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Volume 2 – Issue 4 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 2 – Issue 4 – Reviews

October 29, 2009 | by SRB

Dear Olivia – An Italian Journey Of Love And Courage
Mary Contini
pp416 ISBN 1841958441


Mary Contini’s second ‘letter-book’, addressed to her younger daughter, unravels – in a way not too dissimilar from Dear Francesca – her family’s history of emigration from Abruzzo to Scotland through a delicate narrative blend of memoir and storytelling. Readers will be enticed by its balanced and evocative prose, which brings to life the memories (and the memories of memories) of at least three generations of Italo-Scots. Contini car-ingly charts the progress of Alfonso Crolla and Cesidio Di Ciacca (Olivia’s great-grandparents) from their life in Fontitune, a little shepherds’ village perched on the Appennini, which they leave in the early 1910s, and follows them and their wives – Maria and Marietta – through their experience of emigration to a new and not always friendly country. She records the devastating impact of WWI on their lives, when the men fight as Britain’s allies, and the brief, inebriating season of empowerment brought about by economic success and Churchill’s flirting with Mussolini. She reconstructs carefully the days of persecution and internment of Italian men and boys during WWII (culminating with Alfonso’s tragic death in the sinking of the Arandora Star) and eventually takes leave of the survivors at the opening up of a new season of stability and prosperity, in the old shop in Elm Row, in the late 1940’s.

Contini’s measured narrative weaves through the darkest decades of twentieth century European history with barely reference to the complex network of causes and effects that largely substantiates contemporary historiographical investigation. And yet the quest for historical knowledge is at the heart of her work. Contini’s focus is on oral testimony (“some passed by word of mouth through generations, some recorded on tape or written in letters and articles”) rather than written documents, emphasising ‘memories’ rather than ‘real facts’, and choosing that is a literary language and form (more complex, more allusive and more attentive to particulars than the factual language of history books). As a result Dear Olivia not only contributes to the re-codifying of a particular historical period but also – like all good literary works – to the exploration of important questions about human beings and human life.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, an exile in the USA from Nazi Germany, touchingly described the painful experience of deracination in a 1943 essay, ‘We Refugees’: “We lost our homes, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings”.

Whether motivated by political or racial persecution, as was the case with Arendt, or by poverty, as was the case with Crolla and Di Ciacca (and still is with millions of migrants in the world) emigration has always entailed a traumatic loss of identity. Memory – the act of remembering – is for the migrants’ community an act of survival, as well as a collective ritual that heals the trauma of separation and fragmentation. In Dear Olivia it is the rituals of food-making and food consumption (more than language, religion or even the memory of ‘place’) that substantiate the identity of the frail and yet cohesive Italo-Scottish community – flavours and smells, colours and textures, poetically evoked in many memorable passages, speak of home, are home. It is in fact the experience of taste, smell, touch, sight – universals that are also culturally elaborated – that triggers the synaesthetic memories which enable the Italian immigrants to reimagine the lost world of their native country. This is a deeply meaningful (and joyful) experience of food that will lead readers into a world very distant from the contemporary hedonistic pleasures offered by (trans)national food in a globalised world, of which Valvona and Crolla’s delicatessen (founded by Alfonso Crolla in 1934 and co-owned by Mary Contini and her husband Philip) is undoubtedly a splendid representative.

Dear Olivia, therefore, both represents and performs the act of remembering, as the mother’s ‘letter’ transmits to the daughter the knowledge of her great-grandparents’ proud story of resilience and success, and as the author’s poetic narrative discloses her family’s archives of untold stories, making readers empathically aware of the toll of suffering paid by innocent civilians, swept by the inhumane logic of war. The escalation of violence suffered by Italo-Scottish civilians (sadly similar to that endured by millions of innocent victims on the Continent and in the world) is reported by Contini with admirable balance and honesty, from scenes of occasional, almost ‘playful’ harassment, to the gang attacks on the tallies’ shops, from the abduction of men and boys (separated brutally from their families in the middle of the night) to confinement in internment camps and humiliation through lack of space, hygiene, food, and finally deportation to the colonies. Without both a knowledge and a critical memory of our past there can be no just and peaceful future.

And yet Contini’s storytelling is certainly not aimed at stirring resentment. On the contrary, it is inspired by compassion and a desire to heal trauma through memoir and to repair the damages wrought by the madness of war on civil society: wisely the author avoids simplistic polarisations and succeeds in representing the complexities of both Scottish society and the Italian community. There is no doubt that she is aided in this by her sense of loyalty and belonging to both worlds – a celebration of that ‘in-betweenness’ that cost the Crolla and the Di Ciacca so dearly. Hers is indeed “a journey of love and courage”.

Hope and Other Urban Tales
Laura Hird
pp240 ISBN 1841955736


Ironically titled Hope, Laura Hird’s first book in seven years is charac-teristically strong meat. At once unafraid and vulnerable, she confronts awkward realities in a succession of spring-loaded tales, with optimism a delicate hoar frost that vanishes to lay bare the more scabrous aspects of human nature.

The controlled dynamics and energy of the writing brings to mind extreme physical theatre. Taking contradiction and complexity to heart, Hird chainsaw-juggles plots over territory that is mined with misanthropy and malice. Choreographing obscenity into art, she revels in delivering ‘too much information’. Yet however much she pushes the boundaries, she never fails to cut it in psychological terms. The Hird way is non-judgmental but she makes you gasp like a corner gossip at the behaviour of others, then slyly puts you in touch with the slithery, reptilian thoughts you’d rather not claim for your own. The very fact that her toxic gags amuse so much is disturbing in itself.

Hird’s preferred writing voice is first person and her stories are character-led. She thinks herself deep into a particular mindset then lets events flow, this individual perspective dictating plot. Almost all of her fiction is set in Edinburgh, her home city being a character in itself, its inherent duality a constant inspiration.

The Hope of the title story is a gregarious middle-aged woman “with a Marianne Faithfull sort of clumsy elegance”. Flamboyantly generous, she gives a free room in her New Town flat to a twenty-something gay man, Martin Bell, who puts out that he’s the cutting edge in cool but is actually gauche and insecure. “Why can’t I force myself to like people?” he asks himself. “I don’t really like anyone, particularly myself.” His job in a second-hand bookshop in Stock-bridge is a financial dead-end but he augments his minimal wage with a nifty book-keeping scam, systematically fleecing his boss, who is conveniently undergoing a course of chemotherapy. Most of Martin’s dosh gets blown on drink and drugs.

Scenting a lifestyle enhancement beyond his wildest dreams, he can’t move into Hope’s fast enough: “Northumberland Street! Isn’t it that gorgeous Georgian street that all the queens stay in?” Once installed, he is disconcertingly drawn to Hope but the very first night she stays away, and before he decides whether to try it on with her, he pulls a random stranger in a bar and takes him back to the new pad. Keen to swank in his lush surroundings, he shows off the valuable film posters in the hall and the Moet and malt in the drinks cupboard before falling into bed. By the early hours he is already regretful of his fling and in vicious rejection mode. “How could a bottle of red wine and a vodka be so kind on the features of someone so grotesque? The snoring makes him doubly unappealing…”

Although your dislike of Martin intensifies with every turn of the page, you can’t help but share his mounting dread as the one-nightstand turns stalker. The claustrophobic atmosphere arising from the threatening, even potentially murderous domination of one individual over another, a feature of many of Hird’s stories, has echoes of Patricia Highsmith.

Hird’s characters may have tongues sharp enough to cut themselves on, but they’re only sometimes wide enough to escape the situations that overtake them. She snatches you straight into what you think is their world, and by the end of each story something shocking will have twisted that world out of recognition. This shocking element is by no means always an act of violence. In ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, you follow a woman’s frightening journey across the city on foot back to her husband at their flat. Vulnerable to all sorts of predation, she eventually makes it home. What is then revealed is startling and full of pathos.

In ‘Reanimation’, the final sentence, “We go for another ice cream on the way home” gives no clue as to what the good dad treating his little girl on a day out has recently been licking, or where. This theme of the demolished daddy occurs in grimmer guise in ‘Meat’, in which a lamb, and innocence, are taken to an unlikely slaughter. The lamb’s death is played out in a ghastly, protracted sequence that has the boy who is left to kill it thinking, “This time last week, everything was fine. The lamb was probably scampering round a field, chewing grass and doing whatever it is lambs do. I was doing whatever it was I used to do, thinking I would live for ever. Now look at the pair of us.”

Letters from the Great Wall
by Jenni Daiches
pp212 ISBN 1905222513


Just as many young Germans are reputed to know nothing of Hitler, so many Chinese under the age of 30 are said to be unaware of the significance of Tiananmen Square in their country’s recent history. While the spectacular protests and their crushing have come to symbolise a vast people’s yearning for democracy, the truth was as usual far more complex. The death toll, for example, is various, given at anything from 23 (by the Chinese Communist Party) to 2,300 (by the Chinese Red Cross). Even the motivation for the protests was confused; in one corner were students who considered the regime corrupt and the current wave of reforms inadequate, while in the other corner were many labourers who had been enjoying relatively good times and saw the reforms as a threat.

What few would dispute, however, is that the demonstrations/protests/ rebellions or whatever were directed predominantly by youth clamouring for self determination against oppressive old men.

Into this frame steps a (fictional) Scottish lecturer in literature, a young woman bent on escape from another regime of men who, if not all old, still represent the manifold varieties of male deceit and oppression.

Jenni Daiches (aka Calder) has for many years held a succession of well-respected positions with the Museum of Scotland, editing and writing books on Scottish history and literature. Letters from the Great Wall is something different: a novel of self-discovery and liberation. Her heroine is Eleanor, a first-class honours graduate now lecturing in English at Edinburgh University. Eleanor is the product of a stultifying male-ruled home in Linlithgow who has allowed herself to be cornered by Roy, a university anthropologist hungry for academic success, a pliant wife and babies. Eleanor is gradually suffocating. As Roy and her parents pile the pressure on her to wed and procreate, she suddenly decamps to China, giving a few lectures for cash but then touring the major sites, while subjecting her nearest and dearest back home to cold scrutiny. In the meanwhile, disaffection is brewing, and when she returns to Beijing she is just in time for the tragedy of Tiananmen Square.

As she moves around China, Eleanor sends (in her mind, or to some unspecified recipient) a series of letters describing China and pondering her reasons for fleeing Edinburgh. Thus, much of the novel is a description of her life in Scotland, and very depressing it sounds too. Eleanor herself seems lifeless at times, and is not wholly convincing; supposedly thirty-three, she feels middle-aged throughout, able for instance to refer to “youngsters necking” in the park. Her putative husband Roy is so tedious that one can’t imagine why she shacked up with him in the first place, or why she has the slightest compunction about cutting loose. Western men as a breed
come off very badly. Her father is a tyrant of the quiet sort, a dead hand of conformity. Her brother is a careerist going the same way. In China she is assaulted by a Pole, used by a cool Canadian, and robbed by an Englishman. Back home, the only man she ever loved is heavily differentiated: not a real Scot but a semi-man, an effete, bisexual Jewish restaurateur – and he deceives her too. By contrast, the one woman she gets to know in China is Dutch, big-boned and determined, making her own forceful way through life. Most of these are two-dimensional figures, and Eleanor’s attitude to them just a string of resentments. Only the Chi-nese men – a returned democracy activist, and a doctor-poet – are sympathetic. Men, says Eleanor, are basically irrelevant to her self-knowledge.

Nonetheless, Daiches’ debut novel has considerable virtues. Her evocation of travelling around China is sharp and effective: the vast and drab ‘Friendship Hotels’ in every city, the silent men spitting in trains, the extraordinary sense of eternal struggle (oxen ploughing just as they did in the bronze age). The prose is efficient. Perhaps a little too efficient. The style is clipped. Very clipped. Rather like this.

The final pages are the best, and are very well done. Daiches resists the temptation to draw back and take a grand overview of events. She barely mentions the politics behind the Tiananmen protests. The villains Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, the epic hunger-strike, the great statue of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ that was erected in the square, none of these things gets a look in. Instead, Eleanor is simply there with her friends, confused, frightened but determined, hearing gunshots in the distance, or creeping terrified through the dark streets. And there she leaves it, inconclusive just as the Tiananmen protests were, but with the world and Eleanor herself unmistakably changed nonetheless.

Looking At The Stars
Ian Pattison
pp288 ISBN 1845021037


Looking at the Stars is Ian Pattison’s third novel, the storyline drawn from a world the creator of Rab C Nesbitt, Atletico Partick and The Crouches knows well, that of the script-writer. The hero, a man with no name but several aliases, has travelled a downhill road of writing disciplines. Determined to exercise a talent he doesn’t have, he has gone from writing novels, poetry and plays to arrive in the niche world of the sit-com. When the story opens, this nobody who wants to be somebody has fallen from even those heights to crash land as a script-reader, passing his days in a Portakabin on the outer edges of an independent media company, assessing the depressing scribbles of other wannabes.

Badgered by aspiring writers whose scripts slumber in the slush pile, the protagonist concentrates on the important issue in his life – pulling – and when that fails, drinking. He’s an unsavoury type, forty going on thirteen, his view of women bizarre. “Marriage,” he believes, “is the launch pad of their dream”.

Pattison no doubt intends howls of derision from female readers at that point, but he develops the character from initial one-dimensional prat to a horrifically accurate portrait of the narcissist. Self-obsessed, expecting reward for no effort or talent, this man is the nightmare son, friend, lover and employee.

When his employer finally gets wise to him, the hero marries to secure a home, sustenance and funds, becoming “a nobody with better furniture”. Unexpectedly, that marriage also provides the means to success. In a Hollywood agent’s office, Pattison’s typically sharp observation of the receptionist will make eyes water; she looks “like she’d use cake tongs to toss you off”. He also provides meaningful insight. “But the truth is naked, isn’t it? And we don’t like nakedness in our lives.”

As the character journeys from abject failure as man and writer to Hollywood and success, he calmly uses, abuses and damages every person he has any contact with while seeing only his own over-riding right to better things. The strange emotional distance which feels like gauze over the text recreates the world-view of the psychopath. He exhibits charm without empathy or conscience in order to manipulate, demonstrating the ability to say the soothing word or be silent in a way that normal folk read as compassion or concern when the right response is absent from his emotional vocabulary. He stares. He watches. He’s a shark, the archetypal interspecies predator, hunting through a world of unsuspecting people, choosing his moment to bite. And bite he does.

Looking at the Stars is billed as a darkly comic novel. Although not a comedy, it possesses humour. “If you said anything jaunty to my mother, she’d damp you down quickly, like you were a chip pan fire.” The portrait of the mother, a mystery to her uncomprehending son, is rich. “She didn’t answer directly. She proffered a plate of Jaffa cakes. Perhaps expecting me to read them like runes.”

A stunning portrait of the psychopathic narcissist, this book should be obligatory reading; people might learn to spot the non-human sharks around them. Harmless-looking, smiling with their mouths, saying the right things, there is one, or more, circling each of us, their cold, dead eyes watching, waiting. Aspiring script or screen-writers will also find enough inside knowledge of the industry to send the wise among them screaming for the Jobcentre. The brutality of the slush pile, the disregard for writers, development hell, the silent phone, the worthlessness of success – it’s all there.

The novel grows darker and more gripping as the protagonist’s manipulations become ever more devious and dangerous. The book is only marred by some puzzling anomalies. To steal a script but keep the title is a dead give-away surely, and careless from a character used to covering his tracks.

Yet this is a story about hope, and the inability to give it up. Relevant
and readable, both language and style have a rough, grubby edge. There is nothing pretty here, even when the light of romance breaks through. Strangely, the seemingly out-of-character denouement does not disappoint. It should. Leopards do not change their spots, nor do narcissists develop compassion and the ability to love. But we hope, ah yes, we hope, and that’s our problem. With a script-writer’s awareness of serial potential, Patti-son knows exactly when to stop.

William Boyd
pp336 ISBN 0747585717


William Boyd’s novels have tremendous scope. Set in a range of locations and eras, from Africa to Europe, his storytelling has a deceptive ease too. Heightened atmosphere and tension are the things he does so well, and this novel is no exception. With a World War Two setting, Restless veers between France, Scotland, Ger-many and the USA, and has the pace and flavour that are a Boyd trademark.

The story concerns Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman – half-English, half-Russian – persuaded to work for a branch of the British Secret Service after the death of her brother. She is recruited by a stereotypical security operative called Lucas Romer, “the accent…upper class, patrician”, with whom she rather predictably falls in love and has a short affair. A parallel story runs alongside this one, that of Eva’s daughter. Living and working in Oxford during the 1970s, she uncovers her mother’s real identity. The two tales alternate throughout but instead of maintaining interest, the novel’s structure merely highlights how pale, genteel and dull the Oxford sections appear by comparison to the world of war-time espionage. Even the presence of would-be Iranian secret service agents or Baader Meinhof gang members fail to ignite these chapters.

In Eva, however, Boyd has created a credible and resourceful heroine. Despite rather unpromising beginnings, she makes a terrific spy – the most gripping sections concern Eva trying to evade her ‘shadows’ in 1940’s Edinburgh, or shaking off pursuit in a succession of seedy American motels. Eva, once she becomes a spy, is the equivalent of an actor chewing up the scenery when anyone else comes near. All the other characters appear cardboard cut-outs by comparison, including her daughter.

That Boyd can spin a great yarn is indisputable. There are echoes of many real-life spy stories here – from Anthony Blunt to the more recent tale of the elderly English-woman, Melita Norwood, the so-called, ‘Spy who came in from the garden’ – and Boyd has fun with this material. The most compelling parts of the narrative concern Eva’s espionage training and a narrow escape in New Mexico. In these sections the paranoia is palpable. No one is to be trusted and we wonder if Eva will ever find her way out. Through a maze of identity changes and disguises, we follow her on trains and buses and boats and aeroplanes, journeys which bear out the ‘restlessness’ of the title.

There is a cinematic element to Boyd’s work and this novel would make an excellent film. However, while the plot and the structure aim to elevate the novel beyond genre conventions, the language doesn’t soar nearly as high. In parts, the novel feels like a screenplay and the language is often trite, clichéd and leaden, and the dialogue forced. “Your brother was murdered by these thugs, these filthy vermin – you’ve a chance to get your revenge. To make them pay.” Romer says to Eva after their early meeting. And she replies, “Goodbye, Mr Romer, it was very nice meeting you.” It would work if the intention was pastiche, but it’s obviously not.

Similarly, in this novel, if an emotion registers once, it’s worth registering twice and with a train of accompanying adverbs. “My mother’s sudden revelatory detonation had rocked me so powerfully that I had deliberately treated it as fiction at first, reluctantly letting the dawning truth arrive, filling me slowly, gradually.” The effect is to undermine the emotion or action, not to make it any clearer. His prose is at its best when describing landscape. Here he is deft and original, as when evoking the melancholy of Scotland’s countryside. “[There were] the soft green hills scabbed by their dark patches of heather. It may be summer, the land seemed to be saying, but I won’t let my guard down.”

It’s a satisfying narrative, to a point. The details of Britain’s wartime efforts to bring the USA into the fray are intriguing, whether fiction or fact, but the ending feels a little too neat. In a novel ostensibly about shifting identities and loyalties, about duplicity and betrayal, it’s a disappointment to have everything so spelt out in the final pages; all the characters’ motivations are dissected for the reader. The authorial voice intrudes to tell us about waiting and unease and the restlessness of the human condition: “One day someone is going to come and take us away; you don’t have to be a spy…to feel like this”. Some people will love this book for exactly this reason; there are no loose ends. But for a novel to really defy genre conventions some space has to be left for the reader’s imagination. Some blurring or strangeness or resonance is necessary for a novel to really make its mark, for the reader to truly feel a sense of power and depth beneath the storytelling.

The Apple
Michel Faber
pp199 ISBN 1 84195 838 7


With his first volume of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall, Michel Faber brought a welcome new voice to the Scottish literary scene. The stories were vivid and inventive, and rendered in clear and striking prose. We looked for whatever might be coming next. There followed a novel, Under the Skin, an uncomfortable yet memorable story about a girl with a car motoring through the Highlands, picking up brawny male hitch-hikers for a fate that turned out to be horrifying. Given that an infusion of futuristic, sci-fi language was essential for his purpose, the prose remained sharp, focussed and economical.

We learned throughout this time Faber had been struggling with a project near to his heart, an enormous, quasi-Victorian novel about prostitution and failed relationships, The Crimson Petal and the White. It weighed in at well over eight hundred pages, and in it Faber loaded every rift with ore, luxuriating in language and crowding in detail, while for the most part avoiding the most sordid aspects of his theme. The book was enormously successful, and very readable, although a vocal number of readers protested that Faber had failed to provide an ending, or indicate the respective fates of former prostitute Sugar, her ex-lover William, William’s daughter Sophie, who was abducted by Sugar – and even William’s missing wife, alive or dead. He had left them guessing.

Faced with that clamour, Faber has allowed himself to remain hooked on Sugar and her world, and he quotes his exigent readers at length in his foreword to The Apple, a slim new collection of stories all of which concern in some way characters from Crimson Petal, from earlier or later times – and none of which answers the urgent queries of his hapless readers. Dickens and other Victorian serial novelists usually stood firm against such supplications, and in the well known case where Dickens qualified his ending to Great Expectations to appease his readers, I find it hard to defend the change. But Dickens did always shape his novels to a resolution, as his readers expected, while Faber seemed simply and suddenly to discontinue his pastiche. But The Apple indicates that Faber is himself drawn back to the Crimson Petal world, and that exuberant prose style.

So ‘Christmas in Silver Street’ returns to Sugar’s early days in the brothel, and her passing care for the pathetic child of the bordello, little Christopher, as she feeds him Christmas dinner with faint echoes of A Christmas Carol. ‘The Apple’ further illustrates the (golden-hearted) young prostitute’s attempt to avenge a proselytising hymn-singer’s ill treatment of her small child. Clearly, signs of the Miss Sugar who will later ‘rescue’ Sophie! Some of these stories are more remotely connected to the main characters of the earlier novel, but even those set well in the future fail to offer the resolution so much desired by readers.

I enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White, or almost all of it, on first reading, but I find you can reread it, for the most part, by skimming through the first sentence of every paragraph, and reading a few in detail. I know that Faber is on record as seeing Crimson Petal as “an antidote to the tyranny of ‘spare prose’”,

“a big sumptuous meal of prose”; and that of course he is more than entitled to feel. Certainly that novel has enjoyed enormous popular success, comparable to that accorded to Charles Palliser some time ago, and to Sarah Waters today.

But just as certainly, Faber can write in a more modest register when he chooses. He did so in his wonderful novellas, which as he says himself were written “in a very spare style, with no words wasted”. He has published two so far, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort. These to my mind represent his finest work so far, beautifully written and shaped, delicately discriminating, and in themselves perfect. Here he presents contemporary characters of real complexity. He resists every temptation to luxuriate, and points every sentence, every nuance with a sure hand. His most recent collection, The Fahrenheit Twins, is darker in tone than Some Rain Must Fall, yet its stories again show a writer with many directions he may choose to explore. I hope he does.

Born Up A Close – Memoirs of a Brigton Boy
Hugh Savage
pp288 ISBN 1902831977


“Without access to their own history and traditions, how can people breathe?” asks James Kelman in a powerful, uncompromising introduction to this posthumous memoir of an old Red Clydeside warhorse. Kelman first met Hugh Savage on a picket line organised by the Workers City group in 1990 during Glasgow ’s reign as Euro-pean City of Culture. Savage, already into his seventies, became the pivotal figure in a daring campaign of creative resistance waged by a raggle-taggle band of urban guerrillas whose weapons were words and whose mission was to expose the crass commercialism at the heart of the culture city extravaganza.

Kelman, Savage and the Workers City group challenged this worship of wealth. They fought to defend the history and culture of Glasgow’s working people against its sanitisation and marginalisation by the same elite whose forebears had successfully sanitised and marginalised the Gaelic culture of the Highlands. The name Workers City was a conscious rebellion against the idea of the ‘Merchant City’, the title which had recently been bestowed on a newly-gentrified quarter of Glasgow in honour of a posse of slave-owning, eighteenth century tobacco barons. Fast forward to 2005 and, as Kelman points out, male life expectancy in Calton, the district which borders the Merchant City , is 54 – lower than the UK average by 22 years.

Kelman reveals that Hugh Savage was a reluctant writer. Whenever he saw a review of the life of yet another an old socialist, he would shake his head with disdain. “He considered such projects an embarrassing aspect of the ageing process.” Savage even opens his memoir with an apology: “I am not a great writer, not even a writer at all, but it is time the footsloggers were heard rather than the generals”. Notwithstanding his protestations, Born Up a Close is a lucid and eloquent piece of writing.

The book is populated with intriguing characters: Maggie McIver, the shrewd, dynamic businesswoman who founded the world famous Barras street market and the Barrowland Ballroom; Dr Cossar, whose gymnasium was one of hundreds set up in inter-war Glasgow by religious zealots to entice young boys from poor homes into slave labour overseas; Bill Struth, the respected Rangers manager whose generosity and humanity took Savage by surprise when he went to work as a young, Celtic-supporting apprentice at Ibrox Stadium.

Working in John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde as WW2 approached, Savage’s instinctive hatred of injustice crystallised into political activism. Fascism was on the rampage across Europe, and everywhere the Communists seemed to be leading the fight to defend humanity against barbarism. But Savage joined the Communist Party not because of what was happening in Spain or Germany; he was inspired by the courage, warmth and intellect of the Communist shop stewards he met in John Brown’s shipyard.

These were no staring-eyed fanatics spitting out Marxist dogma like white-hot rivets from a rivet gun. The leader of the Young Communist League was “unassuming” with an “easy-going attitude”. The convenor of the shop stewards was “very approachable, never aloof and never dictatorial, he was a modest man and very intelligent”. Others managed to reconcile their vision of international socialism with membership of the freema-sons. One of the lads was a talented footballer who went on to play for Rangers. Then there was the young welder whose ability to sell Communist literature was legendary; he later found fame as Glen Daly, whose rendition of ‘The Celtic Song’ still reverberates around Parkhead before every home game.

The man who was to exert the greatest influence over Savage’s politics was Harry McShane, an ex-boilermaker who became a superb journalist with the Daily Worker. Disillusioned with events behind the Iron Curtain even before Hungary, he broke with the Communist Party and went back into the shipyards at the age of 63. As Savage puts it, McShane “turned to Marxist-Humanism long before Dubcek called for Communism with a human face”. Savage revered McShane, not just for his political and intellectual skills, but also because he was “completely and utterly incorruptible”.

Hugh Savage died in 1996. James Kelman deserves credit for rescuing this important piece of social and political history from obscurity, for writing an extensive introduction, editing and annotating the book, and for drawing together a number of interesting appendices and tributes to the author. Born Up A Close is devoid of sentimentality, nostalgia and self-obsession. Beyond his childhood years, there are only a few fleeting references to Savage’s personal and family life. The author is not the star of the show. His story is dignified and authentic. Like a photographer, his vision is always focussed outwards at the world around him: the people, the places, the politics.

How to Read the Bible
Richard Holloway
GRANTA, £6.99
pp134 ISBN 1-86207-893-9


For those readers who would normally give this title as wide a berth as if it could give them bird flu, Richard Holloway is quick to make his case. The business of reading and understanding the Bible, he writes, “is too important to leave to believers… Whether or not we believe in God, we can leave him to one side when we read the good book, because the best of it carries its own meaning within itself”. In other words, one does not have to consider it as the divinely inspired word of an omnipotent force for it to hold significance. Nor, as he makes clear, do we have to take all of it at face value.

In several moving philosophical works Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has charted the evolution of his own faith, from utter conviction to a state some devout Christians would consider near-apostasy. His has been a troubled, hard-fought spiritual journey, and he shows no sign even yet of settling into any sort of metaphysical rut. The scrupulous honesty and clarity of thought he has brought to his own theological outlook are used in this work to superb effect.

One does not envy him the task. The Bible is arguably the most dauntingly complex work of literature known to mankind. Obliged to keep within the format of Granta’s How to Read series, whose other subjects include the likes of Marx, Shakespeare, Sartre and Freud, Holloway is forced into a brevity and succinctness most theologians and preachers would find impossible to sustain. This exercise not only demands ruthless focus but also carries the requirement that his guide should be as useful for non-believers as for believers, an almost diabolically difficult remit.

Holloway nevertheless executes his task with unruffled poise. On the most superficial level, How to Read the Bible is beautifully and effortlessly written. More importantly, however, it is also an excellent primer. In the space of ten short chapters it strips the flesh from the bones, laying bare the historical, theological and ethical skeleton beneath the texts of the Old Testament – more correctly called the Hebrew Bible – and the New Testament, and in so doing explaining why it continues to exert such fascination and influence.

Starting with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – “the most fateful fiction in human history” – Holloway moves through the early conceptions of the Jewish God and the exile of his people, to the birth of Jesus and the establishment of a movement in his name after his death. Exploring the historical and mythic origins of different episodes in the Bible, he explains why the Bible was written as it was. Take the story of King David, for instance, who stole Bathsheba from her husband, and had the cuckold sent to the front line, where he was killed. When David faces up to what he has done, he is humbled but not trodden underfoot. The God this account reveals is not one seeking punishment for David’s moral weakness, but one who asks that people take a generous, sympathetic perspective of others, rather than a condemnatory line.

Indeed, according to Holloway that desire for empathy with others is the underlying message of the whole Bible. It finds its purest expression in the Gospel of Luke, where the disciple captures Jesus’s revolutionary idea, that mercy was fundamental to God’s nature. As Holloway writes, “he realizes that we are called not to the impossibility of perfection, but to the possibility of compassion: ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’” There is of course far more to the Bible than this simple line, but were it reduced only to that we would have grasped its essence.

In such limited space Holloway can address only a few of the issues the Bible raises, whether for the devout Christian or the sceptic and atheist. Those he discusses, though, include major immediate stumbling blocks such as the problem of suffering and the nature of miracles. What he does not tackle, in any depth, is what Jesus believed about himself; nor the hardest of all, his resurrection, and assurance of an afterlife. These are issues that the best theological brains have not solved, and can only be consigned to the realm of faith. But Holloway avoids any metaphysical explanations and sticks firmly to what is verifiable or can be reasonably deduced. How to Read the Bible is, after all, a work of textual investigation, not a critique of the tenets of Christianity.

And on this level it works extremelyly well. It is hardly surprising that by its conclusion Holloway has extrapolated from the wealth of conflicting material the seam of gold that could equally inform and nourish those who believe in God and those who do not: namely, the challenging ethical code that demands care for the weakest, and urges us vigorously to resist the acquisition of wealth and power. In this reading, the Bible is still a force to be reckoned with. Yet what shimmers tantalisingly between the lines of Holloway’s painstakingly nondirectional interpretation is the glimpse of spiritual depths that cry out to be plumbed. That, however, is another story.

The View from Castle Rock
Alice Munro
Chatto & Windus, £15.99
352pp ISBN: 0701179899


Alice Munro once described her first marriage, somewhat oddly, as “a good imitation of normal life”, and a superficial reading of her stories may leave you thinking that this is just what they are: a good imitation of normal, or everyday, life. They seem so very matter-of-fact, and indeed they are that, and this is their first strength. They are like the sort of stories people tell about their neighbours. You might think anyone could do it. But of course it isn’t so. It takes a peculiar talent to render ordinary life truthfully, and make it remarkable. The American writer Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov”, and one understands why.

The View from Castle Rock is an intriguing mixture of historical reconstruction, family memories, autobiography and fiction. Munro takes the bare bones of past lives and animates them. The story starts in the Ettrick Valley. Munro is a direct descendant of William Laidlaw, know as Will o’Phaup (or Will o’ the Phaup), who was the last man in Ettrick to see the fairies dance and was also the grandfather of James Hogg. (Her version has him encountering the fairy-folk in the upper reaches of Ettrick; another has him seeing them dance in Carterhaugh which lies between Ettrick and Yarrow and is the meadow where the young Tam-lane met the Queen of Elfland.) Hogg’s second cousin James Laid-law emigrated with his five sons to Canada, and it is from him that Alice Munro is descended, Laidlaw being her maiden name.

The first stories in this collection tell of that voyage across the Atlantic – one undertaken by so many Scots in the nineteenth century – and their settlement in Canada. She quotes letters written by old James, one sent to Hogg which he then had printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, another addressed to the editor of The Colonial Advocate. It is worth quoting: “The Scots Bodys that live heare is all doing Tolerably well for the things of this world but I am afraid few of them thinks about what will Come of thear Soul when Death there Days does End for they have found thing they called Whiskey and a great mony of them dabbles and drinks at it till they make themselves worse than a ox or an ass…” I am afraid old James was a bit of a humbug. Munro tells a story of him in his youth “putting on a show that could be seen to be blasphemous” at Tibbie Shiel’s inn. But in general these early stories give a vivid and often moving picture of the determined making of a new life in a new country.

Part II of the book, entitled Home, consists of stories of Munro’s own childhood and youth. They can be read as memoir or fiction. She says she had “drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material…I put myself in the centre…but the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality…” I don’t think it matters how much is factual, how much imagined. What matters is that it all rings true. What strikes one is how little the character of the people differs from that of the Lowland Scots of the same time – the thirties, forties and fifties of the twentieth century, or at least the character of rural Scots.

There is, for instance, the same ability of many of them to project a feeling of moral unease. “I always felt that something had not been done right, or not done at all, when I heard my grandmother’s voice. I felt that our family had failed her.”

There is one very fine story of first love. “It was not until we got back to the school yard and were about to pick up our bikes and ride back to town – separately – that the reason for our walk, the only reason as far as I could understand it, received our whole attention. He would pull me into the shade and put his arms around me and begin to kiss me.” Yes, that’s just how it was.

The last stories are written about the country as it is now, and about Munro’s investigation of the past. “In Sullivan Township you are reminded of what the crop fields everywhere used to look like before the advent of the big farm machinery. These fields have kept the size that can be served by the horse-drawn plough, the binder, the mower…Such fields are unchanged because there is no profit to be gained from opening them up.” There are not many fields left like that now here in Scotland, but you can still find a few. “In country like this,” she writes, “the trend is no longer towards a taming of the landscape and a thickening of population, but rather the opposite.” A writer needs an eye for such things; Munro unfailingly has it.

And there are other changes. “When I was growing up an appetite for impractical knowledge of any kind did not get encouragement.” Now people “do not seem to find it strange that anybody should wish to know about things that are of no particular benefit…They do not suggest they have better things to think about. Real things, that is, real work.”

It is partly because Munro is so keenly aware of changing circumstances and of their effect on the way people think and feel that she is such an enjoyable and persuasive writer. If one part of the fiction-writer’s job is to bear witness, few today do this more effectively and truly than she.

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