Monthly Archives: November 2009


Volume 5 – Issue 4 – Reviews

Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India
William Dalrymple
pp304, ISBN 9781408800614


It is a thrill to open a new book by the distinguished travel veteran and India scholar William Dalrymple, but opening Nine Lives is especially thrilling because it is his first travel book since The Age Of Kali ten years ago. It is also refreshing to read something by him that doesn’t contain the word ‘mughal’ in the title, after his two monumental works The Last Mughal and White Mughals which was named 2003 Scottish Book of the Year. Dalrymple has covered so much ground since his first exuberant account of life in Delhi, The City Of Djinns, that I wondered what more he could possibly add to it.

Chapter one alone makes mincemeat of that question. It is the mesmerising and melancholy tale of a young Jain nun who has renounced all material comforts in pursuit of moksha or spiritual liberation. We observe her at a shrine in the southern region of Karnataka. Despite her plucked head and austere demeanour, Dalrymple is struck by her beauty. With the odd naked Digambara or ‘sky clad’ Jain in the background – monks who practice the most extreme form of renunciation – she tells her story in simple but striking language. Like all the other stories, hers begins in childhood with a sense of powerful spiritual destiny, and progresses through acute personal loss. In the nun’s case, it is the recent loss to TB of her lifelong female companion. Together, they wandered across the country for twenty years, free of possessions. Grief and personal emotions are seen by the Jains as obstacles in their journey towards Enlightenment. “We are meant to cultivate indifference”, the nun says sadly, “but still I remember her”.

In his introduction, Dalrymple describes his chapters as non-fictional short stories. This is particularly true in the way he develops these remarkable real-life characters, adding his novelist’s flair to an already masterful blend of travel reportage, and philosophical meditation. After spending time with the Jain nun, it comes as a shock to learn that she has embarked on the final path of sallekhana or slow starvation. It is the preferred end for Jain spiritualists who see it as a life-affirming act that takes them a step closer to “unlocking the soul”.

Dalrymple’s range of characters with extreme practices of unlocking the soul is moving and impressive. What is moving is the desperation in their lives, and the determination to overcome it through renouncing the world as we know it. What is impressive is Dalrymple’s slowly unfolding display of a spiritually immense India. If you think you know Hinduism, read about the devotional prostitutes in Western India who in theory are given away to the martyred goddess Yellamma, but in practice end up dying of AIDS along with their daughters. If you think you know about Islam, read about the Sufi disciples, like the multiple refugee from religious extremism Lal Peri. Her dramatic story of dispossession is illuminated by Dalrymple’s investigation of the interplay between Islam and Hinduism, between radical Islam and the humanist tradition of Sufist music and poetry: “Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on South Asia’s festering religious wounds”.

We meet an exiled Buddhist monk in Daramsala atoning for his thirty years of revenge against the Chinese, after his mother was tortured to death – and in this one man’s story Dalrymple invokes the tragedy of Tibet. We meet a devotional dancer from the Untouchable caste who is worshipped by the very Brahmins who spit on him in the day-time – and his story is one of escape into art and dream.

Perhaps the most esoteric religious practice here is the Hindu cult of the goddess Tara, a deity that makes the blood-thirsty Kali look insipid. Its disciples live in cremation grounds, cure skulls, enjoy a form of advanced Tantric sex, and elevate mainstream taboos to divine practices. For them, in sharp contrast with the Jains and Buddhists, carnal desire is in the service of spiritual liberation. True, some have become unhinged, but they are seen as divine lunatics, and certainly have a lot more fun than the morose mullah in the madrasa.

Although these nine lives are extreme, and the stories are heart-breaking, Dalrymple’s writing glows with compassion, tenderness and humanity, and in places it even radiates with sacred poetry and secular ecstasy. This is not a book of agendas or messages – Dalrymple is too subtle for this. Instead, he takes us on a spell-binding journey of self-discovery where we are free to wonder how fundamental human yearnings can be fulfilled in unexpected places; how art, carnal love and spirituality are inseparable; how, in the words of the Bud-dha, “everything we have now is like a dream, impermanent”; and how music can make us so happy, in the words of the Blind Minstrel in the last story, that for one eternal moment, “we don’t remember what sadness is”.

The Bay Of Naples
Alan Clews
POLYGON, £8.99
pp224, ISBN 9781846971105


It’s long struck me as odd that so little fiction has emerged from (and about) that intriguing and creative community of immigrants to Scotland, the Italians. They’ve produced scores of successful hoteliers, restaurateurs, artists and musicians, but not many writers. In fact, apart from the late Alexander Trocchi, I’d be hard pushed to name a Scots-Ital-ian author who’s made anything like the impact of, say, the actress Daniela Nardini, the arts entrepreneur Ricky Demarco, or the violinist Nicola Benedetti.

That’s a pity. Because every community of incomers is fascinating, both for the light they shed on their countries of origin and on how we Scots engaged with their arrival and presence. Which, more or less, is what the Paisley-born writer Alan Clews sets out to do in his very readable novel The Bay of Naples, the story of Paisley café-owner Frank Jacanelli (born Franco Giaconelli), his wife Gina, and their thieving hired hand Ian Miller.

Clews begins his story in the poverty of the 1930s and then quickly moves it into World War Two. Which, of course, was a painful period for the Italians in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain). After the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini joined Hitler’s war against Britain and France the Ital-ians (even families who’d been here for generations) were seen as potential enemies and spies. Shops were wrecked, businesses were ruined, families were split apart as Britain turned on its Italians.

After Churchill’s 1940 order to “collar the lot” thousands of Italian men were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps, mostly in the Isle of Man where they were obliged to rub shoulders with captured German seamen (many of them ardent Nazis) and anti-Semitic East Europeans. It was while Frank Jacanelli was languishing on the Isle of Man that Ian Miller, the troubled young Scots-man he’d employed to work in the Bay of Naples café moved in on the business and on Frank’s wife Gina.

It’s not giving the plot away to say that Frank Jacanelli walked into a tragic situation when he returned to Paisley from internment on the Isle of Man. But it’s a tragedy that is lightened and warmed by Frank’s good heart and his ability to forgive, work hard, keep going, find another trade and build up another business. While Ian Miller’s apparently successful life and career is wrapped around a fatally poisonous core. In that respect The Bay of Naples is a very moral tale.

Maybe it’s because Clews is well-known in television circles as a script writer (Lovejoy, Love Hurts, Shine On Harvey Moon) that I kept seeing a film or a television piece in this book. In fact, the way in which the plausible, hard-working, helpful, but ultimately sinister Miller wreaks havoc on the lives of Frank and Gina Jacanelli reminded me a lot of Joseph Losey’s disturbing 1963 film The Servant.

One or two details in the story irritated me. Miller would never been up before a high court judge for trying to steal a few quid from a café, and a policeman would never have asked Gina if she wanted to ‘press charges’ against a drunk who’d wrecked the café. I’d have expected a Scotsman like Clews to know that in Scotland that’s a decision for the police and the procurator fiscal. Which sounds trivial, but in a historical novel (which is what this is) getting such details wrong can set the reader wondering what else might be amiss.

Still, The Bay Of Naples is an absorbing read. The book is nicely paced and plotted. Clews does an excellent job of conjuring up the run-down but oddly-comforting milieu of 1940s and 1950s Scot-land. All his major characters are well drawn and, in the case of Ian Miller, quite chilling. And I particularly liked the figure of Frank Jaconelli, the decent, hard-working Italian immigrant who plods his way through a sea of troubles not of his own making, and emerges, if not unscathed, at least unbowed. There must be many Scots-Italians like him.

Don’t Call Me A Crook
Bob Moore
pp256, ISBN 9780977378807


This book was first published to little or small applause in 1935. In his introduction, the publisher declares it to be a neglected gem. I would not go that far, but it is occasionally entertaining. The author, Bob Moore, is something of a mystery man. He gives little away in regards to his childhood – except that as a child his mother fed him lots of soup – as part of what I gather was a respectable Glasgow family. Rather he launches straight in with an account of his life that reads like bad fiction, which it probably is. What both his publishers, then and now, saw in this doubtful yarn is a mystery to me.

The author is a ship’s engineer with a liking for the bootleg whisky of the 1920s, a period during which he thrives as a petty crook and womaniser. He appears to go out of his way to demean himself as a man without an ounce of pity; the writing style doesn’t cover Moore in glory either, and is amateur and repetitious. Bob steals from men, women and, in once instance, a ‘nancy-boy’ he picks up in Times Square. I have to admit I found this last part unintentionally funny. How long ago did I last hear that, ‘nancy-boy’? It was much in vogue in the 1920s, it appears. Let Bob speak:

“So I looked at his painted face and said it was a very nice evening, and he said with a lisp, suppoth we went and had a drink. So I went along with him, and when he had bought me several drinks he began to ask if there was a place where we could go and have a talk. He wanted to know if I was living all by myself in New York but I said no, I lived with some people, so he said I ought to come back to where he was living, so I told him I would come back with him but I asked him to take me outside to the cloakroom first.”

All the while Bob is, to use a phrase, laughing up his sleeve at the rather gullible young gay man, who soon discovers, when they are alone in the cloakroom, that he is in the hands of a thief who only wants his money:

“So he squeaked like anything. ‘If you rob me I will call the polith.’ But I pointed out if he brought the police into the place where we were there would be a raid an everyone would be arrested.”

The episode ends with Bob telling his victim to wash his face and speak like a man, and so it goes. The whole book. On the same page – following a break-line – he meets a woman on a train travelling from New York to Chicago. She makes up to Bob, who pretends to be uninterested, until, that is, he discovers she has an engagement ring with a huge solitaire diamond. Needless to say, after some tomfoolery – she is as gullible as the nancy-boy – he soon parts her from it.

Despite all this and much more, the police never – except for an unfortunate one night stand in a jail in Argentina – get their hands on Bob, who hopes to make a fortune from his reminiscences and retire to Australia or Japan. It was not to be, little surprise. The wonder is that it was published at all, by, incidentally, the publisher to bring out the first English translation of Mein Kampf. Neither author lived too long. Hitler died aged fifty-six and Bob Moore at thirty-eight, the victim of alcohol gastroenteritis. He was buried in a potter’s field in London. It is questionable if he was mourned by many, if at all. He had a wife – a Glasgow woman, who must have been nuts – and child. The wife comes and goes and we know only that Bob is glad to be rid of her. He’s not the sort for domestic life.

Money, like the wife, comes and goes. He works on ships and travels the world and meets a woman – she is sixty years old – in Buenos Aires, who without much ado, soon sets him up in business. Another fool. There is no end of them in this book.

Reading this I was reminded of Errol Flynn’s roguish My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Neither book is much in the way of literature, but both are entertaining, with Flynn’s that little bit more plausible.

Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America
James Webb
pp362, ISBN 9781845964979


This book is an interesting mess. It is doubtful if greater nonsense about the Scots, the Irish and the Scots-Irish has ever been assembled within one cover. But it has value, however unintentionally, as pathology of the Reagan administration, in which the author was Assistant Secretary of Defence and then Secretary of the Navy (he is currently the Democratic Senator for Virginia). And there is instructive autobiographical matter which on the author’s grandparents reaches the sublime.

The title derives from what must be the silliest judgement made by our otherwise admirable T.C. Smout: “‘Scotland was born fighting’ was an old saying and a true one”. The context is the absorption of the Lowlanders in sixteenth-century Scotland. Smout should be the last person to support the old Scots elision of its medieval past, and no doubt did not mean to (though a thousand-year parturition makes little better sense). And it plays into the hands of the author who wants the Scots (or Irish or Scots-Irish) to be identified with fighting down the centuries. It is more than time that we all denounce as an atrocious slur the notion that our zest for homicide is unmatched and unmatchable. “In this culture”, intones Senator Webb, “if one is to be recognised as a leader, he [sic] must know how to fight and be willing to do so…. He must know how to use a weapon to defend himself, his family and his friends. He should know how to hunt [i.e. ‘shoot’] and fish and camp, and thus survive”.

We may therefore be grateful to the Nobel Peace Prize judges for saluting President Obama’s efforts to put the ideal of peace before his people, in place of the killer cult instilled in family life (as Webb advises) or in the US Armed Forces (where he ruled). On the evidence of this book, the USA requires an ASBO.

The Senator is so saturated with hatred of academe he evidently reads as little as possible, much as a true religious fundamentalist is suspicious of all books except the Bible. His flyleaf quotes Tom Wolfe on his book saying that Webb “has written…an important work of sociological history in the tradition of the great James Graham Leyburn”. Wolfe’s sense of humour would seem to have dictated this: Webb, an honest writer within his considerable limits, makes it clear by his personal quotations that he is so faithful to Leyburn’s traditions as to have read hardly anything else on the origins of the Scots-Irish, despite the wealth of publications in the fifty years since Leyburn wrote. You can perhaps glean something if I tell you Win-ston Churchill is Webb’s chief source on Scottish history.

What does Webb mean by the Scots-Irish? He begins by telling us that “along Hadrian’s Wall, give or take a few miles, is where the Scots nation took its physical shape” although he also tells us “most of the English province [sic] of Northumbria as well as a portion of Cumbria lie north of Hadrian’s Wall”. So the Scots are in fact English. But in order to bring in Wallace and Bruce, Scot-land proves itself to have a lot more of itself, and then (to make the Scots-Irish) absorbs or is absorbed by all of Ireland. Webb found the logic he wanted in an old IRA man of indisputably homicidal credentials who told him that if a thousand Hong Kong Chinese were planted in Ulster “within ten years we’d have IRA Chinese and the Orange Chinese”.

The reassurance is actually necessary, since Webb, for all of his insistence on his own embodiment of Scots-Irish virtues, is a few ancestors short of a Bannock-burn: the Webbs were Quaker Irish and Anglican English, the Doyles won fame as Irish Scots but were never Scots Irish, the Murphys…. In fact, as an example Webb actually shows that much of this ethnic self-labelling is wishful thinking. So also is the notion that the Scots-Irish, however diluted, replicated Homo Scotus Hibernicus down the centuries.

What all of this nonsense obscures is the definite fact that the Anglo-Scottish borderers made a frontier and brought its populist pugnacity to settlement in Ulster, and thence to the eighteenth-century western colonial frontier in Pennsylvania and Virginia, so that the famed Turner thesis, that the frontier made the American, is true in reverse. But it went its separate ways. Webb’s anti-intellectualism means that so far from recognising the outstanding contributions of the Scots and the Scots-Irish to Princeton University in New Jersey, he denounces it as a New England institution and inimical to the Scots-Irish and wholly alien to them in character. His anxiety to identify the Scots-Irish with the Confederacy forces him to ignore Scots-Irish rebellion against it as shown in the session of West Virginia, the pro-Union career and ultimate Presidency of eastern Tennessee’s Andrew Johnson, and the support for post-war Reconstruction among the Scots-Irish of Alabama. He has to admit that Ulysses Grant was Scots-Irish, but carefully avoids mentioning his richly informative memoirs (which are, after all, a book).

This paranoia becomes schizophrenic when contemplating Franklin D Roosevelt, who is roundly denounced in classic Republican demonography for having “persistently manoeuvred the nation into World War II, and then….concede[d] Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin”, while “for those [white] Southerners whose families had been trapped inside generations of unending poverty that long preceded the Great Depression, Roosevelt was a Godsend”. Webb in fact rightly subscribes to a populist critique of Southern capitalism (while judiciously silent on its ex-Confederate barons). Then, ignoring the great Southern historians like C. Vann Woodward who vindicated populism, Webb denounces academe all over again for hostility to the war in Vietnam. Yet much of his history, however threadbare, is left-wing: in fact his grandfather Hodges appears a working-class hero. He leaves no doubt that Reganism had deep roots in barefoot social protest whether it could afford guns, or not.

Faith And Its Critics
David Fergusson
OUP, £16.99
pp195, ISBN 9780199569380

Reviewer: IAN BELL

David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity at the University of Edin-burgh, has written this achingly reasonable little book from the conviction that certain bizarre notions concerning reality need to be taken seriously. Hence his sub-title: ‘A Conversation’, an exchange between those who disagree. And hence the problem.

From this side of the page, the central and entirely bizarre notion is God and the persistence of what the boffin Dawkins calls a delusion. From the perspective of a believer, meanwhile, atheism is the fallacy. So if the topic is nonexistence, is conversation even possible? Given the assumptions involved, can language even support the argument?

I doubt it, and several other things besides. Fergusson, also aptly, is more benign. To paraphrase roughly, he does not think that either side – he worries over that division, too – has earned the right to certainty. For believers, scepticism can be bracing (and what harm can come to the Truth?), while critics could stand to shed a little of their vulgar materialism.

Fergusson deals well with them, the industrious Disprovers with their perennially perfectible scientific method, their evidence and their invective. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, the American Daniel Dennett, the Frenchman Michel Onfray and others besides, busy shovelling doubt into the space where God isn’t, are Enlightenment’s heirs, but necessarily legitimate. They are, though, the inspiration for Faith And Its Critics.

This is understandable, but a pity. Some of us who detect no God-shape, and sense no soul with problem-page yearnings, grow tired of being conscripted by stern empiricists. For one thing, I don’t know enough science to explain how these words are appearing on a computer screen, far less how I got to be here, typing.

Ignorant, I can’t honestly support the argument-from-science. Having read a bit, on the other hand, I would hesitate to recommend this year’s big explanation as necessarily preferable to anything Fergusson believes, and I share none of his beliefs. Perhaps my humours are playing up, but anyone who trusted to science for the truth in the eighteenth century was buying a creation myth.

A lot of it, like Scripture, was wrong in any useful sense of the word. Now they tell us about dark matter, and how the absence of something is certain proof of the existence of most things. It’s in the maths, apparently. It might as well be in someone’s gospel for all the difference it makes to those who pin all on ‘science’ and could not operate a toaster, far less give you chapter and verse (it’s catching) on scientific method.

To paraphrase, atheism does not depend on Darwin’s insights and never did. That notion, if you like, is the Dawkins delusion. Fer-gusson’s account of the state of play in the evolution debate is excellent stuff, therefore – creationist barbarians and puerile rationalists alike are dismantled – but only a single, over-publicised part of the story.

The status of reason is the issue. How do we know (what we think we know)? Picking bits of nonsense out of sacred texts – I may burn for saying so – is too easy. But if believers are not to read “literally and timelessly from the surface of the text”, as Fergus-son wisely insists, what, so to speak, have they got? Can the Bible be read at all? Or is it, like the purported condition of faith itself, simply a way to be?

One way or another, religion absents itself when these questions arise. It leaves its proofs lined up as ducks in a row, meanwhile, for a Dawkins to scatter when proof is the last thing faith should seek. And there, I think, is the worm at the heart of the Fergusson rose.

He proposes a syncretic project that is impossible: a thing either is or is not. In this, minds do not meet because, in fundamental ways, they occupy different universes. Equally – and here his respect for declared enemies is impressive – Fergusson tries to come to terms with people, Dawkins in the van, who want only to eradicate his delusion.

You do not create truth by destroying falsehood, of course, as certain of the noisier atheists never seem to grasp. Meanwhile, the tenacity of faith should tell us something, as Fergusson is gratefully aware. But this deeply-felt book only reminds us that humanity, forever convinced that believing is seeing, believes a great many daft things.

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian
Andrew McConnell Stott
pp352, ISBN 9781847672957


There was madness in the blood, but it either skipped a generation, sublimated by high art, or lurked under greasepaint. The most famous story points to the latter possibility. Everyone knows it, though often misapplied to a later doleful clown. We have it from a Dr Abernethy, by way of a memoir edited by the young Charles Dickens. A man comes to the consulting room complaining of unshakeable melancholia. The prescription is immediate: do something happy; buy tickets to see the great Grimaldi. “Ah, but, doctor, I am Grimaldi.”

The anecdote is an urban legend, often told of Grock as well, but adduced as proof that funny men are always dying of sadness inside. Its larger significance lies in the spontaneity of the doctor’s answer. Why would a Regency medical man recommend a trip to Sadler’s Wells as a specific remedy for depression?

That part is easy. Joseph Grimaldi was the most famous commoner of his day, second only to Nelson in the public consciousness. But why did the doctor not recognise his patient? Because Grimaldi was known to the public in his guise as ‘Joey’ or ‘Clown’, his face painted dead white but for the strange red devices on each cheek – which Andrew McConnell Stott likens to Hindu emblems – his mouth a leering, jammy splotch, hair covered by a wild Mohican wig. Grimaldi’s body, all but destroyed before his fiftieth birthday by virtuosic physical comedy and bruising stunts, was covered in a wildly coloured suit that represented a startling departure from Clown’s traditional fustian.

‘Joey’ answered an emerging cultural consciousness, obsessed with a new kind of authenticity and celebrity marked by personal fascination rather than craft, an audience “hungry to acclaim raw and unaffected talents, people who seemed not to act their roles but to live them”. This was evident at the end, when the crippled Grimaldi – heir to his mad father’s soubriquet ‘Grim-All-Day’ – was propped up on stage for a last rendering of his hit song ‘Hot Codlins’ (toffee apples). The audience had by then fallen away from its fashionable heyday, when the Regent, Lord Byron or Caroline Lamb might have come to see themselves or their class guyed in pantomime, but no one present would have been unaware what it had cost Grimaldi to make them laugh for forty years.

As a creation, Joey was “part child, part nightmare”, a Dickensian combination if ever there were one. Joe’s father was ‘Il Signor’, the martinet ballet-master Giuseppe Grimaldi. The art of pantomime, with its roots in com-media dell’arte, travelled a full arc through three Grimaldi generations. Though Joe junior failed to outlive Joey and never escaped parental comparison, he embodied an art form’s decline into commercial banality. For Regency audiences, pantomime served as cultural audit, a place on the most heavily censored stage in Europe where dark truths about the powers-that-be and the follies of the better sort were aired in a visual language instantly understood by ordinary people and complacently decoded by their betters.

Grock died just fifty years ago, in July 1959, having bridged circus and music hall. Grimaldi, by comparison, seems both modern and atavistic. He was the object of a new kind of celebrity, gay and grim in a tense dialectic, his personal sorrows – widowed in the moment Maria gave him his one, cursed child – a matter of intense public scrutiny even by those who could have passed him unknowing in the street. The ‘real’ man, caught in contemporary portraits by John Cawse and J. E. T. Robinson, was as conventional as Joey was antic: a slightly rounded, Italianate face with full, but not clownish, lips and large liquid eyes in which sorrow was swimmingly present.

The biographer once did a comic turn himself, as Andy Stott, and it animates his account. Stott doesn’t just bring the man to painful life but his world as well. The supporting theatrical cast – Dibdin, Dubois, Farley, Joe’s bosom pal, stage partner and brother in law Jack Bologna – is vividly rendered. The history of a form, with the throwaway Mother Goose a turning point in British stage art, is subtly delineated. All it needs, perhaps, is a more old-fashionedly Marxist understanding of how Joey’s stage business – boxing bouts with surreal vegetable men (allegedly an Ur-source for Mary Shelley spare part monster), famous personages constructed out of coal scuttles and domestic bits and pieces – represented a darkly subversive critique of a material culture for whom ‘entertainment’ helped express political dissatisfaction and sublimate political revolution, the way Joey’s are sublimated madness. Joe Grimaldi stands high, perhaps none higher, in the history of British comedy – every February, clowns gather in full fig at Holy Trinity in Hackney to remember him – but he also encapsulates a culture in a moment of profound change.

Let Them Come Through
Neil Forsythe
pp304, ISBN 9781846686986


In terms of smoke and mirrors – only some of the former being related to fire and a few of the latter being dusted with coke – this cunning thriller is a model of finesse. Packed with suspense and humour, it reveals Neil Forsythe as inspired a psychological illusionist as his creation, the wired (but is he wicked?) Nick Santini, a showbiz medium whose accelerated rise to celebrity is on the point of stalling as the past catches up with him.

Let Them Come Through takes the form of Santini’s confession, which is as paced and calculated as his act. The outpouring moves from one taut scene to the next, cutting between flashbacks of a traumatic childhood. Santini’s father is the landlord of a seedy pub frequented by chancers and low-level criminals. While his cynicism and addiction to gambling are evident, quite why he is such a terrifying figure to his son, the reader is never told. Forsythe leaves it to the reader to supply a scenario from his imagination, much as Santini’s audiences project what they want to hear when he claims to bear news from the dear departed who have “come through”.

There is something both childlike and prematurely old about Santini and it is easy to forget that he is only 23. A gambler like his father, though in a different mode, he takes pride in honing his technique, explaining that his spiel is always carefully “loaded” and delivered with an “absence of intent in sentences, leaving them always pitched between question and statement”. He calls himself a studier rather than a student of human behaviour, the more active form better suiting his predatory harvesting of those subtle “tells” that reveal what people contrive to mask.

A tiny dart of the eye catches Tony, his manager, in a serious lie, but the duplicity he uses to conceal how much money he is skimming barely causes a ripple of concern in his victim. Forsythe hints at a complex symbiosis that may include an element of blackmail, but also a companionship that runs deeper than the bonhomie of getting blitzed together and sharing jokes at the expense of the credulous herd. Forsythe, never short of devious technique and often very funny, gradually brings into play the psychological reasons that explain the gap between Santini’s suave front and what it conceals.

The dark secret that haunts Santini dates back to the days when he gained his reputation as “the dashing young man in Soho who carries the world in his head”. Operating from sparsely furnished premises, he is aided and abetted by his receptionist Tiffany, whose previous experience on reception at a brothel has equipped her with the client-handling skills required to fulfil her end of the scam. Having raked through their coats for tickets, photographs and personal memorabilia, she relays snippets through to Santini by phone and he startles people with the accuracy of his insights. They usually come back for more.

In an instance of unfortunate timing, a local shopkeeper facing ruin as a result of coming under Santini’s influence kills himself in his office, just as Tony is on the verge of breakthrough into the big time. He manages somehow to get out of that fix. Six years later, having secured a television series that has made him a household name, Santini continues to be dogged by the shopkeeper’s suicide. When he spots the man’s name on a journalist’s crib sheet he manages to head her off at the pass but it doesn’t take psychic powers to know that he has won only temporary respite. However astute, he has no clue as to what lies behind the hack’s investigative zeal.

Meanwhile he stalks the stage, scanning audiences for targets, revelling in the plasticity of ‘facts’ and the endless gullibility of the human race. He delights in his own tricks of verbal escapology: for him making mistakes is inevitable, having the adroitness to turn the situation around is what counts. Things start to unravel when Tony lines up a girl to pose as a love interest in Santini’s life. The morning their first ‘date’ makes chat column headlines, her dead body is discovered. It’s going to take more than smoke and mirrors to make this story vanish.

Peak Water: Civilisation and the World’s Water Crisis
Alexander Bell
pp256, ISBN 9781906817190


Leaving Las Vegas is an exhilarating experience. As the flashing lights fade and the gaudy boulevards give way to empty highways, the joy of escaping into the wild and mountainous reaches of the Mojave Desert can be intoxicating.

There are many things that are disturbing about the city – its greed, its morality, its music – but there is one that rankles above all: its environmental absurdity. To sustain the metropolitan area’s population of approaching two million, water is brought 1,400 miles from the Rockies by the Col-orado River via a vast artificial lake created by the Hoover dam.

It is, as Alexander Bell emphatically points out in Peak Water, a dangerous mirage. “This may be a sure case of ecocide”, he says. “Las Vegas can only die, and within our lifetimes, because the water supply is running out”.

He recounts how the compact agreed in 1922 to divide up the water between the seven states that border the river was fundamentally flawed, because it was based on an unusually wet period in history. As a result, the compact has been under increasing strain, and periodically the mighty Col-orado fails to make it to the sea.

But for Bell, it is not Las Vegas that is the defining image of the world’s looming water crisis, it is Dubai. His book begins and ends with powerful pictures of the overheated, over-hyped city in the United Arab Emirates – “a metropolis that jags out of the desert like a shaft of stone”.

It too is doomed, he argues. “Dubai has the highest water consumption per capita in the world. It is situated in one of the driest parts of the world. You can see how this isn’t going to work”.

What makesPeak Water interesting is the way it weaves such laconic personal predictions with a wealth of history, anecdote and analysis, all focussing on the vital role of water in the rise and fall of civilisations.

Here, alongside Bell’s obvious delight in building sandcastles and digging moats at the seaside, are lucid accounts of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia and the Andes.

He provides numerous erudite examples to back up his contention that “civilisation begins in a ditch”. And his huge leaps through the millennia, touching water wherever he goes, are informative, easy to read and often entertaining.

What makes the book occasionally frustrating, however, is its lack of detailed supporting evidence. Sometimes this reader craved a little more empirical argument and a few more references.

Bell would no doubt argue that his book is not a scientific treatise, and that pages of closely-typed footnotes might deter some readers. His aim is more to provoke thought, to stir discussion amongst lay observers – and in that he certainly succeeds.

He makes sure we all understand that the world is not short of water, it’s just in the wrong places. There’s plenty in northern climes like Scotland, but the problem is that huge parts of the populated world are in places where the demand for water is outstripping nature’s capacity to replenish it.

It is an environmental crisis inevitably bound up with the disruption that pollution is inflicting on the global climate, but also, Bell suggests, more immediate. His conclusions are about as stark as they can be. “Almost certainly it will mean the end of civilisation as we currently know it,” he prophesies.

The water wars he predicts, though, are more complex, and more destabilising than those usually imagined. As well as increasingly violent conflicts over access to water in the Middle East and Asia, Bell envisages a startling scenario across the Atlantic.

Water shortages in the US and water surpluses in Canada could drive the two allies of 200 years into war with each other, he suggests. It’s hard to believe that Toronto and Chicago could be devastated by such a battle, as he imagines, but it’s not impossible.

Bell believes that we already have our Third World War, and that it will be to this generation as the first and second world wars were to their generations. The fighting will not be simple or easy to map, and could include international wars, civil wars and class wars, he says. Goodness knows whether he is right. But there is no doubt the issues he raises deserve serious attention.

SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960-1990
Gordon Wilson
pp248 ISBN 9780951282076

The Illusion Of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism
Tom Gallagher
pp288 ISBN 9781850659969


The Scottish National Party – ‘Scotland’s National party’ – deserves a good history. Peter Lynch’s 2002 attempt is succinct but doesn’t quite capture the essence of the SNP, while the remaining literature of academic surveys and memoirs by leading protagonists similarly fail to hit the Nationalist nail on the head.

SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960-1990 by former leader Gordon Wilson falls somewhere between the two and is perhaps the best account of the party to date. Lucidly written with balance, humour and an unfailing eye for detail, the book is, Wilson calls it, a ‘personal history’. Thankfully, it is much more than that.

The title, however, is curious. The SNP has certainly had its fair share of turbulence, most notably between 1979 and 1982 when internecine strife nearly split the party in two, but then so do most parties. It also implies that the post-1990 period has been an oasis of stability, which the experience of John Swinney’s leadership would surely contradict.

Beginning a little dryly with the 1960s, Wilson charts the party’s progress towards the breakthrough that was the Hamilton by-election in 1967. This is occasionally self-indulgent, for example there is a whole chapter on the SNP’s battle for fair coverage on the airwaves, but also informative. “In the sixties”, asserts Wilson, “the SNP unquestionably held the lead in innovation and presentation”.

Much, however, is not intended for the general reader, in particularly digressions into the excruciating protocol of debates, motions, sub-committees and amendments so beloved by the SNP. This is an inevitable by-product of Wilson’s diligent use of the party’s archive currently held in the National Library of Scotland.

Valuable pen-portraits of the Nationalists’ leading players punctuate the text. Margo Mac-Donald “was a charismatic personality who had under-played her professional family origins by adopting a broad Glaswegian patois”; Willie McRae was “a brilliant Glasgow lawyer with a colourful, larger than life personality and a huge capacity for spell-binding rhetoric”; while Donald Stewart was “one of life’s individualists, socially conservative and surprisingly radical at times”.

If there is a weakness, then it is one shared by most SNP memoirists: a failure adequately to explain an unflinching belief in independence. Wilson begins with that as an end in itself, and then works backwards. Indeed, he even acknowledges this by concluding that “independence will come, although its shape may change in an ever closer interlocking world. And who can tell what event will force the issue”.

In the 1960s that ‘event’ was industrial decline; in the 1970s North Sea oil; and in the 1980s “the hammering of Scotland by Mrs. Thatcher”. But the SNP’s belief in independence predates them all, with each new event simply slotted into a pre-existing narrative. Come independence, says Wilson, “Scotland will live again and the SNP’s vision of the New Scotland fulfilled”. But what that vision has been, and is, remains unclear.

Wilson, however, usefully dispels some myths, not least Labour’s charge that the SNP always voted with the Tories from 1974-79, while propagating others – the notion that the Poll Tax was deliberately ‘tested’ on Scotland, for example, and that Gavin McCrone’s now infamous Scottish Office memo on North Sea oil was deviously “hidden from public view”. Surely Civil Service advice, by its very nature, remains hidden from public view?

Tom Gallagher, meanwhile, also indulges in some silly conspiracy theories in his book, The Illusion Of Freedom:Scotland Under Nationalism, the first published account of the SNP in government. Not only does Gallagher imply sinister links between Scottish Nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, he accuses Alex Salmond (Gordon Wil-son’s successor as SNP leader) of throwing “a political lifeline to Milosevic” through his broadcast condemning NATO action in Kosovo prior to the May 1999 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

This is a shame, for Gallagher makes many reasonable points about the SNP, its leader and the Scottish Government. Yet these are lost amid a rambling narrative that strays all over the place, lacks a consistent theme or coherent chronology, and often descends into caustic asides. Balance is much needed when it comes to contemporary accounts of the SNP, but it also needs to be credible.

Gallagher, who voted SNP in 2007, concedes that his book “is likely to be viewed as a spoiling operation written by someone who is deeply hostile to the concept of national self-determination”, but instead claims that “it is because of the lack of a firm challenge from his [Salmond’s] conventional opponents, or even the existence of a set of alternative viewpoints within the SNP, that I have gone ahead and written this book”.

Nevertheless, Gallagher’s conclusion is not without value. “As long as the SNP remains convinced that true freedom consists of liberation from ‘foreign’ control and that what comes next is of secondary importance”, he writes, “it is poised to repeat painful errors committed in many newly independent states over the last fifty years”. Gordon Wilson would obviously disagree, but perhaps a future scribe will plug the historical gap by covering both points of view with a complete, and balanced, account of Scotland’s party.

An Claigeann Aig Damien Hirst
Jo MacDonald
ÙR-SGEUL, £16.00
ISBN 9781900901468, pp200


What’s exciting about any anthology is the likelihood of both revisiting the familiar and discovering the new – and this collection wins points on both counts. While Gaelic has a rich and ancient tradition of storytelling, and around a century of forays into fictional writing, the first flowering of contemporary prose belongs to the second half of the twentieth century. In her introduction, Jo Mac-Donald persuasively identifies John Murray’s ‘Briseadh na Cloiche’ (‘Breaking the Stone’), which appeared exactly thirty years ago, as the keystone short story in modern Gaelic literature.

Weaving together science fiction, fantasy and the surreal, the anthology provides its own sense of continuity without compromising imaginative richness. Thematically, it offers perspectives on alienation, separation, revenge and death – timeless motifs approached with a freshness and energy that engage the reader with ease.

The book opens with Alasdair Campbell’s ‘Iudmhail’ (in Dwelly’s Dictionary: fugitive, coward, or low, feeble fellow), where a broken marriage, second sight and transvestism are the components of a tale of betrayal and ultimate revenge. With Lewis and Glasgow settings, ‘Iudmhail’ contrasts with the author’s kinsman Maoilios Caimbeul’s contribution, a story of bourgeois Surrey, where Hirst’s famous skull reveals a surprising history – that of a medieval Barra Macneil’s brother!

If the two Campbells successfully bring such traditional Gaelic supernatural elements as premonitions and ghosts into their contemporary settings (while another of Alasdair’s relatives, his niece Catriona Lexy, writes about mermaids), others blend science fiction and the everyday with equal persuasiveness. Lincolnshire native Des Scholes, walking the Pennine way, encounters a community that reveals itself as more cyber than human. Alison Lang visits a dystopian near-future, while broadcaster Iain Mac Illeathain’s atmospheric ‘Keppler’, with its solitary interplanetary survivor, brings Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris to mind. Alaskan Chuck Tripp enters Jack London’s alternative world of wolves. Mona Claudia Striewe incorporates a virtual funeral into a teenage world of screens and keyboards.

There’s also a strand which remains firmly anchored in the quotidian world, past or present, told through a variety of original perspectives. Donald John MacIver’s disaffected islander has survived Iraq. Iseabail MacLean (one of the youngest contributors) places her poetic exploration of relationships within the context of a confessional. Michael Klevenhaus story of a 1970s teenager discovering rock and roll on his Nazi uncle’s gramophone – which is more accustomed to martial music – is a subtly moving acknowledgement of the monstrous we may all have to come to terms with. Gaeldom’s wittiest writer, Mary Ann MacDonald offers a tidy sketch on the perils of eavesdropping, while Mairi E Macleod neatly measures a life in upgrades in a tale that might reasonably be subtitled ‘The Revenge of the Righteous Embezzler’.

If the early twenty-first century seems determined to reprise old conflicts, crashes, and crises, this collection reflects the unease of our time and offers alternative ways of seeing the world. The authors and their subjects are related through dissatisfaction with the familiar. An Claigeann Aig Damien Hirst asks who we are, and what our place is in this unsettling world. It raises questions, and provides one unambiguous answer: those wondering about the health of Gaelic prose will discover here that it is in a robust state.

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Before Fred the Shred

IN A YEAR when the Scottish banks have managed to mislay the accumulated capital of three centuries, and been saved by the public, it is pleasant to read of Scottish financiers who knew what they were doing.

In this interesting if somewhat rough-hewn book, Liza Giffen, tells the story of the rise of the Scottish investment trusts in the nineteenth century and the pioneering role of small Scottish investors in developing the US railroads, mid-western cities, grain and cattle lands and meat-packing industries. “The country that now dominates the world’s economy”, she writes, “might well have been a very different place without such large and sustained funding from Scotland”. As for Scotland, the trust movement was “a sort of anti-Darien” in which a transatlantic financial venture does not bankrupt this country but enriches it.

The story has been told in part before, and some of the trusts survive today in such modern avatars as the Alliance Trust in Dundee and the Scottish-American Investment Company (Saints) and Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust in Edinburgh. Many also have been taken over or liquidated, and Liza Geffen, while working as an archivist at the Business Archives Council of Scotland, tracked down and catalogued collections of business letters, prospectuses, diaries, minute books and so on which might otherwise have been scattered to the financial winds.

An investment trust is a limited company which invests its shareholder’s money not in building factories or shops but in a portfolio of marketable securities, shares, loans or mortgages. Spreading the risk of failure or default across many investments, as the first British trust, Foreign & Colonial of London, said in its prospectus in 1868, promised “to give the investor of moderate means the same advantages as the large Capitalists”.

With some shares priced at only £10, the first Scottish trusts reached deep into the Lowlands middle class: attorneys, bankers, factory-owners and merchants but also ministers and doctors and, in the shareholders register of the Scottish American Mortgage Company (1874), clerks, prison chaplains, tobacconists, painters, fishmongers, farmers and labourers. It helped that shareholders had to pay up front only a portion of the face value of the share, while money was borrowed on the security of the uncalled portion. For example, the Alliance called only £2 of each £10 share and the remaining £8 was in reserve to protect the debenture-holders. The trusts were aggressive operations geared or leveraged for high returns and risks.

The first Scottish investment trust, the Scottish American Investment Trust, was founded in Dundee in 1873 by a group of merchants and manufacturers anxious to deploy fortunes made in the jute business. Under the influence of a brilliant young clerk in Baxter’s textile mill, Robert Fleming, these merchant princes resolved to invest in the mortgage bonds of the railroads then being laid at pace across the US mid-west and Plains.

With risk capital so scarce in the US, some of these roads offered interest on their bonds of 11 per cent. The Scottish American Investment Trust promised a return of 7 per cent a year at a time when the obligations of the United Kingdom, the rock-solid Consolidated Annuities or Con-sols, paid interest of under 3 per cent. It seems the investors of Dundee, like Galsworthy’s Forsytes, “had no dread in life like that of 3 per cent for their money.”

Fleming’s trust was followed a few weeks later by the Scottish American Investment Co, founded by William Menzies in Edin-burgh for the same investment purpose; by the Scottish American Mortgage Co (1874), which helped rebuild Chicago after the 1871 fire; and by the forerunners of the Alliance, the Oregon and Washington Trust Investment Company (1873) which built the town of Portland, Oregon and the Dundee Mortgage and Trust Company of 1875.

Borrowing in a low-interest country to invest in one of high interest is now a commonplace of the so-called ‘carry trade’ but it was a brilliant success in the 1870s and the trusts were soon paying dividends of 10 or 12 per cent. David Ward Wood, in his Chicago and its Distinguished Citizens, published in 1881, remarked that “some of the most extensive and conspicuous improvements in this city, during the last five years, have been done on Scotch capital”. By 1882, according to the Dundee Yearbook, that town had invested some £3m (or as much as two years’ income) in investment and mortgage companies. It seems astonishing now that the immense Matador Land and Cattle Company, which ranched 1.5m acres at various times in West Texas, Montana, South Dakota and Saskatchewan, remained under Dundee ownership until 1951.

What with bankruptcy, the financial panic of 1879 and the dubious practices of a country just emerged from civil war, life was not all coupon clipping. Fleming later told the fifty-year jubilee meeting of the Scottish American Investment Trust: “We had a holding in the bonds of the St Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad Company, which ceased to pay its interest. I saw the whole country, including the Iron Mountain, in my dreams converted into a cinder heap, and the twisted rails piled up in front of the court house in St Louis to be sold for the benefit of the bond holders.”

Menzies, too, later told accountancy students at Edinburgh of the heroic business practices of the 1870s. A railroad conductor, summoned before the board for embezzling fares, said “with perfect frankness, that he had a snug little farm, a trotting horse and a diamond pin; that if they dismissed him and put on another man he would have to get his snug little farm, his trotting horse and diamond pin, for which the railway would have to pay and that in reality it was much cheaper to maintain a man who was comfortable than to put in a new man who would have to make his pile out of it.”

In a worldly and penetrating analysis of why these Scots succeeded, Geffen lists several business virtues: boldness, attention to detail, on-the-spot inspection, a training in actuarial science, a clannish network of so-called ‘Wall Street Scots’ to bring them business, and an absence of the sort of prejudice that, for example, put the post-bellum South off-limits to Yankee capital. There was both caution and parsimony. Unlike, for example, the Dunfermline Building Society of the twenty-first century, the Scottish American Mortgage Company would lend no more than a third of the value of the property and paid its US directors no more than £60 per annum.

In the course of the 1880s and 1890s, domestic capital accumulated in the US, competition increased, returns and dividend-rates fell and the Scottish trusts had to look further afield, to the US South, Latin America and Russia. There was a gradual move away from bonds to common stock, that is to the supposedly riskier business of owning rather than lending.

Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I, there was a surge of new trusts. A sociable sportsman, Augustus Baillie, and an exceptionably able lawyer, T. J. Carlyle Gifford, launched the Straits Mortgage and Trust Company to start plantations to supply rubber to the growing automobile industry. In 1913, it changed its investment plan and name to Scottish Mortgage and Trust, which survives today as the £1.5bn Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust. Another Baillie and Gifford trust, the Scottish and Foreign, was launched in 1914 to invest in Russia, just in time for war and revolution, and had to be wound up. There was another spate of new trusts in the mid1920s, some of which barely scraped through the Depression.

“Bank failures are as Scottish as haggis and whisky”

Giffen’s account peters out after World War II. There is little to read here of the post-war cult of the share or equity, the terrifying bear market of the 1970s, the financing of North Sea oil, the muddle over split-capital trusts, or the precarious present situation where even the most venerable Scottish trusts are quoted on the stock exchange at much less than the liquidation value of their investments. In other words, the stock market is saying that the wizards of West Marketgait and Leith Street are more a hindrance than a help.

Luath Press is a smallish imprint, but even with due allowance, Giffen’s book is not well produced. Proper names are sometimes approximate (Barings Brothers, Count De Witt, Montague Norman) and there are illiteracies. Consols appear as consoles, as if the editors at Luath are using spellcheck.

More important, the reader is left with several questions. What happened to the wealth accumulated on Tayside and in Edinburgh? What if the trusts had invested in Scotland rather than Kansas, and paid wages to Scots not American labourers? In both world wars, their US dollar assets were requisitioned to pay for American supplies and arms. Yet the trusts both times returned, at the peace, to investing overseas.

As a Scottish fund manager, W.H. Mac-gregor, told the Faculty of Actuaries in 1958, “the primary and probably the sole duty of investment trust managements is to invest their shareholders’ funds to best advantage”. He added, with a sniff still audible today, “The risk of attracting the less desirable seekers of capital [of Scot-land] is very high”. That may be, but the result has been not “a sort of Anti-Darien”, but rather a sort of Darien in miniature.

What, too, happened to that mixture of caution, hard study, painstaking local knowledge and thirst for risk that we associate with Robert Fleming, William Men-zies and Carlyle Gifford? That is easier to answer.

The truth is that Scotland has been over-banked since the establishment of the Bank of Scotland in 1695 and probably many years before. That is one reason why Fleming and the Dundee jute men deployed their capital overseas. Bank failures are as Scottish as haggis and whisky, whether it be Douglas, Heron & Co (‘the Ayr Bank’ or ‘Air Bank’), which caused Adam Smith such headaches in the 1770s, or the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 which bankrupted hundreds of families in the Lowlands, including my own. Alas for old Scotland! For every Carlyle Gifford there are two Graeme Dalziels and for every Robert Fleming there are a hundred Sir Fred Goodwins.

How Scots Financed the Modern World
Liza Giffen
Luath Press, £25
pp249, ISBN 9781906307059

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Munro’s Peaks

IN THE EIGHT or so decades since his death, few have hastened to call Neil Munro a “fashionable” writer. Besides his misfortune to be bundled in with his “kailyard” contemporaries by too many wrong-headed critics, he specialised in a kind of genre fiction – serious, involved historical novels about the Scottish Highlands and Scottish Highlanders – that made no pretence at getting to grips with the urban condition. His pen can seem redolent of the Victorian age, which was implicitly patriotic, and he lacks the self-importance of the so-called Scottish Renaissance writers whose fame eclipsed his in the 1920s and 1930s. He anticipates modernism in certain regards but his world view is not easily grasped and he lacks the vehemence of authors whose attitudes of mind were cast – as opposed to being numbed in middle age – by the Great War.

One possible reason for the lack of a fuller understanding of Munro is that during his life he seemed at pains to distance himself from a significant part of his own output. It was under the pseudonym Hugh Foulis that he created such Glaswegian figures of fun as “Erchie” and Jimmy Swann, and, in the fictional Clyde puffer the Vital Spark – captained by the wily Para Handy – a parallel comic universe to rival that of Wodehouse. Meantime as a journalist – Munro’s “day job” for much of his life – he often chose to write under such guises as ‘The Looker-On’ and ‘Mr Incognito’, albeit regular readers knew exactly who they were getting. And it was the greatest paradox of his life as a writer that while he professed to deem journalism a low, dishonest profession and made no secret of his desire to be done with it, he was exceptionally good at it. For the earnest writer of fiction to have to resort to hackwork is not unheard of; what is unusual is for such writing to retain its vitality and its powers of regalement a century later.

Munro does not concern himself as a journalist with heavyweight political subjects – again, his world view remains elusive – but from it we get an intimate sense of the kind of man he was. In his introductions to The Brave Days and The Looker-On, the two volumes of Munro’s journalism published shortly after his death and now re-printed for the first time, George Blake, a friend and colleague of Munro and a novelist in his own right, explains that while the author of John Splendid and The New Road frequently toiled over his most serious work (falling prey to the novelist’s “despairs and self-mistrusts”) his less exalted prose came easy, read always crisp, alive and whimsical, and was “hammered out”.

That these collections account for only a fragment of his journalism supports such a thesis. And significantly they confirm that this writer of “romantic” novels had also that most under-valued of literary gifts: he was a humorist of the finest order. By all accounts Munro generally went about life “gay” in the old sense, kept a mischievously sardonic tongue in his cheek and deplored pomposity; and the sketches, features, essays and reminiscences culled from the Glasgow Evening News, the Daily Record and Mail reflect this. His wit is for the most part subtle, often self-effacing and rarely savage. Often the humour comes from what is left unsaid, as when he describes the rural quiet of a sleepy village being disturbed by the arrival of visiting sailors: “The blacksmith’s shop – which may be called the parish club – disgorged a surprising number of farmhands and idlers, who had been watching a man getting his hair cut.” He delights in picaresque descriptions of various aspects of Glasgow and West Highland life, revels in the popular song and theatre of the day and gently savages the fin-de-siecle spiritualist craze. A certain Rabelasian drollery is put to work on various “odd fellows”, cranks and chancers but rarely without an accompanying ration of fellow-feeling, and he even feels sorry for the poet William McGona-gall, in whose honour he attends a dinner, the Dundonian bard unaware that he is the subject of cruel mockery.

And yet even as he makes us smile, there is the same mastery of language and synthesis of English with Gaelic idiosyncrasies of thought and expression that is such a feature of his novels. In one seamless passage relating a distant evening’s bacchanalia, for example, he tells us of a wine merchant of his acquaintance now “gone beyond these voices” who, after Keats, invites the company to wind up the evening “with a beaker full of the warm South, the true, the blushful Hippocrene”.

It was during Munro’s journalistic career that the “new journalism”, which was markedly humorous and charged with personality, emerged in Britain. In his early years in the trade, he recalls, “it seemed to be assumed that politics, commerce and the law courts exhausted almost the entire field of human interest”. At some point in the 1880s he edited St Mungo, a short-lived “satirical-humorous” weekly journal in Glasgow that was “meant to be a playground for all the bright young journalists who had not sufficient opportunity to let themselves go with joyous abandon ‘on their lawful occasions’.” Over time, however, at the Glasgow Evening News – the newspaper in which he wrote for almost forty years, full-time for long spells, and which he edited from 1919-24 – he was given increasing licence to let loose his brio on features and causeries relating to almost any matter of his choosing. According to Blake this was largely thanks to the proprietor, James Murray Smith, whose enlightened attitude meant that “a writer of unusual gifts had an opportunity of self-expression quite unique in the history of newspapers.” “It is no exaggeration”, Blake adds, “to say that Neil Munro made that paper.”

That his articles were so prized must have been due in large part to the way they reflect and interpret Glasgow. Though born and bred in Argyll (he was the illegitimate son of a kitchen maid at Inverary Castle) and for much of his career seemingly desperate to return there, he has a special feeling for “the city” per se, its dynamism and its mystery. One crepuscular scene, actually in Greenock, contains echoes of Conrad’s London in The Secret Agent: “When [the lamplighter] lights the lamps, the night, which is a giant bird, comes swooping down like a moth attracted by the candle, and men walk for a space of hours in the shadow of its wings. And in this shadow, slimey and leperous walls, and squalid entrances, windows foul and broken; make-shift expediences of poverty or slovenliness; the dirty, patched, degraded and ramshackle – all that affronts the day is half-transfigured, half-concealed.”

The sense of dread we find in Conrad, whom Munro knew as a friend and admired, is not altogether absent, but neither is Munro’s Glasgow the same as the one that filled Edwin Muir, his not quite contemporary, with abject fear and loathing. Munro’s Glasgow is rather the city of the Clyde in its tumultuous pomp, a city of “lascars and Chinese” and “boys just off the heather”; it is the city of the Glasgow Boys and the International Exhibitions of 1888 and 1901, a city of both art and commerce and the city of which the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia is reputed to have said in 1880: “Glasgow is the centre of the intelligence of England.”

There is much to delight the social historian in Munro’s accounts of Glasgow. He describes an exodus of 30,000 people on trains from Queen Street in order to skate on the frozen surface of Loch Lomond in February of 1885, and recalls that Miss Cranston’s tea-rooms (the lady herself “always with something of the fete-champetre in her costume”) were among the first businesses specifically tailored to female predilections. He remembers that in his youth Trongate was a “Saturnalia” on Saturday nights and makes certain long-vanished city centre taverns and restaurants sound reasonably appealing, others less so. Fine dining existed, but even the well-to-do tended to lunch on a mutton pie; the Glaswegian diet, it would seem, has always been gelatinous.

Neil Munro: Glasgow was a city of “lascars and Chinese”

He also relates that in 1899 a group of “wealthy and influential Glasgow men”, when shown a cinematograph, convinced themselves that “moving pictures could never successfully compete with the waxwork, the menagerie and the diorama.” Munro himself is fascinated by technological innovation and new inventions and in one delicious episode he and Conrad end an evening X-raying one another with a machine belonging to their host, a doctor on Bath Street.

Munro’s acquaintance was wide and varied. Besides Conrad he knew Arnold Bennett and, at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, entertained the American novelist George W Cable on a visit to Scotland. He was on friendly terms with Sir Thomas Lipton and with Kennedy Jones, the Gorbals boy who became editor of the London Evening News and secured its purchase, cut-price, for the future Lord Northcliffe. He was a director of the short-lived Scottish Repertory Theatre Company and a member of the Glasgow Art Club, and knew well a number of the Glasgow Boys and other significant figures in the art world, including Muir-head Bone and Whistler’s trusted Glasgow-based dealer, Alexander Reid.

Given that the record he left of himself in his journalism is the closest Munro came to any autobiographical endeavour, it invites us to scour his essays in criticism and his verdicts on others for clues as to his own Weltanschauung. As regards literary figures he revered RLS and Scott – both enormous influences on his work – but hated the cult of Scott-worship. He admired Carlyle and Kipling, despite branding the latter a “recruiting officer” for the British Army in a rare moment of political asperity. (His reticence on such matters as war and Empire is marked. He lost a son, Hugh, at Loos in 1915, but cannot be dissuaded from exploiting the war on the western front for gallows humour: the French, he says, are “a romantic people, whatever you may think of the claims they made to compensation for damages to middens in Picardy”.)

Elsewhere, he is scathing of “kailyard” literature and of the Celtic Twilight but demonstrates a keen appreciation of Burns’ earthiness and use of the vernacular. Like Burns he is unswayable in the view that majesty and profundity are to be found in the common man and common herd. But his equability and willingness to view his fellow Scots in the best possible light is such that he seems incapable of entertaining dissenting views of them. Commenting on some scathing remarks about the oppressive nature of Scottish religion – made by Cunning-hame Graham, another towering figure he knew well – Munro simply states “Scotsmen are not made like that now.” And the conclusions he draws from meeting George Douglas Brown are, at best, breathtakingly counter-intuitive: “In what could only have been the impulse of a reckless mood, he had written a prose Song of Hate [The House with the Green Shutters] about his native village, every feature of which – town or landward – he actually loved as a crony of old years”.

Disdainful of “intoxicating” literature, mysticism and, with regard to the Highlands, myth-making, at other times Munro seems not immune from such tendencies, writing in flights of fancy about ghosts and superstitions and old Highland traditions. In his novels he often allows the “romantic voice” to speak through him, ironically, as he satirises various aspects of the clan inheritance or martial Gaeldom, in particular the notion of a noble, warrior race. Underpinning this, however – and it comes though in his journalistic musings – is a lapsarian view of an essential goodness lost, an exaltation of a “true” Highland culture corrupted and deformed successively by tribal warfare, feudalism and, later, clearance. It is a weird sort of myth and one in which there is always room for pathetic fallacy: things are never allowed simply to be, landscape must always yield up a sorrowful human narrative.

If he anticipates Gunn and Gibbon in this regard, he anticipates Hugh McDiarmid in another. In praise of Cunninghame Graham’s prose style, infused as Munro perceives it to be with the influence of his mother’s tongue, Spanish, he could easily have been referring to his own use of Gaelic vocabulary and prosody; substitute Lallans for Spanish and you get Scots modernism: “It is not enough to know it as the teacher instils it – by looks or on the Berlitz system; it must be a language you can think in, a language whose every idiom gives access to the inner life of the generations of the people who have used it. Any language will do that has passion and poetry in it, but preferable is a language that has not known the blight of ‘progress’ as English has done, and best of all is the language that – like Spanish – retains its ancient spirit and enshrines a little – not too much – noble literature.”

His own linguistic dexterity, the preponderance of contradictions in his work and a certain intellectual elusivity are all reasons enough for renewed study of Munro. The sheer enjoyment to be had from his journalism is another.

The Brave Days
Neil Munro
Kennedy & Boyd, £14. 95
pp 334, ISBN 190499913

The Looker-On
Neil Munro
Kennedy & Boyd, £14. 95
pp 307, ISBN 1904 999921

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Volume 5 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

iPistoleros! 1:1989: The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg
Farquhar McHarg
pp264, ISBN 9781873976371

A few years ago, Margaret Forster published diaries she found, which were written by a woman who lived from 1901 to 1995. Only she didn’t find them: Forster made up the diaries. It was a novel masquerading as memoir. This book is a bit like that: a novel that uses the techniques of memoir, to show the experiences of Govan shipyard apprentice McHarg in Spain during the civil war of the 1930s. So many Scots walked to Spain to fight for the republic that a novelised version of those efforts can only be fascinating. But this particular mode of storytelling also means that the book can get away with doing certain things: recounting political speeches word-for-word, espousing political theories, not worrying about character development and not bowing to the demands of a fast-moving plot. Except that a book does require some character development, and to keep us interested in the political events in Barcelona, we need some things to happen. We get a little of that, but perhaps not quite enough. The writing style is simple and clear, if a little hackneyed and reminiscent of pulp fiction (“Suddenly I was overwhelmed with seething anger and a desire for revenge”). But then, McHarg isn’t a professional writer but a shipyard’s apprentice. Isn’t he? LM

A Wilder Vein
Edited by Linda Cracknell
TWO RAVENS, £10.99
pp232, ISBN 9781906120436

This non-fiction anthology explores our wild side. A selection of poets, travel writers, novelists and anthropologists describe their favourite spots in Britain and Ireland. From Northern Ire-land’s Slob Lands to England’s Corpse Way, contributors discuss their chosen terrain. An astonished, contented tone is the common register. Linda Cracknell’s meditative introduction leads us to poet Gerry Loose’s sombre almanac of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. How Mandy Haggith lives on eleven hectares without a flush toilet, washing machine or oven becomes a lesson in ecological awareness. Andrew Greig’s piece ‘The Dub on Assynt’ admits, “One of the very best things about this world is that so little of it is me”. Lyrical descriptions of light, lochs, fields, stones, boulders and wildlife abound. However, these pieces feel unrelated. Each writer has their own agenda. Some connect the landscape to memory; others to politics; others discuss the silence of the wilderness. What they have in common, though, is the ability to inspire urbanites to get out of their living room. TM

Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins
Grace Maxwell
pp320, ISBN 9780091929992

The sight of a loved one who has just suffered a stroke must be one of the most distressing and frightening experiences there is. Grace Maxwell’s account of her husband’s stroke and recovery, often harrowing, often too poignant to bear, triggered memories of my own father’s stroke: like Collins, the Orange Juice frontman who enjoyed a global hit with the song ‘A Girl Like You’, my father wasn’t a touchy-feely man either. But when Maxwell describes her husband, who has suffered two brain haemorrhages, a surgical procedure, and a coma, stroking her face, I could have cried. That was the same thing my father did with my mother when he started to recover. Aside from Collins’s immense courage in fighting his way back to fitness, what abides in one’s memory about this beautifully written memoir is Maxwell’s anger. She fights for the right therapies, accosts hospital staff for leaving him sitting in a chair for hours, insists on cooking him his own meals in place of hospital food. The emotion she writes from and acts upon is possibly fear that has turned into anger at the fate of her husband and family, and it’s an emotion I think most of us close to stroke sufferers recognise. Collins is lucky to have her. LM

A Gray Play Book
Alasdair Gray
pp320, ISBN 9781906307912

Over fifty years’ worth of Alasdair Gray’s dramatic works appear in the hugely enjoyable A Gray Play Book. The collection includes the author’s long and short plays for stage, radio & television performed between 1956 & 2009, the opera libretto The Rumpus Room, picture excerpts from the Lanark storyboard and the film script of his novel, Poor Things. Fans of Gray’s self-termed “comic fantasies” will also enjoy the candid prefaces that explain how each play was written and produced. The collection begins with The Cave of Polyphemus, produced by Gray in his primary school classroom. This spirited early work sets the tone for the masterful pieces that follow. His humorous Jonah: A Puppet Play in Five Act was performed by the puppetry department at the Glasgow School of Art. Gray’s Four One-Act Sexual Comedies, which were broadcast separately on the BBC and also staged in Scotland, are a quartet of power struggles and subtle irony. However, the highlight of the collection is the Lanark storyboard. The engaging pen and ink sketches, complete with handwritten narration, are a joy to view. It is an easy task to reenact these plays in what Gray calls “the theatre of one’s mind”. TM

Allan Cameron
pp112, ISBN 9780956056030

Cameron’s theory of ‘presbyopia’ is a reaction to what he considers to be the ‘myopic’ tendency in writers and poets, a tendency that has dominated ever since the Romantics. What ‘myopic’ literature does is to privilege the self, Cameron argues, leading to self-obsession, sentimentality, a lack of interest in the surrounding world. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, perhaps because I grew up holding to the feminist line that ‘the personal is political’, and I still believe that. But perhaps the other reason I’m not convinced is the poetry that ‘presbyopia’ produces. Cameron’s focus is epic and objective, and that makes his poetry hard to connect with. Lines like “Spring eternal! Second sister and most human/of the three majuscule maidens, high-sounding on priest pursed lips” from ‘Hope and the red hero’ do not immediately make a connection, although I warm to the socialist theme he develops here and in other poems that argue (to borrow from another Cameron altogether) ‘we’re all in this together’. I think Cameron wants to inspire and galvanise and it’s a while since poetry was used in that public, declarative way. Whether ‘presbyopia’ will catch on as a theory or not, remains to be seen though. LM

The Weekend Fix
Craig Weldon
pp240, ISBN 9781905207268

The Weekend Fix chronicles a young man’s love of hill-walking. Seven sections chart Weldon’s many conquests, from the mountainous Highlands to the hills of Gloucestershire. In his descriptions of ‘bagging’ the Munros, the Marilyns and the Corbetts, Wel-don proves himself a dedicated hiker. Or else, he’s committed to avoiding his university studies. While an engineering student in Glasgow, Weldon finds comfort in the university’s outdoor club. Most weekends are spent scrambling up the local hills with like-minded friends. Weldon cheerfully describes getting lost, braving midges, hiking naked and drinking pints after a sweaty day’s climb. Parallel to the diary entries is Weldon’s struggle to find an occupation that interests him. As his biographical blurb attests, he has worked as an engineer, a submersible pilot, a songwriter, a studio owner, and a technical editor. This is the book’s problem: Wel-don is not a geographer, but a restless voyeur. His commentary does not impart knowledge of the terrain, but focuses on his friends’ antics and the day’s weather. By the book’s middle, his walks feel as if they have merged into one. TM

If The Dead Rise Not
Philip Kerr
QUERCUS, £17.99
pp320, ISBN 9781847249425

This is the sixth novel Kerr has written for his creation, the 1930s Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther, so there must be people out there who love the American-sounding, hard-boiled ‘tec. The central mystery of this series of novels is not their workaday whodunits, but their popularity. I can accept people falling for U.S.-based detectives written up by U.S.-based writers like Raymond Chandler talking about ‘cops’ and such like, but it seems ridiculous when it’s all set in Nazi Berlin and the ‘cop’ is German. Not that I am saying everyone should ‘shpeak like zis’ in such a fictional setting. But nothing feels authentic; it’s merely a boy’s own adventure. In this novel, Gunther is struggling with three problems: a Nazi crackdown on Jews, an especial problem for Gunther when he discovers there is some Jewish blood in his family; the theft of a valuable antique box; and the fact that he has accidentally killed a member of the secret police. Always the outsider (of course); always the loner, devoid of a woman’s love (of course), Gun-ther is another existential detective hero in a long, long, long line of existential detective heroes who all seem too similar. Strictly for the fans. LM

When the Sun Turns Green
Jane McKie
BIRLINN, £8.99
pp96, ISBN 9781846971341

This Linlithgow poet’s second collection is rooted firmly in nature. Over seventy poems describe curious happenings in the outdoors. Through McKie’s charmed vision we encounter beasts, water monsters, and a cloud family. Hares, hedgehogs, ladybirds and spiders are also skilfully personified. Children and family members are integrated into these poems as witnesses to the enchantment, or become part of the magic themselves, as in the poem ‘The Ascension of Nana’: “Grandmother, this new frivolity is ravishingly weightless – /gowned in picture-book clouds, you have finally taken off”. McKie writes in simple tercets or quatrains and occasionally ends a poem with a light rhyme. Her language is appropriately flowery; words such as “deliquesces” and “protean” set the right tone. Her poems resemble watercolour paintings; they are a blend of careful detail and hazy colouring. What’s best about these poems is their ability to describe a change in atmosphere or a peculiar light. Yet as solid descriptions of nature, these poems can come across as pale and distant. Events such as thunderstorms, or when the sun appears green, clearly move McKie. However, the wider emotions associated with these natural occurrences are not always conveyed. TM

Edinburgh Companion To Contemporary Scottish Poetry
Edited by Matt McGuire & Colin Nicholson
pp256, ISBN 9780748636266

This optimistic collection of essays focuses on the present state of poetry in a devolved Scot-land. In their introduction ‘Feeling Independent’, editors Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson summarise the literary achievements of the late twentieth century, and conclude that Scottish literature has moved from a mythical framework into a space of authenticity and equality. The essays included in the collection examine recent Scottish poetry in terms of identity, gender, and language. Alan Riach’s opening chapter ‘The Poetics of Devolution’ thoroughly maps the areas and agendas of Scotland’s poets. From the “constellations” of writers clustered at the various Scottish universities to those who have now live elsewhere, he praises the country’s polyphony of voices. Fiona Wilson’s chapter on ‘Scottish Women’s Poetry Since the 1970’s’ begins with the issue of compartmentalisation; she counters this by arguing that there is no denying the remarkable achievements of women writers in the last thirty years, and that is reason enough to devote an entire chapter to them. Key figures such as Edwin Morgan, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson are the subjects of whole chapters. The Companion is a thorough guide to understanding modern Scottish poetry. TM

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The SRB Interview: Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel was born in Derbyshire, in 1952, growing up in a mill town, Hadfield, largely populated by Irish textile workers and their descendants. Mantel’s own grandparents were Irish. She was educated first at a local Roman Catholic primary school, later, a convent in Romiley, Cheshire. In 1970, she moved to London to study law at the London School of Economics. Her experiences there later formed the basis of her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love. She transferred to the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1973. Briefly, she trained as a social worker. In 1974, she began to write her novel, a tale of the French Revolution told from the viewpoint of its leading revolutionaries, A Place Of Greater Safety. During her twenties, Mantel suffered illness which was misdiagnosed. At one point, she was hospitalised and treated with anti-psychotic drugs. In fact, she was suffering from endometriosis; after reading a medical textbook, she figured out what was wrong with her herself, a subsequent medical test confirming her diagnosis. In 1977, she moved to Botswana with her husband, whose job as a geologist had taken him there. Here, she finished writing A Place Of Greater Safety. Publishers rejected the book, with one losing a portion of the manuscript. Later, Mantel and her husband moved again, to Saudi Arabia, where she lived for four years, her experiences in Jeddah forming the basis for her 1988 novel, Eight Months On Gazzah Street. While in Saudi Arabia, Mantel wrote and succeeded in publishing her first novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), which drew on her experience of social work in the 1970s. Since then, Mantel has published another eleven books, including, finally, her Revolution epic, A Place Of Greater Safety (1992), a memoir of the early part of her life, Giving Up The Ghost (2003), and most recently, the Man Booker Prize-winning chronicle of Thomas Cromwell’s life, Wolf Hall. Mantel took time out from her busy schedule to talk to the Scottish Review of Books towards the end of October. Over the phone, Mantel told Colin Waters about Catholicism, child abuse and clairvoyance.

Scottish Review Of Books: I thought we might begin by comparing the heroes of your latest and first (chronologically-speaking) novels, Cromwell and Robsepierre. Both were self-made men; neither were averse to violence if necessary to ensure their plans. Do you see them as historical brothers?

Hilary Mantel: The only comparison I saw between them was that they both had an extremely bad press over the years. Both of them are a study in reputation. And it takes a lot of effort to get behind all the accretions of prejudice and start again from first principles. But I think that in Robespierre’s case, he came from a class that could succeed moderately on the eve of the Revolution. That petit bourgeois lawyer class. His family were obscure but not poor. Because he won a scholarship to an excellent school in Paris, he had a superb education. That poised him at a point at the beginning of his career that is rather different from Cromwell’s beginnings. We don’t know really where Thomas Cromwell got his education. I don’t think, again, his family were very poor, but they were a disorderly family. We know nothing of his mother at all. Walter, his father, a blacksmith and brewer, was always in the local courts for offences of drunkeness and violence. If it wasn’t for his court record we wouldn’t know anything about the Cromwell family. I see Cromwell as a much more self-made man. Robespierre took the usual path for someone of his background: a good education, then the law. Whereas with Cromwell, there wasn’t an obvious path. Usually people from poor backgrounds, in the England of that time, they needed to go into the Church to find patrons and advance in the world. Cromwell didn’t choose that path and I don’t think it was even open to him. If you take Wolsey as an example, although he was, as they always say, a butcher’s son, his father was reasonably affluent – he kept an inn as well as his business – so he sent his boy to Oxford at 14. Wolsey was taking the regular path. Cromwell didn’t, and his career was more – how would you say? – it had to be hewn out of circumstances. Whereas Robespierre was pursuing the obvious career for his type and class – then came the Revolution and changed everything. The other difference is a vast difference in personality. Robespierre was actually an introverted person who shrunk from violence. One of his campaigns in the National Assembly when he was first elected was a campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. Then circumstances changed; and then violence must be countenanced; then violence becomes a tool. I do think there was a progression, that doing violence wasn’t basic to his nature. Thomas Cromwell was a much more extroverted, go-getting character, and I think violence was part of the circumstances of his early life; with a father like Walter, it would be. And he had been a soldier, a mercenary. It was a weapon within his armoury. I think it was something he took for granted. Robespierre was more utopian. Cromwell, I imagine, saw violence as being more inextricably knitted into the world.

SRB: Another world in which violence, or at least a degree of unpleasantness, is knitted into it is Every Day Is Mother’s Day, your first published novel. As an Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark fan, I couldn’t help notice that the central mother and daughter characters are called Evelyn and Muriel. Reviewers have detected a trace of Waugh and Spark in your novels. Was this, as young writers often do, you nodding towards your influences?

HM: [Laughs] You know, I never thought of that. I think the discussion of Muriel Spark’s influence on me was started off by Auberon Waugh in the first review of my first book. By the time I wrote An Experiment In Love I thought I’d have some fun with the Spark comparison [The novel riffs on Spark’s The Girls Of Slender Means]. But it never occurred to me that I was influenced by Muriel Spark. Even to this day I haven’t read many of her books. We work in the same territory but she wasn’t a particular influence. With Waugh, he was one of the writers I discovered when I was a young adult. I don’t come from a bookish background, so my problem was access to books. When I was fourteen and allowed the huge favour of a ticket to the adult library, the first book I took out was Brideshead Revisited, followed by Decline And Fall. I remember pressing Decline And Fall on a classmate. She wasn’t sure whether it was funny or not. She said, “Are we allowed to laugh?” And I somehow knew that we were. Far more than with Brideshead Revisited, I recognised with that book something the novel could do that hadn’t been plain to me before.

SRB: I remember reading a piece by Mark Lawson, who was also brought up a Catholic, about how when he was growing up, Spark, Waugh, and Graham Greene were flourished in his house as examples of the superiority of the Catholic religion. I was going to ask whether something similar held in your household, but as you just said, it wasn’t a bookish one.

HM: Books would never have been mentioned in that way in our family. It’s interesting, isn’t it? They’re all converts, aren’t they, the writers you mention? When I read them, I didn’t think Catholicism was morally glamorous, because I was brought up with the grubby, superstitious version of Catholicism. The business of life was bending its rules. The adults around me bent their efforts to evading the strictures of their religion, whereas certain writers used Catholicism to blow up and enhance their characters’ moral dilemmas, which they agonised over for page after page. I thought it faintly ridiculous. I remember first reading Brighton Rock when I was sixteen and being drawn into its world. Then I re-read it a few years later and thought it preposterous – I didn’t buy it, though I still saw its virtues as a novel. But its moral dimension seemed to be overblown. A good percentage of the village I grew up in was Catholic, because of the number of Irish immigrants who had come over to work in the textile factories. When I was a little girl, the first thing you ever found out about a person was whether he or she was a Catholic or a Protestant. To me, it seemed to me more of a biological fact than an ethical or spiritual choice. You were just born one or another. In my mother’s time, the village was more sectarian. There was a feeling: ‘Catholics can’t get jobs’, ‘Catholics can’t get council houses’. It was a bit like the North of Ireland in miniature. It had softened by the time I was growing up, but you were conscious of which of your friends went to the ‘other’ school. And by the age of six it put a barrier between you. I used to wonder if there was a Protestant way of adding and subtracting that was different from the one we were taught.

SRB: I don’t think there is such a thing as a Catholic novelist anymore. While doing research for this interview, I don’t think I once came across an interview or review in which you were described as a Catholic novelist.

HM: I suppose there’s Paul Piers Read. I guess, what it is is, we’re hearing from different voices nowadays. The three writers you named, they came from relatively privileged and educated backgrounds. The Catholicism I grew up in was knitted in with being working class, and from an Irish background. There was a time people of that background, in this country, didn’t get much of a hearing. And of course I’m far from the church now. An apostate.

SRB: Is it fair to describe Fludd as a Catholic novel though? Were you, perhaps, trying to write your version of a Catholic novel?

HM: The events recounted in Fludd did, in a sense, happen in real life [in the novel, a mysterious curate appears in an obscure northern town in the 1950s; is he the devil or is he an angel?]. When I was four years old, the bishop decreed that all the statues in our local church must be removed. I remember listening to a conversation that my elders were having. And there was widespread horror at this. Someone said, What are they going to do with the statues? And someone else said, They’re going to bury them. And it sent shivers down my spine. Ever afterwards I ruminated upon this, and upon what really did happen to the statues. As I write in the book, some of the parishioners had proposed to adopt a statue. My mother said she was going to bring home the statue of St Gerard Majella, to whom she had a particular devotion. Can you imagine in our terraced houses, these statues standing on their plinths? Nobody actually did adopt any statue and no one knows what actually happened to them. Before I wrote Fludd, I had a conversation with my mother about this, and she said to me that there had been another strange incident in the parish, a little earlier, before I was born. There had been a young priest come to the parish, and he was really popular, everyone liked him. And then he disappeared. They thought there was a girl involved in it somewhere. So these two things collided in my mind very quickly and formed the book. I think what it was, I was going back to the time when I was four years old, and I think Fludd is told from a child’s-eye point of view. Very ordinary things look bizarre to a child, thing adults take for granted, things they don’t see any more because they’re used to them. And miraculous things can look quite ordinary. I can remember going through a stage of asking people, Is Jesus magic? And they said, No, no, you must not say that. What I wanted to know was, what was the difference between a miracle and a magic trick? And I think that when I was writing, I was trying to get back there, to put magic a nd miracles side by side, where they become inextricable, really. And then of course there was a real life Fludd, an alchemist. I borrowed his name, I suppose, to introduce into the book the question of transformation. The notion of transformation is explored in a lot of my books, whether it’s transformation through political revolution, or making yourself over on a personal level, or the central miracle of the mass. Fludd features a dreamworld notion of Catholicism. Catholicism, as I was brought up to know it, it was bound up with myth and miracles. Sometimes it sounded very like the fairy tales I was reading. Did you see the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux in the news last week? They were on tour. Queues around the block to file past her bones. I was told as a fact when I was a child, by the nuns who taught me and my relatives, that Therese forecast that when she died a shower of roses would fall from heaven. And this, they told me, actually came to pass. Some roses tumbled down from the ceiling. Even then I was able to think, there is something odd going on here. Because even I could see that what Therese really meant was that blessings would follow her death. But people were failing to see the metaphor. And that was typical of the Catholicism in which I grew up. It required one to believe, literally believe, in impossible things, and left no scope for the metaphorical. I feel I was quick to see the metaphorical. To see layers of meaning. I was preparing to be a writer, I just didn’t know it.

SRB: The language of the Catholic Church, is not only wonderful in its way but a ready made source of comedy. There’s a great moment in Fludd (1989) when the housekeeper. Agnes Dempsey, is asked by her priest what she’s been up to: “I have been praying for the suppression of heresy, the exaltation of the Church and concord among Christian princes”.

HM: [Laughs] Yes, wonderful. Because, despite their workaday problems and speech, people were exposed to this whole other lexicon, if only they picked up their prayer books. She wouldn’t have a clue what it meant, but she knew it was what she was meant to do.

SRB: The theme of transformation in your work – what draws you back to it?

HM: I’m fascinated by the question of whether people can really change. I’m optimistic. I maintain that they can change at any point and make themselves over. Sounds a bit Californian. I don’t mean it in that way. I just have a very strong sense of how resilient the spirit is, and of the ability of people to haul themselves back from the brink of existential disaster and remake themselves as personalities.

SRB: The epigraph of Every Day Is Mother’s Day is about how adulterers never prosper, something you return to many times in your novels. Witness the fate of Ralph Eldred (A Change Of Climate), Anne Boelyn, and Isabel Field (Every Day). But then being in a couple rarely looks like a healthy way to spend your life either.

HM: Actually, the other epigraph is more important. The Pascal one, about how there are two errors. One: to take everything literally. And two: to take everything spritiually. I think that could be the epigraph for everything I’ve ever written. I just want to say to people, look, these books of mine are always going to be moving between the literal and the metaphorical, so you must decide where to position yourself, because the author’s position is shifting. But I think the other epigraph – “do not adultery commit/advantage rarely comes off it” – it’s this tongue in cheek decalogue [by Arthur Hugh Clough]; I’m sure advantage does come of it sometimes.

SRB: As I read Every Day and Beyond Black, I couldn’t help but think of the Baby P case and the poor Pilkingtons. Then I read your piece on what it was like to work as a social worker in the 1970s, and I had to conclude perhaps not much, certainly not enough, had changed in the intervening decades.

HM: That time in my life, although quite short in duration, is very vivid in my mind. The placement I did with the probation service when I was a student, over a summer, and the time I spent working in a geriatric hospital….I was based in the hospital but I did go out and I saw patients and their families in their homes, and I saw people in all kinds of desperate circumstances. It made a huge impression on me. You see, I felt people weren’t getting the right kind of help. When I began I intended to train as a social worker, but I was severely disillusioned. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was a time of huge changes in the social services, in their organisation. If I had been able to train as a medical social worker, staying within the NHS, perhaps I would have done it, but I did think, when I came into contact with the generic, local authority social workers, What are these people doing? What are they for? All they were doing was running around in a panic. I couldn’t for the life of me see how they were making people’s lives better. No doubt that was unkind of me. I couldn’t speak their jargon. I think when you were a medical social worker, in those days, you were doing some practical things. I used to think the people who were brilliant were the home helps who visited the elderly and did the shopping and cleaning, and I used to think some of the social services budget should be diverted to them. Because a lot of the time, when you were in people’s homes, you saw what they really needed was someone to clean the floor. They were old and they couldn’t do it and it made them ashamed. They didn’t need to be cross-questioned as to what was in their file, they needed practical help. I got exasperated. A lot of the decisions were political, because they had to do with the allocation of resources. I couldn’t understand why doctors, whose position then was so respected, didn’t campaign for more resources for the elderly.

SRB: Child abuse recurs in your novels. Every Day features the drowning of a baby, while another young child is murdered in A Change Of Climate. The first scene of Wolf Hall is one in which the young Thomas Cromwell is being horribly battered by his father. Is your imagination haunted by such scenes?

HM: With Every Day, this is the intrusion of magic into the suburbs. That was what I was writing about. The baby itself was almost an abstraction. The baby has no life on the page. I do feel my own childhood, if one were to recite the bare facts of it, they are not so very terrible at all compared to some people’s, but I did experience a great deal of fear in childhood, and a feeling of powerlessness, and that is at the root of my personality. It’s something I can never forget. You’re right about the persistence of my feeling, not only with reference to actual children, but to underdogs in general and oppressed peoples. And all kind of people may be oppressed, as in my novel set in Saudi Arabia, Eight Months On Ghazzah Street [a young woman who has travelled to Saudi Arabia with her husband for work becomes suspicious about a supposedly abandoned flat above her own]. The wielders of power, be they adults or the state, they set up rules and don’t tell you what they are, so that you are transgressing every time you breathe. I have a strong sense of the Orwellian nightmare – something that is not purely abstract, but occasionally impacts on people’s flesh. The state of being a child is something I carry with me in a compartment or special room, somewhere I can go into when I want to. One of the efforts of my adult life has been to keep that door shut and to only open it when I choose.

SRB: Every Day is set in the 1970s, as is An Experiment In Love. Given the way in which the economy has collapsed today, and the resurgence of industrial action, fears over energy supplies, and a troubled Labour government, the comparison is there to be made between the 1970s and the present, and several non-fiction books of late have made that comparison. But if you read Every Day and An Experiment In Love, you see the 1970s were infinitely grimmer than the present. If nothing else the food and clothes are better in the present. Having spent so much of your time re-experiencing that period in your imagination, what do you think of that comparison, and does fiction show one of its uses in the way it can reject easy historical comparisions?

HM: I’m much more interested in understanding different eras than in condemning them. To me, a lot of people, historians and others, begin by condemning. I’m more interested in imagining how the era felt from the inside. What are the processes that form a person’s life, that interests me – rather than imposing hindsight on them, and saying they should have done X and they should have done Y. If you move forward with a character – and it’s a trick, because you always employing hindsight – but if you move forward with your characters, you then see something of the circumstances that hemmed them in, and also you see that at the time they didn’t have complete information about their situations. I have a sense of most people muddling through life, trying to do the best that they can under the circumstances which they find themselves. I don’t see any of the people I have written about as wicked men per se, because I don’t think there are many such people. I’m more interested in why they made the choices they did. When historians make judgements about people they are doing it in a void, but unfortunately in comparisons people lose a sense of scale. I have had a lot of people tell me Robespierre, or Thomas Cromwell or Henry VIII, for that matter, were equivalent to Stalin. Such unhistorical comparisons don’t do us any favours, they don’t help us to think. They’re glib and a product of moral panic. The whole notion of Henry VIII as a despot has been exaggerated. He may have wanted to be a despot, but in a country of such fragmentation, with such limited means of communication, there was limit to how far a monarch could impose his will. And Henry had a parliament to deal with too, often a hostile parliament. In general, I think, it’s not the job of the novelist to think in black and white terms or to pin labels on people or indulge in wild comparisons across the eras.

SRB: Towards the end of Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, which is set in Saudi Arabia, your heroine Frances declares, “I would like to stride up to the next veiled woman I see and tear the black cloth from her face, and rip it up before her eyes”. Did you think you’d ever see the day when liberal women defended the right to wear the veil?

HM: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how high my eyebrows rise when I come across that. It’s deeply wrong-headed. But Eight Months On Ghazzah Street isn’t just about the position of women. It’s really about how a society like that functions. Because there is no guide to the truth, it functions on disinformation and rumour. In the late 1980s when I wrote the book, I was trying to say to people, look, look here, look at Islam, look at what’s coming. And of course the critics took no note of that strand of the book at all. They were more interested in it as a psychological novel. It did tell you, in a novelist’s way, quite a lot about Islam that people have struggled to understand. One thing it tells you about is the way that Islam perceives the West, which is often extremely distorted. The picture of Britain held in the minds of the women of Saudi Arabia was not one I recognised. For them, the law of the land and the moral law had to be the same, and they could not understand a state that was not theocratic. They didn’t think democracy was an ideal worth pursuing, in fact, they thought it a bad thing. In many African countries, lip service is paid to democracy, even if in practice the country is run by a dictatorship. But in Saudi, democracy was not an ideal worth pursuing, it was in fact ungodly. I found all that very interesting. The gap in perceptions was a chasm. To go back to your question, it does amaze me that there are people who defend the veil. As it seems to me the first right a person has is the right to be seen. And that is denied to women by the veil. But you really have to have lived there to know it, to know what a group of women under the veil look like when they move through a public space. It’s as if they are not there.

SRB: That reminds me of what you wrote about middle class social workers not wanting to judge, which in turn reminds me of something Ralph says in A Change Of Climate: “I want, he thought, to put into practice a different kind of Christianity from my father’s: one in which I don’t pass judgement on people”. As you’ve said, it’s not the writer’s job to pin labels on his or her characters. But equally, it seems to me, the trajectory of your books would suggest that Ralph’s idea is neither possible or even desirable.

HM: I think so. You see that when a man breaks into Ralph’s home – he forgets his liberal piety and clobbers him. Sometimes you put your characters into extreme situations and they might have their beliefs stripped away, and that is a moment of transformation, if you like.

SRB: Ralph won’t admit the existence of evil – do you believe in evil? In our post-theological age, sometimes we feel almost embarrassed to use the word evil.

HM: Yes, I do think there is evil. I think it on two counts. One is that as a child I felt it was something I could sense. And I know I’ve seen it in practice, in everyday life, in actions, in the brutal world of words that will destroy a person’s perception of themselves and strip away their defences, and yet it brings no advantage to the person who speaks those words, so that they act as they do purely out of malice and a love of destruction. In that sense, I think it’s quite common. I worked in a bar once where one of my co-workers was upset because her husband, who didn’t go away often, had been sent by his work to Glasgow, and she couldn’t get in touch with him. He wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and didn’t call when he should have. She was an anxious, harmless young woman with a lot of self-doubt and insecurities. As the night went on, she kept trying and failing to get through to him on the phone. One of the other barmaids said to her, ‘Well, it’s quite simple. He’s picked up another woman, hasn’t he?’ I thought, I’ve hardly ever in my life heard anything so wicked. She was speaking the woman’s unspoken thoughts, thoughts she was trying her best to suppress. And it brought the woman who said it no advantage, except a momentary glee in seeing the young woman’s face crumble. It’s a small thing, it’s not a war, it’s not the Holocaust – but there was an impulse of pure wickedness at the moment she spoke, it seems to me. I’ll write about that one day. It’s been kicking around in my brain for twenty-five years waiting to fit into a story. I’ve never seen anyone so abjectly destroyed. Her face just fell apart.

SRB: I’m interested in the way in which you depict how people fall into malicious behaviour. Because, as you say, you think of your characters as people merely trying to muddle their way through life.

HM: I lived in Botswana previously, on the South African border, so we were in South Africa quite often during the apartheid years. It was interesting to compare what was going on in South Africa and in Saudi Arabia. With both places, you saw the system in operation on the street every day. The ideological underpinnings, they weren’t a remote political philosophy. They affected evey body’s lives. Can I go in through that doorway? No, I can’t because I’m black, or because I’m a woman. You entered a strange world where you knew you were being set apart, on the basis of your physical characteristics. And the rules were shifting all the time. When you saw these systems in practice for the first time, then you understood all about them, far more than you did through reading about what it would be like. Before I went to Saudi Arabia, I read everything I could, but I had to see it to understand. With South Africa, I remember the first time we visited a town over the border from Botswana. We went to a bank, and there was a long, long queue of black people, and much shorter queue for white people. I thought, What do I do? Then comes the moment you knew if you didn’t join the white queue, you were going to upset and infuriate everyone in sight. You couldn’t join the long queue because you knew it would upset the people in the long queue; it wouldn’t be me who’d have felt the cost of the gesture, it would have been the people I imagined I was defending. I thought, I suppose, corruption has come upon me, taken hold of me all in a moment. I suddenly saw how useless a gesture could be. That’s what I meant when I was talking about how circumstances come along which challenge everything you hold dear, and in an instant of transformation, you’re corrupted. Corruption is basic to that kind of system. Everybody is invested in it, even the victims. They dare not rock the boat. They collude. Sometimes, as with the women of Saudi Arabia, they praise and justify the very ideals that oppress them.

SRB: Eight Months On Gazzah Street was published in 1988, a year before the fatwa was put on Rushdie. Did readers’ response to the book change after that?

HM: Not really. In the eyes of the critics, I think, it was a book about a woman by a woman. And it could therefore only be domestic in scope. The world has changed a lot since then. The way in which women authors are read has changed. But with all my writing, some critics have had difficulty in seeing them as novels that went beyond the domestic in their concerns. I had a feeling I was being ‘little-womaned’, even though the book got a lot of good reviews. Only a few people saw that my second novel, Vacant Possession, was an attempt at a ‘condition of England’ novel, although it was set pointedly in the year of 1984. To me it has always been a natural thing to do, to use the family as a stand-in for the state or wider society. But it was like being back with St Therese and her shower of roses: people were only reading me literally. I guess I was too oblique. I didn’t signpost my themes. Should I have been more obvious? Or more serious?

SRB: A Change Of Climate and Eight Months touch on your experience of living abroad. Did exile, as it has for other writers, galvanise something in you, some writerly instinct?

HM: I started writing A Place Of Greater Safety the year after I left university, so I began writing in England. I worked on it for two and half years before I went to Africa. I didn’t think of myself then as a career writer. I thought of myself as someone who was going to write that one book, and I couldn’t look beyond it. So a lot of the time when I was in Botswana, in my head I was in revolutionary Paris. Later, I thought why didn’t I keep a diary, why didn’t I record every experience? But I took something from it, as I have written about Africa and I will again. My reality, however, was elsewhere. By the time I went to Saudi Arabia something else had happened. I had finished A Place Of Greater Safety. I failed to sell it. I began another novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, which was my sneaky plan to get a foot in the door. I had only published one short story by that point, but in my mind I was a writer. I had learned so much by writing A Place Of Greater Safety and I thought I had more tricks up my sleeve than I had first suspected. So when I went to Saudi, as soon as I landed at the airport in the early hours, just as I describe it in Eight Months, I knew that I better get my notebook out. I should say that I’m not Frances Shore, the main character. I made her a blunter character than I am in order to draw forth the other characters and draw out the potential of the situations. On the other hand, I did stand in her shoes. What she witnessed, I witnessed. As soon as I got there, I thought, this place is so bizarre. It’ll give me a novel. Really, it was the only thing that made it bearable to me. It was an artificial life, and a lonely one. It was conducted mostly under artificial light, with windows you couldn’t see out of. I did come back home every summer, which saved my sanity. If it hadn’t been for the fact I knew there was a novel in it, I would have had to come back to England, and then my husband would have had to decide what to do. In a sense, the worse it got, the better it was for my book.

SRB: That must be one of the saving graces of being a writer. Knowing that no matter how bad life has become, you can always use it as material.

HM: Absolutely. You get quite cold blooded about observing your reactions. Last year my husband was very ill, he had emergency surgery and he was in intensive care for three days. He came out of it okay in the end. Before he got home from the hospital, I had my piece into the LRB. And people said, I don’t believe you wrote that at the time, but I did – not at the height of the crisis, but in the long hours of waiting, I was already stitching the piece together in my mind. It’s something you just learn to do, to step aside from your immediate feelings and circumstances, to ask what the use of this is, and what the shape of it is, this amorphous situation.

SRB: It’s a way of taking control then?

HM: Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. When I was in Saudi Arabia, the only control I had was over the thoughts in my own head. It gave me a secret. The fact that I had this writing building up, that I was keeping a journal, that I was turning it into a novel, the secret life I had on the page was the only control I could exert, it meant I was shaping my reality – otherwise everything would have been out of my hands and I would have felt at the mercy of that place.

SRB: I’ve read that eating disorders can be a way of taking control.

HM: When your identity is stripped back and back, all you hold is that little castle of yourself, and that is the only ground on which you can operate, but operate you certainly can. I’ve never been anorexic myself. Some people think I must have been because I’ve written about it a lot. But it’s just that I understand it, just as I understand why one would become an Islamic fundamentalist, or why one would embrace violence, become a suicide bomber. I understand extremes. I’ve been in places where you feel you must violently assert yourself against the world, and in the case of eating disorders and women it is easy for the violence to turn inwards and express itself within the body. With Carmel [the anorexic heroine of An Experiment In Love], the seed of her eating disorder is that she is poor. Her decision to cut back on food is logical, but then she comes to the stage where eating becomes difficult. First one chooses not to eat, and then it is no longer a choice, one simply does not eat. It is very easy to slip past that point without noticing it. Carmel starts off simply poor, as I say, and then her condition becomes something else. She exerts tight control over her budget and her body. But then she no longer wills what will happen, a physiological process takes over. As a student I had less money that most of my peers. What you eat is one of the things you can control. You can cut back on that, so you do. You get used to being hungry. In the novel I just pushed the situation further than it really did go. Carmel is seeking self-definition, and at a certain point, her chief distinction lies in being thin. That is so often the fictional process – carrying a situation forward to an extreme, and exploring its possible outcome.

SRB: I suppose the modern patron saint of eating disorders is Princess Diana, who has a cameo in Beyond Black [Diana appears in spectral form to clairvoyant Alison Hart, the survivor of terrible childhood abuse, and who is privy to the knowledge that the afterlife is as sad and shabby as ‘real’ life].

HM: Well, she’s also the patron saint of psychics.

SRB: I wanted to ask too about Margaret Thatcher’s cameo appearance in An Experiment In Love.

HM: She really did come to my hall of residence, wearing a most unsuitable frock. As one of the girls says in the novel, a cocktail dress. She got it terribly wrong, but I don’t think she noticed. She was minister of education then.

SRB: Although dead or long out of office, both Di and Thatcher are ghosts who continue to haunt the British psyche, aren’t they?

HM: They still dominate our imagination because of the mythic force they have. Because people would say about Diana, She was a real old slapper, but she was a good mother, whatever else you might say about her. And I think we made her a kind of Madonna figure. The Holy Mother, I mean. Whereas Margaret Thatcher is the bad mother with iron teeth, the milk snatcher. Imagine a nation that puts the milk snatcher in charge of our welfare!

SRB: All the rules and regulations governing female behaviour in Eight Months reminds me of Tudor society as depicted in Wolf Hall, only the Tudors come out of the comparison better. Still, both Saudi Arabia and Tudor court were societies where no one can speak freely.

HM: Not many people have the – I was going to call it luck – but not many people get to live in an absolute monarchy these days, but I have lived in one. I was able to bring over my insights, especially into the life of the court. It becomes a more pronounced theme in the sequel to Wolf Hall, the way in which the court is policed by rumour and gossip.

SRB: To change the subject, I’ve read your favourite book is Kidnapped, and your favourite character is Alan Breck. I take it Kidnapped was an important book in your childhood?

HM: I remember everything about reading it. I identified so much with David. Then, it acted as a model for me of how a novel should be, although I didn’t know I was taking it in that way. It is a very fast moving and cinematic narrative. It’s acted as a model story for me. Also, it’s a story about male friendship. I’ve written about this a good deal. I said to an audience the other day that Wolf Hall, if you take away the immediate circumstances, the fact that the story is affixed to a certain time and set of political circumstances, it is the archetypal story of the boy who leaves home and can’t go back. And someone said, so it’s just like Kidnapped, with which you’re obssessed. I had to admit, yes, it is. We don’t always know what we’re doing, but we’re executing these patterns over and over again.

SRB: Stevenson was famously someone who suffered from illness, whose work was shaped by it. You too have suffered illness; in fact I’m sure I read that you said you wouldn’t have written if you had not become ill first. Do you see affinities on this front with RLS or indeed any other writer who it is said began to write because of illness?

HM: Illness makes ordinary things difficult, in that you don’t have enough energy. From a career point of view, I wouldn’t recommend it. You know what writers’ lives are like nowadays. You’re a public person, and you can’t simply sit in a room and pursue your trade. So illness makes that part of your professional life difficult. But in a way the kind of solitude that illness forces on you, it compresses your imagination, makes it more powerful. I was ill a lot as a child. I seemed to spend long hours being bored, too headachey to read and too sick to concentrate, but nevertheless bored. I used to look at the wall, and imagine a door in the wall, and then walking through the door and seeing what I might find there. That habit was one sickness formed in me, and carried on into adult life. The solitude that sickness forces on you is an unusual one because it is a solitude that you still experience even if you are surrounded by a boisterous family, because it’s your pain, yours alone, and there is something incommunicable about the way you feel. And if you are ill as a child, it makes you resourceful, because there are a lot of things you don’t get to do in fact that you do instead in your imagination. People think that writers are daydreamers. I’ve often been asked if I daydream a lot. And I can’t associate what I do with this word daydreaming, because my imaginary world involves really furious and concentrated energy, and it is purposive. I make a scene, I make characters, I make them talk, and I’ll go over and over it to make it right. I have done that since I was a small child and the idea of ‘dreaminess’ just doesn’t cover it.

SRB: The Giant O’Brien was published in 1998 and it seems to predict the nature of modern fame, which is a throwback to the sort of freak show the giant made his money from. When I think of the stone-eaters, the sapient pig, and Sham Sam the conjuror that feature in The Giant O’Brien, I could easily see them on Britain’s Got Talent.

HM: Yes, true, though I haven’t thought about it, because it was written slightly before all that started. I was thinking just as much about the situation of the writer. As much as I appreciate my lovely public, much as I’m both obliged and interested to go out and meet them, there are times when you feel a freak. I know the moment when The Giant O’Brien started, because I know when I came across the facts of the case. It was a paragraph, a footnote, in a book I was reading, just a mention of the surgeon John Hunter [real-life eighteenth-century Scots surgeon who dissected the remains of the giant O’Brien over his dying wish for his cadaver to be left intact] and the case of the giant Charles Byrne. I read it and I thought, that’s for me, that’s my novel. But there’s a point when a book begins emotionally too. And that happened later, with The Giant O’Brien. I was coming along the road one day and was hailed by a woman I knew, who was with a friend. She introduced me to the friend, saying, Hilary is a writer. And the woman stared at me. I suppose it was only for a moment but it seemed to go on forever. There was scepticism in her gaze, a hostility, a wariness. I really felt for a moment as if I were in a glass case, and in one sense, that’s where the book started. The giant exhibited twice a day, but he was a freak all the time, and it seemed to me that was rather like a writer’s life. You’re a freak all the time but sometimes the public show up and poke you.

SRB: There are analogies made between mediums and writers in Beyond Black. Mediums and historical novelist both try to make the dead speak, do they not?

HM: They’re both respectable trades too. They both have an economic pay-off. Where if you wonder around claiming you talk to the dead and you’re not getting any money out of it, then you’re simply mad. The economic motive sanctifies it, so that it’s quite okay for writers and mediums to resurrect the dead. The parallels between writers and mediums struck me very forcibly. There’s also the element of public performance, at being goggled at because you’re another kind of freak.

SRB: The south of England you depict in Beyond Black is brutal, rude and suspicious of difference. It’s filled with mock communities and a sort of mock heritage. Ironically, given where your imagination took you next, the characters are all living in mock Tudor houses.

HM: I was engaged by this parodying of the past by the nostalgia industry. I’m interested in people’s relationships with their past. I was interested in it because the area of the country where I live. I live between Woking and Guildford. And it’s a place where no one comes from. The immediate townscape wasn’t even here ten years ago. It was just fields. It’s covered by houses and people now, but it is by no means a community. The little village it’s centred around consists almost entirely of estate agents, so that people can sell their houses in these non-places to each other. What I noticed was, what you notice a lot about these dormitory towns, when they sell the houses, one of the merits forever emphasised is how easy it is to get out of the place. “Very handy for Heathrow, very handy for the M4 and M3”.

SRB: Are mediums a heavily distorted bid to discover one’s roots in an era strikingly free of any sense of continuity with the past?

HM: Yes, I got a strong sense when watching clairvoyant and mediums at work on stage that the audience were avid to connect with their past. It was their deracination that frightened me. In the book, there is a girl in an audience who confesses she doesn’t know who her grandmother was, and I really came across that incident while researching the book. I went to see a medium, a man, six miles out of Slough, who worked very hard with an audience but nothing was going right. He came to this seventeen-year-old girl and said he had a message from her grandmother. He was fishing around for the name – “Is it Marjorie, is it Mary”? – and she said she didn’t know. Subsequent questioning revealed she wasn’t adopted, there was no story behind it, no reason why she shouldn’t know who her grandmother was. She was just amazed anyone should expect her to know. I was terrified by that, the thought there are people out there who are so without roots, they don’t know their grandparent’s name. I felt I’d been tipped into godless universe with no meaning at all, when I saw this girl whose knowledge of her family didn’t go back two generations. Perhaps my feeling was exaggerated. But it chilled me. It made the girl seem less than human.

SRB: Are you working now on a sequel to Wolf Hall?

HM: I am. I also have a long-term project I’m working on which is a non-fiction book, just a little non-fiction book, called The Woman Who Died Of Robespierre. It’s about a Polish playwright whose obsession with the French Revolution more or less killed her. It’s a true story. But I don’t want to write a biography. I want to use her life as the centre of a case study about writers’ obsessions and how writers work. Also, I think it’ll be about historical fiction and historical drama. By the time I’ve written Wolf Hall’s sequel, I’ll have more experience and I’ll know more, enough to be qualified to write the non-fiction book. I also have another novel in hand which is set in Botswana at the time I was there. When I’ve written about Botswana before, A Change Of Climate, it was set in the 1950s and 1960s, I’d actually like to write about the late 1970s and late 1980s, when I was there. Botswana when it was pre-AIDS.

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, £18.99
pp672, ISBN 9780007230181

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New Poems – Robin Robertson

Cat, Failing

A figment, a thumbed maquette of a cat, some ditched plaything, something brought in from outside:
his white fur stiff and grey, coming apart at the seams.

I study the muzzle
of perished rubber, one ear eaten away, his sour body lumped like a bean-bag leaking thinly
into a grim towel. I sit
and watch the light
degrade in his eyes.

He tries and fails
to climb to his chair, shirks
in one corner of the kitchen, cowed, denatured, ceasing to be anything like a cat,
and there’s a new look
in those eyes
that refuse to meet mine
and it’s the shame of being found out. Just that.

And with that
loss of face
his face, I see,
has turned human.

A Gift

She came to me in a dress
of true-love and blue rocket,
with fairy-thimbles of foxglove
at the neck and wrist,
in her hair she wore a garland
of cherry laurel, herb bennet, dwayberries and yew-berries, twined with stems of clematis, and at her throat she’d threaded twists of bryony stalk, seeds
of meadow saffron and laburnum, linked simply in a necklace,
and she was holding out
a philtre of water lovage,
red chamomile and ladies’ seal
in a cup, for me to drink.


What is he to think now,
the white scut
of her bottom
down the half-flight
carpet stair
to the bathroom?

What is he to do
with this masted image?

He put all his doubt
to the mouth of her long body,
let her draw the night
out of him like a thorn.

She touched it, and it moved: that’s all.

My Girls

How many times
have I lain alongside them
willing them to sleep
after the same old stories;
face to face, hand in hand,
till they smooth into dream and I can slip these fingers free
and drift downstairs:
my face a blank,
hands full of deceit.


Tune to the frequency of the wood and you’ll hear the deer, breathing; a muscle, tensing; the sigh
of a fieldmouse under an owl. Now

listen to yourself – that friction – the push-and-drag, the double pulse, the drum. You can hear it, clearly. You can hear the sound of your body, breaking down.

If you’re very quiet, you might pick up loss: or rather the thin noise that losing makes – perdition.

If you’re absolutely silent

and still, you can hear nothing
but the sound of nothing: this voice
and its wasting, the soul’s tinsel. Listen… Listen…


It wasn’t meant to be that way.

I never expected it to shoot so hard
it blinded me: I’d wanted to watch
the way it went. The pumping-out not like coming at all, more like emptying
a bottle: blacking out
a little more with every pulse.

I just felt light and very cold at the end, astonished at how much red there was and my wrist so white.


The sudden sea is bright
and soundless: a changed channel of dashed colour, scrolling plankton, sea-darts, the slope and loom of ghosts, something slow and grey
sashaying through a school
of cobalt blue,
thin chains of silver fish
that link and spill and flicker away.

The elements imitate each other: water-light playing on these stones becomes a shaking flame; sunlight stitches the rock-weed’s rust and green, swaying, sea-wavering; one red
twist scatters a shoal like a dust of static – a million tiny shocks of white dissolving in the lower depths.

The only sound
is the sea’s mouth and the ticking
of the many mouths
that feed within it, sipping the light.

Dreaming high over the sea-forest
– the sea-bed green as a forest floor – through the columns of gold
and streams of water-weed,
above a world in thrall,
charting by light
as a plane might glide,
slowly, silently
over woods in storm.

Hammersmith Winter

It is so cold tonight; too cold for snow,
and yet it snows. Through the drawn curtain shines the snowlight I remember as a boy, sitting up at the window watching it fall. But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed. None of you are. Look at the snow,
I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold, would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

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Queequeg…No 3

Volume 5 Issue 4

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A Half-Wit Hero

It is almost thirty years since William Boyd published A Good Man in Africa. An immediate success, it won the Whitbread prize for the best first novel and the Somerset Maugham Award.

Boyd had already caught one’s attention with elegant stories published in London Magazine, and his second novel, An Ice-Cream War marked an advance on its predecessor and was short-listed for the Booker. So he began at, or near, the top, and has remained there ever since. The quality of his novels may have varied, but that is true of all but a very few writers; they have never been less than assured and always readable. He has had from the first the gift denied to many, of telling a story. Indeed, in his mastery of narrative, he may well be compared to Maugham himself. The plot may occasionally creak, but you read on. To say this is not to damn with faint praise, for the ability to hold the reader’s attention is not to be despised.

In one quite important sense Boyd is very much a writer for our times, for the world of easy travel and credit cards. He is curiously rootless and, when you think of him, you don’t associate him with any particular place. His family is Scottish and he was educated here, at Gordonstoun and Glasgow University, but his subjects and appeal are international rather than Scottish, even though the “good man” of that first novel – Dr Mackay – is in his moral temper convincingly, if now, perhaps even then, old-fashionedly, Scottish. James Todd, film-maker and hero of his most ambitious novel, The New Confessions (1987), which I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade my fellow Booker judges to put at least on the shortlist , is also very recogniz-ably a Scot, though his career takes him, like so many Scots, far from Scotland. In subsequent novels, however, his characters rarely seem to belong anywhere particular. They either have no background or such as they are granted is sketchy, unpersuasive and unimportant.

They might have grown up anywhere, and this is reasonable, for in adult life, they don’t seem to belong anywhere either. They are abstractions, no matter how much we are told about them. Sometimes, like Logan Mountstuart, whose diaries and memoirs provide the matter of Any Human Heart, they are given a full biography, but there is always something arbitrary about it. Likewise the settings of Boyd’s fiction are well-researched, and you can follow his characters’ movements on a map, but there is no deep engagement with place such as you find in, for instance, the very different novels of Peter Ackroyd or William Trevor. This may be felt as a weakness, and to some extent it undoubtedly is, but at the same time, it is a condition of Boyd’s modernity. If his characters don’t belong anywhere, this is because as with so many people in our shifting cities today, everything in their lives is provisional. Indeed they make themselves up as they go along.

Adam Kindred, the hero of his new novel is driven by circumstance to do just this. We are told he is a climatologist – it’s fashionable for novelists to give their leading player a scientific background, and there is a prefatory note telling us that “ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity” and that “the grandfather of all thunderstorms is the super-cell thunderstorm” (Storm Dynamics and Hail Cascades by L.D. Sax and W.S. Dutton); but this is no more than a bit of showing-off on Boyd’s part, or, charitably, a hint of what is in store for Adam. In truth however his career as a climatologist is quite irrelevant; it’s merely a label to stick on him.

The opening of the novel is coyly affected: “Let us start with the river – all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt – but let’s wait and see how we go. Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river’s edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London. There he is – look – stepping hesitantly down from a taxi…”

This is dreadful, and should have fallen victim to an editor. The ending of the second paragraph is just as bad.

“He crosses the road, having no idea how his life is to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all…”

This bid for significance is really little more than an authorial clearing of the throat; tiresome all the same. Fortunately things soon get better.

Adam has come from a successful job interview. He goes to eat in a small Italian restaurant, and gets into conversation with the man, a certain Dr Wang, at the next table. When Dr Wang leaves Adam finds that he has left a folder behind him. Since his address is on the label he decides to return it in person. He speaks to Dr Wang on the inter-com. The porter admits him to the block of flats. Adam signs the book and goes upstairs. He finds the door open, the flat in disorder and Dr Wang lying on his bed with a knife in him. Wang tells him to pull it out. Adam obeys, doubtfully. Then he hears a noise in the next room. The killer is still in the flat. He flees, taking Wang‘s folder with him. Instead of calling the police on his mobile, he goes back to his hotel, by way of a pub. He is well and truly launched on the adventure that, as we have been warned, will change his life “massively, irrevocably”.

Now one is not entitled to complain when the hero of a novel behaves like a half-wit. Many people in real life do so too, and in any case it’s a convention of the thriller genre that the hero (or heroine) should find himself in a fix from which he might quite easily have extricated himself, at the cost of only a little discomfort, if he had behaved sensibly at the start, even if this isn’t the case in some of the best thrillers, such as Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, to which Boyd’s novel bears some slight resemblance; in that book the hero’s response to the fix he is in is quite sensible. Be that as it may, Adam Kindred, wanted by the police and pursued by Dr Wang’s ex-SAS killer, goes to ground, first hiding in a waste patch of ground by the river, and then sinking into London’s underworld. In what is perhaps the novel’s best observation, Boyd remarks that “the only way to avoid detection in a twenty-first century city was to take no advantage of the services it offered. If you made no calls, paid no bills, had no address, never voted, walked everywhere, made no credit card transactions or used cash machines, never fell ill or asked for state support, then you slipped beneath the modern world’s cognizance”. This is good, even if it takes no account of the ubiquity of CCTV cameras.

As a thriller, Ordinary Thunderstorms is, like Boyd’s last novel, Restless, a nice well-made piece of fictional machinery, inventive in the use of detail, straining, but never quite breaking, credulity. The plot, turning on the willingness of a pharmaceutical company to put a drug for asthma on the market, even though the responsible chemist (Dr Wang of course) has had second thoughts on discovering it is killing children, is far-fetched but adequate for the task. The other main characters, notably a river policewoman, her hippy father, and a gilt- if not quite golden-hearted prostitute who befriends Adam may be conventionally constructed of cardboard, as are the ex-SAS killer, given a basset hound in an effort to lend him individuality, and the chairman of the pharmaceutical company who has a regular date with a prostitute and debates with himself every morning as to whether it is a day for underpants or no underpants. But none of this matters, any more than the familiarity of the various low-lifes Adam encounters, all recruited from central casting. It is more distressingly to the point that, for all Adam’s wanderings through the seedier and more sinister parts of London, we get no sense of the city itself. The word ‘Dickensian’ springs to mind simply because of the absence of any Dickensian quality, any sense of urgency, any felt life, in the portrayal of London.

What we have then is a well-crafted if predictable plot, a novel which is sufficiently amusing to hold to hold your attention and persuade you to suspend your disbelief. It moves along briskly and there are enough little surprises and twists to keep you reading. In an undemanding way it is enjoyable.

The trouble is that there are scores of crime writers who can do as well, and a handful at least who do this sort of thing better. What is missing is any note of individuality, or to put it bluntly, William Boyd himself. Now there is of course no reason why an author should intrude in his fiction. Many of the greatest have practised self-effacement. Yet, the best of those, like Ford Madox Ford, whose idea of the novel called for the author’s absence, for an exercise in abnegation, have had an unmistakably personal tone which impresses itself on the reader. If Boyd’s mastery of narrative is indeed comparable to Maugham’s, as I have suggested, nevertheless Maugham scarcely wrote a sentence which was not, in tone and rhythm, unmistakably his. But Boyd’s sentences might be anyone’s. There is no individual voice in these recent novels.

It may be that he is happy to settle for being agreeable, for turning out slick entertainments which will be assured commercial successes. (One might however remark that even those novels which Graham Greene styled “entertainments” had his distinctive tone, and there is nothing distinctive in Boyd’s.) If so, if he is content to be an accomplished manufacturer of fiction, a smooth professional operator, that is understandable in the present cold climate for the literary novel. But it seems a pity, especially when one looks back to the achievement of The New Confessions, one of the finest novels of the 1980s, better than anything written by those with whom his name used to be loosely linked – Rushdie, Amis and Barnes, for instance – as the rising stars of the British novel; and when one remembers the promise of still greater achievement which that novel offered – and which indeed some found, later in Brazzaville Beach.

“Boyd is very much a writer for our times, for the world of easy travel and credit cards.”

Perhaps he is marking time while he prepares to write the richly distinctive novel of which he has seemed capable, the one which will answer the questions “who and where is William Boyd?” But it may be that the very quality of being apparently at home anywhere in the modern world is working against his talent, so that he is ultimately at home nowhere, has nothing urgently to write that is his and his only. Sad if this is the case. He will doubtless go on writing novels which never or rarely fail to please, which satisfy an undemanding readership. But he once seemed capable of much more than that, of writing novels which mattered, as this latest doesn’t. The promise of the extraordinary has faded and dwindled into the ordinary. He gives the impression of having settled too comfortably for what he can do easily, and to have refused at the stiffer fences which the novelist who hopes to be read by more than present generations must nerve himself to clear.

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Bob the Builder

SOME WEEKS AGO there emerged a life of James Lees-Milne, diarist and saviour of many buildings in the early days of the National Trust. In it, his own account of his conversion to the cause of rescuing imperilled buildings is questioned by his biographer, Michael Bloch; Lees-Milne says it came when he heard some members of the upper class bay for the sound of breaking glass. It’s a primal scene. These may lack veracity while remaining potent in the extreme.

How fascinating, then, to read in Arbiter Of Elegance, Roderick Graham’s absorbing and intelligent account of the life of the Scot Robert Adam, one of the sovereign architects of, let us say, Christendom (or perhaps of Europe in the modern era), that Adam, during his Grand Tour, spent a quiet suppertime in Rome with the Ramsays (he called Allan Ramsay ‘Old Mumpty’) “then met some gallants on the way home, got very drunk with them and pursued one of their number to his home where he indulged in an orgy of window breaking”.

Attention to the subject’s own way of seeing is everything in the told life, perhaps even more so in that of an aesthete, such as these two subjects are, Lees-Milne a dedicated amateur, Adam that genius of a commodious waltzing interpretation of Classical Rome and conversational and philosophical (in the environs of Edward Hollis’ The Secret Lives of Buildings, one could almost certainly say emotional) deployment of space, a great Scots architect pre-eminent among many great Scots architects, a great architect by any measure.

Robert Adam and Dumfries House one of his classic buildings

Robert Adam is blessed in his biographer. Architecture, as I have read it described, “applies itself like music (and, I believe, we must add poetry) directly to the imagination, without the intervention of any kind of limitation”. It is an art hard to describe without recourse to technicalities or risky descriptive flights. Graham has chosen a sober course that pays off. Insistent upon Adam’s passion for what he called “movement”, he describes the transformations worked upon great houses and envisaged in terms of great projects by the architect.

Throughout, Graham lets his subject speak. In a comparatively compact and very clearly expressed book, rich in quotation from the wildly ambitious self-dubbed “Bob of Rome” (he and his three brothers and three sisters and mother were great letter writers), Graham offers us the progress of Adam’s father the architect William, of the siblings, of the firm that ended its days, after even so many glories, so deep in debt that the youngest brother William, at the age of eighty–four, killed himself. The story of the eventual disposition of the nine thousand drawings left by Robert, in fifty-four books, is shameful and gripping. No one wanted them, not the British Museum, not collectors. They were knocked down at fifty pounds below the reserve to Sir John Soane.

Graham places the whole, sometimes frustrating, often glorious, beset by the limitations of clients, professional transit clearly in context, in Scotland itself and in Scotland with relation to England and vice versa. Anglo-Scots relations were riddled with tension at a time when the English feared Jacobitism and were encouraged to loathe “Scotchmen” (Lord Bute, who had been a minister, was widely thought to have been sleeping with a royal princess); the burghers of Edinburgh, in their turn, were pusillanimously suspicious of anyone who had even been in London, where the Adam brothers had an office.

We are continually conscious, as we read this book, of the intellectual presence of Europe, most especially of the polarising factions of taste and interpretation that accreted around the much-debated respective virtues of Rome and Greece. Graham sets out clearly, without overmuch simplifying, the roots of the arguments, and the positions of their enthusiasts and exegetes, Vitruvius, Piranesi, Adam himself on the ‘side’ of Rome, on that of Greece, Cardinal Albani’s librarian, the antiquarian Winckelmann, who said that “Roman taste is flabby and coarse”, and ‘Athenian’ Stuart. (France is spoken of by Adam as a place where a fellow student had acquired “accordingly that abominable taste in perfection”).

The story is an irresistible one in terms of history of architecture, of social change and of a temperament and an individual. Adam was in a hurry. He gave his life to an art whose effects are to shelter, elicit what is humanly best and to express an interpretation of the created world; most people do this through reproduction. While Adam often mentions having charmed ladies, or having danced with them, he never married; his family life was lived richly among his siblings, his humanity expressed in the beauty of progression of spaces born one from the other, a progression that we still enjoy and are astonished by. We see his descendants, that is his buildings, where they have not been destroyed by modification or burned by war and we live amid his influence, (and, regrettably, its misrepresentation and even its parody).

One of the unhappiest events in the family life of this congenial and often remarkably commercially united band of brothers was the episode concerning the development of The Adelphi, in London. Adelphi is itself an Anglicisation of “adelphoi”, the Ancient Greek for “brothers”. Alas, in order to raise the money for this joint venture, Robert and James Adam prevailed upon their older brother, John, to mortgage the family house Blair Adam, which their father William had so mightily laboured to establish. Relations, hitherto intimate and mutually interested in all senses, cooled and remained unmended.

The appetite of Robert Adam to fulfil his genius was fed by friendships in which Graham takes evident relish. The partnership with Piranesi, and the relationships with his many nonpareil craftsmen, the games of novelty golf with Garrick, the tensions with his companion on the Grand Tour, Charles Hope, come to life, also the constant difficulty of there being no contest between genius and man of rank when it came to hierarchy and consequent baulk. This book acquits its self-set project with attractive purpose and strength, fulfilling the Vitruvian requirements of Venustas, Utilitas, Firmitas. It is widely and deeply researched but not worn by its decoration.

All biographical accounts of creation are in the end to be judged by the account of what the subject has created. Roderick Graham has an understanding of the moral and lived as well as the aesthetic aspects of the art his subject brought to such commodious flower. My only cavil would be a tendency to judge behaviour by anachronistic contemporary criteria and a – very – occasional tumble into slightly portentous journalese. Arbiter Of Elegance is a very creditable and well-made progression of the chambers of a life indeed, and a book to revisit. The glossary is helpful and generous and the bibliography mouth-watering, at least to this reader. In ghostly addition there is conscientious record of what Adam did not build, despite his offering plans, and it hollows out grief for churches, houses, even cities (including a new plan for a development in Edinburgh) that were never to be.

“At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them” asserts Edward Hollis in his beautifully presented meditation upon the relation of buildings, at its most wide, to time. He goes on to say what is at the heart of this risky and sometimes rather conceptually toppling book. “More often than not, the confident dicta of architectural theory are undermined by the secret lives of buildings, which are capricious, protean, and unpredictable; but all too often the contradiction is treated as the object of interest only to specialists involved in heritage conservation or interior design”.

By the secret lives of buildings, he does not mean as it were concrete rot or the white ant, or any merely physical entropy. I think that he means a sort of historical and human transit of that most weaselly and often unintentionally ironic term, ‘change of use’, though nothing so banal goes near this book which is far more dazzling than it is frustrating, but which nonetheless occasionally stubs the reading brain.

It’s written in a style that – I believe intentionally – varies wildly, tempted sometimes to the vatic, freeing itself sometimes into real responsive loveliness. Style matters very much in the discussion of an art whose aesthetic is, I think and hope Edward Hollis would concur, a moral one. Often Hollis achieves the fine combination of content and means of transmission that is at the heart of the artistic adventure: “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature”.

Taking thirteen built environments (the deadly phrase is necessary since Hollis is excitingly challenging in his choices), the author, who is a teacher at Edinburgh College of Art and by whom it would assuredly be exhilarating to be taught, gives an account of the effects of time and chance and all consequent event, accident, loss, religion, love and hard cash upon them. The progress is risky but its effect almost marvellously greater than the sum of its parts. A book that visits so intensively such various sites – the Hippodrome in Con-stantinople, the Holy House of Loreto, Gloucester Cathedral, the Alhambra, East Germany, the Western Wall, the Venetian at Las Vegas, among others – and whose style swerves and dilates, can lose its reader in effect and jostle and cramming and colour. It is not quite digestible but it is fierily inspiring and it bids the reader pay attention to the humane art at its heart. It has almost crazy reach. This optimism and fire define it as young man’s book (nothing wrong with that at all), but also fuel its movement and illumine its passages.

Just occasionally, there is a veer towards the purple of the ropey melodrama of Harrison Ainsworth – “a mysterious cave that spewed forth noxious vapours” – but much more often we accompany the author on his enormous tour as he records and laments, returning as to a touchstone to the idea of the depredated Acropolis as it endures through time, made and remade, painted, stripped, pillaged, and now to be refaced with marble held in place with staples not of red iron, that bleeds its rust down that often raped temple, but of unbleeding titanium. Edward Hollis sometimes goes too far; this is immeasurably more generous than not going far enough. His love for his subject, his fantastic eye and ear for quirk, and, poignantly, his deep human identification with prince or artisan, sustain this book which I thought at first peculiar and now regard as prodigious. Most prodigies alienate. This does not; it’s also an intimately imagined book, as when Hollis, surprisingly but tellingly, looks into Ostalgie, that longing for the lost(ish) privations of the old GDR suffered by some of those left in no man’s land by the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Arbiter Of Elegance: A Biography Of Robert Adam
Roderick Graham
Birlinn, £25
pp384, ISBN 9781841588025

The Secret Lives Of Buildings
Edward Hollis
Portobello Books, £25
pp448 ISBN 9781846271274

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The heavily-browed face of Charles Darwin has this year at least become as familiar as one’s own features. Many TV programmes and books, and now a feature film, have given Darwin as high a profile as at any time since his death in 1882. The coincidence in 2009 of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection provides a year-long opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the greatest naturalist to have lived. Walter Stephen’s book The Evolution of Evolution – Darwin And His Mentors explores the connection between evolution, Darwin and Scotland. The book contains insights into Darwin’s links with Scotland from two years he spent at Edinburgh University as a student, his later visits to Scotland and his relationships with leading Scottish scientists. However, Stephen provides more than a historical account; he argues that the Scottish Enlightenment, the natural history of Scot-land and several influential Scots profoundly influenced Darwin’s development as a scientist and his ideas on evolution.

The main ingredient of Turtle soup

At the age of 16 Charles Darwin and his older brother Erasmus entered Edinburgh University to study medicine. Unlike his father he never took to medicine and was disturbed by several operations he witnessed. Darwin attended lectures on geology by Robert Jameson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University. He found his lectures dull, despite the reputation Edinburgh and Jameson had for geology at this time. However, Jameson indirectly provided opportunities for Dar-win. The impressionable young Darwin was able to mix with the scientific establishment which included an occasion to listen to the famous American ornithologist and painter James Audubon. He took lessons in taxidermy, an essential skill for a nineteenth century naturalist, taught by John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana who was working at the University Museum. Although Darwin came from a family of abolitionists, it was not at all common for a young man from a privileged background to be taught by a black man. The experience made an impression on Darwin. The journal he kept during his Beagle voyage castigates the slavery he observed in Brazil; one might also say that one of the by-products of his theory of evolution was to make a nonsense of the idea of superior species of men: we are, after all, as Darwin realised, descended from a common ancestor.

While at Edinburgh, Darwin became a member of a student body known as the Plinian Society and gave his first scientific presentation on several species of seashore animals collected during excursions along the shores of the Firth of Forth with the eminent zoologist Dr Robert Grant. Grant later went on to become the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London and was one of the leading zoologists of the nineteenth century. Grant was also interested in the concept of ‘transmutation’ having read the work of Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Dar-win. Grant tried to engage the young Dar-win on controversial ideas on evolution as proposed by the French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark but Darwin appears not to have been interested in the subject as a young student in Edinburgh. Later in life he was surprisingly uncomplimentary about both Grant and Jamesons’ scientific accomplishments, despite their influence on his development as a naturalist. Darwin spent only two years at Edinburgh University and did not complete his medical studies, going on to complete a BA at Cambridge University instead.

While at Edinburgh Darwin appears never to have been exposed to the ideas of the Scottish geologist James Hutton. Hut-ton, born in Edinburgh in 1726, trained as a doctor, was interested in chemistry and agriculture but is best remembered as the founder of modern geology with the publication of Theory Of The Earth in 1795. From his observations he believed that present geology held clues to the past history of the Earth. Visit Siccar Point in Berwickshire and you can see ancient Silurian rocks uplifted and overlain with younger sandstone. The line separating these two rock types is now known as ‘Hut-ton’s Unconformity’. This formation was caused by a period of uplift and erosion followed by submergence and deposition, gradual processes that took immense periods of time. For Hutton the Earth was unimaginably more ancient than Old Testament explanations led others to believe it was. In Theory Of The Earth he states, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”, a profound statement and summary of his concept of ‘deep time’. John Playfair, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, and Sir John Hall, geologist and geophysicist were leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment who visited Siccar Point with Hutton. Playfair and Hall became great supporters of Hutton’s ideas. Stephen contends that this period of the Enlightenment where “reason overcame superstition” prepared the way for Darwin, but as a young man Darwin may have been too involved with the detail of science to notice the significance of Hutton’s ideas on geological time.

It was another Scots born geologist, Charles Lyell who passed on to Darwin the significance of Hutton’s work. Lyell was born in 1797 near Kirriemuir and although studying classics at Oxford he later went on to take up a Chair of Geology at King’s College London. At the age of only 33 he published the first volume of Principles Of Geology, which Darwin read during the voyage of the Beagle. As Stephen explains, Lyell clearly set out the principle of Uni-foritarianism, which states that “processes operating today are the same processes as have operated since the beginning of time…..these geological processes are gradual and therefore require an enormous stretch of time”. For Darwin, this work more than any other opened his eyes to geology and its implications. Lyell became a close friend and one of Darwin’s greatest allies. He remained a mentor throughout Darwin’s life and encouraged him to publish Origin Of Species.

Several years after his return from the Beagle expedition, Darwin made a three week geological field trip to Scotland to study the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, his ‘Scotch expedition’, as he called it. Based on his observations in the Andes, he believed that the Parallel Roads were raised sea beaches but the roads were later shown to be due to the action of ice-dammed lakes. His mistake would years later almost rob him of his role in history. Stephen maintains that Darwin did not like being wrong in public and the “Glen Roy experience reinforced his tendency to procrastinate until he was correct before launching into print”. Darwin’s duty to detail slowed his progress towards sharing his theory of evolution until his hand was forced by the news rival naturalists were close to completing work on theories similar to his. The publication by Robert Chambers of Vestiges Of The Natural History Of Creation in 1844 also allowed Darwin to foresee the controversy that his theory of natural selection would bring about. Chambers was an important literary character in Scotland at the time. Born in Peebles he was educated at the local school before moving to Edinburgh. His elder brother William, with Robert as partner, established the famous Edinburgh publishing company of the same name. Chambers published Vestigesanonymously. It set out a version of the formation of the earth and evolution that contradicted biblical creationist views and it was strongly criticised by the church and much of the scientific establishment, including, interestingly, Dar-win.

Although Darwin is most often remembered for Origin Of Species, he published several other books including The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals in 1872. This was an attempt to describe and explain behaviour through the study of facial expressions. Stephen suggests that there may be a link between this work and his membership of the Plinian society during his time in Edinburgh. One of the Presidents who proposed Darwin for membership was William Browne who later went on to become the first Commissioner in Lunacy in Scotland. At the Plinian Society Browne disagreed with an eminent anatomist on the origins and functions of muscles that controlled human expressions. Although it may be conjecture to suggest that Darwin’s work on human behaviour was prompted by such early exposure to this subject, it is certainly clear that The Expressions benefited from correspondence with Browne’s son J. Crichton Browne who was interested in the study of behaviour as director of a large asylum in the North of England.

Walter Stephen has published previously on the ‘father of planning’ Patrick Geddes, who was born in Ballater in 1854 and brought up in Perth. It is not surprising therefore that he devotes two chapters to the relationship between Darwin and Geddes. It’s justified given the links between Darwin and Geddes. Darwin was a strong supporter and promoter of Geddes and he may have played a part in spreading and interpreting Darwin’s ideas. Geddes may be best remembered as a town planner but much of his early life and work was devoted to botany. Like Darwin, Geddes started his studies at Edinburgh University but lasted only a week, and went on to study with Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and the most pugnacious of the naturalist’s defenders) in the Royal School of Mines, later to become Imperial College of Science in London. Geddes applied for the Chair of Natural History in Edinburgh and Darwin wrote him a highly supportive reference only weeks before his death. In 1888, Geddes took up the post of Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee. It seems that ill health may have influenced him to turn away from the sciences towards social analysis. Stephen states that “From Darwin himself Geddes formulated the Planning Model”, in which Geddes believed that by changing the environment within towns and cities it was possible to change social life. This could be an interpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection where it is the environment that ultimately influences the evolutionary outcomes of individual organisms. Stephen however does admit that it is difficult to see clearly how Geddes incorporated Darwin’s ideas into his own work or how Geddes contributed to further interpretation of evolution and natural selection.

The Evolution Of Evolution is a well researched and thoughtfully written book that recognises the importance of Scotland in the formation of evolutionary thinking and the role of Scots in both mentoring and influencing Charles Darwin throughout his life. Tantalisingly, Walter Stephen leaves his story at the beginning of twentieth century but there remains further scope for examining the influence of Dar-win in Scotland to the present day. Evolution is the unifying principle of modern biology and Scotland plays a major role in applying Darwinian thinking to our own origins and to contemporary issues, from the emergence of new pathogens such as E. coli 0157 to the ability of organisms to adapt to climate change. In Scotland, as it is elsewhere, evolution continues to evolve.

The Evolution of Evolution – Darwin And His Mentors
Walter Stephen
Luath Press, £12.99
pp128, ISBN 9781906817237

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