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Volume 4 – Issue 2 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 4 – Issue 2 – Reviews

October 19, 2009 | by SRB

John Burnside
pp259, ISBN 9780224080743


John Burnside’s previous novel, The Devil’s Footprints, is subtitled a romance, and it is a romantic story of a very vexed and vexing sort where ‘romance’ seems, at best, ironic. The term ‘romance’ was used of some medieval narratives such as Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and some of Shakespeare’s late plays. It is not a term commonly used of modern works although some fantasy and science fiction stories might be so described. Mar-garet Drabble characterises this notion of romance as usually involving “the suspension of the circumstances normally attendant on human actions (often through magic) in order to illustrate a moral point”; Burnside’s new novel, Glister, can be described as a romance in this sense.

The novel is set in an unspecified location and in an unspecific version of the present time – Walkman but no mobile phone. There is no geographic or political context: there is Innertown and Outertown and a decommissioned industrial site in woodland on a headland. The characters do not speak in any local dialect or accent. Nobody travels beyond the circumscribed area. We are given no sense of the local economy, how the school is run, where people do their shopping, what the pubs are like. The characters in the story relate to other characters but there is no suggestion of work colleagues or wider family connections. The area seems to be polluted, blighted by the earlier processes in the industrial site run by a group known as the Consortium. It would seem that the novel takes in a period of about a dozen years but there is no obvious time sequence imparted to the reader. Inside the cordon sanitaire drawn by the novel, mysterious, disquieting phenomena take place or are suggested, people die of unexplained ailments, and the apprehension is centred on the disappearance of six teenage boys over a period of ten years and some possible connection with the old factory.

Although there are vivid, physical descriptions of terrain, weather, sex and violence, the pressure of the enterprise is obviously allegorical, parabolic, a romance in the sense above. In structure, the novel has a prefatory chapter called ‘Life is Bigger’ which comes, time-wise, after the final chapter called ‘Heaven’; and there are two sections, the first entitled ‘The Book of Job’ and the second ‘The Fire Sermon,’ both divided into several chapters. The perspective keeps shifting but in some respects the characters are interchangeable in how the world around them is perceived. One of Burnside’s greatest strengths is to express a complexity of vision from within a mentality, particularly with regard to evanescent or transitional situations, whether of weather conditions or of psychology or both. The central character, Leonard, thinks of the headland when snow has fallen:

“Sometimes I think the headland is at its most beautiful in winter, when everything you take for granted, anything you don’t bother to look at during the rest of the year, all the hidden angles and recesses, the unseen pipework and fields of rubble, come back new, redefined by the snow and, at the same time, perfected, made abstract, like the world in a blue-print. Everything looks closer together and, at the same time, it’s like there’s more space than there was in autumn. When the first snow comes, you start to see new things, and you realise how much of the world is invisible, or just on the point of being seen, if you could only find the right kind of attention to pay it, like turning the dial on a radio to the right channel, the one where everything is clearer and someone is talking in a language that you understand right away, even though you know it’s not the language you thought you knew”.

Like Virginia Woolf, Burnside’s steady gaze is remarkably perceptive but, as with Woolf, we often feel the gaze is that of the author, not of a particular character. The central character, Leonard Wilson, aged fifteen at the end of the novel, is presented as largely self-taught but with a range of reading, films, cooking, plants, art and vocabulary which has nothing to do with realism. Behind him are the oddly unexamined disappearances of the boys, the unexplained activities in the old industrial plant, and the manipulative powers of a local baddie which are never disclosed. Everywhere there is a sense of menace, of powers beyond the ordinary day-to-day life of the town.

The climax comes in Leonard’s encounter with an itinerant lepidopterist called the Moth Man and his entry into a richly described but unspecified apparatus in the heart of the old industrial site, the Glister of the novel’s title. The simple reading of the word GLISTER is the name of the owner G. Lister but the mysterious, magical, transformative machine is imbued with powers beyond the plainness of its makers’ names. As he says in the passage quoted, “much of the world is invisible”, and over and over through the novel there are glimpses, gleams, glistenings, glints, gloamings, glaisters, glitters – and we remember the etymological connection of grammar and glamour. Burnside deals in angels (of life and also of death), notions of sacrifice, and the sacred in the profane, psychedelic slidings, the instability of so-called physical facts.

What is the moral or metaphysical point? Frankly, I d o not know. After a rereading of the novel, after being again hugely impressed by Burnside’s wonderful writing, I think he relies too much on hints and nods. Partly, the book, like his earlier ones, is about the chanciness of young males growing into something humane – and there is a great deal of inhumane behaviour – but always there is a suggestion of something beyond our present capacities.

Burnside is no McCall Smith. You reach the end of the latter’s books usually feeling uplifted and decent and clear; you reach the end of Burnside’s books disturbed, sullied, doubtful, unclear. But you are challenged.

The Complete Short Stories
Agnes Owens POLYGON, £10.99
pp320, ISBN 1846970598


Liz Lochhead describes Agnes Owens as a lady in a woolly hat with a fringe of dark blonde hair sticking out. This was at their first encounter thirty years ago in an evening class for writers held weekly in Alexandria. Not the ancient Egyptian Alexandria, Lochhead says in her introduction to this volume, but the “wee rain-and-windswept” Alexandria in Dunbartonshire. Owens was a typist in a local factory.

She sat at the back of the class and said little. Her mouth was turned down decisively at the corners. She wrote the same way: neatly typed stories that were grim and laconic yet oddly funny. Lochhead detected genius. So did her fellow tutors, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. They discovered Owens was a widow with three children. She had endured a bleak life after her husband died at the age of 43, and a rotten one before that. Unemployment, poverty, homelessness, depression and violence were all familiar to her. She re-married and had another three children.

Owens translated her experience in a first story: “Arabella pushed the pram up the steep path to her cottage. It was hard going since the four dogs inside were a considerable weight”. Arabella is fat and sagging. She is illiterate. Her talent is mixing potions as remedies for the ailments of locals, or her sessions involve both parties getting cheerfully naked together. Patrons contribute to the box for the “children”, her four dogs. Someone reports her to the sanitary department. An inspector calls. He gets the treatment.

As with many of the stories Owens has continued to write over the next three decades, ‘Arabella’ demonstrates a clinical eye for repulsive detail – spittle trailing from an elderly mother’s mouth or a fat louse crushed by fingernails – a killer payoff line, and a central character who survives through subversive innocence. The reader laughs then wonders why.

Becoming a published writer probably only made material circumstances worse for Owens. Her first novel, Gentlemen Of The West, was followed quickly by the stories she contributed to Lean Tales, coauthored by Gray and Kelman. Being published offered only a marginal financial improvement on not being published at all, so Owens had to take on any part-time work she could find. By her own account, she had to be prodded to keep producing stories, “the last thing I wanted to do, especially after cleaning someone’s house”. A Scottish Arts Council grant helped her to finish another short novel, Like Birds In The Wilderness. “It wasn’t a success”, she reports bleakly. “Though some people liked it.” She kept going. Two novellas: Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party. Another: For The Love Of WillieA Working Mother was followed by another book of short stories, People Like That. The first two titles and the last appear in this collected volume, along with the fourteen new stories of The Dark Side, appearing here for the first time.

“Royalties?” retorts the failed writer in “Meet The Author”, one of the new stories. “I could have made more money cleaning houses.”

The theme of this fictional author’s books has been failure, evidently a minority appeal in the commercial market. “I put all the drastic things that happened to the family in that novel”, she reflects on her only critical success. Now ostracised and friendless, she is facing a lonely death from cancer. The narrator gets her a bottle of vodka and reads her obituary five months later. She promised to make a return visit, but never did. So much for the rewards of literary fame.

In ‘The Writing Group’, another cautionary tale among the new stories, the class sit at school desks listening to the tutor reading her poem in Gaelic. Her voice rises and falls “like a storm at sea”. When Danielle, a new face in the group, confesses that she doesn’t understand, she is told sharply that the intonation should provide sufficient clues. Danielle’s own story, about a baby left on a doorstep, is too graphic to suit the taste of the group. The compensation for Danielle is she won’t have to return to future classes, particularly since she has dipped the wallet of one of the “writers”.

Owens is inveterate and unapologetic in the remorselessness of her treatments. She creates the most odious families, particularly parents, this side of Dostoevsky. There is something almost adolescent about the raw cruelty of her humour, but it is probably more the retaliatory snort of the survivor. As I read these stories to my fourteen-year-old son he looks up from his computer game to laugh out loud. I ask him if Agnes Owens reminds him of any other writers. The answer comes as a surprise, but I think he could be right. Take all the dogs, the money-making wheezes that never come off, the scrapes, misunderstandings, chumps, cads, pompous officials, dreadful relatives, piss ups, cock ups, looming retributions and accidental reprieves, and transpose them from the west of Scotland. You could be revisiting the world of Bertie Wooster, but with one terrifying omission – there is no manservant Jeeves to put things right.

Strange Telescopes
Daniel Kalder
FABER, £14.99 pp416, ISBN 0571231233


Daniel Kalder is part of a group of self-proclaimed ‘anti-tourists’ who, at a conference in Kazakhstan in 1999, drew up a manifesto designed to direct adventure in the twenty-first Century. This asked how best to investigate our ever-shrinking modern world where, it was alleged, most travel experiences had become sanitised and ultimately meaningless. The document was grand, ambitious, and occasionally ridiculous, but it was funny too, and it makes sense of Kalder’s approach to writing. The anti-tourist claims he “prefers dead things to living ones”, “seeks invisibility”, believes “beauty is in the street” and “loves truth, but is also partial to lies. Especially his own”. So Strange Telescopes is not an ordinary travelogue. Like his debut, Lost Cosmonaut, this is an honest search for alternative realities in some of the earth’s most astonishing places. Bizarre sub-titles are peppered throughout: ‘Hunting a Human’, ‘Exit Dreamland’, ‘Satan Takes a Trip’, and my own personal favourite, ‘Notes on the Apocalypse That Will Soon Be Forgotten’, suggest the general flavour of the contents.

Strange Telescopes is made up of four episodes from Kalder’s ongoing anti-tourist search. He has lived in Russia for much of the last decade, so most of these adventures take place in that country and the several surrounding ones it still dominates. Kalder follows ‘radical outsiders’ who live unusual lives and believe in them absolutely. The first he tracks down is Vadim, self-proclaimed ‘Lord of the Diggers’ who lives in the Moscow underground system. The second is Edward, an admirer of the British who has given up everything to make a religious documentary about exorcism. The third is Vissarion, an ex-traffic policeman who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Christ and has set up a new community with his followers in Siberia. The fourth and final outsider is Sutyagin, a businessman who claims to have invented Perestroika and has built the world’s largest wooden tower as a monument to himself. This remains incomplete, partly because he went to prison during construction, for locking a man in his basement. In the context of Strange Telescopes, this story sounds perfectly plausible.

To follow these characters, each shaped by the “brand new, chaotic world” created post-USSR, is to be amazed by them, and Daniel Kalder is a fine guide to a world that will be totally alien to most readers. He writes with incredible energy, driven ever forward by his need to find the unfamiliar. He aims to “enter the reality” of his subjects, trying to understand “the struggles of radical dreamers”, no matter how disconnected they seem to be from the world most inhabit. Kalder is not interested in his own personal truth and does not obscure the story with ego: he is only interested in his characters, and this approach is highly successful throughout. The prose style works well too. Laid-back, unpretentious delivery, occasional interludes, postcards and posed pictures next to the new Messiah – all combine to make an impressive, unlikely whole.

Sometimes the reader gets a glimpse of who Daniel Kalder is, and he’s every bit as interesting as his subjects. In some ways he’s actually more so, because his lack of care over his own safety suggests something sinister worth investigating in its own right. Strange Telescopesonly suffers from Kalder’s narration towards the end where he draws together the disparate worlds described so far, trying to make sense of it all when there is little sense to be made. Perhaps this is because all books generally include conclusions of some kind, but there is no real order to this chaos, and no need for it. At the end Kalder is really just coming to terms with his own outsider’s reality, being a thirty-something man from Dunfermline wandering through the darkest parts of Siberia, looking for satisfaction. Why does he do it? Is the life of the anti-tourist condemned to be a constant, unfulfilling search? Is the search important, or is it all about the journey? Kalder is certainly never satisfied, immersing himself deep in each of these realities until he is exhausted by them, then simply moving on to the next, always backing away when his characters notice him too much. Partway through one adventure he states, as if it has just occurred to him, “I like anonymity. I like alienation”.

And that’s why he has to move on, always looking for the next anti-tourist hotspot. He writes, “I am a firm believer that when a strange door is open in front of you, it is always better to step through, even if you think it will probably lead to nowhere and nothingness”. If there are any more strange doors yet to be opened, then Daniel Kalder is the man to go through them. If he reports back, his next book will certainly be worth reading.

Being Emily
Anne Donovan
pp311, ISBN 9781847670441


“Something feels haund-knitted about the way we dae things”, says Fiona O’Connell about Glasgow and Glaswegians, in Anne Dono-van’s new novel, Being Emily.

Still, the O’Connell family is well stitched “thegether”. The eldest, Patrick, works nights at the bakery then comes home to slake his artistic urges by perpetually re-painting the fireplace, the precocious wee twins, Mona and Rona, “step and birl, turn and clap, spot on the beat”, at their line-dancing, while the middle daughter, Fiona, does her chores with an Emily Brontë novel inches from her nose, collecting the laundry from the back green while passing judgment on the neighbors: “Ah think if ma bum was as big as that ah’d dry ma washin inside.” Donovan’s details are a delight to anyone, like myself, who shared a bedroom with other daft lassies, guddled with Barbies and scrunchies, in a cramped Glasgow tenement infused by the smell of mince, and whose weekends were punctuated by the rituals of Mass and Blind Date on the telly.

Following a tragedy that mirrors one suffered by the Brontë family, the O’Connells begin to unravel. The father, fraying with grief and self-absorption, leaves Mona and Rona prey to the snags of adolescence, while Fiona herself, turns inward.

She turns inward, kindling deeper her obsession with Emily Brontë, struggling to define her role as a woman and an artist. After taking Sixth Year Studies in Art at secondary school, she secures a place at Glasgow College of Art, bolstered by her boyfriend and soulmate, Jas, with whom she has an ambiguous, unconsummated relationship.

Fiona loves being an art student, loves trolling charity shops for droopy tea-dresses and foosty velvet jackets, loves humphing her portfolio up the wuthering heights of Scott Street. Her art installations become increasingly morbid, influenced by the disintegration of family and of hope, woolly with grief and loss. The Niggly Nelly of her class, she knits miniature hedges and furniture, and cobbles them together with Barbie bits, carpentry, squeegee bottles and light bulbs in a way, you just know, given time, will be a shoe-in for the Turner Prize. And when her work is first exhibited, she undergoes the rite of passage of every artist, by learning that not everyone is chuffed by the truths she seeks to expose.

Then, Jas’s enigmatic brother, Amrik, blows in from London, think Heathcliff plus sitar, to throw sexual complications in Fiona’s path. “I had somehow captured this wonderful being, like a selkie”, Fiona thinks of her relationship with Amrik, and like a selkie, Amrik proves difficult to grasp, and like the gifted musician he is, performs selfishness to a T.

Being Emily is Donovan’s first novel since her highly praised Bud-dha Da, and contains her characteristic sly humour and Glaswegian prose. Her blend of Standard English and phonetic spellings may annoy at the “git-go” but it dwindles as the novel progresses, and words ending in “ing” tend to grow back their tails.

The twins, Mona and Rona, are essentially indistinguishable, even when one hooks the taciturn, immaculately shell-suited Declan, and the O’Connell’s finances never seem strained despite the compounding tragedies. The not unexpected ending is, nevertheless, (and I’m scrabbling here to find a synonym for “heart-warming”) … toasty, and Being Emily will be as well received as Buddha Da, though a cynic might characterise its overall tone – given the ease with which the Sikh and Catholic families interact and various sexual orientations are accepted – as ‘Glasgow-lite’.

Allusions to the Brontës are plentiful, and to Wuthering Heights in particular, and the most effective underscore Fiona’s strong sense of place. At one point she returns to the family flat to press her nose against the glass like Cathy, desperate, but unable, to go home. When she visits her brother Patrick, who works in London as a food stylist, (“Whit in the name of the wee man”, her father asks, “is food styling?”), she spends her days in this art Mecca longing to return to her own beloved “moor”, to her own dear, green place.

Fiona defines the difference between Emily Brontë’s society and our own as our unwillingness to settle, our fear of greener grass elsewhere. “We are tentative and conditional; all the get-out clauses are written fae the moment we set eyes on someone … we try out partners as we send for things on the Inter-net, knowing we have thirty days to return them.” We don’t always need to go somewhere other than where we are to make art, she argues, and, often, we need look no further than the one we are with to find love. For Fiona, for Donovan, Glasgow may be haund-knitted but it’s home, and a home is lovingly constructed by a family – stitch by stitch, plain or purl.

What’s She Doing Here? A Refugee’s Story
Kate Clanchy
PICADOR, £14.99
pp300, ISBN 0330443828


Waiting for the review copy of Kate Clanchy’s What Is She Doing Here? to arrive, I had time to marshal my prejudices. White, middle class, poet living in London, meets Koso-van refugee in street, hires her to clean house – then writes book about her? Perhaps, I think, they’ll put up another shelf in high street bookshops beside ‘Tragic Life Stories’ and label it, ‘Books By Privileged Authors About Folk Less Fortunate Than Themselves’. Are writers here finding their own existences so barren they must plunder the lives of people from the ‘underclass’ for vivid narratives?

When the book arrived I read it in one sitting. From the outset, Kate Clanchy grabs the moral ambiguities involved and shakes them with a mixture of fury, guilt and embarrassment. In the preface, she describes the exchange that sealed her decision to write the book, to which Antigona offers her blessing: “Yes…It makes me feel happy – a book… because there are a thousand women behind me in this country, having shit lives…. They cannot move forward. It takes one to break the ice”. Clanchy adds, “‘Break the ice’ has always suggested to me a thin frozen layer over faces at a party…. Now…I saw that the ice for her was thick: opaque, grey lake ice, and she and the other women were under it, knocking”. But it doesn’t stop Antigona sending Kate up – “This is just like East Enders for you, innit?” – and the pair of them laughing uproariously together. Kate, however, realises that what she must write is “Not Antigona’s story as it happened to her, but her story as it happened to me…with all my ignorance and prejudices and losses of temper…with my large, British, liberal behind”.

Throughout are sections entitled Things Antigona Knows How to Do And I Don’t. These include: wash and lay out bridal sheets; keep working while in acute physical pain; shear; spin; darn, patch; knit; trap and roast songbirds; harrow, plant, hoe, harvest, store…. But while Kate is frankly admiring of these skills, sees a time in the near future when global warming drives us back to them, Antigona loathes them; loves instead using the washing machine, shopping in Tesco and Primark. On knitting, she says, “‘I can do it, socks and things, but it drive me mad. So boring”. Thinks Kate, “Come the handcrafts revolution, Antigona and I are first up against the wall”.

Speaking no English when she arrives in Britain, Antigona, has survived horrific ordeals fleeing from Kosovo with her two young daughters and infant son. For most of the book, she doesn’t know what has happened to her parents and sisters. Stories of men and boys led out of villages and shot, women and girls raped and sold into sexual slavery, and pits of unidentified dead seep through the fabric of Kate’s comfortable London milieu: the thirtysomething professionals in terraced houses, needing two salaries to pay the mortgage, hiring immigrants to do their childcare and cleaning. They force her to reexamine some of the feminist ideas that inform her relationships – “What about Your Time?” her husband asks, “You’re not getting over-involved are you?” – and reaffirm others as her understanding of Antigona’s culture grows.

Then there’s the Kamun of Lek Antigona mentions. Kate googles it. Sure enough, 15,200 entries on this mediaeval system still prevalent in the mountainous regions of the former Yugoslavia, setting down the shame a woman brings on her family, by, for example, leaving her murderous husband. The system entitles her in-laws to kill her and evade the law. With the interim report of the Independent Asylum Commission, published recently, describing a “culture of disbelief” among decision makers, Antigona’s story, as page-turningly compulsive as any novel, also challenges current prejudices and dissolves facile distinctions between ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘economic migrant’.

By the closing pages, Antigona, a vivid, complex character, has entered your head, much as she entered Kate Clanchy’s life, forcing you to re-examine assumptions. Far from being ‘appropriated’ for nefarious literary ends, the overwhelming sense is of how much Clanchy likes and admires her; how faithfully she has honoured her promises, held to her belief that Antigona and her children deserve better; and with what literary élan, honesty and humour she illuminates the story of how they came into each other’s lives.

And in the end, is that not a good enough use of literature: a place where writers imagine for us the lives of people who are not us? When they do it as brilliantly as Kate Clanchy does here, it is harder to turn those others into objects of misunderstanding and hate.

Full Volume
Robert Crawford
pp64, ISBN 0224080873


Once again Robert Crawford shows himself as an ‘identifying poet’. Crawford coined the term for writers who are associated with particular places. “Where am I?” is, he feels, one of the pressing questions of contemporary writing. Yet it is not enough to say that Crawford is in St Andrews in Scot-land, although many of the poems are set in Scotland and several of them actually in St Andrews, for Crawford’s global village, like Edwin Morgan’s, reaches out from the local to the cosmic, from the “warm pub in St Andrews” to the Milky Way. Crawford has always urged Scotland to eschew the potential small-mindedness of the small nation but at the same time to love its intimacy. He find new and delightful combinations of great and small, of far and near, and of ancient things with the last word in modernity, to demonstrate the devious and holy interconnectedness of all things: ‘Biology’, dedicated to his son, Lewis, celebrates the “unseen, wee recognition scenes,/Atom-fine get-togethers, microbondings” that articulate “a sort of Word made flesh” and confirm our deep sense of connection with all creatures and all things, in a “Deft, intermolecular embrace”.

The emotional charge of the poems that engage with wider social and political life is also delivered by the intimate, the wee. The family, the wife, the son, the daughter, confer meaning on the world beyond the hearth. Crawford celebrates the ‘Bronze Age’ of his marriage; bronze, combining tin and copper, is a fitting symbol of complex union. In a number of the most pleasing poems he takes his domestic life on his travels and through his own emotional ties understands the life of others. Old stories are given meaning by the play of the poet’s children. In ‘Wyoming’ his daughter “dances in a teepee ring” and fingers the remains of a flint from which an arrowhead was chipped. The unfettered behaviour of the child makes him reflect on “The stone that stayed/So the same stone could fly”, the old stabilities that provided the security for modern freedoms, and the present home that allows the arrow’s flight by simply being there to return to.

In ‘Measurement’ the children are both closer to, yet further away from home. Nine and Seven (as the poet calls the children in this poem) make the ancient sites of Orkney their playground in a series of moments of illumination: “‘Seven’ glissaded down Maes Howe’s/Five-thousand-year-old chute”; “‘Nine’ dropped down rung after midnight rung/Metres into Wideford Hill”. These moments are fragile. After the winter solstice the children will never be “sixteen again”: the past must be constantly reimagined in the present moment.

Cartier-Bresson is celebrated for capturing such timeless moments – what “happens in the blink of an eye”. Crawford has always written in praise of the men and women who have shaped history: Cartier-Bresson is joined by Colin Matthew, editor of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, by T. S. Eliot born, like Scott Joplin, in Locust Street, and by the poets Crawford reworks – Paz, Pessoa, Buchanan, Florentius Wilson.

Crawford educates his readers, sends them off to the virtual world that he invokes. I vaguely, but imprecisely, knew about the Wan-lockhead Miners’ Library and the Innerpeffray reading room, but ‘The Digital Library St Andrews’ sent my fingers ‘tip-tapping’ to internet knowledge. Generally that knowledge is seen as the supporter and preserver of the ancient but it is never offered as a substitute for the world of the senses.

The political satires are often very funny – the mixture of cliché and shibboleth of ‘Cooled Britannia’ (“The hour approaches. Check your fly”), or the wild, exuberant flyting against academic commercialisation in ‘Beleago’. But the hard edge and serious intent is never simply dissolved into laughter. In ‘Wool and War’ from the sixteenth century Latin of Florentius Wilson, wool substitutes for oil as the commodity worth going to war for, allowing the incongruous notion that “Upscale designer dresses /Sport wool in old Damascus”. The poem’s conclusion, however, is direct and accusatory: “Posterity will curse the warmongers/Who started this…. These arms, these men, they’ll say,/Ignored the spirit”. That for Crawford is the ultimate offence: he has a non-doctrinaire sense of life’s spiritual dimension, his poetry is fundamentally sacramental. He memorialises the natural world and the world of human affections: these are the revivifiers of the present and the recoverers of the past. A “winter hare’s powdery kick”, or his wife’s hair, “a little greyer now/Year by year” he carries “back/To the black loch, the loch of ink”.

The collection justifies its title: the poems go deep, like the “full volume” of Loch Ness, tested by the diver in the title poem; and they are full and various in subject and form, faithful to the dialogism that Crawford insists on: “When you are faced with two alternatives/ Choose both”. Good advice in this wee country with its mixed political and linguistic heritage.

At the Edge of Empire: the Life of Thomas Blake Glover
Michael Gardiner
BIRLINN, £16.99
pp356, ISBN 1841585440


Thomas Glover seems the quintessential Imperial Scot. The son of an Aberdeenshire coastguard, he engaged with that quintessentially Imperial Scottish firm Jardine Matheson in 1857 and (aged 18) was soon hustling in the China trade, dealing in the ‘big three’: silk, tea and opium. The times were heady, the profits huge, the scruples few. When the US Navy forced Japan to open to trade, Glover was there for Jardine Matheson. He spent most of the rest of his life in Japan, and his career was remarkable. He was a ‘player’ in politics, helping to unite the samurai clans whose rebellion led to the Meiji Restoration; he supplied the (Aberdeen-built) ships which founded the modern Japanese Navy; he ran coal mines and founded a brewery, then spent many years as an adviser to the fledgling Mitsubishi. He died rich and successful; his house in Nagasaki remains a tourist attraction, and he was reputedly the model for Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.

Glover’s story, however, contains many ironies that Michael Gardiner highlights in this intriguing if wayward biography. The Butterfly connection is no more than romantic myth. Glover’s contribution to Japanese shipping was not only immense in itself; he also brought in (from Aberdeen) a modern prefabricated slipway which allowed Japan’s own shipbuilding industry to develop – and to kill off Scot-land’s shipyards. As a mine-owner, Glover was a failure; his Takashima coal mine bankrupted him. Although, by his death in 1911, he was wealthy and honoured, Glover was a disappointed man, no longer his own boss but a hireling of Mitsubishi. Although intimate with leading politicians, and an ardent advocate of Japanese military expansionism, he was eventually placed under the surveillance of the kenpeitai (secret police). Finally, for all his devotion to Japan, he was never fully trusted. Nor was his family. The tragic figure in the tale is Glover’s son Tomasiburo. Not much of a success in business or scholarship, the boy became an ardent patriot, but his half-British parentage made him deeply suspect. The louder he shouted for the Emperor, the closer he was watched. Tomasiburo committed suicide in 1945, shortly after a single bomb devastated his father’s adopted city of Nagasaki.

It is a fascinating tale. Gardiner’s telling is, however, decidedly erratic. Was Glover Scottish at all? His father was not. Does it matter? Gardiner worries away at this and Scottish national identity in general, starting with the observation that “the word ‘Scotland’ does not appear on any passport”. Nor do the words ‘England’ or ‘Wales’, come to that. There is little evidence that the point bothered Glover, who was (as Gardiner admits) “mostly too busy making money for any such reflection”.

The book needed a competent editor, and didn’t get one. It gets off to a bad start with: “The wisterias are a lilac deep enough to cling to the clothes.” Lovely stuff, but what does it mean? Then: “The dragonflies are aircraft circling the ponds.” (I think Gardiner has been to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden at Stony-path, where the bird tables are in the form of Japanese aircraft carriers.) What does he mean by “New-tonian laws of supply and demand”? Is he confusing the great physicist with Adam Smith and David Ricardo? He describes Glover as “dissatisfied with the routine of working, drinking and prostitution” – so the poor man was selling his body as well as opium. He states that, by 1905, “the Japanese Imperial Navy had by now overrun Russia,” which suggests sailors eating sushi in the Kremlin.

His account of the Anglo-French naval bombardment of Kagoshima in 1863 is so muddled that I resorted to Wikipedia to sort out who sank what. Gardiner downgrades the incident: “…there was nothing much battle-like about the Battle of Kagoshima, in which the British Navy fired on the wooden town with large cannon, only receiving the occasional hit in exchange”. But on the facing page he writes: “The Satsuma counterattack caused the destruction of eight allied ships… It was nevertheless a punitive strike rather than a battle”. Confused? Me too.

Such solecisms litter the writing. This is a great shame, since Gar-diner is good on the ruthless trading world of Asia in the 1860s, and perceptive and candid about his ‘hero’. The fact is, Thomas Glover was in many ways a most unattractive character. He was a womaniser; Tomasiburo was his son by a prostitute. He beat up his servants. He lied to his business associates. He was ruthless and unscrupulous, making a fortune out of flooding the Japanese market with guns. He treated his mine workers appallingly. He was, writes Gar-diner, “amoral, fickle and lacking in finesse”. Nevertheless, Glover was a formidable man, and undoubtedly cuts a figure in the histories both of Japan and Scotland – whatever it said on his passport.

Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, translated by Peter Burnett
Polygon, £16.99
pp608, ISBN 1846970768


In a bracing essay in an appendix to Imprimatur, it is suggested that history will have to be rewritten in view of research which shows that Pope Innocent XI, a member of the Odescalchi family of bankers, financed the Glorious Revolution which brought the Protestant William of Orange to the throne of England in place of the Catholic House of Stuart. In the light of this information, they ask “How will the British Orangemen be able stubbornly and arrogantly to parade through the streets of Derry and Belfast?”

This essay, written in a spoof academic style but based on genuine data, is the most gripping part of Imprimatur. The pity is that to get there the reader has had to plough through 532 pages of a historical-novel-cum-detective-story which might be fashionably described as post-modern, but which could be more accurately catalogued among the higher sorts of hocus-pocus. Of the two authors, Monaldi is an expert in religious history, and Sorti, her husband, a historian of music, and the impression is that they uncovered a wealth of fascinating historical material they were unsure how to use. Umberto Eco, with hisThe Name of the Rose, provided them with a model, of sorts.

A group of refugees, spies, double-dealers, scoundrels and assorted personal and political misfits fetch up in an inn in seventeenth century Rome where a French guest dies of what is taken to be the plague. It might of course be a case of poisoning, and was this guest quite the anonymous, casual traveller he appeared to be? The inn-keeper is then laid low after a mysterious accident and an Englishman, Bedfordi by name, comes down with what is unquestionably the plague. The authorities quarantine the inhabitants, leaving them as isolated from society as though they were in an Agatha Christie country house.

None of this idiosyncratic bunch is quite what they seem to be. Apart from the prostitute with a heart-of-gold and the allure of a Venus, there is a fat and cowardly Jesuit, skilled in the casuistry associated in legend with the Order, a minor poet, a major musician and above all the Abbot Melani, who had started life as a castrato singer in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and who had entered the service of the royal Superintendent General, Fouquet. He may even be a double or treble agent, but he takes on himself the duties of the sleuth, appointing as his companion and narrator the inn’s young apprentice, a dwarf who becomes Watson to his Holmes. This unnamed lad displays in full the mixture of willingness and naivety classically required of the type in this genre.

In pursuance of their unknown prey, the investigators locate a secret passage which takes them into an underground city inhabited by gangs of sinister but officially sanctioned robbers who, in search of valuable relics, plunder the tombs of supposed martyrs. Episodes of derring-do in the catacombs and sewers of Rome have the feel of the Gothick horror novels of another age, or perhaps of passages from Dumas (D’Artagnan has a walk-on part), but the twosome manage to sneak into the house of the Pope’s physician, thereby uncovering a plot whose titanic dimensions threaten to overwhelm them, and Christian Europe.

In addition to supplying a structure, Umberto Eco inspired the authors to insert lengthy, erudite disquisitions which often take the place of dialogue. A history of the castrato, a discussion of the rondeau, a sketch of the spread of Jansenism, and a description of medical techniques of bleeding are among topics debated in these pages, together with more detailed accounts of the machinations at the French court in the days of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Crimes and misdeeds in the inn in a backstreet in Rome are, it is made clear, related to the great geo-political events of the day, particularly to the disputes over the throne of England and over the future of Christian Europe at a moment when the Islamic Turks were at the gates of Vienna.

If there are hints at parallels with the twenty-first century clash of civilisation, the place of biological warfare is taken by a struggle to understand and control bubonic plague. The side which grasps how to initiate the plague and then arrest its dissemination among its own people will have a weapon of mass destruction capable of tilting the balance of power between European Christian forces, and between Christianity and Islam. With a touch of fantasy, it is suggested that certain musical compositions have the magical curative qualities needed. Regrettably, that magic and lightness of touch are not apparent in the prose and narrative of the novel itself.

The Thistle and the Crescent
Bashir Maan
pp255, ISBN 1906134146


Bashir Maan “the well-known Mus-lim”, as he describes himself in his blurb, has during more than half a century of living in Scotland seen the native majority’s attitude towards his minority turn from easy tolerance to uneasy tolerance.

Steady though not perfect progress in acceptance and assimilation suffered a sudden setback with the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport last year. Then, according to Maan, “the Muslim community became tense and afraid of the repercussions against them”. He had already started and finished his book beforehand, but a postscript defines it as a contribution to restoring the previous balance and setting relations once again on a more even course.

Maan’s method is to show that contact between Scotland and Islam goes back a long way. While it has not always run smooth, it has yielded enough examples of mutual sympathy to give hope that, if things sometimes turn bad, they can yet turn better.

It would have been preferable to concentrate on the real examples of such contact than to spin out some thin speculation. From Mecca, Scotland looks to be at the edge of the world – which is where it is put on medieval Muslim maps. The Arabs have always been a great trading people but to claim, on that account, that they “must have” been to Scotland early on is hardly good enough. Maan spends the first quarter of his book (rather too much) saying this.

In fact there is no material or documentary evidence of any kind for such contact till the period of the Crusades, in which the later royal family of Bruce took part. A counterbalance to this ruthless aggression against Muslims was the figure of Michael Scot, the Wizard of Melrose and translator of medieval scientific treatises out of Arabic, which he had learned in Spain. That his work was regarded as occult in his own country tells us enough about its level of civilisation at the time.

The Wizard might be taken as the ultimate source of a current of Scottish orientalism which flowed more strongly down the centuries as the ambitious sons of a remote country sought to burst its constricting bands. It seems to me that the Scots, who knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of imperialist aggression, could often conceive greater sympathy for others who found themselves in the same position when Europe later came to dominate the rest of the world.

Hence that extraordinary succession of Scots, especially in India, who assimilated to the peoples they had conquered and were supposed to be ruling. They spoke native languages, wore native dress, married native women and led native lives. Maan mentions James Kirkpatrick and David Ochterlony among others, though there were many more. A full study of these Scottish orientalists remains to be written.

Still I think Maan misses the point about them. Of course they did find Muslim society more tolerant and easy-going than the world they left behind of “bloodthirsty Christianity”, as one put it. All the same, acceptances of the revelation of the prophet Mohammed were rare.

What these Scots rather engaged in was the Enlightenment’s project of working out a narrative of humanity free of the trammels of revealed religion. It would be based instead on a rounded view of all the evidence available, arising in part from science, in part from psychology, in part from comparative history. The great champion of this approach, not mentioned by Maan, was William Robertson Smith, who became both an expert Arabist and a minister of the Free Church of Scotland (which in 1881 deposed him for heresy).

If the world were a more sensible place, Smith would have let us rise above the sterile business of claiming one revelation is better than another, which is a culturally conditioned matter of faith rather than of proof. Of course, in the imperfect situation we have, tolerance is best – though it has been, time and again through history, only a fragile defence against descent into terrorism, from either the Muslim or the Christian side. There is still a long way to go before the urge to kill in the name of God dies out; it may help to reflect that humanitarians seldom feel this urge.

So even as an advocate of toleration himself, Maan fails to plumb the depths of the relationship between Scotland and Islam. But his book may offer a useful starting point for others to undertake that task.

The Good Mayor
Andrew Nicoll
BLACK & WHITE, £10.00
pp340 ISBN 1845021924


I have snow-blindness from staring at this lit computer screen. I’m unsure about what to write.

Well, I could start by saying what a relief it is to find a new Scottish novel which isn’t yet another crime title. Black & White Publishing are to be commended for doing what publishers should be doing but rarely will: taking a punt on something strange and wacky – probably rather wonderful, some will think – and not just attempting to emulate what was the hit formula of six months ago.

The Good Mayor is set in a remote Baltic town called Dot, which stands at the mouth of the River Ampersand The rival city has the name Umlaut; in the distance is the open country of Dash. We’re in fantasy-land, which isn’t somewhere I’m normally too keen to travel to – but the author makes a very persuasive case for it. His narrator is the bearded nun St Walpurnia, whose statues grace the edifices of the city; it’s she who tells us the long baggy story of Tibo Krovic, the said mayor (known for his goodness of heart,) and his pulchritudinous secretary with the wiggle she can’t help, Mrs Agathe Stopak.

It’s hard to say when events take place. We’re in a sort-of now: there are no mobile phones or computers, but use is made of terms such as bagging and moving on. It’s a time and place comfortingly familiar from State-funded East Euro-pean films of the Sixties and Seventies, or from recollections of a more staid Glasgow of department stores and tea rooms. (Many of the goings-on are fuelled by cups of coffee. The Dottians’ have a sweet-toothed love of biscuits and cakes to rivals the Scots’).

The publishers claim the novel will appeal to fans of Marquez and Joanna Harris – an ingenious pairing. Another name occurs to me: Alexander McCall Smith, who has cleverly refined understatement (not an easy business at all) and been unapologetic about choosing to accentuate the positive. The conundrum, philosophically speaking, is this: our mayor here may be a good and honest man, but is he necessarily right? A McCall Smith book would have been shorter, and tighter. Andrew Nicoll is wanting to sink us into the saga, so he is perhaps just a little too generous with all his conversations and descriptions; but the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and some of the prose quite exhilarating: “Tibo looked up the sky. He saw Orion disappearing in a swirl of cauldron-black cloud that was boiling up from the edge of the world and whipping, like torn silk, across the stars”.

At the centre of the novel is the love story. The Mayor is a man who knows he hasn’t loved enough in his life, while Agathe finds it hard to concentrate her ample affection. The narrator, in the guise of St Walpurnia, charts the development of their affair with great sensitivity and also exactness: its myriad twists and turns.

What puzzles me – why my fingers are hovering over the keyboard – is the ending. I was going to write, here is one male author who can write about women with utter conviction. But the final stage of the book lost me, just as it seems to literally lose the two main characters. We had already encountered a haunted private theatre, with actors who may or may not be there, which had set an alarm bell ringing in my head; now, after the astuteness and precision with which the suffering Agathe is explained to us, she finally appears to be turning into…a Dalmatian bitch!


Certainly, beneath the benign spirit of the top story there’s a troubling undertow – a distinct sense of the meaninglessness of life. As Agathe reflects: “Some birds fly this way, some birds fly that way, the leaves come on the trees, the leaves fall of the trees, a man wants you, a man stops wanting you…”. Why shouldn’t charms and curses have a place therefore, when nothing strictly makes sense? If we take fright at living life, then we turn into the mannequins in the shop windows of the city, frozen into doing nothing. (Maybe only a Scot could have written this book?)

But, again, my demurral: the occult element that has happily bubbled in the background as we investigated the psychological state of the lovers comes to the fore in the concluding stages, and suddenly – to my mind anyway – ‘magical realism’ feels like a notion we cooler-blooded North Europeans have mislaid from our DNA.

Okay, my final words: try to find time to read this book for yourself. Here’s a very exciting new talent, a wise and witty guide through the labyrinth of love, who writes prose that sparkles. (The computer’s lexicon is no match for his.) We should be singing Andrew Nicoll’s praises to sound through the hollow PR agency-fed clamour that attends some more established authors.

Rosslyn Chapel Revealed
Michael TRB Turnbull
pp256 ISBN 0750944676


For more than twenty-five years, book after book and more recently, documentary after documentary, has portrayed Rosslyn Chapel as strange and puzzling (and out of context). There is, it is said, something secret within the Chapel, though just what, if anything, is hidden is disputed. A veritable industry has grown up around Rosslyn Chapel. A quarter-century’s worth of hype finally ended with a novel, The Da Vinci Code. Recent books have covered specific aspects of Rosslyn Chapel, such as its alleged connection to the Knights Templar, but here the author Michael TRB Turnbull pursues a comprehensive approach to the building’s life and times.

Construction began on the Chapel in 1456, which is sited at the small Midlothian village of Rosslyn. For the historian the author has performed a singular service in that he traces the life and activities of Father Augustine Hay, a Roman Catholic priest, who until now was a somewhat elusive character. Hay’s importance lies in his connection to a local noble family, the St. Clairs. His widowed mother, Jean Spottiswood, married Sir James St. Clair in the mid1660s when Hay was still a young child. Hay therefore became a step-son to James St. Clair. William St. Clair, First Earl of Caithness and a relative by marriage, built the Chapel to be used for family worship. Hay made copies of St. Clair family documents, many of whose originals are lost. He incorporated them into a family history which included many unrecorded, that is to say oral, accounts of the family’s deeds over previous generations. Hay seems to have compiled his history of the St. Clairs over a period of time beginning about 1690 but also adding to it until about 1718.

The copied documents provide the majority of the information we have about the St. Clairs and Rosslyn Chapel. Turnbull recounts the history of the St. Clairs of Rosslyn, their deeds, battles and involvement with the royal family. Once he has discussed the main historical characters the author then provides an insightful history of the Chapel itself – when, why and how it was build, significant dates, restorations and repairs (some of which were competent, some less so).

The Chapel only came into its own once it was connected with equally mysterious groups – the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Turnbull is not afraid to tackle highly speculative ideas about the Chapel’s origins and construction. The claim that Rosslyn Chapel is a copy (unfinished or not) of King Solomon’s Temple or perhaps Herod’s Temple is examined from a historical and religious point of view. Using drawings and photographs and making comparisons with Glasgow Cathedral he is able to dismiss these claims in a succinct manner that leaves little room for argument.

When he turns his attention to the interior he dismisses recent speculation about what some have claimed were carvings of Indian Corn (maize). The New World crop was unknown at that time in Europe, prompting a theory that Henry St. Clair, First Earl of Orkney and William’s grandfather, had travelled to and returned from America before Columbus. Methodically describing the carved foliage with the assistance of expert botanists and archaeo-botanists, a large number of the leaves, flowers and other foliage are positively identified as typical of the period and place; stylised decoration also found elsewhere especially in other churches.

Those familiar with Rosslyn Chapel, even if only slightly, will be aware of the most famous story associated with the Chapel: the Apprentice Pillar. In brief – a Master Mason working upon the Chapel jealously murdered his apprentice when the younger man’s work on a column turned out to be better than his teacher’s. The story is often used to support the claim that there is a connection between Freemasonry and the Chapel. However it’s not a Rosslyn Chapel legend although much popular writing about the Chapel implies that it is. Turnbull deals equally efficiently with this alleged corroborative evidence.

The book’s discussion of the Apprentice Pillar and its associated legend clarifies much and sweeps away the accretitions of mumbo-jumbo this Chapel has proven prone to. Many of the stories are merely guesswork and one example ought to suffice as an illustration.

Several authors have argued that as the southernmost pillar is the Apprentice Pillar, the one next (north) to it much be the Fellow of Craft Pillar, and the third (further north) must be that of the Master Mason. In other words, these three pillars represent the three Degrees of Craft (Lodge) Freemasonry. When one is aware that the third Degree was not in existence at the time Rosslyn Chapel was built (the Degree was ‘invented’ in the 1720’s) this apparently logical explanation is revealed to be quite wrong. Turnbull’s arguments go some distance in doing away with fanciful ideas about Knights Templar, Freemasonry and the St. Clair family.

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