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

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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!

Essay writing for the idle

We all have comfort books that we revisit from time to time.  One of mine is George Orwell’s collection ‘Inside the Whale & Other Essays’, a book I revisited the other day in response to a comment that Tolstoy was not a particular fan of Shakespeare.  The collection includes ‘Lear, Tolstoy & the Fool’, a simple yet brilliant deconstruction of Tolstoy’s carping criticisms of the Bard.  Here it is here.

It’s not my favourite essay in the collection though – that place (just pipping ‘Shooting an Elephant’ to the post – sorry King Juan Carlos) is reserved for ‘Politics & the English Language’, which is as true in its insight into the condition of the English language today as it was in 1946, surely the hallmark of a timeless classic. Here it is here.

Then of course there are other giants of the art such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, G.K. Chesterton, Michel De Montaigne and Francis Bacon to name just a few… but my all time favourite essay and comfort read is Stevenson’s ‘Apology for Idlers’ – good to know we’re appreciated! Here it is here –  happy reading!

Flash Fiction and Hibbert’s Histories

The Flashman Novels, by George Macdonald Fraser (published in paperback by HarperCollins), and the historical works of Christopher Hibbert (various)

Spring is very obviously in the air here in Edinburgh, the rain is unmistakably getting warmer and even the snowfall halts occasionally to give the hailstones a chance!  Here and there crocuses and daffodils brave the elements however, and so all in all there are signs that this particular corner of the great orb is gently moving away from winter towards summer…

Today is a good day for a book by the fireside (or perhaps even a Kindle, Sony Digital, Nook, iPad, or Barnes & Noble for the digitally minded), so here are a number that I’ve been plodding through over the past few weeks.

Thanks to my good friend Alastair Stewart who knows a thing or two about books, I finally conquered my preconceptions and decided to read the first three Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, which he very kindly passed on to me.  The first thing to say is that these books should come with a health warning, because politically correct in any shape or form they certainly are not.  Flashman is the very picture of a cad, coward and gadabout, whose nineteenth century life and adventures are recounted in his own frank terms, as an old man looking back.  Perhaps like Fleming’s Bond stories, they are the kind of books that people could read in the 1970s without batting an eyelid, whereas to our more socially conscious twenty first century minds it all seems rather outrageous, scandalous even!  I genuinely wonder whether a publisher would even agree to print them in this day and age, if Macdonald Fraser were to wander in with his battered manuscripts.

Flashman With a sense of shame almost, I have to state honestly nonetheless that the Flashman books are brilliantly written and researched, easy to read, extremely funny and in many ways as good an education as anyone might require in British Imperial history.  The first book, Flashman, recounts the cowardly hero’s experiences in the disastrous First Afghan War of 1839-42, including the famous retreat from Kabul under the leadership of Lord Elphinstone, descendant of the Bishop of the same name who founded Aberdeen University; the second book, Royal Flash, sees Flashy dabbling in the world of European politics and coming head to head with Germany’s Otto Von Bismark, with all kinds of outrageous consequences too numerous to go into here; and the third book, Flash for Freedom, sees him sail the Atlantic on a slave ship in 1848 before criss-crossing pre-civil war America, where he has numerous run-ins with slavers and abolitionists alike (including the up and coming Abraham Lincoln).  Shockingly and even distastefully frank at times, the books are nonetheless brilliantly reconstructed pictures of the pre and early Victorian world, not as some would perhaps like to see it, but undoubtedly as it actually was.

On the subject of history, one of the finest and most readable historians of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008), once described in The Times as probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific”.  My first encounter with Hibbert’s writing was The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), a mesmerizing account of the Crimean War which won him the Heinmann Award for Literature in 1962.  It was watching The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard) which led me to pick the book up.  It is a book I will never forget reading, so gripping are his descriptions of the folly and horrors of that tragic campaign (a subject I’ve attempted to summarise elsewhere in this blog – On the Crimean War).

Charge-Of-The-Light-Brigade DestructionRaglanI’ve since followed up that first experience of his writing with two other books, King Mob (Longmans, 1958), his account of London’s tumultuous Gordon Riots of 1780 led by that famous and very eccentric Scotsman Lord George Gordon, and The French Revolution (1980, Allen Lane).  What makes Hibbert’s historical prose so fascinating is his intense focus on the personalities of those involved.  With the Crimean the key is to understand Raglan himself, every facet of his character and personality: while with the Gordon Riots it’s Lord George “The Mad Scotchman” (which is the title of his opening chapter, beginning as follows):

‘They were, and are, all mad’, Walpole said of them, dismissing in a spasm of irritation all of the members of the Gordon family past and present.  The exasperated judgement was not entirely groundless.  The Gordons had for generations shown occasional signs of something more than eccentricity and at the time of Walpole’s verdict several members of the family were said to be extremely odd.”

And of course when it comes to the French Revolution, Hibbert spends time building in the reader’s mind a clear picture of King Louis XVI:

The new King was nineteen years old.  Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts.  His Keeper of the Seals had ‘never known anyone whose character was more contradicted by outward appearances’.  He was ‘really good and tender hearted’.  You could ‘never speak to him of disasters and accidents to people without seeing a look of compassion come over his face, yet his replies were often hard, his tone harsh, his manner unfeeling.’  Hesitant, reserved and ungainly, his appearance, too, was unprepossessing.  He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair, but his mouth was over flabby and his chin pale and fat.”

It is often said of Tolstoy, drawing from War and Peace, that his view of history demonstrated the ultimate insignificance of great men such as Tsar Alexander I, or Napoleon: that individuals great or small do not determine the course of events, and everyone is equally carried along by the epic tide.  If there is any truth in that resounding conclusion then it is a truth which Hibbert seems to contradict, since he portrays the chief persons in his histories in a way which shows it is their very own key strengths and weaknesses of character or disposition which ripple out, determining the outcomes when events teeter on a knife edge.  In the final analysis Hibbert’s is perhaps the more practical and realistic appraisal of history, no doubt born out of his own distinguished career as first an infantryman and then captain in the London Irish Rifles Regiment, fighting in Italy during the Second World War (for which he received the Military Cross).

George Macdonald Fraser and Christopher Hibbert are two of our finest and most prolific writers, united by their love of history.  One reveals it through fiction, the other non-fiction; but both paint unforgettable portraits of the characters who populate their pages.  Truly wonderful 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!

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

Scotland’s War

 A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War, by Trevor Royle (published by Birlinn, 2011) – this article published today at Think Scotland

If you have never seen the view into the valley of the Clyde from the hills above Greenock, then that is something wonderful you have yet to experience in life.  With the sun shining and a gentle breeze tugging at the yellow whins, you can see the blue river snaking down from Glasgow, past Dumbarton Rock, and Ben Lomond looming like an iceberg on the horizon; you can see it as it flows toward you growing wider, the channel of its navigable waters neatly pegged out like a putting green, red to port, green to starboard, all the delicate way between yawning sandbanks; and over your left shoulder now there’s the Tail o’ the Bank, where the water turns salty, then lazily moves south round the headland of Gourock and opens out into the mouth of the Firth, with Largs, Troon, Turnberry and the Ailsa Craig, and all the promises of fish teas and ice cream which those sunlit pavilions have to offer.

Across the water from you now are the Holy Loch, Loch Long and Gare Loch, where you could hide seventeen Royal Navy Frigates like so many kilted Jacobites in moorland heather: because you can see clearly now from where you’re standing, plain as the nose on your face, that these are some of the best natural harbours anywhere in the world, bar nowhere.  This is a home for giants: where ships were incubated then born onto the river like calving glaciers; and spread out before you it is a natural amphitheatre as glorious in its way as the view over Edinburgh from the North Bridge.

The mighty channel is usually empty these days apart from the occasional dredger heading up to Glasgow, or the quaint sight of the Waverley ploughing the waters like a mechanical swan.  Indeed on a day like this, with the sun in the sky, the waters and shores look natural and clean: fish swim far upriver and razorbills and oystercatchers perch along the banks; but sprawling supermarket complexes and burger joints now fill the void of what was once the vast grimy, noisy, relentless, unceasing, ceased to exist glory – the clanging heart – that was shipbuilding on the lower Clyde.

Close your eyes; go back over seventy years to 1940 and the scene before you when you open them again is very different.  I have mischievously convinced my four year old daughter that the world before 1980 was entirely black and white, but in this instance it’s not hard to believe that the sky and the sea would have been a little less blue, the grass a little less green, the air thick with grey smoke and coal dust.  In those days the Clyde was a seething mass of shipping, with every conceivable vessel butting its way through the choppy waters, crossing and crisscrossing before you like scars on a riveter’s glove.  Or as Trevor Royle describes the scene in A Time of Tyrants:

“Not only was the Tail of the Bank home to some of the warships of the Free French Navy, together with 1,500 of their sailors at Fort Matilda, but as the assembly point for Atlantic convoys it meant that the waters ‘held the biggest small boat pool in Great Britain with French, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian and other vessels.  Greenock was as a consequence highly internationalised then and each of its public houses a veritable Babel.’”

In those days of war the Clyde was alive with ships: so alive, in fact, that the Nazis knew that it had to be addressed through bombing raids; and so first Clydebank and then Greenock received their share of the bombs.  As Royle describes, 35,000 people were made homeless in Clydebank and 528 killed, while in Greenock and Port Glasgow the figure was 320, with hundreds more seriously injured.  There was tragedy and high drama, but I also remember the story of the Tate and Lyle factory on Greenock’s Drumfrochar Road being bombed, and molten sugar running down the cobbled streets: why do I always imagine ragged schoolboys delightedly following its lava-like course?

It’s rather difficult today to bring to mind the Scotland of the Second World War, since so much has changed both here and abroad.  That’s why it takes a past master like Trevor Royle to tell us the story: to lead us through the people, the politics, the honour and the sacrifice of the most important period of the twentieth century, and the immense involvement of Scots and Scotland in that global struggle.  Following on from his successful appraisal of The Great War in The Flowers of the Forest, A Time of Tyrants has been thoroughly researched by Royle in the National Archives of Scotland, the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh: providing him with material which he has then knitted into a seamless account of the period in a lucid and engaging style.

There are, of course, many single volume histories of the Second World War (for example those by Anthony Beevor, Andrew Roberts or Sir Max Hastings, all published in the last twelve months) and very good they are too: however A Time of Tyrants looks at the phenomenon of the War both within Scotland at that time and as contributed to by Scots across the globe.  It is, therefore, both a unique and important contribution to our stock of knowledge of the period.

If I had one small criticism, however, it would be this:  it seems to me that the history would have benefited more from real stories from the war: for example where is the dramatic explosion of the Free French destroyer Maille Breze off Greenock?  Where is Bill Millen, piper to Lord Simon Fraser the fifteenth Earl of Lovat, who on D-Day heroically played The Road to the Isles on Sword Beach and survived only because the German snipers assumed he had lost his mind?  But these are mere trifles, interesting whimsies, compared to the hard work of Royle’s impressive and wide ranging achievement.

The book is available from Birlinn publishers here: and if this has whetted your appetite for some stunning photographs of the Clyde, you’ll find many at Gerard Watt’s excellent River Clyde photography website here.

The Capital of the World

Capital, by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber, fiction, published February 2012)

London, December 2007.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  The city was never more prosperous, more densely populated, more multicultural, more fashionable, artistically edgier, … more nervous.  Lehman Brothers was still a bank (…just), and the 7/7 bombings were still echoing in the headlines.  Then enters… Roger Yount: a super rich investment banker with the dream city job, a house in the country, skiing in Switzerland, summers in France, and Christmas… well, Christmas… patiently waiting for the one million pound bonus he not only thinks he deserves, but needs in the way the rest of us need the air that we breathe: otherwise this world of his, with it’s cloud capped towers and gorgeous palaces, will dissolve, like that selfsame air, into nothing.

John Lanchester is a writer of international standing and with a string of prizes to his name; but ‘Capital’, he says, is the book he waited his lifetime to write.  He takes the Government’s often repeated line ‘we’re all in this together’, holds a mirror to London, and says ‘no we’re not’: because for all the city’s teeming streets and houses, and the ebb and flow of countless people from every corner of the Earth marching as if to one tune, he concludes that London’s is an atomised population, where the life of each person is lived oblivious to those around them.

Now, I kind of get what he means.  Take Edinburgh, for example: it has long been said of Edinburgh that you can live next door to people for years without ever getting to know them, or what their lives are like.  It is in many ways, I suppose, quite a private place, Edinburgh.  Lanchester takes a similar idea – the fictional Pepys Road – and one by one shows the lives of the people in the houses (one of whom is Roger), and the Zimbabwean traffic warden who patrols the parked Lamborghinis like a crouching tiger, as as far removed from one another as crossing continents.  Rather than being all in this together, like the lost communities of yesteryear, these people rub shoulders without any regard for one another, like laser beams criss-crossing through darkness.

The plot thickens, as he skillfully introduces each new character: a budding premier league football star, newly arrived from Africa; the old lady who lives alone like Eleanor Rigby; the Polish builder, Spanish nanny, the Pakistani shopkeeper at the end of the road.  Every householder receives a mysterious message through their door, simply reading “We Want What You Have.”  What can it mean: a threat, an estate agent’s pitch, or perhaps even some kind of new art form?

I wouldn’t, of course, spoil the surprises, suffice to say that the plot is excellent and will have you at times laughing out loud.  In the end I urge you to read this book because it is easy: it’s written so well you hardly notice the pages turning, by a man who intimately knows the place, and for all its faults still loves it; and while perhaps not a very great book, it’s a great book nonetheless.

If you’ve got a kindle, or even if you don’t, you can buy it here:http://www.amazon.co.uk/Capital-ebook/dp/B0071LQMMG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335562114&sr=8-1 or why not call in to Blackwells on South Bridge? http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/editorial/shops/SHOP21.jsp.  You might even bump in to one of your neighbours.