One charge was thrown out by the procurator fiscal’s office before going to trial.

 ‘Woman A’, one of ten women, alleged, for example, Alex Salmond had placed his hand on her thigh while in his chauffeur-driven car and had sexually assaulted her.

Salmond’s Queen’s Counsel, the bumptious Gordon Jackson, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, was himself censored after being overhead naming some of the women witnesses on board the Edinburgh to Glasgow train. Salmond had crowdfunded his defence costs and reached his target of over £80 000 claiming he was being unjustly vilified.

Jackson was more forthright in his train journey. The same old tactics that victimise the victim which mean, on average, 95% of rape allegations never reach court and aren’t prosecuted by the procurator fiscal, were referred to by the QC: ‘All I need to do is put a smell on her’.

Discredit, discredit, discredit.

Jackson also referred to Salmond as sexual bully and being a nightmare to work for, but not being quite the kind of person that should be on sex-offender register. He was, in effect, one of the middle-class chaps that had made a mistake and it was his fame that had got him punished. He was being victimised.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/29/alex-salmond-qc-to-be-investigated-after-naming-trial-women

Kirsty Wark also established that female workers at Bute House were advised not to work out-of-hours and to be alone with Alex Salmond. Alex Salmond and his friends suggest there was a conspiracy against him. He was right, of course, about this. It’s called POLITICS.

The latest opinion-polls suggest fifty-five percent of the Scottish population would vote to leave the British union and become an independent nation.

‘Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No’ was the question asked of voters in September 2014. I voted YES. The country voted NO, with a 55-45 percent split in which there was a turnout at the polls of almost 85% of registered voters. I was ungracious in defeat. You can fuck off with your Better Together campaign was how I and many others felt. A Labour Party cosying up to the Tories wiped them out in Scotland. All this is history, of course, but it’s still being played out.

The futures green and the futures SNP, but an SNP without its leading light of the 2014 Scottish referendum. Alex Salmond stood down and his ignominy was compounded by losing his Parliamentary seat to a Tory bastard. Salmond then tried to revitalise his career as a talk-show host, which would be fair enough, but like the former Communist Jimmy Reid decrying the rat race as Rector of the University of Glasgow, but writing for Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid made strange bedfellows, Salmon’s show was backed by Russian television and Putin’s oligarchs. Talk on independence would leave a bad taste in anybody’s mouth.

Where does Alex Salmond go now? A footnote in history? Nicola Sturgeon, now we’re talking.

Deborah Orr (2019) Motherwell: A Girlhood.


I was shocked—well, that’s the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one—that Deborah Orr was dead. She’s the same age as me, or would have been— Motherwell: A Girlhood was a message from beyond the grave. She died in 2019. She came from Motherwell. The title is a dead giveaway. And there’s a whole stack of her achievements listed on flyleaf with a picture of her, a haunting picture, in retrospect. Look at the cover image and, in contrast, a picture of Deborah aged around seven or eight, long hair, smiling for the camera, crinoline dress, blue and white pattern, white socks up to the knees and shiny white shoes. A proper little girl.

Deborah Orr’s achievements, including writing and editing for The Guardian, which at the time was as novel as a woman Prime minister, not because of her background, but despite it. One of the commonest tricks played on the working class is to point at the exception to the rule and say there’s one there. There’s a black swan. Upward social mobility is possible for those that work. My message to you and I’m sure Deborah Orr’s would be too is – fuck off. We’ve been moving backward to the dark ages bit by bit since the Thatcher/ Reagan revolution. An era when Deborah Orr escaped to the glory of a London squat, roughly, when this book ends.

Deborah was named after the film star, Debbie Kerr, her mother Win, loved all the glamour and glitter of Hollywood, but the grim reality is here in this joke the author loved (and I do too) about a Yorkshireman on his deathbed.

‘Steven? Are you here?’

‘I’m here, Dad.’   

‘Mary? Are you here?’

‘I’m here, Dad.’

‘Bethany? Are you here?’

‘I’m here, Grandad.’

‘Aaron? Are you here?’

‘I’m here, Grandad.’

‘Then why’s the hall light on?’    

Here’s one of your markers if you want to apply for your passport to poverty. I laughed out loud, while recognising my da skulking in the hallway waiting to pounce because I was on the phone. ‘That’s no a piano,’ Dessy, my da said.

The memoir is structured around  memento mori. ‘The Bureau, Baby’s First Haircut, The Wedding Clippings, The Dolls…The Dope Box, Letter to Crispin, Untitled, The Last Vestiges of John’.

‘I loved Win’s wide black velvet belt, so tiny that she kept for years, a reminder to herself of her lovely curvaceous figure, “before I had children”.’

John was Deborah’s dad, the centre of his world.  He was the baby of a family of five, as was her mum, Win, who was English. Win was under five-foot small, but gorgeous, everybody said so. John was luck to have Win, Win was lucky to have John. They all lived happy ever after isn’t much of a story.

‘John and Win met, and had their miscegenated, cross-border romance because of the war. Without the war, I was always told I wouldn’t have existed.’

When Deborah recalls three increasingly brutal rapes by different men—the playful rape at University, if you don’t squeal, I won’t tell; to the accidental rape, you’re sleeping, so I’ll just fuck you because we talked earlier; to the hands on the throat and you might never live to tell the tale—and her mother’s surprise that sex could be pleasurable and not something done to you, then her mum sides with the rapists. She sides with women jury members that found rapists and murderers such as Peter Manuel not guilty because women shouldn’t have put themselves in such a positon to be bludgeoned.

The natural positon of women was to think of Scotland, or even England in her case, when John, a good man, forced himself on her. Her wee brother David was brought up with different expectations, he’d go on to make his mark on the world.  John and Win were great believers in the natural order of things. No Catholics, no blacks, no dogs as landlords used to mark on the front door even though dogs couldn’t read.

John couldn’t read either, not really. Like many others he’d left school at twelve or thirteen to earn scraps of money. Motherwell was built on steel and coal. Ravenscraig once employed 14 000 men and was the most efficient steel makers in the world.  He became part of the working-class aristocracy when he got a job in Colville, girder makers, prior to nationalisation at the age of fifteen. He even became a heroic figure to many hardened by the noise and daily grind, when he pushed a man aside and away from a red-hot girder that had slipped its chains and would have slipped through his body just as easily. Health and safety was still to be invented.

Deborah believes he suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder and that’s what led him away from the life mapped out for him—to Essex and Win—and back again. John returned to Motherwell with his beautiful bride to working class life and the hope of a decent council house.

Win had a believe common to most rich folk, in what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine. Her father, John, as protector and saviour, aided her in this belief. His hates were his hates and vice versa. John, for example, had mates whom he thought ‘the sun shone out of their arse’, then it didn’t shine very much. Then it was them that was the arse. He ditched them. And he waged petty hate campaigns against his neighbours.

A conversation I heard today goes something like this, ‘They’ve just moved into the house for five minutes and noo they’re getting everything.’

I’ll translate. My neighbours are getting a new path. The same as other council house tenants. Imagine they were black, or homosexual or even worse English.

Deborah suggests her mum suffered from a narcissistic personality.  She wasn’t a sociopath such as the moron’s moron Trump, or little Trump, Johnson, but she recognised the same self-centredness and hate. As long as Deborah remained a child and under her mother’s thumb, she was a good girl. Nobody hates so much and as well as the Scottish and we’ve got long memories. Win fitted right in. Win-win.  But I couldn’t quite forgive Win and John for voting Tory. Voting for Thatcher. But I guess that makes sense. Deborah’s life ran in a separate trajectory to mine. The same, but different. RIP.  

It’s education – stupid!

old etonian

School Swap – The Class Divide. ITV 9pm

I like Nicola Sturgeon, and I did vote for the Nats, knowing well that we’d get Cameron and Osborne, the Oxbridge educated elite whose scare tactics worked a treat in getting enough people on their side to elect them. One of the refreshing aspects of watching the 56 SNP members of Parliament filling their seats in the House of Commons is that some of them actually are common and none of them (as far as I’m aware) have had the merits of an Oxbridge education. Equality of opportunity in education. As Gradgrind says in Charles Dicken’s Hard Times “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Mr Tulliver in The Mill in The Floss wanted to have his bread and eat it by having his son educated in an academy so that he wouldn’t have any bright notions of pushing him out of the mill, when he was older. The fact that his daughter Maggie (I’d guess based on George Elliot herself) was the one that took to book learning like a duck to water, whilst poor Tom struggled to stay upright, was of no concern. Education was wasted on girls. Fifty percent of the population excluded at a stroke. Fact. People keep having the wrong kind of children. Many of them are poor. In fact most of them are poor. And like their mothers and fathers they are likely to remain poor and uneducated.

The Joseph Rowntree Report in Scotland for example in 2014 stated: ‘There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils in the richest and poorest households in Scotland. The gap starts in pre-school years and continues throughout primary and secondary school. In most cases it widens as pupils progress through the school years. Most importantly, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school leavers’ destinations…’ Poverty equals poverty and it runs through those from the poorest areas like the lettering through Rothesay rock. It’s education stupid!

But we’ve already had this debate. In nineteen thirties Britain, for example, George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London thought he’d be picked on when he went to the spikes to get his ration of bread and sweet tea to survive another night. He was largely ignored, fitting in with the other of society’s drop-outs, but when he was singled out, usually because of his accent, he was seen as a gentleman down on his luck and treated better. The others, in contrast, were seen as part of a diseased body that had to be inoculated against. Fools that had fallen into bad ways. In Britain then only 1 in 1000 had a university education, far less than the ratio in France of even Nazis Germany.

Post-war we had a chance to make lasting changes in education. Private education, paradoxically, of public school boys was on its knees. It needed massive injections of government cash.  Masters of Wellington, like T.C. Worsley made the case quite plainly: ‘we are what we are, and shall be what we shall be, owing largely, if not wholly, to the privileged education, which the ruling class has received in the last forty years.’ In other words, pay up and shut up and we’ll give you the prime minister, government, judges and judiciary,  the privileged land-owning class and captains of industry. Butler blinked and we have it, no foolish taxes, such as VAT, on private education and they retain charitable status. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t have made that one up.  The public and private badge of privilege worn by Cameron and his cronies opens doors to the very select few and excludes the wrong kind of child.

It’s all about standards the privileged like Worsley say, buttressed by that old chimera from the Black Report (and, for no reason, Auden’s ‘seven stars go squawking/ Like geese across the sky’)—falling grades. Scare stories from the nineteen seventies like Panorama’s that focussed on educational fads like child-centred education, indiscipline and chaos of comprehensives such as Farday High, a kind Grange Hill for older folk, but without the merits of Tucker Jenkins.

I shouldn’t really watch programmes like Class Divide ITV 1.  It doesn’t teach me anything and is bad for my health. These are testing time and the Rowntree Report shows that in Scotland only 28% of children from the poorest families, such as those that attend Drumchapel High up the road, perform well in numeracy, compared to the cohort from more privileged schools in our fair cities West end.  In my childhood years I fell into that convenient stereotype, white, working class and male; sure to fail. I wasn’t particularly good at school. The old Scottish adage; they pretended to teach us and we pretended to learn just about sums it up. If I’d really stuck in at school I could have got a degree and became a history teacher and worked my way up to become head teacher of Warminster public school, featured in Class Divide, where annual boarding fees are around £27 000 (fling in a few extras, hey, who’s counting?) or I could have become an astronaut or became Sean Connery.

In the first programme we have headmaster Mark Mortimer accompanying Xander, Katy and Jon to Bemrose. The kids are pleasantly surprised. Xander sums it up. ‘It’s not as bad as he thought it would be’. All three test with ten other new starts. The private school pupil’s reading age is assessed as that of an eighteen-year old. The average pupil at Bemrose reading age is that of a seven-year old, but remember English is often a second language. But it’s more than that. Look at Xander, he’s physically bigger and more mature than his peers. It’s a throwback to reports of malnutrition in the troop intakes and an inability to perform simple tasks that continued up until the Second World War. Xander seems like a nice young Tory peer and I’m sure he’ll look back at his time with poor people with some fondness as he subjects them to yet more government cuts so people like him don’t suffer.  Bemrose as a school shows well. But a dory can’t compete with an educational frigate, nor should it be compared to such. The lessons learned don’t add up.

Education is one part of life’s equation. Educational and economic opportunity is the larger part. As studies such as Robert D. Putnam’s show Our Kids are taking a hell of a beating. Life chances are they’ll end up like their ma and pa. The rich such as those attending Warminster School will go on to one of the top five universities. They will get an internship (bidding starts at £16 000 for the type that mummy and daddy don’t mind paying for) and will go on to have a well-paid career.  That’s what private education gets for you. It offer social connections and wealth offers a buffer against economic and individual shocks. For example, allegations of a leak of where and when Ofsted school inspections would occur were linked to Ms De Sousa and a chain of academy schools, giving them time to prepare their best face, gain a favourable report and boost their league status. You couldn’t imagine Jo Ward, head teacher of 700-pupil secondary comprehensive–and counting they have a statutory duty to take children, many of them immigrants with English as their second language – Bemrose High in Derby, being in the loop and forewarned of an Ofsted inspection. Nor the head teacher of Drumchapel High. And the question needs to be asked, would it really matter?

We live in a more-it-tocracy in which the rich get richer, demand more through their monopoly of the key institutions and get it and the poor get poorer. Both are in the same sea of education, but Bemrose is a dory plucking kids from the waves and Warminster is a frigate intent on getting its charges from A to B and completing its mission.

It’s disappointing to hear Sturgeon talking of failing schools and their pupils needing more tests, starting with those in primary schools.  What we need to do is stop subsidising the rich and privileged. We need to take away their charitable status. We need to stop paying for Catholic and Protestant schools. We should merge them and offer no government support for those that want to set up their own schools. We should offer a clear path and grants for those from the less privileged schools in return for a fixed number of years in the educational districts in which they were educated. What we don’t need Ms Sturgeon is more tests. I thought you were smart enough to know that. D grade.