Book reviews: The Liberty Tree | Revival

A contemporary sketch of Thomas Muir. Picture: Complimentary
A contemporary sketch of Thomas Muir. Picture: Complimentary
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IN THE leafy surroundings of London’s Belgravia Square, just around the corner from that convivial stamping-ground for deracinated Scots, the Caledonian Club, stands a silent colloquium of South American political liberators. Statues of Simón Bolivar and José de San Martin look across the grass, frozen in stone.

The Liberty Tree – The Stirring Story of Thomas Muir And Scotland’s First Fight For Democracy

Murray Armstrong

Word Power Books, £11.99

In 2010, the Scottish Parliament was presented with a petition calling for a sculpture to the Scottish political activist, democrat and agitator Thomas Muir to be erected in the vicinity of Holyrood. In the petition, Muir was described as the “founding father of modern Scottish Democracy”.

There is something of the glamour of a South American revolutionary about Muir. He was a contemporary of Robert Burns, a gifted student who graduated from Glasgow with an MA aged 17 and became a member of the Faculty of Advocates. Swept up in a radical democratic movement which reacted partly to Scotland’s domestic “management” by a corrupt political class, and drew its rhetoric and internationalism from revolution in France, he became a kind of international revolutionary, travelling to Dublin in support of the United Irishmen, being deported to Australia, escaping to America and finally dying in exile in France at the age of 33. Bold, young, radical: international reputations have been built on much less.

Scotland has made little of him: the nearest thing Edinburgh has to a statue is the 90-foot obelisk to the Scottish Martyrs that stands in the Old Calton Burial Ground on Calton Hill.

In preparation for a new monument, Sandy Stoddart the Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland has already made a bust of Muir, his left eye covered by a bandage, the bronze of which sits in Old Parliament House in Canberra.

In place of monuments of stone or marble, Muir has been commemorated in prose. Since the 1970s there have been biographical studies by the historian Michael Donnelly and Hector MacMillan. The songwriter Adam McNaughton wrote a song about Muir, recorded by Dick Gaughan, and recently Olly Wyatt has written a historical novel, The Democrat, about his life.

The Liberty Tree, by Murray Armstrong, is a historical novel about Muir which the author refers to, fairly, as a “reconstructed narrative”, which draws on Muir scholarship and imagination to tell the compelling story of Muir’s trajectory as radical, agitator and democratic hero.

It is a sign of Muir’s potency as a symbol as well as a leader that he has spawned his fair share of myths. In his first biography, written by Peter Mackenzie and published in 1831, Muir is described as being shipwrecked off Newfoundland, and walking 4,000 miles to Panama City, where he was sent by ship to Spain. Armstrong makes quick and easy work of such stuff.

Muir’s journey occurred in a period in which Scotland was in upheaval. Deep currents of democratic thought were challenging the established order. There were calls for annual democratic elections. Within a few months, Friends of the People, Muir’s campaigning organisation, grew from a meeting in an Edinburgh pub to a national movement.

Armstrong aims to draw a clear parallel with today and argues in his introduction that Muir would recognise much of the recent political debate that has occurred in Scotland.

This book is clearly a labour of love, which works mostly in its favour. It has been deeply researched and considered, and the author pays the reader the compliment of detailed and thoughtful footnotes and a helpful bibliography.

As a historical novel it leans a little heavily on the historical background. Sometimes the level of research can act against the drama of individual scenes. Characters are often introduced with a welter of description about their backgrounds and a list of their previous (and later) publications.

The dominant figure is Muir, and if there is one criticism, it is that Armstrong tends to give Muir the benefit of the doubt, most noticeably as the remarkable story comes to its end. Muir is in France, sick and shortly to die, but still trying to drum up French support for a democratic uprising in Britain. In an October submission to Talleyrand he seems to assert that a French invasionary force could count on the support of 50,000 Highlanders. Most historians see this promise as a result of Muir’s failing grip on reality. Armstrong counters: “Unlike the historian, who weighs the available evidence to reach a conclusion, the political activist weighs risks according to partial information and takes gambles. Outcomes are never certain.”

“If only” is a very Scottish response to history, but had things turned out differently for Muir and his fellow “Political Martyrs” then it is not hard to imagine Muir, the visionary lawyer, democrat and activist as a full member of the pantheon of Scottish national heroes – even, who knows, as a statue. David Stenhouse

Men Explain Things To Me And Other Essays

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, £12.99

THE title essay of this collection coined – though it did not use – the term “mansplaining”. It is, however, more important than its role in a trending topic. It would be lazy to call this collection of works simply “feminist”, as Solnit’s real subject is violence, its endemic nature, its political force and its unbelievable ubiquity: a rape is reported once every 6.2 minutes in the United States. Who knows how much smaller that fragment of time would be if the committed but not reported acts of sexual violence were included.

But a female approach to these questions is the thread that binds the book; from her excellent essay on Virginia Woolf and the bravery of uncertainty to Grandmother Spider, which sets the patriarchal chain of begats against a matrilinear web of connection, mirroring its own topic in weaving between the art of Ana Teresa Fernández to the burqa and niqab to los desaparecidos in Argentina’s “dirty war”, to a brilliant critique of how the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case was not just about an elderly lecherous Frenchman and a hotel cleaner born outside of the First World, but a personal microcosm of international systemic arrogances, privileges and exploitations. If anyone raises an eyebrow that I used the word “weaving” – a distinctly distaff term – above, I’d note that we get the word text from the verb texere, meaning to weave.

The book does weave, in that certain concerns, statistics and examples – such as the hideous rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi – bob in and out of the various essays. But it’s worth pointing out that it’s worth pointing out such things, and that they should be pointed out insistently, even repetitively. The world cannot be changed by a whisper.

As with Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project, that archive of obscene boorishness, Solnit is aware that feminism is not about taking power away from men, it’s about empowering men as well. Solnit wisely points out that observing that most violence against women is perpetrated by men is not the same as saying all men are inherently violent. Were I a publisher, I’d be commissioning something not called “How To Be A Feminist, Chaps” but “How Not To Be Gigantic, Boring, Loveless, Spineless, Graceless Idiotic Brute And Criminal”.

But this is a book review, not a call to arms, and what has always impressed me in Solnit’s writing is the simple cadence and timbre of a sentence, a paragraph, the way a whole essay lilts and skips. She is not one of the most important female essayists of her generation. She is one of the most important essayists of her generation. This pamphlet-esque book has all the qualities of a great pamphlet – it is incendiary, it is indignant, and it is true. Stuart Kelly

Revival

Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton, £20.00

WHEN Stephen King is not pounding out a book or two a year he likes to speed around the back roads of Maine on a Harley Davidson like an honorary member of the Sons Of Anarchy or play rhythm guitar in The Rock Bottom Remainders. The band comprises authors all anxious to exchange their studies and deadlines for amp stacks and the open stage.

Revival, his second novel of 2014 after spring’s Mr Mercedes, dissects the lure of rock’n’roll through Jamie Morton, a competent guitar player shuffling from band to band and picking up a nasty heroin habit along the way. Salvation and liberation from the chemical monkey on his back come in the form of his old childhood preacher Charles Jacobs, whose fascination with electricity and the dark wonders it can achieve has led him down a very twisted and ill-lit path.

Faith has run like a current through so much of King’s canon, but in Revival he focuses not on what it can achieve but the ruin that comes for some with its evaporation. In a touching, heartbreaking first section, we see Jacobs through the eyes of a young Morton, as his small town’s new preacher, complete with a beautiful young wife and adorable little boy. When the Rev’s loved ones are killed in a car crash, his belief dies with them, and the following Sunday he embarks on a self-destructive sermon: “Millions have been burned, shot, hung, racked, poisoned, electrocuted… all in God’s name.”

Jacobs exchanges wooden churches for tented circuses as a “healer” who uses electricity with sometimes fatal effects for the “cured”, and when Morton’s childhood sweetheart seeks his help, the guitar player has no choice but to follow the current wherever it leads. Revival is King enjoying the spotlight and picking out a haunting, bitter-sweet melody while casting the occasional nod to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Mr Electrico. This may be his ode to the Rock Bottom Remainders, but it reads with the pace of a speeding Harley. Stephen McGinty