Monthly Archives: August 2010


Volume 6 – Issue 3 – Reviews


Kevin MacNeil
POLYGON, £12.99 PP224 ISBN 9781846971693

Kevin MacNeil’s first novel, The Stornoway Way, deserved the praise it received. The tale of a young man’s misadventures, it was dubbed ‘a Hebridean Trainspotting’. Its hero was compared to Holden Caulfield, had Salinger’s angry young man grown up in a landscape of peat stacks instead of skyscrapers. It was funny, angry, lyrical, and fresh, establishing MacNeil as a writer of imagination, linguistic wit, and insight.

The Stornoway Way’s success sets a standard of excellence hard to follow; a task harder still for comic writing, simply because humour is so subjective. MacNeil chooses to complicate his task further by modelling his book on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Only a brave or foolhardy author would bring up Robert Louise Stevenson so explicitly – few can survive the comparison.

The gist of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – a tale “born of a nightmare” – is familiar from cinema and television if not the novel itself. Though the central premise is simple, the plot has a clever structure; several eyewitness accounts build up to the revelation that the good doctor Jekyll is also the monstrous Mr Hyde. Jekyll’s confession is a statement of duality and debasement.

MacNeil’s story is narrated by one Robert Lewis, a young man “in two minds”, as he cycles through Edinburgh towards a rehearsal for a theatre production of Jekyll and Hyde. Privy to his thoughts we learn that he was a foster child, that he’s manipulative and cocky, able to deceive his psychologist and his drama tutors by virtue of his acting skills. He’s knocked unconscious in a traffic accident; when he comes to, he can’t remember his name. Though he’s in pain and his vision is blurred, he makes it to the rehearsal rooms.

The story then unfolds in a series of scenes showing envy, posturing and rivalry between members of the company: the writer, Mac, the director Paul, a rival for the lead, Wolfie, and the leading lady Juliette, with whom Lewis believes himself to havea meaningful relationship. And it’s at this point that, plot, style and humour begins to become unbalanced.

MacNeil’s penchant for a well turned phrase – “the heart of mid-loathing” is a fine example – keeps the text buoyant (though I baulked at the panto trick of broad comedy names like Juliette Pishwater-Aberlady and Freddy East-Fortune). The theatrical milieu doesn’t ring true however; there’s little detail of how actors work or behave, other than badly.

And yet not badly enough: Lewis’s behaviour is never truly shocking, nothing he does equals the trampling of a young girl or the murder of a gentleman in Stevenson’s gothic fantasy. Where Stevenson’s story asks the reader to condemn the actions of Hyde but pity the soul of Jekyll, MacNeil asks us to like and be entertained by Lewis in the throes of lust or jealousy, and to laugh along the way at his pretensions and failings. He hardly has a career to lose, thus there’s no great sense of jeopardy, and insufficient threat either to Lewis or his rivals to be gripping.

The last thirty-five pages are narrated first by Julie, also known as Juliette, and then by Lewis again, regaining consciousness after his accident, with Nurse Stevenson mopping his brow. Julie’s narrative is some of the best writing in the book, fluid emotive, tender. But this last section takes us close to that most unsatisfying method of plot resolution – ‘it was all a dream’. All that went before was a nightmare, in which Lewis struggled with the good and bad aspects of his troubled personality? Surely that was all the more reason for Robert’s unconscious self to surrender to its dark side.

The final pages are a curious mixture of psychological insights and koans which sum up what’s gone before, a tonal change which leaves the reader more informed than satisfied. I wish I could have liked it more.

Susie Maguire

Kevin MacNeil is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 14.30 on 25 August


Angus Peter Campbell
LUATH PRESS, £8.99 PP175 ISBN 1906817383

Uneducated and in his late forties, Archie Grierson lives on an island near Skye. He, who grew up listening to local myths and fantastical tales, is compelled to go to the North Pole because he is “tired of the north wind” and seeks to “extinguish it”.

Archie is not driven by “some existential quest” nor because he is an island-dwelling yokel lacking a sense of what’s possible. He equates the North Wind with his nagging wife, who considers him useless. Archie fears his wife is right, and his mission to the Arctic is partly an effort to avoid admitting this. From what we learn about the couple’s life, really it is the wife and an idle son who lead a futile existence.

Archie doubts himself because he no longer feels he belongs, and his working life, faithful to old skills, seems irrelevant now. Campbell is careful to stress that Archie is not clueless about modern technology; he uses credits cards, a mobile phone and Googles for information for his travel plans.

Working his way to the North Pole, Archie is befriended by refugees in Glasgow who are eccentric and outlandish, and at Heathrow he realises survival depends on adapting to new experiences including accepting the foul language of others because this is their way of coping with a hard job.

Those who accompany Archie on his journey are outcasts. He believes all human suffering is a shared knowledge, regardless of time or place. 9/11, Archie knows, was as catastrophic to those it affected as ‘the Great Shaker’ a gale that destroyed most of Archie’s boyhood environment. The further Archie ventures into the wider world, the more his belief in the importance of the stories he grew up hearing is confirmed.

Archie eventually reaches the North Pole, where the tale becomes unpleasantly surreal. He and his companions work for an oil company which creates pointless tasks for its employees in the belief that if everyone is busy they are also content. For Archie and his team of companions this new world they work for is a utopia and beyond any modest achievement they might hope for in life. They are rewarded with every comfort they do not need and earn money they could only dream of. There rewards are justified by a manager who preaches the company’s gospel, a warped interpretation of Isaiah where “instead of grief the Lord is giving them the oil of gladness”.

In contrast, in scathing language, Campbell describes the plundering of the earth’s resources and asks how the planet (or more pointedly, man) will manage without them. He does not condemn necessary progress, only gross and finally self-defeating exploitation.

Paradoxically, the artificial environment of the Arctic factory brings home the point of the true significance of the stories Archie heard in childhood. The oil company representing capitalism is the same monster once slain in those old tales, but now is apparently indestructible.

When Archie learns the answer to where the North Wind springs from, it is not what he expects. His return to his island also challenges the reality of myth versus the myth of reality. Archie sees his wife cutting her toe nails, which she was doing when he left, and given how others react to him, we begin to wonder whether he ever really left the island. To quote T.S. Eliot, Archie realises, “the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”.

Archie and the North Wind will disturb those who prefer conformity in fiction. It has little in common with other examples of contemporary writing. The tale is complex, but told in confident style. Although every page is marked with some unquiet reflection, these are off-set by amusing observations which give the novel a sparkle and make it somewhat more than mere polemic.

Geoffrey Elborn


Ian S. Wood

Ian S. Wood is one of Scotland’s finest historians, working incessantly on archive and interview, library and field. He excels above all in fairness of mind, a quality profoundly necessary in assessment of Britain and Ireland during the Second World War. Separately both countries served humanity in the conflict, the UK above all in its gloriously foolhardy resistance to Nazism, Eire in vindicating ideals of neutrality and peace.

Yet the story exposes meanness within the greatness, symbolised in Wood’s account of James Maginnis, VC, West Belfast Catholic of “extraordinary courage as a crew member of a midget submarine who fitted limpet mines to a Japanese battle cruiser in Singapore harbour”. He was denied the freedom of his native city (normally bestowed on VC winners) by its Unionist rulers, boycotted by Catholics for heroism in the British navy and by Protestants for heroism as a Catholic, forced to live and die in Halifax, Yorkshire. His memorial was not raised until 1999, and even then Sinn Féin boycotted it, thus reminding us of their wartime alliance with Hitler and yearnings to be Ireland’s Quislings. At least they have honoured Hitler’s legacy as enemies of humanity,

In addition to his sound and shrewd assessment of the present state of the historical art on the comedy and tragedy of British and Irish events, Wood keeps Nazi Germany in Irish perspective, including its various agents. He notes the recently released testimony of the Abwher officer working with Sean Russell (the IRA Chief of Staff, who died on board the Nazi submarine intended to invade Ireland) that Russell was murdered by a former comrade, Frank Ryan, released from a Franco jail to oblige Hitler and despatched to Germany. The submarine certainly turned back after Russell died. Wood says “Little has emerged to substantiate this” which is judicious: but I was told the same thing in Dublin in 1966 (not by a Nazi).

Wood’s impartial justice occasionally loses sight of the smaller picture. De Valera’s formal condolences at the German Embassy in Dublin on the death of Germany’s head of state, Adolf Hitler, were punctilious and puke-making, but it was more than mere mathematics. De Valera’s ruthless wartime treatment of IRA murderers (his own former comrades or addicts of the Anglophobe Irish Press) was perfectly justified, but his own chauvinistic charisma was usurped by their lawyer, Sean MacBride, who by 1945 was correctly assessed by de Valera to be the most dangerous electoral threat on the Irish horizon. Hence British fury at regrets for the deceased Führer gave good insurance to de Valera, as did rude rhetoric from Winston Churchill.

Wood has worked well in archives, but if he had looked closer at British cabinet papers he would have found a post-war minute about consistent Irish breaches of neutrality at British requests, the only condition being that the covert Irish aid remained an absolute secret.

From 1940 to 1942 the great danger for both Ireland and Britain was a German invasion of Ireland. Wood accepts the argument that German bombing of Dublin was navigational error. Myself (and since they nearly killed me, I’m biased), I suspect it was a typical Nazi softening-up operation, warning the Irish that the Nazis might feel obliged to intervene as they had done in Norway, to protect their victim against a British breach of neutrality. Wood notes many an intemperate Churchill outburst against Eire, but Churchill almost certainly realised that the more hostile he sounded, the better hope the Irish had of keeping Hitler away. Had the Nazis landed in Ireland between June 1940 and December 1941 in any strength, Britain could never have mustered enough manpower to repel them, and would have been caught between the pincers of Ireland and Europe.

Wood rightly doubts that there was much pro-Nazi sentiment in Ireland. Mussolini had more fans than Hitler in interwar Ireland (as in Britain), and Franco more again. But one of Wood’s very few errors (apart from his publishers’ bad proof-reading) is in his mention of the late historian Desmond Williams’s 1953 libel against the Irish envoy to World War II Madrid, Williams having charged the man with Nazi links. Wood gets this right, but credits Williams with a chair in Modern History in UCD “before the war but had served with British intelligence during it”. Williams got the Chair after the war. Before it he was a teenage schoolboy flourishing a photograph Hitler signed for him when he toured Germany, and was still pro-Nazi early in the war, as Harold Nicolson noted. How he got into British intelligence might make a very interesting quest book in itself.

Owen Dudley Edwards


A.W. Montford

STACEY INTERNATIONAL, £10.99 PP482 ISBN 9781906768355

The ‘hockey stick’ is a graph showing the Earth’s temperature relatively constant for the past thousand years but then, like a hockey stick’s blade, rising sharply from about 1900 when human-induced greenhouse gas emissions seriously kicked in. But according to A.W. Montford’s “definitive exposé”, it’s just not true.

The captain of the ‘Hockey Team’, Montford writes, is the renowned American climatologist, Michael Mann, and at least forty-two named co-conspirators, all acclaimed scientists. Their motivation?

To keep the hockey-stick’s handle long and flat. Why? Because “the flatter the representation [before the upward swing]… the scarier were the conclusions”.

To generate the scare, and with it, win grant-grubbing political prestige, the scientists on the ‘Hockey Team’ had to massage out the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) – an epoch that lasted 300 years until 1250, when Vikings swashbuckled Greenland and wine from home-grown grapes swilled the manor halls of England.

Had the MWP been left in, claims Montford, the temperature curve for the past millennium would look more U-shaped. This would have diminished the case for human-induced global warming, obviating the urgency to discomfort ourselves by cutting CO2 emissions.

Montford claims that the MWP was airbrushed out by cherry-picking and statistically steamrollering tree-ring data – one of the proxies used to reconstruct past planetary temperatures. Leaked East Anglia emails clinch the case. Bottom line: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate has “proven itself to be corrupt, biased and beset by conflicts of interest…. There is no conceivable way that politicians can justify this failing to their electorates. They have no choice but to start again.”

But who is Montford, and what are his sources?

Andrew Montford is a chartered accountant with a BSc in chemistry from St Andrews University. Based in Edinburgh, he is better known as the pseudonymous blogger, Bishop Hill – self-described as “the dissentient afflicted with the malady of thought”.

His book’s opening paragraph tells how he learned the intricacies of climate science by reading Climate Audit – the blog of Canadian mining consultant, Steve McIntyre. He relates: “While some of the statistics was [sic] over my head … I wondered if my newly-found understanding of the debate would enable me to take on … a public duty to make the story more widely known.”

After posting a summary on the internet, “my sleepy and relatively obscure website [turned] into a hive of activity, with thirty thousand hits being received over the following three days … saying nice things about what I had written [and] even an attempt to use my article as a source document for Wikipedia.”

But McIntyre’s attack on Mann is strongly contested. A study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution concluded that McIntyre had overplayed his hand.

A German appraisal picked up “a glitch” but “found this glitch to be of very minor significance”. An investigation by the US National Academy of Sciences, according
to a report in Nature, “essentially upholds Mann’s findings”. And a review this year by Mann’s own university exonerated him, not necessarily of all error (which is inevitable in fast-evolving scientific fields), but of “any wrongdoing”.

Even if Mann were guilty as charged by the climate change contrarians, the hockey stick has been replicated by at least a dozen other studies. Above all, the MWP is probably a red herring. Its warming effect was probably more regional than global.

A parallel would be our past winter which was exceptionally cold regionally in Europe, but globally the hottest that NASA has ever recorded.

Montford’s analysis might cut the mustard with tabloid intellectuals but not with most scientists. Credibility counts. Mann has published over a hundredrelevant contributions to scholarly journals compared, seemingly, with McIntyre, three, and Montford, nil. Meanwhile, Mann and his colleagues get on with refining their methods and datasets, publishing in such world-renowned journals such as Nature and Science.

The Hockey Stick Illusion might serve a psychological need in those who can’t face their own complicity in climate change, but at the end of the day it’s exactly what it says on the box: a write-up of somebody else’s blog.

At best it will help to keep already-overstretched scientists “on their toes”. At worst, it’s a yapping terrier worrying the bull; it cripples action, potentially costing lives and livelihoods.

Alastair McIntosh


Kei Miller
WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, £18.99 PP256 ISBN 9780297860778

“Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica.” So begins the second novel by Jamaican-born Kei Miller, now resident in Scotland.

Well, this isn’t going to be P. G. Wodehouse – although the great Plum might well have appreciated the niftiness of plotting in the first episode, concerning the fate of a crocheted purple doily. And Wodehouse, so skilled at evoking the view from a window or terrace, would surely have admired the shimmer of the descriptive passages which punctuate an otherwise darkening vision of the Jamaican mind set.

Adamine Bustamante is born in Spanish Town in 1941. After many travails, she finds her calling as a prophet in the Revivalist Church– a ‘warn-er woman’, with a red turban on her head and a hot-line to God, who can predict floods and earthquakes and all manner of other hazards in the offing, “on the other side of Now”. Adamine “saw and she saw and she couldn’t stop seeing”.

This gift of the third eye, practised under the auspices of the evangelical Band of the Seventh Fire, leads to victimisation. “[People] treat me like I is retarded… I is the idiot because I know what they don’t know.” God has a curious way of showing thanks to Adamine for merely doing His will. “Whatever white man believe in with all his heart – that thing name religion; whatever black woman believe in, that name superstition.”

Adamine may briefly glimpse the transcendent glories of Heaven in her quaking visions: but her fellow Jamaicans – envious and intolerant – are very glad to drag her down with them into the dung heap: the moral (and literal) squalor resulting from their own sense of inferiority and rage at life.

Adamine can “hear the future coming on its unstoppable hooves”. She reads natural disasters, but not her own. That’s God’s little joke – enough to make you believe in Satan. “She wondered why it was called a warning if you couldn’t stop it happening.”

Here is a young man’s book. Gloom-drenched; angry, unforgiving; verbally inventive, stylistically restless. It’s possibly on the long side, and the narrative loses some of its pace in the middle. The prophetic gift (or curse) may be the novel’s subject matter, but we learn about future events in Birmingham and Warwickshire a little too soon. (We’re assured the consequences of Adamine’s coming to England will be dire.)

The busy presence of ‘Mr Writer Man’, whom Adamine directly addresses (when she isn’t giving us another “testimony spoken to the wind”), is perfectly justified in terms of the book’s personal revelations, but it interrupts what is a compelling enough story without it. It can lead to occasional moments of over-writing: “PART FOUR In which the story invents parables, and speaks a benediction and then ends.”

I do appreciate, however, that the author prefers risk-taking with narrative to slopping about with the routinely linear: “Maybe sometimes you have to tell a story crossways, because to tell it straight would only mean that it go straight by the person’s ears who it intend for.”

I’m being picky, and this is unfair. Miller also shows great maturity. He’s given us a wonderfully intelligent and sympathetic study of someone who is judged by society – British society, not Jamaican – to be a madwoman. He gets under the skin of women as few men writers have the ability – and the daring – to do. (Indeed the male characters are a thoroughly bad lot: chauvinists, women-bashers, rapists.) The prose is beautifully balanced. The Jamaican patois is “splendocious”, an exhilarating reinvention of English.

“Once upon a time …” were the first four words. How simple that familiar introduction seemed. For 240 pages we’ve careened through the messiness of three generations of connected lives. At last we’ve reached the home run. “… every book runs cover to cover, but the story within breathes its own breath, inhabits a space larger than its covers can provide.”

Not all stories. It takes a gifted teller of tales like Kei Miller to outwit the physical limitations of the form. “In the end every story is edited, brought down to some essence, because here is the sad truth: books end, and pages thin, and every word is pulling us towards the last, climactic full stop.”

There’s no denying that this novel has thrummed with energy. The story has spilled out from between the covers. “In its final moments it may feel as if the book is holding you open. It may feel as if the book’s arms are spread wide, as if to embrace whoever has been holding it.”

Several days later Adamine’s experiences are still fresh in my mind. The deeply disturbed life of a seer has, appropriately enough, cast a sly spell. Allow yourself to be possessed.

Ronald Frame

Kei Miller is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 10.15 on 22 August


Maoilios Caimbeul
UR-SGEUL, £8.99 124PP ISBN 9781900901574

The title may translate as ‘heat’, but this is a cool piece of storytelling. My initial reactions was: too cool, perhaps. An opening paragraph providing a prosaic description of Inverness with a familiar hint of the outsider’s perspective didn’t grip me. But Maoilios Caimbeul, one of Gaeldom’s most seasoned authors of poetry and prose, knows how to draw a reader into the story slowly.

We soon meet Iain Murchadh MacLeòid, whose experiences, and how he deals with them, form the novel’s backbone.

Employed as a Culture Officer for the Great Development Association (GDA) – which sounds a little like a fictionalised Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) – he must deal with the apparent suicide of his colleague and lover, Lili.

When Lili’s body is found in the bed they share, he is questioned by the detectives investigating her sudden death. He has to turn sleuth himself when the police conclude her death is suicide. Iain Murchadh has a hunch there’s more to her death.

Separated from his own (firmly Muslim) wife, he pursues the causes of his lover’s death. First, he finds a note in her handbag, warning “Danger, great danger IM”. Then he discovers her previous illicit relationship with GDA boss, the still married Ronald Crombie – which may have contributed
to the softening of Crombie’s cynicism regarding Gaelic. She also consulted an alternative medicine practitioner and global warming campaigner, Jane Harthill. Might either have contributed to her demise?

By becoming a detective, Iain Murchadh inevitably adopts some of the genre’s clandestine methods, gaining access to Crombie’s office by late-night subterfuge, submitting to hypnosis by Harthill, piecing the clues together methodically, until a conclusion is drawn. But, although homage is paid to the form, and a villain ultimately exposed, it’s closer to Ian Rankin than Dashiell Hammett or Agatha Christie, in mood as well as in its Scottish setting.

The novel’s strength lies in its sense of place. One also welcomes the subtle characterisation of a strand of society quietly staying afloat, the north’s deracinated urban Gaels of Presbyterian background – the grown-up tolerant wing that attends church but likes a drink and to socialise. In Lili’s family, her mother remains a stern follower of her Protestant faith, whereas her brother, a medical missionary in Africa, is more open in his approach to belief.

If there were any doubt Teas is not a run-of-the-mill ‘tec book, suffice to say you don’t expect Albert Schweitzer to be favourably assessed against Paul Tillich in a whodunit, nor do you encounter references to those searchers for meaning Carl Jung and the troublesome Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whose training as palaeontologist and geologist led him to challenge the Book of Genesis, for which he was censured by the Catholic Church.

Raised in a Free Church mission house, and a merchant mariner for two decades, Maoilios Caimbeul brings the restless curiosity of the traveller to his writing. He has a light touch, but I’m not convinced by the denouement – the ‘culprit’ is sent down for what is simply, albeit fatal, psychological damage. But that is one false note in an otherwise fine piece of storytelling.

Had he remained within the boundaries of genre, we might have expected more dramatic twists of the sort that pads out most genre crime novels. What this author has done is offer a story where the search for answers goes on at different levels, social, cultural and philosophical, without providing firm answers. Instead, at every turn, he delivers material that feeds the reader’s curiosity.

Aonghas Macneacail


Jim Crumley
BIRLINN, £9.99 PP237 ISBN 9781841588476

Wolves have been absent from this island for 250 years. If reintroduced, one of the first noticeable effects would be the colours changing on the mountains and valleys where they hunted. Deer, with no natural predators, have grown almost sedentary and graze the landscape down to bare earth; if they were forced back into a watchful life by the presence of wolf-packs, then the grasses and flowers would reappear, along with all the species that depend on them.

Wolves, Jim Crumley argues in this uncomfortable blend of natural history, travel, fiction and polemic, are necessary to nature’s equilibrium. By reframing the wolf’s unwarrantedly dark and threatening image, Crumley makes a persuasive case for its reintroduction in Highland Scotland. He explores successful reintroduction programmes in Norway and America’s Yellowstone Park, highlighting aspects that could be easily recreated in Scotland. Exploding the wolf’s mythical reputation for savagery, and the equally mythical nature of the historical sources which have perpetuated it, he also hopes in some way to rehabilitate the wolf in the popular imagination.

Nature writers have to tread a fine line between an over-identification with their subject to the extent that blocks out the rest of the natural world, and the saccharine lure of the sentimental. Crumley certainly avoids the latter, maintaining at all times that although these creatures have been unfairly castigated for centuries, they are wild animals and should be respected as such. He also manages to avoid the former trap; indeed, the central thesis here is that wolves are an essential, stabilising part of nature. He rigorously demolishes any negative historical reports, and makes it clear that although hatred of the wolf is a cultural mainstay in fairy tales and children’s stories, the real animus often has a mundanely economic root – where wolves are perceived to reduce game numbers on landed estates, they have been persecuted.

That they have been hunted to extinction in this country is enduringly shameful, and it is unarguable that a reintroduction would be a success. Opposition frequently has little rational basis, and seems to come from no other place than the dark otherworld of the imagination, where wolves are ravenous killers howling at the moon. However, Crumley’s proselytizing fervour for this subject leads him into many contradictions, and his frequently bitter and sarcastic style almost suggests that he is animated as much by hatred for the human (or at least European) world as he is by his obvious love for the animal. Admitting that he is not interested in a balanced argument, Crumley starts to make moral equivalences that are decidedly uncomfortable to read.

It is a startling detail to learn that the Clearances were essentially conditional on the removal of wolves from the Highlands – sheep could only replace people if there were no wolves to threaten them – but to compare the two tragedies is absurd. When he makes an explicit comparison to ethnic cleansing, then the error is compounded into something more offensive. When interviewing a Norwegian farmer who has lost dozens of sheep to wolf predation, Crumley dismisses his concern as part of the price we have to pay if reintroduction programmes are to succeed, and by demanding a tolerance of the wolf’s “edgy presence” in the wild he seems to contradict much of his prior argument that wolves would cause no harm to people or their animals.

Crumley, correctly, has no time for the story of the last British wolf shot in the Findhorn in 1743, or for any other “last wolf” narratives, but he interrogates very old sources with such vehemence it’s as if he thinks they are still being taught as imperishable fact in school classrooms.

His italicised, fictional chapters following the “real” last wolf to her final resting place are well written, and manage that rare, Kiplingesque skill of convincingly portraying an animal’s perspective, but by including them he shows that he is not averse to adding a few of his own myths to the unreliable history of the wolf in Scotland. Where two myths meet, they can cancel each other out; what remains is the open space for rational argument and balanced investigation, two things conspicuously missing from this frustrating and slightly unpleasant book.

Richard Strachan


Gerard De Groot
MACMILLAN, £20 PP524 9780230703858

The most encouraging statement of intent I’ve read this year? “I aimed to show that much of the progress commonly associated with the Sixties actually occurred in the Seventies.” I’m obsessed with proving that much – perhaps most – of the cultural, social and political change associated with the 1960s actually began ten years earlier, in another decade routinely decried for dullness and bland conformity. There is, inevitably, a subjective spin. Born in 1954, I wasn’t thinking much about sexual intercourse between the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. An erotic history that began instead under the cloud of Jimi’s death and under the sign of Charles Manson might seem doomed, but it was our decade and we’re possessive and protective of it.

Gerard De Groot’s secondary premise is that while bad things happened in the Sixties, good things happened in the Seventies. I’d instinctively have thought so, but in contrast to the bright colours and psychedelic shapes of The Sixties Unplugged, this time the barrel of the kaleidoscope is gunmetal grey and the tumbling pieces suspiciously like splinters. An age of lead to follow the age of gold. There is a dull argument to be had here about why the Seventies were – or seemed – so bad. Did the Love Generation simply cast a light so bright and intense that everything that followed threw a dark shadow? Was it simply that violence is more charismatic than peace and love and that it is the many violences of the Seventies – Manson, Amin (and that other smiling thug Mohammed Ali), the colonels in Athens, the anni di piombo in Italy (leading up at the decade’s fag end to the Bologna bomb thirty years ago this month, which ripped away my two most valued friends), Nixon’s tantrum politics in Vietnam – that define the time rather than its many examples of progress? Or is it not the case that ‘idealism’ of the kind practised in the Sixties does a certain procrustean violence to reality?

History is always ambiguous and goodness perversely lurks in the shadows. The logical playing-out of communal living without hard work, discipline and perhaps faith is something like Jonestown. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple appears to have something in common with Manson’s ‘Family’, a dialectical relation to real churches and real families. However, that misses the point, or the location of the dialectic. The horror of both is that Jones and Charlie were both fathers of a sort, at a time when fathers were at a discount.

One of De Groot’s students, hearing that this sequel was in production asked him what the ‘thrust’ was this time. Had anyone asked that question in 1970 the response would have been that ‘thrust’ was a phallocratic word, laden with sexual violence and that the book was not intended to promote a thesis (note that the key phoneme is ‘HE’, reducing womankind and sisterhood to an apologetic ‘sis’ at the end: people did once talk like this!) but to offer discrete glimpses of the age, entertaining, nostalgic, historically potent by turns.

In practice, there is both direction and sense of direction in The Seventies Unplugged. Some of it may lie in De Groot’s own subjectivity, but more of it comes from his bravery and honesty in telling both sides of every story, and particularly those that bear on the most intimate human relations. After starting with the Manson Family, he has to consider what feminism did to the family, which is to downgrade and discredit it. Not the least bold of his assertions (a rare editorialising moment) is that feminism denied women the right to make domesticity and motherhood valid life choices, which they demonstrably are and at no cost to personal ‘freedom’.

Another thread of connection in the book is that science and technology have turned monstrous or monstrously inept by the Seventies – Seveso, Three Mile Island, alps of industrially processed cocaine – but this is tempered by the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, who offered millions of childless couples relief from the ‘never’ word. Or is the ‘right’ to have a child still another self-indulgence of the Me Decade?

De Groot may not have an axe to grind, and the pace and format of his book might not obviously encourage deep reassessment, but the kaleidoscope does continually throw up interesting questions of this type. It’s a book which needs to be read slowly rather than browsed. That pace of reading does throw up occasional errors. The infamous Saatchi poster read ‘Labour isn’t working’, not ‘Britain isn’t working’, for instance. That’s a rare lapse, though, in a thoroughly researched book.

The week before The Seventies Unplugged arrived, I had dinner with my in-laws who had an American guest, a smartly dressed middle-aged lady with a faraway smile. Apropos nothing, she announced that she had been a member of Students for a Democratic Society in the Sixties but had “got out” before the Weatherman “thing” got going. There was a certain murmuring round the table about how brightly it had all started and how sour it had gone. I started a riff – one of those laboured 1970s prog-rock riffs, I suspect – about the difference between the Kennedy assassination and Manson family member ‘Squeaky’ Fromme’s 1975 attempt on president-by-default Gerald Ford. “Ah, yes, Lynette Fromme”, the American lady murmured after a silence. “She was my babysitter.” I suspect Gerard De Groot might appreciate both the history and the irony in that tiny observation.

Brian Morton



Candia McWilliam
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99 PP480 ISBN 9780224088985

When Candia McWilliam was nine her mother gave her a paper umbrella. You sometimes see miniature versions of these tipsy contraptions in cocktail glasses, but this was in pale ale Edinburgh where a drookit parasol would quickly become pink papier mache on a stick. She wasn’t allowed to open it up in the house in case of bad luck, so she planked it beside the door and got bad luck anyway.

She says in this memoir that the umbrella was the last gift from her mother, but that’s not true. She was forgetting the puppy. The puppy provides the clue that her mother’s suicide was premeditated. It was an apology of a sop to leave an only child. Margaret McWilliam had a history of depression, wearing sparkly mauve and trying to abduct penguins from Edinburgh Zoo. The night the puppy was brought home Candia slept in her parents’ bed. Her father was away. She was frightened of the cauliflower pattern on the wallpaper of her own bedroom. That was where her mother lay face down. A grim detail is that Candia can describe the precise colour of the Oblivion sleeping tablets Margaret used to overdose. This was in October 1964.

The puppy was downgraded to a blue budgie called Sebastian after Candia’s father re-married within five months. Doubtless, it went the way of Margaret’s yellow Labrador Katie (re-homed with inmates of a lunatic asylum) and her cat Nancy Mitford (put down). “Budgies don’t confide much,” writes Candia, who does. She admits it remains on her conscience that she starved the thing to death. Among Margaret’s effects were over 50 shades of lipstick. Candia used them for drawing sunsets, a communion reminiscent of the boy Truman Capote drinking his mother’s perfume after she abandoned him.

The starving did not end with the budgie. Candia’s Dutch stepmother didn’t care for having a fat bibliophile child about the house, so Candia was made to go outside and skip. She had a bicycle inflicted upon her. When she became presentably thin she was sent to boarding school in England. The emotional starvation had longer-term consequences. One of the astonishing things about this memoir is the unnatural repression of its author’s anger. She reflects that she first needs to discover her anger in order to lose it. Meanwhile, all her loathing is reserved exclusively for herself as she describes her descent into a dark place “as low as you can get this side of whoring and the grave”.

Her alcoholism is sufficiently documented elsewhere to require any discussion here, except to pass on some practical tips on where to hide the vodka “for an emergency”. Pouring it in the iron is better than stuffing the bottle in a welly boot. This may offer a new angle on getting steaming. The coma suffered by Candia’s eyesight is much further outside mainstream experience. The Blepharospasm condition is rare and an operation last year has transferred tendons from her leg to haul her eyelids open. While this is wonderful news, you cannot help but think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced by Lundy loops and squirts of artificial tears to witness the horror.

Candia’s visual memory is unimpaired. The narrative is particularly affecting on the sights, smells and textures of an Edinburgh girlhood. You can almost taste the railings at Inverleith Park as she squeezes through them with a hairnet fixed on a bamboo cane to catch sticklebacks in the pond, or the little rubies of a pomegranate brought home in tissue paper from Rankine’s by Margaret for the afternoon rituals she shared with Candia, eating the fruit with the aid of a pin and two plates.

By chance I have met most of the main personae who appear in this memoir, both husbands, the three children, the father and step-mother. The person who dominates and who I would most like to have met is Margaret. Maybe I did encounter her without knowing it in the streets of early sixties Edinburgh, banging her Mini Countryman into other vehicles, using the discs from Smarties tubes to feed the parking meters or fetching a lobster and champagne cairry oot from Brattisanis chip shop on Henderson Row. I would like to think so.

John Linklater

Candia McWilliam is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 20.30 on 19 August


Allan Massie
VAGABOND VOICES, £10.00 PP187 ISBN 9780956056061

Being a writer is an unhappy business.

For all but an elite, there are constant money worries. Then there is the burden of talent. The fear that you’re not doing your best work, how it will be received when published. If it’s published. You have to be mentally tough to make it as an author over a sustained period. If there was any doubt that was the case, a reading of Allan Massie’s Klaus And Other Stories should settle the debate. A novella and a number of short stories, the volume is dedicated to the toilsome work and life of the professional word-slinger.

The Klaus who gives his name to the novella is Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann, author of Death In Venice. Klaus too was a novelist, and a talented one, although he lived his life in his father’s shadow. Klaus’ claim to posterity is his 1936 novel Mephisto, the story of a talented stage actor in interwar Germany. An avowed leftist, the actor betrays his friends and principles when the Nazis take over. His reward is the career-defining role of Mephisto in Faust. Off-stage, it is the actor who has sold his soul.

The novel was a roman à clef, with the actor character based on Gustaf Gründgens. Klaus, who was gay, had had a relationship with Gründgens; Gründgens had also been married for a short period to Klaus’ sister Erika, who was in fact herself gay. The Mann siblings’ sexuality and leftist politics explain why they along with their parents left Germany shortly after Hitler came to power. Gründgens remained – and was rewarded.

After the war, far from being a pariah, Gründgens – along with fellow artists who collaborated with the Nazis, like the actor Emil Jennings and the composer Richard Strauss – was rewarded by German audiences. Klaus, on the other hand, who had opposed the Nazis from the start, receives no reward. He can’t get his books published in his own country. Gründgens threatens to sue if Mephisto ever appears in Germany.

And so Klaus lives in exile in post-war France, drinking and gobbling pills, trying to keep off the morphine he is addicted to. The Nazis, or “the brown plague” as he called them, have been vanquished; without his enemies, he lacks focus. He also has money worries, depending on handouts from his family. The book he is writing is not going well, and he doubts his talent. The obvious comparison to make – with Thomas Mann – preys on his mind. He’s lonely too – he watches pretty boys from afar, Aschenbach-like.

What Klaus and the stories that accompany it suggest is that the urge to write bends out of shape those who suffer it. Klaus has more advantages than most – talent, a subject, family connections – and yet he is still betrayed by history, his own and his country’s. The other writers Massie conjures are unhappy creatures, the tides of fashion having receded, leaving them stranded on a dry, dusty shore with only financial and alcohol problems for company.

For Thomas Mann the malign effect the artistic urge can have is embodied in Hitler. Mann wrote an essay which spoke of “Brother Hitler”. “Hitler’s insatiable drive for compensation for the miseries he had endured, his inability ever to be content with what he had achieved, and the need to proceed even further and more dangerously on the path he had chosen, these too were the attributes of the artist,” Massie has Klaus think at one point. “Hitler was the artist’s shadow-self, the dark side of the moon.”

Whether you have ambitions to write or not, Klaus And Other Stories is not a cheering read. The tale of Klaus Mann’s final days is, however, tremendously interesting, a warning and an example. Aspiring authors should read it. They’d do worse than study Massie’s craftsmanship, which is evident throughout the collection. Moreover, if you get to the end of Klaus And Other Stories and still want to write, you should go for it. Accept your fate. There’s clearly no helping you. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Colin Waters

Allan Massie is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 11.00 on
24 August

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Queequeg No 6

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Volume 6 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry


Deborah Kay Davies
CANONGATE, £10.99 PP224 ISBN 9781847678300

True Things About Me is the third book by Deborah Kay Davies, whose debut collection of short stories Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful won the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2009. This novel describes a benefit officer’s obsession with a man who comes into her work.

As a series of short pieces, the book does indeed focus on ‘true things’ about the narrator. Each piece begins with descriptive phrases such as “I Am A One-Trick Pony” or “I Feel Empty Sometimes.” This fragmented structure reflects the narrator’s crumbling mental state. Davies describes a woman swept off her feet by a charismatic, curly-haired stranger. Their lustful and volatile relationship takes over her life. She becomes preoccupied with his whereabouts, his other relationships and his children. Eventually, she loses her job and her own family and friends. The narration is slow, deliberate and contemplative. The absence of names for the narrator and her love interest, as well as the lack of quotation marks, creates an intriguing, distorted reality. Though unrelentingly dark and serious, Davies’ taut writing is captivating. TM


Nicholas Phillipson
ALLEN LANE, £25 PP368 ISBN 9780713993967

As Nicholas Phillipson acknowledges, attempting to write the life of a man as intensely private as Adam Smith is a nigh-on impossible task. The discovery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, of notes made while he was a lecturer at Glasgow University make possible what Phillipson calls an ‘intellectual’ biography. He traces Smith’s mental growth and development, from his early days as a schoolboy in Kirkcaldy, to his entry into Glasgow University at the age of fourteen, his days at Oxford when he began to take on many of David Hume’s ideas, and his return to Glasgow. He saw his philosophy speaking not merely about money but also about the correct way to live life. Phillipson has written a marvellous biography that combines complex philosophical ideas with an approachable writing style, to provide a vital history both for students and for general readers. Smith himself emerges as a focused but not unsympathetic individual, who was not much given to socialising or the buzz and hum of the city whose industry contributed so much to his understanding of economics. LM

FOR SALE, $20,000

Bill Drummond
BEAUTIFUL BOOKS, £8.99 PP155 ISBN 9781905636846

Bill Drummond is a former member of The KLF, conceptual tricksters and sometime pop stars best known for burning a million pounds on Jura. In 1995 he bought a photo and text work by Richard Long and by 1998 he was ‘bored’ with it. He then drove the length of Britain sticking up ‘For Sale’ signs offering the work at its original price. Later he decided that it might be more efficacious (or interesting) to cut Long’s photograph into 20,000 pieces and try to sell each piece for $1. Drummond planned to bury the money at the site where Long’s photograph was taken (a specially created stone circle in Iceland) and take his own photograph. There is a moderately interesting travelogue lurking here, but $20,000 is really a series of observations about contemporary art. Drummond questions the effect of government funding on creativity but not the ability of private resources to bring asinine ideas to life; wants recognition for contemporary art while participating in toe-curling discussions on whether an imaginary $20,000 orange should be the arbiter of its own artistic merit; and searches for new ways of presenting text while writing of the “baron” lands of Caithness. TM


Gilbert Highet
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, £9.99 PP296 ISBN 9781590173381

Gilbert Highet was a Glasgow-born academic who settled in the States when he began teaching at Columbia University in 1937, when he was only 31-years-old. A specialist in Latin and Greek, he became a popular public intellectual figure there, editing and translating many works by some of the best classical authors. First published in 1957, this volume is a labour of love that covers seven classical writers and their relationship with various Italian landscapes. Given the manners of the 1950s, some of his comments about the racier poets can seem coy to us now, and his horror at the selling of Coca-Cola bottles by the Clitumnus springs (“only the charm and quiet of the scene made us forget the profanation”) may draw some readers’ smiles, but his knowledge, and sheer enjoyment, of the work of these poets, makes this a delightful volume. Few of the poets escaped emotional damage by the women they fell in love with, but the motherland was always faithful to them, providing them with scenes of beauty and wonder that defined their work and their ideas. Highet muses on their legacy for twentieth century poets such as Eliot and Pound with sensitivity and feeling. LM


Moira Forsyth
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 P0735P352 ISBN 978190520

This charming novel by Highland author Moira Forsyth traces the conflicts of a trio of sisters. Youngest sister Gillian Douglas works in the arts in Edinburgh, while oldest sister and single mum Frances looks after her teenage sons in Ross-shire. On Christmas night, Frances receives a surprise visit from niece Kate and ex-husband Alec, who left her for middle sister Susan thirteen years ago. Alec tells them that Susan has mysteriously disappeared. The family feels guilty, having estranged itself from her years ago. For most of the novel, the plot focuses on the infinitely patient Frances, who is left to contend with moody Kate and old feelings of betrayal. The narrative shifts to other members of the family, who believe they see Susan in various Scottish towns, dressed in a red coat. Gradually, this novel about families changes into a thriller as Frances tries to solve the mystery of Susan’s disappearance. Sensitively written, it contains keen characterisation and a strong awareness of the problems facing women today. Though the plot eventually becomes predictable, Forsyth’s pleasant writing takes the reader to the end. TM


Ron McMillan
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 PP320 ISBN 9781905207312

McMillan, a Scots photo-journalist who has spent a large part of his life based in the Far East and who still lives part of the year in Bangkok, has produced the kind of hard-boiled thriller that would normally have attracted the attention of big publishers looking for the next Len Deighton. Perhaps because McMillan’s prose style is a little more demanding than that, they’ve been reluctant to take a risk but they might just have missed a trick here. Photojournalist Alec Brodie, is on his uppers in London.

He accepts a job offer from the President of Korean-based firm K-N Group to take commercial photographs for a new project. I was surprised the world-weary Brodie didn’t smell a rat with this one as the stench was almost overpowering, but perhaps his history with the country and the women he was once involved with there, have been enough to reel him in. An unusual setting with an authentic feel makes for a superior thriller. LM


Rob Gibson
LUATH PRESS £7.99 PP192 ISBN 9781906307288

This is a fascinating book with an occasionally misleading title. ‘Cowboy’ is broadly defined and Berwickshire-born John Clay, onetime President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and tacit supporter of vigilante action against rustlers, is one of several Lowland Scots who feature here. Gibson ranges across subjects as diverse as the domestication of cattle in the Stone Age, the international growth of the cattle business and the life of R.B. Cunninghame Graham. He’s good on the dual nature of the cowboy-Scot: more inclined to marry indigenous women than other emigrant groups were but involved also in the slaughter of buffalo herds and the Indian reservation system that made large scale ranching possible. There’s also some interesting debate concerning the relative neglect of Scotland’s droving tradition compared to the country’s obsession with cowboy myths. Examples of the latter include Bud Neil’s Lobby Dosser cartoons, the fact that one sixth of Scotland’s population saw the Bill Cody Show in Glasgow in 1891-92 and a photograph of the author as a child-cowboy in Dennistoun. TM


Edited by Stuart Christie
CHRISTIE BOOKS, £7.95 PP160 ISBN 9781604862140

This collection of essays about the role of the anarchist in fiction draws from a surprisingly wide selection. David Weir argues that William Godwin’s 1794 anti-hero, Caleb Williams, “feels the effects of the capitalist world”, which in this case means unfair imprisonment and wrongful execution. But he also argues Godwin’s book was a novel of sentiment, which he believes is a key ingredient in anarchist philosophy. One contributor attacks Ernest Hemingway’s “patronising” attitude to anarchists in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Another claims Louise Michel, a Paris-based teacher and anarchist, actually wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea; when she couldn’t finish it, passed it on to Jules Verne who duly took the credit. The central question is whether this is a volume speaking to the converted, or is seeking to broaden its appeal and educate the rest of us about what anarchism means. Given essays such as Stephen Schwartz’s provocative review of the late Roberto Bolano’s fiction (“a colossal parody of the Latin American literary ‘boom’ and particularly of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez”), I would say it falls into the latter category. A worthy enterprise, then, and an interesting one. LM


Ermano Cavazzoni
VAGABOND VOICES, £12.99PP253 ISBN 9780956056054

First published in Italian almost a decade ago, Cavazzoni’s first novel was made into Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon. Interested in the macabre, Cavazzoni himself characterises his novels as “outpourings of the maniacal”. This novel’s chaotic plot will delight and frustrate readers in equal measure. A student named Jerome is tense about an important exam on the horizon. In a dream, he enters an all-night library to study. Everyone is dressed in pyjamas and chickens walk across the tables. Pranksters slip insects into the sleeping reader’s mouths. Throughout the night, Jerome cannot find the books on modern philosophy he’s searching for; however he does meet other test-takers and insomnia-sufferers. The narrative vacillates between monologues by the eccentric characters and descriptions of the library’s peculiar occurrences. Though Cavazzoni accurately captures the bizarre and impulsive nature of dreams, it will take a patient reader to sift through the novel’s strange plot. TM

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Testament of Youth – The Creative Writing Class of 2010

Stanley Roger Green, in his charming (if forgivably rose-tinted) memoir of literary Edinburgh, A Clamjamfray of Poets, offers a mournful appraisal of our republic of letters’ contemporary denizens: “I am soon made aware of their sobriety and watchfulness… They don’t seem to go to parties for fun, but to ‘network’. No one ever makes a remark that isn’t calculated, and there’s never a Dionysian or Apollonian in sight. It is hard to resist the notion that one is in a market place, that writers are subject to deals and negotiations, that literature is the stuff of commerce.”

Such a conclusion will hardly surprise many. Scottish literature is, regretfully, a market place, and an increasingly desperate one at that. The recession – another notion that is difficult to resist – has made everyone involved a little more hungry-eyed and grubby-handed. The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, isn’t paid much for its trouble. Concurrently, it also appears – especially if one wallows in the narcotic nostalgia of literary history – a less enthusiastically colourful and more business-like place; less wilfully eccentric and ultimately more concerned with its own self-preservation.

Particularly threatened, both in Scot-land and beyond, are short stories, which even prior to the economic collapse were long perceived to be a shrinking niche, regarded as indulgent and unsaleable by many publishers and largely bereft of the markets that sustained them throughout the last century. So here we have two new collections, superficially as representative of new Scottish writing as one could hope for, which, according to one’s perspective, may repudiate some of these impressions, or offer grim confirmation of others.

The Year of Open Doors, edited by onetime Alasdair Gray apprentice Rodge Glass, is at first glance, a defiantly uncommercial venture. Intended in the tradition of Lean Times (the influential 1985 collection featuring stories by Gray, James Kelman and Agnes Owens) and Children of Albion Rovers (a 1997 anthology including Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, which did much to cement Rebel Inc’s adventurous reputation), it has been assembled, according to Glass’s introduction, by concentrating on newer, less known writers, with no age limit and an “internationalist” outlook. The second collection, labouring under the unfortunate title Sushirexia, draws its contributions exclusively from the well-regarded Masters course in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, whose alumni include Louise Welsh and Glass himself.

“The Year of Open Doors isn’t about trying to claim these writers for a Scottish cause, or fit them into a tradition where so-and-so begat so-and-so and all is tidy,” writes Glass in his disarming introduction. While this is no Year Zero manifesto for sweeping away what has come before, there is a sense – articulated in Glass’s introduction and in evidence in many of the anthology’s offerings – that the young writers present have been released from the constraints of legacy, from the constant, jaded awareness of Scotland’s literary history that some might understandably find stultifying. We may chuckle and marvel over oft-told anecdotes of MacCaig and MacDiarmid, Stevenson and Hogg, but we may also wonder how long before these stories become ghosts that haunt young writers – and what might they do to exorcise them?

Despite Glass’s contention, Scottish literature has never been “tidy”, even for those with strong opinions. Across several decades – and, unfortunately, at some points within these two collections – there is that recognisable strain of Scottish writing which Norman MacCaig termed “kitchen sink kitsch” – sentimentality disguised as social realism, full of working-class clichés and twee melancholy. MacCaig’s criticism comes with ample evidence – so what do we do with, say, The Big Man by William McIlvanney, which is both sentimental and social realist, and offers no repudiation of MacCaig’s distaste other than being very, very good?

We can at least argue, especially from our twenty-first century vantage point, that the literature of the country which produced both Burns and Trocchi has few rules, but an abundance of arguments. Furthermore, based on The Year of Open Doors, it seems few are interested in having those arguments anymore. Scottish literature is apparently a less divisive and ideological place than it was forty, thirty or twenty years ago, and that is – probably – a good thing. But the easy-going environment has maybe not forced those writers who have grown and emerged in it to justify their decisions, even to themselves. The judgement is enormously difficult: I, like Glass, would be unwilling to forge a chain between young writers and any imagined, abstract ‘legacy’ of Scottish literature. They should not have to carry such a burden – but they should, perhaps, be more aware of it.

In as much as an overview is possible, The Year of Open Doors offers plenty of variety, but lacks adventurousness. Possibly the most experimental effort is Kirstin Innes’ ‘Beefcake’, a story of delusion and desire, which shows a knack for extreme imagery and only occasionally lowers itself to shock tactics. New York-born Nora Chassler has a gift for translating vivid emotion into the parlance of small talk, but her story, ‘She’s Awfy No’ Well’, suffers both from its epistolary format – the story-as-email is a device that has yet to find its feet – and its perspective; viewing one’s homeland through foreign eyes can be revelatory or tedious, and unfortunately Chassler’s digressions on the mysterious attraction of pies and Irn Bru fall into the latter. Alan Bissett’s story, ‘Celebrity Gossip’, is one of the most assured in the collection, capturing a poignant despair over the adolescent fascination of modern junk culture, but lacking the space or the savagery to deconstruct it effectively. ‘Playground Rules’ by Doug Johnstone, meanwhile, does not break any new ground in its snapshot of a grieving widower and his young son, but as with any honest work dealing with violence, succeeds in becoming positively unpleasant to read. Kevin MacNeil’s ‘A Snake Drinks Water And Makes Poison, A Cow Drinks Water And Makes Milk’ is the most successful and epic story in the book, an escalating narrative leading up to the Asian Tsunami, which pulls off the difficult trick of being both fast-paced and introspective.

The lack of adventurousness mentioned earlier may have as much to do with the editing style as the content, however. In his introduction, Glass explains that stories were jointly selected by himself and Mark Buckland (who set up Cargo, the publisher), each acting as the other’s deterrent: “I was more of a Carver man, he was an admirer of Borges. I was always looking to use less [sic] words, more ordinary words. Mark wanted the opposite.” Having established this opposition, which might have yielded a more fascinatingly varied collection, the pair then decided no story would be included without a vote from both of them. With this in mind, it’s astonishing any stories were chosen at all, and I cannot help but wonder about the stories too extreme in their convictions for the partnership, beloved by one but rejected by the other. But then, as the editors proclaim in a rather ominous frontispiece, in what Douglas Adams might call “large, unfriendly letters”, “A SHORT STORY COLLECTION IS A JOINT EFFORT”.

This communal ethic continues in Sushirexia, though since all its writers emerged from the definable community of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, it is perhaps more natural. It also helps that all thirty-two stories are themed around Hunger. As any such collection should do, it fully explores the possibilities of interpretation that a single concept can encompass. And as with The Year Of Open Doors, it is a mixed bag: the title story, by Jackie Copleton, does not quite justify its grim voyeurism; Duncan Muir’s ‘The Crabman and the Fishwife’, admirably grotesque, owes a little too much to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, while ‘Whit Div Ye Want Me Tae Say?’, Fiona Ashley’s deceptively light-hearted story of sexuality and weight issues, is the collection’s best example of writing in Scots, a test of skill that avoids the perils of transcribed Broons dialogue and successfully evokes the musicality of language in Scotland. The best and most confident entry, however, is Linda Duncan McLaughlin’s ‘First Taste’, an unapologetically romantic portrait of youthful emotion, stunningly presented through a juxtaposition of poetry and prose, possessing the bravery to have an embarrassment of style.

Sadly, it is the exception rather than the rule. Zoe Strachan, one of the alumni of Glasgow University’s Masters in Creative Writing argues in a blurb that the anthology “absolutely gives the lie to the notion that creative writing courses churn out formulaic work.” And she is not entirely wrong – and then again, not entirely right, either. One can understand the snippiness of those talented writers who emerged from a Creative Writing background over its arguable merits, especially when so many of them seem intuitively sound: how could young writers do anything but benefit from being in each other’s company, and learning from each other’s criticism?

The answer is the fear that the detriment of such an environment – much like the editorial compromises of Glass and Buckland – may be if not a lack of ambition, then an excess of humility. It may sound glib, but this is the last quality a young writer needs. Where flashes of daring appear, one wishes such extremes would be embraced, rather than shied away from. This is not to imply the conditions that spawned such stories were gulags of sterile conformity, but still, one wonders how many gorgeous notions may have been killed by the cloying kindness of classroom advice, and how much such practices have contributed to creating the networking “stiff-backed generation” that Stanley Roger Green bemoans. But then again, the most important lesson of creative writing classes may be to teach young writers to ignore the criticisms of morons… This critic included.

Both of these collections – whether in Glass’s comparison with Lean Times and Children of Albion Rovers, or the impressive track record of Glasgow University’s Creative Writing course – seek to live up to standards set before them, while at the same time escaping such legacies. An obvious solution to both would be to allow writers to turn inward and reject the advice and influence of their peers. Literature is not formed by committee, and writing, whatever some may say, is rarely, if ever, a joint venture.

Rodge Glass is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 14.30 on

21 August and 15.30 on 30 August

THE YEAR OF OPEN DOORS Edited by Rodge Glass

CARGO, £13.99, ISBN 9780956308320, PP235

SUSHIREXIA:THIRTY-TWO STORIES ABOUT HUNGER Edited by Gordon Jenkins and Robert Smith

FREIGHT, £9.95, ISBN 9780954402464, PP240

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From Neverland to Wasteland – Playwright David Greig’s Journey

David Greig is a playwright of considerable intellect and range who invites his spectators to undertake a quest. His restless imagination is at odds with the openness of his style of theatre, a style which sees him posing questions without claiming to have answers. This is not merely feigned ignorance, as is the case with playwrights even of the stature of George Bernard Shaw, who know from the outset the stance they are coaxing spectators to embrace. With Greig, the quest is real for both playwright and audience.

Born in 1969, Greig was raised in Nigeria, arriving in Edinburgh at the age of twelve.

Since his first plays were produced in the early 1990s, he has written over thirty works. He is currently the dramaturg of the National Theatre of Scotland. The publication of seven of his plays gives an opportunity to look at his work so far. Plays One samples different moods and styles. His versatility is remarkable, but it is important to distinguish between his own work and collaborative ventures. It is, of course, a truism that all theatre is inherently cooperative, relying on the input of writers, directors, actors, designers. Giles Havergal at the Citizens would, especially in his younger days, repeat that the writer was no more than primus inter pares. David Greig cooperates, firstly and most deeply, with Graham Eatough of Suspect Culture, the company both men established together during their student days in Bristol.

After graduation, they moved the company base to Glasgow, and stated that one of their aims was to give their productions a European edge. The company have several times used languages and actors from other countries and have performed in different European cities, as well as in Scotland. The text was to have equal weighting with music and design, and on occasions the script emerged after sessions of improvisation with actors, which left Greig with material he wrote up into a final form.

The Architect (1996) is a striking example of his early, independent work. The title itself was enough to delude certain reviewers that this was a work of Ibsenite inspiration. The protagonist was not a master-builder afflicted with metaphysical aspirations and doubts, but an honest, idealistic craftsman of the type who had been active in the post-war planning boom, but who had seen his buildings scorned by the people forced to live in the places he had designed. “I was asked to build cheap homes,” he tells Sheena, an inhabitant of such a place, “I put as much imagination, as much thought, as much of myself into these buildings as any…” he says, before his voice trails off in defeated bewilderment. He chooses to die in one of his constructions when the decision is made to dynamite it. The play is naturalist in style, ethical in substance and sited in a precise environment.

But that is only one of Greig’s styles of theatre-making. Plays One includes two one-act pieces, Kyoto and Being Norwegian, which are witty takes on sexual politics, the first featuring international conference delegates whose minds have not always been on the fate of the planet, the second depicting a seeming mismatch between a man, probably Scottish, and woman, probably Norwegian, who have just met in a pub and are making tentative steps towards sleeping together. Brewers Fayre, the most recent piece, has the delicacy of a prose-poem. The dialogue is not attributed clearly to the named characters and the audience is invited to speak some lines. The babble of voices may represent the meeting of disparate people on a website, but each has different needs and yearnings, powerfully or poignantly expressed.

Always the consummate theatrical professional, in recent years his versatility has seen Greig turn his hand to adaptations. Maybe the impulse behind the choice of adaptations is nothing more than the challenge and offer of a commission, but the nature of his intervention in the works themselves is revealing. Adaptations can be done for a variety of reasons, but they always involve moving the play towards the audience, while translations require the audience to move towards the play. Greig has no truck with the patrician assumption made by some producers that audiences are incapable of meeting the challenge posed by other cultures or ages, so he does not provide crutches for lazy spectators. He is gifted with a sympathetic imagination and a creative intellect which leads him to release in fresh language an energy already present in the fibres of the original piece.

His version of Euripides’ Bacchae (2007) for the National Theatre of Scotland, with Alan Cummings in the central role as Dionysus, was a masterly reworking which left intact the time, the setting and the values of the Greek tragedy. The adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors (2008) for the Donmar Warehouse took as its starting point the awareness that the work does not dramatise an ethical or sexual dilemma specific to nineteenth-century Sweden. A lesser playwright would have been tempted to update, to eliminate nuances or subtleties, to blare out originally understated disputes. It would have been easy to tone down Strindberg’s notorious misogyny – an overused term but one with validity in the case of the Swedish writer – and to re-frame the conflict between the two men over the one woman in terms more acceptable to contemporary taste. Greig did not change the underlying architecture of the work, and the miracle was that Strindberg was enabled to address, with uncomfortable directness, sexual clashes known to our age too.

The recent adaptation of Peter Pan, once again for the NTS, was a different matter. Greig remoulded the play so thoroughly as to make him second creator, or re-creator, and this adaptation provides an invaluable key to his work as a whole. It is now clear that a Neverland is the natural habitat of David Greig’s imagination – but not the whimsical Neverland of Barrie, much less the fantasy land prettified even further by Walt Disney. (God knows what Michael Jackson thought he was doing when he gave that name to his own homestead.) For Greig, unlike Barrie, Neverland is not the abode of good-hearted pirates, of jealous fairies, of Red Indians on the warpath or of a menacing crocodile which will in the end see that justice is meted out to villains. It is well rooted and is an alternative dimension of reality. It is, for this play, not far from the banks of the Firth of Forth, in Central Scotland. The ‘lost boys’ are not youngsters misplaced in space who decline to grow up and who long for a virginal mother to tell them fairy stories before tucking them up for bed, but the young men who lost their lives in the construction of the Forth Bridge.

A Neverland recurs in many of Greig’s plays. It can never be precisely placed on a map but remains tantalisingly over the horizon. The American Pilot (included in this volume of plays) is set in some land where a civil war had been underway “for many years” before the pilot’s plane comes down, exposing the injured man to the vicissitudes of a conflict he does not understand. Many of his plays are set in borderlands between unidentified countries, or else in places of transit, stations, airports or airplanes. Real places, especially Scotland and Nigeria, are referred to, but the environment itself is neither entirely real nor entirely unreal. Greig creates situations that are familiar and characters who are in history even if they have little history of their own. He is not a realist who holds mirrors up to society, but nor is he a writer of fantasy drama. He combines the two, disconcertingly.

That was the case with San Diego. The characters include one David Greig, although he did not play himself in the 2003 production. ‘David Greig’ is not really David Greig, but the character addresses the audience in a prologue which informs the audience that “San Diego has featured in almost no fictions, no films novels or plays, but it has served as unnamed backdrop for several episodes of America’s Missing Children”. It is not clear whether the play is a slice of life or whether it is a film being chaotically shot. While they may be figures in a film, the characters are a series of casualties created by a writer called David, who is stabbed in the course of the action, but who returns to make comments on notions such as identity.

Pyrenees features a man found in the snow as he was attempting to cross frontiers, but who has no memory of himself, and who thus inhabits a private Neverland. “I was everything. Everything was me. There was no me.” The situation is, presumably by chance, similar to that at the core of Pirandello’s play As You Desire Me, made into a Holly-wood film in which Greta Garbo gave one of her most memorable performances. In Pyrenees, two women attempt to claim the amnesiac, one the official from the British embassy who had been sent to investigate his dilemma and the other a woman who believes he is her husband, and invites him to come home to Scotland. If this is a play on the very contemporary issue of personal or collective identity, it is also notable for the poetic quality of the dialogue. Greig eschews the forced broken diction of Davis Mamet in favour of a dialogue which displays a sense of the rhythm of the words and of the music of exchanges, and which surpasses naturalistic prose. The lines have been set out by the publisher in short bursts, not in the continuous flow of naturalistic dialogue, as in these lines spoken by Vivienne, the presumed wife:

It took me the whole morning walking before I reached the snow.

I saw a deer.

Drinking at the burn.

Caught in the sunlight.

Just idyllic.

Outlying Islands is set on a distant land which resembles St Kilda or the Aran islands which so moved the imagination of J M Syn-ge, but it is not the culture or beliefs of the people which are the focal point so much as the political decision to experiment with anthrax, making this Neverland a Wasteland.

Where are these islands, where is this San Diego, where is the country the Ameri-can pilot parachutes into? It does not matter – or rather, you’re asking the wrong question. It is a measure of Greig’s developing ambition and achievement that his more recent work probes dilemmas which are not the manifestation of specific era or geo-political circumstances. For Neverland can be a million miles away, and still be as close as next door.

David Greig is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 17.00 on

17 August

PLAYS ONE David Greig

FABER AND FABER, £16.99, ISBN 9780413772534, PP301

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SRB Diary: Festival Diary – How I Became and Oxford Don

Books, bars and festivals have been central to my life (style) for over forty years. In inviting me to write of this, editor Alan Taylor specifi-cally indicated my known affinity, since the early 1980s, with both the Edin-burgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square and The Oxford Bar in nearby Young Street. In fact, in 1991, he was moved to comment, spotting me entering the licensed premises after a morning literary session, that my “Office hours were ruled by the licensing laws”. This prompts a memory of Flann O Brien, in his lay persona of Brian O’ Nolan, answering a charge by a fellow Civil Servant that he was seen going into an early morning pub in Dublin by declaring that his accuser could only have seen him at that hour coming into the same place.

Maybe now is the moment for an element of sober context.

In late August 1966 I came to Edinburgh for the first time armed with contact numbers for the great and the good from the Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houedard. Included were poets Edwin Morgan and Alan Jackson, bookseller Alan Rankin and the Dominican Anthony Ross. The latter found me accommodation and sent me to Bedlam. Literally the University Theatre loud and shrill in Festival mayhem. I left and discovered Sandy Bells pub. From there I ended up giving a reading with Jeff Nut-tall in a nearby bookshop which I have since learned was run by Jim Haynes who in turn introduced me to the Traverse where I encountered The Scaffold and a very curious series of surrealist plays from Liverpool. In the Lyceum I was entranced by Douglas Young’s Scots adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Burdies. In less than a week I was in love with the Edinburgh Festival in all its guises.

By 1969 I was a hardened regular. So was my liver. I applied for a temporary reader’s ticket in the National Library. I failed to get one but the helpful librarian, Max Begg, together with a tall young man I later discovered was the poet Neil MacCallum, took me across the city and so I found The Oxford Bar. It took years to rediscover it despite one accidental visit with novelist John Herdman in the mid 1970s on our way either to or from a gathering of The Heretics in a nearby hotel basement. Then at the Wick Arts Festival of 1978 I met Larry Hutchison.

Dunfermline-based Hutchison, inspiring teacher and knowledgeable bookseller, was even then the leading figure in what was known as “Willie Rosses”. An unexpected bonus was that he was a close friend of Max Begg and both were enormously helpful in the setting up of an exhibition of manuscripts and artwork from Broadsheet, which I edited from 1967 to 1978, in the National Library of Scotland in 1983. In print I have, unwisely, described Larry as “a near redundant Teddy Boy”. In person I have found him a generous friend, professionally, following a number of visits to his school I consider him a natural educator in the finest tradition, being both teacher and mentor for his students. His management of the Book Fairs Association is legendary and it is one of my long time regrets that a proposal in the late 1990s to embed the Fair within the Book Festival never succeeded. On his retirement from teaching he became full time promoter and manager of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA). Now at weekends he sits on a high stool in The Oxford, at times reminding me of a teacher dealing with a new class, but as ever curious and informative and generous with his knowledge.

But there is supposed to be a linking literary theme to all this.

In 1971, together with actor Robert Somerset, I brought to the Fringe a two-hour Yeats themed piece entitled The Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. It saw my first and last performance as actor, as an even then unconvincing “Boy” in the poet’s last great play Purgatory. A performance memorable only for the occasion when my death scene saw me nearly tumble off the raked stage onto the kilted lap of Hamish Hender-son, who was loyally occupying the centre seat of the front row in an almost empty venue in Teviot Place. However I won a sympathy vote that led to a small romance that led in time to me moving to Edinburgh for the first time in 1979.

A year later the Arts Editor of The Irish Times, Fergus Linehan, created an “Arts in Scotland” column for me. This allowed me access to many aspects of cultural Scot-land. When in the early 1990s the novelist John Banville became Literary Editor of the Dublin paper my “shift” moved to the Books pages where, apart from normal reviews, I was to cover the Book Festival for the next decade or so while being commentator on the other Festivals in The Sunday Tribune. These journalistic changes coincided with a large romance between Glasgow and Dumfries over three years, which in turn led to me returning to Edinburgh early in 1992.

And now to return to normal transmission between Charlotte Square and Young Street.

In 1983 when a proposed Book Festival in Princes Street Gardens was prohibited due to an edict refusing the sale of “tracts” within its lawns and pathways the genteel burghers of Charlotte Square were persuaded to allow a one-off “conglomeration” of seven tents be placed within their private garden. It was to appear biennially with healthy disregard for privacy or silence until 1997. In 1999 dared to add “International” to its now annual title. Since then it has grown and sometimes groaned in expansive splendour.

As ‘foreign’ correspondent at the 1983 debut I, as a Dubliner, revelled in my fellow countryman Owen Dudley Edwards evoking “cradle Catholicism” to make horror writer James Herbert declare him “creepy, even more creepier than I am”. Devotion to literature scored over the sensational. One hoped for more. One got it in memorable appearances from both John Updike and Anthony Burgess. Years later Director Jenny Brown had to remind me that another visitor that year was Jeffrey Archer.

Remembering those days and Festivals over the following twenty years the gratuitous dismissive remark by Muriel Gray in the Sunday Herald that “Catherine Lock-erbie had “transformed what used to be a worthy little affair full of weary authors plugging their books at the behest of publicist” becomes even more offensive than when read for the first time. That was the same year when Gray, according to Lockerbie’s programme notes, was “one of Scotland’s wittiest, most irreverent and incisive writers” giving us an evening “of conversation about her own highly popular horror fiction”. For in those earlier years Ms. Brown, followed by her previous Deputy Shona Munro, who in incomparable partnership with Faith Lid-dell as her press officer between 1995-97 gave us some of the greatest Festivals ever. Among the more memorable events were James Baldwin (1985), Gore Vidal (1989), Brian Keenan (1993) and Yehuda Amichai (1995). Following a blip in 1997, which Ban-ville allowed me tactfully to refer to as when “Shambles were heard singing in Charlotte Square”, Liddell returned for another three glorious years.

Over these years the appearance of the Spiegeltent, a 1920 Belgian invention, introduced a series of early morning “Writers for Breakfast” which, when I stopped sniggering and murmuring “yumyum”, saw some magnificent performances from, among many poets Edwin Morgan, Andrew Motion, Charles Causley, Don Paterson and Tom Leonard. A feature of those early years was the importance of a good chair. One recalls with delight David Daiches leading both Peter Ackroyd and Melvyn Bragg through a stimulating session on “The Historical Novel”. Trevor Royle remembers interposing his voice when the audience responded aggressively to his guest Max Hastings. In 1991 having introduced, to a packed house of Flashman fans, George MacDonald Fraser he then had to listen to a long (and to this listener entertaining) rant on the Conservative

Party and its plans to “ditch” Scottish Regiments. In recent years there has been a sad decline. I am an admirer of the Scottish Poetry Library but being employed there does not make you a good go-between.

Meanwhile in 1983, when I returned from Barcelona, there had been changes in ‘The Office’. Willie Ross was gone and a couple from Falkirk, John and Margaret Gates, had taken over. During the next twenty years, together with Margaret Dodds, Babs Martin and Harry Cullen (late of Milnes) they were to run a convivial shop ever willing to take on the annual influx from the nearby Festival. That The Oxford became a focus for many Book Festival visitors can be put down to the emergence of Ian Rankin’s novels featuring John Rebus, a former soldier turned cop working in Edinburgh. Like his author an exile from Fife, like his author a drinker in “The Ox”.

I was late coming to the Rebus novels though I had, in 1987, reviewed favourably in Ireland Rankin’s first novel The Flood. However by the time I met him I was up to date and both reviewed and interviewed books and author in a designated and proper place in the back room of the bar. At another table would sit a surly Rebus and his sidekick Siobhan viewing with near contempt the Irish Times reader and obvious non smoker opposite them (Set in Darkness). For a number of years I would don my Oxford Bar tie and walk with manager John Gates to hear “the boy” in a tent around the corner.

The Oxford also became a gathering place for writers and their readers. Five No-bel laureates, most of them willingly, have visited. Most memorably Seamus Heaney who on his first visit spoke of nothing but fishing to Norman MacCaig. In 1995, having been dragooned at the last minute to introduce poet Brendan Kennelly in Charlotte Square I brought the long time teetotaller back to the Office. Over the next few hours he beamed at me and demonstrated generously why he had failed as my Moral Tutor long ago in Trinity College Dublin. Another cameo was Margaret Dodds protectively warding off intrusive photographers in pursuit of Brian Keenan.

However, things change. John Gates retired in 2004 and died in August 2008. There was not so much a change of management as a change of attitude. Maybe a necessary one for The Oxford does not lend itself to the Bloomsday madness as too many Dublin pubs are doing these days. In 2001 Catherine Lockerbie took over and turned the Book Festival into a tremendous commercial success. After years of criticising the exclusive nature of her programming – in 2002 one had to choose between Seamus Heaney on Sorley McLean or Kathleen Jamie on contemporary verse – I lost my press accreditation. As it coincided with the discovery of a serious hereditary eye-problem it was not my greatest worry that year, 2006, though the manner of how it was done still hurts.

Now with new persona at the helm in both my houses, for yet another August I will spend my days in Charlotte Square and my evenings in the theatre and in between I will keep my own now comfortable, adaptable, office hours.

Lesley McDowell is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 11.00 on 22 August

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Better Halves – Who’d be a Literary Partner?

It has always surprised me that it was a man – Cyril Connolly, the literary critic and belle lettrist – who said the enemy of good art was the pram in the hall. Traditional gender divisions have meant that man was the provider, so the existence of children to support would surely spur him on to be even more productive in his profession. More importantly, the pram in the hall suggests the presence of a woman in the house, and there can be little more valuable to a writer than someone to tell him his writing is wonderful, cook his meals and even type up his manuscript. Between the Sheets, an exciting and provocative new book by Lesley McDowell, examines just what happens when women writers seek similar benefits for themselves.

For the most part it does not end well. McDowell ranges over the lives of such diverse female authors as Katherine Mans-field (died of tuberculosis), Elizabeth Smart (struggled alone with four children, some of whom didn’t even know she wrote), Simone de Beauvoir (pimped her girlfriends to Sartre) and Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide. Most of the liaisons she examines have been regarded as dysfunctional and damaging to the women. Literary life is in any case notoriously bitchy and competitive – as Norman Mailer says in The Spooky Art, “Don’t get involved at too deep a level or it will kill you and…it will kill you for the silliest reasons: for vanity, or because feuds are beginning to etch your liver with the acids of frustration.” So why would such women willingly enter into partnerships with male writers, why drip the acids of frustration onto their personal lives?

McDowell questions the accepted version of these relationships and shows that far from the literary element being negative, it was, she believes, positive and nourishing, allowing the women’s talents to flourish. What is attractive about her thesis is that it moves away from the idea of women as victims and acknowledges that the reasons people enter into relationships are complex. These were adult women who may not have chosen perfect partners, but still gained something profound from the experience. Many chose their men precisely because of the ambitions they shared: Martha Gellhorn, for example, told Ernest Hemingway, “As I love you I love your work and as you are me your work is mine.” Gellhorn admired Hemingway’s writing before she met him and even had his photograph pinned to her college wall. Although she denied it, it may be that she deliberately tracked him down, to Sloppy Joe’s, the bar in Key West where he was known to hang out.

What this demonstrates, of course, is the power differential between them. He was perhaps the most famous writer of his generation, while she, although a much respected journalist, was a lesser star. One (so-called) friend said, “She was more excited by Hem-ingway the writer than Hemingway the man, that ambition rather than passion had inspired her marriage.” In other words, that she was a kind of literary prostitute, a theme that recurs throughout McDowell’s book. It is no coincidence that many of the women she studies became involved with men far more powerful than they were – there was a twenty-six-year age gap between Rebecca West and the literary titan HG Wells, while Jean Rhys might never have gone into print at all were it not for Ford Madox Ford, who published her work, put a roof over her head and actually gave her her pen name. (Her real name was Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, not the snappiest for a book cover.)

“There is a great deal about many of the relationships in this volume that is due to patriarchal oppression of women,” says McDowell. “(Rebecca) West, (Katherine) Mansfield, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) were all involved with writers at a time when not only was the possibility of female creative genius denied, but women’s entitlement to vote wasn’t even a fact of life.”

Several of the woman McDowell looks at played the ingénue, not a popular role for young women today. H.D., the imagist poet who was involved with Ezra Pound, retained the idea of herself as a child for the whole of her life, even when she became drawn into a threesome with Pound and his lover Frances Gregg, while Jean Rhys presented herself as a child-woman who needed to be looked after. She was ‘Ford’s girl’, an innocent who charmed men into taking care of her. If that meant taking care of her financially, then so be it: “It seems to me now that the whole business of money and sex is bound up with something very primitive and deep,” she said. “When you take money directly from someone you love, it becomes not money but a symbol. The bond is now there. The bond has been established. I am sure the woman’s deep down feeling is, ‘I belong to this man, I want to belong to him quickly’. It is at once humiliating and exciting.”

Rhys’s presentation of herself as victim was a survival strategy, McDowell argues. In 1920s Paris there were few opportunities for a young woman who felt “fated to write… which is horrible. But I can only do one thing.” It was Ford Madox Ford who had made her think of herself as a professional writer, who taught her how to edit her own work and hone her individual voice. When he eventually cast her aside, she was emotionally destroyed. She already struggled with alcohol and depression and these things came to define her personal life as much as her writing did her public life.

For women later in the century there were more grown-up options than depending on men. In fact Simone de Beauvoir, despite her long relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, promoted Katherine Mansfield’s idea of the ‘solitary woman’, and found romance in sitting in restaurants or taverns on her own: “I would gaze out at the sky, at the passers-by; then I would lower my eyes to the exercise books I was correcting or the volume I was reading. I felt wonderful.”

Beauvoir resisted the whole idea of marriage and instead she and Sartre set themselves up as what McDowell calls “a living alternative to the bourgeois, married, monogamous couple long considered the social norm.” Throughout their fifty-year partnership they had affairs with other people, Beauvoir even forming a relationship with another literary man, the American writer Nelson Algren. He in the end wanted more than she was prepared to give – Beauvoir was the embodiment of Martha Gellhorn’s famous dictum, “A man is no use to me, unless he can live without me.”

Later writers were caught in the crosswinds blowing through the West in the post-war years. After years of independence and autonomy during the war, women were under immense pressure to be wives and mothers, pressure that came not just from the society around them but often from their own mothers. Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, was from a wealthy background, attended a posh school, and was expected by her socially conscious mother to behave like a nice girl. Instead she pursued the poet George Barker, eventually having four children by him without ever marrying. Although he constantly abandoned her and went off with other women, she did not regret their liaison. She said he “gave me the courage to break the surface bonds, to dare the murderous act of stepping resolutely into my own life.”

It is this stepping into their own lives that links the writers in McDowell’s book, though inevitably some were more resolute than others. The act of writing by definition requires sensitivity and Sylvia Plath, even as a young woman, was delicately poised between the highs of achievement and the lows of depression. After being turned down for a summer creative writing course at Harvard while still a college student, she overdosed on sleeping pills and ended up being given electric shock treatment.

In Ted Hughes she thought she had found the perfect husband and embraced the idea of being the perfect wife; she wanted to be “anchored to life by laundry and lilacs, daily bread and fried eggs, and a man, the dark-eyed stranger who eats my food and my body and my love.” Their six and a half year marriage was productive for both of them, he calling her “one of the best critics I ever met”, and she writing 224 poems and The Bell Jar during that time.

It is generally considered that Hughes’s infidelity with the beautiful and highly-strung Assia Wevill led to her suicide, but McDow-ell proposes the opposite: the two had been talking of reconciliation and she believes that the thought of Hughes returning to her precipitated Plath’s death. It is a viewpoint that depends on believing Hughes’s version of events and one which many of Plath’s biographers have refused even to countenance, but McDowell makes a convincing case that Plath had suffered once from Hughes’s abandonment and perhaps did not have the strength to risk that happening again. She laid out milk and biscuits for her sleeping children and put her head in the gas oven.

She also achieved literary immortality and it is that which McDowell identifies as the driving force behind her women writers and their pursuit of literary men. Instinctively they seem to have known that the men they chose would help them become the writers they wanted to be. In modern Britain we publish 120,000 books a year and there are vast markets for books written by and for women – chick lit, lesbian biography, romance, historical fiction and misery lit are all primarily female forms. Women writers no longer need the patronage and support of men in quite the same way. But if McDowell is right, they will continue to seek the unique romance and excitement of relationships with literary lovers. One can only hope that, like Elizabeth Smart, they are able eventually to move on from the almost inevitable heartbreak of making your rival your partner. After years of disappointment, infidelity and abandonment, she said of George Barker, “I never cry out in my sleep for him.” It may not have been the most literary thing she ever said but it was surely one of the most sensible.


Lesley McDowell


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In Praise of Stephen Vizinczey

In his first book, Stephen Vizinczey praised older women; everyone else praised the first book. Ahead of Vizinczey’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Scottish Review of Books looks at his life and work.

Number Five in Stephen Viz-inczey’s Ten Commandments For Writers is: Thou Shalt Not Be Modest. He explains: “Modesty is an excuse for sloppiness, laziness, self indulgence. Small ambitions evoke small efforts. I never knew a good writer who wasn’t trying to be a great one.” He believes that big writing is about big effort. His first great bestseller In Praise of Older Women on first reading seems a slight and delightfully easy novel. Its wistful

kindness is obvious from the start but this is deceptive; its profundity comes to you later. As someone once said, easy reading means hard writing. Vizinczey rewrote In Praise several times before he self-published it in Canada in 1965.

“For me writing means rewriting and reading means rereading,” he says. “Reading is a creative act, just like writing. The printed book is not the whole novel. The reader brings the text to life in his or her imagination.

“The writer and reader relate to each other like the composer, and the musicians who perform the work. The score is only half the symphony – it’s the players who turn the silent notes into music.”

In Praise was the first and only self-published novel to head the bestselling charts in Canada. It swept the world, a social as well as a literary phenomenon. According to one commentator, it even created a global mass movement of love, bringing younger men and older women together across the continents. When a revised edition was published in Britain in 1985, it was the 32nd new edition in just twenty years.

Addressed to young men, dedicated to older woman, the novel is about the sentimental and erotic education of Andras Vajda, a young Hungarian whose loves and adventures loosely mirror Vizinczey’s own, and whom one critic described as a cross between Stephen Dedalus and Tom Jones (the latter being the hero of Fielding’s novel, not the singer).

In Praise was condemned by some as pornography, and that may have contributed to its huge early sales. A reviewer in middle America was so disgusted that she called for its author to be assassinated. But to call it pornography is a nonsensical misjudgement; it is is a very tender book, while pornography is filled with hate. It now has the status of the greatest erotic classic of modern times, though its fame faded somewhat in our new century. Then, earlier this year, partly thanks to the efforts of the Edinburgh-based literary agent Judy Moir, Penguin Classics brought out a new paperback edition. It has since been reprinted six times and is, once again, a bestseller.

Some reviewers came to the book new; others revisited it as an old friend, and most of these commented that, to their surprise and delight, they found the book even wiser and richer than they had remembered. Despite its enormous success in the 1960s, Vizinczey was robbed of the wealth it should have brought him because he put his commercial affairs into the hands of his US publisher. Like the master he is, he turned the wrong done to him into the allegorical grand theme of his second great novel, An Innocent Millionaire, which he wrote and rewrote over a dozen years,

This is the supreme novel of the twentieth century. Published in 1983, it divided critics and Vizinczey’s fellow novelists and writers. Some, like Graham Greene, Nina Bawden, Anthony Burgess and Wolf Achilles, regarded it as a masterpiece; others complained that it was too complex, too panoramic and took on too many targets, reflected too many themes.

I prefer the verdict of Christina Monet, who quietly found in Millionaire “a worldly compassion and an expansive humanity worthy of Stendhal.” That was doubly fitting, as Stendhal, along with Balzac and Kleist, are Vizinczey’s three leading literary heroes.

While it perhaps has less charm than In Praise, the second novel has more humour. Vizinczey confesses that it took him the first two versions to write out his anger, and to begin to write the novel we now have, in which he shows how things work, how humans are conned, how the law is used to despoil people. The Swiss critic Wolfram Knorr wrote: “What is fiendishly clever about Vizinczey is that in spite of his ironically bitter narration he sees and perceives everything in a detached and realistic way. There are no one-dimensional villains, no black and white portrayals.”

This is absolutely right; the person who perhaps does most harm in the novel is one of the most pleasant minor characters, a well-meaning, sexy girl who wants to be nice to everyone and to see the best in them. Unwittingly, she brings about catastrophe.

Millionaire is a long novel, but its almost magical readability impels you to read it too quickly. A slower reading reaps more reward. It falls into three parts. The first is about the early life of its half- Scottish tragic hero, Mark Niven, a young man who is too innocent for the duplicitous world in which he finds himself. This long introduction is set mainly in Europe; it is among many other things a meditation on the underrated profession of acting, for Mark’s father Dana is a distinguished actor whose career is a series of suitably dramatic ups and downs.

Then the narrative sweeps to the perfectly orchestrated central section, set in the Bahamas, where Vizinczey assembles a magnificent, subtly complex cast of innocents, rogues, dupes, grotesques, dunces and one or two who are almost saints. Hardly any profession escapes mordant censure, and just about all the human sins and vices are portrayed in their rampant viciousness. Yet there is a redeeming irony, there are some exquisitely realised sex scenes, and many of the colourful episodes are splendidly funny.

Finally, there is a long coda set in New York, where Vizinczey shows how the legal profession helps to engineer fraud and theft. This last section exposes the organised thieving of the modern world with epic grandeur, a literary zest that surpasses even what a Balzac (or a Dickens) could muster.

It amounts to the most potent attack on avarice and hypocrisy that I have ever read. The reader is left in no doubt about the sheer rottenness of so much humanity.

And yet this masterpiece, in the words of Anthony Burgess, “in some curious way breathes a kind of desperate hope”. The rest of Vizinczey’s oeuvre consists of two splendidly contentious collections of criticism and essays. The first is The Rules of Chaos, which deals in part with the unpredictability of the future. The other collection, Truth and Lies in Literature, has been published in many countries – a new edition will come out in Holland this autumn and Penguin hope to bring it out in the UK next spring.

He has also written a third novel, which has sold well in Spain and other countries, but has never been published in English.

This amounts to a flimsy canon for an authentic titan of contemporary literature, but then few writers rewrite and revise as painstakingly and as carefully as Vizinczey does.


Vizinczey is now 77. He had an action-packed early life, and has known many vicissitudes.
He has a reputation for being contrary and irascible. The first time I interviewed him, in London in 1984, his then publisher, Christopher Sinclair Stevenson, warned me in advance that he could be “very difficult”. On the contrary; I found him full of warmth, the most persuasive and profound talker I’ve ever met. The opinions, the aphorisms – he seems to come up with a new one every other minute – are rattled out with a fierceness that seems to brook no dissent. Yet if you interrupt him – as I did with growing confi-dence, and as his delightful Scots-Canadian wife Gloria does all the time – he does not resent it, but rather listens to what you say, and then fires back a considered salvo.

“ All big countires are dysfunctional. No-one in them knows what is going on. There’s a lot of waste. The EU is far too big. So was the Soviet Union, so is today’s greater Russia, so are the US, China, India. Americans would be better educated and more civilised if the US was at least three different countries.”

One of the events that marked Penguin’s welcome revival of In Praise earlier this year was a soiree in Edinburgh’s Dovecot Galleries, attended by about 150 people from all walks of Scottish life. Vizinczey spoke only briefly, and then listened respectfully while the other principal guest, Scotland’s education minister Mike Russell MSP, spoke eloquently about the importance of writers. After the speeches Vizinczey moved round like a man half his age, listening, greeting, chatting, joking and deploying an elegant old world courtesy that is straight out of central Europe. Feisty, fierce, ferocious? Never. As more than one of the many he spoke with said: “He’s a real charmer”.

He was born in rural Hungary, where his father, a headmaster and prominent anti-Fascist, was stabbed to death by a Nazi when Stephen was only two. He and his mother moved to Budapest, where he was brought up among a large extended family. In his teens he became a precocious writer; he was taken up by George Lukacs, the most prominent Marxist intellectual of the day.

“Lukacs published my early poems, he got me into his Institute for Aesthetic Studies, for graduates working for their doctorates, when I was only 16. But the University of Budapest was a dangerous place. Every day someone was taken away by the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB. Later when I got into trouble because of my plays, the fact that he discovered me saved me from arrest,” he recalls.

“But in spite of my gratitude to him, I stopped respecting him. Lukacs never stopped talking about the importance of reflecting reality, yet he never seemed to hear the steps of the police resounding on the corridor as they led away professors and students, on the other side of our doors. I realised then that ideology is where people go to avoid learning from experience.”

Vizinczey found more artistic freedom at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts. Three of his plays went into production before being banned by the Communist regime. Then came October 1956, and the revolution. He was one of the squad of students who managed, with the help of several tractors, a lot of steel wire and a blow torch, to topple the huge statue of Stalin that besmirched the centre of Budapest. He wrote for the revolutionary newspaper, he fought the Red Army on the streets.

All revolutions, whether they succeed or fail, are confused and complex. Vizinczey recalls how his group of armed students arrested a street corner demagogue who was demanding that the occupying Soviet troops should retreat, flying a white flag on every tank. As he says, most of the rebels were in their own way realistic – they would have been only too happy to kneel and wave red flags, as long as the Soviets went. The revolutionaries naively thought the West would come to their aid. There was little chance of that, and the developing Suez crisis put paid to any lingering hopes. The revolt was put down with cruel ferocity; Russian soldiers searched for and shot dead wounded men in the wards of the hospitals.

“You become a rebel when you feel you would rather die than continue living as you do,” he says. “I was lucky: I survived.”

Vizinczey fled for his life, and after various adventures near the border he made it into Austria, and then Italy, where, to his surprise, he was feted.

“During the revolution in Budapest one of my banned plays had been featured in the Italian papers. I became a star writer for a socialist paper, with two Hungarian-Italian translators. I even got a scholarship from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

“I had a great life and was invited to all the big parties. I met Fellini, I was a celebrity. At a party held by the deputy prime minister, I met the Canadian Ambassador who said to me: ‘We need writers in Canada.’ I thought I would be as welcome in Canada as in Italy and that I would be able to learn to write in English.”

In Montreal, with only a few words of English, a writer without a language, as he puts it, he was wretched. Far from being a celebrity, he was destitute, he had no political value. Communism and the Hungarian Revolution did not mean much in Canada. He slowly learned English but he could not find suitable work.

“Eventually I pretended I knew about accountancy and I got a job with a small business. I was completely incompetent, but my employer, a kind fat man, didn’t have the heart to fire me. When I sold an article to a New York magazine I went to his office and told him I can’t do this job, I quit. He was so happy he came out from behind his desk and kissed me on both cheeks and gave me two months’ extra salary.

“When I ran out of money I went to the top of a skyscraper and was ready to jump. But looking down I was afraid I wouldn’t die. I’d be a cripple with a broken back and broken legs, and I couldn’t face that.

“At last I got a commission from the National Film Board for a script. A young German film maker corrected my English. In fact he was doing most of the writing. I acted out the story.”

He then edited a magazine, but it failed. He went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where he met and fell in love with Gloria who worked on another show, with offices on the same floor. He started and rewrote In Praise many times, eventually self-publishing it in 1965. But when he was cheated out of much of the money he should have made from its extraordinary success, the experience gave him the idea for the theme of An Innocent Millionaire. “You never learn from success,” he says. “You only learn from failure.”


Since the late 1960s Vizinczey has lived with Gloria in London, in a spacious apartment on the Old Brompton Road, where West Kensington meets Earls Court. They receive guests warmly, and he talks, with enormous seriousness, about the business of writing and reading.

Recently he was furious when a girl from Oxford University came to interview him. “She told me she did not read to enjoy, she read to evaluate. This is the kind of nonsense that makes me want to close down each and every department of English. They do so much to alienate the young from reading.

“Students have to read far too many books about books, rather than the books themselves. The great writers survived because they were geniuses in the art of communicating what they meant. They don’t need interpreters. What the students have to earn is a bit of history, so that they can put what they read in its historical context. ”

(One of the most quoted aphorisms from An Innocent Millionaire is: No amount of learning can cure stupidity, and higher education positively fortifies it.)

“No one,” he avers, “can educate you but yourself. To understand writing you have to go to the wise guys of the past, they give you the perfect perspective on the present. These days we live in this NOW civilisation, it’s assumed that the past is over and done with. Books themselves are not supposed to matter. Television, computer games destroy the imperative to read, to think, to learn…. Although I do accept that life is too short to read certain authors.”

And he tilts at what he calls “the redundant verbiage” of the likes of Dickens or Scotland’s finest, Walter Scott. “Some of it may be good but two-thirds of it is just words that add nothing to the story or our understanding of the characters.”

As for the business of electronic journalism, he is contemptuous. “Take the news on television. It’s like bad fiction. You are told everything five times. You can read in a newspaper in five minutes what you get out of a half hour news broadcast…”

Who in our times do you admire? “Those who do the individual, brave act. Like the whistleblowers. In the medical profession, in the big corporations, above all in the European Union, if you blow the whistle when something is very wrong – you are ostracised and vilified. You lose your job and your pension. Powerful people are confident that they can intimidate everybody, so they never give up.”

He believes the EU has created a new ruling class which, like all ruling classes, flourishes at the expense of ordinary people. The EU leads him on to Scotland. He is sympathetic to Scottish nationalism but he cannot understand why an independent Scotland would want to be in the EU. “You Scots really want to be ruled from Brussels instead of London? Really? You may have managed to destroy the poll tax, but you would never manage to destroy any taxes from Brussels.”

He thinks nationalism is inescapable. “Now it’s deprecated, like marriage, like the family. The champions of empires, including modern empires, and the young and the attractive – all of them believe that nationalism is out of date. Nationalism is as important as family loyalty. The young, the attractive and the multilingual who can find work and sexual partners anywhere in the world don’t need their nation, or their family – but if you are unattractive or not very bright, if you are old, who the hell is ever going to care about you, except your family and your nation?

“All big countries are dysfunctional. No-one in them knows what is going on, no-one could possibly control what is going on. There’s a lot of waste. The EU is far too big. So was the Soviet Union, so is today’s greater Russia, so are the US, China, India. Ameri-cans would be better educated and more civilised if the US was at least three different countries.”

It was the Victorian novelist George Gissing who said that fiction has enormous ethical importance because it allows people to write the truth. As the author of two triumphantly true modern world classics, Stephen Vizinczey is living proof of that.

Stephen Vizinczey is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at

15.30 on 19th August. In Praise of Older Women is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99

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Jackie Kay’s Quest For Her Roots

Adopted at birth, Jackie Kay discovered neither of her birth parents were who she’d thought they’d be, her new memoir recalls.

“If you have skin my colour” writes Jackie Kay in her memoir Red Dust Road, “you must be a foreigner.” All of her life, people have asked her where she is from. Glasgow, she’d tell them. Then people would inquire, but where are her parents from? Her parents are from Glasgow and Fife, she’d say. But she would also add that she’s adopted and her birth father is Nigerian. “They’d nod,” Kay says, “with a kind of ‘That explains it’ look”.

Since I moved to Scotland, people have asked me where I’m from. “Vancouver, British Columbia,” I reply. Most leave it at that because they have relatives or friends in Canada and would rather discuss them. But others persist: “Where are you really from?” Once, an older gentleman in the library in Dumfries asked if I was from the Far East. “Yes, I live in Edinburgh,” I replied. He left me alone after that.

It’s not that people shouldn’t ask. I’m happy to tell others that both my parents were born in the Philippines and immigrated to Canada, individually, in the Seventies. (They later met in what used to be Simpson’s department store in Toronto.) But the nature of these questions can make you feel like an outsider. As Kay says, “I felt it was being pointed out to me, in a more sophisticated manner, that I didn’t belong in Scotland”.

Other comments are just plain ignorant. Walking down West Princes Street in Glasgow, I passed a man who muttered something about a tan. “Nice tan,” I think he said to me. Kay has also been asked about her tan. In Wigtown a woman asked her and her mother, “Is that lady your daughter? Oh? Your daughter is awful tanned. Is she that colour every day?”

Once or twice things have turned ugly. A fight broke out in Glasgow’s Ashton Lane, when a drunken man asked my Scottish boyfriend where he “bought me”. Kay’s experiences have been much more humiliating. In 1980, during the rise of the British Movement, posters were put up around Stirling University that asked: “Would you be seen with that Irish-Catholic wog called Jackie Kay?” Kay locked herself into her student apartment and was offered police protection.

Racism happens without warning. You never know how to react. Dignity? Fury?

When Kay was sixteen, she was in a park with her friend, looking for leaves for an art project. She sets down her can of Coke to toss in the bin later. A man approaches her: “Don’t you know we like to keep our land tidy? Where do you come from anyway? A little mud hut?” After he storms off, Kay contemplates what she should have said. But no response would have been exactly right. “Extreme racism” she writes, “is always going to leave me speechless.”

Had Kay been born in America, she might be less curious about her heritage. She would have met other mixed-race individuals. But in Scotland, her position is rare. It is her desire to be accepted that motivates her search for her cultural roots. This desire takes her all the way to Nigeria in 2003, where she meets her birth father for the first time. Jonathan O, an academic tree specialist and church leader, dances from foot to foot. He wears a white gown. He welcomes her with this prayer: “O God Almighty, O God Almighty, we welcome Jackie Kay to Nigeria. She has landed on African soil for the very first time. O God Almighty!”

Speechless, Kay sits patiently through the preaching. Afterwards, Jonathan tells Kay he is glad to meet her. But she is also the sin of his former life. Her existence has been a secret for forty years, and he will not now tell his children or his current wife. Kay depicts their meeting in the poem ‘The Wood Father’ collected in Life Mask:

I couldn’t tell if he loved me or not.

His eyes were darker than his barking hands,
nor if he wanted to meet again
in the dark forest, in the old red land.

Much of Kay’s story in Red Dust Road has been depicted before in her poetry. Her first collection, The Adoption Papers, describes the birth mother’s anxiety, the adoptive mother’s desperation and the daughter’s realisation that she is adopted. The triple voices, presented in different typefaces, intertwine like a braid. The sequence climaxes at the first meeting of birth mother and daughter. They study each other: “We are not as we imagined:/I am smaller, fatter, darker/I am taller, thinner.”

Kay also describes this meeting in Red Dust Road. The narration feels richer because we get a sense of the awkwardness. This time, we see her birth mother Elizabeth Fraser clearly; taller, gray and holding important papers in a plastic bag. It is 1988 and they sit in the lobby of the Milton Keynes Hilton hotel. Twenty-six-year-old Kay wants to know more about Jonathan, whom Elizabeth met in Aberdeen when she was a nurse and he a student of botany. But Elizabeth keeps bringing up her neighbour’s heart problems. Later Kay concludes, “There was nothing euphoric about our first meeting. It felt muted and mellow; there was too much to say and too little that was said”.

The reality of her birth mother disappointed Kay, who cried for weeks after. She admits to grieving for her imaginary mother, a lookalike of Shirley Bassey. Similarly, her fantasy father was a combination of Paul Robeson and Nelson Mandela. Her parents fell in love in an Aberdeen dance hall, but had to part because her Nigerian father was betrothed, she dreamt. What actually happened was that her birth mother spent time in mental institutions and suffered her son’s suicide. And almost twenty years later, Kay meets her dancing, evangelist father. Neither is who she imagined them to be.

And yet, as a writer, Kay thrives on the details, no matter how painful. In between discussing her adoption, she includes other memories. Some pieces are written in the voice of a child.

One of these episodes describes Kay’s Nigerian boyfriend, Femi. A teenage Kay brings Femi home to meet her parents. She is slightly embarrassed about Femi and they deliberately take the long way home from the bus station. Another time she is sitting on a train in London across from a Nigerian man. He leans over suddenly and says “I bet you are an Igbo. Igbo – definitely!” This inspires the poem ‘Pride’, collected in Off Colour (1998): “I had no doubt, from the way he said it,/that Ibo noses are the best noses in the world,/that Ibo teeth are perfect pearls.”

But Kay never forgets that she is Scottish. She describes her childhood with her socialist parents, John and Helen Kay, and her adopted older brother, Maxwell. It is 1971 and Kay wears a red trouser suit with turquoise platform shoes. She is attending a rally with her parents for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. A family friend says to her, “Nice colour, comrade.” She has never been called comrade before, and likes it.

Kay likes to quote her parents directly, and they seem funny, smart and generous. They support their daughter’s search for her birth parents, though Kay’s mother is more encouraging than her father.

But their kindnesses cannot erase the conflict at the heart of the book. Though Kay has traced and made contact with her birth parents (her mother through a letter to her mother’s sisters, and her father through a simple search on the Internet), they both refuse to introduce Kay to their own children. Elizabeth is more forthcoming, and puts a picture of Kay and Kay’s son Matthew on the table. But when Kay asks what Elizabeth will say about the picture, Elizabeth replies, “I’ll say you are friends.”

Kay is still an outsider, a secret kept for more than forty years. But this brings up a sensitive issue about adoption. Does Kay have the right to expect a full introduction? Does she have the right to go against their wishes and contact her half-siblings? “Do I have the right to go above Jonathan’s head and tell them because they have a right to know, and might like me?” Kay wonders. “And I might like them?”

Perhaps her desire to get closer to her birth father’s family inspires her to return to Nigeria once more, and find her ancestral village. This particular section of the book is the most exciting. It is 2009, and Kay is in Lagos as a guest of the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, working with young Nigerian writers for the Farafina Trust. She writes a note to Jonathan, saying she is close by and she “would dearly love the opportunity to meet my siblings whether or not they know my relation to them.” She waits eagerly for Jonathan’s reply.

With her friend Kachi and their driver, Pious, Kay embarks on a twelve-hour road trip from Lagos to Ukpor, her ancestral village. Chimamanda has told her that some friends who found their fathers were welcomed back with drums beating. “It’s the Igbo way to welcome you in the village,” she is told.

The road to Ukpor is windy, much like the roads in the Highlands of Scotland. Then she sees it. It is a red dust road like the one she dreamed of, the road which symbolises her roots. She takes her shoes off and “the earth is so copper warm and beautiful and the green of the long elephant grasses so lushly green they make me want to weep.” At this point, Kay does not know whether she will be welcomed into her ancestral village with drums beating, and her family at hand. But you want this for her. Perhaps, it will compensate for the welcome she did not receive in her early life in Scotland.

Jackie Kay is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 20.00 on

25 August


PICADOR £16.99 PP289 ISBN 978=0-330-45105-5


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Is this a Novel I See Before Me? James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still

Not for the first time, we have Walter Scott to thank, or perhaps to blame. Conventionally, the historical novel as a European phenomenon – and it was certainly phenomenal – is claimed as the Shirra’s invention, his great insight. Its emergence gave rise to one of the great paradoxes: how can the past be fiction, but also “true”? And does the burden of history have anything to do with the fact that Scott is no longer widely read?

Nor is he often emulated. By that I mean very few in these parts have set out consciously to create the grand, definitive, historical statement through stories. Robert Louis Stevenson said, near the end, that he felt sure he could match the Shirra given – no luck there, poor soul – the chance. RLS was proud of his knowledge of Scotland’s history. But was such a book ever likely? Nothing in Stevenson’s art suggests a writer suited to the creation of a Covenanting War and Peace.

Where else to look? Sunset Song might come to mind, but it lacks the impersonality, the multiplicity of perspectives, that generally attend historical fiction. William McIlvanney’s Docherty is assuredly a novel-in-history, but it does not, save allusively, aim to tell “a nation’s story”. Class is another matter: one of the book’s explicit aims was to restore common folk to the accepted historical record.

But that version is tenacious. Scottish history has received most attention, welcome or not, in popular fiction. There they all are: those kings, queens, heroes and villains. Great fun, too. Yet distant, impossibly different, from anything recognised as the ordinary, modern sense of “Scotland’s story”. To put it otherwise: we have nothing to approach Gore Vidal’s (sometimes) great series of fictions based around the rise – and possible fall – of the American republic and empire.

There is another issue. Scotland’s history is itself disputed ground. When even a popular TV history can cause “controversy” because professors dislike its emphases and style, the idea of a common story becomes fanciful. Then you are reminded to ask why TV should even bother with such a project. One answer: because we Scots are astonishingly ignorant of simple facts, thanks mostly to the shameful failures of the education system. Three centuries of Union, of rewriting, Balmoralising and tartanry have hardly helped.

The fact remains that the greatest number of us have a strange, disjointed sense of what happened, and why it might matter. Scottish history is received almost as a series of parables with no obvious – nor continuing – connections between them. Anyone who “did” history in our schools knows the joke. What happened? Er, Picts, Bannockburn, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and some stuff about an industrial revolution.

History is a problem for any novelist, in any case. You can see as much in the greatest narrative cannonball of them all, War and Peace. Tolstoy did an immense amount of research, as any proper voice-of-the-nation would. No detail was too small, no battlefield tour too dull. But what was he then supposed to do with this immense quantity of stuff? Stick it in the novel, page after page, of course.

Newer translations give a better idea of the greatness of War and Peace, but still they fail to erase a tiny, lingering question: is this a history book, or a fiction based in history? Why does Tolstoy seem to veer from one to the other? More to the point, can they be reconciled?

It becomes a question of licence. By what right does a novelist mess around with historical fact? But if a writer is not messing around, or making fictive art, why bother with a novel? Nothing prevented Tolstoy from writing a very large piece of historical non-fiction. Would humanity, symbolism, the mythic dimension and sheer drama have thereby been lost? The better historians struggle constantly with that little difficulty.

Some reviewers of Anglo-American fiction nevertheless bemoan two facts, as though they are connected. First, they note that a great many successful contemporary novels seem to take refuge in history, as though in the playground, at the expense of the contemporary world. David Mitchell, born to play, is one of the prominent examples of the moment. So is this why, hacks further ask, that a book such as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, set slap in the middle of the Thatcherite Eighties, is a rare thing? Where are the state-of-the-nation novels?

All of this is a long preamble to saying that James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still is very long, in places very fine, and afflicted too often by the need to lay out the facts and headlines of recent history. Implicit in its creation, nevertheless, is a teasing question: can Scotland hope for one of those state-of-the-nation epics when the nation of Scotland remains a submerged and stateless entity?

The novel aims to be our contemporary. Which is to say it carries a large cast – sometimes too large – through the social and political changes of the recent past, from the mid-1960s to the present. Its backdrop is the re-emergence of that strange beast, national identity, in the years when we all began to learn to ask what it means to be a Scot. It is framed – a nice virtual pun – by a photographic exhibition being organised by a son in honour of his dead father. Had Gordon Williams not written a novel named From Scenes Like These, Robertson might have been spoiled for a choice of titles.

Michael Pendreich, that son in his father’s shadow, is the book’s hub. Through him, the double notion of images and history – a half a century of both – will be transmitted. A few will dismiss the novel, no doubt, as “the Nationalist version”, given the clear identification of homeland with home rule. But Robertson, to his credit, is smarter than that: his finest creation is a Tory MP with certain tastes and, in the end, a great dignity.

The book makes a brave attempt, too, to marry social realism with the version too often, and wrongly, called magical. There are italicised pages – some work, some do not – that strive to give a sense of the land itself, its mythic variety, its hold on the imagination. There is also the figure, for an example, of a haunted wanderer escaping into the map of Scotland, yet never seeming to reach a destination.

But there are, too, all the clichés of recent Scottish political history, the stereotypical attitudes and arguments of what passes for “debate”. Activists, artists, journalists and politicians contend. Which is fine: they did and do. But the book would have been enhanced, I think, by a clearer acknowledgement that for much of the time ordinary people did not, in fact, give a toss about Scot-land’s great upheavals, its referendums and its personality issues. Life is commonplace, but the historical novel needs, or is thought to need, more.

Exposition is the death of fiction. Too often Robertson finds it necessary for one character or another to “bring us up to date”. Failing that, the author himself wades in with the facts he holds to be pertinent. The decision is arguable, often enough, but on no occasion does it benefit the prose. Thus: “The poll tax – or community charge, as it was officially known – was born of the Scottish rates revaluation of early 1980s. When property owners saw what their new bills were likely to be, they howled, and the Scottish Tories, anxious to appease their own natural supporters.…”

The reader and the book could live safely, I think, without such passages. Raise the poll tax rebellion by all means, but each time Robertson surrenders to history in this fashion – as though worried that his structure lacks an armature – he supplies passages that read like paraphrases of the many “books, magazines, journals and other documents” he acknowledges dutifully at the novel’s end.

It counts as a technical problem, but a large problem. In his better pages, Rob-ertson meditates on history, using it as the point at which art can begin. At his worst, he offers the textbook version, as though journalism and academic history are no different from lived experience. Fiction is more than a recitation of what went on, according to the press – a baffled press, as it happened – in the 1979 referendum. So a fissure arises within the novel.

Take, in contrast, a lovely few pages on Edinburgh in the early 1970s. Plenty of facts, each of them exact, are here, but there’s more: the atmosphere, the sense of the place, without tedious documentary validation.

There follow several pages on the brief, miserable existence of the Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps in a big, capacious novel such details add texture, but details – and barely remembered details – they remain. Nor do they, though such is the clear intention, develop character much. History in this sense seems like a very long haul.

Better by far are Robertson’s attempts to depict one of those morose – and here vengeful – British government spooks we used to believe were hanging around. More human is the woman journalist brutalised and degraded. More truthful – more like the truth of the times – is Michael Pendreich’s liberation as a gay man. And the death of that traumatised, haunted wanderer – “You ate the stones, and the sea faded, and the land faded…” – seems to point to a novel that might have been written. A better novel, perhaps.

History is as slippery as fiction. But in fiction there is, persistently, the bigger story.

James Robertson is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at

18.00 on 14 August and 12.00 on 28 August

HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99, PP674, ISBN 978-0-241-14356-8

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