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Features

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Donald Paton with Provost of Perth Elizabeth Grant

Until recently I had spent as much time in Perth, Ontario as in Perth, Scotland and my vague notion of ‘oor’ Perth was based on two things. The first was the testimony of a young man I coached in Canada who became a professional footballer in Scotland. He played for five different teams, the first of which was St. Johnstone. He told me that walking around Perth after dark produced a heightened sense of physical threat in him that no other Scottish town could match. In 2013 I finally visited Perth myself to speak at the Burns Club annual dinner. From the convivial confines of the Salutation Hotel (commonly referred to as ‘the oldest hotel in Scotland’) it was hard to imagine the danger supposedly lurking in the streets and vennels outside.

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Calvin Tomkins met Marcel Duchamp in 1959 when he wrote an article about him for Newsweek. They were friends until the artist’s death in 1968. The Museum of Modern Art has just published a new and revised edition of Tomkins’ now standard 1996 biography of Duchamp. Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, praises Tomkins in her introduction for unfailingly bringing ‘a splendid lightness of touch to the weight of his careful and thorough research.’

Lightness is crucial to Tomkins’ assessment of Duchamp. He criticizes those who take Duchamp too seriously. ‘Approach his work with a light heart’, Tomkins recommends, ‘and the rewards are everywhere in sight.’ This affable attitude, which demonstrated a warm friendship, has led Tomkins to brush aside all the recent research that undermines Duchamp’s own account of his life, which Tomkins used as the basis of his biography.

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THREE days ago, as afternoon ebbed into evening, Alex Salmond announced that he would not be standing for re-election as leader of the Scottish National Party and, as a consequence, would not be Scotland’s First Minister.

If not entirely a shock it was nonetheless surprising. For the past several months, Salmond has been ubiquitous as he endeavoured to achieve what has long been his dream, namely the rebirth of Scotland as an independent nation.

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It is all too easy to mistake historical novels for actual history. Both Allan Massie and James Robertson stressed that The Professor of Truth is based on events very like the Lockerbie bombing but is not a fictional version of that reality. Robertson’s novel concerns Alan Tealing, a lecturer of English Literature, whose wife and daughter are killed in an aeroplane disaster. It deals with loss and Tealing’s conviction that the person found guilty of the atrocity was the wrong man. Robertson read from a section of the novel where Tealing consults a lecturer of Jurisprudence. They discuss how the justice system functions and the implications this has for notions of truth and justice. Massie and Robertson talked about the misconception that what goes on in a courtroom is a search for truth. Both agreed that Scottish courtrooms should move away from an adversarial format in criminal cases. An investigative approach would perhaps favour truth over a false justice.

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It was blood and guts on Sunday morning in the Spiegeltent. The bull-like Robin Robertson read from Sailing the Forest: Selected Poems. He opened with the gentle ‘Six Views From Your Camera Obscura’. These fleeting snapshots and reflections of transient life in Edinburgh were full of a graceful voyeurism: ‘a girl in a red dress/ steps between parked cars/ into the forensic flash, flash of cameras’. If that unsettled the audience, the following four poems about a heart operation surely had the same effect on their stomachs. This thick slow verse had a visceral and primal weight reminiscent of Ted Hughes. The first of them, ‘It Was Diagnosed as a Seagull Murmur’, compared the surgeon’s skills to those of a fisherman gutting a fish. To cure a man’s ‘leaking heart’ the surgeon’s run a ‘cut down his belly’. They ‘wire’ his chest back together like a cage. In ‘The Immoralist’ the body bleeds out again. A blood ‘clot dark as liver/an African plum in its syrup’ slides into the protagonist’s lap. ‘There will be pain’ says the nurse.

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As it is putatively summer and this poetry reading was taking place in the Spiegeltent, Paul Farley took the opportunity to open proceedings with a recitation of Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent’. It was a bright vision in the midst of these last few dreich days. Farley then read from his new Selected Poems, but not before admitting the title of the work made him ‘feel half-dead’. There was plenty more humour. His Wordsworth Trust found-poem ‘Relic’ was a ‘shipping forecast of the mouth’. Farley had recorded the secret code the dentist relays to the assistant when checking the teeth. The next poem ‘The Heron started with light comedy: ‘one of the most begrudging avian take offs is the heron’s  fucking hell all right, all right, I’ll go the garage for your flaming fags cranky departure’. It ended in a final striking image of the bird throwing ‘its huge overcoat across the earth’. Despite Farley’s comedic turns on stage, it was the profundity that won out for this reviewer. The penultimate poem ‘Clever and Cold’ depicted a child’s chilling encounter with the sprightly Jack Frost. The appearance of the icy figure in childhood is a sign that ‘from now on things won’t be the same’.

Robert Crawford’s Scottish accent took over from Farley’s Liverpudlian one. His new book of poems, Testament, stirs in biblical paraphrases with poems inspired by the political zeitgeist. His chanting performance of a few poems from a section ‘A Little History’ was a bracing attempt to give poetry a public voice ‘in a campaigning way’. Crawford admitted this was ‘unfashionable’. Political poetry can turn polemical but Crawford employed enough irony and satire to ensure this was not the case. ‘March Past’ transformed the jousting and showboating of the independence debate into a procession. The refrain ‘aw whit a big parade’ rang out in between figures like ‘Edward Milibrand and Sir Ming’ dancing ‘a Hielan Fling’. The ballad ‘Daveheart’ was an excellent twist on the mythic veneration of William Wallace. Here it is David Cameron who rides ‘ride thro’ the nicht/ Tae flatter Scotland’s pride’ and deliver false harmony: ‘We’re better aff thegither!’ The more sombre poems were delivered in a strange staccato style which jarred at times, but contained some beautiful lines nonetheless. The best of these, ‘Persian’, was an erotic love poem warning of the dangers of fiery passion. The protagonist longs for a lover ‘at Waverley Station’, but by the end is watching a moth drawn to a candle’s flame. The candle speaks to the fluttering creature: ‘I may scorch your wings/my own flame consumes me head to foot’.

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Graham Swift started writing short stories with little knowledge he would go on to become a novelist. He is perhaps best known now for the novels Waterland and Last Orders. After a period during which short stories ‘deserted’ him, it is good know the short story writer within him has not died. His new collection England and Other Stories is, among other things, a subtle allusion to the idea ‘England itself could perhaps be a kind of story’. He suggested that what defines a country is the ‘collection of ideas we spin through ourselves’.

Swift gifted the audience a whole story from England. It was told from the perspective of Dr Shah, who was of joint Indian and British descent and born in the same year as the NHS: 1948. ‘Saving Grace’ was a subtle fusion of national identity with the body, race-relations, and love. The story was set during a period of transition when India became independent from the British Empire after World War Two. It showed the psychological and political difficulties of assimilating into English culture, but also the pain of leaving a different country behind.

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Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his long grey hair and goatee and denim jeans, looked like a frail biker on stage. He was launching the English translation of Boyhood Island, the third a six volume series called My Struggle. Although it was not hinted at in the talk, the rather distasteful title of the project is addressed more directly in the final book. Knausgaard maintains that these books are novels and not autobiography, although his life does form the basis of the fictional world. This new volume follows Knaussgaard from the age of six to thirteen in rural Norway, and is about adapting to the world outside your own ego. 

Despite the rather slipshod, mumbling questions from the chair, Knausgaard occasionally came out with some interesting observations. Writing a novel, he said, is a ‘childlike activity’. To understand the perspective of a child is you have to write about what  ‘you can feel and notice but don’t understand’. He was resolute in his insistence that every day existence cannot function without lies and illusions. One of virtues of fiction is that ‘you can have a truth you can’t have in real life’. The knowledge that Knausgaard wrote quantity rather than quality entertained the audience, bar one. His reading was incredibly short, but it was enough to know that writing for quantity’s sake has its drawbacks. The phrase ‘a shiver ran down my spine’ being one of them. His rule of quantity-over-quality also comes from his dedication to intricate detail. This was sometimes odd. Do we really care about the slight colour differentiations in the protagonist’s urine from day-to-day? His Proustian style is an attempt to move the form of the novel ‘closer to the form of life’. Knausgaard has tried to shrug off conventional realist plotting, although it sounded all rather conventional to this reviewer. After all, the extract we heard was a well-paced scene concerning a father who has a revelation at the breakfast table about the fear his presence causes in his son. 

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Scottish Book Trust has announced that applications for the New Writers Awards 2015 are now open, providing a unique opportunity for 10 unpublished writers who live in Scotland to pursue a career as a published author.

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The Bus Party

 

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An international line-up of respected novelists forms the shortlist for Britain's oldest literary awards, the James Tait Black Awards. 

Novels based around an 18th century English village; a family's response to a terminal illness; a young woman's obsession with motorcycles; and the daily toil of a shepherdess are contenders for this year's James Tait Black Prizes.

Works by American authors Kent Haruf and Rachel Kushner join the latest books by acclaimed British writer Jim Crace and Australian novelist Evie Wyld in the shortlist for the £10,000 fiction prize.  

Contenders for the £10,000 biography prize include fascinating accounts of Joe Ranz and fellow members of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China for almost half a century until 1908, Booker prize-winning novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald; and an account of the biographer's aunt, a young woman in Nazi-occupied France.

Two prizes are awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh for books published during the previous year - one for the best work of fiction and the other for the best biography. The 
winners will be announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. 

The four novels competing for the fiction prize are: Harvest by Jim Crace ; Benediction by Kent Haruf ; The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner; All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

The shortlisted works for the biography section are: The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin by Daniel James Brown ; Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang ; Penelope Fitzgerald: A life by Hermione Lee; Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare. 

The nominations have been chosen from more than 350 books worldwide by English Literature academics and 25 postgraduate students at the University.  

The James Tait Black Awards, awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh's School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband's love of good books. 

Fiction judge Dr Lee Spinks of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures said: 
"This is an exceptional short-list, showcasing four original prose stylists, each with a distinctive gift for narrative suspense and revelation.  Any one of these four novels would be a worthy recipient of the James Tait Black Award for Fiction."

Biography judge Professor Jonathan Wild of the School of Language, Literatures and Cultures said: "These biographies represent the cream of a truly remarkable year for writing in this field."

The prizes are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students. The James Tait Black prize for drama, announced earlier this month, was launched last year. 
Past winners of the fiction awards include figures of global literary distinction, such as DH Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Last year, Oban-born author Alan Warner was the winner of the fiction prize for his book The Deadman's Pedal. 

Tanya Harrod, co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft, was the recipient of the biography prize for her book The last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture.  

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Let me explain:

Should Scotland be an independent country? Well, yes, of course it should. All countries, surely, should be independent. Otherwise theyre provinces, not countries. But many countries, by choice, are not fully independent, for example if theyre member states of the European Union (or, as Ukrainians are so well aware, part of the Russian customs union or the former Comecon and Warsaw Pact).

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Harry and Puma at East Preston Cemetery, Edinburgh

 

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Book reviews are always good for a bit of controversy. There was some when we announced the use of reviewer pseudonyms with the launch of Gutter Issue 01. At the time, the concern was that our reviews would be too vicious – that our reviewers would dig the knife in from the comfort of their pseudonym shadows. I’m happy to say that didn’t happen. Now, as Issue 10 approaches, the concern has changed. In a recent SRB blog article Harry McGrath asked pertinently if in fact reviewers at Gutter, and throughout Scotland, are all just far too nice.

The glee with which people read Will Self’s scathing review of Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job in The Guardian last October made me wonder if I should roll up my sleeves and get into a bar brawl just to increase our sales figures. But what did his hatchet job of Hatchet Job actually achieve. It’s generated a lot of attention – for Will Self, for The Guardian, and for Mark Kermode. A 1500 word review in the national press that gets everyone talking? Most writers can only dream of that kind of coverage, and the attention has probably ensured more sales for a book that doesn’t deserve them at the expense of those that do. Will Self comments that to “critique such a work strikes me as altogether surplus to requirements.” He’s absolutely right. Particularly interesting is his conclusion that the role of the critic, as we know it, is over. Perhaps he is right again, for what the publication of this review really shows is that no matter how “irritating” or full of howlers your book is, you can be the one to get in The Guardian at the expense of more deserving authors so long as it’ll generate enough gossip. Depressing, isn’t it?

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IT is advisable when in the Abbotsford in Edinburgh to stand at that part of the circular bar farthest from the main door. From there you have a periscopic view of whoever is about to cross the threshold. Thus you can choose to greet or avoid them as you please. Often, spying a bore or a sponger or the author of a book to which I have taken a scunner, I have ducked into the gents or made an electric exit by the side door.

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In July 1992, Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark, daughter of Edinburgh, returned to the city of her birth for the formal presentation of some of her papers to the National Library of Scotland at George IV Bridge.  Anyone granted access to the papers will be astonished at the bulk, range, and variety of the collection such as it is now (a substantial portion yet remains at her last residence in Italy):  letters, desk diaries, manuscripts, engagement calendars, grocery lists, awards, certificates and honorary degree papers, legal documents, book contracts, plays, betting slips, screenplays, notes for novels, holograph texts of several works, drafts of others, typescripts, cheque book stubs and receipts. . .on and on. . . .  Spark is certainly to be taken at her word: “since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper,” she wrote in the Preface to her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992).  As the National Library description notes, “no other author so deliberately and carefully preserved a record of their life.”

            Several recent, extended visits to the NLS archives with time to read a good deal of what is available, have yielded fascinating, if partial, insight into this remarkable woman, once described by David Lodge as “the most gifted and innovative British writer of her generation,” Lodge’s choice of “British” to modify “writer” is slightly problematic since Spark described herself as “English,” not “British.”   But considering herself English in no way denied her Scottish background; she was, she said many times, “Scottish by formation.”   And though she left Scotland in 1937 at the age of nineteen, never to return for more than occasional visits or holidays, she remained a Scot to the core, her character formed by a stringent code of values; her literary sensibility infused by the Border Ballads as well as the works of Scott, Hogg, and Stevenson; her habits of thrift, shrewd bargaining, and careful investment derived from her early years among the merchants of her native city; her cast of mind that of a thoroughgoing Scottish skeptic; and her speech lightened by the lyric musicality of Morningside to the end of her days.  In a short speech at the NLS ceremony she acknowledged her debt to the reference and lending libraries of Edinburgh, public institutions which had supplemented her first-rate primary and secondary education at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls.  She used the reader’s tickets designated for the other three members of the household and often returned home to #160 Bruntsfield Place with bundles of poetry books.  Endowed with this education and energized by a keen Protestant work ethic which remained with her (in a late interview – 2003 – she confessed, “I do feel guilty at the age of 85 if I haven’t done a day’s work”), she sailed from Southampton off into the unknown of Africa one summer’s day (13 August 1937).  Without a trace of bitterness, Spark echoed Joyce when she told an interviewer, “I think it’s necessary to leave Edinburgh.”

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Recently the latest edition of one of Scotland’s bright new literary magazines dropped through the letterbox. Its arrival is something I look forward to. The magazine is not light reading - 170 pages dense with new poetry and short fiction, lots of black on white, writers of all ages and at all stages – but is well worth the effort if you want to know who is doing what in contemporary Scottish literature.

Eventually I will work my way through all of it and find (if past editions are anything to go by) good writers, promising writers, and a few whose work I’ll pass over rather quickly. I always begin my exploration, however, in medias res because that’s where the book reviews are. These pages would catch the eye anyway as they are the only part of the magazine that is in colour: a rather fetching and (as it turns out) appropriate sky blue in this edition.

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A friend once told me that he had a ‘world famous’ bakery round the corner from his flat in Glasgow. The fact that he couldn’t remember the name of it made me wonder how well known its rolls and pancakes were in, say, the Far East.

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Kirsty Logan, Paul McQuade, Carole Jones, Zöe Strachan, George Anderson 

Event Review: Kin, Summerhall 09/02/2013

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I grew up in Scotland and I’m a poetry buff, so it was about time I attended StAnza. Five years ago a reform of secondary school education in Demark made it easier for me to attend the event, as I was granted five days’ holiday a year whenever I chose. However, turbulence in my professional life (the reform wasn’t only about me being granted five days’ holiday) as well as in my personal life (I was forced out of my home of 16 years by an abusive neighbour) meant that I was preoccupied with other things. After StAnza 2010 was over, however, I was sent the programme by my sister, who lives just outside St. Andrews, and I took that as an invitation.

In the event, my Principal regards my attendance as being work-related, so in addition to my five days’ holiday he has granted me two days’ paid leave of absence. This means I can go over to Scotland the weekend before the event, attend it until it finishes on the Sunday evening, and catch a cheap flight back from Edinburgh on the Tuesday morning.

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