by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 2 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

October 28, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

On The Atlantic Edge
Kenneth White
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.95
pp.108 ISBN 1905207085

“Honest to the point of ferocity (that’s the Scot in me)” – so Ken-neth White, architect of ‘geopoetics’, describes himself. And he is fierce, not to mention occasionally iconoclastic, in his denunciations. ”Most of what is called ‘creative writing’ done all over the world today is insignificant,” he assures us, “when it is not pernicious.” Examples? None at that point though he later lays into George Mackay Brown (“pretty awful stuff: simplistic, repetitive, childish, rank with the self-conscious complacency of ‘the local poet’”) and Hugh MacDiarmid (he “never reached complete coherence and was marked by a lop-sided gigantism”). On The Atlantic Edge is culled from four lectures White delivered in Scotland on Scotland. He provides his rather fuzzy take on ‘world writing’, which refers not to the global commonwealth of literature but “writing that opens spaces”. After a while, you get the feeling he thinks the real problem with literature is that his poetry isn’t read enough. White, who is fond of laboured coinages like ‘cacotopia’, ‘textonics’, and ‘chaosmos’, has a dream. If only his vision of geopoetics was followed then “a new way of being human and of living a human life” would arise, which makes White sound more like David Icke than Seamus Heaney.

Collected Poems 1965-2005
Duncan Glen
AKROS, £9.99
pp.224 ISBN 0861421671

The bard of Cambuslang, Duncan Glen has been mapping his poetic concerns now for forty years in a warm, gently comic voice. Whether writing poems for children or tipping his bunnet to a selection of American poets, the tone remains recognisable and individual to Glen. A typical entry, ‘The Hert O Scotland’ projects the comical dilemma of a poet who wants to “scrieve o Scotland/ and mak a unity o it”, but who has hardly seen the country. Glen sceptical about progress and warns of the corruption of national spirit into jingoism; he pays tribute to Burns and Glen’s makar mate, MacDiarmid. Another subject, memory, is a treacherous creature. In ‘The Gullion’, after praising the landscape he played upon as a child, he writes, “I can mind the gullion and aw the land’s ayont/ I went back and fund/ a wee bit boggy grund.” The liveliness and clarity of his use of Scots is such that the twice quoted line by William Carlos Williams – “Geeze, Doc. I guess it’s all right/ but what the hell does it mean?” – does not apply to Glen’s work. The glossaries at the bottom of each page are thoughtful but unnecessary. A collected poems worth collecting.

Roots Of Stone – The Story Of The People Who came Before
Hugh G Allison
MAINSTREAM, £7.99
pp.240 ISBN 1845961293

Roots of stone? There were times during Allison’s book where I felt myself turning to stone. The idea, “an exploration into how real people and real history are one and the same”, turns out in practice to mean a fleshed out family tree. Delving into the Allison line, the author discovers his clan history is bound up with the story of the nation. The reader witnesses a numbing procession of kings, most of them psychopaths except for, ironically, Macbeth, who got a bad notice from that notorious Sassenach propagandist, Shakespeare. For a historian, one might say Alli-son has an innovative approach to sources. For example, he chooses to give as much veracity to oral accounts handed down the generations as actual documents. “Without the word there would be no histories, so let’s not be too unkind to the word, however it comes to us.” A bubbling national romanticism of the kind that has driven many a Scot to an ecstasy of sentimentality is on view here in this “tale of all the ones who came before and who can still be felt in the blood at times when any deep emotion is stirred.” Does boredom count as a deep emotion?

The Museum Of Doubt
James Meek
CANONGATE, £7.99
pp.304 ISBN 1841958085

Reissued and revised, The Museum Of Doubt is both playful and dungeon-dark, manically funny and dread-inducing. The qualities that would make The People’s Act Of Love one of the more arresting books of the past few years are already evident here though they’re put to use in a more obviously surreal direction. He has a paranoid eye so that a drive to catch a ferry or a trip to a garden centre contain the potential to turn into tests of the soul. The short stories that make up this collection are lit with sexual and status anxiety, both fears being brought together in a series of linked tales centred on Gordon, a nightmare of bourgeois discontent. Boiling with desire for his son’s girlfriend, Gor-don fixes it so his son is taken into custody by the police in order to exercise the droit de seigneur. Yet when a tale takes a more ‘realistic’ turn, as in ‘The Very Love There Was’, where a man’s inability to learn his partner’s language comes to look like a verdict on their relationship, Meek proves as capable as he does in the collection’s stranger zones. A book that will puzzle and bewitch, no doubt.

Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined its Appetite
Joanna Blythman
FOURTH ESTATE, £7.99
pp336 ISBN 0007219946

After lambasting the supermarkets in the first-rate Shopped for selling bagged salad, pre-frozen prawns and strawberries in December, food critic Blythman turns her attention to us, we lazy consumers who don’t care what we’re putting in our bodies so long as it’s easy to cook. She targets celebrity chefs on TV (Euro-pean countries, she argues, have no concept of a ‘celebrity chef’), criticises food pages in magazines, and food books themselves for presenting cooking as some kind of outré lifestyle choice, instead of a natural, daily activity. Blythman is so persuasive, you immediately decide that all your future shopping will be done at farmers’ markets and local delicatessens and that never again will you open a jar of sauce that you could have made yourself. Unfortunately, these decisions often don’t last very long; although the premise of her argument is correct most of the time, few of us have the time to source local ingredients, and what’s the point of cooking a leg of lamb if you’re one of the growing percent age of single-dweller households? Blythman requires a major change in our living habits, not just our eating habits.

Vulnerable in Hearts: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons and Contract Bridge
Sandy Balfour
ATLANTIC, £8.99
pp224 ISBN 1843543664

You don’t have to have a passion for bridge to enjoy this book, which is more about the values and views of the world that a parent passes on to his or her children than about ‘sacrifice bids’ and ‘safety plays’. In fact, you don’t need to know anything about bridge at all, and Bal-four’s story of his relationship with his Scots-born father probably could do without it too. But the game of bridge, and his father’s passion for it, creates a nice conceit. Balfour intersperses his moving memoir of his father with a potted history of bridge. A fond reader of Stevenson to his young family when they lived in South Africa, Balfour senior formed a strong bond with his kids in the early days, losing it during the teenage years, as many fathers do. His drinking and career disappointments alienated him from his family, then living in the ‘sleepy hollow’ of Pietermaritzburg, a few miles from Durban. A chemical engineer, he provided a luxurious home for his family in those apartheid days, but however badly things developed during Balfour junior’s adolescence, his father was always able to bond with him again through bridge.

Calum’s Road
Roger Hutchinson
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp224 ISBN 1841584479

This is a tale of survival in the face of centuries of erosion – the erosion of Highland society, of its families and schools and working and living environment – and it takes a lot to make that over-familiar story come alive again. Hutchinson has largely achieved that with his careful, respectful account of the building of the road between Brochel and Arnish on the tiny Hebridean island of Raasay. Decades of appeals to the council had achieved nothing so, when he retired, Calum Macleod decided he would build the road himself. It took him fifteen years to expand the footpath into a single-track road, two miles long, with only a pick, a shovel, a wheel barrow and a road-making manual for help. Hutchinson spends the first half of his book preparing the groundwork, explaining the history of the island and its constant battles against absentee landlords and forced evictions. The “island of strong men” however produced perhaps the strongest of them all in Calum MacLeod, whose determination to build the road, which he saw as the only way to attract young families back to settle on the island, was matched only by his remarkable physical strength and tenacity.

Scottish Voices from the Second World War
Derek Young
TEMPUS, £17.99
pp288 ISBN 0752437100

This volume by Stirling University research fellow Young doesn’t do nice introductions to ease you into the subject – from the first page, we are thrust sixty years back into the past and a bloody, brutal era with the personal reminiscences of Scottish soldiers fighting around the world during the Second World War. Young has asked surviving soldiers to recount their experiences; the detail remembered by these old soldiers is quite astonishing. James Tulloch, serving with the Bengal Artillery, for instance, recalls: “At the end of three weeks our O.P. called for fire and for a whole forenoon we were in action. The men were glad of a rest but it was not to be, a Jap 150 millimetre gun dropped 16 rounds on Dog Troop, 4 rounds within yards of each gun with the exception of Number Four gun which got a direct hit…” Gung-ho accounts mix with anguished tales of close shaves and compassion for victims. John Bell remembers the evacuation of Dunkirk, and his last-minute decision to help a young girl reach a village instead of accompanying the rest of his regiment in their lorry. He helped the girl reach safety, but his fellow soldiers were bombed in their lorry.

Scottish Fiction and the British Empire
Douglas S. Mack
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £16.99
pp256 ISBN 0748618147

Irish literary students were quicker off the mark than their Scots counterparts were to apply to the stories of their homeland post-colonial theories of the ‘subaltern’ (“the ‘people’, the dominated mass of the population in town and country”). That was partly because Ireland could more easily claim than Scotland could, given its post-1745 collusion in the Empire, a position equable with the disenfranchised of Africa or India. The ‘subaltern’ was coined by Ranajit Guha in the early Eighties when writing about Indian society in the days of the British Empire, and was taken up by theorist Gayatri Spivak to ask, “can the subaltern speak?” That no easy mapping of this term can be done actually benefits Scottish history and its literature, forcing a deeper and more complex kind of analysis – not just of literature but also of the practice of applying post-colonial theories. Mack has provided just such a work, asking questions like “Can the subaltern speak within a narrative such as Waverley?”, while accepting that the ‘subaltern’ voice is by no means as pure or uncorrupted as post-colonial theory would have us believe. A Hogg scholar, Mack focuses largely on him but also takes in Stevenson, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh.

From this Issue

Irish in Denial

by James MacMillan

The Atkinson Diet

by Ajay Close

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