This week’s columnists
Books: a habit that’s hard to shelve
We welcome new writers for our print magazine and new columnists for our website
Hell is Error realised too late. That’s how I’ve always phrased it but today Google tells me I am misquoting Thomas Hobbes. But since the expression comes to mind often enough, and has done for many years, I doubt that it will now change to the authentic version: Hell is Truth seen too late.
I sometimes wonder if it was an error to have spent so much of my life reading books. Not just the mistake of reading The Magus; the bigger mistake of clocking up hours second only to those spent sleeping. I’ve never really kicked the habit. As a boy, I was a regular visitor to the local public library—a solitary one; I wasn’t taken there. My teenage self started buying books out of pocket money, the first purchase Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems in a two and sixpenny Penguin edition displayed in a window of W H Smith at a time when Yevtushenko was a newsworthy Soviet dissident. That was 1962 and I was fourteen or fifteen. The buying has never stopped and occasionally went out of control. I was one of those very aware that I could not graduate until compliant with the university regulation obliging settlement of debts to local tradesmen—the tradesman in question, Basil Blackwell.
Fifty years later, I buy two or three books each week but never now go to a library. At one time, I organised everything alphabetically by author. Since I remembered books by author it made sense. It’s also the case that any other system soon encounters problems of a theological order. Novels by Charles Dickens are joined by books about Dickens; books about George Eliot are slipped beside her novels. But then some member of the awkward squad writes a book about Dickens and Eliot. Where does it go? Do I create a section “The English Novel in the Nineteenth Century”? But that will promptly be spoilt by some troublemaker who tackles Dickens and Zola between the covers of one book. And so on. Proper librarians are of course familiar with such problems and even engage in theological discussions about them. I am not convinced.
Nowadays, there is no system on the shelves just as there is no system to my reading. But I still read when all around are lost in their smartphones. A train journey nowadays must be a very dispiriting thing for an author. Where are the people reading books? Even kindles are in short supply.
For some reason I think of a moment fifty years ago reading on a train headed from Paris to Dieppe. Two women, clearly sisters and clearly rather grand, were sitting opposite and shortly opened a conversation. They were intrigued to see someone—to be frank, anyone—reading the Logic of Port-Royal (Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, 1662) on a train. Could they introduce themselves? We became friends. With a kindle it would not have happened.
The need to stop shaming the poor
When I was ten I entered the regional disco dancing championships.
I’d never been to that side of town with its big houses and manicured gardens. It was like another world.
The convention centre was vast. Multicoloured lights suspended from the ceiling swept around the huge room where the competition was to be held. The wooden floor shone in a way I didn’t think wood could. Groups of girls began piling in, giggling and sparkling in the most incredible outfits I had ever laid eyes on. A posse of mothers followed the girls, all carrying little pink or powder blue coloured cases.They checked for creases, applied blusher, fixed bows and clips in their daughters’ hair.
I approached the long table at the front of the room, my hair still wet from the rain, where I handed over my 50p entrance fee and a middle- aged man gave me a white, square piece of paper with the number 11 on it. He asked if I was ok in a way that made me think the man thought I was in the wrong place. It would be fine, he assured me, before patting my shoulder and turning to talk to a woman nearby who then glanced over and shook her head slowly.
A bouncy older woman in a sequinned jumpsuit at the front of the room made announcements over a microphone. Girls, clucking loudly and preening, raced to the floor and took up spaces. One by one they edged me towards the back. Mothers stared at me from the side lines. Not in a bad way, but with a look I would soon come to understand was a combination of pity and disdain. My presence seemed to make them uncomfortable. I was out of place.
My eyes filled with water but I willed the tears back. I pinned the number card to my chest and pushed out my chin as I waited for the opening beats of the music. One, two, three, four.
The incident at the dance competition is the first memory I can recall of when I felt the sting of other people’s pity and when I think I realised, on a visceral level, that being from a poor background came with a stigma attached to it. Being poor or ‘on welfare’ was a source of shame.
Over the years there would be many other incidents that sharpened my understanding of the intersection of poverty, pity and shame. Like realising our first home, the one I lived in until we were re-housed when I was seven into new, public housing, was nothing short of a slum. Our first house had just two tiny bedrooms for eight people, and was perpetually damp. Rats were so commonplace they may as well have been members of the family. (A shovel was kept handy in the living room for when one appeared.) There was no bathroom, indoor toilet or central heating and the kitchen was a makeshift scullery with a plastic corrugated roof. Having a fridge or washing machine was unimaginable. My mum kept it immaculately clean and looking as nice as possible, but there’s only so much make-up you can put on a pig.
Scottish politics: the writing on the wall
The Canongate Wall forms the northern edge of the Scottish Parliament building, at the very foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Embedded in the wall are twenty-six decorative panels of Scottish stone with inscriptions that gather a kind of pebbledash pantheon of modern Scottish literature, including Robert Burns (twice), Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid (thrice), Hamish Henderson, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray. The first version of Gray’s stone—bearing the unofficial credo of devolutionary nationalism, ‘work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’—misspelled his first name, and had to be re-made. But the ‘vernacular’, hand-crafted particularities of the wall make errors of this kind seem forgivably natural.
No element of the design places democracy on a solemn neoclassical pedestal, or encourages hushed reverence for governing power; indeed, the human faults and frailties of parliamentarians are a running theme. In pride of place, the left-most stone quotes Mrs Howden from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian: ‘When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns—But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’Lunnon.’ A firm reminder, in demotic Scots, that the parliament is accountable to the local voices and dissenting energies of its immediate lifeworld. Far from monumentalising their power, the wall reminds MSPs of the socially limited character of their role.
This patchwork of stone and script—including several Gaelic inscriptions, works by English authors, and religious texts—might be held to embody the ‘diversity of voices’ the building exists to represent, and yet it would be impossible to read the wall as democratically reflecting the nation. Of the twenty-six panels, twenty feature quotations by men. There are four authorless proverbs and songs, a Psalm, and just one stone featuring the name of a woman, the songwriter and communist mill-worker Mary Brooksbank. All the named authors are white.
If we pursue this thought, and think critically about the imagery of national representation, the Canongate façade begins to take on a rather different countenance. Its oblique planes and irregular surfaces might even begin to suggest handholds and footholds: potential means of scaling the outer skin of Holyrood, perhaps to seek another point of entry, from an angle discouraged by the confident architecture. That thought is close to the impulse behind this book.