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The Holy City by Meg Henderson

Black and White, 2010, 321 p.
One of the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Holy City cover

The Holy City is narrated as the rememberings of near pensioner Marion Katie Macleod, who, at the age of eleven, lost all of her family – mother, father, brothers, sister, grandparents – in the Clydebank Blitz, hence found herself alone while resolving to look after Davy Ryan, the seven year-old neighbour in the bed beside her in the hospital where they were both recovering from wounds sustained in the bombings. This is a subject not unfamilar to me since a close friend of my parents had an elder brother killed in Clydebank during the bombing and was separated from his family – with nothing but the night clothes he was wearing at the time – and not restored to them for three years.

The book deals not only with the misfortunes Marion suffered as a result of the bombs but also the effects that war had both on her and other Clydebank residents. Interspersed in the text is the history of the town from the 1930s, encompassing the heyday and post-war demise of the shipyards and the workers’ treatment therein, the rise and fall of the Singer sewing machine factory – a significant landmark and employer in the town till its clock was demolished and the Japanese began to produce cheaper sewing machines in the millions. The Holy City was the name that had been given to the part of Clydebank which suffered most damage during the Luftwaffe raids as it apparently bore a resemblance to Jerusalem.

Henderson’s depiction of the community of working people rings true enough, their humour, camaraderie, the deep sense of ‘Us and Them’, their resentments – among which was the fact that the casualty figures were massaged (the text says for the sake of morale elsewhere) – their betrayal by economic circumstance. Marion is a resourceful and combative protagonist but the historical passages read more like pieces of journalism than a memoir. The picture of Jimmy Ryan – whom she marries when he returns from the war as the only means she has to keep her promise to herself to protect his brother Davy – as too damaged by his experiences as a Commando to function properly in civilian life again, withdrawn, unable to sustain a relationship, is well done. Henderson also highlights the scandal of the asbestos which has to be brushed off Jimmy every night on his return from work in the yards (which also permeated the air and covered the ground so that children could throw sodden clumps of it at each other) and leads to his premature death.

The text refers to the myth (sic) of ‘We can take it’ especially as regards the inhabitants of the equally devastated Liverpool in terms of “The reality was there was no choice. The people took it because they were forced to take it” by not being allowed to flee to the surrounding countryside (or being sent back if they did.) There may be some truth to the supposed official thought that bombing attacks led to the chance to shoot down German aeroplanes but there is a circularity to the proposition that lack of (civilian) targets would then give the German pilots pause. Would it? Yes losses did lead the Luftwaffe to give up daylight bombing in favour of night-time raids (the same was true for the RAF over Germany) yet there would still have been no shortage of targets. The raids on Clydebank may have been purely terror inspired – Hitler’s military attentions had by that time turned to the Soviet Union – but they had a strategic sheen. Despite the Luftwaffe’s lack of success in undermining British morale the thought persisted – on both sides – that bombing could win or at least shorten the war, witness the Allies continued air attacks on Germany till the war’s end; to achieve which end actually required ground troops to take and occupy Germany. But for the people being bombed there really was no choice. You either carry on with life as best you can in the circumstances or give up. Most British victims of bombing had nowhere else to go. So too for the Germans.

While Marion is an engaging, resourceful character and the conversations she engages in are lively – and occasionally barbed – there is something a little stilted about the whole. The historical interludes, though interesting, aren’t well enough integrated, the incident with which the novel starts and whose ongoing ramifications intersperse the narrative is not come back to sufficiently often, the loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, showing too much of the authorial hand. The Holy City is good, well worth reading certainly. But a contender for entry in a list of 100 best Scottish books, though? Not for me.

Pedant’s corner:- Marion describes Helensburgh as by the seaside (I wouldn’t.) She also says it is six miles from Clydebank (make that 17.) The details of the sinking of the Bismarck are also wrong. There is a reference in dialogue to ‘wanno they science fiction stories, ye know the wans, where an impostor takes ower somebody’s life.’ Were these a common enough currency in the late 1940s to invite such a comparison?

Eleanor Cross, Geddington, Northamptonshire

The other Eleanor Cross we visited was at Geddington:-

Eleanor Cross

Eleanor Cross, Geddington

An information board here shows the route of Eleanor of Castile’s body from Lincoln to London, and the twelve stopping places:-

Information Board, Eleanor Cross, Geddington

Eleanor Cross, Hardingstone, Northampton

Edward I of England, known as Edward Longshanks, and also Malleus Scotorum or Hammer of the Scots may have been a Middle Ages hard man but it seems he loved his wife, Eleanor of Castile. When she died at Lincoln he had her bodytransported to London for burial and at each stop along the way ordered that a cross be erected in her memory. These are known as Eleanor Crosses.

On our trip down south last summer we were so close to two of these we had to photograph them.

The first was at Hardingstone just south of Northampton:-

Eleanor Cross

Eleanor Cross, Northampton

There is an inscription (pretty much unreadable) in the stone on the wall behind the Cross:-

Inscription near Eleanor Cross, Northampton

The inscribed words are reproduced on the plaque:-

Eleanor Cross Inscription

Another descriptive plaque is on a pedestal nearby:-

Eleanor Cross, Northampton, Descriptive Plaque

Denis Healey

One of the last of the big political beasts of my (relative) youth has now departed.

He held office as Defence Secretary for 6 years but was more famous as a Chancellor of the Exchequer excoriated by the left for his adoption of wage controls in 1976 and immortalised in a song – to the tune of What a Friend We Have in Jesus – about the Callaghan Government which contained the line, “All the bad was done by Healey, all the good by Tony Benn.” But Healey in a deaperate bind. There had been an oil price rise of 400%. Imagine today’s politicians coping with that.

His obituaries on the television skipped over his war record to concentrate on his political career. But one of the most striking things I ever heard about him was that he was the Beachmaster (for the British sector) at the Anzio Landings a job of no small responsibility. He’s worth an obituary for that alone.

Denis Winston Healey: 30/8/1917–3/10/2015. So it goes.

The Holocaust and the State

There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 16/9/15 where Timothy Snyder argued that the conditions necessary for the Holocaust of Jews (and others, but mainly Jews) by the Nazis to take place have largely been misunderstood.

Snyder sees it as crucial that in the areas where most killings occurred, principally in the lands of pre-war Poland, the Baltic States and what had been Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, the apparatus of the state was no longer functioning – had indeed been deliberately destroyed. This was the necessary precondition for the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and the SS to be so unconstrained.

Though Snyder’s focus is on Eastern Europe I found myself thinking that in Western Europe too the absence of state institutions was a factor contributing to whether or not transportations to the killing zones of those whom the Nazis saw as undesirables came about. In Denmark, where the king remained and most institutions stayed intact (at least until 1943,) most of the Jews escaped or survived. By contrast in the Netherlands, whose monarch went into exile in Britain, and in France, where the Third Republic collapsed and Vichy was a puppet, deportations were much easier and in some cases even facilitated.

We have seen the consequences of the absence of the state relatively recently in Afghanistan – the Taliban would not have come to power there if not for the chaos engendered by, first, the Soviet presence and then its retreat (effectively driven out by a mujahideen aided and abetted via US and Western support) – in the disarray of Libya and now in Iraq and Syria where ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would not have had the opportunity to grow as quickly or at all if there had not been the vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it.

Contrary to what some libertarians appear to think it seems the state really is a force for good.

Postscript:- While looking over the above it also occurred to me that the killing fields in Cambodia, while a consequence of Pol Pot’s take-over, were also due to state collapse, in this case that of the pre-revolutionary government. I suppose too that La Terreur in revolutionary France and the turmoil in the former Russian Empire after the Bolshevik coup are examples of what happens when state organisation suffers disruption. To avoid chaos a polity requires not people with guns but checks and balances; plus a functional judicial system capable of holding those in power to account.

Culloden (iii)

This very modern Memorial Bench is near the path from the visitor centre to the battlefield at Culloden:-

Culloden Memorial Bench

The inscription is in Gaelic but an English translation is given on the smaller extension, “We followed you, Prince, to this ocean of flatness and bullets.”

Culloden Memorial Bench English Inscription

Another grave marker refers to the “English” dead. Many in the Duke of Cumberland’s victorious army were actually Lowland Scots. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 was of course a Civil War.

Culloden: "English" Gravestone

To the foreground below is a reconstruction of the sort of house that would have been present on or near the battlefield of Culloden as shown on maps from the time. In the background is the modern visitor centre. These buildings make the scene much less bleak than it used to be.

House on Culloden Battlefield

This is the back of the cottage:-

Culloden Battlefield House Rear View

Side view of cottage:-

Culloden Battlefield House Side View

Front of cottage:-

Culloden  house

Culloden (ii) Clan Grave Markers

As the wording on the cairn at the centre of the battlefield of Culloden on Drummossie Moor says, the graves of the clans are marked by the names of the clans.

Clan Fraser:-

Culloden; Grave of Clan Fraser

Mixed clans. The graves go all the way to the back of the mound:-

Culloden; Grave of Mixed Clans

Clan MacKintosh. Again, the graves go all the way to the back of the mound:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Mackintosh

Clan Cameron. Yet again:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Cameron

Clan Stewart of Appin:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Stewart of Appin

Clans McGillivray, MacLean, MacLachlan and Atholl Highlanders. Nearly three hundred years on and floral tributes are still being paid:-

Culloden; Graves of Clans

Well of the Dead. Here the chief of the McGillivray fell:-

Culloden: Well of the Dead

Culloden (i)

Drummossie Moor, site of the Battle of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie suffered his first and only defeat at the end of the ’45, otherwise known as the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6 (an event which signalled the end of the old Highland way of life,) is one of the more dispiriting places I have visited. It seems a godforsaken area for men to have died over. I went there again this year when the good lady’s blog friend Peggy was over from the US in May. For some strange reason, though, it wasn’t as depressing this time as last. Maybe it was the presence of a Visitor Centre (built in the interim) which made it seem not so bleak and remote.

This is a close-up view of the government (Hanoverian) line – marked by the red flag.

Culloden battlefield

Thios one was taken from the centre of the battlefield. Away in the distance (blue flags) is the Jacobite start line.

Culloden

This is looking back to the Governent lines (red flags) from the battlefield’s centre.

Culloden Battlefield

A cairn lies at the battlefield centre:-

Culloden Memorial Cairn

The cairn’s wording is slightly inaccurate. Yes, they fought for Prince Charlie, but in the main they fought for their clan chief (feudally) and not for Scotland per se.

Wording on Culloden Memorial Cairn

Stirling Bridges

A bridge has spanned the River Forth at Stirling for centuries. Not the same one obviously but the most famous of them was the one where William Wallace won his great victory over the army of Edward I of England (Edward Longshanks) at the eponymous battle in 1297.

The “old” bridge that still survives now carries foot traffic only. It was built 500-600 years ago. It is a lovely structure of four arches and three supports, here shown from the “east” bank.

Old Stirling Bridge

These are the approaches from the west. Note the cobblestones:-

Old Stirling Bridge Approaches

This is the old bridge from the modern road bridge:-

Old Stirling Bridge From Modern Bridge

And this is a view from the “west” bank. The Wallace Monument can be seen as a distant spire beside the lamp standard at the extreme right of the bridge as seen here:-

Old Stirling Bridge Spans

Two “modern” bridges also cross the Forth close by. This is the railway bridge from the modern road bridge:-

Railway Bridge at Stirling

The road bridge is in the foreground here with the railway bridge supports visible through its arches:-

Modern Stirling Bridges

The Wallace Monument from the old bridge:-

Wallace Monument

War Memorials at Stirling Castle

As at Edinburgh Castle there are War Memorials on the esplanade of Stirling Castle.

Again there is one to the Indian Mutiny, this one dedicated to the men of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment who died at Seringapatam, Delhi and in the Relief of Lucknow.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The other side of the memorial names the officers (1 colonel, 2 captains, 6 lieutenants and 1 surgeon) but only gives the total numbers of other ranks (13 sergeants, 9 corporals, 3 drummers and 216 privates) – all of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment – who died in the mutiny, 1857-8.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Again too there is a Memorial to the South African War (Second Boer War) dedicated to the men of the 1st Battalion (Princess Louise’s) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaque here gives the names of the officers and non-commissioned officers who died:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaques on these two sides give the names of the privates:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Staring out towards the scene of his great victory at Bannockburn is a statue of Robert Bruce.

Statue of Bruce, Stirling Castle EsplanadeStirling Castle 6 Bruce

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