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Paul Coates -- Confidential File, March 19, 1959

March 19, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Missing Bagpipes Recall Spirit of '75

Paul_coatesThe Berlin crisis notwithstanding, I've got a little international incident all my own with the British Empire.

Specifically, it involves that portion of Her Majesty's acreage north of the playing field of Eaton and known, a shade too lyrically, as "Bonnie Scotland."

As a small boy I was brainwashed by a strongly nationalistic grandmother who kept up a constant barrage of propaganda that that the Scots were a race apart, and a cut above all other people.

She pointedly neglected to tell me that in our own immediate line of Scottish descent were three good-sized alcoholics, a great-uncle Alec who was considered a bit nutty by all his neighbors, and a cousin who deserted his wife to run amok with a barmaid from a Glasgow pub.

1959_0319_red_streak Instead, she would rock me on her knee, and tell me over and over again the heroic, noble exploits of Robert the Bruce, who restored Scottish independence, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who fearlessly raised his father's standard at Glenfinnan, and Mary, Queen of Scots, who was so noble she didn't even blink an eye when they cut her head off. 

After grandma's thorough indoctrination, I developed a sense of heritage out of all proportion to the facts. And, of course, when I finally visited Scotland last fall, I bought a set of bagpipes.

I ordered them from a quaint, musty little shop in Edinburgh and paid cash after being assured in a rich burr that they would be in Los Angeles within two months.

Then I continued my trip through Europe, ordering little knickknacks all along the way, Even a camel seat from a shifty-eyed Moroccan Arab whom I felt sure was in the slave trade on the side. Everything I ordered and paid for arrived. Everything -- except my bagpipes.

The other day I casually mentioned this at cocktails to Mr. James MacLeod, information officer of the Los Angeles British Consulate.

1959_0319_duncan"Umm," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "A bit embarrassing, I wonder if we shouldn't send through a communication. On an official level, that is."

"It isn't necessary," I lied. "Not much money was involved."

"Hardly a question of money, old man," he said briskly. "It's a matter of . . . "

"Principle?" I suggested.

"Precisely," he replied.

He made a few notes. And, the next morning, he "rang me up," as we say.

"MacLeod, here," he announced. "Have had a chat with the chaps at the consulate. They're quite disturbed about this ugly business. Feel as I do -- that we should handle it through proper channels."

I didn't quite have the courage to ask him what "proper channels" would mean. But I can only imagine that a diplomatic pouch has already gone forth with a top-priority stamp to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr.Selwyn Lloyd. 

They Really Mean It

1959_0319_duncan_02"Sir," it probably reads, "I have the honor to bring to your attention an apparently distressing departure from the highest standards of probity on the part of our bagpipe industry.

"An American journalist, Mr. Paul Coates, claims to have purchased a set of bagpipes in Edinburgh six months ago, and has not yet received delivery. He is making a rather nasty issue of this and has intimated that, if delivery is not effected forthwith, he has the influence to make this a matter of public knowledge.

"I realize, sir, this might appear to be a matter of minor import. However, I am sure that any such charge which reflects on the integrity of the Empire deserves immediate consideration at the uppermost level."

You hear that, dad? "Uppermost level." You know what that means? Macmillan! Actually, I hate to start a fuss. But we have to stand up for our rights. If we don't, they'll have us right back where they did in 1775.