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Better Together!

Scottish Independence

Entzwei’ und gebiete! Tüchtig Wort;

Verein’ und Leite! Bess’rer Hort.

(JW von Goethe 1749-1832)






Goethe’s words, roughly translating into English as ‘Unite and lead is a much better cry than divide and rule’, have been much quoted during the past two hundred years. The motto is not one, it seems, that appeals to Mr Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party.

My country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, sits on a knife edge. Tomorrow, the citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum to determine whether they should continue as part of that country, or separate – maybe forever – from the three hundred-year-old Union. Mr Salmond and his supporters would have a separate state yet, so it seems to me, they very much want their cake and eat it. They want “independence”, which they already have in large measure without separation, for example, freedoms of law, religion and education; they also want the Queen, the Pound and the EU and, Mr Salmond has said more than once, a million or so “expatriate” citizens. Of course, Scotland may have the Queen; she is as much Scotland’s queen as England’s, Wales’s or Northern Ireland’s. However, an independent Scotland may not have the EU and the Pound in combination no matter how much Mr Salmond may protest to the contrary. Such a situation would not be true independence.

The nationalist case appears to rest on four main arguments: Scotland is one nation; she is a rich country; Scottish people are somehow “different” from their fellow citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; and Scotland has had a raw deal from Westminster. Let us examine those arguments one by one.

As anyone who grew up as I did in the populous central belt knows, Scotland is not one nation. The people there were, and still are to an extent, polarized according to pseudo-religious affiliation (Catholic and Protestant – even atheists and agnostics have to be one or the other). Many people of the northern Highlands and Islands view the decision-makers of the Central Lowlands with as much suspicion – sometimes more – as they do the national government in London. Even Glaswegians and Edinburghians are not over fond of one another.

Scotland is not a rich country in her own right. If she is rich at all, it is because of the Union and not in spite of it. All of the many benefits we enjoy and treasure – though I will be the first to acknowledge they are far from perfect – the National Health Service, our splendid, brave military services, the universal pension, benefits for the less well-off, are a result of the Union and have been built up since then. Until 1707, for centuries Scotland had been the poor cousin. It was a situation that caused Walter Scott to remark that the Scots are often found to attempt splendid designs, which, shipwrecked for want of the necessary expenditure, give foreigners occasion to smile at the …. great misfortune of the nation – I mean their pride and poverty.

Until the seventeenth century, when an accident of birth gave King James VI and I the throne of Britain, England and Scotland had very different economic and social histories. Yet the differences, such as they were, had been brought about by political means and not through any real ethnic peculiarities. The Border that we recognise today might well be placed somewhere to the south of Sheffield and the north of Nottingham rather than a line drawn from around Berwick to Carlisle. We might place a “Border” anywhere we choose and argue that it divides people who are essentially different – the Briton from the Norman, the Norman from the Saxon, the Saxon from the Scot, and the Scot from the Gael, or whatever we choose to call our rather mixed-up population. Different we are not!

The raw deal is largely imagined. Scotland does rather well out of its membership of the United Kingdom compared to the counties of the north of England who have no separate representation. Not only that but, despite having a parliament of its own with devolved powers, it is permitted to send its Westminster MPs to vote on matters that affect its neighbours alone. All of us suffer from time to time from bad politics, and our reactions are pretty much always the same.

No, Mr Salmond, Goethe was right. We are better together! Our problems as a united kingdom stem from bad policies and weak leadership, not from any differences in character or unfairness in the system. The people of Scotland should ponder whether they want to give up their UK and EU benefits for a dubious future status in a separist state. For one thing is certain: all that our ancestors have striven to build over that past three centuries will crumble and, even with the best leadership, will have to be built again from scratch.

Peaceful the Referendum debates may have been, but overt nationalism has a dodgy history. As for expatriate citizenship, I really have very little to say except “no thanks, Mr Salmond”.

Scotland should vote “No”!



Secret Societies and Ghostly Terror

The Midnight Palace

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves

A Review

“Never mind the number of candles on your birthday cake,” writes Zafon in his introduction to The Midnight Palace, “for those in the know, it’s what lies beneath them that matters.”

Zafon’s first four published novels were intended for young adults. The Midnight Palace, written about seven years before The Shadow of the Wind, is the second to be translated into English. The “palace” is a derelict building in Calcutta, the headquarters of a secret society of orphan teenagers. As Ben and his six friends are about to leave the orphanage for good, they meet elderly Aryami Bose and her granddaughter Sheere.

It turns out that Ben and Sheere are twins whom Bose has separated shortly after their birth to protect them from a family curse. Pursued by Jawahal, a diabolical presence who can appear and disappear at will, crush flesh and bone, and melt metal at a touch, the friends embark on a quest to find answers: why has Aryami lied to them? where is Ben’s and Sheere’s father’s house? what really happened on the night when more than three hundred orphan children were incinerated in a horrific train disaster?


“Two red pupils glowed in the dark like red-hot irons, and Ben felt a fiery claw clamping his right arm.      ” ‘It is not yet time for us to meet,’ whispered a piercing cavernous voice. ‘Get out of my way.’ “

The teenagers’ search puts them all in mortal danger, especially Ben and Sheere, for whom the danger is not merely the threat of death but of something much worse. Against an immortal villain who appears invincible, their only weapon seems to be their love and friendship for one another. And, as is so often the case when good faces evil in an impossible contest, only a supreme sacrifice can break the deadlock.

The Midnight Palace is a fantasy but we can see already in the writing some of the elements that Zafon will use in his adult stories. There is his use of suspense and of the gothic – a haunted railway station, dark streets and fetid passageways, a sprawling mansion to which entry is gained by turning four alphabetic wheels. And, like those in his Barcelona trilogy, the antagonist in The Midnight Palace is as relentless as he is pitiless.

Although the writing in this novel is not as grand and accomplished as that of The Angel’s Game, for me it has the same feel of surreality. The Midnight Palace is not a “happy ever after” tale like those Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton, or even the Bulldog Drummond series with all its derring-do. It is not even “happy for now”. Yet I very much enjoyed the trip back to my late childhood.



It’s Not Harry Potter

The Casual Vacancy

by JK Rowling

The death of Barry Fairbrother, a leading citizen of Pagford, a small town “in the West Country”, leaves a vacancy on the parish council. Pagford residents are lined up on two sides of a dispute about the future of a crime-soaked estate known as the Fields, and the composition of the council reflects this division.

JK Rowling’s first adult novel follows the fortunes of several families. There are the Mollinsons, the Prices, the Jawandas, the Weedons and the Walls, and a few assorted singles, representing different social classes, all at each other’s throats and displaying their petty hates, jealousies and vices for all to see. Frankly, Pagford is a disaster zone and the characters of The Casual Vacancy are mostly awful people. We all know people like them, I suppose, but to find them to such a degree of awfulness in the same town stretches credibility to its limits. It is fair to say that, after a few chapters, it becomes clear that the only decent adult citizen of Pagford, and the one who most elicits our sympathy (mine anyway), is the dead Barry.


I liked the teenagers; at least, my sympathies were with them. JK Rowling really gets inside their heads, as we might expect from the author of the Harry Potter stories. However, though she may have written the novel tongue in cheek and with humorous intent, I found it on the whole most depressing. It is true there are some funny passages such as when Andrew, eldest of the two Price boys hacks the parish website to post malicious truths about his bully of a father.  Or when Samantha Mollinson in a drunken stupor “snogs” Andrew. But the novel’s treatment of some very serious issues, for example, drugs, prostitution, petty theft and self-harming was, for me, too superficial and frivolous.

The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter, and isn’t my kind of novel for all its critical acclaim and success. I also wondered if it could possibly hold the record for the English novel with the greatest occurrence of a certain word beginning with F. Like most people, I enjoy a good expletive from time to time, but there comes a point in literature when street language flashes like a supernova.

Despite my indifference to this book, I’m going to give Ms Rowling another chance and read one of the detective stories she has written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.


Something Nasty in the Woodshed

Cold Comfort Farm

by Stella Gibbons


“You would expect, by all the laws of probability, to find a mad grandmother at Cold Comfort Farm, and for once the laws of probability had not done you down and a mad grandmother there was.”

Aunt Ada Doom is in her eighties. She hasn’t left the farm for twenty years. Indeed, she only comes out of her room once a year to do The Counting – a kind of on the spot census of her numerous and eccentric relations, the Starkadder Family. When she was a young girl (we are told), she saw something nasty in the woodshed. No one truly knows what she saw, but she has has never been the same since.

“Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you?”

Flora Poste, recently orphaned at the age of nineteen and possessing an income of one hundred pounds a year, goes to live with her aunts and cousins at Cold Comfort Farm. With names like Amos and Seth, Reuben, Elfine, Mark, Luke, Micah and Harkaway, the extended family and their contingent of domestic help are as crazy as they sound. We meet nonagenarian Adam Lambsbreath and his four cows, Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless. We make the acquaintance of Mrs Beetle, a sort of housekeeper, and her philoprogenitive daughter Meriam. And we encounter from tme to time minor characters like Claud, Mr Mybug, and a collection of Starkadder wives who live in the nearby village rather than with their menfolk at the farm.

But Flora, rather reminscent of Jane Austen’s Emma, has a plan! A plan to change the farm and its inhabitants – to give to all an opportunity to achieve their ambitions, to fulfil their hearts’ desires.

She begins with Amos, a fiery preacher of hellfire and damnation and persuades him to go on a world tour in a Ford van. Next, she arranges for Elfine to marry into the County set. Seth’s passion – apart from Meriam – is the Talkies, and Flora brings a Hollywood director to Cold Comfort to sign him up as a star. She seems to know all sorts of people, does our Flora!

Reuben has his heart set on the farm, and she removes all the obstacles to his taking possession of it. His suspicion of his cousin removed, he begins to make some long-overdue changes.


“Certainly Judith looked happier ….Flora had never seen her look so animated and normal.”

The problems and the solutions are as many and varied as Gibbons’s characters, and Flora sets about changing the world without giving much thought to her own happiness. For her cousin Judith, she enlists the help of a German psychoanalyst. Her penultimate triumph is a total make-over for Aunt Ada, who is reborn as Cold Comfort’s version of Amelia Earhart/Amy Johnson, complete with black leather flying jacket.

Finally, Flora – like Emma – needs to sort out her own love life, which she does without dissembling in typical Flora fashion.

Published in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was Stella Gibbons first novel. It is supposedly a parody of a genre that was popular at the time, a satire on country life, but it is so much more. We laugh  with the author at the rural folks’ breeding habits (both animal and human), their quaint dialects and stubborn attachment to the soil of England. But we laugh too at the fashionable  world of Flora’s friends, and at the “County Set” and their seemingly pointless existence.

Cold Comfort Farm is a novel to brighten up a dull day, full of crazy but lovable people. An added bonus in my copy are the delightful illustrations by the talented Sir Quentin Blake.


Mataoka – Epilogue

“The real stories of John Smith and Pocahontas have seldom been fully told, much as they are a part of the popular imagination.”


by Joseph Bruchac

A Review

I discovered this novel while researching Mataoka and the origins of the colony of Virginia. Informative and entertaining as historical accounts are, they do not always play with the emotions. Sometimes it is only by turning to the imaginative recreations of fiction writers that one can begin to feel what it might have been like to live in another age, or in another culture, or  -in this case – to land on an unknown shore and attempt to build a new home.

Having both European and American Indian ancestry, Joseph Bruchac is in a unique position to see the colonisation of Virginia from two separate points of view. As he puts it in his notes on sources, “I needed to see the same events from a European perspective at one moment and from an Indian one at the next.”


The novel is set during the first months of the Jamestown settlement, from the arrival of the British in Chesapeake Bay in April 1607 in their swan canoes, until December of that year and the adoption of Captain John Smith into the Powhatan tribes. Although catalogued as juvenile fiction, I found it very readable and adult enough in its style and language.

Bruchac gives the voice in alternate chapters to Mataoka/Pocahontas herself and to Smith. The narrative style of the former is well suited to the age and character of the somewhat wayward child Mataoka is supposed to be. The Smith chapters are based on Smith’s own account of events, even to the extent of adopting a modernised version of seventeenth century English. Every chapter is prefaced by either an extract from native American lore or from an English text of the period. Though sometimes cumbersome to the twenty-first century ear, this method gives the novel a real flavour of the age.

Pocahontas’ father, after bad experiences with the Spanish, is suspicious of the new arrivals and forbids his daughter to visit them. However, she is good at asking questions and wheedling information from her uncle and brothers. She concludes soon that “they do not intend to grow crops … there seem to be no women among them… Only tobacco knows the touch of a man’s hands.” Eventually, she is allowed to see for herself the Coatmen, overdressed and sweating (- and smelling -) as they work their fields. “It made me want to laugh,” she said, “but I kept quiet.” Only the red-haired and -bearded Cabden Jonsammit, Little Red-haired Warrior impresses her as a real man.

Smith, the outsider and out of favour with the aristocratic leaders of the expedition, arrives in America as a prisoner, accused of treason. But through his own efforts he rises to be the only man capable by knowledge and experience of leading the colony. With remarkable attention to detail, he gives us the names and status of more than half of the 105 men aboard the three ships. He has few friends among them but reserves his contempt and scorn in the main for Edward Wingfield, the self-styled President. Attempts to plant crops are a disaster and the settlers have to rely on trading with the natives for food. However, Mataoka’s people too have a bad first harvest, thus many of the colonists starve. Others succumb to fever. “About this time divers of our men fell sick; we missed above forty before September did see us,” Smith writes.

Joseph Bruchac is a superb storyteller. Published in 2003, his Pocahontas is a pleasure to read. It is filled with both humour and sadness, and with a very human cast of characters, most of them people who really lived.


10 Great Quotations from George Bernard Shaw on His Birthday


A man of great wit indeed! My favorite is “Do not do unto others…..”

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. – Preface to Pygmalion

When I was a young man I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work. – The Wordsworth Book of Humorous Quotations

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. – Maxims for Revolutionists


He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career. – Major Barbara

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious. – Saturday Review, 1895

Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get…

View original 77 more words

Lost Edinburgh

“In growing from a huddle of huts round a fortress on a volcanic rock into an international and cosmopolitan city, Edinburgh has had to change.”

Not only is Edinburgh one of my favourite cities but it’s one I thought I knew really well – that is, until I picked up the book my sister gave me last Christmas.

Lost Edinburgh looks at the history of the city through its roads, gates and buildings, those that have not survived until the present day. The author, Hamish Coghill, takes us on a journey through the centuries, inviting us to explore the streets and lanes, the bridges, churches, jails and tenements as they once were but are no longer. Supplementing his narration with drawings, photographs and quotations by former city notables, he explains how fire, invasion, social conditions and customs demanded that the old be replaced with the new. Sometimes that demand came in the interest of a thing called progress, when the political will overpowered need and even common sense. One wonders just how much of old Edinburgh (and of other cities of the realm) might have remained to be admired had not redevelopment become the fashion.


Over the centuries of its existence, from the small settlement perched on a ridge below a mighty castle to the modern metropolis that hosts a world-renowned festival, Edinburgh has seen many changes. The mediaeval city lay in a countryside of hills, rivers and lochs. The hills are unchanged; few of the lochs remain. Even the courses of the rivers are not quite what they once were.

Much of what the modern tourist sees and admires in Edinburgh is, in an historical sense, new. Many of the buildings of the Old Town, from the Lawnmarket and High Street to the Cowgate, although they bear the mark of time, are replacements for others wilfully destroyed or fallen into rank disrepair. Even the New Town, conceived in the mid 18th century has witnessed change over the years.

The land that became Princes Street Gardens once lay under the infamous North Loch, depository for much of Edinburgh’s unwanted rubbish. The Meadows lay under another, the South Loch. Princes Street itself was not designed as the main artery of the 1766 New Town. That honour belonged to George Street with its spacious Charlotte and St Andrew Squares at either end. St Andrew’s House, headquarters of the Scottish Government occupies the site of a former jail.

More recently, change has resulted from evolving social pleasures and leisure pursuits. In the mid 20th century, Edinburgh boasted more than twenty cinemas. Most have gone, either demolished or converted for other purposes. The same fate overtook the once popular public dance halls. Of the twenty-three breweries in 1939 Edinburgh, there is now only one.

For the writer or researcher, Lost Edinburgh is a mine of information. None of that is of earth-shattering importance, though of interest and value to the social historian.  The book is often too a source of much serendipity. I learned, for example, that one of the properties destroyed when the South Bridge was constructed in 1785 was “one of the grandest houses … in the town …“, and was indeed the town house of the Lockhart family of Carnwath, my somewhat distant and maybe spurious “cousins”.

Lost Edinburgh is a book to be either read through or dipped into between readings of other books. Hamish Coghill knows his city and has recreated its atmosphere. I could wander with him along the streets I know, trying to imagine them as they were. And I could follow him down the narrow wynds where once crept the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare. He does not always present his subject matter chronologically but the chapters are short and the paragraph content  clearly identified. Though a paperback, the book is printed on quality paper with an old Edinburgh map as endpapers. It  would benefit from a more comprehensive index, especially with regard to the sources of its drawings and photographs, (and perhaps a modern map too!). These shortcomings apart, it deserves its place on the non-fiction shelf.


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