Monthly Archives: November 2017



There are many shadows, physical and metaphorical, cast over the fervent talk and bustling activity of the people featured in this play What Shadows, as there have been over the very impressive series of works written over the years by Chris Hannan.

In his earliest play, Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, the protagonist was a doughty woman reduced to poverty and dwelling in a slum but defying all efforts to make her sell her grand piano, because she ‘refused to be poor’. His more recent adaptation of Crime and Punishment took him into an underworld where light rarely shone.

The literal shadows in this case are cast by the clump of trees which dominate the centre of the stage, and remain as a fixture in every scene, while people come and go in front of them, picnicking, chattering, debating or merely lounging. This unchanging, simple but effective set is the work of designer Ti Green with variations introduced by video-designer Louis Price, who projects behind the trees shadows in the form of patterns and images which suggest at times peaceful, harmonious days of play and leisure, or at others clouds, gathering storms or turbulence of mind and heart.

The rural innocence of the backdrop to What Shadows is unnerving and unexpected, granted that the protagonist is Enoch Powell and the subject is the impact of his (in)famous speech which did not actually contain the words ‘rivers of blood’, but which gave respectability to racist thought and warned that the black man might ‘hold the whip hand over the white man’. He is not here a panto villain and a humanizing passion; in Hannan’s presentation of him, is a nostalgia for an England which may have existed only in the mind and the imagination, a place of green fields and rolling roads, of stout yeomen and warm ale, although that was not Powell’s phrase. Powell represented an urban constituency, and his appeal was to city dwellers, but the England of his fantasy was elsewhere. He is first seen not on a podium but seated on the grass beneath the trees with his wife and a couple of friends, enjoying a sandwich and a cup of tea, relishing the beauty of the countryside around him. ‘I would die for Shropshire,’ he declares. I have no idea whether the historical Powell spoke such words or entertained such thoughts, but the notion has complete dramatic coherence.

For this England is under threat, and that is the whole point. England, Englishness and its identity are at the heart of this unremittingly intellectual and probing piece. The nations on the so-called Celtic fringe are accustomed to debating issues of identity, and are by now familiar, if not quite at ease, with identity politics, but until Jez Butterworth staged Jerusalem a couple of years ago, no one had ventured to look at the England of the silent people (G K Chesterton’s famous words) or at their identity and folklore. Butterworth’s hero too lived in the country, not the city, and once again the idyllic utopia is rural. Now a Scottish writer has entered the debate and has brought a new perspective, but this is England, not Britain. The flag intermittently glimpsed is the banner of St George, not the Union Jack. Powell does refer to an England stretching from Plymouth to Aberdeen, but that does not imply a recognition that Aberdeen is elsewhere.

These people talk and talk. What Shadows is a debating piece, some times dizzying in its dialectics but at others, notably in the second half, tending to drag. The words alone matter. Ethical and political dilemmas are argued and filleted, but left up in the air, as in the best theatre. This is the drama of debate, not statement, far removed from agit-prop. There is no developing plot as such, but rather a kaleidoscope of scenes involving the same characters, who produce clever aphorisms and circle round each other with suspicion tempered by a precarious friendship. The interpersonal balance is delicately conveyed but cannot be maintained, for if there is no emotional dimension, there are outbreaks of passionate anger dictated by adherence to principle. The rupturing of a friendship after Powell delivers his speech seems inevitable. Previously, he had enjoyed the company and conversation of a liberal journalist, Clem Jones, played with understated elegance and restraint by Nicholas Le Prevost. His wife, a delicately modulated performance by Paula Wilcox, had tried to involve Powell in a cultural circle she ran, dedicated to the study of that most English of writers, Samuel Johnson, but later she angrily throws the text of his speech in Powell’s uncomprehending face. He could not see the wrong he had done in voicing opinions he believed were widely held but which durst not speak their name. It is not the only echo of our times. Every populist believes he has the backing of the people, and sometimes does.

Hannan requires his audience to face complexity. One Pakistani man comes forward to say he had fought in the British army and loves an England which is as fictional as the land Powell wishes to preserve. His party piece is a Harry Lauder song, but he unintentionally offends a woman from Barbados when he refers to her as black. In her homeland, they have their own hierarchy of colours, and she has no wish to be described in those terms. So what is their identity? Powell is equally disconcerted when a gay man of colour thanks him effusively for voting in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. As a man well versed in the practices of ancient Greece, Powell had no aversion to same-sex love, but he also believed the state should have no say over what a person does with his/her own body.

There are undertones of the tragic in this play, allowing the central character to emerge as a combination of Othello and Iago. He is not a good man but nor is he straightforwardly malevolent. He is led where he goes not by an external evil counsellor but by himself. George Bernard Shaw wrote that the most difficult character to create in his St Joan was the Inquisitor. To put on stage a devil without redeeming characteristics was easy but pointless and dramatically futile, he wrote. The basic requirement was to write from inside the man, to identify if not his humanity then at least his complexity, and to present the world view which motivated him. Hannan would seem to me to have succeeded in this task with his Powell character. An acquaintance remarks that he has ‘a horrible poetic streak’ and the words are not ironic. He has limited self-awareness even if he is given to quoting the celebrated words over the entrance to the grove of the oracle at Delphi – Know Thyself.

He knows himself inadequately, and however polished his talk, however redolent of classical rhetoric, he has only the weakest grasp of the impact of language on other people. He could see no fault in referring to babies as ‘piccaninnies’, and his own inner certainties make him impregnable to all assaults, whether quietly rational or noisily enraged. He refers to himself as a man alone, with no discomfort at being isolated, but also as a storm or even a hurricane. He arrogated to himself the right to speak for an England which has no voice, and even anticipates Theresa May in claiming to be the representative and mouthpiece of the working classes.
I doubt if the part could be better played than here by Ian McDiarmid. The make-up staff have even done a fine job in producing a remarkable physical resemblance, while he reproduces that clipped speech and the jerky movements of hand and upper body which suggest an unquiet mind. As a climax to the first Act, he delivers Powell’s speech in tones which are initially wheedling but which rise to a pitch of stentorian dogmatism. Nothing convinces like conviction, and this is a man who speaks from the very centre of his being, for good or ill.

And that is the question. Political and social questions are debated over an expanding time frame that jumps back and forward between 1968 and 1992, but always with an eye on the present. Intertwined with the appearance of Powell and his suite are encounters between two women, Rose who is black and Sofia who is white. Rose is a historian who wants Sofia to collaborate on a book which would take an interview with Enoch as starting point, but initially makes no headway with her. Rose wants to establish her own identity as an immigrant, and even confesses to some prejudices of her own, as does Sofia who believes ‘we are all racist’.

The underlying questions are flipped over in the second half to become – when did or does history end? Is there an immutable English community, or if the history of the country takes in the immigration of Normans, Eastern Europeans Jews and Irish, why should the most recent arrivals be viewed as a threat? Powell loses none of his confidence, but faces his nemesis in his advancing years. Now elderly and dependent, his strength weakened, his voice more reedy, he is seen in some form of infirmary or care home being attended to by a Pakistani doctor, who reads out questions from a clipboard. One routine question, to test failing memory, is a request to identify the current prime minister in 1992. Powell’s reply is withering. Later dressed in dark suit, with a poppy in his lapel and carrying a walking stick, his presence as welcome as Banquo’s at the feast, he declares that he was ‘once Enoch Powell’. Interviewed by Rose and Sofia (Amelia Donkor and Joanne Pearce, both splendid), who are now collaborating on an analysis of the impact of his speech, he points to Islamist terrorism, riots in the cities, and the jihad. He cannot contain his rage at the very word ‘multiculturalism’, and splutters that he was right all along, that his warnings were not heeded.

What Shadows was premiered at Birmingham Rep and has been sensitively directed by Roxana Silbert. It is too important a work to be left in the shadowy underground of works only briefly seen in the light.
What Shadows, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, run ended.

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The Wikipedia entry for events due to take place in 2023 is bare, currently. London is due a new, £4.1 billion ‘super-sewer’ by that date, while ‘the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands expires’. Otherwise, no Olympics, no World Cup, not even a Commonwealth Games.

In Bill Drummond’s new novel, 2023, the year is the peak of a new techno-corporate utopia, a time of peace when prisons are abolished, famine is ended, the planet is powered by natural resources, hate crimes have fizzled out, and even ‘Litter is a thing of the past’. A reader aware of Drummond’s past as a pop strategist, art-world antagonist, money-burner, beard-tugger and tail-puller could guess that such a world is an anathema to Drummond, and, indeed, the novel proceeds to unravel this future paradise as swiftly as it’s conjured.

I say Drummond is the author of 2023, but it’s credited to ‘The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’. Music fans of a recently middle-aged vintage may recall the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu was Drummond’s band in the late 1980s, from whose ruin Drummond and bandmate Jimmy Cauty launched another band, the far more successful KLF, whose ‘stadium house’ singles, ‘3am Eternal’, ‘Last Train to Transcentral’, the still-thrilling ‘What Time is Love?’, hogged the top end of the charts in 1990 and 1991, to the extent the KLF was awarded the 1992 Brit Award for ‘Best British Band’. In the same year, the KLF announced their retirement from the music industry, which most assumed was a publicity stunt. It wasn’t.

Fans of American Seventies sub-Pynchon anarcho-lit will recognize the source from which Drummond lifted his first band name. ‘The Justified Ancients of Mummu’ are a secret society dedicated to the promotion of chaos and the nemesis of the authoritarian Bavarian Illuminati, secret rulers of the world, in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a patience-testing epic that wove together every conspiracy du jour into one macro-theory.

To get anything out of 2023, not only must you be acquainted with the life and works of Bill Drummond, a fresh reading of The Illuminatus! Trilogy would be helpful. The titles of the first two ‘books’ that make up 2023 are spins on Shea and Wilson’s titles (‘The Blaster in the Pyramid’ for ‘The Eye in the Pyramid’, ‘The Rotten Apple’ for ‘The Golden Apple’); characters like Celine Hagbard are gender-reversed revamps of Illuminatus!’s Captain Nemo-ish Hagbard Celine, while one location, Fernando Poo, a West African island, reappears as Fernando Pó. There’s barely a page in 2023 that isn’t a callback to Illuminatus!

The other work of fiction Drummond feeds into the meat-grinder of his imagination is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘It is a bright warm day in April 2023, and the clock is striking thirteen,’ the main section of the novel begins. The star of Drummond’s own future hell is ‘Winnie’, an unhappy programmer who works for Celine Hagbard, gender-reassigned head of one of ‘the Big Five’, corporations (AppleTree, WikiTube, AmaZaba, FaceLife, GoogleByte) whose funds are so great, they’ve bought the world’s countries and dispensed with politicians. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith, she lives at ‘Victory Mansions’ and keeps a secret diary; unlike Winston, she fancies a bloke at work called ‘O’Brien’.

Drummond’s fondness for reworking and re-contextualising other people’s work dates to his JAMMs / KLF days. One explanation proffered for the KLF’s name was an acronym for ‘Kopyright Liberation Front’. The JAMMs first single ‘All You Need is Love’ sampled, without permission, the Beatles and Sam Fox, and was swiftly the subject of three record label injunctions. The avant-plagiarists’ subsequent album 1987: What the Fuck is Going On? (a title more relevant to 2017 than it ever was thirty years ago) was sued out of existence by Abba, who Drummond and Cauty pirated. Thanks to YouTube, you can hear those tracks today, but, word of warning: don’t. Not unless there’s a gap in your life you think can only be filled by hearing a man pretending to be a Glasgow docker badly rapping over ‘Dancing Queen’.

In addition to Illuminatus! and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the well-prepared reader will have an above-average knowledge of Drummond’s storied past. 2023 takes place in a through-the-looking-glass parallel dimension where Drummond’s biography is remixed. Drummond is an actual character, both in the plot of 2023 and the novel’s meta-scaffolding. For there is a book-within- the-book: Winnie’s struggle is annotated by end-of-chapter reports; here, we learn that ‘The Twenty Twenty-Three! Trilogy’ is being written in 1984 on Jura by ‘George Orwell’, the pen-name of ‘Roberta Antonia Wilson’.

Drummond was born in 1953 in South Africa, the son of a Church of Scotland minister. His parents returned to Newton Stewart, where he lived from the age of 18 months until he was 11. Newton Stewart, as far as Drummond is concerned, is notable as the filming location for 1970s pagan-schlocker The Wicker Man, Drummond going on in 1991 to burn his own 60-foot wicker effigy in 1991 for a publicity stunt, an incident referenced in 2023. After living in Corby, and studying in Northampton, Drummond washed up in Liverpool in the late 1970s. Aged 23, he landed a job as set designer for Ken Campbell’s legendary nine-hour production of, yes, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Drummond was to make his mark first in another form of live entertainment, in Liverpool’s incredibly fruitful music scene, which was centred on the legendary nightclub, Eric’s. After playing in bands, Drummond ended up managing the two greatest British post-punk bands of the era (after Joy Division, that is): Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.

Drummond belongs to the Tony Wilson-Malcolm McLaren school of rock management, which is to say, big on concept; contractual obligations, not so much. Such managers tend to be praised by fans and journalists; musicians, on the other hand, have more mixed feelings, and little wonder, for its their earnings financing their manager’s Big Idea. Drummond and the groups would eventually part company, but not before some memorable wheezes. In 1984, for example, he sent Echo and the Bunnymen on a British tour determined not by commercial sense, but where ley lines intersected. To be fair to Drummond, he did, in the end burn through a million pounds of his and Cauty’s own money, non-metaphorically; the KLF burned £1,000,000 in wads of £50 notes on Jura in 1994. Drummond and Cauty’s uncertainty as to why they roasted their savings didn’t dent the act’s reputation as the only genuinely punk gesture by a band ever.

Drummond’s next move is perhaps his most surprising, because so ordinary: he joined A&R at WEA. A company man. At least he got to keep wasting other people’s money. He spent £300,000 of WEA’s money on an album by high-profile duffers Brilliant, which flopped, but did lead to him meeting the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty. I’ve been referring to Drummond as the sole author of 2023, for the same reason I suspect Cauty was, largely, responsible for the JAMMs / KLF’s music. Cauty was in several bands, pre-KLF. After resigning from WEA at the symbolic (for vinyl connoisseurs) age of 33 and a 1/3rd, Drummond made, with help, one album, the eccentrically folky The Man, on which he sounds like Ivor Cutler.

Since retiring the KLF in 1993, Drummond had moved into writing. In fact, his writing debut precedes the KLF’s mothballing. In 1988, Drummond and Cauty published The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which purported to tell readers how they could piece together a novelty chart-topper, as they did earlier that year. Under the moniker ‘The Timelords’, Drummond and Cauty fused the Doctor Who theme and Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and scooped a surprise number one. In his fiction, Drummond sits comfortably with psychogeographers and graphic novelists, underground filmmakers and situationist saboteurs; one might raise at this point names like Andrew Kötting, Alan Moore (who appears in 2023 as a character) and Iain Sinclair. Drummond appears as himself in Sinclair’s 2002 non-fiction record of his circumnavigation of the M25 orbital ring, London Orbital. Sinclair describes him as ‘an interestingly complex mix of artist and anti-artist, performer and hermit, scholar, iconoclast, polemicist, prankster and well-grounded human. More than most, he honoured the past – particularly his own – even when he had to invent it. His Scottishness was important to him, although he’d lived for years in England: Corby, Liverpool, Buckinghamshire.’

His early books were preposterous fictions posing as literature vérité. Bad Wisdom (1996) charted a supposed journey to the North Pole to bury a statue of Elvis to ‘radiate good vibes down the longitudes, bringing about world peace’; nine years later, he published an account of a Werner Herzog-style trip to war-torn ‘Zaire’ in The Wild Highway. More profitable, I think, are his forays into non-fiction, 45 (2000), a collection of autobiographical essays prompted by attaining the titular age, the self-explanatory How to Be an Artist (2002), and 17 (2008), a chronicle of the choir he formed to perform improvised music scores, a reaction to the iPod.

Like that choir, one is never quite sure whether the message of 2023 is revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. We learn early in the story that the world of 2023 is about to fall thanks to something Winnie does, or rather, doesn’t do; her failure to act leads to the internet crumbling irrevocably, never to return. Drummond demonstrates how his utopia doesn’t work for people at the very bottom of society and has induced an artistic and cultural inertia – but is that enough to tear down a frictionless global polity? Especially when his animus is largely powered by a wish to turn the clock back to a time before the web and mobile phones, when Doctor Who was worth watching and the Christmas number one mattered. As the last season of, of all things, South Park brilliantly explored, there is a direct line connecting the nostalgia that led to the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the political atavism that juiced Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. When Drummond writes, only partly impishly, ‘This is how things start. You need things to fall apart for new things to grow. Things need to be out of control’, one suspects a significant portion of Trump’s supporters could get behind such sentiments.

More problematic for this reader at least, is Drummond’s Brechtian disruptions, the diary entries at the close of each chapter. Here, Roberta Antonia Wilson includes her agent’s and her own thoughts on how the novel is going. ‘Reading back through the stuff this morning, it feels like it has been written for an audience of less than half a dozen. It feels like I was just trying to layer the whole thing with all sorts of reference points to impress…’ ‘Right now, the story has to move along, before readers who are not of a certain age and did not grow up in the UK get totally bored with these knowing references to icons of a very localized popular culture.’
Commenting on your novel’s faults does not neutralize them, but is of a piece for the contempt the author shows for the literary novel. ‘The canal towpath is always popular with runners, but what they are thinking about we do not know or even care about because they are not in this book.’ Drummond’s chutzpah extends to inserting whopping anachronisms into the text. Remember, Roberta Antonia Wilson is meant to be writing ‘The Twenty Twenty- Three! Trilogy’ in 1984, yet includes in her story Harry Potter, the Gherkin, Twitter and Lady Gaga. He just doesn’t care and a reader’s response to 2023 will depend, finally, to the extent they care that he doesn’t.

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‘It is said that Long Meg and her daughters were a coven of witches who were holding their sabbat, when the Scottish wizard Michael Scot came upon them and turned them to stone. The stones of the circle are said to be uncountable, and that should anyone ever reach the same total twice, the spell would be broken.’ – BBC Cumbria

I was the biggest of us and slow,
second-oldest: long ago
made babysitter, laundress, built
for the heavy lifting,
for a baby on the hip.
I was a shadow thrown
to contrast my sisters’ glow.

His was magic I’d never seen –
so green in the ways of men –
his hard science buzzed its puzzles
in my head long after he’d come
and gone. I knew he was lying
all along – finding me in the lane
where he’d told me to be, saying
he wanted me, alone. I knew.
Or I should have known.

The hawthorn was wild that spring,
the hillside ringed: its sweet and lousy
stink on my hands from where
I’d thrashed in the ditch.
I whispered the secrets my mother
had warned me to keep,
my guard peeled back by the glamour
of his brown, naked gaze.

He was afraid, I see that now.
Our brave and homespun craft
enacted by candlelight
and weather, familiars crammed
in the lee as inexplicable rain
maddened the thatch.
We made things happen.
Men have always hated that.

And yet. When I danced,
I danced for him. The blossom-
socked may trees glowed
like our skin in that hot night’s moon.
He moved up the hill and I wanted
to scream he’s come for me, I fucking
told you so to a world that only
ever rolled its one green eye
at my clumsy desires. But I knew.
He was not there for me –
or not only for me.


‘The Hand of Glory is the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged, often… combined with a candle made from fat from the corpse of the same malefactor. […] The candle so made, lighted, and placed (as if in a candlestick) in the Hand of Glory, would have rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented.’ – Wikipedia

Let me stop you right there,
she says, and passes the hangman’s candle.
The hand doesn’t move in the puce light
unless it is moved – its five limbs domed
under the palm – it is huge and pale
as a camel spider. Sinister, the murder hand
she cut herself from the swung corpse,
avoiding his gaze, knife scything extremities.
(Executioner stage left,
back turned, palming her coins.)

In pantried lines, the spoils of her gallow
scavenges: you’ve heard what happens
to hanged men, and her tall jars
measure the evidence. Pickling
pulls the colour out of flesh. The liquids
hold their ghosts’ dance of vein,
white skin: fingers, shucked eyes.

She’s tried to stay out of town,
hung signs in the trees, made sure
she’s well and truly accused. But a few
still come, full moon drunk and bent
on crossing the palm of the witch.
This one’s tall, well-armed: panic
pink as a birthmark on his paused face.
Wait, she says to them, hold the light,
then looks away as the hand
creaks closed on their throats.

She’ll work through the night to take
what’s good about him – peeling
his skin like a rain-heavy dress, slicing
his nerves. Every creed has a hand
of protection. This one is hers.


after Helen Farish

If I’d been dead that long, what would I miss enough to want to see it first
when I woke up in my black dress,
creaking grave dust, mother
of all hangovers? Perhaps
the Edinburgh skyline with its crowsteps,
barrelling pigeons, tenement windows’ damp
and mournful eyes. I could be planted
in the path at Princes Street Gardens, right
in the tarmac, so when I woke
I’d have to punch through, fingernails
torn, George Romero style. Or I might like
to see a lake first – the way when I was young
and the weather was warm my dad
would say shall we drive out and look
at a lake? – make that pilgrimage
to brown birch shade ringed by fells.
Kirkstone Pass, maybe ditch me
in the sheep-bothered rocks so I’d sit up
to Brotherswater, road zig-zagged to the trig point,
drawing all the dead to higher ground.

But honestly? I’d be happy with the cemetery,
its sandstone slabs propped up and crumbling
like so many rows of cooling toast.
My one request: that I be sunk
directly across the path from you,
so the soles of our feet could touch
if not for the packed and cinder-sprinkled
earth. When I hear the call –
when the terrible genderless angels walk
through that churchyard and sound
the tower’s bell – I’ll come up fast.
Across from me, you: barely awake, and perhaps –
do old habits die? – feeling around for your specs
in the soil. The first thing I’ll watch:
you, realise you’re dead. And the second:
your smile, as you remember me.

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When I sat down to make notes for this review the first and most pressing problem I arrived at was that Martin Amis is my superior. This is not sycophancy. It is an acknowledgement of where I stand in the pecking order, and an early excuse for any stylistic faults that may undermine my authority to cast judgement on his latest collection of essays. In other words, I surrender. If I could wave a white wordless page at you, I would.

My feelings are similar to those of Salman Rushdie and Amis after they read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Rushdie, on the phone to Amis, said he sat down to write the next day and ‘there was nothing. Not a phrase, not a word.’ Amis told him not to worry. It happens to everyone. ‘That’s what Bellow can do to you, with his burning, streaming prose: he can make you feel that all the phrases, all the words, are exclusively his.’ I read Augie March earlier this year and thanked the gods of print I was not obliged to review it. After all, what would I say? It is simply too good. Also, how could my own paltry prose-style rise to the occasion? Amis declared Augie March the Great American Novel in an essay for the Atlantic in 1995. It is reprinted in The War Against Cliché. At the end of the piece, Amis gives up trying to convince you of Bellow’s genius in his own words. Instead, he consecutively quotes nine paragraphs of the novel.

In some ways, you don’t know anything about Amis’s work if you haven’t read Saul Bellow. He is everywhere in the novels and criticism (someone, somewhere, must have written a thesis on the formal sea change in Amis’s novels circa. 1984. It is here, in Money, when Bellow’s influence clearly moves in). There are three essays on Bellow in The Rub of Time, each one coupled with a piece on Nabokov and included in sections called ‘Twin Peaks’. The title is instructive. Amis consistently erects hierarchies of talent. So, those two Munros of modern American fiction sit alongside the Corbetts of John Updike, Philip Roth, and, occasionally, Don Delillo. Together they form an authoritative vanguard of American novelists.

In the second essay here, Bellow is pitted against his only real competitor for all-time greatness: Henry James (Melville is not far behind). It is also where we first come across Amis giving away his critical hand (now, you see why I gave away mine in the opening paragraph): ‘Praise and dispraise play their part in the quality control of literary journalism, but when the value judgement is applied to the past its essential irrationality is sharply exposed. The practice of rearranging the canon on aesthetic or moralistic grounds (today such grounds would be political – that is, egalitarian) was unanswerably ridiculed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). To imagine a literary “stock exchange” in which reputations “boom and crash”, he argued, is to reduce literary criticism to the sphere of “leisure-class gossip”. You can go on about it, you can labour the point, but you cannot demonstrate that Milton is a better poet than Macaulay.’

Amis’s position is that ‘Judge Time’ will be the ultimate arbiter of quality. This is slightly disingenuous. After all, what endures nowadays is simply what brings the money in. Amis, however, cannot help himself. He is addicted to his job as a judge of quality. His final decision on Bellow vs. James relies less on the method of ‘philosopher-king’ Frye, who sought to identify grand archetypes and epic patterns, and more on the analytical, William Empson school of criticism. Amis pillories James’s ‘elegant variation’ of style (the phrase is ironic) as a sign of ‘broader deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candour and engagement.’ Bellow’s ‘verbal surface’, however, is never short of ‘visionary.’ And, unlike James, he did not finish up writing against the reader. To the end, he wrote out of love.

If Bellow is Amis’s novelist par excellence, who is his poet? In the twentieth century, at least, it is Philip Larkin. Any appraisal of Larkin must consider how his peers have derided him since his death. After the private letters and the biographies were published, the demotions came flooding in to the letter pages of esteemed literary journals. In the early 1990s the unedifying picture of the man came to represent his verse. Amis manages to rescue the work whilst acknowledging Larkin’s life ‘was a pitiful mess of evasion and poltroonery’. The poems contain, among so much more, a ‘frictionless memorability’ rare in contemporary verse. Even the most piteously uncultured amnesiac could not fail to remember, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’

Still, we live in an age where writers gain credibility from moral virtue regardless of their technical skill or originality, especially in Scotland, for some reason. Rarely has it been more problematic to cleave, as Larkin did, to the ‘Yeatsian principle: “perfection of the work rather than perfection of the life.”’ (Larkin haters should note: if life was perfect, there would be no art.) Ad hominem assessments of Larkin, and anyone else for that matter, won’t go away any time soon. It is the price we pay for turning writers into celebrities.

For all his conviction and authority, Amis, once again, can’t help but issue the caveat that criticism’s long search for a ‘value system – a way of separating the excellent from the less excellent’ that goes right back to Aristotle’s Poetics is a ‘fool’s errand’. (Yes, it does get tiring: this is from a review of Don Delillo’s The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories: ‘Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable…’) So, it soon becomes apparent that any review of Amis’s non-fiction must be an assessment itself of what makes for good literary criticism. Not many critics could get away with rubbishing the ‘value system’ their own trade depends upon. Amis does, and the reasons why are worth looking at, but they are all sub-categories under the main heading: authority.

There has never been a good critic who has not sought to establish their authority over the reader. Of course, the intention is never obtuse. Critics don’t just pop-up like an old aristocrat and start telling people what’s good and what’s not (at least they don’t anymore). Instead, they employ a whole armoury of stylistic flourishes, subtle knowledge-markers and aesthetic props. One of Amis’s finest weapons is his ability to slide a writer’s sentences under the verbal microscope.

In his four-page review of Updike’s posthumous book, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, for example, he dedicates two and a half pages to demolishing Updike’s prose. There are no references to any secondary considerations, like ‘themes’ plot or character, only a brief aside to remind us that Amis still regards Updike as a titan (he assumes the great man, in his senescence, was ‘losing his ear’). Amis – who has a magpie’s eye for picking up gold nugget quotations – gives us a ‘blizzard’ of them as evidence (quotation, he tells us in the introduction to The War on Cliché, is the only hard evidence a reviewer can provide for their readers):

‘…take this (from the title story) as an example of a sentence that audibly whimpers for a return to the drawing board: “He was taller than I, though I was not short, and I realised, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I.” This isn’t much of a realisation; and by the time you get to the repeated “than I”, the one-letter first-person pronoun (which chimes with “realised” and “mine” and “tried” and “smile”) is as hypnotically conspicuous as, say, “antidisestablishmentariasm”.’

Amis acquired his acute awareness of sentence tone from his father. In The Rub of Time there is a self-castigating and enlivening essay on The King’s English, elder Amis’s guide to modern usage. His father’s battle, which the son has carried on fighting, ‘is in essence directed against the false quantity, in its non-technical sense. I mean those rhymes, chimes, repetitions, obscurities, dishonesties, vaguenesses, clichés, “shreds of battered facetiousness” and “shopworn novelties”.’ From a writer’s perspective, Amis demands you pay attention. After reading him, you sit at your desk a little straighter and concentrate a little harder on your syntax. He also – because of his assiduous command of English – demands the critic’s prose measures up to what is under review.

With great style comes great wit. Amis has said that a joke is an assertion of superiority. In one of his essays on Bellow, he quotes the ‘artist-critic’ Clive James: ‘“A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgement and should be trusted with nothing.”’ There is a long tradition of the critic as joker, and humour is one of best ways for a critic to establish their authority. Dorothy Parker perfected the art. Her weekly book reviews for the New Yorker during the Jazz Age make one hurt with laughter.

Amis is consistently witty, not least when writing about the President of the United States. His May 2016 essay is, in essence, an attempt to read Donald Trump’s books, including The Art of the Deal and Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. His intention is to understand the character of the man who, on the cover of his world-changing polemic, ‘hammily’ scowls ‘out from under an omelette of makeup and tanning cream (and from under the little woodland creature that sleeps on his head).’ Amis reports back that ‘in the last thirty years Trump, both cognitively and humanly, has undergone an atrocious decline.’ In other words, as Trump has become more powerful, he has become more stupid.

Of course, The Rub of Time is typically erudite on subjects like this, but there are not many perfect books and this one has its peaks and troughs. A few scraps of journalism should have been left in the vaults. Although, Amis’s short piece on ‘The Tims’ of the world is fun hackery at its best. It should be posted up in postnatal wards across the country as a warning for anyone even considering – God help them – Tim as a potential name for their child. The ‘personal’ sections that include answers to questions sent over email from readers should be left open to a passing breeze; that way you can move on swiftly to Amis at his best, when he is assessing the literary greats: Amis on Iris Murdoch, Amis on Bellow, Amis on Nabokov, Amis on Roth.

Come the end, we must ask ourselves what ‘Judge Time’ will make of Martin Amis. There have been years of vicious media attacks on him, which have no doubt dented his reputation and his book sales. Nevertheless, when we look back with a clearer and more honest eye, surely, he will be considered one of the finest novelist-critics of our age? Of course, only the haruspices among us know the answer to that. But, if he does not finish near the top, someone, a critic perhaps (not a follower of Northrop Frye, please), will need to wind back the clock, take a close look at the literary-cosmic order and work out just what the hell went wrong.

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To the ancient walled city of Lucca in Tuscany, where we have taken an apartment for a month. It is on the ground floor of a medieval building – almost everything here is at least 500 years old – and has been renovated by Pervinka, an interior designer. Before renting it out, she moved in for a month to make sure it has everything you could need. And it does, including artfully built bookcases filled with marbled and calf-bound nineteenth-century Italian works, and the classics of European literature.

To this collection previous tenants have added discarded thrillers, mostly in Italian, and an assemblage of guide books. One of them is by Rick Steves, the godfather of Tuscan tourism, who switched career from piano-salesman to tour operator, chaperoning North Americans new to these parts, and teaching them how to behave and what to expect. He is generally well-informed, but at one point after we’ve been buying groceries in the nearby supermarket and wondering if we have accidentally stumbled into an outpost of Fortnum & Mason, my husband Alan reaches the chapter where Steves enthuses over the low price of vegetables. ‘Where’s he been shopping?’ he asks. Our own modest contribution to the in-house library comprises a first edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc, found on our first day here in a second-hand stall. Sadly it proved too taxing even for a devotee of The Alexandria Quartet. This was not entirely unexpected, as Durrell’s quote on the jacket is cautionary: ‘Tunc is roughly about what it is about; the reader makes it up as he goes along, if he goes along with it, that is.’ Nevertheless it is disappointing, since the opening sentence promised much: ‘Of the three men at the table, all dressed in black business suits, two must have been stone drunk.’

The apartment’s windows are barred like a gaol, but while there is no view to boast of, these rooms come with a soundtrack. Three feet away across the narrow street is the Conservatorio Boccherini, and when we throw open the windows the trilling and thundering and growling of sopranos, pianos and cellos fills the air. From eight in the morning until eight at night the place resounds to Bach, Pachabel, Mozart, Ravel and Chopin. During all this, the statue of Boccherini in the courtyard looks gravely on as tourists trail past, captivated for a moment by the rising and falling scales and strings. One evening I watch a young woman step out of a taxi, in heels like sticks of celery, and a knee-length dress whose hem is pleated into the white and black notes of the piano on which she is, likely, about to perform.

* * *

One Friday evening we are invited to dinner with friends of a friend who have a house in the hills above Lucca. They are Parisian, but spend around four months of the year in their country retreat. Yolaine is a novelist, the daughter of a pre-war tennis star who became Giscard D’Estaing’s foreign minister. Her partner Roman, whose occupation we never learn, collects us at the town walls in his jeep. Darkness is falling as we snake up the side of the valley, and then take a deeply rutted shoelace that leads to their gates. As he drives Roman explains how Yolaine’s novels have come recently to be published in Italian. A young hotelier from Lucca wrote to ask if she could translate one of her books. When she learned that Yolaine was living nearby, everything fell into place. Over prosecco in their sixteenth-century farmhouse, whose loggia looks onto a landscape Piero della Francesca would recognize, and very possibly painted, Yolaine describes her delight at finding a publisher whose editors treat her as a star. The French literary scene, she intimates, is very different. Asked to do a reading in a Lucca library, she turned up expecting a handful of attendees. Half an hour before the event began, the room was already filled. By the time she went on stage fifty were standing at the back of the hall, and fifty more were at the doors, hoping to be admitted. This says much for Yolaine’s allure, but also for Lucca, where the arts – and the finer things of life in general – are taken seriously.

Conversation turns to the English author Charles Morgan, once one of Yolaine’s favourite writers. His novel Sparkenbroke, a meditation on the relationship between art and love, published in 1936, was set in Lucca, and recently she tried to re-read it. She found it impossible, but hands us a copy to decide for ourselves. It does not look an easy read. At one point Sparkenbroke writes to his wife: ‘You would have understood the love of the Troubadours and the Courts of Love where the bodily act was chiefly valuable neither as a pleasure nor as a means to an ecstasy beyond itself, but as a symbol of an absolute loyalty and devotion.’

In his time Morgan was a man of renown, especially in France, where he was made an officer of the Légion d’honneur. By chance a few days later I stumble upon him when reading Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. A young woman writes a letter, supposedly by Morgan, raving about her friend’s unpublished novel in the hope this will persuade a publisher to take it. ‘“Now, are you sure George will be impressed by Morgan’s name?” “Very,” said Jane.’ That it would carry no clout today is a reminder of how quickly stars wane.
When we leave, the stars are bright above us. Roman points to the electric fences he has erected to fend off rampaging boar. There are thousands of the creatures, he says, eating their way through gardens and plots, and too few hunters to keep them at bay. A few days later the regional paper picks up the story, in nearby Bagni di Lucca, where locals complain of coming under siege from these tusked invaders. One has some sympathy, but it is limited. There must be ways of accommodating the needs of animals and humans, all of whom have a right to live here, without blasting them to smithereens or turning them into paté.

* * *

It is on the city walls that the Lucchese come to life. Massive fortifications, they were built when James IV was in his pomp. In the end, they were never used to fend off attack, unlike the pepper-pot towers that poke out from the tree-line across Tuscany, in which noble families took refuge. But while they were not called upon for their original purpose, these circular walls, which enclose a city of around 8000 citizens, and look out upon the 50,000 more in the boondocks, are in constant use today. This is where the passeggiata takes place, much of it in Lycra. Dog-walkers and pram-pushers, cyclists, strollers, joggers, and those in wheelchairs and mobility scooters circle the town in a perpetual whirl, like seagulls around a trawler. The backdrop to this gentle scene is the Apennines, from which many fled to Scotland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in search of a better life. Their marble-scarred flanks glitter in the sun, fooling those accustomed to year-round snow in the Cairngorms into thinking the season has turned.

Having just read Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines, I look on these peaks with respect. Newby’s account of his escape from an Italian prisoner of war camp in 1943 and the year he spent on the run, is a model of sangfroid. Thus, when he describes the horrors of the forest undergrowth he must clamber through, where the bramble thickets are like barbed wire, and he knows that if he breaks an ankle he will never be found, one shares his terror. After the war, Newby and his Polish-Italian wife Wanda returned and bought a second home. The constant theme of this memoir is how kind and brave were the Italians who helped him, risking their lives without a qualm. Even those who betrayed him in the end are not reviled. Offered the chance to learn who informed on him to the Germans, Newby prefers not to know. ‘“No thank you,” I said, “we’ve all had enough of this sort of thing to last us for the rest of our lives.”’

* * *

Lost one afternoon in a tangle of backstreets, we come upon a printer’s shop: Antica Tipografia Biagini. Lured in by the smell of ink, Alan asks the owner if he does business cards – biglietti da visita, as they are called. Matteo, the printer, has hair that looks as if he has that second leapt out of bed. He takes us on a tour of the shop, showing us early nineteenth and twentieth-century French, Italian and German printing machines, on which he and his colleague Antonio work seven days a week. Previously Alan has ordered cards off the internet, which take ten minutes to choose and pay for, and arrive in the post a few days later. Things are done differently here. After a long discussion on the aesthetic properties of the Bodoni typeface, decisions are made, and an appointment fixed to return. It takes three visits, and several emails, to produce two small boxes of exquisite cards. If ever you receive one, you will be among the privileged few. I’ve seen white truffles shared more liberally.

Matteo, formerly a biker, fell in with Gino Biagini a few years ago, and is now in charge. He learned his trade from Biagini, and talks of him often. The only printing firm of its kind in Europe, the place is internationally renowned, with clients such as Jodie Foster photographed in the shop with Biagini at her side.

On one of our last days in Lucca, we have lunch at Pervinka’s, taking our espresso onto her verandah. We mention our encounter with Matteo, and she hurries back into the house, returning with a tiny eighteenth-century-style lady’s dance card booklet, and book plates Biagini designed for her and her twin sons. She knew him quite well, she says. He was a most original, unusual man, but he lived very much in the past. She explains what happened: ‘He shot himself. He was a very sensitive man. He could no longer live in this world, it was too ugly, too violent.’ You might almost suspect he waited until Matteo was qualified to fill his shoes, before taking his leave. Pervinka gives me the dance card booklet as a gift, six of which she had bought as a remembrance when Biagini died. It is a fitting memento, evocative of an age of elegance, as is the city itself.

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Volume 12 Issue 5 Editorial

LET’S face it, too many books are published. Figures vary but it is generally believed that in the region of 200,000 titles are published in the UK each year. This is a staggering number which leaves us dumbfounded. Needless to say, many of these books make little impact on even the most eclectic and voracious readers while others sell so few copies it’s barely worth printing them. On average literary novels are reckoned to sell fewer than 200 copies, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for their authors to make a living from their endeavours.

Here’s another alarming statistic: people who are constant readers and who have reached the age of 65 can expect to read just 2080 books before they depart for the heavenly library. If you’re 45 and what’s termed a ‘superb reader’ you can count on reading 3240 books before you shuffle off; if you’re 80, you may yet read 800 books. How such things are computed we know not, neither do we much care.

In sore need of consolation we turned to books that have been clamouring for our attention, like dogs panting to go for a walk. First was Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books, published in English in 2004. Like us, Zaid is alarmed at the exponential output of books. Since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, when in the first one hundred years 35,000 titles appeared, there has been a torrent of production. In the half-century between 1950 and 2000, for instance, thirty-six million books were published. By any standard, this is too many. ‘The human race,’ writes Zaid, ‘publishes a book every thirty seconds. Supposing an average price of £20 per book and average thickness of two centimetres, twenty million pounds and close to fifteen miles of shelving would be required for the yearly addition to Mallarmé’s library, if the poet wished to be able to say: “The flesh is sad, alas! and I’ve read all the books”.’

Mind-boggling as Zaid’s statistics are, it is some comfort to know that we live in an age when there will always be something new to read. The problem for Zaid, and us, is that by spending so much time reading it leaves less time to live. It is difficult to get the lifereading balance right, especially of you are the kind of person who, on finding yourself on a journey with nothing to read, feels keenly that precious time is being wasted. Readers need to read as fitness fanatics need to clock up their strides on their Fitbits. It is a form of tyranny.

We turned next to Adventures of a Bibliomaniac by Kenneth White. Published by Fras Publications, it is an essay-length pamphlet in which the Glasgow-born nomad reflects on a habit he has no chance of kicking. His library, he insists, is a working library, which gives his addiction a veneer of respectability, the implication being that if it were not a working library it would lose something of its legitimacy.

Wherever White has found himself he has acquired books, each book becoming part of who he is. Yet he too is disturbed by the phenomenal outpouring of books despite the fact that we often hear about ‘the end of the book’. Books continue to defy the odds and to see off their ephemeral enemies. Kindles were meant to lead to their demise; who now believes that?

Finally, we picked up Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (New York Review of Books) by the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. There is a sense when reading about what writers read when they were young that they were the lucky ones, as if they had survived some terrible disaster in which countless of their peers had perished. What, they ask, would have become of us if we hadn’t been readers? How would we have lived our lives? Wouldn’t we have been bored witless?

With Naipaul there is no sense of this. As a young boy, he says, he wasn’t much of a reader. He liked Hans Christian Andersen’s tales and Aesop’s fables but that was about it. A teacher gave him Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but all he remembered of it was the name of the submarine and its captain. What Naipaul really wanted to be was a writer though he came later to appreciate that this ambition had been part of a process, which started with ‘the little things my father read to me from time to time’.

‘Literature is the sum of its discoveries,’ reflects Naipaul in ‘The Writer and India’, the second essay in his slim book. ‘What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good.

’We agree and trust readers of the Scottish Review of Books feel similarly. By all means buy books for Christmas – what better gift is there? – but make them good ones.

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Emily was working in the shop today.

Emanuela came in at 10 a.m. and spent ten minutes insulting my hair, my clothes, and almost everything else so I drove to the warehouse and loaded the van with the reject rotated stock for the recycling plant in Glasgow. Emanuela came to Wigtown from Genoa in the summer of 2015 to work in the shop for a few months in exchange for bed and board. She takes singular pleasure in berating every aspect of my life in her barely comprehensible English. She seems to suffer from every ailment known to man, even though she’s only 27 years old. Because of this, she’s known locally as ‘Granny’.

Left the shop at 12.30 p.m. and drove the laden van slowly to Glasgow. The brakes aren’t working particularly well, and have started to make some unhealthy noises. Arrived at the Smurfitt Kappa recycling plant at 2.30 p.m. and weighed in, unloaded the boxes of rejected stock into the large, plastic bins, and weighed out and left for a house near Ayr which required an emergency clearance of books. The satnav, which was supposed to take me to the address that the owner, Pam, had given me, instead took me to an empty field. An hour (and three phone calls) later, I was still lost. I eventually found the place, Rowan House, as I was speaking to her on the phone. Unhelpfully, it didn’t have a sign on the driveway to give any indication that it was indeed Rowan House, and when I arrived, I realised that I’d driven past it three times previously. Pam, though, was charming and had boxed the books in preparation. A widow, she had put the house on the market and it had unexpectedly sold quickly, forcing her to move to Yorkshire in far greater haste than she’d anticipated. I loaded the seventeen boxes into the van and crawled home through the hills, the brakes making increasingly alarming noises with each application.

Home at 7 p.m.

Till total £631.10 | 42 customers


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Emily in.

At 10 a.m. a customer brought in a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias. They’re worth nothing now, and – like most second-hand bookshops – I don’t stock them, but in their time they must have been extremely expensive. Arthur Mee was a massive name in his day (the 1930s) but nowadays has disappeared almost completely from the public consciousness. As well as the Children’s Encyclopaedia, he also produced a set of English county guides under the umbrella title The King’s England. These still occasionally sell in the shop, provided they have dust jackets, but not in the numbers they used to, even 15 years ago when I bought the shop. I suppose the generation who grew up familiar with the name Arthur Mee has all but died out.

After lunch, I drove to Stranraer through the horizontal, driving rain. Passed two fields of sheep, all of which were pointed in exactly the same direction, with their backs to the wind. Although I’ve seen this before, I’ve never witnessed them quite so statue- like. I arrived at the terraced house on the sea-front in Stranraer at 2.30 p.m. and was met by John, a 76 year old retired merchant seaman. The books were up a flight of stairs on a landing – interesting collection, a mix of maritime, railway, and Folio Society. I took a few boxes and gave him £250. There was a nice five-volume slip-cased set of Folio Wodehouses among them. This is the third set of Folio Wodehouses I’ve had over the years, and they always sell quickly, and for around £80.

Back to the shop at 4.15 p.m. just as a customer came to the counter with our copy of The Trial of James Stewart, dated 1753, and published by Hamilton and Balfour. It was £300, and he asked if there was any chance of a discount, so I checked on ABE – the go-to website for checking online prices – and found one (admittedly in less good condition) priced at £225. I told him that he could have it at that price, and he was delighted. The Trial of James Stewart – the story of the Appin murder, the story on which Robert Louis Stevenson based Kidnapped. Stevenson’s father had picked up a copy of the same edition of The Trial of James Stewart in a bookshop in Inverness, and given it to RLS, and from that, the seed of what would become Kidnapped was planted. Stevenson even references this edition of his book by calling his protagonist (the only important character not based on a real person) David Balfour – The Trial of James Stewart was published by Balfour. This copy is the only one I’ve seen since I bought the shop in 2001.

Till total £153.18 | 17 customers


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Emily in.

The seeming endless rain eventually stopped at about 10 a.m.

I recently discovered that Amazon is about to charge me £1,600 storage charge for the stock we store in their warehouse under the Fulfilled by Amazon programme. This is a system under which we (and other booksellers) list our stock on a database which we upload to Amazon, then ship the boxes of books to their warehouse, from where they are sent out to customers when the orders come in. Initially, it solved the problems created by large collections coming in, but without the space to sell them in the shop. Now, though, our FBA stock is more or less static, and we probably sell £20 worth of books a week. This storage charge is a new thing, and is probably twice the value of our FBA stock, so I need to find a way around this before they whack the charge on me, so I engaged Amazon’s Live Chat to try to resolve it. The name they ascribed to the person who is dealing with me is ‘Cromwell’.

I wonder if they’ve decided to give all their employees the names of vicious figures from history. I’m hoping that I’m about to be connected to Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan.

After lunch I drove to Gatehouse of Fleet, to a friend’s house to look at her late husband’s books. He died about fifteen years ago, and his son from his first marriage has been my friend since early childhood. He came to my first birthday party, and now lives in Chile with his wife and baby daughter. There was nothing much of value, but some reasonable shop stock, so I wrote her a cheque for £120.

Till total £302.79 | 21 customers


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Books found: 1

After lunch I left for Garlieston, a seaside village eight miles away, to look at Mr Deacon’s books. Mr Deacon was a regular customer, and had been since I bought the shop. In the intervening fifteen years he regularly came in to order biographies and history books which he could far more easily have ordered online. For this reason, I had a particular affection. And the fact that he was clearly a man of enormous intelligence who cared little for his appearance. He always looked – to me – as though his clothes had been loaded into a cannon and fired onto him. The last time I saw him, he told me that he’d just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That was two years ago. Last week his daughter telephoned to offer me his book collection. I had no idea that he’d died earlier in the year.

I parked the van as near to the house as I could get, and was greeted by his charming daughter Suzie, who showed me around the house which was not at all what I had expected. From her late father’s appearance, I had imagined that it would have been far less clean and tidy, and considerably more cluttered. It turned out that it had been, and that following his death she had arranged for it to be totally redecorated and refitted. Apparently Mr Deacon didn’t have a washing machine, and a woman in the village used to do his washing and ironing for him (although I can’t say that I ever noticed much evidence of ironing when I saw him). The books were, as expected, of good quality both in their subjects and condition, mostly history hardbacks in dust-jackets, with a few other subjects: politics, biography, law and – highly unexpectedly – nudism. I offered £320 for what I wanted, which Suzie gladly accepted. When I told her that there was no way I could take those I didn’t want (roughly 1,000 books) she looked distraught. She has to clear the house by Friday, and can’t leave anything. Then a thought occurred to me – The Open Book (a volunteer run bookshop in Wigtown) desperately needs new stock, and Finn, who runs it, lives less than a mile away from Mr Deacon’s house. I called him and he came round straight away. He’s going to go over tomorrow with a trailer and clear them. Suzie looked enormously relieved.

Home at 7 p.m.

Till total £264.19 | 20 customers


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Today was my 47th birthday, and the last day of the 10 days of Wigtown Book Festival.

The first people through the door were a couple who asked ‘Do you remember us? We were here six years ago.’ Needless to say I had no idea who they were.
Timandra Harkness, author of a book called Big Data, appeared at 10 a.m. with a hand-made birthday card. She and I went for a swim in the sea yesterday as the weather was glorious. I normally go in on my birthday but the weather forecast for today was diabolical, so we decided to do it yesterday.

Interesting chat with Rachel McCormack about publishing. She described publishers as ‘sausage factories’.

A Dutchman with a beard came to the counter with a three-volume set of books about trees which, for reasons unknown, Nicky (former employee of several years’ standing) had priced at £10 each, rather than £30 for the set. They’d previously been priced at £85 for the set, but the Dutchman wanted all three for £10. I explained that it would be £30 for the set rather than £10. He didn’t buy them. Shortly after he left in a rather bad temper, a woman came to the counter looking panicked. She told me that she’d seen a ghost on the top landing of the building; a woman dressed entirely in black.

As every year on my birthday, my parents came at noon with a cake and sang happy birthday with Carol-Ann and Carol. After they’d left, Eliot (festival director) appeared and asked me to lead an author walk from the County Buildings to the Martyrs’ Stake. I waited outside the County Buildings for ten minutes but mercifully nobody turned up because of the diabolical weather. Just as I thought I’d got away with it and was about to return to the shop, Siobhan (who runs the Wigtown youth festival) cornered me and co-opted me into one of her events. Thankfully it wasn’t particularly taxing.

A woman in her 60s with dyed red hair asked if we had any books on runes just as my friend Stuart was walking past. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man roll his eyes so dramatically.

Today’s festival event included talks by Tom Devine, Philip Ardagh, Alan Johnson, Debi Gliori and Mary Contini. As always, I didn’t manage to get to any of them because the shop was open.

Till total £640.05 | 67 customers


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The first customer of the day was a woman who asked where we keep books about fairies and witchcraft. I wonder if she may have been the same woman who saw the ‘ghost’ in the shop earlier in the week. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her I’m from Wigtown she kept repeating ‘But you sound really English’.

A Dutchman came in looking for a copy of The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. He seemed unduly impressed that I even knew it was by ‘BB’, and even more so that I knew that his real name was Denys Watkins Pitchford. I don’t know why he seemed so impressed – it is my job, after all. We’ve had a couple of copies of The Little Grey Men in the first edition, but I couldn’t find one.

Till total £331.28 | 21 customers


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Books found: 3

Emily found all the orders this morning. Drove to Milngavie, north of Glasgow
to look at a book collection in a modest Victorian suburban house, owned by a recently widowed woman in her 70s. The books had been her late husband’s and were Folio Society titles, many of which I’d never seen. They were pristine. I took about 120 of them and wrote her a cheque for £580. The house was pristine, and on the wall of the dining room was a reprint of the Declaration of Arbroath and a saltire, so clearly they’d been independence voters.

Home at 5.30 p.m.

Till total £201.96 | 13 customers

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Gordon Williams once told me, one Paisley boy to another, that he’d rather score a single goal for St Mirren than write War and Peace. Attaboy. He used the same line in an interview for the Scottish Football Book, so I guess it was a well-practised routine. Did he mean it? Williams regarded honesty – and free speech – as commodities best treated ‘like sweaty gelignite’. His trick was to make pronouncements so outrageous they could only be true. Or, as he preferred to put it, ‘I’ve always found it safer to tell the truth so blatantly nobody believes it’.

Telling the truth blatantly was what made Gordon Williams a novelist. In From Scenes Like These, he wrote a coming-of-age novel that not only ripped away any remaining net curtains from working-class life in rural Ayrshire but delivered something of the texture and grit of adolescence away from the bright lights. It made William McIlvanney seem positively perfumed. It should have won its author the inaugural Booker Prize, but it went to P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For instead. That jury had something to answer for.

I once asked him how he felt about it, and how he felt about prizes for writers, and he told me that he’d once been shortlisted for a Scottish Arts Council gong and had suggested to his fellow listees that they ‘do what antique merchants and jockeys do and agree to split the winnings whoever won it’. He claimed that Iain Crichton Smith looked amused (or maybe it was bemused), but that George Mackay Brown, who in the event won the prize, got the hump.

Williams seemed to work excessively hard for scant rewards. He almost literally never stopped writing, even when he had to take a day job as a business manager for Chelsea Football Club. He owed his introduction to writing to an uncle who had published a book about his life as a Brethren missionary in South America, but also perhaps to the ‘complete set of the Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott’, which along with the shoes and the ‘food parcels from our auntie in Texas’ helped lift the boy out of Ferguslie Park Avenue and into view of those bright lights.

He was born in Paisley in June 1934, the son of a policeman and a leather worker. His school was the famous ‘Porridge Bowl’, the John Neilson Institute that used to dominate the Paisley skyline. Those little snatches of autobiography comes from ‘A Scots Burgh Boy’s Dream of America’, the curious poem-prelude to Walk Don’t Walk, the Henry James-in-reverse tale of a young Scots’s writer’s trip Stateside to promote his novel. It’s a brilliantly paced, unforgivingly honest book, comparable in satirical intention to Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward or David Lodge’s Changing Places, but inevitably without the campus element.

Williams wasn’t so much anti-intellectual, as anti-intellectuals. Dons and highbrow scribblers don’t fare well in this books, though it was a bespectacled academic, George Magruder, who became the unexpected action hero of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. It was the book that really put Williams on the map, though largely because the film rights were (eventually) sold to Sam Peckinpah, who lined up Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, T. P. McKenna, and a large supply of ‘Kensington gore’, threw in an anal rape scene that wasn’t in the novel and created a movie sensation.

Straw Dogs (as it was renamed after a Chinese proverb about meaningless people) has since been remade with an American cast and away from the Dartmoor setting that made both original novel and movie so atmospheric. Williams was furious about the changes – ‘I wrote that book for my mother,’ he’d snarl – but also that he had missed a trick when Robert Vaughn, a screen smoothie but a fiercely intelligent producer, rang up to ask about the rights. Gordon mistook ‘Vaughn’ for ‘van’, thought it was a wrong number and hung up. Ten years later, he turned down Bill Forsyth’s offer of script work on a film about a girl getting into a football team. ‘I told him I had better things to do’. Like writing War and Peace, I asked; or maybe seeing if Jim Clunie would still give you a run out for the Buddies, even though you’re knocking 46. ‘Aye, something like that’, was the muttered answer.

Money seemed to elude him, or get away from him, even after he gave up the sauce and adopted a healthier, indeed, almost monastic, lifestyle. He’d made a bit of cash from his first books. The very first thing to appear inside hard covers was a centenary history of the London Trades Council, called A Hundred Years of Protest and Progress, written shortly after he’d left the £2 per week employ of the Johnstone Advertiser. His first novel, The Last Day of Lincoln Charles did respectably, as did The Camp, whose latest reprint claims it was his first book, but not so. The Camp was based on his own National Service with the RAF in Germany. It’s very much a newsman’s novel, written with a clear eye for detail and an ear for salty dialogue. Movie interest came along with The Man Who Had Power Over Women but Williams never equalled the success of Alan Sharp in Hollywood, and for the rest of his writing career was often reduced – though he never seemed to treat it as anything less than serious work – to writing ‘novelisations’ of films for the paperback market. He took his craft seriously, but wrote potboilers for £300 a pop under the pseudonym ‘Jack Lang’. He believed that The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, knocked out in just nine days, was one of these, but a sharp agent touted it round London until Secker & Warburg (one or other of them) got the point and bought the title.

Ironically, his greatest post-Straw Dogs success came via another pseudonymous – and collaborative – project. While working for Chelsea, he met the team captain Terry Venables. Williams had been ghosting footballers’ autobiographies, notably Bobby Moore’s and Tommy Docherty’s; he gave a very good impersonation of the Doc at his unprintable best. With Venables, he came up with that relatively rare thing – Brian Glanville and Robin Jenkins are among the few other significant exponents – a good football novel. They Used To Play On Grass read as faintly futuristic until Queen’s Park Rangers ripped up their turf and put down plastic. It did nicely and the writing association worked well enough to start a franchise. He and Venables wrote as P.B. Yuill, the name of one of Williams’s uncles. It was his fourth or fifth author’s name, if you include ‘Norman Leigh’, another potboiling disguise, and Gordon M. Williams, which was the original version. He also claimed to have lived at more than 35 addresses since he left Scotland.

I like the Hazell books and have on occasion been caught arguing that they represent Williams at his best. There is no derogative more crushing in Hazell’s world than ‘suave’, which I remember Gordon pronouncing in an Estuary way as ‘swahv’ when he was being sarcastic about intellectuals and conspicuous consumers, and as ‘swayv’ when he was pretending to be an ignorant wee keelie frae Paisley. Hazell’s clients almost always inhabit the suave world, where carpets are deeper than personalities and possessions seem to exist entirely to keep fear and disappointment at bay.

But these aren’t stories about crime. They are stories about identity. Hazell’s wounded foot makes him a kind of modern Oedipus, searching for himself as much as answering his client’s needs, which are never quite what they seem. Hazell and the Menacing Jester blends raw social comedy with a heartbreaking intuition of the empty horror that lies behind Habitat furniture. Its climax is a murderous fight in a room full of expensive antiques and objects of virtue, a scene worthy of the multiple detonations of private property at the end of Zabriskie Point, a film Williams unexpectedly admired. The relationship between what we own and who we are is even more profoundly analysed in Hazell and the Three Card Trick, in which a ratty little dealer who runs a ‘find the lady’ stand off Oxford Street is also able to pose as a rich businessman gambler, exposing the venality of both worlds.

Williams wrote on for a bit. The Upper Pleasure Garden is still readable, though far from his best. Much better was his novelisation of Ridley Scott’s Napoleonic adventure The Duellists, which is ultimately based on a story by Joseph Conrad. The connection makes sense, for Williams had a Conradian instinct for the way the lower reaches of society interacted with the world ‘above’ them. He had sympathy for both, differently deployed. Suave pretension, whether in material or intellectual terms, was ruthlessly skewered, but there was always compassion, even for the hapless husband in Hazell and the Menacing Jester, whose life seems to be invaded by some dark existential threat that turns out to be a series of unconnectedly petty revenges.

Like Alan Sharp, he found inspiration in a science fiction project that allowed him to write about the same world through a speculative lens. In 1976 Harry Saltzman approached him to rewrite a script for The Micronauts. In the event, the film was never made, but Williams got three novels out of it.

Every now and then, Williams appears on a list of ‘lost’ Scottish writers. He made it clear that after thirty years away, he could scarcely claim any such identity. Nor did he think of himself as ‘lost’. His father put him on the London train in 1960, with two quid in his pockets. The money quickly went on drink, and from that moment on, Williams walked the streets looking for what he called ‘stray baksheesh’. This isn’t the paradigm of the literary novelist that we’ve come to expect. Serious novelists look for serious royalties, stay away from the movies as much as possible and prefer academic residencies or festival appearances to commercial scribbling. Williams was one of the last of a tribe of scribblers for whom reality only existed at the nib of a pen. He neither wrote War and Peace nor scored for St Mirren and when he died in August, aged 83, stricken with pancreatic cancer, he left behind only a rather scrappy and inconsistent work-list. But his commitment to writing was heroic, and his moral example is a profound one. The current generation of novelists, Scots, English, Irish, Welsh, anyone, would do well to think on him.

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I To the Hills

In December 1976, five years before her death, the Aberdeen Evening Express ran an interview with Nan Shepherd. Then aged 83, she had not published a book for over forty years. Asked why this was, she said, ‘it just didn’t come to me anymore’, thus prompting the headline, ‘Writer of genius gave up’.

We know now, of course, that Shepherd had not given up and that throughout those lean decades she wrote regularly if not prolifically, including articles for a variety of journals and newspapers. She also wrote a decent short story, ‘Descent from the Cross’, a handful of poems, and her short book, The Living Mountain, which she wrote in the 1940s in the midst of the Second World War and upon which her posthumous reputation largely rests.

The Living Mountain finally appeared in 1977 and caused quite a stir. Its publisher was Aberdeen University Press, then owned by Pergamon Press, the milch cow of the buccaneering entrepreneur Robert Maxwell. As Charlotte Peacock notes in Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain caught the new vogue for travel writing typified by the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John McPhee. The author with whom Shepherd shared most affinity, however, was Peter Matthiessen (misspelled by Peacock) whose book The Snow Leopard described his futile quest to find the fabled beast in Nepal. Like Matthiessen, Shepherd was more interested than the journey than the destination. She thought of mountains as living entities, beings in themselves, which spoke to those with ears to listen. She communed with them in a Zen-like, quasi-religious manner, which appealed to people, such as her friend and correspondent Neil Gunn, of a poetic and spiritual nature. Less impressed were hardened hill trampers such as ‘Cairngorm guru’ – as he is described by Peacock – Adam Watson who last year produced a damning page by page review of The Living Mountain, accusing Shepherd, whom he knew well, of being a snob. ‘Always,’ wrote Watson, ‘I have found her book fanciful, contrived and fundamentally anthropocentric. I read it once, and it meant little to me.’ A second reading of it, it seems, impressed him even less.

Such barbs have not impacted on the popularity of Shepherd’s slim book. With the imprimatur of nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who in 2011 provided an introduction to a new edition, it has become an unlikely bestseller. Indeed the Guardian’s hyperventilating reviewer was so taken with it that he described it as ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. Thereafter, in 2016, Shepherd’s portrait appeared on Scottish £5 notes, moving Macfarlane to hymn: ‘She’s an incredibly inspiring figure, and an unusual one, in the sense of being a woman writing about mountains and the wilderness and nature. She found her own path in life and in literature, and it feels like she’s so far ahead of us – we’re always only starting to catch Nan up. Philosophically and stylistically, she was extraordinary.’

Be that as it may, even Shepherd’s most fervent admirers – of whom, I fear, I am not one – would have had trouble producing even a shilling life of her. Charlotte Peacock’s book is therefore warmly to be welcomed for here at last we have an attempt to put flesh on the bones of the books and to offer a portrait of an enigmatic and elusive woman. Quoting copiously from Shepherd’s three novels – The Weatherhouse, The Quarry Wood and A Pass in the Grampians – Peacock flits between fact and fiction until the line between them becomes as blurry the path to a misty summit.

Shepherd’s parents, John and Jeannie, were members of the north-east’s professional middle-class. Nan, their second child, was born in 1893, shortly after which the family moved into Dunvegan Cottage on Deeside, near West Cults station from which her father commuted to work at the Ferryhill Foundry. It was there, with its view of the river and beyond it Blairs College, that Nan would live all of her long life. Her childhood was essentially unremarkable but for the fact that after her birth her mother took to her bed and rarely left it until she died in 1950 aged 85. ‘Not a bad “innings”,’ notes Peacock with understatement, ‘for someone who was too ill to leave the house for over fifty years.’ What exactly was the matter with Jeannie Shepherd is unclear. ME is a possibility, depression another. Alternatively, her ‘illness’ may simply have been a severe case of malingering. Without hard evidence to go on, Peacock speculates, rather unconvincingly: ‘It might also have been her way of rebelling against the strictures of Victorian marriage – a way of finding space for self – getting leave to live.’ If so, it was a rather bizarre way to go about it.

Nan Shepherd went to school in Aberdeen after which she attended its university. A photograph of her as an undergraduate shows her hatless, bag cast to one side, sitting upright on the grass, peering warily at the camera. Among her professors was Herbert Grierson, author of the influential Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, whose first lecture she memorialized in The Quarry Wood, her finest novel, as one of those “moments of apocalypse by which life is dated’. Shepherd was a keen and intelligent student and won a number of prizes. Opportunities post-university, however, were limited. After graduating she wrote entries for an encyclopaedia of religion and ethics but, she recollected, ‘it was not a life that drew me’. Nor, it seems, did teaching, the favoured profession of many women in her situation. What did draw her was the idea of becoming a teacher of teachers which she did until her retirement in 1956.

What, we might well ask, was her personal life like? Family circumstances, including the early death of her elder brother and that of her father, not to mention her housebound mother, meant she was tied largely to the home in which she had been brought up. There were no lovers, male or female, as far as Peacock has been able to ascertain, and few if any identifiable romantic attachments.The one person with whom Shepherd seems to have been in love was John Macmurray who, inconveniently, was married to her best friend, Betty Campbell. Macmurray was a philosopher who is perhaps best remembered today because Tony Blair said he found his book, The Clue to History, ‘mind-blowing stuff’. In particular, Blair was drawn to Macmurray for the accessibility of his prose and the modernity of his thought: ‘he confronted what will be the critical political question of the twenty-first century: the relationship between individual and society’.

Tall, thin and bearded, Macmurray, whom one witness quoted by Peacock says was sometimes mistaken for DH Lawrence, was attractive to women. In The Quarry Wood, his fictional counterpart is Luke, who has a passion for Dussie (Betty) but is more in sync intellectually with Martha (Nan). The latter, Shepherd writes of her alter ego, ‘was worth knowing… She’s so absolutely herself…so still and self-contained too. She’s like – a crystal flame. Perfectly rigid in its own shape, but with all the play and life of flame.’ Clearly, it was not only Macmurray who could be compared to Lawrence.

Peacock, who has had access to papers previously unseen, says that Shepherd was in love with Macmurray for a number of years. This may well have been the case but if so it appears to have been unrequited and unreciprocated. The Macmurrays, who had an open marriage, did not include Shepherd among their satellites. Nor is there any mention of her in John’s diaries or Betty’s memoirs. ‘This is odd,’ writes Peacock, ‘given that over the years Nan often holidayed with the Macmurrays and even went to visit them while they were living in South Africa. The two women were in touch until the end of their lives. Not long before Nan’s death Betty visited her at Dunvegan.’

Even curiouser is Peacock’s assertion that, in 1922, when Shepherd turned twenty-nine, ‘She was not going to let her virginity wither’. What, if anything, she did to prevent this happening we are not told. If there was a man in her life no evidence is offered for this. By the age of thirty-five, we learn, Shepherd had been ‘knocked down – in love and life’. Her father and brother had died and her fate was bound tightly to Dunvegan. ‘John Macmurray,’ moreover, ‘was unavailable.’ His unlikely replacement was not another man but ‘the mountain’. This was the heyday of mountaineering with several women competing with men on the high peaks of the Alps and Himalaya. Nan was a hillwalker rather than climber and would go regularly with other women into the Cairngorms. For her, the experience was cathartic, lifeaffirming, intense. ‘It was also,’ writes Peacock, ‘a release: physically, emotionally and spiritually.’ ‘At height,’ she adds, ‘Nan’s body was at peak performance. She was fey, she said, drunk on the “joyous release of body that is engendered by climbing”.

’It is this reaction that infuses The Living Mountain and which led to many rapturous reviews. It is a book that chimes with a time when Edens are under threat. Many of the mountains in which Shepherd immersed herself are today defiled by unsightly so-called ‘wind farms’ and pylons which marched across the landscape like an army of metallic giants. It was in 1928, at the height of the Depression, when many folk sought solace from poverty and unemployment in high places pretty much unsullied since they were created, that Shepherd became hooked on the hills.

Charlotte Peacock, who first encountered her name when she read it in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, has done Scottish literature a service in producing this sensitive and sober biography. Not the least of its qualities is the consideration it gives to several women – Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Rachel Taylor Annand, Helen Cruikshank, Lorna Moon, Jessie Kesson, Marion Angus – whose contribution to the national culture, if not exactly ignored, has hitherto been shamefully neglected and underappreciated. A few of those mentioned, like Nan Shepherd, may have been rescued from oblivion; too many others remain in the shadows.

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Towards the end of Mayhem, Sigrid Rausing’s book about her brother Hans’ heroin addiction, she muses on the origins of words for ‘guilt’. In her first language, Swedish, it is ‘skuld’ which also means ‘debt’; in English, it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gylt’, which, in turn, is related to ‘gold’, to the German ‘geld’ (money) and the Gothic ‘gild’ (tax). ‘It seems right, etymologically that the wealthy, the guilded ones, should also be the guilty ones,’ she writes.

The Rausing family, of Tetra Pak packaging fame, is one of the richest in the UK, with Hans heir to a £4.3 billion fortune. Rausing herself owns the Coignafearn estate in the Monadhliath Mountains in the Highlands. The money bought Hans a house in Chelsea and entry to the highest echelons of British society; but it did not insulate him from the terrible consequences of of his long-standing heroin habit, nor his sister from a sense of complicity in his downfall.

Rather, Rausing says, public interest in their lives meant they grew up in an environment of secrecy and suspicion: a ‘familial police state’. Hans’ spiralling problems, which culminated in his failure to report the death of his equally drug- dependent wife, Eva, developed in an unwitting panopticon, a power base of lawyers, security consultants, addiction consultants and family networks. ‘My guilt nagged at me; I was like a nervous dog staring at its own reflection in dark windows,’ she writes.

At its most basic level, Mayhem is a memoir, an attempt to wrest the scandal from the tabloid journalists, with their reductive ‘billionaire hid wife’s body in drugs den’ headlines, and to tell it from the perspective of an insider. ‘If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you and they will vulgarise and degrade you,’ Rausing writes quoting Ishmael Reed quoting George Bernard Shaw. But it is also a diffuse meditation on the causes of addiction and the way it makes accomplices out of well-meaning relatives.

Introspective to the point of claustrophobic, it oozes self-reproach as Rausing, a noted philanthropist, berates herself for failing to recognise the extent of Hans’ problems, for her subsequent moralizing and for taking custody of the couple’s children. Yet, as is so often the case, self-reproach is countered with self- justification. If, as Rausing suggests, addicts like Hans and Eva create stories of blame and denial, so do we all. ‘Every story, including mine, is an enactment of what we wish to be true, an edited version of ourselves,’ she writes, channelling Joan Didion. Thus, she sets herself up as an unreliable narrator, reminding us that, while her account is not overtly self-serving, she is not without an agenda. This is particularly true in her coverage of the custody case. Though there is little doubt Hans and Eva fought a dirty fight, Rausing uses emotive language to keep readers on-side, even as she questions her own motivations. ‘Hans and Eva loved their children; I know that,’ she says. ‘But isn’t that also a cliche of parenting? What’s the point of love if drugs come first?’

The basic facts of the Rausing scandal will already be familiar to many readers thanks to the comprehensive and often lurid media coverage. Hans and Eva were heroin addicts who met in rehab. For the first few years of their marriage, they stayed clean, but somewhere around the year 2000, they started using again. By the beginning of 2012, they were living as recluses in two rooms of their £70 million mansion, where they spent their days getting high, while servants left plates of food at their door.

When Eva died of a heart attack in May of that year, a drugs-ravaged Hans hid her body under a tarpaulin and taped up the room to prevent the stench from leaking out. Some months later, he was stopped by police, who found a crack pipe in his car; the house was searched and her body discovered. Hans pleaded guilty to denying his wife a lawful and decent burial, but claimed he had been in an acute state of denial. He was sentenced to ten months imprisonment, suspended for two years, and sent to rehab. He recovered and is now married to Julia Delves Broughton, a director of Christie’s.

It is a macabre tale; but anyone picking up Mayhem in the hope of indulging their voyeuristic tendencies will be disappointed. Rausing, an anthropologist, editor of Granta magazine and publisher of Granta Books, is allergic to sensationalism. She circles around the most gruesome aspects of the story, conveying the devastation inflicted on the family through other images: a dead seal with its guts ripped out or two vast freezers – ‘like deep sarcophagi’ – containing the carcasses of feral cows.

Undoubtedly well-read, she wears her intellectualism like chain-mail. Sometimes the book threatens to buckle under the weight of her literary allusions. As well as the authors already mentioned, she quotes: George Orwell, Gustave Flaubert, August Strindberg, Jean Rhys, David Grossman, Simone de Beauvoir and many more. The passages she chooses are interesting and pertinent, but cumulatively it feels as if Rausing is laying out her knowledge on a smorgasbord to impress us. With so many voices competing for attention it become difficult to focus on her own. On other occasions, she leaves quite ordinary sentences hanging in mid-air as if, by doing so, she will invest them with layers of meaning. It’s an irritating tic which has the opposite effect to the one intended, drawing attention instead to their vapidity.

In first half of Mayhem, Rausing is preoccupied with memory; having referenced Proust she offers a series of soft focus scenes from an apparently idyllic childhood in Sweden. In the summers, the family – mother, father, Sigrid, Hans and their sister, Lisbet – would move to their summerhouse by the sea. There, Rausing rode and turned cartwheels and went crabbing off the rocks. In winter, in their home in Lund, she read, rode her bike or walked her dog in the university park
There is tenderness in her descriptions of her brother’s ‘straggly, brown hair, green eyes and sooty eyelashes’, and a sense of loss that begins long before the rot sets in with the family’s move to London in 1980. There is anguish too. Years after Eva’s death and Hans’ recovery, the family is back together to celebrate a birthday. ‘My mother smiles and hums tunelessly,’ Rausing writes. ‘My father hums and sings, tunelessly. My brother joins in too.

‘Then he smiles an unexpectedly sweet smile and waves a little to my friend Johanna’s young daughter, who is lying on a sofa watching a DVD… and suddenly I am crying, thinking of all the time Hans lost with his own children, and singing too, tasting the salty tears in my mouth.’

But mostly Rausing prefers thinking to feeling. She is dogged in her pursuit of information on addiction as if, by scrutinizing the problem, she can neuter the pain. In an attempt to restore order to her upended world, she turns to art, science, psychology, and anthropology, hoping for answers to a long list of questions: why did Hans start taking heroin (and not her or Lisbet)? Are addicts born or made? Are they victims or perpetrators? And what response is most effective: unlimited tolerance or tough love?

Reading that 50-70% of any addiction is genetic, she explores possible compounding social factors. She looks at Harry Harlow’s famous rhesus monkeys who, ripped from their mother’s care, cleaved to a cloth substitute, at Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment which tested children’s ability to defer gratification and at research that suggests addicts feel pain more acutely than other people. She gazes at George Cruikshank’s painting The Worship of Bacchus and reflects on the story of Edie Sedgewick, who died of a barbiturate overdose in bed. But she emerges with nothing that explains Hans’ fate.

Indeed, he appears to have been their mother’s favourite. Rausing remembers, with just a hint of resentment, the pair of them on a swing and her mother singing ‘I love you and you love me’ over and over. The best she can come up with is the Orwell quote she uses as an epigraph: ‘Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood’, but it is not clear how it applies to Hans, who is understood by no-one, not even her.

Despite his sister’s relentless interrogation of his addiction, Hans remains a mystery; a cipher. Rausing and Eva exchanged scores of emails over the years, so her voice is omni-present. Clearly unhinged, she veers from loving to pleading to paranoid to threatening, sometimes in the course of a few sentences. But Hans was not one for emails and had no involvement in the writing of the book. This has the disconcerting effect of rendering him an outsider in the story of his own life. In the throes of his addiction – and later, when he is well again – he appears impervious to the devastation he has wreaked on others and himself. As an emotional maelstrom swirls around him – as relatives weep and curse and beat themselves up – he remains an island of indifference; the false calm at the eye of the storm.

Despite its affectations, Mayhem is a compelling read; it captures the powerlessness of those fated to stand on the sidelines as their loved ones plummet into an abyss and the futility of trying to make sense of it all. But it is also frustratingly elliptical. In an afterword, Rausing says legal restrictions pertaining to Hans and Eva’s children are responsible for it being ‘partial and unfinished’, but it’s more than that. For all her soul-searching and scrutinizing of the past, there are conspicuous no-go areas. For example, at the time of Eva’s death some newspapers suggested Hans’ problems stemmed from his relationship with his father, to whom he was ‘a disappointment’. This may be nonsense, but why is Hans’ relationship with his father never addressed? Why does Rausing focus instead on her mother, about whom the worst she can say is that she never cooked?

Recalling a kidnap plot on one of her cousins, Rausing talks about the way wealth brings a heightened need for privacy. ‘You walk a little apart, always,’ she writes. On another occasion she refers to legal documents stuffed into cabinets to which she no longer has the keys. ‘I lock the cabinets, I lose the keys, I want to sleep and to forget.’ Though Rausing has the capacity to write frankly about her own emotions, one is left with a sense of something withheld, concealed or taped off; of a story that had not quite been told.

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