Monthly Archives: August 2011

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Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Reviews

EVER FALLEN IN LOVE

Zoe Strachan
SANDSTONE PRESS, £8.99, 258PP ISBN 978-1905207732

This is the story of two working class young men – Richard, ‘the nervy lad from the ex-mining town’ and Luke, ‘the prickly youth from the city scheme’ – who become close friends at an elite Scottish university. As Richard says in his typically clear, defeatist voice that dominates the book, ‘It must have been fate that brought us together, chance was never so precise.’

Strachan’s writing style is colloquial, the emotional content strangely abrupt and truncated. There is a strange naïve rhythm to Strachan’s sentences, as if musing out loud. The calibre of her thoughts and insights give the language weight while her humour is merciless.

She has a penchant and talent for elaborate metaphors: Richard’s ‘memory was he thought, like a series of rooms. Rooms with white walls and cornices, smooth dusty floors and scuffed skirting,’ and she mixes her informal turn of phrase with the poetic. ‘He was still looking at me waiting…. and then he found and saw the expression in his eyes alter, like the changing scene through the window of a train.’

The structure of the novel alternates between the telling of the previous friendship between Richard and Luke at university and Richard’s present stay on a Scottish island with his sister Stephanie, trying to design a computer war game.

Richard’s work on creating games is neatly counter-pointed with the act of writing – he tries to create more intricate characters but there is pressure from his employers to be more simplistic and entertaining. Richard’s work seems to symbolize his difficulty with living in reality, the creating of war games mirroring the fantastical aspect of his sexual obsession with Luke.

Strachan carefully and skilfully depicts Luke’s insidious moral corruption of Richard whether through the plying of drugs or alcohol without ever making his nefarious designs explicit. What is even more intriguing is Richard’s unconscious complicity in this erosion of his self-respect. To the extent that Luke, even though Richard is constantly trying to position him as a satanic, magnetic figure, is not in the end to blame for Richard’s gradual fall from grace.

However Luke does exploit Richard’s obsession with him, turning Richard into a willing voyeur of his heterosexual exploits. The sex in this book – both hetero and homosexual – is violent, often sadomasochist and devoid of love. This seems to be a symptom of Richard and Luke both being damaged individuals. After one violent fight in a pub between two gay men, the punched one says, ‘I wish I weren’t like this.’ Richard, having observed this, ‘hadn’t been sure what the man meant, if he’d been talking about his character or his sexuality. Perhaps one day you had to rationalize the stories you’d told and the parts you’d played. Scrutinize the versions of yourself you’d created for others, and see how it matched up to the real thing.’

This novel is a recurring homage to the power and curse of memory. Strachan’s writing on the passing of youth is moving and accurate. But memory for Richard also has a sexual masochistic component which haunts the memory of his friendship with Luke. ‘Maybe we all relive our darkest, most degrading moments for our guiltiest, most secret pleasure.’

The triumph of the novel is the control of narrative suspense and the gradual revelation of how the two men are involved in the death of a female student which leads to their expulsion from university. The final chapter merges the two strands, bringing Luke into the present. Or as Strachan writes earlier in the book, ‘Stone blunts scissors, paper wraps stone: the present should trump the past.’

There is no doubt this is a hard-boiled book and it pulls no punches. Strachan writes in great detail about the psychology of her protagonists with objectivity and perception. The incredible trick she pulls off is that we do end up identifying with her introverted hero Richard, mainly because his journey is so complex and constantly blighted by his hopeless sexual obsession with the straight, taunting, malignant Luke – a man so alienated from himself he can say, ‘When I feel hollow, I’d do anything to fill the space inside me. Anything.’

This novel demands a lot from the reader – a certain hardness and resilience of spirit to cope with the bleak truth of Richard’s life. Richard is finally unable to break free from the obsession with his lost youth as it is interminably linked with his impossible longing for someone he will never be able to have. Someone he should never have fallen in love with.

Alice Thompson

TERRIFIC MELANCHOLY

Roddy Lumsden
BLOODAXE, £8.95, 80PP ISBN 978-1852249083

The last words of Roddy Lumsden’s poem ‘Daredevil’ in this collection run ‘I wish to be/The captain of the things which have no names.’ The poem considers the Scottish crossbill, which, declares its epigraph, ‘is the only vertebrate unique to the British Isles and was confirmed as a species in 2006 on the basis of having a distinctive bird song, a “Scottish accent”’.

The collection manifests, as well as declaring (not the same, as Lumsden, with his grip on solitude and secrets, knows) several presiding preoccupations: dust, cockroaches, light, skirts, skirting itself, love aslant, spaces between, dust again, and has a distinctive, indeed Scottish, song. He knows, and this may be his particular area of enfiefed sadness – each fine poet has one such – that no matter how precisely he can name things, they will disintegrate further and come to dust.

For he is a very palpable namer.

He is only captain of the things which have no names because he can go further towards naming the apparently floccinoccinihilipilificatory (the word flitters over the collection’s first work, ‘A Localised History of Dry Precipitation’, as do the names of Miss Flite’s caged birds in Bleak House, from Hope to Gammon and Spinach through Dust) than most of us can . That is, he sees far deep down into things, his sharp seeing conducing to his awareness that there is more yet to be comprehended, that there is always that beyond the beyond of the keenest vision.

There are words here that you may have to track back to their meaning, though most will be unfurled by context. This tact of exegetic context is the mark of a good listener and music maker, which a serious poet must be; in Lumsden’s case it goes beyond that to an attention so close that we might call him a vivisector rather than anything so stiff as a miniaturist; he does not demand that things hold still in order so minutely to be seen. What makes this possible is the particular form his intelligence takes, coming up, or so it feels, with the apt word in the moment of seeing, thus completely swerving any smell of the lamp. The words I had to trap and discover were ‘ochlophobia’ and ‘glisk’. ‘Foisoned’ gave me pause. You will find some, fall upon them, and wonder shortly how you did without.

At the level of the word, then, Lumsden is trustworthy and magical as a poet must be. He can do the soft splash of the right quiet adjective: ‘Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.’ He is very good on brand-names – Fetherlite, Gossamer, Tizer. He hits and catches his images like, well, like wasps on Sellotape (which is taken from ‘I Will Not Marry You’).

At the level of the line, he is doing something new, writing “Ripple Poems”, as he calls them, which seem so classically nice that when I came across the term ‘XXL’ in one of them, I thought it a number and not a t-shirt size. He glancingly snips at a critic who has remarked upon his “wit” in the past, so perhaps he would prefer it something understood, for it is assuredly present.

The undertow is change, which is always loss-in-gain. The themes are praise, pain, inappropriate emotion, ‘the fearful impracticalities of the real’, the blameworthiness –or not – of beauty, and a sort of stoic grandeur that is nowhere near blankness or negativity, as in the devastating words ‘We are not hopeless who do not know hope’.

Roddy Lumsden has come soon in his life to the tragic-comic awakening, suggested by the horrible verve and dying fall present in his title Terrific Melancholy itself, that ‘the museum of high spirits is cold and quiet’. He is so in command of his register that he can address great sweeps of time and the drops of which they are composed:

Nothing dreadful ever happens in one
Moment – each doubt’s shadow needs
an hour to fall. But sunlight
fills a moment, hope twists
its baby hand around a moment, yes
consoles the moment. A year will sag,
a marquee roof after the storm.
A century thrills in showing off
Its vile trophies, turns them in the light.

He can write the most evanescent colour in the spectrum, blue, and the sorest, least ‘dignified’ love, the unrequited across generations, which is all about time and ‘having arrived in this life separately’. Glisks of perception smart up from the page like gifts of light: ‘A glitch of silver shies along a whet, or roams a coil of steel’. Squirrels are ‘flea-drummed’. Pain ‘tombstones’ from temple to jaw; sea lights are ‘moochers: red apple, green apple’.

Loss is seen up close and long:

timelines slice

From dot to dot: caviar, clove-pegs,
sloes.

Human folly is found out:

A rule is just a law with a grin

And later:

A rule is just a law
with doubts

Our little span is caught – ‘each golden age gives way to thaw’ – in periods adjusted precisely to the necessities of the emotion expressed:

The ghost we imagine equals
the terror within us, the you
I imagine is seldom the you that I get.
Compromise is sturdier than love.

Elsewhere in this literally wonderful collection, Lumsden uses the metaphor of the pestle and mortar, envisioning the first as selfish, the second as selfless. He is in his art both, at a pitch of stony applied and spicy refining work that turns dust again to dust and looks close and hard upon it.

Candia McWilliam

GETTING HIGHER: THE COMPLETE MOUNTAIN POEMS

Andrew Greig
BIRLINN, £12.99, 240PP ISBN 978-1846971921

Mountain-climbing is a subject Andrew Greig has returned to many times in his career. In addition to Summit Fever (1985) and Kingdoms of Experience (1986), non-fiction accounts of expeditions he undertook in the Himalayas, Greig has also written poetry about climbing. With an insightful introduction by poet Roderick Watson, Getting Higher collects Men on Ice (1977) and Western Swing (1993) as well as selections from This Life, This Life: New and Selected Poems (2006). This new volume chronicles Greig’s fascination with conquering peaks over the past thirty-five years.

Getting Higher begins with Men on Ice, a narrative sequence inspired by Eliot’s The Waste Land and the typographic stylings of the Black Mountain poets. Written when Greig was 26-years-old, these poems mix adventure and philosophical musings. The dramatis personae consists of four climbers: the intellectual Grimpeur, the barbaric Axe Man, the melancholic Poet and a spiritual leader dubbed ‘the Bear’. On the ground, they are a confused bunch. The Bear tells them: ‘You suffer from reality vertigo / the view makes your head spin.’ As the quartet makes its ascent, they achieve a sense of peace inspired by the high altitude. For Grimpeur, the way forward begins with silent meditation:

World within mind Mind within world
A shift of the light
and the self is uncurled

Men on Ice closes with the climbers asleep near the mountain’s summit. For a time, that was the last we heard of them. But in 1991, in Morocco, Greig dreamed of a sequel, Western Swing. The Men on Ice band reunited for a Holy Grail-like quest. Characters were given new names and identities. The Poet became female, a sensitive and troubled woman named Stella. Grimpeur is now Ken, as in the philosopher Anthony Kenny, or simply as in ‘ah ken’. The Axe Man’s new name was Brock and the Bear became the Heretical Buddha. Andrew Greig steps in as the narrator, calling himself Drew or Anada, the name of the Buddha’s servant. The quintet start their journey in the hills of Glencoe and make their way to Kathmandu in their search for a mythical healing Blade.

Western Swing is a natural partner to Men on Ice. Both share a spirit of adventure and boisterous characters. The language is equally lively. Greig inserts ironic references to pop culture, modern philosophy and Greek mythology in both sequences. In Men on Ice, he even lifts phrases from an old French Higher textbook: ‘Your tie is too gaudy.’ In case the reader misses a reference, glossaries are provided after each sequence.

To mimic the characters’ physical movement and their vocal utterances, Greig experiments with the layouts of his poems. Words are capitalised and emboldened, and punctuation is used liberally to suggest proper intonation. The indentation of certain lines gives longer poems a sculpted appearance, creating the image of a mountain on the page. Greig also arranges words diagonally as if they are falling letter by letter, perhaps symbolising the slips and slides of the climbers.

Furthermore, the sequences are enlivened by James Hutcheson’s black and white illustrations which were included in the first printing of Men on Ice. The portraits of the Poet, Grimpeur, and the Axe Man convey their individual features as well as their shared grim expressions. In Western Swing, though the group’s faces have grown older, their eyes still have a determined stare.

Getting Higher’s mix of poetry sequences, individual poems and illustrations delights and surprises the reader. To cap it off, the book also features loose phrases from Greig’s poetry, printed in light ink and placed on random blank pages throughout the book. The closing impression is not merely a collection
of selected works, but of a mind-map describing Greig’s long engagement with mountains.

Theresa Munoz

THERE BUT FOR THE

Ali Smith
HAMISH HAMILTON, £16.99, PP357 ISBN 978-0241143407

The reviews have been out for a couple of months now. This is the one about the dinner guest who leaves the table and locks himself in the spare room and efuses to come out.

It’s an intriguing set-up.

Around it revolve the lives of the others at the house in Greenwich on that evening. We also get some of the back-story (or, aha, is it?) about Miles, a.k.a. Milo, the lodger in the en-suite bedroom.

The blurb, thus: ‘There but for the fuses disparate perspectives in a crucially communal expression of identity, and explores our very human attempts to navigate between despair and hope, enormity and intimacy, cliché and grace.’ (Did I say that this is a novel? Well, it is.)

The recent reviewers talk of the author’s intelligence. (On the book’s back cover, this endorsement – ‘She’s a genius, genuinely modern in the heroic, glorious sense’ – from Alain de Botton, no less.) They extol her literary playfulness, the style games. Indeed. Ali Smith does take delight in language and in confusing our lazy expectations about punctuation, types of type, even boring old grammar. No inverted commas round speech, for instance, if that is what you’re used to. There’s TXTspeak, some literary rap, oh and a bit of morse code for good measure. ArooooooOOOooo, a dog sings.

I hate to spoil the party, but would it be churlish to suggest there might actually be a surfeit of intelligence here?

Very intelligent people don’t always write the most successful novels.

The cleverness about writing, I suggest, is in knowing when to simplify and reduce.

Of course it depends what you’re expecting from a novel, and since there are no rules – whatever writing academies might claim to the contrary – it can only end up as a matter of personal taste.

The conceit of the locked bathroom door could, almost, belong to one of those Italian films of the 1960s which influenced Ali Smith’s last novel, The Accidental. It would have suited Muriel Spark very well. Muriel Spark wore her intelligence less ostentatiously. She tended – which was her cleverness – to write down. She simplified without losing her nferences. Or, to put it another way, she gave an accessible and straightforward surface story while inviting us (if we wished to venture) into the depths. The man would have vanished into the spare room for metaphysical reasons: we would have found that a social comedy of manners, had turned into a consideration of faith, at perhaps half the length of this book.

None of her books requires five initial epigraphs.

Computers have made us very prolix. Mrs Spark, writing in her thin Thin’s notebooks, weighed every word.

It’s the novelist’s struggle to make a book memorable. In part, I believe, one writes for the “inner eye”. Things are best remembered when pictured: that’s the visual component of writing.

The unyielding door, fine. But the verbal pyrotechnics, those fireworks on the page, the somersaulting. The effect has faded by the time I’ve turned the page. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the exhaustion of reading quite so many pages. Both are books of the mind. The eye is left searching.

I do know what the intention is. It’s to show the sheer profusion of life’s life-ness. We’ve forgotten how to think for ourselves, we look for easy rhymes (so to speak) and end up with bland doggerel. But how more complex it all becomes here! Cue: talk about the sun, the moon, stars (Greenwich Observatory, ultra-deep field telescopes), Hamlet quotes, while telling us jokes signposted), and mixing up the oeuvres of Proust and Schwarzenegger (another joke, ha ha), and name-checking Madonna, Bjork, the Wombles, etc. Legions of detail, accumulated as a defence against loss – forgetfulness – boredom. But the hazard of such promiscuity is that, in the end, all is much of a muchness and nothing retains particular value: in life, or in a novel.

SPOILER. The Milo story-line peters out, rather disappointingly. It transpires that the door has been unlocked for the past few months, and the occupant has pedalled 3,000 miles on the exercise bike inside. But in fact there are two endings: you’re left to opt for A or B, although it’s quite nice when you’re reading a book to have that decision taken for you.

A STORY ABOUT A STORY ABOUT TELLING STORIES, or – rather – about writing stories. (Reading stories means understanding them, or trying to: whereas writing is simply … writing. Words, words, words.)

It’s odd, when you consider that an earlier book by Smith was called Other Stories and Other Stories, that the author appears embarrassed to just go ahead and do that: play the narrative game. Narrative is as omni-present in 2011-lives as it ever was. Only the sun imploding will put an end to it.

Oh well. Ali Smith is who she is (intelligent, as we know), and such are the type of books she writes, and for those who like that kind of thing (as Dame Muriel would put it) that is the kind of thing they like, and variety adds to the gaiety of nations.

So, dear reader, you pays your money and

Ronald Frame

THE LOVE AND DEATH OF CATERINA

Andrew Nicoll
QUERCUS, £12.99, 368PP ISBN 978-1849164719

Andrew Nicoll’s first novel The Good Mayor won critical acclaim and a Saltire Prize which might be a recipe for second novel syndrome. The opening line of his new novel The Love and Death of Caterina (‘Only a few weeks after it happened, Luciano Hernando Valdez was almost unable to believe that he had ever been a murderer’) is so engaging, however, that any concerns about unworthy succession are immediately alleviated.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues. Somewhere between the two novels Nicoll has acquired a penchant for similes. In The Love and Death of Caterina a lot of things are like a lot of other things. Sometimes they are two to a sentence (‘like a waterfall, like a river dropping off a cliff’), occasionally they border on offensive (‘breasts…like peaked cannonballs hung in bags of ivory silk’).

There may be more craft in this than is at first apparent. The ‘bags of ivory silk’ are in the sightline of Dr. Valdez and they belong to Caterina, the young and beautiful student-waitress who, he hopes, will invigorate him. Valdez is a writer and something of a national treasure in his Latin American country. There’s a suspicion, however, that Valdez is unworthy of his reputation and this suspicion deepens as the story progresses. Perhaps the terrible simile is his rather than Nicoll’s.

Valdez is blocked and can produce only a single line about a tawny yellow cat. This condition frees up a lot of time which he spends womanizing, playing polo, giving rote lectures at the university and refusing to address the secrets of his past. He also attends to his mother who is the guardian of the largest of these secrets.

A cast of characters circle Valdez such as you would expect to find in any stereotypical Latin American country. Dr Cochrane thinks himself descended from Scotland’s Admiral Cochrane, famed for his work with the Chilean and Brazilian navies when they were battling the Spanish and the Portuguese. Cochrane has attracted the attentions of the sinister policeman Commandante Camillo, state guardian and defender of dictatorship. Inevitably there’s also a priest, a shaky Jesuit.

There is much to admire about the way Nicoll takes this standard line-up of South American types and fleshes it out. Characters leave and return, develop, drop hints and build conflict. Short chapters become shorter still as the tension mounts towards a denouement that the first sentence of the book has already announced. It takes confidence to remove this potential element of suspense, but the decision pays off.

There is a limit to what he achieves, however, and the comparisons that have been made between Nicoll and Graham Greene are where that is reached. There are obvious similarities of location and character types, but they are only broad ones. Greene’s locations were consistent and convincing whereas Nicoll’s Latin America occasionally seems closer to home than it should be. The use of terms like ‘sheep shagger’ or ‘piss off’, a bus where you can’t stand beyond a painted white line or talk to the driver, banks that have suddenly employed door greeters to reclaim their lost reputations, all seem less Latin America and more, well, Dundee.

It is hard to comprehend the Latin American soul without knowing the Catholic one. Nicoll has none of Greene’s facility for exploring the political, doctrinal and personal conflicts at the heart of Latin American Catholicism. Father Gonzales is, by some distance, the most poorly drawn character in the novel. For a brief period he even seems unsure if he is a priest or a monk. He is not a whisky priest though he would certainly be more interesting if he were. Instead his fears are easily defined and he is intimidated by the ghost of Maximilian Kolbe whose example – the friar volunteered to die in the place of a stranger in Auschwitz – he has been singularly unable to follow. A trip Gonzales makes to a barriada where he hears songs of freedom in the midst of dire poverty is an opportunity missed.

Ironically, some of the claims made for Nicoll’s work bring him close to his creation Valdez whose reputation relies on national acclamation. A more sober view, however, is still a positive one. The similes are eventually endurable, the pages turn quickly, the plot thickens and rises, the predictable mixes with the unexpected, and when the book is finally put down there is little to stop you from looking forward to Nicholl’s next one.

Harry McGrath

VILLA PACIFICA

Kapka Kassabova
ALMA BOOKS, £12.99, 320PP ISBN 978-1846881510

Travel writer, memoirist and poet Kapka Kassabova takes us to an exotic and remote part of South America for her new novel, but readers shouldn’t expect a dry travelogue of a tale. On the contrary, this is a wonderfully intriguing story about relationship dynamics, our innermost fears, and a Lost-type plot that keeps building momentum with every page. The word ‘compelling’ is often used lazily in reviews without earning its place; in this case, it’s the perfect word to describe this book.

We begin with Ute and her husband Jerry travelling through an ill-frequented part of the South American coast, sometime in 2009. Ute is, like her creator, a travel writer and she usually explores new territories alone. Her academic husband harbours dreams of writing a novel, and has decided to accompany her in the hope of a holiday that will give him time to write. On a bus to Puerto Seco, which has a national park and animal reserve, they are advised by a salesman to stay at the Villa Pacifica.

Off-road, and by sheer chance, they find the hotel. Socialist rabble-rouser Mikel and his hippy wife Lucia run Villa Pacifica. Guest-books are only filled up until 2006, the year that hurricane El Nino struck and did huge amounts of damage. Mikel seems to think that event happened only a year earlier, but Ute cannot be sure, as most of the time she is fighting sleepiness and nightmares. A skin condition flares up and she worries that Jerry is taking too much interest in another guest, Eve, the American wife of obnoxious Max.

Inhabitants of Puerto Seco aren’t forthcoming either. Consuelo runs a cafe and sells paintings by her cancer-ridden husband. She and Mikel used to be friends but won’t say why they no longer speak. More guests arrive: party girl Liz and her companion Tim; wealthy businessman Alejandro and his ‘trophy’ wife, Alma; Luis with his mother, wife and baby son. Hector, who works in the hotel, talks about Villa Pacifica and past events in a manner that confuses Ute further, whilst the handsome animal supervisor, Carlos, simply causes her lustful, adulterous thoughts.

Kassabova does an excellent job of ratcheting up the sexual tension between this disparate party of unhappy couples, quarrelling and misunderstanding each other in the heat. There are other sources of worry: Max is arguing constantly with the others, insulting Mikel with his business plans for the hotel and offering to pay him exorbitant sums to turn it into a tourist play-park. He also plays tricks on fellow guests, occasionally putting them in danger. Meanwhile, Jerry is disappearing every night to work on his novel and Ute is starting to wonder if their marriage was a mistake. She has vivid dreams about her mother and wonders if her lonely childhood made her gravitate towards family man Jerry.

All the characters here are credibly drawn and intriguing enough in themselves not to be overwhelmed by the luscious, heat-ravaged landscape that surrounds them, which Kassabova takes time to describe in accessible, well-written prose. The politics of environmentalism are lightly touched on too, as are local customs and beliefs, just enough to make the thoughtful reader pause and think a little. This may be a psychological tale but it’s also about place, and the marrying of the two here works perfectly.

Which makes me wonder why, with its ingredients of exotic location, mystery, fluid style and intriguing characters, Villa Pacifica wasn’t picked up by a bigger publisher. Excellent novels are published by small companies all the time, but Kassabova recalls Isabel Allende in her style and subject matter, and her book seems to me to be precisely the kind bigger publishers would fight over, that would appeal to a large and predominantly female readership (women buy more novels than men). They’ve missed a trick here, and Alma, Kassabova’s publishers, must be mighty pleased with their acquisition. Villa Pacifica is a splendid read, and deserves a wide audience.

Lesley McDowell

THE STILLNESS OF THE SEA

Nicol Ljubić
VAGABOND VOICES, £11.00, PP186 ISBN 9781908251015

The savage break-up of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics was a defining event of the 1990s. The wars between Serbia and Croatia, and within Bosnia and Kosovo, were a harrowing reminder of the conflict that tore Europe apart in the 1940s, and underlined how far the continent still had to go to live up to its more utopian rhetoric. They demonstrated the diplomatic and military impotence of the EU, while Kosovo saw the first glimmerings of Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism, an idea that would later have consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

9/11 has tended to over-shadow the significance of the Balkan wars. Hindsight has painted the 1990s in gentler colours, as a sunlit decade of peace and prosperity guaranteed by the USA’s position as sole superpower, and by the gradual absorption of the former Soviet bloc into the benign embrace of the free market. In the Anglophone world, little recently seems to have been written about the Balkan wars, and there is no real sense of their cultural impact. Nicol Ljubić’s second novel, published by the Glasgow-based company Vagabond Voices, might change that. A controlled and quietly forceful book, The Stillness of the Sea uses the trial of a man accused of war crimes during the Bosnian War to demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making black-and-white moral judgements when individual experience is such a welter of trauma and evasion that no one can fully understand another person’s motives.

The novel follows Robert, a young historian who has a connection with an accused war criminal on trial at The Hague. The defendant, Zlatko Šimić, is accused of organising the murder of 42 men, women and children at the beginning of the conflict, deceiving them into taking refuge in a house while he arranged for paramilitary forces to burn them to death. As the prosecuting council calls up his witnesses, and as Robert wanders through the quiet streets of the city between sessions, he recalls his relationship with Šimić’s daughter, Ana, who he first met working in Berlin. Evasive and defensive, she had seemed unwilling to give much of her story away. A Serbian in a foreign country, Ana felt the pressure of assumed guilt because of her ethnicity, and raged against western opinion, the belief the Serbs were the sole aggressors in the conflict.

Robert, for his part, is estranged from his background. His father is from Croatia, but he was born in Germany and has never learned his father’s language. Robert was envious of her relationship with her father, a university professor and an expert on Shakespeare. It is this other man, cultured and well-loved, Robert tries to keep in mind as he listens to evidence mount up against Šimić in the courtroom. Which Šimić is the real one? And if both takes on his past are correct, then how is it possible that decent, educated people can commit such appalling crimes?

Ljubić has no time for moral absolutes, which is perhaps both his novel’s strength and its weakness. Moral certainty won’t take us any closer to comprehending the fundamentally baffling reasons why people kill their neighbours. One of Robert’s chance acquaintances in The Hague shocks him by her vehement hatred of the defendant, and her scorn for the supposed necessity of a trial to find him guilty.

Ana herself, in defending her country, repeats the long-discredited claim that footage of concentration camp victims at Trnopolje was deliberately staged by British journalists to justify western intervention. And yet, by casting doubt on the suitability of judicial procedure to condemn or punish crimes like the murder of the 42 people Šimić may or may not have killed, Ljubić comes close to hinting that UN-mandated courts act as little more than ‘victor’s justice’. This may be evidence of a capacious sense of humanity, but it also comes nowhere near offering an alternative method of how to deal with crimes against humanity. Some things in the end are objective, and not everything can be reduced to the relativism of competing perspectives.

Despite this, The Stillness of the Sea is a significant achievement. The relationship between Ana and Robert is tenderly observed, and although I am not qualified to judge on the original language (my Serbo-Croat is not what it should be), Anna Paterson’s translation feels graceful and precise, and perfectly captures Robert’s elegiac sense of sadness and loss. This is challenging literature in the best sense of the word, in that it undermines received opinion.

Richard W Strachan

AIBISIDH/ABC

Angus Peter Campbell
POLYGON, £9.99, 164PP ISBN 978-1846971990

Angus Peter Campbell’s new poetry collection, Aibisidh/ABC, its poems composed in Gaelic with English translation, and in one instance Italian, is a collection that floods the senses with surges of original imagery. Water-related descriptions are apt here. Images of moving water, of tidal energy, predominate, giving Campbell’s poetry a cyclical underpinning; here, death, no more than life, does not have the last word.

The impression from the outset is Campbell’s collection projects an awareness that he and the Gaelic culture he describes are between places. The paradox in this collection is that somehow the speaker is both adrift and yet retains a strong sense of rootedness. This is particularly clear in ‘Eadar an Cuilitheann’s an Cuan Sgìth’, a beautifully and tenderly described memory of an exchange between Sorley MacLean and Campbell: ‘“Cuir mar seo e,” fhreagair thu,/“gun deach m’ altram eadar Beinn is Cuan.”’ (‘“Put it like this”, you replied,/“that I was born between the Cuillin and the Minch.”’). Campbell uses the landscape to describe not only MacLean’s position of ‘cinnt is strì’ (‘faith and doubt’) but also the legacy that Campbell has inherited from the older poet and is now making sense of in his own way.

This collection explores themes of childhood, aging and rebirth. Manifestations of childhood are present in ‘Sneachda’ (‘Snow’) which has an affinity with Joyce’s imagery in the short story ‘The Dead’, in which snow covers all of Ireland, effectively silencing the land and its history. In Campbell’s poem, the snow is a subjective vision. The illusions of age and time melt overnight and the sense of rebirth is palpable; spring comes and children are heard playing outside. In other poems remembrances of childhood and the poet’s connection to his family filter through, like memories of the sunlight shining through the bottle of citronella in his father’s shed in ‘Gathan’ (‘Rays’).

The subject of language is also touched by the same sense of memory and connectivity in the middle section of the book. In ‘Aibisidh’ (‘ABC’), musical memories become a cacophony of voices; fragments of song-lines bring into being the figures of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nancy from Oliver among others, their voices mingling with familiar lines from the Scottish song tradition and hymns. The poem gives the impression of a radio in the poet’s mind being moved from one station to another, just as the mind moves around fragments of memory.

It is in this section that Campbell’s concern for Gaelic is at its clearest, yet the celebratory moments ensure that these poems do not fall into simple lamentation. In ‘Eapaig’ (‘Epic’), Campbell envisions a new time for his native literature in which the creator of the next Gaelic epic rises from the bottom of the sea. Interestingly, this new creator will not belong to the earth: ‘Bidh Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ mar chreag dhi, marbh, balbh.’ (‘Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ will be like a rock to her, dead, dumb.’)

‘Gràmar’ (‘Grammar’) is a particularly poignant poem. The sense of separation, portrayed so beautifully in an understated mention of emigrant ships, can also be felt in relation to the way language is used and passed on. Campbell’s warning is clear in the line ‘mar gun cumadh tu saoghal le cèilidh’ (‘as if you could retain a world through a ceilidh’).

There are questions regarding the direction of the Gaelic language in the 21st century – the bareness of an imagined Gaelic bookstall, issues relating to Gaelic Orthographic Conventions (GOC), the use of Dwelly’s dictionary, and the underlying danger that Gaelic may one day be as obscure in meaning as birdsong. Of course the real dichotomy in Campbell’s book is that while poetry is food to him, (described as salt herring in ‘Bàrdachd’, and as a replacement for apples, potatoes and milk in ‘Maothalach’), his role as a poet in relation to a language in a state of flux means that emotion must engage with linguistic wisdom in his poems. Campbell achieves this with poise.

Campbell is aware of the fragmentary nature of lives, memories and connections to the Gaelic language. The greatest strength of this new collection is this awareness, and the poet’s ability to resurrect history and myth, to make them sing so vibrantly that the grave is forgotten and its fragments and bones take on new shapes.

Emma Dymock

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Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

DEAD SHARP: SCOTTISH CRIME WRITERS ON COUNTRY AND CRAFT

Len Wanner
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £11.99, 250PP ISBN 978-1906120580

Len Wanner’s interviewing skills are showcased in his collection of conversations with Scotland’s crime novelists. Ian Rankin is featured as well as interviews with other practitioners such as Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Christopher Brookmyre and Louise Welsh. Wanner guides each author through an overview of their career while allowing his subject to sound off on pet hates and loves. Rankin discusses his dislike of academia and how it feels to be the “King of Tartan Noir”. Karen Campbell discusses her former career in the police force. A conversation with Louise Welsh reveals her ‘banker’s hours’ schedule of writing and the inspiration behind Rilke, the incomparable hero of The Cutting Room. Each lengthy interview combines biographical information about the author with pointed questions about the novel’s design. The pleasant flow of conversation between interviewer and subject is largely due to Wanner’s keen transcription skills. Punctuation smartly shapes the authors’ voices, and laughter is transcribed as a single ‘Ha!’ which provides gleeful interruptions to the lengthy conversations. TM

FRANCIS JEFFREY’S AMERICAN JOURNAL: NEW YORK TO WASHINGTON 1813

Edited by Clare Elliott and Andrew Hook
HUMMING EARTH, £14.95, 132PP ISBN 978-1846220364

When Edinburgh Review editor Francis Jeffrey headed off across the Atlantic, after a woman, Britain was in the middle of war with the United States. But he was highly placed enough not only to travel without danger, but to have an audience with the then President, James Madison, as well as with the Secretary of State. Elliott’s introduction warns us not to expect anything by way of romantic revelation in these journals, with respect to Charlotte Wilkes, the woman who would become his second wife. Instead, Jeffrey praises this new country’s struggle to build itself up. Much of the political debate between himself and the Secretary of State, James Monroe, is difficult to follow, but it’s an invaluable account of the time from a man with extraordinary access to the major players of the day. LM

SIDEREAL

Rachael Boast
PICADOR, £8.99, 82PP ISBN 978-0330513395

Boast’s first collection of poetry isn’t for the intellectually faint-hearted. Her notes may explain some of the allusions to the Bible and William Blake, and the use of some of the unusual words she alights on, but the quote from Coleridge that adorns the first page gives an indication of the level of impenetrability here (‘lank space and scytheless time with branny hands…’). That Boast can hold her own among the Romantic greats is quite something, and she does so fully aware of the distance of time between them. Distance appears to be something of a theme in poems like ‘Longhand’, ‘The Extra Mile’, ‘Blind Date’, where she merges the concrete with the more esoteric. This sense of distance draws her gaze upward towards the heavens; this is a collection full of soaring, flight, the ‘peregrine’s view’, ‘by air into air’. Gardening, working with the earth, brings her back to the sky: ‘Plant in me/the effort of your dark songs. Constellate them.’ LM

THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF THE WORLD: ST ANDREWS, SCANDAL AND THE BIRTH OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Robert Crawford
BIRLINN, £16.99, 272PP ISBN 978-1841589800

St Andrews may feel ‘on the edge of the world’ but it’s Crawford’s mission, in this appealing history, to remind it was St Andrews that became the first town to be comprehensively photographed, not Paris or London or New York. The new medium didn’t emerge from the Fife town but there lived there a collection of people fascinated by the science of photography. In The Beginning and the End of the World, one meets David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, and Robert Chambers, whose work on evolution in many ways “scooped” Darwin’s. Their interest in photography brought together art and science, pre-empting Susan Sontag’s work on the links between photography and death; it was Brewster who in the Edinburgh Review presented ‘this new art-science as a kind of memento mori… suggesting how a photograph of a person invokes their absence, their loss’. Ironically, these early proponents of the art chose the one place perhaps, of all Scottish towns, that wouldn’t change much with the passing of time, as one still from the 1850s confirms when compared with the same view today. It is people, not place, that change. Photographs, included here, of the town’s poor and of professors posing in their gowns are surprisingly moving. LM

SITE WORKS

Robert Davidson
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99, 256PP ISBN 978-1905207633

Robert Davidson has perhaps created a new genre of “builders’ literature” with his interesting collection of stories about a construction site. The site in question is the Ness and Struie Drainage Project which plans to build septic tanks serving both towns. The interlinked stories describe a team of men working tirelessly morning and evening on the drainage pipes, with the reader learning more about drafting and building than one would expect to. Characters include John Kelly, a keen builder and womaniser; Harry, the meticulous and outspoken Clerk of Works, and Mac, a divorced father with domestic worries, trying to manage the project. Each chapter describes an incident in which the men come up against the company. As a former civil engineer in the water industry, Davidson is well-versed on the politics involved in working on a construction site. No surprise then, that Site Works is a meditation on power and hierarchy. As minions J.B. and Tammas graphically put it: ‘We’re the bottom of the pile. We’re just shite…. We are the heavy sediment of the shite…. The crème de la crème of the faecal matter.’ TM

KILLING THE MESSENGER

Christopher Wallace
FREIGHT BOOKS, £12.99, 288PP ISBN 978-0956613509

Literary imprint Freight Books’ first venture is a timely political thriller. Wallace has written an engaging tale about New Labour’s final days in government and an unscrupulous use of advertising and technology. A familiar Prime Minister with a ‘photo-call smile’ has returned to replace his rumpled successor. The goal of the new Prime Minister is for everyone in Britain to be “happy”. A rising star in public health, the duplicitous Dr. Greig Hynd, is the official spokesperson of this flagship policy. Various campaigns use subliminal advertising to encourage the public, but advertising agent Calum Begg sees through the smoke and strobe lights. Bravely and with difficulty, he attempts to stop the deception. Fast-paced and filled with more buzz words than an urban dictionary, Killing the Messenger explores the interrelations between mass manipulation and violence. The novel begins on the day of the launch of the happiness campaign where special effects used during the Prime Minister’s presentation enrapture the audience. The story then backtracks to a period a year earlier, and the reader follows both Greig and Calum’s parallel climbs to the top of their professions. Though Wallace relies too heavily on dialogue to carry the storyline, the novel’s depiction of political intrigue holds one’s attention. TM

THE ENGLISH GERMAN GIRL

Jake Wallis Simons
POLYGON, £12.99, 342PP ISBN 978-1846972089

Jake Wallis Simons’ first novel The Exiled Times of a Tibetan Jew established him as a writer who draws inspiration from Jewish history. His second, The English German Girl is a gracefully written and well-informed novel about the Holocaust. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Klein is lucky enough to escape a chaotic Germany via a Kindertransport train to England. Though she is much older than the other children on the same journey, she has been sent by her family to secure work permits for them. However, Rosa finds London strange and confusing, especially her new life with her second cousins Mimi and Gerald and their son Simon. As time passes and war becomes imminent, Rosa desperately tries to secure visas for her family, only to be met with her most brutal challenge yet. There is very little good news in this novel and each chapter saddens a little more. Simons deftly describes a crumbling Berlin under Hitler’s rule and, intriguingly, the secret societies which helped those in need. TM

THE SEA DETECTIVE

Mark Douglas-Home
SANDSTONE PRESS, £17.99, 320PP ISBN 978-1905207657

This debut novel by journalist Douglas-Home, once editor of The Herald and the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times, is, as the title indicates, a crime novel, set in the Scottish capital, a fictional island that resembles St Kilda, and the back streets of an Indian town. A young Indian girl is washed up on a Scottish shore, where severed feet are turning up too. Cal McGill is a PhD student in oceanography who is fascinated by these grisly discoveries. He also wants to know what happened to his grandfather, who was lost at sea many years before. Cal comes to the ineffectual police’s attention when he breaks into the Environment Minister’s garden as part of his quest. Some traditional beginner’s problems plague this tale. For example, the young Indian girl who begins the tale, Preeti, is taken by sex traffickers and soon dies, meaning her narrative has to be taken over by another trafficked girl, Basanti. Similarly, it’s Detective Inspector David Ryan who opens up a chapter that focuses on the police, when it’s his assistant Helen Jamieson’s point of view that matters. It creates a certain choppiness. Editing of repetitions and irrelevances would have upped the pace a little too. LM

CAN THE GODS CRY?

Allan Cameron
VAGABOND VOICES, £11.00, 256PP ISBN 978-1908251008

Allan Cameron adds short story writer to his existing accomplishments as publisher, novelist, poet and translator. The twelve stories have a political complexion, and a radical one at that. The Middle East features in three stories, while others concern themselves with the travails of immigrant workers, gypsies, and the dubious art of financial marketing. Cameron even finds time to take a swipe at the inanity of arts council supported authors, and in ‘I Am Not My Body’ he cleverly picks apart the politics of academia, ridiculing the self-serving guardians of higher learning. In ‘Aras and the Redistribution of Wealth’ the theoretical discussions of a Revolutionary Communist Group contrast unfavourably with the actions of one Algerian immigrant who takes more direct action in his boss’s restaurant. Paradoxically, Cameron is an ideas man himself. They fly from his stories faster than the reader can catch them. Occasionally, Cameron’s stories border on the polemical. He finally surrenders to this tendency in an author’s afterword where modern passivity, the state of political discourse, American gun culture, The Apprentice, and the slang term “loser” all get the treatment. TM

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What’s Left?

It ought to be straightforward. A person you knew intimately for decades is convicted of perjury. He confessed the truth to you and to others long ago; the verdict is no surprise. Some weird compulsion – many adjectives are available – drove an old friend to tell lie after suicidal lie. Poisonous fame and a suppurating ego have destroyed him. It’s simple. Write it down.

‘The Tommy Sheridan Story’, as a misleading sub-title would have it, reserves the simplicities for its tabloid-ready prose. Alan McCombes – ‘a former member of the clandestine central committee of the old Militant Tendency in its 1980s heyday’, as he records – does not fear repetition. His Sheridan is (concurrently) vain, shallow, ill-read, celebrity-obsessed, exploitative, megalomaniacal, hypocritical, ruthless, cowardly, abusive, disloyal, sexually warped and ‘phoney’, an affectless zombie ‘without basic human decency’.

You wouldn’t touch that sort of creep with a barge-pole. So who was the working class hero promoted so assiduously, once upon a time, by the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), with McCombes – his ‘closest political associate’ – in the van? The men knew each other for decades. So in all those years our author failed to notice that the comrade was even slightly dubious?

There’s another mystery. On 9 November, 2004, according to this and almost every other account, Sheridan made his confession to the executive of the SSP. He it was, as most of the 22 present would later testify, who had indulged in a ‘cheap thrill’ or several in a Manchester sex club named Cupids. The News of the World (NoW) and its ‘sex columnist’ had named the right MSP nine days previously. Nevertheless, the ‘stunned’ meeting heard that Sheridan ‘was planning to fight a legal battle to disprove the truth’.

Millions of pounds and days of court time would be expended thereafter. The SSP would be torn apart. First, Sheridan would cease to be the party’s convenor, then conflicting legal strategies would collide. McCombes maintains that the fallen hero embarked on a campaign of systematic dishonesty in an effort to conceal previous deceits. But he fails to answer the second question: just when did the SSP executive plan to share the truth, as a matter of political honesty, with Scottish voters?

The detail matters. McCombes makes a virtue of confidentiality, and of having no personal interest in anyone’s sex life – save when he conflates pathetic ‘swingers’ with the sex industry – yet he treats 22 adults as victims of a Sheridan plot. Thus: ‘This was all becoming extremely messy and escalating out of control. The SSP executive had reluctantly accepted that Tommy would deny the specific Cupids allegation if and when it was put to him. But this aggressive onslaught to mislead the public was never in the script’.

Which script? In time, Sheridan would be convicted for perjury precisely because of his effort to ‘deny the specific Cupids allegation’. No doubt, as a majority of 22 would say, he embroiled the party in the consequences of his hypocrisy. The minutes of the 9 November meeting – endlessly disputed, hidden, adumbrated and wielded like a weapon on all sides – would prove crucial. The fact remains that, to begin with, they went along with it. By which socialist principle was that justified?

In the McCombes version, Sheridan is a cartoon villain. This does well enough for soap opera purposes, but it often leaves the author proffering assertion – Tommy was behind it all, whatever it was – when evidence might have been rather more convincing. Downfall’s pages are littered with mentions of what the author ‘knew’, or had been told, but too often the burden of actual proof is avoided.

Does it matter? Sheridan’s action against the NoW generated so much contradictory testimony a criminal investigation became all but inevitable. That rumbled on for month after month and led, finally, to the perjury conviction. The defendant’s claim that a vast conspiracy was at work failed to convince a majority of the jury. On that reading, there was little enough of Sheridan’s character left for McCombes to assassinate. So who would you believe? The proven liar or the betrayed and disillusioned former ally?

Things are not so simple. Sheridan’s perjury trial was a curious affair. Charge after charge was deleted. Spectacularly tawdry allegations concerning episodes in the affair ceased suddenly to interest the Crown, despite that long, painstaking, multi-million pound investigation. Above all, charges of perjury against Gail Sheridan, accused of lying on her husband’s behalf, were deemed to be no longer in the public interest. The prosecution could claim that it was simplifying the case, or showing humanity to the mother of a young child. The lay person is left to wonder over the logic involved.

Perjury is perjury. As all concerned never tired of repeating last December, it is a crime taken very seriously indeed by the courts. Unchecked, it has the potential to bring down the legal system. That’s one reason, an obvious reason, why perjurers invariably do jail time: pour encourager les autres. The Crown made it perfectly clear, meanwhile, that Mrs Sheridan’s acquittal did not mean that her innocence was accepted. So why was the person who lied for the liar set free? Arguably, it was Gail Sheridan’s evidence that cost the NoW the first case and, in theory, £200,000.

But there is, of course, another aspect to all of this, one which – inevitably enough – eludes McCombes in a book written at speed. He touches on phone hacking and the NoW. He mocks the claim that Sheridan’s car was bugged by person or persons unknown. He does his best to explain why quite so many people, one of them a very old friend of the accused, were prepared to accept money from the tabloid.

McCombes even mentions a certain newspaper executive named Andy Coulson as the individual who authorised the payment of £200,000 (‘plus fifty grand for the local community centre’) to one George McNeilage for a piece of videotape taken, said its owner, in November of 2004, one week after Sheridan’s confession to the SSP. Coulson is better known now, let’s say, than he was then.

Why make the film – a murky piece of work, but one given credibility by forensic experts – and why seek the money? The author gives McNeilage, ‘involved politically with Tommy for twenty years’, the benefit of any doubts over the cash. The aim, he maintains, was to protect the victims of Sheridan’s lies, themselves facing accusations of perjury, and inflict “poetic justice” on the NoW. The poetry didn’t come cheap. But Sheridan’s taped declarations were explicit: he had indeed swung, as it were, in Manchester.

That raises the issue McCombes elects not to address. His old comrade’s crime was perjury. He was tried and convicted. But what had he actually done to attract the NoW in the first place? You may despair of his alleged tastes. You may attempt to construct a feminist argument around consensual promiscuity. The fact remains that Sheridan committed no crime. McCombes offers some innuendo involving cocaine use, but fails to justify the allegation. Beyond that, Sheridan’s behaviour, squalid or not, was legal.

The same cannot be said about the unlamented NoW. As even Rupert Murdoch now seems prepared to admit, its sensational tales depended on wholesale criminality. It victimised and persecuted individuals simply because, so it believed, it could. If its journalists – the word will have to do – could treat murdered Milly Dowler as mere headline fodder, why would it hesitate to hunt down an MSP with outré tastes in sex? But it’s worth repeating: before he lied, Sheridan committed no crime. Who would still say the same about his NoW foes?

Lawyers are contemplating these matters, so we had best take care. McCombes depicts his subject, time and again, as a ruthless and pathological liar. How would such a figure compare now, in common opinion, with a Coulson? How would we rate the disgraced editor’s Scottish subordinates, especially Bob Bird, his local boss in Glasgow’s Kinning Park?

The record shows that, under assault from such individuals, Sheridan did the stupid thing and lied. In consequence, McCombes deems him worthless (and worse). But how many, facing such pressures, would have resisted the temptation? How does a dishonourable MSP compare with a law-breaking, vigilante tabloid on the rampage?

It’s no excuse, of course. The consequences of perjury are severe for good reasons. But didn’t Coulson tell a Scottish court that he had no knowledge of phone hacking or payments to police officers? Strathclyde Police are even now investigating aspects of the NoW scandal – meaning Coulson – as they affect Scotland. Whether that will help Sheridan remains to be seen: many others have testified to his Manchester misadventures. But still, to put it no higher, the notion of entrapment no longer seems entirely ridiculous.

Inadvertently, meanwhile, Downfall tells us a lot about the collective failures of the Scottish left. The NoW would have called that a result. By the time Sheridan went to jail, according to McCombes, ‘the one-time idol of the poll tax campaign had inflicted more damage on the left in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch combined’. If the author believes that piece of nonsense, socialism’s perennial debilities become easier to understand.

DOWNFALL – THE TOMMY SHERIDAN STORY

Alan McCombes
BIRLINN, £9.99, 326PP ISBN 978-1841587592

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Electric Essayist

The poet and translator Michael Hamburger insisted that even at the heart of our modernity there was a pastoral mode. The modernists’ city was mere phenotype; the ‘country’ – which was not defined with any exactness – remained the archetype. He noted that even in the ten-minute egg of proletarian modernism, Jews Without Money by ‘Michael Gold’ (or Irwin Granitz/Granich), the only moment of emotional fullness was a family picnic in Central Park.

As modernity gave way to late-modernity or even post-modernity, the pastoral mode went through ironic distortions. It arguably exists now in the culture as ‘green spaces’, planted roofs, ‘organic’ food in the produce aisle. There is, or rather was for a time, a resurrection of the abandoned and betrayed ‘country interest’ in British politics, which Jo Grimond believed to be a vital counterbalance to pure ideology. But for the most part our pastoral mode is expressed either as a desire to get away from drug- and knife-crime, from pollution and overcrowded or over-turbanned classes, or else it is taken in little air-freshener doses of verse, Spring-watch in rhyme and metre.

Karl Miller is not, as far as I know, a translator, and perhaps only privately a poet, but his lifelong task – he is 80 this year – has been to make Scottish tonguings and obsessions intelligible in the South. He did this as editor of The Listener (in Miller’s day still fruitfully haunted by association with Lord Reith) and of the London Review of Books, but also as author of books like Doubles and Electric Shepherd. Though he is widely thought to be a brilliant diagnoser of Scot-land’s psychological doubleness or split personality (whatever that phrase actually means), Miller showed in the latter of those two books, a brilliant ‘likeness’ of James Hogg, that he also had a profound grasp of Scotland’s various and shifting psychogeographies, in which town and country, and their respective values, struggle to exchange places, or merely struggle. One finds that tension in Hogg, of course, in Stevenson, in MacDiarmid and Grassic Gibbon (who closed not only on Grey Granite and socialism, but also with a bonkers anthropology that made modern Scots the kin of ancient hunter-gatherers); one finds it in Robin Jenkins, Alasdair Gray (Lanark is a key text here) and Irvine Welsh (so’s Trainspotting), in the hard-boiled urban speak of Tom Leonard, and in Edwin Morgan’s restless flitting to and fro (and then outward to the stars); and it’s there in the work of Alan Warner, Michel Faber, and critically Andrew O’Hagan.

It’s O’Hagan who frames these collected pieces with a brief and wittily affectionate narrative of forays with his LRB boss and with Seamus Heaney into the debatable corners of these islands, the ‘nations and regions’ in BBC-speak, but in Miller’s mind an inner-space of great imaginative richness and cultural complexity. Though this is an anthology of occasional work, rather than a thoroughly argued thesis, Miller’s ability to pluck wool off a thorn and weave it into a thread that holds strongly for 220 pages is extremely impressive. So the book runs from our enjoyment of, perhaps need of, the Rev. Francis Kilvert and his diaries, to the now sadly darkling interiors of Candia McWilliam, with a walk along Chesil Beach thrown in. As an artefact, the book shows how creatively a critical mind can play across whatever is thrown its way in the course of a book-reviewing career, but it also sustains a certain political role – as diplomat as much as translator – in the uneasy relationship between the metropolitan and the ‘country’, the centralising ideology of an ‘official’ culture and the devolved or the preterite. This is why almost the most important essay in the collection is the one about Miller’s quondam friend and adversary Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, whose place in public awareness as authenticator of the Hitler diaries has replaced that as hammer of the Scots. Unfortunately, Dacre lacked an adequate anvil and in his strictures, which expressed a near 18th century suspicion of North Britain, found himself bashing out an argument on his own knee.

In lacking the connective tissue of a through-written monograph, it obviously has gaps and discontinuities, but it also perhaps lacks a little of the fine psychological insight that one found in Doubles and that seems to be present in the earliest section. There is nothing here that delivers anything close to Robert Frost’s famous, and off-put-tingly pat ‘I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places’, though Miller’s whole approach seems to imply something of the rural terror that Lionel Trilling notoriously found in Frost (he announced it at the poet’s 85th birthday dinner, after the pudding) and that Seamus Heaney implies in a road-not-taken in his own approach to the American, which was part of another three-man journey, Homage to Robert Frost, co-written with fellow Nobel laureates Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott. There, Heaney references Trilling’s drawing attention to Frost’s ‘Sophoclean gift for making the neuter outback of experience scrutable in a way that privileges neither the desolate unknown nor the human desire to shelter from it’. It’s a wonderful line, but Heaney decides not to follow it up and moves off in another, more prosodic direction. Miller, too. These pieces answered specific and local needs and can’t be expected to come out armed with a comprehensive thesis.

Still, one misses some sense of where the ‘pastoral’ (which of course is misnamed in almost every case except that of Hogg, who was a shepherd) has gone in Scottish letters, from Burns to MacDiarmid to MacCaig to now. Miller turns a wonderful line himself, though one senses that the written-down versions are less appealing than the deceptively dry and desultory try-outs O’Hagan takes down at various stops on the friends’ literary pilgrimages. Here is Miller in the essay on Dacre, summing up the feeling that too much of our literary heritage may have been grounded on a fake, though not in the way that many thought Robert Frost to be a fake. ‘The Ossian poems affect most readers now, I gather, as an uncrossable, post-Jacobite prairie of grief and chief, courage and carnage, downfall and nightfall, as promising, without delivering, an escape from the 18th century parlour.’ What’s wonderful in that, of course, is that he turns the whole thing into a non-vernacular landscape (no prairies in Scotland!) in order to contrast it with the well-lit, feminised interiors that seduced Robert Burns. And ‘I gather’ is delightfully donnish and elderly, putting a little distance between himself and ‘most readers now’.

We have been given full permission to believe that our own desert places can be found in Granton and Ruchazie, or in a Bro-die cabinet or dissecting room, every bit as well as on a mountaintop or skerry, or in one of those deep glens where microwaves don’t enter. Everything in Scotland is ‘nearer home’ and yet seems remote. The peculiarities of our geography might perhaps not be so obvious to a Southron reader. Why might we wish to scare ourselves? And are those places exterior or interior, or both? These are perhaps the questions one wishes Karl Miller had addressed more directly rather than obliquely, but the real test of Tretower to Clyro’s merits is not so much that it, or its individual essays send you back to the authors it, or they cover, but to Miller’s own body of work. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of David Craig’s Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, a far more important and foundational text than Kurt Wittig’s slightly earlier and more often cited The Scottish Tradition in Literature. Karl Miller continues that tradition in his own idiosyncratic way. As in that curiously cadenced, highly rhetorical sentence from the essay on Dacre, his meaning lies as much in how a thing is said as in what is said. This is a book to be read slowly and ideally aloud, if you live in a sufficiently desert place for that to be other than embarrassing, and Andrew O’Hagan’s clever introduction probably delivers enough of the man to support a convincing impersonation.

TRETOWER TO CLYRO: ESSAYS

Karl Miller
QUERCUS, £20, 272PP ISBN 978-0857385802

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Coming Soon – The Apocalypse

When the world does end, no one will be able to accuse the movies of not doing their part to warn us. Perhaps like myself you enjoy spending your weekend evenings with a loved one, a tub of popcorn and the latest apocalypse warming the movie screen. Connoisseurs of catastrophe have of late been indulged to the extent their palate must surely be deadened. ‘The first bombs fell, we were already bored,’ Arcade Fire’s Win Butler sings on the title track of The Suburbs, the lyrics’ imagery bringing to mind Ballardian rotting, deserted gated communities. The end-of-days, then, is not the sole possession of the movies – novels such as Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Justin Cronin’s The Passage and Douglas Coupland’s Player One have imagined the worst in the past year – and the theme is at least as old as the Book of Revelations. Yet it does seem of late that the cinema has had something of an obsession with that trope, and one wonders why there is such an appetite to witness the end of the world.

Only the world very rarely ends in these films. Gregg Araki’s delirious Kaboom has our planet popping like a balloon as its closing image, but it’s the exception. When we talk about the end of the world, we actually mean the end of civilisation, which haunts the imagination to a greater degree than the cessation of all life on earth. And by civilisation we don’t merely mean art, democracy, a sense of decency embodied in a code of law; we mean consumerism. The credits for the Argentinean film Phase 7 play against static shots of row upon row of tinned goods. The supermarket is a totemic location in the apocalyptic movie, with some entirely set in malls (Dawn of the Dead, The Mist). One wonders if what chills us about these films is not the possibility of death and injury but the thought of being unable to pop into the shops for toilet paper when we want to.

Phase 7 is a charming example of the ‘cosy catastrophe’, Brian Aldiss’ dismissive description of The Day of the Triffids. Cosy catastrophes dispense with the majority of the world’s population by the usual methods (flood, fire, killer plants) but allow the heroes a degree of comfort during their ordeal as well as hope that civilisation can be rebuilt. The hero, Coco, is a schlub quarantined within his Buenos Aries apartment block during a mysterious pandemic. Although Coco fortuitously stocked up his larders before being confined, his hungry neighbours soon turn on each other, paranoia a keynote of the subgenre. The film neatly illustrates why filmmakers are attracted to judgement day: not only is the scenario inherently dramatic, it’s possible with imagination to make it on a shoestring budget. You can either make 2012, CGI-bloated epics that crunch continents together like play-doh, or you can tell more intimate stories like Phase 7, which is largely set in a single block of flats.

Closer to Phase 7 than 2012, Perfect Sense marks Scotland’s contribution. Director David Mackenzie deserves credit at least for originality. Something – never explained – is causing mankind to lose one by one its five senses. Each loss is preceded by everyone experiencing the same intense emotion. Before smell goes, for example, everyone grows lachrymose. Sad to report, the film is a cathedral-sized turkey, full of misjudged dialogue and risible visuals. The scene where stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green romantically mark the loss of their taste by eating a bar of soap will not be swiftly forgotten by those who witnessed it. The director lost his taste before filming began.

What most apocalypse-soon films share is a distrust of government, a point that unites left and right these days, a fact producers are surely not ignorant of. Coco’s friend Horacio is convinced the virus is merely cover for ‘the New World Order’ to reduce the world population to controllable levels. Of course scenes of social disintegration have a rather different meaning here than in Argentina, where only a decade ago the country really was on the verge of collapse after runs on the banks revealed how decrepit the economy was.

In the yet-to-be-released The Divide, a nuclear strike in New York traps a group of survivors in the basement of a demolished building. Inevitably bringing 9/11 to mind, the explosion is at first blamed on ‘the Arabs’, although subsequent events suggest it may have been the survivors’ own government. That audiences and filmmakers can more readily believe their own elected representatives, rather than a foreign power, would attack them speaks of a true misfortune – the electorate’s lack of confidence in the elites that rule them, a credibility gap that does not bode well.

That said, the whys and wherefores of The Divide’s day of reckoning remain fuzzy, as they nearly always do in the subgenre. How did the virus develop? When did the supervolcano erupt? Why on earth have the dead risen to snack on the living? Perhaps the scriptwriters believe giving a reason would distract; perhaps they imagine not gifting the audience with a credible rationale imbues the film with a metaphysical dimension. Actually, it’s annoying and lazy. On top of which The Divide is misanthropic and ugly, and, as the radiation-sick survivors turn on each other, it becomes a sci-fi Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom.

A more interesting take on the politics of apocalypse was essayed recently in Stake Land, which is, to adopt the language of the high-concept, The Road with vampires. It’s set after a plague of vampires have destroyed America’s government and civil society, with what survivors there are banding together within barely safe walled-off communities. At first Stake Land comes on like a dour Tea Party fantasy. The hero Mister is a ruthlessly self-sufficient vampire slayer whose motto is ‘Live free or die trying’. A point is made of telling us that lily-livered beltway politicians ran away during the first wave of vampirism. Perhaps unwittingly the scriptwriter actually provides a critique of where Tea Party policies would deliver America in its depiction of a no-government world, a society atomised and vulnerable to predators. All it can offer in the end is a Hobbesian view of mankind without any remedy, and it is striking that the film ends with the murder of another staple character of the subgenre, the pregnant woman. Phase 7, a more even-tempered film, permits Coco’s pregnant girlfriend an ending with a happier hue.

Vampires and their brother-monsters, zombies, form a subgenre within a sub-genre. It’s interesting to note not merely the resurgence in their popularity, but the relative neglect of werewolves, mummies and creatures from the black lagoon, who don’t appear to speak to our era. The vampires here are not the soulful bloodsuckers of the Twilight movies, but ravenous slobberers, zombies in all but name. One of the finest ongoing examples of the ‘zombie apocalypse’ genre is Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television adaptation, which is less a supernatural shoot ’em up than a spirit-quelling examination of what happens to humanity when tested to the point of destruction. Why these monsters, why now? Zombies and vampires are both devouring, mindless creatures, and one doesn’t need a degree in Advanced Allegory to know that they speak to our fear that mankind is the monster, draining the planet of its resources as it brings on a real-world doomsday. The film Daybreakers, set in a future where vampires have taken over and have almost run out of human blood, makes the parallel explicit.

‘Oil is the blood of the earth’: not a line from Daybreakers but from A Crude Awakening, a disturbing and discouraging documentary about peak oil, the moment the world runs out of the resource that keeps civilisation running. A Crude Awakening is one of a number of documentaries I’ve watched recently that are by some degree more chilling than any of the slick but ultimately childish fictional takes on social collapse. It’s tragic that these documentaries will never get even a hundredth of the audience the multiplex-safe holocausts attain. Movie-goers need to see, for example, Collapse, where journalist Michael Ruppert argues that unsustainable energy and financial policies are about to rupture society. His gruesome and forensic explanation of the consequences of ‘our own suicide’ led critic Roger Ebert to say of Collapse, ‘I don’t know when I’ve seen a thriller more frightening.’ The same could be said of Countdown To Zero, which is about the danger nuclear weapons still pose in the post-cold war era. The film contends it is merely a matter of time before a terrorist assembles a dirty bomb or, worse, a computer error launches a full nuclear strike. ‘What isn’t forbidden is compulsory,’ one expert testifies; if a miscalculation can happen, it will happen.

Why do we prefer our end-zones to be fictional? Is it because they’re easier to dismiss? Does watching a documentary like Countdown To Zero not place on us an obligation to act while we still can? One fears a baser reason lies behind our fascination. Could most of us believe on some level that through our use of the earth’s raw and finite materials we’ve basically shrunk the future to feed the present? And, despite sensing that, we entertain ourselves with dark forecasts in the hope they come to fruition not on our watch but on our children’s? Wouldn’t that be a textbook definition of decadence?

Phase 7, Perfect Sense and The Divide are on general release later this year.

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An Orcadian’s Conversion

Why did George Mackay Brown become a Catholic?

Religious conversion has always been a thorny theological issue. Christians have reached many different conclusions about how it should be secured: is coercion legitimate or is freely-given faith the only kind that counts? And then there’s sincerity: how to tell the difference between the genuine convert and the temporising dissembler. Such conundrums have puzzled Early Church Fathers, Reformation and post-Tridentine luminaries, and professors in the best nineteenth-century German theology departments but there’s no mistaking the most arduous task of all. How does the person who has been through the mill of conversion recount his or her spiritual odyssey to others? There are narratives aplenty in the Christian tradition and they range across two millennia but surprisingly few are satisfactory. The same old tropes, apologies and strategies crop up time and again and the dispassionate onlooker could easily conclude that, when it comes to conversion, God moves in formulaic ways. The alternative, charitable, and I dare say more robust assumption is that writing about conversion (some aspects of which should presumably be mysterious, even ineffable) isn’t easy.

Let’s pity, then, the author who seeks to understand the conversion of someone else’s soul. Hard yards. This is what Ron Ferguson has set out to do and, to add a little extra pressure, his subject is one of Scotland’s best-loved poets, George Mackay Brown. Ferguson’s central and most interesting quest is to explain why GMB became a Roman Catholic. There are signs that GMB’s mind was Tiber-bound relatively early on in life. In a letter (previously unpublished) of 1947 the twenty-five-year old was already declaring that “the pale watery Calvinism of present-day Orkney frankly disgusts me” and that “I could live cheerfully in a Catholic country or in pre-Reformation Orkney if that were possible.” A hefty clue and, as it turns out, a telling couple of sentences. Ferguson argues convincingly that GMB was ill at ease with the Presbyterianism all around him. Rightly or wrongly, he equated it with a gossipy and judgemental culture. The phrase ‘pre-Reformation’ is also crucial. GMB, the man who talked of Scotland as a Knox-ruined nation, was no fan of the great Protestant climacteric and, as is well known, he confected an idealised vision of the country’s past. He adored the tales of ancient Orkney (especially those orbiting around Saint Magnus) and despaired of the progress-obsessed present. Technology, Fer-guson contends, was a species of idolatry in GMB’s book. The TV was useful when it came to checking the football scores: otherwise it was an abomination.

This is all convincing but Ferguson is careful not to pin down GMB’s motives too easily. We shouldn’t simply look at the negatives. Catholicism, it seems, catered to GMB’s artistic and social outlook. He saw it as a bulwark of tradition, unity and community (cultural commodities he prized). Better yet, it served as a conduit for his mystical bent and his passion for seeing God in nature. Ferguson adopts a scatter-gun hermeneutic but this is appropriate. Reading certain poems, visiting pretty places, being influenced by mentors, and snarling at censorious neighbours all played their part in winning GMB over to Rome. This, by any measure, was a many-faceted and utterly heartfelt conversion. The only difficulty — and this is quite the stumbling block — is that it may have lacked intellectual rigour.

I think Ferguson is correct in opining that GMB was drawn to Catholicism (or his particular understanding thereof) for “aesthetic and intuitive” reasons. It suited his world view. There’s nothing wrong with that per se and, frankly, if such devotional meandering resulted in such fabulous writing then we really shouldn’t grumble too loudly. And yet, on a different level, there is cause for concern. GMB was a poet, not a historian or a theologian, but his “faith journey” was sometimes marred by laziness. His understanding of Scotland’s religious past was sketchy, he was apt to romanticise earlier eras, and his habit of stereotyping both Catholicism and Protestantism isn’t hard to spot. There was no coercion involved in GMB’s conversion. Augustine wasn’t at his back comparing wayward Christians to horses and mules that “resist with all the force of bites and kicks the efforts of the men who treat their wounds in order to cure them.” There was no one shoving him towards spiritual health. But perhaps there were a few too many ounces of convenience. I have no axe to grind when it comes to adjudicating leaps from one faith to another. Leap in whichever direction you please, but it shouldn’t just be about mood and sensibility. Intimate, accurate understanding of the history and the theology ought to play a significant role. It could be argued that, on this score, GMB often didn’t measure up.

Not that any of this dents his genius as a poet and, as luck would have it, Ferguson moves beyond the spiritual and tells us all about his friend’s encounter with the fleshly realm. This book isn’t positioned as a standard biography or a work of literary criticism but it scores highly in both regards. There are several highlights. It was nice to hear about GMB the cub reporter at the Orkney Herald. He spat venom from time to time and admitted that “I have a peculiar and diverse gift of being able to sneer at people in print.” This will be a revelation to those who only know the mature, gentler GMB and subscribe to the “the received notion that [he] was always in love with Orkney.” Even more intriguing is Ferguson’s account of GMB among the literary superstars on Edinburgh’s Rose Street. They were all there in the pubs — Sydney Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiar-mid — and Ferguson describes it as “a boozy, male-dominated, Scotch-fuelled, flirtatious, strutting scene.” Something of a challenge for the shy GMB but perhaps even worse for Stella Cartwright, the woman who was GMB’s fiancée for a little while. Ferguson describes her as the “trophy some of the leaders of the Scottish Renaissance fought over” and he is heartily tired of the way in which she is conceptualised as a willing muse. Her relationship with GMB seems to have been tender but, for most of the time, she was treated in “sexist and exploitative fashion” and Ferguson is repelled by the “romanticising of a vulnerable young woman.” This is an important corrective.

*

Ferguson does not solve the GMB riddle even though he knew the man well. He leaves many things in flux but that’s as it should be. There is great affection here but also, nine times out of ten, impressive critical distance. Ferguson suggests, for instance, that GMB was more scarred by harsh criticism (and he endured a fair amount) than he liked to admit. He concedes that GMB sometimes didn’t do his homework before launching into his modernity-bashing tirades. This makes for a rounded portrait. It works well as a biography because there is a firm narrative pulse that guides us through the major events of GMB’s life. It is also quite savvy when it comes to exploring GMB’s writings: Ferguson is very good at identifying themes and influences. There are a few extended, errant moments, however. Ferguson devotes a lot of time to GMB’s fondness for the bottle and his depressive episodes (real or artificial: the jury is out). This is to enter perilous territory. Taking on the relationship between suffering, alcohol and artistic endeavour is brave but often fruitless. There are potential revelations — lots of extracts from GMB’s correspondence with Stella, for instance — but its impossible to know how far we should trust these scribblings. To me, they seem self-indulgent, a tad artificial and, ultimately, distracting.

Better, perhaps, to look at the work and, as the saying goes, to avoid meeting your heroes. This option isn’t open to Ferguson. He was GMB’s pal. It’s therefore to his credit that he has produced such an even-handed study. What should we do with the great poet of Orkney? Read his poems and forget about the rest would be my advice. Many silly things are written about GMB. Some dismiss him as a small-minded Luddite. Some laud him as a greater poet than he was. Both routes are absurd. We should be satisfied with the fact that a puzzled, puzzling man sometimes soared. And if, to break the rule I’ve been trying to impose, you insist upon plotting his spiritual trajectory I’d point you (and Ferguson would, I think, agree) towards Gerard Manley Hopkins: in GMB’s phrase “one of the ancient smelters and smiths of poetry.” There is a path between GMH and GMB. Both saw the wonder in the ordinary, both challenged us to revise our poetic sense, and both wrote some spectacular verses and a fair amount of dross. This way lies authenticity.

Ferguson deserves laurels for this book. There are flaws, not least his dissection of Scotland’s religious past, but these are easily forgiven. He could have given us the cuddlesome GMB and many would have been pleased. Instead, he has identified, as the title puts it, the wound and the gift. Both were deep and perhaps trying to understand GMB ought to remain an impossible labour. The whisky, the TB, the prospect of death, the foul moods, and the lyrical gift were all one. He was, to steal Hopkins’ phrase, one of the “dappled things.” Equal, in my estimation, to “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.”

GEORGE MACKAY BROWN. THE WOUND AND THE GIFT

Ron Ferguson
SAINT ANDREW PRESS, HB, 400PP, £19.99

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Trade Secrets

Many people like the idea of being a writer without ever putting pen to paper in earnest. Sometimes such people need to give themselves permission to write, particularly to write badly, at least, at first; only then do they become teachable. And creative writing can definitely be taught. Whether through enough practice the writer will become skilled is another question. But, as I say, it can, like any skill, be taught.

In the last issue of the Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor asked whether a novice writer would be better off spending several thousand pounds on good books or on a creative writing course. I don’t see these as alternatives: both serve different purposes, both are useful.

Learning to write involves at least the following four elements: know-how (a technical understanding of grammar, style and story structure); practice (to gain fluency, skill and confidence); feedback (to understand how others respond to your work) and reading (to learn from the masters). A writer learning the trade can do much of what is offered by creative writing courses by him or herself, but an audience of fellow apprentices led by a teacher can help his or her development through providing constructive criticism. Reading and practising are down to the writer, though a teacher can also offer guidance on what to read and suggest new directions that will make practice fulfilling.

The popularity of creative writing courses was underlined recently by the publication of two guides to the subject written by experienced teachers. Andrew Cowan is at the University of East Anglia, famously the site of the country’s first such course, graduates of which include Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Jonathan Falla is at the Open University and St Andrews. Cowan and Falla have also written several well-received novels themselves. So what can a handbook offer? It will not help with feedback. It has a modest role laying out know-how rules and techniques and giving examples, and it may be able to do this even more clearly than a workshop or class, plus it can provide exercises for practice. In addition, it can offer reading signposts and suggestions.

Both Falla’s and Cowan’s handbooks are aimed at prose writers, rather than those interested in poetry. In the case of Falla, he pitches his lessons specifically at would-be novelists. The difference in their approach and style is indicative of the various ways in which creative writing can be taught. Cowan’s book is a guided course, which starts with easy tasks and grapples with progressively larger issues, offering a plethora of ‘try this’ exercises that will keep a new writer busy for a year. Falla’s book begins with the big picture, the overall story that a novel-writer is seeking to tell, and works his way inwards with a brisk rather than professorial tone and with didactic ‘work points’ presented as suggestions rather than homework.

Cowan’s book is an introduction to the writing process, including encouragement of habits such as noticing, keeping notebooks, writing stream of consciousness screeds, and breaking every rule going. There are some good observations. Dialogue, he writes, ‘often succeeds most for a reader where it most fails for the characters’. His explanation

of point of view does not shirk the issue of the moral dimension implicit in the author’s decision of how much ‘psychic distance’ to place between the author, the narrator, the reader and the characters. This area is often where a book comes together or falls apart, and Cowan handles it well.

Unfortunately he also packs in an awful lot of boring memoir and unconvincing material between his gems. He relegates the use of vernacular speech to ‘a stylistic option’, rather than making it a key issue of authorial voice. He is shallow on the issue of structure, dismissing archetypical story forms in a few sentences and body-swerving the important and difficult topic of plot altogether. This leaves a hole in the book.

Someone who is in the early stages of creative writing may find Cowan’s book helpful, especially if they are unsure about grammar or how to harvest material from the world to draw on in their fiction. A writer needing serious help with a novel will find Falla a more suitable advisor.

Whereas Cowan takes until page 143 to reach how stories work, by page 7 Falla has begun to tackle the issue. ‘When you are considering a story to tell, the first questions must be: where is the tension, and the source of conflict? Who wants what, and why is that going to be difficult?’ From the start, then, there is no doubt that Falla’s reader is already well past the basics and wants to grapple with the challenges of a big story. Unlike Cowan, Falla expects that the reader has at least a degree of literacy sufficient enough that he or she understands the difference between direct and reported speech as well as a number of other grammatical matters (‘You don’t know the Oxford comma? Look it up.’) Thirty pages in, Cowan is still advising the reader on how to keep a notebook to capture moments of real life, in order to demonstrate ‘how journals can act as a source of material for fiction’. By this point, Falla is asking, ‘Are you prepared to lie? To change the facts, the motives and the order of events? If not, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.’

For Falla, story is primary and it is about character conflicts. On setting, he says, ‘There is no such thing as a neutral landscape; it will be charged with human tension.’ Using all the senses is not a matter of providing ‘colour’, but rather a way into the experience of characters. Take an urban soundscape: ‘Whether it be buskers or musak or the radio playing high upon scaffolding where builders are at work, or the sudden physical thumping through the open window of a boom-box car. Are these things a matter of pleasure or distress to your character?’ As well providing good advice, the book is full of vivid writing like this.

Falla is at his best examining what makes writing difficult. He skips over the laundry list of attributes the author should know about every character, and instead focuses on where in the narrative a character description can do most work. His chapter on plotting provides lucid summaries of issues like pacing out information, foreshadowing a crisis and handling multiple time-frames. He systematically dismantles traps that a learner writer is likely to fall into: flashbacks, for example, or surprise revelations towards the end of a story. ‘Explanation for its own sake is tedious and should be cut,’ he says. ‘Most things don’t need explaining anyway.’ Shocks, he says, ‘are often very boring’.

The Craft of Writing Novels has flaws, of course. It has summaries at the end of chapters, which I found irritating, and occasionally the author wanders off into snapshots from his life in rural Scotland the relevance of which escaped me. But overall it is well-paced and clear.

Both books, however, fail to deliver on what is, to me, the most challenging and disaster-prone aspect of novel-writing: the process of editing. Most novelists probably spend far more time on re-writing, revising and editing than on the creation of the first draft, but these processes receive short shrift in Falla’s brief concluding chapter. In Cowan’s chapter on revision, page after page is devoted to grammar as if, by hiding at a sub-sentence level, he can avoid the real issue that every novel writer faces, which is how, having completed a bad first draft, he or she can set about reworking the whole into something more coherent. I know from experience, having had one published and two unfinished novels, that the hardest part is keeping a whole novel in mind, understanding where the plot or subplots are not working, which characters do not have satisfactory roles, and which themes are introduced but not developed. Neither book, offers sufficient advice to meet this need.

The most striking difference between the two books is the novels they reference. Within the first few pages, Falla has mentioned Austen, Shakespeare, Homer, James, Pasternak, Golding and Pamuk, and throughout the book, he illustrates points with examples ranging from Hitchcock movies to soap operas to new novelists like Jason Donald. Cowan begins with a set of vignettes about the writing practices of various authors and his bibliography contains more books about the writing process than works of literature. So, while both books present a range of useful know-how and writing practice, as guides to further reading the choice is between Cowan’s shelf of other handbooks or Falla’s signposts towards a world of great writing.

THE CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO BECOME A NOVELIST

Jonathan Falla
ABER, £10.99, PP231 ISBN 978-1842851043

THE ART OF WRITING FICTION

Andrew Cowan
LONGMAN, £16.99, PP240 ISBN 978-1408248348

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Follow, Follow

I spent the summer of 1989 at my parents’ home in Northern Ireland preparing to join the British Army. Although I was born and educated in Scotland, when I finished secondary school my father, a minister, was called to a large Presbyterian church in an overwhelmingly Protestant area known for being ‘quiet’ and middle class. I had many friends there and enjoyed their affluent lifestyle; they had cars, speedboats and yachts. House prices were so depressed by the Troubles that many parents paid off their mortgages before their forties, freeing up large amounts of disposable income.

Outside our cosy enclave the violence continued. In 1989 alone nine policemen, 14 soldiers and 39 civilians lost their lives through political violence. One night that summer a new neighbour had a housewarming. I was travelling the next day to Wiltshire to undertake the Army Officer Selection Board, which meant a 5 a.m. start. Most of our neighbour’s guests were drinking outside. As I tried to sleep the acoustics between our houses kept me awake. Past midnight and the host decided to test his powerful motorcycle. After ten minutes of deafening revving, I went down and asked someone politely if he could stop. As I returned to bed I heard him yell, ‘Fuck off, you dirty Protestant bastard!’

As odd as it sounds for someone who had been living in Ulster for four years, and who was planning to join the Army (making me a “legitimate” terrorist target), it was the first time in my life I had been directly identified by my religion. My family were East Coast Scots and had no experience of sectarianism. My parents had married on the 12th of July with no idea that the date was significant. I had not known our new neighbour was Catholic and since moving to Northern Ireland had not yet met any Catholics. I wasn’t offended by the man’s outburst, just surprised, but in a strange way the division it represented felt more real than the daily experience of armoured Landrovers, bomb scares, bag searches, barricades and soldiers.

Twenty-two years on and sectarianism has been making the headlines in Scot-land, fuelled by controversies surrounding Celtic manager, Neil Lennon and the Scottish Government’s cack-handed attempts to introduce further anti-Sectarian legislation. With his fourth novel, Pack Men, Alan Bis-sett’s timing could not be better. In large part an examination of Protestant working class culture, the story follows three of the four principal characters from Bissett’s debut novel, Boyracers, as they travel to support Rangers at the infamous UEFA Cup Final in Manchester in 2008, where some of the 100,000 ticketless fans who descended on the city rioted following the failure of large screens in Piccadilly Gardens.

Alvin, narrator of both novels, has left Falkirk for the University of Stirling and after graduating is now working in a bookshop and has no more than sporadic contact with his old school friends. Despite having only a passing interest in football, the trip offers a chance to reconnect with Dolby, who has recently separated from his wife, and Frannie, who still works in Tesco.  Alvin travels with his friends in a supporters’ bus, a micro-climate of Protestant bigotry. With his university-acquired liberalism, Alvin is horrified by the chants led by a human Lam-beg Drum known as ‘The Cage’. But he is soon put in his place: ‘Think ye’re above aw this, wee man? Eh?  Think we’re just bigoted scum?’ Frannie tries to diffuse the tension, saying, ‘We are bigoted scum… Ken?  No one likes us. We don’t care!’

It is this belligerence that Bissett believes is at the heart of the Rangers fans’ self-justification, which is focused on a perceived inconsistency in attitudes between the Old Firm. ‘That lot cannay face uptay the fact that they’re as prejudiced as every ither cunt,’ says Frannie. ‘Ye can jump up and doon in a pub in the Gallowgate glorifyin IRA atrocities and folk’ll pass it off as “the craic”… But the second anyone sticks “The Sash My Father Wore” on the karaoke… ye’re as popular as Freddy Krueger in a primary school. We no got a right tay celebrate oor culture?’

But Bissett also highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of much of the debate on sectarianism. Cage says, ‘I’m sickay this “Scotland’s Shame” business. Ye’re allowed to rip the pish out the English all ye like, but the minute it’s the Old Firm there’s a steward’s enquiry. I’ll stop singin “The Billy Boys” when them Tartan Army wanks stop singin “Floweray fuckin Scotland”’.

In The Sign of the Cross – Travels in Catholic Europe, Colm Toíbín, on a visit to Glasgow in 1993, asks a journalist who among the new wave of Scottish writers is Catholic. The journalist cannot think of any, with the exception of Muriel Spark, a middle-class convert rather than a voice of the immigrant Irish in Scotland. Toíbín asks others the same question. No one can think of any writer apart from Thomas Healy, author of several novels and the boxing memoir, A Hurting Business. Everyone says it is a question they have never been asked before. Toíbín is surprised, and implies that sectarianism has perhaps consciously or unconsciously edited out Catholic voices from Scottish literature.

Undoubtedly he was asking the wrong question. While other writers did come from a Catholic background – Tom Leonard for example – the literati did not identify itself by religion at a time when reacting to Thatcherism and the politics of class were the defining cultural impulses. Since the demise of the last Conservative government and rise and fall of New Labour, more overtly working-class Catholic writers have emerged, including Andrew O’Hagan, Anne Donovan and Des Dillon.

However, there had been little literary engagement with Protestant sectarianism before Bissett’s Pack Men. Despite his working class Protestant upbringing, James Kelman has rarely been interested in the religious divide or sectarianism. It is pushed to the background of early stories such as ‘Away in Airdrie’ and the more recent novel Keiron Smith, Boy. Kelman has said he deliberately chose to support Aberdeen as a child and Manchester United when he moved to England.

Alan Spence is one writer who has explored the subject, both in his story collection Its Colours They Are Fine (which also considers Glaswegian Catholic experience) and in the early sections of his first novel The Magic Flute. In The Magic Flute, Brian and Tam escape their working class Protestant backgrounds through education and jazz respectively. In Pack Men Bissett is more focused on the conflict in Alvin’s personality: he is both repulsed and attracted to everything the Manchester riot represents. The working-class identity he has shed so successfully equals misogyny, homophobia, bitterness, paranoia, powerlessness; but also honesty, camaraderie, defiance of authority, acceptance, a tension mirrored in his equally confused sexuality. This dichotomy is most obvious in language. As a child young Alvin speaks in broad ‘Fawkurt’ and as the novel progresses his acquired middle-class RP begins to break down as he reintegrates with his mates.

In terms of sectarianism, Bissett’s thesis is that it is ugly and violent, but it is also a legitimate expression of a working-class identity marginalised by cultural, social and economic structures designed to keep the proles in their place. One character gives the game away: ‘Listen… everybody on this bus works nextay Celtic supporters day in, day oot, and we’re no aw kickin fuck oot each other every break-time.  But on Old Firm day it’s yer bog-standard, let’s-kid-on-we-hate-you-hate-us fitbaw rivalry wi the stakes just that wee bit higher… That’s whit makes it so giud… Celtic supporters love it tay. Dae ye hink everybody on this bus actually wants tay round Catholics up and shoot them?’

Certainly, sectarianism can lead to brutality. The murder of 16-year-old Celtic fan Mark Scott in 1996 by Jason Campbell, who was released from prison in June, is a example that continues to shock. But many more random acts of violence occur in towns and cities across Scotland every year where the ultimate cause is poverty: poverty of opportunity, poverty of ambition.

While my Army career was inglorious, a knee injury cutting my military service short to a pathetic three months, I did take a job in Belfast where, because of involvement in the RUC’s Confidential Telephone Line, employees were encouraged to check daily under their cars for bombs. Around the same time my father received several telephone death threats from the UVF for holding ecumenical discussions with the local Jesuits.

Having lived and worked in Northern Ireland, it’s hard to take Glasgow sectarianism seriously. In The Sign of the Cross Colm Toíbín agreed. When attending an Old Firm match he observed, ‘Celtic waved the Irish tricolour, Rangers waved the Union Jack… There was a peculiar unreality about it, since this was Glasgow, and it was unlikely that either side had spent much time in England or in Ireland, places to which they now swore fierce loyalty. It was intense, misplaced fanaticism.’

Much of the recent furore around Neil Lennon has been the product of a concerted campaign by both manager and owners at Celtic Park to galvanize players and supporters through the age-old trick of perceived injustice. The enemies: referees, the Scottish Football Association, the media. Alex Fergu-son, when Aberdeen manager, was master of this tactic. To some Lennon and Celtic’s then chairman Dr John Reid, former Home Secretary and New Labour ‘attack dog’, are heroes for being the first at the club publicly to challenge discrimination, although so far the only hard evidence is an emailed joke about paedophile priests. The unfortunate consequence has been to legitimize sectarian behaviour amongst fans of both sides. It has always been there but lending official endorsement to age-old paranoia has given new impetus to the bigots. And unsurprisingly, the politicians have been caught ambulance-chasing.

This is not to say that anti-Catholic discrimination didn’t exist. Of course it did. Catholics in Scotland were excluded from banking, commercial law, broadsheet journalism, local government administration and accountancy, the good middle class jobs. But they didn’t suffer the same discrimination in housing, politics or business that existed in Ulster. These days in Scotland discrimination is more likely to be based on class or race than religion and should sectarianism disappear overnight, it’s likely that some other point of difference, real or imaginary, would soon take its place.

Despite the contentious nature of its sectarian themes, Pack Men is a wry, entertaining and mature work, both affectionate toward and critical of the Protestant working class at play. In the wrong hands fey metrosexual ingénue Alvin could be deeply irritating but Bissett succeeds in making us root for the most unlikely of antiheroes, even as he implodes, a trick he pulled off with similar aplomb in his previous novel, Death of a Ladies Man. However, at just over 60,000 words, Pack Men is more concise and yet feels more substantial.

PACK MEN

Alan Bissett
HACHETTE, £12.99, 192PP ISBN 978-0755319435

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Diary

In Search of RLS in Samoa.

The name of Robert Louis Stevenson is still revered and universally recognised in Samoa, as the visitor arriving on the island where RLS spent his final years will quickly discover. The driver on the shuttle bus from the airport took the opportunity to display his knowledge and admiration. ‘Robert Louis Stevenson was from Scotland. He is our idol, our master. He loved Samoa. He is buried here.’

The RLS trail may have something of the quality of a secular pilgrimage, although the first impression is that the island is better equipped for a conventional religious pilgrimage. The road from the airport, and indeed all roads through villages in the island, is lined with churches. The guide book lists the main denominations as ‘Congregationalist, Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God, Bahai, Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses’, an impressive list.  A request to know how many places of Christian worship there are on the island is met with laughter. ‘Too many,’ says the driver, before asserting his own orthodoxy by revealing he has fifteen children. ‘I am a Catholic. I do not believe in birth control,’ he explained, somewhat unnecessarily.

Stevenson worried about the impact of the missionaries on the culture and way of life of the Samoan people, and the first impression is that this was a battle he lost. Samoa is now a deeply Christian country in the way Ireland and Poland once were. There are several churches belonging to the various denominations in every village, not small, modest structures but massive stone-built constructions with twin belfries, grand staircases and towering steeples designed in imitation of European gothic or baroque styles.  What would RLS have made of it? He made friends with some individual priests and ministers and wrote a famous pamphlet indignantly and powerfully defending Fr. Damien from slanderous accusations of immoral living, knowing that he had given his life to assisting those suffering from leprosy. However, he slated missionary activity in general.  Catholics and Protestants have ‘rendered life in a more or less degree unliveable to their converts’, he wrote.

RLS settled in Samoa in 1890, after travelling around the islands in the South Seas in search of a place where his health might improve. He had come, he believed, ‘to the afterpiece of life and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect’, but although there would be many relapses, he was rejuvenated in Samoa in his writing as well as in his health. He bought a large stretch of land in an area called Vailima and in 1892 moved into the house which he had constructed. His wife Fanny threw herself into gardening, and Stevenson, who is reputed to have introduced the pineapple to Samoa, found that ‘nothing is so interesting as weeding, clearing and path-making’. He lived in Vailima only two years before his death in 1894, but his Samoan years were rich and productive.

The house is now a museum. There may be more museums worldwide to RLS than to any other writer. Apart from Edinburgh, there are two in California, but Vailima is the most personal. His family left not long after his death, having sold the house to a German trader, who added a new wing.

It was later the residence of the governor when New Zealand was colonial overlord, then the home of head of state of the independent Samoa. When he moved out, the house was buffeted by cyclones and left derelict until it was bought by a group of Americans, headed by a millionaire, Rex Maugham. It is always added that these men are Mormons, as though this were in some way sinister, but they have shown themselves to be benevolent philanthropists who have spent untold millions in restoring the building.

The male guides wear the traditional lavalava, which RLS translated as ‘kilt’, in the Royal Stuart tartan, as Stevenson himself dressed his servants. He was bewildered and dismayed at the missionary pressure to have the native dress replaced by respectable trousers. Scotland was never far from his mind, even before his mother came to join them, bringing with her furniture from Heriot Row, and persuading her son to write prayers which were recited each evening with the whole clan of family and attendants. The chairs and wardrobes have been dispersed, but items on display include the Rodin statue RLS acquired in Paris and the reproduction of the Raeburn portrait of Lord Braxfield sent by Andrew Lang when he learned Stevenson was using the ferocious judge as model for his Weir of Hermiston. The visitor can still see the two fireplaces, utterly redundant in Samoa and never provided with a chimney, but inseparable from a Caledonian dream of domesticity.

The upper veranda gives onto a circular lawn, surrounded by lush colourful foliage of red, white and yellow hibiscus, of mimosa, oleander and cocoa-palms, many planted by Fanny, but which is now cut off the view of the sea her husband so appreciated.  The two verandas were employed for the grand feasts RLS laid on for the crews of visiting British ships, as well as for local white dignitaries and the matai, or chieftains. He was struck by the parallels between the tribes and the Highland clans, but complained of the loss of time the lavish ceremonial of the island required. Kava was ritually drunk, although it is the least appetising of all party drinks, being made of a crushed root mixed with liquid and looking like muddy water.  The verandas were also used as a hospital for the wounded in the civil war Stevenson tried so manfully to prevent.

Towering above the house is mount Vaea, whose summit Stevenson chose as his final resting place.  The various factions and families in the island gathered around his body on the evening he died, while other Samoans worked all night to cut the path to the mountain top. All came together to carry and escort the body the following day. Greater love no man could have shown, for the slope, which goes past the natural pool where he used to bathe, may look gentle from below but in the humid heat it is a gruelling climb. The plain tomb with the famous epitaph ‘Under the wide and starry sky…’ still stands at the peak, and the view over the rain forest down to the sea is majestic.

Stevenson did not always love the Samoans. He described them as ‘easy, merry and pleasure-loving’, but also wrote that they were ‘far from the most capable or beautiful of the Polynesians’. Fanny records in her diary that he complained of their being lazy and feckless, but he saw their culture and autonomy at risk from the imperialist schemes of the Big Powers, Germany, USA and Britain, and sided with them so uncompromisingly that he risked being deported by the British authorities. RLS found it was ‘impossible to live here and not feel the consequences of the horrid white rule’. He took up the cause of the inhabitants in a series of letters to The Times, causing Oscar Wilde to snigger that a writer of romances should not be permitted to live in a romantic location. It was this championing of their rights which won RLS the abiding affection of Samoans.  His Footnote to History is a searing, passionate exposé of the exploitation of the native peoples.

The foreign powers could unite in the manipulation of the Samoans, but each had their own interests to serve. RLS held them largely responsible for fomenting a civil war which pitched two, at times three, rival kings against each other. Some biographers are astoundingly indulgent about this small war in a far-off place of which they know nothing and which they present as somewhat quaint, but RLS was aware it was a brutal affair. The two sides reverted to their old ways of beheading wounded enemies and on this occasion, against all tradition, even decapitating women. Stevenson did not stay neutral but supported the side led by Mataafa, whom he believed most able to defend Samoan interests and independence.  Mataafa lost and was exiled but Stevenson attended to his imprisoned followers.

He could have lived in a secluded fantasy paradise of the sort celebrated by Paul Gauguin. There was a flourishing 19th century Pacific Islands literature whose practitioners included writers of the stature of Pierre Loti, Jack London, Herman Melville and, later, Somerset Maugham, as well as many lesser figures. Their writings displayed common traits – the revelling in the exotic, the sense of being on the edge of things and the opportunity to indulge in a sensuality unacceptable in the douce capitals of Europe. RLS distanced himself from these equivocal fantasies, all ending in ‘a kind of sham sugarcandy epic’, and promised ‘the first realistic South Seas story … with real South Seas characters’.

The point Wilde missed, and which disconcerted many friends and admirers back home, was that the experience of life in the islands had a deep impact on Stevenson’s writing and that in his work set in the South Seas he moved beyond romance. He still wrote of Scotland. He completed Catriona in Hawaii, worked on St. Ives and Weir of Hermiston in Samoa, leaving both unfinished at his death, but he also found, as he wrote to Sidney Colvin, ‘a whole world in my head, a whole new society to work…’ No one, he wrote, could deny that he was now in his fiction a citizen of the 19th century. This new world required a new style and a new genre, and it was RLS himself who used the term ‘realism’ to describe his aims in the novella The Beach at Falesa.

The story itself ‘just shot through me like a bullet in one of my moments of awe, alone in that tragic jungle’, but his aspiration to show the reality of life in the South Seas at that moment of self-confident imperialism meant that he was trespassing on dangerous ground. The relations between the malevolent Case and Wiltshire, a largely decent man, recall those between the brothers in The Master of Ballantrae, but the two traders were white men and it was the islanders who displayed the positive ethical traits. Wiltshire eventually falls in love with Uma, but on his arrival he is given her by Case like a piece of merchandise. He connives at deceiving her by presenting her with a document she takes as a marriage certificate but which states that ‘she is illegally married to John Wiltshire for one night’, after which he is ‘at liberty to send her to hell the next morning’. This was close to French realism and was too strong meat for critics and publishers in Britain and America. For all his insistence, the offending words were not included in the versions of the story published in his lifetime. The earlier RLS was more comfortable.

Whatever the purely personal reasons which led RLS to settle in Samoa, his presence was beneficial both to him and to the Samoans themselves. His time there was not just a coda when all energy was spent, but a period of radical change for him. The pity is the development was cut short at the age of 44.

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Why Did They Go

I did it to go out in a blaze of glory
I did it to make them listen to my side

of the story
I only did it to get attention
I did it to get an honourable mention I did it to put an end to it all
I did it for no reason at all

But I did it I did it
I did it
Yes I did.

‘My Way’, Liz Lochhead

Tom Devine’s new book, To the Ends of the Earth, is subtitled ‘Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750–2010’, and presents a grand overview of Scottish emigration. Many previous writers have commented upon this phenomenon — a vast and almost continuous outflow proportionately much greater than that from comparable North-European lands like Denmark, Norway, the Nether-lands and Ireland. Greater, too, than from England, the neighbouring nation-state with whom the Treaty of Union was concluded in 1707. ‘Diaspora’ has often been linked to the history of the Jews, and occasionally to one phase of dispossession in Scotland’s past: the Highland Clearances. But Devine returns to the original, broader etymology: ‘A process of human dispersal which can be voluntary and opportunistic rather than governed by implacable expulsive forces…the global ‘scattering’ and impact of Scottish religious and secular ideas, borne to several overseas countries by the emigrants and leaving a deep mark there, as well as commodities and funding exported from Scotland itself .’

On the whole, Scots chose to depart, and stayed there. They had done so long before the Union Treaty, mainly to continental Europe; then the growing British Empire provided great new opportunities. Quoting another historian, Devine points out that: ‘Of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, it is the Scots’ contribution that stands out as disproportionate. They were the first peoples of the British Isles to take on an imperial mentality and possibly the longest to sustain one.’ Even if they didn’t stay away, many depended entirely on the export business. In this writer’s family, for example, a grandfather on my mother’s side worked as a First Mate for the New Zealand Shipping Company, and sailed round the world to Wellington every year. His ship was the S.S. Tongariro, a three-masted ‘hybrid’ of those times, not sold off until 1899 and scrapped only in 1911. In such circumstances it wasn’t hard to sustain an outward-looking mind-set.

The obverse of that mentality was an equally remarkable parochialism at home. But naturally, in Scotland this had to take a quasi-philosophical form: rootedness-as-such, one might say. That took the shape of what can be called ‘ceremonial nationalism’, the colourful adoption of what in an earlier book Devine called ‘Highlandism’. The Union proscribed politicised Scottishness, but could not prevent the display-nationalism of what turned into ‘tartanry’: a compensatory expression of identity, strongly linked to the important military element in Scotland’s share of the imperial burden. A country of diverse populations and tongues required a strong binding force. Since politics had been surrendered, this had to be located in (as the Scots first put it) ‘civil society’. Rather than occluding the latter’s tattoo-marks, the new British-Union State strongly encouraged them. Professor Devine is very revealing on the subject. Commenting on the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, he points out how the Black Watch regiment concluded the ceremony with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ : ‘Imperial units…but soldiers strikingly distinctive in dress and appearance, recognizably and unambiguously Scottish, martial champions of the nation. In most countries such striking distinctions had been emphasized to claim separate statehood, but here the ‘nation’ was of course Great Britain. ‘There is much truth in the saying that Scotland was born fighting’, he concludes, but usually not for herself: an invented ethnicity in the service of others, for a supposedly greater cause (or nation).

It was on my own ‘end of the earth’, the banks of the Yarra River in Victoria State, Australia, that I first learned about Devine’s new book . But I only got down to reading it at home, on the banks of the Dornoch Firth at Forres. In the hotel that night Douglas Dunn’s words about the very similar Aberlemno Stone echoed somewhere in the dark, with an unsettling dream of the place ‘where four roads intersect’, and warriors assemble to ‘cry for lyric nationhood’ in the lost Pic-tish tongue. Why are we still on this damned crossroads, I woke up wondering. However, this is an example of why To the Ends of the Earth is so timely: it helps define the real landscape of choice and decision that is now presenting itself more plainly since the last Scottish election.

Ends of the earth are no longer what they were during the centuries of diaspora. After the Cold War, ‘globalization’ has imposed a sort of finality on the scene. Since nobody around the globe is in favour of ‘All-the-Sameism’, diversity itself has moved to centre-stage. And at this new intersection, it is clearer that humanity’s universality demands both transcendence from and manifestation of inherent differences, or ‘peculiarities’. Neither religion nor Enlightenment (extensively dealt with in the book) can ‘solve’ what is not really a ‘problem’ at all: it’s just the way homo sapiens is — and will have to remain, one way or another.

Devine’s book reminds us that Scotland’s prolonged diaspora was a way of coming to terms with what might be called the earlier crossroads of priority. That conjuncture was also imposed, an unchosen fate. The main theorists of nationalism, Liah Greenfeld and Ernest Gellner, agreed that England’s nation-state was the original model for political modernity. There, geographical position and a succession of victories over would-be conquerors provided conditions for a dominant majority to secure its position. The other contender was the French monarchy, but the resultant struggle brought empires to both sides. In the English case archipel-ago minorities were either incorporated or defeated or subordinated as junior partners. Chapter 3, ‘Sinews of Power’, is an impressive account of how the Scots played their part in this first-round industrialization, a relationship underwritten by successful allied warfare, as well as overseas expansion.

But that round ended, with the conclusion of the Cold War; and a new one is in formation, with ‘globalization’ as its prologue. In the earlier phase, well-situated centres claimed a place by over-doing their advantages, and higher-pressure, competitive nationality-politics was one aspect of this. That’s where the ‘-ism’ of nationality came from. Devine examines how it worked for the Scots: a combination of resources, the ‘Protestant Ethic’, better education and family networks. Diasporic movement was one feature of the system’s effectiveness: one had to be ready to move out, to learn and ‘improve oneself’ in order to return and get on — always with the possibility of staying away longer, or even permanently. Devine points out there’s little sign of the process ceasing , or even diminishing. Rather, Highlandism ‘feeds a modern-day hunger for a connection with an earlier, better, pre-industrial non-capitalist society’ so we see ‘a new interest in ethnicity booming as globalization gathered pace in the later twentieth century’.

Since the interest is irrepressible, it has to be recognized, and dealt with. In many respects the model remains Israel: the formal establishment of a statehood ‘home’ to which the diasporic fragments can relate. However, the restored Heimat is bound to have an ambiguous relationship with these emigrant communities. Most are very conservative, and long ago ceased contributing to progressive nation-building in their chosen destinations. Today they return to refill the nostalgia-tank rather than support independence. Their own metaphorical roots remain British-imperial, not radical, or dissident-Irish. No doubt all this would shift after independence; but it’s not likely to help much in winning it.

As regards the latter, the conclusion implicit in Devine’s argument is short and evident: Take Liz Lochhead’s advice, and ‘Do it!’ Chapter 13 provides grounds for a longer version, in bigger and bolder typeface: ‘Do it before it’s too late!’ For demographic trends clearly indicate an ageing and shrinking population, during years when ‘no other part of the E.U. experienced decline’. Regional economic regeneration has had its day, and failed. A more determinedly nationalist approach is needed, under the circumstances of globalization. Not just ‘self-government’ but an identity fuelled by what Les Wilson has called a Fire in the Head, the determination to forge an enduring place and difference. Among clichés of the present none is commoner or phonier than ‘the decline of the nation-state’. First-round industrialization did indeed lead to exacerbated and deplorable forms of nationality-politics, but globality will put these in their place. At the same time, the many colours of the species mansion are here to stay, and preferably to increase, and to grow brighter. One way of interpreting the ground-swell of SNP support is growing consciousness of something like this: a lower-pressure but enduring independence trend, now more possible, and more conducive to what could be called “amicable separation”. Over the two centuries of Devine’s title, ‘identity’ was simultaneously promoted and kept subordinate, as an instrument of cohesion for national markets and economies; in a globalised context it will exist much more in its own right — but not just as narcissism, rather as a fertilizing ingredient of one or many commonwealths. In sci-fi stories the creatures who disembark here are always depicted as perfectly and slimily uniform; but when Earth-creatures manage to get somewhere else, I’m glad to note that Devine’s argument suggests a few diasporic Caledonians will almost certainly be among them, recognizable by the tartan scarves and hip-flasks. Apparently he plans to publish a farther volume on ‘Scottish migration to England’, and all readers of To the Ends of the Earth will look forward keenly its appearance.

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH – SCOTLAND’S GLOBAL DIASPORA, 1750–2010

T. M. Devine
ALLEN LANE, £25.00, 416PP ISBN 978-0713997446

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