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In 1912, a profile appeared in the Bookman of a Scottish author who, it was said, ‘has breathed a new life into the moribund art of the novel; he has made the short story what a cameo might be when it is cut by the hand of a master, and he has even contrived to make the light essay and occasional article an entertaining and scholarly production?’ It concluded: ‘Mr John Buchan has now attained his literary majority; we still wait for the great work; the more ambitious flight of his matured imagination.’
More than one hundred years on, we know now that Buchan never quite lived up to those high expectations. In part, this was because he was temperamentally disinclined to innovate. He was not, for example, stylistically driven, as were his near contemporaries, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Buchan, it seems, was content to be a spinner of yarns of the kind which were allowed to unfold at leisure over port and cigars after a dinner of comfort food in the secure surroundings of a gentleman’s club or a Highland shooting lodge.
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Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968, and grew up in Ayrshire. His writing, both fictional and non-fictional, has always been concerned with what he has described as ‘selfhood and its precariousness’. The Missing (1995), his first book, is a memoir and investigation of missing persons and their effect on the consciousness of the country. Our Fathers (1999) is a poetic account of a man’s attempt to come to terms with the political and emotional values of his grandfather, a social housing pioneer in Glasgow. In 2003 he published Personality, in which the consequences of fame unfold for a young woman in the entertainment industry. His 2010 novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe returned to fame but saw him depart from the west of Scotland and travel across the Atlantic. Maf the Dog It is a sad, witty and comic tale of the last years of Marilyn Monroe’s life written from the perspective of a Maltese Terrier gifted to her by Frank Sinatra and dubbed Mafia Honey. In between appeared Be Near Me (2006), about a priest attempting to balance his emotional and intellectual loyalties whilst living in an unforgiving community.
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THREE years ago, on a bright cold morning in May, I walked out into the Lewis moor for a day at the peats. I was meeting islanders who had dug each summer for years, had grown up with the annual toil, had grown to love it, and who were able to teach me some of the Gaelic peat-words which had come down from their distant forefathers. The slabs of peat, chocolatey when first cut, were fàds, and inside were rusty fibres, known as calcas, which could be smoked, in a fagless emergency, in lieu of tobacco. The fàds, stacked on the bank, are known as rùdhan. Later, I spoke to the artist Anne Campbell. She told me that, following the example of her late father, she always walks barefoot when going to dig peat, and she gave me a glossary of moorland terms which she had collected, among them the word ‘èit’ which has a beautifully precise meaning – the placing of quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in the moonlight and attract salmon.
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VIRGINIA Woolf said famously that in order to write a woman needs an annual income of £500 (done) and ‘a room of one’s own.’ So there’s no excuse. I’ve got two rooms of my own, stacked on top of each other; half a house, in fact, overhanging the gorge of the Licenza river and the cascading terracotta tiles of the centro storico. Like its neighbours this medieval doll’s house is glued to the rock of the Orsini castle, where laundered bedlinen dries on washing lines beneath the piano nobile.
Today Licenza’s historic centre compromises its antiquity, its six centuries of evolution from defensive borgo to peaceful paese. Skeins of power cables link the roofs; gravity-defying extensions, kitchens, bathrooms, balconies, stud the walls like limpets; TV satellite dishes offer target practice for the ghosts of crossbow archers and siege engineers. Yet the essence of the little hill town endures. Its ashen limestone, its basalt cobbles, its cracks and crevices crammed with wild herbs and flowers and its timeless mountain views co-exist with the digital age. Up to a point. Broadband hasn’t reached its highest houses, which means I stroll downhill with my laptop to go online beneath a yellow parasol at the Bar della Piazza. Sunshine in cyberspace.
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WHEN James Kennaway died at the age of forty, he left behind five novels (two more were published posthumously), many successful screenplays, and a reputation with enough ballast to ensure that it was unlikely to sink in the fickle tides of critical opinion. His first novel, Tunes of Glory, had been a major success, and its screenplay gained him an Oscar nomination. His second book, Household Ghosts, took him three million words to get right, but when honed down to more manageable size proved that the first success hadn't been a fluke; an astute study of sexual deceit and aristocratic decline, it is by far his best work. By the late 1960s then, Kennaway's was a respected name, both in literary circles and in the more remunerative circles of Hollywood. Yet to speak of him now is always to acknowledge what might have been. Did his early death rob the world of future masterpieces, and if he had lived would he have provided a model for a new generation of Scottish writers, even though his own sense of national identity was one that vexed him, when he thought about it at all?
Kennaway drew liberally on his upbringing for the plots and general mise en scène of his first two books. Born to professional parents, his father a prominent Perthshire lawyer and factor for the local aristocracy, his mother a respected GP, he proceeded via boarding school (Glenalmond) to Oxford, with a two-year period of National Service in between. Tunes of Glory, a vigorous and compelling portrait of a Highland regiment struggling with the demands of peacetime, came out of his experience with the Gordon Highlanders, and in the boorish, drunken Colonel Jock Sinclair, a war hero who has risen from the ranks to take temporary command of the battalion, Kennaway created one of the great anti-heroes of post-war British fiction. With its wintry setting and the taut psychological conflict between its two main characters, Tunes of Glory expertly allegorises the decay of personal and professional ambition, and the dangers of over-reliance on a valorised past. This sense of history refusing to relinquish its grip animates his second and most successful novel, Household Ghosts, a near-gothic portrait of a minor aristocratic Perthshire family tainted by the hint of past scandal.
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DESTINY was the theme which intrigued, troubled and tormented the Greeks, underwriting their comedy as much as their tragedy, but it appears to be as much a force in modern Paisley as in ancient Thebes. It may take different forms today, particularly for the serf class in their exclusion from power, in the alienation they endure, in the work they are compelled to undertake, in the frustration of their aspirations, in the styles of life imposed on them, in the small decisions they have the liberty to make and in the major decisions others make for them, but it is an ineluctable force. Seeing The Slab Boys again after many years, it seemed to me that fate is a real presence in John Byrne’s drama. Since it is senseless to talk of justice or injustice in this dimension of life, he focuses on those to whom fate has been unkind and gives them a voice.
The play is artfully tailored, with the mechanism and timing of farce interspersed with moments of pathos and insight into the everyday humiliations of life on the margins. Genetic inheritance combines with social deprivation to leave some people bereft. Phil, one of the two slab boys, has a perfectly rhythmed, reproachful speech addressed to the privileged Alan, where every sentence begins ‘what do you know about’, and where he rages against the experience of living in poverty with an unbalanced, suicidal mother, and having to deal at the same time with the condescension of petty power. For most people, especially for those with the status of helot-employees, the irksome irritations of life, as Dostoevsky demonstrated in his satirical portraits of provincial Russia, are not the big, overarching injustices of society or politics, but the petty power exercised unfeelingly by those just one step up the social ladder. This is the stratum of society, with the workers at the lower end and the middle-boss just above them, that Byrne observes. The Slab Boys is masterly in its combination of wry observation, critical creativity and prickly comedy
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A headline once described David Eustace as a ‘screw turned snapper’. Before he became a celebrity portrait photographer, he was a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie for five years. Now in his early 50s, and with a number of major commercial assignments in his portfolio, Eustace has settled back into Edinburgh with the first photography show at the country’s oldest art gallery.
In the course of two encounters there, he educated me on the use of light and shade, and the art of creating a pose. He said I was all angles, that my elbows needed to come in a bit. He put me off guard and made me laugh, and then said: ‘that’s the shot’. In prison, he said, he learned not to judge people. ‘I grew up with half of them, I wasn’t there to punish people. I was there to make sure they never escaped and never caused any other trouble. Do you know what a murderer looks like? Looks like me, looks like you.’
Eustace has never been a news photographer. Accepted as a mature student at Edinburgh Napier University, and graduating at the age of 29, he hawked his prints round London editors in a backpack. He got his first magazine assignment for GQ. But in his world of portraiture and art photography, the timing of the shot, spotting the pose, is still critical. When Eustace photographed Robbie Coltrane for his first GQ cover, Coltrane warned, jokingly, of getting bored. Eustace asked him to turn around. ‘I said, “I’m doing the back cover”. The only reason I said that was to give me a moment to think.’ Then he saw the shot.
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DAVID Torrance’s biography of Nicola Sturgeon opens in the Scottish Parliament. She is about to become the First Minister of Scotland and ‘appeared relaxed in a red one-piece dress (designed by Edinburgh design duo Totty Rocks). Sitting a few rows behind her was the man she was about to succeed, Alex Salmond, his big brown eyes beaming amiably.’ Try to imagine this the other way around: ‘Alex Salmond, appeared relaxed in a two-piece suit designed by George for Walmart/Asda while Nicola Sturgeon’s big blue (?) eyes beamed amiably.’ Nobody would write that. Nor would they if you replaced Salmond with any of his three male predecessors: Dewar, McLeish or McConnell.
Torrance then embarks on a gentle stroll through Sturgeon’s ‘polished and well-judged [acceptance] speech’ and highlights the interaction between Scotland’s first female First Minister and her family who were in the chamber to witness her big day. This comes to a screeching halt with a sentence that begins ‘Often criticised for being childless ...’ Who often criticises her for that? What kind of people would?
Torrance might be referring to the ravings of a former Scotland rugby player during the referendum campaign as reported in the Daily Mail. Apart from that, the only person drawing attention to the issue is the biographer himself who returns to it repeatedly. The presence of the biographer in biography is a well-trammelled area of study and it is already a problem here. The urge to identify with the sympathetic figure of Sturgeon is in tension with the desire to reject the testimony of a biographer who, by page four, appears capable of crass (and false) assertion.
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THERE is a little exchange chronicled in David Torrance’s diary of covering Scotland’s independence referendum which inadvertently reveals the gulf that lay between what was experienced during that great debate by the nation’s ordinary citizens on one side and by we in the swollen political commentariat on the other. It occurs on Thursday, 17 July at Waterstone’s in Edinburgh’s George Street at the launch of another Torrance publication, The Indyref Idiot’s guide (co-authored with Jamie Maxwell). Torrance is describing an intervention by the historian Owen Dudley Edwards, a larger than life character whose warmth of personality matches the size of his big brain. ‘Owen got visibly angry,’ writes Torrance, ‘when talking about “weapons of mass destruction” (Trident, in other words), which made me a little uncomfortable, but then maybe that’s my trouble: I lack passion about politics (although educational stuff does get me a bit worked up). Otherwise a lady in the audience said England was keener on neoliberalism than Scotland (sigh) while a chap in a kilt rambled on about egalitarianism and folk songs.’
This passage is illuminating for in it is distilled much of the haughty disdain that professional commentators and political fluffers had for the opinions of the common man and woman. But is there not something else here too: a helpless bewilderment in the face of views passionately expressed no matter how untutored or unsophisticated? Elsewhere, Torrance nods in silent approbation at a piece by Kenneth Roy, all splenetic eloquence, curling his lip in at those commentators who allowed their own personal prejudices during the referendum campaign to come to the fore. Yet what is an opinion piece on the editorial pages of a newspaper for if it isn’t about allowing the writer the privilege of espousing his own… ahem, opinions?
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The great influx of Irish into Scotland in the nineteenth century can sometimes obscure the fact that there were other immigrants arriving here in search of a better life. Notable among these were the Italians who began to arrive in 1890s, with their numbers increasing significantly after the First World War. Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and Italy’s participation in the Second World War as one of the Axis powers, however, brought unwelcome attention to the Italian community in Scotland. Families were sundered and men interned.
It is this situation that attracted the attention of Dan Gunn. A Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, Gunn is co-editor of four volumes of Samuel Beckett's letters and the beautifully illustrated Cahiers Series, which includes works by Muriel Spark and Anne Carson. His research interests also produced Psychoanalysis and Fiction and Wool-Gathering, or How I Ended Analysis. And if that is not enough, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, in which he explores the predicament faced by the Scots-Italian community during the last war, is his third work of fiction, following Almost You and Body Language.
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Il Bambino Dormiente
Last Tuesday I nipped over to Venice for a day and a
I needed to see one particular painting in the
By Giovanni Bellini:
The Madonna Enthroned Adoring the Sleeping Child –
Il Bambino Dormiente.
Needed to? Yes – needed to.
On the spit of dissolution,
Estranged from my family,
I needed to see again
The most affectionate yet sacred family portrait ever
Cheap Aer Lingus flight to Marco Polo,
Bus into the bus station in the Piazzale Roma,
Water bus down the Grand Canal to the Gallerie
Half-price entrance fee for a European pensioner.
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SCOTTISH football lacks for any number of things. One of the less remarked upon is the decline of the high-profile maverick player, those individuals distinguished from the journeyman pack by their playing style, actions or personality. Sometimes the three can combine to produce a figure who transcends the game, its fleeting results and quickly forgotten incidents. Two such individuals, Jim Baxter and Duncan Ferguson, are the subject of recent biographies by, respectively, Rangers TV’s Tom Miller and Scotsman sports journalist Alan Pattullo.
As a blanket description, the maverick label can obscure sometimes wildly divergent personalities. Baxter was buoyant, impish and eager to please. Ferguson, on the other hand, was withdrawn, sullen and prone to the sort of aggression that would culminate in notoriety and Barlinnie. Baxter loved football but cut his career short after allowing himself a bloated slide into the high-maintenance category. Ferguson, as a number of interviews attest, seemed to hate football. He just wanted to spend time with his pigeons, although the game at least allowed him to buy them £20,000 dovecots and floodlit runways. Baxter was a cultured player who regularly found himself in the company of legends such as Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano when a world select team was required. His confidence and imagination with the ball was, of course, epitomised by the keepie-uppies performed at Wembley in 1967, one of Scottish football’s enduring reference points.
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I broke a china cup in the kitchen this morning.
A plain tea cup, an old-fashioned salmon-pink in colour, too undistinguished to be confused with repro-retro. It had been part of a wedding present to my parents, a workaday tea-service. One of three pieces left, the cup had survived 64 years … until this morning.
For the past couple of decades it had been used to measure out porridge oats in the morning, and then it would be filled with cold water for the stirring pot. That was its sole raison d’etre.
I picked up the several pieces. The surfaces inside and out were hardly marked otherwise.
I wanted to weep over the cup. Perhaps I did.
It’s been a bad time.
My mother died three weeks ago.
The cup was another, very small link to the past.
The loss wouldn’t have troubled my mother, who never fussed about damage done to inanimate objects. Once done it was done. ‘Nothing matters’ she would reassure me, even as various chronic medical conditions started to take their toll. (Before that, positive thinking had allowed her to get better quickly of any illness, because that could be cured.)
On fifth or sixth thoughts, I’m removing the next few paragraphs.
I had attempted to describe the protracted dying process.
But my mother shared my own opinion, that some people cannot resist telling too much.
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Christopher Hitchens thought that John Buchan marked the mid-point between Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming, and was superior to both in certain kinds of atmosphere, characterisation and sheer reading pleasure. It would make sense to add Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson to the lineage, but beyond the evolution of the spy story Buchan also marks a mid-point in the literary representation of the Scottish landscape between Sir Walter Scott and the twentieth century writers who sought to give that landscape a language of its own rather than the imposed – and imposing – rhetoric of Empire.
The Thirty-Nine Steps has now been part of our reading landscape for a hundred years. It was first published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, written while Buchan was laid up with the duodenal ulcer he generously passed on to one of his primary and most enduring characters. Buchan had already published Prester John, now much underrated, but it was with the creation of Richard Hannay (aka Cornelis Brandt, Cornelius Brand, Richard Hanau and other disguises) that he won a mass audience and began a literary trail as improbably beautiful as any in Scottish, or British, fiction. Buchan would have been aware, even amid the fog of war, of modest centenary celebrations for Waverley, which was published by another very public man but private author, in 1814.
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BEFORE he disappears down the rabbit hole George Newhouse curates an exhibition in Amsterdam of work by the seventeenth century minor Dutch artist Pieter Van Doelenstraat. It showcases The Absent Period: ‘dark paintings of empty rooms, abandoned kitchens. Empty beds and solemn, silent instruments’. There’s also a lot missing from Doelenstraat’s life story, and then there are his lost paintings. The exhibition is a success and Newhouse continues his research. He discovers a letter Rembrandt wrote to Constantijn Huygens. It references Doelenstraat’s lost masterpiece ‘The Blue Horse’, the title of Philip Miller’s debut novel. Rembrandt’s note is the start of a paper trail that could lead to the whereabouts of the original painting. Then Newhouse’s wife dies, and down he tumbles into grief, drink and derangement.
We first encounter Newhouse when he has re-emerged from his first fall, and while not exactly a spring chicken he’s definitely above ground. He’s been appointed the Dutch Golden Age curator at the Public Gallery in Edinburgh. His old friend Rudi and his old teacher Martinu both work there. Like any other profession, knowledge and expertise are not enough to succeed. You have to know people and, as Rudi reminds Newhouse, you have to be nice to them.
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READING this collection of poems, two thirds by Iain Banks, the rest by his friend Ken MacLeod, feels a little like picking up a fossil and going back in time. Banks’s social and political position was clearly and repeatedly expressed in his fiction, his humanitarian rage at the way empires and regimes – even those supposedly democratic and benign – trampled on people without a thought. From The Wasp Factory, his debut in 1984, to his last novel, The Quarry, published shortly after his death in 2013, his opinions did not mellow. If anything, they burned more intensely with age. Here, however, in the company of his fellow science fiction writer MacLeod, one is introduced to Banks as a very young man, when his ideas are fresh minted, his observations not yet tempered by experience. The fifty works of his gathered in Poems were written between 1973, when he was 19, and 1981. They are youthful, frequently callow pieces, but they are also a reminder that in Banks’s case, the child really is father to the man. As those who knew him well attest, success and fame did not change him, or the way he thought.
The idea for this book, as MacLeod relates in his introduction, predated Banks’s diagnosis with the cancer that so swiftly killed him. Banks the mainstream novelist, and Iain M. Banks the science fiction writer need no introduction, he says. The same is not true, however, of Banks the poet, although he had been writing poetry since his schooldays, and his first published work was the poem ‘041’, in New Writing Scotland in 1983. As MacLeod writes about their poetic twinning, ‘He had the risible notion that my poems would provide his with some kind of covering fire. I think the truth is quite the reverse, but in defence of my works’ inclusion I can say that – because over the years we read and discussed each other’s poems – there is an element of dialogue and evidence of mutual influence.’