Window For A Small Blue Child
By Gerrie Fellows
CARCANET PRESS: £8.95
pp80 ISBN 9781857548884
REVIEWER: STEWART CONN
Gerrie Fellows’ first volume Technologies (1990) synthesised landscapes real and imagined, icy frontiers crossed with no excess baggage. The Powerlines (2000) chronicled her ancestors’ emigration from Scotland to New Zealand in the light of history and geography, hardship and death. In The Duntroon Toponymy (2001) she offset two calendars of place-names from, again, Scotland and New Zealand. These volumes, oddly under-reviewed, could have been a preparation for this mapping of a much more intimate journey.
Among many poets who in Plath’s wake have drawn perceptively and movingly on birth and motherhood are Sharon Olds, Anne Stevenson, Kathleen Jamie and Kate Clanchy. What instantly singles outWindow For A Small Blue Child is that it is entirely devoted to the process of in vitro fertilisation with its choices and risks, drugs and rituals, and attendant hope and dread.
From the outset Fellows observes the interaction between her body-clock and emotional make-up, and the workings of science and nature. The opening section, ‘The Infertility Cycle’, sees the ovarian condition against the notion of a garden which for a 40-year old would-be mother could become “a dark, cracked universe”. The parallel is sustained (“apricot blossom fluttered like nappies”) and the menstrual cycle linked to the seasons. Overshadowing all is a wintry foreboding lest the yearned-for snow-child melt and vanish.
Transformative physical and psychological processes are tracked; their placing and pacing defined on the page, as in Fellows’ earlier work, by meticulous lay-out and spacing rather than formal punctuation. Attendant scientific data and medical terminology (helpfully glossed) are italicised.
Constant images of glass are a reminder of the risk of breakage. This sense of fragility is heightened by reference to the flower love-in-a-mist, and to a finger tracing letters on a moist window-pane. Glimpses of snow and ice – water and glass in their wintry form – mirror slides of biopsy samples awaiting analysis. The juxtaposition has a lyrical yet austere beauty: “The sun, she sees, falls on the windowsill/ on a lily on a vase/ on an aspirator in a gloved hand/ on the glass that flows in the frame”.
The central section ‘The Pellucid Zone’ continues to map internal and external worlds. Noticeable (see ‘A Pink and Blue Poem’) is a remarkable visual sensitivity. In conjunction with this and while time seems held in abeyance, shifts of tone and syntax presage darkness and blood: “Pain she blacks out from/When she comes to/on the bathroom’s cold vinyl/the patient is thinking of nothing/…her husband’s voice calling/from the distant noises of the night/She has no idea/how much time has passed”.
The impact of such simple statement made me wonder whether, elsewhere, the writing might be plainer. But that would have defied the nature of the sequence: a slackening of tension might break the spell. As it is, the texture of the language and precision of its rhythms persuasively convey the world of a woman “trapped between dream and pain”.
This is relieved by a poem whose flavour and music imbue a parental golden wedding with elements of fairy tale. It concludes throat-catchingly: “each day closer to an unrequitable grief/flying home to a voice on the phone/‘The test is positive’”. This provides a steppingstone to the closing section, ‘The Flowerings of the Possible’. At last, with the successful birth of a daughter – a joyous resolution, neither sentimentalised nor melo-dramatised – we emerge into the light.
Even then the mother’s sense of the miraculous does not blind her to social niceties. Along with gratitude for the gift of a child comes appreciation of the good fortune that she and her husband could afford the treatment. And while her daughter will have no siblings, one friend cannot bear children. The lives of others are a reminder that “Grief is a door we can keep opening”.
How an account of any quest ends is crucial. Gerrie Fellows handles this radiantly and touchingly, and by way of a time-jump: “‘What are you writing?’ my daughter asks me/and I tell her”. The response, not to be given away here, provides the perfect denouement. Window For A Small Blue Child is at once a daring and skilfully crafted diary, and an exhilarating and cathartic work of art.
pp144 ISBN 184697044X
REVIEWER: ISOBEL MURRAY
It was Pierre Trudeau in 1969 who memorably compared the situation of Canada vis-à-vis the United States as being “a mouse in bed with an elephant”. It was a powerful and picturesque metaphor, and Paul Scott borrowed it for a Saltire Society pamphlet. His argument was that Scotland too was in bed with an elephant. Until now this has been the only connection my brain made between elephants and Scotland. But Andrew Drummond’s Elephantina has furnished another, just as unforgettable. This is the Elephant that accidentally died in Dundee in 1706, and was dissected and ‘resurrected’ (twice) in time for the Union of the Parliaments in May 1707.
A macabre tale ensues of the hungry poor of Dundee descending ravenously on this majestic corpse, but being beaten off by Dr Patrick Blair, scientist and dissector of many animals (and, it is said, small children). The animal is then dissected, boiled, and its parts variously stolen, smuggled and retrieved, one left foot disappearing entirely. This tale is sufficiently absorbing to form what is usually termed a rattling good read. But the tale, with its implications, its coincidence with history, and its political and moral depths, is marvellously contrived.
The book comprises three parts, arranged and edited in 1830 by “A Friend of History”, otherwise known as Senex, who wishes to commemorate the insufficiently celebrated Elephant along with the Treaty of Union, and reads all the auspices (and the animal’s liver) as confirming the blessedness of the latter. Senex researches the subject thoroughly: “We have been to For-far, we have been to Coupar Angus; we have met the post-coach from London, and felt a cold shiver at the sight of far-traveled mud on its wheels”. Unfortunately for Senex, the only full surviving account of the whole business is a journal kept by Gilbert Orum, whom Dr Blair employed as illustrator and engraver of his work: “It is so poorly written, so manifestly full of Deceit, Calumny, Slander and Scandal, that we stood several times anguished before the fire, poised to turn the papers to ashes”. In consequence he presents Orum’s journal with a venomous body of snide and censorious footnotes, illustrating the complacent nineteenth-century view of early eighteenth-century breast-beating.
The chief actor in the tale, Dr Patrick Blair, regularly makes clear his belief that the Elephant’s calamity is related to the fate of Scotland. An earlier Elephant arrived in Scotland at around the time of William of Orange’s coronation as King of Britain: “an Elephant arrived in Scotland each time some catastrophe befell its people”. Given his proximity to the Elephant, Dr Blair, unsurprisingly, is ‘out’ with the Jacobites in 1715. Even as he eviscerates the mighty beast, he compares its organs to the commissioners who were “cutting and butchering the Body Politic of Scotland”.
The adventures and speculations of the journal-keeper Gilbert Orum meanwhile provide a whole novel’s-worth of entertainment in themselves. Orum comes over as real, a convincing human character, where the others are simply voices. Orum has a wife and children living in one room with his demented mother, and a criminally-inclined brother with a vast and unruly brood of children. He harbors a belief that the Elephant, (the “Last Elephant”), talks to him, while he engages in all sorts of petty pilfering, and deals with scraps of this Elephant organ and that, bartering them to cancel debts, setting his only room on fire, and exchanging sexual favours with a landlady for another room. He has a vivid pen: the Elephant’s head is brought into Dr Blair’s kitchen, where his unprepared cook finds herself “confronting a disembodied Elephant’s head forcing its irresistible way into her kitchen”. There follows a scene of splendid comic panic. Likewise, the unforgiving cook later has to feed Orum:
Miss Gloag appeared from somewhere just at the opportune moment, and served me up – from a pot of bad grace – using a ladle of insults – into a bowl of indifference – accompanied by several lumps of bread – leavened by the ferment of the most sinful language a man should ever have to hear: all of which, despite the manner in which it was offered, was excellent. Elephantina is an amusing read, with acute insights into the ferment of opinion on the state of the Union at different times, and a sure grasp of periods and tone. It also has great relevance to the present, and the state of Scotland – and indeed Britain: one of Senex’s footnotes, for example, reads: “Education; education; education. Dr Blair was quite right”.
pp224 ISBN 1846970474
REVIEWER: RONALD FRAME
This is a strange one. I managed to reach half-way through before I twigged that Kane’s Ladderisn’t a novel as we know it: it’s a comic in prose form. Think Beano, or perhaps – given the adult material: a preoccupation with body odours and the scatological – Viz. Its influences, one guesses, aren’t literary but TV shows like Rab C Nesbitt and Shameless – oh, and Life on Mars. Plus an occasional faux-Irvine Welsh moment: wayward sons flaking an Oxo cube into the open mouth of their sleeping drunkard father, which is then cleaned out by the deft tongue of the “malodorous” family dog. This leads me to believe we must be in the land of urban myth.
Humdrum novels are saddled, sadly, with awkward requirements like psychological consistency and authentic background and the suspension of disbelief. No such problems here.
This is Seventies Glasgow life as seen through the eyes of a Primary 6 boy, Steve Duff. Or I think it’s seen through his eyes. For an 11 (or even 12) year old he has a truly astonishing range of film references at his fingertips. One feels that a job working on, say, Halliwell’s Film Directory might be the boy’s calling later in life. He understands theological terms like “confession” and “penance” but has to ask his mother what Catholic “Mass” might be. He can’t understand what’s up with his older sister, by name Sophia (all those peculiar mood swings of hers), but suddenly turns all complicatedly poetic on us: like a fading TV screen, “a white dot receded into the deepest reaches of my mind like a black hole closing in on itself …”.
The Duff family (two parents, three children) live just a tad beneath middle-class respectability (they aspire to Paisley’s department store – the text is thick with Seventies trade names), looking out from their windows at swish Pol-lokshields on the crown of the hill. Steve admits to knowing next to nothing about his waiter father’s origins. His mother works at the PO, and has a fixation about other people’s “commonness” (which doesn’t stop her saying Steve’s older brother looks “like a pimp” in his new – very carefully catalogued – clothes).
Mrs Duff’s father turns out to be a university lecturer (medieval history), and her mother a bohemian-style hostess called Vera, who hold salons in their Botanic Gardens residence. (This came as a bit of a surprise, I must confess). They serve up confit of salmon and prawns Marie-Rose (together, or separately?). Their guests are, frankly, a rum lot; they include shaven-headed Bernie and Fan in dungarees, who run a council-funded theatre workshop somewhere beyond the pale and – you’ve guessed it – roll their own. Gretchen, who’s a very angry woman (especially with husband Macon), disturbs the generally genteel ambience with her foul language. Well, that’s the West End for you.
Steve’s friends include a rough Govan set, down the hill. (Cannibalised motorbike parts all over the manky living-room carpet.) Just like his mother, he is quite judg-mental about this riff-raff; yet he believes they’re living more exciting lives than the Duffs are. Closer acquaintance, however, convinces him otherwise.
Steve’s older brother, Tony, is an inveterate fantasist, which provides some good laughs. But the book is curiously vague about its own relationship with reality. So, some of the money is decimal, some of it is old currency. The kids hit Bellahouston Park, taking themselves off to the Mackintosh house – I’m all for fictional licence, but wasn’t this structure erected 25 years later? Etcetera.
The author is an experienced journalist. He’s happiest writing short, clear, punchy sentences – often with a gag in tow. He gives us a convincing flavour of what it was like to be in the stands at a Celtic match at that time (a human zoo, and scarcely human), or at an auction of dodgy used cars at Provan-mill. (Not sure about those prices, though). He allows Steve now and then to offer a precocious insight: “Whatever problems you were faced with, whatever issues threatened your peace of mind, they could always be overcome by ignoring them and talking about football instead”.
The plot involves a stolen Raleigh Colt bicycle, and a borrowed but un-returned stepladder, and working out what a “shag” might be, and a Bay City Rollers concert – and the Duff family falling apart at the seams. But fear not, it all has a cosy feel-good ending. Even picturesque Govan, we’re assured, acquires “majesty” if you know where to look.
The book comes to us with a cover puff from Andrew O’Hagan. A-ha! You can see the publisher’s thinking: Lena Zavaroni, the Seventies, Scotland viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Polygon saw fit to send out review copies not in proof form but as a typescript (minus page numbers). This contains what appear to be editorial queries – “this sounds unlikely” at one point – inserted mid-sentence into the text.
It’s very well typed, certainly.
Scottish Photography: A History
LUATH PRESS, £29.99
pp320, ISBN 1906307075
REVIEWER: ALAN MARCUS
Tom Normand’s new book gives definition to a history of photography, as opposed to the history, here in the context of photography from Scotland. The framing of his study may seem at first curious – the book was originally titled The History Of Photography From Scotland rather than Of Scotland – yet he is quick to explain at the outset of this splendid and handsomely illustrated volume that his will feature an all-embracing study of Scottish photography, unhindered by confined notions of national identity. Indeed, the porous boundaries the author employs permits him to feature photographers who were born in Scotland but spent much of their time elsewhere, and those from abroad who qualify by paying a visit to the country. The nimble result displays a careful interweaving of individual styles and historical movements, shifting and sliding through the glens, industrial central belt, and out to North Sea platforms.
There are, of course, a great number of books on ways of interpreting the photograph, and a strength of Tom Normand’s approach is to analyse the currents of Scottish photograph through a tri-prism of photograph as memory, as document and as object. Adopting a thematic rather than linear historical enquiry, allows the author the flexibility of seeing connections across expanses of time and place. Portraiture from the landmark and tantalizingly brief mid-nineteenth century photographic partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Edinburgh and St. Andrews finds itself contrasted with the twenty-first century work of Robin Gillanders. Landscapes by Dundee photographer James Valentine from the 1870s are placed with bedfellows such as botanist-illustrator turned photographer, Robert Moyes Adam, who took images of Loch Ossian in the 1930s. The culminating effect of these intersections produces a richly veined and varied collage. As an art historian who has written and taught at St Andrews on a diverse range of nineteenth and twentieth century Scottish and British art, Normand finds little difficulty in making unconstrained associations which flow intuitively and perceptively into one another.
Hill and Adamson provide the keystone to charting the national and international prominence Scottish photography achieved early on, aided by Adamson’s technical prowess which resulted in shorter exposure times that in turn allowed for more intimate and candid portraits. As a well-established academic painter, David Hill was able to render the use of light in their photographs in a distinctive fashion which revealed individual character in the cataloguing of different social types. Normand recounts the way artists and a cluster of scientists, especially from St. Andrews University, led initially by the eminent physicist and Principal of the college, Sir David Brew-ster (1781-1868), were quick to embrace the new art form. For them the camera became an instrument which facilitated exciting experiments, while serving as a potent democratising symbol of modernity. In the digital age, Brew-ster’s championing of photography’s possibilities has morphed into a renewed sense of using the new technology to pioneer a wave of experimentation, as in the work of Edinburgh-born Wendy McMurdo. Normand foregrounds her as an example of an artist who works “on the cusp of photographic technologies and pure-science innovation, often contesting the human dimension of scientific progress”.
The role of myth and identity in Scottish culture is deeply embedded in sense of place and the distinctive topographies of Scottish landscapes. Founded on the epic and romanticised variants of Scottish landscape painting, Normand finds that with the rise of photography the politicisation of the landscape has even greater import. The commoditisation of the Scottish Highlands for the consumption of international tourism raises a spectre of dilemmas, including straitjacketed perceptions of identity. The land also bears the imprimatur of the people, its habitation, exploitation and environmental defilement. Work by Peter Cattrell, and by Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion imaginatively highlight the land’s evolving contours and undisguised sacrifice. “Landscape photographs, in this radical form, now view the land not only as an ‘historic’ space, a space embodying the suspect conceits of racial memory and national mythologies”, observes Normand, “but explores the land as a ‘political’ space”.
Documentary photography is potentially the most contested area of photographic history, argues the author. He illustrates his point with photographers such as William Carrick (1827-1878) born in Edin-burgh, who moved to Russia and opened a studio in St. Petersburg. Yet, on returning to live in Scotland to work as a commercial photographer, he produced semi-formal portraits of an urban working class which betrayed his leftist sympathies. More recently, those who have used documentary photography to investigate developments in nationhood, national identity, multiculturalism and globalization and how it impacts on Scottish life include John Charity, Glyn Satterley and Chick Chalmers. Normand sites Charity’s documentary project of the farming community in the Highland district of Ross and Cromarty (1986-1988) as achieving an intimate narrative of rural life.
The relationship between photography and the fine arts is given particular importance in the final section of Normand’s investigations, teasing out the influences, interplay and co-habitations of its various players. In Scottish Photography: A History, the author has produced an appetizing array of carefully honed themes and unveiled a surprisingly diverse selection of artists with links to the motherland. This book is a great pleasure to read and offers much insight into a subject which yields a feast of visual engagements. It also serves to illustrate the great cultural value and international recognition that is within our grasp, if Scotland were to build a National Photographic Gallery.
The Long Delirious Burning Blue
TWO RAVENS PRESS. £8.99
pp376, ISBN 190612017X
REVIEWER: JENNIE RENTON
We all live by stories, but narratives that insidiously outlive their usefulness render life stale. Familiarity and fear tend to create the illusion that they are impossible to shed, but this shedding, painful and terrifying as it can be, may bring healing and release potential. These are the central tenets of Sharon Blackie’s The Long Delirious Burning Blue, in which a mother and daughter confront their demons in parallel voyages of self-discovery.
Depending on whether the phrase “seeking closure” brings you out in hives or piques your attention, you may baulk at its inherent optimism or find this tale uplifting. I did a bit of both. In the end, I was won over by Blackie’s cleverly woven presentation of how violence and lies within a family work down the generations, cultivating abuse, addictions, and careers that are essentially displacement activities.
By all indices, Catriona is a success. A lawyer working for a pharmaceuticals company in Arizona, she is the ballsy belle of the boardroom, capable of taking on the lions in their dens and holding her own in a ruthlessly competitive male-dominated world. The woman of steel seems to have it all. Admired by her colleagues, she is adored by her handsome partner, Adam. Their home is a haven of domestic order, soothingly decorated in tastefully graduated shades of beige. Significantly, she is childless.
As the big four-oh looms, she starts to have the mother of midlife crises. The team player turns rogue and at work she becomes as forthright on the subject of mission statement gobbledegook and dodgy ethics as she once was a pillar of corporate unity. Even more disconcerted than her colleagues by her off-message behaviour and apparent mettle fatigue, she develops physical symptoms that convince her that she is suffering from a terminal illness.
But the tightness in her throat and difficulty breathing are not signs of an incipient heart attack: she has an anxiety disorder. Although she finds this impossible to square with her own self-image, she tackles the situation characteristically – head-on – and confronts her fear of flying by trying to get a pilot’s licence. The descriptions of her flying lessons are rich with technical detail, although slightly marred by rather repetitive white-knuckle moments and one crinkly smile too many from her hunky instructor. But these passages are enjoyable, as are the evocations of desert landscape.
Something deep within Catriona’s psyche shifts. For someone who doesn’t ‘do’ tears or anger, she shows herself to be a dab hand at both. She develops a hatred for beige and a conscious distance from her poor devoted husband, whom she probably selected in the first place because he didn’t really get what she was about and hence afforded her the concealment of inner reality she required. Although changing her spots in some respects, in others she is the same do-the-business dude and she swiftly dispenses with everything that she perceives as an encumbrance, which sees her relocating to a Santa Fe-style house glowing in terracotta, warm brown and blue.
Back in Scotland, Catriona’s mother has returned to the West Highland village where she endured an abusive relationship with her fisherman husband. Without fully understanding her own motives for this return to a place full of sour memories, she grapples with her guilt towards her daughter. Through writing, storytelling and communing with the landscape, she reaches an unprecedented degree of honesty about her former alcoholism and failure to protect her child. This process empowers her to communicate with Catriona in a fresh way, in the form of written reminiscences of their lives and through a tragic fairytale, partly traditional but with her own twist.
As layer after layer of their experience are laid bare and it is revealed how wounded both are, in their own ways they discover the way to forgive themselves and one another. There is a secret at the heart of their relationship, which provides the novel’s dramatic pivot. Interestingly, when the opportunity appears ripe for revelation, the daughter painfully comes to terms with what happened but somehow finds the kindness to refrain from dealing her mother more reality than she can stand.
Catriona, having been dominated for so long by her inner child, manages to get in touch with the wise-woman within, who counsels: “We learn to fly under our own strength, and we make our own safety nets. We card and we spin
and we wind – and we weave. From our hopes and our dreams we weave ourselves back into life. From our hopes and our dreams and the fragile gossamer threads of our courage.”
One True Void
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £8.99
pp176, ISBN 1906120137
REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS
Knowledge, Andre Gide noted, only strengthens the strong. Denied the opportunity to act on knowledge gained, a person can turn bitter, inward, an emotional suicide bomber whose ‘detonations’ harm themselves more than they do bystanders. A case in point is Henry Chambers, narrator of Dexter Pet-ley’s stylistically and comically fierce novel, One True Void. A seventeen-year-old malcontent (tautology?), Henry is caught in the village he was dragged up in, Hawkhurst, one of Kent’s circles of hell and an intellectual no-fly zone. Hawkhurst comprises a cultural void for a teenage poet starved of significant conversation, true, but it is not the only void as we learn.
We first encounter Henry in 1973 at the climax of his school career, expelled for pinko political activities. He tries college instead, hoping to make up the grades he requires to ascend to university. If Henry’s school was peopled by two-fisted nose pickers, college is a collage of cliques, with moats of middle class anomie keeping oiks out. Lacking companions, Henry signs up for volunteer work. His first task is to befriend Miss Flack, a decrepit poetess who took tea with WB Yeats in 1933. She in turn asks Henry to look in on her niece, Max-ine Pollenfex, at Plato Villa, her grand country retreat when her psyche overheats once again.
At their first meeting, Maxine is surrounded by her disturbed paintings, the length of her arms wrapped in bandages. If these mummy-arms didn’t warn off the naive Henry, Maxine’s poetic role model, Sylvia Plath, should have. Alas, Maxine – beautiful, rich, married, twice his age – has a doomy glamour, and quicker than you can say ‘Mrs Robinson’, this cougar has nabbed her prey.
Henry is in awe of her sophistication: she knows about “wine cellars and avocado pears”. She gives him Updike novels, perhaps as a primer for adultery, a course of which she pursues bouncily with her willing toy boy. Updike also figures in the book as a presumed influence on Petley’s style, both authors restyling the mundane through prose with a lyrical density closer to poetry. But where Updike perfected a pearly finish, spinning gold from sunshine, Pet-ley riffs on the seedy. One passing character is described as, “a titless wonder, a goofy cow in a green cardie and a tartan skirt…with a black bag and a nursey face like she’d come to wipe arses. She gave you the shivers, that beaky nose and eyes like pools of cat-sick”. Another is “a tubular Welsh slagheap in thornproof trousers with a heart of coal”.
His parents, a mousesqueak mother and forelock-tugging father, oppose the relationship, as they oppose most things that interest their only child. “I was an Enemy in the house, Sociology, poetry, choosing my own clothes. These were like the Russian nuclear weapons to the old bastard”. The affair is so consuming it does at least achieve one parental objective, in ejecting Henry from college so spiking his chances of University and escape. But as long as Maxine is there to passion-dazzle her adolescent Mellors, Henry can keep afloat of his frustrations. Even when she recovers and returns to her stockbroker husband, after tail-spinning her lover into trouble with the law, Henry can’t quite grasp the web of manipulation he’s been dangling from.
From books and teleplays by the likes of Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg we’re familiar with the classic post-Education Act narrative arc of prole-scholars let into an Oxbridge wonderland. There are costs for these heroes, true, the (indulgent?) pains of class deracination, but still – they make it. In contrast, Petley’s hero is sunk by a few simple strokes of age-appropriate foolishness, with no encouragement and no safety net to rescue him. His attempts to win back Maxine are stymied by class. A self-perpetuating hammer of various social groupings (even those groups who hold the whip), class permits Max-ine to use Henry, even while a self-harming victim of its barriers herself. Class dissolves into a bitter brew familial relations between Henry and his parents. Only at the novel’s very end does Henry have an inkling that Maxine, with her sixth form verse and razor blade dramatics, is something of a poseur compared to his mother and her troubles.
Worse, he sees through one of the most persistent liberal pieties. “There is a chasm in society that no book-reading would ever fill”. Instead Henry’s fate is one that even today, far from 1973, afflicts those whose intelligence is a burden rather than an opportunity, young people society has scraped off before they’ve begun: “Bury the talents and the rage impotently, within the working class tradition of pessimism”. He is ruined by his dalliance with Maxine, a void whose lack of qualities allows Henry, in many ways a most unlikely romantic, to attribute finer feelings simply not there. Funny, savage and, despite the time frame, naggingly relevant, One True Void is the product of a distinctive voice you’d be wise to lend an ear to.
How Fiction Works
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99
pp208, ISBN 0224079832
REVIEWER: BRIAN MORTON
Sometimes cooking gets so up itself that it’s no longer about grub and all about spun-sugar baskets and the ideal micron-width of molecules in ice cream. That’s when you need Delia Smith. Sometimes literary criticism gets so up itself that it’s all about intertextuality, and the replacement of “character” with “node of linguistic energy”. That’s when you need James Wood. Or perhaps E. M. Forster, whose Aspects Of The Novel covered some of this ground first, albeit in more innocent times but with much more special pleading on behalf of Forster’s own kind of fiction.
Wood doesn’t show that kind of parti-pris. He has published fiction of his own (The Book of God), but he’s better known as an enthusiastically dispassionate reader of others and author of the superb essays in The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self. If you’re minded to read him, I’d suggest you move on to those as quickly as possible. Not that How Fiction Works doesn’t itself work. In its short span and 122 numbered paragraphs, it’s endlessly though-provoking and often very funny.
Wood doesn’t quite “do a Delia”. (I claim permission for the analogy given that he has an epigraph from Henry James that reads “There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery”.) There’s nothing here quite as basic as how to set water at a rolling boil, and how to place an egg in it. Wood moves fairly quickly through the usual things: free indirect style, point of view, “unreliable” narration, metaphor, realism; along the way he notes an uncontroversial devotion to Flaubert and a slightly dismissive stance on Thomas Pynchon. One wonders though, whether fiction-writing and reviewing is in quite such need of a How To Cook as it was twenty years ago when young men and women spent three or four or more years writing theses on self-referential narrative in Pynchon or standing in the corridors like Red Guards chanting William Gass’s mantras about “character” being an illusion. Aren’t most of these fights pretty much historical now?
That said, Wood’s rigorous approach is good for anyone who reads. It asks you to pause and consider why you may have reacted to such-and-such a character (accepting for the moment such a thing exists in the imagined world if not in the real one), or why a particular form of words, or of omission should have wrought so powerfully on you. It’s a measure of how very good he is that you find yourself muttering at him and scribbling in his margins, not so much in disagreement as when he doesn’t seem to have done full justice to his own insights. When he takes a line out of To The Lighthouse, it’s hard to resist being the smartarse in the tutorial room: Mrs Ramsay lets “the tongue of the door slowly lengthen in the lock” as she shuts the children in for the night; “tongue” is good, because locks have tongues and so have noisy children, “lengthen” is good because it’s a slow, slow action lest that metal tongue clacks; but Wood could have gone further and said the image also captures the way we poke our tongues out when performing some delicate small-scale task (something about our tongues being governed by the same part of the brain as our close motor skills); and isn’t there something sexual in the line as well, albeit in the chastened, fatalistic, no-action-required way of the Ramsays?
All this out of ten words? In a novel? Isn’t this the kind of thing that gets lit. crit. and PhD programmes a killjoy bad name? On the contrary, it’s one of the unfailing pleasures of reading, one that is killed stone dead every time one puts a finished book aside and reaches for the next as if mere consumption – the literary equivalent of fast-food – were the point. No one really wants to get back to the days of spun-sugar narratology, semiotic reductionism rather than glazed reductions, “molecular” criticism rather than plain but intent reading, but it’s good to have someone like Wood, with his unfailing ear and eye, halt us in our tracks, turn us away from our knee-jerk ideologies and get us to set the water at a roll, so that we can learn to boil an egg.
Doh Ray Me When Ah Wis Wee – Scots Children’s Songs and Rhymes
pp224, ISBN 1841585580
REVIEWER: MARGARET BENNETT
In a Scotland committed to celebrating national identity the publication of Ewan McVicar’s book could not be timelier. His introduction explains his hopes of “a Scottish overview, selected thematically and systematically from the mass of material collected into print and archives in the last 150 years”. Ideally he would like “to show the development and interconnectedness of Scottish texts and to consider the processes of recreation and remaking that are crucial to the material”. A storyteller to the core, McVicar quickly removes his academic hat to present fourteen chapters which progress from the ‘adult to child’ lore of pre-schoolers (nursery rhymes) into school playground traditions of skipping, rope-jumping, ball-bouncing, hand-clapping, choosing, counting out, singing games and fun rhymes, leading to the parodies, suggestive, bawdy and confrontational lore of adolescence. Then, returning to more serious mode, he devotes two final chapters to an overview of selected printed material, archive holdings and commercial recordings along with discussion of controversial issues facing singers, performers, writers, compilers and publishers of child-lore.
While aimed at a general readership, the book is also intended to be a resource for play-leaders, schoolteachers, folklore students, academics and singers alike. McVicar is an enthusiast with energy that doesn’t ever seem to flag, even when he faces the danger of slipping between stools in an effort to cater to all simultaneously. His style is highly personal, ‘speaking’ on his pages while telling of “counting out rhymes [that] attract ‘nonsense’ like jam attracts wasps”.
McVicar rushes between primary schools delighting youngsters with his invitations to tell, yes, even the naughty ones (which they do), while he “circulates speedily around the room with a small handheld recorder”. He deals with issues of categorization, adding “but you’re welcome to disagree with where I place what”. Colloquial, informal, sometimes tongue in cheek, he challenges his readers with the very questions he asked of himself: “How Scottish is the merry matanzie?” Then, rambling the highways and byways of tradition, he engages readers with fascinating facts about Auntie Mary (and her canary) and Robert Coltart, the sweetie-maker of ‘Coulter’s Candy’ fame. (Did you know that is was flavoured with aniseed?) On the subject of commercial recordings he discusses the prickly issue of ownership and copyright, cautioning folk that they may be forced to “cough up the cash” if they break the rules.
While I enjoy McVicar ‘speaking’ on the page or the stage, readers who have not seen him in action may be less comfortable with his style. Each chapter opens with discussion on a theme, and twelve of the sixteen conclude with anthologies built round the topics. Naturally the material relies heavily on his own archive collection – after reading the pitfalls of copyright, who could blame him? Rhymes are interspersed with comparisons from his old friend Ian Davidson, along with archive examples from two famous folklorists (Hamish Henderson and Alan Lomax) and fewer examples from the School of Scottish Studies than one might expect. It seems a pity he did not use the vibrant collections made by students over the past decades, particularly as some could fill noticeable gaps – the only reference to rugby is from Kenya and shinty does not appear at all. He may not be aware that the RSAMD also has an archive of student projects, which has the advantage of a strong music backing. (Check out the anthology of Dundee United football songs compiled by musician-and-supporter Stuart Peters.) McVicar’s invaluable work highlights all the more the importance of nurturing Scotland’s cultural education, particularly now the Scottish Music section of the RSAMD is under threat of ruthless cutbacks.
Doh Ray Me concludes with a very useful glossary, a bibliography, and a selection of recorded and unpublished sources. A second edition might add other well-known works, such as William and Norah Montgomerie’s, Sandy Candy And Other Scottish Nursery Rhymes (1946), Alison McMorland’s The Funny Family, Adam McNaughtan’s CD tracks of street songs, and his memorable 1986 BBC television programme of Scottish playground games and rhymes. Nevertheless, the book will inspire folk to pass on their favourites to the next generation. As Ewan McVicar so aptly says, “the infectious energy and enthusiasm of the games is enticing, but the greatest gifts we have are love and laughter. And these we get best from our children”.
The Perfect Loaf
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £8.99
pp160, ISBN 1906120102
REVIEWER: THERESA MUNOZ
With his Saltire-nominated first novel Writing In The Sand, Angus Dunn established himself as a Highland humorist with a penchant for surreal plots. But in his debut collection of short stories, The Perfect Loaf, Dunn gets personal. Set in the Highlands, these stories are about the mysteries of growing up and the solace that can be found in nature. Dunn’s honest narration and effortless way of including the landscape in his work will appeal to those who enjoyed Writing In The Sand.
That is, if his readers can get past the self-important book cover. Dunn makes the mistake of insisting he’s the main character in his own book. The front cover features Dunn on a rocky shore, looking into a mirror that reflects his solemn face and the gloomy mountains around him. The nut-brown border around the book’s edges lets us know that this is a picture within a picture, thereby forcing onto us the themes of self-awareness and introspection.
And on the back cover, Dunn tells us how we must relate to his collection. All of the stories are the musings of a single character based on Dunn, a young man baking bread in his flat. His reflections are meant to help us through what Dunn phrases as “the times in our lives when we find ourselves in a hard place.” Although he means well, Dunn’s insistence that we all share the same experiences is presumptive.
There are rewards, however, for pushing on. The opening stories are light-hearted portrayals of teenage awkwardness. In ‘A Hard Place’, a young man realizes later in life that his childhood friend took advantage of him. Ten concise paragraphs illustrate the twosome cutting tails off tadpoles and playing on the beams of the wooden pier. The story’s lazy summer pace quickens when the pair come across a deep rock pool. When one friend dares the other to glide across, knowing fully well that neither of them can swim, the protagonist finally gets the courage to decline. Like a lot of Dunn’s stories, this one finishes abruptly with a single punchline.
In ‘Plucking’, Dunn takes his place on the expanding list of Scottish authors who set their stories in poultry factories and abattoirs. In the wintry days leading up to Christmas, a teenage boy takes a holiday job plucking dead turkeys. Dave develops a crush on Gina, the girl who repairs the turkey skins when he tears them. His dreary work contrasts with his bright affection for her. This story flows easily with delicate descriptions of the falling snow, the turkeys strung up along a wire and Dave’s numb fingers. At the end, Gina runs off with the boorish farm manager and Dave, who’s still in school, is surprised to find himself relieved.
Some of Dunn’s stories are short meditative pieces. ‘Jamie’s Teeth and The Nature of Reality’ focuses on how humans act out their repressed desires unconsciously. Written in grand-toned language, the piece follows the mind of a young man concerned that he might have stolen a bracelet from his love interest even though he has no memory of the deed. In fact, his inability to trust himself is so great that he can’t hold down a job. Of course, the protagonist blames his mental health issues on his abusive, accusing late father. At just over six pages, the story seems too short to handle such broad issues, but the writing is enjoyable and provocative.
Stuck in the middle of the collection is the story about the young man baking bread in his flat. While the yeast does its work, the young man recalls memories of his father and grandfather, both bakers. These memories are interspersed with the grandfather’s bread recipe, which includes lashings of ginger beer. The sweetness of the story fades when the young man’s father decides to ditch the bakery to become a teacher, causing the old man to shrink into early decline. This would have been an excellent story had it not been for the distracting bread recipe.
The twenty stories in this collection are too incompatible to convey the unified message that is described on the back cover. Dunn’s theme of finding meaning in simple acts and old memories does not apply to several of the pieces, most of which are too short to really pack a punch. Despite the author’s best efforts to help us see the world the way he does, some of these stories need more time in the oven.
The Red Book
pp256, ISBN 1847080022
REVIEWER: BASHABI FRASER
There have been many journeys to India, economic, military and spiritual, through the ages and books written about such journeys – so why should another book on these themes command our interest? Meaghan Delahunt’s The Red Book is about lives that begin in three different continents and converge in India, this country of contrasts, where past and present thrive in peaceful coexistence, where the old is never replaced by the new but sits comfortably alongside it, a reality that is captured with photographic precision in this novel. The journeys begin separately in Scot-land, Australia and Tibet and like three rivers, flow with purpose, meeting in a Mohona, a confluence in India, at that holy Prayag, a place of pilgrimage, where many have come to seek a spiritual deliverance.
The narrative has the quality of a camera moving across continents, zooming into and out of lives, through time, as fathers die, mothers are widowed, as love is sought and relationships break up and the young run away from their past and immediate ties to meet in India. Written as three complementary stories, told by individual narrators, they appear like the snapshots preceding each chapter in the novel, captioned with a recorded place and time, as the camera focuses on moments from 1984 and 2004/5, even sweeping back to 1960. The method brings two art forms together on the page, photography and writing, but the collage has to be sifted through the imagination of the reader, the images collected while fresh and wet, and left to dry in the mind’s dark room. The experience of reading Delahunt’s novel reflects the album Francoise, a photographer and one of the three narrators, puts together not only of images from Bhopal’s Union Carbide disaster, but photos of her friendships and relationships as well as of Indian fragments of home and street life for her ultimate ‘Red Book’.
The story opens with the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal Union Carbide disaster when an international art project brings Francoise to Bhopal from her native Australia, to work with an Indian sculptor. In 1984, a killer cloud of leaking gas choked and burnt a fleeing populace and killed thousands. One particular photograph taken by Raghu Rai of a child with opaque eyes captures Francoise’s attention with its haunting pathos. It changes her life’s course.
It is here that she meets Naga, a Buddhist monk. Naga is the truant son of a refugee family fleeing from Tibet, who begins his independent life as a domestic with a Sikh family in Delhi.
When news of the Union Carbide disaster breaks over the radio, Naga leaves without warning to seek his own family, who had settled in Bhopal, only to discover they have died, condemned like thousands to eternal silence, caught only in telling photographs of blinded eyes and twisted limbs. The violence of the chemical poisoning forces the birth of Naga’s sister, his only surviving relative, whom he nurses as she dies of cancer twenty years later. Accompanying Naga to Bhopal is Arkay, a Scot known as Ruaridh Kearney where he came from, “an old shale-mining village between Edinburgh and Glasgow”. Arkay has come to India seeking release from his alcoholism and memories of sexual abuse as a child through the discipline of Buddhist meditation.
Lives crisscross and merge again like a network of waterways. Naga’s one-time employer in Delhi is the family Francoise comes to stay with twenty years later, and Arkay too stays with them before his journey as a monk begins on meeting the Lama. And it is here that Arkay is to die a dignified death.
At the close of the novel, Lakshmi, the Hijra appears, whom Arkay saves. A Hijra is similar, though not quite analogous, to what the West would describe as a transsexual. Like the two Western firangis(aliens) and Naga the refugee, Lakshmi stands at the edge of society; her minority experience mirrors the marginalised treatment of the innocent victims of Bhopal’s toxic cloud – ignored by America, neglected by India and forgotten by the world. It is the same sense of being a minority that the Sikh family once confronted when faced by a mob who turned against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the year incidentally of the Bhopal “gas kaand”. The family was saved by the intervention of Naga, who himself had fled Tibet with his family through fear of violence.
The cycle of life/lives confirms a Buddhist truth carried by this novel. Arkay passes away in the Sikh house, while in the same location, Francoise prepares to give birth. The Red Book catapults individual tragedies and universal concerns into an enlightened acceptance of the inevitable life cycle. Naga burns his file of evidence against Anderson, the retired American owner of Union Carbide, and imagines his reincarnation as a suffering child of Bhopal, while Francoise meets a child who recognises a photo of Arkay as his son in a previous life. Finally, Francoise pulls her photographs together for her child as countries merge in spite of death through the act of birth, like the convergence of rivers, in what is a moving human tale – and good read – about continuity.
“I’m back in this city with my camera, drawn to the edges of things. To the edge of the water…. These edges are always uncertain, always bleeding into something else”.