Monthly Archives: May 2010

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Volume 6 – Issue 2 – Reviews

THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE

Andrew O’Hagan

FABER, £17.99 PP288 ISBN 978-0571215997

Reviewer: Colin Waters

More biographies have been written about Marilyn Monroe, apparently, than any other person to have worked in show business. I’m indebted for that factoid to an essay, ‘Saint Marilyn’, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in 2004. One wonders whether the former Norma Jean Baker is also the most fictionalised character to emerge from that parallel universe Hollywood. O’Hagan adds his stone to a tottering cairn with his fourth novel, The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, which, as the title broadcasts, is narrated by Monroe’s pet pooch. There’s a certain logic here: with everyone who ever met, slept with or sighed over Monroe having penned a book about her, the dog must be the last one to give his side of the story.

Maf, or to give him his full name Mafia, was a Maltese Terrier, “the aristocrats of the canine world”. He was real and gifted to Monroe by her occasional lover Frank Sinatra, hence the criminal christening, at Christmas 1960. Maf was present then during Monroe’s final two years, until her suicide in August 1962. Monroe was freshly separated from third husband Arthur Miller and living in New York at the start of this period. She was exploring the Method at the Actors Studio and attending the local literati’s boozy soirees.

Although Monroe “had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know,” Maf says, she wanted to be taken seriously, to solidify her sense of her self as a person as much as to crystallise her talent as an actress. In doing so, “she was walking very close to the edge of sanity all the time, manipulating her reality to meet the demands of some terrible, unknowable ideal”. She was drinking, throwing back pills, consulting dubious shrinks: futile efforts to place distance between herself and the memory of her mother whose madness blighted Monroe’s childhood.

Heavy stuff. When you throw in organised crime, the Kennedys and the dubious glamour of an early death, and stew the ingredients in a Hollywood golden era, you see why Monroe is irresistible to authors, conspiracy nuts and historians of gossip. The question is: is a pet dog a suitably weighty point of view to capture this story?

Last year, James Lever scored a hit with Me Cheeta, an amusing and in its final pages touching Hollywood story told by the chimp who played the titular companion of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. I mention Me Cheeta because its modest success as a novel throws into relief just how deeply, fatally, misconceived is The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. As a novelistic conceit we can all just about swallow a story told by a sentient dog.

But what if I tell you that the dog is also telepathic? You’re swallowing harder now. The point where I found my eyes rolling almost out of their sockets came with the revelation Maf (and indeed all creatures apparently) can also absorb not only the memories of those he encounters, he also absorbs every book they ever read with total recall apparently. It’s a contrivance too far, so clever it’s stupid.

As he signals with his title O’Hagan is crafting a digressive novel in the mode of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, passing judgement on the early Sixties’ hotspots (pop art, the dawn of the teenager, civil rights, the cold war) in Maf’s tart, amusing voice. While animalkind’s psychic gifts are an undoubted gift to a writer who wants his central character to sound like a Newsnight Review panellist (“I always thought Renoir was so overdone: I mean all those wispy strokes, they
gave me a headache with their infinite prettiness”), the implications of the gift are unexamined. Can animals absorb information from each other? (There’s
a Schopenhauer-admiring fly, cats who speak in alexandrines). Why if animals have this ability are they not more evolved than humans? Why don’t they seriously try to communicate with people?

Now you may be thinking to yourself, he’s taking this a bit too seriously, that I am, in fact, a pedant. Perhaps. But the stage upon which the author parades Maf and the odd questions his character raises is not fictional. It’s drawn from the end of Marilyn Monroe’s life, a tragic and squalid period. In the star’s last months she fell apart, claimed by her demons and her addictions. Powerful men took advantage of her frailty. They used her and once she became an embarrassment they played pass-the-parcel with her, her torment ending only with her death by overdose. The story of Maf and of Marilyn make
for an uncomfortable fit – and O’Hagan knows it. Why else end his novel just as Monroe begins the last leg of her descent into dissolution, with Maf watching his mistress on TV singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for JFK? O’Hagan has form on this front. His 2003 novel, Personality, drew heavily on the story of Lena Zavaroni, another painfully cautionary tale whose subject is fame – only once more instead of following the biographical contours of the life that inspired the plot, his heroine survives the anorexia Zavaroni succumbed to.

It’s disappointing as O’Hagan is a gifted writer. He sets a scene marvellously: “There was a neon halo over Times Square. The puddles were lighted pink and the bulbs made a cartoon beauty of Midtown, pulling shadows and poor men out of their alleys. The snow was falling and bright commerce took advantage of the dark, the changes in colour feeling like events, the battle of noises seeming like news. In the middle of all those twinkles, you might wonder if people even had the chance of living their lives wisely.”

The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe fails to survive O’Hagan’s contrivances. He is a talented maker of points and phrases, but these are gifts that aid an essayist and not necessarily a novelist. In ‘Saint Marilyn’, O’Hagan wrote, after encountering Maf’s dog licence at an auction of Marilyn memorabilia , “Right now a person is looking at the license and thinking they grasp the meaning of the twentieth century”. Maf The Dog is a long, offbeat way of disproving your own point.


CALIFORNIA SCHEMIN’: HOW TWO LADS FROM SCOTLAND CONNED THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Gavin Bain

SIMON AND SCHUSTER, £12.99 PP274 ISBN 978-1847375551

Reviewer: Tom Morton


So, two Dundee art students form a band, and – get this – they’re performing a variety of black music, in American accents. They are Gavin Bain, author of this book, reared until the age of 12 in South Africa, and then mercilessly transplanted to the direst depths of Motherwell; and Billy Boyd, not the hobbit, a larger-than-life sex monster from Arbroath. They go to London, sign a deal with a major record label. And we’re supposed to be impressed.

I mean, this is happening in Dundee, the crucible which gave the world the Average White Band. Which still provides, courtesy of – wait for it – an art lecturer operating under the nom de plume St Andrew, the wittiest, funkiest Tayside rap you will ever hear.

Unless, of course, the unreleased masterworks of Silibil’n’Brains, Bain and Boyd’s doubtful duo, actually provide some competition. I am in no position to judge, not having heard, nor having any great desire to, songs such as ‘C**t’, ‘Spaz Out’ or that great paean to masturbation, ‘Play with Myself’.

What I have exposed myself to is this breathless, cheeky chappy rant from Bain, a man whose memoir, a story of unpleasantness, violence and general liking for the nastinesses of the glamour chase, has apparently impressed Irvine Welsh and Oasis-discoverer Alan McGee, both men with a connoisseur’s eye for the sordid. It’s an easy, short read, provoked by Welsh’s plans to turn this tale into a movie. And it does seem ideal for the budget end of British movie making, a sort of Sex Lives Of The Tattie Eminems. It also purports to be factual, which it unashamedly is not: “Some names and dates have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals” goes the waiver. Really? How many? Which ones?

Bain’s tale, stripped of superfluities, comes down to this: Novelty white rap act performs in American accent, pretends to be American, apparently convinces a management company and Sony BMG it is both commercially viable and genuinely transatlantic, signs deal, does drugs, drink and copious heterosexual sex, splits up without ever being exposed as a fake. The Proclaimers are mentioned, but Goldie Lookin’ Chain, a glaringly obvious Welsh (and more successful) equivalent of S’n’B, are not. And this all happens within the UK, not, as the title suggests, anywhere near California.

The thing is, I’ve never met a single record company person who would give a Gallagher’s curse whether someone’s accent or antecedents were genuine. I’ve never met a successful musician who wasn’t, in some sense, faking it. And at the end of this book, I was wondering if Bain’s venture into prose wasn’t simply an extension of his desperate attempt to gain some, any, kind of exposure, and as full of misdirection and nonsense as his band was.

As for the AWB, they of course produced such a brilliant version of American funk that no one in the States believed they were anything but black until a bunch of peely wally Dundonians turned up and tore apart the charts and concert halls, coast to coast. The story of the Average White Band – which includes all the drugs, triumph, death and disaster anyone could desire – really does deserve proper telling. This tale of Silibil ’n’ Brains tries hard for impact and import, as a movie synopsis would. It fails as a book because really it’s not significant enough, nor does it feel sufficiently true.


THE TEARS THAT MADE THE CLYDE

Carol Craig

ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £8.99 PP320 ISBN 978-1906134471

Reviewer: Alison Miller
As an Orcadian living many years in Glasgow, I often find myself defending the city and its people practically anywhere north, east or south of it, against jibes vilifying the “soap-dodging Weegie, only happy on Giro day”.

Contrast this with the reinvention of Glasgow in recent years, its rebranding as ‘Scotland with style’, ‘Capital of Cool’, and you have a powerful contradiction at the heart of its image. Carol Craig begins her book by taking issue with the newer version. Summarising recent research, she demonstrates convincingly that outside a few streets in the centre, Glasgow remains a city riven with poverty, inequality, violence and shocking levels of ill health, both mental and physical. People die younger in Glasgow than practically anywhere else in Western Europe. Despite interventions, injections of cash, projects set up to tackle the issues, Glasgow has taken up residence at the bottom of many health league tables, outdoing comparable cities such as Manchester and Liverpool.

But what is ‘the Glasgow Effect’? How did it come about? And what can we do about it? In an attempt to address these questions Craig draws on an impressive breadth of research and a wide range of sources. Throughout the book she refers to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, and agrees with the authors’ findings that increasing inequality impacts negatively on general health. But, she says, here’s the thing: Glasgow today isn’t a more unequal community than many others, yet it continues to top the leader board of social, physical and psychological ill health. Why?

Craig couches her explanation in terms of historically poor relations between the sexes in Glasgow. The chain of consequences goes something like this: the speed of industrialisation along with the greed of industrialists begat low wages and cramped, dark, insanitary tenements, begat men escaping to the pub, begat women and children subjected to deeper poverty, begat more domestic violence and greater physical and verbal abuse of children, begat poorer physical and mental health, begat … eventually the Glasgow we have today. More difficult to explain is why we can’t seem to shake off this endowment. It is as if it’s deep in the bones of the citizenry like a memory of rickets.

Throughout her analysis, Craig writes with great compassion in a clear, coherent style, bringing statistics alive through oral history, and making indigestible chunks of research accessible and comprehensible to a potentially wide readership. But there are pitfalls in choosing anecdotal material to illustrate your theories.

Take the author’s approach to Glasgow’s literature. Arguing against a tendency to see certain novels as expressions of Scottish cultural identity, she strips down Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and work by Janice Galloway until they resemble books found on the ‘Painful Lives’ shelf in Waterstone’s. It is a process surely as reductionist as the one she criticises and which is diminishing of those writers’ achievements.

Sometimes in her efforts to distinguish her approach from that of others, she runs the risk of creating new Us-and-Thems – an aspect of Glasgow’s culture she deplores. Craig’s views condemning what she sees as Scotland’s tall-poppy-scything egalitarianism are well known and she accuses William McIlvanney, in a speech he made urging Scots to resist Thatcherism and hang on to more humane values, of peddling the myth of the Scots’ love of equality. In her view it is pernicious because it prevents us from developing our potential, and essentially dishonest, masking the many hierarchies she identifies. But consider these two appeals to our better nature. First, “You will measure [people] by the extent of their understanding, by the width of their compassion, by the depth of their concern and by the size of their humanity”. And secondly, “… in our day-to-day interactions with everyone … we would do well to act with more kindness, gentleness and love”.

The first comes from McIlvanney’s speech; the second is Craig’s, from the closing paragraph of her book. If we can’t draw on some well in Scotland containing the first set of qualities, where are we to come by the second?

Scotland’s views on Glasgow are far from simple. An earlier review of the book met this response online from an Edinburgh citizen: “I hate glasgow and everything it stands for. As does most of the population of this country who are ripped off to subsidise the scum on the Clyde. Build a wall round Glasgow … given the average life expectancy … it shouldn’t take long before we can remove the wall and bulldoze the ruins”.

Could it be that Glasgow is Scotland’s ‘sink estate of the mind’, the place we send all the undesirable aspects of our national identity? The Tears That Made The Clyde presents as powerful and affecting an argument for radical social change as I have ever read. It’s how we achieve that change that remains, at the end of the book, a series of interrelated Big Questions.

 


DA HAPPIE LAAND

Robert Alan Jamieson

LUATH PRESS, £12.99 PP388 ISBN 9781906817336

Reviewer: Richard Strachan
Da Happie Laand of Shetland-born Robert Alan Jamieson’s fourth novel is the island of New Zetland, off the coast of New Zealand – or is it the original Zetland itself (Zetland is an archaic name for Shetland), a turbulent isle at the northern tip of the British archipelago? Linked by colonialism and empire, the influence of these islands reaches out to affect the lives of several characters in the present day.

Jamieson presents his story as a “found object”, a collection of papers given to him by a bereaved minister, Archibald Nicol, and the narrative occupies several competing and complementary layers. In the first, Nicol has recently encountered a disturbed young man, David Cunningham, who has left behind a diary and an unfinished manuscript about the island of Zetland, written by a nineteenth-century schoolmaster. In the second layer, we follow David on a pilgrimage to Zetland in search of his father, Rod, an Australian immigrant to Scotland who has recently gone missing. Interspersed with David’s account of his search is this nineteenth-century history of the island, with a commentary by Nicol, detailing its Norse origins, its colonisation by the Scots, and its gradual move towards more restricted economic and social systems.

In yet another layer of narrative, we have Nicol’s correspondence with two distant branches of the Cunningham family, one in Miami and the other in New Zetland, including a transcribed interview with an ancient woman who still speaks the original Zetlandic dialect and who sheds light on the ancestry of the missing Rod Cunningham. Cutting between all of these voices, we also have travel accounts from Sir Walter Scott and a young Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as genealogical investigations, personal reminiscences, and official government reports.

The idea of the manuscript as a collection of documents presented for the reader’s interest is not new. It was used effectively in Allan Massie’s recent Evening Of The World trilogy, to give a recent example. The fractured narrative it engenders underlines some of the author’s wider thematic concerns. Chief amongst these is the legacy of colonialism, the wider cross-pollinations of imperialism, and its creation of correspondences (and correspondence) across vast distances of space and time.

Jamieson’s intellectual honesty is such that he refuses to issue a pat condemnation of the past though; he is aware that the imperial project also offered immense opportunities for ordinary people to escape a constricted present, even if this could come at the expense of native peoples and of a sundered sense of belonging. Empires, as they rise and fall, leave a residuum; half-forgotten dialects, sclerotic religious beliefs, family legends, buried pain and anguish. It is the job of those, like the Heritage Society workers in New Zetland, (or like Jamieson himself), to try and structure these archives of memory, in the form of documents and oral histories.

The novel’s other theme, and a source of both its strength and weakness, is the lingering presence of religion as a way of seeking meaning and order in the world. There are two ministers in the novel, the conflicted Rev Nicol, and the pompously assured Rev Pirie on Zetland, but the real generative spring of religious belief
is personal struggle; salvation is attained through suffering and searching, and the results can be both positive and malign. This is significant because, in an age of competing secularism and extremism, it seems strange that religion is rarely seen as a fit subject for contemporary literature. This thematic strength is also a technical and structural weakness though, because David’s initial appearance in the novel, wild, bearded and bound for Jerusalem, means the narrative is weighted towards a revelation that must be significant enough to regenerate any dormant religious feeling in the character. This doesn’t come however, or not in any way that is satisfying. It is the one false note struck in an otherwise persuasive demonstration that a localised focus can illuminate the widest historical truths. Coupled to a quiet and unobtrusive experimentalism it has produced a work of power and originality.

 


AT THE LOCH OF THE GREEN CORRIE

Andrew Greig

QUERCUS £16.99 PP 322, ISBN 9781847249968

Reviewer: Alasdair Macrae
The prose narrative of this book concludes: “What remains is the descent. Put the book aside. The rushing outflow burn, the broken moorland and the ancient bedrock, the darkening sky about Assynt and those bright lochans already passing from sight into memory are what is left to us. Let it be enough. Tired, enriched, unburdened for now, I follow the burn over the bealach and off the page, into where whatever has existed once, exists all the time.” The task has been completed, the illumination has happened, something of a Promised Land has been revealed. The preposition in the title is very specific: something was looked for, something was experienced at the Loch of the Green Corrie.

Some months before the poet Norman MacCaig died in January 1996, Andrew Greig visited him at his flat in Edinburgh. In the course of their conversation it emerged that MacCaig’s favourite place was the Loch of the Green Corrie in Assynt in West Sutherland, the area where he had holidayed every summer for forty years and where he had walked and fished extensively. Knowing that Greig had an interest in fishing, the dying poet invited him to try and catch a trout in his favourite loch. Greig took the invitation as a challenge or a commission and five years later organised an expedition with two old friends. A second visit, on his own, took place in 2008 and the present book is an account of the trips and related matters.

The structure is unusual: after a brief introduction, the bulk of the book follows the four days of the earlier trip and each day is divided into short sections alternating between “cast” and “retrieve”, and the later trip is then described in four chapters. Some poems by MacCaig are situated as marker posts and the book ends with Greig’s own poem (for Norman MacCaig), ‘The Loch of the Green Corrie’. There are two maps, half a dozen photographs, a note on Gaelic pronunciation and a list of reading. Like his previous book Preferred Lies which appeared to be about playing golf, this one appears to be about fishing and MacCaig; both are actually exercises in self-exploration, self-discovery.

Nonetheless, and despite his statement late on that MacCaig “is more the occasion than the subject of the book”, there are many sharp insights into MacCaig’s poetry and a sensitive probing into his relationship with people and places in Assynt. The central metaphor linking MacCaig and Greig as fellow participants in the enterprises of fishing and poetry is that of casting and retrieving in fly-fishing. In relation to writing poems it is reminiscent of the curious Biblical advice: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days”. MacCaig, according to himself, seldom wrote poems when he was in Assynt but the experiences he had there germinated later. As with Wordsworth, “The music in my heart I bore, /Long after it was heard no more”. Greig is trying to understand where his own poetry comes from by looking at some aspects of the process in MacCaig. The book keeps opening out into wider dimensions of geological, political, cultural and genealogical shaping, what he calls “transmission”, whether from generation to generation, or the world outside the mind and the world inside the mind.

So, he is writing a series of homages but, sometimes, as I found in Preferred Lies, there is a sort of spiritual aspiration which sounds a bit rhetorical, a bit strained. Sometimes, I am not sure whether he is telling me too much about his illnesses and love-life or too little. I see why he feels that he needs to exclude nothing that matters to him and that the quotidianly personal is as much part of his creative process as cosmic movements but the balance is not always comfortable. The range from the intimate, for example, helping the aged MacCaig fit his hearing-aid, to the notions of Deep Space and Deep Time can be exciting, even moving, and, over all, the book has a largesse of vision which is stimulating. Although it is very centred on the author, the ripples and currents take readers away beyond the personal. It is very much a populated world and Greig’s novelistic eye gives an immediacy to many of the “characters”. Interestingly, apart from MacCaig himself, whose speech and gestures are well caught, the non-literary persons emerge in sharper, fresher focus than the literary figures, such as Sorley MacLean, who are rather predictably described.

By the end of the book, and the quotation at the start of this review manifests this, there is a decided sense that some vital transmissions have occurred, and a larger awareness has been achieved by Andrew Greig and shared with his readers.

 


THE DEATH OF LOMOND FRIEL

Sue Peebles

CHATTO & WINDUS, £12.99 PP336 ISBN 978-0701184308

Reviewer: Jennie Renton
The Death Of Lomond Friel has a low-key plot that draws you in quietly, until you find yourself engaged and caring about what happens to the characters. Their inner worlds are where the real action is, their interacting psychologies the central source of fascination. In this debut novel Sue Peebles shows herself to be a deft wordsmith, grounded, subtle and funny. Hers is the voice of a good listener. It rewards close attention. She has a subtle take on the challenge of gaining self-awareness, showing how hard it can be to dislodge incomprehension or to change behaviour patterns which have outgrown their usefulness. Absurdity besets people’s efforts to reconcile what the world expects with their inner sense of self, and Peebles shows that interior world to be a place haunted by demons.

Funny may seem an odd word to use given that this novel plays out in the aftermath of a stroke that leaves Lomond Friel dumb – conscious, yet trapped in
an uncooperative body. Peebles’ humour comes in at odd angles: the fishmonger who “ran away from sea”; the hospital case conference with “the usually sparse no-man’s-land in the middle of the circle peopled by legs criss-crossing like a pile of pick-up sticks”. The Death Of Lomond Friel contains much practical understanding of life crises, no doubt arising from the author’s own professional experience as a social worker. As with her clever wordplay, witty asides and arresting similes, she uses this delicately and never grandstands.

After the stroke Lomond is able to nod and shake his head, but the yes–no dichotomy is a poor substitute for nuanced response. On the other hand, incapacity means that he is no longer burdened with a sense of guilt towards his three children, twins Joseph and William, and the free-spirited Rosie, a fey soul towards whom he has always felt deeply protective. Layer by layer the Friel relationships are exposed. Like trees and bushes on windswept islands, each individual family member’s emotional profile is shown to have been determined by defence mechanisms adopted as shelter from gales long blown out.

His youthful ambition to write music inspired by bird-song and to build a profession based on his affinity with numbers, which he sees as colours, are among the memories that visit Lomond as he lies in his hospital bed. He recalls the scene when his wife-to-be, Ethel, pulls the wings off his dreams; only gradually do
we come to understand the psychological underpinning of this repressive act. Lomond also remembers Ethel’s death giving birth to Rosie and how his indomitable sister became the family’s mainstay. He dwells on how as a little girl Rosie lost the power of speech. The stream of therapists only makes him think that recovery is an impossibly uphill struggle and Lomond starts to consider whether bath time might present an opportunity for suicide. Surprisingly, in the midst of this withdrawal from life, he makes the discovery that an unexpressed love is reciprocated, a revelation articulated through look and touch alone. There arises a glimmer of desire to hang on in.

Rosie, a successful radio presenter by virtue of her beautiful voice, becomes so distraught at her father’s predicament that she goes awol from her career and flails around for some way she can help him. She decides she will abandon her rather sweet partner to look after him single-handed in the family “summer house”
in Fife, a fisherman’s cottage. Everyone else knows she is too erratic to carry this through and they all tell her so, whether kindly or brusquely. Rosie, infuriating as she is, is not alone in her incapacity to connect with the feelings of others. Peebles has the knack of stimulating empathy for her characters, however selfish, inadequate or dipsomaniac they might be. She sends Rosie on a bumpy journey of self-discovery that confronts her with many home truths about her mother and associated guilt. She swallows the unpalatable news that the brother she has always demonised, fears her reciprocally. The question that hangs in the air is how transformative such insights can ever be.

 


IF IT IS YOUR LIFE

James Kelman

HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99 PP288 ISBN 978-0241142424

Reviewer: Kevin Macneil

James Kelman’s work is iconic, distinctive and polarising and is often more admired than enjoyed. In his latest collection, If it is your life, the short stories are dark, protracted, meditative, sometimes depressing or even tedious (although that is partly because they so plausibly capture life as it’s experienced by his characters). There is occasional humour, but his is not a joyous, whimsical wit. It’s mordant, with a purposeful incisiveness, rather like Kafka’s or Beckett’s. Kelman’s best work approaches (although this collection never reaches) the strenuous brilliance of those European literary masters.

The opening story ‘Tricky times ahead pal’ could be a sly reference to the experience of reading the book to follow, for this collection is not what you might label an easy read. Tenacious readers, however, will appreciate the questions Kelman’s prose style invites. Why does he write these near-eventless stories in such a slow, intense manner? What does this conundrum-like five-paragraph fragment actually mean? Why does he suddenly shift register right at this point in the narrative? Entreating readers to participate in the large questions posed by an involving text suggests a generous act, a deepening, on the part of a scrupulous author. Kelman does not patronise his readership.

He caustically mocks those who abuse power in a story like ‘as if from nowhere’, in which a hospitalised man who contemplates “the movement of the cancer entity” berates the “corrupt administrators, lawyers and bureaucrats whose debased self-interest enabled the undead not to colonize the world but to enslave it.” In ‘talking about my wife’, Kelman explores the difficulties of managing long-term relationships: “Cath sighed. I sighed as well. But her sighs were significant. Mine were just sighs.” Kelman writes engaged stories, narratives that provide insights into scenes of suffering and injustice. The political edge to these stories is expected but one might also make a case for a spiritual interpretation.

There is an unanticipated (and likely unintentional) kinship with Buddhism in these pages. ‘Life is suffering’ – the Buddha’s First Noble Truth – is the premise behind much of Kelman’s work, for example his Booker-winner How Late it Was, How Late, where a man’s physical blindness contains a symbolic truth. In this collection, ‘A Sour Mystery’ has a narrator ponder, “If one seeks certainty, if one were to seek one fixed truth, one by which we might construct a universe, then here is that one certainty, that one fixed truth: people change.” ‘If it is your life’, the best story in the book, allows us to eavesdrop on the musings of a student heading home to Scotland on the bus. The young man equates egotism with “the worst kind of arrogance”.

In this collection Kelman furthermore compels us to consider what we can do to alleviate suffering. The author utilises his powers of empathy, compassion and mindfulness to create these stories, shedding hard light on cold realities. His characters question everything as they try to make sense of emotional mayhem. There is an inference that nothing is trivial. Characters contemplate the manner in which thoughts collide and stramash and interweave. They seek liberation. Yet many of the characters in this book seem doomed, restricted, impotent – and furiously aware of it. One recalls the Buddha’s words, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger”.

Despite a recurring, rather wearying, defensiveness, Kelman has integrity. He gives lasting voice to the afflicted, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. In such endeavour there is humanity, decency. Kelman’s best stories allow quiet heroism to shine, a workaday heroism that endures frustration, injustice, mundanity itself.

Iain Crichton Smith said, “There are no ordinary people”. There is nobility in chronicling this truth, if it is your life’s work.

 


OUR TRAGIC UNIVERSE

Scarlett Thomas

CANONGATE, £12.99 PP444 ISBN 978-1847670892

Reviewer: Stephen Phelan
A few months ago, the American writer David Shields publicly renounced the practice of fiction with a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. He drew a lot of attention, and a certain amount of approval, for compiling an exhaustive list of reasons why made-up stories can no longer satisfy the deepest needs of modern readers.

According to Shields, only poems, memoirs, and lyric essays now tell us the truth, while the novel has become a nostalgic form of entertainment.

His argument was pretty compelling, supported as it was with artfully stolen quotations from writers such as VS Naipaul: “If you write a novel, you sit and weave a little narrative … and it’s okay, but it’s of no account.”

Scarlett Thomas seems to be arguing the opposite – that reality itself is defined by fiction. “Life is life,” as she puts it in Our Tragic Universe. “But on the other hand, all we know about it is what exists as narrative.” This is, at least, what her narrator believes, an author, book critic, and creative writing teacher who is drifting toward unhappy middle age in a quiet town on the Devonshire coast.

Paying the bills with three-act mystery novels for teenagers, Meg struggles to write something more literary while worrying that the plot of her own life is hopelessly unoriginal. Fighting with her inert, unimaginative boyfriend – one of those supposedly practical males who think fiction a complete waste of time – she wonders if their relationship could stand “a second act, with all the conflict pushed into act one”. “Maybe his character just needed a little tweaking,” she tells herself. “Or maybe mine did.”

Meanwhile, a book within the book, a mysterious pseudo-scientific text that Meg has been given to review, suggests that the universe has already ended, only to regenerate itself under human energy as a kind of simulation, where we are all the mythic heroes of our own imaginings, free to play out every possible scenario until we achieve whatever conquest we seek. To some, this might seem appealing, or validate the way they already think of themselves.

To Meg, and presumably Thomas, it seems more like imprisonment.

Their question is whether it’s possible to escape the confines of narrative, to resist becoming a fictional character, to live a plotless existence. In attempting
to answer, the book appears to become the “storyless story” that Meg dreams of writing, as she walks her dog, takes up knitting, and engages in conversations with friends, rivals, fellow writers and family members, and especially her new potential lover, a much older local historian, about the various possible solutions to quotidian problems suggested by their own reading.

These idle chats in English country pubs, cafes, and cottages range across the fields of theoretical physics, Buddhist parables, classic Russian literature, and ancient Greek philosophy. “Why does fiction have any emotional effect on us at all,” asks Meg, in the midst of a discussion about the theorems and paradoxes of Godel and Heisenberg, “considering that we know it’s not real?”

Our Tragic Universe is in fact more a series of dialogues than a sequence of events, and perhaps less a novel than one of those “barely disguised essays” which David Shields allowed for in his manifesto as the only kind of fiction worth reading these days. By virtue of her intellect and playfulness, Thomas now seems to belong in the same school (if not quite the same class) as Borges and Kundera, which seems a long way from where she started, among the so-called New Puritans of the early twenty-first century.

That relatively loose and marginal peer group of youngish British writers pledged themselves to plain prose storytelling with a manifesto of their own, swearing against all rhetoric, authorial tricks, and “devices of voice”. Thomas’s sentences are still plain to a fault, and her occasional similes tend to fall flat: “The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse.” She hasn’t forgotten her New Puritan commitment to rendering a “recognisable ethical reality”, successfully mooring some pretty abstract and complex concepts in prosaic and domestic modern life.

But where she fails, and this might be deliberate, is in creating any of the aforementioned “emotional effects” that she knows we want and expect from fiction.

For all her workaday anxieties, Meg never seems to exist off the page, although at times she seems to sense this herself. And for all the author’s obvious erudition, the only thing her book actually made me feel was a mild regret that she hadn’t taught any of my English Literature classes as an undergraduate (Thomas is a lecturer at the University of Kent).

While you might come away with some useful material from its surrounding patchwork of ideas, quotes, facts and anecdotes, the core of the story itself seems to implode while you’re reading, and disappears as soon as you finish.

 


SCOTT-LAND – HOW A WRITER INVENTED A NATION

Stuart Kelly

POLYGON, £16.99 PP320 ISBN 978-1846971075

Reviewer: Christopher Harvie
I read Stuart Kelly on Walter Scott on the Edinburgh to Galashiels bus on the A7, which linked both men to the rest of Scotland. Scott died in 1832 and the to-be-rebuilt Waverley line opened in 1849. He had been on the board of Robert Stevenson’s abortive 1815 Glasgow to Berwick line, and the successful act was handled in 1845 by James Hope, lawyer and Catholic convert with his friend John Henry Newman. Railway millions, as much as best-sellers, sustained the Abbotsford that Hope inherited.

Kelly’s strength is on the Scott phenomenon at the moment of the modern. He is lively and accessible, readable in gruelling conditions (see above), and implicitly suggests not just a revival strategy but a rebirth (see below). But the immediate problem is finding Roy Campbell’s ‘bloody horse’ – where are the novels themselves? Kelly is very good at Scott the authorial droll – which, once you read Sartor Resartus, invites comparison with Thomas Carlyle: Kennaquhair twinned with Weissnichtwo. He argues that a cutesy Sterne-ian Sir Walter lives in the authorial jungles of these usually neglected opening chapters: a pre-modern post-modernist, beguiling unreliable narrators.

But the aficionado will still tend to skip the browsers and editors and hit the narrative when our hero is clattering along the high road northwards and about to meet the natives. And – this is the extraordinary thing – they ring true from the beginning: farmers, lawyers, gudewives, beggars, shepherds. They are percussive, demotic, witty. Some short novels – like the underrated Legend Of Montrose – survive on this ear for speech. Speech is navigable, sustained by the demotic, as in Bailie Nicol Jarvie’s sharp defence of the Union in Rob Roy:

“Let ilka ane roose the ford as they find it. I say ‘Let Glasgow flourish!’ Whilk is judiciously and elegantly putten round the toun’s arms by way of byword. Now, since St Mungo catch’d herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade? Will ony body tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-away yonder?”

This is masterful Doric, investing the matter-of-fact with subtlety and a language that sings – and sings for both sides, as with the gypsy Meg Merrilees in Guy Mannering:

“Ride your ways, Laird of Ellangowan – This day have you quenched seven smoking hearths – see if the fire in your ain parlour burn the blyther for that.

Ye have riven the thack off seven cottar houses – look if your ain roof-tree stand the faster. – Ye may stable your stirks in the shealings at Derncleugh – See that the hare does not couch on the hearthstone at Ellangowan.”

Scott’s financial downfall seems as up-to-date as that of his own Bank of Scotland. He knew the alphabet-soup of dodgy credit better than the luckless shareholders of RBS and HBOS. Particularly rewarding these days, when the Clarksons have taken over from the Defoes, and the dopey maunderings of Irvine Welsh’s Jockneys have evicted the Bailie’s perjink discourse.

Scott was anyhow an odd sort, ‘gifted’ – an Asperger-like condition? – writing automaton-like in the window of his Castle Street house, his geniality at odds with obtrusive ambition and a political conservatism gone neurotic. There was logic behind the Royal Jaunt in 1822 – Kelly’s big bow-wow bit – given the bloody fracas at George IV’s coronation, poverty spurring revolt in Scotland, and the Wizard’s own ambitions in stage-management, timing, smoke and mirrors. Folk speak to us from the places of his twilight. John Buchan thought The Chronicles Of The Canongate anticipated Turgenev; Chrystal Croftangry’s description of new, empty Castle Treddles matches Buchan’s Dalquharter House in Huntingtower as the memento mori of industrial wealth.

An electronic revolution in reading being imminent, Sir Walter will benefit. Large type, ease and cheapness will come downline to evict the crabbit layout of
the old cheap editions. Hybrid datasticks, discs and downloads will project the voices of his characters, illustrations (Turner’s, for a start), landscape, music from the innumerable operas based on his novels. Scott-Land doesn’t just provoke; it could map out a Scott renaissance. I will read the e-books, crossing Fala, on the Waverley train.

 


THE STARS IN THE BRIGHT SKY

Alan Warner

JONATHAN CAPE, £12.99 PP394, ISBN 9780224071284

Reviewer: Nora Chassler
The Stars In The Bright Sky is a sequel to The Sopranos, which followed a group of super-horny Catholic schoolgirls from a fictionalized Oban to a choir competition in Edinburgh. In the first novel, there were uncountable (and often unaccountable) sex scenes, and doodles of dicks scattered throughout the book. Often, in that earlier novel, I had the feeling – one I also had with Alan Warner’s debut, Morvern Callar – that the lovely lassies were looking back at him and sneering, not entirely happy with how they were being drawn. Which is, of course, to pay Warner a huge compliment: he made them – and I believed in them so completely I thought I knew them better than he did.

Metatextual speculations aside, The Sopranos simply got a bit tiresome. It wasn’t just sex we were inundated with: it was pishing, shitting …wiping, and anything to do with what one of the sisters at their Catholic school might have daintily referred to as the “ladies’ front bottom”. All that said, it was impossible not to like the girls: they were extremely funny and strong. Now, in The Stars In The Bright Sky, Finn, Chell, Manda and Kay are back, less sex-obsessed, and in many ways more real.

The new novel is not only a more empathetic and wiser book, it’s a deeper, braver and more complex one. By eschewing the tacked-on big plotlines of The Sopranos and Morvern – the tear-inducing abortions and the one-with-cancer, the inexplicable flabby dead body and the giant advance for a first novel – Warner allows the bonnie besoms to bloom. This is a snarly group picaresque, a black comedy in which Gatwick airport is like Kafka’s Castle in reverse.

Most of the mild peril and adult situations the girls, the daft lassies, the wee hoors overcome – call them what you will; they call each other everything – are centred on the most absorbing member of the posse, Manda. Mother of “wee Sean”, and the boastful “Practice Manageress” of a hair salon in their hometown,
Manda is utterly infuriating. Backward, homophobic, body-hair-obsessed, judgmental, gluttonous Manda: it’s Manda who loses her passport, and starts the deranged cycle of circling Gatwick, from which we never emerge. With Manda, Warner has set himself a great and noble task, and he succeeds; he somehow manages to write this piggy moron as both sympathetic – and not all that stupid. No mean feat.

Round and round the lasses go, from the Gatwick Village Inn Pub to the Ezzy Dancer Machine in the Game Grid amusement arcade behind McDonald’s, the Hoppa Hotel to the Hilton, all within the terminal – which leaves plenty of room for Warner to shine. He’s famously great with dialogue, but I would argue it’s his elaborately slow, descriptive pace combined with his breathtakingly lax, dead-on evocations of place that really set him apart. A hundred years from now, readers will be able to conjure Gatwick in all its hideous, end-of-an-empire glory. When the lassies alight from a driverless bus “… [they] de-bussed below the open-sided storeys of a car park, its perma-dusk illuminated by strips of fluorescent lighting; the shy, polished wings of occasional parked saloon cars showed on the lower floor and the tannoy of what seemed to be a railway station could be heard garbled among the bus fumes in the distance”.

The fact that the aging Sopranos lament their non-existent narrative makes it all the more real. The interior and vastly monotonous location, the minute attention to detail, both personal (lists of Manda’s toe plasters, shoe by shoe) and architectural, the swamped sense of a dark and overfed culture – all these create a stifling, hilarious, and indelible atmosphere. By the end you’re not sure you’ve ever been anywhere else.

Ultimately, what The Stars In The Bright Sky does is propose a kind of alternative chick-lit. These girls don’t believe the hype, they barely believe in the authority of their creator – and it’s just what makes them ring true.

 


CAINNT NA CAILLEIGE CAILLTE

Alison Lang

UR-SGEUL, £8.99 PP203, ISBN 978-1900901512

 

A GHLAINNE AGUS SGEULACHDAN EILE

Mairi E NicLeòid

 

UR-SGEUL, £6.99 PP71, ISBN 9781900901406

Reviewer: Aonghas Macneacail
First, there was no original, adult, Gaelic fiction, in print, and very little previously written. Then there was Ur Sgeul, launching in 2003 with the publication
of books by Martin MacIntyre and Angus Peter Campbell. Norma MacLeod became the first female novelist to appear, in 2006. Now, there are 24 separate publications (and counting), with one anthology of short stories translated into German. With the exception of MacLeod, and a couple of others, the male voice has dominated, but now two new collections of short stories add lively contributions from the female perspective.

What’s particularly intriguing is that, while Alison Lang and Mairi E NicLeòid draw on different backgrounds, and are stylistically distinctive, their collections echo each other. Both learned Gaelic as adults: Lang from Edinburgh, NicLeòid with the language in her Skye community, and both communicate with natural idiomatic fluency. Both offer fresh perspectives on relationships, and both, intriguingly, adopt the voice of a domestic animal, in Lang’s story, a cat, while NicLeòid explores the life of a sheepdog. Each also examines the malign influence of narrow religious attitudes.

Lang’s Cainnte Na Caileige Caillte (The Lost Girl’s Language) offers twelve stories, ranging from the wolf-reared woman of the title to genocidal West African politics, via a Monica Lewinsky type, to the dystopian possibilities of the digital future. While NicLeòid’s narrative style in Ghlainne Agus Sgeulachdan
Eile (The Glass and Other Stories) has redolence of the traditional tale, her themes and awareness are entirely contemporary: adultery, illegitimacy, allergies, crossword puzzles and lesbianism are not the commonest subjects of Gaelic fiction.

There are obvious differences – these are creative writers, after all. Lang, who claims no Gaelic background, lives in Edinburgh, and speaks entirely in the female voice. She is perhaps the more cosmopolitan in emphasis, her characters comfortably referencing Proust and Zola, though she knows the traditional Gaelic community as well. NicLeòid, who lives in her native Isle of Skye, also writes drama scripts, and readily adopts both male and female perspectives. That her settings tend to be domestic, whether rural or urban, clearly doesn’t constrain her thematically.

There’s a physical difference between these books as well. Of Lang’s dozen stories, three, exceeding thirty pages, head for novella length, whereas NicLeòid’s eight say all they need in a total of seventy pages. Bulk shouldn’t be equated with overload though, nor slowness with undernourishment: each has her way of delivering a richness of subtlety and detail.

What is intriguing about the conjunction of these two writers is the overlap between their themes. By a curious coincidence, Lang’s narrative
in the voice of a crafty cat is echoed by NicLeòid’s glimpse of life from a working dog’s perspective, although the material receives very different treatment: where the cat wittily knows which side its fur is stroked on, the dog traces a working dog’s life with reflections on the relationships that develop with both adult and younger members of the family, and how learning can work both ways.

Equally different in structure and tone are NicLeòid’s first story ‘Trom’, on its own an ambiguous word being literally “heavy” but carrying intimations of pregnancy, and one of Lang’s longer stories, ‘Oidhche gun Urnaigh’ (Night without Prayer). The central momentum driving both stories is the malign effect religiosity can have on individuals and their relationships.

But where ‘Trom’ explores one young woman’s predicament, ‘Oidhche’ weaves two contrasting narratives together in
the character of Diane who observes the church elder Uilleam exiting a massage parlour and who is also suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Aonghas. The other women who feature, elderly upright Oighrig and worldly Rhoda, offer their own kinds of complicity. The fact that
the abuse amounts to rape within a relationship, which the victim chooses not explicitly to identify as such, or consider reporting, is perhaps the most telling detail.

In ‘Trom’, Catriona, carrying a burden of guilt from her sister’s accidental death in childhood, is reluctant to inform pious and unforgiving parents (someone had
to take the blame), or fiancé Tormod, of an unexpected pregnancy. A DIY abortion fails, but exposes her condition. A marriage is arranged, but miscarriage brings more shame. There’s a neat twist to the story which suggests that living with such proscriptive pressures brings deeper, more enduring and disturbing consequences.

Both writers offer a satisfying variety of themes, fleshed out in sharply observed detail. Lang sketches a contemporary version of slave labour in ‘Latha Eile san Fhactaraidh’ (Another Day in the Factory), while showing how many kinds of dissembling can lurk behind the phrase ‘A Dh’innse na Firinn’ (To Tell the Truth). If ‘An Téile’ (The Other) provides a glimpse of the silent power of sexual jealousy, ‘An Dealbh’ (The Portrait) shows that the enduring value of art can, given time, overcome professional jealousy.

Both Lang’s ‘Beul gun Phutan’ (Mouth without Button) and NicLeòid’s ‘An Còmhradh’ (The Conversation) have food as a central motif and relationships as a decidedly visible subtext, in the first case a coming to terms with sibling animosities, in the second how to use a gifted biscuit recipe to purloin the donor’s husband. And, as well as creating a powerfully resonant sense of how people actually think, there’s a nice mischievous wit at work in both stories.

There’s much to enjoy in these fresh new collections. The writers show no fear of changing moods, from the emotionally raw through the whimsical and surreal to suitably citric satire. They know how to hook the reader. Several stories in both collections could be developed into longer works, and if NicLeòid, particularly in
her final story, edges a bit too close to melodrama for comfort, she’s got the vigour of tradition behind her. Both authors have provided enough evidence of their talent to leave us expecting more, but meanwhile, let’s celebrate these eminently nourishing opening instalments

 


THE EXISTENTIAL DETECTIVE

Alice Thompson

TWO RAVENS, £9.99 PP200 ISBN 978-1906120511

Reviewer: Louise Welsh
Robert Louis Stevenson described Edinburgh’s precipitous lands as places where “the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon the stairs”. It’s possible that fewer Bible-readers haunt Edinburgh’s tenements today, but the city supports so many fictional detectives, they must surely be in danger of bumping into each other. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, Quentin Jardine’s Bob Skinner, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and now Alice Thompson’s William Blake all tramp the capital’s streets, righting wrongs against the odds.

A cynic might suppose Thompson is making a bid for the commercial triumph that’s blessed these other inventors of Edinburgh detectives, but her sleuth manages to slot into the Edinburgh’s literary tradition and channel the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction, whilst being as distinct from his predecessors as they are from each other.

Perhaps it helps that Blake (named of course like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, Margery Allingham’s Campion and Robert B Parker’s Spenser, after a poet) has located his rundown office in Portobello.

Thompson evokes the sense of a decayed, slightly seedy seaside town repeatedly washed by rain, so successfully she’ll surely dismay Porti homeowners hoping for a hike in house prices. Blake lives alone, as all detectives must, though he was once part of a nuclear family and has an ex-wife and missing daughter to prove it. His quest also starts in a pleasingly noirish manner with the arrival of Dr Adam Verver who is dressed in a shabby brown suit that belies his wealth. Dr Verver’s much younger
wife Louise, who suffers from amnesia, has gone missing. So far, so conventional. Introduce a sultry night club singer, a raven-haired, red-lipped prostitute, a dodgy amusement arcade, some mysterious DVDs – and one might begin to expect all the tedium of an outmoded fairground ride. But Thompson has erected her scaffold of noir conventions all the better to surprise us. This is not the book it initially appears to be.

Like his namesake, Will is prone to visions. Whether these are prophetic, a sign of encroaching mental instability or simply a projection of despair and desire
is unclear. The iconography of his visions, the repeated glimpses they offer of Louise Verver and Blake’s daughter Emily, suggest a hallucinatory logic of little help in the actual world. When Lily, the Chinese girl who feeds seagulls on the beach, tells Blake he “should just get a grip on reality” we can’t help but agree. But of course it’s impossible, reality is too slippery to grasp.

The sands of Portobello shift unpredictably beneath William Blake’s feet. Even when he enters the bastion of stolidity, the National Portrait Gallery, full of tributes to the great and allegedly good of Scotland, he cannot trust his impressions. Blake’s judgement is clogged by misguided loyalties and the despair, angst, alienation and boredom that curse all existentialists.

The novel’s title The Existential Detective invites comparisons to Paul Auster’s crime fiction and the book’s atmosphere is reminiscent of the dislocation and dream-infected landscape that inhabits Auster’s work. But Blake’s self-hatred means that his essential self is the very last person he’d want to locate.

William Blake isn’t entirely unlikable, but his feelings of self-disgust (he was looking after his young daughter when she vanished) and use of prostitutes (of which he is ashamed) makes him difficult to warm to. The third person narrative offers little sense of Blake’s voice, further detaching us from him. The reader never walks Edinburgh’s streets with Blake, seeing them through his eyes. Rather we watch from a distance as he travels the city alone. It’s a testament to Thompson’s writing that this sense of disconnection from the central character adds to the curious mood of the book.

From Secret Squirrel to Burroughs, Bukowski and beyond, hard-boiled crime fiction conventions have been used to parody the genre and as a vehicle to push beyond established boundaries of form and content. Rather than let her knowledge of and affection for the genre confine her, Alice Thompson has bent the detective novel to her own will and produced something rather exciting. The league of Edinburgh detectives is most definitely stronger for the addition of William Blake.

 


THE ROYAL STUARTS – A HISTORY OF THE FAMILY THAT SHAPED BRITAIN

Allan Massie

JONATHAN CAPE, £14.99 PP384, ISBN 978-0224080644

Reviewer: Roderick Graham
There is a common misconception that the history of our Stuart royalty is one of assassination, execution, and violent death set against a background of mistresses, gay lovers, cynicism and incompetence. Allan Massie gives the lie to this version with a fast-paced narrative which wears its learning lightly and deals even-handedly with the parade of Stuarts from 1371 to 1807 – even if I must differ with him on one monarch in particular.

The Stewarts emerge from the mists of Brittany’s salt marshes as stewards to the Counts of Dol at the end of the eleventh century some forty years after the death of Macbeth and the flight of Fleance. Massie calls this story “an agreeable fiction”.

Robert Stewart, son of Marjorie Bruce and Walter Stewart rather than the product of the heated imagination of medieval chroniclers, became Robert II, King of Scotland, in 1371. Massie tells us that “the early Stewarts practised what modern historians have called laissezfaire kingship, leaving for the most part strong local lords to their own devices so long as they did not set themselves up openly against the Crown”. This would eventually lead to instability, which haunted the Stewarts. James I dealt with it unsuccessfully and was murdered by the nobility. Massie treads carefully through the marshland of early politics, guiding our footsteps onto firm ground and providing colour with illustrative quotations from Walter Scott.

Massie isn’t judgmental, even about James III, on whose unpopular regime he gives us a clear rendition of fact. The existence of royal favourites (Robert Cochrane), the diversion of monastic wealth, and the alienation of the nobility leading to his death at the hands of persons unknown – “the king happenit to be slain” – could lead to one conclusion about his character, but Massie refuses to be drawn.

After the glittering reign of James IV and the efficient, if dull reign, of James V, Massie comes to Mary, where I find I disagree with him. He paints a romantic, sanitised picture of this unhappy and wayward queen who was no more than an aristocratic French tourist. Massie claims that she changed the spelling of her name to ‘Stuart’ to ease French understanding, when, in fact, this had been done by Matthew, Earl of Lennox, during his time in France in the 1540s. He absolves Mary of all complicity in Darnley’s murder, and Darnley appears to be guilty of no more than occasional bad manners. Massie continues to fertilise the legend of ‘tragic Mary’ and ‘evil Elizabeth’. This lapse is doubly regrettable in view of his well measured portrait of James VI and I. He treats James’s bisexuality with sense and compassion making clear that James
was bonhomous, learned, and – rare for a Stewart monarch – keen to engage in debate.

This was a complete contrast to his son, Charles I who would brook no argument on any subject, least of all on the royal prerogative. Massie guides us clearly and, mercifully, succinctly, through the phases of civil war and disputes among the ‘godly’. The exile of Charles II is dealt with as the thriller it was, while the internal politics of France and the Netherlands muddy the narrative until Old Rowley’s boisterous return. The fall of his successor James II led to the Stuarts’ exile and a series of lost causes. The greatest of these lost causes was Prince Charles’s invasion of 1745. Massie calls it “ridiculously quixotic” and concludes the book saying that “for all its failure and futility…he remains, along with his great-great-great-grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, the best remembered of his glittering and so often unfortunate family”.

The claim of the sub-title it is difficult to maintain. The pre-Marian Stewarts held a fissiparous Scotland together, James VI and I certainly oversaw a successful union of the crowns and Queen Anne was a keen proponent of the Act of Union, but, in these cases the sovereigns reacted to events rather than initiating them. The invasion of 1745 accelerated the destruction of Highland clan society, which would have vanished in the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, but that, at least, was due to the action of a misguided Stewart.

Massie’s book, allowing for my reservations on his treatment of Mary, rises above its sub-title and tells the story of the Stuarts with vivacity and clarity. It is almost a justification for the occasional idiocies indulged in by some of the leading characters.

 

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Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Charles Rennie Mackintosh could have designed anything but he wasn’t given the chance. He could have been our Corbusier. Instead, examples of his genius are frustratingly rare.

To his contemporaries Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an enigmatic figure and he remains a puzzling, brilliant and tragic phenomenon even today. Although James Macaulay does a workmanlike job with the available material, and the photographs by Mark Fiennes are superb, this book adds little that is new to our sense of this extraordinary man. There is plenty of carefully footnoted exposition but not much explanation or speculation. That, though, may be unfair; Mackintosh has been dead for more than eighty years and any pungent sense of his personality is likely to have long ago fled.

The surviving photographs are also enigmatic, even puzzling. The transition from the dashing, darkly handsome, moustachioed blade with the floppy bow tie familiar to the Mackintosh industry is instructive. In a relatively short time photographs show a puffy, grey-headed middle aged man who looks completely different. It is difficult to believe that the Mackintosh whose Ronald Coleman good looks stare confidently at Craig Annan’s camera in the 1890s can be the same man captured twenty years later. It was not just age that thickened his features and frosted his hair, it was also experience, much of it bitter.

Twenty-five years ago Mackintosh was much on my mind. I was making a film for Channel Four, Dreams And Recollections, which hoped to show something of his artistic achievement and say worthwhile things about what sort of man he was. Television needs talking heads and I set off on a series of research trips in search of people who knew Mackintos, who in 1928. There were two sparkling old ladies in Scotland who had clear memories. Lady Alice Barnes was a child when she knew Mackintosh but Mary Newbery Sturrock was a young woman in 1928 and her recollections were vivid, substantial and tinged with sadness. Mary was the daughter of Fra Newbery, the Head Master of the Glasgow School of Art and the man who commissioned Mackintosh’s largest project. Here is how she summed up the architect’s life when she spoke to me in 1985:

“Looking back now I feel terribly, terribly sad at the waste. Here we have this brilliant man whom it would pay you to use. And he wasn’t given any real use at all, apart from the Glasgow School of Art and the odd jobs he got in Glasgow….Mackintosh could have designed anything, but he just didn’t get a chance. Perhaps he did all he was going to do, but I’d like to have seen his fiftieth house. I don’t know how many houses Robert Adam did but his fiftieth house mustn’t have been a bit like his first. I would like to have seen Mackintosh’s fiftieth house, with all the edges rubbed off and all his experience and development brought into play. We could have had somebody as good as Corbusier but we weren’t able to do it. Thinking back now, the tears come to my eyes and I feel so sad that the genius was wasted. I feel great sadness. When I hear of these high prices, I think if the Mackintoshes could have got a hundredth part of the money, how happy they would have been and I would be now. I’ve got a lot of pleasant memories but I must say I could weep at the waste of his genius.”

As an epitaph, Mary’s memories and insights are eloquent but they could also serve as a context to start you thinking about Mackintosh and his work. I made eight hours of tapes of our conversations – she lived near me in Edinburgh – and they are peppered with wonderful comments. In the 1920s the Mackintoshes had very little cash and decided to move to France where life was much cheaper. Slowly, however, he became a lost soul. He’d nothing else to back him but the love of his wife. And, in the period when she was away, he missed her terribly.

The Mackintoshes stayed at the Hotel du Commerce in Port Vendres, on the Mediterranean coast just north of the Spanish border. I found three people who remembered them but because Mme Therese Marty, M. Rene Pous and Mme Isabelle Ihlee had little or no English, they only observed the quiet, arty couple from Glasgow and sometimes saw Mackintosh outdoors painting his stunning watercolours of the area. Perhaps the most striking record was a series of letters written while Margaret Mackintosh was in London. Known as The Chronacle, they supplied a powerful sense of what and how Mackintosh thought. And when we came to make our film for Channel Four, I asked if we might use some extracts. In return for a fee to Glasgow University, permission was granted.

In 1989 Colin Baxter, the photographer, and I collaborated on a book about the enigma, Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I had compiled a mass of interview material for the film and only a tiny proportion had been used. The idea of the book was to get closer to what Mackintosh was like by telling his story only through the eyes of people who knew him. Extended captions to Colin’s lovely photographs could fill in dates, places and locations. The French period of the 1920s had few witnesses and to tell that part of the story I used nine extracts from The Chronacle. At first Glasgow University was happy about their publication, just as they had been about the film. But then, quite suddenly, Colin and I found ourselves served with an interim interdict banning publication of the book. In the Court of Session, after a great deal of very expensive legal argument and as the result of what the judge called a “very narrow decision”, the interdict was upheld. Publication on Channel Four was acceptable to Glasgow University, but in a book it was not.

After a nightmarish wrangle, Glasgow University was persuaded to recall the interdict. Perhaps the sight of a university banning a book was not attractive. In return for adding a humiliating sticker on the title page which branded me as, at best, a chancer, and insisting that as a material punishment, we make a donation of royalties to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, we were told that the legal action against us would be suspended. We were bleeding to death financially and even though what happened was a travesty, we were forced to agree and the book was eventually published.

Despite all the pain and opprobrium, Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh has apparently become a useful (and probably unique) research tool and James Macaulay makes use of its record of testimony several times in his new book. More surprising is an entry in his bibliography. To my amazement I saw that The Chronacle, the letters from France from Mackintosh to his wife, had been published in 2001. What had changed? Where was the interdict this time? Unable to get hold of a copy (perhaps it had been banned after all), a quick internet search revealed that the book was published by none other than Glasgow University. The sticker forced onto the title page of my book reads: These letters were given on the condition that they are not to be published in any way. What cost Colin Baxter and I a fortune in grief and cash ten years before was now, it seemed, okay.

Having got all that off my chest, I am bound to say that, despite the odd quibble, I enjoyed Macaulay’s book. Comprehensive, with its material clearly presented and the superb photographs of Mark Fiennes, it is a good and informative read. Nothing of artistic importance appears to have been overlooked and, as a celebration of the work of one of Scotland’s greatest artists, it is a success. Mackintosh, however, remains an enigma, as Mary Newbery Sturrock said, a huge missed opportunity, a genius who achieved too little. Whether or not that was a consequence of temperament or circumstance (and World War One was a substantial circumstance), it is hard to judge.

Glasgow School of Art: Mackintosh’s masterpiece

Charles Rennie Macintosh serves as a useful antidote to what Murray Grigor termed ‘Mockintosh’. Pastiche copies and ‘interpretations’ have perhaps passed through their peak of popularity, but much rubbish nevertheless persists in polluting even upmarket shops. By bringing together so much research and constructing both a critical biography and a revealing analysis of Mackintosh’s influences and tastes, James Macaulay has reminded us of the tremendous power of the real thing. And unusually for the work of a great artist, some of the real thing is available, if a touch pricey. As a complete architect who oversaw every detail, Mackintosh insisted on filling his buildings only with artefacts he designed. Everything, from door furniture to cutlery, needed to fit with his vision of how a building should look, inside as well as outside.

In the creation of strikingly original pieces of furniture, Mackintosh had the gifts of a genius. His chairs, in particular, are utterly distinctive and almost sculptural. Several designs are reproduced by master cabinet-makers and can be bought – for a price. And here enters an interesting philosophical principle. What is an original piece of furniture? If a craftsman can make an exact reproduction of a Mackintosh chair with the same materials stipulated by its designer, what is its status? For Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms in Glasgow hundreds of identical chairs were made. What is the difference between one of them when it was new and one made last week? Only context and cost, it seems to me. Surely one of the many joys of Mackintosh is that if you are a dedicated buff and prepared to save up or do without, you can own something by him. James Macaulay was a lecturer in the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow and so it is not surprising that his focus is more on buildings than artefacts. And his treatment of the Glasgow School of Art, the story of its construction and the final achievement of its completion is fascinating. Surely Mackintosh’s most impressive project (the Hill House in Helensburgh always seemed a bit chilly to me), the School of Art impresses from the first sight of its powerful facade, through its entrance and on to the amazing interior of the library. It is a working building with the edges scuffed off, a place used by students and staff, and somewhere, I suspect, Mackintosh would have felt entirely at home. But as Mary Newbery Sturrock said, he was a restless genius. Would it not have been wonderful to see the edges knocked off his fiftieth house? And for Scotland to have had someone as good as Corbusier?

CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH James Macaulay

W. W. NORTON & CO, £42.00, ISBN 978-0393051759, PP256

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Volume 6 – Issue 2 – Poetry

BY HUMBERTO AK’ABAL

Translated by James Robertson

Humberto Ak’abal is the foremost poet writing in K’iche’,
a Mayan language spoken in the central highlands of
Guatemala by approximately one million people. Born
in 1952 in Momostenango, he left school at twelve to
work with his father, weaving the heavy woollen blankets
for which the town is famous. Later he went to work in
Guatemala City as a street vendor and porter. In the 1980s
he began to write, but it was not until the 1990s that he
found a publisher willing to print his work. Although he
does write in or translate into Spanish, his first loyalty is
to his own language, K’iche’, which he has described as “a
poetic, guttural language, rich in onomatopoeias”.

Language, the natural environment, love, community
and politics – particularly relating to the brutal repression
of Guatemala’s indigenous population over many
centuries – are the constant themes of Ak’abal’s work. His
poems are mostly concise, but full of colour and passion,
and with a rich vein of humour running through them. A
prolific writer, he has published many collections but very
little of his work is available in English, and until now –
perhaps not surprisingly – none in Scots.

James Robertson first came upon Ak’abal’s work
some years ago, when he was asked to read some of it at
a Writers in Prison event at the Edinburgh International
Book Festival. Subsequently, Robertson collaborated
with Rosemary Burnett, the former Scottish Programme
Director of Amnesty International, in translating Ak’abal’s
poems. The result is Drum of Stone, a selection of Ak’abal’s
work, with examples of the original K’iche’, English
translations by Burnett and Scots ones by Robertson, and
with illustrations by Iain McIntosh.

THE THRAWN YIN

The thrawn wee laddie,
ayewis lookin ahint,
fankled himsel in some ruits
and fell doun.

Stertit tae skreich.

Felt his granny’s vyce
like a chap on the heid.

‘When a dug’s daein a shite
in the middle o the road,
dinna you stare
or ye’ll get whit’s comin tae ye.’

THE HEALER

Ma granfaither wis no weel.

Speelin bens
and crossin glens
we gaed lookin for the healer.

Maister Tun
wis a sonsie auld man.

He took a toom gourd
and sang intil it.

‘Tak it tae him that he mey drink the sang.’

Ma granfaither pit the gourd
up tae his lugs
and bit by bit his face chynged,
and the nixt day he begun tae sing
and syne even tae dance.

A WEE GLISK O THE SUN

This efternune
efter thunner and storms
the lift gied us
a wee glisk o the sun.

The birds chant
and the trees greit
wi the new-faan rain.

I SPEAK

I speak
tae steek
the mooth
o silence.

TALE

The tale is tellt
o an auld, auld people.

Scunnered wi their ain tung – sae it’s said –
they set themsels tae biggin a ben –
mool upon mool –
till it raxed up intae the cloods.

Up yonder, it wis tellt,
they haundit oot languages.

Sae they thocht they’d try it oot…

Ye had tae hae baws tae get up there.
The first thing tae dae
wis cowp a wheen muckle drams.

On the wey back doun,
ye were jist haiverin, pure pish…

but in anither language!

THE TRAUCHLE

The trauchle o mismindin
is poetry tae.

A TELLIN

The mune wis a muckle hoose
sittin on the rigbane o the ben.

Gin ma faither gied me a tellin
I’d awa tae the mune
and kip there.

MA DREAMS

Ma dreams in shivereens
like hail-puckles
are skailt amang the stanes:
ae kiss o the sun turns them tae mist, ae fuff o wund
turns them tae nocht.

IT’S LATE, I KEN

In yer hert
there’s nae room ony mair.

It’s late.

I jist want ye tae ken
that forenent yer door
a gaberlunzie man is waitin.

THRAWN HERT

That efternune
ma hert turnt itsel ower
and landit on its heid.

When I kent
that ye didna luve me
it stertit tae whummle.

It’s you that’s tae blame
noo that ma hert is thrawn for aye.

Drum of Stone by Humberto Ak’abal is published by Kettillonia at £8.99

ISBN: 978 1 902944 27 2

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Volume 6 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

THE BREAKFAST ROOM Stewart Conn

BLOODAXE BOOKS £8.95. PP64 ISBN 978-1852248567

Inspired by Pierre Bonnard’s painting, Stewart Conn’s The Breakfast Room meditates on domestic topics: holidays, family and romantic love. Though he opens with the lyrical ‘Invitation’, his second poem ‘The Duck Shooters’ is a better introduction to Conn’s long-lined style: “soon in scuffed plushness we are heading south/within sight of the coast, conversation muted.” Travel and weather are the main motifs in this first section, as Conn also ponders sailing from Mull and the rain in the Hebrides.

A pair of poems about fathers is also a highlight. In ‘Electric Brae’ the narrator remembers his father’s first car, and in ‘Fishermen’, he recalls his minister father as someone who reeled in his congregation. A series of love poems that reflect on the journey of marriage closes the collection. The freshness of Conn’s poetry comes from his varied forms: the stocky bluntness of the prose poems, the winding paths of the couplets, and the neat steps of his tercets. Conn writes in sentence fragments which he arranges tidily. He enjoys the occasional rhyme, and though his reflections can border on the sentimental, his forms and content are peaceful. TM


AND THIS IS TRUE Emily Mackie

SCEPTRE, £12.99 PP320 ISBN 0340992506

This debut novel about a teenage boy’s love for his father – a love that is obsessive as well as sexual – is engrossing, urgent and compassionate, and marks a hugely promising start for its author, a graduate of the Bath Spa University creative writing programme, where Tessa Hadley and Gerard Woodward teach. Nevis has lived with his father Marshall in their van since he was a child and his mother left them both. Marshall, clearly traumatised by the loss of his wife, has spent all these years driving around the countryside, writing things that he never lets Nevis see. Nevis, never having been to school or made any friends his own age, only knows his father, until they crash one night in the Scottish countryside and are taken in by Elspeth and her daughter, Ailsa, to their failing farm. Before the crash, an incident occurred between Nevis and his father, which has made Marshall realise that his son needs a ‘normal life’, and he now uses the crash to persuade his reluctant son to cut his ties to him. Mackie asks lots of questions about love and loss, about memory and storytelling, as well as about the father-son bond, in finely-observed, psychologically convincing prose. LM


THE COTTAGES OF GLENBURNIE AND OTHER EDUCATIONAL WRITINGS Elizabeth Hamilton

ASLS, £9.95 PP334, ISBN 9780948877865

Elizabeth Hamilton published her novel in 1808 and it was, apparently, “an immediate critical and popular success”, according to her editor, Pam Perkins. Its status slipped in the middle of the nineteenth century and by the time we reached the twentieth, it had disappeared entirely because of a growing dislike for didactic literature; it’s no accident that her contemporary Jane Austen’s clever and witty novels are still much-read and loved. While clearer and simpler than some of her peers, Hamilton employs a style that doesn’t aid storytelling. The Cottages of Glenburnie is less a novel than an instruction in how to live. We see the dutiful Mary pitted against her frivolous, vain sister Bell, and hear the moral tales of selflessness and honesty from the lips of their visitor, former nanny Mrs. Mason. Nanny recounts how she has been treated by various employers through the years, before we are treated to sermons on the lifestyles of the rural poor. Hamilton had a moral purpose in her writing, which better suited her non-fiction work, Letters on the Elementary principles of Education. Students of the period will find this more useful than the general reader. LM


ALAMEIN Iain Gale

HARPER COLLINS, £17.99 PP400 ISBN 978-0007278671

Iain Gale narrates the bloodshed and bravery of the second battle of El Alamein in his latest historical novel. Like his debut work Four Days In June, Gale creates a detailed portrait of men at war. The eleven days of El Alamein, which marked a major turning point in the North Africa campaign, are narrated in three parts: Operation Lightfoot, The Dog Fight, and Operation Surcharge. The story is told through the eyes of seven real-life characters from the Allies and the Axis, including Major Hugh Samwell, who published a war diary in 1945; Lieutenant Keith Douglas, who died before he could publish his collection of poetry; Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, the Allied leader; and General Rommel, whose deteriorating health and lack of supplies plagued him during the campaign. Gale does not describe these battles tactically, but he does impart the experience of being in close combat. The flies and dust of the desert, the never-ending hunger and fatigue, the long waits in the trenches and the adrenaline-fuelled clashes on the fields, are vividly described. What’s missing is each man’s individual qualities; in the succession of battles, the men lose their personalities. TM


GIVE + TAKE Stona Fitch

TWO RAVENS PRESS, £9.99 PP232 ISBN 978-1906120498

Scottish-Cherokee writer Stona Fitch’s latest novel features a jazz pianist fed up with consumer culture. A modern day Robin Hood, Ross Clifton leaves cash in strangers’ mailboxes and on their windshields. He also steals expensive cars and replaces his lovers’ diamonds with fakes. In the evenings he plays for large audiences, spreading his tunes and sneaky activity across the country. Then a trio of outsiders disrupt his routine: his nephew Cray, who questions whether Ross is actually helping anyone; the alluring Marianne, who tempts Ross into giving up his crusade; and his absent father Chief, whose illness causes Ross to rethink his actions. Though the book aims to be a drama, thriller and comedy, Give + Take suits the last genre most. The novel flows best when the characters are exchanging sardonic quips. At other times, Fitch’s prose dissolves into uninspiring jazz metaphors and clichés. The author’s secondary challenge is shaping Ross’s character into an accomplished thief and an emotional artist. Occasionally it’s difficult to believe that a sensitive pianist would be so determined to give money away, but for the most part, it’s worth finding out why. TM


KEIR HARDIE: LABOUR’S GREATEST HERO? Bob Holman

LION BOOKS, £10.99 PP224 ISBN 0745953549

The question mark in the subtitle of Holman’s study comes from the author’s sense that Hardie’s contribution to the Labour Party – the party he helped found and of which he was the first leader – is in danger of being forgotten, not just by the public at large, but by Labour supporters themselves. He paints a very human portrait of Hardie, focussing on why he began a working-class political party. Hardie drew his inspiration not from theory but from experience. He was a baker’s boy who was sacked although starving. He grew stronger from his setbacks and went on to become a champion of the people’s rights. Reading Hardie’s own words on a pit accident that occurred when he was just a boy, or his attacks on Lord Overtoun, who still has a park named after him on the south side of Glasgow and who refused, for all his charitable donations, to give his workers a single break in their twelve-hour day, is a revelation. Holman’s study is unsentimental, and if not psychologically deep, the author is both persuasive and factually careful. LM


A NEW HISTORY OF THE PICTS Stuart McHardy

LUATH PRESS, £14.99 PP256 ISBN 978-1906307653

The Picts were not barbaric, mysterious or enigmatic, according to Stuart McHardy’s new history of one of Scotland’s ‘founding’ tribes. In fact, they weren’t even Picts, which was a Roman mishearing of the name, but probably “Pechts” or ancestors. Contemporary written records on the Picts are non-existent and historians have had to turn to later records which had political agendas. Investigation has also been hampered by a tendency amongst archaeologists to concentrate on Roman remains and their unwillingness to use folklore to identify Pictish sites. McHardy is punchy and uncompromising when apportioning blame for the facile labelling that he feels has compromised our understanding of the Picts up to now. Anglo-centric ‘Scottish’ historians and self-limiting archaeologists shoulder most of the blame but he even finds time for the odd sideswipe at post-Reformation Protestant mobs and modern neo-Conservative Americans. Speculation is inevitable when sources are so scarce but McHardy’s “informed speculation” is generally persuasive as he reverts to basics and adopts a straightforward chronological approach to the history of the Picts in order to “mak it new”. TM


SURVIVING CROZIER Elspeth Sinclair

AFM BOOKS, £7.95 PP160 ISBN 1873976399

William Crozier was a Glasgow artist who found fame in the fifties and sixties: Elspeth Sinclair was the teenage art student who married him a few weeks after meeting in 1954. This account of their marriage is not sophisticated or unbiased, nor is it professional or well-constructed. But it is honest and heartfelt, and it gives a remarkable glimpse into the aspect of an artist’s life that is ignored by biographies of great figures: the way that the women involved with such men coped. On behalf of those artists’ models, girlfriends, wives, daughters, and mothers, Sinclair speaks, and tells of a life of shocking hardship, uncertainty and betrayal. She had so little money for food she tells of frying water and flour in lard to make a meal. She had been an art student but her own ambitions were discounted. She had to hold down manual jobs to keep a roof over her and her children’s heads. The cliché of the bohemian artist is a male cliché: for every such figure, there is a woman who has given up her own artistic aims to bear his children and cook and clean. LM


THE ANONYMOUS NOVEL: SENSING THE FUTURE TORMENTS Alessandro Barbero

VAGABOND VOICES, £14.50 PP460 ISBN 978-0956056047

One would find it hard to believe that this richly detailed novel set during Gorbachev’s Russia is a translated work by an Italian Classics professor. But Alessandro Barbero has perfectly imitated the pitch of classic Russian literature. Called The Anonymous Novel because of the unidentified narrator, this enigmatic work contains a multitude of characters and an elaborate plot. Set in Moscow and Baku, a determined student investigates a series of state trials in which her grandfather was involved. A KGB general does not want these trials uncovered, and goes to certain lengths to see that the truth remains buried. Among the other characters are a neurotic young journalist, a wise middle-aged judge, a carefree Jewish actor, and a devoted Islamic cleric. What brings these different characters together is that omniscient narrative voice. This voice lets the reader know of connections between the characters. He recounts each character’s thoughts and behaviour, noting their deepest fears and desires. The fragmented nature of the storyteller’s voice reflects the uncertainty of the Russian public as they grapple with the new era of glasnost. TM

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The SRB Interview: William McIlvanney

You can’t have a vasectomy and expect to father a new political generation. I found Gordon Brown inviting Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street a stunning gesture. If he hadn’t invited her, it wasn’t as though anyone would have objected or even noticed. It was a gesture of surrender, it was a white flag from the past to the present.


William McIlvanney has been a vital chronicler of Scottish life in his novels and journalism for close to half a century. He was born in 1936, the youngest of four children, in Kilmarnock, a town he has fictionalised as Graithnock. His father, a miner, had taken part in the General Strike of 1926, and this heritage would inspire McIlvanney’s best fiction. After an impressive school career at Kilmarnock Academy, McIlvanney went on to study at Glasgow, the first person in his family to go to university. After graduation, he became a teacher. While teaching, he wrote his first novel, Remedy Is None, a story with shades of Hamlet and Camus about an intense student, Charlie, driven to a murderous act in the wake of his father’s death. Remedy Is None was published in 1966 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Two years later McIlvanney published his second novel A Gift From Nessus whose salesman protagonist Eddie is brought low by conflicting feelings about his job and marriage. By 1975, McIlvanney had quit teaching to write fulltime, and it was in this year he published perhaps his best known novel, Docherty, the story of Tam Docherty, a miner struggling to do right by his family and by his own code during bleak economic conditions. Docherty went on to win the Whitbread Novel Award. McIlvanney should he choose to could claim the mantle of the progenitor of the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre. His 1977 novel Laidlaw set out the blueprint for urban Scottish detective novels which those who followed him have yet to better. As a hero Laidlaw is quite unlike any of the detective characters who came after him, not least for his insistence that there are no monsters and the book’s emphasis on the way socio-economic factors drive people to become criminals. McIlvanney also brought to the crime novel a tough yet lyrical prose few in that field can muster. McIlvanney took his poetic style and love of verse to its logical conclusion in 1970 with the publication of The Longships in Harbour: Poems. Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, McIlvanney wrote journalism, a faithful, funny, often melancholic record of the fallout from the failed devolution vote of 1979 and of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. Surviving the Shipwreck collected his journalism in 1991. The Big Man, published in 1985, details the knockout blow Thatcherism dealt small Scottish communities. It was turned into a film starring Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly. In 1996, The Kiln told Tam Docherty’s writer grandson Tom’s story, and 2006’s Weekend reminded readers of his first novel with its cast of student characters. The week before the General Election, Colin Waters met William McIlvanney at Glasgow’s La Lanterna restaurant. McIlvanney’s interest in other people was evident post-interview when he got chatting about the Election to a couple who recognised him. With humour, intelligence, and not a little patience he drew out the male half of the couple, a former pupil of Gordonstoun who claimed, provocatively perhaps, he was going to vote BNP. Before that revelation, McIlvanney enjoyed his ravioli and talked to the SRB about Gordon Brown, capital punishment, and James Bond.

Scottish Review of Books: Here we are talking just before the general election.What would be your best prognosis for the election?

William McIlvanney: Sorry to be a Jeremiah but I cannot see a good outcome. What I would like to see our politicians do is return to taking social concern seriously and a desire to move away from the simplistic materialism that Thatcher embodied. Maybe the least bad option would be a hung parliament. At least it might not make matters worse. Until we rediscover a genuine concern for society across the board, I don’t see what progress we can make. I’m reading a book at the moment, Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt, which addresses this issue. He writes we have to rediscover the means to care for one another. I wrote years ago in the Eighties, it’s not just your family you should look after, because your family will have to inhabit the same wreck of a society as everyone else. From a selfish point of view it makes sense to care for every member of society. If you don’t, your children pay the price in the society they inherit. I don’t see that care coherently expressed anymore in a Labour Party Tony Blair effectively destroyed. I can only hope if there is a hung Parliament we can make a start towards bringing back serious values and serious politics. At least, it might push the pause-button on our lemmings’ march into meaningless materialism. The lack of a mandate might leave space to think more deeply.

As the era of New Labour draws to a close, what has happened to Scotland and Britain in past 13 years? What happened to that sense of optimism seen in 1997? I’m not sure I had huge hopes in ’97, although I voted for Labour that year.

I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t expect a lot, but I expected more than we got. In order to get into power, Labour trimmed so far. It was like, Extreme? Us? Please don’t think so. That sweet, pink rose. Aren’t we nice people? But, you know, you can’t have a vasectomy and expect
to father a new political generation. I found Gordon Brown inviting Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street a stunning gesture. If he hadn’t invited her, it wasn’t as though anyone would have objected or even noticed. It was a gesture of surrender, it was a white flag from the past to the present.

Have you met Gordon Brown? What do you make of him?

I’ve known Gordon for a long time, and I’ve got respect for him. I like him personally. But I think Gordon has made a series of dire errors. He made a bad compact with Blair. Blair held power for so long that by the time Gordon came in as prime minister, the game had changed completely. One of his prime errors, I think, was not opposing the war on Iraq. It’s not enough to say as Sarah Brown said to me that he genuinely believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was an event that was liable to split the world in two, the sort of event you only go into if you know, not if you believe. He made a cataclysmic mistake not following Robin Cook. But he was keen to be prime minister so he swallowed that. Then the game was over by the time he became prime minister. It was like bringing on the substitute when the game has ten minutes to go and you’re six goals down.

Did you watch the leader debates? What did you make of Brown? He isn’t a natural performer, is he? He’s not. But I don’t care about that.

I’m dubious of charisma as a political criterion. Sarah Palin has charisma. She also makes Genghis Khan look like a cissy. He’s a serious man, he’s intelligent, but politics have become about image, and that is not his strength. The recent debates were a version of Britain’s Got Talent. I don’t know Nick Clegg, I don’t want to denigrate him but all he has offered is a style. What’s the substance behind it? I’m not sure I know. Does anybody?

You’ve not been inactive politically yourself as a writer. To what extent has politics shaped your writing?

I write from an attempt to perceive the truth, and politics are part of that truth. Writing a novel, I’m not constantly thinking of politics. The politics comes out of writing the novel, it isn’t that the novel comes out of the politics. When I write a novel, I try to write as honestly as I can about the life I see around me. The compulsion to write came before I was politically aware. As a spin off from a desire to understand the nature of experience come political convictions.

If you think about the world you grew up in and world we live in now – as a child and young person, the world it appears to us to have its verities. In the past decade the pace of change has been so incredible, it has washed away those verities you grew up with. How has this change of pace altered your vision of Scotland? The first thing that occurs to me about that question is the dichotomy that has been created between the past I knew and the present. As a society we’re much less integrated now. I think that’s partly technological. Walking down the street with a mobile, that creates a carapace around you. People are more isolated today. That has moral as well as mental implications. We’re more dismissive of others than we used to be. In violence, for example. Violence is of a different nature today. There was always violence, of course, but you might call it square-go violence, me versus you and that’s it – and sometimes that was dubious enough. Now there’s a randomness to a lot of city violence. It’s different. A man at a taxi rank hits another man he’s never met before with a baseball bat. The logic of that sort of act of violence is, Whatever I feel, I express, and if you’re in the way of that expression, too bad. It’s a unilateral withdrawal from society, a lot of units functioning independently of each other. I don’t know how we reverse it. But we have to acknowledge its presence before we can try.

The world described in Docherty, the working class depicted and its culture, has completely disappeared. Was it going in the mid-70s when you wrote Docherty, and was the novel then an act of preservation?

It wasn’t preservation, it was an attempt at creating a working-class genealogy. The aristocracy had one. Why shouldn’t we? It was me saying this is where we come from, not this is what we should be like. What people did after reading the book, that was up to them, but I wanted to remind them that the characters’ sense of mutuality made them who they were. I think that sense of mutuality existed strongly at least until the Sixties. I’m writing something about Connery and Bond right now. The traditional values that got us through the war, they were slowly dissipated after it. It didn’t happen right away. The Fifties were fairly staid even with the advent of rock ’n’ roll. But when the film Bond happened in the Sixties it connected with a feeling that ended in the Me Generation and the hippies. The privatisation of politics. Do your own thing. Thatcher couldn’t have come in and done what she did if the mood wasn’t there to begin with. That’s Thatcherism – the clinic with a brutal regime where all those spaced-out hippies had to dry out.

In Docherty, which begins in 1903, Tam despairs at one point, “He had fathered four children and all he ever been able to give them was their personal set of shackles”. In The Kiln, which is a semi-sequel to Docherty, Tam’s grandson, Tom, experiences freedoms Tam wouldn’t have believed and all in the space of fifty years. But I wonder. While one can’t doubt for a second our lives are materially better, perhaps we have returned, politically, to that state of hopelessness Tam felt over a hundred years ago.

Or maybe a worse state. Not materially, and that’s important. Whatever errors Labour made post-war, they raised expectations of employment and improved quality of life. There’s no question we’re better off than we were in Tam Docherty’s day. I would just say it’s not all about being better off. It has to be admitted perhaps that the gaining of small advantages undermined some of the working class. Perhaps socialism never acknowledged how much of the problem was with the people they were trying to help, not just the ones they were fighting against. There were and are some chancers in the working class who bail out on anything worth doing for an easy life. Tony Judt writes in Ill Fares The Land no one wants a social hand-out. Not true now. There are some working class families who haven’t worked for a while because it’s easier to take the hand out. What the ideals of socialism didn’t sufficiently take into account was there were people in their own ranks ready to sell out. Judas takes many forms. But the vast majority of working-class people have retained the sense of being part of a community.

What sort of novel did you aspire to write when you first began to write? Was it literary fiction or entertainments in Greene sense?

I find it difficult to go back and analyse what I did when I first began to write fiction. The first thing I wrote was a poem when I was fourteen. It was like a piece
of extraterrestrial material that landed in the living room, and I thought I think that’s a poem! I chose my judge carefully. My brother Neilly was out back sawing a bit of wood; I went to him because he was tolerant of all my half-baked ambitions. Neilly said, You didn’t write that, did you? It’s great. If Neilly hadn’t said that,
I might have packed it in there and then. Writing came from an impulse I did not understand. My father, who read little in his life, would ask me what I was doing and I’d say I was writing and he never disparaged me. I liked that about him. Where I came from, writing could be regarded as a fairly limp-wristed activity. Luckily I was good at football. After writing poetry, I started writing short stories which blessedly are lost to the world. I cannot honestly explain it. I enjoy writing. Sometimes. Sometimes it feels like rubbing your head against a roughcast wall until the blood comes. I suppose writing was a clumsy desire to take hold of my experience some way. I was lucky. I was the youngest of a family where books were read and argued about endlessly.

How did you move from that first poem to your first novel, Remedy Is None?

I wrote a novella at university, again thankfully lost. Remedy Is None I wrote when I was still teaching. I was in my twenties. I sent it to a publisher, Hutchinson I think, and I got a strange letter back from a senior reader. It said, I can see this novel being published, and perhaps it ought to be, but I don’t want to be the one who publishes it. He said something about it being too smart. After that, I threw the book in a cupboard.

BS Johnson knew my brother Hughie, and he told Hughie that I should send the manuscript to his agent George Greenfield. George, bless him, said he’d give it a go getting it published. I came home from teaching one afternoon to find a telegram from George. All it said was Masterpiece accepted. My publisher told me he decided to put the book out after reading thirty pages because my description of the father character dying was so graphic. It’s interesting that I left off sending the book to George for six months because I thought, I can’t take this. I had visions of the postman getting a hernia lugging that big parcel back to me every month. I was so insecure about who would want to read it. I had a working-class self-doubt about writing which perhaps has never quite left me, because nobody else in my family had written a novel before me. And I’m not good at taking other people’s opinion. I’ve got to convince myself.

Were you more attracted to European or American models of literature? Your philosophic concerns feel European but the language had an American sheen.

Both. Certainly not only British. I loved a lot of French writing – Balzac, Flaubert and most of all Stendhal. I also loved
the Americans – Saroyan, Hemingway, Melville. Camus made a great impact on me. Philosophically, I prefer him to Sartre. What appealed was the way he tried to marry theory with real living, which to me was what socialism was also trying to do. Camus believed trade unionism had been the key to furthering socialism, as I did.

I love the idea that Camus combined a terrific intelligence with terrific humanity. What troubled me about Marxism, it was a kind of intellectual parthenogenesis, the birth of a concept without proven origins. Marx was so sure, which worried me. Karl Popper’s ‘falsification’ wasn’t applicable. Marxism was an unsubstantiated
dream, whereas socialism was based on pragmatism. It worked through society to keep it grounded.

What do you make of the first decade of devolution?

I’m glad we have a parliament. I shouted the odds for it long enough. But one aspect of our new-found sense of ourselves troubles me. This demand that we must constantly talk ourselves up. Everything Scottish is wonderful. No, it’s not. We seem to be being programmed into a robotic optimism that’s almost American. Have a nice day? Not if it’s pishing with rain you won’t. What happened to healthy Scottish scepticism? That wasn’t a ‘cringe’ as they like to call it. That was staring reality in the face and refusing to hide from it. That’s why I think Bill Duncan’s book The Wee Book Of Calvinism – Air-Kissing In The North-East is so valuable. It should be issued free with every Scottish birth-certificate, to be read in later life as a reminder of what Scottishness means. “In a way, Midsummer’s Day is the start o’ winter.” “Nae rainbow withoot rain.” That’s the stuff tae gie the troops, as my mother used to say when she had made a healthy, sustaining meal for us.

There’s a real continuum of feeling between Remedy Is None’s hero Charlie and Eddie Cameron in A Gift From Nessus – a real visceral disgust at the way people talk and conduct themselves especially in company. And it surfaces again in The Kiln, this hatred of phoneyness. Given how vividly it’s described, I can’t believe you didn’t at some point in your life feel something similar yourself.

Oh, yes I did. I came from a family where we argued about everything, even sometimes when the facts were unable to attend. Everybody joined in. My mother, my father, Betty, Neilly, Hughie, me and any visitors who happened to be caught in the crossfire. If you had an opinion, you better make it armour-plated because it was going to be attacked. Not questioned politely. We didn’t say things to each other like ‘I beg to differ’. More things like ‘How many brain cells have you got anyway?’ For years I thought that was how everybody conducted discussions. I thought it was natural to be a kind of Highland Light Infantry conversationalist: when the enemy puts his head over the parapet, attack! I’ve tried to modify my technique since then but not always successfully. I remember a social evening in the 1970s when a woman was careless enough to say to me, “The people I feel sorry for in South Africa are the ones who’ve invested money in it.” She meant that it might be a bad investment. Conversational mayhem ensued. Carriages came early that evening. But I’m still trying to take the cure. But not too determinedly.

From your first novel, you’ve returned again and again to the figure of the young student – Remedy, your short story ‘Dreaming’, The Kiln, and Weekend. What attracts you to that figure? Is it to something to with untapped potential?

Perhaps. I was unaware I had so many student characters until you mentioned it. Thinking about it now, I remember once saying to someone that I loved writing the start of novels. Beginnings are wonderful. Endings are disappointing. Always. When you finish a book, it’s never as good as you thought it would be; you never caught the beast. You caught something like it, but never quite the beast you were hunting.

I do love beginnings. They’re beautiful because they have potential. Endings are sad, whether it’s a book or a relationship, because they’re eviction served on one area of potential. Perhaps that’s why I take so long to write books. I want to keep the dream alive. And I suppose in a way we’re always students. I don’t believe in experts. I believe in discoverers. I believe in that great thing Rilke says, “You must begin again”. While I like it when people tell me they’ve enjoyed something I’ve written in the past, it’s not me anymore. I’m looking elsewhere. The mystery of things has renewed itself and I’m trying to crack the code again. I’ll die mystified. But I’ll die trying to understand.

I can’t imagine there are students today as intense as Charlie and as willing to utterly ruin their life on a principle.

Well, I don’t know if there were many as intense as that then either. I don’t suppose Charlie was exactly Joe Average. Certainly, my own experience of that phase in my life was a lot more banal. Although it was certainly a time of intense feeling and discovery of self. I loved the intensity of
it. I had space and the time to read so many books I wanted to read. It was a huge privilege. Maybe the only hint of the kind of anger Charlie had related to those books. I couldn’t see the people I came from represented significantly there. If literature was testimony to what it had been like to be alive, ninety-eight percent of the witnesses hadn’t been called. And I think that era of going to university for working-class students was more excitingly self-fulfilling than perhaps it felt later. When I taught briefly at Strathclyde and Aberdeen in the Eighties and the Nineties, I thought I detected a more blasé attitude among students. Also, I was taken aback by the number of degrees you could take in stuff like Business Studies. I had always thought university was to enlarge your view of life, not give you lessons in how to make money. So maybe if Charlie went to uni now, he would still have plenty to feed his angst. I mean, Michael Jackson lecturing at Oxford and crying about how much he loves children. And they take him at face value. And the face isn’t even his own. Next, Salamanca hosts It’s A Knockout.

The fight between brothers at end of Docherty and the fight in The Big Man echo each other (they’re bare-knuckle and take place outdoor, in a field), but where one is private and settles a familial and philosophical dispute, in The Big Man, the fight is merely for entertainment and for money with the hero Dan feeling most of all its pointlessness.

That’s a good point. The Docherty fight is real because the two men are trying to live out something in themselves, and it is utterly about them. There is no winner, it’s just a fight. The Big Man’s fight is completely contrived. Dan comes back from that fight realising it was phoney. He realises he wasn’t fighting, he was merely satisfying a commercialism set in train by two other people. I was disappointed when some critics called The Big Man a celebration of machismo. It was actually about saying Thatcherism is a crock of shit. The whole book is meant to be a metaphor for Thatcherism, which Dan rejects when he gives his prize money to Cutty, his opponent. I was offended when people thought I was celebrating violence.

I was saying violence is meaningless whether it’s commercial or personal. Both men have been reduced to ciphers by the men organising the fight. But that’s what people do. They hear something about you and bring those assumptions with them when they read your book. I think you should read a book as straight as possible if you can. Starting a book should be like arriving in a new country. Hand in your passport and take it as it comes.

Bring your intelligence, as much as you can muster. But surrender your prejudices at the border. They’re contraband. The number of people who came to the exact opposite judgement about The Big Man to the one I had intended, I found that troubling. It was the same with the Laidlaw books. There were those who thought it was about Laidlaw being hard. Laidlaw’s not just hard, he’s mad for justice. He’s true to his own manias.

Laidlaw is unusual not only as a detective but as a human being in that he believes “There are no monsters”. If we were to look at the reaction to the recent John Venables case, you’d have to say Laidlaw really is out of step with the rest of Britain. Especially when he says things like, “What we shouldn’t do is compound the felony in our reaction to it. And that’s what people keep doing. Faced with the enormity, they lose their nerve, and where they should see a man, they make a monster.”

I have to admit that there are cases which make me want Laidlaw to step out the page till I have a talk to him. One of them happened in Kilmarnock, where I come from. A horrendous crime. The perpetrator escaped to Europe, I think, was caught and sentenced. Then some time later his lawyers are in court, complaining about him having to slop out or something. I found that a weird one. When you live in a society where someone abducts a young man, sexually abuses him, murders him, dismembers the body, scatters the pieces in Loch Lomond and then has his lawyers campaigning for his civil rights in prison, you’re living in a place so morally bizarre that Jonathan Swift couldn’t satirise it. He would be out of a job. Our society is self-satirising and doesn’t even notice. I wonder what Laidlaw would think about that!

Are you disagreeing with Laidlaw?

I think I may be. I find myself wondering if there are actions so horrific that he commission of them constitutes a unilateral cancellation of any viable connection you can have with the rest of humanity.

It’s a terrible thing to admit, and my younger self would be horrified to hear it, but sometimes I do think, would hanging be such a bad idea in some cases?

I know what you mean. Three friends and I. We’ve been friends since university. Every month or so we meet for lunch. Putting the world back on its axis kind of thing. All of us were formerly anti-capital punishment. Subject came up recently. Two absolutely for, two a hung jury. I was part of the hung jury but I don’t know for how long. And I don’t think that’s just hardening of the arteries.

Throughout your novels, you’ve had speech written in dialect while the prose around the dialogue is in English. Have you never considered writing an entire novel in Scots a la Kelman or Welsh?

No, never. I respect what they’re trying to do but it’s not what I want to do. There are reasons for that. I came from Ayrshire. For years I spoke Scots, still do where I know people will understand me. But I discovered that in a place as near as Glasgow, people would sometimes look at me as if the Martians had landed. They hadn’t a clue what some of the words meant. In other words, what people now call Scots is a poorhouse version of the language, a thin demotic gruel. In Docherty I used Scots dialogue because that’s how they spoke there at that time. I used English outwith the dialogue because the residual Scots wasn’t flexible or rich enough to convey the complexity of the ideas I wanted to express. Even if, after I had studied a Scottish dictionary, I had found the Scots words. Ninety-odd percent of Scots people wouldn’t have known what the hell I was saying. It’s time to own up. Languages die. Who knows what the Etruscans were trying to say? Scots isn’t dead. But it’s no very weel. I at least tried to recognise it in the dialogue. And I took a lot of stick for not extending the Scots into the narrative. Irony is, some of the people who were criticising me wouldn’t know broad Scots if it punched them in the mouth. Which it probably would. You don’t save a language by feeding it with belated middle-class patronage like steroids. What I think can survive of Scots in English is a democratic attitude of mind, what I have called “English in its underwear”. Anyway, I write as I feel compelled to write. You don’t like it, read somebody else.

I wanted to address the issue of the artist’s life in Scotland. We speak English, and if a book by a Scottish author is written in English, in theory it should have a chance of finding an audience anywhere in the Anglosphere. Yet for a large part of your career Scotland itself has been perceived as marginal. Did you ever get the feeling if you’d been born in New York, your work would have got more attention?

Something happened once that brought that question home to me. Siobahn and I met up with Gordon and Sarah Brown in Edinburgh. We were having a meal in David Murray’s restaurant. Among the people at the table were an American, Bob Shrum, and his wife. He had been a speechwriter for President Kennedy, I was told. Gordon had given him a copy of my collection of essays, Surviving The Shipwreck. At one point, Bob Shrum said to me, “I’m going to tell you two things about you. One you’ll like. One you won’t.”

I was all attention. Who doesn’t want news of himself? “One: you write like an angel. Two: if you lived in America, you’d be a millionaire.” I’m not suggesting either statement is true. But I think it is right – at least at the time I started to write – that staying in Scotland probably limited my potential audience. Scottish writing tended not to be taken seriously then as it is now. But it’s the choice I made and I can live with it all right.

Along with your coeval Allan Massie, you are the last two novelists of Grub Street, by which I mean you make your living through writing, not residencies and creative writing workshops. This professionalisation of novel-writing which you and Massie have avoided – what do you make of it? Is it something you’ve avoided because you thought it might impact on how you write? Allan and I have a lot in common, apart from political affiliation. We’ve both used journalism in preference to starving in a garret. Although Allan’s done a lot more f it that I have. I did it seriously for about five years or so. But I realised that while I was doing it, I was making it my full-time job. I wasn’t going to write any more if I didn’t pack in the journalism. So I sold the flat I had. To buy me time to write.

I admire the way Allan’s done it. In fact, there are a lot of things I admire about him. I think he’s massively undervalued at the moment in Scotland. Maybe time will change that. Let’s hope posterity’s more astute than the present. But then this posterity for all the writers that are dead. And think of some of the misjudgements we make about the past. Who could trust posterity? I suppose all you can do is write what you write and say, ‘Tak it amang ye.’ Who cares about posterity’s opinion? We won’t be there at the time.

Has the novel had its day? The Kiln, published in 1996, is pessimistic about its future. “He also had a strong suspicion that books were destined to become as marginal a form of social fuel as coal now. For coal, read gas and electricity. For books, read television and the Internet.”

I don’t know. It might be on the way out but people have been saying that for years. And look at the numbers being published. I suppose it could be a kind of Indian Summer, like one of those brief remissions you can get with cancer. Certainly, if Jordan can sell two million copies of a novel she ostensibly wrote. Maybe the prognosis isn’t too bright. But even if the novel as book is on its way out, who knows what other forms it might take? The internet shimmers up ahead. Like the horizon of a strange new world. Maybe that world will find its voice in new forms.

Writing anything now?

Just now I’m trying to complete a long poem in very bad French. (Don’t ask why. You can see how astute my sense of the market is.) I’m working on the Connery book. I’m starting to write what I think is the third of the Docherty trilogy (Docherty, The Kiln and now this). There are other ideas too vague to mention. My head’s like the laboratory of Dr Frankenstein. Inert forms lying all over the place. Waiting for the lightning-flash that might animate them into possible life. Just your average demented day at the office.

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Tartan Pimps

A Unionist might wander at the impertinence of the notion. Who are the individuals who claim their authority from an imagined commonwealth?

Tartan Pimps? The sense of the title, of transactions implied and inferred, is a little puzzling. Politically, this gaudy tartan is shorthand, obviously enough, for those who “compressed their Scottishness into a costume, a comic licence to invoke and revoke an idea of Scotland or Scottishness in the theatre of Westminster as they saw fit”. But pimping?

A clientele with a single urge and an irresistible purchasing power is suggested. This doesn’t sit well with the evidence, plentiful here, that London’s interest in three centuries of one-night stands with Scotia’s darlings was continuous, or often intense. Why pimps, rather than the willingly pimped? Wouldn’t the latter better describe the lass or lad – let’s call him Gor-don, our never-innocent abroad – bartering his pairts?

But the volume is explicit: the word pimps alerts us to those who have regarded Scotland as “a source of political capital”. Here is a country, in other words, considered as a collection of rotten burghs whose votes – scarcely puissant at the Union’s beginning, trivial at its end – are ripe for trading, the coupling facilitated by those for whom procuring has been the very defi-nition of a career. Yet hold on, you think: what kind of alternative career was ever available?

That has been, and continues to be, a degradation distinctive to Scotland. Getting out and getting on – politics, academia, art, the news and opinion media, the big etcetera – has been cast both as heart’s desire, the noblest prospect, and as the course to which there was, and is, no viable, rational alternative for anyone worth a cheque. Talent quits; ergo, what remains is bereft of talent. The talented pimps quit; ergo, Scot-land is home only for the purposes of an allowances claim. “To trimming of roots: see invoice.”

The deal was explicit, and recognised as such, from the moment an old, corrupt parliament voted itself into oblivion. The traffic south (and the trafficking) began instantly. You can mutter over Red Clydesiders accepting the imperial embrace even as the train puffed out of Glasgow, or amuse yourself with all the lairds fitted for dual use by their English-model public schools. The fact remains that the great, grisly game of sale and no-return was always part of the contract. It was the contract.

You can do your own list. I always picture plump, flushed faces at the end of those grisly ‘Scots Nights’ at Labour or trade conferences. In them, origin was a fluttering pulse; their culture – ah, the sweet injustice – just a losing football team and a barrel of porkscratchings. They took pride in their ‘inordinate’ contribution to the Union without once remembering what their bluster said about exceptions and majority rule. They could as well have been the painters thrilled by London’s galleryites, or the writers who needed that metropolitan agent for their self-respect.

But the phenomenon is not, and has never been, entirely out of the ordinary. A Scot aggrieved by London’s corrupting allure, its ineffable presumption, should contemplate a Breton or Burgundian. Her deputy lives large in Paris, administrative centre of the known world, yet takes care to remain mayor (or whatever) back home. That’s how it works.

But Scotland is a nation, not a sub-station: we insist on this. Northern Ireland’s Six Counties must content themselves as a province; the Welsh as a “principality”; Lesser England as an ultramontane origin myth. No us, no here: here is an essential difference, a kink in the usual arrangement, a survival glimpsed beneath the palimpsest. Scotland the nation persists. So the pimping, whether as a grubby career move, an intellectual Clearance, or as a cultural scorched earth policy, rankles. A bit.

Should we worry more, or have we worried enough? Sometimes it’s kinder to ask the departing to shut the door behind them. Is it possible that Scotland has even seen a benefit from the human export trade? If people have no pressing need or wish to stay, why make funny noises about betrayal? Perhaps a layer of complication, of political and cultural muddle, has been shed like a dry skin with each wave of departures. Try this: the birth of the new Scotland investigated in Tartan Pimps was made easier by the absence of from the delivery room of so many spiritual Unionists.

There is certainly a minor sociological phenomenon to be detected in the fact that most of the prominent expatriates in politics, the media and the arts deprecate the nationalist, as it were, thing. A psychological effect is at work when – to grab names almost at random– Gordon Brown, Billy Connolly, Andrew Neil, or Andrew O’Hagan share views on backwaters, pretendy parliaments, cultural cringes, and spot-welded constitutional arrangements.

But that is, as are they, neither here nor there. Tartan Pimps suffers somewhat from being the work of three relentlessly eclectic minds: Mitch Miller, Johnny Rodger and Owen Dudley Edwards. There is nothing that resembles the sort of dull narrative congenial to most of its subjects. The map of the journey travelled to this renewed Scotland is complicated and incomplete. And our writers have a diverting habit of following diversions for the hell of it.

Here, for example, is a longish piece, straight from the kick-off, on Gordon Brown viewed through the prism of his publishing history. Most of us would have dealt with this in short order. Long before he chose to turn an election campaign into the world’s longest obituary, Brown could have been done in a tanner life: Edinburgh University historian-radical becomes able polemicist becomes star of the international blowhard circuit, as captured – since I happen to have this one handy – in Speeches 1997–2006, a long collection of sentimental sound-bites.

Tartan Pimps returns us to the Red Paper and that other pessimistic intellect, Antonio Gramsci. It reminds us that this Gordon Brown was a bigger figure, culturally, than Prime Minister Brown, and that “the book was his site of struggle”. (In contrast to a Sky TV debate). This is the tale of a complex, wide-ranging man who shrank by degrees just to squeeze through the Downing Street keyhole. So he failed himself and he failed ‘his’ people.

A Unionist might wonder at the impertinence of the notion. Who are these individuals who claim their authority from an imagined commonwealth? These days we have that new-fangled notion, civic society, to obscure the relationship between betrayer and betrayed. It remains the case, nevertheless, that the country has no taste for non-aligned minds. Those who do not speak “speak for Scotland”, who do not derive their legitimacy from an acknowledged obligation to one or other idea of the nation, do not speak.

Ideas can take other forms. Thatcher’s very incoherence was a sort of statement. The devolution debacle of 1979 could be considered, meanwhile, as a review, a lousy one, of some very fine preparatory writing. Tartan Pimps is a book about books and here is a review of the book, trying to avoid being a review, that asks a simple question: hands up who can explain the transmission mechanism between a bunch of old texts once read by a few, a very few, and an actually existing Scottish Parliament?

I don’t say there has been no mechanism, nor clear cases of transmission, but I wonder about the connection between popular movements and this sort of elite literature. Osmosis? Chain letters? Rumours?

MacDiarmid, who puts in a guest appearance here, once said something, musing to amuse, about cause and effect in this sphere. He wondered, mentioning Ireland, if a cultural renaissance was not perhaps the necessary precondition for a political rebirth. That thought hangs over Tartan Pimps. It tends to squeeze out satisfying diatribes on all the bastards who sell us out for the sake of their clients. Can it be possible that a national community must be spoken before it can exist, survive, or revive? Hard luck, that, on the reticent.

On the other hand (the one we never use), the book’s treatment of Tom Nairn is odd. Entertaining, but odd, as though it has become possible to celebrate with faint prose. His section occupies the heart of the book, as it should, given that his own writings on the desuetude into which Britishness has fallen still drive the arguments. But the authors – or one of them – find something mockable in Nairn “the Pythagoras of Scottish Nationalism, the man who described it, measured it, then found cosmic significance in the numbers”.

I’m unfair. The Pimpettes give a good primer on Nairn, nationalism-as-theory, and British Marxism’s long, slow march to the self-determined point at which James Connolly commenced, when no one was firing blanks. Their book is history already, rendered while most of the protagonists remain alive, and its account of ferments past may put some innocent voters in mind of Para Handy and the tortoise. Are we off the ground yet? And are our Tartan Pimps-in-waiting, all those bright-eyed almost-unemployed graduands contemplating London and the big etcetera, about to be detained by this story?

Gordon Brown: Tartan cringer?

In reading the book, I attempted an experiment. How many of the living who are mentioned, I thought, still live and work in these parts? How many would? I stopped counting, of course, when I began to wonder what they might do with themselves and their ineffable assumptions after the joyous homecoming. All that media-bubble Westminster talent landing on Holyrood? Stones would weep. But this is not a book, I think, for expatriates. Its range is far wider, and deeper, than that.

Some might say – though I’d wait and see – that by closing certain pages it marks a new chapter. There is a sense of decks being cleared, records set straight (or less crooked), and perspectives established. For anyone seeking to pass a post-imperial exam, the volume is, pleasingly, all over the place. But lurking within the wit and the qualified qualifications, there is a lesson. This: in useful congress with the world, no one needs a pimp.


TARTAN PIMPS
GORDON BROWN, MARGARET THATCHER & THE NEW SCOTLAND
Mitch Miller, Johnny Rodger & Owen Dudley Edwards

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Bloomin’ Ireland

A nation which had historically hated absentee landlords had become that very thing, the newly rich surging to scoop up luxury apartment in Croatia, Bulgaria and Prague.

Wedged between the chic cafes at the top of West-land Row, the narrowest shop doorway in Dublin opened beneath a sign announcing Sweny, pharmacist and druggist. Inside regiments of apothecary bottles lined old, dark shelves. At one counter manicure implements were displayed under glass. On another a dish held little bars of lemon soap wrapped in brown paper tied with string.

It was an unexpected setting for a literary shrine, unexpected, unless you had a copy of Ulysses to hand and there on Page 80 (depending on your edition), you would find yourself in the company of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom who, on June 16, 1904, walked into this very shop with its “dusty, dry aroma of sponges and loofah”, to purchase an orange flower skin lotion for Molly Bloom.

That sequence in Joyce’s labyrinthine novel was drawn from his own experience of Sweny’s that day. Rather than wait for the prescription to be made up, he agreed to call back for its collection. In the meantime he would take one of those tiny parcels of soap as a gift for Nora Barnacle whom he was starting to woo, and who worked around the corner at Finn’s Hotel in Leinster Street.

Costing four pennies, the soap was to be added to the lotion bill which Joyce would settle on his return. But, like Bloom in the novel, he never did go back to Sweny’s on June 16, leaving the pharmacist out of pocket by three shillings and one penny. Still, the Joycean faithful had since made handsome recompense. Those tiny lemon soaps had become a Bloomsday relic selling to tourists at two euro 50 cents a bar. And, less sentimentally, they might yet serve as a symbolic remedy for modern Ire-land striving to cleanse itself of calamitous arrears.

Sweny’s was established in 1853 and in the 106 years since Joyce was its nippy customer, the city of Bloom, his Ulyssean wanderer, had vanished. But even if the Celtic Tiger was mocked now as a creature of myth, today’s Dubliners still possesses more cosmopolitan gusto and élan than Joyce could ever have imagined. And although it might have been too soon for the emergence of the great, post-Boom Irish novel, one thing has not altered: those whose currency is words remain vividly loquacious in discussing that fluid, contradictory thing, the Irish psyche.

In a recent Radio 4 broadcast Roddy Doyle remarked that the Irish had gone through torture in the past year, with more to come. Bankers had behaved badly, politicians were beyond useless, but the arts, he said, hadn’t let the nation down. Yet on reflection it was funny how things had turned out because during Boomtime writers, comics and grassroot dramatists had been loudly scorned as the party poopers at Ireland’s spectacular dance with excess. But in examining why a brilliantly transformed, small country was now stuttering to a halt, there were those who counselled against too much self-flagellation.

Among the sanguine Declan Kiberd, the distinguished critic and professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, had also taken to Radio 4 to announce that “for the umpteenth time we are facing our disappearance… and we will turn it into a good story and come clear.” However, on the same programme, the satirist Barry Murphy had anticipated a different fate for Ireland, hoodwinked by its own pretensions, floating off on an ocean of latte.

My stravaig around the ruins of the Celtic Tiger began by meeting Dermot Bolger, novelist, playwright, co-founder of New Island Books, and widely admired as an inspirational figure behind the Axis arts centre in Ballymun. Formerly the North Dublin postcode for deprivation and official neglect, Ballymun had been transformed by EU money, Bauhausian architecture and vernacular theatre to become a multi-starred example of urban renewal.

In 1990 Bolger gained his own big breakthrough with The Journey Home, a remarkably prescient work described by the New York Times as “fiercely beautiful” in its depiction of young people grappling with the fact that they didn’t know what being Irish meant anymore. “We came from nowhere,” observed one character, “and found we belonged nowhere else.” That book followed Bolger’s The Lament for Arthur Cleary, winner of the Samuel Beckett Award for Best First Play at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1989, and also a winner at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Like The Journey Home, it was set in North Dublin’s tribal territory when two other features were wrecking the soul of the city: violence fuelled by a drug problem of grievous proportions, and rampant materialism in the guise of a social crusade.

The success of The Journey Home earned Bolger a £40,000 advance for his next novel. But in retrospect that sum was a mere crumb to the Celtic Tiger. “It seemed like a huge amount of money to me,” he said, “but suddenly it meant nothing because you would see houses selling at auction for well over a hundred thousand of the asking price.” During the crazy years of plenty Bolger himself sought to move from the little, redbrick terrace in Drumcondra where he has always lived, but on at least half a dozen occasions he was massively outbid. We met around the corner at the Skylon Hotel on a day of precious sunshine. Nearby the Tolka, a tributary of the Liffey was on its own journey to Dublin Bay.

Bolger reflected that in the 1990s the majority of the Irish did not make loads of money. Most, like his family, just got on with surviving. Okay, the Celtic Tiger had given opportunities Ireland had never enjoyed before: full employment and impressive career paths for a new confident generation. But three words would destroy the Boom – reckless property speculation – the very mention of which now left a bilious taste in the mouth, not least because embedded in them was an acutely disconcerting irony:

A nation which had historically hated absentee landlords had become that very thing, the newly rich surging to scoop up luxury apartments in Croatia, Bulgaria and Prague. “There was a feeling,” said Bolger, “that unless you got a foot on the property ladder you’d be the last monk left outside the round tower before that ladder was whipped up when the Vikings arrived.” So it wasn’t just abroad that appealed. People were buying houses 50 miles from Dublin and never setting foot in them, but selling them after three or four years and doubling, even trebling their money.

Look around today. There are incomplete estates designed for 40 houses but only 20 built, and just three occupied, with the roads leading to them unfinished. A recent survey showed that one in five new houses in Ireland was uninhabited, the ghosts of speculative disasters. “For writers,” Bolger mused, “these are thwarted dreams waiting to be told.”

Chris Binchy, one of a new generation of Irish novelists, had already used fiction to chronicle the social rupture beneath the profligacy and money-laundered gloss. In the view of fellow writer, Joseph O’Connor, Binchy’s thriller, Open-Handed, published in 2008, is “the best novel about the Celtic Tiger yet published.” His sharply observed cast of characters, whether Irish or immigrant, are all on the make in diverse ways which intersected with corrupt and sometimes lethal consequences.

As in his earlier novel, The Very Man, Binchy’s piercingly recognisable portrayals were often inspired by his surrealist encounters as a hotel manager and a chef at the first sushi bar in Dublin. Standing at the centre of his counter, chopping vegetables and moulding rice, he felt he had become invisible to the shiny clientelethrowing 50 euro notes in the air. And with his novelist’s ear primed for eavesdropping, Binchy, nephew of Maeve Binchy, and married to Scottish photographer Siobhan Ogilvy, heard people flagrantly setting up alibis for the night, or just so boastful that he sometimes wondered if he were still living in Ireland at all.

He’d hear a girl excitedly telling someone that her wedding the following weekend had become a logistical nightmare because: “Oh God, the hairdresser’s in Foxrock, the dress is in Paris and the ceremony’s in Cannes.” And there would be sushi bar man on his mobile, pretending to his wife that he was at the airport and she needn’t wait up because he had to catch a flight for an emergency meeting. But underlying the glitzkrieg, there always was the suspicion that everything would cave in. For all the fun of Boomtime, Binchy shared with many a sense that “ this was not who we really were.” It was as if some bizarre lining up of the stars had taken Ire-land to another planet. “Suddenly the way we were presenting ourselves was not our true character.”

Even now, years on from his catering career, Binchy seemed to attract intriguing vignettes. We had hardly begun our conversation in the lounge of the Davenport Hotel – a former nineteenth century church in the Italian classical style – when a man, imposingly tweeded, arrived at our side and urgently requested that we move our chairs so he could reach into the tiny drawer of a cabinet beside the coffee table. Stretching in to the back of the drawer he retrieved a scrunched-up piece of white paper, then with muttered thanks to the Almighty, he turned on his brogues and fled. What could that hidden, crumpled paper have contained? Narcotic traces? A death threat to a property shark? A tip for a horse?

When Open-Handed was published critics praised Binchy for catching the zeitgeist of the Celtic Tiger’s dying days, but, as the pall of negative equity and punishing budget cuts now covered the land, he was cautious of turning “the zeitgeist” into literary capital once again. It was too soon for the big break-out novel about how everything has changed, he said, because Ireland was still in flux, holding its breath, and it was difficult to take shots at a target that was still moving.

Journalism, in and out in twenty-four hours, could be effective at nailing a mood, Binchy thought, but even if a novelist’s writing was going well, it might take two or more years to complete a good book, by which time Ireland, as subject matter, might have turned into something else again. Bolger and Binchy likened “the race into madness” to the aberrant behaviour of teenagers . “Before this, we were a country of children who had to be consoled by people coming in, patting us on the head and telling us how charming and humorous we were,” said Binchy, adding: “well, if that’s your expected role, you step up to it.” But when all that money sloshed into the economy, the Irish became adolescents, very self-regarding. “And a certain harshness entered people’s way of going on.”

At 64 John Banville remains unrivalled as Ireland’s contemporary literary stylist, whose eighteen novels include The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus, The Sea (the 2005 Man-Booker winner) and, most recently, The Infinities. On the day we met at Ormond Quay by the Liffey, he spoke sternly of his native land, noting that he would be criticised for saying that the problem with Ireland was that it possessed no sense of social responsibility. That was a terrible indictment, he acknowledged, but it didn’t make the Irish feel guilty because there had always been someone to blame. It used to be the English. Now it was Brussels.

Elegy for April, Banville’s latest thriller under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black, which will be published in October, again features the irascible pathologist, Quirke. Though Banville insisted he had no interest in writing about social or political issues, either as Black or himself, Quirke was raised in one of those “Irish gulags” where vulnerable children were often abused by paedophile clerics, and the first Quirke story, Christine Falls, published in 2006, resonated terribly with the real-life scandal capsizing the moral authority of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy.

Can a novel teach us about ourselves? Banville was sceptical and quoted his favourite motto which was from Kafka’s diary: “The artist is a man who has nothing to say.” He insisted he had no message either. As a citizen he voted. He had opinions, he paid his taxes. But when he sat down to write all he wanted to do was to put beautiful sentences in the world. “The artist has nothing to tell you that you do not know already,” he said. “The rest is nuance.” Banville’s purpose was to give his prose the same denseness and weight of poetry. “You cannot read a poem and do your knitting at the same time, or think about sex, or what you’re going to have for dinner. You have to read a poem or not read a poem. I want my books to be the same. You read them, or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s fine.”

That pocket master class was also an example of why some criticise Banville for being mannered and elitist. In response he pointed out that he had received wonderful reviews from Britain over the years, but certain English reviewers made the mistake of seeing Irish novels as failed English novels, ignoring that the Irish novel was born of a different language, one that was very ornate, rhetorical and oblique. “We glory in its ambiguity,” he declared. “Orwell believed that prose should be a pane of glass through which you look at what is being said. But for the Irish, prose is a lens which requires you to admire the polish on the surface.”

By the banks of the Liffey: When will such building be completed?

Claire Kilroy’s three novels – All Summer, Tenderwire and, most recently, All Names Have Been Changed – place her in the vanguard of Ireland’s young prose lyricists. Already a familiar visitor at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she graduated from the creative writing course at Trinity College, Dublin. Before becoming a full time writer Kilroy, who is 37, worked as a film editor on the television soap, Ballykissangel, a job which taught her to be surgical with the superfluous. Sometimes you had to write chapters one and two in order to throw them away, she said. Otherwise you might hinder the narrative flow.

We talked in one of the little booths in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street. Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey once haunted it, and Bewley aficionados like to think they are still around. Now, however, there was an added international zing to the clientele and to the menu but the décor was the same dark red and black, inspired by Chinese lacquerwork, and shafts of light still streamed through Harry Clarke’s luscious stained glass windows.

Kilroy remembered John McGahern talking about “the tuning fork moments” when a writer found precisely the right mood for the inner core of a novel. Published last year, All Names Have Been Changed had presented Dublin’s literati with something of a guessing game: just who among them was the inspiration for Kilroy’s central character, the elusive, troubled and sozzled lecher, Professor P.J. Glynn, whose creative writing students were obsessed with his past brilliance? The author, of course, was not telling, but her novel’s stinging excursion through the high elation and torment of the creative life suggested first hand experience of the lonely terrors of writer’s block, and egotism warring with self-doubt.

Kilroy is typical of writers who, despite literary success, are able only to write full time because of Ireland’s innovative tax policy for artists. Even so, she said, she had felt like an alien during the Boom, estranged from friends who felt embarrassed for her because she wasn’t reaping the obvious dividends. “It all seemed gross to me and I felt left behind by the entire country, so that I couldn’t bear to write about Ire-land anymore.”

The ceiling for tax exemption was set at 120,000 euros per annum, a sum most artists could only dream of, but one that now closed the loophole which had allowed billionaires like U2 to avail of the system. (In fact when the new ceiling was announced, the group moved its business HQ to Holland.) But government cuts to the arts in general had been brutal. More than 30 theatre companies reliant on Arts Council funding lost out altogether while others suffered up to 60 per cent reduction. The Association of Irish Composers had funding of 19,000 euros cut entirely. Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey lost 1.1 million euros, and many outlets for cutting edge drama now faced extinction.

All this, needless to say, was raw material for those who saw the world as text. Bolger, who used to run the pioneering Raven Arts Press in the 1980s, recalled that the recession of that decade brought forth a slew of ground-breaking writers, Doyle, Sebastian Barry and Colm Toibin among others. Earlier hard times – when the Church, De Valerean ideology and Charles Haughey still had Ireland in their grip – inspired wrenching candour and savage heartache as recounted by Edna O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern. And long before that, there were Joyce and Beckett looking on with a merciless, ab-surdist eye; the exiles who never quite left home.

Had Ireland really altered? Mary Robinson’s presidency, and that of her successor, Mary McAleese, the current head of state, symbolised a huge emotional gear change with a young, highly educated generation racing ahead to knock sideways the old guard cronyism of the largest political party, Fianna Fail. The Irish were still emigrating but this time, making their mark in Europe as international lawyers, software manufacturers, linguists and bankers. As prosperity at home swelled into that unsustainable bubble, many returned to take on mighty mortgages without a care in the world. And, in a quirky reversal of history, Ireland itself became a nation of immigrants, Eastern European names and those of the southern hemisphere turning the school roll into something of a tongue twister, something exotic.

If the Boom also hastened the inevitable secularisation of “holy Catholic Ireland”, the revelations about the hierarchy’s denial and protection of sex-abusing priests accelerated many people’s break with Vatican orthodoxy. The “land of saints and scholars” still had its scholars but who, below the age of 30, cared any longer for its saints? In which case, what of Catholic guilt? Of the writers I met, only one mentioned that gnawing affliction, John Banville, and he referred to it with rueful glee. Benjamin Black’s creation, Quirke, was loaded with Catholic guilt, he said, “as, indeed, I am, which is a wonderful thing for a writer. Nothing better.”

In those make-believe years when the Celtic Tiger gave every appearance of strutting the global stage, it seemed in some respects to be outstepping its old colonial neighbour. But Dublin always had swagger and corners of grand style. The difference now was that Boom profits had been squandered and the innocent, as ever, were paying the heaviest price. The Church had lost its moral authority and there was scant sign of any civic morality to replace it.

But it was still a bookish place. Travelling on the Dart, the commuter train, from Blackrock to the city centre, I eavesdropped on two students: “Jasus! are you reading Ulysses, or what?” “I am, and I intend to stick with it to the very end to impress the women.” “Well, fair play to you, Ciaran, fair play.” That snatch of chat reminded me of something Bolger had said: if Sea-mus Heaney walked into a bar anywhere in Dublin, everyone would have recognised him. If Ted Hughes had walked into a Lon-don pub, would anyone have known who he was?

It was true that the talk in Dublin bars still flew off on hilarious philosophical tangents and anecdotal rolls, but there was also a fury simmering inside it about the disgrace brought on the country by the big shots who’d cooked the books. “And maybe we are at our best as writers when we have something to rebel against,” said Dermot Bolger. “Novels come about in unexpected ways, but perhaps we need this latest financial horror before another generation can direct its anger towards creating startling, new work.”

In the meantime the Joycean faithful would continue to pass in and out of Sweny’s for their Monday and Thursday Ulysses readings. The tourists would purchase the lemon soap, and elsewhere those writers taking their time to write the post-Boom novel, would hold fast to Ireland’s literary tradition, weighing and testing every word before buffing up the lens of their prose to show a more telling picture.

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SRB Diary: Election Diary – A View from the Edge

Bigotgate: The moment Gordon Brown’s campaign imploded

The much-vaunted british election debate turns out to be more like a Masterchef eliminator. Three hopefuls explain what’s on their menu and why they want to change their lives, then some fat bloke criticises their seasoning. Where’s the beef? I shouted. Where’s the fucking beef?

There’s a stock scene in weepy World War Two movies when the hero, back from the front, all hurt but still craggy, and heroine, probably played by Greer Garson, sit in the garden under a perfect evening sky. As a lone Spitfire snarls overhead, he turns to her and says “The war suddenly seems tiddily far away, darling”, “Yes, tiddibly, Ralph, and such a puhfectly silly little war . . .” This is how friends and family like to think we act and sound since we moved ‘away’ to Argyll seven years ago. (Incidentally, I have a glottal stop, but the wife is authentically posh, so the casting is just about possible.) Being far away from ‘things’ is probably more a cast of mind in others than a real entailment of living in the wilds. In a wired-up world, nothing seems quite remote enough: recession, wars, earthquakes, vol-canos, elections. It’s all beamed straight in. But friends in the South do routinely say “It must all seem very far away to you up there …” In the smallest degree, they’re right. When you grow – or catch – most of your own food and live on freelance cheques, the grinding of the global economy might seem not much louder or more threatening than summer thunder. When the children are simply turned out of doors with a vague warning about fast-flowing burns and adders (which we never actually see, but snakes are essential to an Eden), it’s hard to get exercised about youthful alienation or any other symptom of urban meltdown. And yet, we grimace when the same friends say “Your life must be so much … simpler”. I wonder …

The election date has finally been set, though that government minister with the ’tache, the one who looks like a metalwork teacher but has been given an army, navy and air force to play with, gave away May 6 as the likely date long ago. Older daughter is eligible to vote for the first time, but seems vague about whether she did actually apply for a postal vote and is inclined to ask ‘naïve’ but telling questions like “Dad, what’s the difference between Labour and Conservative, anyway?” If only she could have asked me in 1979, when I knew. We ourselves are long absent from the electoral roll, a mixture of cranky libertarianism and plain oversight, but not because this time round any of it seems puhfectly silly or irrelevant. Life is simpler out here only in the sense that the issues are blunter and unspun, like getting water down from the hill and in a potable state. There are days when it would make a Haitian spit. Even the more abstract and general political questions tend to have a bucolic tinge, like why the local farmers are unable to make a living off land that on an April morning is greener than a green thing. On grass as rich as this, the cows belch and moan “No, honestly, I couldn’t eat another thing … I’m rammed”.

The yowes say that, too, and there are blackface lambs all over the place. Walking by the burn yesterday, just before we learned that Gordon Brown was ‘going to the country’ (an ironic turn of phrase if ever there was one), we found orphaned twins still trying to suckle their dead mother, who looked like the sort of thing Ted Hughes could have whipped up into quite a fine poem. We got there just before the hoodies and ravens did: April is the cruellest month (different poet) after all. It felt properly biblical, bringing them home and rooting out old babies’ bottles with perished teats. We’ve named them Liam and Noel, because they have that kind of lairy confidence and sibling aggression, nutting each other out of the way to get to my fingers. The farmer is coming to get them tomorrow, having admitted that last year he probably wouldn’t have bothered, because the bottom had fallen out of the mint sauce trade. There will be tears and baa’ing. Not from the children, who consider them a noisy nuisance, but from me. We’ve bonded.

THE NEAREST ELECTION poster or flier is eight miles away, the stylised thistle of the SNP, who’re trying to wrest Argyll back from the Liberal Democrats. For a time, the Conservatives nursed some hope of taking what’s not so much a marginal as a potential three-way wobbler. Passing the yellow square, placed impressively high on a telegraph pole, we speculate whether we would – if we had the franchise – give the nod to whoever took the bother to put up posters as far out as us, or maybe to the party that put one in the most inaccessible place. The crag on Blairbuidh looks a likely spot. A mile or so further on, I ask Sarah to stop, because I’ve seen a poster of some sort almost at our road end. It reads: 40,000 volts. DANGER OF DEATH. I might have pulled the switch for Scottish Power.

power and its harnessing is one of the things that makes life out here ‘simpler’, but also not, and it’s one of the things that we are never quite able to take for granted. The landlord put in plans for a wind farm, way up out of sight and sound on Black Craig, but was knocked back because it interfered with someone’s view. We’ve looked at solar panels, at a usable drop of seventy-five feet in a nearby burn that never dries and at a small, farm-scale turbine. Given that what passes for a calm day here would still disrupt a careless comb-over, and that the waters in the loch slosh in and out over a narrow threshold, generating potential gigawatts of power, we endlessly wonder why we are paying such enormous utilities bills and why we have to grope for candles twice a week in the winter.

THE ONLY ISSUE that generates more heat locally is the ferry tender, which is more complex than the Schleswig-Holstein question, and understood fully only by one locally based academic, who writes long letters to the press about it all, which we don’t read. Cowal is, in more senses than one, our Laputa. It is an island when we choose it to be – like when boring acquaintances threaten to come and visit, or when we want to dip out of a dull meeting in Glasgow or Edinburgh, at which point the douce Firth of Clyde becomes the boiling Hellespont – and solidly mainland when it suits our purpose. It doesn’t quite drift like Laputa, politically speaking, but its perceived remoteness and localism, plus a hefty quotient of ‘white settlers’ pursuing the Good Life and escape from overcrowded classrooms, binge drinking and the knife culture makes it electorally atypical to the point of eccentricity. There is something deeply reassuring about those constituencies where block votes on class lines deliver vast majorities, but there’s something almost equally interesting about a constituency so socially diverse that no sociological generalisation applies. Perfect soil for the prickly gorse hue of the LibDems, though there’s less self-reliant social democracy in evidence on the local scene than there is the remote self-satisfaction of those who have ‘got out’ of the city.

THE FERRY SITUATION is the choke point that influences pretty much anything else that goes on here: food and fuel prices (high), health provision (precariously local, but now substantially over the water, too), the tourist economy, crime rates, sport. It also meant that we managed to stand apart from the moil of accusation and justification over MPs’ expenses when the local man rightly pointed out that visiting constituents on Gigha really does require an overnight.

IS NICK CLEGG the only prominent politician to be named after a biting insect? There was a Harry Midgley, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who organised aid for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War, but apart from that I can’t think of anyone. Apart from the ’Nats, of course.

THE FIRST TELEVISED DEBATE. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and flicked over channels twice before I realised I wasn’t watching an archive concert by the Three Tenors. It was all set-pieces, with not much swordplay. My family moved to Dunoon the weekend of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 debate with Richard Nixon. Everyone now thinks that JFK won because Tricky Dick sweated and looked shifty. Don’t they know that Joe Kennedy bought Jack the election by fixing the ballot in Illinois trade unionists up north? Anyway, who in a modern television culture would be charmed by JFK’s wall-eyed stare (which almost made him look like a horse refusing a fence) and those strangled patrician diphthongs.

THE MUCH-VAUNTED british election debate turns out to be more like a Mas-terchef eliminator. Three hopefuls explain what’s on their menu and why they want to change their lives, then some fat bloke criticises their seasoning. Where’s the beef? I shouted (remembering another more noble American election). Where’s the fucking beef?

The first election debate: It was like watching archive footage of The Three Tenors

I MET OUR local Jacobite candidate today [he turns out to be the only candidate I meet during the campaign] which was delightful if a little more prosaic than I’d expected, given the party affiliation. He has strong views on the ferry tender and other local issues, but says nothing at all about the restitution of the Stewart line or the Divine Right of Kings, which seems strange. But perhaps once you’ve lost a crown, losing a deposit is a drop in the bucket.

NANNY MCPHEE is on the stump. Emma Thompson, who has a house just over the hill, has come to sign copies of her new book NMcP and the Big Bang – set during that same silly little war – and predictably she draws a bigger crowd than any of the candidates, albeit many of them below voting age. It raises an interesting thought. Forget the nanny state; let’s just throw in our lot with The Nanny. If the main parties were simply to agree on and enforce the Five Rules – go to bed when we’re told, get up when we’re told, get dressed when we’re told, listen and say thank you, and do as we’re told – and all the pettifogging quibbles about policy disappear with a sharp rap of the stick. As do the warts, snaggle teeth and unruly grey hair. But that’s enough about Gordon Brown.

I JUST WORKED out that under a new system of proportional representation – a complicated algorithm involving corners, and making full allowance for sheer, damned bad luck and bent referees – St Mirren would have been in Europe this season, rather than floundering and flirting with relegation. I may yet become a convert.

THE LATE JO Grimond thought that the ‘natural’ condition of British politics was a steady to-and-fro contention between two basically centrist parties, essentially liberal and social-democratic, with a small Marxist labour party on the far left, and a High Tory ‘country party’ on the right. It’s hard at one level to disagree with him, though one questions the idea of a ‘natural’ state of politics in the international flux. The emergence of New Labour left the kind of socialist rump he predicted, but what of the country interest? Who represents the rural community, particularly now that the countryside, certainly in Scotland, certainly in the West, is now so thickly underplanted with ‘outsiders’ whose voting interests may range across the spectrum but who are certainly unlikely to vote according to a country interest – other than a vague Green-ness, which isn’t the same thing.

MID-WAY THROUGH THE campaign, a local dairy farm, so long established it probably supplied yoghurt to St Ninian when he civilised this corner, is closed down and the herd is sold off. A near-new milking parlour is mothballed. The given reason is that a creamery on nearby Bute has gone under, removing a key outlet for dairy produce in the area. However, there is another, more anecdotal explanation. A Polish farmhand, one of the substantial community of Poles in the area which has left an unexpected imprint on food retailing in the area (sauerkraut, unfamiliar sausages, and the like) explains that at home he would be getting 50-something pence an hour for his work, while here he gets the minimum national wage, a situation that allows him to send home money each month. The kicker, though, is that a Scottish farmer gets the same for a gallon of milk as a Polish farmer. Go figure.

SECOND DEBATE. more like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, we thought, with Gordon Brown hapless but unexpectedly harmonious in the Susan Boyle role, Cam-eron doing Blur (sorry, Blair) cover versions, and Clegg clearly still going for some kind of swoon factor. It did serve to confirm our previous surprise recognition that Cameron, almost uniquely for a contemporary politician, doesn’t do telly very well, and clearly dislikes it. He is an old-fashioned stump politician, better on the soap box than the goggle box, and with a delivery that works best at town hall level. If this is the television election, it seems interesting that the front runner – ignoring Clegg’s dash out of the stalls – isn’t comfortably part of the television culture. We were thrilled he chose Alan Titchmarsh for his one-to-one, but only because we hoped we might get tips on how to revive frosted spuds.

IT’S NOT QUITE true that there are no election posters out this far. For the last ten months, we’ve been looking at one of the biggest of all. It’s a supersize version of the famous Labour’s not working. We call it International capitalism is fucked. Unlike the Saatchi poster, it isn’t faked. Remember that it was revealed to be a cut and paste of a small number of people from Central Casting. Several of them appeared more than once in the Tories’ iconic queue of jobless. Ours involves a certain trompe l’oeil in that the ship you can see out our kitchen and bedroom windows isn’t one ship at all, but a ‘raft’ of six, moored together for an indefinite period in what’s called ‘cold lay-up’. Victims of the downturn in international trade which has marooned an estimated 10% of the international merchant marine fleet, the ships basically just sit there, and may be joined by others if there’s no let-up in the current slump. It’s an interesting question why Maersk vessels are in Scotland, rather than up a fjord or under the battlements of Elsinore. There’s an interesting answer, too. The Danes don’t want them cluttering up their inshore waterways, and having them here continues a long and honourable tradition of dumping unpopular objects and intitiatives (Dounreay, Polaris, the poll tax) in and on Scotland. The Holy Loch is now once again given over to boating, a little light trading and watching for migrating ospreys, but the impact of the US naval presence in the area is still evident, even more than a decade after its final departure during the détente years.

MILITARY ACTIVITY is higher than normal in the Clyde at the moment, with exercises going on somewhere out beyond the Western approaches, but the decline in trading activity means there’s not much activity on the Maersk ships in Loch Striven and plenty of time to contemplate what they represent. Given that each one carries 4000 containers, we’ve had time to think just how many tons of tasteless aubergines from Dutch glasshouses and plastic tat from China each ship can carry. We routinely spurn the aubergines, but with two children in the house we’re as guilty of the other stuff as anyone else.

FRIENDS WHO REGARD my non-voting with the same baffled distaste they reserve for my non-driving – “how do you manage?” – often ask whether I ever voted. Yes, and for the briefest time it went further than that. Back in 1979, when you could still explain to your unborn daughter the difference between Labour and the To-ries, I executed the manoeuvre known as ‘entryism’ and pounded an urban beat in Norwich on behalf of Jim Callaghan. It was a sobering exercise in single-issue politics, one to set alongside the ‘ferry tender’ in Cowal now. Virtually every family I doorstepped – and this in a traditionally Labour half of town, a dour, problematic estate left high and dry by the decline in British shoe manufacture (a Norwich staple) – said that ‘this time’ they’d be voting Tory because they wanted to buy their council house. Almost everyone, except one large guy in a stained singlet who wanted to discuss the merits of supply-side economics as against trickledown. No, he didn’t. He said “If yow don’t get off my facking step, bor, Oi’ll set my facking dog on you.” Wouldn’t that put you off the electoral process a bit?

CENTRE AND PERIPHERY. You don’t hear that rhetoric quite so much any more, just as talking about internal colonialism marks you down as a collector of New Left Review back issues. It’s always been a cliché to say that one man’s periphery is the heart of another man’s world, though Mental Maps (that well-thumbed Pelican paperback of the 1960s) was very much part of a centre-periphery way of thinking and was more about how the metropolitan capitals viewed the fringes. Still, the old riposte that natives of Lerwick or rural Argyll don’t feel at the ‘edge’ of anything but in the middle of something of their own has acquired new weight with the coming of the information revolution. But again, I wonder. I can access the same information as you, but it plays differently out here. The edge is an excellent place to observe the game unfold – you don’t after all spectate football from the centre circle – and it delivers a perspective on the unfolding comedy which is more sober and more objective than maybe first appears.

WE MISSED THE last television debate – I think there was some golf on the other side – but we heard the follow-up discussion, which was entirely devoid of policy analysis and devoted entirely, the segment we saw at any rate, to asking a single self-regardant question: whether television and the debates in particular had changed the nature of electoral politics in Britain for good. The opposite, of course, is the case. Politics, which is the ultimate in ‘reality’ programming, has changed television and taken away its last vestiges of real editorial independence. Presenters get to huff and puff, deliver incredulous cut-aways and rehearsed one-liners, but what election 2010 did in broadcast terms was to close the distance between Jeremy Paxman and Simon Cowell to the point where the tanned, t-shirted one seems the more serious proposition and poor old Paxo is left to do what he does best, which is strutting and fretting in a vacuum.

We play our rustication for laughs, but even those who join in start to get the point. It isn’t that the local farm or the existence or not of a car ferry across the Firth are our only political concerns. It is more that this kind of issue, with a focal length that doesn’t at first reach beyond parish or community scale, has been steadily eroded or elided in national politics, to the extent that major-party manifestos, no longer driven by clear ideological principles and all collapsing towards the centre, are ever more distant from the day-to-day work of a non-metropolitan constituency MP. The devil really is in the detail, and the top-down approach of party wonks and managers, even without a single overarching philosophy to steer it has left local issues stranded in some kind of exceptionalist dumpbin rather than reinstating them at the root of political thinking. That’s what us thinks, anyways, when we can get the straws out of our mouths long enough to say it.

THE CAMPAIGN may have been puhfectly silly in many aspects, but the election itself unfolded with more seriousness and excitement than I’d seen for some time. I half expect to see beaming Pashtun tribesmen appearing at Nick Robinson’s shoulder to show off an empurpled finger-tip. British people rioted mildly outside understaffed polling stations. There is even a whiff of electoral fraud in the air. If some stations stayed open past ten o’clock and some failed to process everyone who queued, are these results void, particularly if they come in a relative marginal?

The reality of a hung parliament, the first, I think, since 1974 doesn’t simply present a challenge to the parties to form a workable government. It constitutes a more serious challenge to the populace. In few major democracies is there such a radical imbalance between awareness of political issues, coupled with freedom of choice, and ignorance about the political process itself. It would have been entertaining at least to quiz some of those people stuck outside an underspent and overworked polling station in Hartford or Birmingham and ask them: how does a Bill go through Parliament and become law?; what does the Speaker actually do? (apart from worry where his wife is); what’s a guillotine debate or an early day motion?; and crucially, who has the right to form a government tomorrow if the outcome isn’t clear, and they’ve been telling us it wouldn’t be clear for weeks.

Landslides are as dangerous in politics as they are on our back roads, though less frequent. To illustrate the perils of a one-party state, you don’t need to look at Zimbabwe, but at Britain in the 80s under Thatcher and again in the 90s under her whelp Blair, vast ‘consensual’ victories that turned out to be, whoops!, socially and culturally divisive and deeply so. Party machines fear hung parliaments and minority governments, but minority, coalition and national governments are by far the safest and most responsive of administrations, depending absolutely on an informed electorate and on sufficient slackening of the whips’ authority to guarantee that conscience not party puts MPs through the lobbies. It, of course, presents the Liberal Democrats with the biggest problem. Having seen the campaign euphoria burst, Nick Clegg can only send his troops back to the constituencies to prepare to join someone else’s government. He can claim that under a reformed voting system the result would have been different, which is like saying that St Mirren would be top of the Premier if Rangers and Celtic were handicapped with racing weights.

Television handed Clegg the equivalent of a novelty chart hit. He’ll be back singing in pubs tomorrow. If he has any sense. His only ethical position is to eschew power (even though he may crave it) and withdraw to a position of permanent, principled opposition, and with the suggestion that the two main parties may have to consider some way of working together in order to ensure stable and effective government. The convention states that Gordon Brown, as sitting prime minister, gets first shot at forming a coalition. A common sense view argues that, on the contrary, David Camer-on has the most MPs and should therefore form an administration. Either way, Nick Clegg has the money cards. He has the opportunity to make an historic, paradigm-shifting decision (as suggested above) or he can cut a deal. Neither course absolutely guarantees there won’t be another election this year, as in 1974. It’s a tricky one for Clegg, who can only get what his party wants by doing nothing . . . If this were a new-fangled blog, rather than a manuscript that has to brought in to town by ox-cart, I could fudge these predictions/prescriptions five minutes from now as the inevitable deal is struck. But let them stand …

“ Is Nick Clegg the only prominent politician to be named after a biting insect? There was a Harry Midgley, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who organised aid for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War, but apart from that I can’t think of anyone. Apart from the ’Nats, of course.”

 

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A Pint and a Nip

Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde – The Two Roberts as they were known – could be treated as one organism, in life as in art.

When Roger Bristow was preparing The Last Bohemians, his book about the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert

MacBryde, he talked to their great friend the poet George Barker and was told to forget facts and tell the truth. Bristow went on to supply plenty of facts; his hefty book even has a catalogue raisonné that contributes to its looking faintly like a catalfaque raisonné. But Barker’s advice is well-cited.

It transmits a defining feature of the New Romanticism of the Forties. During the war, when there was comforting recourse among painters to the pastoral landscapes of Samuel Palmer, there was also a recourse, elsewhere on the scene, to the claim there was no such thing as factual or statistical truth. New Romantics believed in the operations of personality and of genius, and there were those of them who believed in the horrors of democracy. Like the Black-wood’s coterie in Edinburgh during the Romantic period proper, they believed in greatness. George Barker believed, writes his biographer Robert Fraser, that “art was the one cause he felt impelled to honour,” at the outbreak of war. Residence in academic Japan, “away from the main theatres of any prospective war, might help him to preserve that commitment…” Such beliefs smack of the Forties and Fifties – of the bohemian life, that’s to say, of the decades in which the Roberts, as the two painters were known, flourished and foundered.

Another feature of the scene was its attraction to “the shine of the avant-garde”. These are the words of the Irishman Anthony Cronin, a leading chronicler of the scene. The avant-garde was the source of all true art; the ruined people of bohemian Soho and other such enclaves were in touch with it, as the ‘fashionable’ artists and writers whom Cronin disliked, with their deserved falls from grace, were not.

The Roberts were “undeniably working-class”, writes their biographer, as though at some point this had been denied. They came from Ayrshire, and went to Glasgow School of Art, where they began a partnership, a lifelong angry love affair. They were also undeniably gay, though a friend and teacher was to deny it: “they were definitely not homosexual” – “certainly not while they were in Scotland”. Not in their backyard. They soon left it, and descended on Lon-don like the Forty-Five rebellion, or like those compatriots who used to be found drunk on their way to Wembley to watch, or not to watch, the football international against England. This, at any rate, was how the legend that grew around them chose to represent their arrival. This was a time when the “young Sottish painter”, as a misprint puts it, might move to London, while swelling the ranks of those who complained about a London dominance of the arts.

MacBryde wrote home to say that they’d been going to Sassenach parties, which were “not so hot”. Hot or not, the ones held at their Notting Hill studio became a place to be. They were raised to favour and to the West End galleries by the dark power and abrasive charm of their carry-on, and by the patronage of wealthy homosexuals, among others: Sir Kenneth Clark also lent his grand, straight hand. Before that, from on high, they had been shielded from any prolonged experience of military service, at a time when they were both of them not just reluctant to serve but ill. It was no easier then that it is now for painters to make their mark or keep their feet; patronage was hard to do without. And they did manage to secure a public. Their work was praised by good judges, such as Robert Melville. The two men could be treated as the one organism, in art as in life.

They were for a while, in their sphere, as famous as Derry and Toms in theirs, and, for their exploits, as ‘infamous’ as Dylan Thomas was, according to this writer. Major artists, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were living at that hour. Bacon’s opinions were recognisably New Romantic, and his art shared some of its ways with that of the Roberts. Freud and Bacon are, however, rarely mentioned here, seen as associates of Colquhoun and MacBryde. The bleak hatchet faces of their post-Cubist phase were an icon of the time. But the spell wore off. Parties, pubs, Fitzrovia, Soho, Notting Hill – the two men sunk into alcoholism. The Lefevre Gallery withdrew its countenance – a serious blow. Destitution followed. In 1962, Colquhoun died suddenly in his friend’s arms, and four years later MacBryde was knocked down and killed by a car in Dublin while returning from a night out with the famous and infamous and undeniably gifted poet Patrick Kavanagh.

At about this time a visitor to the city, privy to this small world of acerbic Archipelagic romantics, at least as sharp with each other in Ireland as in Scotland, England and Wales, lent his car to a guest who crashed it in his cups and died: “we are now thrown back,” the man remarked, “on the meagre resources of the bus service.” Some members of this small world were connoisseurs of acerbity and of catastrophe, and some hearts may have been hardened by it all. When George Barker first met MacBryde, MacBryde held out, for him to shake, a hand in which broken glass lay concealed. But there’s no doubt that the poignant deaths of the two painters were mourned as such by their many friends, those of them who’d remained on board the ship when the wreck became imminent.

“Tilt it, boy, tilt it. Tilt everything in life,” George Barker once advised a youth who was struggling to pour him a bottle of beer. Barker was, or might have made, a considerable aphorist, and his cryptic sayings shed a suitably dark light on the activities of the Roberts, who lived for a bit in Elizabeth Smart’s Essex house of Tilty, where MacBryde was referred to as the Laird of that ilk. “Wherever I arrive I find my life in flames,” confessed Barker, and there were literal flames which licked the corners of the Roberts’ quarrelsome life. “I have burnt ma lover,” MacBryde is reported to have announced, counter-factually. “I have burned the house with ma lover in it.” Enter Colquhoun, uncharred.

The two of them could be portrayed, using a familiar duality of the modern world, as good cop and bad cop. Colquhoun was physically beautiful, and he was gentle and shy, a contrast to his combative significant other, who looks out at you frighteningly from the photographs here, with a period fag stuck teat-like in the midst of his stare. He’d go around in kilt and bow-tie, one after the other perhaps, singing his Burns songs, dancing his jigs, which could end in tears. Women were apt to speak of his friend as a closet heterosexual, closeted in Bluebeard’s castle. But MacBryde could also be generous, and Colquhoun could be aggressive, displaying the xenophobia of Soho’s outsiders, directed at the deathly English. He once approached a man near him at the bar of a country pub, who seemed to be wearing an old school tie, with the predictable demand to ‘buy me a fuckin’ whisky’. When the stranger asked why, Colquhoun replied, ‘Because I’m a fucking genius’. The man acquiesced, only to have another demanded of him seconds after Colquhoun had downed the first. This time, the stranger demurred, causing Colquhoun to abuse him and his tie, saying he was living proof of what mean shits the English were. Not wishing to suffer this for too long, the man turned to go but before he did so said to Colquhoun, ‘Allow me to introduce myself,’ and gave him his card. The name on it read ‘Robin Ma-cintosh’.

It seems that the painter smiled beatifi-cally and ordered himself another drink. He may have felt that he’d smoked out one of those middle-class Anglo-Scots, not Angles but even worse. The story may sound apocryphal. But it is sourced to a persuasive friend of the pair and to The Fleece, Box-ton, East Anglia. It could well be true. It may even be a fact.

It must also be a fact that the Catholic faith has a part to play in this circle. The Roberts wished to be seen as Celts. MacBryde was of Irish stock, and he ended his days with a measure of Catholic observance in Dublin; and he would abuse his boyfriend for being Presbyterian and puritan. Also, mysteriously, for being East Coast, as opposed to MacBryde’s West Coast, of Scotland. But when Dubliners made contact with his Ayrshire family after his death, it was discovered to have belonged to the Church of Scotland. The importance of Ca-tholicism for Barker’s work was not widely perceived at the time (but was not lost on my Edinburgh mother).

This book sets store by personality, genius, talent, the success that can be measured in critics’ hyperboles and the kindness of galleries and of grant-giving bodies, both strongly solicited by MacBryde. Another aspect of ‘the romanticisms of the Forties’, in C.H. Sisson’s phrase, was the freedom of spirit expected of its artists. The Roberts were free spirits all right, and this, together with their self-destructiveness, calls to mind Joyce Cary’s artist and unruly genius in his novel The Horse’s Mouth, which appeared in 1944, when this generation of artists were hard at their work and play and at their despair and thousands were dying of their wounds across Europe.

For all their independence, their non-serviam, the Roberts were obedient to the changing names and styles of the day: they were aware of the Vorticists, the Neo-Romantics, the post-Cubists. This one organism moved from Samuel Palmer via Wyndham Lewis to Picasso and Braque. It’s possible to feel that Colquhoun might have done well to stay closer to his fine landscape of 1941, ‘Marrowfield, Worcestshire’, but he had striking pictures still to paint; in his last days he hated the idea of their being thought Picasso derivatives. Presently Abstract Expressionism came in to hurt the prospects of this band of artists, rather as the Movement, with its publicity skills and its very different merits, issued its challenge to the romantic writers evoked in Cronin’s shrewd and very funny Dead As Doornails (1976), which speaks fondly and at length about the Roberts.

Roger Bristow deprecates the stories that were recklessly told about how wild and colourful the two painters were. But he has his own stories to tell, and they are worth listening to. The book lacks the flair and penetration of Robert Fraser’s life of Barker or of Cronin’s life of Kavanagh and company: the ‘company’ craved by romantic solitaries was an attribute of this small world. The book tells you things twice, and tells you what you know; it relates that the Roberts checked into a Paris hotel which had no restaurant, so that they had to eat out in bistros. But it is a diligent piece of work, long in the making, and it has its point. The Roberts and their confederates were not among the last of the bohemians; there was much more of that to come, in various veins. But it isn’t beyond imagining that there may be a further vogue for the wild ones of pre-strip-club Soho, for this bygone bohemia, for those painters and writers and drinkers and touchers who hoped to touch the hem of greatness.


THE LAST BOHEMIANS Roger Bristow

SANSON & CO, £29.95 PP456, ISBN 9781906593193

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