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Volume 1 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 1 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

October 28, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Gordon Brown
by Tom Bower
pp.528 ISBN 0007175418

On arriving in Rome on official business in 1997, the Iron Chancellor is reported to have asked whether anyone at the British embassy had a Sky subscription. “I’ve got to see the Scotland-Latvia match,” he said, revealing a capacity for holding hope over experience, not to mention masochistic tendencies. Both qualities, one might surmise, have kept Brown waiting, barely patiently, for Blair to hand power to him ever since the much disputed ‘deal’ at Granita. Blair, Bower’s serrated biography contends, made no promises; it was Brown, haunted by the prospect he didn’t have the gumption to fight, who invented for himself the comforting notion that Blair would step aside for him.

Kirkcaldy’s most famous ‘son of the manse’, Brown enjoyed a brilliant academic career, a period in which he launched himself in student politics and dated princesses. Disappointingly, this only accounts for the first forty pages of the book, Bower eager to get to the parliamentary intrigue. As Brown’s enemies have pointed out, while steeped in the Labour movement’s history, the Chancellor is motivated by instinctive beliefs rather than by philosophy. Brown even wrote a book on James Maxton, about whom Bower tellingly quotes AJP Taylor: Maxton possessed “every quality save one – the gift of knowing how to succeed.”

Boudica –Dreaming The Bull
by Manda Scott
pp.624 ISBN 0-553-81407-9

With volume two of a projected quartet of novels about the life and barbarous times of celtic warrior queen Boudica, nobody can say Scott lacks ambition. What she may miss however is a sense of balance. For one feels at points during Dreaming The Bull that the novel is in danger of labelling the Romans as merely jackbooted bullies, and Boudica’s Eceni tribe as heroic eco-friendly defenders of the old ways. At times, the Eceni read like the ancestors of the crusties who protest bypass-building with the vigour if not the bloodshed of Scott’s original New Age heroes. At 600-plus pages too, the book occasionally feels as long as history itself. Picking up the story where volume one, Dreaming The Eagle, left off, Boudica continues to fight the cruel Romans, led by reformed stutterer, Claudius. Her lover and co-general, Caradoc, is taken prisoner to Rome, where he is tortured, and meets a flirty Agrippina and a skulking Nero. He learns here that the Romans disapprove of women soldiers. “It cannot be allowed that women bear arms in war.” Male chauvinist pigs.

Be My Enemy
by Christopher Brookmyre
ABACUS, £6.99
pp.391 ISBN 0-349-11681-4

One often feels while reading Brookmyre’s novels that he would be better suited to working in radio. That way he could indulge in his shock jock-style diatribes without the hindrance of having to provide credible characters, an intelligible plot and all those other nuisances good fiction writing requires. Be My Enemy marks the return of his hardbitten journalist hero, Jack Parlabane, a man who possesses enough cynicism to power an entire newspaper by himself. Parlabane is sent to cover a corporate teambuilding weekend at a country house settled remotely in the Highlands. He’s anticipating an easy couple of days paintballing and ridiculing businessmen. When the bad guys inevitably turn up, the plot soon devolves into a shoot’em-up reprise of Brookmyre’s previous books, One Fine Day, In The Middle Of The Night and A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away. There’s a vaporous post-9/11 debate about the morality of fighting terrorist fire with fire, but it plays second fiddle to Brookmyre’s weakness for righteous rants and gory set pieces, a predilection that climaxes with Parlabane abseiling with the use of a vanquished foe’s intestines.

Stevenson Under The Palm Trees
by Alberto Manguel
pp.105 ISBN 1 84195 598 1

Manguel’s vision of Robert Louis Stevenson’s last days in Samoa is a brief, occasionally creepy portrait of the Victorian id melting in the warm weather. When we encounter Stevenson, he and his family are ostensibly enjoying life on the island, the author reading the London papers under a foreign sun and working on a “dark Scottish romance.” But Stevenson can’t quite escape the grip of the era that formed him, unable even to look at a fleshy, suggestively folded fruit without blushing. After he meets mysterious preacher, Mr Baker, a man who despises all books but the Good Book, life on the island becomes strange. A native girl is found raped and murdered, a hat very similar to Stevenson’s found close to the body. When Stevenson is implicated in this murder and a number of other disturbing incidents on Samoa, he fears he may have a malevolent double. Tales of authors and their homicidal doppelgangers are hardly new – Stephen King alone has written several – but Manguel invests his story with a frisson by casting Dr Jekyll’s author in the role.

Whisky Galore! and The Maggie
by Colin McArthur
IB TAURUS, £12.95
pp.104 ISBN 1-86064-633-6

Ealing comedies Whisky Galore! (1949) and The Maggie (1953) were both directed by one of Scotland’s more interesting directors, Alexander Mackendrick – though how Scottish he really was, having been born and raised in America before returning in his teens to Scotland, his parents’ birthplace, is an interesting point. Indeed McArthur quotes a letter in which Mackendrick mentions he’s American. Nevertheless he directed and part-wrote Whisky Galore! Whisky Galore! is widely loved and parodied (McArthur mentions the Fast Show’s Irvine Welsh-era spoof, Heroin Galore!). Less is known about The Maggie, which the author hopes “to retrieve…from the critical Saragasso Sea into which it has all but vanished.” Whereas Whisky Galore! reflects the privations of post-war austerity, The Maggie was a Para Handy-esque fable about the “escalating intrusion of American capital into Britain.” McArthur is particularly fascinating on the making of the films and their reception. For example, Whisky Galore! was banned in parts of Denmark, the authorities thinking it “damaging for children to see alcohol portrayed as an absolute necessity for self-expression.”

Hell of a Journey: On Foot through the Scottish Highlands in Winter
by Mike Cawthorne
pp.264 ISBN 1841830720

In 1986, Cawthorne set out with a friend to climb all 284 of Scotland’s Munros – in a single sweep. Nine years later, he decided on a new challenge – to climb all of Scotland 135 1000-plus metre peaks. Alone and in winter. “Travel,” he says, “is a form of escape.” In these circumstances, some might argue it’s an escape from life itself – the death-wish motivation of a generation of extreme-sport and extreme-travel fanatics. But Cawthorne is a great embracer of life, whether it’s his joy at a sudden break in the clouds illuminating snow-capped peaks, or the pleasure of a bath in peaty-brown water. His travelogue does not stop at landscape description; he includes a short epilogue criticising land-owners for bulldozing tracks through remote areas, erectors of mobile phone masts and developers of wind farms. Cawthorne’s remarkable journey then is not simply another travel tale pitting man against the elements; it has a political hue.

The Longshoreman: A Life at the Water’s Edge
Richard Shelton
pp.352 ISBN 1843541629

It seems that all a boy needs for an idyllic childhood is the odd combination of fish, rifles and trains. Shelton’s memoir of his development from schoolboy hunter to professional fisheries director seems to have come from an age long gone – whether it’s indulging innocent pleasures such as looking for sticklebacks in south-east England or sailing the high seas with whelk fishermen off the East coast of Scotland. Shelton was attracted to Scotland for its hunting possibilities he says, and his shooting escapades in Boarhills make for entertaining reading. But this is an informative memoir too, one that seeks to educate, if in a slightly patrician way; when his heavily pregnant wife threatens to give birth just before a crucial pollution-control trip, Shelton notes that “the modern absurdity of paternity leave had not even been thought of.” But his passion for his profession, for the natural world, and for man’s place in it, cannot be faulted.

Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets
by Joanna Blythman
pp.384 ISBN 0007158041

For once, the epithet ‘shocking’ really does live up to its reputation. It’s hard to read Blythman’s scrupulously honest and straightforward account of the hold that supermarkets have over our food shopping practices without resolving never to set foot in Tesco’s again. Suddenly, those out-of-town complexes with their own special bus routes take on a sinister quality. “The downside of these carrot-and-stick regeneration packages is that they are another way in which supermarkets are insinuating themselves into all aspects of our lives,” Blythman argues. But this polemic is about more than the supermarket invasion – it’s also about health, and the right to be able to eat healthily. Supermarkets, the author acknowledges, were once upon a time the saviour of the harassed working mother, merging convenience and cheapness. But the benefits disappear once the local shops do, communities fracture and all-season produce pervades the shelves. Blythman’s argument is beautifully precise and almost faultless too, save for the small, sad sense induced in the reader of doors closing after horses have bolted.

Burning Whins & Other Poems
by Liz Niven
pp.112 ISBN 1842820745

Few could turn something quite as dull and soulless as a questionnaire into a poem, but in ‘Barra Airport’, Niven does it beautifully: “Any comments?/ Beware, the Barra flight can enter your soul/ leave part of your heart like driftwood/ on a Hebridean shore.” This collection is divided into four parts – the first concerns travel to the highlands and islands; the second with the countryside, the third with art and the fourth an eclectic ‘Found Objects’. All four parts contain some poems in Scots, and Niven often uses the vernacular either to puncture the pompousness of official language, or to drive home a political message. It’s hard to escape the politics in the poetry, although Niven writes without being pedantic. Based on the foot-and-mouth crisis, ‘Merrick tae Criffel’ is a dialogue between two hills, one speaking in Scots and one speaking in English, and is by turns angry, pitiful, desperate. It also extremely effectively shows just how musical Scots is by comparison: “I’ve heard many a sad tale this year…Aye, vyces wull be heard again/ askin questions, speirin o why guid beasts wir killt at aw? Speirin wis it aw fir the sake o siller?”

From this Issue

Plant Life

by Brian Morton

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