Monthly Archives: June 2017

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The Book Room

The family home was to be sold after forty-nine years of Frame residency, but even to allow an estate agent and surveyor inside the house we needed a major pre-declutter. Books everywhere: tottering stacs of them. Some books, not a few, eliminated themselves from the final reckoning simply because the print was too small.

Nineteen-seventies paperbacks had a habit of cracking in my hands as I opened them. I had to ask myself the blunt questions ‘Have I picked up this book in the last ten, twenty years?’ and ‘Am I ever likely to read it again?’ (The answer to either couldn’t be foolproof, but I was getting desperate because of the sheer volume of books to be sorted through, and risks had to be taken.)

My worst mistake was to have any dealings with dealers. I have no sense of the monetary worth of books, and too many bargains flew through the front door and into the backs of cars. Less unsatisfactory was the giving to charity shops, but I could have done without the charmless ‘Leave them at the back door, will you?’ attitude of some. Most rewarding was donating books and CDs to my old school – while the young still read hard-copy and have any inclination (or machinery) to listen to discs. That felt to me like recycling common intellectual property – and sharing with others something of the pleasure which literature and music have brought me over a lifetime.

* * *

Not-so-fast forward to my new home, a top-floor flat (after an earlier interim garden flat which I knew was wrong for me after two days, leading to a another round of phone calls to estate agent/surveyor and the horror of a second upheaval within a year). Spacious as flats go, which is what appealed, but less square footage than a two-floor detached house. There are books all over the flat, but one room – what had been the larger bedroom – is actually solely given over to them now. My ‘book room’, since of course ‘library’ is much too pretentious a term to use.

Perhaps someone who doesn’t know me would look along the shelves and guess that this is the collection of a rabbi with a permissible fondness for film but an unhealthy interest in the doings of Eurotrash-types. The older I get, the more concerned I am about the state of my soul, and so the theological books are understandable. I was born in a Glasgow nursing-home with a high percentage of Jewish through-trade, my class at school was one-quarter Jewish, my closest friend was, but somehow I wasn’t. (The elderly school rabbi presumed that I was one of his flock: ‘Aren’t you coming to shul, young man?’) Someone clued up on such things assured me that I am technically, erm, a soul Jew. I may well do ‘something about that’: we shall see. If so, it’s largely down to my affection for the Hasidic masters, with their philosophy of celebration, who went singing and dancing along the streets of their East European shtetls. They have a new perch now, at easily reachable eye-level, in my ‘book room’.

I’ve always liked small-sized books, so those neatly fill the narrow top-shelves. The bottom shelves are for the tallest and heaviest items, which require two hands to draw out and fit back and so aren’t the idle-whim casual reads that occupy the range of shelves between them and the top.
On the fiction front …There are many more copies of Vladimir Nabokov than of any other novelist. I’m not sure why. I did some light skimming recently, and was puzzled by the clumsiness of some of that prose I used to think matchless and so exhilarating. Everything of Muriel Spark’s is there, from the first stories to a triumphant return to form in her last slim novel, The Finishing School. There’s room for Truman Capote, an author I’ve come to admire more with time. (I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s in my teens, and was unimpressed. A few years ago I tackled it again, and was bowled over.) I had forgotten I used to be such a devotee of Colette; Marcel Pagnol has rather taken over in that department. Hermann Hesse belongs to my early twenties, but Karen Blixen has retained her fascination. My favourite European mavericks (in translation) are to the fore: Nina Berberova (with second copies of all her mini-novels, in just-about-negotiable French), the wistful Antonio Tabucchi, the elusive Anna Maria Ortese, the very economical Adelaida Garcia Morales, the hallucinatory Thomas Bernhard.

I’ve purchased all I could find by American Peter Taylor, a Tennessee version of William Trevor, who is alongside on the next shelf. So many Simenon novels that they’re in their own boxes (plural) in the garage, but the very best of the best (and he failed with none of them) have shelf space. I couldn’t not have a row of (some very dog-eared) Isaac Bashevis Singers, the great chronicler of Old World Jewry adrift in the New, tales filled with spiteful dybbuks and good-hearted holy fools. Why so much of that friend-to-everyone-famous Cocteau? (No idea.) Curious too, how I have never read a Wodehouse book to the end, nor even for more than two consecutive chapters, but have so many. He’s one of those novelists for dipping into, enjoyed best at complete random.

Proust is currently in the garage. I wish I could cope with him – even heeding Francoise Sagan’s advice (quite a few of her books made the cut, she’s much under-rated in the UK), to start about Book 10 of the original dozen before going back to p1 of the first – but I constitutionally lack the patience. My loss, no doubt, and it’s never too late to embark on the journey – I doubt that I shall, however. Does any single author alter one’s mode of perception? – perhaps not – but if anyone could, then it’s the Argentinian fabulist Borges, so he is given privileged space where light falls directly on to him from a lamp. (Once I avidly read Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar and the South American ‘magic realists’, but they seem to me of their period, the 60s to 80s, and they now languish downstairs in their taped boxes, somewhere in the vicinity of my corralled garden pots.)

Naturally there’s John Betjeman – whose Cornish house we rented for a succession of summer holidays. Elizabeth David, who never provided conventional how-to recipes but inspired one by her enthusiasm and gusto for describing the textures and flavours of food and her own process of discovery. (MFK Fisher directly faces her, from Provence on the other side of the room.) Poets Cavafy, Joseph Brodsky (an essayist too), Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson. The crushed-short-story verse of Thomas Hardy. The French illustrator Sempé, who is simultaneously comic and touching. Books about living with books – Alberto Manguel, Italo Calvino, Harold Bloom, and Susan Hill. (She was the one writer I saved up hard to buy in hardback in my teens: The Bird of Night with its Britten-esque mood was her tops.)

All too earnest for you? What about David Ogilvy’s wry thoughts on the advertising business, my father’s trade? Or RAFA My Story? (Nadal can do no wrong in my eyes.) There’s Katharine Hepburn (Me catches the rhythm of her speaking voice brilliantly), some Audrey, and Dirk. Wallis Simpson, Jackie O, Romy Schneider, Cary Grant Style. Nightclub queen Regine’s memoirs, Amanda Lear’s My Life with Dali, anything at all about disco, Studio 54 et al.

A Scottish section. You know you’re getting on a bit if you have books on (a) steam trains or (b) tram cars or (c) paddle-steamers. I’ve accommodated all three methods of retro-transportation. Plus The Scottish Farmer anthology, architecture from castellated towers to city streets and bothy, gardens and fauna, early munroists, Edinburgh Festival (history of), and photo books (eg Edwin Smith) and road directories of the country in the 1950s, when I was alive but too young to remember much, and when Scotland to my way of thinking was more uniquely Scottish than it is today.

* * *

My childhood Puffins are still in the garage, but will probably be reinstated and granted shelf-space. (I could never replace those. Every one has to be that edition, and that battered copy. How defensive one gets, if anybody dares criticise a past favourite – it’s felt, oh how it stings, like a personal insult.) We’re all products of our time. If I were more than a decade younger, I wouldn’t have accumulated so many books. If I were three or four decades younger, I might have very few of them to bother about. As a boy I read the Children’s Newspaper and, for years, Look and Learn, then a treasury of facts – An Authoritative Survey of Universal Knowledge – which Newnes brought out in thirty-eight weekly parts and which could be bound into red leather-look volumes I-VIII. It took twelve Oxford Junior Encyclopedias to bring an even weightier order to bear on this planet of ours. I grew up in a phase of history when reasonably cheap-to-purchase books were the repositories of knowledge: when that information, unlike the internet sort, was obliged to be static.

I’ve always preferred Ancient Greece to Rome, which may have had something to do with a young charismatic enthusiast in blazer and flannels and black beard who taught the subject at my Glasgow school. There are several shelves dealing with the culture, from Mycenae to Athens, from funeral bronzes to Venus de Milo – plus the very fine novels of Mary Renault which, like Simenon’s in another genre, have me literally shaking my head with awe at their skill.

Zen and Tao, and – from India – a lot of RK Narayan and Satyajit Ray.

The world in a room, within the confines of one third-floor flat. Inside my head. I also know that it’s necessary to have books which – forgive the Oprahism – allow you to dream. Photographic books mostly. (At one time I wouldn’t have confessed to taking as much from the pictorial image as the printed word, to finding films as inspirational as novels, if not more so.) High-minded or low, from the Magnum co-operative to ‘La Dolce Vita’ paparazzi. Interior design, human beauty, oriental rugs, (more) gardens, courtesans, fashion. And – Jean Renoir, Visconti, Lean and Losey, American noir, Ozu – film, film, film, books about cinema in the days when it mattered, before it grew tired and jaded and before digitalization robbed it of its remaining life.

* * *

I look around me.

The problem is that it takes not months but years to know where books are kept, on which part of which shelf in which bookcase, in the middle of which pile (the book-skyscrapers have returned – the overspill). It helps to have some kind of intimate contact with the books themselves, which involves – I would suggest – getting down on a low stool (even with a bad back) and slowly, exactingly, attempting to map the geography in your mind. If nothing else, it helps to exercise those grey cells. The books take me back, on the trail of someone who had an urgent need to find a voice. The voice would come through the digestion of others’ work. It was a time of infinite possibilities – delusional, of course – but unsullied by the comments and ‘advice’ of so-called wiser parties.

In the early 1980s I was lucky to catch the tail-ends of publishing as it used to be practised, in a ‘gentlemanly’ way, when authors’ careers were seen as taking time to develop and the editor’s eye wasn’t trained on the bottom line but, instead, on the written material. (Copy-editors – such mythical beings really did exist then – were likely to be retired school-teachers, who took their responsibilities very seriously indeed. Those times won’t return, but the books I wrote are their legacy. Publishing wasn’t as cynical as it is today, not as brazenly opportunistic and market-driven (usually in hot pursuit of the last big thing), and there was plenty of leeway for individuality.

The book room has become, not quite intentionally, my refuge, a suburban shangri-la (yes, there’s even a copy somewhere of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon), and also my bulwark against – well, against so much, especially the modern inability to remember, which technology has only aided. My memory is clearer for having the bookcases, about who I was and the flesh-and-blood people who made me and what I felt I wanted to say, and the beautiful importance – to me if to no one else – of making up the stories with which it would be done.

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Paradise Won

Even those Scots who nourish antipathy to sport in general and football in particular – a larger constituency than is generally acknowledged – usually know that, by winning the European Cup in 1967, Celtic became the first British club to acquire the trophy. The 50th anniversary of that achievement on May 25 confirmed that this football match is embedded in Scotland’s social history in a fashion which sets it apart from other notable occasions, like the Scottish victories at Wembley in 1928, 1967 and 1977.

Celtic’s accomplishment in overwhelming the ultra-defensive technocrats of Inter Milan in 1967 was of a different order. For a start, the metrics were not confined to comparisons with England, but calibrated against a European scale. Of course, it did no harm that Jock Stein and his players strode into a space never previously occupied by any English club, but even that status reanimated issues that had proved troubling within Scotland since Celtic had established themselves as one of the three most significant football entities in the country, alongside Rangers and the national team.

In 1967 Celtic were hailed as a British success story but were they, some asked – as they had done for 89 years – truly a Scottish club? Founded by Andrew Kearns from Sligo, aka Brother Walfrid of the Marist Order, and drawing support overwhelmingly from members or descendants of the Irish diaspora, Celtic flew the tricolour flag of the Irish Republic above the Parkhead stands. Yet, with the triumph of 1967, Celtic supplied a potent answer to the question of identity. If eleven men of mixed-faith backgrounds, all born within thirty miles of Celtic Park – and managed by Jock Stein, a local Protestant – could not be regarded as Scottish, how would they ever fit the description? Meanwhile, other developments, such as the first forays of Scottish working-class families to foreign holiday resorts, chimed with Celtic’s European adventure.

All of which topics have been addressed by a clutch of books prominent amongst the 50th anniversary commemorations. The five examined here have attempted to stake out distinct territory through diverse approaches. Two are fictional, while another two position their narratives within time frames – 1967 as a calendar year or 1966-67 as a football season – and the fifth places the game and its location within the narrative of European politics and culture.

The title of We’ll Always Have Lisbon is a flirtatious wink at the movies, a paraphrase of Humphrey Bogart’s allusion to Paris when he meets old flame, Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca, where the eponymous location is also the staging point for World War II refugees seeking a visa for…Lisbon. A similar mingling of a love affair – adoration of the Lions by fans old and new – with wider narratives is the product of an excellent collaboration between long-standing Celtic supporter and author, Pat Woods, and David Frier, formerly Senior Lecturer in Portuguese at the University of Leeds. Woods and Frier connect the climactic evening in Lisbon with many other dramas, including the Dreyfus Affair, when vicious partisanship infected the French press, even sporting publications. As a consequence, a newspaper called L’Auto came on the scene in 1903 and, to boost circulation, the publishers founded the Tour de France cycle race. In August 1944, the paper was closed because of allegations of ‘submission to German control’ during the Occupation. The editor-in-chief started another publication called L’Equipe, named to remind the French of the need to come together, not only amongst themselves, but with former enemies.

L’Equipe borrowed from L’Auto and launched a new sporting tournament – the European Cup – in 1956. The idea was to fill empty pages during quiet midweeks, but the project was of a piece with innovations like the Common Market and Eurovision. The latter staked its claim on European football, a development which cost Portugal the European Cup final in 1966, when it was suggested that this impoverished country on the continent’s fringe lacked the broadcasting capacity to transmit the event properly.

Portugal remedied the situation in 1967, otherwise we would have been deprived of the alliterative perfection of the Lisbon Lions. We’ll Always Have Lisbon is replete with such serendipities, including the information that the Celtic support’s attendance at Corpus Christi Mass in the city’s churches helped secure the affection of their local co-religionists in the crowd at the final and that the lack of floodlights at the Estadio Nacional – and the possibility of extra time – were responsible for the unusually early 5.30 p.m. kick-off. Woods and Frier depict the characters of Stein and his Inter Milan counterpart, Helenio Herrera, in considerable detail, emphasizing the Argentinian’s negative tactics and taste for tacky deceptions, such as promising the Celtic manager a place on the Inter team bus for a game in Italy and driving off without him.

Stein, though, was equally sleekit when it suited him, as is related in I Remember 67 Well, by David Potter, who embarked on his first year studying Latin, Greek and Ancient History at St Andrews University just as Celtic were setting out on their legendary season. A native of Forfar, Potter was adrift amongst the throngs of wealthy English and American students, but Celtic became his sheet anchor as the team’s progress on all fronts began to attract the attention of the real outsiders, who increasingly turned to him for updates on the Hoops.

Potter intersperses his account of the mounting anticipation and anxiety of each month with personal vignettes and recollections of such occurrences as the attempt to reschedule a postponed Old Firm game, for which Stein and the Celtic board suggested a holiday Monday date in March, having learned that the Ibrox captain, John Greig, was due to marry that day and that Rangers would refuse. There is also a timely reminder that trolls are not an internet phenomenon when Potter records complaints from fellow fans. ‘I always knew that c*** Lennox would never make it,’ bawls one, while another declares, of the man whose strike would secure the European Cup, ‘Chalmers simply canny score goals.’

A quotidian account of Celtic’s 1966-67 campaign is presented by Alex Gordon in That Season in Paradise. He gets the jump on rivals with a foreword by Sandro Mazzola, who scored the opening goal for Inter with a penalty kick awarded for Jim Craig’s challenge on Renato Capellini. Mazzola admits that he and his colleagues wholly underestimated Celtic. Gordon also renders a service by highlighting, over three chapters, the contribution of Joe McBride, the free-scoring centre-forward whose chance of immortality in Lisbon was dashed by a knee injury. The book is also heavily seasoned with quotes from the Lions, mainly retrieved from prior interviews or ghosted books, but relevant nevertheless.

Gordon does not neglect Stein’s weaknesses, such as erratic appreciation of goalkeeping ability. He also reminds us that a Lisbon Lion’s salary was only 25 per cent more than the average wage in Britain but a serious failing – the more so because Gordon was a noted sports editor of the Sunday Mail – is negligent fact-checking. John Rafferty was indeed ‘a veteran football writer’, but for the Scotsman, not the Herald. Gordon has a 1967 referee brandish yellow cards (introduced in 1970) and in the same year he puts Kilmarnock in the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup (inaugurated in 1974), rather than the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, where he says they lost to Vojvodina (actually Leeds United). And Scotland’s biggest competitive victory was 8-0 against Cyprus, not 7-0.

Returning to intentional fiction, there is The Road to Lisbon, by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry, originally published in 2012. The dual narrative imagines Stein’s thoughts as his team head for the final, in tandem with the burgeoning awareness of Tim, one of a group of Gorbals lads en route to Portugal, whose narrative outlasts the capacity of their Hillman Imp. Authentic dialogue is always a challenge and The Road to Lisbon sometimes stutters like the Hillman Imp before picking up the rhythm of a road movie to progress through Swinging London and rural France (with indigenous love interest) to the Portuguese capital and an agreeably open conclusion.

The last of our accounts – The Lions of Lisbon – is a stage play written jointly by Willie Maley, Professor of English at Glasgow University, and Ian Auld, brother of Bertie, the Lions’ combative midfielder. Ian was a gifted youth footballer but at 16, when he could have signed for Arsenal,
he began drinking. He died in 1998, but added to the Lions legend with this romp, now available in a version intercut with 67-word summaries – from 67 contributors (including this reviewer) – and which features a splendid stock villain in Hector Farquhar, police inspector and Orangeman, who believes that John O’Groats is a Fenian name.

The Lions of Lisbon is knockabout panto fun but, like the other books, it exploits the compelling drama of Celtic’s remorseless assault on the Inter defence and the ultimate collapse of Herrera’s despised catenaccio (bolted door) system when Steve Chalmers’ epochal shot transferred the European Cup from the Latin triangle of Italy, Portugal and Spain to Northern Europe, where it remained for 17 of the next 18 years, though not with Celtic. Four months later, in their first defence of the trophy, the Hoops lost to Dinamo Kiev. Sic transit gloria? Not then, not yet and certainly not while there are surviving Lions to tell how they – and we – will always have Lisbon.

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Only the Lonely

When traumatic memories from Eleanor Oliphant’s past lay siege to the fortress she has built around her life, she reaches behind her mattress for a copy of Jane Eyre, a book she has read so often its edges are ‘rounded and softened with years of handling’.

Loneliness is often portrayed as a modern disease – a product of smaller families and transient living – but, 170 years ago, Charlotte Brontë’s stubborn governess understood the burden of enforced solitude. She knew survival depended on developing coping strategies, but also that self-sufficiency – however useful – was no substitute for the joy of human connection. ‘There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort,’ Jane says of her growing attachment to, and fear of losing, Edward Rochester and her place at Thornfield Hall

It is this same shift from isolation to intimacy that lies at the heart of Gail Honeyman’s darkly funny debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Psychologically damaged by a chronically abusive mother and by the mysterious fire that burned her face, the fiercely intelligent Eleanor shies away from relationships, which have brought her nothing but pain. But the more she detaches herself, the more socially inept she becomes, and so on, until she mutates into the kind of muttering misfit you try to avoid on the bus.

In the book’s epigraph, taken from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, loneliness is described as growing around an individual ‘like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge’. This is the state we find Eleanor in as the novel opens. She is ‘completely fine’ only in the sense that her defensive wall, constructed of routine and alcohol, appears impenetrable. On weekdays, she works 9 to 5 in an office, in an archetypal, but unspecified UK town, where she wilfully consolidates her reputation for eccentricity before returning to her house to listen to The Archers or watch a documentary. On Friday nights, she buys Margherita pizza and several bottles of vodka, so she can spend the weekend in a state of oblivion. Yet, for all her idiosyncrasies (and sometimes because of them) Eleanor is immensely likeable. Her quirky views on life, her misperceptions of herself, her inability to understand social cues and her refusal to conform are simultaneously ludicrous and relatable.

Despite its subject matter, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is raucously upbeat. It is full of clever little allusions to Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – the women’s mutual obsession with their shoes, for example, and a reference to vermillion, which is the colour Judith favours – but it functions more as a rebuke to the former’s unremitting bleakness than a homage. Like Judith, Eleanor is a figure of pity and mockery; she drinks too much and deludes herself about the possibilities of romance with a man who cares nothing for her (local singer Johnnie Lomond) – but Honeyman refuses to write her off as a lost cause. Where Moore suggests Judith’s loneliness and spinsterhood are ineluctable, Honeyman offers hope of a brighter future. Where Moore seems to share the world’s view of his protagonist as ugly and unlovable, Honeyman insists we can all be beautiful, and that no-one – however apparently broken – is irredeemable.

This unshakable optimism, at a time when optimism is in short supply, is why the novel and its first-time author – a 40-something Glasgow University graduate, who enrolled on a Faber Academy writing course – have already attracted so much attention. It is why it won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, as well as the Scottish Book Trust’s next chapter award; why it (and a second book) were the subject of an eight-way auction in the UK; and why it attracted advances running into seven-figures after being sold into 27 territories. Last month, Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the rights to adapt Eleanor Oliphant into a film and it is destined to be a summer hit consumed on beaches from Harris to Honolulu.

Honeyman’s great achievement is to have created a character who is original and compelling, and who quickly worms her way into our affections. Eleanor’s voice – at once prickly and vulnerable, haughty and desperate for affection – is entirely her own, and one of the rewards of the novel is that, while love eventually leaves our heroine rounded and softened like her copy of Jane Eyre, she is never required to surrender her identity. Indeed, as she experiments with different ways of fitting in, she rails against attempts to change her too profoundly. The unwitting recipient of a Hollywood waxing, she castigates the beauty therapist for making her look ‘like a child’. Offered products and brushes by a woman at a make-up-counter, who has given her ‘smoky eyes’ and ‘lips the colour of Earl Haig poppies’, she says: ‘There was literally more chance of me purchasing weapons-grade plutonium.’

Honeyman is a witty writer, who revels in the absurdity of her protagonist. Eleanor has no social filter, so she thinks nothing of telling her doctor her sore back is caused by her heavy breasts – she ‘knows’ this to be true because she’s weighed them on the kitchen scales – or of demanding £3.50 from her work colleague Raymond after offering to buy him a drink. Later, going to hospital to visit Sammy, an old man she and Raymond found collapsed in the street, she swithers over what reading material to take as a gift. ‘I thought carefully and rationally to deduce an answer,’ she says. ‘The only thing I knew for sure about him was that he was an adult male; anything else would be pure speculation. I went with the law of averages, stood on tiptoe and reached up for a copy of Razzle. Job Done.’

But Honeyman never lets the sending-up tip into freak show territory. However offbeat, Eleanor’s observations on life are sharp, wry and refreshing for their lack of pretension. In fact, the novel radiates compassion. As a cast of benevolent characters – Raymond, Raymond’s mother, Sammy, Sammy’s daughter – help Eleanor to reconnect, we witness a touching metamorphosis. As Polly, her treasured pot plant, the only remnant of her pre-fire life, dies, she opens up like a flower towards the sun. The acts of kindness that bring about this transformation – Sammy clasping her hand, Raymond bringing her yellow tulips, Sammy’s daughter giving her a haircut that makes her ‘shiny’ – are such tiny gestures, received with such enormous gratitude, they are humbling.

Another deft touch is the way Honeyman conveys Johnnie Lomond’s delusions of grandeur, and his unsuitability as a prospective partner, through a series of pompous and unEleanor-like tweets. On the night Eleanor plans to attend his gig (and thereby win his love) he writes: ‘Soundcheck:done. Haircut:done. Get your fat backsides down to the Cuttings tonight, mofos. #nextbigthing #handsomebastard.’ Eleanor has to Google ‘mofo’. ‘I must confess to being slightly alarmed by the result. Still, what did I know of the wild ways of rock stars?’

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is entertaining and warm-hearted, but it does have some significant stylistic irritations, the most pronounced of which is Honeyman’s refusal to trust her readers’ inferential instincts. So prone is she to spelling out her themes, and, indeed everything else, it can feel as if you’re reading the novel and the accompanying SparkNotes rolled into one. This would would be off-putting enough if the signposting was being done via an omniscient narrator, but coming directly from Eleanor, whose lack of self-awareness is integral to the novel, it is doubly jarring.

Perhaps Honeyman’s tendency to over-explain is born of under-estimating her target audience’s abilities, but it comes across as patronizing and deprives the reader of any mental challenge. When Eleanor comes out with sentences such as: ‘There are scars on my heart just as thick and disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out,’ you want to scream.

The novel – so strong on the corrosive effects of loneliness – is also much weaker on the impact of trauma. There is one powerful moment near the beginning, when Honeyman successfully captures the panic triggered by flash-backs. ‘In the half-dark, in the full dark, I remember, I remember. Awake in the shadows, two little heartbeats, breath like a knife,’ Eleanor says. But her weekly conversations with her manic, disapproving mother – a riff on Judith Hearne’s conversations with her disapproving aunt – are too overblown and too contrived to be convincing. Equally inauthentic are her sessions with the therapist who helps her confront what happened the day of the fire. Eleanor’s transition, from suppressing the memories to coming to terms with them, is too linear, too simplistic, too straight-out-of-a-psychology-pamphlet to be credible or even interesting.

And again: that need to to spell everything out in the tritest of terms . ‘All of us – and especially young children – need to know we’re loved, valued, accepted and understood,’ the therapist tells Eleanor. ‘I said nothing. This was news to me. It sounded plausible, but it was a concept I’d need to consider at more length in the privacy of my own home,’ she muses. If only it were this easy to undo decades worth of mental turmoil, there would be fewer Eleanors in the world.

For those in need of a quick pick-me-up, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine will serve as a great tonic. A feel-good page-turner, imbued with tenderness, it fosters a sense of altruism and well-being. Eleanor’s dark back story and her ‘journey’ from social alienation to social acceptance, make it the perfect piece of escapism for the X-Factor generation. Anyone looking for complexity of character or a meditation on the enduring damage caused by childhood trauma, however, is destined to be disappointed.

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The Way We Are

The cover graphic of this momentous scholarly exercise is just its title, but laid out in uneven, blocky, patchy lettering, like a photocopied punk magazine – or perhaps a late-returned essay. The spine even simulates some fraying through overuse (before it has even been used).

The immediate meaning is nicely ambivalent. This aspires to be the required textbook at the heart of Scottish social-science education, in a similar way – and with a similar heft – to Anthony Giddens’ great Sociology primer (now on its eighth edition). But there is still a sense of provisionality, chippiness, not-quite-respectableness, about the way it presents itself. Does the content bear out the design on the cover? Yes, I’d say (and I’m no doubt already enraging cadres of methodologically precise Scottish sociologists). The author David McCrone clearly intends that this book be civically, rather than just academically used: and indeed, anyone active (and activist) in Scottish life should seriously consider having this volume at their side whenever they take to the keyboard.

McCrone’s animus is not just that sociology illuminates Scotland, but that Scotland illuminates sociology itself. He quotes with relish one of his anonymous referees, who asks why grand social theory should focus on ‘one small, damp, and not particularly significant country in Northwest Europe?’ McCrone’s explicit answer is that the existence, and more strongly the persistence, of Scotland challenges some of the complacent assumptions of his discipline. One challenge would be that that ‘at best, the UK evolved as a state-nation from the eighteenth century, and has never been a nation-state as such’. In the face of Scotland’s continuities in religion, law, education and culture over the last few centuries of Union, the idea of ‘British society’ as a ‘meaningful and cohesive unity’ is implausible. McCrone quotes tartly from the French thinker Raymond Aron: ‘The trouble is that British sociology is essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political philosophy of the Labour Party.’

Thumbing through this book from my own political escarpment, and with that subjective bias admitted upfront, I wondered whether the parallel question could be asked. That is, whether this chunk of Scottish sociology is essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political philosophy of the Scottish National Party.

Unless I’m not reading carefully enough, there seems to be an unavowed reversal of position from McCrone about why such a book might be written. At the start, he identifies ‘one important way in which Scotland is sociologically interesting: it provides an exemplar of the fact that “society” is not a synonym for “state”.’ (Strange echoes here, the anoraks might point out, to David Cameron’s ill-fated formulation in the mid-2000s). Yet in the book’s epilogue, McCrone appears to change his mind. ‘We cannot make a hard and fast distinction between “sociology” and “politics”, between society and state. The two run into each other… The [Scottish] parliament is not simply a “political” instrument, but the means of social transformation and change.’ This goes on to produce what McCrone calls a ‘social politics’. So does it follow that the more shaping and powerful Holyrood gets, indeed the more like a standard nation-state its operations, the less ‘sociologically interesting’ it becomes? For McCrone and his guest authors, I sincerely doubt it.

One of the wonderful aspects of this book is the way it breaks Scotland as a whole down into tractable, indeed governable, aspects and functions. Sit this side by side with the equally slab-like Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s (somewhat less well-researched) White Paper on Independence from 2014, and a decent steering mechanism for a small country in a globalised world would seem to be before you.

The topics McCrone defines, and their authoritative treatment, invite political or collective response. Very early in the book is a chapter called ‘The Scottish Way of Death’, which is (as many of these chapters are) a definitive one-stop shop, analysing mortality rates in contemporary Scotland. The scholarship here is advanced, including a consideration of epigenetics: the way that extreme social conditions – like harsh switches between glut and starvation – can fundamentally switch genes, and their heritable features, on and off. This may sit at the base of mysteries like the ‘Scottish’ or ‘Glasgow’ Effect – levels of ill-health that seem to exceed strict socio-economic conditions. What could be the biological legacy of Highland (and Irish) famines, and the ‘seasonal fluctuations of food supplies’, for subsequent generations and their marked conditions of cancer and heart disease?

Elsewhere, it is also good to read calm, judicious statements of the way Scotland actually is. ‘Scotland is no longer a “working class society” in terms of its employment structure,’ McCrone writes in a chapter titled ‘Making a Living’. ‘Roughly one-third of people are in managerial and professional jobs, one third in administrative and service jobs, one-third in manual labour.’ Pondering this solid conclusion starts to make sense of, for example, the character of our leading political representatives in Holyrood. Aren’t figures like Sturgeon, Dugdale and Davidson, or McConnell, Lamont and Swinney, composed equally of the executive, the administrative and the shop-floor? The composition may be more or less competent (or hapless), but you can feel the pressure of Scotland’s actual class structure shape their agendas and politics.

There are equally authoritative chapters (and very useful to have to hand) on gender, crime, race, religion and much else in Scotland. Sociology – at least when done as lucidly and helpfully as by David McCrone – is very good at handling the eternally thorny questions of how ‘distinctive’ Scotland is from our neighbouring ‘nations’, let alone other societies. As we know, this is a regularly blootered political football. Claims to Scottish national virtue are made by constitutional progressives. Their opponents respond indignantly by waving opinion polls on the lack of difference on major attitudinal issues between Scotland and the rest. It would be good for robust and responsible social scientists to wade in here – and McCrone does.

On gender, McCrone notes many things, but particularly that ‘the assumption that Scotland is an especially chauvinist society is often asserted, and less reliably proven’, when compared to the British Attitudes Survey. Scottish women may be significantly less enthusiastic towards independence than men, but McCrone’s long-term studies show that women rank ‘being Scottish’ above their gender identity, and below their parent identity. On race, he notes some differences between England and Scotland, where in the latter considerably more ethnic minorities identify as ‘Scottish’ than ‘British’ (in England, it’s 3-1 the other way). The existence of a Scottish Parliament ostentatiously distinct from Westminster ‘squeezes out ethnic politics’ in Scotland; and though the conditions for tension are always latent, the political “sparks” are absent’.

The following chapter is on religion, specially written by Aberdeen University’s Steve Bruce. He despatches with precision the idea that currently ‘Catholics are victims of labour market discrimination’, or that the Church of Scotland could ever again be regarded as the ‘national’ religion. He also rumbles to a conclusion that the word to define religion in Scotland is not ‘decline’, but ‘choice’. Faith has become a ‘thoroughly private matter, a sphere in which the individual consumer is sovereign’. Cardinals, ministers and even the head of the Samye Ling monastery join together to make a common complaint: attendees ‘want to decide for themselves just what it was they would believe’. On this topic, it’s interesting to note how long-term social study can anchor you in the present storm. This is a time when it’s evident that some leading Scottish Conservative politicians are happy to play with the more sulphurous tropes of ultra-Unionism. So it reassures you to hear that this might simply be a brief flurry in the general weather-system of ‘benign indifference’ to religion.

Lindsay Anderson’s specially commissioned chapter on education has its own thrust – to assert the long continuity of a “liberal education” through any constitutional arrangement, Unionist or otherwise. Interestingly, he notes that 28 per cent of all those intending to vote ‘Yes’ in 2014 were people on the left/centre-left who had a higher educational qualification. This ‘intellectual leadership for the Yes campaign’ was comparable to the ‘general leadership of Scottish society in the middle of the 20th century by highly educated professionals’. For Paterson, what this shows is how the ‘solid intellectual basis’ of Scottish education ‘could equip successive generations to dissent’. A significant critic of Curriculum for Excellence, Paterson finds it ironic that ‘today’s reformers have been taught in some of the very institutions against which they rebel’.

Yet McCrone’s book is very far from being a collection of set-piece debates around Scottish affairs. If you want a tour d’horizon of modern social theory, refracted through the lens of this curious ‘under-stated nation’, then this is the book for you.

A brilliant chapter titled ‘Wilful Fragments: Characterising Scottish Culture’ successfully pulverizes the tendencies among Scottish intellectuals to put the country in the psychiatrists chair. Tom Nairn’s early idea that, because Scotland missed out on nationalist liberation in the modern era, a hysterical focus on culture has filled the gap, is shown to have had pernicious effects. McCrone asks for talk of our ‘national neurosis’ to be replaced with ‘social scientific scrutiny’. It is a timely injunction, given the current political febrility, and one which may stay my own, more intemperate political tweets. But for those of us who veer between exhausted and relentless in our advocacy for Scottish independence, the appearance of The New Sociology of Scotland, in its own considerable power and mass, feels like another stone added to the intellectual bridge. The author, lofty emeritus that he is, must of course demur. He cites the literary theorist Cairns Craig on how cultural renaissance is the base for political renaissance in Scotland. But the exact quote could as easily apply to McCrone’s own book: ‘a significant past, a creative present and a believable future’.

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Woman of Letters

The figure of Thomas Carlyle looms over the Victorian literary scene like a giant from the imagination of George MacDonald. The Sage of Ecclefechan, whose spiritual memoir Sartor Resartus and magisterial The French Revolution – famously rewritten after the original manuscript was accidentally thrown on the fire – was a pivotal link between the Romantic and Regency ages, and Victorian times. It was said that he had ‘knocked out his window from the blind wall of his century,’ allowing people to see ‘the new sun’. George Eliot remarked that, ‘There is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings, there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.’

In his own lifetime, however, even his closest friends and admirers recognized that he could not be an easy man to live with. As one woman remarked, to be married to him would be ‘something next worse to being married to Satan himself’. When a German friend told him that in her country women were asking for equality in law, he cried: ‘God bless me! First the women, next the dogs!’ His views on slavery and the abolitionist cause were even more repellent. Testy, moody, demanding, but also funny and affectionate, he has lived down the decades since his death in 1881 as vividly as Abel Magwitch or Edward Casaubon.

But what of his wife? The witty, sharp-tongued and exceedingly capable Jane Welsh Carlyle has been portrayed in countless biographies as a match for her husband’s mind and spirits, but typically and tragically subservient. Constrained by convention, she was obliged to nurture Thomas’s immense talents at the expense of her own, to tolerate his combustible, quixotic temperament while setting aside her own ambitions. Reading most accounts of the Carlyle household is to assume that had they been living today, their union might have ended in divorce. Yet according to Jane’s latest biographer, the American writer Kathy Chamberlain, to accept that interpretation of one of the most famous marriages of the nineteenth century is to do a great disservice to Jane, as well as to Thomas. (Though one suspects she is a great deal less bothered about any damage done to his reputation, and might possibly think he deserves it.)

Instead of rehashing the whole life, Chamberlain concentrates on the period 1840 to 1849, the decade in which Jane Welsh Carlyle, who was born in 1801, began to shape her ideas and aspirations. The author describes her purview as being ‘Jane Carlyle’s unfolding, the story of her development as a woman and a writer,’ and the pleasing result is a work in which the spritely Victorian woman’s voice and personality rise from the page as if she were alive today. In this Chamberlain is aided by her use of the present tense when drawing on scenes described in Jane’s letters, giving them an immediacy of which Jane would no doubt approve. Although Chamberlain tells us the essentials – Jane’s upbringing in her beloved doctor father’s home in Haddington, East Lothian, her marriage in 1826 to the humbly born but incandescent genius Thomas from Dumfries and Galloway, and their eventual moving to London in 1834 – we are spared the doleful last chapters of a conventional biography in which decline and death lie in wait. This tightly focussed and lively framing device is thereby doubly effective, leaving the reader invigorated, and inspired.

It would, of course, be hard to write a book about Jane, quoting liberally from her letters as Chamberlain does, without an infusion of fun, not to mention vivid and occasionally mischievous social and political commentary. The author’s voice, however, fits well with her subject’s, and while there could not be a more enthusiastic or sympathetic champion of this not always easy woman, no whiff of hagiography spoils the venture, and the rare notes of hero-worship can be chalked up to understandable zeal.

Jane emerges both as an individual and as an exemplar of the difficulties clever middle-class women faced. Using her copious letters – there was barely a day when she did not write to at least one relative, or friend – Chamberlain draws a colourful picture of the Cheyne Row house, near the reek of the Thames – ‘tar and sewage and salt’ – and Jane’s natural home-making skills. We see her boiling worms out of a chair’s horsehair stuffing, nailing down carpets, supervising annual redecorating, and dealing with the couple’s remarkable maid of all work, Helen. A petite woman from Kirkcaldy, Helen had, in Thomas’s estimation, ‘an intellectual insight almost as of genius’. She also had a drink problem, and during the worst sessions would have to be locked in her room until she sobered up.

Helen is only one of the supporting cast in a book teeming with intelligent women, notably Jane’s dear friend the emancipated novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Another is a young and hapless German governess, Amely Bolte who, it becomes clear, was madly in love with her mentor and with whom, later in the decade, Jane exchanged letters whose tone raises questions about what form her own feelings might have taken in return. As well as the couple’s closest friends, who included Jane’s confidante Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary, Cheyne Row was renowned for its exalted visitors, from the likes of the tongue-tied Alfred Tennyson, to Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. These were names to fill the autograph book, but their guests felt equally honoured to be invited by the most august and engaging literary couple in town.

While Jane’s letters were passed around a wide circle, they were never published. Indeed, in her lifetime her copious writing did not result in anything reaching the press. Thomas, who was a constant supporter and encourager, once asked, ‘is a thing nothing because the Morning Papers have not mentioned it?’ Certainly, Jane’s reputation as a first-class letter writer elevated her to a position of fascination in her own right, and shows the discernment of her peers, who immediately recognized her literary gifts. ‘In her letter writing,’ Chamberlain comments, ‘Jane often exhibits the clear-seeing eye of a socially observant English novelist.’ The comparison she makes with Jane Austen is inevitable: ‘both are sharply observant, humorous, ironic, and morally astute’. But while their instincts may have been akin, the extracts from Jane’s letters show she could not match Austen’s remarkable concision, nor her brilliant if chilly detachment. Perhaps Jane Carlyle would have agreed, for she once confessed: ‘I was meant to have been a subaltern of the Daily Press… a Penny-a-liner – for it is not only a faculty with me but a necessity of my nature to make a great deal out of nothing!’

Sadly, as the thread that runs through this book shows, any hope of becoming a professional writer was, for someone in Jane’s position, if not impossible, then daunting. She did have female friends who made their living from their pen, but they were unusual. Far more passed the hours genteelly deploying their needle. The early Victorian age is a lesson for those who believe in unstoppable progress. Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, and uprisings across Europe and beyond, Britain narrowed its mind. By the 1830s and 40s, it was as if Mary Wollstonecraft had never written her Vindication of the Rights of Women. More in tune with the repressive public mood was Sarah Stickney Ellis’s tract, The Wives of England: Relative Duties, Domestic Influence, and Social Obligations (1843). In this she cautioned that she who marries ‘has voluntarily placed herself in such a position that she must necessarily be her husband’s inferior’.

There is no opportunity for Chamberlain to do more than suggest that Jane, like too many intellectually frustrated Victorian wives and daughters, suffered from ‘protective invalidism’, whose symptoms included disabling headaches that allowed them to retreat to their rooms. Therein, she suggests, is a rich theme for further study. There is little doubt that Jane’s stifled opportunities, and her complicated marriage contributed both to physical and mental anguish. What one might call the commonplace hiccups and grumblings of their situation, possibly exacerbated by childlessness, took an entirely new turn in the middle of the decade. June and July 1845, Chamberlain writes, ‘mark the point where a dark vertical line might be drawn through Jane’s life to indicate when the richness of her sparkling London existence was put in jeopardy.’

The cause was Thomas’s infatuation with Lady Harriet Baring, a stately aristocrat in whose sumptuous home he became such a familiar, as Jane told a friend, that ‘he has established a small permanent wardrobe there!’. This, despite both parties being married. A portrait of Lady Harriet shows an imposing figure with an expression trained to be sphinx-like. Jane described her as ‘immensely large’. Worse, she was to represent a serious and ongoing threat to the close relationship she and Thomas enjoyed. The distress he caused his wife by refusing to break all ties makes upsetting reading. While there is no evidence to confirm Thomas committed adultery, the passion in his letters to Lady Harriet – ‘Adieu, dear Lady mine, – mine yes, and yet forever no!’ – make such proof redundant. Whether or not it was physically consummated, theirs was a disloyal bond that no loving wife could have tolerated without heartache. Letters flew over these anguished years between husband and wife ‘as if to the tick of a metronome’, but those that touch on their torment capture only a fragment of the pair’s feelings. None is to Thomas’s credit, whose thoughtlessness, or heartlessness, is hard to fathom.

What followed, naturally enough, was a cooling of Jane towards her husband that very possibly helped her think more clearly for and about herself. There is no resounding finale to this book, no magnificent literary outcome for its heroine, despite the implicit promise early on that Jane’s quest to find her creative niche will come good. Instead, it draws to a close shortly after Jane makes a solitary pilgrimage back to Haddington, in the summer of 1849. That bittersweet return to her happy childhood home inspired an essay, ‘’Much ado about nothing’, which, when posthumously published, showed what she was made of. In addition, ‘She became one of the best letter writers in the English language – accomplishment enough.’

By its end, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World has evoked its subject with something close to brilliance. Speaking of his work on Oliver Cromwell, Thomas opined that ‘Only what you at last have living in your own heart is worth putting down to be printed; this alone has much chance to get into the living heart and memory of other men.’ He might have been speaking of Chamberlain’s method, because she presents Jane Carlyle as if there is no barrier between her and us, allowing her to walk straight into our presence. By turns a sparkling social history and the story of a marriage in crisis, this is also a penetrating glimpse of a tremulous point in attitudes towards women and what they could and should be allowed to achieve. This reader remains to be convinced that Jane was not cruelly confined by her circumstances, not least Thomas’s divided romantic attentions, and that an early biographer’s description of her suffering ‘a life of pain’ is entirely misguided. What Chamberlain has done, however, and superbly, is to show that Jane was vividly present during the difficulties she and her husband faced, and refused to accept them meekly. Her unbowed spirit, and her never-still pen saved her from the dreadful fate of married martyrdom, a charge that can now be wiped from the slate.

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Volume 12 Issue 3 Editorial

Here at the Scottish Review of Books we choose our heroes carefully. One such is Richard Hoggart. His is not a name, we acknowledge, which will be familiar to many readers, even those of a ‘certain’ age. But to many baby boomers Hoggart epitomized an era – the two decades immediately following the end of the Second World War – which saw the transformation of the British working class.

His seminal book was The Uses of Literacy, published sixty years ago. On its author’s death, in 2014, aged 95, the Guardian said it was one of the great books of the twentieth century. We agree. Though dated, it is transportive, insightful, affectionate, informed and, above all, beautifully written.

Its subject is ordinary people living in towns and cities across Britain and what they were reading, listening to and watching. The speed of change alarmed Hoggart who felt that the effects of Americanization, mass advertising and a rapacious media would erode working-class values and redefine communities, and not for the better. Of working-class roots himself, he foresaw the danger of cultural homogenization. By studying popular magazines and comics, tabloid newspapers and films, he described how ‘alien’ products invaded local communities and robbed them of their distinctiveness. Hoggart’s enemy was not popular culture per se. On the contrary, he was a huge fan and understood what made it worth celebrating. What he did not approve of, however, was mass culture, which turns everywhere into anywhere.

Hoggart’s prescience is now obvious. In its obituary, the Guardian quoted him on the launch of commercial television: ‘There are many who can take cultural debasement remarkably easily. They are not closely acquainted with the mass-produced entertainment which daily visits most people. In this way it is possible to live in a sort of clever man’s paradise, without any real notion of the force of the assault outside.’ In the decades since Hoggart wrote these words the reach of mass, manufactured culture has increased at a speed that even he could never have foretold.

If he had only written The Uses of Literacy Hoggart would be worthy of our admiration. But there are many other reasons to remember him. His upbringing may best be described as Dickensian. Born in Leeds, his mother and father both died when he was young and he was raised by a grandmother. Although he failed the 11-plus he got into a grammar school through a scholarship on the strength of his English essay. He was, he learned later, one of only thirty children – out of a potential 65,000 – to be selected. It made him a lifelong supporter of comprehensive education.

He was also a passionate and eloquent advocate of libraries of all sorts but especially of public libraries, as were so many of his generation. Libraries were an integral part of society, the means by which many people – and especially children – could have unfettered access to books and information. You need only read the autobiographies of notable people from poor backgrounds who in hindsight came to appreciate that the public library, with free access for all, was the window through which other worlds and cultures were opened to them and which allowed them to realize their potential. Even so, there is a sense that we have yet fully to understand the incalculable impact public libraries have had on British life. In short, we have for too long taken them for granted. Too often, for example, ignorant commentators – many of whom, we suspect, rarely, if ever, use them – suggest they have outlived their usefulness and that if they were to close tomorrow no one would miss them.

In fact, we have never had greater need of libraries. As recent statistics show, standards of literacy in Scottish schools are deeply concerning. While politicians are content to bash each other over the head in a cynical bid to make capital of this, we are of the view that improving levels of literacy is complex and ought not to be a matter of grandstanding but careful, committed consideration. That the fall in standards has coincided with the decline in school libraries and the disappearance from many of them of qualified librarians is surely significant. The education secretary, John Swinney, has recently said he intends to plan a strategy on school libraries and we look forward to seeing what he proposes.

In the meantime, we would suggest that the time has come to stop protecting libraries and to start promoting them. Instead, for example, of colluding in their closure and reducing their opening hours and making valuable staff redundant – as many local authorities have been doing of late – we believe there needs to be a renewed appreciation of their worth. We would like to see many more libraries opening for longer hours and in places that people can best access them. Moreover we would like there to be many more professional librarians, as others would like there be many more police on the beat, nurses in the wards and teachers at the chalk face. The cost would barely make a dent in the nation’s finances and the benefits would be immediate and enduring. Of one thing we can be sure: Richard Hoggart would approve.

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War Wounds

There was a phase in the development of modern theatre when, under the guidance of Gordon Craig and other innovators, the aim was to find inspiration in puppet theatre, to study and reproduce the mechanics of movement and the fixity of character of puppets.

I have no reason to believe that director Jemina Levick had anything of this sort in mind for this new work, The 306: Day, but something in the distinctive style of this invigorating production, in the choreography, the bustle and busyness of performance and the author’s decision not to probe too deeply into character brought these ideals forcefully to mind.

This is not to belittle the skills or achievements of the actors, who act to the highest of standards, who provide some achingly moving moments of human drama and who by their ensemble performance provide insights into one of history’s darker moments, giving often painful glimpses of slices of lives. However, the theatrical emphasis is on chorality, not individuality. The mainly female cast are each dressed in uniform costumes of cloth bonnets, grey blouses and trousers neatly buttoned up the back. They do not remain quite anonymous, but are not required or permitted to develop as single characters. Nor do they play one part throughout. They come together to chant, converse, bang drums, shout, declaim, march, demonstrate, then separate to assume the role of members of a family, colleagues in a workplace, protesters or police officers. They shift in and out of character with the same dexterity they show moving about in the performance space.

Writer Oliver Emanuel has structured his work as a series of sketches set in Glasgow during World War I. The frame is narrow, meaning that the spectator receives the kind of experience felt when peering at certain surviving scenes in a mosaic which is known to depict a much bigger drama but which has crumbled. The scenes themselves retain their dark vividness, showing some people, mainly women, living out their lives as victims of a tragedy which is being played out elsewhere. They were initially at a loss over how to react or even comprehend fully their situation, so paradoxically the viewer is better equipped than they. The people in the stalls are moved to pity in part by the tales told and the suffering displayed, and in part by prior knowledge of the wider tragedy.

The year is 1917. The war has been under way for years, so the impression is of chancing on events which have been unfolding for some time. We are on the fringes of history. Echoes from elsewhere are faintly heard. In their hatred of war and devastation, the women pick up news that someone called Lenin had arrived back in Russia. Could it be true that he made his famous journey to St Petersburg with the assistance of the Kaiser? Could hope be placed in such a man, or was his part in the story simply another false dawn? Where does hope lie? What can women in the west of Scotland do?

The 306 of the title indicates the distant tragedy, since it refers to the number of British soldiers shot by the army for cowardice in the course of what was once called the Great War. Contemporary poets, like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, and subsequent historians, novelists and theatre people like Joan Littlewood with the now classic work, Oh What a Lovely War!, have radically altered perceptions of that conflict, exposing it as a scar in the European conscience in the way that the Second World War never has become. It is now not even clear why it was fought at all. Did Europe sleep walk into mass slaughter, as Christopher Clark suggested in a recent book?

Emanuel’s trilogy of works, of which this is the second, does not aim to face such questions but his plays can be seen as an admirable if slight contribution to a continuing war of words over that conflict. There may be little more to be said about a war in which, according to some estimates, up to nine million combatants and an incalculable number of civilians fell victim. The play does not pose new questions, nor probe the grand issues but it does what theatre does more poignantly and incisively than any other medium: it examines the impact of global strife on the lives of the little people, shines light on unfamiliar corners and dramatizes the tragedy not of the captains and kings but of the ordinary people left to cope with the impact of decisions made in the ministries and chancelleries in the capitals. The first work in the series focused directly on the men in the trenches, and the new work explores the lives of the women on the so-called home front.

What the women left at home will not do is remain silent and inert. The front page of the programme has a curiously inappropriate image of a woman in factory outfit but with a gag covering her mouth. The women featured in the play refuse to be gagged. They may have a sense that the determining events are occurring elsewhere, on the continent of Europe, but these women are not passive, nor are they deferential to the system which has brought this catastrophe about. They take over the jobs done in factories in peace time by their menfolk.

Although there are only five women and one man on stage, the multiplicity of roles they adopt show their suffering when facing the indifferent, casual cruelty of bureaucrats armed with books of rules. The women here are divided in their sense of duty. Some develop a political consciousness, while carrying on in the domestic and industrial sphere, but here is no romanticism over complete female solidarity. Some bicker over tea with their more feisty colleagues on questions of loyalty and the justification of denouncing the war the men are engaged on, while others are not above silently snooping on protesters.

With high irony, but drawing on historical fact, Oliver shows the women employed in a munitions factory, building bombs and armaments which can only prolong and spread suffering. In those dire times, there was little choice. Food had to be earned, and the plight of those who depended on state handouts was dire. None was more aware of the contradiction than Nellie, whose plucky defiance is subtly conveyed by Dani Heron. Her husband (Steven Miller, whose part is left in shadows) is in jail as a conscientious objector, employed in the manufacture of coffins and inept at dialogue during periods of visit from his wife. Nellie’s plight is central. She pays the price for becoming an activist in the Women’s Peace Campaign, when she is betrayed by some of her colleagues and sees her house invaded by a force of policewomen, leading to her being dragged off, strip-searched and imprisoned.

Others fare as badly in different ways. Gertrude (Amanda Wilkin) queues for a pension she is due after the death of her husband, but her name does not figure in the lists held in the offices. The official grows insolent, while those behind her in the line are impatient and threatening. The hunger that she and her children have to endure is not their concern, or at least not at that moment.

Mrs Byers hovers on the verge of insanity, waiting for news of her son, who had been executed for desertion. She had been officially and mercilessly informed of his fate, and hears it repeated by her exasperated daughter, but suppresses it into some deep area of her subconscious. Fletcher Mathers is excellent in portraying the useless chirpiness of the character as she wonders when word will come and when her son will walk in through the door.

The atmosphere in this work is dark, an impression heightened by the sombre music composed by Gareth Williams and played by Robert Irvine on the cello and Laura McIntosh on the piano. The songs are more reminiscent of operatic recitativo than numbers in a musical. It is a pity that the words in choral recitals are not always clear. Some times, a few, plain words are enough. ‘I’m sorry to tell you,’ begins a letter from official sources, and the shock of the simple words repeated by successive singers is overwhelming. A bewigged judge on the bench delivers the sentence on an anti-war protester by breaking unexpectedly into subdued song.

‘We are growing stronger’, runs the final number. Well, maybe… No doubt some will find parallels with dilemmas discussed in the headlines of today’s press, but this is not really a play for today. There is no reason why it should be. The will to probe and keep alive memories of other times is a deep human need, and helps prevent modern minds from being marooned in the present. The women from that time showed a spirit which deserves to be respected, and perhaps recaptured.

The production is not designed for conventional stages. I saw it in the Station Hotel in Perth, in a room which is plainly part of a function suite, with the restricted audience seated on all four sides, a setting which invites the spectators to feel participants. The props, or scenery, are few and adaptable, being mainly wooden-plank tables which can serve as factory production lines, pub or kitchen tables where gossip, rumour or anger can be exchanged, and also as platforms from which speeches can be delivered and finally as surfaces on which women march on demonstrations. Behind the audience, panels have been erected which the performers bang to create hubbub when stillness is liable to descend, which is infrequent.

The production is further proof of Scotland’s National Theatre success in its various missions. It takes theatre to venues outside the normal circuit, and it incorporates the strengths of other companies into the works it produces. I am not sure what contribution Perth Theatre made to this new work, but it is good to see their name kept prominent during the restorations of their home base. Stellar Quines is mainly concerned with highlighting women’s issues, as is being done here, while Red Ensemble is establishing its reputation for the variety and excellence of its musical performances.

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That Old Thing

It came in a snail mail, news that you were gone – ‘去了’, literally.

I had only been on the small island in the north less than two years, still excited at finally having the freedom I had longed for. I had left no room in my luggage for the house three hundred miles away, and all those associated with it – the memories and the people, including you.

That afternoon, after receiving the rare letter from the south, I rode my 70cc Honda up the slope to the quiet university gallery on the hilltop. Dead and buried, words from the thin sheet of paper hissed in my head as I walked in the empty aisles of the air-conditioned room, among paintings glancing down at me, pleading for attention. Last week, it said. There was no mention of the exact when, and where, how and why.

Your death was as insignificant as the life you had lived.

I sat on a bench and, for the first time, tried to think of you, of who you really were, of what you meant to me, to the family, and vice versa. In front of me, in Dzulkifli Buyong’s Mosquito Net, three young girls are playing in a bedroom over a night-gauze that is being set up by their mother; next to them an elderly woman, on all fours, blows the flame off an insect repellent coil on the floor. I stared at it, the scene of family fun and love. I would have identified the elderly woman with you, but I could not, because that role, presumably of yours, had never truly existed in our household.

You were a grandmother I never actually had.

I had been afraid of you.

They called you That Old Thing, attaching the name to you when a mention was inevitable – Is it That Old Thing’s doing – spilling water all over the corridor? Must be That Old Thing again, spending ages in the bathroom!

That Old Thing, That Old thing, That Old Thing. Because I grew up in it, because I heard it day and night, it became a matter-of-fact, unquestionable. There were other names – Witch, Mad Woman, and a couple more, among others, in a language deemed unsuitable to be disclosed here; but That Old Thing was what I knew you by. That Old Thing, to a child, was some ancient being lurking in the six-bedroom wooden house I grew up in, like the archaic artefacts – untouched, covered in cobwebs – hidden in the forbidden mezzanine above the living quarters. Erected by the river, the house, laden with humidity, sighed and groaned at every sweep of the wind. And with every sweep of the wind, old secrets and suppressed angst, sadness and grief were stirred up from nooks and corners, and swirled in the halls and corridors in sibilant whispers. Everything brought fear and excitement in equal measure to a child. Everything, including you.

And everything about you was peculiar: The way you walked the short trips from your room to the toilet and bathroom: a pail in hand, torso and bottom swaying on tiny feet, one excruciatingly slow step after another, as though a hidden force was pushing against you, restricting you from moving forward; and those words from your mouth, devilish curses of death targeted not only the entire family but also the ancestors of eighteen generations, as you sat in front of your room, day after day.
And you were a permanent fixture outside your room.

In that big house by the river, all bedrooms were protected from underground dampness with foot-high wooden floors, presumably an accessible height for all. A curtain, embroidered with flowers and birds, was pulled across each door for a little privacy during the day when all chambers were open. As children, as soon as the crawling and staggering stages were over, we ran from room to room, jumping on and off the platforms, pushing away the curtains and – Ta-la! – appearing and disappearing behind the thin shields. There was one room though, only one, we would not enter. It was the only room with an extra step outside of it. That was your room.

It was to the right of the hallway that led from the living room to the kitchen, that gloomy chamber of yours. It was gloomy because despite the white curtains, the only window, which opened to the kitchen, was screened from the inside with a thick, green cloth by none other than yourself.
There, in front of it, you sat, every day, on the platform in loose, dark blue Manchurian top and black trousers: your hair, grey and sparse, tied back into a knot; legs splayed; deformed feet on show out on the step. As you sat there, short and plump, it appeared as though an invisible weight had pressed heavily down on you, on your head and shoulders, rendered you dwarf-liked, a contorted lump of a figure slumped on the threshold.

In a corner of the corridor empty of daylight, your presence, half hidden in the penumbra shadow of the partially raised curtain, resembled beings from stories of dark nights of East and West: creatures reminiscent of nian, the mythical audacious beast, which would reign on New Year’s Eve to feast on defenceless villagers; or hunchback witches with hooked nose, even though you did not have one; and many others we had learned from the adults and the limited translated foreign books of a neighbour.

To us children, going through the passage between the living room and the kitchen was an adventure similar to those in the dark tales. We would at first walk on tiptoe and, upon approaching you, run quickly past and giggle loudly for another triumphant crossing on a perilous journey. It was a game we played tirelessly. At times, though, we were not careful – when our stomachs were empty and food was steaming in the kitchen, when orders from adults for errands were pressing – as we headed absentmindedly to answer the calls, midway, a pair of hands would reach out and grab at us, pulling us towards her – that’s you, That Old Thing. Because I was a careless sort, because I was small and skinny, or perhaps you were simply fond of me, I became your favourite target.

Memories rose, turning vivid, the vibrant colours of Buyong’s seemingly comical, passionate figures of the tropics. I am the unfortunate child who has fallen into the evil claws. Come here, Ah Moi, you say, calling my nickname. Let Amma hold you. I struggle, grappling with you. Let Amma love you. I feel your tightening grip, but unable to move, to prise myself from your clutches. Your body has an odour that even overwhelms the layers of my youthful perspiration. It was the smell of old urine, sticky, thick. I grasp for air. I tuck my head out from under your armpit, only to peep into the dark cave that is your room. Even stronger now, the stench, coming from the deep blackness.

I sat in silence, in a gallery devoid of people. It was my haven, that little space forsaken by many, too busy with lectures, assignments, examinations. Every day I would wander between paintings hungry for admiration: a glance, a nod, a raised eyebrow, and initiate mental conversations with their creators, of the colours and lines, textures and forms, and the meanings behind them. I would feel content, brimming with pride for the newly acquired knowledge and insight. That afternoon, though, as I sat there thinking of you, of your presence and non-presence even prior to your demise, and the fragile line between them, the space around me suddenly expanded, wide and vast. I felt small and insignificant. I wanted to talk to someone, to tell someone about it, about you, but there was no one in sight. I wanted to grasp at something, to feel something tangible in my hands, but between me and the artworks, there was only cold air, and nothing else.

Was that how you had felt, the emptiness – so immense, so intense – a bottomless abyss? Was it the same emptiness that had prompted you to reach out, to grab at the children, at me, who laughed and played and lived the life you never had? Sitting there I imagined a teenage girl, innocent and afraid, as she stepped into a new household that would be her home for the rest of her life, only to find a husband who, resenting the arrangement, would never share a bed with her, never lay his eyes on her, never give her a rightful status in the family. Even the decision to adopt the three children you would bring up, including Father, was not yours.

You were driven to insanity by those to whom you were entrusted.

Sitting there, in a gallery of a university far away from the home I had determined to leave from a tender age, I looked around me, at the beauty and the aesthetic of it, of the life I had led thus far, of my chance of making choices. I shivered in the chilled air. You had never had an option, never had a means to escape.

Ah Moi, my dear, your voice rose in the vacant hall, a ripple of echoes against the pale walls, among the colours and canvas and frames. Come here, come to me. And call me, will you? Call me Amma. For once, just for once.

Yes, I will, Amma. I will, I said quietly. Two decades too late.

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Who’s who?

If the natural world of trees and bees starts on the edge of our towns and cities, the digital world starts at our fingertips. Meaningful access to both requires the acquisition of secret languages and a deep understanding of their codes of existence but it is harder for the innocent to fathom the furthest reaches of the latter.

Those of us who dabble in social media or browse news websites are builders of sandcastles at the very edge of a vastness with deep, dark potential. Those who accrue to themselves great power based on mastering this vastness shimmer through public life like a super villain created by Grant Morrison.

Andrew O’Hagan’s new collection comprises three essays previously published in the London Review of Books. They are true stories in so far as they are truthful accounts of what O’Hagan was able to learn, not because they are necessarily the whole story. In their different ways, they are concerned with the ownership of identity and personal narrative as they become wireless. O’Hagan contends a reporter with the sensibilities of a novelist is uniquely equipped to explore the inherent ambiguities: ‘When I’m reporting I feel less like a news gatherer and more like an actuality seeker, someone for whom the techniques of fiction are never foreign and seldom inappropriate,’ he writes. Precisely what these techniques are could be clearer – an awareness might be better – but O’Hagan’s novels suggest a preoccupation with individual and collective identity. What was Maria Tambini’s prize for winning Opportunity Knocks for seven consecutive weeks if not an identity tethered to nothing? And can’t Our Fathers be read as a book about Scotland experiencing a personality crisis? He summons some of the old paper gods – Norman Mailer and Scott Fitzgerald, WH Auden and Joseph Mitchell – to support his argument that writers have long-known invention and concealment are key components of human experience.

The reports published in The Secret Life don’t amount to an argument that the internet is creating new human impulses. The online self is not the next stage in evolution but a way to indulge primeval urges with hitherto unknown ease. But it can also amplify existing problems and O’Hagan is eager to explore this conflict. Setting out his perception of the world he wishes to delve into, he describes the internet as ‘a marketplace of self-hood’ that gives ‘the tools of fiction-making to everyone equally’. Andrew Sullivan, in New York Magazine, worried ‘this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not living’. Such considerations are becoming less important, however, than the pursuit of validation in the form of relationships with online shadows. The implications of this are worth assessing with reference to the distinction Clive James drew between celebrity and recognition, but at the very least Andy Warhol’s prophecy needs a fresh lick: everyone can feel minutely famous if they have fifteen followers on Twitter.

Big issues are at stake in The Secret Life with no expectation they will be easily resolved. It’s fortunate, then, that birds sing hymns about O’Hagan’s pen: there is a perfect harmonization of tone and style in the cause of serenading the stories so they might be seduced into an orderly reveal of their details. It is a testimony to the clarity of the writing, its ability to arrange and explain, that the complex stories in this collection are presented just so. O’Hagan’s reportage has a serenity, a sense of something being deliberately controlled, that distinguishes it from his novels and reviews. The hot dust of Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song settles on first impressions for this reason but also because it exists in the alleyways between fact and fiction.

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks guru, is the subject of the first story. Described as ‘the manifestation of a hyperventilating chatroom’, he emerges as a duplicitous narcissist with lecherous tendencies. A black hole for adulation, he has little tolerance for those with different opinions and even less understanding of how they might be arrived at. He is paranoid about the intentions of countless enemies so patrols the borders of his public story. This proves to be problematic for O’Hagan who is meant to be ghosting the autobiography Assange has contracted to produce. At one point, Assange claims he is helping O’Hagan write a novel, a rare acknowledgement of the games being played.

As someone who had made his name revealing the secrets of the powerful, the air of his fiefdom is thick with hypocrisy. ‘His pursuit of governments and corporations was a ghostly reverse of his owns fears for himself,’ writes O’Hagan. ‘That was the big secret with him: he wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’ O’Hagan is much-too sanguine about the consequences of WikiLeaks, a conclusion that makes no demands on hindsight, but his respect for it is the counterweight to Assange’s shiftiness. The report is a junction where an old story about the relationship between power and responsibility meets a new one about the digital vulnerability of institutions to being devoured from the inside. The implications are unnerving and there’s no comfort in knowing Assange is the same old megalomaniac history has served up before.

O’Hagan believes the third report came from his work with Assange. Craig Wright is the focus this time. A brilliant programmer, cryptographer and mathematician, he is purportedly Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of the digital currency known as bitcoin. O’Hagan enters after Wright has fled Australia with the tax authorities on his tails. His financial problems are lessened when he agrees a deal with a Canadian company hoping to profit from his ideas. Things come badly unstuck, however, when Wright seemingly sabotages his public unveiling as Satoshi. O’Hagan concludes it’s likely he was Satoshi but couldn’t handle the consequences of this being public knowledge. According to O’Hagan, Wright ‘never stopped imagining different lives for himself’ and the diffuse nature of his identity was problematic even before his online activity ‘stripped him bare’. He imagines a future in which privacy will be protected by individuals being someone other than who they really but this was just a means of placing his own neurosis in the vanguard of social evolution.

There are broad similarities between the first and third reports but the middle one feels distinctly like the piggy. In the others, there is a strong sense that O’Hagan is guided by a code of ethics that combines with his personal diligence – he quotes from Frank Herbert’s Dune, Wright’s favourite book as a teenager – to provide the foundation of their integrity. Crucially, he is not the instigator of these stories so the boundaries of his responsibilities are more clearly demarcated. In the second report, however, O’Hagan is essentially the subject as he creates an online presence based on Ronald Pinn, a young man who died in 1984. The revelation that undercover police officers were stealing the identities of dead children serves as the justification but if we already know people can be created then what is O’Hagan trying to prove?

The means are crying out to be justified but the issues aren’t developed sufficiently to resolve the moral problems at their heart. O’Hagan refers to the new Pinn in the third person as though he were coming out of his pen onto a page rather than a version of himself interacting with people in online forums. The lines between creativity and the abdication of responsibility feel uncomfortably blurred at times: ‘I can only say that the Ronald Pinn I made up tended towards certain enterprises of his own volition and I let him.’ In time – less than you might think – Pinn has a tax code and a passport. Drugs are bought on the dark web using bitcoins, suggesting he might have been the co-creation of a lawyer or two.

O’Hagan’s attempts to piece together the life of the real Ronnie Pinn form the second element of the story. A tip-off about his mother leads to a door on the edge of London. ‘It seemed reasonable to expect that the story of Ronnie’s real life would be something she felt she owned,’ O’Hagan speculates. The story closes as the door opens and he is welcomed into her home. He has spoken subsequently about what happened next. Over the course two hours and cups of tea, Ronnie’s mother acted as though O’Hagan was her son coming home but seemed deaf to his explanations. They parted on good terms, with promises of letters and meals. Then his piece was picked up by the papers and Ronnie’s mother saw what she hadn’t before. Now she accused O’Hagan of taking Ronnie and who would feel differently?

It’s no revelation that individuals create new identities to become the person they think they should be. Who would want to be Robert Zimmerman or Norma Jean Mortenson when you could be everything they were not, everything they could never be? The question is just how far can these impulses can now be taken and what this means for relationships in the real world. If we are sacrificing our ability to interact in a context where we might also touch and smell then we might as well hit upload and be done with it. But something would be irretrievably lost, like a balloon sucked from the hands of a child. Laurie Penny recently implied she was a believer in ‘the moral purity of the digital future’. This statement jarred like knife steel hitting bone but O’Hagan the reporter has called its achievability profoundly into question. O’Hagan the novelist should be grateful because he would be redundant, like much else precious to human existence, in a world of clinical moral purity.

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JL Williams: Five Poems

Coney Island Blues

He said he had a carnival way of looking at the world;
all cotton candy and girls in white hot pants,
hot dog eating contests, A&W Root Beer,
sandy French fries and the bottoms of the feet
hot with splinters from the boardwalk
and the metal floor of the swinging car
in the greatest Ferris wheel ever made – the one that
makes your stomach full of sugar and love
feel like coming out your mouth while he waits for you
on the finale of the pier
watching the waves roll in, listening to
laughter and screams in
whatever so many languages; Spanglish,
Russian, Joisey, oi! ‘Mi Dios,’ ‘Meine liebe…’
‘Il vostro cuore è bello a me!’
Best slice of pizza this side of the Atlantic.

He was there when you came down,
dizzy and high on Coney Island,
and you thought there was some strength in that,
in the fact that he was waiting for you
and that he came back to you, then,
before the dark took over
and the Ferris wheel rusted
and the light bulbs smashed
and the salt of the sea ate the wood of the pier away.

What remains are the parts of him, difficult
as any of this to reassemble:
his festival eyes, his flush lips,
his sun-licked continent of skin that was,
for a time, your country.


Trinity

The father and his father and his daughter.
The father and the ship and the sea.
The father and the daughter and the missing proper names of long-lost souls.

The ship, the sea and the innocent sky.
The guileless ship and the sugar and slaves.
The slaves and the helpless sun and sea.

The sugar and the slaves and skin coated in sweat and the sweetest grains.
The sea and salt and sacred blue whales singing fathoms below the ships.
The father and the mother and the mistress.

The paper of a thirsty tongue, and the blue-black ink and the call to field.
The mother’s breast heavy with milk, and the tiny body and the mouth of sea.
The clanking of the iron chains and the skin rubbed raw and the stench of burnt hair.

The mother and the mistress and the daughter.
The mother and the suicide note and the long-gone father’s missing keys.
The daughter and the ship and her need.

The ship, the sugar and the coast of gold.
The lips and the sugar and the panting waves.
The sun and melting sugar and guns.

The daughter, the unknown father and dreams.
The sail and water hot as shame, and the worthless tears viscous as sea.
The mother and silence and apology.

The sugar shed and the ghosts of boats and the sea shot through with memory.
The father and the daughter and the wind.
The sugared ropes and the rum and kelp.

The golden bell that is no longer rung and the rusted anchors and the broken masts.
The aching barrels and the rotting sacks and the ship’s cathedral assayed by rats.
The blown bulb of sky, and the legacy and scars.

The birds whose beaks are white with salt, and flying fish and blood red suns.
The buildings with their crumbling facades and empty shops and silent streets.
The graveyard and the whitening bones and the gravestones carved with ship and sail.

The madness and the burning heat and the sweet mirage of winter’s snow.
The mother and her furrowed brow and a cloth dipped in a cooling brew.
The singing of the father’s song, and the holy wafer and the sugared wine.


Lullullaby

what kind of lullaby in the rocking chair
so life ain’t fair no life’s not fair

the boys they go to war they shoot their loads
it’s all they know this is their school
the babies’ limbs like souvenirs
their belts heavy with baby hair

what kind of lullaby in the rocking chair
so life ain’t fair no life’s not fair

the girls they bump beneath the boys
they wear no clothes they wear lipstick
they smoke white weed and never scream
be quiet now you little girls
and kiss the boys they’ll love you bad
they’ll leave you soon they’re all you have

what kind of lullaby in the rocking chair
so life ain’t fair no life’s not fair

and in their suits the old men piss
in goldfish bowls to collect gold
they trade their bowls for baby food
and burn it in their living rooms
their wives shop for the household tools
underwear and second-hand shotguns

what kind of lullaby in the rocking chair
so life ain’t fair no life’s not fair

you drink your pint and talk your shite
it’s politics but you are safe
you go home to a feather bed
you work and oil the wheeled machine
your tears a daily ritual
but no one cares and no one sees

what kind of lullaby in the rocking chair
so life ain’t fair no life’s not fair

your momma told you life ain’t fair and it made you cry
your momma told you stop your crying you ain’t nowhere

you never gonna be nowhere
you ain’t never gonna be nowhere


Étude du temps

There is beneath glass
Notre Dame’s jewel-bright collection of colours
in a no name shop on a back street in Paris
whose cobbles glint in late afternoon half-sun.

There, in shadows cast by lace,
bronze telescopes focused on stars
by a gentleman whose bones are dust
last century when the air tasted more of coal, there,

a thousand glittering butterflies
are pinned in time, sunning their wings,
awaiting the movement of cloud,
the lifting breeze.

There you are, caught
in a beam of coloured light,
your hand outstretched.


Rules of the Game

For all the pitcher wills the flying ball,
for all the batter longs the bat to kiss
the ball’s white skin,
fate’s rules confound desire, comprehension.

At the end of the day, all we know is this –
when you miss, you miss.

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