I feel a bit about the Scottish referendum as I did about the 2005 Ashes series. In both cases, those of us in the know were gripped with a nervous tension right from the very beginning. Shane Warne, Alex Salmond: the same smirk, the girth, the same potentially lethal form. That whole summer of 2005 I was on the rack, following every convulsive twist and turn, hoping against hope that England would manage to cling on to a precarious lead until stumps were drawn on the final day of the series. Tracking the Scottish referendum has been a similarly nerve-jangling experience. Now, as the climax approaches, the whole country has at last caught up with my obsession. Just as crowds snaked round the Oval in the September of 2005, so suddenly does everyone seem to have a view on sterlingisation and devo max. With a week to go, there is really only the one question left for a Unionist like me to ponder: where on earth is Better Together’s Kevin Pietersen?
I have always respected the potency of Salmond’s ambition to break up Britain because I once shared it myself. At the age of 24, I became — rather improbably for someone who had mostly lived in Wiltshire — a Scottish Nationalist. Books back then seemed to surprise me more powerfully than they do now — and Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark, which I picked up quite by chance in a jumble sale one day, affected me like a fever. My enjoyment of it led me in turn to read Gray’s recently published Why Scots Should Rule Scotland: a polemic which did exactly what it said on the tin. For a few sweet months after that, I was massive for Scottish independence, and all for the break-up of Britain. In time, as my counter-cultural obsessions tended to do, my enthusiasm for replacing the United Kingdom with an assortment of workers’ republics faded — and serves me now as an inoculation. Nevertheless, I have not forgotten what it felt to feel as so many Scots at the moment do. There is a passion and an optimism there that it would be wonderful to harness for the good of everyone in this shared island of ours.
For much of this year, the historian Dan Snow and I have been busy persuading people to sign a letter to the Scottish electorate. We wrote it with the aim of letting the Scots know how very much we value their contribution to the United Kingdom, and expressing our hope that they will vote to renew their bonds of citizenship with the rest of us in Britain. Our initial ambition was to get as many luminaries to sign it as we possibly could: a project which we anticipated would be akin to dropping pebbles into the Grand Canyon, and hoping to hit the odd tin can. In the event, though, we needn’t have worried. The response was overwhelming. Figures from every field of British achievement agreed to sign it. I doubt there has ever before been a letter that has included among its signatories a Star Trek captain, a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and a Beatle. Now, though, what really matters is to get signatories from everywhere across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can find the letter at www.letsstaytogether.org.uk. If you agree with its sentiments, I would beg you to sign it.
There’s certainly no lack of things to worry about. If it’s not the future of the United Kingdom, then it’s the Asian lion. Smaller than its more celebrated African cousin, and boasting a distinctive fold of skin on the belly, it once roamed everywhere from Greece to India. Now, though, it is to be found in the wild only in a single scrap of Gujarati forest — and even there, it seems, many of the lions are prone to catching lethal diseases, or else falling into village wells and drowning. The Zoological Society of London is spearheading a campaign to save the species, and in aid of its campaign I’ll be giving a talk next week directly in front of the zoo’s two magnificent females. From the Lion Gate to the Nineveh friezes, testimony can be found everywhere to the awe felt by ancient civilisations for the lion. This same awe, though, was precisely what served to doom it. Hunted as the ultimate trophy, it now clings on precariously to survival, dependent on our charity. To such humiliating straits do humans reduce the noblest of beasts.
It’s not all tension and despondency, though. Next week, the Authors CC are playing the most improbable opposition that I will ever have confronted on a cricket pitch: the Vatican. The fact that their batting order is apparently stuffed to the gills with beefy seminarians from the Subcontinent worries me not a jot — for the sheer joy of bowling at the Holy See will outweigh any sense of trepidation. Fourteen hundred years after Augustine and his band of monks landed in Kent, I hope that Pope Gregory the Great will be gazing down from heaven at our match, and smiling in approval.
Tom Holland’s books include In the Shadow of the Sword and Rubicon.
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