The Magic Flute by Alan Spence

Black Swan, 1991, 410 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Magic Flute cover

Starting from the point at which their destinies are about to diverge The Magic Flute chronicles the lives of four pupils from the same Glasgow Primary School, Tam, Brian, George and Eddie, from when they are about to move on to Secondary School at the turn of 1950s/60s up till just after John Lennon’s death in 1980. When the book starts two are shortly to sit the bursary exam for the fee-paying High School, two to progress to the local Junior Secondary. They all make their way to audition for the Orange Flute Band but only one of them manages to get a sound out of the instrument they are given to try and he gets to take it home. (The next week though it is the Mason’s son who has that privilege.) Inspired by music and especially Mozart’s The Magic Flute Tam becomes a musician, Brian sticks to his studies and ends up as a teacher of English, George drifts even after he is inducted into the Masons following his father, and Eddie escapes a life of crime by joining the Army only to be sent to Northern Ireland.

A possible different path for most of them is signposted by an improvised show in which they perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but only Tam breaks free (set partly on his way by LSD) and even he cannot quite escape the drag such an upbringing imposes. Brian’s aspirations to being a novelist are stunted by that Scottish sense of knowing your place. “Part of him always stood back…. a wee Scottish gremlin that narked in his head. Ach away ye go. I know fine what you really are. He supposed it was a variant of the old put-down. Him? A writer? He couldnae be. I kent his faither. Only this was more insidious, was the end result of such programming, and the form it took was Me? Ach, naw, no me. I couldnae.

Life in the West of Scotland at that time is conveyed well enough, the setting of paths and narrowing of opportunities caused by educational apartheid (long since gone in the main,) the background of sectarianism and the strains it causes (not gone – at least in certain spheres,) the hidebound nature of the older generation, the attraction for some of radical politics.

The initial prose is a touch diagrammatic and the characterisation a little perfunctory so that the boys are not sufficiently distinguished from one another. Also, too many of the scenes in the book start in the middle before flashing back. Spence’s jokes are more intrusive and less integrated than in Way to Go and that signalling of the story’s thrust by the initial scenes is something of a misdirection. For those of sensitive dispositions I note use of the “n” word plus the “d” word and the “p” word.

It’s a good enough read. One of the 100 best, though?

Pedant’s corner:- recordplayer (record player,) the tune from That was the week that was (That Was the Week That Was – very often in this book where Spence quotes a title he only capitalises its first word, which is against the usual convention and looks downright odd at times,) threedimensional (three-dimensional,) had showed (shown, x 2,) “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind in life unkind” (I believe Spence has misheard these lines from Ruby Tuesday which are, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Ain’t life unkind?”) workingclass (working class,) beat-up (beaten up,) tryng (trying,) “‘it had it’s moments’” (its,) CSE class (a big blooper: CSEs were a qualification in the rest of the UK but not in Scotland, where we had Standard Grades, so there would not have been a CSE class. Maybe Black Swan made the change in order not to confuse English readers,) alsation (alsatian – used later,) hung (hanged, okay it was in dialogue, but it was uttered by an English teacher, who should know better….) hotching (hoaching.)

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