The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 05, 2014



The Makar Stooshie

The best small country in the world is ringing with the jangle of high horses being saddled up. Liz Lochhead, who succeeded the late Edwin Morgan to the office of Makar -- something like Poet Laureate of Scotland, though not as far as I know required to pen ceremonial verse for the openings of swimming pools and supermarkets -- has put the seal on her long-standing and well-known Scottish nationalism by joining the Scottish National Party in a flash-bulb of publicity.

Cue much contrived chin-stroking, lip-pursing and finger-wagging. The opening punt that someone paid out of the public purse should not be party political was lost in a breeze of derision. The carping then turned to the claim that our national poet should represent the whole nation, and that by planting her colours so publicly on one side of an almost evenly divided land, Liz Lochhead was turning her back on over half the country, which must now reconcile itself to being unrepresented in rhyme. Finally and most portentuously, we're told that by joining the party currently in government, the Makar can no longer speak truth to power. We're pointed to the SNP's rules, which lay down that party members may not disavow the party's aims, in whole or in part, and invited to contemplate the ethical cleft stick in which the Makar must henceforth writhe. Suppose she were to disagree with some legislative measure from Holyrood! One sees the poet's fingers tremble above the keyboard, as her eyes dart guiltily between her subversive lines on the screen and her signature on the party card.

What sanctimonious drivel!

Leave aside that most people in Scotland are barely aware of the post of Makar, and even more haven't read a line of Liz Lochhead's writing since they left school, if at all. Entertain only long enough for a guffaw the notion of the Scottish people as a huddle of intellectuals under a censorship so oppressive that they must snatch what comfort they can from dissident hints in public verse.

No, there really is a serious point at issue here. It would be hard to name a poet of any distinction in Scotland, past or present, who doesn't publicly -- however quietly -- avow a political, philosophical or religious view that puts them in a minority on some divisive topic. Poets are seldom turned to for judicious balance in matters of opinion. That is very much not their calling. Scottish nationalism and Scottish poetry have a lot of previous, and plenty of present. And not just the cause in general, but the party. Hugh Macdiarmid helped to found the SNP. Edwin Morgan bequeathed it a fortune. That the party is now in government changes nothing. To raise the abstract possibility of a conflict of conscience over policy is to insult the integrity of the Makar. If poets are free to take out party cards, they are also free to tear them up.

Not that Liz Lochhead should. The Makar is not a civil servant, nor a tribune of the people, nor a national shoulder to cry on. Political neutrality is no part of the job description. If someone in the post of Makar is not free while holding that post to join a party like any other citizen, he or she is not free to show a serious and sincere commitment to their beliefs. Those of us who disagree with the present Makar's political commitments have a special responsibility to defend her right to them.
2 comments | Permanent link to this post

Saturday, November 22, 2014



Graham Joyce

Today there is a memorial meeting for Graham Joyce. For various reasons and much to my regret I'm unable to attend but I would like to mark the occasion in some way, however inadequately. I only met Graham a few times, mostly at SF conventions, but from the moment Iain Banks or John Jarrold introduced us he treated me as if we were old friends. Every quality of his character he had in exactly the right proportion: funny without being flippant, serious without being dour, manly without being macho, confident without being arrogant. He was bright and sharp and uproarious and surprising. Everyone who met him will have anecdotes.

There was the time he sat in the bar with John Jarrold, and out of nowhere the two of them launched into a phenomenal flyting as Shakespearean villains. The vilest insults poured forth for minute after minute, in thieves' cant and Elizabethan profanity and perfect iambic pentameter. I looked on, slack-jawed. How did they do that? Had they memorised it?

No, it's all spontaneous, Graham told me. But how?

'It's just a knack.'

Read his books. They'll do you good.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Saturday, October 11, 2014



Two days in September

The best that can be said about the No campaign is that it worked. Its relentless focus-group-tested negative campaigning reached undecided voters while the Yes campaign -- for all its positivity and energy -- spent too much time talking to its own supporters, as a leading strategist of that campaign has acknowledged.

But by the last weekend before the referendum it wasn't at all obvious which side would win. It had come down to the wire. Any criticisms I might have of my own side were irrelevant. You fight with the army you have. I'd argued, debated, spoken, blogged, tweeted, re-tweeted. It didn't feel like I'd done enough.

So on Wednesday 17th I joined a Better Together get-out-the-vote team in Corstorphine. I used my bus pass and arrived at the street corner in Murrayfield before anyone else. The rest of the team turned up in ones and twos to make a dozen. Most looked like they'd qualify for a bus pass. The two Better Together organisers looked like they'd have to show proof of age to buy a drink. A brisk confident woman, older than them and much younger than me, seemed to know what to do. She drove off with three of us, the board (a ring-binder of contact names and addresses from earlier canvassing) and stacks of reminder cards. She parked in a back street, scribbled names and numbers on slips of paper, gave us her mobile number, pointed to streets on the A to Z and sent us off. It's been so long since I'd done anything like this that I'd forgotten how get-out-the-vote works. I phoned to check if I really was meant to just knock on two doors in a long street. Yes I was. Knock, nobody in, leave a card, run to the next house on the list, run back to the person with the board. Repeat, over and over. I'll say this for get-out-the-vote: it's healthy exercise in the fresh air. The area is very middle class. I was gloomy at first, then warmed by smiles from elderly people and firm statements that they didn't need a lift to the polls. On our way back to the meeting point I asked our impressively competent team leader if she'd ever done election campaigning. No, she said - she'd first volunteered two weekends earlier.

People like her, galvanised by the one poll that showed a Yes lead. People with bus passes. Striplings with clipboards. That was the ground operation the day before the vote.

Carol and I went to vote at lunchtime on Thursday. Then I caught the bus in to the Edinburgh Central office of the Labour Party, on the ground floor of a tenement building in Buccleuch St. The small rooms were crowded with people coming and going, some with rosettes for polling station duty (a rough gig in some places), most in teams of three or four with boards and leaflets and reminder cards. I recognised some local Labour councillors and activists but most there were young volunteers, a lot of them Labour students up from England.

My first team was me and two Scottish guys. One didn't know the area but he knew how to run a board so he took charge and I led the way to our patch, which was Cannongate, the bottom half of the Royal Mile. (It looks like it's all shops and offices but there are flats and also lots of wee alleys that access apartment blocks behind the street.) We headed there through crowds along Clerk St and South Bridge, then turned into the Royal Mile. It was a day of low cloud and drizzle. As I looked at the High Street's hazy towers I remembered the phrase about Edinburgh from Iain Banks's The Bridge: 'ghost capital'.

The Mile was awash with Yes badges, placards, and saltires. A joyous rally had begun outside the Scottish Parliament and people were coming and going to the pavement cafes and bars. It was like Yes had already won and were celebrating. Most people whose doors we knocked or rang at were out. We returned with slim pickings indeed, though one or two people had asked us for badges or stickers (which we didn't have). A van went past covered with the latest Yes posters printed in mimickry of Labour's signature red-and-yellow: End Tory Rule Forever. As we neared the office a guy walking unsteadily waved to us across the street:

'Bye-bye! Tomorrow you'll be gone! Into oblivion!'

The office was still a slow churn. Two young guys in the main room sat at desks with computers and stacks of returned boards. Norma Hart was sitting in the side room where the sandwiches were, dressed even smarter than usual and with a rosette on her lapel. She gave me a warm welcome and (over my protestations) made me an instant coffee. As I sipped it and ate a triangle of sandwich I listened to a young Labour student from Yorkshire, who looked shell-shocked. 'We knew it was bad from the polls,' he said. 'But we never imagined this. It's like Yes Yes Yes everywhere.'

'I assure you it's not as bad as it looks,' I said. 'You notice all the Yes badges but most people aren't wearing badges and most of these will be No. Every window without a poster is a likely No vote.'

A councillor sitting on the sofa beside me said: 'It's like Jim Murphy said, "windaes don't vote". And even some houses and flats with Yes posters have No voters in them.'

My next team was one of the guys from before, a young local Labour woman, and a Labour party regional organiser. We piled into her car, stuck a Labour flag on the window (after figuring out how the clip worked) and set off through rush-hour traffic to Craigentinny. The streets we had to cover were mostly grey blocks of flats. As we stickered up and she dealt out packs of the final-evening reminder cards the organiser said: 'Solid Labour area. We've had good returns here.'

And so it proved. We soon ran into a group of five smiling mums not even on our list who'd all gone together to vote No. As we went around I noticed and pointed out that there were hardly any Yes posters. And this was exactly the sort of working-class area Yes had targetted. The only sign we saw of the Yes campaign was a white van covered with placards and blasting out folk-songs as it cruised the streets. The organiser worked the board and two of us ran up stairs and the young Labour woman (who hadn't been well and still wasn't) did the ground floors. Nearly all responses were good. Some people had switched, some wouldn't say how they'd voted (especially not, I guess, to a stranger's voice on their stair intercom). But most had voted or swore they were about to and were solid No. As one of us remarked, we were racing to get out the vote in a poll where everyone was voting.

We finished after 7.30 and I got dropped off at the top of Leith Walk. I headed for the bus station but saw a tram about to leave York Place, so for the novelty took it to the West End, then the first coach going out past the Forth. (Ah, the joys of a bus pass.) The driver saw my sticker and asked how I thought things were going. I said I didn't know how the votes were going but the No campaign's get-out- the-vote operation was going well. 'I'm glad to hear that,' he said. On the bus back I felt very strange. The five mums of Craigentinny had been my first real indication that there was still a steadfast block of working class votes for No and that #LabourNo was a real thing. But in the dark and fog the landscape itself seemed in an undecided state.

'I hope we wake up in the same country,' I said to the driver as I got off. He gave me a grim look. As I walked along the back street in our neighbourhood I saw a couple of people with Yes badges in a heated conversation with someone, and a bit further on a woman clutching a polling station card as she got into her car. Not much more than an hour to go.

We got a take-away. Just after ten I tweeted: 'For the next few hours we are Schrodinger's country, liminal. You'd need a 5th colour to map us.' We waited up, watching this and that and following Twitter, until at about 1:30 the first result came in: Clackmannanshire. Yes: 16350 No: 19036.

From Michael's two years on the Wee County News we knew that Clacks is a microcosm of Scotland. We went to bed, setting the alarm for 7:00. I woke before it, and hesitated a minute or two before checking STV news online.

I woke Carol and told her, watched more news, then wrote: 'Opened the box. The cat is alive and having kittens.'
28 comments | Permanent link to this post

Wednesday, September 17, 2014



A shout for a #LabourNo



(I'll explain this better
in the cold light of day,
but I'm voting No,
And here's what I say)

Let's team up together,
Keep the Tories out,
We all have English friends,
Give them a shout.

We have a common enemy,
English ain't all Eton Boys,
Let's get them out together,
And make some noise.

Westminster don't represent
The Ferry or Newcastle,
So let's get together,
And show them some hassle.

The Tories hurt us all
Let's show them how it's done
Let's team up together
We'll fight them as one.


-- by a Young Lady Comrade
11 comments | Permanent link to this post

Thursday, September 11, 2014



New Perspectives





You wait ages for an issue of Perspectives then - like buses and currency Plan Bs - two come along at once. More precisely: issue No 39 of this consistently interesting and wide-ranging Scottish magazine was delayed several months, and No 40 came out a few weeks later and on time.

That current issue, dated Autumn 2014, aptly enough leads with the Scottish independence referendum, in a long and thoughtful editorial that seeks possibilities for progress in either of the possible outcomes. Other articles survey the Great War, feminism, Piketty, the arts and independence, and more, all in some depth and from contributors who know what they're about: Shonagh McEwan, Meaghan Delahunt, David Purdy ... You get a lot of reading for your £3.

Likewise in No 39, which as well as featuring Jim Swire and James Robertson on Lockerbie, Ken Currie and Sandy Moffat on art, and Allan Massie on national identity, has an article by a less distinguished contributor (me) on SF and the future. This piece originated in a lecture last year at The Academy on 'Man's Future Nature', and is mainly a critique of the idea of the Singularity, both as a practical possibility in the near term and as an ideological construct which, I argue, limits our imagination of the future.

Again, a lot of reading for £3. Get it (and read recent back issues free) here.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, September 01, 2014



Writers Together: the Motion Picture



Thanks to Francis Spufford for coming up with the idea; to Summerhall for hosting the event, to David Rushton of Summerhall TV for recording and editing the video, and to Sarah Stone of Better Together for helping to organise it.
19 comments | Permanent link to this post

Thursday, August 28, 2014



Writers Together

Very short notice but ... Francis Spufford and I are speaking this evening, 7.30 to 8.30ish (no later than 9) attempting to make an ambitious, progressive, utopian case for keeping the union of Scotland, England and Wales. The event will be recorded and the result uploaded to YouTube, hopefully before the referendum. If you intend to come along, please drop me an email: ken at libertaria dot demon dot co dot uk. Details: the Cairns, Summerhall, Edinburgh, 7.30 pm Thursday 28 August, free.
5 comments | Permanent link to this post

Home