To précis a year is to confront an immediate dilemma: public memoir, or personal? For example, the nightmare year of 2016 (EU referendum, Trump, a pandemic of dead entertainers) was also a year of joy in my family, with the arrival of our first grandchild. However, 2018 resolves all too homogenously. The year of Britain's Brexit degradation was also the year we upped-sticks to France to pre-empt, and escape, Brexit Britain. So public and personal perceptions were indivisible in 2018. I've been distracted from the pleasures of embracing a new culture by despair at the pratfalls of the old one. To observe the British government's negotiating performance from elsewhere in the EU was consistently entertaining and often hilarious, yet always tinged with melancholy. It's been like watching a drunk trying to get out of a revolving door. French acquaintances, I notice, feel that same bemused pity. Far from crowing at Britain's humiliation, they keep politely quiet, aside from assuring us that they know this wasn't Scotland's doing. Still, it's forestalled any homesickness. When a second gorgeous granddaughter appeared in June, it was in a country that's never seemed further away.
A third granddaughter having been ruled out by the co-proprietors of the first two, I look elsewhere for beacons of hope in 2019. It's not easy. No matter how many wheels fall off Brexit, its apologists still think that a dislike of foreigners justifies maiming your own country for decades to come. Yet every action has a reaction. Perhaps the inevitable backlash to the current politics of petulance will begin in 2019. If so, I have two hopes. The first is that the public agenda returns at least partly to the hands of grown-ups. This means infusing a public debate that prizes ignorance, bluster and prejudice, with such forgotten qualities as evidence, experience, learning and reason. It also means curbing the infantilisation of society: the documentaries scripted like 'Blue Peter' assignments; the 'adult' fiction infested by comic-book superheroes and fairy tales; inanimate objects given Christian names; a generation still playing on skateboards in its 30s, an NHS that uses the word 'poo' in its bowel cancer literature. Second, however weary Scots (like everyone else) are of constitutional politics, I hope all the talk of rule-makers
finally rings some bells closer to home. Big hopes, for sure. But smaller won't cut it.
In the year I acquired my bus pass I went on tour with two musicians – Aidan O'Rourke, fiddle player with the folk trio Lau, and Kit Downes, a London-based classical and jazz keyboards player. Back in 2013, I wrote a 365-word short story every day, and throughout 2014 they were posted daily online – some also appeared in SR – before finally being published in book form. Aidan started reading the book in 2016 and decided to write a response tune to each story. A year later he had 365 fiddle tunes. He teamed up with Kit (on harmonium and piano) and we now have a show combining music with spoken word, which we have performed across the UK, from Banchory to Bath, and from London's Kings Place to Stirling's Tolbooth. Next year there will be more gigs, including one at Celtic Connections, and the launch of a travelling '365' installation. Any work which takes you out of your familiar setting and requires you to collaborate with artists from another discipline is highly invigorating. For me, whose occupation is mostly sedentary and solitary, not much beats sharing a stage with these brilliant musicians.
I anticipate increasing political instability around the globe, more intolerance, more despicable behaviour from the White House, and more opportunism, brutality and criminality from other centres of power. It is possible that the intolerable weight and internal contradictions of Brexit, in whatever form it eventually takes, will lead to a realignment of relationships among the various nations and peoples of the British Isles. I hope, as part of that realignment, that 2019 is the year in which a majority of Scotland's citizens come to the conclusion that the risks of independence are worth taking when weighed against the disadvantages of remaining in a fundamentally unequal and increasingly dysfunctional union. I intend to complete a new novel, although it won't be published until 2020. I expect that the disastrous environmental impact of human activities will become ever more obvious and that as a species we will not do nearly enough to curtail those activities. I believe we will need to have recourse, as individuals and as communities, to Antonio Gramsci's combination of 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,' in order to protect Earth from huge changes that, if unchecked, will do untold damage to the planet before destroying us.
2018 will always be dear to me, as it was my first year in East Lothian. The teenage desire to be where the people (and pubs) were had drawn me to the big rowdy maze of Glasgow many years ago. I'd had more than a decade of all that, and found myself in need of peace, space, sunlight. And what a gem East Lothian has turned out to be. On our front door, we have the Musselburgh 'lagoons' with their resident swans; further afield, chocolate-box villages, farms of friendly, free-ranging pigs, and winding dry-stone walls. There are stray castles and volcanic bumps, and picturesque beaches with names like 'Seacliff', as if we might be living in a cosy Sunday-night TV drama. We started growing raspberries in the garden (harvesting a bounty of six this year), and all summer I woke up to bright sunlight. This corner of Scotland is a home that's always been waiting for me. It may be a little early for a mid-life crisis, but I've definitely embarked upon 'the good life,' as it was so fondly mocked in the 1970s. Next spring, we're going to start growing potatoes, and fully commit to the cliché.
What I truly anticipate from 2019 is that the world of politics will continue on its curve-line into the surreal; and I wonder what, and how much, will be broken when our current flood of madness is spent. What I hope for is peace. Not the world peace kind (well, that would be ideal), but the deep peace of winter. I look forward to January – and empty time and a resting time. A time when nobody has any money or energy to go out. A blessed time for those of us who like writing, which is the most anti-social of pursuits. As social outings drop away, and the humdrum life returns, I will be in my element. I plan to get a lot of writing done in the dark, cold weeks ahead. If I'm lucky, there might even be a snowstorm or two.
The summer is what I'll most remember: weeks of long, hot days that revived memories of 1955, when I learned to swim off a beach in Fife and never felt like leaving the water. In County Cork in early July, we basked on beautiful stretches of sand and rocks and read reports in the papers of the grave threat that drought posed to Irish agriculture. In 1955, the prolonged sunshine and heat brought nothing but pleasure. Now the same weather had a sinister inflection: retreating ice sheets, dead polar bears. I loved it all the same.
That the UK manages to remain a member of the European Union.
So much that was memorable in an early summer reminiscent of 1976. Ultra-calm sunny days that allowed us to anchor peacefully in places normally forbidden. Carsaig, where young seals treated us to early morning displays of porpoising, Oronsay's white-shell sand where ours were the only footprints, where Luing cattle cudded contentedly with the smell of hay and wildflowers in the warm evening air and grey seals sang their haunting melody at sunrise. Loch Tarbert, under the shadow of the stately Paps of Jura, where sister seals sang a lullaby in the dusk, mourning the slow sinking of the red sun. Erraid, still inhabited by David Balfour's ghost. Staffa, on a choppy grey day with the untimely end of summer looming. And then coursing under sail to the jewel – to Ulva. After-ferry evening walks along deserted and quietly neglected pathways amongst its delightful woodland pasture. Calmly grazing deer unafraid and secure as they never are on open hill; a hedgehog, buzzards. Buildings needing the careful hand of a builder; a steading amidst fertility to satisfy any farmer's fantasy. All of it an antidote to Trump and Brexit and much else besides.
Anticipate is possibly the wrong word. It carries the implication of good things to come. As we tremble amidst tectonic plates grinding away at our post-industrial firmament, as economic power ebbs eastwards and away to the BRIC countries, like Burns I can only 'guess and fear.' Anticipation implies hope and hope requires vision. 'Post-industrial' seems not to point the way to a promised land, but instead to a ravaged landscape, littered with the shoddy goods of material consumerism and the false gods of celebrity. A small flower of hope springs from Ulva, subject of a recent community buy-out. A younger me would have hefted pick and shovel and dug the foundations of a house and a fulfilling life on such an enchanted island. A forgotten fact of the Clearances is that so many of our émigrés ended up as factory fodder in Scotland's cities. Perhaps the time has come, in pursuit of better lives, to reverse that tide. Universal basic income is another grain of hope. Hardy pioneers are required on Ulva. Initial livelihoods will be hard won. The seed of universal basic income might flourish into fulfilling lives in Ulva's fertile soil and reveal the path towards a better future.
Novichok in a discarded perfume bottle. Discreetly sprayed on a door handle. Five in hospital, one dead, but not the intended target. Two Russians caught on CCTV ambling contentedly through Salisbury, England. Job done. A bearded man in Western clothes enters the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. He never leaves. What happens to him inside defies belief. Served up in spy thrillers both crimes might be dismissed as improbable fictions. Instead, they make headline news around the world. But who will be held to account? The masterminds are much too powerful. These two tales of man's continuing inhumanity to man bit sharply through the long mournful memorialising of the end of the first world war and the mind-numbing toll of its dead. How would the 60,000 British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme play in today's media? If 'play' is an appropriate word.
Wherever you look from beneath the stormcloud of Brexit you see little to cheer. A ring of dictators silencing dissent: Kim Jong-un, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald – he of half-Scottish ancestry – Trump, even Tayyip Erdogan who called out the Saudis on Jamal Khashoggi. The destruction of Syria. The war of attrition in Yemen. Displaced refugees languishing in appalling conditions. Fanatical jihadis driving trucks. Lone gunmen creating mayhem among the innocent. I grew up in a post-war world. Hitler and his vile ideology had been defeated. Life was austere. I remember ration books and power cuts. But there was hope that all would be well eventually. Good would triumph over evil. Despite the numerous international dramas we subsequently lived through – the Cold War, Korea, Suez, Cuba, Vietnam – I have never felt so insecure and pessimistic about the future.
Closer to home, I was asked to give a toast to the city of Edinburgh at the annual lunch of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club in November. Among the changes to the city I intended to mention was that the sight of barefoot children, shawled women and loitering men that Stevenson recorded in his book, 'Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes,' had disappeared. Then I thought again and removed the reference. Foodbanks are now a permanent fixture. The plight of the homeless on our streets and the recent UN report on poverty shame us. Grim times. I wish it were otherwise. I hold my breath and hope.
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