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Caledonian Antisyzygy: Alex Massie says “No”

Wednesday, 17 September, 2014 0 Comments

When he’s not writing or giving interviews, Alex Massie Massie, who lives in Edinburgh, supports the Scottish football team Heart of Midlothian and plays for Selkirk Cricket Club. He’s got the credentials to vote “Yes” in tomorrow’s referendum, but he will be doing the opposite instead. Why?

“I’m voting No because the campaign has surprised me. It’s made me think about my country and, more than that, what it means to be a part of that country. I’ll vote No even though I think Scotland would do fine as an independent country.

Because, even more than the economic sleight-of-hand, I’ve been taken aback by the dishonesty of a campaign that claims you can end the United Kingdom as we know it but retain almost everything about the United Kingdom that actually makes it the United Kingdom.”

Remarking on Britain in Why I am voting No, Massie says it’s “a place in which I’m always Scottish but also, when it suits, British too. A country where you travel to very different places and still always come home without having been abroad.”

The Last King of Scotland

Tuesday, 16 September, 2014 1 Comment

“His Excellency, President for Life Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC. Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular welcomes the Court of Kampala and assembled worthies of the city to this his annual banquet.”

So recites a Ugandan official at the annual Ambassadors’ Dinner as remembered by Nicholas Garrigan, Amin’s personal physician, in Giles Foden‘s novel, The Last King of Scotland. What makes the book so readable is that it succeeds in making the incredible — life in a country run by a monster named Idi Amin — credible.

The Last King of Scotland Human rights groups estimate 400,000 people were killed under Amin’s rule. They included farmers, fishermen, students, soldiers, former and serving cabinet ministers, supreme court judges, diplomats, university rectors, educators, Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy, hospital directors, surgeons, bankers, tribal leaders and business executives. Among the foreign victims, one name, Dora Bloch, a 73-year-old Israeli woman, is worth remembering because it helps us focus on so much of the evil that accompanied Amin through his days in power to his deathbed in Saudi Arabia.

On 27 June 1976, seven terrorists, five Palestinians and two members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang, hijacked Air France flight 139 after it left Tel Aviv for Paris. The plane landed first in Libya and then continued, arriving at Entebbe in Uganda early on 28 June. Amin visited the hijacked passengers and then flew to Mauritius where an Organization of African Unity meeting was taking place and where he would hand over the presidency of the body. After making his final address, he flew back to Kampala. He was there when, on the morning of 4 July, Israeli commandos — having flown 2,300 miles — landed, killed the hijackers, rescued 102 hostages and destroyed eight Ugandan Air Force Migs. One of the hostages, Dora Bloch, had been hospitalised in Kampala and the only option for retaliation open to Amin was to drag her from her sick bed and have her killed. For his collusion with the hijackers, Amin was rewarded with the presence of Yasser Arafat at his fifth wedding. Indeed, Arafat was best man.

And then there’s Libya. New of Amin’s death reached the world on the very day that Libya formally accepted responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people. For those keeping a ledger, it should be noted that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was first to give refuge to Amin after he was forced out of Uganda. Amin’s next stop was Iraq, where Saddam Hussein extended his nation’s hospitality and then, in 1979, he settled in Saudi Arabia, where he was fixed up with a splendid seaside villa in the Red Sea port of Jiddah.

Because he was a convert to Islam, the Saudis were particularly fond of him and he earned enormous respect from the kingdom’s theocrats for his attempts to create an Islamic nation out of a country that was only about six percent Muslim at the time of his take-over. That he had murdered tens of thousands of Christians in the process was seen as proof of his “goodness”.

Arafat, Gaddafi, Saddam, the Saudis… all able associates of Idi Amin, “Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth”.

Caledonian Antisyzygy: Val McDermid says “Yes”

Monday, 15 September, 2014 0 Comments

It all began, some say, with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Thus was born in Scottish literature “Caledonian Antisyzygy”, which in plain English is the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity”. Viewed historically, Stevenson’s book begat “Tartan noir” and along with Ian Rankin, its most famous practitioner today is Val McDermid, whose novels, especially the Tony Hill series, are known for their graphic depictions of sex and violence.

McDermid will be voting “Yes” in Thursday’s referendum on Scotland’s future. “I understand some people believe in the union and its value to us, and I have no issue with the ones — like JK Rowling — voting no for those cogently expressed reasons. I disagree with them, but I respect their position,” she writes in The Guardian, and continues:

“What I don’t respect are the ‘fearties’ — the ones whose reason for voting no is that they’e afraid we’ll turn out to be incapable of managing our own country. I don’t want us to stay in the union because we’re scared of what the future holds if we strike out on our own.

Look at our history: we invented political economy; we led the world in the practical application of science and engineering; we organised and ran the British empire; we run towards, not away, from terrorists who try to blow up our airport. How can we not believe in ourselves?”

More Caledonian Antisyzygy here on Wednesday from someone who is voting “No”.

Assynt, Inverkirkaig, Stoer, Inchnadamph, Kylesku

Sunday, 14 September, 2014 0 Comments

The curlicue placenames of Scotland give the impression that they were created with an eye on branding single malt whisky, so intriguing are the craggy mixtures of consonants and vowels. Consider the parish of Assynt, which is located on a remote corner of the northwest Highlands. It can boast a neighbourhood of Inverkirkaig, Baddidarach, Stoer, Quinag, Inchnadamph, Kylesku and Lochinver, to name but seven gems. No wonder, then, that Norman MacCaig adored it.

Assynt and Edinburgh

From the corner of Scotland I know so well
I see Edinburgh sprawling like seven cats
on its seven hills beside the Firth of Forth.

And when I’m in Edinburgh I walk
amongst the mountains and lochs of that corner
that looks across the Minch to the Hebrides.

Two places I belong to as though I was born
in both of them.

They make every day a birthday,
giving me gifts wrapped in the ribbons of memory.
I store them away, greedy as a miser.

Norman MacCaig (1910 — 1996)

Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger: Baby Please Don’t Go

Saturday, 13 September, 2014 0 Comments

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane / And I howled at my Ma in the drivin’ rain.” Recently watched the hugely enjoyable Crossfire Hurricane documentary about the early years of The Rolling Stones. It features lots of original footage and some memorable performances, and it reminds one of just how indebted the band was to classic blues and legends like Muddy Waters.

Obama translated

Friday, 12 September, 2014 1 Comment

“Barack Obama’s address Wednesday on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was surprisingly terrible: a disorganized mess, insincere and unconvincing.” So begins David Frum’s dissection in The Atlantic of the “Statement by the President on ISIL“, which was delivered at prime time. Frum turns Obama’s words into “plain English” and the results are as amusing as they are perturbing. Example:

“We will also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control. Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.”

In plain English: We’re desperately casting about for allies who aren’t Hezbollah or Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

According to Frum, the question facing the USA is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” His conclusion: “That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable — at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.”

The Falling Man

Thursday, 11 September, 2014 0 Comments

Tom Junod’s September 2003 piece for Esquire magazine, “The Falling Man,” which told the story of the iconic photograph taken by Richard Drew on 9/11, has been read millions of times. Today, Esquire is asking readers to make a $2.99 donation to continue reading the article. The money will go to the James Foley Scholarship Fund, in honour of the American journalist who was beheaded by the Islamic State terror group last month. By the way, the fee is completely optional. You can still read the story without paying.

“At fifteen seconds after 9:41 A.M., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.”


Franklin found

Wednesday, 10 September, 2014 0 Comments

CBC headline: “Lost Franklin expedition ship found in the Arctic”. Victorian England was fascinated by the tragedy of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to chart the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic, which failed after the ships with their 129 crewmen disappeared. It is believed that the vessels were lost when they became locked in the ice near King William Island and that the crews abandoned them in a desperate bid to reach safety. Sir John Franklin’s wife led an attempt to locate the men, launching five ships and leaving cans of food on the ice in the hope they would find them.

Here, the late Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, accompanied on fiddle by Kevin Burke, sings Lady Franklin’s Lament.

“In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell”

Apple day

Tuesday, 9 September, 2014 1 Comment

What’s coming up later today? John Gruber has the must-read of the moment. As we wait, let’s contemplate this snippet by Walter Isaacson from Steve Jobs.

“Was Steve Jobs smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. … Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead. Steve Jobs thus became the greatest business executive of our era, the one most certain to be remembered a century from now. History will place him in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford. More than anyone else of his time, he made products that were completely innovative, combining the power of poetry and processors. With a ferocity that could make working with him as unsettling as it was inspiring, he also built the world’s most creative company. And he was able to infuse into its DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.”

What would Burns have done?

Monday, 8 September, 2014 0 Comments

Born in 1759 in Alloway, Robert Burns died in 1796 in Dumfries. Because of the Acts of Union of 1707, both places are now part of the United Kingdom. But for how long more? The national poet of Scotland savaged the Scottish aristocrats who had been bribed by the English to agree to that 1707 Union of Parliaments in “Such A Parcel of Rogues in A Nation“:

What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane —
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Despite this, Burns recognized that there were good sides to the Union, and he saw that an alliance of all the British peoples offered Scotland considerable advantages. He had his loyalist, royalist moments, too, and one imagines that today’s news from Clarence House would have pleased the man who penned “Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat:”

“… For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!”
Burns was even prepared to toast the monarch:
The next in succession I’ll give you’s the King!
Whoe’er would betray him, on high may he swing!

The same poem contains the couplet: “O let us not, like snarling curs / In wrangling be divided.” Depending on how one reads Burns, and when, and where, he can be construed as an “Aye” and a “Nae”.

Meditation on the images of 9/11

Sunday, 7 September, 2014 0 Comments

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1996 was awarded to the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Her meditation on the fate of those who plunged to their deaths from the burning Twin Towers on 9/11 ponders those unforgettable, searing “fragments of human reality.”

Photograph from September 11

They jumped from the burning floors —
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Wislawa Szymborska (1923 — 2012)