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Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

October 21, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Richard Price
pp114, ISBN 9781857549201

Richard Price’s unlikely madeleine is “The smell of roadworks”, an aroma that transports him back to his childhood and into his writing, which he describes oddly, or rather, originally, as “a milkman’s boy/treading gravel, pressing blind bells – /collecting change, pausing./Seeking…intimate halls”. There are memories of a child, Price perhaps although it doesn’t do to presume, coming from England to Scotland where his father is building a bungalow on a titular green field site, an act of creation that contrasts with a brother’s accidental attempt to burn himself: “A manhole lid, a lazy boy. A bath of petrol, a/cigarette’s disfigurement, teenage inferno”. At times Price’s verse is powerfully direct and clear in its imagery: “The heart is a loose household glove, pinker/when full of hand, the comb of a cock,/The heart is a handkerchief in the pen pocket/of no one I know”. Divided into loose narratives, Greenfields reaches its peak with a longish sequence about travelling by tube in London, a chain of images that capture post-7/7 anxiety, the sardine-squash, and an Eliot-esque sense of seeing the skull beneath the skin as all around the poet humanity swarms. Although only his second collection, it’s not ridiculous to speak of Price as already an accomplished poet.

Conversations With Scottish Writers No. 4 – Trevor Royle
John Herdman and Walter Perrie
FRAS, £5
pp44, ISBN 9780955540523

Trevor Royle, as his interlocutors tease out, has led a life richly illustrative of Scottish literature over the past few decades. After landing his first post-university job at Black-woods (his boss gave it to him because Royle’s father had been an army officer), he discovered the proofs of George Eliot’s novels. Going to work in the Scottish Arts Council’s literature department in the early Seventies, he helped play a part in lifting Scottish writing out of what he describes as “a very parlous position”. Moving between an older generation – MacCaig, MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith – and awkward up and comers like Kelman, Royle played a key role in the revival of a wave of Scottish literature that peaked with and dissolved after the failed devolution vote. As such Royle knows whereof he speaks when he says, apropos the situation in the Seventies, government’s only role in the arts should be to hand over funds, no questions asked: “Once you have politicians sticking their nebs into cultural policy, you’re finished”. Digressing into matters personal, Royle speaks movingly of his son’s death and the effect it had on his faith, and his exasperated love for Scotland: “In Scotland if it’s not exasperated, it’s probably not love, it’s probably sentiment”.

The Radical Field
Tony McManus
pp206, ISBN 978190520714

What to make of Kenneth White?

One applauds his ambition to remake the consciousness of his time, to reconcile “the tension he felt between modern civilisation and the intensity of his experience of land and seascape”, and his desire to renew Scotland politically and culturally within the context of a new post-war Europe. The problem is – readers of his poetry often don’t find it so much revolutionary as full of New Age invocations. “It is not communication between man and man that matters”, he wrote near the beginning of his career by way of explanation, “but between man and cosmos. Put men in contact with the cosmos, and they will be in contact with each other”. While France feted White and his brand of ‘geopoetics’, his homeland harboured doubts. Tony McManus does a good job in The Radical Field, a sort of intellectual biography of White’s poetry and prose, of making the argument for White. Certainly, as a naysayer of romanticism (he’s an ‘earth poet’ rather than a nature poet) and most other traditions still at work in contemporary verse, he remains sui generis. It says something that McManus’ exegesis is more likely to convince one of White’s merits than a direct examination of White’s work itself.

In A Room Darkened
Kevin Williamson
pp76, ISBN 9781906120078

Handily, Williamson outlines his artistic credo early into this debut volume of poetry: “easy rhymes are no highway/to the complexities of the human soul./There is a yearn beyond/metrics, comparison and wit./And fuck the rich”. Disdaining poetry that wears its finery too conspicuously, Williamson uses a direct, conversational tone that owes something to the Beats and to Bukowski. Love and sex form a recurring theme, expressed through frequently violent imagery: “From the depths/I close in on your beach/with all the patience of a shark/…. I crash/a ferocious kiss./Embrace and explode”. Where the collection errs is the occasional splash of sentimentality. See the tribute to wifeslapping liver-jacker George Best: “your gift/lingers on, like perfume/conjured from the dreamiest/Belfast air”. Still, Williamson, when he cuts the crap and tells a story, has a grotty charm, best seen when he tries to persuade a girlfriend that washing his feet with her hair a la Jesus and Mary will both be sexy and religious: “She said that/in her version of the Bible/(The King James)/the lead character of Christ/did not wear three day old socks/and dirty trainers./I suppose she had a point”.

John Macnab
John Buchan
POLYGON, £7.99
pp240, ISBN 1846970288

The reissuing of four Buchan titles by Polygon (the other three in the series are Sick Heart River,The Power House and The Dancing Floor), together with new introductions (by Andrew Greig and Stella Rimington among others) will inevitably provoke a reassessment of the man and his work, and a reassessment in his favour, or so his publishers must hope. Having only read The Thirty Nine Stepsand Prester John in my youth, and not being impressed with either, however, I approached John Macnab with some caution. And very wisely too, as it turned out. If the anachronistic, the politically narrow, and the twee is to your taste, then this 1925 tale of three bored, highly privileged individuals (a lawyer, an aspiring politician, and a banker) who decide to try and poach two stags and a salmon from three different Scottish estates, will delight. It failed to charm me. Its underlying theme – how to give life its meaning back when one has one’s health, wealth and beauty – has been depicted better, and by Buchan’s contemporaries, too.

The French Macdonald
Jean-Didier Hache & Domhnall Uilleam Stiubart
pp209, ISBN 9780955542015

This background story to the life of Marshal Alexandre Macdonald, son of Neil MacEachan who accompanied Bonnie Prince Charlie on his escape to France after Culloden, is really one for local historians only. It is a story that would serve well, however, as part of a larger history, especially this history of war and exile. The motivation for this particular book, however, is Marshal Mac-donald’s diary of his 1825 trip to South Uist, to see the land of his forefathers. The diary itself records his impressions of the island and its islanders (nothing much seems to have changed in almost 200 years), as well as visits to Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. This is the text that will matter most to local historians and least to general readers – Marshall Macdonald’s observations are perfunctory at best and would tire the most ardent enthusiast (“We return to the inn. Considerable crowd. We got out again to visit Glasgow’s docks. Two stone bridges, one of which is superb, broadened thanks to iron footpaths…”). But his father’s role in the failed Jacobean rebellion, and his own history, are compelling enough, as are the tales of all those caught up in events larger than themselves always.

Luckenbooth: An Anthology of Edinburgh Poetry
Edited by Lizzie MacGregor
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp160, ISBN 1846970180

As it seems to be virtually impossible not to describe either Edin-burgh’s femininity, and a pretty negative femininity at that (“a disappointed spinster”; “you see her pinioned by her judges”; with “her soughin gables” and so on), or its “seven hills” in some nod to the ancient world, the reader’s eye is inevitably drawn more appreciably to those poems which avoid such descriptions, although Christine de Luca’s ‘Edinburgh Volte-Face’, which manages to mention Edinburgh as a “big sister of all cities, forever tut-tutting”, as well as Rome, should be forgiven as it is quite marvellous. Hugh MacDiarmid’s Edinburgh is a “mad god’s dream”; Jayne Wilding’s Royal Mile has two small boys walking along with a hammer “tapping on the bins and scaffolding, mending the city”; Norman MacCaig “gulp(s) down winter raw” in ‘November Night, Edinburgh’, while Robert Louis Stevenson loves and hates his native city in equal measure. As a literary city, Edinburgh was overtaken by Glasgow during the Eighties, but it looks like its time has come again, although the role it had back in the Sixties and Seventies as a hub of poetic talk and invention will be hard won this time round.

Caribbean-Scottish Relations: Colonial and Contemporary Inscriptions in History, Language and Literature
Giovanni Covi, Joan Anim-Addo, Velma Pollard and Carla Sassi
pp208, ISBN 1902294343

With celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain well underway, this publication could hardly be timelier. It is an excellent counterpoint to the ‘Braveheart’ theory of Scottish history, which posits Scots repeatedly as the victims, not the instruments, of colonial oppression. Anim-Addo’s essay is perhaps the most moving as it is the most personal, she being the granddaughter of a black Jamaican woman, Juliana Mulzac, of post-emancipation Jamaica. How to remember her story is Anim-Aldo’s aim, but it is also the quest of the three other writers, who debate the cross-cultural impact of Scottish settlers in Jamaica through the slavery era (many Scots were also prisoners and earned the nickname ‘redlegs’ because their pale skin caused them to be so badly burned), and the legacy of that interaction That this dark time in Scottish history, and this complex relationship between two countries, has finally become the subject of research and fiction of the last few years is surely another reason to celebrate.

The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature Edited
by Berthold Schoene
pp560, ISBN 0748623965

Twenty years ago, any guide carrying the title ‘contemporary Scottish literature’ would have depressed me beyond measure – but what a difference a couple of decades can make. This is a truly expansive and enlightening collection of essays, even joyous, tone to it. Of course postmodernism has meant that ‘Scottish’ as a label is up for grabs, but who really cares when the quality of the writing, and the subject areas covered, are as good as this. Essays to look out for are by Suhayl Saadi, Zoe Strachan, Alan Bissett, Mariadele Boccardi and Kirsty Mac-donald, and while much ink is spent on old favourites like James Kelman and Janice Galloway, there’s plenty of room for Andrew Greig and Don Paterson (although surprisingly little on Andrew O’Hagan and no mention of Bella Bathurst). Scottish culture may well have emerged from what editor Schoene calls “a distorting mirror” but it has emerged with energy, vitality and a strong sense of direction.

From this Issue

Ewes Too

by John Herdman

Identity Parade

by Ajay Close

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