Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book Notes: The House by The Dvina by Eugenie Fraser

While the eyes of the world are trained on Russia (as I write we are in the opening week of the 2018 Football World Cup, being hosted there), I've been lost in the pages of Eugenie Fraser's Russian childhood memoirs, "The House by The Dvina". The World Cup's festival of football is very glitzy, and well polished, the millionaire football celebrities, play under dazzling lights. Russia though, seems to be a place, (an idea?) loaded with melancholy, a place alive with a living history cast in sombre tones, and bearing an unusual weight of tragedy. I love Russian music, and yet it is some of the saddest music ever written. Unsurprisingly then, The House on The Dvina, is a book full of characters, remarkable stories, evocative moods, several surprises, and deep, dark sadnesses.

The author grew up in Tsarist Russia, in Arkangel on The White Sea, in the Far North of Russia. Her family were comparatively wealthy, and were Russian Orthodox Christians, and Tsarist loyalists too. Her memories of this period are happy ones, of childhood adventures and gardens, and friends and Christmas parties - of sledges and frozen rivers in Winter, and swimming and adventures in the Summer.

Unusually (and I had no idea about this when I picked the book up in the Oxfam bookshop in Perth), Fraser's family were half-Russian and half-Scottish. Her Mother came, not merely from Scotland, but from Dundee's little neighbour, Broughty Ferry; some twenty miles from where I live. Early chapters of the book are concerned with the story of how her parents met, and contain fascinating portraits of life in turn-of-the-century Dundee; what it looked like, family-life, religion, work, transport and culture. This was an unexpected delight, in a book I had assumed was purely a Russian memoir. Her mother's journey to northern Russia, cultural transition, and life in Orthodox Russia as a Scots Presbyterian, is a great story. Having been brought up in the Cold War era, Russia and the Eastern bloc were always in some ways 'closed'. I did travel to the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad, Gulf of Finland), in a highly controlled Intourist trip in the 1980s. But there was always the sense that while we could see the sights, we were kept well away from the real Russian people. We were there to bring in hard currency, not to engage with the culture.  It was interesting to discover that in the era after the Crimean War and before the October Revolution of 1917, there was significant openness between Britain and Russia - and a young Russian coming to work in Dundee wasn't a ridiculous proposition, but a sensible exploration along thriving trade routes.

The tragedies in this story start with the dreadful situation on the Eastern Front in the First World War, the horrific casualty rates; and despair facing the country. The shenanigans at court, the unpopularity of the Tsarina and the machinations of the mysterious Rasputin feature as the backdrop to the unravelling of the life they knew in the old Russia. The first revolution in 1917 they coped with, despite the ongoing problems in the war, Kerensky is viewed as an orator of no substance; while the Bolsheviks are absolutely hated. The author's family supported the White cause in the civil war, and felt betrayed and deserted as the Allies withdrew and left Russia to the fate of Lenin, Bolshevism and then Stalinism. The Bolsheviks who appear in this story are murderous thugs, who smash all that was good in the country and produce little but vandalism and near starvation in its place.

Amazingly, the author and her mother and brother managed to gain passage out of Russia and back to her grandparents in Dundee - while their Russian father was unable to leave. They never saw him again. What happened next? I don't know - but I'm sure there's a sequel somewhere!

This sad, plaintive memoir works really well as a child's-eye view of the Russian Revolution - which is a story usually told in terms of Dumas, Soviet's, strikes, slogans and Marxist ideology. The Scottish (Dundee!) angle to the story was an unexpected twist - which made it all the more intriguing to read sitting here by the banks of The Tay.

It's not an academic read, or a real stretch - but it is nevertheless good reading. Interestingly, there is a childlike quality to the memoirs - even though they were clearly written when she was an adult, looking back over the troubled century.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Notes: Collect and Record! by Laura Jockush

Laura Jockusch’s “Collect and Record!” is an essential piece of European historiography. For half a century, the events of the Second World War have provided the context for the development of our culture and political institutions. Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, has a critical role in our understanding of those events, and therefore of our understanding of the present. It is hardly surprising therefore, that contemporary anti-Semitism feeds off the Holocaust-denial movement.

“Collect and Record” is a detailed examination of the sources from which Holocaust history is gathered. While Holocaust deniers wish to post late-dates for primary sources, Jockush has produced a groundbreaking study of early data-collection across France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Italy. She documents the way in which survivors:

‘founded historical commissions, documentation centres, and projects for the purpose of documenting and researching the recent annihilation. These initiatives arose as a grassroots movement impelled by the survivors own will and with no government backing’[1]

Drawing on a tradition of pogrom-documentation, stretching back to the 1890s, the survivors have left us with an array of testimonies, questionnaires, diaries, photos, documents (both Jewish and Nazi), films and artefacts. Much of this recording began as a ‘sacred duty’ during the conflict, and most of the collection was achieved between 1945-7. This book is the remarkable story of the collection of that history.

Jockusch describes how the various historical societies differed in their methods and aims; for example, The Poles needed to preserve the threads of a decimated culture and memorialise the dead, while the emphasis in Austria was on gathering evidence for trials. She also traces the attempts to forge a European-wide documentation movement in the late 1940s, along with its main figures. The progress of the documents themselves from post-war refugee camps to their current homes in International archives is also fascinating. Some of these sources have been examined for the first time in this book.

Oxford University Press have just published this significant work as an accessibly priced paperback. When the historical record matters this much, Jockusch has provided us with a genuinely “usable past”.

[1] p4
First published in Solas Magazine, used with permission (

Monday, June 18, 2018

Stob Coir'an Albannaich

I had been looking forward to going back down Glen Etive - glorious, spectacular, wonderful Glen Etive - for such a long time. Stob Coir'an Albannaich though, turned out to be probably the worst hillwalk I have ever done. I have never experienced such a catalogue of mishaps in my life, some were unavoidable, others were of our own folly!

The weather was a lot worse than the forecast had predicted, and despite our late start to make the best of the "brightening conditions", the rain lashed down. Over in Perth, we've had a lot of dry weather recently, and the recent rains haven't really muddied the paths, or re-awakened the seasonal burns. Glen Etive though was alive with the sound of running water, gushing and cascading from the saturated hills on all sides. The brim-full River Etive was gliding under the bridge at Coileitir, with the kind of silky power a river possesses when it is untroubled by the bouldery riverbed, deep below the surface.

Our day, though damp, began uneventfully enough. We parked, crossed the bridge and turned NE along the track to Glenceitlein, where at another bridge we turned into the hill and climbed the steep, wet, rocky, slippery NW ridge of Beinn Chaorach. Despite the waterlogged ground frequently sliding from underneath our feet, we gained Chaorach with little difficulty (no visibility!), and found our way simply on and round towards Stob Coir'an Albannaich. The finest features of the hill only came into our restricted view around the summit, and my guess is that on a fine day it would have been stunning.

Our first problem really arose on the summit. No sooner were we celebrating another Munro, that my walking companion suffered a nasty attack of cramp in his leg. Unable to move very fast, he started to get very cold, and really quite uncomfortable. Realising that thoughts of the projected 2nd Munro (Meall na Eun), were off the table, and that descent back down our ascent route would be ghastly, we took the decision to head off the exposed tops and down into more sheltered conditions. We found the bealach between Albainnich and the adjacent top (Meall Tarsuinn), easily enough, and started descent. Sadly our way was blocked by a powerful waterfall washing over the descent route, at a point where there was no way round. we had to re-ascend and find an alternative - and it was here in the thick fog, and pouring rain that we made a schoolboy navigational error, and landed in the glen-floor a long way from where we had hoped to be.

Then faced with a series of dreadful, deep, river-wades, my bootlace snapped, I didn't have a spare. The last 8Km or so were trudged with a slightly loose boot full of river water. Nice. The extra time which our extra mileage, deer-fences and deep rivers had cost us, meant that we were tired by the time we came to our final ascent, up to the 633m bealach between Meall na Eun and Meall Odhar. This done, we trudged wearily back round under out ascent route, and back to the River Etive, the bridge and the waiting car. To add insult injury, the car was wrapped in a cloud of midgies, swirling in fury, like a little tornado. Being eaten alive as threw off boots and pulled on trainers to drive in, we drove off as fast as possible, with the fans on full, and windows open to create a midgie-defying wind. It was only several miles later that I realised that the midgies had created in us a frenzy like their own, and that as a result I left my walking poles in the parking space. Where they presumably still are.

I need to go back to complete Meall na Eun, and see if I have a decent walk, or whether Glen Etive will once more be the scene of obstacles and errors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Notes: Not A Choice, Not a Job, Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade by Janice Raymond

 Janice G. Raymond’s book, “Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths About Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade”, describes a spectrum of responses to prostitution, stretching from Stockholm to Amsterdam. At one end, the Dutch government has pioneered an approach which provides a legal framework, within which the ‘sex-trade’ can operate openly. Their view is that prostitution is inevitable and so should be normalised, giving the state some control over its’ worst elements. Foundational to this approach is the claim that there is an objective and observable difference between consensual contractual sex, and coercive, exploitative prostitution. Those within the industry who support this view describe themselves as ‘sex-workers’.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Swedish government has adopted a model which criminalises the purchase of sex. Focussing their attention on the demand, rather than supply of commercial sex; they implicitly endorse the view that for vast numbers of women in prostitution, this is not a ‘normal industry’ but a global economy of abuse. They argue that there is no discernable dividing line between consensual sex-work and abusive prostitution in the context where the vast majority of transactions involve richer, more powerful men, paying pimps for their supposed right to buy the bodies of poorer, more vulnerable, women. This view is often supported by former prostitutes who reject the legitimizing language of ‘sex-work’, but call themselves, ‘survivors’. They repeatedly state that acquiescence to abuse under duress, or without other meaningful choices, does not constitute consent; and that prostitution is therefore little more than financially compensated rape.

Raymond’s book is a detailed argument in favour of the Swedish or ‘Nordic Model’, and against the normalisation of the purchase of women for sex. Raymond writes from a feminist-abolitionist perspective, and her book is a disturbing yet highly persuasive polemic, written with the tools of the scholar, but the passion of an advocate. Drawing on UN-reports, NGO studies and academic research, Raymond argues that legalisation and normalisation have failed to deliver any of their supposed harm-reductions. Cities like Amsterdam, far from having a decriminalised and controlled sex-industry, are in fact centres of crime, abuse, people-trafficking and child sexual abuse. In contrast, Sweden’s ten-year review of its policy saw significant reductions in abuse, high numbers of survivors escaping the trade, and 70% public approval of their approach; she asserts.

Underlying Raymond’s approach is her view that all prostitution is damaging and exploitative. Therefore, attempts to reduce-harm are doomed to failure, and primarily serve to protect the profits of pimps and traffickers. Prostitution and trafficking are on the political agenda across Europe. Raymond claims that the Dutch perspective is being promoted by governments, those who profit from commercial sex, and the media. In contrast, the merits of the Nordic model are not being heard across the Continent, despite some smaller parliaments (such as Northern Ireland) recently adopting this approach.

In seeking to understand the humanity and social benefits of the Nordic model, “Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths About Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade”, is the place to start.

First published in Solas Magazine, reproduced with permission (

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Book Notes: Recollections of Victorian Birmingham by Stephen Roberts

Roberts is a noted historian of Chartism, arguably the greatest of all the Nineteenth Century popular movements for social and political reform. This little book however, departs from the length, depth, style, price and purpose of his major historical works such as The Chartist Legacy.

Recollections of Victorian Birmingham, is a collection of short autobiographical vignettes, which were first published in local newspaper columns around the turn of the century, up until the First World War. 

Roberts has done a splendid job of selecting and re-publishing many of these accounts in this little volume, which give fascinating insights into life in that great Victorian city. Through these first-hand accounts, we are allowed a glimpse into political, religious, social, civil, industrial, family and leisure activities. Some accounts are told by protagonists in the great dramas they tell (election candidates, politicians, or clergymen), in others, the writer was an observer, or a child bewildered and amazed at the great Chartist gatherings of the period, for example.

While a compendium of primary sources, is not the place to look for detailed analysis of data, or synthesis of evidence into great themes and explanatory hypotheses, it nevertheless allows the reader to 'get under the skin' of the period (so to speak), and to learn not merely the raw political facts about say Joseph Chamberlain; but what he looked, and sounded like - and what it was like to hear him stir a crowd. Some historical analysis, when event or statistics driven, can become clinical and sterile. This little book is the opposite, in that while it doesn't critique or analyse the material much, it allows the human voices of the era to be heard, and is therefore a wonderfully human history.

Alongside the selection of the pieces, Roberts' other great contribution to the book is his footnotes. Without these detailed explanations, the ordinary reader would be lost, yet his carefully added notations fill in all the blanks for the uninitiated, so that they can make sense of what they are reading. Where relevant, details of who people were, or a little background to the events described, open these accounts up in a very helpful way, making this a truly fascinating and insightful little volume.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Book Notes: The Invention of Russia; The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” By Arkady Ostrovsky

Western observers of Russia today often appear perplexed as to how a nation which emerged so optimistically from under the long shadow of Soviet totalitarianism, seems to be so readily dispensing with liberal freedoms. Arkady Ostrovsky’s book is a superb explanation of the causes, development and consequences of that retreat, which both informs, and alerts the reader to the ongoing difficulties which dealing with Putin’s Russia, will present for some time to come. The Invention of Russia won Ostrovsky the 2016 Orwell Prize for political writing.

Russia is an idea-centric country, and the media play a disproportionately important role in it”, writes Ostrovsky. “Ideologists, journalists, editors and TV executives” have not just been transmitters of the idea of Russia, but its creators, he claims. (p5) In communist days, media and information were a state commodity, “the means of mass communication”, essential to the whole Soviet idea. But, he rather adroitly observes, “the Soviet Union expired, not because it ran out of money, but because it ran out of words”. (p6)

Ostrovsky’s account of the turbulent 1990s, of Yeltsin, and his tussles with the Russian parliament, is brilliantly told. He charts the way in which the threat of communism led Yelstin to depend on the emerging Oligarchs, who were allowed to gain inordinate wealth and power in return for their support. There was a short time in which the media were comparatively free, when it was “too late to rally the masses under the red flag, and too soon to rally them under nationalism”. (p168)

Once Yeltsin was gone however, the Oligarchs “behaved like caricatures of capitalism in old Soviet journals” (p229), helping to destroy the liberal media, as they moved power towards Putin, who centralised ownership and control of the press. It was this media who invented the Russia we have today. As such there is as much about the battles to control Moscow’s TV tower, as there is as much here about struggles to control the Kremlin.

The Russia of Putin, is Anti-American, patriotic, collectivist, and celebrates derzharnost (geo-political prestige) and gosudarstvennichestvo (the primacy of the state). (p284).

Central to Ostrovsky’s thesis is that the free press was able to restrict Yeltsin’s Chechen war; but the compliant press under Putin has been central into whipping the population into a paranoid frenzy to justify the annexation of Crimea. The media were responsible for stirring hatred against anyone who opposed the war, such as Boris Nemstov, who was duly murdered in 2015.

Most alarming is Ostrovsky’s assessment of contemporary Russia, where “The Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and fighting” (p346). His view is that Russia is more dangerous than it was in the Cold War, as the USSR were victors in WWII, but emerged from the end of communism with a sense of defeat, and a volatile “inferiority complex”. (p3) Today more than “fifty percent of Russians think that it is OK for the media to distort the truth in the interests of the State”; but perhaps more worryingly, “The vast majority of Russians now contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war with America, [which] forty per cent of the younger ones believe that Russia can win”.(p346)

Ostrovsky’s book is a challenge to the increasingly inward-looking West, who are consumed with their own economic and constitutional affairs; as was exposed in the woefully deficient debate on the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. Both those arguing for renewal, and those for scrapping Trident argued from within a vacuum; with barely a whimper of cogent assessment of the resurgent Russian threat. Both arguments were essentially unilateralist, while the absence of any multilateralist voice arguing for scrapping Trident, in tandem with a wider de-nuclearisation of Europe, was telling. The possibility of an isolationist Trump US Presidency, and subsequent straining of NATO, makes the need to understand Putin’s Russia a matter of growing urgency. Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia informs, educates and counsels Europe not to avert our eyes from developments to the East.

Arkady Ostrovsky, is the Russia analyst for The Economist. This review was first published in Solas Magazine, used with permission.

Campeltown & Beinn Ghuilean

Despite having lived in Scotland for all my adult life, (and as much of my middle-age as I have so for used up), I have never been further south down the Kintyre Peninsula than Lochgilphead before. Old friends moved there a year or so back, and I suspect that if they hadn't, I still would not have seen this remote - and unique corner of the country. Unsurprisingly, the landscape is much like Scotland's other great southwesterly protrusion, towards Stranraer. I know the Glasgow/Ayrshire/Stranraer road very well, having driven it countless times towards the ferries, Ireland, family and holidays. The Mull of Kntyre, has a feel all of its own however.

Meeting up with old friends, and making new ones at The Kintyre Christian Fellowship on Friday, and at Springbank Evangelical Church on Sunday was good. I had driven four hours, across Scotland, through the mountains, and down the length of the narrow finger of Kintyre, and found warm, friendly encouraging people. Some were long-time residents of the area, and some historic 'Campbeltonians' (a zealously guarded status, I'm told), while others had clustered there at the end of the world, from all over the Scotland, and the UK from as far away as Cornwall.

Steve the pastor of the church at Springbank (which sits in the shadow of the more famous distillery of the same name), told me that the town's population is dropping at the moment after the losses of the airbase, and a clothing factory. Tourism and distilling, remain important industries, alongside the public sector and the fishing port - but that for many people the search for work takes people away from Campbeltown. Others move away, but move back to the place as soon as circumstances allow. 

The car ferry may no longer run to Northern Ireland, but a speedy foot passenger service still takes tourists and cyclists, over to Ballycastle and Isla (presumably in search of Lagavulin or Bushmills respectively). At least this looked to be well used on the day I was there. I thought this might be an option, to combine a family trip to NI, with a day out with friends in Campbeltown; but at £90 per person, they have sadly priced themselves well out of any market that I am in! Oddly, they are not even trying to compete with the budge airlines on price, which I can't imagine makes a viable long-term business model. it was good to see the churches in the town, though small, in good spirits, doing good work in their town as well.

The local hill, which provides great views over Campbeltown and Campeltown Loch, is called Bheinn Ghuilean. Its a small hill, even by Scottish standards, rising to a slender 352 metres above sea level. There is a track which leaves the coast road by a large house called Glenramskill, and climbs up by the Glenramskill Burn past the ruins of an old barn called High Glenramkill, from which a direct line can be taken to the lower of the two summits at the trig point. Despite the flat, featureless summit, and the encroaching low-cloud, this provided an excellent viewpoint. A discussion then ensued about the concrete trig point. How did they build it up there? It surely can't have been lugged up there intact, it weighs tons! How many men and ponies then would it have it have taken to lug cement, stones, water and a timber mold to pour the thing on the summit? Can anyone tell me what the answer to this is?

It may have been only early June, yet the midgies were out in force on Beinn Ghuilean, despite the breeze. The oppressive saturation humidity and warmth demanded that we lose layers of clothing, while the incessant biting of the midgies made us put on protective layers - so we steamed in our warm layers, each coat becoming like a personalised single-occupancy sauna.

Saying goodbye to my friends on Sunday afternoon, lead me into the teeth of an horrific downpour which got so intense around Crianlarich that I couldn't drive. I could hardly see anything, the windscreen wipers needed to go twice as fast to shift the water; and in places I couldn't steer, because my little car just aquaplaned all over the road, at slow speed. Thankfully after a half-hour break, by Glen Ogle the rain reduced to drizzle which gave way to sunshine by Loch Earn and a lovely run home. Thanks to my friends and hosts in Campeltown for a lovely weekend.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book Notes: Religion and Politics in The European Union: The Secular Canopy by Francois Foret

So much has been written about the relationship between politics and faith in the USA, that the furores around the beliefs of everyone from Obama to Ted Cruz to Trump erupt along well established lines. The place and function of religion in the EU in contrast, remains elusive and has awaited serious research for some time. This is especially the case in terms of the European Parliament (EP), whose religiosity has been explored even less than that of the European Commission.
François Foret’s Religion and Politics in the European Union: The Secular Canopy is built on groundbreaking research exploring the subtle and complex relationship between these two phenomena amongst Europe’s elites. Foret’s detailed questionnaires and interviews with MEPs, (the “RelEP” survey) is the largest and most comprehensive appraisal of the role of faith/unbelief in the EP; and Foret maps his findings onto the history of the EU, its documents, controversies, external relations, and breaks them down for analysis both by nation and party-grouping.

Foret’s conclusions are detailed and highly nuanced, yet across the areas he addresses (Historical development, Political culture, Elite Recruitment, Elections, Access to the Public Square, Policy, and External Relations), several common themes occur. Most prominent amongst these are that in the context of ongoing secularization, religion persists as a second-order factor, capable of influencing certain debates, but not defining and driving agendas, framing issues or establishing political cleavages.[2] The EP has no direct competence over religious affairs, which like religious identities remain deeply embedded within nation-states, while religious matters come to the fore in the EP only rarely, notably in ethical debates.[3] Foret’s analysis of political socialization in the EP is especially striking however. In his estimation, many MEPs, from Ulster Protestants to Polish Catholics, function effectively within the EP and maintain their personal faith. Perhaps surprisingly, MEPs were reportedly ‘as religious’ as average Europeans, suggesting that faith is neither an obstacle to election nor a pre-requisite for it.[4] What MEPs are able to do with their beliefs is more interesting still, as there is an inherent tension between their faith and their role as functionaries, within an avowedly secular system and culture:

They can either accept the banalization and resorption of their religion into mainstream culture, in the hope of preserving it as part of the common stock of imaginary resources; or they can assume that religious actors and believers are now a minority and claim respect as such, possibly by going to court on occasion, at the risk of reducing their audience to those who share the same beliefs.[5]

This means that while at an ideological level debates rage about referencing the heritage of so-called “Christian Europe” in the EU constitution; in practice it is secular liberalism which defines the rules by which the game is played. Thus: even in directly religious issues such as religious liberty, actors motivated by religious concerns find it “easier to mobilise in defence of human rights using the language of expertise than to proselytise using arguments rooted in values.” [6]

According to Foret, religion is therefore present across European Politics, but exists below the surface, as religious specifics are inimical to the transnational, cross-party, trans-denominational coalition building, on which all achievement in the EP must inevitably depend. As such it acts as a “resilient social constituency”, an “active mnesic trace and set of values”[7], because although Europe is secularising, major religious actors such as The Vatican have gained noted expertise in access and representation, which does not seem to be diminishing in line with the progress of secularization. Politicians can therefore use religious identities to consolidate support or opposition to political measures, to “scandalise” issues with the media, and to communicate with specific constituencies. The language of faith is no longer “an authoritative source”, and “European politics influences religious civil society more than religious civil society influences European politics”[8]; but religion remains a live issue with which Europe must reckon.

It seems clear from Foret’s work that much of Europe would prefer religious issues to remain dormant, welcoming the benefits of cultural-Christianity without having to openly acknowledge their source. Religious identity issues uncomfortably press themselves onto Europe’s agenda through issues such as Turkey’s proposed membership, and the various Islamic cartoon crises culminating in the Charlie Hebdo killings however. Europe then faces a historically unique challenge as it seeks to construct a multi-cultural polity without reference to God: its “secular exceptionalism.”[9] “What does it mean to be a European?” seems to be an unanswered question, one which challenges the viability of progress towards integration.
Foret’s book is an important, and defining contribution to an often-neglected field, which promises to be a benchmark study with which all future research will have to reckon. It is meticulously constructed and its’ arguments detailed. If it suffers from any weaknesses they are two-fold. A minor complaint is that sometimes the elegance and profundity of his analysis is cloaked in a complexity of language which will make it inaccessible to all but the most diligent scholars. A more substantial concern is that the foundational study of the book, the RelEP, only managed detailed interactions with 161 MEPs of the 751 in the EP, so all the statistics and conclusions they lead to must be treated with caution, as the sample was self-selecting. Nevertheless, in opening a new chapter in what must be an ongoing research project, it sets a very high standard.

[1] François Foret, Observatoire des Religions et de la La Laïcité.
[2] Foret, François Religion and Politics in the European Union: The Secular Canopy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) p81, 4, 199
[3] Ibid., p185
[4] Ibid., p60
[5] Ibid., p11
[6] Ibid., pp198-201, 119, 123, 135
[7] Ibid., p280
[8] Ibid., p133, 201
[9] Ibid., p285
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (2015)

ISBN: 9781107082717
Hardback £60
Kindle Edition £57
This review first appeared in Solas Magazine, formerly published by Reproduced with permission.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book Notes: The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple

I have yet to read a William Dalrymple which has failed to engage, inspire and educate me; usually about areas in which I am rather ignorant, The Age of Kali, is the latest one to have achieved this, and it consists of a series of essays about different areas of the Indian Subcontinent which he explored in the 1990s - in fact the book is subtitled "Indian Travels and Encounters". Officially Dalrymple's books are divided into his historical works and his travel writing. In practice, while his historical works are very detailed and focused (such as The Return of a King); his travel writing is loaded with historical and cultural analysis. His travel writing is unusual, in that he makes almost no references to himself throughout the book; he's not entirely absent obviously, but his aim is to bring the places, the people, the cultures, customs, sounds, maybe even the smells he encounters into the imagination of the reader. Some travel writers loom large in their narratives - it's all about how they felt, they reacted, they coped or responded to the amazing stimuli of new worlds. Dalrymple on the other hand seems to have mastered the art of getting out of the way, and engaging so vividly with India, that he creates all these reactions within the reader. This might be because Dalrymple, although a Scot, spends at least half his life in India, and so writes neither as a freshly-culture-shocked outsider, nor as an insider for whom everything he experiences is normal; but can actually be something of a window between East and West.

The title, The Age of Kali, is a reference to an ancient Hindu belief of an age in which there would be massive social breakdown and chaos. As so much of what Dalrymple found in India looked like this, and a number of his acquaintances looking at their lives suggested to him that the Age of Kali was upon them.

In the course of his travels, Dalrymple encounters strange cities, temples and rituals, a case of Sati (widow-burning), social breakdown, organised crime, government corruption and wave after wave of extraordinary and fascinating people. Organised by region, as Dalrymple travelled, the book gives the outsider a remarkable insight into the country. A surprise was that he then moved outside India's boundaries, and explored the drug-warfare badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border; explored with terrifying detail the horrors of the civil-war in Sri-Lanka (with unparallelled access to the Tamil Tigers), in what was perhaps the most vivid and disturbing essay in the book. He then moved onto Pakistan where he spent time on the road with Benazhir Bhutto and her family, followed by a road trip with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

This is not a challenging read, like some of his major historical works; but this is wonderful reading. Insightful, intriguing, expansive and unusual.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Two Masters?

An illustration from yesterday's sermon!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Film Notes: Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch film about life in Holland in the last days of the Nazi occupation of their country during WWII. As the title suggests, the entire film takes place during the last bleak Winter of the war and it centres upon the life of the van Beusekom family, as they respond to the pressures of life under tyrannical occupiers.

The central protagonist is the teenage son, Michiele, and concerns how he became drawn into the war, despite the stern warnings of collaborators and resistance fighters alike, to remain apart from it. Michiele's father is the town mayor, who has to deal directly with the Germans, and takes the approach of seeking as friendly relations as possible with them, in order to ameliorate the suffering of the people. His cheerful hand-shaking with the Nazi commander, might win the occasional reprieve, but is seen as great treachery by the resistance, as represented by Michiele's jovial uncle.

The delicate balance as difficult negotiation between occupiers and the occupied, is shattered when a British plane is shot down in the woods outside the town, and the body of a dead German soldier found near the scene.

When local resistance members are shot, Michiele, finds himself as the only person who knows where the Allied airman is hiding; and takes responsibility for him - and his sister soon falls in love with the airman after bandaging his wounds. The action (all rather nicely shot, against the snow-bound landscape) unfolds around a gripping tale of betrayal, loyalties and reprisals; and ending with a couple of unlikely plot-twists.

While this film was apparently wildly popular in Holland, it received quite a few hostile reviews here, which I thought were unfair. It's true that showing a harrowing scene in silent slow-motion has been done before and might be thought of a cliched, but is a technique that rater closely mirrors the way in which memory works; and so its use isn't as dreadful as some reviewers might suggest. It might be true that this isn't a film bursting with action, or making huge statements; but I thought it was gripping, and the characters engaging and the acting strong. My gauge is watching films such as this, is whether I care about the fate of the characters or not. Some films just fall totally flat on this score, and I find myself counting the minutes until the credits roll. Poor writing, lack of character development, or just wooden acting can all act as a switch-off to engagement with a film; but despite some of the critics moans; I found that I really did care about these characters as the film built to its conclusion. Would Michiele negotiate the complexities of a situation that was way beyond him? Would the British airman survive his wounds, and the intense search for him by the Nazi's? Would Michele and his sister get caught protecting him? What would the resistance, and Michele's uncle do? Who kept betraying resistance men, and would the airman be handed over? Needless to say, all these pot lines converge into a surprising finale, which held my attention to the very last frame.

This film might not appear in the 'greatest films ever made' lists which appear all over the internet; but it's a fine piece of work; embedding a very believable story into a grim historical context and drawing the viewer in through the universal themes of childhood, loyalty, good v evil, danger, survival, betrayal and love.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Along the Borders Railway

My much anticipated escape to the mountains this week was postponed because of the weather. First the 'Beast from the East' has moved Winter conditions right back into what should be Spring; bringing a late, huge depth of snow to the mountains. Then, the immediate forecast this week has brought further snow to Scotland, making conditions (for a solo-walker like me, at least), impossible. It has been a horrible year for mountain accidents, avalanches, and folks getting lost or killed. Mountain rescue services across the country have been called out again and again, sometimes with happy endings, sometimes not. I noticed that a few days ago a search was abandoned for a missing walker, whose remains presumably won't be recovered until the snow retreats from the High Mountains.

Much as I love the mountains, I need to stay alive, not least to collect my family from their various travels at the weekend. So instead of heading North, I drove southwards, to explore the Borders Railway - that section of the historic Waverley route which got bludgeoned by Beeching's Axe, and has re-opened in the last couple of years. My plan had been to go all the way on the train from Perth, but the best ticket available was a cheap day return for just over £50-. "Cheap" is presumably being used ironically in this context. Strangely, a return from Inverkeithing to Tweedbank cost only £12-, which meant a 25 minute shoot down the motorway, and into the Park and Ride car park, to jump on a train making it's way down from Perth to Edinburgh Waverley! This is such a mad example of pricing forcing people to use cars that I asked the ticket seller at Inverkeithing why this was the case. She had no idea, but upon checking it on her screen assured me that I could have got a Perth ticket for between £30-£35, had I gone into the station, not just checking online; before admitting that the whole thing was indeed a bit mad. So Scotrail ran a mostly empty-train from Perth to Inverkeithing, missed out on a fare, and had I been on the train, would have bought my coffee in their facilities, not elsewhere.

The ride from from Inverkeithing to Waverley is one I know well, and the views over the Forth, now resplendent with its extra bridge, are magnificent. Waverley Station is a wonderful place too, with trains coming and going to all corners of the UK. It seems to be a building site a lot of the time these days, as services are increased and new platforms needed along with overhead cabling. I hope that the end result does the great Victorian structure justice; the tendency to litter such places with view-obscuring walls, kiosks, and signs robs them of the sense of space and size which their designers aimed for. They weren't meant to be compartmentalised but to be industrial cathedrals, meant to impress the visitor with the simultaneous sight of a London Express pulling southwards, with Glasgow and Northern trains pulling away on the other side.

The new Borders Railway train was waiting for me in the building site end of the station, facing the tunnels at the east end. You probably don't want to know that it was a two-car, 156 unit; but you might want to know that it was a clapped out piece of 1980s British Rail technology that was in need of replacement. It seems a shame to open a 'new' railway with rolling stock that is neither new enough to impress, nor old enough to have any nostalgic chic; but just tired, uncomfortable noisy machines which have been retired from other lines. After the tannoy announcement about the station being a 'non-smoking environment', the driver tried to start the train. Nasty, oily smoke duly poured out from under the carriage. Not, I should add, good old-fashioned clag, coming out of the exhaust; but billowing out from underneath and gusting around the platform. Nice. I was once on a train that caught fire, and I really thought it was happening again here, but it seemed to pass as the old thing warmed up. The train that caught fire was a much newer Turbostar, on a Glasgow-Aberdeen service. Somewhere just before Blackford the rear carriage filled with smoke, and the unit was diverted into a siding. The guard dealt with the passengers, while the driver (apparently) shut down the flaming motor at the rear. The driver then went along the track and used a phone to the signalman, while the guard took the fire extinguisher to the under side of the train, before climbing back on board to re-assure the passengers, and sealing off the affected part of the train - and making sure that passengers at the subsequent stop (Gleneagles) didn't try and board it. Why the convoluted explanation? Simply because, at the moment there is a dispute between train staff and some rail companies about whether they should cut costs and have driver-only trains. My experience is that driver-only operation makes economic sense, most of the time - but I don't think that incident could have been managed safely by one person. A driver alone could not have been negotiating with signals, moving passengers, putting out the fire, and communicating with the public. A potentially dangerous situation did not become a crisis, because this two-man Scotrail team new exactly what they were doing, and it was a two-man job. Eventually the train limped on to Perth on reduced power, where it was parked, and ongoing passengers taken to a bus.

The clunky old train I was on stopped smoking and pulled out of Waverley onto the East Coast Main Line, perfectly on time. The Borders Railway has been plagued by late running, but my train, despite its age was on time as we accelerated away from Holyrood and out past Meadowbank stadium and Craigintinny Rail Depot. Scotrail's latest second hand trains were in evidence there, old High Speed Trains (once known as Intercity 125's) displaced by overhead cables and electric trains from Paddington; coming North to add capacity to the system here; just as elderly displaced Gresley A4's once did when displaced by Deltics on the ECML. Peeling off the main line and into Brunstane, the first stop on the line, I was struck between the elegance of Waverley and the sterile functionality of the modern station, a picture which is re-enforced at Newcraighall's brutal park and ride; the terminus of this line from 2002-2015.

After Shawfair, the line breaches the city bypass and rapidly becomes a rural line, as hills, farms and castles replace flats, car-tyre companies and DIY Stores. The land is complex, folded, and pierced by meandering rivers, and the railway line, with its miles of bridges, cuttings and embankments twists and turns its way through the undulations. Before long the Lammermuir Hills of Walter Scott's novels rose up around the train, as it battered forward into driving snow. The line is a strange combination of old and new. Old cuttings and stone works, which have weathered into the landscape, jostle alongside garish modernity - steel, chrome and extreme security fencing, which make the railway look more like a scene from Escape from Alcatrazz than The Railway Children. This is especially grim around Galashiels, but mars the route elsewhere too. I wonder why for all the years of railway travel, people managed not to wander onto the tracks without the Berlin Wall being erected alongside them, but these days we are considered to be stupid enough to need to be corralled behind these vicious barriers? 

The train was on time when we reached Galashiels, and onto the terminus. That is good, but when the average speed was somewhere in the low 30mph's that is hardly ambitious for a modern railway, and not a huge amount more than a volunteer run steam railway might aim for, purely for nostalgia - not a public service. The problem is that while there is evidence of massive engineering works, the railway is in places chronically under-engineered. The original railway was a double-track mainline throughout, and used to run all the way to Carlisle. The lack of passing loops means that any one problem is amplified throughout the system. There seems to be little ambition to move freight on the line. Railway experts repeatedly drew this shortcoming the Scottish Government, but their was little acknowledgement.

Then the train just stops. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the line to end at Tweedbank, it just does. The old trackbed continues, uninterrupted towards Melrose, but the buffers appear and the trains just stop. The tiny trains empty out their passengers onto extraordinarily long platforms, with no buildings, or even run-around loops should any kind of loco ever venture this far. The waiting rooms are like bus shelters, open to the elements and freezing, as I would discover on my return. The whole plan and design of the place looks as if the architect was saying - 'Don't Stop Here', keep building! As it is, a two-mile walking route leads on down the line to Melrose, a steady 35 minute walk, to the Abbey, before my return to the ice-bound station and another terrible old train back to Edinburgh; perfectly on time.

It's great that the rail network has re-penetrated this once-abandoned part of the country, let's hope that the likes of St Andrews, and the Fife Coast regain their lost lines too. But it does feel half-finished, in length, in speed, in infrastructure and in rolling stock; perhaps finishing this one might need to be done before they move on?

Melrose Abbey