28 June 2014

Time's wrong-way telescope

Angus Miller, my great-grandfather, was a curious fellow. A rural doctor, he was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, and tended to the health of his community long before the Labour government of 1945 introduced the National Health Service. A borderer by origins, he lived – and is now buried, in an unmarked grave, at his own request – in Lochaline in Morvern on the west coast of Argyll. He died long before I was born, but is preserved in the eccentric collection of books he helped assemble across his long life and in my father’s memories of childhood. 

He used to despatch my old man to the cliffs to snaffle gull’s eggs from their nests, professing to enjoy the fishy savour which infused them. When the last residents of St Kilda were cleared off the island by the British Government in 1930, many were despatched to the remote and sparsely-populated corner of Argyll, where my great-grandfather dealt with their aches and pains and broken bones.

In one of my family’s darkest episodes, he buried his wife and eldest son, who was not yet twenty, when tuberculosis killed them both. His best pal was a communist shipwright whose son went on to become a Unionist MP, much to the chagrin of the old tanky. Some years later, my father was summoned to the house of a dying man in Tayvallich. As a child, this fellow’s life had been – he firmly believed – saved by my great-grandfather. He wanted to pay his regards to Angus’s descendants; grateful even on his deathbed for the long life that he had been given. 

The books Angus handed down form an eclectic shelf. Tomes about Melrose Abby and the Heart of Bruce. Histories of the Scottish People. A barking mad racist tract about the Irish, brought to you by TWH Crosland, the author of The Unspeakable Scot. The Golden Bough. George Outram’s Legal Lyrics, including the notorious “multiplepoinding” song. Big, leather-bound copies of Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather. An English translation of the Koran. A childhood favourite was F A Mitchell-Hedges’ (1923) Battles with Giant Fish, with marvellous black and white plates of “the author,” pipe in mouth, casual as you like, brandishing gargantuan but luckless forms of water-life, pried from some far-flung river or sea – sharks, sawfish, sting ray - alongside the demure figure of Mitchell-Hedges’ constant female companion – not his wife.

In retrospect, this library – which I used to dip into regularly as a boy – has a strong British imperial flavour to it. They must have been his son’s books, I suppose. The kinds of pre-World War II boy’s own adventure stories, sent-up by Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Ripping Yarns, predominated. Audacious tales of starchy and unflappable British gentlemen doing outrageous things against the backdrop of “our” colonial possessions. Explorers flanked by biddable but expendable phalanxes of sweet-natured “natives” and “coolies”. A story of crossing the Andes by Frog wouldn’t have been out of place. 

Folk like Jim Corbett, who plunged into the Indian jungle to hunt down and exterminate man-eating leopards, tigers, and even the odd sun bear, only narrowly missing being devoured himself on several occasions. Just So stories. Gerald Durrell. Musty tales of enterprising explorers, picked off by anacondas in the mangroves. Out of date zoology, and wrongly reconstructed iguanadons, splay-limbed and lizard-like, a solitary thumb-spike perched erroneously on its snout. As a nipper, I lapped up all this stuff, desperately un-PC as much of it – rightly – has become. It is a strange thing, really, that I have never been able strongly to identify as British. My juvenile imagination was chock-full of imperial figures from Edwardian and Victorian central casting. 

But there’s something else interesting about Dr Angus Miller. He was the first member of my family to join the Scottish National Party, way back at the beginning. It was an inheritance which, four generations on, continues to mark my family. I have written here before about my grandmother – his daughter – who insisted on the party symbol being incorporated into the front page of the order of service at her funeral, and had to be persuaded that holding a collection for party funds after the ceremony represented an iffy manipulation of people’s grief. No member of that side of my family have ever shown any strong inclination towards religious belief. As my younger sister has observed, support for Scottish independence was faith enough.

But I sometimes wonder what prompted this then-eccentric, now more mainstream, impulse for independence of which I am, in some sense, an inheritor. There are clues – hints perhaps – in the themes which dominate the fusty bookshelves: of Scottish history, geography, culture, literature – but at such a distance of time, and politics, it is difficult to say. As we stand here, on the cusp of realising the goal which back in the 1940s looked remote – I wonder, would Angus approve of the kind of independence we are now seeking in this referendum – and perhaps more disturbingly, would I approve of the vision of independence which prompted him, all those years ago, to sign-up and plough cash into a no-hoper political outfit while Atlee’s government was enacting what would become the post-war consensus? 

He converted my grandfather – the soul responsible for the faint touch of the absurd which comes of being called Tickell – who was half-Scottish but essentially an Englishman. Thomas James Tickell – Jimmy – married my grandmother and moved back to Argyll, having fought in north Africa and Burma in the Second War, leaving one brother dead at the bottom of the Atlantic, and another under a spare white cross in the soil of Sicily. Needless to say, for a man whose green salad days had been saturated by horror, and who had lost so much, he did not regard independence as a betrayal of the unforgotten comrades he left behind, in the sands of Africa and in the hell of the war’s south-east Asian theatre. 

An unobservant Catholic, he only attended church on remembrance Sunday. Like so many others, my grandfather never spoke of the haunting and harrowing recollections of those days, and nobody ever asked. He fished. He pottered. He liked a good dinner, a drink, and the blether. He had a touch of the debonair. An Englishman by birth and education, he did the British state some service, but he believed in Scottish independence. Scratch any family in this country and you’ll discover similar inheritances and ambivalences, myths and stories. The tales told by these family palimpsests are sometimes, even often, difficult to decipher. We see even our most recent antecedents through what Keith Douglas characterised as: 

“Time's wrong-way telescope will show a minute man ten years hence and by distance simplified."

Ending on the haunting admonition, to: 

“Remember me when I am dead and simplify me when I'm dead.” 

This referendum poses a binary question. The unhelpful metaphor of “balance” between the two propositions ensures that this simple, divisive thinking will continue to dominate broadcasting right up until the 18th of September. Yet I find myself increasingly more interested these days in the cross-hatching stories, the ironies, ambivalences, inheritances and disavowals lurking beneath the single logic of either/or and which folk up and down the land will be wrestling with. 

It is becoming commonplace for commentators to trot out – as if in sorrow – that the campaign is increasingly polarised. That isn’t my experience. The polarities dominate the adversarial exchanges we hear on the airwaves and read in the press – but most folk I speak to in this mongrel nation find themselves pulled hither and thon by the referendum question. Given space to explain their view, treated respectfully, I find that even the most devoted are capable of recognising and giving a fair hearing to the other side of the proposition, and at least to an extent, to understand the passions, judgements and commitments involved. We aren’t half so unempathetic as we sometimes allow ourselves to be depicted. 

On polling day, we must all decide on which side of the question we fall. In that great moment of choice, we must firmly resolve one way or the other. I know where my own convictions lie. But until we stand in the booth, pencil in hand, let’s not be shy or ashamed of taking a moment to swither. To open up the family album, or run a finger down the spines of books which have not felt a living thumb for five decades, and reflect on the motley, half-contradictory, ambivalent history told by these paper fragments and surviving, stolen snatches of family memory. 


  1. Lovely. Quite right - my experience is of people listening carefully to each other and discussing politely - perhaps less so on social media, but certainly in the world.

  2. (Also, I think you only get Sun Bears in Borneo, and we should gossip some time about who it was in Ardfern - it's an amazing wee villiage - you know it's also where Neal Ascherson's family are from?)

    1. On reflection, I wonder if it might be a sloth bear I was recalling that some pith-helmeted colonist blasted to buggery. Off the top of my head. I knew it was a sibilant. I remember we've discussed the placed before - you had a relative - an uncle was it? - was some connection. My old African primary school headmistress used to live there, prompting occasional school jaunts down. I did know about the Ascherson connection - remind me to tell you why when next we meet offline.

  3. yes, an uncle and lots of cousins - and my mum sort of grew up there.

    Yes, let's chat in person.

  4. Nice piece Andy. I remember your grandfather well, and I guess by association my political leanings were fostered as a child in Morvern. Your father and I would play cameo roles during nocturnal bridge sessions in the bodachs wing of the house.