Book Review: And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Since moving to Scotland I haven’t done quite as much reading (we’ve had a busy first ten months here).  However, I was recommended “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson, a Scottish author, in order to better understand Scottish culture, the Scottish psyche, and the context surrounding Scotland’s current drive for independance in 2014.

For the Americans (non-UKers) reading this, Scotland is currently debating seccession from the United Kingdom.  It’s a complicated issue spurred along by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a once-fringe political party that started in the thirties.   Having succeeded in winning control of Scottish paliament, their attention has now turned to scheduling a referendum in 2014.  This will be the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, one of the greatest victories in the First War of Scottish Independence.  You’ll remember this battle as the last scene in Braveheart where Robert the Bruce rallies the troops in William Wallace’s memory and charges down the hill.

Braveheart has been labeled one of the most innacurate movies of all time, but this battle was truly epic.  The English had assembled a “grand feudal army, one of the last of its kind of leave England in the Middle Ages,” which consisted of 2-3,000 horse, and 16,000 foot soldiers.  The Scots had two to three times fewer men.  During the battle, “one of the most memorable episodes in Scottish history” occured when a fully armored English knight astride a great war horse saw Robert the Bruce in the field and charged him.  The Scottish king was on a small palfrey, unarmored, and had only a battle axe, but he stood his ground against the charge, and hit the knight so hard with his battle axe that he “split his helmet and head in two”.  This battlefield event ignited the watching Scot army and spurred them to victory.  While the King was rebuked by his commanders for riding out in the thick of battle in such a dangerous fashion, he claimed that his only regret was that he had broken his axe due to the force of the blow.  Today the Scottish national anthem “Flower of Scotland” refers to this victory.

Even against this incredible backdrop, and despite current prevailing Scottish attitudes towards the English, were the vote to be held today, a majority would vote for remaining within the United Kingdom.  The almost continuous history of conflict between the two nations notwithstanding, there is a deep aversion to independance that prevails, and the SNP now finds itself as the majority party trying to navigate between its demands for a referendum and the realities of current polling data.

Back to the book.

This is a beautifully written book, and it’s no surprise given the author’s background as a poet who studied the literature of Sir Walter Scot at the University of Edinburgh.  He paints a surreal cast of characters that are situated against a tapestry of modern Scottish history spanning from the nineteen fifties to present day.  His descriptions and prose are well suited to the heavyweight themes that he deals with, and I found myself intrigued that an author of this quality could be a virtual unknown in the States.

This is a difficult book to read, with many difficult characters, plot points, and no real resolution.  You’re taken on a trip of exploration through the psyche of a nation that’s been torn by war for thousands of years, (not fully) reconciled for hundreds, and now finds that reconciliation starting to fray around the edges.  And yet, if you were to pick this book up with the expectation of it taking you step by step through the arguments, and the background, and the history, you’d be misled – this book is about Scotland and its independence but you have to look through the lens of the characters and the last fifty years, and many questions are left unanswered.

The book takes you from character to character along the last sixty years of Scotland’s history, touching on many different political events and trends that were foreign to me, and I found myself quite often researching the instances.  The coal miner’s strike.  Closing of the shipyards in Glasgow.  The poll tax.  The questionable death of an SNP party member.  The theft of the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone).  Council houses.  The problem of drugs.  Immigration of foreigners. Scottish attitudes towards homsexuality.

This was an extremely moving book for someone with (however remote) Scottish heritage.  There was something about the underlying sorrow that runs through the stories, history, and characters that tugged at me while reading, and I finished the book in roughly a week, despite its length.

This is not a book I’d recommend unless you’re ready for a tough time, introspection, uncomfortable topics, dark characters, and a less than clear conclusion.

Ultimately, I feel like this is an important book for those wanting to learn more about what makes up this ancient country and what still influences it today.  It hints at what conspires within its people to produce so many great things yet be so self critical and pessimistic.  Don’t expect an easy ride – but it will be beautiful, sorrowful, touching, and memorable, if not a little wistful.

Martin Jacques TED Talk on China’s Economic Rise

This is a great talk and synopsis of Martin’s fabulously well researched book “When China Rules the World” which I reviewed a couple years ago on this blog.  If you’re not up for reading the 500+ page book, this is a good way to get the gist, and it’s updated with some post-financial crisis analysis.

His fundamental argument is against the conventional thought that when a country modernises it also westernises and that we can’t use Western ideas and thoughts to frame China when attempting to make sense of it.

Book Review: Twilight in the Forbidden City

It’s hard to find good books on China.  Most writings on China suffer from the author just not having lived there long enough.  The Chinese culture really can’t be skimmed – you have to marinate in it.  For a long time.  The language barrier can be very real, and while modern China has a feeling of openness and transparency that eminates from the coastal cities and it’s younger working class, the real China lays hidden behing many layers that most foreigners just can’t get through.

Twilight in the Forbidden City was written by a Scottish academic named Reginal Fleming Johnston who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the last Chinese emperor, Puyi.  Johnston spent thirty-two years in China, from 1898 to 1930, and wrote this incredible account of his time with the Dragon Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who he tutored for five years from the time the boy was 13.

This is an important book as it provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China.  It was written and published prior to the Communist takeover in China and therefore sits squarely in one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history, without the benefit of hindsight.  Through it all, Johnston provides remarkable opinions on the issues of the day via his brilliant writing style.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent this was true, but his belief in the Chinese monarchy was driven by three main factors: that gross mismanagement by the Empress Dowager had squandered the benefits of a strong monarchy, that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact, and his love and respect for his pupil who he believed would someday have the necessary skills to run the country.  In short, Johnston was correct in his assessment that China has always needed a strong central government and would continue to naturally tilt towards whoever or whatever could fill that power vacuum.  In this context, why couldn’t that figurehead be the Emperer in conjunction with a democratically elected parliament or some other such body?

Quite a bit of historical context is provided at the beginning of the book and seeing as how the Chinese Imperial system has ceased to exist for a hundred years, much of it was new to me.  Considerable time is spent on explaining the complex heirarchies within the family and court structures, and the backdrop of facts that he provides is richly interspersed with criticism of the rampant corruption of the Nei Wu Fu or imperial household department.  Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape.

The story of the last emperor is ultimately one specific instance of sadness that is personalised for us during one of the most violent and turbulent period of Chinese history. Millions perished during a period of warlords, dueling republics, civil war, and World War II. There’s no escaping this while reading through the book, and even though Johnston’s account ends prior to the Emperor heading to become a puppet ruler for the Japanese, you can sense the foreboading.  Johnston ended up leaving China prior to major Japanese hostilities and moving back to the United Kingdom.  He remained friends with Puyi even after he ascended to the throne of Manchuko which was a controversial statement of loyalty.

Johnston tells us early in his book about the unique bond in Chinese culture between student and teacher, how it is revered above almost all other commitments, and how honored he was to be brought into that relationship.  When he retired to Scotland in 1937, he bought a small island in Loch Craignish, and proceeded to cultivate a Chinese garden.  He flew the flag of Manchuko, the new kingdom of his one-time pupil.  Despite the political difficulties he was communicating by endorsing the puppet state of a British rival, Johnston believed in the character of his student.  He believed in their relationship.  He believed in China more than many Chinese of the time.

Anyone wanting to know more about Chinese history, particular those influences that still reverberate in modern China should read this book.  It’s scolarship, the quality of writing, and the personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and delighting read, if a bit wistful.

Book Review: The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

Note: I’ve previously read and reviewed two other books by Charles Cumming here.

Charles Cumming is an interesting author, someone I happened to find recommended to me via’s engine, probably because I’ve bought books about Spain and China where two of his other books are set.  I read both these books while traveling in Europe and enjoyed his style of equally focusing on setting and story.  You really live in the environment with those books, and I had The Trinity Six on preorder after that experience.


The Trinity Six, I’ll admit, was a little hard for me to get into.  Being an American, I just wasn’t as familiar with the Cambridge Five incident from the UK, and I often felt like you needed to really have a better grasp of the weight of that event to fully appreciate the idea that there may have been a sixth agent involved in the ring.

Cumming seems to be a student of the John le Carré school of spy fiction writing, and having never read le Carré before, he got me to download one of his books on the Kindle, which I slogged through and although I tried valiantly, I eventually lost interest.  The idea is to provide a realistic counterweight to the over-the-top James Bond tendencies you see in movies and focus more on plausible espionage plots.  In this, Cumming betters his hero (at least as far as I can tell from my admittedly small sample size).

The plot of the book is interesting – an academic finds himself hurtling along an investigation that involves Russian interest and geopolitical consequences, and the gritty scenes do the job well.  Still, I felt that Cumming almost tried to focus less on the descriptions of the scenes for the books – again perhaps because his readers in the UK would know what London is like and probably have visited Budapest and Vienna.  As a sheltered American, I need more.

All in all, I think this is a book that has merit, but hopefully the next will incorporate the setting more, something Cumming is a master at.  My last major criticism of his previous books (of using the verb “to sink” a drink) was rectified in this outing, and I like to think I had something to do with it.  Regardless, I’ll preorder his next work sight unseen.  If you like spy novels that don’t involve lunatic unrealism, The Trinity Six is a good outing and a quick read.