Memento Mori

This past month my summer and winter existences have overlapped.

April brings custodial duties. I called myself a custodian on the census, although apparently “monument steward” was available. I am a castellan, a Steward of Gondor awaiting the Return of the King. He’s the character who builds his own funeral pyre and lies atop it alive. Quite an image.

Apparently, in crematoria, the bodies sit up straight. Stripped spines curling up with the heat.

In coffins, they used to have a bell to ring for attention if they’d somehow made a mistake.

Embalming is at least chemically un-survivable but supposedly distressing to the touch of relatives.

My potter friend wrote a speculation on the custom of the Neolithic folk at Skara. In it, they mummify their dead but keep them on a shelf to be wheeled out on special occasions. My colleague wants to be mummified or at least kept above ground, in a mausoleum. Like Lenin? I ask. But I know that was against his wishes.

I think I’d want to have a normie burial. The thought of complete annihilation and grinding down bones somehow doesn’t appeal to me. Neither would I be chemically dissolved like Desmond Tutu. I’d probably like to overlook the Harray and Stenness Lochs, the twin humps of the Hoy hills. Ending up there would be nice, wherever I go in the interim.

Recently, I read a memoir where the author sets about carving her own gravestone. At work, I’m surrounded by astonishing feats of masonry, both medieval and modern. Skills passed down through millennia. The potter has his headstone readymade, propped up against a wall in his garden. The inscription reads, “Forgotten but not gone”.

Not that I haven’t thought of more dramatic ends. Maybe I’ll be put in a yole and shot with a flaming arrow. Sink into the sea with a sizzling hiss.

Spaghettification has also crossed my mind, as has being launched into the sun. A gravitational process rather than active disposal. I wouldn’t want to be released into the vacuum. I suppose going out the airlock is the equivalent of burial at sea for starships.

Memento mori are all about me in the Cathedral and I’m asked about them every other day. There are more in St Magnus. Many of them are of 17th-century vintage. Skull and crossbones reminders of death. Hamlet’s Yorick is likely the most famous; the fool he knew from childhood. A fellow of infinite jest. The Dane is aye jumping into graves, making dramatic entrances at funerals.

I went to see The Northman, which is based on the Norse legend on which Hamlet is loosely based. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, though I very much enjoyed The Batman – my first outing to the pictures since the initial lockdown.

It doesn’t seem possible to design a film more suited to appeal to me. It’s an expertly crafted epic of revenge, myth and magic. Its geographic span stretches from the Kievan Rus to the far west of Iceland. Mentioned in passing, though, is Constantinople, and, of course, the Vikings thought of themselves as occupying one plane of reality, Miðgarð – a particular cross-section of the world tree, Yggdrasil.

These Norsemen, as depicted by Robert Eggers, are historical, in the sense that they are the most authentic they have ever been on screen, but also historicised, in that they have a sense of their origins, if only half-remembered and dreamlike. For one, the proto-Norse burial mounds from which the protagonist must wrest the sword, Draugr – a blade from the murky urgermanischem Zeitalter. Also, the chambered cairn of Hrafnsey from an even remoter past, several peoples ago even then. The stone slab passageways where rituals are replicated in ignorance of their bygone significance – the director was apparently inspired by Maeshowe.

Shakespeare’s parallel text runs through the film. Eggers’s Claudius-figure’s words fly up not to heaven but Asgarð and Oðinn. Amleþ, unlike his Renaissance cousin, has no hesitation at all about dispatching his enemies. Madness is not a put-on antic disposition but a berserker rage or mushroom induced paranoia trip.

There is another reason I enjoyed the film so much, but I think I will let you watch it and find out for yourself!

Anyhow, I have come to the end of my CLLB. Handed in all my assignments and exams. Now I am looking to the summer ahead and for what seems like the first time in a while, planning for the medium-term future.

My plan for the end of this month is to embark on the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne. I will be covering the journey over three days and staying in youth hostels along the route. My idea was to dedicate the pilgrimage to my friend Charles who walked it between finishing exams and graduation in 2019. I later heard he got his results unterwegs and he and John were able to share a euphoric moment with their doubles firsts on the approach to Holy Island. Personally, I’d be happy with a merit pass for this degree no. 2. It’s not impossible I might be I am graded staff in hand though, as he was.

I have a strong desire to visit Europe again, not having left the UK since 2018 and thwarted by you-know-what for the past two years. My particular priority would be to explore southern Germany and maybe Austria. It could be I’ll be able to spend some time with a friend from the French-Swiss border. All this is speculation though, and I’ve got the added stress of finding a flat for the start of the diploma. But overall, things are on the up and I am determined to keep the momentum going into a summer resembling normality, which, of course, I hope to transcend to some degree through these mini-adventures into the unknown.  

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Finding what I seek

It’s been a good opening month to the year. The first milestone in the diary was my interview with Digby Brown for a traineeship with them next year in their Glasgow office.

Omicron meant it had to be online, so I ensured I had exclusive, undisturbed access to the flat living/dining room for that Monday afternoon, got my suit on and gave it my best shot.

It was the latest in a succession of such appointments I’d been having towards the end of last semester. This one I really wanted though. I’d been going for more full-service business-oriented firms before and while I’m sure they would have given me a real breadth of experience, what I really wanted to be doing in law was contributing to society in a more direct way by facilitating access to justice. On the one hand, I recognise that Digby Brown isn’t a charity, but it does help the underdog in most cases and my impression is that it fights to ensure clients get everything they’re entitled to in law. My decision to apply to them was also motivated by the fact that involuntary obligations or delict (basically, suing people for civil wrongs) has been one of my favourite subjects over the course of my condensed law degree and this was a great opportunity to work for the best firm in Scotland in that area. I really wanted it and so I went into the interview with my galaxy brain meme infographic, law clinic experience and the luck of the gods behind me.

While I felt it had gone well after it finished, as the week progressed, I began to doubt myself and think about all the things I didn’t say, how I could have emphasised a particular interest in personal injury instead of my experience in employment law and criminal through MOJO. I said this to the HR woman when I answered the phone on that fateful Tuesday and she opened cryptically with the question, “How do you think the interview went?”

After I had finished my two-minute post-match analysis where I was essentially talking myself out of the role, she interrupted me to say, “Well you’ll be pleased to know we’re offering you the traineeship.”

What a relief! I felt euphoric. The struggle was over. Victory at last. Looks like this law degree will pay off after all.

I really did not want to be going into the diploma without having something lined up at the end of it, and it was one of my new year’s resolutions to secure a traineeship. Good to tick off a year goal in January. Let’s hope 2022 bring yet more wish-fulfilment and hopefully I haven’t peaked too soon!

There we are then. In September 2023 I will start working for Digby Brown in their Glasgow office as a trainee solicitor. Before all that I have to pass my LLB at Strathclyde, then complete my diploma in professional practice, which is another year starting in September. The traineeship itself is two years and only after that can I say – “I have qualified as a solicitor.”

It’s a long haul, I know, but it’s good to have a clear direction in life. It is freeing in a way. My future-worry part of the brain is less engaged, so I have more space to enjoy the present. Of course, one still has short- and medium-term worry, but the bigger dread seems to have been defeated, at least for a couple of years.

This semester I’m doing three main classes: commercial law, evidence and EU law, plus a portfolio for the Clinical part of my degree. Surprisingly I am actually finding commercial law the most engaging at the moment because it’s something I rarely think about in day-to-day life. Evidence I feel I have a head start on through my MOJO volunteering. EU law is probably where I’m most at home because I do think about it quite a lot and I’ve just finished reading Tony Judt’s Postwar, which talks about its development in some detail. I’m continuing with my IACs in the Clinic and dealing with a couple of employment cases, one of which has recently been resolved in a negotiated settlement (another small victory for me at the end of the month).

Something I said at the end of my last blog was that I wanted to become happier in 2022. I have tried to do this by meeting friends a bit more spontaneously. After my mooting mentees completed their first round, I decided to catch them unannounced after the verdict and invite them for a pint. As for the mentees, this flopped, but the judge and their opponent accepted the offer, and we had a good time of it anyway.

The following week I cajoled my school friend (and entourage) to go with me to see Romeo Taylor’s gig at Bloc, just announced that Wednesday night. I knew the billed artist from his Twitter and Twitch presence as cooljinzo and introduced myself to him in the toilets afterwards as my username, flettcetera. He was about to vomit but politely delayed his regurgitation long enough for me to congratulate him on his new English girlfriend with whom he informed me he is besotted.

Speaking of romance, this year I am trying to take steps to mitigate the lack of it in my life. This is contrary to the lets-just-see-what-happens approach that has dominated previously without much success. I am hoping that making a written disclosure of this intention will bring such a desire into actuality, much like my traineeship search. Perhaps this is a form of magical thinking? Anyway, of the three dates I have been on so far only the one I liked the most blocked me. We fight on.

I write at the end of a weekend that similarly started with great promise. For the first time since the pandemic, I was host to a dinner party. Much red wine was consumed and my flatmate, interrupting the interregnum between the main course and dessert, commented on the “jovial” atmosphere. Here’s to more soirées in future; the spirit of “2022 is going to be my year” lives on.

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Better than the last one

I want this end-of-year sum-up to focus on the positive. Let’s start with this: 2021 was better than 2020. A very low bar indeed, but 2021 improved on its predecessor in most ways.

It was a bleak start to the year, and I delayed my return to Glasgow from Orkney by several weeks because there was really nothing to go back to apart from some very restricted library opening hours, and university lectures were all online anyway. Despite university being just about the only thing I could do, I still managed to get some extra-curricular stuff in with the continuation of the Mooting competition virtually throughout the first half of the year. Appropriately enough, the first round of the new year was on culpable and reckless conduct during the pandemic, which was Jason Leitch’s predecessor and an SNP MP’s downfall when travel restrictions were severe. Luckily that early lockdown phase does seem a long time ago now and unlikely to return.

I also kept myself as sane as I could by throwing myself into Law Clinic work, helping host the fortnightly Zoom drop-in sessions and managing cases in between coursework.

The age of Zoom quizzes had a second wind, and I organised a few virtual pub meet-ups with people on my course before we all finally met up in May at the end of a year without seeing each other in person.

Although I was lucky enough to get some furlough pay from my Historic Environment Scotland job during Tier 4, I also took up a one-off paid acting gig through the university where I took part in a role-play scenario for diploma students as a soon-to-be divorcee police officer.

In 2021 I have been thinking more about my career than usual and applying for traineeships and summer placement in the hope of getting a contract with a law firm before I start my diploma in professional practice this year. I have attended several virtual assessment centres and some final stage interviews but am yet to be ultimately successful. Nevertheless, I am pushing on and have another interview lined up for later this month.

I went to the Sheriff Court twice this year. The first time was after the mooting semi-final judge invited all the participants to come and shadow him for a day. I was able to observe the accused’s evidence at a High Court criminal trial where the sheriff was covering and got an idea of what a typical day was like for him. The second time I was appearing in front of a sheriff as a lay representative for a Law Clinic client with a simple procedure claim. I felt prepared for the hearing as a result of my mooting experience, advocacy training and having visited the court before, but unfortunately, the client lost his case due to procedural regulations.

By summer outdoor socialising and internal travel was starting back up and I was able to go to a family barbeque. My sister paid me a visit in Glasgow, and we went to Arran for a day trip where we climbed the Goat Fell and I got quite sunburnt. I also managed to get to Bute with my brother for a couple of hours after being excluded from the limited-capacity ferry at the intended departure time initially.

Through my work, I managed to get a week’s work experience within the new HES in-house legal team, and I also mixed things up by looking after Dumbarton castle for a few days.

In August, I finally got back to gigs after a painfully long absence, the first being Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh Festival, as I talked about in my previous post. I’m hoping to start off 2022 with The Twilight Sad at Barrowlands if Sturgeon smiles upon us.

In September I was in London for the memorial service of my good friend Charles who died suddenly at the beginning of lockdown. It was a beautiful tribute and showed what an impact he’d had on so many people and in so many aspects. Even though I had been in regular contact with him all the time he had been working in London after graduation, there were things I learnt that I didn’t know about him. The contributions from his siblings were especially moving, capturing his playfulness and intellectual seriousness vividly. It still seems surreal to me, but I am glad we were finally able to come together properly and celebrate him in the right way.

The new semester brought back a single weekly in-person lecture(!) and real-life tutorials. I always looked forward to our Friday morning Ethics and Justice sessions we were privileged enough to receive as Clinic students and will never take a 9am lecture for granted again! These lecture/seminar hybrids kept me going where the majority of learning was still online and the 12 o’clock finishing time often segued nicely into a pint at the newly opened student union just across the road. I was also able to meet third- and fourth-year Clinic students doing honours, which was good socially, as well as getting the perspectives of slightly more experienced people.

In general, I think the second half of the year was when I started to ask people for advice about things a bit more, which is something I’ve struggled with slightly because I like to be self-sufficient. Mostly it has been about my career, but I’ve also realised I want to become happier in my life as well and that can be quite hard to achieve purely on your own. In terms of my professional life, I have more of a plan than I ever have had, and it’s the sort of plan that is robust enough to withstand the thousand natural shocks of Covid regulations. Something similar might have to occur if I want to get beyond “basically fine”, drifting to mildly miserable, on the life-joy scale.

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My top albums 2021

2021 got off to a terrible start with Tier 4 restrictions imposed in Glasgow for the best part of four months. Things began to revive in April and by May I had finally met the people on my course for the first time in real life. From there, things began to open up properly again and I got into bouldering for a time and there was a semblance of a tourist season at Glasgow Cathedral, although much muted.

It was mid-August before I had my first gig back post-Covid. I went to see Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh festival, a band whose debut single ‘Sunglasses’ I had covered during my tenure as Music Editor at The National Student. Although it was quite surreal, taking place effectively in an open-sided tent where everyone was seated and socially distanced, the gig was a great return to live music – one of the things I had missed most throughout the pandemic times.

The band’s debut album features on this short list of records I have enjoyed this past year. For whatever reason, I have not been as interested in contemporary albums this year. My top Spotify artist was Stereolab, whose 1997 album Dots and Loops I looped throughout 2021. King Gizzard appeared again as my number two, a band who this year re-explored microtonal music on KG and LW neither of which in album form made it into my top records but each containing some standout singles like ‘Straws in the Wind’ and ‘K.G.L.W’. Eyedress, a Filipino artist who makes lo-fi, moody punk was my third and Slowthai, who released a double-album this year was my fourth. Unknown Mortal Orchestra again made my top five with songs like ‘That Life’ and ‘Weekend Run’.

Aside from that though, here is a list of albums that I liked the most in 2021:

5. Daddy’s Home by St Vincent

On this album, St Vincent explores the textures of 1970s soul, jazz and soft rock with her typical warped and glitchy twist. I preferred this record to MASSEDUCTION, despite the latter’s singles such as ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘New York’, because it had more replayability from start to finish. It also seemed to have a more cohesive aesthetic and natural recording style that leaves space where appropriate, such as on the title track, in marked contrast with the appropriately claustrophobic and compressed ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’.

St Vincent brings back the electric sitar on ‘The Melting of the Sun’, which I think showcases why the album is worth listening to through its bizarre blend of gospel and Eastern vibes.

4.  Juno by Remi Wolf

Remi Wolf’s type of music is not the genre I’d usually go for, but sometimes pop hooks just can’t be denied. Juno has these in abundance. If I were to describe the closest thing to Remi Wolf I listen to, it would probably be Kero Kero Bonito. Juno has the same sort of hyperactive energy, colour and charm as KKB. Its use of samples is often hilarious such as on the standout track, ‘Front Tooth’ which plays the cackle of a dolphin as an auditory illustration. Sometimes the talky bits in tracks get slightly grating, but Wolf more than makes up for that with her ear for melody.

There’s not an especially strong thematic thread through this album, which is more a kaleidoscope of singles than anything. It’s exceptionally well produced and an extremely strong debut from an artist who seems to have shot to popularity from nowhere. There aren’t many people making records like this at the moment, although it’s not like Juno is particularly new sonically, drawing heavily from 90s R&B and pop. The thing that seems to set it apart is how upfront the songs are – they demand your attention and aren’t content to be background music.

A favourite track is ‘Anthony Kiedis’ (yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers singer), but an honourable mention has to go to ‘Sexy Villain’ about the morbid contemporary fascination with serial killers.

3. For the First Time by Black Country, New Road

As I mentioned in the intro, I have been following BC, NR for a couple of years now and went to see them live at (literally) the earliest opportunity. I think the main thing that was apparent in their songs is how impressive their dynamic range is. It’s not all about the softly-softly to a dramatic crescendo in their songs, however, like some contemporary post-rock bands. You can actually enjoy their quiet patches in and of themselves and not just an interlude between face-melting. In fact, there is actually not a huge amount of that on the album, and where it appears it is “tasteful” if that makes sense as a description.

I haven’t taken quite as much to their quickly released follow-up Concorde that just came out. For me, For the First Time’s appeal is in the odd simplicity of their music for being a seven-piece band. The textures never feel too busy and the extra instruments augment and complement the sound rather than overcomplicate it. My particular favourites are ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Track X’.

2. Bright Magic by Public Service Broadcasting

I love what Public Service Broadcasting do. They can communicate things no other artist seems able to articulate. On previous albums, they have used archive recordings of 20th century moments and built characterful, emotive and thoughtful instrumental tracks around them whether describing space exploration, the heroism and tragedy of the coal industry or the wonder of the postal system. Bright Magic takes a step away from this approach and into the more abstract. Dedicated to the city of Berlin emerging from the despondency and total destruction of losing two world wars, it features many original vocal performances and poetry mostly in German.

It may not have the quirkiness of previous albums, but Bright Magic has some seriously beautiful peaks of emotion. Because of its abstraction, it can take some time to fully get into, but once you do find an interpretation that seems to work for you it can really transport you. One of my favourites is ‘Der Rythmus der Maschinen’ as an ode to re-industrialisation after the disaster and a desire to create an automated workers’ republic, the product of material self-forged material conditions.

Equally powerful, however, is the track ‘Blue Heaven’, featuring Andreya Casablanca of Gurr, whose massive coda features the line, “Ich bin mein Produkt, ganz von mir gemacht”. It is a huge tune apparently inspired by Marlene Dietrich going her own way in Weimar Berlin.

  1. Bright Green Field by Squid

My top album of the year is also by the band whose gig at SWG3 was my highlight of the year, Bright Green Field by Squid. Again, I covered their first singles, such as the angsty ‘Houseplants’, at The National Student. Like BC, NR they have truly smashed it out of the park with their debut record. There are so many crunchy tunes on here from ‘Narrator’ to ‘Paddling’ and ‘Pamphlets’ each having unhinged energy that is somehow under complete perfectionist control.

Their songs aren’t really about anything in particular and the lyrics are quite abstract (or possibly, read another way, matter-of-fact). One doesn’t listen to Squid for the words though. It’s about the jam, the groove, the mosh-ability of their music. These are the musicians at the top of their game, and they have something to say! You probably won’t hear it in their lyrics though.

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Summer’s End

I’ve spent the summer in a cathedral, talking about cathedrals.

But why is it a cathedral when there’s no bishop and it’s a place for him to sit?

Yes, you’re right, it’s Presbyterian now. Church of Scotland since 1560, though they had them through the 17th century up until the Glorious Revolution and the Claim of Right. The Elders and the congregation pick the minister. As the window in the sacristy says, let them be counted as double.

But I don’t just talk about Mungo, I talk about Magnus too. Though my experience of cathedrals extends beyond that. One such building imprinted on my mind is the imposing edifice of Cologne’s archbishopric. It’s the third to me, and the first city of my year abroad in Germany, in the city where the three-day course before my teaching placement started was held.

France’s cathedrals I have no direct experience of but was happy to hear about them at the beginning of this week from an International Relations graduate with his piece of paper in hand testifying to his diplomatic credentials.

I reflected on my own limited time in Paris when I was almost wholly ignorant of the revolution. My desire to travel was rekindled as I heard about a summer spent working at a French holiday resort only returned from two weeks ago. All you need is the Pass Sanitaire, I was told, and the continent is yours. Well, I’m double vaxxed. Europe, await my return.

Talk of travel also took place on Thursday when I was discussing reading up on Russia. Latterly I’ve looked into the life of Lenin by Robert Service. Lenin is someone who would have loathed Carlyle’s lens through which he viewed history. Yet you can’t deny he was arguably the 20th century’s Great Man.

Apparently, there is a scheme where you can travel visa-free from Finland to St Petersburg. I’ll need to check that out because Moscow and Leningrad are definitely on the list, alongside Norway, Italy, Austria and Bavaria.

I want to see the cities, the mountains, the lakes and the fjords, but I also crave something quieter, subtler and slower.

Though I’ve been away from Orkney for more than a year now, I’ve retained my links with the isles through volunteering. At the start of the month, I was compering again for the Orkney International Science Festival and throughout the annum I’ve kept up my role as website/app updater for the St Magnus Way.

That first year of the Science Festival was for the organisers overshadowed by loss, following the death of Kristen Linklater, internationally recognised acting coach and founder of the Voice Centre in whose workshops we were lucky enough to participate, earlier in the year.

It was really the first proper community event I had taken part in since lockdown and such a time when I was also still experiencing personal grief for my friend Charles who had suddenly passed away that April.

Despite it being online and despite the difficulties, alienation and barriers to communication Zoom erects between us all, the OISF of 2020 truly was a community phenomenon in the most meaningful sense of the word. But it was also a community in a particular sense, in that it was a scientific community with a shared commitment to the expansion of human knowledge and species-capability that transcends both nation and generation.

Science, of course, is impersonal, but that does not preclude a truly tangible solidarity between those who gaze heavenward or into the darkest ocean trench and cry, “Mehr Licht!”

It was this that I most needed at this particular ebb in my life. A reaffirmation of what I’d believed in since boyhood after a summer of stagnation and solitude.

It is, in my opinion, chiefly an exploratory impulse that drives scientific development and being stuck to the confines of four walls when I’d dreamt of the seven seas was, to say the least, infuriating.

Now, though, this generalised Wanderlust was given a focus in a double sense. In a desire for discovery, and in dedication to someone whose attitude to travel on land and on the waves I hope to emulate.

So, when I make it to Russia, when I start off on the St Cuthbert’s Way and when I do eventually learn to sail, I’ll be doing it in tribute to you, Charles Jonathan Peter Wright.

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A rose is a rose is a rose

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is presented to the reader as the text of an authentic medieval manuscript form the fourteenth century. Its author’s love for the time period radiates from every page; beyond passion, beyond fascination, which as the novel explores, can blind and distort. Instead, what one gets the impression of is Eco’s fidelity to something he knows is irreproducible.

He does not capture a Zeitgeist and prod it to mouth expected cliches and mannerisms; he lets it speak freely, for itself in all its messiness and contradiction.

Our perception of the Middle Ages is that of a time where things were more or less the same for about a thousand years. The features are stable and certain: knights, monks, kings, castles, the Church. We are used to medieval-inspired fiction where we can feel familiar with our surroundings, accept a given level of technology, weaponry and intellectual development. No one is going to pull a gun, fly a plane or start advocating for representative democracy. Yet Eco’s fourteenth-century Europe is dynamic. Natural philosophy is rising in tandem with, or to challenge, revelation as the principal means of knowledge acquisition; a great theological conflict over the poverty of Christ is threatening to split the Roman Church, and beyond that medieval culture war there are those excluded from that conversation point blank but whose influence is pressingly felt at the porous fringes: the heretics.

But, of course, The Name of the Rose is not just about the fourteenth century. No historical novel is solely about the time in which it is set, otherwise, it might as well be a theme park ride, not an art form. While many characters feel thoroughly, authentically medieval with obscure concerns and mindsets alien and hard to comprehend, Brother William, the novel’s object (though not the narrator) is a man who belongs to another age.

In a world where one’s rigidity of doctrine is rewarded above all else, the English monk constantly questions the basis of his fellow brothers’ theological assertions. New knowledge should only be pursued, for his contemporaries, insofar as it confirms what has been foretold already in divine revelation. William on the other hand wants practical science to improve and edify man. He holds that God ought to retreat from the administration of states and that men should govern in council (as they do in the corrupt city-states of the non-monastical secular clergy) as opposed to monarchical one-man rule. Worst of all, he has no wish to blanket-denounce as heresy everything that has the appearance of divergence from orthodoxy, instead, he maintains the need to define and separate the various interpretations the Church has deemed heretical to better understand and combat, or possibly even integrate, them.

This attitude does not set him up for success in a highly factionalised intrigue-wrought time of the papal schism. Born two centuries later, he may have been able to reconcile and temper the excesses of Luther’s break and the counter-response. As it is, he is hopeless to heal the chasm opened up between John XII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Bavarian. Like Hardy’s Jude, Brother William was born in the wrong era.

Eco’s presentation of the strangeness of the medieval era is truly inspired. From detailed discussions on manuscript marginalia doodles to Adso, our protagonist’s fretful anxiety over the existence of unicorns, to which William replies, “We cannot say that they do not exist.” Adso’s dreams and visions, drawn from his obsession with the Revelation of St John, are far removed from the psychological stew of most modern consciousnesses. As a former Germanist who loves old languages, I loved to see some heartfelt snippets of Mittelhochdeutsch (Adso’s vernacular) left in their expressive original.

Yet some themes we seem to turn to again and again, no matter the generation. What is the proper place of luxury or opulence, if is to be indulged in at all? Is there virtue in hardship or bare minimalism? Can beauty and desire be reconciled? Will laughter lead us close to the truth, or is tragedy more instructive to the soul?

The Name of the Rose may lean a certain way on all these seemingly eternal issues, but even as William’s righteous contempt builds one cannot but acknowledge a kernel of truth in all the bluff and bluster of the opponents of mirth, proponents of splendour and condemners of lust.

It’s a postmodernist, maximalist novel – of course, it doesn’t answer any questions. Even so, we are the better for them being raised and made strange in the most erudite and overwhelming way.

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Almost two years, and three King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard albums later

I have passed year one of two of my condensed law degree at Strathclyde. That was Wednesday’s news, delivered to the mobile app and received during lunch break at Glasgow Cathedral, with breakdowns of each exam. One annum’s study hasn’t gone to waste. Onwards to year two.

One year’s worth of law notes.

Covid restrictions remain in place, and it looks like they will do for at least another month, following indications of the position in England and their delay of so-called Freedom Day that was supposed to happen on Monday. There seems to be a lot of resignation to the idea of permanent restrictions or clinging to the belief that zero Covid is possible, neither of which are credible positions. I don’t believe we will continue to have restrictions into the autumn, and if there are it will be the result of policy decisions of individual public bodies and companies, not government mandated.

Vaccines are the way out of this, and highly effective vaccines we have – I’ll be receiving my first dose next week. Freedom is at hand, despite the naysayers, and so it should be. Still though, in the meantime, it’s not that much fun without any real events on the calendar (with the exception of work). We are grateful that Glasgow’s punishing purgatory of Tier 3 is at an end and pubs are open (if with no singing, no dancing and low-volume music), but I fear proper gigs are off the cards unless everything goes.

Everyone is so atomised at the moment. People need to be together, in the same room. It is essential to human flourishing! And I suppose we have been. But on the perimeter at first, on benches outside rooms.

I have met some of my fellow students post-exams after organising some Zoom get-togethers during the Glasgow no-go days, and this month I ventured into the interior with my mooting partner following our eventual defeat in the final of the competition. It was a great experience, although I didn’t appreciate being tantalised by the organiser’s repeated reference to the “fancy dinner” they normally have after the conclusion of the moot. Mooting definitely formed part of my identity during those first months of the year when lockdown was at its strictest. I’m hoping to join the ranks of the committee next year and get the opportunity to compete against other unis.

As the rounds of the competition went on, the judges increased in prestige from committee members to university staff, trainees, procurator fiscals, advocates and sheriffs and finally Lady Rae of the High Court and Court of Session. It was after the semi-final that the judge, a Glasgow sheriff, invited all the participants to come in to shadow him for a day in court. I took up that opportunity last week and watched the proceedings of a High Court trail where he was covering. It was a bit weird to be the only spectator, as the jury were being streamed from a cinema, but it was good to be able to watch the QCs with their wigs examine and cross examine the accused. I also found it strange to see the opposing counsels chat to each other informally as colleagues when the accused and judge were out of the court.

This hopefully won’t represent the beginning and end of my legal experience this summer, and indeed it has already been followed by my first visit to the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation office yesterday, a body dedicated to reassessing the cases of people serving sentences for offences they claim they did not commit. Additionally, I am in the process of organising a placement with the Historic Environment Scotland legal team next month, and of course, Law Clinic cases are ongoing.

It can be difficult to stay positive at the moment, what with Covid doom all around, but on a personal level there are a lot of things to count as objectively good and signs of progression, and I suppose one has to cling to that. Plus, I booked what will be my first proper concert in almost two years, and three King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard albums later, which is Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh Festival. It’ll be seated, but it’s a start. Normal life is coming back!

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One year

We have a date now. 25th September. It’s still very far away and it won’t be a funeral per se.

I won’t be at the graveside service tomorrow. I’ve been though. In October, on the eve of England’s second lockdown. There is that at least. I couldn’t not have gone.

September will be much different to now. It will be torture if “social distancing” is still going on, but I feel like there’s a strong chance it won’t be. We’ve nigh on vaccinated ourselves and we’re giving doses to other countries now. The virus is no longer a deadly one for old people and it’s going to get harder for the government to justify this half-life they’ve mandated for everyone for the past year.

I’m reminded of Charles in so many small things. Inconsequential, mundane things.

Drinking tea – I don’t really drink tea, only if the alternative is unavailable. But even that. I was reminded of that cup of tea we had in the Meadows in exam leave. He wanted another but negotiated with the guy to get a top up of hot water rather than him charging a pound extra, which in all fairness was the practical solution.

Or that tearoom amid the trees near Blackford Hill. No fancy coffees, just tea in a Styrofoam cup with blue top milk or nothing.

Or Gullane, the town with the name that sounds nothing like it’s spelt. Us the sole customers after I’d pretended to be interested in bric-a-brac you were earnestly surveying at a charity shop for two minutes until I cracked. Gaudy oilcloth tables, the rugby on TV in the background.

Far from the hipster vibes of Cult Espresso, here there was no pressure to be anyone cooler than you were. But such was always the case in his company. I was happy to be wrapped up in the bodywarmer he’d offered me on that bitter cold, frosty day; walking boots caked in sand from the infinite beach.

Microwaving my mixed bean, sweet potato, curried lentil fibrous amalgam takes me back to 50 George Square that April/May of studying for finals, making use of that communal kitchen. We’d sit in the Meadows for lunch. Or that night after the Russian art lecture I felt was too Tsar-deferent under the red sky corrugated with cloud. We were approached by the ruby glint of drunk guy swigging echo falls – you and he exchanged a few lines, and he stumbled on.

Listening to Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I know I’m remembering you from an earlier phase, but you loved that song – I-so-la-tion. I can hear you sing it now, like so many of your greatest hits.

It’s been a year. And sadly, I think it’s likely I wouldn’t have seen you anyway. But I’d at least have heard your voice, been able to share my plans and you’d have told me about all your projects and schemes – I knew you would have had so many. There was no one like you and there won’t ever be again. I miss you every day.

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Dead people die…AND YET!

I’m scrolling through the timeline on sunny afternoon. After an excursion to the library in the morning and a luxurious luncheon in the Botanics my mind was mulling matters of religion. We can circle around other topics, but it always seems to come back to this – why do people believe and what do people actually believe in?

Before we roll away the stone, it may be worth mentioning what has rekindled my interest in Christian theology recently. Firstly, I set myself the task of becoming more generally knowledgeable about stuff during lockdown, starting from the start – the world of Ancient Rome and historical Jesus, and then jumping ahead to the various reformations of the early modern period. Secondly, at the end of last year, I read the utterly astounding Dominion by Tom Holland, which is a history of Christian ideas through time, which I wrote about in December.

I want to start this post with a bold claim but one which is not novel: Christianity is the atheist religion.

Christianity is about how to live in a world without God, at least as an active interlocutor. The Son has ascended to heaven, the Father no longer intervenes with the drama of the old testament and we are left only with the Spirit. The interventionist God is gone, and we must decide how to live in the interregnum between the departure and the return, which may as well be perpetual.

What then, is the point in believing anything at all? Well, to understand that you have to understand that Christianity is not about the present, it is, rather, eschatological. In other words, it’s concerned with what happened and what will happen. Where things get confusing is that what happened is continually happening, as is what will happen, according to most denominations.

Doubt about precisely what happened is baked into Christianity. Even Christ himself, in the agony of dying, cried out, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The resurrection is not part of a worldview that believes such things are generally possible. Christ’s return to life is the one exception proving the rule, that death is not conquerable, but in the life to come.

Christianity is a fundamentally materialist religion. Christians are not encouraged to heap scorn on Thomas, the doubter, but to doubt with him – to become an unbeliever, a rational sceptic, until we have seen, and we have touched the wounds of Christ. You can imagine then to the incredibly cloth-eared tweet of Prof Alice Roberts, which she posted on Good Friday this year:

Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.

Prof Alice Roberts, 2nd April 2021

Inadvertently, Prof Roberts hit upon a theological point rather close to the Christian message and strikingly in tune with the church’s cyclical calendar.

On Good Friday, Christians do just that – remember that dead people don’t come back to life, that for three days the son of God was beaten by human mortality in the cruellest way imaginable. Light had gone from the world and there was no hope or expectation that it would ever return. On this day, Christians are encouraged to put from their minds any redemption to be gleaned from suffering and to focus solely on the torture and unmeaningness of violence as a brute fact of being incarnate creatures. It is on Good Friday that Christians are their most atheist, and this is absolutely necessary if what follows is to have any earth-shattering, life-changing significance.

I am not a Christian. I identify with all the steadfast non-believers throughout history who ridiculed the church, whether openly or privately, and just got on with life without the need for religion or approval from the man upstairs. However, if you are going to attack Christianity, I’m sure we can all agree you can do better than to affirm the very thing that makes it so: Dead people die…AND YET!

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A Loving Economy: Alasdair Gray’s ‘Poor Things’

I postponed the boat Glasgowward to two-thirds through the month and made it up a tier from three to four without arrest, though I intelligently left a Kindle on the Megabus as evidence of my transit (recovered a week later after reporting through official channels).

Like all Gray’s novels, the text is set out with an idiosyncratic typographical exactitude.

Arriving in a frozen metropolis glazed with a fine white crust, I dived into that most famous of Glasgow novelists, Alasdair Gray’s book, Poor Things.

It is the fourth of his works that I have read following Lanark, Janine and Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Although future dystopias featured in Lanark (as well as the immediate past) and Unlikely Stories contained an extensive and entertaining 17th century pastiche (a period I am very interested in), I had not yet seen him tackle a past quite alien from our own time and yet so much a cause of the disaster/triumph of the 20th century.

Yes, Poor Things tackles the Victorian era – a time universally shunned by modernists as encapsulating everything wrong with society as they say it. Specifically, Gray’s book concerns the late Victorian Age – the full bloom of the British Empire whose dizzying success seemed to threaten to decay into decadence at any moment. It’s a novel about the professional class of that time, primarily, in the second city of Empire – Glasgow. Medical doctors on the one hand and a crazy middle section by a slowly maddening lovestruck solicitor on the other.

Presented as an edited amalgam of a memoir, collection of letters and historical biography, the book’s contradictory accounts follow in the tradition of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Its central trio of characters, augmented by Duncan Wedderburn, the aforementioned lawyer, all bring conflicting perspectives to the tale, none of which can be dismissed outright or considered definitive and they frequently rebut and invalidate each other in particulars. All of their biographies are undermined by each other or the Editor and yet the cast is comprised of distinctive, sympathetic and complementary figures that make the story emotionally rich as well as just plain weird.

Archie McCandless is in many ways a typical Gray hero (if such a thing exists). He is proud of his humble beginnings, modest but romantic in a contained, mostly socially acceptable way. It is the bizarre experiences of his life that lead him to become an eccentric recluse, scribbling unpublishable fiction in his later years.

Wedderburn is also Gray, only screwed up to 11. Again, he is changed irrevocably by his encounter with the novel’s antagonist (if not villain), Bella Baxter, for whom the online magazine Bella Caledonia is named. His comparisons with Faust in order to understand what is happening to him might have been useful to me when I was writing my essay on Janine in my third year. For me though, it is his theological ravings that provide the funniest parts of the book.

Although Gray’s typographical experiments are not as extreme as in Janine, the strangest part of the novel is Bella and the account she gives of her Grand Tour elopement with Wedderburn. She and Godwin Baxter (more of a father than a husband) are the paranormal, Gothic heart of the tale. Like Frankenstein’s Creature Bella is created not begotten (according to McCandless) and like said Creature, is also surprisingly eloquent following near-total amnesia. Unlike the Creature, however, she has no trouble finding a mate and is an irresistibly beautiful alpha-female. Instead of parroting Miltonic phraseology, Bella begins in blank verse. Whereas the Creature is banished to the ends of the earth after his plan to resettle in the South American jungles falls through, Bella does a world tour before eventually deciding that Glasgow suits her best. Much like the eponymous Lanark of Gray’s first novel, she occasionally wonders what she was like before she was brought to life in media res and given a new name but doesn’t dwell on this.

This all changes when the Coriolanus-like figure of General Blessington comes to reclaim her as his bride. He is one of Gray’s most horrible villains but, amusingly, McCandless is bound to respect him even so because he is a Liberal MP.

Gray’s epilogue really interests me. It’s a blend of research authenticating the historical sources of the novel, and part of the novel itself, weaving real events with the later biography of the re-christened Victoria (formerly Bella).

As much as it used to be a filmic cliché to end a turn-of-the-millennium story with 9/11, there is something overdone about finishing with the outbreak of the First World War. It doesn’t quite end there though; there is a coda. A coda about the interwar Scottish left that features an invented correspondence and personal acquaintance with Hugh MacDiarmid, whom Bella/Victoria calls ‘Chris’.

Dying at the close of 1945, she is content that Britain is heading for socialism, decolonisation and the end of misery. The book seems to ask, should we share in her optimism knowing what we know now?

Bella’s late-Victorian Fabianism is utterly unprepared for the mainstream labour movement’s betrayal of international solidarity at the outbreak of the war, but it is difficult to conclude that Gray wants us to throw out her world-changing enthusiasm as naïve entirely. Likewise, across Gray’s oeuvre there is praise for the post-war settlement i.e., welfarism and republics versus monarchical empires.

Yet, there is definitely an ambivalence about Bella’s state of peace at the end of the novel; only her minimal goals of public health provision have been promised. Free love and good pay for honest work seem distant dreams, crushed into the ground by realists and ostensible radicals alike. Like her literary heroes, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence, she is considered a crazy eccentric in the 20th century. Technological optimism and desire for sexual freedom in its fullest sense (beyond mere genital liberty) seem absurd dispositions in an irredeemably callous world.

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