Christopher Clark (2013) The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

It’s been over 100 years since the war to end all wars. An impoverished and tubercular Gavrilo Princip, who carried all his possessions in a suitcase and had nowhere to stay when he arrived in Belgrade, firing the bullets in Sarajevo that killed Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este and  the heir to the Habsburg throne for the cause of Serbian nationalism. Shots that rang around the world. Sophie Chotek, the Czech noblewomen, a love match and marriage that the Emperor and therefore the Habsburg royal family did not approve,  also died, but is mostly forgotten, like the estimated 40 million dead in the first world war. Because this is a story of great men locked into a feudal way of thinking and acting.

If you look at the cover picture, Franz Ferdinand’s car with whitewall tyres and a flag, surrounded by men on horseback. Tens of millions of men called up, but also millions of horses and mules. Yet, it all feels strangely familiar. 100 000 Russian troops mustered near Ukraine’s border. False flag operations such as ‘Operation Himmler’, which Hitler used as a pretext for the invasion of Poland. Or the weapons of mass destruction George W Bush (junior) claimed Saddam Hussein had developed before the second Gulf War. But there was no cypher attack on critical infrastructure because we’ve moved on.

Brinkmanship.  

British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey in the last days of peace, was perplexed and unnerved by an understanding he himself had a large part in constructing and articulating—Triple Entente with France and Russia—had somehow come to this juncture:

‘that a remote quarrel in south-eastern Europe could be a trigger for a continental war, even though none of the three Entente powers were under attack or threat of attack’.

Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Fleet, had already mobilised the navy. The Tory Press had quickly come on board. The more liberal press to follow. Talk of Irish Home Rule and sending the British Expeditionary Force to Ireland was shunted into a siding.

Kaiser Wilhelm II symbolised the continued role of the aristocracy in decision making at the highest government levels. His dithering about whether a partial or full mobilisation of German troops was needed made the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke weep and edge towards a mental breakdown. Troops were already on their way by train towards Luxemburg. But Wilhelm II was assured, he believed, by King George V that Britain would maintain its neutrality. They were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, was Queen Victoria’s daughter. King Edward VII can be seen dressed in a colonel’s uniform of the Austrian 11th Hussars. Britain wasn’t anti-German. Neither was Germany anti-British.

Both, for different reasons, were fearful of the Russian bear. German fears were existential. The German High Command called for a defensive war that had to be fought sooner rather than later. Russia was a backward and feudal nation, with the Ukraine its breadbasket. But it was industrialising fast. Soon it would become the America of the East. Already troop numbers were projected to exceed the numbers of German soldiers. French finance also poured into Russia and doubled the number of railway tracks laid near the borders, allowing the rapid deployment of troops and supplies that had been so successful a tactic during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  

The Anglo-French naval agreement tied Britain into controlling the North Sea. The French agreeing to limit its activites to the Mediterranean. Russia’s Far East naval fleet had been destroyed by Japan’s in the war of 1905. Britain courted Japan as an ally in containing Russia. In particular, the Russian imperial threat in Persia and, the jewel in the crown, India.

The Entente agreement appeased Russia, but also sought to contain a Germany that was modernising and overtaking Britain as the workshop of the world that exported most goods and services. The empire on which the sun never sets controlled around a quarter of the world’s population and land mass. It had more dreadnoughts than any other nation, and it continued to control the oceans and seas. But the First World War would bankrupt the country. The beneficiaries would be largely America and Japan.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and China, the new workshop of the world, creating facts on the ground by creating islands of seabed and subsoil could be the way we sleepwalk into the next and last war, which will be Armageddon. Taiwan, where American backed, Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Kuomintang army fled over the Taiwan Straits to be protected by American troops remains a Chinese rallying call.

Christopher Clark shows the ways in which the pre-1914 world was divided into countries and hegemonic influences that changed. But perhaps we’re best looking sideways at W.H.Auden (1907-1973) who also captured the zeitgeist, again in familiar ways.

When statesmen gravely say ‘We must be realistic’,

The chances are they are weak and therefore, pacifistic,

But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps

Their generals are already poring over the maps.    

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/14/us-russia-false-flag-ukraine-attack-claim

Alan Cumming (2021) Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

I was vaguely aware who Alan Cumming is. For independent film consortiums, Miriam Margolyes seems to be the pensioner of choice to go on adventures and sell the results to BBC, ITV or Channel 4. She’s been sent to America a few times and to Australia. The latest wheeze is Scotland. Yes, Bonnie old Scotland. Who’d have thought of that? Monopoly money for old rope. They flung in Alan Cummings as a guide, and driver of their motorhome. He’s Scottish, I didn’t know that. Stanley Kubrick though he was American, so I’m in good company. I wouldn’t know a good actor from a ham. But my partner who watched bits of the scenery in the Grand Tour said Cumming’s dad was bad to him. That piqued my interest. Now is the time to fling in some quotes about happy families being all the same. We’re off to a flyer. Cumming’s da was a sadistic cunt.

The book starts with discord. He’s in a marriage, I wouldn’t call it unhappy. They’re trying for a child. She’s an old acquaintance from drama school. A few years older. She’s the star turn with the operatic voice. The diva.  He’s the man with a childish face that gets parts playing adolescents. I thought Cumming was gay. So being married to a woman (he later marries a man) was the done thing. And if you’re going to do the done thing, you might as well do it early.

Before he went from the West End of Glasgow (the snobby bit) to Drama school he worked for D.C. Thompson and Company near Dundee, and near his home. He wrote the Astrology bits and pieces. You will find a stranger in Uranus. Not quite, but similar. The Fiction department. A Thompson clone was on ever floor.  When we grew up, Cummings being much the same age as me, they produced The Beano and Dandy, but also The Sunday Post, with Oor Wullie in it, a true Scottish legend. Cummings points out D.C.Thompson had a London address to give their publishing empire legitimacy. No unions, but Unionism and no Catholics were a given. Cummings ticked all the right boxes. Gay men or women, of course, didn’t exist and were too risqué for even the Fictional department.

I knew he’d done the MC in Cabaret. I hadn’t seen him in that, but watched (I suppose like everybody else) the film version with Liza Minelli. I’d read the Christopher Isherwood books, Mr Norris Changes Train and Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical is based. Cumming suggests that Isherwood and W.H. Auden et al weren’t there to fight fascism or do anything highbrow, but simply wanting to escape England and sample cock. No big surprise.

Authenticity:

‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are.’

Cummings was in New York, close enough in his apartment to witness 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers. He acknowledges the fear and mistrust of Muslims and those of non-white, pasty, Scottish skin colour that ensued. The finding of a scapegoat and the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. And how this all fed into the moron moron’s Trumpism (maybe I’m reading too much into a general observation).

Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Faye Dunaway, Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halley Berry, Gore Vidal…they’re all here (apart from Rod Stewart and Elton John). The book was five years late. Too early for a chapter on Miriam Margolyes and her observations on bowel movements and the howls of laughter that ensures. Ho-hum. Read on.    

David Gange (2019) The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel.

Historian David Gange journey by kayak around the coast of Scotland facing the Atlantic in winter sounds like madness. Takes in Ireland in spring time. He crosses the channel to the less ragged coast of Bardsey in Wales and Bristol and Cornwall in the summer.  He offers a low-down view from the sea that mimics E.P. Thompson’s bottom-up view of class history.  

Gange rejects a London-centric view of the world. An imperialistic vision that for example classified Scottish islands as empty land until the English arrived.  Scotland was close to home, but full of Scotsmen, women and children that insisted on speaking in their own strange tongue and had strange customs and culture. Scots Gaelic was the mark of a marked man. Similar to Irish Gaelic, or even Welsh, the language of Atlantic trading routes that predated Britain and British as a unifying narrative.

Hanoverian kings in London outlawed kilt and tartan. Daniel Defoe, a spy for the English billeted in Edinburgh before the union of Scotland and England in 1707, wrote to his paymasters and claimed that for every Scot in favour of Union, ninety-nine were against. Riots were quelled. King George, after 1745 Culloden, punished all Highlanders even his would-be supporters. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland imposed a reign of terror.

‘the English forced a union on Scotland that was as violent and unwelcome as that of 1801 would be for Ireland.’

Oliver Cromwell spoke in terms many English kings understood, ‘hell or Connact’, coastal Galway, Connemara. In Munster, in a splintery rockbound stronghold of Gaelic, 300 mainly women and children were killed by Cromwell’s troops.  A holy man, Dairaid O’Sullivan, run through on Scarif Island. Cromwell forced half the population (his troops hadn’t murdered) west, towards the coast and regions thought to be sparsely populated such as Connemara.

The brutal Sutherland clearances. Its population reduced and redistributed. Pushed from valuable pasture land towards the coast.  

‘The modern population of Sutherland is half what it was in the early nineteen century.’

Many of those that clung onto their holding or crofts were undone by the famine of the late 1840s.

‘Potatoes were the miracle food of the early modern coast. Visitors to the Scottish and Irish islands in the eighteenth century describe a population living in abject poverty, but who were tall and strong. These tubers carried far more nutrients and were more efficient, damp resistant and voluminous than the grain on which the islanders had previously relied.’

 Gange rallies against the unifying influence of Enlightenment and the notion of progress leaving those outside it in the dark. But he’s not anti-science. Just its overarching hegemonic influence that doesn’t allow other, coastal, dwellers to tell their stories. ‘The Highland Problem,’ was not an invention of Highlanders, but of the big cities, London, Edinburgh and even Dublin that managed their decline from afar and claimed the high ground. Enlightenment is not singular, but plural and many of the questions and answers for how we should live comes from the watery shores and poetic view of the world Gange champions, based on observation and direct experience.

In saving the world, you need to save the story of that world.  The British Education Acts 1870 and 1872 which aimed to unify the nation around a common curriculum and the currency of the English language excluded the Gaelic languages of the coastal people.

Gange describes their effect ‘as an unmitigated disaster for many coastal zones’ with many young people leaving and not returning. Others returning but unable to speak their native language. But here there is a happy ending of sorts in economic recession (which should be useful during the current rolling recession) which saw an island renaissance and return to the innate languages of the peoples and the myriad and enriching connections that entails.

Famine, clearances and Educational Acts are part of the narrative of who owns the land owns the narrative of what is said about the land. The languages of the people on the periphery are growing slowly back to life. Gage identifies a contemporary problem of multinational companies like Shell who buy up Britishness and Irishness and pollute the water and land for profit. They kill people in Nigeria for oil.

Ireland can be bought wholesale. (I’m thinking here of the Irish government knocking back the 14 billion euros that Apple should have paid in back taxes to the state).  And while the Irish state makes a net profit from the EEC (it receives more than it contributes) selling off Atlantic resources leaves a nation indebted.

‘Corporations registered in Norway, Russia, Canada, the Netherland and Spain draw greater profits from the waters west of Ireland than do Irish interests.’

Small and local might be better. But the paradox that Gange doesn’t address is such interests are easily brushed aside by big business, multinationals. Sometimes we need more, not less government. The explosion of poetry in the 1930s during the Great Depression didn’t change the world. W.H.Auden, Stephen Spender, Louise Mac Niece anti-war poetry didn’t prevent the Second World War. Community versus Commerce (whisper it, it used to be called Communism versus Capitalism) and we all know how that went. I’m on David Ganges side. He’s optimistic. I’m pessimistic, but I hope his vision is the one that endures. More power to the community. Less power to the rich that own the people on the coast land—and mainland—and stir our fears for their own financial gains.

Louise Welsh (2012) The Girl on the Stairs.

girl on the stairs.jpg

(Shit. I’d a whole spiel in my head about this being the tricky second novel, after the great debut novel and international success of The Cutting Room. But when I checked publication date, it was Louise Welsh’s fifth novel. Not her second. Anyway, I was going to fling in Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington’s debut novel and his follow up novel The Devil’s Carousel. I raved about the first and emm, didn’t rave about the second.  I’d segue away to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird and fifty years later, the unfortunate book that buried her, Go Set a Watchman.  If Harper Lee had written the first we’d probably not of heard of her and would not associate Gregory Peck as being a real-life Atticus Finch and his career would have nose-dived too. I’m lucky because I’ve not got a career to worry about. Nobody much has read my first novel Lily Poole. Although Scottish Book Trust are currently searching for a novelist daft enough to mentor my second novel, it’s a fair bet that it won’t get published and if it does nobody will read it either. But I’m in good company.  I’m a reader more than a writer. There’s consolation that Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin) with a dedication to his lover W.H. Auden and a protagonist William Bradshaw who is fleeing Oxbridge and England to the Weimar Republic and Berlin because he had only sold twelve of his published poems. Snap.)

William Bradshaw finds playing the relationship game with Mr Norris very boring. It’s a mark of how you are related to whom and where are you in the social standing pecking order. In twenty-first century The Girl on the Stairs with the backdrop of a unified Germany and Berlin as the new star we find old hates and Venn Diagrams.

There were many different worlds, Jane thought, but they didn’t exist in different planes: one slotted on top of the other, as Alban Mann implied. They overlapped, like Venn diagrams, and you could be at the intersection of several realities without even knowing it.

Jane the peely-wally narrator is from Glasgow, and she’s an outsider in many ways. She’s pregnant. Her lover and wife Petra, is another woman. Jane has moved to Berlin to live with her, but is largely languageless, dependent on the kindness of strangers to speak to her in English. Jane is dependent on Petra for money. And although Petra and Jane stay in a reconverted and modern apartment complex, they live next to a graveyard and Gothic chapel, the haunt of prostitutes and corvines that call to her. It’s haunted house territory and Jane is made to feel like the madwomen in the attic when she accuses Dr Alban Mann of beating and raping his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anna.

Jane remembers a fairy tale about a mother who has gone to lift her baby from its cradle and found it transformed into a wrinkled old man. In the story the mother has let the old man drink from her breasts, until he has drained her dry.

Here we are in the Emperor has no Clothes territory and Dr Mann has to convince others that he not naked, and certainly his daughter is not naked. Anna of the red lipstick and Little Red-Riding Hood red coat and red herring territory.

I liked this book and ripped through it. It’s perhaps not as good as Rilke –and the space between silences- but there’s no shame in that. There was a line that caught me and it’s nothing to do with the Scottish or German language.

Far away in Vienna someone said something in German and Petra laughed. ‘Sorry,’ the laugh was still in her voice.

That’s a great line, but, minor quibble, repetitive. The laugh was still in her voice is attributed to several characters. It reminds me of when I was trying to describe something and had all my characters leaning back in their chair so I could describe the room. See, even great Scottish novelist, Louise Welsh makes mistakes.  We’re all human. I’d say that’s a theme. But when we start talking about themes we lose the plot.

The Girl on the Stairs. Well worth a read. And now on to Louise Welsh’s second novel. I’ll just need to work out which one that is.