A LIFE IN PICTURES
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.
BEYOND THE LAST DRAGON
– A LIFE OF EDWIN MORGAN
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is thorough, readable, and knowledgeable on the publishing history of Edwin Morgan’s work, down even to half-buried and unpublished poems.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
SCOTTISH WOMEN’S GOTHIC AND FANTASTIC WRITING
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS £65.00 272PP ISBN 978-0748637645
“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
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
PALMERSTON: A BIOGRAPHY
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
ROBERT BURNS AND PASTORAL:
POETRY AND IMPROVEMENT IN LATE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY SCOTLAND
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS £60 347PP ISBN 978-0199572618
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
SOCIAL SCULPTURE: THE RISE OF THE GLASGOW ART SCENE
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
MORNING GLORY: HAIKU AND TANKA
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.