I was struck by how two articles in last week's Scottish Review by Eileen Reid
and Islay McLeod
complemented one another. There seems little doubt that we live in an increasingly angry and binary society of black and white values, whereby 'my' values and beliefs are white and 'yours' are black. Scotland has had to endure (and I use that word carefully) the results of not just one but two
recent referendums. This has given the Scots an ideal opportunity to practice one of their core skills, namely quarrelling with one another. I see no signs of that abating in the near future.
The tendency to see figures from the past in similar black and white terms seems to flow, again, from binary perceptions. Of course, none of us likes having holes picked in the consistency of our favourite hero or heroine. We do need to remember that people from the past can only be judged within the context in which they lived. Also, is our contemporary society as open-minded and 'liberal' as we might like to think? I wonder what future history will make of us?
Greatest Briton or not, Churchill is never far from our consciousness – his jowly visage frowning at us from the Bank of England fiver. I used to be in Churchill: when I was at school, it was the red house although, in my class, the cool people were in Montrose. That's a whole other conversation.
One Sunday last summer, a minister (church, not government) spoke about heroes. He offered us two less prominent candidates. Thanks to David Puttnam, Eric Liddell is almost always remembered for refusing to run in the heats for the 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics, on a Sunday, but winning gold midweek in the 400 metres. Less well known is the story that emerged in 2007, during a British Olympic Association visit to Liddell's grave at the site of the prisoner-of-war camp in Weifang in China, where he died in 1945. Already unwell with a brain tumour, Liddell was offered release from the camp, as part of a prisoner exchange programme (organised by Churchill, as it happens). He refused, asking that a pregnant woman be sent home instead.
In the 1940s, Jane Haining was working in Budapest, in a girls' school where most pupils were Jewish. Conscious of the darkening clouds, the Church of Scotland urged her to come home but she refused, saying 'if these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?' She was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944, for working with Jews and listening to the BBC, and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in August that year. She is the only Scot recognised at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. Same era, different heroes. It's sometimes worth widening the search.
I wish I had written Eileen Reid's piece on the Holocaust as she says much of what I would like to say, but so much better. It should be required reading for any Labour party members who think that Israel is totally to blame for the Palestine situation. This isn't true – Israel has not always behaved sensitively or sensibly, but can we wholly blame a people subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust?
Many years ago I attended a conference of sociologists where a wonderful Jewish academic, Melissa Raphael, gave a talk about the horrors of the concentration camps where those Jewish women who still had menstrual periods (most were too undernourished) had to use pages of the Torah as sanitary protection. The women were concerned that this necessary practice insulted the holiness of the Jewish texts. The audience, many of whom were moved to tears, were convinced that it in no way invalidated the holy books. When I met Melissa afterwards, she suggested I might have Jewish ancestry because of my features. If this is right, and I've never explored the idea, I would be honoured. As it is, I frequently find myself defending Jewish people on behalf of the great ones like Melissa that I've met over the years. Thankfully, the Holocaust didn't entirely succeed, but we must be ever vigilant against rising anti-Semitism, and Eileen's piece expresses this so eloquently.
review of the 'Mary Queen of Scots' is accurate, perceptive and constructively critical. It is difficult to argue convincingly against her. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the private preview screening in London on 13 January. Expectations were high but quickly lowered. As an historical purist, with commercial interests in Kinross, it was disappointing to note no mention of Kinross, Loch Leven Castle, Falkland Palace and many other locations of great relevance. The catalyst was the fictional meeting between the two queens in the film which, again, disappointed the audience. After the screening, there was a 20-minute Q&A session with Josie Rourke who batted away placed questions with aplomb. The underlying elephant in the room was Harvey Weinstein. The pressures of #MeToo in California prompted Miss Rourke to assert feisty feminism throughout the film which is perfectly acceptable if the policy is made clear. It is a pity that a massive royal icon in Scottish history should be manipulated to promote a very 21st-century campaign – Mary Queen of Scots deserved better.
Jean Barr is right to compliment the writing of John Guy which was used as the basis of the plot and screenplay. Curiously, John Guy highlights in his book the obvious fact that the queens never met and, as a university history lecturer, he must have winced at the crude adaptation made by the Hollywood writers. Allegedly there is great comfort in a handsome royalty cheque, but even greater comfort may have been achieved by being offered a small walk-on part in Elizabeth's court for said author. Having two leading Hollywood ladies coming up every now and again to ask simple questions about Tudor and Stuart practices apparently mitigated the impact of having one's work taken to pieces. At least John Guy had no hand in the amateur sex scenes in the film, one oral scene which prompted the whole audience to burst out laughing!
In the interests of fair play, Jean Barr alludes to Schiller's equally inaccurate portrayal of the two queens in his massive 18th-century work, 'Mary Stuart', which I also saw in the West End last year.
The key deduction today is to analyse and assess the macro impact of the film which inevitably portrays and promotes the life and times of Mary Queen of Scots to a massive audience. Foreigners will love it and Visit Scotland must be bracing themselves for a bumper summer and beyond. Given that Americans have transferred their cultural obsession from 'Downton Abbey' to 'Outlander', both fictional, it may be intriguing to see if their interest will mutate to the Scottish queen in due course, especially since hers is a true story enacted in many existing locations remaining alive and well today. We shall see. Jean Barr is right to have been bored by the film but the prospects for the Scottish economy will awaken most film-goers very quickly.
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