BREXIT Tears is published by Kettillonia, the small press run by the novelist James Robertson. I wrote about Robertson’s novels in The National in an essay called “Pushing boundaries” (June 10, 2019).

READ MORE: Pushing boundaries: Alan Riach on James Robertson, Ali Smith and Alan Warner

Brexit Tears pushes boundaries of a different kind from those encountered in Robertson’s novels.

It’s a collection of images by Calum Colvin, the artist and professor of Fine Art Photography at the University of Dundee, along with a series of epigrammatic puns by Robert Crawford, the poet and professor of Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews University.

Words and images talk to each other through forceful but ambiguous meanings. The words themselves engage ambiguity while emphasising the value of judgment. We can enjoy the playfulness, but they also sustain protest and lament, both angry and determined.

The work is resigned: there is no sentimental wishfulness about what we have failed to prevent (at least, so far, in Scotland), but there is also a sense of why we need to keep resisting it. The lament is there in the title: tears are being shed, but the sheer tearing away, the violence in the word “tears” (what’s being torn) is registered as well.

The book is beautifully produced, on silk art paper, with bold upper case lettering and brightly coloured, sharp and vivid pictures. But the cover, white letters on a black background, is as stark and decisive as a headstone. Consider a few examples of the texts.


The National:


ITS impact is instantaneous and should need no further comment. However, as the great American poet William Carlos Williams once said, “You should never explain a poem, but it always helps.”

We’re surely all – or almost all of us – aware of email addresses that end in “dotcom” or literally “.com” and it’s easy to mistake the “m” sound for an “n” sound, so you might look twice before you see what should be obvious.

And that’s how con-tricks work. Con as in “confidence”: the trick is to seduce you into having confidence in something you should be sceptical about, that you should not trust for a moment – for a moment is all it takes. Brexit is surely the biggest “Leave” con-trick of them all (Like “Better Together” – answer: “Stronger Apart”).

The letters on the page pun and provoke, back and forth, covering years of Westminster government ineptitude, malevolent self-servicing intention, and skilful manipulation (because it has operated effectively). The meanings the letters construct employ all these things and more.

Ali Smith once said she grew up with an appetite for reading everything she could see, the side of a cornflakes packet, the side of a pencil, the side of a bus. If only more people could have read the side of a bus, truthfully.

The National:


AN interface: “Scottish Labour” and “labour pains”: two pairs of words that should belong in different worlds, you might think. Bring them together and there’s a judgment: Scottish Labour pains because it’s so awful, so evasive of necessary questions, and its history of Unionism has been horrible to see unfolding.

But remember the actual birth of the Labour Party through the potency of the Labour movement, breaking through from the Liberal Party as once was in the 19th century into outright opposition to class privilege and entitlement which the Conservative and Unionist Party stood and still stands for.

Labour’s formation began with the Scottish Labour Party in 1888, then the Independent Labour Party in 1895, and only then the Labour Party as such in 1906.

WE might recollect the founders, Keir Hardie and RB Cunninghame Graham. In their day, more than 100 years ago, home rule and independence were Labour priorities, to break up the British Empire and its history of exploitation, and to establish rights for working men and women.

Do the three words of the poem suggest even fancifully that a truly Scottish Labour Party might even yet begin to feel its own birth pangs returning? Perhaps a sufficient number of party members believe in Scottish independence to suggest that it’s possible. If so, it would be a fulfilment of Cunninghame Graham’s practical insistence that the Labour movement and the vision of an independent Scotland could only realise something valuable by working together.


The National:


“WITHDRAWAL Agreement” is replaced by its opposite meaning, “Withdraw All Agreement”, which seems no more than a fair description and as pessimistic as you might imagine. Then you might ask how the words connect with the terrifying suggestion in the image.



AND the positive sense of breaking free from an imprisonment, liberation from diminishment and limitation, is surely a positive prospect. But the warning remains.


AND a much larger sense of neither dependence not isolationism is affirmed in the idea of interdependence, which requires both individual nations and internationalism.


AND to illustrate that, instead of the insidious lie of the advertising campaign (buy this for the sake of your self-esteem: BECAUSE), we have the understanding that Scotland is multiple, seen through the French language (Ecosse), or implicitly as it might be understood through any number of languages in the world, in its own right, in an international context.


IN her novel Spring, Ali Smith writes: “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth” and “We need it not to matter what words mean.” And: “We’re what this country’s needed all along ,we’re what you need, we’re what you want.”

This book reminds us that we want something else.

Brexit Tears costs £10 (including postage and packing) via PayPal from

Payment by cheque is also possible by arrangement with the publisher.