Monthly Archives: November 2010


Volume 6 – Issue 4 – Reviews

Alasdair Gray
CANNONGATE £35.00 128PP ISBN 978-1841956404

Gray’s ‘autopictography’ measures out the story of his life in the art he has created over decades. It features paintings, murals and portraits of friends and colleagues such as Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan.

James McGonigal
SANDSTONE PRESS £24.99 420PP ISBN 978-1905207237

A concentration on the 1920s and 1930s Renaissance in Scottish culture has tended to eclipse the significance of later events. The period of the late 1950s to 1960s has been particularly underappreciated, although it included a remarkable flowering of politically ambitious literary

experimentation. The era between the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Paris events of 1968 was a golden one for Scottish literature, and the one figure who brokered the cultural shift more than any other, the recently passed subject of this biography, has a case for being called the most important Scottish poet of the twentieth century.

James McGonigal’s beautifully produced biography is thorough, readable, and knowledgeable on the publishing history of Edwin Morgan’s work, down even to half-buried and unpublished poems. It is laudable, both in terms of chronology and publications, though a tendency towards ‘listing’ is perhaps inevitable given the sheer volume of work.

The biography is also psychologically convincing, and is the result of a deep and long personal engagement with the man and his poetry. McGonigal demonstrates how Morgan’s early inquisitiveness propelled him towards linguistics, internationalism and then modernism. Morgan’s interests in science and experiment date from the 1940s, and he struggles with them through the 1950s in a relatively deprived Scotland beholden to various types of British conservatism. In contrast to Scottish contemporaries who sometimes went down the ‘Eng Lit’ route, Morgan worked from Glasgow towards shaping an international civic identity, increasingly uncovering new American and European poetry, happily paying the price of not concentrating on the professional rewards of a purely academic career.

McGonigal charts Morgan’s experiments with sound, type and colour (despite himself being colour-blind), his move towards other media and how he came to set the bar for Scottish arts in general. Finding his now-familiar voice of protest, innovation and celebration in The Second Life (1968), “remarkable for its blend of social and political poetry”, Morgan joined the emergent side in a generational-cultural conflict, adding pop culture to science and socialism. McGonigal describes Morgan’s part in a wider battle with an old guard (though perhaps underplays the importance of Hungary and the New Left) and shows how by the end of the decade he had

become a kind of icon for experimenters. Alongside Morgan’s famous generosity to colleagues, his troubled relationship with Hugh MacDiarmid is well depicted by McGonigal.

Despite the limitation of structuring sub-chapters around individual friends, and a dangerous use of poetry as biography (with events in the poet’s life often backed up by poetic quotation as evidence), McGonigal negotiates Morgan’s relationships with sensitivity, particularly with regards to his semi-hidden and then blossoming but illegal sexuality. He is intimate but not prurient. He describes a darkening of mood in the 1970s, with practical difficulties and, deaths in Morgan’s life, though his critical stock was going up. McGonigal is good on how Morgan’s work at Carcanet with Michael Schmidt led to the neo-modernist classic From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) and eventually the important collection Poems Of Thirty Years (1982), the Collected Poems (1990) and Collected Translations (1996). Overcoming the gloom of the political ‘double whammy’ of 1979, Morgan published Sonnets From Scotland in 1984, an extraordinary expression of hope and ambition when the country was at a low ebb.

As well as further experimentation, essays and, increasingly, drama, Morgan was an acknowledged influence on younger poets like Peter McCarey and Richard Price. McGonigal notes that towards the end of the poet’s life he was often visited and lauded by major literary figures. His profile as a dramatist and translator increased in later years, and, in cross-media projects such as with musicians, he became even more experimental, while suffering the deaths of friends and contemporaries. And, after the dispiriting abandonment of socialism in Morgan’s beloved Eastern Europe, devolution brought not only new awareness of his work but a new kind of awareness.

In particular, his ascension to ‘National Poet’ was a moment of definition for devolved Scotland, and in a way he became the cultural conscience of the Parliament. By the time of his last major poetry volume, Cathures (2002), he knew he was suffering from terminal cancer, though he outlived his prognosis by a long way and his reputation soared. This is all very well recorded in McGonigal’s carefully-researched book. It is filled with a genuine affection for and knowledge of one of the most important poets of our times, is an enjoyable read and an important store of information, and can only be recommended. Michael Gardiner

Monica Germanà

“Scotland has…always been the other,” writes Monica Germanà, “The ‘uncanny’ comes from Scotland, from that ‘auld’ country that has so often been represented as ‘beyond borders’, liminal, an English foreign body.” But why should that mean so many Scottish women writers like ghosts and doubles, witches and other worlds? Ireland, too, is the ‘other’, but has nothing like Scotland’s propensity for ghoulishness and “schizoid selves”.

Germanà’s thesis is highly dependent on literary theory for its explication (better brush up on your Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, readers), which just happens to work beautifully with the texts she has chosen: novels by Emma Tennant, Muriel Spark, Margaret Elphinstone, Alice Thompson, Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Elspeth Barker, Alison Fell and Kate Atkinson all respond well to theoretical investigation, as do lesser-known works by Sian Hayton and Ellen Galford.

“Scottish fantasy is inward-looking,” Germanà quotes another critic, before going on to explore why that might be so, and why it is so fruitful for Scottish women writers. Being positioned as the ‘other’ as a country, mirrors being positioned as the ‘other’ as a woman: Scotland and women writers are perfectly matched.

Given her concern with binaries, it is inevitable that Germanà should offer up the women writers here as an ‘other’ kind of canon, a counter to the white, working-class, male-dominated Scottish literary tradition suggested by Gray, Kelman, Welsh and so on. She theorises about the body, both sexual and textual, to show how women writers have traversed their limitations and borders, whether by disappearing one into another, as in Kennedy’s So I Am Glad, or Tennant’s The Bad Sister or Smith’s Hotel World, where ghosts or twins are used to delineate a disruptive subconscious or an unfair world. Shut out of the canon, women employ different methods to be heard, to challenge what has kept them outside, always looking in. Like Cathy in Wuthering Heights, begging to be let in and finally having her wrist dragged across the broken window pane until it draws blood, the characters in these women’s novels need to be heard, even if it results in bodily pain.

Perhaps for that reason, Germanà’s chapter on ghosts works particularly well. Location, she rightly asserts, is crucial to the supernatural story, and through Freud’s prism of the uncanny, that is “inextricably bound up with thoughts of home and dispossession”, she places her four authors, Barker, Thompson, Kennedy and Smith, within a powerful feminist tradition of ghost stories that “critique…patriarchal oppression”, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, or Edith Wharton’s short stories, or Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. This is powerful, and important: whilst Germanà acknowledges the influence of Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in many of the works cited here, it is a female tradition that she is keen to establish and explore. The Scottish landscape is co-opted as feminine in these works, ambiguous, transforming, subversive, most tellingly in Thompson’s Pharos, where, Germanà argues, “the landscape is defined by the treacherous nature of its ghostly geomorphology”, where the disappearing coastline regularly causes shipwrecks, in spite of the phallic lighthouse. There is a classic, gendered struggle for power taking place here.

Women writers’ play with the ‘real’ in these novels reflecting twentieth-century concerns with reality, from the Modernists’ use of simulacra to today’s obsession with reality TV and the “self-authenticating tools” of online social networks. Germanà warns such overkill means that “fantasy has replaced the real”. For women, traditionally employed in texts by men in ‘unreal’ ways, that has been a useful reversal, as they have used the fantastic to explore female sexuality, identity and autonomy.

In spite of the threat of overkill, though, the fantastic shows no sign of surrendering its role as the perfect location for women writers to place their ‘dangerous’ heroines, their witches and temptresses, without them succumbing to traditional misogynistic fears. It is the place for Barker’s ghostly, plain-named Janet, for Ellen Galford’s subversive eleventh-century nun, Mhairi, for Thompson’s questioning Justine. “The whole subject of the double came into Britain via Scotland,” says Emma Tennant. “I think it’s Scottish to be split.” Reclaiming Scotland as the ‘split’ site of women’s Gothic writing, a geographical counter-canon, is a subversive thing for Germanà to do. I can only hope her excellent study sparks more works in this vein. Lesley McDowell

Donald Paterson
TWO RAVENS PRESS £9.99 434PP ISBN 9781906120481

Homecomings, a promising debut by a fine author, is a historical novel about pioneers making strenuous efforts to settle in Canadian forestland and their gradual separation. The protagonists travel across North America experiencing an earthquake, a fetid Chicago, and the Californian Gold Rush.

Beginning in 1841, the tale spans some sixteen years. Three young men from Croval, a tiny fishing village on the Moray Firth, find their lives there too confining. Along with Ian MacLeod, an inspirational older man, and their minister to boot, the quartet set sail for the new world. In part, their story concerns a quest for Elizabeth and Rachael, two girls who left the neighbouring village just before them. The chief narrator, Hugh, is the quiet member of the group. He says relatively little but keeps a journal of their experiences and his private torments.

Hugh’s narrative is frequently interrupted by fortysomething Rona, who finds his journal in her attic in Elgin in the present day. She publishes it. Rona is not the usual, fairly transparent narrative device, the discoverer of an old, lost text who is more or less a cipher. Rona’s need to explain, even to make over Hugh’s narrative at times, provides for a great contrast in styles. I found myself benefiting from her insights but also impatient and irritated by some interruptions and her need to explain Hugh’s life in a manner that gives more meaning to her story than his. She is credible, though. Her voice is complex, more mature than Hugh’s, which reminds the reader of his youth and growing awareness.

When we first meet them, the three boys are in their late teens. Robert is emblematic, the good settler. He pursues and marries Elizabeth and becomes chairman of the local Citizens’ Committee. The last we hear of him, he is doing well, a loyal friend keeping in touch with his former companions the best he can.

Callum is unpredictable, and he is the first to leave the others behind – desert, we might say. Afterwards, he haunts the bars of Chicago in a perpetual drunken rage. He leaves America in despair to return to Croval.

Ian, the minister, is considerably their senior, his cash underwriting the trip. He is the hardest to understand, because we are limited to Hugh’s view of him, formed as an impressionable boy, drawn by the elder’s wit and experience, deeply puzzled by many of his utterances. Importantly, he comes to understand that his relationship to Ian is like son to father, changing as Ian becomes an old man and Hugh cares for him.

Hugh worries away at big questions. Why did they leave? Should they go back? Where will always moving on take them? He becomes an able writer but is afflicted with an inability to express himself at crucial moments. He follows Rachael across Canada and the States but repeatedly fails to speak plainly when she gives him clear opportunities. Inevitably, at last she goes her own way, and when they meet years later she is alone with her ten-year-old son. Now that Hugh is ready to speak to her she is accompanied by an egotistical foreigner obsessed by the need to tell his own story.

Hugh’s inability to share his thoughts is a burden. Even before he left home, he was determined to confess a guilty secret to Ian, a father figure ever since his own died. But he waits too long, until Ian is near death, when his grasp on life is as slack as his sense. Donald Paterson, on the other hand, possesses no such troubles communicating on the page. It is difficult not to be engaged by the novel, and it is exhilarating to discover a new talent. Isobel Murray

David Brown
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS £25 584PP ISBN 978-0300118988

Getting to grips with the great Victorian statesman Lord Palmerston is no easy matter. We think we know all about ‘Pam’ (as he was known), the conservative in domestic politics, the reactionary in foreign affairs; the womaniser who was also a warmonger, the dilettante who could also be a brute, banging the despatch box with his fist to make a point. He seems to spring fully formed from history’s pages as a gunboat bully boy and brought to life by hugely readable biographers such as Philip Guedella and Jasper Ridley he stands as an exemplar of a particular kind of bulldog English politician. And yet, as David Brown shows in this major new study, there was much more to the man than the familiar cardboard cut-out.

It is true that Palmerston was a mass of contradictions, but instead of simply accepting those dichotomies as fact Brown has gone to great lengths to understand them and then to explain them to a modern audience. The life of Henry John Temple Vane, third Viscount Palmerston, encompassed one of the most engrossing periods in British history. As a very young man he lived through the French Revolution and his political career took him through the turbulence of Catholic emancipation, the Crimean War and the gradual rise of middle-class democracy.

Coming from an aristocratic background, Palmerston carried a good deal of privilege in his political knapsack and he was fortunate in his early patrons. An early supporter of William Pitt the Younger, he quickly entered Parliament and was soon offered the post of secretary at war and went on to hold it under five prime

ministers. He was clearly a coming man, but Brown identifies a strain of uncertainty in him and his dealings with powerful figures such as Liverpool and Wellington. For a man who was later famed – and blamed – for his bellicosity, this is a curious drawback. All too often in his early years he kept a low profile and in Cabinet was loath to stray from his departmental responsibilities.

As a result, predictions of a great future failed to materialise, and as midlife began to approach he seemed to be an also-ran. However, as in so much else in his surprising life, Palmerston proved to be a late developer – he did not become prime minister until he was 70 – and emerged as a true liberal who had grown to dislike extremes in politics. Stability became all-important to him, and Brown quotes approvingly from a speech made in 1860 in which Palmerston argued that great changes could not be made without capturing the support of public opinion. This is very far removed from the imperious and wrong-headed approach taken by A. J. P. Taylor in 1954 when he claimed that Palmerston’s place in British history could not be fully discussed because “it is an empty one”.

Remarks of that kind are as senseless as more recent claims that Palmerston was simply “a Tory hack” who lacked the kind of sensitivity needed to survive as liberalism became a force in the mid-Victorian world. More than any other factor, that is the great strength of Brown’s study: far from being a reckless reactionary who failed to trim his beliefs, Palmerston emerges as a thoughtful democrat with an eye not on the main chance but on what was best for his country. In taking this line Brown has not shirked examination of his subject’s foibles. He demonstrates a light touch in dealing with Palmerston’s private papers, especially the diaries which chronicled his sexual successes and occasional failures. Apparently the many references to the weather (“fine night”) did not refer to the prevailing meteorological conditions but to something much earthier.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Brown has probably provided the last word on his subject and that this biography will not be easily bettered. The author shows himself to be as much at home in the private papers as he is in the public archives, and the resulting book is a monument to some dedicated research. While his prose style does not exactly sparkle, this is an excellent account, exacting in its approach and judicious in its judgements. Trevor Royle

Nigel Leask

The “star o’ Rabbie Burns” shines so brightly that many of us have got into the habit of not looking directly at it. During 2009’s 250th birthday celebrations, there was precious little close analysis of Burns’s poetry to counter the exploitation of his ‘brand’ for political and commercial ends: alongside golf, whisky and ancestry, Burns was extensively but shallowly marketed to tempt the Scottish diaspora to ‘come home’. Where was the poet – not the cult figure, but the real poet – in all that? By and large, he was nowhere at all.

This is the starting point for Nigel Leask’s substantial academic reassessment of the poems (and to a lesser extent the songs) of Burns. The image of the “Heaven-taught ploughman”, bestowed by Henry Mackenzie and subsequently embellished and reinforced in scores of biographies and tens of thousands of Immortal Memories, has seriously distorted our understanding of Burns as a writer of great sophistication and care, arguably (according to Leask, who is Regius Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow) “the most inventive poet writing in these islands between Pope and Blake”. While his public popularity continues seemingly undiminished, Burns’s reputation among academics is far less secure. Too often his voice is heard as that of a simple peasant speaking out of a defiant but dying tradition, in a language portrayed as intelligible only to other Scots, and over time to decreasing numbers even of them.

Burns’s willingness to play the role of primitivist in order to maximise his standing among the Edinburgh literati, and later to acquire patronage, was the very reverse of naive. More, Professor Leask convincingly argues that the subject matter, attitudes and opinions of Burns’s poems are linked directly to his engagement with ‘improvement’, the revolution in agriculture and land use which took place during his lifetime and with particular rapidity in Scotland. As an educated but financially insecure tenant farmer, Burns was caught between understanding the positive outcomes of new agrarian methods and lacking enough capital to benefit from them. His at first local and then national success as a poet offered compensatory ‘credit’ when farming failed him.

Burns’s story is not, then, that of a peasant victim who temporarily escapes his doom through his facility to turn a verse or two. It is that of a man of semi-independent means negotiating his way through a period of great change, fully conscious of the social and economic forces at play around him. The poet who not only sends a friend copies of Adam Smith’s Theory Of Moral Sentiments and Thomas Reid’s Inquiry Into The Human Mind On The Principles Of Common Sense but also emphasises the loan in a verse epistle is actively participating in contemporary cultural and intellectual exchanges. And in this same light we should see his continuous engagement with religion (whether hypocritically or sincerely practised) and moral questions, and with the politics both of democracy and radicalism and of patronage and survival. Burns, in other words, was completely in tune with his times.

Professor Leask acknowledges that studies before his have made similar points but failed to shift the entrenched mythology of the Burns cult, initiated in large part by James Currie’s biography of 1800. But he also identifies some interesting and hitherto largely unnoticed influences on the poems. In an entertaining chapter on ‘Beasties’, for example, he cites Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition to Dr Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night’ as a source for ‘To a Mouse’. This leads to two further observations: first, that the range of literary influences on Burns extends far beyond the obvious ones such as Robert Fergusson (on whom Leask writes generously) and that this should require critics, especially those outwith Scotland or departments of Scottish literature, to stop marginalising Burns as ‘merely’ a Scottish poet. Second, Burns’s extensive use of Scots should be seen not as reactive or defensive but as a mark of his linguistic virtuosity, which is how he himself saw it. He could access a range of registers, both in Scots and English, and could articulate his thought and adapt his poetic persona – which undermines another notion linked to the idea of Burns as ploughman poet, that he is “always autobiographical” – accordingly.

The price of this book makes it likely that its readers will mostly be those with access to university libraries. This is a pity.
It is a fine addition to serious studies of Burns, an accessible work of scholarship written with humour and humanity. James Robertson

Sarah Lowndes
LUATH PRESS £14.99 444PP ISBN 978-1906817596

Substantially revising her own 2003 study, the noted curator, critic and teacher Sarah Lowndes here delivers an involving account of a pivotal period in Glasgow’s cultural history, from the 1970s to the present day. This era has delivered such a jumbo crop of internationally acclaimed and prize winning visual artists hailing from or trained in Glasgow that critics have adopted the phrase “the Glasgow miracle”, to cover the rise of names such as Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Cathy Wilkes, Toby Paterson, Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie, Rosalind Nashashibi, Richard Wright and Simon Starling. This art scene, centred upon the Glasgow School of Art and shaped in particular by the influential Environmental Art Department established there in 1985, is shown by Lowndes to be indivisible from Glasgow’s live music and clubbing communities, which also flourished creatively in the same period. Fanzine culture, fashion, film making, radical journalism, experimental literature and performative ‘interventions’ also play a role. With so much to say about Glasgow’s interconnected creative communities – and so many quoted interviews with representatives thereof – this book is more a study of a multi faceted counter-culture than a simple run down of Glasgow’s art market. (The 2003 version of Lowndes’ book was subtitled Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow. A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events since 1971; this new edition opts for the rather neater The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene, but the material covered still takes us far beyond gallery walls.)

Sadly, the book can’t simply be a celebration. Lowndes dwells illuminatingly upon the very significant point that Glasgow’s ‘miracle’ has not always been effectively bolstered or supported by the city’s mainstream galleries. Glasgow institutions failed or refused to capitalise on early buzz around Glasgow School of Art graduates such as Gordon and Borland; those artists went on to build blockbuster profiles in London and overseas, but little of their work was retained for the city in which they trained.

While Gordon was celebrating his Turner Prize win, and Charles Saatchi preparing to make a mint for and out of the Sensation generation down in London, Glasgow got a shiny new Gallery of Modern Art which snubbed entirely the neo-conceptual artists who gave the city its international art cachet in favour of the old-school figurative painting that its director, Julian Spalding, preferred. So, no Douglas Gordon, even though he’d just won the Turner Prize, but three – three! – of the deeply felt works of Beryl Cook.

Critics were unforgiving: at its launch The Guardian’s Adrian Searle railed that GoMA represented “a travesty, a mockery, quite the worst-arranged collection of dire purchases that I have ever seen”. Though GoMA has staged a recovery in the wake of Spalding’s departure, and other sporadically troubled institutions like Tramway and CCA have found new creative and practical routes forward, Lowndes notes that Glasgow’s tardiness in recognising the value of its own ‘YBAs’ had a permanent effect on the artistic community’s trust in the city’s establishment, and drove many of them to favour exhibiting abroad.

With a book like this there’s a choice to be made between a raw, personal, opinionated account and a straight-faced reference tome. Lowndes, who is married to one of the key artists referenced (Richard Wright) and who crops up in several of her own cited events as a creative participant, has opted more for the latter approach. Her clear, thoughtful writing displays flashes of wit and opinion, but largely keeps a decorous arm’s length from her subject matter. This style certainly aids Social Sculpture’s standing as an authoritative academic text; it should prove indispensable for future students of the recent sound and visual culture of Scotland and the wider UK. Personally, however (and this might just be because, having been a student in Glasgow in the second half of the 1990s, I too know some of the players here and witnessed some of the phenomena covered), I could have stood a bit more first-person polemic and scandalous insider gossip. Perhaps that’s for the third edition. Hannah McGill

Alan Spence & Elizabeth Blackadder
RENAISSANCE PRESS £9.99 104PP ISBN 978-0954396121

At the centre of this hundred-page sequence of short, poised, evanescent poems and illustrations, are these lines:

after his passing,
everything as it was,
nothing as it was

This is a hinge in the book, a turning point of access into a world of fleeting but acute perception. You can read little poems quickly and you can glance and pass over pictures without pausing much – but what’s the point of that? Some books are motorways: you get somewhere fast but see nothing on the way. This one is an unpaved path you follow, pausing at every opportunity, walking back again to look at what you just missed, guided forward patiently by author and artist, not handheld but rather with the welcome sense that in a difficult place like bereavement, someone has been there already who cared

enough to make a record for those who would come later and to give the requisite honour to those who have gone before.

It is a beautiful book, of course, but beauty is peculiar to the eye of the beholder, so what makes it objectively worthwhile?

Begin with the object itself: an artifice of words and images made by two of Scotland’s finest artists. Alan Spence is a writer as gifted on the page as he is unobtrusive, and Elizabeth Blackadder has a record of accomplishment that imbues her painting with great authority; yet together in this book there is nothing overbearing, nothing magisterial, about their practice. This might – in a culture that has succumbed to the cult of celebrity, in the arts as much as anywhere – lead folk to think Morning Glory is a slight, ephemeral publication. It is anything but. It is exemplary – plentiful in imagery, observation, humour, compassion, pathos, but not arch. You will find here no trace of the ‘look-at-me’ tones and techniques so numbingly familiar.

The relation between words, pictures and meaning is ancient, from the caves at Lascaux to the Chinese written character. One values this book because it takes such things for granted. Remember: Derek Walcott, West Indian Nobel laureate, also an accomplished artist; J.M.W. Turner, greatest of English artists, a fascinating poet; William Blake, exploring meaning in imagery sometimes deceptively dreamlike, discovering softness and savagery both in the touch of the tiger; Picasso, crazily surreal in poems, endlessly inventive in visual and sculptural forms; not to mention Michelangelo.

Edwin Morgan wrote a series of poems to accompany paintings selected by readers of The Herald as their ten favourites, the poems and paintings reproduced in 2007 in a volume titled Beyond The Sun. There, the poems worked as commentary on the pictures, opening a dialogue between the poet and the artists; you could take it further and trace a conversation beginning between the poet, the artists, the works of art and the readers of the newspaper, an open readership extending into the future.

In Morning Glory, the same open dialogue is taking place – but the poems come first. Alan Spence has written a sequence of haiku and tanka: short forms both with international provenance and easy to read, inviting you to dwell with them for a time. Elizabeth Blackadder’s paintings are indeed illustrations of images, aspects or meanings found in the poems. Sometimes these are obvious – but not banal – as when a sense of transience and beauty is associated with leaves and flowers; the images and the poems have an unforced charm that precludes any threat of banality. The words move into an introspective space; the pictures remind you of the visual, outward aspect.

These are not sentimental poems, as the one I quoted at the start of the review might indicate. Without cliché, the book is not an elegy but a celebration, recollecting the opening lines of Sorley MacLean’s great poem in memory of his brother Calum: “The world is still beautiful though you are not in it.”

So there is much to enjoy for its own sake: the child on the phone telling her mother, “it was this big!” or wave after wave of the sea at night, coming “out of the dark” or the cold rain that “falls even harder under the bridge” and always “still that old

familiar moon”. An unintoxicated pleasure runs all through this work, not indulging itself in romance or idealism, but reminding us of good things we still have while here whatever the weather, the season, the year. Alan Riach

Iain M. Banks
ORBIT £18.99 640PP ISBN 978-1841498935

Iain Banks (with or without the M) has achieved his share of critical acclaim for his writing, which includes contributions to both mainstream and science fiction. He is widely regarded as being at the forefront of utopian space opera, described by one critic as “the standard by which the rest of SF is judged”. He therefore has a lot to live up to – himself – and it is a pleasure to find his latest novel delivers.

Surface Detail is the eighth in a series of novels set against the backdrop of the Culture, an enduring and benevolent socialist utopia first introduced in Consider Phlebas. The latest story opens with an escape attempted by protagonist Lededje Y’breq, a young slave woman. As an ‘Intagliate’, she is herself an indelible, living record of her family’s disgrace; her body is completely branded with markings, both inside and out.

Lededje’s escape doesn’t go as planned, and she finds herself on a different adventure. Assisted by the Culture, she seeks revenge against Jolier Veppers, the incredibly wealthy and power-hungry owner of a software company, and former owner of Lededje herself.

Primarily this is a tale of Lededje’s revenge. We also follow several other characters through stories that unfold in parallel. Attention switches between real and virtual worlds. Future civilisations have developed digital environments where personalities can be uploaded after death, allowing a second existence in an artificial afterlife. These after-worlds include agreeable Heaven-like realities, but also a vicious, punishing network of Hells. These latter are frowned upon by the more enlightened civilisations, including the Culture.

The existence of these Hells is so contentious that a war has broken out over whether they should exist or not. Though played out in the virtual world, this war threatens to erupt into the real. As the book twists back and forth between the actual and the cyber, the parallel stories seem unlikely to tie up in the end – but they do, in a slick and satisfying finish.

Surface Detail is well written and paced. The prose is evocative, often chilling, notably in the descriptions of Hell, zones of savage imagery and casual violence. The characters are entertaining, particularly the evil Veppers and witty ship avatar Demeisen. There is humour throughout, dark without being heavy-handed, exemplified by spaceship names such as Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and Sense Against Madness, Wit Against Folly.

A number of plot strands are woven together from the beginning of Surface Detail, providing a richness not seen since the earlier Culture novels. With these futuristic societies, so far removed from our own, the intricacies of the parallel stories help flesh out Banks’ fictional universe. Yet the suspicion is that so many plot strands are unnecessary and overload the story with ideas, no matter how skilfully executed.

At least Banks isn’t repeating himself as he explores the Culture. The most satisfying feat of this novel is that it successfully balances a certain Banksian charm with original ideas. His scepticism and humour raise questions his peers in mainstream literature don’t touch: What is identity? What would be the point of Hell? Perhaps most importantly, what is the appropriate spaceship nomenclature?

The Culture novels don’t need to be read in succession, and indeed in-depth knowledge of any other Culture novel is by no means a prerequisite. In terms of accessibility, Surface Detail is reminiscent of the second novel in the series, The Player of Games, making either a possible starting point for the uninitiated. Surface Detail is a fine first space opera for any newcomber feeling the lure of science fiction but afraid of jargon bombardment. Barbara Melville

Iain F. Macleòid
ÙR-SGEUL £8.99 150PP ISBN 9781900901567

Ìmpireachd, the third novel by Iain F. Macleòid, takes the reader on a journey from the Isle of Lewis, across the Atlantic to America and as far away as Iran, its geographical spread correlating with the size of the ambition on show in this book. Dealing with subjects as broad as country, family, language and morality, the reader is posed many questions by the time Ìmpireachd reaches its climax.

Tormod, the protagonist, is in search of answers about his father, who left his family behind when Tormod was still a child. At the same time, Tormod is struggling to keep his Iranian wife, Maryam, in the country. What he discovers about his absent father brings him to a point where he can see what is truly important. With the support his wife gives him, Tormod learns to avoid the path his father took.

When we encounter the father, the reader discovers he is an interesting character, not entirely likeable on first encounter. He is presented as a moral coward – a man who has no respect for women, who left his family behind without a backward glance, who is consumed with money and power. When he says “I don’t feel sorry for myself too often”, one can’t agree. This is someone who has run from his problems and repeatedly used people for his own ends and yet he frequently wants us to feel sympathy for him.

However, as the story progresses, we see another side of the man, with a revelation at the end that leads us to think differently about him.

Tormod’s story provides the reader with an alternative to a life of wealth and empire-building. Although we learn that Tormod was quite like his father at one time (making money, treating women as disposable), he is more self-aware and can see the person he would become if he were to continue in this way. He wants more from life. With a new profession counselling immigrants, he gains an understanding of the poisonous effect of power. Where his father saw opportunity, Tormod sees exploitation and inequality. He finds that he is willing to forsake money in order to change the world; a world created by his father and his generation. When he meets Maryam, Tormod’s transformation is complete.

The strongest passages concern Tormod’s father’s memory of 9/11. He was in New York where he saw one of the airplanes impact the office in the Twin Towers where his son (from a second marriage) worked. Buildings he helped to construct and from which he made a fortune were reduced to dust, and the one son that he knew, dead in the rubble.

Tormod’s attempt to sneak Maryam back into Britain takes us on a tense, nerve-wracking journey. We are kept on tenterhooks as we experience the danger that people find themselves in every day, all for the dream of safety and liberty.

The story is told in the first-person alternately by Tormod and his father. I was struck by the lack of distinction between their voices. I cannot be sure if this was the author’s intention exactly, but it does serve to highlight the similarities in language and memory-recall between them in spite of the many years that they spent estranged.

A peculiar aspect is the recurring use of repetition (e.g. “and her so far away, so far away”) which comes close to being overused by both characters.

The author deals with a great number of subjects in this short novel. Part of me wished for more detail and greater focus at crucial points. It remains an engaging story in which we find ourselves emotionally-invested in the lives of these flawed characters and the difficult choices that they have to make. We are left with the impression that forgiveness and security are possible but hard-won and fraught with peril. And, perhaps more importantly, that people are not always the way that they appear to be at first.

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Queequeg 7

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Volume 6 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

Arthur Conan Doyle
CANONGATE £8.99 400PP ISBN 978-1847679192

Besides Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle produced another, rather less well-known, recurring character: the young French cavalry officer Brigadier Gerard of the Hussars, ready to serve Napoleon and France or die in the attempt. Conan Doyle is having a little xenophobic fun here, swiping at the French with this comic depiction of an action hero, full of bombast and bravado, who nevertheless manages some very Inspector Clouseau-type slip-ups. In the opening story, his reckless determination to deliver a missive unwittingly foils Napoleon’s attempt to spread misinformation amongst the enemy. Epistles tend to crop up rather often in Gerard’s missions, leading to all sorts of comic relief, although, understandably, not the obvious pun about French letters. Conan Doyle loved history; he even believed his non-fiction studies would grant him the literary immortality he sought. Certainly, he did not want to be remembered as the creator of a mere detective. Although these short stories combine Doyle’s interest in the past with the sense of storytelling that made the Holmes tales so beloved, the Brigadier Gerard stories are not classics. The swashbuckling attitude to war, generally out of favour with our times, is perhaps part of the reason. LM

Mary McGrigor
BIRLINN £9.99 224PP ISBN 978-1841588810

McGrigor struggles here to place her hero at the centre of a story that is dominated by rather more glittering personalities. Although Wylie kept a diary, which documents the last days of Tsar Alexander’s life, it is a rather formal affair. Born in 1768 in Kincardine, he attended medical school in Edinburgh but was determined to go to sea. He took a post with Russia’s Yelets Infantry as a military surgeon in 1790. Shocked by the Russian habit of leaving wounded infantrymen to die, whilst nevertheless attending to officers, Wylie is credited with altering that practice. When he saved the life of a close friend of Tsar Paul I, he was appointed to the Russian court. Paul was mentally unbalanced and murdered by his son and heir, Alexander I. He in turn was prone to depression. Wylie founded a hospital for training Russian doctors and was even immortalised in War And Peace. It is frustrating, then, that such a remarkable man, central to the court, should remain so much on the margins of his own biography, crowded out by tsars and emperors and their wives and mistresses. LM

Ismail Kadare
CANONGATE £16.99 263PP ISBN 978-1847673398

The Accident is a fine riposte to those who questioned the first Man Booker International Prize judges when they chose to award Kadare over Philip Roth and Gabriel García Màrquez. The Accident is a rumination on love and what it does to our sense of ourselves. We begin with a car accident. A taxi on the motorway from Vienna to the airport crashes and its two passengers are killed outright. The driver survives but can only tell the police what distracted him: the sight of the couple in his rear-view mirror, trying to kiss. The implications of this action – the attempt at a kiss, as much as the deaths of the passengers – lead to enquiries. The couple, we quickly learn, both Albanian, were having a long-running affair, but friends of hers testify that she was afraid of him, and he is at first suspected of being a government agent. As the affair is told in flashback, we see what love can do. Beautifully told in sparse, simple prose. LM

Janet Soskice
VINTAGE £9.99 352PP ISBN 978-0099546542

Irvine-born twin sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith gloriously belie the suggestion that their strict religious upbringing, their smalltown childhood and their late marriages, each lasting only three years, make them stereotypically uptight Victorian matrons. The answer to tragedy in their life was to travel, so when their much-loved father died when they were only nineteen and left them a small fortune, they upped sticks for Egypt, where they cruised down the Nile. When their husbands died, they did the same again, travelling further east. One of the real pleasures of reading about their journeys is their open-mindedness and sheer joy at learning about other ways of life. Never patronising or prejudiced, they learned the language: of the countries they travelled in, Agnes publishing books about their trips afterwards. It was their journey to visit the monks of St Catherine’s in Eilat that was to change everything for them, for it was on that trip that they found an early copy of the Gospels. Soskice does an excellent job here, both in portraying the sisters’ adventurousness and in explaining the religious turmoil the Church was facing in the wake of Darwin’s theories. LM

Les Wilson
VAGABOND VOICES £11.00 240PP ISBN 978-0956056078

Les Wilson’s first novel revisits an idea that has fascinated people since the end of the Second World War. What happened to the scientists who created the American atomic bomb? Jon Armour, an arts journalist for The Herald, discovers one of them living in a remote community on the west coast of Scotland. Campbell Aaronson is now a veteran of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. He lives with his daughter, and his neighbours include a once famous artist working on a mysterious new project and a boatman who has both an award for bravery and a dishonourable discharge from the army. All of them are united against a proposed quarry that would destroy their community. Wilson’s writing is not short of confidence or ambition. His story includes a love affair, eco-terrorism, William Blake, and reflections on the nature of art and the state of the world. Overall, it’s a lively and engaging read despite a problematic parallel story about some bad white men and a Native American shaman, and an unconvincing episode in which Armour visits Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project. TM

Alasdair Gray
TWO RAVENS PRESS £15.99 200PP ISBN 978-1906120535

Alasdair Gray’s Collected Verses brings together fifty-two years of poetry, illustrating the developing voice and shifting styles of a writer better known for his prose. His early poems, composed in the 1950s, are spoken in a melancholic voice. The self-pitying notes of ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Predicting’ give way to more mature ruminations on his marriage to Inge Sorenson, for whom a sequence is named. Different voices and styles appear in ‘Verse from Elsewhere’, where Gray selects poems that first appeared in Lanark, Unlikely Stories, Poor Things and other publications. Songs such as ‘I Don’t Like It Enough’ and ‘A Sentimental Song’ are enlivened by smart rhymes. One arresting sequence features Gray’s collaboration with artist Ian McCulloch. Here, poems about biblical and mythical figures are paired with striking woodcut drawings. A final selection features brief tributes to Archie Hind and other literary figures. These poems illustrate Gray’s flair no matter the form he chooses to work in. TM

A. Roger Ekirch
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY £17.99 258PP ISBN 978-0393066159

American historian A. Roger Ekirch reveals a real-life David Balfour did exist. In 1728, James Annesley was shipped from Dublin to Delaware Bay as an indentured servant.

His devious uncle Richard, only brother of the late fourth Baron of Altham, orchestrated the kidnap. After a decade of slavery in the Americas, James finally sailed back to Britain via Jamaica. His next challenge was to prove he was Arthur Annesley’s legitimate son and entitled to inherit five aristocratic titles. A bold Scottish merchant, Daniel Mackercher, was James only ally. The process of proving his identity without the assistance of DNA or fingerprint records resulted in one of the most sensational trials of the eighteenth century. Despite a plethora of witnesses, James was depicted as ‘the pretender’ and thought to be the offspring of his nursemaid, Juggy Landy. It all sounds too incredible to be true but Ekirch’s extensive court transcripts assure the reader of the story’s veracity. Ekirch does not speculate on how James coped with his multiple misfortunes but shapes his character through the recorded dialogue of others. Each chapter brings captivating information about the betrayal and resulting trial, which concluded with a surprise verdict. TM

Edited by Craig Gibson
LEAMINGTON BOOKS £10 288PP ISBN 978-0955488559

What began as a news sheet distributed in Edinburgh pubs has now been anthologised. Created by Edinburgh University students in 2004 and modelled after Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, The One O’Clock Gun was satirical in intent; in practice it often reads like male-centric barroom banter. In one of his pieces, editor Craig Gibson explains, “The days of the Edinburgh gentleman’s club were long gone.” With three female contributors outnumbered by thirty-odd males, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There are too many stories about boozing and sexual conquests, one of which includes the line, ‘‘I’ve never screwed a chick yet that’s wanted to count my sperm.” Charming. Rants against non-supporters of the One O’Clock Gun, such as Whigams Wine Cellar: and Catherine Lockerbie of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, are immature. However, there are some poignant moments. James Woods’ poems and Alasdair Gray’s tribute to television scriptwriter Susan Boyd are of a high standard. Perhaps the One O’Clock Gun should only be fired off in the pub. Collectively, these sardonic pieces lose their punch. TM

Allan Cameron
VAGABOND VOICES £10.00 224PP ISBN 978-0956056092

Allan Cameron’s fable set in a futuristic dystopia is about a society corrupted by consumerism. Here the Britain of tomorrow is a country where that famous idea of theorist Francis Fukuyama has come to pass: history has ended. Citizens exist in senseless luxury because of the Rational Consumer Implant Cards in their brains. A privileged few have been awarded the Plutocratic Social Gratitude Award, also known as the Berlusconi Bonus (named in honour of the louche Italian premier), owing to their aptitude for raking in money. It’s a licence to live in even greater lavishness – and outside the law. However, there are losers as well as winners in Cameron’s brave new world. Refugees are forced to stay in Fukuyama Theme Parks on the margins of society. This could be interesting, but Cameron’s sermonising makes piecing the clues together more hard work than fun. The narrator, Adolphus Hibbert, is CEO of a bedpan company. Hibbert, who has just qualified for his Bonus, is finding his new freedom difficult to process, not least dealing with those who are jealous of his new status. So he begins a love affair with Edith, a fringe-dweller. Though there are flashes of relevance to today’s politics, the novel turns into diatribe. TM

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A Capital Fellow

Siegmund Warburg turned the City upside down, yet his achievements, as well as his brand of gentlemanly capitalism, are all but extinct.

Niall Ferguson started his rise to stardom as an economic, more specifically a financial, historian – which is perhaps, with all the jargon and numbers, not an especially good place for a star to rise. In a previous generation J. K. Galbraith excelled in the same genre by deploying wit and charm to sweeten the pill of the technicalities, which he had learned through administering the American war effort and which he then taught at Harvard. He has found a successor in Ferguson, also at Harvard, just as accessible, not quite so funny, but at times more cogent. Both are, besides, of Scots blood – Galbraith a descendant of emigrants to Canada, Fergu-son an unrepentant yet occasionally nostalgic exile from Glasgow.

To the general reader high finance may seem a forbidding field, but it does tend to attract larger-than-life characters, good not only at earning the dosh but also at spending it, or indeed at losing it in a fit of misjudgment, in an unsuspected crash or in the prosecution that sometimes follows a swindle on the public. Pursuing an aspect of human activity that does not always bring out the noblest in the species, Ferguson has been fortunate to find a man in whom, at the very least, the virtues outweighed the vices.

Remarkable as Siegmund Warburg was, he seems – not yet thirty years after his death – to belong to another age, with his lifetime’s achievement already vanished as if it had never been. The financial house of S. G. Warburg that he created in London folded there in 2002, at the end of a long chain of takeovers and amalgamations beginning in the Thatcherite Big Bang, the deregulation of the City in the 1980s. Old subsidiaries of Warburg’s survive in Hamburg and New York, but in essence what was once the greatest name and the grandest firm in British finance are gone for good. If you look for Warburg in London today, you will find only an institute devoted to the history of art, another of the family’s interests.

The City that survives bears quite another imprint, in general a dirtier and a smudgier one. It is almost a work of excavation to reconstruct the different City or Cities that used to exist but have not lasted the course. But that is what the best historians are for and Ferguson, with the help of an ample archive, brings it off with panache.

Looking back from the credit crunch of 2008, it is easy to see that the City of Cockneys in flowery braces frenetically bumping up their bonuses was a world away from, say, the pre-war City peopled by upper-class twits commuting to London for a couple of hours’ languid work before they went out to lunch. Both groups, in their different ways, were in essence engaged in exchanging capital gains among themselves. In both cases it might be argued, and has been, that they were working against any true national interest.

On to this, in either case, archetypal English scene there flitted all of a sudden in 1933 an alien from another world. Warburg was far from the first Jew to arrive in the City: he had been preceded by the Rothschilds, for example. Though only a couple of generations out of the ghetto the Rothschilds had soared aloft into the European aristocracy, and regarded him as an arriviste.

Warburg was born into the different social stratum of the go-ahead German commercial class. Yes, he was Jewish, but Germany’s Jews before 1933 had been more or less completely assimilated to the host culture. They never wore kaftans and sidelocks like their cousins in Russia or Austria-Hungary; rather their suits were bespoke and their hair pomaded, just like the gentiles who had got rich quick in the booming Wilhelmine Empire. And often they – this included the Warburgs – could not believe Adolf Hitler really wanted to murder them all. So at first they sought to stay on in the Third Reich. At least they took the precaution of sending young Siegmund ahead to London in case they needed to escape – as they did in good time.

They still brought on to the City’s smug scene some authentic and often uncomfortable German attitudes. To them high finance was not a private but a public matter, inspired not by personal gratification but by the duty to contribute to the economy. Potential customers could not just walk in the bank’s door: they had to prove they were worthy of its disinterested advice. Yet there was no snobbish exclusiveness inside the house – everybody had to know everything necessary to conduct its business with probity and efficiency.

At the same time Warburg’s was no charity. It aimed to make profits. In the hidebound, complacent, fuddy-duddy City of old that had not actually been much of a priority either, at least if it entailed unusual exertion or opening the door to the club. The Victorian fabric of the Square Mile was largely destroyed by the Luftwaffe’s bombs in the Second World War. In the following decades Warburg’s did much the same job on its Victorian habits of mind and ways of working.

Ferguson is especially good at picking out the long-term significance of these apparently obscure developments. One was the emergence of the Eurobond market, spearheaded by Warburg’s. A Eurobond was an instrument by which funds could be raised in foreign currencies on the markets in Lon-don. Soon to be commonplace, it was in the 1960s a startling innovation because people had only ever raised money on those markets in sterling, and dealings in other currencies were vigilantly controlled to the point of discouragement. The controls, imposed for the war and then continued in order to combat speculation, remained nominally in place for another 20 years. But Warburg personally persuaded the Bank of England and the Treasury to open this little loophole for him. It was the first step towards creation of today’s global markets.

The second great innovation was the hostile takeover. This had been unheard of under the regime of gentlemanly capitalism, when all big deals were settled in private by chaps who had gone to the same schools. To have a ding-dong battle in the open market place with bluffs and feints and dirty tricks seemed profoundly unBritish, as indeed it was. War-burg imported it from across the Atlantic in order to promote an American takeover of British Aluminium in 1959: again, it had previously been unthinkable for such a big company to be bought up by foreigners.

Warburg made himself unpopular, but Ferguson argues that the financial history of the last half-century vindicates him. In the first place, the British industrial economy had not recovered from the war (in fact never would) and stood in urgent need of injections of capital from the much bigger and more successful economy of the US: one channel for it was American corporate acquisition. In the second place, hostile takeover is more beneficial to the efficient operation of the capitalist system than deals behind closed doors. It exposes truth, often truth which nobody has been prepared to face.

“We don’t know whether this firm with this thrusting Jew is going to make it here or not,” said a grandee of the City in contemplating the outcome on that occasion. Actually Warburg had by then been making it here for three decades, and the grandees were the ones headed for the dustbin of history. Despite the war, anti-Semitism was not yet taboo in Britain. It prompted Warburg always to be as British as he could possibly manage. He did not always succeed.

Warburg, his family and a circle of Jewish associates who had fled the Third Reich with him nearly always spoke and wrote to one another in English, only falling back on German when words really did fail them. He did not practice the Jewish religion, married a gentile and, while educating his children about religion or religions, did so with the aim of allowing them to choose one for themselves. In another litmus test, support for Israel, he was almost equally uncommitted. He was glad to see the establishment of a Jewish state, but felt ever more disillusioned as its conscience and its conduct coarsened.

Ferguson involves himself in expositions somewhat too long of Warburg’s views on such weighty matters as Britain’s entry into Europe, but it is not obvious these always rose above the usual businessmen’s platitudes. What emerges most clearly is that in politics he was, if anything, a man of the Left, once more quite different from the blimpish types he had to deal with in the City. He forged his closest political contact he forged with Harold Wilson, who himself had a liking for people, often Jews, regarded as suspect in the British establishment, and felt always fascinated by ingenious innovation. Alas, Wilson proved a good deal less successful in politics than Warburg did in fi-nance, and their friendship never bore much fruit.

Warburg was in two minds about Margaret Thatcher. He admired her resolution but, true to form, he rather disliked her economic policies – with the exception of the Big Bang, which opened up the City to new men and new ideas in the way he had always wished. In the opening stages of the subsequent development his bank prospered but, dying in 1982, he saw nothing of what followed.

The eventual sequel was the catastrophe of the credit crunch. But Ferguson takes care to absolve Warburg of any charge that he might have been, from beyond the grave, a midwife to it. It was, the text argues, the disaster of a system which had lost its bearings, given over into the hands of young men too clever by half who treated the economy as a giant computer game.

Warburg, a man tempered by exile, in contrast always stressed the human aspect of high finance. He wanted to know his customers at first hand and to understand their needs, insisting also that they should get to know him and his point of view. It was the taste for personal contact that at his outset enabled him to make his way in a suspicious City, because that was in the end what it relied on too. Little of this has survived into an era of high finance governed by mathematical models and individual rapacity. Warburg did not die a poor man, to be sure: but his legacy of £2 million is dwarfed just by the pension rights of Fred the Shred.

Niall Ferguson
ALLEN LANE, £30, PP 547 ISBN 9780713998719

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The Art of War

Why there is nothing comic about a new graphic novel’s take on the shock of war and its traumatic fall-out.

ACTION is a euphemism for violence, routinely used by the military to cover the experience of combat. The word also refers to a genre of movies defined by gunfights and explosions, and it recurs throughout the history of comic books
– Superman himself was first introduced on the cover of an anthology called Action Comics in 1938.

Then came the Second World War, after which an entire division of this particular industry went on to show and tell eye-popping stories from that conflict for half a century, in titles such as Battlefield Action.

In the late 1970s, while UK comic books like Commando, Warlord and Valour were still turning out Allied propaganda for a readership born long after the Axis powers were defeated, the writer Pat Mills – the creator of 2000AD and so-called ‘godfather of British comics’ – reached further back, to the First World War, transmuting his extensive research into a long-running chronicle of shellshock and dehumanisation.

Illustrated in dense, inky detail by Joe Colquhoun, Charley’s War constituted an ongoing act of subversion in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly. Dougie’s War, a new book described on its cover as “a graphic novel about one soldier’s return from Afghanistan”, is so influenced by those artists as to reprint extracts from their work inside.

“To my mind, Mills and Colquhoun were the first to completely reject talking down to their young comic audience,” writes editor and publisher Adrian Searle, in a fine introduction that recalls his boyhood fixation on that particular strip. “Everything was in there, war in all its grotesque horror, madness and gallows humour.”

After researching the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on veterans of more recent conflicts, Searle commissioned Rodge Glass and Dave Turbitt to produce a modern answer to Charley’s War. Neither had any experience in comics – Glass is a respected Scottish novelist and biographer, Turbitt a graphic designer who works on the BBC’s Doctor Who. But between them, they have written and drawn a portrait of PTSD in four short chapters, although Glass labels them “episodes”, a term that evokes both psychiatry and serialised entertainment.

Dougie Campbell is a young Scottish soldier wounded by the same roadside bomb that killed his closes comrades. Discharged and invalided home to Glasgow, he can’t stop reliving the incident, and starts to feel a creeping envy for the dead. “Bastards,” he remarks to an oblivious barmaid, while the news on a pub TV plays footage of three more bodies being repatriated to the UK. “They don’t know how lucky they are. Dyin… it’s the only way to be remembered.”

In the sequence that follows, the panels can’t contain the artwork and the text boxes run red as Dougie flashes back to the moment of the bombing, and his friends’ ghosts arrive to close him up in a coffin.

Throughout the book, Dave Turbitt finds effective ways to illustrate the sheer psychic disruption of PTSD, the sudden intrusion of nightmares into waking life. His most powerful images find a minimal modern equivalent for Joe Colquhoun’s expressionism, which scarred the young followers of Charley’s War with its visions of screaming skulls and wraiths draped in the Union Jack.

That comic was the first of its kind to realise the psychological capacity of the medium, to capture heightened states of fear and confusion on the page to trace the altered and warped realities of combat, it might indeed be best and simplest just to draw them.

Rodge Glass, however, may have set himself an impossible task, in attempting to speak for the serving soldiers and veterans he met while preparing to write his first graphic novel. “Dougie’s War is based on facts, but is a complete fiction,” he explains in his afterword.

“It appears to be about one person, but is really about hundreds of them. On one level it’s about conflict in Afghanistan, but it’s informed by tales of Scots who have served all over the world: in Iraq, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia.”

This is an honourable project, partly fi-nanced by the Scottish Veterans Fund and specifically intended to reach teenagers who might be thinking of joining the army.

As Glass recently told the Sunday Herald, “Raising awareness among young people about the real consequences of war can only be a good thing.” It doesn’t necessarily make for good art or literature, though. The best comic books are both, of course (at this point, we can surely disregard the few remaining adults who will cover their ears, shake their heads and shout “no no no” to the very idea), and Dougie’s War often reads more like a pamphlet on mental health when compared with some of the works that inspired it.

In the same afterword, Glass namechecks Pride Of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon about lions set loose from the zoo by the US firebombing of that city in 2003. Also, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical comic (and later film), about the author’s coming of age in the Iranian Revolution. And Waltz With Bashir, the recent animated documentary by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, who used a subtle composite of journalism and symbolism to render Israeli soldiers’ dreams and memories of the massacres at West Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982.

Glass doesn’t mention Joe Sacco, the American writer who invented his own form of cartoon non-fiction with books such as Palestine, The Fixer, and Safe Area Gorazade. Actively irritated by the limitations of straightforward reporting, Sacco spent most of the 1990s visiting the residents of besieged neighbourhoods in eastern Bosnia and the West Bank, then sketching out their first hand accounts of torture or mass execution. On the page his drawings sit within panels of verbatim transcription, often showing the author and his subject simply talking at a table, creating a document of both oral and pictorial history.

Dougie’s War, by contrast, is a fiction that somehow feels more obvious and less strange than the reality it tries to describe. Drafted into existence to echo the experiences of living people, Dougie never quite becomes one himself.

His background rings true enough: another young Scot raised in relative deprivation, he joined the army in the absence of alternatives, finding purpose, even freedom, in deployment, only to lose it again on leaving the uniform. But his character remains a vague cipher of generic and domestic signifiers.

If Glass had even given him a Glasgow team to support, Dougie might have taken on some specificity. As it stands, his voice itself seems to waver between an indistinct local dialect (“I didn’t mind the rain pishing down”) and a facile narrative drone that lies flat on the page.

“Out there, I was needed. Now, I was nothing. It made me want to kill something. And why not? It’s what I was trained to do.” Multitudes of ex-servicemen might attest to feeling the same way, if only they were willing or able to talk about it, and many of them told Glass that PTSD is still compounded by the army’s culture of silence.

This is the brutal irony of the condition – the profound isolation of each sufferer may actually have been shared by generations of surviving soldiers, across every war in living memory, and beyond. But even the few who Adrian Searle quotes at length in his companion article manage to articulate their predicament with great clarity and urgency.

“I used to get nightmares from Northern Ireland,” says a veteran named ‘Tam’, who also experienced combat in the Falklands. “I think it was the heightened tension… When I got home I found it difficult to settle, wanted that buzz again. It’s like two sides of the same coin, when you’re out there and feel that fear, the adrenalin’s running, you don’t want to be there, but when you’re not there you miss it.”

It’s a lot to ask of any fictional character to embody this antagonism, and probably too much for one as thinly and literally sketched as poor Dougie Campbell. Tam’s reminiscences, or those of a Scottish infantry major identified here as ‘Norrie’, who describes a rocket coming towards him in Basra with the strange, sluggish speed of a paintball – “Just quick enough that you can’t get out of the way” – might have made for a more exciting story, and therefore a more effective one.

Because, for all the other factors at play in army recruitment, young men are still joining up for more or less the same reason they buy comic books: to see action. But mine is, of course, only a civilian’s perspective. And to give Dougie Campbell the last word, “Civvies just didn’t get it.”

By Rodge Glass and Dave Turbitt
FREIGHT PRESS, £14.99 96PP ISBN 978-0954402488

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Mick Imlah was not obviously Scottish but his homeland was deep in the grain of his personality and poetry.

This will be as much a memoir as a review. I knew Mick Imlah – not well, but well enough – for twenty years. We first met when he took over from Andrew Motion as poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, maybe around 1989, the year I moved from Glasgow to take up a lectureship in Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews University. Though born in Aberdeen and brought up as a child in Milngavie, Mick did not sound at all Scottish. This roused suspicion in me. Probably I was jealous too. Three years older than me, Mick was strikingly handsome, slightly louche, readily attractive to women. A rugby-mad and privileged English public schoolboy he had glided from editing Poetry Review to looking after poetry at Chatto. It all looked like effortless superiority: from Dulwich College to Magdalen College, Oxford, where in 1983 Mick helped re-found the magazine Oxford Poetry. As a sport-hating boy who had grown up in lower-middle-class Lanarkshire, gone to Oxford after an undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, then had co-founded the more aggressively international mag Verse in 1984, I found it hard to forgive Mick for appearing such an Olympian Oxbridge toff.

But I came to respect him as a superb editor. He had published his first collection, Birthmarks, in 1988, revealing in that book’s title and in several poems anxieties both about his own submerged Scottishness (which was deeply important to him) as well as about class and colonialism. The first poem tracks ‘Harrow/ Elephants’ through an African dreamscape where

Sammy plays
A massacre song
With the notes wrong
On Massa’s baby.

I gave Birthmarks a good review in the London Review of Books, and remember shortly afterwards breathing a sigh of relief that I had done so. Because, unexpectedly, Mick became my editor at Chatto. He was disconcertingly shrewd at spotting words in poems that were not necessarily being repeated deliberately. He was also almost pathologically elusive. When my second collection got held up, he was impossible to get hold of. I intuited from his poems he was a man-about-town with apassion for booze, and was accustomed to have women chasing him. That, I supposed, was what he was up to.

And possibly so it was. Many now republished in Imlah’s Selected Poems, the 1980s poems of Birthmarks have lasted very, very well. Cunningly made, they are capacious yet four-square; foursquareness became a hallmark of Imlah’s later poetry. The subtly intelligent poems of Birthmarks reveal troubled relationships with women and drink. The poem ‘Birthmark’ begins,

On my decline, a millipede
Helped me to keep count;
For every time I slipped a foot
Farther down the mountain

She’d leave a tiny, cast-off limb
Of crimson on my cheek
As if to say –
You’re hurting us both, Mick

Though Imlah does use real people’s names in his poems, his protagonists seem constructed for the verse. The poems are often wittily elaborated; on occasion a little hobbled by a weakness for parentheses. ‘Birthmark’ depends in part on a sort of punning glissade that takes writer and reader from the word ‘foot’ to the word ‘limb’. Legginess, legging it, and getting legless were part of Mick’s psyche — his imagination at once escapological and fascinated by traps. Definitions in his poems tend to be qualified by bracketed complications. One of his best 1980s works, ‘Goldilocks’, relies on a sense of his own hidden Scottishness. The poem’s patronizingly donnish speaker evicts from his Oxford college room an alcoholic, ginger-haired vagrant with a distinctly Scots voice:

I went for the parasite,
Scuttling him off with a shout and the
push of a boot

That reminded his ribs I suppose of a
Maryhill barman’s,
Until I had driven him out of the door
and his cough
Could be heard to deteriorate under a
clock in the landing.
(Och, if he’d known I was Scottish! Then
I’d have got it.)

Mick had a liking for anapaests and dactyls which, rightly or wrongly, reminds me of the sometimes radical Victorian poetic experimenter Arthur Hugh Clough who wrote about Oxford students in the Scottish Highlands. Imlah began an Oxford doctorate on Victorian poetry, but did not complete it; he also pondered (and may have written part of) a novel set in Morocco. He was a superb essayist. A selection of his essays, letters and reviews should be gathered for a Selected Prose to complemented the Selected Poems now so deftly edited by Mark Ford, and shrewdly (if anything, a little too tactfully) introduced by Alan Hollinghurst, Mick’s Oxford college friend and later his colleague at the Times Literary Supplement.

From one angle Mick Imlah was a dashing success; from another, he teetered on the edge of wreck. Years went by and his second book of poems never appeared. Legends about it grew. Working as poetry editor at the TLS (a job which invites false friends and backbiting) he must have felt that his own next collection would be subjected to intense critical scrutiny; but there was more to his tardiness than that. I remember saying to him preachily at one point that his interest in the Victorian poet James Thomson, who was born in Port Glasgow but spent most of his life in London, was leading Mick to convince himself that his fate must be to mirror Thomson’s talented, alcoholic, depressive career. He did not thank me for that. Feeling, perhaps, a certain quasi-proprietary and self-lacerating anxiety, he felt bad that he had slighted Tom Leonard’s unusual and insightful biography of Thomson in a TLS review. Mick loved Scotland, but felt a distance between himself and many modern Scottish writers. “Thanks for asking me up here” he wrote on my copy of Birthmarks when he read in St Andrews in April 1990. Before long he left Chatto and I didn’t see much of him.

Then, five or six years later, having learned that I would like to edit a new anthology of Scottish verse, Mick phoned me up out of the blue. He had signed a contract some time earlier to edit a new Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, but said he hadn’t got beyond the Makars. He felt awkward about the book being edited from London. Would I like to edit it with him? Accepting this invitation with glee, I soon discovered that when he said he hadn’t got beyond the Makars he meant he hadn’t done anything at all. After convincing him and Penguin that the book should start much earlier, with the long Latin ‘Altus Prosator’ attributed to St Columba, and that it should take in a wide variety of languages, I met Mick a few times over the next several years. Mostly, though, I’d phone him at the TLS. He always seemed to be expected soon. A Houdini to co-edit with, he had a surefire knack for reeling in unexpected poems, such as David Malloch’s ‘On an Amorous Old Man’, about an ageing lothario – ‘Brisk where he cannot, backward where he can;/ The teasing ghost of the departed man.’ Mick also had a great love for Henryson’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ with the harper-poet’s beloved seen as ‘Richt warsch and wan, and walowit as a wede.’ It could not be said that he chose most of the poems in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, but, dissatisfied at my cruder draft, he wrote almost all the introduction with absolute panache.

I remember being pleasantly surprised when he translated into verse a passage from the medieval French, ‘Fergus’, which I wanted to include in the anthology; he never told me he was working on a substantial series of poems based on Scottish history. I wish he had. In his second collection, twenty years in the making, Mick drew on texts as different as Adamnan’s Latin life of Columba and Henryson’s Scots poetry to make such new and sophisticated works as ‘The Prophecies’ and his celebration of Burns, ‘The Ayrshire Orpheus’. First published in his prizewinning The Lost Leader (2008), the best of these works are now in the Selected Poems — an impressive phalanx of verse. Imlah out-did T.S. Eliot in selecting Edwin Muir’s poetry for Faber in 2008. His Scotland is too strongly inflected by a rather old-fashioned, Muirish sense of a country inescapably defined by its wounded pastness. Occasionally his resuscitations of historic Scotlands smell of the lamp. Yet the best poems, unwavering in their refusal of simplification, yet also moving and strong, are likely to become a lasting part of the inheritance of Scottish literature.

In ‘London Scottish’, a splendid 15-line sonnet, Imlah elegizes a Scots rugby club of 60 men, 45 of whom died in World War I:

Just one, Brodie the prop, resumed his

The others sometimes drank to ‘The
Neither a humorous nor an idle toast.

Though it caused Boyd’s widow distress, Imlah’s poem ‘Stephen Boyd’, with its epigraph from Henryson’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, is one of the greatest modern Scottish elegies. Boyd, who killed himself in 1995, was a west of Scotland contemporary of Mick’s at Oxford; he became a much loved Lecturer at St Andrews University, where the common room in the School of English now bears his name. Celebrating a shared love of rugby and “a friendship based/On little more than aping Bill McLaren”, Imlah builds a warmly humorous yet grieving account which also shows Boyd “harmlessly hammered” and “weeping” while his wife tries to steady him. This moving poem of friendship and damage is also one in which, as often in friendships, each friend mirrors the other. It has the control of Imlah’s more historical poems, yet also a deep and complex sense of personal involvement. Another late poem in the present book, ‘Maren’, addressed to Imlah’s partner, also carries subtly modulated personal conviction, mixed with this poet’s characteristic and winning ironic humour.

Mark Ford has added a very few poems written by Imlah before his death from motor neurone disease in 2009. He was fifty-two, but will be remembered as knowingly youthful. ‘Whom the gods love die young’, wrote the ancient Greek poet Menander. He was thinking of Mick.

Mick Imlah
FABER AND FABER, £12.99, 176PP ISBN 9780571268818

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Reading Jail

Creative writing classes offer young offenders a route back to the world. A class tutor explains how.

‘ Body farming’ – is that how society sees its prisons?

Polmont Young Offenders Institution doesn’t look like a jail when you walk in. The sliding doors open automatically, like any office tower. A waiting area is just to the left, with blue-grey carpeting and a few toys for young children to play with. No bars, no barking dogs, no armed guards. The reception is like a Scottish Executive building or the foyer of a bank. After you clear security, you take the long walk down to the learning centre with every staff member you meet wishing you a good morning. Sure, locks and doors control movement, but the building remains humane and friendlier than any corporate office I’ve ever worked in.

For over three years, I’ve served as Writer-in-Residence on a voluntary basis in Polmont, and engaged with a large number of young inmates. This work keeps returning me to a question that has never been satisfactorily answered since the modern prison era began. What is the purpose of prisons? To punish, rehabilitate, or both? The origins of the question lie in a moment of historical irony. The state-sanctioned ostracism from society of human beings arose at a time when people in Colonial America and Europe began awakening to a notion of freedom. In England, an act of 1575 calling for “the punishment of vagabonds and the relief of the poor” established “houses of correction” in every county. A century later, in 1676, Louis XIV sent an edict prescribing a ‘Hôpital Général’ in every French city. The legislation for these exclusions was intended originally for the mad, then the sick, then offenders, political enemies, and lower-class undesirables. Justice was arbitrary, and remained so through the era of liberté, égalité, fraternité and beyond. Nor was this the case in France alone.

Quarantine makes sense medically, as with plagues. In a judgement of madness, however, it was ambiguous, though it did prove useful when citizens who posed difficulties to the state had to be dealt with. According to Michel Foucault, in Madness And Civilization, “One out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined” for varying lengths of time during the seventeenth century. “Absolute power made use of lettres de cachet and arbitrary measures of imprisonment …
[extended equally to] the poor, to the unemployed, to prisoners and to the insane. […] As with the libertine…or the ruffian…it is difficult to say [who is] mad, sick, or criminal.”

Polmont’s senior officials have learned from experience: contrary to the theory behind the Hôpital Général, the further you remove people from society, the less likely they’ll productively integrate back into it. Officials came to similar conclusions two centuries ago. As Foucault writes,“The evil which men had attempted to exclude by confinement reappeared, to the horror of the public.”While some criminals are hardened beyond hope, and need to be locked away, I’m not so sure about the greater portion of humans we leave to languish in prison.

Whether you choose to look at government statistics, the testimony of prison officers, or my experience of working with young inmates, the findings are similar: in approximately 80 per cent of cases, alcohol was a major contributory factor to the offence. Most prisoners I know stood trial, unable to defend themselves, because they had no memory of events due to blackouts. Ironically, the local term for this is ‘Mad w’ it’.

When I began working with young men at Polmont I noticed their lack of self-confidence. Peer-pressure shames those with ambition as ‘attention seekers’. One of my students, Calum, reported being put on the street to run with ‘the lads’ at the age of four. Another, Jeffrey, at age 8, was charged with the full-time care of his two younger brothers, aged 5 and 3. Both came from families of alcoholics. What do pre-teen boys do, I asked, when left in the street to fend for themselves? Drink, do drugs, join gangs. “What else were we supposed to do, when that’s all you know?” Calum has repeatedly asked me.

Like Calum and Jeffrey, many inmates report long histories of alcohol, drugs, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. Some have legitimate mental health illnesses, and need proper diagnosis and treatment. Many experienced a school system that is coercive and labelled them as troublemakers from a young age. Most report negative social conditioning (intentional or not) on the part of families, carers, teachers. “My family and people in my neighbourhood always said that I’d end up in jail,” Jeffrey told me. “The last time I saw my father was after I’d been arrested, we crossed paths in handcuffs. ‘Hi Dad, what you in for?’” reported another boy, forcing out a shy laugh.

Rigid business approaches to learning also present a problem, parcelling out a system of ‘bums on seats’ and bottom-line rationales. The results alienate good teachers and students alike, and the effect on the prisoners is devastating, resulting in a greater aversion to learning. If we’re looking to ensure released offenders return to jail, this is a good way of going about it.

The encouraging news is that I have not met or worked with one official at the Scottish Prison Service who does not want positive change. Let’s face it: ‘body-farming’ is depressing. Farms where nothing grows. Nothing changes. Of course, offences must be punished. Sentences must be served. But then what? If we follow the US model, the farms only get bigger, and the result is painfully similar to what Musquinet de la Pagne observed in Paris in 1790, “These wards are a dreadful place where all crimes together ferment and spread around them … a contagious atmosphere.”

My wish is for all young people today to reclaim their own narrative, whether locked in jail or tied to an iPod. If they don’t, they will be victims of something Thomas Mann wrote on: “Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves context – it is silence which isolates.” Young people in custody can be vague about why they’re there, and so internalise another narrative, which is not autochthonous but imposed by the authorities and sections of the press, that ‘explains’ their behaviour. These are kids that have fallen through the cracks, been left behind as hands-on teaching and apprenticeships were traded for standardized tests.

Only three of my hundred or so prison writers have claimed “I didn’t do it”. And one actually didn’t; he was proven innocent after serving three years. So, if any of them write down even one authentic line about themselves, I’ve done my job. One honest statement in a notebook they take with them after they leave jail could mean the difference between a positive future and a career in criminality.

Students start exactly where they are with regards to their vocabulary and language. We don’t ‘dumb down’, we do not judge. We write about anger and pain, guilt and amends, forging a bond with the outside world. Some have all but cried when we’ve studied Samuel Beckett, and learned that creative failure is an option, as is the resolve to “fail better”. We use Romeo and Juliet to discuss gangs and knife crime. On racism, we read James Baldwin and Malcolm X; there may be parallels between today’s ‘ned’ and yesterday’s ‘nigger’.

If facilitated correctly, the results are astonishing. My approach is a hybrid of personal essay and Theatre-in-Education. T-i-E takes contemporary topics and develops them into dramatic narratives that are performed, and has proven effective in dealing with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, bullying, and spousal abuse. The personal essay develops the solitary act of writing within a group setting. Combined with T-i-E, it opens a path to other genres in writing. After three years, we’ve been given permission to match written evaluations with proper college credits. Many other dedicated agents, charities and arts organizations are engaged in new, equally valid work. Now we’re getting somewhere.

What about the victims? For some, writing classes invite the suspicion that prison is cushy; to certain minds, rehabilitation itself is disrespectful to those hurt by the inmates. My answer: do everything in our power to honour victims by preventing more.

When I visited Barlinnie prison, the library was empty, to the dismay of the officer in charge. As Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ came on the radio, I began to make notes about how to keep our young people from re-entering prison once they’ve left:

Prisoners need to be kept as involved, informed and engaged with society as possible. The further they are removed, the more likely they will re-offend.

Make prison tough. No TV in the daytime. Mandatory activities – education, sport, work. Work should encourage self-sufficiency.

End the dismal failure of placing young offenders directly back into the communities they come from. Prison officials, teachers and support workers agree this is the number one ingredient in a high rate of re-offending. Same gangs, same arguments, grudges, fights and trouble – they need a clean start. Make relocation a privilege, not a right.

Offer tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that employ prisoners after release. Even the most menial job can make a world of difference.

Ban videos depicting children in the act of committing crimes from social networking sites. Enforce the ban as strongly as that on child pornography.

Propose a new national service policy – military, forestry, nursing older people or helping the poor. It’s time to give back.

On 23 November 2010 bidding will close on the new learning contract for prisons in Scotland. Write to your MSP. Mark my words and the advice of those on the front lines: you do not want jails to go private. Private jails are jails for profiteers and will ensure that nothing changes. Penny wise, pound foolish. The choice is clear: suffer more crime by alienating criminals in private bureaucracies or seize the opportunity to write a new story.

If you would like to help by becoming a ‘pen-pal’ or mentor, or read a longer version of this essay, visit

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Burking The Truth

The Burke and Hare story has been resurrected once more by Hollywood’s grave-diggers. Better to let it rest in peace.

Pegg and Serkis as Burke and Hare

Seldom if ever have I enjoyed as bad a film as much as John Landis’ Burke And Hare. Not all of the enjoyment came from its badness. Tom Wilkinson, as ever, vastly improves the quality of any task he undertakes, even with a script as banal as this. Viewers of the film should enshrine his Dr Knox in their screen rogues gallery on, much as Tom Fleming’s Knox towered above James Bridie’s play The Anatomist, a better work than this but almost as dishonest and for worse reasons. Bridie’s play valorized medical amorality, and deliberately inflamed anti-Catholicism; Landis’s film’s anti-Catholic moments do but jest, or try to, in an orgy of music-hall buffoonery, and the movie makes Knox incriminate himself by commissioning Burke and Hare to murder to provide him with corpses for educational dissection whereas the real Knox paid for bodies and knew he must never permit himself even to suspect they had been killed.

David Hayman plays an exquisite if entirely mythical body-snatcher boss, one of the fleeting clues that intelligent life existed somewhere in the making of this dunciad.

Hayman threatens Burke and Hare which they answer by making him an anatomical subject, a method of dealing with blackmailers previously used by Robert Louis Stevenson in his short story ‘The Body-Snatcher’. But it is hardly wise to prompt that association of ideas. John Lan-dis can claim that his is but one more in the long chain of bad plays and films featuring Burke and Hare. The Body Snatcher (1945) made perhaps the best movie from a Steven-son story, with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and an Edinburgh far more convincing in its menacing black-and-white than Landis’s Technicolor tourist-trap. There are other screen versions – notably The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), which starred Peter Cushing as Knox, and The Doctor And The Devils (1985), whose screenplay was written by Dylan Thomas in 1953 – but they are no more worth watching than Landis’ version.

That John Landis is a highly intelligent and captivating man with a fine reputation in film-making makes it worse. I ran into Landis when he was visiting Edinburgh researching the subject. His scholarly discourse is a cross between a high-powered vacuum-cleaner and a USAF bomber in a World War II movie, but he was passionately, even ferociously interested in what he was filming. We had a glorious argument in which he insisted on an artist’s right to fictionalise the story a little and I insisted Burke and Hare had been fictionalised endlessly whereas a film about them that hold the truth would have all the charm of novelty. But while he showed not the slightest sign of being in the least dented by my pious historicism, I was left in no doubt about his seriousness of purpose. Also, I liked him. Granted, he is a bully, but he is no coward, and I enjoy exchanging ruderies with persons only known to me through common scholarly interests. And we agreed about current American politics, being fervent Obama people, had common histories of support for racial integration in bad times, and swapped yarns about books (he later sent me a couple hitherto unknown to me).

He talked about scriptwriters, and predictably it wasn’t quite clear whether he saw himself as a Frankenstein making his horror with minor lab assistance or as an inspirational Diaghilev summoning up Stravinskys. What inclined me towards the latter – and therefore left me surprised by the weaknesses of his film – was that he was very proud of the scriptwriters whom he had commissioned, especially George Macdonald Fraser, the late author of the Flashman series. This proved a good battleground for him to wave his artistic license over his head since we agreed that the Flashman novels are splendid historical fiction. But they’re also so well researched that I had been very ready to get as many students in American History as I could to read Flash For Freedom on the slave trade, Flashman And The Redskins, which ends with Custer’s last stand, and Flash-man And The Angel Of The Lord, the best portrait I know of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. No doubt straight historical accounts tell Brown’s story more accurately but none approach Fraser’s insights on that weird mixture of fraud, fanaticism and foolishness. If Fraser was Landis’s scriptwriter, like the Queen of Sheba I would have had no more spirit in me. But Fraser died and even Lan-dis can’t conscript the dead, whatever else he might do to them. Still, it said something about his standards, if not of fact, at least of fictionalisation, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t see Burke and Hare fighting the US Marines in the last sequences. Now, in retrospect, I wonder why the Marines were left out: certainly the story in the movie as released should be told to them.

The facts in the case of Burke and Hare are there for scribe to copy from scribe down the centuries, and anyone who has helped establish them will only regret that the Landis film makes so little use of them. “The events in this film are true,” announces the film at its start, “except the bits that are not”; it concludes with cod-endings for each character (apart from the well-hanged Burke).

Needless to say the actual murders committed by Burke and Hare are lost sight of, with stray allusions to specific deaths surfacing with no background of explanation. The zeal of the scriptwriters to invent easily robs them of any powers of retention of names and fates of real people, for whose existence their contempt is boundless. The film actually shows Burke and Hare murdering their first victim (by sitting on him, Pogema-Hone style, as the Gaelic of the original Burke and Hare would have it), and later has Burke protesting with horror at Hare’s suggestion that they murder. Continuity was not just out to lunch: it was on leave.

Predecessors need not reproach themselves for such disasters in this production. But there are signs of its origins in earlier studies. Ours is not the paternity of this monster, but ancestral identifications here and there lift up their ugly heads. For instance, my own Burke And Hare (a history) and later Hare And Burke (a play) followed the evidence of Henry Cockburn, the defence counsel, that Burke did everything he could to secure the acquittal or (what he got) a not-proven verdict for his common-law wife Helen MacDougal, and did so regardless of its likelihood of sealing his own fate. The movie indeed joins me as perhaps the only ones since Burke’s own time to assert his guilt but proclaim his genuine and redemptive love.

I also fleetingly compared Burke to Shakespeare’s Macbeth facing his doom. Perhaps this inspired the notion of Burke taking up murder to finance an all-female production of Macbeth at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre (founded sixty years after his death).

Burke’s actual confessions after his trial and sentence are rightly seen as something his sense of guilt wanted him to make, but in the film he insists that rather than confess to one of his own Catholic priests, he has to confess to the authorities (here confused with the militia he actually joined in Ireland). Seldom has the State been so religiously reverenced above Church. The state rewards him for this by hanging him without trial, making lynch law Scots Law.

I suppose I can follow Burke in confession by admitting the use of a dictionary definition of ‘burking’ as an epigraph for my final chapter, which may indeed have inspired a movie moment where Hare describes their murder-method as burking. They had invented an apparently undetectable form of murder, by smothering or stifling (the Oxford dictionary included strangulation, but that is usually easy to diagnose). The movie, however, has them trying any forms of murder likely to prove filmworthy, many being homicides whose violence would be all too obvious, and could never have been accepted by a doctor, even one as zealous as Knox for corpses, here explained by his anxiety to win a competition held by George IV, a thesis idiotic enough to have been scripted by Burke’s and Hare’s victim Daft Jamie.

What does it matter, since it is, after all, intended for comedy, the best laughs perhaps being unintended? The film’s poorness has burked the issue of truth and made criticism almost beside the point. How is anyone to assail as untrue a film which has Greyfriars Bobby disturbing Burke and Hare while robbing a grave? Greyfriars Bobby was a half-century later, and Burke and Hare never robbed graves anyway. Those two facts are readily accessible, and the scene is intended as a joke anyway (however inferior to the witticisms of Daft Jamie) so why get annoyed by it? Besides the ludicrous pantomimic mood of the film asserts its own origins in Irish-American music-hall, slightly improved by the laxness of modern manners. Thus the Irish-American comic strip Bringing Up Father has its hero Jiggs perpetually wearing a top hat; Hare wears a battered top hat while fornicating with his wife. Burke and Hare themselves call each other “Mr Burke” and “Mr Hare” as in the music-hall number ‘Positively, Mr Sheen, Absolutely, Mr Gallagher’.

The tragedy is that a great deal of money and talent have been wasted. And the past deserves respect. Certainly it can be comic, and even the most tragic lives in the poorest of lifestyles were lived with amazing humour and laughter as well as suffering and starvation. Burke, Hare and countless others like them built up North Atlantic industrial strength while brutalised as navvies. Apart from his indifference to murder for his profit, Knox was an odious racist but he and his colleagues transformed modern medicine. We impoverish ourselves if we run away from the truth and spin a mythical past to avoid knowing where we have come from, and hence what we are. The interest in Burke and Hare hardly derives from a public wanting to wallow in murders: Mr Rupert Murdoch gives the world a surfeit of that. But it does derive from wanting to look at ourselves through our pasts, and facing where we might have gone. This film’s answer is to turn working-class tragedy into middle-class farce.

Burke And Hare is on general release now.

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On Being Modern-Minded

The SRB essay winner on how the modern-minded look into the past and see only their own reflection.

My youngest son, thirteen years old, regularly declares himself to be in favour of all things modern. Occasionally he catches me doing or saying something he considers uncharacteristically in tune with the times.

‘God!’ he says. ‘That’s a bit modern isn’t it!’

He has grown his hair to a length that was in style when I was about as old as he is now.

‘You look like a Mod,’ I say.
‘What’s a Mod?’ he asks.
‘A fashion from when I was young,’ I say.

‘It’s short for Modernist, I think.’

‘God!’ he says. ‘Another story from the old days!’

My son is not the only one to think it best to be modern-minded. Politicians and estate agents are in general agreement that ‘modernisation’ is a good to be universally applied. Parliament, the Post Office, houses: all are best when modernised. Having a vague meaning, it is a word that can be used to mystifying effect in situations where a clear understanding of intentions might lead to grumbling opposition. On the lips of a politician, for example, modernisation provokes the suspicion that suffering will follow. The Minister for Defence recently called Afghanistan “thirteenth century”. What could more eloquently convey the Minister’s conviction that, on the one hand, that country is in a state of unimaginable awfulness and that, on the other, the deployment of high explosive weapons is essential if its condition is to remedied?

To be modern, Afghans must become modern-minded, the thinking goes. To drag Afghanistan out of the thirteenth century, it would be helpful to have some common points we can agree are elements of the modern mind.

* * *

A feature of life today is its speed. Change grows faster and faster. The period of time during which a consumer product remains useful, for example, is in inverse proportion to human life expectancy. As we live longer, the lifespan of objects has become shorter. A typewriter might last a lifetime; a laptop computer is finished in four years. Durability was once a virtue. Now it makes your product a museum piece. Who wants a ten-year-old mobile even if it carries out the basic function of a phone?

The first element of the modern mind, then, is its plasticity. To qualify, we must have no fixed concept of what actually constitutes modernity. Moreover, as the pace change quickens, the historical period that can properly be called ‘modern’ continually shrinks. (In the papers today I read a gadget described semi-jokingly as “so 2008”). One wonders if there will come a time when what is modern will be coincident with the moment in which we find ourselves and will last no longer than a sigh.

In politics, for example, all things now are ‘new’ – although this particular usage of the word ‘new’ has itself evolved to the point that it no longer necessarily implies any change from former practice. The ‘new politics’, for example, that David Cameron is keen on is what was formerly known as politics: that is, parties of differing views compromising in order to bring about a degree of good governance.

* * *

Anyone who is modern-minded will be sceptical about what the past can offer us. When reading old texts, for example, the modern-minded will judge their worth by the degree to which they anticipate ideas and habits of mind that we think of as properly modern. This, then, is the second main characteristic of modern-mindedness: the certainty that the past is best understood as a deficient form of the present.

The sixteenth century essayist Montaigne is often cited as someone whose work comfortably fits modern patterns of thought. Leonard Woolf called him “the first completely modern man”. We admire Montaigne because he is like us. He thinks like us. He is self-obsessed and we are self-obsessed. He is fascinated by the variability and distinctiveness of his own personality, as are we. And because the word ‘modern’ is a qualifier that conveys approval and places that which it qualifies within a progressive time frame, applying it to Montaigne claims him for one side of an argument with the past. Even if he is not quite one of us, he is, at least, a stage on the way to us. Approaching past writers in this way is pervasive. We should read them because they are like us, or because they agree with us, we are told.

Aristotle’s Lagoon, a recent documentary, explored the relevance of Aristotle to modern biologists. The presenter Armand Leroi assumed, in a world of specialist thinkers, contemporary biologists would not be interested in Aristotle: first of all he was a philosopher and secondly he lived a long time before the era of modern science began. Leroi argued that the quality of Aristotle’s observations of the natural world are worthy of biologists’ attention. Aristotle anticipated many of the findings of modern science; he has a claim to the title ‘father of biology’. Of course, he did make some fundamental mistakes, howlers by current standards, but he did not have the advantages of modern scientific instruments and experimental methods. Regardless, his contribution to biology was remarkable.

Leroi’s enthusiasm for Aristotle delivered a paradoxical message. It was as if he was arguing that Aristotle was great because we are great. We moderns seem to feel that certain ideas are somehow ‘ours’; they are ‘modern’ a priori. Aristotle somehow stumbled on some of our knowledge. We should acquaint ourselves with Aristotle, the message seemed to be, because he will confirm us in our own wisdom.

* * *

It is a joy to open an old book and find attitudes and opinions there which we had previously thought of as exclusive to our time. In Robert Burton’s Anatomy Of Melancholy depression is identified as a “disease” with “cures” suggested that are still the commonplace of any self-help manual: exercise, diet, and so on. What, we wonder on reading a work such as this, has significantly changed in our understanding of these matters?

In a review of a number of books on animal behaviour, Tim Flannery cites various astounding reports of human-like behaviour in animals: he tells of elephants raiding a shed where the body parts of dead elephants have been stored, taking them away and then burying them. It is a feature of the modern mind that we consider ourselves as simply another animal and stories of animal intelligence and human-like behaviour are confirmation of our close relationship. For a long time these stories mostly concerned the great apes, but more recently the intelligence of a much wider range of creatures has been celebrated. The elephant is one such creature, but the intelligence of the corvidae family is also worth noting. Perhaps you have seen on You Tube videos of Japanese crows dropping nuts on pedestrian crossings so that cars could crack them open, before waiting for the lights to change so that they might walk safely out on to the crossing to retrieve their food? Isn’t it wonderful what we have learned about the wit of animals and their resemblance to ourselves?

Yet on reading Montaigne’s An Apology For Raymond Sebond, we find him, even then, taking forty or so pages to query whether humanity’s assumption of superiority to animals is justified. And among his examples we find ravens dropping stones into a jar of water to raise the water level to the point that they can drink from it, and elephants bringing sticks and stones to help another elephant fallen into a trap to clamber out. In asserting the similarities between men and animals, is Montaigne, ahead of his time? Before answering, consider this: almost all Montaigne’s examples come from ancient sources. The example of the raven is from Plutarch; the intelligence of crows was appreciated in Classical times.

Is this, then, another characteristic of the modern mind: amnesia?

* * *

When Jonathan Swift wrote ‘The Battle of the Books’, it was possible to imagine a battle between the ancient and the modern. Swift’s satire suggests a way of pinning down the essential difference between the modern mind and that which preceded it. The dispute between classicists and modernists is equated to a quarrel between the bee and the spider. The bee makes no claim to producing its own sweetness but acquires it diligently where it finds it; the spider, on the other hand, boasts “that he spins and spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without”. In ‘The Battle of the Books’ the moderns are doing it for themselves. Value comes from originality. The point of writing is, in itself, to surpass what has gone before.

And so we come to the final characteristic of the modern mind: the emphasis on originality and the accompanying conviction that the new is bound to be better than the old. This way of thinking complicates the quest to find a pre-modern author who can be properly viewed as modern, because our predecessors simply did not value novelty the way we do. Montaigne, for example, clearly didn’t think like this at all. His essays are filled with references to the writing of past authors, who are not treated as if they were simply stations on the road to Montaigne himself, but as masters. In this way, Montaigne can’t be considered modern after all. He marshals his argument by reference to classical predecessors. Writing was conceived of as a dialogue with what went before. A writer sought to stand on the shoulders of giants, not to topple or ignore them.

Swift saw that striving for absolute originality would almost always lead to the unacknowledged theft of what had gone before. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that, when we read books written before we were born, we keep encountering ideas and attitudes we assumed were modern only. Perhaps the modern mind doesn’t so much want ideas to be absolutely new as desire them to appear to be new.

It is difficult to think a thought that someone somewhere at sometime in the past hasn’t already had. It pays, therefore, to ignore the past as much as we can. If you don’t know what people thought, wrote, said or how they cut their hair in the past, you can believe yourself original. Then when, accidentally perhaps, you come across something that appeals to modish tastes you can claim it as an anticipation of modernity. The less you know of the past, the more modern it is possible to be.

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A Chequered History

Is tartan a symbol of national identity – or does it represent all that is false and sentimental about Scottish culture?

Does the national obsession with tartan mean something or is it, at heart, empty?

About a dozen years ago my late father (born 1907) was asked if he would be wearing a kilt to a grandson’s wedding. He replied, “I’m a Lowlander, I’ve never worn a kilt in my life”. Fair enough, but almost all the young men, and many of the middle-aged ones too, at that wedding would be wearing the kilt, though most of them were Lowlanders also.

Things have changed over the last hundred years. When Fergus Lamont, the nationalist poet who is the eponymous hero of Robin Jenkins’s novel, wore the kilt in the streets of his Lowland town, small boys mocked him and whistled at him. Now, in this wide-ranging collection of essays on the subject of tartan, Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, tells of taking his young sons to a kilt-hire shop to get kilts for their grandparents’ golden anniversary party. The boys made their choice: one kilt was the Ancient Dress Rangers, the other the Ancient Dress Celtic. Ancient?

Tartan itself is certainly ancient, even if most tartans are not. The “garb of old Gaul” has become the brand of Scotland, recognized worldwide, though much of the tourist tartan tat on sale throughout the country is labelled ‘Made in China’. The cult of tar-tanry is kitsch. Few can deny this and for a hundred years at least there have been Scots who deplored it. David Goldie, in his essay ‘Tartanry and its Critics’ quotes Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) railing against “the false trail of the kailyard and Harry Lauder school” which “demonstrably falsify and cheapen” the Scottish psychology; then sensibly observes that Grieve was himself a Lowlander, “born closer to Sunderland than Sutherland”, who himself assumed a Highland nom-de-plume and regularly, and, one might add, self-consciously, wore the kilt. This was perhaps evidence less of hypocrisy than of confusion.

This is not surprising. Confusion runs through the whole debate about the authenticity or inauthenticity of the tartan cult. It has been used both to bolster Scottish pride and sense of national identity and to subvert this and even mock it. Macaulay wondered how it was that tartan which before the Union of 1707 would have been regarded “by nine Scotchmen out of ten” – an exaggeration – “as the dress of a thief” had come to be recognized as the national dress. Yet Macaulay himself was an Anglo-Scot whose own grandfather had been a bare-legged Highlander.

Some have blamed Walter Scott, and especially his management of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, when as the impresario of the occasion Scott flooded the capital with kilted warriors, or pseudo-warriors. His usually admiring son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart disapproved of this “celtification of Scotland”. For Scott himself this tartan pageantry not only appealed to his Romantic imagination; it also gave visible expression to what he attempted in his great Scottish novels: that reconciliation of the different and frequently opposed strands in Scottish history and society which would foster the emergence of a unified national identity. As Murray Pittock puts it in his essay ‘Plaiding the Invention of Scot-land’, Scott was offering “an elaborately paradoxical presentation of the country as completely loyal to the Crown and the British state, while being dressed in the garb which had once denoted their fiercest enemies. This was not an invented tradition: it was the re-inscription of Jacobite patriotism as the discourse of Scottish particularity, a particularity circumscribed by the death of its ancient loyalties and their replacement by support for the Crown”.

Tartanry preceded Scott. Tartan had been a mark of Jacobitism. The exiled Duke of Perth had presented the two Jacobite boy princes, Charles Edward and Henry, with Highland outfits. The Jacobite army of the ’45 was regularly described as a Highland and tartan army, even though a large part of it came from the north-east Lowlands. If Bonnie Prince Charlie was to become a figure on the shortbread tin and whisky bottle, the iconography spoke of both the authenticity of tartan as an expression of the nationalist element in Jacobitism and also of its playacting element, tartan as masquerade, later to be evident in the music-hall (Harry Lauder to Jimmy Logan and Andy Stewart) and pop culture (the Bay City Rollers and football’s Tartan Army).

Tartan marked out Scottish distinctiveness. The Scottish regiments, permitted to wear tartan even when it was banned after Culloden (a ban that was not strictly enforced for long), were part of the British Army, and yet differentiated from other regiments and made recognizably Scottish by the wearing of the tartan. Trevor Royle remarks that in time even Lowland regiments would sport tartan trews as their dress uniform. This distinctiveness replicated, and offered visible evidence, of Scotland’s place in the Union, which, despite its official name, was less the United Kingdom than the United Kingdoms. Royle observes that recruitment figures in Scotland for the “Volunteer craze”, Victorian forerunner of the Territorial Army, “were twice the United Kingdom average, a figure which was undoubtedly assisted by the creation of units with Highland affiliations, most of them in the central belt”. (In the Regular Army, that great fighting regiment, the Highland Light Infantry recruited principally in Glasgow.) The Volunteers, “with their panoply of kilts, tartan trews, ostrich feathers, ornate sporrans and pipe bands….came to represent self-conscious nationalism or what the military historian John Keegan has described as ‘a force for resistance against the creeping Anglicization of Scottish urban life.’”

This surely goes to the heart of the matter. Scotland had lost – surrendered or chosen to lose – political independence. Lowland Scot-land, from the time of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, was in danger also of losing its individual identity, to the social, political and economic forces which promoted assimilation with England and uniformity throughout the island of Britain. So Lowland Scots took over Highland traditions, notably the wearing of tartan, and made these the symbol and distinguishing feature of a pan-Scottish identity. Signifi-cantly it is only in the past thirty years, as globalism has diluted national distinctiveness still further, that the wearing of the kilt on formal occasions, for weddings and dances has become common among all social classes in Scotland, whether these kilts are authentic clan tartans or modern inventions like those chosen by Alan Riach’s sons.

Criticism of the tartan cult from, for instance, MacDiarmid, and more recently Colin McArthur and Tom Nairn, who wrote of “the tartan monster”, has been sharp. It projects a false, sentimental picture of Scotland and serves, it is argued, as a means of evading the realities of politics and economics. It has been employed to keep Scotland and therefore the Scottish people, in a mythical never-never land, a Brigadoon. It would be foolish to deny that there is some truth in the charge. Several of the contributors to this book tackle it head-on, with varying success.

There is a degree of make-believe and escapism in tartanry, but this is undercut by the element of masquerade and conscious irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in popular culture. The Scotch comics simultaneously celebrated and sent up their Scottishness. The vaunt – “Wha’s like us? Bloody few and they’re a’ deid” – can scarcely be uttered with a straight face, no matter how much whisky has been drunk.

Football’s Tartan Army, examined in an engaging essay by Hugh O’Donnell, exemplifies this. The fans are fully conscious that they are giving a performance. They are playing at being “wild Scots”, even while, to distinguish themselves from the sometimes genuinely wild and violent English supporters, they make a point of being notably friendly to the people of the host country, and even self-disciplined. They offer a parody of the old Highland horde, while at the same time displaying what we like to think of as the characteristic Scots virtues expressed by Burns in his great hymn to human equality ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. It may be said of course that the Tartan Army became a comedy turn only when it grew evident that the Scotland football team’s performances more often invited resignation than celebration and were themselves an occasion for self-mockery, but that is another story.

We have long needed a serious study of tartanry and all its complexities, and this collection of essays provides it. Some are spoiled by an excess of academic jargon – too many “signifiers” and such like – but there is not a single essay that does not offer insights and provoke reflection; reflection which will sometimes lead to healthy disagreement. It is certainly a publication to be welcomed.

Edited by Ian Brown
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £60.00 224PP ISBN 978-0748638772

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