by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 2 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

October 29, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

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

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

From Trocchi To Trainspotting – Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960
Michael Gardiner
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £16.99
pp202 ISBN 0748622330

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

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

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

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

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

The Worms of Euston Square
William Sutton
MERCAT PRESS, £9.99
pp362 ISBN 184183100X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stravaigin
Liz Niven
LUATH PRESS, £7.99
pp64 ISBN 190522270X

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

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