Good News at Christmas



My sixth year pupils have been producing a school news blog and I am rather chuffed with their work. If you link through to their blog on Glow Scotland you will see a lovely account of a wonderful party that the students organised. Have a great Christmas.



Running Remembered

I haven’t been running much lately and I haven’t been to Kintyre for nearly two years now. Then I stumbled across this old blog post from my days on the running site Fetcheveryone and thought I would share it with you.


Every so often I take the crooked road to Kintyre, driving North and West from Glasgow to skirt the edges of Loch Fyne, before putting the same distance into descending southward into the drooping peninsula. Over the last years I have come to love the long curve of beach from Westport into Macrahannish. An unprepossessing car park, oddly municipal in this wild place, sits next to an anonymous hunch of sand dune- it could be a mere hillock of bleached grass- but walk through the gate and the world, at its last margin between land and sea, opens up for you.

The beach, secret and tacit behind the sheltering line of dunes, curves away with a suction that seems to insist upon your presence. A sandy and grassy path meets your step with a springing, tuned thud. The first sand is dry and golden, fine and giving- too giving to hold a runner’s step. On your shoulder the dunes reveal a hollow amphitheatre: there could be children playing there, perched in the high dress circle but the bowl of sand traps their voices in its stillness.
Distances stretch, the beach is far wider than your first perceptions of it. The dry golden sand gives way to a tide-washed darker edge. Here the Atlantic waves imperturbably steamroller a hard and flat way for you on the edge of the land. This is where you can dance between waves and shingle and sand. This is where the sand gives just enough. This is where you can run.

Look over your shoulder at that straight line of footprints you think that your dedication is driving into the beach you see it is a woozy undulation. The flat and hard sand starts to arrange itself into a pattern of short rises and falls, wavelike in itself. The sea has not made a highway for you, but left its swell in the land. Expeditionary sorties of waves rush towards you, chattering foam, muttering viciousness, forcing you to prance onto soft gold sand and deceitful shingle. You don’t conquer this beach, you become- for the briefest of times- part of the flow here.
And then there is the wind pushing in off the sea- setting you off on mighty and tireless legs only to traduce you. It may feel like a gentle breeze at your back on the outward leg but it will insist squeezing you close – holding on to each of your steps, each of your ragged breaths on the return. You run where the wind and the sea and the sand allow you to run. Your footfall, that act of volition, ignited between mind and muscle, was chosen and shaped as much by the Atlantic growling at your side as by the thing that you call yourself.
But there’s always the sky, this evening bright and blue, Islay and Jura serrated against the horizon, and the sun laying a trembling column of white and silver across the waves. The flight of Oyster-catchers scramble in alarm, flicking to the left to show their black and white plumage and the long needle of their beaks. High-pitched outrage from the birds registers sharply, startled peeps above the gruff rumble of the sea, and fills the mind for a moment.
My dog comes with me on these runs. Four legs make a better fist of this job. He loops crazy orbits around me, eccentric perihelions influenced by the pull of his nose towards the mystery of invisible odours and his somewhat marginal attachment to me. He will pick up hefty pieces of driftwood and run with them for miles. I envy and delight in his easy grace and simple strength. If the distance between us becomes too great I stretch my arms wide and call him. He manages a straighter line than I can as he gallops back, ears flapping, body straight with all the intent of a falling arrow.
The detritus of the beach is his business: the bloated seal carcasses; the dying gannet- hard beak and stern eye still formidable enough to make the dog wary; the smoking phosphorous flare, resurfaced from some sunken arms cache of the second world war and regurgitated like an irritant from the lining of the ocean’s stomach; the bright orange buoys, like hard plastic footballs, broken free from lobster pots they once marked. The strange and familiar traffic of this beach.

And on this run, the porpoise, a metre long- the pectoral fins and the flesh around the jaw already torn away. My dog dropped his shoulder into the body to rub his flank along its slate grey side. I roared and he backed away. Stopping to take in the eerie incongruity of the remnants of the creature, I see its tail has twisted from the horizontal plane. For a moment I contemplate that it is some huge fish; it is as mysterious as an image in a medieval bestiary but the teeth, the blowhole and the ventral slit tell me that it is a mammal. And yet, giving it a name, placing it in a taxonomy cannot strip it of its strangeness. I think of it quick and lithe in the waves, arcing between air and water for breath and think about its death. Then I start to run again.


Higher Writing Folio Model

This was put together as a model of the monologue form with inflections towards Scots dialect for Higher English students. The title was borrowed- stolen to be honest-  from a popular piece of young adult fiction by Anthony McGowan that was very popular with students in the school I teach in.


The Knife That Killed Me

The knife? It was right there on the table but it wasn’t my fault. I took years to make the cut.

It was my mum you see. She wanted us to be that wee bit better than everybody else. We had the end block in the terrace, nice garden, dad always in work. Decent hard-working family in a nice wee council scheme in the country: idyllic you’d think- nestled below the Campsie hills, the cattle from the farmer’s fields would sometimes find their way into the streets and gardens. I remember my dad digging freshly deposited cow dung into the roses a few times.

You just need to be that wee bit different- a wee bit too posh, a wee bit too clever, a wee bit too Catholic a wee bit too… Take your pick mate, any excuse’ll do in these parts. Not much to do in the country you see, so recreational violence becomes the primary occupation of the weans. Fine if you’re in the right gang with plenty of mates. I spoke correctly, stuck in at school. No doubt about it, I was in the “rang gang”. Christ! When I was seven or eight I got hammered in the face by an older kid by telling him that the earth moved round the sun! I know, Galileo becomes famous for that argument, I just get a burst lip and mental trauma.

I liked the kid that did that to me; I was scared of him but I liked him. He took three of us on a patrol through the reed-beds near the old mill. I was scared of the scratchy needles that the reeds rasped on my bare arms, by the way that the ground would loop down into sudden black puddles. My hands would fly up to reassure themselves by touching the back of this boy. Half to balance myself and half for comfort. He whirled on me, told me to keep my hands to myself. He was furious with my fear, contemptuous of the softness, the weakness in the gesture.

He spoke of his plans about killing the boy with red hair: one of the kids who was that bit different. He would get the wee weirdo and hold him under one these deep puddles until he had blown his last bubble. He was like some kind of scent-hound who tracked and savaged the weak, the unfit and the broken.

No, don’t worry, the three of us came back- the red haired kid wasn’t there. As far as I know the big lad never lived out his murderous fantasy.  I was amazed at his power though. I repeated his words to my parents later: “Blow his last bubble!”. I was beguiled by their blunt force. Their faces white and hanging- transfixed by the words from their son: seven years old in shorts and hair still blonde. They told me I was wrong. Where had I heard this? Don’t play with people who say things like that. Where did that boy learn to speak like that?

So there’s me in the “rang gang”. A gang of two by now. I was friends with the posh kid from the new houses that they built on the farmer’s fields. Very posh wee guy indeed, his dad was an art teacher and his mum was a social worker. Total victim material for the local young team. I remember coming off the school bus in the mist of a December evening. Everything black and grey and jaggy shadows. The line of them waiting at the top of the hill. A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, like standing at the top of a cliff and feeling gravity trying to suck me over the edge. I saw them- the young team- split from my mate and dodged the confrontation. But they got him. I could hear the punches and cries through the grey mist. Thank God they were doing it to him and not me.

“That’s your mate they’re hittin’.” The voice of an older boy said.

The young team didn’t let up. They never got a hold of me but they broke limbs of kids from “bought hooses”, took the streets for themselves. Checkpoints and choke points on every walk to the shops. I mean boys fight, but this… to take one wee guy because he had a bit of a mouth on him and set about him in the park: a closed circle of fists and feet. To actually put him in hospital. The thought of it made me shudder.

Their interests matured into drink, glue, drugs. And then it happened- my brother started to run with them- he was young team. Run isn’t the right word because they didn’t do much of that. A distinct presence on the streets was more their thing, a kind of slouching arrogant little militia.

We shared a room and loathed breathing the same air as each other.

So, it’s the night of my graduation. My mum does this big production at the dinner table. You know fine linen table cloth, crystal wine glasses, candelabra, the best china dinner service. She’s put this together over years. The knife? Yeah, that was a wedding present you know. It must be twenty five years old, couple of years older than me. Only out the mahogany box at big events.

Anyway, the brother turns up, in slurred and smiley mood. He sees the graduation picture on top of the telly, the black gown deflated on the couch. He makes a joke about batman, but the mood soon sours. There’s a bad taste in the air. He talks, rants is more like it- he’s fluent with the crazy eloquence of the chemically enhanced. When will he get his picture on the telly? When will we bow to him like a Buddha? He passed his driving test and nobody even shook his hand. I mutter that he is tripping.  He kicks the table and the clatter of china and crystal roars in my mind. All I can hear is things breaking. The knife is in my hand and its swinging…

I’m watching things now but I’m miles away. I’ve stepped off that cliff and I’m falling but I’m standing still.

Then I’m running.



Free and flowing through the night.

Away from the scatter of blood drops that sprayed the textured wallpaper. Away from the white faces and the dark circles of open mouths. I don’t remember stopping…

The brother? He’s okay, he recovered. It was just a scratch really. Defensive wound on the arm I heard.

But the knife killed me. Killed my hope, ended my dreams left me here…

I’ve never minded the smell of disinfectant, it’s sort of comforting: like the way my mum used to put a drop of it with water into a basin next to the bed if you were going to throw up. Being sick can be safe and warm sometimes.

I Would Be…

I Would Be…

  1. Sleeping Lion

I would be your lion,

With a forehead broad and blunt and strong,

Eyes wide and wise and fierce.

You would sleep safe

Held in my heavy bones and soft padded paw

The rumble of my easy growl your lullaby.

Your hands clenched

In the deep softness of my mane

Uncoil in easy sleep.

But I am a man.

Not iron in fang and paw-

Eyes veiled darting and tight.

Your racing heart flees sleep

The lumpen shadow of my sleeping ridge

Is a quilted horizon on the edge of things.

Your hands clenched

Around themselves

Try to grip the spate of thought

In the dark river of your mind.

2. Northern Whale

I would be your whale

A strong back, black and supple

Cutting through grey northern water

Circling the frail boat

Rocking the deck,

Rolling to hold you in my still, dark eye.

Indifferent and proud in your gaze-

Your amazed gaze- the heavy pleats of my throat

My garland of bubbled breath

Making the dark water clear

For a moment

And then gone.

But I am a man

A summer swimmer

In the shallows of warmer seas

A pallid ribbon of flesh

Curving through the blue Cypriot bay

In a forgotten photograph.

A smile hauled back from Aphrodite’s sea,

That glitters, twitches and lies still.

A poor fish, drowning in air.

3. Plough Horse

I would be your plough horse

Fit and willing and true.

Ready- standing at your gate.

“The willing horse gets the work”

And waits for the old embrace,

The apple slice, soft white and red

Taken in lips delicate and strong

From nervous fingers

Is crushed to sweet froth

Filling my mouth

My whole head, with taste

That shudders through the slabs of my flanks.

But I am a man.

I kneel and cut and hammer.

I lay a floor in the old cottage.

A hunched creature

Who thinks and frets and

Swallows thoughts not sweet.

Who walks the Western beach,

Tide and step softly grinding

the murmuring shingle.

To find some rest-

To find some rest he never reaches.

Except in you

I do beg your pardon baby.

Well, I did promise you poetry but this does’t quite fit the bill. It’s a song lyric that I managed to fit a blues chord sequence to after drinking some wine. The chords are now forgotten but here’s the lyric anyway.


I Do Beg Your Pardon Baby

I do beg your pardon baby

But things are a little crazy in my head.

Can’t hear my voice and I’ve lost my words,

Now everything can’t be said.


I’m just rolling in self-loathing

Sweat soaking the sheets on my bed

Your right next to me but its plain to see

My song is not here to be heard.


Yeah I do beg your pardon baby

I’m winding myself in this sheet.

I’ve got nothing to offer but silence

For everything broken or left incomplete.


I’d like to pour out the memory,

Erase the space for the files.

No flashbacks or panic attacks and give me the cash back

As my new profile compiles.


Oh, I do beg your pardon baby

That I am not the man you can see.

Because the words are there and the voice is true

But the song can’t be sung by me


Yes, I really beg your pardon baby

This song won’t be reaching for you

It can stay unsung, stopped up and dumb

Who needs a tune you already knew?


Vimy Ridge- One hundred years on

Vimy Ridge – One Hundred Years On




James Caldwell is my great grandfather, he died in the attack on Vimy Ridge on the 10th April 1917. He was born to Annie Caldwell a domestic servant in Colmonnel, Ayrshire on the 21st July 1892. At the start of the first world war he was employed an asylum attendant in Hawkhead Hospital in Glasgow. His wife to be, Annie McMaster, was a laundress. They married  on the 21st March 1916 after James enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders: a volunteer, not a conscript. The ceremony was probably quiet, taking place in the manse house rather than the Kirk.  Annie already had one child, James, and another, Hugh, was expected soon. A marriage in the front room of the kirk in  Mingavnie, Annie’s home town, would be society’s tight-lipped shake of the head; their relationship was sanctioned but hardly celebrated.

James’s address on the marriage certificate is given as South Camp, Ripon. This was a huge training camp in North Yorkshire. James made out his informal soldier’s will on 15 July 1916 bequeathing everything to Annie. Looking at the handwritten soldier’s will which is now available online is poignant.

On the Western Front James served with the 1/7 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He died of wounds of wounds inflicted during the offensive on Vimy Ridge on the 10th April 1917. I had these basic details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but I was to find a fuller picture elsewhere.

A small miracle occurred when I started to look into his life by searching for any documentation  that may have survived. Many army service records from the first world war have been lost. They were destroyed during the blitz on London during the second world war. However, some were saved and are know as the burnt records. Finding my great grandfather’s documentation among these was as close to time travel as I am likely to experience.

These documentary fragments showed that he had been ill in France and that he had been punished with a fine of a week’s wages for losing equipment. I wondered what the infringement had been, but the detail was sparse. I found his battalion’s war diary and discovered that on the run up to the Vimy Ridge assault there had been a big football match. I wondered whether he played or spectated?

However, among of the most poignant things was the letter accompanying the personal effects sent back to Annie: two kilt pins, some photographs and letters. This was probably what prompted one of the saddest letters I have ever seen. Annie wrote to James’ regiment. She explained that her husband’s watch had not been returned with his effects. She requested that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders send her a kilt in the regimental tartan, so that her boys would have something to remember their father by. Annie’s letter is beautifully written in an elegant cursive hand, but awkwardly expressed. Here was a young woman, who’s occupation was given as laundress when she married, using the resources she had to overcome her grief and find a fitting memorial to her husband. There is no record of any reply from the regiment

It is thought within the family that Annie struggled to cope with the loss of her young husband. The couple’s  two boys were raised by their aunt Flora, Annie’s sister. Annie passed away in 1935, succumbing to TB at the age of 41.

James’s son is my grandfather, also James Caldwell. He served in the second world war on HMS Ramillies as a Petty Officer. He was a good man, well-respected and loving.  Keeping the memory of his father alive is something I think he would have appreciated.

Searching through the documents that mark the simple milestones of James and Annie’s brief time together- births, marriages, deaths, has allowed me to tell this story and, in a small way, to understand their sacrifice.

Higher English Model Essay: A Streetcar Named Desire


This is a model essay written for fifth and sixth year students of SQA Higher English

Choose from a play a scene which you find amusing or moving or disturbing. Explain how the scene provokes this response and discuss how this aspect of the scene contributes to your understanding of the play as a whole.


In “A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams” we are confronted by the disturbing decline of the main character, Blanche Dubois, at the beginning of scene ten. She had attempted to maintain the façade of being a genteel and restrained Southern Belle, all fine manners, elegant dresses and good education for much of the play. However, her attempts to sustain this illusion have been confronted with the stark reality of her past and this has led to a marked deterioration in her mental state.

At the beginning of the scene we see the once poised and refined Blanche dressed in a “soiled evening gown”, a cheap rhinestone tiara and “slightly scuffed silver slippers”. Her attempts to create what she had previously called “temporary magic- the illusion of glamour and sophistication- have failed.

At this stage of the play Stanley Kowalkski, her brother in law and nemesis has uncovered the somewhat sordid details behind Blanche’s departure from her position as a high school teacher in the town of Laurel: she had been involved in an affair with a seventeen year old student and been discovered. Moreover, she had been staying at the hotel Flamingo where her behaviour could be described as morally dubious, with hints that she veered close to prostitution. As noted earlier, her attempts to glamorize her predicament and use the illusion of class that her clothing once gave her have failed. She seems to be unravelling before our eyes. The tiara is tilted, the clothing is grubby and out of place in the far from grand setting of a one room apartment in a run-down part of New Orleans and, most worryingly of all, Blanche is muttering excitedly to a group of “spectral admirers”. All in all, this is a disturbing portrait of a women going through mental collapse.

These are ghost figures from her past that have been evoked from Blanche’s troubled mind. Previously in the play Blanche has been in control of the illusions that she created, particularly in the combination of the prim maiden coupled with enticing seductress that she has created for her admirer Mitch. Now she appears to be in the grip of an illusion that is controlling her. The moment when Blanche slams a hand mirror onto the table in front of her is shocking in its violence, but also in the manner in which it symbolizes Blanche’s self-loathing and, perhaps, the flicker of self-realization that the ability to manipulate illusion and “Put on butterfly wings” has been lost.

We need to realise that Stanley Kowalski has taken definite and methodical steps to destroy Blanche’s mind. The play has been a struggle between the blue collar, working class Stanley- clearly a character who represents the power and the crassness of modern America- and the middle-class ethics, values and “Southern Belle” behaviour of Blanche: a remnant of the older American South. Stanley has been utterly triumphant in this struggle. Stella has refused to leave Stanley despite Blanche’s protests that Stella is too good for this “Vulgar” and “ape-like” man.  In a moment of telling dramatic irony, Stanley hears these insults from Blanche, but rather than exploding in rage, which would only reinforce the accusations he bides his time and probes into Blanche’s past. Timing his retaliation precisely, he reveals Blanche’s past at her birthday supper and presents her with ticket home. More cuttingly, he has also informed Mitch of the accusations of promiscuity. Mitch is the man whom Blanche sees as a saviour, “a cleft in the hard rock of the world” in which she can shelter by marrying. Therefore the state in which we see Blanche descend to at the beginning of scene ten is the consequence of deliberate and cruel behaviour on the part of Stanley. Tellingly, it is Blanche herself who makes the point that “Only deliberate cruelty is unforgivable”. This condemns Stanley, but unwittingly Blanche also condemns herself. Her life has hinged around the moment when she told her first husband, Alan, “You disgust me”, prompting him to commit suicide following the implied revelation of his homosexuality. Blanche herself has deliberately and cruelly destroyed the one man she truly loved and has never recovered from this moment

Mitch, acting on Stanley’s information, has also belatedly arrived at the apartment to deliver the blow that he will not marry Blanche as “You ain’t clean enough to bring home to my mother”

Moreover, Blanche has been “drinking steadily” since the blow of the birthday party revelations. The anxiety and near alcoholism that have accompanied her character since the opening of the play are combining to loosen her grip on reality. Tennessee Williams makes extensive use of lighting and sound in scene ten to evoke the mental deterioration that Blanche is undergoing. Ominous shadows loom outside and the shadow play of a prostitute brawling with man seems to foreshadow the terrifying future that Blanche sees for herself. The negative aspects of Blanche’s character that have been hinted at or just about controlled up until this point in the play- her mingling of illusion and reality  now seem to be combining for a disastrous climax to the play as she appears increasingly detached from reality and intensely vulnerable.

She has been totally defeated by Stanley and now finds herself alone in the small apartment with the euphoric Stanley. He has just returned from the hospital- the trauma of the revelations at the birthday party had forced his wife Stella into labour. He appears conciliatory and jovial towards Blanche at first, but hints of a predatory sexual nature establish themselves as he “licks his lips” and makes clumsy comments about ripping off his silk pyjamas to celebrate the imminent arrival of first child. It should be remembered that Blanche has in the past few hours undergone public humiliation from Stanley and the subsequent physical degradation at the hands of Mitch who drags her face into the light and attempts to force himself on her now that he has crudely categorised her as promiscuous and sexually available.

As the scene continues Blanche resorts to her old ways and desperately tries to weave another illusion about preparing to go off on a Caribbean cruise with the millionaire Shep Huntleigh. However, her inconsistencies in the story provoke an explosion of rage from Stanley who, once again, shreds Blanche’s illusion by telling her that he knows exactly where Mitch is.  He then derides her clothes and taunts her about the absence of Shep Huntleigh. He has humiliated her, destroyed her hopes of marriage and security and is preparing to render her destitute by sending her back to Laurel. When he looks at her, it is with the “crudely categorising” gaze described in scene one. When he says, “Maybe you wouldn’t be so bad to interfere with.” this is the language of predatory sexual abuse. Stanley has identified Blanche as a woman totally within his power with whom he can do as he likes. Broken and humiliated, Blanche has become an object to be taken and disposed of: Stanley rapes her.

His self-justifying, “We’ve had this date from the beginning” suggesting that this is in some way a consensual act is chilling. It reveals that the way in which Stanley “crudely categorises women” seems natural and acceptable to him and perhaps to men more generally.

The scene is powerful and disturbing Blanche’s life of illusion is shattered by Stanley in a series of events culminating in the chilling rape. They represent they collision of different views of America, with Stanley’s powerful yet crude view of the world ultimately winning the day by crushing the illusion that Blanche has used to survive.


National 5 English: Model Essay “My Grandmother’s Houses”


This is a piece of model writing that I used with an S4 class recently- it deals with the first two sections of the poem “My Grandmother’s Houses” by Jackie Kay, one of the set texts on the Scottish National 5 English curriculum

5. Choose a poem which describes a person or a place or an event in a memorable way. By referring to poetic techniques, explain how the poet makes this poem so memorable.

The poem “My Grandmother’s Houses” by Jackie Kay takes the reader to a very specific place: the houses that her grandmother lived in towards the end of her life. The poet adopts the personna of her younger self  and looks at these place through the eyes of a child. By doing this, she gives a compelling insight into the places she describes but also into her own personality and her grandmother’s character. The poem is memorable because of the vivid language that describes unusual things, helping us to learn about these people and the places that they inhabit.

The poem is split into three sections and each section describes a different house and set of experiences. The poem begins with the lines:

“She is on the second floor of a tenement.

From her front room window you see the cemetery.”

This is a small detail, but the opening line perhaps foreshadows the grandmother’s death, which is more strongly hinted at in the concluding lines of the poem when the grandmother is living on the

“…ground floor of a high rise.

From her living-room you see ambulances,

screaming their way to the Royal Infirmary.”

Looking at the beginning and the end of the poem in this way, with its hints about the grandmother’s death suggests that the central sections are an attempt by Jackie Kay to recover the memories she has of her grandmother and of herself as child.

If this is the case, then she does so very successfully by using a range of images, ideas and language techniques that evoke the life of both the grandmother and the young girl. In the first section of the poem we discover that that the grandmother has a strange compulsion: she has taken every gift that she has been given since the second world war, wrapped it in newspaper and stored it in her bedroom. The young girl is fascinated by this behaviour as it creates a strange playground for her:

“At night I climb

over all the newspaper parcels to get to bed,

harder than the school’s obstacle course.”

This strange image suggests the extent of the grandmother’s hoard of newspaper wrapped presents and makes the reader wonder what it is about her personality that has led to this rather obsessive and impractical behaviour. The child-like and non-judgmental way in which this strange behaviour is described allows the reader to start to think about why the grandmother behaves in this eccentric manner.

Jackie Kay then also us a long list of  small luxuries and useful gifts that the grandmother has been given:

“I spend hours unwrapping and wrapping endless

tablecloths, napkins, perfume, bath salts,

These small things would make her grandmother’s life just a little more pleasant yet she refuses to use them and hides them away in this almost obsessive way. Showing us this small detail about her grandmother lets the reader speculate that her grandmother may once have suffered from hardship and this hoard of luxuries is something that she is caching away like a squirrel to alleviate some imagined hardship in her future.

We also see how the eyes of the child notices every detail of the grandmother’s habits. She is aware of her grandmother’s routines, watching her closely as she goes to the newsagent, buys a paper, and chews sweets. We learn that the grandmother  regularly goes to,

“The newsagents next door which sells

hazelnut toffees and her Daily Record.

Chewing for ages over the front page,

her toffees sticking to her false teeth.

The imagery creates a sense of the grandmothers regular habits comes through strongly here. Moreover, we also get the idea that the grandmother struggles to read, “chewing for ages” with this image implying that the grandmother is not a fluent reader- working her mind slowly over the words just as her teeth slowly work away at the toffee. However, she reads well enough to understand a letter telling her that she is to be rehoused in a newly built house:

“When she gets the letter she is hopping mad.

What does she want with anything modern,

a shiny new pin?”

The grandmother’s contempt for anything that will break her habits and routines comes through in these lines which seek to recreate her voice. Her rhetorical question that dismisses anything new, anything different, is scathing and contemptuous in tone. She is utterly dismissive of anything modern entering her life.

However, she does move and the details that the poet selects about the high rise block in which she is rehoused show how her grandmother was deeply traumatised by the experience. We learn that this older women, who is very settled in her ways is now located on the twenty fourth floor of a high rise block. The lift is faulty and even so high up they can hear, “noisy children”. The calm certainty and routine of her old life is gone and what is left is a sense of alienation and strangeness. Routine is re-created by the grandmother making “endless pots of soup”. This reminds us of her obsessive, repetitive habits with the piles of newspaper wrapped gifts heaped in her bedroom. When faced with stress the grandmother will try to create a routine to make sense of life. However, the Jackie Kay’s child’s eye view of the situation captures how unsettling the experience is by selecting an unusual image to focus on:

“a bit bit of hoch floating inside like a fish”

This is a small detail but the description of meat bone in the soup seems to evoke the image of something out of place, wrong and adrift. The child’s view point  and selection of a strong image seems to suggest the grandmother’s alienation- being, in a sense, a fish out of water, in her new environment.

The grandmother is made of strong stuff though and eventually she learns to cope with her new environment and even enjoy some of the basic comforts that are new to her:

“finally she gets to like the hot

running water in her own bathroom,

the wall-to-wall foam-backed carpet,”

She has an abilty to endure and it becoming clear that her stubborn ablity to stick to a routine is key to her surival through times of hardship. One of her routines is religion and the grandmother tries to pass this habit or belief onto her granddaughter. The stubborness of the grandmother in doing this is shown in the word choice:

“goes to church on Sundays,

dragging me along to the strange place where the air

is trapped and ghosts sit at the altar.

The grandmother has no hesitation in forcing her granddaughter to do to church: clearly seen in use of “dragging” a word that suggest force on the old woman’s part and reluctance from the child in return. It would seem that the child is as stubborn as the grandmother. The description of the church shows that the grandmother’s efforts have been in vain. The child feels as alienated in this “strange place” as the grandmother did in her new flat. Additionally, the word choice that describes the church where the atmosphere itself is “trapped” suggests force and imprisonment and emphasises how uncomfortable the young girl is in the church.

However, despite the fact that the grandmother has failed to make her granddaughter feel any sense of real religion we do see that they are linked in their stubborn refusal to adapt to things around them just because they are expected too.

In conclusion, it is clear that this poem uses vivid description of setting and events to explore the characters of the grandmother and the granddaughter. The child eye view of the world allows selects descriptive details and uses language to allow the reader see how they both react to change in the environment in which they live.

A Longer View

To A.

This wouldn’t fit on Facebook so hopefully you followed the link here.

I don’t disagree with you about Nigeria and the situation there is worth looking at in the long term. It is a country built on imperial/colonial contingency, cobbling together enormously diverse ethnic and cultural groupings for the sake of administrative smoothness, a Sykes-Picot in Africa if you will.

The mainly Islamic north is at odds with the Christian and Animist south and the predominant ethnic groups- Hausa Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo have their own diverse cultures.

Within a few years of independence it became a military dictatorship, ostensibly to oust corrupt politicians. I remember reading Wole Soyinka’s “Season of Anomie,” a novel set in this period, and being staggered by the description of the swiftness and brutality of this movement into chaos.

It was torn apart by civil war when the Igbo people founded Biafra and attempted to break away from the state following what would now be labelled as a genocidal campaign against the Igbo people in the predominantly Islamic northern states. The images of the famine caused by this war were truly awful and yet the country did not break apart. The elites, civil and military — they periodically swapped places with each other- had access to the immense oil-wealth of the country and they starved the rebel state out of existence. It is estimated that two million people died in the conflict, mainly the consequences of famine. This link is a fair summary of the events and does a decent job of holding power to account with regard to the reasons behind Britain’s tacit support of the blockade of Biafra.

It could be argued that the Boko-Haram actions are the latest iteration of the conflict that has been on-going along the post-colonial fracture lines of Nigerian society.

So why no Western intervention? Because the oil keeps flowing. Fairly recent stories about a reluctance on the part of the Nigerian administration to accept western military assistance in the hunt for the school-girls kidnapped by Boko Haram point to a certain canniness on the part of the Nigerian administration. “Boots on the ground” could be the thin end of the wedge-the thick end being a full scale invasion- and the loss of prestige that inviting the old colonial power back in would bring. However, the oil keeps flowing and the elite are pliable enough to do business with.

Nigeria’s story is hardly covered up, the sorry tale has been used a case study in political science for years: this is a good introduction

Is it just another tale of politics operating in a moral vacuum? Pragmatism, realpolitik, Machiavellianism, take your pick of the labels you want. So long view or short term, bleak cynicism seems to rule the day.

Looking at Africa in general this book is tremendous You start to see the casualty figures run into millions and western culpability, through sins of both commission and omission, over the last fifty years.

As for Trump, oh, “Had we world enough and time”. I almost feel like setting myself an essay task — “Is Donald Trump the end of the idea of American Exceptionalism?”

Although, I think that when I watched US soldiers in their new, German styled helmets, roll over Kuwait in the early nineties and thought how oddly like Imperial Storm Troopers they were and thought, “Hmm, it looks like the ‘we’ are the bad guys in this film” was when the above idea took a fatal blow for me.

Overall, here’s a conundrum for us, politics without a moral purpose leads to cynical short term opportunism. However moral purpose will quickly become an “ism” and ideology has been the greatest machine of mass murder in the modern age. How can a balance be struck between the two ? Especially when the world, to use the words of WB Yeats in “The Second Coming,” is like this:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity”

Yeats wrote this during the Irish Civil War, The Russian Revolution, The First World War and the pandemic of the Spanish Flu-  so it is a product of enormously uncertain times. Throw in global financial meltdown and the rise of fascism across Europe and he was absolutely correct; the centre did not hold. It was broken and remade in the second world war.

The parallels are clear today, we have widespread financial instability, right wing populist politics, a rise in nationalist/ethnic division and impotent international institutions as the UN is increasingly marginalised. In our generation the centre needs to be remade, can this be done without “The blood-dimmed tide” rising even more than it already has? Cynicism and morality may need to become better acquainted to achieve this.




The Truly (Ir)resistible* Crunch of Rannochwall


Bloging 101- The Truly Irresistible Crunch of Rannochwall


This blog is a big, messy mixture of things. There are worthy, sensible high-fibre pieces that will do you good. There is stuff that is more like chunks of dried fruit to provide the occassional burst of sweetness as you chew your way through crunchy bits.

Yes, I have just described Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre but I am not making a bleating plea for corporate sponsorship- that will come later if I start to use terms like “monetize” and “traffiic”. You’ll know all is lost if that happens

It is a right old mix-up though. You’ll find musings about the outdoors,thoughts about my dog, stories that I made up in my own head and also how the blog began: a piece about politics- have a look at “England’s Dreaming” if you want my view on Brexit and Scotland’s subsequent position. It may be the case that in these strange days there may be more of this type of thing to come.

There are pieces of writing that have out of the spiral galaxy that is my job- I teach English in a high school- and I will post more of these as time goes by. Also, I’m giving you fair warning here, I may post some poetry.

Have a look back at some of the old posts if you have a minute. If you are interested in children’s fiction have a look at Bad Cat and try reading it aloud to a young child. Administered correctly it is a stimulating soporific, a keep-them-interested-leave-them-sleepy type of story.

If you have an interest in Scottish language and culture then the story Private Lazarus is worth a look.  The literary detectives amongst you could have fun finding the way that the invisible hand of “Sunset Song” helped shape the story.

Mostly though its a way to let things that have been stuck in notebooks and on hard drives the chance to get some air. Hopefully it won’t be too dry if you bring your own milk and enjoy the crunch.

* Delete if not applicable