Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Brain-teasers and guns

I promised you the answers to my two earlier brain teasers, and you shall have them. Of course I was being unfair in those questions for two reasons; firstly the descriptions (and in one case the accompanying picture), though true enough, were deliberately misleading, and secondly because I was asking you in effect to read my mind and tell me what cities I was thinking of. There was method in my madness, however.

Question 1] deliberately described a city that could easily be modern-day Glasgow and its rivalry between the soccer teams of Glasgow Celtic with its green strip and traditionally Roman Catholic fans (the Bhoys), and Glasgow Rangers with its blue strip and traditionally Protestant, Royalist fans (the Huns). But that wasn’t the city I was actually describing. I was describing Byzantium or Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The two teams – the Greens and the Blues – were rivals in the chariot races. Justinian himself supported the Blues, and the religious split was between Orthodox and Monophysite Christians. This is where a little unfairness comes in, because the young rowdies who supported both teams used to prowl the city dressed as Huns, rather than simply one set of fans. Moreover historians have lately begun to challenge the idea that the supporters of each team could fairly be identified with a discrete Christian movement. But it shows that I was prepared to bowl you a doosra (to bring a third sport into it).

Question 2] deliberately drew you towards Beijing, probably the most memorable encounter in recent years between civilians and tanks. But people who answered me privately had probably sussed that I was trying to pull your leg. Answers of Dublin, Glasgow, Lisbon, Madrid, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Moscow were given, each with some justification, although I did tell correspondents to eliminate from their thinking any occasions where the tanks had been used to quell a general uprising, or where people had woken up one day to find foreign tanks on their streets to bring about a regime change.

The city I was thinking of was, on this occasion, Glasgow. I was thinking in particular of 1919 when, fearing a “Bolshevik Revolution”, the British government sent ten thousand mainly English troops, armed with machine guns and bringing a howitzer and tanks with them, into Glasgow to confront workers who were striking for shorter hours. They used English troops fearing that Scottish soldiers would side with the strikers.

Tanks marshaled for use in Glasgow, 1919

That event had been on my mind lately as several threads of thought came together. I have been reading right-wing blogs – not extremist as such, but rather pro-capitalist writing and pages in support of American notions of freedom – because I felt it was fair to be informed by people with views opposite to my own. I looked for, and found, a handful where the bloggers were prepared to advance arguments which were at least coherent even if they were highly arguable.

There was one very interesting blog where the point was made that the American revolution in the 1770s was unlike any other in history. In the others (the writer was thinking of France and Russia especially) the revolutionaries had nothing to lose; in the American Revolution, he argued, the revolutionaries had everything to lose. The signatories to the Declaration of Independence were all men of substance – landowners, prosperous farmers, lawyers – all men who would lose much more than their lives if their revolution failed. Thus the qualities of the freedom won by them were special, unique, the true freedom to which humankind should aspire.

And the proof of this freedom was gun ownership.

That was the point at which I rolled my eyes. He just had to mention guns!

Well, the controversy about gun ownership and its relevance or lack of it to freedom must be familiar to everyone by now. There is little need to state the debating points either way again. However, the incidents in Glasgow in 1919 have prompted me to consider a couple of aspects regarding the lack of gun ownership in the UK, and to write about the subject, mainly for the benefit of my American readers – I do have a few.

I think the starting point for this should be in the late 18th century, because it was at that time that there was a significantly different set of social circumstances on either side of the Atlantic. In effect the laws were similar, inasmuch as a right to bear arms was assumed*, but on the American continent ownership of arms was widespread whilst in the United Kingdom it was uncommon. That is actually a very important historical fact to remember.

Having established that, subsequent laws in the UK which restricted ownership of firearms did not necessarily have a marked social effect – few quiescent citizens would have felt any restriction on their freedom, no matter to what degree they perceived themselves as being free or otherwise. As I said, I am only going to focus on two Acts of Parliament, both of which I would say were highly reactive to contemporaneous events.

Firstly there was the Vagrancy Act of 1824. We’re talking about the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. All the weaponry used in the conflict with France were, strictly speaking, the property of the government, as the United Kingdom had if not a standing army then at least an assumption of a single army under the Crown, subject to parliamentary control. However retaining control of the materiel of that army after regiments were disbanded would have been a problem, and Parliament reacted to the situation of unemployed soldiery wandering around as armed vagrants by allowing the arrest of “any person with any gun, pistol, hanger, cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon… with intent to commit a felonious act.” There followed several acts specific to poaching, which seems very much in keeping with Britain’s quondam class system and the law’s concern to protect “property”. It is significant that although the power of arrest seems to be there in the Vagrancy Act, the actual restriction on arms is not, and that leads me to wonder firstly whether there was as much of a social problem as the legislators feared, or secondly whether it was something else they feared and sought to prevent.

There must have been people alive who could remember the revolutionary period in France, from 1789 to 1799, and certainly more people could remember how that had degenerated into the dictatorship of Napoleon. 1812 saw the weavers’ strike in Scotland (the “Radical War”); 1819 saw the Peterloo Massacre; 1820 saw a call for a general strike in Scotland (I'll let you google these and choose your own sources of information). Nowhere is it recorded that the working people involved in these events were armed**, but the gentry in Parliament must nevertheless have been quaking.

The second piece of legislation I want to mention is the 1920 Firearms Act. The stated intention of the government in passing this Act was to comply with the Paris Arms Convention and to control the overseas arms trade. However once again the country was full of demobilized soldiers, and the possibility was feared that they had access to illicitly obtained arms; moreover there had been the Éirí Amach na Casca in Ireland (the “Easter Rising”) along with other shootings of police etc., a revolution in Russia, and the unrest in Glasgow’s George Square as I mentioned above. Again I think that the reason for this legislation was fear not of guns but of the disadvantaged working people of the United Kingdom.

Times change. Firearm legislation in the UK has been consolidated, amended, redrafted, sometimes in reaction to events such as the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, and sometimes to individual acts of mayhem such as the Hungerford or Dunblane Massacres, but basically many generations have grown up in the UK accepting that owning a gun must be an exception rather than a rule.

So basically the population of the UK must feel oppressed, must long for the liberation that only Americanisation can bring, must long for the freedom to go down to the local store and tool up with a 45, a 9 mil, or a Glock, yes? Well… no…

What people seem to feel is freedom, specifically the freedom to walk down the streets in the knowledge that they are very, very unlikely to have a gun shoved in their faces.

And by this circumbendibus I arrive at this philosophical point. Does the word “freedom” belong to one group of people to define? Does it mean the freedom to or the freedom from? Or both? Or even neither? And most importantly – wherever you are – has somebody else appropriated that word?


* Based on a law from 1181 during the Reign of King Henry II (England). It is often assumed, not without good reason, that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States had the purpose of ensuring that there were sufficient guns in private hands to facilitate the formation of militias in the event of war, and that the subsequent assumption of the “right” to bear arms has been a mis-assumption which has become enshrined in legal textualism. The more recent (since the late 19th century) reliance on the purposive theory in legal matters in the USA, notwithstanding statutory derogation, did not however convince the US Supreme Court in 2008 and 2010 (District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v Chicago), and the private ownership of arms in the US as a perceived right has been strengthened thereby. However the Supreme Court also stated that its ruling was not to be taken as an indication that all firearm restrictions are unconstitutional. The argument that there was a purposive element in the minds of those jurists who drafted the 2nd Amendment will not go away.

The effect of the 1181 law, by the way, no longer pertains in the UK, because of the concept of the Sovereignty of Parliament, by which Parliament may repeal or amend earlier legislation, with no enshrined exceptions within a codified constitution. Thus UK legislation is never like the “Laws of the Medes and the Persians”, whereas that accusation could be leveled at the Constitution of the USA, despite its utopian conception.

** The striking weavers of 1812 had intended to seize weapons from the Carron Company Ironworks.

Monday, 30 August 2010

"Stop bitching, start a revolution!"

Supplementary blog today (main blog below) - I just wanted to link you to two of my favourite blogs, recent entries in which could be related tenuously by the above slogan today. Both touch on the subject of alternative communities, one from the point of view of ethnomusicology and one from the point of view of politics. Food for thought on both, maybe food for a little controversy on the political one, which is no bad thing!

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 9

Yesterday I entertained a Captain Of Industry (one feels one has to put that in capitals) here at the teepee. I, of course, reclined on my chaise longue, while he occupied a fiddle-backed nursing chair which I had only recently brought out of storage. We were thus at the same level, although his knees were crooked up a wee bit, making it difficult for him to hold his cup (Lapsang Souchong) and plate (Walkers shortbread) which Consuela (my Tejana maid) had served to him; it all made me feel rather like an aristocratic lady “at home”.

He gave me the annual accounts of his corporation to read through while he was refreshing himself, having told me that he was proud that his corporation had made a profit, recession notwithstanding.

When I had finished reading I remarked, “I can save you a few hundred thousand pounds of expenses.”

In his excitement he damn near dropped his teacup. “How? How?” he asked, excitedly.

I pointed to the item on the Profit & Loss Account headed Wages and National Insurance, and said, “Get rid of all these people!”

His face fell, and then darkened.

I’m making a serious point, though. If any corporate person tells you that they value people in their organization, or that “Our workforce is our greatest asset”, point them to their annual accounts – they will give the lie to that statement. Assets are found on the Balance Sheet, and will include such things as stock, work-in-progress, plant and machinery, fixed assets, and so on. There may even be intangible assets such as “goodwill”. There will be no mention of people at all. Elsewhere however, in addition to wages and NI, you will find such things as training costs and the nebulous “other staff costs”, but you will always find them as costs. That is the true measure of the regard in which corporate entities hold the people who actually make them wealthy.

I was go on to rubbish capitalism big time, but Consuela keeps reminding me that I hold shares in BP, amongst others…

… so instead here’s a poem from Jeff Green, answering my third brain-teaser:

           The brick in the Lake

A man held a brick as he sat in a boat
Then threw it away and the brick didn't float
The man then considered and rubbed at his eyes
The level of water did it sink or rise?

His friend in the boat (he was there all along)
Said "deeper of course", that comrade was wrong
A brick, while it's floating, displaces its weight
And bricks are quite heavy, its weight may be great

But bricks are not floaters they rapidly sink
Then displacing their volume, it's clear if you think
So if, in a boat you throw stones overboard
To deepen the lake then your thinking is flawed.

A floating object displaces its own weight of water, while a submerged object displaces its own volume, therefore the water level went down. Thanks to everyone who ventured an answer, privately or in a comment. I’ll talk about the other two questions tomorrow (one or two people did offer some solutions privately - thank you).


Wes Studi? Patience!

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Here’s a couple of brain-teasers for you. Put your answers in a comment below.

1]  A certain city has two prominent sports teams, one of which dresses in a blue strip the other in green. The teams are rivals, as are their supporters; additionally each group of supporters is allied to a rival Christian sect. The supporters of the blue team are noted for their attachment to royalty and are nicknamed “Huns”. Often, when the two sets of supporters meet violence breaks out. What city am I talking about?

2]  In a certain city in the 20c there was a famous occasion when tanks were deployed against civilian protesters. What city am I thinking about?

My answers another time.

3]  Here’s one I don’t know the answer to, but I would be grateful if anyone else can provide the definitive solution. It comes from another person’s blog. Two men (it happened to be Keats and Chapman, but that’s not really relevant) were in a boat in the middle of a lake. There was a large house brick in the boat. One of them picked up the brick and dropped it into the water. Did the water level in the lake go up, go down, or stay the same, and why?

PLEASE – or I’ll go barmy thinking about it.


Consuela (my Tejana maid) is reminding me that I said I would mention the Wes Studi business. Yes, yes… later, later…

Memo to self: do not blog at breakfast time – you get marmalade on the keyboard. (Damn)

picture (c) Jeff Widener, reproduced by kind permission

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Keats and Chapman

Keats and Chapman were once obliged to make a journey across the city by public transport. They boarded a bus and it set off. The vehicle was quite ancient and close to obsolescence, and its progress was erratic. This was made worse by the fact that it was a very windy day, and every time the bus passed a side-street or a gap in the buildings, it was struck by violent side-winds and caused to lurch terribly, as if about to capsize. Also the window-catches were defective, the windows would not close, and great draughts of air made it impossible for Chapman to continue to hold his copy of The Thunderer before himself to read. Chapman, being able to stand no more, paradoxically stood. He seized the conductor and began to make loud protestations about the fitness-for-purpose of the bus. The conductor took him on, arguing strongly that no one but Chapman was complaining. The exchanges between them became (in best cliché fashion) heated, and Chapman was within moments of being put off at the next stop. Keats, however, rose and put a placatory hand on the shoulder of each one of them.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “De gusty bus non disputandum est.”


Keats and Chapman were at home, each at peace reading a newspaper. Chapman looked up from the cartoon page, and remarked on the genius of the American artist Charles M Schultz in the way that he made the little bird Woodstock talk to his pal Snoopy in a series of minuscule, vertical penstrokes.

“Talk is cheep,” observed Keats.


Keats was trying to listen to the Test Match on the radio one day, but was disturbed by Chapman, who was roaming from room to room in their shared apartment, overturning stuff, opening drawers, and cursing loudly. It became too much to bear when Chapman burst into the lounge where Keats was sitting and started to ransack the place. Keats sighed, switched off the radio, and asked Chapman what the divvil he thought he was playing at.

Chapman said, "I've been looking for my copy of Homer. It's nowhere to be found. A mystery! In my opinion it's been stolen!"

"I'll look into it," said Keats.

(With apologies to the memory of the late Flann O’Brien)

Friday, 27 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 8

I well remember the time when I studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every time I unrolled one it rolled up again from the other end. I had hours of fun!

But I digress.

English (remarked a correspondent) can be a cumbersome language.

Au contraire, as we say in Scotland; personally I find it to be an excellent medium of communication. I always know what I'm talking about (it's usually the other person who has the problem). Scots, of course, is a different matter.

It was the same correspondent who expanded on the question of whether the teepee was painted. Below are her follow-up questions and my answers:

What colour is the teepee?

That depends on the light striking it. In the night it is decidedly black. As any reputable physicist would tell you.

Does the teepee have purposely placed paint on it?

Yes. This is a problem around here. I blame those neds from Dundee who come up here to party and dance around the nearby stone circle. You should see the things they paint! I've complained to the council and to the police but nobody seems to want to do anything about it. I shall speak to Consuela (my Tejana maid) and see if she can find my old fowling piece in one of the boxes. That'll put the fear of God up 'em!

That’s it for today.

What’s that? The Wes Studi thing? Yes, I’ll tell you later.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 7

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I found a level piece of ground adjacent to the teepee and decided to do something with it.

First we removed any rocks and stones we could find. We did this mostly by hand, but for some of them we used one of those little tractor things you can hire. Then we set to and mowed a rectangular patch, using scythes to cut the grass to a manageable level, finishing it off with a mowing attachment on the little tractor thing. Next we marked out a tennis court and erected a net across the middle.

I have to say it looked brilliant.

We could hardly wait to get into our whites and have a game. I can still leap about a tennis court, despite the peg leg, and I knew that Consuela is no slouch with the ol’ snowshoe in her hand.

I dressed modestly in a bandeau, a Fred Perry, and a knee-length skirt. Consuela was in full replica Amelie Mauresmo kit, and the moment she let rip one of her power-serves with a grunt like a birthing hippo I knew she meant business. One single break of serve put me a set down, but I came out for set two like a tiger, and when I broke her third service game I clenched my fist and yelled “C’mon!”.

Well we were at one set all, and in the third I was serving to save the match at two match points against me. I coiled my body, tossed up the ball, uncoiled, and hammered it right into the far corner of the service court – an Ace!

To my surprise I found a smiling Consuela approaching the net with her hand extended.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“The ball was out,” she said. “That’s two sets to one, my match.”

“The ball was good,” I said, piqued.

“It was out,” she replied, firmly.

“You cannot be serious.”

“Honestly, it was out by six inches.”

“You can NOT be serious! There was chalk dust!”

“Oh Marie, it’s only a game.”

Well that did it. I turned on my heel, threw my racquet down in disgust, and stalked off the court muttering “… pits of the world…”

That night as I lay in bed the quiet of the teepee closed in on me. The night was still, there was no sound of Consuela’s usual light snores from downstairs (where she slings her Navy-surplus hammock), and even the ticking of my long-case clock only served to highlight the silence. I couldn’t sleep. My conscience troubled me and I realized I had been harsh, wrong, a bad sport. I resolved to apologise to Consuela, and promise her more matches in a more sportswomanlike spirit.

I got up at first light, thinking that it would be a nice gesture to bring her an early morning cup of tea for a change – she is much more than a maid to me, if I am honest, more of a companion, close to a soul mate. I stepped outside to breathe some fresh air, which is so invigorating here on the top of the Sidlaws. I was stretching my limbs, practicing a few smashes and backhand slices, when I was brought up short.

The tennis net was gone; not only that but the markings of the court had been rubbed out. As I walked over to where the court had been there was a lump in my throat for I saw that not only was there no trace of it, but that even the rocks had been replaced. Of course there was still a rectangle of short grass, but it seemed as though the moorland sedges and ryes were already beginning to encroach upon their former domain. It was almost as though the tennis court had never been.

For the rest of that day Consuela was sullen and monosyllabic. For my part I couldn’t find the words to speak. Once, while she was hunched over a bowl of hot water, rattling the crockery, I almost reached out my hand to touch her arm but I couldn’t bring myself to do so for fear that she would flinch away.

I have packed my whites and my racquet away, never to be brought out again.

Moral: Never let the sun go down on your wrath.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 6

Actually, life in the ol’ teepee has not been all that tranquil. A remarkable number of people do actually come knocking at the flap. I had a window-cleaner the other day standing expectantly outside, with ladder, bucket, and squeegee. Useless pointing out to him that teepees doe not have windows. He offered to clean my reading-glasses.

This morning I heard the sound of a diesel pick-up pulling up outside, and a brisk knock at the flap. I opened up to find a couple of smiling Romany chavs.

“It’s about your drive,” they said.

I thought to myself, “Ah, how times have changed”, remembering the sunburnt woman who, regular as springtime, presented herself at the same teepee-flap at the beginning of April, peddling clothespegs and hothouse white heather, telling me I had a lucky face, and offering to scry my fortune.

“Kind of you to offer,” I said. “But I’m quite happy with the pink chippings.”

“No, no. We mean your hard drive,” they said. “We can clean your hard drive, get rid of Trojans and malware – half what PC World would charge you!”

“Good grief – times really have changed!” I thought.

Ah yes, then the day before yesterday I answered a polite chapping to find two young people dressed in suits standing outside. Each had a small, smart rucksack and a name-badge on his lapel.

“Good morning,” they said*. “Do you go to church?”

“Why yes,” I said. “As a mater of fact I do, quite regularly.”

“Well we’re atheists, and we were wondering if we could persuade you not to.”

There followed a very lively and not unpleasant discussion, after which they gave me a copy of their free magazine – The Siege Tunnel – and promised to call again next time they were in the area.

Y’know, I’m all in favour of atheists doing this. And why not! God is big enough to take it on the chin. Actually, I rather like God and Jesus. Anyone who doesn’t care about ranks and titles (Acts 10:34), who thinks it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a capitalist to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25), and inspires people to share their wealth equally (Acts 2:44, 4:32) gets my vote!

William Penn, late 17c early 18c Quaker wrote, of friendship: “Friends are true twins in soul; they sympathize in every thing.... One is not happy without the other, nor can either of them be miserable alone. As if they could change bodies, they take their turns in pain as well as in pleasure; relieving one another in their most adverse conditions. What one enjoys, the other cannot want. Like the primitive Christians, they have all things in common, and no property but in one another.”** Mind you, I recall that William Penn possessed two significant things, a) a classical education, and b) Pennsylvania.

Consuela (my Tejana maid) is grumbling at the moment. She says it is ludicrous for me to inveigh against capitalism so much, when I depend on investments for my income, and have tea-chest upon tea-chest of priceless antiques (my “loot”, she calls it).

* Remarkable to hear two people talk in perfect unison. First the Romany chavs, then the atheists. They must have been practicing.

** Seriously the chap said a few great things. My favourite is: “Right is right, even if everyone is against it; and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it”.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 5

Ah… thank you, Consuela.

Consuela (my Tejana maid) has just brought me my morning orange juice. Very thoughtful. I shall sip it as I recline here on my chaise longue, wrapped in my blanket depicting the Cheyenne version of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and watch the morning clouds drift over Strathmore. The teepee-flap is pulled back, and a gentle breeze is tugging at my hair… an occasional raindrop is blown in to caress my face…

A couple of points before I begin today’s business. Firstly, Consuela and I are in dispute about my chaise longue. I mean I’m sure it’s a chaise longue, but Consuela insists it’s a duchesse chair. Actually I don’t much care either way so long as it’s comfortable, but I’m not being bested by my maid, dammit!

Secondly those bogus letters from someone pretending to be Wes Studi have started again. I’ll keep you… um… posted.

Now to the pith of today’s journal…

A correspondent has pointed out to me a flaw in my thinking about 15c musical scores. It’s a big one, and I feel a complete numpty for not having realized it.

Putting it simply, it is the vast corpus of work completed by the prolific composer Anon. I assume that my correspondent is referring to Pierre d’Anon, a composer of extraordinary longevity, who was Maistre de Ménestrelsie to four successive Comptes de Clermont-Ferrand. The difficulty is quadrupled because so few of his extant pieces actually bear a title, and none are in his own hand. I shall mention a couple of notable exceptions.

Firstly his now-infamous rondelai “Frappez ma chienne en haut”, a misogynistic  song written when his first wife left him for a strolling troubadour*.

Secondly a small fragment of what was to have been his magnum opus, a setting-to-music (four viols, two crouths, crumhorn, nakers, and seven voices) of the medieval German poem Nibelungenlied. It is a very small fragment, limited to a preliminary score of the first few lines (no, not those beginning “Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit
”, which as any but the ignorant know were inserted at a much later date) running thus:

Iteneuwe maere sic huoben uber Rin,
Man sagte das da waere manec scoene magedin…”

Astonishingly the melody he used bore a strong resemblance (it has been subsequently noticed by academia) to “Phil the Fluter’s Ball”. As far as we know this work was never completed, although it has been speculated that there was an almost-complete version destroyed in the Great Fire of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1503. Nibelungenlied as an inspiration for music lay undisturbed until the 19c of course.

Anyhow, unless you stumble on those two pieces which can be dated precisely to 1413 and 1454 respectively, you’re literally up the Rhone without a paddle.

* It has been a mystery to many musical historians why, if the wife-stealer was a strolling troubadour, Anon did not simply run after them and catch them up.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Nautical memoir of a glass-half-empty person

Ha! ‘Tis many a long year since I strode the deck of a tall ship. Well I remember how I bound my breasts and put on boys’ clothing, signed articles as a deck-hand on a cat-boat. I worked my way up by hard tack and little sleep, on luggers, cutters, coasters, trawlers, whalers, schooners, and square-riggers (in fact everything that showed a sail, apart from scows and dhows), till at last I became a deck-hand on the good ship Fancy out of Liverpool. Thirty years before the mast!

The Fancy? She was a floating purgatory, I can tell you. The captain was a bully, the mate was a bully, the bosun was a bully, and the ship’s salt-beef was a little too al dente for my taste too. But that bully captain – Dan Thirkell was his name – could drive her to make eleven knots, and that close-hauled! For all that the life on board her was hard, she was the trimmest tops’l schooner you could ever wish to see. Holystoned from keel to topmast she was.

Many’s the long voyage she saw, and many’s the time we beat around the Horn, Valparaiso-bound, half-seas-over. Aye, and many’s the good shipmate was washed overboard and never will be found until the sea shall give up its dead. Scurvy and yellowjack we endured, lateen-rigged pirate sloops we outsailed, monsoon and hurricano we withstood; sometimes Dan Thirkell would drive her until scarcely a piece of sailcloth remained aloft, while the mate and the bosun drove us fo’c’sle hands just as hard! (‘Twas thus on the very worst voyage; we saw St Elmo’s Fire on the topmast, mermaids off the port beam, and the mate shot an albatross. As all good sailors do know, ‘tis bad joss to bring golf clubs on board a ship!) But she was a fine sight with new canvas and new rigging, sailing goose-winged with a following trade wind.

But all things pass, shipmates. I mind the time that meself and me old mucker Bill Bracey from Boston (Lincs) were on the foredeck. We were a-skylarkin’, a-spinnin’ yarns, a-tellin’ tall tales, and a-spittin’ over the t’gallant rail the way that old salts do, when up comes Bigton Bill Buchan the bully bosun.

“Lay aft!” says he.

“Watch below, bosun,” says I. “Watch below until eight bells.”

“Damn ‘ee for a sea-lawyer!” says he, and starts a-lambastin’ me with his Malacca knout.

Later, in the fo’c’sle the ship’s cook (who was the nearest we had to a chirurgeon or a sawbones, being handy at jointing) tended to my wounds, stripping the shirt from my back and the breeks from my shanks to rub on tar-oil and goose-grease. Well that was the dismasting of me, because all of the hands could now see how I was rigged fore and aft!

“Why, Markie boy, you be a-sailin’ under false colours!” exclaimed Bristol Bob Bannerman, the sailmaker and ship’s carpenter. “For I see you be a judy!”

I was taken before the captain, and I expected the worst. To my surprise he was most civil when he saw what quarter the wind blew from. He cleared the mate out of his cabin and gave it over to me, gave me crinolines and petticoats to put on, even allowed me to wash. The rest of the voyage passed in pleasantness. I would stroll the deck, my parasol in my gloved hand, listening to the sea shanties and the orders from below to aloft borne on the wind, and they would seem exotic to me, sounds from another world. The crew would knuckle their foreheads as I passed and call me “Ma’am”; and the captain would stroll along half a pace behind me, hands clasped behind his broad back, head bowed, brows knitted, always as though about to speak of something.

Only later did it occur to me to wonder why he kept such an extensive female wardrobe aboard. I did notice that the dresses were a size or two large for me.

Y’know… even now, when the wind is set fair from the sou’ sou’ west, I have a longing to go to sea again. But this old peg leg of mine does warp so in the wet, and breaks my rolling gait.

Sorry – all this nautical reminiscing comes about by a circuitous route. An old Cheyenne woman knocked at the flap of my teepee this morning asking whether I still had the frying pan I borrowed from her village lo these many years. While Consuela (my Tejana maid) was rummaging in one of the yet-to-be-emptied tea-chests downstairs, she found my old pea-jacket and brought it to me.

Ah that old pea-jacket… still smelling of the salt wind and the spray… that old pea-jacket. I found something in the starboard pocket. It was a pea.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 4

I have been asked whether my teepee is painted. The answer is yes, frequently. Only the other morning I was awakened by the rattling of easels outside, and when I stumbled outside it was to find the ladies and gentlemen of the Dundee Art Society setting up for the day, anxious to catch the peculiar way the morning light catches my teepee and the way the smoke curls up from Consuela's cooking-fire.

“Aha!” I thought. “My teepee is about to be painted again.”

I am assured that several of these paintings will be hung in a special exhibition in the McManus Gallery. Or is it hanged? No, hung. Of course.

I have recalled some more interesting facts about Jehan Pneu de Michelin, the 15c Provençal joglar (remember?). In 1462 one of his most popular tourdions was entitled “Viens, petite enfante, faisons le tourdion” (pardon my rather rusty Medieval French). In 1463 he repeated the success of the previous year with “Faisons le tourdion de nouvel (comme nous l’avons faite l’esté dernier)”. Both of these were so popular that they were revived in the 16c as galliards; it is said that Queen Elizabeth I of England first noticed Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester dancing to the second tune, and singing as he danced: “Autour et autour et en haut et en bas nous allons…”

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 3

Just a moment… pardon? What was that? Look, I’m… please, Consuela, I’m trying to… I have to… Och Jings!

I’m sorry about that. Consuela (my Tejana maid) was lecturing me on how to tell which decade of the fifteenth century a particular musical score dates from. Honestly, why she should imagine that I’m at all interested I simply do not know. The whole thing has gone in one ear and out of the other, and my head is aching. It’s all Greek to me*.

Honestly, when Consuela gets a bee in her bonnet it stays there, makes a nest, invites its friends and family, and before you know where you are she’s selling jars of honey at the roadside!

Now she has gone off in a huff. She’ll get over it, and be back in a minute-and-a-huff. I can hear her downstairs** rattling the breakfast things. One moment…

Consuela! Dos huevos pasados por agua y dos salchichas por favor… um, let’s see…  tostadas con mermelada de naranja… café con leche… What’s that? No, not my mother also, just me!

I think that young woman is losing her marbles. My mother has passed on to a better place***. This has put my day quite out of kilter. I shall stay wrapped up in my comfy blanket (the one with the depiction of the Battle of the Little Big Horn). What I was going to tell you can keep until tomorrow!

* Of course now I have relaxed it’s all coming back to me, and it’s relatively simple. Let’s say you have a basse danse, or better still a tourdion, then the compositional style of a prominent Provençal joglar such as Jehan Pneu de Michelin would be obvious from his use of a much simpler melodic line than was common in the Burgundian court; now given that Jehan’s patron, Howard le Duc, held the Seigneury of Pau (not to mention that of the manoirs of Lalat and Tinquis-Ouinquis) only from 1460 to 1463, the conclusion is blindingly obvious. All you have to do is apply similar logic to all the scores, until you are left with – say – half of them; then you throw those remaining into the air and let God sort them out. Simple, really, as I said.

** Yes the teepee has a downstairs.

*** Somewhere on the Isle of Bute, as I recall.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Passing of Scottish Radicalism

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
                                                                                                            Samuel Beckett

So soon after starting this blog, I am suspending its lightness for one entry, one serious entry. I will be as brief as I can – there will be no political or historical analysis of any great depth, so there will be plenty of sweeping statements for others to cavil at if they wish.

Yesterday saw the funeral of Jimmy Reid, the Scottish trades unionist. Ordinary people lined the roads as his hearse passed, dignitaries and “names” attended his funeral, if only to say words to the effect, “Ay, que hombre”. Indeed there is much to admire about a man who, when the Upper Clyde shipyards were faced with closure in 1971, led the eight thousand strong workforce to take unprecedented action – they continued to work – with these words:

We are not going to strike. We are not even going to have a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us.”

This was the kind of almost-Presbyterian militancy and radicalism typical of the Central Belt of Scotland which, in UK general elections, was often the last pennyweight on the scales to keep Britain from being a permanent Tory fiefdom; as voted the leafy, conservative English shires, so to its diametric opposite often turned Scotland; even in the last election which gave rise to a right-of-centre coalition government in Westminster, Scotland bucked the trend.

In the 19c the working people of Scotland, of Britain, of the industrialized nations, created the wealth but had no significant share of it nor say in the matter of its disposal. They banded together, and over the next few generations effectively queued up to be cut down by the Yeomanry, gaoled, transported, even hanged, and kept doing it until they could be no longer ignored. That is how the trades union movement in Britain was born, and it continued an uphill struggle to be the way in which working people represented and defended themselves against other interests.

By the 1970s the unions were arguably too institutionalized, and therefore in a decadent state. But they could still produce people like Jimmy Reid, and still by their constitutions be more of a participatory democracy than the country as a whole. By the 1980s they had been crushed by a grocer’s daughter – I shall not even name her. This was a turning point in the history of Scottish radicalism. As shipyards and mines and factories closed and working-class culture evaporated, there was a gradual shift away from the political left in Scotland and towards the petty separatism of the Scottish National Party. Before these days an ordinary working person from England could journey to Scotland and feel as though he or she was amongst friends, brothers, sisters to a large extent. By the time Mel Gibson, that meddling Australian, had made “Braveheart” any person with a trace of an English accent could expect naked abuse – yes, I have had it happen to me – and kilted, bluefaced Soccer fans could tramp through a station (on the way to a Scotland versus Lithuania match) chanting “We f*cking hate Eng-land, we f*king hate Eng-land, we f*cking hate Eng-land…”

Statues were raised, in an era when the raising of statues was no longer common, to William Wallace as portrayed by Gibson, and to the Declaration of Arbroath.
Say what you like about the rights and wrongs of the medieval Plantagenet Wars in Scotland, but Wallace was an ethnic cleanser who didn’t care if he slaughtered men, women, or children, and the Declaration was signed by a handful of Norman nobs who promised to fight to the last one hundred Scottish serfs (who had no say in the matter), and a significant number of those signatories were, within about a year, imprisoned for treason against Scotland! But it is from these that people who are ignorant of, say, the Weavers’ Revolt of the early 19c, or of the Battle of George Square just after WW1 when tanks were deployed against protesting working people, now draw their self-image and national myth. To my mind, my ancestral country has lost its way.

I find much to admire in the late Jimmy Reid, and I mourn his passing – he was a big man. But in a way his own political journey from Communism to the Labour Party (at a time when it was becoming less and less the party formed by and representing working people, and more and more a Thatcherite party with a pink wash) and then to the SNP epitomises of the decline of Scottish radicalism and its fall into petty separatism.

Small wonder that someone like me, who stands against capitalism, against centralist communism, against racialism and fascism and nationalism in all its forms, against statism, and against bourgeois politics, searches for other models from which to learn. The  participatory democracy of the (pre-Revolutionary) Six Iroquois Nations perhaps, the agrarian anarchism of the EZLN in Mexico, the Christian communitarianism of Las Abesas in the same region, the “libertarian municipalism” of Murray Bookchin; but most of all to the hope that a desire for grass-roots, ground-up democracy will grow amongst ordinary people as they become more and more disillusioned with how ill-served they are by their masters (both elected and unelected). May these ordinary people try. And if they fail, may they try again, fail better, and keep trying until they succeed.

I promise that tomorrow I will take up a lighter quill again.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 2

You may recall some time ago I had a strange dream about Sarah Palin. I was entertaining her to tea in the teepee, but it wasn’t Sarah Palin as we all know her, but a duppy version*. Serving Lapsang Suchong and chocolate Hob Nobs was (I recall) a wee bit of an adventure, as it required me to lean to the right or the left of my guest to place the cup or the plate in her hand. I wondered whether to put on my LP of Manhattan Transfer’s greatest hits and ask her to dance, but dancing with a duppy would have its own problems; if I were to take her in my arms in the conventional manner, I would be staring at the back of her head, but if I wanted to maintain eye-contact and enjoy some pleasant conversation whilst dancing, I would have to be careful where I put my hands (unless I wanted to see her eyebrows disappear into her up-do).

Well anyway, the dream has become recurring, and the problem of dancing with a duppy has remained in my mind. Let’s face it, there’s plenty of room in there.

Anyhow, this isn’t really what I wanted to say… I wanted to talk about a BBC Radio 4 programme** I heard a few weeks ago about Sarah’s recent public speeches in which she has been “redefining” feminism into a kind of homespun, reactionary template which would sound good with a steel guitar soundtrack. What was interesting about the programme was the opinion of one of her British admirers who talked enthusiastically about how Sarah had “done it all herself”, including “becoming a mother…”

When I heard that I immediately got up, pushed open the flap of my teepee, and searched the skies. The last time something like this happened a star appeared in the east.

* i.e. her head was on backwards.

** I have one of those clockwork radios in the teepee. One winds it up to make it function. Well, Consuela does, actually.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 1

Okay, let's start as we mean to go on. Buy my book - you know you want to!
Just click on the book cover and take it from there...

This morning at first light Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I packed the teepee and all my belongings onto a travois and left Schiehallion for good. Of late there have been too many tourists plodding past, and the skitter of trekking poles on the stones has woken me up at all times of the day and night. It was not without a sigh and a tear that I took my last look at the limpid waters of Loch Rannoch, and set off down the slope on my piebald pony. Consuela grumbled as usual, this time about having to walk - there's always something with that young woman!

We are now ensconced (I love that word.. it means placed like a flambeau securely in its housing in the wall of some keep or castle) in a secluded spot in the Sidlaws, with a wonderful view over Strathmore. This morning - a cool and sunlit one - I am lying here, typing this bog (isn't that what they call it? Oh!) on an ancient laptop, ancient in the sense that I am having to use a wi-fi dongle... lying here, as I was saying, on my chaise longue, my legs wrapped in my comfy blanket decorated with the Cheyenne interpretation of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, listening to the subtle tick-tock of my long-case clock, and gazing out over the Strath. Ah, there goes a vast herd of North American Bison. They'll cause a bit of havoc on the Forfar road, and no mistake!

We are still unpacking all the boxes (well, Consuela is), but at least I have my chaise, my clock, my comfy blanket, and of course my signed Daguerrotype of Mikhail Bakunin which is now hanging on the teepee wall.

Consuela, currently reading this rudely over my shoulder, is muttering that someone with all this personal clutter who employs a "general dogsbody" (her words) ought not to be allowed to idolise the Father of Anarchism. Really! Next time I have a vacancy to fill I shall simply advertise for a maid and not, as I foolishly did, for a "maid/philosopher".