THE WEE BOOK OF CALVIN: AIR-KISSING IN THE NORTH-EAST
PENGUIN: £7. 99
REVIEWER: RICHARD HOLLOWAY
The jokey cover and the grouchy introduction could easily mislead you about this book. On a first look it appears to be a wintry counterblast to all those sunny little books of spiritual valium that fill the shelves in the Mind and Body section of your local book shop. Bill Duncan despises these emotionally glib New Age self-help guides that promise inner-peace and off-the-shelf enlightenment without hard thought or intellectual effort. He hates the way this mutating transatlantic psychobabble is threatening to crowd out the austere discipline and bracing pessimism of philosophy, so he has decided to fight back: The Wee Book of Calvin is the first blast of his trumpet against the encircling powers of blandness. He has gathered together a collection of sayings from the North-East, amplified them with memories of his grandparents, laced them with creations of his own, and offers them here as a bracing antidote to the cloying sweetness of New Age spirituality. So one of the things you will find in this book is an anthology of Caledonian haiku, as cold and penetrating as the psychic haar that swirls round the Calvinist heart.
On this level the book works well and entertainingly enough. It’s the growl of yet another grumpy old man at the folly and superficiality of the day. So far, so predictable: O tempora! O mores! But that is far from all that this book offers. If you simply skim through these gathered aphorisms you are likely to make the mistake of adding the book to the pile of Private Eye annuals and Far Side cartoons you keep in the lavatory to entertain visitors. Apart from anything else, that would be a colossal piece of misidentification, because this is not really a funny book. Oh, it will spread the odd smile of recognition across the tight fierceness of your countenance; and as you read it you are likely to mutter to yourself Alastair Reid’s Scottish anthem: “We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it”. But, it would be quite wrong to add this wee book to the joke shelf; it belongs among the tragedies; it should be classified under sorrow; you should slip it in beside Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who wrote: “…it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scot-land’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years”.
I thought of those words as I read Bill Duncan’s description of the day he performed the melancholy duty of going through the effects of his dead grandparents in their cottage in Fife: “In the darkening space I listened to the indifferent voice of the sea, rising and falling endlessly in its own distant narrative, perfect and unknowable. As an hour passed in the dying light, the texture of one artefact and then another whispered the absence of a life uncelebrated and unremembered.”
You see, this is a book about loss, achingly described in the six essays that punctuate the sections that contain the aphorisms. It is for these essays that you’ll want to keep the book; and they’ll make you wonder at the long Scottish love affair with sorrow and the stunting repression that lies at its root. Duncan has written a profound meditation on the kind of emotional frigidity that prevents many Scots from showing others how much they love them. The saddest and most wounding part of the book is the final section, ‘Are You A Calvinist?’ At the end of the checklist of identifying characteristics we read these terrible words: “You feel an almost uncontrollable impulse to embrace your children, when an invisible force paralyses your body and senses…”
He tells us that several factors lie behind the kind of refrigerated psyche that, almost in spite of himself, he continues to admire in people. He comes from a race of coal miners and fishermen in Fife, men who battled against poverty and the elements with the weapons of hard work and unforgiving religion. Because they were engaged in a relentless struggle, they could not afford to expose or even acknowledge the existence of the gentler side of their own nature. The price of survival was emotional cauterisation and the bleak humour that accompanied it. And Calvinism, even the atheistic version Bill Dun-can was raised in, was the ideal creed for such a life of constant battle. There was no room for anything that might weaken people in their fight against the odds. Small wonder that the result was the evolution of a type of humanity high on toughness and salty durability, but low to vanishing point on the tender affections.
Say no and the bairn will learn. It does a bairn good tae be denied.
Well, the coal miners are all gone and there aren’t many fishermen left, only the hardness that enabled them to endure their lot still survives, though it has long been separated from the social and economic context that afforded it moral justification. Now, without any adaptive purpose, it turns on its possessors and consumes them. Like a genetic defect that once had survival value, emotional anaemia is handed down through generations of Scots, bleaching the colour and passion out of life, denying them the best of themselves, which is love and the showing of it. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, I suspect that Bill Duncan knows all this, but the thrawn Calvinist bit of him, still half in love with death, won’t let him ease up and admit that, in his heart of hearts, he’s really just a big softie.
SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND THE IDEA OF EUROPE
REVIEWER: PAUL HENDERSON SCOTT
There is a substantial literature on the nature of Scottish nationalism and its relationship to the Euro-pean idea, but this book is, as far as I know, the first sustained and searching enquiry by a Japanese scholar. Atsuko Ichijo conducted her investigation, mainly in 1994 and 1995, as a research project for a PhD in the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Ichijo began her investigation with a series of long interviews with thirty-five people in Scotland, writers, academics, journalists, politicians and civil servants, of whom I confess I was one. She describes the group variously as the elite, intellectuals and the intelligentsia, terms which I do not suppose any of us would dream of applying to ourselves. Towards the end of the book she analyses opinion polls which suggest that there already is a degree of penetration.
Ichijo’s first question was: who are the Scots? In the case of the Japanese she has no difficulty supplying an answer. They are people of Japanese parents, who speak Japanese, and, preferably, were born in Japan. She does not make the point, which I think a European would add, that they look Japanese, although I suppose that other neighbouring people look much the same. To the Japanese, I suppose that all Europeans look alike. What distinguishes a Scot? Ichijo finds the answer in our long and distinctive history which “has cultivated certain Scottish characteristics.”
She finds among her control group a conviction that among these characteristics is a belief in egalitarianism, social justice and the sovereignty of the people. They believe that Scotland is suffering from an unjust deal with England. There is a conviction of moral superiority among the Scots because they see themselves as people with high moral standards.
When she turns to attitudes to the European Union, Ichijo, somewhat to her surprise, finds that its existence is more of an encouragement than a threat to aspirations for Scottish independence. Partly this is because of the firm belief among the member states in the virtue of cultural diversity between them. The Social Charter is also seen as proof of a close affinity between European and Scottish, but not necessarily English, views.
I suppose that many people will find it surprising that this intelligent and diligent Japanese observer should reach the conclusions which are so strongly in line with the views of the Scottish National Party. Are these views then so widely held among the people she has chosen as representative of the intellectuals who influence opinion? She provides us with a list of the group and eleven of the thirty-five are well known as supporters of the SNP. But the others are academics, civil servants or journalists whose political affiliations, if any, are unknown to me. Certainly, the book offers strong encouragement to those who want to see an independent Scotland as a member state in the EU. The book is especially valuable as the observations of an unprejudiced and thorough scholar from a distant country.
BLACK & WHITE: £9. 99
REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS
The war of the sexes is over, and men have won. The demand for equality once pivoted upon women persuading men to abandon their historic stupidity over sex; now women are attempting to out-daft them. In that respect, Sex And The City has had a calamitous effect upon a generation of young and not-so-young women. Thanks to the show’s four designer-draped harpies, a new glibness has entered women’s attitudes to sex, as exemplified by “professional media whore” Anvar Khan’s Pretty Wild, “the most honest diary about men, women and sex you’ll ever read.”
Where women once cried “The personal is political”, now it’s “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, a creed stated aggressively in the hope you won’t notice its defeatism. But as Khan’s diary reveals, you can’t defeat men on their home turf.
Pretty Wild begins on the morning of Khan’s thirty-sixth birthday with her waking up next to a man she discovers, to her horror, is married. So begins something of a motif, discovering bed-buddies already have partners. “Fidelity must be going out of fashion. First time I’ve been SO not with the latest trend,” she says in the first of a number of statements it’s impossible to hear in anything but a whiney Manhattan accent. Khan is somewhat disingenuous, for almost immediately she admits to sleeping with her boyfriend’s best friend, “the only man I’ve ever adored as a person”, shortly before his marriage. Looking at the unsuspecting bride on her wedding day, Khan thinks, “I wish her all the misery any human being isn’t ever entitled to.” So much for the sisterhood.
A native Glaswegian, Khan decides to move to London to improve her career and sexual opportunities. “London is shag-central… The arteries of London fizz with five million commuters and it is a fact you will never see the same person twice. This is an absolute boon to all who have no intention of doing so anyway.” But what does Khan want? A relationship or “sports sex”? She vacillates between the two. “Decide on a new set of rules,” she confides in her dear diary. “Use men for sex only. Dump any stand-by shag after a few dates, this prevents you becoming ‘involved’.”
Khan can talk the talk but, in her Manolo heels, she can’t walk the walk. Despite her disdain for becoming ‘involved’, in carnal encounter after encounter – with Giles the dishy magazine editor, with Nigel the tycoon, with Frank the professor – her romantic yearnings leave her a casualty of the behaviour she advocates and, after the inevitable crash, bitter. As her Carrie Bradshaw-esque cool deserts her, she’s left mouthing the time-honoured litany of the disappointed spinster: “all” men are bastards, she “hates” them, and anyway, “Has anyone asked what they are for?” She even, to complete the cliché, eulogises the singleton anthem, ‘I Will Survive,’ a song guaranteed from its first bar to turn straight men’s blood to cold porridge.
Men don’t see her as she is; no, they see “an Asian Dolly Parton.” She writes, “I have sometimes felt so trapped in this Disney cartoon of a body that I feel like writing to Stephen Hawking and telling him how much I empathise with how he must feel. I have a mind too.” Which earns my nomination for crassest line of the year.
Pretty Wild contains material that if Khan were a more ambitious writer could have profitably been worked into fiction. A sequence in which men she meets while speed dating serially humiliate her has the potential to enlighten and for satire. Regrettably, we live in an Orwell-lite age that prefers the quick fix of ‘reality’ and ‘confession’ to the hard and uncertain work of transforming leaden experience into fictional gold.
Far from an advert for casual sex, Khan frequently sounds like a victim. She writes a column on how the modern girl should never tell a man “I’ll pay” – only to be conned into doing just that by a dysfunctional academic. Does this sound like a feisty modern woman in control of her sexuality? “The sight of a little bag of shopping with its loaf of bread for a small single person moves me uncontrollably. Burst into tears. Lie weeping on bed.” Sordid nights in a torture dungeon (before appearing on Richard and Judy the following afternoon!) and a trip to an orgiastic sex club smack less of exploration than rudderless ennui. And after all the quips about how “no one deserves love”, when her recently married lover slips the bonds of matrimony to come rescue her, she melts into a fountain of froth.
It turns out despite her ballsy twenty-first century woman spiel, Khan was looking out for Prince Charming all along. You end up agreeing with her earlier statement: “Women who fall in love experience a lobotomy.” It’s less The Story of O, more The Story of Oh dear.
CHAMBERS DICTIONARY OF LITERARY CHARACTERS
REVIEWER: LESLEY MCDOWELL
What would criminal profilers make of an individual’s choice of his/her three most unforgettable literary characters? What clue might that list give to his/her psychological make-up? They are odd questions to ask, perhaps, but give it a try, it’s a fun game to play. My top three most memorable would be David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep, the Girl from Rebecca and Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure (and Heaven only knows what that choice says about my psychological profile).
Literary characters are, in the words of this edition’s editor, Una McGovern, “the vessels into which the ideas, aspirations, emotions and neuroses of the author can be poured and to which, through reading, we add our own.” It is ten years since the last Chambers Dictionary of Literary Characters, edited then by Rosemary Goring, who wrote of editing a “fictional Who’s Who” and showed a historical trajectory of characterization, how characters functioned in different eras. Goring also recalled those characters who made such a mark on the public consciousness, like Little Nell or Sherlock Holmes, that their untimely demises were seriously mourned and even resisted (to the extent that Conan Doyle was forced to bring Holmes back from the dead).
Clearly the publishers felt that enough new characters had entered the public consciousness to justify an updated volume (although not necessarily an altered one – the previous volume contained no contribution from Susan Ferrier, for example, and neither does this one). So Harry Potter makes his debut (“a bright, resourceful and strong-willed boy, immensely loyal to his friends, his inquisitiveness and strong moral sense often lead him into danger as he realises his continuing significance to Voldemort”), a debut that will have to be altered when the last Potter book ultimately appears (the updated entry on Inspector Morse segues neatly, if a little callously, from the last line of his 1994 entry, “This, and his distaste for much of his job, has meant that his need for alcohol has seriously affected his health” to the present “and Morse suffers a fatal heart attack in the final novel The Remorseful Day.”) Crime writer Ian Rankin makes an appearance with Inspector Rebus while new entrants Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pull-man have two entries and five entries respectively. The present volume also opens with eight illuminating essays on types of literary character – the ghost, the literary side-kick, the detective and so on.
Ultimately, though, characters are not about the cerebral exercising of our “little grey cells” as Hercule Poirot would have it; they are about emotional pull, identification or vilification. And as such, there is something almost old-fashioned, almost pre-modernist about the lure of the character and indeed, about compiling a list of one’s favourites. Can you imagine asking a French intellectual for his or her favourite three literary characters? Or that the resulting selection would give clues to his or her psyche? It is a very British, and very anti-intellectual, sort of parlour game. Modernist and postmodernist works have characters certainly; Leopold Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway,
Estragon and Vladimir, Duncan Thaw and Sammy, are all memorable characters, but they are all from difficult, teasing, problematic works that test our intellectual powers as well as our ability to empathise, and question the kind of pleasure we take from identifying with particular figures. The modernist agenda was not one that placed the pleasure principle high on its list; at least, not pleasure in the way that we understand it, as emotionally, or sensationally, gratifying. And there is something hugely pleasurable for a reader in emotional identification with a literary character; something pleasurable in protesting at the cutting-short of a life one has come to love through a book.
Which is why this kind of volume, the making of a simple list of favourite or influential literary characters, still has a place, in spite of competition from list-making media like the internet. The inter-net is part of the fragmentation of our selves; it is the modernist agenda made electronic, if you like, with its cut-and-paste facilities, its democratising view of the world where Janey-from-Idaho’s shopping list shares the stage with Ein-stein’s theory of relativity. The Internet is anti-beauty too, for nothing will ever persuade me that an electronic image, as pretty as you might be able to make it, is as beautiful as the most beautifully bound book; and it is curiously anti-sensory, for pages can be stroked and caressed, held close and even embraced. Stroking and embracing your computer – well, that’s a whole different realm of the sensory altogether.
A volume that celebrates characters we love or fear or wish we were like, and that celebrates it in book form, not the electronic kind, is an unashamedly old-fashioned object that appeals to our senses and reassures us of our place in the world. If that was all that was available to us, it would be a dangerous thing, inviting complacency and offering little in the way of challenge. But when there is so much around to challenge us, a little comfort and a little identification goes a very long way.
THE GOLDEN MENAGERIE
LUATH PRESS: £9. 99
REVIEWER: SUHAYL SAADI
Taking as its Ur-text Moroccan writer, Lucius Apuleius’s second century Latin story, ‘The Golden Ass’, this novel by Isle of Lewis-based writer and translator of Ital-ian, Allan Cameron quite simply is a humorous, wild, uncertain critique of the human state. Did I say simply? Be attentive.
The protagonist-narrator, a neo-punk in Croydon who has just crossed the limen of adulthood, embarks on a zoomorphic adventure, lured by an urbane, Bacchanalian cult and in particular, by the attractive and elusive Fotis, who is a syncretic, post-feminist Hecate/Isis figure. Far from entering an Epicurean paradise, however, Lucian Hetherington-Jones begins a series of metamorphoses. Instead of transforming him merely into an ass, Cameron throws him through a menagerie of shape-changes – dog, parrot, cat, etc. – in each form, exploring a particular aspect of human nature and philosophy, always with the dystopic and unbalanced spectre of religion (and religiosity) hovering ferociously, like the ghost of Apuleius’s neo-Christian nemesis and compatriot, Augustinian, over the “enlightened confusion”, the multiple digressions and allusions, of his text. Each transformation results in a fresh illumination, yet there is no sense of certainty here. Everything, especially the consciousness of the protagonist, seems constantly in doubt, provisional. This is no didactic self-help manual. Furthermore, the term ‘protagonist’ is probably a misnomer in this context. In form and spirit, The Golden Menagerie has more in common with the Tales from The Arabian Nights or Aesop’s Fables than with the well-grounded, post-Victorian narratives that (in spite of Joyce, Cortazar, the Bloomsbury Set and the wandering bands of Magic Realists) seemed to dominate the middle ground of especially the Anglophone world during much of the 20th century. This, dear reader, makes The Golden Menagerie (a poetic, cavalier work if ever there was one) an exciting prospect.
Things progress, and Croydon Boy dances, trots, fornicates and crawls through a variety of joys, vicissitudes and roles (including, in one hilarious scene, a marriage guidance counseling parrot!). The text declaims beneath chapter headings such as ‘Speech Without Thought’ and the Dante-esque infernal ‘Nel Mezzo Del Cammin’, until, around two-thirds of the way through the book, the first person narrator, becoming somewhat synonymous with “the constructed author”, leaves off the “Carnival des Animaux” and shifts to a series of dialogues. Through this very human voyage of thought and discourse, which, plot-wise, is only tangentially linked with the teenager’s fable, this latter-day Apuleius explores, in accessible and topical fashion, concepts such as the state versus individual rights, egalitarianism, republicanism, faith, doubt, charity, good, evil, fanaticism, and so on.
It is important to note that Apuleius’s tale itself was derived from earlier, Greek, writings, but that the African imbued it with a characteristic satyrical style which seems, after what must be surely the definitive test of the passage of 1,800 years or so, to be timeless. Cameron’s blend of erotic adventure, romantic comedy, religious fable and rationalist discourse faultlessly employs this same type of ‘wise idiot’ voice in an experiential narrative which overtly requests the reader to be an active participant. At base, as in all stories with lasting power, The Golden Menagerie concerns itself with the comic-epic struggle of each individual in an incomprehensible cosmos.
Yet Cameron’s work is neither deliberately obscure, nor is it solemn history or pompous tract á la Aleister Crowley. The Golden Menagerie treads, flies, chatters and barks that fine, aureate line between pretentiousness and patronization which is drawn from the fact that the author knows his stuff and relishes the ‘telling’ of it as though he were a reader coming across the work for the very first time. This is not easy to pull off, but Cameron has done it. This is a beautiful tale – beautiful, that is, in the old, ‘Golden Mean’ sense of the word, with its connotations of symmetry, elegance and seasoned confusion – where even an ironically bum line of poetic preamble can connote some poignant aspect of life.
Through this “rough and irregular odyssey of failure”, Cameron simultaneously dissects and breathes new life into an ancient form, one that is intrinsic to every novel, every “trash… of half-constructed truths”, that has ever been written, from late antiquity in the Fertile Crescent through Ibn Tufayl, Boccaccio, Cervantes and Swift to Sterne, Kafka, Conan Doyle, Calvino, Rushdie and on. Reading The Golden Menagerie, it is required that the ‘good reader’ suspend several disbeliefs and enter a world of ideas and incipient eroticism, which turns and moulds on a fulcrum of rational magic. The word ‘fiction’ is derived from the Latin ‘fingere’, “to shape or model”. The book is highly rewarding, in the richness, precision and humour of its language, the enviable lucidity of its thought and in that classical humanist quality it insinuates, of simultaneous lightness and profundity, a sleight which can alter perception. A sublimation, perhaps. Or a metamorphosis.
THIRSTY BOOKS: £9. 99
REVIEWER: JENNIE RENTON
Peter Burnett’s first novel, The Machine Doctor, marked him out as a highly gifted writer. Odium is a darker tale, cosy as a bed of nails. It reads like an extended panic attack. Rubio, a chain-smoking Parisian doctor with a penchant for noodles and the campaigns of Napoleon, travels to Egypt on what turns out to be a respite-free break. We first encounter him leaving a concert in the Place de L’Opera with his wife, Virginie. The ceiling of the foyer is elaborately decorated with enamelled cupids and gods frozen in ironic contemplation of the departing audience, whose chatter rings in Rubio’s ears like tinnitus. He hates being trapped in the herd.
He fails to avert the dreaded post-mortem. Intent on eliciting affirmation that they have had a good night out, Virginie coaxes him into a smart bar nearby, where the air glitters with clever commentary. Her efforts to engage him on the merits of the orchestra is met by such a dearth of response that her attention flickers around. Everyone seems to be having a far better time than she is. Though she must realise that seeking emotional solace from her husband is an exercise in emotional self-laceration, she embarks on a reprise of her cherished theory that she could have been a concert performer, blaming her lack of success on her fingers being too “short and stubby”. Rubio’s doubt is tethered in silence. Silence can be taken as acquiescence. Rubio feels like a fraud. Their marriage is a hunched shell of mutual disappointment.
At his shabby surgery, in the seven minutes his congested schedule affords, Rubio tries to offer each patient a listening ear and an honest prescription. Increasingly they turn up with afflictions that are not physiological, begging or hectoring him to provide a key, chemical or otherwise, that might release them from their existential nightmares. He advises them to cut out television or shunts them on to the tender mercies of an analyst. During one consultation he scribbles on his pad,
“Depression as an atheism, moderns proud of their lack of belief. Their denial of transcendence.” On another occasion a fraught mother tries to convince him that her baby is suffering from depression and requires medication. He gives the proposition serious consideration. In these times the contagion of hopelessness is spreading rampantly. He suffers from it himself.
While the well-heeled citizens of Paris void their energies on lifestyle displays, deliver smug ironies or congratulate themselves on their epicurean superiority, Rubio withdraws into pessimism, a hollow man. His marriage is over and his friendships have turned rancid. There seems to be nothing worth saying, and no way of saying it if there were. He invests his surviving speck of optimism in the prospect of a holiday in north Africa.
Baking grids of streets and blockhouses provide a sun-scourged contrast to the architectural vanities of Paris, but Rubio soon discovers that the shadows are just as harsh. Egypt is “rich and barbarous” and potholed with menace. Hardly has he arrived than he is mugged, twice. First he loses his money. The staff at the Hotel Bel Air, “the only monument to Imperial France” in Mersa, are entirely unsympathetic. They glare contemptuously at his “wormy” French passport and hustle him off the premises. In the street he stumbles to the ground and finds himself eyeballing the rotting corpse of a cat. He notices there is a pale patch on his wrist where his watch once was. Astonished rather than angry at the loss of this favourite possession, he gets back into the hotel through a broken back door and within minutes finds himself snared into a surreal chain of events.
A small boy approaches and asks for help. He leads Rubio to a room where his mother lies, prostrate with drink. She rouses herself sufficiently to scrimmage a pack of cigarettes from the tangle of bed linen and clothes and Rubio proves all too eager to join her in her quest for oblivion, smoking and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. And for her that really is the case. Rubio makes a foray to get some ice but when he returns is dazed to discover that she has died. He takes it upon himself to return the child to his father in the ancient city of Siwa where the houses are carved out of the rock.
Rubio never joins the tourist contingent, that “happy sect of optimists”. Circumstance demolishes his projected itinerary and though he smokes his way through pack after pack of Cleopatras, he never manages to see the sphinx. It crouches in the desert, a petrified primordial mystery, always just out of frame.
As an author Peter Burnett is not in the business of fuelling hubris. He is concerned with questions about meaning, value and the nature of authenticity. In Odium he delivers a timely warning about the consequences of materialism, using caricature as the scalpel of his philosophy.
NEW SELECTED POEMS 1984-2004
Carol Ann Duffy
PICADOR POETRY: £14. 99
OUT OF FASHION
edited by Carol Ann Duffy
FABER and FABER: £9. 99
REVIEWER: RON BUTLIN
Sharing the back cover with an arrangement of female limbs tastefully framing it, the blurb to Carol Ann Duffy’s latest poetry collection announces that she “deserves better” than to be “considered a top poet”. Having delivered this presumably well-meant, if rather heavy-handed compliment, the unnamed writer in the Observer develops his peculiar theme: “novelists should read her. If she frightens enough of them into non-production, she’ll sell in the quantities she deserves.” Such, it seems, is the measure of metropolitan literary criticism.
Born in Glasgow, Carol Ann Duffy grew up in England. She read philosophy at the University of Liverpool. She has been publishing steadily for the last twenty years, writing both for adults and children. In an art form until recently dominated by men writing about a man’s world from the masculine point of view, Duffy, like Ruth Padel, Liz Lochhead, Kathleen
Jamie and other women poets, is a sorely needed counterbalance. Her poetry has received many awards including the Signal Prize for Children’s Verse, the Whitbread and Forward Prizes as well as the Lan-nan Award and the E.M. Forster Prize in America. A “top poet”, certainly – but a potential frightener of novelists?
As is very clear from the earliest poems selected for this collection, Duffy’s work often has a strong narrative drive: “After I no longer speak they break our fingers/to salvage my wedding ring. Rebecca Rachel Ruth/Aaron Emmanuel David, stars on all our brows/beneath the gaze of men with guns…/…You would not look at me. / You waited for the bullet. Fell.” (‘Shooting Stars’). Several of these earlier poems are straightforward, rather two-dimensional character sketch-es: “Wayne. Fourteen. Games are for kids. I support/the National Front. Paki-bashing and pulling girls’/knickers down” (‘Comprehensive’). As her work has matured, however, the characters take on more individuality: “I don’t talk much. I swing up beside them and do it/with my eyes. Brando. She was clean. I could smell her.” (‘Psychopath’). A development, certainly, but there is still a strong sense of caricature, rather than character. Two collections later, Duffy brings out Mean Time which contains work of the highest quality such as: “A telltale clock/wiping the hours from its face, your face/on a white sheet, gasping, radiant, yes./Pay for it in cash, fiction, cab fares back/to the life which crumbles like a wedding cake.” (‘Adultery’). Here she reaches a depth of genuine feeling that most novelists achieve only rarely. Over twenty poems are included from Duffy’s much acclaimed volume The World’s Wife. In performance, Duffy often reads from this to great effect – and the audience loves her for it. Indeed the book has sold over 40,000 copies. Good on her. These are skilfully written poems that successfully make their points, again and again. The only problem, as anyone who has been to one of her readings knows, is that Duffy is preaching to the converted – mostly women. But then, why not?
Well, the danger is that – in these poems particularly – Duffy’s message itself, rather than her artistic vision, has begun to determine the integrity of the work. Here, she is all answers and no questions. After a while, the poems began to read rather like exercises, albeit brilliantly done. Whether the protagonist is Mrs Midas or Mrs Faust, the dramatic curve is very similar and carries, most convincingly on every occasion, the burden of the poet’s agenda. A truly virtuoso series of poems that left this reviewer very impressed, and utterly unmoved.
The most ambitious poem in the entire collection, certainly in terms of length, is ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High’. This is a story, a short novel almost, if we consider the timespan of the narrative, in verse-form. Here, sadly, Duffy’s agenda is given too free a rein at the expense of her poetic integrity – and we are treated to twenty pages that just go on and on. And on. Her usual spot-on images strain for effect as she tries just that little bit too hard: “a splash of a laugh/like the sudden jackpot leap of a silver fish/in the purse of a pool.” By the end of the poem the women all seem to have become lesbians, and Mrs Mackay leaves her husband. Mind you, such were the habits of Mr Mackay that I’d have left him too. To me, the poem needs some firm editing. Half the length would be a starting point. But then, the same could be said of much of Pound, MacDiarmid in English, Browning and the poetry of many, many other men.
Thankfully, Duffy’s gifts are usually strong enough to withstand her lapses into ideas and dogma. As New Selected Poems frequently demonstrates, her imaginative vision and her versatility with form and image are truly those of a “top poet”. With poetry of this order, Duffy is too far removed from “committing prose” – as Norman MacCaig used to denigrate that particular sin – ever to frighten novelists, whatever the Observer’s pundit might think. The closing poems of this collection, such as ‘Wish’ and ‘Death and the Moon’, are excellent. Let’s hope she continues to develop this area of her poetic sensibility.
Out of Fashion is an anthology of poems which take fashion as their theme. Duffy has invited over fifty contemporary poets to submit a poem of their own and also to choose a favourite, from another time or culture, which looks at how we dress or undress, cover up or reveal. It is a delightful book which contains many fine poems, those by Sujatta Bhatt and Duffy herself in particular. The favourite poems range from Edward Lear’s magnificently anarchic ‘The New Vestments’ to several by Robert Herrick, including his near-perfect ‘Madrigal’, closing with the lines “No beauty she doth miss/When all her robes are on;/But Beauty’s self she is/When all her robes are gone.” Which surely says it all.
THE KNUCKLE END
Edited by Adrian Searle
FREIGHT: £11. 95
REVIEWER: CRAIG FRENCH
Groups have a sticky attraction for writers. By necessity, writers are solitary creatures. I would wager there isn’t one who hasn’t at some point envied JD Salinger his internal exile status. Equally, because they have to spend so much time alone in their study and in their head, they seek out their peers, especially while still in their apprentice years; like scientists, they prefer to be peer reviewed before going public with their fictional findings. One must-n’t forget the glamour of the group either. I’m assuming we, as readers, have all entertained at some point ridiculous fantasies about tramping the Lake District with the Romantics or necking Benzedrine with the Beats. Yet for every Algonquin set, there’s also a New Puritans movement, a lit-blip that usually has more to do with mutual promotion than mutual devotion.
The Knuckle End, doesn’t refer to a boxer’s modus operandi though I imagine the scrum of writers collected between its covers believe they pack a collective punch. The anthology harvests prose and verse by graduates of the Edwin Morgan Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, mixing known (Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, Anne Donovan) and yet-to-be-known. Best to let the course’s former professor Alasdair Gray explain: “A joint of meat’s knuckle end was once the animal’s knee so has the most bone, the least flesh. Sidney Smith called Scotland, ‘The knuckle end of Eng-land – the land of Calvin, oatcakes, and sulphur.’ A lot of Scottish writing does deal with hard people in hard situations, but you will find this book contains a lot of tasty mental nourishment, some of it succulent.” Being compared to a knee doesn’t strike one as immediately promising but then a forcefully placed knee can leave you breathless. And these writers?
In How To Read And Why, Harold Bloom divides short story writers into two camps, the schools of Chekhov and of Kafka, which is to say the difference is between impressionistic tales rooted in a realistic milieu, and the phantasmagorical. The Knuckle End is largely given over to Chekhov’s children. Tales range in setting from Glasgow’s Botanicals to Tashkent, and take in the expected topics: deliquescing relationships, misunderstanding children, and, as 16 of the 26 pieces are by men, a fair dollop of male angst.
Perhaps because they are sparser, those stories that depart from the everyday stand out. Louise Welsh’s wicked reworking of the annunciation sees the angel Gabriel rape the Virgin Mary. Shug Hanlan’s ‘The High-Jumper’s Fear of His Hard-on’ is a crazed warning about the effects of steroids: “How can handclaps make me so horny?” More gritty yet still removed from a recognisably ordinary setting, Will Napier’s ‘Sidestore Indians’ is a gleaming piece that recalls Elmore Leonard, though I also detect a passing resemblance between it and a section of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
One criticism: attached to the book is a second volume which Adrian Searle in the first of three – three! – introductions describes as a “visual meditation on writing and the creative process.” What it actually is a lot of photos of cows and abattoirs with facile slogans attached. “Raw emotional intensity” is superimposed over a picture of raw meat, while “Don’t mince your words” is coupled with meat being, uh, minced. I trust the tyro writers got better advice than this on the course.
You can see them all over the Highlands, piles of grey, lichen-laced boulders strewn on the ground, slowly being reclaimed by the land from where they came. They are what remain of the houses and villages of thousands of men, women and children who were evicted in the Clearances, the eighteenth-century equivalent of ethnic cleansing. In The Glens of Silence (Birlinn, £25), David Craig provides the words to accompany David Paterson’s photographs, which are eerily devoid of people. Resistance was often fierce but inevitably futile. Indeed, many went voluntarily so acute was the experience of poverty. Now the glens are being repopulated but by incomers who don’t need to eke a living from the unyielding earth. They like the views, they say, and the quiet.
THE GLASGOW DRAGON
LUATH: £9. 99
REVIEWER: CARL MACDOUGALL
Christie Devlin is learning Can-tonese. He’s a small time crook turned big time operator, thanks to drugs and his sidekicks, Bonzo and Schultz, whom he met in the jail and who now control his outlets and supply.
He was brought up in Possil, where his wife still teaches and lives in Bearsden. She is pregnant and says she sometimes preferred him drinking. It’s easy to see why. Devlin flares into sudden, irrational anger. He’s a year off the booze.
Devlin loves to be in control. Whatever he has, no matter how far up the social or consumer ladders he climbs, it’s never enough. He continually wants more, not nessarily for himself, though he will benefit somewhere along the line, if only by implication or reflected glory.
His 15-year-old daughter Nicole is at a posh boarding school and is embarrassed by her parents, especially her father. Nicole knows little of her father’s business and plays with recreational drugs. Her boyfriend is at least ten and maybe twenty-five years older and there’s a point where his and Devlin’s pasts merge, though Nicole is unaware of being a target, continuing to believe in him rather than her own experience, even as her involvement with his lifestyle deepens.
Devlin has plans for Nicole and his family. He’s bought a house in Galloway and intends to move them to his country idyll. He also intends giving up his business, so he needs one last strike, a big push which will confirm his hold on the market and boost his opinion of himself. He is obviously unaware that his own downfall, the destruction of his family and empire, are being plotted, with Nicole as a key feature in the collapse.
Devlin sends his troops round the existing dealers. Their resolve collapses at the mention of his name. The one who tries to buck the trend soon falls into line. Devlin’s intention is to control the west of Scotland drug scene and he manages it so easily one wonders why it took him so long to consider the move, especially since he has the chief constable, Billy Pitt, in his pocket, to the extent that he organises a guns amnesty to make Pitt look good in the media.
Controlling distribution is one thing, but there’s a problem with supply, which is why he has to take over the market. Centralisation will ensure a steady market, control the dealers and maximise his profit. The best gear comes from Afghanistan, but the War Against Terror has diminished its availability. The Glasgow-based Chinese triad gangs control the supply of Chinese White; which is why Devlin’s learning Cantonese and frequenting casinos and Chinese restaurants. He wants to control their territory as well.
His intentions don’t go according to plan. The Chinese came to Glasgow a long time ago and have gone about their business quietly. They too are on the cusp of control. They’ll work with Devlin till they discover what they need to know to eliminate him. And as he begins his take-over bid, so they begin their centralisation strategy and Devlin is soon involved in a three way fight, ignoring one corner to concentrate on another and in the end losing because he’s a victim of his past.
Devlin is so clear and important to the story that everyone else follows in his wake, appear as ciphers, or react to his wishes. His is the dominant voice and even though he isn’t the central narrator, we see everything through his eyes.
Des Dillon doesn’t understand this world and doesn’t try. Rather than offer explanation or pointed social comment he simply tells us how it is, and though he does not actively disapprove, he clearly finds most of what he describes distasteful. He hopes we share his incredulity and sets out to record the characters and their environment. This is how some people live is as close as he gets to commentary. But he can’t overcome a need to nudge, to make sure we get the point, to give extra pieces of information he thinks we need to identify with the story or share his excitement that such things inhabit the same world as we do.
He is anything but detached; and while this gives his prose a breathless, at times anxious quality, it also leads to overwriting and irrelevancies. There is a surfeit of visual elements beloved of 1950s Beat poets and school children, the sort of visual springboard intended to give the words or phrases an extra dimension or underline their meaning. The block capitals, bold type and words with extended vowels -screeeeeeeech – become irritating and make you wish Des Dillon had more faith in his abilities and did-n’t need to resort to such hackneyed stereotypes. He could do without them if he tried.
BUILDING A NATION: POST DEVOLUTION NATIONALISM IN SCOTLAND
By Kenny MacAskill
LUATH, £4. 99
REVIEWER: ALLAN BURNETT
Now that our futuristic parliament has finally opened its doors, the question of how to leave behind the five-year drizzle of muddles, fiddles and doing-less-badly that has dampened the sunny expectations of devolution can be addressed.
SNP heavyweight Kenny MacAskill believes he has the answer, and with Alex Salmond back at the helm and independence top of the agenda, this book is a timely intervention for a party entering a critical phase in its history.
As deputy leader of the SNP’s parliamentary group, MacAskill recognises why the disappointing infancy of Scotland’s born-again constitution has disproportionately damaged his cause. The nationalists, not the lacklustre Lib/Lab administration, are most closely associated with the fortunes of Scottish political autonomy. If the devolved institution is seen to fail, the idea of Scottish independence is weakened and the SNP lose out. Illogical, perhaps, but true. Having John Swinney in charge, on the other hand, didn’t exactly help.
To get back on track, argues MacAskill, nationalists must make the parliament work. Holyrood is, he insists, the only base from which independence will be realised. We can only assume the message is being transmitted to Salmond in London. The SNP must seek power and build confidence that an independence party is fit to govern. To do that, it needs a vision for bread-and-butter issues. “Scots are aware of the ineptitude of the Lib/Lab Executive,” he concludes, “what they need persuaded of is the ability of the SNP.”
Prompted by recognition that nationalism is a broad church, and by admiration for the blanket prosperity of Scandinavian states, MacAskill argues that the party must pitch itself as a social democratic one attuned to local communities and the global market. Low business taxes, a knowledge-based economy, progressive personal taxation and state ownership of infrastructure, schools and hospitals: these are the hallmarks of the enviable Swedish model – a better example than Norway because you don’t need to keep filling your argument up with oil – that the SNP should emulate.
Unfortunately, MacAskill never really gets to grips with the reforms required to achieve this. Perhaps it is because he admires Ireland, too, but doesn’t want to deal with the contradictions arising from his proposed marriage of statist Swedish social democracy and hands-off Irish neo-liberalism. How do you build a society that values group success and frowns on self-aggrandisement while at the same time let the budding Michael O’Learys in your midst do as they please? The Celtic Tiger has performed well for its entrepreneurs and multinational investors, but in terms of living standards lags far behind the Nordic states and with good reason.
A chapter on migration optimistically makes the case for welcoming settlers. But attracting foreign-born citizens can be unexpectedly divisive. When the Swedish economy sank into temporary recession in the 1990s the presence of a large number of recent immigrants – almost a fifth of the population – created unprecedented ethnic tensions as unemployment rose and the social security net began to stretch. A consensus-based society works well when times are good or there is a high degree of ethnic homogeneity; it is much more difficult to maintain when ethnic differences are put under economic pressure. But that’s not to assume MacAskill’s vision cannot be realised through a sensitive integration policy.
While the central themes of this book are underdeveloped, and MacAskill’s insistence on Scotland’s “shared history” with England suggests he could learn more about post-colonialism, this remains a manifesto to inspire and infuriate; pacey, intelligent and accessible. Like all good political pamphlets it is best enjoyed when read out loud.