Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.
‘Swinson’s a Tory,’ a retired couple, both former Labour voters, told me as they emerged from lunch at an Italian café on the high street. ‘She was there, voting every time for the Tory cuts.’ ‘I’m going with Nicola [Sturgeon],’ the woman said, adding that she didn’t support independence but couldn’t back Jeremy Corbyn for prime minister because he was too ‘dishevelled looking’.
Alex Salmond has launched a judicial review of the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against him. The first few days after the news broke were marked by a curious reticence on the part of both the commentariat and the political establishment in Scotland. We can speculate as to the causes, although I think both shock that a colossus such as Salmond could be struck down by the #MeToo movement, and a complete lack of surprise about what insiders whispered was ‘an open secret’, played their paradoxical parts. Doubtless there was also a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ for some people; and for the other political parties, a fear that #MeToo might open the door on their own skeletons. One party even told some of its councillors to refrain from commenting on the allegations on social media because Salmond was so litigious.
Sakoku, Japan’s 200-year policy of national isolation, ended in 1854. As breathless British travellers returned home, writing of their adventures, interest in Japanese-style gardens blossomed. ‘The mountains of Japan are covered with forest,’ the naturalist Isabella Bird wrote in 1876, ‘and the valleys and plains are exquisitely tilled gardens. The Empire is very rich in flowers.’ The craze was brisk. Josiah Conder’s influential book Landscape Gardening in Japan was published in 1893. Gunnersbury Park laid out its Japanese Garden in 1901. There were nurseries, such as Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, that specialised in Japanese styles, lanterns and imported plants. White City hosted the Japan-British Exhibition in 1910. Dwarf trees, bamboos and pines were shipped from Japan for the exhibition’s Garden of Peace and Garden of the Floating Isles. Over six months, eight million visitors came hoping to be transported to Japan via authentic tea houses and replica ‘peasant’ villages, which the Japanese press found embarrassing.
I'm in Scotland for my daughter’s 18th birthday and to kill fish with my son. We bagged nine codling from a charter boat off the Northumbrian coast on Saturday before a thunderstorm ended our fun. In Dundee, Fife and the Borders, the election campaign seems to be some way short of generating steam heat. A trawler berthed in Eyemouth harbour had a peeling yellow SNP poster stuck on one of the windows in the bridge. There are a few to be seen in Fife, parts of which are not merely post-industrial, but post-agricultural. After coming in from the downpour we took refuge in The Contented Sole.
At 5 p.m. on 18 September 2014 the Scottish National Party had 25,642 members. Last Saturday afternoon Nicola Sturgeon announced that membership was 102,143 and rising. After the referendum, it was thought that the new intake – widely assumed to be more leftwing – might undermine the nationalists’ discipline. But there was little discord among the 3000 people at Glasgow’s SECC last weekend for the SNP spring conference. Resolutions on all-women shortlists, land reform and the Chagos Islands passed almost unanimously. Sturgeon pledged that her party would block David Cameron’s attempts to return to Downing Street. She said that the SNP would supply the ‘backbone and guts’ needed to force Labour to construct a radical post-election government. Trident would go; austerity would slow; the minimum wage would rise by £2. The loudest cheer came for a call to scrap the House of Lords.
As the referendum on independence approaches, another movement for self-determination in Scotland is gaining momentum. At the end of last year, David Cameron (no relation) gave me a tour of the Isle of Harris, which is at the heart of a drive to buy back the land from private landowners. Cameron is the chair of Community Land Scotland, which encourages communities to buy the land they live on and place it in the hands of democratically elected trusts.
The Scottish National Party conference used to flit around Scotland: Dunoon, Oban, Dundee, even Rothesay have hosted it. Nowadays Perth concert hall, a glass-fronted building near what remains of the old city walls, is one of the few places large enough to hold everyone. ‘It’s got bigger,’ two white-haired women from Moray answered in unison when I asked what has changed since their first SNP conference more than three decades ago. ‘But it’s still lots of fun, especially in the evening.’
Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said. With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy.
Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in Scotland, recently released a promotional video to tie in with its submission to the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group. The ten-minute film opens with a reassurance from Luke Borwick, the group's chairman, that Scotland’s landowners aren’t all plutocrats: ‘The vast majority of our members are medium and small owner occupiers.’ As he speaks, the film cuts to shots of a couple strolling beside a massive country pile and an inebriated dinner party. This is Roshven House. Set on 50 acres near Fort William, Roshven is available to rent (for £11,000 a week).
Three-quarters of the energy sold by Scottish and Southern Energy comes from burning fossil fuels, but its portfolio also incorporates the dams and reservoirs of the former North of Scotland Hydro Board, not to mention the shiny plate-glass greenwash of the Scottish Hydro Centre for Renewable Excellence in Hope Street, Glasgow, just across the road from Glasgow Central station, where we were going to catch our train. We didn’t get to test-drive the electric car, unfortunately, because it was a Sunday and the centre was closed. But we did admire the bit on the window about Scotland being in the vanguard of ‘a new renewable industrial revolution’ – as romantic, almost, as the Neart nan Gleann motto of the old Hydro Electric. They should put it in an ad for Tennent’s lager, or for the SNP.
Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, addressed the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, on 12 July. After describing Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen as ‘a humiliating surrender’ for Sinn Fein, Wilson turned his anger on a ‘more cuddly and user-friendly’ nationalist: Alex Salmond. ‘The ultimate aim of Mr Salmond is precisely the same as Mr McGuinness – the destruction and break up of the United Kingdom,’ he said. The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is not the political force it once was – in the 1920s it had hundreds of thousands of members, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour – but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city.
Legionnaire's disease got its name in a blaze of publicity when attendees at the 1976 Philadelphia State Convention of the American Legion were struck down with severe pneumonia. They had stayed at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel from 21 to 24 June: 182 fell ill and 29 died; 39 passers-by were also affected, five fatally. Funerals and marching legionnaires made good television. The story was top of the news for five nights. But the cause was a mystery until a cold review of samples from victims was conducted six months later. It turned out to be a bacterium. This was unexpected. The pathology didn’t fit a bacterial cause, and it was widely believed that bacteria did not spread on the wind.
‘Politics, media, police,’ said the young man with the jagged haircut. ‘Is this the first institutional failure of post-devolution Scotland?’ The panellists, squeezed round the desks of Committee Room One in the Scottish Parliament, wriggled a bit and looked pained. It’s too soon, one said, to know what’s going to happen in the long run. This story has a lot further still to go. But there must have been what he called ‘a failing of institutional Scotland’ when the Trump Organisation started building ‘the world’s greatest golf course’ on the dunes and marram grass of Menie, just up the coast from Aberdeen.
How does it happen that Scottish Nationalism walks and talks as if it’s able to call terms over an independence referendum which opinion polls suggest it would lose? A major reason for the SNP’s sweep to absolute majority last May was the inadequacy of the Scottish Labour Party. At Devolution, such was Westminster complacency, only one first-rank Labour politician went to Holyrood: Donald Dewar. Since his death in 2000, the party has been led by what Scots call numpties, five of them over eleven years, remembered for the impact they didn't have.
It’s an ill wind that blows no jobs. The recent storms in north Britain have spotlighted Scotland’s plans to grow into a wind economy in the years to come. Alex Salmond, as head of the SNP government, has pledged to meet all of Scotland’s electricity needs from ‘renewables’ by 2020, and that plan rests squarely on wind. Salmond enthuses about Scotland’s ‘unrivalled green energy resources’. One thing that everyone agrees on, even ignoring the first minister’s own contribution, is that Scotland has a lot of wind.
A discredited and aloof government presiding over a sporting extravaganza conscious that the eyes of the world are on it; scenes of mass penury among the locals while the tribal elites schmooze with the jet set and live high on the hog. Yes, it’s the Open Golf Championship at the Royal & Ancient course at St Andrews, the ‘home of golf’, which tees off today. At least we should be spared the braying vuvuzelas.
Why does the world contain golf? The question is strictly analogous to asking why it contains evil. Like chess or darts, golf is clearly not a real sport, which I define as an activity that you can only be any good at with a BMI of less than 35. At school, golf was offered to us as a ‘games’ option in the sixth form. Then, as now, I had no interest in bashing a dimpled pill towards a tiny and distant hole. But it looked less nasty than waddling through sludge in frozen mist after a leather ball, or getting the club-end of a hockey stick in the nuts. I was beguiled by the golfing scenes, in TV soaps as much as sportscasts, where the players were conveyed between strokes in electric buggies, alighting only to swoosh a lazy approach shot to the green. Reality bit when I found that I had to lug the bag of clubs myself, blasted by wind and rain, for a nominal five miles – a purely theoretical figure, bloated by the constant need to divagate onto the beach or into tussocks of marram to track down my wayward ball. It was with relief that I switched the year after to another non-sport, snooker, where you could at least stay in the warm and get a drink.
Sleek and pawky Alex Salmond, first minister and Scottish National Party leader, has been in court challenging the BBC over the SNP’s non-inclusion in the final prime ministerial debate on BBC1. His grievance would be a bit more justified if the Nats were fielding candidates in Glossop or Penistone, and the rest of the UK. But as the SNP is only putting up candidates in Scotland (59 seats), it’s quite hard to see how Shrek could put himself forward as a UK prime minister in waiting. And then there is the usual question of line-drawing. If the nationalists had been allowed their place in the sun, why not the Greens, UKIP, the English Democrats and the BNP? Indeed, why not independents, or CURE, the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality Party, fielding four candidates on a ‘zombie rights’ platform, to allow civil partnerships between living people and stiffs.
In politics, the quality of mercy is usually strained through several layers of dirty washing. The Westminster and Edinburgh governments now boast a ‘justice secretary’ each (Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill respectively). In the old days, it was left to judges to ensure that justice was dispensed without fear or favour. Now it has to be entrusted to politicians. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has kicked up a sandstorm in the dank and lawyerly chambers of Holyrood. Commentators have deplored the ‘sickening’ spectacle of the saltire being waved at Tripoli airport by Gaddafi’s claque, and Secretary MacAskill’s politically inept audience with al-Megrahi in HMP Greenock. But bad politics is sometimes good politics. We now like the Libyans, emeritus members of the Axis of Evil.
More than two years after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice, it was announced that the convicted Lockerbie bomber would be released on humanitarian grounds. A few days later he dropped his appeal. Then today the Timesreports that Hilary Clinton has warned of an international backlash if Megrahi is released early. It’s no secret the Libyans didn't want their man to die in prison.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.