Monthly Archives: October 2009



OVER THE YEARS I’ve spent more time than I care to remember scratching around in the old Register of Sasines and the newer Land Register trying to find out who sold what piece of land to whom and for how much. Usually I was trying to track down some dodgy deal done on the shores of the Cromarty Firth or in the sodden bogs of Caithness or the rocky uplands of Sutherland or Wester Ross. Sometimes the searches involved colourful figures from various parts of the world: Dutch industrialists, minor Arab royalty, Irish bankers, castle-hungry Americans. More often, though, the dramatis personae turned out to be local wheeler-dealers, crooks or councillors.

These land-deal stories were always worth the effort. Response from readers was usually good. Articles would be cut out and kept. Sympathetic councillors would fulminate. Every now and again a story was picked up by an MP or a junior minister and ‘questions would be asked’ or outrage expressed in the House of Commons. Plainly, there was – and is – an appetite for stories about land and who owns it. It’s an issue that touches raw nerves, and not just in the Highlands and Islands.

But it’s some time since I’ve hunted through the record volumes in Edinburgh, partly because it’s far more complicated and expensive than it used to be, and partly because it really is a job for younger, more energetic hacks. A full-blown, land-deal story is a seriously daunting prospect. Which is why I approached Kevin Cahill’s new book Who Owns the World with a mixture of admiration and incredulity. Knowing how much work is involved trying to find out who’s trading in bits of rural Scotland, the idea of doing the same thing for the whole planet seemed an impossible task.

And, of course, so it is. Somewhere in the world land is changing hands every hour of every day. By the time Cahill had written a page there’s a fair chance that it would have been out of date. Which is why, I imagine, he eschewed the nitty-gritty and climbed to a lofty (and Leftish) position from where he deliberates. The result is a very large book (640 pages including the index) stuffed with tables, facts and statistics. Some of them are general, some quite specific. They are the basis from which Cahill offers his insights on land ownership, past and present.

His book is divided into two parts. The first he describes as an “overview and analysis” which looks at landowning and landowners through the ages, roughly from 8,000 BC (believe it or not) to 2006. The second part is made up of detailed, country-by-country (and in the case of the USA, state-by-state) descriptions of how much land there is, how many people there are per acre and how land is owned, held and registered. Which seemed to me to be the more interesting of the two parts, if only by virtue of it being (relatively) free of Cahill’s opinions.

Because these, I have to say, irritated me. They became my problem with the book. This is one of those vast, complex, multifaceted subjects that are best treated in a dispassionate, straightforward way. Instead Cahill interjects his views on the iniquities of the past and the shortcomings of the present at every opportunity. I tired of hearing about William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard as Cahill prefers to call him) and the iniquity of the feudal system he inflicted on Britain and through Britain on much of the world. Cahill bangs on about him like any 17th century Leveller or Digger or Muggletonian complaining of the `Norman Yoke’.

And as a republican of long standing it pains me to come to the defence of Queen Elizabeth II, but I lost count of the number of times Cahill told me that because all of Britain and its dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and so on) is ‘held’ by the Crown, the Queen is, therefore, the biggest land owner on the planet. According to Cahill she’s proud possessor of about twenty percent of the earth’s surface. Time after tiresome time he drags in this constitutional oddity as if, somehow, it has kept the countries of the Commonwealth in poverty and misery.

This British version of feudalism (there are others) is a particularly noisy bee in Cahill’s bonnet. He claims that it reduces us to the status of landless serfs. And by us he includes the people of Ireland who left the United Kingdom in 1922 but retained the British system of holding land. In fact, he goes on to argue that the reason that Britain doesn’t have a written constitution is to “conceal the Crown’s superior right to all land in the UK and elsewhere, and to avoid granting proper rights to citizens…”.

Which is a bit of a puzzle. As Cahill himself points out, the ‘serfs’ of what used to be the British Empire are doing pretty well. Home ownership among Brits, Aussies, Canucks and Kiwis is proportionally higher than it is among Americans who have an ‘absolute right’ to own land. Our fellow serfs in Ireland own even more of their own homes and farms than we do as well as having wages that are among the highest in Europe. But Cahill claims that this property wealth is a delusion and that at any time the Queen or her minions could come along and take it all away from us.

Does he really believe that the property developers of, let’s say, Sydney Harbour or Canary Wharf in London are inhibited from sinking their cash into real estate by this constitutional quirk? Does he honestly think that Her Majesty is likely to chopper in to the Athabasca oil sands in Manitoba and tell the oil companies to clear off because she needs the oil revenues to pay for the next royal wedding? If she ever tried it she’d be given her head in her hands to play with (metaphorically, of course).

At one point Cahill blames the ‘British landholding tradition’ (i.e. the Queen) for making “first-time home ownership in the UK among the most expensive on the planet”. No, Mr Cahill, the Queen wasn’t responsible. Mrs Thatcher was. Her government deregulated banks and building societies in the Eighties in a way that encouraged them to lend on two salaries, rather than just one. Which, of course, more or less doubled the amount of money chasing the same amount of property. It was a classic recipe for the inflation with which we’ve been living ever since.

I have to confess that as I read my way through Cahill’s tome I kept hearing the voice of Private Eye’s house leftie Dave Spart. The narrative is peppered with stuff worthy of Spart himself. Here is Cahill on tax: “The fact, that only the peasants paid tax, is true for 9,800 years of history. The role of monarchs, owners and the nobility was to collect tax and spend it mostly on themselves. Are modern governments any different?”

Yes, Mr Cahill, they are. Or at least they are in the world’s better regulated states. Our taxes go to pay for all those roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, day-centres, universities, colleges, nurseries, policemen, doctors, street lighting, dole money, invalidity benefit, tax credits, old age pensions and all the rest of it. Including, of course, the state’s guns, warplanes, aircraft carriers, nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear-powered submarines. To suggest that government ministers “spend it mostly on themselves” is Dave Spart at his daftest.

And Cahill does seem to skip over the fact that there’s land and then there’s land. An acre of arable farmland in Essex or East Lothian is worth an awful lot more than an acre of scrub and sand on the edge of the Sahara or an acre of rock and ice in the upper reaches of Greenland. Does he really believe that a Skye crofter with 30 acres of boulder-strewn rough grazing is better off than the local authority IT manager with his centrally-heated bungalow on a quarter of an acre on the outskirts of Broadford? Land does not necessarily equate with wealth.

Having said all that, there’s enough interesting information in part two of Cahill’s book to compensate for the editorialising in part one. He’s certainly done his homework. From a wide variety of international sources he has assembled a huge bank of information which he’s organised in an efficient, useful and I think readable manner. Country by country, from Greenland to Antarctica, he lists population, acreage, the number of acres per head, the per capita gross national income (GNI) and details (where available) of how land is held.

I particularly enjoyed the section which analyses the USA, state by state. The folk in Alaska have a whopping 670 acres per person while the denizens of the city-state of Washington DC have a mere 0.1 acre. The almost square state of New Mexico (which was carved out of Old Mexico in the 1840s) covers just under 79 million acres, slightly bigger than Poland. It seems that the biggest private landowner in the USA is the TV tycoon Ted Turner who owns 1.8 million acres in ten different states.

And he does a good job in reminding us that the 3.3 billion acres that make up Antarctica (under which there may well lie rich mineral deposits) is currently regulated by the 45 countries who signed the Antarctic Treaty although only seven of them (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK) actually make territorial claims. Britain’s claim, which dates back to 1908, is for 422 million acres. How they divvied up the land around the South Pole would make a book in itself.

But it seems to me that most of Cahill’s facts and figures are inclined to undermine his argument that land ownership is crucial to a nation’s health and well-being. His figures show that some of the poorest populations on earth are the ones with the most elbow room. The people of Kazakhstan, for example, have 45 acres per person and a GNI of $2,260 while the folk of Lichtenstein have a paltry 1.4 acres per head out of which they manage to squeeze a GNI $56, 230 per head despite it being “unclear how the grand duchy is owned”.

Nor do vast natural assets translate into wealth for all. The oil and gas riches of Saudi Arabia (25.1 acres per person) produce a modest per capita GNI of $10,430 while little Israel (0.8 acres per person), with not a drop of hydrocarbons to its name, contrives to pay its embattled people £17,360 a head? Yet Cahill suggests that countries prosper best when they have a written constitution (which Israel doesn’t) and a well-run land registry (which Israel doesn’t). In fact, Israel’s system is reputed to be a shambles of modern Israeli, colonial British and old-style Ottoman systems.

And some of the information in part two set me wondering. For example, does it really cost a massive $107,000 just to register a property in Sweden as Cahill claims on page 595? Is it the case that the Belgians charge a slightly more modest $89,609 (including taxes)? Are these examples of extraordinary bureaucratic avarice, or should there be a full stop in the figures where there is currently a comma. Which would make the sums a more reasonable $107 and $89 respectively? That’s not just nitpicking: the credibility of the book depends on the accuracy of the information.

There’s no doubt that this is a hugely ambitious piece of work. Kevin Cahill has set out to reveal the use and abuse of a small planet and to some extent he has succeeded. His book is wide-ranging, interesting, packed with facts and well put together. It may be a bit too heavily loaded with the author’s opinions but I certainly cannot think of another like it. Kevin Cahill has put in years of hard work and for that I’ve nothing but admiration.

But I’m not convinced that it all adds up to the publisher’s claim that Who Owns the World is of “huge political, economic and social importance” and will “revolutionise our understanding of our planet, its history and its land”. That book, it seems to me, is still to be written.

Kevin Cahill
Mainstream Publishing, £25.00
pp640 ISBN 1845961587

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Dubai or Not to Buy

WHEN the Edinburgh International Film Festival first kicked off, in 1947, it was one of three such events in the world, with just Cannes and Venice to rub up against. Now, the calendar is choked with film festivals; they’ve become a requisite tourist attraction, and it seems that every city that doesn’t already have one is looking for a corner of the calendar where it can slot one in. The Dubai International Film Festival is a new kid on the block, with 2007 marking only its third year in existence. Still, it has the wherewithal to do things in style.

I’m accustomed to doing the festival circuit on the serious cheap: budget flights; shared rooms; once, memorably, a Cannes apartment with no electricity or hot water. The invitation from Dubai, however, offers business class flights and five-star accommodation. This is an event with serious investment behind it, in a city that’s doggedly asserting itself as the world’s leading purveyor of very tall buildings, daring investment opportunities, flashy holiday resorts and general deranged glitz.

Even by night, the world’s fastest-growing city looks like a cross between the Blade Runner set and a Meccano convention. Dubai has some $100bn worth of construction projects underway or planned, and it’s estimated that a fifth of the world’s cranes are helping out. Endless crops of half-completed skyscrapers twinkle with lights; they’re worked on through the night by labourers brought in from India and Pakistan. One, the Burj Dubai, aims to be the tallest building in the world.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel is plenty tall enough for me. Tall and wide, it’s shaped like a great big breaking wave. It forms part of a glitzy chain owned by Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family, who control most of the local property market.

“You have a very nice room, on our twenty-third floor,” the receptionist tells me. “You will be able to see the Palm island from your window.”

Ah: the Palm island. This is a man-made peninsula, supposedly in the shape of a palm tree (though rather more reminiscent of a squished scorpion), offering 4000 exclusive seaside boltholes to super-rich sun-worshippers. The standard of resident desired was established at the time of the World Cup, when the England squad all snapped up matching residences at a special thirty percent discount. (How cute that they invest in property en masse! Do they all think as one, like bees? Or did their bikini-crazed WAGs perhaps force their hands, tempted by the proximity of the world’s largest shopping mall?) The Palm Jumeirah, outside my window, is only the beginning: two further Palm islands are under construction. The third one, the Palm Deira, will cover an area larger than Paris.

Still, Paris is small potatoes, in the dizzily ambitious realm of Dubai property development. Why have Paris when you could have the whole of France for your personal holiday playground? The World is another ersatz peninsula currently under construction, designed to resemble the whole entire planet. Rumours about Richard Branson buying Great Britain seem to be unfounded, but Michael Schumacher has already been given part of Antarctica, as a gift from Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It remains to be seen whether Schumacher’s share will be trimmed back in line with the progress of global warming; or whether other conditions out in the real world will affect property deals. What price a jaunt to the luxurious, restful West Bank? Or a sunny holiday on Little Sudan? Well, if that’s all too troubling to the conscience, there’s always the option of the Palazzo Versace luxury hotel, currently under construction. This establishment will reportedly provide a beach with temperature-controlled sand to prevent residents’ toes getting too hot en route to the water.

A concierge makes off with my baggage, and I head for the twenty-third floor. My ears pop in protest as the glass elevator whistles to its lofty destination. The room is considerably larger than my flat in Edinburgh. The bed would sleep around eight, without call for undue intimacy. One wall is a monumental window, outside which sleeps the Persian Gulf, the Palm island, and the tallest hotel in the world, the Burj Al-Arab. Another Al Maktoum concern, the Burj Al-Arab is shaped like a massive sail, and has the honour of being the world’s only seven-star hotel. The size of the beds may only be dreamed of by mere five-star peasants such as me.

Tuesday 12th December

In the morning, there’s a veil of moody mist over the promised view, and a matching fog of jet lag dulling my brain. I take a deep breath and go hunting for the breakfast room. It’s no use: I find a complex of shops, a number of exotic restaurants, a pool with a piano on a raised platform in its centre, a tanning salon, a hairdresser’s, and countless would-be sunbathers aggrieved by the unfriendly weather – but nothing as normal as breakfast. I head off to the festival HQ instead, which resides in another part of the apparently endless Jumeirah resort complex. The main theatre is in the midst of a sort of stage-set version of a souk (market), with air conditioning, piped music, Christmas trees galore, and no nasty dust or haggling. The first fellow delegate I meet, a Canadian filmmaker, tells me that Edinburgh rejected her last film. I quickly note that I’ve only just taken charge… I’m relieved to spy my friend Antonia, a journalist and programme consultant to EIFF. She lives in Dubai with her family. “So where’s the non-insane bit, where the real people live?” I ask her. “There isn’t one,” Antonia says. She notes that although Dubai is massively ethnically diverse – Asian, Iranian and western expats are the majority, and Arabic, English, German, Hindi/Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Persian, and Tagalog are all widely spoken – social roles are deeply entrenched and mixing between ethnic groups is rare. She’s the only one among her British expat friends, for instance, who doesn’t have a Filipino nanny.

I apologise for flagging. “I couldn’t find coffee this morning.” “There’s a Star-bucks in the souk!” says Antonia. Well, of course there is.

Later, at a lunch for local distributors, I meet an industry acquaintance who tells me that he spent the previous day skiing. Dubai, where the average December temperature is 24C, and summers can hit 45C, has its own 22,500 square metre indoor ski resort.

The contrast between the preposterously lush local lifestyle and the tenor of the Arab films on show at the festival is striking. These films tend to be concerned with the effects of conflict, poverty and intolerance. Antonia and I are jolted back to reality by a harsh documentary about a young Yemeni woman condemned to death for murder without any proper trial. Then I spend the evening with a no less testing portmanteau film entitled All The Invisible Children, for which directors including Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and John Woo have composed segments addressing stricken childhoods the world over. It’s not great, but the Lee film, about a teenager with AIDS, has me in pieces. I can’t quite get into the mood for the cocktails and canapés afterwards. It’s always a striking contrast at film festivals: a harrowing work about human misery, followed by a cheery drinks reception.

When I get back, the towels in my room have been ingeniously folded into the shape of a rabbit. It even has eyes. I pause to contemplate the fact that it is the job of someone in this hotel to order stick-on paper eyes for the towel animals.

Wednesday 13th December

The fog finally lifts, and I see the shimmering ocean, the mighty Burj Al-Arab tower, and the weird, flat planes of the Palm island. The ground is so far below me that the people doing beach aerobics look like little germs swarming under a microscope. Duly inspired, I gird my loins and finally find the breakfast room. It is more like a breakfast city, populated by zealous converts to a breakfast cult. Every kind of food you might associate with breakfast, and several that you would not, is represented. There are omelette waiters, coffee waiters, toast waiters and juice waiters.

I head to a talk by the producer Barrie Osborne, whose credits include Apocalypse Now, The Matrix, and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The audience is largely composed of local students, who take endless photographs of the man with startlingly high-end equipment, but show no sign of listening to him. There’s a general culture of chattering during films and events here that I find almost impossible to tolerate. I get a shuttle bus to the festival’s other main venue, the Mall of the Emirates, where the aforementioned ski resort is situated. There’s a Debenhams, a Virgin Megastore and a Harvey Nichols. I could be absolutely anywhere, but for the eye-smarting heat – and every interior is air-conditioned to the point of shivers. I brought a shawl just in case modest head-covering was required, but I’m using it to keep myself warm in the cinemas. I watch a weird Tunisian melodrama about a gang rape (the victim of which seems gamely to regard as a minor social indiscretion), an overblown Egyptian romance with a Bollywood vibe, and a nice Lebanese youth comedy about sex and falafel.

There’s a spectacular sunset.

The towels have become an elephant.

Thursday 14th December

Rain again. I spend the morning in the very well-appointed viewing room, watching Egyptian films that give the impression of having been made in the 1950s (a raucous rural comedy, a mad weepie set in a mental hospital). Members of the Festival staff are all of a wobble, because the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan is in town for a stage interview. He came to Edinburgh a few years back; gaggles of girls waited all day to present him with teddy bears. Such is his fame that there’s even a Pakistani film in the programme here called The Death of Shah Rukh Khan, about a young boy obsessed with emulating him.

Tomorrow, Richard Gere and Oliver Stone are arriving to participate in a panel event. I have bad associations with Oliver Stone, having once in my early days as an EIFF consultant shared a dinner with him at which everything that could go wrong rather spectacularly did. Providing adequate care for A-list guests during all the chaos of a festival is one of the greatest challenges. Still, doubtless Stone, Gere and Khan will be consoled by hotel rooms of crazy standards. What glorious artworks will be fashioned from their towels, I wonder? Will the Al Maktoum clan perhaps offer Gere a personal stake in mini-Tibet?

By direct contrast, I’m riveted and heartbroken by an amazing documentary about homeless girls living on nothing in Egypt. I keep thinking about the earnest efforts being made by optimistic westerners to reduce their carbon emissions and recycle their waste. If one thing is depressingly apparent here, it’s that such gestures are a drop in the ocean when so much of the world is either too rich or too poor to care. I’m a fine one to talk, though. By the end of 2007 my carbon footprint will be knee-deep.

The elephant in my room remains, but has been joined by a sort of towel cobra.

I get a very early night, the better to rise at 3 and head to the airport. Even at that hour, the roads are busy, and an accident has jammed up the main road out of Dubai. A taxi sits with its bonnet concertinaed, testament to the notoriously reckless local driving style; its confused passengers stand by in a daze. Still, as a business class VIP, I can afford a bit of a delay, before my chauffeur-driven vehicle turns into a pumpkin and I’m plummeted back into the unglamorous real world.

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Budd Schulberg

SUCCESS AND FAILURE have been the obsessions of the American writer Budd Schulberg, and the themes of all his work. “Success in all its seasons is something I really lived with,” says the novelist and screenwriter and boxing columnist. “I didn’t have to create it. It was really imposed on me. I saw it happen over and over again.”

The four seasons are the spring of early success, the full summer flowering of success, the waning of popularity in autumn, and the hard, cold winter of forgetting. Schul-berg created the calendar to describe the lives and fates of great American writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald in his youth, Sinclair Lewis as a literary tower at middle age, John Stein-beck’s premature loss of popularity, and the commercial failure of Herman Melville.

It’s winter at his home in Westhampton Beach, New York. Beyond the large glass window the grasses of the salt marsh have turned gray and a cold wind pleats the water. But it’s not cold inside. He hasn’t forgotten anything, and he’s not a failure. He’s 92 years old. His hair is white. He needs two canes to walk. His hearing needs help. But he still remembers everything and he still has opinions.

“Yes! Yes!” he dives into a subject. “Writers, I’ve always been interested in writers. Juan Rulfo, Mexican writer, one of the best. I moved to Mexico in 1959. Lived there quite a few years.” His sentences are short, and they repeat, and repeat, circling round the subject. “It was during that period living there I both read and met Rulfo.”

He’s talking about the author of the Mexi-can classic Pedro Paramo. “It’s a wonderful book. The Mexicans are so much more undemanding about their writers. If Rulfo wrote that one book, that’s all he wants to write. That’s fine with them. In our country, they get back at you if you write one very good book. Then they want to know what’s next. What’s next? What’s next? What do you have on the fire? I get asked that over and over again. What do you have on the fire now? It’s a very American, immediate, super-practical approach to literature. You have to keep adding something, and adding something, and writing something new. Nobody asked Rulfo what he’s got on the fire. Here they want you to do more and more.”

Schulberg is still writing, more and more, lots on the fire. His desk in an office over the garage of his home is covered with stacks of new work. He’s got a screenplay about the life of boxer Joe Louis that he’s working over with director Spike Lee. John Moores, businessman, philanthropist and owner of a baseball team, is financing a new musical production of Schulberg’s play A Face in the Crowd, for Broadway. Steven Berkoff is planning a revival of On the Waterfront for the London stage. Schulberg is updating The Four Seasons of Success, his book on American writers, with an additional profile of the screenwriter John O’Hara. When he’s done with that, he will pick up the second volume of his memoirs. He’s got a hundred pages done already, says Schulberg, pointing one of his canes toward a pile of paper.

“I just need the time to get on it,” he says, “Finish the rest of it. Just the time.” He’s been saying that for 25 years, since the publication of the first volume, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince. Although the book is about Budd Schulberg, the figure who dominates the narrative is his father, the early American screenwriter and movie executive B.P. Schulberg: “A writer with a facile, retentive mind, a flair for showmanship, and a sense of his own worth as a literate diamond in the murky field of illiteracy, he had come to the right business at the right moment, when it was growing out of its funky nickelodeon phase.”

B.P. Schulberg wrote his first photoplay in 1912, when movies were still being produced by Thomas Alva Edison, and ran for eight minutes, at the very most. He started out with Adolf Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company at $30 a week. Famous Players became Famous Players-Lasky which became Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky which became Paramount, where B.P. Schul-berg became head of production in 1928.

“Every picture of him is the same,” he says and points to a photograph on the wall in which B.P. Schulberg stands with his legs somewhat apart, hands in the pockets of his three-piece suit, wearing a hat, gazing confidently at the camera, the picture of a successful man. “You see that, the way he looks. He always looked like that.”

Budd Schulberg grew up in the 1920s in Hollywood, when it was still a small town in which his father ruled over the lives of actors who could be spectacularly successful one minute and forgotten the next. “When I was a kid, I used to think about these big stars,” he says now. “The poor things. They’d feel so big and so important and they didn’t have a clue as to what life had in store for them. They all imagined it going on that way forever and ever. Remember John Gilbert, with Garbo. My God! There was nobody bigger. Locked himself in his house. Drank himself to death. So the shifting of the seasons came to me naturally. I just saw it over and over and over again. It happened to everybody, to my own father.”

By 1928, B.P. Schulberg inhabited an office the size of a swimming pool, with stained glass windows, and a place among the few at the top of the movie business. “All the so-called moguls would play poker together once a week, the four or five big shots. They used to say that one bad word there, it was the kiss of death. They could really destroy people’s careers over a poker game. That was the way it was then.” The game eventually ruined his father.

The Hollywood big shots gambled for high stakes, ranked by how much money they could afford to lose. B.P. Schulberg was making $11,000 a week, in the middle of the Great Depression. But he was a very bad card player. “Outrageous gambler. I remember coming down in the morning, getting ready for school, and my father had been gambling all night, just lost $20,000 in a game at home and this is in the Depression, early 1930s. God, how much money he lost.”

Years later, Budd Schulberg was in Ensenada, Mexico, just across the border from California, famous for its casinos. “I went to this bar. I was drinking and when I asked for my check, the bartender pointed to a little fellow at the other end of the bar. “He paid your check for you.’ I looked over and it’s a total stranger. I’ve never seen this man before. Why would he pick up my check? So I went over and asked him and his answer was that he had been a dealer in the casino and my father used to come in on weekend. Sometimes he’d play all night and into the morning. Sometimes when people win a lot they tip the dealer, $500 or something. ‘But your father lost a lot and then tipped me, so I figure the least I can do is pay your tab. Your father tipped me so many times that I saved the money and opened an import-export shop.’”

Schulberg speaks with a stammer that he’s had all his life, an inheritance from his father. At times it has completely stymied him. But it also made him a good listener. He was listening when people didn’t realize he was listening. He liked to go to the Stanley Rose Book Store on Hollywood Boulevard, where the writers attracted to Hollywood from the East would congregate: Robert Benchley, John O’Hara, Nathaniel West, Alexander Woolcott, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald. “When they had enough cabbage in the bank, back to the maple-shadowed New England farmhouse they would go,” he says of them. “Ah, then they would write as their own men once again.” Some did. Fitzgerald didn’t.

Schulberg had just graduated from Dart-mouth College and returned to work in Hollywood in 1939 when he met Fitzgerald again. They were both working at the Goldwyn Studio as writers and they were put together to make a screenplay out of Dartmouth’s annual Winter Carnival. First, they talked about the idea. They talked about it for months. Then the studio insisted that they actually go to Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival. Along the way, in New York, Fitzgerald disappeared into a series of bars. The young Schulberg fished him out and onto the train to Dartmouth. On the train, Fitzgerald found the bar car.

“When we got off the train, he sort of fell over and lost everything. Things were falling out of his pockets and I was scooping things up,” Schulberg says and points up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Social Security card, framed on the wall. “Years later, I mean twenty years later, I find the damn thing in a bag. How did I have this? And by that time he had died, so I had it framed.”

“I remember all these people, all of them. I really have a very good memory. Still do. Sometimes they were worse, the ones who succeeded.” At the age of 27 he wrote about all the sycophants he watched cosying up to his powerful fathers. He boiled them all down into one man. “A little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran,” Schulberg wrote in 1941 in What Makes Sammy Run? From the moment the narrator meets the copy boy, he knows that Glick will succeed and he knows that he doesn’t like him. “I guess I’ve always been afraid of people who can be agile without grace.”

“I invented a word in the English language there. I wasn’t trying to. But that’s what happened,” Schulberg says now. “You see newspapers talking about the ‘Sammys’ hanging around a star or the ‘Sammys’ hanging around outside Madison Square Garden.’ That’s Sammy Glick.”

Glick succeeded by thinking always of himself. “What’s good for Sammy Glick is right.” He stole the work of colleagues, flattered superiors, betrayed friends, lied and cheated with everyone. He had an eye for other people’s talent, which he used to his benefit. These too were people who Schul-berg knew well, people who knew how to write or direct, but didn’t know how to play Hollywood’s brand of politics. “It’s queer to think how many little guys there are like that, with more ability than push, sucked in by one wave and hurled out by the next, for every Sammy Glick who slips through and over the waves like a porpoise.”

Sammy, of course, succeeded magnificently, married the boss’ daughter and took over the studio from his mentor. Schulberg called his creation the personification of a nation: “It was America, all the glory and the opportunity, the push and the speed, the grind of gears and the crap.”

Before he died, Fitzgerald read a draft of Schulberg’s novel. He told him that the book was very good, that he had caught the real feeling of Hollywood, that he would write a bit of praise for the book jacket, and that Schulberg would be persona non grata in Hollywood the day it was published. “The trick is to have such a success that they can’t bury you,” Fitzgerald told him. “If it’s a flop they can banish you. But if you have a critical and commercial success, you can live without them.”

Schulberg had a critical and commercial success with What Makes Sammy Run? Reviewers fell hard for the book. Readers put it on the bestseller list for months. The money poured in, and the fame. But Holly-wood hated the novel. His father begged him not to publish it. “I still got that letter. He said Budd, he said, I beg you not to publish it. One thing, you’ll never work here again. It will hurt me and your mother’s agency business. Put it aside. Write something else.”

His parents’ careers survived, but not his warm welcome in Hollywood. Sam Goldwyn called him a “traitor.” Louis B. Mayer told Schul-berg’s father, “How could you let your own flesh and blood write that book? You know what we should do? We should deport him!”

John Wayne, who believed that Hollywood was the true reflection of America, was deeply offended by What Makes Sammy Run? He denounced the book and its author at every opportunity. Decades after its publication, Schulberg was sailing into Puerto Val-larta on a perfect night: friends, wife, margaritas and sunset combined with the beauty of the Mexican coast. His wife told him to turn around. There was the Duke sailing in at the same time. The mayor of the town, delighted with such high profile guests, gave a dinner in honor of the two. In the middle of the meal, Schulberg felt a hand on his shoulder: “How about you ’n’ me settlin’ this once ’n’ for all? I’ll be back at midnight, an’ I’ll be waiting’ for ya!”

Schulberg thought this was a good opportunity to practise his boxing skills. But the fight on the beach turned messy. Both of the contestants were drinking tequila for most of the night. When the climactic punch-up came, neither could disentangle themselves from Schulberg’s wife, actress Geraldine Brooks, who threw herself between the two men.

The book was made into a play for television in 1959 in the days when the networks didn’t routinely keep copies of their live broadcasts. Only half of it survived as a kine-scope at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York until the spring of 2005 when the Library of Congress checked its stacks and found the other half, also a kinescope. The director Delbert Mann, already famous for his production of Marty, got Sammy Glick right. Played by Broadway actor Larry Bly-den, he was ambitious, dishonest, driven, a little bit sexy and feral: “I didn’t have to read no books to find out about Darwin. I learned about that on the streets – survival of the fittest.”

The production was all done in one day. “It was like a miracle. Very limited budget, I guess,” Schulberg says. “It’s hard to believe. They just raced from scene to scene. In the end it was a two-hour show. How did they do it? Amazing.” Mann and Schulberg, who wrote the teleplay with his brother Stuart, preserved the ending – in which Sammy is himself Sammy-ed by his dishonest, adulterous wife – and goes even further. When asked what makes him run, Glick turns on the questioner and asks instead, “What makes all the rest of you run after me?”

But when the production went to Broadway as a musical in 1964, the producers couldn’t bring themselves to let Sammy be Sammy. According to New York Herald Tribune dramatic critic Walter Kerr, “It starts out as a hardheaded, mean-minded musical about a whizz of a kid on the make… and then it cheats. Every so often, every too often, it grabs hold of the very things it means to be satirical about and uses them to make it cozy and cute.” Tom Cruise toyed with the idea of playing Sammy “just for a moment or two,” according to Schulberg. “That’s what I heard. He was considering it. If Sammy could be a little nicer.”

Now Ben Stiller wants to play the part. “In fact, he even got Dreamworks to buy it. So they own it now. My very, very strong feeling is they will never do it. Maybe I’ve got a persecution complex, but I’m not sure they did-n’t buy it just to kill it.” It seems that sixty years after it was published, Hollywood still isn’t prepared to see itself the way everyone else has seen them for nearly a century. “Steven Spielberg said that he would rather not do it thought it reflected too badly on Hollywood and he thought they shouldn’t make a film that exposes Hollywood that way.”

Schulberg managed to offend just about everyone with Sammy Glick. The old conservative establishment of Hollywood, always bigger than the left, also opposed the book because they thought it was anti-Semitic. Rumours persist that Goebbels bought half a million copies of the novel and used it as anti-Semitic propaganda. While Schulberg thought it portrayed “the free enterprise system at its meanest, brass-knuckled, kick-in-the-groin dirtiest,” the Communist party cells in Hollywood and their leaders thought that it wasn’t constructive, hadn’t considered the real class struggle. Besides, Schulberg hadn’t consulted the Party about the story or asked for their permission to write it. “The feeling was that this was a destructive idea: that it was much too individualistic; that it didn’t begin to show what were called the
progressive forces in Hollywood.”

Schulberg’s less known work was recently shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes, a film by Christian DeLage, had its premiere on a cold night in January to a sold-out audience. Director John Ford shot the whole of the Nurem-berg trials. William Dono-van, head of the Office of Strategic Services, had asked him to record the historic Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, and to provide the visual evidence for the trial as well. Ford gave that job to Schulberg.

There had never been such a trial before. It was meant to bring twenty-four of the most important leaders of Nazi Germany – Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer, among others-to justice. But it was also meant to be theatre. Nuremberg was chosen because the city had been the setting for Nazi spectacles. The courtroom was broken into small states. On one side were the defendants and their counsel, on another, the prosecutors. The judges lined the front of the room, and to the side were the ranks of press tables where reporters composed stories for newspapers throughout the world. It was Schulberg’s job to make the horror of what the Nazis did perfectly clear to all attending.

The Allied forces had yet to find much of the footage of Nazi atrocities which became available later. So Schulberg enlisted German film editors who had worked with the SS film units, who told him that, under the direction of their superiors, they had made films documenting German atrocities. Most were an hour or more. Occasionally they would get a request for short, twenty-minute films. These were a favorite of Hitler and Himmler and others like them was to run these for entertainment after dinner. They were called “desserts.”

The editors also told Schulberg that the films had been hidden in mountain vaults. By the time that Schulberg got them, the cans of film had been burned. It happened so many times, that he began to think that the same people who were giving him sites were also tipping off Germans to destroy the evidence.

Schulberg kept looking. “We looked everywhere we could for film that might be usable. In a basement we found a dozen cans. We started to run them. The Nazis had filmed the entire trial of the plotters who tried to assassinate Hitler on the 20th of July, 1944. The judge would scream at them, like Hitler, hysterical.”

The helpful SS film editors told them that they had seen film of the execution of the July 20th plotters, hung alive on meat hooks. Schulberg traced the film to Switzerland. “I went to Bern, spread the word that I was willing to pay whoever had that film. Someone came to me and I offered $2,500. He said, ‘Oh, no, there was someone who would pay more.’ I went up to $3,500 and eventually to $5,000. The man said no, ‘I’ve sold it to someone who’s paying much much more than that, someone in Spain.’”

But Schulberg and his company of filmmakers found over ten million feet of film of the Nazi party’s rise to power and what they had done with that power. He’d been given special instructions to get close-ups of high Nazi officials. But he didn’t know the officials well enough to identify him. So he found out where Leni Riefenstahl was living, drove up to her chalet on a lake in Bavaria and arrested her. “She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, ‘Of course, you know, I’m really so misunderstood. I’m not political.’”

The film he made was four hours long, all of it pure horror. Each concentration camp had its allotted time on the screen. Gray, grainy, but undelible footage of the overworked, the beaten, the starving, the gassed and the piles of dead was repeated over and over again. Schulberg had wanted to put lights on the defendants while they watched the film, but the chief judge refused. “I think he really wanted to be fair in every way. Bending over backward, he was, I think, so no one would say that we weren’t fair to them.”

Schulberg was political. Like many members of his generation, he was attracted by socialism and communism. In the years before the Second World War, he had joined a communist cell in Hollywood. He left when fellow members denounced him for writing What Makes Sammy Run?, for not seeking their guidance, and for not accepting their criticism. The cell member who spoke out most strongly against the book was Richard Collins, who named Schulberg as a member of the Communist Party to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1951.

Schulberg sent a telegram to the committee reading, in part, “My opposition to communists and Soviet dictatorship is a matter of record. I will cooperate with you in any way.” He named ten fellow screenwriters. “They had all been named. There wasn’t much new I could add.” To this day, he doesn’t regret it. Though he has committed a sin without pardon to the old left, Schulberg is unrepentant. “They think I support the black list. I think they support the death list,” he told Victor Navasky for his book, Naming Names, citing the mass executions and imprisonment of citizens in the Soviet Union.

It is widely assumed that Schulberg’s masterpiece, the screenplay for On the Waterfront is his apologia for testifying before HUAC. The belief is strengthened by Schul-berg’s partner on the project, stage and film director Elia Kazan, who also named names to HUAC. The script’s storyline seems to confirm the conclusion: a powerful, corrupt body, the International Longshoreman’s Association, keeps its members under tight control until a few lone voices speak out and break the power of the union. The difficulty with this scenario is that the inspiration for the film came before the HUAC hearings.

In the summer of 1947, Schulberg was working on a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Disenchanted on his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His father was living in a cottage on the grounds. Every day, the New York Sun newspaper was running a series of daily articles by Malcolm Johnson about corruption on the waterfront in New York.

It was, said Schulberg, better than anything he could make up. “The greatest harbour in America, all nine hundred piers and nine hundred million dollars of it, from Brooklyn to the Jersey shore, was revealed as an outlaw frontier run by labour racketeers who used the union as a front for every type of criminal activity: systematic pilferage, shakedowns and extortions, kickbacks from the daily wages of the dockworkers who had to shape up for their jobs every four hours.”

Schulberg clipped the articles every morning and put them in a file. When his novel was finished, he went to the editor of the New York Times and asked if he could do some reporting of his own. Malcolm Johnson, rather than objecting to the competition, helped him with contacts, particularly Father John Corridan, the Hell’s Kitchen priest who denounced the unions for their corruption and was so memorably played by Karl Malden in the film.

Schulberg spent three years on the waterfront before beginning the script. He took his story directly from what he had seen and heard himself. “One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can. You listen as much as you can. I simply wrote down what they were actually saying,” he says. It was, in many ways, more like a documentary. The shape-up, in which men had to compete with one another for a chance to work that day, was true to the common practice of the day.

Goldwyn Studios made the film, but they weren’t excited about it. Hollywood has long been opposed to films with a purpose. Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” So the film had a small budget, about $800,000, and was shot in just thirty-seven days on the docks of Hobo-ken, New Jersey. The publicity department advertised it with the unlikely line: “A story as warm and moving as Going My Way – but with brass knuckles!”

But On the Waterfront took the field at the 1954 Academy Awards with eight Oscars: best picture for Sam Goldwyn, best director for Elia Kazan, best actor for Brando, best supporting actress for Eve Marie Saint , best art direction, best cinematography, best editing, and best screenplay for Budd Schul-berg. It was sweet vindication for Schulberg and Kazan. An even greater reward was the waterfront reform that followed the film. “When the shape-up was finally banned soon after, it meant more to us, honest to God, than all those Oscars.”

Schulberg’s been writing on boxing since he first started writing about anything. A collection of his finest pieces were recently published in Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage, including thirteen pieces from the Sun-day Herald. “Why I write for them?” he says. “I started writing for the Herald because they asked me. They called and asked me to write about boxing for them. And I said yes, yes I would do that.”

All the young Jews in the 1930s identified with the Great Benny Leonard, he says, “very much the same way the blacks saw Ali as a symbol of their independence and their ability to rise up and that’s the way the young Jews felt about Benny Leonard. And my father took me to see the famous fight with his Irish rival Richie Mitchell. When we got there, this huge guard, he had to be six feet, said, ‘For Christ’s sake you can’t bring that kid in here.’ So my father had to take me all the way home. I was crying all the way home. It was the first fight I didn’t see. But late that night, my father sat on the edge of my bed and he described this fight so vividly that I still feel as if I’ve seen it. My father described it in such detail I felt I’d seen it. And in a way I have seen it, through my father’s eyes.”

Among fight fans, Schulberg is best remembered not for On the Waterfront, but for The Harder They Fall, the novel and movie that exposed the immoral brutality of fight managers. The boxer in the film, an Argen-tine giant named Primo Moreno, is clearly based on the Italian Primo Carnero, who was put through a series of fixed fights by his managers. Then they put him up against Max Baer and Joe Louis, and made a fortune by betting on the winners. Carnera was left battered, beaten and broke.

The most devastating sequence in Schul-berg’s film isn’t the duped boxer taking a beating, it’s the newspaper reporter’s interview with an ex-fighter on skid row, a boxer who once made millions, for others, who can neither speak nor feed himself.

There is no more dramatic distinction between success and failure than the boxing business. Even when fighters succeed, they can’t avoid failing. “Look at Holyfield now,” says Schulberg. “He won the heavyweight championship three times and now he’s about 44 and sitting pretty with honours and he’s still trying to fight and he still talks about winning the title for a fourth time and he’s lost all the skills and everybody can see it but him he can’t see it. He won’t stop until he practically gets killed.”

Schulberg is working on a screenplay about the great fighter Joe Louis with director Spike Lee. “Directors all have a niche, in the eyes of the money people in films,” says Schulberg, who would know. “They have a sense of how much each director can get for a movie. Spike is good for thirty to forty million. Where Scorsese may be good for eight million. So if Spike asks for eight milllion to make a film he’s in trouble.”

This is an $80 million film, because it contains the great twin themes of success and failure. “It covers the entire long career of Joe Louis. We follow him from the upward climb and triumph and then we follow him down the downward spiral. He suffered so much, same as the actors.”

Although Joe Louis made propaganda films for the government during the Second World War and donated proceeds from fights to war bonds, the Internal Revenue Service hounded him for taxes for the rest of his life. “I never understood why the IRS didn’t say, Jesus, we shouldn’t be doing this to him. When his mother died and left $600 to him, the IRS grabbed that money. They grabbed everything. When he was broke and wrestling for 500 bucks the IRS would go to the box office and grab that money. They took his estate when he died that he was going to leave to his children. He got a very very unfair deal. Jesus.”

Schulberg continues to write about boxing, faithfully following the game that has so few fans anymore. It hasn’t lost his appeal. He writes in Ringside: “Only in boxing is there one defining night when history is made and dreams and careers go rattling down like bowling pins. To the tenth and last frame. Game over. Only this isn’t bowling. This is one night that may decide how you will be remembered. Take a bow, you’re the champion of the world! Or – Get lost, ya bum!”

Budd Schulberg
Ivan R Dee, Inc, £12.60
pp368, ISBN 1566637074

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Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Editorial

IN Mediated – How The Media Shape The World Around You, Thomas De Zengotita remembers a moment in his daughter’s childhood when she asked who he admired. Wittgenstein, he answered, before proceeding to explain why with obvious difficulty. Intuiting something “stern and forbidding” about dad’s hero, the nine-year-old cut to the chase: “But was he nice?”

The child’s gauche enquiry inspires an indulgent chuckle. Sadly a number of grown-ups appear to have palates no more sophisticated. In a recent essay, novelist Rachel Cusk despairingly described her attempts to get her book club to read Chekhov: “I just think he’s not a very nice person, one lady said.” So what? I hear you say. It’s not as if we look to reading groups for in-depth analysis….ah, only it appears that we do.

Last month saw the launch of the Scotsman’s Book Club, a monthly forum whose discussions of new titles are transcribed on the books pages. First up, the Club tore into Christopher Rush’s childhood memoir, Hellfire And Herring, demonstrating a level of insight that was less the Algonquin Round Table, more a chimps’ tea party. Their comments comprise a compendium of gaffes professional critics (if they are any good) know to avoid: for example, reviewing a book on the basis of what it isn’t (here, Cider With Rosie instead of what it is. Worse, one member took Rush to task for not being fair to one of his characters; can you imagine what bland fare literature would be if authors felt obliged to be ‘fair’ at all times? Rest assured, Rush’s memoir is not ‘nice’ but then the world’s not obviously nice either. ‘Nice’ isn’t nice come to think of it; it’s a narrow-to-the-point-of-mean viewpoint that sacrifices passion, truth, ambition, eccentricity and darkness for
a low-cholesterol limply liberal consensus. For those promoting the nice agenda, the median is the message.

Back in the real world, a number of critics have recognised Hellfire And Herring’s self-evident qualities, and the SRB you hold contains a generous extract in order that you might judge for yourself. Review by committee, alas, is just the latest indignity the trade of literary criticism has suffered. And it is a trade, one that requires wit, patience and knowledge. The possession of a pen and an opinion does not in itself make one a critic. The point is made should you shuffle over to and browse the reader reviews of, say, Dan Rhodes’ Timoleon Vieta Come Home, a book some dismiss not because of the quality of writing but because it features animal cruelty at one brief point – the animal in question being entirely fictional.

Contempt for serious criticism goes in hand with contempt for serious literature. “There is no real distinction between ‘good’ art criticism and ‘bad’, since we’d have to presume that one reader’s reaction to a piece of work is essentially more valid than another’s,” wrote novelist Alan Bissett recently on a blog. The truth, unpalatable to many, is that there is a real distinction, or else the books pages could be written by a rotating cast of readers chosen at random like a jury. In another blog, Mr Bissett continued his postmodernism-poisoned thought to its logical conclusion, arguing that any work of art is really only worthy in so far as you enjoy it. He uses this position to put Shakespeare and James Joyce in their place, describing the author of Ulysses as a writer “lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose”.

The argument is dismal which is presumably why its adherents deliberately confuse matters by dragging in politics. ‘Good taste’ we learn is a conspiracy perpetrated by ‘an elite’. “Modernist works [were] designed principally to exclude the masses,” writes Bissett, who invokes, as do his co-ideologues, a hypothetical car mechanic whose opinion is as worthy as the pointy-heads’. That it has never occurred to these people that the mechanic might well enjoy Ulysses exposes who the real snobs are.

Be assured, a literary neo-conservatism is blowing through this land masquerading as the voice of the people. It confuses the right to have an opinion (which everyone has) with a belief that having an opinion in itself is interesting (which it isn’t). Literary critics are not perfect; certainly there are a few who deserve to be defrocked (see the Scotsman’s Book Club). But at his best, a book reviewer produces an entertaining, perceptive piece of prose in its own right, which avoids the ‘liked it/didn’t like it’ axis web critics and book clubs swing between tediously. This war on criticism stinks of Blairism at its worst. Take a whiff; it isn’t nice.

In the last of the SRB we said Agnes Owens is 80. She is 70. Our apologies to her and to Alasdair Gray, the author of the article.

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Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Contents

LESLIE CLARK – Budd Schulberg: An Interview

HANNAH MCGILL – Diary: Dubai or Not to Buy

GEORGE ROSIE – Landgrabbing: Who Owns the World?

PAT KANE – Prince of Profligacy: A Review of Brian Morton’s biography of the mercurial performer

ROSEMARY GORING – Trivial Pursuits: Delving Deep into Scotland’s Domestic Life


DR JOHN YOUNG – The Union Unravelled: 1707 and All That

CHRISTOPHER RUSH – The King My Father: Hard Times in St Monans

COLIN WATERS – Known Knowns, Known Unknowns: The Fate of Literary Manuscripts


LESLIE CLARK – Dallas Revisited: The Latest Theory on JFK’s Assassination

ALASDAIR MACRAE – Ane o’ Thae Beatnik Poets: Ever-experimental Edwin Morgan

Reviews by Ronald Frame, Craig French, Lesley Glaister, Simon Ball, Morven Crumlich, Ron Butlin, Michael Gardiner, Clare Jackson, Michael Fry, Jennie Renton, Aonghas Macneacail

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Volume 2 – Issue 4 – Reviews

Dear Olivia – An Italian Journey Of Love And Courage
Mary Contini
pp416 ISBN 1841958441


Mary Contini’s second ‘letter-book’, addressed to her younger daughter, unravels – in a way not too dissimilar from Dear Francesca – her family’s history of emigration from Abruzzo to Scotland through a delicate narrative blend of memoir and storytelling. Readers will be enticed by its balanced and evocative prose, which brings to life the memories (and the memories of memories) of at least three generations of Italo-Scots. Contini car-ingly charts the progress of Alfonso Crolla and Cesidio Di Ciacca (Olivia’s great-grandparents) from their life in Fontitune, a little shepherds’ village perched on the Appennini, which they leave in the early 1910s, and follows them and their wives – Maria and Marietta – through their experience of emigration to a new and not always friendly country. She records the devastating impact of WWI on their lives, when the men fight as Britain’s allies, and the brief, inebriating season of empowerment brought about by economic success and Churchill’s flirting with Mussolini. She reconstructs carefully the days of persecution and internment of Italian men and boys during WWII (culminating with Alfonso’s tragic death in the sinking of the Arandora Star) and eventually takes leave of the survivors at the opening up of a new season of stability and prosperity, in the old shop in Elm Row, in the late 1940’s.

Contini’s measured narrative weaves through the darkest decades of twentieth century European history with barely reference to the complex network of causes and effects that largely substantiates contemporary historiographical investigation. And yet the quest for historical knowledge is at the heart of her work. Contini’s focus is on oral testimony (“some passed by word of mouth through generations, some recorded on tape or written in letters and articles”) rather than written documents, emphasising ‘memories’ rather than ‘real facts’, and choosing that is a literary language and form (more complex, more allusive and more attentive to particulars than the factual language of history books). As a result Dear Olivia not only contributes to the re-codifying of a particular historical period but also – like all good literary works – to the exploration of important questions about human beings and human life.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, an exile in the USA from Nazi Germany, touchingly described the painful experience of deracination in a 1943 essay, ‘We Refugees’: “We lost our homes, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings”.

Whether motivated by political or racial persecution, as was the case with Arendt, or by poverty, as was the case with Crolla and Di Ciacca (and still is with millions of migrants in the world) emigration has always entailed a traumatic loss of identity. Memory – the act of remembering – is for the migrants’ community an act of survival, as well as a collective ritual that heals the trauma of separation and fragmentation. In Dear Olivia it is the rituals of food-making and food consumption (more than language, religion or even the memory of ‘place’) that substantiate the identity of the frail and yet cohesive Italo-Scottish community – flavours and smells, colours and textures, poetically evoked in many memorable passages, speak of home, are home. It is in fact the experience of taste, smell, touch, sight – universals that are also culturally elaborated – that triggers the synaesthetic memories which enable the Italian immigrants to reimagine the lost world of their native country. This is a deeply meaningful (and joyful) experience of food that will lead readers into a world very distant from the contemporary hedonistic pleasures offered by (trans)national food in a globalised world, of which Valvona and Crolla’s delicatessen (founded by Alfonso Crolla in 1934 and co-owned by Mary Contini and her husband Philip) is undoubtedly a splendid representative.

Dear Olivia, therefore, both represents and performs the act of remembering, as the mother’s ‘letter’ transmits to the daughter the knowledge of her great-grandparents’ proud story of resilience and success, and as the author’s poetic narrative discloses her family’s archives of untold stories, making readers empathically aware of the toll of suffering paid by innocent civilians, swept by the inhumane logic of war. The escalation of violence suffered by Italo-Scottish civilians (sadly similar to that endured by millions of innocent victims on the Continent and in the world) is reported by Contini with admirable balance and honesty, from scenes of occasional, almost ‘playful’ harassment, to the gang attacks on the tallies’ shops, from the abduction of men and boys (separated brutally from their families in the middle of the night) to confinement in internment camps and humiliation through lack of space, hygiene, food, and finally deportation to the colonies. Without both a knowledge and a critical memory of our past there can be no just and peaceful future.

And yet Contini’s storytelling is certainly not aimed at stirring resentment. On the contrary, it is inspired by compassion and a desire to heal trauma through memoir and to repair the damages wrought by the madness of war on civil society: wisely the author avoids simplistic polarisations and succeeds in representing the complexities of both Scottish society and the Italian community. There is no doubt that she is aided in this by her sense of loyalty and belonging to both worlds – a celebration of that ‘in-betweenness’ that cost the Crolla and the Di Ciacca so dearly. Hers is indeed “a journey of love and courage”.

Hope and Other Urban Tales
Laura Hird
pp240 ISBN 1841955736


Ironically titled Hope, Laura Hird’s first book in seven years is charac-teristically strong meat. At once unafraid and vulnerable, she confronts awkward realities in a succession of spring-loaded tales, with optimism a delicate hoar frost that vanishes to lay bare the more scabrous aspects of human nature.

The controlled dynamics and energy of the writing brings to mind extreme physical theatre. Taking contradiction and complexity to heart, Hird chainsaw-juggles plots over territory that is mined with misanthropy and malice. Choreographing obscenity into art, she revels in delivering ‘too much information’. Yet however much she pushes the boundaries, she never fails to cut it in psychological terms. The Hird way is non-judgmental but she makes you gasp like a corner gossip at the behaviour of others, then slyly puts you in touch with the slithery, reptilian thoughts you’d rather not claim for your own. The very fact that her toxic gags amuse so much is disturbing in itself.

Hird’s preferred writing voice is first person and her stories are character-led. She thinks herself deep into a particular mindset then lets events flow, this individual perspective dictating plot. Almost all of her fiction is set in Edinburgh, her home city being a character in itself, its inherent duality a constant inspiration.

The Hope of the title story is a gregarious middle-aged woman “with a Marianne Faithfull sort of clumsy elegance”. Flamboyantly generous, she gives a free room in her New Town flat to a twenty-something gay man, Martin Bell, who puts out that he’s the cutting edge in cool but is actually gauche and insecure. “Why can’t I force myself to like people?” he asks himself. “I don’t really like anyone, particularly myself.” His job in a second-hand bookshop in Stock-bridge is a financial dead-end but he augments his minimal wage with a nifty book-keeping scam, systematically fleecing his boss, who is conveniently undergoing a course of chemotherapy. Most of Martin’s dosh gets blown on drink and drugs.

Scenting a lifestyle enhancement beyond his wildest dreams, he can’t move into Hope’s fast enough: “Northumberland Street! Isn’t it that gorgeous Georgian street that all the queens stay in?” Once installed, he is disconcertingly drawn to Hope but the very first night she stays away, and before he decides whether to try it on with her, he pulls a random stranger in a bar and takes him back to the new pad. Keen to swank in his lush surroundings, he shows off the valuable film posters in the hall and the Moet and malt in the drinks cupboard before falling into bed. By the early hours he is already regretful of his fling and in vicious rejection mode. “How could a bottle of red wine and a vodka be so kind on the features of someone so grotesque? The snoring makes him doubly unappealing…”

Although your dislike of Martin intensifies with every turn of the page, you can’t help but share his mounting dread as the one-nightstand turns stalker. The claustrophobic atmosphere arising from the threatening, even potentially murderous domination of one individual over another, a feature of many of Hird’s stories, has echoes of Patricia Highsmith.

Hird’s characters may have tongues sharp enough to cut themselves on, but they’re only sometimes wide enough to escape the situations that overtake them. She snatches you straight into what you think is their world, and by the end of each story something shocking will have twisted that world out of recognition. This shocking element is by no means always an act of violence. In ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, you follow a woman’s frightening journey across the city on foot back to her husband at their flat. Vulnerable to all sorts of predation, she eventually makes it home. What is then revealed is startling and full of pathos.

In ‘Reanimation’, the final sentence, “We go for another ice cream on the way home” gives no clue as to what the good dad treating his little girl on a day out has recently been licking, or where. This theme of the demolished daddy occurs in grimmer guise in ‘Meat’, in which a lamb, and innocence, are taken to an unlikely slaughter. The lamb’s death is played out in a ghastly, protracted sequence that has the boy who is left to kill it thinking, “This time last week, everything was fine. The lamb was probably scampering round a field, chewing grass and doing whatever it is lambs do. I was doing whatever it was I used to do, thinking I would live for ever. Now look at the pair of us.”

Letters from the Great Wall
by Jenni Daiches
pp212 ISBN 1905222513


Just as many young Germans are reputed to know nothing of Hitler, so many Chinese under the age of 30 are said to be unaware of the significance of Tiananmen Square in their country’s recent history. While the spectacular protests and their crushing have come to symbolise a vast people’s yearning for democracy, the truth was as usual far more complex. The death toll, for example, is various, given at anything from 23 (by the Chinese Communist Party) to 2,300 (by the Chinese Red Cross). Even the motivation for the protests was confused; in one corner were students who considered the regime corrupt and the current wave of reforms inadequate, while in the other corner were many labourers who had been enjoying relatively good times and saw the reforms as a threat.

What few would dispute, however, is that the demonstrations/protests/ rebellions or whatever were directed predominantly by youth clamouring for self determination against oppressive old men.

Into this frame steps a (fictional) Scottish lecturer in literature, a young woman bent on escape from another regime of men who, if not all old, still represent the manifold varieties of male deceit and oppression.

Jenni Daiches (aka Calder) has for many years held a succession of well-respected positions with the Museum of Scotland, editing and writing books on Scottish history and literature. Letters from the Great Wall is something different: a novel of self-discovery and liberation. Her heroine is Eleanor, a first-class honours graduate now lecturing in English at Edinburgh University. Eleanor is the product of a stultifying male-ruled home in Linlithgow who has allowed herself to be cornered by Roy, a university anthropologist hungry for academic success, a pliant wife and babies. Eleanor is gradually suffocating. As Roy and her parents pile the pressure on her to wed and procreate, she suddenly decamps to China, giving a few lectures for cash but then touring the major sites, while subjecting her nearest and dearest back home to cold scrutiny. In the meanwhile, disaffection is brewing, and when she returns to Beijing she is just in time for the tragedy of Tiananmen Square.

As she moves around China, Eleanor sends (in her mind, or to some unspecified recipient) a series of letters describing China and pondering her reasons for fleeing Edinburgh. Thus, much of the novel is a description of her life in Scotland, and very depressing it sounds too. Eleanor herself seems lifeless at times, and is not wholly convincing; supposedly thirty-three, she feels middle-aged throughout, able for instance to refer to “youngsters necking” in the park. Her putative husband Roy is so tedious that one can’t imagine why she shacked up with him in the first place, or why she has the slightest compunction about cutting loose. Western men as a breed
come off very badly. Her father is a tyrant of the quiet sort, a dead hand of conformity. Her brother is a careerist going the same way. In China she is assaulted by a Pole, used by a cool Canadian, and robbed by an Englishman. Back home, the only man she ever loved is heavily differentiated: not a real Scot but a semi-man, an effete, bisexual Jewish restaurateur – and he deceives her too. By contrast, the one woman she gets to know in China is Dutch, big-boned and determined, making her own forceful way through life. Most of these are two-dimensional figures, and Eleanor’s attitude to them just a string of resentments. Only the Chi-nese men – a returned democracy activist, and a doctor-poet – are sympathetic. Men, says Eleanor, are basically irrelevant to her self-knowledge.

Nonetheless, Daiches’ debut novel has considerable virtues. Her evocation of travelling around China is sharp and effective: the vast and drab ‘Friendship Hotels’ in every city, the silent men spitting in trains, the extraordinary sense of eternal struggle (oxen ploughing just as they did in the bronze age). The prose is efficient. Perhaps a little too efficient. The style is clipped. Very clipped. Rather like this.

The final pages are the best, and are very well done. Daiches resists the temptation to draw back and take a grand overview of events. She barely mentions the politics behind the Tiananmen protests. The villains Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, the epic hunger-strike, the great statue of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ that was erected in the square, none of these things gets a look in. Instead, Eleanor is simply there with her friends, confused, frightened but determined, hearing gunshots in the distance, or creeping terrified through the dark streets. And there she leaves it, inconclusive just as the Tiananmen protests were, but with the world and Eleanor herself unmistakably changed nonetheless.

Looking At The Stars
Ian Pattison
pp288 ISBN 1845021037


Looking at the Stars is Ian Pattison’s third novel, the storyline drawn from a world the creator of Rab C Nesbitt, Atletico Partick and The Crouches knows well, that of the script-writer. The hero, a man with no name but several aliases, has travelled a downhill road of writing disciplines. Determined to exercise a talent he doesn’t have, he has gone from writing novels, poetry and plays to arrive in the niche world of the sit-com. When the story opens, this nobody who wants to be somebody has fallen from even those heights to crash land as a script-reader, passing his days in a Portakabin on the outer edges of an independent media company, assessing the depressing scribbles of other wannabes.

Badgered by aspiring writers whose scripts slumber in the slush pile, the protagonist concentrates on the important issue in his life – pulling – and when that fails, drinking. He’s an unsavoury type, forty going on thirteen, his view of women bizarre. “Marriage,” he believes, “is the launch pad of their dream”.

Pattison no doubt intends howls of derision from female readers at that point, but he develops the character from initial one-dimensional prat to a horrifically accurate portrait of the narcissist. Self-obsessed, expecting reward for no effort or talent, this man is the nightmare son, friend, lover and employee.

When his employer finally gets wise to him, the hero marries to secure a home, sustenance and funds, becoming “a nobody with better furniture”. Unexpectedly, that marriage also provides the means to success. In a Hollywood agent’s office, Pattison’s typically sharp observation of the receptionist will make eyes water; she looks “like she’d use cake tongs to toss you off”. He also provides meaningful insight. “But the truth is naked, isn’t it? And we don’t like nakedness in our lives.”

As the character journeys from abject failure as man and writer to Hollywood and success, he calmly uses, abuses and damages every person he has any contact with while seeing only his own over-riding right to better things. The strange emotional distance which feels like gauze over the text recreates the world-view of the psychopath. He exhibits charm without empathy or conscience in order to manipulate, demonstrating the ability to say the soothing word or be silent in a way that normal folk read as compassion or concern when the right response is absent from his emotional vocabulary. He stares. He watches. He’s a shark, the archetypal interspecies predator, hunting through a world of unsuspecting people, choosing his moment to bite. And bite he does.

Looking at the Stars is billed as a darkly comic novel. Although not a comedy, it possesses humour. “If you said anything jaunty to my mother, she’d damp you down quickly, like you were a chip pan fire.” The portrait of the mother, a mystery to her uncomprehending son, is rich. “She didn’t answer directly. She proffered a plate of Jaffa cakes. Perhaps expecting me to read them like runes.”

A stunning portrait of the psychopathic narcissist, this book should be obligatory reading; people might learn to spot the non-human sharks around them. Harmless-looking, smiling with their mouths, saying the right things, there is one, or more, circling each of us, their cold, dead eyes watching, waiting. Aspiring script or screen-writers will also find enough inside knowledge of the industry to send the wise among them screaming for the Jobcentre. The brutality of the slush pile, the disregard for writers, development hell, the silent phone, the worthlessness of success – it’s all there.

The novel grows darker and more gripping as the protagonist’s manipulations become ever more devious and dangerous. The book is only marred by some puzzling anomalies. To steal a script but keep the title is a dead give-away surely, and careless from a character used to covering his tracks.

Yet this is a story about hope, and the inability to give it up. Relevant
and readable, both language and style have a rough, grubby edge. There is nothing pretty here, even when the light of romance breaks through. Strangely, the seemingly out-of-character denouement does not disappoint. It should. Leopards do not change their spots, nor do narcissists develop compassion and the ability to love. But we hope, ah yes, we hope, and that’s our problem. With a script-writer’s awareness of serial potential, Patti-son knows exactly when to stop.

William Boyd
pp336 ISBN 0747585717


William Boyd’s novels have tremendous scope. Set in a range of locations and eras, from Africa to Europe, his storytelling has a deceptive ease too. Heightened atmosphere and tension are the things he does so well, and this novel is no exception. With a World War Two setting, Restless veers between France, Scotland, Ger-many and the USA, and has the pace and flavour that are a Boyd trademark.

The story concerns Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman – half-English, half-Russian – persuaded to work for a branch of the British Secret Service after the death of her brother. She is recruited by a stereotypical security operative called Lucas Romer, “the accent…upper class, patrician”, with whom she rather predictably falls in love and has a short affair. A parallel story runs alongside this one, that of Eva’s daughter. Living and working in Oxford during the 1970s, she uncovers her mother’s real identity. The two tales alternate throughout but instead of maintaining interest, the novel’s structure merely highlights how pale, genteel and dull the Oxford sections appear by comparison to the world of war-time espionage. Even the presence of would-be Iranian secret service agents or Baader Meinhof gang members fail to ignite these chapters.

In Eva, however, Boyd has created a credible and resourceful heroine. Despite rather unpromising beginnings, she makes a terrific spy – the most gripping sections concern Eva trying to evade her ‘shadows’ in 1940’s Edinburgh, or shaking off pursuit in a succession of seedy American motels. Eva, once she becomes a spy, is the equivalent of an actor chewing up the scenery when anyone else comes near. All the other characters appear cardboard cut-outs by comparison, including her daughter.

That Boyd can spin a great yarn is indisputable. There are echoes of many real-life spy stories here – from Anthony Blunt to the more recent tale of the elderly English-woman, Melita Norwood, the so-called, ‘Spy who came in from the garden’ – and Boyd has fun with this material. The most compelling parts of the narrative concern Eva’s espionage training and a narrow escape in New Mexico. In these sections the paranoia is palpable. No one is to be trusted and we wonder if Eva will ever find her way out. Through a maze of identity changes and disguises, we follow her on trains and buses and boats and aeroplanes, journeys which bear out the ‘restlessness’ of the title.

There is a cinematic element to Boyd’s work and this novel would make an excellent film. However, while the plot and the structure aim to elevate the novel beyond genre conventions, the language doesn’t soar nearly as high. In parts, the novel feels like a screenplay and the language is often trite, clichéd and leaden, and the dialogue forced. “Your brother was murdered by these thugs, these filthy vermin – you’ve a chance to get your revenge. To make them pay.” Romer says to Eva after their early meeting. And she replies, “Goodbye, Mr Romer, it was very nice meeting you.” It would work if the intention was pastiche, but it’s obviously not.

Similarly, in this novel, if an emotion registers once, it’s worth registering twice and with a train of accompanying adverbs. “My mother’s sudden revelatory detonation had rocked me so powerfully that I had deliberately treated it as fiction at first, reluctantly letting the dawning truth arrive, filling me slowly, gradually.” The effect is to undermine the emotion or action, not to make it any clearer. His prose is at its best when describing landscape. Here he is deft and original, as when evoking the melancholy of Scotland’s countryside. “[There were] the soft green hills scabbed by their dark patches of heather. It may be summer, the land seemed to be saying, but I won’t let my guard down.”

It’s a satisfying narrative, to a point. The details of Britain’s wartime efforts to bring the USA into the fray are intriguing, whether fiction or fact, but the ending feels a little too neat. In a novel ostensibly about shifting identities and loyalties, about duplicity and betrayal, it’s a disappointment to have everything so spelt out in the final pages; all the characters’ motivations are dissected for the reader. The authorial voice intrudes to tell us about waiting and unease and the restlessness of the human condition: “One day someone is going to come and take us away; you don’t have to be a spy…to feel like this”. Some people will love this book for exactly this reason; there are no loose ends. But for a novel to really defy genre conventions some space has to be left for the reader’s imagination. Some blurring or strangeness or resonance is necessary for a novel to really make its mark, for the reader to truly feel a sense of power and depth beneath the storytelling.

The Apple
Michel Faber
pp199 ISBN 1 84195 838 7


With his first volume of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall, Michel Faber brought a welcome new voice to the Scottish literary scene. The stories were vivid and inventive, and rendered in clear and striking prose. We looked for whatever might be coming next. There followed a novel, Under the Skin, an uncomfortable yet memorable story about a girl with a car motoring through the Highlands, picking up brawny male hitch-hikers for a fate that turned out to be horrifying. Given that an infusion of futuristic, sci-fi language was essential for his purpose, the prose remained sharp, focussed and economical.

We learned throughout this time Faber had been struggling with a project near to his heart, an enormous, quasi-Victorian novel about prostitution and failed relationships, The Crimson Petal and the White. It weighed in at well over eight hundred pages, and in it Faber loaded every rift with ore, luxuriating in language and crowding in detail, while for the most part avoiding the most sordid aspects of his theme. The book was enormously successful, and very readable, although a vocal number of readers protested that Faber had failed to provide an ending, or indicate the respective fates of former prostitute Sugar, her ex-lover William, William’s daughter Sophie, who was abducted by Sugar – and even William’s missing wife, alive or dead. He had left them guessing.

Faced with that clamour, Faber has allowed himself to remain hooked on Sugar and her world, and he quotes his exigent readers at length in his foreword to The Apple, a slim new collection of stories all of which concern in some way characters from Crimson Petal, from earlier or later times – and none of which answers the urgent queries of his hapless readers. Dickens and other Victorian serial novelists usually stood firm against such supplications, and in the well known case where Dickens qualified his ending to Great Expectations to appease his readers, I find it hard to defend the change. But Dickens did always shape his novels to a resolution, as his readers expected, while Faber seemed simply and suddenly to discontinue his pastiche. But The Apple indicates that Faber is himself drawn back to the Crimson Petal world, and that exuberant prose style.

So ‘Christmas in Silver Street’ returns to Sugar’s early days in the brothel, and her passing care for the pathetic child of the bordello, little Christopher, as she feeds him Christmas dinner with faint echoes of A Christmas Carol. ‘The Apple’ further illustrates the (golden-hearted) young prostitute’s attempt to avenge a proselytising hymn-singer’s ill treatment of her small child. Clearly, signs of the Miss Sugar who will later ‘rescue’ Sophie! Some of these stories are more remotely connected to the main characters of the earlier novel, but even those set well in the future fail to offer the resolution so much desired by readers.

I enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White, or almost all of it, on first reading, but I find you can reread it, for the most part, by skimming through the first sentence of every paragraph, and reading a few in detail. I know that Faber is on record as seeing Crimson Petal as “an antidote to the tyranny of ‘spare prose’”,

“a big sumptuous meal of prose”; and that of course he is more than entitled to feel. Certainly that novel has enjoyed enormous popular success, comparable to that accorded to Charles Palliser some time ago, and to Sarah Waters today.

But just as certainly, Faber can write in a more modest register when he chooses. He did so in his wonderful novellas, which as he says himself were written “in a very spare style, with no words wasted”. He has published two so far, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort. These to my mind represent his finest work so far, beautifully written and shaped, delicately discriminating, and in themselves perfect. Here he presents contemporary characters of real complexity. He resists every temptation to luxuriate, and points every sentence, every nuance with a sure hand. His most recent collection, The Fahrenheit Twins, is darker in tone than Some Rain Must Fall, yet its stories again show a writer with many directions he may choose to explore. I hope he does.

Born Up A Close – Memoirs of a Brigton Boy
Hugh Savage
pp288 ISBN 1902831977


“Without access to their own history and traditions, how can people breathe?” asks James Kelman in a powerful, uncompromising introduction to this posthumous memoir of an old Red Clydeside warhorse. Kelman first met Hugh Savage on a picket line organised by the Workers City group in 1990 during Glasgow ’s reign as Euro-pean City of Culture. Savage, already into his seventies, became the pivotal figure in a daring campaign of creative resistance waged by a raggle-taggle band of urban guerrillas whose weapons were words and whose mission was to expose the crass commercialism at the heart of the culture city extravaganza.

Kelman, Savage and the Workers City group challenged this worship of wealth. They fought to defend the history and culture of Glasgow’s working people against its sanitisation and marginalisation by the same elite whose forebears had successfully sanitised and marginalised the Gaelic culture of the Highlands. The name Workers City was a conscious rebellion against the idea of the ‘Merchant City’, the title which had recently been bestowed on a newly-gentrified quarter of Glasgow in honour of a posse of slave-owning, eighteenth century tobacco barons. Fast forward to 2005 and, as Kelman points out, male life expectancy in Calton, the district which borders the Merchant City , is 54 – lower than the UK average by 22 years.

Kelman reveals that Hugh Savage was a reluctant writer. Whenever he saw a review of the life of yet another an old socialist, he would shake his head with disdain. “He considered such projects an embarrassing aspect of the ageing process.” Savage even opens his memoir with an apology: “I am not a great writer, not even a writer at all, but it is time the footsloggers were heard rather than the generals”. Notwithstanding his protestations, Born Up a Close is a lucid and eloquent piece of writing.

The book is populated with intriguing characters: Maggie McIver, the shrewd, dynamic businesswoman who founded the world famous Barras street market and the Barrowland Ballroom; Dr Cossar, whose gymnasium was one of hundreds set up in inter-war Glasgow by religious zealots to entice young boys from poor homes into slave labour overseas; Bill Struth, the respected Rangers manager whose generosity and humanity took Savage by surprise when he went to work as a young, Celtic-supporting apprentice at Ibrox Stadium.

Working in John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde as WW2 approached, Savage’s instinctive hatred of injustice crystallised into political activism. Fascism was on the rampage across Europe, and everywhere the Communists seemed to be leading the fight to defend humanity against barbarism. But Savage joined the Communist Party not because of what was happening in Spain or Germany; he was inspired by the courage, warmth and intellect of the Communist shop stewards he met in John Brown’s shipyard.

These were no staring-eyed fanatics spitting out Marxist dogma like white-hot rivets from a rivet gun. The leader of the Young Communist League was “unassuming” with an “easy-going attitude”. The convenor of the shop stewards was “very approachable, never aloof and never dictatorial, he was a modest man and very intelligent”. Others managed to reconcile their vision of international socialism with membership of the freema-sons. One of the lads was a talented footballer who went on to play for Rangers. Then there was the young welder whose ability to sell Communist literature was legendary; he later found fame as Glen Daly, whose rendition of ‘The Celtic Song’ still reverberates around Parkhead before every home game.

The man who was to exert the greatest influence over Savage’s politics was Harry McShane, an ex-boilermaker who became a superb journalist with the Daily Worker. Disillusioned with events behind the Iron Curtain even before Hungary, he broke with the Communist Party and went back into the shipyards at the age of 63. As Savage puts it, McShane “turned to Marxist-Humanism long before Dubcek called for Communism with a human face”. Savage revered McShane, not just for his political and intellectual skills, but also because he was “completely and utterly incorruptible”.

Hugh Savage died in 1996. James Kelman deserves credit for rescuing this important piece of social and political history from obscurity, for writing an extensive introduction, editing and annotating the book, and for drawing together a number of interesting appendices and tributes to the author. Born Up A Close is devoid of sentimentality, nostalgia and self-obsession. Beyond his childhood years, there are only a few fleeting references to Savage’s personal and family life. The author is not the star of the show. His story is dignified and authentic. Like a photographer, his vision is always focussed outwards at the world around him: the people, the places, the politics.

How to Read the Bible
Richard Holloway
GRANTA, £6.99
pp134 ISBN 1-86207-893-9


For those readers who would normally give this title as wide a berth as if it could give them bird flu, Richard Holloway is quick to make his case. The business of reading and understanding the Bible, he writes, “is too important to leave to believers… Whether or not we believe in God, we can leave him to one side when we read the good book, because the best of it carries its own meaning within itself”. In other words, one does not have to consider it as the divinely inspired word of an omnipotent force for it to hold significance. Nor, as he makes clear, do we have to take all of it at face value.

In several moving philosophical works Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has charted the evolution of his own faith, from utter conviction to a state some devout Christians would consider near-apostasy. His has been a troubled, hard-fought spiritual journey, and he shows no sign even yet of settling into any sort of metaphysical rut. The scrupulous honesty and clarity of thought he has brought to his own theological outlook are used in this work to superb effect.

One does not envy him the task. The Bible is arguably the most dauntingly complex work of literature known to mankind. Obliged to keep within the format of Granta’s How to Read series, whose other subjects include the likes of Marx, Shakespeare, Sartre and Freud, Holloway is forced into a brevity and succinctness most theologians and preachers would find impossible to sustain. This exercise not only demands ruthless focus but also carries the requirement that his guide should be as useful for non-believers as for believers, an almost diabolically difficult remit.

Holloway nevertheless executes his task with unruffled poise. On the most superficial level, How to Read the Bible is beautifully and effortlessly written. More importantly, however, it is also an excellent primer. In the space of ten short chapters it strips the flesh from the bones, laying bare the historical, theological and ethical skeleton beneath the texts of the Old Testament – more correctly called the Hebrew Bible – and the New Testament, and in so doing explaining why it continues to exert such fascination and influence.

Starting with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – “the most fateful fiction in human history” – Holloway moves through the early conceptions of the Jewish God and the exile of his people, to the birth of Jesus and the establishment of a movement in his name after his death. Exploring the historical and mythic origins of different episodes in the Bible, he explains why the Bible was written as it was. Take the story of King David, for instance, who stole Bathsheba from her husband, and had the cuckold sent to the front line, where he was killed. When David faces up to what he has done, he is humbled but not trodden underfoot. The God this account reveals is not one seeking punishment for David’s moral weakness, but one who asks that people take a generous, sympathetic perspective of others, rather than a condemnatory line.

Indeed, according to Holloway that desire for empathy with others is the underlying message of the whole Bible. It finds its purest expression in the Gospel of Luke, where the disciple captures Jesus’s revolutionary idea, that mercy was fundamental to God’s nature. As Holloway writes, “he realizes that we are called not to the impossibility of perfection, but to the possibility of compassion: ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’” There is of course far more to the Bible than this simple line, but were it reduced only to that we would have grasped its essence.

In such limited space Holloway can address only a few of the issues the Bible raises, whether for the devout Christian or the sceptic and atheist. Those he discusses, though, include major immediate stumbling blocks such as the problem of suffering and the nature of miracles. What he does not tackle, in any depth, is what Jesus believed about himself; nor the hardest of all, his resurrection, and assurance of an afterlife. These are issues that the best theological brains have not solved, and can only be consigned to the realm of faith. But Holloway avoids any metaphysical explanations and sticks firmly to what is verifiable or can be reasonably deduced. How to Read the Bible is, after all, a work of textual investigation, not a critique of the tenets of Christianity.

And on this level it works extremelyly well. It is hardly surprising that by its conclusion Holloway has extrapolated from the wealth of conflicting material the seam of gold that could equally inform and nourish those who believe in God and those who do not: namely, the challenging ethical code that demands care for the weakest, and urges us vigorously to resist the acquisition of wealth and power. In this reading, the Bible is still a force to be reckoned with. Yet what shimmers tantalisingly between the lines of Holloway’s painstakingly nondirectional interpretation is the glimpse of spiritual depths that cry out to be plumbed. That, however, is another story.

The View from Castle Rock
Alice Munro
Chatto & Windus, £15.99
352pp ISBN: 0701179899


Alice Munro once described her first marriage, somewhat oddly, as “a good imitation of normal life”, and a superficial reading of her stories may leave you thinking that this is just what they are: a good imitation of normal, or everyday, life. They seem so very matter-of-fact, and indeed they are that, and this is their first strength. They are like the sort of stories people tell about their neighbours. You might think anyone could do it. But of course it isn’t so. It takes a peculiar talent to render ordinary life truthfully, and make it remarkable. The American writer Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov”, and one understands why.

The View from Castle Rock is an intriguing mixture of historical reconstruction, family memories, autobiography and fiction. Munro takes the bare bones of past lives and animates them. The story starts in the Ettrick Valley. Munro is a direct descendant of William Laidlaw, know as Will o’Phaup (or Will o’ the Phaup), who was the last man in Ettrick to see the fairies dance and was also the grandfather of James Hogg. (Her version has him encountering the fairy-folk in the upper reaches of Ettrick; another has him seeing them dance in Carterhaugh which lies between Ettrick and Yarrow and is the meadow where the young Tam-lane met the Queen of Elfland.) Hogg’s second cousin James Laid-law emigrated with his five sons to Canada, and it is from him that Alice Munro is descended, Laidlaw being her maiden name.

The first stories in this collection tell of that voyage across the Atlantic – one undertaken by so many Scots in the nineteenth century – and their settlement in Canada. She quotes letters written by old James, one sent to Hogg which he then had printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, another addressed to the editor of The Colonial Advocate. It is worth quoting: “The Scots Bodys that live heare is all doing Tolerably well for the things of this world but I am afraid few of them thinks about what will Come of thear Soul when Death there Days does End for they have found thing they called Whiskey and a great mony of them dabbles and drinks at it till they make themselves worse than a ox or an ass…” I am afraid old James was a bit of a humbug. Munro tells a story of him in his youth “putting on a show that could be seen to be blasphemous” at Tibbie Shiel’s inn. But in general these early stories give a vivid and often moving picture of the determined making of a new life in a new country.

Part II of the book, entitled Home, consists of stories of Munro’s own childhood and youth. They can be read as memoir or fiction. She says she had “drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material…I put myself in the centre…but the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality…” I don’t think it matters how much is factual, how much imagined. What matters is that it all rings true. What strikes one is how little the character of the people differs from that of the Lowland Scots of the same time – the thirties, forties and fifties of the twentieth century, or at least the character of rural Scots.

There is, for instance, the same ability of many of them to project a feeling of moral unease. “I always felt that something had not been done right, or not done at all, when I heard my grandmother’s voice. I felt that our family had failed her.”

There is one very fine story of first love. “It was not until we got back to the school yard and were about to pick up our bikes and ride back to town – separately – that the reason for our walk, the only reason as far as I could understand it, received our whole attention. He would pull me into the shade and put his arms around me and begin to kiss me.” Yes, that’s just how it was.

The last stories are written about the country as it is now, and about Munro’s investigation of the past. “In Sullivan Township you are reminded of what the crop fields everywhere used to look like before the advent of the big farm machinery. These fields have kept the size that can be served by the horse-drawn plough, the binder, the mower…Such fields are unchanged because there is no profit to be gained from opening them up.” There are not many fields left like that now here in Scotland, but you can still find a few. “In country like this,” she writes, “the trend is no longer towards a taming of the landscape and a thickening of population, but rather the opposite.” A writer needs an eye for such things; Munro unfailingly has it.

And there are other changes. “When I was growing up an appetite for impractical knowledge of any kind did not get encouragement.” Now people “do not seem to find it strange that anybody should wish to know about things that are of no particular benefit…They do not suggest they have better things to think about. Real things, that is, real work.”

It is partly because Munro is so keenly aware of changing circumstances and of their effect on the way people think and feel that she is such an enjoyable and persuasive writer. If one part of the fiction-writer’s job is to bear witness, few today do this more effectively and truly than she.

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Scots Abroad

A COUNTRY IMPLIES A PHYSICAL background, a population, a cultural context, and a horizon of intention. At times, when, for various reasons things in the homeland get murky and mushy, or else trivial and twittery, it’s in the outlands that the horizon of intention is best represented and advanced. A great deal of the best Greek thought was done, not at Athens, but in what the old maps called Magna Graeca (the shores of Anatolia, for example). To take an example closer in space and time, if we think of really significant Irish writing in the twentieth century, it’s not the nationals working on localist lines that come to mind, but Joyce and Beckett, who spent most of their working life in the outland. It takes time for the work of such people, based often on a deeper knowledge and larger conception of the indigenous culture than the version current in the homeland, to get integrated into the mainstream, but when this happens, then, the real sea-change can occur. And, if it doesn’t, well, those works remain on the horizon like magnets.

Billy Kay’s book is a documentary on what we might call Outer Scotland. I’m saying Outer Scotland rather than the word Kay uses: diaspora. This Greek word, meaning ‘dispersion’, ‘scattering’, is pretty heavily connotated, with an implication of forced expulsion. This may indeed sometimes be the case (in Scotland, we’ll think of the Clearances), but it is by no means always the case. The motivations and the movements may be entirely different. I’d suggest that, in the most interesting cases, the out-land is more in the nature of an aura – like the ring of Saturn.

Before exploring the more interesting aspects of Outer Scotland, let’s get rid of the crapulous kitsch that can pile up here and there, at home and abroad, in the name of ‘Scottish identity’. Starry-eyed as he can be whenever he gets a glimpse of tartan or hears a tinkle of the Doric, Billy Kay has this: “I too find aspects of Scottish Americana way over the top – I once saw a kiltie with what looked like a dead sheep slung over his shoulder, and I do not find the concept of a haggis princess appealing.” Glad to hear it, Billy. “But”, he continues, “given the choice between attending Highland Games in North Carolina, for example or the cauldron of hatred that is Ibrox or Parkhead on Old Firm match day, I would take the harmless benignity of the former rather than the malignant, sectarian repulsiveness of the latter.” If this were the only choice we had (it may sometimes feel like that), we could all consider mass suicide as a fine prospect. But, fortunately, another space is possible, and we can get into it, at least part of the way, with Billy’s book.

For decades, Billy Kay has been blood-hounding the globe, picking up scents of outgoing, exploratory Scottishness. This documentation has gone into radio programmes, and elements of the radio programmes get back into the book, giving it at times a more broadcasting than literary effect. For example, a lot of pretty ditties and convivial doggerel get quoted that, half drowned in music, would come across well enough on the air, but get a bit more shown up in the page. All you want to say to the author at those points is “OK, sentimental value, Billy, sentimental value” (for Billy has his heart in the right place), and get on to other tracks.

The other tracks are there. On them, you can follow merchants, mercenaries and missionaries, pedlars, poets, philosophers, and, not to forget the everlovin’ mainstream, football-players. With a pell-mell of picturesque detail, a welter of connexions, and random insights into ‘hidden history’. If you’ve never heard of ‘the Scotch coast’ on Hawaii, here’s your chance. If you’ve never come across Gregor Macgregor, the prince of Poyais on the bay of Honduras, or Lord Cochrane, the wolf of the seas, Billy will introduce you. If you’ve forgotten the biography of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, gallus gaucho of the pampas, flamboyant president of the first Scottish National Party, who dismissed Westminster as “an asylum for incapables”.

There’s a geographical structure to the book, which isn’t sustained, but which is evident and palpable.

It begins in Scandinavia, from where it moves over into the Baltic countries, Poland and Russia. Norway meant for Scotland the herring trade going out, and the timber trade, known locally as ‘the Scotch trade’ (skottehandelen), coming in, the Norwegian writer Petter Dass having his origins in this connection. Sweden meant mostly mercenaries, with Gustav Vasa building up a strong Scots contingent in his army, but one of the most active merchants in Stockholm was Blasius Dundee, and in Gothenburg there was a lot of Scottish trading and shipbuilding. Likewise at Elsinore in Denmark. In Poland, the Scots merchants gathered into a Scottish Brotherhood, with a book of rules and records called The Green Book Of Lublin, while Scottish pedlars wandered all over the Polish countryside hawking their wares. In Russia, Patrick Gordon was commander of forces under Peter the Great, and Charles Cameron was architect to Catherine. In the Caucasus, at the Skotslandskaya Koloniya, Henry Brunton translated the Bible into Tatar. The Russian writer, Lermontov, author of A Hero of Our Time, was the offspring of a Scots merchant, Lear-month. The popular Scots word for cash, ‘kopeeks’, is straight from the Russian kopeck. And if, in the fields of Angus you can still pick up lead tokens with Cyrillic script on them, it’s because they were seals on bales of flax imported from Russia in heavy-hulled Baltic brigs and worked by Scottish weavers to make sails for the seven-seas navy and coverings for wagons rolling West into Kansas and California.

Before you get at the live lines of the outfield in America, you have to get round not only the previously evoked pile of kitsch but a mass of gothic goonery, especially in the sirwalterscottish South. But some of the best boys in gray were Scots, and Sam Houston whittling his stick and wondering about the future of the US had a recognizably Scottish shrewdness about him. It’s elsewhere though that the lines are clearer. In the Constitution, for example, inspired by Scottish ideas, along with French ideas and Iroquois models. On the canoe trails, up to the lands explored by Alexander Mackenzie, where Scots rubbed shoulders with French-Canadian voyageurs and joined Indian tribes, like John Ross among the Cherokees in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Not forgetting the great John Muir who reminded the US that it should maintain its wilderness, or the ornithologist Alexander Wilson, second only to the Ameri-can Frenchman from Nantes, Audubon, or the botanist David Douglas.

Scottish work in Africa was mostly humanitarian. That there can be an objective collusion between mission work and colonialism is evident. As Bishop Desmond Tutu put it: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. ‘Let us pray’, they said. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” But David Livingstone from Blan-tyre and Mary Slessor from Aberdeen were clearsighted about it all, with Livingstone out to put an end to the slave trade while pursuing his Zambezi explorations, and Slessor ready to go further into African ways than most of her fellow Victorians.

We can come back nearer home via the Iberian peninsula, from where the whole trans-Atlantic thing started out. For Kay in this book it’s mostly a question of wine : port, sherry, malaga, with Scots merchants well to the fore, and John Drummond (João Escocio, John the Scot) out in Madeira. I would have followed other lines myself, but the wine line in itself is interesting enough, and that wine, epicureanly employed, can be a factor of aesthetic and intellectual expansion, who will deny?

I’ve kept France for the end of our Scotoplanetarian peregrination, because it‘s there that Scottish activity on the political, intellectual and aesthetic level has been the most intense. Kay quotes the example of George Buchanan, poet and historian; David Hume, philosopher; Patrick Geddes, sociologist (in a large and polymathic sense), and does me the honour of suggesting I continue in my own way that line.

Another of the book’s themes is ‘Jock Tam-son’s bairns’ syndrome prevalent in Scotland. Kay appreciates its egalitarianism, as I do, but also sees, as I do (and MacDiarmid did), its negative aspects: ‘the cutting people down to size’, ‘the exclusion of excellence’. In the book, however, he tends to skirt round such problems, in order to sing ‘Scots wha hae’ without too many interfering buzzes on the line.

Lastly, I might suggest that if Kay is right in seeing in Scotland, even now, as a “culturally colonised mentality”, maybe his own stance of Rampant Scottish Identity is only a second stage, and that the third stage to which we can maybe attain is to get out of the identity complex altogether and into an old-new, archaeo-novel, field of energy. What seems sure is that, without getting fixed in an anti-English pitch which is also part of the scotomatic syndrome, Scotland was more Scotland, and, socially and culturally , a more interesting place when it had more contact with Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, Holland and France than when it was semi-attached to England under a British flag which, in trying to get the island together, leaves out a whole continental lot.

To sum up. If The Scottish World is not a complete cultural geography (that’s still on the horizon), what Billy Kay does, and he does it well, true to his intention of adding “an open, international dimension to our sense of national identity”, is weave a web of world-wide Scottishness with a weft of critical humour and a woof of knowledgeable feeling.

by Billy Kay
Mainstream, £16.99
pp304, ISBN 1845960211

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A Tale of Two Books

I HAVE BEFORE ME two books of the same name. They are called Grasping The Thistle but they are very different works, the first being what Michael Russell and his co-author, businessman Dennis MacLeod, really wanted to publish, the second what a political party allowed them to publish.

Now, normally, one would not review a publisher’s proof copy, even if, as in this case, the publisher had actually sent it to you to review. You would, of course, wait for the final version that goes on the shelves. However, there is a public interest case for reviewing both books, if only because the bowdlerisation of Russell’s first version of Grasping The Thistle serves as an illustration of his central thesis: that the dictates of party discipline cripple the creative political imagination.

Russell has creative imagination coming out of his ears, and he wants nothing short of a new form of direct democracy in which the people, rather than the political parties, would be in the driving seat. However, there was rather too much imagination in the first Grasping The Thistle for the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond.

You see, Michael Russell is the former Chief Executive of the Scottish National Party, and an SNP candidate for the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP did not come out of his review unscathed. Indeed, Russell called on the SNP to abandon its introverted and ‘statist’ political ways, change its name, and embrace the free market in a way even Margaret Thatcher would have considered extreme.

The SNP should, Russell believes, abandon formal independence in favour of a “new Union” with England. The first version of Grasping The Thistle calls on the party to have a nationalist ‘Clause 4’ moment, effectively giving up on social democracy. It should slash the welfare state; cut taxes by up to 30 percent; introduce vouchers for education and hospitals; and dismantle the NHS in favour of an insurance based health service.

Russell went on to call for a separate currency for Scotland, called the ‘ducat’, in accordance he insists with Scottish history. Moreover, he called for the ducat to be devalued by 5%, and for the Barnett formula, which calculates Scotland’s share of UK public spending, to be scrapped in favour of something less generous.

Finally, and most heinously, Russell described Alex Salmond as: “A leader brilliantly suited to guerrilla opposition but much less well attuned to the disciplines and demands of any new politics”. When Salmond saw this, he flipped. Scissors were procured and he went through the text chopping. Pieces were labelled “Dangerous”, “Very Dangerous” and “Relatively Harmless”.

It was made clear to Russell that if he thought so little of his own party’s policies, and the character of its leader, he might not be suitable as a candidate for the SNP at the next election. In the final published version there is no mention of guerrillas, of devalued ducats, health vouchers or name changes, though a good number of dangerous thoughts remain such as Russell’s proposal that hospitals should make a profit or close down – an idea that his Labour opponents will have fun with in next May’s election campaign.

So, much of the thistle went ungrasped. All of which Russell would, I am sure, see as living proof of his claim that political parties have become a barrier to radical ideas and independent thought. He longs for a day when parties become loose associations of autonomous politicians under the control of local electorates, subject to instant recall, and obliged to come up with new ideas to survive.

“Membership of a political party” says Rus-sell, “should not permit that party to dictate the manifesto of a political candidate, or the voting choices or activities within the Parliament of any individual MSP”. Russell wants to invert the existing relationship between parties and politicians. Voters would choose the individual not the party, which would be reduced to a kind of support mechanism.

This presumably would allow independent spirits like, well, Michael Russell, to thrive, instead of being ground down by the party machines. Russell, one of the SNP’s most experienced politicians and gifted orators, was dumped by his local party organisation before the last election. In the wilderness, he has been thinking deep thoughts.

Sometimes, they are very deep. Russell doesn’t carry his learning lightly. We are given a panoptic account of the history of democracy from the golden age of Periclean Athens to the Scottish Parliament under Jack McConnell. He likes to quote classical scholars, like the Roman commentator Polybius. Though Russell is surely the only commentator who will ever cite Polybius and Geoff Hoon on the same page.

Russell says that political parties are products of the industrial age, and that the digital revolution opens the way for a new form of participatory democracy. He compares parties to trades unions, under the closed shop – they may have served a purpose in establishing industrial democracy, but in the end they became a restriction on freedom. Now, with modern technology, they are redundant.

He isn’t the first person to say that the internet could create a new direct democracy, but he is the only person to have actually worked out a constitution for an e-parliament. His would have three chambers. The First Chamber would be the people interacting electronically, who would not only elect MSPs, but would propose and initiate legislation and have the right instantly to recall the legislators if they don’t cut the mustard.

The Second Chamber would be like today’s representative parliament, composed of elected members, though without the whipping system through which political parties enforce ideological discipline. The Third Chamber would be the government and ministers, appointed by a directly-elected Prime Minister, on a four-year term. The PM would be expected to choose as ministers people from any walk of life who happen to have the intelligence, imagination and competence to run a successful government.

The overall idea, and it is an attractive one, is to wrest control of the state from the kind of ‘numpty’ politicians who seem to thrive in political parties like, well, the Scottish Labour Party. Many supporters of devolution have despaired at the poor quality of politicians who seem to gravitate to the top of our party system.

Scotland has many able people, but they don’t go in for politics, and it’s not too difficult to see why. People are repelled by the closed mentality of political parties which select on the basis of cronyism and conformity. The Scottish Labour Party’s candidate selection process for the first Scottish elections in 1999 still casts a shadow over Holy-rood. Independent spirits were systematically weeded out by tribunals of party hacks.

However, I’m not sure that Russell’s new model democracy wouldn’t bring its own deformities to the body politic. It seems to me that his democratic cat’s cradle would in practice be dominated by the personality of the Prime Minister. He or she would be elected as a kind of benign four-year dictator, while the rest of the parliament is as shifting and transient as an internet chatroom. A kind of Myspace parliament, a playground for attention-seekers and exhibitionists. The legislators in the Second Chamber, since they have no fixed term, would be forever watching their backs against the threat of instant deselection by disaffected local groups who they would have to buy off in some way.

Parties are clearly a problem, but one of their functions, as well as imposing discipline on the membership, should be to exert some democratic control over the executive. I know that the Labour Party hasn’t been very good at holding Tony Blair to account recently, but that only makes my point. I fear that Russell’s parliament would be an ideal forum for charismatic and headstrong individuals like Blair.

Russell seems almost to welcome this when he writes: “Political parties will eventually be transformed from being ideological political platforms to becoming supporters of the sharp edged visionary ideas of their more enlightened leaders.” Somehow, the image of Silvio Berlusconi immediately came to mind.

Do we really want people like Richard Branson or Alan Sugar being given personal control of the nation? Or Brian Souter, who is repeatedly praised by Russell for his experiments in direct democracy in the anti-homosexual ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign six years ago. This would be a kind of hyper-populism.

Political parties may be a bit of an anachronism but I’m not sure that we can entirely do away with them. They aggregate the peoples’ will rather than pander to it. Parties ought to provide the intellectual content of an administration, and should generate the policies which transform political philosophy into practical action. This requires a degree of ideological coherence, which shouldn’t be confused with thought control, or Labour control-freakery.

I have to say that Russell’s own ideological adventure rather confirms the need for political parties. Grasping The Thistle – even the revised version – is a blueprint for an essentially neo-conservative political revolution in Scotland. He wants to privatise the state, abolish inheritance tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and introduce the highly regressive flat-rate income tax, which has been introduced in some Eastern European countries like Estonia.

If Russell were in charge, Scotland would be exposed to something like the “shock therapy” that the Friedmanite ideologues imposed on the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This would imply, not just a rebalancing of public spending, but the wholesale destruction of the welfare state, taking the clock back to Edwardian Britain before Lloyd George’s People’s Budgets.

I’m not sure the Scottish people are prepared for such a Year Zero. Imagine the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh having to close because it failed to make a profit. What would happen to the patients? Scotland is a relatively egalitarian country with much less income inequality than England. Under the Russell/MacLeod revolution it would become a playground for the super-rich, a plutocratic caste with no interest or connection with the ordinary people. Jock Tamson need not apply.

Grasping The Thistle may be independent thinking, but I’m not entirely sure it is rational thinking. Certainly, these ideas are so far removed from the manifesto of the Scottish National Party that it becomes difficult to know how Russell can remain a member of it. It seems to me that he disagrees with just about everything his own movement stands for: social democracy, Europe, independence, parliamentary democracy, progressive taxation, public services free at the point of need, an oil fund – the list goes on and on.

The ‘New Union’ proposed by Russell, is at odds with the policy of ‘independence in Europe’ followed by the SNP for the last twenty years. Setting up a separate Scottish currency may be radical but it is also rather pointless. Ireland, which is always held up as a model, seems have done very well under the euro. Grasping The Thistle is saturated by the kind of euroscepticism that even the UK Tory party has abandoned.

You simply cannot have any kind of programme for government – at least one in which voters can have any faith – when members of the same political party have such contradictory and irreconcilable political beliefs. If Salmond hadn’t used the blue pencil, how would people know what the Scottish National Party stands for?

It is a pity that Russell decided to use his book to proclaim his own personal conversion to neo-conservatism, because the questions he raises about the future of representative democracy are desperately important ones. The turnout in May’s election to the Scottish parliament is likely to fall substantially short of 50%. This is a reflection of the crisis of representative democracy across all the industrialised countries. Russell makes an excellent contribution to the debate about how to revive politics, even if he may have flattened his own political prospects.

by Michael Russell and Dennis MacLeod
Argyll Publishing, £7.99
pp255 ISBN 1902831861

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Volume 2 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

Apollos Of The North – Selected Poems Of George Buchanan & Arthur Johnston
Edited by Robert Crawford
POLYGON, £14.99
pp154 ISBN 1904598811

What, one wonders, would George Buchanan and Arthur Johnston make of contemporary Scotland? Doubtless these two Renaissance poets would be as appalled as their translator Robert Crawford at the decline in the teaching of Latin, “one of the great languages of Scottish literature” as well as “the voice of Europe”. Buchanan and Johnston’s facility with Latin verse inspired their fame across the continent in their day but rather ensures their obscurity in the twenty-first century. Crawford has translated a selection of their verse into contemporary English and Scots. He flits between a close translation and interpolating anachronisms. In subject matter, Johnston is the earthiest of the pair, with stinging lines on prostitutes and Popes, though even he indulges in the period’s obligatory sucking up to aristocrats. Johnston is ostensibly gentler though a rage-struck poem about nobles burnt to death in a surprise attack on a tower is weirdly modern. Let’s just say he wouldn’t have opposed Guantanamo Bay: “Vulcan has allowed you now to use/ His red-hot branding iron on suspects’ flesh”. His poetic portraits of Scottish towns are more sensitive and include the sweet if unlikely observation: “If Jupiter could see Montrose from Rome’s/ Capitol, he’d emigrate here too”.

From Trocchi To Trainspotting – Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960
Michael Gardiner
pp202 ISBN 0748622330

Literary theory, Michael Gardiner writes, is “typically taken to mean a collection of jargon which spoils literature for everyone else”. Gardiner hopes to persuade us otherwise though he sometimes sabotages himself with sentences like, “The compression of time destroys the sequentiality of tactile experience which makes up history, and the world which is constructed in terms of space within the self becomes modified and open to solipsistic individualism”. Get past the indigestible first chapter and the book opens out into an uneven yet frequently ingenious series of close readings. His demolition of MacDiarmid’s synthetic Scots is clever. And he convincingly explains why Muriel Spark was a slyly experimental author. Her scepticism of Edin-burgh’s Enlightenment values, and their strict segregation of good and evil, mirrors the general development of Scottish literary theory, a movement which would find its figurehead in Alexander Trocchi. Gar-diner is at his best when steering away from dread jargon towards sarcastic asides like the one about how antisyzgy was the perfect word for MacDiarmid “because not only did it sound clever and scientific, no one knew what it meant”.

The Berlusconi Bonus
Allan Cameron
LUATH, £9.99
pp183 ISBN 1842820575

Francis Fukayama will probably go down in history as the author of one of the most demonstrably wrong statements of all time, though with
the way things are going perhaps history is about to end – and in a notably bleaker fashion than Fukayama conjectured. Allan Cameron’s dystopian satire takes place in a forlorn future where history hasn’t merely terminated but discussion of it is punishable by torture. Only the ultra-rich can hope to avoid punishment by the thought police; if you have the cash you can buy yourself a ‘Berlusconi Bonus’. Aptly named after the deposed Ital-ian Prime Minister, a BB places its owner above the law. On receiving his Bonus, Adolphous Hibbert is ordered by the sinister Captain Younce to spy on his lawyer, a suspected rebel. Hibbert obeys but falls for a female dissident he meets in “a Fukayama End-of-History Theme Park”. One must ask whether Hibbert, who was presumably hard nosed enough to make billions, would turn on the Establishment so quickly. And as a novel of ideas, there’s a fair amount of speechifying where there should be dialogue. Still, Cameron is voicing fears many of us have had – and may yet live to see if we don’t heed warnings like this.

Invisible Islands
Angus Peter Campbell
OTAGO, £8.99
pp138 ISBN 0955228301

Wearing a conspicuous debt to Italo Calvino, Invisible Islands presents itself as a guide to an archipelago of unusual Scottish islands, so unusual most Scots haven’t heard of them. Rather like Marco Polo’s fantastical descriptions in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the islands we visit in Campbell’s book consciously sit on the outer limits of credulity. On one island it rains constantly: “The only shops on the island are the ones that sell raincoats and waterproofs.” On another a “visual-verbal patois” has developed where if you raise or lower a shoulder at the wrong moment, an attempt to say good morning can turn into “Can I sleep with your wife?” Other islands are run by women or the military, or “the local people have turned into stone, or wood, or stream”. Language chiefly though seems to be what distinguishes the islands, and language, Campbell ventures, is “essentially political”. “Every adverb drags a library behind it, every noun a civilisation, every adjective a universe, every declension a time.” One starts to think of them as not so much islands but as various aspects of Scotland’s history and character. One has to be in the mood for this sort of thing. You may well want to stay on the islands for a while, but I was all for packing my bags after the first few stops.

The Worms of Euston Square
William Sutton
pp362 ISBN 184183100X

Anyone familiar with Joseph Con-rad’s The Secret Agent will recognise this tale of terrorist agents at work in Victorian London. The association both works for and against Sut-ton’s competent debut novel – we can’t help but be mindful of a classic against which Sutton can’t really measure up. Even if it can’t recreate Conrad’s spectacular prose style this is still a thoroughly enjoyable tale. Campbell Lawless is a young police recruit from Edinburgh now working in London. One night, a hydraulic engine explodes at Euston Square and sabotage is suspected, especially when the week-long dead body of a vagrant is found in the ruins. Lawless’s boss is the irascible Inspector Wardle, who is unconvinced the case is worth investigating. Lawless, however, suspects more, and his investigation leads him into the arms of New Woman librarian Ruth Villiers and the realm of revolutionary activity, personified by one Berwick Skel-ton. Sutton keeps the pace speedy enough without causing confusion, and if there is a little too heavy a reliance on his own research details and cumbersome sentences, he has still produced a promising debut.

Somewhere to Lay my Head
Robert Douglas
HODDER, £14.99
pp340 ISBN 0340898429

If personal histories by the likes of Blake Morrison are the Radio 4 of memoir, then Robert Douglas is definitely Radio 2 – easy listening, undemanding, nothing too troubling. This sequel to the bestselling Night Song of the Last Tram should be unsettling, though; Douglas is dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death, his own father’s abandonment of him, and his enlisting in the RAF against his father’s wishes. Even when he goes down the pit once discharged from the RAF, and witnesses the death of a fellow miner, crushed under boulders, Douglas is anxious to keep the show moving, not wanting to linger too long. The value of this kind of autobiography, by a member of the public who has no previous claim to fame, is its simple capturing of days long gone by. Douglas’s world is an essentially male-dominated one: the RAF, the mines, the working-class culture of Scotland in the Fifties. It’s an innocent time too. When Douglas moves out of his uncle’s house once
he gets his mining job, for instance, he lodges with another young miner, with whom he has to share a bed. Doing his National Service, he’s “surrounded by good pals”. Those, indeed, were the days.

A Musician’s Alphabet
Susan Tomes
FABER, £12.99
pp160 ISBN 0571228836

The delight of this short book is its ability to range from one subject to the next all in the name of music. So, Edinburgh-born Tomes, a pianist who specialises in chamber music, may alight one minute on the importance of being in a group; the next, on the recent phenomenon of councils playing classical music in late night shopping centres to deter teenagers from hanging around (classical music isn’t ‘cool’). She’s amusing too on how parents’ early delight that their little treasure has a musical talent transforms years later into acute anxiety that Mozart junior might actually be considering making a career out of being a musician, instead of investment banking. In short, this is an entertaining but informative look at the world of the classical music performer, and if Tomes can’t help sounding like a fuddyduddy Mum, occasionally railing against tunes with no melody, she balances it with an acerbic summation of the financial life of the freelance musician. Unsurprisingly, it’s none too lucrative.

The Singin Lass: Selected Works of Marion Angus
Edited by Aimee Chalmers
POLYGON, £14.99
ISBN 1904598641

Aimee Chalmers doesn’t have to make a case for the visibility of Marion Angus’s poetry. Work like ‘Alas! Poor Queen’ (about the death of Mary, Queen of Scots; see its haunting lines, “Of the dancing feet grown still, The blinded eyes – Queens should be cold and wise, And she loved little things”), included in this volume of poetry and prose, speaks for itself. But how easy it is for a life to disappear! Chalmers resists the temptation among literary biographers to skim over lives with little passion in them. If only, you can hear them thinking, Angus had had an affair with Hugh MacDiarmid instead of critiquing his poetry. Chalmers works hard to show the worth of recording a life lived according to duty and Christian principles. Sadly, on its own, it doesn’t make for an exciting read. One minister commented that Angus was considered “one of the most unconventional people in Arbroath”. How far would a woman have to go to be unconventional in Arbroath in the early twentieth century? “Smoking and riding a bicycle” is the answer. A full biography, exploring Angus’s social and literary context in detail, could be interesting. If a publisher one day commissions that biography, hopefully Chalmers will write it.

Liz Niven
pp64 ISBN 190522270X

Niven’s ‘A Drunk Wumman Sittin Oan A Thistle’ is the longest poem in this re-issued collection, and, in its parodying of MacDiarmid, one of its most mischievous (“Could ye jist hae seen the history books if Rabbie wis a lass?/She’d o fun herself wi child, cut aff at the first pass”). On the whole Stravaigin is an enjoyable collection. Political poems about the legacy of the Holocaust and the erosion of cultural roots, even the new Parliament, sit side-by-side with humorous takes on the traditional place of women in Scottish society. For example, in ‘Devorgilla’s Legacy’, Devorgilla being the devoted thirteenth-century wife of John Balliol, who carried his embalmed heart with her always, she mocks “Wouldn’t be allowed now/ Even a bit of ash is suspect/Folk would say/ ‘Get a life’”. Niven looks both inwards as well as out: into Scotland’s history (from ‘We Had No Zip Codes In Glasgow’: “In this wee land of postcodes, shires/ and Scottish banknotes/our currency was void”), and out to its future. She ranges impressively and with ease from the rural to the urban and back again, from Scots to English, to warn us, ultimately, and with a hint of danger, “Scotland, like Orpheus, you mustn’t look back”.

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The SRB Interview: Ismail Kadare

ISMAIL KADARE was born in Gijirokastër, Albania in 1936. He studied history and philology at the University of Tirana and later, once he had declared his intention to write fiction, at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. The majority of his adult life and writing career took place during Enver Hoxha’s long Communist dictatorship of Albania. Hoxha appears in fictional form as the Guide in The Successor, the latest Kadare book to appear in an English translation. The Successor speculates about the mysterious death of Mehmet Shehu, who had been groomed by Hoxha as his replacement. In its deft entwining of the personal and myth, and in the way in which it locates the Albanian experience within European history, it exemplifies Kadare’s fictional interests. In 2005, Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, despite claims he was closer to the Hoxha regime than he had represented himself. With the help of David Bellos, the English translator of The Successor, Colin Waters spoke to Kadare when he visited edinbugh in August.

Scottish Review of Books:When one encounters a real life mystery, imagination rushes to fill in the gaps. In The Successor however you’re careful not to dramatise the death of the Successor as other writers might have, focussing instead on the characters around him. What do you think the novel gains by such approach?

Ismail Kadare:The character of the Successor himself isn’t that interesting. And as you come to realise at the end of the novel the Successor and the Guide are interchangeable, they’re of the same race, the same matter – a clan of assassins. That is to say that the death of the Successor is not itself a tragedy; the tragedy is of a whole people who lived under the tyranny of both men.

SRB: It sounds as if you’re saying that the character of the Successor as far as the novel is concerned is what we’d call a ‘MacGuffin’?

IK: Yes, that’s right. It’s part of the history of Albania, part of the history of Communist Albania. It’s not so interesting in itself. An example. Last year when I was in Scotland for the International Man Booker Prize, I went on a little tour of the country. And I went to Glamis Castle. I am very interested in Macbeth so I visited the dungeons of the Castle. The tour guide stated that Macbeth did not kill Duncan here, that Shakespeare was wrong because Duncan was actually killed in battle. I burst out laughing. It doesn’t matter; Shakespeare got it wrong but everybody gets it wrong. It’s not the history that matters; who cares? It’s like the case of Schliemann’s Troy. The question there was, is this Troy? Did Troy exist? It didn’t make any difference to Homer. Homer’s Troy exists whether or not the real one does.

SRB: Yes, but Shakespeare and Homer were writing about historical events that took place centuries before their times. The fictionalised events of The Successor took place a mere two decades ago. You can see how this might lead to confusion.

IK: Of course, that’s why I stuck pretty much to historical fact; I wouldn’t want to create an awkwardness with the readers if I was to change things too obviously. The Successor sticks pretty close to the facts – in as far as there are any facts. It sticks close to what is known. There are two versions of the story: the official state explanation, which is suicide, and the rumour, which was that he was killed. I sketched in a third version, that he was killed by his family, which I believe to be true. But to find that truth I didn’t get there by detective work – truth for truth’s sake – but because the literary structure of the work led me there.

SRB: What’s the relationship between fact and fiction in The Successor then?

IK: I don’t accept the term ‘historical novel’ or ‘historical fiction’ in the literary novel. I wrote a literary novel and the laws of literature governed how it turned out.

SRB: When the historical murder took place, you were still living in Albania. Did you immediately sense its dramatic potential? Did you set it aside in the knowledge you’d use it later?

IK: I thought of it as good literary material straightaway. In the mid-Eighties, about three or four years after the death, I wrote a short novel called Agamemnon’s Daughter, which focuses on the Successor but not on his death. I couldn’t publish it in Albania at the time, but I was drawn back to the characters in the book. Agamemnon’s Daughter deals with [the Successor’s daughter’s] engagement and its break-up which took place before the murder.

SRB: The portrait you paint is a remarkable one of a society where everyone is afraid, even the people doing the frightening.

IK: I’ve always defended the position that you can’t really consider literature to be a victim in these kind of societies. The dictatorship was also a victim of literature. They’re head on with each other and it’s a harsh fight, a fight to the death. I’ve been persuaded that dictators are cowardly people and are much more frightened of others than we realise. There’s a Swiss philosopher Jean Starobinski who talks about this. He says that the ultimate degree of paranoia is when you fall into the belief that you are part of the conspiracy, which is what happens in The Successor with the character of Hasobeu.

SRB: It seemed to me while reading the book that one of the ways an authoritarian regime survives is through the suspension of laughter. There are lots of obviously absurd, surreal even, moments – one thinks of the dead party member who is reburied several times according to the status of his posthumous reputation – but to laugh would be to place yourself in terrible danger.

IK: In your inner being you can of course not take them seriously. When you are in a zoo amongst wild animals, you have to take them seriously or else you’re going to get bitten. But you don’t have a conversation with them. That’s why you have to understand that in those societies the idea of a sincere relationship between writers and power is impossible. It would be like having a sincere relationship with a snake.

SRB: Foreign secret services act as part of what is almost a Greek chorus in The Successor, although they know little: “What was known about Albania was mostly obsolete and some of it was distinctly romanticised”. How aware were you of the outside world during those years?

IK: Actually, in Albania people could pick up foreign radio stations, and if you lived close to the border even some TV stations, so we were aware of what was being said about the country from the outside. We had that external vision up to a point even at the most closed moment of Albanian society.

SRB: Did this create a schism in the minds of the people, between what people heard from abroad and what the government was officially saying?

IK: Yes. Everybody felt that like a tragic schism or tragic gap because everybody who wanted to know knew that they were being lied to. We were living in a society of lies. It happened in most of the so-called ‘people’s republics’. The nearer you were to the Iron Curtain, to the border with the West, you got all sorts of information. The further away, the less; within the Soviet Union there was a large section of the population who knew nothing.

SRB: Could you say then, in a very weird and relative way, that you were ‘lucky’ to live in Albania?

IK: Maybe one of the underlying reasons why the Albanian dictatorship was harsher and crueller than some of the others was that the country was actually in a vulnerable position.

SRB: I’m interested in the process by which one became a writer in Albania then. I know that like everything else it was state regulated. But how did one go about it? Did you have to declare yourself at an early age, did they talent scout – what was the situation?

IK: There was nothing special about it. It was just that there was a call to a mass literature in those times, with the idea that the more writers there were, the better it was. And the idea of that was to struggle against the cult of the famous writer. So the authorities would stimulate a lot of people to write. It was the opposite of a selection process; it was an encouragement process. And that system reached its height in China with the statement, China needs a million novelists. But that was actually the best way of killing literature. Because if literature becomes a mass process, it is finished. It was industrial literature.

SRB: You trained as a writer in Moscow but disagreed with most of what you were taught. From what you said at your EIBF session, it sounded as if you had what one might call a contradictory personality. Would you agree this is something of a necessity for writers? Even in non-authoritarian societies? In Britain, it’s not unusual for writers to accept awards from the government, although other writers refuse.

IK: You don’t have to make any effort to be contradictory. It’s completely natural, the more a writer is a real writer. There are a thousand reasons for me to be contradictory, not just to do with political power, but with society, even with the whole of humanity. Insofar as a writer feels the need to be a writer, he knows he has several generations of readers ahead of him. In an unconscious way, I write for all those future generations. Not one of those future generations will be completely in agreement with me, it’s impossible. Inside of myself, I feel I’ll probably be in contradiction with everybody. Deep down, that doesn’t matter at all, because a belief in literature is something that is almost mystical. In the last analysis, great literature is in contradiction with everything. I mean, what is great literature? Our first thought is that great literature, that is what must be right, and that mediocre literature is merely ugly. But if you are a mediocre writer, you will hear a different sound, a different point of view. They say, Well, we are the writers who supply millions of readers around the world and some of our readers will go on to read great literature. They say, We are the unknown soldiers of the army of literature and the true martyrs to the cause. What they forget these foot soldiers is that under a harsh regime it is they who will be in alliance with authority against great literature. Great literature is a very small family. It’s actually a family of ‘dictators’ and ‘tyrants’. It crushes the millions of second rate. It’s a merciless clan, almost anti-democratic. Professionals know this. But it is very dangerous to explain this to other people. So remember, elitism in ordinary life and elitism in literature are completely different things.-

SRB: You’ve said, “There wasn’t space to be a dissident in Albania”. Could expand on what you meant by that?

IK: People make a lot of speculation about this word ‘dissident’. It means to openly conduct activities of a liberal kind hostile to a tyrannical government you are subject to. That was not possible in Albania just as it was not possible in Stalin’s Russia. Dissidents, to exist, need a tiny chink of freedom. In a classical totalitarian system there is not the tiniest chink. I’ll give you a concrete explanation. You’re a writer, you want to make a statement against the authorities, so let’s say you choose to do so at a meeting. A few dozen people, a small meeting. People will throw themselves on you, and you’ll be hurled straight into a prison cell. The tragedy of it is that people will think one of two things: either that you are stark staring mad, or that you are actually a spy, an agent provocateur. People who now claim they were dissidents under that sort of situation, they’re just boasting, it isn’t true, it did not happen that way. All that means is that you want to stand up and tell crocodiles they are nasty beasts and it adds up to nothing. The only resistance you could put up if you were a writer was to put up twenty pages that were really good, that were real literature. I ended up believing that something as simple as a love affair was a form of resistance because it was not something that could be controlled by the totalitarian system. Almost anything could be an act of resistance. All kinds of private life, be they mystical or sexual, could be a form of resistance. A digression. I heard at one point that there were a number of suicides amongst army officers and I got very interested in that. I asked one of my cousins who was an officer whether it was true there were suicides going on in the army. What were the reasons, I asked, thinking they must be political. I was really surprised because my cousin told me most of the suicides were over love or jealousy. That really pleased me. That meant it wasn’t over yet, that there were people suffering from perfectly ordinary things. You must remember they were terrifying people, these senior army officers, and here they were killing themselves over pangs of jealousy. They hadn’t been totally shaped by the regime.

SRB: You were published abroad early on. How did you manage it and what was the effect?

IK: There’s something that people don’t really know about anymore. Under the Communist regimes, each country published their native books in several foreign languages inside the country. There was a special publishing house for that. The translator of my first novel, The General Of The Dead Army, had been in prison for thirteen years for being a member of the wrong party. He had worked for the foreign language publishing company in Tirana. He chose The General Of The Dead Army as a book he wanted to translate for his own pleasure. Because it was a high quality translation it was cleared for publication in Tirana. There was a French journalist visiting Albania who took a translation back to Paris and showed it to a French publishing house. It was published without my knowledge or permission. Albania at that time was not a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention. There was no copyright in Tirana so the French were free to publish the book. It had a double effect, because once the book appeared in France, it was translated into most European languages. I became known in Europe around 1970, 1971, which was good but it created a problem. It made me a famous writer of the Communist world who was appreciated in the Western world, by the enemy. The Party hacks emerged to say, There must be something wrong here. So the effect was double: on the one hand it protected me because I became a celebrity with foreign audiences, while on the other it made me an object of suspicion and more vulnerable within the country. I was very glad it happened though.

SRB: The main criticism of you that was made after winning the International Man Booker Prize was that you were something of a chameleon, that you did well enough for years under the Hoxha regime but find it convenient now to allow yourself to be portrayed as “a hero of dissident literature”.

IK: They’re just lies. No truth in them at all. For example, they claim I claim to have been a dissident and I’ve never said that ever, it’s not a word I use. So they construct false ideas in order to shoot them down. It’s a game. All the books I’ve ever written have been published in the West. Everything is available, the whole record is available, even the novel I consider the most conformist work, The Wedding. People can read and decide for themselves. Nothing is hidden. The Wedding was even done as a radio drama on the BBC. So read what I’ve written and decide for yourself. I became known during the Communist period, it’s not a post-Communist phenomenon. So why did the West read a Communist work? Simply because it was a work of literature. As I’ve said before, all I sought to do was to write normal literature in an abnormal country. The others couldn’t do that, and they’re agitated about it. It’s an awkward truth for conformist writers.

SRB: Perhaps this is the point then to ask what has winning the International Man Booker done for you?

IK: At my age prizes can’t make that much difference. It was a great pleasure and I was very honoured. I didn’t think I had a chance when I saw the shortlist. And there was the anti-Kadare propaganda that you’ve mentioned which started on a website as soon as the shortlist was published. The Man Booker website invited people to make comments on the nominees and my critics signed themselves under a series of different names, but actually it was the same group of people. But the panel took no notice. Lies do not always triumph.

SRB: There’s the issue of “retranslation” here. The Successor has been translated into English from its French translation. It’s not the best way for the book to enter the English language, is it?

IK: In English translations, there are two types: those that are translated directly into English and those that come to English by way of another language. I do believe French retranslations are a viable possible. In principle it would be better to translate directly from Albanian into English. The Three-Arched Bridge was translated directly by John Hodgeson. Albanian is a very structured language; it has romance elements and Ger-manic elements, so it makes possible for these two universes to communicate reasonably well.

[Professor Bellos comments: The double translation via French isn’t ideal, and it was not something I’d propose as the right way of going about it. It’s essentially a practical thing. But as you can see Kadare has French and so can comment on French translations. So I think an English translator working from the French talking to the author about what he prefers and what modulations might work well can do a reasonable job. But yes, it is difficult to find Albanian to English literary translators who are available. Double translation is not as rare as you’d think, but usually it’s the English language that acts as the relay. There are for example relatively few people who translate from Finnish into Japanese or from Spanish into Serbo-Croat. English is predominantly the inter-language in such cases so the English reader is generally aware of the phenomenon. But English isn’t the universal inter-language – at least, not yet.]

SRB: What is the state of Albanian literature now?

IK: Albania is a democratic country now but with serious problems. A substantial proportion of the population want to leave the country. As for literature, fifteen years is not long enough to see where we’re going. Literature doesn’t change when you change the scenery. What you had before were novels set on a collective farm. Now the same writer does the same thing but set in a brothel. But that doesn’t change the essence of his novel. It’s the same untalented writer trying it on again. Have you read my novel The Concert? It’s a novel in which I do talk about ordinary life in Albania and the workers, but in a way that is different from barren socialist realism. I talk there almost directly about political repression, about anxiety and terror, and that was why it was banned. There’s a long chapter in which I discuss the death of Lin Biao [who was once touted as] Mao Tse-tung’s successor. There’s a thirty-page section on why Macbeth killed Duncan for personal rather than political reasons followed by the section on Lin Biao. That makes a clear parallel between the two murders. In Macbeth it was the successor who killed the king, and the opposite in the Chinese case. I finished the book in 1981, and three weeks after handing it in to the editorial office, Mehmet Shehu died. The same story was going on around me. But even under Communism you could critique the décor and describe communist life and so create eternal literature.

Canongate will publish Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle In Stone (£7.99) in May.

by Ismail Kadare
Canongate, £9.99
pp224, ISBN 1841957631

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