I RETURNED from my regular morning walk with an added spring in my step today, thanks to the recently departed Willie McIllvanney.
He was a regular visitor to The Scotsman features department when I worked there in the eighties and always the most fantastic company. He was generous, broad-minded, full of anecdotes that didn’t centre on himself. What is the opposite of bumptious? Not just unbumptious but actively anti-bumptious. That was Willie, holding court, but modestly. That cliche of the thriller blurbs was apposite: “Women want him. Men want to be him.”
I didn’t have that much contact with Willie over the next decades, brushing briefly during the occasional literary/political interface. But to know him and his wonderful, smooth malt voice — even through broadcasts such as the re-run of a beautiful Janice Forsyth interview this week — was to think you were close, a tangible link with the word on the page.
His politics — non-partisan socialist and supportive of independence — were mine too, but the beauty of Willie and evident in his passing was that you did not have to share his views to admire him as a writer and a man.
The evidence was there in the wake of his death at the weekend, when writers as diverse as Alex Massie and Kevin McKenna united in magnificent tribute.
So why the spring in my step mentioned above? His passing made me realise that while I had read all of his novels I had never read his poetry, an omission I thought to put right. On my morning walk I dropped into the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge and there was In Through the Head, his 1988 collection of new and collected verse.
I open my new purchase, read: Love’s counterfeits are endless and a bore. I’m in.
I HAVE put off writing about the slaughter in Paris for two reasons. The first was a sincere wish to spare the world another of those “our hearts go out” or “we are all Parisians now” expressions of maudlin self-importance.
The other involved grave personal uncertainty about the appropriate response. And by that I mean military response. As I made clear in a previous post I’m no pacifist. I just like the fights carried out in my name to be justified and intelligent; to have more than a “shock and awe” entry strategy but an endgame which leaves the world a better place than when we intervened.
Or, to put it in President Obama’s sage words this week: “It’s best if we don’t shoot first and aim later.” OK, that’s a wee bit rich for a commander-in-chief whose forces recently bombed a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Afghanistan, but you get the idea.
The Islamist-Fascists of IS have, I believe, clearly declared war on ordinary citizens of nations they deem to be Christian or Jewish or atheist or generally hedonist. Since the latter two categories affect me, I have started to thinking.
Clearly there can be no Western “boots on the ground” as the presence of “Crusaders” would be welcomed by Islamists. But as the MSF hospital bombing shows precision targeting can be anything but.
So limited bombing and drone strikes may play a part but can do only so much against a shifting enemy using guerrilla tactics, and must be conducted as air support of the enemies of IS on the ground, particularly the Kurds. Can pressure be applied to Turkey to stop attacking our best allies on the ground in Syria and Northern Iraq? As for economic weaponry, I commend Ian Bell today.
IS JIM Murphy the last man standing in defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq , now that the joint architect of the Bush-Blair policy has begun to back-pedal furiously as Chilcott finally looms?
A recent New Statesman article by Murphy made clear that he is once again urging British military intervention in the region, offering the startling revelation that he now thinks he should have resigned as Shadow Defence Secretary in August 2013 when Labour voted against UK air strikes in Syria.
The nub of his article is the following passage: “I respect conscientious objectors and the Quaker traditions . . . but conscientious objection isn’t a legitimate posture for a P5 nation in the face of Isis ferocity.”
There is one irritating condescension there and one disturbing corollary. The “I respect conshies” line assumes that those who are concerned about military action are principled but useless idiots. In fact I am no conshie but I objected to the Iraq war on strategic and tactical grounds — fake pretexts for going in and a dismal lack of agreed goals which might have given us an exit strategy which did not leave behind desolation and increased misery for those on the ground.
The same applies to Syria now. We need clear goals and action compliant with international law. Above all, we need a realistic endgame, particularly given Russian involvement in the arena.
But look again at the nub of Murphy’s argument, the bit concerning “a legitimate posture for a P5 nation.” He obviously puts immense store on Britain’s status as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, regardless of what this may cost.
It’s what drives us to increasingly unaffordable Trident replacement and an absurd aircraft carrier programme, but coveted P5 membership won’t feed bairns or keep pensioners warm.
WHILE on holiday in Fife’s East Neuk last week I gazed out from the sea wall at the bottom of the garden and spotted what I took to be the latest sections of aircraft carrier making their way up the Firth to their assembly yard at Rosyth. But will there ever be aircraft to be flown off them? Readers from my Herald days may recall a recent piece about how the US F-35 fighter was still considered, to coin the military slang, FUBAR, politely rendered as fouled-up beyond all recognition, a flying turkey which at $400 billion and rising has cost twice the bill to put humans on the moon.
Some aviation experts believe the entire programme could be written off, which is a shame for UK carriers designed to fly only that aircraft.
The slices of the Prince of Wales we watched passing Anstruther, once assembled, will be mothballed and possibly sold off. Sister ship the Queen Elizabeth is now on sea trials and one can only hope these tests are going better than those of the planes destined to accelerate off her decks.
One recent amusing development saw slim pilots banned from flying the plane. That is not actually a joke. The complex helmet that twins with the jet’s avionics is so heavy it is a health hazard for the fine-boned.
And now this: The very first act of Premier-elect Justin Trudeau of Canada has been to cancel his country’s contract to buy a fleet of the simpler, land-based variant of the stealth fighters. Australia is already alarmed by this, fearing it could push up unit costs of the $24 billion contract it is already committed to. Dominoes anyone?
Then what will Britannia do with its prestigious maritime platforms? Immigration detention hulks might be exemplify the age.
AFTER a year of writing leaders and columns last week, ending just short of 42 years in Scottish daily newspaper journalism, it came to my last day and I mooted a column on US gun control.
This was turned down as not topical, in favour of a column on automated telephone canvassing which was in the news that day.
Fair enough. The Herald’s typical Triple-M reader (middle-aged, middle-class, male) is indeed more likely to experience a nuisance phone call than a madman brandishing a Glock 20SF or a Bushmaster XM15-E2s.
Still, my planned column would have seemed prescient given what happened the following day at Umpqua Community College in Oregon when yet another deranged young man shot 18 people, killing half of them before turning one of his many guns on himself.
I didn’t have a crystal ball to predict this event. You don’t need one. Gun massacres in the US are like buses here, only more regular.
I wanted to write on the issue because of the astounding revelation published in the exemplary US magazine Mother Jones that in the last 25 years more US civilians had died from gun violence than American military personnel in the nation’s entire history.
That’s right: Combining battlefield deaths in a dozen conflicts from their Revolution against the Brits to Iraq, via their Civil War, two World Wars plus Korea and Vietnam, the total was 651,031. And that’s according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Since that pinko liberal Ronnie Reagan left office in 1989 there have been fast approaching 840,000 gun deaths in the US, including accidents, suicides and murders, pushed ever upward by the accelerating wave of mass shootings.
It’s an obscene price to pay for the quirk of history that produced the right to bear arms.