The Ragged Man’s Complaint by James Robertson

B&W Publishing, 1993, 158 p.

 The Ragged Man’s Complaint cover

This is Robertson’s second collection of short stories, after Close.
Giraffe is told from the viewpoint of a worker in a Safari Park and gives a picture of all the dodgy practices that go on there.
In Plagues a man who works in a bookshop sees frogs everywhere and is worried that’s only the beginning.
Screen Lives displays a woman and a man developing their relationship by acting out lines from the film Notorious.
In The Jonah one of two men hitch-hiking in a backwater reflects on how to turn his life around.
The Claw is the withered appendage of the HIV positive narrator’s grandfather, “caught between hope and history,” in a care home. A monitor of his future.
Squibs contains four vignettes a couple of which approach the style of Iain Crichton Smith’s Munro stories.
Bastards relates an encounter in a pub, where a man mistakes another for “the cunt my wife ran off wi’.”
Facing It is a vignette even shorter than those in Squibs wherein a man sees his innards cascade into the toilet bowl and realises he can no longer ignore his medical problem.
The unarguably apocalyptic The End is Nigh, told in almost biblical cadences, has a Science-Fictional feel as a prophet extends his sermon while wandering the countryside.
There are reflections on writing, relative privilege and Scotland in The Mountain, where for a few months in the winter following his grandfather’s death a man occupies the ancestral croft.
What Love Is examines the distance between married couple Dan and Joan, between men’s lives and women’s. “Dan isn’t frightened of other lives. He imagines them all the time. The only life he is frightened of is his own.”
Portugal 5, Scotland 0 (the comma is Robertson’s – or his publisher’s.) During the game concerned two men in a pub take to discussing Hugh MacDiarmid, poetry and Scotland’s cultural reawakening, turning back only after the game is finished, since the football has begun not to matter so much.
In Tilt Alan’s friend Mike tells him the only question in the world worth asking is, “What’s it about?” (Note the absence of “all”.) Alan’s increasingly shiftless feeling comes to a head one day after an encounter with a recalcitrant pinball machine and Mike’s sister, Mona.
Surprise, Surprise. A man accompanies three girls to a party and while there finds his evening is described in a book he picks from a shelf.
In the absence of the real thing, the Tories having won a General Election again (the book’s publication date suggests the 1992 one) Robert occasionally retreats into The Republic of the Mind. “I just think what a waste of time it is, having to wait to be a normal country, having to waste all this energy identifying ourselves. So I bugger off anyway. To the Scottish Republic of the mind.” On an epiphany he thinks, “You had to come upon it, or it came upon you.” He also realises, “how nobody ever assumed their neighbour was a Tory in a public house in Scotland,” and “We’re a nation of philosophers … at the end of the day. A nation of fucking philosophers.” That expletive is a brilliant piece of emphasis by Robertson. It demonstrates both the glory and the despair of the thought it qualifies.
Someone, perhaps homeless, perhaps not, is Pretending to Sleep. For all the ones who cannot do it for themselves. It is a strange existence. “Funny how in the cells they come to check if you’re not dead. Out here, out in the open, nobody checks” but, “Just by lying there, pretending to sleep, you get under their skin …. deep into them.” It’s a horror story. But not for the pretender.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (stanch,)

Reelin’ In the Years 130: You’re a Lady, Love is the Sweetest Thing, Roll Away the Stone

I discovered two sad departures this week, both Peters, though one of them actually occurred in January.

Peter Skellern’s affection for the brass band sound made him stand out as a bit old fashioned in the early 1970s.

His biggest hit was You’re a Lady, no 3 in 1972.

Peter Skellern: You’re a Lady

I remembered his revival of Frank Noble’s song Love is the Sweetest Thing as being a bigger hit than in fact it was. It apparently only reached no 60. It has a brilliant lyric, though.

Peter Skellern: Love is the Sweetest Thing

Peter Overend Watts was Mott the Hoople’s bass player and is seen quite prominently in this clip:-

Mott The Hoople: Roll Away The Stone

Peter Skellern: 14/3/1947 – 17/2/2017. So it goes.

Peter Overend Watts: 13/5/1948-22/1/2017. So it goes.

The Colour of Television

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

What do you make of the above sentence?*

Pyrotechnic? Emblematic? Iconic? Redolent of a new sensibility? A clarion call for the new digital age?

Or did it perhaps elicit a bemused, “Eh, what? Come again?”

It is of course the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which thrust cyberpunk onto the novel-reading SF public all those years ago now and to which I alluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream Paris.

Many saw it as the perfect embodiment of the new style of SF Gibson was promulgating. Yet to me it’s not quite in the league of the wake up calls that “Come on and hear!” or “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” were in musical terms. It’s not as pithy for a start. And when you begin to parse it any meaning it might contain slips away.

The sentence has been taken to mean descriptive of an oppressive, lowering sky, deep grey, I assume. (The colour of battleships, painted for action?)

Its first six words are unexceptional. But what, pray, is the colour of television?
I have no difficulty visualising the colour of a (or the) television (which word is still in the back of my mind suffixed by “set”.) Nowadays they’re nearly all black but back when Neuromancer came out in 1984, they could be all sorts, white, blue, pink, yellow. Some even had wood on them; or if it was plasticky, what I used to call pseud wood.

But television, with no defining article, is an abstract noun. Used in this way the word usually means the industry which produces the programmes it displays, not the apparatus they are shown on. And how can an abstract noun have colour? (Another possibility would be the band called Television, also fairly abstract, but that is spelled with a capital T.) It’s not even the apparatus’s screen that could be implied. Nowadays they’re uniformly blackish when the set is switched off; back in the day they were a deep olive green colour. That would be a sky too odd even for Science Fiction – except perhaps off Earth (which this sky wasn’t.)

Then there is that “dead channel”. I don’t suppose the young things these days know what that could possibly look like, when is a channel ever dead now? But then if the channel wasn’t broadcasting (the only possible interpretation of “dead”) the screen wasn’t even a uniform colour. It was spitty and specky, flecked with black and white, displaying what physicists call white noise; not a particular coherent signal as it was designed to do, but any signal – and every signal – picked up in the absence of a modulated transmission. Have you ever seen a flecked, spitty, specky sky? I haven’t. Not then, not now.

That sentence destroyed Neuromancer for me. From that point on I could not trust the author or what he attempted to describe. (I know about unreliable narrators but this was of a different order, it was in the omniscient third person for a start.) I didn’t have quite the same negative response to Gibson’s next novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive but still couldn’t really warm to him.

Ballantyne gave us, “The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key,” which makes a bit more sense, but only a bit, and he did have the grace to come back to it at the end.

*For myself I think the sky was the colour of an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.

Art Deco in Getxo +

By the riverside on our approach to the Vizcaya Transporter Bridge I spotted this beauty:-

Getxo Art Deco 1

The doorway had some fine detailing:-

Getxo Art Deco 2

This port/marina building is also in the deco/moderne style. Spot two ships’ funnels behind it:-

Art Deco, Getxo 3

Closer view. It’s like an 1930s airport tower only with porthole windows:-

Art Deco, Getxo 4

Reverse view looking back to Getxo. Those “English” buildings are prominent to the upper left. The main part of Getxo itself is off to the right:-

Art Deco, Getxo 5

There was another Fred. Olsen line ship docked at the same time as ours, the Boudicca. Both are seen here from the pier approach:-

aGetxo 6 ship

SS Black Watch. The bow has a very angled rake:-

SS Black Watch at Getxo

The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig

Headline Review, 1996, 285 p.

The Return of John Macnab cover

This, Greig’s second novel, takes as its template John Buchan’s John Macnab which I reviewed here. Once again three men – but this time not “gentlemen” – form an alliance to poach a salmon, a brace of grouse and a stag respectively from three different estates, Mavor, Inchallian and Balmoral, and then deliver the poached items back to the “owners”, as a challenge to “absentee landowners and the Criminal Justice Act” and as a wager to the three estates’ owners; issuing a statement to this effect in the Scotsman newspaper. The “John Macnab” here comprises at first Neil Lindores, Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland, each with his own special talent useful for the enterprise, but not long after arriving in “a small Highland town” Lindores is sussed out by local journalist Kirsty Fowler who is excited by the project and offers to help them.

Greig’s background in climbing comes to the fore in his description of the scramble needed to get to the pool for the salmon poach and his life as a poet in the sentence, “Seldom had a celebration broken up so fast, as if someone had announced an evening of performance poetry would commence in thirty seconds.”

His descriptions of landscape are loving and there is the odd reflection on the condition of Scotland. On feeling himself squeezed as at the narrow waist of an hour-glass with more past than future as the minutes ran through Neil thinks, “What a depressingly Scottish image. Its negativity was another thing that was true about his country. It went along with tholing, bearing, putting up with, and taking a certain satisfaction in the expected bad news when it came.” Yes indeed. That’s Calvinism for you. Neil does go on, though, to sense “it was a wrong picture. He was groping for another, still true but more affirmative.” At another point, “He hugged Murray. This was a first – they were Scottish, after all.”

The big problem John Macnab faces here is Balmoral. It is late summer and HRH is in residence. Consequently the place is hoaching with Special Services, Army and Police as well as the usual ghillies and gamekeepers. The authorities cannot ignore the possibility that John Macnab is merely a cover for a terrorist attempt on HRH’s life.

The text occasionally refers to Buchan’s novel, as it has to, and even critiques it in mentioning that Buchan’s women are really just chaps – though with (small) breasts. Greig’s intent is somewhat different; and his women are certainly far from chaps. Kirsty is as rounded and complex a character as you could wish (such women are a common factor in Greig’s novels) and is thoroughly involved in the poaching efforts – as are Sutherland’s and Hamilton’s wives and the former’s family – at least in the second one. Sutherland’s wife, though she has had an affair tells Kirsty she would kill him if he were to do the same. Ellen Stobo, a policewoman attached to the security services but who finds herself coming to an understanding of John Macnab, is also well drawn. To be fair to Buchan he was writing adventure tales for a male audience in a time that was less aware. Greig is by far the better examiner of the human condition though.

The John Macnab template – while driving the events of the plot – at times gets in the way of Greig’s greater facility with personal relationships but in the end his own concerns overwhelm Buchan’s. Still, he nearly overdoes it, veering very close to the tradition of the Scottish sentimental novel (compare Iain Banks’s Espedair Street,) in the final pages. But he is too canny to yield a conventional ending.

That template means that The Return of John Macnab is not quite up there with Greig’s best – all the other novels of his I have read; see “Andrew Greig” in my categories – but for an exploration of human uncertainties, hesitations, lust for life and willingness to take risks, emotional as well as physical, it’s still pretty damn good.

Pedant’s corner:- midgies (midges – which spelling does occur in the book once but otherwise with the extraneous “i”,) swopped (swapped,) “‘but there a problem comes with it’” (but there’s a problem,) autogiro (autogyro,) hoochin’ (usually spelled – and pronounced – hoachin’,) the main work party were loading gear (the party was,) none of the computer systems were down (none was down,) a missing end quote mark.

This Year’s BSFA Awards Short Lists

The lists have been published here.

Amazingly, of the best novel list I’ve read four out of the five.

Chris Beckett’s Daughter of Eden, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me and Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges.

My review of Europe in Winter hasn’t appeared here yet as it only appeared in Interzone a few months ago.

You may wonder why there is also no review of Azanian Bridges on my blog. Well that’s because I did some proof-reading work on it and that exercise is a little different from reading for review purposes.

The only one I haven’t read is A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and I won’t be. I thought her previous novel was godawful. I can’t see her having improved much.

I don’t have such a good strike record on the shorter works of which I’ve read only the two which appeared in Interzone.

Malcolm Devlin The End of Hope Street (Interzone #266)

Jaine Fenn Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Una McCormack Taking Flight (Crises and Conflicts, NewCon Press)

Helen Oyeyemi Presence (What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Picador)

Tade Thompson The Apologists (Interzone #266)

Aliya Whiteley The Arrival of Missives (Unsung Stories)

I look forward to reading these when the usual annual booklet arrives.

Vizcaya Transporter Bridge, Getxo

The coach trip to Bilbao had taken us through Getxo itself and given us a brief view of the Vizcaya Transporter Bridge, a UNESCO-listed Industrial Revolution icon, which carries people over the Ria Nervión between Las Arenas and Portugalete. Turning the corner of Getxo promenade takes you onto the riverside with a great view of the bridge:-

Vizcaya Bridge, Getxo

Closer view:-

Vizcaya Bridge, Getxo

I took a couple of videos of the bridge in operation. A gondola slung from the supports is the means of transportation. (Click on the pictures to take you to the videos.)

Vizcaya Transporter Bridge in Operation

Vizcaya Bridge, Getxo in Operation

Compare the Tees Transporter Bridge at Middlesbrough.

End-on view of Vizcaya Bridge from Getxo:-

Vizcaya Bridge, Getxo, End-on

Nice square and fountain as seen in above photo but this time from the bridge ramp:-

Fountain, Getxo

Getxo Monuments

In the afternoon we had a chance to take a walk around Getxo (pronounced Get-zho.)

View from jetty leading out to berthing point. The main part of Getxo itself is to the right here:-

Getxo, Biscay Province, Basque Country, Spain

This is the view off to the left:-

Vista of west Getxo

This monument to a 700th anniversary (1248-1948) is mysterious as unfortunately any other wording is no more. It lay near the junction of the main road with the one to the jetty near to the large “English” houses:-

Getxo Memorial

Getxo must have one of the longest promenades I’ve seen. I thought Kirkcaldy’s was long but Getxo’s seemed to last for ages. At the other end of it near where the Ria Bilbao meets the sea proper at Las Arenas was a Monument to Evaristo Churruca. It’s in that monolithic fascist style:-

Monument to Evaristo Churruca 1.

Monument to Evaristo Churruca 2

Getxo, Monument to Evaristo Churruca 3

Monument to Evaristo Churruca 4

Monument to Evaristo Churruca 5

Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2015, 443 p.

 Dream Paris cover

This is the sequel to Ballantyne’s earlier Dream London which I reviewed here. Its first sentence riffs on the famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Ballantyne’s comes closer to making sense though.

Seventeen year-old Anna Sinfield is trying to get her life together in what is left over after the fall of Dream London and the restoration of something like normality. She is given a fortune scroll by Mr Twelvetrees, a man with faceted, insect-like eyes. The scroll reveals she will meet her mother again, whom she had thought dead in Dream London’s demise; but it will be in Dream Paris. Twelvetrees has his own reasons for wishing her to go to there as he is an agent of the British Government. To protect her on the journey she is assigned a bodyguard, Francis, whose backpack trails a wire behind him – Theseus style – so they can find their way back. Both the English Channel and the rivers in Dream France are infested by aquatic dinosaurs and the French distinction between the second person pronouns tu and vous has become highly elaborate with up to 17 degrees of superiority/inferiority capable of being expressed. (Ballantyne’s treatment of this linguistic quirk wasn’t entirely consistent, though.)

There are some longueurs, particularly on Anna’s and Francis’s journey to Paris and even some while they are there. To Anna’s disappointment her mother sends several messages to the effect that she should not come. But Anna has the fortune scroll. She will meet her mother no matter what. And it seems everyone, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety (a very slight adjustment in title by Ballantyne to the one in our history,) the Prussians who have been at war with Dream France for centuries, the British Government, has their own reasons for finding Anna’s mother.

Francis’s wire (in the Dream World its mechanism becomes apparent) criss-crosses the streets of Paris and provides any British citizens stranded in the Dream World – or indeed anyone else – who wish to do so with the means to find their way (back) to London. It also allows travel in the opposite direction.

In the Dream World the counting/numbering system is peculiar. In Dream London there had been no prime numbers, and mathematicians went mad; here there are no fractions, making shapes and geometry different. The chapters count down in the dream numbering system from Silver then Twenty-three through numbers such as blue and (a feeling of fulfilment) down to Zero. Count-downs are of course a harbinger of a significant event. In this regard mention of an Integer Bomb is a foreshadowing.

Dream Paris suffers from the drawback of most sequels in that the unique nature of its predecessor cannot be repeated. The plot here is not so much one of restoration of the natural order of things as it was in Dream London (even if that wasn’t truly achieved) as that of a thriller; albeit one with elements that verge on being bonkers and a vision of an extremely odd Paris.

Pedant’s corner:- “The sound of violins wove their way..” (the sound wove its way,) a moments rest (moment’s,) “it was important not show any emotion” (not to show,) Mr Twelvetrees’ (x2, Mr Twelvetrees’s,) “I folded up the wallet up” (one “up” is sufficient.) “It fell back onto road,” (onto the road,) “swept away in whirl” (in a whirl,) sat (x2; seated, or sitting,) towns of unspeakably loveliness (unspeakable,) “had a wall around it to” (too,) “I don’t mean like strong like expresso is at home” (one like is enough,) but this gentlemen (gentleman,) Entschuldigen (Entschuldigung,) for hundreds miles (hundreds of miles.) “‘And now I must now report back’” (only one “now” is necessary.) “‘Someone came in rushing in’” (one “in” only,) “from a word written on the side ‘Abattoir’” (is missing a full stop after side,) “‘We are both that same’” (the same,) that that (only one needed,) “that feeling of the meaningless of it all” (meaninglessness,) “that complimented the taste “ (complemented,) “right next me”(to me,) “‘if you wish to continue, than I shall wish you good luck’” (then I shall wish you..) the crowd were (the crowd was, [as found later on the same page,]) placenta (of a fish????) “‘And now the rest of the table were doing the same’” (the rest was….) “I didn’t want it know” (to know,) “‘You think you could you kill your dinner?’” (You think you could kill your dinner,) teeth made for ripping flash (flesh.) Men and woman (women,) the point of infinity were the two sides converged (where the two sides,) miniscule (minuscule.) “At that they all gazed at me open-mouthed at that” (only one “at that” I feel,) “‘I grew up here.Surely’” (is missing the word break,) who knows what he was doing (should be “knew what”; or “is doing”,) “More to the point would have you done otherwise?” (would you have done,) “‘Francis what’s going?’” (what’s going on,) to note the Francis had done (that Francis had,) “‘You don’t see very happy, Anna’” (seem,) a welcoming committee were drawn up (a committee was drawn up,) sipping at glass (at a glass,) “A child. What had happened to their eyes” (its eyes.)

Friday on my Mind 148: Birth

The Peddlers were a frequent sight on UK TV at the back end of the 1960s and very early 1970s but never had much chart success. Birth, from 1969, was their biggest hit.

The piano riff is reminiscent of the one in Elton John’s Border Song which came out in 1970.

The Peddlers: Birth

free hit counter script