Monthly Archives: November 2017



There has been a renewed interest in the history of Glasgow in recent years with the publication of Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh, John Moore’s Glasgow: Mapping the City, Alan Taylor’s Glasgow: The Autobiography, Raymond Depardon’s photographic account, Glasgow, covering the year 1980, and, most recently, Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow by Amanda Maddox and Sara Stevenson.

Meanwhile, a new undergraduate course on Glasgow’s History, Culture and Identity at Strathclyde University has been popular with local and international students. The pioneering work of Dr Stephen Mullen – It Wisnae Us: The Truth of Glasgow and Slavery and Sir Tom Devine on Glasgow and Scotland’s role in the slave trade and how they flourished on slave trade profits – Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past – have also become contemporary political issues for the city and the country.

It is in this company that Michael Fry’s lively Glasgow: A History of the City should be seen. Having previously written on the capital, he now turns to its western counterpart. Fry’s book is not a dry academic study. He writes from personal experience and knowledge, and he is thus both protagonist and commentator. Readers may be familiar with his career in journalism and politics. As a failed candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1999 Scottish parliamentary election for Glasgow Maryhill constituency, his transition to support for an independent Scotland from a centre-right perspective is intriguing in its own right.

Three things strike this reviewer as being important about this fascinating book and the approach taken by the author. First, it is written from the perspective of ‘quite a long experience of Glasgow, though from looking in rather than looking out’. He states that he is not taking the ‘couthy’ approach to be found in the 159 histories of Glasgow listed in the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland, ‘nearly all of them written by Glaswegians’. Second, Glasgow is essentially a product of time, place, and the experience of the author. Fry’s Glasgow could arguably be described as a post-independence referendum history of the city – a retrospective account and also a historical interpretation of why the people of this post-imperial, industrial, unionist and anti-Jacobite British city, often regarded as the unofficial capital of the country, voted for an independent Scotland in the referendum of 18 September 2014 and then proceeded to reject the Labour Party in droves in recent elections. The non-Glaswegian dimension is interesting too. Are only Glaswegians (and how does one define a Glasgwegian anyway?) allowed to write about the history of Glasgow?

Third, Fry states that ‘for Scotland the political and cultural history are at least as important as the economic and social history. This is not the approach of the dominant school of Scottish historians, but they seem to me to give in consequence a distorted view of the nation. Its economy and society have been most assimilated to the norms of the United Kingdom, while its politics and culture have remained most apart. Generally, then, Scottish history as it is still being written today remains unionist history. Here the reader will find an alternative’.

This is a theme that Fry refers to frequently and he can be scathing in his criticisms. He challenges views (and myths, in his opinion) on social mobility and Scottish egalitarianism: ‘doubtless to the chagrin of Scotland’s relentlessly determinist historians, there is no series of statistics to demonstrate the egalitarianism of the country: on the country, the statistics that are available – like those for mortality, educational attainment, quality of housing and so on – tend to demonstrate the opposite’. The ‘Glasgow Effect’, the nature and implications of which have been the subject of pioneering work by former Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, needs to be seen in this light.

Furthermore, Fry challenges the ‘national culture of class’ and gives it a Glasgow twist. Apparently, two-thirds of Scots identify themselves as being working-class, ‘when objectively the true proportion must be smaller’. According to education, income and housing, most Scots are middle- class. This applies to Greater Glasgow, argues Fry, although perhaps not within the formal city boundaries itself. This points to a wider issue, namely the flight of the middle-classes to Greater Glasgow and the west of Scotland suburbs, people who enjoy the outstanding facilities and opportunities offered by the city, but do not pay for them through their council tax. On the issue of class, Fry states that ‘there is no crude determinism at work here, none of that Marxist logic of cultural superstructure built on economic base favoured by the dominant school of Scottish historians’. Continuing to challenge perceived myths, he cites the ‘invention of Scotland’ by Victorian historians. He believes ‘the same holds true of the invention of Glasgow under way today, of a city of industrial degradation and social militancy where revolution is postponed only by repression and betrayal’.

A focal point of reference throughout the book is the independence referendum. Fry often refers to this. In the chapter on religion, for example, he discusses the aftermath of the referendum result: ‘Catholics had once been mainly hostile to Scottish nationalism but now, so far as we can tell, greater hostility was to be found on the opposite side of the city’s religious divide. In at least one respect, then, assimilation had been completed.’ Likewise, in his chapter on class, he describes the events in George Square on the referendum night, as ‘the celebration then of the cause of national independence as a species of proletarian culture’.

I think that Fry is on to something wider here, namely the importance of city squares throughout history. Catie Marron’s City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares around the World could be a useful comparator for the Glasgow experience. George Square, as a focal point of the city, is noted by Fry, who charts its historical development, including the infamous 1919 Battle of George Square and the ‘military occupation’ of the city for over a week. One wonders what plans the City Council has to mark the centenary of the ‘battle’ in 2019.

Organized into ten chapters on a thematic basis covering trade, industry, religion, class, poverty, womanhood, patricians, plebeians, image, imagination, Glasgow culminates in a section on wider society. This format allows for coverage over time and place as the city developed across the ages. Yet the earlier periods of the city’s history, as is apparent in other works of Glasgow – the exception being Neil Baxter’s edited book A Tale of Two Towns: A History of Medieval Glasgow – tends to be neglected as the book accelerates towards the eighteenth century and the emergence of Glasgow as a transatlantic city. What is needed in this respect is a book or series of properly researched books of the earlier periods, especially the neglected early modern period of the sixteenth and seventeenth century city. Fry’s book is well- written, but an analysis of the footnotes reveal a rather sparse consultation of sources in general and the historiographical coverage is not state-of-the art, but that is perhaps understandable given his focus on offering a personal interpretation. As might be expected from a journalist and political commentator, much of the book focuses on the labyrinthine nature of Glasgow politics in the modern era. The boundaries of what Glasgow is grow blurred when Fry makes regular reference to the Greater Glasgow/ west of Scotland area. Rather than being a geographical blunder, this is probably more a reflection of contemporary Scotland, the indistinct lines between Glasgow and the wider west of Scotland, and the obvious dominance of Glasgow in the Greater Glasgow area.To his credit, Fry includes a chapter on women that is no mere tokenism. The entrepreneurial skills and talents of Catherine Cranston are noted, the different of experiences of women in the workforce are considered in the context of the structural changes in the Glasgow and wider Scottish economy throughout the ages are discussed in some detail, and the relative lack of recognition for the ‘Glasgow Girls’ is noted. The contribution of women to the political sphere is likewise highlighted, such as the Glaswegian Flora Drummond who was involved in the Suffragette campaign in England, Mary Barbour, Helen Crawford, and Margaret Dollan, whose involvement in the Glasgow rent strikes propelled them into future political careers. The contemporary dimension comes into play again with the contributions of Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Nicola Sturgeon being recognized in the context of what he describes as ‘political feminism’. The first election for the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 returned 49 women, 37% of MSPs, which was the third highest figure for any national legislature in the world. The issues of domestic violence and prostitution are discussed, although the serious problem of international people trafficking by organised crime gangs is not directly addressed.

The strongest chapters are those which deal with the literary and cultural dimension, from the contribution of Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University to the role of architecture in the city’s history and identity. His perspective on language and the Glasgow dialect is superb, as is his coverage of the literary scene, both in its Glasgow, Scottish, and UK context. In the book’s concluding chapter, which deals largely with the literary scene, Fry once more launches an attack on Scotland’s historians, whom he perceives as ignoring cultural history.

In many respects, Fry’s views represent a form of Scottish history that has gone out of fashion. Yet he does make perceptive comments on the rationale for writing his history: ‘this book is written not in the conviction that the culture of a nation, region, or city gives us the best form of history, just that it should be regarded as a necessary part of its history’. For Fry, ‘it is in cultural history (and to some extent political history) that Scotland has kept itself alive in the three centuries of a union with a more powerful neighbour’. In this context, a major lead has been taken by Glasgow, as Scotland’s biggest city, in the evolution of Scotland’s cultural autonomy and evolution. Thus, for Fry, the proletarian novel as written in Glasgow has been a key indicator of Scottish cultural autonomy and evolution.

Glasgow therefore makes a notable contribution to the healthy growth in ‘Glasgow studies’. With the twenty-first century being hailed as the century of the ‘city’, with spectacular growth anticipated in Africa and Asia, an understanding of cities will become increasingly important. To comprehend a city’s present condition and future development, knowledge of its past is crucial. Fry gets this and succinctly concludes that ‘history has here created… a unique species of urban civilization, perennially productive and fruitful, conditioned by its own experiences yet capable of reaching out to the world. In that sense, and despite all its problems, Glasgow will continue to flourish’. Whither Glasgow? A post-imperial, post- industrial city? An ‘independence city’ that is the beating heart of Scotland, without which Scotland cannot flourish? Only the future will tell, but what is sure is that we need more Glasgows and more histories of that great city.

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‘The past beats inside me like a second heart,’ says widow and art historian Max Morden in John Banville’s 2005 novel The Sea. He has returned to the seaside village of his childhood, where he first experienced love, in all its gentleness and brutality; re-imagining this personal enclave, the grieving Morden wonders if all that followed in his life is simply a different colouration of this beautiful and terrible time. It is the past – how it entrances the mind and transforms the present – that sustains the entire body of Banville’s work.

Born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945, Banville left home for Dublin when he was eighteen years old. In Time Pieces (2016), his memoir about the city where he still lives, he writes that, despite its ‘grey and graceless’ appearance in the 1960s, ‘Dublin was for me what Moscow was for Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a place of magical promise towards which my starved young soul endlessly yearned.’

At the start of the next decade, Banville rose to prominence, most notably with Dr Copernicus (1976), the first in a scientific tetralogy that ended with Mephisto (1986). Next came The Book of Evidence, about a man called Freddie Montgomery, who is on trial for stealing a painting and murdering a chambermaid in a botched day of madness. The novel is Montgomery’s written ‘defence’ of his crime. It is full of black humour and grubby sadness.

Banville is one the great stylists of our time. In this regard, The Untouchable (1997) and The Infinities (2009) deserve mention. His writes out of a tradition that includes Henry James, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. No surprise, then, to learn that he is a dedicated European. James, of course, was fascinated with European life, and Banville’s most recent novel, Mrs Osmond, continues the story of A Portrait of a Lady. He has inhabited the style of another writer before – Raymond Chandler. The hardboiled crime novel The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014) was written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Over the last ten years Banville has split his writing life between the high literary work written under his birth name and the crime writing under Black.

Nick Major met John Banville on a cool sunlit day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. They sat at a table outside the authors’ yurt. Banville looked a man apart from the crowd and the times. He wore smart dark clothes: a deep green waistcoat and shirt with black trousers. His Homburg lay on the table before him and his beautifully-crafted walking stick, swirled with a marbled white and brown, leant against the side of his chair. He is a strong talker, well-practised and assertive, but also gentle and self-mocking. Throughout the conversation, if a breeze blustered through or the light of day dimmed, he would stop and look up at the world. Then, he would sip his wine and return to business.

Scottish Review of Books: In Time Pieces, you wrote that ‘from earliest days I had no doubt that I was going to be an artist’. Why an artist?

I was baffled by the world. I couldn’t understand the place, this strange planet on to which we have been thrown. I couldn’t understand people. I had to find some way of explaining it all to myself. There wasn’t any point, when I was young, in going to confession or lying in bed telling myself stories. Being an egomaniac and a narcissist, I had to make my inner world public.

Did you know what sort of artist you wanted to be?

When I was about twelve I started writing short stories – bad imitations of Joyce’s Dubliners. Then in my mid-teens I thought I wanted to be a painter and I tried that for three years or so. It was disastrous. I couldn’t draw. I had no sense of colour and no sense of draughtsmanship. These are all distinct disadvantages if you want to be a painter. But it was useful in that it taught me to look at the world with a painterly eye. In the life of the artist nothing is wasted. But I had never stopped writing, and I think I knew in my heart that was my fate. ‘My fate’— listen to me!

In Time Pieces, you say it was a mistake to reject Wexford, where you grew up.

It wasn’t Wexford I was rejecting, it was childhood. Childhood is an utter waste of time. Children should grow up as quickly as they can. They should start sleeping with each other as soon as they reach the age of puberty — adolescence would be infinitely easier and certainly more fun. But yes, it was stupid, and wasteful, for a would-be writer to ignore my immediate surroundings, however unpromising or boring they might have seemed at the time. When I was fifteen, I had a friend who was about two years older than I. He was from a wealthy family, wore three-piece tweed suits, a watch-chain, a signet ring. He had a tremor in his hands – terribly doomed-romantic – and smoked Passing Cloud cigarettes, which were oval, and the acme of sophistication. He told me one evening about wife-swapping in the town. I had never heard of such a thing, and when he explained it, I simply didn’t believe that it could be going on in Wexford. But it probably was.

We live in an infantile age. People used to mature earlier.

Juliet was, what, fourteen? As I’ve said, childhood is just a boring and useless time. Gore Vidal once observed, very wisely, that children just pretend to be children in order to spare adults embarrassment. This is true — in a way there are no children, just stunted adults. We know everything by the age of twelve or thirteen. We know how the world works. We know how dreadful people are to each other. We know what sex is. So, why can’t we start living at that point? That’s what I wanted to do. I had girlfriends from the age of ten or eleven and I was seriously in love with them — really, I was. And I still am. I’ve never forgotten any of them. It’s just come to me that real life, then, for me, was females. I don’t mean sex. Women were infinitely more interesting than the males I knew.

You moved to Dublin in the early 1960s. You thought it was ‘mean hard-spirited  place’. Was that mainly because the Catholic Church had a stranglehold over life?

It was because of that, and the cowardliness of the people in power. A politician could be destroyed with one sermon from the pulpit. They should have stood up to the priests and the bishops, but they were too mealy-mouthed, and brain-washed. Women too should have stood up against that male-dominated world they were forced to live in – if ‘live’ is not too strong a word in their case. It was a hard time. But when I say it was a bleak time, I suppose that’s because I’m looking at it from this distance. Life in Ireland was boring and narrow, but probably it wasn’t as grim as I paint it. You see, I’m projecting myself back. If I were me now and at the same time back there, it would be terrible. But being me then wasn’t quite as terrible as it seems now – it was just how things were, and we accepted that. Imagine how our world will be looked back on in fifty or sixty years’ time. People will say to each other in wonderment, ‘You know, they used to eat animals. And they believed in monogamy. Amazing.’

The Censorship Board is a malign presence in the book. How did it effect what was written or real?

The most innocuous books were banned. The odd thing about the Censorship Board was that it didn’t call in books. It had to be alerted to them by somebody from the public. I remember borrowing Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory from the Wexford County Library when I was about fifteen. In the book, there is a priest who has a daughter called… I still don’t know, because somebody had scratched out every mention of her name with a razor blade. Can you imagine the time and effort it took  to scratch out just the name? It was madness – puritanism gone mad.

You mention the McDaid group of writers – Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh – who were coming to the end of their time in the 1960s, but you weren’t interested in them.

They seemed to me minor figures, which they were. I was interested in European Literature. God, how pretentious I was. But then, where would we be if we didn’t have pretensions?

You said maybe they would have written something good if they ‘went into exile’.

It always amuses me that no Irish writer ever emigrated. They all ‘went into exile’. But the fact is, Joyce emigrated. Beckett emigrated. In the previous generation, Shaw and Wilde left Ireland to see the greater world. They didn’t dream of calling themselves ‘exiles’. I like to think of myself as an internal exile.

You feel like a foreigner in your own country?

Yes, but that’s a good state for a writer to be in. The worst thing for an artist is to feel at home.

Do you know why you feel like that?

My world is wider than Ireland, wider than ‘home’. I am a European, a cosmopolitan, or like to think of myself as such – more pretentiousness, you see. But I always looked, or tried to look, beyond Ireland, to the wider world, even when I was a child. When I got into the wider world, of course, I saw just how narrow it is. But that’s another story.

It is a sobering time to be a European in Britain.

You fellows are in serious trouble over here, in Britain. You’ve stumbled into casting a stupid vote to leave the European Union. At a time when we should be uniting with allies, here’s Britain as good as setting itself adrift in the Atlantic. Thank God, we are separated from your shores. I have always been an Anglophile, but I think Brexit is disastrous, and that it will prove even more disastrous when the ‘divorce’ comes through. It’s a dangerous time for England and it should bethink itself. In Ireland, when votes go wrong, we just have the thing over again. We voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and the government, and Brussels, said, that wasn’t the result we wanted, so we had another referendum and we voted for the Lisbon Treat… Look, democracy, real democracy, with the demos in power, is the worst possible thing for the world. The lie of democracy is just that, a lie, but a necessary one. That the people run the world—God forbid! I’m all for elites.

People seem to be particularly angry at ‘elites’ at the moment.

The world, whether it knew it or not, was always run by elites, and we’ve survived. Do you ever listen to talk-shows on the radio, those phone-in shows? I hear them now and then in taxis, and I shiver.

On this notion of anti-elitism. It has spread to literature. There is a feeling around that a reviewer’s or critic’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, which of course it’s not. It carries greater weight and validity.

We live in an anti-intellectual age which wants to bring everything down to a very low common denominator. It is the duty of critics and reviewers to encourage people to keep reading, to keep looking at pictures, and to keep listening to good music. But it is also their duty to say, this person is a charlatan, and his or her work is fake. Or just to say, this is good work, that is bad work. In other words, to discriminate. But discrimination has become a word that frightens people. Recently, I was reading an art critic in the New York Review of Books, the splendid Jed Perl, who said, in effect, ‘Robert Rauschenberg was a fraud’. How many critics nowadays have the nerve, have the sense of duty, to say such a thing? But that kind of judgement has to be made, or culture will die, or at least become so anaemic as to be barely recognisable. Everyone is not an artist. As I once heard Will Self wittily put it, ‘Yes, it’s true, everyone has a novel in them’.

With one eye on Europe, how has Dublin changed since the 1960s?

It has become just another European city, for good or ill. That’s part of the price we pay for European unity. When I was young I would go to London or Paris or Rome and they were completely foreign to me: foreign food, foreign drink, foreign streets, foreign people. No longer. Twenty years ago, my wife and I used to come to Edinburgh and visit Valvona & Crolla and weep to see so much wonderful Italian food on sale. Now we have the same variety of Italian food in Dublin – and French food, and Polish food, and Lithuanian food… so we’ve lost that sense of the novelty of ‘abroad,’ but it’s a small price to pay. I think we would still have a strong and intact European Union if the financial crash in 2008 hadn’t happened. Unity was coming about slowly, perhaps even clandestinely, by way of bureaucrats. But I’m all for bureaucracy. I think a world run by bureaucrats is a good world. The really dangerous people are the ones who say, I have a great idea: let’s slaughter the Jews, let’s build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, let’s leave Europe. Look at the Islamic world, and the mad notion of the Caliphate. You know, as human beings we struggle through childhood, longing to get away from our parents, then afterwards we try to cherish them and take care of them. As grown-ups, we meet someone and we tell ourselves: this is not a human being, this is a god! So, we fall in love, and marry – well, we used to marry – then love stops and, if we’re lucky, friendship starts. And we have children and we look after them, trying to do better than our parents did, mostly failing, but sometimes, in some little ways, succeeding. None of that is a ‘big idea’. Or better it’s small, but at the same time enormous. The ‘big ideas’ come from individuals maddened by frustration, by what Nietzsche always called by its French name, réssentiment. The twentieth century had so many mad, failed artists. Hitler wanted to be a painter. Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot all wanted to be artists. There’s nothing more dangerous than a failed artist, unless it’s a politician with a big idea. So, give me bureaucrats.

You obviously have a scholarly mind. It makes me wonder why you didn’t go to university.

Oh, I’m not at all scholarly. I’m a magpie, I pick up bright bits and pieces and carry them off and store them away for later use. But I would say that I am infected with the bacillus of… let’s call it ideation. I am a great enthusiast for ideas – aesthetic, scientific, what have you – which of course is very dangerous for a novelist, or for an artist of any kind — lethal, in fact. Nothing kills art more comprehensively than mere fact. The truth of art is not the truth of fact – Oscar Wilde knew that very well. And look at poor Flaubert, reading all those big heavy books in preparation for writing Salammbo, which ended up smeared all over with midnight oil.

You became a sub-editor at the Irish Press in 1969. How did you get that job?

I had been ‘in exile’ in London, and I returned with my American wife to live in Ireland for a couple of years – we’re still there, some fifty years later – and I needed a job. I knew the Literary Editor of the Irish Press, and he got me an interview with the Editor, who gave me a try-out as a sub-editor, a job – a calling – which I found extremely congenial, and which I was good at. I still miss sub-editing, especially for a daily paper: the peace and tranquillity of shaping other people’s writing, at dead of night, was wonderful. Wonderful for me, but not for the reporters whose pieces I edited. The sub-editor is the most despised being in a newspaper office. As my Editor from those days, Tim Pat Coogan, put it, sub-editors are people who change other people’s words and go home in the dark…

How did you fit writing around your day job?

With great ease. I wrote during the day, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, then changed into Mr Hyde and went into the office as night fell. It’s a way of life I would recommend to all young writers – though not to their spouses or children. It’s a tough life, but a productive one.

You were literary editor at the Irish Times for ten years. Has working as an editor helped you as a writer?

Good God no! My journalistic work was entirely separate from my life as a writer. It would have been fatal to allow Jekyll and Hyde to merge. But I had a wonderful time as books editor – new books coming in by the barrow-load, every day! I felt like a child who has been given the freedom of a toyshop.

Why did you leave?

I was made redundant. Simple as that. At the end of the 1990s the Editor, Conor Brady, sensibly suggested that I might like to hand on the job to someone new — that was when my dear friend the late Caroline Walsh took over, and did a splendid job, much better than I had done. Meanwhile I was set up with a Ruritanian title, I forget exactly what it was — Chief Critic and Associate Literary Editor, something like that — which required me only to write a couple of reviews a month, and stand in for Caroline when she was on holiday. That sweet arrangement went along merrily for a couple of years, then The Times ran into a financial crisis and my position of luxury was no longer sustainable, and I was bought off. It was a bit of a shock at first — no one wants to hear that his services are no longer required — but I knew in my heart it was time for me to go. Mind you, there is a part of me that still sorely misses the job.

Do you have a sense of how Irish fiction, or fiction in general, has changed over the years, in terms of the type or quality of fiction published?

I’m afraid I haven’t kept up at all. I have the impression that there are many good, energetic and gifted writers out there — for instance, Billy O’Callaghan is a wonderful writer disgracefully neglected, I think because he mainly writes short stories. I suspect few Irish writers now would dream of devoting decades of their lives to the development of a style. The younger writers seem to have eschewed ‘style’ for social and political awareness. At least that’s my impression. There are still stylists, of course — Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack are two that I know of — but they are a rarity. Mind you, perhaps stylists are always rare?

Do you have a particular place where you work your own writing style?

I had an apartment in the centre of the city, which was my office. But there is so much poverty in Ireland now, so many sad people around, so many beggars, so many drug addicts, that I gave up my ‘office’, and now I write at home. I’ve made a studio for myself. Being in the centre of the city was just too much to bear. There was one young woman beggar whom I used to look out for. I don’t think she was an addict or an alcoholic — I suspect she was the victim of a bad, abusive marriage. She had three children. I hadn’t seen her for some weeks, and then one day she was back in her usual spot. She looked dreadfully unwell, and I asked if I could get her a sandwich or something. She said no, but maybe I would buy some bread and some milk for her children. I went down to the supermarket and filled two big bags of groceries, and when I gave them to her she burst into tears. I thought, I can’t take this any more, I just can’t. That was the moment when I decided to move out of the area. I feel a bit of a coward about it, of course. But I had to go.

In Possessed of the Past, there is a facsimile of the first draft of The Infinities, which is written in longhand. Do you always write in longhand?

Yes. I use a fountain pen and paper. There is a master bookbinder in Dublin, a great craftsman, Tony Canes, who makes up beautiful blank books for me. They are a great pleasure—a pity I have to deface them.

Than you type this up on a computer?

Yes. However, the Benjamin Black books I write directly on to the computer, because it makes for the right speed. The computer is too fast for Banville books — I need the resistance of the nib on the paper. Also, certain things on the screen look as though they’re written, when in fact they’re just typed. But the computer offers BB the kind of spontaneity and risk that crime fiction requires.

I noticed there were bracketed sections in the draft.

I never cross out a word or a passage, I just bracket them. There’s something ugly, something violent, about a crossed-out word. When the word processor came in first, I was delighted with it, since it saved me the labour of typing a page over and over again to get it as near perfect as possible — as near perfectly typed, that is. A hopeless obsessive, you see. One day there was an electricity strike and I had to write without the computer, and later, when I looked back through my manuscript book, I found I had written differently that day than usual— many bracketings, as in the old days. I’m not sure the new ease of transcribing is a good thing…

In an essay called ‘The Personae of Summer’ (1993) you wrote, ‘as a writer, I have little or no interest in character, plot, motivation, manners, politics, morality, [or] social issues.’ Have you always felt like that or was it something you arrived at after years of writing?

It’s merely the kind of writer I am. I follow Nabokov in considering the inutility of art as one of its most precious attributes. As Auden says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ — and a good thing too, say I. If art has any ‘duty’ to perform, it’s to make the reader, the viewer, the listener feel more intensely, more vividly, what it is to be alive. Which is no mean achievement.

Do you have an idea of what a novel is about before you start writing?

I don’t think a novel is ‘about’ anything. If it’s good, if it’s successful, then it’s about everything. Or better say, as Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, it’s not about something, but is the thing itself.

In both The Sea and The Book of Evidence both the narrators have little or no life in the present. The past only takes on significance once it is captured in the imagination, but the mind can be trapped there. What fascinates you about how the past lives in the mind?

The past is all we have. The present is an abstraction, the future is mere potential. What has happened has happened. It’s in the past that we live.

In ‘Survivors of Joyce’, you wrote that art doesn’t allow us to know more but that it ‘makes things strange.’ What novels other than those by Joyce have made the world strange again for you?

Any real work of art makes things strange, and ‘makes strange’, as we in Ireland say of children when they reach an age at which they become aware of the world outside themselves, and go silent and withdrawn. But really, I don’t need novels to show me the strangeness of the world. I’ve never become accustomed to being in the world, cast adrift in this astonishing place, where the sky is infinity, where clouds drift, where rain falls — isn’t rain an amazing phenomenon? — and where there are conscious beings. I imagine an extra-terrestrial sent to Earth to report back on human beings and their doings. He observes us closely for a week or two, compiles his report, and is preparing to depart for home, when someone sneezes, or, even more strangely, yawns — that soundless howl! — and he realises he has to tear up his report and start all over again, since we are clearly far, far stranger than he imagined.

Do you agree that in Finnegans Wake Joyce made the world too strange?

Ah, poor Finnegans Wake. A great disaster, with equal emphasis on adjective and noun. He set out to write a book that he alone could read, and succeeded triumphantly. A pity someone didn’t tell him… I suppose by that stage even Nora Barnacle’s restraining influence had waned. But what nerve, what determination, what self-control! I think of Joyce as the narrator in Beckett’s Malone Dies — is it? — thinks of one of his invented creatures, watching a hawk and marvelling at ‘such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude.’

This quote from Henry James appears often in your non-fiction: ‘In literature, we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it.’ What do you like about James’s style?

What do I like about it? Its transcendent beauty. What more is there to like, or to say, about a literary style?

What did James bring to the novel form?

He showed that the novel could be as rounded and burnished, as finished a work of art as a painting by Piero della Francesca or a Bach fugue. In other words, he brought the novel to its fullest potential as an artistic medium. A great pity the avant garde of the first quarter of the 20th century obscured his achievement. He was a true modernist, a true revolutionary.

During my research on James, he is consistently referred to as ‘difficult’. I couldn’t work out why. Do you know?

There’s no denying the late novels — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl — are difficult, since by then James had developed his characteristic style, which is dense and oblique and sinuous — an entirely new kind of prose, more revolutionary than Joyce’s. Simply, Henry James had found a way of showing exactly how it feels to be conscious — let’s not forget that his brother William invented the term ‘stream of consciousness‘ — and many readers are just not ready to recognize what they are being offered.

Mrs Osmond is a continuation of The Portrait of a Lady. Why did you pick that novel?

Because The Portrait always seemed to me the first volume of a two-volume novel. James himself, in a couple of places in his notebooks, considered writing a sequel, but by then, at work on the later novels, he had better things to do. I consider The Portrait to be a nearly perfect novel — though we must keep in mind Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel as, if I can remember the quote, ‘an extended work of prose fiction which has something wrong with it’. All the same, there are very few things wrong with The Portrait.

Isabel Archer is a fascinating character. My sense is that she gets her sense of freedom from being an affluent orphan, which comes through in Mrs Osmond. Did you worry that you would not be able to capture James’s characters in your novel?

Years ago, my wife urged me to write the continuation of Isabel Archer’s story. At the time, I felt it would be like feeding on the carcase of a dead lion — I still feel that, to an extent — but then I found myself, in the mysterious way of these things, at the point where I was ready to tackle the project. It was a strange and wonderful experience, one I really don’t fully understand, and probably never will. Isabel is a marvellous invention, subtle, contradictory, wilful, aspiring, foolish, frequently annoying and never less than admirable. Who wouldn’t want to write about her?

You have previously written in the style of another novelist – Raymond Chandler. What is it like to inhabit another writer’s style?

Very odd, very eerie, sometimes even a little frightening.

You wrote in Time Pieces that Dublin was ‘used-up’ by Joyce. Does Benjamin Black look at Dublin in a different way than John Banville, and is that why you can write about Dublin in your crime novels?

Yes, I do think Joyce devoured the city, and left his successors only a few dried bones and a scrap of two of bloodstained fur. For a novelist to mention anywhere in Dublin is to strike a Joycean echo, which is why in my Banville books I never specify particular places in the city, or if I do, I invent them. Black, on the other hand, not having read Joyce, is blithely free to make free with ‘dear old dirty Dumpling,’ as Finnegans Wake has it — by the way, I wonder if Joyce realized how irritating some of us would find that dropped apostrophe? — and dwell lovingly on the places that are dear to me, especially Upper Mount Street and environs, which are still surprisingly intact, and as lovely as they ever were.

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The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He only played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’.

But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. ‘The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,’ he said. ‘Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.’

I remember watching a livestream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen, as I do, with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, vaguely, to foreshadow the result.

Clinton herself was oblivious to the looming disaster. In fact, she was so confident that she was going to beat Trump, she didn’t even bother drafting a concession speech. ‘At 1.35am, the AP called Pennsylvania for Trump. That was pretty much the ballgame,’ she writes in What Happened, her sprawling 470 page account of the election campaign. ‘I hadn’t prepared mentally for this at all. There had been no doomsday scenarios playing out in my head. I just didn’t think about.’ The shock was shared by Barack Obama, who urged her to concede quickly in order to legitimize the incoming Trump presidency: ‘Obama was concerned that drawing out the process would be bad for the country. It was hard to think straight, but I agreed with him. That’s what I would have wanted had the shoe been on the other foot.’

In retrospect, the scale of Democratic (and wider liberal) complacency was astonishing. Trump was clearly unqualified for high office. Even if you ignored the allegations of sexual assault, the repeated bankruptcies, the relentless lying, and the history of racist innuendo, his inability to grasp basic policy details – or focus on a single subject for more than thirty seconds – should’ve automatically disbarred him from power. But that’s not the point. For pretty much the entire duration of the presidential contest, most of the available data suggested that the Republicans had a thirty to forty per cent chance of retaking the White House. As soon as Trump wrapped-up the GOP primaries, having dispatched seventeen more experienced and better established candidates, he stood a realistic shot of beating Clinton, whose own flaws had for so long been on such open and awkward display in American public life.

Clinton doesn’t see it that way. In What Happened, she attributes her loss to a handful of unforeseen factors, notably Bernie Sanders, whom she criticizes for being insufficiently supportive of her candidacy; the media, which she attacks for giving Trump too much air time; and the Russian government, which she believes hacked her campaign’s online infrastructure in an effort to undermine US democracy. Above all, though, she singles out former FBI director James Comey. His decision to reopen an investigation into her use of a private email server while she was at the State Department was, she insists, what really tipped the election in Trump’s favour, just as it reached its crucial closing stages: ‘[Comey’s intervention] led to a week of wall- to-wall negative coverage. In six out of seven mornings from October 29 to November 4, it was the lead story in the nation’s news cycle. Republicans dumped at least $17 million in Comey-related ads into the battleground states. It worked.’

Clinton’s analysis would be more persuasive if it weren’t so transparently self- serving. According to What Happened, her campaign made no major strategic mistakes, and there was no one better placed on the broad left of American politics to succeed Obama in the Oval Office. If she was at fault for anything, she eventually concedes, it was being too erudite and accommodating at a moment of rising populist outrage: “When people are angry, they don’t want to hear your ten-point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry, too… I skipped the venting and went straight to the solving.’

This is what makes What Happened such a frustrating and dispiriting read. It was written for purely exculpatory reasons. Clinton presents herself as the victim of an epic political stitch-up, orchestrated by the FBI, the Russians, the GOP, and the left. In reality, she had every advantage going into the race. The Republicans were a mess. Her opponent was a joke. She had more money than Trump, as well as a virtual monopoly on media support. And yet she still lost (albeit on an electoral college technicality).

Clinton wanted to be seen as a ‘consensus-building’, ‘bipartisan’ national leader – a champion of middle American interests. ‘For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,’ her ally, the Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, remarked in July 2016. But that, largely, is where she went wrong. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and the private sector, her lack of a coherent economic message, her countless triangulating u-turns on everything from same sex marriage to the war in Iraq, and her palpable sense of dynastic entitlement worked against her. They demoralized traditional Democratic constituencies – progressive  voters, African Americans, and the poor – pushing the presidency further out of reach.

In one respect, however, Clinton is absolutely right: we shouldn’t underestimate the role played by race in getting Trump elected. Indeed, Clinton views public attitudes towards race – as opposed to class, inequality, or economics – as the key indicators of Trump’s support, and a core source of his appeal to the 63 million (overwhelmingly white) Americans who endorsed him as their Commander-in-Chief.

The extraordinary structural and cultural force of racism in modern America is the subject of We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is relatively unknown in the UK, but in the US he is a literary star. His 2015 memoir, Between The World And Me, about his experiences as a black youth in Baltimore in the 1980s, won a National Book Award, prompting comparisons with James Baldwin. Eight Years is a collection of Coates’s essays for the Atlantic. They span Obama’s two presidential terms and conclude with a searing epilogue that casts Trump as America’s first explicitly, defiantly white president.

For Coates, it’s no coincidence that Trump entered the political arena arguing that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States: the one-time reality TV celebrity launched his political career as an advocate of birtherism, ‘that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built’. Trump’s whiteness, Coates’s says, isn’t notional or symbolic – it’s fundamental to his political identity: ‘Trump is truly something new – the first president who entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president … It’s almost as if the fact of a black president insulted Trump personally… [He] has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.’

Coates is a brilliantly caustic and incisive writer. His most pointed criticisms are aimed not at the Republican right, which brandishes its racism relatively openly – in defence of Confederate monuments, for instance, or white-on-black police violence – but at liberals, whose prejudices tend to express themselves in superficially benign ways. He takes particular issue with the concept of the ‘white working class’, a category of the American electorate that has assumed near mystical status with some Beltway commentators in the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat. Rather than accept that racism is a systemic, embedded feature of American life, Coates argues that the media has identified white economic alienation as the principal motor of Trumpism, thereby raising it ‘as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry … The maintenance of white honour and whiteness remains at the core of American liberal thinking.’

Having faced-off against Trump, Clinton is now held-up as his ideological antithesis. But she once shared in this thinking: ‘During her 2008 primary campaign, Clinton evoked the old dichotomy between white workers and loafing blacks, claiming to be representative of “hardworking Americans, white Americans”, [and] during Bill Clinton’s earlier campaign for president, it was Hillary herself who had deployed the “super predator” theory of conservative William Bennet, who cast “inner city” children as “almost completely unmoralized”.’

Coates is often accused of being excessively pessimistic about America. When Obama was in office, he was one of a handful of journalists regularly invited to the White House for off-the-record meetings with the president. On one occasion, only a few weeks before last year’s vote, the two of them discussed what still seemed, even then, like the remote prospect of a Trump win: ‘If there was a difference between me and [Obama], it was that I thought Trump wouldn’t win, whereas Obama thought, categorically, that he couldn’t. What amazes me looking back on that day is the ease with which two people, knowing full well what this country is capable of, dismissed the possibility of a return to the old form.’ And perhaps that’s problem: America has always been capable of electing someone like Donald Trump – it’s just that  almost everything Hillary Clinton did made Trump’s election more likely.

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At first sight, this looks like a sweet coincidence: here are two Scottish writers, both called Jim C, based in the urban central belt, writing on rural issues and making ample use of metaphors taken from jazz. Both books have cool blue covers with monochrome images. The similarities end there. One is an elegiac slow piece in a minor key; the other is a fast-paced present-moment blaze of wonder.

At first I am simply amused by the contrasting ways two men can look out from the city to the country and see such opposing landscapes – can it really make such a difference whether you face north-east or south-west on a winter morning? Then I start to ask if one or other of these visions is ‘truer’ or more authentic than the other. Unable to decide, I worry that perhaps they are both wrong or do they reflect something important about the paradoxes of Scottish rural life?

The image that unlocks this question is in Jim Carruth’s poem, ‘Progress’:

Same year as that photograph of the man who stopped the tanks’ progress in the square
my father strikes a similar pose, facing up to a new red and black Case International.

Here is the enemy. Carruth’s father has ‘seen the work pass/ from Clydesdale and Shire to diesel breeds’. These ‘diesel breeds’ are bigger and stronger than the horses, and they spell not only the demise of stables, but also of the human animals on the farm, the stockmen and harvesters who, ‘in the shadow of giant tractors/.. will wilt back into the ground’. It’s an extraordinary metaphor: the spectre of capitalist forces, economies of scale, relentless mechanisation and automation are cast in the role of the Red Army bearing down on a lone dissenter in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Like that student in the famous image, who represents all free-thinking Chinese people, Carruth’s father here represents all the other hill farmers whose options have been systematically wiped out by the invincible powers of state ideology: capitalism, in this case, though that’s hardly relevant.

Black Cart is haunted by the ghosts of those farmers. Looking back onto his family livestock farm in Ayrshire, (whence the poet took ‘the first bus, to a desk in a distant city’), this collection is a kind of extended elegy to a way of life of hill sheep and cattle rearing, and also to the late members of his family and the community he grew up in. The poetry faces backwards, steeped in the past and with an overall tone of sorrow and of loss.

By contrast Jim Crumley’s book is a prose work set firmly in the immediate present moment, charting the author’s daily work of nature observations over one, short winter season. This involves long, patient waits rewarded by exhilarating moments of wildlife sightings. When the author pauses and looks out from the present, he is most often concerned with the future, sometimes optimistic that the situation for wildlife may be, in some ways, improving, yet mostly worrying about climate change. And the root cause of climate change is at least partly those ‘diesel breeds’ and the industrial logic behind them, which has eliminated the hill- farming culture mourned by Carruth.

Crumley’s detailed recording of nature makes him particularly acutely attuned to climatic variations, and the impact of global warming on Scotland’s climate is most worryingly visible in the winter months, indeed so much so that he is reaching the conclusion ‘that winter itself may be halfway towards extinction’. He wrote his book over the mild, wet winter of 2016-17, when autumn blurred into spring, with barely a frozen lochan between them. He predicts (along with most others who model Scotland’s climate) that this is what we will come to expect as normal. ‘There will be savour of those winters of memory from time to time, but they will be fragments that conjure up little more than nostalgia. We would get the storms, the fleeting shades of the season formerly known as winter, but no more seasons of sustained snow and ice, no more weeks at a time of a land locked up in sub-zero temperatures. In winter’s place there has emerged a troublesome species of climate chaos.’

Crumley notes how lapwings migrate north several weeks earlier than they would do in the past. As I read this, in October, I find a primrose in flower in the woods close to home. Jim Crumley puts it, ‘winter has lost its way.’

Although neither book delves into the causes of the threats they identify, it is not hard for us to draw our own conclusions and pin the blame on the runaway consumption and industrial complex that pumps carbon dioxide inexorably into the atmosphere. It is not, however, quite so simple as that. The loss of the livelihoods and management styles of hill farming is at least partly the cause of some of Crumley’s most hopeful moments. Carruth’s portrayal of the Ayrshire community includes cameo appearances by, amongst others, the moleman’s apprentice, whose job is the slaughter of the wild creatures that the other Jim is watching out for. ‘Into the Blue’ is a poem about the poet’s unwillingness to use the gun his father has used all his life to bring mallard ducks and hares home for the kitchen. There have been huge impacts on animal populations as a result of rural people with guns and dogs, through their casual killing for the table, and their less casual treatment of wildlife as ‘vermin’ or as competition or threat to domestic or game animals, leading to systematic extermination through hunting or poisoning. Those pressures undoubtedly reduce as old lifestyles die out, and some species, like buzzards and red kites, are flourishing as their persecution by farmers and gamekeepers becomes a thing of the past, or at least much less intense than it used to be.

There is no doubt that the use of uplands for livestock rearing is one of the direct causes of climate change, and limits resilience and adaptability, through a combination of how much less carbon sequestration pasture land provides compared to the scrub woodland that would be there without the livestock, the increased run-off from bare hills compared to wooded ones, and the methane emissions directly from cattle and sheep. Conventional agriculture is one of our biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, while taking livestock off our hills and letting nature take control could be one of our best strategies for ameliorating the effects of climate change.

Even so, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the losses to the individual farmers and to their rural families and communities, as their herds are incinerated for foot and mouth, or sold, three beasts at a time, because they can no longer provide a living wage but it is too painful to see the cattle byre emptied in one go.

A leaking away, as though from a holed pail
with its drip, drip, drip of milk
to the ground, cheaper than bottled water, more painful than a long prayer in blood.

In honouring the lives of the doomed Ayrshire farmers, Jim Carruth has produced a book of moving tenderness, and with a texture that evokes the land on every page. There are footers naming fields, grasses and farms, which act as a litany accompanying the poems, like the warp of a loom through which the verse is woven. Yet among the sorrow of farm sales and funerals, there are also moments of surreal hilarity and exuberant playfulness, like this ode to sileage:

the all-day steaming meal of it
the sleek and textured feel of it
the polythene thin seal of it
the language forming spiel of it

and a poem celebrating Kalashnikov’s admission that he wished he were remembered for inventing something helpful, such as a lawnmower.

Jim Crumley’s book also contains several poems, but by far the most poetic and powerful language he produces is in his animal and bird descriptions. Take his likening of a dipper’s song to ‘icicles formed from the splashed spray of the river… the silver brilliance of his thin scatter of notes’. Or this playful sound-painting of a thawing hillside, full of ‘impromptu burns and waterslides… They burbled and gurgled. They mumbled, rumbled and tumbled. They wriggled, giggled and jiggled. They croaked and joked. They glittered and chattered. They tripped and skipped. And the Allt a’Ballaich, the mountain pulmonary, drank them all and surged on its way down to the distant glen of the River Etive.’

If I have a criticism of Crumley’s writing it is that, in among the wonderfully vivid portrayals of all the big mammals and birds, I wish for more space to be given to the small lives, the insects and lichens, frogs and fungi, snails and spiders. His observation methods, (‘You make a space in the day. You think only about listening. You give it time.’), must surely give him many encounters with these little creatures. His final, deceptively simple, advice, ‘if we are to pull back from the abyss of unknown depths and disasters,’ is that ‘we need to take heed. We need to listen.’ Given that both the natural world and rural communities are facing a common villain and struggling with their survival, taking heed and listening to them both is surely essential if we’re to wake to a future spring on Scottish hillsides that isn’t completely silent.

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