A WILDE AFFAIR
In 1998, I was a senior editor at HarperCollins Publishers in Glasgow, a very senior editor indeed, as I was about 120 years old that year, according to a story in the Scotsman.
Like many Partick Thistle fans, I was busy at the time with the 'Save the Jags' campaign, which was organized by the club’s fans to save the club after a financial crisis. I knew several writers and artists, many of whom donated signed books to the cause, including George MacDonald Fraser (himself a Jags fan), Bill Tidy, Reginald Hill and Merlin Holland. Merlin is Oscar Wilde's only grandson, and I liaised with him for over 12 years – he would pass me corrections and amendments for the regularly reprinted Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.
One morning I received a phone call from Merlin who told me to get that morning’s Scotsman. Merlin had given an interview to the Scotsman during which he mentioned his involvement in Save the Jags and - among other things - mentioned me as having asked him for a signed book, and also mentioned Oscar's generosity in giving his coat to a man who was shivering in the street.
In the Scotsman the next day, this section inexplicably came out as a description of Oscar as so generous 'he gave Edwin Moore his coat because the man was cold'.
I wrote a letter to the Scotsman (which they printed, with a nice pic of Oscar in a comfy coat) pointing out that this made me well over a century old and that if I found the coat I would auction it along with our (genuine) signed Pele strip for Save the Jags. I never did find out how I became a 19th-century tramp; this sort of thing happens in newspapers and indeed books.
THE BURNING OF THE BANNOCK
Two years later, in 2000, HarperCollins issued an excellent wee reference book replete with facts about Scotland. After the book was distributed into bookshops it was found that Bannockburn was missing from a list of Scottish battles. It had been present in the list, of course, but had dropped off in the paging process. Oh dear; again, such things happen.
A news agency got wind of this and phoned the company asking if it was true that we had just published a book which had omitted Bannockburn from a list of Scottish battles. The reporter was told yes and we were dealing with it. Then the story exploded into the Scottish media and the phone began ringing. Being the only senior editor about that afternoon, the calls came to luckless me. I gave straight answers to a lot of sly questions, fielded some weird calls from a few outraged loonies, and was interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland (of which more later).
The most disturbing feature of the Scottish media’s reaction to the news was that it must all somehow be the fault of the English. On 3 June 2000, the Scotsman had the following headline on its front page –
English lose Battle of Bannockburn - again
In vain, I and a colleague protested that everyone who worked on the book was Scottish, and that the book was in fact written, edited and produced in Glasgow by Scots. English villainy was the story here, for while taking a smack at Rupert Murdoch’s media empire may have accounted for part of the heat among some papers, the Scottish Sun – eager to demonstrate its Scottish patriotism – joined in with BBC Scotland and the rest.
What did seem odd to me was that no one in the media seemed to find the whole affair even moderately amusing, or even willing to take us at our word that the omission of Bannockburn from one list was a simple technical blunder during the pre-press handling of the pages.
Not funny at all: Scotland had been insulted, and the infidels must be exposed and punished! It was all over in a few days of course – we recalled the book (I have one of the few surviving copies) and the bulk of the Scottish media resumed its normal business of disseminating gossip about footballers and ignoring municipal and political corruption.
THE ATTACK OF THE WALLIES
And so to October 2008 and my own book on Scotland, Scotland: 1000 Things You Need to Know. The book is a celebration of Scotland, and at the core of the book is the flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment, creating the nation of which Voltaire said in 1762: ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’, and ‘it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening’.
The book has received excellent reviews (see the neighbouring post) – The Big Issue ran a long feature and had a splendid (it's won a design award) front cover depicting Barack Obama in a tartan Jimmy wig (like everyone else in America, Obama is descended from Scottish royalty).
And then I gave an agency interview, which resulted in a reprise of the Bannockburn firestorm, only this time it was a Wallace firestorm.
It did occur to me that some of the things in the book may cause outrage: the linkage between Burns and the huge Scottish involvement in slavery (there is still no indication from the Scottish government as to whether there will be an apology for slavery at next year’s ‘Homecoming’ celebrations); or the fact that there is not the slightest evidence for the Declaration of Arbroath having any influence on the American Declaration of Independence (despite both the US Senate and Congress having said it had that influence – American politicians just say these sort of things to keep ethnic groups happy); or, indeed, my suggestion in the interview that Scotland needed statues of Sheena Easton, Midge Ure and Duncan Bannatyne rather than statues of William Wallace.
In the interview I babbled on about one of my pet notions, that the Wallace Monument should become a Museum of Human Rights and Genocide, a centre to explain what really happened when the long peace between England and Scotland was broken by Edward I in 1296. (I had covered some of this ground in an interview with that fine journalist Robert Wight in the Sunday Post, but expanded on my views during the agency interview.)
Carl McDougall, in his excellent Painting the Forth Bridge: a Search for Scottish Identity (2001) pointed out that the symbolism of the Wallace Monument has changed over the years. When it was built, it was for many a symbol of unionism, a celebration of Scotland as an equal partner in the United Kingdom, but has now become a symbol of nationalist aspiration. Its meaning is fluid. Why not impose a new meaning on the Wallace Monument - one more fitting for a world filled with death cults and racism than Mel Gibson’s quasi-fascist wet dream, Braveheart?
It would not be just be good for Scotland, but good for the world. At a time when so many people, from South Ossetia to North Italy, look to the Braveheart myth for inspiration, this could be the new Scotland’s message to the world – not Mel Gibson’s ‘Freedom!’ but Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’.
One of the worst lies of Braveheart is Mel Gibson’s speech telling the English troops to go back to England ‘stopping at every home you pass by to beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape and murder’. In fact, up until Edward I’s invasion of 1296, England and Scotland had been at peace for nearly 80 years, with people crossing and settling either side of the Border in harmony. Edward took fire and sword into Scotland, killing innocent people, and Wallace later took fire and sword back when he laid waste to the English Border country As Wallace's great biographer Andrew Fisher says (in his Dictionary of National Biography entry on the man):
'The barbarous acts committed by the Scots under Wallace, like those ordered by Edward I at Berwick, had the purpose of breaking resistance, and were of a kind often repeated by both sides.'
The interface between Wallace scholarship and the Braveheart myth is a strange one. The 2002 paperback version of Fisher's Wallace biography carries a ringing endorsement by Mel Gibson on the cover: ‘. . . the smartest, most savvy account of Wallace’. Yet it is surely unlikely that Gibson has actually read what Fisher has to say about Braveheart in the book:
‘The success of Braveheart, with its bedaubed hooligans and a simple, one-dimensional Wallace, tells us more about its audience than of the nature of the patriot and his role. For the director and scriptwriter of the film, the concern was not liberty but the taking of liberties’.
For myself, the people I identify with are not simply 'Scots' or 'English' but the helpless villagers and farmers butchered by both sides – on both sides of the border. When it comes to marauding armies attacking civilians. I’m on the side of the civilians. Freedom? Not in my name!
The equivalence between the violent action on the part of both the English and the Scottish barons is clear: the violence was led and fostered by brutal warlords eager to bury a peaceful past, stake out their new lands, and wipe out their enemies. Wallace died for the Balliol line of succession to the Scottish throne, a line Robert the Bruce took care to crush. Braveheart shows us Bruce shuddering in the crowd as Wallace is executed. The historical Bruce wasn’t there of course, but had nothing against that method of execution, as he subsequently dealt with Balliol supporters by imprisoning them, sending them into exile, and submitting those he could safely slaughter to the same hanging, drawing and quartering meted out to Wallace. The perverted bloodfest of the execution in Braveheart is an authentic depiction not only of the end of Wallace, but of the end of the most legitimate claim to the Scottish throne.
The horrors of the Scottish Wars of Independence, and their aftermath, have of course been replicated throughout human history: transforming the Wallace Monument into a new museum of genocide, ethnic cleansing and human rights is therefore an unexceptionable suggestion I thought, but I reckoned without some elements of the Scottish media, which took the agency material and decided to stick me in the pillory (the Wallace Monument suggestion is not in the book, which is mostly quite safe for Wallace lovers to read).
Being attacked by the media for desecrating a national myth is to enter the realm of 1984’s Hate Week (‘Thoughtcrime is death’) and the Scottish media, with decades of expertise in sly sectarian jibes, are truly awful.
Fear Google: and fear above all the witless journalist with a brief to make you look a clown. The Scottish Daily Mail printed a slovenly googled biography of ‘me’; it took, for example, an article I had recently written for the Scotsman about my mother entitled ’What I Know About Women', a series run by the Scotsman (which, bless it, stayed out of this particular bonkers spree), which I concluded by saying if I was to be a woman, I would like to be Jane Asher, as she kept her dignity (never a word about Paul McCartney), worked her socks off and looked great. The Mail turned this into a ‘bizarre’ desire to be Jane Asher. Not only am I a traitor, I am a transsexual as well. (In real life, the wonderful Jane did a drawing of a cat for my youngest daughter while I was editing The Times Book of Brief Letters, for which book I selected one of her letters.)
In the agency interview I had pointed out that Wallace’s campaign in England was hardly a glorious one, consisting as it did of wiping out defenceless villages. This became ‘Wallace was a coward’ in the tabloids – the Sun had a picture of me in my pink t-shirt smiling benignly beneath a headline, which said ‘DUMB-HEART’. Somehow my nuances got lost. As it happens, the book praises the Sun sub who come up with the great SUPER CALLY GO BALLISTIC, CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS headline - such is life.
Following in the wake of the tabloids, BBC Scotland asked my publicity genius, Alice at Atlantic, for an interview, but at the same time I had been invited onto STV’s highly popular Five-Thirty Show (which was a fab experience) so magisterially declined the invitation to go to BBC Scotland’s HQ – I did not have the time. Undeterred, they asked if I would do the interview if they sent a sound van to the house, so I said fine, if they wanted me that badly they could have me indeed.
And have me they did. Sitting in the car outside the house with headphones on (a passer-by took a photograph of me and ran away – what was that about?) I found myself being interviewed yet again by the same interviewer as back in June 2000. It was clear from the opening question that the interviewer regarded what had been appearing in the tabloids as all true. Alarm bells were going off in my head by now. If you start saying ‘I was misquoted and the tabloids are lying bastards’ you can only sound like the coward you are supposedly accusing Wallace of being. I did my best to make clear what I had actually said, and also what was actually in the book - I said at one point that I wasn’t that interested in the Scottish Wars of Independence, which drew a squeak of outrage - but when the interviewer asked me if there was ‘anything else’ that bothered me, I realised I was on a hiding to nothing – you can’t win against this sort of approach.
After the interview was over, the interviewer cackled to herself for about 20 seconds (which is actually quite a long time to be cackling to oneself without actually dribbling from the mouth), then sniggered and said ‘Braveheart was a great film wasn’t it?’ ‘No, it was rubbish’ I said, and the line went dead. As Fisher says, Braveheart tells you about its audience.
Luckily, I had a copy of the 2000 interview on tape. So I dug it out and sure enough the aggression was identical, an aggression remarkable even for an interviewer so clearly desperate to be ‘incisive’. On both occasions, 2000 and 2008, I was an Enemy of the People. The mad Wallace fury was happening at about the same time as the Shettleston by-election, during which period BBC Scotland seemed to take little notice of what the very dogs in the street were saying about such matters as the Labour Party selection process. It’s much more fun to harass some harmless loon who is slandering William Wallace. They were clearly desperate to get me on to be slated, but there is no such detectable urgency emanating from BBC Scotland when it comes to the shadowlands of Scottish politics.
In one of the Patrick O’Brian novels, Stephen Maturin comments that it is ‘illiberal’ to speak in general terms about groups of people, nationalities, etc. Undoubtedly true, but there remain cultural differences between ‘peoples’. The Bannockburn and Wallace firestorms could not have happened in England. Imagine an English BBC interviewer getting so irrational about criticism of Shakespeare, Churchill or Agincourt, even the Blitz – it doesn’t happen.
In Scotland, criticisms of icons are attacks on the core myths of the nation. I got off lightly, I suppose. When Catherine Carswell dared to suggest in the 1920s that Burns was not quite the towering figure of morality that many Scots held him to be, she got a bullet through the post.
I only got accused of treason by a media that is regarded with contempt by many Scots. For the roots of fair reporting and fair comment, indeed fair employment, are in fact quite shallow in Scotland, especially the west of Scotland, where BBC Scotland is based. Even thirty years ago, not many Catholics bothered applying for jobs at BBC Scotland (from where, a few years ago, like other NUJ members involved in Health and Safety issues, I heard shocking stories of bullying, with senior management too cowardly to intervene on behalf of junior staff).
Sectarianism thrived in Scottish media institutions until recently. Arnold Kemp, that great Glasgow Herald editor, recorded how he was asked at his interview in 1981 if he was a Roman Catholic, and it was initimated to him that he wouldn’t get the job of editor if he were.
When prominent Scots such as the writer Jim Kelman or the composer James MacMillan say that sectarianism is still a problem in Scotland they get shouted down, but the truth is that Scotland remains a society with deep rifts and prejudices, a land of secrets and lies, and the maintenance of an unreal consensus.
is the title of a book published in 2002 which features 100 Scots nattering about Scottish identity. Professor Sheila McLean speaks for most of the whites in the book when she says that anyone living in Scotland is 'accepted as Scottish irrespective of his or her original roots'. As Carol Craig points out in her fine book The Scot's Crisis of Confidence, this view is contradicted by the testimony of several non-whites in the book: Mukami McCrum describes the contrast between the idealistic view of Scotland taught to her in Kenya, with the reality of violence and discrimination she has encountered here, while the lawyer Robina Qureshi talks about the 'loathing' she has encountered as an Asian and the 'veneer' of egalitarianism in Scotland. And yet Professor McLean's view remains unquestionably the establishment consensus in Scotland, a self-deluding consensus that is illustrated perfectly in the sharp turn around in the media portrayal of Donald Dewar.
FROM ICON TO AYE KENT: THE DISMANTLING OF DONALD
When Donald Dewar died in 2000, the Scottish media declared that a wave of grief was sweeping through Scotland. Dewar was not just Scotland's first 'First Minister' in the new parliament; he was 'Father of the Nation'. The morning after his death, a former moderator of the Church of the Scotland declared on BBC Scotland: 'We were blessed that he walked among us' (Dewar was a devout atheist). Public figures lined up to praise Dewar; a frequent comment was that he had the 'common touch'.
I admired Donald Dewar, yet the guff and the gush were such that I wrote a letter to the Herald in protest at the absurdities being said about the man, and called for restraint (fat chance). The ex-Mod was the worst offender, but many were the anecdotes illustrating Dewar's supposed love of the 'common people' and their homely culture. George Galloway's rational (and touchingly kind) voice was a rare exception. Galloway remembered, with much affection, a Daily Record reporter asking Dewar if he could call him 'Donnie' - 'Certainly Not!' was the outraged response.
Dewar had, however, now entered the realm of Scottish legend, where he joined the mythical figure of Wallace. Just as Wallace could not simply be a fine independence fighter (the man who wore part of the skin of a dead enemy had to be reinvented as a modern social democrat in embryo), so Dewar became a towering public figure of probity.
And then Dewar's will was released and it was revealed that he owned three houses, was a millionaire, and had a share portfolio. Suddenly the whole process went into reverse: Dewar was a contemptible hypocrite, oh aye - we really knew it all along. He deceived us all, he let us down. The very people who united to build him up now united to cast him down, and a new consensus emerged: Donald was Not One of Us. His establishment 'testificate' - the sinister old Church of Scotland certificate of good behaviour you needed to settle in a new parish - has been cancelled by the good and the godly. We are no longer blessed that he walked among us.
The reality is that Dewar was a principled man, a 'bonnie fechter' who fought hard battles against Tories, against the Scottish Militant faction within Labour, and against the SNP. He was an intelligent and cultured man, whose tastes were not those of his constituents. Typical of the man was his response to visiting a prettifed house belonging to one of the lower orders: 'very Hansel and Gretel' (Dewar had the 'common touch' of a Medici prince). I encountered him just once, and he glared at me. I have been glared at by many people, but Dewar was a champion glarer, and for me he was champion in most other respects as well.
'WHATEVER YOU SAY, SAY NOTHING'
Craig Ferguson has described Scotland as a place where ‘mediocrity is excellence and excellence is treason’, a belief often expressed by expatriate Scots (Ferguson is now of course an American). Many Scots often recite Burns’ words ‘O, wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us’, but with the mental note that of course it doesn’t apply to us. Seamus Heaney’s caustic words regarding our Ulster cousins apply to Scotland also: ‘Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us’. It's a good deal safer to refrain from asking questions, to avoid thumbing our noses at our betters: the exalted Holy Willies, Scotland's custodians of consensus.
Scotland needs a new consensus, a consensus that there can be no consensus, that we are all free to pick our own heroes (or indeed choose to have none). Unhappy is the land that has a need for heroes, says a Brecht character, and surely even more unhappy is the land that needs myth-encrusted warlords for heroes.
My heroes are rather Patrick Ferguson, that gallant product of the Scottish Enlightenment who invented the breechloading rifle and spared George Washington’s life; the so-called ‘disreputable female tramp’ Jean Glover, from whom Burns took songs; Colin Mackenzie, who rediscovered India’s Buddhist heritage; the slave Joseph Knight whose appeal for freedom was heard in Edinburgh in 1777 and rang round the world, as did Lord Auchinleck’s judgement that Knight was ‘our brother’; James Clerk-Maxwell, probably the greatest scientist between Newton and Einstein; and not forgetting Stanley Baxter, Ivor Cutler, Billy Connolly, Chic Murray and all the others who have shown that Scots can laugh at themselves.
To put these names forward as Scots to be admired rather than Wallace and Bruce is a heresy in the eyes of much of the Scottish media, but one person’s heresy is another person’s truth, and there are actually quite a few of us who regard Larkin’s 1961 question -
O when will England grow up?
as a question that can – and should - also be asked of Scotland today.