A Childhood In Scotland

A Childhood In Scotland, by Christian Miller (1981, John Murray Limited, reprinted by Canongate Books)  

As the sun finally shines again over the rain drenched Lothians, summer seems to have returned, albeit momentarily; and thoughts of happy, lazy holidays drift back to mind.

Some books about childhood, as well as certain children’s books when revisited in adulthood, work magic on the memory and imagination; and recall to mind a world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations which, as adults, we have painted over many times like kitchen walls – but what if we could gently remove those layers, back through cornfield yellow, candy stripes, silver (what were they thinking?) and 1970s brown sunflower prints; and what if we could travel back through the years and return to the original patterns: what might we remember then?  In the words of English writer Leslie Poles Hartley, in the first line of his own childhood memoir The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

There are many classics of this kind of course, such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or my own favourite from childhood, Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s Brendon Chase written under his pseudonym ‘B.B.’– which I have only just discovered was made into a children’s television drama in the early 1980s, and can be viewed on You Tube here.

In this admittedly rather mixed genre I would also include Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his prolific fellow Scots writer and artist Robert M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and Laurie Lee’s magisterial Cider with Rosie, which contains the fabulous encapsulation of his reasons for recording childhood memories, for fear that otherwise looking back, all that he might recall would be a ‘salt caked mud flat’.

There is much of the summer in these books of course: rock pools, sand between the toes, camp fires, thirsty gulps of lemonade and going home tired but happy; and no doubt much that is pure nostalgia.  Written as these all were, however, in different times and places, they can remind us that childhood is always going on all around us and that we, just like children of today, are shaped by our snatched freedoms and imaginative experiences.  Has North Berwick really changed that much from Stevenson’s description of his own summers there in The Lantern-Bearers?

“…you might climb the Law, where the whale’s jawbone stood landmark in the buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties, and the smoke and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships.  You might bathe, now in the flaws of fine weather, that we pathetically call our summer, now in a gale of wind, with the sand scouring your bare hide, your clothes thrashing abroad from underneath their guardian stone, the froth of the great breakers casting you headlong ere it had drowned your knees.  Or you might explore the tidal rocks, above all in the ebb of springs, when the very roots of the hills were for the nonce discovered; following my leader from one group to another, groping in slippery tangle for the wreck of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march of the tide and the menaced line of your retreat…”

And again, like Stevenson, is it not the free and idle times of our youth that we savoured the most, as in his essay An Apology for Idlers?

Christian Miller’s ‘A Childhood In Scotland’ (1981), a part of which first appeared in the New Yorker, has been reprinted and is now available here, is a short classic about childhood from the point of view of a girl, the youngest of six, growing up in her father’s Highland castle in the 1920s.  I tracked down one of the original copies, read it the same day and found it utterly absorbing.  Better than Downton Abbey, this is a genuine and beautifully written account of the vanished life of a thriving Highland community, at the centre of which is the author’s family and their ancient ancestral home.

Christian Miller’s book paints a portrait of her childhood, describing the interiors of the castle, the ghosts, her noble parents and wild siblings, the serried ranks of maids, gillies and gamekeepers, the animals both domestic and wild: but most importantly, she does it all with an immediacy and poignancy that brings her lost world not only to her own mind but also to the reader’s.  There’s no sentimentality, only an honest and fascinating picture.

This book is ideal for a deckchair, possibly after cutting the grass or trimming the hedge; and if you get the chance to read it (or even if you don’t), you might ask yourself what books and stories shaped your own youth?  Why not share them here?

(published at Think Scotland)

  

In praise of John Buchan

        www.thinkscotland.org

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

It’s August 1939 and war in Europe is less than a month away; but you’re in Ottowa’s stately Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, in the midst of a cocktail party.  A hubbub of polite conversation and chamber music wafts through the Long Gallery, and the late summer heat drifts through the open doors from the elegant gardens beyond.  The circling guests chatter about the King and Queen’s triumphal visit just two months earlier; the machinations of Herr Hitler; that strange man Mussolini; and as the sun sets, everyone drifts through the doors to watch the fireworks on the lawn.

For once, eschewing the formal garb of his post in favour of demure black tie, the relaxed viceroy Lord Tweedsmuir stands to your right, a cigarette at his lips: but you, newly arrived in Canada and two gins to the better, have not yet been introduced.  “And who are you?” you ask him politely.

Amid the din of the first fireworks exploding in the sky he smiles and introduces himself; and within moments you are in the comfort of his affable company.  Yet in truth, echoing through the decades after his sudden death in February 1940 aged 64, the question is a good one: for who was this son of the manse John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, fifteenth Governor General of Canada, sometime schoolboy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and President of the Oxford Union, barrister, First World War spymaster, member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, Chancellor of Edinburgh University, and writer?

Well, as I hope is obvious from that introduction, John Buchan is someone who defies the pigeon hole.  He simply will not be put in a category, except to say that like Andrew Carnegie, James Clerk Maxwell, Elsie Inglis, James Watt, Mary Slessor or David Livingston, he is one of those Scots who belong not just to Scotland, but to the whole World.  Like them, Buchan still shows us today that Scots who believe in themselves can cry out along with Archimedes: “give me a place to stand and I will truly move the Earth.”

Despite a life which would stretch the bounds of credulity if featured in one of his own novels, John Buchan is a relatively unrecognised figure in modern Scottish life; indeed, if it were not for the enormous fame of The Thirty Nine Steps, even his name would perhaps have faded entirely.  For instance you will search in vain for a statue of Buchan anywhere in Britain (although there is admittedly a fine bust in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery), while the rest of his literary output, not to mention his political life, is surprisingly overlooked – something that the good people at the John Buchan Society hope to put right when an exciting new museum – The John Buchan Story – is unveiled in Peebles’ Chambers Institute next month. Here’s their website: www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk

All of a sudden there is something very modern about Buchan: perhaps it’s a product of our austere times, that heroic characters once again seem appealing?  And there was certainly much that was heroic about Buchan, both in real life and in the characters he created.

A recent review of Buchan in the Independent stated:

“[he] knew that you can’t buck the consequences of your actions, and that your life is what you make of it. Perhaps his peculiarly Scottish combination of Romanticism and Calvinism – daring living and high thinking – is due to return to fashion.”

An anthem for the credit crunch perhaps?

As regards politics, Buchan was a Tory; but a rather unusual one.  Politically he believed in the Union, but had strong nationalist sentiments, stating in Parliament, in the midst of the depression of the 1920s:

“I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish Parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.” 

In the same speech, Buchan reflected on the high emigration from Scotland of the time:

“We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”

The issues Buchan wrestled with resonate today; but his were very different times, and it would be simplifying his position to conclude that he was a nationalist in the modern political sense: for Buchan was someone who believed in a strong Scotland within the British Empire of his times; something which he viewed as a great community of nations with shared ideals and principals.  For example, after he was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 he quickly established himself as a stout promoter of the country’s national identity.  In 1937 he stated that a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” a pronouncement that saw him denounced as ‘disloyal’ in some quarters, when he was in truth anything but that.

Whether Scots, British or Canadian, Buchan believed in the power and identity of the individual, and respected it – something which sometimes caused fear in the hearts of the controlling political class of his day.  He liked people and nations to be true to themselves and reflect their singular characteristics, stating that the diverse ethnic groups within Canada should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” because “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.  Old fashioned language perhaps, but a clear and modern message in the world of the 1930s.

He was a tireless worker in the ethic of his upbringing, and overcame the natural shyness of the Scot to show the world his mettle.  Between 1896 and 1940 he wrote more than fifty historical works on subjects as diverse as Julius Caesar, the Somme, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott, while his fictional output was hardly less prodigious.  Aside from The Thirty Nine Steps and his hero Richard Hannay’s continued adventures in Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, many of Buchan’s novels are Scots historical masterpieces like Witchwood (Buchan’s favourite of all his works), an eerie thriller set in a seventeenth century village, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the newly appointed minister David Sempill, when he encounters dark forces in the primordial forest which looms above his parish.

 Reading Witchwood recently, it struck me that the book demonstrated just how much Buchan followed in the style and pace of Stevenson, whose short story Thrawn Janet must surely have been a key influence.  Buchan is credited with the creation of the modern thriller, but was he not in turn borrowing from Stevenson’s Kidnapped?  Is Buchan’s work not in fact a natural progression from his eminent Scots forebears in the nineteenth century?

One thing that is undoubtedly true of Buchan is the fluency of his prose: he writes as he was – a wise and natural storyteller at ease in himself and his subject; and I heartily recommend revisiting his novels, many of which have now been attractively reprinted by Edinburgh’s own Polygon Press. www.birlinn.co.uk

Buchan, today, remains fascinating and enigmatic:  you never quite get the feeling that you know him entirely; and like the chase sequences in his thrillers he is always two steps ahead and vanishing around a corner. A collection of political and personal contradictions to rival Whitman, he is nonetheless in the end very human: an honest and good humoured friend, and an optimistic tonic for the cares of modern living.  He deserves to be read much, much more.

  

This article was published on 9 July 2012 on the ThinkScotland website: www.thinkscotland.org

Tortilla in a Hammock

                

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck (Penguin Modern Classics, but first published 1935)

Of all the pleasures of being in a warm climate on holiday (or even when it’s raining, but just a little), lying under the shade of a pergola in a hammock is certainly one of the best – particularly after lunch, I’ve found.  This particular hammock, the one I managed to hoist (is that the right word?) between two stout trees, was a classic of its type; and I had found it covered in cobwebs, rolled up behind the temperamental boiler in a store room off the kitchen, just where the owner said it would be.

It was made of that kind of stiff canvas material, like sail cloth, with weighted tassels all down both sides so that it could be wrapped around you like a cigar – and the canvas connected with cords, drawn together into a single point like a triangle at both ends, to two wooden bars.  Both bars then connected to a stout chain with a clip, so that it could be secured to whatever you chose to sling it between.

After a few failed attempts in various places around the garden (no lasting damage I’m glad to say), I managed to secure it just about elbow height between two trees in the shade of a clambering rose bush which had been trained across some cross beams.  Perfect, I thought, as I stood back to admire my work so far – but what this really needs is two chairs and a tray balanced across their backs as a makeshift table, so that everything you might need is close to hand.  Two minutes later I had my handy hammock–side table assembled, and a few odds and ends to provide essential creature comforts (but no Blackberry I’m glad to say).  Nearly ready now, I thought, as the afternoon sunshine distilled its warmth: silence, other than the crickets chirruping and the bees flitting from flower to flower.

There is then, however, the rather tricky business of getting into the hammock – a particular test for land-lubbers like myself – but after a few nervous attempts and at least one calamity involving the makeshift table, I was finally on board and drifted off into a world created by legendary American author John Steinbeck.

The first Steinbeck book I read was East of Eden (for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature), and it remains in my list of the best 5 novels of all time – but shamefully I have neglected reading any of his many other novels ever since.

Tortilla Flat – a copy of which was on the shelves in the house – is one of his earliest novels, and the one which really first put him on the map, so to speak.  It’s also a relatively short book, easily read if you’re prepared to put in the hard work of a good few hours in a hammock, for example.

Set in the coastal town of Monterey, California in the early 20th century, the book follows the lives of a handful of down at heel paisanos, with the hero Danny in the centre.  The fairly loose plot is gentle and funny, following the comic-tragic events of each of the main characters in turn – but the real star is Steinbeck and the quality of his writing which shines through on every page.  Steinbeck later revisited Montery for one of his other classics Cannery Row – but as you know I haven’t read that yet!  The book – Tortilla Flat that is, was also made into a 1942 Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracey and Hedy Lamarr.

This is a great old holiday book, and you can get it here (sorry for the long link) www.amazon.co.uk/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=tortilla+flat+-+john+steinbeck – or why not try Biblocafe in Glasgow’s West End? www.biblocafe.co.uk – but best of all, here’s a bona fide hammock site! www.lazyhammocks.co.uk

   

Cowboy justice in the wild west

The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter van Tilburg Clark (Penguin, 1940 – my dad’s copy, photo attached below) is, I readily admit, a book rarely read these days – at least on this side of the Atlantic; for years, however, it has been a staple text in many American high schools, for the simple and powerful insight it gives into a world where justice and patient inquiry are left behind by anger, retribution and mob rule.  It’s as gripping a read as Truman Capote’s fabulous ‘In Cold Blood’, and just as raw.

The weekend before Easter I was visiting my parents in Donegal, and playing a few rounds at the breathtakingly beautiful Ballyliffin golf course, during that spell of great weather we had then.  I was accompanied by my Italian friend Roberto, to whom the experience of playing an Irish golf course was entirely new.  “They tend not to have sheep on golf courses in Italy,” he frowned, as the sheep meandered about on the links; but he seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

My parents’ house is stacked with old books and before dinner, to distract myself from all the golf balls I had lost earlier, I rummaged through a few.  My dad appeared and pressed an old Penguin classic into my hand.  “Read that,” he said smiling, “then tell me what you think.”  Well, I read it and thought it superb.

Set in Nevada in 1885, two cowboys mosey into the sleepy town of Bridger’s Wells and quickly settle in at the whiskey saloon.  There’s been cattle rustling, and the townspeople are suspicious of everything and anyone.  Nerves are jangled and tempers frayed, when suddenly news of a killing at a nearby ranch spills through the swing doors.  Despite the uncertainties, the menfolk quickly form themselves into a posse.  The aim: to lynch the perpetrators – and so off they set, deaf both to the local judge’s warning that the law should prevail and the opposition of a vocal minority, stated with courage.

The pursuit and capture of three men suspected unfolds with great power and pace, while the character and motivation of each man involved is brought starkly to life.  Will any of them have the guts to do it, when it comes to the rope and a tree? Could any one of them live with the consequences of their actions, … or inaction as a passive observer?

In the modern world, this brilliant novel is a reminder of the extent to which we can take the systems of law and order for granted, and how ultimately we must each stay awake and bear witness to truth and justice.

And if you like good old fashioned cowboy stories, you’ll love it.

It’s available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+ox+bow+incident or can be sourced in a good second hand shop, like Caledonia Books on Glasgow’s Great Western Road. http://www.caledoniabooks.co.uk/ The book was also made into a 1943 Oscar shortlisted film, starring Henry Fonda; and don’t worry dad, I’ll be sure to return it: after all, it’s a good reason to get back over to glorious Ballyliffin.

 … from the days when books were books!

A very British thriller…

Book review:

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household (Orion Books, CrimeMasterworks, 2002; originally printed in 1939 by Chatto & Windus – available here)

RogueMale-novel Ten years ago, British publishers Orion Books produced a new imprint of classics under the label ‘crime masterworks’.  The published list of forty seven titles is impressive, and as good a place as any to start a comprehensive journey through many great books, such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘Midnight Plus One’.  There’s a list of all the available books here.

One of the finest books in the series is ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household, a threshold-of-war 1930s thriller in the style of the Thirty Nine Steps, and a book I could not recommend highly enough.  The book was made into a film in 1976 starring Peter O’Toole, Alastair Sim, John Standing and Harold Pinter.

RogueMale-film Rogue Male has been described as one of the classic thrillers of the 20th Century, in which an Englishman plans to assassinate the dictator of a European country (a thinly veiled Germany); however he is foiled at the last moment and falls into the hands of ruthless and inventive torturers.  They devise for him an ingenious and diplomatic death but, for once, they bungle the job and he escapes.  Despite escaping from continental Europe back to England, the unnamed aristocratic hero finds no safety from his pursuers and begins an enthralling life on the run, surviving in the wilds on his wits alone.  It’s a brilliant read, ideal for those in bed with a cold!

Geoffrey Household was a prolific English author of the early 20th century who wrote over thirty five novels and short story collections; however it is Rogue Male for which he is best remembered today.  You can pick up a copy here.

Turning lead into gold

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins, 2012 but first published in 1988)

Now that May is here, it’s finally starting to look like summer in Edinburgh.  The sun is shining, there’s pink and white cherry blossom everywhere, and the temperature is climbing to a balmy twelve Celsius.  For me though, this is always exam weather (remember those far off days?): a time of cramming, biting fingernails to the quick and wishing beyond hope for freedom to enjoy the beauty all around… instead of silent halls and furious scribbling against the clock.

My worst subject was always French, and never more so than when we were introduced to that confounded character ‘The Little Prince’ by Saint-Exupery.  It was bad enough trying to translate French at the best of times – but when the plot involves a spaceboy from a volcano-pocked asteroid who meets an airman and a fox in the middle of the Sahara… well, suffice to say it all got rather lost in translation with me I’m afraid.  Sadly, The Little Prince and I never became great friends, and I never got to the bottom of his story; however I understood one thing about it: it was an allegory, a story that was simple enough in its way but hinted at the deeper truths of life, love and the universe.

Reading the Alchemist, I was immediately reminded of it: it too is a short and simple story, about an Andalusian shepherd boy who sets out on a life changing journey to Egypt.  He believes he will find treasure at the Pyramids, but his journey becomes a spiritual one across the Sahara as he encounters first a fortune teller, then a chrystal merchant, an Englishman, a beautiful girl… and finally the Alchemist.  It’s a beautiful story about ‘the essential wisdom of listening to our heart and, above all, following our dreams’ – and for all my cynicism I think the book did that very well.  In some ways, though, the book is an anti-climax after the powerful note by the author Paulo Coelho at the front of this new edition, where in 3 pages he sums up the philosophy of his life which underpins this story.  He poses the question: what is a personal calling?  The answer: it is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth.

“Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend.  However we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream.  Why?”

There are four reasons he says:  firstly, we are told from childhood that everything we want to do is impossible.  Soon, faced with the reality of the world, we learn to bury our dreams, though they are still there.  If we can overcome that barrier however, the next one, he explains, is love.  We fear to hurt those around us by abandoning everything in pursuit of our dreams.  But love is not a barrier, he says, because those who love us will understand and encourage us to succeed.  The third barrier is fear: fear of the defeats we will face if we go after what it is we really want to achieve in life; but, he writes, the secret of life is to fall over seven times and get up eight times.

And the final barrier? Well, if you abandon everything in pursuit of your dream and conquer your fear of defeat, the final challenge is the fear and guilt of actually achieving what it was that you set out to achieve in the first place.  Do I deserve this, when so many others have tried and failed?  But push on through this, he says, and your dreams will become reality.

It’s one of the most powerful and inspirational things I’ve ever read, and not something I expected to find at all when I picked it up in a 3 for 2 deal in Blackwells.  How does Paulo Coelho know all this though, I hear you ask?  Well, for a man whose first print run of the Alchemist was 900 copies, after which the Brazilian publisher decided it wasn’t worth the candle,… he must take a certain satisfaction from the fact that it has now sold over 65 million copies worldwide.  A number of film producers have offered the Earth for the film rights from him, but he refuses every time; and really cool people like Madonna, Julia Roberts and Will Smith say it’s one of their favourite books ever.

This novel is a fable about following your dream: so forget self-help books and pick up a copy, …but probably best to hang on to the day job meantime!

How to blow up a bank

Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain, by Ray Perman (Birlinn Publishers, Edinburgh 2012)

It seems strange to think of it now, but there was a time when that vast pile at the top of Edinburgh’s Mound was a bank – a real live bank with a queue of people inside, waiting to pay real money into their bank accounts.  I was one of them, and when I started my life at the Scottish Bar on Edinburgh’s High Street, the tradition was to open three accounts with the Bank of Scotland just round the corner on the Mound: a current account, a tax account and a VAT account, all of which I duly did.  You didn’t need to explain to the manager at the Bank what an advocate was, or why it was that I didn’t have a penny to my name but might have in a few years: because the manager knew all about that.  You see, they had been opening accounts with fresh faced advocates for over three hundred years.  It was relationship banking, though I doubt the manager would have used that term in those days.

Crossing the Royal Mile from Parliament Square and making the short walk to the Mound used to fill me with awe – here was the Bank, cheek by jowl with Scotland’s law courts, across from the Kirk at St Giles and just down from the Castle; and when I went through the doors and across the ornately tiled floors of the busy teller room, the windows on a bright day gave a breath-taking view right across Princes Street and all the way to the glittering Firth of Forth beyond.  The sound of bagpipes drifted in, while bank clerks quietly and politely dealt with each customer in turn.  This wasn’t just a bank building, it was a statement of national identity.

I had, in fact, been a customer of the Bank of Scotland since I was 7 and I opened my Super Squirrel saver account on Princes Street in Port Glasgow.  It never entered into my head to open an account with the Royal, because my father was with the Bank (though I daresay the opposite was equally true, and generations of Scots were tuned in to the Royal Bank).  I even remember signing up a friend from primary school, and getting one whole pound added to my Super Squirrel account book for having won them this new business.  That was the Bank: canny, thrifty and secure.

That branch was of course just like every other in towns and villages all across Scotland, places which shared certain key characteristics: there would be a kirk, a short high street or cross road and a branch of both the Bank and the Royal Bank close-by.  Association with one or other bank was almost tribal, and there was always a whiff of the Jacobites about the Bank, which I suppose is why I ended up on their books.  Adverts in the ’80s and ’90s would emphasise the close relationship between the Bank and its customers, with a bank bus typically winding through Highland scenery to the jingo: “The Bank of Scotland, a friend for life.”  The Bank was as Scottish as Irn Bru, Haggis or Oor Wullie.

And then came a shotgun marriage with the Halifax, following a heated bid by both the Bank and the Royal Bank to take over London’s enormous National Westminster Bank; a bid the Royal Bank won, and which was rather like watching a fly swallow an elephant.  Somehow the Bank, our Bank, which became HBOS, was never the same again.  Then came the hurricanes of the financial crisis; then silence.

Is the Bank of Scotland really gone?  Well, we still see its signs on our streets every day, but the sad fact is that the United Kingdom’s oldest bank, founded in 1695, is now just a minor limb of the Lloyds Group based in London.  The building on the Mound is an office now, converted on the whim of HBOS executives because they thought it would make a nice place to hold corporate dinners.  Now, aptly enough, the only part of it open to the public is a small museum to the history of Scottish money.

It’s hard to take in, and with a real sense of injured national pride we might ask: how did this ruination of the Bank happen?

‘Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain’, by Ray Perman is the first book in the aftermath of the global financial collapse to look specifically at the Bank of Scotland and how its demise came about.  Veteran journalist Ray Perman is excellently placed to write on the subject, having followed the Bank’s fortunes since the 1970s when he was with the Financial Times. It’s clear from his writing that he really cares about the subject and feels strongly that the Bank’s demise should not have happened and could have been avoided.  He pulls few punches in a withering assessment, and brings home the clear message that without the Bank, Scotland is a far poorer place in many respects, beyond mere money.  The reason, he asserts, is that ‘Bank of Scotland was destroyed in seven years by men who were intelligent, hard-working and meant well, but focused only on growth.  Everything else was subordinated, with the result that they lost sight of the simple rules of banking, which had not changed since 1695.’

Before the financial crisis Scotland had, in the Bank, an organic financial institution which serviced the local needs of small and medium sized businesses, and which understood their particular business challenges.  This has been swept away now, and those left poorer are the ordinary people of Scotland.  It is a very sad tale, but one that has to be told; and as if to underline the importance of the topic, the excellent foreword to the book has been written by Alistair Darling, who was of course both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West when the financial crisis unfolded, and therefore quite literally in a unique position to comment on how events impacted upon the Bank.

If you are involved in the financial industry in Scotland, or advise those who are, Ray Perman’s book is essential reading; but I think the book would also be of interest to those with a more general interest in Scottish history and society.  As for the future?  Well, I thought it particularly interesting to note that this year’s fireworks to mark the end of the Edinburgh Festival – an event which was always sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, whose headquarters would be lit up in the afterglow – is now sponsored by Virgin Money.

Let the boom times roll!

Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley

What I know about fly fishing could be written on the back of a particularly small fly: or at least that was the case until a year ago, when my good friend Charles decided to introduce me to the noble art.  Now, my assembled knowledge on the subject could easily cover a small postcard, but already I’ve become hooked on the whole experience.

It is a pastime which doesn’t exactly open itself out for the interested amateur.  For a start, the equipment is rather expensive (think golf).  Then there’s the whole question of where you do it:  it’s not immediately apparent where all the trout and salmon rivers are in Scotland, in the way that golf courses for example are well indicated.  Then there’s the impenetrable lingo of those already steeped in the subject (you don’t say ‘good luck’ to a fellow fly fisherman, for example, the proper greeting is ‘tight lines’) and finally, if you have the kit, know where to fish and can understand what your fellow fly fishermen are on about, there’s the disappointing realisation that wild fish are rather difficult to catch.

So far, my fishing career has been limited to two days on the River Tay at Kenmore and one day on the River Lyon just a mile or so to the north; from which I can boast one rather modest wild brown trout (which was of course returned immediately to the river).

Standing chest deep in a river and repeatedly flicking a fishing rod is, I accept, unlikely to appeal to everyone; but there is something so vital about the experience, something that brings you so close to your immediate environment of river, rocks, trees and mountains (but not fish of course) and so far from the daily grind, that it becomes almost spiritual.  Time doesn’t just pass, it evaporates; and after a day fishing you experience an appetite for food and desire for sleep that is really rather satisfying.  Besides that, there is the fact that fly fishing takes you to places that you might not otherwise see (I had a very pleasant stay in Aberfeldy and visited Castle Menzies) and unlike golf, you can fish just as happily in the rain as the sun, a definite bonus in post-greenhouse gas Scotland.

All in all, I look forward to my next outing, and I’ve even purchased a copy of Trout and Salmon to improve my lingo – but I doubt I’ll ever progress beyond an enthusiastic amateur.

Fly fishing has a rich literature, and many of the best books were written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (pen name ‘BB’) who also wrote children’s classic Brendan Chase.  Here is a selection of three of his better known works on fishing available here:

In the meantime, however, Charles has lent me copies of his favourite works on the subject, which include the gloriously titled The Way of a Trout with a Fly by GEM Skues and Loved River by HR Jukes.  I’ll give you just a few lines from the first chapter of Loved River, which sets the tone rather nicely:

“You must not think of my river as one of those royal streams whose photographs appear so frequently in all the illustrated weeklies – generally, I have noticed, as a background.  No, my river is not like that.  Really it is very little wider, and just as winding, just as flower strewn and fragrant as a country lane.  And just as gossipy.  Sometimes, like the road, it encroaches on to the grassy banks, so that you can hardly tell which is grass and which is river; and like the road, too, it has rough places, delightfully rough and bumpy places which create groans or laughter according to your quality as a fisherman or of the car you own.  Perhaps you would call it a beck.  But it is a river; it is marked so on the map.”

Wonderful stuff.  Tight lines everyone!

Edinburgh Fringe Review 2012: The Magicians of Edinburgh

  The Magicians of Edinburgh ***** (5 stars)

Venue: Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row; 15 & 23 August (5.45pm); 22 August (8.30pm)

This review published today at FringeReview.com and ThinkScotland

I followed the early evening crowd through Edinburgh’s famous Italian deli, not entirely sure what to expect from the show’s billing. It proved to be a superb combination of poetry and music by trio Dick Lee on bass clarinet, Anne Evans on flute and Ron Butlin reciting from his latest collection of poems, The Magicians of Edinburgh (2012, published by Polygon).

Ron Butlin was appointed Edinburgh’s own offical poet (or ‘Makar’) in 2008 after a lifetime in music and writing (including novels, short stories and plays); and since then he has celebrated the city’s highs and lows in some of the most original and evocative verses to come out of Scotland.

The opportunity to hear him talk about and recite his poems was something special and the music is more than just an afterthought: Butlin and Lee have worked together on operatic projects and both Lee and Evans are highly accomplished musicians. The combination of all three promised great things.

As the lights dimmed Evans and Lee took to the stage, beginning with their specially crafted piece ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’, the lighter notes of the flute combining beautifully with the darker chocolate tones of the bass clarinet in an evocative melody. They were then joined on stage by Ron Butlin, who proceeded to take the spellbound audience through a selection of his works accompanied by Evans and Lee. The whole performance was magical, witty and a tribute to the poetic genius of Butlin: it is always special to have a poet recite his own work with special emphasis, but the experience was added to here by the beautifully arranged music. A truly wonderful experience.

Cosily, Butlin took the audience through the thoughts and inspiration for his poetry in between readings, and we were treated to trampolining bankers in ‘The New Town’s Response to the Threat of Global Warming’, ghosts and bogles in ‘Beware!’, a talking tram car in the gloriously Burns-like satire ‘Oor Tram’s Plea tae the Cooncillors O’ Edinburgh’ and the poets shining love of this city in ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’.

Ron Butlin is the voice of Edinburgh; and for any Fringe follower intent on learning about the modern city behind the Festivals, or wishing to become the sorcerer’s apprentice, this production is a must.

Through a telescope, darkly

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark (Polygon, 2011)

In the same way it was once thought the Earth was flat, people (important people) used to think that the sun, moon, planets and stars moved across the sky like props on a medieval stage, perhaps even helped along with jerky twitches on strings, or poked with sticks by an out of sight but kind hearted old puppeteer with a white beard.  The Earth didn’t move of course, said the wise, how could it?  No, it was everything else that revolved around it like so many clockwork toys.

We’ve come so far in this post-post-modernist second decade of the twenty first century, that it’s difficult to imagine just how different the world of ideas once was.  Four hundred years ago mildly eccentric old ladies were burned as witches: but the threat of burning also hung over anyone whose views differed from official church doctrine on any number of issues – doctrine which was anchored in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ brilliant (but by the 1600s looking rather shaky) marriage of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, set out in the numerous volumes of his Summa Theologica.  I mean no harm to Aquinas: on the contrary, his thirteenth century writings are among the first lights flickering from the darkness; but after more than three hundred years his ideas were struggling against the dawning light of reason.

We have all seen the stars with our own eyes, and that is exactly how they were observed – even by the Egyptians – right up until the seventeenth century when a few spectacle makers in Holland suddenly realised (no doubt by accident) that by holding one lens in front of another, next door’s windmill suddenly looked enormous.  Within a few years Galileo in Italy had developed the first telescope and was crashing around, knocking down the medieval stage scenery of the skies.

Then there is the great Austrian mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler who, separate from Galileo, applied his mind to the recorded observations of his time and deduced mathematically the motion of the spheres.

Nobody liked this, it seems: or at least not many people whose opinions counted – which meant the church, both Catholic and Protestant.

There is something rather obvious, with hindsight, about the advancement of science – and looking back upon the collision between the immovable objects of faith and tradition and the irresistible force of evidence which refutes it, is like watching a very messy car crash in slow motion.

To the Vatican priests of the sixteen hundreds, the view through a telescope presented the reality that Holy Scripture was not literally true, that the philosophers of antiquity whom they adored had limits to their understanding, and that they could not respond by making new theology on the hoof – for who knew what the men of science might discover next, and where would the church be then?

It is a perplexing but fascinating period of history brought to life by Stuart Clark, an enthusiastic British academic, journalist, author and broadcaster who has devoted himself to bringing the world of astronomy to life.  In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth he has created a fictional account of the development of stargazing from an eccentric and superstitious hobby through to the greatest scientific revelation of all time.  I enjoyed seeing the Jesuits, the brilliant schoolmasters of my youth, cast in their role as sixteenth century thought police, and the glittering circle in which Cardinal Robert Bellarmine moved.

The book is gripping (I read it over the course of two days) and it brings out very sympathetically the tensions of the time both from the point of view of the geniuses Galileo and Kepler and the established Catholic and Protestant authorities.

The even better news is that The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is only the first in a trilogy: the second book, The Sensorium of God, was published earlier this year by Polygon and the third, The Day Without Yesterday, is scheduled for publication in 2013.  The Sensorium of God deals with the life and times of Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society (such as Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley), while The Day Without Yesterday jumps forward in time to the twentieth century, Albert Einstein and his contemporary Father Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant Belgian astronomer and physicist; and proof that a person can be a visionary scientist and still see the hand of God in the marvels of the Universe.

Also published at Think Scotland