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Volume 5 – Issue 2 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 5 – Issue 2 – Reviews

September 4, 2009 | by SRB

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Volume 5 Issue 2


One Day
David Nicholls
Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99
pp435 ISBN 0340896965


My copy of One Day is an Uncorrected Bound Proof. It comes with the directive “Not for resale or quotation”. I can foresee a problem here: not the matter of offloading (ebay? or a Glasgow street corner, ‘book’ hidden like contraband inside my raincoat?), but just how I’m going to tell you what’s to be found on the pages of this always entertaining novel. It follows the lives of two characters over twenty years, always alighting on July 15th – St Swithin’s Day – of whichever year it is. The young woman might be called Emma Morley, or perhaps not; the young man (somewhat prone to womanising, it has to be said) may have the name Dexter Mayhew, or there again – obeying the publisher’s stern instruction on my proof copy – possibly he doesn’t have that name.

They meet at Edinburgh University: a one-night stand which becomes the bond over the next two decades as these briefest of lovers keep up a friendship, bumping up against each other (socially speaking) as confidants and occasional irritants. The story will neatly end – and begin again – in Edinburgh, at a reunion. 15th July 1988, the night of, comes and goes. The author cleverly takes us into this male’s and this female’s mind, both fixed on the future but each thinking at cross purposes: he to be successful, she to change the little bit of the world round about herself.

The years pass, and domestic technology helps to tell the tale – from the eras of aural tape and VHS to our own virtual epoch. Dexter (let’s call him) goes into TV and enjoys fame as a yoof-show compere before finding he’s become spectacularly unfashionable. Emma (we’ll call her) is a slow-developer by comparison: after a conscientious career of school teaching she finally achieves her goal, sort-of, as a fiction writer (for teens).

Every fresh year produces a little jolt in the narrative – we’re catching up with the characters again, and it takes a page or two to adjust to the surprises life has brought about since the end of the previous chapter. One constant is the comedy of social embarrassment, at which David Nicholls excels. Another sort of comedy is – how shall I put it? – the metaphysical: events are forever happening by chance, or by default – a letter fails to get sent, or a phone is lifted up but for some reason or another the call isn’t made or the answerphone message is listened to too late or not at all. On such slender and casual vagaries of chance are our fates written out.

All the neat and droll one-liners, the perfectly pitched exchanges, the astute observations, the deftly drawn cast of secondary-characters, the complicating texture of time-passing angst and melancholy…. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for those.

Meanwhile life carries on happening. It’s meant to be a haphazard business, I do appreciate, but since this is mainstream fiction there’s also a clear trajectory as we progress from the student bed-sit in Auld Reekie to, much later, the nursery of a des res in Richmond. This voyage of discovery, in an environment not so very different from that of Richard Curtisland, takes us all the way from listening to Tracy Chapman and spoofing the film poster of The Unbearable Lightness of Being to – oh, bitter triumph – VAT returns and a hurled mobile phone marking the Farrow & Ball.

The press release, as is the nature of such organs, goes into overdrive. (There’s no embargo on quotations from that, so far as I can see.) “David Nicholls is one of the hottest writers in television”. (Cold Feet, Tess), a modern day retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, adapting And When Did You Last See Your Father? for the cinema.) “He took the publishing world by storm” with his debut novel, Starter For Ten. Richard & Judy Book Club, Tom Hanks’s production company, etcetera. This third novel is “the funniest, smartest, truest novel of 2009”. Breathless puffs from Tony Parsons (“totally brilliant”) and Jenny Colgan (“funniest, loveliest book … true to life. I lived every page”).

David Nicholls is commercial, and no bad thing either. He also writes extremely well, which almost seems a contradiction in terms. (The spot-on dialogue, the clean prose which somehow manages to be elegant at the same time.) It’s perhaps not surprising, given the author’s media history, that there should sometimes be an impression of One Day’s trying seriously hard to ingratiate itself: ticking the right boxes.

Never mind. That, I suggest, is  simply the risk one runs by writing for TV and film.

The novel Mr Nicholls has given us is a modern fairy tale, slickly put together. It’s no great surprise – no surprise at all, in fact – what will happen in the end. Pleasure for the willing reader lies in letting the characters’ adventures (both in and out of love) carry you along: it’s not an epic sweep, your life isn’t going to be changed as a consequence, but you’re in very capable hands – which is why you read on, and on and on (there are 435 pages), beguiled by a gifted story-teller with lots of technical savvy.

Feel free to quote me on that.

The Gathering Night
Margaret Elphinstone
pp480 ISBN 1847672884


Archaeological information about Mesolithic Scotland being scant – a shell midden, a microlith, a crucial hazelnut-shell – Margaret Elphinstone’s research for her Stone Age novel, [The Gathering Night is the act of a hunter-gatherer. The breadth of her opportunistic Auk People’s hunting grounds demanded a rich larder of land-lore. They variously subsist or thrive on reed-roots, lilyroots, hazelnuts, orange earth-mushrooms, auk, seal, aurochs, deer, boar, limpet, salmon, eel, brown trout, searoot, roasted hazelnut, sorrel, silverweed, sea-kale, guillemot, bird eggs. Elphinstone actually built a coracle, commissioned a skipper for her Auk Peoples’ voyages; questioned experts about the gathering of wild honey, seal hunting, wildfowling.

But that word “-lore” sometimes implies feyness, so perhaps I shouldn’t use it. Elphinstone’s novel is not a piece of archaeological or literary eco-tourism. Her characters, by and large, avoid becoming cameos. They demonstrate a likeliness in their speech and motivation to our contemporary generations as well as their own present tense.

A successfully recorded oral narrative, the parley, and the exposition of plot, is unusually democratic. Even the pace is courteous: each capacious chapter representing a night’s reflection on the Auk People’s dilemma. Individually, their voices are rarely idiomatic; however, Story becomes their communal and binding identity.

When one character, Haizea, says “This is your story we’re telling. Listen to us and you’ll soon find out how much these things matter to you,” we are likely to participate as listeners, not readers, because the written dialogue includes all the key characteristics of real speech, including its ellipses and socio-linguistic tricks.

English, patched over with loan-words and translations, arcane where the chains between centuries of linguistic or historical associations have etiolated, is full of mysterious meaning. And I did pine for such linguistic involvement, for the influence of the apparently random. The only intimate guesswork we get to do in The Gathering Night relates to the plot itself, which is divulged delicately. As transparent as the Auk People’s dialogue is their vocabulary and mythology of place-name – Evening Sun Sky, Grandmother Mountain, White Beach Camp – language young or new, naive, or transitory. Appropriate maybe, but at times like this the plot seemed thinner and deflectable, revealing its symbolic, even theoretical frame.

Even if accessible, the frame isn’t flimsy. When we consider how we might fare in the Auk People’s place, we have the opportunity to interpret the novel as eco-parable. The Auk People are aware that their resources are available in the present tense only, and finite. They assume very little. When they speak to the Animals, asking them to allow themselves to be hunted, their carcasses rendered to food and clothing and shelter and totems, they consider their Stone Age ‘Scotland’ as more worthy of respect than, to quote Kenneth White quoting Heidegger in Geopoetics: place, culture, world “a universe of utensils…a world seen as so much timber, a mountain as a potential stone quarry”.

Again, ecopoetically, a counterweight to the Auk People’s habitual nomadism, individuals are endowed with a personal spiritual home, their birthplace: “The spirits who watched over my birth had been waiting for me at White Beach Camp for ten winters”.

The parable for our twentyfirst century existence is plural. Not just because few of us are privileged enough, or would consider ourselves privileged, to be able to choose a difficult life centred on whatever happens to be the present-tense of the land. A land-based life, after all, is rarely ‘simple’. Next, our response to reported tragedy – war, terrorism, natural disaster – is often described as ‘desensitised’. In the Auk People’s experience, some stories are damaging to the listener, and they are told with care, through necessity – “The story I’m about to tell won’t hurt you, so there’s no need to look afraid.”

Such potent truth is mediated by the Auk People’s Go-betweens, who are able to mediate between the People and the spirits. The Go-betweens’ trance enables them to rise above the land and apprehend cataclysmic natural and cultural occurrences. In a culture without cartography, this is the Auk People’s chance to attain the atlas view that we are accustomed to take for granted. Metaphorically, understanding is hard-won, and not assumed.

The Gathering Night offers us a totem plot centred round ideas of identity, interdependence and spirituality all relevant to our own here-and-now. Where our experience diverges from the Auk People and our hunter-gatherer heritage, Elphinstone turns Go-between.

The Devil’s Staircase
Helen Fitzgerald
POLYGON, £12.99
pp224 ISBN 9781846970450


Perhaps crime fiction as a genre performs a similar function to myth, but more specialised. It feeds the appetite to be told over and over again, through stories, just how black the human heart can be, how wounded it is.

Helen Fitzgerald’s serial killer in The Devil’s Staircase is a pathetic excuse for a human being. He makes a convincingly inadequate sexual predator, perhaps drawing some veracity from the author’s experience working with sex offenders in Barlinne. But you have to hope that during her years as a prison social worker she turned in more thorough background reports on her clients – as a crime writer, she has an ultra-casual way of lashing together a few flashback details that reveal dysfunctional homelife packages. These she bestows upon various hapless spawn of alcoholic or abusive parents in order to introduce suspense as to the identity of the one who has gone really bad.

Formulaic it may be, but Fitzgerald makes an honest fist of distilling light entertainment out of dark subject matter, stirring jokes and fun into the herringrich bouillabaisse along with bondage and murder. God’s not in His Heaven, All’s wrong with the world. And all, somehow, perversely relaxing.

The theme that nemesis has a habit of being unavoidable is given a counter-intuitive twist when 18-year-old Bronny is empowered to act with a decisive fury no one could imagine she had in her, becoming an unlikely agent of death instead of being constantly stalked by the fear of it. She is first encountered in full flight (Melbourne to Heathrow) from the reality that she has a fifty-fifty chance of developing Huntingdon’s Disease, the hereditary disorder that killed her mother after wreaking the sort of depredations on mind and body that would be considered gross sadism if carried out by a human perpetrator.

Her sister has been tested and declared clear, which makes Bronny even more certain that the name on the genetic bullet is hers. When she migrates next door from a hostel to a squat in a grand town-house, the innocent abroad gets a job in a sauna and begins to find her feet, although her head is constantly swimming with the quantity of pick ‘n’ mix drugs she is consuming with an equally motley assortment of new friends. They are lost young souls busking it together.

There’s Hamish, the wimpish, considerate Canadian chum who works in the Slug and Lettuce. Grumpy Pete, with muscles and tattoos, a dour expression and something about him that immediately disturbs Bronny. And Fliss, who has “a flippant way of doing everything, as if washing. dressing, sleeping, talking and eating got in the way of the things that really made up her life”. She seems quite cheery and self-possessed, what with her fake breasts and bottle of coins for every time she’s had sex. Before we discover quite how deceptive appearances can be, she sets about micro-managing Bronny’s efforts to dispense with her virginity, advising her to “cut off her pee mid-way” if she wants to avoid “bucket fanny”. (It’s at moments like these that you recall that teen fiction is the other furrow Fitzgerald is ploughing.)

This jolly fare sees out the first third of The Devil’s Staircase, with cameos of sexual encounters, chaotic life in the squat and, in complete contrast, the quietude of the sauna, where Bronny feels “safe, bubble-wrapped in femaleonly calm”, but so bored that “10 p.m. seemed like make-believe until it finally came”.

Left to herself, Bronny is unable to shake off her personal demons. She is haunted by memories of her mother’s decline and can’t help brooding over the many desirable futures that she is convinced will never be hers. Never falling in love and never having a baby head her list of impossible scenarios.

Just as the surface appearance of the cast of characters is at variance with what lies beneath, the generally visible, accessible parts of the house give no hint of what has been happening in the hidden basement. The denizens of the upper floors conduct their lives like a theatre of the absurd, oblivious to the fact that below stairs the local serial killer presides over a theatre of terror. Bronny, awakened by her own nightmares, at first puts down the odd noises she hears to her imagination. The realisation that she is not mistaken splits the skin between the parallel realities and sucks her in to a living nightmare that proves the old saying: What’s for you will not go by you.

Hem and Heid – Ballads, Sangs, Saws, Poems
James Robertson
pp32 ISBN 9781902944265.


This is an ambitious, albeit short, volume. It draws together work which has, in the main, been previously published and gives it a new, holistic feel. Robertson is best known, of course, as the novelist of The Fanatic (2000), Joseph Knight (2003) and Gideon Mack (2006). Equally, his work as a publisher has had an increasing impact. His label Itchy Coo’s new publications include Winnie the Pooh in Scots and Rabbie’s Rhymes: Robert Burns for Wee Folk. The Kettilonia imprint is part of the pamphlet movement which has gathered strength recently in Scotland (Mariscat and Fras spring to mind, building on the successful Chapman and Akros series). Robertson’s previous pamphlets in his series include the occasionally laconic I Dream of Alfred Hitchcock (1999); The Day of Judgemen (translations from Dugald Buchanan), Fae the Flouers o Evil: Baudelaire in Scots (2001) and Stirling Sonnets (2001).

The present volume, with its attractive cover of a homely heron – in ‘hodden grey’ in its eponymous poem – contains fourteen poems in Scots, artfully arranged. The grouping highlights, for instance, Robertson’s fascination with language, expressed through homages to favoured texts. There are translations from Neruda’s Spanish, Louis Duchosal’s French, from Gaelic (‘Jock o’ Glen Cuaich’) and the Bible (‘Saws o Solomon’). This is richly allusive poetry, with references ranging from myths – ‘Echo and Narcissus’ – to contemporary stories: ‘Newspaper Reader (July 1999)’ links the return of a ghost shirt to South Dakota to the flight of a heron (again): “some greygouned sowl / Gaun tae God”. Poetic imitations include a version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’ in ‘Tod’. This plays on an understanding of First Nation totemism, and Scottish fable traditions regarding the wily fox:

I looked oot the windaw o a
breengin train

Efter bein up aw nicht, efter
bein doun in Lunnon

And I saw ye Tod, through the
blearit gless

Lowpin and flingin in the new
blue dawn

Here, as elsewhere, Robertson has a keenly observant eye. Elsewhere this is strongly intellectualised, as in the wryly playful ‘René Magritte in Embro’ subtitled ‘at the Dean Gallery, January- March 2000’. This draws on models like ‘The Twa Corbies’ (Robertson has another version in his ‘Twa Cuddies’):

As I wis gaun by Moray Place

I met a gent in bowler-hat

And overcoat, and mair nor

He had an aipple in his face.

A knowledge of traditional song idioms is often evident. ‘Shuggar Heid’, for instance – as long as many ballads at thirty six verses – features the supernatural outlook and dialogue forms of ballad, with formulaic elements, and overt allusions to ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. Robertson’s technical excellence is applied to the hellish story of a slave ship and its cargo, washed up onto the sea shore:

I turned them ower yin by yin

And ma hert wis fou o fear and

For every face I looked upon

Looked back at me wi blame.

A hundred men and a hundred

And twenty bairns lay sleepin

Upon the sand at Shuggar

That wid never waken mair.

As well as classical ballad, another major influence – unsurprising in a former Brownsbank Writer in Residence – is MacDiarmid, the Renaissance and its aftermath (several poems echo Soutar and Aitken’s ‘bairnrhymes’). ‘Fush Legend’ recalls ‘The Bonnie Broukit Bairn’ engagingly, as it follows three mountains, “dunnerin oot o the west / Ilk yin wi a burn flingit ower its shouther”: “And saumon and troot cam skimmerin oot / As if they were lowpin up ladders tae God”. ‘Oot o this Life’ echoes ‘Country Life’ and has more than a trace of ‘The Eemis Stane’ in its pragmatic message:

Intae this life ye came wi nocht,

Sae ye tak the dreich wi the fair,

And the chance or choice that
isna yours

Is some ither sowl’s tae bear.

And the guid times are as guid
as they are

And the sair times are as sair,

But oot o this life ye mak whit
ye can,

For ye canna mak onything

This is a collection, then, which ranges far and wide, and shows a mastery of diverse styles, and traditions. It is traditional in that it draws on oral and written precedents with competence and ease and, speaking as a folklorist, I mean this as the highest praise. I read this with a sense of familiarity and of appreciation. It is poetry for people who like poetry, particularly in Scots language forms.

Benjamin Obler
pp438 ISBN 9780241144305


I’m not a joyous coffee drinker; equally, this unmistakably overcaffeinated novel shrivels my taste buds. Coffee runs like a black river through Benjamin Obler’s book, Javascotia, tiding us from Chicago, where the plot begins, to Glasgow where we and our narrator, Mel, wash up.

Let’s get the plot out of the way. Mel is a reformed slacker, coffee connoisseur, and photography nut, recovering from the aftershocks of his failed teenage marriage. I say failed; he tells people he’s divorced, while, as we learn, the truth is otherwise. Between jobs, he’s offered the perfect post. An unnamed coffeehouse chain wants him to spend ten weeks in Glasgow visiting cafes and reporting back on their coffees with a view to assessing whether there is a demand for their product outside of London. I should say that the action is taking place in 1995 (Braveheart is just about to come out), the pre-9/11, No Logo-era before Scotland, like everywhere, was comprehensively Starbucked.

Camera a-clicking, Mel takes to the streets of Glasgow. One has to say that despite reservations, Obler does conjure a unique portrait of Glasgow, quite distinct from the world inhabited by a Kelman or a Gray. This Glasgow is as light and frothy as a latte made with skimmed milk. Unfortunately, this tonal quality is matched by a sort of touristic babble, with travelogue-style descriptions of the second city: “Along a cobblestone esplanade that cuts back from broad Buchanan Street, I found a picturesque bistro. ‘Endive’ read the sign in elegant ironwork, stucco and ivy. All that was missing was Mediterranean air and the sun”.

While snapping a demo, Mel breaks the fall of an art student and eco-activist Nicole (she was hanging off a ledge, putting up a banner). “Ri’, well, thanks a loh. Yer a champion”, Nicole says, the first of many forays into the demotic that, however well intentioned, leaves the locals sounding like the sort of person who can’t chew gum and tie their shoelaces at the same time. Nicole is involved in a campaign to prevent a local park being turned into a motorway, a campaign ran by her ex-boyfriend, Ruaridh, a posh crusty and humourless cliché who is never likely to be a challenge to Mel. When Mel takes a photo of villainous Tory MP John Douglas, holder of “the safest Conservative seat in Scotland”, pushing Ruaridh over, he finds himself pursued by the police and the media.

The plot often feels like it comes second to linguistic showboating, for this is a book shaggy with style. Obler is the kind of writer who can’t simply write, “He took a photograph”. No, it has to be phrased, “With a sneeze of light, the colours of this razorthin moment were encoded in  the inverse language of silver halide and photons”. Obler is a literary descendant of Saul Bellow – remember Mel is from Chicago – or perhaps more accurately, Bellow’s more pop-cultured offspring, the likes of Jonathan Franzen or those freakishly verbose graduates of the McSweeney’s school. Like Bellow, he streams registers, zinging from the high falutin to street-slangy to corporate catalogue. He also warehouses details in bottomless sentences: “These were my remembrances of that American elixir, that bitter pick-me-up, the true breakfast of champions. And they were sour. In the black grounds, in the smell of roasted beans, in the violently crepitant, manic whir of the grinder, in the sight of the stray bean on the countertop, its little oval mound and symmetrical folds cruelly resembling a vagina, in the cooling of the tap and the ritualistic measuring of water along the even numbered scale of 2-12, in the fingering of a cluster of #4 recycled paper filters….” And so it goes.

Bellow at least had something to say; Obler, I was unconvinced, knew what it was for that he wanted to grab the world by the ear. Tweezer out the tufts of lexical fierceness and what you have left less resembles Bellow and more Nick Hornby. Particularly when the plot dwells upon Mel’s tragic wedding and parental angst, which, wouldn’t you know it, is the best part of the book. The arguments between Mel and his wife have a heart-clenching authenticity that will pain anyone who recalls their last break-up with regrettably hidef clarity. Yet I have to ask, does the world need another tale of marital souring at this point? No. Obler, I think, knows this, and has consequently sauced proceedings with scenes from Scottish life a la the mid-Nineties. It doesn’t work, which is a pity as I think Obler might have something if only he knew what to do with it.

Strip The Willow
John Aberdein
POLYGON, £12.99
pp272, ISBN 1846971195


In David Nokes’s study of eighteenth- century satire, Raillery and Rage, a question is posed. “What literary (his italics) pleasure or edification is to be gained from works whose primary purpose may often appear to have been the excoriation of some topical vice, or the exposure of some ephemeral vanity?”

This question will, in the future, be asked of writing furiously inspired by the 1990 Year of Cultcha, an event which, to many Glaswegian writers, did not so much revive Glasgow as turn her into a circus elephant. It will also be asked of John Aberdein’s new book, for although his betrayed city, as his name suggests, is Aberdeen, it is to this tradition that Strip the Willow belongs.

In Aberdein’s case, Nokes’ question is easy to answer. Literary pleasure lies firstly in the author’s mastery of language, for which the adulatory epithets attached to his first book, Amande’s Bed, winner of the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2005, are still pertinent. His “great river-rush”, zestiness and vibrancy have not deserted him. Post-Archie Hinds, then Kelman, et al, Aberdein’s flipping in and out of dialect – “So fit’s this ye’ve got yir heid stuck intae noo? – may no longer be groundbreaking but still manages to feel like an act of war against Tom Leonard’s “po-faced literati”. His characters, originals all, speak as they find, also occasionally in French. Reading the dialogue aloud reveals, too, a controlled and particularly Scottish wryness, a wryness that does not erupt into full-blown anger until the finale. Only occasionally in Strip the Willow] does Aberdein leap out of his study and into the pulpit, though you feel the pull is always there – Aberdein is a Tommy Sheridanstyle political activist, after all.

There is a further, more Joycean, pleasure to be had in Aberdein’s richness of allusion, though just as with Joyce, pleasure is mixed with terror. The contemporary references are easy enough. Though the word ‘trumped’ does not appear until page 154, it flashes like a beacon over Rookie Marr who, as the council “sell oot”, knows how to “take a readymade city, lock it to one’s purpose, and shaft it for all it was worth”. However, like teabags into boiling water, Aberdein drops other literary nuggets into the text, swelling and enriching his tale in the best Augustan style. Right to the end I remained half crippled with fear that I was missing clever echoes and twists, particularly in the names. I got Ludwig, Kepler, NuLot and Oedibus, but did not feel I grasped the full multi-lingual resonances of LeopCorp and all its spin-offs or of Peem (photoemission electron microscopy, to generate image contrast?) Are Andy Endrie and Professor Zander Petrakis of special significance? Perhaps I am blind or perhaps, once in the swing, I just looked for too much.

The plot requires the reader’s full attention, for the book is aptly named. Aberdein offers a true strip-the-willow, with characters, some of whom reprise earlier creations, whirled into momentary interlockings, departures and reunions, all of which turn out to be the continuation of a dance begun long before. The City of Aberdeen’s history is woven into hopes born in Paris in 1968, with stone throwing students as midwives. Integral to the personal stories of Lucy, Alison, Gwen and Peem is the rape of a city, not just from without by a moneyman but from within, by greedy city fathers and those who, through passivity, ambition or coercion, embrace a new world according to lottery, or, as Aberdein might say, go with the GrottoLotto flow. The May Day denouement, momentous with“mortified herring”, brings the nasty rich into direct confrontation with the more virtuous poor.

For all its imaginative vigour and modern references, however, Strip the Willow actually glows in a slightly old-fashioned light, mainly because its political territory is well worn. Disillusion with a Labour government for whom “UbSpec Total, the public-private partner of the City’s ReCreation and Social Engineering Department”, is barely a spoof, is now very familiar. More interesting to know, through his fiction, where Aberdein goes from here. Of this he himself seems unsure, which is why, I imagine, Strip the Willow is open-ended, its small revolution not yet secure and no blueprint for a better future offered, either for Aberdeen or for Scotland.

Perhaps his next work will do this job, breaking new ground, not just ideologically but also in literary style and tone. I mean no disrespect when I say that even satirical dystopia can proffer a slight whiff of kailyard. Of course novelists are not obliged to offer anything but their own imaginations and, as Strip the Willow joyously proves, Aberdein has plenty of imagination to offer. However, if he has something more, his readers will be anxious to hear it.

Fighting It
Regi Claire
pp176 ISBN 9781906120412


With collections of short stories regarded by publishers as only a fraction more financially viable than poetry, many good stories are consigned to anthologies read by few beyond the friends and family of the contributors. It’s a pleasure then to see Regi Claire clear the undergrowth and cut a clean path across the well-scrambled routes to publication with her third book and second short story collection, Fighting It.

In her introduction, Louise Welsh praises the “integrity” of “the many worlds” evoked by Claire and it is one of the most striking features of the collection that she captures the singular life in its peculiar setting, integrating the two so fully that, reflected on afterwards, there is a sense of a much bigger story than that contained in the few pages you have just read.

The locations range from rural Scotland, to Edinburgh, Italy, Switzerland, Paris; small towns to big cities; mountains, rivers, forests. But it is in the coverts, sheds, railway tunnels and thickets at the edges of civilization that many of the characters encounter each other. They are too damaged, too consumed by their own story, to connect fully with those whose paths they cross. In ‘Russian Blue’, a fugitive from a mental hospital stumbles upon a woman escaping sex trafficking. What could bind them in shared purpose – one baby lost, one hidden from harm – instead fuels their fear of one another, drives them to desperate acts and deprives them of the possibility of human help and comfort. It is the transformative nature of grief and terror, Claire seems to say, that makes strange creatures of us and sends us in search of disguises and solutions that intensify our isolation and render us incapable of deliverance. Again in ‘Walking Down the Line’, when the two main characters meet in a railway tunnel in the Swiss mountains, their divergent perspectives, born of trauma, sorrow and mounting rage, collide with violent consequences.

But these are not stories about issues. Rumours of war, rather than war itself, death, illness, insanity, loss, abandonment, tug at the edges of the narratives. Soldiers pile into a railway carriage; skinheads taunts an old man; a driver offering a lift to a hitchhiker utters received opinion about illegal immigrants; a woman living long-term with cancer hears of the sudden death of an ex-lover; vendors in the souk, after the invasion of Afghanistan, display silent hostility to the western customer. The traumatic event has often happened off-stage, in the past, down the line, and the characters find themselves lost in some border terrain outside society, beyond the reach of understanding and compassion.

Even where the setting is more luxurious, where the sun streams through white-curtained windows into elegant rooms, the Chablis is chilled and roses proliferate in the garden below, the characters sabotage their own lives with one spontaneous, illjudged act, and wind up staring into “a never-ending tunnelling blackness’ or with ‘shards … falling all around … hailstones as big as a baby’s fists”.

Babies abound in these stories; stillborn, aborted, killed by accident or cot death, they represent the fragile, precious core of existence. Animals too – cats, dogs, birds – wind and wing their way through the characters’ lives, often possessing an almost mystical force, like the Russian Blue glimpsed from the corner of an eye, the heron spearing the last of the frogs in a lovingly created pond, Zara the Invisible, an imaginary Alsatian, wild cats prowling round hibiscus trees. And jew-ellery, independently of its owners, winks, flirts, glints, flashes, “glitter[s] in invitation”, along with other reflective surfaces similarly eloquent.

It is sehnsucht, inconsolable  longing for what we can’t even name, that stokes the engine driving many of these narratives. The characters yearn, and when their goal is within reach, they blow it. Whether it is the coveted leatherbound bible set to shrivel on the stove, the love-of-her-life forsworn by a woman unable to share him, the transsexual running naked through the small rural community where he-she aches for acceptance, the cat loved to death under a pillow, Claire’s characters tend to destroy what they most long for.

Her prose has a cut glass quality. Clear and crisp as Alpine air, it refracts the light at startling angles, illuminates the singular, the striking detail, turns a flashlight on the dark corners of the psyche, and manages not to flinch.

Rogue Nation
Alan Clements
pp240 ISBN 9781845965044


“George’s head reeled. This was Edinburgh. The New Town. And here he was being armed by the Russian Secret Service to protect him from Americans. This was all wrong, all so wrong”. Indeed, it does require unusual suspension of disbelief to buy the premise of Alan Clements’ independence thriller, Rogue Nation. Which is that the Nationalist First Minister’s first act upon winning an independence referendum would be to invite the Russians to base their nuclear missiles in the Clyde.

But don’t dismiss this book out of hand. It is actually a rather well crafted piece of political hokum, with a satisfying twist to the plot which of course I shall not reveal. If it sounds like a lurid antinationalist allegory, dreamt up by the former Labour home secretary, John Reid, it isn’t. The book is all about the main character, political adviser George Wallace (get it?) overcoming his ambivalence about independence, and about Scotland discovering unity in the face of civil war. There is skulduggery and double-dealing on both sides, but the real baddies are undoubtedly the unionist militants and the American secret service who try to overturn the will of the Scottish people. Alex Salmond would approve – though the bad news is that he doesn’t live to see it.

Clements’ handling of the actual politics of independence is intriguing, though implausible. He postulates that, if and when the SNP actually get round to holding a referendum on independence, the UK government would use it to force an early and complete separation. In the book the English Conservative Prime Minister (for, of course, this is all post- Labour) immediately removes nuclear weapons from the Faslane base on the Clyde and forces the Scottish government to set up its own currency. The model here is the ‘Velvet Divorce’ of 1993, when the Czechs bundled Slovakia out of Czechoslovakia after a referendum. Clements clearly believes that the English have had enough of the Jocks and would send them packing.

However, I doubt if even the most English nationalist Conservative Prime Minister would act so precipitately. Petulance just isn’t the British way. There are just too many reasons, strategic, economic and demographic, to hold onto vestiges of the Union. It would mean alienating several hundred thousand Scots who were born in England for a start. And a Conservative government would at least try to hold on to Faslane if only to remain in NATO. London seeks an amicable separation – as it did with many anticolonial movements in Africa – to preserve British interests as long as possible. Which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t play dirty, using tactics like divide and rule, but economic warfare? I doubt it.

Moreover, Clements appears to believe that the SNP plan to create a Scottish Republic – in the novel, the King refuses to attend the independence ceremony because he will no longer be head of state. The SNP is, of course, committed to retaining the union of the crowns, so King Charles (or William) would still be the monarch in the new United Kingdom. This makes it difficult, though not impossible, to believe that a paramilitary unionist resistance would be created, the British Loyalist Army, which would start a bombing and assassination campaign. There are plenty of extreme loyalist elements knocking around the bars of west central Scotland nostalgic for the Northern Ireland civil war. But it is most unlikely that members of the Regiment of Scotland would support them.

The final implausibility is that the US president would try to foment a coup and would provide military assistance to BLA terrorists. American Presidents can be stupid, but not that stupid. They might behave like that in Latin America, but never in a European country. However, it is a tribute to Alan Clements’ story-telling ability that for all these flaws, Rogue Nation remains a good read. Clements writes with verve and confidence and has a feel for the sweaty underside of politics. There are elements of John Buchan here, and echoes of Robert Harris, with a dash of All the President’s Men.

He is married to the broadcaster, Kirsty Wark, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the action happens in the BBC’s Scottish HQ, with the leader of the Scottish Unionist Resistance, businessman Robert Cowan, seizing the station at gunpoint and shooting the controller of BBC Scotland in the leg. If only, you say.

This book is probably easier to swallow the further you are away from the reality of post-devolution Scottish politics. It is the best attempt I have read to dramatise the national question – far better than Douglas Hurd’s Scotch on the Rocks. Diverting holiday reading, and a welcome change from all those Da Vinci Code clones With the politics sorted out, it would make a good mini-series, and no doubt BBC Scotland will be looking to buy the rights. A very Scottish coup, perhaps.

The Tin-Kin
Eleanor Thom
pp280 ISBN 9780715638323


Eleanor Thom possesses a poetic, heavily metaphorical style which interweaves skilfully with a detailed account of the traveller community of the 1950s. Mixing pathos with lyrical joy in the small things, she employs an acutely sensitive reading of time and place. She sometimes veers into the cloying, and occasionally the meaning doesn’t bear the weight of her imagery, but this is a highly accomplished first novel that is structurally perfect. Her ability to withhold and offer essential details of plot is note perfect and her cinematic eye for the dramatic moment neatly dovetails with her original use of imagery to propel the narrative’s momentum.

The novel starts with the voice of Dawn, a single mother on the run from a violent husband, returning to Elgin and her family  home. She discovers an old album of photographs in her late aunt’s house of a traveller community. The novel revisits history through the photographs, gradually revealing the story behind the violent murder of the traveller Jock at the hands of the local police half a century ago.

The power of the novel lies in Thom’s ability to convey the travellers’ world. We are quickly introduced to the Batchie Woman, a fisherman’s daughter, who can read fortunes, make curses and foretells Jock’s early death. Through the voice of Jock we are told how finding jobs is becoming difficult for the community. As well as collecting scrap metals, “We do odd jobs too, general labour and farm work when we can get it. There used tae be forestry, sometimes fishing or shipbuilding. But we’re nae able to get those jobs now, stuck in the Lane”.

Jock also talks about the experience of living in the perpetual noise of such close-knit families. “We’re used tae hearing everything Ma haughs her chest out. The bairns play and squabble and greet. The men’s’ boots stamp up and down the dancers. We’re tae piss in the bucket…. Wullie and Jean next door’ll be rumbling about wi each other…making the bedsprings go squee-eak, squeeeak. If ever it was quiet at night, I’d be petrified. I’d think I was the last man alive”.

Thom effectively fiddles with chronology and the echoing themes of the various voices reflect the intense interconnectedness of the traveller families. Names are handed down through the generations and the care of distant relations’ babies shared. The strong sense of intimacy, physical and familial of this unique community is portrayed with verve, revealed as sometimes claustrophobic but always essential to their way of life.

Thom has an extraordinary gift for seeing ordinary things in new ways. She describes the burns inflicted on Dawn by her ex-husband, as being “less angry than they used to be, faded and gone smooth, shiny, pinched in the middle like snowflakes”. A drunken man’s footsteps are described as “uneven like he’s planting his feet in a snowdrift”.

There is a lovely cadence and rhythm to her prose which is endemic to the feelings, expressions and dialect of the travellers’ voices. And there is sensuality to her language, such as when Jock makes love to Lolly for the first time which reminds me of Ali Smith’s erotic, cumulative style.

Her wise characterisations and the depiction of the travellers’ full but hand-to-mouth existence are so insightful it did not surprise me to read at the end that she thanks “distant cousins and friends who generously shared histories”. This novel is no academic treatise but a living, loving reinterpretation of history shared with us.

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