Malachi O’Doherty remembers where he was the night the guns came out in Belfast.
“I had turned the corner on to the Falls when I heard the first string of blurts from a machine gun,” he writes in his timely and hugely absorbing new book, Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland.
At the start of June, when he was still in the running to replace Theresa May as prime minister of the UK and leader of the Conservative Party, Tory politician Michael Gove raised a nightmarish spectre for the British right.
At all costs, Britain must avoid falling into the grip of a “Jeremy Corbyn government propped up by Nicola Sturgeon and the [Scottish nationalists],” he warned. “That would mean Brexit was lost, the future of our Union at risk, and the levers of power handed to a Marxist.”
An early Autumn morning in Edinburgh, sometime in the mid-1990s. Two men are walking together through the Meadows. The sun has cast a dull light across the tree-lined paths. They turn up Middle Meadow Walk, passing Edinburgh University’s George Square campus on one side and the crumbling old Royal Infirmary building on the other. As they approach the junction at Teviot Place, their conversation intensifies. They no longer notice the students, the coffee-sellers or the cyclists. They are speaking, in fluent Italian, about Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. One of the men, dressed in a distinctive tweed hat and cardigan, is Hamish Henderson, the celebrated Scots poet and folklorist. The other, less stylishly attired in a plain shirt and suit jacket, is Tom Nairn, the most influential Scottish political thinker of his generation.
You can see them, can’t you? Two silhouettes in the sunlight. Henderson died in 2002, aged 82, an icon of Scotland’s cultural left. But Nairn is still very much with us, and although, at 84, the years are beginning to pile up on him, he remains as perceptive and self-deprecating as ever.
For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.
As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.