A book that is definitely not going on sale in the shop is this one I found in a charity shop, published as one of a series by Odham's in the 1930s.
There's something endearing about these old books that give you advice on how to treat wasp stings, find a husband or prevent warts but those thirties values can look very odd indeed. This one, compiled by Harold Wheeler, Hon. D.Litt., F.R.Hist.S. includes this extraordinary example of out and out racism that would no doubt have represented mainstream British opinion between the wars, as fed to the people by honourable learned professors like Harold himself.
Having only just discovered David Graeber through reading Bullshit Jobs I was shocked to discover that he died in September 2020, aged 59. It must have been a very painful death at that, since he was struck down with necrotic pancreatitis while on holiday in Venice.
Professor Graeber's early death means that we have been robbed of any further books he might have written, and we can be pretty sure that they would have been thought-provoking. If enough people read them they might even have changed the world for the better. Losing him is, potentially, disastrous. On the other hand, of course, had he lived for another 20 or 30 years he might have become cynical and disillusioned and begun writing from an entirely different perspective. He might even have relented and stopped urging people to boycott The Guardian.
The Family Tree Magazine website includes this fine map of traditional Scottish counties, including Haddingtonshire, Linlithgowshire, Forfarshire and, to my personal delight, Wigtownshire.
Wigtown is, of course, now Scotland's Book Town after winning a competition to become the Scottish version of Hay-on-Wye. It's not Hay, but is worth a visit whether you like books or not because it's a pretty wee place and the historic capital of The Shire. There's a real shop there selling basic goods to local folk but the centre is about 90% bookshops. In some of them you can expect a cheerful welcome, in others you'll be left to browse in peace and in a couple you may be disappointed to find yourself treated with lofty disdain. That's the Nature of the Beast with bookshops in general; some are a treat to visit; others aren't, and the best coffee and buns in the world can't make up for grumpy proprietors selling their wares at outrageous prices.
The children's bookshop in the town is now called Foggie Toddle Books. Proprietor Jayne Baldwin is the author of a grand historical true story, The Road to the Gallows, that I like too much to put on sale; I'd rather keep it for myself.
Wigtown sits on the coast just below the border with Kirkcudbrightshire. I'm based further west, on the Northern part of the hammerhead known as The Rhinns, roughly across from where Ayrshire begins and the ferries leave for Larne and Belfast. You've almost certainly never been here but if you'd ever like to do so you're welcome to drop in. Let me know in advance and I'll bake a cake.
In my young days I saw Dr Feelgood play twice, and I fell asleep both times. The Feelgoods were OK - I've seen plenty of worse bands in my time - but I mention this because I've read a biography of singer Lee Brilleaux that claims that they were the best live band in the country, and my experience tells me that this isn't true.
It's one thing to write a biography of Karl Marx or Sylvia Pankhurst, but very different when the subject is comparatively uninteresting. Again, I've nothing against Lee Brilleaux, who was good looking, a terrific harmonica player and had a fine, gravelly voice, but he simply wasn't outstanding enough, as a person, to warrant an entire book. He drank a lot of alcohol and took plenty of cocaine; neither of those facts make him stand out from your average 1970/80s rock and roll star.
I once read a book about footballer Jim Baxter which simply made three observations over and over again. He was talented, he was lazy and he drank too much. One page would have been enough but the story was padded out to the extent that three or four pages were given over to him once scoring from a penalty kick, as if average players are incapable for scoring from penalties and only geniuses like Jim could do so with such aplomb. The best book about football by far, in my opinion, and one of only a few worth reading, is Gary Imlach's My Father & Other Working Class Football Heroes, in which the presenter of ITV4's Tour de France coverage wrote affectionately about his dad, Stewart, and the less-than-glamorous life of a player - even a Scottish internationalist who played in the World Cup - in the humdrum English League of the 1950s and 60s.
The tendency to write overly long bios of folk whose lives and talents and achievements don't stretch to more than 40 or 50 pages before they become tedious is why not many have made it into the shop. Boswell's Life of Johnson is in there, though whether it's Johnson or Boswell that was the more interesting character is hard to say. It's fair to guess that a biography of Samuel Johnson written by Julie Burchill would be a lot less entertaining.
Can you see the Brig o Doon keekin between the bushes? That's where. on a dark night, a carlin in a cutty sark tried to take hold of Tam O'Shanter, and pulled off the tail of his horse, Meg, allowing Tam to get away.
I wasn't raised in Scotland but I bow to nobody in my admiration for our Bard, Rabbie Burns. His memorial garden in Alloway looked magnificent in the Spring sunshine, and there was a piper in full dress playing a tune at the foot of the Brig. If it hadn't been for the man with the leaf blower drowning out both birdsong and pipes it would have been one of those occasions you'd like to put into a box and carry home so you could enjoy it again afterwards.
According to his birth certificate James Kerr was born on 15 August 1856. With apologies to everybody called James Kerr this information doesn't sound very interesting, but either the registrar had difficulty with spelling or his hearing wasn't very good, because the lad's mother was actually Mary Keir, not Kerr. James had a father as well but he doesn't deserve to be named because he was a waste of space who left Mary to care for her wean alone till, in time, she met and married a ship's carpenter called David Hardie. The laddie added his stepfather's surname and by the time he left school nobody called him James anymore, so it was as Keir Hardie that he became organiser of the Ayrshire Miners' Union at the age of 23.
On his new appointment Keir and his wife Lillias moved into a house on Auchinleck Road, Cumnock. Still called Lochnorris, just as it was when the Hardies stayed there, it's now a private family home. The folk that live there must have become very used to travellers stopping outside and risking being run over in order to take photographs of their house from across the road. like this one, for example.
There's no need to haver on about Keir Hardie's political career because all the necessary information is available in a million places on the internet, but he is said to have loved this house, which was his refuge from the House of Commons. In truth, he would almost certainly have enjoyed his life a lot more if he had remained in Cumnock; photos of a haggard old fellow with white hair and beard bely the fact that he was only 59 when he died, worn out, unpopular because of his opposition to the First World War and suffering from pneumonia following a stroke.
History looks kindly on Keir Hardie but what use is that to him after he's dead? He is looked upon as a working class hero, admiring biographies have been written and his bust stands outside Cumnock Town Hall, but he doesn't know about any of that. The last thing he knew he had fallen out with most of his comrades, the newspapers were calling him a traitor and he was dying before his time. The working class and the Labour Movement would probably be no worse off today than would have been the case if he'd stayed at home with his family in Ayrshire, doing a good job for the local miners and editing their journal but unknown beyond the immediate area.
After all, what good is immortality to mere mortals? None at all is the obvious answer. See also John Maclean; sent to Peterhead Gaol for opposition to the War, he went on hunger strike, was force fed and his health permanently damaged. Together with Mary Barbour his is the is the most celebrated name when folk gather to discuss and write about Red Clydeside but he too died of pneumonia, at the age of 44.
I read a couple of books, one straight after the other, in May, about the Glasgow underworld in the 1980s and 1990s. Both featured a character named Tam McGraw, aka The Licensee. The first book claimed that McGraw was a grass and was let off by the polis on several charges because he was passing information to them about other gangsters; the other stated, categorically, that the polis went out of their way to fit him up, thereby proving that he was never, in spite of all the rumours, an informant.
The only reason I mention this is that, obviously, both claims can't be true. Either McGraw was a grass or he wasn't, which means that one of the books is wrong. Neither are exactly learned works but the two diametrically different tales illustrate that what we are taught is historically accurate is not necessarily so. After all, we are only going back 30 years to the events in question and there will still be people around who know the truth; if, in these circumstances, we are led up the garden path by one "historian" then how are we supposed to believe histories that are written today about events that occurred hundreds of years ago?
We can sometimes use clues can help us to decide which of two conflicting stories is accurate. One of the books mentions that rival gangster Arthur Thompson claimed Disability Benefit after being run over in an assassination attempt. I know this to be untrue because there is no such thing as Disability Benefit and never has been; this might be a mistake, with a different benefit given the wrong name, but it certainly doesn't help the first writer's case when he makes such a blunder. If he can't get that right how are we to believe anything else in his book?
The difference between history, as a subject, and others such as maths or geography, is that we don't know, and rarely will, whether we have the right answer or not. We know that 10 x 4 = 40 is correct, we know that the peak of Ben Nevis is the highest point in Scotland, but how can we know for sure that contemporary accounts of the so-called Battle of Prestonpans are true? It seems obvious to me that the author of the second book featuring McGraw was attempting to portray amoral and vicious criminals as basically good-natured guys who were a bit dodgy but were also unlucky victims of circumstance; how can we ever be sure that the chroniclers of the Battle didn't feel it necessary to attribute brilliance and courage to Bonnie Prince Charlie that he never possessed? It's also possible that contemporary writers' accounts were altered later, perhaps by the same revisionists who shifted the site of the Battle, firstly from Gladsmuir to Tranent and then from Tranent to Prestonpans.