Volume Seven Issue Four
- Category: Volume 7 Issue 4 2011
- Published on Saturday, 12 November 2011 22:47
A THORN IN THE FLESH – SELECTED POEMSEddie Linden
HEARING EYE, £7.50 53PP ISBN 978-1905082636
I hereby declare a fellow-feeling for Eddie (Sean) Linden, and could be thought to have shared certain situations with him in our respective fashions. We left the Lowlands of Scotland at about the same time. Together, as you might say, we crossed the border, bound for what was soon to be Sixties London, hoping to start magazines and to drop the name of poets, as he phrases it in this book. I once told him that he looked like Sir Matt Busby, the former and ever-popular manager of Manchester United, who came from a neighbouring mining village to Eddie’s, in Lanarkshire. He put up with that, though he may have preferred to be told that he looked like a poet. Not that his poems are exactly sold on the genus: he didn’t care for those located on stools in ‘intellectual’ bars, being geniuses and waving unpublished manuscripts. In London he entered the dark kingdom of the romantic poet George Barker, made friends with Elizabeth Smart and John Heath-Stubbs, and with Ian Hamilton, a very different kind of king.
He has been seen at many an intellectual pub and party, a little wraith-like, as one might imagine Scott’s Old Mortality, that keeper of the flame. Often silent, lonely-seeming, the least Liam Fox of Scotsmen, the least overbearing of literary men. He ran his magazine, Aquarius, from home, apparently, and was hated for it by his postman, he alleges.
Much of this gets into his volume of selected poems. The poems I’m drawn to are memories of family members and of London pals and postal districts. James Campbell’s celebratory foreword speaks of his upbringing as ‘a history of rejection that Dickens might have chosen to tone down’ and of the ‘tussles with drink and sex that appear to have stemmed from it’; it also suggests that sectarian brutality, with its murders and its scrawls and bawls (‘God bless the Rangers’), helped to send him south. An uncle is asked to greet loved ones in the next world in a poem which has a
warm word for James Kelman:
Tell Uncle Paddy I’ve
got a great book Greyhound for Breakfast
I am sure he can get it from God’s library.
And my last request – tell Mother not
to forget to say
a novena for her
mad son Eddie.
There can be no point in searching for ironies here, any more than in the poem to his father entitled ‘The Miner’, which shows a face that has never moved and bears the marks of hard work, etched ‘deep in blue’. These are poems which engage the mind that has a heart. Another poem that draws you is likely to be his best-known: ‘City of Razors’, addressed to dear old Glasgow town.
A woman roars from the upper window
‘They’re at it again, Maggie!
Five stitches in our Tommy’s face,
Eddie’s in the Royal wi’ a sword in his
And the razor’s floating in the River
This is a city which has needed the kind of archbishop praised here as having been a ‘beacon’ to Eddie’s life. James Campbell vouches for the sword, incidentally.
Memories of the editorial and freelance life are more satirical than fond, in contrast with the family material. The editor is pestered by people who want to be writers and who tear each other apart, and who are advised to go back to being miners. Down the pits are real people, it would seem, and so there are. There is in this area a piece called ‘Court Jester’, which causes a bit of uncertainty with its ‘you’s’ and ‘he’s’, and which describes a someone who might appear to include himself. This may be a soliloquy.
What is it going to look
like in forty years from now?
The pain, the fear from
day to day. Waiting for
the letter that never comes.
He sits there dropping poets’
names until one becomes
drunk and cannot hear
or see. Will someone rid me
of this pest that lingers
in our midst? O Christ take
away this painful fool.
God is one of those editors whose judgement can be suspect and who doesn’t always do what you want. But I’d like to think that this moving account of the literary life is already up there in his library, awaiting its author.
TWELVE MINUTES OF LOVE – A TANGO STORYKapka Kassabova
PORTOBELLO BOOKS, £18.99 336PP ISBN 978-1846272844
Twelve Minutes of Love is a memoir, a poem, a philosophical meditation not only on tango but on life and love. It is a strangely moving book, Kassabova’s sensibility running throughout the pages like a melancholy tango melody. The author is intelligent, sensitive and romantic, and colours the content with her own elegiac perspective. With a variety of aphorisms and insights – tango always the overarching metaphor – she examines her own life with an objective wry humour. Nothing is under- or over-stated. The core of this book is a romance – a romance with tango and a romance with the illusion of love.
Her pursuit of dancing tango takes her all over the world from New Zealand where she grew up to Buenos Aires, from Berlin to Scotland. She follows her fascination with tango wherever it takes her. Her dancing becomes an obsession as she goes from milonga (a gathering of tango dancers) to milonga, having love affairs- platonic and otherwise – with the various unsuitable men she meets.
Tango is a dance of sex and longing where the sexes are sharply defined within the two roles of leader (male) and follower (female) and Kassabova seems to be seduced by the very narrowness of these parameters. It is a macho dance, the ‘cabezeo makes even a little man with a pot belly look simultaneously dignified and smooth’. She sometimes seems oddly passive in her relations to men and I wish she could break the occasional heart once or twice instead of having her’s constantly broken.
But tango is also the dance of loss and illusion (you will find in this book that tango is a lot of things) and she dances out this sense of suffering and pain not only throughout the tango halls of the world but in the details of her relations with men. Everyone wants something from tango, she writes. ‘Glamour, melancholy, erotic thrills, some other thing without a name.’
Tango is one long seduction, a cycle of ‘Longing, seduction, engagement, rejection, fall, longing.’ that she proceeds to enact in her own life too. When Kassabova hurts, she hurst badly and as she watches her ex-love Joshua dance the tango with his new ‘squeeze’ you do wonder why she doesn’t just get up and leave. But as she herself says, there is a fine line between stoicism and masochism and this book treads it. Tango, like life, is pitiless and non-judgemental. There is no morality to it. It just is.
And it is the heterosexual sensuality of tango that truly intrigues her. Moving into her personal encounters with tango instructors she writes, ‘Chicho and Lucia’s sacadas are feather-light, barely there, a suggestion of moving legs. “You sacada her very, very, very delicately,” Chicho says and invites Lucia to move her leg out of the way, out of the way, out of the way.’ Even the shoes are amusingly suggestive. ‘The open toe is to tango what the bikini is to swimwear, and there are variations of exposure, culminating with the G-string of the tango world, the tango sandal.’
Kassabova is expert at interspersing history with her personal life, the movement like the intricate dance steps of the tango. One seems to reinforce and shed light on the other. She has a perfect sense of timing, knowing when to bring nuggets of tango lore into the narrative of her life. Tango is multi-cultural a ‘hotchpotch of oddballs, cultural hybrids and shipwreck survivors’. The origin of the silence and frozen expressions of tango comes from the Kongo. Kongo dancing also favoured blatant sexual moves She tells of how certain invasive steps were invented in the late nineteenth century by men dancing with each other in the Buenos Aires slums, ‘unwashed men with knives and cowboy boots, dispossessed gauchos from the Pampa, deracinated working-class immigrants from Europe, desperado sailors and the descendants of slaves’. In other words there is an initial elision in tango between machismo and homoeroticism.
Kassabova’s book abounds with literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical allusions – Melville, Isherwood, the Bible, and Borges are all quoted. One of her many wise oddballs, ‘Lorca says duende is power but not work. Struggle but not thought. Like falling in love… It makes you happy and sad at the same time.’ Even Plato gets a mention. ‘Plato says there are three souls in humans. Mental soul, emotional soul and soul of desire. When there is too much of one soul, we are off-balance.’ And citing Freud she writes, ‘that the aim of psychotherapy is to replace neurotic misery with a common unhappiness. I had a psychotherapist. It didn’t work. But tango works.’
These allusions and references – literary and historical – give impressive, interesting substance to her personal history. But above all this book – in spite of the comforting rationality of its happy ending – is an entertaining hymn to her individual addiction. Her addiction to tango and her addiction to romantic love. ‘Tango addiction is when you’re crazy about tango – that’s everyone here, including me. Tango Fever, however, is when you act out your craziness to the full. When you live out the tango fantasy as if it’s real.’
ALL MADE UPJanice Galloway
GRANTA, £16.99, 352PP ISBN 978-1847082480
The strength of autobiography, that it is hewn from the raw material of its author’s life, can also be its weakness; to what extent, a thoughtful reader must ask, is the testimonial to be trusted? We all frame the narrative of our lives to satisfy our inner sense of events, following an emotional rather than actual chronology, as Janice Galloway tacitly acknowledges in her second ‘anti-memoir’, the teasingly titled All Made Up.
Galloway herself has described her work as a ‘fictional structure imposed on real life’, admitting that she could not write about the members of her family until she had changed their names. ‘The only way I could write it was to make everyone a character. It’s almost like how a director stages an opera,’ she said of her first memoir, This is Not About Me.
And what characters they are. Admirers have rightly praised Galloway’s recreation of her sister Cora (more prosaically named Nora in real life), whose glamour contrasted with her cruelty. The more powerful and moving characterisation, however, is that of her mother, Beth, who cleans and fetches for those around her, including the tyrannical Cora, and whose spirit in the face of economic and emotional dificulties falters only once, when she attempts to commit suicide.
All Made Up tells the story of Galloway’s teenage years, from her discovery of music and literature, sex and friendship, to her abortion at 17, whose most immediate effect is that she is finally given her own bed. Until then she and her mother shared. (It’s the stoic Beth who makes up a bed on the sofa.)
The power of both memoirs lies in Galloway’s sophisticated manipulation of different levels of meaning. One critic has decribed her as ‘an existential geographer, charting the inchoate territory that lies between inner voice and spoken word, between internal landscape and external reality’. It is with a child’s eye that she views the baffling, dramatic figures of the adults around her. They are described, though, not in the language of a child but as if by an anthropologist, albeit one with a gift for poetic observation and vivid dialogue. We are brought to an understanding of these characters in a way that young Janice can not, yet, know.
As Galloway progresses from almost pathologically passive child (her school forces her to undergo speech therapy) to clever, striving, sexy teenager, she explores the recurring patterns not just of her dysfunctional family but of the society around her. It was not unusual in 1970s west of scotland for young people to be discouraged from standing out from the crowd, for the bullying creed of ‘normality’ to dominate. Despite choosing such esoteric school subjects as Music and Latin, the teenage Galloway internalises the values of those around her: ‘Normal, that was what I wished for. I had an idea everything must be so much easier for those lucky buggers who counted themselves normal.’
She is particularly sensitive to the careful constructs underpinning femininity, in one memorable scene discovering her sister’s foundation garment ‘cast aside on a basket chair like the cast-off skin of a monster salmon’. Despite the hideousness of the image, it is Cora’s swaggering version of femininity that she yearns to inherit, a wish dashed when she discovers that her sister has thrown out all her ‘satin-effect, dirndl-skirted, boned-bosomed dresses… the most glamorous frocks in the world when I was a child’, in favour of simple little Jackie O shift dresses and boleros. She will never have one of these extravagant creations passed on to her. Instead, towards the end of the book, in a scene as heartbreaking as it is sparely written, Cora finally gives her a garment, an unworn, frilly nylon nightie with roses on the bodice. It is the night before Galloway goes into hospital for her abortion.
Only towards the end of All Made Up do we finally discover the full extent of the ruined life that has fuelled Cora’s violent, rage-filled behaviour - the hidden pregnancies, the discarded children. By then it is too late for Galloway to have a relationship with the woman who terrorised her childhood. When many years later Galloway has a child of her own, she writes to Cora and they meet for what she knows will be the last time. ‘It was when she turned away again I felt it, a surge in the chest that threatened to drag me down some awful drowning-well of rage and grief.’
Throughout the book Galloway has been questioning what makes a family, what blood ties mean, but most of all, how identity is constructed. The clever one in a non-academic family, the arty kid in a family of dogged, working-class wage slaves, she knows she has to leave to become who she is. As Camus said in his notebooks, ‘Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.’ Janice Galloway has opted for expending tremendous energy to create the abnormal – and it is abnormally powerful.
A SUMMER OF DROWNINGJohn Burnside
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99 336PP ISBN 978-0224061780
A Summer of Drowning, John Burnside’s seventh novel, is packed with unexplained deaths, vanishings, presences and premonitions, sinister letters, soul-capturing portraits, and even a bona fide Thing. At first glance, this looks like another literary novelist playing post-modern games with genre. In a recent interview, he spoke of his interest in ‘the Schrodinger’s cat novel’: a fiction in which two mutually-exclusive possibilities – the rational and supernatural – fail to cancel each other out.
The tale is set in a small community in northern Norway and recounted by Liv, now 28, looking back ten years to the summer after she left school. We know the facts from the start: three mysterious drownings. For Kyrre, the old man who is the closest she has to a father-figure, there is no mystery: the teenage brothers and the summer tenant of his beach-side hytte are victims of a malign spirit known as the huldra. Legend has it that the huldra appears as an unbearably beautiful girl but ‘at her back there is a startling vacancy, a tiny rip in the fabric of the world where everything falls away into emptiness’. Somewhat bathetically after this shiversome summary, we learn that she is a hideous troll with the tail of a cow under her bright red dress.
The Arctic Circle is set up as the metaphysical other to our shallow, frenetic, material world. It is summer, the season of white nights. Colour appears more intense. Time has ‘more or less disappeared’ or, at least, transmuted into an eternal present connected, by folklore, to the primeval. Norwegian words, as often as not referring to food, are dropped into the narrative like incantations. Midnattsol. SjØrØge. Gjetost.
Liv displays a greedy teenager’s preoccupation with the edible. (To her, even the huldra smells mouthwateringly of maple syrup, touched with dust and lanolin.) But she has no interest in boys.
Her lazy days are filled with sensual but strikingly-sexless pleasures: listening to the rain; watching the terns dive into the sea; browsing through old picture books; guzzling coffee, pastries and sweet creamy cheeses; and spying on her new neighbour, Kyrre’s summer tenant.
Intelligent she may be, but Liv has one major ﬂaw as a reliable narrator. The self-denial evident in her dealings with the social world looks like the dysfunctional product of neglect or worse. Her secretive mother Angelika is a painter obsessed with the silent life of objects. Other than Kyrre, Liv has no friends and, she insists, no need of them. Her life is as aesthetically composed and as static as a painting, until the drowning of the brothers she knew at school and the arrival of a letter alerting her to the identity of the father she has never met.
One of the many felicities in this novel is Liv’s narrative voice: an earnest stream-of-consciousness that will take many readers back to their own knowing, bewildered adolescence. Her need to acknowledge every possibility, and her inability to make a choice between any of them, is maddening. But before long our thoughts are following a similarly looping pattern, as we try to make sense of the chain of lurid events, and of Burnside’s purpose in concocting it. Might Liv herself be the huldra? Or could it be her mother?
The plot is crammed with folkloric conventions. An innocent child-heroine with a dark twin. The death of a parent.
An evil that must be defeated (or at least, temporarily deflected). An act of sacrifice. A rite of passage ending in transformation. There’s a tendency for things to come in threes: three victims; a regal beauty to whom three suitors pay hopeless, ritualistic court.
For those who prefer to read the fairytale as a social worker’s checklist, Burnside gives us an abusive mother who may have psychopathic tendencies, damaged children, quasi-autistic dissociation and emotional breakdown. The sleepless white nights encourage panic and hallucination. Liv is a fragile, socially isolated teenager who leaves school with no idea what to do with the rest of her life: a personality ready to be tipped into crisis. But ultimately Burnside is too entranced by the gorgeously eldritch tapestry he has woven to give its workmanlike reverse side an equal chance. It seems that this novel is something more serious than a writerly exercise in ambiguity. Though the first 300 pages slip down a treat, some may find the ending harder to swallow.
But never mind. A Summer of Drowning offers other pleasures. It has thought-provoking things to say about voyeurism and art, and the need for selflessness, space and solitude in our narcissistic touchy-feely age. As is to be expected of a writer who has just won the Forward Prize for poetry, there are some exquisite sentences. Despite the potboiler plot, Burnside has written a coolly painterly novel. Its still, chill, arrestingly beautiful world will haunt the reader long after its shape-shifting evil spirit is forgotten.
THE BEESCarol Ann Duffy
PICADOR, £14.99, 84PP ISBN 978-0-330-44244-2
I can still remember Carol Ann Duffy in pre-Laureate days dressed in top hat and tails while reading to a capacity crowd at the Royal Festival Hall. Her performance, during which she recited poetry mainly from The World’s Wife, was stylish and funny, the poet as entertainer. She is back on lively form in The Bees, her first collection as Laureate. At the same time a strain of elegy is never far away, particularly in those poems about her mother, and anti-war verse such as ‘Last Post’, a farewell to the last-surviving British veteran of the First World War, and ‘The Falling Soldier’, inspired by Robert Capa’s famous photograph.
As she has done in previous collections, Duffy blends the modern and the mythological. In ‘Big Ask’, the myth of Sisyphus is combined with an attack on devious, repetitive government spinning. ‘The Shirt’ entangles an English football fan’s World Cup disappointment with the poisoned ‘shirt of Nessus’ which killed Hercules. ‘Achilles’, very much a tribute to David Beckham, refers not just to his vulnerable tendon, but also his redefinition of the ideal male.
Bees buzz through many of the poems, providing the collection with something close to a musical structure. ‘The Human Bee’ begins ‘I became a human bee at twelve’, the poet, here, revisiting her childhood. A ‘human bee’, of course, is near to sounding like ‘human being’. After the child associates ‘human’ with ‘humming’, she learns this ‘lesson by heart’ about the apples she picked in the orchard:
the ovary would become the fruit,
the ovule the seed, fertilized by my
my Midas touch.
Detached about sexuality, these lines speak of empowerment, suggesting, through childhood recollection, what it means to be human, not merely ‘what it means to be a woman’, or a man for that matter. The poet’s ‘Midas touch’ is that of her creativity, and it transcends her sexual identity. Other poems, like ‘Virgil’s Bees’, ‘Telling the Bees’, and ‘The Bee Carol’, extend the pastoral metaphors, with the latter repeating the phrase ‘winter cluster of bees’ in each of the four stanzas, the image emblematic of cheering warmth in the midst of a Christmas Eve setting.
Another ‘buzz’ is provided by Shakespeare. The bard is present both directly and allusively in many of the poems. ‘Ariel’ begins with the opening line from his well-known song in The Tempest, ‘Where the bee sucks’, but instead of flowers flourishing, what the ‘cowslip’s bell’ contains is ‘neonicotinoid insecticides’. ‘Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds’, a tribute to the little-known pioneer meteorologist, alludes most winningly to Hamlet making fun of Polonius when musing on the shapes of clouds. ‘Winter’s Tale’ blends Shakespearean allusion with a meditation on her mother’s final days. Garlanded with flower images like ‘violet, oxlip, primrose, columbine’, it poignantly concludes: ‘she wakes, moves, prompted by her name’.
Caring for her mother undoubtedly involved a distressing sense of impending loss, but Duffy also shows that the continuum of life, which goes on, is a kind of consolation. ‘Water’ was her mother’s last word, and the poem also highlights how much the offering of a glass of water can reveal about relationships between parents and children. ‘Premonitions’ scrolls back time by mentioning a bee ‘which swooned backwards out of a rose’, and recalls a happy time:
… And how I listened,
spellbound, humbled, daughterly,
to your tales, your wise words,
the joy of your accent, unenglish,
Perhaps Duffy was drawn to poetry at an early age because of her Irish mother’s storytelling abilities. In the quatrain ‘Spell’, which associates poetry with casting spells, it is highly likely her mother whom she recollects in the last line: ‘and so I write and write and write your name’.
THE BLUE BOOKA.L. Kennedy
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99 384PP ISBN 978-0224091404
Accepting the Man Booker Prize last month, Julian Barnes expressed admiration for his own winning novel as ‘a beautiful object’, regardless of its contents. He went on to suggest that the old-fashioned “physical” book can only compete with new-fangled electronic variants by promoting the virtues of the artistic values added by ﬁne binding and jacket design.
A.L. Kennedy’s latest novel, which wasn’t even long-listed for that prize, is no less a pleasure to look at. The Blue Book arrives wrapped in colour like a gift box, its hard cover stamped with a gold palm-print, and the edges of the pages dipped in something darker than blue. Maybe purple, which is known in some cultures as the colour of death, and in spiritualist circles as the aura of ritual and ceremony.
This is the reader’s first hint of what is to come, or perhaps the author’s opening sleight-of-hand – the prose inside is tricky from the start, addressing you in second person, with a suspiciously seductive register. ‘And quite naturally, you face it,’ says the book, of itself. ‘Your eyes, your lips are turned towards it – all that paleness, all those marks – and you are so close here that if it were a person you might kiss.’
These advances may be unsettling, if you’re familiar with Kennedy’s work. She has her fans, but she is not really known as a pleasure-giver. Equally, she has never been one of those polite writers, like Barnes. Her ideas of intimacy are often subject to rude, gruesome, and invasive pathological analysis. There is much of this in the story that follows, which switches to third person as a woman named Elizabeth Barber boards a trans-Atlantic cruise liner with her new and ‘normal’ boyfriend Derek. Once the ship is underway, the sea grows stormy and Derek turns green, leaving the way open for a reunion with her ex-partner Arthur Lockwood. They used to form a fake psychic double act, conning the bereft and credulous in rainy post-industrial towns around the UK.
Arthur is still a fake medium, though clearly burning out after so many years of pretending to speak for the dead. It’s a dirty job, but he’s hardly a villain, and Kennedy’s subtle inversions of sympathy begin with the proposition that such a professional liar might even be serving his own sense of compassion. The most powerful passage of The Blue Book is an electric and deeply ambivalent flashback to Arthur’s finest work: ‘summoning’ the slaughtered husband and son of a Rwandan genocide survivor to bring the woman genuine relief.
‘That’s Arthur’s trick … he can love his enquirers into openness, trust. When he actively considers their frailty, it becomes irrelevant if he dislikes them, loathes them – because love is his only appropriate response. He loves them and they know it and that means they will let him burrow in.’ Elizabeth, for her part, is more inclined to hate the poor suckers that she once helped to dupe, the same class of silly, feeble, ordinary people who now surround her on the heaving ocean.
Like many of Kennedy’s characters, she has the author’s own knack for weary observational comedy – ‘Being annoyed in a queue is almost indistinguishable from being right wing’ – and a tendency toward the judgemental. Her struggle, and the struggle of the novel, is to feel the love, for lack of a better word, even if the word itself is ‘terrible’:
‘[You] can’t even say it without that sense of licking, tasting, parting your lips to be open to release whatever it is that slips between your breath … this invisible medicine, this invisible disease.’
As ever, Kennedy does not offer the reader any distance or relief from these interior and interpersonal torments, or provide the conventional satisfactions of a plot. Aesthetically speaking, her ability to render the self-disgusted banality of everyday thought and speech – ‘the naked, ridiculous things that we say’ – do not make for gorgeous streams of consciousness or sparkling exchanges of dialogue.
On the other hand, she shows such a care for language that none of her lines is throwaway, and even a passing description of sea-sickness sounds exactly right: ‘Derek breathes as if doing so annoys him.’
The most obvious reading of The Blue Book posits the novelist as another kind of fraudster, like a stage psychic or a sexual partner, consoling by means of deceit. ‘You’re a good person at heart,’ says the book. ‘You’re sure of this, and your book is sure of it too.’
A statement like that can only make you doubt yourself; Kennedy would never be so dull or obsequious as to tell you what you want to hear. Then again, that voice might not be the author’s. Or she might not be talking to you. And her refusal to make this clear until the very end might be a sign of faith in fiction that only a fellow believer would recognise. A.L. Kennedy’s kindness is easily mistaken for cruelty. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. She just has a funny way of showing it.
WHEN THE CLYDE RAN REDMaggie Craig
MAINSTREAM, £12.99 ISBN 9781845967352
In 1965 The Clydesiders was published. It was the work of a fine historian, Robert Keith Middlemas, and it introduced a new generation, including this reviewer, to the enduring and heroic legend of Red Clydeside. (It is, however, omitted from Maggie Craig’s bibliography.) Middlemas used a dramatic cover image of a long-haired and cadaverous Jimmy Maxton speaking to unemployed workers in Hyde Park in 1932. Craig and her publisher have also gone for a vivid cover, using the famous photograph of Glasgow’s George Square on 30 January 1919 in which a red flag rises above a sea of cloth caps as striking engineering workers rallied in support of their union’s call for a maximum 40 hour working week. 12,000 troops were in the city with tanks in reserve to contain what the cabinet’s Scottish secretary called ‘a Bolshevist uprising’. It was nothing of the sort though there were arrests and heavy-handed police action was brought down against the crowd. Just why the Clyde in 1919 did not have the potential to be Britain’s Petrograd, as John MacLean believed it could, is not really addressed in this book though the author does cite in her sources Ian MacLean’s revisionist work of 1983 which analysed with great care the strengths and weaknesses of the post-war Labour movement in Glasgow.
Middlemas’s book was sub-titled ‘A Left-Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power’. Craig tries to capture something of this in a sometimes breathless narrative which recycles familiar anecdotes. She does do justice to the charisma of leaders like Maxton and MacLean but she could have made more of the role of John Wheatley. His style was lower key, but his organisational and legislative skills made him a vital figure prior to his early death in 1930. Craig sees off his great 1924 Housing Act in a single sentence and has little to say about his stance in Labour’s internal struggles in the 1920s or what side he might have taken over the Independent Labour Party’s fatal decision to disaffiliate from Labour in 1932.
In fact, her account of events winds down well before this and her last nine chapters are a loosely structured cultural history of the 1930s with a bit more politics thrown in. Perhaps her namesake Carol Craig’s book The Tears That Made the Clyde came out too soon for Maggie Craig to digest its disturbing reinterpretation of Glasgow’s history in terms of brutally unequal gender relations and a macho workplace culture. Maggie Craig’s response to this might have been worth hearing but she does give us one chapter on the campaign for birth control and Glasgow Labour’s ambivalent view of it. She needs though to make more strongly the point that Labour’s reaction was a product of its growing dependence on Catholic voters influenced by the unyielding position of their church on the issue.
This Catholic electorate greatly strengthened Labour, as Wheatley had predicted while he was still active in the United Irish League. It was also of course a product of Irish migration to Scotland which gets limited attention in this book. Maybe this is because Protestant Scotland’s hostility to it and the sectarian fault lines that resulted don’t sit easily with a celebration of working class solidarity.
Craig does allude to the attacks on Wheatley in 1912 over his espousal of Socialism which was whipped up within his own Shettleston parish. ‘The fuss soon died down,’ she tells us, but the trouble was that it didn’t, certainly not as far as Orange and Protestant Glasgow was concerned. Recurrent attacks on him, using his business interests as a pretext, intensified after he entered Parliament in 1922 and drove him to a costly and self-destructive libel action in 1927 against detractors who made no secret of their aversion to his Irish origins.
There is little space for this in Craig’s book which is strange, given the way that sectarianism has recently returned to centre stage politically in Scotland. She rightly has Willie Gallacher among her sources but not Tom Gallagher. Yet it was his path-breaking 1987 book Glasgow: The Uneasy Peace which opened the way to what has become a necessary area of study, the impact of Irish and Ulster settlement on modern Scotland.
Any book on the Red Clyde has by definition, to be about the emergence of Socialism within the working class, yet despite Labour’s breakthrough in the 1922 General Election and in Glasgow’s 1933 elections there was still a long way to travel. ‘Unionism’, culturally and politically in Glasgow and in Scotland as a whole remained strong. In 1914 and 1915 Glasgow workers in their thousands enlisted in Britain’s cause as the city’s George Square cenotaph reminds us.
Schooling, popular literature, and an entire culture of clubs, the Boys’ Brigade, churches and Orange Lodges, predetermined the choices of many of those who when war came joined Kitchener’s New Army or were already in the Territorials. Wheatley recognised the potency of this essentially Unionist working class patriotism. He attacked the way it was exploited but he never mocked it or tried to wish it away. This was part of the paradox that lies at the heart of the Red Clyde and still draws writers and scholars to it. Craig is entitled to celebrate a legend created by heroic activists and a community that sustained them but the reality was more complex than her book allows for.
Ian S Wood