For the Ferryman


(This year’s entry for the Fearie Tales competition at Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words festival, but no hat-trick for me, alas, as it didn’t make the cut – a shame, as I think I like it as well as any of my successful entries. But judge for yourself:)

‘Well, I’ll be damned! Is this place inhabited at all? and is there any chance of a drink?’

‘Can I help you, sir?’

‘Why’d’you keep it so infernally dark? I can barely see a thing!’

‘You’ll find your eyes adjust, sir, as you become accustomed to your change of circumstances.’

‘Change of circumstances? O, I suppose you mean after the daylight outside – not that it’s exactly bright out there! I swear I never saw such weather. ‘Dreek’ – isn’t that what you call it in these parts?’

‘Aye, dreich sir – you could say that.’

‘And hadn’t you thought of getting a decent footpath made?’

‘Across the moor, d’ye mean sir? Did you find it hard going, then?’

‘If you call slogging several miles through the plant equivalent of razor wire ‘hard going’ well yes, I’ll say it was.’

‘Och, the whins do you mean, sir? They can be a bit jaggy. But no if you’re properly equipped, mind.’

‘Well if I’d been able to find a stout pair of walking boots and some thick woolly socks be assured I’d have sat right down and put them on, but there’s rather a shortage of retail outlets hereabouts – in case you hadn’t noticed – and they’re not the sort of article you’ll find just lying by the wayside, are they?’

‘It seems not, sir. Tsk! No proper boots or socks! that would have made for harsh going right enough.’

‘I’ll say it did! I’m damned if those devil-plants haven’t pricked me to the bare bone, a hundred times over!’

‘Just as you say, sir. Now, what can I do for you?’

‘Well I take it – and I have to say I’m just guessing here, on account of the complete lack of any signage – but am I right in supposing that this is an inn of some sort?’

‘Just so, sir. The Ferryman’s, some folk call it, or else The Crossing – on account of the old ferry.’

‘And you, I take it, are the proprietor?’

‘Mr Carron, at your service.’

‘Well then, Mr Carron, I’d like a room, if you please, and before that, a decent dinner – I’m famished! – and before that – well, something to drink wouldn’t go amiss.’


‘I’m sorry?’

‘I do not wish to be rude, sir – but are you sure you have the means to pay?’

‘Now look here! I’ll have you know that I – that I, um, appear to have come away without my wallet… now isn’t that the damnedest thing? I’ll swear that I – maybe in another pocket? must have slipped out on that hellish moor – wait a bit, here’s something! O, that won’t get me far! It would appear, Mr Carron, that all I have is this coin – though where I picked that up I have no idea. It looks like an old penny, but it’s so worn it’s hard to tell.’
‘I should hang onto that, if I were you, sir. You may have need of it, later.’
‘Ha ha, very droll, I’m sure. Now look here, Mr – er – Carron: as I’m sure you can tell, I am a man in very good standing with the bank – in fact (and you’ll just have to take my word for this, of course) I used to be a banker. So you can be assured, my credit’s good – you needn’t worry about that. Payment is guaranteed – it may just take a little time.’

‘Indeed, as you say, sir – I don’t doubt that you will pay, one way or another.’

‘Well, I’m glad that’s sorted! How about that drink – should have a whisky, I suppose – wine of the country, eh?’

‘There you are, sir. Might I ask how you come to be here? Given that you’re so ill-prepared for the journey?’

‘Ah, yes – the ‘no luggage’, you mean? and the – um- the unsuitable, so to speak, footwear? Well, that’s a bit of an odd story – if you have time?’

‘O, I have all the time in the world, sir.’

‘Mm – good! Tell you the truth, I’d like to try and piece it together myself – make a comprehensive narrative of it, if you will. There’s something there I can’t quite put my finger on. I know when it started – it was when I began taking walks – for my health, you know – they say it’s as good as going to the gym.’

‘Are you sure about that, sir?’

‘Well, it’s what they say, anyway – brisk thirty minute walk -’

‘O, I wasn’t querying the efficacy of a good walk, sir – I know that well enough. I meant, ‘are you sure that’s where it started?’ – your story, I mean.’

‘What the devil -!? Of course I’m sure! It’s my story. isn’t it? It starts where I say it does – I’m damned if I start it anywhere else, for you or anyone!’

‘Just as you say, sir. It was just that it seemed to me you were starting quite close to the end.’

‘Look, do you want to hear this story or not?’

‘By all means, sir.’

‘Well – as I said – it started when I began to take a daily walk. To understand what I’m talking about, I need to tell you that where I live now – I’ve only recently moved there, never mind why – anyway, it’s very much in town, and to be quite honest, the prospect of tramping the streets did not fill me with the greatest enthusiasm. Too much a reminder of my old work, I suppose – all that property. That’s what I specialised in, you know – I’m retired now – repossessing property, foreclosures – all these feckless people who couldn’t keep up their mortgage payments for some reason but still seemed to think they could go on living in the same house. Ridiculous! ‘Take a look at the small print there, matey – does that say ‘your house may be in danger if you fail to keep up your repayments’ or does it say ‘if you break your promise and stop repaying all that money we loaned you we’ll just let you and your family go on living here out of the goodness of our hearts’? That’s not how the world works!’

‘A poor way to make a living, if you ask me, turning folk out of their homes.’

‘Well, I didn’t ask you, and it wasn’t poor by any means, I can tell you! It set me up very nicely, thank you! retired at fifty-five with a handsome bonus and a tidy pension – not to be sniffed at! And anyway, isn’t that rather a sentimental way to describe it? I prefer to think I restored to the bank the security that was its proper due when people broke the terms on which they had originally borrowed money. I didn’t turn them out – it was their own folly did that. I just brought home to them the consequences of their actions. And in any case, that has nothing to do with the story.’

‘Does it not, now?’

‘No, it doesn’t. As I was telling you, I didn’t much relish walking through town, though I was determined to do my thirty minutes, so the first few times I just went at it hard and fast, kept my head down, maintained a brisk pace. Then one day, just along the road from where I stay, I noticed a sort of lane between two houses – I suppose I’d always taken it for the entrance to one or the other of them, but in fact it was neither – it was a narrow, twisting lane that ran between two hedges at first, then two high walls, and eventually came to a set of winding steps leading downwards.

‘When I came to the foot, I was surprised to find myself in a wood, with the sound of running water near by. There was a path of sorts – not very clearly marked out – that I followed to an ornamental bridge. The stream ran underneath, clear brown water, and up ahead the path twisted away among the trees. I went on till I came to a fork in the way. I chose the right hand-path – it led uphill, you see, so I thought that was better for my health.

‘Some way up the hill I came to another fork: the left hand path plunged down into the dell – back to the stream, I judged – but I wanted to keep going upwards. But just as I reached the top…’

‘As you reached the top?’

‘…There was a man – at least, I think it was a man – standing with his back to me. He wore dark clothing from head to foot with one of those – what do you call them? – hooded jackets, with the hood up – so I could not be entirely sure – that it was a man, I mean. The path was narrow and he was straddling it, so I would have been unable to get past unless he moved… and, well, it occurred to me that I’d probably come as far as I needed and that if I retraced my steps it would mean I’d get home having done the half-hour I set out to do, so I turned back.

‘All the same, it irked me, that man standing where he was. I felt sure there must be another way out of the dell so that I could make a circular walk without doubling back, and I resolved to come back the next day. You will think me foolish, I know, but for some reason that encounter on the path unnerved me, so this time I took a different route – that is, I started out the same way uphill, then took the left hand branch down towards the stream.

‘It’s silly, I know – what reason had I to suppose I’d meet him there again? In any case, the downward path was no good – it fetched up beside the stream just where it formed a deep pool at the foot of a vertical cascade and there was no bridge, so short of wading across – and it looked too deep for that – or clambering up the waterfall, I’d have to go back. Then I spotted a very narrow path that went up the bank to my right – hardly more than a line in the grass, really, and very steep and overgrown, but it headed the way I wanted to go, so I clambered up. It was steep! By the end, I had to use the young saplings as poles to keep myself upright, and my feet kept slipping on the wet slope, but I reckoned I could see the lip of the main path not far above my head.

‘I had to scramble pretty well through a bush to get to it, but I made it – and guess what?’

‘Tell me.’

‘There it was again – the same dark figure, with its back to me, barring the way ahead.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I know it sounds stupid, but you weren’t there in that overgrown dell with the light starting to fail and that figure on the path, standing dead still with its back turned – it felt, well, ominous is the only word that springs to mind. Not for love nor money would I have tried to pass him: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; instead, I did what I had the day before, and went back the way I’d come.’

‘When was that?’

‘Two, maybe three days ago? That’s the part I’d like to get clear – I seem to be missing a piece somewhere. I do remember not feeling so well when I got back home and drinking rather a lot of whisky. The next day I felt pretty cheap so I decided not to go out at all. The thing was, that second encounter had jarred me quite badly, and I began to dread the possibility of any further meeting – for some reason I felt that a third encounter would be significant in some way – rather as it is in the stories one reads as a child: don’t things always happen in threes in them?

‘So the next day – or was it the next again? I steeled myself to go out but I’d already made up my mind that I’d stay well clear of that damned dell so when I came up to the entrance to the narrow lane I just walked smartly past. Today I was going to stick to the pavements and the quiet suburban streets.

‘And they were quiet! I don’t think I saw a soul all the time I was out – and the fact it was a pleasant day made that all the stranger: not a mother out with a push-chair, or a woman hanging out washing, or a pensioner taking a turn up to the shops to fetch his newspaper – it began to feel like one of those scenes in a film, where the stranger comes into what looks like a prosperous ordinary town and gradually realises the whole place is deserted. That idea took such a grip on me that by the time I had turned for home, I was scrutinising every house and garden that I passed, just in the hope of seeing some sign of life – but there wasn’t so much as a cat or dog; and by that time I’d have been grateful to see – or even hear – a single bird; but there didn’t seem to be any of them, either.

‘Then I turned into my street and I did see someone.

‘A dark figure was standing with its back to me, just outside my house. He was so positioned that I could not reach my gate without passing him.

‘I suppose I panicked. I mean, talking about it now, what could be easier than going up to my own front gate and in through my own front door? So what if some fellow – who might not even have been the same person, for heaven’s sake! – happened to be standing in the street? What was that to me?

‘But all I know is that I turned tail and ran. The one idea I had in my head was to get as far away from that place as possible, so I went to the station and bought myself a ticket to Inverness – not that I intended to go there; it was just the farthest away place I could think of that I could reach that day. I had some foolish notion of covering my tracks, so I meant to get off at one of the little stations in between. And then what? I’d have a little holiday, I told myself, let my frayed nerves settle, get things in perspective.

Once I was on the train, the idea began to grow on me – it was still a beautiful day, and we were passing through some spectacular countryside. Why had I never thought of this before, I asked myself – if exercise was what I was after, I could go walking in the hills, with an apple and some sandwiches in my rucksack, drink out of mountain streams and not come home till evening, stay at some small hotel or guest house where I could have a hot bath and come down to a pleasant, well-cooked meal…’

‘You make it sound heavenly, sir. So that is what brought you here, then?’

‘Well… not entirely. You see, even before I got off the train, I had already earmarked the place I wanted to stay – we were up near the top of the pass now, and I could see it a good way off from the curve of the line, against a backdrop of tawny folded hills and hazy purple peaks, with here and there a glint of water from some stream or lochan – one of those four-square Highland hotels in whitewashed stone with the westering sun glinting on its windows. That’s the place for me, I thought – paradise! I could see myself walking up to it in the evening sunshine, and the friendly landlady in her apron waiting on the step to greet me and welcome me in…

‘But when I stepped down onto the platform, I saw that there was someone ahead of me. At the far end – the way I must go, if I wanted to reach the white hotel – a figure was standing, with its back to me. It was clad from head to foot in dark clothing and wore a hood.

I stood there a long time waiting for it to move, but it just stayed there, stock still, barring my way. After a bit I slipped off at the other end of the platform, crossed the line, and soon found myself on that infernal moor, with my clothes cut to ribbons – and here I am, with nothing but a single penny in my pocket.’

‘And you best hang onto that, sir – you’ll be needing it soon. For the ferryman.’


Commentary: Doubtless many will recognise the references to the traditional Lyke-wake Dirge at the outset – the whinny muir, the opportunity to puy on ‘hosen and shoon’ and what it depends on, and the sharpness of the whins in consequence; these combine with the opening words ‘well, I’ll be damned’ to suggest that this is no ordinary journey and no common hostelry. It is a device I have used before, at the start of my third book, City of Desolation, and in both cases it was partly suggested by an excellent George Mackay Brown short story (whose title eludes me) that uses the same idea, though his character is rather more deserving than mine and makes a happier passage. There is (or used to be) an inn near Pitlochry Festival Theatre called The Ferryman’s so I thought that a suitable reference for a Fearie Tale to be read there, but again there is a deeper significance, echoed in the landlord’s name, Carron, which recalls Charon, the infernal ferryman whose task is to take the souls of the damned across the river Acheron or Styx (depending which version you prefer). Traditionally, Charon required a small fee – an Obol, in Greek, I believe, which was a little coin with an owl on it; this is usually translated as a penny. It is notable that the main character never dares to challenge the dark figure who repeatedly bars his way: so no-one compels him to take the path he does; it is his own fear and guilt that drives him, and ultimately his lack of courage that damns hims. He first meets the stranger having taken the right-hand path, which is traditionally more auspicious; it also leads upwards. A second time, it is the narrow path he takes, only to be baulked once more – and traditionally and scripturally, the path to heaven is a narrow one, as expressed in Thomas the Rhymer:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,

So thick beset wi’ thorns an briers?

That is the Path of Righteousness

Though after it but few enquires.’

The final time that he is baulked it is at the station, having just had an uplifting vision of walking among the hills – ‘you make it sound heavenly, sir’ – but though he can see the hotel in the distance and feels sure he will be welcomed there, his own fear turns him back.  We must assume that at some point in the story the main character has passed from life to death, though there is no precise indication when; but the eerie quietness of the suburban streets (something I have always found disquieting) sounds an ominous note, and perhaps his inability to reenter his own home signals the final transition – that is what prompts the journey that ends at the inn.


Filed under works

For us, there is only the trying


One thing that being a writer brings home to you is the tentative nature of all writing: it is always an attempt to say something – one that can be more or less successful – and it is always a struggle. And the more difficult the matter, the greater the struggle, because we are conscious of how imperfect our expression is, how far short it falls of what we are trying to say. And what is it that we are trying to express? That is a form of every author’s favourite question, the one that is sure to be asked: ‘where do you get your ideas from?’

The best answer is a vague one: our ideas, our Art – by which I mean stories, music, poetry, painting, dance, whatever we use as modes of expression – are our response to being human, to finding ourselves here and wondering at it. Art arises from what I think of as an ‘internal pressure’ : from time to time there is something ‘inside’ that we want ‘to get out there’ in the sense of giving it a public form that we and others can consider.

But we should not be misled into thinking that we have privileged or prior access to what we express; that is a version of what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language argument’ where we suppose that we know what we mean ‘in our heads’ and then translate it into words, as if it existed in two forms, a private internal one to which we alone have access, and a public form that we give it. What Wittgenstein contends is that there is only public language, an unruly body of material that we hold in common (and master only in part), which is the only available stuff we have for verbal expression; we have to make the best of it, hence the tentative nature of all utterance and the struggle it involves.

This notion of the struggle to express is a central theme of TS Eliot’s East Coker the second of his Four Quartets.

Eliot speaks of ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ and observes that
‘every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’
and that
‘each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating’
‘what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate’
and he concludes,
‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
– which should, I think, be every writer’s (and artists’s) motto.

Eliot’s words connect in my mind with something I heard the estimable David Almond say recently on the radio: ‘Every time a story’s told, it’s for the first time; every time that Orpheus goes down into the Underworld, it’s the first time’. (Almond’s latest book, ‘A Song for Ella Grey’ is inspired by the Orpheus myth (the original title, I believe, was ‘Eurydice Grey’) and of course Orpheus’ descent to the underworld is a potent image of the artistic enterprise, a dangerous delving into the dark mine of the imagination – cp. the ‘Door into the Dark’ in Heaney’s poem ‘The Forge‘)

For me, this notion of the tentative nature of all writing and the perennial nature of storytelling combine to shed light on an area where there is much misunderstanding today: the idea of the sacred text.

To say that all writing is tentative is to assert that there are no privileged texts: none is exempt from this character of being a struggle to say something. So what of texts that are said to be ‘the word of God’ or to have been ‘dictated by angels’? Such expressions must be seen as part of that struggle: they are attempts to express the sacredness of the text, to convey its importance in the scheme of things. One way of putting this is to say that we do not call a text sacred because it is the word of God or was spoken by angels, we call it the word of God (or say it was spoken by angels) because we consider it sacred.

This is a point worth untangling because it can help dispel a great deal of misunderstanding and arid controversy in the matter of religion and belief.

To avoid controversy, let us take a remark that is variously attributed to the theologian Karl Barth and the musicologist and Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein (not to be confused with Albert) : ‘In Heaven, when the angels play for God, they play Bach; when they play for themselves, it is Mozart.’

Now, we might imagine a would-be plain-speaking, blunt common-sense fellow in the style of the Today programme’s John Humphrys butting in at this point to demand, ‘And was this man ever in Heaven? Has he heard the angels playing for God? Was he there when they played for themselves?’ In saying this, he might fancy that he is demolishing the credibility of the statement, but a more reflective listener would incline to think he was missing the point.

For of course this is not a statement about heaven, the angels or God, and does not require a belief in those things for its understanding; it is a statement about the music of Bach and Mozart, and how they stand to one another and to all other music (it is saying that both are paramount, but that while Bach is the more glorious, Mozart is more joyous – or something like that; – for of course that is just my own attempt, my own struggle to convey what is meant here). You cannot controvert it by saying ‘But there is no God! there is no Heaven! There is no such thing as angels!’ but you might challenge it by pressing the claims of some other composer, such as Arvo Part, Josquin des Prez or Hildegard of Bingen.

Sacredness is not an intrinsic quality of anything, be it object or text; rather it is a status we confer on it, a place we give it in a ‘form of life’. (‘Form of life’ is one of the terms that Wittgenstein uses in his discussion of meaning, in particular the meaning of words – the other is ‘language game’. A ‘form of life’ is the context or activity in which a word or expression is used, the place where it has meaning. Religious worship is one instance of a ‘form of life’ – the words and gestures of the Mass, for instance, have a meaning there which they would not have in other circumstances)

By way of illustration, imagine that some explorers come on a curious stone deep in the forest. Subsequent examination shows it to be of extra-terrestrial origin, the remains of a meterorite. A great deal might be determined about its chemical composition and even its place of origin but you could discover nothing that showed it to be sacred.

Then, some time later, the site where it was found is cleared and the remains of ancient buildings discovered. These resemble other buildings known to be associated with religious ceremonies and this is borne out by the discovery of wall-paintings and scrolls which depict an object much like the meteorite at the centre of a cult: it is carried in procession, elevated on a pillar, enclosed in a special building, has sacrifices offered to it and so on.

At this point you might feel confident in asserting that the meteorite was a sacred object, and indeed this could be corroborated by natives of the country, who produce a traditional tale that speaks of a time when the people were in great trouble and saw a brilliant light fall to earth from heaven and so discovered the sacred stone, which then became the object of veneration and the centre of a religious cult.

Some people might conclude that this offers a paradigm for our religious belief: that although we couch it in terms of the sacred and supernatural, it can be shown to have its origin in natural phenomena. ‘These primitive folk had no understanding of what a meteorite was and were profoundly impressed and frightened by it, so they thought it was a sign from God. Of course we know better now.’

But do we? I think conclusions of that sort are flawed and arise from a misplaced application of causality: ‘the spectacle of the meteorite and the awe it induces are the cause; their subsequent religious practice can be seen as the effect.’

To reason thus is to overlook the fact that the story does not start with the meteorite: it starts with the people’s being ‘in great trouble.’ Of course I have just invented that by way of illustration, but the point is valid: we can imagine that there were plenty meteorites shot across the skies before this, but this one came at an opportune time. In other words, it came into a story that was already going on; it was incorporated into a pre-existing ‘form of life’, to use Wittgenstein’s term: what made it a sign was the fact that the people were looking for one; they felt the need of it.

In other words, unlike the mammoths (say) which we can imagine grazing placidly, oblivious, as meteorites blaze across the sky, these people already had the habit of storytelling, of making things up to explain their situation to themselves. It is important to see that, fundamentally, they are in control: it is the people who choose to make the object sacred, to see it as a sign – they confer its status on it by incorporating it in a story. There is no necessity of the kind we normally look for in cause and effect, like the explosion that follows the lighting of a match in a gas-filled room; this is more an instance of what I have elsewhere called ‘elective causality’ where we choose to make something the ground or cause of our subsequent actions.

So am I saying that religion (of whatever kind) is ‘just a story we made up’?

Well, yes and no. When that assertion is made nowadays – as it often is – it is generally by people who mean to dismiss religion as something unnecessary, that has no place in modern society; something we have grown out of. And when that assertion is vehemently denied (as it also is), it is by people who insist on the central importance and continuing relevance of religious belief and practice. Yet in this particular argument both are mistaken, I think.

Let us start by dispensing with that word ‘just’: to say that something is ‘just a story’ or ‘just made up’ is to prejudge the issue; you are signalling from the outset that you consider stories and making things up to be trivial activities, unworthy of serious consideration. That is not the case.

The next thing to consider is whether by saying that something is a story or is made up we devalue it or detract from its credibility. I would say, emphatically, that we do not. Storytelling, and making things up generally – which I take to encompass everything we call Art – is an important human activity, perhaps the most important; and certainly the most characteristic.

Yet it is the case that the same terms we use for these praiseworthy and admirable activities – ‘telling stories’ ‘making things up’ and indeed the whole vocabulary of fabrication – are also used in a pejorative sense to mean ‘telling lies’, a confusing ambivalence I have remarked on before, here.

The fact that it is possible to make false allegations or give a false account of something – to represent the facts as being other than they are – should not mislead us into supposing that the paradigm for storytelling is the news report, the veracity of which is judged by measuring it against external circumstances – if its content corresponds to those circumstances, then it is true and accurate.

Far from being a paradigm, the news report is a special case, a relatively recent development in which the age-old techniques of storytelling – which are as old as humankind – are applied to the particular (and peculiarly modern) activity of news-gathering and journalism (which is why news-editors always want to know ‘what is the story?’ )

The majority of stories are not of this sort. Though the temptation is to suppose that they are stories ‘about something’ (or paintings and photographs ‘of something’) and so must be judged in relation to that ‘something’, they should in fact be judged on their own merits: it is what is in them that makes them good, not how they stand in relation to something else. (We find this easier to grasp in relation to music, which we do not expect to be ‘about something’: the form of stories and pictures misleads us into looking for correspondence with external circumstances).

‘Truth’, when we apply it to art, is something that we ‘get’ and we respond by drawing others’ attention to it: ‘read this, look at that, listen to this’, we say, because we expect them to ‘get it’ too; and when they do, they smile and nod in agreement. No words need be spoken; explanation is superfluous, and indeed largely impossible: if the person does not ‘get it’ then you will not persuade him by reason: the best you can do is ask him to look or listen or read again.

(And of course this ‘truth’ can be faked, too, as happens when someone copies what someone else does, usually for gain (though we can also copy in order to learn). In this case the story (or painting, or piece of music) is ‘unoriginal’ in a very precise sense: it does not originate, or have its source, in the person who created it: it is not the expression of what they think or feel; it did not result from the ‘internal pressure’ I spoke about above; the ‘struggle’ that we started out discussing is absent.

Of course we all copy, and quite legitimately, when we are learning – ‘playing the sedulous ape’, as R L Stevenson called it – but we hope to arrive at a point where our own voice emerges, and our work ceases to be purely derivative and has something of ourselves in it, bears our stamp, has its own character, not someone else’s.)

So when I say that religion is a story, something we have made up, I do not mean to demean or disparage it, but rather to say: this is how it works (and how we, as human beings, work); if you want to understand it better, you need to think about stories and storytelling, how they work, how they express meaning. Read the stories; don’t go looking for the remains of the Ark (or indeed of the True Cross). These are not ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ any more than a photo of the baby Jesus in the manger would be evidence of the Incarnation. If you want to understand the Incarnation, you have to ask, ‘what on earth could someone mean by that, ‘God became Man’? What were they trying to say?’

The tentative nature of every utterance must always be the starting point: ‘this was written (or painted, or composed) by someone like me, another human being, so I should be able to arrive (though not without effort) at some understanding of what it was they were trying to express, what internal pressure caused this outpouring.’

That is why, as we grow older and our life experience – of both good and ill – becomes richer and more varied, that we find ourselves understanding what eluded us before; why we can suddenly say ‘now I see it!’ with absolute conviction; it is also why some things that impressed us in our salad days, when we were green in judgement, no longer satisfy – we see through them; they no longer ring true. And the big, mysterious things – the ineffable – if we engage with them honestly (and don’t start by thinking we already know), then we will be drawn to what has been said and done by those who have engaged in the same struggle – and may find comfort there.


Filed under art, language-related, philosophy

The West Lothian Question Answered: a commonwealth of sovereign states

The problem is how you can have Scottish MPs voting in Westminster on matters that affect England, when Scotland has its own parliament to deal with the same matters; yet if they are forced to abstain, you could have a government some of whose supporters are excluded from legislating on the manifesto it was elected on.

Why not take a leaf out of Europe’s book? If Europe is a community of sovereign nations who have pooled certain powers by agreement through treaties, why should we (in the British Isles) not do the same?

1. Dissolve the UK parliament (so doing away with the House of Lords)

2. Let each constituent country – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (or even a united Ireland – who knows? they might want to join) together with crown dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – have a wholly sovereign parliament with tax-raising powers, elected by those who live there, which orders all the affairs of its territory, subject to the exceptions noted below.

3. Let each constituent parliament delegate a person or persons to attend a council which will agree matters of common interest to this commonwealth of nations; if need be, they can be allocated in proportion to the constituent members. This council will decide such matters as defence, foreign policy and fiscal policy (to the extent deemed necessary for a shared currency). The matters that are remitted to the Council will be for the constituent members to decide. The decisions of the Council must be ratified by the various parliaments, but (as a rule) they will not demur.

4. The constituent countries will make a pledge of mutual succour and support.

5. There will be treaties between the member states on common matters, much as there are in Europe. Borders will be open, trade free, and so on. If thought necessary there will common agricultural and fisheries policies and subsidies on the European model, in line with point 4.

Problem solved. Over to you, Mr Cameron.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Imaginary lines: bounded by consent

I have spoken before about the relation of the real and the imaginary, suggesting that the opposition we commonly make between them does not bear examination; now, prompted by current events – chiefly the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence – I would like to consider the matter again, first in relation to our world, next in relation to ourselves.

Let’s start with some maps. Consider this one (click to enlarge):


It shows what would have been Kurdistan had the Treaty of Sèvres been ratified in 1920, a country comprising territory drawn from present day Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. But the treaty was overtaken by events and never implemented; as a consequence, the Kurds, a numerous people with their own distinct culture, have no country that can be found on the map below (click to enlarge):


That is a reasonably current political map of the world, though if you look closely, it does not show South Sudan as a separate country; and quarter of a century ago it would have looked very different, as countries such as the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia would all have been shown as part of the Soviet Union, while all the Balkan states – Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia – would have been shown as Yugoslavia, while Czechoslovakia would have been a single country. Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, it may need to be changed again, in a couple of years, to show Scotland as a separate country.

Now, many of the countries in that list did not reappear on the map without considerable bloodshed, loss of life and material destruction, so there is no doubt that those lines and colours represent something that has real effects; yet only because we allow it to be so – the great majority of the earth’s population (by which I mean the non-human part) pay them no heed at all – to the birds and bees and beasts and fishes the world is like this, a number of undifferentiated unnamed landmasses of varying terrain surrounded by a great deal of water and capped above and below with ice (click to enlarge):


The political map of the world is, in effect, the picture of an extraordinary work of the imagination: nothing that it shows is actually there. It represents an imaginary consensus that we have (more or less) agreed to abide by.

You will rightly protest, ‘when did we agree to it? when did we give our consent?’ and in one sense that is fair enough: it may be, as Burns avers, that ‘Freedom an Whisky gang thegither’ but borders and consent seldom do. Take that line shown on the first map, dividing the French Mandate of Syria from the British mandate of Iraq – that is the (in)famous Sykes-Picot line, drawn in 1916 by Mr Sykes, an Englishman, and M. Picot, a Frenchman, without reference to the people living in either territory (the same line is currently straddled by the bloodthirsty and barbarous forces of IS, seeking to establish a territory carved from present day Iraq and Syria).

The Sykes-Picot line is by no means exceptional: the bounds of most of the countries in Africa were similarly created, to suit their own ends, by European Imperial powers in the nineteenth century – a fact which I am sure contributes to the mindset of many of those currently camped in Calais, desperately seeking any means to cross the channel; they have only got there by flagrant disregard of borders and the conventions that maintain them, generally at great personal risk and hardship. (Many do not make it so far – 2.500 migrants are reckoned to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone; and it is shameful that it took diligent searching to find this account of the latest horror – 500 believed drowned last week, after their traffickers rammed their boat – perhaps if we were less preoccupied with our internal boundaries it might have had more prominence) Are the ones who have reached Calais unreasonable in thinking they should not be bound by imaginary lines they had no part in drawing?

But such defiance of convention makes us and our governments nervous: we feel it as a threat to ‘all we stand for’ – that being what the political map shows. It represents the triumph of one set of ideas – the notion of ‘civilisation’ – dwelling in settled communities – over a much older idea that now survives only in pockets, and in the face of much hostility, namely that people are free to wander over the face of the earth, much as its non-human population does.

It is interesting to consider the political world map alongside the question of religious belief. We acknowledge that (in the West, at least) there is a crisis of religious faith: institutions and sets of ideas that long exerted a powerful sway over people’s lives, and in which there was a widespread belief (I mean ‘belief’ in the sense of ‘confidence’ or ‘trust’) have now fallen into decay – a consensus that formerly existed has begun to break up, for good or ill. Yet the imaginary world portrayed by the political map, with its countries, borders, laws, is just as much a matter of faith: it exists only because we assent to it; it has the shape and form it has because we have given it that shape and form, not from any external cause. Whether it keeps that shape or form or changes it for another is a matter of will.

But do not fall into the trap of supposing that imaginary things are easy to alter: you can destroy a city more easily than you can destroy an idea. Our beliefs, of all things, are perhaps least easily changed. But the realisation that they are beliefs, not pre-ordained facts, and that we alone are responsible for them, is an important shift of perspective: once we have made it, we can no longer say ‘that is just the way things are’ nor protest ‘we can’t do anything about it.’

We must see that this is the way we have made things for ourselves, and we are the only ones who can do anything about it (and truth to tell, the only ones to whom it matters a jot: the birds and beasts and fishes don’t mind).

[There is a further stage that I want to consider, and that is whether our beliefs concerning ourselves and our relation to one another and the world are not equally conventional and capable of being reimagined in some better way, but for now, enough]


Filed under Uncategorized

How to squander a winning hand


If there is an Ignobel Prize for Political Ineptitude, I would like to nominate the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish referendum debate. How is it possible to start with such a strong hand and play it so badly?

Think of it like this:

You live, let us say, in an ancient property divided unequally: by far the greater part is occupied by a large and numerous family, while your own family and two others occupy parts of the building very much smaller. The property is run communally though each of you has their own living space. There is a shared entrance (an adjoining establishment that used to be part of the same set-up then left has a separate entrance).You all get on well enough even if those of you in the smaller properties occasionally feel your larger neighbour treats your living space as an extension of their own.

Now some of your family are proposing an alteration to these arrangements: they want to drop out of the communal way of doing things and run their own small household without reference to the others. This will involve some degree of restructuring – separate water and power supplies, say – though no-one seems quite sure how much or what it will cost. They propose keeping the common entrance, however, as that seems sensible and practical.

Your family are divided on the point: some are keenly in favour, others against; some are insufficiently engaged by the question to favour either side. In order to decide, the matter is to be put to a vote.

An outsider might think that, human nature being what it is, the advocates of change don’t really have much to offer: at the cost of some certain but unquantifiable disruption, they propose that you go on living in the same house with the same neighbours in more or less the same arrangement, but with some changes to how the household finances are managed (it should be said that whether you will be better or worse off under the new arrangement is a matter of dispute: some say yea, others nay).

Inertia (the current set-up, though capable of improvement – what household is not? – works well enough; has done for years) and a liking for the quiet life (change will undoubtedly involve disruption and a certain cost) should suffice, you would think, to persuade the majority to prefer the status quo; you would see little for those in the largest household, who dominate the present arrangement by virtue of their size, to worry about. Surely they would be best to take a relaxed attitude, sit back and say, ‘well, take a look at what you’ve got – works all right, don’t you think? Still, if there’s a real case to be made for change, let’s hear what it is. It’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? We’ll still be here, you’ll still be there, and I expect we’ll get along much as we’ve always done.’

No need, certainly, to become embroiled in a dispute about the common entrance, to insist that if your family votes for change, they’ll need to build their own, because ‘we won’t let you use ours any more: not open to discussion; end of.’ No need, surely, to go around threatening all sorts of dire consequences if there is a vote for change; why not simply ask ‘what more do you think you’ll be getting? I mean, beyond what you’ve got already? do you think it’ll be worth the effort?’

Such conduct will only serve to get people’s backs up, and will probably persuade some who favoured the status quo to think twice about it; after all, no-one likes to be bullied.

And when such a shift in opinion becomes evident, surely it would be better to say, ‘you know what – we’ve thought about it, and we don’t really mind about the door. You can use it if you like, though on much the same terms as now, so we’re not sure how that fits with your notion of doing everything yourself – after all, it’s our door too, and we use it more than you so we’d expect to have the final say. What else was it you wanted again? I mean, besides what you’ve already got?’

Rather that than turn up, lachrymose and inebriated, at a very late hour, promising all sorts of things while pleading ‘Please don’t leave us! We love you! we’d be heartbroken to lose you! We can’t bear to think of life apart! We’ve been so good together!’

After all, it’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? You’ll still be in exactly the same place, exactly the same people, doing much the same things – it’s just that now, after these embarrassing displays on the part of the neighbours, you do begin to think you might be better looking after things yourself – after all, if they make such a hash of this straightforward business, how can you trust them in more challenging tasks, like organising pea-soup in a brewery?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Much Ado

Screenshot 2014-08-18 16.15.18

‘I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’

So Hamlet, that world-weary young man. For my part, I have been bothered a little at how little bothered I feel about the upcoming Scottish referendum (September 18th, folks! Just got our polling cards through the letterbox). Am I, like Hamlet, suffering from general dysphoria, or is there some other cause?

After all, this – we are told – is an historic moment; ‘now’s the day and now’s the hour’, to quote the words Burns put in the mouth of Bruce; or if you prefer Elvis, ‘It’s now or never’.

But is it?

One explanation of my indifference might be that the whole thing is a lot less important than it’s cracked up to be.

We live in an age of exaggeration, of shouting simply to make oneself heard: for some weeks in the summer the back page of a newspaper I hadn’t got round to throwing out proclaimed “England slide into World Cup abyss”. Really? Then what words should we use for the situation in Syria and Iraq, Gaza or Ukraine?

Could it be that, in terms of importance, the referendum is more on a par with England’s exit from the World Cup than (say) the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany?

It is, after all, some seven centuries since we fought for (and won back) under Robert the Bruce the independence we had lost with the death of Alexander III on the cliffs at Kinghorn. Since the matter has not been contested in arms since, it is reasonable to ask when (if at all) we lost it again. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 was a Scots takeover of the English throne: the new United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was ruled by the same dynasty that succeeded the House of Bruce, the Stewarts or Stuarts (not the most distinguished of Royal Houses, it must be said). Whatever may have been the political comings and goings of the Act of Union (1707), it was overseen by a Stuart monarch, the last of them, Queen Anne. The subsequent Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, which ended in 1746 with the last pitched battle on British soil at Culloden, had nothing to do with Scottish independence; their aim was to restore the catholic Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain.

The view that we lost our independence in 1707, not through force of arms but by political chicanery, is succinctly expressed by Robert Burns:

What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

O would, or I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

But it is worth pausing to consider that Burns wrote that in 1791, about an event that occurred more than half a century before he was born. And there is a certain irony in the fact that he wrote it at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment had made Edinburgh – the Edinburgh of Hume and Fergusson, Robert Adam and Adam Smith – a European centre of culture and learning, and Scottish Education a byword for excellence and democratic opportunity (of which Burns himself was a prime example). (Scotland, with a much smaller population, boasted five universities (Aberdeen alone had two!) to England’s two, and the High School of Edinburgh was regarded as a world centre of classical learning).

So it is hard to make the case that the loss of local political institutions (Scotland retained political representation in the British parliament) had a detrimental effect on Scotland’s standing as a nation in the eyes of the world or in her own conceit. It could be argued that Scotland in the eighteenth century was as buoyantly independent in her thought and culture as she has ever been in her history. The inference is that political independence is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish our self- esteem as a nation (though it might have an immediate positive effect as I will discuss below).

I have to say that I find it difficult to envisage in what way an independent Scotland will differ from our present state. Certainly, there is no yoke of oppression to be thrown off: the minor irritation of those who use ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ interchangeably and the fact that the regnal numbers of various monarchs are wrong (the United Kingdom has only had one Queen Elizabeth, two King Edwards and two King Williams) hardly constitutes a serious grievance.

As to the notion that the Scots have by nature a different political bent from the English (i.e. they incline to the right, we to the left), it does not really bear examination. It is true that Margaret Thatcher’s brand of conservatism was never popular in Scotland (but then it was not popular with a lot of old-school Tories either) but you only have to go back to the fifties to find the majority of Scots voting Conservative (though of course what ‘Labour’ and ‘Conservative’ actually stand for has greatly changed in that time too). My guess is that an independent Scotland will sooner divide along party lines than develop a political consensus in any direction.

As I have said above, I would expect a majority ‘yes’ vote to have a positive effect, at least initially, particularly in my own field, the Arts. There would, I think, be an upsurge of creative energy; people would feel good about themselves, at least for a time. How long that feeling would last depends on the economy: if it continues to recover and improve, then people will be happy and independence will be given the credit; if it goes into decline, they will grumble, and see it as a mistake.

However, I think that, as far as the economy goes, we live in an interdependent world, and whether our lot improves or declines will be no more in our control if we are independent than it is now; I grant that being a small nation might give us a certain nimbleness in seizing opportunities within the wider European Community (the ‘Celtic Tiger’ argument, pt 1) but on the other hand it will make us more vulnerable to economic downturn than is presently the case (the ‘Celtic Tiger’ argument, pt 2).

The arguments about European Union membership and what our currency will be are, in my view, red herrings. The EU has no reason not to welcome Scotland as a member nor is there any reason why the remainder of the United Kingdom would fail to reach a currency agreement with an independent Scotland since the interests of both parties are largely similar. The pretence of Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband that under no circumstances would they enter a currency union is the most dishonest piece of humbug in the whole debate: each of them knows perfectly well that in the event of a yes vote they will negotiate. That is what governments do.

And is it ‘now or never’?

Why should it be? If the vote is narrow – in either direction – it will give sufficient ground for the losing side to believe that the matter can be revisited if circumstances after the vote alter for the worse. (And don’t try to tell me that no country in history has voted to give up its independent political institutions – isn’t that what we did in 1707?)

So what shall I do? I remain, quite genuinely, undecided.

I worry that my view is more swayed by trivial irritants (such as the ‘no currency union’ humbug mentioned above, or the uncalled-for intervention of that egregious ass, Mr Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia) than by serious argument. Most of these irritants originate from the ‘No’ camp but that can hardly be a reason for voting yes any more than my irritation at the exaggerated language used by some on the ‘yes’ side is a reason for voting no: this is not ‘a turning point in our history’, nor will it be a ‘betrayal’ of future generations should we fail to vote for independence.

This is not – to use a good Scots expression – ‘worth gettin het-up aboot’; most certainly it is not worth losing friends over. Whatever the outcome on September 18th, I hope we can accept it with good grace and a proper sense of proportion, without recrimination or triumphalism. Whether Scotland is a better place to live in future depends entirely on how we choose to treat one another and conduct ourselves, not on the outcome of any ballot.


Filed under Uncategorized

Switching sides: a confession


When I was younger – more than quarter of a century younger – I did something that I now think was wrong, though I didn’t at the time. I was asked to cover someone’s Higher English evening class and found that they were studying Wordsworth’s poem that begins

‘Up! up! my friend, and quit your books’

(which I find is called ‘The Tables Turned’ and is actually part of a sequence – see here: The poem contains one of his most famous lines, the last in this verse:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

As one who had spent his university education largely in philosophy, I found this equation of intellectual analysis with meddling and murder difficult to stomach and I’m sure it contributed to a general antipathy I felt (and still feel) towards Wordsworth, whom I also studied at university. It is a purely personal prejudice: I allow that he wrote some beautiful poetry, but I cannot like the man. This poem in particular I find repellent, I think because it has a strain of jolly heartiness throughout: one can picture those opening lines accompanied by some hearty backslapping that sends the poor weedy scholar sprawling, with each exhortation to be ‘Up!’:

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

There is also a glib certainty about many of the sentiments expressed that strikes me still as oversimplification, the same sort of wholesome hokey that sets my teeth on edge when people post it on Google Plus as ‘inspirational quotes’ (often misattributed):

Let nature be your teacher!


One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

And I have always found a smack of ‘Strength through joy!’ in the lines that follow the exhortation ‘Let nature be your teacher’ (though that is hardly Wordsworth’s fault):

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

So, finding myself confronted with this, I chose instead to offer the class an alternative view, in the form of this poem by RS Thomas, which seemed to me the perfect rejoinder to Wordsworth’s ‘bland philosophy of nature’:


A man, a field, silence — what is there to say?

He lives, he moves, and the October day

Burns slowly down.

                                     History is made

Elsewhere; the hours forfeit to time’s blade

Don’t matter here. The leaves large and small,

Shed by the branches, unlamented fall

About his shoulders. You may look in vain

Through the eyes’ window; on his meagre hearth

The thin, shy soul has not begun its reign

Over the darkness. Beauty, love and mirth

And joy are strangers there.

                                                    You must revise

Your bland philosophy of nature, earth

Has of itself no power to make men wise.

I am quite sure now that what I did was wrong, on the simple ground that I would not have liked someone to come in and subvert what I had chosen to teach my class; besides, doing Higher English in a year can be hard enough without having extra texts sprung on you at a moment’s notice. So for that, I apologise (as I recollect, I was never actually paid for the class in any case, so that is amends of a sort, I suppose).

However, I still think Thomas’s the better poem. It exposes a shallowness in Wordsworth’s thought: he overlooks the preconditions for learning from nature, which surely include some measure of material prosperity, a degree of leisure and perhaps also a certain level of education; if your relationship with the land is simply one of back-breaking toil for little reward, then I do not think you will reap many of the benefits that Wordsworth promises.

But that aside, I find myself now in a curious pass, because I have changed sides in the debate – not between Wordsworth and Thomas, but between Wordsworth and philosophy. Though by training and education I am a meddlesome intellect and a murderous dissecter, of recent years I have come to think that Wordsworth was right: I now believe that (in Western culture at least) we hugely overvalue the rational, the intellectual, the literary and the academic in relation to the instinctive and intuitive, and that we are the poorer for it – in simple terms, we have given the Head dominion over the Heart, when they should at least be equal partners.

In another post, I would like to consider this in particular relation to stories and storytelling; but for now, enough.


Filed under art, philosophy