Monthly Archives: March 2012


Volume 8 – Issue 1 – Classifieds


Classified contains a listing of new titles submitted for inclusion by publishers in Scotland. Advertisers in this section are:

Argyll Publishing

01369 820 229

Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)

0141 330 5309

Backpage Press

Birlinn Ltd.

0131 668 4371

Brown, Son & Ferguson

0141 429 5922

Edinburgh University Press

0131 650 4218

Glasgow Museums

0141 276 9452

Grace Note Publications

01764 655979 books@

John Donald

See Birlinn.

Luath Press

0131 225 4326

National Galleries of Scotland

0131 624 6269

Para Press

01892 512 118


020 7770 6083


Brighton Belle – A Mirabelle Bevan Mystery
Sara Sheridan
POLYGON £16.99 HB 9781846972331
In an attempt to put her past behind her, retired Secret Service agent Mirabelle Bevan takes a job at a debt collection agency run by the charismatic Big Ben McGuigan. But the mysterious case of Romana Laszlo brings Mirabelle back to her roots. Also available as an eBook.

Time & Tide – A Hew Cullan Mystery
Shirley McKay
POLYGON £8.99 PB 9781846972188
1582, St Andrews. In the swell of a storm, a ship is wrecked in the harbour. The only survivor is a young Flemish sailor. The cargo brings devastation to the town as squabbling turns to tragedy. Hew traces the ship to its source in Ghent, where he uncovers a strange secret and finds his principles tested to the core. Also available as an eBook.

The Road to Hell – An Alice Rice Mystery
Gillian Galbraith
POLYGON £14.99 HB 9781846972256
When the body of a half-clothed woman is discovered in an Edinburgh park, a murder investigation is launched. The victim has not been reported missing and there are few clues to her identity. Soon after, the naked corpse of a prominent clergyman is found, also in a park. Is  the same killer at work, and what is the connection between the attacks? Also available as an eBook.

The Pure
Jake Simons
Introducing Uzi, a disaffected, deadly ex-Mossad agent with revenge on his mind. When he gets the chance to expose the details of a top-secret assassination operation he makes himself an enemy of his former employers. The Pure is a high-octane, action-packed, adrenaline-pumping espionage thriller. Buckle up, there’s a new Bourne in town! Also available as an eBook.

Margaret Oliphant
ASLS £9.95 PB 9780948877995
Kirsteen, from an old but impoverished Highland family, rebels against her father and flees to London. Against the odds she finds work, striving for independence against a world determined to drag her down. Written in the late 1800s, Kirsteen is a startlingly modern novel in its treatment of women.

Catriona Child
Davie Watts is the Trackman. He knows what song you need to hear and he knows when you need to hear it. He seeks out strangers in need and helps them using the power of music. A powerful debut novel set in Edinburgh, by a Scottish author and with a killer soundtrack!

Saving Sebastian
Hazel McHaffie
Sebastain Zair is four years old. But a rare blood disorder means that he won’t live much longer unless he gets a stem cell transplant from a donor with a matching tissue type. It’s a race against time and time is not on Sebastian’s side. How far would you go to save the life of your child?


An Cuilithionn 1939: The Cuillin 1939 and Unpublished Poems
Sorley MacLean; Christopher Whyte (ed)
ASLS £12.50 PB 9781906841034
This major new edition of MacLean’s epic work includes 400 lines never before published, along with MacLean’s own English translation, and an extended commentary. Forty-five other previously unpublished poems by MacLean also appear here for the first time, with facing English translations.

View from the Bench: My Life in Poetry
Lillias Scott Forbes
A celebration in Scots and English poetry of the life of Lillias Scott Forbes, nonagenarian poet and daughter of the composer Francis George Scott. Thoughtful, witty, amusing and timeless.

These Islands, We Sing – An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry
Kevin MacNeil (ed)
These Islands, We Sing is a unique celebration of Scottish islands’ Poetry. This collection brings together world-renowned talent alongside many fantastic poets who deserve more attention. This anthology includes work by Sorley Maclean, Ian Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Hugh McDairmid, and many more.


Renewing Old Edinburgh – the Enduring Legacy of Patrick Geddes
Jim Johnson & Lou Rosenburg
Original research into the structure of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The same issues in Patrick Geddes’ era still resonate today in the field of modern development.

English Drawings and Watercolours 1600–1900: National Gallery of Scotland
Christopher Baker
The collection of English drawings and watercolours in the National Gallery of Scotland is rich, diverse and in many respects little known. This scholarly catalogue for the first time makes the full scope and importance of the collection clear. Beautifully produced and generously illustrated, it is a key reference work for a wide range of enthusiasts for British art.

The Grand Designer -Third Marquess of Bute
Rosemary Hannah
This fascinating biography tells the story of a rich eccentric, whose learning, insight and kindness produced extraordinary results in architecture and life, a man who combined being amongst the richest men of the age with artistic patronage of an almost incomprehensible scale. Also available as an eBook.

Introducing Italian Art
Patricia Collins
The paintings and objects featured here offer a glimpse into the spectacular collection of Italian art which Glasgow Museums has been fortunate to develop, largely thanks to the great generosity of past citizens and benefactors. It features paintings and decorative works from the 14th to 19th centuries.

Glasgow Museums: The Italian Paintings Professor
Peter Humfrey
Glasgow has the finest and most comprehensive civic collection of Italian paintings in Britain. Spanning five centuries, it includes masterpieces by Bellini, Signorelli, Titian, Domenichino and Guardi. Professor Peter Humfrey describes all 140 of Glasgow’s Italian paintings, and the catalogue is lavishly illustrated.


Inspirations – a new series of introductory biographies of people of achievement from past and present.
Bob Dylan
Colin Waters
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134518

Nelson Mandela
Marian Pallister
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134525

Robert Burns
Bronwen Hosie
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134532

The Williams Sisters
Hugh MacDonald
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134549

Charles Dickens
Alan Taylor
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 97819906134679

Muhammad Ali
Hugh MacDonald
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 97819096134662

JK Rowling
Lindsey Fraser
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134693

John Lennon
Chris Dolan
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 97819906134686

Highland Homespun
Margaret Leigh
BIRLINN £8.99 PB 9781780270418
Margaret Leigh recounts a year of farming life on Achnabo farm, in a beautiful corner of the West Highlands overlooking the Isle of Skye. From the author of Driftwood and Tangle and Spade Among the Rushes comes this reflective and poignant memoir of a world now vanished forever.

The Man who was Never Shakespeare
A. J. Pointon
PARAPRESS £12.00 PB 9781898594888
William Shakspere was a rich businessman from Stratford-upon-Avon, and a minor actor. But was he also the great playwright who wrote under the name Shakespeare? Or is that just a case of identity theft? Tony Pointon here restores to William Shakspere his own identity, and removes the myths that have distorted his real lifestyle.


More Granny Porage Stories
Jean Marshall
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134341
Three more cleverly illustrated stories for the under-eights.

Send for Granny Porage
Jean Marshall
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134556
The latest picture book in the Granny Porage series for the young.

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Swim Kenneth Steven
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 97819906134730 Another adventure story from this
successful and thoughtful author. For 2 to 8-year-olds.

Huntress of the Sea
Alan Temperley
LUATH PRESS LTD £7.99 PB 9781906817350
When Ewan’s father returns home after an absence of seven years, his body is covered in scars, his nails are like claws and there is a new wildness in his eyes. Someone or something wishes Ewan dead – because his father’s stormy past is not willing to let him go.


Claire Macdonald’s Entertaining Solo- Delicious Recipes for Single Cooks Who Like to Entertain
Claire Macdonald
BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781780270487
With an emphasis on meals that can be prepared in advance, or main courses that can be served up in one dish, these recipes are designed for the minimum fuss, so you can relax and enjoy your evening with your guests, free from the stove. With fabulously tasty, stylish food, Entertaining Solo is the perfect kitchen companion for single chefs everywhere.

The Claire Macdonald Cookbook
Claire Macdonald
BIRLINN £25.00 HB 9781780270814
Whether providing ideas for informal family fare, intimate gourmet meals or special occasions, Claire Macdonald is a remarkably reliable source of foolproof and marvellous recipes.

Claire Macdonald’s Fish – Inspiring Fish recipes for Creative Cooks
Claire Macdonald
BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781780270807
Claire Macdonald turns her attention to fish in this practical, inspired and creative collection of recipes.

Claire Macdonald’s Simply Seasonal
Claire Macdonald
BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781780270838
Arranged in an easy-to-use format, with recipes arranged by season, Claire Macdonald offers a whole range of recipes for informal entertaining.


Megrahi: You Are My Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence
John Ashton
BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781780270159
This long-awaited book argues that, far from being an unrepentant terrorist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was the innocent victim of dirty politics, a flawed investigation and judicial folly. Based on exclusive interviews with Megrahi himself, and conclusive new evidence, it destroys the prosecution case and puts the Scottish criminal justice system in the dock.

Fags Drugs Booze + children – what parents need to know to keep children safe
Max Cruickshank
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781906134983
An entertaining, challenging and informative guide to all manner of drugs including alcohol and tobacco.

The Scots Crisis of Confidence
Carol Craig
ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £9.99 PB 9781906134709
A new edition of Carol Craig’s successful exposition of Scots’ attitudes to and predilection for negativity. She offers a refreshingly different analysis of the big themes of Scottish culture. Rewritten in parts and brought up to date.

The Trial of Helen Percy
Helen Percy
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781906134747
In 1995 Helen Percy, a young Church of Scotland minister in an outwardly idyllic rural parish was raped by one of her congregation. This book is her revealing, remarkable and candid story – a beautifully and powerfully written testament to the strength of the human spirit and a burning indictment of conservative forces in Scotland’s national Church and among popularly held attitudes.

A Model Constitution for Scotland: Making Democracy Work in an Independent State
W. Elliot Bulmer
LUATH PRESS LTD £9.99 PB 9781908373137
A Model Constitution for Scotland sets out a workable model for Scotland’s future and includes detailed constitutional proposals and informed discussion on the topic.

A Nation Again: Why Independence will be Good for Scotland (And England Too)
Paul Henderson Scott (ed.)
LUATH PRESS LTD £7.99 PB 9781908373250
A comment on the current political climate in Scotland. Various authors tackle different aspects of society coming to the same conclusion.

Inside the Ira
Andrew Sanders
On the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, discover why, and how, the IRA splintered from one organisation into several factions.


Sgeulachd Cailleach nan Gràineag
Beatrix Potter
GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £5.99 HB 9781907676079
Scottish Gaelic translation of The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. As a child Beatrix Potter had known an old country washerwoman called Kitty MacDonald, the inspiration for the twinkly-eyed washerwoman who does Peter Rabbit’s laundry.

A Gaelic Alphabet – a Guide to the Pronunciation of Gaelic Letters and Words
George McLennan
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £4.99 PB 9781906134334
Like its companion volume Scots Gaelic, an introduction to the basics, this handy book is of great help to learners and speakers.

Scots Gaelic – an Introduction to the Basics
George McLennan
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £4.99 PB 9781902831886
A new reprint of the successful Gaelic primer.

Slogans Galore – Gaelic Words in English
George McLennan
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £4.99 PB 9781906134488
A reference guide to Gaelic-derived words in common use.

Luath Scots Language Learner
L. Colin Wilson
LUATH PRESS LTD £16.99 PB 9781906307431
The first-ever language course on Scots, this book starts from the most basic vocabulary and constructions, the reader is guided step-by-step through Scots vocabulary and the subtleties of grammar and idiom that distinguish Scots from English.


The Sprouters Handbook
Edward Cairney
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £4.99 PB 9781906134754
New editions of bestselling and on formative guide to sprouting seeds. David Bellamy: ‘A must for every kitchen and a bonus for all who crave a healthy diet.’



‘Tis Sixty Years Since: The First People’s Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival.
Eberhard Bort (Ed)
GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS £9.95 PB 9781907676109
Commemorating the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh (inspiring the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) this collection reflects on Hamish Henderson’s influence on Scotland’s Folk Revival.

Waverley Route – the life, death and rebirth of the Borders railway
David Spaven
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £14.99 PB 9781906134990
£20.00 HB 9781908931009
Tells the story of Britain’s railways in the 1960s and the opportunities in devolved Scotland to revive the trains in the Borders. Lavishly illustrated.

Scotland the Brief a short history of a nation
Christopher Harvie
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £5.99 PB 9781906134617
A beginner’s guide from prehistory to the new Scottish Parliament.

Edinburgh’s Colonies – Housing the Workers
Richard Rodger
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £11.99 PB 9781906134785
A well-illustrated narrative of the distinctive and charming ‘Colonies’ housing of Edinburgh. Of interest to Edinburgh citizens but also to students of social and housing history.

The Pagan Symbols of the Picts
Stuart McHardy
LUATH PRESS LTD £16.99 HB 9781908373144
A cohesive interpretation of the Pictish past, Stuart McHardy paints a vivid
and diverse picture of Pictish Scotland, examining the temporal and geographic, the cultural and mythical, the artistic and oral.

Women of Moray
Susan Bennett, Mary Byatt, Jenny Main, Anne Oliver and Janet Trythall (eds.)
LUATH PRESS LTD £16.99 PB 9781908373168
This book captures the tales of over 70 women whose lives have made an impact on history both in Scotland and abroad. For the historian, the genealogist and the general reader, this is a book that will change your view of history.

Hebridean Sharker
Tex Geddes
BIRLINN £9.99 PB 9781780270340
In Hebridean Sharker Tex Geddes describes his exploits during the 1950s as a hunter of basking sharks in the waters of the Minch, between the Inner and Outer Hebrides. His story is full of adventures and fantastic descriptions of a seagoing life in the islands. It has become a Hebridean classic.

Set On a Hill – A Strategic View over Scottish History
Robin Bell
BIRLINN £14.99 PB 9781841589947
Set on a Hill is an engrossing and entertaining book which looks at the broad sweep of Scotland’s history from the perspective of just one small Scottish town – Auchterarde – an area that has been of surprising strategic historical importance for thousands of years.

Clan Gregor
Forbes Macgregor
STEVE SAVAGE PUBLISHERS £7.50 PB 9781904246374
New edition of Forbes Macgregor’s lively history of Clan Gregor, which goes back to the dawn of history before dealing with historic events including the ‘proscription’ of the clan and the banning of the MacGregor surname. The story of Rob Roy is joined by the clan’s contributions in more recent times.

Lewis – A History of the Island
Donald Macdonald
STEVE SAVAGE PUBLISHERS £12.50 PB 9781904246084
Reprint of ground-breaking history of Lewis. Over the centuries, Lewis saw a succession of powerful landlords come and go. This book recounts the long-fought struggle over the land, and describes the islanders’ way of life. In writing it, Donald Macdonald combined original research with a deep personal knowledge of the subject.


Scottish and International Modernisms: Relationships and Reconfigurations
Emma Dymock & Margery Palmer McCulloch (eds)
ASLS £9.95 PB 9781906841072
This collection of essays, from fourteen scholars, illustrates the strongly international and modernist dimension of Scotland’s interwar revival, and illuminates the relationships between Scottish and non-Scottish writers and contexts. It also includes two chapters on the contribution made to this revival by Scottish visual art and music.

Scotland in Definition – A History of Scottish Dictionaries
Iseabail Macleod and J. Derrick McClure (eds)
JOHN DONALD £25.00 PB 9781906566494
This book gives an account of Scots and Gaelic dictionaries and glossaries, and also of the contribution by many Scots to the lexicography of English, from medieval times to the major electronic projects of the twenty-first century.


Back From The Brink
Jamie Webster
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £9.99 PB 9780851748085
The fight to stop the closure of the Kvaerner Govan shipyard in Glasgow was the most high profile industrial campaign in Scotland since the UCS sit-in in the 1970’s. This is the inside story of that struggle, told in his own words by campaign leader, Govan’s yard convenor Jamie Webster.

Glenlee – The Life and Times of a Clyde Built Cape Horner
Colin Castle & Ian MacDonald
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £20.00 HB 9780851745091
In the 10-year period beginning in 1882, 271 barques and full-riggers were built on the Clyde during which time the yards of Russell, Stephen, Connell, Lithgow and Rodger established a worldwide reputation for the construction of large sailing ships of outstanding design, quality and durability. Three-masted barque Glenlee was one such vessel. This is her fascinating story.

Bill Cumming
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £55.00 HB 9781849270137
Based on real people and events this is a gripping factual account of the background events and repercussions of the milestone launch of the world’s first 4-masted iron merchant ship in 1875. The phenomenal success of this large square rigged sailing-ship, named County of Peebles, prompted R & J Craig of Glasgow to launch a further eleven fabulous jute clippers.

Half of Glasgow’s Gone
Michael Dick
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £9.95 PB 9780851745091
Glasgow, until recently, was a major European port and this publication describes its heyday, decline, neglect and subsequent redevelopment. Glasgow’s Harbour’s significant contribution to the 1939-45 war effort is also covered in some detail. The book records an important part of Glasgow’s heritage and a similar pattern of change, redevelopment and regeneration can be seen in other British ports whose roots lay in the 19th century.

Truly Clyde Built
William Kane
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £60.00 HB 9781849270144
Scott’s of Greenock grew from a small family business building and repairing Herring Busses in 1711 to leading the world in both merchant and naval shipbuilding to the highest standards. The gates closed permanently in 1993 thus ending a great relationship between the people of Greenock and the Scott Family Enterprise. DVD with 2GB of documents, tables and photographs included.

Keepers of The Light
Malcolm MacPherson
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £10.00 HB 9781849270113
There are well over 200 lighthouses positioned around Scotland’s breathtaking and energetic coastline. The author has captured 33 of these dramatic Scottish lighthouses in watercolour for this first volume of his original paintings. Each painting is accompanied by a brief description of the lighthouse giving details of location, dimensions, history, and technical information.

At The Sharp End
George H Parker
BROWN, SON & FERGUSON £19.95 HB 9780851746104
Provides an insight into the building and repairing of ships, on the Tay, on the Clyde, on the three rivers of the northeast of England, shipbuilding labour relations, and reasons for the decline of the industry. The late George Parker, the third generation of his family to build ships, writes about shipbuilding from the “inside”.

Last Dawn – the Royal Oak tragedy at Scapa Flow
David Turner
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £7.99 PB 9781906134761
A new (3rd) edition of the WWII story of the Royal Oak. Already the subject of a TV documentary, Last Dawn in now a text for the study of WW2 in schools.


The Clydesdale – Workhorse of the World Mary Bromilow
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £20 HB 9781906134655
A lovingly compiled story of this unsung Scottish export, the magnificent Clydesdale horse. Lovely photos, beautiful book.

A Lone Furrow – The Continued Fight Against Wildlife Crime
Alan Stewart
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781906134792
Britain’s foremost investigator of wildlife crime returns to the many crime scenes that still cover the countryside. First hand accounts of fascinating police investigations. Scottish Field: ‘Britain’s foremost wildlife detective.’


Barca – The Making of the Greatest Team in the World
Graham Hunter
BACKPAGE PRESS £12.99 PB 9780956497123
Barcelona are the greatest football team in the world, the greatest for a generation and possibly the greatest of all time. This is the untold inside story of how the best and most loved football team in the world came to redefine how the game
is played.

Singin I’m no a Billy he’s a Tim
Des Dillon
LUATH PRESS LTD £7.99 PB 9781908373052
Drama. What happens if you lock up a Celtic fan with a Rangers fan on the day of the Old Firm Match? Des Dillon creates the situation and lets the sparks fly as Billy and Tim clash in a rage of sectarianism and deep-seated hatred.

The Road to Lisbon
Martin Greig and Charles McGarry BIRLINN £7.99 PB 9781780270845
Fiction. The Road to Lisbon is a novel of hopes and dreams, of self-discovery and triumph over adversity – and of an unerring love with an institution that represents so much more than just a football club. Also available as an eBook.


Cycling around Scotland
Nick Fairweather
ARGYLL PUBLISHING £9.99 PB 9781906134570
Light-hearted and informative travel writing at its best. All on a bike, on his own.

Baffies’ Easy Munro Guide
Ralph Storer
LUATH PRESS LTD £7.99 PB 9781908373083
Meet Baffies – the Entertainments Convenor of the Go-Take-A-Hike Mountaineering Club. He’s allergic to exertion, blisters easily and bleeds readily. Show him a mountain and he’ll find the easiest way up it. You’ll find no simpler way to climb Munros than to follow in his footsteps.


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Volume 8 – Issue 1 – Reviews


William Boyd
BLOOMSBURY, £18.99 353PP
ISBN 978 1 4088 1774 2

Is there a future for the spy novel now that, according to Julian Assange, technology gives state intelligent agencies the ability to ‘spy on the entire population at once’? William Boyd clearly thinks so.
His 2006 award winning novel Restless told the story of a young woman recruited by the British Secret Service in the Second World War. In his latest novel it’s a young man and the First World War. As spying moves to industrial scale, Boyd seems intent on working backward to a time when it was an individual and personal pursuit and technological assistance took the form of a small gun.
Generally speaking, the best spies have the best names. Lysander Rief, Boyd’s protagonist here, is an awkward handle compared to the loaded simplicity of, say, Bond or Smiley. Still, it is a name with implications. Rief, according to the character himself, means ‘thorough’ or ‘wolf’ or perhaps a combination of the two. Lysander has Sparta and Shakespeare in it. A serviceable enough name, then, for an actor turning spy.
When we first meet Rief him he is in Vienna in 1913 just as Kim Philby was twenty years later when the seeds of his real life spying career were sown. Vienna is the city of Freud and psychoanalysis and Rief is being treated for his inability to ejaculate. Here too there are echoes of Philby (though stretching now) and the debilitating stutter that sometimes rendered him unable to form words.
His inability to express himself is cured by bedding fellow patient Hettie Bull whois not as simple as her simple name implies. Rief’s immediate recovery is the first of many suspensions of disbelief the reader will be asked to make in exchange for a good yarn. But at least it releases him, so to speak, for the many assignations ahead.
In fairness, Rief also attributes his cure to a psychoanalytical technique called parallelism. The basic principle of parallelism is that the world is ‘flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance’ and patients need to use their imaginations to fill it ‘with purpose, feeling, colour
and emotion’. He is able to apply this to a nightmarish episode from his childhood, re-inventing the parts of the story he can’t bear to create something he can live with. The implications for the self-deception and duplicity of the spy trade seem clear enough.
At this stage Boyd’s primary concern is to examine the characteristics that will eventually make Rief an effective spy. To transform him into one, however, he uses a well-worn device. Rief’s relationship with Bull unravels and eventually requires him to make his escape from Vienna with the help of the boys at the British Embassy. He racks up a hefty bill in the process and it is no surprise when the impoverished actor is held to account for it.
Rief’s spying career is a breathless thing. He investigates, surveils, disguises, distrusts and deceives, kills, tortures and gets shot. His private life involves a son he never sees and a gay uncle who is his closest ally. Rapid page turning is the order of the day.
However, a reader with parallelism available to him might be tempted to use it to make a good book into a very good one. He could, for instance, go back and remove all the little details from the text where the narrator forgets what year he is supposed to be in e.g. the use of ‘common law wife’ forty years before it was in common usage. More seriously, he would excise the passages that are so unconvincing as to make him wonder why they are there at all.
First amongst these is an extended episode when Rief crawls around the trenches in order to fake his own death. Even the protagonist doesn’t see the point of this and opines that his death could have been just as easily been faked in a safer way. Worse, the entire scene descends into farce with insults in French and English called across the mud like John Cleese on the castle wall in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and other bits of dialogue channelling characters from Blackadder Goes Forth. A second re-imagining would also remove an entirely contrived ‘accidental’ meeting with the real Sigmund Freud. Rief swans over to him in a Vienna coffee shop and embarrasses himself and the reader.
The novel ends as it began with a brief shift into a ‘there he goes – have a look at him’ narrative. This is a technique that drew some criticism when Boyd used in his previous novel Ordinary Thunderstorms but here it works well. The spy being spied on is a nice conceit and the reader is invited to compare the man after his experiences to the way he was before them.
Neither the anachronisms nor the occasional poorly rendered scene are game breakers. It is easy enough to recover and turn again to the intrigue and action that is the heart of the story. Boyd’s reputation as a master story teller won’t suffer any damage from Waiting for Sunrise even if the novel would benefit from some tightening up and leaves the impression that he is a master who is in a bit too much of a hurry.
Harry McGrath


Wayne Price
ISBN 978-0956613585

We become different people in warmer weather. It’s not merely the sense of liberation that comes with a change of country. Look at the way the Scottish murder rate inches upwards on those rare occasions the sun stops being so stingy with its store of rays. This sense of recasting ourselves in the heat, but also of immolation, is captured in the title of a new short story collection, Furnace, by Wayne Price. In practically every one of Price’s tales, the sun acts almost as another character, its light blinding his protagonists to their landscapes, both outer and inner.
The tone is of early period Ian McEwan. There are hints of incest, nods towards acts of cruelty, dissipation, and self-destruction. An old woman is murdered, and a young man rots in the desert after a fatal bout of hash-spiked paranoia leads him to go walkabout. Price is drawn towards characters with handicaps, often introducing them to the action with a sexual twist. In one story, a girl appears to buy off with sexual favours the tormenters of her mentally-handicapped brother. In another, a teenager is tempted to take advantage of an attractive young woman whose brain has been damaged in a fall, but not her body. Proceeding through the collection, we spend time with others who lust after chambermaids with harelips or dwarfish shop girls. None of these people struggling with disabilities appears actually to exist in their own right, only as evidence of a disturbed sexuality. Despite the provocative nature of his material, Price tends to mute its impact. Often, the action takes place offstage, and even when it doesn’t, there is an airless, calculated, yet still half-hearted, feel to Price’s deployment of sensational tropes.
A heavy sense of craft hangs over Furnace. There is an anxious adherence to the credo of showing, not telling, while the sentences are smooth, or more accurately, frictionless. Indeed, the first-person narratives are tonally flat. They’re similar to each other, and in turn they resemble Price’s third-person narratives; there’s no attempt to capture different rhythms of speech or thought. In ‘Underworld’, a barrister, disturbed by the news someone he once knew has died, attempts to get his thoughts in order on the page. The subsequent account reads not like a confused man pursuing his present upset into the past, but like a short story written by Wayne Price.
The endings in particular observe current conventions regarding such things. ‘The Golfers’ concludes,  ‘…we were out of sight and out of sound, swallowed up completely by the same spreading fields that come back always and would swallow up everything soon enough.’ Note the whisper of the enigmatic and of out-of-puff poetry. ‘Who could say if they’d ever come back now?’ the abandoned heroine of ‘In the Valley’ thinks at the close of her episode. ‘And who knew where anyone ever really was, anyway? Even when they were right beside you. Even inside you. Even that.’ There’s a fair amount of soulful brooding on the mysteries of character that tempts Price, or rather his ciphers, into glumly philosophising. ‘Most of life just happens and disappears, he thought. People and places, days and years, all sliding into the dark as if they’d never been.’ The quality of thought wavers between the obvious and the adolescent. ‘There was no depth to life, I remember thinking suddenly, and it seemed like a moment of final clarity and truth to me, the great lesson of my long trivial summer. There was a shifting, fascinating surface to people and the things they felt and said, but underneath all was just a strong simplicity.’
Price teaches creative writing, and his tales do seem representative of a certain style popular with graduates of the country’s fiction factories; stories that attempt to offset a certain blandness of thought with a dash of the perverse, a formal conservativeness with a ‘literary’ style, and an absence of feeling and humour with a baggy profundity.
Colin Waters


Richard Holloway
CANONGATE, £17.99 PP358
ISBN 0857860739

Richard Holloway, erstwhile Anglican priest and bishop, has written many books. The latest is his autobiography, and it may well be his best. The story of his life is told deftly and entertainingly. He whisks us along in a fast-moving journey from Alexandria in the Vale of Leven to the English Midlands, to West Africa, to the Gorbals in Glasgow, to Carrubers Close in Edinburgh, to Boston in the US, to Oxford and, at last, back to Scotland for the long and magnificent coda to his rich life – and amid all this he intersperses brief religious and theological reflections which have a genuine profundity.
This carefully crafted technique allows the book to be thoughtful as well as colourful, meditative as well action-packed. It is also, in an unshowy way, exceptionally well written. Holloway is a great phrasemaker. Just two examples: ‘The Clyde was a majestic river, but she was a worker as well as a queen’; ‘Scotland’s largest regiment, the drinkers.’
This is the candid memoir of a deeply religious man who could never give himself completely to God. It is the account of a dedicated and busy non-celibate priest’s very full life. For much of it Holloway was doing his best for people who were needier than he was. Happily married to Jean, and in most ways fulfilled, he was a good man doing good things.
He was often mired in controversy, yet by his own account – and I believe him – he was not a natural rebel or troublemaker. When he disobeyed his church’s rule on marrying divorced people, or when he officiated at his first gay wedding as early as 1972, he was, as he saw it, responding to people who needed ‘a kind of mercy’.
As he notes, the ultimate test of belief is obedience. Holloway could not reach the requisite level of obedience.
He is not defiant or truculent. He is a confident and clever man, and this is not a modest book, but neither is it self-serving. Holloway’s prose has poetic grace. He has the poet’s eye for the insidious telling detail, and he can switch from the general to the particular with an ease which makes for unusually rewarding reading.
The book starts particularly well. The long opening passage tells us of his love for Kelham Hall, by the River Trent, which housed the Anglican religious order that trained him for the priesthood. Holloway had an uneventful childhood in a happy working class home in Alexandria in the Vale of Leven – he describes this in a warm glow of fond reminiscence which is very moving – and then he was packed off to Kelham when he was 14.
As he puts it, he fell in love with both the place and the high purpose it served. He duly became a priest, and eventually, the distinguished Bishop of Edinburgh and a respected theologian.
He describes the simple rhythms and routines of life at Kelham with a soft numinous beauty. He also writes about adolescent longings. There is quite a lot about sex in this book, though not as much as I expected. As the young Richard stared at the breasts of a girl called Lily at a farm near Balloch, he saw exactly what his life would be: ‘An endless struggle with the flesh.’
When, still a young man, he went off to West Africa to be secretary to the Bishop of Accra, he was indeed battling his flesh, trying to make his body submit to the spirit. He was ‘electrified’ by the bare-breasted women he saw in Africa. ‘I had never seen anything so beautiful or so tormenting. It filled me with a longing that was as much sadness as lust.’
Holloway compares erotic longing with spiritual longing; both promise more than they deliver. He muses on the unavailability of the Great Lover, and the parallel ‘Great Absence’ of God.
Before I met Richard Holloway, I disapproved of him. I thought he was a serial self-publicist, who had made overmuch of his doubts and his eventual loss of faith. We met in an unlikely setting: a small community centre situated between two bleak housing estates in north Edinburgh. I was moderating an event at which he was discussing some of his books.
He addressed the small audience briefly and well. Then, at the questions, I noticed how he never patronised anyone, but answered sometimes halting and confused queries with understanding, empathy and clarity. He created a warm solidarity, and the evening became an unlikely success.
I became a Holloway fan then and I have been ever since. This very fine book confirms and indeed strengthens my admiration for a questing, unquiet man who is good, gifted and gracious.
Harry Reid


Irvine Welsh
ISBN 978-0224087902

Choose your scapegoat; blame the Thatcher government, blame the system, blame the social workers or the teachers, blame the parents. When the powder’s finally cut, the answer is devastatingly simple and predictably delivered by Leith’s very own Schopenhauer. Why did a generation of young Scots turn on and switch off to heroin? Poor housing? No jobs? No fun or future? Or was it, as Mark Renton says, simply the Everest conclusion: because it was there. And though local rhyming slang favoured a more homely and immediate outcrop (Salisbury Crag = skag) there were Himalayas of heroin around Edinburgh in the 1980s, little Alps of dirty snow and future need, a Pakistani knock-off of the medical-grade stuff that had been skimmed off the pharmaceutical business before the security crackdown and used to demonstrate that good old 1980s principle of supply-side trickledown, which basically means addicted ex-squaddies today and primary kids tomorrow.
Skagboys is a “prequel” – and that’s the ugliest word you’ll hear today – which bookends Trainspotting from the perspective of 1984, as Porno did from a decade after. It is a mark of the new book’s darkly confident quality that it grips so strongly and doesn’t suffer from our knowing already its various outcomes. Indeed, it benefits from and perhaps depends on our awareness of the central characters and their voices.
Welsh’s ventriloquism is beyond good. His Dickensian idiolects are obvious even from a random page sampling: Sick Boy’s Machiavellian flourishes (he’s never more “Edinburgh” than when he’s most Italian, blood from his mother’s side); Spud’s phatic redundancies and tender-hearted pre-liberalism (he should be handling cat litter and hamster bedding, not dope); Renton’s studied nihilism (he’s a student in Aberdeen at this stage, though gravitating away from Marischal College and towards the docks).
We don’t get any sense of Begbie’s inner life, mercifully enough. He may be like that all the way through or he may be a Dalek, a carapace of aggression over a little peeler crab of vulnerability and need, but we’ll never know. There is a glimpse this time of Alison’s inner life – this is a novelist who apparently did his MBA dissertation on equal opportunities employment – as she juggles a job at City Chambers, a women’s poetry group, and some unsuccessfully dabbled lesbianism against more familiar things. Her environmental duties are a reminder that there was another epidemic in Edinburgh in the 80s, along with junk and AIDS: Dutch Elm Disease was reshaping the cityscape, an anti-pastoral moment soundtracked by chainsaws and the crackle of petrolly bonfires, shocking in its own way.
As usual, we get much of these hinterlands. Music (‘sounds’) provides the datelines, though there is a handwritten prologue that describes Renton’s role alongside as a fellow-travelling flying picket at Orgreave during the miners’ strike. Sick Boy’s home life is a masterclass in philandering. Renton’s own is more complex, its primal scene the moment he’s discovered masturbating his multiply handicapped younger brother to images of Mary Marquis reading the news. Blame the parents? Or pity them?
I gained a minor notoriety among friends for having predicted no market and no future for Trainspotting in a review for New Society. The spirit of Margaret Thatcher often visits me in low moments to cackle ‘There is no such thing as New Society, Brian’, and she’s right, but so in a particular sense was I. The problem with Trainspotting was not that there was no leash on its extremity but that there was a constant authorial presence, Dickensian in the wrong way, clutching at a clipboard and mouthing normative values. In order for that to work, Trainspotting either had to provide ‘redemption’, or it had to find a way of demonstrating the final philosophical and practical redundancy of those values. There is plenty extremity here, from Wee Davey’s squawking pleasure in front of the six o’clock news to a Monday morning shiting contest at Renton’s holiday job in a joinery works (a tantalising glimpse of old fashioned craft just about holding out against nail-gun bodging), and there is, of course, the squeamish stage business of self-injection, and you don’t have to be an aichmophobe (fear of sharp objects: it’s the kind of word Sick Boy would collect and use on an ‘A’ day) to be put off by them.
Skagboys is a better novel than Trainspotting, even if it leans heavily on the earlier book’s characters and charisma. It has structure but not too much visible scaffolding. Its voice-over element is reduced to short ‘Notes on an Epidemic’ which could/should simply be dropped, and its sense of time, in the sense of duration, flow, reverse, rather than fashion and cultural context, is quite remarkable. The last three words – ‘all time collapses’ – pretty much sum it up, not in ‘drug’ or nostalgia terms, but as a guide to the book’s distinctive literary language and syntax. Where is the snow of yesteryear? Ripeness is all; aye, fuck all. A la recherche du . . . what? . . . perdu.
Brian Morton


Allan Wilson
CARGO, £11.99 194PP
ISBN 978-0956308399

Let us begin at the beginning, which in this instance is the publicity material which accompanies review copies. I’m intrigued. ‘The book is released on October 11th in trade paperback, ebook, iPhone app, audio download and the Blackout limited edition version.’ The Scottish publisher, Cargo, is clearly well up on how this game is played in late 2011. ‘Check out [their website] for Allan’s forthcoming gigs, free short stories, audio tracks and more.’
It could almost be music which is being promoted.
Recent changes in publishing have been great. I feel that I’ve been asleep for two years and have just woken up. I am now busily Kindling between such diversions as reading Allan Wilson (in pbook form as we now call book-books) and typing this.
Short stories, so long the bane of publishers, are coming into their own again. They suit this age of mobility and snatched gratification. People can read them on their phones.
I always was a fan of commercial short fiction: those 2,000 worders on radio (now, bizarrely, mothballed) of which I did many, and the sort written to be consumed on a bus journey or in a dentist’s waiting room.
Of late we’ve had sudden-fiction, flash-fiction, which is very short, and I relished the challenge of 800-1200 words with a year’s worth of weekly newspapers stories not so long ago.
Allan Wilson’s are the new species. They interest me because they are so lean. No sting-in-the-tale either, which used to be one of the best ways of wrapping-up if you could pull it off. Wilson’s endings are throwaway, because that’s how he sees life, as jumpy and dislocated and carrying-on-whatever. His stories are far from what has been coming to us out of London publishing houses, mostly American, those very overwritten and altogether self-conscious pieces of Beautiful Writing.
Some of the stories here concern a couple, Annie and Alex, who have jobs and a degree of social mobility. Their aspirational dreams of Spain dwindle, Alex ending up there alone, washed out, broke, and fucked up. (No asterisks in the stories.) The others in the cast of Wasted in Love are further down the evolutionary scale.
Here’s a flavour:
Cullen said we should get a game of darts at Steiny’s until the rain went off. I’d spoken to him earlier and he was away to Glasgow Green with his family for the big display. Cullen said we should crack a window and climb in anyway. Get a game then get out. Mark said it was the best idea he’d heard all day. Cullen said he needed a shite. He went down a lane and we waited on him.
He washed his hands in a puddle then flicked the water at me and Mark.
‘Kebab shop?’ he said.
It was one of those three-in-one places that did curries and pizzas as well. The guy that worked there would say ‘One ned at a time please. Don’t you see the sign?’ There was no sign.
There’s no point in suggesting that the author try making a foray to, say, salubrious Newton Mearns: he knows where he’s most comfortable, with the shat-upon.
He doesn’t go after description, and succeeds in making it seem like the padding it too often is. Yet a striking (cinematic) image will suddenly come out of left-field: those fifty rats Wee-Man-Jamie sees being swept downstream in a canal, disturbed
by some event ominously waiting for him round the next corner – or McKellar unhinged by life on benefits and no hope who parries with Job Centre personnel as keenly as any prosecution lawyer in court, and who ends his mere two-page story running between the traffic on Great Western Road, slapping the sides of cars, heading vaguely for Loch Lomond but definitely the sea.
The author’s dialogue is spot-on: brutal very often, and either in-yer-face or else burying its meaning, self-delusional, lapsing into convenient jargon-speak. In an illogical world (here it’s a jaggedly cubist place called Glasgow), the words we speak are nothing and – by another view – they are our best defence.
Anything at all that gets said must surely have some value.
‘Get some of that down you Stevo ma man.’
Here is communication of a very basic but legitimate kind, if you can listen out for the strange music.
‘ You wereny meant to have it all Stevo fuck sake!’
Steven burped.
‘Fucking hell Stevo ya bastard. You’re a right bastard Stevo. That was to last me. Stevo. Fuck sake man.’
Lightly punctuated, the stories skilfully hurtle on their way – not towards any destination in particular; their sense of an ending is deliberately provisional, with grim and stimulant-assisted life sputtering to suspension dots…
The publisher calls it an ‘explosive debut’. Hyperbole? That’s understood. But if you can take the 19 stories in Wasted in Love, these snapshots of the human comedy will certainly shake you up, and impress you often enough to make you want to keep reading through to the last.
Ronald Frame


Rodge Glass
ISBN 978-1906994389

In Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs, a darkly comic fiction, Rodge Glass charts a man’s downward spiral from optimistic youth to dangerous loner. At fifteen, Mark Wilson is a lad with a spring in his step and a nifty way of landing balls in the back of the net. He believes in himself, trusts his potential to make it as a sporting hero. But by the time he hits middle age, Mark is nothing more than a zero in his own terms. Stuck in a job he despises as a sports kit salesman, he tortures himself with what might have been. The more bitter he becomes, the more the successful career of Ryan Giggs figures in his twisted consciousness as an insult to his self-respect.  On reaching the point when nothing in life makes sense any more, he decides that he and Giggsy are like conjoined twins, and one must die to save the other. This is the fateful delusion that propels him into the headlines at last, bringing him an ephemeral taste of fame, or rather, notoriety.
Back in the early 1990s when Sir Alex Ferguson made a call to Ryan Giggs’ home and plucked him out of obscurity into stardom, Glass has it that a similar visit was made to young Mark’s family. This is one of the three ‘beginnings’ for Mark as he looks back at his life, the others being his dad playing football with him in the back garden and taking him to his first match at Old Trafford, and the birth of his little boy.
Mark is shorn of his relationship with both father and son. In the big bad world outside his cosy domestic circle, his dad’s gambling habit has got him into serious debt with dangerous types, circumstances that are only revealed to Mark years down the line. At the time, all the family knows is that he’s done ‘a Houdini’ and they are left reeling with shock at his disappearance. Over the years Mark’s dad keeps in touch by phone from his hideout in Spain, but their conversations are frustrating for Mark; each withholds what they need to say. Typically, they end up hanging their emotions on the peg of football chat.
Through the characters of men for whom football is a vernacular of the heart, a tradition that offers a reliability absent from the rest of life, Glass explores aspects of the male persona in contemporary British society. He draws out the importance of group identification and hierarchy and what happens when an individual loses their sense of place, how violence becomes a ready option when personal feelings can’t be articulated. He looks at the demands and expectations placed on men.
The souring of Mark’s identity as a Man U fan acts as a metaphor for his personal disintegration. The anger at being a comet that lost its glow is as nothing to being a father who has lost his son, his rage being a key factor in his exclusion. The undertow of violence means that sometimes the thing he kicks is not a ball but a battered body that serves as a substitute for the real target (the rejecting club or father or lover). Interestingly, Glass shows the obsessive focus of the football fan as a socially legitimate form of stalking. He develops this idea as Mark’s personal pressures cause it to slide into a form of stalking that ceases to be benign and becomes sinister.
Glass is spot on with the sort of detail that will convince football fans of whatever persuasion. You can practically smell the Bovril at half time. He captures the nostalgia for the days when the big name players played for love of the sport, before money turned the game into something not quite as beautiful as it once was. And through Mark he shows football fandom as a glorious tribal cult that in the end is no substitute for life lived to the full.
Jennie Renton


Michael Dirda
ISBN 978-0691151359

I shared an office with Arthur Conan Doyle in summer of 1966. More precisely with his MD photograph, in the room in which I worked as a sort of trial archivist to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. This was in the former Medical Superintendent’s House built in 1870s Franco-Scottish by David ‘Baronial’ Bryce: empty and shortly to be knocked down, but resembling with its brooding, elaborate gables the houses to where, in outer London or Surrey, “games afoot” took Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by suburban train.
Twelve years earlier Doyle scared me out of my wits when I read ‘The Speckled Band’ in St Boswells Schoolhouse: for weeks afterwards I couldn’t look at a ventilator (there were three, high on the walls of the classrooms) without expecting something writhing and lethal to slither out. In 1966 I re-read the story. The terror didn’t return, and the mechanics seemed predictable. But after moving to Buckinghamshire and the Open University in 1969, Holmes became as handy a guide as John Betjeman or Osbert Lancaster in venturing to Reigate or Leatherhead via the railway system that Dr Beeching preserved in the south-east.
Conan Doyle wrote when London was in its pomp and, sooner or later, every monarch or millionaire, Janissary, or Cham, hale or sick, would turn up. His Irish family produced two generations of artists and caricaturists sensitive to that fact. His uncle, Dicky Doyle, fashioned the famous Punch cover, with the little man fondling that intriguing scroll. His cartoon of the 1860s ‘A Drawing Room’ – Dundrearied mashers pursuing nouveau-riche heiresses in Belgravia – has all the argument and energy of a volume of Trollope. Doyle’s multiculturalism, which Michael Dirda brings out in his book, On Conan Doyle, is inarguable and formed by the times and city he lived in, as well as his own background.
Dirda, we learn, has been a great fan of Holmes’ creator since he was a child when The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first adult book he read. He proves an implacable and encyclopaedic defender of Doyle’s reputation. And tolerant reverence is required when considering his career. Was Doyle marked down by some critics for writing thrillers or falling for fairies? Doyle was taken in by teenagers faking pics. Dirda, as a long-time member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a society of Holmes fanatics, isn’t fazed, has even read ‘most’ of two of the books Doyle wrote on spiritualism. For their amusement, they take as their starting point that the Great Detective and Watson were actual historical characters; they attempt to fill in the gaps around Doyle’s stories.
Dirda goes gyte though when he ‘documents’ Langdale Pike, a Yankee gossip who features in the Holmes adventure ‘The Three Gables’ (published in 1926), a piece that has its origins in a paper presented to his fellow Irregulars. He fakes a DNB entry where he claims Pike fathered Winston Churchill through hanky-panky with Jenny Jerome in the 1880s. One shall merely say that Lord Randolph married Jenny in 1874, six years before Pike is said to have arrived in the UK. Their first, legal, coupling produced young Winston.
Considering his legacy, what has endured of Conan Doyle is that metropolitan theatricality he shared with Wilde and Shaw. Somewhere in the Holmes stories there must be a left-luggage caper, and Shaw re-created Baker Street, first with Doyle (!) and Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island, then brilliantly in Pygmalion with Higgins and Pickering.
Dirda digs out further possible influences: how, for example, T S Eliot nicked a central passage in ‘East Coker’ from ‘The Musgrave Ritual’. This allows me to make a connection of my own. W B Yeats raided John Buchan’s ‘The Watcher by the Threshhold’ for ‘Byzantium’. Senator Yeats gave his minders thrillers to keep them up to the job, and the ones Roy Foster cites are by Buchan. The Watcher’s tale of a Scots laird menaced by Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora would fill out that haunted city of 1930:
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit …
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor! Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity, Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented
Sometime in the 1870s Benjamin Disraeli rode out of Whitehall in his carriage, and noted in the grand ‘Medical Superintendent-style’ houses of Hampstead or Canonbury a suppressed, crazy romanticism, game for bold ventures, sacrifice if need be. In their various mass-market ways, the Irishman and the Calvinist Scot tapped this and fed it up the culture-and-politics chain. Dirda’s positioning of Conan Doyle at a vast web of cultural connections is infectious.
Christopher Harvie


Douglas Galbraith
ISBN 978-1846554599

Novelist Douglas Galbraith’s first foray into memoir is a tale so fantastic it reads like fiction. The book’s premise and opening might have been culled from a thriller. One day in 2003 Galbraith returned home to Fife from London to discover a locked door and his four- and six-year-old sons gone. On the doormat was a letter with a forwarding address in Japan. He has never seen his children since.
My Son, My Son examines his loss, but Galbraith is too good a writer to dwell on sentiment and too interesting to restrict his account to that of a child-hunt. Instead his narrative branches off to explore wide-ranging and often controversial topics such as child murder and violation of children’s rights, the limitations of international conventions, and culture shock. This last theme is particularly crucial because Galbraith discloses from the outset that his children were not snatched by a stranger but abducted by their mother, his Japanese wife who could no longer stand living in a foreign land.
Galbraith soon learns he is fighting a losing battle. Inefficient policemen and money-grubbing lawyers are sympathetic to his plight but ultimately his wife is mother to her children and so cannot
be classed as kidnapper. Worse, she is termed ‘an unextraditable absentee defendant’. Galbraith writes expertly on his powerlessness, never dimming his anger towards the person who, in his eyes if no one else’s, committed this ‘meticulous and thorough burglary’. He veers off on another tangent that covers the disenfranchisement of fathers and the dangers of exclusive female control of child-rearing. Along the way the sanctity of motherhood is examined and questioned: ‘Motherland is good, fatherland always has boots on and a helmet and a weirdo marching.’
The book is at its best when Galbraith explores his subject tangentially, moving away from the bare facts of the kidnapping. This is not because his private catastrophe is dull or trivial (quite the reverse), but because his scrutiny of these weighty side-themes is arresting. Spiriting one’s own children out of the country they were born in is one thing, but what would possess a parent to kill their child? Which punishment is more just, death of the perpetrator or stripping him of something he holds dear and forcing him to live without it? And on a less ethical note, are children a hindrance or a boon in creating great art? Galbraith puts the childless Larkin in one corner and the formidable child-begetter Tolstoy in the other, whilst quoting Cyril Connelly’s famous judgement: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’
Galbraith’s personal story is shocking and heart-rending but there is an in built emotional threshold. Simply stated, although this may be one of the most extreme actions taken in marital conflict, we are still only presented with one side of a story. Galbraith never adopts a woe-is-me attitude but by the same token he fails to provide a list of his own faults which may have led his wife to do what she did. Does this really matter? It does when in one of those engaging digressions he muses on how a writer’s weakness is ‘preferring a good phrase to the truth’. Also, his memoir is about memory, that Sebald-esque preoccupation with recapturing history and making sense of it (the interlarded case studies, court rulings and pictures are redolent of Austerlitz). Not once do we doubt his grief, but at times we wonder if a memory really was so ‘pin-sharp and colourfast’, and to what extent hindsight,
or artistic licence, has buffed those murky recollections.
At least the quality of his prose is clear. Despite the occasional baroque description (he lives in an ‘introspective cul-de-sac’; ‘Catastrophe is nature’s Viagra’) Galbraith writes well, especially when critical. He is good on Scotland and its ‘unswallowable diet’ and ‘ceaseless demented bagpiping’, and good on his wife’s growing hostility to her husband’s homeland, which resulted in ‘creeping nipponism’ at home. The opening chapter, describing the trauma he arrives home to find, could be the best prose of his career – quiet and unhysterical, and all the more arresting for it.
Cultures have clashed before in Galbraith’s work; we think of The Rising Sun which dramatised the calamities that arise when one culture imposes itself on another. My Son, My Son is a magnificent though harrowing portrait of a worst-case scenario. We read it entranced but with guilty pleasure. As with the best art, only suffering and loss can create such brilliance.
Malcolm Forbes

Jennie Erdal
ABACUS, £12.99 PP320
ISBN 978-1408703755

When is a first novel not a first novel? When it’s written by Jennie Erdal. Her memoir, Ghosting, is an account of her career as amanuensis to Naim Attallah, the larger than life proprietor of Quartet Books and would-be novelist. In The Missing Shade of Blue, she gets to see her own name on the cover. Her ‘debut’ draws on another side of her professional experience: translation.
Edgar Logan has come from Paris to Edinburgh to translate Hume’s essays into French. The passion for Hume is inherited from his Scottish father, Edgar being ‘much more versed in literary fiction, in particular the sort of novel that is set in the emotional landscape of the British middle class’. Almost as soon as he arrives in Edinburgh, he enters that landscape when he becomes involved with Harry Sanderson and his artist wife Carrie. ‘If I had met Sanderson in a novel he might have been difficult to like,’ Edgar decides, but the disgruntled philosopher emerges as a lively and compelling character.
What follows is an atypical ménage a trois; by using the phrase I risk coming across like one of the academics that Erdal lambasts in the novel. In the company of Edgar, bon mots drop haplessly from their lips as the academics he encounters as part of his job compete to display their familiarity with French. The contemporary university, with its Research Assessment Exercises and grim portents of Research-Inactivity, is enjoyably pilloried as being, like its Head of Human Resources, ‘impermeable to irony’.
Sexual tension is almost absent;
Edgar spends more time fly-fishing with Sanderson than fantasising about his wife. A cleverly constructed novel, it gives us an outsider’s view of a marriage that’s complex, in which Carrie loves her husband but thinks of Somerfield while having dull, duty sex.
As we might expect from ‘a philosophical adventure’, the real action takes place in the mind, mostly Edgar’s exquisite if sometimes repetitive interior monologue. The eponymous missing shade of blue refers to Hume’s thought experiment (if all shades of blue were laid out before a man except one, could he imagine it although no empirical evidence existed?) but also becomes a metaphor for Edgar’s grief-struck state of mind, hinted at through fleeting references to his mother and her ‘lovely sea-blue dress’, her ‘blue cotton handkerchief with an edge of lace’. It’s no coincidence that Carrie’s eyes are described as ‘deep pools of blue’. It’s precisely because he’s ‘un étranger’ that he’s so close to Sanderson and Carrie, but can he ever make the imaginative leap required to live fully in the world, in the present?
‘You shadow the novelist, live vicariously,’ Edgar says of his job as translator. ‘First and foremost you are a reader, the closest reader the book will ever have’. Edgar is a reader of people too, but when life threatens to interfere, his natural impulse is to retreat. He’ll ponder the proper translation of “commonwealth” rather than worry that Sanderson has been spying on him and seems to have tried to kill them both on a fishing trip. It’s only when Harry presents him with a maggot jar containing what he believes to be ‘another man’s spunk’ (i.e. Edgar’s) scooped from his wife’s bathwater that Edgar concedes that it’s ‘the kind of event that alters the course of a friendship’. Not least because at that point Carrie is not his paramour.
On the first page Edgar tells us that, ‘Fiction feels safe – you know where you are with it.’ Philosophy is different, as both he and Sanderson know. Thinking too much can be dangerous, and we should heed Hume’s prescription against ‘the disease of the learnèd’; a daily walk, backgammon, dining with friends, moderation. (Or, perhaps, another way is to be working class; Harry’s coalminer father and Mrs Bannerman the cleaner are content enough to live the unexamined life.) Too much moderation is not always to be recommended. At times Erdal might have upped the tempo a little; a little less conversation, for example, would have worked.
This is a quibble about a beautifully written novel. Edinburgh is finely drawn as a city once enlightened by Hume. He stalks the pages of the novel too, giving it the flavour of a particularly engaging episode of In Our Time, albeit one sprinkled with sly and sometimes delightfully absurd humour. Erdal excels in her delicate portrayal of Edgar’s extended grieving for his parents, and in her tender and detailed exploration of different kinds of loss and the effects on those – Carrie, Edgar’s mother, Sanderson – who are bereft. Suffice to say, I’m glad Erdal is at last publishing fiction under her own name.
Zoe Strachan

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Volume 8 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry


Teddy Jamieson
ISBN 978-0224082976
Jamieson weaves together sport and a history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland together to produce an account of sectarianism that, incredibly after all this time and all that has happened, still has the power to shock. Born and brought up in Coleraine as a Protestant, Jamieson mixed with Catholic boys and admired both Catholic and Protestant sporting stars, not fully understanding the violent divisions until he got older. Having lived on the mainland for the last couple of decades, he tracks the past successes of international sportsmen and women like George Best, Mary Peters, Dennis Taylor and Barry McGuigan, reaching the present-day with Neil Lennon. Jamieson questions the ‘easy symbolism’ that sport offers, the problem of ‘allying yourself with a team, a community, a nation’, which means that you also reveal ‘what you don’t stand for… In a country that is divided that can be problematic.’ The death threats sent to men and women who simply wanted to excel at their sport, refusing to let them forget where they’d come from no matter how far they travelled or how successful they became, say much more than they think. Jamieson’s own experiences add poignancy to a first-rate history.


Johnston McKay
ISBN 978-0748644735
McKay sets out to challenge the received wisdom that the Church reneged somewhat on its duty to the poor during the industrial years of the 19th century because of a mistaken belief that if people were poor it was because God intended it that way. He wants to show that one or two high-profile campaigners on behalf of the poor, like ‘Paisley radical’ Patrick Brewster, were not the exceptions, but that there were many in the Church, like the Reverend Dr Robert Burns and the Reverend Dr Robert Buchanan, who gave lectures on the need to change the Poor Laws and worked actively to alter society’s attitudes to those worse-off. An increasingly urbanised and industrial Scotland couldn’t rely on charity from individual landowners and church-goers any more they argued, and many churchmen became increasingly politicised as they condemned the class divisions they saw not just in their own parishes but in other cities. McKay’s history of the debates about a ‘Kingdom of God’ recreated on earth is more complex, with some viewing it as an ‘ethical commonwealth’ rather than an ‘exclusive Church-state’, and others disputing it completely, but McKay shows how it encouraged theologians to challenge preconceived notions of the poor.

4 A.M.

Nina de la Mer
ISBN 978-0956559951
There’s a strong echo of writers such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett in de la Mer’s debut novel about two squaddies, one English and one Scottish, living on a base in Hamburg. Manny and Cal are two young men caught up in the drug and rave culture of the early Nineties, looking for love although they wouldn’t admit it, as well as having a good time, and not knowing quite what to do with it when they find it. Life as a squaddie is dull and routine, full of boring menial jobs, and it’s their time off that they live for, when they can head to the clubs and get out of their heads. De la Mer does an excellent job producing authentic voices, reflecting the energy and recklessness, but also the fear and the lack of self-confidence of the men, especially Cal. The depiction of a troubled masculinity in an urban setting is something we have long associated with male Scottish writers, and it’s encouraging to see a woman take this subject on board.

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Volume 8 – Issue 1 – New Poetry


Elizabeth Rimmer
ISBN 978-1906700546

Elizabeth Rimmer’s poetry is connected to the earth. Calling herself a ‘poet, gardener and river-watcher’, this Liverpool-born writer likes to describe ephemeral moments in nature. Her poems are like puzzles or mosaics; each image is a piece of a larger picture. In ‘I said’, she sensuously describes oranges: ‘sharp and sweet and bitter and hot, / as gold as guineas and sunlight’. Her sensitive ear locates gaps and distances, noise and silences, as seen in ‘Celtic Island Monastery’: ‘Air is full of humming bees  / and the long still space where prayer was’. She is best when her images are both imaginative and ironic. In ‘Visit Scotland’, she speaks of asylum seekers contained at Dungavel, who is ‘a grim landlady, corseted in steel, her flinty face’. The poem ends on a note of humility: ‘You asked so little when you came… Scotland could not even manage that.’ Most of Wherever We Live Now describes the natural environment, but the collection closes with a re-telling of a well-known narrative, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Though engaging, there is a sense that Rimmer is hiding behind these story lines. One wishes that Rimmer would end on a personal note with more wistful and lyrical poems about her experiences.


Marion McCready
ISBN 978-1902629377

Marion McCready’s poems are offerings. Words fan out amongst the white space on the page and repetition of certain sounds provide touching lyricism. Her lines are heavy but hesitant musings, seen in the dark and mournful ‘’The Red Road’: ‘The frost-thumbed grass will cry / with our broken bones alone / (the furniture of our souls)’. Double-barrelled adjectives such as ‘frost-thumbed’, ‘sand-freckled’ and ‘wind-bitten’ describe both the texture and temperature of objects. An airy, visceral mood permeates her work, which captures
the narrator’s unhurried gaze. Much of this gaze is on the Scottish waters, including the Firth of the Clyde, the West Coast islands and the North Sea. Water’s ability to contain and reflect provides inspiration for bobbing poems about life rafts, mussel-picking and cross-bills. Myths of the water are re-told in contemplative poems such as ‘The Herring Girl’ and ‘The Cocklepicker’s Wife’. There  is a sense of immobility in the poems; a narrator paralysed by the weight of their surroundings. But it can be argued that the poems in Vintage Sea feel too similar to each other. Each poem contains short lines and unfolds at the same leisurely rate. What one would like next for McCready is a leap into a variety of forms, for her to discover new ways to display her introspective voice.


Graham Fulton
ISBN 978-1906700515

Glasgow-born Graham Fulton speaks boldly. His poetry is edgy, agitated and giddy. Short lines snake around the page to express a restless voice. In the title poem, ‘Full Scottish Breakfast’, it’s a ‘useless morning’ after a night out, but the narrator’s mouth can function, at least to berate its owner: ‘head is frying / nearby I try / to pull it all out throw it / all back in to where  / the rings turn back to nowhere’. Other poems contain a similar jazzy rhythm and disjointed appearance. Short, unevenly spaced lines which move around the page describe the narrator’s preoccupation with a new gadget, a battery-operated ‘crawling’ hand: ‘You give me a beast with five fingers / Made in China / green flesh / Madeline Usher nails’. Fulton can also compose portraiture with details so concrete one suspects a long-held grudge, as seen in this poem about a former teacher ‘The Remarkable Love of Doctor McCallum’: ‘loved to see our hate / as he pulled the tawse / from under his cape’. There is an abruptness and aggressive tone in Fulton that may shock some. However, he evokes sympathy with a poem about finding a departed cat’s whisker: ‘A finely tapering thread of thin. / It brings it back, the things we slip / as life cleans up; baffling love’. In this poem and with others, Fulton quickly gets to the heart of the matter.


Gerry Cambridge
ISBN 978-1905939718

Former Brownsbank Cottage fellow Gerry Cambridge writes about light. In ‘Light Up Lanarkshire’, commissioned for the South Lanarkshire Council, Cambridge describes how light ‘streams’, ‘shines’ and is ‘truthful’. How light, filtered through a prism ‘is the luminous violet and red and yellow and lime / Of the born and broken from its brilliant beginning’. Cambridge thinks about birds; their beginnings as eggs, their language of song and their fleeting appearances.
Five poems early in the collection describe a fascination with eggs and their silky contents, re-enacted in ‘Blowing out an egg’: ‘holding it poised to your lips / with nail-bitten fingers and thumbs / like a miniature musical instrument’. Other poems describe the plumage and grace of exotic birds but Cambridge does not reveal their names. One can only guess that in the poem ‘Take-Off’, Cambridge is describing flamingos: ‘And when it flies – flared / wings of unbelievable / Day-Glo pink and black.’ Tidily arranged in columns, Cambridge’s poems are smooth summaries of natural encounters. Other than a few poems about family members, he strictly adheres to the transitory themes of light and birds. His poems are safe in their lack of conflict. Though this is first collection in nine years, it actually says little about the poet.


Peter Gilmour
ISBN 978-1905939725

The poems of Open University arts lecturer Peter Gilmour appraise the past. His richly sensuous voice, pinned to the page with commas and full stops, allow for painful history to be relived. This debut pamphlet begins with events leading to a suicide. In ‘Rupture’, a couple veer off the road and the man enjoys the gallant recklessness of the incident. ‘Overkill’ states the death of the man’s wife clinically and militantly:
‘I thought of it as your suicide pack, paracetamol and half a bottle of Grouse.’
In ‘Solicitude’, Gilmour drives the tragedy home tenderly: ‘I married a woman who killed herself. / Our children were then thirteen and fourteen and I fifty, and God, they say, is ageless’. Eventually the narrator laments his wife’s fleeting existence: ‘You did not last with us, you did not keep the pace’. Other poems do not contain such devastating subject matter, but still retain a posture of patient examination. In ‘Evening with Friends’, a face at the window is the subject of much discussion. In ‘Journey’s End’, a boy contemplates where his father has been on his travels. Though this is Gilmour’s first publication, it is evident that he is a committed and meditative writer. He takes risks writing about uncomfortable matters, for which he merits attention.


Anne Connolly
ISBN 978-1906700447

Anne Connolly’s poetry should be read aloud. Exuberant and musical, her words are attuned to a meticulous lyricism. Most often in her work, brief lines are arranged in a tall column which creates a tight lyricism. This is seen in the downward shifting
poem about the Good Friday Agreement: ‘Omagh / a ghastly / punctuation / exclamation / definitely / not a full stop.’ Longer lines suggest a leisurely and contemplative mood, seen in the romantic ‘the long haul’: ‘the narrowed finger where your ring has circled freely / the map of laughter lines we’ve run along together’. Other times a poem’s text is whittled into a shape, allowing the constructed image to provide a visual dimension to the poem. In ‘Begun’, encouraging lines about the process of in vitro fertilisation are curved and cut to create an embryo. In ‘Handler’, constellations are suggested by the spaced-out positioning of stars’ names on the page. Family history, politics and childhood are Connolly’s main themes, and she sticks to them throughout the course of the collection. Though her poems tend to avoid strong emotion, the sonorous rhythms of her poems reel in the reader.


Tom Bryan
ISBN 978-1906700447

Born in Manitoba, Canada in 1960 to an Irish father and Scottish mother, Tom Bryan’s poetry is a series of vivid recollections. Long stanzas re-enact scenes at a pleasantly meandering pace. The narrator describes images with an exact and meditative eye, as seen in the semi-mythical ‘Near Life Experience’: ‘daft sky crayoned an absurd blue, / sun spilling too, outside the lines’. The poem describes a pouring prairie sky, which seemed to the boy and his mother ‘apocalyptic’. However, as Bryan sums up neatly: ‘But we who glared / into savage suns were not the ones left behind.’ Bryan’s scenes can be described as odd, but odd for a reason; the poet has decided that it is the strange memories which constitute a life worth living. ‘Istanbul 1976’ describes a poor bear ‘on a rope, dancing / clawless, muzzle on a jar’. The narrator recalls a conflicting awareness of prayer and violence. In the calmly devastating poem about a friend’s suicide, rhymes act like zippers to close ideas: ‘Far beyond any lighthouse / or guiding star. / He knew where he was going, / wrote his own dark chart.’ Only the song section at the back of the collection disappoints; one cannot possibly ‘hear’ the indicated instrumental riffs and the gist of the song is lost. Overall, Bryan’s poems are pensive and evocative. His tone is unswervingly conversational and welcoming.


Rody Gorman
ISBN 978-1897009611

Dublin-born and Skye-based Rody Gorman’s Gaelic and English poetry act like a stack of Russian dolls. Each aspect of his poetry – the Gaelic verse, the English version, the content of the poem itself, and his device of merging words to create compound phrases which represent a singular movement, concept or place – creates an abundantly layered text. Gorman’s translation device of presenting every English definition for each Gaelic word creates a complicated reading experience. When perusing his work one must truly be aware of the visual, linguistic and aural elements intertwined. Each poem is read like a tablet, with the Gaelic on the right and the English on the left, allowing the two realities of the poems to co-exist. The text’s two faces are quite astonishing. The Gaelic version is arranged into tight stanzas and in couples and tercets. In contrast, the English version is a post-modernist cluster of stream-of-consciousness phrasing, merged words and lower cased letters. There is a sense of Gorman re-creating the present, seen in the poem ‘hearsmellfeeling you’: ‘i hearsmellfeel you out there wanting from in the / dykegarden in some flocktuftspot or other now that / springsummermay is here though i can’t see you’. The long lines in these stanzas are appropriate; they reflect the pace and tone of the narrator’s voice.

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In The Zone

A dark room where your desires are enacted… It’s a cinema, isn’t it? In Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, however, there is a room that goes beyond what your local multiplex offers; it is a loom of dreams, the place where your wishes solidify. This Aladdin’s lamp is located in the heart of “the Zone”, a wasteland fenced off from society. What happened to charge the landscape so mysteriously? Aliens? An experiment that went wrong? The penalty for entering the Zone unprepared is soul-skinning. But if you can find your way through the territory, your heart’s mightiest desire is within reach.

Filmed in Estonia, Stalker is set in the near-future or an alternative present, although the decaying machinery and polluted rivers are redolent not of the world of tomorrow but of the then soon-to-collapse Soviet era. In its depiction of a territory abandoned after an undescribed trauma, possibly radiation-swamped and its vegetation grown anarchic in the absence of man, Stalker reminds one of footage of Chernobyl as it is today; scientists re-entering the post-meltdown reactor were called “stalkers” by their colleagues.

Geoff Dyer has written about his obsession with Stalker before, notably in Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. In his latest work, Zona (Russian, even the linguistically tone-deaf can deduce, for “Zone”), he atomises his favourite movie; he takes it apart scene by scene, almost shot by shot. For a writer who makes great play of his susceptibility to boredom, Dyer’s filmic fission risks zapping what it is about it that holds his interest so. Zona is wildly digressive, with branching footnotes, so that, like the film’s spooky no-man’s land, you have to watch where you’re going. Tarkovsky’s titular character has a daughter mutated by her father’s exposure to the Zone; and Dyer’s muse, bathed in Stalker’s depleted glow, births a mutant too, a volume that is neither film criticism nor memoir, an odd, oddly beguiling book.

What Dyer seeks on journeys he has written about are those fugitive, evanescent moments when he feels himself entering “the Zone”. ‘When I’m in the Zone I don’t wish to be anywhere else. Whereas when I’m not in the Zone I’m always wishing I was somewhere else, wishing I was in the Zone.’ The Zone is triggered by places – the Severan Forum in Libya , the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert – but it is not a place so much in itself as it is a feeling, a tuning-in into a dream frequency. ‘If it weren’t for Stalker I’m not sure I would ever have real-ized that the place I wanted to be – and the state I wanted to be in – was the Zone.’

Dyer describes Stalker as ‘a sort of sci-fi film’. The script, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is based on their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. In the book, scattered throughout the Zone are mysterious artefacts left behind during a brief visit by extra-terrestrials. No one fully knows what the artefacts are or do. Some venture they are a gift, but the title sourly refers to a counter-theory. That the aliens were on their way to somewhere more important than earth; that their sojourn was no more significant than a roadside picnic, and that what they left behind is, in effect, their trash.

Such a notion is inimical to Tarkovsky. His films pursue, like Dyer searching for the Zone, a tremor of awe, although the sensation itself is fleeting and dangerous. One thinks of the opening of Andrei Rublev, where a medieval peasant pilots then crashes a proto-hot-air balloon. Tarkovsky was always more interested in metaphysics than quantum physics. The sense of a Godlike visitation survives the transfer from page to screen but it arrives without the Strugatskys’ gesture towards an explanation. Instead, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a tourist guide to possibly heaven, possibly hell.

The Zone is a test of the soul, as watching the film can be a test of patience. With some cheek, Dyer berates L’Aventura for being agonizingly slow, when Stalker is nothing if not funereal in pace. Dyer first saw Stalker when he was 22, soon after it was first released. ‘It was not a case of love at first sight…. I was slightly bored and unmoved. I wasn’t overwhelmed…but it was an experience.’ I saw Stalker when I was 18. Like Dyer, I was ‘slightly bored and unmoved’, and didn’t watch it again until a copy of Zona came into my possession. My reluctance to return to the film in the two decades between viewings is bound up possibly with the circumstances under which I first saw it.

In my late teens I befriended a boy called Gregory, who although local, went to a different school, largely because of his difficult childhood, which explained why he lived with his grandparents. Whereas other adolescents with disastrous parents might have acted up with a show of arson or shoplifting, Gregory was an exercise nut who wore shorts and t-shirt everywhere, even, embarrassingly for friends, to parties. He stayed awake for days, claiming he had perfected lucid dreaming – sound training, I realise now, for Stalker’s trippier moments; Dyer’s first viewings were shaped by his experiences of taking hallucinogenics. Gregory, however, was a straight-edger. Instead of drinking Diamond White down the park, he flourished his copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra.  Fools did not suffer him lightly.

I felt a rivalry with Gregory that was all the more intense for being unacknowledged. Despite a minor mania for working out, Gregory hated sport, particularly football, as did I. Our “teams” were Tarkovsky (Gregory) and David Lynch (me). Competitively we found out as much as we could about our chosen director – and our rival’s choice. Settling on David Lynch in 1991 was, I see now, like choosing to support Manchester United. Lynch was buoyant at the time, having won the Palme D’Or with Wild At Heart while his television show Twin Peaks was, briefly, a success with critics and viewers. I especially loved Blue Velvet, Lynch’s dark romance of small towns and their secrets; my adolescent self liked to imagine my own small town harboured mysteries of its own. At the time I didn’t see a connection between the two directors, who seemed so representative of the spirit of their respective national cinemas; while both men traded in mystery, Tarkovsky’s were rooted in a struggle to recognise the numinous in the everyday, a conflict familiar from the work of Dos-toevsky and Tolstoy, while Lynch’s bright nightmares were poised between idealising and mocking the folksy strain of American life. But then again… The key moment in Blue Velvet features its hero hidden in a wardrobe spying on a naked Isabella Rossellini as a prelude to a troubling, sensual encounter between the two. A dark room where your desires are enacted… Often the abiding preoccupation of the cinema appears to be the cinema. ‘The Zone is film,’ Dyer writes. In his idiosyncratic history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, Dyer structured his narrative not chronologically or by photographer but by photographs that captured similar objects, people, phenomena. A similarly wrought story of the cinema might neighbour Stalker’s room and Blue Velvet’s wardrobe. Certainly my adolescent hormonally-juiced self was powerfully attracted to Lynch’s fantasies, and if I’d ever found myself in the Zone, my wish might have been to dwell in Rossellini’s wardrobe for a while. ‘The question, I suppose, is this,’ writes Dyer as a prelude to an equally unfortunate confession. ‘Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret? If so, then my greatest regret is, without doubt, one I share with the vast majority of middle-age, heterosexual men: that I’ve never had a three-way, never had sex with two women at once. Is that pathetic or wisdom?’

In a way that only became apparent years later, our championing of Lynch and Tarkovsky set the bounds of our adolescent mindscape. On the one hand, a yearning for a spiritual enlargement, not through religion, which we spurned, but via the great books and films of European art’s soberest tradition. On the other, an irresistible attraction to the flip, the trashy, the ironic, the hip, disturbed and erotic. In my repressed little town, repeatedly watching Blue Velvet on VHS stood in lieu of a sex life. Appropriately, while I watched Blue Velvet exclusively on the TV in my bedroom, I had to make a visit to the cinema, chapel-like, to see Stalker.

Perhaps that’s why I got a little annoyed by Dyer’s indiscreet memories in Zona of his younger self’s sex life: jealousy. He does often go on in his writing about his remarkable sexual career, and to the less blessed, it often borders on boastful. There are other aspects of Dyer’s shtick that were less charming on this excursion, notably his slackerdom, his candid admissions of not putting the work in. One area I was looking forward to Dyer addressing was the parallels between Stalker and that Depression-era fantasia The Wizard of Oz (the shift between black and white and colour, the journey across a magical land, the ultimately disappointing revelation), not least because David Lynch has repeatedly referenced Frank L Baum. ‘I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid,’ Dyer announces, ‘and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.’ Why not? It’s only a couple of hours long. Similarly, he ventures a line in another Tarkovsky film, Solaris, is in the script but not in the Stanislaw Lem novel it’s based on, although he can’t bring himself to read the book thoroughly enough to confirm (‘I skimmed’).

I don’t mean to carp. I enjoy Dyer’s work more than almost any other contemporary English writer. I think that what happened was that his book-length championing of Stalker revived in my mind my adolescent rivalry, with Dyer playing the part of Gregory. He was given to boastfulness too, with much to boast about: the last time I saw him, about a decade ago at a funeral, he was married to a beauty and about to start a new job in America; you would forgive me for suspecting he had somehow found his way to the Zone’s room. I didn’t watch Stalker for almost 20 years: when I did, the effect was painfully Proustian. Taking the role of Gregory, Dyer had cast me back to my adolescence. At least I don’t watch Blue Velvet in my bedroom on video tape any more. No. I’ve upgraded to DVD.

Geoff Dyer
PP220 978-0857861665

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Don Roberto

In his preface to the series, Alan McGillvray rightly maintains that Cunninghame Graham’s work as a writer has often been obscured by his larger-than-life reputation as a man:

‘the apparent flamboyant persona of “Don Roberto”, the Spanish hidalgo, the Argentine gaucho, the Scottish laird, the horseman-adventurer’. Editors have tended to select from his work to reinforce this exotic image rather than to focus on the full range of his literary output. It is understandable, given his extraordinarily colourful life – and one could add “firebrand politician” to the above list of epithets. Perhaps the exotic nature of much of his material has made him difficult to fit neatly into a Scottish literary context, but Graham deserves to be considered and valued more seriously as a writer. A series of new editions of his writings brings together Graham’s separate collections of stories and sketches intact as he intended them to be read and present them in chronological order, retaining Graham’s own footnotes.

Photographed on the Brain (Vol. 1) contains three of Graham’s earliest published books, the first being ‘Notes on the District of Menteith’, where Graham’s family estate Gartmore was situated. It is subtitled ‘For Tourists and Others’ but it is hardly a travel guide, more a personal account of the area’s history and the changes it was going through at the time of writing. It sows the seed of a recurring thematic concern – transience and the vanishing of old ways of life. Occasionally we also glimpse the fiction writer beginning to emerge from these sketches and reflections, as in the splendidly realized portrait of a local poacher ‘Trootie’, to whom Graham dedicated the book:

‘A little shilpet, feckless-looking body, dressed in a sort of moss-trout coloured and much patched coat of various shades of troutiness and stages of decay; summer and winter a grey woollen comforter resembling a stocking, such as farmers used to wear in the dark ages, round his throat; his “cadie”, for I cannot call it a hat, a cross between a beehive and a pudding bag, and girt about with casts of fuzzy home-made flies; over his shoulder a dilapidated fishing basket, always well stuffed with trout …’

The smattering of Scots here would also be developed into something more purposive and sustained in certain later narratives, either set in Scotland or featuring Scottish characters abroad. Though Graham’s habitual language was a highly erudite English, enlivened with Spanish vocabulary, his later uses of Scots display a relish of its rhythms, idiosyncrasies and expressive qualities.

Most of the earliest work are sketches rather than stories, and it’s really in Living With Ghosts (Vol. 2) that Graham comes into his own as a fiction writer, though many of the narratives draw on his wide experience of other countries and cultures, as in the semi-autobiographical ‘Cruz Alta’, in which a group of men set out to drive a company of horses from Uruguay to Brazil in order to sell them to the Brazilian army, which closely mirrors Graham’s own experience as a horse trader in South America. The venture is unsuccessful, and the story becomes a meditation on the nature of failure, though something redeeming and enduring is salvaged from the experience – a theme explored in other stories here. ‘The Gold Fish’, set in Morocco, tells the story of a humble runner who is engaged by the Khalifa to deliver a fine glass bowl of goldfish imported from the East to the Sultan. It is a long journey over desert lands and it ends in failure – both the messenger and the goldfish perish of thirst. Miraculously, however, the fine glass bowl survives intact. The theme of failure takes centre stage in the second book in this volume, ‘Success’. The title is ironic: ‘For those who fail, for those who have sunk still battling beneath the muddy waves of life, we keep our love, and that curiosity about their lives which makes their memories green when the cheap gold is dusted over, which once we gave success.’

One of the most memorable stories collected here, ‘Los Seguidores’, is set in Graham’s beloved Argentina, and tells of two brothers, Cruz and Frailan, who are opposite in terms of temperament and moral attitudes. Both fall in love with their half-sister, become enemies and rivals, and the story moves towards its inevitably horrific conclusion. The inseparable, antithetical brothers are symbolic of a deep moral schism, and in this respect the story is reminiscent of Hogg and Stevenson.

Graham is just as intrigued by Scottish customs and culture as by those of Spain, Morocco, Mexico and Argentina, albeit with a more critical and sardonic eye. In the darkly comic tale ‘Beattock for Moffat’, a terminally ill man attempts to return from London to his home town of Moffat, only to expire at the last leg of the journey, in Beattock station. Yet he has experienced the patriotic comfort of having crossed the border into Scotland once more, and his brother salvages some further solace from the situation when he observes: ‘He’ll hae a braw hurl onyway in the new Moffat hearse.’

We move from ‘Success’ to ‘Progress and Other Sketches’, the third book in the volume. The full irony of ‘progress’ is brought out in the title story, in which almost the entire population of a Mexican village is slaughtered for refusing to pay their taxes: ‘Of the one hundred men of Tomochic fit to bear arms none had escaped, and of a thousand soldiers only four hundred now remained. About a hundred women and some children had been spared, and the great cause of progress and humanity had gained a step.’ Again and again in these stories, Graham points up the futility of such ‘progress’ and the hypocrisy of the supposedly civilized world’s moral stance when it comes to less advanced peoples.

So in Ice House of the Mind we find a story called ‘Dagos’. The ethnic slur of the title is used by a Scottish sea captain in response to another captain’s story of two shipwrecked Chilean sailors who had become, by the time they were rescued, mad with hunger and isolation to the point of becoming mortal enemies, and the broader implication is that racism is used to conveniently dismiss matters of the human heart which require a deeper understanding and compassion. Similarly ‘Niggers’ is a satirical meditation on persecuted peoples throughout history, which ends by focusing on the racist imperialism of the English and the belief that all non-English peoples are ‘niggers’ of one sort or another.

Indeed, though he does not make politics itself the meat of any of the stories, Graham’s liberal progressive beliefs often lead to a tolerant understanding of people who are discriminated against by the society they live in. As a Member of Parliament he was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and his empathy with their position is clear in many stories such as ‘Un Monsieur’, narrated by a French prostitute who is regularly visited by a dull, rich businessman. One day his wife calls on her, shows her a photograph of her husband and asks if she knows him. Even when the lady offers her a thousand pounds ‘if you but choose to recollect’, the prostitute denies ever having met him, because ‘every métier has its etiquette and mine, just like a lawyer’s or a priest’s, is, or should be, discreet’. Similarly in ‘Buta’, an Arab widow with two children is forced to become a prostitute for English clerks. Graham is pointedly critical of men here, particularly his fellow countrymen, revealing their moral hypocrisy in the eloquent narration of the Arab Moslem who recounts Buta’s sorry tale: ‘You are, above all, a commercial nation, and the soul is cheap …’

Many of the stories are character-centred, and celebrate human resilience and dignity in the face of daunting circumstances. In ‘Mektub’, a poor blind man in Tangier who acts as a kind of stable hand at a hotel is promised the restoration of his sight by a German surgeon keen to try a new technique. The operation fails and when the surgeon buries his head in his hands and sobs aloud, ‘with a grave smile the patient got out of his bed, and having felt his way to where he heard the sobs, laid his rough, freckled hand upon the shoulder of his friend, and said as unconcernedly, as if he had not suffered in the least, “Weep not; it was not written”.’ The story illustrates that the blind man’s true faith does not so much lie in his belief that his sight might be restored, but in his dignified acceptance of his fate when it is not.

Both the English and the Scots abroad are often the targets for satire, and that satire might still be applicable today, as in ‘A Renegade’. A Scots renegade, Graham tells us, who converts to another faith in another land, even if he rises in his new society to become a Vizier or a King, ‘would remain a Scot of Scots no matter how he changed his faith, his dress, his habits, or increased the number of his wives’. The particular renegade he focuses on is from the north of England ‘and spoke Arab abominably, and with the burr of Newcastle-on-Tyne’ and ‘his haik and caftan hung upon him as rags hang on a scarecrow, and his red beard and freckled face showed him as European half-a-mile away.’ Sounds familiar.

The first three volumes of this series are a testament to Graham’s skill, originality and versatility as a writer, offering the reader a rich and wide-ranging experience of the diverse characters and cultures he brings to life. The complete series will be an invaluable resource for the future study and proper assessment of Graham’s work, but there is also a wealth of material here which will be stimulating and enjoyable for the general reader.

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP330 978-1849211000

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP426 978-1849211017

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP456 978-1849211017

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Afgan Hounds

I’ve long had a love affair with Afghanistan. At times painful but always passionate, it’s been going on now for the best part of 30 years. Almost entirely throughout that time this hard land and its generous people have been wracked by war. That was what took me there in the first place and why I continue to return. Having said that, even without the war, or jang, as the Dari word beautifully captures its true clashing, dislocating essence, I would still be drawn to the place.

‘Every rock, every hill has its story,’ wrote a young Winston Churchill in a despatch to the Daily Telegraph back in those Great Game days of 1897, as the British and Russian empires tussled for strategic control of the region. How right Churchill was. Anyone who goes to Afghanistan can’t help but feel the richness of this reservoir of tales and desire for storytelling. Where else but in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier town of Peshawar on the edge of Afghanistan would you expect to find the Kissa Qani or storytellers’ bazaar? To visit these wild lands is to feel part of a great narrative tradition.

It was here once upon a distant war, back in the early 1980s when the Afghan resistance or mujahideen were taking on the Soviet Red Army, that as a journalist I first set foot illegally inside Afghanistan. One day, disguised in a turban and the baggy outfit or shalwar qameez worn by locals, I followed my Afghan guide along a dried up river-bed through the same frontier foothills where countless soldiers, explorers and smugglers had journeyed in earlier times. Sidestepping a small cluster of anti-personnel landmines on the track ahead of us, I recall pointing to the ground and asking that pressing one word question of my guide: ‘Pakistan?’

‘No, Afghanistan,’ he instantly replied with a grin. After weeks of clandestine negotiations in Peshawar at the foot of the famous Khyber Pass, here I was finally on Afghan soil in the midst of a war that few westerners had then managed to access.

In the years that followed I would often come and go across this border in exotic guises. Once dressed as a woman, enveloped in a burqa, complete with painted toenails and sandals. On another occasion I was swathed in bandages drenched in sheep blood and laid in a makeshift coffin.

Always though, the long march in-country would follow a familiar pattern. Each night our heavily-armed band of mujahideen set off by starlight to avoid the Soviet helicopter gunships. Gruelling marches of anything up to 20 hours or more. In the distance, explosions rumbled and the horizon would flicker like a candlelit room. Often as fatigue set in, events would assume an almost surreal quality, as if a line from the Arabian Nights had come to life.

Over the decades there have been some wonderful travellers’ accounts from this region, not least Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana and Eric Newby’s classic, A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush. What then to make of more recent offerings especially the myriad of war books that has emerged from Afghanistan’s current volatile travails? Like the journalists turned authors who have written most of these accounts, they tend to fall into two categories. The first are books based on the experiences of those who have witnessed Afghanistan’s present conflict through independent travel and encounters. The second are those seen through the prism of embedded reporters accompanying the British or US military. Maybe it’s because of my own intimate long term association with Afghanistan’s culture and people, but to my mind those that best get beneath the skin of the place are books like Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light, Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between or Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat. Here is the Afghanistan I know, love and find myself intrigued by. A land of mind-boggling beauty and hospitable people, who at one and the same time are granite hard and tenderly poetic.

As Olaf Caroe in his historical book The Pathans once put it, this is a place where ‘the land was made for the men in it, not men for the land.’ Much has been written about Afghan hospitality but once encountered it is never forgotten. ‘Trust a Brahmin before a snake, a snake before a harlot and a harlot before an Afghan,’ goes the Hindu saying that Rudyard Kipling was fond of using to colourfully describe the Afghan character. What such an observation fails to make clear however is that those same Afghans wouldn’t hesitate to give you their last morsel of food or the shelter of their home.

Afghans are the greatest of friends but make for dangerous enemies, something that many of the other books written about the current war spend an inordinate amount of time pointing out. Among the ‘embedded journalist’ genre some are better than others. Stephen Grey’s Operation Snakebite and James Fergusson’s A Million Bullets are reads that give an insight into the workings of the British Army on the notorious battlefields of Helmand Province. To their credit, they never shy away from criticism or negative observation of our role when it’s due. Mercifully, they also avoid fawning over ‘our boys’. There is a tendency for some authors, described by professional soldiers themselves as ‘army barmy’, to become fixated with the paras, commandos, Special Forces, and so forth. At their worst, the books written by these authors are cringe-worthy, but more often that not simply dry and impenetrable. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that many ex-soldiers and marines appear the least equipped to write such accounts so close have they been to the controversial politics of the Afghanistan war and effectively still neutered in terms of what they can say. Then on the other hand of course, there are the wannabe soldiers who should have done just that, joined the army, leaving the written word to others more able and less breathless in their admiration for all things military. On both counts there is no shortage of such tomes.

Some, such as Helmand Assault, by Ewen Southby-Tailyour, I found as easy to get bogged down in as the ‘Somme-like’ mud and Helmand dust that the publicity blurb harps on about. Among the more recent crop is Six Months Without Sundays, Max Benitz account of his considerable time spent with the Scots Guards during Operation Herrick12. ‘Max, remember the plan. Dinnae write a shite book,’ a Company Sergeant Major warns Benitz according to the introduction to this newly published title. For the Scots Guards at the centre of the action in Benitz book, he may have avoided doing just that – but the general reader might beg to differ.

The problem with so many accounts like these is not the subject matter itself so much but that the books are often quite simply ill considered, badly structured and generally not well written. Beyond limited appeal to those of a military minded disposition, their chewy army-speak and literary shortcomings make for a real turn-off when it comes to the lay reader. In what we are constantly told are difficult economic times for the publishing industry it is amazing that so many books of this ilk continue to see the light of day in an already congested market.

American writer Sebastian Junger’s simply titled and powerfully rendered War stands apart. Like Max Benitz, Junger spent a considerable time with one specific unit in Afghanistan, in his case a single platoon in one of the most dangerous outposts in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. What resulted here though was a book that doesn’t just tell us about soldiering but takes the reader as close to what it’s really like being in a war as any sane person would wish to get. In terms of its literary worth, Junger’s book is to the current Afghanistan war what Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone was to the writing that came out of the Vietnam conflict.

A few weeks ago in a Glasgow bar of all places, I met by chance a man called Andrei who was an ‘Afghantsi’ or Russian veteran of the 1980s Soviet war. Mutually amazed that both of us had at one time been within a few miles of each other but on opposite sides of that bitter divide, we exchange old war stories. Andrei told me about the men in his unit, while I talked to him of my times as a reporter accompanying Afghanistan’s mujahideen guerrillas. At the end of our encounter we both bought, signed and swapped two books as mementoes of our chance encounter. For my part I gave him Sebastian Junger’s War and he in turn gave me a copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, so titled because of the zinc lined coffins which were used to bring home Russia’s Afghanistan war dead.

Two books, two wars, two veterans of sorts. Those wars may now be far apart but they continue to have equal resonance. Sad to think that so little has changed for Afghanistan. Sad also to think that so few good books are around to reflect such profound events.

Max Benitz
BIRLINN, £16.99 320PP
ISBN 978-1843410522

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The SRB Interview: Jamie Byng

For someone who has made their living in literary journalism over the past decade, entering the Edinburgh headquarters of the publisher Canongate can be a poignant experience. The walls are covered in shelves housing old and new editions  of books Canongate has published; as you gaze at their covers, many of them sporting memorable designs, your mind moves back to the times and places you read them for review, the people you knew then, some of them then employees of the company. Reminiscing can be a melancholic business, but the energy you feel in the office seems to repel easy nostalgia. In the meeting room I’m ushered into, a sheet of A3 is pinned to the wall, words associated with Canongate felt-tipped onto it, possibly as part of an exercise: ‘provocative’, ‘dynamic’, ‘marketing’. The look of the place has certainly changed, with the room redesigned to take in a lower floor connected to the ground floor through a spiralling staircase, a legacy from the money Canongate made in the wake of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi’s global success. Pi’s Booker victory marked the conclusion of the first phase of the Canongate story. Central to that tale is Jamie Byng, who took over the venerable but failing publishing house in 1994, when he was still in his mid-20s. Through a series of smart acquisitions, controversy, and a keen sense of publicity, Byng built up the business. Authors included Michel Faber, Louise Welsh, and Alasdair Gray. After Pi, Canongate expanded, and its luck continued to hold with the publication of the memoirs of soon-to-be-President Barack Obama. Canongate returned to the news at the close of 2011 when it published Julian Assange’s Unauthorised Autobiography against his wishes. As the issues surrounding digital publishing grow larger and the future is thrown into greater doubt, and as some question whether Canongate has the edge it once had, Colin Waters met Jamie Byng to talk about the past of and future of Canongate. They began by discussing Canongate’s most recent publication, The Last Holiday, a memoir by the recently departed musician and author Gil Scott-Heron. It was a difficult book to put together, not merely because it was a posthumous publication. Byng was a friend of Scott-Heron’s, and, even for as hands-on a publisher as he is, he was more involved than he normally is with its journey towards the book shops.

Scottish Review of Books: How did you first encounter Gil Scott-Heron?

Jamie Byng: In Edinburgh, the Queen’s Hall, backstage, early 90s. Actually, I first encountered him really through his music.
I vividly remember hearing Gil’s voice for the first time. It was a track of his called ‘H2O Gate Blues’. That was during my first year at university in Edinburgh. Over the years I saw him perform dozens of times.
At the first one, I talked my way backstage and got him to sign an album, a rare bootleg he’d never seen, which was a talking point he thought was pretty funny. He was warm towards me the next few times we met. I wasn’t in publishing then, I was simply a student who was very into books and music. After I took over Canongate in 1994, and launched our imprint Payback Press, the thought occurred to me that the two novels Gil wrote when he was a very young man – he’d written two novels by the time he was 23 [The Vulture and The Nigger Factory] – would make great titles for us to reissue. So began a professional relationship.

Did that change the dynamics of your friendship?

Not at all. It always felt like our friendship came first. He also liked what we were doing with Payback Press. He was a fan of the many writers we were republishing, particularly Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Langton Hughes and Clarence Cooper Jnr. He was delighted to be on a list with some of his literary heroes.

You personally edited The Last Holiday? Do you often edit?

Tim Mohr, who is based in Brooklyn, played a key role in editing the book, but the conversations Gil and I had about The Last Holiday had been going on for
many years. He first gave me chapters to read back in ’97, ’98. At that point it was written as a third person narrative. When we signed the contract, paid the advance, said let’s definitely do this book together, that was 2001. After signing, he agreed with me that it should be written as a first person account, and that was the single most important editorial conversation we had. After Gil died, I talked with Tim about how to put the book together and what Gil’s vision for the book had been. Gil had a very clear structure for the book, and he and I had often spoken about it. It’s unfinished, but it’s pretty much the way he wanted it. As for editing other Canongate writers, I leave that to my excellent colleagues, but I am often reading with a pen in my hand. Our editors are involved in the crucial, sleeves-rolled-up, immersive editing, but it can sometimes be useful for me to give objective feedback. I certainly don’t have the time to line edit, but I read carefully and slowly.

Are there disadvantages to having a friendship with writers you publish? Do you sometimes back off from asking them to put into their books difficult material other publishers would insist on? For example, The Last Holiday doesn’t entirely deal with Scott-Heron’s drug problems or spell in prison.

It can complicate things if you have a strong, personal relationship with a writer, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t push for a change if I felt it would benefit the book. Gil and I talked about whether his book should go beyond its immediate focus of the campaign to get Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday and the tour he did with Stevie Wonder [to promote that cause]. We did talk about whether he should write about his time in jail or doing drugs. But The Last Holiday was not meant to be a conventional cradle-to-grave memoir and I respected and understood this. To have insisted he make it a conventional memoir would have been wrong

How typical was your relationship with Gil Scott-Heron compared to Canongate’s other authors? How often do you speak to them?

It was a different sort of thing with Gil; I began as a fan of his music. I’m close to a lot of the authors we publish but the friendship tends to follow on from the professional relationship. I had no sense, for example, of who Yann Martel was until I was given pages of Life of Pi by Ann Patty, the great editor who had just bought the US rights. My relationship with Yann began when I fell in love with the book, and this is how most author/publisher relationships develop. Yann and the people who worked at Canongate enjoyed an intense experience, a bonding experience, through Life of Pi’s success. On the other hand, there’s my relationship with Nick Cave, which is closer in character to mine with Gil.
Nick called me out of the blue because of the Canongate Pocket Canon series; he wanted to introduce The Gospel According to Mark (which he did brilliantly). We kept in touch, would have occasional lunches, he invited me to gigs and I would often send him books as Nick’s an avid reader and he was always interested in what we were publishing (Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Cold Skin and John Haskell’s American Purgatorio are particular favourites). At one point he mentioned a screenplay he had written that seemed to be going nowhere film-wise but which he felt might have the makings of a novel. I read the script, which went on to become The Death of Bunny Munro, which we ended up publishing with great success and all over the world. The film is still in development but I heard recently from Nick that Gary Oldman wants to direct it which would be pretty cool.
I’ve been running Canongate for 18 years now and inevitably the relationships with writers are getting longer too. For example, I’ve known and published Michel Faber for coming up to 15 years and think of him and his wife Eva Youren as dear friends. Alasdair Gray’s relationship with Canongate precedes my involvement and spans four decades. These are long periods of time.

Interesting you should mention Gray. There are certain authors who seem to embody characteristics that have become associated with Canongate.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is the foundation stone of Canongate and I cannot think of a finer novel or writer on which to build an independent, Scottish, international literary publishing house. Another writer whose spirit seems to imbue Canongate is Richard Holloway. Canongate’s relationship with him also goes back to the Pocket Canons (he introduced The Gospel According to Luke) and then the publication of Godless Morality which came out in 1999. Keeping Religion out of Ethics is the book’s subtitle, which seems a sound philosophical standpoint for anyone who recognises that religion cannot be the foundation of the moral. The fact that Richard was (and still is) regarded as outspoken and controversial didn’t bother him and nor has it ever bothered us. So Richard is another example of a writer who chimes closely with what Canongate is in terms of its outlook and personality; he has also been intimately involved in Canongate and the lives of the people working here. In the ideal sense, he became part of what we’re doing, and that’s what I think a publishing house should be.

Godless Morality was, I imagine, another part of building the Canongate legend, in that it was somewhat controversial.

Richard was still Bishop of Edinburgh at the time, so for him to come out with this book was a very bold move. But necessary too. His latest book, his memoir, Leaving Alexandria, is a beautiful account of his lifelong wrestling with doubt, a very human condition, an essential condition and one I think pretty much every author who writes for Canongate accepts as the norm for a state of being. Richard introduced me to Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’. ‘One must have negative capability, that is the ability to exist within mystery, uncertainty and doubt without ceaseless reaching after fact and reason.’

You’ve done very well with religious books. Is faith something you dwell on?

I’m not scratching my soul as to whether there is a God. I’m not thinking of organised religion as something I want to be involved with but the very idea of faith I find fascinating. And you can’t be interested in history or humanity without a curiosity as to what religion has done down the centuries  and in the myth-making and story-telling that lies at the heart of all religion. I liked Richard’s line in his introduction to Luke about reading the Bible as good poetry rather than bad science.

Thinking of the Philip Pullman book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, that you published, Canongate seems to be involved in two or three controversies a year. It certainly gives the books a push. What’s your attitude to controversy? Is it a marketing tool?

We don’t court controversy. It just so happens that many of the books we publish tackle controversial subjects. When Philip Pullman told me he wanted to retell the story of Jesus in our myths series and that he wanted to call it The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, I knew the title alone would anger and upset certain people, but that’s no reason not to publish a book. Books are meant to challenge you. They’re meant to disrupt your sense of comfort, your sense of certainty. Books are meant
to cause controversy even if it’s only an internal mental controversy about who you are and what you think is important and how you make sense of the world.

I wanted to ask about the future of Canongate in our brave new digital world. You’ve recently been talking about your web site, which has been re-titled Canongate TV. You’ve said, ‘We should be thinking of ourselves as broadcasters rather than simply book publishers.’ What does that actually mean?

The opportunities for publishers have never been greater, so while I’m certain we’ll always publish books in traditional ways, my point about being broadcasters is that we have access to and are collaborating with people who don’t simply think in terms of the written word. It’s more possible now to open up different stories in different ways  in different mediums than ever before and audiences increasingly expect and want this. As a publishing house there are many things that you can do from that position. You can choose to publish books as you always have done or you can think, Hold on, we’re quite good at bringing people together, why don’t we examine this at a more serious level than we have before. Digital is the most liberating medium in that sense. It’s fairly simple these days, as you can see on Canongate.TV, to have a multi-channel web site where you can allow people to listen, read, and watch great content. If we want to engage the writers and creative people we are working with, we need to be much more imaginative in the way we think about opening up subjects and stories, whilst creating entertainments that remain in line with the things we care about. We’ve been working on these ideas with some of the people I’ve already talked about. There’s multi-media footage of the likes of Gil and Nick Cave and Richard Holloway appearing on Canongate TV as well as with people like Noel Fielding, Tilda Swinton, Miranda July and David Byrne, who are equally happy working in different mediums and cannot be pigeonholed creatively. Our position now is as much as a curator and catalyst in supporting this work. And digital is an important way in which we see ourselves growing – and learning.

All these ideas that take advantage of digital, the films, the audio books – they’re Canongate’s ideas? The writers aren’t yet approaching you saying they want to try something to coincide with a book’s release and they need x, y and z from you to do it, right?
Sometimes they do come to us with ideas. When David Byrne approached us with How Music Works, an overview of music, he was adamant that as part of the publication of the physical book there needed to be some sort of advanced e-book or app before he signed any contract. We were thrilled that he was thinking this way and insisting that we did too.

Are you an e-book reader yourself?
I am. I tend to use my iPad for reading books digitally. I have a Kindle too but I haven’t read anything on it for a while.
I find it incredibly easy to read on my iPad. It’s got so many things on it, from email to watching stuff online to reading manuscripts on it.

You don’t fall into the trap then, when reading your iPad, of popping out of the book to check your email or apps, rather than staying with the text as you’d have to with a traditional book?

If I do, there’s a problem with the book rather than a problem with the iPad. If I’m immersed in a book, I’m immersed in it absolutely. I can be distracted while reading a traditional book as much as I can a digital one.

You’re not afraid you’re going to end up a cog in a machine serving Google, Amazon and Apple then?

You’re a cog whether you like it or not. What matters is the degree to which you remain independent to put out the things you want to put out. That’s what I and my colleagues care about. I like to think our editorial independence would always be maintained, because if it wasn’t, there’d be a real problem. That’s what defines a publishing house, its editorial independence. All of those companies that you mentioned are very important parts of our present and our future, but so are independent booksellers, so are the chains, so are the supermarkets, so are the international publishers who  we work with very closely. Our books have found audiences around the world in a variety of different languages and through a variety of different channels, of which Google, Amazon and Apple are three of the biggest new ones to emerge in recent years. They’ve never been in a stronger position than they are right now, so they’re having a greater impact on our business than ever before, and that’s just something you have to deal with.

To what degree is Canongate a genuinely Scottish publisher? How much energy do you put into that end of the operation?

Depends how you define Scottish publisher. We’re sitting here in Canongate’s office in Edinburgh, which is our head office. We have an office in London too but 30 out  of the 40 people who work at Canongate are based in Scotland. Purely on a physical level, Canongate is a Scottish publishing house. There are more people working in Scotland for Canongate than ever before.
Its roots are here and its connection to Scotland is strong, stronger than ever. The list itself is not as dominated by Scottish writers as it was when I joined in the early 1990s. There are still great Scottish writers on the list and there will continue to be, but that’s not how we come to buy books. We don’t buy books on the basis of the country they come from. We haven’t tried to build a Scottish non-fiction list as we could have and have discussed and perhaps will over time. We’ve built a very different kind of non-fiction list over the past five years, with pop science books like Incognito by David Eagleman or Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. That’s an area we’ve gone into that we haven’t touched before. Our non-fiction publishing director Nick Davies also brought in things like The Mighty Book of Boosh, Simon’s Cat and Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad, titles that historically we didn’t publish back in the 1990s, all of which have been major bestsellers. Big pop culture, humour books which are very much part of a Christmas publishing programme. We just needed to get that balance and we didn’t have that balance before. We were much more literary and cult and alternative. Going back to your question, I describe Canongate as an international publishing house based in Scotland.

I admit I have been surprised by some of your recent publishing choices. The Only Fools and Horses book by Graeme McCann – The Untold Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy.

The Only Fools and Horses book is a good, well-written and researched, straight, down-the-line account of the TV show.

But people felt they knew who you were. You were edgy, off-beat, different, with striking marketing campaigns and cover design. It felt less like a publisher than a record company like Factory or Creation. You’ve disturbed that image by putting out books like the Only Fools and Horses title.

Well, if we have, perhaps that’s no bad thing although I think there remains an anarchic spirit to Canongate that pervades all our publishing. And you should always want to surprise people. The company’s also grown up as well as grown.

A critic would counter that the books that helped to make Canongate’s name, and which seem so characteristic of Canongate, like Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, could only have been published by Canongate. Some of the books put out now, anyone could have published them.

First off, so many of the books that I think  of as defining Canongate (including Stone Junction) and which made our reputation could have been published by a number of the other excellent publishers in the UK. The thing is, we have always liked to think at Canongate that we can publish an extremely diverse range of books while always adding a Canongate stamp to them. And most importantly the quality and range and originality of the books we’re publishing this year is greater than ever.
As for being more mainstream….Take Kate Grenville or Barack Obama. Are they typical Canongate authors? I hope so as they are both outstanding writers who manage to  be literary and bestselling. Kate has won the Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker with the first novel we published by her (The Secret River). The fact is Canongate used to be more male and cult; thankfully we’re more female now. And more eclectic. I don’t think that makes Canongate any less Canongate and there are commercial imperatives that didn’t previously exist that have to be recognised. And with growth comes greater responsibility, both to your staff and your authors.

And that dictates a certain direction the company has to take?

No, I don’t think it has to dictate a specific direction. And it doesn’t mean you have to publish rubbish, but it does mean you have to have your shit together to be generating enough turnover to keep the business humming. Like I say we’ve grown up a lot as a publishing house and as a result we have changed as a publishing house, while retaining the same sense of joy in what we’re doing.

Was everything that came with Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-win positive? Have there been downsides?

It brought different pressures and expectations but in the main it was amazing for Canongate. It allowed us to grow in new ways, hiring great staff and investing in superb books and authors Without Life of Pi, God knows where we’d be today. We certainly would not have bought a majority stake in a great Australian publishing house, Text, in 2004. And that in turn led to other important events like publishing Kate Grenville and Barack Obama. Everything’s connected. Life of Pi was also a game-changer in that it showed to the outside world – and to ourselves – that we could publish a best-selling book. In its first year in paperback, Life of Pi sold 900,000 copies. That was almost more books than we’d sold in total during the five years previous to Life of Pi’s publication. It was an extreme experience that gave us the luxury of money, which is something that’s great to have when you’re a small, creative publishing house.

Going back to what we were saying about Gil Scott-Heron and Alasdair Gray seeming like what we would call Canongate-type authors… Julian Assange seems like a Canongate author. It was such an obvious match – in retrospect, do you think that blinded you to his character flaws and the risks associated with those?

When we acquired that book, we acquired it because we thought Wikileaks was an important organisation doing work of real value. And that Assange was a fascinating character who we felt had a great story to tell. In that sense, it still feels like it was a great fit for Canongate. When we brought on board Andrew O’Hagan to ghost the memoir, it felt like we had everything set up perfectly. It’s still perplexing and frustrating to us that it worked out the way it did. A wonderful opportunity was wasted because Julian ended up not wanting to publish the memoir he had agreed to publish. We always knew it would be a risk. We knew it was never going to be straightforward.
It could have and should have been an important book for us, and if it didn’t happen like that, it wasn’t for want of trying.

Yes, but there were serious questions raised about Assange at the time of signing.

You say it was a risk, but that’s risk with a capital R. It was a serious risk and the stakes were very high, but we sold this book to 38 publishers around the world, so on paper we had eliminated the riskiest element of the deal – the large advance. We’d more than covered the advance through rights deals abroad, which is something we do very well at Canongate and this was part of our calculation when we made our offer to Julian.

The advance didn’t damage Canongate’s coffers then?

Sure it did! We ended up taking a massive bath on his book. Thankfully there were other books last year that made us money. In publishing, as in life, you just have to  be philosophical. The Assange memoir, if it had came out when we wanted it to come out and in the way we wanted it to come out, would probably have been an international bestseller and it would certainly have covered its costs through the rights sales made around the world. If that had happened we would have looked back and thought it was one of the smartest things we had ever done. We were very close to having a very successful book. On paper, we had a very successful book even before we published it. The whole thing unravelled because we couldn’t fulfil our side of the bargain with the agreements abroad
and deliver the book when we originally said we were going to, and the book was never completed. Publishing is a very unpredictable business, and the difference between the Assange book being the smartest thing we ever did and the costliest thing we ever did was not that great.

Reminds me of the classic Spinal Tap line: ‘There’s a thin line between clever and stupid.’ I suppose at the end of it all, with the Unauthorized Autobiography, you ended up with a classic Canongate publication and marketing campaign.

We felt we did the right thing by publishing and without his blessing. In fact we felt we had very little choice as we tried to mitigate our losses and make the best of a totally fucked up situation. Turns out there was even less interest in the book by this point (September 2011) than we feared there would be, and that most people were sick of the sight and sound of him. The book also wasn’t helped by Julian doing everything he could to undermine its credibility which was a real pity because the book is very well-written, superbly researched and fascinating. Not least because Julian is a fascinating, albeit deeply flawed, human being. It still blows my mind how stupid he was to screw us over because the person he ended up damaging the most was himself and not least financially.

I suspect people now might want to read a book about Julian Assange, but not by him.

I’m not so sure. I certainly don’t! There’s also been a real change in perception. At the time we bought his memoir, which was December 2010, Time magazine was discussing making him their Man of the Year. That’s how high his star was at the time. A year on and he had burnt pretty much every bridge he had ever walked on and many that haven’t even been built.

Finally, there are several small, youthful publishers starting up around Scotland. What would you say to someone starting, what should they keep in mind?

The most important thing is that when you publish a book you should be able to, with your hand on your heart, convince anyone that this is a book worth their attention. You can’t fake it. The integrity with which you put a book out and the care, I don’t think the importance of those two points can be over-estimated. You’ve always got to be willing to go to the wall for your writers. It’s not simply a job.

Is it a calling?

It’s a privilege.

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Boz in the North

Charles Dickens grew up in the shadow of Sir Walter Scott, and some of his deepest convictions had been articulated by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. He was proud to marry into a Scottish family, and like Lord Byron, the romantic poet of Scottish descent, he ‘awoke one morning and found himself famous’. His first major public recognition came when, at the age of twenty-nine, he was granted the freedom of the city of Edinburgh, and he retained great affection for the Scottish capital for the rest of his life. Although quintessentially an English author, in many ways Dickens was imbued with a distinctly Scottish tincture.

From the Scottish enlightenment Dickens derived the image of the man of feeling, predisposed instinctively to benevolence. Linking ethics with aesthetics and locating virtue in spontaneous human affections, Francis Hutchison defined virtue in relation to beauty in 1725, in An Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, and Adam Smith proposed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that sympathy, by arousing interest in the feelings of others, provides the source of moral judgements. For these writers, as for Dickens, man was a creature of natural goodness. Sensibility, the faculty of feeling, predominated over reason, and sentiment, the capacity for moral reflection, was innate. Dickens pulled on readers’ heartstrings with the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey; Florence Dombey, Sissy Jupe, and Lizzie Hexam combat heartlessness with selfless compassion; Mr. Pickwick is the first in a long line of Dickens’ men of sensibility.

Dickens’ sudden rise to fame was compared by the Quarterly Review in 1839 to that of Byron, and in his early works Dickens treated the lingering fascination with the most sensationally popular poet of the previous generation with comic ridicule. The schoolgirls in The Old Curiosity Shop scream with excitement when they see a wax effigy of Byron, and Dick Swiveller, in the same novel, spouts passages from Byron’s poems. Later, Dickens introduces gloomy Byronic heroes in his fiction, most notably James Steerforth in David Copperfield.

Sir Walter Scott was Dickens’ great predecessor, the writer whose success brought prestige and respectability to the novel, and it was a considerable accolade when, early in his career, Dickens’ works were compared to Scott’s. Scott’s romances, starting with Waverley, established the historical novel, in which ordinary people are caught up in great historical events, as the foremost manifestation of the genre, and Dickens consciously sought to emulate Scott when he first started writing fiction. In the event, other commitments intervened, and it was not until 1841, by which time he had already achieved success with four serialized novels, that he turned to the much-delayed Barnaby Rudge. Its subtitle, A Tale of the Riots of ’80, explicitly echoes that of Waver-ley – ’Tis Sixty Years Since, but although several of Dickens’ characters, events, and topics have precedent in Scott’s fiction, his conception of history differs markedly from Scott’s. He was to write only one more historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which, even more than Barnaby Rudge, imbibes not Sir Walter’s Whiggish outlook on history but the apocalyptic vision of Thomas Carlyle, the sage from Ecclefechan.

Scott also mattered to Dickens in another way, providing an object lesson in the precariousness of writing as a profession and the danger of wearying the public by writing too much. In his last years Scott had attempted to extricate himself with his pen from financial ruin after being caught up in the bankruptcy of his publisher and printer. Dickens wrote three trenchant articles for the Examiner in 1838-9, defending the favourable account in Lockhart’s Life of Scott and affirming an author’s right to fame and fortune. In 1842 this position involved Dickens in acrimonious controversy with Americans over international copyright.

Dickens’ career as a literary figure began with the publication of ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ in December 1833 in the Monthly Magazine. More stories and sketches followed, and in August of 1834 he was hired as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle, where his editor, an irascible Scot named John Black, was Dickens’ ‘first hearty out-and-out appreciator’. ‘Keep “Boz” in reserve for great occasions,’ Black was quoted as saying. ‘He will aye be ready for them.’ A few months later, in January 1835, Dickens was invited to supply an original sketch to the newly-founded Evening Chronicle, by its editor, another Scot who had migrated to London, George Hogarth, whose daughter Catherine Dickens was soon to marry. Dickens was intensely proud of this Scottish connection. He gave Catherine a toddy-kettle from Scot-land as a wedding present. To his uncle he described Hogarth as ‘an intimate friend and companion of Sir Walter Scott, and one of the most eminent among the literati of Edin-burgh’. Hogarth, whose sister was married to James Ballantyne of Scott’s publishing firm, had acted as Scott’s legal adviser; his wife was the daughter of George Thomson, Robert Burns’ publisher and friend. ‘All my relations by marriage are of Scotland,’ Dickens boasted.

Long before Dickens’ birth, Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’, rivalled London as a literary and cultural Mecca. In the 19th century it was a vigorous centre of publishing, and its literati quickly recognised Dickens’ importance. An Edinburgh Pickwick Club was founded in 1837; the same year his comic operetta The Village Coquettes was staged here, and the year after that Dickens was gratified to learn that Oliver Twist was well received in Scotland. Francis Lord Jeffrey, founder and influential editor of the Edinburgh Review, admired Dickens intensely, calling himself Dickens’ ‘Critic Laureate’, and was famous for weeping over Little Nell – ‘nothing so good as Nell since Cordelia’, he told Dickens. John Gib-son Lockhart, son-in-law and biographer of Scott and editor of the Quarterly Review, commissioned an important early review of Dickens.

Instigated by Lord Jeffrey, a public dinner was held in Dickens’ honour on 25 June 1841. John Wilson (‘Christopher North’), trenchant editor of Blackwood’s, presided. Dickens was immensely flattered, and wrote to his closest friend John Forster, ‘It was the most brilliant affair you can conceive; the completest success possible, from first to last.’ More than 250 men were present, with another seventy turned away, and some 150 ladies sat in the gallery to hear the speeches. Wilson described Dickens as ‘perhaps the most popular writer now alive’, and Dickens’ own speeches (he gave three) were rapturously received. His friend Angus Fletcher, proposing the toast to the ladies, declared that Dickens ‘owed much of his distinction to his having selected as his partner for life a Scottish lady’, to which Dickens replied that he ‘had always looked with pleasure upon his children as half bred English and Scotch’. Four days later he was voted the freedom of the city, and his ‘Burgess Ticket’ was still proudly displayed in his study at Gad’s Hill Place at the time of his death. Dickens stayed in Edinburgh for ten days, fêted everywhere, and when he went, supposedly ‘incognito’, to the theatre, the orchestra struck up ‘Charlie is my Darling’. Following his triumph, he and Catherine proceeded to tour the Highlands for twelve days. He found himself ‘exalted’ by the glens of Glencoe, ‘fearful in their grandeur and amazing solitude’, an impression altogether lacking, he felt, when he witnessed Niagara Falls the next year.

Dickens had made his first visit to Edin-burgh in 1834, when he reported for the Morning Chronicle on banquet in honour of Lord Grey, whose government had enacted the Reform Bill. He returned to Scotland a number of times, taking his amateur theatrical productions to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and giving public reading performances not only in those two cities but also in Aberdeen, Dundee, and Perth. He repeatedly praised the audiences of Edinburgh, ‘most intelligent…with a capacity of being affected by the pathetic parts, such as I never saw before’, and evincing greater geniality and ‘a quicker sense of humour’ than anywhere else. The feeling was reciprocated: in a long and laudatory review, the Scotsman wrote, ‘Hear Dickens, and die; you will never live to hear anything of its kind so good.’

Among his closest friends, Jeffrey and Fletcher resided in Edinburgh, and he admired the Edinburgh-based Scotsman as ‘a really good newspaper’. But he considered the Scott monument ‘a failure. . .like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground’, and he deplored the oppressiveness of Presbyterian Sundays in the ‘city of whited sepulchres’ as Edinburgh was described in an essay he published in Household Words (‘A Sabbath Hour’). He was delighted with the ‘enthoozymoozy’ of the reception when he presided over the opening of the Athenaeum in Glasgow in 1847, but generally he associated Glasgow with incessant rain. He found other towns in Scotland similarly uncongenial: Dundee was ‘an odd place, like Wapping with rugged hills behind it’, and his readings manager George Dolby reported that Aberdeen gave Dickens the coldest welcome of any place he ever visited. Dickens turned down an invitation to stand for rector of Marischal College in Aberdeen 1849, and he expressed ‘surprise and indignation’ to find that his name had been placed on the ballot for rector at Glasgow University in 1858.

For all his familiarity with Scotland, then, it is noteworthy that it goes virtually unmentioned in his fiction. The sole adventure of his which is set in Scotland is Chapter 49 of Pickwick, ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’, which (no doubt influenced by Burns’s ‘Tam O’Shanter’) hilariously recounts a drunken nocturnal adventure in Edinburgh. Lord George Gordon, in Barnaby Rudge, hails from Scotland; the child lovers in ‘Boots at the Holly Tree Inn’ set off for Gretna but never reach their destination; and Dickens briefly tries his hand in representing a Scottish accent in ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’, but whereas other countries visited by Dickens (the United States, France, Switzerland, Italy) figure prominently in his writings, Scotland, like Ireland and Wales, receives the merest glance. When all is said, Dickens remains, as the Quarterly Review put in 1839, ‘English to the backbone’.

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Castle Heinz

Attending a writers’ retreat is rather akin to handing someone the key to a cell and asking them to throw it away. We do it because so little creative writing can be justified in a society like ours: what is the worth of a poem or a short story or a play? Most of us are busy trying to justify our existence as bank clerks, librarians or bus drivers; the words that whisper away in the depths of the subconscious have to be kept alive but kept down, until such time as there is the freedom to scribble them on the back of an envelope. So these words, the very things we may actually (often secretly) believe define us, are kept for the fag-ends of the days, the bits of time that are the least valued.

At a writers’ retreat all of that can be turned on its head; with a clear conscience the days can be dedicated to this thing that has had to be hidden away. Hawthornden Castle is one of the few retreats in the UK that awards places to writers on a competitive basis. Drue Heinz is the founder of the scheme; she established the retreat because of her love and fascination for writers, her desire to support the endeavours of up-and-coming authors, not only from this country but from all over the world. So Hawthorn-den, that once belonged to the Renaissance bard William Drummond, is continuing a tradition by welcoming poets and novelists and translators to come and seek silence and inspiration within its walls.

This Kafka-esque castle is perched atop an escarpment a good couple of hundred feet above the River Esk. If you were to crick your neck you might be able to see Rosslyn Chapel through the trees on the other side of the river. It’s a bit of country that feels crowded with history; there are bits of castles and ancient graveyards to left and to right, yet a more recent mining history has left its mark too. The housing estates of Bonnyrigg are just a ten minute bus ride away, so the silence that surrounds Hawthornden feels strange, slightly artificial. But the grounds are wild enough, full of roe deer and loud with jays. From the back door of the castle paths lead off in every direction.

The truth is that so much silence is daunting to begin with. Most writers have dutifully played this day job game; they have looked after children and parents, gardens and goldfish – and all of a sudden they are told that for a whole month they can do precisely what they have been prevented from doing, what they have sought to hide away and even forget. A month of silence is a long time. It begins at half past nine on the first morning of the retreat.

* *

The writers’ rooms are on the upper floor, the third floor, of the main house. A bottleneck stairway leads to the corridor along which the rooms are set, and on the outer side of each door are embossed in gold leaf the names of the previous occupants who have written something in that room in Hawthornden that has gone on to be published. The rooms themselves are nothing special: simple single beds, a desk and table lamp, an empty bookcase. The first thing you feel is the sheer weight of words that lingers here; you can hear the scratching of the pens there has been down the years and it’s both a boon and a bane, inspiring and daunting.

I’ve been twice to Hawthornden. My first month was some dozen years ago and in those days all the open fires were lit. Every morning after breakfast one of the staff thumped upstairs with a load of logs and we lit our fires. I remember sitting gazing into the flames, the firelight that John Lister-Kaye calls Neanderthal television, the pen poised. Health and safety has beaten a path even to the door of Hawthornden and the grates of the garret rooms are smokeless now. There are still one or two nights of roaring fires in the dining room down below, but mostly we just missed them this time, and talked about their absence incessantly.

The drawing room has an electric fire too now, strangely incongruous in a magnifi-cent room reputed to have been decorated by Laura Ashley herself. Great writers gaze down from their great portraits: Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley and Rudyard Kipling. It was in this room we gathered each evening at half past six. By then we were dizzy with words and yet paradoxically enough hadn’t uttered a single one since early that morning. I was constantly afraid of saying too much, of chattering nonsense because of the sheer joy of having company once more.

And this was the room we returned to after dinner. You would think that by then we’d certainly have had enough of words, yet it was precisely words we often chose to play with until ten or eleven o’clock each night in fiercely competitive games. Once or twice we padded into a smaller chamber that lay behind the drawing room, a library whose windows during daylight hours afforded truly breathtaking views over the edge of the castle rock and down to the River Esk below. It was like standing at the prow of a ship, particularly when the winds tugged at the great old place (as often they did that month). It was in here that some of the most wonderful treasures of Hawthornden were to be found, books signed to Mrs Heinz by all manner of 20th century literary giants.

* *

At some writing retreats your presence has to be justified; at the end of your time you have an interview with the director and something of your work is looked at and evaluated. I appreciated the absence of such a meeting. And the truth is that while a writer may pour out in an application form very genuine ambitions to work on a particular project while in residence, the reality may be very different. It was a long 18 months since I had applied for my second stint in residence and I had long since forgotten what I had asked to be given time to write. That having been said, I firmly believe it’s vital to come with some sense of what one does hope to achieve. If not, that month of silence can simply scare one into endless displacement antics that risk resulting in little more than a waste of time.

For four weeks we hardly lifted a finger (unless it held a pen), yet we were famished each evening and ate supper greedily. We comforted ourselves that it was all this writing that was burning the calories. You might imagine that after long days of writing, the world of literature would be the last thing we’d want to discuss, and there were certainly evenings when we blethered about everything but books and felt the better for it. Yet there were other occasions when we talked Ossian and argued for or against the work of Macpherson, or else it was Ted Hughes and his legacy, how fairly he had been represented in his lifetime and after his passing. As writers we represented several countries and three continents: for a series of evenings we presented the work of classic or contemporary authors from our respective home countries. As the token Caledonian, I worked hard to wave a banner for Scottish literature past and present; one evening I chose to introduce the work of Edwin Muir.

We drank Drummond’s health while we were in residence; we were after all five poets enjoying the benefits of his legacy. His birthday fell on 13 December and we decided it would be only right and proper to read some of his work around the (electric) fire that evening. Measured and careful, it all felt very neatly constructed. What was of greater interest by far was the story of Ben Jonson’s visit in the winter of 1618-19. The account of the conversations the two men had (enjoyed would seem too strong a verb by far) is fascinating for its literary gossip and for the impression the guest made on his host, and vice versa. Johnson stayed a fortnight at Hawthornden and it seems more than likely William Drummond considered it two weeks too long, judging by the comments on the dramatist he made afterwards.

* *

Once or twice it all got too much for us too and we fled to Edinburgh to remember real life: cold and windy streets in the weeks before Christmas, pavements packed with shoppers, the thrumming of engines in the Royal Mile. It was like taking a shower, washing away the silence and breathing in lungfuls of city. I felt like a child again, drinking in sights and scents as though I’d never encountered them before, babbling to the others about the things they had to see. After that I could cope with going back. The city bus rumbled through the last lit streets of Bonnyrigg before we were dropped back in the pitch blackness of the world beyond the castle gates.

Strange to see your own castle etched against the midnight dark, to think that for a month of your life it is somehow yours – a kind of time-share.

Some people can’t cope with the castle. It isn’t the place’s fault. The simple truth is that not every writer puts up well with quiet; some prefer the buzz of a city café, the hum of muffled conversation. They may come to Hawthornden expecting the Hemingway lifestyle, but there are neither lions in the grounds nor champagne in the evenings. It’s actually a lifestyle that takes a good deal of courage; a day-to-day doggedness I simply couldn’t hope to emulate back at my writing cabin in Perthshire.

Facing the blank page each morning and wrestling with words until darkness falls is something every bit as brave as the quintessential Hemingway existence: the courage it takes is entirely different, but it amounts to courage all the same. The retreat is valuable because it only happens now and then; it’s a deep pool into which you dive, that all but takes your breath away with its intensity. And you come out changed, amazed at what you found, that you never knew was in you.

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