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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’ve spent the last couple of days not just in mourning, but in wondering what kind of person votes against their own independence. To say no to being in charge of your own future seems to me like saying no to babies or freedom or the scent of roses. It’s like a turkey voting for Christmas.

In the bitterness of defeat it’s easy to say the No voters were selfish or stupid, scared of the future and more concerned with their own comfort than with the common good. It’s easy to point at the unionist neds doing the fascist salute in George Square and say, This is who you lined up with. It’s easy to watch Cameron sticking the boot into Labour or Miliband taking a step back from the so-called ‘vows’ and think the Nos have got what they deserved.

Easy but not true. I have many close and dear friends who studied all the evidence, agonised over their decision and voted for the union. They’re some of the kindest people I know and certainly not stupid. Moreover, the turnout was exceptionally high, 84.5 percent, a record for any UK election since (almost) universal suffrage was brought in in 1918. (Women were granted the vote then but had to be over 30 and meet certain property requirements. Not until 1928 were they finally on a par with men.)

I saw a snide comment about the people who went into the polling booth and put two crosses on their forms - Is ‘stupid’ just another word for Scottish? - but I think it’s admirable that people who genuinely couldn’t make up their minds didn’t just stay at home. Instead they went to the trouble of going out to take part in this historic event and recorded the fact that they could see both sides of the argument. No-one could say the Scots didn’t care about their country.

From a Yes perspective it’s hard to see why No voters weren’t repulsed by the blatant scaremongering tactics of the government in the last week of the campaign, hard to see why so many who support unilateral disarmament didn‘t seize the opportunity to force Westminster to think again about it, hard to understand why people weren‘t more concerned by the potential loss of the National Health Service through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated between Europe and the US.

But they voted in such huge numbers for No that it couldn’t just be about fear and the economy. People were scared, despite the many economists who said Scotland was a rich country, not so much by the threat of the banks’ withdrawal (if you haven’t any money in the bank, that doesn’t particularly matter to you) but by the threat of rises in supermarket prices. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, of course that’s a scary thought - even many working people barely make it to the end of the week as it is. I laughed when I heard Marks and Spencer were threatening to put up prices - lots of people never go in there because it’s too dear already - but Asda was more serious. In fact I recently heard Lesley Riddoch talking about her Africawoman project, which gave African women their own online newspaper and which I had the privilege to work on in the 1990s. A group of the women came to Edinburgh where, despite the Castle and the historic buildings, the place they really wanted to go was Asda. They were much poorer than us but could still afford to shop there.

Despite the economic element, I think the No voters were just like the Yes voters in that they too were voting for something bigger. It was just a different concept of what’s important. For No, it was the sense of being part of a historic partnership. One lady my sister talked to said she thought of her great-uncle, who’d been killed in the war, and she didn’t want to let him down. Many people feel proud of their part in two world wars and, indeed, in building up the British Empire.

And perhaps even more feel a class kinship with working people all over Britain. Having been through the turbulence of Thatcher’s breaking of the miners and reduction of trade union powers, many Scots wanted to express their solidarity with the poor and disaffected through the UK. Those of us who voted Yes thought the break-up of this unequal partnership could only lead to a fracturing of the political status quo and a re-making of the whole country, but the No voters thought there was more chance of effecting change if people banded together. I respect and honour them for that but the irony is that David Cameron didn’t even wait 24 hours before seizing his opportunity to curtail the power of Labour.

I believe the population of England and Wales is so much greater than ours that we will never be able to control our lives while the major decisions are made in their interests. Is it really so selfish to want to control your own resources? I was at dinner with friends last night and one suggested it was, that if oil had been found in Lowestoft, we would expect the profits to be shared throughout the country. That’s a fine thought, but I don’t believe the profits have been shared. They’ve been used to fund illegal wars and the legal gambling of the banking system, used to foster the interests of the Westminster elite, used to favour the south east over other parts of the UK.

I was hoping to see the might of the US curtailed by a small nation. Hoping to see the might of big business controlled. We may have shaken Westminster but we had a chance to shake the world.

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