Monthly Archives: February 2011

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Volume 7 – Issue 1 – Reviews

I LOVE YOU, GOODBYE Cynthia Rogerson

BLACK & WHITE PUBLISHING, £11.99 256PP
ISBN 1845022963

Is it lust, rather than love, that makes the world go round? So it would seem from I Love You, Goodbye, in which Cynthia Rogerson uses romantic comedy as the vehicle and the village of Evanton on the Cromarty Firth as the location for a witty assault on romantic stereotypes of female amatory behaviour. Her style is easy and graceful but her spiky humour takes most of the honours in this tale of kiss and don’t tell (at least, not everything).
Amid much talk of love and what it might mean, and much waxing about love’s waning, lust is seen as the prime motivator for women every bit as much as for men. Expressions of infidelity provide most of the action, and among the many questions about relationships Rogerson sets out to raise are the Why? and How? of fidelity.
The novel opens with a smug meditation on related imponderables by Ania, a marriage guidance counsellor. Having dispensed advice to over 500 couples, she regards herself as authoritative on
these matters. Everything is peachy in her own life, down to the warm hues of the colour scheme of her Inverness practice.
A professional ‘philosopher of love’, she speculates as to whether there is an ‘evolutionary purpose for our grief at the end of love’, finding herself fascinated that ‘humans keep finding new ways to hurt each other’. A blip in her own domestic relationship is not on her radar.
When Ania and her partner Ian start trying for the baby he asks her to “give” him, the result is counter-intuitive, at least Ania’s believes it to be. “Trying” sounds effortful, it becomes so, and she gets bored. Unaware that she’s already pregnant, she launches into a liaison with caravan-dwelling Maciek, abandoning tidy-minded control for risk-taking as lust buckles the tracks on which her life was running smoothly until then.
Maciek, a serial romantic, prefers the notion that he’s in love; the ex-philosophy lecturer turned swimming-pool lifeguard needs their afternoons together to fight off his melancholy sense of displacement. He is possessed by an implacable nostalgia for Krakow, cherry vodka and the love of his life, who dumped him.
Ian is oblivious of the affair which Ania continues, undeflected, through her pregnancy. Rogerson holds back from fleshing out his character – he is little more than a benign, trusting presence – and in the absence of access to his inner reality, there is scant exploration of moral and emotional issues.
This thread, told through the voices of Ania and Maciek, interweaves with the story of two of Ania’s clients, Rose and Harry, whose marriage would appear to be up the proverbial. Rogerson’s portrayal of the family dynamics is convincing and she handles the minutiae of domestic warfare amusingly. Rose is convinced that she is terminally bored with Harry, and so it is disconcerting that he can still make her laugh. Their move to the Highlands from Leith has not diminished her obsession for her old flame, Alpin. She can’t get him out of her head or, at this geographical distance, into her bed. And even without continuing the affair she feels guilty about her grouchy, endearing teenage son, who of course knows far more about everyone than anyone realises and has his own romantic conquest under way.
For Rose and Harry, recrimination and rejection and are the staples of their embarrassing sessions with Ania, who continues to dispense relationship advice without a blush. Rose never twigs that she and this counsellor who so irritates her are, in a sense, two of a kind: both women thinking not with their heads, perhaps not even with their hearts; obsessing over their respective objects of desire, they are careless of consequences.
The hunky, biddable Alpin, who temporarily leaves his wife for Rose, is duller than the average breakfast cereal. Apart from the obvious, what can Rose see in him? The answer would seem to be, nothing; he is just a tool in her pursuit of heightened sensory response. But since he is even more of a cipher than Ian, it is impossible to know, or care – a frustrating state of affairs.
Jennie Renton


THE ISLAND R. J. Price

TWO RAVENS, £9.99 101PP
ISBN 1906120544

One day someone will write an interesting book about why popular culture in this period has been so obsessed with vampires, zombies, superheroes and the end of the world. Perhaps there is no underlying reason; it could be mere unoriginality. Perhaps it’s a rather childish withdrawal into imagining the worst instead of dealing with the rather more mundane and seemingly intractable political and economic problems we face today. Whatever the case turns out to be, I do hope they find space to discuss R. J. Price’s The Island, the oddest example of apocalypse fiction I’ve read recently.
As a genre, it is one admittedly given to oddity. One recalls Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake and the transgenic animals snuffling around a post-human world. The weirdness in The Island doesn’t reside in telepathic dogs, homicidal shrubbery or supercomputers that mutate humans into gag-inducing chimeras. Quite the opposite. Here, one is struck by the novel’s sheer mundanity in the face of the meltdown of civilisation.
The protagonist, Graham, begins the novel being shouted at by his wife. He escapes the house accompanied by his young daughter, Jasmine, Jas for short. They’re heading for the local bottle bank on foot. His mind is preoccupied with his passionless marriage: ‘I don’t mind if you fancy it tonight,’ is the most he can expect in the way of erotic encouragement from his wife Linda. He thinks about how they met. Graham also keeps an eye on his daughter, who is preoccupied with a plastic lion toy she manages to lose at the bottle bank.
After twenty pages of minor-key domestic drama, we read: ‘The image of the island on the television crossed his mind and he wondered again, if there was a connection with the Department. Perhaps he should be phoning in to see if Blue Shift were covering it.’
The island? Blue Shift? Something is afoot, but Price, like his protagonist, is in no hurry to find out what. Instead, Graham spends his time sunk in thoughts about his marriage, how he met Linda and their initial difficulty in having a child.
He meditates on the difference between English and Scottish indie music and why Dante’s Divine Comedy is like marriage. Occasionally he receives a text from his brother urging him to contact him, which he doesn’t. He’s more focussed on finding a replacement lion toy for his daughter. Anyone would thing he was avoiding thinking about… what?
The oddness, the not-quite-rightness, continues at the level of Price’s sentences. For the most part they are calm, unremarkable. Now and then though, Graham expresses himself in a manner
that stops you dead. ‘He set to work, scrubbing the traffic particulates off the raw ingredients with some washing-up liquid.’ Traffic particulates? Who talks like that?
Is Graham a scientist? He appears to be working on a project related to diseases, perhaps even bio-weaponry. But in his reminiscences, he took a course in English literature.
The real hint something is wrong, as much in Graham’s head as in the world at large, comes when he decides to steal a car. In a café, he pickpockets a man he believes almost ran down Jas earlier, taking his car keys. Graham and Jas drive around London, the reader slowly realising he perhaps has no intention of returning to his wife and home. He encounters a military-run roadblock before driving to the zoo to get a replacement lion toy for Jas. Here he finds families fleeing. There’s been an announcement: go home, lock your doors, block up your chimney. Inside the zoo, the animals have gotten free somehow.
Price or rather Graham has conflated a private crisis with one of civilisation at large. Although just over a hundred pages long, the reader feels by the novel’s conclusion that he’s come a long way from the starting point, the trip to the bottle bank, which now appears to have been a futile exercise in saving the earth’s resources. In the end we can’t save ourselves, our families or our happiness, never mind the planet. Without monsters, derelict cities or pyramids of corpses, Price conjures up one of the more singular entries to his chosen genre.
Colin Waters


FRONTIER SCOTS –  THE SCOTS WHO WON THE WEST Jenni Calder

LUATH PRESS, £8.99 224PP
ISBN 1906307997

This Land is Your Land,
This Land is My Land,
From California to New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf
Stream Waters,
This Land Was Made for You and Me.

Jenni Calder doesn’t quote this song or discuss its creator, Woody Guthrie, but she uses several lines from some of his other works as epigraphs, very appropriately, so that without his probable Scots ancestry being spelled out, his unencumbered spirit broods inspirationally over her elegantly crafted kaleidoscope through which we travel – now held by momentary life-stories, now remembering Scots nomads we have seen elsewhere in earlier chapters, now soaring over the continental landscape of American geography and history.

This Land is Your Land,
It Once was My Land,
Before We Sold You Manhattan Island,
You Drove Our Nations to the Reservations,
This Land Was Stole by You from Me.

The parody is much more recent than the great song, itself only seventy years of age. Guthrie could hardly object and as a fellow-traveller of the Communist Party USA as well as of the American nomad, would probably have adopted it. His father, an enthusiastic member of the Ku Klux Klan, attending and perhaps assisting in lynchings of alleged black criminals, might have objected (or assisted his sheeted friends in objecting) but could hardly contradict the parody. He had settled in Oklahoma when the son he named Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in July 1912 (a week after Wilson’s nomination as Democrat Presidential candidate). Oklahoma, as Jenni Calder quietly but implacably describes the state, had been for almost a century the “Indian Territory” to which native Americans were driven (frequently in forced marches killing innumerable members over a thousand miles). Even this land was stolen from them in 1890 in a flagrant but characteristic violation of earlier treaties. The theft led eventually to Guthrie senior and his fellow Klansmen tearing the land apart and inducing the Dust Storms of the 1930s.
Jenni Calder’s absorbing and judicious prose has no desire to turn her readers into anti-American lynch mobs. Instead, she makes excellent use here as elsewhere of Robert Louis Stevenson whom she and her father David Daiches have done so much to explain and celebrate. Stevenson acquired an American wife and stepchildren between migrations from and back to his native Scotland, but he wrote as part of all white peoples. In his “amateur emigrant” travel in the USA he described the degradation to which the new comers had subjected the original “Indian” settlers, whose ridicule by his fellow-passengers, made him ‘ashamed for the thing we call civilisation’. Calder sums up the sorry situation by quoting Stevenson’s words indicting himself and the rest of us down the generations to which of course they still apply: ‘We should carry upon our consciences so much, at least, of our forefathers’ misconduct as we continue to profit by ourselves.’ No anti-Americanism can wriggle out of that. The persecutors were our advance agents.
Naturally, the book is most concerned with the Scottish white immigrants. Calder is very careful to keep generalisations in check. Some Scots over several generations certainly participated in the genocide, less anonymously than Guthrie senior, but she does notice indications of greater humanity among many others. General Ulysses Grant emerges as a good, humane and valuable President in this context, an interesting reflection on the nearly universal derision raised against his Presidency. Clearly we have had many worse since, and we needn’t restrict ourselves to beating the Bushes, who don’t seem to have had any such redeeming restraint on brutality under their command.
Towards the end of her book, having described many tragedies among Scottish settlers in western America (she deals with all the trans-Mississippi land, in many very different Frontiers), Calder makes a fine-honed judgment on the comparability of the Scottish clearances (as Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering testifies, there were a great deal in the Lowlands as well as the Highland’s): ‘Many, rather than caring for clan members, saw them as impediments to progress which had to be removed. Some big ranch owners, whose claim to their land was in some cases as dubious as that of Highland landowners, regarded anyone who occupied “their” space as an illegitimate presence.’
It is in fact a Scot, and probably a descendant of evicted Scots, whose attitudes to the native Americans she is assessing at this point. Victim status in our ancestry is no moral alibi for taking our turn as butchers.
Owen Dudley Edwards


THE INVISIBLE RIVER Helena McEwan

BLOOMSBURY, £16.99 320PP 0747598878

The Invisible River is the story of Eve, a student at art school in London. The novel is also about the intricacies of the creative process and the painful naivety of precocious youth. Scots-born McEwan skilfully evokes the touching innocence and blinkered bewilderment of young Eve without judging her. Like the invisible river of the title, the Thames flows though her story, both the real Thames, with its geographical mapping out of London, and an invisible one with its secret histories and subterranean estuaries. McEwan weaves various scenes together – of London art parties, sweaty steam baths, art galleries and a restaurant where Eve works briefly and disastrously as a waitress – creating a convincing fluidity of mood and place.
The artist’s creative process is described with wonderment by Eve. ‘I love the feeling in the studio of the presence of the reality we call into our pictures. It fills the empty space with invisible threads of light that touch that other realm. The ideas hang in the air, becoming more real with imagining, more robust and less wispy, until they are so real that they come and sit on the end of the paintbrush and get mixed in with the colours and appear on the canvas unexpectedly.’
What sets Eve apart from the other students is the loss of her mother by drowning and the sense of shame caused by her alcoholic father who continues to haunt her life. McEwan expertly evokes Eve’s embarrassment at seeing her father appear in a drunken stupor on the college lawn. She sensitively explores Eve’s feeling of responsibility when her father goes missing, pain over her fruitless search for him, and her anguish when she learns of his death. The nervous breakdown that follows is healed by a surrogate mother, Magda and the kindness of college friends who help her back into the real world.
Zeb, the young sculptor that Eve falls  in love with is like a crow, with a hawk nose and ‘two-dimensional’ eyes. She sees him as her saviour in a touching act of self-abnegation. Enigmatic, dark and ambiguous, Zeb is the perfect vehicle for Eve’s romantic nature: ‘I want a man with dark eyes who wants to make sculptures out of light and say that reality is 80 percent invisible.’
The vitality of the book comes from the good friends Eve surrounds herself with – fellow students who share her commitment to art and seeing the world in new ways. There is Bianca, an ex-heroin addict who suffers from hepatitis but is also grateful for contracting the disease as it stops her from using again. There is the sensuous Silvia from Sicily who asks Eve to share her bed. There is the pragmatic Cecile. Eve’s friends are physically vague but emotionally real. McEwan has an acute ear for language and its rhythms. My only reservation is that in attempting to see so fully through Eve’s eyes – the eyes of a painter – there is repetition in the description of colours that errs on the relentless.
McEwan’s dry humour comes out in the art students’ encounters with thoughtless college tutors who criticize their art. McEwan shows lightly but perceptively how hard it is for an artist to deal with careless judgement. Eve’s ‘senses are too raw for the outside world’, and it is this sensitivity that becomes the driving force of the novel. Eve is a victim of her overwhelming feelings. With all the preoccupation of the art student, she filters everything she sees through her own sensibility as an artist and her own vulnerability.
Her shame creates a fragile, cautious, introspective nature which Eve constantly struggles to break free from. But it’s also at the root of her urge to create and the source of her Blakean visions of London. Her hallucinatory apprehension of the visible world and her acute consciousness of the complexities of life make up the more imaginative dimension of the book. Eve often trembles on the edge of reality and like, McEwan, uses this to make her art.
Alice Thompson


RENEWING OLD EDINBURGH Jim Johnson & Lou Rosenberg

ARGYLL, £14.99 288PP
ISBN 1906134499

Architecture, like literature, is subject to fashion. ‘It is as much a matter of course to decry the New Town as to exalt the Old,’ noted Robert Louis Stevenson in his Picturesque Notes. By 1878 when the Notes were published, the first sections of the New Town which had been completed in 1800 as an alternative to the squalor of the Old were considered stale: an anathema to a generation who had read the novels of Sir Walter Scott and wanted to see their Romanticism reflected in architecture. The New Town with its rational plan, which had so improved the lot of the bourgeoisie who moved there, was now considered retrograde. Stevenson himself noted critically of its planner, James Craig that ‘the country did not enter into his plan; he had never lifted his eyes to the hills’.
Perversely, as soon as the Old Town was identified in opposition to the New, it became an object of Romantic speculation. Once the wealthier citizens of the capital migrated across the Nor Loch, they looked back from Princes Street at the spine running from Castle to Palace, and began to conceive of it as a Romantic set-piece, a pageant of Scottish history. Edinburgh led the United Kingdom in showing the change of fashion. The neo-classical National Monument on Carlton Hill stalled due to lack of funds in the 1830s. During the next decade, however, the Scott Monument attracted £16m of public subscriptions. After the Monument’s completion, the capital’s wealthy citizens looked through its Victorian Gothic arches at the squalid city they had come from and rewrote its history. This Romanticising of the Old Town is an ongoing project with the conservation work of urban planner Patrick Geddes possessing an almost biblical authority.
In their book, Renewing Old Edinburgh, Jim Johnson and Lou Rosenberg make reference to the work of Geddes but try to explain the continuing reinvention of the Old Town since the building of the New Town as if it was primarily an ongoing act of sanitation and building improvements. These factors certainly existed as they did in other cities during the Victorian period, but to explain the creation of Cockburn Street, with its Scots Baronial chimneys, as an act of civic improvement benefiting the common man fails to take into account the role it served as a link to the High Street and, particularly in the way it Romanticised the Old Town ridge, creating a fantasy of Scottish history for the regard of the city’s wealthy citizens now living to the north.
The authors of this book, one an architect and the other a planner, go to great lengths examining how both the Chambers Improvement Scheme of 1867

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Vincent’s Double

Van Gogh’s doppelganger was a Scot who brought the artist’s work to Glasgow

There was no mistaking the likeness. Put Vincent Van Gogh and Alexander Reid in a police line-up and you’d have had the devil of a trouble to tell them apart. Both were red-headed with spiky beards and a penetrating, green-eyed stare. Their complexions – pale-faced and freckled – were similar and their hair was receding. In a portrait Van Gogh did of Reid, the Glasgow art dealer was given the artist’s small mouth. He may not look as wild and suspicious and frantic as Van Gogh often did but there is something furtive and pursed about him none the less. He is dressed for business, in collar and tie. It is a sympathetic portrayal, done shortly after Van Gogh made Reid’s acquaintance in Paris, probably, according to Frances Fowle, in the summer of 1887, three years before Van Gogh’s death.

Van Gogh gave the painting to Reid as a token of a friendship which did not endure. Later Reid returned with it and another portrait Van Gogh did of him to Glasgow where he was employed as an art dealer in his father’s company. Reid pere was not amused. ‘Reid,’ wrote the artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, who knew well both the Scottish and French art scenes, ‘got into serious trouble with his father for acquiring or investing in some of Van Gogh’s work, but I cannot believe he gave much money for them or I should have heard about it from the painter! It was the contact with such atrocities, as they seemed, that raised the ire of the parent; for, in the view of the elder picture-dealer, Reid was destroying his taste for what was saleable.’

What was saleable in Glasgow in the late 19th century were old masters. In the second city of the empire with its burgeoning class of nouveau riche merchants and manufacturers there were plenty of men with deep pockets eager to decorate the walls of their palatial villas in the manner of aristocrats. It was, as Fowle points out, an ideal city in which to be an art dealer. Glasgow was booming as never before or since. As the century progressed grand houses were built to reflect the status of their owners and were furnished and decorated accordingly. Taste, subsequently, became more adventurous. The old masters gave way to the Impressionists, the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists which were collected by industrialists who depended on a network of dealers to seek out and purchase paintings for them. Thus, through a combination of commerce and culture, Glasgow became one of the international art centres to the enduring benefit of Scotland’s municipal and national collections.

Alexander Reid was undoubtedly one of the main dealers of his era. Born in 1854, he apparently inherited his love of art from his maternal grandfather, William Turnbull, a minor artist who worked as a designer in a pottery. Reid’s father, James, was the co-owner of a firm of carvers and gilders, which specialised in supplying the shipping trade. Leaving school at seventeen Reid joined the firm which soon thereafter began selling prints. As the business expanded it diversified into ‘pictures, china, bronzes, weapons and antiques’. Pictures, however, were Reid’s forte and he was given a room in which to display them. Among the artists he favoured were several of the Glasgow Boys, including James Paterson, James Guthrie, Joseph Crawhall, John Lavery, George Henry and E. A. Walton, through whom he got to hear about what was happening in France. However, opportunities in Glasgow were then few to view paintings by French artists. Spurred on by the competition of local dealers such as Craibe Angus, Reid took himself off to Paris to witness at first hand the artistic revolution.

The year was 1886. His aim, at least at first, was to study art. His talent, however, was by all accounts negligible. The sole example of his work that Fowle offers is a pastel, Lundin Links, which is competent if hardly jaw-dropping. His true forte lay in dealing in art. He was offered employment in the modern painting section of Boussod & Valadon, working alongside Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother. Eager to find somewhere affordable to live, Reid moved in with Theo who, it seems, was near his wits’ end with his temperamental brother. Few letters, alas, are extant from Vincent to Theo, his main correspondent, at this period, for the very good reason that they were living together. Throughout 1886 he stayed with Theo, during which time he encountered the works of Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists and met, among others, Paul Gauguin, Camille  Pisarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. Theo, like his brother, was inspired by what these artists were doing and began to exhibit their paintings.

Fowle reckons that Vincent, Theo and Reid shared lodgings for about six months. In the beginning, it would appear, Vin-cent viewed Reid if not as a soulmate then as someone whom he found simpatico and with whom he could talk freely about art. Both men, for instance, were admirers of the French painter Monticelli, in whose tradition Vincent once said he was following. On occasion Reid would accompany the elder Van Gogh on painting trips, heading at weekends into the countryside around Paris. Once, relates Fowle, ‘they had set off for Ville-d’Avray, following in the footsteps of Camille Corot, when Van Gogh spotted a basket of apples in the rue Rodier and “refused to budge”. Since he was short of change, Reid lent him the money to buy the apples. Unwilling to waste any time, Vincent abandoned the expedition and returned home immediately to set to work. When Reid arrived back at the end of the day, Vincent presented him with the

‘ Van Gogh seems to have believed Reid was guilty

of sharp practice. He was also disturbed that Reid

was increasingly becoming commercially minded.’

finished painting.’

It was during this period that Van Gogh painted his two portraits of Reid. In retrospect, they marked the high water mark of their friendship for after the spring of 1887 things between them were never the same again. In the few years that followed Van Gogh made occasional references to Reid in letters to Theo. Often these were barbed while in others he sounded a note of regret. In the first of them, written on 24 February, 1888, Van Gogh writes that it would be ‘relatively unfair’ to say that they had never benefited from knowing Reid. Moreover, he had given them a Vase of Flowers by Monticelli, whose value he had helped raise. Given that Van Gogh and his brother owned five Monticellis this was significant. Reid, adds Van Gogh, ‘was good and pleasant company in the first months’. What appears to have happened in the interim is an argument over plans to sell work by the Impressionists in Britain. Van Gogh seems to have believed that Reid was guilty of sharp practice. He was also, it would appear, disturbed that Reid was increasingly becoming more commercially minded, possibly because of pressure from his father. Just over a year before he died Van Gogh wrote to his brother, saying: ‘How I think of Reid as I read Shake-speare, and how I’ve thought of him several times when I was iller than at present. Finding that I’d been infinitely too harsh and perhaps discouraging towards him in claiming that it was better to love painters than paintings. It isn’t up to me to make distinctions like that, not even when faced with the problem that we see our living friends suffering so much from the lack of money to feed themselves and pay for their colours, and on the other hand the high prices that are paid for the canvases of dead painters.’

Reid’s connection to and relationship with Van Gogh, however, takes up just the first two chapters of Fowle’s book. The rest is devoted to his dealership in Glasgow where he continued to champion the Impressionists and became increasingly associated with the Glasgow Boys. In his gallery in West George Street customers could browse among paintings and sculptures which have subsequently become part of the canon. Among the talents he spotted before they became famous and highly collectable were Rodin and Whistler, Hornel and Crawhall, who among the Glasgow Boys was the one he most admired. Not only did he supply local, wealthy collectors, such as William Burrell, Leonard Gow and William McInnes, he was also influential in America, where he helped cement the reputations of Degas, Monet, Cezanne and others less celebrated.

Reid died in 1928, signalling, in Fowle’s unimaginative words, ‘the end of an era’. But the sentiment is not misplaced. Reid, as his champion acknowledges, was unusually perspicacious but he was also, as Van Gogh suspected, shrewd and pragmatic, stocking what would sell rather than what he thought clients ought to buy. He was never, concludes Fowle, committed to the avant-garde. Nor, it seems, was he wholly enamoured of Van Gogh’s work, admitting that it was not until 1921, when the Dutchman’s genius was widely accepted, that his gallery stocked it. Frances Fowle’s book is as overdue as it is welcome. But as one read, it was hard to dismiss from one’s mind what Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about a man who claimed to be a friend of Kafka: ‘Immortality is not choosy. Anyone who happens to come in contact with a great man marches with him into immortality, often in clumsy boots.’


VAN GOGH’S TWIN: THE SCOTTISH ART DEALER ALEXANDER REID

Frances Fowle

NATIONAL GALLERIES OF SCOTLAND, £19.95 176PP
ISBN 9781906270292

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From Paisley to Peoria

The success of Bill Forsyth’s Scottish films has overshadowed his career in Hollywood.

Where is Bill Forsyth?’
While browsing a movie website two summers ago, I was stumped by an anonymous blogger. Where is Scotland’s most important living filmmaker? It’s more than a decade since Forsyth last directed a movie, Gregory’s 2 Girls (1999). Old Forsyth films can be as hard to come by as new ones. Two of the eight films Forsyth made, Housekeeping (1987) and Being Human (1993), are currently unavailable on DVD.

In other regards, though, it sometimes feels like Forsyth hasn’t been away. Between 2008 and 2010, the Glasgow Film Theatre held special anniversary screenings of three early Forsyth works: his debut, That Sinking Feeling (1979), sophomore success Gregory’s Girl (1980), and his fourth film Comfort and Joy (1984). 2009 also saw the filmmaker give a career retrospective interview at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and pick up an overdue Lifetime Achievement Award from BAFTA Scotland.

It might appear perverse, then, to suggest that Bill Forsyth is underappreciated. But he is – and we in Scotland must share the blame. Preoccupied with where a remarkable filmmaker came from, we’re oblivious to where he subsequently went.

Born in Glasgow in 1946, Forsyth began his career making documentary shorts. That Sinking Feeling was a low budget film made with amateur actors from the Glasgow Youth Theatre. After some difficulty securing funding, Gregory’s Girl was Forsyth’s breakthrough hit. After four films made in Scotland, Forsyth took the opportunity to work in America. While we never tire of another opportunity to watch Gregory’s Girl, we rarely ask ourselves why Being Human, an audacious multimillion-dollar, Hollywood-studio-funded portmanteau epic spanning several millennia in the history of humankind hasn’t – to the best of my knowledge, at least – been screened publicly in Scotland since its 1994 Edinburgh Film Festival premiere and a trickle of one-off showings around the same time.

Film fans and critics further afield follow our example. Almost all critical commentary on Forsyth concerns the Scottish part of Forsyth’s career. Of course, That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy remain pioneering celluloid depictions of Scotland. Neither before Forsyth nor since has another indigenous filmmaker captured local quirks in a way that engaged audiences in Paisley and Peoria alike. But at the same time, three projects produced with American money and tackling non-Scottish subject matter remains neglected. We can quote swathes of dialogue from Gregory’s Girl or Local Hero, but struggle to remember the titles of Housekeeping, Breaking In (1989), and Being Human. So Scottish does Forsyth seem to us – not least because his work helps us to seem Scottish to ourselves – that we won’t let him be anything else.

Yet his Scottish films are about so much more than just Scotland. Why else would they win sizeable international audiences? Ideas and emotions, rather than the local accents which express them, are what count. When a jobless teenager shares his pain with a statue in Kelvingrove Park, That Sinking Feeling turns Scotland’s crumbling economy into the stuff of tragicomic existentialism.

Cumbernauld school-kids wander the corridors dressed as penguins (I still not sure why, either) and study A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gregory’s Girl, underlining the Arcadian quality of our own adolescence that we were too immature to recognise at the time. When rural Scots and rapacious Americans surround themselves with potted plants and piscine prints while planning wholesale environmental despoliation, Local Hero meditates upon our dangerous inability to comprehend the nature of Nature. In Comfort and Joy, an ice-cream van driving over a motorway flyover shrouded by midwinter gloaming, rather than the more usual suburban side-street scene bathed in summer sun, crystallises the disorientation that romantic bereavements provoke.

As accomplished as his Scottish films remain, Forsyth’s US career comprises a mini-oeuvre that’s thematically coherent and just as creatively accomplished. The central characters of his American films either struggle to achieve or reject the comforting ideal of domesticity. Human existence in Forsyth’s American cinema is pained because it is peripatetic. Housekeeping, a thoughtful adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, depicts the travails of two parentless teenagers nominally cared for by their unbalanced aunt, a drifter who has spent most of her life on the road. Breaking In is about burglars, men who upset rather than defend the notion of home as castle. Being Human presents reincarnations of the lost same character across several millennia in order to play out variations on a central refrain, the heartache caused by broken or lost families. In that light it is ironic that Forsyth’s reputation is understood almost entirely in terms of his homeland: he’s seen as a Scottish artist, rather than as an artist who happens to be Scottish. The consensus view obscures a distinguishing characteristic of the director’s work, namely, its insistent questioning of the possibility (or even desirability) of fixed associations between people and places.

Elsewhere, the American movies extend the creative achievements and preoccupations of the Scottish ones by returning time and again to explore the workings of the nuclear family or a surrogate for it. This is territory not explored by the early features. That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl examine the experience of teenagers free from the influence of never-seen parents. Conversely, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy are built around thirty-something single men whose focus on their career has stopped them from starting families. From Housekeeping onwards, however, the relationships between parents and children becomes Forsyth’s preoccupation. The tragedy of Housekeeping relates to its orphaned siblings’ doomed attempt to resurrect their dead mother in the figure of their living aunt. Breaking In’s aging safecracker takes on an unfit young apprentice as the son his life of crime stopped him fathering. The five narratives which comprise Being Human have at their core the painful estrangement of a man from his partner and offspring. Even Gregory’s 2 Girls, Forsyth’s return to Scottish subject matter, continues the trend. Gregory, formerly the gangly adolescent hero of Gregory’s Girl and now an adult schoolteacher, finds himself torn between predatory and parental impulses projected onto an attractive, idealistic pupil in his professional care.

The success of the early movies established a misleading image which the director has never quite shaken off: not just Scottish, but whimsical and Scottish. It’s probably no accident that Forsyth’s least well-known films – the American ones – are his least conventionally or overtly humorous. There exists, after all, a readymade critical language we think can be applied to a Forsyth film, even without actually seeing it: “light”, “gentle”, “slight”, “wry”, “quaint”, “silly”. In the patronising assessment of the American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Forsyth is ‘a lower-case film-maker’.

Yet the recurring themes that define Forsyth’s cinema suggest an artist who is nothing if not serious-minded: loneliness; the difficulty of honest communication between people; the fragility of intimate relationships; broken families; the disquiet-ingly porous borderline between adolescence and adulthood, oddness and insanity.

Some or all of these themes appear in every one of Forsyth’s eight features to date. Contrary to its reputation, the director’s comedy isn’t that of whimsy, of wilful escape from material and emotional reality. Rather, as Forsyth himself puts it, what his work confronts us with is ‘the comedy of adversity…, the comedy of how you deal with the situations that you’re in. And the darker they get, I suppose, the funnier it is.’ Amid the celebrated plethora of surreal gags involving rabbits, ravioli and roll-on deodorant, we shouldn’t forget that That Sinking Feeling’s unemployed teens never find work; that Gregory never gets his (intended) girl; that Local Hero’s Mac is banished from the rural idyll he never realised he needed until the moment he found it. Our laughter can’t change such disappointments, but it perhaps makes us willing to live with and learn from them.

Bill Forsyth is one of a rare breed of filmmaker, the kind whose work is unique in tone. In Forsyth’s case, that quality relates to his gift for intertwining discomfort and joy. An underlying seriousness of intent complicates and enriches the director’s comedy. Anything but self-congratulatory or self–important, Forsyth’s cinema asks us to think while laughing.

If there isn’t already a Facebook campaign to have Forsyth presented with the freedom of Cumbernauld (or freedom from it, should he prefer), then someone really ought to see to it. Better still, we could track down the Forsyth movies we don’t already know – new DVD editions of Housekeeping and Being Human are forthcoming from the New York specialist distributor Criterion – and dig out those we think we already do. It’s time Scottish cineastes (re)discovered an artist whose work talks to us about Scotland – and far beyond.


DISCOMFORT AND JOY:  THE CINEMA OF BILL FORSYTH

Jonathan Murray

PETER LANG, £35.00 136PP
ISBN 9783039113910

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A Higher Language

What Iain Crichton Smith couldn’t say.

In ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’, Iain Crichton Smith’s exploration of what language is, and what we lose when a language is lost, the poet quoted Wittgenstein – ‘That thing about which you can not speak – be silent about it.’ I read ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ for the first time as a student. It shocked me. It was the first time I had a sense that an individual’s spoken language was a vulnerable, precious thing, and that poetry might matter.

It’s hard to write about Iain Crichton Smith writing about how hard it is to write about language. But writing poetry, for me, has always been an alternation between effortful tongue-tiedness and sudden flu-encies. I think of poetry in physiological terms first. My editorial process is grounded in linguistic practicality. I edit by reading new work aloud and replacing the words I stumble over, playing sounds off each other, letting my breath dictate phrase-length. Rehearsing and rewriting to the point of self-hypnosis. Then something peculiar and emotional happens. The language begins to fall into easy rhythmic furrows, relaxing over historical floodplains. Fragments of unintended language are carried on that current, like those disjunctive threads of brain-babble that sometimes stray through the subconscious at the brink of sleep. Crichton Smith was also fixated upon the language that reaches us beyond our intention and control, critically concerned with language’s limitations, possibilities and worth, and so I want to say something about effort and fluency, and what rides on these things, in speech and poetry.

Recently I attended a seminar in Berlin held by the British Council. On the bus journey from airport to hotel, two of the guest writers agreed that the worst thing in the world was a boring conversationalist. And indeed the other writers – especially Tim Parks and the satirical cartoonist Martin Rowson – proved to be frighteningly fluent. I sat between them, mute, fearful of the moment the dullness of my conversation would be exposed.

I find speech painfully effortful, which accounts for my fascination with it: the agendas, the protocols of interruption, the dishonesties, the hinterland of the unsaid. Of course there are good reasons to be  nervous about speech, when so much rides on our ability to communicate verbally. Especially in the U.K. The German participants were startled that so many of us still expect to divine a person’s upbringing, politics, income and even morality as much from the way that they speak as from what they have said. Sometimes, in fact, despite what they have said.

When I first came to Shetland to write Almanacs, in 2002, my initial encounters with Shetland Dialect affected me acutely. When I spoke, I spoke strangely: the unfamiliar sounds, grammar and lexicon forming almost involuntarily. This wasn’t about acquiring a language, this was a language acquiring a speaker. Acutely aware of the changes in my speech, I wrote furiously. When I returned to Shetland as a writer-in-residence in 2005, after a long period in which I’d found it impossible to write poetry, the same thing happened. I couldn’t help but write poems. Why should that have happened?

Gertrude Stein wrote, ‘We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, as something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality into the noun.’ When languages meet in the mouth, voluntarily or otherwise, the repercussions can be subtle, compelling and unexpected. My new, heightened awareness of spoken language compelled me to find a new poetry of my own. I felt each word in my mouth like meat, or as Crichton Smith visualised it, flowery cud. I am sure that my compulsion to learn the Shetland Dialect had its roots in a desire to become invisible, to ‘belong’ in that community. In a way I was denying myself my own voice, even if I experienced this as an ecstatic thing; perhaps the poetry I wrote at that time represented a corresponding insurrection of my linguistic identity. But Crichton Smith’s Gaelic speakers were denied their language by state and church, and for them the risk was of a permanent loss of their linguistic, and therefore personal, identity.

It’s hard to find the words to speak about language and the loss of language. In ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ Crichton Smith longed for a ‘higher language, like a hawk in the sky’, to help him envisage what might happen  if Gaelic was lost. Crichton Smith allows us to be party to his tussles with stubborn language. There are works in the New Collected Poems where language becomes a cage, or as he put it himself, a maze. ‘Were you ever in a maze? […] If you cannot get out of the language you cannot get out of the maze.’ A poem works best when it observes certain conversational courtesies, to incline the reader to wander into it of their own volition and collaborate in the act of making sense with the poet. A certain ‘openness’ of rhythm, syntax, image, and voice might be implied. Some work needs to be left to the reader; this may explain why that irritating dictum ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is so often offered to new poets. People tend to respond to hectoring in poems just as they do to hectoring in conversation. I had real trouble with a few poems of this kind in the New Collected Poems, such as ‘The Leaf and the Marble’ –

conscious man will kill and smash
frail secret envelopes of the flesh –
hack at beard and at moustache –
because he’s armed
with ideas made of patchy trash
that grief ’s confirmed,

or loneliness or heritage,
or a new-learned unfocused rage.
O he’s a vulture in a cage.

The diffuse, abstract nouns ‘ideas’, ‘grief’, ‘loneliness’, ‘heritage’, and ‘rage’ are hard to relate to emotionally. The tight rhyme scheme gives you that very maze-like sensation of being trapped in the artefact of the poem. The poet’s message or intention is overtly displayed. It may be a laudable message, but it’s already all wrapped up, it’s closed; all that’s left for the reader is to agree or disagree with the sentiment.

In ‘On Looking at the Dead’, though, Crichton Smith lets us participate in his effort to communicate. He has posed himself a conundrum: how to articulate an absolute – death, a state he described in ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ as ‘outside the language.’ Creative language – naming and describing – is how we make sense of our world, but ‘no metaphors swarm / around that fact’. He considers that he cannot talk about death unless he refuses the human compulsion to liken things to other things in simile and metaphor, so he resists engaging with the ‘play of imagery, the peacock dance’, in favour of a dogged, nuts-and-bolts language characterised by repetition. But we cannot help but liken and compare and play with language – that is what it is to be human – and so Crichton Smith can’t help but present each ensuing image – ‘the bridal dance’, ‘embroideries eastern or the rest’ – only to dismantle it – ‘It only is itself. / It isn’t you. It only is itself.’

Straining stubborn language, Crichton Smith does succeed in constructing a working model of loss. This is less like an elegy than a version of the Buddhist death meditation, where the aim is to take to heart your personal dissolution.

Concerned with silence and fluency, Crichton Smith cannot stop probing at the immeasurable unsaid, and the unwitting gate-keeper at the brink is so often an old woman, the ‘terrible granny’. That decapitalised ‘g’ alone makes her monstrous, excising her from the circle of family relations. If these poems, as the volume’s editor Matthew McGuire suggests, are an attempt to ‘achieve a level of intimacy that was absent from the poet’s Lewis childhood’, it certainly took a lot of writing before Crichton Smith could arrive at empathy and equality, to separate his fear of the old woman from the fear she has been subject to, as he does in 1969, in ‘Old Woman with Flowers’:

O dear God
wherever you are, I am almost driven wild
by your frightening flowers whose blossoms
are turned to bone
for an old woman to look at, in a small
room alone.

In ‘The Widow’ (1959); ‘Old Woman’ (1961); ‘The Witches’, ‘Old Highland Lady Reading Newspaper’, and ‘Face of an Old Highland Woman’ (1965); ‘Old Woman’ (1968); ‘Old Woman with Flowers’ (1969); ‘To an Old Woman’, ‘The Old Woman’, ‘The Little Old Lady’, and ‘The Old Woman’ (1975); and ‘Old Lady’ (1994) she is a terrible product of nature and dogma, her face a hashed Highland geology; a remote and hostile star (remember the brutal lump of rock – ‘black and fixed and here’ – in ‘On Looking at the Dead’); incapable of forgiveness. She’s ungraced by colour and therefore language. That’s the most fearful thing, she’s silent and unknowable: the ‘set mouth’, ‘the slow silences’. Her body and brain are muted too –

The bowed back was quiet. I saw the teeth
tighten their grip around a delicate death.
And nothing moved within the knotted head

but only a few poor veins as one might see
vague wishless seaweed floating on a tide.

In his uncollected poem ‘The Old Lady’, the old woman is given back her own history and crucially, she’s allowed a voice to define herself – ‘And what exams! / I could understand anything in those days.’ This new edition of Crichton Smith’s collected poems permits the reader to follow the progress of the poet’s attitude to this recurring figure, towards reconciliation in the later collections. In A Country for Old Men, we are introduced to the old lady that is ‘gallant’ with literature and dignity. The black figure of the Old Woman who haunted Crichton Smith’s earlier work can finally be pushed down into the ‘stones and flowers and small hills of the dead […]. [T]he ancient stones of Callanish’ can – newly saturated with colour (and language) – be ‘swathed in pink and blue […]. [H]er grey coat is almost hidden by that yellow and red / on a May day.’

This New Collected Works is a generous book. It lets the reader participate in Crichton Smith’s tussles with language and witness his subsequent fluencies. Suddenly the thing that could not be spoken about, must be spoken about. The island and the poet succumb to a current of language: ‘Island, rise up and put on a fresh music.’


NEW COLLECTED POEMS

Iain Crichton Smith

CARCANET, £18.95 398PP
ISBN 9781857549607A

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The King James Version

King James VI’s visit to Gowrie House in 1600 has provided conspiracy theorists with material for centuries. But what happened?

The Gunpowder Plot in 1605, whose aim was to blow the Houses of Parliament and King James VI and I to smithereens, never posed a moment’s serious threat to the monarch’s, or anyone else’s life. Long before the kegs were even stowed in the cellars, the state’s spies knew what was afoot, and were merely biding their time to arrest the traitors. Guy Fawkes and his conspirators’ murderous designs were thus turned against them, providing additional ammunition in the anti-Catholic cause, itself a keg that needed only the smallest spark to set alight.

The royal PR machine, however, has never let facts get in the way of a good story, and the king’s miraculous survival was trumpeted across the land, honoured ever since in annual bonfires and fireworks that give no hint of how damp a squib the plot actually was. What we should be doing, apparently, is honouring the date, five years earlier, when James only narrowly escaped death: a day, indeed, when he faced perdition not once, but three times. Quite what form a commemorative event would take is not clear, but at the very least it should involve suits of armour and battering rams.

It was August 5, 1600, when James VI found himself embroiled in one of the most peculiar series of events in royal history. Known as the “Gowrie Conspiracy”, it took place in Gowrie House, in Perth, home of the powerful and ambitious Ruthven family, one of whom had played a major role in ensuring Mary, Queen of Scots’s abdication, and later kidnapped young James, holding him for a year. That particular Ruthven was eventually executed. Relations between the Stuart and Ruthven families were thus not what one would call warm.

James was hunting in the royal grounds at Falkland when he was, allegedly, summoned by Alexander, the Master of Ruthven, to Gowrie House. Alexander, or Sandy, as he was known, purportedly span a story about having that morning found a man with a pot of gold, who was being held for questioning at Gowrie House, and who the king should meet.

Despite the urgency of Sandy’s message, James and his men finished their morning’s sport before making their way to Perth. There they found a decidedly strained atmosphere, the house unprepared for the monarch’s visit. Odder still, the king and Sandy left the company and made their way alone to a turret room. Shortly after, the turret window was flung open and the king was heard roaring for his life, crying ‘I am murdered! Treason!’ In the ensuing panic, first Sandy and then his outraged elder brother John, the Earl of Gowrie, were killed. On hearing this, the townsfolk of Perth besieged Gowrie House, intending to break their way in and do away with James for his heinous act. Eventually they were calmed, and the king was able to leave, unmolested.

Rumours that the king had murdered the brothers in a cold-blooded act of reprisal began immediately to circulate. As well as old grievances, there were new ones that could be seen as motive enough. Some thought James’s attractive Danish wife Anna had been having an affair with Sandy and the king sought to avenge himself; others believed it was the king himself who had bedded the strapping young aristocrat. James put out a garbled, unsatisfactory story about what had happened, so unconvincing and full of holes that few believed it. It included details such as a man in full armour who stood in the turret, doing nothing, while Sandy made to tie up and kill the king. When ordered to preach thanks for his safety from their pulpits, five clerics bravely refused to, declaring that the story did not ring true. Four of the five were eventually won round, but the fifth – the Reverend Robert Bruce, possessed of ‘a particularly tender Pres-byterian conscience’ – remained sceptical. That integrity may explain his death in near poverty years later, after several sojourns in Scottish prisons.

J. D. Davies is a Welsh teacher, novelist and historian, author of an acclaimed history of Pepys’ navy. He arms himself against any criticism of venturing into Scottish history by arguing the significance of that fateful day to the future of the whole British Isles. Among other things, had James died in Gowrie House, there might have been no civil war in the mid-17th century and, given that James was instrumental in the colonisation of Ireland by English and Scots, there might have been no 17th-century massacres in Ireland either, with all the ramifications that later led to.

Davies presents a swashbuckling account of this most mysterious day, replete with all the hokum that’s been attached to it. Although a little repetitive, with a tendency to give too much time to the more fanciful of theories, his approach is that of a natural teacher. Characters are brought to life with a well-judged sprinkling of period detail – James’s wife, for instance, shared her father’s love of beer – and his chapters end with cliffhangers, though sometimes almost comically so. Academics might rightly curl their lip at his over-heated style, and his fondness for italicising statements as if reading a proclamation from the battlements, yet what Davies loses in rigorous detachment and scholarly calm, he makes up for in the momentum and memorability of his style. He also deserves credit for tackling an episode that is treacherously complicated, bedevilled by myths and conspiracy theories. Out of a morass of speculation, he not only creates a most readable tale, but produces new evidence from previously untapped archives, which he believes supports a raft of radical theories.

James VI has had a poor press, and it’s not hard to see why. A man who believed his enemies were in cahoots with the devil, and who set the witch-hunt raging in Scot-land, he was a clever but unprepossessing individual, whose habit of scratching his codpiece was embarrassing, as were his table manners. Davies, however, has no truck with those who focus on his foibles. Midway through his account, after examining every angle of the possibility that James was the instigator of the Gowrie conspiracy rather than its victim, he concludes:

‘Modern historians have long seen him as a highly intelligent, tolerant, lenient monarch, determined to reconcile opposing factions in church, state, and Europe as a whole; not exactly the obvious personality traits one would expect from a man who committed murder at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600.

‘But among the rapidly dwindling percentage of the general population who know anything at all about him, perceptions of King James remain rooted in the school of dribbling, fiddling, slobbering and that lazy old soundbite, “the wisest fool in Christen-dom”. The only recent major portrayals of James on British television departed from this norm – only to replace it with a vision of the king as a devious bisexual psychopath. This King James could certainly have been the villain of the piece at Gowrie House. But the real King James could not have been, and was not.’

What follows is a series of almost gid-dying possibilities, most of which remain tantalisingly unanswered. They range from the idea that Elizabeth I’s right hand man Robert Cecil was involved in the conspiracy, to casting James’s own wife as plotter. Furious to have had their son Henry packed off to be brought up by the Erskine family (a common practice at the time), she might have believed that with James dead she would get her son back. She also happened to be on very friendly terms with the Ruthvens, despite her husband’s long-running enmity with the family, two of whom were her ladies in waiting.

Speculation over James’s paternity also dogs the story. Was he, as some believed, a changeling, an Erskine smuggled into the palace to replace a dead Stuart infant? Was he perhaps the bastard son of David Rizzio, Mary, Queen of Scots’ beloved musical friend? Or was his father the son of the man who murdered Rizzio?

The Italian’s killer, Patrick, Lord Ruthven, is one of the most sinister figures in a history filled with deadly players. Mortally unwell when he undertook to rid the realm of Mary’s companion, he turned up that day, haggard with illness, and ‘dressed in full armour, worn under a long nightgown’. It’s an image hard to erase. That he also seemed willing to see Mary dead – if she resisted Rizzio’s murder, he said, ‘We will throw her to them piecemeal, from the top of the terrace’ – shows not just what an implacable foe the Ruthvens were to the Stuarts, but what a knife-edge royals walked in those days, regardless of their power.

Despite the plethora of motives raised in this portrait of personal and dynastic turmoil, many of which are far-fetched, Blood of Kings is most valuable for demonstrating the fiendish layers of alliances and ambitions that lay beneath 17th-century politics. One’s respect for royalty – never strong in this reader’s case – is greatly enhanced by understanding the vast web of intrigues within which they were obliged to manoeuvre. Or which, indeed, they wove around themselves.

Davies contends that the issue of James’s paternity could easily be determined by DNA testing of the corpse of Rizzio and living Erskines. ‘Of course,’ he opines, ‘it might be a different matter to find a member of the royal family willing to undergo a DNA comparison that might effectively bastardise his or her entire bloodline, and to find politicians willing to sanction a test that might conceivably end the days of monarchy in Britain.’

One fears that, like so many of his predecessors, Davies has been infected by the feverish speculation that surrounded the Gowrie Plot. James VI and I showed the political acumen and private neurosis that more than qualify him as royal. Questions of his legitimacy are, in many ways, the least troubling of all the doubts cast by the ever-fascinating, and unresolved Gowrie Conspiracy. Davies’s exhaustive investigative work, far from bringing the hunt to an end, has set even more hares running.


BLOOD OF KINGS: THE STUARTS, THE RUTHVENS AND THE ‘GOWRIE CONSPIRACY’

J. D. Davies

IAN ALLAN PUBLISHING, £19.99 304PP
ISBN 9780711035263

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The Source of the Nile

The music of the Blue Nile conjured a distinctive image of Glasgow in the 1980s.

It’s a straightforward memory test: recall the music you listened to when you went to university or college. Try it; shut your eyes. And once you finally return to this page, has a recollection ever been so vivid? Have the physical details of a place, the faces and clothes and significant conversations and afternoons of passion, ever been so easily recalled?

The neuropsychologists would pedantically point out the reason why: the combination of a life beginning to be lived as a choosing, autonomous adult, with a youthful brain that’s still growing and ramifying, the switch stuck on “receive”. Which is why the texture of that malodorous couch is still on your fingertips, the first ever croissant still flaky in your mouth, the thrill of an enlivened intellect still electric inside you.

And music – that elaboration of a heartbeat, a mother’s croon, an innate sense of symmetry – just floods the memory circuits, like a red wine bottle tipped onto the crappy carpet of a rented flat. Goes everywhere; never really disappears.

For me, for Allan Brown, and for hundreds of thousands of others, one listen to any track from the Blue Nile’s 1984 debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops makes such a transportation possible. And although any reaction to any piece of music is subjective, it’s easy to tell a personal story about this record which makes a strong claim that it captured something objective, really out there.

To be a studious young Glaswegian male between 1981 and 1985 was to exist under roiling skies, shot through with occasional light: paranoid about being conscripted to fight in the Falklands, living a double life of intellectual demands in Garnethill and hometown mediocrity in Blairhill, yet beginning to explore a great city both in its streets and in your mind.

The city fathers hadn’t really discovered the joys of urban branding yet – the collective euphoria that a few well-chosen symbols, festival slogans and property developments could bring. The modernism, even futurism, that we brought to our student lives in Glasgow, was largely self-generated – and almost entirely based around music. Scottish post-punk was scattering its riches across the available media; which meant the NME, scraps of youth TV, John Peel at ten, and most crucially, Radio Clyde’s Billy Sloan on a Sunday evening.

When Sloan played the Blue Nile’s first single, 1981’s ‘I Love This Life’, I remember sitting bolt upright in my Coatbridge bed, instantly responding to Paul Buchanan’s reckless, slightly cracked swoon of a voice, to the bubbling serialism of Paul Moore and Robert Bell’s music – but perhaps most of all to its mood of bruised, weary romance, resting on a shimmering plane of electronica. A Walk Across the Rooftops confirmed it. In the Blue Nile I heard the dogged optimism, the growing dramatic arc, lurking behind my stumbling, day-time scholarly life in the big city – but set in a soundscape that (as the Edwin Morgan poetry collection from the 1970s put it) seemed to stretch from Glasgow to Saturn.

Via New York, it would also have to be said. Though far less crudely and directly than the late 1980s clutch of aspirational Glasgow bands, the Blue Nile channelled a towering, light-blinking imaginary Manhattan deep into their songs: ticker tape fluttering down from on high, tall buildings reaching up in vain, automobiles not cars, Glasgow-New York fused together as a tin-seltown in the rain.

As Paul Buchanan often admits in Nileism, ‘The music I had was what I inherited from my father and his tastes, which was Sinatra and that generation of singers, that American world.’ And out of all those who inescapably drank from that well, Bu-chanan has surely taken the richest draught: he combines the staggering ruin of the later Frank’s voice with the vaulting gospel ambition of a soul singer. Quite a combination.

But again, the bold, symphonic confidence of the Blue Nile’s electronica deconstructs all this Americana – makes it less like a clichéd trigger for emotion and excitement, and more like an abstract landscape of urban modernity that almost anyone could live in, and imagine their triumphs and failures, their ardencies and heartbreaks.

The first time I read Don DeLillo’s Libra, with Lee Harvey Oswald sitting on the A train, I immediately heard the soundtrack coming from the Blue Nile: ‘The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts, on the edge of no-control. People crowded in, every shape face in the book of faces. They pushed through the doors, they hung from the porcelain straps. He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass.’

It’s maybe not such a presumptuous connotation: DeLillo’s latest book, Omega Point, begins and ends with a contemplation of Glasgow conceptualist Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho. I’ve also just watched a YouTube interview with Paul Buchanan, quietly defending their glacial pace of four albums over 25 years to a jocose Irish presenter: ‘Try to think of them as novels.’

Easily done. One of the many delights of Allan Brown’s biography of the band is the way he allows himself enough literary pretension, amidst and between what is otherwise a conventional rock chronology of formation, relative success, and downward slide. This seems to be mostly shaped by his attempt to comprehend the inner dynamic of the band itself, ‘an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a raincoat’, a ‘hive mind’ which he sets himself the task to dissect. Music producer after svengali manager after record company executive relate the same experience of dealing with the Blue Nile: ‘It’s like they have a telepathy going between them’, says one factotum, ‘which it’s very difficult to break into.’

This tactical opacity made it difficult for them to conform to the ‘army manoeuvres’, as Brown correctly puts it, that conventional music business success requires: regular touring, albums every 18-24 months, relentless glad-handing of retailers and media, some commensuration between commercial revenue and recording budget.

He picks up on a phrase that the band delightedly pass among themselves – some overheard diddy in a bar in the 1980s, drawling ‘I’m in a band…as you probably know’ – and cites it as the core of their carnaptiousness. How do you make the purest, most considered modern music you can in a business best summed up by Hunter S. Thompson? ‘A cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.’

Well, you defend your autonomy as best you can. Part of this is the perennial musician’s ability to hunker down and minimally survive (the financial grace and favour of various girlfriends are mentioned in passing). But another part is lucking into the right context for making music: a physical place, or a trusted soundman, or a sympathetic small record label. Some defensible compound that can resist the harpies of promotion, so you can chase the sonics down the rabbit hole, and come up with something sui generis.

The Blue Nile’s mighty first two albums, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1982) and Hats (1989) were produced under exactly these conditions. I’m very pleased that Brown puts producer Calum Malcolm, and his converted schoolroom studio in Pencaitland, at the heart of the Nile’s story. (My band Hue And Cry recorded two albums with Calum and I can attest to his genius). A somewhat bruised and elderly schoolboy in appearance, Malcolm took this bunch of disgruntled new technoromantics and sat them down for listening sessions with Eastern European orchestras playing Bartok.

The title track of their first album is surely as evocative an opening sequence as the first few bars of Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ on Kind of Blue: you listen today and marvel at the sound of industrial-meets-post-industrial Glasgow wrenched out of the crudity of 1980s synthesizers. The company context was important too: the Blue Nile have always had a relationship with the recording label of the hi-fi manufacturer Linn, for whom perfection of sound was an absolute.

Yet the second half of Brown’s biography, covering their last two albums (1996’s Peace At Last and 2004’s High), is a familiar tale of how relative success can progressively unravel the delicate conditions that produce something of brilliance. Huge publishing deals were signed; their songs were covered by Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox; major American and London managers were signed up; lives started to be uncomfortably lived between LA and Glasgow; celebrity girlfriends were picked up (Rosanna Arquette).

Simmering tensions over musical direction also came to a head. For Peace At Last, acoustic guitars and gospel choirs rang out in expensive studios; on a stylistic pendulum swing, High is a dense, claustrophobic wall of digitality, apparently recorded in a control room where keyboard player Paul Moore would look only at his computer screen.

‘You have to remember that we were just three panic-stricken guys’, says Buchanan, the only member who consented to be interviewed for the book. ‘If we were full of confidence, the records wouldn’t have the ambivalence that attracts people.’ Their last kick ass manager, Dire Straits’ Ed Bicknell, who knocked down doors to provide them with six-figure sums to finish their most recent records, says ‘the history of the Blue Nile was the most screwed-up I had ever encountered.’

In 2011, where organised noise has to contend with every other attraction in the media sensorium (and is having the financial nexus ripped out of it by downloading), the tale of the Blue Nile – total musical visionaries facing down the cash-rich 1980s and 1990s music business, and mostly winning – seems like ancient and glorious history.

But better this Nileism than the alternative, that’s for sure. One would hope that there are still young Glaswegians staring moodily out of the top windows of their student flat, in the city’s university district; and that somewhere, coiled deep within their Garageband software and infinitely capacious hard-drives, they are planning to take another sonic walk across those rooftops.


NILEISM – THE STRANGE COURSE OF THE BLUE NILE

Allan Brown

POLYGON, £14.99 224PP
ISBN 1846971381

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Volume 7 – Issue 1 – Poetry – Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934. He published his first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. His early influences included Lorca, Whitman, and Yeats. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Cohen’s second volume of poetry, brought him to wider attention in Canada; a number of poems from that book feature in Canadian school textbooks.

In 1963, Cohen published his first novel, the autobiographical The Favourite Game, with a second novel, Beautiful Losers, following in 1966; critics have called it Canada’s first post-modern novel. Since 1967 and the release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, he has concentrated on his musical career, and has recorded eleven studio albums, although he continues to write and publish poetry. His most recent book, Poems and Songs (2011), features a number of unpublished poems, three of which are featured below.

AMEN

Tell me again when I’ve been to the river
And I’ve taken the edge off my thirst
Tell me again when we’re alone and I’m listening Listening so hard that it hurts
Tell me again when I’m clean and sober
Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror Tell me again, tell me over and over
Tell me that you want me then
Amen, Amen, Amen… Amen

Tell me again when the victims are singing
And the laws of remorse are restored
Tell me again that you know what I’m thinking But vengeance belongs to the lord
Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober
Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror Tell me again, tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen, Amen, Amen… Amen

Tell me again when the day has been ransomed And the night has no right to begin
Try me again when the angels are panting
And scratching at the door to come in
Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober
Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror Tell me again, tell me over and over
Tell me again that you need me then
Amen, Amen, Amen… Amen

Tell me again when the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb
Tell me again when the rest of the culture
Has passed through the eye of the cam
Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober
Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror Tell me again, tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen, Amen, Amen… Amen

DARKNESS

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I got the darkness
From your little golden cup
I said is this contagious?
You said “Just drink it up”

I’ve got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not so pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

I should have seen it coming
It was right behind your eyes
You were young and it was summer
I just had to take a dive
Winning you was easy
But the darkness was the prize

I don’t smoke no cigarette
I don’t drink no alcohol
I ain’t had no loving yet
But that’s always been your call
And nothing but the darkness
Makes any sense to me at all

I used to love the rainbow
And I used to love the view
I love the early morning
I pretend that it was new
But I caught the darkness
And I got it worse than you

I caught the darkness
I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said “Just drink it up”

LULLABY

I can’t break the code
of our frozen love.
It’s too late to know
What the password was.
If your heart is torn,
I don’t wonder why.
If the night is long,
here’s my lullaby.
Here’s my lullaby.

Though they twist the news
and the world believes,
we  will live our truth,
be it on our knees.
If your heart is torn,
I don’t wonder why.
If the night is long,
here’s my lullaby.
Here’s my lullaby.

Through a net of lies,
oh, I will come to you.
When our dead arrive,
I will salute them too.
If your heart is torn,
I don’t wonder why.
If the night is long,
here’s my lullaby.
Here’s my lullaby.

Though it’s much too late,
And we’ve taken our stand.
And they call up your name,
we’ll go hand in hand.
If your heart is torn,
I don’t wonder why.
If the night is long,
here’s my lullaby.
Here’s my lullaby.


POEMS AND SONGS

Leonard Cohen

EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY £9.99 245PP
ISBN 978-1-84159-787-4

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Diary

The Left in the Dock

Towards the end of last year I spent as many days as I could manage attending the trial of Tommy and Gail Sheridan at the High Court in Glasgow. Shortly after nine in the morning I made my way through the Merchant City, via Trongate and Glasgow Cross, then down the Saltmarket, going in the space of a few hundred yards from a postcode where life expectancy is at least three score years and ten to one where the odds on achieving that drop precipitously. Most of the time it was gnawingly cold. Often I’d pass young men and women, the air sucked from their pallid faces, walking with the single-mindedness peculiar to those who have no particular place to go, and wearing no more than a day-tripper does to clamber up Ben Nevis. One morning, outside a pub advertising two-course lunches for £3.50, a woman challenged a man to a fight. ‘Goan then,’ she said, fists poised and shimmying as if she were a female Mohammed Ali, ‘Hit me! Goan!’ The man stubbed out a fag and said words to the effect that nothing would give him greater pleasure. In such circumstances, I’ve learned through experience that it is unwise to stick one’s oar in. I walked on, past Tron Pawn Ltd and the Tenant Participation Advisory Service and stopped outside Beauty by Debra, a safe distance, I reckoned, from which to observe the fracas. Nothing now, though, was happening. No one was outside the pub. All was quiet, eerily so. It was as if I’d imagined it all.
* *
The Saltmarket used to be what the legendary journalist Jack House called ‘the heart of Glasgow’. By all accounts it appears to have been a desirable place in which to live. How long ago that was I wouldn’t care to guess. In their excellent anthology, Glasgow Observed, Simon Berry and Hamish Whyte include a piece by Cuthbert Bede, a pseudonym used by the 19th-century English writer Edward Bradley, excerpted from a book called A Tour in Tartan-Land, which was published in 1863. Even on a summer’s day, reported Bede, he saw in ‘the Saltmarket, and the High Street, and their purlieus… evidence of so much that is sickening both to the moral and physical senses’. Come Saturday night, however, and things were even worse: ‘At every step there is an inducement held out to you “jest to wet your thrapple”; until a fight between two drunken women drives you from the scene, and you crush your way through the wriggling mass, wondering how often the girls get their naked toes trod upon on a Saturday night in the Saltmarket.’ What a difference 150 years make.
* *
The High Court is up a cul-de-sac opposite Glasgow Green. On a clear day you can probably see the People’s Palace, the Amritsar of Glasgow’s working-class history which, when I was last there, had no mention of the Sheridan-led resistance to warrant sales and the poll tax. When I first visited it the trial had already been going for a number of weeks. The prosecution was coming to the end of its evidence and, if one took at face value press reports, things looked bleak for the defendants, especially Tommy. Certainly, those journalists to whom I spoke were convinced of his guilt. One, a respected veteran court reporter, said that if he got off it would be ‘the mother of all miscarriages of justice’. When I demurred, saying that it might be best to wait and hear what Sheridan had to produce in his defence, he shrugged. As well he might. Reading the papers as a trial unfolds it’s hard to see the wood from the trees. Every day seemed to bring a new and lurid headline. Tommy said this. Tommy did that. Tommy was here, there, everywhere. What a witness said was reported as if he or she were Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa. Prompted by the Crown they testified to having sex with Tommy wherever and whenever. Others swore blind that he’d confessed. Another, Tommy’s erstwhile best man, said he’d gone to the trouble of making a video of Tommy, ranting, raving and swearing, in which he appeared conveniently to substantiate the accusations against himself. The video was of a quality that couldn’t have been worse if it had been made by John Milton. For this, we learned, the Scottish editor of the News of the World had stripped off down to his boxer shorts and written a cheque for £200,000, clearly believing, as it turned out, that this would deliver the verdict denied him at the trial in 2006 which Sheridan won.
* *
It all started with a book by Anvar Khan,  a journalist. Pretty Wild: The Most Honest Diary About Men, Women and Sex You’ll Ever Read was published in autumn 2004 by Black and White Publishing, which is based in Edinburgh. On her website Khan says it is still in print. No mention, however, is made of it on the publisher’s website. Nor is the book in the collection of the National Library of Scotland which has a legal obligation to preserve all books published in the U.K. for posterity. There is, though, a copy in Cardonald Library, which is part of Glasgow City Libraries. Its catalogue quotes the book’s blurb which boasts that Khan ‘charts sexual encounters, the problems that face men and women when they get together, human sexual habits, desires and fetishes and lots more.’ Eager to procure a copy? Amazon has one for sale at 24p (plus £2.75 p&p). Fans of Khan will be pleased to learn that she has another book in the pipeline, titled The Female Warrior, which is described thus by her agent: ‘Academic and original in its ideas, yet irreverent, funny and as easy to digest as a Jackie Collins novel, this book is meant to be read by everyone from the white coats at the make-up counter in Boots to the lecturer in gender studies in CA.’ CA? Where else but California.
* *
After the civil case in 2006, at which a jury found in Tommy Sheridan’s favour, the judge, Lord Turnbull, ordered the News of the World to pay £200,000 in damages.
He also said that it may be necessary to investigate whether, due to the conflicting evidence given by witnesses, criminal charges should be brought against any witnesses for perjury. Hence Sheridan’s appearance in the dock and hence the charges brought in February 2008 against six of those who testified on his behalf. Much of the 2010 trial was a re-run of that held in 2006 with many of the same witnesses reappearing and giving the same, or similar, evidence. Lord Bracadale, however, did not follow Lord Turnbull’s lead. Indeed, in sentencing Sheridan to three years, he acknowledged his special contribution to the social and political history of Scotland. That people did perjure themselves is undoubted. Only they know who they are. It seemed odd, though, that all those investigated for perjury at the first trial were supporters of Sheridan. It is just one among many disturbing facets of this bizarre case. Were witnesses who testified on the News of the World’s behalf investigated by Lothian and Borders police? It would be interesting to know. Likewise, it would be interesting to know exactly who was paid what by the newspaper and for what services. But as we have seen from the phone hacking affair – the News of World’s equivalent of the Catholic abuse scandal – getting to the truth of what goes on within News Corporation is to delve into a Kafka-esque nightmare where memories have mysteriously been wiped and records irretrievably lost.
* *
Not the least of Tommy Sheridan’s difficulties was trying to explain to the jury in polite language how vicious and conspiratorial left-wing politics are. Most of us, when told that eleven people swear blind that someone said something in a meeting, would believe that they were telling the truth. Sheridan, however, produced others who, with equal firmness, said he did not confess to going to Cupid’s, the Manchester swingers’ club – why, in a roomful of archenemies, would he? – which was at the heart of the allegations against him, and that no such minute was presented to them to that effect. It was like listening to kids arguing in a playground. What it was not was edifying, the left publicly tearing itself apart while expressing regret. Shortly after the trial five women who were instrumental in Sheridan’s downfall gave an interview to the Guardian. ‘The time has come to rid the left of male misogynists who view women as appendages,’ said Rosie Kane, the former SSP MSP. Her solidarity, she insisted, was with Gail Sheridan, which will surely be a comfort to her. ‘Tommy only has two ways to deal with women,’ added Kane. ‘If he can’t fuck us, he will fuck us over.’ At the trial the question everyone wanted to know the answer to was: why did he decide to sue the News of the World? Money? Hubris? Self-righteousness? What seemed to occur to no one was that he might, just might, have thought it was his right to bring to court a newspaper that he believed had published lies about him.

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The Book Group

What next for our young writers?

Generations of writers fascinate. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey muddying their boots round Grasmere. Auden and Isherwood making memories in Berlin. Kerouac tapping out the rhythm on a wine jug and yelling go as Ginsberg premieres Howl in City Lights bookstore. We cherish stories about authors, we continue building their mythologies long after they are dead. Often we know the tales of their couplings and fall-outs better than we know the work itself.

A generation comprises a number of writers roughly of the same age of whom a reader might say he can see a number of stylistic and thematic similarities, born largely of growing up during the same time period, subject to the same historical pressures. Frequently they collaborate, sharing ideas, politics, sometimes lovers. Often they are associated with a city, a club, a pub.

Over the past forty years, two significant constellations of talent have remade Scottish literature.

In 1966, Philip Hobsbaum came to Glasgow to teach at the city’s University. Prior to his arrival, Hobsbaum taught at Queens University in Belfast, where he ran poetry workshops in his home. Amongst those attending were the young Seamus Heaney and Michael Longely. In Glasgow, Hobsbaum began another group for local authors. Members included James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, and Tom Leonard.

Influenced by the writers who formed Hobsbaum’s group, Kevin Williamson set up Rebel Inc in the early 1990s. Williamson edited a magazine whose contributors included a pre-fame Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, Alan Warner, and James Meek. They were influenced by the grit, urban angst, and demotic prose that characterised the work of the generation that preceded them. What they contributed were sketches of the unhinged hedonism liberated during the Thatcher era, surrealism, and a tough sense of humour.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a new generation of young Scottish writers began to be published. Born in the 1970s, they grew up during the Thatcher era, read Kelman and Welsh while studying at university, and began to write seriously as New Labour prepared to take office. Unlike the Hobsbaum authors or those associated with Rebel Inc, this generation did not grow out of a formal grouping, although some graduated from creative writing courses.

The life of a novelist is challenging even in the best of times. Whatever difficulties writers encountered in the past decade, however, look likely to be eclipsed by the problems posed by the age of austerity. The publishing industry is contracting. New technology may one day offer writers the chance to be rewarded directly for their work without a publisher acting as middle man; in the meantime, social networking and video games have absorbed much of the free time people previously used to read. When people do settle down with a book, it appears to be non-fiction that commands their attention; there is a perceived diminishment in the public appetite for fiction. There is also a suspicion London publishers and high-street book-chains have lost interest in new Scottish voices. You wonder how authors will earn enough to keep writing during such tough and uncertain times.

In the first month of 2011, I spoke to five authors based in Scotland: Alan Bis-sett, Doug Johnstone, Sophie Cooke, Zoe Strachan, and Rodge Glass. They are a diverse selection, purposefully so, their novels ranging from genre to literary fiction. They emerged during the last decade, a time of plenty, or so it looked from the perspective of the start of 2011. Four had just completed final drafts of new novels. One, Johnstone, had just had his latest published. They’ve enjoyed a measure of success, but they face a trying decade. If precedent is right, however, if study of those past generations that so command our interest points to anything, it is that the writers under discussion have reached an age where the next ten years may see them produce their best work. How did they intend to meet the challenges they face? Had their concept of why they did what they did changed now that the society they live and work within had changed? To what extent did they recognise themselves as a generation?

* * *

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Volume 7 – Issue 1 – Editorial

“you’re only new once,” Rodge Glass said when interviewed for this issue’s essay on Scotland’s young writers. In an age-obsessed era, literature remains one of the few fields a practitioner can still be described as young even as they enter their forties. There is a reason for that. It’s based on the recognition that writers take time to mature.

Most often they show promise over their first few novels, only realising mastery of their talent when they publish their third, fourth or fifth. Examples come to mind. While Saul Bellow’s first two books, Dangling Man and The Victim, are by any standard accomplished, he didn’t find his voice until his third, The Adventures of Augie March. Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels are ambitious but burdened by an excess of style. Franzen was three novels down and thirteen years into his career before he found success with The Corrections. Yann Martell wrote two not terribly good books before Canongate took a chance on a third that was rejected by five London publishing houses: Life Of Pi is now officially the best-selling Booker Prize winner ever. Closer to home, William McIlvanney’s debut and sophomore are callow dramas that don’t entirely deliver but hint at the triumph of his third, Docherty.

Sorry if this is obvious to you. It is not apparent to everyone. One suspects sectors of the publishing industry have forgotten. Living in a results-based society, expectations of new writers are raised from the start. It’s not enough that they win critical success. Publishers are commercial enterprises that exist to make a profit. Building a writer’s reputation over a number of years in expectation of later success is a gamble.

In his recent speech in defence of libraries, Philip Pullman was blunt: “It used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. Publishing was a human occupation run by human beings. Not any more. Publishers are run by money people now.”

It is true, novelists continue to appear whose debuts are acclaimed and whose sales impress. But the myth of the genius writer fully-formed from the off is just that – a myth. Zadie Smith and Joshua Ferris enjoyed great success with their first novels, and were talked up by many critics. Yet even they tripped up with second novels  that disappointed. The point is, talent is capricious. It needs to be coaxed out, not threatened. And that requires publishers demonstrate as much imagination as the young authors they sign.

* * *
One of the novelists interviewed in the SRB, Alan Bissett, took the title of his third novel, Death of a Ladies Man, from a Leonard Cohen album. In this issue, the SRB publishes three new poems by Cohen. They are marked by his customary wit, intelligence, and soul. Although better known as Canada’s finest living songwriter (no offence to Neil Young fans), Cohen began his creative career as a poet. His body of work, comprising volumes of verse, experimental novels, and a dozen studio albums, is an endorsement of providing artists with opportunities to grow and deepen their talent not merely over years, but decades. One would like to think a publisher today would still take a chance on such an idiosyncratic venture as Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers.

* * *

A section of another Bissett novel, The Incredible Adam Spark, takes place on the day of the march in Glasgow in February 2003 protesting the then yet to be launched war in Iraq. The passage features a cameo by Tommy Sheridan, who is pictured speaking at the rally that took place at the march’s conclusion. Whatever you think of Mr Sheridan, he made an undeniable contribution to Scottish political and cultural life which that passage pays tribute to in its way. This issue’s Diary covers the last days of Mr Sheridan’s perjury trial.

When asked about their politics, many of the young writers featured in this issue expressed a wish to vote for a socialist party. Their desire was frustrated by the collapse of the Scottish left-wing vote following the accusations that led to Mr Sheridan’s libel trial. Many of the writers expressed a sense of political homelessness. Which begs a question: is there a generation of young Scottish politicians who can talk as directly to the public as the country’s writers?

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