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Volume 2 – Issue 3 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 2 – Issue 3 – Reviews

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

Hidden Scotland – Scotland’s Hidden Past
Ann Lindsay
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp320 ISBN 1841583480


As someone who’s done his share of rummaging around in the darker crannies and corners of Scottish history I’ve a good idea what’s involved. It’s a lonely and dusty old business. It can also be very frustrating. Still, there’s something peculiarly satisfying about digging up some fragment of history that’s been overlooked or forgotten and holding it up for everyone to see. There’s a kind of “Look what I’ve found!” buzz about it, particularly when people react by saying “Crikey! I never knew that. Well I never.”

And I have to say that I reacted that way quite often as I read my way through Ann Lindsay’s Hidden Scotland. There was enough of the Crikey! factor to keep me engaged. The book is made up of more than 100 essays (some lengthy, some just a few paragraphs long) organised into nine different sections. At the end of each essay she gives directions (complete with an Ordnance Survey map reference) on how to get to where she’s writing about.

By and large it’s a structure that works, although I have to say that I found some of the section headings irritating. For example: ‘Woven stories and fashionable tales’; ‘The sea, ships and watery yarns’; ‘Curious buildings with hidden lives’; ‘Places with a touch of magic, retreats and places of refuge’. There’s a kind of clumsy whimsicality about them that does the book no favours. Her editors should have stepped in and reworked the section headings.

In fact, I could have done with a bit less whimsy throughout. To a beady-eyed old hack like myself there were just too many stories about ghosts, `clooty wells’, ducking pools, spooky happenings in Mary King’s Close and the hill where Macbeth is supposed to have met the witches. I know there’s a market for this stuff but I find it tiresome. Almost inevitably these fables come wrapped up in phrases like “as legend has it” or “according to legend” or “local legends claim”, which makes for a wooliness more annoying than amusing.

But there’s more to Ann Lindsay’s book than that. Quite a lot more, in fact. There are enough solid, interesting stories between the covers to keep most readers turning the pages. She’s good on Scotland’s (almost forgotten) flax-growing and linen-making industry, the measures taken to curb body-snatching in Dalkeith and an apple known as the ‘Arbroath Pippin’ whose flavour was outdone “by none but the Nonpareil”. I liked her essay on the nineteenth-century novelist Catherine Sinclair whose monument was Edinburgh’s first public drinking fountain.

To my shame I’d never heard of the crippled artist Willie McLaren, a miner’s son from Cardenden in Fife who illustrated more than 600 books and did the trompe-l’oeil murals in Tyninghame House in East Lothian. McLaren died in 1987 and sounds like a man whose work should be better known. Lindsay set me wondering just why a notoriously damp country like Scotland should be home to so many sundials.

And I loved her account of how one Thomas Williamson of West Wemyss carved a garden seat for Queen Victoria out of ‘parrot’ (very hard) coal. This remarkable artefact was last seen sitting in the grounds of the old queen’s favourite residence, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Oh, and there’s an Ameri-can historian (a professor no less) who is convinced that King Arthur’s wife Guinevere was an Angus quean. Tintagel, eat your heart out.

For me one of the best stories in the book is ‘Off the rails – literally’ which tells how crafty Aberdeen-shire farmers snapped up redundant railway coaches after the Beeching cuts of 1963. A covered goods van (minus wheels) cost just under £23 and made for a cheap and handy hen house and/or feed store. On a more sombre note `Coves for cunning U-boats’ is a version of the slightly troubling story that during World War One some German submarines used to sneak into sea lochs on the west coast in order to rustle sheep.

I suppose I have two main criticisms about this amiable collection. Some of the writing is pretty clunky and occasionally reads like a Higher History paper. For example: “The Island of Eilean Choraidh is more or less in the centre of Loch Eriboll. This island was used by the Fleet Air Arm to rehearse the attack on the Tirpitz in Norway in 1944.” That’s fairly typical. Some sharper editing and a bit of rewriting would have helped. And I think Lindsay should have been advised to cut back on the ‘legendary’ stuff, drop many of the brief squibs and spend more time developing her stronger, better-sourced stories.

Ann Lindsay has plainly done a great deal of homework but I get the feeling – without really knowing – that much of her material was gleaned from previous texts and local museums and libraries. Which is fine, so far as it goes. But I’m sure a trawl through the national archives in London and Edinburgh would have unearthed stories that would have given her book a keener edge. There’s a lot in these indices just waiting to be plundered.

Maybe next time.

Margaret Elphinstone
pp412, ISBN 1841958050


This novel comes with a page of acknowledgements, common practice these days, intended doubtless to show what a fine and grateful person the author is, and how thoroughly he or she has researched the material. That the practice has become common is understandable; more and more, it seems, fiction aspires to achieve the authority of non-fiction, of biography and history. That such authority is, as often as not, spurious, seems to be no matter.

In truth of course fiction is make-believe. It is, as Muriel Spark insisted, an exercise in lying. You say that something which never happened did happen, and you try to convince the reader. In doing so, you aim at another sort of truth which she called ‘analogical’. There is, one must admit, much to be said for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes; no one knew this better than Jonathan Swift; hence the marvellous deadpan tone of the early pages of each of Gulliver’s travels, fine pastiche of what was even then fashionable travel literature. Even so, one should be wary of research undertaken specifically to make a novel. Far from making it, too much research is in danger of sinking the project; and there are times early on in Margaret Elphin-stone’s novel when the imagination is in danger of being stifled by her research. Novels are made from a mixture of memory, observation and imagination; and the more deeply buried the memory, the better.

Fortunately Elphinstone’s imagination is in good order; it floats free of the research, and the suspicion that the novel is going to be weighed down by information about how to operate a lighthouse in the early Nineteenth century evaporates. We get beyond the technicalities, and are absorbed in a drama about the relations between different men and women – the true, the enduring, subject of novels.

The essence of the book is simple. For years, since the death of her brother, a woman called Lucy has been manning the lighthouse on a small rocky island set amidst dangerous seas off the Isle of Man. She lives there with her son Billy, a boy of ten or eleven, born out of wedlock – something shameful at that time – and her sister-in-law Diya, widow of the drowned brother, and their two daughters, Breesha and Mally. Diya, as the name suggests, is Indian by birth – and how did she come to be where she is? That is one of the questions the reader wants answered. For all of them the island is more than home; it is a refuge and, for the children, a paradise.

But now they are in danger of being dislodged. A new lighthouse is to be built – theirs being out of date; and surveyors, employed by the Scottish lighthouse engineer, Robert Stevenson, are coming to the island to assess the situation and plan the replacement. It is unlikely that Lucy will be employed by the new regime. So they are all living under the threat of eviction.

Margaret Elphinstone has hit on a perennial theme: the demands of Progress in opposition to the feelings and indeed the lives of those who obstruct its path. It is a good subject, that can be seen in a different form in, for instance, Iain Crich-ton Smith’s fine novel of the Clearances, Consider The Lillies; and it is a measure of Margaret Elphinstone’s success that her novel doesn’t suffer from the comparison. Its success lies in the thoroughness with which she has imagined her characters and in her ability to animate them – to make the argument immediate and personal, so that the reader is anxious about the outcome, engaged in the narrative. This is no mean achievement.

The novel has its faults. Elphin-stone has not found a satisfactory solution to the problem facing anyone now writing a novel set in the nineteenth-century: how to make her characters speak? We all have an idea of how they should speak, because we have all read novels set in that time. But if you make them speak in the same manner of characters from nineteenth-century novels, you find yourself writing pastiche. Which is all right if you do it intentionally, like Charles Pallister in The Quincunx. But the trouble is that pastiche inevitably rings like counterfeit coin. If on the other hand, your characters sound as if they had escaped from a twenty-first century novel, or, even worse, soap opera, they ring equally false. Much of the time Margaret Elphinstone wisely adopts a sort of neutral language, neither one thing nor the other, but every now and then her guard drops, and her characters sound wrong.

Nevertheless the writing is strong enough and her imagination sufficiently sympathetic for those minor flaws to be soon forgotten. It’s a solid dramatic novel, in many ways old fashioned in the manner of, say, George Blake or AJ Cronin – and none the worse for that.

Hugo Rifkind
pp346 ISBN 1841958581


For the professional media whore, Rarely has photography been given such prominence than at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Two New York-based Scottish photographers, Harry Benson and Albert Watson, are the subjects of long overdue retrospectives, the former at the National Portrait Gallery, the latter at the City Arts Centre. At the Gallery of Modern Art several rooms are devoted to the work of the often controversial Robert Mapplethorpe, whose explicit images of genitalia still have the power to shock. But, as this show illustrates, Mapplethorpe was, as evidenced above from stills from the official catalogue, an inspired and compassionate portraitist. Robert Mapplethorpe continues until 5 November.

there is no such thing as overexposure. The papers are their mirror, and if they don’t find their face in them, then they don’t exist. Vampires of course have no natural reflection either, and the comparison is instructive. Although many of the characters who swarm through Hugo Rifkind’s book only come out at nights, for openings, awards ceremonies, charidee doos, these Gucci-clad revenants don’t turn to dust in the glare of one kind of light: the camera’s flash. Only here’s a little insider information courtesy of Rifkind. Strobe machines are routinely used at red carpet affairs to make it look as if an army of photographers are snapping away rather than the usual half-dozen Nikon-twiddlers.

Rifkind knows these things. He’s The Times’ diarist, and a typical example of the species. He greases his column with a snarky tone, favourite targets, in-jokes within in-jokes, and occasional spats of the why-oh-whys. For Overexposure, his debut, Rifkind has distilled his broadsheet style into novel-form. Given that it charts one hack’s love-hate affair with celebrity, the book’s hero is – who’d have thought it? – a newspaper diarist.

Macaulay Lewis, the hero, a notional term here, churns out despatches from the front line of fashionable London for the Evening Standard-esque Gazette. In the manner of his trade, he’s conducting a phoney war with celebrity, bearding the players and famous faces while in fact aware that without them he’d have no job. Moreover, he’s not a little in love with the starry milieu; he refers throughout the book to the film he’s sure will be made of his life one day and who’ll play him (Jude Law, he reckons).

The plot’s hook is that there is a gentleman thief making merry during London’s party season. This latter-day Raffles sets his MO when he steals two mega-diamonds used as nipple patches by a weathergirl starlet. The girl was robbed while presenting a prize at the Gazette’s Diamond Award ceremony. Lewis misses the scoop as he’s smoking a joint with “a lanky former youth TV presenter who, for legal reasons, I should point out is absolutely not Jamie Theakston”, a typical shot of the insider smugness that permeates the enterprise.

Having failed to report the robbery at their shindig, the Gazette reclaims the initiative by taking an ironic pro-Fingers stance, painting him as a celeb-bashing folk hero. Things being what they are though, the capital’s fashion victims swiftly grow keen to be Fingered. “This is a trend,” Lewis says. “This week anybody who is anyone is queuing up to be robbed. It’s the new black.”

That’s the spine of the novel, Lewis’ footling attempts to track down Fingers. There are various sub-plots that sit stiffly beside each other, unable to catch the other’s eye. A Judeo-Scot, Lewis muses on “a colourful ethnic background” which one sister has rejected, the other embraced. The mother who abandoned him as a child is attempting to re-enter his life, to his dismay. Elspeth, an old flame from his Edinburgh adolescence, continues to agitate him. And away from home, the club scene is being stalked by Mr Spike, yin to Fingers’ yang, a rapist who drugs and attacks female funsters. This last narrative strand yields a curious commentary from Lewis on the subject of violating comatose women. “Of course the vast majority of us [men] would never consider it, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t…that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t…well.” If Andrea Dworkin wasn’t already dead, that would give her a heart attack.

Although never likely to be confused with War And Peace, Overexposure is entirely readable fluff. If you’re lying around a pool this summer or recovering from a serious head injury, this is the book for you. Popbitch browsers will enjoy decoding who some of the lightly fictionalised characters really are. Be quick though; the lists of nanoslebs who blacken the pages ensure this book has a shorter shelf-life than milk on a radiator.

Ron Butlin
pp256 ISBN 1852429151


Like a dystopian James Bond, RonButlin’s third novel ranges between picture-postcard locations only to find horror and dissolution waiting at every turn. Drifter Jack McCall works as a gardien in a French ski resort with his partner, Anna, a therapy-marinated neurotic who wants to settle down and make babies. Jack spots a beautiful couple arriving from Paris for the weekend; during a snowstorm, the man dies suddenly and mysteriously.

Anna and Jack befriend the man’s girlfriend Therese, who shortly after departs as quickly as she arrived, leaving Jack obsessed with her memory and Anna uncertain of their future together. Sure enough, Jack hops off at the last minute to find Therese, beginning an affair that will lead him to a commune in Spain where he finds ugly truths about relationships and more deaths.

Butlin draws his characters well, and his writing can be highly accomplished, as when Jack kills a snake: “A sudden upward lunge and Toni pressed down with everything he’d got. More than fury now, the snake was maddened and its blood was streaming over the shiny scales. Another wild chop, and then another. The axe getting slippery in my hand.” Individual phrases – the snake’s “arc of oiled translucence”, for instance – confirm Butlin’s ability to catch a scene in just a few words.

Just as he can write, and pick off his characters, so handling of plot is deft. Butlin blends the horror of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan into Jack’s personal struggle with his lost ideals. Snatches of news reports half-heard in foreign languages over the radio and TV punctuate the narrative: the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, the London bombings – all drift through the book as it moves from one place to another, each time bringing a reminder of the supposed ‘civilisation’ Jack wants to escape.

Time and again, those seeking to build an alternative to Western society have failed. Marshall, the American idealist who wants to build his own paradise rock by rock in the Spanish wilderness is revealed as a drunk and sadistic wife-beater; Sven the hermit proves to be an incompetent day-dreamer, and even the seemingly innocent and naive Therese proves to be duplicitous. If Belonging suggests that we can’t escape either ourselves or each other, then neither does it offer much comfort to those who give up the struggle and decide to return to the ‘real’ world: after Anna has come to seek him out in Spain, Jack reflects that theirs “was no love story – but perhaps there never had been one.”

The unremittingly bleak and often disturbing portrayal of why men and women get together, and why they stay together, is the most striking thing about this novel. Faked pregnancies, beatings, serial lies, invitations to rough sex and pleasure in violence; these provide the novel’s emotional core. Deceit – both of the self and of others – is the central motif, and Butlin connects the need to deceive others with a different kind of self-deception, namely that such a thing as a perfect or even comfortable life might be possible.

In the end, as Jack and Anna are leaving Spain, he apprehends the beauty of their surroundings as though for the first time; as the characters walk away, Jack notices that “the day burns hotter with every step we take” – like Milton’s Adam and Eve with their “wandering steps and slow”, only Jack and Anna are headed for no paradise but more of what has come before.

There is much to praise in Belonging, not least Butlin’s unflinching gaze into the nature of relationships, yet there is something about the book that fails to convince. Cast in the form of a page-turning thriller, the action clips along too quickly, rarely inviting the descriptive longueurs that might have added depth earlier in the story, and greater power towards the end. We don’t learn enough about Jack’s childhood and early promise as a pianist until three-quarters of the way through the book, when his persona as a drifter and emotional malcontent has been fully established. But where Butlin does allow himself some room to drift, he produces some understated and emotionally affective writing.

Unusually for a modern novel, this would have benefited from being longer and less preoccupied with its responsibilities as a thriller, as only the rarest kind of gift could deal with the complexities he attempts in just under two hundred and fifty pages. That Belonging achieves a measure of success is a compliment to Butlin’s skill: perhaps future books will see him throw off convention and explore his themes to the length and depth they deserve.

The Bedroom Secrets Of The Chef
Irvine Welsh
pp400 ISBN 022407587X


Irvine Welsh’s new novel makes use of a punk aesthetic, in which nasty things are a fascination, and of the Gothic literary tradition, in which one person may be seen as two and two persons as one. The literature of duality is acknowledged in the book: there’s a pointed mention of Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray, and there are reminiscences of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, as when it tells you about a threat of riot and murder located in the wynds off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

The pile of vomit in the corner of the room when you wake up in the morning is routine (at least there’s a strip-pine floor). Snot and mucus are immediately in evidence. This Edinburgh is a city of alcoholics and grievous-bodily-harmers, of killer winds, awful fogs, bruised and scowling skies. The take on drink can seem teetotally hostile; and the take on gang fights comes from a writer who has condemned, in the press, Glasgow’s culture of the knife. And yet the swallowing and the fighting have many of the good tunes in the novel. You feel that the compassionate man in him is at odds with a very different fellow, or ‘felly’, as they say in Edin-burgh. Maybe there are two Irvine Welshes.

Here are the confessions of a Danny Skinner, one of the novel’s several voices. He works for the Environmental Health inspectorate of Edinburgh City Council. The city’s latterday commitment to restaurants is in force, food critics and aphrodisiac cookbooks have arrived, and his job is to check on chefs’ kitchens, while turning the odd blind eye. He is a Gothic orphan, or semi-orphan, who goes rummaging around the local chefs in search of his unknown father. As a kid, “I started looking at any old guy in the street who smiled at me”; a common pursuit among orphans, a pursuit currently reckoned hazardous. His mother is a relic of the Punk scene of the Eighties. He is a shagger, a drinker, a cocaine-sniffer. He wonders about his “libertine sexuality”; is he trying to drown it, avert its ugly encounters, by means of the bottle? He is a reader of Burns and is himself a Rabbie Burns of passion and caprice, zigs and zags. Burns’ adopted nickname, ‘Spunkie’, would serve for his Edinburgh reader. Danny hates Brian Kibby, a newcomer to the office – shy, well-meaning, at first, nae drinker. Nasty but interesting Danny comes to believe that he has placed a hex on Brian and the spell comes true. Brian begins to feel Danny’s pain. His fate is in Danny’s bullying hands. “I was able to concoct a psychic spell so powerful it allowed me to transfer the burden of my consumption to him.” Brian has to have a liver transplant.

Part of the novel is ‘strange’, the pre-eminent Gothic adjective. And it may be a shade stranger than it needs to be. Not all of the transference business is persuasive. The idea of a hero and his enemy double being able to catch one another’s illnesses is something you’d expect to find in the literature of duality: but it’s a little hard at times to see the present pair as conjoined or symbiotic, if that is the intended impression. The difficulty in question could be thought to be another feature of the literature of duality. By the end of the book, Welsh has done much to make sense of the connection.

Danny’s main woman sacks him because of his drinking: “I don’t think you even like having sex with me anymore, because all you want to do is drink. You’re an alcoholic,” Kay tells him straight. This belongs to a great theme of Scottish life and literature. Danny bears a resemblance to Tam o’ Shanter, more of a drinker than a lover, but is a lot more of a lover than Tam.

One of his later women asks him why there’s no contemporary Scottish fiction on his shelves. “Not for me,” Skinner replies. “If I want swearing and drug-taking, I’ll step outside the door and get it.” This is a nice, pawky touch, for the novel he inhabits is laid end to end with swearing and drug-taking, and with untoward and hyper-gruesome events. One of his possible fathers proves to have blown away his privates in a youthful terrorist fling. There is copulation with an aging spaewife of poor personal hygiene. A piano falls from a height on a loved one, who happens to be under a large master chef (whose French nom de cuisine disguises the fact that he comes from hamely Gilmerton and is really called Alan Frazer). The loved one strangely survives.

The book has quite an engine. It coughs and grumbles a bit with its account of telepathic pathology. But it makes a big noise, and more than that: its power holds up from start to explosive finish, and I suspect it of being a success, long and loquacious as it is, extravagant as it is. Its dialogue is in an excellent Scots, with some carry-over of the native tongue into the surrounding narrative, and it evokes a ridiculous, delirious Edinburgh which is also, time and again, a real one. ‘The Burgh’, the Hibs-supporting end of it in particular, is authentically present, and it’s as well to remember that binge drinking is now reported to be a pan-British phenomenon, and that Welsh may be more of a realist here, and less of a fantasist, than always meets the eye. His Edinburgh delirium joins together a bohemian working-class, never out of the pub save for the occasional orgy, and a few specimens of the sober citizens with whom these ravers share the city.

The Good Death
Nick Brooks.
pp320 ISBN 0297849050


The novel’s title begs the question, is there ever such a thing as a good death? Certainly not for most, and it falls to the practitioners of mortuary science to concoct the temporary illusion that pain or violence were absent in the loved one’s passage from life. In spite of the popular perception, the mortician’s job is all about servicing the needs of the living. The dead are beyond caring or being cared for.

Such are the views of Hugh Madden, a man who mistook medicine as his vocation, only to discover it in the mortician’s craft instead. The very fact that his profession sets him apart is one of its attractions. When he was growing up, his father had once thrust a dictionary under his nose and stabbed at the word ‘solitary’, leaving him in no doubt that this was what to expect. Nothing in his subsequent experience, not even marriage, has suggested that this lesson in the primary fact of life was anything other than brutally accurate.

Working at Caldwell’s funeral parlour for forty years has made him something of a philosopher on the subject of the dead. He thinks of them as his “sleeping beauties”, then reprimands himself. The implication that they will ever wake again is “precisely wrong”. Although he is used to their company, something drives Madden to tell himself that neither the screech of chalk on a blackboard, nor boiling water poured into an ear would raise the slightest twitch from present company. His chosen examples induce winces, and there are more such moments as Brooks probes Madden’s murky inner world. Madden is silently burdened with self-hatred, for all his calm exterior. Privately, he thinks of his mind as a boil that needs to be lanced and as the world as “one huge seething mass of microscopic sodomy”.

The seedy darkness of the mortician’s mindscape forms a grim counterpoint to the murder mystery narrative, which arrives with a body he recognises on his slab. It is Kincaid, his professor of anatomy when he was a medical student at Glasgow University. Kincaid had affected a flamboyance of style that offended Madden’s Calvinist tastes, but something more troubling than a lime green bow tie invades his memory. The sight of Kincaid’s corpse jerks him back to the evening he met his wife, an almost incidental consideration compared with his encounter on the same night with Gaskell, his first and only friend. On the surface they have nothing in common but they recognise each other as kindred spirits, fellow adepts in the game of life “as a strategy of evasion”.

Gaskell, a jazz buff, dubs Madden a “young fogey” and nicknames him “Madman”. Both are bypassed by Sixties flower power but to different degrees they are caught up in the ‘free love’ revolution, which extended only to those of heterosexual disposition. Madden’s wife-to-be waits like a trapdoor spider in the next bed while he loses his virginity with her room-mate. This follows the drunken Union dance when Gaskell makes out with a beautiful girl, who, Madden sourly notes, is trying not to smile in order to hide her ugly gums. When her body is found in a Glasgow park, which also happens to be a gay cruising area, both Madden and Gaskell are suspects but it is her ex-boyfriend who is arrested and charged with murder.

As the plot unfolds, secrets scuttle from under every stone. As a gay theme becomes more evident in the plot, Brooks uses the fact that homosexuality remained a criminal offence until 1967 to amplify his theme of secrecy and the distortion of personality it can effect. Professor Kincaid’s attractive first wife must now be over seventy, Madden estimates when he learns she is coming in to see the body. But a second wife arrives, a gorgeous Thai, who has been banned from the funeral by Kincaid’s family. The reason for this, as so much else, is not obvious at first sight.

Brooks is an accomplished and inventive writer, but perhaps such strong meat is not his natural territory. Far better are the moments such as the one when the senior mortician expounds on his trade to Madden, the new apprentice, moving with seamless passion from the refinements of Samurai swords to those of the scalpels in his box of tricks; this captures Brooks at his quirky best.

Matters Of Life And Death
Bernard MacLaverty
pp240, ISBN 0224077856


“SHE WAS AMAZED at how utterly changed she was and how it didn’t show.”

There’s an awful phrase that comes in certain kinds of review, “deceptively simple”. I’m not sure what it means except that the reviewer is lying back a bit and reaching for bits of ready-made thought to slot together; no original joinery. The phrase is a useful one in writing fashion copy. It means, “There’s a lot of stitching here, and cutting, and thought; but what we see is apparently quite plain.” All writing should feel simpler in the reading than it was in the making; there is a not appealing but prevalent fashion for the simple that actually is as simple as it looks; that is, writing that has no secret work within itself and sets to no secret work within the reader, unearned stuff whose weight is what it seems, whose effect upon the reader is that of a calorie of nourishment per evidenced calorie of effort expended, nothing more generous, a literal, unenriched sequence of sentences. Of course, there are occasions when such writing, worked at, is to the purpose, used, for example to convey some nullity of character, some unengagement with the deep preoccupations of fiction-and of life.

Much is lost to readers by this kind of writing, which leaves many levels of the mind untouched, the depths untroubled, the springs of moral heft unexercised.

A horrible cosmetic apparent virtuousness (not virtuosity, which is self-consciously shunned) of stylistic surface has even in some places declared itself as principled, concealing often nothing within, and separating language and art from anything but information or sensation. Language can never be only what it seems, since words set up work against one another. It takes work to be simple; each plain word must be used at its true – unique, present – value. Plain words without anchor in thought and echo and depth are a waste.

Bernard MacLaverty’s title says it all, and that quoted sentence with which I began this (you may say) rant. It is but one from among the thousands of plain and shattering sentences of this stupendous new book – crucial, shattering sentences – that express, modestly, monumentally the achievement of this extraordinary writer. He is in behind your eyes before you feel his thinking knife.

It is not recall that makes him the great writer he is, I do not think, though he has that in abundance. It is the capacity to catch life as it comes through imagined, so much so that he can remake life. He does not approximate. Each sentence is a functioning forward bearer of thought or experience, each word a component that rests like a cog – or a jewel – exactly where it does, which is where it only could. The exacting nature of his making bears such intense scrutiny that it feels as though it has arrived whole.

Bernard MacLaverty writes plainly and directly, right enough. That he does so with such grandeur and art bespeaks an intelligence and cohesion that are forbidden to more pretentious artists working in the genres of which he is an – apparently – easeful master, the novel and the short story.

This short story collection starts with a complete shocker, ‘On the Roundabout’, under four pages long, and like life in that it interrupts, spins, breaks and realigns experience so suddenly that the reader is not back to being settled for days after. By now, four pages in, it is impossible not to go on. The next story, ‘The Trojan Sofa’, about just that, a Trojan sofa, takes the queasy knowledge we all have and avoid, that in life, near death, what is funny – farcical, risible, pompous, jokey – is never but a beat away, and that all humans, even those whose politics and class we are trained by prejudice to dislike, are vain, know love, are swayed by music and are fascinated and horrified by the body’s functions.

It’s Rembrandt who comes to the mind as one reads, his vision of the body, his ripe certainty of its frailness and strength and the stories it contains. There is no selecting any one story above another in this great book, but you will not forget the scrupulous aunt in ‘The Wedding Ring’, who finds the secret of her niece’s life in the girl’s body as she dresses it for the next world, as it were for a bridegroom; ‘Learning to Dance’ is a novel, compressed, offering pure understanding of a child, of a childless woman, and of a child’s understanding of childlessness, all swooning with love, desire, pity and resignation.

‘Up the Coast’, the story from which the plain-and dreadful-opening words are taken, is about nothing less than the making, from terror and pity, of art. The power and generosity of this book are simply there; Matters Of Life And Death is a great book. The explicit presiding literary presence is Chekhov. Not reached nor striven for, innate, rather.

There are Words: Collected Poems
by Gael Turnbull,
pp496 ISBN 0907562892


Gael Turnbull, who died in 2004 aged 76, was born in Scotland and retired there. In between he was educated in Winnipeg, Cambridge and Pennsylvania and worked as a GP and anaesthetist in England, Canada and America. An intellectual, he had a passionate concern for the life of the mind and an equally passionate regard for the lives of ordinary people and of the dispossessed. His poetic practice is similarly all-embracing, of Ameri-can and European Modernism as well as more traditional forms and styles. Migrant Press, which he founded in 1957, did much to bring together the poetry of both sides of the Atlantic.

It is perhaps a cliché to remark that Turnbull, like William Carlos Williams, whom he admired, was a doctor-poet, but the conjunction of the two professions does matter, as it does with the younger Scottish poet, Iain Bamforth. All poets no doubt engage with the pressure of the body on the spirit but the doctor has more ways of thinking about it than other writers, has actually encountered more painful and joyful conjunctions than most people. The merging of his two vocations is noticeable in a group of poems from his thirties, ‘To You I Write’. In these poems which analyse relationships, the poet is both recalcitrant patient, relentlessly picking at the scab of his feelings, and concerned doctor, meticulously investigating the causes of emotional disorder. Here repetition and recycling of key phrases often stands in for metaphor and this obsessiveness is a peculiarly harrowing way of representing hurt as in Perhaps if I Begin.

“Where did it all go wrong? Did it go wrong at all?

Such ‘going’ is wrong, perhaps. But where did that wrong begin?

Was there a place and a time, too far back to be traced, for the mistake That cannot be found, if it was a mistake?”

Turnbull’s compassion for others has a kind of cool intensity; it finds wit and paradox to foreground pain and absence. In ‘At Mareta’ he shows that thinking is a luxury for the poor and hungry; the rich on the other hand can think, but this doesn’t make them lovely or life-giving; the sun ‘goes on shining as usual’, equally indifferent to the lucky rich and the suffering poor.

Being a doctor, then, assists human perception but it also intensifies the poet’s struggle with words: like war, the suffering that a doctor sees challenges the possibilities of words and hence provokes new formal solutions. As late as 1995 Turnbull finds a brutal compassionate comedy in his examination of a very old woman’s “nether parts” in ‘Comic Relief’.

“all the crannies
and apertures, portals of privacy, shame, even love

where my fingers must juggle
and pry, in contortion to aid, as we play

our parts,
my Harlequin
to her Columbine….”

And being a doctor also furnishes the poet with the possibility of travel, allowing him to become a chronicler of the new world and the old. The Canadian experience perhaps evoked the bleak world of the Sagas, and certainly offered the basic life of the lumber-camp where he worked; America gave him blues and country music and Death Valley and a Californian ghost town. Back in England, in Worcester, he wrote the Yeatsian Residues which chronicles memories of his own life and loves, interspersed with the residues of things terrible and glorious from the wider past and present. And so Lord Gilgamesh rubs shoulders with Arletty; old Mr King with his “buttock ulcers” shares a stubborn stoicism with the Covenanter martyrs; the sadness of lost love – “and yet I have lost touch with you –/as if we had mislaid our hands” – shares space with Mayakovsky and Kruschev and John Bunyan. And all this is subsumed within a perception of the beauty and ephemerality of what we snatch from time’s passage as seen in ‘Residues’.

“a precipitate of shimmers, mica seeds,
of milky crystals, hoarfrost grains, a dust of spilicules, flaring glints, a spume of shivered silver, diamantine
flecks, an archipelago of quivered light
from an edge of iron
against a grindstone, thrust –
for a moment held
against the wheel of time”

This linguistic love affair underpins all of Turnbull’s poetry, whether lyric, or narrative or epigram or his idiosyncratic prose poems; even his late kinetic poems, which can only be signalled in this volume, were exploratory ways of re-engaging language with the environment. Gael Turnbull would turn his hand to anything (including Morris dancing) and he always made it not an imitation, but precisely his own. These Collected Poems enable readers to savour the extraordinary variousness of Turn-bull’s verse.

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