by SRB

Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Reviews

September 14, 2009 | by SRB

Volume 5 Issue 1

Reviews


Sex, Lies And Shakespeare
Christopher Rush
BEAUTIFUL BOOKS, £15.99
pp352, ISBN 1905636415

Reviewer: RONALD FRAME

With Christopher Rush on a roll, title after title of late, it might seem mean-spirited of me to question just what the latest, called Sex, Lies And Shakespeare, actually is.

“What”. And, em, “why”.

Skulking near the back of the book is an ‘Author’s Note’, which confirms some of the reservations I had been accumulating over the previous 338 pages: “In writing this memoir I have allowed myself a little leeway. Certain characters have been given a transplant or a transfusion, courtesy of others”.

“Courtesy” is an odd term. Some of the author’s descriptions of his school teachers in Anstruther circa 1959 are of a viciousness which assured me no publisher was going to risk publishing them if they came anywhere near the facts. Some, most notably Fanny Fergusson, have no redeeming features whatsoever – but then spinster teachers (“flat-chested spindle-shanks”) have it coming to them in this book, vitriol-plus. Mr Rush can be more harshly judgmental, quite cruelly and shockingly so sometimes, than the ‘Galatians’ who represented the old censorious order of things.

Perhaps the point is meant to be that this is a thirteen-year-old boy experiencing school and small town life? One resultant problem is that, without any degree of subtlety in such portraits, the characters slide into caricature. The lighter comic moments are, frankly, akin to ‘Carry On St Monans’.

The ‘Author’s Note’ continues: “… a book benefits from poetic licence, as life needs art”.

In the second half, we’re given access to the young Christopher’s “literary raptures”. He has moved from bouts of self-abuse (ever tried it shinning up a clothes-pole?) and the heat-seeking probings inside schoolgirls’ knickers (there’s quite a lot of that, be warned) to High Art. After he is obliged to repeat a year at school, we find that he’s being instructed not by monsters now but – what a relief! – by a succession of dominie-geniuses. The syllabus which we are asked to believe is taught at the senior sec in Anstruther would put the world’s finest universities and music conservatories to shame.

Back to the ‘Author’s Note’: “I have also reworked some thinly veiled autobiographical passages from two of my works of fiction, now long out of print”. Well, this would explain the insertions (if you’ll pardon the expression): some of the awkward jolts and

repetitions in the saga, the sudden appearances and unexplained disappearances of characters. If ‘memoir’ is now qualified by the term ‘fiction’, that might also help to account for the length of those conversations supposedly remembered verbatim from 45 years later.

Why, I kept wondering, does the book not feel more authentic than it does?

For some things the author has total recall – be it grubby details from the “cess-pit” of a schoolboy’s memory, or just matter-of-fact start-times of TV programmes in 1959. Then he will have a little amnesia attack: “I might have been thirteen at the time”. (Don’t worry, he’s extremely particular about getting the age of the obliging schoolgirls correct.)

The narrative is jerky, forward and back. (This is the third book in a series.) The author will remember something we should maybe have known by now, and – ooh er – he’ll slip it in. For example, “I was almost eighteen and had never tasted alcohol”. The book feels programmed, as many novels do. There isn’t much sense of the drift of life.

One stumbles and goes falling over certain sentences. “… the sun crawled out stickily like a dismal slug”. Or “I was an accident, a soul split in half, and the two selves mated in the incestuous sky, spawning sin …”

Sex, Lies And Shakespeare strains to be – what? – emblematic. The St Monans lads pore over – or should that be pour over – Havelock Ellis, to discover the facts of life. Later, while still hard up (so to speak), they somehow have the wherewithal to buy themselves Penguin copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Turning a corner one day, what comes wafting out of Braid’s Café but the sounds of Rock Around the Clock (a hefty 6d a throw on the jukebox) – oh, and everyone is instantly into mods and rockers gear. After we finally get the XXX-rated alfresco Big Sex Scene (pp 316-9, if you’re a bookshop browser), the least likely character to appear carrying a transistor radio does so (the school chaplain, and the finest brain in the East Neuk), from which emits … that’s right, The Beatles, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. (Poor Dr Ogg can’t get it off – the pop station, that is.)

Just before the ‘Author’s Note’ there’s an ‘Epilogue’. This is really the most interesting part of the book: bleakly ironic now instead of, as earlier, rather smugly self-mythologising.

A year ago or so Mr Rush phoned up one of the girls he had idealised in his mid-teens. The mature woman had no recollection at all of what he was talking about. What amorous encounter in a darkened church? Did you say, listening to Bach played solely for us on an organ!!

Perhaps, then, what this book has been is an extended – 100 pages or so too long – fantasy?

Our concluding scene, with the Waid Academy boys lined up for the leaving photograph and blowing up condoms and watching them go floating off over the town – that too is as fanciful and unlikely as all the rest?

In that case, what were the author’s intentions in writing Sex, Lies And Shakespeare? Therapy? Revenge? Wish-fulfilment? A piss-take? (Golden showers, if you know what I mean, also get a mention.)

It’s unclear.

Yes, there’s heaps of sex. An awful lot of Shakespeare and poetry, and much of it memorised by the time our hero left school. (Well, unlike you or I at that age, he was apparently reading three or four of Old Will’s plays every day, and ten at the weekends.)

Very good. That’s precisely what it says on the lid, after all.

But I’m left plain bamboozled as to where those advertised ‘lies’ begin and end.


Choke Chain
Jason Donald
JONATHAN CAPE, £12.99
pp341, ISBN 9780224087186

Reviewer: COLIN WATERS

Chuck Norris is rarely mentioned in contemporary fiction. As terse as he was hirsute, Norris was a karate-killing, bazooka-blazing star of Eighties he-man movies whose barely concealed ‘America First’ ideology comically epitomised Reagan’s America. That the father of the hero of Jason Don-ald’s debut, Choke Chain, is an avowed Norris fan signposts not only his bad taste but a real moral failing. This is a man who pulls his twelve-year-old son out of a birthday party held in honour of the girl he fancies – after lying to the parents of partygoers that his wife has had to go into hospital unexpectedly – merely to accompany him to a Chuck Norris drive-in double bill. In some countries that would be considered child abuse.

Bruce Thorne may yet go down as one of the most memorably villainous fathers in recent literature. A mechanic by trade but a con man and bully by vocation, Bruce is the terror of shop staff and his kin. Habitually he cons freebies out of waiters and clerks less through charm than unmuzzled aggression, frequently roping in his sons Alex and Kevin as accomplices. His idea of parenting is teaching his reluctant sons to fight, and fight dirty at that (“This headlock is called a sleeper. It doesn’t choke you”). During what begins as a playful scrap with Alex, he headbutts his eldest. Childhood is awful wherever you have the misfortune to suffer it – but growing up in South

Africa in the Eighties with a father like Bruce reinvents the phrase ‘growing pains’.

Alex is our point of entry; through his eyes we watch the Thorne family atomise. The tone is a little too cool and considered for the point of view to be entirely credible as a near-adolescent’s, although Alex’s youth does nicely explain why references to apartheid are few. Black people appear glancingly as security guards and domestics. Indeed, the majority of the prejudice on display in this novel emanates from Bruce – choke back your surprise, please – although it is directed towards Afrikaners. The English-speaking Bruce despises Afrikaners as “hicks”; the rage of Caliban confronted with a mirror comes to mind at this juncture.

Even without taking apartheid into consideration, South Africa in the Eighties appears to have been a grisly place to grow up. There’s Bruce, and then there’s Alex’s schoolteachers, a bunch of cane-wagging sadists. In one lesson, kids are smacked each time they misspell a word in Afrikaans. There are the usual playground capos too with their henchmen and power-plays. This is a brutal world where men communicate through violence; where kids entertain themselves by making differing species of insects they’ve captured fight in a bucket. One of the novel’s strengths is that is makes you realise how much of society, from the way men talk to each other to parenting techniques to entertainment, is based upon violence and the threat of violence. It’s a chilling, spirit-quelling realisation.

The novel’s pulse quickens when Bruce is on stage. Donald however uses him sparingly. The majority of the plot is taken up with Alex’s difficult passage from child to nascent teenager. When Bruce drops out of their life, slyly taking most of the family’s possessions with him while his wife and children are out of town holidaying, Alex is forced to assume the mantle of man of the house. His mother is depressed and debilitated by the turn of events, while baby brother Kevin can’t quite understand what’s happening. But, resourceful and caring as Alex is, he’s still a kid, and when tragedy rolls into the Thornes’ lives along with the return of their dad, Alex is overwhelmed.

The family dramas are familiar and the setting only partially novel, but Choke Chain is a readable first effort that demonstrates promise. The book is gripping in parts – the parts featuring Bruce. That said, it is Bruce who threatens to undo the novel in its closing chapters when his behaviour soars way over the top – although his behaviour is not out of character as such, only more extreme than ever. Although a timid soul, even I began hoping someone would sort Bruce out. Alas, Chuck Norris is nowhere to be found.


Third Wish Wasted
Roddy Lumsden
BLOODAXE BOOKS, £7.95
pp72, ISBN 9781852248284

Reviewer: ALASDAIR MACRAE

Riddles are one of the earliest and most recurring patterns of verbal formulation in any language or culture. Babylonian riddles survive and Oedipus’s fate was sealed when he solved the riddle of the sphinx. The word ‘enigma’ is derived from a Greek term meaning to speak in riddles. Children are taught riddles which their parents cannot explain. Secrecy, magical formulae, disguise of the commonplace, misleading signposts, incongruous and comical juxtaposings, surprise at the solution –– these are all elements in the pleasure derived from a riddle. Often, metre and rhyme are integral to the effect and the condensed, metaphorical quality of the riddle is central to a great deal of poetry. The poet writing such poetry has to give priority to the pleasure and revelation released over the difficulty and obtuseness of the package: a conundrum is not in itself a poem.

In the blurb to his first collection, Yeah Yeah Yeah, in 1997, Roddy Lumsden is described as making “a living of sorts in Edin-burgh, mainly by playing quiz machines and working as a quiz-master”. And in the blurb to his new collection, Third Wish Wasted he is described as “a freelance writer, specialising in quizzes and word puzzles”, and he has published a book Vitamin Q: a temple of trivia, lists and curious words. In the earlier poetry, his susceptibility to recherché vocabulary and esoteric oddments is balanced by or accommodated in ironic, picaresque, autobiographical settings. Often, in this new volume, such a balance is missing and many of the poems confront the reader as puzzles. For example, in ‘Jackpot’ the second stanza reads: “a rusky pony blissing/ in the early dusk, as hammerflush/ dances from the anvil”. ‘Bliss’, as a verb, is included in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary; ‘rusky’ and ‘hammer-flush’ are not. The context of the poem does not help us to decipher the sense.

My point is not that Lumsden uses a very large or unusual vocabulary or to question whether or not individual words occur in a dictionary or are coined by the poet; my grumble is more substantial: I don’t understand what some of the poems are saying or doing. I am reminded of the early poems of Norman MacCaig (and later disowned by him) which, when he showed them to a friend, elicited the response: “When are you publishing the answers?” The titles of the poems are often undirecting and seem to stand at an oblique angle to the poem. Lumsden has always been interested in experimenting with verse forms. In a note he remarks that “some of the poems were written using certain processes or are in forms I have developed”. He goes on to mention a few of these processes or forms: ‘hebdomads’, ‘charismatics’, ‘relegated narratives’ and ‘overlays’, and refers readers to his website for further details. The trouble is that when I look at the poems he names as examples, I cannot see anything very special or revealing in his categorisation. Or, is the note part of a jocular play with the reader, a dimension of the cryptograph?

Lumsden’s previous collections have been praised by reviewers, been commended by the Poetry Book Society, and his second collection, The Book Of Love, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. There are certainly individual poems in Third Wish Wasted (the title is the final line of the final poem) which work very well. ‘Liminal’ is worth quoting whole: “To the avocet, delicate, a whim/ with fixtures, pitched in shingle/not quite stomping, the universe is/ a belly of twilit mud, an accordance// of ripples, a vouchsafe of shoreline;/ his reflection is companion enough/ and with his sharp canticle, he pledges/ himself to the clarion evening.” This, the second poem in the volume, is matched in delicacy, verbal dexterity and poise by the penultimate poem, ‘Littoral’, describing a sandpiper.

In too many of the poems, however, there is too much self-regarding preening, a lack of warmth. When other people are included, they operate less as persons than as provocations or opportunities for the poet to ponder himself. The contrast could not be greater between these Rubik cubes of poems and the spacious, generous poems of the late and lamented Mick Imlah, his contemporary and fellow-emigré Scot. There is plenty of evidence of mental nimbleness, of verbal and formal adventuring, but the lack of emotional impulse denies a momentum and a feeling of closure. The final poem, with its terminal but opaque title ‘Quietus’, ends: “the songs and slurs of cats/ will jinx the air as I walk the limit/ my third wish wasted”. There is no quietus as resolution, only the obtuseness of a riddle.


The Lieutenant
Kate Grenville
CANONGATE, £12.99
pp320, ISBN 1847673449

Reviewer: RODGE GLASS

Kate Grenville is a widely respected writer of historical short stories and novels, particularly noted for exploring gender inequalities in her books Dark Places and Bearded Ladies, and for her dedication to thoroughly researching subjects before fictionalising them. Her last novel was the hugely successful, Booker-shortlisted The Secret River, and her previous offering The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize in 2001. Grenville has also been a Creative Writing teacher for 20 years and has written books about the writing process itself, among them Writing From Start To Finish: A Six Step Guide, so she clearly has a knowledge of how novels are pieced together in a functional sense. This is only interesting because her latest novel shows a great deal of skill in executing some rules of telling a story – plotting and pacing in The Lieutenant are impeccable – but ignores some of those other rules that are more difficult to quantify. The main problem is a sentimental, hectoring delivery which spoils the ride. However, the subject matter is fascinating, and the author has chosen a rarely discussed yet key part of Anglo-Australian history.

The Lieutenant is the part-fiction, part-fact story of Daniel Rooke, a multi-talented outsider child born into a privileged eighteenth century English family who do not understand his passions. He may be a talented young scholar, interested particularly in astronomy, mathematics and languages, but he finds social interaction difficult. As described early on: “Conversation was a problem he could not solve”. Daniel navigates his way through adolescence and stumbles into a job with the navy, seeking an identity; he soon becomes Lieutenant Rooke, the official astronomer on a boat carrying convicts to New South Wales. Once they arrive, he is instructed to chart events in the skies and look out for a comet, his unusual job allowing unusual freedom, and enabling him to avoid the jobs of ordinary soldiers that he finds problematic. As the story progresses, tensions between the new arrivals and local Aborigine population intensify, with Rooke becoming more isolated from his own group and building friendships with Aborigine children, who teach him their language, which he records in his notebooks.

Much of this novel is based on the true story of a First Fleet British Navy ship which brought convicts to Australia in 1788. The marine lieutenant on board that ship, actually called William Dawes, wrote extensively about the language of the local Cadigal population and went on to fight for the abolition of slavery. As Grenville says in her author’s note: “The record he left of the indigenous people of the Sydney area is by far the most extensive we have. It contains not only word lists and speculations about the grammatical structure of the language, but conversations between him and the indigenous people, particularly a young girl, Patyegarang. Between the lines of these exchanges is what seems to be a relationship of mutual respect and affection”. All of which suggests Dawes made a significant contribution to understanding – and makes a ripe subject for a novel.

Unfortunately, the lessons of The Lieutenant as relayed here are ones readers may find cringingly obvious. Racism: bad. Slavery: bad. Colonialism: bad. Love: good. The book does not quite put it so baldly as this, but there is little space for readers to enjoy exploring their own ideas because Grenville interjects with so many emotional statements. There is one too many sign-off sentences in each paragraph, as well as at the end of each chapter, which hammer home her message.

Somewhere inside this novel is a remarkable story which deserves to be told, and clearly Grenville is a fine, experienced writer with a hard-earned reputation. But something is not quite right here. It is pure speculation to suggest that the author cared about her topic so much that she wasn’t able to just tell the tale, yet that is how it appears, because she does not let readers make up their own minds about the “universe of impossibility” she seeks to describe, and which William Dawes sought to challenge.


The Skye Bridge Story
Andy Anderson
ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £14.99
pp256, ISBN 190613419

Reviewer: ROGER HUTCHINSON

The Skye and Kyle Against Tolls campaign – quickly and everywhere known as SKAT –was probably the most celebrated popular revolt in Scotland since the Poll Tax.

There were two main reasons for its celebrity. The erection in 1995 of a high-toll Private Finance Initiative bridge connecting Skye to the mainland was easily portrayed as a brutal, undemocratic imposition by a dying Tory government on a small and fragile Scottish community. And that community itself was equally easily visualised as a body of poor but honest crofters doing battle with the faceless forces of multinational finance.

Neither was precisely true. The Skye toll bridge would never have been built if most of the region’s representatives on Highland Council had not on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s voted in its favour. The fact that the toll bridge was from the outset cheaper, as well as vastly more dependable, than the previous daytime ferry service across the Kyle of Lochalsh was not lost on most Skye business people and residents –few of whom, incidentally, have been agriculturalists since the 1970s.

But naturally, everybody would have preferred a free bridge. It was SKAT’s ultimate achievement to persuade the Scottish Executive that having the tolls lifted was the chief concern and the settled will of the people of Skye.

It took them a decade of external and internal disputes. Andy Anderson was a member from the start, and The Skye Bridge Story is a lively personal account of those ten years of intrigue, protest and occasional imprisonment between the first vehicle crossing the bridge in 1995 and First Minister Jack McConnell removing the tolls in December 2004.

There were in fact, as Anderson describes it, two SKATs. At the beginning of the campaign a man who was convinced that the island needed him in its hour of peril arrived in Skye from the mainland. His name was Brian Robertson. Like many other ex-convicts Robertson had developed an untutored fascination with the law. Under the self-imposed soubriquet of Robbie the Pict he proceeded to persuade the small membership of SKAT – and anybody else who would listen – that with all of their financial and moral support he could use the justice system to have the toll regime ruled illegal.

There followed several years of Robbie the Pict vainly and expensively posturing in most of the law courts in Scotland, with no result whatsoever other than several miles of newsprint being devoted to, in the excruciating words of George Monbiot in The Guardian, “the self-taught legal warrior Rob-bie the Pict”.

The tolls were still in place. Supporters of SKAT were still getting banged up overnight for refusing to pay them. There was no end in sight.

Anderson, a former trade unionist, and others in SKAT became convinced that Robbie the Pict was a waste of time and money, and that the solution to their campaign lay in political rather than legal manoeuvring. Anderson’s resentment of what he plainly considers to be Robertson the Pict’s misappropriation of the SKAT campaign runs like a black thread through the pages of his book.

The evidence suggests that Anderson was right and the Pict was wrong. If there was a valid legal case, it was inadvisable to leave it in the hands of an egocentric barrack-room lawyer, even if poor George Monbiot did fancy him. But there wasn’t a legal case. There was, as events proved, only a political case. In the end that political case, spearheaded by the formidable local MSP John Farquhar Munro, won the day for SKAT.

There may also have been some belated satisfaction for those vilified Highland councillors who voted yes to the toll bridge almost 20 years ago. The economy and population of Skye had started to revive, from a very low point, in the 1980s. The toll bridge which replaced a restrictive and costly ferry service turned steady growth into a mini-boom which saw Skye enter the twenty-first century as the healthiest of all the larger Hebrides.

That was not the received wisdom of the era, of course. But if Andy Anderson’s fascinating account of a much misrepresented campaign tells us anything, it is not to believe everything you read in the papers.


The Winter Whale
Jim Crumley
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp224, ISBN 184158732X

Reviewer: ALISON MILLER

In an Author’s Note, Jim Crumley cites George Mackay Brown’s formula that there is no such thing as a good poem or a bad poem, only a poem or a mess of words. Likewise, he says, objecting to the classification of his own work as ‘literary non-fiction’, if it “isn’t literary, it isn’t writing …”. This book is plenty literary, and within its covers, weaves together historical research, fact and narrative, fictional dialogue, philosophical reflection, lyrical prose, nature writing, memoir, elegy, apologia and even some poetry, to illuminate the relationship between humankind and the cetacean species through the story of a particular whale, the Tay Whale, the Winter Whale of the title.

It was in late November 1883 that an unfortunate young male humpback swam unaware into the Tay estuary. Breaching and blowing, diving and frolicking in the waters between Broughty Ferry and Tayport, he drew crowds delighted by his antics. Most had never seen a living whale before, certainly not a humpback which rarely visits these waters. Some had seen dead ones, as Dundee was a whaling town whose other major industry, jute making, depended on oil from whales to render the jute fibres malleable. But this wasn’t the kind they hunted, and besides the whalers were all wintering in port.

Had the young humpback eaten his fill of herring, turned tail and swum back out to sea, the story would have been a short and a cheering one. But as the whale stayed on and the people kept watching, the story, pieced together by Crumley from contemporary newspaper reports, took a darker turn. The mood, at first “one of carnival, albeit one happed in coats and scarves and bunnets and gloves” turned to a baying for blood and a taunting of the whalers till they took to their boats and loaded their harpoons.

From there Crumley’s book is a prolonged roar of outrage, a howl of incomprehension that the good citizens of his home town should set out to kill this wonder of nature. And the hunt and its aftermath are truly mind-boggling, involving whalers, steam launch, supply boat and tug and twenty plus men with a variety of weapons. The whale, mortally wounded, “towed first four boats then three for 50 miles, and having escaped and vanished and died and resurfaced a week later … was hauled in death for 30 miles”.

But that was only the start. Once the whale was towed back to Dundee, the circus began and the ringmaster was John Woods, ‘Greasy Johnny’, owner of a local whale oil factory and possessed of an unerring instinct for a spectacle and a quick buck. He hauled the poor dead humpback into his yard and charged a shilling a head to see it. Not only that but a photographer jammed open its mouth and furnished it with a table and chair, so folk could sit inside and have their picture taken. The poet of ‘the silvery Tay’, William McGonagall, composed a poem of doubtful metre and determined rhyme. And Woods made a tidy profit. Crumley is too good a writer, however, to depict even the worst culprits as unmitigated villains. Greasy Johnny, while exhibiting every grasping, money-grubbing, attribute of the Victorian showman and exploiter of the natural world, is also credited with moments of grace.

“Yet”, as the book’s author laments at intervals throughout, “this was an animal that could have travelled the oceans of the world for 200 years, singing”.

Finally the whale, stripped to its bones, and thereafter displayed in Dundee Museum, came to haunt the dreams of a young boy so much that when he grew up he wrote this book. So, it’s personal. The book charts his voyage to come close to “the thing itself”, not the bones of the thing, not the monstrous stinking carcass, nor an eviscerated, straw-stuffed mockery of it, nor a picture, nor a poem, but the huge and hugely improbable, vastly mysterious, living thing itself. Crumley relishes the limitations of science to explain its mysteries, and he wrestles with the limitations of language to grasp the wonder of it. Occasionally there is even a whiff of romance when the author describes his “up close and very personal” encounter with a humpback in the waters off Alaska, in which their “breath commingled” and “… its eye … looked so blatantly, so directly into my eyes that I felt sought out, chosen, the subject of a predestined moment”.

The book’s success will surely be measured by the extent to which it plants in its readers a desire to see the humpback whale travel the oceans of the world forever, singing. It certainly has in me.


Cacknacker’s Fury
Paul Wright
BLACK ACE, £16.95
pp256, ISBN 9781872988870

Reviewer: ALICE THOMPSON

The novel begins with Sol, its hero, doing a newspaper crossword puzzle whose clues seem to be coming to life. “But more than indignation, he felt the unease we all feel when the laws of coincidence are contravened. Why should the laws of a crossword puzzle seem to be resonating with the flow of events in his day-to-day life?” Sol – endearing, intelligent, reasonably hopeless with the opposite sex – becomes embroiled in a series of dreamlike adventures, beginning when he visits the hairdressers. Sol soon discovers that Parlando, his hairdresser, rather like Willy Wonka, has odd machinery and strange workers in his basement. Rather than making chocolate, he seems to be disposing of his clients in gruesome ways and boiling their body parts in large cauldrons, a kind of Deacon Brodie of the coiffure world.

Sol extricates himself from the hairdresser to visit the dentist. As the dentist happens to be blind, the situation becomes a comedy of manners where Sol is too polite to actually voice his worries at being treated by a man who cannot see and whose drill was “leaping from his hand like an angry serpent” – typical Freudian language which befits the dreamlike status of Sol’s life with its “rambling, random associations. Might as well be on a psychiatrist’s couch”.

Various coincidences lead Sol to a country house where a Murder Mystery Weekend is taking place. Sol is supposed to be ‘the murderer’ in the game. Sol quickly decides “he would have to operate in a responsive mode, answering questions as he saw fit and letting circumstances dictate his movements, actions and answers”. Briefly the perspective shifts to ‘the victim’ Shad who is the archetypal butt – bullied at school, cursed with low esteem, he carries round diaries of his miserable childhood in his suitcase. Here, in a sleight of language of the sort which runs throughout the novel, emotional baggage becomes literal. The eponymous Cacknacker is the sadistic headmaster – or even the devil himself – who has destroyed Shad’s life. Suddenly the murder mystery game takes a sinister turn as the real murder of the hapless Shad is committed by two thugs, Choy and Clowsie.

Cacknacker’s Fury is an oddity – a contortionist’s act of surreal, assured prose that never strains itself while pulling off its moves. You don’t so much read it as fall down its Alice In Wonderland rabbit hole of strange encounters. The trick lies in its humour –Sol’s strange story is simultaneously deadpan and arch: no mean feat. It is as if the crossword puzzle Sol is working on has taken three-dimensional form in terms of plot and character and then proceeded for the rest of the book to deconstruct itself. Elliptical and anagrammatic, Cacknacker’s Fury is a story for our times.

Wright’s use of language creates a kind of sustained hysteria with its combination of Latinate construction, bathos, (almost) poetic descriptions and deliberate literalness. An intelligent wit hums through the text like electricity through wire. The novel is full of linguistic games. Sometimes the humour is so subliminal it is difficult to define. Parlando says to Sol: ‘No time like the present,eh?’‘Do you find that as well?’ asked Sol.

Sol’s way with women is bewitchingly hopeless. He first meets the fulsome chambermaid Rosie cooking live eels – an eel adopting a “gentle sinusoidal rhythm as it hung there in her fingers”. His attempt to flirt with her is undermined by her phlegmatic nature: the constant refrain of “See you later, I hope” is always met with the reply, “You might”.

The existential theme of the novel is sardonically exemplified by the description of the salmon at the grand dinner at the Murder Mystery Hotel. “It lay on the platter, its unseeing eyes and gaping down-turned-mouth creating an impression of unmitigated dismay as if at the moment of death it saw clearly for the first time that life was just one great upstream struggle that ended in being boiled and eaten”.

Wright is also funny on the general obstructions of daily life, the wonderful frustrations of communication that make up our quotidian existence. He is especially good on the little battles that build up between the ordinary person and officialdom. Sol endures an ongoing conflict with the manageress of the hotel which reaches a climax one morning as he goes down to reception.

The manageress’s head poked out of the office as Sol approached. ‘You’ll not get any breakfast now,’ she snapped. ‘Don’t want any of your stinking breakfast,’ he replied.

Wright wickedly parodies urban versions of rustic life. When Sol visits the local country pub and asks for a lager, the landlord replies, “Ent got none of your fancy city drinks ‘ere”.

Cacknacker’s Fury is an original. It takes risks, plays games with the reader and life. It made me laugh (in spite of everything). As Sol says about whether or not they need a script for the Murder Mystery Weekend after it gets lost in the fax machine, “ A little bit of uncertainty and chaos adds a necessary spice to the proceedings. Life can get very dull when you stick to the script all the time – there are no surprises”.


Grace
Alex Pheby
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £9.99
pp 247, ISBN: 9781906120399

Reviewer: SUSAN McCALLUM-SMITH

Once upon a modern time, a patient escapes from a high security hospital and flees into a dense forest. Snow covers his tracks as he stumbles on, disoriented and exhausted. Abruptly he collapses, his ankle snared by a bear trap. He lies, helpless, breathing heavily against the scent of pine and the tang of the blood staining the snow around him. “And then there she was. The girl. Not a child but not a woman”. She wears a blue dress, her hair raven-dark and her skin “as white and smooth as the underbelly of a rattlesnake”. In one hand she toys with a red ribbon, while swinging an axe carelessly from the other. The man pleads for help.

“Say please”, she replies.

Falling into this eerie opening of Grace, Alex Pheby’s first novel, the reader enters a world evocative of Grimm and Kafka, and furnished by Freud. Pheby’s detailed prose keeps the reader swithering, wondering whether we have entered an über-realistic wonderland or simply followed the man, Peterman, down a rabbit hole in his own subconscious.

A cranky, toothless old woman soon joins the girl in the blue dress. The old woman leans on a horse-head cane, and has one eye sealed shut. She takes a persnickety approach to grammar. Together they help Peterman back to their cottage, an architectural hotchpotch cluttered with squalor, swarming with vermin, and landscaped with a tinkers yard. Despite the questionable hygiene, Peter-man heals from his wound and these three misfits, somehow, believably, form a family.

Peterman’s recovery is haunted by memories of the events that led to his incarceration in Greenwood Walls hospital. His escape followed a violent incident with his doctor, Raffaela, whose career seems hinged on her ability to cure him. Society has judged him guilty of involvement in the death of his parents and though the evidence is circumstantial and not damning, it appears irrefutable that he witnessed the passing of them both. Raffaela determines to secure his confession, and then medicate him to health. Her world, Peterman contends, “was one of words and chemicals…. Demons were cured now by addition not subtraction”.

It is possible that this reviewer has overdosed on fiction about childhood trauma, Freudian neuroses, and self-mutilation. The verbal duels between Raffaela and Peterman exacerbated both my ennui over the patient/doctor scenario and my fears that the novel’s more magical episodes were going to be neatly dispensed with down that hackneyed escape hatch – ‘it was all a dream’ – and the reader would awake, yawning like Alice on the grass. This doesn’t happen. At least, I think it doesn’t.

No, the true pleasure in Grace comes from Pheby’s rifts on fairytale symbolism. At nights the girl, the old woman and Peterman entertain one another with the telling of tales, tales rich in sensuality and violence. We learn that the girl is a foundling, that the old woman made some unfortunate decisions in her love life, and that Peterman’s entrapment may not have been accidental. The girl’s identity proves fluid, shape-shifting. Is she human, or nymph like Mélisande or Rusulka? Or a siren, enticing Peterman into this enchanted forest, into this symbolic heartland of the feminine divine? Colours run through the narrative, from a woman’s lips thick with “waxy orange paint” to the surrounding “dry brown mountains” to Peterman’s rainbow of medications: “Red and blue for depression; brown and blue for violent outbursts; red and white for visions; green for anxiety. Yellow to sleep; white to eat; yellow and blue to shit.”

Some of the dialogues feel mannered, not organic, especially those conducted by the old woman as she lays out her theory of the divide between fact and fiction; that “what we judge is not truth, but style”. So, too, the pace sometimes drags – an occupational hazard when one has a character like Peterman, who, to paraphrase EM Forster, is running up and down ladders in his own insides – but the language is often luminous, what with that “axe and the cane and the pale white skin”.

Risky first novels are gutsy and heartening and Pheby’s style conjures Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter, and AS Byatt. Still, it could be argued that it is not truth or style that readers judge but their level of engagement. Neither metaphysical and allegorical intents of fiction, nor challenging and radical experiments in form are hampered or diminished when a little humor is allowed to bleed through. Humanity is here in abundance though, and for Peter-man, the girl symbolizes redemption. By protecting and caring for her he senses the possibility of atonement, even if the existence of his guilt is, itself, in question.

This is an accomplished fable of how we are all constantly struggling to escape our histories and reach a state of grace.


A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
Donald Worster
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £18.99
pp544, ISBN 0195166825

Reviewer: SARAH MACDONALD

So firmly is John Muir’s  name inscribed on the American landscape – mountain peaks, woods, plants, street names, schools and colleges – that most now consider him to be an American hero. He is so ubiquitous that the US Geological Survey has now said it would be unlikely to approve any more commemorations. The situation is somewhat different in his native Scotland. There is now a John Muir Country Park in East Lothian, and a trust bearing the great naturalist and environmental preservationist’s name stewards large tracts of the West Highlands, but his name stubbornly eludes the familiar roll-call of impressive Scots. My grandmother had a well-used but always impeccably laundered tea towel inscribed Wha’s Like Us? – Damn few and they’re a’ deid which trumpeted the achievements of John Chalmers (adhesive stamps), John Paul Jones (US Navy), Captain Patrick Ferguson (breech-loading rifle) and of course John Logie Baird, Alexander Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell and John Macadam. It impressed me enormously as a child that I came from a country that produced such a remarkable list of men, to which might have been added Andrew Carnegie, Adam Smith, David Dunbar Buick and Thomas Telford. It wouldn’t have occurred to me then that John Muir’s name was missing, or might be worthy of inclusion. He scarcely seemed a Scot at all.

He  was born in Dunbar in 1838, but left for the United States aged eleven, and his life was shaped and determined by the geography, if not always the culture – he preserved his Scots accent intact until his death in 1914 – of the New World. Muir’s childhood was typical of that of many economic migrants from the British Isles during the nineteenth century. Continental wars and domestic hunger were the push factors; gold and land were the lures. Muir’s father, Daniel, settled in Wisconsin and with his sons cleared and cultivated several hundred acres of woodland. Until he was twenty-one, John was indentured to his father, an unpaid labourer on ‘free’ land.

Although his story really begins on the eve of the American Civil War, his upbringing in Scotland, evocatively recounted in his first volume of memoirs My Boyhood and Youth, instilled a fascination with the natural world which never left him, and became the driving force behind his passionate desire to protect and preserve some of his adopted country’s wildest places for the enjoyment and spiritual renewal of “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people”. His legacy in the United States is a National Park system which has been imitated all over the world, although it was-n’t until 2000, more than 85 years after Muir’s death, that legislation was put in place to create the first National Parks in Scotland – Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in 2002 and Cairngorm the following year. Indeed, it is only within the last 25 years, with the formation of the John Muir Trust that his name and reputation became more widely known in his native country. To date, there is no well-known biography or critical assessment written by a fellow-Scot.

There’s both inevitability and irony in that Muir’s latest biographer is again American; that is where the archive is, but it also imposes a certain structure of expectation on the material. Don-ald Worster is a distinguished environmental historian. His admiration for Muir never tips over into hagiography, a failing among most earlier biographers, though Muir’s life and personality offer few opportunities for negatively revisionist thinking. Worster examines the life within the context of the literary, artistic, social and scientific achievements of the time, and places him at the forefront of the politicisation of the environmental movement.

Muir made Yosemite Valley in California his home for almost ten years and when he started to publish his tales of life in the valley he was modestly astonished at the reception his articles received. Though Muir’s prose was often decried as overblown and histrionic by literary critics, the reading public nevertheless responded with enthusiasm and editors begged him for more.  It was Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century Magazine who recognised that if he could harness Muir’s eloquence and true passion for the wilderness, the campaign to preserve the wild places of America could succeed, and it was he who suggested that “the thing to do is to make a Yosemite National Park around the Valley on the plan of the Yellowstone”. As Worster says, “Muir had found the balanced tone and the pragmatic argument that would mark his conservation philosophy for years to come. He was calling for a more enlightened utilitarianism. Use should not mean destruction. Use should be wise, humane and broad in concept. Use should include more than material consumption. The highest use of the Sierra was to feed men’s spirits and satisfy their hunger for beauty”.

Worster has taken full advantage of the huge Muir archive and has produced a comprehensive, scholarly study of a pioneering figure in environmental history. He has compared unpublished manuscripts and journals with the published versions, and has revealed telling omissions. This is by far the most readable and comprehensive Muir biography to date. In an overcrowded field this should become the standard. Worster has the meticulous research of an academic combined with a flowing, engaging style which lifts Muir out of the historical and into the present. “Muir was a man who tried to find the essential goodness of the world, an optimist about people and nature, an eloquent prophet of a new world that looked to nature for its standard and inspiration. Looking back at the trail he blazed, we must wonder how far we have yet to go”. Perhaps commemorating him on a tea-towel is a start.



In Praise of the Garrulous

Allan Cameron
VAGABOND VOICES, £8.00
pp184 ISBN 0956056008

Reviewer: CAIRNS CRAIG

In Praise of the Garrulous comes festooned in garrulous praise from the likes of Terry Eagleton, Eric Hobsbawm and Lesley Rid-doch, who declare themselves moved by this “deeply reflective, extraordinarily wide-ranging meditation on the nature of language”, by “its combination of personal passion, observation”, and by the intellectual ambition which “takes language back from the domain of pedants and reinstates our proudest achievement at the heart of human society”.

True: this is a passionate book about the value of language, which takes its examples from an eclectic range of European cultures and takes issue with some modern theorists of language. Language, both spoken and written, Cameron sees as threatened on all sides – by the destruction of social spaces for the exchange of stories and ideas, by a monolingualism that makes us unaware of the alternative ways of describing the world (“we need not only to gabble ceaselessly, but to gabble in more than one language”), and by modern developments toward “plain language, reduced vocabulary and an absence of memory” – an outcome which has made English a ‘world’ language only by radically truncating its syntactic and semantic richness. As someone who is a Gaelic speaker and an Italian translator, Cameron sees English as a world plague, leaving dead languages strewn across the linguistic landscape, where now there is “less variety of languages and less variety within languages”. The future will belong to “a monoglot world in which an Orwellian simplification of language and a kind of linguistic passivity conjoin in a vicious circle” to produce “a monoculture that is not aware of its own existence because it has no ‘other’ to which it must relate”.

All of this matters, to Cameron, because language is, he believes, the very basis of our humanity, and the destruction of the potentialities of language will do us – or, rather, are already doing us – profound psychological and social damage. We have passed out of the society of the word, “which reached its zenith in the first four centuries of printing”, and into the society of the visual, but the visual “cannot produce the ethical, psychological and philosophical nuances that can be produced by the written word”, any more than they can sustain the ability to “natter, to jabber, to gibber, to gabble, to gas, to prattle, to prate, to blather, to blether” as our ancestors used to do.

So far, so good: the beginning of the end is always a good reason for a passionate discourse – but apocalypse has a way of not quite turning out as you might expect. What society, we might ask, ever spent more time in nattering, jabbering, etc, than this one, where face-to-face conversations flow out into telephonic conversations and continue in text messages? What could be more garrulous than our radio stations, with their phone-ins, and their listeners’ emails? And these voices are not the voices of BBC standard-English but the voices of an intimate (even if electronic) regionality – even down to the localness of tex-ting conventions. And if most of this is communication without substance so, I would guess, has been the bulk of human communication throughout history.

As for the retreat from “ethical, psychological and philosophical nuances”, it is worth recalling that there are still published each year in the UK something like 11,000 novels – more per year than in whole eras of the literary past. Not all of them will be finely nuanced but, equally, not all of them will be in standard English, precisely because the deadness of standard English has led to a great revitalisation of vernacular writing. Such writing mimics the way in which the local always resists and distorts standard languages, and who is to say that there will not soon be as many neo-Englishes as there once were neo-Latins? Or that, as in many parts of Europe, and as has happened in Wales, the old languages will be revitalised by being the language of a domestic space that refuses the co-option of the standard language?

Cameron’s passion for language leads him to decry the visual like some Reformation iconoclast, but language has always been intimately connected with the visual – thus the trope of the blind bard for whom language allows a higher form of vision. The subtlety of our modern visual culture is an extension rather than a diminution of our intelligence – an argument made nearly fifty years ago by Marshall McLuhan, whose very different take on the four hundred years of print culture it might have been worth Cameron considering. As, indeed, he might have considered George Steiner’s ‘The Retreat from the Word’, in Language and Silence, which was both a jeremiad against modern illiteracy and an acknowledgement that modern science,  based on the language of mathematics, had displaced language from the centre of our understanding of the world. Truth, Steiner argued, now belonged with silence rather than speech.

However much praise we might wish to bestow on the garrulous for keeping at bay the silence of the death of languages, we have to recognise that they also interfere with the silence of thought.


 

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