Monthly Archives: June 2012


Volume 8 – Issue 2 – New Poems


it’s not the squeal a chanter makes
but how your tapping fingers turn
that thread of sound into a melody


so give the boy who volunteers
his uniform
and tell him he’s defender
of the free

and ask the mother to believe
that cloth
setting him in a marching cloud
will parent him

don’t say their minds
are frets of weeds
brocades of doubt

what wraps him in
thin cotton is
antipathy to being
seen as sheep

for her, the page
is clear
each mother wears
her shadow as
the echo of our fears


dreams, those conversations
with the self, that seem to
answer nothing, can be rooms
where all the walls are mirrors,
where narrative’s a spinning
drum of phrases, images
interrogating how the mind
perceives a world in streams
of happening, that fix a hollow
moment you are certain lasts
forever, dark play elucidating
everything, which, on waking,
folds into a shadow wrapped
within a curtain coated in a
moss of possibilities that you
are walking in the tangled
suburbs of your own square
mile of marsh and wrangle
waiting for the light to settle
on an entrance to whatever
home that eyeless wending
draws your urge to know the
consummation (still uneaten
by your wish to tell yourself
that every recalled dream is
just a liquid, warm delineation
of true and living contraries)


from the hurrying bus, as so often,
the road will throw up banners of trees
when you’re looking for the clear view,
having glimpsed a stony brown slope,
a ragged sliver of green, a skewer
of roofs, and the deep possibility of
shorn hayfields wearing dark saucers
where bales had rested, but even
when memory sketches no vineyards,
mansions, orchards, or maze, just
the same stony slope, that possible
hedge, and a skewer of roofs, you still
want to know, want to see what ought
to be there, were the view as clear


looked at from above
it may show fields or streets
as neat geometries
but not the human weathers
that have swept
hospitable geographies
with no regard for
breath or growth or harvest

humanity may shape and till
and guard the flowering with
love, and yet there seems to
be a will for difference that
grinds the roots into a black
malignant gruel that spreads
through ditches, minds –

reading vultures, in their
grey committees, nodding
hoodies masquerading
as dour preachers ask
us to accept their chiding

words as true, constant
vessels set to guide us
through all thorny rigours,
what they say is listen,
follow what we say, or
you will pay

what they
want is that we walk the
thin ice crust that coats
a seething midden they
declare the sea of plenty –

what we observe is
all the empty houses no-one’s
got the cash to pay for,
limousines slide by but can’t
persuade that they are
crocks, the gospeller shoots
prayers through
the hollow arches of the sky,
enough for him that we
should hear  –

the truths they
tell are like that ice (we
sense the ferment underneath)
and they, our masters,
sachems, gaffers, dons,
insist eyes front, and stride ahead

if your narrative is
river, observe –
water seems not
minded to follow
straight lines,
so don’t insist
on the purity of
grammar, let
tributaries infiltrate their
colours, let
digression lick
against the inside
of your cheek, recall
the nature of the tale is
to insist
on being told
and ear asks only
that you hold
a certain shimmer, bright
enough to keep the flow of words
that bridge of air between a loading tongue
and sentient harbour
in memory,
the verbal matter
just beneath those
plaited runnels
weaves a breathing story line, articulates your own
recall but
every god, it would appear, demands his tribe wear thoughts
appropriate to his regimen, you have to
remain child, and stand as if within a basin with
jagged edges, beyond which, clouds of binding verbs
fold hair-shirt veils
around your lucent
frisking thoughts
inside bright infant skin you learned to fear words written on
stone pages
all your teachers showed you one road out
between high scripted walls, a narrow clinker track ditched deep each side
in dark putrescences
but you saw grass and primroses, you saw roses wearing friendly thorns, hazel clusters hanging over waterfalls and pools that
there were risks, but finned life swam
up still
against the stream


wind holds its breath,
the hills are shawled
in goat-hair gray, trees
heavy with weather
cling to their coats,
beyond a fence, manes
shimmer adumbration,
dog capers, chases
sticks, or squirrels (far
too fast for her), lolls
her happy tongue, while
on the verges of this autumn
amble, hidden regiments
of hunting spiders have laid
their gossamer nets in tangles
of damp grass, the heedful
walker tiptoes through
those airy fishing grounds,
is glad of bulk,
thanks nature for these gifts

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Volume 8 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry


Graham Fulton, Illlustrations by Becky Bolton

Brimming with desire and insecurity, this is a sequence of twenty-two poems about sex. The title refers to origin of the heart shape as an imitation of a woman’s upside-down buttocks. But this illustrated adult picture book isn’t a porn mag in verse; the poems are sweeter than that. It’s actually a sequence about married sex, as Fulton dedicates the book to his wife and mentions her name in a few works. The poems are similar in form and content and describe either the anticipation of making love or moments of post-coital contentment. The best ones are where the setting is imagist or painterly. A snowfall is described as a ‘suddenly, silent, fall of white’ which the narrator disrupts by scrawling ‘I love Helen’. Other satisfying stanzas are quintessentially Scottish, as in ‘Desired Effect’: ‘I buy you the perfect/ pair of knickers./ House of Fraser./Designer price’. Occasionally Fulton lays metaphor too thickly and sacrifices the poem’s inherent intimacy, as in ‘Split infinitive’: ‘We boldly go, we’re sexonauts /exploring the final dark frontiers’.

Fulton creates tension in his poems with short lines herded into couplets. The poems’ fragmented appearance complements Glasgow School of Art graduate Becky Bolton’s surreal but sexy watercolours. Giggles aside, this is an intriguing way to challenge squeamish attitudes to sex. TM


Andrew Nicoll
QUERCUS, £12.99

Andrew Nicoll does his thing in another comic tale that employs by-now familiar surreal and quixotic elements: a distorted European location, a flawed male protagonist, an absurd aim or journey, and a cast of offbeat characters. The tale is told by Otto de Witte as he sits out the Allied bombardment of Hamburg. He wants to leave something of himself behind, and so he starts to write out the story of his assumption of the throne of Albania many years previously – every man wants to think he has had a moment of glory, and this was his. An acrobat with a travelling circus, his physical resemblance to the assumed Albanian king, currently absent, gives him his chance, and offers his fellow circus performers the chance to get some much-needed money, too. Along the troubled way, as they encounter mad military leaders and vain officials, he establishes his love for Sarah, daughter of the blind professor who knows everything; relies on the devotion of his best friend, strongman Max, and enjoys the occasional romp with acrobat
and strip artist, Tifty. Nicoll weaves a world that can veer between fascinating and tedious, but his prose style is consistently sharp. LM


Edited by Andy Jackson.

Launched recently at StAnza, Split Screen is a compilation about past and present media icons. Edited by Scottish poet Andy Jackson, the white pages of the anthology serve as a television screen and each side presents actors linked by similar roles or shows, such as the pairing of Star Trek captains Kirk and Picard. The media history roughly spans the entertainment of Generation X’ers, commencing with the stop-motion children’s television show Camberick Green and continuing with The Sound of Music, Blade Runner, James Bond, Stars Wars and Mission Impossible. Whereas some poems can be pallid descriptions of the actor’s antics, others contain a multi-layered vision. Jo Bell’s poem ‘Tom and Jerry’ describes the jokey frolics of a brown mouse whose ‘head [is] as big as a cherry’. Colin Will’s ‘Yoda’ is composed in the creature’s philosophical but garbled speech, resulting in these clever fragments: ‘Whence we came, thereto shall we all/back go. Time backwards runs’. Kevin Cadwallender’s channels Illya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in bold, funny quips: ‘Not every man you meet will be/Capable of communicating via pen, /Not every man you meet will /Protect you from Thrush.’ A uniquely-themed anthology that is both historical and inventive. TM


Sarah Fraser

To read this biography of Simon Lovat is to plunge into a world that is equal parts medieval and modern. The medieval aspects of the late seventeenth century clan system, which allowed Lovat to be tricked out of his legacy after the death of his uncle, and yet which also allowed him to abduct and rape Lady Amelia Lovat (Fraser’s account of this event is both shocking and brave, as it stains the character of her ancestor-by-marriage), sit in stark contrast with the more modern, sophisticated aspects of his life – his flight to France and the court of Louis XIV, and his attempts to raise money for an invasion of Scotland. Lovat was an opportunist if ever there was one – he worked for both Bonnie Prince Charlie’s side after the death of James III, and for George I when he ascended the throne. His life story is packed with incident and there is a cast of characters that surely demands its own listing, along with a portrait of an older Lovat looking like the devil himself. All the horror of his final execution cannot quite rid one of the sense, though, that this end was inevitable and possibly even deserved. LM

Andrew Motion

Former Poet Laureate and novelist Andrew Motion revisits Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in this hugely enjoyable sequel. In Stevenson’s original adventure penned in 1883, innkeeper’s son Jim Hawkins discovers a treasure map belonging to disgraced sea captain Billy Bones. The wrinkled artefact is Jim’s ticket onto the Hispaniola with Captain Smollett and a crew of pirates, including the dark-hearted Long John Silver. Treasure Island concludes with Silver sneaking off with a portion of loot and Jim vowing to give up treasure-hunting forever. In Motion’s sequel, history repeats itself. Jim Hawkins’ son (also named Jim) helps his father run the Hispaniola inn along the Thames. One evening Jim Jr. is visited by strangely-attired girl named Natty, the daughter of Long John Silver. Jim finds the aging buccaneer still alive and questing for his forgotten cache. The young people and a crew led by Captain Beamish hop aboard the Nightingale for a spell of sword-fighting, gold-digging and kidnappings. The original author himself is present as the Scottish lookout ‘Mr. Stevenson’, often asleep in the crow’s nest. Motion offers swashbuckling entertainment while presenting characters blessed with keen self-awareness. Like the original, Silver is a coming-of-age story that follows a young man conflicted by a sense of family loyalty and his own appetite for adventure. TM


Iain Gale

A keen interest in armed tactics and the spectacle of war is immediately noticeable from this forthright military novel. The author of historical adventures such as Brothers of Arms and Rules of War, Gale has found new footing in his batch of WW2 novels, which include Alamein and The Black Jackals, the prequel to Jackal’s Revenge. In the prequel, commander Peter Lamb and his small band of soldiers are left behind by their regiment and must fight their way through France. Fast forward to 1941, and the same courageous ‘Jackals’ are now holding the pass at Thermopylae in Greece where the Leonidas’ Spartans had died holding back the attacking Persian army.
Gale’s enthusiasm for strategy and history are evident in his detailed plotlines. Parallels are also apparent in his narrative’s style and his characters’ personalities: both are controlled, brusque and confident. A satisfying yarn for lovers of battlefield literature. TM

Sara Sheridan
POLYGON, £15.99

There’s something of a revival of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction going on – not a revamping of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie as such, but contemporary writers borrowing the periods after both world wars, along with their traumas and class distinctions, for their novels. Sheridan, an experienced writer of historical fiction, is the latest to follow this trend. Her 1951-set novel is based in Brighton and features a former Secret Service woman, Mirabelle Bevan. Mirabelle now works for a debt collecting service and hides a personal tragedy – her married lover, who was a secret agent, has recently died. But the strange death of a young woman whilst giving birth, and the subsequent disappearance of her boss spark her into action. Action here means an awful lot of house-breaking and having drinks in pubs with unsavoury types (I thought respectable women didn’t drink alone in pubs in the 1950s), but Sheridan has tapped into a period that’s fruitful for a woman living on her own – the lack of husbands, with so many dying in the war, does give some women a certain freedom – and which has a lot to say, socially and politically, about our own times too. LM


edited by Sarah Neely

Margaret Tait really came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Orkney in 1918, she studied film-making in Rome after the Second World War, during its neo-realist stage, and this influence on her subsequent career is there both in her film work and in her poetry, for all that she might have resisted that notion. Her poems are accessible and written in free verse, to be as real as possible; indeed, many of her early poems from the ‘origins and elements’ series could read as prose. She railed against the state funding of film in Scotland, worried that it meant only certain kinds of films could be made, and whilst she knew some of the poets in Milne’s Bar in Rose Street, and frequented it occasionally, it is easy to see from her feminist poems of the time, like ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, and ‘Bushel’ (‘Women poets – Poetesses – You never had a chance, had you?’) that she might have found the predominantly male environment there less than conducive to her art. Is the reason she has been forgotten that she never allied herself to any particular group but always ploughed her own furrow? This collection suggests it is. LM

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Shopping For Borges

I moved to Buenos Aires the weekend before the 30th anniversary of the first day of the Falklands War. I knew enough not to call it that in Argentina, where those islands are known as Las Malvinas. To refer to them by their British name is a political statement if deliberate, and a dead giveaway if accidental. Only gringos and Anglo sympathisers talk about ‘the Falklands’ here. The majority of Bue-nos Aireans, or ‘porteños’, will say the same thing as the government, the graffiti, and the nationwide consensus: ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas’

I heard someone shouting it underneath my window on the morning of Malvinas Day – now a public holiday – even from 11 floors up. My apartment building overlooks the leafy northern barrio of Acassuso, and a rotunda inlaid with a small memorial to the local boys killed in the war. (Most of them were conscripts, few of them were older than 18.)

In the afternoon, a crowd gathered around it. A military band played the March of the Malvinas, and a high-ranking officer in dress uniform made a speech through a megaphone. Meanwhile, in the city centre, the hooded radicals of the far-left Movimento Quebracho were burning Union Jacks and skirmishing with riot police outside the British Embassy. Among my new friends and acquaintances, I couldn’t find anyone who felt that strongly about it, though they seemed to share the common historical perspective of middle-class porteños who were children during the conflict, or not even born at the time: the islands belong to Argentina, but the war was misjudged and mishandled by General Leopoldo Galtieri and the thuggish junta who then ruled the country. That regime is now known to have ‘disappeared’ as many as 30,000 of its own citizens, and the young troops sent to fight without proper training and equipment tend to be remembered as yet more of its victims. Ronaldo Quinn prefers not to think of himself as such. An English-speaking Argentine with a half-Irish father and a British mother, Quinn was nearly finished his national service in April 1982, when he was ‘invited to participate’ in the junta’s armed seizure of the Malvinas. ‘I was just a regular conscript,’ Quinn told me, at a restaurant he part-owns
in the Palermo district. ‘And probably one of the worst. I used to fall asleep on guard duty. I wasn’t made to be a soldier at all.’

Even so, he went willingly. ‘I believed what I was taught in school. The Malvinas were ours, the British took them by force, we were gonna get them back.’ I asked him what his mother had thought. ‘She understood,’ said Quinn. ‘I was doing my duty.’ His first surprise on arrival was the bleakness of the islands. ‘It was the ugliest place I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to live there.’ A bigger shock was the simple fact that he and his comrades weren’t welcome. ‘We thought we were liberating these people, but of course they were all against us.’

Drafted into the signal corps, Quinn spent most of his war stringing telephone cables across that inhospitable terrain, which the islanders would then set out to sabotage. There was also a lot of waiting around, freezing and hungry, for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to attack.

He remembered trying to watch Argentina’s World Cup match against Belgium on a portable TV during an RAF bombardment. But he couldn’t bring himself to say that his own forces had merely been hapless. ‘The majors were all pretty dumb,’ he admitted, ‘but we still managed to sink four British ships. There was a period of about 10 days when we were almost winning.’ After the defeat and surrender, his British captors asked Quinn why he had fought for the other side. By way of an answer, he drew a map on the ground to show the squaddies how close they were to the Argentine mainland. ‘They didn’t know,’ said Quinn. ‘I don’t think they really knew what they were doing down here.’

Thirty years later, local children are still taught that the islands rightfully belong to them. Invited to give a talk at his daughter’s school for Malvinas Day, Quinn said he found it difficult to articulate his ambivalence. ‘Now I’m older, I can see it was a silly war. The junta were crazy, and they wanted a fight to cover up their behaviour. But for good or bad, I’m still proud to have been a part of Argentina’s history.’

Quinn has just written a book about his experiences, entitled En Raro Privilegio (A Rare Privilege). This sounded ironic to me, but he said it wasn’t meant to. At present, it is only available in Spanish, though he hopes there will be an English edition. In the meantime, he opened up his laptop, and directed me to a translation of the Jorge Luis Borges poem ‘Juan Lopez And John Ward’, published three years after the conflict.

‘They would have been friends,’ wrote Borges, ‘but they saw each other face to face only once, on some too famous islands. They were buried together. The snow and the corruption know them. The events I am referring to happened in a time that we cannot understand.’
* * *
Borges, part-British himself, grew up in a house just a few blocks from Ronnie Quinn’s restaurant, on a street that was then called Serrano but has since been re-named after the great author. I am pleased to be able to say that I have walked along Jorge Luis Borges on a Sunday afternoon.

It seems agreeably Borgesian to think that a person could also be a place, and vice versa – to imagine that you might meet Dub-lin in a pub, or lose your bearings in Kafka, or get into a bitter, tearful screaming match with Stockholm at the top of a Ferris wheel. I had hoped to use Borges as my spirit guide to Buenos Aires, a city that he judged to be ‘as eternal as water and air’. But I couldn’t find any of his books in English.

Buenos Aires can and does boast of its many splendid bookshops, most notably El Ateneo, the gorgeous former theatre and cinema that was latterly refitted with stacks and shelves from the stalls to the gods. Even that vast, curving space contains no Borges in translation, nor any English works except for Stephen King and a few other bestsellers. I went to look in The Book Cellar, a secondhand stockist confusingly positioned on the third floor of a high-rise residential building in the Belgrano district. (For every section of this city named after a writer or scientist, there are ten more that honour some historical warmonger, though some would argue such a title better fits Margaret Thatcher than General Manuel Belgrano, who also gave his name to the Argentine naval cruiser so contentiously sunk in the Falklands/ Malvinas conflict.)

Owner Daniel Zachariah described his operation as a ‘clandestine bookshop’, run out of a rented apartment. He does most of his buying and selling online, and allows home visits by appointment only. Zachariah referred to himself as an ‘Essex boy’, and an ‘immigrant’, as opposed to an ‘ex-pat’.

‘People love to say they’re ‘ex-pats’,’ he told me, ‘just because they moved here from the UK or the States, not Mexico or Bolivia. If you came down for a new life, you’re a fuckin’ immigrant mate, like anyone else.’

Zachariah came for love of a local woman, who is now his wife. When she briefly threw him out a few years ago, along with all his books, he set himself up in this flat, and his small personal collection grew into a business. He now carries more English titles than most, and offers them at much saner prices than anyone else in Buenos Aires. The English language itself was forced out of favour here during the dictatorship, the war, and the long trade embargo that followed, explained Zachariah.

‘English books are only now coming back in style,’ he said, though the current centre-left government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as recently blocked imports from overseas publishers, on the spurious grounds that foreign ink may contain harmful concentrations of lead. (The actual reasons are more likely connected to the same new policy of economic protectionism that saw last month’s dramatic re-nationalisation of the oil company YPF.)

In the short term, a lack of supply can only increase the demand for Zachariah’s stock. ‘In the long term, it might not be so good,’ he said. In any case, he was all out of Borges. ‘The students snap him up, mate.’

Denied direct access to the spell of his words, and the secret knowledge that allowed Borges to locate the centre of the universe in a basement on Tacuarí street, I resigned myself to walking the well-marked tourist trail that the maestro left behind him. His childhood home in Palermo. The apartment where he lived for 40 years off the Plaza San Martín.

The Café Tortoni, where a waxwork Borges now sits at a corner table talking to an effigy of the great tango singer Carlos Gardel. And the Miguel Cané library, where the unhappy author worked a dull job cataloguing books in a small and windowless back room between 1938 and 1946. But this was also where he wrote his masterpiece ‘The Library of Babel’, a short story that indexed within itself every book ever written.

An assistant named Marcela led me up a narrow staircase to the room that was now preserved in his memory. Fittingly, we did not understand each other, and the library became a Babel of two, as she tried to explain in Spanish how Borges had occupied this space. I listened very carefully, enjoying the sound of the words. ‘Complicado.’ ‘Symbol-ico.’ ‘Solitario.’
* * *
Borges used to take the number 7 tram to that job in the Boedo district. The trams are now long gone, but a replacement bus still serves the same route, with the same number. Porteños, perhaps the proudest urban people in the world, claim to have invented public buses.

According to Daniel Tunnard, another British immigrant and self-made expert on the subject, this is not true. ‘I hate to give them credit for anything,’ he told me, ‘but it was actually the French.’ Buenos Aires did invent the ‘colectivo’, which began as a kind of group taxi service in the 1940s, and developed into a network of privately owned and beautifully decorated mass transit vehicles. Most of those are gone now too. The modern buses look boringly municipal, but the routes make for an impressive tangle – some 136 separate lines threading and looping through the city. Tunnard set out to ride them all and write about it for a combined blog, book, and documentary project called Colectevizashion. The night before he took his last few buses, I joined him on the
number 188 from Plaza Italia to the southern suburb of Popeya. ‘It does funny things to you,’ he said, of all this bus travel.

‘It makes you more patient, more stoical. But I get home and my head is spinning like I’ve been on a boat.’ It was now the evening rush hour. The bus was packed, and we had to stand. Tunnard pointed out landmarks as we passed – the Huricán football stadium, the Femsa Coca-Cola bottling plant. He said he had been partly inspired by AJ Jacobs’s book The Know It All, for which the author read every volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was also motivated by the fact that he had barely seen half of Buenos Aires after living here for over a decade.

‘I used to look at a map of the grid expanses south of Rivadavia [the avenue that bisects the city, named after Argentina’s first president], and wonder what was out there.’ Now he knows: a lot of slums and shantytowns. ‘When I first went out to these places I basically shit myself,’ said Tunnard. ‘But you see it’s not all drugs and gangs, it’s mostly normal people walking around. Families, and kids, and workers.’

Even so, he told me, there were areas he would rather not find himself at night. Like the far side of the Ria Chuelo, which is currently ranked the third most polluted river in the world. So we both had to laugh when we missed our stop in Pompeya, and the bus sailed on over the bridge.

This had never happened to Tunnard before. ‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘We’ll be okay if we don’t turn right.’ The driver duly turned right, and the city lights dropped away behind us. We were now off the map of the federal capital. We could hardly see into the darkness of the Villa Fiorito, the vast slum where Diego Maradonna was born. There were open fires in the distance, and the streets were lined with abandoned buildings.

‘We are not getting off here,’ said Tun-nard. ‘We’ll just have to stay on.’ The bus had mostly emptied by this point, and was not stopping anyway. We kept on going, deeper into the blank space of unofficial settlements that orbit Buenos Aires. ‘I don’t know where we are now,’ Tunnard admitted. ‘Are you nervous?’ I asked him. ‘I’m …curious,’ he said.

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Paradise Relived

My great-grandfather’s name was Thomas Dunn. When Celtic became ‘Celtic Football and Athletic Company Limited’ in 1897, he took shares in it. Dunn did not have many years to enjoy his new investment. He died in 1903.

Thirty years later his daughter Margaret Dunn asked what happened to his shares. She received a letter from Celtic Park in August 1933, a scanned copy of which I have before me. The letter recognizes that Thos. Dunn owned 21 shares but that these were transferred to club chairman J.H. McLaughlin in January 1904 and ‘he has therefore no other interest in this Company now.’ It is signed ‘W. Maley’, ‘Secy’.

Margaret was not satisfied. A more conciliatory letter arrived the following month, again signed by Maley. The share transfer, he explains, was done by Thomas’s executors and McLaughlin who received them ‘was the chairman of the club at that time’. He adds, ‘Your Father was, like many others of our members, one of a Band of Catholics who knew each other in the East End in these days & knew Mr McLaughlin intimately. The whole transaction was a genuine one. I will gladly shew you the entries if you happen to be this way at any time.’

Maley’s tone has set off conspiracy theories down the years. Perhaps he protesteth too much. The envelopes are preserved as well as the letters. His first correspondence is sent to c/o McGrath in Northburn St, Glasgow but the address on the second envelope is in Yorkshire. He must have realized by then that ‘Miss Dunn’ was elderly and writing from a distance and the chances of her popping round to Parkhead for a dekko at the books were fairly slender.

Is this a small domestic example of the financial shenanigans obliquely referenced by the Glasgow Observer in 1892 when it said that Celtic had moved away from its charitable roots and was now ‘a mere business, in the hands of publicans and others’? The process certainly contrasts with that adopted by an intrepid character called David Low ninety years later when he went around Ireland buying up shares and voting rights to facilitate the acquisition of Celtic by Fergus McCann.

McLaughlin has four pages in Kevin McCarra’s latest book about Celtic, Maley a chapter. The book is a ‘biography’ of the club told through the lives of nine men closely associated with it. They provide the spine of a narrative that wanders all over the place though with fascinating results. The chapter on Glasgow newspaper seller ‘Flax’ Flaherty, for instance, says little about him but a lot about sectarianism.

The desire to shed light on the mystery of my great-grandfather’s shares is not the main reason I embrace books like this one, though it is interesting to note that the McLaughlin of McCarra’s account is a character that seems capable of sharp practice. He was a wine and spirits merchant and very much the Observer’s stereotype of the new Celtic authority. He was also prone to litigation especially against those without the resources to defend themselves. A bigger issue, so to speak, is the phrase ‘Band of Catholics’ which refuses to go away. It is suggestive not only of ‘intimacy’ between McLaughlin and Dunn, but of a wider community clinging together in the face of unnamed exterior threats. To counter these there was football and the ‘one true church’, a heady mix.

It could be argued that Celtic’s origins in an immigrant community that felt unwelcome, struggled with poverty, and drew comfort from universal religion and local football, created a condition that didn’t exist in exactly the same way anywhere else. Unfortunately that’s not what McCarra means when he opens the book with ‘There is no other football club like Celtic’, a truism that my heretic brother could just as easily apply to Partick Thistle. Worse, he offers as unnecessary ‘proof’ the estimated 80,000 supporters who travelled to Seville for the UEFA Cup Final in 2003 and the fact that nobody got arrested. There are plenty of mass migrations by football fans from other countries where nobody gets arrested and there is no expectation that anybody will be. At Celtic, however, the most pressing comparison is usually closer to home. The next mass migration by fans of another Scottish team ended in tears.

Like the seventh minute penalty given away by Jim Craig in the 1967 European Cup Final, this is a sloppy start but with better to come. The first two chapters show the early ‘Band of Catholics’ at work. Not just Maley and McLaughlin but John Glass, Brother Walfred and others. John McFadden, secretary of Hibernian came to St. Mary’s Parish in Glasgow’s East End and challenged the locals to set up their own team. They did and subsequently pillaged all the best players from his. Across the city, Rangers watched and, after a brief flirtation with Catholic players, decided to exclude the lot of them.

After this initial flurry, Celtic adopted the Catholic way of viewing certain things as immutable, team management in particular. Maley survived until 1940 as Secretary-Manager, Jimmy McStay covered the war years and Jimmy McGrory somehow made it from 1945 to the arrival of Jock Stein twenty years later. Stein was Celtic’s first Protestant manager which is occasionally used to try to equate the attitudes of one side of the Old Firm with those of the other. McCarra argues that the real turning point Stein represented was from board control of football matters to manager control. The board that confirmed Stein’s hiring in 1965, however, had never had a non-Catholic director which is harder to explain. The Band of Catholics played a long tune.

Like most of the chapters in McCarra’s book, the one on Stein stretches and strains in all directions but still grips. Stein’s man management skills were clearly of a superior order. His relationship with Jimmy Johnstone has the feel of kindly/gruff headmaster and recalcitrant student genius. By the end of the chapter though, Stein remains an enigmatic figure. Even the remarkable transformation he effected on the field is not convincingly explained.

In preparation for writing this, I watched the 1967 European Cup Final between Celtic and Inter Milan again. Note the attacking full backs, the goalkeeper who rolls the ball out rather than hoofs it down field, the facility for ball retention and close control, the eschewing of high crosses in favour of low cutbacks (which produced both of Celtic’s goals), the preponderance of short men from the midfield forward, the channelling of the ball towards a wee bandy legged guy who is hard to knock off it, the switch to someone else freed up if the bandy legged guy is man marked or doubled, and so on. I’m fairly sure Pep Guardiola will have used more than an upturned bench to promote keeping the ball on the ground. Stein must have too though nobody seems to know what.

Big Jock gets even more attention in The Road to Lisbon by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry. It’s ‘the first fictionalised account of Celtic’s historic win over Inter Milan’. There are, of course, numerous fictionalised accounts available most nights in Glasgow pubs where even the teller claiming to have been in Lisbon is fictionalising. The story is in three voices: Tim who is part of a gang from the Gorbals heading for Lisbon in an over-packed car, Jock Stein who spends a lot of time talking to himself or to Sean Fallon, and an imagined Jock Stein who speaks to Tim in the way Eric Cantona does to the hapless Manchester United fan in the film Looking for Eric.

The Road to Lisbon is a rocky one, I’m afraid. Big Jock’s genius is no easier to fathom here despite being given a lot of time to explain himself. In fact he is a bit of a crude character who you would swear (pun intended) had modelled his media interview responses on the ones given by Walter Smith to Chick Young twenty years after Stein died. He even accosts the German referee at half time in Lisbon and calls him ‘A Cheatin’ Nazi bastard’ which isn’t the Jock Stein the rest of us want to imagine.

The book at least formalises the great stock of myth making that already exists about Lisbon and prompts the question (pot and kettle acknowledged) of what inspires Scottish men of a certain age to obsess about 1967? Greig and McGarry plump for the usual things: a first escape from grimy violent Glasgow, a coming of age experience, success for a community previously taught to believe it didn’t deserve any etc. What The Road to Lisbon doesn’t say (though it is implied in the dedication) is that all this is now overlaid with the memory of parents, fathers especially, who were there when we watched the game the first time but aren’t here now.

For many of us, lost parents were followed by a loss of the faith that sustained them and underpinned their team. In 1967 Church and football were still in balance. I was kicked out the house before the game ended because it coincided with a Catholic Holiday of Obligation and there was evening mass to attend. Today great bands of lapsed Catholics stream past the doors of Glasgow’s East End parishes heading for Celtic Park and 12.30 Old Firm Sunday kick offs. Still, those trained in faith generally feel the need to place it somewhere. The litany of the saints has become ‘Simpson, Craig, Gemmell’ and a new hymnal is filling up. Henrik Larsson, about the right age and look for a saviour, generated many songs of praise. There is even one for Willie Maley.

The current Celtic manager says his ambition is to win the Champions League which is a tall order with a mercurial Greek and an on-loan goalie. Perhaps the obsession with Lisbon stems from the suspicion that we will have to settle for local comparisons after all, if there are any to be made. On the south side of Glasgow nine lives are almost used up. Whyte has just agreed to transfer his Rangers shares to Green and King isn’t happy, a sequence of names beyond the invention of the most gifted Bhoy satirist. The famous red-brick façade may yet turn to straw and if it is blown down the only question left will be the one common to all religions – what next?


Kevin McCarra
FABER AND FABER £16.99, 288PP, ISBN: 9780571234356


Martin Grieg and Charles McGarry
BIRLINN £7.99, ISBN: 9781780270845

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“Black Angus” At 70

In the approach to his 70th birthday, Aonghas MacNeacail might be forgiven for pausing to take stock. But the poet known as Aonghas Dubh – ‘Black Angus’ – is still a relentless force of nature, despite the silvering of his distinctive beard and shaggy mane.

The next few months will herald a summation of sorts, with Polygon bringing out a new and selected poems, dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc / laughing at the clock, but also new directions. His first pamphlet of Scots poems ayont the dyke, is being published by Kettilonia and there are also plans for a new English language collection, a possible poetic autobiography, and an anthology based on his time as writer-in-residence at MacDiarmid’s cottage. Despite gaining the status of grand old man of Scottish literature, MacNeacail still fights to avoid inertia and pigeon-holing.

‘I’m a bit tired of being a Gaelic poet. He insists I’m a poet. I’m proud of Gaelic poetry, and that I write it, but in the wider world the minute you put a word like “Gaelic” to a poet or to poetry, it gives people the chance to set you aside, to not understand you. I’ve often heard people say “I don’t understand your work”, but [raising his hands incredulously] I translate it!’

Surrounding MacNeacail’s work, and all recent Gaelic poetry, is the question of what is gained, as well as lost, in translation. A minor rammy arose at the turn of the millennium over whether Gaelic poetry should be published with en face English translations. Broadly speaking, it was those – like Mac-Neacail – who make a living from writing (without the safety-net of an academic job), and who wanted their work to reach as wide an audience as possible, who triumphed.

Translation, though, is not just a matter of poems but also of poets travelling between languages; his Scots writing is the latest of MacNeacail’s linguistic adventures. In 2010 ‘Aonghas Dubh’ became ‘Innes Dow’ to enter and jointly win the McCash Poetry Competition with ‘Simmer’s Bairn’, written in a form of synthetic Scots (‘but don’t most of us write synthetic English anyway?’). For James Rob-ertson – the novelist who runs Kettilonia press – this is the continuation of an august tradition: MacNeacail ‘is not afraid to search the dictionary for rare yet rich words, and to exploit the subtlety of their meanings… The whole effect is MacDiarmid-like in its simultaneous economy and expansiveness.’

For his part, MacNeacail sees himself rather as the successor of George Campbell Hay and William Neill, who also wrote in Scots, Gaelic and English. He also – characteristically – traces his exposure to Scots back to his early childhood, to the fishermen from the Black Isle who worked out of Uig on Skye: men whose ‘strange speech’ he encountered before he ever heard English.

MacNeacail was born in Uig in 1942 and raised in nearby Idrigil, said to be the birthplace of the poet and land agitator Màiri Mhòr nan Òran. Until he went to primary school he was, apart from those brief encounters with Scots, a monoglot Gaelic speaker; at school Gaelic-speaking teachers taught Gaelic-speaking pupils through English.

MacNeacail talks of being born B.E. – before electricity – but this could just as easily be ‘before English’. The rupture that primary school wrought between Gaelic and English, memory and history, and between hearth and authority informs much of his poetry. ‘dol dhachaigh-1 / going home-1’, for example, weighs the respective importance of the affirmative ‘sin e’, ‘seadh’, ‘aye’ and ‘yes’; a footnote within the poem archly notes that ‘yes, as any teacher of English will confirm, is the “correct” word’.

The coming of English (and electricity) into MacNeacail’s childhood inevitably brought gains as well as losses. Gone were various traditions, like that of putting candles in the windows of each house to greet a honeymooning couple to their new home, the flames flickering on the far side of Uig bay. Gained, however, was a different kind of community, a different kind of communion. The radio could be taken upstairs, in privacy, to listen to rock ’n’ roll; now, traditional Gaelic songs jostled with Radio Caroline and Elvis.

His ear tuned to both English and Gaelic most of his life, MacNeacail has long worked between them. He started writing poetry in English in the late 50s, and publishing – in both English and Gaelic – in the late 60s. Since then, he has written in both tongues, with the exception of his first spell as writer in residence at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 1977, when he wrote solely in Gaelic, for fear of seeming to be there ‘under false pretences’.

It was in the late 60s that writing became central to his life. In 1968 he matriculated at Glasgow University as a mature student, with the express intention of writing poetry. ‘I remember getting an anthology of contemporary Scottish poetry, and noticed that everyone in this anthology had ‘M.A.’ after their name – everyone except Alan Bold. Alan had gone to university, but left without finishing his degree; and I did the same as him. But what sent me to university in the first place was that I saw it as the door into poetry.’

MacNeacail’s entry into poetry did not, however, come through lectures, but through the writers’ group organised by the inspirational Philip Hobsbaum. Following success with similar groups in London and Belfast, Hobsbaum had gathered together writers including Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead. A poem of MacNeacail’s – ‘the divide’, about two old brothers on the islands – caught Hobsbaum’s eye. ‘That’s a poem’, he said, ‘write about what you know – go back to your roots’.

MacNeacail followed his advice; but this was not simply an atavistic return. Alongside the contemporary British and Irish poetry he encountered through Hobsbaum’s group (figures like Heaney and Hughes, to complement his own reading of Dylan Thomas and Sorley MacLean), MacNeacail was also discovering – through the playwright, poet and pianist Tom McGrath – the work of William Carlos Williams, the Black Mountain School and Charles Olson. This American poetry still influences much of MacNeacail’s distinctive style: the way he eschews standard orthography and punctuation, the emphasis on phrases – or ‘breaths’ – rather than complete lines, and the adoption of a bardic voice derived from a mix of Eastern philosophy and new-age environmentalism.

It was with these poetic tools and a left-wing political engagement – in effect a Gaelic post-colonialism – that MacNeacail returned to his roots. In the English pamphlet Imaginary Wounds (1980) and [the] collection Rock and Water (1990) he witnesses and recreates the community he grew up in: ‘among the many items stocked in jock’s old corrugated iron general store’, for example, clearly evokes a rural economy. ‘history lessons’, meanwhile, contrasts the clan-and-chief histories of the classroom with the example of the ‘piper’ – the ganger in charge of tarring the roads outside the school who had been sent to the front as punishment for striking a superior officer, but who survived the great war unscathed.

MacNeacail’s Gaelic poetry shares the keen eye and political edge of his English work, but goes further, and takes more risks. ‘bratach / banner’, the first poem of an seachnadh agus dàin eile / the avoiding and other poems (1986), presents a full-blown bardic stance: ‘a charaid, is mise / an t-amadan naomh / am bàrd / amhairc is éisd rium’ (friend, I am / the holy fool / the bard / observe and listen,’ ‘a’ chlach / the stone’, from laoidh an donais òig / hymn to a young demon (2007), risks bathos to use this representative stance to give voice to the eponymous stone: ‘suathaibh mi, a shiantan, ur / frasan ga mo nighe, sìnibh orm’ (stroke me elements, your / showers wash me clean: rest on me).

MacNeacail pulls off this combination of acute historical awareness and the willingness to go beyond the human and what is accepted as the ‘polite’ or reduced role of the poetic voice largely because of his verbal and – in particular – musical adeptness. His poems work first and foremost on the level of sound, calling upon a whole orchestra – and rock ’n’ roll band and Skye congregation – of effects. It is no surprise that he is a skilled librettist and song-writer (as well as script-writer): his song ‘breisleach / delirium’ was taken up by Donald Shaw of Capercaillie for their breakthrough album Delirium.

Music and performance are part of his home-life: he is married to the acclaimed actress Gerda Stevenson, daughter of the composer Ronald Stevenson, with whom he has two children, Somhairle Rob and Galina Edith. They also inform his reading persona. A magnetic reader of his poems in the high bardic tradition, he has performed all over the world. A particular highlight was taking these poems – in a seemingly dying language – to the Capitol in Rome, where the statue of the Dying Gaul stands; as MacNeacail affirms, the Gaul has been dying for centuries and yet ‘we are still here’.

That defiance (and historical outlook) underlie the new and selected poems in dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc. The book does not, unfortunately, include any of his English work, but is drawn exclusively from an seachnadh agus dàin eile, the Stakis Prizewinning Oideachadh Ceart agus dàin eile / A Proper Schooling and other poems (1996), and laodh an donais òig; the long, atmospheric sound-and-image poem An Cathadh Mòr / The Great Snowbattle (1984) is also included, but Sireadh Bradain Sicir / Seeking Wise Salmon (1983) is not.

The new poems build on the commitment to Gaelic, and the manifold histories of his tribe presented in this selection. Particularly striking are his eulogies to people who have helped revive Gaelic culture: Sorley MacLean, Runrig, and Norman Gillies, the ex-head of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. In these poems, memory is once more wielded as a political weapon. In ‘craobh a chuir somhairle / a tree sorley planted’ the axis of elder and factor is attacked with the comment ‘cha b’fheàrr leotha ach nan dèanadh cuimhne / ar mealladh’ (it would suit them if memory should / deceive us). Memory does not slide into nostalgia, however: among the things that have to be remembered in ‘nam biodh fiughar / were there prospect’ is how a ‘poverty of hope’ could lead to domestic abuse. Hope is not something that Aonghas Mac-Neacail could be said to be poor of, however. After almost fifty years of writing, there is no sign of him slowing up: ‘I’ll keep going as long as my memory doesn’t fail me. As long as there’s some pith to my mind, poetry will keep rising to the surface.’


Aonghas MacNeacail
POLYGON, £12.99, ISBN: 9781846972300

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A Low, Dishonest Decade

I was born in 1977, between the renewal of the Lib-Lab Pact and the death of Elvis Presley. My mother certainly remembers the latter event, for she was still in hospital – Edinburgh’s now demolished Elsie Inglis – recovering from having delivered my twin brother and I. It is, on reflection, curious to have arrived in this world in the last quarter of a decade: born of the 1970s but with no direct memory of it.

Rather my earliest memories come from the beginning of the next, equally eventful, decade, when the look, sound and turbulence of the 1970s had not fully faded from view. I remember Tom Baker as Doctor Who, my parents’ brown-tiled kitchen and even wearing flared corduroy trousers. All of this came tumbling back as I read the fourth instalment of historian Dominic Sand-brook’s post-war odyssey, Seasons in the Sun.

The year of my birth was also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; indeed my parents still have a pile of commemorative coins issued to everyone born that year. Now, as I approach my 35th birthday, the same Queen is celebrating another Jubilee. Prime Minister James Callaghan feared the celebrations would be a damp squib, yet the reverse was true: even in Scotland the crowds were far bigger than expected. We’ve yet to see if the same will be true of 2012.

Her Majesty famously marked the 1977 celebrations by reminding Parliament that she had been crowned ‘Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. ‘Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred at home’, she posited, ‘and in our international dealings on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.’ The SNP was incensed, while even the Times thought she had broken ‘the convention that the Sovereign does not descend to the arena of party political controversy’.

The Sovereign, of course, was alluding to a remarkable period of constitutional flux, not only in Scotland and Wales, but also in the hitherto neglected Northern Ireland. At one point Whitehall made preparations for a ‘doomsday scenario’ under which the UK would withdraw from the province. Remarkably, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Garret FitzGerald lobbied against withdrawal, which was, as Sandbrook says, ‘an extraordinary step from the foreign minister of a country that still publicly laid claim to Northern Ireland’.
Meanwhile attempts to solve the political crisis via a power-sharing Assembly failed. The patrician Northern Ireland premier Brian Faulkner resigned (useful to recall that the old Stormont Parliament enjoyed what would today be termed ‘full fiscal autonomy’). ‘I cannot carry it,’ he told the Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees, ‘I have lost my reason to be. I’m beaten, overwhelmed by the vote against my sort of unionism.’

Another sort of Unionism, that which had bound Scotland and England together for 270 years, also appeared under threat. It was in the two general elections of 1974 that the SNP burst onto the scene as a credible and popular political force, lubricated by cries of ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ and disillusionment with the Conservatives and Labour. Today’s Scottish political scene, its discourse (such as it is), mythology and language, were all forged in that low, dishonest decade.

Ironically, Harold Wilson was an inspiration to the young Alex Salmond, then studying economics (though not the sort advocated by his Tory contemporaries) at St Andrews. The discovery of North Sea oil confirmed Salmond’s instinct that Scotland could well afford to go it alone, but the UK had other ideas. When the Energy Secretary Tony Benn greeted the first batch of oil at a British refinery, he raised aloft a flask and welcomed a ‘day of national celebration’.

A memo written by the Scottish Office economist Gavin McCrone informed ministers that, if anything, the SNP had underestimated likely revenue from the black, black, oil, giving rise to one particularly baffling myth, that Whitehall conspired to deprive Scotland of its rightful geological inheritance. Yes, McCrone’s advice wasn’t made public, but then it was confidential Civil Service advice. A mooted Scottish Assembly was never likely, in any case, to control North Sea oil revenue, although the Liberals lobbied for precisely that.
Having been rather Anglo-centric in previous volumes, Sandbrook tackles the Scottish politics of 1974-79 with insight and relish (although apparently unaware of the contemporary parallels). As the SNP grew more popular post-1974, it came under increasing pressure to clarify its views on economics and social policy, giving rise to intellectual contortions that remain to this day. The Unionist response was then, as now, muddled and grudging. In Cabinet, Harold Wilson reluctantly decided that devolution was ‘the only way to avoid separatism’.

Douglas Hurd’s entertaining thriller, Scotch on the Rocks (1971, adapted by the BBC two years later) meanwhile, played upon more paranoid Establishment fears about Nationalism, depicting a Britain in which London had conceded Home Rule and the SNP leader had become Scotland’s first Prime Minister. Another book, Robert Moss’s The Collapse of Democracy (1975) also portrayed an independent Scotland, complete with ‘plans for an electrified fence along Hadrian’s Wall to prevent emigration from the rump republic’.
In the New Left Review, Tom Nairn predicted that the UK was ‘at the point of disintegration’, which indeed was a widely held view. As the Guardian’s Peter Jen-kins wrote in 1978, ‘the notion of Britain in decline has become a commonplace’. Thus the subtitle of Sandbrook’s tome, ‘The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979’, although it was battle fought on a number of different fronts.

Sandbrook’s commentary on the rise and fall of Scottish Nationalism is a useful reminder that such movements can be fickle. What seemed inevitable in 1977 was, by the following year, in retreat. Margo MacDonald was apparently poised to capture Hamilton in a by-election (held on a Wednesday to avoid clashing with the opening ceremony of the World Cup), but instead Labour’s George Robertson took the seat and the SNP’s vote fell by five per cent. The result, judged the Times, did not mean that Scottish Nationalism was ‘dead’, but its momentum had clearly been checked.

Adding insult to injury, Hamilton was swiftly followed by Scotland’s hubris in Argentina, recounted with typical Sand-brookian detail. Meanwhile an amendment to the Scotland Bill tabled by George Cunningham placed a near-impossible bar on the aspirations of devolution campaigners (Robin Cook had suggested 30 per cent; Cunningham increased it to 40). Cue even more mythology, that the Labour government deliberately ‘fixed’ the referendum (it didn’t), and that the SNP ushered in the age of Thatcher by voting against the government in a no-confidence vote (it didn’t).

A Cummings cartoon depicted an embattled Sunny Jim as a set of bagpipes. ‘I’m just amazed,’ Callaghan is saying, ‘that there’s ANYONE who wants to stay attached to any place I’M in charge of!’ But the uncomfortably reality is that in 1979 enthusiasm for devolution was limited beyond the political classes, who were themselves deeply divided. In the general election that followed the SNP – turkeys voting for Christmas as Callaghan had quipped – fell from 11 to just 2 MPs.

Economic turbulence had, of course, played its part in the SNP’s fluctuating fortunes. Although not an original point, Sandbrook captures well the emergence of the new orthodoxy, which began with Denis Healey flight against inflation in 1975, and was cemented by the IMF crisis of 1976 and Callaghan (‘arguably Britain’s first monetarist Prime Minister’) telling the Labour conference ‘in all candour’ that the option of spending their way out of a recession no longer existed. As one financial journalist put it, Callaghan had ‘effectively sounded the death-knell for post-war Keynesian policies’.

Other certainties also died. When the Scottish Daily Express quit Glasgow in 1975, 500 of the 1,900 employees put out of work launched the Scottish Daily News as a workers’ co-operative, backed up with a £1.2 million loan from Tony Benn’s department and a lot of good will. But when the novelty wore off the newspaper soon became unviable. On 11 November the first line of Benn’s diary read simply: ‘The Scottish Daily News died yesterday.’

With each such failure, even Labour politicians began to lose faith in the ability of state intervention to kick-start a struggling economy. The last gasp came a week before the Christmas of 1976 when Harold Wil-son agreed to bail out Chrysler to the tune of £163 million in loans and subsidies. The choice, as his Scottish Secretary Willie Ross put it to him, was between that and handing a gift (30,000 job losses in Scotland) to the SNP.

By November 1976 the Labour government had lost its majority, and – in order to fight inflation – forged a controversial Lib-Lab Pact (shades of today’s Coalition) in March 1977 which, as Denis Healey put it in Cabinet, was preferable to relying on ‘Nats and nutters’. But by the time I was born in the summer of 1977 the much-vaunted Social Contract was on its last legs and by the end of 1978 it had broken down completely.

During the Winter of Discontent Scottish lorry drivers walked out, frozen food disappeared from supermarket shelves and the beer froze in pub cellars. Sandbrook makes a convincing argument that the materialism and selfishness usually associated with the 1980s actually manifested itself much earlier, years of relative affluence having ‘eroded the old values of social solidarity and individual self-discipline; fattened by prosperity, modern voters wanted jam today, tomorrow and always.’ As Bernard Donoughue said of the 1978-79 crisis, it had ‘nothing to do with trade unionism’, rather it was ‘hard-faced, grab-what-you-can capitalism with a union card’.

Yet paradoxically the maintenance of this unsatisfactory status quo remains the collective aim of the political establishment (of which the SNP is as much a part as Labour and the Conservatives), apparently content that it offers the best of all possible worlds. In that respect the most sobering factoid to emerge from Sandbrook’s melancholy work is this: in the year 1976, when I was about to be conceived, Britons were at their happiest. Despite rampant inflation and disruptive strikes, quality of life in the UK – as measured by crime rate, pollution levels and public sector investment – was at a post-war peak.


Dominic Sandbrook
ALLEN LANE, £30, 992PP, ISBN: 9781846140327

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Preaching Nationalism

The rapid rise of the SNP to the status of a respected and popular party of government from its previous eccentric fringe status is remarkable, not only in the political sense but also as a social and cultural phenomenon. The engaging memoir of James Halliday, a veteran SNP activist and office bearer who in 1956, at the age of 29, was elected as the party’s youngest ever chairman, has many merits: perhaps the most obvious is that it serves to remind us, very entertainingly, that until recently the party was very small and very amateurish.

Now it is a progressive, purposive machine with a pragmatic leadership. It is feared and taken seriously in London; in Scotland it is now an accepted and valued part of the country’s cultural sociological and civic landscape. This speedy and extraordinary transformation is analysed with concision and authority in the other book reviewed here: an academic study of the party by Prof James Mitchell of Strathclyde University and his colleagues Lynn Bennie of Aberdeen University and Rob Johns of Essex University. As such studies go, it is refreshingly lucid and available, and happily devoid of abstruse psephological jargon. The book presents a coherent and credible account of the SNP’s swift progress.

The SNP existed before 1948, but could hardly be regarded as a proper political party for till that year its members were allowed to belong to other political parties. Later, it was the advent of devolution that gave the the SNP its first serious opportunity. It was seized with alacrity.

The irony of course is that devolution was championed by the Labour Party, and in particular by the indefatigable Prof John P Mackintosh, who does not get the credit due to him in the Mitchell book. Mackintosh was a prolific journalist, a brilliant polemicist, an academic of distinction – and a Labour MP. In his Monday column in the Scotsman in the early and mid 1970s Mackintosh championed the cause of devolution with force and fluency. He was following up a commitment to devolution which the paper had made as early as 1968, during the long and prescient editorship of Alastair Dunnett.

Eventually Mackintosh’s colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party espoused the cause. But they had mixed motives. Some of them embraced devolution because they thought it would destroy Scottish nationalism once for all. How wrong they were; of course their number did not include Donald Dewar, who kept the devolution cause alive almost singlehandedly during Labour’s long years in Opposition from 1979 till 1997, and who eventually, most appropriately, became Scotland’s first First Minister.

When the Scotsman was pushing the cause of devolution, the Herald remained suspicious and disdainful. Much later the roles were reversed; the Scotsman, under Andrew Neil, was hostile to the SNP while the Herald, in the late 1990s, became much more sympathetic.

It was more than mere opportunism that allowed the SNP to benefit greatly from devolution. The devolution process created a significant ‘Scottish political space’ that was clearly separate from UK politics. This was a godsend to the SNP; it allowed the party to translate its growing, widely spread support across Scotland more efficiently into seats. The advent of regional list seats was a further boon. In short, devolution handed the SNP what it had hitherto lacked: governing potential. At the first Holyrood elections in 1999, the SNP became Scotland’s second party, both in seats and in votes.

But, as Mitchell and his two colleagues note in their compact narrative, there was still much to do. It was Mike Russell, one of the SNP’s relatively few intellectuals, now education minister in the Scottish Govement and from 1994 to 1999 the party’s chief executive, who advocated, with passion and clarity, the pressing need for an overhaul of the party’s structures. His modernising zeal did not always make him popular but his ideas were taken up by John Swinney when he became the party’s leader in 2000, though his various reforms were not actually introduced till four years later. Swinney played a key role in the party’s modern history. He transformed it from a ‘party of protest’ to a ‘party of government’; few could deny that he was an industrious and accomplished moderniser.
John Swinney, a quiet man and a master of detail, is not a flamboyant, forceful or colourful figure in a party which has had plenty of these (think for instance of Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and the late Douglas Henderson). But his legacy was enormously beneficial. The party was at last turned into an electoral machine, with sophisticated campaigning techniques and an efficient headquarters. Today the SNP organisation is lean and sophisticated.

Meanwhile the party membership (like that of some other mainstream parties) is, as Mitchell and his colleagues show, older, more male, better educated and more middle class than the population at large. Who are these key people, the party’s members? Even with this very thorough study to hand, we do not learn that much about them. They regard themselves as slightly left of centre. The party remains unable, for whatever reason, to attract proportionate cadres of women members and younger members.
Between the autumn of 2007 and the summer of 2008 the party’s membership was sent a very detailed questionnaire by Mitch-ell, Bennie and Johns. More than half of the membership responded. The results of this important survey are presented at the end of their book in a long appendix which has 62 separate tables of information. For example, major threats to the Scottish nation, for SNP members, included being denied North Sea oil revenues, lack of self confidence as a nation, and ‘London Government’. Thatch-erism also featured, perhaps not as highly as I’d have expected, though it has to be remembered that the SNP did not do particularly well in the UK elections when Scots could vote on Thatcher’s record (i.e. in 1983 and 1987). Issues such as foreign ownership of Scottish businesses, emigration and English nationalism were not regarded as significant threats to the Scottish nation.

So where do we go from here? So far I have managed not to mention the party’s leader, Alex Salmond, who is surely the most talented and able politician currently operating in the UK. (To justify that I would ask readers to contemplate a series of TV debates featuring Salmond, Cameron and Miliband. I have no doubt that Salmond would win hands down) Salmond has a keen brain and a superb memory; he could undoubtedly have enjoyed a career as a distinguished academic economist. He has great charm (even if he does not always choose to deploy it) and courage too. His wrecking of Nigel Lawson’s disgraceful Budget at Westminster in 1988, when he stood alone in the Commons with the massed ranks of the both the Tory government and the Labour opposition spitting bile and fury at him, required both physical and moral courage in considerable measure. He has mastered various kinds of oratory, from the insidiously conversational to the rousing and angry. He can be couthy or magisterial with equal facility. Indeed his high ability in the political arts is perhaps ironically, his biggest weakness; it inevitably tempts him to busk, to rely on his immense native wit rather than always attend to the tiresome detail. But that is a minor cavil.

I sense that increasingly the SNP will be tested by its attitudes to England. As the referendum on independence draws nearer, the party will have to adopt a mature and enlightened attitude to England, no matter what silliness, provocation and ignorance emanates from south of the Border. I suspect that an independent Scotland would be very good indeed for England; not necessarily economically, but certainly culturally, in terms of identity, and politically; it would allow the English to have the governments they wanted. It would force the English to work out how who they really are, what it is to be English. Right now too many find it hard to separate Englishness from Britishness.

There will be dangers, as the referendum draws near. There are always silly asses on the fringes ready to make serious mischief. In his most readable memoir James Halliday recalls a meeting with a journalist (or perhaps, more sinisterly, an agent provocateur) allegedly from a Scottish newspaper (not, I stress the Herald or the Scotsman) who suggested that the Scottish cause could be served by the blowing up of the rail and road bridges at Berwick. Needless to say, Halliday had nothing more to do with this creep.
Halliday rejects all Anglophobia; as he says it is wrong and ridiculous to criticise anyone for something they cannot help, namely their nationality.

He has given long service to Scottish education as a history teacher and a history lecturer; more importantly he has given decades of stalwart service to the SNP. His decent commitment was somehow inevitable. He simply cannot remember when he was not a nationalist, even as a very young child. It came automatically. ‘You were just a Scot and Scots should rule their own country….. no-one ever preached nationalism to me until I was old enough to preach it to others.’

How I envy that simple, straightforward, perfect certainty. I believe I’m as Scottish as the next man, but my own journey to supporting the SNP has been painful, confused and tortuous, and even now, though I back the party, I cannot bring myself to join it. This is perhaps excessively fastidious. Certainly, if Scotland does succeed in gaining her independence, it will be thanks largely to honourable, decent and industrious men and women, folk like Halliday, who have spent many long days and longer nights amid difficulty and division, keeping the flame burning even when it seemed to be in danger of flickering out. Halliday has been through a great deal, not least presiding over candidate selection; many good people who lacked some of the requisite skills had to be rejected. But he looks back on it all with humour and a kindly shrewdness.

These two books, then, hold up very different mirrors to the phenomenon that is the Scottish National Party. Mitchell and his colleagues analyse and explain, as serious academics should. Balancing this is the couthy, charming and very personal testament of Halliday, the record of long and dogged service to something that transcends mere politics: a passionately cherished ideal.


James Halliday
SCOTS INDEPENDENT LTD, £10.99, 155PP, ISBN: 9780951282090


James Mitchell, Lynn Bennie and Rob Johns
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £30, 208PP, ISBN: 9780199580002

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Kay’s Portraits

A few years back, the social critic Judith Williamson wrote a despairing essay in which she described how it was becoming possible for young girls to exist in a parallel world, a non-world made entirely of pop music, dreams about hair and sexual fantasy. That was before celebrity culture and the web made this our grisly daily nightmare. In the first story in this intimate, generous, optimistic and highly artistic collection, Jackie Kay gives us a woman in just such a situation.

Stef is, or imagines herself to be, on a scary, high-energy ‘reality’ cooking show. In her ‘to-camera’ monologue she describes to us not only the hip dishes she makes (there’s Gorgonzola in everything – this book has the best use of runny cheese since More Pricks Than Kicks), but also her longing to lose weight through consuming them. Painful worries about weight, appearance, smoking and drinking pervade these stories in a kind of litany – reinforcement of the idea that all of us, but particularly women, have their brains constantly tumbled about these things in a very unserious and toxic way. Stef’s talk is peppered with phrases from TV and garbagey magazines (‘Today was day one of My Big Week’), creating a recognisable and even appealing mixture of self-knowledge and media-fuelled naïveté. She’s a mixture of sadness and perkiness, such as one often encounters in those in their twenties, intellectually adrift in the Land of the Coalition.

The use of the concept, the word ‘reality’, is skewed in Stef’s head: she’s so alone it’s like she’s talking to herself. She imagines that the blinking red light on her burglar alarm is that of the TV camera, and begins to have a psychotic interaction with the now unsmiling chefs on her ‘programme’, whom she believes have turned against her. This is crazy, superb stuff, and it rings so true – as in the chilling, falsely ‘interactive’ soap opera in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. ‘You’ve let yourself down!’ is the judgement of the show; ‘I haven’t realised my dream’ is what Stef tells herself with equal ferocity. She gets ratty with these shadowy cooks – ‘Is it because I didn’t do snail porridge?’ – and descends into a rueful whiskyed stupor, as usual, one suspects, the night before she has to go back to her job, which stinks, like all the jobs in the book. Need any more be said about the unhelpfulness of television? It’s a funny and sad picture of the way far too many people live: people without books, in fact. Culture and the lack of it is a theme that Kay weaves in and out of the collection. You will also learn here about the ‘culinary equivalents of dog poo’.

‘These Are Not My Clothes’ is a poetic, imaginative triumph. It’s a monologue by Margaret, a woman in a care facility who is probably suffering the early stages of dementia, though we’re never really to know.

There’s something a little demented about the carers and the regime too, of course, and messages from the outside world aren’t any too clear either. In a dissection of consciousness and memory, we are reminded to ask ourselves what we believe to be the dividing lines between insight, art and loopiness. If you were confined in such a place, against your will, and you thought the trees outside were waving for help, would you be dotty? Or would you be a poet? Margaret projects her thoughts, almost all of which are cogent,
onto other people and things. There’s a real poignancy to her attachment to what she can see from her window:

‘Even the crocuses, yes the crocuses, are nodding their tiny heads in the wind. The bench still has nobody sitting on it and has bowed its head too; it is staring at something I can’t see, maybe a book. Maybe the bench is reading a book. Maybe the bench is reading Madame Bovary – that was the name of a book I once read, Madame Bovary. It was written by Flaubert. Maybe the bench is French.’

There are echoes here and everywhere of the sadness in Violette Leduc and the game-girlness of Stevie Smith. Margaret thinks, remembers, and also observes, with a grand uniqueness. When the matrons tell the patients that they no longer need to know what time it is, she is shocked: ‘But nobody registered anything on their faces. Their faces were like the empty bowls, lined and ridged with the remains of things.’ Mar-garet hatches a plot not to escape the place but to acquire something of her own which will allow her to feel like herself again. She’s thwarted in this by circumstance and the meanness of the institution, and it’s heartbreaking.

‘The First Lady of Song’ plays in a kind of American, elegiac tone, rather like living in a Wallace Stevens poem. It is the life story of a songstress who is over 300 years old (she was a scientific ‘experiment’ of her father’s – there’s a nice smidgen of magical realism running through this book). It is at once a positing of the eternal female, a demand that femininity be accepted as the bedrock of existence, and a fairy tale. Elina has, in her three centuries, sung every kind of music there is, and had lots of kids (‘Some of my children are a blur, but the pianos are vivid’). She cannot feel affection anymore until she manages to begin to age. She does this by paying a lot of money for a formula left by her father (who’s continued to hold power over her life). Freed of this ‘spell’, she makes a friend and begins, at last, to go grey. There are telling asides on history, particularly the Sixties and the subsequent wholesale abandonment of artistic and political passions.

When you read a writer like this, who knows instinctively and intellectually how to use language, whatever her subject, it’s like turning your face up to spring rain. A parent’s disordered mind is represented by a missing letter on a typewriter: ‘The trut was I was terrified, terrified of losing my mot er…’. A pregnant girl feels her child: ‘She flipped and flashed like a fish.’ There is delight in simple, off-hand word play, half-rhyming and alliteration: ‘Pear drops? Teardrops, more like. Crème brûlée? Cry baby.’ You wonder why other prose isn’t like this, why other organs are missing all these stops. There are several different kinds of stories here: most are fully formed and tailored, some a little less, and several aren’t stories so much as glimpses of stories, or lives – and quite satisfying at that. There’s one about the first two women to marry each other in Shetland, notable for a joyful enumeration of the textures and foods of the wedding lunch, and how unease is overcome through a discussion of the sex life of oysters.

One of Kay’s effective narrative techniques is to abandon us just at the point when something crucial is going to happen. After a while you realise that you’re constantly expecting the worst. And why is that? What is the matter with you? In the story ‘Hadassah’, she uses this to portray a small but effective and extremely moving rebellion among some prostitutes. There’s even a ghost story or two – one along MR James lines, but even scarier, as it involves real madness and not just Edwardian flapdoodle.

Puzzlingly, there are a couple of duds. There is a story about smoking and one about weight loss that seem lectury and less deep than the others. They are all the more noticeable because everywhere else Kay writes without artifice, self-consciousness, or the blazon of ‘message’. Yet in ‘Mini Me’, it feels as though she donned a fat suit to write it –it’s hindering her acting ability. These stories are ventriloquial, yes, but fresh on the subjects of dieting and addiction, no. ‘Mini Me’ is also written in a strange kind of Scots – it reads like an inadept translation of a Jackie Kay story into Scots. Many of the spelling conventions are ignored – fair enough, it’s demotic speech – but to confuse the spellings of ‘cannae’ and ‘canny’ and so on is just confusing.

There’s a lot of sex, winningly done: sweet, raunchy and even funny. Lovers are too loud, or can’t be heard at all, they exert ‘lesbian dictatorships’, they appear, disappear and reappear years later with beguiling, baffling unpredictability and charm. There’s a really amusing story, ‘Bread Bin’, about how one relates to one’s own orgasmic history as one grows older. Thoughts on how sex itself ages as we do: ‘I often see secretly smiling sixty-year-olds when I’m out and about.’

The book is full of sly humour – one of its ticklesome pleasures is that in reaching for a name for an utter fool, she pulls Nick Clegg out of the hat each time. However the last story, ‘The Winter Visitor’, is appropriately chilly and chilling, full of subtle echoes from many of the others. An elderly woman cannot any more identify the person who periodically arrives in her house to help her: ‘She is coming for me and there is nothing I can do’ – the carer, if that’s what she is, is Death, too.

Reality, Reality is a pointed wander through the stages of life we all know to be there, with digressions and reminiscences, a recognition of life’s shortness but also that childhood and youth may be recalled as succour. Despite the tribulations deliberately set down in the lives of women, that these cruel and unnecessary agonies over looks, pleasure, health and self-worth can crush, there is optimism, strength and sweetness: ‘There’s nothing like the old excitement of girls.’


Jackie Kay
PICADOR, 239pp, £12.99 246PP, ISBN: 9781447217565

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SRB Diary: No Time to Lose: A Glasgow Diary

THE END. That’s the last of a trio of novel dramatisations completed for BBC Radio 4. The author of the novels? Georges Simenon. If you must adapt another writer’s work, then why not the very best?
For me, Simenon is The Master.
I’ve read dozens, scores, of his novels.
Ideally they should be consumed in one sitting (Simenon’s wish). It’s a custom with me to close the book and say – aloud – something along the lines of ‘My God, just brilliant!’ or ‘How does he do it?’
These are the non-Maigrets, what he allowed to be classified as romans durs – ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ novels. Let’s call them ‘psychological’ novels.
Events push the central character to the limits of his or her endurance.
The latest script is the tenth. It’s my primary function to serve Simenon. To that end I need to pull the novels apart. While they are all easy to read, Simenon’s is the art that conceals art. Filleting the novels you appreciate how complexly constructed they are. For radio the narrative has to be made more linear, while separate episodes or characters may need to be combined – followed by liberal application of the DELETE button in tandem with Word Count. To make the transitions smooth within this 44-minutes-of-airtime straitjacket format, I invent brief links. (The seams mustn’t ever show, of course: the drama must flow naturally, and nothing forced about it.) Taking a metaphorical red pencil to paragraphs, even pages of so-real-we’re-there atmosphere and narrative and character analysis, replacing Simenon’s actual words with some he might have written – that’s how I try to stay completely true to the book.
The completed scripts are forwarded to Switzerland, to allow the Estate a perusal.
For me the whole process isn’t like work at all – but unalloyed pleasure.
* * *
Round about midnight most nights I settle down to watch a DVD. (I buy them. But I can get two from internet suppliers for the price of a cinema ticket, or less.) I’ve just completed my thirty-second film noir in a row.
(If I should start wearing a belted trench coat and a trilby, shoot me – or deliver a well-aimed sock in the jaw.)
Too many highlights to cram into the few lines available to me. Possibly it was Rita Hayworth in Gilda – was she ever more luminously beautiful?
Of the other femmes fatales, Special Mention for Virginia Mayo in White Heat. Her character (Verna) moved in on her new victim (Big Ed), fastening on his mouth and kissing him while continuing to chew gum at the same time – it’s a neat trick if you can do it.
* * *
Into Glasgow.
It pains me now to do so. My father died last spring, and the city is mapped by all the associations it has with him.
There’s another lost version of Glasgow. It is more real to me than what is here and now and in 3-D. It’s a soot-blackened place, a kind of Gotham City, but with more elegance and class about it than I see anywhere in this 2012 imitation.
He’s driving me to the school I moved to when I was nine, and he’s smoking as usual, and I’m thinking nothing about it, just as I’m unconscious of all the smokers on the tops of the buses I use for the journey back home. He’s off to Rowan’s for coffee with his friends. He and my mother are off to look at what’s new in the Scandinavian Shop, like the modern people they are. He’s working late, fine-tuning copy, getting his hands dirty (literally) with the wooden blocks on which advertisements were despatched to the newspapers long ago. (Yes, my father was a Mad Man – so achingly trendy now – described by someone in the dim and distant as ‘the only gentleman I know in Scottish advertising’.)
I had somehow forgotten quite how debonair and how good-looking he was. He’s still sprinting along the streets in one of those Shearer & Hunter suits he had them make up for him, still slim, still so nimble on his feet.
My sister and I alighted on a cache of family photographs, many more than we thought we had. In one the stranger turns out to be Dad, at a routine business function but looking like a glamorous South
American playboy more suited to Regine’s nightclubs c.1970 and mysteriously displaced to Glasgow.
At home I seem to be slipping quietly into some of his habits: sitting now in his Father Bear wing chair which we left empty for the first few months, eating a couple of bananas every day as he did, wearing one of his suits and a pair of favourite cuff-links, speed-reading green-backed crime Penguins and slow-reading some of his Jewish thinkers.
I find him every day when I go walking, and we talk.
My sister and I sat with him, held his hands, as – slowly, over many hours – life ebbed out of his body. A friend said to me about the deathbed vigil, ‘You’re not ever the same person afterwards.’ It’s true, and I wouldn’t wish it any other way.
In the very final seconds a surge of strength had passed through him: it was like raw current, electrifying my sister and me.
Then he was gone – but only, of course, in the material sense.
* * *
Along the back ways of my laptop.
There’s always one more short story skulking somewhere.
Late last year I rounded up as many as I could which hadn’t appeared in book form – most of them had been in magazines, newspapers, journals, or broadcast – and published three Kindle collections myself. They all feature a fictional spa resort in the Perthshire hills, called Carnbeg. (It was originally the backdrop to my Radio 4 serial The Hydro, about a sprawling Highlands hotel.) Carnbeg, being a crossing-place, has allowed me to write about the tribes I grew up observing – strands of Scottish life not much favoured by fiction writers in the past, living the middle way, usually in the suburbs of our cities.
It occurs to me that I have about four-fifths of the quantity I need for a fourth. A Carnbeg Quartet. Well, properly a pentalogy, since Time in Carnbeg was book-published – as distinct from e-published (are you following?) – in 2004. So, after A Carnbeg Affair, Carnbeg Piccalilli, and Mysteries of Carnbeg, what about … Since some of the characters’ memories, or delusions, will take us back to the 60s (when the town briefly swung) – how does the title Carnbeg A Go-Go grab you?
* * *
Radio Times is kind about my latest of many RF radio plays. It’s one of their two picks of the day.
This is the third time I’ve had the good fortune of Jane Asher’s participation. But it’s been twenty-five years since the last occasion. She proved to be almost unchanged in appearance, enviably slim and trim (daily swims), the same rich copper hair (if styled differently) which I remember from Alfie. As much as her appearance, she has a young voice. Her character only has to speak to defy the sly underminings by time: ‘Paulette Dubois’, piano teacher in Nice and a woman with a complicated past, will walk out of this play with her secrets spilled but with her spirit intact, her optimism undimmed. ‘The sun is shining. It’s going to be a beautiful day’.
As ever, I shan’t listen until the play goes out over the airwaves. No doubts about the
direction or the acting, none whatsoever, but if I did listen I would spot what I’d be telling myself could have been improved in the writing. Someone once came up with this comparison: it’s as if you’ve built a brick wall – to all intents and purposes it looks fine – but you, only you, know that some of the bricks have gone in the wrong way round. This writing lark is, thank God, a process of eternal dissatisfaction: otherwise, why go on with it?
* * *
Another tottering pile of books has keeled over upstairs. Picking them off the floor, to replace them on the floor but in more stable fashion, I find some surprises.
One is a monograph of the architect Oscar Niemeyer. He had a vision, which became Brasilia. That city has lost its shine, but at the time when it was still new and futuristic – the 1960s – it fascinated me, and I collected everything I could about the place.
I only ever wanted to be an architect. I endlessly drew line illustrations of imaginary buildings, filling sketch pads and jotters with them, but I was hopeless at school ‘art’, likewise at maths (never mind that the deviser of logarithms is somewhere in my mother’s family’s background).
Instead I’ve ended up writing about the occupants of those buildings, just as fictional.
* * *
In front of me, on the wall, as I type this is a b+w postcard. The forearm being held in front of the camera is that of Czech photographer Josef Koudelka – the face of his wristwatch tells the time as twenty minutes to eleven – behind the proffered arm and fisted hand is a random Spanish field, with trampled hay and gnarled trees.
It’s one moment in time.
I keep the postcard there to remind
me that I don’t have time to waste. Every moment must be made to count.
I survive on tea. (How many mugs of tea did Auden consume in a day? In the twenties at least, perhaps it topped thirty. I’m not far behind.) I purchased a coaster the other day, a tile, attractively patterned with the face (distressed, very) of an antique clock. (10.37,
almost a coincidence.) Whenever I pick up a mug, and put it down, I shall be reminded,

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Afgans in Oban

On the locomotives now, Simon had the night roads all up in his mind. He too could close his eyes and divine exactly where he was throughout these blinded lands . . .’ This is a young railwayman, learning his trade in the early 1970s, when ‘the railways’ – along with ‘coal’ and ‘steel’ – were still the sinew of national politics. But this is also a novelist writing about his own craft. The drivers and firemen who worked – and still work – the West Highland line traverse the landscape in the dark and without illumination, their awareness of the landscape outside learned and intuitive rather than visual or conscious, certain only as to ultimate destination. And that’s how the novelist works, when the work is at its best, moving through a known landscape towards a pre-determined but not yet certain climax, receiving and giving only glimpses of his big themes like high tops suddenly shown in silhouette against a lighter sky, or an imperceptible shudder in the prose when a certain gradient is reached, all the while maintaining a steady, unforced pressure on the deadman’s pedal that keeps the narrative running.

It isn’t the least miracle of Alan Warner’s latest and best novel that he has managed to take back Scottish rail travel as a viable fictional setting from Richard Hannay and Harry Potter. The greater miracle of a book is how smooth and on-time the journey is, a trip through a nostalgic cultural landscape that doesn’t depend on nostalgia for its success. There is little documentary reference to the Heath years, but even without the dateline that fixes the slightly shifting chronology of Simon Crimmons’ first/last summer of freedom one knows what is going on in the wider world. In the same way, War-ner doesn’t set-dress his interiors with rock albums of the moment. Indeed, one suspects he may have gone back and scratched out a few titles, leaving us to guess or not guess from passing descriptions of covers or music. In the same way, Oban (‘the Port’) is both recognisable and irrelevant, except insofar as it represents a useful social topography for the novelist, a quiet confrontation between machine and pastoral modes, and a destination right at the water’s edge.

We meet Simon Crimmons at 16, leaving school for what he intends to be the last time. He’s from a well-off family. Simon’s accidental recruitment by British Rail (he originally thinks that ‘traction trainee’ is a medical job: hospital = nurses) puts him in conflict with his father’s road haulage business, a nicely understated confrontation that grows in relevance and emotional charge as other elements come into play. In a sweet and straightforward way, Simon is getting off with Nikki Caine, a girl from the council estate. There is also a more ambiguous and exotic encounter with the hippyish son and daughter of Andrew Bultitude, the Commander of the Pass, who a decade before had hosted Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of a hydro-electric scheme (Cruachan, presumably) which had resulted in the drowning of a small village. The Bultitudes are given an imaginary place in Our Scots Noble Families, a ‘general indictment’ of wealth and privilege, written in 1909 by Tom Johnston, arguably the greatest ever Scottish Secretary to serve in Westminster. Simon doesn’t seem to be aware, and one wonders to what extent Warner is, that Johnston was also a major supporter of hydro-electric power in Scotland and the effective founder of the Hydro-Electric Board, which slightly complicates the fictional picture. But . . . so far, so straightforward.

No one has ever doubted Warner’s ear for dialogue. It lacks the elaboration, restricted codes and, yes, literariness of an Irvine Welsh, and it doesn’t soundtrack anything like Welsh’s surreally extended naturalism. It simply rings true. As he proved in Morvern Callar and after, Warner is still a devotee of the well-made narrative. However improvisational some of his effects, the books all have structure and intent, none more so than this, and none more successfully. Like Simon, he has learned to keep his weight evenly on the pedal. The unevenness of tone and narrative direction that has run through all his work from These Demented Lands and The Sopranos, through The Man Who Walks and The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, to the very nearly perfect The Stars In The Bright Sky (and suddenly, how long he seems to have been a part of the Scottish writing scene!) has all but disappeared. There is still a point in The Deadman’s Pedal when the archetypal and the merely generic are in precarious balance. The two girlfriends, Nikki and Varie (whose deliberately mis-spelt name may be a reference back to all those quibbles over ‘Morvern’ and ‘Cal-lar’) are respectively light and dark, innocent and experienced, but while Varie’s brother Alexander Bultitude is a routine smart-arse posho, who affects military greatcoats and Afghans (in Oban! in 1974!) and pinches copies of Genet from Menzies’s, presumably just waiting to be played in the movie by some younger version of Richard E. Grant, the girls have real presence even if the choice between them seems obvious and fated.

It is only when the old railwaymen speak the speak that Warner’s prose begins to sing. He’s never written better and never scripted dialogue so convincingly. Simon’s initiation is shot through with a delicately savage humour as the old men mock his age (which they simultaneously fear and envy), his father’s wealth (which they simultaneously distrust and ditto) and his awkwardly toted crash helmet, for Simon is also learning to negotiate his native landscape on two wheels and his movement through and around ‘the Port’ is very carefully plotted.

As always in Warner’s work, though, it is the women who ought to be watched. Mostly quiet, rarely vociferous or emphatic, but absolutely at the root and essence of everything he is writing about. Warner was praised, mostly rightly, for Morvern Cal-lar’s inscape and his insight into female consciousness, and yet at that early stage it still seemed forced and deliberate. Making a young woman think about how she wipes herself in the toilet is a man’s gesture of empathy and it’s the gesture one sees, not the empathy. Perversely, by allowing Simon and his school pal to look up Nikki’s skirt, and by letting her react, she seems much more real and internalised even if we only get her from a ‘male point of view’. The impression extends to Simon’s mother, who is super-quiet and accepting but wonderfully warm and present. And it goes ever further: to the young Queen at the dam, to the old railway wives who stand back from the freemasonry of the rails, watching to see which comes first for their menfolk, physical disintegration or redundancy, to Varie and Alex Bultitude’s dead mother (and the other glass-coffined dead at Broken Moan), ultimately to the Virgin who makes such a strange appearance at the climax of the book.

It is only here that one realises how well Warner navigates and how intuitively he has pulled together all his themes. The Deadman’s Pedal is ‘about’ many things. It is ‘about’ class, as British novels still somehow have to be, but it is strikingly subtle about class, too, not another anti-bourgeois tract inspired by Tom Johnston’s equation of ‘nobility’ with ‘rapine, murder, massacre, cheating or Court harlotry’. It is a rite of passage book, but more interestingly a rite of passage not into sex but into work, not into romance but into craft. It is very much concerned with the weight of the past and how different families, ‘working’ or ‘privileged’, display or conceal their achievements and their inheritances. Andrew Bultitude bears a seemingly absurd title that still carries weight and meaning two generations after Johnston predicted the withering away of such Ruritanian nonsense in the face of modernity. As officer class, Bultitude is always behind the action, in both senses. Simon Crimmons’ father was in the same wartime unit. He has medals for gallantry, won in circumstances his son is fated to repeat, but which are hidden away in the family home and never spoken of until a magnificent set-piece two thirds of the way through the book when an older consciousness and experience than Simon’s briefly dominates. Then again, the Bultitude house has on display a family letter from Waterloo, or at least an electronic facsimile of the original, which is also shut away. How different are these people, really?

It is also a novel about time, as befits fiction with a railway background, and about timelessness. Warner’s delicately orchestrated chronology covers almost no time at all, even allowing for the moment in 1961 when all latent power was switched on, and it is always subject to the eternal presence of the rocks beneath. Nothing much is made of Varie Bultitude’s choice of geology as a university subject, but it means everything. This is a country in change, and also changeless, unchangeable, and one senses that Warner likes that. For these reasons and more The Deadman’s Pedal is a novel that will last. Its human doings happen over deep strata. We have won the power to traverse and to change that landscape but not to escape it, and it comes back at us in a cyclical return of the repressed. The scale is different and the ambition both less severe and less playful, but Warner has ‘learned the road’ and this is the best Scottish fiction since Lanark.


Alan Warner
JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99, 384PP, ISBN: 9780224071703

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