2 January 2016


I once knew a woman who tried to be all sweetness. In word and thought and deed, she hoped the world would believe she lived her life according to the motto: “I have a heart, blessed and cursed, with the inability to feel hatred or anger,” with never a bad word uttered, and never a black thought contemplated. 

She wanted not only to turn a sceptical eye inwards, to interrogate her own worst impulses towards jealousy, cowardice, heartlessness, cruelty – her ambitions were more vaulting than that. She sought to extirpate even these impulses utterly, or at least have others believe that her blemishless generosity of spirit comprehended them not. A being of light, and no darkness. But being human, and not a plaster saint, being motley and mortal, this excision failed. In the secret and disavowed terrain of her small-heartedness and her malice, thoughts like poisonous toadstools multiplied. Jealousy. Bitterness. And ultimately, she disintegrated. Pitching for perfection, she brewed a vinegar bottle in her own breast. 

I thought our candidate for sainthood was a good deal worse than many decent sinners I have known. They understood, as she did not, that we are all of us creatures of shade as well as light. Our erratic impulses may be kindly as well as crooked. You needn’t be in thrall to the bleaker portions of your personality, but only an idiot tries to efface them. 

In my bones, I am not a nice person. Most Tickells have vein of ice cutting through them, somewhere. One of the more admirable traits in Scottish culture is our fondness for sparkling cruelty, and the cutting remark well-administered to a worthy object of scorn, with a twinkle in either eye. We don’t disavow our shadows. But as I’ve grown more ancient, I’ve become less cynical, less negative, less inclined towards the detracting remark. 

In my late teens and early twenties, I was, I think, frequently insufferable: sardonic, knowing, condescending, unconstructive. Swaying the brittle swagger. Anxiety masked – poorly – by scorn. Sometimes needlessly cruel. Often over-estimating the solidity of the people and ideas I trained my enervating attention upon. There isn’t much to be proud of. But you should forgive yourself and others your youth, and theirs. You learn, they learn, you both change. 

I owe a lot to teaching other people to clarifying my values. It now seems to me far more important to think with a different vocabulary. Fostering, growing, encouraging – and above all, striving to understand. I do wonder if 2016 is the year in which we are all of us – collectively – ought to reckon in a more sober, thoughtful, playful and basically kind way with the strong feelings which our recent politics have unleashed on all sides. 

We don’t need saints. We don’t need to blot out our unkind feelings. We don’t need worthy lessons from hearts, blessed and cursed with the inability to feel hatred or anger. But I wonder if we can’t respond to our current political and emotional predicaments in Scotland with a more human face in the coming year. With more bravery. And with a kinder, deeper, more surely rooted confidence too.


  1. An admirable hope, but I fear it may be a vain one. This is not because human nature is getting worse (though that can't be ruled out) but because much modern technology encourages irresponsibility and therefore licenses nastiness. I'm thinking here mainly of social media and blogs which allow anonymous and pseudonymous messaging.

    Face to face with a live human being there are strong incentives to be polite, if not actively pleasant. This sense of personal responsibility remains, maybe more weakly, when posting online under a real name. But anonymity and brevity encourage the quick put-down and the cutting insult.

    Politics is increasingly migrating to the cyber world and the print media are in apparently terminal decline. It's possible we may yet develop more civilised forms of online discourse. But I wouldn't bet even my most tattered shirt on it.

  2. Flyting is part of our auld culture, well I suppose of many cultures, but it is certainly a distinctive part of Scottish culture.

    Brusqueness I think is OK. I had a ritual exchange of insults with Alan Bissett some weeks ago on Twitter which ended amicably enough. But you don't go behind people's backs when flyting so I can't engage when others are attacking Mr Bissett.

    Auden said 'We must love one another or die’. We needn’t go that far thankfully; perhaps ‘We must tolerate one another when engaged in rational discourse’.

    We all have stuff that gets our goat, e.g. Elaine C Smith doing her Queen of Working-Class Couth act (so influential on the Blessed Nicola), which irritates me more than it should, but compared to the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in leftwing thought it ain’t the proverbial hill of beans. We all need to cultivate a sense of proportion.

  3. T'internet is a technological ocean and, as in real life, we feel little of the pain of those on the other side.

  4. Mightn't the "more basically kind" resolution be more suited to 2017? 2016 is probably the year when the European Union is finally going to get slaughtered. It's a time to be bloody, bold and resolute.

  5. I really liked this. I read people unleashing the most dreadful hatred filled words upon those who should be comrades. Many look at the person, the punctuation, the failings of others and stick the crowbar in the gap and pull, rather than either quietly agreeing or disagreeing. And aye, as we get older, the pride in our range of put downs, patronising and "obvious" superior being, language and knowledge, should in a mature mind, become shame and regret in dreadful assumption. We were all young once. Lets be good to each other. Listen. Defer. And speak even though our voices may shake, without malice. We win when we come from a good place. And we win when we address the politics, not the personal traits or failings of the people we engage with.

  6. 'Tis in ourselves we are thus or thus...

  7. "think with a different vocabulary"

    Ah indeed, and act with a different vocabulary. Language in both Thought and Action.

  8. We humans are all flawed, some much worse than others. The ability to empathise with others though is missing in many.

  9. Place a long lugubrious IM Jolly "helloooo" at the head of this and it reads better. This said,of course,with a twinkle in either skinned eye,coming from that bleaker portion of my personality more fizzy than sparkling.

    More bravery,more confidence for sure in the on-going cause for independence for Scotland.

  10. Excellent plea for sanity. I would suggest this is complemented by the following analysis/advice

  11. No. The older I get, the more stuff I find to get snotty about.
    Life is getting too short to start indulging in tolerance and forbearance.

  12. Personally, I'm enjoying being a grumpy old bugger.