Category Archives: Scottish

Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.


But I have been reading comics…

… or rather a “graphic novel”. Now I have long since got over snobbery about this format, even since Maus and its sequels. That old “quality” thing can be found here as much as anywhere else. Yesterday I borrowed Freddie & Me (2008) by UK-born (1975!) artist-writer Mike Dawson, now in the USA. I have finished it already and will read it again, so delightful I found it. To quote the review linked to the book title:

Mike Dawson’s graphic memoir, FREDDIE & ME, is structured after the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody", and his approach to comics bears a lot of resemblance to his favorite band in more than just that overarching structure. Like Queen, Dawson’s debut long-form work is ambitious, bombastic, all-over-the-place, larger-than-life, quirky, clever, self-indulgent and ultimately irresistible…

That said, FREDDIE AND ME isn’t about Queen. We learn almost nothing about the band that wasn’t common knowledge, nor is Dawson really interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. Instead, it’s a book about memory mediated through a common reference point. The story’s central conceit is that every significant memory of Dawson’s is connected somehow to Queen. The reality is that this connection, as he notes in the end, Dawson created those connections, perhaps in part as an anchor for the memories that were most important to him. For Dawson, memory and identity are one and the same, and the loss of the former leads to the loss of the latter, and loss of identity is oblivion.

The sequence about one-third in about memory is really quite haunting; it certainly hooked me.

The style? Here, if Mike Dawson will forgive the appropriation, is one small example:


I do commend this, so much that I am adding it to my Best Reads of 2008.

You may read more here.

A good supplementary text for anyone doing the NSW HSC’s “Belonging” module too, I would have thought…

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Posted by on November 22, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, humanity, humour, reading, Scottish, USA, writers, writing


Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ – July 23, 2008 – The New York Sun

It’s true, you know; a very large proportion of what passes for Scottish history in the popular imagination, from the travesty Shakespeare made of the historical Macbeth to the present day, is, not to be too delicate, crap. But this has been known for a very long time — that much of this “history” dates from from the romantic novels (and conservative politics) of Sir Walter Scott, not to mention the 18th century’s fake “Ossian” poems. Just about everything we now think of as Scottish emerged around the time of Queen Victoria. So Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ isn’t really news.

…it is hardly a surprise to learn that the kilt and tartan, too, are not quite the Scottish traditions that they seem. Sad to say, the kilt was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, who came to Scotland in the 1720s to manage an ironworks in the Highlands. Rawlinson observed that while the actual native costume of the Highlanders — the long belted cloak called the plaid — might have been suitable for rambling over hills and bogs, it was “a cumbrous, inconvenient habit” for men working at a furnace. So he hired the tailor of the local army regiment to make something more “handy and convenient for his workmen” by “separating the skirt from the plaid and converting into a distinct garment” — the kilt. This symbol of Highland tradition, as Trevor-Roper notes, was “bestowed … on the Highlanders, not in order to preserve their traditional way of life, but to ease its transformation: to bring them off the heath and into the factory.” As with so many of the tales Trevor-Roper has to tell, the truth may not be as romantic as the legend, but its irony makes it no less compelling.

Apparently my great-grandfather’s affectation of the kilt (see above right) led to his being greeted in the towns of Scotland as “kiltie kiltie cold bum” — or so his son once told me!

A more sober account of the nonetheless fascinating — and little known — history of Scotland may be found in Christopher Harvie, Scotland: A Short History, OUP 2002.

In this gripping narrative, one of Scotland’s leading historians and political writers discusses the geography, people and culture of this fascinating land–from prehistoric times to the present day. The only short history of Scotland available that deals with the most recent developments in the country, like the establishment of Scotland’s first parliament in over 300 years in 1999, this work places events in their historical and cultural context, and reflects the remarkable revival in Scottish culture and history writing since the 1960s. Topics covered include the shaping of the kingdom, medieval Scotland, reformation and dual monarchy, union and enlightenment, industrialization, and the troubled but ultimately triumphant twentieth century. Harvie also deals with long-standing cliches about Scotland and analyzes Scotland’s disproportionate role in European nationalism.

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Posted by on July 25, 2008 in Australia and Australian, book reviews, British, historiography, History, Scottish


::: Alexander McCall Smith :::

9780316727822 Yes, I am again able to report sheer delight in the latest I have read by Alexander McCall Smith: The Careful Use of Compliments (2007). As I said before:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it… Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

I really am reminded of Jane Austen.

Among many lovely moments is a concert:

With the Pie Jesu, which was sung by Nicola Wood, whom Isabel knew slightly, her mind came back to the music. Dona eis requiem; grant them rest. It was not a complex melody, with its cautiously developed melody and its utter resolution; it was a lullaby really, and that, she thought, was what a requiem really was. If one were to be taken up to heaven, then it would be Faure who might accompany one.

This blogger tells you more about the series, and this one puts a different spin on the novel.

Over the fold there is a little more Faure, and a PDF extract from The Careful Use of Compliments. Enjoy.
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Instead of a poem…

…I have decided to give you a couple of snippets from The World according to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith.

First, a statistician observes a passing woman.

Here, approaching him, was a 60-year-old woman, with two point four children, twenty-three years to go, with a weekly income of… and so on. Now there were carbon footprints to consider, too, and that was fun. This woman was walking, but had probably taken a bus. She did not go on holidays to distant destinations, Spain at the most, and so she used little aviation fuel. Her carbon footprint was probably not too bad, particularly by comparison with… with those who went to international conferences on carbon footprints. The thought amused him and he smiled again.

“You laughing at me, son?”

The woman had stopped in front of him.

Stuart was startled. “What? Laughing at you? No, not at all.”

“Because I dinnae like being laughed at, said the woman, shaking a finger at him.

“Of course not.”

She gave him a scowl and moved on. Chastened, Stuart continued his walk…

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Posted by on April 18, 2008 in Best read of 2008, English language, humour, reading, satire, Scottish


Sharp yet gentle satire in McCall Smith’s parochial epic: "The World according to Bertie"

the_world_bertie I have reported before on other novels by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith: here and here. The World according to Bertie (2007) is my first venture into the 44 Scotland Street series, originally serial novels in The Scotsman:

The fifth volume of the series begins on Monday. In the past three years, it’s gone worldwide: you can read about Bruce and the other inhabitants of Edinburgh’s most famous fictitious address in Lithuanian, Latvian, Turkish, French, German, Polish and (coming soon) Italian bookshops. Across America, 44 Scotland Street sells in the kind of numbers most writers can only dream about.

With well over a million copies of the series sold in the English language alone, there’s already a huge readership waiting to find out what Scotsman readers will be the first to discover: what McCall Smith’s gently comedic imagination has in store for all his characters (see panels) in the new series. But we’ll start here with Bruce, because he’s the one member of the cast who’s causing his creator the most problems. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on April 17, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Fiction, humanity, humour, reading, satire, Scottish


Presbyterian nostalgia: Burns “The Cotter’s Saturday night”

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Posted by on April 14, 2008 in Christianity, faith and philosophy, nostalgia, poets and poetry, Scottish


Denise Mina and “Tartan Noir”

I have just finished, and greatly enjoyed, Denise Mina The Last Breath (Bantam 2007), set in Glasgow in 1990.

Paddy Meehan has it all: flash car, flat, job as Scotland’s leading columnist, and giant packet of biscuits all to herself, but the groggy bliss of a Saturday night in front of the TV is shattered when the police knock politely on her door, smiling sadly when she answers it. Someone close to her has died, but she’s staggered when they tell her who it is.

Terry Patterson has been found in a ditch, stripped naked and executed with a shot through his temple. He was her first ever lover and her hero, the sort of journalist she always aspired to be.

Paddy chucked him months ago but she’s down on his passport as his next of kin. Not only that but he has left everything to her in his will, a house in Ayrshire, boxes of notes, a folder.

Beginning the investigation into his murder she realises all too late that if the secret he was about to expose is worth killing for then she – and the people closest to her – are in terrible danger.

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Review catch-up: things read


Tony Parsons, Valley of the White Gold (Penguin 2006) reminded me of the old radio serial Blue Hills, a comparison the author probably wouldn’t mind, but I couldn’t finish it. I was interested in the history of Mudgee that it offered, but I’m afraid I found the writing very flat indeed. It is the only OzLit in the current batch.


Will Napier, Summer of the Cicada (Jonathan Cape 2005) is American Gothic written in Scotland, but by an American. It is very good on atmospherics, and at times very powerful and disturbing. I have to admit I found the open ending a touch forced though.

Napier triumphs on two counts. His portrait of Joe is supremely well imagined and he uses the anger and desolation of Joe and his father to drive the novel along with irresistible force. Frequently brilliant and consistently unsettling, Summer of the Cicada will remain with you for quite a while.

Peter James, Dead Simple (Macmillan 2005) really is very good, even if at times just a bit far-fetched. The writing is not quite up to P D James or Ian Rankin, just to name two, but is good enough. I will certainly look out for other books by this author.

Just brilliant — a best read of 2008

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Posted by on February 7, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, OzLit, reading, Scottish, Thriller


Found: 20 postcards from Scotland

My archaeological dig has turned up twenty postcards my Aunt Beth sent my mother thirty years ago when she travelled to the UK, Scotland especially. They cover three trips in 1975, 1978 and 1982. Beth travelled to the UK again around two years ago, I should add, for a wedding, staying in The Tower of London where one of her late husband’s nephews actually lives. My mother’s family were on grandfather’s side of Scottish descent.

That’s Great-grandfather, born 150 years ago this year, on the right, though that picture was taken in Maitland NSW.

I am going to pass them on to Beth’s sons, and in fact just called Robert to tell him: guess what? Turns out he is in London himself right now!

A few snippets.

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Posted by on January 10, 2008 in Australia, memory, nostalgia, personal, Scottish, travel


LOL! Pedagogical and theological disaster zone…

This is from a show seen in Scotland. I hope someone at the ABC or SBS takes note.

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Posted by on October 7, 2007 in awful warnings, classroom control, education, humour, satire, Scottish, teaching, TV


Rosie, the musical

Image hosted by Photobucket.comA lovely Scottish lady at the South Sydney Uniting Church is in this. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on August 14, 2005 in Australia and Australian, Christianity, local, music, personal, Scottish, South Sydney Uniting Church


Encyclopedia Britannica, the final edition

Link.Image hosted by Photobucket.comWhen I was and but a little tiny boy (with a hey ho, the wind and the rain), I yearned to have in our family an Encyclopedia Britannica, for then, I reasoned, I would know all things… But ours was not a Britannica family, but reading a Salt Mine cast-off — Harvey Einbinder, The Myth of the Britannica (London, McGibbon & Kee, 1964) — makes me realise I was not all that deprived. This is a classic in myth-busting.

I discovered while searching for Britannica quite a wonderful Canadian site called Grubstreet Books and Morris Wolfe, Encyclopedia Britannica, the final edition”, “written for the Globe and Mail in 1974, … a review of the Fifteenth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica which had just appeared.”
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Posted by on June 15, 2005 in America, book reviews, British, education, reminiscing, Scottish