by Carl MacDougall
With Edinburgh now branded the UN’s first World City of Literature, MacDougall’s survey of Scottish writers provides backing for the cause while reminding readers there’s more to the nation’s literature than just the capital’s contribution. MacDougall’s argument is that Scottish literature, “our most vibrant export”, has played a vital role for centuries in creating, sustaining and questioning Scottish identity. Indeed he believes it was “the springboard upon which devolution was built.” Writing Scot-land, betraying its origins as a TV programme, is constructed around easily digestible themes. Looking at one such theme, the Scots’ relationship with the land, he writes, “Our sense if place is so strong it’s difficult to tell if we inhabit the landscape or if it inhabits us.” It’s true but like certain other quirks cited as national characteristics – such as the so-called divided self – you wonder whether they’re really all that unique to Scotland. The book is more interesting when MacDougall or the writers he interviewed push past the formulaic with something more personal. For example, you get a stronger flavour of the day-to-day power of Scottish writing from MacDougall’s anecdote about an uncle who turned to Burns before the Bible for moral instruction. Points off however for neglecting to provide an index.
The 21/2 Pillars Of Wisdom – The Von Igelfeld Trilogy
Alexander McCall Smith
ABACUS, £8. 99
Last year Alexander McCall Smith put out three novellas which Abacus has nicely packaged together now in one volume as The Von Igelfeld Trilogy The trilogy eschews the author’s usual sleuth-style stories though the humour is identifiable as McCall Smith’s. Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is the unnaturally tall “author of a seminal work on Romance philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs.” Despite his book’s “seminal” status and the years of research it took to complete his linguistic epic, von Igelfeld still suffers the indignity of seeing his book remaindered, excess stock sold off in bulk to a firm of interior decorators who change the titles to Portuguese Irrigated Herbs to be used as book furniture slotted into the bookshelves they install. This slight is but one of many McCall Smith causes the pompous von Igelfeld in a series of loosely connected comic vignettes that trade heavily upon the comedy of embarrassment, making the novellas, despite the German anti-hero, very British. Perhaps too British. The humour, which at times seems almost anachronistic, appears to have been beamed in from an older, gentler world where much comedy is to be had chortling at foreigners with funny names. You could well imagine PG Wodehouse curling up with the Von Igelfeld Trilogy. It’s all so gentle in fact it makes a baby’s breath look like a hurricane. The prose is fine, well modulated stuff but really, anyone enjoying this stuff and not in receipt of a bus pass should take a long hard look at themselves.
Gods, Mongrels And Demons
by Angus Calder
BLOOMSBURY, £8. 99
Angus Calder doesn’t do normal. “I want to help undermine notions of normality,” he writes in the introduction to his wonderfully idiosyncratic biographical dictionary, “which have contributed, over the last couple of hundred of years, to appalling horrors.” To that end he has written accounts of “101 brief but essential lives” that go from household names – Queen Victoria, Che Guevara – to the thoroughly obscure. He finds room for Wittgenstein and Marc Bolan’s publicist, for Billy The Kid and Winkie the pigeon, all “creatures who have extended my sense of the potentialities both comic and tragic, of human nature.” Strangely he includes Gods who, at the risk of being obvious, aren’t real. If they’re included, why not fictional characters? Perhaps that could form the basis of a follow-up. On the strength of Gods, Mongrels And Demons, I’d buy it. Flatteringly, a good proportion of entries hail originally from Scotland, and perhaps in a reflection of the author’s own political persuasions, there’s a fair amount of unreconstructed lefties.
Shut Yer Pus
by Scott Simpson
BLACK & WHITE, £5.99
The charmingly titled Shut Yer Pus is a short dictionary of Scottish slang that ranges from Arse Bandit (“a politically incorrect and deeply offensive term for a homosexual man”) to Yonks (“an unspecified yet lengthy period of time”). It’s fine as far as it goes, though it lacks ambition and perspective. For example ‘Barry’ we’re told is an Edinburgh expression meaning excellent. Actually, it comes from a centuries old Romany word ‘baary’ also meaning excellent. One doesn’t have to cite etymology as a hobby to feel the author hasn’t delved deep enough. We are told that ‘Furry Boots Country’ means Aberdeen but not why (the answer, in case you’re wondering, is that when Aberdonians ask where you are from, it sounds like they’re saying ‘furry boot.’) Also I’m not sure that the provenance of some of these words is strictly Scottish. ‘The Man’, meaning an authority figure, is included yet is surely universal. Still, the slang does illustrate a number of Scotland’s cultural priorities. In the same way that the Eskimos have a number of words that mean ‘snow’, Shut Yer Pus includes sixteen synonyms for drunkenness. One is tempted to describe the book as ‘brock’ rather than ‘brammer’.
by Meg Henderson
Handily, Meg Henderson has provided at the very start of Second Sight a family tree detailing the many generations of characters and their relation to each other. There’s so many of them in this book which compresses 130 years worth of action into 300 pages you find yourself consulting it just to make sure you’re not mixing relations up. As the title suggests, it’s in part about a gift of prophecy handed down through a family over the ages, a family that begins the island of Raasay finally travelling across to the new world, to Nova Scotia. Henderson has done her research, which pays off handsomely in the passages about a bomber crew during WW2.
Alias MacAlias – Writings On Songs, Folk And Literature
by Hamish Henderson
The late Hamish Henderson is best known as the composer of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ but as everyone with an interest in Scottish culture of the past fifty years knows he was also a fine essayist. Some of the claims on behalf of what he did for the country are somewhat excessive – as the introduction recounts, he was compared to Nelson Man-dela at his funeral! – yet these collected writings only confirm his reputation as an artistic dynamo in the post-war years. He was the first British translator of Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (the introduction to that work is included here) and his Elegies For The Dead In Cyrenaica is often cited as one of the finer examples of WW2’s poetry. In Alias MacAlias he defends passionately his role in reviving the “despised” folk tradition as “an alternative to official bourgeois culture.” There’s a playful quality to Henderson’s prose particularly in the title essay, which mischievously compares his old sparring partner, MacDiarmid, to McGonagall.
by John Mackay
LUATH PRESS, £9.99
“It was very easy to get romantic here, to absorb the glory of nature,” Mackay writes about the Hebrides. Judging by the number of passages given over to breathlessly describing the islands, it is indeed very easy to get romantic there. Mackay’s hero, Iain, left the Hebrides in his youth, returning only because his marriage has broke down. In a stab at therapeutic DIY, Iain is rebuilding the dilapidated ancestral pile. If he thinks he’s going to rebuild his life at the same time, he needs to think again. It’s bad enough that he’s in love with his best friend’s wife; things hardly improve when he discovers a skeleton under the old house’s floor. A combination of Changing Rooms and Agatha Christie, Mackay’s Heartland demonstrates the Scotland Today presenter has a readable easy-going prose style.
by Graham Reilly
Saigon Tea is watered down alcohol, a tipple much favoured by Vietnamese prostitutes. Danny Canyon has fled to Saigon by way of Australia from Scotland many years earlier. In Glasgow, he’d been a bookie’s runner until said bookie discovered he’d been pinching from him. That lead Danny to do a runner of his own. Tied up and left bleeding by an unknown assailant, Danny gets a request for help through to his hard man brother Frankie in Glasgow, who naturally comes to the rescue. A Scottish expat himself who has lived in Vietnam, Reilly’s comedy-thriller (thin Colin Bateman) abounds in authentically scummy descriptions of Saigon, a teeming city forever on the verge of chaos.
Camanachd! The Story Of Shinty
by Roger Hutchinson
It seems likely, according to Hutchinson, that shinty came to Scotland, along with Gaelic and Christianity, from Ireland roughly around the start of the sixth century. The actual origins of the game itself are even murkier though a photo of a fifth century Athenian carving reproduced in the book of what looks like a game of shinty suggests the sport has an ancient pedigree. As Hutchinson demonstrates, camanachd and Scottish history are intertwined. It was played at Glencoe on the afternoon before the massacre between the MacDonalds and their treacherous guests. Various religious types have tried to ban it while Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott were confirmed fans. An interesting book, more interesting than the game itself.
The Kitty Killer Cult
by Nick Smith
LUATH PRESS, £9. 99
To my knowledge Nick Smith is the sole practitioner in this dimension of cat crime novels. The kitty Killer Kit reads like Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats if TS Eliot had been more of a Raymond Chandler fan. His hardboiled hero, Tiger Straight, inhabits a sin city populated by anthropomorphised moggies. Homeless after failing to pay the lease on the office, Tiger takes a case to find the murderer of four feline brothers killed by the poison they used on their pest control job. It’s not bad though one could do without the laboured attempts at novelty. One carnivore is described as a “meatatarian” when surely, uh, carnivore would have worked better.
Mad Dog – The Rise And Fall Of Johnny Adair And ‘C’ Company
by David Lister & Hugh Jordan
Lister and Jordan begin by posing a question about Adair, the face of violent Ulster loyalism: is he “a mindless sectarian psychopath or a loyalist folk hero who took the war to the IRA’s front door”? Having read the book, I’d have to say the answer is the former over the latter. The authors provide an absorbing primer of The Troubles from the sixties onwards, the period in which Adair and his “killing machine”, the notorious ‘C’ Company, served a bloody apprenticeship. What’s truly interesting however is the window it provides into the mind and behaviour of a murderer. One girlfriend testifies she always knew when he’d been out killing as he’d be so excited when he returned, he’d wet the bed. Also, fascinatingly, the authors’ revelation that Adair’s closest friend was an openly, nay, aggressively, gay man, led to speculation that this famed hard man might have a bisexual side he likes to keep quiet. Equally contradictorily, while playing bass in a skinhead band (typical lyric: “I like breaking arms and legs/ Snapping spines and wringing necks”), Adair was also a massive fan of reggae and in particular the multi-ethnic band UB40. Square that circle.