Stephen McGinty: History is not just what you read

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Books are essential to life but spend too much time with them and real life can pass you by, warns Stephen McGinty

Momentous times  such as 1066, 1707 or 1914  are what shape a nation. Picture: Getty

Allow me to make a confession, my relationship with books is complicated, difficult and, let me be clear, wildly promiscuous. I have never been a “one book” type of guy. In fact, I’ve only ever heard of one person who was a “one book type of guy’” and he was encountered in Drumchapel in the early 1970s by Robert, my friend’s father who collected insurance premiums for the Prudential. The chap was sitting by the fireside reading the Bible. When Robert attempted to make conversation by saying: “I see you’re reading the ‘Good book’,” he was quickly fixed with a steely glint and informed: “It’s the only book.”

For the past nine months there will have been many for whom the “only book’” has meant Scotland’s Future, the 626-page tome produced by the Scottish Government as a blueprint for an independent Scotland.

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Yet for me the past year has meant an excavation into Britain and Scotland’s past and the compilation of a “Referendum Reading List” which, now that it has no bearing on the outcome, I’ll happily share with you. It was back in January that I first decided to swing my feet up on to the desk each lunchtime and accompany my tuna sandwiches with Simon Schama’s three volume A History of Britain.

Now, I know this may have been a controversial choice given how little Scotland actually appears in the pages, only when impacting directly on England, but: a) the hardbacks had been sitting on my shelf unread for almost a decade; b) Schama had taken the trouble to sign volume three: “To Stephen, with thanks for a great conversation”; and c) I wanted to experience the great tidal flow of five thousand years of British history from Skara Brae to the Millennium Dome through a single eloquent voice; and d) I figured we could hang out together for 1,600 pages.

I was wrong, but don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t him, it was me.

After two volumes and 1,000 pages, my eye was beginning to wander, I was beginning to hanker after the rain and heather of home and so thought: “I’ll nip off with Magnus Magnusson”.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation is only 734 pages in my paperback edition. I’ll read it up until the Act of Union in 1707, then nip back to A History of Britain Volume Three. Schama will never know I’ve even been gone. So I began taking Magnus to lunch and he re-educated me on the formation of Scotland, our medieval history and quite how French was the background of Robert the Bruce and his family.

But then came the long slog through the late 14th and 15th century and even though I kept thinking a few more chapters and we’ll be at the gothic horror of Mary, Queen of Scots, I slipped in a book mark and slipped off to wander through the brilliance of 18th century Edinburgh in the company of Arthur Herman’s book The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots Invention of the Modern World. One forgets the extraordinary influence of David Hume and Adam Smith and how the Scots truly grasped the opportunity of the Union and quickly scattered across the Empire.

But this only led me to Michael Fry’s book A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815 - 1914 and the pioneers who struggled to bring clean water to Glasgow.

Every book appeared to split in two and prompt me to seek out another, for Fry’s tome led directly to Andrew Marr’s re-issue of The Battle For Scotland, which made me feel both old and young as I remember being sent the proofs of the first edition in 1992 when I was young reporter on the Motherwell People and writing book reviews for the Herald in my spare time.

Thankfully, back then, a wiser head cast the crucial critical eye, but 20 years on I devoured Marr’s book on the early years of nationalism and how Hugh MacDiarmid was evicted from the communists for being too nationalist and from the nationalists for being too communist. Then I realised I’d have to read Stone Voices: The Search For Scotland, Neal Ascherson’s meditation on the nation written at the time of the devolution debate and updated for the referendum campaign.

For most of this year my head has been swirling with galloping horses and ancient stones, castles and kings, treaties and adventures, falling soldiers and speeches that echoed out from shipyards on the River Clyde and drifted around the world. I wanted to ground myself in both British and Scottish history before I decided if indeed it was time to pull them apart, but now all I can remember is what I didn’t learn, which is that our national animal, the unicorn, doesn’t even exist and that when not debating whether to sign an Act of Union with England, our parliamentarians in 1707 were considering making salt workers serfs.

Yet looking back I think I made a mistake. I think that I subconsciously built a barrier between myself and the here and now, each book was a brick in a towering wall of the past which blocked out the view of the present and the dynamism on the streets, in the bars and in that strangely tangible online sphere. For the last few days have given me an insight into the events of the past, of what it must have felt like to be in Edinburgh in 1707 or southern England in 1066 or anywhere in 1914, any date when change felt imminent, both exciting and fearful, when every conversation was dominated by the one subject and one could feel the very ground tremble beneath one’s feet.

It is one thing to read about it in a history book and quite another to feel it on the streets as one walks to work.

John Lennon said that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, but life is also what happens when you’re busy reading books.