Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces was published 20 years ago. I first heard of it as work-in-progress in the summer of 1998 when I received “a begging letter”, as he put it, from its beleaguered author. Alasdair said he was literally begging various writers and academics to help him complete the book which he was contracted to produce for Bloomsbury and had been working on for a decade. It was to be “THE BOOK OF BOOKS” in that it brought together prefaces to their own work by great writers throughout history: “Mostly the mighty dead whose copyrights have lapsed.” Alasdair had a great sense of humour and in calling The Book of Prefaces “A BOOK FOR TODAY” he added “Only the rich and illiterate can ignore our anthology. With this in their lavatory everyone else can read nothing but newspaper supplements and still seem educated.” The idea of the book was to give a history of literature, specifically great books, in the introductory words of their authors.
In his letter Alasdair attached a list of works that still required entries. Payment for help was to comprise a portrait by Alasdair. Who could refuse such a request? I had just finished lecturing on two writers on the list, so I wrote back saying I would be glad to take on William Wycherley and William Congreve. I drafted two critical contributions on those two 17thcentury Restoration playwrights. As overall author of the volume, Alasdair reserved the right to edit these pieces as he pleased, and in the event he completely rewrote my entries.
In my lecture I had challenged the view of Restoration comedy as frivolous “Fun with Wigs”, to quote the title of a 1995 David Baddiel documentary on the subject. My lecture used contemporary documents, the writings of John Milton and the work of Michel Foucault to suggest that these Restoration dramatists were not reactionary fops. For me there was continuity between Milton’s divorce pamphlets of the 1640s and the plays of Wycherley and Congreve: both were critical of the institution of marriage.
When it came to the contributor’s portrait I told Alasdair that there was really no need, thinking of how precious his time was, but he absolutely insisted. I was duly booked in for the afternoon of Friday 4th of December 1998. I can be precise because Alasdair dated the portrait. I had imagined a sitting for a portrait to mean staying still for an hour or more, a thing I found almost impossible to do, but Alasdair allowed me to relax and chatted away, asking me questions while he was drawing. We shared stories about Glasgow’s East End back in the day. Alasdair grew up in Riddrie, and my father – who was a lot older – was raised in the Calton. I remember Alasdair seemed a bit wheezy and I asked him if he had an inhaler. He said yes, but he didn’t like to overuse it. I told him I puffed away on mine whenever I felt a wheeze coming on. I couldn’t imagine sticking to the recommended dose if it meant being breathless. Alasdair laughed; he obviously had more sense. We talked about Glasgow, Irish and Scottish literature, and Scottish independence. I suggested to Alasdair that what he was doing was telling a story about literature through prefaces. I said I was interested in Jacques Derrida, a philosopher who was fascinated by the marginal texts that framed major works. Derrida was writing a history of philosophy through prefaces and postscripts and minor texts that shone a light on larger ones. I felt Alasdair was engaged in the literary equivalent. He was curious when I made the comparison, but remained resistant to Derrida’s approach to literature, which he considered to be too theoretical.
Alasdair made two versions of my portrait, one tinted and one black and white. I never realised at the time that the portraits would appear in the book. When The Book of Prefaces was finally launched in 2000 it included an “Index of Helpers” and a section entitled “Portraits of Contributors” with 21 postage-stamp sized images, most of them done especially for the book, although he had made a couple earlier, such as Archie Hind’s in 1970, and Elspeth King’s in 1977.
The dustjacket described this unique volume as “A Short History of Literate Thought in Words by Great Writers of Four Nations from the 7th to the 20th Century Edited & Glossed by Alasdair Gray Mainly”. The publisher’s blurb included a paragraph on Alasdair’s little helpers: “While Alasdair Gray has chosen and edited all the prefaces and written most of the commentary, he has been assisted by some thirty authors who have also written commentaries. These include James Kelman, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Bernard MacLaverty, Liz Lochhead, Roger Scruton and, indeed, Virginia Woolf.”
I can’t speak for any of the other contributors, not having seen their original submissions, but although I’m credited with “glosses on WYCHERLEY’S THE COUNTRY WIFE and CONGREVE’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD” the entries themselves are entirely Alasdair’s. I found it interesting that he chose to focus more on biographical information and on what seemed to me a quite conventional way of seeing these writers – as conservative rather than subversive.
The original portrait is drawn on the cardboard backing for a pack of Marks & Spencer recycled paper. In characteristic Alasdair fashion he annotated the portrait around the frame with the words “WILLY MALEY FRIDAY 4.12.1998. This is the original drawing, untinted since I suspect that colour would obscure the purity of the line: or (if not purity) clarity…”
I never got dressed up for the portrait, it being just a headshot, but I had on an old sweatshirt that was a rich red colour and Alasdair remarked on it. When it came to making the tinted version Alasdair took the rich red colour out of the sweatshirt and put it into the background.
The Book of Prefaces is dedicated “TO PHILIP HOBSBAUM POET, CRITIC AND SERVANT OF SERVANTS OF ART.” In that case, I must be a servant of a servant of servants of Art because, as Alasdair’s helper, I was helping him, as critic, to help the artists whose work was gathered in the book. It is the most eccentric and most interesting project I’ve been involved in and the one where I feel I was paid most handsomely for the least labour.
This blog is a bit different. I want to introduce an interview my father, James Maley (1908-2007) gave in 1991, when he was 83 years old. The interviewer was Conrad Wood, Head of the Sound Records Department of the Imperial War Museum in London. Most of the interview is about the Spanish Civil War, because my father went to fight Franco in 1936 as part of the International Brigades, but what is presented here is the third reel of the interview, the shortest section, where my father talks about his time in India and Burma during the Second World War. Sometime soon I’ll get round to transcribing the other two reels but I feel that the Spanish side of my father’s wartime experiences has been quite well covered. His time in India and Burma is less well known, so this latter part of the interview struck me as worth making public. My father is reaching back fifty years in his memory to tell this story. He never wrote anything down: when he died in 2007 a military historian contacted me and asked if he could have access to my father’s papers before they were deposited in a library. I told him my father’s papers consisted only of a passport from January 1930 when he emigrated to the USA, and some photographs.
Among those photographs was one that stood out for us as kids, more than those newsreel images of my father in a prison yard after being captured at Jarama in 1937. The photo that captured our attention was one of my father shooting a tiger. It was fake, taken in a studio. There was another staged picture of my father’s time in India and Burma, one of him posing as a boxer with another soldier. We heard snippets of when he was in Burma. He drank water from the Irrawaddy River while dead bodies floated past. There was sniper fire and malaria and killing, lots of killing. But the most striking surviving image is a setup snap of him in uniform, drawing a bead on a stuffed tiger. Beyond this we knew very little about India and Burma.
My father was influenced by two communists from Indian backgrounds. The first was Bombay-born Shapurji Saklatvala (1874-1936), who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) shortly after its formation in 1921. He was elected as Labour MP for Battersea North in 1922 and Communist MP for the same constituency in 1924. For the next five years he was the only Communist Member of Parliament, and the issue of Indian independence was a topic he returned to. Saklatvala lost his seat at the 1929 General Election. He stood as the Communist candidate at the Glasgow Shettleston by-election in June 1930, my father’s constituency, but lost. In 1932 my father joined the Communist Party. Saklatvala died in January 1936, six months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. On 24 December 1936, the week James Maley went to Spain, The Daily Worker declared that the British volunteers to fight Franco would be named the Saklatvala Battalion in honour of this esteemed comrade.
The other influential figure was Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974), born in Cambridge to a Bengali father and Swedish mother. Like Saklatvala, R. Palme Dutt joined the CPGB upon its foundation. Dutt was an expert on India and had considerable influence with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and its complex history there. His book Modern India was published in Bombay in 1926. His biographer, John Callaghan, explains Dutt’s pivotal role in the CPGB in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the commencement of the Second World War: “When Stalin instructed the world communist movement to characterize the war as imperialist and unjust on both sides, [Harry] Pollitt was unable to comply and Dutt took over the general secretaryship (until the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941 when Pollitt was reinstated)”. My father adhered to the anti-imperialist line laid out by Dutt, and did not enlist until 1941. Communists who had fought in Spain were in any case viewed with suspicion by the British Army. Meanwhile in India in 1940-1941 the British had interned without trial hundreds of communists under the Defence of India Rules Act (DIR), a draconian imperial measure that dated from World War One. This is the context in which my father arrived in Bombay in 1941, as a soldier and a communist, and as someone who shared the view that the war was about Empire. Initially serving with the Royal Artillery, James Maley ended his service in Burma with the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
This transcription is lacking a couple of words, one of them a place-name that I couldn’t make out because of its unfamiliarity and the other a drug – possibly antimalarial – that again I couldn’t make out for the same reason. Otherwise it’s the best transcription I could muster – with the help of my wife and comrade, Dini Power. For the audio version see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj5g17Z6sRg
James Maley on Glasgow, India & Burma 1940-45
Deposition no. 11947, Reel 3.
Interviewer: Conrad Wood.
Conrad Wood: Mr James Maley, Reel 3. Now you were telling me that you were in the Second World War in the infantry?
James Maley: Yes.
CW: Can you tell me which unit you joined and when?
JM: Yes, well, when I came back from Spain the first thing I did was get my rifle which was in the house, the British Army rifle, and I took it back to the Territorial unit, and they just said to me well how did you get on in Spain and I told them, Aye it was good. Well when the Second World War started I hadn’t made up my mind whether I’d go or not go. At that time you could either volunteer or register, in your age limit, and then one night I was speaking at Shettleston Cross and what happened, this woman wanted to know why I wasn’t in the army. So I decided then and there on two things: that I was getting up the following morning, volunteering for the army, and I wasn’t going. So I got up the following morning and went over to St Mungo’s Halls, volunteered, got my medical, and was put down for the RAF. Then I got my papers telling me I was going to Padgate on Fair Monday 1940, and the same day I got word that I was to go to the Labour Exchange. And I went there and they told me you don’t have to register, you’ve already volunteered. Well, when I went back to St Mungo’s Halls to go to Padgate the officer spoke to me and I spoke to him. He was looking at me and he says you’re not going, you’re exempt. I says but I must, I want to fight against fascism. He said no, you’re exempt.
CW: When was this? Which year was this?
JM: July 1940. So, I came out, I got word to go up to the National Service place in Waterloo Street and they said you’re Mr James Maley, I said yes. They said well you’re exempt for all time. I said, but I’m unemployed and I want to go. They said you’re not going.
CW: Was that because of Spain?
JM: Yes because of Spain. So I was unemployed, and then at the beginning of November 1940 I was sent to work in Parkhead Forge.
CW: What job were you doing?
JM: Bricklayer’s labourer. 2-10 shift. Here, about quarter to 5, getting dark and there was a big Nissan hut about a hundred yards away. The door opened, the light shone out and the door shut. Door opened, light shone out, door shut. We just had wee tiny lights round about. Then a voice shouted, Hey you two come on over. There were two of us loading rubbish onto this wagon. So we went over and it was full of men and there were two men at a table and they were all shouting and bawling eff the union. So it transpired that they had been at a tribunal, these two men, along with men from Dalzell and Garn… ach, somewhere out near Paisley Road West [Govan Ironworks?]. It transpired everybody in Parkhead Forge and Dalzell and Garn – place whatever it was – had got the bonus except the brickies and labourers. And they were all shouting eff the union. So we came out and walked over to the wagon and started to load the rubbish. And this fella was looking at me. He says, eh, you know, you could get them the bonus. I said, aye, although they don’t know it, I’m going to get them the bonus. I said but not tomorrow, it’ll take a little while. Then I told him what had happened previously and what was going to happen next. I said you know, I said, sooner or later somebody will call a meeting to restart the union, I said, I don’t know when it will be but when it does I’ll become the chairman. So at the beginning of April 1941 was a meeting called for the church hall in Sorby Street, Westmuir Street, and I went there on the Sunday and I became the chairman. Four weeks later we put a ban on overtime and the furnaces started to run down, and then I called a strike, and we went on strike. I was going on holiday on the Saturday, down to Ayr on the Saturday, and on the Sunday morning I got a telegram telling me to come back to the Forge, which means they must have known where I was. I went back to the Forge and they told me the bonus was being granted and I had to try and start a shift that night. Well after that Russia came into the war and I went back up to the National Service place in Waterloo Street, and I said I’m Mr James Maley. And they looked up and they said you want to join now, I said yes. Well, go to Dumbarton Road, and I went to Dumbarton Road and I got put into the Royal Artillery. I did my three months service and volunteered then for overseas service. And finished up in Burma.
CW: So you were in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers?
JM: No. The Royal Artillery at the start, and then …
CW: Which unit of the Royal Artillery were you in?
JM: The heavy ACAC, what they called it.
CW: And you went to India with the Royal Artillery?
CW: You were telling me that in India you were involved in political work in the army?
JM: Yes. As soon as I came off the boat in Bombay the first thing I did was start to talk. And then I found out by looking at a big poster that the Communist Party members were in prison in Bombay. This was despite the fact that the war had gone on for over two years and that Russia was in the war. So, we had the fall of Singapore. Britain then found out she needed help. And Gandhi and Nehru were against the war and the only people for the war were the communists in India. So the communists were released, for to be used in a way by the British Government. Of course it was up to the Communist Party what they would do. Well I went to that meeting in the big hall in uniform and then I was invited down by the students to speak to them in their hall. Well, all during the time I was in Bombay, in Marine Drive, all I did was talk to the Indians, on politics. And the women would walk up and down in threes with the Indian flag, just like the Union Jack red white and blue, or the Irish flag green white and gold. Their colours. And I spoke to them and I explained the war to them. And I’d tell them that after the war was finished the British would no longer be able to hold them, the way she was doing before. And I said, I told the communists, I says you know, when the war’s finished, rather than hand over power to you they’ll hand it over to Gandhi and Nehru although they’re against the war, cause it’s safer. And that’s what happened. But I did a lot of talking to the troops in different places, the British troops, on the reasons, the things leading up to the war, why the war started, and why it had changed when Russia came into the war.
CW: Do you remember the names of any of the Indian communist with whom you came into close contact in India?
JM: Well, see, I never asked any names. But in a place called, eh, I went on holiday one fortnight in Darjeeling, in ’44, and I met this British soldier. Now there were a lot of soldiers forby myself, who had been in the Communist Party, but I never asked them if they were in it, but with me doing the talking they knew I was in it. And he said to me, he said, Oh thank God you’re here, he said, because I’ve been talking to some Indians, and, he says, I can’t talk. You know what I mean, politically. He says, but, I know you can talk, he said, but what about arranging a meeting. He said, I’m going back. So he took me down and he introduced me. And this man who worked in Lloyds Bank in Darjeeling could speak English and up in this big attic, there would be about three hundred of them, and I spoke, on the war, and recited a little poem, a little song we used to sing.
CW: What was it?
JM: Should I ever be a soldier/ Neath the red flag I will fight/ Should a gun I ever shoulder/ It will be to crush the tyrant’s might/ Join the army of the toilers/ Men and women fall in line/ Workers of the world unite/ And do your duty in the fight for liberty.
CW: Where did you learn this?
JM: In the Communist Party. Well he translated the speech and he gave me his name and everything else too, but it was a long time ago and with moving back and forward it just got lost. He worked in Lloyd’s Bank in Darjeeling.
CW: So you were addressing audiences of Indians?
CW: And a translator was translating what you said.
JM: That’s right. I did a lot of speaking but eh –
CW: What did the army think of what you were doing?
JM: Well, a funny thing about it is this. I found out that, as long as I went the way I did about it, they didn’t come near me. You see, I didn’t show any fear. The Communist Party had been made legal…
CW: But the army didn’t say to you…
JM: No, no.
CW: …that you were breaking army rules.
JM: No, there was a meeting arranged in Bangalore. There were seven hundred British troops there of all ranks. Sherwood Foresters, Durham Light Infantry, Cameronians, Gordons, and I spoke there for two hours to these soldiers. I was up for posting the next morning to the 6th Punjabs. Well I went round and saw the captain and I got it rescinded. I took the whole thing in my stride. The same as I went to Kamila and eh, we were going up in the plane in Kamila in March 1945, and this chap was anti-communist, I said come on I’ll show you something, so we went into this wee bookshop in Kamila and I bought some pamphlets. So we come out and go up and I’m reading them, we were going to go to the pictures in the main street, it’s only… a little shanty, and we went in and sat down, lights were still on, here the door opened and there were two MPs with an Indian in plain clothes with them. And he’s pointing to the two of us and we were called out. And I said to them is it this stuff here, I said. I said I’m a member of the Communist Party, and they’re looking at me and looking at each other, and you see they saw there was no fear. No, it’s all right. So I went back the following day, the following morning myself to the bookshop, I went in, and the man said, The district commissioner of police was in here asking about you. I said look, what’s he gonnae do? You’re a legal party now. You’re not…you’re legal, you’ve got a flag flying up there. Don’t worry I said, they can do nothing to me. What are they gonnae do? That was all. You know, I never had any hard truck from the British Army either, even the officers they knew me, just said to me, We know about you, one colonel said to me, I don’t know whether you can walk but he said by Christ you can talk! No, I would never grumble against the British Army neither, I couldnae grumble. I’m no a grumbler in that line.
CW: When did you transfer from the Royal Artillery to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers?
JM: Just the beginning of ‘45. And went up the line right away. To Burma, like, you know. We flew from Kamila, aye, by Christ aye.
CW: So you were in Mandalay, and Rangoon, you said?
JM: And Prome. See, we crossed into a place called Chan, or was it…the first place…well I was lucky in a sense, and some soldiers were unlucky. The day they were moving up there was a bunch from Hamilton and you know they all got killed in the one day. You see, I went up a couple of days after them. It was big fields, you know what like big fields are, it would be fenced off and other fields, and all fields, well I blame them who were in charge, they all came from Hamilton. They went across this field, they couldn’t see a thing, there could have been a hundred men on the other side of the field behind the hedges, they got bumped off. You see it’s like this house here, you go from here, and there’s a wall up here, and you don’t know what’s on the other side of that wall, or that wall. Instead of branching out and put a man on another field, then one man going forward himself, right up to the top in each field, then you know whether there’s anybody there or not. See it’s what you call dead ground. What you can’t see is dangerous.
CW: Where …
JM: You see my first action I got made a Lance Corporal.
CW: What rank did you finish up as?
JM: No rank at all, because I got made a Lance Corporal in action, and when we came out of action in June ‘45 after three months we went to two places. The one place was the [indecipherable place name 13:57], and then when we were coming home, told we were coming home, I got the tape taken off me, but I didn’t bother about the tape. What did I want tape for? But, em, I had a good time in … When I came out of action in June ’45, after three months, and eh, this chap’s going down to the 14th CCS Hospital [Casualty Clearing Station], came from Springburn, and I went with him and the nurse said to, the matron, she said, eh, are yous with the KOSBs. I said yes. She said, eh, would you like a wee job here? So I got a job dishing out to a hundred men [indecipherable 14:34] tablets, sulfamide and everything else in this hospital. And I was told, well, each man gets a bottle of beer a day, and cigarettes. And then there was bottles of lime juice and that, that got dished out. Well anybody who was in the Queen’s, the South Lancs or the KOSBs got an extra bottle of beer [laughs]. I had six every day. I was … instead of claiming for a hundred men, I claimed for a hundred and fifty [laughs again]. And that was the army. And I lay out in the sun there [indecipherable place name 15:04], and when they sent word ower after seven weeks for I was going home I didnae feel like going home [laughs]. Actually I could have stayed there for life.
CW: Which battalion of the KOSBs were you in?
JM: 2nd Battalion.
 See Conrad Wood, ‘Ten Years of the Department of Sound Records of the Imperial War Museum’, Oral History 11, 1 (1983): 9-12.
 See Habib Manzer, Communist Party Policy during the Imperialist War (1939-41)’, Social Scientist 35, 11/12 (2007): 55-62; M. R. Masani, ‘The Communist Party in India’, Pacific Affairs 24, 1 (1951): 18-38.
Like many people I have an interest in genealogy and over the years I’ve tried without success to get further back in the family tree on my father’s side.
My father died aged 99 in 2007 and along with a Scottish cousin I tried to track down his Irish relatives. The family lore handed down by my father was that they came from Mayo and had all left Ireland to go either to Cleveland, Ohio, or to Glasgow around the 1890s. As far as I knew, at some time in the 1890s three O’Malley brothers – Michael, John and Edward – had come to Glasgow and three sisters had gone to America. One of the brothers, Edward, aka Ned, was my father’s father.
But other than this, the scraps of information I had were thin. I knew the dates of my paternal grandfather’s life (1871-1929). I knew that my father had gone to Cleveland to stay with one of his aunts, Mary (O’Malley) Collinton in January 1930, supposedly as the advance guard of another emigration. The Great Depression that began in October 1929 cast a shadow over his stay in Cleveland and after two years my father decided he’d had enough and came home. He lost touch with his American cousins. As far as I’m aware he never went to Ireland and had no contact with the Irish side. I know that my grandfather, Ned, had been in Ireland in the summer of 1929, because after my father died I saw a letter from one of the Ohio aunts dated December 1929 that mentions that fact; but I never had the chance, or the sense, to ask my father if he’d ever gone to Ireland. All the things you don’t think to ask till it’s too late. Some relatives came over to Glasgow for my grandfather’s funeral in November 1929, but all I had apart from those fragments were unanswered questions and trails that ran cold.
Then in the summer of 2017 my wife persuaded me to take a DNA test for an ancestry service called 23andMe (https://www.23andme.com), suggesting it could open up new leads. She had done the test herself a few months earlier and it had enabled her to trace relatives on her mother’s Dutch line, as well as the Irish-Scottish line of her father, with some interesting DNA traces from other parts of the world dating back two or three centuries. I was pretty sceptical at first, mainly because £149 seemed like a lot of money just to get some spit tested. I didn’t know much about the science of it so I couldn’t really see how it might help me track down relatives across a century and two continents.
Anyway, I took the test, and the results have been a revelation.
There’s an option that allows you to connect with DNA relatives, i.e. those who share some of your DNA, and almost immediately I connected with Dominic, a third cousin living in Galway. It didn’t take long to establish that Dominic’s mother, Eileen, is my second cousin. Our grandfathers were brothers. Eileen’s grandfather, John O’Malley (1860-1942) was the older brother, but had outlived Ned by 13 years. Eileen, who was born in 1935, has memories of her grandfather up till the age of seven, whereas my own grandfather had died 31 years before I was born. We met up in Galway and exchanged stories, looked through photographs, filled in blanks. I heard moving details from her childhood, such as the memory of her grandfather singing “Two Little Girls in Blue” to her. Eileen’s mother and grandfather were O’Malleys, but if I had tried to search for her through her maiden name or married name I would not have found the link. The DNA connection enabled me to hook up with not just Dominic and Eileen but also dozens of other relatives in Ireland and America who had done the 23andMe test. I now know that some male relatives went to Cleveland in the 1920s or earlier, and that means some O’Malleys there are relatives, whereas before I thought the names had all changed. And interesting stories continue to emerge: for example I learned that Robert Emmet O’Malley, awarded a Purple Heart in 1966, was a cousin of my father’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pl6yl6PBlWw).
I’ve swapped book suggestions by email with a cousin who lives in the States whom I’ve never met nor seen a photograph of. I don’t need to know too much, but it matters to me to know that the family who left that little Irish homestead in the 1880s and 1890s is scattered across the States, and that some are still in Ireland, since one of those three brothers who went to Glasgow ended his days in Mayo. I’ve been able to visit that homestead twice now and each time I’ve been able to learn more of the family history that I thought was lost (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ6DFxWCl0U). I wish I had been able to talk to my father about this. If only I had asked him more questions when he was alive. My new-found cousin Eileen never saw my grandfather Ned, but she listened to his older brother John sing and speak, and meeting her really made me feel I’d got closer to my father’s father. There’s a 1929 recording of that song that my grandfather’s big brother sang to his granddaughter. Coincidentally, it’s a song about love and loss, brothers and sisters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn36MHFnptc).
It has to be said that not everybody is comfortable with the idea of DNA testing. There are companies out there that give it a bad name by making outlandish claims. People worry that the information gathered could be abused, especially the medical information that it can yield; or they worry that it encourages people to see others primarily in terms of race and identity, when we need to be very wary of defining or classifying groups of people. But it has enormous potential to do good. It stands at a fascinating intersection of science and the study of society and politics. For those of us whose families were forced to migrate for reasons beyond their control, for example the impoverished Irish or African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, it gives us some insight into where they originated before they were moved, and about the social impact of colonialism, famine and war. As Professor Rick Kittles points out, the analysis of markers that show genetic mixing and population movement can allow us to deconstruct social and political ideas of race, rather than reinforcing them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iby1C7bADno). It can also enable us to make connections with long lost relatives and get a clearer sense of the history that made us and the stories that tie us together. Finding evidence of these connections can lead us to greater understanding, to surprises and occasional shocks. It can fill in some of the gaps in the narratives that get passed down through generations, and put us within touching distance of our ancestors. For me above all it’s the identification of living relatives I thought I’d never know that means most.
To anyone who has been stumped by their family tree I would recommend taking the leap and getting your DNA tested by a reputable company. My tree now has many more branches than it did before and every month or so a few new branches get added, and all thanks to 23andMe.
So I’ve got this new website. I had one ten years ago set up by interdisciplinary artist Chris Dooks, but I never found the time to do anything with it. This Mark II version is being launched thanks to the efforts of my creative partner Dini Power and the multi-talented Jim Byrne. This is the first blog I’ve ever posted on my own website. When it comes to blogging I’m a debutant, a fresher, a newbie, a novice, a virgin. I’m a relative newcomer to social media as a whole. I’m not part of the Twittersphere, though I am on Facebook, and I post quite regularly so I’m not that shy. I do publish online but mostly as an academic. And I did a podcast recently, but for someone else’s site. A blog is a different matter though. I have written a few literary “blogs” for the Scottish Book Trust, but proof that I never really got the hang of the required brevity of the format came when one of my posts was flagged as a “Long Read”.
Blogs, as short essays, belong to the same family as letters, opinion pieces, reviews, previews, features and flash fiction. I may be longwinded at times but I like the short form a lot – the chance to put in my tuppence worth without worrying about footnotes always feels liberating. I did some journalism, mainly reviewing, in the Nineties and Noughties and I’ve written programme notes for plays by Irvine Welsh and Muriel Spark. But maybe it’s time for me to become part of the Blogosphere, “the cultural or intellectual environment in which blogs are written and read; blogs, their writers, and readers collectively, esp. considered as a distinct online network”.
I’m blagging my references to blogging here from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one of my favourite research tools and the go-to place or starting-point for all my journeys into language, including much of what follows. I’ve always been interested in the history of words, where they come from, what they do. From an early age I was obsessed with adventures in etymology. As a form the blog is now twenty years old. It has been around since 1999 and began life as “A frequently updated website, typically run by a single person and consisting of personal observations arranged in chronological order, excerpts from other sources, hyperlinks to other sites, etc.; an online journal or diary”. It’s over forty years since I kept a diary, but diaries tend to be daily whereas a blog can be weekly, or better still monthly. To blog is of course “to run a Web log”. Or, as another source says “To blog is to be part of a community of smart, tech-savvy people who want to be on the forefront of a new literary undertaking”. One definition doing the rounds when the blog first took off was that “weblog” meant “wee-blog”. Whether that means “wee” as in piss or petite I’m really not sure. Both, probably. Another source observed that “Blogs … contain daily musings about news, dating, marriage, divorce, children, politics in the Middle East …. or millions of other things or nothing at all”. The default blog is probably “nothing at all”.
One of the most interesting early references to blogging is to be found in The Washington Post from 17 May 2001, where it’s reported that “Journalist Jim Romenesko’s clearinghouse for media gossip … showed how a personal blog could go pro when the Poynter Institute hired him … to blog full time.” Since then there have been many more examples of blogs becoming books or leading to jobs. A fair few novels and memoirs have started off as blogs. Bloggers have replaced traditional journalism to some extent, and blogging has come to be seen as a culture in its own right: “The Web has long been home to tens of thousands of different cultures, but there hasn’t been a culture for the Web; not until bloggers came along”. On 6 July 2001 The Economist reported: “Blogging … has in the past couple of years exploded from a cultish techie activity into a cottage industry churning out increasingly compelling content”.
The response is not all positive, of course. The first hint that the Blogosphere might foster “fake news” appeared in the New Statesman on 19 April 2004: “The bad habits of the blogosphere are corrupting the world of print discourse”. That’s one point of view – that of a privately-owned press eager to hold onto its readership. Corporate journalism was soon forced to sit up and take notice of the ways in which social media was stealing its thunder. A report in The Daily Telegraph on 14 March 2008 proved prophetic: “When Iranians vote in today’s parliamentary election, millions will have been influenced by lively debate in the only domain their regime struggles to control: the internet and blogosphere”. Today that same blogosphere is affecting how people vote elsewhere, as other regimes struggle to control it. From the Arab Spring to the Scottish Independence Referendum the blogosphere – and social media more generally – plays a vital role in agitating, educating and informing, as well as confusing, infuriating and misinforming. What I like about the idea of blogging is that it can be influential but nobody is going to take it as gospel; it’s a kind of thinking aloud, thinking on the hoof, contributing to discussion. It’s never going to be the last word. And in that spirit, here endeth my first blog.