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Volume 4 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 4 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry

October 20, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Meas Air Chrannaibh (Fruit On Branches)
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul
ACAIR, £13.00
pp328, ISBN 086152330X

A dodo language, Gaelic “is like a patient lying/weak on her deathbed”, according to its nurse, Aong-has Pàdraig Caimbeul. Certainly, as if futureproofing his verse from one of language’s regular extinctions, he proffers his new collection in three flavours: Gaelic, Scots and English. His trilingual verse is often a gloomy affair. He frets about Gaelic’s future, paralleling its decline with global warming no less. Again and again, the loss of Gaelic is presented in grand, fatalistic terms: “I am drowning here trying desperately/to harvest Gaelic/from the great tide of English” (‘Harvesting The Ocean’). Ironic then that he should provide English versions of his poetry, which is surely like asking your pet goat to bunk down with a crocodile. Poetry itself is, in Caimbeul’s opinion, faring little better. In ‘The Gaelic Poetry Tinker’, he imagines himself “Climbing the brae/clinking and clanking”; no one wants his “rags” except “in real emergencies/when the electricity fails and you need to put a pot on the open fire/…or/when the world is completely falling apart with the Twin Towers”. Confessing to feeling like “a caveman in a digital world”, you can’t help feeling Caimbeul would have been happier living a century or two earlier.

The Bigamist
Mary Turner Thomson
pp288, ISBN 1845963474

In her online singles ad, Thomson explained, “I wake up every day believing something wonderful is going to happen…”. Well, if any book is ever likely to make a person think twice about thumbing a ride to Lovesville on the information superhighway, The Bigamist is it. A single mum in her mid-thirties, Thomson was contacted by Will Jordan, an apparently successful IT consultant. He proposed to the smitten Thomson within a month, who accepted despite his tendency to disappear for long periods at short notice and without explanation. When she threatened to end the romance, Jordan told her he was a CIA agent. Although practically every paragraph in the book from that moment on contains a fresh reason to dump Jordan, Thomson comes to defend her fiancé with cult-like credulity. Of course, it was all nonsense. Far from being Jason Bourne, Jordan was a bigamist, fraudster, and wanted for firearms offences, not to mention on the sex offenders register. Quite appropriate that this predator should strike in Edin-burgh; he makes Deacon Brodie look like Nelson Mandela. Plainly told, in contrast to the ever more fantastical tale itself, The Bigamist is a hell of a story, a text book case of ‘marrying in haste”.

The Marriage Blacksmith
Achim von Arnim
pp105, ISBN 9783865250612

Tales don’t come much taller than Achim von Armin’s Scottish yarn, The Marriage Blacksmith. Part fairytale, but also part historical record, The Marriage Blacksmith bears the imprint of von Armin’s friends, the Brothers Grimm. Von Armin wrote his novella after a trip to the Highlands in the very early nineteenth century. While on the one hand it contains natives forced off their land and into emigrating by the Clearances, The Marriage Blacksmith also features a dragon and duelling turtles. Von Armin’s narrator, a beetle collector, is holidaying in Inveraray when he becomes involved in a plot to rescue an irresistible German femme fatale from her engagement to a laird’s son. Her lover, or one of them anyway, is an inventor who has prototyped a crude submarine, originally to fight Napoleon, but now converted to make love, not war. Sheila Dickson translates, the first translation of the tale outside Germany since its original publication in 1830. Although rather fluffy as German fairy tales go, The Marriage Blacksmithis a fascinating repository of myths about and preconceptions of Scot-land in the first half of the eighteenth century, a time, it would seem, when outsiders viewed the Highlands as a sort of cross between the Wild West and Middle Earth.

On The Flyleaf
Ken Cockburn
pp76, ISBN 1906307180

There’s a drowsy if calm watching-the-wheels quality to the first half of Ken Cockburn’s new collection of poetry, On The Flyleaf (“Adults mix drinks, light up, laughter,/like a scene tragicomic, from Chekhov,/as we drift like smoke towards the future”). In this section, the poet observes a number of tableaux – a service station, a courtyard, Cromarty – in language largely unjangled by strong images or emotion. His imagination is sparked by the coincidence of his daughter’s birthday and the anniversary of Hiroshima, while tributes are proffered to film directors Godard and Fassbinder, and, more personally, to Gael Turnbull on his death. There are some typographical dislocations too, though nothing too radical. Cockburn sounds more engaged during the second part of his collection, the one from which the book draws its name. The conceit here is that Cockburn is writing notes about books he has read on their flyleaves. Goethe, Stendhal, and less stuffily, the Marvel superhero, Submariner, are all considered by Cockburn. His imagination peaks with a fantasy where Jack Kerouac is Scottish and wrote Kidnapped instead of On The Road. If he didn’t already flag it up with a tribute-poem, you’d twig that he’d been reading Borges from this Kerouac poem alone.

The Ossians
Doug Johnstone
VIKING, £12.99
pp304, ISBN 0670917435

The road trip genre may be a worn old path by now, but it’s to John-stone’s credit that he manages to freshen it up. Connor is the archetypal angry young man; angry at his country and all its clichés, it’s inevitable that all he can do is repeat those clichés he loathes so much while actually inhabiting one as well. His anger at Scotland – how it treats its history, how it treats its present, what it can see and what it can’t – is merely misplaced anger; the real object of his ire is himself, but barely intuiting that, he consumes drugs and booze and takes advantage of his long-suffering girlfriend throughout his tour of Scot-land with his band, The Ossians, instead. A musician himself, John-stone is well aware of the clichés surrounding the music industry, and he has fun with the characters that crop up along the way. John-stone has a good ear for dialogue, and he likes his characters – for all the anger in this book, there’s a lot of affection too. But it could have gone deeper; Johnstone’s more than capable of a walk on the darker side.

Once Upon A Time In England
Helen Walsh
pp359, ISBN 1841958689

If there’s one thing you can say about Helen Walsh, it’s that she doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of life – although twenty pages into this, her second novel, I heartily wished she did. Portraying a vicious rape in all its repellent detail is never going to make for easy reading, but this scene takes a while to recover from. Susheela is a young girl from Kuala Lumpur, living in a council estate in Warrington in the late Seventies. Heavily pregnant by her husband, Robbie, a factory worker with ambitions to be a professional singer, she is raped by a racist gang on the night he is signed up by an important talent spotter. The rape brings on the birth of her child, but it’s the end of Robbie’s hopes and of their relationship. As they get older and move away from the council estate, the couple struggle to bring up their son, Vincent, the next generation’s victim of racial abuse, and daughter, Ellie, who wants to fight everyone. Walsh’s style is uneven throughout, veering from the almost over written to the careless and even lazy. But when she’s on top form, the prose is truly eye-catching.

The Roaring Of The Labyrinth
Clio Gray
pp400, ISBN 0755331079

With echoes of a recent short story or two, Clio Gray’s latest historical offering focuses around the murder of a janitor and subsequently, the policeman investigating the crime. Set in the north of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this is more Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast than it is Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility. With her ear for unusual names (Whilbert Stroop, Jeremiah Pitchley, Finkel Hanka, Violena Sedge), and an eye for the quietly surreal, Gray is a writer you can rely on not to write quite like anyone else. The problem with this novel though is simply its immediate busyness – we begin in one location, in one year, then move to another location and another year, then yet another location and another one. In the first fifty pages, two or three characters have been introduced and killed off, with barely enough time to acclimatise us to the various other people populating the village around the aptly named Astonishment Hall. Crime stories, regardless of period, are compelled to assemble their cast of characters quickly, and while it’s a tricky thing to tease out the histories of people we barely know, I’m not sure it’s trick that Gray has quite pulled off here.

Losing It
Lesley Glaister
pp88, ISBN 1905207174

Sandstone have attracted a number of decent writers to their series which promotes books “for readers who are not used to full length novels, or for those who simply want to enjoy a ‘quick read’ which is satisfying and well written”. Past authors who have taken part include Suhayl Saadi, Des Dillon and Isla Dewar. Now Lesley Glaister has contributed this quite neat little tale of wifely paranoia to the stable. What marks these novellas out is their simplicity of purpose, of narrative trajectory, and their reliance, in this instance anyway, on dialogue. Descriptions are kept to a minimum, as is the range of vocabulary, and sentence structure eschews complexity. Given these restrictions, which might tax other writers, Glaister still manages to concoct an atmospheric and convincing account of the childless, but erstwhile happily married Marion, on whom her new next-door neighbour, Jo, is only too pleased to dump her young son, so that she can go out partying with her friends. Gradually, Marion starts to worry that Jo is getting too close to her husband, David, and as Jo’s manipulations become more and more obvious, we find we’re reading a far more psychologically complex story than the simplicity of the writing would suggest.

Stolen from Africa
Kokumo Rocks
pp96, ISBN 1906307199

Given that Rocks grew up in Fife, a black girl surrounded by white faces, and left school with undiagnosed dyslexia, you might expect her poems to be full of alienation, the pain of being an outsider, the suffering of the minority and of the misunderstood. Certainly there are some traces of these things – as there are in most poems – but it’s not what Rocks focuses on. Yes, her poems are personal but they’re not necessarily about her, and that’s what gives them a refreshing feel, their sense of a broader outlook. From the very first poem it’s clear that Rocks never goes for the obvious, never says what people assume she is going to say. In ‘Let’s Hear It For The Orange’, she commends the fruit’s “zesty zing/A friendly smack in the face”, which might make you wonder if she’s referring to the good folk of Fife she grew up with, if it wasn’t that you learn to be wary of drawing such easy parallels in her work. Her poems about the landscape are particularly eye-catching. In ‘Dying Delightfuls’, the leaves “felt a chill/Whispering, ‘Autumn has come again’/Nearly time to die’, they sang cheerfully/Let’s go out in a blaze of reds and honey golds”. She can be political and a realist too.

From this Issue

Buchan With Bells On

by Douglas Gifford

Auschwitz: A Neverending Story

by Elwira M Grossman

A Soft-Centred Woman

by Maggie Fergusson

Rebel Reinvented

by Ajay Close

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