Monthly Archives: September 2014

Promise Kept

OK, so I said no more blogs, but one poem per fortnight instead. Which puts me four weeks (maybe even six weeks) in credit – whooo! – because: this is three poems, I suppose sort of for the occasion…
I. Snake Talk

my skins I left them
lying out in the dew
spread in the rain
stretched out in the frost
people say now
I can start again
but I say naked
just grows on naked
when your skins get lost

look, this is almost blue
so little life’s left in it
so bleached of healthy colour
and this you could call white
winding like a chasm
a streak of nothing
through faded grass
by no means void of hue
you could call this white.

Bones and veins
veins and bones
that’s all that’s left of me
I left my skins in the rain
spread out, as if
A chasm opens in the cloud
somewhere to west of here;
pink fades to violet
and then blue;
then the stars appear



II. Pussyfoots

The old hate the young
they say they don’t but they do
they think it was the youngsters’ fault
that the trick got played on them
and they could have stayed
eleven, or maybe fifteen, if the scamps
hadn’t stolen their ball.

Of course, the young ones
really were to blame
they locked the poor things away
condemned them to stay half-alive
from comfort and couches, and screens
on which the world was played
(but lying, bright and lying)
while they were out on the street, too busy
being smart, too lost in their world
of communication to pay much attention:
they thought they would stay thirty
forever, maybe thirty-five.

The old took some small revenge
in Scotland, the other week
voted out the young,
the Flower, they used to call them
they cackled insanely as they withered
away, sent them wailing home –
and where’s you mammy now?
Not there, that’s where, not there.

My son has a slogan
he wants them to attend to:
Live, or Die! it runs. He hates the half-life.
I suppose he fears it. We all do.
The tired old soldiers hate it
just as bad, and all complicit
in dropping their poor bones in it.
Meanwhile the fractured heart
we once called a country
still smarts and will not scar.

Their hate rings true
a bell that might summon us
to marry old and new
but all forget, and when we’re called
to love, or even forgive
everyone speaks softly, pussyfoots:
no-one mentions the war.




III. Got a Mission

There was a Knight we met
– I think he was a knight, though to be fair
I’ve little knowledge of the sort –
and walked with him some days – two, maybe more
pounding an unyielding road.
He had a comely manner about him
(you understand I’m driving here
through some fourteenth-century romance)
and though a bit single-minded
for my tentative kind – ambitious, too,
so I daresay one day will get
corrupted (most of them do) –
we were happy to walk in his swathe
to go down this road when he waved his hand
to stop when he said stop,
and to acknowledge his sincere thanks
at the day’s end.

On the last day
he seemed tireless, some said possessed
going on long after the day’s end, as the night came on:
“just one more road”, he’d say,
“just another corner”; “just another mile”;
and then we looked and saw his eyes
were bright and staring, and knew
he’d forgotten how to stop
and had to talk him down, quite gently,
persuade him that the day was done,
the battle over, and he had lost
and someone else, some other-where, won.

There were no thanks that night
and none required. We all went
quietly to our homes, it was a scene
enacted many times in the history of our land
and the lands of many others, from where
consciousness moves down
to the small creatures that inhabit caves:
ants, or spider, or mouse,
indomitable, too small to be noticed, yet perhaps
marked for leadership, one of these days.

1 Comment

Filed under Writing

After the Hard Stuff, the Orgy!


In the course of a long conversation this morning Paul and I touched on the quantity of whisky which would certainly be consumed in Scotland on Friday the 19th. (and what a bonanza this Referendum must prove to this mainstay industry in our economy), when the hard business of campaigning and deciding is in the past and we can relax with a glass in our hand…

As a poet, that’s to say someone with one foot in each of two worlds (sounds a bit like an Undecided Voter), I’m fascinated with the web of meanings which has formed round the word “spirit”. It’s connected to that other web of meanings around the epithet “water of life” for something which is quite clearly the water of death (there’s a doctor in one of Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s plays who gets lyrical about the connections between alcohol and corpses). I’m a bit old-fashioned about the use of the word spirit, and regard its hijacking to mean alcohol as just one of many attempts made to subvert human consciousness by that hard-nosed little demon, Materialism. But what interests me even more in the current circumstances in Scotland is the fact that this so-called traditional drink of our land can’t have been around, in more than laboratory quantities anyway, for more than, say, five hundred years, and more likely three to four – for the very simple reason that distilling equipment would have been very hard to come by. Which brings me to the very interesting question of why whisky – grain alcohol (universally available, with the right equipment) stored in foreign barrels in which foreign wines had previously been stored – should have come to be regarded Scotland’s “national” drink. Maybe it just means we’ve got a very cosmopolitan outlook. But it’s interesting when you consider that this beverage must have first seen the light of day in this country at the very time Scotland was being got through the process of so-called “union” with England. I don’t think it’s too much of an intellectual leap to suggest that “spirits” came as Civilisation’s gift to the Scots, in very much the same way as strong liquor was Civilisation’s gift to the indigenous populations of America and Australia. (It occurs to me that the German word for poison is “Gift”.) And in parallel – we hear less about this – cheap strong liquor managed to come the way of undesirable elements of society at the same time, just when the English countryside was being systematically cleared of its excess population to make way for the parkland and manor houses and darling little villages which we still know and love as the English Rural Idyll.

Anyway, being a resourceful people, Scots turned their spirit into a prime export – not that we could do anything similar nowadays, the Bank of England will point out that we’re far too brainless – and everyone has to drink it or at least try it, and for those who think they don’t care for it may I say it’s a bit like sex: a bit bizarre at first but all right once you get used to it.

And this is positively my last blog about the Referendum. Have a good orgy.


Filed under Writing

I tried….

I know I said my last blog would be my last; but I lied. I tried, but a mouth with as many words in it as mine is a hard thing to keep shut. And anyway, there’s still a whole day to go before the Referendum so I’m quite sure if I babble while everyone else is babbling no-one’ll mind too much.

So what I wanted to say is this: I don’t believe in oil revenue, and I never did, certainly not back in the seventies when everyone was getting to excited about the prospect of high-octane American-style wealth. I thought the stuff should have been left under the sea from the outset, and used only very sparingly and guardedly, as befits any finite resource. But of course humans have a great capacity for shitting in their own beds, so I suppose I shouldn’t get too utopian. If it was going to be used profligately, then wise profligacy would have been advisable to greedy profligacy. I never believed, either, in oil as a lever to get the Scottish people to stand on their own feet again, but, once again, I suppose one has to be realistic. Promising your people that they’ll be able to live in “honest poverty” isn’t likely to cut much ice in the age of rampant consumerism. It looks as though there are still vast swathes of people in England who view Margaret Thatcher as some sort of Great Leader who “turned Britain around” and prepared us for the twenty-first century. In fact her Tory government and what it achieved merely capitalised on the early plundering of those abundant-seeming undersea resources. Out of it emerged the monster that we know as present-day London, which is likely to go on capsizing the economy of Britain if things are allowed to go on at the present rate.

Are there any oil reserves left? Well, I don’t want to question the expertise of those good geo-physicists who are doubtless appraised of all the facts. Frankly, I don’t care how much of the stuff is still there, but I suppose we could carry on shouting about the issue for a bit longer while we sort out who’s going to grab the last dregs. And presumably the latest spate of investment in exploration gear (40 billion quid, did someone say) is chickenfeed in comparison to what they’re used to spending, and losing. But whatever the truth is (buried deeper than any oil, I should imagine), the recent statements of the oil “giants” about the inadvisability of Scotland going independent, which happened to coincide with the last northern visit of the Westminster Big Guns, seem like an extraordinary bare-faced attempt to ensure that whatever revenues can still be gleaned will go to the “right” people. And how right they were in their timing, if the polls are to be believed! The little Scottish poodle clearly needed to be called to heel.

I suppose you can’t really blame people who are feeling scared. You have good old John Major saying Britain would lose its place on the Security Council, and someone else saying that Scotland will be much more open to terrorism if it doesn’t have the protection of the Intelligence services (er, isn’t it the fact that we have such a high foreign profile that makes us so susceptible to terrorism?) Then there’s the childish prattle about the horror of having border guards between England and Scotland. I know the level of collective intelligence sinks the greater the number of people involved, so presumably a nation must be among the least intelligent human entities that exist. But it is still possible to hang onto the idea that we can better control our destiny, for the good of all, if we don’t panic. Change is scary only until it happens: then we can get on with sorting things out. I love the story (it may be apocryphal) about the companies that are already being set up to facilitate the removal of Aberdeen-based businesses to the south should there be a Yes vote. With a bit of good promotion they should make a killing! And then in a couple of years when their income starts to decline they can diversify into facilitating the bringing-back of southern businesses to Aberdeen! Now there’s people who don’t panic at the idea of change!

In all the years I’ve lived in Scotland (fifty-six, to be exact, as I’ve had a few years away) I have never had a sense of hope like I see just now. Hope for what, you idiots? I don’t know the answer to that, and I doubt if they’ll get what they hope for: few of us do. But it’s as if everyone’s been going around with their heads down mumbling in the good old Scots way, “well, better just get on wi’t” – and then one day stopped and looked up and thought, hey, maybe we could actually use our talents, here at home – that’d be a thing.

Ah now, but here come the good old Scottish attitudes to our aid: na, it’ll nivver work, it’ll nivver work. And then, when it comes to it, a tentative: aye, well, maybe, just maybe… and then – ach no, look at that, no, I told you so…. And then the grandaddy of them is hauled out:
     Now all is done that men can do   
     and all is done in vain,
and we can strike a good old tragic-heroic Scotch pose as we weep into our whiskies.

If, as I suppose seems likely, there is a No vote, the Yes-ers should actually get straight on with organising the next campaign, and keep up the pressure while it’s still there. But a Yes vote would be better – cleaner, better-tempered, without squandering the wave of positive energy: next time round it will be more of a bitter struggle, the at present mendacious claims about the value of oil revenue will have been made to come true, the oil reserves will have been getting bled dry at a great rate, and disappointment could start to erupt into violence and racist attitudes. None of this is necessary. We could catch the head of steam, the energy, the desire for freedom and self-determination that exists in all peoples, and frankly I think a Yes result will have started to infect England too by the time we in Scotland are pausing to look around and wonder what the hell we’ve let ourselves in for. We shouldn’t forget that, away from its self-glorification in the history books, the wealth of England was built on oppression, slavery and fear, even as was Scotland’s. But we can make a start to changing that.

That’s the public rant bit over, so this next bit is a bit more personal but I don’t know how to share just sections of the blog on Facebook. Having been involved a little with campaigners in the last few weeks makes me especially interested in campaigners reports. “No” campaigners always seem a little offended at how “vicious” the Yes campaign’s been, presumably compared with their own gentlemanly tactics. I suppose “Yes” campaigners being pelted with eggs counts as light violence, whereas “No” campaigners being sprayed with lemonade counts as heavy violence; or a car window being smashed in because of its No sticker is more expensive to repair than one that gets smashed because of its Yes sticker (actually… – na, never mind). It seems to be mainly No campaigners who express how “delighted” they are that everyone’s become so “politically engaged”; presumably they’ll be equally delighted when there’s a No vote and we can go back to the good old ways of 30% poll turn-outs. (The BBC says the campaign will change the political face of things “forever”, whichever way the vote goes. To which I say, Yeah, right. Ah, good old Forever, you could make a song of it at least the equal of Auld Lang Syne.)

So maybe they’ll make a campaigner of me yet. They’ve even got me wearing Stickers, which Maddy conscientiously pulls off every time she sees them, for the good of my Soul. Annie’s got really fired up, I’m getting a bit scared. I thought Catriona was getting set to be the First Minister of Scotland some day, but maybe Annie’ll beat her to it, and then I really will have to start polishing my boots (she’s taken to strutting about in high heels, I don’t want to even think what that’s about). I thought we could go to the Huntly Folk Club on Wednesday night but apparently I’m to be dragged out for some last-minute strong-arm tactics on the streets of some unsuspecting local town. Maybe we’ll be able to go to the folk club on the way home, as we don’t generally like intimidating people in the dark (we’ve no way of recognising each other with our balaclavas on, and we just frighten ourselves); if we do I’m going to sing the following ditty (see, I promised to do a poem instead of a blog, so I’m trying to keep my promise a little bit) There probably is some way of doing it to the music, but I don’t know how at the moment. It’s not about the Independence issue really, though come to think of it it may be a bit:

Through the Sights of a Tank

It’s got eyes of glass, it’s got skin of steel
it comes grinding up the hill and all the people kneel
and its shout re-echoes in the mountains round
and the deep foundations tremble and the walls fall down
And I’m standing at the edge in the pouring rain
with nothing between me and the sky again
like the sheep on the hill, like the cattle at the cull
there is nothing between me and the hollow men

So cheer up my boys, and knock that whisky down
for we’ll all be feeling better when the prison-walls close round
for it’s cruel through the snow and the cold sodden ground
and defenceless where the open winds of freedom blow

Will you tell me my brother, why is the sky so red?
Is it evening or morning that’s overhead?
have you spent all that money, will you save it up for years
to bolster your confidence, and calm your fears?
And I’m standing here, holding out my hand
but take it or leave it, you’re the hollow man
with your wall full of charts and your mouth full of dirt
as you head out for exactly where you first began

But cheer up my boys, and knock that whisky down
for we’ll all be feeling better when the prison-walls close round
for it’s cruel through the snow and the cold sodden ground
and defenceless where the open winds of freedom blow

My brother had a vision as he slowly sank
he saw sunlight on blue water through the sights of a tank
there was nobody near, no target in view
and the icy hand of fear clawed his heart in two
When they told his little daughter, daddy’s never coming home
the silly thing sat in her treetop all alone
and with never a tear said I’m waiting here
till he’s everything he promised he’d be when a man

But cheer up my boys, and knock that whisky down
for we’ll soon be feeling better when the prison-walls close round
for it’s cruel through the snow and the cold sodden ground
and defenceless where the open winds of freedom blow

The prophet Elijah came and warned us for our good
of the coming tides of darkness and the rivers of blood
and the bankers, and their accusers, and the jailers, and the just
all join into the chorus, let it not be us!
But I hope when the time comes, that the last thing I’ll see
will be my brother’s daughter at her wishing-tree
with a hollow tambourine that she batters with her hand
and I hope she’ll do the latest crazy dance for me

So cheer up my boys, and knock that whisky down
for we’ll soon be feeling better when the prison-walls close round
for it’s cruel through the snow and the cold sodden ground
and defenceless where the open winds of freedom blow


Filed under Writing

I don’t want my country to go on suffering the ache of Dependence


Did I really hear on the radio last night (BBC Radio 4, no less) someone enumerating the great advantages which had accrued to Scotland by joining the Union – and including among them Democracy? Did I really hear that? I had had a couple of drams with our neighbours, to be sure, but not that much: yes, I really do think I heard that…..

Well, I really think I must have heard it all now. This surely must belong into the category of what Laurens van der Post called the “standard imperial patter”, or something very like it. Van der Post used the phrase after a conversation he had had with a Russian bureaucrat or politician, presumably during the Soviet period, in which this chap was similarly enumerating the benefits of civilisation which the Russian Empire (or Soviet State, or however you like to call it) had bestowed upon its Muslim subjects in the south.

What I find fascinating about this kind of, still-continuing, narrative is the unquestioning assumption that before whichever-imperial-power-it-happens-to-be came along there was nothing but chaos and nastiness. In our latter days one of the things we consider nasty is not having a democracy, but of course there have been different equivalents in the past: for “undemocratic” substitute chaotic, impoverished, illiterate, cannibalistic, starving, take your pick. The imperial patter can be basically condensed into this little conversation:
Empire: this is a nice little place you’ve got here, you’d better let us help you look after it.
Native: thanks, we’re doing fine, we seem to keep things going pretty well on our own – not perfect, but then what is?
Empire: That’s true, but it can’t go on like this, can it?
Native: Oh? Why not?
Empire: Because someone’s going to wreck it, aren’t they?
Native: Who on earth would want to wreck it?
Empire: Well, we would, unless you let us look after you. Because we’re God’s appointed, you know. What’s more, as well as protecting you, we’ll let you join our little Family, as long as you prove yourself worthy of our family values.

It came to be called a protection racket, of course, but whatever you call it – Empire or Mafia – it has three defining features: 1 Unlike humanity in general, it is profoundly undemocratic, and rests on the maintenance of a ruling elite who consider that their access to life’s goodies should not be restricted; 2 The lengths of savagery to which it is prepared to go are always just in excess of what its opponents are prepared to commit; and 3 It rests on rigorous organisation, which means it produces tentacles everywhere, both visible and invisible, which makes it more or less invincible.

Of course the Power in the south of Britain which for centuries attempted to undermine and control the entity we call the Scottish nation, was not the “English”. It was a branch of the neo-Roman Empire which we now know as the Normans. The supposedly “decisive” battle of Bannockburn, for example, was followed by thirty years of unremitting attempts to regain the control which had slipped away from this coterie of Norman barons based in England, who at the same time were also engaged in an attempt to expand their ancestral territories in France.

While I think it’s not totally irrelevant to point out that even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it wasn’t unknown for a dynastic marriage to be consummated by an act of rape carried out on an unwilling girl with her father’s consent, so that I doubt if anyone was completely fooled by the civilised-sounding sobriquet “Act of Union”, I can’t in honesty really think in nationalistic terms, in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, in the process by which Scotland was eventually subsumed into the Greater Good that is the United Kingdom. Empire, as far as I’m concerned, is a virus of the human mind. The Normans and Franks got it from the Romans, the Romans got it from the Greeks (we’ve all heard that nonsense about how Democracy “began” in ancient Athens), the Greeks got it principally from the Persians, though I daresay with some input from Egypt, I don’t know who the Persians got it from – Assyrians, Hittites, Sumerians, take your pick, I get mixed up between the whole bloodthirsty pack of them. The aspect of rigorous organisation which I mentioned as a feature of this virus is what we generally call Civilisation nowadays, and we like to think of it as a good thing, even a blessing. We are all so thoroughly in the grip of this virus that it’s difficult to see outside of the terms of reference which it imposes.

I presume that, as with all viruses, humanity will either become immune to it, or it will kill us. I suspect that we might be getting close to the brink beyond which one or the other will start to happen. Hopeful signs? Not many. But I’m interested in a series of events which happened around what we, rather mythically, call The Great War, whose hundredth anniversary we are “celebrating” this year, when it almost looked as though the relentless northward surge of Empire from its origins on the Tigris or the Euphrates or the Nile was starting to run out of steam. Norway, after about 50 years of argy-bargy, became independent of the Swedish Empire. Nine years before that Finland, having been snatched from the Swedish Empire by the Russian Empire (I love the story of Little Black Sambo and the tigers, by the way, though it’s considered a bit Inappropriate these days), had also declared itself independent. As the war raged, the people of Ireland asserted their right to independence from Britain; and as it came to an end Iceland became unhooked from Denmark. I like to think that, just as the virus came to us from the south, so it might begin to be rolled back again from the north (for any who are interested in such things, something like this can be found expressed powerfully as a modern myth in J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings); but who can say?

Anyway, I would like to think that our own little country might turn out to be part of this unhooking process; and it’s remarkable how much interest in our doings has been evinced in the heartland of our current Empire – Germany, Italy, France, even parts of Spain. Things of course have to be done in the proper order, if they aren’t going to provoke a dangerous reaction (Ukraine, for example?); but, again, who knows? Who knows?

Annie and Ellie and I – a little to our family’s discomfiture – have been helping a bit canvassing for the Yes Scotland campaign – not a thing we’ve ever done before, being not very politically-boned. It’s been an instructive experience, though I worry at some of my own reactions – like how the idea of Independence takes on the features of a Promised Land; and anyone one meets standing in its way becomes the Enemy. I’m profoundly upset at how many of the most aggressive (or defensive, let’s be fair ) “No” people are English – and I have heard troubling reports of English people receiving abuse on account of their origins, such that I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be called “racist scum” by one householder. I also fear that if we don’t manage to get a clear mandate now, things will be soured for the next time the attempt is made, as it undoubtedly will be. Meanwhile, would I trust a Tory government to honour its current hurried and rather opportunistic-looking pledges? Well, please – and of course, such important things are likely to come along and unfortunately push the Scottish Question into the background (sorry, guys, but you know, with these terrorists, and Putin, and all…..).

Anyway, that’s that for now. I’m throwing in my lot with the Independence lot not because my sentiments are Nationalist, or even Green, but because I don’t want my country to go on suffering the ache of Dependence – its torpor, and laziness, and lack of confidence, and poor initiative, and I daresay corruption too. We need a boot up the bum – maybe we can only get that if we let ourselves be led up the garden path by promises of greater prosperity, or maybe we will get greater prosperity, though personally I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Boot up the bum first, I’d say: then we can start to deal, maybe, with the really difficult issues that will undoubtedly follow.

I think this is going to be my last blog, though I might go on trying to build the Coldhome web page a bit more. Rachel says my blogs are “wordy” (what am I at just now? 1260-odd words? Hey, daughter, you ain’t seen nuthn); and Annie says I should concentrate instead on posting a poem every fortnight – I think she means a sonnet, or maybe even a haiku, rather than an Epic…..

So – good voting, everyone; and I daresay there will be junketings with our Pals, whether in celebration or commiseration, at the due date.

1 Comment

Filed under Writing