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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.


I’m voting Yes. For all the usual reasons, of course. I despise the Tory government, I do not want my country to take part in any more wars, nor do I want to be part of one that has the bedroom tax and nuclear weapons. I want to preserve a National Health Service that’s freely available to all, not return to the days when people died because they couldn’t afford to pay for the doctor to come. I’m sick of Westminster’s bankers and wankers, of cowardice and consumerism, of being patronised and pulverised.

But above all, I prize one word - independence. I grew up as a young woman in the 1960s, when girls were expected to flirt and wheedle and manipulate men into giving them what they wanted, not go for it themselves. That seemed both dishonest and demeaning to me and I wanted no part of it. I was the oldest of six children, helping my mother from an early age. I didn’t see why I should depend on a man or expect to be looked after when I was so capable. I wanted to be free to live my own life. It took a long time and a lot of fighting for ordinary women to be able to do that and I can’t see why any country would refuse the chance of something so precious.

It seems to me that independence is the most basic freedom a human being can have, the one we all aspire to. I feel this all the more keenly now that I’ve acquired a disability and can’t do as many things for myself as I used to. The thought of a future of other people looking after me, controlling my life even with their kindness, frightens me.

I don’t think we’ve been frightened enough of dependency as a nation. We’re too bloody comfortable with it. For 300 years we’ve got used to blaming England for everything that goes wrong in our lives. We entered the Union in the first place for economic reasons, after the collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama drained Scotland of nearly half its circulating cash as well as its hopes of creating an empire like the English. Unsurprisingly the English didn’t fancy us becoming their rival in the colonial stakes. They were under pressure from big business to preserve the East India Company’s monopoly over foreign trade and forced English and Dutch investors to withdraw from our scheme. If that sounds familiar, it is - the current scaremongering by businessmen and the Establishment media is nothing new, just the usual closing of ranks to preserve privilege.

The Scots weren’t put off. They funded the scheme themselves, thousands of small investors pouring money in to follow a vision of linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would finally come to fruition only in 1914 with the building of the Panama Canal. In the 17 century we’d had years of famine, years of unrest following the Glencoe Massacre. After the collapse of the scheme we did what seemed the practical thing, threw in our lot with the bigger power in the 1707 Union of the Parliaments. But that wasn’t the end of it then - two major uprisings followed, in 1715 and 1745. If we vote to stay with England again it won’t be the end of it now.

We have continued to define ourselves as a nation despite hundreds of years of helping establish the British Empire, fighting endless wars. And hundreds of years of having our views ignored, our country treated as a dustbin and our people exploited. We’re too close to being liberated from all that to give up now.

Recently I’ve been accused of hippyish thinking on independence, of ignoring the global links created by the money markets, when it seems obvious to me that allowing the major corporations to rampage uncontrolled through your country is just folly. Yet the UK is on the verge of endorsing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe, which will not only hand even more power to the multi-nationals, but will mean no-one can prevent the privatisation of the health service. The projected £100 billion growth may be the ‘practical’ thing to do, but it seems to me too high a price to pay for the whole of Europe to end up in thrall to big business and the dollar.

We in Scotland have a chance to opt out of such economic shackles and change our country in the way we want to. It will change anyway if the TTIP is signed - we will be even further away from self-determination, at the mercy not just of England and Brussels but of the very people who caused the near collapse of world economic systems. It was another hippy concept that small is beautiful, but I believe in that too. We have the chance to create something different here, use our traditional independence of thought to make a future where people are more equal, values more human.

I’ve just come back from holiday in Spain, where a lovely night out was marred by a little Englander pontificating at the next table. A restaurant high in the mountains of Almeria, views to the Mediterranean, a blood red moon hanging low over the sea. Then Mr Essex proclaiming that the Scots had been the monkey on England’s back for 300 years and now ‘they want our pound.’ (Whose pound?) We were ungrateful apparently for disliking the presence of nuclear weapons in our country, though I can’t imagine he’d have appreciated it if they’d been in his own county’s seaside resort of Southend, which is much the same distance from London that Faslane is from Glasgow.

The visceral rage I felt surprised me. I lived for many years in England and loved it, but when that kind of arrogance is compounded by that kind of ignorance it’s hard to see it as anything other than an attack. It’s not about nationalism. It’s about being fed up of being dismissed as whingeing Jocks; it’s being fed up of the Westminster elite having the nerve to come to Scotland the week before the referendum; it’s about the Prime Minister refusing to engage in a televised debate with Scotland’s First Minister and leaving the job to a politician who’s not even in his own party. Arrogance and ignorance and I hope they pay the price.

Thankfully, neither David Cameron nor my friend from Essex gets a say in Thursday’s vote. For once, it’s our decision to make, unmarred by the numerical jiggery-pokery of the 1979 referendum, when independence would only be granted if 40 percent of the electorate voted for it - I don’t think much of Cameron and his politics but at least he didn‘t put conditions on the vote. Unlike the idiotic Jeremy Paxman, he grasped that partnerships cannot be sustained unless they’re freely entered into - Paxo thinks the people in England and Wales should get a vote too. Hasn’t he noticed we’re having the referendum because we‘re fed up with them deciding everything for us? He probably thinks only men should be allowed to sue for divorce.

You know what? Last time round the Yes camp won, 52 percent to 48. That’s usually forgotten because we lost out on independence itself. We didn’t all vote that time because it was clear that abstaining was equivalent to a No vote. But 97 percent of the Scottish electorate has registered to vote this time and the energy is palpable. I don’t care what the practical party says, I want change. We’ve had nearly 40 years of Thatcherism from one party or another. If we’re brave we will make a brave new world. Yes, yes, yes.

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