Monthly Archives: November 2016


When Larry Met Sammy

This is the quarter century he didn’t expect, and didn’t particularly want. Samuel Beckett passed his 60th birthday on April 13 1966 with his glass half-empty and the cup of fame brimming over. Writing letters was both a distraction from work and a hedge against fading powers. ‘Downhill begins this year.’

More than with almost any other comparable literary figure, the letters are part of the work and not just a set of footnotes and glosses on it. And not because Beckett has become an avid commentator on his own vision. Quite the reverse. The substance of the letters, apart from a weary itemizing of physical decline, is usually No. There are offers of prizes and of the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, politely declined. When the Nobel comes up in 1969, his fugitive acceptance makes Bob Dylan look puppyishly effusive and grateful. There are requests for interviews, to which he replies that he has no views to inter. Esquire magazine wants him to go and report on the 1968 conventions in Chicago. They get Jean Genet instead, and serve them right. And then there are the endless requests from directors – including ‘Larry’ Olivier, who insists that a South Bank Beckett night would make a ‘great show’! – wanting to put on productions of Beckett plays with women in male roles, with added props and gimmicks, with music, on television. No, no, ditto, no.

And yet, the vitality denied in almost every line of this nearly 900-page swansong is present in every line, too, just as Beckett’s core-deep humanity and empathy is present even in the most exiguous and clipped of letters. The whole Beckettian project is both keeping on, even in the presence of a great metaphysical blankness, and it is about the disappearance of the most beguiling but also absurd of modern illusions: the existence of an autonomous self. The first person singular largely disappears from the correspondence; sometimes, perhaps, haste dictates a kind of telegramese, but mostly because Beckett doesn’t really think of himself as ‘Beckett’. Not once in four volumes of letters does he recount anything about his role with the French Resistance, the single moment in the life which might prompt narrative heroism. Which is not to say that he turns away from the outside world. He is acutely aware of it, not least when students start building barricades and friends cross swords with debt collectors or the law. So refined are his antennae that he detects trouble almost before it arrives.

Work is reluctance. Work is an addiction. He says at one point that he will ‘Never get free from theatre’. At another, though, there is ‘no dope like it’. Writing to American academic Herbert Myron, he says ‘What a curse bread & butter’, which seems to be a cry of sympathy for those stuck with a day job, but then signs off ‘I don’t kick myself on [in?] the way I used but the boots are still on’. The space between the ‘artist’ and the ‘work’, if space there is, is spelt out in ‘que le travail qui ne marche pas. Et le travailleur’. When he writes to Ruby Cohn – and surely he must have punned joyously on that name? – he describes his regimen as ‘Petits pas. Nulle part. Obstinément.’ Little steps, in no particular direction, obstinately: there’s the Beckettian ethos in a line.

If that adjective and attribution seems lazy, compare it to ‘Kafkan’, which is used by anyone who’s had to queue for more than eight minutes to pick up a form at the Post Office or called Job Centre Plus about employment support allowance. ‘Beckettian’ goes further and deeper. It leaps into focus when Sam, after a run of letters about a much-loved but ailing relative who has experienced no’s knife in a literal, surgical way, describes ‘Legless Uncle Jim now stone blind into the bargain. But some live amputated at the waist. Where the genitals graft.’ Authorship unmistakable.

Too many old friends are dying. With director George Devine and sculptor Alberto Giacometti gone, Beckett instructs a rhetorical undertaker to run the red lights and take him straight to Père Lachaise, which sounds aggrieved and morbid until you remember that this is the cemetery where the literary greats are put to rest. Beckett knows he is ‘damned to fame’, the phrase James Knowlson borrowed for his biography of him, and he knows that he is deeply implicated in the business of communicating the work to the world. He is addicted to the theatrical process, even as he pretends that it is a distraction from the page. Like Stockhausen, he is a presence at the key productions, a virtuosic and enigmatic rehearser. Billie Whitelaw, his ‘miraculous’ muse of later years, told me that Beckett spoke entirely in stage directions, as if he were directing the scene around him. I met him very briefly in Paris, through the kind offices of the late Nicholas Zurbrugg, editor of the magazine stereo headphones (and possibly thanks to a word from John Fletcher, a mutual colleague at the University of East Anglia). The deal was that Beckett would not discuss his work and that there was to be no question of interview by stealth. We met for a drink in his favourite hotel, which I drank far too quickly, and was offered another. As the waiter placed it down with a deferential ‘Pour Monsieur’, Beckett murmured ‘(leans forward confidingly)’, as if he were in charge of the whole scene.

This chimes strikingly with a December 1966 letter to Christian Ludvigsen in Aarhus, which incidentally also nails the reluctance to talk about the work. Beckett says ‘Godot in my opinion is insufficiently “visualized” during writing. The other plays I saw more clearly, as the stage-directions show’. This is the voice of a man who admitted to being more comfortable among the painters than the literary cliques. He goes on to give a brilliant capsule masterclass on staging Endgame and on his preferred working methods, which must have been catnip to Ludvigsen until he came to the final line: ‘Hope this is of some help. To be used as much as you like, but not quoted please.’

The selection and annotation of letters is meticulous. There are some slightly surprising absences. On a personal level, I thought there would be some correspondence with Nick Zurbrugg, who besieged Beckett for texts, but it seems none survives or is available. The patient tracing of literary allusions, puns and word-plays makes clear both Beckett’s learning (even if he can’t quite remember a famous line from King Lear) and his impishness. A few are missed or overlooked: ‘Bid us sigh on from day to day’ is surely a play on ‘Bid us, Zion’? Not that it matters.

What’s more important is the matter of language, My impression of Beckett, confirmed by Billie Whitelaw, is that in certain company he liked to lapse into the persona of a poor ould Oirishman eking out an existence rather than a life. Even in a twenty-minute meeting, the accent slipped in and out of phase. The letters, likewise. He talks about ‘lepping’ (leaping, but implying agitation and urgency). He refers to having ‘slept it out’, rather than sleeping in. But mostly he writes in a language that is entirely his own invention, not a macaronic franglais but a mixture of French structures and English vocabulary, often bitten-off at the end. When he says that a 60th year is a 60th year, he means it also to carry the Gallic shrug that implies ‘with all the shit that brings with it’. He ends sentences with ‘the worst I ever’ and ‘But how well it’, which seem to have been translated in the moment. The blending of language and staging issues comes across most sharply in a lovely little aside, thrown away, but thrown away with the meticulousness of art: ‘As the old charwoman said following the streetwalker with her eyes. “Lovely work if you can get it”.’ Nice line. Touching comment on the human condition. The sort of thing you’ll store up and use again. But Beckett doesn’t leave it there. He has to add a director’s note: ‘Cockney accent autant que possible.’ George Craig’s translator’s preface makes clear the difficulty of rendering all of this, without making Beckett sound like one of those clubhouse bores at Carrickmines who drop schoolboy ‘too-zhoors’ and ‘ah byen-toe’ into their conversation to sound . . . what? It is interesting, almost by the by, that Beckett always refers to a given work in the language of the relevant translation rather than in the more familiar language of first publication. It is clear that for him translation wasn’t ancillary, but instinct with creativity itself.

Beckett maybe didn’t relish the downhill prospect of these years, but he didn’t freewheel them. They produced some of his hardest (in the sense of most rigorous) and most affecting work. These are the years not of the insufficiently visualized Waiting for Godot, but of the astonishing Breath, Not I, footfalls and Rockaby, and even that foreshortened list leaves him another decade of life-and-work. To the list has to be added the now completed Letters. It may be that just as the gift for human sympathy was his greatest as a human being, so the correspondence was his greatest as a writer. In the end, there’s no separating them. They’re one and the same, so they are.

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A question of art

In the 4th of May 1987, a 78-feet straw locomotive was driven on a low-loader, diesel hauler from the former Springburn Locomotive works in Glasgow, the way locomotives had been since the 1940s, and hung from the 174-feet high Finnieston Crane over the Clyde where it swayed in the air for weeks.

On 22nd June it was taken back to Springburn and burned in a Viking-style ceremony. After the flames died down, the silhouette of a giant question mark was left in its burnt-out structure of steel and chicken wire.

‘Straw Locomotive’ was one of a number of powerful and playful works by George Wyllie. ‘Paper Boat’, built two years later, developed the same idea. It looked like a delicate paper boat, the kind a child would float on a pond, but was 80 feet long and sailed on the Thames and on to the World Trade Center in New York Harbour, a voyage that made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. ‘Paper Boat’ delivered a message about the end of the days of big shipbuilding to the heart of modern capitalism. Its cargo was quotations taken from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment, in which Smith suggests what holds us together is not self-interest, but an innate sympathy.

Though never properly recognized by the national art collections, George Wyllie had an enduring influence on art and was popular far beyond the art world; many locals are said to have wept as ‘Straw Locomotive’ was buffeted by the wind over the river which had once bustled with ships that exported 18,000 locomotives every year to forty-three destinations worldwide. And yet, in this beautifully designed book, Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie, written by his elder daughter Louise and Herald art critic Jan Patience, it is not until chapter five of seven – three-quarters of the way through – that the authors introduce their subject’s creative career.

This is because one of the remarkable things about Wyllie was that it was only after the age of 60, when he retired, that he decided it was ‘time for art’. Equally surprising, given his achievements, was that he was untrained. Not only did he not go to art college, he left school with no Highers and without any recognition of his potential as an artist; one school report shows that he only gained fifty-eight out of one hundred in his last set of marks for art at Bellahouston Academy, in contrast to the sixty-nine out of one hundred he achieved in history.

When Wyllie dedicated himself to art in later life, the question mark became his trademark. He described his own art as ‘scul?ture’. The question mark, he believed, should be at the centre of everything. The question Louise Wyllie and Jan Patience pursue is what made Wyllie – where did he come from? It’s a common conceit to look upon the past as unenlightened and less cultured than the present. It’s easy to flatter ourselves that today the arts world is more vibrant and inclusive than it has ever been. Politicians fall over themselves to boast about ‘Creative Britain’ or ‘Creative Scotland’ and trumpet platitudes about public art. In fact, as the authors illustrate, in the life of George Wyllie, culture was a living vibrant thing in which many participated and his earlier life can be found in the art he created years later.

George Ralston Wyllie was born on Hogmanay 1921 in Shettleston, Glasgow, to Harriet ‘Harry’ and Andy Wyllie. The family then moved to the Craigton, where George later described himself as ‘disadvantaged by a happy childhood’. Summer holidays were spend ‘doon the watter’ on the Clyde, aboard paddle steamers, and sailing toy yachts on the ponds in local parks. Drawing on papers and pictures found at the family home in Gourock, Arrivals and Sailings includes commentary from the diary he kept as a boy and during his time in the Navy. It is illustrated throughout with previously unseen photographs. One, gloriously ebullient, shows his grandparents, Joseph and Ellen Mills, snuggled close, surrounded by balloons, heads thrown back in laugher.

Wyllie left school on the cusp of sixteen for his first job as an office junior, at the ship owner and stevedore company, James Spencer & Company, a short walk from the River Clyde. He would have passed the Finnieston Crane every working day. He played the ukulele, wrote songs, becoming a key player in the Glasgow Gang Show, and was often building things: one ongoing project was to build a life-sized sailing boat in the back of the garden. He was also a member of the local model aeroplane club.

He continued to circle the Finnieston Crane when he was offered a job in at the civil engineering firm, Sir William Arroll & Company, makers of crane and bridge-building equipment. But he turned the opportunity down when his father told him not to take it as it was an ‘airy job’ that would leave him vulnerable come an economic slump. As Scotland’s manufacturing sector declined in later decades, so did the use of the crane. It was last operational in 1988.

Wyllie wanted to be an engineer and trained in the post office before joining the Royal Navy at the beginning of the Second World War. He had a new passion by this stage – the double bass. When in training, he gigged in the dance halls. ‘Have double bass will travel’ was his motto. Serving in the Pacific, he visited Hiroshima soon after its devastation. Decades later, in 1995, he created in Glasgow’s George Square an installation called ‘The Difference’ to mark the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day – a harrowing piece of charcoal-like stumps of tree trunks placed on a criss-cross grid-like system.
After the war, he returned to his job in the GPO’s engineering power station, working on electric light, motor and power installations. By then he was married to Daphne and they moved to the southwestern suburbs of Glasgow. The couple referred to their abode as ‘Home Sweat Home’, characteristic of Wyllie’s teasing nature. Family life took over. Life was good – before Daphne died in 2004, George made a sculpture dedicated to her, a portable spire in a box called ‘The Happy Compass’. He was always making something or performing. He drew, sketched and embarked on a small collection of landscape paintings, criticized by a friend as ‘like a striped red jersey.’ They were found at the bottom of the garden soon after, hurled outside in a fit of rage. He decided sculpture was his thing.

Wyllie entered the art scene at a time when dynamic and sympathetic figures, such as Richard Demarco, helped him to show his work. The two men became friends and sparring partners. A significant turning point was attending Demarco’s palindromic Strategy: ‘Get Arts’ exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art for the Edinburgh Festival in 1970 in which the German artist Joseph Beuys participated. From here Wyllie went on in the following decade to make artworks that attracted a large audience. He continued to play gigs, including with the Glasgow School of Art Jazz Band, joking that it was the closest he ever got to art school.

In the 1980s his solo exhibition ‘A Way with the Birds’, travelled to London’s Serpentine Gallery. One of its hits was an ‘All British Slap and Tickle Machine’, a strange contraption with a recycled bicycle seat for people to sit on, operating floppy leather hands and a tickling finger. He explained that it was designed to halt the loss of ‘a sense of joy in making things’ during the Thatcher years. In 1996, Liz Lochhead wrote a poem in his honour, ‘A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie’, which illuminates Wyllie’s work and life by asking a series of questions which get to the heart of the tensions in his work, which hovered between the serious and the playful, and the hard message and soft materials:

Who is the man whose name belies his nature? (for ‘wily’ he is not; there is craft in it, and art, but no guile. He is true and straight, his strategy is honesty, and to ask in all innocence in all experience the simplest, starkest, startling questions.)

Who makes biting satire out of mild steel?

This is not a conventional art book. There is no serious discussion of Wyllie’s artistic achievements nor does it significantly engage with the struggle he had as an outsider in the art world. Neither is it the kind of biography which reveals salacious details about a great man. It is an homage to a father and artist who touched people’s lives. With that come limitations; there is little analysis of Wyllie’s work and although the authors draw on archival material and their own experience it is told in a pedestrian, straightforward account. There is also no index, which is frustrating. Nonetheless, Arrivals and Sailings is a fitting tribute to an artist who, when he died in 2012, was celebrated by the dangling of a question mark off Finnieston Crane, a creative nod to his work and a joyful celebration of public art.

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The Return of The Cheviot

Edinburgh was once the Athens of the North, and while it is purely fanciful to imagine that David Greig was out to breathe new life into the old, noble designation of the city when he inaugurated his tenure as artistic director of the Lyceum with a version of The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, it is a beguiling idea.

Although written some 2,500 years ago, it is hard to think of a work which could have spoken more directly to our own times. Few modern works could have dramatised so movingly the plight of asylum seekers and the dispossessed, or put so forcibly such questions as ‘What is this thing called democracy anyway?’. The depiction of the dilemma facing the Argives when some fifty Egyptian women turn up on their shores, pleading for asylum and protection from the oppressive forces back home which had forced them to take to the seas in search of refuge in a foreign land, could be agit-prop for our time.

We do agit-prop differently now, or at least did before the Arts Councils put a stop to that kind of thing, and we approach the past more gingerly. The production of The Suppliant Women was exhilarating and moving, with a chorus of volunteers perfectly drilled in song and movement, interacting stylishly and intelligently with the few characters – Danaos the father of the women, the King of Argos and the Chorus Leader – which the conventions of his own time allowed Aeschylus to have striding the stage. Greig, who created this version from a translation by Ian Ruffel, employed all the techniques known today as total theatre, but they had all been in evidence in Athenian tragedy in the fifth century BC.

There is, however, another, more intriguing point made by Greig in his programme notes. He points to a striking parallel with the production which had, by chance, preceded Aeschylus on the same stage in Edinburgh. ‘Politics, music, poetry, participation, these are the key themes which I see sitting at the heart of the Lyceum’s work. I couldn’t help notice them all in evidence at (John McGrath’s) The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil last month. As I watched, I felt sure Aeschylus would have recognised the drama taking place.’

Greig has a point. The past is a very familiar country. The two works may come from different worlds but there are similarities not only in content but also in theatrical style. Should Aeschylus be reassessed as fore-runner of McGrath? Can we view this Scottish drama created in the local traditions of music hall or the ceilidh, as imbued with the same spirit as the earliest of all European dramas? All the world’s a stage, as someone said, but is it the same stage? The two plays display a shared ethical fervour, a desperate optimism of the will, a mixture of hope and charity, a sense that the stage and the stalls are part of the one community, a moral imperative felt by the playwright to challenge that community’s attitudes, and an outraged refusal to accept political ‘realism’ as the last word in human affairs. How would McGrath have responded to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mean-minded policies towards them, or how would Aeschylus have viewed the destruction of a way of life in the Highlands in the pursuit of wealth? Ah well…

Paradoxically, for reasons which have nothing to do with intrinsic quality or with production values, the Aeschylus play seems fresher than the McGrath. Maybe this is due to nothing more profound than the baggage which those of a certain age bring to their judgement of a revival of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. I happened to be seated next to the actor John Bett, so when Stephen Bangs spoke – tellingly and impeccably – the words of the Minister in the pulpit denouncing those in his flock who had the sinful temerity to oppose the edicts of the laird, I heard Bett’s tones in my ears. Similarly, when Jo Freer slouched on stage as Andy McChuckemup, the Glasgow spiv with grandiose plans to set up an ‘all night chipperama’ where once there was ‘hee-haw but scenery’, she spoke with appropriate comic cadences, but my ears were ringing with the clipped accents of Bill Paterson all those years ago.

There is no greater mismatch than the tussle between humans and ghosts, especially when the humans are actors on stage producing their version of a play and the ghosts those of legendary productions past. Those who saw Peter Brooke’s Midsummer Night’s Dream said they could never view any other production of the play, no matter how meritorious, in the same light, and something of the same occurs to those among us with greying hair who saw the original 7:84 production of John McGrath’s fiery, angry, bitter and funny play away back in 1973. Ah les beaux jours! This is not to make an unfavourable comparison with the revived production, which is excellent.

The programme carries a poignant memoir by Dolina MacLennan, who appeared in that production. While McGrath ‘cajoled us, taught us and miraculously put it all together’, over a three-week period, the company had previously ‘researched, assimilated, rejected, chewed over, composed, argued and laughed’.

Those were the days when co-operative theatre companies were springing up all over Europe, intent on fostering the revolution whose first spark had been struck in Paris in May 1968. Students were still revolting, idealists still marching in protest at the Vietnam war, sit-ins and demonstrations still being staged, and behind the politics were the sybaritic, self-indulgent changes in style, fashion, sexual mores and mindset that became identified with the Sixties. In the 1970s in Scotland, there were several theatre companies dedicated to touring, to taking theatre to new territory, to talking in language uncommon on the main stages. They have all been swept away, sometimes by the malice of funding bodies. In that dawn, it may well have been ‘bliss’ to be alive.

It would be easy to say that the mood and the beliefs of the age did not last, but many of them did and changed society, at least until the bitter days of Thatcherism. McGrath’s drama dealt with real injustices, but he was able to examine current wrongs in a long historical perspective. He had no worry that his audiences were incapable of looking knowledgeably at the past. The educational and cultural collapse that would leave modern youth marooned in the present to an extent never known before was still in the future. The wrong in Scottish history he attacked with this play was the long process of economic exploitation and cultural desertification of the Highlands.

The Cheviot was the ideal representative of a new style of theatre. Aeschylus appealed to a popular audience with high seriousness and poetry, while McGrath chose comedy, mingled with pathos, song and overt denunciation. Like his contemporary Dario Fo in Italy, he had an astonishing knack of marrying euphoria of presentation with seriousness of indignation. Both men were also motivated by a will to cultivate popular theatre, to play to audiences unaccustomed to theatre-going, and to arouse in them both laughter and anger. McGrath’s best book had the title, A Good Night Out, and the provision of entertainment mattered to him, as did the avoidance of any sign of boredom to Fo. Their playwriting was moored to the traditions of their own countries, even when they tackled subjects taken from the headlines of the day.

Honour to Dundee Rep and director Joe Douglas for reviving this play and ensuring that while it talks of the past, as the original did, it also faces the reality of times changed since the writing. McGrath viewed the despoliation of the native culture and life style of the Highlands as occurring in three waves, all brought about by the intrusion of external capital. It all started in 1746, ‘Culloden and all that, when the Highlands were in a bit of a mess’. The mess got worse with the Clearances, when it was found that it would be more profitable to have the land occupied by a new strain of sheep, the Cheviot, than by men and women, later with the arrival of a plutocratic huntin’ and shootin’, leisured class, and finally with the invasion of international oil men.

The historical questions posed by this play are who profits and who loses from this process. Another man would have written a dark, Brechtian piece, but here we open with a ceilidh band, with dancing, with the strains of a cello and of fiddler-actor Alasdair Macrae playing with verve and brio. The key to the whole evening is exuberance, but that is not to say that one mood is maintained throughout. The demands made of the actors as they switch from the farcical to the dramatic and even the tragic are immense, but the change is instantaneous, and invariably successful. The opening number is the kilt-and-haggis kitsch These Are My Mountains, but as the audience joins in a couthy singalong, the baying of sheep takes over and the question emerges spontaneously ñ whose mountains were they and are they?

Poignant Gaelic airs are interspersed with direct readings to the audience detailing the sheer savagery of the evictions of families, with old men and women dragged from their homes to die in the open. There is no moral ambiguity, no suggestion that these events were part of some great historical process, simply a partisan denunciation which requires no greater elaboration than the straight reading from records of what the notorious factor Patrick Sellar actually did. He was charged in Inverness with culpable homicide, but a respectable man like him could never be convicted by a jury of his peers, so he was not.

Violence was not always needed, for as McGrath illustrates, the people in the glens found themselves face to face with the Kirk, the Law and Finance. Those who incarnated these forces are treated with savage irony. It is arresting to be reminded that Harriet Beecher Stowe (Emily Winter), whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a liberating force in America, could have so casually aligned herself with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland as they cleared peaceful folk from their lands. It seems right that she should be displayed by caricature, and intriguing that this treatment produced the kind of delight from the audience normally experienced in the yells of children in pantomime when the villain is turned into a frog. Lord Selkirk, who masterminded an emigration programme to Canada (had he read Aeschylus at school?) is given the full-blown panto treatment. The point is that this is not a mindless response. Guffaws are allied to a sense of injustice historically righted.

Billy Mack, who arrives in a trunk, makes an effective Queen Victoria, as Graham McLaren’s clever set brings Landseer’s stag into view as a new generation of careless plutocrats arrive to patronise the inhabitants of the glens. The boldest part of the new production is the final section, where new writing was needed to chronicle recent developments in the oil industry. The new satire bites, and while forgotten men like Lord Polworth are still there as types of the obsequious power-broker, the portrayal of Donald Trump with a Mexican companion is expertly done.

This is a play which deserves its status as modern classic. It might not be performed 2,500 years after first production, but it still matters today.

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The worst of times

WHEN Autumn was published last month, just as the leaves were turning russet and gold to match the book’s binding, Ali Smith wrote an article in the Guardian about the marvellous, neglected Pop artist Pauline Boty.

Of Boty’s appearance in Ken Russell’s superb documentary Pop Goes the Easel, Smith says: ‘The other three artists play with toy guns, drive around, paint doors and flags and Americana. Boty, conversely, drops us head-first into a dream, and when the dream turns into a nightmare she slaps it in the face, wakes up into what’s now a multilayered narrative of dreamworld and mundanity, then, dressed in a top hat and tux, she mimes bizarrely in full adult voluptuousness to Shirley Temple’s child-voice singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, until the screen itself ruptures in a cartoon explosion.’

Shirley Temple lip sync notwithstanding, this is not too far removed from the experience of reading a novel by Ali Smith. In Autumn we’re dropped into a dream that turns into a myth, then shaken awake and transported to the wittily-rendered bureaucracy of the Post Office, and from there into a multi-layered narrative that embraces the mundane whilst always keeping one eye out for the absurd. Boty, who died in 1965, is one of the characters, largely present in the memory of another, Daniel Gluck (now in an extended sleep period in a care home, ‘like a person in a fairytale’) and the academic work of the main protagonist, art historian Elisabeth Demand.

The novelist and critic John Lanchester once wrote that the problem with a ‘writer’s enthusiasm to expose the fictionality of a fiction’ is that it ‘tends to be paralleled by the reader’s consequent freedom not to care what happens in the book’. Smith is a writer who loves to throw the conventions of fiction up into the air and start juggling with them. We see it in the titles of her story collections, in the structures of her novels, in her narrators, in her opening lines. Autumn begins: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore.’

And we’re off. Like all of Smith’s work, Autumn is concerned with the process of storytelling. We could say that the fictionality of fiction is highlighted, certainly: ‘That moment of dialogue? Imagined.’ Or might it be the tricky symbiosis between imagination and reality that’s being exposed? Even within one sentence, Smith can accommodate shifts in register that might leave others floundering. Her frames of reference are refreshing. Shakespeare nestles up to Snappy Snaps, and we whirl from Ovid to daytime antiques shows without a misstep. The effect of these juxtapositions isn’t bathos but something more generous and inclusive. As a novel, Autumn is all of a piece. We do not worry that our spritely narrator is going to drop any of the balls that have been set spinning in the air as we progress, moving backwards and forwards in time, from dream to reality to somewhere in between the two. One of Smith’s great successes here is that we do care what happens, very deeply indeed.

This is partly because her characters and their relationships are so finely-drawn. Daniel was Elisabeth’s neighbour when she was a child, and later in the book we read her fictional ‘portrait in words’ of him, written for a school project. Intriguing and ‘elegant’, he befriends Elisabeth and instils in her a passion for ‘arty art’. As he lies in bed in the care home, aged one hundred, his mind circles around the people he has known and the stories he remembers; Boty, who he loved, and Christine Keeler, the subject of a missing picture by her. Elisabeth visits to read to him, and we read the story of their friendship. When Elisabeth was thirteen, he told her, ‘whoever makes up the story makes up the world . . . So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.’

Meanwhile, the world itself is a miserable place, in which many people are without homes, and being made to feel extremely unwelcome. The Brexit vote has led to racist graffiti and thugs in the street, not to mention bad behaviour on Radio 4. While Elisabeth’s mum fantasizes about moving to Scotland and staying in the EU, others are still googling, ‘What is EU?’ There’s a tremendous amount going on, in reality as in the novel. Its themes are not only the big ones, love and death and art, but specific iterations of politics and society in the Brave New World of Britain in 2016. Elisabeth, born in 1984, is reading Orwell as the novel begins.

Another of the stylistic triumphs of the novel is that the words of others filter through in a way that’s nothing short of exhilarating. After the success of Up the Junction, Nell Dunn interviewed nine women for her second book, Talking to Women. Pauline Boty was one of them, and Smith transposes her voice from it – as well as quoting from various other texts – throughout Autumn. The interview took place in 1964, when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater was running for President. Goldwater said that he ‘had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman and the candidate who couldn’t win’, which forms a timely parallel between the race for the White House in autumn 1964 and autumn 2016. Dunn asked Boty whether she felt one should try to make the world a better place: ‘I still get terrible doubts — I used to call it sort of social conscience and — I mean if Goldwater becomes President I’ll especially do it, but I want to do a picture about America which would be very much on that kind of side you know because of what’s happening there and everything, but I again feel like I think so many people feel, you know, that it’s a hopeless sort of thing, what can you do . . . But well, yes one should try to really.’ Later in the interview Dunn wonders whether the only two options for living in the world are either ‘getting hard or having a nervous breakdown.’ Boty concedes that while she puts on ‘hard acts’ as a way of coping, ‘I’d hate to be hard, that’s the very last thing of all.’

Smith is a writer with plenty of social conscience. At times it can be easy to forget, when we read their lauded novels, that our literary heavyweights inhabit the same world as the rest of us. Smith conveys that world in all its frightening, foolish contemporaneity, without ever resorting to hardness. Elisabeth is one of the teachers who prop up the university system, ‘a no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer’. The people hanging out in the Post Office aren’t there to use its services: ‘Since the library closed this is where they come if it’s raining or intemperate.’ We know from Smith’s last book, Public library and other stories, how strongly she supports our libraries. We might extrapolate that she’d agree with many of the opinions and actions in Autumn too. Daniel tells one of the care assistants at ‘The Maltings Care Providers plc’, all of whom are ‘from somewhere else in the world’, that when the state is not kind, ‘the people are the fodder’. Daniel has lived for a century, and remembers World War 2 first hand. Elisabeth sometimes doesn’t see what’s at the end of her nose, as her relationship with her mother shows. It’s near the end of the novel that she wonders, ‘Has her mother been this witty all these years and Elisabeth just hasn’t realised?’ Meanwhile, the bigger picture unfurls, obscures, implodes: ‘All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there . . .’

Much of this novel is to do with reading. ‘What are you reading?’ is the question that Daniel asks Elisabeth each time they meet, exhorting her always to be reading something, even when she isn’t ‘physically reading’: ‘How else will we read the world?’ Autumn reminds us, gently, that reading the world is what we all should be doing, even when it’s as difficult and confusing as it has been in 2016. Ali Smith is very good at doing so, and at welcoming us into the home of her story. As a writer, she never stops taking risks, and these risks continue to pay off. I thought How to Be Both was her best novel yet, and Autumn is as good, if not better. It’s a spectacular, dizzying tour de force, with all the humour and depth of one of Pauline Boty’s pictures. It’s tantalising to anticipate the further books still to come in this seasonal series, as we move from mists and mellow fruitfulness to the black elm tops ’mong the freezing stars. Never did I expect to say it, but roll on Winter.

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SRB Diary: In Orkney

I’M heading north to Orkney, where I’m scheduled to take part in this year’s science festival. As the Hamnavoe ferry approaches Stromness I stand outside on the deck, so I can watch as it changes direction to line up with two red navigation lights on the town’s Hellihole road. This manoeuvring is essential for the ferry to follow the correct course through the harbour entrance, and it’s a reminder of how closely land and sea are linked here.

This is the twentieth year of the science festival and it attracts speakers from all over the world. In contrast the audiences tend to be local (the tourists from the ever-present cruise ships anchored off Kirkwall seem more interested in ice-cream and bus trips to Maes Howe).

First stop on my science festival tour is Lyness, on Hoy. Lyness was one of the bases of the Royal Navy until 1957 and the remnants of this military use still dominate the landscape. A vast oil drum now houses part of the exhibit at the local museum, and there are gun batteries, barracks and a naval cemetery (where some of the victims of the Royal Oak bombardment are buried). The houses in Lyness appear to have been built in the spaces left vacant by the naval infrastructure.

I give my talk on fictional explorations of astronomy and afterwards we go outside to consider the night sky. It should be ideal for seeing the stars, as dark as anywhere in the British Isles, but the nearby flare at Flotta oil terminal does a depressingly effective job at lighting up the eastern part of the sky. We try and shield our eyes from this light and pick out some stars. I’m ashamed to admit to the others that I have never witnessed the Northern Lights, surely this should be a rite of passage for astronomers? The wind is unusually absent for Orkney, and the midgies triumph. We’re soon driven back indoors.

* * *

ON my return to Kirkwall I spend an afternoon at Orkney Grammar School listening to some other science festival talks. A billed highlight is Professor Martin Hendry from the University of Glasgow who tells us about the recent discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO instruments in America (LIGO is short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – actually two vast laboratories each with two perpendicular laser beams stretching for miles). The physics department at Glasgow was one of the pioneers of the exceedingly complex technology needed to do this type of science and is rightly proud of its close connection to this discovery.

Martin explains that gravitational waves are a key prediction of general relativity, first conjectured by Einstein in 1915. These waves are understood to be ripples in space-time caused by the motion of massive objects. Nobody (including Einstein himself) thought it would actually be possible to detect these waves because their predicted amplitude was so minute. Nobody, that is, until the 1960s when an American physicist, Joe Weber, claimed he’d found them by tuning bars of aluminium to the right frequency. These detections were false (although Weber himself would never admit defeat), but influential in that they encouraged other people to consider better ways of doing the experiment.

General relativity is a theory that has never been proved wrong since its first experimental confirmation by Arthur Eddington in 1919. This latest discovery by LIGO actually confirms the theory in two different ways, firstly through detecting gravitational waves with the predicted characteristics, and secondly because the objects causing these waves seem to be a pair of black holes – and black holes are another phenomenon predicted by general relativity. As two black holes circle each other and fall inwards, they emit gravitational waves at the same frequency as a chirping noise, and in his talk Martin is able to persuade us to impersonate a black hole and chirp at him.

But whilst LIGO’s result is beautiful, and has been celebrated by physicists everywhere, one aspect is slightly alarming. General relativity is a classical theory born out of nineteenth-century physics and mathematics. It’s not written in the same language as the other great revolutionary idea of twentieth-century physics, quantum mechanics, and so far nobody has found a way of connecting the two theories. Sooner or later the cracks in general relativity must show, so LIGO’s precise and definite confirmation of the waves only puzzles the theorists even more.

The next talk is a historical one by Dr Alec Mackinnon (also from Glasgow University) about the Scottish physicist C.T.R. Wilson, who invented a device called the cloud chamber about a hundred years ago. Cloud chambers were a pioneering technology enabling scientists to see sub-atomic particles such as electrons. Much of the apparatus of physics – be it cloud chambers or LIGO’s more modern interferometer – renders the invisible world visible.

* * *

WHEN I was last in Orkney a few months previously, I went for a walk at Birsay, on the north-west corner of Mainland. Birsay has an island (the Brough) that is connected to the mainland at low tide by a short causeway. At high tide, the causeway is covered and the Brough is cut off. As I walked along the beach, a pod of seals rested in the water nearby with their upturned faces facing the sun. I had with me new and powerful binoculars and I was keen to try them out, so I looked through them at one of the seals.

The seal was in fact a woman. Through the lenses I saw quite clearly the shape of her head and the strands of her long wet hair flowing over her shoulders. I lowered the binoculars and the woman turned back into a seal.

Traditionally, selkies are found in liminal places between the land and the sea. Places that themselves change identity, such as islands that are not always islands, depending on the tides and the weather.

Physics has accustomed itself to the fact that what we see of the world depends on our technological abilities. But it has become uneasily aware that language also influences our observations. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli announced that he had made detailed observations of the planet Mars and discovered ‘canali’ on its surface. ‘Canali’ was duly translated into English as ‘canals’. This was then interpreted by a minority of astronomers, such as Percival Lowell, as meaning that Mars had inhabitants capable of building canals to conduct water from the ice caps on Mars to its red deserts (presumably to irrigate those deserts).
But ‘canali’ simply means channels, a more neutral word with no overtone of the artificial or alien-made. And while the majority of astronomers didn’t agree with Lowell’s claims, some remnant of them lasted in the collective consciousness until the first space mission to Mars in the 1960s showed no evidence for any sort of channels and the ‘canali’ theory was finally laid to rest.

* * *

BACK in Kirkwall I give my talk about the quantum physicist Schrödinger and his wave equation which he derived while on holiday in 1925 with a mystery woman (her identity has never been resolved, all we know is that she definitely wasn’t his wife). What interests me is how this equation has been interpreted in different ways. Its prevailing use – as a way of quantifying probabilities of future events – was anathema to Schrödinger himself, who remained convinced that his wave was a physical reality and not a mathematical device. He thought he’d made a great discovery, other physicists regarded his equation as more of an invention. The audience and I talk about what it must have felt like for Schrödinger to come up with a brilliant piece of physics, to be fêted for it (he won the Nobel prize) and yet not know what it meant.

* * *

AT the ferry office in Kirkwall harbour I check the times of the ferry to Eday where I’m giving my next talk. On the window-ledge of this office I find two skeletons, apparently positioned so that they’re sheltered from the prevailing wind. One skeleton is larger than the other but they are both clearly of the same species. I can’t even tell if they’re animal or bird. Google says ‘sea bird’ but doesn’t narrow it down any more than that. I replace them on the ledge, and the next day when I go to look for them again, they’ve disappeared.

Eday is an island almost small enough to see the sea on the other side, and when I step off the ferry I still feel surrounded by water. The island’s community lives along its coast, facing outwards, and a high percentage of that community comes to the planned talks at the local school.

The first talk is by Anne Strathie who tells us about Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910-1913. The expedition is commonly seen as a failure because Scott was beaten in the race to the Pole by Amundsen, and because all five men died on the return journey. But Anne is more positive as she emphasizes its extensive scientific legacy in many different areas of geology, meteorology and biology. Scott and his men insisted on lugging a heavy sample of rocks on their return journey, the weight of which may have contributed to their deaths. These rocks were discovered with the men’s bodies and the fossils they contained were subsequently used to demonstrate the validity of the Gondwana supercontinent theory.

On the final boat journey to Gills Bay, we’re accompanied by gannets who easily keep pace with us. The sky is invisible behind the mist and rain, and I try and fail to spot any seals.

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The SRB Interview: Kenny Anderson

THE singer-songwriter Kenny Anderson records his beguiling songs under the moniker King Creosote. The name captures the tone of his albums, which blend the ordinary and down-to-earth with the ethereal.

Anderson was born in 1967 and has lived most of his life in the East Neuk of Fife. He currently lives in Crail. His musical style has been influenced by the sounds of the sea and the bustle and clatter of harbour life. He has long played the accordion, that most seaworthy of instruments.

Anderson has a fierce work ethic. He has recorded over fifty albums, but much of his music is difficult to find. There is a reason for this. He has never liked to court the music industry. He is a stoic, independent person and uncompromising when it comes to his art. One of his albums is appositely entitled Rocket D.I.Y, which gives a sense of his attitude to life. When he was 27 he started Fence, his own record label, which soon morphed into an artist collective. In the last twenty years Fife has had a reputation as the well-spring of great contemporary Scottish music. Artists such as James Yorkston, The Beta Band and K.T. Tunstall have all found their voice and thrived in this corner of Scotland. Anderson has been a central force in maintaining the health of this musical community.

In the last five years Anderson has produced some entrancing and unique records. In 2011 he released Diamond Mine, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Jon Hopkins, who brought his own musical style ñ electronica ñ to bear on Anderson’s folk-pop sound. The album was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. In 2014 he composed the soundtrack to the documentary From Scotland with Love (directed by Virginia Heath), which uses footage from numerous archives to reflect on the lives of Scottish people in the twentieth century. Anderson’s latest album has an enigmatic title, Astronaut Meets Appleman. It bears his trademark idiosyncrasies and experimentation. If the album has a theme, it is the tension between technology and tradition. The music is loose yet elegant. It retains a Scottish sound, with the use of accordion and bagpipes, but never cleaves to one tradition. The lyrics suggest the duality at the core of Anderson: an authenticity and directness tinged with wry, self-effacing humour.

Nick Major met Anderson in a café overlooking the harbour in Anstruther, four miles west of Crail. In the bay boats swayed and clanged under the swell and heave of the Forth. A sharp easterly wind blew across the town. In the café, the friendly banter of customers filled the air. Every so often the bracing smell of shore wrack came drifting through the doorway. Anderson was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. His beard was peppered with grey and neatly trimmed, and he wore a wool hat throughout the interview. A quick talker, he recalled situations and events in his life with a colourful precision.

Scottish Review of Books: When I was outside, the sounds from the café reminded me of the beginning of Diamond Mine.

Kenny Anderson: I was just thinking that this very minute. Jon Hopkins and I were sitting out there at a table on a beautiful spring day in 2010. He’d come up from London for a week to collect some everyday Fife sounds. He had a digital recorder hidden inside his coat pocket. I don’t know what technology they have in these microphones but the clarity is unbelievable. He managed to record our entire conversation ñ including the dulcet tones of the Coast Coffee waitresses ñ without the rest of us being any the wiser.

Does he do that often?

Not really. Thinking back to that album, we didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but at that time we were getting near the end of a seven-year recording project that had begun in 2004. By May 2012 we were definitely heading towards making a themed album. Jon thought it should sound like the soundtrack to a life spent in a Fife fishing village. The oldest song we’d recorded from my back catalogue was written in 1988 -‘Your Own Spell,’ which I wrote at university ñ and I was adamant that the newest song on the record would be bang up-to-date. In 2009 I had a year off drinking alcohol and Hopkins got it into his head that I was singing better because of it, and that I should record and re-record all the vocals right then. I turned up in East London with my songbook boasting a half-finished song called ‘Bats in the Attic’. Although it lacked a chorus, it name-checks Kilrenny, and together with ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’ it definitely helps root the album in the East Neuk. It was a good idea to capture that spring day here in Anstruther. The finished record is like a zip-up bag that contains a Fifer’s twenty-one years of song.

You grew up a few miles down the coast, in Crail?

I grew up in St. Andrews. My mum’s family is from Crail. My dad’s a musician, from inland Fife, and every other year he would disappear for weeks to play a summer season in exotic places like Inverness, and so, for my mum to keep her sanity, I would be sent to my gran’s in Crail for a holiday. I actually spent very little time in Crail, preferring to cycle there and back on a summer’s evening, but when I was at gran’s the week stretched to eternity, and most of it was spent on the beach. She had a television, but she didn’t have a bathroom, and her kitchen was in a tiny turret ñ just enough space for a cooker. All my schooling took place in St. Andrews but I went to university in Edinburgh, then busked my way around Europe for a couple of years, and although I’ve never gone back to live in St. Andrews I’ve always stayed within a ten-mile radius of the town. There are various reasons for that.

What are they?

When I left school I found a summer job in the St. Andrews’ Woollen Mill. The bosses Raymond and Bob Phillip were very generous and cut me a lot of slack, and I worked part time with them right up until the Mill closed in 1999. I realized the life of a musician was definitely better suited to a countryside cottage existence where the rent is less than half of the town rents. My brother got quite ill in 1993 and the family hunkered down together until well after he was on the mend, and that was that.

Living next to the sea has influenced your songs. Are there other ways that Fife has shaped your work?

North East Fife is fairly small. In fact, with Panama in mind, a stogie-sized canal from the Tay to the Forth would make Fife into an island not much bigger than Mull but without the clouds of midges. There are plenty of very diverse towns and villages throughout the Kingdom, but most of them are hidden between trees and behind rolling hills. It’s ideal for someone like me who likes the feeling of solitude and open space in the secure knowledge that a small civilization is right there on the next doorstep. St. Andrews is a university town in winter and a tourist trap in summer, attracting all walks of life, but in music circles there doesn’t seem to be the competition that you find in the cities, meaning you can be left largely alone to make your own entertainment. The people here are very down-to-earth, and there still exists a very old world, no-nonsense wisdom about the place, qualities I’m inspired by even if I can’t measure up to them myself. I very much fit the place, but then I am short.

Did you play music as a child?

My dad’s an accordion player so it fell on my shoulders as the eldest to carry on the family tradition. It’s a hard instrument to play ñ both your hands are doing two very different things, and although you can’t see your left hand you still have to work the bellows with the left wrist. I didn’t like most of the traditional music my dad was trying to foist upon me. I’d veer towards the slower, mellow tunes and he would always say: ‘why are you always playing these tunes in minor keys, they’re so doleful?’ My tears were all born of frustration.

He played traditional Scottish country music?

Yeah, he’s always had a Scottish dance band. He avoids the word ‘ceilidh’ but he’s played at plenty of them. I’m loathe to describe him as an all-round entertainer but he has that quality in him. One of the highlights of his musical career was when he took a big travelling Scottish show to the States in ’75 and ’78. It was called Scotland on Parade. In addition to his own six-piece band there was a dancing troupe of eight or more dancers, a pipe band, a couple of singers and a compere or comedian. It was almost like the White Heather Club of old. Thinking back to my time with Jon Hopkins, we got the chance within the Diamond Mine bubble to go to the US. Sonically, Diamond Mine was quite a different record for both of us, having neither the dance beats of Jon’s music nor the immediate and simple song structures of KC records. It was an album that demanded concentration. We didn’t want to play empty cavernous venues so we set a few conditions, the first being that there weren’t too many tour dates. Jon wanted to keep the shows special, and we asked to play venues with a capacity of one hundred or less. The label thought we were underselling ourselves. We ended up playing eight gigs to an average of only fifty people each night. The quietest gig was in Minneapolis. There were eight people in the audience ñ two of them were at the wrong show entirely, and four of them had driven eight hours to see us.

While I was away my dad was always asking, ‘where are ye, where are ye?’ And I’d say, ‘oh, we’re in Philadelphia.’ ‘Ah’ve been thereÖwhere are ye, where are ye?’ ‘Oh, we’re heading back to Chicago.’ ‘Ah’ve been there’. When we got back I finally asked about his tours in the 70s. They toured for three months straight, played every state except Hawaii and Alaska, and travelled on a Greyhound bus. I asked him what sort of venues he played. ‘I wouldn’t say they were huge,’ he said, ‘mibbe two or three thousand [capacity]. You know, there were plenty of full seats.’ ‘Every night for three months?’ ‘Oh no, we got the odd day off.’

They sold out of merchandise every night and had to order copies of their LP to be manufactured three cities ahead. I said, ‘So Dad, remember when you came back from that tour and instantly gave up your day job, and opened a record shop, and bought that Lada Estate, it was all on the back of that tour wasn’t it?’ ‘Oh aye’. So there was me and Hopkins having just struggled around the US on this soul-destroying, money-losing tour. Remember, this was all off the back of a Mercury nomination, we were on National Public Radio and had racked up pages and pages of digital over-promotion. And there was my dad going over there in the 1970s as a complete unknown. I said, ‘Dad, I think we should stop comparing our lives.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but ah’ve never had a record contract or written any songs.’ Proper Fifers.

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

Until my sister asked for a record player there was never music on in the house. I know my dad had a tape deck but that was for his job as a radio DJ. He worked with music, but I don’t think he really listened to it in the same way I did. He always claims he prefers The Stones to The Beatles, but there’s no physical evidence of that. I would only ever hear this magical stuff coming from car radios or blaring out of the odd workie van, and it was only aged twelve or thirteen when I realized there were five record shops in town.

At that time ñ in the late 1970s ñ my dad started to push me into playing these live shows alongside him in St. Andrews. I would play accordion and my sister would dance. They were only five-minute slots, a couple of times a night. I had to get dressed up and hang around the hotel lobby for three hours, but it earned me a tenner a night. It was tip-based so sometimes I’d get £15 for playing a total of six tunes. My pals were getting £3.50 a week for a milk round. So I started buying music.

The shop I liked in St. Andrews was Tracks. It was an independent and I had to order what I wanted and wait for weeks, but I loved that sense of anticipation. I would listen to the chart shows on a Sunday night, and I would have a sneaky read of reviews in the music magazines in John Menzies. Then I would buy 12-inch singles and when the album came out I’d buy the cassette version. I monopolized my dad’s cassette player. This one had Dolby sound and input faders, so my mix tapes became a work of art.

My music taste varied. I was into old electro: Simple Minds around the era of ‘Love Song’ and ‘I Travel’. I dimly remember being warned to stay clear of the St. Andrews’ punks ñ they looked brutal. They shoved pins through their ears and wore bondage trousers. They were a real alien invasion. But I missed all of that era and got into Mod and Ska. I went to university in 1985 and was listening to Scottish bands like Win, who I think became Nectarine No.9, The Bluebells, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Hearing Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’ made me think I hadn’t been totally wasting my time learning the accordion, but still I rejected the instrument, and in university I bought sequencers, samplers and a 4-track to record on. My earliest endeavours in song-writing were drum-machine, sequencer-based. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I tried to learn the acoustic guitar.

King Creosote: ‘Nobody was listening to or buying my music, so I did whatever I liked.’

Were those early recordings just instrumental, or were you writing lyrics?

Music and lyrics together. I was still eighteen when a friend of mine from school got in touch in Edinburgh and asked if I wanted to play music with him. On that first evening, he had a verse of a song and I wrote a chorus for it. I was hooked. I loved the sense of achievement. I had picked a science-based degree only because I found maths easy and had no idea what I wanted to do, but the experience of writing and performing a song was a flash of inspiration. It was one of the few times I had found something creative that gave me this feeling of absolute joy.

Did you know then that you could earn money from songwriting?

Not at all. It was just a diversion. I was almost a loner, or certainly somebody who chose when to be sociable, but I loved that I could get on with something on my own and create these other worlds. I met my first girlfriend in summer 1985 and I started writing a diary because she wrote diaries. I think the songwriting and the diary writing arrived at the same time. My diaries were written as if somebody was reading them over my shoulder, so I think my song writing was the flipside of all that shy and introverted writing. I could create this exaggerated, and sometimes truer, sense of myself in song.

Do your diaries inform your song writing?

My brother Gordon writes songs and he’s a great painter. He once told me he could go over every square inch of a painting and know what he was thinking about at that particular time. If I look back at my diary in 1986, I don’t have a visual picture of that day. But if I hear the songs that were written, I suddenly have a memory of what the flat smelt like and I can even picture what the sunlight was like on Arden Street. There’s the playful side of songs too, though. You can be whoever you want to be and take on opinions that aren’t your own. The diaries are pretty factual and dull, so if they do inform my songwriting it’s no more than the scenery behind the play. My songwriting, and the performance of my songs, has more likely informed my diary writing.

Can you talk about the process of writing a song? If we take, for example, ‘Betelgeuse’ from Astronaut Meets Appleman.

The songs that work best in my canon are lyric-led. Often a lyric arrives fully formed ñ all wheat with no chaff. Then there are some songs where the subject matter is coloured by the juxtaposition of two sometimes quite abstract words. One word will suggest the next all the way to the end. Other songs need a lot more work. I am always striving to create an elegant lyric. So this is the process: the idea arrives, I go through it a few times until the lyrics are nearly done, then I use my guitar to forge it into something approaching a song. As a memory aid I’ll record it on my Dictaphone or my Blackberry and only at that point is a song good enough to be written into my songbook. Then I’ll record it on my 8-track with proper mics, adding keyboards and accordions etc., and that’s where the song is really formed. My entire Fence back catalogue comes from my 8-track recordings. Once I have recorded songs on there I know which ones are worth pursuing with a band, and it is these that are re-recorded for the ‘bigger’ albums released by Domino.

‘Betelgeuse’ is a great example because the very first version is right there on the record, and it is this song that best fits the album title. In April 2015 I recorded two verses and a chorus on my Blackberry, and I found myself listening back to it time and again. My cellist, djembe player and I went to Ireland to start recording the new album on analogue tape, and I wanted our new version of ‘Betelgeuse’ to follow the recording on my phone ñ it’s a bit woozy, but I knew I’d nailed the sentiment on that first recording. So the album version tracks the phone version, which peters out at the end of the second verse, so we had to adlib the second half of the song with a view to it becoming more polished and, well, more astronaut than appleman. Thus, the genesis of the song has made it all the way to the finished album. Our session in Ireland set a blueprint for the entire album: Astronaut Meets Appleman is a mixture of first versions, busked recordings and re-recordings that were made in different studios using old and new technologies.

You wouldn’t expect the album to sound as cohesive as it does.

Yes, it was an odd idea for me to take the recording process on tour to three different studios and record on analogue tape machines, digital recorders and computer pro-tools. James Yorkston maintains that the atmosphere of a place can bleed into a record, so I tried it and it worked. The album was co-produced by Paul Savage, who has worked on a number of my records ñ Bombshell, That Might Well Be It, Darling, Flick the V’s, and From Scotland with Love ñ and he thought that as long as at least one instrument on each track was recorded in the final stages at the studio Chem19, it would help the album sound coherent.

Do you have a strict routine for writing and recording?

I tend to write as and when the ideas for lyrics or chords arrive, so I have lots of little notebooks and scraps of paper lying about my home and in my guitar case. As these build up I’ll record a few of them on my Dictaphone. I start recording only once the chores are done, and by chores I mean the constant budgeting, accounting and general gig-related work. When all that is out of the way I take over an entire room with bits of musical gear I’ve accumulated over the years. It becomes an addiction for a fortnight or so, and I’ll record every spare minute of every day, putting down all the ideas I’ve stored up over the preceding months. I’ve just come through such a phase and I have another three albums recorded for my own label.

I want to return to your early life: what did you do after university?

In my fourth year I realized I had made an error studying electronic engineering and so I didn’t apply for any related jobs. I did have a fantasy of doing pub gigs though. At that time you could walk into a bar with a demo tape and if they liked it they would book you, so it was a viable money-earning option. In Edinburgh there were enough places that booked bands and I did end up dropping off a tape at a few Southside bars, hoping to earn the fabled 50 to 60 quid a night. When I finished my degree, however, I moved home to work at the Woollen Mill, but it was hard returning to that environment. My friend Bruce had planned a year out, and one day he said: ‘look Kenny, let’s get ourselves an inter-rail card each. You bring your accordion and I’ll bring my mandolin. We’ll go busking for a month in Europe.’

We set off in early September 1989 and arrived in Boulogne-Sur-Mer three days before our rail cards became valid. After a night spent sleeping in bivi bags in a rat-infested campsite we bought tickets to Amsterdam. I can still remember the surge of optimism and excitement I felt the moment we stepped out of the train station and into Dam Square. Although it was getting towards the end of the summer season, the town was very busy so we walked up Kalverstraat and set up in front of some shop shutters with graffiti on them. Within no time these two guys appeared ñ one was so French it was laughable. He was wearing a striped shirt, salopettes, no socks, had a pony tail and carried a banjo. The other guy was a huge Dutch rockabilly guy carrying a double-bass. The Frenchman grinned at us like an imbecile but the Dutchman merely glowered at us; we quickly worked out we had taken their spot. But they asked if they could join in, and by the end of the day we had ourselves a five-piece band with a classical violinist in tow.

We were rattling out a mix of Scottish, Irish and American folk tunes to crowds of about three hundred people, and we must have looked like a bunch of freaks. Our diminutive female violinist was a punk and a heroin user and by far the best musician of us all. As a classical musician she could regularly make three or four hundred guilders a set, three times a day, and this afforded her an Amsterdam rent and all the drugs for herself, her husband and his pals. The French and the Dutch guy knew that to make good money you had to have an album to sell. Within a few days of living in an Amsterdam squat, Bruce and I had had a quick crash course in street life. We lived in and around Holland until the end of the year. We used that inter-rail card just the once, then hopped into the Dutchman’s Renault 18 with the others and took off to Germany.

Over the next two years Eric, the banjo player, and I were the mainstays and we spent our winters in Scotland, turning up to play at folk clubs and pub sessions, recruiting new members and making new tapes to take to the streets, and we had settled on a name: The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra (SDO). That time in Europe felt like a proper adventure, and there were many diversions along the way, including a three-month stint in the Dordogne painting the wall of a farmhouse. There was no Internet, no pictures of us circulating the world, nobody at home checking up on us via social media, no encumbrances like insurance and council tax ñ we were completely off the grid. We felt like pioneers, living off our wits. I learnt how to perform live during those two years on the street.

Were you performing your own songs?

No, it was all bluegrass standards or Scottish and Irish reels made to sound like bluegrass. I was writing songs but I didn’t have the courage to bawl them out on street corners. In early 1991 there were four of us singing songs like ‘Old Joe Clark’ and ‘Cripple Creek’, and at the end of that final summer of busking we returned to Fife and began recording original songs in a studio outside Kennoway with Dougi MacMillan at the helm. That winter we transitioned from hell-for-leather skiffle mongers to an acoustic band performing our own songs, and in 1992 we got a booking agent based in Aberdeen, and a record deal.

When did you start your own label, Fence Records?

So, during the first half of the 90s there was still a template you could adopt as a working band. The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra put out studio albums on a small Scottish label, and we had a great live audience, especially in the North-East, from Aberdeen right up to the Shetland Islands. But there was a nagging feeling that we were still not quite a part of the music industry: how do we get in there? How do we get reviews in music magazines? How do we get on the radio? How do we get onto this other conveyer belt of foreign tours and festival bookings? Now I’ve experienced what the music industry has to offer I wish could go back and give myself a talking to. There was a lot of disappointment within the band. We were continually playing small music bars, and there was a general apathy. Our second album got a single one-line review in the Dundee Courier‘s revered Rock Talk section: The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra has put out another album called Spike’s 23 Collection. That was pretty much it.

In 1994, after recording our third album at Land Studios, engineer Dougi MacMillan invited me to his studio to record solo and to sing atop an instrumental he’d been working on, and the resulting four songs became the first recordings for Fence and King Creosote. I’d really missed recording at home so I went out and bought myself a new 4-track tape recorder. Over the summer of 1994 the SDO had undergone a name change to Khartoum Heroes and we immediately started to splinter. I formed a new line up with Vic Galloway and, until the middle of 1995, we had this fantastic crossover folk/pop/punk band. Vic was keen to get a record deal, but the Skuobhie Dubh veterans wanted to go back to busking so it didn’t work out. Between ’95 and early ’96 the SDO was at its best, with my brother Een in the ranks, his girlfriend Kate [Tunstall] on vocals, and a first rate rhythm section. But it all fell apart again. I was a 29-year-old university graduate and my grand plan to return to living on the street had run aground. I’d been the ship’s captain only for the crew to jump overboard, and you can imagine the pressure from the home port to make something of myself the way that most of my peers had done. Cue depression, happy pills and a doctor’s permission to soul-search for a year and to convert all the negatives into something positive.

At the end of 1996 I took stock of what I had achieved. I loved writing and recording songs as King Creosote, but I hated trying to promote the albums and I certainly didn’t want the stress of running a band again. I stopped caring about selling music. I decided that if the music was good then an audience would seek it out. It was a rejection of the music industry. I formed a ceildih band, worked away at the Woollen Mill, upgraded my recording gear, bought a CD burner and recorded a bunch of King Creosote records for Fence that I sold as CDRs in a local St. Andrews record shop. I was making music and selling it at a loss. I remember explaining it all to Vic Galloway when he joined Radio Scotland. He said, ‘Good luck with that. There’s no way the music industry is going to find you in St. Andrews.’ But it didn’t matter, I just loved making the music, including the artwork for my albums.

You enjoyed having complete creative control?

It was all about the art. Nobody was listening to or buying my music, so I did whatever I liked. I got a job in a St. Andrews record shop and at the turn of the millennium I ended up taking it on with shop manager Jason Kavanagh. Now Fence was a record label and an outlet. A girl from Edinburgh, who had been a Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra fan, walked in one afternoon, recognised me and told us she was a website developer. We said, ‘What’s a website?’ She put one together for us and up it went. The content was nonsensical, but to the outside world we looked like another obscure label.

People from all walks of the musical spectrum gravitated toward us. There are a lot of singer-songwriters out there who have no interest in standing on stage, never mind dealing with interviews or photographers. Some of the best songwriters have no truck with show business. Music is just how they deal with their lives. It’s their art form. A collective began to form around the record shop, and Jason and I began doing these wacky residences in the local bars.

All of a sudden, thanks to James Yorkston, The Beta Band and Vic Galloway’s Radio One show we had interest from a few music publishing companies. Domino regarded us as a Scottish independent label, and we had great fun informing them we weren’t a label, nor did we want to become one. We didn’t sign a single act, we didn’t send out promotional material and we did our best to put folk off buying our handmade CDRs. But we quickly made fans and started to make samplers that were shop-specific. We made a Fence sampler called Rough Trade Hung Up On Fence that you had to buy from the Rough Trade shop in London. Soon we had different label samplers made for Missing Records and Monorail in Glasgow. So having our venture music-led turned out not to be such a bad idea after all.

Could you start something like Fence now?

I don’t know if I could do it the same way now. The Internet seemed very quiet back then, a secret hideaway for music obsessives, and I’m not sure our early collective could live up to the high levels of scrutiny and comment that go on nowadays. Living in St. Andrews you had to make your own entertainment and that meant very little competition, so we were working in isolation and weren’t affected by what was going on in Edinburgh or Glasgow. We attracted those people unable to compete in the city music scenes. Now it seems you have to have a sensational idea to make even the slightest headway, and albums are old long before they can be discovered through word of mouth. We were able to build from a local base and at the same time appeal to a very few Internet music sleuths. Our thing was very organic, and because people weren’t living their lives online they were much more aware of what was happening locally. We took our time. If people wanted your music they had to read your daft posters, hear you play live, come find you and physically buy an album. The Internet has devalued music to the point where very few people actually want to be encumbered by it.

You have recorded over fifty albums to date. Is your output so prolific because you aren’t so constrained by the music industry?

My output was greater before 2005. After that I became entangled in the music business again. If it weren’t for all the experimentation captured on my Fence albums, and the freedom to put my music out in relative obscurity, I don’t think I’d have had the guts aged thirty-five to venture into the world of album reviews and audience expectations. I still balance what are seen by some as my mainstream records with the weird and wonderful records that roll off my 8-track at home, and many of the artistic decisions are explored far out of the spotlight. As King Creosote has slowly climbed the music ladder, the time spent on my label has dwindled. For the last four years I have been working towards a year out in which I intend to stay home and reverse engineer Fence back to the haven for creativity it once was. I have eight new titles ready to go.

How did you come to write the soundtrack to From Scotland with Love (FSWL)?

One of the studio engineers at the studio Chem19, Davey MacAulay, works in film sound design and had already worked with Virginia Heath. Given the brief that the film was to be a collaboration between film maker and songwriter, both Davey and Paul Savage put my name forward.

How did you write the songs for that film?

At first it was tricky because the film makers needed time to trawl through the archive, meaning I didn’t have a completed film to write to. They wanted their choice of particular scenes to be influenced by my songs ñ talk about cart and horse. With the deadline approaching, Virginia drew up a chart for the whole 69-minute film, split into sections of three minutes each, and in each section she had a description of the theme. She indicated which sections were to be songs, which ones were to be instrumentals, and then alongside each music section she listed the songs of mine that matched the mood she was going for. Two weeks before the band were to start rehearsing I boarded a train to London, and although I’d been thinking it over for the best part of two months, I had worked myself up into knots over whether I had the knowledge, the authority, to be the commentator on all these lives gone by. But I thought: if I’m to bring the on-screen characters to life, maybe there is somebody in all that footage who thinks like me and who has had similar life experiences?

After that it was fairly easy, and I was able to draw on stories I’d heard from my own parents and grandparents. By the time I pulled into Kings Cross I had eight song lyrics penned. I recorded my ideas solo for the film makers, and then as a band we worked up a couple of the better ones. The instant we heard our rough version of ‘Miserable Strangers’ alongside some of Virginia’s dockside footage we knew we were on the right track. The songs were tweaked right up until the last minute, however, as new scenes clashed with existing words or offered up better song ideas altogether. Virginia worked incredibly hard to find footage that backed up some of the lyric details and I was determined the mood of each song should match the footage.

When you are performing live, do your songs change in form?

I try and keep albums and live shows as far apart as possible. I detest rehearsals, and I allow the players to decide their own parts. The current eight-piece are all on the Astronaut album, but they are not all on every track, so everyone has about four songs open to their own interpretation. Conditions in which to sing are near perfect in a studio, not so live, and so when it comes to singing falsetto over a krautrock beat, as in the song ‘Surface’, the live arena can be a nightmare. I get bored of my songs very quickly, and the biggest rush for me is when songs work out as if by accident. A lot of my older songs are totally unknown to this acoustic band, and I have no intention of sitting them down to listen to the earlier albums. Having said that, the players are the best bunch of musicians for listening to each other and playing off each other, meaning all the mistakes are my own.

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Across the great divide

In December 2014, eight months before his death at the age of 93, Brian Stewart sat for the artist Paul Benney. The painting had been commissioned by Prince Charles as part of a series of portraits of D-Day veterans.

Stewart, who had led an anti-tank platoon which destroyed a dozen or so enemy Panzers, was shown with a chestful of medals and the red hackle of the Black Watch on his cap. He was troubled by the picture. ‘I do not like,’ he wrote to his son, ‘being remembered as a half-demented, melancholy, puzzled old man.’ Rory Stewart’s The Marches is, among other things, an attempt at a better likeness.

We see his father through his eyes; at first, the eyes of a child. A delightful preface describes Brian Stewart from the perspective of five-year-old Rory. This would be around 1978, at which point he was director of technical and support services – ‘Q in James Bond terms’ – at MI6. The preface makes no mention of this; such things would be unknown or unimportant to a little boy. Instead, we learn about the casual physical intimacy of father and son: they shower together; Rory places an index finger into the deep shrapnel scar, a souvenir of Normandy, on his father’s right thigh; held to his father’s chest as the water cascades, he listens to his echoing baritone as he sings a folk song, and notices that his Scottish accent is stronger when he sings than when he speaks. Brian, clearly, is Rory’s hero – and friend. An example of manhood, but a playmate, too.

Later that day, feeling that he has not been paid sufficient attention, Rory writes a note announcing that he has run away from home. He hides behind the dining room curtains in order to observe his father’s reaction, and is appalled. ‘I saw from his face how frightened he was. I realised how easily I could hurt him. I never wanted to see him like that again.’ This tipping of the balance of power foreshadows the rest of the book, when the child grows up to be a sort of parent to the elderly father, but never quite loses his feeling of inferiority. The next time we see Brian Stewart it is the next page, it is 2011, he is 89, and Rory is bending to kiss him on the forehead, wrapping a tartan scarf around his neck and tucking it into his coat. They are going for a walk.

Walking is at the heart of this book. The title has a double meaning. Marches in the sense of marching, yes, but also the medieval name for the dangerous frontier zone on both sides of the England-Scotland border. Rory Stewart has had a long interest in ambiguous areas, debatable lands; his first book, an account of a 600-mile walk across Afghanistan’s unchancy central route from Herat to Kabul, was called The Places In Between. ‘The Middleland’ is what Stewart calls the area around the border, a term coined by his father, who feels it ‘belonged particularly to us as hybrid-Scot-Britons struggling with debates over Scottish independence …’

The Marches is the story of two walks: the first along Hadrian’s Wall, in the company of his father; the second from his cottage in Cumbria, along the full length of the border, and north to the family pile in Perthshire. Stewart’s motivations are sketchy: the political backdrop is the 2014 referendum, so these walks seem intended, to an extent, as meditations on national identity. In what ways are the Scots and the English different, and in what ways do they feel themselves the same? Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border; his most visible contribution to the campaign was the much mocked Auld Acquaintance Cairn at Gretna, to which visitors were encouraged to add rocks bearing messages of support for the union. His understanding of why he is drawn to make these epic journeys by foot is much less concrete. ‘I’ve never been any good at explaining why I go on long walks,’ he writes. ‘The truth, I think, is I believe walks are miracles – which can let me learn, like nothing else, about a nation, or myself – helping me to solve disappointments personal and political.’

Walking, he muses on history: his own, his father’s, Britain’s. He was born in Hong Kong in 1973, and brought up in Malaysia, London and Perthshire; he went to Eton and Oxford. But there was never any question that he is a Scot. One of the most enjoyable passages in the book describes teenage years spent attending Highland dances. ‘I came to recognise men less by their faces than by their sporrans. Duncan had a badger-headed sporran, Charles a white-tasselled, goat-hair sporran, mounted in silver. Mine for a time was a moth-eaten otter…’ He would dance till midnight, Cinderella in a sweaty kilt, and drive home while listening over and over again to a tape of Hugh MacDiarmid reading his poem ‘Wheesht, Wheesht’. People often grumble that politicians have no hinterland; Stewart has so much to spare that he could offer a tenancy to Theresa May, who recently made him minister for international development. A New Yorker profile, in 2010, likened him to Lawrence of Arabia and noted that ‘many people think he’s likely to become Foreign Secretary or even Prime Minister’.

The first and last parts of The Marches, like many a long walk, are its most pleasurable. In between is a slog. The opening section on Hadrian’s Wall – ‘the origin of the idea of Scotland and England’ – has an energy which comes from Stewart’s vivid, at times comic, portrait of his father. Brian Stewart, in his son’s depiction, is a brilliant eccentric, a sort of cartoon laird, all tartan trews and bufferish views, the Selkirk grace and a tot of whisky never far from his lips. They walk together and discuss the Romans. Rory sees parallels everywhere. The life of a prefect on the wall must have been rather like his own experience as a deputy-governor in Iraq, he thinks. Likewise, a Dacian cohort ñ a unit which had originated in what is now Romania but represented the might of Empire for 275 years during the occupation ñ reminds him of his father’s wartime battalion, the Tyneside Scottish, Geordies who felt themselves to be Highlanders.

One senses, too, a deeper likening, mostly unspoken, running through the book ñ the comparison Stewart makes between his father and himself. ‘I was only half conscious of the many ways in which he had modestly concealed how he was better than me,’ is a self-wounding sentence. Elsewhere he reflects that the old man ‘seemed to understand more clearly than me that we were different people’.

As his father tires more easily than they had hoped, Stewart suggests that they abandon their journey along the wall and drive back to Perthshire. In any case, the walk is not illustrating the point he had hoped to make: that there are no real material differences between England and Scotland, that the two countries had ‘richly interwoven’ histories and cultures. ‘But I was more conscious now of fractures, absences and distortions.’ This is typical of Stewart’s writing and world view – an instinctual suspicion of easy conclusions and a willingness to record disappointment, even if his own narrative feels anticlimactic as a result. In The Places In Between, he wrote with approval of the diary kept by Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, as he walked across Afghanistan: ‘He does not embroider anecdotes to make them neater, funnier, more personal or more symbolic. Unlike most travel writers, he is honest.’

Such a strategy is admirable, but risks losing the readers, and the long middle section of The Marches is where they are most likely to get lost. Stewart crosses and recrosses the border: at one point, in a piece of impressive stunt reportage, he does so by fording the Solway Firth, up to his waist in salt water, England at his back, Romans on his mind. ‘From the second to the early fifth century AD you could have ridden from modern Iraq through to Belgium, on fine roads, speaking a single language, in a single state, until, here in this brown water, Rome stopped and barbarians began.’

That is a brilliant compression of time and space, but for dozens of pages the book gets bogged down in encounters Stewart has with people he meets along the road. He piles these on, the cairn grows, but doesn’t add up to much. His father’s absence from this second walk is a real loss. A lightness goes with him. He keeps in touch with his son in long emails, asking questions about the walk, and offering a blunt commentary in which he seems to speak for the readers. ‘It’s a bit dull isn’t it?’ he asks at one point. When he travels down to Bewcastle to meet Rory for dinner, one feels his return as a relief. ‘On with the story’, he urges his son, ‘faster and funnier.’ Good advice.

In the book’s final section, The General Danced At Dawn, Stewart’s focus returns to his father. It is the last year of his life and he is going into physical decline. ‘I haven’t got the third part,’ Stewart tells his father on what turns out to be his deathbed. ‘I haven’t got the upbeat part where I bring it all together and come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of country Britain adds up to today.’ Those with a low tolerance for self-reflexivity may cringe at this, but Stewart does, to an extent, manage to pull his different themes together in a moving description of his father’s last moments and funeral. His writing is at its best when he allows himself to be tender and merely descriptive – ‘His long fingers gently stroked mine’ – and doesn’t strain for intellectual effect.

As a state-of-the-nation analysis of Britishness and Scottishness and what it all means, The Marches is a muddled failure. As a life of Brian, written with grief and love, it is a charming, disarming success.

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Volume 12 Issue 1 Editorial

We have reached that point in the calendar when the book trade is at its most buoyant. Over the coming month or so more books will be bought than in the rest of the year put together. Or so the theory goes.

Booksellers, publishers and authors all look to Christmas and the shopping frenzy it encourages to turn loss into profit. As you might expect the stress is only borderline bearable. It is imperative to sell as many books as possible. In that regard, bookselling is like any other business. Fail to thrive and you’re unlikely to survive. It’s as stark as that.

It was not always thus. In the sixteenth century, Pietro Aretino, satirist and ‘light’ pornographer, wrote to his publisher telling him all he wanted by way of recompense was to have his work printed carefully on good quality paper. ‘I would sooner endure poverty,’ he added, ‘than offend virtue by turning the liberal arts into a trade’. Described by Milton as ‘that notorious ribald of Arezzo’, Aretino got by on handouts and patronage and, on occasion, by blackmailing those who had sought him out for his knowledge of vice. Never wealthy in the material sense, he is said to have died of suffocation from ‘laughing too much’. If this was caused by a joke it has not been recorded.

Moneymaking entered the booktrade in the nineteenth century following the unprecedented popularity of Sir Walter Scott. So desirable were his novels that from 1822 they appeared simultaneously in English and French. In 1824, in Germany, a parody of his fictions, Walladmor, was published in which Scott himself featured as a character. As the Spanish writer and translator, Jorge Carrión, notes in Bookshops (Maclehose Press), ‘there is no better guarantee of success than imitation or parody’.

Thereafter things were never the same again. Soon, along came Dickens and Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot, and with them trains and the first bookshop chains, many of whose outlets were situated in railway stations. Few parts of the globe were without them. In India, for example, A.H. Wheeler held a monopoly on the sale of books and papers from 1877 to 2004, when it was cancelled by the then Minister of Railways ‘in a nationalistic political move…against the British resonances in the India company’s name’. Six years later, however, the decision was revoked.

Bookshops – as we surely do not need to remind readers of the SRB – are not like other shops. We have often believed that if every high street had one the effect on the collective well-being would be more beneficial than that, say, of chemists and bookmakers. An enlightened government would encourage local councils to allow empty premises to be opened as bookshops with no rent or rates charged to their owners until they were demonstrably in profit. It would also insist that such bookshops were well-supplied with books from indigenous publishers.

In the meantime, the death of the bookshop is routinely foretold. That it defies all such doomsaying is a cause for optimism in the face of myriad reasons to fear the worst. Bookshop owners do not expect to get rich quick. The best they can hope for is to stay open. In his foreword to Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores by New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein (Clarkson Potter), Garrison Keillor pays tribute to independent bookshops. ‘Nothing against the big chain bookstores,’ he writes, ‘nothing at all, but the feeling is different: like the difference between eating at a café owned by the guy who is cooking and eating from vending machines’. Among the seventy-five bookshops featured and pictured by Epstein is the ever-excellent Watermill in Aberfeldy, the sole Scottish representative.

A few years ago Keillor, author of Lake Wobegone Days and compëre of A Prairie Home Companion, realized a dream and opened his own bookstore, Common Good Books, across the street from Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. At first it haemorrhaged cash but of late, apparently, it’s been doing okay. ‘There is no sign on the front door, TOILET IS FOR PATRONS ONLY,’ writes Keillor. ‘We only ask that you won’t go in the toilet to read – there are couches for that.’ Ownership of bookshops by writers in the US is not uncommon. Ann Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, while Louise Erdrich has Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. Most notably, and most laudably, there is Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, which was founded more than four decades ago by Larry McMurtry. According to its website, all of its stock of between 150,00 and 200,000 ‘fine and scholarly books’ has been purchased and shelved by the author of bestsellers such as Lonesome Dove and the co-writer of the Oscar-winning screenplay of Brokeback Mountain. Isn’t it amazing what people will do for the love of books.

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