Tusitala*, Kepler, and Doctor Copernicus

August 5, 2012

If you live in Edinburgh and you like books, there are four altars you must kneel before : Jo Rowling, Ian Rankin, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are of course other demi-gods – Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Banks, Muriel Spark – and we will ignore the poets, and the Weegie pretenders. It seems that JK, The Rankin, Scott and RLS get the great majority of the burnt offerings.

I won’t pontificate about Rowling and Rankin because even though I don’t know them, there is a finite chance of bumping into a friend of a colleague of a friend and somehow it doesn’t feel right. Edinbrr is a small town. Suffice it to say that their fame is richly deserved.

Scott is something else. He used to be so popular that the city built him a huge monument on Princes Street. Its the one that looks like Thunderbird Three.  Even Jakey doesn’t have a monument yet. But now almost nobody reads Scott, and I am one of those nobodies. Somehow I am not even tempted to pick up some Walter Scott. Nobody now is discovering his books and having their lives changed; he is just a kind of strange ghostly Edinburgh resonance, hovering over everything but devoid of substance.

So what of RLS ? Is he just another Edinburgh pet, or a force in literature, and an enduring marvel ? Ripping Yarns or Psychological Master ?  I really can’t decide. I just finished reading “The Master of Ballantrae” and I think it is his best. But I still can’t decide.

This next bit is in danger of sounding pompous, so forgive me because I am just trying to be honest. I do have a distinction in my head between certainly deeply affecting books/authors and other entertaining, possibly important, but not so affecting books. I won’t use the dreaded word “literature” as I don’t want to say that Group A is definitely “better”; just that some books shake me up and some don’t. Mostly the difference, and the intention of the author, is obvious. After reading Milan Kundera, my life had changed; when I read Dan Brown, I pass a very pleasant few hours – and unlike many, I do think that Brown is a very skilled writer. He does exactly what he means to do.

There is whole class of British Novelists who are very famous, and generally classed as “literature” but who just don’t mess with my head – Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley. I love reading their books but my jaw never drops.  Most days RLS feels like he belongs in this band. But I just don’t know. Jekyll and Hyde speaks to something deep, and by the end of The Master of Ballantrae I wasn’t quite sure who I liked or believed.

I can’t resist a little astro-literature example. (There aren’t many !) I read  The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth  by Stuart Clark, a fictionalised biography of Kepler. Well I thought this was a jolly fine book. An excellent read, real fun, and a good exposition of the historical setting. Then I read Doctor Copernicus by John Banville. At the end of this book I felt utterly drained. There are in fact some similarities with The Master of Ballantrae; a tale of two brothers, the distortions of bitterness, and the use of unreliable narrators. But the insights are more shattering.

Read it.


* Tusitala = Teller of Tales; what the Samoans called RLS during his final days


Spitting on Authority

December 22, 2010

One should be careful when making assumptions about religious divisions. In the High Street, just uphill from St Giles Cathedral, is the shape of a heart, laid out in cobblestones, known as the Heart of Midlothian. Every time I walk past it has several gobbets of spit in it. If I am accompanied by a puzzled visitor, I will mutter that I think Catholics spit on it because it is a symbol of Protestantism. Or possibly the other way round. Not sure. But I think thats what I heard somewhere. English visitors like hearing this because it reconfirms their prejudice that Scotland is still crippled with sectarian division, whereas in England all that nonsense has withered away.

Now, reading Edinburgh, A History of the City by Michael Fry, I find that the real truth is that the Heart is a symbol of class war, not religious struggle. In olden times, this was the site of the Tollbooth, a bizarre building that combined an actual tollbooth, sittings of the mediaeval parliament, and down below street level, the city prison. The prison floor was a large open plan affair, with prisoners chained to a long bar running the length of the room. In the middle however, was a square box of plate iron, in which was incarcerated whoever was currently condemned to die. It was this grim cage that was known as the Heart of Midlothian. This building, ugly in spirit and fact, was finally torn down in 1817, and the cobbled heart left to mark the spot. Since then, the lower citizens of Edinburgh have been spitting on the heart as a symbol of authority and repression. Walk from there down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and you will find a pub called The Last Drop. Yup, thats where the scaffold was. Grim sense of humour, the Scots.

When the Tollbooth was torn down, Walter Scott took away the door and kept it in his house at Abbbotsford. A year later, he published his famous novel, The Heart of Midlothian. The story is about a family of Covenanters. The father, Davie Deans, gets hot under the collar about religious affairs, and fights his corner. Daughter number 1, Effie, turns away to a life of secular sin. Daughter number 2, Jeanie Deans, also turns away from theological dispute, but in calm serenity.

The most famous part of the book however relates a true story of Edinburgh history – the Porteous riot. in 1736, Captain Porteous was condemned to death for ordering his soldiers to fire on a crowd attending a hanging. Then news came from London that Captain Porteous was to be reprieved. At this time, the Act of Union was shall we say not uniformly popular with ordinary Scots, and this was seen as an insult and injustice by a remote power. An angry mob stormed the Tollbooth, dragged Porteous out, carried him down to the Grassmarket, and hanged him. This famous story, and Scott’s re-telling, must have cemented the feelings of bitterness and injustice connected with the Tollbooth.

Wind forward a hundred and ninety years, and time has almost erased the memory in the stone tape. I am not the only inhabitant of Edinburgh who is vague about that be-spittled symbol. If you stop most people passing the Heart and ask why people spit in it, they will simply say “Err .. dunno, its a tradition”. Check out this wee YouTube documenetary-ette .  Or they are Hibs supporters, who have now taken the Heart of Midlothian as a symbol of the rival football team of that same name. Of course that team division reflects a traditional sectarian split, but thats almost gone too – somebody will probably tell me what fraction of the Hibs team are not Catholics.

It can be sad when the traces of history fade. I wrote here about my favourite chip shop unknowingly commemorating the widows of Flodden, until it changed its name, and a six hundred year link was snapped. But maybe, where a sense of history is still re-inforcing bitterness and division, it is better to forget.