The whole independence campaign, especially the last couple of weeks, was a shattering experience for me. There was absolutely nothing positive about the prospect of seeing my country break up, not least because I’d already been through that once before and knew first-hand about the traumas involved. I made tentative plans to leave a job I cannot afford to lose and a home, a landscape, that I love. I felt joy at the result and relief, but my happiness was always edged with sadness at the damage done. That’s one reason I kept writing.
I wrote a number of blogs immediately after the result which tried to put the events into perspective. But I knew that I was missing something and that the format of a three page article was never going to express adequately what I wanted to say. I wanted to capture the emotions, wanted a way to preserve what I’d gone through in the previous few months.
I began jotting down ideas in my notebook on the bus to work, started writing them up in the evenings and when I thought I had the beginnings of something, took some time off work to finish it. I always write very quickly or not at all. I either have a sense of "now I can go on" or I don’t. I had decided to write another novel. Everything followed from an initial idea. What if two young people from opposite sides of the debate fell in love?
A love story for me is the key plot device. There are also plots about war, espionage or other forms of conflict, but love is the key plot for everyday life. In each Walter Scott novel it is love that drives the story, even if it is incidental to what he is trying to say about some historical event or other. It is love that makes us turn the page even if later we forget who the lovers were and remember only the “minor” characters. I thought this romantic way of telling my story would also be a way for me to explore both sides of the issue, hopefully in a reasonably fair way, for I wanted sympathetic characters. In the end, in our country there are people we disagree with, but we are all human all too human and neither of my lovers are villains. I put myself in the novel, too as a sort of “minor” character and plot device. Anyone interested will find out lots about me, though it is worth remembering that the whole thing is made up even if it is grounded in my experience. It is the mingling of truth and fiction that enables us to say something in fiction that we cannot say in a blog. It was this that I had been looking for.
In the end, although my short novel is about last year it is also not about last year. My cover is a painting "Saint Cecilia and an Angel" by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco. I use it partly because I like it very much, but mainly because my book is about music and the attempt to find harmony when there appears to be only dissonance. Coming to understand a piece of music is like learning a new language. Lovers also need to find a new language especially when they disagree. They need to see through their dissonance in order to find their deeper harmony, or else they need to separate. So my book is partly about music. It also touches on influences such as Chrétien de Troyes, and Perceval’s search for what he has lost through his folly. This is the position that we are all sometimes left in. We have to look for what is gone when we do not even have a starting point for our search.
My characters are interested in some of the things that interest me. How could it be otherwise? They read what I have read, watch films that I have seen. There is something about Russia and Russian, even little bits about Dostoevsky. My characters differ not only with respect to politics, but also in their whole attitude to life, love morality and faith. The conflict in the story and the plot therefore is not merely about Scottish independence, but about whether it is possible to find harmony when people differ fundamentally. So while there is a romantic element to the story which drives the plot, I would hardly describe the book as some form of “chick lit.” People who have never read me sometimes make cracks about Mills and Boon, but my novels are written in a similar style to my blogs and for good or ill are what you would expect from someone who has been writing “Lily of St Leonards”.
I’m now moving on from blogging to writing longer works. It will need practice. Anyone who has a glance at my blog index will find that my early blogs were not that good. The crucial thing is that I received enough encouragement to continue. Likewise I hope to write better novels. I’d like to write something about cults in Russia, both the cult of the Party and the cults that followed the collapse of everything everyone knew. I have already touched on this, but it’s an important story also for Scotland. I’d like to write something about the composer Messiaen and how he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a prison camp. I am uninterested in biography, but I am interested in using biography as a point of departure to explore what cannot be said, but which can sometimes be shown. I believe everything that is really vital falls into this category.
I’m going to use my blog now mainly to promote my other writing. If there is a pro-UK Scottish blogger who has written more than me, I’m unaware of them. I have built up a sizable audience every week and while the nationalists have blogs with a more devoted and extensive following than mine, I hope “our” quality allows "us" to make up for the fact that “we” lack the horde of devotees.
I hugely appreciate those people who have already bought my book Scarlet on the Horizon. Some of them have been kind enough to get in touch and tell me that they enjoyed it. This sort of encouragement and support I value greatly. Thank you.
It takes an enormous effort to write a blog nearly every week. I try always to be original as I see no point simply repeating what’s already in the papers. At times over the past few months I have found the process exhausting. It’s not always easy to justify the time spent. My husband nags about my wasting time. It is easy, moreover, to sometimes feel that there is no point. Does reason any longer have a place in Scottish politics? I do not speak the language of upwards of half the population and I have no way of knowing where to look in order to try to learn it. The sense of the damage done has only increased as the nationalist half of Scotland has continued to follow their pied piper. It has all been profoundly dispiriting as well as faintly ludicrous. I feel like I’m in a rowing boat that has been swamped and all I have is teaspoon with which to bail it out.
At the moment I’m in Russia doing some research. My university has been very kind in allowing me some leave, partly because my relations here are struggling and my husband felt duty bound to try to help. The cost of some medicines has increased 400 fold. Food is very expensive. People are having their wages cut or losing their jobs. There are no food banks in Russia, but nobody starves, they do what is necessary to earn what they can. Also we’ve been through worse, much worse. The state was never much good for anything anyway, so people help each other. Family rallies round, friends help, even strangers help. I have gained a new sense of perspective being here again. The problems in Scotland and the complaints made by Scottish nationalists appear trivial and selfish.
I am grateful for every tweet and to everyone who gives their support by reading one of my books. There follows the back cover blurb and the first chapter of An indyref romance.
Back soon I hope,
In Aberdeen a few months before the Scottish independence referendum, Jenny just wants to get on with her studies. But she finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with Paul. This for the first time makes the debate real for her as she discovers that they have very different views about Scotland’s future and much else besides. They must discover a new way to dance together, learning a form of music which may yet allow them to find harmony in apparent dissonance. As they grow closer, the distance between their political views increases. No longer able to avoid the debate Jenny secretly agrees to help her friend and tutor, Effie Deans, campaign for Britain. Can her love for Paul survive their disagreement and can they forgive each other for being different?
Here is an inside account of what it was like during the campaign, but politics in the end becomes incidental to the story of a couple who must learn to share a new way of listening not only to the music they discover together, but above all, to each other. Jenny’s journey will take her to Russia and, finally, back to the Aberdeenshire home of Effie Deans on the night of the referendum. Can Paul and Jenny find unity even in victory and defeat? Theirs is Scotland’s story.
In early February 2014 two friends made their way to their favourite pub just of Union Street. They went there because it was the place most likely to serve what they called proper beer. Paul from the highlands had pretty much never tasted anything other than lager until he met Mark. But his Geordie friend had weaned him away from all things yellow by first buying him a bottle of “dog” known otherwise as Newcastle Brown Ale and moving on from there. Paul still had the odd pint of lager when he was with other friends, but he also knew by then that however pleasant the taste of a pint of Heineken, it tasted much the same as a pint of Becks. There was nothing really to be interested in, while now as he looked at what was on offer this week at the Prince of Wales, he was delighted to see there was an ale he had never tasted before.
“I’m having one of those. Do you want one, too?” he said to his friend.
It was about four on a Saturday afternoon and the pub was fairly full. It was their habit every now and again to have a couple there and then go for an Indian around five. Most restaurants were pretty much empty at that point, and you got faster service and could hear yourself think. After that an early night, and they felt better the next day ready to study some more. They were both in their final year at Aberdeen, Mark studying English, Paul studying French and politics. They’d both done averagely well up until now and so not that much depended on the next few months. There would be some exams, but not too many. Their result was already all but decided.
“You’re still determined to turn me into a foreigner, I suppose?” said Mark.
“You know fine I’m not,” said Paul.
“I know that you’d like to convince everyone of that.”
“We’re friends, good friends now, I think.”
“It’s not as if I’m anti-English then?”
“No, of course not.”
“I just think it’s the best chance for the left.”
“Most people are on the left where I come from, too. You know, we’re pretty much agreed on the politics. Just I want to see my country stick together and you want to see your country become independent.”
“But I’m British, too. I want to stay British, it’s just I want Scotland to decide everything, not some parliament where we’re outnumbered.”
“I doubt we’ll convince each other now,” said Mark. “But at least we don’t fall out about it. I’m not from Scotland and so in the end, it’s not my business. I’m not even sure I should vote.”
“Well, don’t expect me to give up trying to persuade you. It’s just you always seem to have a good argument. Where do you get them?”
“Some of them I think up for myself. I’m sure you do, too. But there’s a blog I discovered that I read. I rather like the style of it.”
“What’s it called?”
“Lily of St Leonards.”
“That’s the one!”
“Do you think she’s real?”
“I know she is. She’s an academic here.”
“But her name is not listed. I’ve checked.”
“Wasn’t that a bit creepy of you?”
“Oh, someone online asked me, because I’m a student here.”
“She uses her Russian name officially. It’s some long monstrosity that you can’t even pronounce. But she still uses her maiden name in day to day business. It’s a heck of a lot easier for colleagues and students.”
“Have you met her?”
“I’ve seen her, but never really said anything. Jenny knows her though, and likes her a lot.”
They’d both known Jenny since they’d started at Aberdeen four years earlier. She was a tall, thin, blonde girl from Glasgow with a high-pitched, rather squeaky voice that they always compared to Minnie Mouse. Jenny was one of those girls who were rather shy, devout and who they both thought had never been kissed. She was average looking, pretty enough, but not someone you’d notice. She somehow seemed to lack the ability to attract. She lived in her own, rather splendid flat with Lorna and Susan who paid her, or rather her parents, some rent, though not the going rate. Mark had been with Susan for some years now. Paul had been chasing Lorna along with a lot of other men for over four years, and had got precisely nowhere.
“Have you decided to go the medic’s ball?” asked Mark.
“I’d give up on Lorna if I were you.”
“I know. It’s been a pointless exercise for as long as I can remember.”
“You’re just another of her courtiers. She enjoys it very much indeed. But the enjoyment depends on sitting on her throne.”
“Has anyone made her descend from it?”
“Have you ever heard her mention someone from home?”
“A name crops up every now and again. Michael. Do you know he is?”
“I asked Susan if she knew. Michael is some chap ten years older than us. He’s not her boyfriend, but he’s the only one who is liable to become one. Lorna talks about him in a way she doesn’t talk about any other man. It’s like he’s on a throne and she’s the courtier. Same problem though. Just the other way round.”
“No much point asking Lorna then?”
“I don’t know if she’s going to the ball with anyone. Michael might take her, though I doubt it. He’s never even been here as far as I’m aware. But no, not much point. She might say ‘yes’, but she might well say ‘yes’ to half a dozen others. No not much point at all.”
“I’m not sure I can be bothered going at all then.”
“Why don’t you take Jenny?”
“Are you kidding?”
“You know her as well as I do. We’ve both spent enough evenings at her flat. She’s nice. She’s really nice.”
“Wouldn’t it be a bit like going to a ball with your sister?”
“Look, I’m here partly because of Susan. She asked me to talk to you. Jenny’s not a little girl. She has feelings. She likes you. She fancies you. She wants you to ask her. But she’ll never ask herself. You know she’s far too shy. How long is it since you’ve gone out with someone?”
“A couple of years, more really. I’ve been unlucky.”
“No, you’ve been chasing someone who doesn’t want you, while right beside her is someone who does. Besides, Jenny is a much better person than Lorna. I maybe know her better than you. She’s kind and gentle and capable of giving.”
“I’m not sure I could take the primness, the Christian Union nonsense.”
“You’d be taking her to a ball, not a church service.”
Paul thought of Jenny and of the dozens of occasions they’d all sat in the kitchen of her flat. He’d chatted to her loads of times, but he’d never been in her kitchen because of her and had almost never been alone with her for more than a few minutes. He tried to conjure her image into his mind and fleetingly was able to do so. He noticed an attractiveness that had not registered before. The fact that she wanted him was in itself attractive, indeed very attractive. Here was possibility while in the past couple of years had been only frustration and disappointment.
“Shall we visit them after the Indian? I wouldn’t want someone else to ask her before me?
“Why not ditch the Indian and go now?”
“I think, that wouldn’t be a bad idea”.
Half an hour later Paul, rather flippantly, said: “Jenny, you shall go to the ball.”
He saw her smile and exchange a glance with Susan. The glance seemed to say something like “Thanks.”
“Why don’t you two sit down and I’ll find something for you to eat?” said Jenny. “It’s so good of you to take me Paul, I’ve never been to a ball before.”
“Rather, it’s good of you to go with me after I asked you in that way. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m sure, we’ll have a great time together.