With much of my stash of fiction still in the storage unit, waiting for what will hopefully be the last few weeks of its exile, I've been working my way through the collected works of Bill Bryson. He was a favourite of the late Mr B but always rather disparaged by me in the same way that my school music teacher despised Gilbert and Sullivan for being too popularist. As I mentioned before, I'm finding a lot to agree with him about now I get older and grumpier.
One of his anecdotes about his earlier life in America is case in point. He grew up like me in the 1950s and his 'normal' middle class friends and neighbours seem to have been as mad as a box of jumping frogs, with racist views that make the National Front sound positively cuddly. I was interested to discover that, as a young boy, while he was on his paper round he would ponder such entertaining questions as: 'Will someone else see the colour as blue that I see as red?' Now that is a question I regularly pondered as a child (along with such imponderables as 'Who made God?') but I never imagined anyone else would have worried about the issue.
Obviously me and Bryson totally got it – I've tried to explain the problem to more scientific acquaintances who just can't, claiming it's all explained scientifically. But the point is that it can't be – I have no way of knowing if what you see as green I see as yellow and neither do you! The difference between me and Bryson, though, is that he has made a very successful career by writing about such anecdotes, while I haven't quite managed his dizzy heights. But then he hasn't been asked to write for the Scottish Review.
I have unearthed my set of poetry books but can't locate the poem I was reminded of anent the horrible legislation against asylum seekers by the Tory administration. Maybe a reader could enlighten me? I have tried to google it in vain. It purported to be a translation from Arabic by a 19th-century writer and concerned a famous Arab philosopher who had fallen out with the ruler of his country (such is the fate of philosophers in general) and sought asylum from a neighbouring ruler. He approached the city gates but was asked to wait – presumably with all his worldly goods, which wouldn't have taken up much space, as is the usual case for refugees – while the head guard asked the ruler if the philosopher could seek asylum in their city.
Back came the answer – the ruler sent him a bowl overflowing with water, meaning: we are overcrowded here already and can't take any more. But the philosopher had an answer to that – he picked a beautiful rose and placed it in the bowl to be sent back to the ruler. It soaked up enough water to prevent the bowl overflowing. I can't remember what the outcome was, and I'm not sure the poet specified it – one hopes the ruler appreciated what an asylum seeker could offer his city. If I could find the poem again I might send it to Sunak, although he wouldn't appreciate the poetic subtlety of the story.
Music has charms?
The only occasion when I might be tempted to abandon my desire for an independent Scotland is whenever I hear Purcell's Fairest Isle
song (from his preposterously plotted King Arthur
). It is so ravishingly beautiful that there is a very slight wish to be part of this idyllic world that Purcell constantly creates for us, even if it means accepting the concept of 'Britain'. He has always been my absolute favourite composer, and particularly English – in a positive way.
As a teenager in the 1960s, another of my fascinations (not shared with Bill Bryson) was the 17th century, as it struck me that the 'swinging (19-) 60s' had many similarities with the 1660s. There was an explosion of pleasure-seeking after an age of austerity, old values were challenged, and a new scientific revolution was happening. And let it not be forgotten that the monarch who presided over all this was not English, but half-Scottish and half-French. Charles II was overall a rather unpleasant chap, but that's another story.
One of the weird things about this period was how similar people were to the folk of the 1960s and yet so different. Writing in his infamous diary, music lover Samuel Pepys described how listening to a recorder concert made the hairs of the back of his neck stand up as had happened when he first fell in love with his wife. This suggests a sensitive and empathic person. Yet in the next entry he could be going to Tyburn to see the regicides who had signed Charles I's death warrant being publicly executed.
I'm still not sure as an adult how an age can have so many similarities with our own yet also have such different values. Or have we different values?
Spring hasn't sprung
William Wordsworth should have stayed in France after the revolution, as much of his subsequent poetry is unbearably soppy, yet unfortunately memorable like an ear worm. As the snow blizzarded around me in the middle of March here in rural Aberdeenshire, I couldn't help thinking of Wordsworth's poetic experience of a similar time of year:
It is the first mild day of March: Each minute sweeter than before…
Wordsworth was living in the Lake District, where Mr B and I had the very wet experience of living on and off for nearly 10 years. It did stop raining (occasionally) and usually by March it had stopped snowing, apart from what the locals called 'lamb blasts' – sudden snow flurries that sent the recent lambs scurrying off to hide under their mothers' woolly coats. And here in Aberdeenshire we are still waiting for the first mild day of March…
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant