Twelve Days of Chiasmus

Colour photo of Loch Etive on a calm, cloudless day. Ben Cruachan reflected in the water.
Ben Cruachan and Loch Etive.

Marking each day of the holidays with twelve quotations that each feature a chiasmus.

  1. ‘A certain redressing of the cosmic balance seems to have occurred: this time not only have I written about them, but they have written about me too.’ (Cees Nooteboom, Nomad’s Hotel)
  2. ‘I want you to say you love me, even though I don’t love you. It might restore the balance.’ (Claire Keegan, ‘Quare Name for a Boy’)
  3. ‘My honour is not what I proclaim to you about myself but what you proclaim to me.’ (Bertholt Brecht, Me-Ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things, trans Antony Tatlow)
  4. ‘Yes, we have rendered to these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country; I have avenged America.’ (Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclamation of 28 April 1804)
  5. ‘I wonder if they recognise me as quickly as I, them’. (Dionne Brand, ‘At the Lisbon Plate’)
  6. ‘Men look. So do women. Women look too. So ha ha there. If men dont think they do, they do, women look at men.’ (James Kelman, Mo Said She Was Quirky)
  7. ‘A wedding gift of dishes. “It starts when you sink in his arms…”’ (Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing)
  8. ‘Aye, he’s chasing me now, not I, him.’  (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)
  9. ‘Most tasks are easier said than done. In the case of coming together across seemingly intractable barriers, however, the reverse may be true: this one is easier done than said.’ (Naomi Klein, Doppelganger)
  10. ‘What is the blue road anyway but an opportunity to poke at the unseen and a hoping the unseen will poke back?’ (William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways)
  11. ‘The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming both yes and no, the no becoming both no and yes, the contraries balance, neutralise, paralyse each other.’  (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)
  12. ‘It is ever so hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea that someone could have been the enemy of your enemy and yet not a benevolent force. A victim and also a perpetrator. Or vice versa.’ (Masha Gessen, ‘In the Shadow of the Holocaust’)

Eliza Greenfield: From Jamaica to Arbroath

Close up of grave stone, highlighting the name 'Eliza Greenfield / Widow of the Above / Died 7th March 1885 / In the 78th year of her age'. Surrounded by other graves, and in the background the ruins of an abbey, against a blue sky. Overlapping red circles of refracted light appear against the side of the neighbouring grave stone that is in shadow.


The American radical campaigner, Henry Clarke Wright spent much of 1844-45 touring Scotland, making incendiary speeches condemning the Free Church for accepting donations from pro-slavery supporters in the United States. In one of his regular updates to William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the Liberator, the abolitionist paper in Boston, he wrote from Arbroath on 11 February 1846:

When I was in this town in October of 1845, Rev. Mr. Sorley, in whose church I lectured, was away, getting a wife. Whom do you think he married? A COLORED WOMAN, the daughter of a slave, quite dark, but highly educated and accomplished, and of exalted character. She is the cherished object of respect and affection among all the people of this town. No woman in town is more beloved and respected. What will the negro-hating priests and politicians of America say to this? Here is a white husband and a black wife, and that husband a minister – greatly honoured by his people, and his black wife adds to his respectability.[1]

The occasion of Wright’s return to Arbroath was to arrange speaking engagements for himself and Frederick Douglass, then busy delighting audiences in Dundee.  Wright had hoped to book Sorley’s church again, but from the reports in the Arbroath Guide and Northern Warder, it appears that he failed to find a church willing to accommodate them, and they had to settle instead for the smaller Trades’ Hall on the High Street for their first meeting on 10 February.  They were then offered the Abbey Church (which stood across from Sorley’s and is still there today) and the following two evenings they spoke there.

Colour photo of 19th-century red sandstone building at a town crossroads. Ground floor appears to be occupied by estate agents' shop. Upper floors have large windows, suggesting former use as a public hall.
Former Trades Hall, Arbroath.
Colour photograph of red standstone church, with spire, standing at crossroads. Smaller building visible behind leafless tree to the right. Hedge and leafless trees on the left, old-fashioned street lights silhouetted against the grey sky.
Abbey Church, Arbroath


Sorley’s wife, whom Wright does not name, was Eliza Greenfield. She was born in 1812 in Kingston, Jamaica and according to the baptismal records [free registration required] she was the daughter of a ‘free mulatto’, Elizabeth Strachan.  Her father was James Greenfield, not otherwise identified there, but he does have an entry in the Legacies of British Slavery database, indicating that he was a partner in a firm that made him ‘joint-owner of … enslaved people contracted to the military and government in Jamaica.’ He had an interest in several estates, and was ‘shown as an absentee in 1826.’

That entry does not mention Eliza, but it does record that Greenfield had several other children by Elizabeth Strachan (whose surname suggests that her father was a Scottish colonist too). There was Agnes (born 1814), James (born 1818) and Mary (born 1820).  There were two other daughters: Margaret, ‘a free mulatto child’ (born 1817) whose mother is not identified, and Jane Anna (born around 1809), whose mother was Thomasina Freeman, a ‘free quadroon’,   Greenfield returned to his home town Edinburgh some time in the 1820s, with several of his Jamaican children.

He lived at 9 East Claremont Street, a house he shared, according to the 1841 census, with his daughter Agnes, his niece Margaret Home Montgomery and her son Hume, whose father may have been Greenfield (at least he refers to him as his son in his will and Hume’s register of marriage identifies them both as parents). Agnes’ sister Margaret, had already left home and married Hector Gavin, a physician, in Edinburgh in 1837.  Four years later they were living in Bethnal Green with another sister, Mary who in 1843 would marry William Sage, a chemist.  Eliza had also moved on, and is listed in the same census residing at Millhead in Arbroath, a woman of independent means, marked with an ‘F’ for ‘foreign-born’.

Here already we have the beginnings of the story of one family of what Daniel Livesay called, ‘Children of Uncertain Fortune’, the title he gave to his study of the migration of ‘mixed-race’ Jamaicans to and from Britain in the ‘long eighteenth century’.[2]  Like many of these children, three of the sisters ended up in London – their brother James too it seems – but Eliza remained in Scotland.


How many black people were living in Scotland at this time?  It is very hard to say.  Most attempts at a headcount focus on the decades around 1800 and draw on data for London and extrapolate out for ‘the whole country’ (which may or may not include Scotland).  The two most reliable studies estimate around 10,000, which suggests that, even on the most generous apportionment (ignoring the unusually high density of black people in London), the number north of the border was unlikely to be more than two thousand.[3]

Certainly, we know the names of only a very small number of them.  Livesay does not mention the Greenfields, but he does discuss the Jamaican offspring of John Tailyour (surnamed Taylor), whose passage he arranged to Montrose, where he purchased a grand house at Kirktonhill in 1792.  The boys were sent to boarding school in Yorkshire, but their sister Catherine seems to have stayed in the area and lived with her aunt.[4] He also mentions a John McIntyre, who was a pupil at Dollar Academy in the 1820s and went on to practice medicine in Doune.[5] From Jamaica too were Peg Williamson, who worked as a midwife for most of her life in Banffshire, and Nancy Graham, who settled in Cromarty, and acquired substantial wealth including a plantation in Surinam.[6]

The three children of William Macpherson, an overseer in Berbice, returned with him to Scotland in the 1810s, Eliza and Matilda attending school in Blairgowrie, while William was enrolled in a boarding school near Perth.[7]  Also from Berbice was John Fraser, apprenticed to a surgeon in Cromarty in 1832.[8]  David Alston has identified several individuals born in the Caribbean in the rolls of educational institutions: Marischal College, Aberdeen (George, John and William Munro), Inverness Academy (John Noble, Helen Inglis), Elgin Academy (James Botar), Tain Academy (Marion Iver, Eve and George Oudkerk), and Fortrose Academy (Eliza and William Junor) while Thomas Cuming graduated as a doctor from Edinburgh University in 1824.[9]   William Fergusson and Jean-Baptiste Philippe also graduated there in the 1810s before going on to careers elsewhere.[10] 

William Davidson may have picked up some schooling in Edinburgh and Aberdeen in a peripatetic life that ended with his execution in London in 1820 for his part in the Cato Street Conspiracy.[11]  Ian Duffield has identified several black Scots from Edinburgh and Leith who were transported to New South Wales in the 1820s and 30s for petty crimes, including Nameroa (aka Nimrod, ‘Black Robbin’, Robertson) in the service of a Major-General Dalrymple,  Christian Sanderson, a laundry maid, and William Green, a private in the 70th Regiment of foot.[12]

Several are better known. Malvina Wells, born enslaved in Carriacou in 1804, lived and worked as a maid in Edinburgh for much of her life.  John Edmonstone, from Guyana, taught taxidermy at Edinburgh University in the 1820s, where one of his students was the young Charles Darwin.[13]  And Peter Burnet, an African American who made his home in Paisley was a well kent figure about town town and the subject of a short biography.[14]


Eliza Greenfield is worthy of a place among this select company.  What do we know of her life in Arbroath?  The records tell us that she married the Rev. Alexander Sorley on 21 October 1845. He was then the minister of the United Secession Church on Fore (now West) Abbey Street, long since demolished.  The ceremony itself took place in Edinburgh, her residence, according to the register, the same as her father who is described as ‘late merchant of Jamaica.’  As for the later references in the historical record, she has but a shadowy presence.    Sorley was a popular preacher, known especially for his sermon to the sailors, delivered every Spring before the sailing of the Baltic fleet.[15] Following the merger of the United Secession and Relief Churches to become the United Presbyterian Church in 1847, Sorley took his congregation to a new building in 1851, known as the Erskine Church in Horner’s Wynd (now Commerce Street) with some 800 sittings.[16]

Colour photograph of street, dominated by the side and front of a red sandstone church, three small spires above the entrance silhouetted against a uniformly grey sky.
Former Erskine Church, Arbroath

In the 1861 Census the couple are recorded as living in a grand house, Belmont, on Millgate Loan, what was then the edge of town. Valuation Rolls for 1865 indicate the occupations of their neighbours: manufacturer, surgeon, solicitor, flesher, grocer,  and then – on the less prosperous Millgate – china merchant, draper, printer, flesher,  jeweller, mill foreman, weaver, millworker, mechanic, labourer – in the mainly terraced houses on the way into the town centre.

Colour photograph of large detached house, walls painted white, standing back and around 20 feet higher than the unseen road below, separated by a garden, and a red sandstone wall topped by a hedge, broken by a gateway.
House formerly known as Belmont, Millgate Loan, Arbroath

Eliza’s father died in 1857. Greenfield left everything to his son Hume, excepting an annuity of £150 to his niece Margaret. Had he predeceased his father, the estate would have been divided equally between Margaret and the four of the five Jamaican children then living in Britain: Eliza, Agnes, Mary and James (the omission of his daughter Margaret is puzzling).  But it is in the preferences expressed in Eliza’s own will, made a year before her death in 1885, that we might glimpse something of her life in Arbroath and who meant most to her.

In the 1881 Census Eliza is listed as widow, head of household, aged 64, born Jamaica, living with two servants, Jemima Grant and Anne Esplin.  The Register of Eliza’s death (7 March, 1885) has her address as ‘Belmont, Millgate Loan, Arbroath’ and she is described as the ‘Widow of Alexander Sorley, Minister of Erskine U.P. Church. (Illegitimate).’  Her father: ‘James Greenfield, Merchant, Kingston Jamaica (deceased)’. Her mother: ‘not known.’ Her personal estate was valued (after debts) at £5673 16s 11d.  She is buried with her husband and his first wife in the grounds of Arbroath Abbey.

Colour photograph of tall gravestone, bearing names and dates, surrounded by other graves, against a clear blue sky, and branches of trees suggesting autumn.
Grave of Eliza Greenfield, Alexander Sorley and Mary Jaffray, Arbroath Abbey.

Here is the important part of the will, with the beneficiaries highlighted.

I Eliza Greenfield Sorley, relict of the late Revd Alexander Sorley of Erskine UP Church Arbroath do hereby make my Will on this Twenty first day of February 1884 bequeathing to my step daughter Mrs Jane Ann Sorley Bartlett whom failing her to her children my House Belmont, Arbroath with Furniture Silver Linens and all contained in the house excepting all the China and Ornaments in the Drawing room to my dear friend Mrs Marion Logan or McClure residing in Greenock. My step daughter to be my sole Executrix. All the money I possess in whatever way laid out to my said step daughter and failing her to her children. My step daughter shall pay out of my Estate to the following: To my sister Mrs Agnes Greenfield or Goodchap Roseneath Lodge, Lee, Kent One thousand. To my cousin James Hume Webster Four hundred pounds. To my friend Agnes Lyon or Charles Corsar, Seaforth, Mrs William Corsar’s Brooch with one of my gold Bracelets. To Mr Charles Corsar Twenty five pounds. To Mr William McClure, Senr Writer in Greenock Fifty pounds. To Jemima Grant my faithful Servant the sum of One hundred pounds all my clothes [and?] my Gold Watch and gold chain if she is in my service at my death. To Mrs Agnes Webster or Harvey my Gold Bracelet with my father’s miniature in it. I leave no debts. Medical Funeral and servants mourning to be paid as soon as possible.

Let me consider them one by one and speculate how Eliza might have known them.  There is much guesswork here, but it might inspire further research. There is already the framework for a historical novel, perhaps.  A dramatis personae waiting for characterisation.

  • Mrs Jane Ann Sorley Bartlett.  Eliza’s stepdaughter, from her husband’s previous marriage to Mary Jaffrey, who died in November 1840, only three weeks after her daughter was born.  There is nothing in the Censuses of 1851 and 1861 to suggest she continued living in Arbroath and may well have been brought up by a relative elsewhere. And she does not seem to have returned to Arbroath after her father’s remarriage.  As the will indicates, she subsequently married Joseph Bartlett, a doctor of medicine, deceased at the time of the will, when Jane Ann was living in Notting Hill, London.   She gets the house.
  • Mrs Marion [Stewart] Logan or McClure. A ‘dear friend’.  Marion Logan was born  in Stirling in 1822 to Rev James Logan and Catherine Stewart, her father having been minister of St Ninians’s Relief Church since 1803.[17]  She moved to Pitt Street in Leith with her parents around 1839 and so was living a short walk away from Eliza for a year or two and they may well have met each other then.  With ten years between them, perhaps Eliza was her tutor?  If they did meet then, it is possible that Marion’s father (at whose church Mary Jaffrey and Alexander Sorley were married – in 1837) could have introduced Eliza to her future husband. In any case, Marion is likely to have attended Eliza’s wedding in Edinburgh in 1845.  After Marion married in 1851 she went to live with her husband in Greenock.  To be a ‘dear friend’ in the 1880s must mean they kept in touch over many years, but, separated by over a hundred miles, probably didn’t see each other often.  Marion gets China and Ornaments in the drawing room. Her husband William McClure – identified as a solicitor here – is a separately named beneficiary, with £50 to him.
  • Mrs Agnes Greenfield or Goodcheap.   ‘My sister’. She is the only sibling mentioned in the will. We do know that of the four siblings who settled in Britain, James died in 1866, Margaret in 1876, and possibly Mary too by the time the will was written.  Agnes gets the largest cash portion of all the beneficiaries:  £1000.
  • James Hume Webster.  ‘My cousin’.  Actually cousin once removed; in other words, the son of her father’s other niece, Elizabeth Steel(e) Montgomery (1810-1889) who moved from Edinburgh to Arbroath after marrying an English teacher at Arbroath Academy, Alexander Webster in 1837. James Hume was born 1840.  And Eliza was living with them at Millhead according to the 1841 Census.  She may well have formed a close attachment to him as a baby.  The family moved to Academy Street where, according to the 1851 Census they had four more children. By 1861 James was working as a solicitor’s clerk in Edinburgh and was still there two decades later. James gets £400, an indication perhaps that Eliza remained in touch with him after he went away to pursue a legal career.
  • Agnes [Johnstone] Lyon or Charles Corsar. ‘My friend.’  Agnes Lyon was born in Arbroath 1835 and was married in 1860 to Charles Webster Corsar.  Corsar & Sons were a successful business in Arbroath.  In 1849 they launched mass production of their top quality Reliance sailcloth, importing flax from the Baltic.  The oldest son William H Corsar died 1886, and ‘the youngest and sole surviving partner, Charles Webster, inherited an estate “valued at some hundreds of thousands, I know not how many” according to his brother in law, a local preacher retained by the Corsars on a stipend of £50 per annum.  Three sisters were to receive £10,000 each and two nephews £4000’.  Charles Webster went on to build sailing ships, naming one ‘Monkbarns’ after the character in Scott’s Antiquary. ‘By the time Charles Webster died, in 1900, he left a fortune valued by the Arbroath Herald at about a quarter of a million pounds, in flax, yarn, cloth, stores, machinery, mills, factories – and ships. Nine ships in all.’[18]    Agnes and Charles lived at Seaforth House, an imposing dwelling on the sea front, only five minutes walk from the Sorleys.  Agnes was over 20 years younger than Eliza, though by 1880 the age difference would have been less significant.  They may have been fellow church-goers or involved in some common philanthropic endeavour.  There is evidently a close family connection.  Agnes gets ‘William Corsar’s brooch’ – returning a gift (or legacy) from Charles’ youngest brother, who died aged 22 in 1864.  Charles himself gets £25, not that he needed it, but a symbolic token of affection.
  • Jemima Grant. ‘My faithful servant’.  She gets £100, clothes and accessories.
  • Mrs Agnes Webster or Harvey. Not identified as such, but Agnes was the sister of James Hume Webster, so another cousin (once removed). Agnes was born 1847, and I think she is the same person as ‘Janet A’ (aged 3) who appears in the 1851 Census for Academy Street. She does not appear in the 1861 Census when the family had moved to Commerce Street. In David Dobson’s Scots in the USA and Canada 1825-1875 we learn that ‘Webster, Janet Agnes, daughter of Alexander Webster, the registrar of Arbroath, married William A. Harvey, engineer, Royal Navy, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 19 April 1880.’[19]  In the 1891 Census she is listed as head of household, age 43, 19 Dalhousie Place, ‘wife of [head engineer?] with a son aged ten and daughter aged eight and servant.  So Agnes is sometimes called ‘Janet A’ and sometimes ‘Janet Agnes’. Agnes gets ‘my Gold Bracelet with my father’s miniature in it’.  


One other person of interest is Alexander Webster.  According to the record of his daughter’s marriage in 1880 he was the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Arbroath. But at the time of his own marriage in 1837 he was an English teacher at Arbroath  Academy. According to McBain’s Arbroath: Past and Present, Webster ‘threw in [his] lot with the Free Church’ when it broke away from the Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843 and only a storm of protest prevented the Directors from sacking him.[21] 

So before she was married, Eliza was living in the home of a prominent supporter of the Free Church. What would have been her reaction to her fiancé apparently welcoming Henry Clarke Wright deliver a ‘Send Back the Money’ lecture at his church a few weeks before their wedding in October 1845? Perhaps her disapproval was the reason he back-tracked and did not invite Douglass to speak there the following February.  

But perhaps Webster was one of those in the Free Church who disapproved of its leaders’ willingness to extend fellowship to their counterparts in the United States.  After all, one of the two ‘overtures’ presented to the General Assembly in 1846 calling on the Church leaders to reconsider their position on slavery, came from the Angus and Mearns Synod to which the Arbroath Presbytery belonged.

Did the presence in his household of a daughter or granddaughter of an enslaved mother trigger a family crisis in this small coastal town that reverberated – however faintly – in an abolitionist newspaper in Massachusetts?


[1] Henry Clarke Wright to William Lloyd Garrison, Arbroath, 11 February 1846, Liberator 3 April, 1846.

[2] Daniel Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[3] Norma Myers, Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain, 1780–1830 (London: Frank Cass, 1996), 29; Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, c.1660–1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 30.  Their figure matches that of Folarin Shyllon, though, as Chater points out, he did not indicate how he arrived at the figure: F. O. Shyllon, Black People in Britain, 1555–1833 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), 102.

[4] Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 186–88, 227–31, 281–91, 323.

[5] Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 357;  June Evans, ‘African / Caribbeans in Scotland: A Socio-Geographical Study’, PhD Dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1995, 77.   Bruce Baillie, History of Dollar (Dollar: Dollar Museum Trust, 1998) calls him Daniel McIntyre (75).

[6] David Alston, Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 4–5, 287–89.

[7] Stephen Foster, A Private Empire (Millers Point, NSW: Piers 9, 2011), 163–93. Their father’s mother did not consider them worthy of the family name, and so were called Williams, after their father’s forename (175, 177).  See also Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 355–61.

[8] Alston, Slaves and Highlanders, 4.

[9] Alston, Slaves and Highlanders, 280–90.

[10] Lisa Williams, ‘African and Caribbean Residents of Edinburgh in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Kalfou, Vol 7 No 1 (2020), 46.

[11] Alston, Slaves and Highlanders, 293–96.

[12] Ian Duffield, ‘Identity, Community and the Lived Experience of Black Scots from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid-Nineteenth Centuries’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vol 11 No 2 (1992), 105-129.

[13] Mark Duffill and Eric J Graham, ‘John Edmonstone – the Black “Bird-Stuffer” of Edinburgh’, History Scotland (January/February 2007), 20–22.

[14] [John Parkhill], Sketch of the Life of Peter Burnet, a Negro, Eighth edition (Paisley: J Neilson, 1842).

[15] J. M. M’Bain, Arbroath: Past and Present (Arbroath: Brodie and Salmond, 1887), 147.

[16] Robert Small, History of the Congregations of the United Presbyterian Church, from 1733 to 1900 (Edinburgh: David M. Small, 1904), 103 ; see also George Hay, History of Arbroath to the Present Time (Arbroath, Thomas Buncle, 1876), 249, and Rev William MacKelvie, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh: Oliphant & Company, and Andrew Elliott, 1873), 85-6.

[17] Rev William MacKelvie, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, 344 and 644-45.

[18] My source here is a fascinating blog:

[19] David Dobson, Scots in the USA and Canada, 1825–1875, Part Five (Baltimore: Clearfield, 2007), 146.

[20] M’Bain, Arbroath: Past and Present, 266.

Remembering Mike Croft (1958-2020)

Man on jetty walking towards the camera towards the shore
Lismore, 10 September 2010

I know Mike did a convincing impression of being a South Londoner. He made a pretty good stab at it. Others will testify to his life as a singer in the Jivin Instructors, devoted follower of Crystal Palace FC, and proud public servant with Southwark Library services.

But for me he was always from the North.  Someone who may have parked his accent, but never lost it. Someone who never stopped loving the open spaces of the Pennine moors that backed on to the towns we grew up in, places you could escape to, and slip the parental knot.

I first met him one December morning when he padded into the kitchen at the hotel I worked in, starting a three-week holiday job. Shoulder-length hair and a droopy moustache. He used to say he saw my books before he saw me, after noticing a copy of Finnegans Wake on the window sill of the chalet I bunked in.  The spines of my library ostentatiously facing out. It was a bare-faced lie.  I would never arrange my shelves that way. But I forgave him for it as I always did – even for more wounding infractions, for he let me down many times over the years. And I was clearly not the only one.

We bonded that winter over music, literature, eccentric village pubs, dirty jokes, bad puns, and other people’s misfortunes. We formed an exclusive club of two he called the Anti-Christmas League and we did to Bing Crosby what the potato peeling machine did to those never-ending bags of KIng Edwards.  And by the time he headed back to his Theatre Studies in Stratford-on-Avon an unmistakeable friendship had taken root.

A few months later I went back to live at home, enduring a series of factory jobs that would pay for shoe-string tours of Europe in between.  But each summer Mike would head north again, like a migrating bird, to shelter me in his wings, as he made Lancashire come alive again, keeping me safe, even while leading me down lengthening avenues of mischief.  Or ‘ginnels’ as we would have enjoying calling them.  Because, wherever we went, something unexpected would always be round the corner, something bizarre, marvelous or hilarious.

It took me a while to realise they didn’t always happen by chance. I had no idea how we ended a long zig-zagging day at the Liberal Club in Summerseat on the wild fringes of Greater Manchester. It seemed just another predictable coincidence when it turned out that the young woman Mike seemed very comfortable with at the bar was his English teacher from school.  We were miles from home and without transport and she offered to put us up for the night. Waking up on the sofa the next morning I was surprised – but enormously impressed – to discover that he had not slept in the spare room.  Evidently Kath had introduced him to more than just Shakespeare.

I don’t know how much he learnt at college.  I’d say he was self-taught, most of his reading being for its own sake, not for some course or other.  He swept up many fragments of science, history, and geography in his net. Some of them still linger in my subconscious: the gregarious habits of the Manx shearwater, the vending machines built for Penguin books, the origin of the phrase ‘as dim as a Toc H lamp.’

I remember the time he stayed at my parents’ holiday cottage in the Lakes, carefully documenting in the Visitors Book our heroic drinking as much as the walks we did.  Some goody two-shoes made me tear out the page before we left – just a little too vernacular for my mum and dad, I thought, but I also obscurely sensed it was worth keeping.  In one entry, he gleefully mocked the pretentious over-wrought lyricism of a previous guest by writing simply, in capital letters, ‘ET IN ARCADIA EGO.’  A Latin phrase I think he picked up from Evelyn Waugh and which – as he delighted in explaining to me – meant that even amid the nymphs and shepherds of an earthly paradise, death is never far away. A memento mori that has extra poignancy now.

And I treasure another riposte of his I’ve kept, this one answering me, after I enthused about a new record I just bought, ‘Looking for the Perfect Beat’ by Afrika Bambaata. Typed on the back of a picture postcard featuring a laughably civic photo of Plymouth city centre, which he carefully defaced with inappropriate stickers, he seeks clarification of our summer plans, and bombards me with the music he’s been listening to: Angela Bofill, Prince Charles and the Beat Band, The SalSoul Orchestra, Steve Arrington, The Jammers, The Chevalier Brothers. ‘You sure you’ve been looking for the perfect beat?’ he asks.  And then, in closing, another rhetorical question: ‘In an imperfect world, can a beat be perfect?’  Something I have pondered many times over the years.

Colour postcard, image of city centre, showing office block, wide road with several red buses, captioned: 'Municipal Offices and Royal Parade, Plymouth, Devon.' Stickers manually added, including one of E.T. and another, a speech bubble attached to person leaning over balcony in foreground, saying 'I'll be right here.'

Reverse of postcard, undated, postmark unclear. 16p UK stamp. Right half, typed addressee: Alasdair Pettinger, 24 Anderton Park Road, Moseley, Birmingham, B13.  Left half, message, typed bottom to top. 'ali baba dear, 'bout time i heard from you it being so long since you last wrote. are exams over with soon? When you say "25/26 then lancs" do you mean May/June ? When are you to visit? It must be soon .....  Peech BOYS, yes but much rather Prince charles, Angela Bofill, too tough, and the SalSoul Orchestra, OOH I LOVE IT. New B,52's L.P. also V.G. Steve Arrington, Just got to hae you, and THE JAMMERS!!! There's a lot of cathing up to be done, are you sure you have been looking for the perfect beat? Write Soon say when visit, PRINCE CHRLES AT hacIenda was v,g. as were CHEVALIER BROS' in LOndon... Mint to visit also? Me to visit thee for residents gig in BRUM? In an imperfect world can a beat be perfect  MMMMMMIKEY.'

He especially enjoyed springing his erudition on the unwary.  Once, when we were hitch-hiking to Glencoe, drenched to the skin after an hour on the slip road and a sleepless night at a service station, we were picked up by a suit in a posh car. As we bundled ourselves and our rucksacks in the back seat, Mike recognised Beethoven on the radio. In his plummiest voice he boomed, as the Audi rejoined the carriageway, ‘Just in time for the minuet from the 8th symphony!’

It was the Allegretto from the 7th, but I didn’t say anything.  Facts were always secondary to the dramatic effect. And to be sure some of the stories he told were decidedly iffy. Though when I checked them out, even the weirdest ones usually checked out. Approximately. For he had a remarkable memory, when it suited him.  Only a few weeks before he died – which soon seemed like an age ago – he was enthusing about W H Auden, reciting lines, word-perfect, from what he called ‘that triumph of populism’,  The Night Mail.

Speaking at the funeral, I would conclude with a poem. But no, not by Auden, not that one, made famous by John Hannah – but one of Mike’s own, written in the second blush of fatherhood.  It’s called ‘Year Dot (after Sylvia Plath)’.

Your duffle-bag snout and Satchmo smile all
Elvis lipped and chipped
From the old block.
From birth a wrigglesworth briefly Smurphed
But now you’re in the pink
Our missing link.
You look around eyes
On the prize the skies the limit.
Oh starfish in a limpid pool
Spooled a limpet my little bud.
Let’s get on with this gig
My little truffle pig.





It Was in Sweet Senegal – Or Was it? Some Notes on ‘The Slave’s Lament’

The Slave's Lament: first two lines of music from first printed edition
‘The Slave’s Lament’, in James Johnson, ed., The Scots Musical Museum, Vol IV (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.

Thus the blues – ‘the black slave lament’ – was offered up for the admiration of the oppressors.

Frantz Fanon, ‘Racism and Culture’ (1956) in Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 47.

A Bard’s Ransom

It is curious, as Stephen Mullen recently observed, that Robert Burns – who never went to Jamaica – has somehow come to stand in for the thousands of Scots who did in the second half of the eighteenth century.1 Yet it is perhaps not surprising given the way Burns (to an extent hardly matched by any other poet) has been regularly hauled before the court of critical opinion and questioned about his life choices.2 Even tributes to Burns are typically expected to begin by admitting his (moral or political) shortcomings before dwelling more extensively on his (literary) talents. That he even contemplated going to the West Indies – and in a letter rather flippantly imagining an alternative future as a ‘poor Negro driver’3 – has been enough for many to channel disquiet about a vast and enduring transatlantic system onto a single, celebrated individual.

At some point in the legal proceedings, someone is bound to step up in Burns’ defence waving Exhibit A. And just as – in the wider historical debate – any claim that Scotland was complicit in the development and expansion of colonial slavery is often met with the counter-claim that, ‘Ah yes, but we also abolished it,’ so the case for the poet’s prosecution is supposed to collapse in the face of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, the song he is believed to have composed, and which was first published in 1792.

The Slave's Lament: words and music from first printed edition
‘The Slave’s Lament’, in James Johnson, ed., The Scots Musical Museum, Vol IV (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia ginia O:
Torn from that lovely shore and must never see it more;
And alas I am weary weary O!

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Lie the lands of Virginia ginia O;
There streams forever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas I am weary weary O!

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia ginia O;
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas I am weary weary O!

The song appeared in the fourth volume of the six-volume collection, The Scots Musical Museum, put together by the Edinburgh engraver and music-seller James Johnson.4 It’s a moving lyric, to be sure, written from the point of view of one captured in West Africa to be enslaved in North America, bearing the burden while mourning the separation from loved ones back home. And it is regularly cited as a ‘get-out clause’ in response to those troubled by Burns’ colonial intentions.5 He was an abolitionist after all, they say. For many readers and listeners, then, the song itself seems to bear a burden: their own longings for something that offers, in Carla Sassi’s striking phrase, ‘a possibility of ransom from Scotland’s history’s darkest chapter.’6

Whose Song is it Anyway?

If ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is a ransom payment, the recipient might well feel short-changed. Set alongside other abolitionist verse of the period, the song – arguably – resembles less those that celebrate resistance than those that represent the enslaved ‘as helpless and supplicating’.7 Its model seems much closer to Wedgwood’s famous medallion, described by Marcus Wood as ‘the central icon of slave passivity and disempowerment’8 (distributed in Scotland the year the song was published)9 than, say, the statue of the Marron inconnu that stands in Port-au-Prince marking the Haitian revolution (which began the year before).

Michael Morris, in his sustained interrogation of Burns’ relationship to slavery and abolitionism, contrasts ‘The Slave’s Lament’ with Slavery: An Essay in Verse, a passionate twenty-page denunciation of the plantation system written by Burns’ exact contemporary, John Marjoribanks from Kelso who did go to Jamaica and served there as an infantry officer.10 No wonder then that Gerry Carruthers has dismissed it as ‘tame’ and ‘insipid’11 and as a single, ‘solitary item serves only to highlight how little interest [Burns] took in the pro-abolitionist cause, unlike many other Whigs of radical bent during the period.’12

But if this relies on a rather narrow model of what ‘radical’ poetry or song is, the ‘ransom’ falls short in another way. For evidence for Burns having written the song is weak. Carruthers suggests that ‘it is possible that Burns merely collected the song when scraping the barrel to send Johnson material’.13 Nigel Leask concurs: ‘Unfortunately there is no sure evidence that the song was written, rather than collected by Burns.’14 In this they follow editors James Kinsley, who notes that Burns’s ‘part in this song is uncertain’, and Donald Low, who cautiously remarks that it is ‘possibly not his work.’15

When James Currie (another Scot who ‘nearly went to Jamaica’, in his case as a surgeon)16 was leafing through the hundreds of songs Burns supplied to the Museum he may have paused when he came across ‘The Slave’s Lament’, not least because he himself had composed, with William Roscoe, a song they originally entitled ‘The Negroe’s Complaint’ (published pseudonymously as ‘The African’ in 1788).17 But he chose not to include it among the several dozen songs in the Works of Robert Burns he published in 1800.18 He may have had doubts regarding its authorship. More decisively, it may have lacked what Currie believed were the distinctive features of Burns’s songs, which, for him, typically depicted scenes of rural courtship in recognisably Scottish settings.19 And for many years, nothing more was claimed for the song than (as William Stenhouse remarked in his notes to the 1839 edition) it was ‘communicated by Burns to the Museum.’20

As far as I know, the first time it was included in collections of the poet’s works was in the Life and Works compiled by Robert Chambers in 1851, but even then it was, as it were, quarantined in a section entitled ‘Old Songs Improved by Burns from Johnson’s Museum’ and Chambers acknowledges the reluctance to ‘assign this song to Burns’. However, he believes that ‘his authorship of it is much fortified by its resemblance to another song of his, entitled The Ruined Farmer’s Lament, which seems to have been formed on the same model.’21 The resemblance is slight, but it helped to shoe ‘The Slave’s Lament’ into the Burns canon, and the song regularly appears in editions of his works thereafter.

During this period of relative anonymity, it is worth dwelling on the note on the song Allan Cunningham inserts in his Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern of 1825:

Of the author of this sweet song I can give no account. It is generally believed to be expressed in something like the simple language of that hapless race who were for so many centuries condemned by European avarice to perpetual slavery. The air too is supposed to be of African extraction. Indeed, the slaves in the West Indies have a remarkable taste for music; and every step they take, and every task they perform, is accompanied by song.22

By emphasising the uncertain origin of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, Cunningham is able to coax the reader who might skip over his qualifications (‘believed to be … supposed to be’) into imagining that it is an authentic slave song, sung not only to an ‘African’ melody but its words ‘too’ originally ‘expressed in … the simple language of that hapless race.’ As if it was based on the transcription of the singing of an actually enslaved person. An untutored cousin of Phillis Wheatley, perhaps, who like her was kidnapped in ‘Senegal’, but ended up in the fields of Virginia rather than the genteel homes of Boston, Massachusetts.23

After all, this period of the song’s anonymity coincides with the rise and fall of anti-slavery activity in Scotland, from Dickson’s tour of 1792 to the visits of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and others in the 1840s and 50s.24 The movement, though best known, especially in Britain, for its white leaders (William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson) prized the testimony of the enslaved, and autobiographical narratives and lecture tours by Black men and women (when appropriately managed) formed an important part of the campaign’s rhetorical armoury. By the middle of the century popular demand for this testimony had fallen considerably, and the travesties of blackface minstrelsy seeped into even ostensibly abolitionist works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly the theatrical adaptations that flourished in the decade before the Civil War.

From Poem to Song

Although ‘The Slave’s Lament’ was printed regularly in collections of Burns’ works from the 1850s, editions that included the melody were few and far between and for a long time hard to obtain. The situation improved with the republication of Robert Dick’s Songs of Robert Burns (1903) in 196225 and the appearance of Kinsley’s edition of the Poems and Songs in 1968, but the song never entered the repertoire of those renowned for their interpretation of Scots song for another two decades.

Only after Jean Redpath recorded it in 1981 as part of the ambitious Burns song project of Serge Hovey – based on many years’ research and featuring finely-crafted arrangements26 – did other singers begin to take notice.27

Versions of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ were recorded by Dougie MacLean (1991), Sheena Wellington (1995), Christine Kydd (solo for the Complete Songs of Robert Burns, 1995 and with Chantan 1997), Tam White (2003), Karine Polwart (2005), Battlefield Band (2006) and many more. (See this playlist for a selection.) In a documentary made during her visit to Scotland for the Burns Bicentenary in 1996, Maya Angelou said the song was ‘a perfect example of how a poet transcends race, time and space.’28

The song no doubt acquired new listeners when it featured in various art installations by Graham Fagen, which explored historical connections between Scotland and the Caribbean. Perhaps best known is the exhibit made for the Venice Biennale in 2015 (subsequently touring widely) which included a video projection of a specially-arranged string version by the composer Sally Beamish with the reggae singer Ghetto Priest.

All this not only put the song into much wider circulation, but also cemented its association with Robert Burns who is typically identified unproblematically as the author in the accompanying material. Sometimes this has been assisted by (unsupported) anecdotal claims that Burns wrote the song after seeing a slave ship in Dundee – a story heard by Sheena Wellington and printed in the sleeve notes to the live album on which her recorded version appears.29

Return to Source: The New Oxford Burns

By the first decade of this century, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ was pretty well established as a Burns song. Scholars would occasionally warn that the evidence of authorship was by no means settled, but their voices were seldom heard.

And now, with the new edition of the Scots Musical Museum, forming Volumes II and III of the recent Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns (2018) perhaps they may be definitively silenced. For this edition Murray Pittock adopted an eight-fold system of classification (I to VIII) in an attempt to establish the degree to which Burns was involved as author and editor of each song. ‘The Slave’s Lament’ he assigns to ‘Category I [‘A song wholly by Burns, with no prior antecedents identified, or suspected’)] or Category III [‘A song significantly by Burns, with only isolated lines or a combination of phrases, subject matter, and tune evident from earlier evidence’’]’.30

That ‘Category I’ is considered a possibility is curious given that most of the editorial note that ends with this categorisation is concerned precisely with ‘prior antecedents’ of the song. As indeed Pittock (and the editors before him) does with most of the songs in the Museum, demonstrating that they did not spontaneously erupt from the imagination of the poet but were born of protracted immersion in the song culture of the eighteenth century, both in print (studying chapbooks, broadsides and bound collections) and orally (learning songs and tunes he heard sung and played by people he knew or met, either close to home or on his travels round the country).

In the case of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ the earliest attempt to identify an antecedent was by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe in the 1839 edition of the Museum where he writes: ‘I believe that Burns took the idea of his verses from “the Betrayed Maid,” a ballad formerly much hawked about in Scotland’, which he transcribes ‘from the stall copy’.31 A few decades later, the editors of The Poetry of Robert Burns (1897) added: ‘But Sharpe had no direct proof that this “stall copy” was older than the Burns. It may be that older it is, and that Burns used it; but the original is certainly a blackletter broadside, The Trappan’d Maiden, or The Distressed Damsel’.32 That this was an important source for ‘The Slave’s Lament’ would seem to be confirmed by both Dick (1903) and Kinsley (1968) and in the new Oxford Edition Pittock finds it a ‘plausible’ claim.33

’The Trappan’d Maiden’ – facsimiles of copies dating from the late seventeenth / early eighteenth century may be viewed in the English Broadside Ballad Archive and the Bodleian Library’s Broadside Ballads Online – runs to sixteen verses and begins:

Give ear unto a Maid,
That lately was betray’d,
And sent into Virginny O:
In brief I shall declare,

When that I was weary,
Weary, weary, weary, O.

As a first-person tale of enforced exile, and with its rhyme of ‘Virginny O’ and ‘weary O’, the similarities with ‘The Slave’s Lament’ are evident.34 But one striking difference, which no-one had made much of till now, is that the speaker in the broadside ballad is no African. As the prefatory note makes clear, ‘This Girl was cunningly trapann’d / Sent to Virginny from England.’ Pittock’s annotations probe deeper, drawing attention to a variant, ‘The Virginian Maid’s Lament’ included in Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (1828) and the note thereon by Peter Buchan.35 Buchan situates the Lament thus:

The practice of kidnapping, or stealing children from their parents, in the north of Scotland, from 1735 down to 1753, a period of eighteen years inclusive, and selling them for slaves to the planters of Maryland, Virginia, &c in North America, is too notorious to require any illustration here.

But not so notorious to prevent him to going on at great length to narrate the story of Peter Williamson, quoting a long extract from his autobiography.36

That Buchan calls the victims of such practices ‘slaves’ was certainly not exceptional for his time, but the use of the term ‘slavery’ to refer indiscriminately to a wide range of economic, social, political and legal injustices was contested vigorously by those of his contemporaries committed to the struggle to abolish the very particular institution of chattel slavery in the Americas in the nineteenth century. They were all too well aware of the ways in which those who defended that institution were quick to seize on any excuse to deny the unique features of a transcontinental economic system based on human beings made the property of others. There are many who are worse off than the black slave, they would say. In a speech in Paisley in 1846 Frederick Douglass called this use of the term ‘slavery’ an ‘awful misnomer’.37 And it’s a point that needs to be repeated today as the flag of the ‘white slave’ (often ‘Scottish’ and ‘Irish’) is regularly raised in attempts to discredit anti-racist scholarship and activism.38

In the circumstances, then, Pittock’s suggestion that the ballad ‘does not seem to deal with African but with white slavery’ – uncritically adopting the terminology used by Buchan (without even the caution of quotation marks) – is injudicious, to say the least. The smirring of two very different forms of exploitation then makes it easy to dismiss the significance or emotional weight of ‘Senegal’ in the ‘The Slave’s Lament’ itself. Pittock concludes:

The final stanza of the Burns song makes clear that the woman who is lamenting ‘on friends most dear’ sounds more like a Jacobite exile than an African, who has suffered the fate of many of her fellow from the north-east of Scotland in the 1730-60 era, who were trafficked and sold ‘for slaves to the planters.’39

Conclusion: Restoring Strangeness to ‘The Slave’s Lament’

That the words of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ clearly owe something to ballads like ‘The Trapann’d Maiden’ has led editors and others to focus on the similarities rather than the differences, which rather conceals the work of transformation that turned one into the other. And unless we turn up other poems or songs in broadsides or printed collection that more closely resemble the one in the Scots Musical Museum, we must assume with some certainty that this work of transformation was ’significantly by Burns’, as Pittock’s second and more plausible categorisation has it. But why then belittle his input to the replacement of ‘England’ (in ‘The Trapann’d Maiden’) or ‘Scotland’ (in ‘The Virginian Maid’s Lament’) with ‘Senegal’ – and further diminish even this change as superficial by implying that ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is really about the tribulations of the Scottish diaspora, and not ‘about’ (chattel) slavery at all?

Why not both? Why not tease out the friction that comes from rubbing the two worlds of experience together, recognising certain similarities – even the possibilities of solidarity and collective resistance between them40 – without collapsing them in an unhelpful generic all-encompassing ‘slavery’ tag? It is possible to situate the song (as Carol McGuirk does) in the context of other verses by Burns on the theme of involuntary exile in a way that respects its difference: ‘Other exiled hearts speak not across time but from cultures far removed from Scotland’.41

And we might too pay more attention to the relationship between ‘The Slave’s Lament’ and other abolitionist verse of the 1790s – looking at not only differences of form but also of its place in print culture. Not in order to trace lines of influence necessarily but in an attempt to register how – on the page of the Scots Musical Museum – the lyric sounded to contemporary readers, familiar with abolitionist verse and other campaign material. Did they find it ‘in tune with growing and widespread unease’ about the slave trade, debated in the House of Commons at the time, as Robert Crawford suggests?42 Or did it strike a jarring or at least unexpected note?

For this reason (and having mentioned Phillis Wheatley earlier) it might be an instructive exercise to place ‘The Slave’s Lament’ alongside to her famous poem. ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, first published in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).43

Phillis Wheatley, 'On being brought from Africa to America'.
Phillis Wheatley, ‘On being brought from Africa to America’, from Poems on Various Subejcts, Religious and Moral(London: A. Bell, 1773), p. 18.

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’<
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Without making any assumptions that Burns was familiar with the poem, consider how the Middle Passage in one is figured in religious terms (as a journey from paganism to Christianity) in contrast with the dominantly climatic and adversarial frame of reference in the other (as a journey from warm to cold, from ‘friends’ to ‘foes’); the shift from an expression of thanks to what it has made possible to a mourning of what – and who – has been left behind.

But what is more important perhaps is the turn half-way through Wheatley’s poem where the poet switches from narrating a personal experience to name and address her oppressors (‘Remember, Christians’) on behalf of her fellows (‘our sable race’) to vigorously proclaim their collective humanity. There is no corresponding switch in ‘The Slave’s Lament’ which remains in the first person singular throughout. And if the objectified ‘me’ in the first verse becomes a more expressive ‘I’ in the third, it is still an ‘I’ that ‘must bear’ and ‘fear’ the toil and punishments of the plantation, while those who wield the ‘scourge’ are unspecified and therefore unable to be rebuked.

Yet there is something forceful in the closing assertion that the eponymous ‘slave’ is capable of thought and feeling, and perhaps in the many repetitions of ‘I am weary’ in the chorus one might detect a hint of the singer’s frustration at having to tell their story over and over because no-one is really listening.  Like Fannie Lou Hamer,sick and tired of being sick and tired.’

As for the tune, the supposition that it was ‘an original African melody’ has been given short shrift by scholars, even if it continues to be repeated in sleeve notes.44 But the fancy did not just emerge from a romantic or abolitionist desire for the authentic or exotic. It does recognise something anomalous about the song – that it sounds different from the others in the Museum. Whether it is its even pacing or its harmonic progressions, the melody has characteristics that set it apart from what is generally felt to be characteristic of Scots song. Martin Carthy reports, when told it was a Burns song on first hearing it, I did think, “Oh yeah?”’

The song chooses to render the experience of slavery as a ‘lament’ rather than as a ‘complaint’, a related but more accusatory genre that was more commonly adopted in abolitionist verse.45 As such it seems to sit comfortably with the half-dozen poems or songs by Burns that have ‘lament’ in their title; and certainly the lament has deep roots in Scottish music. But the genre points us outward too – back to the baroque classical laments and forward (as several interpreters of the song recognise, because they inhabit musical worlds unknown to Burns) to African American spirituals and blues.

So we shouldn’t be so surprised that Serge Hovey thought the tune ‘has all the characteristics of a Jewish lamentation in the Ashkenazic Ahavoh-Rabboh mode.’46 Or that, intriguingly, Sheena Wellington reports meeting in Singapore an ‘anthropologist from Dorset who said […] it’s actually 12th, 13th century Spanish sephardic, “Rachel’s Lamentation”, and they know it in North Africa to a different rhythm’.47

As far as I know this speculation awaits more detailed research. Perhaps there is more in Hovey’s Robert Burns Songbook, 1200 pages of manuscript completed in 1973 that remains in private hands.48 Furthermore, no one has yet found it in any printed collection that Burns might have consulted and any plausible circumstance in which he might have heard someone playing or singing it remains hard to reconstruct.49 This absence is significant because, as Kirsteen McCue has pointed out, the words to the songs he wrote were ‘most often inspired by a melody. Indeed Burns noted that he had to know a tune intimately before beginning to write a lyric for it.’50

There are many unknowns about ‘The Slave’s Lament’. There is so much more to find out. But if we resist the temptation to treat it primarily as evidence to be produced in defence of an individual’s character – or (even worse) to offer it by way of compensation for what has been called ‘Scotland’s hidden shame’ – we are more likely to appreciate the manifold musical, literary and historical forces that have combined to shape and re-shape the song, before and after its appearance in the Scots Musical Museum. It is time to rediscover a certain haunting strangeness in ‘The Slave’s Lament’ that those who perform it often capture so well.


This is a work in progress (last revised 9 Apr 2021).  Comments welcome.

    1. For estimations of figures see Douglas J. Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1750-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 22-25.
    2. ‘The issue of whether the poet was (or was not) an admirable person … places the critic as moral judge in a recurring trial where Robert Burns is perpetual defendant’: Carol McGuirk, ‘The Politics of The Collected Burns,’ Gairfish: Discovery, ed. W.N. Herbert and Richard Price (Bridge of Weir: Gairfish, 1991), p. 36.
    3. Robert Burns to John Moore, Mauchline, 2 August 1787 in The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. G. Ross Roy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), Vol. 1, p. 144.
    4. ‘The Slave’s Lament’, in The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.
    5. Nigel Leask, ‘“Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtles”: Robert Burns and the Scottish Colonial Experience’ in Robert Burns in Global Culture, ed. Murray Pittock (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), p. 178.
    6. Carla Sassi, ‘Acts of (Un)willed Amnesia: Dis/appearing Figurations of the Caribbean in Post-Union Scottish Literature’ in Caribbean-Scottish Relations : Colonial and Contemporary Inscriptions in History, Language and Literature , ed Giovanna Covi, Joan Anim-Addo, Velma Pollard and Carla Sassi (London: Mango, 2007), p. 172.
    7. The range of late 18th- and early 19th-century verse is discussed by Alan Richardson in his introduction to his anthology, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period, Volume 4: Verse (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999).
    8. Marcus Wood, ‘Popular Graphic Images of Slavery in Nineteenth-Century England’ in Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum, ed. Douglas Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007), p. 144.
    9. Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756–1838 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 74–78.
    10. Michael Morris, Scotland and the Caribbean, c.1740–1833: Atlantic Archipelagos (New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 98-131, esp. 115–19. See also Karina Williamson, ‘The Antislavery Poems of John Marjoribanks,’ EnterText, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007), pp. 60-79.
    11. Gerard Carruthers, ‘Robert Burns and Slavery’, The Drouth 26 (2007), p. 23.
    12. Gerard Carruthers, Robert Burns [2006] (Liverpool University Press, 2018), p. 60. Nigel Leask pursues this more fully in ‘“Their Sweet Groves”’.
    13. Carruthers, ‘Burns and Slavery,’ p. 23
    14. Leask, ‘“Their Sweet Groves”, p. 178.
    15. Robert Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968),Vol. 3, p. 1405; Robert Burns, The Songs of Robert Burns, ed. Donald Low (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 547.
    16. Robert Donald Thornton, James Currie: The Entire Stranger and Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1963), pp. 92–4. As a younger man, however, he was employed as an apprentice by William Cunninghame & Company on their tobacco plantations in Virginia. Ibid., pp. 32–66.
    17. Thornton, James Currie, p. 191. For the words of the song and further details, see William Wallace Currie, Memoir of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of James Currie, M.D. F.R.S. of Liverpool (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1831), Vol.1, pp. 127–35. It is also reprinted, as ‘The African’, in Richardson, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, pp. 99-100.
    18. James Currie, The Works of Robert Burns; with an account of his life… (Liverpool: J. M’Creery, 1800), 4 vols.
    19. For Currie’s assessment of Burns’s songs, see esp Works, Vol. 1, pp. 323-30.
    20. William Stenhouse, ‘Illustrations of the Lyric Poetry and Music of Scotland, Part IV’ in The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1839), p. 353. Stenhouse’s notes were subsequently published separately in 1853.
    21. Life and Works of Robert Burns, ed. Robert Chambers (Edinburgh: W. and R. Chambers, 1851), Vol. IV, pp. 267–68.
    22. Allan Cunningham, Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern… (London: John Taylor, 1825), 4 vols, Vol. II, pp. 223–24. Fourteen years later Stenhouse repeats the supposition that ‘the air … is an original African melody’, (‘Illustrations,’ p. 353) ensuring that it enjoyed wide circulation.
    23. Although it is popularly believed that Wheatley came from Senegal or thereabouts, the location of her birthplace or even where she was forced on board the slave-ship, is uncertain. See Vincent Carretta, ‘Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,’ Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Vol. 43 No. 2 (2015), esp. pp. 70–1.
    24. The best survey of this activity is Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery.
    25. James C. Dick, The Songs of Robert Burns [1903] (Hatboro’, PA: Folklore Associates, 1962).
    26. See Kirsteen McCue. ‘“Magnetic Attraction”: The Transatlantic Songs of Robert Burns and Serge Hovey.’ in Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture , ed. Sharon Aiker, Leith Davis and Holly Faith (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 233-247.
    27. Sheena Wellington remarked: ‘I first heard the poem from my father when I was about 9 and nearly cried but as “snivelling” was not encouraged in our house I went and learned the poem by heart instead. I don’t think I ever heard a tune to it until Jean Redpath recorded it’. Quoted in Valentina Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, a talk delivered at Wigtown Book Town Festival, 2007, with Kathy Hobkirk performing the song.’, p. 13. This talk is the most detailed study of the song to date, and especially valuable for what it reveals of how singers themselves have responded to ‘The Slave’s Lament.’
    28. Quoted in Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament,’ p. 8.
    29. Sheena Wellington, Strong Women (Greentrax CDTRAX 094) (1995), For further reflections on this story see Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, p. 4.
    30. The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns. Vols II and II: The Scots Musical Museum, ed. Murray Pittock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Vol. III, p. 142 . The categories themselves are defined in Vol. II, p. 12, where it is stated that only those in Category I through to V ‘deserve a full place in the Burns canon’.
    31. C. K. Sharpe, ‘Additional Illustrations,’The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1839), pp. 389-91. In some accounts of the history of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ Sharpe is confused with the English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp.
    32. The Poetry of Robert Burns, ed. William Ernest Henley and Thomas F Henderson (Edinburgh: T C and E C Jack, 1897), Vol. III, p.393.
    33. The Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James C. Dick (London: Henry Frowde, 1903), p. 479; Robert Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, Vol. 3, p. 1405; The Oxford Edition, Vol. III, p. 141.
    34. On the recurrent theme of ‘involuntary exiles’ (of all kinds) in Burns poems and songs see Carol McGuirk, ‘The Crone, the Prince, and the Exiled Heart: Burns’s Highlands and Burns’s Scotland’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2007), pp. 184–201.
    35. Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland, ed. Peter Buchan (Edinburgh: W & D Laing, and J Stevenson, 1828), Vol II, pp. 215-17, 332-35.
    36. The Life and Curious Adventures of Peter Williamson. New edition. Aberdeen: 1826. The book was first published in Aberdeen in 1801.
    37. Renfrewshire Advertiser, 28 March 1846.
    38. See, for example, Stephen Mullen, ‘The Myth of Scottish Slaves’, Sceptical Scot, 4 March 2016; Liam Hogan, ‘“Irish Slaves”: The Convenient Myth’, openDemocracy, 14 January 2015.
    39. Oxford Edition, Vol. III, p. 141. Note also the assumption that the singer is a woman, casting aside the change from the gendered ‘maid’ or ‘maiden’ to the ungendered ‘slave’.
    40. See, for example, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2000).
    41. McGuirk, ‘The Crone, the Prince, and the Exiled Heart,’ p. 199. How ‘far removed’ Senegal and Virginia were ‘from Scotland’ in the 1790s remains an interesting question.
    42. Robert Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (London: Pimlico, 2010), p. 352.
    43. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773), p. 18.
    44. In 1903 Dick was rather sceptical (Songs of Robert Burns, p. 479); and more recent editors have rubbished the claim as ‘nonsense’ (Kinsley) and ‘ridiculous’ (Pittock).
    45. ‘Complaint’ appears in the title of several poems – not only Currie and Roscoe’s ‘The Negroe’s Complaint’ (1788) (already mentioned) but also William Cowper’s more famous poem with the same title (1788), and an anonymous ‘The African’s Complaint On Board a Slave Ship’ (1793). But note also ‘The Sorrows of Yamba; or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation’ (1795), possibly the work of Hannah More. All are reprinted in Richardson, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation.
    46. CD booklet, Jean Redpath, The Songs of Robert Burns, Volumes 3 & 4 (Greentrax CDTRAX 115, 1998) (Volume 3 on which ‘The Slave’s Lament’ appears was originally released on LP as Philo 1071 in 1981).
    47. Quoted in Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament,’ p. 14.
    48. McCue. ‘“Magnetic Attraction”’, p. 237.
    49. The versions of ‘A Trappan’d Maiden’ Burns may have seen were not printed with the melody, and the words would not have fitted the tune in the Museum in any case, so it’s unlikely he came across the melody in that quarter.
    50. Kirsteen McCue, ‘Burns’s Songs and Poetic Craft,’ The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, ed. Gerard Carruthers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 75.

Didier Daeninckx: Cannibale

book cover imageDidier Daeninckx
Paris: Editions Verdier, 1998

ISBN : 978-2-86432-297-9




For a period of over fifty years, many thousands of people were conscripted to be exhibited as caricatures of themselves in the various world fairs, mostly in Europe and North America. They came from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Arctic. One of the first was the ethnic village at the Paris World Fair in 1878; and these so-called ‘human zoos’ were staged frequently until at least the Second World War.

From contemporary documents we know something of the way these events were planned and managed, and the reactions of visitors. But very little testimony of the people on show have made their way into print. A notable exception is the diary of Abraham Ulrikab, the father of one of two Inuit families who were taken to Hamburg in 1880 and who embarked on a tour of several European cities that winter during which they all died of smallpox because their handler forgot to vaccinate them.

This book concerns the Colonial Exhibition held in Paris in 1931. It offers a fictional reconstruction, narrated by Gocéné, one of the Kanaks shipped from Melanesia to people an ethnic village. While Daeninckx gives Gocéné every opportunity to dwell on their appalling treatment by the organisers, he chooses to avoid portraying him as a hapless victim of circumstance. Most of the novella takes the form of a thrilling adventure, which ensues when he and his friend Badimoin hear that some of their compatriots have been selected to be taken on a bus tour of city. Distressed at their unannounced departure – especially because Badimoin’s cousin Minoé is among them – the two friends decide to escape from the Exhibition and try to catch up with them.

Their unfamiliarity with Paris – they come across a Metro station but are hesitant to descend into the unknown, for example – makes Gocéné’s narrative resemble those satires that render Europe strange in the tradition of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. But the pace picks up as the two men hear that the sight-seeing tour was a ruse and that Minoé and the others were actually on their way to Germany (in a deal struck between the Exhibition organisers and a circus in Frankfurt).

They make their way to the Gare de l’Est where – after a bizarre encounter with a Salvation Army band – they arrive just too late to intercept the train. By this time the police are in hot pursuit and in the nick of time they are saved by Fofana, a Senegalese cleaner, who conceals them. When they ask why he helps them, Fafana explains how he always sides with the noirs when they are chased by the police and recalls how the white officers sent many of his comrades to their deaths in the trenches during the War. Out of immediate danger, they emerge from their hiding place and after learning that there is not another service to Frankfurt for several days, they return, disheartened, to the Exhibition.

The episode will end tragically, but not before the two friends are astonished to see a protestor gatecrash the compound and denounce the cruel charade of the exotic performance. Echoing the words of a famous tract printed at the time and signed by André Breton and others, she appeals to the visitors, ‘Don’t Visit the Colonial Exhibition’.

If Deaninckx is keen to emphasise the various ways in which both the Kanaks and Parisians resisted and challenged the Exhibition, he also situates the episode in a longer history. For the novella begins with Gocéné as an old man in the 1980s, back home in New Caledonia, in the midst of the armed struggle to win independence from French colonial rule. He tells the story to two rebels at a roadblock who want to know why he is travelling in a car with a white man. His companion, it turns out, played a decisive role in the events in Paris with which the novella culminates. And now, in his retirement, has succeeded in renewing his acquaintance with Gocéné, and has travelled to the Pacific to meet him.

In a later edition of the novella (which includes a sequel, Le detour d’Ataï) the author notes that just a few months after it was first published, the Kanak footballer Christian Karembeu was in the French team that lifted the World Cup at the Stade de France. His great grandfather was Willy Karembeu, who makes a cameo appearance in the book as he was one of those taken to Germany from the Exhibition in 1931.

‘Some of the Names Have Been Changed’

People walking in park (only legs visible)

In the text, some of the names have been changed to protect identities (Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport)

Most of the names in the book have been changed (Roger Green, Destination Nowhere).

Minor Characters and Travel Writing

We’re all familiar with this disclaimer – or something similar – that appears at the front or back of certain works of non-fiction.

On the one hand, it is a way of reminding us that this indeed is a work of non-fiction. It would sound ludicrous in a novel, at least a highly imaginative one. ‘Harry Potter (not his real name)…’ It is saying: the people who appear in this book are not made up, they really have an independent existence. People who know them – friends, enemies – may well be reading this book.

On the other hand, by admitting that their names have been changed, the writer (or publisher) is already alluding to a process of fictionalization. And one which, we must assume, does not stop at names. In order to protect the privacy of an individual, it is likely one must adjust their place of residence or their job title, remove distinctive features of speech or appearance, and so on. A whole textual witness protection programme would seem to be required.

The practice of changing names is common in investigative journalism, where whistle-blowers need to be protected, or in certain kinds of confessional writing. In travel accounts, we come across it less often. For here, the first-person protagonist cuts a rather lonely figure. The minor characters who appear in the narrative are often very minor indeed, their purposes crudely instrumental. Even when the narrator explicitly engages them in conversation, the sense that they have life histories or powers of observation that would match the writer’s own is conspicuously lacking. The idea that other people might travel often seems particularly threatening.

One kind of travel narrative in which other people feature more strongly is the one in which the first-person protagonist remains stationary and focuses his or her attention on the comings and goings of everyone else. A genre that might be called travellee writing. Here, at last, perhaps, the minor characters may have a greater claim on our interest.

In this post I want to explore the the different ways transit-ing passengers, customers, guests – and their backstories – are brought to life on the basis of a very brief (and sometimes indirect) acquaintance, in three books of this type:

  • A Week at the Airport (2009) by Alain de Botton. A short book about a week he spent as writer in residence at Heathrow.
  • Destination Nowhere (2004) by Roger Green. A diary recording multiple visits to South Mimms motorway service station north of London over a year and a half.
  • L’Hôtel (1984) by Sophie Calle. Another diary, this one full of a housekeeper’s observations of rooms in a Venice hotel.

The first two of these (as I have indicated) employ such disclaimers. Sophie Calle’s book does not, but her text does redact the surnames of the hotel guests, which is a related practice.

I’m going to take one example from each book to indicate some of the ways in which minor characters are presented: the evidence on which their personality or history is – or is not – extrapolated; and the extent to which this involves some imaginative embellishment.

But, drawing on Alex Woloch’s richly suggestive study, The One Vs. the Many, I also want to insist that minor characters can’t really be understood on their own; their relationship with the protagonist is important.1 The protagonist needs minor characters in order to be, well, a convincing protagonist. How well they meet this need is an open question.

Alain De Botton

De Botton gives the people he meets quite detailed backstories. Sometimes these mini-biographies are explicitly hypothetical (where the intention seems to be simply to evoke a ‘type’ rather than accurately identify an individual). Occasionally the stories are more developed and idiosyncratic, suggesting that they derive from an actual conversation with the person in question. But it’s often hard to tell the difference.

Let’s take this passage.

A full 70 per cent of the airport’s departing passengers were off on trips for pleasure. It was easy to spot them at this time of year, in their shorts and hats. David was a thirty-eight-year old shipping broker, and his wife, Louise, a thirty-five-year-old full-time mother and ex-television producer. They lived in Barnes with their two children, Ben, aged three, and Millie, aged five. I found them towards the back of a check-in line for a four-hour flight to Athens. Their final destination was a villa with a pool at the Katafigi Bay resort, a fifty-minute drive away from the Greek capital in a Europcar Category C vehicle.

The detail here is so excessive, and though this family and their holiday are entirely plausible, it is difficult to imagine an interview that would yield so much information, unless it took place in a police station. It seems likely that if de Botton did meet someone matching the description of David and Louise, at least some of the ‘facts’ here have been supplied by the author. He continues:

It would be difficult to overestimate how much time David had spent time thinking about his holiday since he had first booked it, the previous January. He had checked the weather reports online every day. He had placed the link to the Dimitra Residence in his Favourites folder and regularly navigated to it, bringing up images of the limestone master bathroom and of the house at dusk, lit up against the rocky Mediterranean slopes. He had pictured himself playing with the children in the palm-lined garden and eating grilled fish and olives with Louise on the terrace.2

We have long since left behind anything that might have come out of a conversation and de Botton has entered the realm of the fictional with a third-person omniscient narrator who renders David’s thoughts and feelings in the language of an Anglo-Swiss philosopher (rather than reporting it in direct or free indirect speech that might have conveyed the more colloquial idiom Dave himself might have used).

Roger Green

If one can reconstruct a multitude of different stories from A Week at the Airport (from the businessmen who occupy the executive lounges to those who clean up after them) (and this is the one of the book’s great merits), they remain rather indistinguishable at the level of discourse. Their accents, idioms and idiolects disappear in the uniform narrative voice that is used to paraphrase them.

De Botton’s antithesis is Roger Green. While there are some silent encounters, by and large Destination Nowhere is a cacophony of different voices: sentences he overhears, dialogues in which he participates, and longer sections where he transcribes (and presumably abridges) the confessions of a few customers and staff who agree to be formally interviewed.

Here’s an extract:

‘He’s got the fucking key. Why can’t he open up?’

‘It’s what I’ve been telling you.’

‘He can’t do it.’

‘His company, his money.’

I arrive at the end of a mobile phone conversation.

The man in an olive-green shirt with a matching dark tie, and carefully groomed jet black hair, speaks directly at the man sitting across the table to him and down his mobile simultaneously. The second man in a dark off-the-rail Burton’s discount suit is quiet.

The ‘mouthy’ one reminds me of a younger Dave Bassett when he was manager at Wimbledon. You know, always up for it, talks bollocks, and is oblivious to those around him.

Lots of arm waving and ‘fuckings’ as they leave.

Sometimes I feel as if I am on the set of The Truman Show with Jim Carey [sic]. Is this an artificial world I am in?3

No names have been changed here, although one of the anonymous characters has been lent the name of a former football manager in an attempt to convey his manner. The phone transcript, the arrangement of the two men and their clothes, lightly suggest a possible backstory (or rather several possible backstories), but the scene more forcefully invites the reader to imagine what it feels like for the narrator-protagonist to observe and listen to them, well before the enigmatic closing paragraph. The scare-quotes around ‘mouthy’ suggest he is aware that a more sophisticated term might be more appropriate but cannot call it to mind. But then he throws caution to the winds in the strikingly vernacular gloss on his Bassett comparison that follows.

The passage well captures, I think, the slightly smug tone of the book’s narrator. But I think the documentary impulse gives us enough detail, gives the characters enough space, to make us wonder if Green isn’t being unduly dismissive here, drawing our sympathy to two men, particularly the silent companion.

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle also adopts the diary format, but her entries are much more measured and meticulous than Green’s. First and foremost they describe rooms, almost as if they are unoccupied, like the opening directions for a scene in a playscript. But in this example the narrator’s presence is evident from the start.

Monday 2 March, 10.30am. I go in to 24, the pink room. The twin beds are unmade. A strange feeling of deja-vu. Images are jumbled. Days and guests blend into one another. Had I not already seen to these people? The first things I notice are the books on the table: The Colour Orange by Alain Gerber and a French-Italian dictionary. In the wardrobe: the ordinary clothes of a banal couple, camera equipment in a shoulder bag, an empty suitcase. The drawer is stuffed full of handkerchieves, insulin medication, Gauloises Caporal.

‘I enter’ and then – without using the first person – her subjectivity inflects most of the suceeding sentences (a sense of deja-vu, the way the days merge into each other) and we follow her gaze around the room (the books on the table, the clothes in the wardrobe, the contents of the drawer). A precision (make of cigarettes, the title of the book, the type of medicine) indicates a particular level of attention, and only the words ordinaires and banal betray any sense of judgement; they stand out from what seems to be a dispassionate inventory.

And then:

I empty the handbag on the floor: sachets of sugar, tampax, pink lipstick, postal orders in the name of Paulette B., old tickets for a Xenakis concert and a diary.

Calle, we might have guessed by now, is no ordinary housekeeper, and indeed appears to spend very little time actually cleaning the rooms, preferring, in fact, to search them. And of course the diary is too much to resist. So in her own diary Calle transcribes extracts from another:

On the first page I read: ‘In the event of my decease, everything I own is at the sole disposition of M. Francois G.’ and the signature of Paulette B., childish, touching. Under the heading ‘Notes’, this figure: 23, 485.68, the address of a retirement home in Versailles, a sentence: ‘A chamois of between a year and 18 months is called an éterlon,’ and a quotation from Malraux, which I decipher with difficulty. I think it says: ‘It was the first white civilization but it was also the glittering lagoon of a Maori world […] For us there is difficulty in associating the Iliad, or even the Odyssey, with these courts in which naked princes wearing ostrich-feather headdresses bowed their lances before Phedra-like grandes dames exhibiting their breasts above chastely billowing flounces of fine linen.’ A. Malraux, NRF, 1954, page 93.4

And the text continues a good while beyond this. Fragments from which one might begin to construct a character, but there is too much that is inscrutable. Calle makes no attempt to extrapolate Paulette B from these fragments; nor do they seem to be chosen in order to prompt readers to draw their own conclusions. In a sense, the actual contents of the diary – or indeed of the handbag – are irrelevant. The main point is Calle’s shocking willingness to pry: to exceed the bounds of what might be thought to be acceptable conduct on the part of both a housekeeper and a travel writer.

The Limits of Fabrication

The thing is, though. By the time she enters room 24 we’re more than half way through the book and have grown accustomed to her modus operandi. The way she opens drawers and luggage, and arranges belongings on the bed or floor in order to photograph them. The way she registers subtle differences from one day to the next, prompting the kinds of speculations one might expect from a private detective.

That she reports her investigations in such detail seems to be governed by the need to convince her readers that she actually did act so improperly, for her project is to expose and unsettle our preconceptions about the public and private. But the detail nevertheless exceeds this purpose.

The hotel guests, like Paulette B, remain elusive figures, but they occupy a disproportionate space in Calle’s discours than any histoire we might try to reconstruct from their fragments. Indeed, as you read on, Paulette B begins to nag like an unsolved crossword clue – as if, once her mystery has been cracked, she could be called on to appear in an alternative narrative in which she is the protagonist. (And Calle runs like hell once Paulette discovers she’s been reading her diary).

I think this is true – to a greater or lesser degree – of minor characters more generally. In other words, minor characters often seem to serve a merely instrumental role (providing local colour, acting as a mouthpiece for some contextual history, assisting or obstructing the traveller’s progress), ‘flat’ in order that the protagonist can be ‘round’. But at the same time, there is always a possibility that they are given too much space, that we get carried away by David and Louise or intrigued by the man in the green shirt – partly because we might feel that the text has been a little unfair to them. At which point the authority of the protagonist begins to falter.

In an interview Colin Thubron was asked about the role of fabrication in travel writing. In his reply he makes what is – I think – a fairly commonplace distinction.

On the one hand, he insists that a certain kind of fabrication is inevitable, even necessary in travel writing. He talks of himself of having ‘jumbled people’. Part of this is due to the imperfections of memory, but of course even if accurately remembered, a writer must choose what to leave in and leave out, to describe and interpret events in a particular way that betrays one’s ‘sensibility’ or ‘personality’. He also suggests that a deliberate falsification can be ‘useful in some ways. In the China book,’ he says, ‘I wasn’t sure if some people or myself were not being watched, so you displace them in the narrative to somewhere else.’

On the other hand, pressed by the interviewer, who asks about rather less acceptable forms of fabrication – specifically (and rather economically) ‘the temptation to make things up, or fudge quotes’ – the point at which, we might say, the novelistic techniques of characterisation have gone too far. Thubron admits the temptation but has never succumbed because he doesn’t think he could carry it off. ‘If someone were to say I’ve got to make up somebody I met, I wouldn’t know where to be begin – it would stand out like the most obvious fake.’

He continues:

I’ve got one or two friends who write about cultures that they really know – the States, for instance. And one friend – quite a well-known travel writer, I won’t mention his name – says it’s just a change of gear. He writes the facts, and then he goes up a gear and starts imagining from there on, and claims it’s fact. But for me, fiction is like getting into a different car. My imagination is working in a completely different way.5

We might note Thubron’s reluctance to make a moral judgement here. Making things up and fudging quotes are not wrong, just not the way he personally likes to work. But they are not quite equivalent alternatives, matters of taste. He feels compelled to introduce this minor character – whom he declines to name (which of course only makes us more curious) – who precisely does make things up and fudge quotes and claims it’s fact. In order to give his own way of doing things more integrity, he conjures up this reckless, speeding driver who breaks the limit with impunity, while casting himself as a more law-abiding motorist who – when he allows himself the thrill of speed – does so in a more appropriate vehicle, presumably in a safer place (like a race track).

A contrast which is highly moralistic. And yet, like any story that requires a villain, it is hard to stop that villain becoming lovable. After all, fast cars are frighteningly popular.


Based on a paper first presented at the Travel and Truth conference in Oxford, 16-18 September 2011.

  1. Alex Woloch, The One Vs The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  2. Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (London: Profile, 2009), pp. 37-38.
  3. Roger Green, Destination Nowhere: A South Mimms Motorway Service Station Diary (London: Athena, 2004), pp. 117-18.
  4. Sophie Calle, L’Hôtel (Paris: Actes Sud, 1998), pp. 92-4. My translation, except for the quotation from Malraux, for which I used Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Metamorphosis of the Gods, London, Secker, 1960, p. 41.
  5. Colin Thubron interviewed by Alec Ash, The Browser 22 July 2011.

The Other Empire Exhibition, 1938

Image from Workers’ Exhibition programme, printed in the New Leader, 2 Aug 1938

Glasgow has a distinguished tradition of creating alternative forums of dissent whenever the civic authorities announce their latest orgy of self-congratulation. Especially perhaps when it concerns the city’s relationship to the wider world.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Louise Welsh and Jude Barber convened The Empire Cafe in the Briggait as a space for readings, discussions, performances, exhibitions and refreshments that interrogated Scotland’s relationship to Atlantic slavery. This being one of the vectors of Empire the term ‘Commonwealth’ often obscures.

And amid the frenzy of cultural gentrification planned by the District Council when Glasgow was named European City of Culture 1990, a group of activists under the banner Workers City drew attention to cultures and histories the programme chose to overlook. Regarding the ‘Merchant City’ brand, one article in the Glasgow Keelie pronounced it

nothing short of disgraceful. Surely the Labour Councillors are aware that these ‘merchants’ made their colossal fortunes on the backs of thousands of slaves forced to work on tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations? The names of Glassford, Finlay and Colquhoun appear in most archives held in American Museums and Universities devoted to the history of slavery in the western hemisphere. How can the labour movement even associate itself with such people, let alone glorify them, in the way the District Labour Council does?1

Bellahouston for the Day

And before all that was 1938. That year Glasgow hosted the Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, opened by the King in May, a few weeks after Hitler marched into Austria. It attracted over 12 million visitors over the next six months, despite the wet summer. The site included a number of temporary pavilions (showcasing Industry, Engineering and the produce of ‘the various Dominions and Colonies’), a ‘Highland village’, and two structures intended to be permanent: the Palace of Art (which still stands) and the 300-feet-high Tait Tower (which was dismantled the following year).

There were cafes and restaurants, and a young Canadian Billy Butlin was awarded the contract to run an amusement park. There was a football tournament, film screenings and a wide range of musical performances from leading orchestras, choirs and dance bands, with featured artists including Fritz Kreisler, Gracie Fields and Paul Robeson, as well as celebrity appearances by the Aga Khan and the visiting Australian cricket team.2

Black & white photo of 1938 Empire Exhibition with Tait Tower in centre.
1938 Empire Exhibition: View over the South Bandstand in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, centre left the Garden Club, ICI Pavilion and others and Tait Tower overhead

Reporting on the Royal Visit the Glasgow Herald remarked

Time was when the Socialist town councillor was apt to be cynical over demonstrations of loyalty at royal visits, but that attitude has completely gone with the change in political fortune that has invested the party with more public responsibility.

And it looked forward to ‘the Socialist section of the Corporation’ gladly joining in the ‘demonstrative welcome of the King and Queen.’ However, it did admit that there was likely to be resistance from ‘the small I.L.P. Group.’3

Dissenting Voices

The Independent Labour Party had withdrawn its affiliation from the Labour Party in 1932, and its influence had much declined. But it remained a potent force in Glasgow, where the party still had more MPs than Labour (including James Maxton) and could still boast over a dozen councillors, with representation strong in certain areas, notably Shettleston and Bridgeton.4 If its power to influence Council policy was weak, the party’s ability to organise meetings and demonstrations remained undiminished.

During the 1930s Black radical intellectuals based in Britain such as C L R James, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta pushed the ILP to challenge working-class racism and engage extensively with imperial issues; it was also the only party on the left to openly criticise Stalin.5

Dominant themes in its newspaper the New Leader during 1938 were the Spanish Civil War; the collapse of the Popular Front in France; the inactivity of the League of Nations in the face of the invasions of Abyssinia, China and Spain; and workers’ demonstrations and strikes in the West Indies, especially Jamaica. The holding of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow provided a good excuse to intensify its anti-imperialist polemic, which flavoured the May Day demonstrations that year, supported by an eight-page Empire Special supplement.6 The paper also planned a series of articles entitled ‘Behind the Empire Exhibition’, of which, however, only one appeared, ‘Police Fire on Jamaica Strikers’.7

The Empire Exhibition Racket

Even before the exhibition opened, Councillor W R Gault, who contributed regular reports on the activity of the ILP in Glasgow, was decrying the ‘Empire Exhibition racket’, in particular the ‘vandalism of the Exhibition authorities which threatens to destroy for all time the amenities of Bellahouston Park’.8

A month later his outrage had gathered steam: ‘The state of mind some of our Labour Councillors have reached in their desire to exalt Imperialism, Nationalism, Militarism, and Royalty is almost unbelievable. Not for many years has everything that Toryism symbolises had such feverish propaganda’.9

In August the New Leader pointed out that attendants in the Amusement Park were compelled to work a 68-hour week and charged the same price for meals as the visitors. Letters to the press on the subject were not published and the Council claimed they had no jurisdiction.10

But the ILP’s main objection to the Exhibition was that it peddled ‘illusions about justice and democracy in the British Empire’ in order ‘to encourage national unity and patriotism in Britain’.11

These are the words of Arthur Ballard, one of the Exhibition’s most vocal critics. A carpenter from Croydon, he was remembered by his close friend C L R James as ‘a very tall, handsome, striking looking man who was working as a proletarian in industry, but who was destined to be an intellectual.’12

Ballard went on to elaborate at greater length:

If you want to see the Empire as it really is you won’t visit the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. The organisers have spared nothing to put on a good show and the Exhibition itself is a monument to their work. Walking amidst the wonderful buildings, which are a rainbow of colour, surrounded by gardens and cascades of water, one thinks that the Empire is just a paradise on earth.

We are told that one of the objects of the Exhibition is ’to emphasise to the world the peaceful aspirations of the British Commonwealth.’ The average visitor, amidst this setting, may be carried away by this propaganda unless we are able to do something to present the real situation within the Empire.

Even in the ‘Peace Pavillion’ we get nothing but glorification of the League of Nations. Amongst the ‘pioneers of peace’ we find Tsars and Popes, we learn that slavery has been ‘abolished’ in China and that Italy has abolished ‘slavery’ in Abyssinia in 1936. Possibly the organisers anticipated some visitors with a Socialist tinge, so we get the slogan ‘Peoples of the World Unite’ with a quotation of Burns thrown in!

The ‘brightest jewel in the British Crown’ – India – is conspicuous by its absence, while the TUC pavilion is devoted entirely to Trade Union organisation in Britain! While it does not attempt to put over Imperialist propaganda, it is regrettable that the TUC does not say anything about the deplorable conditions within the Empire itself.

In the West African Pavillion we find furniture which is suited to grace the apartment of any Park Lane parasite; but naturally there is no mention of the horrible conditions in Africa itself. This is general of the whole of the Exhibition. All the resources of Capitalism have been used to glorify an Empire under whose flag conditions are equal to those within the Fascist countries.

The Revolutionary Socialists in Glasgow will have a difficult job in their attempt to present the opposite picture. How can this be done?13

An Anti-Empire Exhibition

Ballard had a plan. They would run an ‘Anti-Empire Exhibition’. His article continued:

The ILP in collaboration with various colonial workers’ organisations and individuals are preparing to conduct an intensive anti-Imperialist campaign in Glasgow during the month of August, when most people will be visiting the Exhibition

We propose, with the limited means at our disposal, to organise an anti-Imperialist annexe which will present the other side.

While we cannot put on an elaborate show, we believe that we can, by means of our Exhibition, at least show to the workers the intolerable conditions within the Empire and the necessity of their support for the anti-Imperialist struggle.

We appeal to all readers of our paper to assist us in this effort. We want any material and particularly photographs that usefully illustrate the conditions of the colonial workers.14

The exhibition was held in Kingston Hall on Paisley Road on the bus route many would have taken on their way to Bellahouston Park. Opened by the novelist Ethel Mannin, it ran from 13-27 August on weekday evenings (and from 2.30pm on Saturdays). Devised by Arthur Ballard himself, the event also bore the stamp of George Padmore, who spoke at the May Day rally at City Halls in Glasgow on 1 May.15

Photo of five people standing in front of exhibition display boards.
Opening of Workers’ Empire Exhibition. From left to right: J. Carmichael, unidentified person, Ethel Mannin, Arthur Ballard and Tom Murray. New Leader, 19 August 1938

The New Leader described the exhibition as follows:

The exhibits will be grouped around a central column, which will show that the real owners of the Empire are not the people of Britain or of the colonies, but the big financial and commercial interests centred in London.

Round the hall will be sections devoted to various parts of the Empire. Particularly striking are the sections dealing with the British West Indies, showing the intolerable conditions existing. The section devoted to the recent terror against the unemployed in Vancouver brings the Exhibition right up to date.

The Exhibition is in a blue and grey colour scheme – similar to Bellahouston. It has involved weeks of preparation, long research work, and the gathering of material from three continents. The Committee has had the help of a group of London artists, all working voluntarily.16

As far as I know there are no photographs of the exhibition itself, but we can get an idea of it from the brochure that was produced in conjunction with it.

The All-Red Route

(a) Cover of brochure featuring red silhouette of ocean liner (and showing price, 2d) (b) Sample page from brochure, headed 'Visit the Empire'
from Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938)

The title of Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route 17 appears to be an ironic nod to the ‘All-Red Route’, a miniature railway built for the 1911 Crystal Palace exhibition, linking the pavilions and outdoor panoramas.18 But here the ‘red’ (the colour long used on maps designating the extent of the British Empire) acquires a revolutionary connotation in a publication that announces its desire to ‘help end the tyranny of British Imperialism’.19

It adopts the style of a holiday brochure, offering various (priced) tours that will allow ‘every British citizen to see OUR GLORIOUS EMPIRE’ – including ‘patriotic workers’ who are recommended to ‘make use of their holidays’ or the free time they have when unemployed. ‘We must take a proper pride in OUR POSSESSIONS, which cover nearly one-third of the earth’s surface.’20

But the sarcasm soon gives way to a more earnest catalogue of injustices. After introducing readers to the ‘luxury liner’ they will be travelling on – ‘quite a comfortable little tub for the 250 guineas round trip’ – they are reminded that it ‘is not so comfortable for the British seamen and stewards and the 45,000 lascars (Indian sailors) employed by the various famous shipping companies … which cover our route.’21

And so at each port of call on the way – West Africa, South Africa, Kenya, India, Ceylon, Australia, Hong Kong, China, the Caribbean and Ireland. The celebratory rhetoric of the Empire Exhibition is replaced by a more damning assessment. Here is the official guide on the West African Pavilion:

The Gold Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa … In the second section [of the hall] the agricultural riches of the colony are displayed. Cocoa, one prized by the Aztec kings and now, in its many forms, a good and drink for all the world, is given pride of place and is shown in every stage of its preparation, from the ripened pod to luxury chocolate.22

And here is the ILP brochure:

Cocoa is one of the main products of this part of the world. The great cocoa and chocolate firms form a ring which has a stranglehold on the small farmers who grow the cocoa. Cocoa prices have been forced down to a point where they a ruinous to the growers. (But you haven’t noticed that the price of your tin of cocoa has dropped, have you?)

The same ring also owns the trading and transport industries – so the farmer has had to buy from, and sell to, the same people. Any attempt to break the ring is countered with all the great resources of these capitalists.

Still, the growers are fighting hard, even to the length of going on strike and refusing to grow cocoa….23

The ILP counter-exhibition and brochure was not the only dissident voice in 1938. I understand that the anarchist Guy Aldred published a pamphlet entitled Boycott Bellahouston! What Empire Means to India and British West Indies, although I have not yet seen a copy. The title in this case echoing that of a flyer signed by André Breton and other French surrealists, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’, protesting the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, an earlier imperial extravaganza that also prompted the creation of a counter-exhibition.24

A New Museum?

The counter-exhibition seems to have been funded largely through donations and the sale of programmes and pamphlets. In September, Gault’s column in the New Leader referred to the ILP’s struggle to secure a grant towards running the exhibition. In the end the council let them off half the rent of the hall.25

How much impact the ‘other Exhibition’ of 1938 had is hard to gauge. Half-way through its run, the New Leader pronounced it ‘a great success. The hall was packed and representative people from all sections of the Working-Class Movement were present’. It also claimed that ‘over five hundred programmes and two hundred pamphlets were sold at the door during the afternoon and evening, as well as a record sale of general anti-Imperialist literature’, which may be an exaggeration; certainly the claim that it ‘has received large scale notice in all the Scottish papers’ was.26

It is even harder to get a sense of what those involved learnt from it and how much the event smouldered in the collective memory of Glasgow’s radical traditions. But the provocative display in Kingston Hall did leave us the brochure, which can be taken up again today and be given a new life.

In the last few years, there have been increasing calls, led by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), for the creation of a museum of slavery or empire in Scotland. Last year Glasgow Life announced that it ‘will appoint a curator who will develop a strategy for the interpretation of slavery and empire in Glasgow Museums’ as a first step. And the calls were echoed by MSPs of all parties in the Scottish Parliament in June this year.

Already a Scottish Empire Museum has appeared online, describing itself as a ‘digital space’ that aims to promote ‘a better understanding … of the history of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration so we learn can learn from the past to understand the present and agitate for change in the world we want to live in in the future.’  If a physical museum does come to pass in Glasgow – the strongest contender for its location at the time of writing seems to be the Egyptian Halls on Union Street – perhaps the local authority will contribute more than a miserly rent rebate. And, as well as ‘telling the truth’ about colonial slavery and imperial rule, let’s hope it will pay homage to the long history of dissent at home that has been struggling to tell this story for decades.

Perhaps imaginative interventions like the ‘All Red Route’ can be reignited and allowed to throw a spark across the years and be r recruited to effectively teach us about Empire today. What would an early 21st-century version of the brochure – and by extension the exhibition – look like?


This is a work in progress, part of a larger research project on critical responses to the 1938 Empire Exhibition, currently stalled by the closure of libraries and archives due to the COVID-19 crisis.

  1. ‘A Bygone Radical History of the TUC’ Glasgow Keelie (September 1991).
  2. For an overview see Bob Crampsey, The Empire Exhibition of 1938: The Last Durbar (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988).
  3. Glasgow Herald, 3 May 1938.
  4. Gidon Cohen, ‘The Independent Labour Party 1932-1939’, PhD thesis, University of York (2000), pp. 58-67.
  5. Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2019), pp. 371-72.
  6. New Leader, 29 April 1938.
  7. New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  8. William Gault, ‘Glasgow Labour Party Play the Tory Game’, New Leader, 22 April 1938.
  9. W R Gault, ‘Red Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  10. W L Taylor, ‘Shocking Conditions at Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 9 August 1938. While nothing was done to improve their conditions, the drivers and conductors of the autotrucks which ferried people around the Exhibition grounds went on strike and succeeded in getting a pay rise. See Crampsey, Empire Exhibition, p. 108.
  11. Arthur Ballard, ‘White Justice and Black’, New Leader, 20 May 1938.
  12. Interview with C L R James by Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom and Anna Grimshaw, November 1986.
  13. Arthur Ballard, ‘We Are Going to Run An Anti-Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 3 June 1938.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The best account of this anti-empire exhibition is in Sarah Britton, ‘”Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route!”: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain’, History Workshop Journal 69 (Spring 2010), pp. 68-89.
  16. The “Other” Exhibition’, New Leader, 12 August 1938.
  17. Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Np: Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938).
  18. John M MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 106-7.
  19. Come and See the Empire, p 16.
  20. Ibid., p2.
  21. Ibid., p3
  22. Empire Exhibition: Official Guide (Glasgow: 1938), pp. 154-55.
  23. Come and See the Empire, p. 4.
  24. André Breton et al, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’. For further background (especially on the ‘counter-exhibition, ‘La Vérité sur les Colonies’) see Jody Blake, ‘The Truth about the Colonies, 1931: Art Indigene in Service of the Revolution’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol 25 No 1 (2002), pp. 37-58.
  25. New Leader, 23 September 1938.
  26. ‘Success of Anti-Imperialist Exhibition’, New Leader, 19 August 1938.


Janette Ayachi: Hand Over Mouth Music

Ayachi: Hand Over Mouth Music (cover)Janette Ayachi
Hand Over Mouth Music
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019






Hand Over Mouth Music is an intriguing name for a collection. The title poem suggests that it signifies silence – the music that is inhibited because a hand is over one’s mouth; a silence, or at least a song without words. But it also nods to puirt à beul for this too is music without words, sung sounds, and associated with women’s work, and therefore perhaps a metaphor for domestic labour performed without fuss, if not entirely willingly, and thus signifying dissent too. ‘This is their blues, a work song without words,’ she writes, dwelling on the activities of the women at her father’s second wedding.

Music runs through other poems too, but in other keys or registers. In ‘Dean Street Gardens’, ‘a man practices chanter-song as he walks his dog / tapping the sheet music with his wedding ring’. And ‘Aria’, which forms part of a sequence about pregnancy and childbirth, begins: ‘Since my surrender to the cadenza / of the spearmint midwives’. The motif continues in the next (‘Lyra’) with its opening lines, ‘The first night you curled in our bed / like a loose semiquaver’.

The collection shuttles between Algeria and Scotland. The former in a cluster of poems that seem to have been inspired by visits to the author’s father’s family – visits where the ‘flight back home’ is never far away (‘Youma and the Three Kings’). On either side are poems set explicitly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I especially liked ‘Falling Asleep On Your Last Memory’ which provocatively takes the side of the usually demonised gulls and pigeons in Princes Street Gardens, finally addressing them directly: ‘Let your wings graze the cheeks of tourists with an undertaker’s caress’. If the prose fragment on ‘Merchant City’ is an indication of what we can expect from Ayachi’s forthcoming nonfiction memoir about travelling alone, then we are in for a treat.

There are some intriguing premises for poems here – ‘On Keeping a Wolf’, for one, and ‘Closed Doors’, about a furtive snog in a lift – ‘until / doors open like a dropped book / spilling its forbidden pages.’ More daring is ‘Lawrencium’, addressed to the chemical element; another explores the idea that days are like different birds, some of them with broken wings; and there are interesting renditions of geography (‘Adriatic Sea’, as if viewed in an atlas rather than in the flesh) and ‘Father’s Biography’ (the – overlapping – phases of his life counted mechanically in numbers of years).

The reader feels compelled to pause frequently over striking phrases, their meaning almost giving way to pure sound: ‘double cello echo’ (‘St Kilda’), ‘hovering with offerings’ (‘Youma and the Three Kings’). Who could fail to be captivated by the Mallarméan magic that produced ‘a scriptorium of futuristic mannequins’, followed a few lines later by ‘a planetarium of medusae’? But sometimes these are not enough to lift those poems whose organising principle is obscure – poems that neither tell a story, nor capture a moment, nor pursue a line of thought and instead seem only to offer a stream of consciousness of merely private significance. The opening poem, ‘I Laughed So Much I Lost My Voice’, is a case in point, which is unfortunate, as one expects the first in a collection to be the strongest.

But stay with it. There is plenty to delight you here, even if the finest poem in my opinion is the last one, ‘Sea-Rattle’. Here the sea approaches the tenement where the poet is and engulfs it, nature taking its revenge perhaps, recalling the Edinburgh gulls. Every word chosen and weighted carefully – and it is printed double-spaced as if to force you to read it more slowly. Although broken into sentences, the lines rise in intensity as if in a single wave until ‘lungs inflate and learn to speak. I hold my breath, / listen to their oscillations and swim towards the sky.’

Jemma Neville: Constitution Street

Neville: Constitution Street (cover)Jemma Neville
Constitution Street: Finding Hope in an Age of Anxiety
[Edinburgh]: 404 Ink, 2019





There are some other good ‘street’ books that engage with the residents by someone who knows the area well.  Flatbush Odyssey and Isolarion come to mind, emerging from peregrinations in Brooklyn and Oxford respectively.1 But this is different. It is not structured as a single journey but organised thematically.  Taking her cue from the name of the street in Leith, the author, who has a legal background, devotes each chapter to a human right (the right to life, to housing, to freedom of religious belief, and so on) illuminated through conversations with her neighbours, some of whom are close friends.

Among those she talks to are a casino manager, a puppet maker, a window cleaner, a pub landlady, a police officer, a doula, a founder member of Idlewild, a Buddhist nun who was once a girlfriend of George Best, a male blogger called Silver Fox in a Frock, and a postman who reveals how much he and his colleagues read the messages on postcards. Neville talks to them about their everyday experiences living on Constitution Street rather than probing them for back stories, perhaps keen not to invade their privacy. And the cumulative effect is a glorious hymn to what Paul Gilroy has called conviviality.2 But it’s also a celebration of the joys of handwritten communications.

Constitution Street is not all about the present. History peeps through in the shape of the Darien adventure, the compensation paid to Leith slave-holders after Emancipation in the West Indies, the 1560 Siege of Leith, the Leithers killed in the rail crash of 1915, and the lightning plebiscite of 1920 that led to the town’s merger with Edinburgh despite the large vote against it. But the best stories are of the more recent past: a public clock unwittingly unplugged by a cleaner, how an alligator came to be sold from the boot of a car, the discovery of an ancient burial ground during tramline excavations.

Neville is as at ease describing the breathtaking evening view from a 16th floor flat as she is capturing the cast of characters at the Port O’ Leith bar. I liked the Perecquian inventory that precedes the main body of the text, listing things seen on a walk. The writing is often lifted with poetic touches. She recalls an umbrella abandoned in a puddle in Barcelona, ‘its spokes bent upward like jabbing fingers demanding of the sky Votarem!’ (p237). She transcribes an interview, ‘carefully picking the exact letters from my keyboard like the harvesting of these delicate, precise leaves from a twig of thyme scenting the air’ (p100). Leith docks are compared to ‘an abandoned fairground’ (p163). She has a fine ear for the contrast between daytime and nocturnal sounds and Constitution Street ends with a lovely pitch-perfect early-morning epilogue.

Her cultural frames of reference include (somewhat predictably) Trainspotting and The Proclaimers, but W H Auden, Edward Hopper, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Shepherd, Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce also make an appearance. But if she occasionally nods to other places round the world – Catalonia, Iceland, Rojava – we never lose sight of Leith for long. A hand-drawn, illustrated map (by Morven Jones) helps to orient the reader. And the chapters are broken up by black and white photographs (by Rob Smith, who deserves a more prominent credit), picking out intriguing details of the built environment, often small decorative features that go unnoticed by passers-by – tiling, brickwork sculpted marble – complementing the text perfectly.

The thematic structure (emphasised by the chapter titles, ‘The Right to Life’, ‘The Right to Education’, and so on) runs the risk of feeling imposed on the material. But apart from the overlong introductory sections and the sometimes flat endings to the chapters, it works well and reads naturally. Neither sentimental nor cynical, Constitution Street salutes its readers with honesty and warmth.

  1. Allen Abel, Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the Heart of Brooklyn (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995); James Atlee, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  2. Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London: Routledge 2004).


Ten Scottish Worthies and Frederick Douglass

Recent research has suggested that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.  The former slave who became a leading intellectual and civil rights campaigner of his age, was captured on camera more times than George Custer, Walt Whitman, even Abraham Lincoln.

There are certainly photographs of Douglass that predate his tours of Scotland as a fiery young orator in 1846, promoting his stunning new autobiography and denouncing the hateful system of slavery in the United States.  But the only surviving images of him from this overseas trip are engravings. This might surprise us.

The Scottish press regularly carried advertisements for studios offering to take dageurreotype portraits of those who could afford them. And, since 1843, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had produced hundreds of calotypes depicting people, buildings and landscapes in Edinburgh and Fife.

If there is currently no evidence that they photographed Douglass, they did take portraits of many eminent Scots of the day. They included several whom Douglass met – or at least sparred with on the page or lecture platform – as he engaged with the country’s literature, science, history and politics.

Here are ten of them.

Isabella Burns Begg. Douglass had long been an admirer of Robert Burns. When he made the obligatory pilgrimage to his birthplace near Ayr, he met the poet’s youngest sister. ‘Though approaching 80,’ he wrote, ‘she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days.’ She and her daughters ‘did everything to make our call agreeable.’
Robert Candlish. When this Free Church minister expressed misgivings over the American churches’ relaxed attitude to slavery, one of its principal donors in South Carolina was furious. Candlish soon toed the line and worked hard with Cunningham to win over the sceptics with the fudging declarations at the General Assembly in 1846 that so disappointed Douglass and the abolitionists.
Thomas Chalmers. Revered as the man who led the exodus from the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland in the ‘Disruption’ of 1843, Chalmers cultivated the support of evangelical Presbyterians in the United States. The tortuous distinctions between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ he used to justify the relationship were roundly mocked by Douglass (‘Oh! The artful Dodger’), who quoted him sarcastically, showing how his words lent succour to the pro-slavery cause.
Robert Chambers.  The (anonymous) author of the best-selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and, with his brother William, one of the most influential publishers and editors of the period. The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal reviewed Douglass’ Narrative in January 1846 and Douglass probably met them that summer. He may have wanted to explore the possibility of a Scottish edition of his book, although in the event this did not come to pass.
George Combe.The leading British exponent of phrenology invited Douglass to breakfast in June 1846, reporting that ‘he has an excellent brain. His benevolence and veneration are both large and his conscientiousness is full, while his intellect is vigorous and practical.’  For his part, Douglass later recalled with ‘much satisfaction the morning spent with this singularly clear-headed man,’ whose most celebrated work, The Constitution of Man, ‘had relieved my path of many shadows.’
William Cunningham.Leader of the Free Church fund-raising delegation to the United States.  With Chalmers in failing health it was left to him and Candlish to manage dissenting voices in the church who were uncomfortable with the donations from slaveholders. Of Cunningham’s manoeuvres, Douglass remarked, ‘I tell you why he does it. He’s got the bawbees.’ But even Douglass recognised his ability. ‘He was the only man in the Assembly who put forward anything like an argument.’
George Gilfillan. In January 1846 the Secession minister welcomed Douglass to Dundee and had him speak at his church in School Wynd, despite the objections of some of those on the managing committee, who subsequently resigned. The author of three volumes of Literary Portraits, who counted Carlyle and de Quincey among his friends, Gilfillan later proclaimed Douglass ‘the Burns of the African race’.
George Lewis. A member of the Free Church delegation that solicited funds in the United States, he wrote memorably about the trip in Impressions of America (1845), but was the target of Douglass’ withering wit, especially in Dundee where he was minister of St David’s Church. ‘Mr Douglass’s mimicry of the Rev. Mr Lewis was in very bad taste,’ remarked the Perthshire Advertiser. His audience, though, were thrilled by the impersonation.
John MacNaughtan. The Free Church minister in Paisley described Douglass as an ‘ignorant runaway slave who had picked up a few sentences.’ Douglass promptly replied: ‘The man whose pockets are lined with the gold with which I ought to have been educated, stands up charging me with ignorance and poverty. I should like to see the inside of his breast; there cannot be a heart of flesh there. Shame on him.’
Hugh Miller. Editor of the Witness, a widely-read twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church. Miller devoted many column inches to satirising Douglass and his fellow campaigners who ‘set, by their extremeness, a fool’s cap on a good cause.’ Their irreligious brand of abolitionism, he claimed, was ‘not indigenous to Britain’ but ‘exported wholesale across the Atlantic.’
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