Harding, Thomas: The House by the Lake

To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate…

[a discounted rate?!…..run that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust.”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 “We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism.” 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy…”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. “It didn’t particularly excite me, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There is no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany.

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January….]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the other corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory – for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…


Hayes, Terry: I am Pilgrim

Your international correspondent was on an extended vineyard tour in the sunny south when the call came through to write the blog for the Monthly Book Group. An  honour, of course. The book, “I am Pilgrim”, they felt, would suit me…

And so to shivering Edinburgh, and a meeting timed to let members go on to watch France v Germany. The Crete-bronzed host admitted the choice of this blockbuster , which had been recommended by his sister, was not his normal style of book or of writing. But he had found the 2013 novel spellbinding.

It rattled along with great rhythm. Its settings tied in with the contemporary world and contemporary problems. It was difficult to write such a long novel and maintain interest, and the author’s screenwriting experience must have helped. The author managed to wrap a murder mystery and an attack on America into one more or less seamless whole.

The host liked the hero, Pilgrim, who was Mr Superman and very professional, but also very human. The other characters were a bit “filmish”, and larger than life.

The book was well received by the Group.  Despite weighing in at a massive 912 pages in one of the paperback editions (and thereby claiming the Monthly Book Group record) most had read it pretty quickly, such was its page-turning quality. It had something of the addictive quality of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It was a great read, but not profound, nor meant to be.

The book had an American tinge, with American language and a colourful way of promoting people and ideas. The book’s forensic approach to detail was fascinating, if not always believable.

The plot structure consisted of two loosely related plots (so loosely connected, yours truly must have missed the connection while changing bottles of Tesco’s “Full Red”). Unusually, the sub-plot came first, in the fashion of “Psycho”, but this lent some complexity and texture to the novel.

The contemporary material about Muslim fundamentalist terrorism attracted much interest, and gave the book a degree of relevance not common in thrillers. One in our midst was particularly seized by the suggestion that an artificially constructed virus could be used for bio-terrorism. Some research had shown that such a synthetic virus had first been made in 2002. But cutting out eyes to defeat an iris scanner was more fanciful (and not original).

The wide geographical scope of the novel, ranging from west to east and back again, gave depth, and vicarious tourism interest, to the book.

Particularly compelling was the wide range of arcane knowledge that Pilgrim shared with us. Secrets about how to commit the perfect murder, how to detect the perfect murderer, about how the security services eavesdropped on us, about how to break into hotel safes (“I’ll never use one again!), about how to pilot your synthetic virus,  about the sexual effects of different drugs, about how to eliminate your past…. Not to mention how to save the world.

This gave a similar sense of pleasure to that of an Ian Fleming or a John Le Carré novel – that sense of being on the inside, in the know, understanding tradecraft. Our security expert confirmed that the security material was pretty accurate (although could the fundamentalist really have gained and abused his employment in a German chemical factory so easily?). And our scientific advisers even concluded us that it was plausible (ish) that a silhouette might have been captured on a mirror in the remarkable way suggested.

So – five stars all round? From most, but not from all.

One reader, who had amazingly managed to live a long life without either reading a James Bond book or seeing a James Bond film, cared neither for the blockbuster thriller genre nor for this example of it. 900 pages kept him busy but did not touch him. His emphatic put-down was that it amounted to nothing more than a very sophisticated Superman comic!

Another noted that reviews of the book split between five stars and one star without anything in between. Indeed in reading it he oscillated between five star judgements at the rekindling of his adolescent love of such books, and one star involuntary exclamations of “oh for f…’s sake!” at some contrived and implausible passage.

Others, when they stood back from the rush of the book, noted that Hayes (a journalist and screen-writer) was just a bit too obvious in constructing scenes that would help him sell the film-rights. And indeed MGM have duly bought the rights to film the book and envisage it as the start of a franchise.

Although English-born and spending much of his career in Australia, as well as in America, Hayes very visibly targets the American consumer. There are various sentimental strands (including a jolly noble President); lots of lurid violence but not much sex; and as little alcohol as during Prohibition. Nevertheless, Hayes might shock many Americans with his vivid descriptions of the realities of water-boarding, and with his forthright judgements on America’s ally Saudi Arabia. Hayes was remarkably judgemental about the different countries that Pilgrim travelled though.

So we then wandered down a few other avenues.

A small stylistic mannerism – of saying that the hero did “x” and would soon live to regret it– charmed some but irritated more. Picked up from Dan Brown?

Pilgrim was more an assassin than a spy. Was it only post Second World War that popular literature portrayed as admirable assassins (and other sundry paid killers such as hit-men and bounty hunters)?

And how trite was that “I am risen” ending?

But the footie was calling, and so we closed the file on Pilgrim. It’s top notch if you are looking for a compelling contemporary thriller, and the perfect companion for a long journey.

And, if your name is Terry Hayes, the passport to immeasurable wealth.

I am Pilgrim? I am Jealous.



Hesse, Hermann: Narcissus and Goldmund

woodstock2First Published 1930 (translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz, published by Peter Owen, London).

Who was Hermann Hesse? He was born in Germany in 1877 and he died in 1963. He was a seminarist, thinker, intellectual, drinker, smoker, gambler, poet, painter and pacifist. Above all, he was a seeker. He suffered mental health problems. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945.

A lot of Hesse’s life has gone into this book. At the age of 15 he was sent to Maulbronn seminary to complete his education, but he fled after his failed suicide attempt. The story opens with a vivid description of the entrance to Mariabronn monastery, a fictional representation of his own Maulbronn, just thinly disguised.

At first sight, it is a simple story, a parable set in medieval Germany. Goldmund is the favourite pupil of the monk and scholar Narcissus. But Goldmund is not the scholastic type, he is passionate, sensual and artistic. He discovers this side of himself, when, with other boys, he creeps out of the monastery in the night to find village girls. He is obsessed by one in particular, and awakened to the possibilities offered by the outside world, he leaves the monastery to search for….what?…he isn’t sure. He leads a hedonistic life with many sexual adventures, and he becomes a sculptor. But he gets himself into deep trouble and is sentenced to death. However, he is finally rescued, forgiven and reconciled by Narcissus. We see how his character develops through education and experience, and we learn something of forgiveness and despair.

The proposer explained that he first read the book in the sixties, a time when young people were searching for meaning and understanding in their lives, and turning to dope, mysticism and psychedelic music. The book enjoyed popularity then, along with the birth of a powerful and iconoclastic popular culture. Likewise the 1920s, a period that may have shaped the young Hesse, was a time of decadence, promiscuity and jazz. The world may be quite different now, but the book is still a great read and has wide appeal.

There are a number of themes. The dichotomy between artist and thinker, described as Dionysian versus Apollonian after the names of the two sons of Zeus, is a central theme in this book and in other German literature, notably linked to Nietzsche‘s The Birth of Tragedy. To some extent, we all have this dualism within us, and so: is the novel really a metaphorical essay about the human psyche, inspired perhaps by Hesse’s reading of Jung and Freud?

Another theme is the mother figure. Goldmund never knew his mother, but we learn she was a dancer (a mother to be ashamed of, he is led to believe) and yet he seems to have a supernatural knowledge of her, and craves for her, perhaps because he thinks he has inherited her artistic attributes. Does she represent the Eve mother, part of the eternal story of the tortuous passage from birth to death? Much of the book is about Goldmund’s relationships with women, and the way his women are both a joy and an inspiration for great works of art, for example his sculpture, the Lydia-Madonna. As Goldmund dies he utters:

‘Without a mother one cannot love

Without a mother one cannot die’

Certainly, the sensual love of women plays a large part of Goldmund’s life and contrasts starkly with the monastic discipline.

‘… he learned many of the arts and ways of love, and absorbed the experiences of many lovers, learning to see, feel, touch and smell women in all their diversity’…’to be driven from one woman to the next so he might learn, and practice, ever more subtly in ever greater variety and depth, the skills of knowing and distinguishing’.

Sensual details here reminded us of the novels of DH Lawrence. At this point our proposer fondly recalled the average student party of the early 1970s, and a discussion ensued about when the swinging sixties started and ended, and what we all read and got up to in those heady days, and what we have become now. Yes, each one of us has a bit of Goldmund inside. But have we lost the spirit of self-inquiry, have we given up the search?

Certainly, we were touched by Goldmund’s abrupt decline as he grows older. There comes a time when he fails to score with women. They still find him amusing company, but his hair is going grey and they don’t want him any more. Oh dear, this part was a bit too close to the bone for most of us!

Death is another theme. We have a powerful portrayal of the Black Death, perhaps one of the most poignant and moving that has ever been written. We were reminded by one of our group that 40-60% of the population of Europe died. And we have plenty of murder in this book; in fact, Goldmund himself murders twice, and there are many reflections on death:

‘…the world is full of death, squatting on every fence, standing behind every tree, and it is useless for you to build walls and dormitories and chapels and churches. Death looks through the window and laughs’.

But death can be cheated through art, because art confers a kind of immortality on its creator:

‘from the farce and death-dance of human life, something remained and survived, works of art’… although …’even they perish … but they outlast many a human lifetime’…’it is spiritual’ … ’in this hour, Goldmund felt as if his life had acquired a meaning..’

What had been happening to Narcissus, the scholar and mentor, during the long period of Goldmund’s absence from the monastery? He had been living the spotless monastic life and now he was the abbot, but he always had been thinking of Goldmund. But even this godly man has had his moments of self-doubt. Narcissus wonders whether man really was created to study Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and whether it has been proper to shut himself away from the maelstrom of the world and the cruel currents that had beset his friend and pupil Goldmund.  But we learn rather little of the detail of Narcissus’s life. In the end he serves as the mouthpiece for Hesse’s philosophy. He speaks for example of the nature of the thinking process, the conceptual abstractions of the Apollonian versus the mental images of the Dionysian. Also, he ponders on the contrasting nature of men and women. For example, of women he says:

‘Nature had so created them that desire automatically bore its own fruit, and the harvest of love was a child. In the man’s case, instead of this simple fertility there was eternal desire’.

Some of our group considered the philosophical parts were not so good, preferring the writer to ‘show not tell’. But Hesse saw himself as a teacher. He turned his back on Germany as early as 1912, and went to Berne in Switzerland where he established a prisoner-of-war welfare centre. Between 2014 and 2018 he published about 20 essays criticizing the war in German-language newspapers. He strongly opposed the rise of nationalism. He was one of the few German intellectuals not to be swayed by the general enthusiasm for the war. He became involved in writing after the War in order to rebuild Germany by educating its youth. In this book, for example, written in that period, he touches on anti-semitism, apparently anticipating, and warning against, the rise of Nazism. He relinquished his German citizenship in 1923. In World War II he became disillusioned, withdrew from the public and denounced the barbarity from afar.

We agreed that this book was a good choice. It’s a serious book and a thought-provoking story, and most of us found words of wisdom on its pages.

Harris, Robert: An Officer and a Spy

dreyfussThe host for the evening had encountered “An Officer and a Spy”(2013) at his bedside when visiting a friend in Arnisdale. Having started the book by Robert Harris during his visit, he persuaded his friend to let him take it to complete his read.  He thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommending a recently published book was a bit of a departure from his previous recommendations, the novelty of this might have influenced his choice.

He spent some time describing the historical context of the “Dreyfus Affair”, which had become a national scandal that tore France apart, and has had an enduring influence ever since.

The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 resulted in France losing Alsace and Lorraine, and signalled the setting up of the French Republic. Tensions between Catholic royalists and Protestants remained throughout the post-war period, manifesting in the failure of  both the First and the Second Republics, several uprisings, accusations of corruption and other covert efforts to destabilize the Republic. French Protestants accepted the Jews, and after centuries of persecution they were given equal rights. For historical reasons many Jewish families lived in Alsace and Lorraine.

Alfred Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse in Alsace in 1859, into a large wealthy Jewish family. When Dreyfus was 10 years old his family was uprooted by the war and moved to Paris. It is thought that this experience influenced Dreyfus to pursue a military career. The French Army was slow to integrate with the Republic, and many monarchist and/or Catholic allegiances remained within its ranks at the time of his training. This proved challenging for Dreyfus, as his advancement through the ranks was affected by anti-Semitism, particularly at the École Supèrieure de Guerre. In his final exams there he encountered a General who held the view that Jews were not desirable in the Army.

In contrast Georges Picquart’s Catholic upbringing and early military career were unencumbered. He rose rapidly through the ranks following his graduation from the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and became a lecturer at the L’École Supérieure de Guerre, where he first encountered Dreyfus as a student.

This scene setting opened the discussion on the merits of the book. This was Robert Harris’s 9th novel. A number of those present had read earlier works, including “Fatherland” and “The Ghost”, and some considered this to be his best.

They were not alone in extolling the virtues of this novel, with Harris receiving the “Walter Scott” prize for historical fiction and the Crime Writers Association’s award for the “Best Thriller of the Year”.

The novel opens with the conviction and degradation of Dreyfus, and with Major Picquart witnessing these events and reporting back to the Minister of War, Auguste Mercier. Dreyfus is shipped off to Devil’s Island, while Picquart is promoted to Colonel and made head of the “Statistical Section”, the secret intelligence unit that hunted Dreyfus down.

Picquart is uncomfortable with what he finds in the Section. There is a lack of openness and an atmosphere of subterfuge. He sets about questioning the evidence supporting the conviction of Dreyfus and exposing discrepancies. He also identifies an alternative suspect still active in the army. Undaunted by the task of taking on the military and political leaders of the day, Picquart sets about challenging the corruption endemic within their institutions. Against all the odds he succeeds.

Unusually for our group, there was a unanimous view that this was “a great read”. It was variously described as a “page turner”, a “sleep robber”, and a “gripping thriller”.

The pace and flow of the book were much admired. In particular the device of narrating the story through Georges Picquart was thought to be inspired.

While most of our group had some prior knowledge of the “Dreyfus Affair” and had linked the exposure of the scandal to Émile Zola, no one had heard of Harris’s hero Picquart. His characterization was greatly appreciated by all. A complex individual, stiff and dismissive, highly intelligent and principled, and with indefatigable energy directed at exposing the corrupt practices of those around him. It was suggested that he could have been a difficult man to like. His treatment of both friends and foe seemed impersonal and lacking intimacy, yet he displayed social skills when the need required.

Harris’s impeccable research of the mountains of paper written about the “Affair” impressed us all. His search took him through court transcripts, historical analysis and newspaper coverage.

As we sat in the drawing room of an Edinburgh property built in the 1830’s, this writer wondered what the residents of the house would have made of the case. A quick check on the coverage provided by the local paper of the time, the Edinburgh Evening News, confirmed that there was detailed and extensive coverage given to the matter by the press. It was a “juicy story” by the standards of the day, which ran and ran for several years. It would appear that nothing really changes, except perhaps the quality of the journalism.

We admired Harris’s craftsmanship. There was no “flowery writing”, but instead authentic descriptive detail, tight story telling and scrupulous attention to the facts.

Despite our knowing the generality of the story and the outcome, Harris was able to add value and detail which brought the story to life. His account of the treatment of Dreyfus, through the “degradation” and his imprisonment on Devil’s Island with all of the cruelties administered by his guards (on the orders of the most senior officers in the French army) was skillfully layered together with the description of Picquart’s own treatment when he refused to play along with the subterfuge. Together they developed a heightened sense of indignation in the reader.

The complexity and intrigue of the plot was enhanced by Harris’s ability to bring to life the other characters and their actions in convincing detail, thereby making clear their responsibility for what happened.

We made comparisons with the writings of Hilary Mantel and John Le Carré. It was suggested that, while Harris was an easier read than Mantel, his character development was weaker and, as a consequence, less satisfying to the reader.

We discussed the role of Émile Zola and the impact of his open letter, titled “J’accuse” which was addressed to the French President Félix Faure and given front-page coverage in the Paris daily newspaper L’Aurore. His letter shook the establishment and undoubtedly brought the matter out into the open. However, it led to Zola’s prosecution for criminal libel. He was convicted on 23d February 1898 and avoided imprisonment by fleeing to London. He was able to return to Paris in June 1899, by which time Dreyfus had been offered and had accepted a pardon. This fell short of exoneration which would have confirmed his innocence, but Dreyfus considered that it was better to be free rather than run the risk of being found guilty at a further trial. Zola was philosophical about this stating that “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it”.

One comment on Zola’s intervention summed it up very succinctly: “They lied to protect the country. He told the truth to save it.” The group admired the courage displayed by Zola, and compared the protected position of the whistleblower today faced by Zola.

The introduction of legislation designed to protect the whistleblower and the increasing importance of DNA profiling in providing the evidence needed for conviction or acquittal were cited as positive developments in the search for the truth. However, some thought that the practices of “cover up” and “closing ranks” were at least as common today as they were then.

There followed a lengthy discussion about the legal systems in France and the UK, their respective strengths and weaknesses, the role of the European Court of Justice, the use of tariffs in sentencing, jury system inadequacies, the role of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, plea bargaining, the adversarial legal system, the peculiarities of Courts-martial, and much, much more.

Some of our group were very familiar with the dark arts of political intrigue having backgrounds in the Civil Service, and they were able to provide anecdotal commentary around the machinations of political chicanery. It would appear, from an interpretation of what theywith the vulnerability  inferred, that nothing has changed.

The discussion returned to “An Officer and a Spy”. We marvelled at the fact that Harris had managed to write the book in only six months. We searched for weaknesses or differences of opinion, but none could be found. There was only one member with a negative view and that was in relation to the book cover. He did not appreciate the author’s name occupying a much more dominant position than the book title! This niggle did not influence the unanimous view that this was a very good book and an excellent read.

We look forward to the Polanski film that is expected to follow the publication of “An Officer and a Spy”, and to “Dictator” which will be the conclusion to Harris’s Cicero trilogy.

Holloway, Richard: Leaving Alexandria

“Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt” by Richard Holloway, was published in 2012 by Canongate. Richard Holloway was the Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000, and therefore this book was of special interest to our Edinburgh-based book group. Indeed, several of our members had encountered him either socially or professionally, and one had been a member of his congregation. 

For any Sassenach reading this, I should explain that Richard Holloway was a Bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is a completely different church from the Church of Scotland, which is protestant (Presbyterian) and does not have any Bishops at all. Neither of these churches is the same as the Church of England. And although the Episcopal Church has some of the ‘bells and smells’ associated with Catholicism, it is not the same as the Roman Catholic Church, which by the way is also alive and well in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church believes, however, as the Roman Catholic Church also believes, in the doctrine of apostolic succession, whereby the Bishops are in a direct line of succession from the apostles.
It is useful to know the religious background of Scotland before tackling the book, as much of Holloway’s memoir is about the author’s struggle to reconcile religious doctrine with his own observations of people and society. As somebody said, religion in Scotland can get you into trouble from childhood onwards. One member recalled his own childhood.  If you are an Episcopalian, Protestants think you are a Catholic and beat you up, and Catholics think you are a Protestant and beat you up. You can’t win.
Yes, religion is complicated in Scotland, and the Scots take it seriously; they attend church more than the English and they have more denominations of Christianity. Visitors to this part of Edinburgh are surprised to see that in one location, a crossroads known as ‘Holy Corner’, four denominations of Christianity are represented by a church on each corner.
The member introducing the book said it was about ‘Richard Holloway and his soul’, and the work of a great spiritual intellect, yet written in a gentle and engaging style. We nodded in agreement. He pointed out that the author had insisted the book is not an autobiography, but a ‘memoir’.  He went on to say that the book was controversial, but one of our group took issue with that. Well, Holloway himself had obviously been a controversial character, as his frequently-expressed views were not always orthodox, but the book did not seek to be controversial. It merely wrote down the author’s thoughts and experiences on religion, God and people.
This man had, after all, been thinking and writing about Christian doctrine for nearly 50 years. He held strong positions on such matters as the ordination of women and marriage of homosexuals, in fact all the issues which have been tearing churches apart for the last few decades.  For much of his life Holloway had championed these ‘progressive’ causes, and had thus run up against hostility from his parishioners and some of his fellow clerics.
But to begin at the beginning. Holloway was a working class boy, brought up in the small Scottish town of Alexandria, near to Loch Lomond. It is an unremarkable town, with only one notable building – a magnificent Victorian edifice that was once Scotland’s first motor car factory. The building was later converted into a torpedo factory, and is now rather ignominiously converted into a series of cut-price shops. His childhood was unremarkable, going to the cinema, trips to Glasgow, learning about sexual matters the hard way, walking in the hills.
Although his parents were not religious, he sang in the local church choir. He says it was not the ‘wee church’ that he fell in love with, but what it pointed towards (the idea of an ‘elsewhere’). He became an altar boy, and from there at the tender age of 14 he left Alexandria (hence the book’s title) and went to Kelham Theological College to train for the priesthood. He describes the regime of cold showers, with the frequent taking of mass and the long periods of quiet contemplation and prayer.
During the holidays he goes home and helps with the harvest, encountering Brenda the Land Girl from Glasgow, and has a sexual awakening. He writes touchingly about such things, and is often extremely funny when speaking of intimate human encounters. Later, back at Kelham he talks to the beloved Father Peter about the biology of sex; Peter gives him the impression that God himself regarded the whole business of sex as regrettable and wished that he’d invented a less troublesome way of guaranteeing the continuance of the species. Holloway becomes rather interested in sexual matters, as any enquiring lad does at that age (but most of us don’t write it down in a book, and we especially might not write it down if we were connected with the church in some way).
One way to read this book was to take its main theme to be ‘does God exist?’. But this was too simplistic; the real theme was ‘how does a man of God (or any man) deal with his doubts about the existence of God?’. Or, more broadly, he was trying to find out who he was.  Many of us know that struggle. The author points out that theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do with agnostics; the analogy is with the chess board being black and white, never grey. We were reminded of previous book we had read: Chris Mullin’s A View From the Foothills (2009). Mullin was an extremely able Member of Parliament who did not quite fit the role he had been given. We also recalled Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God (1963), and the preaching of David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham.
Someone once told him, ‘Richard, the trouble with you is that you publish every thought you have’. Why did people write such books (he’s written 28)? Was it narcissism? Not in this case. Was it a way to apologize to those people he offended? No, at least not entirely. It was mostly to help him set his thoughts in order, a well-known path to self-knowledge. One conclusion was ‘being who we were, we were bound to act the way we did.’
Perhaps writing a book like this is cathartic, like a Confessional. He stands naked before his readership, just as Alan Ginsberg the American poet of the 1950s is said to have stood naked before his audience. But does he reveal everything? There were large areas where he did not go: his family, his experiences in Africa for example.
We found it hard to understand why he accepted the post of Bishop when he was so unsure of his beliefs. He should have stepped back from the opportunity. Parishioners entrusted their spiritual welfare to him, and he may have let them down. Was he too self-indulgent? He was certainly politically naive. But wasn’t Jesus like that? Both Holloway and Jesus felt their place was with the poor, the sick, the outcasts who could not help themselves.
What does it mean to be a Christian and did Holloway even qualify? Simply to behave like Jesus and to follow Jesus’s teaching is only a part of being a Christian. You can follow Jesus’s teaching as summarized in the beatitudes by becoming a socialist or a social worker, yet not be a Christian.
It seems to me that to qualify, under the doctrines of all Christian denominations, you have to believe that Christ was the son of God, and that he was crucified to save mankind, and that he resurrected and ascended into heaven. But isn’t it too much to ask modern people to believe? Isn’t that like believing in fairies and Santa Claus, and do Christians today really believe in all that?  On page 156-158 he explains how he struggled with one of the centrepieces of Christian doctrine, the Resurrection, and how he felt on the first occasion he had to present an Easter sermon.  For him, Jesus did not physically rise from the dead and ascend into heaven. It was impossible. Rather, the Resurrection was a metaphor for the possibility of change and renewal.
Then he moves on (page 159) to ask what happened before the Big Bang. Of course, science cannot tell us. Some Christians say it proves that science has somehow failed in this crucial area where Christianity provides an explanation, i.e. God. Holloway does not say that, simply that we have to learn to live with uncertainty, it is a part of the state of being. I love this stuff.
At this stage in the evening my thoughts were disturbed by a dreadful rasping noise, which I first took to be the heating system about to explode.   But no-one else seemed concerned. Then I realized the dog was in the room, and considered that the sound must be the beast’s snoring. But no; our host stood up, and walked across to that dark part of the room. ‘Anyone for coffee?’. The rasping had only been the coffee machine.
Yes, the book has humour, lots of it. For me, the funniest part was his experimental talking in tongues to a complete stranger, a young woman of Chinese appearance, at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. She fled.
The writing was sometimes poetic and profound:
Religion’s insecurity makes it shout not whisper, strike with the fist in the face not tug gently with the fingers on the sleeve. Yet, beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard. And from a great way off the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling the fire’.
The final chapter ‘Epilogue’ includes his thoughts during a walk in the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh.  He raises massive issues for all religious people:
Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons can be learned from them. The mistake was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, a work of art – an opera – and could be appreciated as such. The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that overrides our own better judgements’. 
The book was certainly thought-provoking. We admired the fluency with which the author expressed his deepest feelings. You do not have to be a Christian to be moved by this book; it is surely one of the most engaging books to have been written in 2012. 

Hunter, James: A Dance Called America

The proposer of “A Dance Called America” (1994) is well-versed in history. At Edinburgh University he read Scottish and American history. His interest in this particular book was sparked during a visit last summer to the US and eastern Canada, particularly Quebec and Nova Scotia (Quebec City, Cape Breton Island, Fortress Louisburg and Halifax). He read the book during his travels.

The author of this month’s book, James Hunter, is a Highlander by birth and residence, and has written a few books on Highland-related subjects. Our proposer gave a brief résumé of Hunter’s output and life. There are about 14 books.  “Last of the Free” is an excellent history of Scotland from the ‘Highland viewpoint’.  The author tends to view the Lowland Scots much in the same way as Lowland Scots view the English, i.e. aggressive centralisers. He is a well-kent face in the Highlands and formerly the Chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  One of our members recalled that in this role he had a major influence on the “Fresh Talent” proposal to encourage immigration into Scotland, and had a vision of the Highlands being repopulated.

This book is an account of those Highlanders who emigrated to North America. It complements another book we have been reading lately, the novel by Neil Gunn The Silver Darlings.

Our proposer donned his historian’s cap and reminded us of the context of Highland emigration. Until the Union of 1707 Scots were unable legally to go to England’s American colonies. Early Scots emigration did occur, to America (e.g. Georgia), but a trickle became a flood after the collapse of traditional clan system following the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Outline of the chapters

Chapters 2 and 4 discuss the Highlanders who went to what became the US. Those who had supported the Stuarts in 1745 mainly supported King George in 1775. The author makes a parallel with the French Canadians who supported the British both in 1775 and 1812. Indeed many of the Highlanders who were on the losing side in the American Revolution made their way to the surviving British colonies in Canada.

Many of Highland descent remained in the USA. A diversion is the way the whites in the South, whether of Scottish descent or not, have emphasised their Celtic heritage. Celtic South has a long pedigree. Mark Twain said Walter Scott caused the War Between the States.  Now that overt racism is out, a lot of Southerners have hit on something to which blacks cannot belong. Tying Southern history into Scottish history enables an emphasis on the heroic and romantic elements without the politically incorrect baggage of slavery.

Chapter 3 deals with the Highlanders’ military contribution to the defeat of the French in Canada. General Wolfe’s infamous quote probably sums up the initial English view:    “They are hardy, intrepid and no great mischief if they fall.”   But the British Government needed troops able to operate in N America and the Highlanders fitted the bill, thus launching a military tradition. Clan tradition and solidarity has been a very important part of regimental esprit de corps.  The victory of the Highlanders in Canada elevated their reputation amongst the English and Lowland Scot for ever. Somehow, Scots now identified with the British Empire.

Chapter 5 deals with the emotive topic of the mass evictions/ clearances on Highland estates. The author’s analysis of the emotional and controversial subject of the Highland Clearances is balanced and persuasive. Our proposer had visited the Hector in Pictou, Nova Scotia, a replica of the ship that brought the first Highlanders to Nova Scotia in 1773. A good point made by the author is that conditions on the emigrant ships were no better than on slave ships. Indeed emigrants paid in advance. Money for slaves was paid on arrival, so some have argued there were better conditions on ships for slaves. He also makes the important point that Highlander emigrants in the 19th century were much poorer than their predecessors in the 18th century. Nonetheless, as he makes clear, the emigrants considered they were better off in Canada than in Scotland, in particular through being in charge of their own destinies. Even so, farming small crofts – whether in Scotland or Cape Breton – has not for many years provided an acceptable standard of living.

Chapter 6 deals with Cape Breton Island. Our proposer reported this as being a fascinating place, with many familiar Scottish surnames including his own. It has a Gaelic College and much Celtic music (and festivals). Signs are often in Gaelic. In the 1930s there were as many Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton as in Scotland, but the inexorable advance of English has much reduced the number (read Alistair Macleod’s great novel No Great Mischief).

 Chapter 7 deals with the fur trade and the exploration of Western Canada, and the Highlanders’ role in it. The North West Company was a Highland family business.

 Chapter 8 deals with the Sutherland clearance in Kildonan, and how many of the cleared Highlanders went to the Red River from Thurso via Hudsons Bay.  Others of course stayed in Sutherland, and turned to herring fishing.

 Chapter 9 describes the contribution of various Scots (in particular John Macdonald) in the bringing together of the various provinces within Canada to form a Federation. Undoubtedly this was motivated in part by the fear of USA territorial ambitions. The Canadian Pacific railway was vital to the Canadian national identity. Highlanders made an immense contribution to it.  Whereas it would be a wild exaggeration to claim Canada as a Scottish Highland creation, they certainly played an important role. Perhaps as the author is writing about the Highlanders’ contribution, a somewhat unbalanced picture emerged.

 What we discussed

The title of the book is strange. It comes from James Boswell’s Journal of 1773. He describes a whirling dance coming from Skye, presumably invented to represent the emigration to America. They call the dance, America. Later, in the 1980s, the Celtic rock band from Skye wrote the song Dance called America.

The landlords came
The peasant trials
To sacrifice of men
Through the past and that quite darkly
The presence once again
In the name of capital
Improvers, it’s a name
The hidden truths
The hidden lies
That once nailed you
To the pain

Not all of us are as familiar with Scottish history as our proposer!

One of our members, unable to attend, sent an enthusiastic set of comments: “I found almost all of it riveting. The militias in the US in the eighteenth century were of course particularly absorbing for me given my military history interests”.

But some of us thought the book was ‘heavy going’, with so many clan names, place-names and dates. We would have liked a few maps (Scotland and N America) to show where the places were. Perhaps some statistics on the numbers emigrating could have been given. One of our members complained of having to use Wikipedia to follow the narrative. It was in that encyclopaedia that I found the following remarkable factoid:

 “According to the 2001 Census of Canada, the number of Canadians claiming full or partial Scottish descent is 5,219,850 ”.

That is about the same as Scotland’s own population, and hugely more than the present-day Highland population. Of course, there are Highland diaspora all over the world, and plenty in the USA. But can we be given some data?  Or perhaps a Table to show the chronology? Other books about Scottish history have been more helpful in this regard  (Prebble’s Highland Clearances, Smout’s History of the Scottish People).

Probably, one needs to be a Highlander oneself or a historian from the Lowlands to enjoy this book without ‘further study’. If, like your humble scribe, you are English (!) then this book is an uphill struggle, although one undoubtedly learns a lot, and in the end it is a satisfying read. But Prebble and Smout write for audiences anywhere.

We discussed the Highland Clearances at some length. We English (of whom I was the only representative this month), may well be ‘aggressive centralisers’ and we do feel a little uncomfortable discussing the sins of our forefathers, especially in Scottish or Irish company. Interestingly, I found my Scottish friends (Lowlanders all, I think) also sensitive on matters to do with the Clearances.

In his enthusiasm for all things Highlander, we thought Hunter had not always been fair to Lowlanders and the English. Our member who could not be with us expressed it thus:

The Glencoe massacre was portrayed as English imperialism rather than yet

another internecine clan horror – in his world Highlanders don’t slaughter

each other. He applauds Highlanders finding jobs for their nephews and

cousins as admirable clan solidarity, while others might see this as nepotism (which I can vouch is rife to this day in the Gaelic speaking world). However, it was in his favour that his more sentimental or emotional points were generally then qualified by a more rational appraisal”.

It is difficult to imagine the living conditions in the Highlands at the time when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing in the Lowlands, and the Industrial Revolution was well underway throughout Europe. These huge cultural and social movements had touched the Highlands only inasmuch as they created demand for product such as herrings and kelp, and then sheep.

Prebble’s book may have exaggerated the level of oppression associated with the Clearances, with its focus on the ‘Year of the Burnings’ (1814) and the single incident at Strathnaver in which Patrick Sellar the factor to the Sutherland family torched dwellings, sometimes whilst people were still inside them. It rapidly became a cause célèbre partly because of the literary skill of one Donald Macleod, a stonemaker from Strathnaver, who later emigrated to Canada and wrote passionately about the incident. The author confronts us with these words, written by Richard Hugo an American poet who lived in Uig for a few months:

Lord, it took no more than a wave of a glove,

A nod of the head over tea. People were torn from their crofts

And herded aboard, their land turned over to sheep.

They sailed. They wept.

The sea said nothing and said I’ll get even.

Their last look at Skye lasted one hour. Then fog.

But clearances were not confined to Scotland. They occurred earlier in England during the British Agricultural Revolution. And much of all social change during the Industrial Revolution has the same ingredients: a nod of the head, people losing livelihoods, violence, long-lasting resentment and then sadness.

It is impossible to visit the Highlands today without being struck by a sense of melancholy.

Before the Clearances, however, life in the Highlands was no bed of roses. It should be kept in mind that the climate and soils of the Highlands are marginal for agriculture. The growing season is short and unreliable. Moreover, the period covered by the book was especially cold and stormy. A succession of bad harvests may well have been a factor forcing people to flee to the coast where kelp and herring could provide a livelihood, as portrayed in Neil Gunn’s novel, The Silver Darlings.  During the so-called Little Ice Age (from about 1550 to 1850) the temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere were about a degree colder than in the late 19th Century (hence ice skating and curling were popular sports in Scotland, and Ice Fairs were held annually on the Thames). The year 1816 is known as ‘the year without a summer’ and sometimes ‘Poverty Year’ – this occurred in the midst of the second phase of the Clearances and must have exacerbated the hardship and misery.

We digressed into a discussion of how to pronounce the word Gaelic, as in the language. You should definitely pronounce it ‘Gallic’ for the Scottish version of the language, and ‘Gaellic’ for the Irish form. No-one told the editors of my Longman’s Dictionary (i-pad edition with sound).

We learn from Hunter’s book that the more fortunate emigrants who had survived the transatlantic journey were more or less dumped on Canadian soil, and had to build their own shelters and attempt to grow crops. Winter was damn cold in Canada too. Many starved when their first crops failed. This is hardship on a scale far beyond the experience of our generation. One imagines that a high degree of selection must have occurred, a human example of the Survival of the Fittest.  Certainly those who survived did well, keeping up the Highland traditions of music, bagpipes, shinty and curling. Bonspiels today are nearly as important in parts of Canada as the Olympics elsewhere!

Given this enthusiasm for all things Scottish, one might expect a few of the successful Scottish Americans to send money home. A few have. Andrew Carnegie emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1848 and made a fortune in steel. He was a scholar and philanthropist who gave much back to Scotland (and England).  Not all have been as generous as Carnegie. Donald Trump’s wealth is said to exceed 3 billion dollars. His mother was born on the Isle of Lewis. Hasn’t he done well, a real-estate magnate and owner of the Miss Universe Organisation?  Rupert Murdoch, the Australian newspaper owner of Scottish descent is no philanthropist either. The descendants of William Cargill, a sea captain from Orkney, amassed immense wealth from the family agro-business; in recent times Margaret Cargill became known as a major philanthropist. Scottish-American business woman Mary Maxwell Gates helped her clever son, Bill Gates, get started. Blame Bill for all those bugs in Microsoft Word if you like, but salute him please for the good works he has done thorough the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A complete list of Scottish-Americans is lacking in this book. The author might have made a bit more of this. Again, I had to do my own research! 30-40 million Americans claim Scottish descent.  Scots are certainly well-represented in a roll-call of American presidents (there are 23 of them, including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), famous astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin), food magnates (Campbell’s soups, MacDonald’s fast-food, the secretive Cargill family), car-makers (David Dunbar Buik), musicians (Elvis, Bill Munro, and John Baez’s mum came from Edinburgh) and even Uncle Sam himself is supposed to be the son of a nice young couple from Greenock.   For further details of the widespread influence of Scottish people in the USA, possible not entirely without a Scottish bias, be amused by this: http://www.scotland.org/features/item/scotlands-influence-on-the-usa/

The Scottish Government organised Homecoming Scotland in 2009 to attract talent and money back home. However, it was reported to have been a financial failure.

The night was drawing on, and as we gathered up our belongings to go, our host suddenly remembered the special treat he had waiting for us. He produced a bottle of Cape Breton Malt Whisky. It was like a Speyside, not as good as a Dalwhinnie but pretty decent.