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Panic in Westminster

A guy could get an over-inflated sense of his own importance, you know.

For months the polls have been suggesting that the Scottish referendum was going to go to the “No” side. Then I post a broadly-in-favour piece, and everything changes.

I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? There must be a connection.

And then this panicky stunt by the Westminster party leaders. You can’t just abandon Prime Minister’s Questions! That’s ridiculous!

Exciting days ahead.

Oncoming independence?

A Scot abroad

For at least a couple of years people have been asking me what I think about the Scottish independence question. At least since the Edinburgh Agreement, I suppose. People down here in London, that is.

I, of course, don’t have a vote, as I don’t live in Scotland — indeed, I’ve lived in London for more than half my life. But we don’t stop being from the place we come from, and we don’t stop caring about it; so it’s reasonable to suppose I’d have an opinion.

And I do. In fact, I have a whole range of them, at different times. Sometimes I have more than one at the same time. Which is partly why I haven’t written about the independence referendum here before now.

I have been scathing in the past about people who give their political opinion as “don’t know” or “undecided”.1

But that’s exactly what I am, what I have been for the last several years: “undecided”.

Back in the 70s, when there was the original referendum, I would have voted “Yes” at the drop of a thistle, had I been old enough — indeed, I did, in the mock version we had at school. My reasoning in those days was purely based on emotion, and tied in to football and being the underdog.

In the years, the decades since then, if you had asked me whether I thought Scotland should be independent, I would probably have said yes. Most likely, most of the time. And though I stopped caring about football (and let’s face it, Scotland stopped being anything like a force in football), it was still an emotional reaction, still about national identity, about the fact that we as a country felt overwhelmed, repressed by the relative behemoth to the south.

At some point, of course, I moved there. London called and I answered yes. It didn’t change who I was, how I felt about Scotland. But it did, perhaps, give me a new way to think about how I felt about England.

Going back to the football/underdog business, it was always an us-and-them thing: we Scots always saw ourselves as different from, in opposition to, the English. And yet, when I met English people, they were perfectly fine — or a mixture of fine and not, of good and bad, of interesting and boring: the same as people in Scotland, or anywhere.

Plus, we were all British, linked by citizenship, by the NHS, by the BBC; by our shared history of literature, music, art.

(Though it was and remains (and always will be) annoying when people say “England” or “English” when they mean “Britain” or “British”. It’s not hard; the difference is quite clear.)

Constitutional matters

There’s something I left out of that list of linkages above, of course. Scotland and England were joined by two unions. The Acts of Union, in which both parliaments legislated to become one parliament, is the more important one, and the one that may be overturned on the 18th of September. But before that there was the Union of the Crowns, in which Scotland very kindly agreed that England could share its monarch.

Now, if they were going to dissolve that one (and I had a vote) I’d vote yes in a heartbeat — as long, of course, that separating the crowns meant Scotland moving to a democratically-elected head of state (or none; they’re not strictly necessary).

Yes, I would happily be a citizen of the Republic of Scotland.

But that was never on the table, of course. I don’t know whether Alex Salmond or any of the other SNP luminaries are republicans — some of them must be — but they had to keep the bluenoses on side. That’s Rangers fans, in case you don’t know; protestants; loyalists, unionists.

It must be one of the strangest states, actually: to be a Scottish person who believes in independence (and so is against the Union); but who also looks to the Scottish protestant/Rangers-supporting tradition, and is in favour of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Do such people exist? They must, really. Indeed, I saw a video a few months back of a Rangers fan who was so pro-Union, so anti-independence that he was wearing an England football shirt (yet he was undeniably Scottish), and saying that if the vote went yes, he’d move to England.

That’s an unusual reaction, that. Here we go. “You can stick your independence up your arse,” apparently.

But on constitutional changes: I frequently find myself frustratedly wondering, how can we be asking people to vote on such matters without this kind of thing being decided first? Shouldn’t a new constitution have been drafted, the discussions on currency and European unions held, decisions made in advance? So that people would go to the polls knowing exactly what they were voting for or against.

Wouldn’t that make more sense?

I did hear someone on the radio saying essentially that my thinking was foolish, because there are some things that can only be decided after a yes vote. But I don’t think he really made the point.

The original referendum, Labour, and Thatcher

In reading up on various things Scottish for this piece,2 I discovered that part of the fallout from the seventies referendum that I linked to above was the Thatcher government. The “40% Rule”, which caused the referendum to fail (the majority had to comprise 40% of the electorate) was brought in by a Labour MP’s amendment; and when it fell, according to the Wikipedia article:

the government’s decision to abandon devolution for Scotland led the Scottish National Party to withdraw its support for the government. A subsequent vote of no confidence led to the resignation of the Callaghan government, and an election was called.

That election was the one that got Thatcher elected.

Maybe she’d have been elected at the next election whenever it happened; but maybe not. And I can’t help but think that the Labour party has a disturbing sideline in betraying the people it should be serving, and this — and the current Labour party’s staunchly pro-union stance — is an example of it. Labour should support democratic freedom and the right of small countries to govern themselves. Trouble is, so many Labour MPs are Scottish, and they can see power at Westminster slipping further and further from their grasp if they don’t have the effect of all those Scottish seats.

I can understand that, though. that aspect of potential independence worries me, too: selfishly, I want to keep Scotland as part of the UK because I fear the effect of it leaving and us losing the balancing power of its more left-wing nature. Without Scotland, the rest of the UK could be doomed to near-permanent Tory governments. Or worse; UKIP along with the extremely anti-EU rump of the Tories when they split (it will happen, the only questions are when, and how many MPs will go).

Being stuck in an RoUK that votes to leave the EU? That is distinctly unappealing

Just as a minor aside, something I had totally forgotten was that the 1979 referendum wasn’t for independence: it was only to have an assembly, which sounds a lot like the Scottish Parliament of today.

The Rest?

I used the term “RoUK” above. That’s the way people have been referring to the “rest of the UK”, meaning what’s left of the UK after Scotland leaves. But I’m not so sure that there should really be any such thing.

See, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into existence when the Republic of Ireland got its independence from Britain, leaving Northern Ireland still connected. But the “Great Britain” part (as a political entity, as opposed to the island): that came into existence with the Acts of Union.

Repeal those Acts and arguably Great Britain ceases to exist as a political entity; so how can the UK exist after that happens?

So rather than debating whether an independent Scotland will be able to remain in the EU will have to rejoin it from outside, we should be discussing what, exactly, will be left if Scotland leaves the union.

Salmond and the anti-personality cult

It disturbs me how many Scots seem to be basing their decision around personality. “Salmond’s a wanker”, and all that kind of thing. If the vote goes yes, Salmond can retire (arguably the SNP will no longer have a reason to exist, in fact). But anyway, governments change, they can be voted out; people die. It’s not like you’re voting to make Salmond president for life. Rather, you’re voting for the type of country that your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren will inherit.

Other voices

Before I end, some other pieces that I’ve been reading on the matter. As Irvine Welsh has said, this is a great time for political engagement in Scotland.3 And Billy Bragg adds that it might be good politically for England too.

And here’s a blog by an English guy who favours Scottish independence. He also favours English and Welsh independence, it seems: the complete breakup of the UK; just look at his masthead. His blog has the slightly disturbing title of “Upholding English Honour”, but he doesn’t seem to be the little Englander that name might imply.

Mark Millar is undecided, but calls for better behaviour all round in the debate. And Jack Deighton considers the effect that the referendum might have on Scottish literature.

In conclusion

In the end, of course, my opinion means nothing. But here it is anyway. If I were living in Scotland, I’m now fairly sure that I’d be voting yes. And speaking as an attached outsider, I’m coming round to hoping that the vote goes that way; if only to see what happens next.

After all, it could be the beginning of a great adventure.

  1. That post is actually about floating voters; not quite the same thing, but not unrelated. 

  2. Weirdly, when I searched Amazon for Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the second hit was My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, by Gordon Brown

  3. That link is showing “Service unavailable” at the time of writing. But then, it’s the Evening Standard: I wish it was permanently unavailable. 

The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2014, 7)

I’ve read pretty much everything by HST that’s been published in book form, but I hadn’t read this, his sole novel, until now.

He wrote it before he started to get successful as a journalist, as I understand it, so it’s interesting that it’s a story _about_ a journalist, or several. And they’re hard-drinking ones at that. But that kind of goes without saying.

As the novel starts it is 1959 and the first-person narrator is wanderer, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He is leaving New York for Puerto Rico, to take up a post on the English-language paper there.

The story charts the ups and downs of his life over the next few months, along with various other people, mainly involved with the paper. It’s an entertaining enough read, but largely inconsequential as a story. You couldn’t really say that the character has grown or developed much by the end, and while we get some insight into the way the US was interacting with Puerto Rico at the time (unspoilt beaches being sold to developers to build luxury hotel complexes, that kind of thing), I wouldn’t say you get a great sense of Puerto Rico itself.

It’s mainly interesting for showing some early flashes of the writing style that Thompson would develop over the subsequent years into his signature gonzo style. For example:

> They ran the whole gamut from genuine talents and honest men, to degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a postcard–loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks

Not up there with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, obviously, but you can see the beginnings of that style.

Pavane by Keith Roberts (Books, 2014, 6)

This is considered to be one of the seminal works of alternative history; often mentioned alongside The Man in the High Castle

Instead of the Axis forces winning the Second World War, as in Dick’s classic, the break point is Queen Elizabeth I being assassinated, which leads to the Spanish invading England (Scotland’s situation is never mentioned) via the Armada, and so the Catholic church becomes the dominant force in the world (at least Europe and the Americas) for centuries.

Most of which is told in a short prologue. The body of the novel (which a I believe is a fix-up, and certainly feels like it) consists of four short stories with some overlapping characters, which tell the tale of how rebellion against the Church comes to England.

I quite enjoyed it, but was put off at the start, because frankly the nuances of the workings of a traction engine running the freight across the country through a frozen winter night, were not all that interesting. In fact, it was downright boring. Would it have been less so if it were about a spaceship, instead of a traction engine? Obviously; anything is more fun with spaceships in it. But that’s not the point.

In fact, the point is largely our old friend “show, don’t tell.” I don’t automatically hold with that myself; there are plenty of examples of good stories working by “telling.” The problem is that if you rely entirely or mainly on telling, it’s easy to lose either or both of the characters and the action. Certainly you can tell us what’s happening; but it’ll have a much stronger impact if you make us feel it.

The second section, for example, starts with a young man bleeding to death in the snow, and then jumps back to his training as a signaller. A much more gripping way to handle things.

The time period appears to be from around the sixties through to the eighties, but the Church’s dead hand has so stifled technological progress that semaphore and steam remain the height of technology.

And there are fairies; old English magic that the Church hasn’t quite managed to wipe out. But they are kind of abandoned after the second (maybe third) story.

Anyway, after that initial hump it was enjoyable enough, but it’s a pleasingly slim book. If it had been the size of a modern novel, I’m not sure it would have held my interest.

Not-Exactly-Books, 2014, 5: What Has Gone Wrong With Short Stories?


(Is there such a thing as a “postamble”, I wonder?)

After reading the previous novel I decided it was high time I caught up on some short-story reading. I had several months of Interzone backlogged, for example.

Trouble is, it seems that short stories have lost their way.

I know, that’s ridiculously sweeping. Obviously any such perceived change is far more likely to be in me, than in all recent short stories. And yet, I feel sure that short stories used to be more interesting. So could it be an age thing? Perhaps, but let me first describe what I think it is that’s wrong with them.

In short: nothing happens.

In slightly longer: too many of what people are presenting (and selling) as stories are in fact not really stories at all. They are little more then scenes, vignettes at best. There’s nothing wrong with such pieces of writing per se, of course. They can be powerful, evocative, enjoyable… but they’re not stories, it seems to me.

In a story, something has to happen; something or someone has to change. And too often in my recent reading, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s in a way or to a degree that just doesn’t compel, enthuse, excite.

The BSFA Awards 2013 Booklet

I should discuss some specifics, and with the recent1 announcement of the BSFA Awards, what better stories to pick than the four that were nominated? The BSFA very helpfully curates and distributes a booklet containing all the nominated fiction (also reproductions of the nominated artworks, and this year for the first time, extracts from the non-fiction nominees). Conveniently, this booklet arrived during my short-story-reading period, and I read it straight away, to give me the chance to actually vote, for a change.

How disappointing it was.

By now we know that the lead story in the booklet, “Spin”, by Nina Allan, won the short fiction award. So I’ll deal with it last.

Selkie Stories are for Losers”, by Sofia Samatar.

Our unnamed first-person narrator hates stories of selkies, and swears she’ll never tell one. Why this might be something that she is called upon or tempted to do seems to be related to her forebears: American, her family background is Norwegian. She grew up with selkie stories. As time goes on there is the suggestion that her mother is one of the changeling creatures.

However, the story is good because of the characterisation. It’s the shortest of the four, but has the strongest, most interesting characters. Well, character: our selkie-story-hating narrator. As the story starts she is working as a waitress and falling in love with a co-worker, Mona. And from there it’s a love story with a slightly-weird background, and always the sense that something related to the selkie myths is going to happen.

There’s a good review of it on Martin Petto’s blog, actually. I pretty much agree with that.

Saga’s Children”, by EJ Swift

This is an odd story about a solar-system-famous astronaut, Saga, who has had three children by three different fathers in different places. She took no part nor much interest in their upbringing; and none of them knew the others existed until they were adults.

Saga summons them to meet her at a station in orbit around Ceres, and something happens.

But not much, as I was complaining above. The telling is unusual: throughout, the children refer to themselves as “we”, but when they discuss their various careers, for example, they list all three of their names; none of them refers to themselves as “I”. In other words, it is first-person plural.

But this has a distancing effect; we don’t really get to know any of the three. And a mystery happens and is not resolved, and we’re left none the wiser as to Saga’s motivations, or what the children will do.

I should just let Martin Petto do this for me, because his take on this story. too, is very accurate.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing”, by Tori Truslow

Maybe I should just let Martin deal with this one, too. On the other hand, he is annoyed by it in ways that didn’t bother me. It was, in fact, my favourite of the four, and the one I voted for first in the BSFA Awards (“Selkie Stories are for Losers” second, and no others).

Why was this the best? An intriguing, mysterious environment, an immediately-compelling narrator, a problem to solve, a world — or at least a city — to change.

Spin”, by Nina Allan

A retelling of the Arachne myth”, we are told. It turns out that I didn’t know the Arachne myth, and that makes a difference.

We are in something like modern-day Greece — people use iPads, for example — but time is out of joint: the currency is the Drachma, and there are suggestions that ancient events actually happened within living memory. And the protagonist’s father is a dyer, and all mentions of his trade imply that modern chemistry is all but unknown.

We start with the protagonist leaving the family home — running away, it feels like, though she is an adult — and making a new life for herself in another town. She gets a job, and practises her art of weaving in her spare time.

A mysterious old woman speaks to her enigmatically.

Her art soon earns her success and some recognition.

But some people — one woman in particular, with a sick son — think that she has a power, that her images can influence the future, if not cause it. It emerges that her mother was executed (or murdered) because she was believed to be some kind of witch.

She strikes up a relationship of sorts with the sick son (who may not be very sick at all), and we think we begin to see how things are going.

But then the old mystery woman is back and our hero is looking at some spiders on a bush and feeling weird and it’s all over.

What? What the hell just happened?

It turns out that Arachne was a weaver who claimed to be (or was) better than Athena, and got turned into a spider as a punishment. So there you are.

I’ve liked several of Nina Allan’s stories before this, but this one just doesn’t cut it for me; and I find it hard to believe that in all the science fiction (and fantasy) in all the world, there wasn’t a better short story published in 2013.

(My namesake Petto didn’t review this one, but instead posted a link to a review of it that no longer exists.)

Maybe I’m just grumpy cos on the rare occasion I’ve get round to submitting my own stuff, it’s been rejected.

Anyway, there we go. Back to novels.

  1. Recent when I first drafted this, maybe…