by SRB

Volume 7 – Issue 1 – Reviews

February 18, 2011 | by SRB

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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