Alex Salmond, Democracy, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh University Student Newspaper, Enlightenment, European Union, Feminism, Humor, Ian Rankin, John Gibson Lockhart, Satire, Scottish Enlightenment, Scottish Independence, Secret Societies, Students, The Speculative Society, Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine's Skeleton
On the bus yesterday, between Leith and Morningside, I sat and examined the Edinburgh University Student Newspaper’s front-page investigation into the Speculative Society (the Spec), a secret society which meets by candlelight every Wednesday at the Old College. The Spec was founded in 1764 and Scott and Stevenson figure amongst its alumni. It is very fine to savour the incongruous glamour of this Gothic-Enlightened society, but the Student’s investigation gradually began to reflect the same, stultifying mean-spiritedness of the professional media, and at the exact points where one would expect to find it. The Spec is all-male and so the Student had to procure some random feminist (Stacey Devine, the NUS’s Scottish Women’s Officer, if you’re wondering) to be predictably concerned by this anomaly. The Spec is a secret society and so the Student had to be predictably concerned by who was funding all of the necessary regulation and taxation of its meeting room. Predictably, the Spec had soon become something which we were all obliged to be concerned about.
I raised the topic of the Spec when dining with my editor James that evening, assuming that he probably knew even less about it than I did, only to be stunned by the news that he had previously attended a meeting of this society. “You must tell me everything,” I insisted. “Although, you are undoubtedly bound by a strict code of…”
“I can’t picture that brigade of twits ceremonially disembowelling a traitor – they wouldn’t know where to start. The whole society would be defeated trying to change a light bulb.”
“Oh dear, but you must be infuriated by the Student’s investigation? You’ve never given an inch in your defence of Freedom of Association, even with such extreme cases as the all-white BNP.”
“Yes, but the Spec is not being shut down by the state. The University is under democratic control and they have the right to boot any society that they find obnoxious off their premises. I’d happily see the Spec reconvene in their nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“I gather that you had a disagreeable experience with the Spec. Did they vote down one of your essays?”
“An essay from me would do them the world of good. But I never submitted one.”
“You must tell me all about this at once.”
“Well, there are three ranks of member: ordinary, extraordinary, and honorary. Almost all of the ordinary members are law students; they each have to be nominated for election by two existing members; and it takes three years of membership to achieve extraordinary status. The defined purpose of the Spec is to promote “improvement in literary composition and public speaking.” The Lallands Peat blogger has memorably envisaged the Spec’s “interminable marble-mouthed speeches, [with] each dreary drollery prompting port-soaked guffaws and claret cackles from the assembled jurisprudes.” In reality, it is even worse than that.”
“You were invited to become an honorary member?”
“There are a number of these, each of them prominent fixtures within the Edinburgh establishment. As the editor of Edinburgh’s leading literary website, I was a shoo-in.”
“Who nominated you?”
“The novelist Ian Rankin and Sir Timothy O’Shea, the Principal of Edinburgh University.”
“And why, may I ask, did you consent to this? To me, it looks suspiciously like corruption.”
James turned to me stiffly, with all the colossal grandeur of the offended. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, it’s a bit difficult for you to slag off the latest Ian Rankin or expose holes in the university’s finances when you end your day slurping port with these characters.”
“I see no earthly reason why not.” That spark had lit up in James’ eye which you always notice when he grows testy. He is only ever really awake when he becomes annoyed. “I can toast a man with wine one day, and cut his throat with a song on my lips the next. Besides, you’re missing the point. I had the chance to hobnob with an elite of young, illustrious people who will determine the law and the future of this country. More practically, Tychy has taken a longstanding literary interest in all-male clubs; we’ve composed our own Noctes Ambrosianae and studied Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club,” both of which are/were conceivably modelled upon the Spec. To slip into that secret room, and observe its candlelit affairs, is to access a precious remaining sliver of authenticity which hasn’t been photographed from a thousand angles by a billion smartphones. Edinburgh reduces everybody to the same, hapless tourist in the end; and it has become practically impossible to encounter any germ of real, alien history which has evaded the industrial processing and repackaging.”
“So who did you see at the Spec?”
“Slop some more vodka in there and I’ll tell you.”
There was nobody female and nobody who was anything other than conventionally white. It looked like Thatcher’s cabinet without Thatcher. There was the Duke of Edinburgh, although he was on a lot of pills, and Prince Andrew. There was Alex Salmond and John Swinney. Edinburgh’s Lord Provost was there and various Lord Judges from the Supreme Court, all looking as pompous and brainless as pigeons. Everybody was so uber-confident that nobody appeared to be under thirty-five, and it was hard to remind oneself that most of these magnificent characters were still only students.
Ian Rankin had been helping to put away the coats, and then he came over and wafted a hand across my face. “You’ve gone very quiet, James?”
“I’m coming round. I can’t believe that you have all of this bottled up down here.”
“It’s nice to hear something other than the usual automatic gripes. People used to contend that secret societies feasted on the flesh of babies and threw their bodies down wells. Now we are reduced to tawdry paedophile rings who pester children in care homes and nobble policemen. Still, I guess that’s progress for you.”
Kenny MacAskill cut in. “He’s still going to be complaining about the lack of female members, though, aren’t ye?”
I wagged a finger at him. “You’re going to maintain that the society’s rules do not actually prohibit female membership and that it is merely a monumental coincidence that no woman has ever been elected to the Spec?”
Everybody around me had become mildly alert, as if some force had swooped down and sucked half the oxygen out of the room. Yet the affable smiles continued to creak away. “Possibly James, but you’ll understand why women do not fit into this society before the night is done.”
Rankin jostled me through the students in the direction of an ancient manuscript, upon which he made me scratch some semblance of my name with the point of a quill. I was informed that because my shoes were the wrong shade of black, or some such nonsense, I would have to pay a fine. I was dreading this, since the Spec’s financial transactions were all conducted in Victorian coinage. I was duly relieved of a thrupenny bit which I had had especially forged by the Royal Mint at a cost of thousands of pounds.
Rankin tried to cheer me up by showing off some of the Spec’s quainter memorabilia. “Hanging on the door of the gents is the death mask of Walter Scott. You’re presently standing on the flag which Robert Louis Stevenson’s corpse was wrapped in [I jumped]. And overhead is the famous portrait of John Gibson Lockhart which was turned to the wall once he had written a book ridiculing the Spec.”
“I can’t wait for the port. I imagine that it was last out of the bottle in the eighteenth century.”
Rankin frowned. “I don’t want you to be disappointed, James. It’s easy to get swept away by the atmosphere of our club, but the eighteenth century is as dead as the dinosaurs. You can be nostalgic for a century which had regarded men as autonomous creatures who could tame the world with nothing but their reason. Enlightenment is today like a cumbersome, musty old coat which you’ll only put on when circumstances become completely inhospitable.”
At that moment the room was collecting around Alex Salmond, who was prising open a wooden crate and handing out bottles of a very new, cheap-looking white wine. The bottles circulated around the room and wine glasses were suddenly raised everywhere like a meadow of poppies. I managed to intercept a passing bottle and upon studying it, I took a step back in amazement. This proclaimed itself to be the European Union’s house champagne, produced in Belgium and otherwise served only at the European Commission’s offices.
I snuffled some down. It tasted like unpleasant water but eventually a sort of annoying dizziness descended on me like a cloud of gnats.
Salmond was reporting that three ordinary members would be submitting papers that night. We were immediately looking about for chairs, only to see that the most eminent figures in the room had already secured them all. There was nothing else but for us to dutifully seat ourselves en masse and cross-legged on the floor.
The first paper was concerned with a new directive which was passing through committee stage at the European Commission and which aimed to proscribe the use of gender. Traditional terms such as male and female, the speaker reasoned, discriminated against those who were neither or both. Society had condemned many unfortunate people to the lifelong prison sentence of being a man; a miscarriage of justice for every intricately gender-bent human being who found themselves categorised in such a crass way. The speaker hoped to witness an age when to call somebody a man would generate as much outrage as calling them a spastic or a wop.
The speaker finished reading out his paper and he stood flushed and beaming as the room applauded. Salmond was proposing that the paper be inducted at once into the Spec’s library but as we were sliding into this absurdity, my head rang with shock and I managed to yell out an objection.
“Wouldn’t it be a great deal of inconvenience to eradicate gender? For one thing, every public toilet up and down the country would have to be demolished.”
The Spec were startled. They all looked at the student who had submitted the paper.
He stammered and looked rather wild and eventually blurted out that it would have been a great deal of inconvenience to abolish apartheid. The Spec were pleasantly surprised by the good sense of this and my objection was overruled.
We next heard from a gentleman who was very worried that there was insufficient proportional representation in the European parliament. He wanted to allocate each voter fifty votes, so that every party was then bound to get at least one. He also proposed allowing voters to vote for parties or candidates who were standing in any nation across the EU, apparently on the grounds that this would open up European democracy. By now, I was profoundly depressed. The third speaker wanted to do away with all existing measures of alcohol – litres and pints alike – in favour of units. Receiving your Guinness in medical units would help you to keep track of how many you had consumed. Recent research had shown that only 0.03 per cent of drinkers actually counted their units.
Many in the room were nodding in agreement, which struck me as peculiar since we had between us finished off virtually an entire crate of the European Union’s house champagne. It was vile stuff and my bladder was now throbbing like a disco.
In short, the Spec was not an Enlightened club for the promotion of public knowledge, but the most half-baked Liberal Democrat think-tank. The evening seemed to be winding down and I was ready to tiptoe away and press beyond Walter Scott’s death mask to the urinal, when Salmond reappeared to deliver one final announcement. He recounted how these meetings always ended with a ceremony which signified the membership’s eternal esteem for democracy. They were presently retrieving the Spec’s most prized piece of memorabilia from their archives…
Two technicians in lab coats and cotton gloves were now laying out this article on a sort of truckle bed. The technicians then stood aside to reveal a small but almost complete skeleton. Although skeletons are usually, in my experience, a faded mushroom colour, this one seemed to have been polished like ivory.
“Good evening Thomas,” Salmond laughed, gloating over the bones. “Deem yourselves privileged, my brothers, to clap eyes on what remains of Thomas Paine. And now, let us pay our regards to this prophet of democracy!” Salmond gulped extravagantly from his flagon of EU house champagne and smacked his lips with a flourish.
The law students were all on their feet, fumbling with their flies and downing their last of the EU’s juice. There was a pause, an instant of intense concentration, and then countless trembling arcs of piss converged over the skull of Tom Paine. There were cheers of “democracy!” and “the EU!” Salmond stood back, his legs fabulously astride, as he contributed his own effort to the drenching.
I was raging at this. “You will never defeat democracy!” I gasped over the hullabaloo. “The demos will always overcome… oh my word!” With my hand over my nose, I was suddenly fleeing from the abominable stench of urine and the foul shining pool which was gliding across the floor.
I never again set foot in a Spec meeting, but I trust that I have sufficiently illustrated why there are no female members.