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24 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:53am

Kirsty Wark’s Diary: A vaccine boost, Zoom cocktails, and why Scotland’s fate rests on the Salmond inquiry

With the two titans of Scottish nationalism locked in a struggle, the political story playing out is turning into a melodrama of Shakespearean proportions.

By Kirsty Wark

The Louisa Jordan Nightingale hospital sits on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, housed in the hangar-like exhibition centre. I had watched the building’s speedy transformation last spring and witnessed the ominous addition of two huge gleaming white oxygen tanks attached to the exterior. Despite the subsequent far too high Covid death rate, the hospital has never been called into action – until now.

I was very moved as I stood in the vaccine queue, which trailed past all the empty bays, each one kitted out with multiple power points, sanitising stations and Perspex screens, ready for patients who thankfully never came. Instead, we sat in the same bays to be inoculated, and I felt humbled by the effort of so many of the staff who delivered such a smooth operation with good humour and kindness. I waited, ready to be vaccinated by a young dentist, while he and a nurse carefully discussed the doses in each vial, determined that none should be wasted.

I had given myself the best chance of it going well – according to an article in the New Scientist read out by my Newsnight colleague and expert in all things Covid, Verity Murphy. Apparently, studies of all vaccines have demonstrated that avoiding alcohol in the previous 48 hours and feeling generally well disposed can add to the vaccine’s efficacy. Sadly, that meant the night before my jag (the Scottish version of “jab”, since you ask) I had to abstain when I joined girlfriends for a Zoom cocktail party. One of the gang, Ruth, who is shielding, had asked a neighbour to pick her up a “Porn Star martini” cocktail or two from M&S. Surely not? From Marks and Spencer? It turns out that, following complaints about the name, M&S now calls it a “Passion Star martini”. Of course! It’s all about knowing your customer.

What to watch

It’s taking me a long time to get over the fact Netflix’s French TV comedy show Call My Agent! has ended. As we did with Schitt’s Creek, we’ve taken to deconstructing the series in the Newsnight office, character by character, as if we are hanging on to Andréa, Gabriel and the rest for dear life.

The loss has been alleviated somewhat by the crime drama Ozark, but I have also watched another truly absorbing piece of TV – the forthcoming feature documentary Killing Escobar. I was lucky enough to have had privileged access because it was made by my husband’s production company. It is the astonishing true story of how one Glasgow hard man, Peter McAleese – ex-SAS – was hired in 1989 by the Cali cartel, a rival drug outfit, to put together a team to go to Colombia and kill Pablo Escobar. That they didn’t succeed is almost incidental, because they were so sure of success that they captured the whole escapade on 1980s home video cameras. And so we see their dangerous operation unfold on film, using original footage and dramatic reconstruction in Colombia – quite a feat to produce in the middle of the pandemic.

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[see also: Call My Agent! captures the absurdity of the film industry]

Solace in New South Wales

The longlist of the Walter Scott Historical Fiction prize has just been announced. I am a judge this year, and we are now reading in preparation for our robust discussion in early March, out of which will emerge the shortlist for the £25,000 prize. Reading fiction has been a great solace for many of us this past year and there are rich pickings here, as well as a leaning towards Australia. Whether or not it makes the cut, I commend to you Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves, set in 1788 in New South Wales and told in the wonderful, clear voice of a young woman from Devon, who finds herself all but stranded in the new colony.

The struggle for Scotland

As I read all this fiction, the real-life political story playing out in Scotland is turning into a melodrama of Shakespearean proportions. The two titans of Scottish nationalism are locked in a struggle in which, if Alex Salmond brings down his former protégée Nicola Sturgeon, the calculations about Scottish independence could change radically. The First Minister’s positive approval ratings, resulting partly from her handling of the Covid crisis, could stand for nought if she is found to have broken the ministerial code.

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As I write, both Salmond and Sturgeon are due to appear in front of the Scottish parliament’s inquiry into who knew what, when, about sexual harassment allegations against Salmond. It is extraordinary to think their performances could have a direct impact on the whole future of the Union.

New York state of mind

I have visited New York vicariously, and longingly, over the course of the past week, as I watched the seven-part Netflix documentary Pretend it’s a City, starring two of Gotham’s most famous residents, who are also old friends. I was preparing to record a Newsnight interview with one of them, Fran Lebowitz, the humourist and all-round wisecracker. Martin Scorsese, who directs, persuaded her to talk about the city they both love – not really a tough ask. The series is an engaging riff on the only city she could stand to live in, from transport to tourists who clog the street (“Hey, pretend it’s a city! Keep moving!”) to the Subway, for which she has just recorded onboard announcements. Can you imagine?

When we spoke there was, of course, her wit, but also a grave moment when she told me that seeing the Confederate flag flying during the Capitol Hill riots in January reminded her of the swastika.

Back to the classroom

“Spring has sprung, the grass has riz… I wonder where the children is?” In Scotland, the phased return of pupils has begun, and there was excited chatter as little children passed our house this morning on the way to school. It is a joyful moment for the whole country. 

Kirsty Wark is a presenter of “Newsnight” on BBC Two and “The Reunion” on BBC Radio 4

[see also: The Alex Salmond affair has shown Scotland at its worst]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks