What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.
This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.
Co-authored with Irene Sutcliffe – you can follow her on Twitter here
On 16 September, the Sunday Times published an interview with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. The piece was both about Davidson’s private and public lives (the two can’t really be separated, not in her line of work): her pregnancy and the importance to her and her partner of starting a family, her political career to date, and her desire not to be Prime Minister (despite strong rumours to the contrary). The interview was trying to be a refreshing take on a Conservative politician – as the interviewer points out, on the surface, Davidson is hardly your archetypal Tory, ‘…a working-class, winningly informal, cheerfully profane 39-year-old lesbian former kick boxer…’. The piece even begins with Ruth dancing for the photographer, apparently unembarrassed. She is portrayed as frank, amusing and charming. She has an autobiography coming out, called ‘Yes She Can’, and a lengthy extract from this book, which deals with her breakdown aged 17, is printed at the end of the interview.
Solomon J Solomon, ‘Samson’, detail. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
[Content note: mental illness, suicidal thoughts, self-harm]
Can I make a confession? It’s not exactly an original one, and the experiences it concerns are anything other than unique. Perhaps it isn’t much of a confession, given how many people – although I’m thinking primarily of men here – have said something similar before me. I was corporeally contemptible when I was a boy – short, skinny, a late developer, and the youngest of three brothers. I was resoundingly shit at sport of all kinds, which was a bit rubbish considering how good at it my nearest brother was – the one I looked up to, the one who couldn’t resist the entirely understandable urge to stress his place one rung up on the ladder of life whenever the opportunity arose. For some reason my brain couldn’t tell the difference between a ball thrown at me and one thrown to me, and the same helpless spasm of indecision would foul me up each time I was called upon to stop or catch one. There wasn’t a tackle I’d fail to pull out of, or a pass that wouldn’t fall short. I could have cringed for England. Participatory sports were little more than a weekly episode of shivering, chafing and humiliation, longing for the time to pass and the bus to come and to just get home, while others shouted and ran and sweated and thrived. The echoes of these episodes rang round the playground and the classroom. The echoes, being echoes, all sounded the same: weak, weak, weak.
At last – definitive proof that there is such a thing as a free lunch!
To mark the release of the new LitLong app for both Android and iOS we’re holding a couple of events about which I’m quite frankly unable to contain my excitement. LitLong is a unique digital resource that allows users to explore literary Edinburgh through more than 600 works which make the city their setting – it’s been put together and developed by a team based in English Literature here, and we’ve been remaking our interface and apps over the last year.
One of the key features of the new LitLong is the ability to make and share ‘paths’ – customised strings of excerpts on any topic or theme that the resource makes possible. So this Saturday, 18 November, we’re holding a free event exploring and making paths through literary Edinburgh. There’ll be all sorts of different activities, a free lunch, and then a chance to explore the settings of Kaite Welsh’s fantastic new contribution to Edinburgh crime fiction, The Wages of Sin, on a tour guided by Kaite herself! You can find further info, and book a place, here. We’d love to see you there!
One of the other things that LitLong does is to bring a lot of long-neglected writing to the surface, much of it by women writers who are less well known than they should be. Since LitLong draws on Wikipedia to inform users about the writers whose work they encounter there, we’re making a concerted effort to create or improve Wikipedia articles on some of the women writers whose books we’re featuring. So on Friday 24 November we’re hosting an ‘editathon’ for anyone who’d like to help us bring these writers out of the shadows. Full training in writing and editing Wikipedia articles will be provided, as will a free lunch, plus LitLong goodies! Please book your place here. We have a Wikipedia page for the event, with practical info and suggestions for articles that might be created or improved, if you want to do some preparation beforehand!
We hope you can join us!
These events are part of the Being Human Festival, supported by the AHRC.
In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.
As the ill wind of Brexit swirls all around, we find ourselves skirmishing again over the issue of Scottish independence. The Unionist ultras, at least, seem to be in a state of high anxiety, while those who were still holding out for the messianic advent of British federalism are looking more forlorn and friendless than ever. Back at HQ, Nicola Sturgeon surveys the terrain with what I can’t help but imagine is a coolly calculating eye. The way ahead, though, is anything but clear.
Surrounding her is a cacophony of voices offering advice, most of it unsolicited. There are probably as many different views on how a second campaign for Scottish independence should be run as there are surviving partisans of the last one. Everyone has learned the lessons of 2014 – the only problem is that there’s no general agreement on what those lessons should be. Continue reading
Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least
possible baggage, and discover the world.
So begins the brilliant ‘In Praise of Walking’, by Thomas A. Clark, a poem I’d heartily recommend to anyone. But what kind of world can we discover? That’s a writer’s question, to some extent – the suspicion that discovering means making as well as finding, that discoveries are stories we tell as well as brute facts on which we stub our toes.
Don’t mind me, I’m an oxymoron. Or at least, I think I used to be – which is as much as to say I wasn’t really anything at all. But perhaps I’m oxymoronic no more. I can stand up if I want to and say, hey, everybody, get this – I am an English Scot.
There’s still a good chance that anyone within earshot, even if listening and inclined to give a toss, would be hard pressed to say what that particular label means. It’s new, undoubtedly – it first gained currency during the independence referendum, when a group of English-born supporters of independence launched the group ‘English Scots for Yes’. Math Campbell-Sturgess, one of the group’s most prominent members and an SNP councillor, penned an eloquent account of his own motivations for Wings over Scotland. The label itself went largely unexplored, what with the pressing business of the referendum and all that. Perhaps now, though, we can come back to it. What does it mean?
‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.
What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.
Over the last year we’ve been putting together a series of five short films about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618 (about which you can read more here). Rather than tackle the story of the whole adventure, we decided to focus just on one stretch of the journey – the perambulation taken by Jonson and his companion through the English midlands. So what made us choose that section?