Death Of A Ladies’ Man
HACHETTE SCOTLAND, £12.99 pp432, ISBN 9780755319404
Reviewer: SEAN BELL
As if Leonard Cohen hadn’t been ripped off enough. First his manager, now the Falkirk Personality of the Year. With his third novel, Alan Bissett pinches his title from Canada’s greatest son (Death of a Ladies’ Man is the name of Cohen’s unloved 1977 album).
Death of a Ladies’ Man is an account – ‘story’ is too strong a word – of Charlie Bain, the ladies’ man in question; it’s also a neuroses-laden parable on the subject of (as the jacket copy lyrically puts it), “why men are dicks”. A high school English teacher, achingly trendy, Charlie is a mosaic of middle-class malaises: he’s hypocritical, immature, pretentious and narcissistic. The reader takes a positively giddy pleasure in disliking him. Which is the point. Bissett builds up Charlie in order to dismantle him; drugs, sex and Glasgow’s nightlife lead our hero into confrontations with women he has let down, from his frail, depressed mother to Yvonne, the woman he convinced himself he loved.
The titular ‘ladies’ man’, Charlie is chronically unfaithful, and an example of the unperfumed male psyche in action to boot. Each chapter comes garlanded with quotations from some infernal DIY guide to How Men Think; it includes gems such as, “Keep her dangling, uncertain about whether or not you’re totally disinterested or want to take her to bed and do wicked things”. Charlie reveals himself to be the archetypal man-child in all his immature pomp and swagger and self-delusion. If you thought Fight Club was superficial in its forays into male psychology, you’ll find it oceanic in its depth compared to Bissett’s take.
Charlie is adorned with character flaws like Christmas trees are dressed in baubles. Without these flaws, however, there would be nothing there at all. He’s not the only character who has a black hole where there should be a personality. Charlie’s grotesquely characterised students get a raw deal (par for the course in British fiction’s portrayal of adolescence), while Yvonne’s relationship patter is tiresome. Characters resemble outlines into which some notes and one-liners have been scribbled. Victims of Charlie’s insensitivity fail to evoke sympathy purely because they seem so cartoonish themselves.
Bissett doesn’t worry however, as he has plenty of bells and whis tles to keep us occupied. The novel tries on styles like outfits – scenes are presented in screenplay format, streams of consciousness, and fragmented free verse. A particularly irritating gimmick is the listing of albums and films that have some relevance to the pop culture-immersed Charlie – there’s no excuse for a page of movie titles in a novel. There’s no ambition or lunatic daring in this sort of ‘experimentalism’, and for all Bis-sett toys with wordplay, he does so listlessly, never giving the reader any sense that he particularly enjoys language. Instead, he enjoys messing around with the typeface settings on his word processor. Why strive for Nabokovian symmetry of meaning when you can change the font size to 36?
Death of a Ladies’ Man shares some of the worst excesses of contemporary Scottish and British literature. It swears like it’s going out of fashion. It aims for an operatic misanthropy, but never gives us a worthwhile antihero. It denounces drugs and casual sex as the tools of the pathetically hip, while filling a novel with both. Modern life is portrayed the way the ’80s are now re-imagined on television – a checklist of modish things, ranging here from txting and Blue-tooth to throwaway lines about Iraq and the credit crunch. The author also appears to think that, being a man himself, that he has an insight into the male condition that makes his criticisms particularly stinging, to a degree that a woman couldn’t manage; I’m not sure that the unweaving of such an obvious straw man as Charlie reveals anything, however.
One last observation. Another songwriter, Lou Reed once wrote a song about how he loved women. Not romantically or sexually – Lou just thought they were great in general. “What a nightmare,” he sang, “to have no women in the world”. Bissett, while lashing Charlie for being a man, appears disinterested in women. His focus on Charlie’s disintegration is a glimpse of Lou’s nightmare-world.
Angus Peter Campbell UR-SGEUL, £8.99
pp120, ISBN 9781900901499
Reviewer: MARK WRINGE
If Angus Peter Campbell’s oeuvre were a car, it would be a custom-built vehicle, constructed from Gaelic ingenuity, and fuelled by a diverse mix as global as any brand of oil – equal parts South American magic realism, Huxleyite dystopia (see his second novel La a’ deanamh Sgeil do La), and Ital-ian postmodernism (his English-language cycle of stories, Invisible Islands owes an obvious debt to Italo Calvino). For his fourth Gaelic-language novel, Tilleadh Dhachaigh (Returning Home) though, he takes the train.
A quick inspection of the ticket on the cover (a Scotrail day return to Belgium, price £2 4s 8d) lets us know we’re in for no ordinary journey, full of irreverent humour and surreal juxtapositions. Our narrator is a ghost, a soldier from the Great War, making the return journey he didn’t take in 1918, travelling incognito with his twenty-first century fellow passengers. Each short chapter is a stop along the line from Aberdeen to Inverness, and on to Kyle, allowing Campbell to digress from a richly cohesive whole. It enables the reader to step between the parallel tracks of times and cultures. It might surprise some that the name of almost every station on this line through the North-East is Gaelic in origin, and the few that aren’t have Gaelic forms older than their English ones. What an irony, that only an inquisitive, receptive Gael has the wide-angle view, when many locals today might be antithetic to the notion of Gaelic being at the core of their own heritage. Campbell playfully mixes the serious with the ludicrous – one of the passengers is early twentieth-century professor W.J. Watson, who informs us, as the train passes a supermarket, of the Celtic origin of the wordTescos.
Just in case there is the slightest danger of predictability, it’s all change in Inverness for the second leg of the journey, with a second narrator and a marked turn in the book. Matters become more surreal. Both ghost and his new companion are asked to complete a bizarre survey for the Board for Promotion of Gaelic Exams – providing an opportunity to debunk the old approach to teaching Gaelic literature, which is to be translated and understood, certainly not enjoyed. It’s no less mirthful than an earlier encounter with a ticket inspector who interrogates passenger’s literary credentials, and offers discounts for the ‘in’ politics. But the second train also introduces a fixed element in all of Campbell’s novels to date – the woman who brings revelation and salvation to our lead male character.
Of course, in one sense, the ghost at the centre is Campbell himself. The inspiration for the novel came from a visit to Aberdeen, where he was a television journalist in a previous existence. With the Grampian building now gone, the old colleagues vanished, why wouldn’t you wonder if it all ever really happened? On the train back to Skye, an idea clearly germinated.
Readers will recognise all the themes and motifs that make Campbell’s body of work so distinctive. Indeed, something he has been criticised for, the liberal use of lists and itineraries, is here put to brilliant effect to supply the very structure of the book. It’s surprising how non-linear a railway journey can be.
Perhaps the most pleasurable way to read Tilleadh Dhachaigh is to do it in situ. It could easily be read travelling between Aberdeen to Inverness, or Inverness to Kyle.
Ration yourself to a chapter per station, and you’ll have ample time to digest the book, to realise if what you see through the window is what Angus Peter Camp-bell saw.
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £13.99
pp 696, ISBN 9781906120443
Reviewer: RODGE GLASS
Suhayl Saadi is no ordinary author. Where many are content to come up with a nice story, imitate their heroes, or simply entertain themselves, Saadi’s ambitions are grander. One of this country’s finest writers (though sadly, and predictably, ignored in the usual roll call of ‘important’ literary Scots), Saadi conjures up conflicting realities, and is as comfortable dealing with Eastern religion, philosophy and mythology as he is the Western world, with different cultures bound together, sometimes in the same sentence, though never self-consciously. We’re all chucked in the pot as one in Saadi’s imagination. His work doesn’t make a fuss of its ethnicity, or its Scottishness, it just is. The author’s world is ours as well. Complicated, many-headed, vibrant. And his writing has always been like that. Anyone familiar with the mind-maze of his last novel Psychoraag will not sit down to read Joseph’s Box expecting an easy ride.
To begin with, this is the story of Zuleikha MacBeth, a Glaswegian doctor who wades into the Clyde one morning and comes out of it holding a box. The box contains more boxes, and, together with Alex, a recently bereaved lute player, she travels far from home to follow their trail. This apparently straightforward plot takes readers far from its beginnings, with the “acorn of madness” identified early on in Zuleikha’s mind growing steadily. She is restless and unsatisfied even before her dip in the river. At the beginning she says, “Before I was a doctor, I was a person. Maybe one day I shall be a person again”. The rest of the book is, in part, her search to find herself.
The prose here is colourful and deeply intelligent, but also, crucially, slow. Saadi forces his readers to slow down, specializing in describing the tiniest details of human interaction, focusing on every thought and half-thought that zips through the minds of his creations. There’s no point approaching Joseph’s Box like other novels – readers have to fortify their attention span, forget the busy world outside, and immerse themselves in this universe, otherwise it won’t work. This approach is refreshing and unusual, but there are downsides too.
It feels like sacrilege to type it, but even Suhayl Saadi’s biggest fans may find moments in Joseph’s Box where, despite all the fantastic linguistic acrobatics, they are bored and just want the author to get on with it. The pace is often painfully sluggish, with even the simplest dialogue exchanges taking forever to unfold. A plucked note on Alex’s lute contains worlds of description. A single thought in the mind of elderly ex-airman Archie MacPherson, Zuleikha’s patient, is pulled apart, turned inside out and retold in reverse. As beautiful as this is, it can be maddening too. For example, after Zuleikha finds that first box at the book’s opening, it takes her close to 100 pages to open the damn thing. Saadi’s work has been compared in the past to Okri, Pamuk, also Rushdie. And there are certainly shades of Rushdie here. But though undoubtedly in possession of a gift for fine prose and joyous invention, he is another great mind who has been known to get caught up in the details and forget the reader.
The world of Joseph’s Box actually goes much further than the book itself, with the author expanding it on a website where the origins of the book are explored and a whole mysterious section called ‘The Stories’ takes the tale beyond the traditional parameters of the page. Not everyone will persevere with Joseph’s Box to the end. Some will find it “too long, too verbose, too abstruse” (as the author teases us in a website footnote which attacks lazy critics). But those who do stick with it will come away, perhaps, with a fresh way of looking at the world. And isn’t that what fiction is for?
All the Colours of the Town
FABER AND FABER, £12.99
pp336, ISBN 9780571239832
Reviewer: HARRY McGRATH
The narrator of Liam McIlvanney’s first novel is Gerry Conway, the Scottish Political Editor of the Tribune On Sunday. The newspaper is based in Glasgow and sounds familiar. It has a falling circulation, a parsimonious expenses system and an imported tabloid editor deployed to revive its fortunes. Like most things in Gerry’s life, the newspaper is a peculiar fusion of fact and fiction.
The Scottish Parliament, the source of Conway’s daily bread, is real enough. It is still ruled by a coalition, the parliament “building” is a hole in the ground and it has had three First Ministers in four years “each more mediocre than the last”. The First Minister in Gerry’s world is William MacLaren who likes to hang out on the Isle of Mull when he’s not in Holyrood and is thinking of retiring to Mull permanently. His likely successor is Justice Minister Peter Lyons who has a bit of panache unlike most of his fellow politicians. Lyons was elected to Holyrood in its second term when “the MSPs were a shambles” and “even our scandals were second rate”.
Initially, this world fits Gerry perfectly because he’s not much use either. He is désolé because his wife has left him and taken the kids, leaving him inclined to teary-eyed reminiscences concerning his own childhood. He also has an annoying habit of saying stock things about Glasgow – for example, that it can sometimes look like Manhattan or that it admires gangsters more than it should.
His professional life is no better. Conway has no stories worth printing and is close to losing his editor’s confidence. He depends on Lyons for pabulum and, in return, makes the Minister look good. The system starts to break down, however, when he receives a tip that Lyons may have been involved in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The story makes one man and unmakes the other.
Conway pursues his quarry through real towns in Ayrshire, a fictitious (though again familiar) one in Lanarkshire and on to Belfast. As the tension builds, his character acquires some steel and he starts to explore the connections between political persuasion, religious prejudice and common criminality. He also probes the complicated relationship between sectarian elements in the West of Scotland and those in Northern Ireland. At one point, Conway’s car is caught in an Orange Walk in “Crosskirk”, Lanarkshire, where he had gone to beard the Orangemen in their den. As the marchers rock the car he considers their motivation: “How serious were these people? How angry? I don’t think they themselves were sure”. Conway is sufficiently convinced of their lack of truly violent purpose that he calmly notes “the car tipped onto its fulcrum” instead of contravening the third commandment which would surely be a more natural reaction in the circumstances.
In Northern Ireland, however, there is no doubt. A former Ulster Volunteer Force thug sums it up for him: “The Jocks are like that sometimes, no offence. They think they know the score, but they’ve no idea. Here’s this guy from Glasgow telling us what’s what and the most action he’s seen is a fight at the football”.
But McIlvanney doesn’t allow the reader to draw easy conclusions about soft-sectarianism here and hard-cases there. For one thing, he has Conway recall covering a real-life story for the fictitious Tribune – that of sixteen-year-old Mark Scott who had his throat cut in 1996 while walking along London Road in Glasgow by a young man with UVF connections. If he were writing more recently, he could have added the story of Kevin McDaid, kicked to death by a ‘sectarian mob’ in Coleraine after an Old Firm game in Glasgow. When Conway phones his son from Belfast the child asks him “Is Ire-land in Scotland?” Gerry says no but could just as easily have answered yes.
Scotland doesn’t know what to make of sectarianism or what to do about it. There’s a composer who sees it everywhere, a sociologist who thinks the issue is exaggerated, and a historian who believes the truth is somewhere in the middle. We have ‘Sectarian Summits’ or we don’t have them and, either way, we still get the Famine Song. The only thing that’s clear is that nothing good is likely to come of it. That is unless you are Liam McIlvanney and you use sectarianism as the basis of a first rate thriller: tightly drawn, fast-paced and literate.
pp320 ISBN: 978014 103 3044.
Reviewer: MARGARET ELPHINSTONE
The image of the woman warrior may haunt our mythic past, but how many really existed? Herodatus invites us to believe that the Amazons played a decisive part in the Trojan War. Boudicca left considerable material evidence behind her – the layer of ash from the London she burnt to the ground is still evident when one digs down. Neither Elizabeth 1 nor Catherine the Great actually took to the front line, but Elizabeth’s rousing words to the troops at Tilbury still ring down the centuries. But who has heard of Skaaha (Paisley’s phonetic spelling, as she explains, of Sgathach or Scathach), a historical figure who lived and warred in Skye and the west coast in the early Iron Age? Janet Paisley’s new novel, Warrior Daughter, presents us with a controversial figure: a warrior queen who did indeed exist, although almost nothing is known about her. Paisley recounts Skaaha’s life from the age of ten until she takes power as undisputed queen aged eighteen.
Paisley’s Skaaha, like other historical warrior queens, gains her status by heredity. In fact, testosterone almost invariably rules unless one can pull rank. Powerful female rulers are privileged, isolated exceptions. Modernity makes little difference: Elizabeth 1 and Thatcher arguably became honorary men. Skaaha may indubitably have been a warrior queen, but can one really believe in a fully-fledged matriarchy, ruled by Amazonian women, in the early Celtic Iron Age? Paisley’s impressive list of acknowledgements suggests strong evidence, but the novel left me unconvinced; the extensive subjugation of men depicted here seems unlikely. I fear that the Celtic version of strong naked women warriors who so enthusiastically enjoyed free sex may be more a feature of Tacitus’ imagination; there is far more substantial evidence, throughout human history, of colonial male fantasies being projected on to subjugated peoples than there is of powerful, lusty women in the seats of power. In some ways Warrior Daughter fits more easily into the fruitful genre of feminist fantasy that began in the late nineteenth century with novels such as Char-lotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and reached its zenith a century later in writers like Le Guin, Russ and Mitchison. The ideas are provocative; perhaps historical and archaeological veracity ought not to be the point. (But even so, however did Skaaha and her people fit themselves and all those cattle into one broch?)
But none of us knows what life was really like then. Debate is of the essence, and Paisley’s construction of Skaaha’s world is a lively contribution to the argument. And yes, it’s time we shook off the distortions of “post-Roman and Christian influence, additions and opinions” that Paisley mentions. Our view of, for example, the sexual practices, or attitudes to nakedness, of past peoples have too often been filtered through the lenses of nineteenth century prurience. After all, the Victorians were our first serious archaeologists. Warrior Daughter is in some ways a plea for open-mindedness, and that is admirable, but I fear that the serious questions raised by the book are often lost in depictions of the warriors’ unquenchable libidinosity. Rape and violence are depicted more tellingly. The horrific denouement is neatly tied in with an earlier festival of innocence, and the counterpoint highlights the hurt and degradation that have precipitated the crisis. In this respect Paisley has captured the paradox of our early Celtic ancestry. The same people who made wells and trees sacred, who celebrated the fecundity of living things in their glorious and highly sophisticated art, also practised ritual cruelty, with cults of severed heads and human sacrifices. Their descendents have inherited a double-edged sword. The strength of Warrior Daughter is that it shows how a society can be cruel and creative, both destructive and respectful of life, kind and ruthless, all at the same time, and for the same reasons.
The cruel and familiar story of making a child into a warrior reflects this unhappy paradox. The implicit parallel with the child soldiers who are a scandal of our own world throws Skaaha’s life into sharp relief, despite moments of bathos when Skaaha’s military training more nearly resembles a nudist version of a cheerleaders’ gym class. The overwhelming impression that Warrior Daughter conveys is that dedicated warriors of either gender are fairly unpleasant people. In this novel, it takes eight years to make a little girl into a powerful warrior. Skaaha, as history documents, defeats her external enemies, but her story, as told by Paisley, is still one of loss, repression, and, ultimately, a record of dehumanisation. Never mind what actually happened on Skye in the first century AD, in Warrior Daughter Paisley has given us issues that need to be argued about, now as much as ever.
VAGABOND VOICES, £10.00
pp208, ISBN 9780956056023
Reviewer: RONALD FRAME
Vagabond Voices is a Scottish publisher, just founded, with an up-market European brief. Good news for adventurous readers. They have scored an early coup by bringing us a short novel by Allan Massie, Surviving. This is (for me) echt-Massie: not one of his popular re-imagined histories, but the dissection of modern individuals forced to live with (or without) their consciences. Not that the distinction between the two literary modes is quite so simple.
In Surviving the dramatis personae have a number of things in common: they’re living in Rome, they speak English, and they attend meetings of an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
“One reason we drink is our inability to accept ourselves as we are, at our true worth”.
We’re in the present-day (or just about – references to Blind Date and toy-boys hint at the late 1990s).
However, we’re also in Rome, with its vertiginous depths of history. And what Massie identifies as connecting this now with all those thens is the cruelty that is the common streak of human nature. This is what connects us across the ages.
Yet somehow Massie, with a literary high wire act, delivers his readers from abject pessimism.
Massie himself seems to acknowledge the problem of writing about these AA regulars, or rather about the ones who slither off the wagon. At one point he describes “the look of self-satisfaction which drunks wear even in moments of inner misery, provoked by their certainty that their feelings are all that matter …” Inebriates can be utter bores, in other words. But none of these characters becomes tedious, or anything like.
Massie inhabits each of them, and gives us the essence. He is as good with the women as with the men, and with the third sex. A vein of melancholy doesn’t slow the action; rather, memory is entirely fluid – almost literally, because these stone bowls of Rome contain the fountains of eternal youth for Belinda, Kate, Tom, Stephen and the others. (“There’s no pleasure like nostalgia”, one of them owns up.) It’s the mark of experience that Massie should have a savvy sense of pace, and just over half-way through – when the murky past shared by a number of the characters finally asserts itself – we have a grisly murder on our hands. Suddenly, a body has to be disposed of …
A thriller, therefore, with high moral intent.
Massie lets us take nothing with these characters on trust. Plenty of vices, but no virtue is unquestioned either. (Even self-restraint can be construed as self-centredness.) Everyone is dismantled.
This is edgy writing, with a higher shock value than that of certain voguish young turks I can think of. I was reminded of Euro-pean post-WW2 existentialist fiction and films, and wondered why so few Britons have gone there. A previous Massie novel had a De Chirico cover illustration, and the same spirit of desolate mystery seeps into this one. To adapt the title of an earlier short story, he takes his characters into ‘the barren lands’ – of the soul. They have no defences against themselves: in fact, all they have is one another. Massie remains too interested in people and in their idiosyncrasies not to want to flesh out his cast, even as he pushes them to their extremes. Evil, pure and nasty, has a significant role to play in the story. Yet the literal aridity of southern Italy, the landscape out of an Antonioni film where we end up after Rome, is qualified, enlivened, by the personal intrigues. This novel isn’t any dry exercise in human geometry – the characters come with histories, secrets, and a bloody-minded survival instinct.
Even so, all this might seem to be very unfashionable in national publishing terms. Perhaps the author is writing out of his time, Richard & Judy-time, but that is our loss – and to the credit of Vagabond Voices. Echt-Massie, a survivor himself, belongs by rights with the Tabucchis and Handkes of mainland Europe. Here is thoroughly grown-up fiction, filled with half-tones and self-contradictions, revealing – laying bare – the broken thinking which we each to our shame turn into habit. (All, as RD Laing is quoted as saying, to sustain the ‘hypnotic trance’ in which we are content to muddle by.)
Massie doesn’t sentimentalise in the last pages (as so many Scots-born writers will), but – being also an instinctive storyteller – he has the decency to tidy up the loose ends of his characters. It was because I had become so involved with them and now regretted the leave-taking that I – reluctantly – raced to that (just possibly ironic?) Finis, which is the concluding word.
The characters strive for relevance in their lives – books offer vital pointers to them: well-thumbed classic novels and remembered fragments of Greek philosophy – and Massie is also, indirectly and maybe even unconsciously, putting himself into a more modern tradition. Not necessarily the Stendhal he quotes, but Muriel Spark (I thought of two of her Italian novels, The Takeover and The Driver’s Seat) and Patricia Highsmith (Ripley). This is allowed, when an author doesn’t inflict himself on the narrative, but lets us believe that these characters were already living and breathing and that he just chanced to be the one who alighted on them and brought them to our attention.
For my part, I’m very grateful that he did.
An Allergic Reaction To National Anthems
ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £7.99
pp256, ISBN 9781906134396
Reviewer: JENNIE RENTON
Donal McLaughlin is a translator who is passionate about the process and the community it engenders across frontiers. It is therefore appropriate that translation is the core theme of An Allergic Reaction To National Anthems. Here, however, it is a physical translation that concerns him, for most of the stories in this debut collection are based on his family’s experience of moving from Derry to Scotland in 1970 to escape ‘The Troubles’. Issues of identity and belonging and how they are affected by the condition of exile are constantly simmering.
The O’Donnell stories are presented through the eyes of the eldest son, Liam, opening with his first experience of bullying. Wearing his dead-giveaway primary school tie, he is hunkering down beside a gutter playing at boats when he is suddenly lifted in the air and given a kicking by a much older boy, in an incident so gross that it takes on a cartoonish quality: “a knee made contact wi his balls, not that hed’ve known to call them that yet, or testicles either, sure they’d hardly descended, even, and knowing Liam and his upbringing, he wouldn’t’ve known to expect them to.”
‘Going, Going’ finds Liam, about a decade later, on the deck of the Stranraer ferry, exhilarated at the prospect of the exile that his father will come to believe is God’s punishment. Throwing bread to the seagulls, with each chunk Liam yells out the things he’s glad to leave behind, from barricades to bomb scares. Vowing that he will never again set foot in Ireland, he decides, “The worst thing about Derry, apart from the bin-lids, had been having to walk past soldiers, and wonder was there going to be shooting, when his mother sent him for bread and milk.” His father’s memory stretches back to more mellow times, but as a “youngfella” on the streets of Derry Liam has been “feart” once too often.
Bridget, his mother, is the anchor for the whole family. The significance of the protection and reassurance she gives her children is reinforced in story after story, giving all the more impact to occasions when disturbing outer realities impinge. This is particularly well conveyed in ‘No Peace’, set on a visit back to Derry. Before saying hello properly, an aunt rushes in, “up to high doh” with the news that a local youth has been “lifted” by soldiers. Having made the dubious decision to send her daughter to let the boy’s mother know what has happened, potentially bringing bother to her own front door, she turns her attention to her favourite soap opera, demanding that the agitated young O’Don-nells allow her to watch “in peace”. But next thing she is roaring out of the window at some kids who are trampling her flower garden. After she has settled down in front of the TV, an even bigger rumpus erupts outside. Panic showing through her attempt to be casual, she tries to calm her nieces and nephews with the words: “There’s nothing to be scared of anyway. It’s only a shooting.” Her desperate retreat into escapist drama has a quality of both pathos and comedy, a tension which Donal McLaughlin successfully works into many of these tales.
It’s no surprise given his profession that he has an ear for conversational style. His ability to render the spoken word – both Irish and Scots, according to context – on the page brings attention to the linguistic challenges involved in moving from one vernacular to another. In fact, it is primarily the rough-and-tumble banter of a large, loving working-class family, rather that individual characterisation, that brings animation and emotional texture to his domestic cameos.
The speech of Derry is shown to be a potent binding force for the O’Donnells after their relocation to Scotland, an altogether more dour society than the one they’ve been used to. The view might be considerably duller than the theatre of conflict Liam’s granny half-enjoys from her living-room window, but as he swiftly discovers, below the surface run similar veins of kindness and animosity. Across the collection, Liam is shown to develop into a reflective young man, the first in the family to go to university, a status that means that his habit of careful wariness now extends to members of his wider family circle, who might perceive him as an outsider.
Interspersed among the “loose sequence” of O’Donnell stories are a handful of others set in more recent times, a decision which gives the collection an impression of overall shapelessness. This is amplified by the fact that individual stories, engaging as they usually are, often tail off lamely; perhaps it’s a calculated refusal to bow to the dictum of providing a ‘beginning, a middle and an end’.
The People’s Army: The Home Guard in Scotland 1940-1944
Brian D Osborne BIRLINN, £9.99
pp224, ISBN 9781843410430,
Reviewer: TREVOR ROYLE
From the beginning of recorded history the people of Britain have had an uneasy connection with the armed forces which protect them; indeed, it is not going too far to say that the relationship
has bordered on fear and contempt. From Cromwell’s major-generals to Rudyard Kipling’s famous evocation of Tommy Atkins, civilians have tended to look askance at the professional soldier, deeming him to be a disreputable and slightly ridiculous figure. At the same time they have smiled on part-time volunteer forces such as the militia and in more recent times the Territorial Army. As well they might have done because the traditional duty of ‘watch and ward’ for home defence was always considered to be a communal responsibility and one which should be taken seriously.
Perhaps that’s why the Home Guard of the Second World War struck such a chord in the national consciousness. Helped by its recreation in the highly popular television series Dad’s Army it lives on as a classic example of British resolve in the face of adversity. More than that, it relied on the implicit – and again very British – belief that nothing was so serious that it should be taken too seriously and that military matters could be reduced to the stuff of comedy. But as the late Brian Osborne demonstrates in his crisp and informative history of the Home Guard in Scotland there was much more to the organisation than bumbling bankers and gnarled but ineffective veterans.
In common with the Royal Air Force, its finest hour came in 1940 when the threat of German invasion was very real and but for British naval supremacy could have taken place. The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) as the force was known at the time, was formed as a last line of defence to meet the threat of airborne invasion and the possibility that the enemy might use franc-tireurs or ‘second columnists’ to infiltrate the population. From the outset it was envisaged as a citizens’ army whose members would be unpaid and in which there would be no official rank structure – requirements which suited left-wing supporters such as Tom Wintringham who had served in the British battalion of the International Brigade during the recently fought Spanish Civil War.
That sense of idealism and communal effort provided the force with much of its motivation but the harsh reality was that it was poorly equipped and could not have put up much of a fight in the event of a determined Ger-man attack. Even so, its volunteers were not lacking in enthusiasm. Around 155,000 volunteered in Scotland and the service’s footprint covered the whole of the country. Inevitably the cities and the central belt provided the greatest concentration and many of the units were based on existing businesses or services, the railways being particularly well represented.
Rural areas provided a different challenge but even remote places like Teviothead and Roberton in the Borders managed to produce half a company. Improvisation and cocking a snook at authority also helped. In the 1st Dumfries-shire Battalion the rules banning women were cheerfully ignored when Lady Buchanan-Jardine took her turn on sentry-go on the not unreasonable grounds that the observation post was on her husband’s estate of Castlemilk.
As the war progressed so too did the Home Guard which by 1941 had outgrown its early name. (The initials LDV never really caught on.) A rank structure similar to the army’s had also been adopted and more modern weapons such as the ubiquitous Sten gun had appeared. In time regimental affiliations were encouraged so that Home Guardsmen in the north-east, for example, could wear the Gordon Highlanders’ stag’s head cap badge with the motto “Bydand”. Duties were also expanded with some Home Guards units serving in the anti-aircraft role while a select few served in the elite Auxiliary Units which would have stayed behind and operated underground following any enemy invasion.
As we would expect from such a distinguished man of letters Osborne, who died in 2008, writes in an easy and unaffected style. He has also dug deeply in the archives to enliven the narrative with the memories and recollections of the many Scots Home Guardsmen who served their country in this unique way. There are some misunderstandings. Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall the force’s Inspector-General might have appeared “a high quality appointment” but in reality he was a bit of a dud who had served with the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. Field Marshal Montgomery thought him “completely useless”.
That aside, this is a thought-provoking account of a little known aspect of Scottish military history and it well deserves its place in the library of anyone interested in the subject. It is also a pleasing if somewhat unusual monument to a writer who did so much to grace the Scottish literary scene.
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99
pp218, ISBN 97800224077873
Reviewer: ALICE THOMPSON
Laughter echoes throughout this collection of short stories, but not laughter as we know it. In fact, in one of her stories Kennedy espouses in her typical, elliptical style a “theory about laughter…. Which is making the sound of hurt things, who are trying not to be, falling things who are trying not to be, dying things who are trying to bounce back, looking like a different actor so that everything goes on just as before”. Laughter as a symptom of pain, a sign of bravery, a signal of normality. These stories embrace strangeness, are extended meditations of various kinds of loneliness. Life is the enemy more often than not; there is little joy here, much acerbic wit, wry observation and attention to detail.
This attention to detail creates a deliberately dull and alienating reality. The world her characters inhabit can be horrifyingly mundane. In ‘Wasps’, she depicts a disintegrating marriage by giving a reductive list of what the couple has for breakfast: “Sausage, fried eggs, bacon, black pudding, toast and potato scones, ketchup, peanut butter, marmalade”. In ‘Sympathy’, her list of the graphic details of a sexual encounter between two strangers – everyone is strange to everyone else in this collection – is more relentlessly specific than erotic. It’s only when the woman asks for sympathy, asks for an exchange that is emotional rather than pornographic, do the particulars of sex break down. Her request for something more than the explicit breaks their heterosexual connection. Repeatedly in this book, meaning threatens, disturbs the exact and exacting surface of the physical.
In Kennedy’s world, reality, this list of things, isn’t strong enough to bear the weight of perception. “It’s always best to meet your pleasures before you can tell what they mean”, she writes in ‘Story of my Life’, about the problems she has with her teeth and painful visits to the dentist. Here she demonstrates how much of her writing is to do with sensitivity in all its forms. Kennedy is unique in the way she makes pain an art form – she celebrates it, her characters wear it as a badge of honour. Physical and emotional pain become synonymous, chained indissolubly together by a laconic humour.
‘Edinburgh’ – the closest we get to a conventional love story – is about the unrequited love of a greengrocer for one of his customers. He reflects with a mixture of laughter and pathos, “Silly how you went home and you thought about her, having nothing else to occupy you beyond a small number of television programmes about Hitler and sharks”. In ‘Sat-urday Teatime’, a woman visiting a flotation tank for the first time remembers picking up a hamster as a child. “The whole procedure was an adult kind of pleasure, complicated: anxiety and fun and loss of control and maybe the chance that I’d hurt it without meaning, or that it would hurt me”. Only Kennedy could compare the act of picking up of a hamster to falling in love.
There are also constant flashes of tenderness. Kennedy gently describes a growing child as a “slow uncovering of inherent qualities [rather] than anything learned or dictated”. She can he political too, as her story of wounded soldier amputees, ironically entitled ‘As God Made Us’, shows. But most of all this laughter – tantalizing, oblique, mindful – that echoes down through these stories of actors, clowns, adulterers, soldiers and loners. A laughter that means something else altogether.