by SRB

Volume 4 – Issue 3 – Reviews

October 19, 2009 | by SRB

Selected Poems
Bernard O’Donoghue FABER, £12.99
pp117 ISBN 9780571236381


There is an air of disturbed memories rather than expressed distress throughout this Selected Poems from the Irish born, English based poet and academic Bernard O’Donoghue. It is largely drawn from four previous, critically acclaimed, collections: The Weakness (1991), Gunpowder (1995), Here Nor There (1999) and Outliving (2003). Although I admire the discriminatory purpose behind the poet’s choices I feel he is being too selective. More poems, please, when the time comes, as it must come, for a substantial Collected Poems.

Bernard O’Donoghue was born on a farm in Cullen, Co. Cork, in 1945. After the death of his father the widowed mother took the young boy with her to England where she worked as a teacher. The poems often allude to these events but rarely become explicit. The tunes stem from an Irish background. Their tone is the result of an English education. The sense of loss and consequent grief is intense rather than nostalgic. These are humane accounts of absences felt and identities regained; analysis is left to the reader. Rereading these poems, with pleasure one concurs with Seamus Heaney’s assessment of their author as “Scholar, gentleman and poet”.

Heaney’s words of praise came in a lengthy review in The Irish Times of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight (2006) introduced and translated by O’Donoghue; he is now Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, where he teaches Old and Medieval English. His stylish and poetic version sadly failed to get attention in mainland Britain due to a simultaneous version by Simon Armitage.

Several of the poems appeared first under the Irish imprint Gallery Press in O’Donoghue’s debut collection, Poaching Rights (1987). Here, we find narratives of the dispossessed. An elderly nun capturing her sense of isolation in her wonder at first seeing a motorcar. The tale of “O Regan the Amateur Anatomist” who “drove his car/Under a lightless lorry, cutting his head off”, concluding “I wonder what he thought he was up to then?” These are not mere anecdotes. They are acknowledgements of flawed identities. Characters whom the poet sees as “people,/Themselves fearful, who hate/Without understanding”.

Examining such complex yet simple lives is central to Gunpowder which deservedly won the 1995 Whitbread Award for Poetry. O’Donoghue articulates doubt precisely. Yet precision does not

exclude passion. There is always present a rooted sense of Irishness. There is a telling epigram to the poem ‘Second-Class Relics’. “Pilgrimage to Lourdes from Ire-land is not to be classed as foreign travel and therefore should not require a passport”. So there it is. I suspect the professor-poet carries two passports. British for professional and publication reasons. Irish to allow him travel around an unlimited world assimilating the miracles of memory.

This dichotomy is caught in the title of his fifth collection, Here Nor There. I have written of this volume elsewhere and miss many of its poems in this selection (only 22 of the original 46 poems survive). I specifically miss ‘Getting Out’, with its New Year Day dedication to another poet John Fuller. It has an extraordinary juxtaposition of images as a day bird-watching ends: “Something I’ve often noticed: the strange echo/Of the mountain falcon’s mew in Tesco’s checkout”.

In a telling way (double pun intended), one also notes the epigram from a mutual friend the late Herbert McCabe: “The opposite of love is not hate but fear”. McCabe, a Friar by vocation, was an exorcist of gloom by profession. There is a welcome optimism in the later work. In ‘The Day I Outlived My Father’ the poet is in self-questioning mode, then the tone changes. “I am in new territory from here on: …at liberty at last like mad Arnaut /to cultivate the wind, to hunt the bull/on hare-back, to swim against the tide”.

Compassion guides the memories in these poems. The three part ‘Telegrams’ recalls times when signs saying “No Blacks, Irish or Dogs” were common. A time when there was strict control on movements between mainland Britain and Ireland. A time when a “ten-bob travel ticket” would be issued to the Irish worker who could show a telegram verifying a death in the family. A time when only death allowed a holiday from “the end of a day in the wet trench”. When the black tie worn in the “usual station at the bar” meant escape. When one claimed “Mother’s passed away”. In non-judgemental fashion O’Donoghue concludes, “Sometimes of course she had; more times she hadn’t”.

Identifying with such moments makes Brendan O’Donoghue an important Irish poet who is merely a resident abroad.

Molly Fox’s Birthday
Deirdre Madden FABER, £12.99
pp240, ISBN 057123965X


Just as not every theatre piece has to be on the scale of Black Watch, not every novel has to come out with all guns blazing. Molly Fox’s Birthday, a novel with a great deal to say about acting and indeed being an audience, eschews bravura performance in favour of exquisite restraint.

Molly Fox is a stage actor of remarkable talent, “not an actor, but a medium who could summon up not those who were dead, but those who had never been anything but imagination”. It is, as the title suggests, her birthday. Instead of celebrating, Molly has gone off to New York, loaning her Dublin house to her best friend, a playwright. This playwright narrates the novel. Distracted by the gorgeous garden where bees “bumble and drone, reeling from one blossom to another like small fat drunks”, and procrastinating about writing a new play, she drifts in and out of memory.

Madden’s tone is redolent at times of the later novels of Muriel Spark, the grammatical precision lending a slightly mannered quality that distances the present day narrative so that it almost seems set in the past; it jars, for example, when the teenage daughter of an old acquaintance casually starts checking texts on her phone. This distance is crucial though, as the playwright is very much an author in search of her characters. She has only the “trigger” for a new play, the striking memory of seeing a man on a tram in Munich, holding a hare: “It carried to the heart of the city a sense of wild places, of exposed moorland where there was heather but no trees, where there were small dark reedy lakes swept by the wind and rain. It reminded me of home”. If the play was going better, she’d be spending less time in reverie.

Towards the end of the novel, the playwright’s friend Andrew (the third corner of the central triangle of characters) confides in her about his delayed grief at the death of his brother, a Loyalist paramilitary. She listens, quiet and still: “I realised that he’d waited years to find the right person and the right time and place to talk about all of this. I was careful to say nothing that might disturb the tenor of the moment”.

Likewise, Madden as author takes care that nothing disturbs the tenor of the moment. The playwright remembers, but cannot or will not interrogate, perhaps for fear that her delicate house of cards collapses, or that there will then be nothing to feed into her art. Her assiduous but almost subconscious mining of people and their pasts recalls Graham Greene’s assertion that there must be a “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”. Just as distance approaches dispassion, the playwright pictures the audience at Molly’s finest performance, as the Duchess of Malfi, noting that, “In the apprehension of art there can be a loneliness, as there so often is in its creation”.

As the pace of the narrative builds, so does recognition of the strain embedded in the heart of restraint. A visit from Molly’s mixed-up brother Fergus proves a profoundly disquieting experience that forces the narrator to reassess what she knows of him, and of Molly: “I was spiralling into some strange mental state that I only half understood but that I knew I needed to get out of fast”. Distraction arrives, as if on cue, and the house of cards remains standing.

Secondary characters, like Andrew, or Fergus, or the narrator’s brother Tom, a country priest who shares a deep friendship with Molly, often seem more resonant than the actor or playwright themselves. This is fitting, given that the latter two are the true artists of the story, the people for whom real life happens on stage. Everything we see in the novel is, in a fundamental sense, off scene.

When the playwright thinks of her first visit to the theatre, when she was twelve and Tom took her to Belfast to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she says that, “Even then I understood that theatre, if it was any good at all, wasn’t something you saw, it was something that happened to you”. Afterwards Tom gave her a complete Shake-speare, and she searched for the “words, words, words” that were translated on stage into such an “extraordinary experience”.

Madden is a splendid writer, and in Molly Fox’s Birthday we have the words, the wonderful, acute words, but nothing so brash as extraordinary experience. The skill in this novel is in the way it tiptoes so subtly around the enormity of human emotion, probing the fascinating relationship between past and present, life and art. And yet the effect is never quite something that happens to you, it is something you read.

This is Not About Me
Janice Galloway GRANTA, £16.99
pp341, ISBN 978847080615


In the 1930s Eddie Galloway drove a bus in Saltcoats. Through work he met a good-looking clippie, Beth McBride, and when he got her pregnant they were forced to marry. Their first child, Cora, was born in 1937. Their next, Janice, the writer and author of the work here under review, didn’t come along until the mid-fifties. By this time Eddie and Beth’s marriage was dying, while Cora was married and had her own children.

Janice’s early years were char-acterized by drunken rows and much misery until Beth fled with her daughter to a single attic room over a doctor’s surgery. Not long after, Cora abandoned her husband and children and joined them, and Janice’s life, never easy, now got worse.

Cora, an overweening narcissistic bully, thought nothing for instance, of having sex on the attic sofa while her little sister played in the corner, and when Janice looked up (which was inevitable) slapping her and stealing the money the boyfriend had given Janice to keep quiet.

When Janice’s father died, the three Galloway women returned to the family home. Janice never had to see her sister doing it again but otherwise her life was no better as Cora went on denigrating and beating her little sister as energetically as she had in the attic. Once or twice Beth intervened but mostly, because she was frightened of Cora and didn’t like Janice, she let her eldest do her worst.

As for Janice, well, she did as all children in her position do: she became a paragon who excelled at school as this way she was least likely to get hurt. Her childhood consequently was largely friendless, and only for hormones driving her to play Kiss Cuddle Torture aged ten, so she would have remained.

Of course, as we know, every silver lining has its cloud. Now there were boys her schoolwork went to pot and this, in turn, provoked a row between Beth and Cora during which Janice learned that her mother had repeatedly complained to Cora that her life was ruined because she’d had to bring Janice along when she left Eddie, whereas if she’d not had to take her she’d have been a singleton and she’d have soared. This was not what Janice needed to hear and at this point the narrative ends.

Galloway’s memory for detail is marvellous. Her evocation of experience, whether emotional and interior or physical and exterior is always exact. Her writing is never showy and she is magnificently unpretentious. Nor does she whine, plead or even nudge us just to be sure we know how awful it was. She lets the facts speak for themselves. She also has a fantastic ear for dialogue and for the baffling euphemistic talk of the adults in her childhood. But then we would expect nothing less from a writer of her talent.

Her text is also almost entirely chronological, both in the sequential one-thing-after-the-other sense, and also in the way that she restricts herself to what she knew at any given time (other than in one or two places where she has to go to a time outside the scope of her book in order to explain something absolutely vital). Thus, when Janice is six, she tells us only what she knew when she was that age, with the same rule applying when she’s seven, and so forth.

This practice has the obvious virtue that we only ever see the world as the child saw it (which is much more interesting than seeing it as the adult sees it now). In addition this technique ensures that the text matures in step with its subject, for as we read we get a real picture of how, after a lot of pain and hurt, Galloway’s understanding of both her circumstances and the thinking of the adults around her developed.

However, though the child’s understanding grows – the author is careful to show that she doesn’t ever understand everything. Her parent’s marriage, Cora’s marriage, Cora’s post-marriage emotional life, her mother’s attempted suicide when she, Janice, was ten, her mother’s private life with Duncan her fireman boyfriend, and finally and most puzzling of all, Cora‘s predatory sexual interest in Janice which started with puberty, all these remain to the end both inexplicable and mysterious, for so they were when Jan-ice was a child.

This book has many qualities but this allowing the unknown to remain what it was is its greatest strength. I am sure it took considerable courage on the author’s part to do it this way but it was the right decision. Not knowing really is better than knowing in this instance because that was how it was. This is a great book perhaps even a classic one, pitiless, rigorous, unfailingly honest, engaging, and finally and most importantly of all, moving.

Ireland’s Misfortune – The Turbulent Life Of Kitty O’Shea
Elizabeth Kehoe ATLANTIC, £19.99
pp586, ISBN 1843544865

Roger Casement – Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary
Séamas Ó Síochain LILLIPUT PRESS,
pp656, ISBN 1843510219


Irish nationalism asserted its independence from England by (amongst other things) prolonging the Victorian era by some sixty years. Unfortunately there are bits even of Irish nationalist history into which sex rears its ugly head, and now that the media on either side of the Irish Sea are apparently incapable of thinking of anything else, Irish history has to be repackaged, sexed up. The great Irish land wars and Home Rule struggles of the 1880s were shaken to the core when the great Irish leader Charles Stewart Par-nell (1849-91) was proven in the divorce court to have cohabited for years with Katharine O’Shea, wife of another MP. And the martyrdom of Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916), last of the alleged leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 to be executed, has been haunted ever since by suspicion of his authorship of diaries recording obsessive homosexual activity.

So without much surprise we contemplate the latest in what looks like the cheesecake stakes. Séamas Ó Síochain, Irish academic anthropologist, is already co-editor of one of the so-called ‘Black Diaries’ attributed to Casement. But we may dismiss any notion of this merely fleshing out a very raw source. Ó Síochain believes in the genuineness of ‘Black Diaries’, and argues impressively, courteously and (so far as I’m concerned) unconvincingly for their authenticity in an appendix. He wastes very little time on them in his text. The rest of his two-thirds of a thousand pages (so far as I’m concerned) constitute the best biography of Casement to date, clear, strong, enthralling and all the better for keeping authorial reflections to a minimum. It is hard to see any reader at a loss; it is hard to see any topic under-explained or overindulged. I can think of no anthropologist who has written better history than this.

Casement’s great services to humanity were his exposure of the torture and mutilation which maintained security for rubber productivity in the slave regime of the Congo enrichening King Leopold II of Belgium, and variations on the same theme in Peru where the beneficiaries were a British business, the Peruvian Amazon Company. For this he accepted a knighthood but had chafed under the difficulties in activating his masters in the British Consular Service and Foreign Office. On 6 September 1903 he wrote to the Foreign Office:

“I have seen enough…to make me sick at hear for the lot of these people and ashamed of my skin and colour, where to be a white man means to be a greedy and pitiless oppressor”.

The biography is all the better because the Casement we meet is human as well as humane, irritable, hypochondriac, gloomy, self-obsessed (though only slightly more so than the rest of us). The book rightly closes on Casement’s most noticeable quality, courage, in this case as recorded by the man who hanged him. It may have a tad too much austerity (contrasting impressively though it does from the mawkishness of so many previous accounts). The only two people I ever met who knew Casement – the late Belfast folk singer Frankie MacPeake, and the late Duke of Hamilton – told me exactly the same story, that of the kindliest man in the group where each of them met him, the one who was most interested in talking to them, the one most sensitive to the feelings of persons otherwise deemed unimportant. Over-concentration on documents loses us some of the simple goodness of those who write them.

Séamas Ó Síochain shows that Casement’s identification with early twentieth-century Irish nationalism was much deeper rooted than was realised by those who saw it blaze into action just before, and during, the First World War when it took him to the Irish-American Fenian conspiracy, to German war counsels, and to capture in Ireland and fatal trial for high treason in Britain. Yet it seemed from this account as though it was a form of his ‘going native’. For a boy reared as Protestant Ulsterman an Irish identity in Catholic causes gave him the release his horror at his own whiteness in Africa had been craving.

He probably was homosexual, and like many a decent man who was, he was exploited by at least one bisexual crook (James VI of Scotland had the same misfortune when in the strange identity of James I of England). Why, then, question the ‘Black Diaries’? First, because they surfaced with extraordinary convenience for his British government prosecutors, who were fighting a war dependent as never before on propaganda declaring the UK’s cause the humanitarian side, and endangered by the presence of one of the world’s leading humanitarians among German supporters.

The other Easter insurgents who had been executed were commoners, and to spare a knight and former Foreign Office official would look to potential working class recruits as though this was a war where the lower classes were expendable but upper classes must be protected at all costs. The cabinet was agreed Casement had to hang, and ‘Black Diary’ extracts certainly discouraged many in the UK and in the USA from continuing their pleas for mercy.

Secondly, because the first question the historian must ask in judging a document’s authenticity – where did this document come from? – got far too many answers from the Government authorities producing bits of diaries.

Thirdly, because Casement’s care and skill in concealing a homosexual life, if any, is staggeringly offset by his seeming indifference to news that possessions supposedly including his diaries, had been recovered by his British captors. The diaries may have been Casement’s – scientific enquiry concluded they were – and circulating them was as despicable as forging them. But to me it’s still ‘Not Proven’. And this is still a great book.

I am forgetting the new book on Mrs Charles Stewart Parnell, a condition in which I would be happy to remain. Seldom can so ludicrous a mash-mash of misinformation on Irish history have been assembled between hard covers. It begins:

“By 1889, Ireland was finally – after years of heartache and bloodshed – teetering on the brink of independence”.

This is as daft as the same sentence would be with ‘1999’ substituted for ‘1889’ and ‘Scotland’ for ‘Ireland’. It ends by stating that in 1914 “One side of the Irish Party was becoming more radicalized (Sinn Féin)”, which is at least consistent with its daftness, since the parallel continues. Try substituting ‘Labour’ for ‘Irish’ and ‘SNP’ for ‘Sinn Féin’ and you have the measure of its intelligence. The rest of the book lives down to its beginning and end, save that when it manages to be accurate it is usually reiterating standard histories. A few manuscript letters have been examined with some small findings the author clearly does not understand. In brief, the book is an entirely unnecessary misfortune for Ireland.

Reading Colm Toibin
Ed. Paul Delaney
pp223 ISBN 1905785410

Reviewer: IAN BELL

A familiar refrain of Colm Toibin runs through these essays. It turns up often enough, in fact, to suggest that his interlocutors see it as one of those precious clues – far better than any book – to what the novelist is all about. It derives from a poem by Derek Mahon. It could be a potted manifesto or a farewell, a plea or a boast: “through with history”.

The context is a distinctively Irish intellectual phenomenon given the unlovely name revisionism. That was born of a revolt among the historians against the heroic mythology of Ireland’s revolution and civil war. Amid some resistance, it has spread widely since, and can be just as widely applied.

It can be used, for example, to explain why the south, the Republic, would have no truck with the Troublesome republicanism of the north. It can be taken as one way of understanding the new, European Ireland, shrugging of its oppressive church and oppressive history. Or it can be employed, conspicuously by Toibin, as a means to represent – or re-present – the sense of the past as a series of stories, tales told and believed.

Toibin has never been an uncritical revisionist. His own birthplace at Enniscorthy is venerated by some because of the United Irish-men. His grandfather fought in the 1916 Rising. His uncle was on the Republican side in the civil war. He knows all about the political intent of revisionism. But this most subtle of writers, his prose full of weights and balances, mirrors and reflections, has reacted in his own fashion.

He told one interviewer in 1992: “What all of us want is to be able to escape from history, is to be able to say that we choose our own destiny, that there’s nobody coming after us from the past. In Ireland, it’s a big issue. I want to be through with history. I want it all over”.

A Scotsman writes: good luck with that. In any case, anyone who truly believes in destiny, national or personal, knows that a choice is never available. And besides, in book after book, fiction and non-fiction, Toibin has made no attempt to escape from history. His work – one thinks particularly ofBad Blood and The Heather Blazing – nags away at history, at Irish history.

He is concerned less with the facts of the past than what has been made of those facts in a nation that spent centuries just coming to be (“a Scotsman writes”) and expended that “dream-time” on “heroes and martyrs” to the exclusion of almost every alternative.

“Our whole history is a form of fiction”, Toibin declared in an early piece, “… the thing we used to call our history, but could more correctly call our mythology, is a series of short stories…but there is no connection between the stories in the fiction we have been given, no continuity and no legacy”.

Anyone who was ever allowed even to hear of native history in a Scottish school – that jump-cut from Bruce to the Union – might wonder if the complaint is particularly novel. You also wonder, too, if the argument from Toibin the journalist (a fine one) is not also the strategy of Toibin the novelist. Sometimes continuity is the enemy of art.

In the art of this particular Irishman, there is another strand, another question, if you like, of identity. In June of 1993 male homosexuality was decriminalised, finally, in the republic. In November of that year, without fuss, Toibin, born in 1955, came out. With 1999’s The Blackwater Lightship, he “successfully brought”, as Eibhear Walshe writes, “an Irish AIDS narrative right into the mainstream of Irish culture”. He also began to achieve a deeper sense, you could argue, of his own art.

In the Ireland in which Toibin was born, to be gay was to be invisible. Asserting that part of one’s identity was impossible, just as it was impossible to question the founding myths of the republic. As a gay man, Toibin was born into the Irish Unfree State . Today, he seems to have a sense of himself as forming a bridge between two Irelands . Or does that count as one of those self-creating myths?

Never mind. He is one of the finest stylists working in English, a fact accepted and explored, but never quite explained – for how can such things ever be explained? – by the essays gathered in Reading Colm Toibin. Irish, gay, revising his republic, and writing – this counts as irony – in part because of all those mythic heroes and martyrs, he will never be misfiled under English Literature.

Interviewed by Fintan O’Toole for the collection’s last chapter, Toibin explains that he could never write “novels of romance” in the manner of Edmund White or Alan Hollingshurst. “I’ve not been able to do that, because the actual darkness surrounding the silence interests me too much…”.

Irvine Welsh
pp341 ISBN 9780224080538


The latest novel from Irvine Welsh confirms my long-held suspicion that if you clout a Scotsman hard on the head, his last thought before keeling over will be something to do with football.

Detective Inspector Ray Lennox, who “carried the air of a large wounded mammal; the potentials of vulnerability and violence never seem far from him”, suffers a breakdown following a harrowing investigation into the rape and murder of a little girl. Forced to take sick leave, Lennox books a holiday in Florida with his fiancée. We find him in the opening pages of Crime, claustrophobic on the transatlantic flight, buttressed on one side by a window he can’t open and on the other by the wedding-obsessed Trudi, who utters words surely dreaded by all romantically-manacled males, “You do still fancy me, Ray?”

It’s enough to drive a man back to drink and drugs, and it does. By the time the happy couple reaches the hotel, Lennox is suffering vacation fatigue. “What’s Miami got to dae with the Holocaust?” he asks, watching an infomercial on the hotel TV, unaware that he’s about to witness just how humanity continues to torture the innocent and the weak in unspeakable ways.

Two minutes after meeting Lennox and Trudi, you yearn to convince them to cancel the nuptials, and, sure enough, Lennox soon bolts and seeks solace with a couple of women he meets in a bar. The partying continues back at their apartment, where they are joined by another two men, and Lennox, roiled by anger and guilt, finds himself once more “trapped, in a skanky vortex of his own making”. Thankfully, despite the cocaine and the booze, he is lucid enough to intervene when one of the men tries to molest Tianna, the young daughter of one of the women. Lennox flees taking Tianna with him, unwittingly disrupting a paedophile ring, and giving an opportunity for this unlikely hero to begin his climb back into the reader’s good graces.

The kindest way to describe the novel’s point of view is fluid. It shifts between a random omniscient, to second tense, to a roaming close third with Lennox, Trudi and Trianna, whose thoughts about her abusers (“always an inimical force, with that crinkled smile suggesting a swarm of torment…”) are remarkably erudite for a ten-year-old. Still, Welsh captures Florida’s odd blend of cheesiness and menace with ease, from the sweetie-coloured architecture to the alligators that “look as contented and conspiring as veteran football hooligans…. No wonder Lacoste is such a popular thug brand”. Always a dab hand with the violence, Welsh delivers signature bone-snapping scenes including an unfortunate encounter between a feral Floridian and a domestic beastie.

Make no mistake, though, this is a novel about paedophilia, and Welsh is explicit about exactly what that crime entails, and it’s to his credit that he manages to do so without becoming puerile or exploitative or resorting to lazy clichés about Lolita. Our affection for Lennox increases with each decent step he takes on Trianna’s behalf, and as we learn more about the Edinburgh abuse case and a disturbing incident from his childhood. Tianna “helped to show him that no matter how far he’d fallen he had a line below which he would never submerge. The bar wasn’t raised very high, but it was there”.

Welsh explores the use of sex as weapon of manipulation, threat and humiliation, and exposes the double-standards so blithely tolerated in our collective culture, which makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. Tabloids bay for the blood of “nonces” while brushing off laddish holiday larks in Thailand or the appointment of a convicted sex offender to manage a certain Scottish football team. Much needed levity is supplied by Lennox’s obsession with staying on top of the Jambos results in the Scottish Cup despite being pursued from coast-to-coast by his own clique of nut “nonces”.

(And who knew there was so much reading in Perfect Bride? A magazine of such profundity and girth, it keeps a grown woman agog through a transatlantic flight and well into her hotel room, and which Lennox then carries into the Everglades and beyond with the tenacity normally granted to plot-hinging MacGuffins).

By the end of Crime, nothing holds Lennox the-gether but sinews and a sense of humour; he is physically battered but emotionally cleansed. Yes, our hero learns a lot about redemption but bugger all about marriage if he to secure domestic bliss.

It is obvious that Welsh was deeply affected while researching Crime, but an unfortunate side-effect of his compassion for its victims is his susceptibility to Spielberg-itis. Like the last twenty minutes ofSchindler’s ListCrime often feels as though Welsh had forgotten the inherently transformative power of good art and felt compelled to sledge-hammer his readers with moral lessons already embedded within his more deftly handled scenes. There were moments when I was tempted to kick away Welsh’s soap-box in the hope that he may hit his head and turn his attention back to where it belongs: to the scummy tussles of plot, to his unique and muscular use of language, to exploring the relationships between men and their fears – of random violence, or worse, relegation – and to wondering why lassies never seem to get the off-side rule.

Human Condition
Richard Holloway
CANONGATE, £14.99.
pp200 ISBN 1847672531


The Most Reverend Richard Holloway, a cheery soul of deceptively ascetic appearance, was Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh and retired several years ago as Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

He is also a droll wit. My estimable mother once bumped into him in Morningside. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I know who you are”. “That’s nice”, said the Primus, gently stepping by. “I know who I am too”.

And he is the nearest Scotland has ever produced to the Shock Rev: the likes of John Robinson, Maurice Wiles, Don Cupitt or (if she pardons the title) Joan Bakewell: an articulate, outspoken clergyman who disowns some – or most – historic doctrine or some – or most – moral teaching.

Holloway’s intellect cannot be disputed. He has been a Gresham Professor of Divinity, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a prolific author of fluent, generally thoughtful books.

And this latest, beautifully bound and presented, addresses a question that has fascinated us since Job: the extraordinary paradox of humanity and our seeming potential both for good, truth and beauty – on the one side; and for unthinkable evil, on the other.

No century has hammered that old, shaming dichotomy home more than our past – especially as, by the early 1900s, many leaders of thought seriously believed (and taught) that science, progress and education was about to usher in a true golden age: one without war, want, ignorance or atrocity.

This sense of mounting enlightenment had much to do with the ‘white man’s burden’ ethos of European colonial empire (it is no accident that some of the most radical, progressive souls of the period were, by our standards, appalling racists) and also fuelled the new, articulate socialism with a sunny optimism.

But serene confidence in the best of new technology and manufacture sank, in 1912, with the Titanic. Faith, too, in lately fashioned liberal democracy and the competence of our political class floundered after Flanders and the mincing-machine of the Great War.

And in 1945, as aghast Allied troops took the land of Beethoven and Goethe and uncovered atrocity beyond the scale of the most anti-German propaganda of that conflict, our grandparents found themselves bewildered by the human condition itself.

Holloway’s job here, in the porch of a new century, is a difficult one. He has to find originality, both of thought and expression, in a field of questioning probed since (and before) the Psalms of David.

And he has to explore his theme on two different fronts – that of psychology (how Man ticks: cognition, emotion, judgement, conscience) and moral philosophy: the problem of evil.

Traditionally, that has been presented as the “inconsistent triad” – three propositions that are not readily reconciled. There is the fact of evil in the world, both of human depravity and natural suffering; and there are two specific, most ancient and defining assertions as to the nature of God Himself: that He is all-powerful, and that He is wholly good.

How does a loving, almighty God permit Abu Ghraib, or the Holocaust, or famine, or earthquake, or cancer?

Holloway scarcely explores this area though; largely because – as is most quickly apparent – he does not in any meaningful sense believe in God at all.

Indeed, one of the most daunting obstacles for a Christian embarking on this Holloway essay is to get past his brief introduction – in fact, getting past the opening paragraph may defeat many of all faiths and none, as Holloway relates a most disturbing incident from his boyhood, when he played helpful accomplice to a humiliating indecent assault on a young woman.

Well, we did say Shock Rev. But one does not have to be a card-carrying Free Presbyterian to wince at such phrases as “the Christian story”, “religion… is certainly a work of the human imagination”, the “redemption song of Christianity” and the explicit equation of faith and Marxism as potentially dangerous “schemes for universal redemption”.

For the sometime Primus, Christianity is not revelation. It is artifice; it is a human construct. But, “used modestly and understood properly, religion still has much to offer a humanity that is trying to save itself from itself”, he assures us, in the sort of pleasant, warning tones one expects in the instructions that come with a chain-saw.

He embarks on his mission in three elegantly turned explorations – first, of “human cruelty and the reality of evil”; secondly, why humans do seem uniquely prone to “unbalanced sadism and greed” and, in conclusion, he offers a “faint but unconquerable note of hope” – founded on the power of human art to inspire gratitude and shame vice; and on the possibilities of this modestly used, properly understood religion.

After such a start one cannot be really surprised to be treated to page upon page of goodness-what-a-cultured-fellow-I-am – Hannah Arendt, Gitta Sereny, Virginia Woolf and Nietzsche among the dozens of worthies quoted for that touch of class; Ridley Scott (for Blade Runner, if you must know) to show that this cool Bishop does occasionally take his head out of the 1982 Liturgy; and, inevitably, and almost wearily to be welcomed, the F-word, on page 41, and no less ugly for the alliteration.

All this goes into the Magimix and, riding his lines of thought and dropping off the literary bon-mots like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Holloway has at every sort of historic evil he can think off (with a curious but understandable predilection for those of white Europeans, Ameri-can and western capitalism, not forgetting factory farming and the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic.)

This, frankly, is heavy going. It takes a strong stomach – especially if you love women and care about animals – to read example upon remorseless example of vile behaviour without wanting to flush Holloway’s tome down the Armitage Shanks.

The pretentiousness mounts in one pitiless, excruciating crescendo
– Margaret Drabble comes dashing to Philip Larkin’s aid at one point, as if this were not a study at all but a Scottish Arts Council cheese ’n’ wine soiree – and, by the time we get to the Sermon on the Mount, in that predictable ‘and-finally’ moment of the Trendy Vicar through the ages (you know, get ’em laughing for twenty minutes and then bashfully wheel out God) you find yourself looking about you wildly for a weapon.

The thing is, if you do not actually believe in Jesus – at least as the historical personality described so vividly in the Gospels – it is really rather rich to start quoting Him. Admittedly, it is all just myth, construct and artifice to Holloway but might you not be just as well to cite edifying snatches of John Lennon?

You do not feel that Holloway gets evil – our capacity for doing what we know is wrong purely because we know it is wrong, and get rather a kick out of it; you feel

more and more, as you wade on bravely, that you are increasingly in a realm where words no longer have meaning – and the saddest thing of all is that you could not give away this £14.99 wad of perfectly good tree were its author a novelist, a politician or even half the Proclaimers.

Holloway is only of interest – and has only a platform and a market – because he is ordained clergy. And he has nothing whatever to offer from decades in the past day-job save the vague, comforting theatre of the Sacraments: the last stand of the theologically bankrupt.

Ewan Morrison CAPE , £12.99
pp410 ISBN


Half way through Ewan Morri-son’s banal, drawn out saga of love between a pair of desperate transatlantic lovers, the female half records in her journal, “No doubt about it now. Tom is with another woman. Fourteen texts and six phone calls. No replies. My friends are right….. At my laptop now, talking to myself, no one else to talk to. I’m done. It’s over”. If only it was, it would have saved Meg – and the reader – a further two hundred pages of repetitive wailing and needy conversations, never mind the phone sex.

The problem with Distance is that the one dimensional central characters, Tom and Meg, are selfish, self absorbed and far more taken up with the notion of love than they are with each other. Morrison is particularly interested in sexual relationships, it is his chosen territory. It is also a clichéd area. But that shouldn’t matter, after all very few aspects of life aren’t clichéd. Reading Distance is like watching re-runs of afternoon soap operas.Therese Raquin it’s not. The passion is recreational, the affection superficial and the characterisation slight.

So Tom, a Scot, is a divorced father of a son with speech difficulties. He has a girlfriend of sorts, Morna, an easy going woman whose son is friendly with Tom’s boy. Morna’s tolerance pushes towards levels of surrealist goodness. She is Tom’s support and she asks for little in return, aside from sex when it suits him. If you haven’t guessed it already, Tom has another intense relationship – with alcohol. Tom’s job takes him away on trips abroad where his battered boyish Scots charm invariably secures sex for the night.

New Yorker Meg, 38, super-toned and super-organised, is a script doctor. She is also single and as terrified of relationships as she is of loneliness. Fate and the surprisingly lazy plotting of this fiction-by-numbers effort from a writer capable of far more, brings old Tom and Meg together. After a week of sex and a lot of syrupy love banter, they reckon they are bonded for eternity. There is one catch. Tom has to return to Edin-burgh. They vow undying love and set about trying to survive the next eight weeks, emailing and texting away the time that must pass before Meg’s flight to Edin-burgh.

Their encounter does have one immediate outcome. Meg, on Tom’s encouragement, decides to stop doctoring other people’s scripts and write something for herself. Hey, she knows what she is going to write about – her romance with Tom. Meg is so meticulous that when not participating in phone sex with Tom she interrogates him about their week together. Even if the world is full of people like Tom and Meg, Morrison succeeds in making his couple as unconvincing as they are unsympathetic. Distance is indulged and indulgent. It is also lazy and predictable. Meg sets down certain rules such as when Tom can call her and makes sure the time difference does not interfere with her sleep. Meanwhile he is hoping to ease his way out of his arrangement with Morna and of course, stay away from liquor. He fails in both objectives.

What can you say about a novel in which the best sequence comes when our crumpled antihero, a man given to crying, loses his mobile phone down a toilet? Very little, aside from wonder at Morrison’s being able to drag his tissue thin nar-

rative over more than 400 pages of print. Meg is no doubt a study of the career woman who lives by lists. Just when she decides to stop writing them, she goes for a walk and writes about it because she records everything for posterity.

The more Meg writes about her relationship with Tom, the more obvious Morrison (whose approach is to spell everything out just in case someone out there may have fallen asleep) makes it clear that history, Meg’s history, is repeating itself. Here is a woman who sees her life as a potential script.

The closer Meg’s arrival date looms, the more Tom panics, the more he drinks and, oh yes, the more he needs Morna. Finally Meg arrives at Edinburgh airport, bewildered that there is no sign of Tom. He is outside in his car aware that she has sent 22, now 23, increasingly frantic text messages. He watches her exit the terminal, her face red with tears. Had this book been half the length and written with charm and humour, Morrison may have succeeded in shaping a romantic comedy for our bleak times. He hasn’t. It would have taken the gifts of a James Kelman to impose true emotional pathos into this narrative. And Morrison is no Kel-man. Better still, why not just reread Kelman, the omission of whose recent masterpiece, Kieron Smith, Boy, from the Man Booker long list, is an outrage.

Blog / Discussion

Posts Remaining