Poppies – and Christmas – in August

Yesterday I had to travel about Fife and the Edinburgh area.

In St Andrews I spotted British Legion poppies (the small ones made of metal; presumably manufactured for those who think that the normal paper ones do not sufficiently show off their “patriotism” or generosity – but I call it their ostentation) at a checkout in the “M&S Food” there.

Later in a supermarket in North Queensferry, on the way home from a dinner at my eldest son’s, just inside the door was a stack of tins (well, nowadays they’re “plastics”) of Roses, Quality Street, Celebrations and Heroes.

Christmas has long since started in August – that was always when annuals were published – but Remembrance Day? They’re still beating the drums at the Edinburgh Tattoo for goodness’s sake.

“It’s Not Easy Being Iggy Pop in Airdrie”

The above is the first line of the back cover blurb (and a line in the text) of the novel I’ve just started reading.

The second line of the blurb reads, “The year is 1983 and Memorial Device are the greatest band that never existed.”

The book, This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan, claims to be “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986.” Who could resist reading that?

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Windmill, 2016, 314 p.

 The Sunlight Pilgrims cover

Though I have some caveats about it this is a beautifully written, engaging novel touching on those three novelistic perennials love, sex and death, and peopled with sympathetic, rounded characters.

Dylan MacRae’s inheritance, an art-house cinema in London, has been forced to close with heavy debts. With his mother’s – and grandmother’s – ashes he retreats to a caravan his mother had bought in the area of Clachan Fells in Scotland. Once there he finds himself attracted to his next door neighbour, Constance, whose twelve-year old daughter, Stella, is in the process of transitioning from a boy and is the object of local curiosity and sometime bullying from her classmates. All this is occurring as the ice-caps melt, the seas in the northern hemisphere are being diluted by fresh water run-off, the North Atlantic Drift is switching off and Europe is being plunged into a deep winter. The book’s four parts are headed “November 2020, -6 degrees”; “8th December 2020, -19 degrees”; “31st January 2021, -38 degrees”; “The End Has Almost Come 19th March 2021, -56 degrees”. (I have no idea why, in the text, that last date is italicised.)

Those dates might suggest this is a work of Science Fiction but it is hard to sustain that reading. If it is actually a metaphor, which I doubt, the increasing temperatures are not literalised in the way Science Fiction deals with such things and are not manifested in the characters’ interactions.

Fagan’s story is told through Dylan’s and Stella’s viewpoints and it is in effect one of relationships and family, one that could be told without any reference to external factors of climate or setting. There is a hint of fantasy in the appearances of Dylan’s grandmother to Stella but one of these was in a dream. In addition, Clachan Fells is described as if it is a remote location yet it is near a motorway and there is an IKEA within easy travelling distance, both of which would place it near a city. The deep freeze extends as far as North Africa – a touch unlikely I’d have thought. The metal door of a caravan is mentioned frequently. If anyone touched it at those temperatures their fingers would stick fast to it.

These are cavils and do not reflect on Fagan’s ability to conjure character. Dylan, his mother and grandmother, Constance, Stella, even local vagrant Barnacle, felt like living, breathing people. If the circumstances of, and reasons for, Dylan’s mother’s purchase of the caravan strain credulity a little it does not detract from the depiction of the characters and their relationships.

Constance mentions trick-or-treating to Dylan. The Scottish (and Northern Irish) term is guising. Fagan may have placed the USianism in Constance’s mouth when speaking to him since he grew up in London and she might have assumed he wouldn’t be familiar with it. In Stella’s thoughts, though, the activity is described as guising. This is a very subtle piece of writing by Fagan which would go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the original term.

It is somewhat ironic that the woman who has for years had ongoing relationships with the same two men, adds Dylan to the list, and has had other liaisons, is named Constance. I’ll presume Fagan intended this though.

The Sunlight Pilgrims contains excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the adults were slightly less to the fore. Here all are wonderfully realised.

Pedant’s corner :- morgue (mainly USian, the British term is mortuary,) and later, mortician (the British usage is undertaker,) “a trail of empty wine glasses lead to” (a trail leads to,) “a pile of unpaid bills are stacked” (a pile is stacked,) “a stack of records have still not been put back in their sleeves” (a stack has not,) “none of these things are going to happen” (none is going to happen – after a while I gave up counting these failures of verbs to agree with their subjects,) “the wind farm’s nacelle rotate” (I doubt the plural of nacelle is irregular as in “sheep” or “aircraft”, so nacelles,) Ikea (it’s IKEA,) in the corner of her eyes (corners,) then they gone (they’re,) bended heads (I know “bent heads” would have meant something different but so does bended [compare bended knee,] bowed heads conveys the sense, though bowed is used on the next line,) a quoted news report says “there have barely been any bird sightings for weeks now. Those that are in nests have just frozen,” (no birds would have been nesting as late as November, when the freeze is said to have started.)

Stromness War Memorial

A statue of a woman on a plinth, this stands on the outskirts of Stromness beside the main road to Kirkwall:-

Stromness War Memorial

Statue and Plinth. Dedication, “In memory of the gallant dead who gave their lives for honour and freedom in the European War 1914-1919.”:-

Statue and Plinth, Stromness War Memorial

View looking towards town:-

Stromness War Memorial Looking Towards Town

Names for 1915-17:-

Stromness War Memorial

Names for 1917-18:-

Stromness War Memorial, Names for 1917-18.

Additional plaque. After 1917:-

Stromness War Memorial, After 1917

Names for 1939-45. “To the glory of God and in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the Second World War 1939-45.”:-

Stromness War Memorial, Names for 1939-45

Brian Aldiss

Earlier today I read the news that Brian Aldiss has died.

At times during my youth he was about the sole standard bearer for British SF (for which actually read English SF as Science Fiction from other parts of these islands was more or less invisible till years later.) Only John Wyndham and J G Ballard had anything like as high a profile and they were very different writers.

(Edited to add: I don’t know why it was that Arthur C Clarke slipped my mind when I originally wrote this. Maybe because his output was hard SF as compared to the others.)

As a result of Aldiss’s prominence I have a large number of his books. I think The Interpreter was the first SF book I bought as opposed to borrowing them from the local library.

The latest such purchase was bought for me for Christmas by the good lady because she liked the cover so much – and she read it before me!

I suppose there won’t be any more now.

I did meet him once; briefly, at one of the Liverpool Eastercons.

One of the greats. Arguably the last of the SF pioneers.

Brian Wilson Aldiss: 18/8/1925 – 19/8/2017. So it goes.

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

During World War 2 Italian prisoners of war were held on Orkney. After the sinking of the Royal Oak, Churchill ordered the gaps between four of the islands at the southern end to be filled in. These links between the islands came to be known as the Churchill Barriers. One of the photos in the link shows – still there over 70 years later – the remains of a pre-barrier block ship that was sunk early in the war before the barriers’ construction.

The Italians were set to work on building them. At first they objected as the barriers were military measures on which they were banned from working by the Geneva Conventions. When it was suggested to them that they were being built to improve civilian communications between the islands they happily acceded.

Another part the prisoners’ legacy is the ornately decorated chapel that they built (see pictures here) on the island of Lamb’s Holm, plus the statue of Saint George nearby.

The Italian Chapel is now a tourist attraction in its own right. It was quite busy when we visited so I only photographed the outside.

Italian Chapel:-

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

Statue of Saint George:-

Statue of Saint George by Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

Approaching Orkney

Island of Stroma, Pentland Firth. Stroma is not part of Orkney proper but lies to the south:-

Island of Stroma, Pentland Firth

A fortification on Flotta, Orkney. Hard to tell at the distance; it may have been from the Great War, World War 2 or both:-

A Fortification on Flotta, Orkney

Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney. World War 2 vintage:-

Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney

More Fortifications on South Ronaldsay. Artillery emplacements. These are almost Art Deco in style:-

More Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney

More Paintings

I’ve been going to Art Exhibitions again.

The Scottish National Gallery at the Mound, Edinburgh, at the moment has an exhibition entitled Beyond Caravaggio (until 24/9/17.)

The entry is £12 but the good lady and myself joined as “Friends of the Gallery” earlier in the year to take advantage of free entry to such exhibitions.

As its title implies most of the works shown are by followers of Caravaggio; though the three or four by the master himself are stunning. Some of the others are almost as good but there was one (which I shan’t name) which I thought was a bit cartoonish.

It was good value even if you’d had to pay £12. There are at least five rooms filled with paintings.

I couldn’t help remarking to the good lady, though, about one of the exhibits, “Why on Earth is there a painting of Russell Brand on the wall?”

Christ Displaying his Wounds by Giovanni Galli

The painting is in fact Christ Displaying his Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli – called Lo Spadorino.

This painting is owned by Perth and Kinross Council. On the UK Art site he’s listed as Giacomo Galli.

I noticed after we left the building that a full building height reproduction of this painting adorns the front of the gallery.

Queen of the South 1-0 Dumbarton

SPFL Tier 2, Palmerston Park, 19/8/17.

Ah well. That’s the unbeaten record in the league gone then.

I had always thought we would struggle for a result here since we played a game only 65 hours beforehand. And they had a few of our ex-players in their ranks – which usually means they’d score. The damage was only one goal though.

And amazingly, due to results elsewhere we actually moved up a place in the table.

Football’s a funny old game.

Looks like a tough one next week against the team that’s now second.

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2012, 521 p.

 Hide Me Among the Graves cover

Powers has form with poetry and poets, especially those of the nineteenth century. In The Anubis Gates he even, in the form of William Ashbless, deployed one of his own (and that of James Blaylock) invention. Fantastic Fiction even lists some of “Ashbless”’s works.

Here Powers concentrates on the Rossetti family, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel, but Algernon Swinburne also features as a character as does Edward Trelawny.

In Hide me Among the Graves sublime poetry is an expression of a kind of demonic possession by (or more accurately a close association to) the Nephilim, a semi-vampiric type of creature. The affliction is partly hereditary but can be transmitted by biting. Two of these creatures (one is Byron’s friend John Polidori, the Rosettis’ maternal uncle, the other embodies the spirit of Boudicca – though the characters of course call her Boadicea) are the background drivers of the plot. Uniting their two strands in one body by the union of the two bloodlines will awaken such power that Boadicea will again be able (as she did in Roman times) to destroy London in an earthquake. Byron, Shelley and Keats are said to have shared the nephilitic tendency, Tennyson and Ashbless not. The loved ones, especially the children, of those close to the Nephilim are in danger of death, or – worse – a lingering half life as a diminished ghost. The prologue involves the awakening of the spirit of Polidori, by Christina rubbing her blood into a small statue belonging to her father. (There it is, blood again.)

The lesser known (ie totally fictional) protagonists of the book are Adelaide McKee and John Crawford who unknown to each other (at first) are host to the relevant spirits. When they are passing by chance on a London bridge at night they are attacked by an avatar of Boadicea. Only Crawford’s quick thinking in hurling them both into the water saves them. (For some reason both salt water and almost drowning repel the vampires, exposure to the open air increases the danger.) The same night though they conceive a child. Since McKee had earlier been trapped into prostitution they do not meet again for seven years, by which time McKee thinks Johanna, their daughter, may be dead. She is not, but has fallen into the clutches of Polidori and they and she spend the rest of the book trying to evade a forced union of Johanna with one of Boadicea’s creatures.

Powers is good with characters. McKee, Crawford and Johanna are very well drawn and their story is much the most compelling in the book. I was less taken with the doings of the Rosettis though. This is perhaps due to my distaste for the incorporation (it might as well be traducing) of real people in such a distortion of history. It is only the fantastical elements which disturb me here, however; I have no quarrel with the practice in a straightforward altered history. In this context, in Hide me Among the Graves, Powers purports to give us the real reason why Gabriel’s wife Lizzie Siddal’s grave was exhumed.

While Powers does write like a dream bits of this are ridiculous. Like vampires, the Nephilim – or their agents – can be deflected by garlic, killed by silver bullets, and their reflections trapped by mirrors. (I know it’s a staple of vampire stories but …. garlic? Really?) It is a measure of Powers’s facility that despite my reservations I continued reading. He can certainly spin a yarn and people it with apparently living, breathing characters. The book is too long though. I could quite happily have stopped reading at the end of Part One and still felt satisfied; but there was still over half the book to go.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably few instances for a book this long. And the copy I read was an ARC (or proof as they used to be known.) It shows it can be done.
Nevertheless we still had “to lay low” (lie – but it was in direct speech,) missing opening quote marks when direct speech started a chapter, “had strode” (stridden, surely?) “‘the effect requires parents from two continents’” (Powers’s geography is off here. A Roman, no matter how consecrated to an Alpine Goddess, who raped one of Boadicea’s daughters – similarly consecrated to the old British Goddess known as Andraste, Magna Mater or Gogmagog – was not from a different continent to that of his victim.) An electric doorbell (in 1869?) Octopi (the plural is octopodes or octopuses,) “in front of one in the long row of houses” (it does make sense but “one of the long row of houses” is a more natural construction.)

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