New Scotland Street Chapter 22: The desperation of Dan

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For Bertie, the realisation that his life was going to be better now that his mother had gone to Aberdeen came that second Saturday after her departure with a phone call from that northern quarter.

Stuart took the call, but was listened into by Bertie, who was in his room at the time reading Scouting for Boys. This book had been banned by Irene, who kept a list of off-limits publications almost as long as the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorium maintained by the Vatican until only a few decades ago. That index, of course, not only contained The Three Musketeers, but also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Irene would not have sought to have such reach in her censorship of Bertie’s reading matter, but her list certainly contained Baden-Powell’s useful treatise on how to use tracking skills in the bush, how to light a camp fire, and how to send signals from hilltop to hilltop by means of heliograph. It also contained many of the publications emanating from the Dundee fastness of Messrs DC Thomson, whose nose for what people want to read had long been an unerring one.

So it was that Bertie had been told that both the Beano and the Dandy were unwelcome in the house, as were any of the Commando comics that emerged from Dundee – those breathless recreations of the Second World War, full of shouts of Banzai! and Schweinhund! and peopled by square-jawed, salt-of-the- earth British NCOs.

Bertie had brought home a copy of the Dandy, loaned to him by Tofu on payment of twenty pence. “And you’d better return it the next day, Bertie,” Tofu had warned. “If you don’t, it’s fifty pence a day penalty. Every day, that is. Fifty pence. So you jolly well better remember.”

He was enjoying the adventures of Desperate Dan when Irene had pounced.

“That, Bertie,” she said, “is the most dreadful rubbish. What are those Thomson people thinking about?”

“But I love it, Mummy,” said Bertie. “Everybody does. There’s this man called Desperate Dan, you see, who eats cow pie and is really strong. Tofu says that he can tear telephone books in half with his bare hands.”

Irene paged through the confiscated comic. “Desperate Dan indeed,” she snorted. “A complete male stereotype. I ask you, Bertie! Really!” And underneath her breath she muttered, “Heteronormative too.”

“But he really is strong, Mummy. What’s wrong with being strong?”

Irene sighed. “Physical strength is often accompanied by the wrong attitudes, Bertie. I don’t expect you fully to understand that …” Irene was never one to split an infinitive – “But one day you will, Bertie, and you’ll thank Mummy for it.”

That was the end of the Dandy, and Bertie’s reading of such literature was thereafter confined to the school playground, where Tofu allowed him, for five pence a time, to read the comics that he bought at the newsagent’s in Bruntsfield. But now, with Irene’s move, a new post-censorship era had opened in Scotland Street, and Bertie was able to read Scouting for Boys openly as well peruse copies of the Beano rented from Tofu.

Nicola, who had stepped into Irene’s shoes on her departure, was perfectly relaxed about Bertie’s reading matter. She had discreetly disposed of an entire shelf of the works of Carl Gustav Jung and Melanie Klein that Irene had stored in Bertie’s room, and replaced them with the Babar books of Laurent de Brunhoff, the collected Secret Seven adventures in their original unbowdlerised editions, and the subtly anarchistic writings of Roald Dahl.

Bertie liked all of those, and when he asked after the fate of what had been there before, it was out of idle curiosity rather than regret.

“What did you do with all those books by Mr Jung?” he asked.

Nicola was evasive, but only slightly so. According to one way of looking at it, she had taken an unpardonable liberty in disposing of property that was quite clearly not her own, but according to another – the view that she took herself – she had simply uncluttered the room to make way for more pertinent content.

“I found a new home for those books, Bertie,” she said. “I’m sure Mummy would be happy to know that they’ve gone to that big charity book sale we have. They like getting books like that, Bertie. My friend, Mary Davidson, collects them and then sells them up in George Street – all for a very good cause, Bertie.”

“And that other friend of yours, Granny,” said Bertie. “Mr Holloway. I’ve seen him carrying boxes of books around the corner. Were those books by Mr Jung too do you think?”

“Possibly,” said Nicola. “This part of Edinburgh is full of books by Jung, I think.”

“What about Glasgow?” asked Bertie. “Is it full of books by Mr Jung too?”

“I doubt it,” said Nicola.

Later, listening to Nicola speaking on the phone in the hall, Bertie realised that what was being said meant freedom for him. There had been talk of Irene’s coming down from Aberdeen that weekend, but the one-sided conversation that Bertie now heard gave joyous warning that this visit would now not take place.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nicola. “But there we are. The boys will be disappointed, of course, but it gives them something to look forward to.”

There was silence as Irene, on the other end of the line in Aberdeen, responded.

Then Nicola again. “Of course, I’ll take him to yoga. Yes, yes. I know where it is.”

A further silence, broken at length by, “I shall pass that message on to Stuart. I believe he’s spoken to the psychotherapist.”


“Yes, carrots. Yes, definitely. I’ve puréed them and I did not put sugar in them. I never do.”

The conversation did not last long after that, and Bertie withdrew from the door where he had been eavesdropping. The important thing was not psychotherapy or carrots – it was the fact that his mother would not be coming down for the weekend. Edinburgh now lay before Bertie like a fabled, golden city. He had the whole weekend to do what he wanted to do. His grandmother would allow that – she always did. So he would accept the invitation that Ranald Braveheart Macpherson had extended to spend the day with him. He knew that his grandmother wanted to go to Valvona & Crolla, but that could be done before he went up to Ranald’s house. And she would get him panforte di Siena when they were there. She did not disapprove of panforte, nor of panatone. Oh, joy to be alive and to be free! Oh, joy! Oh, joy!