1. Having my first novel published in February was probably the most memorable professional event of 2018. After a lot of time researching and travelling, and all the writerly angst of turning the 1627 Algerian corsair raid on Iceland into fiction, to see 'The Sealwoman's Gift' on bookshelves and – scarily – real people actually reading it was a bit like saying hello to your first baby. Gosh, did I really produce this? I found novel writing an exacting craft to master. When you set out to invent your own living, pulsating, historically authentic but emphatically fictional universe, being trained as a journalist not to make things up is not particularly helpful. But the whole process was exhilarating and it was a relief that readers did seem to take to it. I've had a hugely enjoyable year doing the rounds of Scotland's many brilliant book festivals to meet them.
2. Next year? I don't go in for anticipations much, because life has a habit of thwarting them and my superstitious Nordic streak bids me be wary. But I'm working on another novel, full of 2019 deadlines, so I dare say there might be some anguish-ridden late nights to come.
The river of time flows faster as you get older, but this year I had the chance to swim back upstream and savour the past for a few days. 1988 was a pivotal year in my life. I graduated from Glasgow University and headed south for a masters degree at Pembroke College Cambridge; an opportunity that broadened my horizons in all sorts of different and long-lasting ways. The network of friends I made that year has been one of the joys of my life, so this summer I organised a 30-year reunion. Pembroke College is currently running a capital campaign called 'The Time and the Place,' and that was an apt description of our reunion weekend. Going back to a specific place with my family to remember a unique period in my life was a true blessing. I see many of my Pembroke friends bilaterally, but to be together again as a group at our ground zero with ample time to just enjoy each other's company felt different and special. After a hot and busy few days, the 30 of us scattered again to our hectic daily lives, but that weekend will remain a treasured memory from 2018.
I often borrow comedian Craig Ferguson's phrase that I'm an American on purpose. I've always felt at home here, and for the last 25 years I've embraced the optimism and the opportunity that characterises much of American life. But like many, I've been appalled by the Trump phenomenon and the way he has normalised virulent strains of racism, nativism, and anti-elite resentment that were clearly bubbling just under the surface during the Obama years. My hope for 2019 is that this experiment in populist demagoguery will end with Robert Mueller delivering a surgical and airtight report that will expose each of Trump's crimes and misdemeanors in damming and irrefutable detail. If it's as pointed as I hope, it may even miraculously cause the Republican party to regrow a spine and remove him from office. While I would cheer that turn of events, part of me also hopes that instead he just flails and fails for the next two years and is then soundly rejected when the America that I am proud of rediscovers the angels of its better nature at the polls.
'It's not something I like to talk about. That moment. When I saw her flesh and blood covering the dashboard. How can I explain? It's your daughter. It’s a piece of you.' I was filming in a clinic for prosthetic limbs on the Syrian border and listening to a father describe the moment when a mortar smashed away the legs of his 10-year-old daughter, Rayan, on their street in the Syrian city of Homs. In my short time with his family, I felt the pain of what they had been through and shared their joy as she tried out her new prosthetic legs. She walked across the room, a little wobbly, like a newborn deer. I also understood when he said: 'Every day I think that it could have been her heart. But it wasn't – and we still have her.' We live in a world weary of sad stories and endless conflicts, the course of which we seemingly cannot change. But I'm always reminded by stories like Rayan's, of the every-day miracles of human survival and resilience. It makes me determined to keep filming them. We are all connected. And all we have to do is connect.
Now I'm 43, I laugh at my optimism that a new year can mean new beginnings and a new me. I could never decide if I was dismayed or inspired when my 86-year-old grandmother used to say: 'We're still working at our marriage, darling.' I thought that you could take a rest from self-improvements by that age. But perhaps not. Now I'm exactly half her age, it seems I'm still polishing and pruning myself as much inside as out. Botox has never interested me, but I really would like to speak proper Arabic one day. After six years in the Arab region, I can get by in the language, but as the Arabic idiom goes: 'You can't carry two watermelons in one hand,' and I'm one of those people who always fills their life too full and ends up dropping one watermelon as I grapple with the other. Arabic classes were this year's casualty. But last week at my daughter's gymnastics session, I made a new friend. She's half-Iraqi, half-Palestinian, and has agreed to teach me Arabic weekly. I'm already feeling excited about all the new words I'll learn. Perhaps it takes two, sometimes. Or as they say in Arabic: 'You can't clap with one hand.' Best to leave those watermelons for another year.
I have to confess to hitting 80 during the year. Surprisingly, 80 didn't hit me back. I had dreaded the day. The end of useful life? Straight ahead for the scrap heap? I knew too many very old 80-year-olds with too many walking sticks to anticipate much joy in yet another bloody birthday. I went through the agony of denial over presents. 'You must want something,' came at me from all angles. 'Oh no I don't,' just made me sound like a Jimmy Logan pantomime dame. Ditto on celebrations. Luckily – and as usual – my wishes were ignored. I ended up with four parties plus several quieter lunches... and my political party gave me its principal member's prize: the President's Award, for outstanding commitment over many years. It all made me grateful that I've lived through the good times provided by Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944, Nye Bevan’s NHS in 1948, and a very healthy dose of national service in 1958. These have collectively seen me through some difficult moments – a triple heart by-pass, prostate cancer, one new hip, two new knees and 25 years at the BBC! And it all leaves me with the courage to write about what looms in 2019.
I thought it would be easy. Like the rest of the bored-beyond-belief electorate, I had desperately hoped for the end of chaos and confusion over Brexit and anticipated a firm resolution before my 81st birthday (just after the 29 March departure date). I had allowed myself the forlorn hope of a second people's vote, but had only the great expectation of being thwarted. Now I have neither hope nor expectation. Chaos and confusion prevails. It is no longer feasible to hope and I feel we have been denied the tingling joy of anticipation. Like the subject of Sandie Shaw's famous Eurovision song 'Puppet on a String,' Mrs May is being jerked around so much that we no longer even know who is pulling the strings: today she's in thrall to the DUP today, to her 1922 committee, tomorrow to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the day after that to her 'moderates', next week to the divided wings of the Labour party and then looming in the background the uniquely united SNP. She seems insanely indifferent to the voters. The key difference between the European adventures of Mrs May and Sandie Shaw is stark. Ms Shaw won. It sees appropriate to give her the last word:
I may win on the roundabout
Then I'll lose on the swings
In or out, there is never a doubt
Just who's pulling the strings
I'm all tied up in you
But where's it leading me to?
R D Kernohan:
Four weddings and a funeral? At my age you're hard put to find a wedding and lucky if your own grand finale isn't the last of all too many funerals. Any wedding might have been 'the most memorable experience' of 2018, especially as the current fashion often seems to be for living shacked-up without getting hitched-up. But as an event, moment, and experience, there was something special about making it to London in the heats of midsummer for the wedding of my eldest grand-daughter, Juliet. She had found her Romeo – a more sensible chap than the one in the play. I had also spin-off and fringe benefits. The excitement of the occasion provoked her brother to announce his engagement and promise a wedding in Edinburgh, where (if spared) I shall not have to glower at the taxi-meter as I did between Kings Cross and Putney. I might even last out for more such occasions if they then inspired some younger cousins. It was also good to see London again – perhaps for the last time, though you never know – and to wonder how people manage to live happily among its exhausting, expensive hustle and bustle. Then I reflected that I once did myself.
The course of 2019 is so unpredictable that it's hard to sum up 'anticipations'. That is true of any year in personal matters for those whom age has taught to take a day at a time – and to reckon even difficult days as a bonus. Unfortunately, it is equally true now of public matters, national and international. Speculations, sometimes wild and fearful, are easier than anticipations. See Trump – but see also Macron and Merkel. Reasonable expectations are also easier to express negatively than assuredly. We shall not starve or even half-starve after 29 March. We shall still be unsure of our relation to European Union – as we have been for 60 years – but we shall not be turned back at Calais or ethnically-cleansed from the Costas. If hopes are substituted for anticipations, I'd suggest that the Conservative party might recover its scattered wits, self-discipline, and realism about politics as the art of the possible, though it's impossible to predict who its leader or leader-in-waiting will be. Maybe I'm on more solid ground suggesting that, though a reviving Scottish side should do well in the rugby World Cup, Ireland (for whom I cherish a grandfatherly qualification) will reach and perhaps even win the final.
My most memorable event in 2018 was actually my mother's retirement from teaching at Easter. Finding herself in dire financial straits as a widow in the 1990s, she qualified as a primary teacher, but ended up teaching special needs for more than 20 years at the excellent James Reid School in Saltcoats. The job, though always demanding, gave her a new sense of identity and allowed her to help improve the life chances of so many young people. I also had the chance to volunteer there and see a side of education that remains invisible to many people. She misses the school and her colleagues, but several months of glorious sunshine in the garden felt like a proper tribute to all her efforts.
For 2019, more of a hope than an anticipation. After a promising start as a writer, I have faltered in recent years and harbour far more modest aspirations than I did in the early days. But there are two new manuscripts on my desk that I would love to find publishers for. Writing while working full-time is never easy, but I've been doing it for so long I would find it hard to imagine any other life. And I fervently believe that engagement with the workaday world in which most of your potential readers actually live can be far more profitable (in all sorts of ways) than hiding in a garret.
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