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Volume 5 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 5 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

November 10, 2009 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gray Play Book
Alasdair Gray
pp320, ISBN 9781906307912

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

Allan Cameron
pp112, ISBN 9780956056030

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

The Weekend Fix
Craig Weldon
pp240, ISBN 9781905207268

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From this Issue


by Dominic McCafferty

A Half-Wit Hero

by Allan Massie

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