Plugspotting

Slightly to my surprise, The Scotsman published my letter and here:

In your editorial Gunspotting (24 March) you credit Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting with as much influence on public discourse in its subject areas as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath and 1984 were in theirs. Putting Welsh on this roll of honour, you are wondering if he’ll do it again, with his next book, set in the US gun culture. No pressure!

This is a remarkable change of tune from you, as a leader and reflector of Scottish public opinion. For ten years after the publication of Trainspotting, Welsh was a foul-mouthed glorifier or trivialiser of heroin. The City of Literature scheme, formed in 2004, could do no other than recognise his place in the pantheon of Scottish literary greats, if not on literary merit, then on sheer impact on the reading public. Then, in 2010 Rev Councillor Rt Hon George Grubb, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, hailed Welsh as “an iconic chronicler of our city”.

After 15 years of conducting Trainspotting tours of Leith – which the tourist board initially deplored – I have written my own book which examines how Welsh did indeed change public perceptions of the drug scene, where it collided with the newly-arrived ‘gay men’s disease’, rapidly re-named HIV. It will be out by August, in time for the 25th anniversary of the launch of Trainspotting.

They correctly realised that in addition to making my point it is a plain old-fashioned plug for my book. I love the heading they gave it: Plugspotting! Not every new book has this sort of opportunity for advance publicity.

Gunspotting

The “authorities”, or the “establishment”, are really changing their tune about Irvine Welsh. Twenty years ago he was a flash-in-the-pan author with a foul mind who celebrated hard drugs. Now that he has said his next work of fiction is to be in the area of American gun culture, look at a recent editorial with this heading in The Scotsman, no less:

“Our world view is shaped by many factors, but books, films, and other works of art play a significant part. Abraham Lincoln reportedly greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe with ‘so you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this war’ after Uncle Tom’s Cabin laid bare the horrors of slavery for many in pre-Civil War America; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath exposed Depression-era poverty; and George Orwell’s 1984 remains a powerful warning about the dangers of totalitarianism.

“Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was a publishing sensation that got people talking about drug addicts in a different way. If his draft of a novel about gun violence in the US and the ‘unhealed wounds in American society’ has anything like the same appeal, we may have another title to add to the relatively small list of genuinely life-changing books.”

Having got himself on the Roll of Honour once, he’s being asked to do it again. Nae pressure, then, Big Man, eh?

Leith faces “destruction” and “crass exploitation”.

Irvine Welsh is often asked daft questions, and he’s given some daft answers in his time. But he’s dead right to condemn recent and proposed developments in Leith, generating headlines such as the one at the top of this, in The Scotsman. The old Caledonian Railway Company’s offices on Leith Walk, built in what looks like Glasgow pink sandstone, are part of Leith’s history and part of Leith’s present vitality and versatility. They host a diverse collection of operations, with good internal space at street level on busy Leith Walk. So we’ll flatten them and build student accommodation. At Pilrig we already have exactly this – the “flats” are really little more than pods with “kitchen” space only for a microwave and a kettle. So a supermarket, in thick with the developers, takes space right down below them selling, guess what, you’ve got it, microwavable stuff and hot pizzas.

Welsh is right to call for robust local authority controls over permission for such developments, but the councils’ powers have been much reduced. And they are very strapped for cash. None of this is inevitable; it’s policy choices. Austerity and neo-liberalism make us punters in a market-place, not citizens in a democracy.

As The Man says: “If everywhere becomes a sterile version of somewhere else, then you’ve nothing left to make it special…” It’s the death of meaningful community. The casual and wilful destruction of the best of Leith is continuing beyond the Trainspotting generation.

Scexit

Here is my reply to my SNP MSP email to me, in the previous blog. Lines from his are in italics.

…you’ve passionately put forward your point of view…
Well, passion may be part of his repertoire, but I prefer stone-cold sober analysis and assessment. The matter in hand here is the use of a referendum; I say it is an ad hoc device of questionable status that undermines our long-established representative democracy. I say a referendum is a throw of the dice which, if you only accept the result you want, is a gamble you can’t lose. My MSP offers nothing to contradict me.

…the SNP campaigns for an independent Scotland…
We should get rid of this word “independent” for use in this context. We all form alliances, come to arrangements, do deals, sign treaties, all that, in our personal and political lives. There’s no such thing as “independence”. The question is which alliances, arrangements, deals and treaties we want to make. The mature thing is to form such alliances… etc that get the best out of ourselves and our neighbours and partners. It is impossible to imagine that Scotland could have a better relationship than we have with our immediate neighbours on this crowded archipelago of islands. We have completely frictionless trade and one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. The SNP has to persuade us that if we departed from the UK we would be better off. They don’t even try. It’s all down to rhetoric and bombast for them.

Let’s call this what it is: it is a separatist agenda. Or, to give it a more immediate and recognisable context, let’s call it “Scexit”. If they deplore the conduct of the Brexit referendum and the inevitable chaos of trying to make good on unachievable promises, the SNP has to explain how a Scexit referendum would be different. They pretend it wouldn’t be like that. But referendums are always like that.

…People in Scotland were erroneously told by Better Together in 2014 that independence would result in Scotland being taken out of the EU…
Oh dear, I really thought we had got past that. But, for my MSP’s benefit, let’s go over it again. Political developments didn’t stop on the day of the referendum. What he’ll find as life goes on is that things keep changing.

The price of oil, on which so much of the separatist “White Paper” (it was a wish-list) was predicated, crashed before the Brexit ref. If they were being honest, they would have to concede that it was a material change of circumstances, a significantly different state of affairs from the one they were imagining and promoting during the campaign, such that another referendum would be justified. But they’re not being honest.

They cannot say what would be the nature of the border with the rest of the UK (rUK), just as the Brexiteers cannot resolve their promises both to come out of all things European yet have a soft border in Ireland. They can’t have both, and the Scexiteers would have the same problem. How would it be possible to have different immigration policies, for example, yet keep an invisible border?

There is no guarantee that a separated Scotland would be permitted to join the EU, and a condition of membership may well be adoption of the €. These are very serious matters. Since it is impossible to know before separation negotiations are concluded, there is no clear prospectus on which a sensible decision can be made in a referendum. Just like Brexit, we would be voting for a pig in a poke with no chance of changing our minds if we don’t like the pig.

I will vie with no-one about how appalling the present UK government is, indeed, that we have a dysfunctional parliament at Westminster. Major electoral and constitutional reforms are desperately urgent. Similarly, I am under no illusion about the EU. I voted REMAIN and REFORM. Sadly, the last element wasn’t on the ballot paper. The basic question is: do we walk away from a union, forged by geography, history and economic realities, or do we stay and fix the problems? The geography, history and economic realities won’t change. Trade unions were formed to protect individuals and communities from the worst effects of capitalism. Capitalism has morphed into corporatism, and unionism has to keep pace. There is safety and strength in union; danger and weakness in isolation.

At Holyrood SNP social and economic policies are chaotic, with a strong and highly unfortunate centralising tendency, though I don’t say they get everything wrong. And at local level, they have nothing to say. This is because the SNP in office has no principle for government other than to manipulate things towards their sole aim. The Labour party’s principle is collectivism; the LibDems’ is human rights; the Conservatives’, at their best, is responsible free enterprise; the Greens’ is for ecological living; all honourable positions which can be applied to any aspect of government at any level. The SNP’s dismally small-minded, mean-spirited ambition is to separate Scotland from rUK. For the greater glory of… what, exactly? The SNP is basically an opportunist single-issue party. We deserve better.

On the face of it, we need fear the SNP no more: it seems highly unlikely that the 2005 and 2011 elections, which gave them an absolute majority at Holyrood, will ever be repeated. The electoral arrangements are designed to produce coalitions and minority governments. They didn’t have the cojones to make a unilateral declaration of independence when they could – they threw everything into a referendum and they lost.

However, we shouldn’t be complacent. The SNP is not Hungary’s Jobbik, nor Germany’s AfD, and Nicola Sturgeon is not Marine le Pen. But it wouldn’t take much for the ideologues to tip it into something not so far from the above-mentioned. It trades in identity politics, which always needs a bogey-man, and we know where that can go.

This is the best they can do…

Somewhat unexpectedly, a reply has come from my SNP MSP, given here in full (omitting only some courtesies). It came almost two weeks ago, just before I was leaving home, or it would have been up earlier – no disrespect intended. I will post my reply in the next few days.

As I’ve come to expect, you’ve passionately put forward your point of view on the use of referendums. I note your comments on the use of a confirming referendum or other mechanisms to qualify a referendum result.

As you are aware, the SNP campaigns for an independent Scotland in order to create a more socially just and economically prosperous nation, that makes decisions based on our priorities decided democratically here by our elected Parliament. It has been party policy for many years now that the people of Scotland should have a say on the issue of self-determination through a referendum. That policy remains the position of the SNP. It was of course also part of the mandate that we sought at the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.

Much has changed since 2014 when the last Scottish Independence referendum was held. The EU referendum was, in my view, based on slogans and overblown newspaper headlines. This was in contrast to the comprehensive White Paper that the Scottish Government put forward in 2014. The result of the EU referendum contradicts what the people of Scotland were told in 2014 during the Scottish Independence referendum. People in Scotland were erroneously told by Better Together in 2014 that independence would result in Scotland being taken out of the EU. However, voting to continue as part of the UK in 2014 has instead resulted in Scotland facing the isolationism of Brexit against our democratic will. As a result of the EU referendum, where Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the EU (78% in the local constituency), the people of Scotland are now faced with being taken out of the EU against their will.

Having discussed the issue of referendums with you before I know that we will disagree on their use. However, I want you to know that I respect your view and thank you for taking the time to inform me of your views.

Kind regards,
Ben

The gamble of a referendum

Oh dear, I just can’t used to how bad the SNP really is. The persistent calls for the right to call a referendum when they want to inspired this letter to the Herald, and it was published last week. I was hoping to start a rammy, but there’s been no blowback yet. I sent it to my SNP MSP and SNP MP for comment; by chance I ran into Ben McPherson MSP over the weekend, and he said he would read it to see if “it’s worthy of a reply”. He has a week, or I’m entitled to conclude that there is no principle for government other than pursuit of their sole aim, and they remain committed to referendums as a means of government. I’ll post any reply here. Don’t hold your breath.

TO: LETTERS EDITOR, THE HERALD.
Repeated indications from the SNP that it aims to call for another referendum when it thinks it can win tells us three important things. Firstly, that they regard a referendum as a throw of the dice, a gamble which, since they only respect the outcome if they win, they can’t lose. Secondly, that, in office, its guiding principle for government is not good politics but the manipulation of politics towards its sole aim. Thirdly, both to upgrade Scottish politics, national and local, to a serious level, and to protect ourselves from another ad hoc referendum of questionable status, a Referendum Act is needed.

This is not a Unionist stance; it is in support of our well-established system of representative democracy which a referendum undermines. A referendum is the perfect vehicle for liars, bullies, fantasists and neo-liberals who don’t care for democracy.

Here are some start-points for a Referendum Act. If the subject of a referendum is a single piece of legislation then it must be fully drafted and debated in the campaign and, if approved, the parliament is required to enact it without delay or changes.

Constitutional change requires a super-majority; that could be 50% of the entire electorate or 66% of the turn-out on the day. 50%+1 of the voters on the day could be sufficient to start negotiating constitutional change, but secondary safeguards are required.

One possibility would be that the outcome of negotiations must be put in a final draft and submitted to a confirming referendum; another is that the parliament must endorse the final draft; in either case within two years and by a specified margin. Rejection of the final draft returns the situation to the status quo ante, and the matter may not be subjected to another referendum within, say, twenty years.

If there’s one thing the Brexit referendum and its aftermath has taught us, it is that the outcome of a referendum that is not secured in law can be a decision made in ignorance of the implications with far-reaching unintended consequences, is incapable of giving adequate authority for anyone to properly deal with towards an agreed outcome, and no-one is held to account. In Scotland we were within a whisker of all this in September 2014. Never again!

It’s coming yet for a’ that

No, not a tribute to the Bard and his call for egalitarianism in his revolutionary poem A Man’s A Man For A’ That, although we increasingly look forward to the day when this ghastly, dysfunctional, unrepresentative, sense-of-entitlement “government” in London collapses. And while we’re at it, we can look forward to the day we get rid of the government in Holyrood, with its sustained attacks on professionals such as teachers, Transport Police, and local government in general. Aye, it’s coming yet…

No what I’m meaning here is the arrival of a new visitor on Leith Links, a statue of the signatory to the first written rules of golf in 1744: none other than Dr John Rattray. He strode the Links, winning the Silver Arrow in the annual archery competition and the Silver Club in the first ever golf competition. His part, and Leith’s place, has been written out of golfing history. But after sterling work on the part of Leith Rules Golf Society, Leith is reclaiming its heritage.

Leith Links is long-beloved turf. It is the oldest stretch of open land in Scotland that is protected by Act of Parliament. Badly hooked shots from the first tee of the eighteenth-century course would break windows in Wellington Place. St Andrews’ boast to be “The Home of Golf” is not a claim to the historical origins of the game. The eighteenth-century golfers drank copious quantities of claret in the Leith howffs, which is the origin of the Claret Jug, the most coveted trophy in world golf as the prize for The Open wherever in Britain it is played. Leith is home to an extraordinary collection of golfing firsts: in chronological order, the first recorded game; the first club; the first port of export of golf equipment; the first rules; the first competition for a prize; the first international challenge match; the first club house; and the first professionals’ tournament. Golf is Leith’s gift to the world.

Dr John will be arriving later this year or possibly next year. I saw the statue at the Powderhall foundry last night at the LRGS Annual General Meeting. This is going to be huge. It will pull in tourists from around the world. There’ll be books, maps, hotels, tour buses, and all. Bring them on. It’s coming yet…

Survival, resurgence and renewal: everything to play for in 2018

Greetings from Leith at the turn of the year. For several years now I have been saying that publication of my book should happen in the year ahead; although it has become slightly embarrassing to be wrong so often, I don’t mind the delay so much because the whole thing has matured in the process. I have never done anything like this before, and I don’t know how the publishing process goes.

Meanwhile, I have been pleased to meet so many people who have come on the tour this year. A highlight was the flurry of interest in February, with the release of T2. And I have been working towards presenting the draft to a publisher, with the help of an agent. Can’t say more than that just now. It would be nice to have good news early in the New Year, and less nice to have disappointing news. I’ll be published in one form or another, and since 2018 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of Trainspotting, I’m certainly aiming for next year.

In addition to the anniversary, it is also becoming clear that there is a resurgence of interest in the 1980s heroin scene. This is led by survivors. One I pick out is Graham MacIndoe, from West Lothian, just outside Edinburgh, who got into heroin in New York. He recorded his downward spiral in photographs, which formed an exhibition recently at the Portait Gallery here in Edinburgh. He also wrote an account, together with his partner Susan Stellin, in Chancers (Ballantine Books, and not cheap).

Then look at David France’s How to Survive a Plague, subtitled The story of how activists and scientists tamed AIDS (Picador), this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize winner. Again from the USA, it deals mainly with the gay scene and HIV/AIDS, both closely associated with the smack scene here in Leith and not overlooked in Trainspotting. France was told ten years ago that the AIDS cannon was complete, and there was no market for this. He not only proved them wrong, but also pioneered a history of these interlinked subjects that has been ignored by mainstream histories. No more.

With this longer view of the 1980s scene, we can see that Welsh was very quick and early to tell the story, in all its chaos, danger, pathos and, ultimately, survival. But Trainspotting is in urgent need of a re-appraisal. This is where my book comes in.

St Andrew’s Day 2017

Another opportunity to celebrate all things Scottish. This year there’s a serious attempt to reclaim the flag – the Saltire – from the separatists and the SNP. St Andrew was crucified on a diagonal cross, poor chap, and was buried. Later, when the burial site was under threat, the Christian authorities ordered that several parts of his body should be scattered to the ends of the world. This was both to preserve the remains and to spread the Word. Good idea, really. I think it’s his knee-cap that got as far as the coast of Fife, after which the town of St Andrews is named.

But, back to the present. We who believe that Scotland needs to be within a (reformed) United Kingdom need to ensure that the separatists don’t make the flag their own. We should all drape ourselves in the flag and take selfies, captioning it with something like: “Ma flag, oor flag, aa’body’s flag”. That settles it. Oor Wullie and The Broons belong to all of Scotland.

While we’re on the subject, interesting to read in this month’s Leither three pieces by local politicians. SNP MP Deidre Brock wrote a sterile piece about Catalonia; SNP MSP Ben MacPherson did a cut and paste job from party HQ extolling the government’s achievements and efforts on renewable energy; and Labour councillor Gordon Munro wrote a hard-hitting and painful to read fact-filled indictment of poverty in Leith. It’s carefully referenced and passionate, ending with an appeal to work together to halt and reverse the worst effects of what he calls 20th century “benign patriarchy”. I would quarrel with the adjective there. He didn’t (have space to) go on to point out that the out-of-control heroin abuse of the 1980s was a symptom of social malfunction. It’s clear to me that Gordon is the only serious, thoughtful, politician among them all.

Do I, a man of the English/Scottish borderlands who has lived in Leith these nigh-on forty years, feel at home? Yes, I do, very much, and very comfortably. But I still relish the tensions. As a young fellow I played village cricket in north Northumberland and occasionally Newcastle. Two or three times we crossed the Border to play at St Boswells, a shorter journey than to Newcastle, but the accents were very strange. So, a life-long hard-core Test Match Special aficionado, I was listening to the match report from far-off Brisbane in the wee small hours recently. The situation was taking a turn for the worse for Our Brave and Heroic Boys in White on the Batting Crease of Life. The commentators read out an email from a chap on an oil rig in the North Sea complaining that he was trying get some peace to concentrate while putting up with a bunch of “really immature” Scotsmen who were pretending to be Australian. All in the best of good humour, of course, and no hard feelings. They don’t all understand. Cricket is a Scottish game as well. The British cricket team was named the England team in mid-19th century when everything British was subsumed into England. There have been several Scottish players and captains of the England team. Ach well.

“Double inverted commas” or ‘single ones’, darling?

It’s been an interesting month. Oh yes. Maybe you can’t imagine how much fun it has been going through every page of my copy, looking for the absolutely correct way to give a page reference. It has to be exactly this: (p.67) Indentation of paragraphs, too. Not forgetting “double inverted commas” and ‘single ones’. And italics. It all has to be dead right.

It seems that publishers no longer have what they called desk editors, that is in-house people who sort out incoming texts. These people are now free-lancers, and the publishers pay – so the publishers now want the text to come in pretty well ready to go. Luckily, a relative of mine introduced me to a very nice one such person, who was generous with her time and advice. I’m very grateful to her.

Still, I reflect, it takes me ages to do all this, and it would take someone who knows what she’s doing only a morning. ‘Tis the way of the world.