Monthly Archives: May 2015


Landlockers and Damplings

ONCE upon a time there was a girl called North, who lived on a floating circus with her pet bear. North was an orphan, but did not mourn her parents. She did ‘miss the idea of a family’ though. The circus, which doubled as a ship called Excalibur, ‘was not a bad substitute’ for her mother and father. There was the captain and ringmaster Jarrow Stirling (also known as Red Gold), his evil lover Avalon, and his son Ainsel, whom Jarrow has decided will marry North one day. There were also three clowns: Cash, Dosh and Dough; two aerialists: Melia and Whitby; the glamours’, who made everyone pretty; and Bero, the fire-eater.

Why a floating circus? It’s because it’s the future, the whole world has been flooded and our great land masses reduced to archipelagos. Kirsty Logan’s debut novel The Gracekeepers is not, however, an environmental and psychological dystopia along the lines of  JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. It is a fairytale voyage across oceans of whimsy. The Excalibur docks at whatever port will accept it and its striped sails fold out to become a big top. The travelling entertainers earn their living at these carnivalesque events, and then fold themselves back up and cast off again.

Logan conjures a strange future that has its roots in a nostalgic vision of today’s past. If it were an extrapolation of the present you might expect the leftover furniture of our world to go floating by once in a while: a bit of old laptop for instance, or a busted iPhone. You might even expect to find a few people huddled in the hollowed-out shell of a Boeing 747. But this is a world surprisingly well-adapted to a radically changed environment. Logan’s characters burn seal fat in oil lamps, listen to records (on a wind-up record player, presumably), write on rags (using what is not clear – ye olde feather quill and ink blotter?), and are forever eating what seems like delicious home-baking.

New worlds call for new words. The few remaining people who live on land are the ‘landlockers’, so called because the leftover soil is parcelled up into fiefdoms. Those born at sea are ‘damplings’, who refer to ‘landlockers’ in the pejorative as ‘clams’. Despite the demographic imbalance, the land-folk hold power over the damplings, who are made to wear bells round their necks, like cattle. There is mention of a government, of a ‘conservative island’ (although there is no progressive alternative); there are also laws, and a military ship with a commander who discusses ‘papers’ and flexes his domineering muscles. But there is no real internal coherence to Logan’s fantasy. That’s the problem with whimsy, it sort of goes wherever.

Clarity does emerge from the deeps once in a while. The world’s inhabitants talk of ‘olden days’, when ‘the great-great-greats’ lived, and when there wasn’t water, water everywhere. Some things never change: ‘Whatever the truth, over time the landlockers had learnt to blame the banks, the relentless drive for more money, for the rising seas and the loss of their land’. In place of the profit motive the landlockers have embraced what Tom Wolfe once called a ‘Back to the Mud’ primitive idealism. They aren’t very liberal, however. So, the flooded world has returned civilisation to a deeply conservative, druidical vegetable cult. Monotheism has been cast adrift – ‘revivalist’ boats bob around seeking to restore the old order – and ‘the gods’ are back. As is superstition, sacrifice and dancing around something called ‘The World Tree’. It is unclear how these nature rites relate to a government, a legal system, and a military. Then again, for those of us with a soft spot for agrarian mystics this anomaly can easily be overlooked.

It seems strange that landed pagans would be so illiberal but who knows what people will be like in a few years’ time. One erstwhile landlocker, Callanish, has been banished to the sea as retribution for her webbed hands and feet (a clue: she’s not just highly evolved). For her sins she is a ‘Gracekeeper’, which is someone who buries the dead at sea in ceremonies called ‘Restings’. ‘Graces’ are birds that live in cages above the dead during the mourning period. Before she encounters North, Callanish dreams of returning to land and her mother, Veryan. Jarrow, who is a born and bred landlocker living the dampling life, has recently acquired his family’s plot of land and wishes to bequeath it to Ainsel and North, and return the Stirling name to its previous lairdly significance. What he doesn’t know is that North is pregnant, but not with Ainsel’s child (another clue: the real father might not be entirely human).

When the Circus Excalibur is caught in a storm, a crew member dies and they are forced to land at Callanish’s sea-house to bury one of their dead. It is during this stopover that Callanish and North realise they have more in common than being strong independent females living a precarious life. North’s attraction to Callanish offers her an escape route from the Circus, which is slowly metamorphosing into a veritable soap opera: North knows that if Jarrow finds out she’s pregnant he might throw her off the Excalibur because she thinks he’s only keeping her there because he wants her to marry Ainsel, and once North’s secret is out Ainsel will have to own up to not being the father; but what we mustn’t forget is that Avalon, who is also pregnant, is trying to convince Jarrow that they should live on his plot of land instead of Ainsel and North, but that depends on Jarrow not knowing that his baby is really Ainsel’s baby; Avalon hates North and suspects she is pregnant, and is evil enough to use this information to blackmail North to get what she wants; and if all this interpersonal tension were to ever to become public it would cause one hell of a stushie on board the good ship Excalibur.

Callanish and North’s unspoken bond and their respective yearning to meet again (they’ve encountered each other before but don’t remember) propels the novel forward. They’re both unequivocally likeable so there can be no doubt in the readers’ mind how the book should end. It’s not the plot that keeps you reading though. Along with the rambunctiousness of the circus and the eccentric characters, the wind in the sails is Logan’s sprightly and original style. She is attentive to the slips of language, its mutations of sound and meaning. There are not only new nouns like ‘landlocker’, but there are new verbs and participles: to ‘winkle a cup of special tea’, for example, or  ‘the dew plipped on to her shoulders’. Many of the neologisms are onomatopoeic – ‘thwick’, ‘soosh’ or ‘cwit’ – and Logan’s distinctive prose is heaving with sea-fresh metaphors: ‘the sky was barnacled with clouds’ being one of the best.

Perhaps it’s Logan’s linguistic playfulness, but once you’ve finished The Gracekeepers you realise you’ve had a bit too much fun. There is a bizarre innocence to the book. Because it’s not sinister enough to be a protracted fairy tale, and because Logan’s world is not comprehensively fleshed-out, and because the tone is childlike, and because Callanish and North are too cute to be adults, the only real conclusion is that this is essentially a children’s book, albeit with a hint of Hollywood escapism tacked on the end. The finale is a calamitous action sequence that could only ever result in a dreamy paddle into the orange glow of a comforting sunset.

Adults shouldn’t be worried though, it’s an excellent children’s book, so if you have to sit with your son or daughter while they read it aloud you won’t be bored. Although, be warned, there are a few scenes which are unsuitable for younger readers. But, like a fairy tale, it has some good black and white, progressive moral lessons, such as: a person’s appearance has no bearing on the quality of their character, and: a family doesn’t need to be made up of a mummy and a daddy; all a family needs is love, and they’ll live happily ever after. The End.

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Crimes Against Fiction?

‘TARTAN noir’ has been used to describe crime fiction written by Scottish crime writers for so long now – well over a decade – we’ve grown numb to it. Strange that a genre, or subgenre more accurately, that prides itself on mapping the moral badlands of contemporary Scotland should accept a label so redolent of national stereotype. Tartan? Noir? Readers unfamiliar with the work of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and so many, many more, would be forgiven for imagining the worst. CSI: Brigadoon, where criminals are pursued by Dirty Harry Lauder. Len Wanner’s flawed study of the genre, does at least make the reader consider the tag afresh, to the extent one realizes that much of the field is neither especially Scottish nor noir.

The birth of the descriptor ‘tartan noir’ is characteristically myth-ridden. Originally the story was that Ian Rankin, then a tyro author, encountered the American noirist James Ellroy at a signing. After explaining that he was attempting to do a Scottish version of what Ellroy had achieved, the American signed his book ‘To Ian Rankin, King of Scottish Noir’. Recently, Rankin has retold the story: now he’s the one who came up with ‘Tartan Noir’ while asking for Ellroy’s autograph. Whatever the truth, it’s fitting Rankin should be present at the birth; his Rebus novels furnished Tartan Noir with its mood, form and language.

It is William McIlvanney, however, who is accorded the honour of having written the first Tartan Noirs with his Laidlaw trilogy. With the first Laidlaw novel appearing in 1977, McIlvanney was a decade ahead of the debut works by a younger generation of writers who were to popularize the genre. Claiming McIlvanney as a literary ancestor is a canny move, his novels giving the subgenre a literary burnish contemporary practitioners don’t attempt to emulate. What his successors took from the Laidlaw trilogy was a setting and tone. The language and spiritual inquiries – think Chandler rewritten by Dostoevsky – were a little harder to pull off, especially when you’re due your publisher a book a year. McIlvanney himself couldn’t manage it: The Papers of Tony Veitch followed Laidlaw in 1983, with Strange Loyalties published in 1991. For some, the true mystery of the trilogy isn’t whodunit, but why should McIlvanney only write three Laidlaw books. Anyone who asks that question, however, hasn’t read the trilogy carefully enough. It tells the story of the defeat of their hero’s values entirely. Over a decade and a half we watch Glasgow lose its soul and Laidlaw struggle – and fail – to hold onto the compassion that set him apart from his colleagues. Further entries in the series would be superfluous. But then McIlvanney had a vision; his successors have contracts.

McIlvanney is quoted on the front of Wanner’s Tartan Noir, lauding it as ‘a ground-breaking book’. If he means Wanner is the first to write a book-length study of the genre, perhaps he’s right. If he means Tartan Noir is liable to change how one regards the subgenre, then I respectfully disagree. It remains a timid subgenre.

No one can accuse Wanner of not being thorough. His study looks in some depth at 48 books. He places the books he examines under four headings – or sub-subgenres: the detective novel, the police novel, the serial killer novel and the noir novel. He begins his book by asking ‘what is Tartan Noir?’ before offering ‘a short answer’: ‘Tartan noir is a Scottish literature which began to make a name for itself under a variety of genre labels in the second half of the twentieth century and which, at the beginning the twenty-first, has acquired an international reputation larger than any of its contemporary Scottish literatures. It has done all of this despite a lot of confusion about what exactly the term means and what type of writing it describes, so perhaps there is no point in giving a longer answer to the above question just to remove confusion which seems to have done the literature’s commercial success precious little harm.’

Might one hazard a more succinct answer to the question of what Tartan Noir might be? It’s a marketing label.

Wanner isn’t unaware he might be ‘over-analysing a clichéd moniker which, some will say, is no more than a meaningless, one-size-fits-all marketing label’. And one can hardly deny there exists a body of crime fiction produced by Scottish writers over the past two decades that share recognizable elements, although you’d expect genre bedfellows to. Arguably they have more in common with each other and crime fiction written abroad than they do with the body of Scottish literature. It’s only stating the obvious to say Ian Rankin’s work has more in common with Ed McBain, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver than Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Ali Smith.

Rankin makes one of the more curious assertions in the book. In interview, he tells Wanner that before Tartan Noir ‘there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland…. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English…. Because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and that you had to write a certain kind of book’. Even if one can set aside the legacy of Conan Doyle – and as Rankin is the author of a TV script called Reichenbach Falls, he clearly can’t – Rankin’s denial of English influence only underlines a more obvious truth: our home-grown subgenre is deeply in the debt of American crime fiction. Many of the crime writers and critics Wanner quotes are American. And in the original telling of how its name came about, remember, it’s an American who coins the phrase.

Wanner insists that there is ‘a strong trend towards the left’ politically in Tartan Noir, presumably in comparison with other countries’ crafters of whodunits, although Wanner rarely gives the reader a sense of how foreign crime fiction differs. True, the book isn’t meant to be a global survey, but without some sense of what makes Scottish crime fiction different from that of Italy or Argentina or South Africa, we must his word that it’s a distinct field worthy of study and not just a brand devised for the benefit of booksellers and publishers.

Besides, Wanner contradicts himself. While Scottish authors might appear socially leftish, the trend of the genre is implicitly conservative. Wanner writes of the serial killer sub-subgenre that it is at heart a reflection of fears around the place of the mentally ill in society. It gained in popularity during a period when governments in the UK and US were starving mental health services of money, leading to the release of patients who should have remained under psychiatric care. Crime fiction has little to say about this, instead transforming and amplifying fear of the mentally ill into the figure of the inventive if insane sadist who enjoys playing cat-and-mouse with the police. Equally, don’t read Tartan Noir novels expecting serious critiques of the police, despite the preponderance of maverick cops willing to bend the law to get their man. Tartan Noir believes in the system; its writers keep reaffirming it and protagonists who find a way to work within it. That’s because –and this is Wanner’s most acute observation – they’re not truly noir novels.

Anyone who has enjoyed the morally fraught novels of James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich or doomy film noirs such as Build My Gallows High or Double Indemnity knows there is a world of difference between them and the Rebus novels or Quentin Jardine’s Skinner series. In traditional noir, the protagonist, more accurately the anti-hero, is doomed from page one. He is complicit in the crimes that unfold as the plot progresses. His is a world without hope, only desire. The law is corrupt or a joke or entirely absent. Noir may well critique capitalism and state institutions, but it also mocks the family, romantic love and spirituality. Its pop-nihilism means it can’t generate a series of novels centred on the same character (Chandler’s Marlowe is perhaps the exception that justifies the rule): everybody’s dead by the final chapter.

The most interesting part of Wanner’s book is the last section which attempts to discern a strain of what he calls ‘Scottish noir’ as opposed to the cop dramas grouped under the heading of Tartan Noir. His selection is ingenious if not always convincing. Trocchi’s Young Adam from a certain angle does have noir-like qualities, but Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Irvine Welsh’s Filth?

Tartan Noir began life as a PhD and it betrays its roots in a number of ways. Wanner is interested in the phenomenon of Tartan Noir in itself and doesn’t often venture a view whether a book is any good or not. Like many an academic before him at work in genre-land, he prefers to plough through columns of books, noting broad similarities and praising small differences. This detective is gay! This detective is a woman! This novel takes place in the Hebrides! Readers who want to know whether the language rises above the functional or has characters who do more than push the plot forward are advised to look elsewhere for tips.

The book also appears to have been put together hastily. Long, circuitous sentences that really should have been reworked are left to stand. The lay-out is curious: headings indicating new sections often appear at the very bottom of a page instead of being carried over onto the next one. There are a number of oddly phrased sentences that read as if English isn’t Wanner’s first language. ‘Lennox has a knack to hit the nail on the head’. ‘Anna is going through pregnancy’. We’re told at one point that the noir hero is ‘typically born alone’, which, twins aside, I believe is usually the case. The author calls the officers who regularly assist one detective his ‘teamsters’, which is the opposite of what Wanner seems to think it means.

Ultimately, one is not convinced by his argument that these books present a resonant view of Scotland; they present a view of what publishers think will sell – rightly, it transpires. As mighty as the subgenre is in terms of sales, creatively, it remains timid. Tartan Noir lacks a David Peace, the crime writer whose Red Riding Quartet depicts a terrifying vision of Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s. The police are corrupt, killers are not caught, and there is a hint of the occult. By the time of his more recent Tokyo novels, Peace’s writing has grown experimentally terse and repetitive. In contrast, the development of Tartan Noir looks, like so many of its villains, arrested.

Tartan Noir – The Definitive Guide to Scottish Crime Fiction

Len Wanner

Freight, £9.99 ISBN: 978-1-910449-08-0, PP344

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Volume 10 – Issue 6 – New Poems


The very first Because

(no paws or claws

but logic’s laws)

came once upon a mouse-click

slick as any electronic

tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

through Time’s deleted was.

Binary YES and binary NO,

the cursor showing where to go

(its heartbeat is what matters most

to touchscreen lives

lived ghost-to-ghost).

But oh! Oh! OH!

that once upon a long ago

catabatic flow

that’s brought us from entropic high

to less entropic low!

Never mind the why and how

or need-to-know,

only that we’ve come at last

to now –

i.e. what this cat and mouse allow.

Scottish cat and Scottish mouse

play hide-and-seek about our house –

no walls, no floors,

no stairs, no doors,

and nothing in between,

just me and you and you and me –

our hopes for what will never be

our fears for what has never been.

While Scottish sun and moon and star

make us who and what we are,

all histories of this and that

are better left to Scottish mouse

and Scottish cat.

We live in a glass kingdom that seems each day to become more fragile. Should we worry? After all, our elders and betters are determined to take care of us.



Back then, High Priests would breathe on every surface

of our sacred heart-stone;

lesser priests breathed

on the everyday transparency of streets,

buildings, billboards, trees, grass

and falling rain.

They breathed and they polished,

they made our precious kingdom shine!

(Beyond our borders lay a thanklessness

of darkness and division

where local deities clawed at the sky,

and stamped on the earth

to get attention.

Matters of life and death were settled

by divine clumsiness.

Small gods and smaller men – envy

gave them strength.)

Meanwhile, the light streaming from our

sacred heart-stone’s core purified

and protected us.

Our dreams were forgiven,

our longings and regrets (the mess

of fingerprints we’d smear on whatever

we desired)

were painlessly erased.

Contented years, contented centuries. Until –


This morning, the sun has come to a standstill.

Beneath us, the permafrost contracts.

We feel it crack.

Feel it split.

Glaciers and polar icecaps are

breaking off, slipping

(so far away from us, we hardly

hear a sound)

into the warming waters.

Our priests assure us they continue to breathe

and to polish every single moment

of every single day.

They say they breathe and polish harder

than ever before.

They have new incantations, they tell us,

new rituals.

Do they think they can move the sun?


Computer simulations show our kingdom

catching fire. Such an electronic crackling,

such a roar from the surround-sound speakers!

See-through roads and bridges melt.

Glass-hard girders buckle in the heat.

History’s a sentence left forever

incomplete . . .

The Ninth Roman Legion invaded Scotland c.120AD. They were never seen again. It was all so very, very long ago, and yet . . .



Thanks to the ruler-straight road from here to Rome

and back again, we saw them coming miles away.

Call up the bards to verse and curse!

And Druids to stop the clocks, freeze-frame

the weather, make screen-shots of the day

ten cohorts of six hundred men

came clambering over the Wall.

That was the Roman invasion of Scotland,

the one and only.

2,000 years on they’re still here, still wandering

the Celtic mist, still taking wrong turns

on the wrong tracks in the long-gone

Forest of Caledon.

For them, it’s a late November afternoon,

and always will be. Darkness falling,

night ahead, and always,

always raining.

Sinister . . . dexter / Sinister . . . dexter . . .


The Pentland Hills in summer –

a cloud passing over the sun.

Sudden chill. Sudden skirl of sleet

from an empty sky.

Here they come – IX Legio Hispana!

So worn-out now. So skin-and-bone weightless.

Their buckles, belts and body-armour

tattered air; their shields

and swords trails of rust . . .

We watch them march march

march across Flotterstone Water

making hardly a ripple.

(Not the sort of invasions we view on YouTube –

Blockbusters wars with blockbuster budgets!

SHOCK AND AWE, and the sequel


with its drones, its jets,

its PR threats –

all for $77 billion.

Tomahawk missiles at $1 million per,

delivering freedom and democracy . . .)

Sinister . . .dexter / Sinister . . . dexter . . .


Look close. How many lifetimes does it take

to read what’s right before our very eyes?

Pictish runes, sprayed graffiti,

hidden landmines . . .

The future’s scripted everywhere around us –

Carefully then, so very carefully, let’s brush aside

these last few grains of sand . . .


One day soon (give or take a million years),

Scald Law and Carnethy will have levelled down

to folded layers of white-heat, seared-red

rock that ebbs and flows,

cooling to form its new geology.

Ancient lives and ours have come, and gone.

The Pentlands freeze over once again. The cold sun

barely risen, makes evening shadows

of all that has been said and done.

Sinister . . . dexter / Sinister . . . dexter. . .

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The Moral Maze

As a boy growing up in Durham in the 1970s and 80s, James Wood was given the ideal start for a literary critic. Although his parents lived in the city – his father taught zoology at the university, his Scottish mother was a schoolteacher – he was sent to an ecclesiastical boarding school, where he was a chorister. The school set-up – a pipe-smoking headmaster garbed all in black (‘He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago’), its intellectual rigour, and the daily walk in gowns and mortar boards to sing in a cold and beautiful cathedral – offered the sort of colourful, dreamy, archaic discipline a career in letters demands. Yet while it was an important component of his formation, his olde-worlde education, which now seems so ‘ridiculously remote’ as to have dated from the days of Dickens himself, was not the catalyst for Wood’s addiction to fiction. In the opening chapter of this slim but not slight work, which combines literary criticism with fragments of memoir, Wood pinpoints the influence his parents’ strict Christianity had upon him. It was this that piqued his literary curiosity.

As he grew old enough to ask questions about why we are here, and what lies behind our existence, Wood had ‘the burgeoning apprehension that intellectual and religious curiosity might not be natural allies’. Questions about God, death and the meaning of life were encouraged, he writes, ‘up to a certain point, and discouraged as soon as it became rebellious’.  The result was a habit of secretiveness that will be familiar to all who have disagreed with their parents while still under their aegis. For Wood, the discovery of literature offered an escape from such guilty concealment because in fiction he discovered ‘an utterly free space’. He has lived and thrived in that space ever since. A staff writer at the New Yorker who is widely considered one of the finest literary critics of our day,  he writes: ‘Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction’. Following this liberating revelation, he went on to enjoy a devotional relationship with books. Indeed, in an earlier collection of essays on literature and belief, The Broken Estate, he outlined the ways in which fiction mirrors faith, and vice versa.

What he found in novels astonished him as a boy, and does so still, for all that he has spent the past thirty years dissecting books as if they were frogs. Unlike the biologist, however, Wood’s art is essentially creative: he may tear a book apart limb from limb, but by the end of his anatomizing it has been kindly, almost tenderly reassembled, with no damage done except perhaps to the author’s pride.

The Nearest Thing to Life takes its title taken from George Eliot’s description of what good art can do, and reprises some of the concepts from those essays. Foremost among these ideas is what he calls the ‘not quite’ nature of fiction, when it comes to depicting reality. In the opening chapter, ‘Why?’, Wood addresses the illusion of reality all fiction must engender in order to convince. He also reminds readers of the debt the form owes to religion, in that ‘it shares the religious tendency to see life as bounded, already written’. Thereafter, his remaining three chapters address ‘Serious Noticing’   the peculiar attentiveness of the writer to the details of life; ‘Using Everything’ – the deployment of a good literary critic of senses beyond the purely cerebral; and ends with the most personal but least satisfying chapter, called ‘Secular Homelessness’. Here he is plangent about his own unintentional, almost unthinking emigration to America, to be with his wife.

Living in Boston, Wood still holds a Green Card, a fact for which he was gently rebuked by a US immigration official, who could not understand why he had not taken out citizenship. This comment, reflects Wood, was simultaneously generous and ungenerous, and he could only share the officer’s bemusement, while maintaining his refusal to be assimilated. ‘I had so little concept of what might be lost,’ he mourns, of his irreversible decision to leave Britain eighteen years earlier. To the onlooker, and in hindsight, this was but another step in the creation of a formidable literary critic, the condition of exile being the subject of much contemporary fiction. Indeed, Wood quotes Edward Said who believed that exile was a state whose ‘unreality resembles fiction’.

He is aware, too, that to a degree most of us have to leave home at some point. The clumsy word he coins for voluntary relocations such as his is ‘homelooseness’. This can encompass ‘the movement of the provincial to the metropolis, or the journey out of one social class into another. This was my mother’s journey from Scotland to England, my father’s journey from the working classes into the middle classes…’. Putting aside the fact that few Scots would consider a move to England as a leap from the provinces to the metropolis, the principle is sound. Like whelks who, long after they have been removed from the sea continue to creep across a plate as the tide ebbs and flows, most of us move away from and back to home across the span of our lives.

No dramatic severing is necessary, though, to mould a serious book lover. In many ways, the literary critic comes into the world ready-made. Had Wood been brought up in a high-rise in Sarajevo or a castle in the Highlands he would very likely still have had an innate receptiveness to the written word. While many bookish youngsters have devoured novels as voraciously as he did, few can claim that the most formative work they ever read was Novels and Novelists, by the eccentric literary reviewer, poet and biographer Martin Seymour-Smith. Aged fifteen, Wood picked up a grubby copy of Seymour-Smith’s opinionated tome at a bookstall in Waterloo Station, and was instantly hooked. A compendium of the world’s best writers, it was a pithy, trenchant guide for those seeking signposts to the bewilderingly immense world library, offering merciless – and often fulsome – judgements on a kaleidoscope of writers.  As Wood quickly learned, ‘A reigning assumption of Novels and Novelists was that writers must aim for greatness and that minor books are books that have missed greatness.’

Most critics begin their trade on that assumption, and while the notion is imperfect, it remains useful. Seymour-Smith, with whom I worked for many years, was a generous and most likeable man. On his death, his widow Janet sent me a copy of one of his books, which many years later still reeks of tobacco, though its opinions are even more pungent. Rather than follow in Seymour-Smith’s wake, however, Wood was to become a more courteous, less hectoring critic. His is a method and tone suited to our age, when we do not much like know-alls, or being made to feel the depths of our ignorance, even though it might be vast. Instead, Wood has a quietness of perception that is companionable rather than pugnacious or lofty, but the distinction of his insights is unmistakeable. Whether in this work or his elegant guide, How Fiction Works, which follows in the footsteps of such classics as E M Forster’s Aspects of Fiction, he brings a critic’s rather than a novelist’s eye to the job. Like Forster’s overview, The Nearest Thing to Life was originally a series of lectures. Unlike How Fiction Works, it is more discursive, philosophical,  and wistful. One could not turn to it for a definition of what the novel is all about, but it hints at that in every line.

Discussing the nature of book reviewing, Wood declares, surprisingly, that ‘a lot of the criticism I most admire is not especially analytical, but is really a kind of passionate redescription’. Using as exemplars Thomas de Quincey or Henry James, he challenges the idea that intellectual analysis alone  – as academics would tell us – can reach the full meaning or apprehend the true value of a book.  ‘Who bothers,  while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to students that it’s a beautiful book? But for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.’

Excellent though Wood undoubtedly is, there are times when one must take issue with him. In the chapter on the special acuity of a writer’s eye, he calls on Chekhov, Bellow, and Aleksandar Hemon, all of whom have a gift for finding the telling detail.  One example he cites at length, however, does not convince. It is a scene in Henry Green’s novel Loving, where a housemaid disturbs the lady of the house in bed with her lover. Startled by the servant’s entrance, the lady sits up, thereby revealing  ‘that great brilliant upper part … two dark upraised dry wounds shaking on her’. Wood sees this as an extraordinary act of noticing: ‘Like a good painter, he is getting us to look harder than we usually do at a nipple – the way the darker skin around it can look like tender scar tissue’. This ignores the fact that scars are only formed after a wound has healed (is there such a thing as a dry wound?). Nor would many grown women be so startled by the look of areolae that they would think of anything as unsettlingly raw. What Wood deems an observational coup seems to me more like an over-striving male novelist’s view than a young woman’s.

But in a way, this quibble merely reinforces Wood’s premise: that the reality that fiction creates for itself depends in part on what the reader brings to it. It is a collusion of sorts, and when we speak of the realism of fiction, we do not mean it feels literally true, but that in terms of the imaginative world the writer has created, it is utterly convincing, creating veracity of a different sort. The alchemy fiction achieves in mimicking real life and at times making it even more believable or compelling is its greatest act, and one that never ceases to astonish. Written in the shadow of this awe, The Nearest Thing to Life is a discursive, urbane reminder of the doors and windows that open in the presence of an art form that is, in George Eliot’s words, ‘a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’.

There is something if not devout then contemplative about the desire for such vicarious experience. Writing of the insights that a lifetime’s reading of fiction allows into the motivations of others, Wood comments: ‘Sometimes it is almost frightening to realize how poorly most people know themselves; it seems to put one at an almost priestly advantage over people’s souls’. This startling sentence would seem to suggest that other than geographically, Wood has not moved far from his roots.  The man from the US border control was right to sound suspicious.

The Nearest Thing to Life

James Wood

Jonathan Cape, £12.99, ISBN: 978 0 224 10204 9, PP134

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A Bridge Too Far

In the last few years I have visited Queensferry several times to see how the new road bridge is coming along. On one occasion I ran into a grizzled, middle-aged American from Ohio.

Over drinks in a nearby hotel he said he had been working on the bridge and was on his way home. What he told me took me aback. ‘You Scotch guys are really sucking on hind tit,’ he said. ‘Every contractor I meet on this job seems to come from someplace in Europe or someplace in the US or someplace down in England. What’s wrong with Scotch people? Don’t you make big stuff any more? If that’s true it’s a real shame. Because it’s gonna be a real fine-looking bridge.’

After we’d parted I drove back to Edinburgh wondering if he was right. If we weren’t building the bridge who was? It didn’t take more than a few hours trawling through the contract details posted on the internet by Transport Scotland – the paymaster and de facto client for this job – to decide that the American had reason on his side. There was hardly a Scottish company on the list. And the harder I looked into sub contractors and sub-sub contractors, the worse it got.

So the Queensferry Crossing, as it’s known, is no triumph of Scottish engineering. Our contribution has been minimal. The army of consultants, sub-consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and big-time suppliers erecting the bridge and building the approach roads are a multinational bunch. All the companies that matter, the ones that make the big decisions, hail from Spain, the USA, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and England. Plainly, the industrial culture that produced the likes of John Rennie, Thomas Telford and Sir William Arrol is not what it was.

My American acquaintance was also right when he said the new bridge is going to be truly handsome. It has a ‘cable-stay’ design based on three slender, tapering towers, each nearly 700 feet high. From each of the towers 96 cable-stays will fan out to carry a four-lane highway lined with baffles to protect it from the wind. Massive Y-shaped concrete piers will carry the approach viaducts which connect the bridge to the new roads being built to feed it. If everything goes to plan, by the end of next year 70,000 or so vehicles will be crossing it daily.

But the more I admire the elegance of the design and the ingenuity of the construction the more regrettable is the fact that Scotland’s contribution has been so meagre. Building bridges used to be one of our specialities. It is ironic that a design for a cable-stay bridge across the Forth narrows was suggested almost 200 years ago by a young Edinburgh engineer called James Anderson. Although Anderson sited his 1818 ‘bridge of chains’ on the route now occupied by the rail bridge, he imagined one on the same principle as the new one – a roadway held by chains sprouting from three towers. Whether Anderson’s design would have worked is anyone’s guess. But it was a visionary piece of work and copies of Anderson’s drawings are sold as a poster by the National Library of Scotland.

It was another 70 years before the narrows of the Forth were bridged and to a design by a pair of brilliant English engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. Their creation was realized by the greatest of Scottish industrialists, William Arrol. Between 1882 and 1890 thousands of ‘briggers’ laboured in the high girders to build one of Victorian Britain’s masterpieces. Most of the steel with which they worked was produced in the mills of western Scotland. Casualties were high. Officially there were 57 fatalities: modern research suggests there were 78. But, splendid engineering as it undoubtedly was, the Forth Bridge was never going to suffice. By the time it was finished the motor car was becoming ever more popular. Come the early 1920s, motorists were growing restive waiting for ferries across the Forth while railway passengers crossed in a few minutes.

It was too much for an energetic Edinburgh journalist called James Inglis Ker. All too often, Ker, who wrote guidebooks and McGonagall-esque doggerel, found himself in the queue of vehicles on a Queensferry quayside waiting for a ferry. In November 1923 he hired a room at the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry for a crowded meeting where he laid out plans for a new road bridge. ‘It is the natural order of things,’ he argued, ‘that a country that gave the world its finest achievements in railway bridges should lead the way in road bridge engineering.’ Ker’s plan struck a chord. Within weeks a Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee had been formed and by the beginning of 1924 Ker and his colleagues were holding meetings around the east of Scotland and in the House of Commons to drum up support among Scottish MPs. This made His Majesty’s Government take enough notice to pay for surveys to be carried out by two firms of London engineers, Mott Hay & Anderson and Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners.

Their response came in 1930. Sir Alexander Gibb proposed a cantilevered-girder design between Hopetoun and the Rosyth dockyard while Mott, Hay & Anderson opted for a suspension bridge based on the Beamer Rock (a lump of dolomite on which the Central Tower of the new bridge is standing). When the Admiralty objected to that suggestion Mott, Hay & Anderson switched to a route east of the rail bridge between Hound Point and North Queensferry. Eventually the two firms agreed that the best route for any new bridge was just west of the rail bridge via the Mackintosh Rock (where the 1960s Forth Road Bridge now stands). Whereupon the Ministry of Transport called a halt to the project pleading ‘National financial conditions’, i.e. the economic recession of the 1930s. Ker, meanwhile, died of a heart attack at a meeting in Edinburgh in 1936.

But his idea never went away. It was resurrected in 1947 when Westminster passed a Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act in the hope that one day funds might become available. The Forth Road Bridge Joint Board (FRBJB) was set up and given funds to pay for surveys and some design work. This, however, was ‘on the clear understanding’ that it would be ‘a number of years’ before any construction work could begin. Then, in September 1948, the Ministry of Transport received a visit from Brigadier Sir Bruce White of the engineering firm White, Wolfe Barry and Partners. White unveiled a project which, he claimed, would save the public purse many millions: instead of building another bridge over the Firth of Forth narrows, he proposed a roadway above the rail track on the existing railway bridge. His argument was that modern lightweight steels and aluminium alloys made this feasible. He estimated that the job could be done for £1 million, £3 million less than the cost of a new bridge. Nevertheless the MoT decided not to back it.

The road bridge across the Forth that opened in September 1964 was a thoroughly British – and largely Scottish – affair. The main contractors were Sir William Arrrol of Glasgow, Dorman Long of Middlesbrough and Cleveland Bridge of Darlington. Foundation work was by Johnsons of London and the viaducts by Whatlings of Glasgow and A M Carmichael of Edinburgh. Most of the steel came from Scottish mills and the crucial vertical ‘suspenders’ (which tie the bridge to the main cables) were engineered by Bruntons of Musselburgh. In its day, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside of the USA and the fourth longest on the planet. James Inglis Ker would have been proud.

But, with ever more of us taking to our cars, within a couple of decades the bridge was struggling to cope. As the number vehicles on the roads soared delays and closures on the bridge grew. By the early 1990s the Scottish Office decided that a new bridge was needed. Six consultants were hired to investigate the best routes and designs and consider the possibility of a tunnel under the Forth. In 1992 they produced a report titled Setting Forth which argued for a bridge on the Beamer Rock route to the west of the Forth Road Bridge. The complex geology of the area more or less ruled out a tunnel and they advised that any bridge should be either a suspension bridge (like its neighbour) or a cable stay design (like the one proposed by James Anderson in 1818).

At which point the idea ran into a blizzard of objection from environmentalists and opposition politicians. Alistair Darling, then Labour MP for Edinburgh Central, accused the government of ‘squandering’ taxpayers’ money on the report and declared that 95% of the Scottish population ‘would say no to that act of monumental stupidity’, i.e a new bridge. He was joined by Sir Menzies Campbell who urged the Scottish Office to drop ‘this ludicrous project’. But Ian Lang, then Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, argued that a new crossing had ‘the potential to yield enormous benefits for Fife, Lothian and for Scotland as a whole.’ He concluded: ‘It is the Government’s intention to take forward the proposal…’ But the government never did. For reasons that are still not at all clear, the project was dropped. One suggestion is that the Cabinet killed it for financial reasons. Another is that Lang’s successor, Michael Forsyth, thought that the existing Forth Road Bridge was adequate.

If that is the case, then he was wrong. For without anyone realizing it, the bridge’s huge main cables were corroding. It wasn’t until 2004 that worries about the Forth Road Bridge began. Five firms of consultants were hired to investigate and they did not like what they found. The corrosion had sapped around eight to ten per cent of the cables’ strength. They reckoned that if it continued, the bridge would have to be closed to heavy traffic by 2013 and shut down altogether by 2020. All that could be done was to install a Japanese-designed de-humidifying system, and hope: there were no guarantees it would work.

When the Forth Estuary Travel Authority, which succeeded the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board, was told that replacing the main cables would cost around £122 million and would involve closing the bridge completely for at least three years, it was appalled. That prospect also sent a shudder through Transport Scotland and the Scottish Executive. The closure of one lane of the bridge costs the economy around £4.5 million a week. To close all four for three years would cost in the region of £3 billion. That was not a risk that Holyrood could take. Plainly, what was needed was a new bridge. In 2005 the American-owned consultancies Jacobs Engineering and Faber Maunsell were hired to study the options. In June 2006, they recommended the Beamer Rock as the best route and a cable stay bridge as the best design. The advice was accepted and Holyrood and its agency Transport Scotland swung into action.

No bridge can be built without a realistic design. That contract was won by a joint venture of Jacobs Engineering of Los Angeles and Arup of London. Between them, the two companies split £100 million for what Transport Scotland calls a ‘15-year multi-disciplinary consultancy contract’. Jacobs Arup then assembled a battery of sub consultants, most of them foreign or foreign owned. By 2009, it had produced a ‘specimen design’ of a three-tower, cable-stay bridge centred on the Beamer Rock. By the beginning of 2010 a ‘Forth Crossing’ bill had been drafted and a committee under Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw was formed to examine the project. Simultaneously, the bridge contracts were being advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. By the end of the year two consortia, Forthspan and Forth Crossing Building Contractors (FCBC), were competing for the main contract. Forthspan bid £1.05 billion but FCBC was successful with a bid of £790 million.

The winning FCBC consortium is made up of American Bridge International (USA), Dragados (Spain), Hochtief (Germany), and Morrison Construction (UK). But FCBC is not a straight four-nation split. Both Dragados and Hochtief – which built Hitler’s wartime bunker – are subsidiaries of the Spanish giant Actividades de Construccione y Servicios (ACS). Thus Spanish-owned companies have 56% of the main contract.

At first count it seemed that the new bridge would cost well over £2 billion. But when it was seen that the dehumidifiers pumping dry air into the cables of the ‘old’ bridge seemed to be checking the corrosion it was decided to keep the Forth Road Bridge open for buses, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians. This ‘twin-crossing strategy’ meant that the roadway deck of the new bridge could be narrower and therefore cheaper. It is currently costed at around £1.4 billion. ‘And it’s good news for us,’ says FETA’s spokesman Chris Waite. ‘It means we can do all the necessary repairs on the existing bridge without causing too much in the way of disruption.’

As all this work was being divvied up, the Forth Crossing Bill was wending its way through the Scottish Parliament. Most of the scrutiny was done by the five-strong Holyrood Crossing Bill Committee headed by Jackson Carlaw. On 15 December 2010 MSPs voted by 108 votes to three to press ahead. Carlaw has no doubt the new bridge is necessary but has reservations about the two-crossing strategy. ‘Sometimes I wonder what I’ll be thinking if I get stuck on the new bridge and look across to the old one and see it empty apart for a couple of taxis and a bus,’ he says. ‘If that happens then I think drivers might start lobbying for the use of both bridges.’

Scotland’s current vulnerability in the world of big-time engineering was underlined by the sight of the big, red-hulled Chinese ship Zhenhua 23 sailing into the Firth of Forth in May 2013. Bound for Rosyth, she was piled high with thousands of tons of steel which would create the road deck for the new bridge. They were fabricated in Shanghai. The Zhenhua 23 was flying a Saltire. This did not mollify many local trade unionists and politicians who pointed out that the Rosyth Dockyard had a long tradition of fabricating steel. Nor was the ire confined to Fife. Ivor Roberts, President of the British Constructional Steelwork Association called the Chinese contract ‘An absolute outrage and must not be allowed to happen again. It is completely unnecessary and means that taxpayers’ money – yours and mine – is flowing out of the country.’

Almost as painful was the sight of the two huge steel cylindrical caissons being towed up the Forth on the deck of a Norwegian-owned barge. Part of the foundations for two of the bridge towers, they were built of Polish steel by the Polish company Crist Group at their yard near Gdansk on the Baltic. Another caisson was to be shipped across the North Sea to support one of the piers. Yet more bridge foundations stand in ‘coffer dams’ lined with steel sheet piles transported from Spain. The box girders for the approach viaducts were put together by Cleveland Bridge in the Northeast of England with steel supplied by Tata of India.

Holyrood politicians like to point out that around 1000-plus men and women, most of them Scots, are employed on the bridge. But the latest figures produced by Transport Scotland for contracts and supply are revealing. They show that since work began in 2011 to the end of June 2014 some 453 subcontractors have been appointed and of those 257 (56.7%) are Scottish. Those lucky 257 companies collected £90 million among them or an average of £350,000 each. That’s an average of £87,500 per annum or four none-too-generous annual salaries.

What is particularly galling, however, is that responsibility for operating the bridges has slipped out of Scotland. The contract to run and maintain both bridges plus the approach roads was put out to tender and won by Amey plc of Oxford – which is a subsidiary of Grupo Ferrovial SA of Madrid, the Spanish conglomerate that owns both Glasgow and Aberdeen airports. This month the 70 or so men and women of FETA are being transferred from a (Scottish-owned) public body into a (Spanish-owned) private contractor. They have been assured that their pensions are safe and that there will be no redundancies.

So what to make of it all? Is the lack of Scottish, even British, content inevitable in such a globalized industry? Certainly that’s implied by American Bridge (one of the four main contractors) which reckons that the consortium’s keen price was due to shrewd ‘global sourcing and procurement of materials’. On the other hand, one of the FCBC engineers told an audience in South Queensferry recently that prices were low thanks to the global recession. When work is scarce, he said, prices come down. Be that as it may, there is not a Scottish-owned construction firm big enough to tender. We cannot just lay the problem at the door of the EU or console ourselves with the fact that Scotland is a small country with a small population. So is Denmark and there are no fewer than five Danish or Danish-owned consultancies involved in the Queensferry Crossing.

Over the past forty years we have watched Scotland being stripped of its heavy and not so heavy industries. Ship-building, railways, coal mining, steel-making, heavy engineering; they are all more or less extinct. Electronics, the great hope of the 1970s, came to not very much. Not to worry, we were told by our post-modern philosophes. In the future we, the British, will use our brains while others will supply the brawn. What has actually happened is that other folk are doing both while we stand by and foot the bill.

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Mike Houghton: I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny (Faber & Faber, £20)

The inscription on Sandy Denny’s tombstone in London’s Putney Vale cemetery says simply The Lady. The title of one of her songs, there’s an argument it should have been a question rather than a statement.

To some who knew her, Denny was the charismatic, musically blessed high priestess of Britain’s burgeoning sixties folk rock movement. To others, she was a socially inept, mercurial and troublesome agitator who attracted mayhem and chaos like moths around a flame.

But no-one – no-one – could doubt her incredible vocal and songwriting talents. She remains to this day one of Britain’s greatest ever female performers, her crystalline voice and plaintive, enigmatic compositions still mesmerising those who hear her.

Sandy may have been a legend in her own tragically short lifetime, but she was never a star in terms of being a household name or a celebrity. Though championed to this day by many of her contemporaries as well as those who have come since, her music was always too intelligent, too emotionally complex and too melancholy to ever invade the top 20.

Like her contemporary Nick Drake, the passing of the years has led to a revival of her reputation and a growing appreciation of the quality of her output. Hence this new biography, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, by the music industry publicist and insider Mick Houghton. It follows on from two earlier works, Clinton Heylin’s No More Sad Refrains and Pam Winters’ unpublished No Thought of Leaving (all the titles, incidentally, are lines from Denny’s songs).

Houghton’s work – more comprehensive and reflective than Heylin’s strong but fast-paced earlier retrospective – sets Sandy firmly in the context of the multi-layered, often absurd, anything-goes culture of the folk and rock scenes of the late sixties and early seventies. Intelligent, middle class and well educated, she could be charming and was undeniably sensitive, but also as raucous, sweary and tough as they come. 

Other character traits include temperamental, stroppy, sarcastic and cutting: Billy Connolly is said to have once described her as the angriest woman he had ever met. But she was also loyal, needy, insecure and caring. As her life story unfolds in the pages of this new work, it is clear that those who loved her – and as Ralph McTell explains to Houghton “I don’t know anyone who didn’t” – and were frustrated by her were often the same people at the same time.

Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny was born in Wimbledon in 1947. Scotland was in her genes had a profound influence on her: her grandfather helped orchestrate the amalgamation of Glasgow with the burgh of Govan, where her father Neil was born. Rather than use her Sunday name, she was always going to be Sandy.

Her comfortable, highly conventional, middle class parents hoped she’d settle down to something safe and respectable, but a brief career in nursing was a total failure. She went on to Kingston Art School and then started to play at the London folk clubs of the time. It was her astonishing, clear, vibrato-free voice which marked her out though, as well as singing the well-known standards, she was also starting to write her own songs.

Denny’s talents were spotted quickly, and she was invited to join The Strawbs. It was at about this time, still very early in her career, that she wrote her best known work, Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Performed since by more people than you could count, it remains a brooding, ethereal classic, as haunting today as when it was first penned.

Unhalfbricking and the landmark Liege and Lief – the latter voted the best folk rock album of all time – launched and defined the genre. The combination of her talents with those of Fairport’s guitarist Richard Thompson (and, a little later, fiddler Dave Swarbrick) in particular was literally and metaphorically electric.

Then, scared of flying and sick of touring, she left and formed her own band, Fotheringay, along with her fellow musician and husband-to-be Trevor Lucas. They recorded some splendid material, took decisions collectively, picked up an enormous advance from the record company and spent most of it on an unnecessary and Leviathan-sized PA system they called, appropriately, Stonehenge. Her unconvinced and nervous management company persuaded her to break up the band and go solo: Sandy reluctantly agreed.

Through the 1970s, a series of solo albums followed, from the haunting, Gothic The North Star Grassman and the Ravens through to the string-laden, over-produced but still at least partially memorable Rendezvous. In between, there was a short spell back with Fairport and a band album, Rising For The Moon. She also became the only guest singer ever to perform on a Led Zeppelin album when she co-led the vocals on The Battle of Evermore. Her work continued to be critically acclaimed but, as Houghton recounts in detail, during these years her mood darkened and barely managed order began the descent into chaos.

Denny’s marriage to Lucas, a lanky, easy-going Australian, was meant to provide support and security, but that didn’t take account of his philandering (Sandy, to be fair, wasn’t much better). The book recounts how she once remarked: “Trevor finally decided to make an honest woman of me. Sadly, it didn’t work the other way round.”

Financial problems also grew and, despite promotional backing from her record company, Island, commercial success continued to elude her. Glyn Johns, the legendary producer who oversaw Rising For The Moon, remembers her to Houghton as “such a sad girl and really very lonely”.

Then there were the drink and drugs. She’d always been fond of the booze, and could out-do the boys when it came to knocking them back. Then tranquillisers, sleeping pills and cocaine went into the mix, increasing her paranoia, mood swings and loss of control.

A move to a cottage in Northamptonshire with Trevor, distanced her from friends in London and fuelled isolation. She briefly joined the Scientologists and gave them her money: the ever-suffering Lucas, to whom the book is broadly sympathetic, went round and got it back.

Troubles came not as single spies, but in battalions. A lack of touring meant she fell out of the public eye and then Island Records ditched her. Punk came along, and intelligent, thoughtful singer songwriters were blown off the hill by Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. And the years of self-inflicted abuse were taking their toll: her voice maintained its power and individuality, but the once soaring, crystal clarity had gone.

Houghton recounts that, amid this collapse, she fell pregnant, giving birth to a daughter, Georgia Rose – “my beautiful, most precious child” – almost two months prematurely. She tried to be a responsible mother, but the drinking and drug taking continued. Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t cope, driving home drunkenly from the local pub and leaving Georgia in the back of the car more than once. There was a clear sense this was all going to end very badly indeed.

Sandy fell downstairs at her parents’ home, smashing her head on the stone floor and gashing it. The incident wasn’t properly investigated, allegedly because she was drunk at the time and her horrified mother was too embarrassed to take her to A&E. Then, back at home, she did it again. Trevor, aware of the risks to Georgia of Sandy’s irresponsible behaviour, had had enough. He took his baby daughter, left and secretly flew back to Australia with her in his arms.

Distraught, Sandy went to stay temporarily with an old friend in London. She complained of headaches and while alone collapsed on the stairs. Once found she was rushed to hospital, but she never recovered consciousness and succumbed to a mid-brain haemorrhage. Trevor turned straight round and arrived back from Australia to be at her bedside just before she died, on Friday 21 April 1978.

No-one has ever really been able to answer exactly what caused Sandy’s death and if she could have been saved. Houghton does not really seek to investigate this, which could possibly have provided some revealing new information and is one of a generally very solid, comprehensive and readable book’s few lapses.

It was a sad and unfitting end to a life which still had so much more to give. This book’s in-depth exploration of the time and circumstances in which she lived is revealing and  starkly illustrates how the past really can be a different country.

Sandy felt she had to comply with the tough, boozy, male-oriented rock culture of the time, in a period when there were really no role models, mentors or established pathways for a female British singer-songwriter with remarkable but volatile talents. All those around her, and especially the Fairports, were sympathetic and long-suffering. They cared and tried to help, but we were still a long way from the therapy and medical intervention culture which has grown up since and which might just have saved her.

To this day, her spirit lingers, and not just because her music has found new acceptance in the last few years. Fairport Convention still tour and attract enthusiastic crowds, but there remains a tangible feeling of painful sadness and uncontrived melancholy, of an unfinished life, when they perform her songs.

Sandy Denny may have left us half a lifetime ago, but her music remains as fresh, alive and vibrant today as ever – perhaps, in fact, even more so. A song she wrote but never recorded, London, was sung by Thea Gilmore and used by the BBC for the 2012 Olympics. More poignantly, next month (June) Fotheringay will re-assemble and go back on the road for a series of tour dates for the first time in nearly 45 years.

And she still has the power to spark friction. “I couldnae stand the lassie”, one still-active Scottish music veteran who knew her recently told me. “Foul mouthed and unpleasant. I tried to stay out of her way.”

Those who worked and lived with The Lady, those whom she loved and annoyed, berated and blessed: this is their story, too. If there is a lesson in Houghton’s book, it is that Sandy Denny may have physically gone, but she remains with us, in the here and now. She will always keep her unicorn, and she will – still – never sing out of tune.


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