BEAUTIFUL BOOKS, £12.99 pp410, ISBN 9781905636266
“Imagine waking up tomorrow, all music had disappeared. All musical instruments, all forms of recorded music, gone”. This musical Year Zero reverie is Drum-mond’s starting point in 17, a scrambled memoir-come-manifesto. His solution to his own fantasy is a choir of 17 randomly selected people who have no lyrics or even words to work with, no rhythm or beats, and no melody whatsoever. Drummond claims taking part is exciting and liberating but possibly a trial to listen to. So why do it? His argument is that recorded music has reached such a mass, it’s impossible to innovate anymore, and as such merely a way to generate easy nostalgia and to milk consumers. He’s right, but he, and the reader, also recognise that The17 (the choir’s name) is a desperate attempt to fight off male menopausal gloom. If his musical ideas don’t appeal, Drummond also offers up some brilliant rants, explaining why Bono “should be shot for the sake of humanity” and the futility and disingenuousness of modern art’s love affair with shock for shock’s sake. Drummond, a chart-topper in his KLF days, is the sort of pop star that hasn’t much troubled the charts in recent years, more’s the pity. In a sane world, he’d be an X Factor judge
Reports From beyond – A Journey Through Life To Remote Places
ULTIMA THULE PRESS, £25.00 pp383, ISBN 9780955844805
Pre-globalisation and before the era of cheap flights, Patrick Richardson was travelling the hard way across some of the world’s toughest – and most beautiful – terrain. Reports From Beyond is a record of forty years of travelling, and takes in practically everywhere except the north and south poles. Richardson is certainly fearless. Any number of the experiences he recounts – be it the Columbian police chief who plants drugs on him or the lake of ice he falls through while travelling in Russia – would be enough to put most people of travelling for life, but not Richardson, a man attracted to exploring his physical limits. He must be one of the few people for whom the phrase “heavily armed rebel tribesmen” is actually an incentive to travel onwards, not back. His stories may not make you want to grab your backpack and passport, but his writing is entertaining. He has a knack for getting into situations. In Argentina, for example, he runs into Borges who is by turns charming and a mouthpiece for the ruling junta. By the book’s close, though, you do wonder whether Richardson’s compulsive need to travel through danger zones is mere curiosity or whether at its root isn’t something more neurotic.
Vanessa And Virginia
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £8.99 pp181, ISBN 9781906120276
Even before The Hours, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Bloomsbury set exercised a fascination for readers, writers and, occasionally, filmmakers. Susan Sellers flags up her deep interest in the Stephens sisters with this fictional exploration of their relationship. Sibling rivalry goes some way to explaining the manner in which they orbited each other, but it isn’t, at least as Sellers portrays it, the whole story. Narrated from Bell’s point of view, Vanessa And Virginia is particularly interesting in the way it examines how the sisters came to art as a means of defining their own personalities, and then how their chosen fields informed their relationship to each other. Their competitiveness didn’t so much hang upon who was the most successful of the two, but who practices “the more difficult art”. There are several incidental pleasures along the way, such as the young Woolf previewing her fearlessness with a criticism of Shakespeare and his poorly characterised females. As the story sweeps from the girls’ childhood to Woolf’s wartime suicide, there’s a melancholic tightening of plot, though Sellers ends her story not with the novelist’s death, but her sister’s attempt to make some sense of it, a meditation that concludes, “What matters is we do not stop creating”.
CARCANET, £9.95 pp114, ISBN 9781857549331
In his latest slim volume, poet Frank Kuppner experiments with an interesting conceit. Ariotflotga purports to be not one long poem but an index of first lines of poems that have been lost. According to the blurb, the Great Poetic Anthology has been a victim of some catastrophic computer failure that has erased all copies. The index is an unexpected source of comedy and has a collapsed poetry of its own that is reminiscent of Burroughs’ cutup experiments. Lines range from the would-be apothegmatic (“All art is a dulled nostalgia for our childhood toys”) to the boastful (“Is there a more gifted thinker than myself?”), from the provocative (“To the believer, Auschwitz must, in some final sense, be good”) to the banal (Twenty Per Cent Off Everything the sign said”). The pseudo-order renders a new kind of confusion and fragmentation, and this reader wonders if there isn’t somekind of lesson in that. It’s a fine, fruitful idea which Nabokov would have been glad to have had. one must say though that as exciting as the book is to begin with, over the long haul, it’s exhausting; the volume exceeds a hundred pages.
Under the Mountain
HUTCHINSON, £14.99 pp384, ISBN 0091799449
Cooke’s second novel takes as its premise – a story-type made familiar by L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement – a child who sees something he or she isn’t supposed to see, and who either does or does not speak about it. This moment where innocence is lost ensures a catastrophic turn of events for the adults around the child concerned. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily make for a work of any less value, and Cooke’s sublime writing easily establishes this novel on its own terms. Told in flashback, we see a very young Catherine ill in bed in the grand but dilapidated old house she shares with her frustrated mother, Natasha, and her over-intellectual, distracted father, George. Her cousins, Sam and Rosa, are visiting with their widowed mother, Ellie, who doesn’t seem to understand that her in-laws may live in a great big house but are struggling financially to the extent that a single peach eaten without permission causes ructions. Cooke is excellent on unspoken family tensions and her characters’ psychological motivations always ring true with a density that recalls Virginia Woolf. Of the younger generation of Scottish writers being published now, Cooke is one of the best.
POLYGON, £7.99 pp352, ISBN 1846970717
John Buchan considered his 1927 novel, Witch Wood to be his personal favourite of his own books. Alas, one fails to see what he saw in it over a more obvious candidate, such as the early Hannay books orSick Heart River. Perhaps his failure to interest a modern reader, in this instance at least, derives from what you might call Buchan’s traditional storytelling. He eschews the subjective and concentrates on the kind of third person narrative that establishes and confirms, not one that allows for ambiguity or doubt in the reader. Given that he was writing while modernism was at his peak, one can either marvel at his rejection of it, or shrug in dismay. David Semphill is a young minister at the time of the Covenanters, and it’s said that the nearby woods of his parish are used by pagans and suchlike, possibly even traitors to the crown. Questions of religion, morality, and loyalty to the Crown, are embedded in a narrative that also finds time to give David a little romance, with a beautiful pagan girl, Katrine. It should be gripping, but it simply felt anachronistic,
Bucket of Frogs: New Writing Scotland 26
Edited by Liz Niven and Brain Whittingham
ASLS, £6.95 pp260, ISBN 0948877871
This volume promises to be a mix of both new writers and famous names (or “many of the leading literary lights of Scotland” as the jacket blurb has it), but the latter are not much in evidence, even though many of the writers here have been published before. It is, as the title indicates, a mixed bag of themes and concerns, although many of the short stories exhibited the same tendency to short sentences and a lot of dialogue. Ones to look out for are Colin Begg’s ‘Sierra Nevada Dreaming’, Eliza Chan’s ‘Sub Text’, Diana Hendry’s ‘Other Mothers’, Angela Howard’s ‘The Table’ and Rowena M. Love’s ‘Dufton Pike Picnic’. Of this selection, only two are short stories (Chan’s is a mischievous take on academic theory that was quite different from the usual crop of personal tales), and the rest are poems, which perhaps bodes well for the future of poetry in Scot-land. There’s a playfulness mixed with seriousness in these poems that works beautifully, although that mix is less evident in the short stories which tend too often to be run-of-the-mill.
Reith Of The BBC: My Father
SAINT ANDREW PRESS, £8.99 pp336, ISBN 0715208349
This excellent biography may be spliced between an authoritative third-person account of the life of John Reith, founder of the BBC, and a first-person remembrance of her father from Marista Leish-man, but it’s a coherent and fascinating story of an extraordinary life. Leishman notes her father’s difficult background, with an intellectually demanding father who let his son down by signing him up for an engineering apprenticeship, when the young man himself had greater ambitions. Reith’s beliefs anchored him and drove him professionally; he had a divine sense that God had picked him to do something great. Personally, it was his love for men that informed his relationships. One can only feel pity for his long-suffering spouse, Muriel, trapped in frigid marriage with a husband who liked to arrive home in the dead of night by the back door (there’s something all too Freudian about that habit). Readers are used by now to biographies of great figures tormented by inner demons. Reith Of The BBC certainly fits into this category, yet no sense of weariness attaches itself to the book, a testament to the particular qualities of the story Leishman has to tell, and to the way in which she tells it.
Doctor of Love: James Graham And His Celestial Bed
ALMA BOOKS, £20 pp394, ISBN 1846880548
Those familiar with the life-story of Emma Hamilton will have already heard of James Graham and his electrical bed, which promised sexual fulfilment to married couples seeking to start a family. Hamilton wasn’t interested in it for that purpose – it was London prostitutes, of whom Hamilton was one for a short while, who tended to use it to entice customers, in spite of Graham’s far more respectable intentions. For Edinburgh-born Graham was no pimp, nor was he the quack some say, according to Syson’s fascinating account of the scientific maverick. A medical student who trained at Edinburgh University in the late eighteenth-century, Graham made his name in the States after immersing himself in his era’s love of self-help philosophies. A complex figure, Graham was the first ‘sex doctor’. He attended the nobility (the Duchess of Devonshire and her husband consulted him) as well as the demimonde. In spite of a lack of personal data on Graham that contrasts with a wealth of public material concerning the man, Syson convincingly assesses the doctor as a perfect example of those Enlightenment figures who challenged religious and social orthodoxies.