Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Flamingo, 2001, 508 p, plus vii p Introduction and iv p Appendix of Works by Gao Xingjian. Translated from the Chinese, 灵山 (Língshān,) by Mabel Lee.

Soul Mountain cover

Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though he has for a long time lived in France) and Soul Mountain his most well-known work. In it there is certainly a literary knowingness at work. At first it seems as if alternating chapters are being narrated in the second person, a notoriously unusual, and brave, strategy – with the intervening chapters apparently a more conventional first person – but it isn’t quite so, as the treatment is subtler than that. In fact the “you” of the “second person” chapters is an unnamed character in the novel – as are the “I” and “she” we also find within its covers. His portrait of historical China makes it seem a harsh, lawless place. The book contains an astonishing number of casually reported rapes and abductions of women.

Interspersed with innumerable tales and occasional poems or folk song transcriptions the novel is on the surface the story of a writer, unable to be published after being labelled a rightist, wandering around China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title, and the various encounters he has on the way, many of which are enigmatic. A blurb on the back describes it as “a picaresque novel on an epic scale” which “bristles with narratives in miniature”, and it certainly is picaresque in the dictionary definition. However, another word for it might be “bitty”.

The trouble is that the “you” and “I” are barely distinguishable and there is little in the way of forward thrust. In the writer’s voice Xingjian tells us, “I never speak of we or us. I believe that this is much more concrete than the sham we which is totally meaningless. Even if you and she and he and masculine they and feminine they are images of the imagination, for me they are all more substantial than what is known as we…. How many of we are in fact implicated? There is nothing more false than this we,” – an extract which conveys some of the flavour of the book’s reflective passages.

Xingjian’s purpose is, perhaps, laid out in Chapter 72 where a critic complains, “‘This isn’t a novel!’” and when asked what, then, it is, says, “‘A novel must have a complete story.’” Our narrator says he has told many stories some with endings, some without, and the critic responds, “‘They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.’” As to how the critic thinks a novel ought to be organised, foreshadowing, climax then conclusion are cited. Our author then asks “if fiction can be written without conforming to (that) method …. with ‘parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.’” He retorts to the suggestion that there are no characters, “‘But surely the I, you and she in the book are characters?’” The critic claims, “‘These are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters,’” and also, “‘This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short….. You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!’” (This last could easily stand as a critique of the book.) In a less ambitious work the chapter’s ending, “Reading this chapter is optional but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it,” might feel like a slap in the face to a reader. As it is we’ve known for a long time the book is not straightforward.

In the guise of his writer Xingjian also says, “in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from linguistic structures.” It is as if he is saying the practice of writing is useless. “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.” Not a sentiment I would have expected to read in a Nobel Prize winner’s book.

Pedant’s corner:- “it was annoying there was a place you’ve never even heard of” (past tense so “you’d”?) Peddlers (USian for pedlars,) eying (eyeing,) undefinable (indefinable?) “there are a series of courtyards” (there is a series,) bungers (these seem to be fireworks; so, bangers?) “this his how fights often start” (is,) “I didn’t seen anything clearly” (see,) “with no-one is sight” (in sight.) “Outside the upstairs widow” (window, I think,) “the band of shining feathers puff out” (the band puffs out,) wreathes (wreaths,) “none of the people sell tops” (none sells tops,) a fire burnt for days (burned is more usual as the past tense, burnt as the past participle,) mucous (as a noun; so, mucus,) an inscriptions (inscription.) “It is only when I stop the recorder to change the tape that, panting, that he too comes to a stop” (one “that” too many,) “came from an other” (is there a different meaning when “another” is used?) “of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written” (one book fewer?) “the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you” (the totality exists,) cockscombs (cocks’ combs,) “and you stop there and to look” (and look, or omit and,) “A unfriendly voice answers.” (An unfriendly voice,) stomaches (stomachs,) “I immediately open the rice wine right away” (immediately or right away; not both,) high-pitch voice (usually high-pitched.) “Where else can we find these songs which we should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found?” (“can we find”, or, “be found”, not both,) “Aren’t I welcome?” (Do the Chinese phrase this so ungrammatically?) “is that job?” (your job,) “‘But where is the criteria?’” (are,) “the lens were so worn they were like frosted glass” (lenses.) “The Immortal Cliffs slowly recedes” (recede,) artemesia (artemisia.) “Fragments of that hoary old voice sings” (fragments sing,) “his eyes have sunken deep” (sunk,) “striking it everywhere from its centre to their sides” (its sides,) “we… put our thumb print to it” (we; so, prints.)

Some Art Deco in Doncaster

On our trip down south in May to get the ferry to Holland we had to take a detour because of an accident on the A 1.

As a result we passed through Doncaster. The traffic was pretty backed-up there to so I was able to get a few snaps off when we chanced upon some 1930s deco style houses. Sadly they all seemed to have had their eyes poked out:-

Doncaster Deco Houses 1

Art Deco Houses, Doncaster 2

Art Deco Houses, Doncaster 3

Art Deco, Doncaster 4

Then there was this commercial building:-

Art Deco, Doncaster 5

Asimov’s Aug 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Aug 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial1 remembers her introduction to SF via the women superheroes found in comic books and the inspiration she took from them; inspiration she hopes her own daughters will also find. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 discusses the software of magic (spells) with regard to ancient Egyptian papyri. Paul Di Filippo’s On Books3 is complimentary about all the books reviewed but especially a reprint of Judith Merril’s critical essays on SF and China Miéville’s This Census Taker (which I reviewed here.)
In the fiction:-
Wakers4 by Sean Monaghan is set on a colonisation starship which has suffered damage to its operating AI and veered off course. Only one crew member at a time is woken to keep things going, passing on the duty at the end of their stint. The latest waker has an idea to change the ship’s fate.
In Toppers5 by Jason Sandford New York has been separated from the rest of the world. Only the tallest skyscrapers provide secure refuges above the mists. Our (unnamed) female protagonist has to walk through the mists to get supplies.
The title of The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Garner of course refers to a celebrated SF story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon.) Here a repressed Flash Gene may be activated by some kind of shock during puberty and changes its carrier into a superhero. Menopausal Ellie Lee fears her son will try to force such a change by endangering his life and sets put to protect him. It becomes obvious very early on where this is going. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold a candle to Tiptree.
The “Kit” in Kit: Some Assembly Required6 by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is Christopher Marlowe or, rather, a simulacrum of Marlowe in a computer network. Kit achieves sentience. The slightly clichéd identity of his human “creator” is all that lets this tale down. The best story I’ve read in Asimov’s so far.
Patience Lake7 by Matthew Claxton sees a former cyborg soldier, damaged in an attack and surplus to requirements, hitch-hiking to Saskatchewan and taking odd jobs to try to meet his maintenance costs. But his spare parts could make him valuable himself.
In Kairos8 by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, a research project has come up with a way to stop telomeres unravelling and hence halt ageing. Our narrator is married to the technology’s discoverer and suffers a crisis of conscience, apparently due to the legacy of her previous marriage. The story depicts scientists as blinkered and philistine. Well, not all of them are ignorant of the humanities.
The title of Sandra McDonald’s President John F Kennedy, Astronaut9 is a trifle misleading as the story is more about the search in an ice-cap melted, flooded future world for an obelisk found by said astronaut but whose existence was subsequently concealed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1(she) learned marital arts (that would be a good thing I suppose but I think martial arts was what was meant,) no pinic (no picnic,) 2 H G Wells’ (H G Wells’s,) 3Karel apek (for some reason misses the capital letter of his surname, Čapek,) 4 “A Masters from .. but on the next line her master’s thesis (if one Masters is capitalised I would think the other ought to be,) 5 lays (lies,) 6loathe (loth or loath; loathe is something else entirely,) 7thirty clicks outside (four lines later; “the last few dozen klicks”,) augur (auger –used previously,) 8“none of them know, none of them have any idea” (none knows, none has any idea,) “so he did he” (has one “he” too many,) 9 blond hair (blonde,) gravitation distortion (gravitational,) “where whales still roamed and tropical reefs covered with dazzling life” (were covered?) “to imagine what must have been like” (what it must have been like,) “great-great-great forbearer” (forebear.)

War Graves, Markinch Cemetery

Markinch is the small town nearest to where we now live, though parts of Glenrothes are closer.

Its cemetery is on the eastern approaches to the town over the railway line from the station. It has a Commonwealth War Graves sign on its gates.

I found six graves.

L Sjt R S Turner, Royal Artillery, 30/10/1944:-

Markinch War Grave 1

Sergeant R Duff, Air Gunner, RAF, 31/10/1944, aged 23:-

Markinch War Grave 2

Sapper P Reekie, Royal Engineers, 10/4/1944, aged 21:-

Markinch War Grave 3

Sergeant Pilot T C Murray, 21/7/1942, aged 19:-

Markinch War Grave 4

Private J H Drummond, Seaforth Highlanders, 10/1/1918, aged 18:-

Markinch War Grave 5

This one is unusual, given the date of death and the age of the deceased.
Sergeant David Kirk, Intelligence Corps, 16/12/2000, aged 51:-

Markinch War? Grave 6

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2014, 241 p plus iv p introduction by Pat Cadigan

 The Long Tomorrow cover

The Destruction has come, fire has rained down, civilisation has fallen far. Nearly one hundred years on people scrape by as best they can. Society is now dominated by Neo-Mennonites as in the aftermath of the Destruction only those who did not depend on technology had the means to survive. The thirtieth amendment to the US constitution was enacted to forbid both cities and dense populations. The law is backed up by the strict Old Testament religious mind-set which pervades the agrarian culture.

Len Culter is influenced by his grandma who could not quite forget that the old days were good. He is fascinated by her stories and also by the possibility that remnants of the old times might still exist in a place called Bartorstown, whose location no-one knows and whose proponents risk execution. His only hope of ever finding this chimera is via the traders who ply across the land. He is led astray by his cousin Esau, stealer of old books and purloiner from a summarily executed trader’s wagon of a radio which by accident they manage to get to work. On being discovered and forced to flee from Piper’s Run, he and Esau make it to the Ohio riverside settlement of Refuge where a merchant is pushing against the size laws. His endeavour does not turn out well and Len, with Esau and Amity, the girl whom Esau has got pregnant, are plucked from the vengeful zealots by agents of Bartorstown. After a long discouraging journey Len finally reaches his goal where he finds it is much less but also far more than he had expected. He also finds his childhood indoctrination hard to shake off.

From a twenty-first century perspective the absence of any Native Americans in Brackett’s scenario is glaring. It might be thought that they would be equipped to thrive in a world so stripped down. I suppose that in the1950s when the book was first published such a consideration might not have occurred and would in any case probably have been rejected by an editor – and readers. (A darker explanation for their absence from a future like this is of course also possible; but Brackett’s attention does not lie in that direction. In this context I note that no black characters appear either.) Even though Brackett was one of the (very) few high-profile women SF writers of the 50s the book’s sexual politics are also of its time, with women being depicted as strictly domestic creatures – or temptresses, who are also nevertheless fated to domesticity. (I would also have thought that the US as a polity could not have survived a Destruction as complete as portrayed here. Doubtless, this is also not a thought which would have been comfortable – or perhaps even imaginable – to mid-twentieth century USians. Pat Cadigan in her introduction suggests that a nuclear war would not have been survivable at all.) Still, take it all as read for purposes of story.

Brackett’s characters are convincingly portrayed, it is easy to believe people would behave in the ways shown given their circumstances; only Julio Gutierrez’s breakdown when Bartorstown’s latest attempt to remove the threat overhanging their project failed seemed in any way unlikely. Despite the intervening years since its first publication The Long Tomorrow still bears reading.

Pedant’s corner:- Pa. hadn’t noticed it (no need for the full stop after Pa,) proselyting (apparently the USian form of proselytising,) Harkness’ (Harkness’s,) he had waked (woken, please,) “‘Good-by, Len’” (Goodbye, there was another good-by later,) “Dulinsky wiped his face oil his shirt sleeve” (on his shirt sleeve,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) “trailing of tobacco smoke from a pipe” (no need for “of”,) lay low (lie low,) Gutierrez’ (Gutierrez’s.)

Willow Tea Rooms, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

I thought I’d posted this photo (taken in December 2014) of the exterior of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Willow Tea Rooms in Buchanan Street, Glasgow, but searching the blog gave no results so perhaps I didn’t.

Willow tea rooms

The tea rooms were I believe defunct for a while but have been refurbished. In April this year the good lady and I partook of the facilities within. Lovely lunch, reasonably priced.

Rennie Mackintosh style chairs:-

Willow Tea Rooms Interior 1

A banquette:-

Willow Tea Rooms 2

Interior panelling. Typical Mackintosh motifs:-

Willow Tea Rooms 3

More panelling:-

Willow Tea Rooms 4

Window blind. Signature Mackintosh lettering:-

Willow Tea Rooms 5

Table accoutrements (sadly not quite in focus):-

Willow Tea Rooms 6


Willow Tea Rooms 7

Blue and purple lampshades (again sadly not focused):-

Willow Tea Rooms 8

There are two tearooms inside. This is on the stair up to the Chinese Room:-

Willow Tea Rooms 9

The Chinese Room itself. Note the chairbacks:-

Willow Tea Rooms 10

Lower stairwell. Again thoroughly Mackintosh lampshades and banisters:-

Willow Tea Rooms 11

Radio Silence Over

Just a quick one.


I had posts scheduled for Oct 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th and 9th and not one of them went on.

I’ll need to do them manually now….

(Starting tonight probably.)

Reelin’ In the Years 126: It’s a Game

For some reason the chorus of this song has been running through my head for the past week or so. Originally performed by String Driven Thing (composed by Chris Adams of the group) and released as a single in 1973 it was a hit later in that decade for a different group which shall remain nameless.

The String Driven Thing version is better by miles in any case.

String Driven Thing: It’s a Game

Edited to add: this one didn’t go on as scheduled either. Looks like all the other ones I’ve scheduled won’t be appearing as planned.

Scheduling Problems

Two of the posts I had scheduled during the past week didn’t do so automatically and I have had to publish them manually well after they were due to appear.

This would not be an irritation if the problem persists except that I have eleven or so such posts scheduled for the next week or two as I may be away from the internet for a while myself which would make manual publishing difficult to say the least.

So; we’ll have to see what happens with this one, won’t we?

Edited to add:- Well it didn’t publish as scheduled.

Expect a period of radio silence from here for a while.

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