I was in New York again last week and, happily, found I'd yet to exhaust that remarkable city's sights and stories. I usually stay in Brooklyn, and spent an absorbing day imbibing its eponymous 'Battle', the first major incident of the revolutionary war to take place after the United States declared independence on 4 July 1776. Despite it being a victory for the British Army – which went on to control the strategically-important New York City – I can't remember ever having read anything about it, but then history tends to be written by the victors.
East of Prospect Park in southern Brooklyn is a Belgian cobbled street which survives from that era, while the sprawling borough is full of memorials and plaques recording what became the largest battle of the entire war (Americans tend to chart such things in rather too much detail). In the midst of Washington Park in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn is also something called the 'Old Stone House,' which on 27 August 1776, became an important location in the same battle. That morning, George Washington arrived from Manhattan, realising the British were close to breaking through American lines.
To the west, General Stirling still held the line against Britain's General Grant, and for a while thought he would win the day. But when Grant, reinforced by 2,000 royal marines, attacked, Stirling pulled back and was eventually captured, although his actions allowed Washington's troops to escape. An historical panel regarding Stirling caught my eye because of his name; he was, unsurprisingly, from a Scottish family and once considered heir to the earldom of Stirling, although the House of Lords denied that title in 1762. Unfazed, William Alexander continued to style himself 'Lord Stirling' regardless, and today there's a middle school named after him next to the (relocated and reconstructed) Old Stone House.
A few days later, I had the unusual experience of seeing the Scottish government's 'Scotland is Now' promotional film beamed back at me in a small Manhattan movie theatre. This, as has been charted elsewhere, features the inevitable rolling landscapes and tartan parades, together with a voiceover about Scotland's 'innovative', welcoming and 'progressive' proclivities. It was intended to inform the (affluent) audience's vacation planning, although I'm not sure it worked. 'Oh boy!' exclaimed an elderly lady as it finished, and not in a way that suggested she was about to book a cheap Air Norwegian flight to Edinburgh.
Politically, New York is currently buzzing at 'Sex in the City' actress Cynthia Nixon's attempt to become the Democratic nominee for governor of New York, ahead of mid-term elections later this year. My partner made a point of showing me her glossy campaign ad in which she rails against inequality (NY is the most unequal state in the union) and says lots of stuff no one could possibly disagree with. Ultimately, however, it was rather empty. Also running is two-term governor Andrew (son of Mario) Cuomo, who's being depicted by Nixon as a trimmer – someone too inclined to cut deals with hard-line Republicans in Albany. This is otherwise known as politics, but purity is now all the rage.
On a popular daytime talk show, Nixon was asked why she wanted to be governor. 'Because', she replied blandly, 'I love New York.' She went on to stress her public school background and the fact she's a 'proud public school parent,' but otherwise, there was lots of glib rhetoric about forging 'real progressive change,' although detailed proposals were conspicuous by their absence. Nixon – who's essentially fighting (Trump) celebrity with celebrity – is an attractive figure, but for some reason she reminded me of another political figure closer to home.
On Monday, the Herald published my final column for that newspaper, the 221st I've written since joining its opinion pages in late 2013. This notebook will also be my last for SR after a much shorter run, for next week I'm joining the excellent research team at the House of Commons Library. Naturally, this is incompatible with punditry, so I'm bowing out of journalism after almost 18 years.
Obviously, I do so with mixed feelings, although taking a break from the hothouse that is Scottish politics has obvious attractions (as does the job itself). After my column – on the 'deep stories' that drive identity politics – appeared, the rest of the day was a blur of tweets, emails and text messages, most of which were gratifyingly generous. As I'd said in my article, having such a platform during five incredibly eventful years has been a huge privilege, although it would be disingenuous to deny certain frustrations.
When I started out as a journalist in 2000, always with the intention of writing about politics, I certainly didn't intend to become a hate figure, let alone a figure of fun; all I wanted to do was chart Scotland's politics (and political history) as thoroughly and honestly as possible. Initially, it was possible to do this free of online bile, for there still existed a common deliberative space in which those on the left and right, either nationalist or unionist, could discuss history, policy and economics relatively openly.
At some point after the 2011 Holyrood election, however, that space narrowed considerably. The former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff perceptively observed that much of contemporary politics was about depriving certain individuals or parties of 'standing' in the political arena rather than engaging meaningfully with the points they made, and I know the feeling. At times, I've felt like I was back in the playground, so puerile has been some of what now passes for political discourse, constantly under assault for expressing what would – in any other political context – have been uncontroversial analysis.
That said, there's much about journalism and commentary I'll miss: the conviviality of committed, fair-minded and professional colleagues; what the former newspaper editor Max Hastings once called the 'intoxication of access,' and the sheer exhilaration of covering a by-election or historic referendum. Even after 18 years, I never lost the thrill of seeing my by-line in a newspaper I'd read as a teenager. It's been fun, but change is good, and it's time for something different.
We wish David Torrance well in his new career. His Notebook in SR will be inherited by Eileen Reid, eldest daughter of the legendary Jimmy. She starts next week.