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Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB


October 15, 2009 | by SRB

The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Russell Millar
HARVILL SECKER, £20.00 pp516, ISBN


There is an old publishing belief that there is always a market for books on Mary, Queen of Scots, Napoleon and Churchill. Judging by the number of biographers he has attracted, Conan Doyle should be added to the list. Rus-sell Miller’s is the third or fourth to have come my way in the last dozen years, following in the wake of Owen Dudley Edwards’s magisterial work. There can’t be much new to be said.

Russell Miller is however the first biographer to have had unrestricted access to the Conan Doyle archive compiled by Richard Lancelyn Green, most devoted of Sherlockians, who may have killed himself when he failed to prevent the auction of a collection of Conan Doyle’s private papers by the heirs of his estate. (There was of course no reason why they shouldn’t have done this, and in fact most of the papers were bought by the British Library.)

So one may ask how Miller changes one’s understanding of his subject. The short answer is: not much at all. This is the Doyle we all know: the dutiful son devoted to his mother (though not to his poor alcoholic father confined to an asylum); the adventurous young doctor; the hack writer who struck gold with his invention of Holmes whom he came to resent; the author of historical novels which he thought better than the books for which he is chiefly remembered; the energetic public man, generous in his campaigns against injustice; the keen sportsman; the embodiment of common sense who was converted to a belief in spiritualism, and tried to photograph fairies. A full life, and an interesting one, but in most respects familiar. Admirable though it is, Conan Doyle would be as forgotten as are many of comparable talent, but for that stroke of genius which brought Holmes to life.

Miller does cast some new light on Doyle’s second marriage. His first wife Touie contracted tuberculosis and became an invalid. He nursed her devotedly, but then fell in love with a beautiful Scottish girl of 22, Jean Leckie. There could be no question of divorce – he made that clear – and always insisted that he remained faithful to Touie who accepted Jean as a family friend. How much Touie knew or suspected must be guesswork. Miller tells us that none of her letters survives and suspects that “they were destroyed after Conan Doyle’s death because Jean wanted to be seen as the great, unrivalled love of his life”. He has however unearthed a letter from Conan Doyle to his brother Innes in which he says that Touie “is as dear to me as ever, but, as I said, there is a large side of my life which was unoccupied but is no longer so”. Is this a hint, Miller asks, that his “relationship with Jean had been consummated?” It certainly sounds like that. If this was the case, the couple took sensible precautions. There were no children of the liaison, though two were born in quick succession when Conan Doyle and Jean were free to marry.

There’s some evidence also that Jean resented the son and daughter of the first marriage, and tried to freeze them out – not of course an unusual reaction from a stepmother. Neither of them cared much for her which is not unusual either.

In many ways so stolid and conventional, Doyle was nevertheless a writer with a rare unexpected poetic quality. As Graham Greene remarked, “He made Plumstead Marshes and the Barking Level as vivid and unfamiliar as a lesser writer would have made the mangrove swamps of the West Coast” (of Africa), “which he has also known and of which he did not bother to write”. Actually when he wrote the first Holmes stories, he scarcely knew London, though it is Doyle’s or Holmes’s sooty, foggy, bustling and often sinister city which has fixed itself in the imagination of succeeding generations. As a poet of London, Doyle is the heir of Dickens.

The dutiful, not very happy child, educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst became a public figure, thanks to Holmes, and used his position as a celebrity to campaign with generous energy for the righting of wrongs. The Edalji case is now well-known, thanks to Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur And George. More celebrated in its time was the Oscar Slater case, one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice in Scottish legal history. Though Doyle took it up within a few years of the trial, Slater would serve more than twenty for a murder it was abundantly obvious he did not commit. Indeed, though Miller doesn’t mention this, it eventually required the intervention of the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald to persuade the Lord Advocate and Solicitor-General for Scotland to re-open the case. He does however remark that when Slater was awarded compensation of £6000 (a substantial sum in the 1920s) he refused to reimburse Conan Doyle for the legal costs incurred on his behalf.

When Bernard Shaw, disgusted by the public response to the sinking of the Titanic, wrote an article fiercely attacking the conduct of the ship’s captain and officers, Doyle responded with an angry and chivalrous defence. He may have been wrong, but, to quote Greene again, most of us would rather be wrong with Doyle than right with Shaw.

He sought a reprieve for Sir Roger Casement, with whom he had been associated in the exposure of Belgian atrocities in the Congo, and did so on the sensible grounds that Casement’s execution would enflame nationalist opinion in Ireland. On the other hand, he found Casement’s attempt to bring German arms to Ireland explicable only on the supposition that he had become mad. He was confirmed in this view when shown the notorious diaries detailing. Casement’s encounters with rent boys. His response to the Wilde case had been similar. He had known and liked Wilde, but thought his homosexual activities evidence of mental derangement. Incidentally, I don’t understand why Rus-sell Miller should think Wilde insincere when he praised Micah Clarke, Doyle’s novel about the Monmouth Rebellion. It’s a good novel and I don’t see why Wilde, whose taste in literature was more catholic than he sometimes pretended, shouldn’t have liked it.

Generous though he was, Doyle’s capacity for sympathy had its limits. A fervent, even blimpish, patriot throughout the 1914-18 war, he described conscientious objectors as “half-mad cranks whose absurd consciences prevented them from barring the way to the devil”. It is interesting to compare this with John Buchan’s treatment of the conscientious objector, Lancelot Wake, in Mr Standfast, a comparison in which Buchan comes off by far the better. And when Nurse Edith Cavell was shot by the Germans for having helped Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium, Doyle “proposed executing three prominent German prisoners of war in response”. This is shocking and the only possible excuse is that war impairs the sanity of even the best.

Miller‘s account of the last years, devoted to spiritualism, is sad to read. Doyle thought that “there has come to us from divine sources a new revelation which constitutes by far the greatest religious even since the birth of Christ…. A revelation which alters the whole aspect of death and the fate of man”. To be fair, Miller points out that in the late Victorian age the movement, “far from being dominated by cranks and charlatans, attracted some of the country’s leading scientific minds”. Members of the Society for Psychical Research included the future Prime Minister and philosopher AJ Balfour, William James (brother of Henry and author of that remarkable book Varieties Of Religious Experience), the naturalist Russell Wallace and the physicists William Crookes and Oliver Lodge. It’s easy to understand too how, after the horrific death-toll of the war, so many turned in hope of comfort to spiritualism. Nevertheless, one can’t help thinking that the enthusiasm of the lapsed Catholic Conan Doyle for the cult supports Chesterton’s view that when people no longer believe in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.

Russell Miller has written a good, eminently fair and sensible biography (though, as so often now, marred by the odd editorial mistake – Aldous Huxley for his grandfather TH Huxley on one occasion.) All the same I doubt if I ever want to read another biography of Conan Doyle. The story of his life has staled on me. Sher-lock Holmes however remains eternally fresh. That is the true, indeed the only, mystery of Doyle, one which neither biographer nor critic can explain.

The First Person And Other Stories
Ali Smith
HAMISH HAMILTON, £16.99 pp 207, ISBN 9780241144268


While reading Ali Smith’s new collection, The First Person And Other Stories, I found myself wondering whether there is a diametric relationship between the experimental in art, and the moving. Why is it that the more intrusive the form, the less likely I am to be emotionally engaged?

In Smith’s opening offering, ‘True Short Story’, the narrator overhears two men in a coffee shop discuss the relative merits of the short story and the novel. The short story, one man says, is “a nimble goddess, a slim nymph”, whereas the novel is “a flabby old whore”. The narrator smiled and “idly wondered how many of the books in my house were fuckable”, before re-imagining the myth of Echo and Narcissus to illustrate that the best short stories often pack a resonating wallop out of all proportion to their length. The short story, she concludes, is like a nymph when the echo of it answers back. This is gutsy gauntlet-tossing by Smith, as the reader then navigates the rest of her book, ears pricked like sonar, for heart-stopping reverberations.

Magical realism and cultural references wrapped up in manipulated forms and flexible points of view characterise the eleven stories which follow. In the dry and funny ‘The Child’, the narrator discovers a toddler deposited in her shopping cart at Waitrose, and must decide how to deal with this beautiful, foul-mouthed package of human neuroses and prejudices – a perfect example of the exterior and interior of a character being gloriously mismatched. Meanwhile ‘The Third Person’ explores the concurrent nature of events through multiple story-lines, and how “the third person is another pair of eyes…a presentiment of God”. Without the necessary distance inherent in this particular point of view Smith implies, life would be incomprehensible. We, as readers, need not only to be inside a story, but outside it, too – we need in fiction, as in life, to be able to take the broader view.

‘The Second Person’ isn’t, the reader discovers after several paragraphs, a story written in second person, but a story written in first, when we meet the “I” who is describing her lover. “That’s what you’re like”, this “I” says, a playful skit by Smith to illustrate both how annoying it is to be judged by others in real life, and how annoying the second person can be in fiction, because the reader, like the lover, becomes riled. How dare you, the lover (and reader) snaps back, “think you’ve got the right to just decide, like you’re God, who I am and who I’m not and what I’m like and what I’m not…”. The story’s romantic resolution soothes our collectively ruffled feathers as the narrator concurs, affectionately, “You’re something else, you. You really are”, and we, the readers (like the lover), flattered, agree, you’re right, I really am.

As the above quotes illustrate, this collection boasts a heavy glut of the pronouns I and You and We, often unmoored to any particular, corporeal invention, and with which the reader, me, is constantly forced to align oneself. And this, I assume, is Smith’s intent, and although I appreciate the wit of this artifice, it extracts a high price in terms of emotional engagement. Smith blends effortlessly language and form like a gifted vintner romping around in sun and soil with her grapes and barrels and tannin, without being fussed by the necessity of drinking the end results. Perhaps it is the reader who is also a writer, who will truly appreciate the tang of these sly and nimble explorations of the art and artifice of fiction.

There is vintage Smith, though, to be savoured, in her tender and humorous understanding of love. In ‘Writ’, an adult narrator chats with her fourteen-year-old self; “I want to tell her who to trust and who not to trust…. Don’t, by the way, vote Labour in 1997; it’s like a vote for the Tories”. An uncomfortable lull in their conversation is overcome when they hear someone outside their window shout “I love you”, and they turn to one another and gasp, “You hear that?” They find themselves, she finds herself, despite the years, unchanged in essentials, able to forgive her own flaws and still susceptible to the giddy wonder of desire. And in ‘The First Person’, the collection’s final story, during a delicious dialogue between two-long time lovers, one tells the other, “You hold me very tight under my clothes, and if there’s a library anywhere near then someone just removed its roof, the shelves just flooded with sun and all the old books just remembered what it means to be bound in skin and to have a spine”.

Ah, yes, now, I hear the echo….

Not Just Moonshine
Tessa Ransford
LUATH PRESS, £12.99 pp307, ISBN 1906307776


No one has done more for the cause of poetry in Scotland than Tessa Ransford: one of her enduring monuments is the Scottish Poetry Library which she founded in 1984 but she has not been idle since she retired from active management and the SPL moved into its present premises in 1999. Since then there have been books and pamphlets, honours, awards, a scholarship and a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh.

Ransford is an eclectic and a committed poet: eclectic in her willingness to absorb whatever tradition of thought or craft fits her immediate purpose and committed to what have seemed to her inescapable spiritual and aesthetic truths. She is able to be simultaneously modern and traditional and to embrace the creeds and values of both east and west that best fit her passionate belief in freedom of thought and openness to all that is best in past and present. She is aided in this, of course, by her experience of India, where she was born and spent her childhood years, Pakistan where she taught in her twenties, and Scotland, especially Edinburgh, which has been her home for many years.

Her latest collection, Not Just Moonshine, compiled for her seventieth birthday, draws its poems from each of the last four decades and so celebrates her life in poems and her poems in the history of the second half of the last century and the first years of this. What an impressively varied gathering it is: there is little, whether of national or merely local concern, that has passed her by. She responds to global issues – nuclear, ecological, political – but also, for example, in a manner reminiscent of Hopkins, to the movement of sculptures away from what has seemed to be their natural home in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh to the new Gallery of Modern Art. This apparently small displacement helps us to understand the cost of other exiles and ejections. We sense the exile they must know in having left their Eden, and the loss we find in this unpeopled garden.

Much of the interest in poems collected from a long period derives from how they change over time. Thus the poem ‘Islam’, shaped in the pattern of a minaret, was a celebratory poem when it was written in the Seventies and has now become a much needed plea for tolerance and love; and ‘Mother Forgive’ for a ten year old “lass dead in Belfast” now becomes a memorial for many more dead children from across the globe.

The volume’s epigraph quotes Walter Scott’s insistence that writers will never grasp their real function if they do not learn to ‘consider everything as moonshine, compared with the education of the heart’. Ransford’s title puns delicately on both the human and natural implications of ‘moonshine’– the poems do engage with the human heart but also with the natural world, literally with moonshine and other natural phenomena, and they do so in a manner which lifts their sentiments above the merely material, without their ever becoming sententious. The transcendent is invariably linked with the mundane and the human with the natural world. In ‘Autumn in Kincraig’ the natural and the human are delightfully and wittily linked by half-rhyme in the last line of each stanza: “rain splatters/on plastic hoods among the woods…then shower of sun/gently catches golden larches”.

There is a kind of graciousness about the later ‘Poems Written Since the Millennium’ that supports the notion that age brings a growth in wisdom, a better understanding of oneself and one’s place:

Don’t ask us where we come from; where we go
is more important. Yet we leave a trail,
a string of beauty, broken, that we made,
homeless yet homeful, scattered now.

But Ransford has not grown resigned; not at all. The recent poems are just as determinedly outspoken about injustice, cruelty and simple carelessness as anything she wrote when she was young. Casual mistreatment of the vulnerable and cavalier damage to the world we live in still lift Ransford to eloquent protest and protection, as when she asks Phoebe Traquair’s tapestry angels to receive “today’s dead children/blasted by bombs dropped ‘collaterally’” and the “bodies of children who slowly die/of infestation, infection starvation, neglect”.

Yet many poems are still celebratory. The colourful waxwings with “yellow tail and sealing-wax red tip/to every feather of the wings” are generously welcomed: “migrants among our crows and starlings/our gulls accustomed to the slanting sun”. And when the speaker in the concluding poem asks the Wishing Tree for freedom, harmony and for her poems to tell a story for the future, for her children’s children, the “luminous shoots” and the “blossoms budding from every coin” seem to be signs that grant the wish. Tessa Ransford has never lost her faith in that powerful trinity – nature, love and, above all, poetry.

Jonathan Falla
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £9.99 pp 246, ISBN 9781906120337


Now in his mid-fifties, Jonathan Falla has had a rich, somewhat itinerant experience of the world, and has worked in various capacities, all very challenging, in countries as diverse as Java, Uganda, Burma and the Darfur area of the Sudan. His two previous novels, Blue Poppies and Poor Mercy are set in Tibet and the Sudan, and both received lavish praise. Several plays and short stories have enjoyed strong reviews and won prizes. At present, he lives in Fife.

The Glenfarron of the title of his new novel is a fictional village in the Central Highlands, perhaps somewhere near Aviemore. Although the fictional aspect is paramount – and some of the attempts to give localising colour in the dialogue and minor characters are not very convincing – the siting of the novel in a particular location at particular times is integral to the substance of the work. The form of the novel is a kind of triptych; three stories which could stand as separate entities are linked in a time sequence and by a series of overlaps of characters, families and houses, and by an unobtrusive but suggestive cross-commentary of themes and patterns.

In the opening section, ‘Jacky Whisky’ (a naturalised form of Jacek Wysiekierski), set in the 1940s, Glenfarron Castle serves as a hospital for wounded Polish soldiers and airmen. At one level, the story is predictable, even clichéd, of romantic, worldly-wise Poles getting on and getting off with Scottish girls stuck in their hum-drum lives. However, Falla presents the romance in an unsentimental even bitter and brutal manner. Furthermore, the Polish service-men are rendered helpless, by their injuries and by geographic separation, to serve their homeland as Warsaw is encircled and crushed. The story ends at the end of the War with the Poles ostracised in the local community and their heroic contribution to the Allied war effort erased by Churchill for political reasons. Although the narrative is set firmly in the War years, the authorial perspective is not fixed exclusively in that period but occasionally swings forward to the present; I don’t understand these swings.

Part Two, ‘Losing Touch’, is dated in 1971 but again, very occasionally in this story, the narrator is looking back from the perspective of 2008. The story opens with the Doctor, Charlie Dulce, the product of a war-time Scottish-Polish liaison, and the strongest linking character across the three sections of the novel, recalling a photograph he once saw in a book. It showed an SS soldier about to kill a Jewish mother and her child, and Charlie has often tried to imagine the emotions of the participants. He is described by the narrator as having “a certain gallumphing gift of empathy” and the tortured story is centred on a woman, Anna, whose mind and body are taken over by an imagined connection with the past. She and her partner, Paul, have arrived near the village to occupy a big house left to them by Uncle Gideon Baird. They arrive in the story with no background credentials, and readers have to pick up on and decipher various hints. In a locked tower they discover a camera obscura which magnifies the surrounding countryside and the village. Anna becomes fascinated by the apparatus and frightened of it. In it she (alone) sees figures from a past time when leprosy was prevalent and the lepers were driven out of the village, across Purgatory Burn, to the empty moorland. In a way perhaps reminiscent of David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman, she becomes obsessed with the leprous condition and its alleged association with sin (particularly sexual, in medieval times). The melodramatic story ends with the Doctor trying to make sense of Anna’s collapse and musing that “we may, perhaps unconsciously, take on a second-hand memory or a distant history for our own purposes”.

The third panel of the triptych is called ‘Mungo’s Park’ and is dated 2006. The central character, Mungo Robertson, grew up in the village but has spent many years in West Africa. He claims descent from the famous explorer of the Niger, Mungo Park. Returning to his Scottish home, he has brought a huge collection of African objects and tools, and often dresses and behaves in what he considers an African manner. African authorities learn of his collection and demand the return of a sacred mask but Mungo claims that his objects have become part of Scotland’s heritage and, in this claim, he is defended by the new Polish immigrants, some connected to the war-time Poles.

Obviously, this third section is intended, in part, to be comic, eccentric, whimsical, disruptive of pomposity and staidness. It contrasts directly with the doom-ridden second section. I have left many details undisclosed because shock is central to the whole novel. All three stories end with an act of violence. The novel is full of incident and very readable but the writing is sometimes uneven with some awkward sentences. The larger themes of continuity and discontinuity, immigration and emigration, integration and exclusion, tangled genetic lines, the personal and the communal, are explored, but at times there is a whiff of the laboratory rather than the fug of a breathing village.

The Gate of Air
James Buchan
MACLEHOSE PRESS, £14.99 pp248, ISBN 9781847844673


As this novel, subtitled A Ghost Story, begins, Jim Smith has lost his computer software business to City predators, and retires west, to the backwoods of Brackshire, to attempt to regroup. He buys a property called Paradise Farm and confronts an alternative way of existence – the farming year.

For the first time, he feels, he is using his eyes to see what is in front of him. But in the complex and contradictory manner of this book, Smith discovers that what is being concealed from vision is rather more important.

The first half reads like a bizarre hybrid of Bonfire Of The Vanities and Cold Comfort Farm, with a little sexed-up MR James when a glamorous groovy Sixties wraith intrudes. There are some fine passages of description – of a nostalgic hue – which sit awkwardly with the kind of strained overwriting and simile-making that literary America likes: “The [van’s] driver was bent, thin and dirty, like an old playing-card”. (Ameri-can also is the curious use of ‘automobile’ throughout.)

My pencilled-in ?!s scattered about my copy marking sentences of a density and opaqueness which defy any easy understanding. “It was as if the place had once been overrun by profligate children who survived only in what they had lost”; or, “The blue stain on the [mare’s] handsome fetlock looked bucolic and poverty-stricken”.

Is this appropriate to fiction? I kept thinking that many of the author’s intelligent and insightful pronouncements on the economics of country life might have better suited a non-fiction form: a book of meditation on the loss of one way of life, the agrarian, and its replacement by City values.

Jim Smith (“Don’t be so ridiculous. Nobody’s called Jim Smith”, as someone says to him) may only have had a very cursory classical education, but he’s now reading Greek like a native-born in order to immerse himself in legends of the Immortals. (He forks out £10,000 for one book. And it’s nice to see Classical Greek make a return to the novel; one has missed having the aphorisms inserted into the text in the original.) It transpires that Paradise Farm is located on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Venus.

On page 145 we have a nasty shock. It’s just possible that Jim Smith died in Baghdad of wounds sustained in a terrorist attack, aged eighteen. Near the end of the book we discover that his life was saved by a surgeon of spiritual leanings, one of the most brilliant men alive (presumably alive) in the world today. (Or is it today? Just possibly we’re in the future. A Royal personage called the Duke of Essex flits along the tramlines, and as we know there’s no such person.)

What happens at the conclusion? It’s not entirely clear. Let’s just say that the good doctor could cure the patient’s body but not necessarily his mind. And another ghost may well be hovering round Paradise Farm.

Fiction is a matter of personal taste – or prejudice, if you like. In tandem with this, I’ve been reading (yet again) Simenon. Simenon’s genius is to write about the undeniable complexities of human nature with minimal means (the famous 2,000-word vocabulary recommended by Colette). Driving the books is plot and his unfailing instinct for narrative.

James Buchan’s jigsaw-like Slide (1991) struck me as being a model of economy. Here he means to be more ambitious, dealing with competing levels of reality. But too much cleverness and arcane-speak – oh yes, the author does know his Classics – can get in the way of a narrative. Finally what we have here after all the meanderings is quite a simple love story (“He felt that he could endure eternity in Hell just for the touch of her cheek”), but it’s almost apologised for. It as if what the author may be doing is questioning the purpose of fiction to make any difference at all to anything. Is that the true horror being hinted at among the supernatural goings-on? Editors also have a duty to warn authors against their style becoming so clotted that, on occasions, it becomes well-nigh unintelligible.

The book comes with intimidating review quotes on the cover. I notice, however, that there are no women among them – how many of those named male journalists, I wonder, are like-minded contemporaries on the London reviewing circuit?

The best ‘ghost’ fiction doesn’t go out of its way to explain or intellectualise. It errs on the side of reduction and simplicity. It succeeds because it leaves us room to become involved with the text, not to stay reading (and meant to coldly admire) on the outside.

What, to me, The Gate of Air lacks is the very air that would allow it to breathe.

There’s an excellent short novel of the early Nineties, about possessed souls, by Alan Judd called The Devil’s Own Work. In that he talks about those writers whose writing is really just all words: a flow of words they can’t control. It’s like the chatter of voices, so many voices that in the end we can make out nothing of what’s being said.

Syncopations – Beats, New Yorkers, And Writers In The Dark
James Campbell
pp226, ISBN 978052025237


Syncopation, my dictionary informs me, is a musical term meaning ‘the accent is placed on the weak beat’. Giving a collection of newspaper profiles of authors the title Syncopations, then, might imply the journalist responsible prided himself on an adversarial approach, that he enjoys putting his interviewees on their back foot, probing their ‘weak beat’. In fact, James Camp-bell is not a hunter of gaffes, he doesn’t lift boulders simply to see if there’s anything squirming beneath. He is “not seeking to insinuate a banana skin beneath the interviewee’s foot”, but rather to “meet, talk, and generate an article that is accurate and interesting to readers”.

You could characterise his approach as courtly, old-fashioned. Actually, preferring to coax rather than to goad, Campbell scores deeper insights into his subjects’ lives and books than a champing grand inquisitor. Campbell’s ‘perspicaciousness’ (to use the word Alexander Troc-chi, his first interviewee, flattered him with) rests upon his ability to understand the way in which both life and work braid creatively. Many interviewers are only skilled at teasing out one strand or the other; most hacks aren’t any good at either.

All but three of the interviews, reviews and essays concern American writers; the remaining three cover areas of Scottish interest. English writers “sound mildly foreign” to Campbell, and in a playful, partly autobiographical piece on Scottish words, you see why; he holds to Edwin Muir’s formula – he might think in English, but he feels in Scots. The Ameri-can writers who appeal to Camp-bell are all about feeling and language; indeed, one of his rare waspish moments is dedicated to Jonathan Franzen and The Corrections. Franzen embodies for Campbell twentieth-century literature’s wrongheaded “response to the levelling of social stratification”, its move to become “‘complex’ and ‘difficult’, and eventually to demand a separate category – call it ‘modernism’, call it ‘high art’”. Not that Campbell doesn’t appreciate difficulty – a favourable notice of Robert Creeley’s poetry confirms that. It’s bogus, unearned difficulty uncoupled from genuine sentiment that Campbell rejects.

Largely, the common theme to his pieces is race relations in America, a curious passion one might think for a born and bred Glasgow boy. It grows out of his deep and abiding enthusiasm for James Baldwin, a friend and, later, the subject of a biography by Campbell. There can be few – white – British journalists who have so long and so consistently written about African-American novelists. He sees an enlightening parallel between the black novelists of the last mid-century and the anti-authoritarian novelists who struggled in the USSR.

His admiration is not uncritical. Campbell appears disappointed that black American writers haven’t followed Baldwin’s lead in believing, “There is one race and we are all part of it”. His interview with William Styron dwells on the brouhaha that erupted when the novelist presumed to write from the point of view of a black American in The Confessions Of Nat Turner. Camp-bell comments, “I myself have been told to keep out more than once – to my face – by people who might not have read a word of Baldwin, Wright, or Morrison, but whose cultural identity was understood (not only by them) to validate their every utterance”. Hence his disparagement of Toni Morrison, a writer “determinedly monoculturalist” although “dependent for her huge popularity on the tendency towards multiculturalism”. It is not stung racial sensitivities that prompt his disapproval, but his belief that literature is about character and plot and emotion, not “execrable” identity politics. “How can characters breathe when the effort to correct the balance of history is using up all the oxygen?”

He chastises white American writers too, puzzling how Franzen can dare to suggest he’s written a nation-encompassing novel when The Corrections is almost entirely denuded of African-Americans. Updike, Campbell points out, isn’t strong here either, and he confesses to sighing with relief when Skeeter, the “burlesque” of a black man in Rabbit Redux, departs the stage for good. Even Campbell’s beloved Beats are chastised for their somewhat bogus assumption of an ‘outlaw’ status: “The black man in downtown New York in the 1940s and 1950s, trying to find an apartment, trying to find a job, was an outcast in the way that a white, university-educated junkie could not”.

Occasionally, one harrumphs a little at Campbell’s determined paralleling of an author’s life and books. Authors hate that sort of thing, rightly seeing it as a journalistic attempt to short change their imagination. When Camp-bell wonders aloud “whether the four Updike children from the first union are enjoying yet another fictional outing about a horny old dad and his stricken marriage”, I couldn’t help but think, Who cares? Then again, one must remember Campbell is writing for a broadsheet market, not Paris Review, and he has turned more people onto the writers he treasures than he’s ever turned off. Certainly I put down Syncopations with a few more titles to add to the tottering, ever-rising tower of books I really must read. Let’s hope Campbell turns his attention next to his native literature. That Pisa-like column could stand another few books.

The Fire Gospel
Michel Faber
CANONGATE, £12.99 pp208, ISBN 1847672787


In war-torn Baghdad, naïve, irascible and decidedly fusty Canadian museum curator, Theo Griepenkerl stumbles upon nine papyri penned in Aramaic by the earliest Christian chronicler of the last days of the carnate Jesus. Motivated by imperial hauteur and plain greed, he smuggles them out and authors an explosive, mega-bucks translation, propelling him to global fame and facilitating the opportunities for deluxe sex that come (one imagines) with being permanently high on the Amazon hit-parade. But the blockbuster undermines the credibility of the synoptic gospels, while its visceral yet mundane depiction of the Saviour’s execution raises questions about the Resurrection. All hell and hallelujah break loose.

A pacy, rumbustious novella, The Fire Gospel contains elements of farce, satire and parody. The central conundrum concerns the divinity (or otherwise) of Yeshua/Jesus/Isa, a hotly-debated, millennial topic from before the time of the Council of Nicaea. Faber’s novella, however, is tongue-in-cheek rather than an exploration and deconstruction of heroic angst, the mood more Steve Martin than Martin Scorsese.

Jesus, a Jew, is viewed in mainstream Christianity as the divine, crucified-and-ascended, End-of-Days Messiah and in Islam as the divinely-inspired, not-crucified-but-still-ascended, End-of-Days Messiah. In both Middle Eastern religions he is described as having been virginally conceived. It is the eschatological dogmas of these later monotheistic faiths which Griepenkerl’s translation implicitly challenges.

At its core, perhaps, the tale explores the resilience of the need for myth and icon, sign and symbol, in human consciousness and the centrality of words in the construction of this need. In The Fire Gospel, the Logos of Christ is replaced by that of the pop-corporate Author. And at times, the narrative does feel rather like a contemporary pop song, spinning on a single groove and with all the mixing-knobs turned-up full volume. It is a truism (or possibly a cliché) that the most memorable comedy arises from darkness, and in this book, in spite of its foundational premise, there is a distinct lack of the night.

If, in places, The Fire Gospel strikes one as redolent of a bumper Easter episode of The Simpsons, maybe it is because the scriptwriters of that magnificent and ambiguous TV series draw on a not dissimilar semiotic palette to Faber. However, occasionally, the text swings a little too close to mildly condescending sixth-form humour for its own good. All of this contributes to a slightly wobbly climax.

This leads on to a more profound concern. The incorporation of the destruction of Iraq into a comedic narrative whose major focus (unlike that of, say, M.A.S.H.Catch 22 or Nadeem Aslam’s recent tour de force on Afghanistan, The Wasted Vigil) does not reside in a dissection of the human consequences of conflict leaves one with a flicker of unease. There is a real danger that through humour, gradually and subtly, a state of Armageddon becomes normalised in the public consciousness. It is disconcerting that writers, publishers and retailers based in the West seem casually to be making big capital out of wars generated by the capital of the West. That there is a lack of self-critical discourse on this matter touches on the issue of freedom of expression, and neither stand-up comedy nor elliptical, amusing critiques such as The Fire Gospel can be expected to remedy the deficiency.

Nonetheless (to lighten-up), the book would be a rollicking good read for a train journey on a rainy day. The funniest and most effective sections entail Faber’s hilarious depiction, through Griepenkerl’s rise to fame and wealth, of the daft amorality of the corporate book world – a skewed and reductive universe in which Anne Frank, Tony Blair, Harry Potter and Christ are judged solely on the number of products they can shift. Through this series of intentionally bathetic vignettes, which yet carry the intriguing whiff of truth, one comes to realise that in essence, the religions of the world, the capitalist war-machine and the publishing-retailing complex are little more than interlocking systems of institutionalised insanity. The Word, as blood, shit and green-backs.

Faber is a master of prose style and narrative tension. With The Fire Gospel, he has re-affirmed that he is also a skilled literary entertainer.

The Gargoyle
Andrew Davidson
CANONGATE, £16.99 pp468, ISBN 1847671683


As an admonition not to take drugs and drive, this novel starts very well: the narrator, a successful pornographer stoned on cocaine and bourbon, encounters a flight of burning arrows, veers off the road into a ravine, and is burned, on Good Friday, to a crisp. Happily rescued, he is rushed to hospital where he spends the next few months – and his fortune – being completely rebuilt. Completely, that is, apart from the one organ that launched his previous career.

While in hospital, the narrator is befriended by a sculptress named Marianne Engel who claims to have met and fallen in love with him in fourteenth century Germany. She tells him the story of her previous life as a nun, and of his as a mason-cum-mercenary. After he is discharged from hospital, he moves in with her (conveniently, she has a huge house and wads of cash) – and after that – well, I won’t spoil what little there is to tell.

For the first third of this lengthy novel, things go well for the reader. The story is interesting and well-told, and there are enough detailed descriptions of major burns and the treatment thereof to satisfy the most morbid of readers. There is oddity and implausibility in equal measure. It seems that, in Dantean manner, the pornographer is getting his deserts in Hell; he descends a Circle or two.

Then, rather annoyingly, he reascends, and here plot and character stagnate. Despite his appalling accident, his recovery, and the love of Marianne, the narrator – paying no attention to the blurb on the cover promising “love, miracles and redemption” – does not change convincingly for either better or worse.

It is the job of a novelist to make the implausible seem plausible, for at least an hour or so, preferably longer. Andrew David-son fails to do this. Part of the reason is his inability to distinguish characters or find voices – both the main narrative and Marianne’s narrative read almost identically. Partly to blame also is his failure to make a credible historical case for the ‘medieval’ strand of the story: there is, for example, considerable shakiness in his knowledge of fourteenth-century Europe. If this book is ever translated into German, I can foresee some public consternation: in one rather crucial episode, the mystic Heinrich Seuse, while travelling from Stras-burg to Cologne, stops off for a night at the Engelthal nunnery, which lies east of Nürnberg, “because, although it was not directly on his path, he could not pass up the opportunity of visiting it”. Perhaps the detour would be a short one in these octane-fuelled days of the Autobahn, but not in the 1320s – it would be like taking a detour via St Andrews when walking from Edinburgh to Glasgow. There are a couple of similar plot-twists, which seem perfectly avoidable, basing themselves as they do on a misunderstanding of simple geography.

And if there was a literary prize for the most unconvincing declaration of love – and why not? – then here’s one for the short-list: it comes with no prior warning and leaves the reader blinking – where did that come from? This passage should mark a turning-point in the narrator’s life, but is unfortunately devoid of any credibility.

However, it would be unfair to say that there is nothing good about this book. Davidson’s use of language is deft and witty. The narrative works well for a while. There are some attractive peripheral characters (the burns specialist, the physio, the psychologist). Embedded in the novel, like raisins in the dough, are four engaging short tales of tragic love (one concerning a gay Viking, a character-type underutilised in fiction) – but these really do not serve to drive the plot forwards.

Disappointingly, The Gargoyle does not cohere, it has no character-development, it misses several opportunities to take a twist and a turn down a side-road to the dark and light places, it ultimately goes nowhere: it left this reviewer flat. The author has set out to write a book to demonstrate that “love is as strong as death, as hard as Hell” (as Eckhart said), but has tripped himself up by being rather too clever: love, even what is termed ‘great love’, is not a cathedral requiring gargoyles or the dubious buttresses of mysticism and re-incarnation, it is a very simple construct, built of humanity and mutual trust and commitment – of which there is no evidence here.

There’s much to entertain the reader in this book, but, for a hardened pedant like myself, just as much that is annoying and poorly thought-out. This is Andrew Davidson’s first novel – it will be intriguing to read his second.

Scottish Vernacular Furniture
Bernard D Cotton
Thames & Hudson, £48 304pp ISBN: 978 500 238578


The same curiosity is roused by this book as by the chance to look into someone’s lit window as you pass on the street. Nosiness is one word for it; fascination with the way other people live would be a kinder description. Either way, it boils down to the same thing, namely an irresistible urge to peek at the private sanctum of others and imagine how they live.

Furniture historian Bernard Cotton raises this very human trait to a distinguished level. Scottish Vernacular Furniture is the fruit of 30 years’ research, much of it conducted in the teeth of northerly weather.

The first of many photos in a lavishly and often movingly illustrated work shows Cotton and his wife Gerry returning by ferry from Stroma in Caithness, where they had literally dug long-abandoned dressers, chairs and box beds out of sheep litter in order to preserve their memory. Conditions on Stroma and other remote parts of the country were such that a wheelbarrow was required to transport their camera equipment. The tone of this book may be judicious and even scholarly, but there’s no disguising Cotton’s excitement at his discoveries, a passion for his subject that far outweighs the discomforts he has endured.

With a remit stretching from the late seventeenth-century to the twentieth century, Cotton’s enquiry is an intimate record of Scottish domestic life which inevitably spills into culture and to some extent politics, as he explains who used the pieces, who made them, and what influenced or dictated their design. Photographs of individual pieces are augmented by contemporary paintings, sketches and grainy photos, from Walter Geikie’s drawings of humble Lowland homes in the Regency period, to the often sentimental portraits of highland and island life by such as Land-seer, and, more recently, shocking snapshots of spartan abodes and their tenants. In Cotton’s matter of fact captions, the sometimes haunting faces of the inhabitants take second place to the stools, cradles and dressers around them.

As with The Antiques Roadshow, some of the interest in this book is illumination on the habits of our forebears. But unlike that programme material value is of little interest to Cotton. Though there are one or two exquisite pieces in these pages, the majority of the furniture he describes is workaday, some of it downright lowly. As he writes, “vernacular furniture has at its core the notion of utility”. What follows is a chapter by chapter account of tables, chairs, dressers, aumries (cupboards), beds and cradles that have enjoyed a long working life.

Wills from previous ages testify that furniture and utensils were often the only things of worth the deceased could pass on. In Eng-land beds were a frequent bequest, but in Cotton’s hands, the word ‘embedded’ takes on a whole new meaning. From the stone beds recessed within a cottage’s walls, to ornate box beds, these were objects that weren’t going anywhere. Even to modern eyes, however, the press, close and box beds were ideal for their circumstances: capacious, space-saving, and cosy.

Some, however, seemed deliberately to eschew comfort. On St Kilda, where feathers abounded, only straw was used in mattresses. Perhaps a downy pallet was deemed too luxurious for those whose lives were as tough as the soles of their feet. Or perhaps nobody had heard that a mattress could be a thing of comfort rather than a tool of penitence. Certainly the word pillow never reached that island; according to Cotton, the islanders simply rolled up their clothes and lay their heads on them at night.

It is no surprise that Cotton, author of The English Regional Chair, excels in the area of seating. The most rudimentary pieces took the form of turf, as found in blackhouses in the Western Isles. Many were lucky ever to get a proper seat. The common way of things in many homes was “a wooden armed chair for the husband when he arrives fatigued from his labour, and a few stools for the rest of the family.” Well-worn stones in the very poorest households tell their own story.

In homes where the fire burned in the centre of the room, stools and chairs were made especially low, to avoid the choking pall of smoke that gathered under the rafters. Similarly, dressers and aumries were often designed with sloping backs, to allow water from sodden thatched roofs to run off them without destroying or dirtying their contents.

From creepies and backless benches to finely wrought Wind-sor and Orkney chairs, from basic plate racks to elaborately carved dressers, the homely items Cotton records echo their owners, and their artistic history. Sensible and cheap as they were, many of the pieces here are nevertheless works of art, sublimely suited to their purpose, and beautiful in their simplicity.

Few are more evocative, though, than the multitude of cradles he lists, many of which were influenced by Scandinavian models. Wide Nordic rockers were a godsend for busy mothers, who could rock their infant with one foot while getting on with knitting. The rubbed rockers and finials speak of the generations who occupied each cradle, the first and perhaps finest bit of furniture they would ever encounter. The quality of wood often used for cradles is itself eloquent. As, indeed, is every piece in this enthralling book.

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