Finding myself a candidate for a Yale seminar on PHOTOGRAPHY AND BRITISHNESS – anything to stop Simon Schama! – I was editing ‘The Case for Moi’ on the laptop. Then this noise came from across the gangway of the train after Gala. Two very large young men – tattooed like carpets – had started working their way through a dozen cans of morning lager as we whizzed to town over the Moorfoots.
God alone knew what state they would be in by lunch.
In these momentous times much more is going on audibly than often meets the political eye. Hence the dawn chorus alert. With the election over I hoped to go to the Boswell bookfest at Dumfries House and hear Ferdinand Mount, whose TEARS OF THE RAJAS (2015) is an epic of Indian-Imperial Fife: lust, dementia, sadism, golf. Not a world away.
But anno domini and low blood pressure interdicted more hours in the train and a ramble from Auchinleck. Time instead for a provisional summing-up.
Mount was Thatcher’s cabinet assistant 1979-81 and is David Cameron’s uncle. He is also related to Anthony Powell, whose High Tory register of social divisions straightforwardly classified the Decent: the Upright: and the Shits of Hell. The train guys were perhaps the first, not really the second, but at severe risk of becoming the third (diminished, scottice, to ‘wee toalies’).
But with Homer Simpson reforming, Springfield galootery is being colonised by Scots maniacs: Groundkeeper Willie, Monty Burns and half of Dreadful Donald: the whole lot owned by Murdoch! So that text will do to be going on with …
Mount wrote THE NEW FEW (2013) – about how the very wealthy got off with barefaced robbery in tandem with the willingly thick. But in the SIMPSONS MOVIE Homer got back from Alaska to save Springfield from Schwarzenegger – by train. There is no train from Alaska to Groening’s Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, but that state now has the makings of a proper rail system: in the Eugene-Portland-Vancouver corridor.
Our Enlightenment now rather resembles Hugh MacDiarmid in his last years writing sensible letters to the Scotsman, like Max Beerbohm’s projection of a middle-aged- Victorian Byron exhorting THE TIMES. A charmer as long as he kept off the juice, MacDiarmid got the story right, from Gods Misbehaving in Goethe’s ‘Parzenlied’ to Thomas Hardy’s ‘In Tenebris’:
‘Who holds that if way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst …’
And here it was, on cue, over the gangway. ‘Rest and recreation’, boutique brewery, broad-screen footie, etc. lurching out of what’s left of ‘Scottish Business News’ and mutating into A & E overload. At some future weekend landing father (or me …) me sick and fretful, in a queue at the Borders General Hospital Life-Saving-Machine. At 71 one thinks and fears in that way.
I had become intrigued by a persistent Scots saga, the after-life of Willie McRae (known slightly in the early 1980s) while doing a short biography of the SNP’s moderniser Billy Wolfe for a collection about SNP leaders edited by Prof James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan. Wolfe had by the mid-1980s proof that he was under surveillance by the Special Branch, and thus as a fellow-director of his Chieftain Forge, his fellow anti-nuclear campaigner McRae would be as well.
The case of the body in the car off a remote road has had an oh-yes-ICONIC presence and been fictionalised at least four times: apart from two plays there’s James Robertson’s AND THE LAND LAY STILL (2010) and Ian Rankin’s THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD (2011). Dour drinking figured in the Rankin: not one of his best, indeed suggesting shoehorned slabs of St Leonard’s station backchat out of old Rebus drafts. (Mind you,the dialogue in Walter Scott’s sole imperial novel, THE SURGEON’S DAUGHTER (1828) looks as if bought from the guys who purveyed ‘Unhand her, you varlet!’ at a guinea a page).
But what intrigued me was that Malcolm Fox’s ‘Complaints’ were mainly deployed around Kirkcaldy Polis roughly during my MSP stint (2007-11) in next-door Kirk Wynd. Apart from one mention of Gordon Brown (and someone maybe taking a pop at him) there’s little relation to life in the Lang Toun. The McRae story was played out in the Highlands, in Ross and Cromarty, his 1974 and 1979 constituency, where his car, with its mortally-wounded driver, was found on 6 May 1985 in Glenmoriston.
Robertson’s ‘theoretical history’ sets the McRae theme in the country’s post-1979 nervous breakdown – a condition of precarious creativity recognisable to any friend of Angus Calder. In the Rankin version the killing is local, seemingly near Burntisland. Backbiting (well observed) breaks out in the force ….
But then Fox finds its new female head (madeover ex-red, married to Scottish finance-magnate) has turned out to be the chief conspirator, etc.
McRae might have been McMitty, but look past him. To that curious migration of authoritarian collectivism and colonial liberation which was Mountbatten’s Indian command, and the Scots on his innovatory hi-tech staff. McRae was an aide-de-camp, Major Willie Ross a cipher officer. My old friend Margo Kettle (wife of Arnold, mother of Martin) nee Gale and Edinburgh girlfriend of Dr Robert McIntyre, was then married to another ADC, Gabriel Carritt, Soviet spy.
I interviewed Lord Ross in 1982, while making a radio biography of Tom Johnston. He announced jubilantly that he’d just torched a garageful of his political papers. The OXFORD DNB account of Scotland’s most powerful peacetime politician, by his colleague Lord Hughes, is short and reveals little. But it does suggest that the authoritarian Labour nomenklatura of motorways and point-blocks (which left much administration to many who had exited after 1955 from the Communist Party) ‘had background’ as they say in Europe.
Brown will be in Melrose for Alistair Moffat’s Bookfest in June, with Douglas Alexander to hand: Fool to his Lear? Silent so far about the state of the Labour Party he once led.
But I’m little better-off in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where ‘my’ SPD lost heavily to the Greens in the last elections. Germany’s powerhouse is too far from the open sea: which matters to us, as well as to Europe’s eco-hi-tech centre. Green is good – and has (only just) saved Austria from the neo-Nazis – but it also tends to be intensely local, living in a threatened valley, not on a menaced coast.
In 2005 Robert Peston – he of the wild hair and £ 700k paycheck – wrote a daft book called WHO RULES BRITAIN? eulogising HBoS, Philip Green of British Home Stores, and underestimating our banking deficit by a factor of 37. He wrote it in a flat on Aberystwyth promenade – these days regularly tsunami-pounded – a decade after I had finished FOOL’S GOLD in slightly inland Llanbadarn. Not eccentric: National Library of Wales is a researcher’s In Paradisum. We both had Welsh wives and shared a Welsh-sounding agent, the lovely and shrewd Kate Jones.
All three women are now dead – killed young by cancer: like the feminist heroine of George Gissing’s A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES. Kate won fame in 1997 as a political agent by getting Martin Bell ‘The Man in the White Suit’ into Westminster, and throwing Neil Hamilton – a product of Aberystwyth’s politics school – out of supersafe Tatton. Wales now turns out the only place where UKIP seems in with a ‘positional’ chance, and the mantle of leading its UKIP AMs has at time of writing descended on, yes, Hamilton.
Wales is also a land whose central myth is about inundation: the drowning of dark-age Cantref Gwaelod, (where Cardigan Bay now is) was turned into a brilliant political satire THE MISFORTUNES OF ELPHIN (1829) by Thomas Love Peacock, Indian moderniser, friend of Byron and Shelley …. and precursor of Groucho as well as Karl Marx. Prince Seithynen ap Seithin Saidi is supposed to keep up Gwaelod’s great sea-wall but he blows its budget on booze:
‘This immortal old work has stood for centuries, and will stand for centuries more, if we let it alone. It is well: it works well: let well alone. Cupbearer fill. It was half-rotten when I was born, and that is a conclusive reason why it should be three parts rotten when I die.’
It promptly collapses, of course, and a fair bit of slaughter results, recorded in the rollicking ‘War Song of Dinas Fawr’:
As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.
We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus!
Enough GAME OF THRONES: back to the Picts on the train.
At Kirkcaldy I was in contact with people appraising counter-inundation marine technology, and used my trial novel DALRIADA (Capercaillie, 2015) to model the complex innovation involved, based on aircraft-carriers in World War I, in fact ‘invented’ by one Commander Forbes Sempill, Laird of Craigievar. He created Japanese naval aviation. He stayed on Tokyo’s payroll up to Pearl Harbor …
Counter-inundation engineering ideas have since made strides, through philanthropists, Scottish universities and Whitehall. It’s now being eyed by Big Contracting, and the US’s Eastern and Southern coasts of show you why: practically at sea-level from Maine to the Rio Grande. Storm Sandy (October 2012) alone inflicted nearly $ 75 billion damage.
Mobile counter-inundation is now becoming practical, and going even further conceptually. Dave Torrance, now MSP for Kirkcaldy but in 2010 my agent and a mechanical engineer to trade, assessed it posiitively: ‘it fits the technology. It would work.’ Earlier he had got me to visit an old lady, the daughter of a former Burgh Engineer, who wanted to discuss the planning of the town, and its neglected port (a hovercraft connection, successful for a fortnight in 2007, has slumbered in Glenrothes files ever since).
Her father had in the 1920s argued for an offshore artificial reef, within whose shelter a park and lagoon would be created, ‘with yachts and islands and pleasure grounds’ instead of the present underwhelming ‘sixties-point-blocks-and-dual-carriageway’, occasionally overwhelmed by the Forth.
Rankin at least got that subtopia right.
Thinking about ‘heavy’ technology has gradually come together, not quite creating a new heaven and a new earth, but giving an overview: the land/sea boundary isn’t fixed. Something’s emerging, particularly around Scotland, that you could call a ‘sea-region’ in which new technology and transportation will make for a ‘geopolis’ of the sort first envisaged – for Dunfermline, 1908 – by Patrick Geddes.
In 2015 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC made me a ‘Global Vision Lecturer’ on its ‘Explorer’ motorship – on the list between Gorbachev and Chris Hitchens (last seen in 1975 sleeping off SNP whisky on our Morningside hearthrug). Innovations (production platforms, seabed electric switchgear, tidal generators, fish farms, ‘floating fields’, even giant cruise liners) encountered between London, Cornwall, Donegal, St Kilda and Bergen are beginning to interact. A new economy is being made.
Rankin’s copshop faces Adam Smith College – its Chancellor, Gordon Brown. The old lino-worker’s tech is now into soft skills and (it seems) deep schtuck, and both seats are now SNP with a 16.4k vote, where in 2007 I got beaten in the burgh contest by 11k to 8.5k by Gordon’s decent ‘house-elf’ Marion Livingstone (Rowling does good political patois!)
But … There’s still a core of capability at Adam Smith + Burntisland Fabricators + Methil science park +post-carrier Rosyth Dockyard.
Swap the last Dreadnoughts for low-carbon research spanning Edinburgh Methil; get a pilot scheme literally afloat and taken to prototype stage in Scotland: we have Europe’s best range of good construction/testing sites round our vast coastline – ten times longer than Germany’s fairly useless Wattenmeer, plus the northern hemisphere’s only growing supply of fresh water.
We could take immediate location-action if the Scots Cabinet and Angus Robertson at Westminster make it clear pronto to Cameron what their terms for keeping us in Europe are. Our junior ministers are still underpowered but John Swinney is (given a broad definition of education) and a competent staff, our best hope. The payoff will be international.
Out of unexpectedly redundant drilling rigs and floating production platforms we can quite speedily forge counterweights to international disorder: centres for refugee communities, mobile centres to galvanise shore settlements, repair-squads, education, hospitalisation and enough industrial production to empower collective enterprise.
In the longer term – and this is why we should join Ireland to remain in Europe – we NEED the Mediterranean. Too much of the Scottish year is an endurance test for older people: who would value being ‘ordered south’ through our winters: the last has crouched over us for eight months. For youngsters such spells can combine languages, volunteering, training and as DALRIADA’s subtitle goes, ‘a romance of invention’ instead of sedentary ‘social media’. What ’s tolerable in a country with adequate manufacturing GDP becomes toxic where it – and associated innovation – drops under ten percent.
Minister-President Lothar Spaeth, CDU, appointed me to Tuebingen Regional Studies in 1980. Alzheimers killed him in this March at 78; otherwise he’d have been sussing out the chance for BaWue to grab coastal sites for green power – and break-bulk harbours. The huge Voith engineering/generating combine dominates the first, but its Heidenheim HQ near Ulm is as far inland as you can get in Europe.
If Cameron is serious about ‘Remain’ he will cut a deal with Sturgeon and Ba-Wue’s Green-Black coalition in Stuttgart under Minister-President Kretschmann. Many of my graduates are now in engineering, transport and environment economics – a gifted industrial general staff. Given a floating technology, the basic planning could take weeks, not months – and (not least) make a big new market for Welsh-smelted, Motherwell-rolled steel.
Back to strangers on the train. Without craft jobs that exercise muscle, dexterity, teamwork as well as learning – Geddes’s ‘head, hand, heart’ – such tragic comedians will multiply. Former Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns was right about that. The folklorist Margaret Bennett recently published WE ARE THE ENGINEERS! (Grace Note, 2015) – the quote’s from Ewan McColl – about a Kirkcaldy machinery company, Melville Brodie. It was crushed by linoleum’s decline and dodgy international dealing in the 1970s: along with it went chances for the sort of adaptable craftspeople who are basic to Germany’s success – something Brown once recognised in WHERE THERE IS GREED (1989) and then forgot.
He and Scottish Labour can only recover by returning to Alasdair Gray’s LANARK. Westminster’s ‘Glamour of Backwardness’ (copyright Tom Nairn) may have bewitched underemployed SNP MPs in Trollopian style – alas consorting with silly Lizzie Eustace, not sensible Marie Max Goesler.
Holyrood’s still too much a private system: the elitist ‘Institute’ presiding over a wee, dim world – ‘the dreary stadiums of Ibrox and Parkhead’! The seas around us give a real chance of old-style industrial revival: they can also swamp. We have to rebuild Gray’s Unthank, and we haven’t got long. But we have a unique opportunity!