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Volume 1 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 1 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

November 2, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

The Finishing School
Muriel Spark
PENGUIN: £6.99
pp.156 ISBN 014100598

The appropriately named Chris Wiley is the boy wonder of College Sunrise, a Swiss mixed sex finishing school of questionable pedigree. Etiquette classes are given not on what to wear at Ascot but on how to run away from pythons, while the school founder and frustrated novelist, Rowland Mahler, is possibly going mad. The spur to his destruction is Chris who, although only seventeen, is writing a historical epic on Mary, Queen Of Scots that has already got several publishers twitching with interest. Mired in writer’s block, Rowland becomes obsessed with Chris as his belief grows that the teenager’s creativity is somehow damming his own. “He is impeding me. I wish he could peacefully die in his sleep,” Row-land thinks aloud. The teacher’s fixation is subtly paralleled with the publishing industry’s own obsession with ever younger, ever photogenic, and so ever more sellable authors – or at least that’s the theory. The surest riposte to this marketing ‘wisdom’ is The Finishing School itself; although penned by an octogenarian, it possesses more vigour and venom than a roomful of twentysomethings brandishing book contracts.

These Times, This Place
Muriel Gray
pp.74 ISBN 0954633377

For Gray, the personal and the political are synonymous. Throughout this collection of lively columns harvested from the Sun-day Herald, she repeatedly sources her political outrage in personal experience. The lack of new housing available to rent, for example, leads Gray back to her grandparents whom she recalls lived in a Maryhill slum; she includes the piquant detail of having to clap her hands before entering their outside loo to scare off the rats inside. She can be withering: when a government minister foolishly suggested to her that Shakespeare was no use to working class kids in Middles-borough, Gray reports that she responded, “You’ve had the benefit of the Bard, but by all means keep the Middlesborough kids nice and dumb, why don’t you? After all, you’re going to need someone to pack your groceries at the checkout before you give a dinner party.” The rub here, as with many columnists, is that their punditry depends as much on perpetuating stereotypes as overturning them. Thus “the soppy middle classes” are forever mewling bad eggs. This despite Gray’s governing interest in children and parenting, an obsession shared by the bourgeois.

Holyrood – The Inside Story
Susan Bain
pp.320 ISBN 0748620656

“Parliament is a mental place,” fated Spanish architect Enric Miralles said when presenting his original concept for approval; and there was indeed much about our Parliament’s subsequent construction that could comfortably be described as “mental,” principally the bill. Susan Bain was the assistant producer of The Gathering Place, the documentary that attracted controversy of its own when its authors refused to release footage to the Fraser Inquiry. For six years, Bain’s team of documentary makers filmed the unravelling Holyrood project, which you’d imagine gave her a unique perspective on the debacle. Yet despite its billing as “the inside story”, the same old questions are raised only to meet the same old silence. Were cheaper, more practical solutions to the question of where to site the new Parliament canned by Labour politicians? Did they fear the “nationalist shibboleths” of Calton Hill and the Royal High School were rather more potent symbols than they cared for? We still don’t know. One suspects that the genesis of the Scottish Parliament is worthy of boiling satire or a piece of piercing investigative journalism. Yet Bain’s book, much taken up with the deliberations of various committees, is dull and of interest only to students of political calumny.

William Boyd
PENGUIN: £7.99
pp.224 ISBN 0141019247

Although in subtlety and range Chekhov remains Boyd’s principle influence – the old master even makes an appearance in the last tale – Boyd’s style is unmistakably contemporary throughout Fascination, his third short story collection. He restlessly flits around modes of storytelling, handing in one tale as an A to Z, another as a review of restaurants. The title story, in which the central character is twice tempted into unwise decisions by lust, sets the tone. Over and over, by the end of their episode Boyd’s men – and his typical character is a priapic, faintly dishonourable male – are caught on the hook of frustrated desire. “FREEZE FRAME,” the final sentence of the opening story, ‘Adult Fiction’, is a portent of the paralysis that engulfs Boyd’s players. It’s not that they don’t have their epiphanies, only the author knows that insight is like a bruise, it soon fades, and may in the end prove no more helpful than if they hadn’t had the damned thing. Related to this, Boyd has a fine comic eye for registering falls from grace: one fallen scribbler goes from penning rarefied articles on ‘The Image Of The Train In Contemporary British Poetry’ to interviews with ‘sportsbabes’ for a lad mag.

Curious Scotland – Tales From A Hidden History
George Rosie
GRANTA: £8.99
pp.244 ISBN 1862077886

Living in Scotland, one occasionally gets the impression that not only have the Scots invented everything of any note but that we, or at least Caledonia’s descendants, more or less run the world. Curious Scotland unwittingly plays into the Scots’ slavering self-aggrandisement, which is actually only the aggressive outward manifestation of a deep-dyed inferiority complex. While one could take issue with just how ‘hidden’ Rosie’s tales are – a Scot of even modest curiosity will be acquainted with a good portion of the author’s history lessons, though admittedly anyone south of Berwick-Upon-Tweed will probably be ignorant of them – the author is such a wry and able storyteller it’s worth reflecting upon them once more. What is one to make off a country whose sons were founder members on the one hand of India’s Congress Party and on the other of the Ku Klux Klan?

One reads Rosie’s account of how Scots businessmen drove the opium trade in 19th century China, and wonders whether the curse of heroin in Scotland isn’t some sort of karmic retribution. Rosie also uncovers a secret government report on what would happen to Glasgow if an A-bomb landed on George Square (please, good people of Edinburgh, no jokes).

Modern Scotland 1914-2000
Richard Finlay
pp.320 ISBN 186197308

The history of Scotland in the twentieth century is as much a history of how a country benefited from, but also lost out to, a system of state control (the ‘subsidy culture’ was how Nigel Lawson described it in the 1980s), as much as it is about the changing social attitudes and culture of a particular nation. Fin-lay deftly shows time and time again in this fascinating history that at major periods in the last century, Scotland was completely out of step with the rest of the UK. Scotland recovered less easily from the General Strike than England; its urban overcrowding was worse than anywhere else in the UK; more of its sons died in the First World War and its exploited poor revolted at a time of national unity. It’s important to know that Scotland’s experience was separate and unique, if we are to understand why state intervention was so necessary in the early part of the century; and also how it fell short of people’s expectations in the latter if we are to understand why there was a Scottish diaspora and not an English one.

Margaret Elphinstone
pp.72 ISBN 0954633369

Sandstone is a Dingwall-based publishing house specialising in novellas “developed for readers who are not used to reading full-length novels, or for those who simply want a ‘quick read’ which is satisfying and well written.” There’s always a good case for the novella form and it’s good to see a publisher keen to focus on it more. Added to that, Elphinstone is an experienced writer who knows how to fit a story to whatever form is demanded, and she demonstrates that here, more than ably, in this short but effective tale told by an unnamed, and ungendered figure from the Middle Ages. In it, a Span-ish Friar visits an old mill where the narrator lives with Uncle Garth and Garth’s much younger wife Edith. A series of strange events – a passionate embrace between the Friar and Edith spied from a treetop, the Friar, naked, emerging from Edith’s room when Garth is away – serve to introduce the young narrator to the world of betrayal and deception. But they also teach him/her the values of tolerance and of love – he/she loves the Friar, but also loves Garth and never comments on the physical likeness between Edith’s daughter Joan and the Friar.

Puccini’s Ghosts
Morag Joss
SCEPTRE: £14.99
pp.320 ISBN 0340820500

Morag Joss initially made her name as a crime writer, moving away from the genre with Half Broken Things (although it still won her the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger Award) in 2003. This novel cements what her publisher calls a “remarkable evolution from crime writer to literary novelist” – although who knows what Ian Rankin would say about that, as he has argued convincingly in the past that crime fiction is literary fiction. What the publisher seems to imply here is a more experimental form (two perspectives, past and present) and a more profound examination of human behaviour (why a child betrayed her beloved uncle) told in a less clichéd style. Lila is the central character, telling her story first as a teenager in a tiny Scottish town in the 1960s, and then as an adult, a trained opera singer returning for her father’s funeral. We gradually learn what happened in the summer of 1960, when her mother, also a singer, was helped to recover from a nervous breakdown by her brother George from London. Lila is dazzled by the sophistication of George and his singer friend Joe in the way that can only lead to utter disillusionment. Joss is good on plotting although the ending can be glimpsed from quite a distance away.

You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free
James Kelman
PENGUIN: £7.99
pp.280 ISBN 0141014113

This is as funny, cynical and bleak a tale as you would expect from Kel-man, expertly crafted and told with an ease that belies the effort behind it all. In this latest novel, he moves his characteristic Glasgow location to the States, for a take on America from the point of view of the outsider, in this case a Scottish immigrant called Jeremiah Brown. Brown is waiting for a flight back to Scot-land, his first visit in a long time, and drinks in a series of bars near the airport while he waits. Hyper-aware and resentful of authority, we learn that Brown has failed not only to hold a job down but also to save his relationship with a nightclub singer called Yasmin, with whom he has had a child. Much of the novel is recounted in flashback as, like the majority of Kelman’s male protagonists, Brown knows that things have gone wrong for him and is obsessed with pinpointing exactly where, when, how and why. Does he blame himself? Sure he does, but not as much as he blames the country that might be his home but that will always regard him as an alien.

From this Issue

The Art of the Matter

by Michael Russell


by Ali Smith

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