by SRB

Volume 6 – Issue 3 – Reviews

August 13, 2010 | by SRB


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

Blog / Discussion

Posts Remaining