We've had a lot of discussions about the Scottish Referendum in the shop with customers over the past week. Some have been a bit bemused by the whole thing, some intrigued, some saddened. But for anyone living in Scotland and allowed to vote, it must be exciting and heady; it's only about once a generation that democracy brings potential for genuine change.
Unable as we are to vote, however, we thought we might come up with a few of our favourite books - recently published - that contain themes being played out in what is this evening (on Sep 17) the northern part of the United Kingdom.
'And the Land Lay Still' by James Robertson is possibly the novel to read that encapsulates the modern history of Scotland. This ambitious, sweeping tale grows out of a retrospective exhibition of photographs to take in a quest for Scottish identity, but one set within the ebbs and flows of politics and culture from the wider world. If you (unfairly) had to pick a custodian of Scottish culture and identity, it'd be Robertson - and the complex feelings stirred up by Thursday’s votes are almost encapsulated in miniature by an extract from the novel you can read here.
It has been fascinating (and disconcerting) in the past few weeks to see the various 'iron fists' slip out of numerous velvet gloves, as the big guns come out to defend the union. We know of no other recent novel that describes this process better than ‘Other People’s Money’ by Justin Cartwright (who lives very near here). The modus operandi of 'power' is something we should all take a keen interest in, but in this tale of a fading banking family's attempts to shore up their business in the face of the credit crunch, Cartright absolutely nails the slow stripping away of breeding and manners when entrenched power is really threatened. You'll never look at newspaper headlines in the same way again (and if you're interested in power-plays, this analysis post-vote is well worth reading)...
Of course, you might just want to skip the metaphors and go for a factual expose of who runs the country and how they do it. Owen Jones' ‘The Establishment’ caused a stir even before it was published, but this passionate, consistent and brilliant investigation into the often shadowy (and unaccountable) organisations and individuals who control almost every aspect of our lives is a tour de force. Yes, Owen is an (unashamed) leftie, but whichever side of the political divide you happen to be on, we can all agree that some aspects of social justice in this country could be improved upon...
Lighter in tone, but pitch-perfect in its observations of modern Britain, 'Meeting the English' by Kate Clanchy provides us with a wry look at English (or, more accurately, London) life from a Scotman. Kate talked about this book when she visited the shop over the Summer, and her eloquent poetic sensibilities gives us a highly entertaining read.
Thatcher (or more accurately Thatcherism) is often fingered as the big baddie that stoked Scotland to the edge of independence (as this Spitting Image sketch from 1987 demonstrates), but in Damian Barr's 'Maggie and Me' he paints a far more nuanced interpretation of the 1980s, with his touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher's Britain, and of growing up gay in the shadow of the Ravenscraig Steelworks. We read this book for our morning bookgroup earlier this year, and it provoked a lot of uneasy discussion.
'Acts of Union and Disunion' by Linda Colley examines the Union in the context of a wider historical context. Is the Scottish nationalism a recent phenomenon, or just another piece of the longer break-up of empire? A short but extremely thought-provoking book. If the union of Scotland and England was really just a joint-venture for Empire, is it time to break-up - or renegotiate?
Finally, and no matter who prevails in the vote, Graham Robb's 'The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe' provides a neat historical perspective that reminds us that before Empire, before The Union, even before The Romans, we were part of a much older connection with Europe - one which still echoes in our landscape and cultures. Based on original - and breathtaking - research, Robb has pieced together hitherto unknown aspects of the Celts, revealing a civilization of previously unrecognised intellectual sophistication.
So there we are - our contribution (albeit slight) so some of the themes thrown up in recent weeks. Whatever the vote on Thursday, we’ll still be living on the same island, we’ll still have the same Scottish friends, and we’ll still be facing the same global problems that threaten the world and don’t care a jot about borders or nationality. I think all of us who perceive ourselves as underdogs feel - as Philip Pullman says - 'a bit yessish', and if voters go to the polls and gain catharsis of ‘sticking it to the man’, it might lead all of us to scrutinise and challenge the status quo just that bit harder – yes or no, might that not be a good thing?