Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Drunk Welshman Looks at the Thistle

One of the many services The Daily Mail provides is a sort of rave environment for excitable Tory historians. One minute we have Dominic Sandbrook deriving a little too much pleasure from the prospect of another European war, the next it's "Max" Hastings and visions of China clattering its rice bowls through the Outback.

The latest and best comes from shiny-faced Kiplingite Andrew Roberts, who lives up to his flummery-stirring Welsh name with an nightmarish vision of horror that is an independent Scotland.

Dr Roberts certainly puts the Pollyanna Picts in their place with a trim timeline that takes Scotland from the uxorious bosom of England to a freezing Chinese fiefdom in five paragraphs, shedding Shetlands and Highlands as it sinks into satrapy.

Unlike his beef-cheeked stablemates, Roberts allows himself the odd jocularity: He coyly wonders why the Scots should scramble for freedom in 2014 before blithely slipping in a mention of "Britain's Prime Minister George Osborne".

Nonetheless, the good doctor is clear that the only people in the world who might want an independent Scotland are the Scots and the rest of Britain, so that can never be allowed.

This idea of "divide and rule" has been cropping up everywhere since the Romans tried it on with the Greeks, and we in Wales know it well. The English have at various time essayed:

  • The artificial division of Wales into North and South, whereas true tension teems between land-dwellers and amphibians;
  • Irridenta in Monmouthshire and the Welsh Marches, while the English Marches have little enough room for footpads and rustlers in Shrewsbury jail as it is;
  • The settlement of Flemings in Pembrokeshire and Normans in Radnor, Trustafarians in Trawsfynydd and Scousers in Rhyl, only for us to assimilate the first pair and couple the second to our rude ploughs; and
  • The cunning portage of BBC Drama to Cardiff. This, in a manner similar to the move of BBC wireless to the rickets-racked slums of Salford, was meant to sweep the Cambrian capital clean of tar-footed locals on a four-wheeled wave of WC1 mediocrats.

But our own glorious S4C television channel pre-empted this move through two decades of nurturing staff capable of braying about raclette grills in three degrees of Welsh, thank you very much.

So Wales endures, though Westminster still covets our petrified forests and access to the gods.

The poor Scotchmen face a tougher task, for the English have noted that, like Lincolnshire, Scotland is divided into three geometric parts:

  • The Lowlands, or "Lollards" in the ancient Scotch tongue, are a truculent plateau of reeking cities and broken vessels, inhabited by the descendants of the more enterprising Geordie tribes;
  • The Highlands and Islands, or "Mickle Rourkes", make up a twilit thanage populated by giant flying insects, suicidal English "downsizers" and the scions of Irish clans keener than most to share their religious disputes with deserving neighbours; and
  • The Northern Isles, or "Breeks", were a guano-caked graveyard for Viking longboats until John Knox expelled the entire female population of Scotland there for the sin of knitting ("whereby they have weaven tootwixt the phibres of sheepe and fyshe in Babylonnian gaudie"). These mated endlessly with Knut Baumann, the remaining Norse watchman, to produce a kelpie brood of peat-dowsers.

A crypto-Celtic creature like Roberts has read a book or two as well as writing them, and knows the English can play the Teuchter tectonic plates to their fey advantage. "You, I say, you there!" they will wave in the general direction of the Highlands, "These Lollards will swap your skirts, offal and homebrew for 'track' suits, fried 'tatties' and opiates. They've done it to us - don't let them do it to you."

This may not succeed, as Highlanders, like the Welsh, are suspicious of human contact. England may be on firmer ground, albeit not literally, with the Orkney and Shetland islanders - or "Arcadians and Shedsevens" as they put it in their putty-lipped pretence at Danish.

The Northern Isles have historic links with Norway, in that the Norsemen got rid of them as a dowry for one of the pallid child brides their royalty would send Scotwards in leaky boats. And the Roberts Gambit is based entirely on the Orkneys and Shetlands' escaping from the clutches of Fu Man Salmond into Oslo's rollmop embrace.

This all depends on whether the Norwegians want the Isles. After all, they already have enough oil to provide a tugboat for every troll, and more crinkly coastline, gamey sweaters and bad-tempered fish than modesty requires.

Nor do the Northern Isles have much else to recommend them to prospective conquerors. The modern Shetlands and equally unappealing Orkneys are little more than a dreary pointer for bum-crazed Russian trawlermen that Aberdeen and its ample supply of raw spirits, non-seagull-based cuisine and bipedal womenfolk are not far away.

The nearby Faroe Islanders have virtually no booze or telly, speak a cleft-palate form of Norse, and club whales to death with their own weirdly misshapen members for entertainment of a rare summer evening. Yet they have a government and distinct culture.

What do the Northern Isles have? Single nostrils, the odd auk, swan-guzzling tunesmith Sir Peter Maxwell Davis and the occasional burning boat. Their habit of voting Liberal-Democrat hasn't looked so cute since the coalition government took over in Westminster, either.

Before applying for admission as Norway's second overseas empire, the Isles might ponder why Norway can't be bothered to wrest the fun-loving Faroes from Danish hands in the first place.

In short, there is little evidence that Oslo would want to take on Scotland's dangliest archipelago.

My guess is that an independent Scotland would hold together fine. Bear in mind that, however inept its government might be, all Europe, much of Britain and some of the larger beasts will lend Scotland every assistance for the sheer devilry of annoying the Tory Party. Who knows, Scotland may one day rival the Isle of Man as the Celts' least chaotic polity.

As for the Orkney and Shetland, despite the disadvantages that geography, eugenics and the fickle Christian god have rained upon their salty skulls, they will always find a way of using that direct line to Ragnarǫk.

A friend once told me of a government decision to start charging schools in the Northern Isles postage for sending their examination papers to Edinburgh for marking. There were complaints, so the Scottish Office agreed that they could send the papers to the nearest city for free and then the government would pay postage from there.

So the local schools posted all their exam papers off to the nearest city. Bergen.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Away with the Numbers

The eclipse suffered by the ideas of Carl Jung can be attributed to the toxic endorsement they received in the album "Synchronicity" by rock albatross Sting and his chums The Police.

Like all youths of the time, I knew someone who had heard the album and decided that it spoke to them in a new and urgent way. In the case of Andy Summer's Psycho tribute "Mother", this was true. Otherwise it was simply Singa-Longa-Steppenwolf.

This pained me, as I'd been introduced to Jung by an avid female practitioner from Argentina. Her husband was a German dwarf called Klaus, with whom I sang bass-baritone in an amateur Swansea choir.

Klaus had a crisply deprecating manner about others and a robust attitude to questions of social and political order that enlivened our post-practice collegial chats, rather as if a wolverine had been released at a Quaker meeting.

"I will send our son Reinhardt to military school!" he barked thoughtfully after a bumpy run through "Beata Viscera".

"We don't really have them here, except for the Sandhurst prep school," I ventured after a common-room silence.

"The results on the British society of this omission are evident!" Klaus added.

"Letting military men teach toddlers hasn't done Argentina much good, though, has it? I mean, the Dirty War and all that," countered our choirmaster.

"The Dirty War? I salute the Dirty War!" Klaus sprang to his feet and bumped his head on the coffee table, bringing the evening to an end.

Klaus was a man of disarming candour and principle. Despite his itchy politics, he had a droll and trusting manner.

Mrs Klaus was a slut. Once her husband had left for a long day countering Communism at the local cattle-feed plant, dropping Young Reinhardt at a glumly pacific playgroup en route, she would shake out her edible underwear and await gentleman callers on the couch.

Like Klaus she was of unavoidable German extraction, but her mitteleuropäisch malady was not militarism but The Mind. I had a liaison with her that verged on the Platonic, in that we exchanged snatches of philosophical intercourse between raw bouts of hog-eyed rutting.

"So, do you find Jung's calibration of the Erotic over-schematic or compelling in its teleological drive?" she exhaled one dusty morning.

"Dunno," I replied. "I'm a student in early 1980s Britain, so in terms of politics I'm either going to be a Bolshevik booster or a date-rapist in a 'Hang Nelson Mandela!' t-shirt. Either way I'm not going to have much of an opinion about some Chinaman. Now, can we get any more mileage out of this corset?"

Mrs Thatcher's retrieval of the Falkland Islands soon toppled the Argentine junta and ushered in a government committed to electrifying the popular imagination rather than trade unionists' sphincters, so it was only a matter of time before the Man from Interpol came calling for the Klauses.

Mrs Klaus (we were never close) left me a PO box number in Asunción and a copy of "Das Gesetz der Serie" by Paul Kammerer. This slender volume formed her second and more successful attempt to turn me on to Jung.

The hapless Hapsburgian Herr Dr Kammerer is known for an experiment on salamanders that suggested the theory of natural selection was missing a link of two. Although lionised by the Lamarckian opponents of Darwinism, he took his own life when it looked like the salamanders had been interfered with - albeit not in the 1950s News of The World sense.

There is still debate as to whether he forged his results, some Nazis tampered with them to embarrass the Communist Kammerer, or he simply drew the wrong conclusions. My own view as an arts graduate and lover of the Gothic is that no good ever comes from meddling with toads, as panfuls of Lancastrian witches' ashes might testify.

Kammerer's work on coincidence in "The Law of the Series" is more interesting, dealing as it does with chin-stroking strangeness and charming anecdote rather than rubbing newts against your trousers, if that is indeed what he did.

Non-Teutons can read all about Kammerer in "The Case of the Midwife Toad" by fellow Danubian oddball Arthur Koestler, as "Das Gesetz" has never been translated. But its gist is that coincidences tend to bunch together, and may be manifestations of some as-yet-undefined series of phenomena.

Koestler provides a neat selection of Herr Doktor's notes and some of his own - he said he was subjected to a "meteor shower" of coincidences while writing the book - and Jung drew on it for his own book "Synchronicity".

I thought little more about it until we went on holiday to Sardinia last autumn. Over dinner at a local Gastronomia I recounted MR James's "Number 13" to our daughter Arianrhod. This ghost story concerns a spectral room in a Danish inn and its alarming inhabitants, who disturb the repose of a pernickety English antiquarian.

Arianrhod was taken with the tale, sharing as she does the taste for the macabre that spices all good children's literature. On the way home, as lightning darted through the pines, she retold the story in her usual way, replacing the protagonists with her little chums and adding elaborate costume directions.

But there were some more novel alterations. She moved the scene to China, and the leprous room became Number Four. The telling took us all the way home to count the rooms carefully before retiring to bed.

The following afternoon I found a quiet half hour to relax on the roof terrace with a six-pack and a paperback, in this case Philip Kerr's "The Shot" - a pungent chunk of shamus Stilton about JFK, Castro and Da Mob. While leafing along I wondered why Arianrhod had chosen China and that particular number. She has a Chinese friend, it's true, but why Number Four?

Then I turned the page and read how the assassin had marked a copy of Time magazine bearing JFK's portrait with the character . This, it emerged, is the number four in Mandarin and Cantonese, and highly inauspicious too. Hotels and blocks of flats in China avoid allocating rooms that feature it, just like the number 13 over here.

The reason for its unfortunate associations is that it sounds rather like (), the character meaning "death". And so, to summarise:

  • I told my five-year-old daughter a story about a cursed room, number 13.
  • Without any knowledge of oriental numerology on either of our parts, she then retold the tale in a Chinese setting, replacing the number 13 with the Chinese number four.
  • The next day I picked up a thriller and almost immediately read that four in China is as unlucky as 13 in the West.
Arianrhod says she and her Chinese playmate never discuss such esoterica, being content with the mundanity of unicorns, fairies and minor royalty.

I read a little more about Chinese numbers when we returned home, and was startled to find that the number seven is often associated with ghosts. The Ghost Festival (鬼月) is held in the seventh month of the traditional calendar, for example.

One of the further oddities of Arianrhod's story had been that the room next to number four was neither five nor three, but specifically number seven.

I was going to make this my Christmas ghost story, but the tale of Prince Llywelyn and his premature ressurrection came first. I made a start before the New Year, and took it up again on returning home from work last night.

In the meantime a late greeting card had arrived with a Swansea post mark. Klaus is back.