by SRB

Volume 3 – Issue 1 – Reviews

October 29, 2009 | by SRB

Things To Make And Mend
Ruth Thomas
FABER, £10.00
pp356, ISBN 057123059 8


Poor Ruth Thomas!
So I was going to begin.

Chickens mature, and chick lit has – I’m told – aged into something called (what else?) hen lit. Faber and Faber have now gone into publishing ‘women’s fiction’, and here in front of me for review is one example. “A beautifully woven story of two women caught in the shadow of their teenage years …”

The cover, a melange of pink and lime-green, has the customary Tesco customer-friendly quirky typescript. And maybe the cover blurb does fit the bill.

“As teenagers Sally Tuttle and Rowena Cresswell were inseparable until a devastating incident changed their lives and destroyed their friendship. Now in their early forties, and both single mothers, they have remained estranged and are still haunted by memories of their lost intimacy. Sally, a needlewoman (‘the homelier sister of Wonder Woman’), works at In Stitches, an alterations shop. Rowena, against the odds, has gone on to ‘greater things’ as a translator travelling the world.”

So far, so good and predictable. But there’s a strained quality to the publicity hype – a sense that the publishers are afraid of demeaning themselves and underselling the author. The big push follows. “Things To Make And Mend is a strong candidate for literary prizes and also an ideal book for reading groups. Publication will be supported by a full PR campaign.” Ahead of previous eulogies by a couple of trendy critics, we read, “[Scot]Ruth Thomas has been compared to Muriel Spark and Shena Mackay …” Can’t the author just be allowed to be Ruth Thomas, I wondered? Already she has published two collections of short stories (‘award-winning’) – isn’t that enough?

Then I got to reading the novel. I did so in a couple of sittings, on Christmas Eve – when there are other demands on one’s time. I did-n’t want to stop. Very quickly I realised I couldn’t begin with Poor Ruth Thomas!

Forget the packaging. The book is excellent. It’s a quite brilliant analysis of a friendship which metamorphoses into something else – less than rivalry, but darker than camaraderie.

Is it a woman’s novel? Of course not: not in terms of readership, at any rate. Yet no mere man could write in quite the same way of feelings, of moods, of the emotional ‘weather’ – which can alter in an instant.

‘The nuances of the nuances’ (to hazard a quote). The author notices everything – while half the modern world drifts by wearing earphones, oblivious. Her social radar picks up on tiny details of accent and what-to-wear and table manners. She does embarrassment to a tee – Sally painfully realising she’s a gooseberry at a dinner for three, Rowena floundering at a DHSS ‘Into Work’ group session. (Self-belief is the unattainable holy grail for both women.)

Ruth Thomas doesn’t put a foot wrong, that I could see. The two main characters are utterly believable as they age, in how they think and talk: they seem to be alive. She sinks the teenage girls into the specific thereness of East Grinstead in the Seventies, and yet makes it a place we’ve all been to.

The story flits back and forth seamlessly between different periods in the lives of Sally and Rowena. Ruth Thomas creates rising suspense in the weft and warp of events, so that what in less skilful hands would be the mundanely ordinary material of life acquires cataclysmic force. No car chases, no murderer to be unmasked, indeed there’s a lot of embroidery (John Lewis as the mecca of haberdashery) – but your fingers itch to turn the page to see where the story is heading.

At one point Sally questions the word ‘charm’: it’s an estate agents’ euphemism to describe a house that’s too small. A pity, because I think the book has immense charm – and there’s nothing small about it, since the sheer pleasure of reading the story remains for days afterwards. It’s rare to come across a novel with a shocking enough occurrence at its core which can opt not to shock or offend in the telling. You’ve spent time with a fully mature writer who understands with perfect clarity the complexities of daily survival, who – unlike too many fellow practitioners – has genuine affection for her characters (even if both Sally and Rowena find it hard to pity and forgive themselves for past actions and opportunities not taken).

Ruth Thomas ‘arrived’ a while back. If there’s any justice in the literary world she should earn high honour for this fine book. No one needs to compare her to any other writer. My guess is that (like Rowena Cresswell) she is heading for even ‘greater things’ – and to her very own stretch of the bookstore fiction shelves marked plainly RUTH THOMAS.

The Brainstorm
Jenny Turner
pp183, ISBN 0224078046


Thank God for amnesia. Particularly in its more selective forms. Just imagine the boring lunch dates, christening parties and anniversaries in all their black and webby forms we’d have to leave the house for if we couldn’t, after the fact, plead temporary amnesia. Okay, a patchy memory is also the well-thumbed get-out-of-jail card from Westminster to the White House but, like interest free loans and letting your place of work pay your taxi fares, it wouldn’t be the first good idea ruined by politicians.

Lorna, heroine of Jenny Turner’s debut novel, suffers a sort of soft focus amnesia. It is not the memory famine faced by the heroine of Martin Amis’ Other People, amnesia so accomplished its sufferer doesn’t remember shoes or birds and mistakes a toilet for statuary. Lorna’s amnesia is more clubbable. When she comes to in an office before a computer, she has no idea who she is or what she does. She doesn’t know who has sent the abusive email – “Thief. Bully. Hypocrite” – filling her monitor, but she does at least recognise shoes. Shoes so expensive she realises her job must be well paid and determines to hold onto it. Quickly deducing she works for a media organisation, she determines to see how long she can get away with not telling anyone she’s suffered some variety of “brainstorm”.

But can you truly believe a woman would suffer spontaneous amnesia and then, instead of screaming the heavens down in uncomprehending horror or at the very least offering her services to the nearest documentary crew, decide to bluff it out? The concept is, like the planet Venus, attractive from a distance; the closer one gets to it, however, the more the terrain proves difficult to surmount. Satire is one way to manage such flights of sheer fancy, and as Lorna works for “a famously failing liberal newspaper”, satire is in the air. That she finds hanging onto her job no bother and that her colleagues don’t notice is comment enough on the media. One worries though that Turner is attempting to have it both ways when she gives Lorna enough amnesia to get the novel rolling but not so much as to set the plot in a direction she doesn’t want to explore.

Unlike Amis, Turner does not want to explore the pleated mysteries of memory and identity. She wants to explore London in the 1990s and its media from the position of the joint deputy editor of one paper’s “brainy section”. A potent disgust emanates from the centre of the book. “What the hell was she doing here, at this silly paper, promoting ignorance, foolishness, envy; silly women buying silly shoes in silly shops?” Later, when a weepy intern confesses she can’t do anything useful, Lorna says, “Well, I’m not sure that any of us do anything useful, exactly.” Liberal guilt abounds. “It simply isn’t possible…to be a decent citizen when you’re struggling to hold down a job of that sort.”

Not that Turner quite convinces the reader that anything that egregious has taken place at Lorna’s paper, beyond clichéd headlines, hypocrisy, blatant job jockeying, and general ignorance; headlines apart, one can find examples of each of the above brewing in most jobs. Perhaps though that is the point. There’s a jarring disparity between her workplace, a tower sited amongst Canary Wharf’s techno-swank, and the crummy streets she walks on her way home. “Wealth was getting more intense and more prevalent, and the world shone like television. Poverty was getting more forgotten, more marginal, more squeezed out by the day.” True, too true, but perhaps this is something the author should show rather than tell.

Despite the meeja setting, The Brainstorm, in its heroine’s plight and concern with class, reminds one of nothing so much as How Late It Was, How Late. The book’s epigraph is taken from Kelman too. The lower class, by the period in which The Brainstorm is set in, are no longer a social group with its own authentic culture but a resource to be exploited by journalists keen to display the stamp of rough authenticity. Lorna’s Scottish boyfriend, Robin, she discovers, is a columnist fond of citing his asbestosis-casualty “granda” in patronising reports on “Underclass Britain”.

Turner proposes that amnesia of various stripes – from the colleague who doesn’t know the year the French Revolution took place or the time-motion man who declares, “This organisation has been functioning without a memory…. [It] has not been functioning in an intelligent way” – is damaging. Despite my opening encomium for amnesia, it is a persuasive threat. If only the novel itself were quite so persuasive. Swallow Lorna’s amnesia if you can, but there’s more to come, including that plot device beloved of newspaper novels, the accidental or malicious slip that gets printed, a device at least as old as Scoop and its “great-crested grebe”, something I just can’t forget.

44 Things
Kirsty Gunn
ATLANTIC, £15.99
pp336, ISBN 1843545527


On the evening of her forty-fourth birthday, Kirsty Gunn’s husband asks her when she’s going to get back to writing her novel. Her answer: “You know, I can’t even begin to think that way now”. Gunn has two young daughters, Millie and Katherine, and she finds that she cannot contemplate shutting a study door on them. Instead, she wishes to situate herself at a desk on the landing where she can hear everything, “the clattering, the quiet, the doorbell, the calls for help, ‘Mum! Mummy!’”.

And on her landing, she decides, she will “make a different kind of writing altogether … A genre that at this moment doesn’t even exist”.

44 Things is the result of this manifesto: 44 pieces – one for each year she’s lived – snatched from her domestic life. There are poems; short stories; letters; journalistic essays and fragments – all of which arise from within the texture and priorities of her life at home, which, she says, “is a good life, an interesting life and deserves to be written about”.

I was ready to be interested – but found myself gradually and subtly distanced by the accounts of her beautiful, bright, universally admired children; her happy marriage; her wonderful friends – all very lovely to read about, but where is the flipside? In one of her essays Gunn discusses the Domestic in Literature, advocating this as a central rather than marginal subject and that’s fine and laudable – but let’s have an honest portrayal of domesticity. Most women – particularly working mothers, and even more extremely those who work at home amongst their children – will at least occasionally experience rage and despair at the mess, the noise, the muddle, the sheer maddening dirty drudgery of housework and childcare along with the joy and love. But not Gunn, it seems, or at least she’s chosen not to include any such moments – at which point ordinary mortal readers might have had room to experience the pleasures of recognition and empathy.

The prologue lays out the reason for and the process of making the kind of book this is. And so does the introduction – the first of the 44 Things. The concluding notes describe or explain the point of each of the things in order. This incredible self-consciousness formed another barrier for me. I was initially intrigued by the notion of the book and as a writer and mother certainly recognise the tension between the two roles (though my own response was to absolutely lock the study door and put earplugs in) and looking forward to see the result of this self proclaimed new genre. But should any writing need so much explaining? And even if, arguably, some of the notes do help illuminate, others seem actually to detract. For instance, the note on ‘Katherine in a Red Towel’ – a charming if slight poem about, well, the subject of the title – is accompanied by this note: “What is it about children and towels at bath-time? It’s like kittens on chocolate boxes, puppies under the tree at Christmas … Ridiculous but what can you do?” Another note, to ‘Sweeping Up Stars’, reads: “I wish every copy of 44 Things came with a pack of glitter for everyone to throw around.” If you are charmed by these notes, you will love this book.

That is not to say I enjoyed none of the contents. By far the most interesting writing appears in the short stories. ‘Coming Down Off The Hill’ is a fine and moving piece about returning home, after many years, to the funeral of a friend; and ‘Sisters’ is about two sisters and their children driving to the place they grew up in, to discover (or maybe not to discover) what happened to their mother. The sense of return to a forgotten landscape reverberates between these two stories and both of them carry delicate oblique resonances that are the antitheses of the obviousness of much of the rest of the ‘Things’.

These stories are so much more satisfying because within them the quotidian is mediated by imagination and rendered into art. Most of the other pieces, it seems, have not had the benefit of this kind of creative fermentation and appear in the book much as they may have arrived on the noisy landing. Thus the book has an undigested feel to it. A writer’s sourcebook, perhaps, rather than a fresh, new genre. It might be beneficial for Gunn’s children to have continual access to her but for the sake of the reader, I’d advise her to get back behind that study door.

The Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest
Gerard DeGroot
pp336 ISBN 0224075934


Kubrick and Wolfe: how does anyone interested in the history of manned space flight get beyond the auteurs? Werner von Braun – who dominates the early chapters of DeGroot’s fascinating book – is Dr. Strangelove, musing “It would not be difficult, Mein Führer … I’m sorry, Mr. President”. Von Braun appears again in The Right Stuff as the Grand Designer, once more in conversation with the President about “jimps” (as we learn from The Dark Side of the Moon the first American chimpanzee in space was nicknamed Enos the Penis); the Grand Designer boasts that ‘our Germans are better than their Ger-mans.’ It is hard to be more waspishly cynical than the giants of the field. Gerard DeGroot certainly gives it a try. He tells us that he became interested in the space programme after surfeiting on too much war; instead of chancing on a more heroic endeavour he encountered another march of folly. “I found”, he laments, “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants, and even a few criminals”. According to DeGroot the “Ameri-can people were fleeced” by the space programme, an endeavour of “little scientific or cultural worth”.

DeGroot gives due warning of his line at the beginning of the book, so the reader knows full well he is not in for a story full of moral uplift. How much one enjoys the tawdry dealings that unfold over the next three-hundred pages depends whether the seamy underbelly of the American Dream appeals. It has to be said that DeGroot delivers the unpalatable pill quite brilliantly. He writes so crisply, has such a good eye for a story that the time one spends with his cast of crooks and fantasists is frighteningly compelling. That The Dark Side of the Moon loses nothing against its famously satirical forebears is testament to its excellence. Behind the fine style DeGroot is a professional historian, so all the stories are properly pinned down and footnoted – he does not have the luxury of making up any dialogue, although he notes that some apocryphal stories, duly recorded and dismissed, do sometimes capture a greater truth.

DeGroot is also more nuanced than the satirists. Dr Strangelove was not the darling of mad militarists somewhere in the bowels of a Nebraskan missile shelter. He was instead the darling of the liberal darling, John F. Kennedy. True, the Americans rescued von Braun and his team whilst Kennedy was still a junior naval officer. DeGroot is very good on the whitewashing of the missileers’ impeccable Nazi pasts. Yet Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were deeply sceptical of their Germans’ grandiose plans for the use of missiles. They kept the programmes on a very tight lead, whilst pursuing restrained policies of containment abroad and fiscal responsibility at home. The problem was that the Soviet Union shared no such taste for caution, wrongfooting Truman – “that noisy shopkeeper” as Stalin dismissed him – by its rapid development of nuclear weapons, and then doing the same to Eisenhower with intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites. Neither President was panicked by short-term Soviet successes. Both believed that over the long haul the American way was better. They were right.

Whereas Sputnik was little more than a ball of whistling metal, the Americans soon after put the first weather satellite into orbit – and made the benefits available to anyone who wished to use the data. Such commitment to the common weal was followed by the more private success of the launch of the first spy satellites. Eisenhower got little thanks for presiding over these triumphs.

Two ambitious and unscrupulous Democratic Senators were determined to use space to further their own presidential ambitions. Lyndon Johnson saw space as a way of “blasting the Republicans off the map” whilst diverting attention from the KKK tendencies of some Democrats. John F. Kennedy was all too happy to steal Johnson’s clothes on his own ride to the White House. With Kennedy and Johnson installed in power as President and Vice-President, Dr. Strangelove came into his kingdom. Those who tried to cleave to Eisenhower-era rationality, such as Gerald Ford and Barry Goldwater were swept aside. In the 1964 Presidential election Johnson even managed to portray his opponent Goldwater as a mad bomber. Even before then he had used his titular headship of the space programme to bring home the pork to Texas. Apollo 13 had to tell Houston that they had a problem, but few mentioned that the problem was that the astronauts were talking to Houston at all. Mission control would have been in Florida, along with the launch facilities, if it had not been for Johnson spreading largesse to his home state.

DeGroot suggests that both Kennedy and Johnson, having sucked as much political benefit as they could from space, began to fear the monster that they had created. Neither, of course did anything about it. Special-pleading on Kennedy’s behalf sounds rather too much like the efforts expended by some historians to distance JFK from Vietnam. In both cases the mess was cleared up by Eisenhower’s former Vice-President, Richard Nixon. Although DeGroot has little to say about Nixon’s winding up of the manned space programme, his excoriation of Kennedy and Johnson rather implies that ‘Tricky Dicky’ oversaw a return to sanity and probity. Dr. Strangelove/the Grand Designer was certainly cut down to size. As DeGroot puts it: “Von Braun quit NASA and went to work … selling helicopters in South America. There were a lot of Germans down there who still revered him”.

When To Walk
Rebecca Gowers
pp235 ISBN 1841958921


Recounting the story of a blind woman who died walking through a glass door, Ramble suggests, “Isn’t it the case that death-by-plate-glass-door is truly piquant only if the person who cops it this way fails to notice the danger despite being able to see?” For Ramble, the narrator of Rebecca Gowers’ first novel, When To Walk, life is a series of plate glass doors, obstacles she cannot see yet anticipates; when she smacks into one a sense of futility and incompetence only adds to her humiliation.

Ramble knows about etymology, pigeon maladies, ice-sculpture, and honesty. She collects unfunny Browning jokes, prefers the 1840s above all other decades, and is a scrupulously exacting narrator, breaking off, occasionally, to correct herself, or alert the reader that what she has just said is not strictly true. The spectrum of honesty is one of the themes of the novel, from self-awareness, onto fraud, then theatrical confabulation. Through Ramble’s slightly panicky sincerity we recognise her need to organise and make sense of her confusion at being immersed in an insincere reality.

The novel is divided into seven chapters, one for each day of an eventful week which starts with her husband Con (short for Constan-tine) walking out on her after a lunch of sardines and oranges, and a long, unpleasant diatribe in which he lists Ramble’s personal failings – leaving his own unaccounted for. The remains of the meal and his vicious words echo through the book: the orange peel which she cannot throw away, skeins of pith drying out on the table; the phrase “‘autistic vampire”, which, in fact, he did not use. At least not in those exact words.

And exact words are important to Ramble, who writes for a living. She can explain, lovingly, the origins of the word ‘conversation’ (the original meaning referred to ‘sexual intimacy’), yet talking to someone, normal social intimacy, throws her: “I have problems, sometimes, understanding what people mean …Sometimes I just can’t work out how the words fit together”.

The rented flat in which she is abandoned – the “maisonette” as she refers to it, with depressed scorn – contains its own lies. There is the dodgy electric meter, which Con, with the help of the new neighbours, has set to run backwards; there is the sofa, underneath which they have moved all the carpet tiles which have suffered spills or damage, so that it “floats above a hidden terrain of mismanagement, filth and deceit”.

Ramble’s saviour is the splendid Mrs Shaw (not her real name) the glamorous downstairs neighbour who has run away from Bedford with her husband, several pairs of high heeled shoes and a hair-dryer. It is Mrs Shaw who recognises the amateur handiwork of the fixed meter and deals with it before Ramble is caught by the impending landlord, teaching her to disguise the suspiciously clean meter with dust from elsewhere, stuck on with hairspray. The two women spend the first five nights of the novel on each other’s sofas, and their accidental friendship is cemented when Mrs Shaw has to fetch Ramble’s back brace from her underwear drawer.

Ramble refers to herself as a “gimp” and a “cripple”, and the severity of her impairment (the after effects of septic arthritis, coupled with pelvic dysfunction) only gradually seeps out in the narrative. At first she seems merely to be afflicted by a limp, but gradually we are introduced to the constant pain, the intrusion into her sex life, the brace and the crutches and the painkillers. She has another disability, the ‘half-deafness’, she announces at the beginning of the novel, which she uses as a buffer between her and the world; when she picks up the phone she puts it to her deaf ear in case it is the runaway husband. She feels “noisily deaf in her head”, and the novel is punctuated with distant, tiny sounds, like the bell of the Mini-mart door nearby.

A deadline for a piece on ice sculpture for one of the corporate, glossy magazines Ramble writes for provides one of the few sources of urgency in the book. (‘Deadline’ – the line outside a prison beyond which an escaping prisoner can be shot, Ramble informs us). As well as trying not to use the word “ice” too often (which proves difficult, ‘gelid’ and ‘frigid’ she knows will be instantly disposed of by copy-editors), Ramble has to research and write her piece at the local library, down the stairs, along the street, dragged down by the unwillingness of her mind as much as by her infirmity.

In Ramble, Gowers has created an immensely likeable, human character whose quirkiness resists descending into caricature. Gower’s heroine’s humour and the originality of her creation lift the tone of this novel from a kitchen sink desertion into an affirming study of one woman’s realisation that, despite her handicap she can still walk away from her marriage.

The Gradual Gathering Of Lust And Other Stories
Toni Davidson
pp307 ISBN 1841958989


“Write only about what you know,” is the bad advice often given in creative writing workshops and writers’ retreats. The aspiring writers who follow this dreary programme churn out unimaginative novels and stories of breathtaking dullness. These ‘fictions’ – thick on detail and thin on interest – relate what are perfectly valid, but generally commonplace, histories of tears, joys and betrayals. Take a few personal experiences and humorous / tragic tales from the family archives, stick them into the third person, tart them up a bit with some street life and gossip, add a few political opinions and universal truths, then dump the resultant sludge into the ‘creative writing’ blender. Hey presto! you’ve turned genuine passion and feelings into a smooth homogenous flow of competent, well-crafted, soporific prose. And, with the right marketing, it might even sell.

Has Toni Davidson paid dutiful heed to these kinds of mind-numbing homilies? A first glance at the stories contained in his intriguingly titled first collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, would suggest not. Well, let’s hope not anyway. Here we find: ‘Affections of the Ejaculation Centre’, followed by ‘The Inert Penis of the Man Who Had Just Been Shot’ among other, less dramatically named tales.

A second glance shows that, in general, Davidson writes clear and satisfying prose. There’s virtuosity in his handling of voice – from the East European, quick-fire, media-savvy English of Miss Globe, a beauty queen, to the slower paced American English of the down-home narrator of ‘Some People Are Born to Be a Burden on the Rest’: “There’s dust and there’s dust, I tell ya, and that dust, those little specks and stones of horror and hurt, was being whipped up like the cry of the damned on a night for all souls.”

That said, Davidson has a tendency to the kind of clever wordplay that readers either relish and admire, or find simply clever. Take three examples from two consecutive pages in the title story: “That was history, that was the weak that was. . . .recreational hugs . . . It was-n’t so much the verve that had gone but the nerve.” Entertaining, or irritating – the choice is yours. The danger is that, repeated too often, this sort of verbal playfulness becomes mere trickery – an annoying distraction that threatens to obscure genuine creativity. Finnegans Wake is a classic example of this – a potential masterpiece of the human spirit reduced to a display of University Challenge – cleverness.

One of the less baroquely entitled tales, ‘Like a Pendulum in Glue’, tells of Louche’s night out at an orgy. The various episodes involve a rather cautious, but ever-curious narrator as he makes his way down the Street of Shame “a central corridor of the club, [which] was littered with couples in various states of sex”. These tableaux-vivants are presented like visions of hell – or is it paradise? – and are sensitively crosscut with scenes from Louche’s childhood. Not surprisingly, his voyage of self-discovery returns him to his formative experiences. For the most part, these memories involve his father – singing and dancing in the kitchen, showing him how to fly a kite, and so forth. A couple of them end in words of sound, fatherly advice: “Son, you have to learn to enjoy yourself” and “You could maybe try a little harder.” It is clear that the orgy has everything to do with sensations, and nothing with feelings. Clad only in rubber shorts and leather boots Louche ambles past the peep shows and cages, the suckers and groaners. He is often invited to participate: “‘C’mon,’ they urged, ‘it’s just a bit of fun.’” He decides, however, that although there is no harm done, it is certainly not fun. And yet he remains fascinated, and continues his journey to the end of the corridor where “the throb of music faded until all he could hear he was the snarl of a whip”. He has reached The Dungeon, where he sees a solitary, hooded man wielding a lash. Their eyes meet. Next thing, Louche finds himself being manacled to the wall. He doesn’t struggle. In fact, we can almost sense his relief, and excitement: “He opened his eyes, fully, taking in all the available light, taking in everything within the limited scope. It seemed the richest of views . . . The silence brought forward a surge of emotion, of tears and anger and laughter, rolling and gathering pace with each passing second.”

Davidson’s novel Scar Culture was extremely well-received. This first collection of stories confirms his role as chronicler of the distressed. Does he write only about what he knows? Let’s not ask. Does he write only for those who share this distress? Perhaps.

Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry And Politics Of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic
Scott Lyall
pp216 ISBN 0748623345


Scott Lyall’s study of MacDiarmid opens with a frontispiece of the Dear Leader looking stony. The content is far less fearful.

Mighty research has gone into this highly readable work, especially the pre-World War Two period: Lyall’s range of MacDiarmid’s technical, political, personal, and literary informants is fascinating. For example, he uses the Carcanet ‘Complete’ material, yet shows it not to be as complete as it might be: missed is the eugenicist ‘The Caledonian antisyzygy and the Gaelic idea’. Lyall’s work on the forgotten Red Scotland, rejected in 1936 by Routledge, is also illuminating, including not only Maclean-like revolutionary rhetoric, but prophesy of an Anglo-Scottish war.

In some ways, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry And Politics Of Place is over-researched: there is so much background on MacDiarmid’s journalism and local council work, especially in Montrose, that the poetry sometimes feels added on. Temporally, the book is top-heavy: we don’t leave the Twenties until we are into its second half. Methodologically, it reaches towards a new Scottish Studies, but often relies on older techniques of Eng Lit – biography, the strong canon, and psychological speculation. There are also technical problems: Lyall’s moves from argument to poetic quotation are smooth, lucid, and convincing, but there’s little discussion of the poetry as poetry: why, for example, did MacDiarmid abandon proper lineation – a question not answered by calling his later work ‘prosepoetry’.

Lyall’s thesis is that MacDiarmid’s national sense comes between and unites the local and the universal. The problem is we are not sure why the nation specifically should have this role. Lyall speculates in the introduction that Gayatri Spivak’s strategic essentialism can be used openendedly for Scottishness. But ‘Scot’ is not the same kind of thing as ‘woman’ – it is an elective identity, something people choose. And the assumption that Scottishness is in itself good haunts the book, as does the idea that ‘the Scot’ is unchanging (like, say, woman). This differs from ideas developed especially by Cairns Craig during the Nineties, seeing Scottishness as a flexible enabling myth. So “MacDiarmid wants contemporary Scots to find the dynamic diversity and internationalism of their pre-Union traditions”. But who are “contemporary Scots”? And why “pre-Union”? More generally, despite the title, there may be a confusion of republic and state. Lyall only has MacDiarmid talking about monarchy once, but it isn’t worth losing sight of a state to gain a republic: the UK has been made virtually unicameral (think of Iraq), and in some ways is already a republic gone wrong.

This Scottish Renaissance is deliberately ruralist, with MacDiarmid linking internal ‘islands’. This approach works in Montrose, where Lyall convincingly shows MacDiarmid working out Renaissance thought. The move to Scots language is “galvanised by his immersion in the local concerns of the Montrose community”, and contra metropolitanism, he “looked back in order to posit a modernist future for the nation”. Synthetic Scots was merely a “reconditioning” – Lyall follows Derrick McClure in stressing linguistic continuity, yet later admits that lexical overkill and archaism were central: MacDiarmid is both ‘populist’ and incomprehensible. This approach then struggles in Shetland, which MacDiarmid showers with abuse. And while “MacDiarmid’s anti-metropolitanism is a nationalist response to the violent perils of imperialism”, the value of small towns is not always clear, especially when they are described as conservative and Unionist, Langholm being a springboard for Mac-Diarmid’s anti-kailyardism.

Lyall’s MacDiarmid is pointedly pro-Irish, influenced by Connolly and Catholicism, and shaped by the dual events of 1916-17. Pre-Reformation aesthetics are stressed, as is MacDiarmid’s ostracism by anti-Irish party Nationalists. But the Nationalist MacDiarmid paradoxically scorns philistine Scots, and A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle is self-hating because of the stupidity of the masses, from which he suffers. MacDiarmid’s stance is anti-intellectual while he is an intellectual (though this ‘inconsistency’ has not been as criticized as Lyall implies). The impossibility of the rebel in the university, to which Lyall ingeniously links MacDiarmid’s authoritarianism, is nevertheless not a new phenomenon: it’s part of the makeup of the modern intellectual, and was central for example to Eighties postcolonial theory.

Lyall thus links MacDiarmid to Adorno’s, and more interestingly, Benjamin’s and Gramsci’s, problematic of the intellectual as the self-elected ‘interpreting class’. For Gramsci, the need for innate working-class values requires a radical authoritarianism: the interpreting class is too powerful because intellectuals are saturated in conservative faux debates. For MacDiarmid the whole of ‘culture’ is a pointless lie, and only individual genius can save the day. Wilhelm Reich however, on the fringes of the ‘Frankfurt school’ (meaning Adorno) would see in MacDiarmid a fascistic and defensive need for authority. In 1939 he supported the Stalin-Hitler pact against the British empire. Again showing exemplary research, Lyall shows that the British intelligence services had MacDiarmid under watch in Whalsay and regarded him as “a menace”.

MacDiarmid’s politics of place demanded the right to live anywhere and call its people useless, sponsored by tax from those same people. To argue that this should be the cultural form of a Scottish republic is not the aim of this subtle and even-handed study. Instead, Lyall widens out MacDiarmid scholarship, shows the poet’s subtlety of thought, and intelligently modernises and contemporizes his cultural-political position.

James IV
Norman Macdougall
BIRLINN, £16.99 339
pp. ISBN 0859766632


On Boxing Day last year, national newspapers published a list of eleven men and one woman, deemed to be of key importance in creating British ‘institutions’. The list was compiled by three historians, Michael Burleigh, Neil McK-endrick and David Starkey, for the Conservative Party, whose shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, explained that the list highlighted the Party’s concern that “the loss of national memory means a loss of national identity”. Included in this list, alongside the likes of St. Columba, (founder of Christianity in the British Isles), Robert Clive (the British empire), Millicent Fawcett (universal suffrage) and Nye Bevan (the NHS) is one Scot: King James IV (1473-1513).

The Scottish king evidently merited inclusion from his participation in the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ concluded between Scot-land and England in 1502, whereby James married Henry VII of Eng-land’s daughter, Margaret, the following year. A century later, the dynastic fruits of this ‘union of the thistle and the rose’ led to the Union of the Scots and English crowns through James’ great-grandson, James VI, in 1603. The list coincided with the reissue of Nor-man Macdougall’s biography of James IV. Macdougall’s biography provides a respected account of the life of this endlessly fascinating monarch whose activities, achievements and eventual failure make excellent newspaper copy.

As duke of Rothesay, and aged just over a year, James had been first betrothed to an English bride, Edward IV’s daughter Cecilia, aged three, in 1474. The dowry agreed for this abortive match was, however, greater than the £10,000 sterling that James eventually received from Henry VII on marrying Mar-garet Tudor in 1503, in what quickly proved a brittle and short-lived Anglo-Scottish alliance. As an adolescent, James had acquired the Scottish throne in 1488 through involvement in his father’s murder at Sauchieburn, for which he thereafter donned a penitential iron belt. Enormously energetic, James successfully handled the normal political, ecclesiastical and fiscal demands of medieval governance while contemplating international crusades against the Turks, acquiring what was briefly the largest warship in the world and dabbling in amateur dentistry. Moreover, as Macdougall observes, although “king of a small and relatively poor country … [James] invaded Eng-land again and again, and got away with it”, at least until the catastrophic strategic blunders that led to his death at Flodden in 1513.

Although expertly handled, this is not, however, a new biography. Instead, it is an unaltered reprint in which the author’s acknowledgements and preface remain as published in 1989, as do a number of unfortunate typographical errors. Whilst, in places, Macdougall’s elegant acknowledgements of earlier scholarship, by way of references to “Professor Duncan’s memorable phrase” or “Dr Nicholson’s memorable phrase” nostalgically evoke a passing world of academic courtesies, other allusions to James’ “most recent biographer” are conspicuously uncomfortable in referring to R. L. Mackie’s King James IV, published nearly half a century ago in 1958. Whilst it is inappropriate to review this book as if it were a new biography, earlier plaudits regarding Macdougall’s scrupulous objectivity and mastery of high political narrative were undoubtedly justified. For a 21st century audience, however, this is an inescapably dated work; indeed, the author’s preface, reviewing various advances in historical scholarship between Mackie’s biography in 1958 and the late-1980s painfully reinforce the point that this is a reissue, not a new edition.

The Scottish Secretaries
David Torrance
pp436, ISBN 1841584762


A basic trouble is that Scots are not much good at politics. It must be the Calvinism, yet again. According to John Calvin, humanity consists of a few who are to be saved and a huge mass who are to be damned: there is no room for compromise.

In contrast the English have, whatever else you say about them, a genius for politics which relies on actually not believing in very much, just like the Church of England. For hundreds of years they have sustained a parliamentary system specialising in constant adjustment to all and any opinions. There may be no durable philosophies, so that Tories can in the long run adopt Liberal policies and Labour can in the long run adopt Tory ones. But nobody in England will be forever cast into an outer darkness, where there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the other hand we know what the God of Scots said to the losers in the general election of life: “Weel, ye ken noo.”

This has inevitably affected what was, till devolution, the top job in Scottish politics, Secretary of State for Scotland. David Torrance, former journalist now in a political post at Westminster, gives here a most diligent survey of the 39 men and one woman who have held this surely soon to be abolished post. Most are forgotten, or will be, despite Torrance doing his level best to salve their reputations.

With a few exceptions, they remained rather a dull lot. For many, the Scottish Office represented the pinnacle of their careers. They never moved on or showed much desire to. Anyway, the last thing the British political system wanted was brilliance in its Secretaries of State for Scotland. To tempt them into playing the Scottish card all the time would have been asking for trouble. The solution was to choose people who never caused problems, or even dreamed of doing so.

An exception proving the rule was A.J. Balfour, who served right at the beginning of the Scottish Office’s existence in 1886-7. A nephew of the then Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, he would one day be Prime Minister himself. So he was going places. He used his first job in government to show as much. He browbeat other departments of state into handing powers to him that belonged to them. These he used to duff up the stroppy crofters, who were in revolt. Altogether, he was just the kind of fellow not to be Secretary for Scotland. Experiment with a man of destiny would never be repeated.

One alternative has been to appoint toffs. The first couple of decades saw a duke, two marquises, an earl, a baron and a baronet in charge of the Scottish Office. The tradition continued into modern times, taking in one chap with a distant claim to the Crown of Scotland, right down to `Gentleman George’ Younger, last of the breed. His bland charm, turned on as much to the bailies of Burntisland as to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, often proved just the job in the fraught circumstances he faced – if, arguably, for a little too long. At any rate, he was better than a dozen other Scottish Secretaries in living memory.

A second favoured category was the dinosaur, mostly though not exclusively from the Labour party. Nobody could be impressed by the horny handed sons of toil who served as Secretaries of State from the 1920s to the 1950s. One or two were indeed plainly incompetent: that probably explained their elevation. The same held true of some later Tories from the broad savannahs of the Scottish counties rather than out of deep black holes in Fife. It was possible to raise the dinosaur’s act into a finer art, as Willie Ross did in the Sixties and Seventies. But with him the species became extinct.

Perhaps the saddest cases are those of bright young things who arrived in the Scottish Office full of hope and expectation for a great future in government, only to find themselves shunted into a siding without an exit. One was John Sin-clair, the original land reformer, said by his boss H.H. Asquith to have “the brain of a rabbit and the temper of a pig”. Another was Walter Elliot, a brilliant man who got on the wrong side of Winston Churchill and never recovered from that. And maybe we have to include Michael Forsyth here too, trying to hold the bridge alone as the devolutionary hordes rushed on him.

Anyway the story is over now, and David Torrance tells it as well as it can be told, with perception into politics and comprehension of character. The next chapter will be different.

The Raw Shark Texts
Steven Hall
pp428 ISBN


Breakdancing with energy and ideas, Steven Hall’s first novel The Raw Shark Texts exfoliates the imagination. Although the novel reminds one of Lewis Carroll, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams, Hall’s voice is original. Adams’ Babel fish, small, yellow and leeching on brainwave energy, is the benign precursor to Hall’s terrifying conceptual shark, ‘the Ludovician’, destroyer of understanding. Its habitat is the stream of ideas created by the human imagination and it latches parasitically onto individuals to gorge on plankton shoals of memory.

This would appear to be the predicament of Eric Sanderson, who wakes up in a room that is absolutely ordinary but completely unfamiliar, with no idea who he is. Overtaken by panic, he discovers a driving licence that supplies his official identity. The picture matches his reflection in the wardrobe mirror – that of a stranger whose expressions are written in the language of unremembered experience.

Eric finds a note that prompts him to visit a therapist, who tells him that for two years he has been suffering from a rare dissociative condition. She emphasises that he must on no account open any letters that arrive from the “first” Eric Sanderson, or he will lose whatever identity he has salvaged all over again. Dr Randle might be sinister, manipulative, bovine or trustworthy, Eric hasn’t a clue, but he is so unnerved he does what the doctor orders.

Most of his time is spent at home clinging to a comfort blanket of ordinary tasks and bonding with Ian, a sassy ginger feline with Cheshire cat proclivities. Eric deals with his mail like a credit junkie in denial, leaving letters and packages to pile up unopened. Everything changes on the day he enters the mysteriously locked room in his house. It is empty, apart from a red filing cabinet containing a single sheet of paper. Because of what it says, Eric now examines the communications from his former self, all signed “with regret and also hope”, only to realise that if they tell the truth about the conceptual predations he has suffered, his present being, shredded and shambling as it is, remains in mortal danger. This device neatly carries the novel into its next phase. The letters also yield cameos of life with his lover, Clio, whom Eric has forgotten but whose death by drowning may be the source of his trauma.

From Eric’s plundered selfhood and bewildered introversion, the novel switches to an emotionally engaging register, tender, erotic, funny and painful. As the action twists on in a succession of dream-scape sequences, via “unspace” and the “quiet insomnia of smog, purple skies, puddles, rubbish and white and yellow sodium” that is Hall’s Manchester, the conceptual playfulness never lets up.

Unfortunately for Eric, there’s no point pinching himself. He’s awake. In a deserted hospital he encounters Mr Nobody, a decaying Super-string theory physicist, no more than “a concept wrapped in skin and chemicals”. The information he provides intensifies Eric’s sense that his world is a “Chinese puzzle”, demanding knowledge of just where and in what sequence to apply pressure to its secret springs.

The Ludovician suddenly lurches into physical presence and nightmare takes over. As Nobody is pulled through the melting floor, Eric is saved by a young woman called Scout who whisks him off, tossing a letter bomb into the shark’s path. With typical Hall humour, the letter bomb is made of fireworks, old typewriter keys and printing block letters, which don’t kill but explode associations and histories that “scramble the flow the shark is swimming in”.

Scout supplies information on a new existential threat, Mycroft Hall, who has turned himself into a parasitic super-computer. (He shares his first name with Sherlock Holmes’ brother, whose “specialism” was omniscience.) Although, like Clio, Scout has a smiley face tattooed on her big toe, her identity is yet another puzzle, “standing with all the others – huge and quiet, like the rows of strange stone heads on Easter Island”. With clarification a lost cause, they set off on a quest that leads to an ambiguous and very moving climax.

With excursions into graphics and “flicker-book” visuals, Hall maintains focus and finesse throughout. Like a Rorschach Test (say the title aloud quickly), The Raw Shark Texts can be read in different ways, all fascinatingly open to interpretation.

Taking You Home: Poems And Conversations
Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith & Andrew Mitchell
pp160, ISBN 1902831519


My first reaction was “Great! a new book on Derick and Iain, with some of their poems and thoughts. This should be interesting.” Having glanced through the book, my second reaction was “What a curious enterprise. Is it a sprat or a starling?” It is, in fact, a kind of compendium which includes selections of poems by Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith, interviews with the two Lewismen, some biographical material, and a poem sequence by the compiler (in English, but with translations into Gaelic) providing a coda.

The book’s genesis can be traced to two radio programmes presented by Andrew Mitchell. The first, The Island Is Always With You, was produced by Stewart Conn for BBC Radio 3 and Radio Scotland, to mark Smith’s sixtieth birthday in 1988. How Many Miles From Bayble took both poets back to the village of their upbringing in 1995 for Radio 4’s , Kaleidoscope. The central section of the book, ‘Poets in Conversation’, features extracts from those interviews, but only amounts to 13 pages.

These few titbits do give us some vivid glimpses of island life, figures of authority (schoolmaster and minister), skills that made the village tick, ceilidhs and open air dances. There are illuminating comments on language, and the delicate balancing act living between two languages entails, including the interesting detail that, while Glasgow-born Smith was a native Gael, Thomson, born in Lewis, spoke English first. Schooling began at Bayble, where some of their classmates went barefoot throughout the year, then to the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, both melting-pot of dialects from all the rural parishes and culture clash with monoglot English-speaking “townies”, who frequently displayed “quite contemptuous attitudes towards Gaelic” according to Thomson.

Aberdeen University, which both attended at around the same time, the older Thomson having done military service first, provided a further widening of perspective, with students being met “from Skye and Harris and various other Gaelic localities…. The Gaelic people tended to congregate and speak Gaelic practically all the time”. If they were socially defensive in that milieu of “foreigners of a kind”, the intellectual scope was boundless. Iain Crichton Smith sought out the works of contemporary writers, people like TS Eliot and WH Auden who were dealing with “Twentieth century phenomena”. He cites Camus and Sartre, and records having read some of Sorley MacLean’s work which would have been fairly recently published at this stage.

It would be difficult for any islander, particularly from Lewis, to deny the impact of religion on their lives. Both poets have pointed observations, historical and personal, to make on its impact on the social and cultural energies of their community. Thomson on “cultural survival” and Smith on “exile” effectively express the paradoxes they had to live with, but which provided rich creative seams for them to draw on. Introducing his poem ‘The Exiles’, Smith recalled an image provided by his mother, of an emigrant ship leaving Stornoway, while its passengers, and those they were leaving behind on the quay, together began singing the twenty-third psalm, an “extraordinary and poignant moment”.

Although the shortest in the book, that section seems to me to provide its heart. Being based on two programmes of at least fifteen minutes duration each, it does seem to have been reduced to highlights. There are references to other poems, Smith’s own ‘Stones of Callanish’ and Thomson’s ‘Coffins’ and ‘Scarecrow’, which Smith comments on, but there does seem to have been an opportunity missed, to have given us more of the poets’ own thoughts, particularly on process.

It’s difficult, in the context of its overall theme, to read Andrew Mitchell’s own poems, which conclude the book, without a certain sense of unease. That’s not to say that they are in any way inferior, as poems. They are well crafted, and ably translated by that fine Gaelic poet Maoileas Caimbeul. Those addressing his subjects, and their turus dhachaidh (trip home) display a warm empathy, which feels just a bit forced and vicarious in his approach to topics like exile and the Iolaire tragedy, themes so particular to the islanders themselves. There is, however, much to enjoy in Mitchell’s words, and in the rest of Taking You Home.

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