Monthly Archives: November 2012


Set In Stone

It may seem strange that a book like this should not have been brought out by a Scottish publisher long before now, but it is perhaps fitting that it is published in America, as part of a series called ‘Poets for the Millennium’, featuring the work of such luminaries of the avant-garde as Andre Bréton, Paul Celan and Gertrude Stein. Though his work may not have much in common with theirs, Finlay belongs firmly in the context of the international avantgarde. Furthermore, it would be difficult to think of an artist more misunderstood – and many would argue, more undervalued – in his own country during his lifetime: vilified by older, more established poets such as MacDiarmid, threatened with court cases and poindings by local councils, Finlay was squeezed out of the mainstream to live a life of isolation and poverty.

Writing to Scottish Field in March 1962, in response to a letter by Hugh MacDiarmid dismissing most younger Scottish poets as ‘self-pitying jeunes refusés’, he states testily that he is ‘a Scottish poet who has never been published in any Scottish newspaper or periodical’ and goes on to outline his most notable publications abroad, adding for good measure that everyone he knows under the age of forty ‘is bored stiff by Mr. MacDiarmid and his anachronistic propaganda’. Curiously, as his son Alec Finlay points out in his introduction, the two men had quite a lot in common: both contrary, radical, idealistic and highly innovative in very different ways.

The alienation Finlay felt as an artist was exacerbated by his reclusiveness as a person who suffered from anxiety and acute agoraphobia. The seed of his isolation can be found in his ‘Autobiographical Sketch’ and in autobiographical references in his letters referred to in the introduction. As a boy he was evacuated from Glasgow to the village of Gartmore in 1939, ‘I was a wee boy with a label round his neck … No school, but pinewoods, wee burns, rabbits, trout, salmon, mountains … what happiness’. He was briefly a student at Glasgow School of Art, from which he was suspended in his first year as a punishment for organising a student strike. He was conscripted to the army but never saw active service, though he witnessed some arresting sights which would later become haunting images in his art: ‘the juxtaposition of rows of German tanks massed alongside an intact Neoclassical building’. After the war, he was married – ironically, in retrospect, his best man was MacDiarmid – to Marion Fletcher, and they moved to the Highlands where he worked as a shepherd, ‘but I had a dream of young men engaged in learned discourse while strolling on lawns’.

That may sound like Oxford or Cam-bridge, but Finlay had another sort of ‘university’ in mind, where artists – even Scottish artists – could discuss their ideas with peers from other countries, evolving together a contemporary art for the times – which is exactly what he went on to do in lengthy correspondences with contemporaries such as the American poet Robert Creeley. He gave up shepherding and tried to live off trout and stewed rabbits while reading philosophy and starting to write nature studies, short stories and plays. The ‘nervous anxiety’ which would recur throughout his life began at this time, and this made him more of an outsider.

In the Kafkaesque fable ‘The Money’, the one short story included here, an artist applies for Unemployment Benefit, because he has done some paid part-time work as an editor of a magazine and is now unemployed. But when the official concedes that he may be eligible for part-time Unemployment Benefit, he complicates things for himself by saying: ‘If you give me The Money, I’ll be able to work, I’ll be free to work’, the catch-22 of the situation being that if you are receiving Unemployment Benefit, you can’t work. ‘I can only work when I am not in a job!’ cries the artist. Eventually he is sent some weekly cheques as long as he fills out the relevant forms, but then the artist makes the mistake of honestly declaring earnings for the sale of a picture, and of course it is complicated, because he didn’t do the work in the week for which he is claiming benefit, but had done the painting a year before. Eventually the artist, disaffected by the bureaucracy of the process, resigns, to the relief of the official, saying ‘I don’t quite fit in’ and leaves the building ‘a free man’.

Finlay’s critique of societal attitudes to the artist is made clear here at the outset of his artistic career, as is his own stance as an artist essentially and by definition outside of a society which cannot accommodate the idea that Art is work, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve employment or remuneration. The story is a blueprint for Finlay’s often shoestring survival as an artist – in a letter to Edwin Morgan he describes one Christmas day as ‘a right disaster, with no cigarettes, and one tin of Heinz beans’ – but it explores the issue in a witty, playful way – a feature to become the hallmark of later work.

In The Dancers Inherit the Party, his first published book of poetry, reproduced here in full, that playfulness is developed into something that cuts deeper into the question of what poetry is, often confounding expectations and probing and playing with the very ways in which language is used in ordinary speech, though some are lyrical in a more conventional way. But it is in ‘GLASGOW BEASTS, AN A BURD, HAW, AN INSEKS, AN, AW, A FISH’ that speech becomes prominent, displaying a keen ear for the rhythms and cadences of working-class Glasgow speech which anticipates the work of Tom Leonard.

The poems use phonetic spelling and frequent line-breaks and one-word lines to capture the speech rhythm in the dialect and as a result the poems are also strikingly unusual in visual terms. Leonard would develop the use of Glasgow speech in his poetry and would invest the very act of writing in this way with a political charge; with Finlay it was the visual aspect of poetry which would take centre stage, but the poetry is no less political, firstly in the various forms of written concrete poetry he explored, then taking this further until the concrete poem becomes literally an object made, for example, of concrete, glass, wood, stone, slate, or metal, very often made in collaboration with craftsmen. Finally, the concrete is melded with the environment in Finlay’s ‘garden’ works – he refers to it as ‘avant-gardening’ – and part of the poem becomes its landscape setting, whether that be designed or wild.

‘Avant-garde’ is a military term, but whether the front line in question is involved in attack or defence depends on the battle. In Finlay’s work, it can mean both – an attack on the dominant poetics of the time and a defence of certain elements of the art of the past – and it means something quite other than purely experimental exploration of form: ‘I am not interested in “experiment” but in avant-garde work which can take the creative step backwards to join with the past.’ He abhorred any sort of introspective or confessional poetry, reclaiming from the art of the past the idea of classical order, purity and the pastoral idyll. However, he later attempted to marry this with something much darker and of our times. He foreshadows this in ‘SOME (SHORT) THOUGHTS ON NEO-CLASSICISM’: ‘Neo-classicism is classicism doing its military service’ and ‘The neo-classical colonnade conceals the door to the armoury’.

Considering his concrete poems for the page – they are things more to be taken in by the eye and contemplated than simply read – what is striking is the desire for pattern, order, rationality, proportion, symmetry, equilibrium, simplicity and lucidity, yet within this there is always a kind of serious play at work, a disarmingly childlike sense of wonder at the inherent musicality of a word, the chance and associative congruence between such unlikely partners as ‘curlew’ and ‘curfew’. ‘Concrete poetry is not a visual but a silent poetry’, Finlay says, somewhat mischievously, in ‘DETACHED SENTENCES ON CONCRETE POETRY’, but their conceptual and emotional power is achieved primarily through their visual impact. I think he was fully aware of this when he wrote to Creeley that it was time Concrete Poetry ‘came of age and had the same standards of production as any other art that has a visual element.’ He set about doing just that, presenting many of his concrete poems as posters or prints to be framed and hung on a wall rather than read in a book, and the production standards were indeed high. Many use a form of word-play, finding an echo of one word in another e.g. ‘Oiris’ and ‘osiers’, and some have a mimetic quality, echoing a natural phenomenon as in the poem ‘wave / rock’ in which the two words approach each other until they overlap and, when superimposed, make the word ‘wrack’.

Essentially, Concrete Poetry treats the word, and sometimes even the individual letter, as an object in itself as well as a referent or a small part of a language system, exploiting its ‘thingness’, its stubborn independence when set in isolation or among other words which are given equal weight. Thus such things as the names of fishing boats, or even their registration letters and numbers, can become the building blocks of a poem. In this way, Finlay’s concrete poems often invest the simplest of words with an air of mystery and gravity – the mystery and gravity, in fact, of the object, and one can see the logic in Finlay’s decision to take this a stage further and make the concrete poem into a literal object. We can feel his visionary excitement at the possibilities this offers in a letter to the artist and future collaborator Henry Clyne in 1966:

‘concrete poetry offers…a way of bringing that art right back into the very centre of society i.e. into architecture…the pure concrete poem is inexhaustible; it is not for reading but for contemplating….All this is quite new, and I think no one – not even the poets – has quite understood the possibilities. Far from concrete poetry being an end… it is really only a beginning….I think the

garden, and the church, and the side of the block of flats, are the places for poems – only, of course, such poems ought to be dignified, and formal, and austere.’

The garden at Stonypath, Finlay’s magnum opus, is where this vision becomes most fully realized. And it is here that the strange marriage of pastoral idyll and the weaponry of World War II is fused into an experiential reality. As I strolled through the garden on my first visit, lulled into a false sense of security by the trees, ponds, and beautiful sculptures, I was genuinely shocked to be ambushed by tanks, warships and fighter planes which invade this idyll of order and serenity, and then I appreciated the humour of it too: an air-craft carrier bird-bath! In a letter to his friend Stephen Bann, he says: ‘if war-galleys were a main subject of sculpture in Roman gardens, why should not stone aircraft carriers – representations of our modern Imperial Navies – be thought proper in ours?’

I believe it is that juxtaposition, that tank in a Poussin-like neo-classical landscape, which creates a frisson of something deeply disturbing to the sense of order and peace he creates in his work, and in so doing does most to make it truly original work, work of genius. It is time Finlay’s work was properly considered and assessed, and this selection of his writing makes a valuable contribution to that process.


Edited by Alec Finlay

UNI OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, PP334, £16.95, ISBN: 9780520270596

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Volume 8 – Issue 4 – Poems


Fleck avoids mixing daylight and alcohol,
guffaws at jokes hours late, buttonholes
friends to balance the twin securities of life
assurance and certain death.

His favourite phrase is, ‘Give me a break.’
He has never thought himself idle.
His right eye, when not blinking,
keep guard over the B-road to hell.

Every time an outstretched palm
rises from the monetary myth-pool,
the fingers are Fleck’s, replacing
a row of dodgy meat hooks.

Imagine his voice, reassuring subprime
mortgage holders, call after call,
necks swinging which have never
conceived of nooses their size.



Something is wrong: the wolves drag their spectral bodies
through spritely towns, which have never known the burial
of bones in back gardens. The sound of snapping plastic

echoes between fenceposts: the sound of anger, as today
money is anger, threat, demand, and lack of it also
anger. A man said to Fleck, passing him on Princes Street,

‘I live in a world where the flies have started dining out
on other flies,’ and when he shrank into the Disney store
the stuffed animals seemed to shrink too. Money is fear,

lack of it is also fear. The latest preoccupation is erotic
abstinence, once practiced only by the desperate
or deviant, now the bookshops can’t get enough of it:

Mind, Body and Spirit, such wholesomeness that floors
shudder beneath every lightweight addition. The wolves
rise early to stack shelves and something is wrong with

the chief banker’s intruder alarm, which wails around
the clock even after wolves attack it with a pick-axe.
When they hunch forward, raise ears and bare teeth,

it means they are afraid – in other words, they’re about
to eat you alive, business as usual at the Disney checkout.
The financiers are dining out on other financiers,

which at least gives the poor a break, although the sound
of snapping limbs wakes them up each morning.
Soon, Fleck thinks, this will all seem as natural as aerosol.



The way the light falls, he can only see the moral
in Balmoral, the great hotel’s glasspainted Bal
deflected by a blinding curve, a trick of sense,

into holy darkness. Fleck enters, contemplates
the infinitely priceless, seasonally rotated menu.
Roaches hiss from skirting-board cracks:

‘Keep your soft belly hidden. Avoid the dusting heel,
the raging stump,’ the dining room’s key icon
Elihjah counting profits in forkfuls of dollars.

Fleck, for the first time in decades, feels
the drag of certainty’s deadweight anchor,
until the light shifts seconds later and bellhops

eject him to Princes Street, where barging shoppers
mingle with Zen masters, serene, giddy, vacant
in non-attachment, though not so as you’d notice.



Easter has been cancelled,
now a bankers’ celebration.

No need to taunt the dead
with resurrection.

Fleck has work in mind
but takes time out

from everyday collapse.
He forks corn from a can.

The mob’s rage, he believes
raised the crucified

three days later,
the resurrection required

a hammering fury.
The banks followed suit,

market exclusive threats
to likely customers,

who queue round the clock
for negative equity.

The banks’ hate mail
become a status symbol.

People offer their mouths
as personalised ATMs.

Fleck kicks a lamppost.
The mob has been cancelled.

His toe is broken.
Still, he must resist.



The charity shop owners in the shadow of street
illumination. Fleck crawls by, drunk,
drags a shopping bag he can’t remember
picking up; within it, his soul’s embers
engineer a slow release of smoke, burnt
offerings before the dull window display,
itself a foil for the vigil of neon alphabets
and candle stubs on restaurant tables.

Fleck incinerates the litter bins
and bus shelters, triggers a Mexican wave
of security alarms, by automatic doors
dumps the bag, a gift for his dream lover
who sleepwalks the supermarket aisles.
Their lengthening keeps his nightmares lit.

Fleck and the Bank by Rob A. Mackenzie is publishing by Salt Publishing ( at £6.50

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From Page To Stage

Some years ago, a Scottish playwright objected to the sheer number of adaptations of novels which were being staged across the country. Such works were valid enough, he agreed, but they should be rare and exceptional visitors to our theatres, since the vitality of theatrical life was determined by those original works which were the product of the mind and imagination of a writer. He also suggested darkly that such activity appealed particularly to so-called men of letters or to theatre directors who, whatever their other abilities, lacked genuine creativity but wished to cling onto the coat tails of more gifted individuals.

At around that time, the Citizens was about to stage Travels with My Aunt, adapted and directed by Giles Havergal, a work which turned out to be a great success and has subsequently been staged in Europe and North America. In a pre-production interview, I asked Havergal to respond to this criticism, expecting to have to stand back with my fingers in my ears as he exploded, but in fact, with a modesty typical of the man, he basically agreed. He did not have, he said, the inventiveness of a playwright but enjoyed the exercise of preparing a work for the stage. However, he had no wish to claim undue credit, and when some overenthusiastic publicity agent advertised the forthcoming play on the great hoarding outside the Citz as ‘the work of Giles Haver-gal,’ he made them remove his name and replace it with that of the original author, Graham Greene.

As it happens there have been several recent adaptations, of varying quality, in Scottish theatres. The Guid Sisters, the Quebecois play written by Michel Tremblay and reworked by Martin Bowman and Bill Finlay, Medea, updated and set in a modern housing complex by Mike Bartlett, and last year the misconceived version of Lor-ca’s The House of Bernarda Alba by Rona Munro. There are different reasons for doing an adaptation, and different levels of re-imagining involved. Bowman and Finlay produced a deft subtle work which can take its autonomous place in the Scottish canon, Bartlett totally rewrote the piece using only the most basic elements of the Greek tragedy while it was hard to see what was behind Munro’s work except a belief that a Scottish audience could only cope with a drama set in their own back yard. In all cases, the new work involved a cross-cultural exchange, with the risk of deformation that such a process involved.

The shift of cultures is not a consideration with The Cone-Gatherers, adapted for the stage by Peter Arnott from Robin Jenkins’ magnificent novel. Since Arnott is well established as one of Scotland’s leading playwrights and has to his credit a string of successful, challenging, deeply thoughtful plays, no accusation of battening onto the creativity of others can be levelled at him. He collaborated previously with director Kenny Ireland on an adaptation of Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, under the general aegis of Aberdeen Performing Arts, an umbrella organisation which is ensuring that the Granite City is finally, after years of theatrical darkness, making confident steps towards occupying a place in the forefront of Scottish theatre-making.

If all theatre is of its essence a collaborative venture in which the crucial cooperation involves in varying degrees playwright, director, actor, designer, the essential cooperation here is between the novelist and playwright-adaptor. Adaptors of a mechanical turn of mind, not only those working for TV costume drama, will basically strip out the descriptive or narrative passages and reproduce a fair copy of the dialogue, while the more creative adaptor mulls over the spirit and essence of the original to identify what is of lasting value and to establish the appropriate means and idiom for conveying it in another medium. He or she is in the position of Picasso reproducing Velasquez. An art student with a brush and pencil will duplicate Velasquez’ Las Meninas as faithfully as is in their power, copying the pose, the tones of colour, the stance and the expressions of the various characters and considering any deviation from the original as a flaw, whereas a Picasso (not that they are ten a penny!), under the guise of imitating, will provide a response, a reaction, a re-reading, a criticism and, crucially, a transformation. Picasso was in awe of the genius of Velasquez but showed his admiration by tearing him apart and reconstructing him.

Arnott admitted ‘to his shame’ that he had not previously been aware of Robin Jen-kins as a writer. He is a quick learner, and has shown himself a sensitive, gifted transformer of his work. Jenkins remains Scottish fiction’s unknown and unsung genius. Periodically readers or critics come across him and proclaim their excited admiration but somehow his reputation is not evergreen. The Cone-Gatherers has the tautness of parable and its power is multi-layered. Set during WWII, in a forest in the Highlands and not in some centre of power, it features two brothers, one of whom is a deformed cripple and the other his affectionate, protective brother. Both are employed to climb pine trees and gather the cones which will be utilised to give rebirth to the forest once the hostilities are done. On the estate, they run up against the snobbishness of the patricians, particularly Lady Runcie-Campbell, and the incomprehensible malevolence of the keeper, Duror.

For such a short work and one which can be read purely as a tale, The Cone-Gatherers is intriguingly complex. A spiritual novel as well as a novel of social tension, it stands in the heart of the Scottish tradition in its obsession with evil and its account of evil’s tendency to pursue and crush innocence. Many works detail man’s inhumanity to man, but this one also protests as strongly as do the novellas of James Hogg at God’s incivility to man. The forest has aspects of the Garden of Eden, but is also a place which exudes a dark sense of danger and menace. Calum is a handicapped retard with an innate hatred of suffering and a love of animals worthy of St Francis. Duror’s wife is paralysed and reduced to a bedridden, cruel caricature of the woman she had been, and there is a transcendental thread to the clash in Lady Runcie-Campbell between her Christian beliefs and her sense of superiority and growing dislike of the brothers, especially Calum. To her dismay, her son Rodrick develops an affection for the disabled brother, but she disapproves of this fellow feeling, or charity.

An adaptation of this quality is a personal re-reading, and Arnott’s version highlights the social, perhaps at the expense of the transcendental or spiritual. The sense of uneasy conscience inside Lady Runcie-Campbell is less strong than in the original, while the sense of caste is overwhelming. The plebeians, particularly Neil (an assured performance by John Kielty), are motivated by class-based resentment. Their treatment by their betters rankles, justifiably so for the landlords live in a mansion with fifty rooms while the brothers are compelled to reside in a damp hut, and are on one occasion contemptuously forced out into the rain by her haughty Ladyship (Jennifer Black, to the manner and manor born) after they had taken refuge from a storm in the summer house. The framework of the drama is moral, but the morality is secular rather than dictated by a sense of the religious. The central problem is one of justice versus injustice rather than of the clash between faith and instinct, although sufficient echoes of Jen-kins’s outlook remain. ‘There’s a kind of innocence we just can’t afford,’ declaims the Lady of the manor, and while she is referring to what she regards as the naivety of her son Roddie (played with grace and spirit by Helen MacKay) and his unwillingness to pick up the aristo’s burden, behind it there is the memory of the clash as seen by Jenkins.

The principal innocent is Calum, a performance of delicacy and conviction by Ben Winger as the undeserving object of Duror’s inexplicable loathing. In Jenkins, Duror is a Iago figure, but Arnott’s rewriting makes him a lonely and isolated man, suffering on account of his wife’s affliction, at least as it impacts on him. He is endowed him with at least the outlines of humanity so that his plight arouses more compassion than Jenkins had allowed. The transformation into a somewhat more smooth operator is completed by a masterly performance by Tom McGovern, who never snarls like some cartoon villain but speaks in measured tones, and shows fawning deference to his employer. So what drives him? No complete answer is possible, but Duror’s actions in the final calamity in the play seem to speak of a mind unhinged by some malady rather than by the force of wickedness. Modern secular culture provides no insights for dealing with or depicting personal wickedness, even from a Hitler or an Anders Breivik.

The standard disadvantage of theatre over prose fiction is that it loses the discursive passages, but here this is overcome by the use of a chorus. This is not a superficial, story-telling device, but a Greek-style chorus, with passages of probing insight or lyrical loveliness. The collaboration between the creative spirits involved in the production ensures that while the vision behind the play is dark, the production has a beguiling beauty. Hayden Griffin’s set of hanging ropes suggests a forest which could be an innocent Eden before, or a menacing environment after, the Fall, while subtle lighting makes it either interior or exterior locations.

Under Kenny Ireland’s sure guidance, this stylish production is a venture in what was once called ‘total theatre,’ where dialogue, song, dance and imaginative lighting effects are coordinated into the narrative, most spectacularly in the central, decisive hunting scene. The gentle Calum is compelled by the conniving Duror and by her indifferent Ladyship to participate in a deer hunt. At the kill, he lunges on to the dying animal to offer comfort, but is pushed aside by Duror who cuts the animal’s throat, in prey to some wild frenzy which leads him to imagine the deer is his ailing wife. The scene employs the techniques of ballet, with the deer played by the elegant, alluring dancer Maxine Hamilton, whose steps beautify the chase and whose fall has poignant grace.

The final tragic climax is a consequence of the growing hatred of the clearly deranged Duror, all rationality and humanity gone. Jenkins seems to allow that the tragedy leads to a conversion in Lady Runcie-Campbell, but Arnott’s ending is more pitiless, making it clear in an epilogue that she has learned nothing and self-servingly blames the war for the private disaster on her estate. Perhaps that is the nature of modern tragedy, where catharsis is impossible. This production justifies, if justification is required, the value of adaptation.


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The Outsider

When did authors become so boring? That question zipped through my head several times in August while I read reports of the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference. This parliament of penmen was convened to settle the Big Questions facing literature in the digital era. The excuse was that 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the original EIWC, the forerunner of the modern Edinburgh International Book Festival, in the way that the Beatles were the forerunners of Oasis or that Jane Austen is said to have inspired today’s plague of chick-lit. A fair amount of fantasising went on beforehand, with hacks speculating about re-enactments of the original EIWC’s famed ruckus – MacDiarmid ragging on Trocchi and so on – and the delegates perhaps hoping to boost their profile in the way Burroughs was said to have, only with homosexuality and heroin replaced by the hot-button issues of Twitter and Kindles.

Possibly you had to be there; the accounts of the keynote speeches and consequent debates did not inspire. Who would have thought that, given the chance to deliver one of these speeches, the alpha-dog of anti-establishment literature Irvine Welsh would use his time to whine about how terribly unfair the Man Booker Prize is? China Melville used his slot in the pulpit to suggest that in the future readers will ‘remix’ novels, his own ideas seemingly partly ‘remixing’ arguments floated by David Shields in Reality Hunger. Another debate fretted over Fifty Shades of Grey, which one delegate went so far as to suggest was ‘dangerous’. Really? Might I suggest the only danger Fifty Shades

As the EIWC progressed, one began to suspect the delegates couldn’t solve the problems facing literature because they are part of the problem themselves. Answer the Big Questions? They couldn’t even settle on topics worthy of debate. Unlike the original conference, nothing was at stake. The delegates all largely agreed on the subjects – gender, sexuality, politics, class – that set the original boiling. Hence the rather desperate search for conference debate-fodder in digital publishing and literary prizes. The closest contemporary literature has to a MacDiarmid figure, James Kelman, returned his invite because of the British Council’s involvement in the EIWC 2012. There were other significant absences. As one of the delegates, Jackie Kay, asked, where were the poets and memoirists? The guest-list was largely comprised of novelists, this at a time when the energy in Scottish letters is not with them but its much-garlanded poets. One might also have asked, seeing as this was touted as a writers’ conference, where were the playwrights, the biographers, the essayists? Moreover – and this is a question one can also address to the entire contemporary field of literature – where are the weirdos, the obsessives, the barking?

‘True literature can exist only where it is created not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.’ This quote, from Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, is deployed as an epigraph by Allan Cameron in his new collection of short stories, On the Heroism of Mortals. It’s published by Vagabond Voices, whose proprietor and creative director is – Allan Cameron. It’s not vanity publishing though, not entirely, as Cameron was previously published by Luath, and since initiating Vagabond Voices, he has published Italian fiction (he is also a translator) and novellas by Allan Massie, which larger publishers were too cock-eyed to put out.

It is just as well Vagabond Voices is a small outfit unable to afford a marketing department as Cameron’s output would probably have driven its staff to commit hari-kiri en masse. It sometimes seems as if he is on a one-man mission to write a book in each of the genres or styles we can without difficulty label ‘hard sells’. The Berlusconi Bonus is a futuristic spoof of neo-con thinking. In Praise of the Garrulous is a study of ‘the ecology of language’. Presbyopia is a poetry collection: prefaced by a 30-page artistic and political manifesto, it concludes with a selection of poems written in Italian. Sales of short story collections are weedier even than slim volumes of verse, and in Cam-eron’s first round-up of tales, Can the Gods Cry?, he kicks off with ‘The Narrative Voice, Litter, Dog Turds and Sundry Other Things Most Base and Foul’, whose protagonist is indeed ‘the narrative voice’ made incarnate. If that title sounds whimsical, On the Heroism of Mortals’s is less reminiscent of a short story collection than it is an earnest philosophical treatise published by a university press. ‘Brand Cameron’ is almost impossible to define. The image of despairing marketeers developing aneurysms trying to figure out to sell his books is not an unwelcome one but the fact remains only the most thrawn writer wants to throw off even the possibility of a readership.

Cameron’s writing eschews the autobiographical. Presbyopia’s manifesto declares the advent of a new, or, rather, resurgent, literary movement based on ophthalmological terms. Presbyopia ‘makes it difficult to focus on what is close to our “self”, but retaining clarity for distant objects.’ He contrasts it with myopia, recasting both as spiritual and writerly conditions. ‘The long season of the myopic started with the Romantics.’ It’s not that he thinks the Romantics are without worth – although he bravely dismisses Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ for lacking depth – just that their focus on the individual’s rhapsodic experience of the natural world has in the modern era dwindled to apolitical solipsism and that it’s time now for writing that is outward-looking, engagé. It would be churlish to disagree. I haven’t read any good poems about the credit crunch; I haven’t read any poems at all on that subject, barring a few banker-bashing lines in a poem otherwise dedicated to the Olympics by Carol Ann Duffy.

Cameron’s poetic credo carries over into his fiction, except in one crucial regard. His short stories are almost entirely parables about outsiders, and if Scottish literature has a true outsider, it is not Irvine Welsh: it’s Allan Cameron. Whether by choice or inability, he not only can’t write the sort of stories that critics hail as intriguing, wonderful, beautifully written, etc, he often takes the trouble almost to taunt the reader that he can’t deliver what he or she might want:

Why don’t I describe an exotic murder in great detail and lead you through the rational process that uncovers the perpetrator? All would be unravelled and reassuring. Why don’t I tell you of strange people only motivated by power, sex and money? Real people are so much more unreasonable, and we can have little time for them. Surely I could hold you with a simple story of revenge in which horrible acts justify so many others? Forgiveness is out of season.

This refusal to bow to the demands of the market is rather heroic and – a word Cam-eron would hate? – romantic, especially for a writer who is a publisher too.

One must admit, however, that the ‘pres-byopic’ school of short stories is a flawed one, starting with the observation these are stories not merely without plots but also lacking characters, at least in the generally recognised sense. What predominates is voice. Overwhelming voice, one that doesn’t seem significantly different in idiolect or tone from Cameron’s non-fictional judgments in Presbyopia and In Search of the Garrulous. His creations don’t chat so much as gift us judgements:

There is a reason why they look askance at us. Because they, like you, think that ideal love is a constant, but no such love exists. Love lives in the moment, and if it is rekindled, it can survive into the following moment and eventually into weeks, months and years.

This is closer to the ‘Thought for the Day’ than anything you’d hear down the bus stop. And there is indeed, to add to the other items on the list of unfashionable elements present in Cameron’s work, a lingering spirituality, a faith that the something soulful and significant is present in the everyday, in the ordinary ‘heroism of mortals’ he writes of. On occasion this takes the form of a scepticism about science’s claim to be able to quantify and explain all experience. Like the philosopher John Gray, he is dubious about ‘progress’, political, economic, and scientific. One of his poems is titled ‘Lines scribbled on hearing on the radio a clever “neuro-economist” has proven that GDP always makes us happy’. Similarly, his story ‘The Selfish Geneticist’ takes to task a Richard Dawkins-esque character and his militant materialism.

In that last sentence, one can see another area where Cameron transgresses against current orthodoxies. He tells, doesn’t show. We’re rarely allowed to meet and understand characters on their or our own terms, only Cameron’s. He traffics not in flesh-and-blood, but emblems.

Possibly Cameron believes the elements of well-made fiction are irrelevant, bourgeois. He has ideas he wants to communicate! He doesn’t have time, the stories argue, for the frilling of plot, character, and dialogue that the mainstream, lockstepped on what constitutes literary good taste, insists upon as entry to their party. There is a counter-argument, and that is that Cam-eron’s stories are little more than show trials, where the ideas he disapproves of are convicted without a fair hearing.

Earlier, while enumerating the number and diversity of Cameron’s books, I suggested this didn’t make for brand coherence. Need it be said, that isn’t a bad thing. And there is in fact a unity of thought that underlies his work just as there is to the intellectual company he keeps. Who else would on the one hand praise Tom Leonard as ‘the quintessential presbyopic poet’ while on the other publishing Allan Massie, Scotland’s sole writer of substance whose sympathies lie on the centre-right? On the surface, both men would seem opposed, Scottish writing’s North and South Pole. Not so. All three men are closer to Zamyatin’s ideal of a literature made by ‘dreamers, rebels and sceptics’ than many of their peers, and, not coincidentally, they are not the sort to be asked to nor to want to participate in a talking-shop like the EIWC. Perhaps it’s a sign of debauched critical faculties, but increasingly I find I prefer wayward, not entirely successful experiments to yet another workshopped, overly-polished production rolling of the creative-writing conveyor belt. That’s why I shall look out for Cameron’s next book, whatever the hell it ends up being.

Allan Cameron

VAGABOND VOICES, PP192, £8.95, ISBN: 978-1908251084

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What’s The Score?

The friendly lady at Glasgow’s Waterstone’s store was intrigued as I purchased a copy of what will probably be the biggest-selling sports book in Scotland this year.

‘Oh, we’ve only just decided to sell that book,’ she said, conspiratorially. ‘Was there a problem with it,’ I asked her. This was a little bit disingenuous of me, as I knew that there had been plans to serialise the same book in the Scottish edition of the Sun the previous week before the newspaper’s editor abruptly pulled out of the agreement because he’d recently discovered that the author ‘had been tainted with the sickening brush of sectarianism’. That the paper’s switchboard and assorted on-line facilities had encountered a meltdown through the unprecedented volume of adverse responses to the proposed serialisation may also have played a part in the editor’s sudden volte-face. Subsequently, the book’s author has been threatened, the publisher has had his home address revealed on the internet, and even the journalist employed to edit it for serialisation has been subjected to on-line abuse. And so, before attempting to examine the book’s merits, some context is required. This is especially so for those who may be uninitiated in the tastier elements of the religious, political, social and cultural tribalism that has characterised the rivalry between Glasgow’s two biggest football clubs, Celtic and Rangers.

There is little that is not extraordinary about Downfall: How Rangers FC Self Destructed. It charts the gestation and birth of the most momentous story in the history of Scottish sport. A more accurate, but much more prosaic, sub-title might have been: how was one of the richest and most powerful institutions in Scottish society brought to its knees and destroyed while the rest of us were looking the other way? There is little too that is ordinary about the book’s author, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain, a Glaswegian of Irish descent who has chosen to live in Donegal for the best part of the last 20 years and who, along the way, elected to use the Irish Gaelic version of his surname. Mac Giolla Bhain is a prolific and respected freelance journalist and author in Ireland and there are some who feel that his chosen surname is also extraordinary.  Three years ago Mac Giolla Bhain began to post blogs about the approaching perfect financial storm that was about to hit Rangers and which would eventually engulf it within two years. If Mac Giolla Bhain had been employed as a staffer on any of Scotland’s dozen or so national newspaper titles he would be a certainty to be crowned sportswriter of the year, news reporter of the year and journalist of the year for his work on the Rangers story. Yet not even the merest hint of his name will be breathed at the annual industry awards bash early next year. The reasons why not are not dissimilar to those that have prevented any review of Downfall yet having appeared in any Scottish newspaper at the time of writing. There are some valid reasons for this and some that are less palatable.

Even the monks in the Cistercian community at Haddington must know by now what has befallen Rangers. Like the rest of us, they may even have been moved to speculate why. What remains of the old Rangers is currently in the process of being liquidated after collapsing beneath a debt burden that would have sunk a few African republics. The entity that has risen from the ashes of Rangers (1872-2012) has been permitted to start again in the fourth tier of Scottish football. There they have become a travelling theatre troupe playing to full houses in Elgin, Peterhead, Berwick and Forres. Any time soon Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will rule on whether the old company is liable for almost £100 million in unpaid taxes and national insurance contributions. The relationship between old Rangers and new Rangers is being debated by an independent tribunal of three high court judges and this may yet determine if they will be stripped of prizes won during the period when they were allegedly depriving the exchequer of its dues.

Several reasons have been advanced to justify the Scottish media’s antipathy towards Mac Giolla Bhain. The three principal ones are these: that he is an obsessive with anti Rangers’ agenda; that he has an agenda against the mainstream media in Scotland; that his book doesn’t really deserve to be reviewed because it’s not really a book. The last of these deserves to be dealt with first. Downfall is largely a collection of the author’s blogs during the three-year period up to August this year. These fall into two main categories; those in which he explains Rangers’ increasing financial problems and predicts the Armageddon which will eventually finish them; and those in which he excoriates Scotland’s seemingly complacent and pliant mainstream media for choosing to ignore the gathering storm until it broke upon them and they simply had no choice but to cover it.

Thus far in my professional career I have managed to resist the temptation to blog or take to Twitter. Hardly a day passes, it seems, when someone isn’t being abused by on-line trolls or being vilified for transmitting unsavoury and unkempt sentiments using these mediums. It’s not that I’m adopting a supercilious attitude to these; it’s simply that we seem to have become a nation of very fragile and sensitive people and I would soon be in the stocks for saying the wrong thing, and most often at an hour when drink will doubtless have been taken. There can be no doubt though, that Mac Giolla Bhain’s blogs contain journalism of a very high standard. He has obviously cultivated an assortment of contacts well-placed within the banking industry, HMRC, Rangers,  Strathclyde police and the Scottish Football Association, all of which he deploys artfully. Thus he revealed a number of genuine exclusive stories about the Rangers story with which any Scottish editor would have been proud to put in his paper. Yet nor can there be any doubt that the author harbours a deep-rooted and bitter dislike of Rangers. We can only guess at the source of these grievances. As to the charge that he is an obsessive, well, aren’t all good journalists supposed to be obsessive, dysfunctional and unfit to be permitted into polite society?

Here, I am obliged to mention that Mac Giolla BHain and I have history. Last year he took exception to a column I had written for the Observer in which I expressed frustration at the tendency of some Catholics in Scotland to wallow in victimhood and who seek constantly to portray Scot-land as still being essentially anti-Catholic in nature. Mac Giolla Bhain immediately took to the on-line version of the Guardian effectively to dismiss me as ‘an uncle Tim’ type of character who was blind to the creeping anti-Catholicism in our midst. It was a reasonably-argued piece but I still hold to my theory and simply fail to recognise the Scotland that the author and others, such as the composer James MacMillan, describe. If Scotland is indeed anti-Catholic then it chooses to manifest it in curious ways; what with its Catholic schools, and Catholic political leaders; not to mention two well-received papal visits.

Mac Giolla Bhain’s animosity towards Rangers is palpable but he reserves most of his venom for the nation’s mainstream media. This is his book’s greatest strength and its most obvious flaw. There is no doubt that the sports desks on each of Scotland’s main daily newspapers were slow in reacting to the Rangers story, which began to unfold in 2011 at a tribunal sitting in Edinburgh where the extent of the club’s financial distress was daily being revealed by HMRC. Mac Giolla Bhain though, is on shakier ground when he attributes this to a series of Faustian pacts that various sports editors and football writers made with Sir David Murray, whom he accuses of suborning the integrity of Scottish football with his wealth and access. If Sir David did use his influence and charisma to induce some journalists to overlook bad news about his club and spin straw into gold then he was only doing what Celtic’s great manager Jock Stein did to great effect in the 1960s and 1970s. Having said that, there are a handful of football writers who, having been exposed for swallowing the Rangers PR machine’s empty blandishments, are still failing to heed the lessons of their original failures. They must know that Rangers’ former and current owners have spent hundreds of thousands of their supporters’ cash on PR firms. The very least some of these reporters could do is make them work a bit harder for such vast sums.

When I was sports editor in chief of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday I was fortunate indeed to have writers of high calibre working alongside me. We were all influenced by men such as Hugh McIlvanney, John Rafferty and Ian Archer and we sought to bring intelligence, drama and humour into the sports pages. There had to be risk-taking too and ultimately a desire to ensure that the quality of the writing on the back pages was at least the equal of anything in the news, politics and features pages. Ultimately, though, our main priority was to sell newspapers and to out-manoeuvre the opposition titles by all legal means possible. If any of those writers had refused loftily to investigate Sir David Murray and a story had thus gone begging to the opposition then my editor would have wanted to know why. Mac Giolla Bhain’s collection of blogs and his analysis of the catastrophe that brought down Rangers ought to be required reading for the sportswriting community. Their coverage of the Rangers story was not their finest hour and, as the story still has lots of life in it there is yet time for them to provide the rigorous analysis and investigative digging that has been largely missing in the last two years. But before the so-called ‘citizen journalists’ are consumed by their own self-importance they must know that few of them will ever be constrained by the laws of defamation and the scrutiny of the Press Complaints Commission. That is not to say that blogs are somehow immune from legal action; simply that they have too few readers for it to matter. Corroboration is often a choice and not a necessity and they rarely rely on their online output to pay the bills. If such luxuries were available to the mainstream media then popes, princes, presidents and potentates would fall daily.

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Aye But…

Over the last 20 years.’ says Stephen Maxwell in his introduction to Arguing for Independence, ‘the number of books dedicated to elaborating a case for Scottish independence can be counted on the fingers of two hands.’  He is right.  The reluctance of the national movement in Scotland to produce a literature to match its aspirations is a problem. In part, the blame lies with publishers who have been neither  assiduous nor enthusiastic about developing a list that some fear would be seen as ‘too political’.  Luath Press therefore deserves much praise for having been the exception to that rule, with almost half of the  ‘fingers of two hands’  volumes appearing under its imprint including this new  one which appears some five months after Maxwell’s untimely death.

But authors are also guilty.   Alasdair Gray and James Robertson are noble exceptions  but in both fiction and non-fiction our writers have too often shied away from a professional or creative  involvement in the great choice before us, even if they been  personally committed to change.  Perhaps patriotism, like nationalism, became difficult to explain for a while.  Or perhaps the role of a leader of society is not one to which many of our writers aspire. Whatever the reason the novelist Robin Jenkins  had a point when, in the introduction to his second book of short stories, Lunderston Tales, written around the time of the first failed devolution referendum,  he observed (though claiming to quote another writer), ‘a country that is too supine to take itself seriously, does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country.’

Politicians  must also  consider their responsibility.  Two members of the current cabinet have written books about the need for change  but there is plenty of space for others, particularly coming from a Green, Socialist or even Tory perspective.  As for the unionist cause, it has been positively Trap-pist in its literary approach.

The paucity of books that drives the constitutional debate can sometimes lead to a over-reaction to them. Maxwell’s is a volume of great utility and importance but it may be slightly over stating the case to say  that it  has lifted ‘the entire debate on Scottish independence to a new intellectual level’ as is done by  Owen Dudley Edwards in his otherwise admirable preface.  Indeed I think Maxwell himself would have found that  proposition questionable as there exists a range of  high quality thinking and analysis, much of which he quotes.  There has just not been enough of it. Edwards is, however, inspired and right to claim that independence means ‘telling the truth to ourselves, about ourselves’ and both in style and substance this book succeeds admirably in  that task.

Maxwell makes six ‘cases’ for independence – democratic, economic, social, international, cultural and environmental – within each of which arguments are put and evidence is examined.  No doubt he also discussed the political way to approach the issues with his protege, Jim Eadie, the MSP for Edinburgh South. That recent  experience at the hustings may also have been one of the influences which made him go further than merely  arguing from evidence, introducing to the mix what he calls ‘risks and wicked issues’.   Whatever the cause, this polemical addition has  helped produce a truly original and very successful  approach.

The environmental case is the least substantial but, as Maxwell admits, this may well be because too little work has been done on it to date. His approach to the cultural case is more wide ranging but it is in his consideration of the democratic, social and economic cases that he is most successful. Independence is not just about changing of the colour of the post boxes, as many in Ireland  used to observe.  The  demand for it  arises not only from dissatisfaction  with what is, but must also be driven by a thirst for what could, and should, be.  Still being citizens of one of the most  centralised states in Europe should motivate us to move forward not least because we have the opportunity to imagine a different type if country with a modern constitution, an effective bill of rights and a fully accountable and participatory parliament.  Indeed the very process of drawing up that constitution could engage and energise even those presently distant from politics as recent Icelandic experience has shown.

Much of First Minister’s Questions during the period when the Iain Gray was Labour leader was spent by him talking down countries most directly comparable to Scotland (particularly those of Northern Europe)  and ridiculing the desire of  the SNP to use their experience as an exemplar of positive change. Maxwell has refused to be diverted by such insular tactics and updates the story to show that although Iceland, for example, did suffer greatly as a result of banking collapse its approach to the problem – taking advantage of a small country’s flexibility and homogeneity – has led to a much more rapid recovery than that experienced in the UK and  one that has been fairer to all sections of society.

The concept of fairness runs through Arguing for Independence. Jim Sillars was the first to point out that whilst nationalists needed to make their case there was an equal responsibility on unionists to explain what was beneficial about remaining where we are.  Like most people on the left,  Max-well is in no doubt that the UK is a deeply divided country and that Scotland, proud as it is of what he calls our ‘moral autonomy’, needs to assert itself and make such a claim real. Will Self, in a lecture in Edinburgh at the end of September, made exactly that point too, though in claiming to be in  favour of independence he was also painstaking  in his  refusal to consider himself a  ‘nationalist’.    Maxwell was, however, proud to call himself a nationalist and demonstrated that the word can and should be a badge of honour, indicating a wide world view and a generous range of social concerns.

The section headed ‘Aye but …’ tackles  EastEnders and the Euro, passports and pensions, shared history and size, hubris and the health service to give short but pithy answers to the points which do  matter to individuals but which are also often seized on by those opposed to change as being definitive reasons to remain fearful.   They are, in this form, a campaigner’s dream.  There are many other  intriguing insights in the book, and many presentations of material which has been gathered together for the first time in a comprehensive manner.   As the debate on independence develops over the next two years we must move on from the ‘how’ in which we are presently mired to the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. The how is, in the end, not difficult.  Countries have a right to make decisions about self-determination and international law as well as practical politics has guided scores of them along that path during the twenty-first century.  As a mature democracy, Scotland is better resourced and better prepared for the journey than almost any other has been or could be. The ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are more important.   Why does the journey need to be taken now, and what are the things that will change (and in  what way) which will make the achievement worthwhile?  The White Paper that concluded the National Conversation in 2009 laid out the core matters that needed resolution and suggested how each could be dealt with.  A minority government, though, could not successfully bring forward a referendum. Now there is a majority government it can  step by step lay out for the Scottish people the key determinants for their choice.

Stephen Maxwell would have been a  vital part of that democratic process and his loss will be keenly felt. He had guided, persuaded and sometimes chided the SNP for the best part of 40 years and his devotion to a left of centre independent vision of a better world and a better country helped to change that party and his country.  His parting shot will make a huge contribution to the end game of a constitutional process which started more than a century ago but which has accelerated greatly over the past two decades.


Stephen Maxwell

LUATH PRESS, PP 181, £9.99,  ISBN 978-1908373-3-35

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Crimes Against Fiction

Why do people read detective stories?’ asked Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker as the Second World War was beginning to show signs of petering out. Wilson, a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald who counted among his correspondents Vladimir Nabokov and John Dos Passos, was arguably the pre-eminent American critic of his age. What is beyond doubt is that he was a hard man to please, resisting, for example, the charms of  Joyce and Proust and Virginia Woolf.

In his New Yorker essay Wilson disclosed that he himself was not a reader of detective fiction, apart, that is, from a few stories by G.K. Chesterton, presumably ones featuring Father Brown, for which he did not ‘much care’, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, to which he gave his seal of approval because of their ‘wit and a fairytale poetry of hansom cabs, gloomy London lodgings and lonely country estates….’ It was about time, Wilson reluctantly reckoned, to see what all the fuss was about. Almost everybody he knew was reading detective fiction and talked non-stop about it, leaving him out of the conversational  loop. Moreover, ‘serious public figures’, such as Woodrow Wilson and W.B. Yeats were suckers for the stuff.

Wilson was not impressed by what he found. Among the books he read were Rex Stout’s Not Quite Dead Enough, whose hero, Nero Wolfe, he compared unfavourably to the blessed Holmes, Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie, whom he swore never to read again, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which he assumed to be ‘a classic in the field’ because Alexander Woollcott said it was but which he felt was ‘not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.’

Three months later Wilson returned to the subject, in an essay whose title — ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ — is as famous as the novel it impugns. There is no evidence that Wilson had ever read Christie’s novel. Indeed there is little evidence that he read much detective fiction at all. What made him write again about it was the response he got to ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’, which was indignant. This time he tackled Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (‘one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field’), Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death (‘unappetizing sawdust’) and John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court, which he rather enjoyed.

‘My experience,’ reflected Wilson, ‘with this second batch of novels has, therefore, been even more disillusioning than my experience with the first, and my final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles. This conclusion is borne out by the violence of the letters I have been receiving. Detective-story readers feel guilty, they are habitually on the defensive, and their talk about “well-written” mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can produce for a drink.’

The reaction which Wilson, an alcoholic, got to his pieces would, one assumes, be little different today. Discussing detective fiction with its devotees and creators is rather like talking about religion to fundamentalists: nothing you can say will convince them that the books they read are other than wonderful, that it is beyond  comprehension that such novels never feature when prizes are being handed out. Bestsellerdom, it seems, is not enough for those who write what must now be labelled ‘crime fiction’; they want critical recognition and association with writers whose sales are in inverse proportion to their reputations.

Having said all of which, the term ‘crime novel’ is relatively recent. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing dates its use from 1970, noting that it ‘marks out important areas of differentiation, particularly between a story concerned primarily with discovering the identity of a criminal and one dealing chiefly with criminal psychology and the reason for the crime, The difference is between the whodunit and the whydunit. At the heart of the detective story is a puzzle, while the core of the crime novel is a criminal’s character.’ Writers such as those lanced by Edmund Wilson fell generally into the former category. The appeal for many readers was to unmask a murderer before Hercule  Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or Hammett’s Sam Spade did so. Their heyday was that of the intelligent amateur detective who, it seemed, had carte blanche to interfere wherever his fancy took him. In America, where class was less of an issue, cases were pursued by private eyes, hired by clients to investigate mysterious disappearances, cheating spouses and suspicious individuals.

This so-called ‘Golden Age’ came to an end when it became clear how preposterous it was for amateurs to be involved in the solution of crimes in the latter part of the twentieth century. The current trend, both here and in America, is for policemen to take the leading role in conducting enquiries, whether it is PD James’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Endeavour Morse. It is, of course, axiomatic that these characters have traits which distinguish them and make them more interesting than they might otherwise be. Thus Morse loves Rigoletto and real ale while Dalgliesh writes poetry. Their Scottish counterpart is William McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw who first appeared in print in 1977. Laidlaw is ‘potentially a violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding’. He also reads Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno. Glasgow is Laidlaw’s bailiwick and he moves around it like Marlowe did Los Angeles, drinking and quipping and cleaning up the detritus left by society’s dregs.

Laidlaw, it’s routinely suggested, was the prototype of Taggart but the latter is a pallid imitation of the former. John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s detective, also owes a debt to Laidlaw, though he prefers rock music to twentieth-century philosophy, which may account for the woodenness of his wit. A few years ago Rankin said that it was perhaps time Rebus retired which in turn resulted in a newspaper articles whose authors seemed to believe that he was a real person rather than a fictional character who can be resurrected as and when his creator pleases. In Standing In Another Man’s Grave, Rebus, now in semi-retirement, is reluctantly allowed by his superiors to investigate the disappearance of several young women, the key to which is the A9, up and down which Rebus yo-yos like a white van man who can bore for Britain on the subject of roads. The plot is neither taut nor tantalising and stretches in and out like elastic. Siobhan Clarke, who is still gainfully employed as a cop, is Rebus’s female foil, feeding him lines, as Ernie Wise once did Eric Morecambe, as they make their way from A to B:

‘“You ever played golf?” Clarke asked from the Saab’s passenger seat.

“Christ, no.”

“You must have tried.” “What? Because I’m Scottish?”

“I bet you have, though.”

Rebus thought back. “When I was a kid,”

he conceded. “Couldn’t get the hang of it.”

“It’s an odd little country, this, isn’t it?” Clarke was staring out of the window.

“Not so much of the ‘little’.”

“Don’t get all prickly. I just mean it’s hard

to fathom sometimes. I’ve lived here most of my life and I still don’t understand the place.”

“What’s to understand?”


Quite what that dialogue is intend to convey other than slow down the ‘action’ is hard to tell. What is clear, though, is that whereas in the past freelance, amateur detectives were under no obligation to follow procedure, their 21st century counterparts are suffocated by it. Some writers, such as Denise Mina, are more nimble than others are at negotiating it and explaining it to readers who don’t have degrees in Scots law or forensic science. Mina’s Gods and Beasts  is set in Glasgow which may have cast off its No Mean City straitjacket but which, for crime writers at least, remains a place where you take your life in your hands queuing for a stamp in the local post office. One of her characters is a politician, Kenny, who in is encouraged by his wife, Annie, to sue for libel after being accused by a newspaper of having an affair. Arriving home, Kenny finds Annie in the loo, with the door open and her skirt around her waist:

‘He looked down at her. She wasn’t who she used to be. And it wasn’t all new either, these were massive flaws that she had hidden from him, her sense of entitlement, her craven need for money, her burgeoning bourgeois pride.’

From the reader’s point of view it’s patent that crime fiction makes few intellectual demands. You know who thinks what about whom and no stray thought is left unuttered. Moreover, the rules of the genre ensure that no last minute surprises can be sprung. Whoever did what to whom is always well signalled and the cliches come thick and fast and without embarrassment, as in Gillian Galbraith’s The Road to Hell. This is the fifth novel featuring DS Alice Rice who has been dubbed ‘the new Rebus’, as singer-songwriters were once said to be ‘the new Dylan’. Formerly an advocate, Galbraith cannot be faulted on her fluency in legalese and she does not stint when relaying the details of a post mortem. Her well-padded plot features a kirk minister who, until he is found dead and naked in Dean Gardens had harboured hopes of becoming Moderator. ‘Someone’s granddad,’ thinks a detective constable, ‘was splayed out on the ground in front of her, face down, in the buff, subject to the scrutiny of all and with a strange, greenish, leopard-spotted slug lodged between two of his toes’. Someone’s granddad? How could she tell?

Denise Mina

ORION BOOKS, PP291, £12.99, ISBN: 9781409140689

Ian Rankin

ORION BOOKS, PP458, £18.99, 9781409144717

Gillian Galbraith

POLYGON, PP289, £14.99, ISBN: 9781846972256

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SRB Diary: Sandy and Obama: Diary of a Student of the Haar

The timing was almost too auspicious. Seven years almost to the day and I was on a plane back from Edinburgh to Mississippi, where a hurricane was bearing down on my hometown and my family. In 2005, the storm was named Katrina, and in the days that it had formed in the Atlantic and passed through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall outside New Orleans on August 29, I had been finishing my master’s thesis at the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, the storm was named Isaac (Hebrew for ‘he will laugh’), and in the days that it moved through the Gulf, making landfall on the exact same day seven years later, I was no longer studying at the university. I had a job there. Something had happened in the meantime, but in all honesty, it’s hard to remember what.

Thankfully, the damage wasn’t as bad as we had feared. Rather than obliterate the coast like its predecessor (described in these pages in May 2006), Isaac preferred to crawl inch by inch, sometimes as slow as a few miles per hour across the land -slow enough that, had it been necessary, we literally could have outrun it. This is not to say we emerged unscathed: at my parents’ house we had trees down during and after the storm, and parts of New Orleans were without power for over a week. Our family has a small fishing camp not far away, a five-room cabin on a bluff overlooking a tiny bayou of the Pascagoula River, the river that defines the southeastern waterways of the state. Far enough inland as the crow flies to be freshwater, but close enough to the Gulf that the brackish line is only about fifteen minutes by boat, it sits deep within a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest nestled against the wetlands where cypress, tupelo, and spartina grass define the natural landscape. When Katrina hit, the forest was torn to shreds, with much of our fallen stock today dating to those winds. During Isaac, only a few young oaks came down, and the top half of a southern pine snag was stripped as clean as a freshly-shaven cheek.

The real impact lay in the river. Forests love storms; not only do they clean out dead branches and detritus, but they topple the weak and standing dead individuals, creating new patches of light in the sub-canopy and forest floor and stimulating new growth—not unlike a soapstone scrubbing open your pores. (There’s a reason it’s called exfoliation of the skin.) But the river: pushed up half a dozen feet by the surge incoming from the Gulf, it had brought a waterline of debris up onto the slope of our yard, the planks of our wooden walkway down there covered left in a slick grey mud of silt and grease and muck. The river had risen once, but because the water had entered the system from the south, against its natural flow, all the water that had been pushed upstream had come right back down, bringing with it a second wave of damage. You only learn to expect this with experience—wisdom sits in places, Keith Basso once observed—but whether you’ve known it for years or are witnessing it for the first time, it’s still going to happen regardless. Water cares little for what we think of it; at that scale, at hundreds of millions of gallons, we are but motes in its ever-moving eye.

We can, however, guess at its intentions; aided by models and satellites, we can now predict roughly where it will go. Isaac came at the literal peak of the season, the point where storms are almost expected, but who then could have predicted that, six weeks after he laughed, another system would have organised in the Atlantic so late in the season and have the national impact that it did? As I write this, the confetti is still falling from the ceiling in McCormick Place, and Republicans are alternately blaming themselves, their leadership, the electorate, the media, Frosty the Snowman, and most curiously of all, a storm named Sandy for the outcome. (One confession: despite all my sympathy to those who have been affected, it’s hard, now, having overheard a slip of the tongue by a friend here in Edinburgh, to call it anything but Hurricane Shandy – as though millions of gallons of beer and lemonade mixed had rained down upon the Northeast.)

It’s difficult to say how much the storm had an impact in the race. Pundits love to suggest that President Obama’s ‘looking presidential’ in the aftermath had some bearing on voters’ decisions in the days leading up to the election (despite it being increasingly unlikely nowadays that presidents ever consciously appear the opposite), and exit polling data suggested that some voters may well have thought about the need for leadership in times of crisis when they cast their ballot – but with so many other issues on the table, it’s difficult to swallow the idea that they were electing someone on the grounds that they will be able to manage national disasters, even those which haven’t happened yet. Voters will reward leadership in office, but only if they have time to see its effects, and certainly not on such a short-term basis. Rather, it’s more likely that the president’s handling of the disaster – praised by the Republican governor of New Jersey – served as a sluice to retain any votes that would have left had he in any way botched it. Crisis management is good politics, but it’s not a campaign plank: if you’re going to sail, you build your boat out of different kinds of wood.

Nevertheless, the timing did matter. The storm focused our attention not just on an area which, by comparison to the Gulf South, has had less exposure in recent years to these kinds of events – run a tracking analysis on the NOAA hurricane database and you’ll see, storms in the past thirty years have flocked to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean like starlings to a telephone pole – and, equally, it called attention to the fact that we are all, even in unlikely places, vulnerable to the waters that are still deciding in the era of climatic change which ways they ultimately want to go. Consider the aerial photographs of the post-Sandy Atlantic shore taken by the National Geodetic Survey, which show images of entire coastal communities swept away or covered in debris from the beach, as though a giant hand had raked acres of sand clear across the rooftops. Houses which had lain in neat, clean rows as though snapped into place like Legos now sit at strange, janky angles to each other, slid off their foundations and jostled about in the box. One particularly chilling photograph shows the town of Montoloking cleaved in half by a new river, a channel formed by both the onslaught of the water and, as in Pascagoula, its retreat. Like a serrated knife on the body of the land, water cuts just as much coming back out as going in.

The cleanup from Isaac only took a few weeks, but the cleanup from Sandy will take months – in some cases, for the tens of thousands of new homeless, particularly those who lived in public housing, it could take even longer. Sound familiar? Already friends and family in the Gulf are mobilising to take strangers and relations in, wishing for the first time in years that the South were a little closer to the North, just so they could jump in their trucks and help – in part, to return the past favour. After Katrina, while we rode around on ATVs and cut the fallen trees out of the streets, day after day we passed fleets of electricians and landscapers down from Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, a debt of time and treasure we well remember.

But the immediate relief efforts are only part of the response, and the real challenge over the coming year will be to connect the dots between this storm and the impacts not just that it has brought about, but those which have brought it about as well. We are entering an age in which atmospheric and climatic events no longer operate in their expected context, and if that is not an indication that something is wrong, then our definition of what is right and wrong is so fundamentally off as to be unusable. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg made the point well enough in his post-Sandy endorsement of Obama, but politicians across America – not just in those states that were already leaning a certain way – are going to have to endorse the idea that a new normal is headed towards us as fast as one of those storms, and that this is what it looks like.

It might be a while before my neighbours in the Pascagoula river basin will buy that argument. Despite my general agreement with Brian Morton in the last SRB that most folks these days are more comfortable with talk of flood plains and water tables than they used to be, most folks at home are more comfortable still with the notion that Barack Hussein Obama (and by extension all liberals) is a African Indonesian Communist Muslim Buddhist agent of Satan whose goal is to run this country into the ground, despite the fact that it is neither legally nor logically possible to be all of those things at once. But these people are good people, and they will come over three times a day to check on you after a major storm, bringing water and fuel and a spare generator if you need it. This is not just a disaster habit: in peacetime, too, should they have an extra few catfish from the catch, or more ears of corn from the crop than they can eat or freeze, you will almost certainly receive the benefit of their bounty. I’m just concerned that, in the years to come, they’re going to be buying more generators, and by the time they’ve accepted why, it will be too late.

But. There are the timings we seek to create, and those which create us in our response to them, and like any good hydro-logic or political cycle, the two spin round and round one another before converging, like a Fujiwhara effect, on the work in the world we have to do. For now, as I’m nearing the end of my time here in Edinburgh (studying the history of the haar, a rather more benign atmospheric process), I’m looking forward to returning home in more peaceful times than when I’ve last flown there, and sitting out on that bayou with a rod and a bucket for crabs.

There are a couple different ways to catch them, most involving traps or pots, but my favourite involves tying a chicken leg to a long piece of wire or string and dropping it down in the water. The bayous in Pascagoula can get pretty deep – up to twenty feet, depending – but if you find yourself a good six- or eight-footer then you’re bound to feel the crab come along and tickle the line. Crabs, like politicians and pundits, are greedy little critters; they’re like to keep holding onto that line even as you pull it up and out of the water, holding on to the wire with one claw while picking at the chicken with the other. Once you’ve got them right at the surface of the water, you have to scoop them up in the net before they realise their situation and let go. You do have to be careful, though: there are rules on how many you’re allowed, and the state fisheries marshals will seize you and make you dump your haul. The trick is to catch as many as you can, drop them in the bucket, and race back towards home as quickly as possible to cook them up.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

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Hello There Vagina!

As anyone who’s seen that dispiriting film, Hope Springs, will have gathered, the world is full of sexually frustrated women. According to Naomi Wolf, there’s an ‘epidemic’ of female sexual unhappiness in the West. The Victorians were bad enough, dishonouring both male and female sexuality by persuading people that women don’t want or need sex. But things are worse now – porn and its addicts have reduced female pleasure to a caricature of irrelevance, and made female ejaculation the new G-spot! You may have mastered both the vaginal and clitoral orgasm, girls, but if you can’t ejaculate a bit as well, you’re nobody.

A woman’s work is never done.

In her earlier book, The Beauty Myth, Wolf argued that the invention of photography had an adverse effect on women’s self-confidence: just when they were starting to campaign for a little equality, women were bombarded with so many images of themselves they were never the same again. Instead of rising up and demanding their rights, they became slaves to beautifying and corseted themselves into fainting fits and uterine prolapses. Out of this came the beauty ‘myth’, as she rather peculiarly put it, a ‘collective reactionary hallucination resulting in the diet industry, cosmetics industry, cosmetic surgery industry and porn industry’.

Now it’s the vagina that’s under attack, in the latest backlash against feminism: Vagina focuses on the debilitating effect sexual repression has had on female creativity, well-being and power. Despite the availability of vibrators and Chippendales, women aren’t getting what they need. Wolf identifies our culture’s determined disservice to female sexuality, and – rightly, I think – links it to disdain for the environment, and for life itself: ‘five thousand years of shaming [female sexuality], stigmatizing it, controlling it, subduing it, splitting it off from women, from men, compartmental-izing it, insulting it and selling it. Great dislocations and alienations in civilization… have followed…and the results are everywhere around us.’

The fanny, vagina, front bottom, or mapotazi (map of Tasmania) is not often spoken of. It’s such a well-kept secret, most girls don’t even know what they’ve got and think there’s something wrong with them when they take a look. Women can’t think, don’t think, feel forbidden to think about the vagina – this is taking modesty to a severely inhibiting level. Far from being a source of pride and pleasure, the vagina is an embarrassment, an inadequacy and a mystery, a forbidding no-man’s land. Possession of one is widely considered something of a disaster. Proof of this ranges from female infanticide to the recent raping of 400,000 women in Congo, as well as the everyday ridiculing of the vagina that we are all expected to pass off as banter. When working in Hollywood, Roseanne Barr dreaded joining male colleagues at the writers’ house ‘because there would be a “stinky-pussy” joke within three minutes.’ The BBC seems to extend the same warm embrace of institutionalized sexism to its female employees. These are signs of an unfortunate lack of respect – when what vaginas really respond to is veneration.

We would all be a lot happier if we would only learn to love the vagina. To help us in this task, Wolf offers hyperbole, and a lot of cherry-picked statistics and scientific studies. Rats did their bit here – she’s overly enchanted with animal experiments, most of which seem to involve ruining the orgasms of female rats. But there’s also a human pheromone study she cites, in which men had to gather sweat from their armpits during various stages of sexual excitement. Then ‘nineteen women smelled the men’s “aroused” and “unaroused” sweat pads while they themselves underwent brain scans.’ Some party! Wolf enthusiastically offers herself as guinea pig too, basing a good half or so of the book on her own life or, as she cloyingly puts it, her ‘journey’.

The whole enterprise started as the result of having a back problem that was impairing the intensity of her orgasms. In despair, Wolf goofily vowed to write a book about it all if she was ever cured – which she was, so here it is. Her major finding? That all women are ‘wired’ differently, and therefore respond differently to sexual stimuli. (Is this news?) Wolf also ‘discovered’ that the vagina is connected to the brain. From this she deduces that all attacks on the vagina are also attacks on the female psyche. ‘If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina…Rape, properly understood, is more like an injury to the brain than a violent variation on sex.’

Rape has certainly been used by oppressors, colonists, controlling husbands, TV presenters and millions of bog-standard misogynists as a means of deflating and dis-empowering women. Wolf argues that the trauma of rape has lasting physical repercussions: curious problems can show up years later, including dizziness, high blood pressure, and gait and balance irregularities (you can literally push a rape victim over more easily than a woman who’s never been raped). Rape ‘switches off the light’ in women, often permanently – it subdues, silences and restrains them, making it a handy tool in war.

When, instead, we could be gazing, admiring, melting, opening, going into trances and feeling ‘oceanic’! Women are ‘designed to receive pleasure, and experience triggers to orgasm, from skillful caressing and rhythmic pressure…over many, many parts of their bodies. The pornographic model of intercourse…goal oriented…and focused on stimulation of maybe one or two areas of a woman’s body…is just not going to do it for many women, or at least not in a very profound way.’

Maybe there should be a sequel to Hope Springs (Victoria Falls?), in which Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones go see a Tantric specialist, and Jones learns to bring flowers home from work, look deeply into Streep’s eyes, stroke her during arguments, and spend at least fifteen minutes on foreplay.

According to Wolf, most of the names we’ve got for the vagina produce ‘bad stress’ in the female mind, shutting down optimism and imagination. She notes the negativity of Shakespeare’s ‘nothing’, the dismissiveness of gash, slit, snatch and twat, the offensiveness of fish (tuna bap, bearded oyster, hairy fish pie), animal (beaver, pussy, panty hamster), and junk food references (vertical taco, sausage wallet, badly packed kebab). But I don’t think cunt is such a bad word.

As Wolf admits, it has fine origins in ‘ken’, ‘kin’, and ‘cunnilingus’. It’s become an insult simply because most words for the vagina do, in the West. No ‘jade curtains’ here, no ‘golden lotus’ – all we’ve got are Velcro triangles and squish mittens.

There’s stuff of real value in this book, but it’s wedged between idiocies. Wolf resents it when a friend organises a party in her honour, at which he deliberately mocks her new vagina project by serving vulva-shaped pasta he calls ‘cuntini’, with sausages: Wolf felt her own creativity blighted for six months as a result of his tactlessness. But the drama of this noodle episode wilts under its own insignificance. At another point, she’s down in the dumps, in the cabin of a sailboat, silently crying about flippant remarks about rape made on deck. ‘I excused myself to go down into the hold. I lay down on one of the bunks…I took deep breaths…I felt the grief of it.’ Why didn’t she just say something, throw the men overboard, issue a Mayday call?

In a way, women are lying on bunks all over the world, silently crying about sexual harassment. As Frank O’Hara told Lana Turner: get up.

She has no sense of humour. Things that other people might find only slightly irritating or even amusing, are for Wolf tiny emblems of something much bigger and ghastlier, which gives them their weird glimmer of importance. Yes, the cuntini, the rape jokes, Dick Cavett’s rudeness, Har-old Bloom’s candle-lit pawing of her thigh, etc., ARE connected to misogyny in some way. But there are so many worse examples in the world, these forays into Wolf’s past seem absurd. The woman’s just not using her noodle.

Autobiography marred The Beauty Myth, and Misconceptions is heavy with details of Wolf’s two deliveries (one bad, one better). She uses First Person testimony as a way of emphasizing things, tying threads, or moving the argument along. Annoyingly, her only hold on common feeling is through her own experiences, often smugly played out in ‘a little cottage upstate’. It’s padding. There’s far too much about her ailment and op in Vagina, and her ‘journey’. To write, ‘I learned on my journey…’, is both putrid and self-aggrandising – who does she think she is, Moses? Lady Godiva? Maybe if she spent a little less time on the ‘journey’ and a little more time writing it up…

The personal is not always political – sometimes it’s just dull. Do we really need to know Wolf’s romantic status, to understand how orgasms work? It’s like getting trapped in a corner at a cocktail party with the Ancient Mariner. Extract the solipsism, the statistics, the confusions and conflations, the repetitions, the epiphanic boy-oh-boy wonderment, the WOWs, the WHATs and the incredibles – along with all talk of the amygdala or the vagina’s soul and its ‘gorgeous’, transcendental, Goddess Array (a favourite term of Wolf’s) – and Vagina could have been half the length and twice as good. But maybe there’s been enough shaving of vaginas already.

The book is also much less radical than it could be: Wolf has mellowed worryingly since writing The Beauty Myth, and she doesn’t write terrifically well. For someone concerned about the way we’ve all been bullied by Beauty, Wolf’s oddly compliant with that convention of American nonfiction of describing the appearance of everyone you consult: ‘a statuesque woman in her early forties’, ‘a youthful-looking scientist with an energetic demeanor’, ‘a surreally juicy-looking, witty blond woman…her hair curled in wild tendrils…her toes…painted shell pink.’ She even describes Montreal for us, ‘the relaxed and intellectually curious city’. Where’s all the vehemence that formerly carried her prose along, even if never elegantly? And how about those multiple adverbs, often two at a time. Once I found five:

‘The [available] models of female sexuality are simply extremely physically, emotionally, and existentially unsatisfying.’

But it’s when she dwells on oxytocin that I really lose interest. Romantic love, Wolf tells us, has ‘three different chemical components: lust, composed of androgens and estrogens; attraction, driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin (this accounts for mood swings in early courtship); and finally, attachment, made up of oxytocin and vasopressin.’ Okay, so every emotion can be reduced to chemicals – but must it be?


Naomi Wolf

VIRAGO, 400 PP, £12.99, ISBN: 9781844086887

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Going For Broke

It was intended as a memorial to the Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars. But it wasn’t long before the incomplete replica of the Parthenon on Calton Hill was labelled ‘Edinburgh’s disgrace’. This was because the so-called National Monument was left half-finished, with just twelve Doric columns before the money ran out in 1829. However, the ersatz temple doesn’t seem that ignominious any more. Perhaps it is time to transfer the epithet to two Edinburgh-based institutions that are perhaps more deserving of the name – HBOS and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Both were founded nearly one century before the abortive memorialising of the Hanoverians. For most of their existence they were reasonably civilised firms. During the 1980s and 1990s both the Bank of Scotland, headquartered on the Mound, and RBS, headquartered on St Andrew Square, were well-managed, innovative and reputable. After undergoing internal ‘cultural revolutions’, involving job losses, greater use of technology, and the centralisation of decision making and credit processes, both banks were able to successfully outpace their English rivals in terms of profits growth, without losing sight of the interests of customers and staff.

As Ray Perman writes in Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked The Best Bank in Britain, the banks were actually trusted by their customers. When the Bank of Scotland adopted its ‘A Friend for life’ slogan in 1984 Perman claims ‘it was not greeted with cynicism. People believed it meant it, and more importantly, it did.’ But around the turn of the millennium both of Scotland’s two big banks started to lose sight of their raison d’être. To a greater or lesser extent, they broke the cardinal rules of banking that had seen them through the best part of three centuries. Both banks were responding to wider opportunities and threats in banking and the financial markets at the time, together with the onset of an increasingly laissez-faire approach to regulation that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher, but was also fervently championed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

A critical moment came in 1999-2000, when the two Edinburgh-based banks fought tooth and nail for the right to buy their poorly managed but much larger English rival, National Westminster Bank. In the end, the Royal walked off with the prize, paying £20 billion. This takeover instilled a feeling of inviolability in the bank’s recently appointed chief executive Fred Goodwin, who had been brought up in Paisley’s Ferguslie Park, and had risen to the top of RBS via a law degree at Glasgow University, the accountancy firm Touche Ross and the Clydesdale Bank. As older managers were forced out, salesmanship, spivvery and profits growth became its driving force.

At the Bank of Scotland, this was especially true following its September 2001 tie-up with Yorkshire-based former building society Halifax. Just like Goodwin, the HBOS chief executive Sir James Crosby was convinced of his own brilliance. It wasn’t long before the pay and benefits packages paid to the likes of Goodwin and Crosby broke through the £2 million a year barrier. The banks were determined to grow at almost any cost, and HBOS took a ‘cheap and cheerful’, ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ approach to financial products. The bank didn’t really seem to care if it was burdening people and the economy with debt they could ill afford or that the underlying assumption that underpinned its behaviour (that UK house prices were now on a permanent upwards trajectory) was a fallacy. Staff were rewarded for sales, not service and shareholders were being rewarded with an inflated share price. Treasury divisions were transformed into profit centres and the shuffling of complex derivatives which were poorly understood by the banks’ boards of directors became a fast-growing part of their business.

As the recession of 1990-93 disappeared into the rear-view mirrors of these bankers’ Mercedes, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and the Rover-driving ‘Captain Mainwarings’ who had been through the pain of that difficult period drifted into retirement, a dangerous collective amnesia set in. The forgetfulness and complacency was reinforced by reassuring claims from the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan that volatility had been eliminated from the global financial markets as a result of wondrous new financial innovations like derivatives and ‘credit default swaps’. And Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown gave confidence with repeated claims that the Labour government had banished boom and bust. A drowsy numbness pained the bankers’ sense.

At the RBS, the determined manner in which Goodwin melded NatWest’s businesses together with those of RBS meant he was lionised in the City. He started to believe his own hype. Pacman-like, he stalked under-performing financial institutions round the world, in the hope of executing ‘mercy killings.’ By this, he meant buying them, sacking their managements and restoring them to financial health. He also became increasingly unpleasant towards his lieutenants. Rather than face the consequences of trying to argue with him, talented RBS executives decided they could no longer bear working there and made themselves scarce. Few of those who remained dared challenge him.

Meanwhile Goodwin allowed himself to become seduced by the ‘myth of unlimited liquidity’ – the idea that the torrent of cheap money, and cheap funding, unleashed by the credit bubble, would go on flowing forever. He therefore saw nothing wrong with managing RBS on a wafer-thin capital layer or of allowing the bank to become ‘over-leveraged’, City-speak for under-capitalised and too dependent on external borrowings. In their quixotic pursuit of ever higher returns, both RBS and HBOS massively grew the balance sheet by piling into risky lending, other speculative deals and proprietary trading in the financial markets. When the credit markets started to dry up as a result of massive fraud in the subprime mortgage market in July 2007, both banks were left perilously exposed.

RBS had to some extent been even crazier than HBOS. Despite warnings, Goodwin ploughed ahead with a €72 billion takeover of Dutch bank ABN Amro in October 2007. Goodwin and colleagues became so obsessed with proving this unprecedentedly complex deal – which they shared with Spanish bank Santander and Belgian bank Fortis – could be done, that no-one bothered to ask the obvious question, should they be doing it? In the end both RBS and HBOS would almost certainly have gone bankrupt, which would have led to customers losing their deposits, more than 230,000 employees losing their jobs, and financial mayhem in the United Kingdom, had not the Labour government stepped in at the last minute to rescue them from the consequences of their own folly. At the time Gordon Brown chose to single Fred Goodwin out for special blame – it helped divert attention away from his own economic mismanagement and pivotal role in the bank’s near demise – but I would argue that the former directors of HBOS are no less worthy of opprobrium, and perhaps also prosecution, than the boy from Paisley.

In Hubris, Perman, a former Financial Times correspondent who also ran Scottish Financial Enterprise, an industry lobby group, reveals that in the early Noughties some members of the HBOS board had serious concerns about the bank’s behaviour in the UK mortgage market but failed to intervene. When the bank started offering 125% loan-to-value residential mortgages in November 2006, it was, Perman writes, ‘to the mute astonishment of some board members’. What he does not reveal was who was mute and why they bit their tongues. Given that their role is to look after the interests of shareholders, surely these individuals ought to be named and shamed.

Such insane lending would have been unthinkable at the old Bank of Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s. Although it was at the time a slightly boring institution, it proved itself capable of delivering consistently strong financial performance whilst adhering to what Perman calls ‘Presbyterian’ principles. In 1985, ‘the Bank was riding high, but instead of gloating or greed there was a rectitude bordering on Calvinism’. Much of this culture emanated from the Bank of Scotland’s former chief executive Sir Bruce Pattullo, who ran the bank from between 1979 to 1998, and its former chairman Sir Tom Risk. Pattullo had a habit of reminding people that the 300-year-old bank, the institution itself, was more important than the individuals who worked there. Writing in the Scotsman to celebrate the bank’s tercentenary, Pattullo said: ‘Mistakes are more likely to occur in corporate life, especially in a bank, where one individual is anxious to achieve too much in too short a space of time. There is no substitute for good old-fashioned common sense.’

The words seem to have been forgotten soon after Pattullo retired in 1998. Perman charts Bank of Scotland’s disastrous tie-up with the right-wing, American, television evangelist Pat Robertson. His extremist and bigoted views triggered a furore and account closures in Scotland. Having eaten humble pie, the chief executive responsible for the ill-starred alliance, Peter Burt, then had the misfortune to be beaten by Good-win to the NatWest prize. On the rebound, Burt’s attempts to forge alliances with other banks including Abbey National turned to dust. Perhaps more out of desperation than genuine ardour, he opted for a merger with the Halifax. Led by James Crosby and Lord Stevenson, it already had a polyester-suited culture of salesmanship and was using the singing branch manager Howard Brown in its adverts. Unsurprisingly, the marriage turned out to be made in hell, not heaven.

Perman describes with aplomb some of the wilder excesses HBOS’s retail and corporate banking arms, capturing the cynical mind-set of its Crosby-led management and the internal chaos that ensued. In particular he highlights that the 15% to 20% annual growth targets laid down by Crosby and his co-directors were ‘startlingly demanding’. One of its biggest problems was that while the merged bank’s corporate governance and risk management procedures were ‘very elaborate’, as Perman explains, ‘they did not work’.

Perman shies away from probing the well-documented instances when HBOS broke FSA regulations but also, probably, the criminal law. These included how it encouraged customers who were taking out so-called ‘self-certified’ loans to lie about their income, and how it imposed known embezzlers on between fifty and two hundred small and medium-sized corporate borrowers, with devastating results. Nor does Perman mention the infamous HBOS board meeting, held at the bank’s Mound headquarters (now a museum) prior to its September 2008 collapse, at which senior insiders allege that Crosby’s successor as chief executive, Andy Hornby, and HBOS’s head of corporate lending, Peter Cummings, got into a fight. One version is that Hornby had his hands clasped around Cummings’ throat in an apparent attempt to throttle the pugnacious Glaswegian. Other directors are said to have had to call security to calm things down.

Former HBOS insiders insist the fisticuffs were triggered by Cummings’ refusal to risk lending even more money to property developers and other flaky corporate borrowers, who by that stage were already toiling under collapsing asset values and intolerable debt burdens, and therefore even less likely to repay the loans than those people to whom he had lent in 2007. Even he, it seems, had decided it was time to take the foot off the accelerator. But it was much too late. To have had any chance of survival given its dependence on a now non-existent resource – wholesale funding – the bank was kaput. What is astonishing is how Hornby and Goodwin seem to been have so shielded from the reality that many others could see clearly.

In his conclusion, Perman writes: ‘The sales culture had been creeping in [since before the merger with Halifax], dependence on wholesale funding had been increasing and most pernicious of all, the growth imperative had become ingrained. The Bank believed that if it stopped growing it would lose its independence. So it made a Faustian bargain…’ Bank of Scotland is today little more than a trading name within the enlarged Lloyds Banking Group. RBS is a ward of the state that may yet have to be fully nationalised. The tumble weed isn’t quite blowing through Goodwin’s folly at Gogar-burn yet, but it is beginning to feel decidedly empty. On a day-to-day basis, what remains of Goodwin’s empire is being gradually dismantled by the new chief executive, Stephen Hester, from Bishopsgate in London.

RBS seems to be living on borrowed time. Hester is nervously awaiting news of the costs of a string of criminal and civil actions dating back to Goodwin’s years of excess, mainly in the US, UK and continental Europe. Some have suggested the fines and damages arising from these could kill the bank, leaving the government with little choice other than to opt for a third bailout. That might be extremely difficult to justify politically. Having squandered our trust, these banks could take more than a generation to regain it. And whatever else comes out of ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace, Mk II’, one’s main hope is that everyone with an interest in the future of the UK economy – including regulators, politicians and financial journalists – is extremely wary of any banker who is impatient for growth.


Ray Perman

BIRLINN, PP232, £20, ISBN: 9781780270517

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