by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 2 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

October 28, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

The Quest For Charles Rennie Mackintosh
John Cairney
LUATH PRESS, £8.99
pp302 ISBN 1905222432

The Quest For Charles Rennie Mackintosh purports to be the first biography of Mackintosh the man rather than Mackintosh the architect or watercolourist or maker of smart if shoogly furniture. Cairney buffs his credentials for the job by pointing out he comes from the same area as Tosh, as he often matily calls Macintosh, and that he too has spent most of his life outside Scotland. “These personal links in no way make this a better book…” he then writes, alas truthfully. The book would have gone down a great deal easier if Cairney could have controlled his penchant for odd digressions and a knack for stating the obvious. “It was the day before his seventeenth birthday,” the author says of the death of Tosh’s mother. “His was not a happy one.” You don’t say! Analogy is often crude – “These men were in the Scottish Premier League of architects” – and Cairney’s editorialising suggests a reactionary attitude to contemporary art; on drawing he says it’s “something the modern artist can’t always do.” Ironically, Cairney spends a fair portion of the book criticising Tosh’s peers for not being open to his innovations. Tosh indeed.

Wicked!
Janet Paisley
SANDSTONE, £5.95
pp74, ISBN 1905207077

Married to Linda for 35 years and the owner of his own shop, Jas is a happy man. Or he should be, but he has discovered his wife in flagrante delictio with an Italian called Emilio. Or so he thinks. Hiding behind the door, he doesn’t actually see his rival, and so he leaves a distraught, if not necessarily correct, earwitness. Such is the stuff of the common or garden sitcom, yet Paisley imbues her novella with a dark undertone. For Jas attempts to master his despair not by confronting his wife and not by taking his own lover, but by killing himself. As we learn, Jas has attempted suicide before, filling his pockets with rocks and jumping off a bridge. Unfortunately, a barge was going by at the time, and he broke both legs when he landed it on. As Linda continues, so we’re led to think, to get intimate with Euro-smoothies, Jas contemplates the many ways in which he could unwind his mortal coil. You can see the denouement heaving into view from some distance back, but Paisley adds an unexpectedly bitter lining in the last few pages as Jas’ act of despair is radically misinterpreted.

Accent O The Mind
Rab Wilson
LUATH PRESS, £8.99
pp128 ISBN 190222327

“Save me fae aa thon clivver poetry,/Scunnersome, skeelie stuff that makes no sense,” Wilson prays at one point in his collection of verse. Having read said collection, one must conclude that his muse has granted his request. After a sober start in which Wilson compares building a wall with writing poetry in the tradition of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’, the collection often takes confounding turns. Witness the six page poem about Cathy Jamieson embarking on a boozy night out with a scrum of neds: “Cathy’s plea, heartfelt, impassioned,/Led tae ‘Buckie’ being rationed.” ‘Asylum Seekers’ rather trivialises an emotive subject by revealing the unfortunates the reader believes face death are in fact hedgehogs. There’s also a wilful disregard of the general opinion that topical poems be, well, topical, in the form of a long poem about the events of 2002: “Ulrika did her best to blame/Sven, but the man hus goat nae shame.” Despite his tendency towards the epic – seen at its best here in a long sonnet sequence about the Miners Strike and its fall out – Wilson impresses most when terse. ‘Big Billy’s Wham-Bammer’ uses staccato phrases to amusing and vigorous effect: “Got up, phone up/Whit’s up?/Shut up!/Split up, hings up”.

Aleister Crowley – The Beast Demystified
Roger Hutchinson
MAINSTREAM, £9.99
pp224 1845961323

Narcotics, magic, and an erotic life close to a sexual circus – Aleister Crowley was at least sixty years ahead of his time. He starred on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he was more of a punk than a hippie: when he heard Queen Victoria had died, he whooped and danced. The self-styled laird of Boleskine and occasional Scotsman, Crowley revelled in his tabloid epithet of “the wickedest man in the world”. Roger Hutchinson however is inclined to see him as “a spoiled and weak little boy who ran from rather than confronted unpleasantness”. He does-n’t have much truck with Crowley’s explorations of magic, sidelining what was a major part of his subject’s life. Read Hutchinson’s biography and you come away with the impression Crowley was little more than a yellow press bogeyman. Consequently, the book is duller and certainly less informative than a previous Crowley biography, Martin Booth’s A Magick Life. Crowley may well have been “a genuine charlatan” but that doesn’t explain the influence he enjoyed. He was friends at one point with Yeats, HL Menken and Ferdinand Pessoa, and was fictionalised by Arnold Bennet, Somerset Maugham and Anthony Powell. To paraphrase another magician, you might like this book, but not a lot.

Mother’s Day
Kirsty Scott
HODDER, £12.99
pp375, ISBN 0340895527

If Kirsty Scott had deliberately set out to write an anti-marriage, anti-monogamy novel then she couldn’t have done it better. Somehow, though, I suspect that wasn’t her intention. Gwen is married to Rob, Alison is married to Duncan and Katherine is married to Harry. Gwen keeps on having children and is now pregnant again, Alison loves her job as a journalist and Katherine doesn’t work because husband Harry is so rich she does-n’t have to. The women befriend each other because their children attend the same leafy Edinburgh nursery. But all is not well – Rob has been made redundant, Duncan is jealous of Alison’s career, and Harry is cheating on poor bulimic Katherine. Time to get radical. Gwen, Ali-son and Katherine decide their husbands are useless and run away with their children to create a women-only commune where Gwen gets to give her over-productive body a well-earned rest, Alison can pursue her career guilt-free, and Katherine straightens out her eating habits. Just kidding. Of course they don’t. Scott’s world is one where husbands hang about the kitchen discussing pension schemes and wives leave their intellects somewhere under a big stone in the garden. So Alison passes on promotion, Gwen stays fertile and Katherine gets a new man. Yummy.

Memoirs of a Highland Lady
Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus
CANONGATE, £8.99
pp360, ISBN 1841957577

This is the first unabridged edition of the remarkable two-volume Nineteenth century memoir that has remained in print ever since its publication in 1898. If you have never read it before, do so now. Grant may not have the cleverness of her contemporary Jane Austen but she is just as compelling. In fact, her description of her distant, often sickly mother perfectly mirrors Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park and the austere conditions of the nursery have all the misery of the young Fanny Price’s experiences: “All children were alike plunged into the coldest water, sent abroad in the worst weather, fed on the same food, clothed in the same light manner.” There are delicious insights into a way of life long passed, as well as glimpses of the familiar. As children, Grant and her brother and sister would hide bits of food they didn’t like in paper bags under the table; as a growing adult, there is a humorous awareness of neighbours’ faults and foibles; as a young woman, anguish over a broken engagement. Grant was thirty-three before she married, positively antique by the standards of the day, but it’s to our gain. By remaining single so long she had the time to maintain her journal, a warm, human, revealing account of a young woman’s life.

Illustrious Exile
Andrew O. Lindsay
PEEPAL TREE PRESS, £9.99
pp400, ISBN 1845230280

Lindsay’s first novel takes an enticing proposition and turns it into a fascinating story. Robert Burns was once offered the post of bookkeeper on an estate in Jamaica. Although the national bard never actually made the journey, Lindsay pretends that he did, imagining what might have taken place on the voyage there and once he arrived. In fact, Lindsay’s novel stands up perfectly well on its own, without knowing anything about Burns. He might even have been better off dropping Burns altogether and just telling the tale of an Eighteenth century Scotsman who emigrated to Jamaica, as the realisation that the main character is Burns hampers rather than helps the novel. Lindsay’s Burns marries the lovely Mary after impregnating poor Jean Armour. Together they leave for the West Indies but soon after their arrival, Mary dies in childbirth. Burns is left to the comforts of his black slave, Adah, with whom he soon falls in love, much to the concern of his superior, Mr Douglas. Lindsay himself lives on Guyana and accordingly his novel is full of physical detail, delightfully bringing the period and the landscape alive. Only his portrayal of the bard is rather dubious; Lindsay’s Burns is almost a prude. Yet the book remains an excellent debut.

Gender in Scottish History since 1700
Edited by Lynn Abrams, Eleanor Gordon, Deborah Simonton and Eileen Janes Yeo
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £18.99
pp288, ISBN 0748617612

Locating prominent Scottish women who have contributed to the culture, politics, religion, science and education of this nation throughout the last three centuries is certainly a project that has come late. But, as they say, better late than never. Where is Scotland’s Mary Wollstonecraft, historians have queried, sceptically? (Her name was Marion Reid and she wrote A Plea for Women in 1843). What about the first Scottish woman MP? (Katherine Hamilton, Duchess of Atholl in 1923, just four years after Nancy Astor, since you ask). But this volume is not about point-scoring. This is a serious consideration of a country’s openness, or lack of it, to the presence of women in public life. There are important distinctions to be made between Scotland and other comparable European countries. France’s literary salons were run by women, as were the Enlightenment societies in Amsterdam and London. But Scotland has proved more resistant. This volume questions whether Scotland’s ‘hard man’ reputation has been to blame for its women’s invisibility and goes a considerable way to redressing the imbalance that has left the likes of Marion Reid and Katherine Hamil-ton out of the history books.

The Highlands
Calum I. Maclean
Mainstream, £9.99
pp240, ISBN 1845960149

The last edition of this book was in 1990, when Calum Maclean’s brother, Sorley, the Gaelic poet, contributed a foreword. It is time for a new edition, although no textual changes have been made. It was originally published in 1959, and it is interesting to compare the changes in the Highlands since Maclean’s death in 1960. What would he have made of wind towers on the landscape, or the Skye bridge with its controversial tolls, or even Sunday ferry sailings? It’s hard to tell
– Maclean gives the impression of one not keen on change, to say the least. His love for the Highlands is also a love of the static; he celebrates the constant, and privileges the unchanging ways of life – on one occasion, he begins to tell the tale told to him of one Donald More’s revenge for the killing of his brother, but his tape recorder breaks down and he does not hear the end of the story. No worries. “I must return to Shona to get the rest of the story,” he assures us. “Donald Kennedy will continue of course from where he left off.”

Of course, Maclean did not return and he did not get the rest of the story. His view of the Highlands is ultimately both a romantic and a practical one, but with the emphasis very much on the romantic, as he recounts myths and songs and views of lochs, with much love.

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