The People’s Act of Love
pp 400 ISBN 1841956546
REVIEWER: JAMES W. WOOD
In a recent review for the London Review of Books, James Meek describes the average novel in scathing terms, noting how too many English-language novelists suffer from a “languor which blights … the sense that nothing matters, the feeling of characters gazing at the world from within double-glazed, centrally-heated rooms.” He could hardly be accused of such a failure of ambition in The People’s Act of Love, which displays the full depth and range of his talents, as well as a gift for story-telling that makes this one of the best novels published for years.
Taking a familiar point in the history of the last century as his starting point, Meek displaces us by setting his history of post-revolutionary Russia not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in bleak Siberia. Stranger still, he offers the reader a town populated by a sect of castrates, or skoptsy, and stranded soldiers of the Czech legion, fighters for the Tsar now desperate to return home. This creates a place familiar to us in its mentions of Trotsky and the outcome of the October revolution, and yet belonging entirely to another world, a world in which shamanistic practices sit cheek by jowl with fanatical orthodox Christianity, a world in which one is never too sure what will happen next.
Nature plays its forbidding part, with brilliantly realised descriptions of its brooding power: “the northern lights appeared like a shower of dust falling through a gap in the field of stars.” Siberia’s alien snowfields are combined with the animal brutality of a period of revolution to great effect throughout – time and again, Meek contrasts his characters’ more tender feelings with the wild and unpredictable events they face.
These unforgiving powers are in evidence right from the start of the novel, when Samarin and Balashov meet by a remote rail-road. Some horses have been caught in the path of an oncoming train and die a horrific death: the forces embodied by Samarin and Balashov, of physical evil and unreal, abstracted spiritual good respectively, have collided. Meek’s description of the dying horses suggests as much: they are, “lunging madly towards the light,” “like punch-drunk boxers…so unlike Pegasus” – he evokes a kind of religious ecstasy in their death, the kind of ecstasy both the shamans and the castrates later put to powerful use.
This novel is full of journeys – the train journey taken by Anna and Balashov at the beginning of their tender marriage, ruined by Balashov’s decision to become a castrate “angel”; the Czech soldiers’ longing to make their journey home; the journey Anna makes from naïve middle-class girl before the revolution to sexually liberated, strong woman, or the journey made by Samarin as he slowly unveils his true nature as a force of destruction and evil.
Despite all the emotional distance covered, and the use of railways and carriages both as metaphors and as means of travel, all of the characters are physically trapped in the town of Yazyk and unable to leave, except in their imaginations. Samarin takes us to pre-revolutionary Russia when he describes how he was arrested under suspicion of terrorism in 1915; Balashov and Anna both remember their affair, and their earlier lives, through recollection and in Balashov’s letter to Anna, discovered by Samarin.
It’s as if the Russian revolution, and the turmoil it evokes, renders any movement – either physical or emotional – impossible. Meek’s work brilliantly evokes an atmosphere of stasis which is punctuated by news from afar when Trotsky congratulates the Red forces on capturing Yazyk, or when Masaryk orders the Czech soldiers home. The world is moving on, somewhere far away from Siberia, and the only ways out are either to escape physically, or to develop spiritually – the ex stasia ceremonies of both the native Shamans and the cult of castrates show how the emotional conflicts of revolution can be escaped, if not its physical difficulties.
In the end, it is an action by the supposedly inert – a sword blow from the soldier turned castrate Balashov – that breaks this impasse. Meek suggests that both extreme devotion to matters of the spirit and a dumb credence in physical reality are ultimately insufficient: to live full lives, we must combine the evidence of the senses with our spiritual natures, as the castrate Skripach remarks to the Czech soldier Mutz: “You have sense. We have only faith” – and neither is sufficient. To describe James Meek’s novel in these terms, though, risks painting him as a dull moralist: and this thoughtful, lively and sensitive novel succeeds precisely because it is not overtly moralising, but constantly discovering dilemmas, in the sense that its narrative is an exploration of the difficulties we all face in trying to decide whom we should trust, and why, and what we should do to make things better, both for ourselves and for those around us.
pp.304 ISBN 184018955
REVIEWER: JOHN BURNSIDE
“The painter brings his body with him first and foremost,” says Paul Valery; and there are few contemporary artists to whom this applies more than John Bellany. For the painter, the body is not only his primal source – a repository of his own, and his people’s history – but also his principal instrument of navigation. What Bellany has created in his life’s work is, according to John McEwen, “an epic art testifying to an epic voyage” because, as Bellany himself has said: “I love to paint, whatever I am painting. At heart, however, I am a mariner.”
Born in Port Seton, into a family of fishermen and boatbuilders, Bellany is, of course, a mariner by blood and upbringing; it is also true that the sea, and our efforts to navigate and survive it, have been the perennial subjects of his work. Yet his vision is anchored in the human body and, even in its most epic manifestations, his work originates in a profound awareness of the strength and tenderness of human flesh and, consequently, in the conviction that, as one of his Royal College classmates notes, “Art should be about big subjects like life and death, good and evil.”
In making epic art of any value or substance, what is needed is an appreciation of the individual, the local, the intimate, the fleeting. Indeed, the drama of the quotidian lies at the core of epic art, just as it does in the case of the lyric – and the central truth of the quotidian is the incontrovertible fact of death, a fact with which Bellany grew up: “Dread of death was forcibly impressed on him in Eyemouth [where Bellany lived during WW2] by the graveyard behind Home Street. In his childhood it was a wasteland, a haunting place, where fetching a football was an ordeal: “Talk about death – I had it right there at my bedroom window…People were always getting drowned. There was always that dread. You’d listen to the weather forecast and if there was a force-eight gale neighbours would be out asking, ‘Is such and such a boat in?’”
So, when we consider Bellany’s antecedents and possible influences, this childhood awareness of death is significant. His early interest in Max Beckmann’s work is noted in John Russell’s introduction to this beautifully illustrated biographical study, but it is a remark Bellany made when he left college that reveals most about his inspiration: “As a parting gesture from Edinburgh he was awarded a major travelling scholarship, which he spent with Helen [his wife] in the Low Countries, not ‘to produce two or three pretty Dutch landscapes or drawings of broken-down castles, but to view the work of great masters,’ as he explained in a letter to [painter and friend Sandy] Moffat. In fact he did enough work in situ to earn him an exhibition at Dromidaris Gallery, Enkhausen, during his stay in Holland, his first commercial gallery. But it was seeing Breughel, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and the other Flemish and Dutch masters which made the trip so memorable.”
Bellany puts it best: “The faith in the northern European tradition wasn’t words, wasn’t theory, it was actually real. It linked with the best in Scottish art. Wilkie’s Pitlessie Fair might have been by Jan Steen. So I found we weren’t out on a limb after all. What had Pop Art to do with us? There are hardly any billboards in Scotland! What had blank canvases got to do with us? So we stuck to our guns and the culture we had come from; and that included the literature, of course.”
This passage is the key to Bellany’s aesthetic, which is grounded in the great, figurative northern tradition and, at the same time, sidesteps the concerns of fashion, to remain true to its physical origins. The apparent dismissal of Pop and Minimalism is not a refusal to experiment, or even a rejection of those approaches in the work of others, it is purely a matter of honesty and a determination to follow, and renew, the ‘northern tradition’. What Bellany’s work reveals, from the Kinlochbervie of 1966 (a masterpiece, not only of Scottish, but of European painting) to the Tsunami series painted in 2005, is a singular merging of vigour and compassion that can only emerge from keeping faith with one’s roots. The painter brings his body with him first and foremost – and it is the body which is the voyage, it is the body with which the world is navigated and remapped. For this reason alone, John McEwen’s monograph is a timely reminder of Bellany’s genius, not only for an ‘epic’ art, but also for work of sublime intimacy, in which a great modern master conducts honest and unflinching explorations of what Geoffrey Hill called the “tenderness of the damned for their own flesh.”
SORT OF BOOKS, £6.99
pp.180 ISBN 0954221745
REVIEWER: RUARIDH NICOLL
On a bright, still February morning, Kathleen Jamie climbed Edin-burgh’s Calton Hill to set up her telescope under the old observatory. She was aware of how seldom we look up, but also knew that it’s at the pinnacles of our buildings that we place our civic aspirations. She found stars that signalled regeneration, cockerels for St Peter, and a hope-suggesting pelican turned green above the Royal Infirmary, a building being handed over to developers.
Findings is a book of treasures. It is a book that had made me want to hoard all my praise so that I can spend it with abandon on Jamie’s head. In these pages, Jamie pauses. Sometimes she pauses in Orkney, sometimes in the exhibit room of Surgeon’s Hall, sometimes on a boat off the west coast. All she requires though is her own kitchen window. There she removes herself from the hubbub of being a mother and a spouse to watch two falcons go about their lives on a cliff-face south of the Tay: “The male peregrine was there today, sitting side-on, glumly inspecting his feet. He lifted first one yellow talon then the other, like one who has chewing gum on his shoe.”
Recently I heard the art critic Mel Gooding quote Levi Strauss on cities. Apparently the anthropologist said that cities were not only great works of art but also great works of nature. Gooding’s argument was that we have to stop separating ourselves from nature, “that old Cartesian duality” he called it. He said we needed to think ourselves back in.
Jamie is already there. The troubles of a life shared with others – her concerns over a husband’s illness and a grandmother’s growing frailty – are worked through while watching the labour of spiders under her eaves, or by wondering at the frailty of a prehistoric ruin atop a crumbling stack in Lewis.
She has WG Sebald’s ear for the poetry of passing life. At one point, while still on Lewis and thinking about the Sabbath, she writes of a friend furious at the idea of a minute’s silence for the victims on 9/11, someone who snarled that if the “silence-keepers” kept a minute for all the children who die of starvation and poverty every day, then the “world would be hushed forever.” Jamie’s compromise was that we string just a few of those minutes together, and then, “perhaps we would feel less imperilled.”
Jamie is a poet, of course, and a very good one. She should be better known, so that reading her does not feel like standing in the middle of one’s own country and straining to hear a quiet voice out there among the clamour of the better known. She has a care for words that allows her to reflect what her eyes see and her heart feels directly onto the page. The result is that Findings does nothing so grand as attempt to throw literature forward. Instead it adds to our understanding of our country, and offers a moment of beauty.
The art critic Gooding had been speaking on the future of our landscape, a discussion prompted by billboards of wind turbines that the artists, Dalziel and Scullion, have placed around Britain. He said that politicians could do little to stop us believing that nature was something for us to exploit to destruction. “We need a refashioning of our consciousness of being on the earth,” he said. “Anthropologists, scientists, philosophers and artists, these are the people who can lay the ground for a new politics. And if they don’t lay the ground quick enough, we are doomed.”
It was odd to hear that cry, and then open the pages of this book. Here Jamie is looking at the body parts that sit in neat lines along the shelves of Surgeon’s Hall and considering what future they have in our technological age: “We consider the natural world as ‘out there’ and ‘environment’, but these objects in their jars show us the forms concealed inside, the intimate unknown, and perhaps that is their new function. Part art gallery, part church for secular contemplatives. ‘In the midst of this city, you think you are removed from nature’, they say – ‘but look within’.”
On the summit of Calton Hill, Jamie turned her telescope to the clock on the Balmoral Hotel, and it filled the lens. She watched the minute hand’s constant movement. “To see it magnified was to suffer a moment’s panic, a horrible sensation that life and time is running away.” I felt much the same as I approached the end of this wonderful book. It’s easy to forget the value of a moment of pure joy, what a true gift it is. I’ll be astonished if I enjoy a book more this year.
Dacha Mo Ghaoil
pp124 ISBN 190690161
REVIEWER: AONGHAS MACNEACAIL
THE Gaelic reader has been singularly lucky of late. We’ve always had our poets, the 20th century producing many distinguished figures including, of course, the internationally renowned Sorley MacLean, but prose fiction has been much thinner on the ground until recently; a beautiful novel by Nor-man Campbell, funny and elegaic, in the 70s and a superb collection of short stories from John Murray around the same time, with Iain Crichton Smith – whose serious work was being done in English – contributing a few books, sums up the body of twentieth-century Gaelic fiction for adults.
But now, with the Ur-Sgeul project, financed by the new Bord na Gaidhlig and the Scottish Arts Council administered Writers’ Factory fund, there’s the beginning of a flood of novels and short story collections. So far, we’ve had two powerful novels from Angus Peter Campbell, one of those shortlisted for a Saltire Book of the Year Award, while Martin MacIntyre, whose excellent short stories won the First Book Award, is working on a novel. Each fresh publication has added a genuinely new dimension to this small but growing corpus of work, and with several commissions in the stocks, there’s more to come.
The latest entry to the field, Nor-man Maclean, is an old hand, ken-speckle as a versatile entertainer well beyond Gaeldom, but also a published writer in Gaelic with two previous novels to his credit. Cumhnantan – Contracts – which appeared in 1996, drew with caustic wit, on his experience of working in television, on both sides of the camera. Two years later, in a darker work, Keino he explored questions of guilt and redemption through the relationship between a restless school-teacher Hector, who wants to travel abroad, and an older traveller woman, Elizabeth, whose unloved husband provides the catharsis.
Maclean’s new book enters yet another narrative plane, that of the wonderfully persuasively improbable. The premise which gives the plot its keel is, he assures us, based on a genuine conversation he had with an old friend, who entertained the vision of an ostrich farm in North Uist, employing young ladies from Eastern Europe, who would double as lap-dancers providing other services as might be expected from those skilled in such arts. And if the dream of Seoras Phadraig Chaluim Ruaidh, dedicatee of Dacha Mo Ghaoil, (My Beloved Dacha/Home – the pun is implicit in the title), was never realised in fact, it is fully realised in comic and colourful imagination in this novel.
Those who have seen Norman Maclean’s act will know that he is a many of many voices: he has the raconteur’s gift of being able to enter the persona of each character he brings to the stage. It’s done through turn of phrase, inflection, gesture. This narrative shorthand provides the necessary clues for his audience to be able to complete the picture. Similarly, his novels, none of which exceeds 130 pages, draw the reader into what appears to be a vividly depicted, and utterly believable, world.
Thus we are persuaded that a pair of feckless young men from South Uist, Calum and Davie, could be enticed, by the older and more worldly Duncan, whose business dealings err on the side of shady, into a scam whereby they will, for a suitable fee, enter marriages of convenience with a couple of redoubtable Russians, Tanya and Tamara.
Calum, the more ambitious of the two, has his own plans, investing his cash in a cargo of illicit venison, to be driven – ripening by the minute – to Hamburg and exchanged, in Amsterdam, for eight “Nine-bars” of best Nepalese. Davie’s dreams are more modest – a place of his own and reliable transport, the better to attract women.
What neither they nor Duncan bargain with is the Avenging Angel who will descend upon them, bringing all their aspirations to nought. Margaret MacCorquodale, Edinburgh lawyer of Uist background, is a feisty lady, with a couple of underhand tricks up her own sleeve. A key weapon in her armoury is a particularly fearsome Lewis heavy, Murdo MacIver, otherwise “The Elder”. Unfortunately for her, he’s fallen out with his church and arrives at Balivanich airport with an unslakeable thirst, to which he duly adds a penchant for ganja.
MacIver is but one of a sheaf of beautifully observed larger than life figures lending the weight of truth to a story that, by any reasonable measure, would be seen as implausible. By giving each of his characters, even those taking little more than cameo roles, an essential humanity, Maclean stretches them beyond caricature. They are fashion conscious, they drive, or aspire to, modern cars: this is no quaint Brigadoon. By his attention to the detail of each moment focussed on, he gives us a sense of seeing them as they are. And what they are is not very attractive people.
Maclean’s achievement as a storyteller is to draw us into empathy with such a dubious bunch of rogues and shysters, whose vulnerabilities redeem them, while the redoubtable Margaret, sweeping all amorally before her, conspires to win our grudging admiration for her own criminal bravura. The story is told with characteristic persuasiveness and wit, providing regular belly-laughs along the way. The language is subtle and vivid, engaging always with the potential in the moment. This is comedy of a high order but with a dark and resonant undertow. Norman Maclean’s bleak assessment of the human condition will endure long after the laughter has subsided.
FABER AND FABER: £10.99
pp.271 ISBN 0571226272
REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS
From a mother’s indifference, it can take a child years to recover; from a mother’s love, it can take a lifetime.
Abe Stone’s mother Evelyn harangues her son with a love as hot as hate, and the reader can surmise that a goodly chunk of his woes derives from this ambiguity. Not even death can cool her temper or blunt her tongue, for she continues to hector poor Abe from beyond the grave with a series of revelatory letters. Oedipus wrecks, indeed.
Rodge Glass’ debut novel, No Fireworks, begins with Evelyn’s death after a long illness. “If you were a real man, you would kill me off,” she tempts her only child before she passes away. After decades of devout secularism and criticism of the state of Israel, Eve-lyn has counter-intuitively arranged an Orthodox Jewish burial for herself, performed by a rabbi set on converting Abe. AVAILABLE 24 HOURS (APART FROM SHABBAT!) – NO DOUBT TOO BIG OR SMALL reads the rabbi’s business cards.
The sins of the mother have been revisited upon Abe, insofar as he’s a wreck, who has in turn fathered his own vibrating bundle of neurosis and self-delusion. A self-confessed philanderer and veteran of three marriages, the sixty-one-year-old Abe has been off work for six months at the time of the novel’s beginning, laid out by a malign cocktail of asthma, eczema, stress, depression, and insomnia. He’s also an alcoholic with a nice sideline in self-loathing: “I wanted nothing more dearly than to destroy my body. I wanted to scratch, bite, and rip at my flesh until I was nothing but a pile of pain-free organs.”
His son Nathan is in a fragile condition himself. His wife and the stepmother of his teenage daughter Lucille leaves him after the funeral, pushed away by Nathan’s inability to admit that the arid state of their savings isn’t the result of “bank gremlins” but of his gambling addiction. The irony is that he was – at least until he lost his job – a psychiatrist.
Following the repossession of Nathan’s home, Abe has invited his son’s family to stay in his and Eve-lyn’s roomy house, an act of kindness for which Nathan cannot forgive his father. “Why do you act as if I ruined your life?” Abe asks. “Why don’t you show me you haven’t?” Nathan responds, or rather retaliates, thus breaking the sensible rule that, unless you were sexually or mentally abused as a child, you really can’t blame your parents for the state of your life past the age of 25. The nerviness of the house’s inhabitants appears to be contagious. Even sensible Lucille, previously billed as the hope of the Stones, gets herself expelled after she stabs another pupil in the hand, for reasons she won’t share. Talk about sick building syndrome.
Into this combustible mix arrives Evelyn’s letters apparently from the great beyond to confuse matters further. It is ironic that Abe’s postponed profession is that of a history teacher – the equally multi-married Henry VIII is something of an obsession – for the letters reveal what he thought he knew about his family history is a fiction. Why the truth now? “I am determined somehow to make you into a man,” Evelyn writes, a true ghostwriter you might say. Although dead, she’s resolved to do it in the manner mothers have throughout history, by nagging. “You got older but did not grow up,” she accuses, which may yet serve as the baby boomer generation’s epitaph.
The 27-year-old Glass avoids many of the faults of first time fiction, chiefly in that the story does not obviously seem traced from the lines of his own life nor does he deform plot in order to editorialise. If his writing style eschews stylistic flair for soberly crafted prose – no fireworks, indeed – in its occasional ribaldry, collapsing male ego, and charting of the British Jewish experience, Glass brings to mind Howard Jacobson, although Glass is less interested in milking his dilemmas for comedy. Instead, he soberly explores the interaction between the three contemporary deltas from which flows that fragile project, identity: race, religion, and family.
Jewishness fuses all three components, and it is on the question of his heritage that Abe vacillates; he wobbles between denying it has any significance and acknowledging its ineluctable nature. “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” Evelyn’s leather-tough love however can only take him part of the way towards the answer. He has to find the rest himself. Perhaps Abe would be as well to heed the young charity shop worker he befriends whose advice is applicable sooner or later to all children, young and old. “In the end, you’ve got to stop listening to your parents, don’t you think? Respect them, yes, but stop listening.”
pp.256 ISBN 1841584177
REVIEWER: ROSS LECKIE
It is a staggering phenomenon. Sales of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code will soon outstrip, they say, those of the Bible. Worldwide the Grail industry will soon be worth more than the GDP of even our smart, successful Scotland. Not since Macpherson invented Ossian has Scottish publishing had anything much to be opportunistic about. So all credit to Birlinn and to Andrew Sinclair for seeking, with this supposed history of the chapel made so seminal by Dan Brown, some space in the sun.
How much hay will they make? The grass of this book, the latest of Sinclair’s several contributions to a burgeoning crop, was cut too soon. A typical inference, and as far as I know a novel one as well, is that Leonardo at least influenced the construction of Rosslyn. After all, Sinclair reveals, the “final builder” of Rosslyn Chapel, Sir Oliver Sin-clair, “was a contemporary of Leonardo.” There. That will do. If it won’t, then remember that “Leonardo da Vinci had been brought from Italy to complete his final building works in châteaux along the Loire.” Yes, the Loire is closer to Lothian than Italy. But therefore Leonardo contributed to Rosslyn? Sorry, no. Then wait. “Around 1490 [Leonardo] drew a sketch for an octagon supporting the dome of a church …” Within milliseconds we have moved from Rosslyn as planned in 1447 by William Sinclair – a cruciform collegiate church, standard for its epoch – to Rosslyn as a new Temple of Solomon, a Tardis of its time, and so on.
Such speed and spurious supposition characterise the whole book, which moves with a restless, breathless intensity and a Herodotean incredulity – with less charm. It takes us, or tries to, from Crete to Cairo and from bulls’ testicles to Knights Templar in less time than it took Mel Gibson to cry ‘Freedom!’ in the equally spurious Braveheart. From “the Trojan War to King Arthur’s Camlann” and valiantly on, here we have Scot-land’s whole history, with Rosslyn and Sinclairs of course at its core, done as it were by the Reduced Shakespeare Company – without the humour or self-deprecation.
You could just enjoy the tour. After all, in an often bewildering world, it is reassuring to be reminded that “Robert the Bruce personally [my italics] stabbed John Comyn”. To read some of this stuff, though, you need sunglasses. Here, for example, is part of what Sinclair says about Rosslyn’s Apprentice Pillar: “Eight great Worms or Shamirs … comprised the number of points and the shape of the Cross of the Knights of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, who knew of the Shamir when they named the Dome of the Rock as the Temple on its original site in Jerusalem, before its tradition and its symbolism were brought to Scotland.” Quite.
If this is bemusing, other traits are plain annoying. Sinclair refers repeatedly to “the ancient Scottish Rite”. Of what? He should say, and not have this apostate of a reviewer for one scrabbling for Albert Pike’s work of 1871, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Sinclair’s subsequent assertion, that “the Ameri-can revolution was also inspired by”, yes, “the ancient Scottish Rite” would be interesting at most, had it not already been done to death by Baigent and Leigh’s book The Temple and the Lodge.
Mistakes are many, as we must expect in work of this derivative and synthetic kind. Yet when there is so much we do not know, the devil is all the more in the detail. With or without the Grail, false premises lead to false conclusions. And so in this case it is not a piece of pedantry to point out, for example, that the ancient Greek word Klaros doesn’t mean “a method of prophecy”. If Sinclair meant Klarosis, even it means “a choosing by lot”.
There are good things here, nonetheless – when Sinclair stops making premature silage. I enjoyed and learned much from Chapter Seven, which advocates the provoking point that “in front of the changes of cultures, there has been the advance of weapons.” And Chapter Twelve says things of value about the botanical aspects of Rosslyn, “a graven guide to the Bible through a walled paradise in stone.”
Meanwhile Sinclair is no sycophant. “The Da Vinci Code is only a thriller, using a mishmash of esoteric texts, often wrongly, to create a tragic farce about the Grail.” So let me be as bold. In 1998 I reviewed a book called The Templar Revelation. I said I thought it was bunkum; I am still getting hate-mail. Oh well, here we go again. This time though, because I am at least a patriot if not a Rosicrucian, I hope the book sells well, bringing some sun to Scotland and to Rosslyn’s silent stones.
Last Chance to Eat
pp.256 ISBN 1840189606
REVIEWER: JOANNA BLYTHMAN
In a world where people are bombarded with information about food and nutrition, we benefit from listening to those commentators who take a long view. Much in the area of food politics and diet is cyclical. One minute its pesticides, or chemically-hardened vegetable fat – and their effects on human health – that top the agenda, then these fade into the background as headlines are grabbed by concerns about genetically modified food or food additives. Canadian journalist Gina Mallet tries to make sense of this ebb and flow of anxiety in what is an illuminating and mainly well-researched book (even if it is a slightly strange hybrid) about the provenance of our food.
On the one hand the book is a memoir that covers growing up in wartime Oxfordshire and Mallet’s travels in France. She can remember when traditional varieties of strawberries like Duke and Sovereign were grown only in season. Placed on the ‘Strawberry Special’ train, they were rushed to Covent Garden for despatch to greengrocers and wholesale markets, reminding us of how life was before almost every strawberry was an under-ripe Elsanta and sold in a supermarket.
There are evocative, lip-licking accounts of life-changing meals, such as a memorable experience in the Languedoc where she savoured a perfect omelette cooked ‘baveuse’ (creamy insides, smooth and tanned outside) with good ‘frites’ and salad leaves “wilted away in a light vinaigrette,” followed by an unassuming chestnut mousse made from local chestnut flour. Mallet has a talent for sensuously describing food without resorting to pretentious drooling, giving her writing some of the appeal of Elizabeth David’s.
On the other hand, Last Chance To Eat deals with wider food insights gleaned from a working life spent in North America as a restaurant critic and food writer. Potentially this is an oil and water liaison, but she manages to pull it off, the food appreciation leavening the text when the food politics might make it heavy. Mallet’s contention is that good food is under siege from industrial food production, which, amongst other sins, has made chicken “a limping disaster” and vegetables “telegenic but tough”. She decries large supermarket chains as “the single greatest threat to the taste of food” and illustrates graphically how the emergence of “healthism” and the modern war against bacteria (often based on dubious, interest group-led science) has made pariahs of many previously valued foods.
She traces how butter and eggs were demonised when cholesterol was labelled the new dietary antichrist. Then it emerged that the whole low-fat “health consensus” was shaky to say the least, since consumption of cholesterol in food has little or no bearing on blood cholesterol levels. In the rush away from traditional unprocessed foods like these, a trusting public fell into the arms of the low-fat industry, who made a mint out of low-cholesterol products like margarine based on hydrogenated (chemically-hardened) vegetable oils and waxed packs of cholesterol-free egg whites. Surprise, surprise, the wheel has come full circle. Scientists have now shown that these alien fats are worse for you than the fat in butter or eggs because they produce trans-fats that have now been convincingly linked with heart disease and cancer.
There is a certain pleasing irony in this book when Mallet reflects back on the food scare saga around wooden chopping boards, condemned – after centuries of traditional usage – as potentially lethal reservoirs of bacterial contamination. People threw out their old chopping boards and replaced them with modern plastic ones, which microbiologists insisted were much more hygienic. Then further scientific research found that wood has its own anti-pathogens which fight against threatening microbes, making it much more effective than plastic on which pathogenic bacteria flourished unless kept in pristine new condition.
For a writer who has such a profound understanding and respect for the roots of good food, traditional artisan knowledge and expertise, Mallet shows a certain naivety on two subjects. She seems to be arguing – although she never makes a clear case in favour of it – for genetic modification of food. She dismisses the environmental concerns around the farming of salmon, offering up fish farming as the answer to the depletion of wild fish stocks. These attitudes put her at odds with the environmental food lobby and seem somewhat inconsistent given her healthy scepticism about the food industry and bogus science. You sense that her understanding of the detail of food debates is less profound when it comes to more complex subjects. The format of the book, which allows her to dip in and out of subjects and travel back and forth in time makes it slightly frustrating at times with some subjects suffering from a too superficial treatment. All in all though, it’s a thought-provoking and engaging read.
A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and the Glenlivet Became Global Icons
F Paul Pacult
JOHN WILEY AND SONS: £16.99
pp.290 ISBN 0471662712
REVIEWER: TOM MORTON
First impressions of this book are not good. It has the reek of a subsidised brand booster about it: there’s the subtitle, punting Chivas Regal and Glenlivet to the front of those distilleries’ visitor centre bookshelves; and there’s the foreword by the chief executive of Pernod Ricard, who own the Chivas and Glenlivet brands.
The aftertaste is a disappointment too. Only in the last few pages does the reader catch a glimpse of what might have been: the deadly rivalry between the two biggest selling Scotch whisky brands in the USA, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, would have made a better, more convincing literary coupling. One never quite escapes the sense that Chivas Regal and Glenlivet are being written about because they happen to be owned by the same company.
Having said that, Double Scotch is wittily written and well researched. The larger-than-life characters involved in this almost two-century old saga leap from the page, bristling with guns, criminality, chutzpah, brutal energy and, in at least one case, moronic greed-is-good hubris. Oh, and there is the tale of the donkey ordered up by Queen Victoria’s household. This has to be the only book about whisky which hints at the possibility of bestiality at Balmoral.
George Smith was one of many illegal distillers in Glenlivet in the early years of the nineteenth century, but he became a pioneer of licensed production. Not, as Pacult carefully points out (he has an eye for detail, drama and the salacious) the first licensed distiller in Scot-land, but someone whose recognition of the fiscal advantages to be gained from an accommodation with the government marked him out as both a visionary and a very brave man indeed. Glenlivet had become a generic name for the best Highland whisky, boosted hugely by the partiality of the kilted King George IV for the cratur during his infamous visit to Edinburgh in 1822. But it was the determination of Smith to produce The Glenlivet which brought him success. And trouble.
“The laird of Aberlour had presented me with a pair of hair-trigger pistols for ten guineas,” Smith said in 1868, “and they were never out of my belt for years.” The battle was with local smugglers, or illegal distillers, who were determined to put him out of business permanently or sometimes just rob him of his stocks.
The “smuggler’s road” between Braemar and Blairgowrie was a legendarily hazardous route, and it was there Smith had occasion to fire at attackers. Sometimes the threat of retaliation was enough. While sleeping in the inn at Spittal of Glenshee, Smith was woken by a gang of desperate smugglers led by a thug named Shaw. Drawing a knife, Shaw told Smith that “this gully is for your bowels.” What happened next was a kind of nineteenth century Reservoir Dogs stand-off, with Shaw’s knife countermanded by one of Smith’s flintlocks. The situation was resolved by Smith firing his other pistol into the fireplace, scaring his assailants out of the room.
By contrast, the story of Chivas Regal began in less bloody fashion, with the development of the two Chivas Brothers grocers’ shops in Aberdeen, and the consequent in-house whisky blending operation. The shops’ royal warrant not only lent credibility to the various Chivas blends, eventually including the luxury Chivas Regal, but led to all sorts of requests from Balmoral for “special goods,” including the infamous donkey. Which Pacult is at pains to point out, was in fact harnessed to a cart used to carry Victoria about the grounds.
Yet it is the story of Chivas brothers’ acquisition by Canadian company Seagrams which throws up perhaps the most fascinating character in the book – someone arguably even more dynamic than George Smith. Samuel Bronfman, of Orthodox Jewish and Russian descent, became one of the most feared and respected spirits barons in the world. Strong executives would throw up at the very rumour ‘Mr Sam’ was in the building. Pacult tries but cannot quite pin down the rumour that Bronfman’s fortunes, like Joseph Kennedy’s, stemmed directly from supplying spirit to American crime bosses during prohibition. The circumstantial evidence, though, seems overwhelming. Bronfman bought Chivas, and quickly turned the whisky, through brilliant advertising, into America’s biggest selling luxury blended Scotch.
It was Bronfman’s son Edgar who masterminded the acquisition of The Glenlivet, but his grandson, Edgar Junior, who threw the whole company into freefall by an ill-advised, some would say crazy, obsession with the movie and theme park industry. As Mr Sam said: “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Under Pernod Ricard, the two brands have been nurtured, by a Scottish-based management, into potentially world-beating condition once more. Hence the ongoing battle between Glenlivet and Glen-fiddich for international dominance. Though without pistols or knives involved. Yet.
In the end, the book sprints rather too speedily towards its conclusion, but remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Pacult’s style, phenomenal ear for the telling anecdote and sheer joie de vivre carries it, and the book had the desired effect. Glenlivet has always been my favourite Speyside malt, and part of the fee for this review has already been spent on a bottle of 12-year-old. That brand boosting works.
The Incredible Adam Spark
pp.240 ISBN 0755326458
REVIEWER: AJAY CLOSE
This is the latest in an honourable line of attempts to bring spoken urban Scots to the page. Considerable ingenuity has been expended. If you’re the sort of reader who cracks a smile at “drexion” (direction), “jyools” (jewels) and “zif” (as if), then this is the book for you. Alternatively, you may find yourself thinking that received punctuation – for all its culturally imperialist baggage – is less oppressive than declaring a fatwa on the comma. A novel has to be very engaging indeed to overcome a first few pages as laborious in the reading as these.
Adam Spark – or rather, adam spark, or sparky – likes listening to Queen (queen) and sliding downstairs on a tea-tray. The politically correct label is “learning difficulties” or “special needs”; on the streets of Falkirk they say “spastic” and “mongol”. sparky lives with his big sister jude, their parents having gone to “oz” (not down under: six feet under). He has the body of a man and the mind of a child, but a child with random moments of poetic insight: an idiot savant in the tradition of Forrest Gump and Chancey Gardner.
Although this is an extravagantly written novel, its true genre is Hollywood sentimentalism. sparky is a mirror held up to the nature of our age, and quite sinister at times, but ultimately the reader exhales a big soppy awwww. He subjects shop assistants to sexual and racial harassment, gets involved in gang fights, shoplifts, sets fires, exposes himself to security cameras and generally behaves like the archetypal ned. He also suspects he may be a superhero. Terrified of being left to fend for himself, he attacks jude’s lesbian girlfriend, maryann. We start to wonder what else he might be capable of. Harming his sister? Killing a child? The story seems about to take an interesting turn but soon reverts to heartwarming fable. Working at a burger joint, sparky meets bonnie, his ideal girlfriend: a sweetie with cystic fibrosis and big breasts. Being a reflection of contemporary masculine selfishness and emotional inadequacy, he nearly blows it, but the happy ending is never in doubt.
Thankfully, you get used to the spelling and punctuation – i mean-tay say i did. Then cars and grilling machines start addressing our hero in cod-Greek. Actually it’s just the letters that look Greek: the words are decipherable if you squint while moving the page in and out of focus. Presumably these typographical games have a purpose: the reader lets go of preconceptions and looks at the world afresh, coming closer to the character’s perspective. If you haven’t thrown the book out of the window first. Only you can’t do that because it’s a sympathetic portrait of a man with learning difficulties, and if you find it intolerably exasperating what does that say about you?
What you can say is the writing smacks a little too much of a self-conscious tour de force for sparky and the novel’s first-person narrative voice to be one and the same. Sometimes they match: I had no trouble believing in sparky, under pressure, feeling “like theres a terrier in ma brain thats no had its tea.” And I loved maryann making “a face like shes showin ye howtay work a dyson” as jude demonstrates that she wasn’t kissing her friend a moment before, just inspecting her earrings… But there are moments when we could only be listening to the ventriloquising of a creative writing tutor: butch Jude, given a sequined dress, “xaminin it like it was an antique or special or cursed or burst”; sparky telling bonnie that he squeezed his pet mouse to death because “i deserved it.” And sometimes Alan Bissett doesn’t bother throwing his voice: he just stands at the chalkboard with a pointer.
sparky can be pressed into service as a metaphor for just about anything. The idiosyncratically local threatened by American homogenization. White western ignorance and prejudice. Small nation grandiosity. Class anxiety. The crisis of masculinity. Seven-stone weakling Britain joining bully Bush’s war on Iraq. The moral vacuum at the heart of contemporary culture.
In fairness, this is more an irritated review than a damning one. Bissett has written an ambitious novel with much to admire. sparky is a terrific character. Jude’s mixed feelings for him – love and desperation at being trapped as his carer – are movingly portrayed. A less po-faced reader will find plenty of laughs. Bissett is unlucky in having to follow Jonathan Lethem’s take on the bullied-boy-turns-superhero theme, the spellbinding Fortress of Solitude. By comparison, sparky’s superpowers seem little more than a gimmick: a sugar-coating for all that sociology. The Incredible Adam Spark is too weighted down by his multiple metaphoric significance ever to fly.
JONATHAN CAPE: £16.99
pp.288 ISBN 0224073516
REVIEWER: JENNIE RENTON
Aficionados of revenge, and even those who only dream of it, will love the exquisite, slow-burn tension that infuses Jane Stevenson’s Good Women. She is on sparkling form with ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Walking With Angels’ and ‘Garden Guerrillas’, a deliciously vicious triangle of witty novellas linked by the theme of revenge.
Stevenson is sophisticated and irrepressibly playful. A spirited observer of human drives and delusions, she has a full-blooded relish for the stranger territories of the psyche. She has chosen very different settings for each of these revenge tales, which unfold with the claustrophobic inevitability of psychological thrillers. A trio of moral defectives delivers the narratives, the most unpleasant of whom is victim rather than perpetrator. All are experts in one way or another, and are at their most fascinating when expanding on their pet subjects, be it restoring a sixteenth-century Scottish tower house, channelling angels, or creating a horticultural hell.
Funny and sharp, Stevenson’s style is inimitably her own, although her approach carries resonances of Roald Dahl, Margery Allingham, Evelyn Waugh and Patricia Highsmith. The latter’s Strangers on a Train is obliquely referenced in ‘Light My Fire’, a tale of lust and folly narrated with gratifyingly bitter 20-20 hindsight by an architect who specialises in upmarket restorations. On the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, his eyes rove with increasing alertness over the woman seated opposite, taking in “the intensely feminine quality of her presence.” He defines her as “the kind of woman who made herself into a challenge simply by existing in the same space”, implying that it’s her fault he succumbs to her Praying Mantis charms. It doesn’t take him long to bed then wed “Foxy Freda”, the wife from hell.
Divested of his comfortable domestic menage and the contacts it brought his business, he sinks his depleted capital into a crumbling tower house with potential. Here the tone moves into ironic lifestyle pornography: we’re talking deceptively large, property ladder, top of the range look-alike. Corners have to be cut, but he knows all the tricks of the trade. Our incorrigible chauvinist declares Freda congenitally inferior when it comes to the taste-palette, however well she can coat distressed furniture with gesso. In the end it’s hard to tell whether a defective Aga or the trollop – sorry, “bitch from hell” – is his nemesis. Either way, this smug man is taken down a peg or two. It’s hard not to cheer.
Revenge is said to be sweet, but that’s not the message of the hilarious central novella, in which a quintessentially ordinary suburban housewife starts seeing angels. Wenda notices the first of them standing by the fridge, but she has breakfast to be getting on with. “He had a nice sort of goldy sheen, but it wasn’t a good moment for that sort of caper.” She and her hapless husband Derek are the sort of people who swear things are always better after a nice cup of tea. But the platitudes and props of routine domesticity are to no avail. Angels continue to appear and disappear at will. They tell Wenda she is “a beautiful radiant being of goodness” and surround her with light. It feels good, and it takes her mind off the fact her meek husband is downloading porn, a discovery that just might have something to do with her sudden oddness.
Her doctor suggests she might have Charles Bonnet syndrome, “a type of hallucination which affects people who have all their wits about them.” Much to the embarrassment of her family, Wenda plans to set up as an alternative healer, designs her own set of divination cards and Googles angels until New Age hokum trips off her tongue. When Derek suspects she’s having an affair, she responds with disdain: “Of course, he’s a Metal person, born in the autumn, they don’t change their minds easily. I’m Wood, so I’m creative.” While all this has to be a symptom of mania, you are taken right inside Wenda’s head, where her bizarre reality seems eminently plausible. As well as humour, there is considerable pathos in Wenda’s yearning for deeper meaning, “something more” to life.
Stevenson reserves her best for last in ‘Garden Guerrillas’, a horticultural revenge conceived by an elderly widow whose son and his yuppie wife want to annex her territory and exile her to sheltered housing. With the patience of Capability Brown and the mind of a military strategist, she deploys her knowledge of plants to deconstruct the beautiful garden she has created. But has she killed the thing she loves?
King Solomon had it that a good woman is worth more than rubies. Stevenson’s Good Women are worth their weight in gold.
No Tie Required: Playing Golf Without a Club
pp.256 ISBN 075531378
REVIEWER: GRAHAM SPIERS
I’ll say one thing for Christopher Cairns: he is clearly a man after my own heart. This delightful book, which charms and infuriates in unequal measure, proves that Cairns, like me, is clearly besotted with one of life’s supreme pleasures…the game of golf.
Before I read this book I’d started worrying that I might be going golf-potty. I’ve almost reached a stage where I can’t think about my life, my work, my faith, my next column or my relationships without one over-riding distraction coming in the way. This would be, when am I going to get my next 18 holes?
In America they say that baseball, for its fans, becomes an obsessional, disorientating mania, and golf has started doing this to me. Round about March of 2004, so bad did this obsession become, I honestly thought about undergoing therapy for it. Then I picked up this book and discovered that Chris Cairns is exactly the same. Like me, he sometimes sits on a barstool and tots up his card, recording driving stats, putting stats and every other little quirk which helps make golf the joyous game it is. To anyone outside golf, that last sentence will not just be gobbledygook, but almost evidence of insanity. Alas, they don’t understand. Golf is beautiful, it is sumptuous, it is simply the greatest sport. Once you’ve grasped this truth, you simply can’t get enough of it.
This book, a golfing journey, touches on all these themes, though there is something more significant to it than that. Cairns has a political, or perhaps more accurately, a sociological purpose in this tome. What he has done is travel around and explore some of Britain’s less privileged golf courses, from the more tatty municipal ones to those born of working men’s clubs, in order to find the authentic heart of the game, beyond the exclusive dens of Muirfield and Royal St George’s. In other words, he went in search of what is the common golfing experience for many golfers, while exploring class-attitudes and snobbery (and sometimes reverse-snobbery) along the way.
Enjoyable though I found his book, I didn’t always agree with Cairns’ attitude. One theme running as a subtext I find popping up everywhere these days: the objection to privilege, or what I’d call, the objection to greater privilege.
In golf, there are clichés which always raise their heads in this regard: members of places like Muirfield are always “blazered buffoons” or “reactionary old gits” or “the G and T brigade”. This stuff has been spouted for years, and Cairns’ book is a tad guilty of it, despite the fact that, in my experience, members of so-called exclusive clubs are increasingly nothing like this at all. I have a friend, who is a golf correspondent, who cannot help always referring to members of exclusive clubs as “old buffers.” The sheer time-worn inaccuracy of the language is lost on him. Not only that, he doesn’t object in his own life, as I certainly don’t mind in mine, to certain advantages and privileges to be enjoyed, despite our own impeccable working-class roots.
In the media today I’ve never understood this: why is it okay for some of us to have better jobs, bigger incomes and faster cars, despite not being members of any elite, while it is not okay for others to be members of ‘exclusive’ golf clubs? It seems to me a hypocrisy – the latter is surely only an extension of the former. And yet, get middle-class journalists on the beat of places like Troon or Muirfield, and they start havering about “old buffers” and the rest of it.
One of the worst examples of this (and I’m sure the author meant this tongue-in-cheek, though it substantiates his general outlook) is a ludicrous observation Cairns makes about Muirfield-type members “asking you what school you went to before inviting you to join their four-ball.”
This is stereotyping gone mad. I doubt even the Monty Python team, if they were creating a sketch about “blazered buffoons” in a private golf club, would come up with such a line. In truth, hardly any private golf club member would pronounce such an absurdity before asking you to play, yet these myths seem to have become a part of golfing folklore.
This gripe aside, I greatly enjoyed No Tie Required. Cairns has a nice eye for social and civic detail, which is always a part of the golfing journey. Another thing I greatly empathised with in this book is the symbolic importance of the post-match pint (or pints) in these journeys. Whether it might be while consuming a Newcastle Brown Ale or enjoying a pint of Tawny in Devon, Cairns carefully places the local pint in the golfing cosmos. I always do that, too. I find it enhances the post-match bickering over scores.
The Poems of Norman MacCaig
Edited by Ewen McCaig POLYGON: £25
pp. 504 ISBN 1904598269
REVIEWER: ALASDAIR MACRAE
“In the evening the talking was hushed/ while Ishbel sang without trembling/ a sad sad song of exile/ from the island where she was born./ The anguish and the beauty of the song/ were one. How can that be?/ Then more talk, more laughter,/ more singing in that room/ full of ‘the marriage of true minds’./ But what I remember, so long after,/ are the two other marriages –/ of the anguish and the beauty,/ of the singer and the song.”
This poem, called ‘Highland ceilidh’, written in March 1989, is one of a hundred and one previously uncollected poems included in this new edition of Norman Mac-Caig’s work. Perhaps the Shake-spearean allusion is an unexpected touch, but the weighed-out economy, the alignment of descriptive statement and question, and the undertow of emotion, are all utterly characteristic of a late MacCaig poem.
There have been two previous versions of the collected poems, one in 1985, and a more up-to-date one in 1990. This new edition, a very handsome volume and reasonably priced, has been compiled by MacCaig’s son and comprises a package: an editorial preface by Ewen McCaig, an appreciation of the poet and his poetry by Alan Taylor, ten pages of substantial quotations from interviews, the text of the poems, and a CD of recordings he made between 1967 and 1994. This is a remarkable compilation and Ewen McCaig and Polygon deserve praise.
The arrangement of verse in the earlier Collected Poems followed the fourteen individual volumes in which it had originally appeared, with extra poems, chosen by the poet, appended to each volume. In the present collection, the poems are ordered according to date of composition. The poet, throughout his career, kept an inventory of every poem he wrote, each with a serial number and date of writing; in all he wrote about 3,900 poems of which he destroyed 2,800.
Ewen McCaig in his preface explains his procedure, and the arrangement by date of composition is interesting in several ways. Until now, readers had good reason to believe that the poems in an individual volume, published in, say, 1974, had been written in the period between the date of the previous volume, 1969, and 1974. In fact, he was quite happy to choose poems for a volume from any he had in stock and, when he added additional works in the Collected Poems, he even included some written later. Now we have a clearer view of developments in his writing.
But what of the hundred and one poems eventually chosen for inclusion from about four hundred available to the editor? MacCaig’s reputation is already secure in the minds of thousands of readers. He is a genuinely popular poet whose readership crosses the usual boundaries; I have heard his poems read at a funeral and at a wedding in the past month and I know of no other poet who is so much part of people’s lives. The newly added poems, some of which, in fact, had appeared in periodicals and at readings offer no startling revelation, no new crevasses or peaks in the MacCaig terrain. Most come from the five year period between 1987 and January 1992 when he wrote his last dated poems. Four years later he died.
In the final decade of his writing career a sombre tone had entered his work, following the deaths of his wife and some of his closest friends. As his own robust health faltered and failed in old age, his poetry showed a mixture of grim stoicism and a desperate affirmation bordering on bravado. Memory became increasingly a bulwark against negativity: “Like a lost ship that reaches/ harbour in a fog/ memory unloads cargoes from/ hundreds of ports –/ bales of words, hundreds of people,/ a treasure chest of music – lamps/ better than Aladdin’s.”
There is a sense of wealth continuing but in the “lost” and the “fog” and the title ‘A sort of thanks’ there is an ambivalence. I reckon that about a fifth of the added poems are very fine and that the inclusion of the extra poems from 1987 to 1992 does enlarge our understanding and appreciation of a wonderful poet.
Curiously, in the production of this lavish book, some poems included in the earlier Collected Poems seem to have disappeared, and in Alan Taylor’s warm and witty evocation of the poet there are a couple of mistakes. For example, he says the second edition of the Collected Poems was published in 1990 when in fact it was 1995. However, the publication of this fine volume is a cause for celebration, bringing back into print the known and adding a new bunch of goodies. From the earlier dense and metaphysical efforts rendered in formal verse to the later more laconic poems in springy free verse, there is always an extraordinary metaphorical inventiveness and verbal dexterity in the interplay between MacCaig’s mind and landscapes and animals and humans and history. Wherever we open the volume we find ourselves (or the poet) “turning up ace after ace after ace.”