kenny hodgart

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The fly in Salmond’s ointment

Around the world this evening, as happens every year on January 25, Scots and others laying claim to Scottish ancestry will set themselves to the task of eating as much haggis as they can and celebrating the country’s national poet, Robert Burns. The enthusiasm for his works may well be genuine, but the tradition also owes much to a self-serving cult of personality that grew up around him from the 19th Century onwards.

These days Scotland has its very own symposiarch for these things: the First Minister of its devolved assembly, Alex Salmond, is a past master when it comes to massaging his compatriots’ vanity; and perhaps most lauded of all his populist turns has been his ability seemingly to set the running in British politics over the last year or so. Quarrels with the UK government are his meat and drink and ever since his Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won a majority in last year’s Scottish elections pledging to hold a referendum on full Scottish independence he has had London nervously dancing to his tune.

There is one slight problem, however. Despite unprecedented support for the SNP at the ballot box, pro-independence sentiment in the polls is the same as it has been for years: only around 25-30 per cent.

It is easy to see how decades of mismanagement of Scotland’s economic affairs and deafness to calls for constitutional reform by successive centralising Labour and Conservative UK governments have fuelled the growth of Scottish nationalism and the rise of the party that champions it. Nowhere was the policy of “managed decline” more evident than in post-war Scotland, and when oil was discovered in the North Sea it was used to prop up the government’s balance of payments without a thought for how it might have transformed the Scottish economy.

But then Scotland was let down, too, throughout the 20th Century by the failure of its own industrialists to innovate and invest in new technology and ways of doing things. And unfortunately the SNP, in power in the Scottish Parliament since 2007, has shown little sign of challenging the entrenched complacency of a top-down civil and political culture. It has been happy enough to play heir apparent to an existing hierarchical client state, done nothing to upset or confront a bloated public sector and even shown a nasty, authoritarian streak in its legislative impulses.

Where the SNP has been successful is in mobilising ill-feeling towards ideas of Britain and Britishness. In its version of history the Treaty of Union was the midwife of a form of colonial oppression visited on Scotland itself. In reality, within a generation of the Treaty’s passing Scotland had one of the most advanced commercial cultures in the world. And not only would Scots play a paramount role in the building of Britain’s empire but Scottish writers and intellectual heavyweights from David Hume and Adam Smith to Thomas Carlyle and Robert Louis Stevenson significantly shaped Britain’s idea of itself and its island story.

Sections of the Scottish nationalist movement would seem to prefer invoking Anglo-Scottish wars dating back 500 years and more. It’s all stirring stuff, and as entertaining in its way as the First Minister’s chutzpah. But when it comes down to a straight “yes” or “no”, it seems likely that those obstinate poll numbers reflect a genuine residual preference for Union and a reluctance among Scots to make themselves foreign to their closest neighbours and allies.


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Henry Chinaski’s hangovers

This article appeared on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

In committing to print any tribute to Henry Chinaski – the dissipated, rather-more-than-semi-autobiographical anti-hero of Post Office and several other novels by Charles Bukowski – one is faced with two options. The first is to leave the page blank and let the editor explain that the writer was indisposed due to a hangover. The second is to follow Chinaski’s example when he does turn up for work and slog it out, toiling and cursing, cheap liquor oozing from every pore.

So let’s not pay tribute to Chinaski. He has his hagiographers but Bukowski isn’t among them. His characterisation is marinaded in self-loathing; there’s too much hurt and cynicism in him for Chinaski to be in any way laudable. Deadbeats are romanticised in American life from Big Sur to The Big Lebowski, but with Bukowski it’s all too raw. A child of German immigrants to Los Angeles between the wars he was a misfit from a young age. He had chronic acne. His father was abusive. In his early teens he discovered drinking: “This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time,” he later recalled. Failing to make it as a writer as a young man, he grew disillusioned and became “a ten-year drunk”, which “lost years” later provided the inspiration for most of his books.

The irony, then, is that unlike Chinaski Bukowski made rather a success of things in the end, but you would have to say it was probably because of rather than despite his love of booze. Alcohol is his muse. It fuels his puckishly dyspeptic view of the world.

Much of Post Office is about the drudgery of work. It covers the period of Bukowski’s own life when he worked as a mail carrier and later a mail clerk, with an interregnum when he gambled on horses. In the novel the US Postal Service is populated entirely by jobsworths, petty bureaucrats and sadistic supervisors; the part of the American dream about bettering oneself through honest sweat gets a literary pulverising. And yet, tempting as it may be to see Bukowski as some kind of champion of the lumpen proletariat, that’s not quite it. Work truly is the curse of the drinking classes in his world. Chinaski drinks when he has a job and when he doesn’t. There is a new hangover roughly every four pages.

Along the way we meet the tragic Betty, a widowed alcoholic 11 years Chinaski’s senior who is based on the love of Bukowski’s life, Jane Cooney Baker, and Joyce, who stands in for Barbara Frye, his first wife, and who is portrayed as a nymphomaniac. Frye divorced him on grounds of “mental cruelty”, which is an apt description of what Chinaski subjects himself to on a daily basis. The problem is that despite being a bum and having next to no redeeming features, he is a uniquely captivating bum. It can rarely be said of man nor woman, but Bukowski’s drinking did the world a service.