The day of the Lord cometh like a thief in the night.
1 Thess. 5:2
My flat in Edinburgh (when I was a student) was broken into once. I was in bed, slept through it. The thief told the police later about standing over me, watching while I slept. The police delighted in telling me this. He took some clothes, a guitar, and my cheque book. He immediately started writing cheques all over town and was caught in less than a week. He still had my clothes and guitar, which I eventually got back. He slipped in through I tiny window that used to be a coal chute for deliveries via the central stairwell. This window was high up the wall, you had to reach for it and scramble up, then slide into a closet which had once served as a coal cellar. I stacked empty carryout cans underneath from then on as an alarm system.
This was on Easter Road, just over the hill from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, on the way to the Hibs stadium and a Drambuie bottling plant. The street was paved with of granite setts. I lugged sacks of coal up three dim, twisty flights of stairs to feed a fireplace in the front room. The flat was damp and smelled of coal. I slept on a mattress on the floor. A laundry drying rack hung from the kitchen ceiling. It wasn’t a place for writing. I worked on my dissertation in a carrel next to the philosophy stacks at the University Library on George Square. It was clean, neat, and modern, with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Meadows. But nights around 4 a.m. the flat would explode with the scent of fresh morning rolls from the bakery on the ground floor. I would slip downstairs, tap on the bakery door with a coin, and return with a brown bag stuffed with rolls still warm from the oven.
A lot happened in that flat. A girlfriend, who has since become a Scottish poet, experienced her first orgasm in that flat; she promptly walked into the street and was knocked over by a car. The man who hit her happened to be the newsagent three doors down, which was a considerable embarrassment for everyone.
Before that, I was thrown out of a flat on Leamington Terrace for bringing home a woman. She was a drug trafficker, just back from a trip to Kabul, and a bigamist with two husbands. We met on the boat from France and had sex on the train up to Edinburgh during which I convinced her to come and live with me.
I have always been a sucker for a good story, and this generally leads to trouble. First, we were thrown out of my flat, then we got bored with one another. We found a new flat around the corner on Bruntsfield Place across from the links. Our new roommate Paddy and the drug trafficker would do coke in front of the electric fire in the living room while I worked on my dissertation in the box room. Sometimes she followed me to the library where she made friends with one of the sons of Elijah Muhammad, who, I took it, had been sent away to school because he was somewhat of an embarrassment at home. She even suggested that we might get married.
Then there was the night I went to a Canadian student soiree as the guest of a young woman from Vancouver Island. I wore a rented tuxedo, drank too much, and spent most of the evening alone on her bed looking at the ceiling as standing up was impossible. But then the Scottish poet (see above) came to the door and dragged me out into the street screaming at me. I said, Alright, then I’ll kill myself — I was predisposed to dramatic gestures when lubricated — and walked into the street. She smiled, enjoying the prospect. As there was no traffic, and I was waiting a long time to be killed, we took a cab home. Later, I woke up and she was gone. The front door was open. She had been naked the last time I saw her, so I assumed she was out on Easter Road without her clothes. Then I heard a sound from the kitchen. She was splayed out on the floor with her head in the oven and the gas on.
And then there were the two child care workers, Janet and Aileen. They would use their fingers to show me how the little boys would poke their willies through holes in their blankets during nap time. Aileen had a sweet Lowland accent that I found enchanting. But she was engaged, so it was assumed that I was interested in Janet. Aileen was in love with me, though, and, whenever Janet left the room, Aileen and I would start kissing and she would get misty-eyed and breathless, the bellows of passion. When we could manage it, she would take me downstairs and masturbate me in my car, which is what she did with her fiance, too. Years later, Aileen and Janet met me for a drink in the Ensign Ewart below the Castle. They were both married and had children, but nothing had changed. When Janet went to the loo, Aileen kissed me.
In that flat on Leamington Terrace, I flirted with the landlord’s youngest daughter, a tall, large-hipped girl who worked as a clerk in Boot’s. All her teeth were starting to go black from the outer edges. She would invite me downstairs to eat fish and chips and watch The Golden Shot on television with the family. I think the reason her father threw me out of their attic flat had more to do with my disappointing his daughter than the simple fact of bringing the drug trafficker home to live with me. His name was Hamish, which is Scotch for James.
They also let a flat beneath me and for a while it housed two young Canadian women who were working without visas. They were nomads. Every time the Home Office found them and began sending notices (not so much to send them home, but to dun them for back taxes), they would move to another city. One night one of them came up to my flat and slept with me, telling me in a lonely way about the abortion she had had in London. It was my birthday. I had just turned 21.
My dissertation was on Kant’s ethics. This says something about the human mind’s capacity to concentrate simultaneously on contradictory ideas.
My tutor was H. B. Acton, Chair of Moral Philosophy, a garden gnome in a three-piece suit. H. B. stood for Harry Burrows. And if ever there was a mismatched pair it was Harry Burrows Acton and me. Behind his scholarly veneer, H. B. was to philosophy what Fox News is to journalism. A decade or so before I arrived on the scene he had dispensed with Marx and Lenin in a book called The Illusion of an Epoch. While I muddled along with Kant, he was finishing up an essay collection with the oxymoronic title The Morals of Markets: an Ethical Exploration. In 1993, almost 20 years after Harry died, this book was republished by the Liberty Fund, an American libertarian non-profit foundation based in Carmel, Indiana. The Liberty Fund works in close association with the Koch brothers, it runs seminars for newly appointed American judges, mostly Republican, and has even hosted politicians connected with the pro-Brexit European Research Group. I knew none of this at the time, most of it existed only in prospect, but it gives you an idea what I was up against.
One day at the Hume Tower on George Square, Acton invited me to his home for dinner. I knew he didn’t like me. At best, he just didn’t know what to do with me. He was, avant la lettre, a neo-liberal garden gnome. I was an under-educated farm boy from Canada harbouring secret Marxist-Leninist tendencies, who was mostly unresponsive in our sessions because I couldn’t understand a word he said. The fact that we didn’t agree on anything, that we didn’t even speak the same language, that our conceptual universes were like matter and anti-matter, had not occurred to either of us. It was obviously a duty invitation, and I understood my duty to accept.
He lived in a flat in the New Town, cluttered with furniture, works of art, and walls of old books, coded signifiers I could not read. I remember it as dim, with heavy curtains crowding the large Adams-designed windows. His wife Barbara and grown up daughter lived there also, two women with whom I had absolutely nothing in common, and who expressed not a scintilla of human interest in me. Nor was there any reason they should. Instead they performed their class and education by nattering on about how they were reading Dante together in the original, quoting passages back and forth across the table and smiling complacently at their accomplishments, content in the certainty that they were doing their duty by supplying a good example for the savages.
Meantime, I could not figure out why the daughter was still living with her parents in that claustrophobic aura of pinched post-war gentility, old-but-good clothes and emotional ration cards, all in black and white, as if colour film hadn’t been invented yet. In dress and manner, she seemed utterly untouched by the world around her. But I was suitably humiliated by being there and slunk away as soon as I could.
I learned to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane” on the guitar.
I saw the movie Easy Rider.
I joined the International Young Socialists and went to meetings. The membership card had a drawing of a toilet on the front. This has always puzzled me, but I assumed it had something to do with flushing away the old system. Tariq Ali came to speak. In the question period after I asked him why we couldn’t just stop talking and get on with the violent overthrow of the British government. I went on a march in support of unions and against Edward Heath. My friends had brought sticks and cricket bats in case there was trouble with the police.
After a fight, the drug trafficker went to the library and told Elijah Muhamad’s son that I was coming for him with a knife.
Our relationship entered a new and hypothetically violent stage, after which she moved out and disappeared.
I took to wearing a surplus National Fire Service pea jacket.
A friend rode me around on his Triumph motorcycle. One night after the pubs closed we accelerated over Arthur’s Seat through Duddingston and into the countryside. We did the ton on a lonely one-and-a-half-lane metaled road with trees and dry stone walls flashing past in the starlight.
One day, up in his ninth floor lair in the Hume Tower, Harry Acton said I ought to look up the word “Ahndung,” which Kant used now and then. He thought it might be important. Acton translated Ahndung as “adumbration,” which I had to look up. When he said “adumbration,” he momentarily glowed in recognition of his own preciosity.
Other people translated Ahndung as presentiment, premonition, clue, or hint. In German now, the modern variant Ahnung is preferred. Ahnung appears three times in Freud’s famous essay on the uncanny. Basically, it’s a word for messages from somewhere else that you don’t know you are getting and you can’t read anyway. Kant used it to intimate the effect of the ineffable, the otherworldly, on humans — the presentiment of presence, like my dreams when the thief stood watching me in the night unseen.
I joined the University Harriers. This meant cross-country races every Saturday, long bus rides to gloomy, grey, rain- drenched Scottish towns, demoralizing 40-minute slogs over sleet covered hills and slurried forest trails with the occasional ankle-deep stream to ford, followed by a communal shower with 80 other wet young men packed in a dirty, humid room the size of a squash court that reeked of socks and old running shoes. At least, it seemed so, in memory.
I was the innocent. I did not realize that my friends were all Church of Scotland Presbyterians who simply preferred to take their punishment before they sinned instead of after. It took me a couple of race weekends to realize that as soon as you showered you sprinted to the nearest pub to buy carryouts for the bus ride home. Having finished the carryouts, you arrived in Edinburgh in time to drop your kit home and reconvene at Milne’s Bar or the Abbotsford on Rose Street where you remained till closing time. Silly me. I used to think closing time meant the end. But it was 10 o’clock closing in those days in Scotland. Through the summer it was broad daylight when the bars turned you out on the street. We would buy carryouts after last call, pass the word about likely parties, and head into the night in search of trouble. Closing time was just the sound of one door shutting and another opening.
My friends took a huge delight in my education. There were cheers the first time I puked crossing the Meadows in the dark. I really puked a lot, regularly, it seemed, until I got the hang of it. Once I puked on the steps of Milne’s Bar, spaghetti bolognese waterfalling to the gutter, and then got right up to go after the girl I’d been chatting with. Months later, when I’d stopped puking and graduated to whisky chasers, when I drank one night four whisky chasers in a row without losing my train of thought, there were sage nods of approval and quiet words of approbation.
Acton told me to read Hans Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’. He thought it might be useful to think of Kant as a pragmatist. We can’t know if God exists, but we should act as if he exists anyway, for some vague prudential reasons based on the probability of a future life. This seemed lame out of the box, a metaphysics of pretending. Also it didn’t fit with Kant’s ideal of the motiveless motive of morality. For Kant, prudence was not an ethical command. I admired Kant for his orderliness and punctuality. His neighbours used to set their watches when he went by on his daily walks. His logic was impeccably orderly, too. He put things in the right baskets. He realized that the world where humans live is a world of means and ends, a marketplace, not a heavenly city. A pure morality was Kant’s will-o’-the-wisp. He believed in presentiments, miracles, and magic.
The flat on Easter Road was in a working class tenement, three stories high, built of rectangular-cut tan sandstone blackened with coal smoke. There were shops at street level punctuated with plain, heavy front doors that led to shared staircases. Along the building front were vertical rows of bow windows that lit the principle rooms. The smaller windows at the back gave onto a dreary, jungly green space with rubbish piles and puny garden allotments. At the corner of Rossi Street there was a chip shop owned by an Italian family where I bought fish and sometimes haggis and blood pudding. And there was the newsagent who knocked over the Scottish poet and sold me the Sunday papers. I would walk over London Road to get to the University, along Abbeyhill past the odd looking pile of stone called Queen Mary’s Bath, up Calton Road past the burial ground, then duck across to the High Street through Old Tolbooth Close by the Canongate Kirkyard where Adam Smith was buried.
I liked the Edinburgh graveyards with their mossy clipped grass and sparse rows of decayed stones like broken teeth, smoke blackened. I liked to linger in back corner of Grayfriars Kirkyard, far from the street. I liked to look at the dusty, tattered battle flags dangling above the pews at St. Giles Cathedral, and the little cruciform remembrance chapel in the Castle with its great red leather bound books of the dead and the continuous bas relief depicting Scottish soldiers, some wounded, some on stretchers or using their rifles as crutches, bandaged, limping, supporting one another along a dusty road. I remember the feeling I had when it suddenly occurred to me that they were all dead.
The American National Guard killed four students at Kent State. I watched the news on the BBC at the International Students Union on Buccleuch Place behind the University Library.
Another appointment in the Hume Tower with Acton: I mention that I have been reading C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in some way thought it was key to my dissertation. A light transforms Acton’s face. Suddenly we have something in common. Not the science fiction nor my dissertation, heaven forfend, but Clive Stapleton Lewis. It transpires that Lewis was one of Acton’s tutors at Oxford. Then he tells me this story: One day he was walking across the quad with his books and umbrella when he ran into Lewis coming the other way. Lewis said, “Acton, it’s a fine day. Why are you carrying an umbrella?” Acton said, “You never know. It’s reasonable to be prepared.” And Lewis said, “Don’t you think always being reasonable is silly?” At this point, Acton beams at me across his desk, and I get the message: Lewis was the silly, impractical, unreasonable person, not to be taken seriously. In my turn, I take the anecdote as a metonym for Acton’s life, locked under a velvet cage of privilege, tradition, and disapproval, wrapped around the loaded word “reasonable.”
In my innocence I had thought one only went to parties to which one was invited. I admired my friends for their ability to bang on a strange door and talk their way into a party. I never remembered anyone being refused. Sometimes, we could not find the party, but that was a different thing. Once I was in search of a party with Paddy’s brother Rab, a mountain climber, and a friend called Caz who rode motorcycles (at home he had two Velocettes, one gradually absorbing parts of the other). We thought we had the right address, but no one answered our knock. Rab went in anyway. There was a long carpeted hallway, a grandfather clock at the end, and an inner door. The door was open. A little boy in pajamas straddling a tricycle stared at us. Rab persuaded the boy off the tricycle and rode up and down the hallway twice ringing the bell. Wuzzah! Wuzzah! Then he collided with the grandfather clock. We never found a party that night, but I managed to go home with a girl I met along the way. We had sex in her bed and fell dead asleep. Later in the night I got up to pee, forgetting that I was still wearing a condom, and was surprised at the effects.
Jack Kerouac died. The Beatles broke up. People talked easily of entropy and smoked hash through cardboard toilet roll pipes. I mentioned I was reading The Teachings of Don Juan to one of my authoritatively mellifluous Oxbridge classmates. I meant to provoke him, but to my surprise he started talking about Wittgenstein, language games, conceptual systems, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. If language warps the content of our reality, might reality be different if we spoke another language, inhabited another conceptual system? I went away and looked up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
I began to think of Kant as Don Immanuel, the Yaqui brujo of Königsberg. I did not mention this to Acton.
I saw Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel at King’s Theatre — an opera about sexual obsession at the climax of which a stage full of nuns bared their breasts.
Once Caz and I crashed a pajama party. We had no pajamas, so we adjourned to the bedroom and ransacked the closets and drawers till we found something appropriate. Caz took the bottoms, I took the top, and off we went.
I was always trying things, mostly out of boredom, just to see what would happen, what I could get away with.
In Paris I bought a handsome set of Kant’s works in German, bound in heavy fabric and paper covers tinted deep cherry, hand-sized, smaller than a trade paperback.
I was convinced of my genius if no one else was; I was often paralyzed with self-doubt.
I wrote my dissertation three times, from beginning to end, completely new each time. Between the second and third version, I gave up in despair, a program that became routine for me as a writer. Writing always happens for me at the point of despair and giving up.
Sitting by the window in an antique leather reading chair in the J. B. S. Haldane Philosophy Library, a pre-Raphaelite vision, pale, aquiline face, black hair rippling down her neck, sheepskin coat, very pregnant, another sinner. This was Eileen. I gravitated to her, naturally, because of her solitude and trouble, which marked her as an outsider like me. She was married, but her husband had come out, just when she got pregnant, and abandoned her. He later told her she was a test case, to see if he could be with women. My impulse was to be kind because I could see she was lonely, surrounded by people who looked down on her, humiliated by a husband who popped up in all the pubs cruising for love, struggling to finish her degree, doing everything herself. But she had a game face. Like a lot of Scottish women, she projected a tranquil dignity I envied. Later I wrote fairy stories for her son and mailed them to her from Canada.
In my second year, Acton published a short book on Kant’s ethics, which I read carefully in hopes of finding something I could agree with so as to prop up my dissertation. To my dismay, I found him wrong most of the way through. I suddenly realized why in talking to him I could never make sense of what he said. This is the closest we ever got to real communication.
Every Sunday morning a group of us would run 15 miles in the Pentland Hills outside of the city. I had to be led. I could never find my way in the maze of tracks, sheep pasture, and stone walls. Once a pair of lurchers came coursing over a hill ahead of us, panting quietly, quietly intent, chasing a hare.
All this time, I was in love with Katie Pontess, who was in love with an American boy from Missouri named Eddie T., who had graduated, left town, and wrote moony letters back to her. Katie was another example of my tendency to romantic self- immolation. Sometimes I thought I had lemming genes. Oh, look, here’s another cliff. Let’s jump over. She had large frightened eyes and a pouty lisp like Elmer Fudd. She signed herself KT with a flourish. When the Scottish poet wasn’t around, Katie and I would make out in front of the coal fire on Easter Road and discuss why she need not remain faithful to Eddie.
In October, at the International Student Union, I watched tanks grind through the streets of Montreal and wondered what had become of my country.
Katie’s father was a career diplomat in the British Council. They had a retirement house in the little fishing village of Crail in Fife, but were hardly ever there. Katie grew up around the world and had stories. She told me how Canadian peace keepers had gallantly escorted her mother and her on shopping trips in Cyprus. When she was very little, they were stationed in Dacca, the capital of what was then East Pakistan. At night wild dogs roamed the city in packs, filling the darkness with yips and howls, uncanny and inhuman. One night in particular they left Katie in the care of a male servant who was meant stand watch outside her bedroom door. But for some reason he abandoned his post. The house was empty. Dogs came into the garden. Her parents returned in the wee hours to find her crouched in a closet, behind the coats and dresses, shivering with terror.
In 1974 I stayed with Katie in London and we finally slept together. She was working for MI6 on the Northern Ireland desk and fancied herself in a John le Carré novel. Her ears and eyes were tuned for all sorts of suspicious activity, like the pair of young lovers whispering in Polish in the next row at the cinema. Eddie was still distantly in her life; “Save a sigh for a drowning man,” he once wrote, without, you know, ever indicating that he would get on a plane and fly back. She lived in romantic fantasies rooted in class loneliness. The longer I stayed, the more embarrassing she found me. There were things one knew and did automatically of which I was irremediably ignorant. It is never pleasant watching a romantic consummation dissolve in the acid of humiliation. After a week, I fled.
I was out of place in Edinburgh, not Milne’s Bar or the Abbotsford or Easter Road, but in the Hume Tower and the university. Once I walked into the H. B. S. Haldane Philosophy Library on the ninth floor and, seeing one of the earnest undergraduates, a staunch Presbyterian, may have said something provocative about whiskey chasers. He said, “Glover, you debauch yourself.”
No doubt he was right; God has rewarded his righteousness in calling out my bad behaviour. The last time I looked he was president (since retired) of the Princeton Theological Seminary, resplendent with high honours and prestigious appointments.
The drug trafficking bigamist mentioned earlier was an American from California, the cultural centre of the universe in those days. Her name was Jennifer with three last names, two of which were her husbands’. She called oral sex “skull fucking”. She said she used to walk a friend’s dog and the dog had taken a sexual interest in her. I met her on the ferry from France. This was early January, 1970. She wore a purple maxi-coat and sat on her suitcase on deck. We had a drink at the bar and started making out on the train to London. She had been convinced to do a drug run out of Afghanistan by a man who said it would be easy. All they had to do was be married and look respectably middle class. She already had a husband. But they got married anyway, flew to Kabul, spent a few days in a hotel, then headed back to Paris loaded with drugs. They brought cans of peaches in a crate, packed with hash in plastic baggies, and she wore a belt of cocaine around her waist. In Paris, they found that most of the hash had been ruined when the plastic baggies exploded in the unpressurized baggage compartment. They had a crate of peach-flavoured hash. Her new husband beat her up in their hotel room, took the coke (except the personal supply she kept in an aspirin bottle), and abandoned her. Two days later we met.
Paddy was a veterinary student, pale and lean, with a shock of springy red hair cropped short. He had been capped for the Scottish National Team as a middle distance runner; we met at the Edinburgh University Harriers. He’d once been thrown off the Scottish team for drinking, in itself no mean accomplishment. He told me about coming back from a meet in Norway and waking up in his cabin on the ferry thinking he’d gone blind, only to discover that he puked on himself and it had hardened on him like a skin in his sleep. One night he came home drunk without his key and kicked in the street door to our staircase. He denied kicking the door in. And I said, well, if you ever do it again, we may have to make other arrangements.
The next time he came home drunk without his key he went around the corner to his Gran’s house where his brother Rab was living in the spare room. He crawled into bed with Rab and went to sleep. Rab woke up to discover Paddy starting to pee in a corner of the bedroom and told him to get out to the bathroom. Paddy didn’t manage to find the bathroom and peed under the kitchen table. Next morning Paddy’s parents arrived early for a visit. Scene: Gran, Rab, and the parents standing in the kitchen while Paddy is under the table mopping up. Paddy’s father says, “Aye, Mother, he’s a monster.” Paddy’s mother says, “Nay, now, he’s no a monster.” And Paddy pipes up from under the table, “Aye, Ma. It’s true. I’m a monster. I’m a monster.”
At a party I met a Marxist saint. I told him about the International Young Socialists and polished my rebel credentials by casually mentioning Frantz Fanon, Regis Debray, Albert Camus, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver. He gave me that H. B. Acton-look of silent dismissal. He had quit university to go north to Inverness where he worked every day as a volunteer carpenter and brick layer, building houses for poor people. He meant this, and I read it so, as a quiet rebuke of my lack of seriousness. I had never met a saint before. I was appropriately annoyed and humiliated.
I am not a serious person. Mind you, I am more serious than most. I am serially serious. But I stop at a full commitment to an idea, or practice, or faith, or manner of life. One of my undergraduate professors called me “brittlely brilliant.” I am easy prey to the true believers like my tutor and the Marxist saint, not to mention the earnest Presbyterian in the Haldane Library. It’s not easy to say why I stop. I get bored. The serious world begins to look funny to me. Words like stolid, drone, solemn, narrow, repetitive, and mechanical come to mind. I don’t understand this in myself. Something uniquely (that is, my own) paradoxical there. I really did admire the Marxist saint, who nonetheless suffered from the sin of snobbery like so many others.
Paddy was starting to date a woman whose nickname was Horse, for a reason that now escapes me. She was a veterinary student, too, and the love of his life. They raised a family and stayed together till she died. Once sleeping over at her flat, he got up to pee and couldn’t find his way back to her room. He got into bed with her flatmate down the hall.
It bears mentioning that Paddy was the finest friend I made in Edinburgh, a kind, loyal, intelligent man, except when he was drunk. Even when drunk, his only sin was a tendency to disorientate while tip-toeing to and from the bathroom.
Katie and I would drive to Cramond for tea and scones. Once she took me to her family place at Crail and we walked holding hands along the sea wall. We would climb up to the foot of Salisbury Crags and read the Sunday papers in the shelter of a rock outcrop. She was living at Pollack Halls, the undergraduate residence. A couple had left their door open and had sex an entire afternoon in full view of anyone who wanted to look in. We watched the Andy Warhol movie Fleshtogether. She was always seeing Eddie in the street and forever being disappointed. I thought, What kind of lover would come back to town without telling you?
I was showing a visiting friend from Canada the ropes. We crashed a party in Morningside after the pubs closed. Part of the thing about crashing parties was that I could never figure out why we did it. I didn’t much like parties even when I was invited. I started chatting up the hostess, whom I had never met. Some particular friend was late. She was grumpy and bored with her own party. Together we came up with a plan to stave off boredom for a few minutes. She led me upstairs to her bedroom. We were both drunk and what ensued was more like a naked rugby scrum than sex. I remember that in the end we couldn’t agree on what to do and gave up. Years later my visiting friend, a runagate Presbyterian from Nova Scotia who married an ex Anglican nun, chanced to review my first book of literary essays for the Globe and Mail, in the course of which review he called me “lascivious.” No doubt he was remembering that night.
I read James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, about a super-religious Scotsman who believes he is already saved, so everything he does is righteous in the eye of the Lord right up to and including the murder of people he thinks are behaving badly. He ends up pursued by demons, goes insane, and hangs himself. I took Confessions to be the last word on all the sanctimonious Presbyterians of the spirit I have met in my life.
One snowy afternoon Paddy and I set out from the flat toward the hills. That day in the snow and fog even he got lost, but we kept running, actually, it seemed, racing faster and faster the longer we were out, challenging one another. Next day he was in the hospital with a collapsed lung.
The Scottish poet and I hitchhiked through the Highlands and the Great Glen. Clouds and rain followed us. At Glencoe, the bunks at the hostel were packed with climbers snowed off the mountains. We tried one of the mountain trails but had to feel our way back to the trail head in the fog after the first quarter of a mile. There is a photograph of us looking wind- swept, damp eyed, and chilled on the brown drizzled waste of Rannoch Moor. The Scottish poet is wearing an embroidered Afghan sheepskin coat with waves of red hair tumbling down her shoulders.
In 1974 in June I was back in Edinburgh for a visit. I came out of the library one afternoon and spotted Harry Acton shuffling wearily along the iron fence opposite on George Square. I did not rush up to remind him of my existence or express my gratitude for his steadfast support. Instead, I fingered my humiliations like a rosary, the dinner party, all the embarrassingly silent colloquies in his office, and I thought how much I disliked the man and how much he deserved my dislike. A week later I read his obituary in the Scotsman. He had died that day, or the next. The fact that I had attended so nearly upon the hour of his death gave me an uneasy feeling (Ahndung), as if somehow I had been complicit, as if I had slain him with my thoughts. He was only 66 (but looked like a 102-year-old garden gnome in the three-piece tweed suit). His grave stone is inscribed in Latin only.
I have since tried many times to use my Death Ray on other, equally deserving people but with little effect.
My memories of Edinburgh are all fog, rain, and gray buildings mixed with long summer twilights and the occasional hot day when secretaries would stretch on the grass in George Square and loosen their bras in the sunlight. Once I drove through Holyrood in a fog so thick I couldn’t see the lamp posts till they were beside me. Suddenly a sheep appeared in the headlights. The park sheep had gotten lost in the fog and congregated suicidally on the circle road as sheep will.
I finished my dissertation a month before I had to sit my final examinations. Three three-hour written papers: one on my dissertation topic, one on Kant in general, and one on philosophy in general. It is difficult to convey how little philosophy, outside of Kant, I had read. I had talked my way into graduate school with a three-year general bachelor’s degree, a uniquely Canadian invention. I never actually mentioned that there was a difference between a general BA and an honours BA, or that I had not majored in anything. I set myself the task of reading a book a day by a different philosopher. At the time this seemed the most efficient and cost effective way of absorbing the work of all those wordy thinkers like Nietzsche, Hegel, Spinoza, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Descartes. I just had to retain what I read for a month. The papers took the form of identify-and-discuss questions. Identify the quote, the work, and the author and say something intelligent. I sailed through the first Kant paper, then felt myself begin to slip moorings and drift in the second. The night of the third paper I did not sleep. I spent the whole time leafing through the pages of books I had read a week before but no longer recognized. I had terrible premonitory Ahndung feelings, uncanny intimations of catastrophe. I walked to the university that morning in a fog of delusional terror. It started as I turned off Abbeyhill up Calton Road by the burial ground. First one, then another, and another, ghostly presence slipped out of the ground and began to clap. Soon they lined the street, solemnly applauding my progress. It was very real, and it didn’t bring me joy or hope, just a sense of camaraderie with the dead, with their struggles, aspirations, and defeats. But it gave me a push. My take on how that paper went is that I went zero for three on passage identifications but nonetheless wrote wonderfully astute and highly entertaining essays on the assumption that acting as if I knew what I was doing would carry some weight.
It might have come as a surprise to Harry Acton, among others, that I actually graduated. He was almost totally silent during my viva, but W. H. Walsh, the department chair and the real Kant scholar at the university, admired my dissertation. To me, after everything I endured in Edinburgh, graduation was beside the point. I even forgot to attend the ceremony. Perhaps I didn’t forget, only tried very hard to forget — another dramatic gesture. I was eating sausages, eggs, and chips in the Student Union across the street. They were playing Elton John’s “Your Song.” The Scottish poet was telling me about her girlfriend who couldn’t have sex because her vagina was too tight. Her doctor had given her a glass dildo to help her expand herself. Someone dropped a copy of the graduation program on the table.
I gave up the lease on Easter Road but had three weeks to kill before my plane home. The Scottish poet and I moved into an attic above a flat being renovated by a punter friend of hers. We slept on blankets over bare planks through which you could see the flat below. I spent the days with the punter at his betting shop. The morning we moved in, a prim young mother in a mini-skirt walked by pushing a pram. I watched her go. My eyes lingered on her. She knew I was watching her; she also knew that I knew that she knew I was watching her.
The situation was rife with presentiments. At the turn, she stopped and reached into the pram to adjust the baby’s coverlet. Her skirt rode up. Her bare buttocks gleamed in the sunlight.
Douglas Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, four collections of literary nonfiction. Between 2010 and 2017, he published the online monthly magazine Numéro Cinq. His novel Elle won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in Canada and was a finalist for the Impac Dublin Literary Award.