Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India
pp304, ISBN 9781408800614
Reviewer: KAPKA KASSABOVA
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
pp224, ISBN 9781846971105
Reviewer: GEORGE ROSIE
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
DISSIDENT BOOKS, £12.50
pp256, ISBN 9780977378807
Reviewer: THOMAS HEALY
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
pp362, ISBN 9781845964979
Reviewer: OWEN DUDLEY EDWARDS
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
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
Reviewer: BRIAN MORTON
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
SERPENT’S TAIL, £9.99
pp304, ISBN 9781846686986
Reviewer: JENNIE RENTON
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
LUATH PRESS, £16.99
pp256, ISBN 9781906817190
Reviewer: ROB EDWARDS
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
SCOTS INDEPENDENT, £11.99
pp248 ISBN 9780951282076
The Illusion Of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism
HURST & COMPANY, £12.99
pp288 ISBN 9781850659969
Reviewer: DAVID TORRANCE
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
ISBN 9781900901468, pp200
Reviewer: AONGHAS MACNEACAIL
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.