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Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Reviews

October 21, 2009 | by SRB

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth Of Iphis
Ali Smith
pp224, ISBN 1841958697


It’s no longer quite as fashionable as it was in the earnest Seventies and Eighties for writers to illuminate new values through the appropriation and reinterpretation of old stories. When I was a girl, you could barely move for rebellious retellings of Greek myths, nursery rhymes and fairytales, and marginal characters piping up with their sides of all manner of classic stories. Feminist authors found the format especially productive, for the challenge that it allowed to dominant gender archetypes. Not that modernised fairytales aren’t hysterically popular among the teen and (ugh) ‘tween’ girl market – but franchises like Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries tend to measure feminine achievement by conventional markers, such as copious frock ownership and successful prince seduction.

A perfect time, then, for the ever-iconoclastic Canongate to offer respected contemporary writers the opportunity to blow the dust off an old tale and make a point in the process. A ready-made plot is a delightful luxury, and you can feel the fun sparking off Ali Smith’s contribution, Boy Meets Girl, which forms a fervently romantic story of personal transformation out of two borrowed narratives. One is a tale of suffragette derring-do told by an interestingly gender-flexible old man to his rapt granddaughters, Anthea and Imogen; the other, explored at more length, is a blissful romance experienced by Anthea in later life, and founded in Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe.

Ovid has Iphis raised as a boy, her true gender a secret to all but herself and her mother. A marriage is arranged between Iphis and her childhood intimate Ianthe. Iphis prays to be transformed, in order to be a real husband to her true love, and the goddess obliges: Iphis becomes a boy. Anthea’s equivalent modern-day coup de foudre is with an androgynous anti-globalisation activist first glimpsed spraying graffiti on the walls of the sinister corporation for which Anthea and Imogen both work. Imogen (despite having grown up in a household where grandpa’s bedtime stories commence with the words, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl”) is baffled and shocked by Anthea’s metamorphosis; her only knowledge of lesbianism is as a freak phenomenon at once reviled and eroticised by her male acquaintances.

A lot going on, then. The suffragette movement. Ovid. Sisterly relationships. The angst of coming out in a small town. The strange survival of outright homophobia in a culture blushingly besotted with erotic experimentation. The moral compromises involved in working for a company that seeks to possess and package such elemental forces as water and pleasure. And behind it all, the condition of Scottishness, of negotiating for freedoms in a nation long preoccupied by its own unfreedom.

Smith tackles all of this over less than two hundred pages, her prose as usual unencumbered by boring old quotation marks. The headlong pace and chatty tone recall Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which similarly enlisted a startled, naïve protagonist to explore the condition of inequality through head-on encounters with its most everyday manifestations.

It is a somewhat headachy experience being told so much so quickly, and Smith’s densely allusive and self-consciously experimental writing is an acquired taste. There’s always something of the over-enthused creative writing student about her sing-song deployment of pop culture references, her efforts to embrace countless societal issues at once, and her abandonment of conventional punctuation. The consequence is a certain airlessness: passionate and engaged, and her writing always is, Smith’s style can be oppressively crowded. Boy Meets Girl kicks off with no fewer than five quotations from other writers, ensuring that one feels earnestly dictated to even before the first page of the story (why does a book that openly deals with the instability of gender require the clarification of a Judith Butler quote about gender being an unstable construct?). Still, it’s Smith’s dizzy erudition and fanciful way with language that tends to charm her fans. Boy Meets Girl is certainly infectious in its enthusiasm for the notion of unfettered true love – and pleasurable in its insistence upon presenting as positive, innocent and enriching a brand of adolescent self-discovery customarily rendered in weighty and woeful terms.

Dilys Rose
pp92 ISBN 1905222939


Nowadays, the body matters in literature, perhaps in a kind of compensation for abstraction in the visual arts. Yet in spite of this new centrality of the body, what strikes about Dilys Rose’s poetry collection,Bodywork, is its freshness, its confident opening of new territory, its discovery of hidden human places. The take on the body is diverse: there is a bizarre body substitute – the leather head “phantom” that the tragically childless midwife Elsie used for forceps practice; or an odd object – the “palm” which protects the sailmaker’s hand; or imitations of the body in the natural world like the deep red sandstone cleft in Northern Australia, once a place of aboriginal female mystery, now desecrated by tourist crudity and boredom.

But mostly the poems focus on what living does to our bodies, what we do to our bodies, in adornment or abuse or even in a charming assertion of identity (Made in Poland, tattooed on the back of the new free-moving Olga), and what our demands, present and past, for beautiful or fashionable objects, do to the bodies of others whose work maims and cripples them, such as Anja in ‘Weaver’s Bottom’, or the Mad Hatter, poisoned by mercury and inheriting the “raving jitter of wage slaves” – no tea-party here. What we see as bodily beautiful may be concealing the ugliness and pain that sustains it, as the ethereal loveliness of the dancer Esme is supported by her hard-working deformed toes.

Some poems are monologues (bizarrely from a microbe, an embryo, a flowering skeleton from the Mexican Day of the Dead); most are what we might call portraits or life drawings of historical (Grace Darling, Mary Queen of Scots) or legendary figures (Donkey-skin) or, best of all I think, just ordinary people, trying to get through life with the bodies they have been stuck with.

These forms provide an escape from the constraints of the poet’s subjectivity while still allowing her sensibility to filter through her creatures. The method provides useful strategies for giving expression to the marginal and neglected, voicing the almost unvoiceable. The concerns of the disregarded and oppressed are privileged; the down-trodden are humanised without condescension or sentimentality: the occasional use of vernacular voices is tactful.

All the poems are funny or witty, even when the wit is dark. Some make subtle use of clichés, puns or wisecracks: teenage mum Kelly’s proudly-displayed bump celebrates the new delight in visible pregnancy but her blithe ignorance of the trials of motherhood make the promise that she will love her baby “to bits” a possibly ominous one. The hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa’s protruding tongue is his last defiant insult: “Your tongue was always the problem:/you wouldn’t bite it for anyone”.

All of the poems resist simple dualism: we are our bodies, what is done to the body is done to us; there is no easy slip road for the spirit to elude the damage done to the bodywork. And yet, made mad or glad by what happens to their bodies, Rose’s creatures still keep their secrets: there is something indefinable beyond the material. ‘Obituary’ sums up the life of a woman no better than she should be in sharp clichés and aphorisms – “her liver worked overtime and unsocial hours” – but she is allowed her final privacy: “the love of her life is none of your business”. Beethoven, cursed with deafness, condescension and pity, still finds music somewhere “deeper than the ear … unseen, unstoppable”.

The poems are short, but they are all longer than they look. Here Rose’s experience as a short story writer has taught her how to provide in a few words a hinterland of meaning and suggestion that extends a moment into a life. The noseless statue of St Ebba, said to have mutilated herself to discourage the plundering Danes from rape, “guards the gateway to the long-lost priory” now invaded by the new rapists, tourists, careless of cliffside nooks and crannies, of gulls and guillemots. The poem is full of questions: did she do it, what did she think about if she did, “did it work”? The statue, perhaps smiling, perhaps merely eroded, keeps its counsel. A secret history of female piety and vanity and male destructiveness is evoked by absences. In this way the poems recover half-lost lives from brief glimpses of body parts: ‘Janet Skinner’s Fingers’, which lovingly rendered her sampler when she was eight, go on to suffer the chilblains of the poor, and are at last seen in a photograph from her later childless life on a sheep farm in New Zealand: the same fingers now aged are caught “flicking a flyaway strand of hair from her eyes”.

Christopher Rush
pp.458, ISBN 1905636148


It is the cold spring of 1616; and in an upper room at New Place, his handsome house on Stratford’s main street, William Shakespeare lies dying. He is not old, by modern standards; his 52nd birthday is still a few weeks away. But he has packed more living into that long half-century than most might manage in several lifetimes. From humble origins in Stratford, he has risen to rub shoulders with the greatest in the land. He has made a great fortune, and for twenty years walked the high tightrope of political survival familiar to any public man in the conspiracy-ridden Lon-don of Elizabeth and James. He has lived through wave after wave of plague and disease. He has worn out his body, as much with hard work as with whoring.

He has also – by daylight and candlelight, through ecstasy, triumph, loss and despair – written forty of the greatest plays the world has ever seen; and now, he is almost ready to breathe his last. At his feet, on a little truckle-bed, sits his old acquaintance Francis Collins, the Stratford lawyer, whom he has appointed to help him draw up his last will and testament. So Will speaks his will – the pun is at least fourfold – while Francis writes and comments; and so begins this latest book from the poet, novelist, biographer and screenwriter Christopher Rush, an imaginary life of Shakespeare touched with such a raging poetry and fluency that it seems set to eclipse all other semi-fictional accounts of the great man’s story.

In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startling first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.

At first – as Will talks of his childhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.

But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shake-spearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays. As a study of Shake-speare’s life, and as a piece of literary criticism, Will is both conventional in its views – there are no wild suggestions here about the great man’s identity, or about what he did during the ‘lost years’ of his twenties – and almost frighteningly vivid in execution; the descriptions of London in the 1590s are unforgettable, and it’s hardly surprising that the actor Ben Kingsley has reportedly just snapped up the film rights. As a confrontation with death, it is as deep, wise, brilliant, courageous and beautiful as any book must be, that fully internalises Shakespeare’s own writing on the subject. And although its feeling for the nightly life-death cycle of theatre itself is slightly limited, the book works even as drama; the voice Rush finds for his Will Shakespeare is utterly convincing, as if it had been channelled straight from the ether.

In the end, though, there is something slightly disturbing about the impulse that would drive one man to dive into the mind, life, work and language of another in such an all-absorbing way. Those who love Shakespeare as much as Rush does will probably find this book irresistible, in its literacy, its passion, its sheer narrative drive.

Those who are not already Shakespeare fans, by contrast, may well find it a closed book, its erudition too showy, its wordiness oppressive, its effort to recreate the voice of history’s greatest playwright as embarrassing and presumptuous as it is overwrought. If that strict limitation on its possible appeal makes this a novel of the second rank, then so be it. It remains, though, a formidable piece of writing. And it touches in its own way – although through extremes of hero-worship and pastiche – on the deepest questions of how we human beings are to bear the knowledge of our own mortality; and how the tragi-comic sharing of that knowledge, through art and literature, lends our brief lives what may be their only true and enduring sense of meaning.

Old Men in Love
Alasdair Gray
pp320, ISBN 0747593531


The dustcover of Alasdair Gray’s new book declares Gray to be the author of the novel Old Men In Love; the title page, however, states that John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers have only been “edited, decorated by Alasdair Gray”. An ‘Introduction’ tells us how these papers reached Gray from one Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar, John Tunnock’s only surviving relative after his death on 2 May 2007, by way of Alan Riach, head of the department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, and how Gray decided they should be published as Men In Love, “thus casting light on what he saw as a major theme” of the papers. The proposed title, however, was overruled by “the publishing director of Bloomsbury, or perhaps her marketing department”, who decided it be called Old Men In Love “for commercial reasons”. Peel back the dustcover, however, and the title embossed on the hardback cover has been extended to Old Men In Love are Still Learning – on whose authority we are not told.

The uncertainties surrounding the title of Gray’s new novel are matched by the uncertainty about whose papers are being edited. The book (as edited by Gray) appears to contain three narratives about characters intended to be symbolic of “three triumphant historical periods” – Socrates in Periclean Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi in Renaissance Florence and Henry James Prince in Victorian England. These, together with segments of autobiography and a diary running from 2001 to 2007, are the ‘writings’ of Tunnock. An Epilogue, however, brings back ‘Sidney Workman’, the character to whom the footnotes in the Epilogue to Gray’s first novel, Lanark, were attributed. Workman tells us how he has unexpectedly received a proof copy of Old Men In Love and an invitation by Gray to provide another epilogue. His ‘researches’ on this new text reveal that “it is stuffed with extracts from Gray’s earlier writings”, including three television dramas about Socrates, Filippo Lippi and Henry James Prince, a piece from the Glasgow Herald about the anti-war march of 2003, and “political diatribes from pamphlets published before three general elections that were victories for New Labour”. His conclusion is that the three historical characters and Tunnock are simply “versions of Gray in fancy dress”, and that Gray is actually editing his own papers.

Famously, Workman’s so-called ‘epilogue’ in Lanark preceded the conclusion of the novel, but Workman’s epilogue here is final, both because it is actually the conclusion of the novel and because Gray declares that this novel will be “his last (for he is seventy-two and in poor health)”. First novel and last novel are therefore set like bookends on Gray’s oeuvre, and if Lanark was “A life in four books”, this is “four lives in one book”. And just as the issue for initial readers of Lanark was to work out the connection between the realistic and fantasy narratives that Workman believed to be “independent of each other and cemented by typographical contrivances rather than formal necessity”, so, here, the puzzle is the relation of the three historical characters to Tunnock. According to Tunnock, what he is engaged in is a version of what some critics have seen in Lanark – “I decided to examine closely some states widely advertised as good, and without cynicism, show how the goodness was purchased by badness”; he is also presenting the decline of the West, since the most recent of his characters “will be the least creative” because “local and national governments openly promote private company profits instead of public welfare”.

What really interests him, however, is the relationship between sexual passion and spiritual passion, since each of his characters, at a relatively advanced age, is inspired by some illicit, illegal, or inappropriate form of love. Tun-nock himself has lived his life with the two aunts who brought him up after the death of his mother during the Second World War, and has discovered both sexual passion and a passion for writing only after their deaths. Like many previous protagonists in Alasdair Gray’s novels, sexual fantasy has been, for Tunnock, a prelude not to sexual fulfilment but to a profound repression – from which, in his old age, he escapes by offering his house as a refuge for young women in trouble, one of whom becomes the muse of his literary endeavours.

What seems to interest Gray in these three historical figures, however, is that each has been saved – or damned – twice: once, in life, and then, after death, by being transformed into a literary character. The Socrates whom we meet in Tun-nock’s account is a Socrates who does not know he is about to be resurrected in Plato’s dialogues, any more than Fra Lippo Lippi knows he will be brought again to life by Browning. And Prince, who believed himself to be already at one with God and the eternal, has to be rediscovered by Tunnock through a novel by Aubrey Mennen. Tunnock, of course, has come to share their condition: he has (apparently) been resurrected after death by Gray.

Through literature each of these characters has come to stand as emblematic of their historical period. If Tunnock is emblematic of ours, what does he tell us about ourselves? That we all know only too well how corrupt the world is and that we retreat from it into private worlds we wrongly believe can be immune from its contamination. Tunnock dies because his ‘muse’ is actually a drug dealer who brings her ‘business’ into the refuge he has created for them both. For Gray, art, too, is a drug, and artists drug dealers – eternity is the drug that art offers, however rarely it achieves it.

Gray’s art, on the other hand, is an art in defiance of that eternity: between Tunnock’s accounts of his various historical characters what we see is the corrupt world of ‘Bush and Blair’ politics, the upsurge of the anti-war movement, the possibility of Scotland’s becoming the kind of small democratic country that the Athenians might have maintained had they not built an empire. Tunnock strives towards artistic eternity in compensation for a life of repression, discovers pleasure in the immediacy of a present in which “Scotland is now exactly where I want to be”, but in his diary reveals how, in the words of a John Davidson poem, “perfumed eternity/Is fixed in earthly soil enriched with bones/Of used-up workers”. Those workers are “the drug the keeps the roses sweet”.

Most books are written to be read. The best are written to be reread. Like Lanark, Old Men In Love defies beginnings and endings: it requires its several beginnings to be re-read in the light of its several endings. Let us hope that its author will defy his own (fictional) predictions that Old Men In Love is the book-end to his life’s work, because we are still learning how to read it.

Hymn To A Young Demon
Aonghas MacNeacail
POLYGON, £9.99
pp192, ISBN 1846970024


I am delighted to see this fourth collection of Aonghas MacNeacail’s poetry appearing in his mid-sixties. MacNeacail has his own voice and his own view of the world, something every poet hopes to acquire, and every reviewer hopes to identify.

People who meet this talkative, expansive man may be surprised to find his poetry concise and delicate. He writes without upper case letters, not as an affectation or a trade mark, but, I think, as an escape from the syntax of prose. Following a generation of highly intellectual Gaelic poets, he took a different path, finding his voice more in insight than in dialectic. His poetry is all middle, all muscle without the skeleton of syntax and argument. The price for this is an occasional lack of clarity, and I confess there are a few poems I don’t understand. But much more is gained: every one of his lines is sensuous, poetic, emotive.

His distinct world view, recognisable from his other collections, might be described as pantheistic, holistic, pagan, and it decries those human constructs that detract from our involvement with life, principally organised religion and imperialism. The right response to life is one of creative involvement, typified by MacNeacail’s metaphor of dancing. Growing up in Skye at the tail-end of the crofting way of life, He knows first hand the harmonious (if exhausting) possibilities of a non-intrusive form of farming, where otter and man can take a salmon from the same pool. His interest in man’s relationship to nature leads him to take a sympathetic look at the native Americans and the Ainu. He was hurt by the doctrines of the Free Church and explores this in several poems. The mother who cherished him and her apple trees is condemned as a sinner by the loquacious religion she quietly follows, with its myth about a woman and an apple tree. Attacking the Free Church has become a bit of a cliché in Gaelic poetry, but these poems, in being so personal, so couched in sensuous language, have something real to say.

There has been some debate about the convention of publishing Gaelic poetry with en face English translations, as in this book. Such poems have been analysed as ‘double creations’, the Gaelic limiting itself to what can be expressed reasonably in English. Translation may reduce a word’s range of connotations in the reader’s mind to those which overlap in both languages. Instant translation dilutes the uniqueness of each language and its cultural hinterland. These are plausible intellectual constructs, but in practical terms I would argue that MacNeacail’s Gaelic holds its own, and informs the English, giving it a distinct Gaelic flavour. His being a native speaker may simplify the questions too. (Some of the bird imagery may be lost in the original when “shipyard cranes like grey cormorants” translates cruinntogail mar chorracha-liath” !)

As striking as his politics, is the sensuousness of his language: after the churning of the brain, a poem appears like a firm knob of butter; dealan-uisgeach mo ghaoil/ the hydro-electricity of my love; leud a’ chuain lèigsich/ wide as the healing sea; ghlaic bhinn fhasgach ar deòin/ sweet sheltered dell of our desires. His language is always tuneful, cascading, usually following rhythms of his ear’s devising, but sometimes traditional, sometimes reiterative like children’s rhymes. The poem to his wife, is the most traditional in the collection, both in form and diction, which gives it its peculiar charm, for nothing is more common than a man’s insistence his wife is unique. It is touching to see an artist of independent mind value society’s esteem for his wife. And it is remarkable that, even couched in this traditional diction, his wife’s character stands out: her fretful desire to be dancing: do fhrionas, do dheò/ do shunnd airson dannsa.

The paganism of the early Celts, the crofting way of life, the public responsibility of the bard in Gaelic society – all shape MacNeacail’s poetry to some degree, but its vision is much wider than that. We live in multi-cultural times and it is appropriate that MacNeacail look for understanding across different cultures. He wonders what direction Scotland is going; he sees Poland on the brink of a capitalist explosion; he sees the cultural tourism on which the Ainu have come to depend render profitable what had been holy. Here is a collection from a gracious soul who has lived through his times openly and modestly like the stone of the last poem:

suaithibh mi, a ghaoithean, le naidheachd às gach àirde: sìnibh orm

stroke me winds with

news from each quarter: rest on me

He looks at the modern world

with some anger and anxiety, rails against our wars and stupidities, and offers us the environmental templates of primal people, because, above all, we should be grateful to be alive.

Tom Lappin
pp349, ISBN 1906120110


There may come a time when the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers is given an official name. That buffer zone demarcating the shift from Cold War to Holy War. Tom Lappin doesn’t proffer a name though his first novel Parties bridges the polls of that on-the-surface frivolous time, a period we may one day come to associate with the same dreaminess Edwardian England experienced during its pre-1914 Indian summer.

Lappin’s decade-crunching story is familiar, perhaps over-familiar. The author follows the lives of a group of young friends, from a dewey-eyed hopes-high graduation through to final disillusionment as they re-enact in their personal lives the larger political betrayals of their day. For chroniclers of disillusionment, the Thatcher and Blair years are particularly author-friendly. Remote controllers might recall Our Friends In The North tele-played that story while a recent Booker winner – The Line Of Beauty – traced its story from just such a template. The frequent references to War And Peace indicate Lappin himself might have had an older, more august reference point in mind, as well as a certain appetite for punishment. By which I mean – Blair would be unlikely to make many references to Napoleon, Tolstoy’s unmoved mover, for fear of comparison. Nuff said.

The friends first assemble through chance; as early Eighties’ students they’re assigned the same Edinburgh University flat to share. They soon simplify themselves into types. Richard, who appears to have become detached from a Nick Hornby novel, an angsting vinyl addict soon to parlay his music obsession into a career in journalism. Beatrice is the beautiful, unattainable Snow Queen. That splinter of ice in heart leaves only one career open to her: writer. Grainne is the chubby Mull lass full of good causes but not, alas, confidence. Finally, we have Glaswegian social climber Gor-don, who uses his echt working class roots to grease his way to power.

The action picks up in 1987 where our heroes are distractedly watching on TV Kinnock concede the General Election. We’re in Edin-burgh, in the flat of Liam, louche academic and inveterate party-thrower. This is “Edinburgh before the fall”, when the capital was swithering whether to join in the Eighties bean-feast, as we know it will eventually, a matter of some teeth-sucking for the author it would seem. “In the next decade, all those hallowed financial institutions would ship their employees out to suburban warehouses, and the prime city-centre buildings would be turned into ‘exclusive’ wine-bars, the exclusivity being purely fiscal, in the form of extravagant prices”.

Eventually the story moves on location-wise from Edinburgh to London, New York and postcard-pretty parts of Italy, while remaining locked on our quartet. Richard’s freelance status applies both professionally and romantically. Chilly Beatrice writes a bestselling novel whose plot is anachronistically blurbed as “uncovering a sinister conspiracy involving Opus Dei, the Middle Ages, and a philosophical hit man”. Actually, Beatrice’s writing career seems all over the place. She moves from penning The Da Vinci Code to an erotic travelogue (called Bosom) to scripting a Friends-like sitcom. All despite thinking herself “immune to happiness”.

Better still we have Gordon and Grainne, who marry on graduation, Richard suspects, to enhance Gor-don’s political prospects. With a twenty years-long narrative to condense, Lappin has to accelerate the trajectory of Gordon’s career in order to make his points. So Gor-don is selected as a New Labour candidate for a Tyneside constituency by 24, an MP by 26, betraying his political principles the moment he walks into West-minster, and forcing Grainne into wife swap parties soon afterwards. As Grainne comforts herself with vodka and suicide attempts, Gor-don makes the mistake of attending a house party at a Barrymore-esque comedian’s mansion…. “What happened to make us so faithless?” one character asks, less a diagnosis than a soundbite, one of the era’s other weaknesses.

Parties is not unenjoyable though it takes a while to get started and its more satirical elements are rather crudely laid down. The other problem is a little unevenness in the tone. There is an archness that veers now and then into overwriting. The group, for example, is described at one point as, “still at an age where hope can wrestle back the sighing bleakness of experience”. Rubbing up wrongly against that tone are breezy journalistic summations, necessary perhaps when an author has to boil down long, momentous periods of history in order that the story revolve onto its next tableau, but not necessarily novelistic.Parties, one concludes, is not a little like Gordon. Both have no lack of ambition, but falter when substance is required.

Edward Burra: Twentieth Century Eye
Jane Stevenson
pp512, ISBN 0224078755


I first heard the name when I bought a batch of first editions of the American poet Conrad Aiken, whose tomb in Savannah, Georgia, is mentioned in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. On the front end-papers of most of them is a short inscription: “For Ed – from Conrad”, some times dated, mostly not. On just one, A Letter From Li Po, the bookseller had pencilled in “(BURRA)” beside the recipient’s name. I was told they had come from his estate and tried to look as if that meant something.

Burra died in 1976, still sounding exactly like the Edwardian child he had been – as Jane Stevenson says, he would have been dismayed to know that “may layfe” was the subject of a biography – and one has to assume indulgently dismissive of the supposedly ‘permissive’ decade that had not long ended. I went in search of his work and found a body of images that seemed in every conceivable way to run counter to every artistic vogue, fad, school and ideology of the last half-century. While abstraction reigned, Burra painted vividly realistic images of the urban demi-monde: hookers refresh themselves with tea-and-wad, bar-cruising sailors stare glassily out at the viewer, sexually ambiguous women glower. It is as if George Grosz, Edward Hopper and some unnamed early Italian master had sat down with a box of water colours to play Exquisite Corpses.

Burra met Aiken in Rye, where they were introduced by Paul Nash, an early supporter of Burra’s talent. Aiken’s father had murdered his mother and then killed himself. Burra’s parents belonged to a world where the nastier things in life – murder, illness, homosexuality, poverty – were tactfully overlooked, but as members of a class who relied on ‘staff’ they bequeathed to their children a below-stairs life in which sensational journalism was a near-addiction. Burra grew up on Peg’s Paper and became an avid reader of Photoplay, which virtually invented celebrity journalism. Rye was a curious place, famously satirised as ‘Tilling’ in E. F. Benson’s Mapp And Lucia stories, but home to Nash, more briefly Aiken, the scandalous Radclyffe Hall and her lover Lady Troubridge, and the ghost of Henry James, who’d written some of the longest sentences in English literature there.

To many, Rye itself would have seemed a life sentence, but Burra embraced it and settled there. He had been a sickly child, denied a complete schooling through constant ill health, diagnosed as arthritis, but probably a blood disorder inherited from his mother, in whom it was described as “pernicious anaemia”. His legs and feet bore the brunt of the pain and distortion, but his hands were crabbed, too, which meant wood-engraving (suggested by Nash) was largely out and work that required the lightest physical touch preferable. Nonetheless, Burra found work therapeutic and said the only time he felt no pain was when he was painting.

In personality and style, he is best described as ‘camp’, which as Christopher Isherwood pointed out is the highest form of seriousness and not at all frivolous. Relatively unsexual, Burra had a small group of friends with whom he remained close for most of his life. John Rothenstein’s profile of him as a virtual recluse is wide of the mark, though Burra did shrink from casual acquaintance. With close friends he could banter, bicker and bitch in the wildly mis-spelt letters Stevenson quotes freely. With total strangers, he could pass the time of day. In between, though, was the hell that is other people.

Burra had Scots blood on his mother’s side. He got as far north as the Lake District with Aiken in 1946, having created a design for Robert Helpman’s Miracle In The Gorbals (ballet and dancers were a lifelong fixation) two years earlier. He made it to Scotland in 1974, his last full year of health. By then, he had acquired a new interest in landscape, another flagrant flouting of artistic fashion. The places that had made the biggest impact on him, though, were Paris, where he shuttled between Montmartre and Pigalle, and Rye, where the air was always aflutter with scandal. London was too big and at the time not quite anonymous enough for a man of Burra’s fragile health and essentially private sensibility.

He would have been outraged at the thought of “may layfe” being discussed in a newspaper, particularly when it held out nothing as spicy as the Aiken parents’ demise – his own lived until 1958 and 1968 – but he could not have hoped for a more sympathetic and perceptive biographer than Jane Stevenson. The book’s chatty, knowing, free-associating tone disguises just how much careful research and analytical intelligence has gone into it. There are times it irritates beyond belief, as when Stevenson digresses far enough to describe an ancient Crombie coat worn until recently by her husband, but then one realises that this is exactly the rhetoric that Burra himself applies in his work, where details of dress are vitally important, where the car-toonish generality of his figures disguises an absolute particularity, and where the flighty, insubstantial tone (the superstructure of camp) conceals a deep, almost obsessive seriousness.

One of the most touching letters quoted in Twentieth Century Eye is one in which Burra describes the death of a younger sister, a victim of meningitis. There is a faux-tough rejection of emotion – reference to her having “croaked” – but there are also urgently scribbled PPS in the margin declaring how keenly he feels it. Look into any Burra painting, and past – if you can – the figure in the canvas who seems determined to stare you out, and you look through the eyes of a man who grew up part of a resolutely confident social establishment so obsessed with ‘form’ that it was also almost anarchically unconventional, so resistant to strong emotion that is was almost volcanically passionate, and so obsessed with class that it bequeathed its children a visceral classlessness in everything but speech. Burra was a twentieth century eye, not in the self-conscious ‘I am a camera’ way of an Isherwood, but more in the Conrad Aiken way, as he puts it in ‘The Logos in Fifth Avenue’, one of the poems in A Letter From Li Po: “And yes, / blue was for the blind-man, blue was for the sky, / blue was for the eye- / I am not I”. During their friendship, Aiken wrote a London column for The New Yorker under the pseudonym Samuel Jeake Jr. Whatever city Burra visited, lame, easily tired, outwardly diffident, he only ever painted it as himself, and here he is again, as large and as remarkable as he ever was in life.

Red Scotland! – The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left, c. 1872 to 1932
William Kenefick
pp224, ISBN 0748625186


Leon Trotsky was not keen on a Scottish parliament. Contemporary Tories and other Unionists might not welcome the intellectual company, but the mass-murdering ideologue was clear on the point. There was, he said, “absolutely no need” for a self-governing legislature.

In the twenties, the argument was commonplace. The “British workers’ movement” should not be deprived of the Scottish spark. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), stuffed with Scots, was opposed to “isolation”. The Labour Party, stuffed with Scots, was ambivalent. Internationalism was the thing, not what Gordon Brown might style “petty nationalism”.

Yet not the least of the fascinating points made by William Kenefick in this history of the destruction (I would say near-destruction) of Scottish radicalism is the extent to which the dispute mattered. Some Scots on the left pursued a simple logic. An independent (or at least self-governing) Scotland would be a socialist Scotland. Ergo, independence was necessary.

Others saw self-determination as a right, entirely compatible with democratic socialism. But others, John Maclean conspicuously, regarded an independent Scottish Communist Party as essential in the fight for a Scottish workers’ republic, and both seemed to him necessary because radicalism was, patently, at its strongest in Scotland.

There was a fourth, more subtle idea at work. It can be traced, unquestionably, to the influence of Scots-Irishman James Connolly, executed not long before in Dublin. Connolly’s work within the Scottish labour movement is little discussed by Kenefick, and the omission is odd. Nevertheless, it was the Edin-burgh-born revolutionary who proposed a simple and devastating idea.

Crudely summarised, he argued that nationalism and internationalism depend one on the other. Without an answer to the “national question”, wherever it arises, internationalism is vacuous. This thought bubbled, I suspect, within the circles where memories of Con-nolly remained powerful.

All ancient history now, of course. Like much of Kenefick’s hugely valuable study such arguments can seem like leavings from the dustbin, if not the morgue, of ideas. Scotland had its moment – without it, Prime Minister Brown would lack even his sentimental rhetoric – but the moment passed. In our world we assume that revolutions, republics, socialism and militancy are gone for good.

Trade unionism, especially the ‘Triple Alliance’, failed. The Independent Labour Party, the intellectual engine, uncoupled itself from the Labour Party in 1932, and that in turn became failure personified with Ramsay MacDonald. Communism and opportunism became interchangeable. The fractured left consumed itself and the language of hope fell into disrepute. Or so it has seemed.

In the usual version, Scotland was left with the contested legend of Red Clydeside. Kenefick demonstrates, however, that folk memories are more reliable than manufactured narratives. Radicalism, at its height, was always pan-Scottish. It was never merely, and sometimes not even remotely, a west of Scotland phenomenon. Edinburgh, Leith, Fife, the Lothi-ans, Dundee and Aberdeen were all “nerve centres of discontent”.

Religion and ancestry mattered: in that context, the enthusiasm for home rule now seems almost predictable. The “new” trade unionism of the late nineteenth century gained impetus from Irish immigrants, much as the demand for land reform had a distinctly Irish inspiration. This should not be idealised: sectarianism was bitter and ubiquitous. But religious hatred, like revolutionary purity, is too often a historical cliché. The reality was complex.

Kenefick reminds us, equally, that the connections between unions and socialists were by no means inevitable in the final years of the nineteenth century. Many ideas were still being born. Ideological positions we take for granted were by no means obvious to workers struggling to organise. Nor did it always seem predestined that in Scotland socialism should take on a nationalist hue. Red Scotland! is a history of political evolution. Things might have been otherwise.

They could be otherwise still, of course. Kenefick reminds us that industrial militancy comes and goes. That trade union membership has declined before now. That certain possibilities – national self-determination, say – can seem unthinkable for decades on end before reappearing with new, unsuspected vigour.

Not all workers were socialists a century ago: far from it. Fewer still were radicals or authentic revolutionaries. The impact of self-styled vanguards is always hard to measure. Yet even if you merely cherry-pick themes from a complicated tale, as I have done, you realise how thoroughly Scotland has been coloured, in its very sense of its modern identity, by the story Kenefick tells.

A small example. One of the book’s case studies involves the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, an old, deferential union altered by ideas and ill-treatment. By 1899 it had become one of three unions “to propose the formation of an independent representative labour organisation in parliament to fight for working class interests”. They called that the Labour Party.

One of my grandfathers, a railwayman, used to have the ASRS emblem on a watch fob. As a child, I used to wonder when he had ever been anyone’s servant. So did he.

Scotland: The Autobiography – 2,000 Years Of Scottish History By Those Who Saw It Happen
Edited by Rosemary Goring
pp483, ISBN 0670916579


First Minister Alex Salmond is proposing a winter festival to raise the international profile of Scotland. This book can make a welcome and stimulating contribution. Best read sitting next to a warm fire with a glass of your favourite single malt ready to hand. The book commences with a rather prosaic, archaeological account of the excavation of Skara Brae in Orkney and concludes with Alex Salmond’s wondrous reflections on the SNP coming to power this May. The first entry affirms the longstanding and not unsophisticated settlement patterns found in Scotland throughout the last two millennia. The last serves to demonstrate that Scotland’s involvement in the process of state formation and reformation is ongoing.

In between these two commentaries are another 206 entries imaginatively and absorbingly covering the rich tapestry of Scottish experience as told by eyewitnesses, narrators and participants. The book can be perused systematically from cover to cover. A no less rewarding approach is to randomly select groups of extracts from historical periods ranging from centuries to decades. This is not just recollections of the elites in the church and state but also testimonies of those for whom life was too often nasty, brutal and short. The commentaries range in a serendipitous manner through political, economic, religious, environmental, cultural and, above all, social history.

The editor has focused mainly on the modern and contemporary at the expense of the medieval and early modern periods. Indeed, over half the entries date from the 1820s. While this selection policy has undoubtedly been lead by the evidence available, it is highly regrettable that no place has been found for the impression Scotland made on Aeneas Sylvius, later Pope Pius II, on his mission in the 1430s. The library in Sienna Cathedral has commemorative mural of this visit, which may well be the first imaginary landscape of Scotland. There is also no place for the trenchant political and social criticism of Gaelic poets of the seventeenth century, most notably, Iain Lom alias James MacDonald, bard of Keppoch. Given that this volume draws heavily on newspaper sources and journalistic commentary, a significant oversight is any reference to the writing of the much travelled William Lithgow, who became Scotland’s first embedded war correspondent when he joined the Scottish troops in Dutch service at the siege of Breda in 1637. Conversely, there is too much reliance on the musings of the acclaimed prophet and self-publicist John Knox for events in the mid-sixteenth century.

Nevertheless, a sound balance has been struck between the serious, portentous and fateful happenings that have shaped Scotland’s history and the whimsical, idiosyncratic and irreverent aspects that have contributed to the nation’s identity. Notwithstanding a distinctive emphasis on death, violence and misery, there is also a pleasing leavening of festivity, daring and invention. All the momentous events, such as the Wars of Independence, the Reformation and the Union are covered, but not always from the obvious angle – most notably the self-mutilation by nuns to prevent themselves being raped by Viking invaders in 870. Human disasters, such as the massacre of Glencoe, the great famine and the Darien Venture, all in the 1690s, are handled with insight and sensitivity. The impact of Culloden and the Clearances on the Highlands is treated with informed passion.

There is a clear awareness that Scottish history does not exist in a vacuum. The imperial connection is initially well served with commentaries on the loss of the American colonies and the abomination of slavery. However, the radical impact of the French Revolution on Scotland is more presumed than stated even though the Aberdeen Journal carried eyewitness accounts from Scots in France during the Terror. The impact of the Indian sub-continent from the repatriation of capital to the inculcation of curry into the Scottish diet is understated. Nevertheless, diet good and bad is far from neglected. In the entries for the 1820s, there is a recipe for haggis, more trenchant than trencherman. The joyless is particularly well served by the presbytery of Glasgow’s proscription of pipe playing on Sun-days in 1593; as is the joyful by Ian Hamilton’s hand in the liberation of the Stone of Destiny from West-minster Abbey in 1950.

Spirituality, though integral to Scottish life down through the centuries, tends to be treated from an institutional perspective: a noteworthy exception is the eye-witness account of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as a determined martyr for Roman Catholicism in 1587. Mortality and grief are movingly recalled in Fordyce Maxwell’s reflections on the Dunblane Massacre in 1996; an outstanding piece of journalism complemented by that of Ian Bell on the hopes and aspirations awakened by the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Richard Demarco’s lifetime perspective on Sean Connery may well prove prescient if Scotland’s president-in-waiting can claim his independent republic.

The Blind Eye: A Book of Late Advice
Don Paterson
FABER, £12.99
pp96, ISBN 0571233821


When I was a younger man, and television studios, single-celled record-pluggers and acrid tour buses were my daily environment, there was one book I hung onto no matter where I was – losing myself in its knotty, angsty depths whenever things got too frothy, or relativistic, or just plain insane. The book was Theodor Adorno’s collection of aphorisms and reflections, Minima Moralia: Reflections From A Damaged Life, which I’d picked up from a university reading book list.

I still keep it near me. This austere Jewish-German philosopher, shrivelling under the sunlight of Los Angeles, musing on the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The compressed elegance of his aphorisms bespeak both his vast intellect, and vast pain. This one is probably the most famous: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter…. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.

Don Paterson is a modern poet who is thoroughly aware of the limits, the sheer effrontery of poetry. “Poetry! What a fine thing to be working in a medium that brings out the best only in the murderous soul of the poet, and quite the very worst in everyone else”. One of the urges he seems to answer in his torrent of aphorisms – The Blind Eye is the follow-up to Book Of Shadows – is to dismantle any high-minded justifications for art at all.

A jazz guitarist (well-respected, I can confirm), Paterson coins some self-deflating beauties about performance: “Eventually most musicians give up listening to their instrument, as I did, and hear only themselves: the real musicians never stop”, “Those wholly estranged from themselves have only two real homes: the monastery or the stage”. Paterson’s contempt for the gestalt of the literary scene – its micro-judgements, its ornate resentments, its buried savageries – is towering: “He was starting a little poetry magazine, and asked me if I had any advice for a budding editor. The only thing I could think of was open all the mail away from your face”. Indeed, for those who haven’t ventured fully into the world of poetry evenings, writers’ retreats and stimulant-drenched book launches, Paterson’s beautifully vicious mini-commentaries will certainly keep them at the desk job.

As befits a poet-jazzer, he’s also wonderful on carnality: “The beautiful can often only relax in the company of the ugly. This does not, alas, relax the ugly, but does lead to a great deal of bewildered sex between the two parties”. His advice on page 108 about the ‘trick’ with women is so well expressed, it almost approaches science (try it, and tell me it doesn’t work).

For Scottish readers, there is also enough class ressentiment and bathetic patriotism here for us to feel that he’s not entirely defined by his two TS Eliot Prizes: “Just occasionally, this little nation of stoics makes me weep with pride. ‘Happiness’, he declared, his beer-glass drenching his shoes, ‘is for poofs’”.

This is a funny, mature, inter-and intra-personally wise book. But I’m an Adorno man, and I look for more in my aphorisms. What does art really cost? What complex horrors subtend the vain act of symbolising? What tips Paterson towards greatness is that, on several occasions, he considers the real, contemporary causes of our “damaged life”, cheek by jowl with his saturnalian jottings, and does so with brilliant concision.

A paragraph about the global market should be rendered as a laminated card on the First Minister’s desk, reminding Oor Eck of the world he’s really in. Digitality and the net properly suffuse this book, and even allows Paterson a rare moment of optimism about literature: if all our art becomes down-loadable, “we may even see the idea of cultural wealth return to what our brains can hold, not our houses or our harddrives”.

But as the title of the volume suggests (though let’s be honest, it’s also a reference to the tip of his penis), Paterson’s big issue is consciousness – and in a properly modern sense too, referencing physics, cosmology and Buddhism. None of this ambition (which in the text he usually follows with a sex joke or lit-sneer) will endear him to the critics he so relentlessly fireproofs himself against. But if pissed stoicism makes him vaguely patriotic, then Paterson’s MacDiarmid-lost-in-the-Playstation routines make me explicitly so. Two final extracts, quoted in exact sequence, to commend you to this book (and Adorno would give him the nod on both of these):

“God was only invented to protect the soul; the soul is just an erroneous back-formation from the ego; the ego is just an inwardly projected, spectral self-image which has arisen from the feedback loop of our individual consciousness, and that consciousness itself, only a tool possessed by a unit mammal which found itself in need of some half-decent predictive capability. In the name of which little skill we have immortalised ourselves, projected ourselves into an eternity on which we have not the slightest foothold”.

“My parents conceived me, the universe conceived of me”.

Never too late, for such advice. That this guy can hold down a paying job in Scotland: believe me, we’re in good shape.

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