Monthly Archives: May 2011


Volume 7 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

Glen Duncan
CANONGATE, £14.99 336PP ISBN 978-1847679444

Glen Duncan describes the mysteries of lycanthropy in The Last Werewolf, a smart entry into the horror genre. His hero Jacob Marlowe is a 200-years-old wolf man. As the last of his kind, he is a prize trophy for hunters. Eric Grainer, chief of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena, vows to kills Marlowe at the next full moon. To be fair, Marlowe once killed and ate Grainer’s dad. Marlowe is not your typical bloodthirsty fiend, however. The first third of the novel consists of his intelligent and charming account of his troubled existence. Marlowe describes the night he was infected with ‘the Curse’ in 1842 and the bittersweet glory of his first kill. The novel shifts into action mode when Marlowe’s closest friend is murdered, and he has to flee the country, Grainer close on his tail. Duncan’s sketch of this conflicted werewolf is gripping. Self-aware and humorous, Marlowe is candid about his transformation from mild-mannered gentleman into hulking, sex-crazed beast. The novel carries a sense of wonder and suspense until the end. TM

Rosalind K Marshall
SAINT ANDREW PRESS, £9.99 PP ISBN 978-0715209363

This accessible, short biography of Mary, Queen of Scots takes us through some of the central and most controversial ‘myths’ about her life. Some facts about her early life are dealt with speedily, as what we all want to know about are those disastrous decisions she made after (and including) her marriage to Lord Darnley. Did she have an affair with David Rizzio? Did she murder Darnley? Did the Earl of Bothwell abduct her? Historian Rosalind Marshall takes a simple approach that would work well in schools and would encourage interest amongst school pupils in the nature of regal authority in Scotland at this time. Her questions are phrased in colloquial terms, as are her answers, but she fills her book with facts and even those who might not know about the importance of the ‘casket letters’ beforehand can get a clear picture of the impression they created and how long it took for them to be exposed as false. There can be few heads of state subjected to as much myth-making as Mary has been and Marshall’s more modern approach has something to say about the power of rumour and gossip that a younger generation will no doubt appreciate. LM

Tara Womersley & Dorothy H Crawford
LUATH PRESS, £16.99 256PP ISBN 978-1906817589

This title will inevitably conjure up the image of Burke and Hare, murdering indiscriminately in order to provide Edinburgh’s School of Anatomy with enough cadavers for medical students to practise on, but it’s also a fascinating study of how science progresses, and why it sometimes does so at a seemingly slow rate. The story of Joseph Lister is an excellent example. Inspired by Pasteur’s work in Paris, he discovered that carbolic acid could kill germs that occurred post-operation, most especially in cases of amputation. He soaked his instruments in carbolic and noticed an immediate reduction in post-operative diseases, published his results in The Lancet, and was treated as a ‘quack’ by other scientists and doctors. Rivals like James Simpson dismissed his findings (professional competition perhaps blinding him), and it took years for his findings to be made general practice. Those who struggled in the face of public opprobrium, like Joseph Lister, deserve to be better appreciated than they are. LM

Karin Altenberg
QUERCUS, £20 304PP ISBN 978-0857382320

Altenberg, a Swedish archaeologist, has chosen the St Kilda of the early nineteenth century as the setting for her first novel. It’s a setting both rich and bleak, and that apparent contradiction is mirrored in her characterisation of her protagonists, Neil MacKenzie and his wife, Lizzie. They have come to St Kilda to bring Christianity to the heathens, but after her initial revulsion at the islanders’ primitive ways of living, Lizzie finds herself losing some of those Christian principles and gaining a different spiritual perspective. Altenberg focuses on the harshness of life and the dangers of the islanders’ way of living, especially when it comes to newborns. Lizzie loses her first three children to the island’s ‘eight-day sickness’ and her husband, constantly wrestling with his own demons and his relationship with God, cannot help her in her despair. Indeed, he makes it worse; when two naturalists visit, he puts down his wife’s cooking and makes her wait her turn. Altenberg has been a little tentative in her depiction of the couple; hints at discord and a sense of smothered rage are all very well, but she tends to swerve away from anything too indigestible. That said, she has a feel for the landscape and sympathy for the islanders’ way of life.  LM

Alasdair Macrae
NORTHCOTE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, £12.99 120PP ISBN 978-0746310762

The life and writings of Norman MacCaig, who died in 1996, are explored in this study of the poet. Retired lecturer Alasdair Macrae first encountered MacCaig’s work in the 1950s, and the two became colleagues at the University of Stirling in the 1970s. The opening chapter offers some interesting details about MacCaig’s life, such as the publication of his first book of poetry at the age of 33 and his relationships with fellow makars Robert Garioch, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. The subsequent chapters discuss various aspects of MacCaig’s poetry, such as the influences on his work, the significance of Edinburgh and Assynt in his poetry, and certain values he upheld in his writing career. Macrae maintains a respectful distance throughout the book – perhaps too much of a distance. Surprisingly, he is never critical of the poet’s work nor does he comment in detail on poetic form. Instead, he limits discussion only to the inspirations behind MacCaig’s poems and a light analysis of what the poet may have meant. Though this technique is fine to begin with, this reader hankered for greater discussion of themes, patterns and conflicts in MacCaig’s poetry. TM

Frances Bingham
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £9.99 200PP ISBN 978-1906120566

In Frances Bingham’s second novel, four exiles live on a remote island. An artist named Hesketh and her adolescent daughter Kezia have stayed on the island for ten years. Their neighbour is Crambo, a mute whom Kezia has taught to read. The balance of their beachfront life is disrupted when a recuperating ex-soldier, Fitz, joins the trio. Though Fitz is appealing to both Hesketh and Kezia, it’s soon revealed that Fitz is infatuated with a woman in London. Love triangles form between the characters. Their emotional strife is mirrored by the crashing sea. As the title suggests, the novel has a theme of running away from conflict. Bingham divides the narrative between Kezia, Crambo and Fitz. Kezia speaks in fragments separated by dashes, Crambo’s voice consists of run-on sentences, and Fitz’s sections are distinguished by elegant prose. However, because all of the voices are narrated in the past tense and share the same plaintive tone, it is still difficult to tell them apart. Though Bingham’s writing is evocative and musical, the novel goes flat before it ends. TM

Chris McCully
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £10.99 220PP ISBN 978-1906120573

Chris McCully relocated from England to Groningen in the North East of the Netherlands in 2007, a move that seems to have exacerbated an existing feeling of not ‘fitting in’. He uses fishing as a basis for exploring this feeling over a series of essays. McCully is a poet and has a keen eye for detail and a fine way of expressing what he notices and feels. His thoughts on decaying leaves, fresh water mussels, pike, zander, and other things he comes across while ‘outside’ are finely drawn and impressively knowledgeable. With lesser talents, poetic ponderings on identity, childhood memories, longing and loneliness could get tiresome, but McCully’s finely honed writing skills just about stave that off. In the end he decides that he belongs outside after all which would have been a fair guess at the beginning. That’s not to say the exercise is not worthwhile. Anyone who can characterise arriving back in England as becoming ‘part of the herd that sweats and munches on CCTV’ belongs on the outside and we are all the better for having him stationed there. TM

Stuart Clark
POLYGON, £12.99 272PP ISBN 978-1846971747

This is the first in a trilogy of novels about crucial moments in the history of scientific discovery – Clark’s novel deals with Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and mathematician who inspired Galileo, and who first established that the earth revolved around the sun. Successive novels will look at Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. There’s no doubting Clark’s knowledge, and the historical research he has accomplished to give his novel the appropriately authentic setting (fashion details, the right foods, and so on). It’s harder to make historical personalities come to
life, though, and while Clark does try to give Kepler depth with his illnesses and his sometimes fraught relationship with his wife, the depictions of Kepler and Galileo are one-dimensional. There is an opportunity for a novelist to create tension here, as Kepler and Galileo are both committing heresy, but the plot is occasionally hard to follow, with jumps in time and place, between 1612 and 1623, or Prague and Tuscany, and this tends to disrupt the build-up. Minor characters, like Kepler’s tutor or the young Cardinal Pippe, flit in and out of the narrative. You learn as you read Clark’s work, but as a novel it never comes to life. LM

Des Dillon
LUATH PRESS, £8.99 120PP ISBN 978-0746310762

Drink, brawl, sleep, drink, brawl, sleep….this plot line is on spin cycle in Des Dillon’s latest novel. Upon getting out of prison, middle-aged Stevie attempts to reconnect with his younger brother Danny, still a heavy boozer. Getting to know Danny again is the “experiment” in question and leads Stevie to reminisce about former times. The narrative shifts back and forth between the past and present, illustrating Stevie’s alcoholic and sober phases (which aren’t that different). Though Stevie is the principal character, the narrative largely focuses on Danny. He eventually becomes the third wheel in a relationship between a local boxer, Billy, and his girlfriend, Shelly. The local Asda become the trio’s favourite spot for panhandling. When a violent episode erupts between Billy and Danny, Stevie finds himself in the middle of the conflict. Dillon successfully conveys the devastating effects of alcoholism and how it tears apart a family. He seems to blame the men for all the trouble; in contrast, the female characters , such as the boys’ mother and Shelly , are kind and naive. Although Dillon hits all the right emotional notes, the novel becomes a series of binges and scuffles. TM

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The Enigma of Werner Herzog

It is a pity Incident at Loch Ness remains unavailable on DVD in the UK. Not only is it a scampish take on the methods and mythology of director Werner Herzog (who acts in and co-wrote the script, but doesn’t in this instance direct), it is also perhaps the closest Herzog will ever come to working in Scotland. Characteristically, his films’ settings are more extreme. The looming green hell of the Peruvian rainforest in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo; the alien beauty of the desert in Fata Morgana; infernal oil fields blazing across post-Gulf War Kuwait in Lessons of Darkness; and now, in his latest film, which bears the almost parodically Herzogian title of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the caverns of Chauvet where he finds in their 32,000-years-old cave paintings ‘the awakening of the human soul’.

This Palaeolithic-era art was discovered in 1994 in the south of France, in a limestone cave sealed off for 20,000 years. The charcoal sketches of horses, bison, and mammoths are twice as old as examples of primitive art found before Chauvet’s discovery. While filming posed technical challenges – the crew couldn’t depart from a narrow metal walkway lest they damage the floor – Cave of Forgotten Dreams must have been a relatively easy shoot to complete compared to the nightmare productions that made Herzog’s name famous and infamous.

There isn’t another film director alive to whom so many legends have attached themselves, and Incident at Loch Ness nods towards many of them, from the tale of how he directed a mutinous Klaus Kinski while pointing a gun at him from behind the camera (false) to pulling a 320-tonne steamship over an Andean mountain (true). (Three steamers were used, with the first – ‘one of the leading characters’ according to Herzog – built in Glasgow in 1902).

The eccentricity that marks Herzog’s more memorable films is largely absent in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Unlike Even Dwarves Started Small, his all-midget send-up of Sixties revolutionary politics, or his remake of art-house schlocker Bad Lieutenant, you can imagine Cave of Forgotten Dreams being played in schools, which is indeed what will happen in France, its government having part-funded the documentary. The chill of tastefulness means it’s a little dull when compared with Herzog’s more idiosyncratic fare, although the subject itself fascinates, and his decision to film Chauvet in 3D – the stone age artists used the contours of the rocks as an effect in their drawings – is ingenious.

The film poses the question: does Chauvet’s art give contemporary man a way to understand ‘human beings who are, in a way, us, and yet [who are] separated by an abyss of time’? For Herzog, the answer is a partial yes. According to his thesis, art was a way for our tribal ancestors to begin to understand themselves and others as individuals. In addition to paintings, this period also saw homo sapiens create musical instruments, body adornments, and a primitive spear-thrower. By contrast, Neanderthals, who also lived in the Chauvet valley in the same period, don’t appear to have developed a similar culture of art or tools; their extinction, although not explicitly mentioned in the film, hangs in the air.

Herzog has linked man’s survival and art before when explaining his greed for new images. ‘The images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution… If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.’ Or Neanderthals.

This need to record experiences and tableaux never captured before has led Herzog on occasion to resemble one of his own protagonists, men motivated by sense-spurning quests. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, Aguirre loses his mind and sanity hunting for El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo plans to build an opera house in the jungle. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, wanted to befriend wild bears, perhaps even thought of himself in some sense as a bear. He spent over a decade in an Alaskan nature reserve filming and getting close to grizzlies. His mission ended when one ate him.

Despite Herzog’s faith in his search for new cinematic visions, his films often sound an equivocal note about the power of art. Art, as in Fitzcarraldo where it takes the form of opera, embodies the values of civilisation, as dubious a project for Herzog as it is for his literary hero Joseph Conrad. ‘I am fascinated by the idea that our civilisation is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness,’ Herzog says in the interview-book Herzog on Herzog.

Art, civilisation, the entire project of human striving, is shown again and again in Herzog’s films to be futile in the face of ancient and elemental forces. Music motivates Fitzcarraldo to conquer his mountain, and his gramophone pacifies a tribe of Amerindians who threaten him. But when his steamship tips into rapids (this sequence was filmed on actual rapids, the fiercest in Peru), destroying his mission, music can’t save his dream, it can merely console.

In other Herzog films, music can’t even provide solace. The music that accompanies gliding aerial shots of Kuwait’s murdered landscape in Lessons of Darkness sets up a tragic counterpoint between the summit of civilisation’s achievements – the work of Grieg, Mahler, Verdi – and its nadir: a desert strewn with charred human bones. At the end of Stroszek, the eponymous protagonist, who has emigrated to America only to find it as cruel as the Germany he has fled, encounters in an amusement arcade a chicken ‘dancing’ round and round upon a revolving record, as perfect an image of futility as has ever been filmed. Ian Curtis may have thought so: in 1980, on the eve of his first American tour, Joy Division’s singer hung himself hours after watching the film.

So often in Herzog’s films people appear small, secondary things compared to the true protagonist, the landscape. The chaos of the jungle disorders the mind of Aguirre as he hacks his way through it. These landscapes possess those who challenge them. ‘These are not just literal landscapes you are looking at,’ Herzog says, ‘but landscapes of the mind too.’

In Fata Morgana, there is no character other than the Sahara. This film was inspired by one of the director’s typically quixotic quests: he wanted to film a mirage. As if shocked by the desert’s endlessness, the camera spools out equally unending tracking shots of the scorched sands, empty of people. When the camera comes to rest, we see rotting, abandoned machinery, the dregs of a retreating civilisation. Herzog had travelled to the Sahara to film footage for a science-fiction film. He abandoned that project yet Fata Morgana still brings to mind a ruined future-world, specifically one of J.G. Ballard’s terminal landscapes. The mise-en-scène could be a backdrop in an adaptation of Ballard’s The Drought or his short story ‘The Cage of Sand’: ‘To his surprise he noticed that he no longer cast any shadow on the sand as if he had at last completed his journey across the margins of the inner landscape he had carried in his mind for so many years… An immense pall of darkness lay over the dunes, as if the whole of the exterior world were losing its existence.’

Ballard and Herzog share a belief that civilisation is a façade, a consequence perhaps of formative experiences during World War Two. Ballard, the elder of the pair, was a boy when he was interned in Lunghua, in a Japanese POW camp. Although his parents were also prisoners, he ran with a pack of semi-feral kids, the adults’ authority undermined by their status as captives. Herzog, who was born in 1942 in Munich, had in some respects a similar childhood. His father was absent and after the war he played in bombed-out ruins. ‘It was anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch’

Herzog denies any link between his work and Nazi Germany. Aguirre, for example, is not a cipher for Hitler. And yet, during a discussion of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the cannibalistic dictator who terrorised the Central African Republic between 1966 and 1979, and who is the subject of Herzog’s documentary Echoes of a Sombre Empire, the director said, ‘Maybe we are above such things now, but people like Bokassa show us that cannibalism is still something that can resurface. Look, for example, at the Nazis in Germany. The Germans were a dignified people, the greatest philosophers, composers, writers and mathematicians. And in the space of only ten years, they created a barbarism more terrible than had ever been seen before.’

Remembering Fata Morgana, perhaps the true mirage Herzog has spent his career filming is civilisation itself. This is the message encoded in the extreme landscapes Herzog’s imagination has nested itself within. And what of Chauvet? The director’s lust for new, unexploited imagery has brought him into contact with the oldest to be found in the world. The film ends not in the cave but in a synthetic ‘tropical zone’ created with hot water from a nuclear power station near Chauvet. Here, crocodiles, unchanged biologically since the age of the dinosaurs (like the Loch Ness monster?), have given birth to albino off-spring. Her-zog’s voice-over asks whether modern man understands the Chauvet images anymore than the mutant crocodiles would. ‘Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?’ he asks.

In a typically Herzogian twist, he recently admitted he invented the ‘tropical zone’ and that the crocodiles are in fact alligators. His question remains though, supplemented by the lesson of his films. How can we hope to understand the deep past when we fail so often to read the true significance of the present?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is on general release and will be available on DVD later this year.

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When Deceiving is Believing

‘Hoax’ is a strange, unEnglish sort of word. Sound and sense put it somewhere between ‘jokes’ and ‘hex’, which is about right. It doesn’t appear much before 1800, when it splits in meaning from ‘hocus’, which continues to mean magic or sleight of hand, a notionally blasphemous derivation from the hoc est corpus of the Mass. Interestingly, one of the first meanings or associations given for ‘hoax’ links it to the university wits, and it has always been understood that hoaxing, as opposed to pranks, japes and practical jokes, has an intellectual and even literary dimension, dog-Latin and invented provenances rather than whoopee cushions.

Musical hoaxes are relatively rare and hoaxes in the visual arts tend to be called ‘forgeries’. There is a long and semi-honourable tradition of literary hoaxing, but it sits on a greyscale of ethical and aesthetic ambiguity that ranges at one extreme from mild in-joke, addressed to and appreciated by a small coterie (university wits), to malign deception.

There are varieties of hoax. One of the commonest is to pass off a modern document as if it were ancient. Arguably, modern Scottish literature begins with the ‘discovery’ by James MacPherson of an ancient text by the bard Ossian (a new edition of which has recently been published). For a neat exercise in cultural relativism, consider the guilt and obloquy that has been dumped on MacPher-son down the years for his forgery, or on Thomas Chatterton for his bogus ‘Rowley’ poems, with no real attention to how good both of these forgeries really are. And then consider how the French have always cheerfully accepted Les Chansons de Bilitis, allegedly found in a tomb on Cyprus and purporting to be lesbian love songs by one of Sappho’s contemporaries, as significant literature, despite a back-story that involves an imaginary archaeologist called ‘G. Heim’ or ‘S. Ecret’.

A good many hoaxes have an ideological basis. The infamous Donation of Constan-tine, which allegedly described the emperor Constantine ceding authority to Pope Sylvester I, was used for centuries to justify the temporal power of the papacy, despite having been exposed. A whole genre of Red Indian captivity narratives and of miscegenation on Southern plantations, faked ‘memoirs’ of rape or sexual misbehaviour by priests in convents, served racist or anti-clerical ends. Perhaps the most notorious of all, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was confected as retrospective proof of an international Jewish conspiracy. Where that leaves the ‘Hitler diaries’ isn’t clear, for in this case a straightforward commercial motive (as with the earlier ‘Howard Hughes biography’) also had the unintended potential to give encouragement to the extreme right. Sometimes the borderline between joke and hex isn’t quite clear.

The ‘found text’ is an honourable literary convention. Perhaps a majority of hoaxes involve some kind of obfuscation about authorship, but of markedly different kinds. Was the ‘Anon’ who wrote Primary Colors a hoaxer, or simply a political wonk who couldn’t afford to reveal his real identity? Were the Australian literary journalists who used a dictionary to confect the surreally wordy poems of ‘Ern Malley’ – ‘like bad Mac-Diarmid’, Anthony Burgess once ventured, having been sprung some lines by ‘Malley’ on a TV books quiz – trying to fool the public, or to cock a snook at literary-critical pretensions? This is a favourite kind of hoax, creating texts that puncture the pomposity of a professional class. Alan Sokol’s 1996 Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was an in-joke that backfired, since the PhD mills and university presses were turning out properly refereed monographs with far more bonkers premises and arguments every single day.

This takes us a little closer to the heart of the problem. Authorship is always, in some sense, a hoax, an adoption of voices and personalities, sometimes indicated by a pseudonym, sometimes not, but always with a little tremor of ambiguity. When Doris Lessing tried to show how difficult it was for an unknown novelist to get published, she submitted two books as ‘Jane Somers’. That they were accepted, though not by her own publisher, may prove something, but it’s not clear what. Should they be considered authentic ‘Lessings’ or something else? They are now republished as by Doris Lessing writing as Jane Somers.

Pseudonyms represent a special case, poised somewhere on that continuum of self-disguise. What they represent, practically or psychologically, is highly variable and unclear. ‘Sebastien Japrisot’ is an anagram of the real author. The literary bag lady ‘Wanda Tinasky’ may or may not (and it seems not) have been a street name for the ‘reclusive’ Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon in turn was once quite widely believed to be a pseudonym for J. D. Salinger. Really! Literary ‘identity’ is a fascinating subject, potentially taking in every approach from transformative hermeneutics to gestalt psychology. Is Hugh MacDiarmid merely a persona of Christopher Grieve, or a politico-cultural disguise, or something else? Is Iain M. Banks more than an M away from plain Iain Banks? Or just a demographic convenience?

Inconsistent buggers, the French. They cheerfully accept that Pierre Louÿs wrote The Songs of Bilitis in the 1890s and for the buoyant lesbian soft-porn market, but worked themselves into a right royal strop when it was revealed that ‘Émile Ajar’, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 with a novel called La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us) was actually the novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who had previously won the world’s most prestigious single-book prize in 1956 with Les racines du ciel (Roots of Heaven), a conspicuously inferior book. Gary’s reputation never recovered. Five years later, following – but apparently not connected to – the suicide of his second wife, actress Jean Seberg, Gary shot himself with a legally owned revolver. His major crime, in the eyes of the Goncourt people, wasn’t so much that he had used a pseudonym but that he had followed through on the misdirection by using an actor to collect the prize. Gary had, after all, also published as ‘Fosco Sinibaldi’ and ‘Shatan Bogat’, but it went further than that.

Most authors invent their characters. Romain Gary invented himself, and continued to do so throughout his life. His enormous and complex body of work is a tissue of reinvention, almost obsessively repetitious and intertextual. His autobiographical writing, like the memoir Promise at Dawn, which is perversely one of the few of his works still widely read, is patently fictional. Often the novels simply life chunks of real experience, or even spookily anticipate what was to happen to Gary in real life.

In Romain Gary: A Tall Story, biographer David Bellos tries to tease out the real facts from the factoids, self-serving myths and profound psychological rationalisations that make such an inextricable knot of Gary’s life-and-work. What can be verified is that he was born Roman Kacew (Kassef) in Vilna (now Vilnius) in the weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Over the next seven decades, his birthplace was to pass through as many new identities as Gary himself: Lithuanian, Russian, Soviet, Polish, German. His mother took him to Nice, that strange, cosmopolitan, carnival city that feels like the beginning of ‘the East’. He went from there to study at Aix-en-Provence, to England as a pilot in the Free French ‘Lorraine’ bomber squadron, to literary Paris, and, bizarrely, to Los Angeles as consul-general, effectively the French ambassador to Tinseltown. The name came up along the way, evolving through various forms into ‘Romain Gary’ in 1951. Like ‘Émile Ajar’, the multiple potential meanings and non-meanings would occupy a book in themselves.

Bellos, who also bears an anglicized surname, has worked a small biographical miracle in recovering the – or at least a – real man from the multiple identities Gary went under. Not only is it a thoughtful and provocative story, it is also very moving as Gary, handsome, vain, absurdly priapic, mother-fixated and notionally fatherless, obsessively reworks the text of his life and then attempts to act out the fiction.

Whether it, or any aspect of it, properly qualifies as hoax isn’t entirely certain. Hoax characters often acquire a curious life of their own. Not the least example is William Boyd’s short-lived New York School painter Nat Tate, who began as an esprit for Modern Painters magazine and quickly acquired not just a ‘real’ existence, mentioned in despatches alongside real-real American painters, but actual works of art and now in Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960, a catalogue raisonnée.

A good deal of Boyd’s work has a touch of the intertextual about it. Logan Mount-stuart, the autobiographical narrator of Any Human Heart and an associate of Heming-way, the Duke of Windsor and the Rote Armee Fraktion, had first appeared in a story in Boyd’s 1995 collection The Destiny of Nathalie X. Boyd took a Nabokovian relish in tricking out fantasy with the apparatus of researchable reality and it is possible now to speak to people who think that Nat Tate might after all be the name of a real painter, and who vaguely seem to remember seeing one of his abstracts at a show in New York. Boyd had previous in this kind of mild deception, having invented the francophone Laotian writer Nguyen N for a new illustrated abecedary by David Hockney.

The two stories illustrate different but parallel and sometimes converging aspects of the same process. Invention often reveals more of reality than straightforward documentation. Nat Tate is a truer representative of a particular moment in cultural history, because he exists without the messy encumbrances and unrationalisable detritus of a ‘real’ life. He also reveals that any school, movement or moment in history is an arbitrary fiction in itself. Gary’s life is proof that authorship is itself a kind of playful impersonation and that any human life, and the contents of any human heart, are susceptible to eternal revision. We are only drafts of who we wish or choose to be. The half- and three-quarter truths we put out about ourselves are the best countermagic against a surveilled, obsessively documented world where all you are is an official file and a credit rating.

James Macpherson
LUATH, £15.00 192PP 978-1906817558

William Boyd
BLOOMSBURY, £15.00 72PP ISBN 1408814463

David Bellos
HARVILL SECKER, £30.00 528PP ISBN 9781843431701

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The Roots of Children’s Literature

It is fair to say that page for page, children’s literature today is of a higher calibre than adults’. Though few of the finest children’s books match the best of the adults’, and there are formulaic, sickly, slapdash and stupid novels for children, just as there are for grown-ups, these are more than outweighed by the ranks of thoughtful, well-written and imaginative novels and non-fiction titles aimed at readers of an impressionable age. When picture books for the very young are included in the tally, the bar is raised even higher, some of these being little short of works of art which no right-minded parent would put into a child’s hand unless it was disinfected or, preferably, gloved.

Modern children’s writers and illustrators appear to have taken onto their shoulders the responsibility attached to nurturing and protecting children, a burden no writer for adults need ever – or should ever – recognise. This moral freight is centuries-long, as The Child Reader, 1700-1840, M.O. Grenby’s colourful history, demonstrates, but there was a time when the idea of books written specifically for children was as alien a concept as that of allowing peasants to read the Bible in English for themselves. In short, the transformation of the world of books from an industry aimed at the mature mind into a ladder of books that allowed the youngest reader to be led rung by rung to the upper echelons of expression and thought was a reformation arguably as influential as that led by Calvin and his cohorts.

The span of Grenby’s book covers what’s known as the long eighteenth century, close on a century and a half that marches alongside the Union of 1707, through the Enlightenment and ends shortly after the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. By this time, writes Grenby, who is Reader in Children’s Literature at the University of Newcastle, ‘A literature specifically for children had become securely established, both culturally and commercially.’ The problem was, only a few were taking advantage of it. By the end of this era, despite dramatic social and cultural change, the majority of children from all classes were still being fed largely on a diet of adult works. Only a lucky few read books written for them alone.

This may sound as if Grenby’s history is a portrait of stagnation. Only when the details emerge of what children were told to read, and chose to read, does a much more nuanced and fascinating picture emerge.

At the heart of this elegantly written survey is an enlightening piece of original research. Taking four major archives, comprising nearly 6000 books, Grenby has used inscriptions and the marginalia left by generations of children, making notes for their friends, commenting on what they were reading, or simply using the blank pages and spaces of their books as any other sheet of paper. Thus in a copy of The Sugar Plum, a girl practised her social skills:

Mary Ann Welhams
Compelments to Miss
Whiting and Should be
very glad of her company
to Tea on Friday next if
it be agreable in the afternoon
Your Humb
Mary Welham
Excuse this Scrach
in hast

Showing how valuable books were, even if one scribbled on them, was a boy from Massachusetts: ‘Don’t steal this/book if you do I will/beat your brains/out.’

Such vandalism might make a bibliophile squirm, but one is thankful to those children who have reached out from their age to ours in a most direct, amusing and, in Grenby’s hands, informative manner.

Studying the comments on books, and even the marks – some of them by pinprick, a common method of highlighting words or passages in those days – Grenby creates a picture of how children were taught to read, and the sort of books they were brought up on. There are obvious flaws in this methodology, as he acknowledges, not least to do with the probability of more expensive books, and more wealthy readers passing down copies we can now pore over compared with cheaper texts that were dog-eared by larger or less affluent families. Even so, what he gleans is illuminating, showing, among other things, how assiduously (and slowly) books were read and re-read, and how only gradually did the intensive reading of a handful  of books evolve into a wider form of literary grazing, as more titles became available, and readers’ options widened.

At the start of this period, and throughout it, standard fare for the child reader included the Bible, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Aesop’s Fables, and a great variety of popular chapbooks and fairy stories. Then there was the Aladdin’s Cave of grown-up novels. As Grenby remarks, while some read indiscriminately between children’s books and novels, ‘for many once they had learned to read novels were their children’s books’.

The emergence of books written for children was gradual and glamorous although, in a phenomenon echoed in our own times, children’s literature was effectively girls’ literature: the new children’s literature – whether books of instruction or delight – was largely powered by female consumers.

By the later eighteenth century bookshops solely for children were opening, with windows low enough to allow them to peek inside. Particularly astute booksellers, such as John Newbery in London, sold novels in which the bookshop itself featured.

And while this upmarket business suggests books were only for those with money, Grenby shows that, in a century where literacy was widespread and growing, even the poor owned books and were deemed worthy of them, as seen by those workhouses that provided their inmates with books, at considerable cost.

Nor was reading for children seen as primarily the preserve of the middle and upper classes. In one rare but instructive case, a woman helped child prisoners in Yarmouth’s jail to read. Libraries increasingly offered a section for children.

Meanwhile, books were often stolen, indicating their financial as well as intellectual value. One young man, a Mr Fudger, was either an accomplished liar, or too unusual to be believed. Brought before the judge to account for various items he had allegedly stolen from the house where he worked as a porter, Fudger was quizzed on his acquisition of a book of fairy tales. He claimed that his master’s wife ‘asked me if I was fond of reading, and she lent me that book’. ‘I believe he cannot read well enough to read a book,’ his master countered, and Fudger was jailed for six months.

But the story of the way children read in this period would be only half-told if those who controlled their reading weren’t given their say. As Grenby astutely observes, the ways in which children viewed their books were very different from those of their elders, leading to what he calls ‘an attritional war’ between them. For children, books were a first sign of their growing independence. Sometimes a book was the only object a child could call his or her own. Samuel John-son may have been right when he advised a friend of his to remember that ‘the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them’. This doesn’t mean they were not treasured.

To adults, however, a book was a means to an end, a way of inculcating a child with proper ideas, of taming their unruliness. Maria Edgeworth, socialite, novelist, educational reformer and prig, urged adults to edit the material they put before their young. This included inking over or scissoring out offending passages. This, she admitted, might ‘shock the sensibility of a nice librarian. But shall the education of a family be sacrificed to the beauty of a page, or even to the binding of a book?’

Not even a woman as heedless of social-convention as Mary  Shelley was exempt from the prevailing moralistic attitude towards the way children were taught to read. In the opening chapter of Frankenstein, as Grenby writes, ‘Victor blames the whole horrific course of his later life on his father’s failure to guide his reading, in this case to explain to the thirteen-year-old the erroneousness of Cornelius Agrippa.’

In one of his most interesting asides, Grenby notes that not even those such as Mary Wollstonecraft, or her husband, the radical thinker, William Godwin, saw children’s literature as a way of encouraging social reform. Another of Grenby’s passing comments left this reader wishing he had expanded greatly upon it. Reflecting on the growing body of material written for children, he writes: ‘Children’s literature may have been one of the most important agents of consensus-building, spreading and solidifying the moral and ideological positions that would characterise nineteenth-century culture and enabling the gradual coherence of national identity.’

That is a big assertion, particularly given his own observation that despite the growth of a children’s literature distinct from adults’, for decades children continued to read either only adult or only a few child-centred works. I’d like to have read a chapter on what shape this coherence took, and what material it drew upon.

Surprisingly, the driving force behind the slow revolution in children’s literature was not intellectual. Grenby concludes that it was not changing literary tastes, or widening educational horizons that brought about a children’s canon. Instead, it was a by-product of social change, notably of ways in which affection were shown. As wealth increased, so did a culture of gift-giving. Then, as now, a children’s book was the perfect present, be it a token from a fond aunt or a prize from a teacher.

Things are immeasurably different today, of course, but what is striking about The Child Reader are the similarities. Then, as now, it is hard to know how children viewed their books, because nobody asked. Then, as now, literature was deemed suitable according to adult judgements, not children’s. And then, as now, there was a strong whiff of worthiness about the whole business.

Fortunately for yesterday’s children as for today’s, books remain subversive for the simple fact that, whether it is by Charles Lamb or Philip Pullman, a story opens the mind and fires the imagination. No matter how long they struggled for popular recognition, those who first wrote, sold or read children’s literature were truly modern-minded.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of The Herald

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, £55 320PP ISBN: 978-0-521-19644-4

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For Folk’s Sake

‘I am not Lemmy,’ writes James Yorkston, in the penultimate chapter of his touring diaries, It’s Lovely to be Here. It would be difficult to confuse Yorkston with Motorhead’s frontman, what with Lemmy’s legendary handlebar moustache, groupies and bottomless jar of whisky. In contrast, Yorkston spends his pre-show afternoon napping, complaining about the size of Dublin tea pots (too small), and explaining the plot of an obscure book about the Nazis he’s reading. Yorkston avoids the clichés associated with touring musicians. He’s not alone. Few current Scottish singer-songwriters could be confused with rock dinosaurs, especially those who work within what has been called the alt folk scene, the nu-folk scene, or just the folk scene.

Yorkston is an admired songwriter who shares a record label with the Mercury Prizewinning band Franz Ferdinand but describes himself as an ‘unheard of loon’. It’s not true. Yes, he has a modest profile compared to some chart-topping bands, but equally he has had an influence on other musicians disproportionate to the volume of his album sales. On little financial outlay he has built a dedicated fan base, touring alone to save money. He also gained attention through taking part in Fife’s Fence Collective. Fence Records is an independent label with a DIY ethos, which, over 15 years, has acquired an international reputation.

In spite of his contribution, Yorkston describes himself as a lone traveller, and strongly resists the folk tag applied to many Fence artists. Yorkston writes in his book that he has ‘no finger in the folk pie’. He insists that folk music is, by definition, traditional music, which makes up less than 10 per cent of his output. Despite his protestations, critics continue to describe him as a folk musician. In 2009 he recorded an entire album of traditional tunes entitled Folk Songs to demonstrate to listeners and critics what he believes folk music really is and the difference with his own material. Of course, now more people than ever before call him a folk musician.

In It’s Lovely to Be Here he portrays himself stumbling from gig to gig, hotel to hotel, album to album, hoping his odd brand of what he calls pop music will somehow see him through. Yorkston’s dry, self-deprecating  humour is on display throughout. His memoir concentrates on the everyday, the mundane realities of touring. Romantic ideas of life on the road are a little outdated. There’s still an element of romance at work here, one that applies to a new generation of Scotland’s finest talents, but it’s not the TV-out-of-window myth-making of old. Like Yorkston, his peers exist on their wits. Like him, they’re gaining international recognition at a time when the music industry is in crisis. They exist apart from the glitz of music TV, loss-leader singles and extravagant stage shows.

Had Yorkston and his generation been born twenty years earlier, their experiences would have been different. In those preinternet days large record companies ruled, record shops stocked more alternative music, international tour supports were more common and advances bigger. Today, advances are small, and largely pay for recording, not living costs. The price of recorded music has fallen too. When Yorkston toured his first album a decade ago, he sold his CDs for £10. Now, CDs are half that price. Despite growing popularity and critical success, artists like him are being squeezed from different directions.

The new reality is that Scottish musicians have to be multi-taskers if they want to survive. Take Kenny Anderson, who is better known to music fans as King Creosote. In addition to his recording career, Anderson is joint head of Fence Records and co-organiser of Fence’s Homegame Festival. On tour he’s part-manager, part-PR chief, part-admin assistant and part-accountant, as well as frontman of his band.

A similar pattern emerges over at Chemikal Underground, Glasgow’s premier independent label. Chemikal Underground has brought to the music-listening public’s attention bands of the calibre of Mogwai, Arab Strap and more recently The Phantom Band. Alun Woodward (who records under the name Lord Cut-Glass) and Emma Pol-lock, both ex-members of The Delgados, split their time between working in the Chemikal offices, promoting bands, and making their own music. Worthwhile, but not glamorous. This kind of life attracts only those who are more interested in music than fame and money.

Community is an important element on the young Scottish folk scene, as it was with previous generations of musicians. Technology, which you might think antithetical in some sense to the lo-fi, hand-crafted nature of folk, separates contemporary artists and their folk ancestors.

The internet, through piracy, may have wounded (perhaps terminally) the recording industry, but it has helped small record labels grow, with online groups promoting artists, live events and releases for free. Chemikal and Fence both communicate regularly with their audience in an informal, personal way – being a music fan has never been more interactive. And because fans identify with the wider ethos of these companies, they’re more likely to share links on Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp and Soundcloud on behalf of the label. If a good review appears, it spreads fast. This is democratising. It hands power back to individuals. And it builds reputation.

All this has taken place within the context of a massive reorganisation of the industry, as artists make less from their records and more from actually playing live: in this new reality, those who know how to connect with their audience benefit most. Fence’s Homegame festival, for example, which takes place in the village of Anstruther annually, sold out again this year before the line-up was announced. Many festivals can only dream of performing such a feat, but it’s possible for Homegame because it survives on its identity within a community of fans and musicians, who appreciate the organisers’ efforts to distance the event from corporate sponsorship. The actual line-up is of less importance in such a context. What matters is spirit. And this spreads to the live bands too, with much crossover between artists. In Yorkston’s book he describes playing guitar for The Pictish Trail, singing with Chemikal’s Adrian Crowley, and sharing bills with King Creosote.

The collaborative spirit isn’t limited to folk musicians, although it draws on that tradition. In the last few years, several projects have harnessed a can-do, ground-up attitude. The best of these have been The Burns Unit (containing King Creosote, Karine Polwart, and Emma Pollock, amongst others), The Fruit Tree Project (Yorkston alongside members of Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad and Emma Pollock again) and Ballads of the Book, an album of collaborations between Scottish-based writers and musicians. It was organised by Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble, one of several performers with noisy rock pasts who’ve gravitated towards folk music. Andrew Motion praised Ballads of the Book’s ‘ingenuity, enterprise and confidence’. These projects made no profit, but they had an impact on audiences. No one got paid for Ballads of the Book – and no one complained.

Are we witnessing a folk revival then? Talk of such can sound glib during a challenging economic period, when musicians struggle to make a living. And yet dynamic art has and continues to be made during daunting times.

You can only talk of a revival in qualified terms, given the degree to which these acts combine eclectic different sounds, styles and influences. The Fence Collective describes itself as ‘a loose-knit amalgam of singer-songwriters, musicians, bands and electronic artists, who collaborate with one another on record, as well as on stage’. They say that although their music ‘isn’t strictly “folk” in the traditional sense, the Collective’s tendency to hand-down and share songs with one another is very much in the folk spirit’. That spirit isn’t exclusive to Fence or to Scot-land, but Fence make a great example.

Yorkston’s sound is full of the same spirit. Seek out his song ‘Midnight Feast’ from the album When the Haar Rolls In. There’s a gorgeous moment which seems to sum up so much of what makes the new folk scene special. Alone, Yorkston sings ‘And then you came, and then you made me’, a quiet, acoustic verse that carries the sense that being completed by someone else is already a distant memory. But then music swells, a rousing, warm chorus of other rich voices takes over the melody, and suddenly it feels like he’s part of a band, of something larger, a melodic counterpart to the sense of community that thrives amongst this generation of musicians.

At the end of It’s Lovely to Be Here, Yorkston chronicles his final gig of the tour. Between songs he tells stories and jokes. He’s an entertainer. As he does every night, he plays without a set list, choosing instead whatever he feels like performing. The songs are intimate, quiet, timeless, vocals front and centre in every song, drawing attention to lyrics, whose effects are like well-crafted fiction. Mid-song, he wonders if the audience miss his band, as he sometimes does. Then he steps offstage, drinks one wheat beer and describes the very ordinary trip home. This stripping away of artifice may seem unglamorous. Actually, it’s exciting, because it gives Yorkston artistic freedom. It’s not rock ’n’ roll, Yorkston’s music or his life on the road, but it is real, a precious quality in unreal times.

James Yorkston
DOMINO PRESS/FABER, £9.99 220PP ISBN 978-0571272143

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Brussels For Beginners

Tommaso Rossi joined the Italian civil service at the age of twenty six. For ten years he worked in Milan in an office called Division B, where he was responsible for auditing the auditing process in Divisions C and D. He was not required to do the same for Division A – he did not know why this was so, and indeed there were many aspects of his job that he did not understand at all. He just did it, and appeared to do it well, as he was rapidly promoted and given a series of increasingly impressive titles.

Tommaso was unmarried. There had been a rather long-drawn out relationship with a woman who worked in Division C, and that might have led to marriage had it not been for the fact that she was transferred to Division D, in Naples, and they had drifted apart. So when Tommaso’s immediate superior had called him into the office and offered him a posting in Brussels, in the European Commission no less, he had felt at liberty to take the job.

‘What does it entail?’ he asked. ‘The usual thing?’

‘Yes,’ his superior had said vaguely, waving a hand in the general direction of north. ‘That sort of thing.’

Nothing more had been said, and Tom-maso had in due course found himself in Brussels, where he was given an attractive, spacious flat, a substantial relocation allowance, and a comfortable section of a large, open-plan office.

Settling himself behind his new desk Tommaso looked about him. The office was filled by entirely unfamiliar-looking people, most of whom were busying themselves opening mail which had been deposited in their in-trays. He watched what they did. They opened the letters, read them, sometimes annotated them briefly, stamped them, and then put them in the tray marked out. It looked simple enough.

When he opened the first letter, Tom-maso was completely unable to make any sense of it. A correspondent appeared to be addressing him by name – Dear Mr Rossi, the letter began – and there was then a reference to a letter that had been written to his predecessor and to which a reply had beenmade. Now he was being asked whether any progress had been made in the matter.

He had no idea, though, what the matter was, and so he merely scribbled the first few words that came into his mind – refer upwards, he wrote – and then stamped the letter with the large, official-looking stamp which he found on an inkpad at the top of his desk. After that, he put the letter into the tray marked out, as he saw everybody else doing and opened the next letter, which was similarly unintelligible. On this one he wrote – Take no further action – before he stamped it and put on top of the letter with which he just dealt.

It took him all morning to open all the letters in his in-tray and to place them, with a few quick remarks, in the out-tray. Then, just before lunch, a youth with straggly, greasy hair walked past, a youth who looked Hungarian, or Greek, or possibly Estonian scooped up all the letters in the out tray, and pushed them away in a cart.

‘Thank you,’ said Tommaso.

The youth nodded at him. ‘Busy day,’ he said.

Tommaso gestured to his now empty in-tray. ‘Any more ?’ he enquired.

The youth nodded. ‘Not until tomorrow morning.’ He looked at Tommaso. ‘You’re on flexi-time, aren’t you?’ he asked.

Tommaso nodded. He probably was, and even if he wasn’t, it would clearly be something that he should get on to.

‘In that case,’ said the youth, ‘you can go home. You’re lucky. I have to stay here until three thirty!’

‘Bad luck,’ said Tommaso, slipping into his jacket and preparing to leave.

‘Yes,’ said the youth. ‘But one of these days I’m going to be a Senior Fonctionnaire like you. Give me five years.’

So that’s what I am, thought Tommaso. I’m a Senior Fonctionnaire. But what do I function – if that’s the right term? He had no idea. Perhaps it would become clear the following day.

He went out of the office and made his way down to the ground floor. In the lift on the way down a man of about the same age as him, and dressed in a similar style, said, ‘Will you be at the meeting tomorrow?’

‘Yes,’ said Tommaso. ‘What time?’
‘Ten,’ said the other man. ‘Room 2456.

I expect that it will only take an hour or so. What do you think?’

‘No more than that,’ said Tommaso. ‘Maybe we’ll get through everything by ten thirty. You never know.’

‘You’re an optimist!’ said the other man, smiling. ‘But what are we going to do about the subsidy rectification?’

‘Take no action,’ said Tommaso.

The other man laughed. ‘Very good advice! I like that.’

Tommaso went out into the street. It was early afternoon and the weather was fine. He looked up at the sky, which was clear, and high, and blue; rather like the skies of Emilia Romagna, where he had been born. Except this was not Italy, and it all seemed rather strange.

He crossed the street and entered a small park. There were fellow bureaucrats seated on benches, some talking, some feeding the pigeons. There was a fountain and a statue. Tommaso crossed to the foot of the statue and looked up at it. A man in an elaborate uniform stood proudly on the plinth, one hand on the hilt of a dress sword, the other pointing into the distance. And underneath it the inscription: Leopold, King of the Belgians.

Belgium! So I really do live in Belgium, he thought, and I work in an office which has outside it a large number of flags, one of which is mine. And this is the centre of a great, sprawling enterprise, a new Byzantium, a Second Holy Roman Empire. And here am I, a cog in this great machine, doing … well, he was not sure what he was doing, but he certainly had a desk, and colleagues, and a sense of admittedly undefined purpose.

The next day, before the start of the meeting, he spent an hour going through the mail that had appeared overnight in his in-tray. He read the letters, which seemed to him to be particularly opaque, although one or two at least made some sense to him. These were letters in which people – other officials – asked for money – or enhanced budgetary allocations, as they put it. Tom-maso wrote APPROVED on these letters, stamped them, and put them in the out-tray. Then he made his way to Room 2456, where some twelve others were already assembled at the table, papers laid out neatly in frontof them. Tommaso was about to take a seat down at the bottom of the table, when a well-dressed and rather attractive woman who had been talking to somebody in the background came up to him and cleared her throat politely. ‘Excuse me, Mr Rossi,’ she said. ‘You are actually in the chair this morning. Mr Kafka has been called away and cannot chair the meeting. As the next senior person, it falls to you ….’

‘Of course,’ said Tommaso, and he moved up to the head of the table.

The woman who had prompted him to take the chair, now sat down beside him. ‘We haven’t met,’ she said. ‘I’m Tina. I’m from Stockholm. I’ve taken over from Mr O’Malley, who’s gone back to Dublin.’

Tommaso had no idea who this Mr O’Malley was. ‘I see,’ said Tommaso. ‘So we’ve no longer got O’Malley. He’ll be missed.’

‘That’s what everybody says,’ said Tina. ‘They said that he managed to double the Irish allocation in six months.’

‘Quite an achievement,’ said Tommaso. ‘I wonder how he did that.’

‘I heard that he just deducted it from the British allocation,’ said Tina.

‘I see,’ said Tommaso. ‘Very clever!’
‘Yes,’ said Tina. ‘It’s called the centrifugal transfer principle, where resources move outward to the geographical edges of the Union. There’s also the North-South gravitational rule, which ensures that money flows smoothly from Germany to Southern Italy and Greece.’

The other officials were now all seated and looking expectantly at Tommaso.

‘Now then,’ he said. ‘I suggest that we start with item one on the agenda. Does anybody wish to begin on that one?’

A hand went up at the end of the table. ‘That matter needs to be referred,’ a small man in a dark grey suit said. ‘The Poles are keen to have a re-assessment.’

Tommaso nodded. ‘I think that’s right,’ he said. ‘I suggest that we refer it.’

‘To the Deuxième committee,’ suggested Tina.

‘Deuxième or even Troisième?’ asked Tommaso.

‘Troisième,’ said somebody from the foot of the table. But then another voice said, ‘No, deuxième – definitely deuxième.’

‘Deuxième it will be,’ said Tommaso. ‘Now what about item two?’

‘We need to hold back on the allocation in this case,’ said a man sitting on Tommaso’s right.

‘Why?’ said Tommaso.
‘Because the figures have not been approved by the Commission,’ said the man.

‘In that case,’ said Tommaso, ‘I would suggest that we refer this downwards, subject to the satisfaction of the certain conditions.’

‘Which will be?’ asked the man.
‘The same as normal,’ prompted Tina. There were murmurs of agreement, and they passed on to the third item on the agenda.

At the end of the meeting, Tommaso looked at his watch. The meeting had taken rather longer than he had hoped, as it was now twelve o’clock.

He turned to Tina. ‘You wouldn’t be free for lunch, would you?’ he asked.

She smiled. ‘Why, I think I am.’

They went off to a restaurant not far from  the office, and sat down at a table in the corner. A trolley was wheeled over to them, and from it they chose a selection of cold meats, accompanied by asparagus salad. A bottle of chilled Alsatian wine was produced, sampled, and approved. There was soft French, or possibly Belgian, or possibly Dutch music in the background.

‘I must say that I was very much reassured by your presence at the meeting,’ said Tommaso. ‘Thank you for keeping me right on everything.’

Tina blushed. ‘But I have a confession to make,’ she said. ‘I had no idea what we were all talking about.’

Tommaso made a gesture of disbelief. ‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘You struck me as being quite on top of everything.’

Tina shook her head vigorously. ‘No, I’m being honest,’ she said. ‘I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. And it’s been like that since I came to work for the Commission. It really has.’

Tommaso stared at her. When he replied, his voice was lowered. ‘But, you know, that’s exactly my position too! I have no idea at all.’

‘Then thank heavens that we’re both on the same project,’ said Tina.

Tommaso was silent for a moment. Then, ‘What project are we on?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ she whispered. ‘But I suspect that very few of the others know either.’

‘So what shall we do?’ asked Tommaso. ‘Why, we continue,’ said Tina. ‘And then, after about six months, we can both apply for promotion. I’ve heard that one can apply to become a European Union ambassador. You’re sufficiently senior for that, you know. I heard that the Bogotà post will be coming up before the end of the year.’

Tommaso shrugged modestly. ‘Oh well,’ he said. And then he added, ‘What exactly do European Union ambassadors do?’

‘They authorise projects,’ said Tina.

‘I see,’ said Tommaso. ‘Not very difficult.’ ‘Child’s play,’ said Tina.

‘Would you like to be a … ‘

‘First Secretary?’ She smiled encouragingly. ‘Thank you.’

Tommaso took a sip of his wine. The European project was a great one, and he was at its very centre. ‘I feel so … so central,’ he said.

And Tina agreed with him. She felt central too.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book is A Conspiracy of Friends
(Polygon, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1846971822)

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A Nation Without Nationalism

Italy arouses the most diverse and passionate reactions. Faced with such dizzying richness of art, landscape, cuisine and styles of life, dazzled commentators initially respond with an uncritical admiration or besotted wonder which later gives way to a different tone, best defined as exasperation tempered by bemusement. With all that nature and human genius has given to Italy, why is the country in the state it is? Why can it not govern itself in accordance with recognised laws, why is it tormented by organised crime, why are its politics so chaotic, why is there so much tolerance of endemic corruption and why do ordinary, honest Italians put up with it? In recent times, that bewilderment and exasperation can be expressed in one name, Silvio Berlusconi, but the problem is older.

This exasperated bewilderment is the dominant tone in David Gilmour’s book, which regrettably is as exasperating as it is exasperated. That there is a malaise in Italy’s body politic is beyond discussion. The number of politicians at national or local level who have been accused, occasionally convicted and even more occasionally jailed for corrupt practices or for collusion with organised crime has no parallel in any other western democracy. The judicial system creaks, meaning that criminal cases, as the ineffable Berlusconi has found, can be dragged out until they are dismissed under the statute of limitations, while many people with a valid complaint will simply decide that it is not worthwhile seeking redress in the civil courts. It is pro-European Italy and not Eurosceptic Britain which has the worst record of compliance with EU directives.

The recurrent question raised by thoughtful commentators, like Gilmour, is whether there was some point at which it all went wrong for the land which happily refers to itself in the Dantean phrase as il bel paese, the beautiful country. For Gilmour, the roots of Italy’s failure to become a proper nation-state were deep, a consequence first of its geography and secondly of political decisions taken by a minority which distorted the needs and inclinations of Italian peoples.

The geography can be disposed of quickly. Italy is too long a peninsula, as Napoleon apparently said, and is divided by a chain of mountains, the Apennines,  running up the central spine. As a result, cross country communications were never easy. In addition, the country has the longest coastline of any European nation, and can be reached from the sea from many points, as invaders in the past and refugees today are aware. Finally, while Hannibal’s endeavours in crossing the Alps are, or were, presented as the supreme military achievement, he was followed by many other invaders from France and Germany down the ages.

What geography made possible, history made inevitable. Gilmour, at least in this book, is not one for nuanced or qualified judgements. Italy as he views it can be numbered among the world’s failed states, indeed he believes it was ‘impossible to create a successful nation-state’ in Italy. Only in 2008, when the regions which the post-war constitution had had promised were finally in operation and ‘fiscal autonomy’ was advocated, was Italy ‘at last on the road to becoming what it should have been all along, a state that recognised the importance of regionalism and diversity’. The pursuit of Italy may give him a title, but will be futile, because Italy as a nation-state should never have existed.

The problem, in other words, was the creation of a unified, centralised country. This year Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento, the process of Reunification which brought together the various statelets, principalities, dukedoms and kingdoms which allowed Metternich to sneer at nineteenth century Italy as a ‘geographical expression’. While the official celebrations are respectful and even raucous, they are accompanied by an undertone of dissent and doubt from politicians and historians. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, advocates anti-Unification policies which have varied over the years between demands for political or fiscal federalism, devolution, autonomy or outright independence for the North. Historians have been turning out volumes casting doubt on the Unification process. Was it really a popular movement expressing the will of the people or a campaign headed by a minority of enthusiasts who imposed their vision on an indifferent majority?

Gilmour is very much of the latter view, but he goes further than most with his belief  that unification was worse than a fraud; it was a mistake. His sardonic and polemical tone makes him like a man swinging a broadsword in a shrine, with no thought of sparing the altars or the sacred relics. No doubt this approach can be bracing, but this is history as a series of ‘what ifs?’ or as an exercise in debunking in the style of Lytton Strachey. Recent revisionist, or sceptical, historians have taken the nineteenth century as field of enquiry into the creation of Italy and Italians (two very different entities), but Gilmour goes further back, to ancient Rome, to see if there was any sense of Italian-ness to be found there.

Certainly not, he concludes, unsurprisingly. The Emperor Augustus did not regard Italy as a nation but rather as an ‘administrative convenience.’ Cicero and Catullus are judged equally deficient in this context, although Virgil is allowed the claim to be the first Italian, but perhaps also the last, excepting Machiavelli, ‘for 1800 years’. No doubt it is true that the Romans wanted an empire not a nation, but are there really grounds for expecting any continuity between their successes and failures and what is happening in Italy today? It makes for a stirring narrative, but is no more informative than speculating on links between Calgacus and Alex Salmond.

The real Italy – or should that be Italys? – was the patchwork of communes and city-states which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance managed to allow full expression of the diversity which is the very essence of Italy. Of course, Italy did not exist as a unity, but it seems to me that there was a greater, admittedly ambiguous and faltering, sense of Italian-ness than Gilmour allows. Dante was primarily a Florentine and also a citizen of the Holy Roman Empire, but he recognised a community of peoples who spoke mutually comprehensible languages or dialects. Siena draws Gilmour’s particular admiration, but he has to balance that by rubbishing the work of Giorgio Vasari, a mediocre painter but a biographer of genius, who left invaluable material on the great artists of the Florentine Renaissance.

Any reader must get the impression that Gilmour feels a need to overturn any accepted judgment, not always for well founded reasons. The revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers, when the Sicilians in 1282 rose up against French overlords, shocked Europe and appeared as an early expression of a national feeling against an unwanted foreign presence, or so the great medieval historian, Steven Runciman, suggests. It was seemingly sparked off by a French soldier who insulted a Sicilian woman, never a wise act, but Gilmour suggests that the subsequent uprising may be seen as a ‘grotesque reprisal’. And indeed it would if there were no other factors involved, but we have seen recently in Tunisia how one seemingly isolated event can act as an explosive catalyst when there is already a state of widespread discontent.

In his efforts to show the advantages of the independent statelets, he becomes remarkably tolerant of the rulers of the preceding entities. Venice fascinates every visitor, and maybe Gilmour is right to say that it should have regained its independence after the fall of Napoleon and that it would then have become a small European state like the Netherlands. He fails to say what it would live on, since it seems now to survive on the sale of Harlequin masks and take-away pizzas, but more importantly he is unduly gentle in his characterisation of the government of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The post-boxes used for anonymous denunciation of dissidents, who were then disposed off in the lagoon, can still be seen around the city.

And no one has been more mild in their treatment of the Spanish rulers in the South. Gilmour attacks the Sicilians for their lack of energy, their laziness, their resignation and their unwillingness to take steps to improve their own lot, and perhaps here he is echoing the famous words of the Prince in The Leopard. Gilmour wrote a splendid biography of its author, Tomasi di Lampedusa, but he might have considered the opinions of the Scottish eighteenth century traveller, Patrick Brydone, author of one of the best books ever written on Sicily. Steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment, he squarely expressed his understanding of the plight of a people subjected to tyrannical government which undermined all spirit of enterprise.

Gilmour’s basic point throughout is that people were happy under their previous rulers and that unification was not likely to make them happier. Happiness is hard to measure from the outside and scarcely within the remit of political action. The American Founding Fathers offered people only the pursuit of happiness, and that pursuit was as vague as Gilmour’s present one. United Italy was undoubtedly realised by a band of devious politicians, notably the statesman, Camillo Cavour, and hotheads, like Garibaldi. If the latter had not taken it upon himself to lead an invasion of Sicily in 1860, against the wishes of Cavour and the king, perhaps there would have been two Italys, with the Southern capital in Naples.

And today, there is Berlusconi, the most baffling and tedious puzzle of them all. When all allowances are made for his wealth, commercial success and control of the media, how could a free people vote for such a scurrilous man? Gilmour is scathing on him, and is baffled by his popularity, as is every observer. Would an independent Lombardy, Venice or Tuscany have prevented his rise? Italy itself remains enigmatic, a nation without nationalism, a multi-national country like Spain or Britain, a democracy that distrusts the state, ruled by governments that cannot govern. Gilmour exposes these problems, but spoils a good book by exaggeration and dubious historical judgements.

David Gilmour
ALLEN LANE, £25.00 480PP ISBN 978-1846142512

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The SRB Interview: David Campbell

Twenty years ago David Campbell relaunched Everyman’s Library with the aim of producing beautiful books in hardback that would withstand the ravages of time. The original Library was the brainchild of Joseph Dent (1849-1926), a self-taught London bookbinder who, in 1906, adopted the motto, ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’  Then as now it is quoted in all the books in the Everyman’s Library. Alan Taylor interviewed Campbell, who is 63, at Barbreck House near Lochgilphead, which he bought in 1985 and to which he returns from London as often as he can. The interview was conducted outdoors in brilliant, blinding sunshine before and after a convivial lunch which included Campbell’s own-grown oysters.

Scottish Review of Books:
Wasn’t the original Everyman’s Library another great invention  of the Victorians?

David Campbell: Yes. There had been various classics series before, quite often of German inspiration, various people had done classics but no one had done it on the same scale as Joseph Dent. Joe Dent was a really interesting figure. He was a complete autodidact. He left school at thirteen. He was the tenth child of a Darlington housepainter and he was apprenticed as a book binder. Aged nineteen, he walked to London with a half-a-crown in his pocket and he made his first, I should think pretty small, fortune, buying books in the Charing Cross Road, rebinding them and then selling them back to the same booksellers. But like a lot of self-taught men he had fantastic respect for the classics, particularly Shakespeare, and in 1906, with Ernest Rhys, his general editor, they invented Everyman’s Library.

It was born of what could be, probably has been, called an age of improvement. You used the word ‘autodidact’ and this was the age of the autodidact.
Everyman was also inspired by William Morris. There was a tremendous sense of self-improvement, of night classes, and that reading good books improved the mind and helped people. Everyman was absolutely central to that tradition.

And it was a tradition that was inspired by the printing explosion, cheap print, a burgeoning reading of books thanks to the introduction in 1870 of the Education Act, a public library movement that was in its infancy and, I suppose more broadly, a respect for education and learning. People felt that by reading and acquiring knowledge they could get on. Was that in Dent’s mind?
I think that was very much the case. Ask many families and I think they still have these aspirations, and these concerns.

Do they?
Yes, I think they do. I still think there’s great respect for education, for all the problems of our educational system. Everyman was, until Penguin came along in 1935, the main vehicle of the classics in this country, and sold over 50 million books by its 50th anniversary in 1956.

Part of the ethos also, of course, was that they should be cheap enough for ordinary, working people to buy.
Sixpence a volume. Dent came up with these wonderful orotund Victorian sentences. For five pounds, he said, a man or a woman could be intellectually rich
for life. He also said that his books should ‘appeal to every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman’.

The same, relatively speaking, could perhaps be said now. Why spend £9,000 a year on tuition fees for a creative writing course when you could spend it on books? Would that not be a better investment?
I would agree with that. For a thousand pounds you could buy enough of the great masters to keep you happy for life. People are still reading the classics. I had the idea for reviving Everyman probably as early as the late 1970s. I worked in Paris for Gallimard and I always admired the Pleiade series. I thought: why doesn’t the English language have a Pleiade? I thought Everyman in a way was a sort of Pleiade. Then, much later on, I discovered that Andre Schiffrin’s father, Jaques Schiffrin, who founded the Pleiade in 1930s, before it was sold to Gallimard, was copying in a way what Joe Dent was doing. He was very inspired by the Everyman’s Library. And I, thirty, forty years on, was inspired by what Gallimard was doing. So these things go round in circles. Publishers don’t invent the wheel. The average sewn clothbound hardback from Everyman’s Library costs between £9.99 and £14.99 and is printed on acid-free paper that will not discolour with age. Publishers now boast of their paper from renewable sources. All forests are renewable. What matters to book lovers is that the paper is acid-free and will not discolour like so many modern paperbacks printed on newsprint quality paper.

When Dent was introducing his library how accepted was the canon?
The first point to make, I suppose, is that Joseph Dent in his lifetime didn’t publish copyright authors. He really was publishing the dead classics and by the 1970s, three or four generations of Dents later and new management and indeed new owners, Dent had published – they were friends – Conrad and Forster. When I took over Everyman in 1990 they were the only two copyrighted authors in Everyman. And I thought to myself, if I’m saying to the world these are the most important writers and these are the authors and titles you want to have a more permanent edition rather than a disintegrating paperback you can’t suddenly say there’s nothing been written of any quality since 1920. So I quickly went out and bought non-exclusive hardback reprint rights to really the whole of the twentieth century. So I galloped through Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Lampedusa, Pasternak, you name it. Now we have probably over 300 copyright titles.

Was that expensive to do?
Yes, fairly. But not as much you might expect. Because I was asking for something that nobody else wanted.

Like buying a ruin.
I said to publishers, if you want to continue publishing Marquez in hardback do so but you can’t license it to anyone else but me.
At the time when I relaunched Everyman in September, 1991, a lot of commentators thought I was completely bananas because publishing was done essentially in paperback. The hardback came out and a year later it went into paperback and that was the end of the hardback. It was very, very unusual for any author to be kept in hardback. Twenty years ago there wasn’t even the internet. Certainly, we couldn’t imagine e-books. And, in a way, I think I’ve been rather lucky. My view then was, having moved house many times, paperbacks are great when you buy them new, but they’re pretty foul after ten years. The pages fall out and they’re not much good for rereading or lending to somebody or giving to somebody. I thought that the English language and English literature, which is perhaps the greatest literature in the world, deserved something more permanent. I was just trying to offer what John Updike very obligingly called us, a permanent library of reference. I hadn’t anticipated what’s now happening – fascinating – the e-book revolution. My suspicion is that the paperback will not disappear but at least fifty per cent of paperback sales will disappear, because people will simply buy e-books, and if people want to buy a proper book they will buy a hardback. And if they want something just to read and perhaps not re-read they will buy an e-book.

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Political Biographers Wanted: Thick Skins Required

A colleague of mine used to have, pinned to her computer monitor, the following rules for good political writing:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

They are, of course, from George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, and in more than a decade of political ‘writing’ of one sort or another, I have probably broken – and continue to break – all five. Orwell did add a caveat, ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’, but even that does not absolve me of guilt.

Orwell was, generally speaking, gloomy about the genre, a sentiment unconsciously echoed by Gerry Hassan in the Scotsman last month. ‘Mainstream Scotland, in our politics, academia, policy and public discussion,’ he wrote, ‘seems incapable of having serious, reflective conversations about ideas which move beyond managerial jargon and the kind of clichés beloved of consultants. He went on to lament the ‘profound lack of books on politics, ideas and policy which have been original, brave or that marked out and identified a new area or direction’.

Hassan has a point. The devolution of power, we were told ad nauseam more than a decade ago, would change all that. Well, it has not. ‘One of the unfortunate effects of devolution’, noted Paul Hutcheon in 2004, ‘has been the splurge of bad books on the parliament.’ Far from elevating political writing, devolution has had the same stultifying effect on that as on public policy in general. Yet Hutcheon and Hassan ignore two related, but crucial, factors: the market (I know, how terribly un-Scottish of me) and, perhaps more importantly, capacity.

The sad truth is that political books simply do not sell in Scotland; if a non-academic tome shifts more than 1,000 copies then it is doing well. Publishers are therefore naturally cautious about taking on political projects, however worthy. On the second point I depart from Hassan’s optimistic conclusion that ‘Scots have not lost their invention and imagination’. On the contrary, I simply do not believe the capacity (or rather audience) for good political writing exists in Scotland.

This is especially so with my chosen medium of biography, a field so barren that I am practically the only person attempting it. I make no claim to any great talent in this but it says something significant about Scot-land that it took until 2010 for anyone to produce a biography of Alex Salmond, arguably the country’s most important post-war political figure. Unlike literary biography, political biography as a discipline simply is not taken seriously.

In a perceptive 1989 lecture, the late Ben Pimlott mused that biographers generally got a rough ride, their ‘aims, style, methods and ethics’ almost never being examined. ‘Reviews of biography generally do little more then summarize the life in question,’ he added, ‘with a pat or a kick for the author.’ Indeed it is tough, slaving over a book for a year or two only for it to be dismissed in a sentence or two by reviewers. But then biographers need thick skins, much like their subjects.

The main purpose of the genre, as Pimlott observed, is ‘to tell a story that will make the reader happier, sadder, even a bit wiser’. A couple of critics pulled me up for not revealing much that was ‘new’ about Salmond, which surely confused the role of a biographer with that of a journalist. The aim, again in the words of Pimlott, ‘should be to understand an individual life, the forces that shape it and the motives that drive it, in the context in which it is placed’. Indeed, Roy Jenkins’ masterful 2001 life of Churchill managed to be the best single-volume biography of the great man without containing any original material.

My forte (I like to think) is diligent research and a straightforward narrative style augmented with the minimum necessary analysis. I am not a prose stylist. I prefer, in short, to play a straight bat. My first book, The Scottish Secretaries provided a series of pen portraits of the holders of that office (although there was a subtext, that the ancien regime had not been as bad as all that), while my second, an authorized biography of George Younger, was, I admit, a rather old-fashioned effort drawing heavily on people, places and papers. Only with my third book, ‘We in Scotland’ – Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, did I attempt an argument, but then that was not really a biography at all, more a revisionist account of an important period in contemporary Scottish history.

I reverted to the straight bat for last year’s Salmond: Against the Odds. Now I could, had I been so inclined, have used this as a vehicle for Nat-bashing, or indeed for Nat-praising, but that, given it concerned a serving politician, would have been both counter-productive and self-serving, not to mention a biographical sin. A measure of success could be gauged by the mixed response to the book; some people told me they thought more of Salmond having read it, others less. Meanwhile, SNP reviewers, conscious that I was responsible for a number of Tory-leaning titles, searched for Unionist bias in vain. With a divisive figure like Alex Salmond, the case for a dispassionate reading of his life was overwhelming.

So, did my account of Salmond’s life and career ‘extract the treasures and seal up the tombs,’ as Roy Jenkins once wrote, ‘never to be opened again’? Probably not, and nor could it have striven for such finality. That said I doubt I will read another effort in my lifetime. Academics are, well, too busy with academia, and journalists too preoccupied with their next deadline. Besides ‘the market’, such as it is, simply would not be able to cope with two unauthorized biographies of Mr Salmond, no matter how well written or researched. This is odd. Cast an eye south of the border and bookshops heave with competing portraits of Blair and Brown.

Over the Irish Sea, the contrast is also striking. For an independent nation with two million fewer inhabitants than Scot-land, Ireland has a remarkable audience for political writing. Informed polemics, such as Fintan O’Toole’s recent Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, regularly make the Irish Times’ bestseller list, shifting units that ought to have Scottish writers of non-fiction reaching for the Guinness. The historian Tom Devine has observed that whereas Ireland has produced a plethora of books on the 2008 economic crash, Scotland hasn’t managed a single study. It comes back to my earlier point about capacity. Scots, curiously, are not prone to self-analysis; we simply wouldn’t attempt such books and no one would buy them. Perhaps, and here’s an uncomfortable thought, it takes a catastrophe (whether economic or historical) before a nation develops the capacity for critical, penetrating political prose.

It is, therefore, difficult to see the situation in Scotland changing soon, while the future of publishing offers little comfort for authors who specialize in politics. Already sales of e-books are reaching market-altering levels in Scotland, the U.K. and around the world. If this is viable for high-selling novels by the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, then it may well be the only way forward for volumes such as Gerry Hassan’s recent Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, with their modest print runs and equally modest profits.

What would Orwell make of political writing such as that contained within Radical Scotland? I suspect he’d object to the use of the word ‘radical’ for a start, so often posited as a good thing in its own right. Fiscal autonomy and even independence – both explored in the book – are not, I would argue, in themselves ‘radical’, although both would certainly allow for ‘radical’ policy making. Too often constitutional change is posited as a radical act in itself. Although there are fine ideas in Hassan’s collection, few essays make genuinely ‘radical’ arguments, while the absence of any right-of-centre perspectives speaks for itself (whatever happened to the radical right?) Dear Mr Harper: The Autobiography of Robin Harper, meanwhile, is a curious mixture of memoir and manifesto which I’m sure would have intrigued Orwell, to whom environmental politics would have been another world.

Perhaps the Harpers of Scottish publishing are more likely to survive than the Hassans (and Torrances) in the digital era. Indeed, with printing and binding costs removed, Scotland could return to Orwell’s vision of plentiful, if not necessarily high-quality, political writing. That said, I cannot imagine enjoying reading, a book whose pages I cannot physically turn. Especially so with biography, for part of the pleasure in reading a good single-volume biography comes from the impression that you are, in a way, holding that person’s ‘life’ in your hands.

That feeling will be lost once e-books replace the traditional format. But I suppose something has to give. In his 1989 ‘manifesto for political biography’ Ben Pimlott implored future biographers to think outside the box, to develop new methods of charting the lives of the great, the good, and perhaps even the not so good. I claim no innovation in that respect, yet cannot help concurring with his warning that ‘our work, unless we do something urgently about it, is in danger of ending high on the shelves of secondhand bookshops – magisterial, dusty and forgotten’.

Robin Harper
BIRLINN, £16.99 224PP ISBN 978-1841589343

Gerry Hassan
LUATH PRESS, £12.99 288PP ISBN 978-1906817947

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All Shook Up: Japan After The Quake

I felt the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46 pm on Friday, 11 March, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre.

The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation. Since moving to Japan in the autumn of 2008, I had noticed only three of the seismic tremors that shiver through these islands with the frequency of high-speed trains. Once while I was eating lunch on the steps of a public square in Tokyo, and the concrete swayed as if in a breeze. And twice while I was asleep in bed, where it started as a distant twinge of my inner ear, and sounded outward until the whole apartment was rattling.

These events were over so quickly that I might as well have imagined them. They caused no death or damage, and barely warranted a mention on the news, or in conversation. But they disturbed my dreams for weeks. Lying half-awake, I listened for the earth turning over like a flooded engine, deep below the mattress. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most widely translated novelist, once described this disconcerting new awareness in After The Quake, a book of short stories that were all set in the wake of the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake of 1995: ‘We take it for granted that the ground beneath our feet is solid and stationary. But suddenly one day we see that it is not true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid.’

This tremor, like the others, felt more ominous than violent. The difference was in the duration. I continued back to my apartment with the ground still shaking, and it didn’t stop until after I sat down, switched on the TV, and saw that it was much worse in Tokyo. With all of Japan’s major news networks based in the capital, the earliest footage of the earthquake came from inside their broadcasting towers. The announcers were admirably composed, strapping on white protective hoods to keep reading the latest developments, even as the studio walls bent inwards. They recommended that viewers cover their own heads with helmets, knit caps, or “zabuton” (seat cushions). They advised the public to stay away from anything that might fall on top of them, particularly vending machines. They had reports of oil fires, car wrecks, and a lot of broken glass, but it looked as if the megacity was mostly intact, and for about ten minutes it seemed comical how quickly and efficiently the media had turned to emergency service.

Then came the tsunami alerts, reaching half-way around the country’s coastal perimeter. And shortly after that, the first images from the northeast: a monstrous white wave turning black as it made landfall near Sen-dai, an oceanic whirlpool spinning like a saw blade against the Iwate seaboard, whole rows of houses torn out of Natori City and floating away in flames. A few hours later, my editors in Europe woke to these scenes, which were now streaming live around the world. They wanted to know what I could tell them, as their occasional correspondent in Japan. The answer was, not much, except to say that most Japanese were also watching this on TV and the internet, with the same dawning sense of something terrible happening, somewhere else.

On the Monday after the quake, I taught my weekly English language class as usual at the community hall in Chokushi, a cluster of rice-farming villages near my adoptive home town, between the Sea of Japan and the Hakusan mountain range. The group consists of eight regular students – seven women and one man, none of them under 60, all of them emphatically local. They were born here, and they’ll die within walking distance if they can help it. In that sense, they are fairly representative of Japan’s aging rural population, but I wouldn’t call them typical of folk who live in this area, if only because they are so well-travelled. Once or twice a year they put their considerable savings toward a short and rushed class trip to some far-flung destination, most recently Egypt, just a couple of months before the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak.

They study English to understand the outside world. In Japanese, there is just one word for everywhere that is not Japan.  “Gaikoku” refers to all foreign countries, making no distinction between, say, Scotland, Peru, Uzbekistan, or Sierra Leone. My students delight in specifics. They know that I am Irish, and they seem to enjoy my repeated tirades against the global spread of Ameri-can English, which I tend to play up because it makes them chortle like babies. But they also seem to regard me as an ambassador for the United Nations, and that Monday night they thanked me personally for the messages of support that had piled in from the west over the weekend. ‘Everyone is so kind,’ said Mariko, who is always the first to speak because she is seated immediately to my left.

As a matter of routine, each student writes a journal entry in English every week, and reads it aloud in the next class, starting with Mariko and working clockwise around the table, with me correcting their grammar and pronunciation as they go. On this occasion, each of them had recorded their own impressions of the earthquake, tsunami, and emerging radiation crisis. ‘Japan has suffered a catastrophic disaster,’ began Mariko, and I tried to explain that this statement, while accurate, was also tautological – the noun and the adjective being roughly interchangeable, one made redundant by the other. I felt a bit superfluous myself. If words become meaningless in the aftermath of catastrophic disasters, or disastrous catastrophes, then it seems absurd to insist on proper usage.

Next it was Ikuko’s turn, a gifted amateur soprano who can sing arias in German, French, and Italian, but sometimes struggles with English verb tenses and particles. ‘I was thought, “what could I doing?”’ she said, describing her sense of helplessness at the worsening news from the Tohoku region. Another student, a keen gardener named Inami, who takes pride in her ‘green thumb’, has friends in the affected area, and received a call earlier that day to say they were safe.

‘But … house … is … destroyed,’ she added, dropping her possessive pronouns as usual. Oshita, the only other man in the room, had not known about the earthquake until two hours later, when his son-in-law called him from a hotel skyscraper in downtown Tokyo. ‘He was trapped for a short while there,’ read Oshita from his journal, ‘because it was a lot of shaking on the high floors.’ I corrected him politely, and we moved on, to discuss unfamiliar words and phrases such as “unreal”, “devastation”, and “relief effort”.  The group wanted to know the English for “tsunami”, and seemed pleased to learn that we defer to the Japanese on that particular noun, given their unfortunate wealth of experience. A housewife named Michiko, who is probably my best student, read a list of essential items that the class should donate to evacuation centres in Miyagi and surrounding prefectures. ‘Flashlights, warm blankets, dry batteries, canned food, bottled water, etcetera,’ she said. ‘Excellent,’ I told her, in a mock imperious tone, ‘but “flashlight” is an American term. In proper English, we call it a “torch”.’ Everyone smiled indulgently, and duly noted this down.

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