Review: Cardinal Sin by Brian Devlin

First, a wee bit of context, important in any review of a controversial book such as this one. The author describes himself as a ‘collapsed’ Catholic one point and although I am not Catholic, that has resonance for me in terms of my own beliefs. Brian Devlin is an acquaintance, respected in my community as part of the team which helped to establish Black Isle Cares. I already knew of his whistleblowing at NHS Highland – I was bullied myself in a hierarchical workplace many years ago, so I followed his story with interest – but I knew nothing about his earlier life.

Cardinal Sin – a cracking title, isn’t it!  And accompanied by a lurid crimson cover reminiscent of Colleen McCulloch’s The Thorn Birds. Designed, quite rightly, to encourage readers to pick up the book. This is however non-fiction and more about a man sinned against within the Roman Catholic Church than the sinner himself hinted at on the cover.

The term ‘whistleblower’ is not mentioned on the cover of Cardinal Sin but is defined there as one who ‘challenges power abuse’. It hails from the early days of the police, when a whistle was blown to alert others to a crime having been committed. It has a very visual/audible quality, tied up with decency and earnest, plodding Dixons of Dock Green. Modern whistleblowing is rather different. Some view it as a force for good; others – generally those who are the subjects of the whistleblowing or the institutions whose reputations are felt to be undermined by it – consider it the ultimate betrayal of trust.

I had not realised until I read this remarkable and highly readable book that Brian Devlin has something of a whistleblowing pedigree. He is clearly conscious of the way in which a whistleblowing mindset can lead from one working world – that of the Roman Catholic Church – into another – NHS Highland. Whistleblowing is traumatic and can affect mental and physical well-being for the rest of one’s career, and life, as Devlin knows to his cost.

The book is divided into two sections, the first following (more-or-less chronologically) the author’s life from boyhood. This has some very funny and tender descriptions of unwanted adolescent sexual awakening in his fervently Catholic parental home – readers may never quite see Valerie Singleton in the same light again!

An innocent and understandable desire to please his parents leads a clever, sensitive and fragile young man to Drygrange, a seminary for would-be Catholic priests.  A kind of religious Hogwarts, this was a world apart. It was peopled by teachers ranging from the black-cloaked and grimly orthodox – ‘they sat in the freezing chapel like ravens, and swished along the corridors as they went about their business’ – to the informal, kindly and charismatic. One of the latter, an oh-so-cool priest nicknamed K.O.B., the college’s Spiritual Director, seems such a contrast to the more formal ‘old guard’. Soon the young trainee priest and many of his peers come to look up to Keith O’ Brien as an inspiring role model.

What follows is a sequence of events recognisable to anyone with modern hindsight as a process of grooming, but this was a more innocent time when the infallibility of a Pope and all those who served him was a given. After increasingly blatant attempts to control Devlin’s actions and views, O’Brien then makes a clumsy pass at the author. The young and vulnerable student’s response to this is an instinctive one of self-protection; his spiritual and emotional trust have been betrayed by a man with terrifying power over his future in the priesthood. Devlin finds himself questioning everything he has believed in, up to and including the existence of a God who could allow this to take place. At this time, however, like others abused by O’Brien, Devlin says nothing, does nothing. This man is his spiritual director. Who would he tell? Although his fledgling vocation is in tatters, he proceeds to the priesthood, only to find that the increasingly powerful O’Brien becomes archbishop of his St Andrews and Edinburgh diocese. Devlin begins to contemplate somehow escaping it all.

It is only once an accusation is levelled at O’Brien by another student that Brian Devlin and others find the courage to come forward to ‘name and shame’ him, as the tabloids would have it. At first the Church attempts to close ranks and ignore the matter, but the scandal, doggedly pursued by journalist Catherine Devenney fails to fizzle out and risks bringing the might of the Church of Rome to its knees. High-level sexual abuse within the Church certainly seems to have had a bearing on the shock resignation of Joseph Ratzinger, the arch-conservative German Pope Benedict XVI.

We are told little of O’Brien himself (abusers have often themselves been abused) but his arrogance continues beyond his removal from office. Retired and sidelined rather than entirely disgraced, he writes an open letter asking for forgiveness from those he has ‘offended’; a mild choice of words (doubtless fine-tuned by Vatican lawyers) which must smart in the wounds of all those who came forward to accuse him. ‘Offence’ implies that it was a matter of choice on the part of the victim and therefore subtly shifts some of the blame for the crime on to the accuser.

For me, it was the second part of the book which was the more interesting of the two and I was sorry it was not quite as long as the first: I would have liked to hear other views about the potential for reform within the Church. Those who worship as Christians but who consider themselves to have no connection to Roman Catholicism would do well to remember that abuse can happen anywhere, and that the roots of all Christianity today still lie in Rome: Fortrose Cathedral was Roman Catholic for 300 years, from its foundation in 1260 to the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Christianity may have fragmented post-Reformation, and attendance at church may be declining overall, but the Roman Catholic Church is still a mighty force in the world.

In this second part, Devlin explores how – and if – the Roman Catholic Church, a church he clearly still loves even if he does disagree with its more lurid teachings, can move forward and heal itself. Most church congregations are, by definition, conservative: reform – change of any kind – is usually unwelcome. It is clear however that without reform over attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and the priesthood there will always be a risk of sexual abuse within its ranks. The Roman Catholic Church is lagging far behind other churches (and also society in general) in its lack of willingness to reform over issues such as allowing the ordination of married or female priests. Celibacy deprives priests of humanity. Reform relies on ‘old men who promise not to have sex’ to change the rules of the Church to allow greater freedoms among those who will succeed them, and that is a difficult process which will require immense grace. Tradition and ritual are part of Catholicism and change comes but slowly.

Devlin makes a particularly interesting point regarding the involvement of laity (ordinary congregation members) in worship. A pragmatic blurring of boundaries is permitted in other Christian churches where priests may be in increasingly short supply. The Roman Catholic Church has always rejected lay involvement in priestly duties, which the author argues, convincingly, is simply rooted in a desire to retain power and control over its flock. Using unnecessary honorific titles such as Father, Your Grace and even Holy Father can further alienate those who follow the path of priesthood from those they serve, with disastrous consequences for both the priest and his flock. Priests are just ordinary men, or ordinary women, who are called to serve God, and that includes the Pope.

In theory at least, without the intervention of Devlin and the other whistleblowers, the successor to Joseph Ratzinger could have been Keith O’Brien, at which point he really could have done ‘whatever he liked’: a chilling prospect. Instead Pope Francis, seen as a moderniser, initiated a full investigation into the abuses carried out by ‘K.O.B’. His envoy, a canon lawyer named Msgr Charles Scicluna, finally came to interview the author (I much enjoyed the description of the meal Mrs Devlin prepared for this grand visitation). Just as their difficult encounter ends, Scicluna makes a kindly-meant comment about the existence of God. It is poignant that God seems to have become swept aside in the labyrinthine, secret hierarchy and ritual of the Catholic Church.

While statements about the whistleblowers from the Church make great use of the word ‘courage’, it is clear that in certain quarters they are still regarded as traitors, and emotional support for those like the author who have left the priesthood as a result of abuse has been non-existent.

The most powerful line in this book for me, the one which could lance the festering boil at the heart of this and many other abuse-related scandals, reads as follows: ‘the celibate, single sex priesthood needs to be dismantled.’

Amen to that.

Cardinal Sin by Brian Devlin is published in paperback by Columba Books. The author will be signing copies at the Nigg Book Fair on Saturday 25th September at Nigg Community Hall.

Vee Walker is the author of the WWI novel Major Tom’s War, now out in paperback from http://www.kashihouse.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: In the Blood by Margaret Kirk

Shorter version already published on the Radio 2 Book Club group on Facebook.

I have a confession to make. No, I haven’t hidden a body anywhere! It’s just that (hand on heart) I am not usually a huge fan of murder mysteries. There, I’ve said it. If I read them at all they are usually ones set in historic periods. I am rather more inclined to the likes of Brother Cadfael (remember Ellis Peters?) than John Rebus, I suppose. During Lockdown I found myself avoiding dramatised versions too (not watched a single episode of Line of Duty) – reasoning, with half-baked logic, that life was already quite grim enough without inventing someone fictional in order to murder them.

For this Highlands-based series, however, I have to make an exception. I stumbled across the first, Shadow Man, a few years back and surprised myself by enjoying it, so much so that I looked out for the next, What Lies Buried. It was even better in my view. In the Blood is the third in the series. Can you read it without reading the previous two first? Of course you can, but I am willing to bet you’ll want to backtrack and fill in the gaps afterwards.

The reason for this guilty pleasure is personified in Lukas Mahler, Margaret Kirk’s enigmatic and convincing ‘leading man’ (much of Kirk’s writing shouts screenplay – this is crying out to become a TV adaptation). There has been considerable discussion about political correctness in detective fiction recently – some of the hard-drinking, disgruntled dinosaurs who have been around for years are aging with their authors and struggling, unrealistically, with the red tape of modern policing.

Mahler is very different – a modern detective who both kicks against and understands the system within which he works. He has a complex back story which is only being revealed by cunning degrees. A traumatic childhood. A foreign connection. A disturbed mother. And – something so many of us can relate to – migraine when under stress. Which he is, of course. Constantly. Some of it the job. Some of it, undoubtedly, self-inflicted.

In the Blood sees Lukas facing up to the death of someone he admired, someone who inspired him. The victim has died – truly horribly – in a remote corner of Orkney. He quite simply should not have been there. The reason he is forms the backbone of a plot rich in local detail ranging from drug-dealing to botany (straight back to Brother Cadfael’s herb garden for a moment), folklore and the occult. There is the tantalising addition of a hanging storyline involving Lukas’ love interest, Anna, and the echoes of how they met, plus a plethora of Orcadian and Highland characters (I have an especially soft spot for Fergie and his highly dodgy motor).

This is a landscape I am fortunate already to know, love and dwell in, but if you have never explored the Highlands and Orkney this excellent murder mystery could well be the trigger for the holiday of a lifetime.

Highly recommended.

For visually impaired readers, this large paperback features a dramatic red and black cover with a distant seascape and standing stones – possibly the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney.

In the Blood is published by Orion Books priced £14.99 and is also now available as an ebook.

Review: Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover

I aim never to ruin a book for future readers through review spoilers but with a book of this complexity and depth that may prove a challenge, so be warned…

A cover the colours of a Highland autumn…

Equally challenging, I suspect, will be the bookshop head-scratching over which shelf to put this on (I have a soft spot for genre-busting fiction but booksellers prefer their wares to be more easily categorised).  Here in the Highlands, readers will find it displayed under local author, of course.

Elsewhere in the UK, if placed on the fiction shelf, the fans of landscape writers such as Rob MacFarlane may miss it and they would love the generous descriptions of Strathspey, as much a character within this book as the well-crafted family which carries the narrative. It is a mysterious read too – but will it sit entirely comfortably on the mystery table? And to place it in the murder mystery corner would be over-presumptuous, for it is that elusive hanging storyline, with its string of clues found, which forms the backbone of the book.

In my view, bookshop proprietors, the solution would be a small table of its own, bang opposite the entrance.

Nor is this a novel about farming, or families, or friendship, or even faith per se, although Of Stone and Sky draws on all these themes. It is certainly a book which explores love, both the love of people for one another – brothers, youngsters, couples – and love of the place in which they live, to the point of obsession, to the point of madness. And the borderline between madness and sainthood can run very thin.

Through the midst of all this messy, gritty rural Highland reality strides a shepherd, a good one: he says scarcely a word and yet his presence – and subsequent absence – is at the heart of this novel. An elegaic note for a whole hill-farming way of life is sounded here and yet the leaving off of possessions, the passing on of a shepherd’s crook feels somehow spiritually uplifting and hopeful. A strange and potent combination.

The word which surfaces and resurfaces as I reflect on this read is real. I know this place too. I have worked within it. I do not just see its landscape but, to some degree anyway, I feel it. To me Of Stone and Sky now seems less like a story I have read than one which I have been told at intervals, perhaps by an unlikely yet appealingly teetotal publican, leaning across the bar of some battered Highland pub in Strathspey or Badenoch (that’s bade to rhyme with spade not bad with sad, incidentally). To anyone who raises an eyebrow at the appealing and unorthodox ‘otherly’ priest-pagan who figures prominently within the plot, I would counter with the story of a real one: a priest who decided his faith would be better served by starting a printing press in a deprived city area, who has helped many local folk overcome their addiction through employment.

If you prefer your Highland fiction to be of the skin-deep Fifty-Shades-of-Tartan variety, this probably isn’t the book for you. It is no light read. Of Stone and Sky is set in the real Highlands, where folk have always struggled against the elements and adversity to survive; where farming (and hill sheep farming in particular) is no longer financially viable without subsidy; where the hands of the rich and powerful have grasped the great estates since the eighteenth century. The owners nowadays are often wealthy and shadowy absentees – and yet they too have their place in the story and should be seen for who and what they are, not as menacing outsiders. They too can heft to place as the generations start to forge more meaningful connections.

The book’s poetic title (reminiscent in more ways than one of Tolkein’s allegory Of Tree and Leaf) suggests a book about wild places and that is the stage on which Merryn Glover places a generation of compelling characters, some more hefted to place than others, to act out their lives. I like my characters flawed and here there are flaws aplenty: a kind of reverse Cain and Abel relationship, star-crossed lovers, physical disfigurement; tragic people, damaged people, broken people – all bound together by the stones and sky which both define and envelop them. And they all feel so real to me now that I could reach out and hold their hand – or in a couple of cases, slap them, as appropriate.

This is a book to which I will return: so few people write about the realities of life here. The highest Highlands is no easy nor ordinary place to live, a sanctuary to many but a prison to some. Which view you take depends not just on wealth (although these days every penny helps) but also on whether or not you ‘hear it in the deep heart’s core’.

A compelling and unusual read which explores the world which is to be found between the visions of the Highlands as heaven and as hell – and I highly recommend it.

Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover is published in hardback by Birlinn, cover price £16.99.

Double digging…

This battered little fork hangs on the wall of my toolshed in perpetuity, its tines now so worn as to render it almost useless. I would never part with it: as with so many of my unlikely family treasures, there is story or two attached.

This is the garden fork with which my mother prised a new vegetable plot out of a raw field of twitch (couch-grass) at Drumcudden, the house she built in Cullicudden on the north side of the Black Isle, which was to became my childhood home. She levered so many boulders out of the thin soil that a small cairn rose in one corner of the garden to mystify future archaologists. Every time the fork struck another sullen lump of glacial quartz or granite (rounded and pounded by the river of ice which flowed from Ben Wyvis to Rosemarkie 13,000 years ago) it wore away the steel tines, just a fraction more. Mum said the sound of it, the feel of it, made her heart quail and her spine jangle – but she was, in this, as she was in all things, indomitable. Her garden kept us fed with delicious fruit and vegetables (and sprouts) all year round.

In retirement Mum moved to Fortrose and the fork went too. Her garden was smaller and less challenging so she took on the restoration of a dowdy area of rough ground on a new roundabout at Chanonry Point. With the help of a team of local people over several years, she planted wild bushes and flowers and grasses, creating a haven for wildlife; she found her fork could easily vanish into the undergrowth, so she added a circle of red insulation tape to the handle to make it more visible.

Then one day the fork toppled over and its handle split. She bound that up with black insulation tape – insulation tape always her go-to mend material. Why not just replace the handle? She was frugal, of course, but it goes deeper. For the same reason that I cannot take the fork to the Smiddy to be re-tined, she could not reheft it either. This wasn’t ever just her fork; so it is doubly not just mine.

As readers of Major Tom’s War will know, Tom, my mum’s father, returned to England from Germany some months after the end of the Great War. His wife Evie had already secured them modest rented accommodation on a farm in Burmington near Shipston-on-Stour (where both my aunt Libba and my mother Numpy were born in 1920 and 1922). It was at Burmington Cottage that Tom was finally, after an absurdly long wait, re-promoted to Major.

Five years of warfare had taken their toll on Tom; he was not yet fit enough (mentally or physically) to continue working as a solicitor. Instead he became a farmhand, operating a mechanical steam plough. Perhaps that is when he acquired this small fork – not too heavy, a tool he could handle without his damaged lungs struggling for breath. He has routed his initials, T.H.W., deep into the handle, perhaps to avoid confusion with those of others working on the land.

Eventually Tom recovered enough to take up a country solicitor’s practice in Manningtree, Essex. He and Evie bought a burned-out shell of a mediaeval house called Abbot’s Manor in Lawford. Restoring it must have been cathartic after the devastation Tom had witnessed in villages and towns in France. Together Evie and Tom made a garden, planting an espaliered Doyenne du Comice pear against one wall. The fruits were plump and green-golden, speckled with russet. Against another wall nodded the fat and floppy egg-yolk heads of an old rose named Climbing Lady Hillingdon. Doubtless Tom’s fork wore down its tines a little more in planting those.

Thirty years later, my mother left my father, in the bitter winter of 1968. She drove north through blizzards in an old blue Austin A40 which leaked oil the whole way to be reunited with her sister at her home at Drynie Mains on the Black Isle. Bobby, our feckless Dalmation and myself slithered on the beltless back seat, squeezed between an assortment of Mum’s most precious possessions: the family portraits and photograph albums (though she left one propping open the door of the marital home she fled), a silver teapot, some porcelain and this garden fork.

My turn now to have planted a Doyenne du Comice pear, a Climbing Lady Hillingdon rose and to add another, an old black-red French rose named Guinée, a gift from my own beloved sister. I think of it as Harnam Singh’s rose, the rose which represents all the Indian troops alongside whom Tom served: valiant and dutiful warriors, but also sons of farmers, who loved the countryside and who admired roses. It is a Guinée rose which graces the cover of Major Tom’s War, shedding its blood-coloured petals over the steel-grey cover.

These days I seldom use the fork, but once in a while I will take it down from its peg on a sunny day just to press it into the soil as far as it can go. It pleases me to think of its short tines being reduced still further by my own land.

My genes, precious gifts from Tom and Evie and my Mum, have taught me always to dig as deep as I can.

Happy gardening – and if you have a garden tool you also love irrationally, do share it…

Review: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

The greatest adventure story, the best thriller I have read over the last twelve months is not a work of fiction. It is this book by Cal Flyn, ‘Islands of Abandonment.’

With everyone from David Attenborough downwards warning us that the apocalypse is nigh if we human beings do not mend our polluting and over-populated ways, there is a risk that we become de-sensitised to the urgency of the message. This risk is doubled during a time of pandemic when the psychology goes ‘Look, no, sorry, can’t take any more doom! Pass me a slice of pizza and something entertaining to read, for God’s sake!’

It is essential therefore that authors like Cal Flyn come at the same subject from a fresh viewpoint and that some readers do engage with what she has to say, because it is essential reading, if frightening (her work is subtitled Life in the Post-Human Landscape).

Each chapter is an edge-of-the-seat adventure story. Alongside Cal, we crawl into dark tunnels by torchlight; we hear footsteps in the attic of the long-derelict house; we encounter a variety of ‘abandonment’ zone hosts, some more stable and trustworthy than others; we slither under the fence of a WWI woodland surrounding an area so toxic nothing has grown there since (this one had particular resonance for me, having visited the battlefields and read Lars Mytting’s ‘The Sixteen Trees of the Somme’). There as elsewhere, Flyn bends or breaks the law in pursuit of her goal – access to the unthinkable; to areas of our planet today which foretell what it may all become tomorrow.

There is a Mad Max dimension to her encounters with the often-below-the-radar human inhabitants of these strange, off-limits places. There are those who need to stay out of sight of authority for a plethora of hair-raising reasons, those who are waiting, waiting, feeding white mice for scientists who will never return; those who have become obsessed with the volcano which has robbed them of their home.

Humans are not however the main focus of ‘Islands of Abandonment’. Flyn instead shows us that our planet really does not need humanity to survive, which we may or may not find comforting (I most certainly did). She argues that sometimes even well-meant human intervention is less positive than leaving Earth alone to mend itself. Nature is reclaiming even impossibly contaminated places such as Chernobyl and somehow species which live there are adapting and surviving. This does not mean they are not sick, changed, poisoned, but they are still here. Fragile humankind is however much less resilient and able to change in these circumstances, although some are trying hard to bring about that change.

This book should be read by anyone with an interest in rewilding (it is in a way a global take on Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’, about the Knepp Estate near London). My favourite chapter focused on the island of Swona, which you can see en route for Orkney from the mainland. Cattle were abandoned there and have defied all attempts to ‘help’ them by herding them on to boats. They are now many generations wild and have become the focus of study by scientists. Their behaviour is entirely unregulated by farming and they have become a true herd again, led by a bull who, when deposed in old age, departs to dwell in peace on an isolated area of the island, and around whom, when he sickens and dies, the whole herd gathers to pay its respects.

Enjoy your next steak…

I envy Flyn her (pre-Lockdown) travel budget if not the focus of her writing. Stand by to visit Scotland, Cyprus, Estonia, Ukraine, Detroit, New Jersey, Staten Island and California in the USA, France, Tanzania and Montserrat. Everywhere she visits has been abandoned by humanity for a variety of reasons: natural phenomena such as the eruption in Montserrat; social, military and political change; and sheer inhabitability caused by human pollution, sometimes brought about decades ago. Our human inability to think/care about beyond one’s own lifetime/benefit has already served the planet very badly.

Some scientists are already predicting the end of human society as we know it within the next decade. This is no longer the potential problem of future generations, it is our own. Flyn tells us that there is already a ‘Voluntary Extinction Movement’ – which makes more sense after reading this book than it did before. Our human future will now involve an increasing number of ‘no go’ zones due to global warming, pollution, radiation and over-population. It is a bleak prospect for us – but as Flyn shows us in this fine piece of writing, it is not so bleak for a planet which has infinite potential for reinvention.

Like Rachel Carson before her, Flyn sheds a brilliant light on the unspeakable and unthinkable future of humankind. It is a warning but not one altogether without hope. An important and beautifully written book, this is a ‘Silent Spring’ for the 21st century.

Would make an excellent book club read.

Review: Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

#Longread review alert! NB a shorter version of this review appeared in the Radio 2 Book Group in February 2021.

Every now and then a book comes along which stops you in your tracks: one which really matters. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera is one such read. It is currently out in hardback and (soon, doubtless) will appear in paperback. Its cover is adorned by a fat British bulldog crouched at the top of a lofty column. I found myself wondering how author and publisher arrived at both title and cover image. The book could have been called The Empire Still Strikes Back. Its cover could (should?) have been blood red.

Sanghera is a well known author, journalist and broadcaster and so is accustomed to being in the public eye: with this book he has however experienced trolling as never before.
Although some Lockdown trolling can be attributed to isolation and frayed nerves, Sanghera has been trolled for a different reason: he has dared to ask his readers to think – that’s it, just think – about the legacy of Britain’s colonial past.

Empireland questions the often fervently-held but misguided and anachronistic belief that we are a godly nation which has unfailingly brought British ‘values’ (whatever they may be) to inferior countries, always to mutual benefit. We still justify our imperial past with a cry of ‘oh, but we gave them the railways…the civil service…the legal system…’ etc; but this notion of a munificent and altruistic British empire is a long-standing self-deluding lie.

As a colonial nation we brought countries (to which we had no legitimate claim) into the Empire by stealth or by force. We deposed legitimate leaders. We murdered people, often in cold blood, for imperial gain.

We eradicated first peoples (Sanghera describes, chillingly, how a long line of British soldiers walked across Tasmania, shooting its original inhabitants with no more concern than you would a rabbit). We sold others into slavery and took what was not ours to take: people, wealth, produce, property, territory. The word ‘loot’ is an Indian one for a reason. Our museums and our stately homes are still full of this imperial plunder.

Not every plundered object held here could or should be returned to where it came from – but if return is not possible then the story of its theft needs to be given equal weight alongside its origin, its antiquity, its craftsmanship or its value. Institutions such as The National Trust should be celebrated for exploring this issue, not criticised, as has (unbelievably!) been the case in recent months.

I would like to have seen an additional chapter in Empireland which showed how religion and empire co-operated to lethal effect (supplanting the valid belief systems of first peoples with Chistianity, often brutally imposed) but perhaps the author will explore this in a separate work, as it is a huge subject.

BlackLivesMatter opened up discussions about the legacy of slavery worldwide. In the UK it will be remembered for the toppling of statues of slave traders such as Edward Colston in Bristol. Sanghera stops short of describing such actions as futile but does urge far greater positivity and creativity of response. His lively suggestion would be leaving such statues in situ and pelting them with rotten fruit once a year. My own would be to topple them without damage but then to leave them in situ, suitably interpreted, removed from their literal and metaphorical pedestal – so that our children can look down on them and see they were, after all, just men.

In a local museum two dull but worthy Victorians portraits have always hung in a quiet corner. After reading Empireland I looked at them with fresh eyes.These were ruthless merchants, opium barons, the drug royalty of their day, who were in it for the money. They spent no time reflecting on the ethics of their enterprise and merit no respect.

Sanghera points out that Empire was built on action – often bold, reckless and dangerous action – and not on intellect. The legacy of this today is catastrophic.

Reading Empireland coincided with my studying the history of the North West Frontier, where generation after generation of not especially bright but bold and brave boys who joined the army were massacred by the local residents who not unnaturally objected to their alien presence.

These actions are still being written up as heroic by historians today but they were anything but: at best they were inadvisable and illegal, at worst suicidal. 21st century military historians are generally male and they love their subject, which can lead to a dangerous fondness of the past. Sanghera’s book works because he is NOT a historian.

Sanghera points out that we have been conditioned to value such heroic failures as the Massacre at the Khyber Pass in 1842 more than success. A retreat from Kabul without loss of life would not have caused the flicker of an imperial eyelid.

And who reached the South Pole first? Not the ill-equipped and poorly-led Robert Falcon Scott – but the clever Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who listened to indigenous locals and planned accordingly. And yet as Sanghera points out it is Scott’s ‘heroism’ – which led to the horrific and untimely death of his entire party – which is commemorated and celebrated.

We are all damaged by this colonial legacy. The imperial past continues to affect our psychology today. Sanghera shows how we like our politicians to be jovial buffoons. We (and they) still use the phrase ‘too clever by half’ as a criticism of intellect. At Oxford David Cameron was a bright outsider, while Boris Johnson, his inferior academically, was somehow the golden boy. This attitude pervades our politics too and recent catastrophic political decision-making for Britain stems largely from a popular mistrust of clever people and institutions. Bring back the intelligent, dull politicians whom we can trust!

I know Lockdown is hard on everyone, and that comfort-reading novels is entirely understandable – I do it myself (and I’m even writing one…). We are all going to be changed by our experiences over the last year and few of us for the better.

Please, though, consider reading this remarkable book. Especially if the first thought which springs to mind after hearing the word ’empire’ is ‘biscuit’. If enough of us read books such as Empireland, it could just change Britain, and the world, and our children’s futures, for the better.

Review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama – review

#LongRead review alert!

NB a shorter version of this review was first published in the Radio 2 Book Club Discussion Group.

I generally never read political memoires but was given this enormous first edition for Christmas. I have had to prop it up on a pillow to read it as my hands are quite small!

If you want to understand how Donald Trump came to power, make yourself read this book too. From the moment Obama was elected the Republicans closed ranks and opposed everything he tried to do – even when individually they often admitted they could see the benefit in what the first Black president of the USA was trying to achieve.

Parts of it made me want to cry out of sheer frustration that grey and blinkered bigots like Mitch McConnell could behave as they did. Attempts to derail new policies aimed at reducing climate change make particularly painful reading, especially since we know who it was who succeeded Obama and what Trump attempted during his toxic presidency.

Racism, often unspoken, floats just beneath the surface of politics in America like a slick of toxicity, often extinguishing all energy for positive change. Obama, an able and decent man (whose memory for names, places and the detail of his campaign and presidency is extraordinary) tried hard to make the world a better place. He and his remarkable team were, to a degree, successful. That they were not entirely successful is largely down to a political system no longer fit for purpose, which has sought to derail democracy itself using democratic processes – and institutionalised political racism.

Obama makes a valid comparison with the rise of fascism before WWII in the way Republican opposition evolved over his tenure. I could not help wondering if, had Hillary Clinton won instead of Obama, we might have had Biden next and be looking at Obama only now? Trump might then never have reached the White House: I think the racist Republican response to Obama was greater than would have been the sexist Republican response to Clinton, who as Obama admits was the tougher and more experienced politician at the time.

The global erosion of democracy by the far right is far from over. Trump may be out of the White House, but the Hydra has many heads.

Top reader tip – there are loads of unfamiliar-to-Brits acronyms (like TARP – nope, me neither) only defined in the index – so keep a pen and paper handy.

Vee Walker is an author living on the Black Isle the far north of Scotland. Her WWI novel Major Tom’s War was a prizewinner at the 2019 SAHR Military Fiction Awards.

A tale of two covers…

Left, the hardback cover; right, the paperback

This blog post was inspired by my Canadian cousin Cathy Brydon, who is related to me through my grandmother’s side of the family. After congratulating me on the paperback of Major Tom’s War, she asked, slightly ominously – ‘but – the cover – whatever has happened to Evie?’

What indeed. One minute my beloved grandmother is there on the hardback, clutching a rose, and the next, on the paperback edition, she has vanished.

Cover anxiety is a very real thing!

A cover exists to protect the book within, but should also to communicate the essence of the book to the reader. The original cover’s beautiful artwork is by the Canadian Sikh artist Keerat Kaur (www.keerat-kaur.com). Evie stands tall in her red cross uniform, offering a (highly symbolic) rose to Tom. He gazes down at her through rather spooky white spectacles.

We had a tight launch date for the hardback and the last editorial and cover choices had to be made at a bewildering speed. I remember seeing the final version for the first time at the book launch at the National Army Museum and it being a bit of a shock. The whole process had felt, understandably, rather rushed, and I was jittery (and authors very seldom love their covers at first, apparently).

The process of cover design had however begun months before, with a completely different concept – a bright red background with the silhouette of a horseman emerging from it, face on. It seemed oddly familar and yet I could not work out how. I posted it on the Women In the Arts Scotland Facebook Group and the answer soon came back – it looked (entirely coincidentally) very like the cover of this popular edition of Michael Morpurgo’s fabulous book War Horse.

The WIAS responses were divided in those early days on whether this similarity would be a good thing or not. Some thought the instant gut response – WWI! Cavalry! Man and horse! – was appropriate. I felt, probably a bit arrogantly, that I wanted the cover for Major Tom’s War to be unique, just like the book.

A word here about my extraordinary publishers, Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com). Their creative team had quickly come up with the initial Morpurgo-esque cover based on a photograph they had and some clever computer design. If I had just said yes to it – and I almost did – it would have saved them all time, stress and money. And yet, even though Parmjit Singh and his team were already operating beyond full stretch (setting up for their massively successful London exhibition, Empire of the Sikhs), they politely took on board everything I had said and scrapped the prototype. We started from scratch, and Parmjit commissioned Keerat to produce something far more original and memorable. Not just that, but they also added shiny copper lettering for the title – and a silky dust-jacket. Both hardback, and, now, the paperback, look – and feel – sensational.

As I mentioned above, Keerat’s initial design did not in fact have Evie on it – her figure was added in response to my feedback. Back in 2018 I had been anxious about going with Tom alone – would it alienate my female readers? Would it look like a work of non-fiction?

I have learned a lot about the process of bringing a book into existence over the past two years. I now understand that a book cover’s job is to make you want to pick it up/click on it and ideally take it home/order it, simple as that. We were trying to do a bit too much with the first edition cover – and that was my fault.

The paperback gave us the perfect chance for a rethink. No-one wanted to start from scratch, thank goodness – the hardback cover had built the foundations for the book’s identity well – but it was clear that shrinking it to fit the paperback would result in some detail being lost and would not work.

After Major Tom’s War won a prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards, and several other reviewers had Said Nice Things about it, there was also the need to give space to some of those Nice Things Said on the paperback cover. Dame Penelope Keith DBE, DL wrote me a beautiful letter from which we quote just one compelling word on the front – ‘Unputdownable.’ This is also a subliminal suggestion of course – ‘please don’t put it back down – take it to the till instead!

When I realised we would have to lose Evie to make way for the Nice Things Said I thought the rose would have to go too – and that made me sad. As you will know if you have read it, roses crop up as a bit of a leitmotif in Major Tom’s War. The rose is also symbolic of the unlikely tenderness which blossomed between Tom and Evie. Designer Paul Smith (www.paulsmithdesign.com), who gave both editions their classy overall look and feel, cleverly isolated the rose and lifted it to the title above, allowing its petals to fall, and settle, on Daisy’s neck.

The single petal lying on Daisy’s neck, to me, symbolises all the horses who died or were injured in the Great War.

The beautiful SAHR prizewinner’s rosette, bottom left, matches the title colour and catches the eye – but sadly would not do so as much if set against Evie’s dark uniform.

Still pinching myself!

The spooky specs were a bit of a surprise at the book launch and were possibly the result of crossed wires between my desire to make Tom look more human and last-minute discussion with Keerat or Paul. Again views on the specs are divided: Daniel Scott at the book’s distributors, Allison & Busby, said he thought they might draw the eye and so attract sales.

Now you see them…

Others thought they were ghostly and offputting, myself included, and so Tom’s specs are less intimidating on the paperback. Who is right? Who knows?

…now you don’t.

The first paperback I lifted out of its nest of tissue paper (and stroked, crooned over and sniffed – come on, don’t we all with a new baby?) convinced me that the book is now, if not perfect, certainly as I had always imagined it. I think we have taken the right cover decisions – but of course only time – and future sales – will tell.

Enjoy the read – within whichever set of covers you have chosen. And thank you to Parmjit and Keerat and WIAS and Paul and Daniel and everyone else involved in the wild ride thus far 🙏🌹.

Major Tom’s War by Highland author Vee Walker will be out in paperback via all good booksellers from 19th November priced £9.99. It is already available as an e-reader edition and in hardback.

Vee will be signing advance copies of the paperback at Storehouse of Foulis near Dingwall from 11am to 3pm on Saturday 14 November 2020.

Remembering remembrance…

The poignant CWGC war graves of those British soldiers who died liberating the town (Bavay cemetery). They so nearly survived the war.

My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday involves my mother at the wheel of her green Morris Traveller, a redoutable half-timbered vehicle, half car, half cupboard. We lived in Kirkhill then, it was Sunday and we were late for church in Fortrose and so she was driving faster than normal. We came round a bend and there, to our mutual horror, was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the war memorial at Tore. Dignified veterans scattered as we unintentionally roared through the centre of the parade at precisely 11am. Mum was so mortified she wept – but she kept her foot and head hard down for fear of being recognised as a respected local teacher. ‘Oh, what would your grandpa have thought?’ she gasped.

This was over fifty years ago now. The road layout by the church has been changed to correct the blind bend, and the church is no longer even a church. Things change. Life has moved on and yet, at this grey time of year, as autumn crumbles into the cold earth of winter, we continue to remember those who have died as a result of war.

Evie, daughters Libba and Numpy my mother, Tom

The Armistice is commemorated with even greater solemnity in France than it is here. 11th November is a national holiday. In Bavay, a small town devastated by two world wars, children lay bouquets adorned with tricolor ribbons. The difference is invasion. Channel Islands apart, the UK did not suffer the agony and humiliation of military overthrow and control by a hostile foreign power. In France they remember the fallen but also the relief of a double liberation just 26 years apart.

Tom, my mother’s father, was in Bavay for the very end of the war. Even though he was then married, the last year of WWI was the hardest of all for him: he returned from convalescence after gassing to find his Indian cavalry brothers had all been sent to Mesopotamia. He was now an Assistant Provost Marshal (a military policeman) for a division and could not accompany them. He would never see his Indian cavalry friend Amar Singh or his right hand man Arjan Singh – or any of them – ever again.

The statue of Risaldar Major Amar Singh near Takkapur in Punjab, with my poppy cross.

During the retreat from the Somme in March 1918, Tom held back men fleeing in chaos at gunpoint and tried to stem the flood of desperate refugees. These scenes remained with him as recurring nightmares to the end of his life.

When the Armistice was announced on November 11th he was one of the first to know via a signal he then copied out by hand and distributed to the maires within the area.

Talking with the pupils of Amar Singh High School

How do I know this? Back in 2018 during my Armistice Day visit to Bavay, an elderly lady knocked on the door of the Auberge de Bellevue where I was staying. She was the grand-daughter of Gaston Derome, the maire of Bavay, who wrote my grandfather the thank you letter which led me to Bavay on the first place. She handed over a cardboard box. Inside were Gaston’s diaries.

Short of time before my departure I found the entry for 11th November. This paper fluttered out at his feet – and I bent and picked up Tom’s note to Gaston giving details of how the Armistice was to be conducted.

Gaston’s war as a civilian was arguably worse than Tom’s as a soldier. Widowed just before the war, and with four young children, he was arrested, threatened with execution more than once, imprisoned and interned.

Tom rode into Bavay on 7th November and the battle to liberate the little town lasted two days. A shell exploded at Gaston’s house, narrowly avoiding both Gaston and Tom. I have stood beside the door where it happened.

Tom’s name in Gaston’s cramped handwriting – a little misspelled but no doubt about it- appears under the words le prevôt maréchal – the provost marshal

In a way the writing of Major Tom’s War has been a personal journey of commemoration. I hope the paperback will soon reach the descendants of Amar Singh and Arjan Singh in India, and, one day, once the French translation is complete, of Gaston Derome in Bavay.

Over 74,000 Indian Army soldiers died in WWI. And of the 40 million casualties worldwide, 10 million were civilians. Lest we forget.

Vee Walker’s award-winning novel Major Tom’s War can be ordered now from the publishers Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com), Waterstones and Amazon RRP £9.99.

A moving museum in all senses…

‘Mum, how far is it to Gairloch?’ piped my younger offspring from the back seat.

‘Oh, only about an hour,’ I lied cheerfully, as we drove west along Fortrose High Street.

The museum’s striking new Pictish Fish branding…

As soon as I had heard that Gairloch Museum, recently relocated to new premises, had won the 2020 Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, I had told them that like it or not, We Were Going.

Out of the corner of my eye I could just see my husband rolling his eyes from the front seat but chose to ignore it. ‘I shall probably just sit in the car and listen to sport,’ had been his main contribution to the discussion of the trip the night before. My younger daughter really wanted to stay at home and crochet hats, a new-found lucrative (she hopes) hobby. I told her she could crochet in the car. My elder daughter had shown rather more enthusiasm for the trip although I think the magic words ‘sandy beach’ and ‘lunch out’ may have had a lot to do with that.

In fairness to my beloved family, their response to a potential museum visit is probably of my own making. Years working in museums (notably HMS Belfast in London, the Imperial War Museum’s largest collection item) and heritage (‘Look darlings! Another lovely old house. Yes, with columns…’) even before I started my consulting business meant they had probably reached cultural saturation point long ago. Or so they thought.

Breathtaking views from the roads to and from Gairloch…

It was a beautiful autumn day, which helped the drive, and the colours and reflections were breathtaking. We had timed our visit to allow for lunch and first enjoyed a meal at the Barn Restaurant at Big Sand – recommended by the museum team. We had already passed the new museum site on our approach – if Gairloch is spread along the coast road like a long, slow smile, the new museum is a rotten tooth made bright and white and whole again.

The museum sporting its Museum of the Year winner’s banner

At some point during the journey I had let slip the fact that the new museum had been created in an old nuclear bunker. The responses to this were predictable: will it be radioactive, then? All the old che sera sera prejudices. Will it be chilly? Will it be kitsch? Libraries are silent. Museums are cold. And bunkers glow in the dark…

The initial impact of the museum is one of new-build modernism, a stark white cube with one of the key exhibits from the collection, the great russet foghorn from the Rubh Re lighthouse, jutting up in the foreground. It looks much bigger than it did at the old museum site. In fact, everything does. I longed to know what it might sound like. Would it be feasible to have a once-a-day foghorn blast, I wondered, a bit like the One o’ Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle?

The mighty and Monty Pythonesque Rudha Re Foghorn…

I did not know the old museum well but visited on a couple of occasions for meetings with its doughty curator, Dr Karen Buchanan. It had long outgrown the wee croft of its original site with various larger exhibits spilling over into the area outside it. Inside the original was a couthy jumble of contents, affectionately assembled over the years. It was lovely in its informality but it also resembled oh-so-many others – and the heating and lighting were so poor that conservation conditions were the stuff of nightmares. I remember, for example, glancing without great interest at a large ridged glass object tucked into a dark corner.

The kind and welcoming reception team at the new museum…

Well. The lens from the lighthouse at Rubh Re now provides the brilliant heart of the new museum. As with so many other exhibits, improved display, giving objects more room to breathe, now stops visitors in their tracks. You can see the top of the lens peep, enticingly, from behind the reception desk. It dazzles in the first museum space entered (my elder daughter kept looking at the small lightbulb inside it, unable to believe the impact of its multiple reflection, which once saved so many vessels from the rocks). Audio here (with sanitiser) provides first hand accounts of lighthouse life. And the hanging galleries suspended around the first floor also provide a view of the lens from above. This is how to celebrate an iconic object.

One small bulb to light up the sky…

There was sound here too. The gallery to one side of the great lens is dedicated to the early protesting outdoor worship of the Free Presbyterian Church (I confess the phrase ‘have you seen the light?’ flitted through my mind at this juxtaposition). The best preachers could attract hundreds and sometimes thousands to their open-air services. A recording of Gaelic psalm-singing led by a precentor filled the space. My younger daughter said it reminded her of something – but she couldn’t remember what, and the moment passed.

On the opposite side, a polished axe and arrow heads floated beautifully within their cases. ‘So you can just find those in the dunes?’ asked my elder daughter, with a gleam in her eye (we did try later, but no luck). I remembered finding a similarly-marked clay pot at Kindrogan Field Centre when I was my younger daughter’s age, during a brief spell when I fancied archaeology as a career. We found ourselves talking, really talking, about something other than COVID 19 and what was for dinner for the first time in way too long, and it felt good.

Both girls and husband loved the upstairs interactive gallery and the sight of them bouncing repeatedly on the foot plate to try to cause an even greater earthquake was highly entertaining.

Making the earth move…

I liked the display of taxidermy here. One school of thought suggests that stuffed birds etc should now be confined to the flames out of a sense of respect – but this would not bring them back to life. Isn’t it more respectful to see them contribute to learning? Artful display at small person level means a child can now look straight into the wild face of a golden eagle. That engagement could trigger a lifelong fascination for these fabulous birds. This is not to endorse the killing of wildlife today, just making respectful use of the taxidermy we already have.

Eyeball to eyeball with aquila aurea…

We liked the crofthouse recreation (much discussion over the pros and cons of a box bed) but I found the lack of a sustained period of illumination without keeping your finger on the button a wee bit irritating and photography here was a struggle. 20 seconds would do fine.

The crofthouse interior

The little school display after this was every inch my own Highland primary school at Inchmore. It made my palm itch and had me wondering where the tawse was, but perhaps I missed it.

The Dominie’s fearsome desk…

It is not often my husband sings, but he did so when he found the little grocery shop recreation. The gallery was soon reverberating to ‘Zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes are good for your tubes…’. Good thing he was wearing a mask. ‘Oooooh, but they were rough…’ Savouring the memory, he wandered on, the man who had just been going to sit in the car outside and listen to sport.

Longest exhibit stay time here in the shoppie…

Nearby, ‘Yarn!’ exclaimed my youngest, admiring twisted hanks of hand-dyed wool in the exact shades of autumn visible outside. She wondered if she could crochet the stockings on display instead of knit them and suddenly we we were discussing the relative merits and even the mathematical properties of the two techniques.

You can buy the pattern for the famous Gairloch stockings in the shop…

In the final gallery before redescending the stairs, I found myself confronted by a familiar sign warning trespassers not to set foot on Gruinard Island, site of a  misguided experiment in biological warfare using anthrax. My mother had told me the story as a child and I vividly remember the shock of this sign in situ. I still find the concept of deliberately poisoning soil to gain military advantage profoundly disturbing.

The chilling anthrax warning sign for Gruinard Island…

The use of the space is clever – elevating the bicycle and spinning wheel reminded me of Alan Borg’s groundbreaking refurb of the Imperial War Museum in the 1980s, when large collection items were suspended from the roof for the first time. I liked the temporary exhibition area too, currently housing an attractive art exhibition.

Local art for sale…

How the designers have contrived to make a concrete bunker feel so warm and welcoming is anybody’s guess. The staff/volunteers at the reception desk were a delight both over the phone in advance and in person. (They could maybe mention that the loos are halfway through the visit not near reception in that arrival briefing? Or perhaps they did but I missed it).

The view from the upper galleries…

One thing I should have asked, but failed to, was how much of the site we missed because of COVID closures. There is a good one way system based on simple sticky arrows on the floor with social distancing and sanitising in place where there were objects which could be handled.

Audio is still available and can be sanitised before/after use. ‘Touchable’ items are clearly indicated.

I glimpsed a bright and spacious research room and the café is not yet up and running for COVID-related reasons. If there were outdoor spaces the route did not include them. We browsed the classy shop and bought a few nice bits and bobs, then went on our way rejoicing, to risk our necks on a steep and slippery track down to the superb sandy beach nearby.

One of Gairloch’s many magnificent beaches

Both girls fell fast asleep on the way home, just as they used to when they were small – but as she was drifting off the younger suddenly remembered what it was the Gaelic psalms reminded her of. ‘Istanbul,’ she said. Absolutely true. I am not sure what the local Free Church minister would think, but to us the Gaelic psalms sounded very like the imam’s plaintive call to prayer at Agia Sophia in the centre of Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, which Viking settlers hereabouts would have called Miklagard.

We drove home without mentioning COVID once, the girls dozing, my husband still singing the Zubes song under his breath and myself thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about the universality of worship. We have promised ourselves a return visit to Gairloch’s Museum when all areas (and its own café) are fully open. What an asset for Gairloch – and for the whole of the Scottish Highlands.

Shoals of Pictish fish acknowledge individual donors…