Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.

Sunken Levels
Saturday, 24 June 2023 18:57

Sunken Levels

Published in Poetry

Sunken Levels

by Jim Aitken

It was the first item on the news
for days, the Titan submersible
taking a group to see the Titanic wreck.

The loss of life was indeed tragic, as was
the £200,000 fee charged to those on board
to view the wreck and never return home alive.

Less newsworthy was the unnamed boat
that sunk in stormy seas off the Grecian coast
with the loss of eighty lives, mainly Pakistanis.

And less newsworthy the thirty-nine Vietnamese
lives lost, found inside a container lorry. Neither
the Pakistanis or the Vietnamese had names, it seems,

Unlike those in the Titan submersible who were all
named. The difference was all to do with wealth,
with class status, for the migrants were simply poor

And those in the submersible had cash to throw away.
It reminded me of Bezos and his rocket into space
thanking his Amazon workers for this unseemly waste.

With a media that worships wealth and despises the poor
both at home and abroad, though especially abroad,
the difference in coverage was class-ridden and predictable.

Yet they say that class is over these days; that it doesn’t
matter anymore. Yet, there is no level to which the wealthy
will sink to stay wealthy – should this not be learned anew?

Or do we all sink together so that the wealthy can
continue to be wealthy at the expense of the world’s poor
as the land burns and the sea levels rise to sink even them?

Or do we instead talk of rich and poor all over again and give
place for egalitarian dreams to flourish; to challenge the all-
consuming, insatiable appetites of the few and raise the many?

Pastuso in Rwanda
Friday, 26 May 2023 08:48

Pastuso in Rwanda

Published in Poetry

Pastuso in Rwanda

by Jim Aitken

First they came for my dear friend, Mr Samuel Gruber,
who came originally from Hungary, I think.
Then they came for me early one Friday morning.
They burst into my attic bedroom as I slept
and shouted, ‘Get your filthy foreign fur out of this bed.’
I was terribly shocked and embarrassed for my hosts.
The children, Judy and Jonathan, were screaming and Mr
and Mrs Brown protested rather profusely, as I recall.

No longer welcome, I was whisked out of 32 Windsor Gardens
without even being able to say all my goodbyes
and without, more importantly, any marmalade sandwiches
for the long journey to Kigali airport. There was to be no
legal appeal on my behalf owing to the fact that my
anthropomorphised identity was not considered to be legal.
I simply could not understand the complexities of it all and
found it rather sad for the country I once considered my home.

My biographer, that nice Mr Michael Bond, had once witnessed
the Kindertransport refugees on their arrival in London
with labels round their necks, and so he simply transferred
this to me. It was my lovely Aunt Lucy who had enabled me
to stowaway and she placed a message around my neck
which read, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’
I did have a wonderful time in Notting Hill, looking back,
and I do miss the Brown family and think of them with fondness.

Cleverly, the authorities here in Kigali have requested that
my statue in Paddington Station, along with the other one
in Leicester Square, be sent over here. It certainly seems that
I am marketable everywhere I go. They have built me a nice hut
in the Volcanoes National Park and my new neighbours,
the gorillas, are extremely pleasant and I understand their
language perfectly well. It is similar to the language I spoke
in darkest Peru. In these beautiful mountains I am called Pastuso.

This was my actual name at birth. The Bonds and the Browns,
terribly nice people as they were, preferred the name Paddington
since foreign sounding names were just too difficult, it seemed.
And it also seems, looking back, how it was their so called Brexit
that tapped into the fear of the foreign and created the madness
engulfing the place. With their economy now belly-flopping, it seems
they need a constant stream of diversionary scapegoats. It is all such
a terrible shame but it’s now time for a jar of marvellous marmalade.

This poem is taken from the Welcome to Britain anthology published by Civic Leicester and edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa.

Ward 72, Room 21
Tuesday, 28 March 2023 17:24

Ward 72, Room 21

Published in Poetry

Ward 72, Room 21

by Jim Aitken

Through the large hospital window
there are mountains of grey cloud
which resemble the state of my lungs.

Though happy enough to be in here
considering the condition I am in,
I decide to make the best of it.

And engage with the multicultural staff
given the task of aiding my recovery
and sending me back home again.

Nurse Agatha from Nigeria came in
to infuse my arm with antibiotics
and we spoke of Chinua Achebe.

Teresa from Porto came in with tea
and biscuits and we spoke about
Pessoa, Saramago and Paula Rego,

There were Irish and Asian doctors,
cleaners from Poland and China
and plenty of Scots all caring for me.

It seemed the workers of the world
were coming together in my name
and this was an infusion of pride.

But they were understaffed and tired
and carried on regardless of demands
filling me with a deep admiration

That was tinged with anger at those
deliberately cutting back public services
and raising racist calls to Stop the Boats.

Take those not born here out of the NHS
and it collapses like a castle of cards
as it would surely deserve to do.

Being here confirmed all I have held true –
that we are all one, that united we stand
and divided we will all definitely fall.

'Liberties', by Peter Bennett: a riveting tale and a political and aesthetic achievement
Sunday, 15 January 2023 15:42

'Liberties', by Peter Bennett: a riveting tale and a political and aesthetic achievement

Published in Fiction

Liberties by Peter Bennett does what E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (1927), says a novel must invariably do: ‘The novel – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’  While Forster wishes the novel could be ‘something different’ like ‘melody or perception of the truth,’ he nonetheless concedes that telling a story is the ‘highest factor common to all novels.’

There have been countless attempts to challenge what the novel can do, but it seems that ultimately Forster was right in saying that novels must tell a story. How the reader judges the success or failure of any novel, however, is dependent on certain criteria. For example, is the characterisation recognisable and credible? Is the dialogue sufficient to understand the characters? Are the settings well imagined and conceived? How effective is the language used? Has the writer managed to lift the novel above the level of mere storytelling and say something else that is important or needs saying about our condition?

On every count Peter Bennett’s novel answers such questions affirmatively. Three chapters of this book had been published prior to its release by Rymour Books. One of them was in the Culture Matters anthology of 2021, Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift: radical prose from contemporary Scotland.

Togetherness and solidarity

Bennett’s novel is set in the year 1998. He uses three narrators who are also characters in the action. They are Arthur Coyle, a grandad in his 70s, his twenty-year old grandson Daniel Coyle, and Stevie McShane who is young like Daniel. Each narrator pushes the action forward and by about a third of the way through their stories begin to morph into one another.

This triple narration worked extremely well with each character being fully realised. And the fact that Bennett chose to cross the generations gave his text an added dimension by showing how the young and the old apprehend their world. Arthur has roots in Glasgow’s industrial past whereas the younger ones are part of the post-industrial world we know today. What raises the novel above the telling of a tale is the way these contrasts in outlook are expressed. Arthur’s values belong to the togetherness and solidarity he experienced during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' campaign of the early 1970s. The young narrators seem much more rootless and lost.

The novel is also written in Glaswegian Scots throughout and Bennett – and Rymour Books – should be applauded for pulling this off. The language is distinctively from Glasgow, along with many Scots words that are not peculiar to Glasgow alone which are also used. The language convinces and the three main voices of the narrators – along with the voices of others – all ring true. 

The novel is set in Glasgow’s East End, particularly around the Shettleston area. Though there have been many attempts at renewal, the area is still known for its social inequality and all the accompanied ills that go with this. Sadly, the No Mean City (1935) of Long and McArthur is still alive and literally kicking in Glasgow today. The razor gangs of the 1930s have now given way to Stanley knives and baseball bats.

Add into this mix the continuing blight of sectarianism, drink and drugs and you may be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed since the 1930s. It is a bit more complex than that though. Bennett’s novel is fully aware how the industrial past of this great city once defined it and how its post-industrial reincarnation struggles to fully affirm. Young Glaswegians like Daniel Coyle are well aware of this. And the precariousness of employment through agency work for lads like Stevie McShane convinces him that today’s workplace is a game for losers and selling drugs is a better option.

A theme that runs through the novel is the role played by market forces. Where there is a demand for something then a supply is obviously required. Bennett applies this to drugs and he seems to suggest that these market forces are out of control. The extent of the demand is so widespread. Yes, the demand in the housing schemes stem from misery and deprivation, and Bennett paints a grim portrait in this regard:

… the underbelly ay society; the wans that faw between the cracks. The forgotten tribe. Social misfits. The miscreants nae cunt wants, nor needs, cast asunder oan tae the pile ay social security numbers, social workers case files an their ever expandin criminal records – the only documentation tae validate their sorry existence.

However, the demand has grown further up the food chain as well. We know this from reports of cocaine being found in the toilets of the House of Commons; and recently Prince Harry has confessed to using cocaine.

While we can understand how drink and drugs may seem to alleviate suffering – though both actually add to it – in areas of deprivation, the fact that people from more affluent backgrounds feel the need to use drugs shows that the stresses and strains associated with our economic and political model is clearly out of control.

State brutality

The drug business is every bit as vile as every other business under capitalism. Why should it not be? Down at the bottom it is particularly brutal for those on drugs but this simply mirrors the state’s brutality towards the poorest in our society with zero hours contracts, food banks, demeaning fitness for work interviews, sanctions, cuts to benefits and pre-payment energy meters.

The local gangster and hard man is called Mullin. He parasitises on his clients and terrorises the neighbourhood. There are many Mullins all over Scotland, England, Europe and elsewhere. While he comes from the neighbourhood himself and grew up between the cracks, Bennett clearly implies that there are other gangsters who seem outwardly respectable who wear suits but whose actions are every bit as brutal as the Mullins of this world. One thinks of Bezos, Musk and so many similar others. McShane tells us ‘the bankers an the politicians, they’re the biggest crooks ay the lot.’

It turns out that Mullin had murdered Danny’s dad, John Coyle, who was also the son of Arthur Coyle. Mullin was also responsible for the death of Arthur’s mate, Tam O’Henry. Tam’s daughter has fallen on even harder times and Tam accepts money from Mullin but every time he pays some back Mullin increases interest payments. By doubling up as a money lender as well as a drug dealer, Mullin has enormous power in the area.

Arthur and Tam go to the bowling club and also to the Portland Arms. They have been friends since they worked on the Clyde as apprentices. Tam has a disability – ‘a gammy airm’ – from his time working as a welder. He had been on Invalidity Benefit but this got changed to Incapacity Benefit and Tam, at 63 years old, is told to find a job. This is the background to Tam’s life becoming embroiled with Mullin.

There was, at times, a sense that Arthur and Tam were a bit like the two most famous pensioners in Scotland, namely Jack and Victor from the TV programmes of Still Game, but any similarity is short lived as the lives of Tam and Arthur become deeply troubled by more serious events.

Another parallel that could be made concerns Danny Coyle dropping out of Glasgow Caledonian University. He now goes around with his former mates, McDade and Pearcey, and Danny’s mum castigates him – ‘ye decided tae drap oot ay university tae piss aboot wae yer nae good, waster pals.’ This is incredibly similar to Tom Leonard’s mum, in his poem The Dropout:

well jist take a lookit yersel
naithur work nor wahnt
aw aye

yir clivir
damm clivir.
but yi huvny a clue whutyur dayn.

It is a strength that Bennett’s novel raises such comparisons. Another one could obviously be made with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993). Like Welsh’s novel, Liberties looks at the drug scene in a deprived area. Bennett also focusses on the music that was around in the 90s and pays attention to the clothes and trainers his characters wear. On one occasion Danny, McDade and Pearcey head off to a bothy out by Ben More and this scene was reminiscent of when Renton and his mates in Trainspotting decide to go north for fresh air and to temporarily get away from Leith.

The famous lines by Renton as one of his mates suggests that the beauty of the Highlands make you proud to be Scottish still resonate:

It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth… some people hate the English, I don’t. They’re just wankers! We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers! Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by… it’s a shite state of affairs to be in Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.

Danny Coyle, like Renton, is more intelligent than his mates and sees how basic they are. Rather than comment on the state of being Scottish, however, Danny is more aesthetically appalled at the total lack of awareness of the beauty that can be found in such settings:

There’s some rarely spoken ay, unwritten code amongst cunts like us that dictates that ye cannae openly express awe an wonder at that in life that elicits such a response… the majestic flight ay a golden eagle… tae openly express wonderment is tae invite ridicule.

This reaction by Danny seems more acute and psychologically aware. In this sense it appears that Danny, while having some similarity to Renton, has much more in common with the leading characters of previous Glasgow novels.

Eddie Macdonnell in Edward Gaintens’, Dance of the Apprentices (1948), tries to rise above the chaos that surrounds him in the Gorbals and he reads widely and talks of socialism. So too does Mat Craig, in Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place (1966), who wishes to become a writer despite falling into extreme poverty. A similar case can be made for Duncan Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark(1981)  and Joe Necchi in Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (1960) who both fail to realise their artistic ambitions.

'There’s mare that unites us than divides us'

At the end of Liberties we are told that Danny is going back to university, this time to Heriot Watt in Edinburgh, and his girlfriend Tracey is also going to transfer there. This is optimistic and such an ending places Bennett’s novel much more in the proud tradition of Glasgow novels that have gone before. Learning is the best antidote to help you raise yourself from your environment. Crime or sporting success are only temporary measures, whereas learning will always be more sustainable in the longer term. You may not achieve your artistic vision but learning and the artistic urge are always of a higher order regardless of how events may turn out.

Arthur is proud of his grandson, as is his mother. Yet, it is Arthur who has to caution Danny and his friends over a sectarian outburst by McDade as they watch a Scotland football match when Gordon Durie, a Rangers player, misses a chance. Arthur, with his history of working-class solidarity forged in UCS, responds to McDade’s ‘orange bastart’ comment by telling the lads ‘There’s mare that unites us than divides us, son… That’s whit they want, ye know – us aw bloody fightin wae each other.’

The novel is set in the year 1998 and this was the year Celtic managed to stop Rangers winning 10 in a row league titles. Every young Celtic fan born after this date will be aware of this fact. Even in a more secular era, the sectarian attitude still exists. The Portland Arms pub has separate ends for fans of Rangers and Celtic and this was arranged by the those who frequent the bar themselves. Like every other Glasgow writer who has raised this issue, Bennett regrets how this tradition still divides.

Bennett also uses some fine descriptive writing to paint certain Glasgow scenes:

A great cliff of charcoal grey cloud rolls across the sky like some huge megalithic wall of dark, volcanic rock drifting through the air, bloated and swollen, stubbornly retaining its precipitous essence until it can no more.

Often the dreich, damp weather Bennett describes which is so common to Glasgow and other parts of Scotland, appears to hold a certain echo of Edwin Morgan and his Glasgow Sonnet 1 – ‘A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash/Hackles on puddles rise.’ The fact that Bennett’s writing evokes other Glasgow writers is an enormous strength and places him in this proud tradition.

Bennett also gives us a few examples of the customary humour that is associated with this city. Arthur tells us that one of the guys he knows at the bowling club is known as The Blacksmith. This is because every time it is his turn to buy a round ‘he makes a bolt fur the door.’  And when it is pointed out that McDade always seems to have some luck about him, we are told if McDade ‘fell in the Clyde, he’d come oot wi a fuckin salmon in his mooth, nae danger, man.’

Liberties has much to recommend it. The title refers to not taking advantage of someone and not allowing anyone to take advantage of yourself. Arthur gave this advice to Danny. However, this novel uses the title metaphorically in that the economic and political system we endure takes liberties all the time with us. The desperation of the drug scene experienced in poor areas did not suddenly fall out of the sky. It has been orchestrated by imposed economic disadvantage.

Bennett has done an invaluable job in exposing this. His debut novel is convincing in terms of his credible characters, the triple narration works superbly well, the dialogue is recognisably Glaswegian and his knowledge of the drug scene also seems entirely accurate. He has fulfilled Forster’s dictum and told an altogether riveting tale. All of this is no mean political and aesthetic achievement.

Liberties’ by Peter Bennett is published by Rymour Books, 2022, and can be bought here.

The Remains of the Day
Monday, 31 October 2022 10:26

The butler in literature and films: a cultural construct of working-class deference and servility

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the ancient world it tended to be the most trusted slaves who were put in charge of the care and service of the wine cellar. The word ‘butler’ comes from the Middle English word bouteler, and morphed into the Old Norman butelier, itself corresponding to the Old French botellier meaning ‘bottle bearer.’

The artist Hogarth had a painting done of his six most important servants called Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (c 1758) and this was placed on his dining room wall where his visitors were said to be outraged. Portraiture was considered only fit for aristocratic, upper-class representation. In Hogarth’s painting the butler is in the middle of the painting with the five other servants surrounding him showing the hierarchical nature within the servant class itself. Such portraits were highly unusual for this period but the heads show the simplicity and honesty of the individuals and present Hogarth as a man worthy of such loyalty.

Hogarths Servants 1

Throughout the nineteenth century, and more particularly during the late Victorian era, the number of butlers and domestic servants grew as a result of the largesse made from imperial expansion. The social historian Barry Higman pointed out that a high number of butlers and other domestic servants rose in accordance with a high level of economic inequality within society. This may explain why, in the twenty- first century, a TV and film version of Downton Abbey is proving so popular today.

This world of hierarchical privilege should long ago have been banished but literature, it seems, has kept it alive and thriving. Not only as something quaint, however, but also with the added cultural and hegemonic influence it has to still keep everyone in their allotted places.

There have been countless tacky novels, whodunits and melodramas where butlers end up being the killers – thus the catchphrase ‘The butler did it!’ The fact that in such cheap literature it was the butler only confirms his low breeding and class status.

Jeeves and Wooster

However, there are also quite a few texts that present butlers with plummy voices, such as in the novels of PG Wodehouse. Jeeves, we are told, is not really a butler, but more ‘a gentleman’s gentleman.’ Many of these novels were made into dramas for TV with Stephen Fry playing the part of Jeeves and Hugh Laurie the part of Bertie Wooster. They all followed a familiar pattern with the upper-class twit, Wooster, having to rely on the superior intelligence of Jeeves to get him out of countless scrapes.

JA

Oscar Wilde satirised such people in his plays during the Victorian era and Wodehouse and others were simply carrying on this tradition.  English literature’s fascination with the follies and foibles of class simply reveal how enduring class division in England has been.

The Admirable Crichton

The play The Admirable Crichton (1902) by JM Barrie was made into a film in 1957 starring Kenneth More as the butler, Crichton. This film regularly appears on TV today. The liberal-minded Earl of Loam asks his three daughters to treat the staff as equals over an afternoon with tea. Lady Brocklehurst arrives and strongly disapproves of any change to the natural order of class rule. Interestingly, so too does Crichton. As a loyal butler who knows his place in the scheme of things, he too protests against such folly. Service, for him, means serving those better than yourself.

Lady Catherine, one of the Earl’s daughters, is arrested at a suffragette protest and the Earl decides that the family should take a trip on his yacht to the South Seas. Hopefully, the scandal will have died down by their return.

The yacht’s motors explode during a storm and they all end up stranded on a desert island. The abandoned yacht drifts into an offshore rock formation and Crichton swims out to salvage what he can. Class differences are initially kept until the Earl and his daughters, together with vicar John Traherne and Ernest Wooley realise their uselessness and come to rely on the butler for virtually everything required to stay alive.

Crichton

There is also a maid called Eliza who is soon known as Tweeny. Because of Crichton’s abilities as someone who has had to work for a living, he goes on to become known as Guv. He creates a division of labour for everyone and this is the first time the upper-class castaways have ever worked in their lives.

Both Lady Mary and Eliza fall in love with Guv Crichton and all the other men fall for Tweeny. Lady Brocklehurst would be appalled at such a turn of events. With a clear division of labour, they all thrive and Crichton and Lady Mary intend to marry and vicar Traherne carries out the ceremony. Just before their vows are taken a ship appears. Everyone wishes to ignore it except Crichton. They return home and reverse into their former class divisions. This was at Crichton’s insistence. Knowing his place is, after all, part of the DNA of being a butler. Crichton, to protect the family, decides to leave the service of the Earl and he takes Tweeny with him. The Earl decides to move across the floor to the Tory benches as a result of his mistakes on the desert island by forgetting his superior position. The paradise they created on the desert island turns out to have been a Never-Never Land belonging only to the realm of dreams.

The tale of Crichton shows how deep those ruling class values have shaped those who have served their masters and they look up to them as their betters. This is precisely what gives us Conservative governments time and time again. Each presentation of a butler – whether in literature or in film – serves to embed the values and the rule of the upper-classes.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Similarly, the drama series on TV during the 1970s, appropriately called Upstairs, Downstairs, presented the butler, Angus Hudson, as authoritarian and irascible. He was the enforcer of hierarchies downstairs among the staff, on behalf of his masters upstairs. Like Crichton he believes in the class divisions as somehow natural. He sees his place as enforcer of values which should be inimical to him if he could only think for himself. He doesn’t seem to realise that such values serve others and not himself.

Fester lurch 1966

Even in more popular culture we meet butlers who seem simply as those born to serve. Batman has a butler called Alfred Pennyworth and he too has the Rees-Mogg voice similar to Jeeves and Crichton (Hudson was Scottish). His surname Pennyworth seems significant in that butlers are generally only ever allowed a pennyworth of their opinions. And in the Gothic horror films of The Addams Family there is the tall and scary figure of butler Lurch, a figure I would suggest less scary than Rees-Mogg or any of the other members of the Tory party.

The Remains of the Day

However, for a portrait of the most abject deference and servility there can be no figure that embodies these qualities more than the butler, Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989). This work was made into a film in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

The novel begins in 1956 as Stevens is given a day off from Darlington Hall by his new employer, the wealthy American Mr Farraday. As Stevens drives to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, he has a series of flashbacks about his time working as butler to the mansion’s former owner, Lord Darlington. Miss Kenton had also worked at Darlington Hall with Stevens in the 1920s and 30s.

Ishiguro builds up a portrait of a man who lived and breathed for his employer. Stevens had a mind only for his employer and to serve his needs and wishes. His being was given over to service and he was, like Crichton and Hudson, the enforcer of protocols for the staff which had always to be obeyed and never questioned. This proved delicate when Stevens and Kenton seem to be attracted to one another. However, the iron will of Stevens ensures that there will be no blossoming of romance or passion. There must be no relationships of any romantic nature between the staff.

remains

Lord Darlington had arranged for high-ranking Nazi officials, along with his aristocratic chums, to dine at Darlington Hall and discuss politics. Stevens arranges things as he would for any other visitors. He has no beliefs or opinions of his own save the opinions of his employer, Lord Darlington. He must know best because he was privately educated, speaks with Received Pronunciation and simply knows what is best since he is the best.

Rees-Mogg, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, as well as Kwasi Kwarteng all attended Eton while George Osborne attended Harrow, Jeremy Hunt attended Charterhouse and Rishi Sunak attended Winchester. Between them and the comprehensive-educated Liz Truss, the damage done to lives of millions of people is incalculable. Yet for many people these posh boys are still to be looked upon as knowing better than others of a lower social standing. This is how a class-ridden society works.

Stevens, just like his butler father before him, knows never to question the opinions of those above. It is simply not done. Ishiguro should be commended for such a portrait of unquestioning acquiescence because he showed how such subservience can lead to fascism. There were, of course, several aristocrats who did flirt with Nazis. Lord Halifax and the Duke of Argyll spring to mind – as well as King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, after his abdication. The ruling class will do whatever it takes to see that their interests and privileges are looked after. Right now, after the demise of four Tory PMs since Brexit 2016, they will do anything they can to hold on to power rather than have a General Election. This is in no way surprising.

Interestingly, it was mentioned in the obituary of Charles Stewart of 27th August 2022 (another Old Etonian) in the Daily Telegraph, that he believed The Remains of the Day to be based on Mount Stewart and his great-grandfather, the 7th Marquis of Londonderry, Charles Vane-Tempest Stewart. This figure regularly visited Germany to meet with Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and von Ribbentrop. He was described as ‘a controversial figure in Conservative and Unionist politics.’ With figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon, along with climate activists, Black Lives Matter activists and striking trade unionists derided as dangerous and a menace, it seems that being in bed with Nazis is no more than controversial.

The Servant

In the film The Servant (1963), written by Harold Pinter, and re-worked by him from a novella by Robin Maugham, we do see the tables turned. James Fox played the wealthy Londoner Tony who employs Hugo Barrett, played by Dirk Bogarde, as his manservant. All seems well until Barrett suggests that the house could do with a housemaid. He suggests his sister Vera, played by Sarah Miles, would be excellent in the position and she is taken on accordingly. However, Vera is in fact Barrett’s girlfriend and he encourages Vera to seduce Tony. Tony has a girlfriend of his own called Susan, played by Wendy Craig. But he duly falls under Vera’s charms.

Like Bertie Wooster and Earl Loam before him, Tony can do little for himself and relies heavily on both Barrett and Vera for all his needs. He is plied with drink and he becomes a hopeless alcoholic who begins to exhibit the infantilism associated with people from this class background.

Barrett and Vera take over the house and have parties where prostitutes are invited along. Pinter’s work is generally associated with strong currents of violence and menace and his script for The Servant certainly bears this out. This was effectively a revolutionary reversal of the class order. Barrett is no decent bloke but Tony is reduced to a pathetic figure when his position of power and privilege is usurped.

downton

No such thing happens in Downton Abbey. The butler, Charles (‘Charlie’) Carson, started at Downton as a young lad and has worked his way up. He embodies the unquestioning mentality associated with service. His values are handed down to him from above. He fears the election of a Labour Government, he loves royalty and detests being called liberal. Carson is clearly made out to be anti-woke before wokery ever came along. The series first aired in 2010 so the writer, Julian Fellowes, was keenly aware of the character he was creating and the current debates going on.

It is a sad reflection that such a film can have had such success since there is so much poverty around; a poverty created to protect today’s Woosters, Loams, Darlingtons and Crawleys of Downton. It also shows that such films exist also to perpetuate class division. Stevens and Carson both look back to the better times when their respective households seemed much more secure before the advent of modernity and post-modernity. Both figures possess the conservative nostalgia for a halcyon past – a bit like the Brexit architects who promised Empire 2.0.

The figure of the butler seems a quintessentially British/English one. In a contemporary twist to this image Oliver Bullough has written Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals. The choice of the word butler seems a perfect one for a book such as this. As the rich have destroyed the economy for the many, their own interests are now served serving others, however unsavoury the others may be. These others now own chunks of our land, our football clubs, properties and businesses and as long as they bank their cash with us then that seems fine.

Born to rule or born to serve? It really is time for this relationship to be severed before more damage is done. The rich have only ever cared about their riches. Nothing has changed today. The image and figure of the butler should be relegated to history just like the class the butler once served. Walter Benjamin said that he ‘came into the world under the sign of Saturn – the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.’ We really have had enough detours and delays and far too many representations of butlers. Things need to be speeded up!

 

Whit Pelé said tae Ali
Sunday, 09 October 2022 20:23

Whit Pelé said tae Ali

Published in Poetry

Whit Pelé said tae Ali

by Jim Aitken

Ach, big man, Ah’m fair chuffed
tae see ye so Ah am. Ah’ve luved
the wey ye deal wi the mediya an
tak the piss oot ay them aw, an the
wey ye mak aw us black folk feel
aboot oorsels. Ye’ve chainged the gemm
for us wi yer patter an yer cairryin oan.
Ah jist luve it so Ah dae. An ye get awey
wi it cos ye have talent an the rerr style
thit abody envies, ay an yer niver flustert.
Ah couldnae dae thon but whit we hae
in common is bein sae guid at whit we dae.
But get this, big man, yer ainly the greatest
wi the mitts oan , Ah’m the greatest wi the togs.

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'
Monday, 27 June 2022 10:22

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'

Published in Cultural Commentary

This book, edited by Gregor Gall, is both a timely and ambitious work that seeks to take Scotland further forward along the road to self-determination. It is timely because it matches rather well Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announcing recently that she plans to hold a second independence referendum later next year. Anyone interested in how Scotland could be as an independent nation should read this book, for its breadth of vision almost prefigures a new nation into being.

The ambition of the book is evident by the array of contributors to it. Gregor Gall has brought together nearly 60 academics and activists in various fields to consider three central areas of concern – Key Issues which deal with poverty, climate justice and economic concerns, Policy Areas which deal with housing, health, education, work, human rights, income and wealth inequality, gender justice, race and migration and the thorny issue of land ownership, and finally Political Practice that looks at culture, Scotland’s radical tradition, political classes today and community campaigns.

If all the analysis and calls to action were enacted upon then there would certainly be a newer and fairer Scotland. If everything suggested in this book came to fruition there would be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the political, economic and cultural condition of Scottish society. And it would lead to editors of every other nation commissioning their own versions of such a book.

What militates against this – and this is something most contributors agree upon – is the actual neoliberal condition in Scotland, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Nearly every contributor deals with this, however without anyone actually defining what it is. It was interesting to see that Ellie Harrison is one of the contributors to this text and in her marvellous book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of class, capitalism and carbon footprint (2019), she said that the word had a pervasive use in the world of culture and the arts and no-one ever bothered to define it. She referred to the book written by Alana Jelinck – This in Not Art: Activism & Other ‘Not-Art’- which suggested that neoliberalism has three main components, namely privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation.

This aggressive system of parasitic capitalism is clearly responsible for the world’s inequalities and for the climate emergency that it also fails to fully recognise. This economic culture holds Scotland back just as it holds back every other nation on earth. However, Scotland truly does have a special place in this debate since she last voted for the Conservative Party – a key driver of neoliberalism – in 1955. Undeniably, Scotland has suffered from a democratic deficit since then as a result of voting Labour up until 2010 at General Elections, and has subsequently voted SNP at General Elections since then as well as giving the SNP majorities in Holyrood since 2007 and at local elections too since then.

Just like Gall’s book the Scottish people have aspirations to improve. The preferred route was traditionally through Labour but with that Party’s incarnation into New Labour that continued the neoliberal nostrums enacted by Thatcher, they have now switched to the SNP, which claims to be social democratic. Initially, this party did some excellent things with free bus passes for pensioners – extended to young adults aged under 24 – free tuition fees, free prescriptions and, more recently, baby boxes for each new child born in Scotland.

Brexit certainly changes matters even more. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in 2016 by some 62% and there is no special deal for Scotland as there is for Northern Ireland. The Brexit coup has pushed the whole polity of the UK further to the right and Scotland feels isolated by these events. While the contributors do applaud some of the SNP achievements, many also recognise how the party has stalled in recent times. The book, in a sense, seeks to push things forward.

Much of this stalling is due to what several contributors call the PMC – the professional and managerial class both within Holyrood, and the troupe of journalists, assorted media and business interests which surround the place. According to Morelli and Mooney this has been responsible for what they call the technocratic managerialism within a fixed budgetary framework. Scotland’s Barnett formula grant from Westminster has created a heavily centralised state under the SNP as it seeks to distance itself from an even more centralised post-Brexit Westminster under a right wing Conservative government.

Hassan and Graham suggest that the community around Holyrood and its professional politics is defined by the privileged white, middle-class, male gaze. In a marvellous phrase they speak of the choreographies of consultation that take place there while lamenting the missing voices of ordinary working-class people and their growing concerns.

Danson and Dalzell both castigate the two centuries of clearance, emigration and degradation of communities, land and culture have created imbalanced landscapes, economies and populations. Such sound historical knowledge of the contributors underpins the desire for social justice in a small nation that is genuinely in need of it.

The use of the word culture seems well chosen. In essays by Burnett and Chalmers and Scothorne and Gibbs, there is recognition given to the place of culture in Scotland. While Burnett and Chalmers view Scottish culture as an inherently national identifier and admit that culture is not about ‘additional benefit’ but is essential to our lives and wellbeing, Scothorne and Gibbs view Scottish culture as the most likely source of renewal for Scottish radicalism. However, this view also used the word perhaps and I must take issue with this choice of word here. Both writers point to the wonderfully radical play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, written by John McGrath in 1973, but seem to fail to understand that it is Scottish writers and artists since McGrath and Hamish Henderson, who also gets a mention, that have taken us to the demand for a second independence referendum.

Scotland’s first three Makars – Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay – all had their poems read out at the opening sessions of Holyrood. All three poems had a radical edge, demanding that the Scottish Parliament deliver for the people of Scotland. Alasdair Gray, as both writer, artist and individual was the very epitome of Scottish radicalism. In both Gaelic culture and in Scots there are many writers producing work that is radical. Scottish literature – and Scottish culture more generally – has been on the side of radical change for Scotland. And that change has been of a constitutional nature.

Jim Cuthbert refers to Lenin and the rentier states that Scotland and the UK have become but maybe – as opposed to perhaps – with independence the SNP could wither away like the state as envisioned by Lenin after revolution, and create an opening for more radical politics that could be filled by a Scottish Labour Party that is no longer a branch office’of London, as Johann Lamont once said?

Maybe or perhaps is all that can be said just now. On a broader level of cultural understanding there is the recognition that access to culture has a price tag attached and with so many people living in poverty there will clearly be an issue here. And big business, of course, sponsor so many events in the cultural sphere that seems to counter any radicalism ever coming into play. The same can be said of print houses that are foreign owned but Scothorne and Gibbs do point favourably to the website Bella Caledonia which, it must be stated, has been inspired by one of Alasdair Gray’s creations.

It was good to see some excellent input to the book by Rozanne Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC and Linda Somerville, the Deputy General Secretary. The STUC, we are told, was the first ever labour movement body to employ an arts officer. That is recognition of the radical importance of culture in Scottish society.

The final word should go to Gregor Gall, the editor of this fine collection of essays. He tells us in his introduction that Scotland is a wealthy country full of poor people. The whole point of this book is to try and change that.    

Britishness
Friday, 03 June 2022 20:31

Britishness

Published in Poetry

Britishness, or A Riposte To The Platinum Jubilee

by Jim Aitken

B – Backwardness, best exemplified by Brexit
R – Royalty, the pinnacle of a class-ridden society
I – Imperialism, intentionally not spoken about
T – Tory! Tory! Tory!
I – Intellectually immobile, incurably conservative
S – Sycophancy, servility, senility
H – Habitually aghast at anything remotely radical
N – Nostalgia for a blood-soaked past that forgets about the blood
E – Englishness, everlasting little version only
S – Subject subjects, never participatory citizens
S – Strata of archaically crafted class division

Now Ukraine
Tuesday, 19 April 2022 10:22

Now Ukraine

Published in Poetry

Now Ukraine

by Jim Aitken, with image by Martin Gollan

1.
Yes, it is absolutely ghastly and gruesome.
Yes, Putin is responsible for war crimes
because war itself is a crime, a failure.
I started marching during the Vietnam War
and have opposed every war since then.
Those demonising Putin are the same people
who supported the war in Afghanistan, Iraq,
the very same people who bombed Libya.
Their outrage has their arms manufacturers
rubbing their hands with all the new orders
coming their way. NATO says come on in to
Finland and Sweden. More bases, more orders
for more arms – and far less for welfare –
though silence from the armaments industry.

2.
Hegel once spoke of the slaughter bench of history
and that bench just gets longer and longer
each year that passes. Yesterday it was Syria,
Iraq and Afghanistan, today it is Ukraine
and who will it be tomorrow? It looks a bit like
Russia since sanctions are a form of warfare
just like benefit cuts are a war on the poor.
The same outraged faces and sanctimonious voices
want Russia on her knees. Ukraine is collateral damage
with Tigray and Yemen relegated from our screens.
Putin joins the elite club of Truman, Bush and Blair,
Nixon and Kissinger. Now it is Ukraine and who
will it be tomorrow? Where can the tensions get
stoked up next? What name next for Hegel’s bench?

3.
And as we rightly condemn Putin’s barbarism,
we note BAE System’s share price risen by 24%.
The world has always been at war since war
not only pays but it distracts as well, and Putin
can be blamed for all the ravages back home.
Luther King said, ‘We have guided missiles and
misguided men.’ The misguided men still guide
their people away from their social conditions,
away from their inequalities. And now Ukraine’s
name can be added to Hegel’s slaughter bench and
I will march again for an end to war and for peace.
And for the humanity that binds us all, regardless
of our nation, our race or colour, our gender or faith,
for all people over all the earth to wage peace instead.

This poem is taken from a forthcoming book of poetry by Jim Aitken, 'Declarations of Love', illustrated by Martin Gollan, to be published this summer by Culture Matters.

The purest light attracts the most impenetrable darkness: Hex, by Jenni Fagan
Sunday, 03 April 2022 09:42

The purest light attracts the most impenetrable darkness: Hex, by Jenni Fagan

Published in Fiction

Jim Aitken reviews Hex, by Jenni Fagan, published by Birlinn 

There can be little doubt that part of the success of Jenni Fagan’s previous novel, Luckenbooth (2021), can be attributed to the way she managed to evoke Edinburgh’s Old Town with its grey tenements, cobbles and closes. In her recent novel, Hex (2022), she has returned to the Old Town of the sixteenth century as well as taking us out to East Lothian and to the North Berwick witch trials of 1590-92.

The novel was written for Geillis Duncan and she is in fact the novel’s main character. Geillis was hanged as a witch when she was only 15 years old. Other characters mentioned in the novel were also real historical characters like Geillis – Doctor John Fian, Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier and Euphame MacCalzean.

While the outing of witches had been going on for some considerable time, under both Catholicism and Protestantism throughout Europe, the rule of James V1 of Scotland, 1st of England, certainly contributed to the frenzied atmosphere. A storm had blown James’ wife to be, Anne of Denmark, off course and the ship was forced on to the Norwegian coast. James set sail from Leith to fetch Anne personally – although he had a retinue of some 300 men with him.

Witchcraft and torture

James and Anne were formally married in Oslo and as they travelled to Denmark it became apparent that here was a country familiar with witchcraft and this sparked James’ interest. Witches were blamed for creating the sea storm and James personally supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft back home in Scotland. Fagan refers to James in her novel and castigates him accordingly and she gives us a portrait of him at the end of his life as ‘an incoherent slobberer, his tongue grown too big for his mouth.’

A pamphlet that was produced at the time of the North Berwick witch trials was titled Newes from Scotland and James used this pamphlet to conclude his work Daemonologie (1597) which was published again when he ascended the English throne in 1603. Jacobean England was home to Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon, John Donne and William Shakespeare and the concluding part of James’ work was used by Shakespeare to write Macbeth (1606).

Geillis Duncan, like all other women accused of witchcraft, was wholly innocent. Under torture she implicated other people who were also hanged. Fagan is totally sympathetic to Geillis – and to all women more generally who have had to endure centuries of misogyny and who have been scapegoated for the failings of men, particularly those men who have been in power.

While Hex enables a real historical character to have her voice back, Fagan also creates a fictionalised character to be with her in her cell as she awaits execution. This character is called Iris and she comes from our period. Iris was the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, something that symbolises hope and the flower Iris is also said to cleanse areas. Iris has come out of the ether, or Null as Fagan calls it. She brings comfort, support and understanding.

Iris is related to Geillis by being a woman herself who has also known misogyny and they share their stories. Iris tells Geillis about some of the awful things done to women today and she refers to the two Met officers who took photographs of two murdered sisters. These officers were meant to guard the murder scene but instead they took photos of the two ‘dead birds’ they circulated to friends on WhatsApp. This happened in 2021and such actions by such men have been going on during the time of Geillis Duncan – and before – and in our own time.

Iris later turns into a crow and this gives the novel an air of the supernatural that fits perfectly with the subject matter she is writing about. It works well and Iris is also said to be Geillis’ ‘familiar’, a clever device she may well have used from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy from 1995-2000.

Fagan does try to offer some answers as to why men behave in this way. She seems to suggest that it is not just male-dominated power structures that are at fault but there seems a deeper existential element as to why many men behave the way they do. Fagan has Iris say that, ‘Men want to know how they got trapped on earth.’ The reason for being here is certainly something that many men have thought about – most of our greatest philosophers have been men who attempted to answer this question. However, as the questioning continues and men look around seeking answers Iris tells Geillis, ‘There is no man on earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs.’

Geillis is housekeeper to David Seaton and she is a hard-working girl who knows her place. She causes no offence ever, averts her smile and her eyes and her lightness of being. She maintains that Seaton cannot deal with her ‘Light.’ Women from nothing can give birth to life and are so much more related to nature than men because of this. This light in their lives, in Geillis’ case, enables her to marvel at the moon and the stars, to listen to the sea and find joy in looking at a seashell and taking it home with her.

Seaton, according to Geillis, ‘started the North Berwick witch trials to get Euphame’s money.’ Disputes over inheritance, envies and jealousies, particularly of women of independent wealth and means, was responsible for many women being accused of witchcraft. Geillis liked to go out at night and look at the stars or go down to the beach on her own and this condemned her. Seaton also discovered her seashell and this somehow implied her pact with the Devil.

Geillis was brutally tortured and made to confess and as she says herself, under torture, ‘You will do anything.’ We know this from our own time with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, Northern Ireland and all the unknown sites of extraordinary rendition. Seaton had enabled Geillis to be tortured in a room she had previously cleaned for him and she says of her torturers, ‘So much fun laying into a girl, right? Exciting for them. It made them hard.’

Geillis also had the misfortune to be able to assist women in child-birth and she was ‘cursed with the ability to cure the ill’ by knowing which herbs and plants could be used to alleviate certain ailments. At the top of the Royal Mile, on Castlehill, there is a so called Witches’ Well which stands just opposite the site where women were once hanged for witchcraft. The well was commissioned by Patrick Geddes (1854- 1932) in 1894 and the artist John Duncan (1866-1945) was urged to produce a cast iron fountain to honour the people who were burned or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries. During the 16th century more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland.

Creating a fearful panic in society can aid the entrenchment of power and the witchcraft frenzy could also be used to settle old scores, enrich individuals at the expense of others and keep women subordinate to men. While men were also outed as sorcerers or magicians and burned and hanged, over 80% of those said to be in league with the Devil were women – more generally peasant women – and that was true throughout Europe of this period.

Iris speaks for Geillis and her outrage at the treatment being meted out to her sister, and she speaks to us with a contemporary voice. She is appalled at how people accepted this. She tries to analyse it by saying that although many must have known that Geillis was innocent ‘they want to believe the people in charge know what they are doing.’ This, for them, is a greater need. It brings to mind £350 million a week for the NHS painted on the side of a bus.

What price solidarity?

Iris also says that, ‘Silence is complicity. Non-action is a form of approval.’ Brecht would certainly agree with her but so too would Edmund Burke (1729-1797) when he said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ The past that Fagan has so wonderfully evoked for us begs much the same questions of us all today. Will white people, realising that we are all one, stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter activists? Will men stand shoulder to shoulder with women in supporting their demands for the murdering of their sisters to stop? Will Christians and non-Christians support Moslems from being scapegoated? Will we indigenous people stand firm against the scapegoating of immigrants? And will those of us who live comfortably come to the support of those being thrown deeper and deeper into poverty?

All questions like these ones – and more – are implied by Iris’ statement. Fagan raises many issues in Hex. She makes us think about all the injustices that are allowed to thrive and, more importantly, who benefits from those injustices. The witchcraft frenzy kept the churches full and their power was assured by the state-engendered climate that was created. In our world division of people simply ingrains the rich in their plunder for more riches.

Fagan tells us the witchcraft panic was ‘a plague… a thought plague.’ This certainly rings true and, of course, we must be on guard against all such ‘thought plagues’ that exist today. Fagan also speaks of ‘the delusions of others.’ These two comments could not exist without the organisational ability of the state to spread such disinformation and infect the minds of the populace. Every day the leading Tory papers – the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express all have their campaigns against ‘wokery’ (the new witchery?) which has the effect of enabling readers of these papers to ridicule campaigns against racial injustice, climate change, our imperial past and the statuary associated with it, women campaigning against male violence and so much more besides. In other words, all thought and opinion that is not Tory is demonised. This too is a form of ‘thought plague.’

In one of the few studies of the witchcraft mania that spread in Europe, Norman Cohn in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), argued that the entire period seemed to convulse in a particularly provocative set of delusions. His work examined the fake documents of the time and he showed how a dangerous irrationalism took hold of nations. There were no witches according to him. And we must not forget a similar psychological underpinning for the rise of fascism last century. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) argued that it was not solely economic and political factors that contributed to the rise of fascism. He also pointed to what he called ‘the collective expression of average human beings, whose primary biological needs have been ruthlessly crushed by an authoritarian and sexually inhibited society.’ Fascism seemed a way out because of its simple appeals but, of course, it led to even greater authoritarianism. The danger for us today is that similarly simple appeals are being made all over again.

In the US the conspiracy theorists of QAnon circulate the view that Washington is the seat of Satan-worshipping paedophiles and millions of Americans believe this. Some 21% of Americans also believe – according to a poll conducted in recent years – that witches are still around and brewing up their fiendish brews. During the 2016 Presidential election Hilary Clinton was demonised, particularly on social media, with images of her in a black hat riding a broom. She was also dubbed The Wicked Witch of the Left ( if only!) and in Australia the first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had protests against her with placards proclaiming, Ditch the Witch.

A revolutionary push towards communalism

Any woman in power seems fair game. Fagan says as much in Hex. Powerful women have simply got above their station and they have to be taught a lesson. This happened to Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn who was said to have three nipples implicating her allegiance with the Devil. Joan of Arc simply had to be a witch by being able to win battles against the English and she was burned at the stake. And if we think of the way our children can also be conditioned to think in this way then consider the tale of Hansel and Gretel or the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga.

Silvia Federici, in books like Caliban and the Witch (2018) and in other works by her, says that the attacks on women as witches came about as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The peasantry of feudal times had to be made to adapt to this new system. Interestingly, Federici argues that the witch hunts occurred around the same time as colonialism and the extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade and the laws against vagabonds and beggars. Witch- hunting, she says, peaked from 1580-1630 ‘when feudal relations were giving way to economic and political institutions typical of mercantile capitalism.’ Effectively, for Federici, the witch hunts represented ‘class war by other means.’

She also maintained that there was also what she calls ‘an intervening revolutionary push toward communalism.’ Men and women at this time grew their crops together and their homes and their work were much the same. They worked in both. However, under capitalism waged labourers had to work outside the home all the time. This left women to do what work was required in the home themselves. Witch-hunts pushed them into the home and brought into play a form of subjugation. There would be no move to any form of communalism.

And pregnancy and child-birth, once simply considered a natural function, became a job that women did for ‘their husband-bosses’. For Federici, this was essentially now a form of ‘alienated labour’. The realm of women who once were the midwives, abortionists and herbalists who provided contraception were demonised as witches to ‘cement patriarchal power.’  Intelligent women threaten men, powerful women threaten them even more and the female ‘body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged labour… the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance.’

The use of the word ‘resistance’ is crucial here. If women are not free then neither are men, according to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. And since men and women are clearly in relation to one another and women make up half the human race, it should be abundantly obvious that any struggle by women should also be a struggle by men.

Geillis Duncan goes to her death with dignity proclaiming her innocence. Iris says she will ‘place a hex on every man, woman and child who takes pleasure in Geillis’ death.’ The locals of the Old Town, along with civic dignitaries and douce church-going folk all assemble to see Geillis hang. However, Iris has seemed to call forth – a bit like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) –  birds ‘from all over the country to rest on rooftops and lintels and chimneys and windows.’

Edinburgh’s Old Town remains atmospheric to this day but this image of Geillis being hanged at Castlehill with all these birds watching is an incredibly compelling and eerie one. It has been achieved, like in other parts of the book, with a poetic style of writing. In fact Fagan has written a poem for her heroine at the end of the book called A Grey Rose fir Geillis Duncan.

The light of Geillis Duncan shines brightly in this book that is dedicated to her. Geillis is an Everywoman for Everytime. The injustice she suffered is the injustice all women have suffered and still continue to suffer. Their collective problem seems to be what Fagan calls, ‘The purest light’ attracting ‘the most impenetrable darkness.’ And that darkness is not simply down to toxic masculinity, it is also down to a toxic economic and political system that wants more and more from women as mothers, wives, lovers, workers, sex objects and figures to venerate. Men are coaxed into seeking pure Madonnas on the one hand and erotic La Belle Dame sans Merci figures on the other – a difficult business for any woman to achieve and a ludicrous dualism for any man to wish.

Fagan does recognise the ‘good men too’ and they simply have to grow in number so that all people of all nations, all races, all faiths, all men and all women can come to inherit the better world that is ‘Somewhere out there’ in ‘a different time.’ In the struggle ahead to get there the story of Geillis Duncan in Hex can surely be a guide.

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