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Reimagining Fife (December 2009)

There are some places, R L Stevenson wrote, that seem there to attract stories. This one is about civic and ultimately political imagination, and peninsulae don’t come any more imaginative than one that considers itself a Kingdom.  Suppose that there’s something more than a literary conceit here, and that – in a country ruled by an amalgam of literary and political convention – Fife’s ‘force-fields’ are particularly fricative?

Kirkcaldy’s Gordon Brown talks much about douce Adam Smith, but Smith was also a rhetorician, a creator of a fictional factory more famous than Wedgewood’s Etruria or Ford’s Dearborn. Did that pin factory ever exist? Or was it a rhetorical folly – in the eighteenth century sense? And a virtual one – in ours? But there it is: maybe 40% proof but an industrial spirit!

Suppose we start at Ravenscraig Castle, louring down on where Kirkcaldy becomes Dysart. Dark, drum-like, almost out of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, and built in 1460 on the same principle: to deploy and deflect artillery.  James II built it only seven years after the fall of Christian Constantinople to the cannon-rich Turks. Its bombards, the first ‘weapons of mass destruction’, could sink a ship two miles off. A politics of mailed fist rather than invisible hand?

Visceral Fife was more recognisable to Smith’s realist friend Adam Ferguson of Raith, the mansion on the hill. Thomas Carlyle – in some ways a Fergusonian and in 1816-18 master at Kirkcaldy High School – thought ‘Gunpowder, Protestantism and Printing’ changed the renaissance world and the economy of Scotland. Fife’s coast recalls the new land and mind. Think about Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ – the ploughman and shepherds high on the cliff-meadow, and Auden on

… the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

A world of force and magic – money as treasure and fantasy – reaches out through force, romance and history, giving  Fife an eerie, displaced identity, contradicting Smithian simplicities, opening new boxes. Revisit fin-de-siecle Kirkcaldy, a bijou Cardiff with its cathedral-size St Bryce’s Kirk, ensemble of museum, college and  town house (neo-classical) concert hall and police headquarters (baroque), sheriff court (Scots baronial) and hotel (art nouveau). Michael Portillo, of the Blyths of this parish, who owned a linen works and donated Glasgow Boys, William MacTaggart, the Scottish Colourists – to the Gallery the Nairn family  built. To that clan belongs Professor Tom Nairn, intellectual historian, disturber of the Scottish peace, Brown’s protégé in Red Paper days, turned the fiercest of his critics, lobbing missiles from the Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Adam Smith, as with factories, is fantasy-epical on trade: his conjectural history quite close to the creation-myth of the Scots, in the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320: a Levantine migration akin to the Scythian. When they arrived they magicked pawky cartels in hours of ‘merriment and diversion’, hoicking up prices. Smith speculated thus after viewing Langtonian shopkeepers and skippers on the links, or as ‘drouthy neebors’ in their taverns,  attested to by his disciple Robert Burns on his only visit in 1787:

Up wi’ the carls o’ Dysart,
And the lads o’ Buckhiven,
And the kimmers o’ Largo,
An’ the lasses o’ Leven.

Hey ca’ thro’, ca’ thro’
For we hae mickle a do. (repeat)

We hae tales to tell,
An we hae sangs to sing:
We hae pennies to spend,
And we hae pints to bring.

This endured in the democratic schoolteaching of R. F. MacKenzie (1910-1984), Kirkcaldy’s radical headmaster, disciple of A S Neill and dominie to the young Paul Foot when he was on the Daily Record in its literate days: ‘His passionate faith was that everyone mattered, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged, and that everyone was capable of understanding and enjoying what makes human life worthwhile.’

The Kingdom’s history was always insistent: the place is packed with Europe. At Kinghorn in 1285 Alexander III broke his neck, precipitating the succession crisis, the French alliance and Edward I’s invasion that would for 275 years drive Scotland and England apart and complicate the latter’s evolution. This left a short epitaph, bitter and complex, Scotland’s first great poem:

When Alexander our king was ded
Who Scotland led in lauch and le,
Away was sonst of meat and bread
Of yill and wax, of gamyn and of gle.
Our gold was turned into lead.
Oh Christ concievit in infirmitie,
Succour Scotland and remeid
That steyit is in perplexitie.

On a peninsula, off the Berwick-Stirling route that English invasions tended to follow, Fife became a regal, clerical redoubt, with the palaces at Dunfermline and Falkland, Cathedral and University at St Andrews: nurturing that Stewart overreach of the ‘Crowne Imperiall’. Trade, with its inflected routes, brought in Protestantism, the destruction of Cardinal Beatoun, the Marian exiles, among them Knox. The University consumed the old Cathedral. In Burntisland’s new kirk in 1601 James VI, his southern inheritance in view, commissioned the translation of the Bible which would unite his realms culturally. Balgonie castle was the seat of Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, Field Marshal in the armies of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden which branded Germany in the Thirty Years War after 1618, then plotted the moves which ended the dictatorship of Charles I in 1641.

Mary Shelley, daughter of anarchist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, holidayed in Balgonie as  teenager and elderly lady, with the Baxter and Stuart families, and Kirkcaldy is twinned with Bavarian Ingolstadt, where her doomed supermedic Dr Frankenstein studied. In The Last Man she took the human race to its ultimate conclusion. Doom followed another innovator: Thomas Bouch, builder of the world’s first commercial train ferry connecting Burntisland and Granton in 1848, whose  reputation crashed with the Tay Bridge in 1879

Largo produced Alexander Selkirk, the thrawn Scots sailor made over by Daniel Defoe as Robinson Crusoe, prototype economic man: almost a metaphor from Hobbes’s ‘great mechanical man called the state, famous amongst all the beasts of the earth for pride’ carried on by Bentham and Marx, and figuring at the back of  Alastair Gray’s camera-obscura view of central Scotland in Lanark (1982). Gray echoed Patrick Geddes, reared in Perth, who got his first chance as a town planner from Carnegie in Dunfermline. Geddes would have approved of Gray’s alternative to the nation-state – a commonwealth of small socialist republics, trading with each other. This also had Fife origins through Professor James Lorimer, creator of the ‘democratic intellect’ of the Scottish universities and their elected rectors, first advocate of a European Federation in 1884, and father of the vernacular revivalist Sir Robert Lorimer.

Economics, artillery, science fiction, European federalism, survival – a bit different from Edinburgh over there – based on a post-railway generation of payoff consumer-goods industries: wool, paper, canvas, steam-milled flour, distilleries, Wemyss pottery with its floral cats and pigs. Most notably the linoleum made after 1877 (partly the work of Michael Nairn’s astute and businesslike widow Catherine: Mary Shelley would have approved) from jute, cork and linseed oil, the ‘queer-like smell’ of which can still be caught from the one surviving, Zurich-owned, works.

Another local minister’s son was more attuned to the ramifications of capitalist imperialism. Ravenscraig figures twice in the novels of John Buchan, whose father had the charge of Pathhead Free Kirk. On Kirkcaple beach John Laputa danced before his African gods at the opening of Prester John (1908): the ‘Black General’ who would prefigure Nelson Mandela, maybe Barak Obama. Ravenscraig’s owner, the Earl of Dysart and Huntingtower (1923),  christened another Buchan adventure, introducing the Gorbals Diehards, sworn foes of meliorism:

Class-conscious we are and class-conscious we stay,
Till oor fit’s on the neck o’ the boorjwazay!

The Tory Buchan argued that there were things worse than communism: the sheer illegality released by the utopianism of the Bolsheviks.  He put this in the words of Princess Saskia, oddly prefiguring Gordon Brown’s own involvement with the pretender to the Roumanian throne and the tides of Russian, oligarch-extorted wealth that after 1989-91 would tear through a future London. ‘Wild capitalism’ would be observed, ironically enough, by another Fife ex-lefty, John Lloyd of the Financial Times, though when he tried to interest Brown in Lampedusa’s great novel about political decay, The Leopard  (1957), Lloyd drew a complete blank.

Big money, anyone? Canvassing Kirkcaldy in 2007 I found that Sir Michael Snyder of Kingston Smith, Finance and Resources boss of the City of London until 2007, owned a Fife house, convenient for golf at St Andrews – and for chats with the Chancellor? Big money holds out in landward Fife in classical mansions and converted tower-houses, yet its drive features in the transatlantic ‘best-seller’ art of the miner’s son Jack Vettriano. Like Edward Hopper, but on the wing: hotels and beaches, girls staring into cocktails, men staring at girls. Everywhere mobility, desire, discontent, to be assuaged by sex, cars or cash.

Sometime in the 1890s four young Liberal MPs climbed Raith Hill. ‘What a grateful thought,’ said Augustine Birrell to H H Asquith, R B Haldane and Ronald Munro-Ferguson (Kirkcaldy), laird of Raith, ‘that there is not an acre in this vast and varied landscape that is not represented at Westminster by a London barrister.’ Haldane (East Lothian) reorganised the British Army for a war-service competence unsuspected by Germany. Asquith (East Fife) broke the power of the Lords. Birrell (West Fife) ignored the Irish enragés who in Easter 1916 started wrecking the British Empire.

Thanks to the Forth Bridge (1890), seven miles west, you could step on the midnight sleeping car at Kirkcaldy or Inverkeithing, and wake up in London, then as now.

But by the 1990s the burghs had long conceded to Glenrothes: a New Town intended to serve a calamitous coal mine, the seat of Fife Council, ‘The People’s Republic’. By 2007 coal, shipyards, railways, linoleum, paper, even computers, had walked. The Silicon Glen clearances left the eerie bulk of an unopened Toshiba factory. Council and Fife NHS together made up 20% of jobs.

BiFab at Burntisland and Methil has done well in offshore wind power; Diageo at Cameron Bridge next to Lord Leven’s Balgonie, has the UK’s biggest distillery (romantic as an oil refinery) producing Smirnoff Vodka and Gordon’s Gin, in stills from Clerkenwell dating from William Hogarth’s day. Otherwise Fifers went over the bridge to Edinburgh’s commercial exurbia, sprawling west of the City and dominated by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s new campus at Gogar:

We hae cold calls to make,
An’ we hae shelves to stack,
We hae burgers tae flip
An’ we hae wars tae fight!

Plenty of young Langtonians could only get a respected job by enlisting in the Black Watch. Gregory Burke interviewed a selection and crafted a drama-documentary for the new National Theatre of Scotland, where the scene shifted from local pubs to the desert war. Critics found “a relentless energy … a potent reminder of the prime of life, so quickly transformed into death, severe physical or mental injury’

But what would Adam Smith himself, that kindly, pacific soul, have made of it all, Had industry and post-industry left the Fifers wiser than Defoe's Robinson Crusoe? “When asked about their interactions with the population a soldier reacts with surprise: ‘Whit the fuck hiv the Iraqis got tae fuckin dae wi anythin’?”

St Andrews in the 1900s was tiny: lived by selling women degrees Oxford and Cambridge wouldn’t give them. Jennie Lee founded something much larger, the Open University. The wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the NHS, was of  the ‘Little Moscows’: Lumphinnans, Kelty, Lochgelly, Lochore: mining villages with their libraries, municipal Lenins, once-grand co-op stores, even co-op pubs, the famous Goths. From 1935 to 1951 they returned the UK’s one Communist MP, Willie Gallacher. The mines ended with the strike of 1984-5, and with them an eloquent blend  of socialism and Scottish nationalism in Lawrence Daly, Communist until 1956 and General Secretary 1968-1982 of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose Fife Socialist League backed Home Rule early on. But in the 1990s Daly, shattered by a car accident which killed his closest relatives, far from home, drinking heavily – simply leaked out of history. He died after ten years of Alzheimer’s in May 2009. In a touching memorial address, Gordon Brown remembered the 1973 three-day-week tale of Daly reciting on Euston platform the whole of Act I Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to his union general council. Cassius wins Brutus to the conspiracy, and Daly played all the voices.

The People’s Republic rescued Brown in the Glenrothes by-election in November 2008, when he seemed internationally the  fireman against economic conflagration, but domestically a burnt-out case.  His economics disturbed Fife at both ends of the scale. Lochgelly became in 2007 'the number one property investment location in the UK': the grim ex-mining community was the last town with average house prices under £100,000. They rose  36% . The property boom had either conquered poverty, or passed beyond rationality.

Recover from that? By returning to Ravenscraig Castle and its WMDs? Rosyth housed Dreadnoughts, then broke them up. In 1993 it was to become the refitting base for Britain’s four ‘Trident’ missile submarines. The contract went for political reasons to Devonport. In 2006 Brown decided on a second Trident generation, and two 65,000 ton aircraft carriers at £5 billion: to be built in sections on the Clyde and at Barrow and welded together at Rosyth. Trident might cost £65 billion over 30 years, when the defence budget couldn’t sustain troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. The major driver was BAe: power-politics at its least restrained. Its lucrative trade haunted Brown in early 2009, with ex-ministers turning lobbyists. Then greedy Cityboys and gullible Scots did for the Dunfermline Building Society, Scotland's biggest, on 29 March 2009.

Fife is semi-detached from Edinburgh. The Firth sunders and binds. The Borders, over the Moorfoots, are hours away and closing the gap by a new railway – in any European country a no-brainer – has to be fought for every week. Fife remains civic and at least potentially united: the bequest of the Kingdom. Near to Edinburgh and nearer with decent sea-links (another no-brainer) – it also looks out to Europe: practically and enduringly, if the ferry from Rosyth to Zeebrugge succeeds.

Let’s think of Fife as a Kingdom and develop it as such. Attract Edinburgh ministries: make the Merchant’s House on Kirkcaldy Quay the HQ of Scotland’s European activities. Do we need a new road bridge – just before Peak Oil – or a high-speed rail route through the Kingdom, with tram-trains running from Dundee and St Andrews and Levenmouth to Stirling and the Central Belt? Our Kingdom must outlast the motor-car.

Think Holland, think Denmark, then re-imagine Fife. You get this European sense in our recent writing: Tom Hubbard’s Marie B, on the young Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff (otherwise a few random lines in Eliot’s The Waste Land), standing for  the realist moment in European (and particularly Scots) painting, Hubbard capturing this by using Braid Scots for the working people whom Marie wanted to portray. George Simenon’s sympathy (common to him and Adam Smith) is evident here. More obliquely in the ‘procedurals’ of Ian Rankin, though displaced by setting thrillers in Edinburgh with Glasgow villains: Rankinland comes dangerously close to Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘fourth sector’: that strange economy which coexists with the velvet breeks and silk hose of Speaker Martin in Glasgow North-East, but seems at least less obtrusive here. If we have a lot of reforming to do, Fife seems the place to start.

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