Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Death Of Robin Williams

When I was a wee boy, my quadrilingial and hyperliterate much beloved late maiden great-aunt  used to tell me a story about Joey Grimaldi.

A man went to see a doctor, and told him he was very sad and didn't see any point going on with life. His doctor tried to cheer him up, saying 'Why don't you go and see Grimaldi?'. 

The man replied, 'Doctor, I am Grimaldi'. 

Nice cheery story, that one (thanks, Aunty: God love her, she meant well and I'll always love her to bits, but the shackles of any culture can be bloody hard to throw off, even should you ever feel like doing so), but it was kind of brought back to my mind today by the passing of Robin Williams. 

That funny, funny wee man - a man who from, say, 1988 to maybe 1993 might quite easily have claimed the title of most famous man alive, even when the opposition was Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela (the sheer extent, the width, breadth and height of Williams's fame during those years doesn't really seem to have been touched upon by his official obituarists)  - has gone. The manner of his passing is most sad. It's so sad to be reminded that someone who made it his life work to make other people laugh, a task to which Williams set his back to the wheel like a Stakhanovite and in which he actually bloody succeeded, could not find happiness of his own in the end. Depression is not an indulgence, it is an illness, and it is grossly inhumane to suggest otherwise. 

God have mercy upon his family. Having witnessed the irresoluble, unanswerable grief suffered by the survivors of suicide at the closest of quarters, it's something you'd never wish on your worst enemy.

There are at least three major wars going on in the world right now. Why should the death of a clown matter in the midst of all this? It matters a great deal. All those human beings involved in the commission of all that collective hatefulness in all those places are just being flawed humans. Williams was different. Flawed he might have been (I would prefer to describe him as frail; it seems fairer, for he was ill), but he expressed himself by trying to make other people happy for a while - and that's a damn sight more than most people do for their fellows throughout the course of their whole lives.

It isn't often one finds oneself in agreement with the minions of Rupert Murdoch, yet, being utterly selfish and self-centered, it was, well, kind of odd to see that of all the movies featuring the late Robin Williams that they could have shown as a tribute on Sky 1 tonight, the one that they chose to show was  - 'Awakenings'.

Goodnight, Euphegenia. RIP.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Some Thoughts On The Massacre Of Flight MH17

"When the Scyths came to Sparta on this errand Cleomenes was with them continually; and growing somewhat too familiar, learnt of them to drink his wine without water, a practice which is thought by the Spartans to have caused his madness. From this distance of time the Spartans, according to their own account, have been accustomed, when they want to drink purer wine than common, to give the order to fill 'Scythian fashion'."

Herodotus, 'Histories', Book Six. 

Alcoholism in Russia is clearly nothing new. 

Lake Voskhod, on Antarctica, is the largest body of absolutely pure water on the planet. Its preservation is deemed essential, as cosmologists think it is the nearest thing on Earth to the environment on Europa. A BBC science program broadcast some years ago reported the horror of NASA engineers on finding out that a group of Russian researchers had come with seconds of polluting the whole lake, having drilled to within six inches of the surface using a bit oiled with kerosene. 

The story may be apocryphal, but in the novel 'The Hunt For Red October' the late Tom Clancy recorded how a Kazakh cook on a Russian nuclear submarine attempted to clean his pots with the steam from the reactor's outpipe. He was vaporised instantly.

Those boozy thugs in balaclavas (a good Ukrainian word!) wandering through the wreckage of Flight MH17 may be willing to die for field, flag and fatherland, but whoever is responsible for massacring its passengers and crew made sure that three hundred other people with no real investment in their dispute can now be counted among their squabble's victims. Even before this, I found the conflict in Ukraine to be squalid and disgusting. It is heartbreaking that even in the year 2014 there are Europeans who cannot settle their cultural differences without resorting to guns and airstrikes. They kill each others' children with airstrikes; and now they have killed eighty children who might never even have heard of Ukraine. So many children. 

Whoever is responsible, I do sincerely hope that this event causes these people to take a very good, very long and very hard look at why they are fighting each other. I hope that this is found to be the consequence of some drunken incompetent using a weapon which, in any situation requiring an iota of sanity, they would never be allowed near. In the context of the culture which prevails in that part of the world, such an event would be understandable; disgraceful, for sure, but understandable. If it is anything else - if that plane was fired at deliberately, for whatever reason - whichever juiced-up berserkers are responsible should be on the first flight to The Hague, by mutual consent of Moscow and Kiev. The Dutch are a civilised people, and I'm sure that the Netherlands prison authorities would not afford their new guests the welcome they might deserve.

No liability should attach to Malaysia Airlines for this incident. Its pilot was flying its plane at what they had every reason to consider was a safe height, over what they had every good reason to consider was safe airspace. In such circumstances, the possibility of being hit by a surface to air missile must have seemed as remote as being hit by a meteorite. There is nothing that either the captain of Flight MH17 or his employers could have done to prevent this crime. They are all innocents. May Malaysia Airlines fly forever. 

Crimes have victims, and we should look forward to the perpetrators of this one, a crime of epic magnitude, being prosecuted forthwith. It is one of the very great tragedies of our time that we cannot consider the shooting down of a civilian aircraft and the three hundred consequent murders to be the crime of the century. Yet the perpetrators should be prosecuted, for if anything this is a greater attack upon our way of life, in terms of how we all actually live, than the horrible madness of that autumn morning thirteen years ago (God, it still seems like yesterday). The perpetrators of that crime were 'striking a blow', or some crap like that. The perpetrators of this crime weren't out for gain, or looking to make a point. Instead, their heads were full of the banality of nation-worship, making them reckless to a degree likely to be beyond the comprehension of psychiatry.

The sheer range of people from all backgrounds who have been murdered - members of the Toon Army going to see Newcastle United play in New Zealand; a florist (how Dutch!); a retired headmaster (bit close to home, that one); one of the world's greatest experts on the spread of HIV - remind one of how universal the ability to travel now is. Indeed, travelling isn't something we should consider ourselves as being able to do anymore, it's something one we should be considered as having the right to do, if we have the means. Both the nature of his work, and the degree of distinction he achieved within his field - evident from the regard with which he seems to have been held by fellow HIV researchers - has meant that the murder of Joep Lange has attracted more comment than most (I'm sure that the Internet's crackpot evangelical right will have had a field day celebrating the murder of someone who's alleviated the suffering of AIDS victims, but that's one sewer I have no inclination to trawl). 

Yet his murder shines the light of a perfect irony on the massacre of Flight MH17. His murderers may have murdered him thinking that he was an enemy of their village/tribe/oblast/volk*(*delete as applicable), but Joep Lange spent his working life fighting a virus, an organism with no respect for borders and nationhood; an enemy of all mankind - even of his murderers, the hateful, drunken, bloody-minded, bloody-handed, bloody fools.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

On The Death Of Gerry Conlon



The word 'iconic' is nauseatingly overused, and badly ill-used, these days; but if one single visual image which has entered the public consciousness as a consequence of the workings of the law of England and Wales within recent memory deserves to be regarded as being iconic in the the truest sense of the word, it is the image of Gerry Conlon walking out of the Court of Appeal through the front door. 

No image shows more clearly how the system can go wrong. 

No image shows more clearly how the system can go right.

The name of Gerry Conlon is a standing and immortal rebuke to all those who advocate the virtues of capital punishment. If the pea-brained hangers and floggers had their way, an innocent man would have hanged.

'In The Name Of The Father', indeed; by the grace of God, may the son now have joined his father in the reward of eternal peace they both so, so richly deserve. Eternal rest grant unto your children Guiseppe and Gerard, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them; may they rest in peace; and may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

On The Award Of A Knighthood To Professor Tom Devine

A bit behind events, I know, but I'm taking things at my own pace these days. 

I may have said this before - I know I am becoming repetitive - but in my view Tom Devine should be considered Scotland's most distinguished living man of letters.

If ever a knighthood awarded to an historian has been earned - in terms of hours spent in the library, in terms of productivity of output, in terms of consistency of output, in terms of incisiveness of insight and in terms of quality of prose - it's this one. My congratulations to Sir Thomas and Lady Devine. 

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Cybernats' Attack On JK Rowling

If Oscar Wilde was correct to describe foxhunting as 'the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible', then the so-called 'cybernats' can best be described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the unthinkable. 

Yet this time the laptop lairds and keyboard kilties have excelled themselves. They have trolled JK Rowling - a unionist with more and better lawyers than they have.

Way to go, guys! That was really smart! Now, straight off to Azkaban with you!

God, the dreariness of this whole referendum crap thing is overwhelming.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Fire At Glasgow School Of Art

To us, this is what a fire at the Louvre might be to Parisians. It's that bad. We don't have much of a visual arts heritage in Scotland; we think we do, but we don't really, as the loss of patronage occasioned by the removal of James VI and I to London in 1603 upon the Union of Crowns retarded the production of visual art here for at least two full centuries (one of the great unanswered questions of Scottish history is whether the same retardation of visual art was a factor that led to our subsequent emphasis on technical education, at which we certainly did excel, but that's another story). The Mackintosh Building is very possibly the single most important piece of visual art ever produced in Scotland, made so that art could be made within art, and the thought of it being damaged is just so saddening. Your heart can't help but go out to students who've lost work.

We are all proud of that building, one of the most important and least contentious pieces of our common Scottish heritage; our own wee crown jewel. May it rise again, and, yes, flourish.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Boko Haram Kidnappings

I can recall seeing fewer sadder sights than the image of those wee lassies being paraded by their kidnappers.

My heart goes out to them and to their parents. You can glue together any number of adjectives to describe it; hateful, barbaric, medieval, whatever. The bottom line is that it's just so sad.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is The Referendum Over Yet?

I'm bored with it all now.

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On Mountaineering - 'Into The Silence'


This is a truly marvellous book of incredible range and scope. Davis has a wonderful turn of phrase, and his description of the British Army of the era in question as being 'militantly anti-intellectual' is just about the last word that really should be said about that particular civilisational dead end. Since having read that one of the reasons why the bridges of British naval vessels were less well-fortified than those of their German counterparts was that a British naval officer was expected to have more pluck than his Teutonic opponent, I have regarded the cult of pluck as being a death cult as beastly as any human sacrifice cult in pre-Christian Central America; and the comment of Arthur Hinks, long time London frontman of the Everest Committee, that 'only rotters use oxygen' did little to dispel that view.

Yet what was really striking about the book was that absolutely none of the Englishmen who went to climb Everest in 1921, 1922 and 1924 seemed to possess the slightest degree of humility in the face of nature. The Tibetans did - that's why they didn't climb the mountains. It really got me wondering about what motivates people like that to do that sort of thing, and the only cogent reason I could come up with as that at bottom they are as empty as the spaces they try to conquer. If you have a hole in the middle of yourself, nothing can fill it - not the sound of your own voice, not drink, not even the tallest mountain in the world. This is a question of very great importance in the here and now, because in 2014 we have become a full twelve-sevenths more efficient at enabling the deaths of Sherpas on Mount Everest than we were in 1922. The journey to the top of Chomolungma does not therefore seem to be taking us very far if enabling greater numbers of Sherpas to die is the only metric by which we seem to measure progress. The mountain isn't going to get any bigger, and lots of people have been up there already, with far too many not coming down again afterwards. Why, therefore, do we persist in putting ourselves and, more importantly, the Sherpas through this? 

I think it's because we don't really want to conquer it - it's because we want to consume it; and all too often, it consumes us instead. A giant lump of rock that stands over 28,000 feet tall cannot be consumed, it is too much for anyone to swallow; and maybe it's time we stopped trying.

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On People Who Moan About How Bad Their Well-Paid Jobs Are

If they so wish, they can always apply for posts as street sweepers instead.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Short Thought On The Death And Career - The Two Having Been Inextricably Intertwined - Of Margo MacDonald

De Mortua Nil Nisi Bonum, I suppose, the deceased having done a Tony Nicklinson and presumably died in her sleep (if one should ever go out of one's way to try and look for proof of the existence of God, then totting up the number of right-to-death campaigners who, like MacDonald, like Nicklinson, like Ludovic Kennedy, die in their own beds might be a good place to start; never let it be said that God does not possess a sense of humour). 

What we can do is analyse her achievements. She was an MP for 112 days, forty-one years ago. Wow. She was an independent MSP, meaning that she represented a constituency of one. Nice work, if you can get it. The only significant impression I gained from those tributes to her which I saw is that the upper reaches of Scottish public life seem to be claustrophobically small in scope, with everyone knowing everyone else and all of them apparently suspicious of outsiders; a village, in every sense of the word. No matter what else she achieved, what she really was was a consummate insider, as all the best 'independents' always are.

However, speaking subjectively as someone whose hands now tremor not only in different directions but also at different speeds, her most lasting achievement might have been to lodge the idea that Parkinson's Disease is a death sentence into the Scottish public consciousness, in my view undoing the great deal of good work done by the health authorities to normalise the Parkinson's experience with what can only be described as ruthless selfishness.

And during the last years of her life, she might have done irreparable harm to the cause of life rights in Scotland - other people's life rights, mind you, not, as it turned out, her own; and that is one helluva legacy for anyone to leave behind them.

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A Short Thought On The Power Of The Google Algorithm

(Dedicated to the memories of Peaches Geldof, Freddy McConnel, Michael Suchar and Burton Wragg; the bravest, most selfless headmaster of a primary school who ever drew breath).

Given the nature of the terribly sad event which was the lead item on yesterday's news, it came as no surprise that this was my most viewed item today. 

God rest her soul. 


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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Crimea

I'm sorry if I've written this before - I am becoming more repetitive - but one of the most illuminating aspects of reading Orlando Figes's 'Crimea: The Last Crusade' was seeing what Russian diplomats had to say about their country's security at the time of that terrible and wholly unnecessary war.

They complained about British complaints about them trying to strengthen their position on the Black Sea when the British were ensconced on their southern flank in India (if memory serves they were also being pestered by one of the nuttier, more bloodthirsty Transcaucasian warlords at that time, so they weren't naturally in the best of moods). 

What was fascinating - what made the hair on the back of my neck stand up - was comparing what they said in their despatches and communiques in 1854 with what they said at the UN Security Council in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One hundred and eight years later, they were saying precisely the same things, the only difference being that in the nuclear age they were complaining that the USA was preventing them from installing defences in Cuba while itself installing missiles directly to the south of them in Turkey. 

(Two points - firstly, I may be mistaken, but I don't think Professor Figes undertook this exercise in his own book. Secondly, like just about every other right-thinking person I am very grateful that Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba).

To  my mind, the very sinister events which have taken place in Ukraine are cause for the greatest concern. A democratically elected government has been overthrown, and London or Washington are mute in the face of the putsch, indeed endorse it by the laying of flowers; the banal and sentimental act of those with no cogent response to events. This has happened while the local regional power has been otherwise engaged - would this have happened had the Winter Olympics not been taking place in Sochi? I very much doubt it. The timing of these events are the biggest two fingers that anti-Russian elements in Ukraine could have elevated to The Kremlin. This is not a pro-Ukrainian event. It is an anti-Russian event, deeply unpleasant Russophobia currently being sanctified by the words, actions, money and floristry of the British and American governments.

The people who are fronting it seem to include ultranationalists, among whom are some very unsavoury characters whose only distinguishing features are their penchant for carrying weapons and their need to wear distinguishing clothing and regalia - two of the hallmarks of classical fascism, wherever it is found -  and criminals. One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting we receive from that part of the world is that anyone who opposes Russia within its sphere of influence and who ends up in jail is somehow automatically and unthinkingly elevated to the status of martyr. I don't know why the political loser Yulia Tymoshenko was in jail - for all we know she could have been in there because she's a crook. Is it still OK to say that in this country these days? 

Russian military activity in Crimea seems to be directed solely towards the protection of ethnic Russians who actively want them there (shades of Northern Ireland, at least in 1969). This is not a popular revolution, not by any manner of means. Could it the case that the Russian military presence on the peninsula is actually necessary, in order to protect ethnic Russians? It doesn't seem to be the ethnic Russians who are wearing the SS armbands. Just saying. 

And of course, we have William Hague and Barack Obama and Uncle Tom Cobley and all all talking cobblers at the Russians about the need for them to show restraint, when they seem to have shown and seem to be showing nothing but restraint. The Russians are not the ones who overthrew the government of Ukraine - Ukrainian putschists did that. What has happened in Ukraine has been an assault on democracy everywhere. An unintended consequence of failing to address that might be that public opinion in a country whose recent experiences of dealing with democracies include swapping tyranny for penury starts to lose interest in democracy. 

And that would be a tragedy not just for Russia, but for the world.

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On The Foreign-ness Of An Independent Scotland


"The Scottish first minister is to say that Scotland and England will not be "foreign" to each other even if the political union between the two ends."

This will be an impossible feat to manage, given that for a Glaswegian like me every part of Scotland other than Glasgow already feels foreign (no jokes about lager, sorry laager mentality, please). If he doesn't want to be a foreigner when he goes to England, why is he putting the rest of us through all of this? 

Should he win, God forbid, the first thing he and his disciples will do is redefine acceptable Scottishness according to their own tastes and prejudices, a process they will enjoy with all the ruthless, iconoclastic relish of a De Valera; but does he think he will also be able to redefine 'foreign-ness?' How does he think an English person returning to visit Scotland after separation will feel as they enter a country which has become so fundamentally different to the one they used to know? In which, by the mere fact of their own circumstances, they are now a foreigner? How is he going to do this? 

It's not going to be as a consequence of us all using the same money, that's for sure. That curling stone has unceremoniously stopped before the mark, and no amount of frantic brushing of the ice, nor panicked shouting, is going to make it budge any further. It's not going to be as a result of us all still being in the European Union. That hole's been bogeyed. The degree of foreign-ness that visitors to Scotland will feel after independence will be incredible - one sign of which might just be the presence of very much more aggressive police officers on the streets.

The Tartanissimo's knowledge of famous authors named Hartley might not stretch beyond J. R. to L.P., but the latter wrote 'The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there'. Maybe The Tartanissimo, perhaps animated by the arrogance that possessing an excessive love of nation over nationals tends to breed, thinks that not only is the past a foreign country, but that the present is as well - he is, after all, First Minister in 'The Scottish Government' (come on now, don't laugh - at least, not all at once). He already thinks he's the head of a 'government', even if it's only a small, mean, soi-disant, ersatz one. He's got no chance of combatting a sensation of foreign-ness after independence. He's already got the biggest dose of it going.

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'The First Four Georges'

Although J. H. Plumb did possess the rather stupid habit of describing people who were obviously quite able as being stupid, a habit which does detract from his book a little if only because it might provide an unattractive insight into his own mindset at the time he was writing it, 'The First Four Georges' is nonetheless an enjoyable, if rather brief, tour through the highest reaches of English society from 1713 until 1830. 

However, I didn't really feel I learned very much from it; not the best thing you can say about a work of history. 

Not necessarily a recommend, but certainly a pleasant way of passing the time.

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'The Great Siege'

This fascinating book, incredibly well-written by a fascinating man, is one of the most gripping I can recall ever picking up. 

The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 is one of the most important events on the history of the world; and one could hope for no better guide to it than this book. I am no big fan of military history - too much bloody blood, give me a nice, clean, safe monastery, library or throne-room any day - but Ernle Bradford possessed the unique skill of making the reader feel as if they were actually in the middle of the events he was describing; and Malta in the summer of 1565 was by no means a pleasant place to be. This enables the reader to feel grateful that it is only by the Grace of God that they were not.

For sure, you have to wade through a wee bit of Anglocentric propaganda - it is gratifying to know that Good Queen Bess, God bless her, was worried about the consequences of an Ottoman victory; pity she later seemed happy to treat with them in order to cause trouble for the Spanish - but the author was a man of his own time and culture, and cannot be blamed for having picked up some of their barnacling conceits. Bradford is one of those authors whose works should be much more widely-known than they are. On the basis of this book, I don't feel it's going too far to suggest that he should be on every literate person's reading list. 

Must read.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

'The Little Hero'

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill

Monitoring and checking and nosey-parkering into loving families...the SNP really are a bunch of natural born narks, snipes and clipes...disgustingly prurient people...

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The Day I Channelled Tony Blair

"The more one touches the pitch that is the phone-hacking scandal, in all its tawdriness, the case for a judicial enquiry, best headed by a Law Lord, into the conduct of News International, with comprehensive powers to compel the attendance of witness, hear evidence on oath and demand documents at leisure becomes compelling. And it cannot be the whitewash the Hutton enquiry (sic) was perceived to be, Lord Hutton having been hamstrung by the parameters within which he had to work; parameters which gave him no option but to find the BBC guilty as libelled"


"Only got ten minutes before I see Charlie for confiscation!

But I had an hour on the phone to Tony Blair.

He said: 

1. Form an independent unit that has a outside junior council, ken macdonald, a great and good type, a serious forensic criminal barrister, internal counsel, proper fact checkers etc in it. Get them to investigate me and others and publish a hutton (sic) style report."


History will deem the greatest victim of the Hutton Inquiry to have been Lord Hutton himself.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Comparing The Pursuit Of Womens' Rights In Scotland And Iran - 'Iran Awakening'

When I was a young solicitor in the vicinity of Glasgow Sheriff Court in the early '90's, there were a group of female procurator-fiscals working in that court who, contrary to custom, never rose to their feet when the sheriff came on to the bench.

The first time I saw it, I thought it was rude - everyone stands up, don't they? I once attended a seminar at which a sheriff not known for public gentleness noted very gently that such behaviour was extremely discourteous, and I remember The Big Lad, God rest his soul (and how odd writing that feels) and I having had a laugh about it as well.

Whatever motivated them to behave in that way, whatever point they were trying to make, it now just seems to have been insolent and shrewish. They had full equality in the system they worked in and in the processes in which they were involved, yet for some reason they chose to separate themselves from custom and do their own thing. The ladies in question could do far worse than read 'Iran Awakening', the memoirs of Shirin Ebadi

I will not recite that lady's achievements. Let me merely say that until I picked up 'Iran Awakening', it had been a very long time since I had read a book from cover to cover in one go, but yesterday I did it with that one. As well as recording the events of a life of great distinction, she makes two points worthy of the finest essayist. 

The first arose from having been hectored by an illiterate 18 year old female guardian of morality. The experience made her realise that that girl was in every sense the complete creature of the Islamic Revolution - that if that had not happened, that girl would have still been at home washing the herbs for dinner. Perversely, the Revolution enabled young women like that to get out of the home and into education; and that fact alone might harbour some hope for the development of liberalism, as such young women will eventually insist upon making their own choices. 

The second is Ebadi's extremely humane view of those who crack under torture and name names. She makes the very powerful case, a true lawyer's case, that criticising those who crack does nothing but facilitate the torture of others; that it is not merely inhumane but unethical to criticise those who have not responded as we think they should when they are the ones who have been subjected to unethical tretament. I read that and thought, 'Yes, that's right'. 

The status of women in Iran is obviously far less advanced than in Scotland; yet it interesting to note that while Iran fails to provide women with legal protections, the soi-disant, ersatz, 'Scottish Government' is seeking to abolish the requirement that criminal evidence be corroborated, a requirement that protects all citizens from persecution by the state, and is citing the advance of womens' rights as justification for doing so.

There is something wrong with that picture; for if any state seeks to remove a protection against persecution from all citizens in pursuit of what they say is the rights of one demographic, all citizens will eventually suffer.

Must read. 

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John Swinney Sinks Any Chance Of A Separate Scotland Joining The European Union

If he thinks that describing the president of the European Commission's views on a separate Scotland's ability to join the EU as 'pretty preposterous' is going to win Scotch nationalism any friends in the Eurocracy, he might have another thing coming. 

To debunk Swinney's argument that Scotland will glide into the EU as it has been a member of both it and its predecessor institutions since 1973, it hasn't. The United Kingdom has. Although the Treaties of Union preserved Scotland's legal system, they reserved the conduct of foreign affairs to the Union. The BBC quotes Swinney as saying, 

"The Spanish Foreign Minister said if there is an agreed process within the United Kingdom by which Scotland becomes an independent country then Spain has nothing to say about the whole issue. 

"That indicates to me quite clearly that the Spanish government will have no stance to take on the question of Scottish membership of the European Union."

To my eyes, that merely means that the Spanish would have nothing to say about the outcome of a referendum on the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom - a totally different matter from whether or not they would have anything to say about a separate Scotland being able to walk into the European Union. 

(And any SNP hack who cites the Catalans in support of their cause should be aware that the Spanish constitution states that the territory of Spain is complete and inviolate, and appoints Spain's armed forces as the guardians of its integrity; see John Hooper, 'The New Spaniards'. Catalonia is never going to secede from Spain because, by law, it can't; the only thing that's remarkable about Catalonia's nationalists is that they're even more egregious than Scotland's). 

Game, set and match to Barroso. 

What is on display from Swinney here is less of a bunker mentality than a bothan mentality. No matter how elevated their position, anyone who disagrees with the SNP is apparently wrong. Jose Manuel Barroso is wrong about Scotland's ability to join the EU. The Treasury is wrong about Scotland's continuing ability to use sterling. The Lord Justice General and apparently the Scottish legal professions in their entirety are wrong about the need to preserve corroboration. In all of these fields, Alex Salmond and the SNP are right and everyone else is wrong. 

This displays a degree of self-confidence which can only be described as utterly terrifying.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cardinal-Designate Nichols On Welfare Reform

While His Grace is absolutely correct, it would be very nice to see someone making the case that the coalitions's wilful diminishment of the UK's welfare system is nothing more or less than the same crude Benthamism that gave us the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

As time passes I find myself becoming repetitive, so I'm sorry if I've written this before, but what I found to be one of the most striking aspects of Richard Crossman's diaries was the perception he gained on his first day in charge of the DHSS, on its own first day, that its staff were of the view that it should be difficult for people to claim benefits, and that they would accordingly make it difficult for them to do so. Crossman, a very difficult man, was genuinely angered by the injustice of this, and he was perfectly right to be. The same crude Benthamism which was at work in 1834 grasped the flower power of 1969 by the stem and viciously pruned it; and the same crude Benthamism is at work now, demanding that the poor, the sick and the weak shoulder the burden of public expenses they have had the least degree of responsibility for incurring.

Again, at the risk of being repetitive, it seems clear to me that for the past two centuries the United Kingdom has pursued only one economic policy - that of scrupulous fairness to the needs and concerns of the rich, at all times and under all circumstances. While various ideologies have come and gone, that policy has been the sole constant. In that light, it is quite clearly wrong to say that a 'welfare state' was instituted after the Second World War; what came into being was instead an anti-welfare state, for while more people became legally entitled to more benefits, as Crossman discovered the state remained as mean with public funds as it had ever been. The only difference between 1834 and 1969 was that the beadles now wore bowler hats.

Every expansion of the so-called 'welfare state' since that time has been a reaction to the failure of every attempt by any governing party to pursue an alternative ideology while remaining scrupulously fair to the needs and concerns of the rich. Thus it was that upon the introduction of Incapacity Benefit, tens of thousands of people who had previously been hale and hearty were suddenly deemed to have become incapacitated. Many were not incapacitated, but at least they were not then claiming unemployment benefit. When people do that, you have to go through the motions of trying to create jobs for them, and all that costs money.

It now seems certain that, barring a miracle, this official posture will never change; and so in 2014 we have disabled people being evicted from tenancies which have been adapted for their needs while avoiding tax seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Nichols has his work cut out.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

And Even As Scottish Nationalism Implodes In Front Of The World, The SNP Proclaims Its Desire To Continue Oppressing Scots

This is like the Nazi street tribunals that were passing death sentences when the 101st Airborne were in the next street.

You have to hand it to MacAskill - the determination he has exhibited in his pursuit of corroboration's abolition is a marvel to behold. He was, of course, addressing a sympathetic audience, if not one whose first concern is likely to be the civil liberties of suspects - or perhaps of some suspects, anyway. 

Yet for him to have made this speech while his party, his cause, his ideology is in the greatest degree of public trouble it has ever faced, when it cannot provide answers that the world needs to know, never mind the answers needed at his own very shallow end of the political pool, is deeply unsettling. Like all authoritarians, he cannot ever switch his authoritarianism off. 

If anyone wants to know what any future independent Scotland would really be like, MacAskill has just provided it. It would be one in which the Scottish state would not consider Scots in Scotland to be citizens, but suspects.

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Stating The Obvious Is Not Bullying

Having at last broken cover on the currency issue, The Tartanissimo could at least have done better than put on the broken record of anti-Westminster rhetoric.

If he thinks that the Treasury has not factored the cost to business of separate currencies into its advice, he's dumber than he seems. His comments today are bloviation borne of desperation. That Unionists should state the obvious about the currency issue is not 'bullying'. It's only bullying if you're accustomed to everyone around you agreeing with you and to getting your own way. Maybe he's been fortunate enough to live his life in that manner before, but he's playing with the big boys now. His comments about 'the days of Westminster politicians dictating to Scotland are over' are embarrassing, and stem from the same arrogant, dilettanteish approach to his status that led him to declare his minority Scottish Executive to be 'The Scottish Government'. No referendum has yet been held, but he talks like a head of state, even though he's a man in deep political trouble, one whose words will now be listened to with very great interest by the world's money markets. 

I hope he understands that this is not a state of affairs that he will be able to get out of in the classic Scotch nationalist manner - with a wee dram and a folk song.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Sentences That Should Send Scottish Civic Nationalism And The Scottish National Party Into Oblivion

You know, I could almost feel sorry for Nicola Sturgeon. Almost. 

Reports that she has said that any failure by a rump British government to allow a separate Scotland to use sterling would result in a separate Scotland refusing to take its share of British national debt have detonated, obliterated, annihilated any chance that a separate Scotland, using another currency, would ever have had of borrowing money in international markets at any rates other than penal. She has reduced the status of any Scottish currency to junk before it's even been minted.

Before yesterday, there might have been a few bond-trading Bravehearts over on Wall Street, willing to take a punt on the old country. Not today. Scotland's Deputy First Minister spoke to them in their language, the language of money, and said out loud that an independent Scotland would be willing to default on its debts for political reasons. Woof. Not the right thing to say to these people. Not very statesmanlike at all. 

Does she seriously think that Goldman Sachs, or Morgan Stanley, or whoever, are going to be willing to throw money at people who say they might decide not to pay it back if it doesn't suit them? No matter how you dress it up, that's what she said. There is no getting away from it. She said it, it's out there, it's the misfire heard around the world, and it's going to come around again, because those who, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described them, are not like the rest of us have very long memories when it comes to such things. You can mess with governments to your heart's content - the one truly reliable fact about them is that there's always some damnfool out there who wants to lead one. But the one thing you don't do is mess with money. 

Did she have some kind of flashback to 1984, with Scotland in the role of small potential domino to be saved from the Communists by throwing cash at it from all directions? Someone please tell her that history's moved on. The dominoes didn't fall, they just got packed away in their box and the Chinese Communists are now the biggest capitalists on the block. What she said might have made some sense in 1984, but not now. It stopped making sense in Berlin one night in 1989, when we were both at university. It seems that lacking a sense of history makes some folks think that time's stood still.

This is bad for the SNP, very bad indeed. Before yesterday, what happens here didn't really matter to anyone outside Scotland. Today, it all matters enormously to a lot of very wealthy people, and the SNP only have their own Deputy First Minister to thank for it. 

I'll rephrase what I said at the top of this blog. No matter how unattractive Nicola Sturgeon's public persona often is, and it is deeply unattractive sometimes, she's far too aggressive, I do feel sorry for her. She has been badly let down by Alex Salmond over the past two days. He is an economist, she is not, she's a solicitor. This is just his bag, he needs to be out there front and centre, but seems instead to have left her swinging in the wind. There might be some very good reason why he isn't the SNP's public face on this issue, but his absence creates the impression that he is hiding from it; and that isn't just bad public relations, it's very bad for the country. What would be truly horrifying would be Sturgeon being happy at being treated this way.

I've been describing Salmond as 'The Tartanissimo' for years, although I think for longer than I've describing the SNP as his personality cult. This is the second time in six months that Salmond has been posted missing when a public word from him might have been expected - when Melissa Reid was arrested in Peru last August, he was nowhere to be seen. A not unreasonable observer might conclude that a pattern of The Tartanissimo becoming uncharacteristically quiet when something difficult turns up seems to be developing, and they might be right. If true, it indicates the presence of calculation beyond ruthlessness, for this time he has left his apparently very loyal deputy to take what by rights, what his job title might suggest, is his heat.  

(If nothing else, his act of omission has given David Cameron the perfect answer to his challenge to a debate  -why should he debate with someone who won't speak in public on an issue of such importance as the currency that the country he wants to lead should use?). 

Yet it worries me that Sturgeon and the other SNP high-rankers might actually be happy with this treatment - if only because Scottish history might be full of precedents for it; indeed, be so Scottish as to be beyond the comprehension of any other nation. In his book 'Wild Scots', Michael  Fry compared what he described as the 'hopeless fidelity' of the Tartan Army to that of Highland clansmen for their chieftains. Could the SNP's entire political machine be built on the same principle, that of its members' 'hopeless fidelity' to Alex Salmond? That he's not a leader, but a chieftain?

I don't know - but I'm beginning to wonder.

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Child Euthanasia In Belgium

That countries can take the time to pass laws like this usually indicates that they have nothing better to do with themselves, that no other type of activity is taking place there of a type that its parliamentarians could feasibly regulate.

This law may very possibly be the work of some single-issue goombah, somebody with a idea who's finally worn everyone else down. We have many such people here in Scotland, bleeding green ink in public places. Yet if it isn't, if the majority of Belgium's lawmakers really do think this way, it seems to me to be too gross a breach of the natural order of things for nature to possibly ignore.

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A Short Thought On Groundwater

Quick question to anyone with any knowledge of geology - would elevated levels of groundwater diminish the efficacy of fracking?

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'City Of Fortune'

Roger Crowley's book about the rise and fall of Venice's naval empire is certainly a good read. 

I felt it could have done with a little more background on the rise of Venice itself, but its subtitle is 'How Venice won and lost a naval empire' and such an investigation might have been off-topic. Mr. Crowley's recounting of the Fourth Crusade certainly affirmed my view that the deal Enrico Dandolo struck with the Crusaders should be considered as having been of exactly the same character as all other large scale weapons procurement contracts agreed between governments, even up to the present day. Whenever the news of a deal to supply some hole on the map with guns or jets is announced, the shade of Dandolo smiles; and it shouldn't, because they always go wrong, just like his deal went wrong. Such contracts are all the same, duds massively biased in favour of the vendors. The only differences between them lie in the consequences, which in the case of Dandolo's were extreme.

The conclusion that I drew from Mr. Crowley's book is not one which, if my memory serves, he investigates himself. This is perfectly understandable, because, again, it would be likely to be off-topic. The real reason Venice lost its empire was because the guys at the top were too keen on keeping hold of their own corner, their own margin. Great lip service was paid to everyone being in it together, a virtue which was preached far more enthustiastically by those at the top than it was latterly practiced. 

And I realised that our own country is just the same right now.

Well worth reading. 


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'Charles Rennie Mackintosh'

Alan Crawford's fascinating book on the most famous creative person that Glasgow has ever produced (Mackintosh has even been portrayed in a Japanese comic) is by no means of guilty of boosterism. This is Toshie, warts and all.

The span of his creative life was short - if he were a movie director he'd have been Preston Sturges rather than Steven Spielberg. Too visionary to wholly fit into his surroundings yet really too tame, too middle-class, to be a true enfant terrible, he made chairs that were not intended to be sat upon - a complete divorce of design from function, designing for its own sake. 

For all the novelty of his design, some of his furniture was put together with joinery screws rather cabinet-makers' fixings. That revelation made me laugh out loud, if only because it made me realise not how different Mackintosh was from those around him but so completely alike - like everyone else in British industry at that time he could design like nobody's business but couldn't manufacture to help himself, a state of affairs very familiar to those with some knowledge of British industrial history of that period.

He left few papers - we know just about as much as we ever will about what he made but almost nothing of who he was, what he really thought. Although his fame in this city will never die (with a gimlet eye and in perfect truth, Mr. Crawford notes that there's a lot of money at stake), the man himself remains as fleeting and ephemeral as many of his creations.

Yet he built the Glasgow School of Art, which Mr. Crawford describes as being possibly the most original building ever put up in the British Isles. And he might not be the only one to think that - in 'Climbing Great Buildings', his wonderful wee TV series from a few years ago, Jonathan Foyle described the GSA as being his favourite of the lot. 

That such a powerful talent, so creative, so teeming with ideas, so unique, should have burst through for its day in the sun in our town is some cause for communal pride; latterly, Mackintosh and his wife might not have been happy here, but they didn't really seem happy anywhere. Finding yourself being arrested on suspicion of spying for Germany- Mackintosh may be the only person ever to have been guilty of the crime of being Glaswegian in Suffolk - can't have been a positive experience, and if he'd known the degree of regard with which the works of G. A. Henty later came to be held he might not have designed a dust-jacket for him. Yet he built the GSA. It might just be the case that there is no way of knowing him, no way of explaining him - a state of affairs with which Charles Rennie Mackintosh might have been quite happy. 

Well worth reading.

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'Hunger'

(Contains spoilers and strong language)

I recently watched Steve McQueen's 2008 movie about the death of Bobby Sands on Film Four. Given many of the behaviours it portrayed, it only seems appropriate to say that I have a few things to get out of my system.

McQueen offers glimpses of his high art background throughout - to my eyes, the lighting of Liam Cunningham's face during his 17-minute scene with Michael Fassbender is straight out of Caravaggio's 'The Calling of St. Matthew', while viewers are treated to a whorl of shite on a wall that's suggestive to me of Van Gogh - the whorl, that is, Van Gogh's yellows always having been stronger than his browns. As for the shite, that goes from whorl to whorl to wall to wall, an effective reminder that the people McQueen is portraying were some of the dirtiest and most antisocial who have ever lived, people who set out to live in their own waste in order to make their point; a collective rejection of every advance in human hygiene that science has made over the past two centuries. No matter what cause they claimed to be acting in, that people would set out to live like that when they had access to soap, clean water and clean clothes says more to me about them than any of their rhetoric. 

McQueen approaches his subject matter with admirable even-handedness, his portrayal of a prison warder obviously sickened by his work a very sincere attempt at balance; that such reflective, introspective types might not have lasted long as prison officers in Ulster in the early '80's is quite beside the point. 

The idea of portraying a man who starved himself to death when he had access to food and drink in a movie entitled 'Hunger' seems to me to be disrespectful to the genuinely hungry. I am absolutely sure that this is not intentional; however it does seem casual, and that's on the verge of being just as inexcusable. The very valid point could be made in answer, 'Well, what would you have called it?' Without being glib, a short answer would be 'The Death of Bobby Sands'. However, the selection of the title 'Hunger' suggests to me that McQueen's real interest lay in Sands's choice to starve himself. If that was the case then his choice was a very bad one, if only because the reasons put into Sands's mouth in justification of his actions raises the spectre that he shared a personality type with someone who would most definitely not have been likely to have thought Sands worthy of the consideration he seems to have received from Ulster's prison authorites. 

I am no student of the life and career of the late Bobby Sands, so I have no idea whether or not that 17 minute scene is based on a real event or is a screenwriter's confection, but it's telling. Sands (Fassbender) meets a priest (Cunningham) come to The Maze to talk him out of his plan. The part of the priest is badly written, verging on whiskey-obnoxious, what Barry Fitzgerald might have been like if he'd been cast in 'The Commitments', but Cunningham, ever the good professional, makes a decent fist of it. The conversation turns to why Sands is doing this, and he is indulged with a sentimental monologue based on having killed an animal when young; it had to be done, to put it out of its misery (with metronomic predictability, the priests apparently beat him afterwards), the subtext being that he must starve himself as that must be done to achieve the goal. 

As I watched that, it occurred to me that the personality type being portrayed saw no difference between the death of other living things in what it perceives to be its own causes and its own death in pursuit of its own causes. My mind then reflected on what I had once read of a great general who was apparently so aggressive that when he did not have other men to kill his thoughts turned to killing himself. 

That general was Robert Clive, and the thought occurred to me that Clive of India and Bobby Sands might have had more in common with each other than the latter might have known or cared to admit. That might not have been the case in reality - but it certainly did give me that impression insofar as he was being portrayed, and to my mind it completely destroyed the credibility of McQueen's movie, for if he wanted to make a movie about Bobby Sands's personality type he could equally well have made one about Clive of India; in the long run, nobody would have noticed the difference.

A few weeks after I saw the movie, I saw an interview with McQueen about his career, pending the release of '12 Years A Slave'. McQueen recorded how Fassbender prepared his body to enable him to play the dying Sands. Apparently, he went to California and intensively trained down. I couldn't help but think that an actor, playing a man choosing to die both in pursuit of a cause and in a manner which would seem to eschew vanity, preparing for his role by going to a place synonymous in many minds with personal vanity and kooky causes perhaps, in some ironic way, casts something of an insight into his character's motives. Behind all the talk, was Sands really acting out of a colossal sense of vanity? 

I don't know, but the thought hadn't crossed my mind before. It has now. 

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Dead On Time - 'The History Of Clocks And Watches'

"There is the dogmatic adherence to free trade theory, even in the most sensitive areas of state; there is absolutely no normative difference between the situation that Barnett recorded of the UK having to import technicians from the USA, Sweden and Switzerland in 1914 to manufacture bomb-timers because of light industry's destruction through free trade"

The blogger, 19 March 2008. 

I knew I had that snippet from Correlli Barnett's 'The Collapse Of British Power' tucked away somewhere.

Eric Bruton's 'The History Of Clocks And Watches' is a very interesting book, its subject matter very technical yet absorbing. Clockmaking is clearly a good line of work for obsessives, because if you weren't obsessive before you started you would soon be likely to be so afterwards. 

However, it was Page 176 of the abridged version from 2002 that really caught my attention. On that page, Mr. Bruton notes that the abolition of duties, known as 'McKenna duties', intended to protect the British clockmaking industry in the wake of the Great War enabled the Third Reich to dump clocks which had been manufactured below cost onto the British market. In Mr. Bruton's view, this was an attempt to destroy Britain's ability to build instruments. He also notes that when the Second World War broke out, the shells the British fired at the Luftwaffe did not contain fuses. Any fuses suitable for that purpose were circuitously imported from Switzerland. 

In other words, attachment to free trade caused an avoidable repeat in the Second World War of a fiasco that had bedevilled the war effort in the First. Apart from my oft-stated rider that if there is no such thing as a free lunch there can be no such thing as free trade, I now have nothing for or against free trade personally. It's just another way of doing things, like brushing your teeth horizontally instead of vertically.  

Yet this was the first time I have ever come across reference to any effort having been made by the Third Reich to deliberately undermine British industry before the Second World War, and it was depressing to see that it happened in an area of British industry which, given what had happened in the very recent past, should have been properly guarded. 

Do please read Mr. Bruton's book if you can. He is a great authority on his subject, and you will feel improved by having made the effort to engage with his work.

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'Layer Cake'

A very odd movie, that one. I saw it for the first time last night. Although none of the characters had a single redeeming feature, I couldn't work out if it was a crime drama or was actually satirising criminals.

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On The Legislation Into Existence Of Gay Marriage In Scotland

People who enter into such arrangements will not be married and will never be married as they cannot be married. It is a proud Parliament that attempts to redefine something which, like marriage, is divinely ordained, and you don't need me to tell what pride comes before.

With that in mind, I wish absolutely no harm to anyone who cares to delude themself into thinking that any arrangement of this class which they might care to enter into constitutes a marriage, and I hope that they're happy. That God wants everyone to be happy is a fact about Christianity that's little-known and thus often overlooked.

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On The Chaos Caused By The Weather

"Neoconservatism has always an ideology dependent on the global projection of national power. What gave it its strength was that after 9/11, Americans were so angry at the assault that they wanted to go overseas and attack those responsible – thus was ‘The War on Terror’ born.

They were lied into thinking that the removal of Saddam Hussein would make the world a safer and more prosperous place. Clearly it hasn’t; if anything, you’re more at risk riding the Tube now than you were three years ago.

The lie has been shown not to stand up; and when that has not only failed but has been shown to have failed, what can an ideology based on the global projection of national power do when confronted with a crisis which shows it to be nationally powerless?"

The blogger, 'Neoconservatism's Berlin Wall', 1st September 2005.

It gives me no pleasure to say it, and one's deepest sympathies are with those whose lives have been and are being turned upside down, but the similarities between the weakness of the official reaction to Hurricane Katrina and the weakness of the official reaction to the recent bad weather in the South West of England are startling.

In our case, as far as our affected neighbours are concerned, it might just be time for prudence, free schools and fracking to take a back seat in our government's list of priorities, and for someone in a position of responsibility to start displaying at least some aptitude for leadership.

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Sunday, February 02, 2014

'To The Ends Of The Earth'

It's too soon after his retirement to offer a retrospective analysis of Professor T. M. Devine's achievements as a popular historian. Predictions are usually best left to bookies and palm-readers, but suffice it to say that I am happy to predict that a century from now Professor Devine's books will still be being read as keenly as they are at the moment, principally because they will be as fresh then as they are now. 

I have to admit I've struggled with his early books - I had to put down 'The Tobacco Lords', published in 1975, as too technical, too full of figures, the perennial pitfall of trying to write economic history for the mass market. He hopefully won't take this the wrong way if I say that it seemed to me to be  the work of a young historian who had undoubtedly been very well-trained but was perhaps still trying to find his own voice. However, 'The Great Highland Famine', published in 1988, is an excellent analysis of that particularly unpleasant episode. Like the rest of us, perhaps he found his own voice as he got older, and the works he published as he neared the end of his academic career (although I suspect he won't put down the pen completely - he seems far too fond of writing for that, and Thank God for it) are some of the most accessible and interesting histories of any nation, by any writer, which are currently available to read. I can say this with some confidence because I read a very great deal of history. Professor Devine's books work because they are history; not ideology, not rose-tinted retrospection, but history, narrated with gimlet-eyed clear-sightedness in a writing style that is completely conversational - the easiest form of study that an interested student of Scottish history can undertake.

If you need just one example of why he's so good, Professor Devine is responsible for the most sweepingly elegant analysis of long-term cultural change I have ever read - in 'The Scottish Nation', he refers to the pacification of rural Scotland having been marked by the switch from the tower-house to the country house. For its combination of insight and brevity, you just can't beat that. It would take another writer, one with less command of his subject, fifty pages to make that point - which is not only why Professor Devine is Scotland's greatest living historian, but should also be regarded as our principal man of letters.

'To The Ends Of The Earth', his analysis of Scottish emigration, does not fail to disappoint. He makes the clear case that emigration from Scotland has not necessarily been the universal blessing to the world that some Scots, and others, seem to believe it to have been. There are a couple of wee things that do niggle - I know I've just complained that he once produced a book with too much data, but it would be interesting to have seen an analysis of how many Scottish emigrants from, say, 1900 onwards might themselves have been of stock that had emigrated to Scotland from Ireland or elsewhere. That exercise might not have been possible, but it would be interesting to know if it could be done, if only to determine whether, over the course of its history, Scotland has been less solid than porous. 

However, that's really nit-picking. It is a wonderful book by a writer of popular history not merely at the top of his field but at the top of his game. Must read stuff.

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