Volume 8 - Issue 3 - Editorial

The edinburgh writers’ Conference, held fifty years ago this month, has become the stuff of legend and not a few myths. 

It was ‘curated’, as we say in this age of weasel words, by John Calder, a scion of the brewing Calders of Perthshire, who as a publisher was responsible for introducing many great European authors to an English readership. Blessed with demonic energy, peerless connections and barefaced cheek, Calder amassed a group of writers in Scotland’s dozy capital the like of whom will surely never be eclipsed. 

In his no-holds-barred memoir, Pursuit, he recalled how he gathered the throng and the near chaos that threatened to kibosh his plans. Famously, Hugh MacDiarmid denounced his fellow Scot, Alexander Trocchi, whose work he had probably never read, as ‘metropolitan scum’, while other writers argued fiercely about whether describing homosexual acts was a fit and proper subject for fiction. William Burroughs, who was among the delegates, noted that there was ‘no ostensible central issue’ at the conference, though he remembered MacDiarmid (‘a frosty old Scots poet, quite a local celebrity’) saying that people like him should be in jail instead of on the lecture platform.

This year’s Edinburgh International book Festival is revisiting Calder’s conference. Among the topics scheduled for discussion are Should Literature Be Political? (perhaps), Is There a ‘National Literature’? (it depends what you mean by ‘national’), Censorship Today (like the poor, it will always be with us), Style vs Content (a bit of both is recommended) and The Future of the Novel (uncertain - as ever). We hope, of course, that there will be some fireworks and that a few writers will take the opportunity to vent their spleen. Otherwise what is the point of such a gathering? Whether there will be much in the way of enlightenment is another matter.

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It Never Rains But It Pours - Brian Morton

 

All of us inhabit some nub of ‘environmental history’, whether we are aware of it or not. It has been Christopher Smout’s particular gift to humanise and bring home, in a very literal sense, aspects of what in other hands often seems a dismal science. Environmental history struggles between econometrics at one end of the spectrum and an excessive literariness at the other. To non-specialists, it can seem tangled and remote, or else caught up in a rhetoric of blame that is unanswerable but strangely paralysing and fatalistic. 

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Evil All Around - Lesley McDowell

 

If all Scotland’s contemporary writers, Louise Welsh probably straddles that commercial-literary divide the best. Commercial writers may complain about a lack of literary recognition, whilst literary writers can only dream of five-figure sales, but Welsh, from her 2002 debut novel, The Cutting Room, which reached six figures, to her present one, The Girl on the Stairs, has consistently sold well.

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James Kelman: The SRB Interview

 

James Kelman was born in Govan in 1946 and brought up there and in Drumchapel. He left school at fifteen, and was living in London when he published his first short story collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel (1973). This was followed in 1983 with another collection, Not not while the giro, and shortly after his first novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984). His novel A Disaffection (1989) won the James Tait Black Memorial prize, and in 1994, with How Late it Was, How Late, he became the first and as yet only Scot to win the Booker Prize. In 2008 he won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award for Kieron Smith, Boy. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

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Leave Me Alone: Diary Of A Writer In Retreat - Kapka Kassabova

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

 

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog 

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!’ 

 Emily Dickinson

A writer is someone who is most alive when alone: I knew this to be true long before I was a writer. I knew it at the age of eight, when I was already a reader. All my life, I have wanted to be left alone with my book. My favourite time of the day as child, teenager, traveller and writer, has been when I could say ‘Good night’ and scuttle off to bed with a notebook.

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Thrust: A Short Story - Brian McCabe

 

That must be it there, Julie said.

Michael eased his foot off the accelerator and leaned forward, peering towards the place at the roadside his wife was pointing to. 

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What If There Is A God? - Colin Waters

What are we to make of a novel that describes itself as ‘old-fashioned’? Not ‘timeless’ or even ‘traditional’, but ‘old-fashioned’? It’s a curious adjective; some might think it pejorative in certain cases. It is particularly strange when we see the term applied to The Heart Broke In by James Meek, a writer who has until now given the impression he was interested in writing that is edgy, uncomfortable. On the back of the book, we find it blurbed as ‘an old-fashioned story of modern times’, which it is. Does Meek’s fifth novel signal he has reached a new maturity? Or a new conservatism?

The Heart Broke In consciously, perhaps self-consciously, strives to elucidate the anxieties and appetites of early twenty-first century Britain. At the novel’s core are two scientists, Bec and Alex. Her work on parasites has taken her close to discovering a malaria inoculation. Alex is further away from finding a cure for cancer, but he has had promising results which also suggest there may be a way to extend not only life but youth. As these two leaders in their field move slowly towards a relationship with each other, a constellation of characters shifts around them, most of whom, whether they are aware of it or not, are engaged in a quest for immortality – a form of it.

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Sweet And Sour - Harry McGrath

If sexual intercourse began in 1963, the Scottish diaspora began in 1999. And if the former was rather late for Philip Larkin, the latter was rather late for the last great wave of Scottish emigrants who left in the post-war years and were almost past their prime before we discovered them.

Since the reconvention of the its parliament however, Scotland has been pedalling furiously to catch up. We now have diaspora engagement plans aplenty and a Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies at Edinburgh University for the parts that government-led initiatives don’t reach.

In 2009 Chris Dolan made his own remarkable contribution to our knowledge of the Scottish diaspora with a documentary entitled Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves. He sought out the descendants of Scots sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as indentured labourers.

These were the ‘Redlegs’ who couldn’t handle the sun. Dolan’s interviews with their descendants are as fascinating for the ravished ‘Scottish’ faces as they are for the way the subjects struggle to explain their connection to Scotland and the dire conditions they find themselves in today.

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Inwards And Outwards - Susan Mansfield

Victoria Crowe,’ writes Guy Pep-loe from the Scottish Gallery in a foreword to this monograph, ‘has quietly emerged into a preeminent position in Scottish painting’. The key word in this sentence is ‘quietly’. In an age where art all too often courts drama and controversy, Crowe has achieved her place without much of either. Instead, she has simply applied herself with rigour and commitment to the issues which have driven her artistic practice for more than 45 years.

In this, the first complete book on her career, Duncan Macmillan traces the strands of her artistic development. What stands out most is their consistency. There are few tangents, cul-de-sacs or u-turns. She does not halt one line of exploration and suddenly begin another. Yet, over time, there is a kind of transformation. It is as if the questions she asked as a young painter at the Royal College in the 1960s are being answered in her mature work: how to create paintings which can deal with time and memory; how to bend pictorial space so that it becomes a vehicle for dreams, thoughts, imagination as well as representations of the visible world. 

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Burmese Days - Theresa Muñoz

 

Burma’s boy soldiers are the focus of Toni Davidson’s sad but electrifying comeback novel. Kidnapped by the country’s national army Tatmadaw Kyi, these boys are meant to cover the lack of adult recruits. Beaten, humiliated and given guns, the kid militia are forced to raze villages (even their own), causing a tide of broken families and displaced persons.

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Word Power - Paul Henderson Scott

The editors of Scotland in Definition, A History of Scottish Dictionaries, Iseabail Macleod and Derrick McClure, have both spent most of their careers in the study of promotion of the Scottish languages, especially Scots. Macleod has worked for the Scottish National Dictionary since 1979 and from 1986 until 2002 as its Editorial Director. McClure was a lecturer in Aberdeen University from 1979 to 2002. He has written extensively about Scots and has promoted it in several organisations. The Saltire Society published  editions of his Why Scots Matters in 1988 and 1997.

Their introduction to this book is a masterly summary of the issues involved as far as Scots is concerned. (Gaelic is not their subject and it has its own strong team in part II of the book). They say that the great age of literature in Scots (from Barbour in the fourteenth century to Lyndsay in the sixteenth) was brought to an end by the introduction of printing because some of the first printers in Scotland were English. Then, as they say, ‘In the eighteen century, notoriously, a determined effort was made to excise all “Scotticisms” from speech’. Gaelic has had an even more violent history, with the defeat of the Jacobite Rising, the Clearances and the Education Act of 1872 which ignored the existence of the language. Even so its poetry remained in vigorous life.

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Macbeth and Madness - Joseph Farrell

 

One of the most significant trials of recent times is underway in Oslo, where the defence team of mass murderer Anders Breivik is trying to have him classified as insane, against the wishes of the accused himself. He is boastful of his crimes, claims they were justified, or even that he was provoked into committing them by righteous indignation at the degeneracy of society. His murders, he believes, were carried out when he was in full control of his faculties, and he will not entertain the notion that he is in any way unbalanced. 

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Two States: One Solution - Allan Cameron

Some of the best dissidents are born into archetypal families within the societies of which they will become such prominent critics. George Orwell, old Etonian and colonial official, would become the scourge of the privileged and a fierce opponent of colonialism, and yet he remained not only profoundly English, but also profoundly attached to many of the cultural trappings of Englishness. The Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, the son of Zionist immigrants to the British Mandate of Palestine before the War, was born in Haifa in 1954 just six years after the creation of the state of Israel. His family life was German, Jewish and part of the nascent Hebrew-Israeli culture that during his life would produce a new or at least renewed language and a national identity.

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Let The Presses Roll - Alan Taylor

Those who go in search of the archetypal Scot need look no farther than Arnold Kemp. He was, it must immediately be acknowledged, a romantic, which all true Scots are, and given, as all true journalists are, to intemperate and often ephemeral enthusiasms and antipathies. His love of the country in which he was born and bred and spent most of his working life was profound and at times pugnacious. He was argumentative, but never violently so, the kind of newspaperman who would not let the presses roll until a dispute over the relative merits of a comma and semi-colon had been settled. He liked a drink and sometimes several, which served chiefly to increase his thirst for debate. As  he himself conceded: ‘The lunch break became too leisurely, too pleasurable.’ Above all, though, he was curious, interested in everything, significant or trivial, as behoves the editor of a national newspaper, but particularly drawn to politics, sport and the arts. And, like every intelligent Scot, he was perpetually in a state of confusion. 

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Classified contains a listing of new titles submitted for inclusion by publishers in Scotland.

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