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My Blog

The Orchestra on the Titanic

‘It could be,’ said the Divine Ms Anna, ‘our last literary salon as part of the UK,’ a thought which made the whole evening shimmer with cultural resonance. We were on the brink of a new future, no-one yet knew what. We were carrying the flag of revolution as we sang La Marseillaise, we were the orchestra on the Titanic, creating beautiful music in a time of destruction. Well, maybe things weren’t quite so close to death and chaos, though the last days of the referendum campaign felt like that. But being at a literary salon seemed like an assertion of the things that matter - art and sharing and ideas and people. With lots of wine, of course.

In honour of the momentousness of the occasion, Ms Anna was resplendent in floral trousers and a necklace that would not have looked out of place on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. She’d made a typically Scottish soup, delicious lentil with lots of carrots, and the literary choice was equally patriotic - The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by BBC presenter, Kirsty Wark.

I have to confess a particular interest in Kirsty’s book. It was my salvation after a gruelling day at the pool on my recent holiday in Spain. I’d been reading a highly garlanded literary novel which shall be nameless. Gosh, it was dull - writing by numbers, totally turgid, with characters who were both dreary and irritating. Had to have quite a few glasses of cava to make up for that one.(Well, all right then, it was The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.)

I hadn’t particularly wanted to read Kirsty’s book but it proved a lifeline - well researched, thoughtful and moving. Set on the island of Arran, it has twin voices, that of the late Elizabeth Pringle, a rather stiff elderly lady whose surprising life story is revealed slowly over the course of the book, and the other that of Martha, a journalist whose mother, Anna, is sliding into dementia. Both heroines are attractive in different ways. Elizabeth Pringle is typically Scottish in her stubbornness, independence of mind, and a romantic identification with the place of her birth. Martha is a typical journalist in her embracing of the pleasures of wine. With a love story, a mysterious secret, family tension and Scottish history, the book is both a page turner and has the ring of truth.

The referendum discussion started over the soup, with analysis of the various supermarkets who’d fallen in with David Cameron’s request to scare the Scots by saying they‘d raise prices if the vote was Yes. It was noted that Lidl, Ms Anna’s supermarket of choice, had not only abstained from frightening the populace but actually had a sign supporting independence outside their Govanhill store. ‘If they can operate from Germany, Tesco could probably manage to get themselves organised from Kent,‘ murmured Jackie McDonald, whose quiet Picture by @moroc                 manner often disguises the sharp nature of
                                            her opinions.

There then followed extensive discussion of the many superior and inexpensive products on sale there, including wines, three fish roast, and assorted cheeses. ‘You can,’ noted Ms Anna, mentioning a particular shopping centre and displaying a judicious amount of glee at hoodwinking the middle classes, ‘even use a Marks and Spencer trolley.’                     

Solidarity with the indy supermarket established, we re-charged our glasses and repaired to the salon, where Kirsty read a passage from her book, brushing off incipient applause by plunging briskly into her second reading. This is most unusual in a writer, most of whom, having toiled away in isolation, lap up any applause that’s going. Kirsty’s no nonsense attitude reminded me of her own character - the redoubtable and stoic Elizabeth Pringle is clearly who she’ll be when she’s old herself.

The second passage she read dealt with the exercises the Queen Mary liner did off Arran before her maiden voyage, a topic clearly dear to Kirsty’s heart. Her own grandfather was the ship’s engineer and she’d named one of her characters after him. ’I gave lots of names of friends and family to my characters,’ she said, in that distinctively raspy voice that sounds like fingernails scratching down cardboard. ’That was my private joke.’

The ebullient Jane Grove, who teaches French, said that part of the book had moved her to tears, though I won’t give away which part for those of you still to have the pleasure of reading it. But the talk inevitably drifted back to the coming referendum. Nan Gourlay, a television production manager, said she’d moved from No to Yes and was feeling sick with nerves about the whole thing. A number of us shared her feeling. Finally having a vote that counted was a huge responsibility.                                      

Scots writer Ken Wright then went into a rather puzzling diatribe about the Scots being told all their literary swans were geese and as a result thinking all their geese were swans. Kirsty said she thought it was the other way round, that we didn’t have enough confidence in our own abilities. A riot then nearly ensued when Ken condemned the wonderful and generous-spirited poet Norman McCaig for having the atmosphere of a 1950s schoolteacher in a tweed jacket. Fisticuffs were narrowly averted by Ms Anna’s gentleman caller, Steve Heller Murphy, who returned us to the referendum. He summed it up for many when he said, ‘People who have money should vote Yes because people who don’t are asking them to.’

The arrival of the cake restored equilibrium to the party. ‘This one is the apotheosis of middle class cake,’ declared Ms Anna. ‘Elderflower cordial.’ Ms Anna’s cakes are always divine, but this one was exceptionally moist and sweet. Finally something we could all vote yes to.





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