by Neil Gordon Shaw
If there was a grimmer place than Thurso on a wet early December day, Rory McNairn would have been interested to know about it. Through the drizzly window he took in the Mount Pleasant housing estate that dominated the hillside opposite – streets of three-bedroom semis in ashen, damp-stained pebbledash with slate roofs. A bulky woman was progressing slowly up the hill, one hand pulling a trolley bag, the other clutching a red umbrella, the sole speck of colour in the greyness. Beyond the estate, in the misty distance, the North Sea brooded darkly – Thurso was the end of the line.
Lunchtime – the bell would soon herald the arrival of 5C – and already lights on in some of the houses. By three thirty, the sun, having most likely made no appearance all day, would have set. It wouldn’t rise again for another seventeen hours. They were on the same latitude as Juneau, the state capital of bloody Alaska. He wondered, not for the first time, whether homo sapiens had ever been meant to settle this far north. It was four hours on the train before you reached Inverness – although the journey would, of course, have been shorter had the line gone straight down the coast, rather than taking a huge looping detour inland. There were no towns there, but the nineteenth century landowners had only given permission to build the railway across their vast estates on condition it passed right by their homes and shooting lodges. The same families still owned some of those estates today, he knew. Just as he knew that you could walk from one coast of Scotland to the other without ever leaving private land.
He’d already had one with his lunch, following one at breakfast and another at morning break. A second at lunch was always pushing it. But he unscrewed the top of his flask and poured a precise half-cup into it anyway. Bells at the moment. Sometimes he’d have a single malt on the go – he favoured the Islay ones – but not so often these days. To an extent, it was a money thing. But blends did the job just as well and anyway, people did talk some pretentious arse about malts. He liked going downmarket just for the contrariness of it.
The second measure was prompted in part by the gloominess of the day. The winters were bloody hard. But he knew his mood was, as it could often be, a little … reckless. Perhaps today would be the day he’d finally cast caution to the wind. Bow out in a blaze of glory, in a liberating Victoria Falls of truth. It was, he felt, coming, for a’ that and a’ that. Might not today be as good a day as any? 5C as good a class?
He took a slurp of the Bells. His mum’s news last week – inoperable, they’d said – was one reason for the feeling of recklessness. Another was Mary and him coming across that charlatan Jack Lawrence, ‘Britain’s Favourite Historian’, on the telly last night, with the first programme in his new BBC series, ‘The Blitz: Britain Under Attack’. Safe-as-houses, feel-good, same-old-same-old ‘history’ from the Establishment’s choice. How about a BBC series, Jack, on the crimes of the British Empire? How about that? Just for a bit of balance?
He never reacted well to seeing Lawrence. As undergraduates together at Aberdeen he’d been the better historian but it was Lawrence who was the household name. And he who was – in his mid-forties, approaching what should have been the peak of his career – teaching history to secondary school kids in Thurso. As he’d been doing for eleven years now, since Mary landed a senior post at the council. ‘It won’t be forever,’ they’d told themselves.
For a long time, as he’d watched Lawrence’s career soar, he’d consoled himself that he was someone who didn’t swim with the tide, that he was more interested in how history might help change society than help promote himself, that he was, therefore, superior to Jack Lawrence. He no longer believed that.
On the other side of the deserted playground, Gordon Baird from 5C was sheltering under the gym block’s awning, sitting on the paving stones with that McColl lassie from fourth year. He was wearing a Rangers’ scarf – virtually all the boys seemed to support one of the two big Glasgow teams. Somewhere below his classroom, out of sight, someone briefly sang over at Baird a snatch of a Celtic song – ‘And if. You know. Your his-tory…’ Baird wearily lifted his arm and flicked a V-sign in the singer’s direction.
Baird’s father had been the one who’d complained. That was a couple of years ago, when Gordon’s older brother, Alex, was in his class. He’d been in the habit of veering off-script from time to time, of complementing the curriculum with, say, a quick account of the events in Glasgow in 1919 when Churchill sent tanks into George Square to crush a strike; or the Scottish insurrection of 1820; or the conditions of coal miners in the nineteenth century. Such deviations, from a traditional ‘British History Since 1689’ curriculum – one in which Scotland was mentioned twice – the Union and the Jacobites … such deviations had kept him sane. And the kids, who, of course, knew zero about any of what he was telling them, had seemed mildly interested – in itself an achievement.
Not how John Pilkington, the Head saw it. He’d been summoned to his office, where Pilkington, a conventional, remote, ambitious man, with horn-rimmed glasses and Brylcreemed hair, was bristling behind his desk. Pilkington impressed upon him that his job was to teach history as per the curriculum, ‘not to indoctrinate impressionable students with your own views.’
‘Mr Baird’s complaint is entirely reasonable,’ Pilkington said. ‘You really must avoid straying into the political.’
He’d found himself thinking of that wee booklet on the Clearances of Sutherland he’d produced years earlier, back in the days when he still did things like that, the days when he thought that, with a push and a shove, Power could be successfully challenged and society made better … Sutherland might have been the epicentre of the cleansing of people – including, it was safe to say, forebearers of some of today’s high school students – that had left the Highland glens deserted to this day. But you wouldn’t know it. Even large Clearance sites had no signs to indicate where they were – landowners weren’t keen to advertise what had happened there, not least because it was sometimes their ancestors who’d organised the cleansing. The tourist information centres had no leaflets on the subject. And, of course, the school history curriculum wasn’t troubled by a single reference to the Highland Clearances. Hence his booklet. And if. You know. Your his-tory. A booklet that, as it transpired, neither the local John Menzies nor any tourist information centre would touch, on the grounds that the subject was ‘political’. He still had a box of them in the attic.
He could have just apologised to Pilkington, reassured him that there would be no repeat. Instead, having had a couple of measures, he’d argued the toss and Pilkington had issued him with a formal warning.
So, no more going off-script. Instead he’d henceforth been a reliable delivery mechanism of the approved curriculum and nothing but the approved curriculum. And his soul had further rotted. He was not, as he’d once imagined, a part of the solution. He was, in fact, no different from Jack Lawrence. Just less successful.
Gordon Baird glancing at his watch and clambering to his feet stirred him into action. Five to two. Time gentlemen please.
He swallowed down the rest of the Bells, putting his flask back in his briefcase, taking a long drink from his water bottle and popping into his mouth a couple of strong mints – a clichéd but effective precaution. Aware of the tiny beads of whisky-infused sweat on his brow, he ran his hankie over his face. He was, he knew, buzzing from the booze. But in control, with a strange, glassy-eyed clarity. He took pride in being able to function in this sort of condition. As far as he knew, he’d long kept his drinking a secret from everyone apart from Mary. Even his daughter Rosa, now in sixth year at the high school, seemed unaware of the extent of it.
His thoughts turned to his ‘sermon’, as he’d come to think of it. Since Pilkington’s warning, the idea had grown gradually, like the building of a bonfire. Every time some snippet of tangential interest came to mind and he’d been obliged to bite his tongue, another pallet was flung onto the pile. When the spark was applied, the conflagration would be memorable.
He knew what he’d say. That what he was required to teach them was one version of the past, a safe version – history written by the victors, partial and propagandistic, a version reflected not just in the curriculum and books, but in street names and statues and the television news. That there were other versions, that history was contentious and political, that no take should be accepted without question. He’d talk to them about a history that hadn’t made it into the curriculum – their history, that of Sutherland, the Highlands, Scotland. He’d talk of the history of ordinary people rather than queens and generals and prime ministers. And he’d tell them of the things that had been done in their name, in places like India and Ireland, the crimes airbrushed away, crimes of a sort still being committed in their name today. His words would make them aware of the dangerous, liberating thing history could be – a message that would be reinforced by his being sacked for delivering it. And his words would, above all, free him, usher in a new, more honest existence, the shape of which was yet to be revealed.
The students piled noisily in, many of them saying, ‘Afternoon, Mr McNairn,’ pulling him back to the here and now, to reality. The sermon was, he was aware, a drunk’s fantasy, a coping mechanism, a game he played with himself – a dangerous game, it was true – teetering to the edge of the precipice and peering down at the distant but inviting water, and never jumping. His noble words would remain unspoken, for today and the foreseeable … for all the cowardly reasons he knew too well: Mary, Rosa, his mother, the lack, when all said and done, of practical options he would be left with, in Thurso, in Scotland. But he also knew that ‘the foreseeable’ didn’t mean ‘forever’. And that the whisky that regularly took him to the edge of the precipice might one day soon propel him over it, presenting him and everyone else with a fait accompli.
He found the thought consoling as he turned to the blackboard, wrote: ‘Disraeli and Gladstone: Opposing Forces’ and, switching on his autopilot, started the lesson.
About the Author
Neil Gordon Shaw is based in Edinburgh. His memoir, Beyond Grey, about three years spent in Poland in the early 1990s, has, in its unpublished form, won the Scottish Association of Writers Non-Fiction Book of the Year and the Moniack Mhor Travel Writing Award. Darkly comic, Beyond Grey interweaves two coming-of-age stories: that of an untravelled young Scot, calamitously out of his depth in a bleak and alien land; and that of Poland itself as it lurches from the grey poverty of Soviet-style communism towards the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Neil has recently completed a collection of short stories, provisionally entitled Goin Frit, Big Style, the title piece a loose 21st-century update of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. The current political context in the U.K. and, particularly, Scotland provides an oblique backdrop to some of the stories. While the subject matter of Goin Frit, Big Style is wide ranging, many of the stories in the collection touch on themes of power and its abuse, disillusion or disconnection. Neil’s work has been published in a number of journals, including Interpret magazine where his story, ‘Though the Heavens Fall’ was translated into French.