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Volume 4 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Paul Shanks
Cairns Craig
Gerald Daw

Volume 4 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

October 19, 2009 | by Paul Shanks
Cairns Craig
Gerald Daw

Joseph O’Neill
pp256 ISBN 9780007269068

Cork-born O’Neill’s Netherland is a complex and meditative work of fiction. The title refers to the protagonist’s childhood recollections of The Hague; it also demarcates the psychological and geographic aftermath of the World Trade Centre bombings. Finally, the term encompasses the experiences of immigration, displacement and assimilation so central to the narrative. The events of 9/11 and the Iraq War form the backdrop to Hans van den Broek’s personal account of marital breakdown and his growing sense of internal alienation while living in the Chelsea Hotel. Hans, an equities analyst, finds some respite from his loneliness when he joins the New York Cricket Club. While there, he befriends Trinidadian born Chuck Ramkisson, a loquacious entrepreneur who plans to build an international cricket and sports arena (‘Bald Eagle Field’). Hans’s friendship becomes strained when he discovers Chuck’s more seedy dealings. Chuck’s body will later be exhumed from the Gowanus Canal (after Hans himself has returned to London) and it is this event that overshadows the narrative from the outset. The manner of Chuck’s death becomes increasingly poignant towards the end of the book when the reader discovers that the identities of both Chuck and Hans are built upon shared yet contrasting childhood experiences of ‘dread’.

Flesh House
Stuart Macbride
pp472 ISBN 9780007244546

Set in Aberdeen, Flesh House dramatises the interminable hunt for the Flesher, a psychologically unhinged serial killer who butchers his victims and puts their fleshly remains on the food market. All we know about the murderer at first is that he wears a mask of Margaret Thatcher while carrying out his misdeeds. Perhaps there is a covert political allusion here to the government cutbacks of the 1980s which served to deplete Scotland’s heavy industries. If so, the theme never progresses beyond a couple of lame gags. The characters that inhabit the book seem very much of the comic strip variety. Much of the action, as with MacBride’s earlier work, focuses upon DC MacRae who has a tendency to swither between sharp insights and foolish blunders. Much of the novel is peppered with poor jokes, melodrama and glib observations, as when one of the victims held captive ends up in dialogue with the ghost of her murdered husband. When she realises that she has been feeding on black puddings and sundry items from her husband’s butchered corpse, his ghost consoles her with the following anecdote: “Hey, at least I was tasty…It’s just meat, Honey. In the end we’re all just meat”.

The Truth Tells Twice: The Life of a North-east Farm
Charlie Allan
BIRLINN £16.99
pp242 ISBN 9781841587004

Charlie Allan has been described as a “lad o’pairts” and his skills range from being a “world champion caber-tosser” to a singer and writer of Bothy ballads. In this text, he provides a series of anecdotal reminiscences which serve to complement his earlier Farmer’s Diary. The story commences with an account of Charlie’s birth and contains a great deal of childhood reminiscence; the tales of snowball building, general japes amongst the loons, and the experience of “progressive education” are detailed as are the delights of egg collecting and the grave consequences of dropping piglets to see if they land upright. There is a whiff of John Galt’s Annals of the Parish here, especially given the centrality of the word ‘progress’ in much of the book. Also similar to Galt’s text are the diverting and sometimes bizarre accounts of the hardships of being a farm servant in the “old times”. In one episode, Allan is told by the grieve of Little Ardo the original function of marbles named dollars: ‘the dollars were put by the ploughman between the cheeks of his posterior where they rolled gently to the rhythm of the horse and kept the sensitive skin free from rubbing”.

Fire In The Night
Stephen McGinty
pp292 ISBN 9780230708068

Unlocking the silence at the heart of personal and public tragedy is an undertaking fraught with risks and the reader, weary of journalistic sloganeering, might be forgiven for groaning at the subtitle of this documentary study of the Piper Alpha Disaster: “the terrifying story of the world’s worst offshore oil catastrophe”. The aim of the book, as Stephen McGinty states in the epilogue, is to provide an “accessible account” of the events that took place between 10pm and midnight during the explosions on the Piper Alpha platform. In this sense, Fire In The Night does its job, offering a meticulously researched yet eminently readable piece of narrative. The reader is offered useful overviews of the oil industry, the technicalities of oil drilling and the historical, political and geological contexts of oil excavation. Some crucial insights into the nefarious negotiations of the British government when oil was first located in the North Sea are also provided as well as a portrait of Armand Hammer, controller of the multinational oil company, Occidental. The bulk of the narrative though is concerned with reconstructing the drama of the disaster as it happened and McGinty effectively conveys the full extent of the panic, devastation and loss of human life that ensued during the hours between 10pm and midnight on 6 July 1988.

Butcher’s Broom, The Green Isle of the Great Deep, The Drinking Well
Neil Gunn
pp432, 272, 526, ISBN 9781904598916, 9781904598689, 9781904598893

Neil Gunn – who took over the leadership of the Scottish Renaissance movement when MacDiarmid retreated to Whalsay in the Shetlands in the 1930s, and played a very key role in the development of Scottish institutions in the Highlands in the ’30s and ’40s, as well as in the promotion of Scottish literature through his essays in the Scots Magazine – has receded into the hinterland of the vaguely remembered and largely unacknowledged. The fact that TS Eliot was responsible for signing him as an author for Faber, who have retained the rights to The Silver Darlings since its first publication in 1948, should at least make us consider him not just as a novelist of Highland life but as a serious contributor to Scottish/British modernism. It is therefore welcome to see Polygon republishing a selection of Gunn’s fiction which shows his experimentation with the generic possibilities of the novel, from the historical fiction of Butcher’s Broom (1934) to the fantasy dystopia of The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944) – a much more profound novel than the Nineteen Eighty-Four that Orwell was to write in Scotland a few years later. Indeed, The Drinking Well (1947) pre-empts theories of Scottish literature published some forty years later by exploring the ways in which a society of the “fearful” comes to see itself as “out of history”.

The Cone Gatherers
Robin Jenkins
pp192 ISBN 9781841959894

Consider the paradox of Robin Jenkins’s reputation. Hailed upon the publication of each new book as Scotland’s “greatest living novelist”, each of these books then seemed almost instantaneously to be forgotten. In part, this was because he never found a publisher who would consistently publish his work; in part, because as soon as he had finished writing a novel – at least until his later years – he moved on, never to look back. The Cone Gatherers is one of the classics of modern Scottish literature – indeed, one of the classics of modern literature per se, and a far better novel than Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from which, in part, it seems to derive – though Steinbeck’s novel, of course, also has Scottish roots in Burns’s poetry. It is a pity that Canongate is now reissuing what was formerly part of the Canongate Classics series as a stand alone Canongate novel: the Classics series underlined not only the quality of the work but its centrality to the development of twentieth-century Scottish literature. Jenkins, like Neil Gunn, needs a publisher committed to promoting his oeuvre as a whole: in no other country would we be lacking the collected works of two of the most important analysts of our twentieth-century culture.

For All We Know
Ciaran Carson
pp113 ISBN 1852354399

In his poetry, Carson has mapped out a territory utterly his own, a landscape of the mind that often sounds and looks like Belfast, but which is not real at all. It is an imagined world peopled by a ghostly history of the past that remains in the names and sounds of the place he lives in – his own magnificently apportioned mind. With For All We Know the epic drive of Carson’s own poetic imagination has produced what can best be described as ‘poetry-as-novel’. The linked cinematic narrative that underpins the collection takes us on some form of a grand tour from a known world to elsewhere, shadowed by uncertainty, threat and the conviction that the personal bonds of love will win through against the bloody-minded manacles of time. The sheer force of Carson’s own belief in the nuts and bolts of his writing, the almost obsessive fascination with the sound of language at work, is unabated in For All We Know. His use of English is highly polished, literate, aware of itself and constantly inflected with and by the spoken voice; yet it is rarely if at all colloquially dependent in this new volume, despite its intent beginnings and local bearings.

Hamewith: Collected Poems
Charles Murray
pp208 ISBN 0954568249

Charles Murray’s poetry has often been overlooked. In some senses this is unsurprising given the predominance of rural themes in his poetry, as well as the pro-unionist and imperialist sympathies that underlie some of his work. However, Murray has a subtle and wide-ranging grasp of North-Eastern Doric and a knack for creating racy and pithy monologues. The republication of Hamewith: Collected Poems[ with a scholarly introduction by Colin Milton and a detailed glossary with appendices (including Nan Shepherd’s introduction to the 1976 edition) is therefore welcome. If one overlooks the occasional slip into bucolic sentimentality, this is a poetry with energy and dynamism. Some of the poems also illustrate the conflict between a provincial lifestyle when set against the broader currents of European history. In ‘Dockens Afore His Peers’, the speaker rather cannily states his case for exemption from national service and reminds his audience of the “tyauve it is to wirk a ferm”: “We’ve rents to pey, an’ beasts to feed, an’ corn to sell an’ saw;/Oonless we get the seed in seen, faur will we be for meal?/An’ faur will London get the beef they leuk for aye at Yeel?”

After the Wake
Brendan Behan
pp160 ISBN 9780862780319

The recently reprinted edition of stories and miscellaneous writings by the Irish poet, fiction writer and dramatist, Brendan Behan, forms an important supplement to his major works. The collection begins with a sequence of short stories. ‘The Last of Mrs Murphy’, told from a child’s point of view, centres upon an eccentric old lady who is to be taken to the ‘Refuge of the Dying’. When she arrives, in the company of her neighbours, she is too late and drunk to gain admission. In stories like these, Behan illustrates a fine ear for the intonations, the syntax and the idiosyncratic constructions of Hiberno-English. In contrast, stories like ‘I Become a Borstal Boy’ (later to feed into the autobiographical Borstal Boy) and ‘The Execution’ which dramatises the killing of an IRA informer are written in stark prose and Behan has a knack for homing in on the killing detail. The final section of the book includes a loose series of reminiscences, short sketches and yarns in which Behan’s off-cuff storytelling abilities come to the fore. Once again, Behan shows ability in rendering the phrasing and syntax of Irish speech, including numerous examples of those contradictions in terms described by Maria Edgeworth as the ‘Irish Bull’.

From this Issue

A Critics’ Orgy

by Patrick Crotty

From Hume to Bloom

by Cairns Craig

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