Thursday, November 22, 2007

Duncan Williamson, 1928-2007

I was greatly saddened to read of the death of Duncan Williamson, one of the last of the great Travellers and a fine story teller.

Duncan was born in Argyll but travelled widely through Perthshire and Fife in his youth. When I was a lad the "tinks" as we called them then, not knowing any better, were still a very common sight, particularly around tattie-picking time when they took over the Meadows. In his autobiography, The Horsieman, Duncan mentions my home town several times and, although I do not remember him, he describes a couple of characters whom I clearly remember from the early 70s. It is less than a lifetime ago, but already it feels like a lost world.

Duncan was a superb storyteller in the Traveller tradition. For those who are interested - and anyone who wants to be a writer can learn a massive amount from their rhythms and cadences, from the structures of their stories and from the focus on language for beauty and meaning, but not for show - would do well to buy the two Travellers' Tales CDs produced by Kyloe Records.

His death not so much leaves a hole in the Travellers' tradition, but brings another massive strand of it to its conclusion. There are still more out there, such as Jess Smith, whose mother knew my mother when they were little girls, and who is still young and intent on maintaining the tradition, but with the loss of people like Duncan the Traveller tradition, the whole of Scottish culture and, indeed, the world of literature is impoverished.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Being very much in the professionalism game, I thought this was a delightful quote from Collingwood's New Leviathan:

37.61 (What is it about professionalism, anyhow? Does anyone think that if a man marries he should marry no one but a whore, or that if sleeping or eating is done it should be entrusted to professional sleepers or skilled prize-winners in eating-competitions?)

Monday, November 19, 2007

I really must be stupid

Was doing some research earlier on R.G. Collingwood, the British philosopher from the first half of the last century, and came across this quote:

Philosophical propositions, unlike metaphysical propositions, make an epistemological claim, rather than an ontological one. They assert that mind exists for the historian and that matter exists for the natural scientist. Further, philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within a Humean epistemology since they are neither about relations of ideas nor about matters of fact. They are not propositions about matters of fact because they are not empirically verifiable. They are not propositions about relations of ideas because they are not self- evidently true analytical propositions. Yet although philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within Humean epistemology, accepting them does not entail a commitment to the metaphysics which Hume wanted to reject. As already mentioned, philosophical propositions are not presented as necessary existential claims but as methodologically necessary ones. Philosophical analysis thus brings us to know "in a different way things which we already knew in some ways" in so far as it enables us to become aware of the assumptions that we implicitly and unselfconsciously make in order to provide radically different and sometimes incompatible descriptions of the same thing.

Now, I'm an intelligent, educated person; I know a (very) little bit about this stuff, but I can read the above, understand the grammar of it, the logic, the meaning of the words, and I still have not the faintest conception of what it is actually saying. I find it mind-boggling that people can actually think on such an abstract plane. Hats off to them, I say. I'd like to add something on my views on the above, but I realise that I shall never know what they are.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mill again

Flicking through the Guardian website for John Stuart Mill references (see post below) I came across this unintelligent article from Hywel Williams.

Amongst much tendentious, provocative, undergraduate exaggeration, he includes this:

Who but an idiot (or French aristocrat) could suppose that America's defining quality is a passion for equality? Still, like generations of undergraduates, the prime minister reaches for De la Démocratie en Amérique to demonstrate Atlantic breadth.

Well, the American Constitution, because that is what was being referred to, may have been flawed - it failed to deal with slavery for example - but the American approach to the institution of democracy, arising at a time of great tumult in the US - was a model of sober, rational judgement. Compare it to France, with their Year Zero approach after the revolution, and the hideous consequences that arose over the next forty or fifty years.

It was the first constitution in the world to define the limits of the state. It was wise enough to know that it could never be the finished article, so made provision for amendments - and how important have those been over the past two hundred years? Consider the first amendment, for example enshrining freedom of speech, freedom of petition, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. How much more egalitarian do you want?

John Stuart Mill

It's curious that Mill is suddenly in vogue again. There's been a rush of articles on him in recent weeks, including this by Richard Reeves yesterday in the Guardian.

One of the difficulties I have with Mill is that his theories of liberty, while interesting in themselves, are premised on such nonsensical views about civilisation. I've written about this before, I think, but his stages view of civilisation is just so much bunkum. This isn't his fault - we are all products of our time, and he was taking the accepted view of his age - but it is still a flimsy basis on which to hang a theory of liberty.

Reeves makes the valid point that liberalism is neither left- nor right-wing, and Mill is certainly an example of that. Some of his beliefs - universal eduction etc - are based on good socialist principles. And Reeves also mentions something I have written of before on this blog, Mill's dislike of inheritance and his inclination to tax it heavily: again, that could be thought of as left-wing (certainly too left-wing for this craven government, which has just taken the opposite position) but at the same time Mill talked of a single income tax rate, in order to encourage entrepreneurialism and good business, a classic right-wing position.

No wonder people scratch their heads at Mill. They look to him for easy answers, for a simple justification of their liberal beliefs, and he confounds them with the depth of his thinking.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The art of the short story

Article in today's Guardian by Richard Ford on the art of the short story. It may be my illness (see below) but I found this very hard going. I had to force myself to read on - this is my specialist area, after all, and if someone has taken the time to write an article on it I could at least spend half an hour reading it.

It all felt strangely old-fashioned. The short story seems to have ended for Ford some time in the 70s. The only tokenistic sentence on the current day actually, I kid you not, ends up discussing Eudora Welty. And the next sentence but one takes us all the way back to Emerson. It's as though Ford is a kid who is trying to do without his comfort blanket but gets to the end of the block and has a panic attack and has to run back home for it.

One of the things he commends short stories for is their brevity and the precision of writing. The same cannot be said of Ford's. Take this paragraph, which actually makes an interesting point which I managed to grasp at the third attempt:

The mere act of writing a story at all and proffering it into a mental "space" some citizen might be otherwise happy to fill with the Wednesday-night fights or a '64 Château Montrose, always constitutes an act of presumptuous and first-principle authority, and necessarily anticipates all the fictive demands to follow. (This is the privileged tap on the would-be reader's shoulder that many young writers take as their due, but that many older writers grow to feel - by dint of time spent reading - is an act of imposition whose harsh demands ought to be weighed in strict moral terms and ultimately rewarded.)

(And Ford is certainly a great lover of parentheses, always a good sign of a windbag.)

He also feels the need to give us the plot of Cheever's Reunion on two occasions, which is almost two occasions more than you get in the story itself. But that's why Cheever, as Ford suggests, is a genius.

I was also intrigued by the use of the universal 'her' and 'she' instead of 'him' and 'he':

The writer, for her part, exerts herself on otherwise unorganised language, creates utterances that provisionally subordinate our concerns to hers and - as we're induced to read on - draws us away from what we think toward what she thinks.

I've only ever seen that form of linguistic prissiness in Marxist texts - Terry Eagleton, stand up - so it came as a bit of a surprise here. (Especially, to parenthesise once more in honour of Mr Ford's lugubrious style, since in the preceding paragraph he names nine writers, only two of whom are female, so the law of averages very strongly suggests 'he' and 'him' would be more suitable.)

Dull, I think I would describe this article as. If you are looking for insights into the modern short story, you won't find them here. If you like very long sentences, though (especially ones padded out by parentheses) then this is the stylist for you.