Monthly Archives: November 2009


Old and New Makars

THIS RE-PRESENTATION of a late medieval Scottish maister Robert Henryson both delights and compels us, particularly as Scottish readers, to a reappraisal of our relationship with what we think of as a literature of our distant past. Sea-mus Heaney has achieved two things: he has brought back to a broad readership a series of key texts not commonly read in these islands. And he has also brought back before our attention the matter of how such texts slip from that readership (assuming they ever achieve it) to a narrower band of enthusiasts. Most importantly, perhaps, he has conveyed in his gutsy, lithe, close, empathic work something of the cause of that enthusiasm: the quiet, subtle mind of Henryson himself, arranging the tales and the tropes of his era with deftness, marrying the intellect and the senses in a mastery of music that still sings from the page, and is now echoed by Heaney’s own Ulster Scots-inflected take.

In order to grasp what is distinctive about Heaney’s Henryson, we need only compare it to his Beowulf: there was a text definitively placed beyond all but a handful of scholars (and often-reluctant undergraduates) by a shift in sensibility, perhaps, but undeniably by the evolutionary movement of English itself. It could not be read outside that circle, although it was a compelling narrative, with a blend of the heroic, the mythic and the horrific which has proven itself amenable recently to cinematic adaptation.

With Henryson the task is more complex – not only is the original still comprehensible to an extent, it is comprehensible by a different, broader and more fractured constituency, less burdened by study for a degree, more motivated by a desire to integrate an extensive understanding of literature into a world-view. Moreover, it is less of a narrative. Its psychological insights are set against an intricate allegoric system which seems, on the surface, less easily adaptable by the modern world.

Roughly speaking, then, the academic specialist aside, there might be two types of reader who still turn to Henryson: one is another type of specialist, the reader, often though hardly exclusively a poet, who wishes to ground his or her awareness if not their practice in the broadest-possible understanding of literature. This reader complements reading widely in contemporary literatures with delving as deeply as possibly into the background to those lit-eratures.

The second type of reader is, to put it plainly, patriotic. Whether their interest attempts to be purely cultural, or is the result of an overtly ideological programme, they read Scottish literature because they think of themselves as Scottish or have the desire to deepen their understanding of what being Scottish might mean. This type of reader may have more issues with Heaney’s task than the first, and one notes that reviews have divided to some extent along these lines, the first group providing more of an account of Henryson’s texts, the second addressing itself more to Heaney’s methods and motives.

To one objection raised by both camps, that the exercise hardly seemed necessary given the relative accessibility of Hen-ryson’s Scots, Heaney has rehearsed Eliot Weinberger’s three motives – freeing the text from the purely academic, refreshing the reader by engagement with another sensibility, and, the one that I suspect may have the strongest impetus, the poet’s own sheer pleasure in a species of verse-making ‘by proxy’. As Heaney confesses, the poetry more than spoke to him, it sang to such an extent that he “developed a strong inclination to hum along”.

This is the delight of the poet-translator who not only recognises a meeting of minds, but also hears an inner music, a harmony where before there has only been the solo voice. Its fitting representation is the dual text, where line accompanies line in a version of the stately dances one can imagine Henryson occasionally indulging in.

If we look at a stanza from the fable of ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ we can observe the intricacies of this dance:

As damsellis wantoun and insolent
That fane wald play and on the streit be sene, To swoping of the hous thay tak na tent Quhat be thairin, swa that the flure be clene; Jowellis ar tint, as oftymis hes bene sene, Upon the flure, and swopit furth anone. Peradventure, sa wes the samin stone.

Giddy young things, with their minds on nothing But swanking in the street and being seen
Have little interest in their besoming.

They birl the brush to make the floor look clean. So precious items dropped are very often Swept from the doorstep out into the yard. Something like that, in this case, had occurred.

Here Heaney is clearly substituting a more modern Scottish lexis and alliterative pattern for that present in Henryson: “swoping” and “swa” becomes that birling of the brush, catching up the use of “besom”, which in Scots often refers to just such self-possessed young ladies. Perhaps a touch of the otherwise omitted “insolent” also influenced this choice. We can see there is a tiny difference between cleaning the floor without looking, and only cleaning the floor so that it looks clean. And we might assume “tint” meant “dropped” as opposed to “lost”. But that seems terribly literal. There is a much clearer distinction between tones. Henryson, although he repeats himself on the rhyme word “sene”, is subtly contrasting these types of seeing, weighing things up in an evenly grave manner – that “Peradventure” in his last line maintains the juridical voice of “wan-toun and insolent”, while Heaney divides the stanza into an expressive quatrain, and an explanatory tercet. Overall, the upgrade is both vigorous and vivid.

In this approach Heaney is echoing that of Dryden, whose term ‘Transfusion,’ in the Preface to the Fables, he cites approvingly, and whose argument regarding his transfusions from Chaucer, he is also, implicitly, inviting us to study. Dryden addresses those who feel “there is a certain Veneration due to [Chaucer’s] old Language; and that it is little less than Profanation and Sacrilege to alter it…”, continuing “When an ancient Word for its Sound and Significancy deserves to be reviv’d, I have that reasonable Veneration for Antiquity, to restore it. All beyond this is Superstition”. Language, bluntly, changes; general comprehension diminishes, and, as for those whose learning empowers them to feel otherwise, “Let them neglect my Version, because they have no need of it”. This acceptance of change is of a different order to Pope’s rewritings of Donne, for instance, which give their sense of misplaced superiority away with one word: ‘Versifyd’. Dryden prophesies elsewhere in the Preface that he too will become subject to the same need for transfusion. His conclusion appears both irrefutable and modest: “…there is something in it like Fatality; that after certain Periods of Time, the Fame and Memory of great Wits should be renew’d”. Heaney clearly likes the parallel that, as Dryden engaged with Chaucer, so he finds himself engaging with a Scottish Chaucerian.

The way in which I read Heaney’s translation would tend to start with both texts, to move between them, weighing up the original and delighting in the modern recasting, leaning on it a little where my grasp of the Scots slipped, then, like a swimmer remembering both that he can float and how to move, I’d find myself only reading the Henryson for pages at a time, subvocalising or, to use Heaney’s term, humming along. There is a great delight in the sheer swing of his utterance, such as the mouse’s cry to her sister, “Cry peip, quhairever ye be!”

This is perhaps Heaney’s greatest gift to the Scottish reader, to send them back to the original, supported and refreshed, to reconsider interpretation rather than stumble over misremembered or never-encountered words. Just so he draws our attention, in ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ to a disjunction between the cockerel’s sober, almost melancholic assessment of the uselessness (to him) of the jasper, and the strict morality Henryson applies to it:

You don’t have corn, and corn is what I covet. Your colour calms the eye and feeds the sight But colour’s never going to feed my gullet. I’m foraging from morning until night
And on the lookout always. But that’s it!

How can I live on looks? It’s food I need,
Not cooked or even hot: I’d eat dry bread.

Here (after the temptation to say ‘breid’ in the last line) we almost hear a prefiguring of Brecht’s “First grub, then ethics” rather than grasp the equation of the jasper with wisdom, and we are more in sympathy with the cock, who “takes a scunner at wise arguments”, than the moralist. But we have been warned from the offing that Aesop “be figure wrait his buke” and we should be alert to the differing levels on which Henryson’s codes may operate – there’s certainly a comic parallel to be drawn between the poet reciting his astronomical learning at the outset of the Testament and a mouse reciting a Latin proverb to a toad. Heaney’s continual returning of his text to Scots performs a canny act of earthing that parallels Gregory Smith’s famous description of Scottish literature, seized upon by MacDiarmid, where the gargoyle is always to be found grinning at the elbow of the saint.

Heaney’s citing of MacDiarmid in his introduction, finding a link between Hen-ryson and the definition in ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ of a practitioner of mature art, returns me to my initial division of readers. Late in life, MacDiarmid edited an edition of Henryson which, albeit with typical Scotocentric pugnacity, was addressed to the first of my two audiences, and might be seen as a precursor to Heaney’s book.

In so doing, MacDiarmid rejected the position of those (including, perhaps, his earlier selves) who would, in Dryden’s words, “hoord him up, as Misers do their Grandam Gold, only to look on it themselves, and hinder others from making use of it”. But there remain those who, not content to argue there is no need of such a work, would go on to have their cake (or ‘caboik’) and eat it, arguing that, even if there were such a need, surely it should have been addressed by a Scottish writer? In other words, there is still a bellicose, bite-the-hand attitude in Scottish letters that this publication gives us an occasion to address.

Not only is Heaney’s engagement with Henryson an act of creative generosity it would take an extreme stereotype of meanness to reject, it also suggests two highly pertinent questions: just how comprehensible is Scots of whatever period to the Scots? And: just how widely read is Scottish literature (of any period) by the Scots? I would suggest that, setting aside national pride, this volume acts as both primer and example.

The reason no Scottish writer embarked on such a venture was that none of us would admit it might be necessary, let alone timely or essential. But the general mastering of a Scots that would extend beyond the conversational, beyond locality and reminiscence and into our common cultural and literary heritage isn’t a given, nor is it just a matter for the universities or the autodidact, it’s a shared task and, as Heaney’s work suggests, a communal pleasure.

We should admit that all shades of ‘Transfusion’ – versions, adaptations, recontextualisations, rewritings, re-presentings and reconsiderings – are a necessary part of that task, not something we can shirk as in some way innate, and need hardly embark on, but a mission we should embrace as variously as possible. Another lead has already been shown by a couple of recent publications which have taken Burns’s work as the starting point for a series of new commissions directed at a healthy range of audiences, including schoolchildren.

What Heaney’s example shows is that we need a series of books by the broadest selection of contemporary authors (not limited to Scottish authors or authors living in Scotland) which are not merely After Rabbie, but After Fergusson and Ramsay, After Montgomerie and Lindsay, After Douglas and Henryson, to cite a first few; to rephrase MacDiarmid, we need to go back, not only to Burns, but also to Dunbar — and beyond. As Henryson engaged with Chaucer, or Douglas with Virgil, so we need to engage with them.

The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables
Robert Henryson translated by Seamus Heaney
Faber & Faber, £12.99
pp183, ISBN 9780571249282

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SRB Diary: Of Literature and Love Handles

IN THE COURSE of desultory conversation with a novelist on the duckboards of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I realised how anxious the Scottish literary community has grown of late. The novelist said something mildly critical about one of the twenty-odd organisations that cover literature in Scotland. I raised my eyebrows in surprise and interest, and she froze, mid-sentence. “You must have been told that before,” she said, looking like an investor in Lehman’s the day its staff were filmed carrying their belongings out in cardboard boxes. She didn’t go whey-faced exactly, but there was a definite loss of colour. “Surely I’m not the first person to mention it,” she said, and looked over her shoulder as if she’d heard the jackbooted approach of literary vigilantes, employed to deal with anyone breaking cover. The conversation ended rather abruptly after this, with me sworn to secrecy over what I’d been told, and by whom.

At that moment I had an inkling of what it might have been like to be Maigret or Rebus, an unwelcome outsider whose appearance spells trouble. As a young reader, I could never understand those scenes in detective novels where the investigating officer is met with silence from a room of sullen, nervous faces. In their place, I thought, I’d have been only too keen to fill in details of that day’s activities, of who had been where, and with whom, and to offer suggestions as to what I suspected might have happened. With age, I see things differently, and am gradually learning the wisdom of saying less rather than more. And, as I have discovered lately, the same Cistercian principle as informs witnesses or suspects to a crime is employed throughout the literary world, certainly whenever I am present.

It’s nothing personal. This response is prompted by my role as chair of the Literature Working Group, which was set up by culture minister Michael Russell in May. We started out as a group of nine, comprising novelists, poets, academics, teachers, journalists, and one publisher: Don Paterson, Allan Massie, Jen Hadfield, Valentina Bold, Rody Gorman, Matthew Fitt, Andrew Nicoll and Hugh Andrew. In July we hijacked another publisher, Timothy Wright of Edinburgh University Press.

Our remit is to create a literature policy for Creative Scotland, to help give literature the status and prominence it deserves alongside all the country’s other artforms. When the group was set up there were varying degrees of dismay and scepticism among the literary fraternity, and understandably so. After all, we are trying to achieve in six months what others have been wrestling with for years.

As I write, the first draft of the policy is almost complete. Shortly it will be thrown to the other members of the group like a t-bone into a cage of peckish lions. What shape it will be in when they are done with it, I cannot say. Nor do I know if it will have any real influence.

At worst, it might prove nothing more than an illuminating exercise for all of us, who have been plunged into parts of the literary environment previously unplumbed and, in some cases, that we were unaware even existed. At least we now understand the nuts and bolts that hold together the labyrinthine and in some cases Machiavellian world that underpins Scottish writing.

In my more optimistic moods, however, I hope our policy might become a blueprint for making the most of the limited funds on offer to writers, publishers and those 24 organisations who come under the umbrella of what is known as the Literature Forum, an association of diverse bodies from the Scottish Poetry Library and Scottish Book Trust to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Scottish PEN.

Needless to say, the working group comprises those who think our policy will prove ineffectual and those who, having been involved in this exercise and believing the mission has been completed satisfactorily, would now like to tackle world poverty. Obviously it is for others to judge how well we have done the job, but none of us, not even the sunniest, thinks we will be given an easy time of it when it goes public.

* * *

For a small country, Scotland is home to an eye-watering variety of literary endeavours, of personalities, talents, ambitions, grievances, and rivalries. One of the first hints of this was a column in the West Highland Free Press by Roger Hutchinson – not, himself, a Gaelic speaker – who complained at the composition of the group, and believed that it should have had at least five Gaels on it.

In person, though, the Gaels were one of the most agreeable and open constituencies I met. They were to be found in the bowels of the Scottish Piping Centre in Glasgow, within sight of my desk at the Herald.

Down the old twisting stone staircase and beyond the loos and locker rooms was a windowless room, where the Gaelic Books Council was meeting. Even though I got off on entirely the wrong foot by referring to Gaelic as one of Scot-land’s ‘Other Languages’ they were extraordinarily civil, and such enthusiastic ambassadors for their language and culture that by the time I left, the idea of relocating to the Outer Hebrides seemed suddenly appealing. It may also, of course, soon be necessary.

The Gaelic Books Council’s urbanity, and their forward thinking attitude may possibly in part be explained by their self-confidence. Their remit is clear, and unequivocal, their commitment to it bred in the bone. They are in competition with no-one in this field, and unlikely ever to be trumped by others with more experience or knowledge, because such people do not exist.

Elsewhere, however, the climate is different. Since Trainspotting whetted an international appetite for Scottish writing, especially of the tough, gruff school, the profile of modern Scottish fiction and poetry has blossomed. This is not the place to debate whether the best of what is being written today is better than, or as good as the best that was being written 50 years ago. What is not in doubt is how healthy, indeed flourishing, the literary scene now is.

But, as business flourishes, so the numbers who make a living from it multiply, be they the writers themselves, who are now legion, or those organisations who promote and enable their work, from publishers and publicists to book festivals and writing classes.

Slowly, insidiously, what started out as a skeleton of support for writers can turn itself into a fully-formed bureaucratic body with love handles. One quality the working group has been able to bring to the task is a dispassionate eye as it views the whole field, and those working in it.

This eye – up to twenty of them, in various states of rheum, bloodshot and myopia – focussed on a series of speakers to our monthly meetings, who gave presentations about their area of work, and answered a slew of questions, some innocuous, some barbed. There we sat, like the cast of an Oliver Stone film, truth-seekers, righteous-doers, policy-makers, scribbling notes, squinting at our expert witnesses, trying to read between the lines and think on our feet at the same time.

Some of these encounters were uncomfortable, to say the least, and others entertaining or illuminating. All of us, I think it’s fair to say, have been rather daunted by the variety and complexity of material we have been faced with. Many of the petitioners, if you can call them that, were impressive: dedicated, articulate, and at times quietly pugnacious or defensive, as I would have been in their position. Others less so.

But as is the case at Westminster, or Holyrood, the real nub of what was going on in the world of literature often only came out in private: in one-to-one conversations in cafes and bookshops, at chance meetings at receptions or parties. Or, indeed, at book festivals.

* * *

The crime or spy fiction analogy has doggedly run through these six months. I, and others on the group, have had informal conversations with people where a training stint at Bletchley Park would have been useful. Everyone knows that John le Carré invented his own lexicon for novels, but less well known is the very particular form of English used by writers and organisations when trying to tell you something they prefer not to say too plainly, for fear of being quoted or garrotted. Body language, too, is a widely used tool, coming in the form of nods and winks, shrugs, sighs, and meaningful – but unfathomable! – silences and stares.

On one occasion I found myself leaning across a café table in what felt like a conversation between someone deaf and someone dumb. Though my companion was at various points struck speechless, raising his eyes to the ceiling as if he had previously glued prompt-cards up there as an aide memoire, by the end of this painful session of mime, grimaces, and half-finished sentences, there was little doubt that I was the one who looked dumb, not simply because the only words I’d spoken were, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

* * *

The question that lies behind everything we’ve been doing is, what can a policy achieve that isn’t already happening? Nobody can argue that literature in Scot-land has not been well served for the past few decades by the Scottish Arts Council’s literature department, even though astonishingly there’s been no policy to refer to.

From various quarters we were urged to look to other countries: Ireland, Scan-dinavia, France, Wales and Canada in particular. So we have. We have discovered that in France writers are much less well catered for by the state than other artists, and noticeably more poorly than here. In the Republic of Ireland publishers look enviously at their Scottish counterparts, while those Irish writers hitherto privileged with tax breaks and the protection its academy, Aosdana, offers, now face a very bleak new financial reality. Meanwhile, Wales has a handful of literary organisations compared to our 24, and so on. In other words, Scot-land in all but a few regards has been offering literature as much support as anywhere else, and often far more.

What a policy can do, however, is create a benchmark, or beacon, that puts literature on the map. Nobody yet is sure what shape Creative Scotland will finally take. Thus, literature has never been at greater risk of being submerged in the headlong rush for status, power and money. What our policy will ask for is not more money, though that as always would be welcome, but more clarity, and a bolder presence. Before the working group came into being, there was considerable doubt (and it remains) as to whether within the new Creative Scot-land structure literature – Scotland’s finest and most internationally acclaimed art form – would finds itself as the cherry on the top, or just a piece of dry sponge on the bottom, untouched even by a spoonful of jam.

We are not asking for jam. Bread and butter is fine, because that’s what literature has always managed on, and look what Scotland’s writers have achieved on that. What we want is recognition of Scotland’s rightful place in society and culture. Beyond which, I am in no doubt at all that, policy or no policy, Creative Scotland or no Creative Scotland, Scottish writers and Scottish literature will survive, and probably thrive. As ever.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of the Herald and Sunday Herald

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Where Leith and Baltimore Meet

I WAS BACK IN Baltimore to look up some old friends. We were sitting in a bar and The Rafeman told me he’d just seen the recently released Trainspotting movie. He commented that he’d no idea that Scotland was so crazy and junked up. He was impressed.

When I first met Rafael Alvarez eight years earlier at the Baltimore Sun he showed me the docks area where his dad worked as a tugboat engineer. We drank National Bohemian beer and met under the JFX flyover to pick up our Bo Boys basketball team in his old green Ford Thunderbird. After the games we drank and smoked down at a rusted railhead in an abandoned area of the Inner Harbor. Rafe talked about his heroes Elvis and Johnny Unitas, legendary quarterback of the former Baltimore Colts, the football team that packed up overnight and moved to Indianapolis. I was taught some survival Baltimorese: “What’s shakin, hon?” “Nuttin. What’s goin down wich y’own bad self?” I also saw The Rafeman the night he got busted for possession. A Baltimore Police Department car appeared up a track at the railhead with its lights flashing. Two uniformed officers had The Rafeman with his hands spread on the roof.

“Aw, not Central, man,” he pleaded as the arresting officer booked him. “They have criminals in there”. A few days later a smart lawyer got the charges dropped on the technicality that his rights had not been fully incanted and The Rafeman saved his job as a city desk reporter on the Sun.

At that time I only made a vague connection between The Rafeman’s phantom docklands and those from my boyhood in the derelict yards of Granton Harbour in the 1960s, where the smells of rotting timber and wet coal mixed with sewage, rancid beach and dogshit. Now Baltimore had its smart Harborfront commercial development replacing the old warehouses, and Granton was getting its marina on a yuppie tide spreading along the shore from Leith. The Rafeman’s East Baltimore and my East Pilton area of Granton remained stranded above the economic and social watermark. Not that the version of Trainspotting that The Rafeman had just seen in Danny Boyle’s jaunty film reflected anything of this.

“Fuck the movie,” I responded. “It’s Whisky Galore! on heroin with an Iggy Pop soundtrack. If you want the real voice, read the novel. It tells you what it’s really like to be a Hibbie”.

Book reviewers are often as guilty as sports writers or crime reporters of overusing a word like ‘shock’, but I did experience something close to that sensation when I first read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in 1993. This wasn’t a response to the subject of drugs, the violence, the expletives or the despair. None of these elements was new in Scottish fiction, and Peter McDougall had already applied all of them to the housing schemes of Edinburgh, then known as AIDS Capital of Europe, in his under-rated 1986 television play Shooting For The Sun. But the novel carried what a variant cliché calls the shock of recognition.

I didn’t know when his first novel was published that Welsh was brought up in Muirhouse and that he was almost of the same generation as me, growing up a mile away and getting his first hit from gluing an Airfix plane kit. Like the characters in the novel, my mates either went to Ainslie Park or St Augustine secondary schools. We were split on football loyalties, but like Rents, Si, Spud and Begbie in the novel, I was a Hibbie, and here was a novel that didn’t just mention the club and its Easter Road ground, but referenced the same Hibernian players I supported over several decades – Paddy Stanton, ‘Juke Box’ Durie and Paul Kane. Like all the best Hibs players since the 1960s, they moved on to bigger clubs, to ‘better themselves’ as the footballer’s phrase always has it, and perhaps this anticipates Mark Renton’s escape to Amsterdam in the final pages of the novel. One of the voices in the novel says grimly that he’s not going back to watch Hibs until they get rid of the manager Alex Miller, who was ten years in the job until 1996, and who therefore represents a malaise that will never be improved during the period covered by the novel.

Some literary critics have tried to pin down the novel’s timeframe from close textual analysis, but they miss at least one date that can be established from a Hibs semi-final appearance at Hampden on April 16, 1989. This is the game, a quarter of the way into the novel, that Davie Mitchell can’t remember because of the state he has got himself into beforehand on space cake, acid, dope and vodka. His mortified recollection focuses on the aftermath when he wakes up in a bed he has soiled at the parental home of Gail Houston.

What Davie doesn’t tell the reader in his brief narrative is that his amnesia may also be related to the game itself. “We’ve no chance,” he anticipates. He is proved right. Hibs were 3-0 down to Celtic within the first 28 minutes. It was a black day for football, the day after the Hillsborough disaster, and I only went because I’d already got my ticket, but I don’t care to remember much about it either. In over 40 years of following the team it is the only game I ever left before half-time. A central theme in the novel is that sharing is strictly restricted to needles, but there is a sub-text for long-suffering Hibernian readers who identify with Davie’s hurt and shame, and his excremental hangover might serve as our collective metaphor.

Mark Renton uses a splattered bluebottle to write Hibs on a toilet and speculates that his personal drug problems are directly related to the dismal record of the team in the 1980s. Hibernian gives a whole different root to all the F-ing and C-ing in Welsh’s work. The only anachronism is that the 1989 semi-final is played on a Saturday in the novel. It was actually a Sunday game. Possibly, Welsh bent the detail because of his fondness for ironic section titles and ‘Traditional Sunday Breakfast’ was too good to pass. Football is central to the wordplay on “kicking” in the novel: kicking the ball, kicking the habit, kicking heads, alive and kicking. Hibernian is Davie Mitchell’s team that couldn’t shoot straight.

So Easter Road is a vein in an anatomy of the city which uses topography as a metaphor for damage to the body politic. Mark Renton’s flat is in the adjoining Montgomery Street, leading to Leith Walk, became a natural starting point for Trainspotting coach tours which doubtless also took in Mikey Forrester’s maisonette in Muirhouse, Johnny Swan’s gaff in Toll-cross, the view of the gasworks that Monny’s aunt is allocated with her hotline council house in West Granton, the number 10 bus down to Western Harbour via the fit o’ the Walk and, as a climax, the opportunity to take the plunge at Leith Water-world swimming pool, built on the former site of Leith Central Railway Station.

This doesn’t exactly rival a Bloomsday celebration of Joyce’s Dublin, but it is certainly a ‘beyond the fringe’ experience which travels further into the interior than Edinburgh’s traditional literary landmarks of the Scott Monument, Stevenson’s house in Heriot Row and the Conan Doyle statue at Picardy Place. Begbie might have been thinking of previous novelists who used Edinburgh settings when he expresses contempt for tourists who know nothing of the city beyond the castle, Princes Street and the High Street. When Muriel Spark changes scene from Morningside or the Grassmarket in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie she takes the reader on a genteel excursion to Cramond, and certainly not by the scenic route via Muirhouse. Scott placed Jeanie Deans in Liberton in The Heart of Midlothian, but during the period of his novel’s setting, leprous Liberton was an outlying village. Vladimir Nabokov argued that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde could only be properly understood if the novel’s London setting was transposed to the Edinburgh New Town, but this is the closest Stevenson got in fiction to revealing his intimacy with the “swinging gait of harlots” in the seamy sides of the city.

For all his representation of himself as a non-literary writer, Welsh is a direct descendent of several generations of Edin-burgh poets who followed Allan Ramsay in versifying the street language of the city. This is no accident, since Welsh has suggested that he initially hears the voices and strong rhythms of his stories as song lyrics. He is closest to the Robert Fergusson of ‘Auld Reekie’, where the lawyers spend their pence in Newhaven, Leith and Canonmills to “stock their heids wi drink and sense”, and ‘Leith Races’, where the tinker billies clink their siller to go “daffin and drinkin” down Leith Walk. Two centuries later, Sydney Goodsir Smith started a crawl at a pub at the top end of Walk on Leith Street to get the first line of one of the poems in Under The Eildon Tree: “I met her in the Black Bull”. The tavern still looks down on the Calton Road location of one of the opening shots in the Trainspotting film. There seems more than just a geographical link between Smith’s meth drinkers and Welsh’s heroin-addicted schemies. Norman MacCaig used to tell a story of a hungover Smith staggering blindly into his local bank branch and slumping over the big wooden counter before trying to order a pint of Bass. This dislocation illustrates the same kind of comic dissipation that could easily have found its way into one of the stories of Welsh’s The Acid House.

My dad was a Shetlander and East Pilton was the closest he could get in Edinburgh to a house near the sea. He used to drag me out on Sundays to keep him company for a trudge along the Granton Harbour breakwater. We would look down on oil-slicked pools in which pale condoms floated like jellyfish. When I became a gangling 15-year-old he introduced a new incentive by adding the Old Chain Pier bar in Newhaven to our route. The publican was the eccentric Betty Moss who wore bamboo-framed glasses and kept a cutlass behind the bar for dealing with intransigents. Among the mementoes in that establishment, like a seaman’s bordello covering as a den of curios, were shrunken heads in the gantry, seaside postcards and magazine photos of naked women stuck to walls with yellowing sellotape. I had to duck past Betty and head straight out to a rickety balcony that overlooked the Firth before my dad eventually brought me my pint and tapped me for an Embassy cigarette. We would light up and listen to Betty yelling above the banter in the bar.

It is strange that I completely forgot the sheer idiosyncrasy of speech, inflection, vocabulary and register in that part of Edinburgh until it all came back in a rush when I began reading Trainspotting. My parents moved away from Granton when I left school and my next two decades were spent living in Stirling, Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, apart from a few years when I returned to the city to live in a New Town flat. I only later met mates from my boyhood on two separate occasions. One had become a market gardener and the other had joined the police. Sickboy transit gloria mundi.

“In this city we know nothing of our real identity,” says the narrator in one of Welsh’s more recent novels, The Bedroom Secrets of Master Chefs. I realised that I had submerged and abandoned the language I had grown up with. I had forgotten that when you need to do something quickly you nash. Or that you take a deek at the clock to check the time. That it’s barry when things are going well. I’m ashamed to confess that I not only knew that a radge was a person of unpredictable, violent or unstable temperament, but that was my boyhood nickname. If it was only a question of vocabulary and accent, all of Welsh’s characters would speak uniformly, but as in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each has their own speech pattern, tics and inflections in both dialogue and the interior monologues they share. The reader doesn’t have to be told that it’s Spud who is speaking because his habitual “like-say” (like, say = the likes of) immediately identifies his voice.

I discovered that the novel was also speaking to other readers, regardless of whether or not they recognised the inflections of Edinburgh speech, but Giles Havergal was not among those I would have predicted. Havergal was among my heroes in the Scottish artistic community since the early 1970s when I first started seeing his productions at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, but he was the last person I would have imagined being receptive to a work written in the patois of my native city. After decades of programming German expressionists, obscure eighteenth-century Italians, Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, Tennessee Williams and adaptations of Proust and Graham Greene, it had long been assumed that the Citz would never perform the work of any contemporary Scottish writer. It was my job to go and interview Havergal in early 1994 about his new season at the Citz. He asked me how I thought a stage adaptation of Trainspotting would go down.

Irvine Welsh:
“It’s significant that none of the writers on The Wire came up through TV and that quite a few are crime novelists”

My opinion didn’t matter as he had already booked Harry Gibson’s production for a Mayfest run, but it was evident that Havergal had read the novel closely, liked it and immediately grasped its potential. This was more than the BBC had managed when they were offered Gibson’s original adaptation for radio. The four-hander stage version was memorable for the performance of Ewen Bremner, who doubled to play Spud so brilliantly that he was regarded as indispensable in the role when Boyle later began his otherwise wholesale miscasting for the movie.

We learn in the novel that Mark Renton was a Pilton schemie who became an apprentice joiner after he left Leith Academy. He later took his Highers at Telford College to go on to Aberdeen University where he felt completely alienated and dropped out after concentrating his studies on prostitutes and alcohol. He may discuss Brecht with Edinburgh Festival thespians, but he applies his intelligence more pragmatically to a complicated benefits scam that involves holding five separate addresses. Where in the book does it say that he has the Crieff accent of a former day boy at Morrison Academy? From his first voiceover, Ewan McGregor is all wrong for the part.

Worse is Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy Williamson, more Primrose Hill than Pil-ton. Kelly MacDonald is Bearsden in a Notre Dame blazer. Kevin McKidd is from Elgin, Jimmy Cosmo from Clydebank. I had watched Bobby Carlyle and Peter Mullan both from their early days in the Raindog theatre company, and the best two Scots actors of their generation they may have been, but Carlyle is a Maryhill Begbie and Mullan is a Peterhead Swanney. Apart from Bremner, the only other Edinburgh person to appear in the film was Irvine Welsh himself, in a Tarantino-style cameo as Mikey Forrester, apparently contributing cheerfully to the betrayal of his own novel, just as Compton MacKenzie accepted a walk-on part in Mackendrick’s 1949 Whisky Galore! film of his novel. Andrew MacDonald, the producer of Trainspotting, commented that Welsh was so into house and club culture that he regarded the film as a special remix of his novel. On the back of the film’s success, Welsh was delighted that the book started to sell alongside the video and the soundtrack in Virgin Mega stores. Inevitable comparisons have been made between Irvine Welsh and James Kelman as Scottish writers using urban patois in their fiction, but here’s one difference. No gadgie has ever choried an HMV chart-busting Busconductor Hines tee-shirt.

The rest of the English-speaking world managed to get into Trainspotting without translation aids, but the American edition provided a glossary. I would like to think that The Rafeman read the novel without too many skips to the back of his book, receptive enough to tune into an unfamiliar idiom by picking up the rhythm and context.

After my 1996 visit, he began sending drafts of short fiction he was writing to tell the stories of his family. His grandfather and great uncles had been seamen from Galicia in Spain who settled and raised families in the Highlandtown area of East Baltimore. His mother’s family were Poles living in a row house in Dillon Street in the Canton docklands district where I had rented an apartment in a converted tin factory when I was working on the Baltimore Sun. The settings were familiar and so were some of the characters, because I had been entertained warmly at the home of Rafe’s parents, Manny and Gloria, by stories that had a kind of black and white documentary feel about them, acts of remembrance and homage produced on Rafe’s old Rem-ington portable typewriter. They grew into two published collections which appeared alongside two anthologies of Rafe’s pieces in the Sun. Anyone who has worked in journalism would recognise these ventures as signals of a reporter preparing an exit ticket from newspapers. When Rafe quit he joined the brotherhood of the Seafarers International Union, partly with the romantic notion of working on boats, and partly to forge another link with his family forebears, who had all been strong union men and women in the seafaring, brewing and garment trades of Baltimore. All of this background would provide material when Rafe’s writing career took a different turn through a collaboration with another ex-Sun reporter, David Simon.

Everyone talked about Simon when I worked at the newspaper, but I never once saw him in the office on Calvert Street where I experienced a preview of the way that daily newspaper practice would be heading in Scotland, with reporters lining up endless phone interviews in a direct input conveyer belt of second-hand information and comment presented as news. Simon had become disillusioned with the lies and shallowness he saw in journalism, and negotiated a sabbatical year to shadow officers of the Baltimore Police Department. This experience was worked into the book, Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets (1992), which became the source material for two multiple series produced by Simon to revolutionise the television docu-dramatisation of crime: Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire. Rafael Alvarez worked with Simon as a staff writer. His influence is particularly evident in the second series of The Wire, which focuses on police investigation of a drug smuggling operation through the port of Baltimore against a backdrop of a dockworkers’ union fighting against political and gangster corruption and the threat of jobs being made obsolete.

The other four seasons of The Wire successively examine themes of drug crime on the streets of West Baltimore, corruption in City Hall, a moribund education service and the semi-collusive role of an ineffectual local media. The final series is set mainly inside the Baltimore Sun. When BBC2 announced the first terrestrial screening of the five series of The Wire earlier this year, they used a commendation as part of the publicity: “Author Irvine Welsh called it ‘the best thing on TV. By far. Nothing’s close to it’”.

When The Wire went out on cable last year and first began to receive rave critical attention, Welsh told the Observer: “It’s significant that none of the writers on The Wire came up through TV and that quite a few are crime novelists. There’s a big difference between a proper writer and someone who’s learned how to write scripts. The guys on The Wire are proper storytellers. I had dinner with David Simon a few weeks back and I was asking him how they managed it. He’s just so careful about selecting the writers”.

One of the three episodes written by Rafe has an opening scene where the detectives on a BPD drugs operation are struggling to make out what street dealers are saying to each other on a wiretap recording. The language, register and delivery of the suspects resists deciphering, even among cops who are natives of B-more. One of detectives finally provides a translation. He explains that he taught himself to hear spoken words by listening repeatedly to ‘Brown Sugar’ by the Rolling Stones to catch the lyrics. That line could only have been written by The Rafeman.

Simon made an early decision with The Wire that it would make no compromises with language. No dilution, no censoring of expletives and no subtitles to make it easier for television audiences to follow the street patois of Baltimore’s project communities in the East and West sides. Consistent with this was his decision that every scene in the series would use Baltimore locations. This authenticity is supported by specific references in dialogue to streets and districts of Baltimore and street signs are often deliberately revealed in shot, so that a viewer of the series would have no difficulty using Google Maps to recreate a comprehensive city plan of the action. The five series build up a composite profile of Baltimore. This strong documentary feel exposed The Wire to the criticism that it provided ghetto tourism for safe middle-class American viewers, but this is to trivialise Simon’s ambition to re-create his city as the dominating character in a television form of a nineteenth-century serialised novel. He and his writers have made repeated statements about their objective to create a series of novels for television. The five seasons of The Wire, divided into their thematic explorations of crime, street life and politics, build with the same juggernaut power and attention to meticulously researched detail that Zola employed in his magnificent 20-novel cycle to expose prostitution, corruption, alcoholism and hypocrisy in the Paris of the Second Empire. More than one critic has accurately described The Wire as Zolaesque.

The connection between The Wire and the Trainspotting novel is one that younger viewers and readers, precisely the constituency Welsh has consistently stated he was writing for, would make more readily than literary traditionalists. The Amazon site currently reverses a reader’s review to plug the novel on the back of the television series: “If you like Welsh you might like David Simon, you know, from The Wire”.

Both Trainspotting and The Wire examine deprived city locations; both are about the class system, or more specifically, an underclass system. Both look at drugs culture without clichés and preconceptions, the violence and abuse often mixed with humour and evident sympathy. Both use drug abuse as a metaphor for the breakdown of the city. Simon sees drugs in Balti-more as an industry with its own hierarchies, codes and brutally enforced rules. It is a strictly institutional world which closely parallels the Baltimore Police Department. In Trainspotting, Welsh shows drugs as an anarchic consumption which destroys individuals and relationships. Johnny Swan says that there are no friends any more, just associates. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

I don’t know if The Rafeman even read Irvine Welsh. It might be entirely fanciful of me to imagine that the novel had any influence on The Wire. Danny Boyle’s film certainly did not, because it is obvious that it pursued an entirely different aesthetic aimed at commercial success. I resented that film because it was criticised from time to time as showing up Edinburgh in a negative light, but it wasn’t even Edin-burgh. At least half of it was shot in Glasgow. The same criticism is made of David Simon when viewers complain that he shows up Baltimore, turning Charm City into Mob Town, but these nicknames long pre-date The Wire, and the same criticism was made of Baltimore film makers Barry Levinson and John Walters. I never thought of Baltimore as a violent or dangerous city when I lived and worked there, yet the homicide rate then was moving up towards the 1993 record of 375, six times the per capita murder rate of New York City. I have felt more threatened by the undercurrent in English cities like Manchester or Birmingham or Nottingham. The Wire is faithful in revealing the cultural and ethnic diversity of a city that bred Billie Holiday and Frank Zappa, H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe, Mama Cass and Wallis Simpson, Babe Ruth and the Hattie Carroll I looked up in the Baltimore Court records to confirm the references to her murder in the Bob Dylan song. But I never thought of East Pilton as a deprived area, either. Two years ago I drove through the streets I grew up in as my wife and youngest son sat silently in the car. It looked smaller and meaner than I remembered, but this is an almost universal reaction to going back to childhood areas. Irvine Welsh now lives in Dublin, from where he still recreates West Granton characters in his fiction, just as Joyce went to Paris to recreate Dublin. I suppose by the laws of symmetry there is an undiscovered French writer currently living in West Granton and recreating Paris in their as yet unpublished work. And The Rafeman now lives in Los Angeles. He says he lives there, but he works in Baltimore.

Reheated Cabbage
Irvine Welsh
Jonathan Cape, £18.99
pp288, ISBN 9780224080545

The Wire – Truth Be Told
Rafael Alvarez
Canongate, £20
pp448, ISBN 9781847675989

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Volume 5 – Issue 4 – Editorial

WITH this, its twentieth issue, the Scottish Review of Books takes its first tentative steps in cyberspace. As of now we have a website – – which you may visit at your leisure and on whose contents you may comment as you see fit. While not quite in the one giant leap forward for mankind category it represents a significant moment in the short history of this magazine, one which we hope will bring many new readers irrespective of where they live.

This long overdue innovation is driven by several imperatives, foremost among which is a desire to bridge the gap between issues. Three months – we flatter ourselves – is too long to wait for fresh despatches from the SRB HQ. Henceforth, the dialogue between readers, writers and editors will, we hope, be continuous, to the mutual benefit of all.

Excited though we are by this development we are also keenly aware that the internet is simply a means to an end, another stepping stone in the fascinating and complex history of communication. For ancient folks the first sight of symbols on a cave wall was doubtless cause for the popping of champagne corks. The same surely was the response of the Egyptians when they made papyrus out of grass. Meanwhile, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century was arguably civilisation’s most meaningful, signalling the beginning of an era in which information could be disseminated cheaply, quickly and portably around the globe.

With Gutenberg’s breakthrough the book – whose history long preceded the printing press and moveable type – became the dominant means of human beings informing their fellows of their thoughts. And so it has remained for over five hundred years. In that time the book has been given numerous cosmetic makeovers but in essence it is the same object – pages filled with type and bound together between boards of varying sturdiness – that was produced by Gutenberg’s immediate successors. Few innovations have such durability, which is a testimony to its success.

Today, however, cyberspace and the so-called digital revolution threaten to usurp the book’s primacy at the top of the communication table. In the past rivals to the book have come and gone the way of square wheels and the Sinclair C5. Nothing, it seemed, could better it. It did what it promised it would do. Moreover, it looked good, simultaneously furnishing, enhancing and insulating rooms for generations. The book, you would have confidently bet, was here to stay.

That, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, may no longer be the case. Bibliophiles may disagree but for the first time books have a serious contender to their supremacy. Google, for example, is digitalising every book it can lay its hands on, making a reality if what was once the pipe dream of a Borgesian library, which contains every book ever written in every language, available in every home on the planet. Nor need location be of any relevance. The time is not too far off when we will be able to read on a screen whichever book takes our fancy whenever we want irrespective of wherever we are.

What once seemed like the fantastic imaginings of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick is coming to pass at breakneck speed. Nothing, it appears, can stop it. And who would want to? The idea that we can access entire libraries hitherto available only to a select few strikes us as rather wonderful and mind-expanding. As the Industrial Revolution thrust change upon us so too does its digital counterpart. How we adapt to this, how we assimilate and assess the material with which we are constantly bombarded, is a question yet to be resolved.

All of which is by way of championing the case for publications such as this. Irrespective of what form content comes in future it seems to us that intelligent, impartial and informed criticism is a useful and necessary byproduct. More than ever Scots, ten years after devolution, need to be able to look in the mirror and reflect maturely and sophisticatedly on what its artists, academics and others produce. We need to look each other squarely in the eye and articulate without fear or favour what we think. Whether that’s on the printed page or in cyberspace is neither here nor there. For where we’re concerned the one is as vital as the other.

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JOHN LINKLATER – Where Leith and Baltimore Meet: Trainspotting and The Wire

ROSEMARY GORING – Diary: Of Literature and Love Handles

W.N. HERBERT – Old and New Makars: Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Robert Henryson

DOMINIC MCCAFFERTY – McRoots: Darwin in Scotland

CANDIA MCWILLIAM – Bob the Builder: The Architect Robert Adam

ALLAN MASSIE – A Half-Wit Hero: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms

Queequeg Crossword




Kenny Hodgart – Munro’s Peaks: The Journalism of Neil Munro

JAMES BUCHAN – Before Fred the Shred: How Scots Financed the Modern World

Reviews by Ian Bell, Owen Dudley Edwards, Rob Edwards, Thomas Healy, Kapka Kassabova, Aonghas Macneacail, Brian Morton, Jennie Renton, George Rosie, David Torrance

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Volume 3 – Issue 3 – Reviews

Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations
P.J. O’Rourke
pp 242, ISBN 9781843543886

Reviewer: James Buchan

Towards the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, there are two principal literary approaches. The first seeks to understand from the exiguous materials of Smith’s life in Eighteenth century Scotland why he wrote as he did. This approach originates in Dugald Stewart’s eulogy of Smith before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in early 1793, and has given us biographies by John Rae (1895), W.S. Scott (1937) and I.S. Ross (1995) and the texts of Edwin Cannan, Walther Eckstein and the modern Glasgow Edition.

The second approach seeks to mine from Adam Smith’s published works, most notably
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth Of Nations (1776), authority for modern political or commercial postures or practices. This approach begins with William Pitt the Younger, in a speech to the House of Commons in February, 1792, passes by way of John Stuart Mill and the late Victorian Economists to the neo-Smithians in the Anglo-Saxon countries of the 1970s, such as Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher.

Since Smith was writing in a pre-industrial Scotland, where a large factory had twenty hands and three thousand voters determined the fortunes of a million-and-a-half Scots, he is not of great service as a prophet of the hundred-billion-dollar corporation and modern democracy unless subjected to aggressive emendation. If the first or historical approach is worthy and dull, the second or ideological is gamey and very, very inaccurate. Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England and an adherent of the second approach, cannot even quote Smith correctly on the English £20 note.

P.J. O’Rourke, an American comic writer, belongs firmly to the second group. His qualification for writing about Adam Smith are that he is a right-wing American living in small-town New England, and has read some or much of The Wealth Of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). He does not appear to have read Smith’s essays, letters or lectures. As a plain American fellow, he boasts he was a poor student of philosophy and there is nothing in this book to undermine that boast. Mercifully, he knows no political economy and we are spared the modern fashion of inserting into Adam Smith’s work economic theories promulgated centuries after his lifetime.

O’Rourke principal contention is that The Wealth Of Nations is verbose, dull and often wrong, while his own book is brief, funny and wise. Each reader may judge the truth of that contention on the single combat of two excerpts.

Smith: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it”.

O’Rourke: “Smith gets enmeshed in clarifications, intellectually caught out, Dagwood-like, carrying his shoes up the stairs of exegesis at 3.00 a.m., expounding his head off, while that vexed and querulous spouse, the reader, stands with arms crossed and slipper tapping on the second-floor landing of comprehension”.

As a humorist, O’Rourke has a just a single gag, which is anachronism. As in Mulan or The Jungle Book, distant countries and periods are merely the modern United States in costume. For O’Rourke as for the Disney company, the past is a featureless but English-speaking plain, in which here and who makes no great difference. Because O’Rourke does not understand what Smith intended by words such as “place”, “pneumatics”, “police” or “public school”, he mangles Smith’s arguments and then calls him a nut, “feckless”, “demented”, and “completely out of his mind”.

O’Rourke’s technique is to quote a sentence of Smith out of context, and then to cast it at one of his pet hates, such as the World Bank, the Kyoto Protocol, Rosalynn Carter, PBS, Bill Clinton, liberals, conservationists, central banks, John Lennon, the New York Times and women. O’Rourke misunderstands Smith so often that I suspect he had before him not a text of The Wealth Of Nations but an epitome or digest, perhaps the seven and a half pages of excerpts published by the Cato Institute in 1997 which he more than once praises.

For example, when Smith wrote that “the state cannot be very great of which the sovereign has leisure to carry on the trade of a wine merchant or apothecary”, he meant precisely what he said. Smith had not, as O’Rourke writes, “dismissed government ownership of businesses in one sentence” though he argues against that elsewhere.

The market for conceited twaddle is as deep and strong in the United States as on this side the water. O’Rourke’s book was warmly received in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Does it matter? Not at all. Adam Smith is the most lucid philosopher ever to have reasoned in English. Readers come to him not merely, like O’Rourke, to reinforce commercial prejudices but to extend their intellects and refine their politics.

White Rose Rebel
Janet Paisley
VIKING, £12.99
pp387 ISBN 9780670917181


Boudicca meets Neil Munro is the literary and historical background of Janet Paisley’s spirited new historical novel and a jolly good job she makes of it too. From Walter Scott to Nigel Tranter and all points in between (think John Buchan or James Grant) Scots have proved to be excellent exemplars of the genre and Janet Paisley is no slouch in following in their footsteps as she wanders purposefully into the well-trodden areas of Jacobite history.

She writes with a confidence that is informed by several factors – her obviously deep love for Scotland, her tenacity in espousing the liberty of the individual and her determination to ensure the presence of women in Scotland’s history. Even better she has reinvented the form and made it her own with some startling innovations including a clutch of inventive sex scenes and some graphic pieces of violence. On the latter Paisley is first-rate: she knows that when swords and battle-axes meet frail bodies the result is bloody and shocking and she does not shy away from the horrors of close-quarter combat.

The time-frame of White Rose Rebel is the doomed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-1746 and to it Paisley has brought a novel twist. Her main character is a real-life heroine known as Colonel Anne Farquharson of Invercauld who led a force of Highlanders in the Jacobite army which was crushed by government security forces (which included many Scots) at Culloden in April 1746. As Paisley admits in a postscript little is known about the real Anne Farquharson or her motives and her novel is very much a work of fiction, albeit one that makes use of historical facts.

As such she chooses the well-worn theme of the woman torn between two men, one who supports the uprising and one who is opposed to it, at least in his head. Their story is soon told. Anne is married to Aeneas McIntosh newly elected leader of Clan Chattan but she also entertains a predatory fondness for young Alexander MacGillivray. To add spice both men are old friends and boon companions, one is calculating and pragmatic, the other is prey to his emotions.

Come the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the summer of 1745 choices had to be made and across the Highlands clan leaders weighed the odds. Some plumped for the Jacobite cause or ignored it altogether while others hedged their bets by sending their tenants under the command of younger sons. All too often it was a case of balancing the romantic attachment to the Stewart cause with the hard-headed knowledge that the Union of 1707 was already bringing Hanoverian prosperity to the Lowlands.

Predictably, Anne has no such misgivings. When her husband tells her that she might forfeit her life by riding in support of the Stewarts she agrees. “Our lives,” she tells him. “And our choice how they will be lived or lost”. The exchange tells us a lot about the character of Anne and Paisley’s attitude towards her.
MacGillivray throws in his lot with his childhood sweetheart and ends up getting killed in the process. But for Aeneas there is a different fate. To meet his family’s financial obligations he offers his followers as soldiers for government service in one of the three companies of the 43rd (later 42nd) Highlanders which served in the operations to put down the Jacobite rebellion. Later still this regiment was known as The Black Watch.

All this is related with a good deal of gusto and Paisley’s well-honed narrative takes the reader through the excitements of a period of history which still has the power to tickle emotions. Her creation of Anne Farquharson is a triumph: not only does she display the commitment which would have driven every regimental commander who served the Jacobites but she comes across as a person who knows exactly what she is doing. In the aftermath of Culloden she faces execution with equanimity telling her tormentors that she will gladly share the fate of her clan followers.

Of course it doesn’t come to that. In an ingenious twist Anne survives the gallows and lives to see her beloved Highlands utterly transformed. Within a few decades the old clan system had largely disappeared other than as a sentimentality run riot and families like the Farquahrsons and McIntoshes were busy raising Highland regiments to regain their attainted lands, not to say their place in society.

This is an excellent fictional account, lively and well-paced but save us from the publisher’ publicity which invites us to meet ‘the female Braveheart’. Wallace fought the English – this novel shows us what happens when Scots fought Scots.

The Picnic
Lesley McDowell
pp256 ISBN 1845021290

A young Glasgow girl ice-skates for the first time in Toronto. The coloured lights around the rink grow brighter and Lily feels her ankles become heavier. Lily skates and skates, until she spots her mother on the ice a few feet away. Lily’s mother Rubina stands in a romantic embrace with someone Lily doesn’t recognize.

Years later, Rubina disappears at a family picnic by Lake Ontario. This incident is the central storyline of Lesley McDowell’s debut novel, The Picnic. The novel is set in two places – Scotland and Canada – and is told from two perspectives – Lily’s and her grown-up daughter Sadie, a scholar from St. Andrews University who wants to research the incident for an academic project. The dual narratives run parallel to each other as both women ponder the reason behind Rubina’s disappearance. Lily thinks she knows why her mother left but won’t tell; Sadie wants to know what happened to her grandmother, but isn’t told. Sadie’s insistence on the matter drives the two women apart until their arguments give way to cold silence.

McDowell’s confident writing boasts smart dialogue and a subtle lyrical style throughout. Playful rhymes are inserted in sections when Lily is a child, as she rhymes the word “girdle” with “milk that curdles and carts that hurtle.” Natural images pervade both narratives, from the fresh white snow covering the streets of Toronto to the high fields and windy beaches of St. Andrews.

The two narratives of Lily and Sadie create distinct voices. Lily’s obvious Glaswegian tone, chatty and troubled, recollects the years leading up to Rubina’s disappearance. Most of The Picnic is set in the past as Lily searches for clues in her own memories. The Great Scottish Diaspora provides a framework for the family’s conflicts. In the Fifties, Lily and her family immigrate to Canada by ship. “Canada is a place across the ocean with Red Indians who kill bears and men with their bows and arrows” imagines young Lily before they embark on their new adventure.

Inspired by the immigration of her father’s family to Canada, McDowell gets perceptions of Scots coming to Canada for the first time just right. The shiny, new home appliances, the miles of lush green forests and the scorching East coast summers are noted with a foreigner’s fascination. Everything in Canada is bigger and brighter. At night, young Lily whispers strange words that she heard that day: “darn”, “gees” and “holy smoke.” Lily hopes her mother will be happier in Toronto, but sees her reach for a bottle of alcohol hidden in a cupboard. As Lily recounts growing up in Canada, her thoughts always return to the summer day when Rubina left them. “Bad things shouldn’t happen when the sun shines” Lily says sadly.

In contrast, Sadie’s narrative is written in the third person. Her thoughts appear separate, as if in a cartoon bubble, in a small typeset above the narration. Working in St. Andrews, “a tiny frozen little place by the sea,” she strives for academic acceptance in an English department of men. Her obsession with theorizing her grandmother’s life is really a search for her own identity. Dressed always in black, she works long hours in her small office and thinks about “words, not bodies.” How she can turn “a family mystery into research.”

The author’s theme of abandonment is evident. When Lily is nineteen, she leaves Canada to go back to Scotland because she and Rubina are not getting along. Sadie admits at the end of the first chapter that she moved to St. Andrews to get away from Lily. Lily thinks that leaving is natural. “Leave to go on holiday. Leave to have an affair. Leave to find yourself. People do it all the time,” she reasons. But Lily brings up the North American idea of “closure” – that without saying goodbye, leaving one’s family is a betrayal.

Dual narratives can sometimes be jarring, but McDowell handles hers with ease and grace. Swinging back and forth from Lily to Sadie, the author spans a time period of almost fifty years and over two countries. The two narratives, written in the spirit of each woman’s generation, compliment each other as mother and daughter learn how alike they are.

Canadian writers have long reflected the Scots presence in Canada. Contemporary examples include Alistair MacLeod’s Cape Breton Highland Scots in No Great Mischief and Alice Munro’s search for her own Scottish antecedents in The View from Castle Rock. Until now, Scottish writers have been slow to reciprocate, preferring to set their work in Scotland. McDowell’s fine portrayal of the immigrant experience may be the book that will begin to redress the balance.

An Taigh-Samhraidh
Angus Peter Campbell
CLÀR, £8.99
pp240 ISBN 1900901293


Henry James once wrote that the novel “needs the concept of a normal society”. As Gordon Brown likes pointing out, a ‘normal’ society is one in which everyone speaks a common language. This means that ever since the first Highland chiefs were sent to Eton about 1750 and the first squeeze was put on the tacksmen (the bulwark of the Highland middle class), Gaelic society has progressively become less and less ‘normal’ even in its own territory – and that, compared to songs and poems, the Gaelic novel has always been a rare creature, a whale surrounded by thousands of little fishes.

Since 2003 the Gaelic Books Council has been tackling this problem, with success that I would describe as phenomenal under the circumstances. Their Ùr-Sgeul (‘New Story’) series has produced eleven works of prose, nine of them novels, nominally published by Clàr of Inverness. Of the novels, one or two stand comparison with the best of their kind in any language, one or two fail, and the rest are good or very good.

The latest offering, Angus Peter Campbell’s An Taigh-Samhraidh, is typical. For one thing, Campbell (a native of South Uist) is Ùr-Sgeul’s most prolific author, this being his third novel in the series. For another, it’s good. It begins well and ends very well, despite losing its way in the middle. With An Taigh-Samhraidh (it means ‘The Holiday Home’, or more literally ‘The Summer-House’), Campbell’s writing comes of age. One reviewer put her finger on a particular weakness in his second novel, Là a’ Dèanamh Sgèil do Là (‘One Day Speaks to Another’): the female characters were one-dimensional, and appeared to exist mainly for the benefit of the men. In An Taigh-Samhraidh Campbell puts that right. There are three main male characters and three main female ones, and the two women are better than the men in all the ways in which women are prone to be better than men.

The issue didn’t arise in Campbell’s first Ùr-Sgeul novel, An Oidhche mus do Sheòl Sinn (‘The Night before We Sailed’), perhaps because the women in that epic were so single-minded that they resembled men. Equally, the problem may be that when the author’s own voice is as omnipresent and three-dimensional as it is in the novel under consideration, he risks leaving his own characters in the shade. It’s hard at times in An Taigh-Samhraidh to be sure whether we’re reading Campbell’s latest novel or his column in the West Highland Free Press. In fact, at a low point halfway through, after providing us with an italicized list of historical events in two languages, he adds, “coltach ris an nobhail seo a tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh (“like this novel I’m writing”); I was glad of this reassurance.

But Campbell’s style is Campbell’s style, and I’m sure he isn’t going to ditch it even if he could. No doubt he was right to stick to it, but he was also right to put in more work on characterization. In a Campbell novel, for every step forward taken by the plot, we’re treated to snatches of poetry and song, philosophical speculations, and quotations in a variety of languages, including English. Oh, and lists.

An Taigh-Samhraidh is set in the island of Seil south of Oban, where Campbell spent part of his childhood. The principal characters are Seumas Dubh MacLachlainn and his wife Ciorstaidh (who lived in the eighteenth century), Tom Wilson and his wife Rebecca (who live in the Twenty-First century and have a holiday home in the island, the house that Seumas and Ciorstaidh built), and Ronnie Weaver, who provides the glue that joins the plot together.

Weaver, a Canadian, is a descendant of Seumas and Ciorstaidh. He has learned Gaelic, feels strongly about the colonization of the Highlands and Islands by incomers who know nothing of the region’s language and traditions, and knows from personal experience about the need for affordable housing in rural areas. He also believes in direct action, though not quite along the Welsh lines of setting fire to holiday homes.

Central to Campbell’s writing is a passionate belief in marriage. Seumas and Ciorstaidh’s solid partnership is a counterpoint to the Wilsons’ dysfunctional one. By the time we reach an exciting dénouement in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, we’ve begun to appreciate that this good novel has a comprehensive and well-thought-out message about the clash between tradition and capitalism on three different levels: cultural, economic and social.
Read it if you can. If you can’t, enroll in a Gaelic class, because no Gaelic novel has been translated into English since 1924.

Love Letters from my Death-Bed
Cynthia Rogerson
pp288 ISBN 1906120005


Cynthia Rogerson’s latest novel, Love Letters From My Death-Bed, published on new Ullapool-based publisher Two Ravens Press, is a wonderfully eccentric exploration of the choices we make and ways we behave when faced with our own mortality and that of others.

Gentle Valleys, California’s first European-style hospice, is having extreme difficulty finding any dying people to occupy it. Joe Johnston, Gentle Valley’s owner, promises Manuel Mendoza, a drifter pretending he’s a doctor, a job if he can drum up some trade. In desperation, Mendoza convinces Morag, a colleague from his pot-washing job who he is in love with, that she has terminal cancer so she will move into the hospice.

Serial polygamist Morag, originally from the Scottish Highlands is an engaging character. Craving love and affection, she is a sucker for male hairdressers, doctors and dentists who she visits regularly just to feel a man’s hands on her. She lives in growing fear she will never be kissed again and enjoys fantasising about her funeral, for at least then she will be the centre of attention: “Her throat is filled with the kind of unfocused sorrow that easily comes with habitual funeral fantasies”. The title comes from a comically poignant scene in which Morag, thinking her life is nearly over, looks through scrapbooks of all her husbands, and writes letters of apology to them for the hurt she caused.

Fred Snelling is one of the Hospice’s only two residents. Robbie and Carlton Snelling, siblings and Fred’s grandchildren, make a wonderfully awful pair. Selfish, cynical, and lazy, their contempt for everything and everyone other than themselves somehow makes every page they occupy oddly and morbidly compulsive.

Love Letters From My Death-Bed is set in Fairfax, California, a small town populated by first and second generation hippies. “Basically, it is still the Sixties, with better coffee”. The novel is full of sharp but affectionate swipes at the legacy of the flower power generation. “Everything their (the Snellings) parents did to rebel is now politically correct, missing the entire point”.

Crammed with gloriously complex and lovingly rendered oddballs, the novel whizzes along at an incredible pace. Rogerson’s prose has a wonderful energy and rhythm. She is a master storyteller whose love of language and black humour envelops the reader within the strange and strangely familiar, sometimes reminiscent of early John Irving.

Love Letters From My Death-Bed is illustrated with quirky, off-beat illustrations and examples of its protagonists’ signatures from which Rogerson asks you to draw you own conclusions. The illustrations, by Alec Houston, really add to the screwball atmosphere. Following a passage about Mendoza and the filthy house and neighbourhood in which he lives, there’s a gloriously scuzzy picture of him lazing in bed, beside which Rogerson asks – “Does any of this bother Manuel Mendoza? Does it look like it does? Look at him…” It is the same clumsily swaggering Mendoza who uses a card bearing the message, “Hi. Smile if you want to sleep with me. If not, please return this card, as it is very expensive,” to help him seduce women.

The author has obviously taken a great deal of pleasure in writing Love Letters From My Death-Bed; a pleasure which is infectious. From the love-letters of the title itself, to the lists the Snell’s make up of reasons to hate and reasons to like people, to the lovely detail used to make even the minor characters breath and jump from the page. Such as Morag’s five neighbours who bond over a plot to alleviate her misfortunes, and Fred whose final trip out to the beach with his grandchildren is immensely funny and tragic at the same time. Even the ambulance drivers who arrive to pick up an inebriated Morag to take her to the hospice after her initial false diagnosis are incredibly well drawn, as are the hospice staff and volunteers, “genteel good women [for whom] the hospice is the respectable version of stopping at a freeway to gawk”.

The only character that didn’t ring true to me is that of Consuela, a ghost who haunts the hospice, sightings of whom appear throughout the book. The device gives the book an extra layer which it doesn’t really need and sometimes serves to take the reader out of the narrative and distract, rather than enhance it. This is a quibble though in what is a delightfully funny and often deeply touching book.

No More Angels
Ron Butlin
pp207 ISBN 1852429542


Ron Butlin’s new collection carries an ‘appreciation’ by Ian Rankin. This is fitting, since the stories inhabit a landscape Rankin knows well. Most are set in or near to Edinburgh, most involve copious alcohol, and two thirds are about death.

Only a few murders, admittedly. Most are deaths remembered, usually of family: the wife killed in a car accident, the brother drowned, the mother collapsing with a coronary, another mother falling downstairs, plus one victim of Lockerbie. A husband is killed by remorseless disease, and his wife waits for death. Another family’s exotic birds are on the way out, literally, with the cage door left ajar: “They’ll die out there; they need looked after”. Butlin’s characters are not good at looking after each other. Some relatives are grieving; others are dancing on the grave. Fathers make a poor showing, being unemployed couch potatoes or bullies. They’d be better off dead, and several are.

Travellers arriving at Turnhouse airport, with its embarrassing mural of congratulatory quotes on the glories of Edinburgh civilisation, may not recognise Butlin’s city, but Ian Rankin will. This is “a cul-de-sac of uncollected bin bags, broken glass, dogshit and lack of sunlight”, where the only tourist site visited is Calton Hill: “Big deal. A lumpy stretch of grass with Greek pillars stuck in it.” Innocent lads won’t want to hang about with the company up there.

There is also the death-in-life of the meaningless job or marriage, or the alcoholic’s insensibility. The town is full of alcoholics: the derelict renting out student lodging; the homeless slumped in doorways; young men staggering across pubs with a skinful of heavy; a professor drunk on malt insulting the wife; an elderly butler drowning in bitterness and the master’s claret. The house guests get pished and lob peeled prawns for a bimbo to catch in her mouth: “She would lean forward, instead, catching them in her cleavage. Purpose-built, it seemed.” The young rot their livers with Black Velvet, meaning here a blend of beer and cider. (I’d always thought Black Velvet was Guinness and Champagne, but there I go with my elitism.) Haute cuisine is wasted on the Edinburgh elite, while the rest of the population subsists on McRubbish, Chinese carry-outs and the fine dining to be had at Giorgio’s flop-house: “slice of bread – 15p butter, 10p marge”.

If the tone of all this seems rather unremitting, it is. Butlin can write very amusingly, but this collection has a bad case of the glums. One looks in vain for much beauty or love or celebration, and after a while the misery can become wearying. So the flashes of light and humour are to be treasured: the kindness of a ‘Paki’ shopkeeper to an old lady, or that same old lady skewering a road-hog’s tyre with an artificial Christmas tree, or the kiss from a girl who had seemed a prize bitch of a tease, but who might just be a genuine sweetie after all.

Some of the best stories are the deft short fables. A nice one features a Tony Blair lookalike, “who had turned sincerity into a brand-name stamped across his forehead”, having an unfortunate encounter with the Delphic oracle. There’s also a deft jab at pretension in art music; when you see Arnold Schoenberg described as “the great composer and music theorist”, you can be sure that Modernism is in for some happy slapping. Sure enough: “After turning the corner into the glorious future ahead, the engine [goes] slamming into a solid wall”. Schoenberg is soon “rushing up to complete strangers. ‘My twelve-tone system offers real value for money to composer, player and audience alike'”. It is neatly done, with a stripped-down, agile humour that RLS would have enjoyed.

Much the most effective and moving story, though, is the longer piece that closes the book, ‘Alice Kerr Went With Older Men’. I am increasingly convinced that the art of the short story (so often said to be in the doldrums) is ill-served by the constraining “3,000-word max.” of competitions, radio reading and magazine publication. Alice Kerr makes the point. In this tale – sixty pages instead of the routine eight or nine – Butlin shakes off his slightly formulaic horrors and allows his characters to grow, to achieve a complex personal journey. The result is a very superior piece of fiction, a fine story. The world is the same – youth seeking an escape from crushing parents, dead-end prospects and hopeless love – and the route leads through the familiar landscape. But Butlin’s young hero comes to life in a way that is varied, funny, convincing, worldly wise but, at the last, hopeful. The story (and the collection) concludes: “He was so very, very glad” – and this we can genuinely share.

The End Of Mr Y
Scarlett Thomas
pp455 ISBN184195957X


Normally, using modern French philosophy to clarify a novel’s plot is only slightly less futile than pushing a grape up a hill with your nose. Such a volume, book shop-physics dictate, can expect to hit the remainder bin at the speed of light. The End Of Mr Y however is good enough to uncast such prejudices. Its author, Scarlett Thomas, has been writing for almost a decade now, publishing books whose intriguing characters – a man allergic to UV, corporate cool hunters – and zigzag of high and low cultural references never quite catalysed. The impression left was one of cut-price Coupland, a karaoke version of Murakami. Traces of both authors continue to whistle through The End Of Mr Y, only here Thomas indulges her imagination and her reading habits more than ever – and this time the mix ignites.

It begins with gravity. On an unnamed English campus, the Newton building, almost as if its name was a self-fulfilling prophecy, falls down. Subsidence: underground tunnel. Watching from the English department, we find our heroine and narrator, Ariel Manto, a Ph.D student. With the car park, and so her car, ruled out of bounds for safety reasons, Ariel has to walk home. Taking an unfamiliar route she chances upon a second hand book shop. Inside, she discovers an odd book, as odd as the adventure yarn her creator has embroiled her in.

Ariel’s doctorate is on Thomas E Lumas, a Nineteenth century writer and crank whose obscurity is all but impenetrable. The ne plus ultra of his nigh-on invisible ‘career’ (the inverted commas are mockingly justified) is his last book, The End Of Mr Y. No library in the world has a copy, no one even knows what it was about. Lumas died the day after it was published in 1893, everyone involved in its publication, soon afterwards. Little wonder then that antiquarians talk of the missing book as cursed. That Ariel’s supervisor and Lumas’ biographer, Professor Burlem, has gone missing only adds to speculation.

In one of those symmetries that only ever happen in books, Ariel discovers The End Of Mr Y in the shop, reasonably cheap, staff unaware of its true value. Despite its reputation, Ariel dives into the book. Lumas provides a curious warning that the novel is merely a thought experiment: “It’s only as fiction that I wish this book to be considered.” Guessing the book is somewhat more than mere fabulation, Ariel cooks up the formula recipe’d in the book. This potion propels its imbiber into the Troposphere, a mystical “world-of-minds” where adepts hop between people (and mice!), accessing memories and desires. Resembling a RPG set on a lysergic landscape, the Troposphere is dangerously addictive. Worse, rogue CIA agents (who else?) have got wind of The End Of Mr Y and sensing its lucrative potential, are prepared to kill to secure a copy.

[/TALS]The End Of Mr Y (Thomas’ book, not Lumas’) is not only a Matrix-style jump-and-run actioner, it’s also a philosophical salad. Thomas tosses together Derrida, Heidegger, Lacan, as well as Baudrilliard whose idea of ‘the Simulacrum’ – a copy of the real that supplants the real, his paradigm of modern existence – is central to both Mr Y and The Matrix. Language is itself a Simulacrum, and Thomas uses her plot’s downtime to build up this idea with reference to, amongst other things, quantum physics and homeopathy. “Can something be created in language independently of the people who use the language? Can language become a self-replicating system…?”

Such thoughts bring to mind Thomas’ label mate, Steven Hall and his debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, which similarly constructed a fantasy-thriller out of outré philosophy, pulp science fiction, and word games encoded in the text from the title down. Taken together with a book like Andrew Crummey’s Mobius-Dick, one almost detects the lineaments of a new and winning literary mutation: a sort of post-modern polar fantasy that pirates the highest and lowest art, splitting the difference without dividing into a soggy middlebrow read.

Not that The End Of Mr Y is perfect, though its sins are ones of ambition rather than poor execution. Like Hall’s and Crummey’s books, some loose ends are left flapping, and each book concludes, funnily enough, with the main characters happy if caught in an other-worldly zone that might be a post-death dream. Also Thomas’ similes occasionally slide away from her too. “The sky is the colour of sad weddings.” What colours is that? Grey? White? Black? “The rain is bouncing off the pavement like tears on a table”. When was the last time you saw a tear bounce, on a table or otherwise? Quibbles, quibbles. The End Of Mr Y will make excellent, ambitious poolside reading whether you chose to holiday here or another dimension.

King Henry
Douglas Galbraith
pp320 ISBN 0436206285


This is a wet Sunday book. It’s a baggy old sofa kind of novel, to let yourself sink into.

Back to 1915, Detroit. The central figure is Henry Ford, and this is the very long, 400 plus pages, tale of his involvement in a plan to conclude the war in Europe, which he considered harmful to business and enterprise.

Lots of characters (spot that famous person in walk-on cameos). Lots of voices telling us what goes on at the court of King Henry. Bags of history bits too. Things you feel you almost knew, information which you can squirrel away in case it should come in useful (University Challenge perhaps). Automobile racing, trains, ships, Halley’s Comet overhead (when it isn’t zeppelins) – we’re always on the move, speed is the common denominator, and indeed there’s something breathless about how this deluge of historical detail goes flashing past us. (One damn thing after another, pretty much.).

When I was growing up, it was so much simpler. Historical fiction was Jean Plaidy, safely distanced to Tudor times. Or it was Mary Renault’s sun-soaked and blood-drenched recreations, enthusiastically recommended to us by a charismatic young classics master at school in dreich Glasgow, who had the air of a bearded Greek warrior about him: a lifeline to save us from the morass of conjugations and declensions.

Then we became ironic and post-modern and perhaps just too knowing for our own good. We could throw it all up in the air: fact or fiction, who was caring? The Bruce Chatwin period. Later WG Sebald, over-praised as Chatwin surely was, teasingly left us to puzzle over the veracities of his ‘Emigrants’ – and his other books, written in their gluey way.

The one triumph of genre-bending I recall was a little-noticed book by Frenchwoman Elisabeth Baraille. Her subject, alas, was avant-garde writer Anais Nin, a vain and rather vapid and silly person. Nin was undeserving at one level: at another she was entirely appropriate. A serial fantasist, her inner life was anyone’s guess, so why not the inspired Baraille’s? Contrasting with the out-and-out fictionalising was that heady French mixture of sensual regard and pinning-a-specimen-to-the-board precision, plus her stylistic risk-taking (sentences without verbs; or sudden Olympian formality). Thanks to Baraille, the endlessly self-mythologising Nin couldn’t fool us any more.

More conventional based-on-life novels still get written. There was one recently narrated by Randolph Hearst’s butler. King Henry presents Henry Ford from many angles, but one problem in carrying the story forward along these parallel routes is separating the characters when they all speak in the first person and in much the same voice.

The book is unusual for 2007 in this, that it doesn’t parade any list of books consulted, offers no assurances or disclaimers.

So how much is based on Ford fact, and how much is Douglas Galbraith’s invention? Does it even matter that we should know?

For the centenary of his death I was commissioned to write a Radio 3 drama about Verdi. Never mind that much of his music leaves me cold, I duly applied myself to the task. I might have tackled the subject in a different way, but I chose to have him speak thoughts and memories I was giving him. Even if I believed I was being ‘true’ to the details of his life, I was still claiming the man’s soul for myself. I invented him falling out of a tree as a boy, for instance – or I think I invented it, I can’t actually remember. And if I don’t know any more ….

Mr Galbraith goes about the business a little differently: he has Henry Ford doing and saying things, yes, but he’s observed doing and saying by others. We’re at a certain distance from him, not inside his head. Ford is an enigma, or at least a paradox: a man surfaced with mirrors.

Perhaps it’s the very orderliness of the vignettes which unsettles me. In one very nicely written chapter – Mr Galbraith’s prose isn’t to be faulted, nor his grasp of the characters’ psychology – he homes in, literally enough, on the young Ford and wife Clara. Henry demonstrates his messy new engine in their kitchen one Christmas Eve. To Callie he says “I could have tested it at the works, but I wanted you to see it when it first goes”.

Did this happen?

Does it bother you if it didn’t, or if it half-happened thus?

Maybe I’m showing signs of my age, but I need my distinctions now. A good biography can be as pacey as any novel. An able biographer is controlling and censoring, of course, but also – if he or she is duly modest, and serving the subject – not confusing the lived life with the speculative.

The question I’m left with is, does a novel add to our understanding of the person? EL Doctorow’s Ragtime managed, with grace and wit and some daring, to fillet Teddy Roosevelt’s America, and at lesser length, and with the savvy – or chance good timing – of catching the zeitgeist. In my fogey-ish way I feel that life generally offers enough surprises not to beg a make-over.

But then, that’s just me. You might absolutely love it. There’s bound to be a wet Sunday in prospect.

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Volume 3 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

Beyond The Sun
Edwin Morgan
pp48 ISBN 1905222726

The ongoing vogue for lists of all sorts has not noticeably advanced the cause of civilisation. In most cases these spurious hierarchies are a distraction from the arts, not a new way into them. Edwin Morgan’s muse however vibrated into life with the publication two years ago in The Herald of a list of the people’s favourite paintings held in Scottish public collections. Beyond The Sun partners glossy reproductions of The Herald’s top ten with a poem on each entry by Morgan. As Alan Riach puts it in the foreword, this short collection represents “Morgan’s ultimate assertion and affirmation of the value of art, its permanent sense of preserving the example those energies set.” Dull reverence is by no means the order of the day however. Of Raeburn’s smug skater, he writes, “Wouldn’t it be good/If the god of thaws pulled that icy rug/From under him, to remind his next sermon/What it is that goeth before a fall.” In the case of Rembrandt’s martial Man In Armour, Morgan doesn’t appear to like the painting at all, if for reasons other than painterly ones: “You are great; even a loss from you’s a gain./But do not trivialise the death of men.”

The King Of France Is Bald
Walter Perrie
Fras, £5
pp35 ISBN 9780954994198

Perhaps the King is bald from reading too much modern philosophy and tearing his hair out, the only proportionate response. To be fair to Walter Perrie, his short work on a philosophy of language avoids the synapses-wrecking jargon of his peers. He takes pains to be clear at all times. The upshot of his decision not to hide behind a screen of academic gobbledygook is that half of what he says seems so obvious as to be not worth stating, and half so coiled round itself as to be not worth pursuing. Anyway, we can boil down his argument, at the risk if distorting it, to this: word-forms require a language-act by a person to have a meaning. Words and their meaning are not independent of us; they don’t have their own existence, although that is how we, as individuals, first experience them. In other words, language is the tree in the forest that only truly falls if there’s someone there to witness it. Basically an elaboration of Bertrand Russell’s and Wittegenstein’s work, The King Of France Is Bald is just the sort of philosophy you’d expect a poet (as Perrie also is) to explore, as it enthrones language’s users, reducing language to a vassal.

You’ve Got To Laugh
Laurence Demarco
SENSCOT, £9.99
pp155 ISBN 095540408

“Most people don’t know what a social entrepreneur is,” writes Laurence Demarco, an example of that obscure breed. I would have said it sounds a little like someone who buys and sells people; in fact they basically run organisations with a humanitarian bent, in Demarco’s case, helping disadvantaged kids. As part of his job, Demarco pens a short weekly meditation for an industry bulletin, a diaristic, philosophical musing with a humorous bent. You’ve Got To Laugh collects together five years’ worth of Demarco’s thoughts and a surprisingly winning effort it is too. A man of a certain vintage, Demarco shares his health woes and growing feeling that he lives in a time whose culture he has little to no sympathy for. Instead he digs into his memories, recalling his first teenage kiss with an Italian chip shop girl who collected jam jars and phoned random numbers for a chat. Watching late night Star Trek, a drunk, broken friend phones for advice and rather than turn the TV off, Demarco dispenses advice on the basis of Spock’s logical maxims. He embarrasses himself in front of John Le Carre and may be the only socialist in the Western hemisphere to express sympathy when Jeffrey Archer was jailed. In other words, he’s a one-off.

My Life As A Man
Frederic Jameson
POLYGON, £6.99
pp217 ISBN 1846970091

What marks Frederic Jameson out as a writer is the genuine sense of oddness that inhabits his writing. Whereas other writers work hard, torturing their imaginations to evoke the strange, Jameson bangs out deceptively straightforward prose that releases, one eventually perceives, a subtle miasma. My Life As A Man is of a piece with his other work. On the surface it’s a rites of passage story that takes the form of a road movie narrative. But darker undercurrents thrash beneath. Jameson’s hero, eighteen-year-old Harry, has been kicked out of his home by his mother’s boyfriend and through no fault of his own lost his first job after barely a week’s work. Understandably frustrated he jumps into his boss’s car and drives off. The car has a passenger, Mrs Morton, the boss’s wife, a woman who sits in the same car outside her husband’s factory everyday. Oddly detached, she doesn’t object when Harry, twenty years her junior, zooms away with her. Before long a gang of heavies are after her, in pursuit of a mysterious briefcase in the boot. Matters become truly odd though when Harry and Mrs Morton hide out in a remote rural cottage with a couple who it becomes clear have plans for the runaways.

Types of Everlasting Rest
Clio Gray
pp144 ISBN 1906120048

This fresh, original, beautifully written collection of short stories from the winner of the 2006 Scotsman/Orange short story competition is nothing less than a celebration of the form itself. Clio Gray’s brand of historical realism is well suited to this format: economical to the point it is both oblique and punchy. The narrators are usually male and have done something wrong: in one story, a rival for brotherly love is apparently murdered; in another, a soldier is condemned as a traitor and has his ears lopped off; a third story concerns a lonely man who exacts revenge for the death of his adopted son due to another’s carelessness. Death doesn’t quite stalk these pages as tramp heartily through them. Gray’s interest in times past takes in a knowledge of bodily decay as well a sense of very local colour and of consequence, whether we are in the present day or Napoleon’s era. One small comment – every story is told in the first person, which can lead to a lack of variation in tone. That said, this is a highly impressive collection.

The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics
Nury Vittachi
Polygon, £9.99
pp336 ISBN 1846970237

Vegetarians, look away now. Near the beginning of this novel a lengthy description of the specialist delicacies offered by a new Shanghai restaurant called This is Living. Hong Kong-based writer and journalist Nury Vittachi’s descriptive skills are such that a restaurant which serves only living things for food is entirely plausible. In common with the best satirists, his fantastical take on the world is only a heartbeat away from the real one. Joyce is a young Englishwoman working in Shanghai for two employers: CF Wong, a feng shui master, and Lu Linyao, manager of the Shanghai Vegetarian Café Society, whose owner is a fanatical animal rights activist. When Wong attends the inaugural opening of This is Living, he and Joyce are caught up in a gruesome hijack. On their way to assassinating two presidents visiting the city, an extreme animal rights group force each restaurant guest to undergo the same fate suffered by the living beings on their plate. It is, of course, up to Wong and Joyce to save the day, and while this traditional pairing (older, cynical male partnered with young, naïve female assistant) may have seen better days, this is still a quick, sharp and intelligent read.

Confessions of a Sugar Mummy
Emma Tennant
pp236 ISBN 1906142017

All credit to Tennant for boldly attempting to wrestle a genre from those endless queues of thirty-something women all waiting to bore the rest of us about never finding Mr Darcy, or not marrying Mr Darcy when they had the chance but some other poor sod by mistake. Scarlett, the sixty-something narrator of this ‘diary’, has fallen in love (or lust) with a younger, married man called Alain, who runs a rapidly diminishing tile-design business with his wife, Claire. Said narrator has also discovered that her fairly dingy two-floor flat in ‘Maida Hill’ is now worth three-quarters of a million pounds, such is the madness of the London housing market. She decides to sell up, buy something smaller and live off the equity. Alain becomes caught up in her plans as his older paramour desperately devises ways for them to be together. This might be a gentle satire more in the Austenite vein than more hardcore, modern versions, but both its disgust at a world that relentlessly ignores older women, and its fight back against such imposed invisibility, run right through it, making this light-hearted look at ageing both witty and profound, a rare feat.

Soirbheas (Fair Wind)
Meg Bateman
POLYGON, £9.99
pp192 ISBN 1904598927

Bateman offers us a double explanation of the meaning of “soirbheas”: a “fair wind on the sea (Skye)” or “wind, flatulence (Argyll)”. One meaning is romantic, the other down-to-earth, even scatological. This doubleness characterises many of Bateman’s simple, beautiful poems, from life and death in ‘Mac’ (“It was a premonition of your death/to be speaking to you without your knowing”), to animals slaughtered for disease, not food, in ‘Sacrifice’. She moves from desire and loneliness in ‘Chinese Bowl’ (“Were I to love a man again/how can I know if my world would hold/or would I once more get lost in the crack/between my expectations and lack of courage?”), to ageing in ‘So Spoke the Old Woman of Beare’. That some of the titles echo Sylvia Plath (‘Mirror’, ‘Daddy’) might lead the reader to expect more violence, more anger, but these are essentially poems of reconciliation and acceptance, an acknowledgment of the doubleness in life and its irreconcilability. Often moving, these poems about ageing, family and relationships, hint at roads not travelled, even though the destinations may often work out better than planned.

Lachlan’s War
Michael Cannon
PENGUIN, £7.99
pp272 ISBN 0141026200

This unsentimental yet moving novel is in many ways a classic father and son tale, though the two protagonists involved are not related. Lachlan McCready is a lonely, middle-aged bachelor and local doctor for the isolated Rassaig village during the war. He has become accustomed to his single life and thwarted ambitions when Frank, a young Jewish evacuee who has lost most of his family, comes into his life. Housed within an unsuitable and violent home, Frank is in danger and has to be rescued by McCready, who takes the young boy into his own home. The two form a delicate yet strong bond that will last even when the war is over and Frank can leave for boarding-school and the beginning of his adult life. Paralleled with their story is another old favourite: that of love crushed. Land Army girl Gail, who has arrived in the village from down south, falls in love with local man, Angus, and struggles with her guilt at betraying her soldier fiancé. Cannon’s prose style is unshowy and precise, the very opposite of the dilemmas and emotions that face his characters. The disparity between the two make for a considerably affecting story.

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The SRB Interview: Allan Massie

Allan Massie was born in Singapore on 19 October, 1938. He was educated in Scotland at Glenalmond, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. He spent the Sixties teaching at Drumtochty Castle School, and the first half of the Seventies teaching English language classes in Rome. On returning to Britain, he began reviewing fiction for The Scotsman. Since then he has been a columnist for the Glasgow Herald, Sunday Times Scotland, Daily Mail and Telegraph, as well as contributing to the Sunday Telegraph, Prospect, and The Spectator. In addition to his journalism, Massie has written fiction prolifically. His first novel, Change And Decay In All Around I See, was published in 1978, followed by fictional explorations of terrorism, (The Death Of Men, 1981), Vichy France (A Question Of Loyalties, 1989), and Sir Walter Scott (The Ragged Lion, 1994), as well as an acclaimed series of novels about Ancient Rome, which began in 1986 with Augustus. His new novel, Charlemagne And Roland, is the third part of a Dark Ages trilogy, and tells the story of Europe’s first Emperor after the fall of the Roman Empire. Colin Waters spoke to Allan Massie about war, nationalism, and the dangers of idealism.

Scottish Review of Books: Charlemagne And Roland has a framing story, in which Michael Scott, tutor of the young Frederick the Great, illustrates the political points he wants to get across to his pupil using the lives of the book’s title characters. The framing story, I think, raises the issue of how storytellers use history for their own ends. Isn’t there something deeply antithetical about history and the demands of narrative, which tends to smooth away the elements from life that slow it down?

Allan Massie: If you write straight narrative history, if you try to keep fiction out of it, you’re still writing a version of history: what you decide to leave in, what you decide to leave out. With Charlemagne and Roland, you’re dealing as much with myth as with history. The Charlemagne in my novel bears little resemblance to the Charlemagne a historian making a study of the Carolinian age might depict. It is the figure of legend that appears in my book, of the Chanson de Roland, and I’m quite easy with that.

SRB: I have read you described, as a novelist, as a realist. Charlemagne And Roland though, in common with the two novels that precede it in the trilogy incorporates more folkloric elements than previously seen in your work.

AM: That’s true. I call these three novels of the Dark Ages trilogy ‘romances’. That’s based I suppose on Stevenson’s definition of the difference between romance and drama. Drama is the poetry of character, and romance is the poetry of circumstance. The characters in these novels, I hope they have some vitality but they are not examined as characters as they would in a realistic novel. They are emblematic figures if you like. The novels play with the point at which history and legend meet. One of the reasons for the Michael Scott framing story is to distance the events so that one is not even pretending that this is a real picture of what happened. It’s quite clear the story is being told 400 years later by someone with their own political agenda.

SRB: You mention emblems there. In the final section of Charlemagne And Roland, Charlemagne’s army invades Spain to attack the Muslim Saracens. Beforehand, Charlemagne is warned if he attacks, he’ll have to fight off wave after wave off insurgents on a jihad. The contemporary parallels there are impossible to ignore.

AM: The last part of the book, the Spanish part, which I think is the best part, all derives from the Chanson de Roland, while at certain points correcting it. As Michael Scott mentions, there’s no mention in that epic poem of the Basques, who actually destroyed the invading army. Anything you write about that sort of war is going to set up some resonances with Iraq, and there are probably one or two remarks in the novel that might be applicable there. Certainly it wasn’t prominent in my mind while writing.

SRB: Really?

AM: No, no. What is more prominent today is what Michael Scott has to say about Islam. He points out how close the religions are. Many people regarded Islam as a Christian heresy. Theological arguments raged around 1000 AD about whether Islam was a Christian heresy like Arianism, which it was close to it; Arianists denied Christ was God, they rejected the Trinity too.

SRB: Sure, but this isn’t the first time you’ve touched on the wisdom or otherwise of invading countries for supposedly noble reasons. In A Question Of Loyalties, you write, “It should now be a mission of civilisation, not of war, for the days when you could impose civilisation by war are long past”.

AM: Was that in A Question Of Loyalties? [AM laughs] Well, it’s very true. I would have thought it obvious nowadays, that you can’t, if you ever could, impose civilisation by making war.

SRB: You say it’s obvious but apparently not to the people who decided to launch the latest war in the Gulf.

AM: Perhaps they are more idealistic then me. It has occurred to me that the problem stems from a naive idealism. Not from wickedness. Bush and Blair believed they would knock over Saddam, the Iraqis would be delighted and engage in the making of a democracy.

SRB: Isn’t that one of the recurring themes in your novels, the dangers of idealism? It certainly is in A Question Of Loyalties.

AM: Absolutely. I do think idealism is very often dangerous.

SRB: Yes, but if you look at the run up to World War Two, for example, the realists in that situation were the appeasers. There, the idealists were correct.

AM: I think that’s true, an example of when the realists were proven wrong. What you can say about that is that while the idealists were correct to oppose Hitler, matters didn’t turn out as they expected either. I’ve been reading Peter Clark’s book about the last thousand days of the British Empire, and one sees very clearly there that, yes, we won the war, and we destroyed ourselves in the process.

SRB: In an age of broadband, mobiles and MTV, can we think ourselves back convincingly, can historical fiction be written in an authentic manner? Look at the generation gap. Surely it’s evidence of how hard it is for people to think sympathetically back one generation, never mind dozens.

AM: What I do is I start with an assumption that while manifestations of it change, human nature doesn’t change a great deal. I remember Graham Greene remarking that everything important for a novelist has happened to him before he was seven. That rather disheartened me as I couldn’t remember a great deal before I was seven. Then the more I thought about it I saw it was true. Before you’re seven you’ve probably experienced the biggest emotions – love, hatred, resentment, frustration, happiness – in a purer, stronger form than you do later, and a writer can tap into that. Obviously what we think is right and what is wrong changes from age to age. But what motivates people, their emotions, they don’t change, that’s the first thing. The second thing is one assumes, perhaps wrongly, there are a lot of people who are interested in the past. Some periods in history you can treat like that. Like the Roman Empire. Because the way the Romans thought, it wasn’t what we inherited, a lot of it, but is comprehensible. It would be quite beyond me to treat the Aztec Empire in the same way. There wouldn’t be enough understanding of it, while there is enough Roman literature, Latin literature that helps. There’s a big enough understanding of the Ancient World to write about it. The Dark Ages is different. Contemporary sources don’t actually exist. Arthur The King, which precedes Charlemagne And Roland, is about King Arthur and what is positively known about Arthur could be written in a paragraph. That’s partly why I call those books romances rather than historical novels, partly why I use the device of Michael Scott to filter the story through. Although I’ve always liked using narrators who some of the time stand outside the action of the novel.

SRB: I wanted to ask you about the device of the lost manuscript. Why does it appear so often in your fiction?

AM: In some ways I’m quite literally minded. When I read a novel particularly in the first person I often ask myself, When’s he writing this? In what period? How’s he telling the story? I remember once asking Anthony Powell about A Dance To The Music Of Time. I wanted to know at which point in time Jenkins was telling the story. At one point, I asked was Jenkins actually writing the novels. Powell was rather vague about it. He said, I imagine Jenkins sitting on a sofa of the drawing room reminiscing – which doesn’t make sense at all, the novels are far too structured for that. If you use the device of the manuscript it provides an easy way into the novel.

SRB: What about the anachronistic language you use in Charlemagne And Roland and earlier in your Roman cycle of novels. You introduce, unheralded, lines from writers not yet born. Shakespeare, for example. Are you not worried this will lift the reader out of the moment?

AM: If you’re writing about the past, the register in which you pitch your narrative is a decision you have to make at some point. How do you make your characters speak? I don’t think there is a single answer to it. When you’re writing it, you have to be able to hear the characters speak yourself. The Roman novels, in a sense that wasn’t too difficult because for the most part you could hear a vaguely Latinate prose. Then you assume this is a manuscript translated by me. Echoes of other writers – people say, gosh, that’s Shakespeare. That’s part of the game, of the book’s ludic dimension. It could irritate some readers but other people might like it.

SRB: Interestingly, writers who actually translate actual ancient texts into contemporary argot or who interpolate modern quotes are most often praised for it. I’m thinking of Christopher Logue’s version of The Iliad or Ciaran Carson’s use of Irish slang in his translation of Dante’s Inferno.

AM: To take an example there is a description in Antony of Cleopatra coming up the Nile in her barge which draws on Shakespeare, anyone who reads it will see that. But then Shakespeare’s description is itself a versification of Plutarch’s description. Plutarch provides many scenes in Shakespeare’s plays.

SRB: You write in The Thistle And The Rose that you’re “a typical Scot, a child of the British Empire”. But hasn’t your career been based partly on the fact that you’re not a typical Scot, that you’re a one nation Tory in a country that has for some time proven allergic to the Conservatives?

AM: If Scotland was a uniform culture, that would be true. But it isn’t. My journalism actually reflects what a great deal of people are thinking but which doesn’t very often get into the mainstream of the media. The dominant political line over the past twenty-five has been soft-left is you like, but an awful lot of people don’t subscribe to that. You come across their voices more in the letters to the editor than in the editorials.

SRB: You’ve certainly in the past stood outside what at least was the popular image of the Scottish writer – working class, urban, gritty. Someone like James Kelman, perhaps. It didn’t include William Boyd, Candia McWilliam, Ronald Frame – or yourself. Do you think we’re moving beyond that, to take a more inclusive view of what makes a Scottish writer?

AM: I think that’s probably true. On the other hand you have to remember I’m older than James Kelman. And I’m just a few years younger than William McIlvanney. And Willie began his career much younger than I did. He published his first novel when he was thirty, I was nearly forty. William Boyd published his first novel in the early Eighties. So all these authors from different backgrounds have been writing in parallel over different times, though more attention was paid to one strand, which perhaps was fair enough. The West of Scotland voice coming out of the working class at that time was very striking, mixing as it did pride and guilt. Pride in what had been a coherent working class culture; guilt at having moved away from it while still trying to retain validity. That was a very strong element in Scottish cultural life and one I wasn’t part of. Most of my novels haven’t been set in Scotland, but I never thought that should disqualify you as a Scottish writer. One’s own sensibility and intellect, these are formed by Scotland.

SRB: You wouldn’t be alone in having your literary pedigree challenged. Even Muriel Spark, who you wrote a critical study of, found her background challenged.

AM: It used to irritate me. It doesn’t now. When it did, I used to remark that Graham Greene set very few of his novels in England, but no one ever suggested he wasn’t an English novelist. Except me, when I suggested he might be just enough Scottish.

SRB: You went to Cambridge, partly as you have written because there was no question of one attending a Scottish university “unless you had failed to get into either Oxford or Cambridge”. Before further education, you were taught in public school that the country you were brought up in was second rate. In emphasising Britishness, your teachers denigrated Scotland, didn’t they?

AM: I don’t think that they taught that. That’s an exaggeration. There was an underlying assumption, not so much that Scotland was a second rate country but that because we were part of the United Kingdom, the place for a person of ambition was London.

SRB: Okay, it wasn’t timetabled, you know, Monday morning from nine to ten, Denigration Of The Homeland class, but –

AM: I don’t think so. It was just assumed. In the same way, people in the North of England went to London if they wanted to make a career in politics or the arts.

SRB: Scotland is a country though.

AM: Scotland is a country, quite true, but it was a country that was part of the United Kingdom. And it was an assumption only in the pretty small world of fee paying schools.

SRB: A small world, sure, but a lot of those people went onto run national institutions, so their influence wasn’t small.

AM: A lot of them of course came back. If you look at the senators in the college of justice of my generation, an awful lot of them went to Cambridge and Oxford and then came back to the Scottish bar, possibly with certain advantages as a result of it.

SRB: What’s interesting to note here then is how often the issue of loyalty appears in your novels given that your teachers didn’t exactly exert themselves to teach loyalty to Scotland. I mean, where did your loyalties lie? Were they to Scotland, to its people or institutions or was it to Britain? I’m not actually asking you to comment on that but on the fact the question existed, and that that had to have some effect on your fiction.

AM: The question does arise. And at the moment it’s clearly being answered in one way. And you accept that is the decision that has been made, which is the sensible thing to do, or you get into the last ditch. There has undoubtedly been a change. I mean, when I was young I really did think of the capital as London, not Edinburgh. But then if you go back to the Edinburgh of the Fifties, it was a very sleepy, provincial city with, outside of the Festival, not a lot going for it. Very nice to live in but a backwater. There were a few literary circles and so on but it was still a backwater. And if you wanted to write about the modern world, Scotland wasn’t the place to be doing it.

SRB: There was a quickening by the Seventies though.

AM: Partly because in the Seventies it became clear that the British state was in a bad way. Time magazine in 1974 had a cover asking whether there was going to be a British revolution. That’s what gave the real surge to Scottish Nationalism; maybe we’d do better on our own. We had been living in the limelight of WW2, at least until Suez. There had been the transformation in the Forties and Fifties to a welfare state which worked pretty well. And we had with considerable dignity disembarrassed ourselves of the Empire. A lot of nonsense is talked about the Empire. There was exploitation, but when I said I was a child of the Empire, I was thinking of my father. My father went out to Malaya in 1926 as a rubber planter. And he never had any doubt that what they were doing was developing a country that would one day be handed back to be governed by the Malays and Chinese.

SRB: Their ‘plans’ though were without an end date.

AM: Yes, he didn’t know when it would happen but it would happen. I remember in his old age he spoke very proudly of the company he worked for, which was small when he began. By the end of his life it was a conglomerate which as he said proudly had no European manager or director. He took that as a sign of the success of Empire.

SRB: In that light, I suppose you found the notion of Scotland as England’s last colony offensive?

AM: Oh yes, that’s nonsense. It’s much more true to say England is Scotland’s most successful colony. We’ve had at least as much influence on the English as they’ve had on us.

SRB: Your second book was a critical study of Muriel Spark. I wonder if by writing about Spark you weren’t laying the groundwork for your own literary career. Like Spark you worked as a literary journalist, you published your first novel later than most debuts, after which you too were incredibly prolific. You also didn’t often write about Scotland.

AM: I hadn’t thought of that. If you start quite late, you have a lot of material stored up. Evelyn Waugh said that no one has more than five novels stored up and everything else is professional trickery. There’s truth in that. Novels are made from observation, imagination, experience. Experience includes what you’ve read as well as what you’ve done. You get a lot of material insensibly as the years pass, you don’t realise you’re collecting it. Once you start writing, in a curious way, you stop experiencing, not absolutely but you experience in a different way. Also, the simple fact is writing is a time consuming activity. You sit alone in a room and you write and while doing so you have no time for anything else. You run out of experience unless you make a point of going out and getting more experience – which can be a dodgy thing in itself if you haven’t properly absorbed the experience by the time you start writing about it. It’s also something difficult to do unless you’re very successful. Again, Graham Greene is a good example here. Because Greene was successful he could take a couple months off writing and go to Indo-China and get what he needed for The Quiet American. Most writers can’t afford to do this, especially if they have a family. This is a good reason for writing historical novels. Experience goes into that too but of a different sort. My first or four novels draw upon my own experience in some form. Then to a lesser extent, I would say what I think of my best work, the three novels on mid-century Europe – A Question of Loyalties, Sins Of The Father, Shadows Of Empire – they draw on my own experience in a different way. The Roman novels and the Dark Ages ones, that’s literary experience as much as anything; but it is a way of going on writing when you’ve probably used up most of the experience you have for making a novel.

SRB: I wanted to ask you about your literary journalism.

AM: Well, first of all, I’m not a critic, I’m a reviewer.

SRB: What’s the difference?

AM: A reviewer gives snap judgement. You’re given a book to review and then you have to write about it right away. And given the space you have in which to write, it has to be impressionistic. As a reviewer you have certain duties imposed on you by the fact you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine. You’re telling people about a new book and you’re writing something people want to read casually. A critic, nowadays usually an academic, is writing at a distance. He’s far more analytic than a reviewer can possibly be. There are exceptions, if you’re writing for the LRB or SRB say. If you have 3000 words to fill, you can approach being a critic.

SRB: There has been a change in the status of the reviewer since you began, hasn’t there? The days when one esteemed reviewer could flag up a new writer and launch their career are over.

AM: I think so, yes. Literature and the novel have been to some extent dislodged. I can see the day coming when the literary novel is going to be rather like poetry today. They’re stocked in ever smaller numbers. It’s the way book shops are going. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. One shouldn’t exaggerate it. A number of authors we think of as the great writers actually published in very small editions. Conrad for example. I was reading Andre Gide’s Journal the other day and he mentions a book he published in the 1890s. When it was republished he included in the new edition a publisher’s statement; on the original publication, 500 copies were made and it took ten years to sell out. In those days because of the centrality of literature you could make a reputation amongst the people who counted on small print runs and very small sales. Gide of course had a private income so it didn’t matter to him; it mattered a hell of a lot to Conrad.

SRB: Was there a certain type of book you favoured? Was there ‘an Allan Massie sort of book’ you found editors posting out to you for review?

AM: There probably was. For the most part, rather conventional novels, which I tend to think better than the experimental. Experimental is a difficult word to use as almost all novelists think their new novel is an experiment of some kind.

SRB: What would you have made of Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, had you been around then reviewing?

AM: I hope I would have seen something in them. I think I probably would. Joyce and Woolf were both famous, literary celebrities. Woolf isn’t that experimental. How I would have reacted say if I’d been sent Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury. I might have got stuck on the first part.

SRB: Of your generation of writers, there is only really yourself and William McIlvanney still around. Do you think yours was an underperforming generation of writers?

AM: I’m trying to think who else belongs to it. I don’t know about that, about underperforming. I think it’s easy nowadays for writers to drop out because publishers are always looking for the new thing. The middle ranking novelist is always in danger of being pushed aside. Many give up, particularly if they go into journalism. It takes a great deal of persistence to go on. One novel I think is terribly good is The Business Of Loving by Godfrey Smith. He wrote half a dozen novels and then he worked for the Sunday Times – and he stopped writing novels. The Business Of Loving came out in the early Sixties and it’s very good but it’s been forgotten because Smith didn’t go on writing. I’ve always found it useful, not just financially, to do both journalism and fiction. Even if you’re doing journalism, you have to go to your desk. Whereas if I was only writing novels there would be periods when I wouldn’t be writing anything and would find it hard to start again.

SRB: Although you’ve often spoken out on matters Scottish, you haven’t based many novels in Scotland. Is that because Scotland doesn’t provide a big enough stage?

AM: For some of the things I wanted to write, it didn’t. I quite often quote Hugh MacDiarmid’s line about how the problem with Scotland is that there isn’t any one worth killing. I would have thought that was one of the good things about Scotland. But if want to write something like The Death Of Men which deals with urban terrorism, I couldn’t realistically set that in Scotland.

SRB: When writing your Roman novels, have you had Scottish concerns in mind?

AM: Yes, Scottish or British concerns. The contemporary elements of the Roman novels, or the timeless element I’d rather say, is the link between public life and private life, and the damage that is done to private lives and characters by engagement with public life. What you have to give up in order to be a success publicly – that’s what Augustus is about. It’s probably the most successful of those books though not my favourite.

SRB: The Romans were of course proto-globalisers. Something you said recently interested me. You said, “One reason for the rise of Twentieth century nationalism is not because Scotland and England are different from each other but because of the uniformity of the culture…The mass media contribute to making everything the same – a national village – so that every high street is the same. This simulates the desire to say we’re ‘this’ as well; we’re not just Tesco shoppers”.

AM: It’s a very different sort of nationalism today. To be honest I think it’s a rational form of nationalism. There’s nothing emotional about it – okay, there’s strong emotions involved on the fringes of the SNP. Most of the time though it’s a question of, Do you think we could organise the state better if there was more self-government in Scotland? I think there is going to be more self-government in Scotland. We’re moving to some loose sort of British Isles confederacy, especially if they can persuade the Republic of Ireland to contribute in some way. And I’m quite happy with that.

SRB: It’s a rather bloodless sounding form of nationalism.

AM: No, it’s not romantic but I think it’s quite healthy.

SRB: Isn’t there a worry though that this peaceful blending and blanding of cultures will, you know, be good for people’s psyches but terrible for art. I’m thinking of Harry Lime’s speech in The Third Man about five hundred years of democracy and all they produced was the cuckoo clock.

AM: A little unfair on Switzerland. The cuckoo clock is of course no bad thing to have invented. [AM laughs]

Allan Massie
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
pp256 ISBN 9780297850694

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Annie Rogerson

WHEN I was a child my mother sent me to Sunday School hoping it would make me a happy, spirited youngster instead of the sullen one I’d become.

“Why can’t you be more like Annie Rogerson?” she would say. “Look how she goes walks with her mother, and sweeps the stairs and hangs out the washing without any arguments, unlike you who wouldn’t do a hand’s turn of work, not even if you were paid for it.”

“Yeah, and everybody laughs at her for being such a goody-two-shoes,” I said. “No way do I want to be like her.”

“I wouldn’t want my daughter laughed at,” said my mother, “on the other hand – ”

I walked out before she finished the sentence but had to smile. First, she wanted me to go walking with her, then to sweep the stairs and hang out washing. Next thing she’d be wanting me to take piano lessons, yet she didn’t want me to be laughed at, which would surely happen if the big shots at school got to hear of it. But it’s a fact that my mother is a snob. I had annoyed her by stopping going to Sunday School long ago, though she’s told me umpteen times that she didn’t believe in God. She’d say, “I’m what they call a Humanist. I go to church if I feel like it, and if not –”

Then she’d snap her fingers in the air like a Spanish dancer. I thought her a real pain in the neck, chopping and changing her mind about nearly everything. I was ashamed of her twittery laugh and how she couldn’t pass a shop window without admiring herself in it.

“Yes mum, you are beautiful,” I would say, then she’d tell me it was only because she was unsure of herself, not because she was conceited. I didn’t like the subject because I was always looking in mirrors too, hoping to see a better version of my long skinny body and head that was far too small.

“I wish you wouldn’t slouch,” she’d say when we went out together, so I added slouching to my list of bad points. I decided to be the ugliest person in the street except for my mother, who was small and dumpy with legs like a boxer’s. When we were out one day I spied some school acquaintances on the far side of the road and said, “I must go now.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Into that shop – I see someone I know.”

Before she could open her mouth I sped along the street and joined another gang of acquaintances, hoping anybody watching would think I was part of it. As if anybody cared, but that’s how I was in those days.

“I suppose you’re going to the annual school dance?” said my mother.

“Not if I can help it.”

“Oh but you must. I don’t want anyone thinking I can’t afford to buy you a dress. I’ll sew you one, and don’t worry. It will be in a modern style.”

“Then I’m definitely not going.”

“Annie Rogerson is going. Her mother told me.”

“Then that makes it certain that I won’t be.”

My mother nagged so much that I ended up by going and bumped into Annie also heading for the school hall. Of course from our point of view the dance was a failure. I stood at one end of the orange juice counter and Annie at the other. The only ones who came near us were some who ordered orange juice because they thought we were serving it. I wasn’t pleased when Annie Rogerson approached and whispered something in my ear. I was about to push her away when I saw she was pointing to the opening in her cheap-looking handbag, and inside was a half bottle of vodka that seemed to be full.

“Are you offering me some?” I said in a hushed voice.

“If you want.” she said. “You can take it with orange juice.”

I was surprised to see how expert she was at pouring some vodka into a paper cup then filling it up with juice.

“Do you always take vodka wherever you go?” I asked.

“Nearly always. Sometimes it’s other stuff.”

My admiration for her knew no bounds. We finished the vodka before a teacher appeared, and said, “What’s going on here?” and fished out the empty bottle.

“Somebody must have put it in my bag,” said Annie, all innocence. The teacher looked at us both intently, then said, “Come with me. I believe you are both drunk.”

Our parents were sent for and my mother went mad when we got home.

“To think of the showing up!” she moaned. “We’ll have to leave the district.”

“I don’t see why,” I said. “It was Annie who brought in the vodka. She must have slipped some into my orange juice when I wasn’t looking.”

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Of course I am. I wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.”

“Then I’ll have to see her parents about it,” said my mother. “I’m beginning to think they’re a funny lot. Her father’s a strange man to say the least. I heard he steals women’s knickers off the line.”

“At least she’s got a father,” I said, “which is more than I have.”

“Your father died in a coal mining accident, which is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Of course not, but I thought he died in a train disaster. That’s what you told me last time.”

“I don’t remember telling you any such thing. You must be mistaken.”

There was no point in arguing with her because she always won. She kept me indoors next day. I could easily have climbed out the bedroom window but why bother? There was nowhere to go. So I looked out of that window like a dumb dog waiting for its master, not seeing much beyond a line of greem council bins and wishing I was dead. Then I stiffened. I saw Annie Rogerson leave the back end of the close. I expected her to start sweeping the path which my mother said she was always doing, but instead she put a big black bottle into the bin. And it wasn’t a sauce bottle.

“How much vodka does she drink a day?” I wondered, then heard a man’s voice calling Annie ran back into the close.

Next day I was let out. It was Sunday and I decided to ask Annie if she’s like to come out and play with me – “Only if you want to,” I would add, in case she thought I’d become desperate. I knocked on her door but there was no answer, so I tiptoed away feeling thoroughly fed up. When Monday came I was almost glad to be going to school. I met Annie on the road and by way of conversation said, ‘I haven’t seen you around lately.”

‘I don’t go out much.”

“They tell me I was drunk at the school dance,” I said, deciding to take the bull by the horns.

“I never noticed,” she said.

“With all that vodka,” I added.

“What vodka?”

I was astonished by the cool way she denied all knowledge of it. She frowned for a moment, then her brow cleared. She said, “I remember taking medicine in the hall, I have an infection and have to take it every four hours or it will get worse.” I thought she was either mad of a very cunning liar.

“You must think I’m stupid,” I said and slapped her face.

She ran off crying. I never saw her at school again or even around the back green. I blamed myself for this but thought it didn’t make her less of a liar.

Then it was Sunday again, a rotten day for me at the best of times. Suddenly my mother burst ino the room and said, “Annie Rogerson’s father is in all the papers, accused of interfering with his daughter after giving her vodka and other stuff to knock her out.”

I digested this information for a minute then was sick on the carpet.

“My good carpet!” moaned by mother. “What have you been eating?”

I pushed past her and took a bath, trying not to think of Annie crying when I slapped her. Afterwards I sat looking out the window down towards the bins, wishing Annie would come out so that I could talk to her, maybe have a laugh with her at the idea of vodka being medicine. But I couldn’t have done that, it was too serious. The back green had a desolate look. Likely Annie’s house was empty.

“Come and get your breakfast,” I heard my mother shout.

“I’m not hungry,” I told her in the kitchen. “But I might as well go to Sunday School this afternoon. There’s nothing else to do.”

My mother clapped her hands.

“Oh I am so glad! Sunday School could be the making of you, for no matter what we say it’s always better to believe in God, don’t you think?” •

The Collected Stories of Agnes Owens will be published by Polygon in 2008

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