Monthly Archives: August 2017


A Long Weekend In Amsterdam

Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover. In this case black-and-white with just a little blue on the front. The lettering for the title and author is unadorned caps. A couple in late middle age, both in overcoats and hats and the woman holding an umbrella against the sleet (the man stands a step or two back from her, and is unprotected), the pair of them isolated on a railed footbridge, with water beneath. The effect (computer edited?) is plain, quite stark. Quite zen. And more so on the reverse, where the same bridge reappears but minus the couple. Turn back to the front, and the woman and man now become the very human focus of this chilly scene.

Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break is the story of a retired couple, Stella and Gerry Gilmore. Originally from Northern Ireland, they have lived in Glasgow for most of their married life. In their late sixties, early seventies, they have one son, Michael, who lives with his French-Canadian wife and their small son in Toronto. Stella taught English to schoolchildren, while Gerry’s career was architecture. Still short of the sere and yellow, although it’s never far from their thoughts, they have active lives: Gerry judges and advises in his former capacity, Stella as she has always done organises their existence. They’re off on a short holiday, a January jaunt to Amsterdam, at snowdrop and crocus time. The hotel proves warm and comfortable, if a little bland, of a good standard they seem used to. The city outside is still in the grip of winter. Gerry’s eye responds as it will: ‘The skyline had the sharpness of an etching, each cornice and gable defined and different – scrolls, pinnacles and garlands precisely delineated. Like cut-outs. The branches of trees, now without leaves, were black against the evening sky. It wasn’t a sunset, just an ending of a cold, clear day – turning from blue, to yellow, to blush.’

Stella was here at a teachers’ conference long ago, and she has planned this return. It’s no sentimental journey for her. Her marriage, she knows, has reached an impasse. She has got her answer off-pat for those stuffy wine-fuelled socials back home, to which she dutifully accompanies Gerry. ‘If anybody asks me how long we’ve been married I just say, “For a protracted period.”’ Gerry has a drink problem, which is steadily worsening. And now Stella wants out. Round and round go her thoughts. ‘They could sell the tenement flat and buy two bijou flats. Hers would have to have a garden. And Gerry would have to get rid of all those books and CDs. Make his own dinners. Maybe he should look for a flat near a Marks & Spencer.’

Stella’s mainstay is her faith, her religion. Both Catholics by birth, Gerry can only make fun of her devotion. She has come back to Amsterdam to search out an order of lay nuns, observed by her on that original visit. Unusually those Beguines were also allowed to hold on to their independence, to come and go, even to marry if they chose to. ‘Can there be so many women in a similar position? Widows, the brutalised, women in need of a room of their own, women with leanings to a life of seriousness, women who wished to practise a life of devotion, a move away from the world towards sanctity.’

For years Stella has held on to the ideal. ‘She wanted to live the life of her Catholicism. This was where her kindness, if she had any, her generosity, her sense of justice had all come from. And her humility, she must not forget humility.’ Whether or not she can locate the community and join them and find her sanctuary (a Stella word) is one of the ‘story’ elements of the book, since fiction will always need a motor. Another, following alongside, is Gerry’s response, which is to sink more whisky and to be duplicitous about it.

It’s a hazardous subject, alcoholism. Even the great Simenon had difficulty in making it fully interesting. Those who drink to excess become wholly self-absorbed, not to say self-pitying – it can severely test a reader’s patience. Gerry, however, redeems himself into two ways. He feels shame at his indignity, and can be quite clear-eyed about himself. ‘Alcohol is the rubber tyres between me and the pier.’ He drinks for security; his own sanctuary lies at the bottom of a bottle. What also saves him is an indestructible sense of humour. Midwinter Break is in fact very funny as well as poignant. (I made pencil marks in the margins, of jokes to try to remember – such as the cartoon showing a shower handle with only two settings, ‘Too hot’ and ‘Too cold’.) The wry Stella can do better than return pun with pun. ‘I could never get the knack of whistling. And the nuns didn’t exactly encourage us. On the grounds that Our Lady never did it.’

With a half-bottle of whisky in each jacket pocket Gerry can think of himself as ‘nothing if not a well-balanced individual’. He seldom gets maudlin, and physical cruelty is beyond him. ‘Drink made everything easier – easier to feel, easier to find words. Some people he knew were transformed by it into monsters. They became vicious, spiteful and, worst of all, violent creatures. But not him. With a drink or two in him, he loved people, wanted to hug them, not hit them.’

It’s crunch time. The Gilmores have their future to sort out.

They visit the Rijksmuseum, they walk round the Anne Frank Huis (did you know it has a café?), they eat out several times, end up in an Irish pub stuffed with ‘paddy-whackery’. They bicker, they get lost, they catch sight of each other as a stranger might. ‘They made love’ (that’s as much as we get of their bedroom activities), twice during the four-day weekend. There is still quite a lot of love left in this relationship. ‘What was love but a lifetime of conversations. And silences. Knowing when to be silent. Above all, knowing when to laugh.’ But is there enough love? That is the question.
Amsterdam in midwinter seems existential. Even at the breakfast table in the hotel the couple can’t but be different. They help themselves to a bowl of cereal each – ‘…Gerry’s full to over flowing, Stella’s covering the bottom of her dish. Out of doors you feel the cold and damp. In your mind’s eye you’re THERE, with the pair of them. ‘The pavements looked like they were beginning to freeze – areas of grey sparkle – and shops exhaled warmth, creating a small local fog outside each doorway.’

Back at the hotel there’s a mishap in the en suite bathroom, when Gerry tumbles in the bath which has no mat. No bones broken, although there will be bruises a-plenty to come. They reflect on the incident a little later.

‘It’s a kinda crucial event.’
‘The first time you fall in the shower.’ ‘Don’t go morose on me, Gerry.’
‘The next header is into the grave.’

One positive thing which drink gives Gerry is fluidity of thought. And women, as Stella must know from her book-reading, were early on to the stream-of-consciousness technique. For both of them the past recurs, out of and back into the present tense – with astonishing dexterity on the author’s part. Something seen in passing, a turn of phrase that’s overheard, and alakazam the mind will revert: it locks on to either some crucial incident or else an entirely unexceptional moment which sums up a way of life, how things were done then. On the other side of the Troubles, when history would suddenly create itself in front of you, was a quieter life when they were young, in the ’50s and early ’60s, with customs that could only seem antique to the young of today with their digital brains.

But it’s the bad times in Ulster which have marked them. Both in small things and big. When eating out, for instance, ever since Belfast Gerry has ‘always sat in a chair facing the door’. Those memories of atrocities are experienced by them, still, through the body, in the blood and the bone. ‘A big bomb vibrates your diaphragm, makes your chest full, churns your stomach – your ears become strange.’ One particular and very shocking incident took them both to the limits of endurance, and continues to haunt them. The result these many years later is a refusal, an inability, to lie on the important matters. Their honesty was steeled by what they went through together in Belfast. They may sometimes be hard on each other now, but they are more unforgiving about themselves.

The climactic epiphany will occur at the snow-bound, chaotic airport, undergoing its own stress test thanks to the weather. Here, everything crystallises for the Glasgow-bound Gilmores – for Gerry, while searching for a bin to offload an empty, for Stella while (about as low as she goes) sitting on the toilet. It’s not the fault of middle-class professional types like them that the planet today is in such disorder, but Stella won’t shrug off her responsibilities. ‘She knew that the only way to improve the world, without patronising anyone, was to improve herself. To be the receptacle for love, yet not to feel herself worthy of it.’ Gerry’s quizzings and put-downs about Catholicism have only confirmed her resolve. ‘She wanted a church which was rational, kind, loving, ritualistic, Christ centred. One that would eventually involve women. Although she knew there was no hope of that in her lifetime.’

As a schoolboy with a relish for geometry, Gerry had come upon architecture by accident, taking summer work in a practice office. He surely got the bug. ‘If it was about anything, architecture was about shedding light.’ In an ideal world – and a peaceful Northern Ireland – Gerry might have put up buildings to last hundreds of years, to lift and inspire and ennoble his fellow men and women. But after working in Belfast on (ironically) some of a slew of new church commissions, in the wake of Vatican Two, he’d had to acknowledge his limitations. No Le Corbusier (an idol) he.

‘He knew he himself was in League Division Two. Maybe, on a bad day, League Division Three.‘ And the consequence? Gerry had ended up a university teacher. One who drank too much.’ To give himself Dutch courage.

Midwinter Break is consummately fine fiction. I was in awe while reading it. Of the simplicity which isn’t. Many short abrupt sentences, no show-off language. Every word, the placing of every comma and dash, just so. Here is a model to anyone wanting to write. But the catch is that only maturity can produce it. (I was reminded of Picasso’s thinking, concerning the almost-nothing-there of his later etchings, that it took a lifetime to learn to draw ‘as a child’, to put all his experience into the motion of the crayon or pencil, one single owing line.)

Bernard MacLaverty writes as well about women as about men – can make you laugh and bring you to the verge of tears – stitch life as the fusion of dull reality and daydreams and recall that it is from moment to moment. His subject couldn’t be bigger. There are important questions to be answered. For Stella, and for Gerry, and for all of us. How can we best live our lives? How can we live good lives? Sixteen years we’ve been waiting for another MacLaverty novel. It’s here and, let me report, it’s a triumph.

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The SRB Interview: Louise Welsh

Louise Welsh specialises in producing novels that cast the mind into a state of unease. Her first book, The Cutting Room, was published in 2002. It is the story of an auctioneer called Rilke who discovers a set of grisly photographs of a murdered woman. They awaken in him a morbid fascination with sex and violence and lead him into a shady, criminal underworld. It might sound like the prelude to a generic crime novel, but Welsh excels at undermining genre conventions and playing with traditions that include the gothic, horror and the old-fashioned adventure tale.

Welsh was born in 1965. She lived in Edinburgh during her teenage years but moved to Glasgow to study history at university. It is no surprise that she particularly enjoyed studying the medieval period; her imagination is fascinated by the darker side of life. After leaving university she opened a second-hand bookshop, but the urge to write finally overcame her business sense. She shut up shop around the turn of the millennium and studied for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. She is now Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University.

After The Cutting Room, she wrote Tamburlaine Must Die (2002), about the latter years of playwright Christopher Marlowe. Her next novel, The Bullet Trick (2006), was set in the world of Cabaret in Berlin, a city she returned to in 2012 in the sinister thriller Girl on the Stairs, about a pregnant woman who moves in with her German partner, only to find that her apartment block is not quite an antenatal haven of tranquillity. Welsh’s shadowy and disturbing novels owe a debt to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer she has read and written about again and again. Most recently, in 2016, she wrote a libretto for the The Devil Inside (composed by Stuart MacRae), an opera adapted from Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp.

In 2014 Welsh published A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of her Plague Times Trilogy, a series of dystopian thrillers. This introduced readers to a world breaking out in the Sweats, a u-like virus that kills faster than a sawn-off shotgun. Stevie Flint, a television saleswoman, is a lucky survivor. Her boyfriend, a doctor, is not. He leaves behind a laptop with incriminating evidence concerning medical research into childhood disease, and Stevie is dragged into the corrupt world of private healthcare. The second book is about Magnus McFall, a stand-up comic who finds little left to laugh about when he ends up in jail. When the Sweats break out he escapes with a fellow convict called Jeb, but the pair soon find themselves stranded with a community of religious fanatics. In the final instalment, No Dominion, Stevie and Magnus have found their way to the Orkney Islands, where survivors are trying to regain some semblance of democracy and peace. When three newcomers to the islands entice a few of the teenagers to Glasgow, Stevie and Magnus set off in pursuit across the Scottish mainland.

Nick Major met Louise in her top-floor Glasgow at flat the start of the summer. They sat in her bijou living room, eating cherry cake and drinking coffee whilst the fire spat and hissed in the grate and the rain hammered on the windows. On the wall, next to a bookcase, was a large yellow metal sign advertising ‘The Radiation Garage’. Welsh’s novels might be full of death, but in person she is full of life. Short, round-faced and sunny in her demeanour, she talked with an uncanny sense of optimism, even when discussing violence, murder, and mass death.

Scottish Review of Books: No Dominion is the final book of your Plague Times trilogy. Did you know it was going to be a trilogy from the start?

It was always conceived of as a trilogy. I wanted to think about the start of that pandemic and the idea of [societal] change. We are in this age of technological wonder. I know there have been many other ages of wonder but it feels like this one is quite exceptional, like we’re living with magic. I wanted to go very quickly to the opposite. The final book surprised me the most. I wanted to set it seven years after [the pandemic] and I wanted it to be about a regeneration that’s interrupted, but it ended up being about structures of organisation and ways of being. What do we want? Do we want democracy? Do we want an autocracy? Would we prefer anarchy? Or, is there something else?

Why did you want to write trilogy?

It was exciting to have a bigger canvas. Every book is a challenge to yourself and some way to push your ideas forward, but also [a challenge for] your structural skills. I wanted three narratives that could contribute to one narrative. The intention [across the three books] is that you see a changing landscape, and that you see a change in Stevie and Magnus, and that you see them more clearly in the final book. I wanted to start in the heart of capitalism, in a big world city, so I chose London, and that enabled me to move away up to Scotland and go to Orkney and back to a city – Glasgow. I thought a lot about Edwin Muir and his journey around Scotland. Muir says Orkney is the best place to live. I wanted to write about an island I knew reasonably well, and an island that has an infrastructure. I was always looking at different structures. The first book is about the world of medicine, and selling swag we don’t need. The second book looks at the criminal justice system and the role of religion. But each novel is an adventure story at heart.

During and after the pandemic, characters erase their past and revert to ground zero in their minds, which often means falling back on their basest instincts.

Or their best instincts. We all have a choice but some people have good choices and some people have shitty choices. But what do you choose to do? Do you act for good or bad? Sometimes people act badly because they don’t quite understand what they are doing at the time.

In No Dominion, there is a conversation about survival. The narrator says: ‘it was something they did not talk about on the islands; the things they had done to stay alive.’ Sometimes a person’s choice will always be the wrong one.

The idea of being a survivor is an uncomfortable one. There is a concept of survivor’s guilt [in the book] – they [the survivors] have to do things that are morally wrong. But to think about it in terms of the crime genre: what is the place of violent death in the genre? Should we try to feel something even when someone horrible dies. That’s something for the writer to ponder.

That’s often the best kind of crime novel. The ones which explore the psychological state of the killer.

That’s the sort of crime book I enjoy. I’m not a fan of books that suggest that people kill because they are mad, which I find quite offensive.

Thinking of death in general, have you always been interested in disease and the extinction of the human species?

I’ve always wanted to write something about a big pandemic. I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. But as you do grow up you realise that, if there was a nuclear war, our problems would be over. I studied history at university and I loved the medieval period. The tenth century was an age of extremes and I was interested in the changes that the Black Plague brought into the world. Art and literature changed, and people lived with death at their elbow. For some people, it was a time to make merry; for others, it was the opposite. In the afterword to the first book I write about Barry Hines’ Threads and Terry Nation’s Survivors and Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids – those were all big influences.

You write a lot about sex and violence as well.

Yes, there’s always sex and violence [laughs]. I was worried about any glorification [in No Dominion]. I tried to make the violence uncomfortable. Humour is important when you have that kind of violence. But you have to be careful. Everybody has their standards and morals and things they won’t do, but I think when somebody dies in a book you should notice it and feel uncomfortable. You can only write the books that you can…it would be nice to write an intense philosophical European book. This is the most violent book I’ve written, partly because it has guns in it. Stevie behaves in the way she does at one point because she has a gun. In some books, you want a hero who isn’t awed, like Caithness in The Hunger Games. She behaves nobly all the time. My characters tend to be a little less noble.

You don’t think of writing as an apolitical exercise or one that disregards morality?

Morality is a very personal thing. There are certain things we all agree on and there are natural laws we don’t break, but I think everything we do is political. [I think] books are underpinned by politics and an idea of kindness and fairness. I don’t think anybody reaches the ideal of that in these books. Like all of us, the characters aim and fail.

One of the paradoxes of the pandemic is that, although it results in a lot of death, it makes people doubt who they are, which we could say is quite a healthy psychological state.

People often say to Stevie, ‘this has been the making of you’. Before the pandemic she’s a TV channel salesperson. Her life is perhaps frivolous. But then young people should be allowed frivolity. Your life should just be about sex, clothes, money and going out. I guess maybe nobody knows who they are. Perhaps it’s decadent to think about who we are? I think for Stevie it’s an uncomfortable truth that this terrible event has had a positive effect on her life.

You’ve written a lot of gothic novels. Central to the gothic tradition is the idea of doubles, or the past coming back to haunt the present. Are you aware of this constant revisiting of death in your work?

Why am I so morbid? I don’t know. It seems to make me cheerful in real life. I love the gothic. I find it fascinating. The gothic is an overwrought genre. I don’t like the idea of being overly manipulative but it’s a fun genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously – yet art is deadly serious. I always feel that at heart I’m a storyteller and that narrative is hardwired into us. I don’t think you can have a plotless novel. Even if you could, the reader would impose a plot upon it. That’s true in other forms, [like] conceptual art and music.

Who are your favourite gothic writers?

I love Stevenson and the Brontë sisters. You won’t find a Scottish writer who doesn’t like Hogg.

Last year you presented a Radio 4 Book Club on Kidnapped. Why did you pick that book?

I first read Kidnapped when I was very young, and the idea of a chase that takes place across a landscape of Scotland is very appealing. Years before he wrote Kidnapped, Stevenson wrote an essay where he says, ‘particular places call out for murder… The Hawe’s Inn in Queensferry is one such. One day a boat will sail into the harbour with a strange cargo.’ So, he has stored up this place in his mind. He was fascinated by the Appin Murder all his life, and that was central to Kidnapped.

One of the places you’ve obviously stored up in your mind is Berlin, the setting of The Girl on the Stairs and The Bullet Trick. Why do you keep returning there?

When my books first came out I spent a lot of time doing book tours in Germany. For both those books I wanted the characters to be in a place that was quite similar to Britain. It’s not so physically or culturally different, but the similarity can make you feel like you are at home when you’re not. The Bullet Trick is set in the world of cabaret. I had done an article for the Observer for the anniversary of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret so I had been to as many cabarets as I could in Berlin. I think that’s where that book started. I was also thinking about a movie called Pandora’s Box by GW Pabst, which has Louise Brooks in it. It’s a great silent film about this glorious young woman who’s a dancer who sleeps with men and women – I think it has the first lesbian scene in cinematic history. She then shoots somebody and ends up in foggy London where she’s killed by Jack the Ripper. It seems ridiculous but it works. I wanted to rewrite the ending because that’s the typical moral ending for a woman in that kind of story.

Going further back into your past: were you born in Scotland?

I was born in London and spent one year there. My dad was in the RAF. I do think they should have come back over the border but I won’t give them a bad time about it. He was posted to various places so we moved around.

From what age did you want to be a writer?

I don’t know. I was always a big reader. Every child that likes reading wants to make books, whether that’s drawing pictures or writing a text.

Do you remember the first time you put pen to paper?

No. I just always have. From about 16 to 20 I didn’t write much because I was out having fun. When I was a student I didn’t write much creatively. I wrote a lot essays, obviously.

Did you open a second-hand book shop straight after leaving Glasgow University?

Pretty much. Within a few months. I worked as an assistant in a shop selling second-hand clothes. There was a little bit of space that came up and I started selling second-hand books. My capital was £300.

Can you make a living selling old books?

It’s never easy to make a living. How do you make a living out of writing? You really slog. We had a mixed portfolio. We were very close to the university so we sold student books, and we had an antiquarian stock that we built up. I had to live simply. That’s still good advice for a writer. Don’t have a habit which means you need a Jaguar or something. Once a week we had a stall at the university and did book fairs. I worked before and after the shop hours. Quite naturally, when you go into a bookshop it seems tranquil, but there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

Did you have much time for reading when you owned your bookshop?

I wouldn’t do anything that would stop me reading. It was a really good education because I had my own library. I found lots of writers and illustrators I wouldn’t have known about. But the main thing I miss is that the door was open all the time and people just came in and chatted. A lot of the people who came in had huge expertise about all sorts of things. You learnt a lot about stuff you didn’t even know existed or you were interested in. The main reason I stopped is because I couldn’t do it and write. It was too time-consuming.

What year did you make the transition to being a full-time writer?

It was basically when I was writing The Cutting Room, so about the middle of 2000 then into 2001. I really burnt my bridges. It was not a wise decision. It was a total gamble, but there are points in your life that if you don’t do something you won’t.

Was it easy to get published, or were you surprised?

Both. Well, to keep body and soul together I started to do some temping work, which I hated. You had to go in at the same time every day and they don’t let you leave, you know [laughs]? But I was temping in a nice office and the day I got my book deal I handed in my notice.

Did you have an agent?

Yeah, I managed to get an agent because I’d done an MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde and that was a huge help with those kinds of things. I don’t think you need to do a course to get published, but for me it was helpful because I didn’t have any connections in publishing.

And you’re now a Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University?

I’m the shortest professor in the university…I’m not sure if that’s actually true. I love it. I met so many friends through the Masters. I had a wonderful mentor, Zoe Wicomb, who’s a South African novelist. It upped my game and made me take writing more seriously. I didn’t go into it thinking that I would get a book published and become a professional writer. I didn’t have a game plan. But I did know what happened to a lot of first time novelists, because you saw their books coming into the bookshop and not selling, so I had a very pragmatic view of it. I work on a postgraduate course now so you get writers at the start of their writing life and people who are quite advanced. You get all these textured lives and backgrounds. I love the work the students do. There are writers working in prisons. We have a student working with Tanzanian farmers.

Are creative writing courses necessary? They seem a way for universities to make a quick buck from something that doesn’t need to be taught.

You don’t have to do a creative writing course to be a writer. James Hogg didn’t need it. There are many routes into the arts. In the same way, you don’t have to go to art school to be a great artist. But I think many writers want to be part of a community of writers and have that mentorship. Do I think universities do this just to make money? I guess there might be someone up in admin thinking that. But I think the writer’s relationship with the institution is a similar one that the visual or sound or film artist has with their institution.

Thinking about your own writing life. Do you have a routine for writing?

When my days are 9 to 5, I just shuffle into my desk and write. But I always have a side project that I work on at the same time. What I think of as my night-time job, to keep me out of trouble. I tend to plan a week. I know when I’m writing and I try not to deviate from that. But, the sitting at the desk is the worst part – Robert Louis Stevenson said that. I think writing is injurious to the health. I am only just beginning to realise that. The other day Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures was talking about the tension between the body and the mind. It’s a theme people come back to over and over again. I have just finished reading this biography of Rimbaud and he says something like, ‘the artist has to decide whether they are for art or for life.’

I suppose that’s what happens in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Art is in a battle with life, and life wins. People forget how physically demanding writing is, even if you don’t have to drag around a typewriter anymore.

Me and Zoë [Strachan] just co-authored an essay for our friend John Water who’s doing an exhibition on chunkiness at the Haywood Gallery. We put chunkiness into the essay by using a typewriter and it was great fun. When you work with actors, they don’t just start their rehearsal. They come and do a warm-up. They stretch first. I do fifteen minute stretches in the morning and at night. Recently, I have noticed writers doing yoga. I got in to this business because I thought I could just go to the pub and have interesting conversations. I didn’t really think, I want to do some yogic breathing!

Do you do any research for your novels?

I tend to dive in and get started. I often find I’m researching a topic when I’m working on a previous book, so I do a lot of reading at night. With this new book, I’ll be doing a fair bit of travelling and I know what I’ll be reading [on the road]. I find that quite useful. I enjoy research but I think once you begin writing you know what it really is you need to look for.

You live with another writer. Writers don’t have a good record of living well together. How do you cope?

Oh, it’s hell. Absolute hell [laughs]. Zoë has been away for a month at a writing retreat so it’s the wrong time to ask. We’ve been together for fifteen years. Like any other relationship you try to help each other out. Zoë’s my first reader and a good one, and I’m her first reader. What we usually do is read each other’s work, but we don’t do it at home. We go out and have a glass of wine and we chat about it. I guess when we first got together I had in mind all those creative partnerships where somebody gives up the work, like Dylan [Thomas] and Caitlin [MacNamara] – she had to give up dancing. There are many creative partnerships that go that way, and we made the decision that we wouldn’t do that.

Are there any difficulties in being a homosexual artist in Scotland? It’s obviously getting easier than it used to be.

Clearly, it’s getting easier and there’s a move towards equality. I’ve just written an essay on the painters Colquhoun and MacBryde for Radio 3. They moved to London, of course, partly because that’s the centre of the art world, but I wondered if they went there because it was easier for them – it was a more bohemian place. I think that was a journey a lot of people made back then. If anyone tells you Scotland is a laid back, socialist country…well, we’re not. But not to be legal until 1980? It’s quite crazy. And then there was the ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign, which was still going on the year The Cutting Room came out.

Does your personal life inform what you write?

It must do. But you don’t really know what’s affecting it. When you sit down to write you’re trying to do that magical thing of inhabiting the body and mind of somebody else. But the author’s always there. That’s why each writer has a distinct voice. So, it must do, but I don’t know how. And it’s not useful for me to think of how.

Do you consider yourself a genre writer as distinct from a literary writer?

When I sit down to write, I don’t think about that. I think my books are cross-genre. The gothic clearly is something I embrace. But I’m also interested in crime and horror.

Do genre writers sacrifice style for convention?

No. Why would it be necessary? There’s good writing and bad writing. I just read a book by Hilary Mantel called A Different Climate. I finished it this morning, and it was like I had been listening to a big crashing symphony, and then I got to the end and there was this silence. It was quite a visceral experience. This was a contemporary book and she’s often thought of as a genre writer – historical fiction. I don’t think you need to sacrifice style just because you have a plot. Like I was saying, it’s hard to be completely plotless because everything you do is a collaboration with a reader.

So, do you think about readers when you’re writing?

They are too diverse. How could I? I do think about leaving space for the reader to dream themselves on to the page. I think that’s what makes reading quite a unique experience. So much is demanded of you. That’s why it can be so immersive. I know theatre, music, and movies are immersive but when it is working well these black and white marks take you somewhere else, and that can be the most immersive experience of all.

How long does it take you to hone your writing style?

It takes ages. Then sometimes it doesn’t. When I was very young I saw a news report of a lady who would compose. She said, ‘I don’t compose, it is Bach. He comes and inhabits my body.’ She called it automatic writing. Sometimes it is like that – it doesn’t feel like me – but usually that comes after a period of really hard work. Of course, after you write you edit and edit and edit. But I’m never satisfied with my work.

You’ve written libretto for an opera – The Devil Inside – that toured last year. Have you ever done that before?

That was my third opera. I love it. It’s a completely different discipline. It’s collaborative. I have to think about a different structure. It’s hugely demanding. I’m writing a fourth one with the same composer, Stuart MacRae. I am working on the second act just now. Everybody’s had their gin and tonic and they’ve all come back, or at least I hope they have.

Is it more difficult than writing novels because you have to imagine someone performing what you write down?

Not necessarily. It’s just a different medium. I have different visions in my head. I see it like I see a novel. I see how it would be staged, which is quite a practical vision. You have to think about space differently. You have to think about what kind of voice each singer has because each voice is connected to the personality of the characters on stage. Then you have the narrative and the orchestra to think about. There’s also the pace, the rhythm, and the themes to think about.

Do you know who the actors will be before you write their parts?

No, but I know the voice types. I know this character will be a tenor, this one will be a baritone, this one will be a soprano. With smaller operas, I know what the orchestra will be. Stuart is the person who decides all that – who he wants to work with and the voices, and that’s part of the palette I have in my mind. The composer is king, although he’d hate me saying that. But it’s a great privilege. I sit down with Stuart and we talk about the story the characters and we both have to completely own it.

Going back to No Dominion, Magnus is a stand-up comedian and Stevie is a saleswoman. Why did you want to make both main characters performers?

I’m interested in what people do in their work life. I’ve always found the idea of sales interesting. My dad was a sales rep after he came out of the RAF. I think there’s a particular psychology to selling things – you have to have a real belief in what you’re selling. I find what it takes to go up on stage so interesting. The world of stand-up comedy is a brutal one, partly because the stakes are so high. And now you could really be a massive success, which means you could always be a failure.

Modern writers have to be performers. Do you enjoy that side of your job?

Yeah, I like meeting people. I like travelling. Except, well, who likes sitting around in train stations or airports? I like the interaction with readers. I practise a lot to be a good reader. I would never have thought I would have to do that. I never went on a stage before I started writing books. But we get to go to nice places and meet amazing people so I don’t think writers should ever moan about it.

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In the fifth volume of his My Struggle series, on the last page, Karl Ove Knausgaard describes what he did immediately after a final, shattering meeting with his first wife before separating: ‘I was on the night train to Oslo, everything I did on the journey was to avoid thinking.

I read one newspaper after another, afterwards I read a novel by Ian Rankin, the first crime novel I had read for twenty years, until I was so tired I would fall asleep the second I closed my eyes. In Oslo, I bought another Rankin novel, changed trains, destination Stockholm this time, boarded and started to read.’

From reading Knausgaard’s memoirs, I’ve learned much about life in Scandinavia; about how difficult it is to rent decent apartments in Stockholm, the extent to which men are expected to contribute to childcare in Sweden, and what irritates Norwegians about their neighbour.

What might Knausgaard have learned from reading Rankin’s novels about another small, oil-producing, north European country whose crime writers have an international following?

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Knots & Crosses, the first novel in Rankin’s Rebus series. Centred on Rankin’s detective protagonist, the harddrinking, hardboiled Detective Inspector John Rebus, the Rebus novels now number twenty, with the most recent, Rather Be the Devil, published in 2016. The span of the series ‘straddles industrial and post-industrial Scotland’ (as Rebus writes in his 2005 semi-autobiography Rebus’s Scotland), a period of political, economic, technological and social change, that has affected Scotland as much as any other part of the world. In that time, Scotland once more has a national Parliament (the setting for his 2000 novel Set in Darkness), as well as fumbling a referendum on independence (Rebus voted no).

Rankin was a 24-year-old English literature postgraduate when he began writing the first Rebus novel, not that it was conceived as a series; in Knots & Crosses’ first draft, Rebus died. Rebus – a picture-puzzle – is just the type of slightly pretentious name you’d expect a post-grad to give his ’tec hero. The first Rebus novel was published in 1987, with its follow-up, Hide & Seek, not published until 1991. Between, Rankin published two novels whose sales were such, his publisher suggested he might want to revisit Rebus’ Edinburgh.

He has said that he returned to Rebus for reasons other than avoiding being dropped. ‘I started the Rebus books in order to make sense of Edinburgh.’ Who better to get to the bottom of the mystery of Scotland than a detective? ‘Rebus was a tough enough creation to lead the reader into an investigation of Scotland itself: a small, proud and ancient country with a confused and fragile sense of its own identity.’ Rebus’s view of his adopted hometown Edinburgh – like Rankin, he’s originally from Cardenden, in Fife – is laid out in Knots & Crosses and has remained consistent across the twenty novels: ‘Edinburgh was a schizophrenic city, the place of Jekyll & Hyde sure enough, the city of Deacon Brodie, of fur coats and no knickers.’

The Rebus novels are self-consciously modelled on the dualities that characterise the capital’s history and literature, and which is encoded in the very topography of the city, its Old and New Town. The true duality explored in Rebus’s novels, however, is his portrait of the city as both exceptional and typical. While Edinburgh’s divided soul is formed by its past, its present is shaped by external, global pressures.

The 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles forms the backdrop to The Naming of the Dead (2006), its plot structured by the events of that week, which saw London win the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, terrorists bomb the Tube, and thousands of protestors descend on Edinburgh to ‘Make Poverty History’. The novel links a revenge plot with a larger story of political and corporate corruption, ending on the suggestion, as often happens in the Rebus series, that those who should be jailed won’t be. ‘You’ve seen it here this week,’ Rebus says at the conclusion. ‘How the rich and powerful operate…how they get away with anything they like.’

In other novels, we see what the petrochemical industry does to a Scottish city (Aberdeen, in 2008’s Black and Blue), the pressures immigration places on the capital’s sink estates (2004’s Fleshmarket Close), and the potentially corrupting influence Russian finance might have on Edinburgh (2007’s Exit Music). A Russian (actually, a Ukrainian) hitman appears in Rather Be the Devil, a cartoonish Eastern European gangster who threatens decapitation with a sword. We’ve travelled quite a distance from the second Rebus novel, Hide & Seek, where the villains are a group of local businessmen running an illegal club fight. In Rather Be the Devil, the antagonists operate shell companies registered in Edinburgh which launder money from around the world. Rebus’s Scotland is one in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, with the power that comes with riches used corruptly. In which case, Scotland is no different from any other country in the world, which may explain the series’ international popularity: the books have been translated into 26 languages, including, pace Knausgaard, Norwegian. Indeed, Rankin’s fiction and so-called ‘Scandinavian Noir’ have a great deal in common, from their bleak settings to their use of crime fiction to advance social critiques.

An occasional theme Rankin has explored, not unique to Scotland, but at least relatively rare in contemporary Europe, is sectarianism. In Mortal Causes (1994), loyalist paramilitaries ally with fringe Scottish nationalist groups (let us pass over the thought homegrown extremists would likely have more in common with Irish republicans). This case drew upon Rebus’s backstory, particularly his time as a soldier in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. ‘Of course, there wasn’t nearly so much racism in Scotland,’ Rebus thinks in Tooth & Nail (1992). ‘There was no need: the Scots had bigotry instead.’ Rankin clearly sets store by the line; it’s repeated in Fleshmarket Close, voiced now by Dirwan, an activist lawyer: ‘I think Scotland was complacent for many years: we don’t have room for racism, we’re too busy with bigotry.’

The Rebus series is frequently drawn to Edinburgh’s schemes, which, interestingly, given Rankin’s general insistence on using real places (as well as ageing Rebus in real time), are often fictional if based on real schemes: Pilmuir, Garibaldi, the improbably named Knoxland. These no-go areas are loci of various failures that have dogged Scotland for centuries: failures of economics intersecting with failures of decency. And as Rankin sees it, Scots have grown so used to failure, they take a perverse pride in it. ‘We’re just not supposed to have it all, are we?’ Rankin writes in Dead Souls (1999). ‘We’re supposed to fail gloriously. Anything we succeed at, we keep low profile. It’s our failures we’re allowed to trumpet…It’s almost as if we enjoy failure.’ This sense of failure has seeped into Rebus’s character, the DI seeing himself ‘like the Scots [who] knew their job was to be footballers with more ambition than ability. They’d put it on his gravestone.’

So….Scotland, a country of divisions, of Catholic and Protestant, of poor and rich, and, most resonantly, past and present, its deep history feeding a national inferiority complex. This is the Scotland a reader of Rankin’s twenty Rebus novels is familiar with. Residents of Auld Reekie, however, might just pause and ask: isn’t this portrait of Scotland old hat?

Some writers’ visions of the cities they chronicle are so vividly realised, we never see that city again in quite the same light; Joyce’s Dublin, Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow, Iain Sinclair’s London. In Tooth & Claw, Rebus, we learn, is reading Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd’s genre-mashing detective novel. Hawksmoor was inspired by Sinclair’s ‘occult histories’, which draw upon London lore, close reading of obscure books by locals, and ‘psychogeographical’ expeditions into ‘the territory’ to reveal the city’s true nature. Occasionally, in the early days, Rankin suggested he had at least something vaguely similar in mind. In Hide & Seek, Rebus dismisses visitors to the city who ‘can’t read its symbolic connotations, never mind its reality’. Rebus’s Scotland takes as its epigraph these resonant lines by MacDiarmid: ‘It takes a great love of it deeply to read / This configuration of a land, / Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings, / Of great meanings in slight symbols.’

In practice, Rankin’s actual musings on the city’s streets have tended towards the workaday. ‘Ann Street was reckoned to be the most beautiful terrace in the city. Tucked away between Queensferry Road and Stockbridge, its two elegant facing rows of Georgian homes were separated by a narrow roadway constructed of traditional setts.’

One occasionally wonders whether one is reading a detective novel or a TripAdvisor entry: ‘Prestonfield House Hotel was one of the city’s better-kept secrets. Surrounded by 1930s bungalows with views across to the schemes of Craigmillar and Niddrie, it seemed an unpromising location for a grand house in the baronial style.’ Rankin’s tendency to drop into tourist-guide mode can be inadvertently funny. In Knots & Crosses, even while sprinting across town to save his daughter from a serial killer, Rebus / Rankin can’t help himself: ‘From his flat in Marchmont to the Library could be a delightful walk, showing the strengths of Edinburgh as a city. He passed a verdant open area called The Meadows…’.

If not a psychogeographer, Ian Rankin can be described as a synthesist. His Edinburgh is as much patched together from writers who’ve preceded him as it is the product of fresh observation; it is still recognisably the city as viewed by the postgraduate literary student he was when he began writing the series. Rankin’s emphasis on divisions draws on the writings of G. Gregory Smith on the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, first coined in 1919. A century on, the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ has become a one-size-fits-all explanation, a cliché whose conceptual neatness appeals but is inadequate to the task of describing contemporary Scotland.

Speaking of clichés, while researching this piece, I encountered the argument, more than once, that the modern crime novel, as typified by the Rebus series, had trumped the literary novel through its willingness to explore the areas of contemporary existence that your average Booker nominee wouldn’t touch. No doubt, for some, Rankin’s determinedly average prose (‘The librarian’s voice was trembling, along with the rest of her’) could be mistaken for a no-frills slice of social realism.

The passages in Hide & Seek set in slummy ‘Pilmuir’ suggest the younger Rankin fancied himself a chronicler of urban ills, although compared with a book published two years later by another local, Trainspotting, the Pilmuir passages are stagey. The odd slang word aside, Rankin’s Scots rarely talk in a manner actual Scots would recognise as authentic. Even schemies are apt to say ‘I don’t know’, rather than ‘Ah dinnae ken’. Rankin relates his decision to eschew the urban demotic back to the day he tried to interest his father in the novels of James Kelman: ‘His sort of thing, I thought. Working class working man against the system. Dad couldn’t read it. Said it wasn’t ‘written in English’. Said there wasn’t any story. I was shocked. This was literature. It was good for you. It was the stuff I was studying. Dad’s reaction made me think about the kind of writer I wanted to be.’

Again, this seems a rather old-fashioned attitude in the wake of Trainspotting’s international success, and undermines the series’ claim to chart Scotland’s evolution these past thirty years. Rankin ended the Rebus series in 2007 when his character reached the age of retirement. In the manner of Conan Doyle and the post-Reichenbach Holmes, the author – and his fans – couldn’t let his character be, and in 2012 Rebus returned in Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Quite how much longer the series can credibly continue is a moot point. Rebus is in his sixties, health compromised by the appropriately-acronymed COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), yet he can still pop in and out of the local station to meddle in cases as easily as when he was employed there. The series has often depended on some credibility-stretching coincidences to bring their mysteries to conclusion, but even admirers will drop the series when Rebus starts chasing suspects on a mobility scooter.

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Volume 12 Issue 4 Editorial

Publishing is a precarious business, not least because significant capital must first be spent before any of it starts to trickle back. Every book is a gamble and few are the ones that turn into gold. Yet publishers are often portrayed not as philanthropists or bulwarks against philistinism but as chancers and cheats. Barabbas, the thief who died on Calvary with Christ, it was famously said, must have been a publisher.

Stephanie Wolfe Murray, however, who died recently aged 76, was the kind of publisher about whom only warm words were uttered. Canongate, the company whose reputation she personified, was launched in 1973. Its founders were her husband, Angus, and an American writer called Bob Shure. Its first two titles were The Comic Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – who would have thought there were enough to make a book? – and Shure’s debut novel, Monk, ‘the comic-horror story of a young man whose aim is to win the Greater Altsburg Open Table-Tennis Championship’. An ambitious five thousand copies were printed of each. Eventually, the former sold out, the latter, alas, did not.

Wolfe Murray, who was then the mother of four boys, became involved in the business a couple of years later. It was a time when publishing in Scotland was emerging from decades of doldrum. Canongate was one of several companies – Mainstream, Paul Harris, Macdonald, Polygon and Richard Drew were others – that recognised that with a shift in the political wind there might be a readership for books about Scotland by indigenous authors. This is not to say that Wolfe Murray regarded Canongate as a nationalist press. ‘We try to be good publishers in Scotland,’ she once said, ‘not good Scottish publishers.’ Nor did she feel that she had any need to make excuses about parochialism. ‘You can be parochial in London.’

In person, Wolfe Murray was blessed with an inexhaustible supply of charm. Her office in Edinburgh’s Jeffrey Street was like a landfill site for lost and rejected manuscripts. When she informed aspiring authors that a manuscript was being ‘dealt with’ she meant she was still trying to locate it in the deluge to which the post added daily. Visiting her was potentially injurious to one’s wellbeing. There were tottering piles of books everywhere and one weaved between them at one’s peril.

Wolfe Murray said that like most things in her life becoming a publisher ‘just happened’. She began by reading manuscripts, proofing and copy-editing. When she found herself in charge, she said, she was terrified. ‘It was then I realised you can never do too much for a book…until you remainder it.’ Her first successful title was Antonia Fraser’s anthology, Scottish Love Poems, published in 1975.

The job was all-consuming and invigorating. While she may have appeared to some on the outside as eccentric and disorganised – time, for example, was for her an elastic concept – she was not to be under-estimated and could drive a hard bargain. Once, at an international book fair, she persuaded a publisher in Yerevan of the necessity of publishing Traditional Scottish Recipes in Armenian, despite the difficulty in obtaining many of the ingredients. She was also a formative influence on the Edinburgh Book Festival, and in 1985 was responsible for the attendance of a number of writers and publishers from China.

But it is for the books that Wolfe Murray published that she will best be remembered. There was, of course, Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel, Lanark, which appeared in 1981 and which changed the face of modern Scottish literature. She also saw into print the poems of Sorley MacLean and Jimmy Boyle’s blistering autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, the manuscript of which Wolfe Murray smuggled out of the Special Unit at Barlinnie where its author was then incarcerated. The adjective Boyle, then regarded as one of the most dangerous men in the country, used to describe her was ‘courageous’. Among her other triumphs was Robin Lorimer’s acclaimed translation of the New Testament in Scots, the Kelpies, which revived interest in Scottish children’s books, and Canongate Classics, a library of Scottish books which had fallen out of print or were available in mean editions. What is clear, on reading many of these books today, is the care with which they were published. Not only are they a joy to read, they are of themselves desirable objects. No doubt diverse hands were involved in their production but it was Stephanie Wolfe Murray’s impeccable taste which defined their quality.

In hymning one publisher we cannot ignore another. Birlinn, whose imprints include Polygon and John Donald, celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. That alone is a remarkable achievement, given the high fatality rate in the trade. Birlinn is arguably our biggest publisher with a clear mission to publish books of quality about Scotland that are of interest to Scots and others. Its annual output is in excess of 150 titles. This is no small feat in the current economic climate. When the Scottish Review of Books started in 2004 Birlinn was one of the first publishers to offer its support. We are grateful to it and wish its owner, Hugh Andrew, and his dedicated staff – not entirely unselfishly – a long and prosperous future.

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