The Wee Book of Calvin

If you have an aversion to hugging men (assuming your are a man), kissing women whom you have just met at a formal dinner party, watching the Oprah Winfrey show, hanging on to every word of Dan Rather, bitchy females, the emphasis on self-esteem and role models, cultural diversity, sensitivity training, single-parents, buying self-help books, being non-judgmental, admiring homosexuality, watching show business patriotism at the Super Bowl, and a whole host of other modern affectations and afflictions, I have a book that will help to restore your faith in human nature.

The Wee Book of Calvin by Bill Duncan sub-titled Air-Kissing in the North-East is the perfect antidote to the sugary froth of our modern world. The book has nothing to do with Calvin Klein but everything to do with John Calvin who advocated self-control, discipline and respect for others in the battle of life.

Set in North Eastern Scotland around the 1950s, the book is a quasi biography of growing up in a misty cold gloomy climate, inhabited by people who were (and probably still are) emotionally distant, cold, unsympathetic to human frailties, gloomy, monosyllabic in conversation, realistic – almost fatalistic, and with low expectations for most of mankind. Such people usually had an elementary education (but with an extraordinary ability to do mental arithmetic when it concerned money or betting) and were effective parents, optimistic about the future, and much wiser than those with PhDs.

Personal achievement and personal responsibility were encouraged, indeed essential if you were to be successful in such a harsh world, but parents actively discouraged self-importance and any sign of conceit. Scotland in that era was more a state of mind, rather than a piece of geography.

The book is as the author states “a counterblast to the easy comfort and cosy reassurance of all of those things you hate: antidote to the Axis of Evil, the unholy amalgam of Zen, Californian, chilled-out, ethnic, post hippie, laid back, Celtic and New Age.”

He describes a world of few words, of doing not being, high expectations and low praise, of action not feeling, personal insults, hard drinking, and poverty. High self-esteem, for example, was expressed by the town of Kirriemuir when it boasted of being “the flu capital of the world."

Interesting as the bio is, the book contains numerous sayings from a bygone age of social comment, advice, and general guidance on the state of the world and pithy advice. Almost all quotations are brief, savagely to the point and expressed in language that leaves no scope for misunderstanding. The collective folklore is from one-handed philosophers – no shades of grey and no feelings of guilt – example, a hangover is the reward for having had a good time. There is not a politically correct sentiment in the whole text.

I have listed a dozen of what I think are the best aphorisms from this small part of the world which stretches about 100 miles up the Northeast coast of Scotland (and would include Kirkcaldy – the birthplace of Adam Smith) from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and maybe 30 miles inland.

As a personal note, I was born in Perth (20 miles from Kirkcaldy) – now a beautiful prosperous city on the edge of the Scottish Highlands – but as a child growing up seemed to be a circumscribed world reeking with pessimism and controlled by rotten weather. As I grew older, I realised as most of us eventually do that the world of our parents was much more complex, and more pleasant than we thought, and that the accumulated wisdom of the ages is better guide for a happy life than all the loathsome new-age self help books now on sale or the smug edicts of the welfare state. Was this, I wonder, the spontaneous order created by human experience and action?

With that as a background, here is a sampler of Scotch wisdom from another era that would have had the endorsement of Adam Smith, John McCulloch and other figures in the Scottish enlightenment. I somehow think that Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, and even a softie like Lew Rockwell would also approve. For those who do not have the advantage of having been born in Scotland, I have provided an English translation when I think it is needed.

  1. “Ye can tell the criminal fae the face in the crib."
  2. “Let the laddie play wi the knife. He'll learn.”
  3. “First braith beginning of yer daith." (The first breath is the beginning of your death).
  4. “Hang a thief when he's young, an he'll no steal when he's aald.”
  5. “Millions o women bring forth in pain millions o bairns that arenae worth haein.” (Millions of women have children that are not worth having).
  6. “Stick in at the skail, laddie, lest ye end up wi the rest o them measuring the length of yer spit on the street coarner.” Study hard at school, my boy, or your will end up with others have a spitting contest on the street corner.
  7. “Eh dinnae believe in a man daein hoosework.” I do not believe in a man doing housework.
  8. “The look on that bairn's face? Skelp it oot him.” With that child's look, he needs a beating.
  9. “A hangover – yer payment fur havin a guid time.”
  10. “Yev an erse like twa bairns fightin under a blanket.” You have a behind like two children fighting under a blanket.
  11. “Bliddy wummin. A fais that wid turn a funeral up a side street wi a voice that wid shell a prawn wi wan screech.” Bloody woman. A face that would turn a funeral procession up a side street, and a voice that would shell a prawn with one shout.
  12. “Self-pity never biled a haddock.” Self-pity never boiled a fish.

Most of the sentiments expressed above would now be unacceptable in polite company. Anyone who described a female as having a face that would turn a funeral procession up a side street would probably be accused of sexual harassment, or at least a lack of sensitivity and if said at work would probably be disciplined if not dismissed. Yet who can quarrel with their relevance, wit, and accuracy.

It should now be apparent that if you are someone who:

  • is politically incorrect;
  • believes that depression and sadness are inevitable companions in life;
  • loves silence and space;
  • prefers your own company to that of others;
  • has an unabashed admiration for the social qualities of booze;
  • is secretly, a male chauvinist pig;
  • says no more than you say yes;
  • smiles at someone's self-inflicted misfortune;
  • has a sense of humour, and sense of the ridiculous;

then this is the book for you. Use it as a companion volume to How the Scots Invented the Modern World, or even Human Action and The Road to Serfdom.

February 14, 2005