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Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2017, 525 p.

Serious Sweet focuses on the activities of London dwelling Jon Sigurdson, a civil servant who has come to hate his work, and Meg Williams, bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, over the course of one day in which they do not come together till late on. The book tends to follow each in turn with their actions and encounters in normal text and their inner thoughts rendered in italics. Smaller snippets, snapshots of daily life in London, intersperse the time denoted incidents of their day. It all makes for a rather dense reading experience.

Jon is divorced after his wife had a series of affairs but loves his daughter Rebecca. Meg has just had an all-clear appointment at the gynaecologist, after treatment for cancer of the womb, which has nevertheless left her sad at the loss of the possibility of having children.

Jon had previously had a wheeze of inviting women, via an advertisement, to pay him to write them letters expressing kind thoughts. They may write back to him but the idea is that they never meet. (It is hinted that on Jon’s part this may be an elaborate cover to reveal government secrets in letters to someone called Lucy though this is not fully explored.) Meg took up his offer and they met when she tracked him to the PO Box where he picks his letters up. But they do not have a formal relationship. A series of everyday obstacles – and a crisis meeting – prevent their planned dinner date but they do eventually get together late in the day.

Through Jon, Kennedy provides a commentary on the indifference – almost savagery – of the prevailing attitudes of those in power, “Suffering no longer indicates hardship, it indicates bad character and celestial punishment. And if God has seen fit to punish – well that invites further loss,” is followed by, “Tell the average mug punter to put ten quid in the communal tin, wake him up the following morning and he’ll accept without hesitation that asking for ten pence back because he needs it would be a sin.” The mantra is “Opinions Not Facts. These are our watchwords.” Its effect is that people are forced to fail and then they are blamed for that failure. The strategy is to, “Advise them badly, advise them misleadingly and issue threats.” Which only compounds their – and society’s – problems.

Jon says to a colleague, “‘We’ve had more than ten years of being told about the undeserving poor. If you’re poor enough to need benefits you must be doing something wrong – you must be something wrong and undeserving. Want shouldn’t get – that’s our departmental motto. Our national credo – we all love royal babies and hate the poor.’”

The reply he gets is that, “‘Conservatives know you can’t change human nature and therefore the suffering … have brought their pain upon themselves. They could only be forgiven if they thrived …. and no longer need any help. And if you can’t change human nature, you don’t need government …. except for those posts occupied by those who believe you can’t change human nature.
‘And progressives believe that you can change human nature and therefore the great plunging herd of voters must be restrained and managed at all times.’”

(That “knowledge” which conservatives have, though, is merely a belief. Thriving is no signifier of virtue, nor even of effort. Not thriving is certainly not an indication of lack of either. It might simply be bad luck or lack of opportunity. Human nature may be a given but human behaviour isn’t, or else why are there laws to influence it?)

That this is embedded in a narrative which tends to meander takes off its edge somewhat. The book is not one that rewards light reading. Persevere though and it has its moments.

Pedant’s corner:- “to not speak” (I suppose there may be a gradation of meaning with “not to speak”,) shtum, “The he leans in” (Then he leans in,) on-board (why the hyphen? On board is fine,) “a mass of individuals undergo” (a mass undergoes,) “‘I though you were’” (thought,) he is trying make sure (trying to make sure.)

Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel

Canongate Classics, 1987, 181 p, plus v p Introduction by Douglas Gifford. First published in 1972. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Mr Alfred is an ageing teacher of English unable to make connections with the pupils at the school where he teaches – a comprehensive in a rough area. Never married, his sense of failure is compounded by the lack of success his poetry collection found. His only solace is to habituate the local and not so local pubs. Not even ladies of the night hold any attraction for him. Strangely – the practice was not followed in the schools I attended as a pupil at much the same time as this book is set – the classes in Mr Alfred’s school are segregated by sex; until halfway through the book he has never taught girls.

Alfred is particularly irritated by the habitual misbehaviour, in and out of school, of Gerald Provan, a child whose mother indulges and cossets him, perhaps as a counterbalance for the absence of his father – though it was not uncommon for mothers of that generation to favour sons unduly. Gerald’s younger sister, Senga, is under no illusions as to Gerald’s unpleasantness as she has to bear its brunt at home. Mr Alfred’s mistake in striking Gerald in class becomes the source of the abiding resentment of and animosity towards Alfred of both son and mother.

A particular example of Scottish perceptions lies in the incidental exchange, “‘How is she qualified to improve anybody?’ Mr Alfred asked.
“I told you,’ said Mr Dale. ‘She’s English,’” which speaks volumes.

We also have, “Scotch reserve looked askance on kissing even between kin.”

An odd interpolation comes with the passages concerning the doomed relationship between relatively well-to-do Graeme Roy and the working class Martha Weipers, whose respective parents disapprove of the liaison. Both go on to University but while Martha does well Graeme fails his first year exams. Neither was taught by Mr Alfred but Martha’s sister, Rose, is in his first girls’ class and he forms too close an attachment to her, sending her to buy his lunch, rewarding her with pocket money, inviting her to his classroom at lunchtime. While he is aware such relationships can overstep the boundaries of decent behaviour he shies away from the thought – or act – of exploiting theirs in any sexual way. His conduct is nevertheless highly unprofessional and it provides the two Provans with the perfect excuse to accuse him. He is forced out to another, rougher, school – a Primary – and his descent accelerates.

Much of the latter part of the book sees Mr Alfred wandering the streets at night pondering the writing on the wall, a host of graffiti asserting different gang allegiances, each name followed by the words YA BASS. This sense of societal breakdown had been presaged by Gerald Provan’s encouragement of after-school fights in the Weavers Lane, the casual psychological cruelty he and his cohorts visit on Granny Lyons, their baiting of and petty theft from Italian shopkeeper Mr Ianello, and is accentuated when Mr Alfred witnesses encounters between gangs in broad daylight. Alfred even takes up chalk himself to reproduce that original writing on the wall, MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN, in a cri-de-coeur against Philistinism. This protest is only too redolent of Alfred’s estrangement from the world he inhabits, an estrangement mirrored in the text by Friel’s use of uncommon words – kyphosis, pandiculating, messan, raniform, poplitic, ophidian, invulting, claudication, lycorexia, perlustration, battology, nuchal, diplopia, prosthodontia, pyknophrasia, and indeed by the untranslated reference to Belshazzar’s Feast above. Alfred’s subsequent arrest leads to a psychologist pronouncing him to be suffering from a whole list of phobias.

While the book is rooted in Scottishness – or at least in the experiences of the Glasgow conurbation – Alfred’s feeling of dissatisfaction with the world as it turned out has a more universal resonance.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction: “she borde the kitchen” (the book’s text had borded.) Otherwise; “she borded the kitchen sink (bordered?) “you hands” (your hands,) comming up (coming up,) invulting (I can’t find a definition of this,) lushus (of a blonde, but why not luscious?) Mr Briggs’ (Mr Briggs’s,) “so remoted from the world’s slow stain,” (is an awkward way to phrase it. Was it perhaps meant to be so removed from the world?) broadshouldered (not one word surely? Or at least hyphenated,) the Garelochhead (Garelochhead is a village/town, it does not require a ‘the’ before it,) apotrapaic (apotropaic,) Mr Brigg’s (Mr Briggs’s,) Pythagoras’ theorem (Pythagoras’s,) a missing full stop.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun

I was attracted to this book by its title, which appears to indicate a fairy tale or children’s story containing a moral. (Compare, for example, The Little Engine That Could.) That it was written by a Korean only confirmed my desire to read it as I had never sampled Korean fiction before. Given the story’s allegorical/fabular nature (though the illustrations are resolutely realistically sketched with the odd hint of Japanese style) I doubt it is representative of the country’s fiction writers: more so as the author is primarily a poet.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is an exploration of the latter stages of the life cycle of a salmon. Its main protagonist is Silver Salmon, so-called because he does not have the usual dark upper body colouring but is easily visible to predators from above and thus requires to be surrounded by the shoal in order to protect him. (The author makes the claim that Pacific salmon shoals in the necessary formation resemble downed Boeing 747 aircraft.) Other named fish include Clear-Eyed Salmon, with whom Silver Salmon is mutually in love, the shoal leader, Big-Mouth Salmon, and a misfit, Bent-Back Salmon. The Green River, the shoal’s homing grounds, is also sentient and capable of speech.

Talking animal stories are always in some sense about human behaviour otherwise there would be little point in writing or reading them but I must admit I found the concept of salmon being in love a bit of a stretch. Prior to this development of their relationship Silver Salmon tells Clear-Eyed Salmon that he sees little point in a goal in life that consists solely in the laying of eggs but of course a salmon’s destiny is to circle back to its beginning.

The tale outlines the problems the salmon encounter on their life’s journey, and the fact that their greatest foe is humanity. The crux of the tale comes when they are faced by the rapids in the Green River and discover the opportunity to avail themselves of a human provided fish ladder. In the shoal’s discussions on how to proceed Silver Salmon says, “If we start by taking the easy way then our children will naturally want to follow in our footsteps, and soon it will be the only way they know. But if we leap up over the rapids, then our legacy will instead be all the suffering and joy of that single moment, the fear and exhilaration of putting everything at risk.” Here is our moral laid out.

The book is enhanced by occasional illustrations but the tense in the text changes from past to present and back again seemingly at random, sometimes within the same sentence. I assume this is a reflection of the original Korean and is intended. It certainly helps to give a sense of disjunction. It is a neat touch though that the book’s structure exactly mirrors a salmon’s life cycle.

A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1987, 410 p.

The novel starts off on the planet Valedon but is mostly set on its aquatic satellite, Shora, inhabited for centuries solely by women. They wear no clothes since they spend a lot of time in the moon-spanning ocean and have a bluish tinge due to microbes which, in the aquatic environment, help them to maintain breath. In contrast to Valedon – a world where the usual vices of political power are prevalent and which seems to be a militarily directed society – life on Shora is peaceable, its values based on sharing learning, and where the highest form of punishment is Unspeaking (that is, sending someone to Coventry.) They are also capable of a state known as whitetrance, a type of withdrawal where their hearts slow almost to death. The Shorans live on rafts of plant material floating on the water’s surface and have an appreciation of the interactions between all the life-forms – beneficial or seemingly inimical – that make up Shora’s web of life. They also have a deep knowledge of biology and genetics and a plant-based means of expressing new organisms quickly.

Traders from Valedon – sometimes known pejoratively as malefreaks – have been present on Shora for years and Berenice Hyalite – known on Shora as Nisi – has come to a deep understanding of its way of life. Her father set up the trading post but she reports back to the rulers of Valedon. There is some interplay between Valans and Shorans on whether the others are really human with respect to each other but all the characters present as recognisably so to the reader. Berenice’s fiancé Realgar is a military man, and he is given the command of the Valedon forces sent to Shora to bring it fully under control.

The novel is thus set up to explore the mutual incomprehension of the military mindset and the habitual, instinctive, non-violence of the Shorans. It can therefore be read as a feminist work but is equally parsable as a Science Fictional exploration of a different approach to life’s challenges. In A Door Into Ocean Slonczewski is exploring an alternative way of being human. This is partly territory pioneered by the late lamented Ursula Le Guin. Slonczewski is no Le Guin but is good enough to be going on with.

Pedant’s corner:- laniard (lanyard,) “Berenice like to absorb” (the rest of the paragraph was in past tense, so, Berenice liked,) maw (mouth was implied, a maw is a stomach,) sunk (sank,) shined (shone,) octopi (octopuses, or, octopodes, but since we’re on an alien planet, octopods,) sprung (sprang,) “I could take take pills” (only one take needed,) “‘You could to that?’” (do that,) brusk (brusque,) langauge (language,) “more that she let on” (than she let on,) “was kept with in raftwood” (within,) strategem (stratagem,) collander (colander,) waked up (woken up,) automatons (strictly, automata.)

The Shipbuilders by George Blake

B&W Publishing, 1993, 267 p. First Published 1935. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The sentence, “Not a single order was on the books,” tolls through the first chapter of this novel, reflecting the thoughts of Leslie Pagan, son of the owner of Pagan’s shipyard. It is the day the last ship on the blocks, the Estramadura, is launched. His father is reluctant to acknowledge it but Leslie sees the necessity of laying off all but the fitting-out crew and foresees the end of the yard as a whole. Events are also seen through the eyes of Danny Shields, a riveter in the yard and Pagan’s batman from the Great War. These perspectives allow Blake to explore two Glasgows, the milieus of both the more than comfortably well-off and the working class. In that latter aspect, The Shipbuilders has echoes of No Mean City, set around the same time, but it is much better written.

Both men have domestic problems, Leslie’s English wife Blanche hates Glasgow and wants to move back south, not least as their son, John, is in delicate health. As the novel progresses Danny becomes increasingly estranged from his wife Agnes who gravitates to the world of her sister Lizzie and her upwardly mobile husband Jim. Danny’s life is lightened by his relationship with his other son Billy and very young daughter, who is always referred to, strangely, as Wee Mirren but his oldest son Peter, jobless, falls into bad company.

The importance of football as a means of temporary escape is given due emphasis – especially in the descriptions of a Rangers-Celtic game and of the deliberations gone into over the filling of the weekly pools coupon – as is that of alcohol, whose allure and drawbacks are given equal weight. At a regimental reunion Pagan wonders, “did the drink produce false illusions of grandeur, or did it merely stir the things, fine and foolish, that lay dormant in every man?”

In the end though, this is an elegy to a lost way of life (a theme I was to mine myself in my short story SHIFT, published in Spectrum SF 3, 2000.) On the Estramadura’s trip downriver to its sea trials Pagan witnessed, “the high tragic pageant of the Clyde.” Through his eyes, Blake details the litany of empty shipyards lining the banks of the river, “all the acquired and inherited loveliness of artistry rotting along the banks of the stream .…. The fall of Rome was a trifle in comparison …. How in God’s name could such a great thing, such a splendid thing, be destroyed?” Describing the town at the base of Dumbarton Rock where lay Denny’s yard, bringer of the turbine to Clyde shipbuilding, as “mean” is perhaps a little harsh, though – but only a little.

Leslie’s intense appreciation of his Scottish roots is exemplified when on travelling back to Glasgow on the train from a trip south he notes that it is, “Queer … how definitely the fact of nationality asserts itself even in the matters of landscape and domestic architecture.” It still cannot alter the ineluctable arc of history. “Now one man and a boy, working a machine, could do in the way of making hatches, what it used to take fourteen craftsmen to do.”

The use of the word dago, and descriptions of other characters as Jews show the unexamined attitudes and thoughtlessness of the time when The Shipbuilders was written.

This is a fine book, thoughtful and sympathetic to its characters.

Pedant’s corner:- sauvity (suavity), the Dumbarton Road (multiple instances of Glasgow streets’ names prefixed by “the” are in the text. I have never experienced this usage, it’s always just been “Dumbarton Road” or “Great Western Road”, no “the”,) steadfastness (stedfastness?) coupoon (coupon,) “it has done with” (context suggests “it was done with”,) “a CPR Iiner” (liner,) filagree (filigree,) strategem (stratagem,) the ref and linesmen have khaki jackets (the officials possibly wore blazers rather than uniforms back in those days,) “knawed at his subconscience” (gnawed, and subconscious, I would think,) workshies (earlier written as workshys,) once-more (once more,) portentiously (portentously?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “There was need to begin again” (there was a need.) “The fact at the drinks were served to him” (the fact that the drinks,) “children guzzled and champed” (chomped?)

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2011, 395 p.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English, having an affair with Rachel, the wife of his head of department, Fergus Baine. Murray is about to go on sabbatical to research the life and untimely death by drowning of all-but-forgotten poet Archie Lunan. He also has a complicated relationship with his brother, Jack, an artist who is mining the dementia of their father for his art.

Watson’s researches take him to the ex-department head, Professor James, who knew Lunan in his youth, and suggests Blaine had greater knowledge of the poet than he admits to, and to the island of Lismore off which Lunan died and where Lunan’s lover, Christie Graves, still lives. She wrote a book in the aftermath of Lunan’s death of which Professor James says, “I think it had something better than authenticity. It had integrity, and that’s all the truth we can ever hope for.”

On the island, with some input from his B&B proprietrix Mrs Dunn and Graves’s more-or-less unwilling assistance, Watson untangles the circumstances of Lunan’s death and Blaine’s connection to them.

The book is readable enough but in the end becomes an uneasy crossover of a novel of contemporary manners and crime story. Still, Welsh has an eye for characterization and description.

Pedant’s corner:- Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) “maybe she had always intended to it end like this” (it to end like this; or, to end it like this,) “a new wave of Scottish poets were throwing off the class-consciousness, self-obsession and non-poetic subject matter of the previous generation” (a new wave was throwing off,) “the management were simply optimistic business would pick up” (the management was optimistic,) “watched them slide slowly through the yellow viscous, like migrating stars” (the viscous what? Viscous is an adjective, not a noun,) “a root aboot in” (about,) “the Great Western road” (it’s always just been Great Western Road, no “the”,) “the prospect of whole new exhibition” (a whole new,) politeness’ (politeness’s,) rawl plugs (rawlplugs,) Meilke (elsewhere always Meikle,) “had hung himself” (hanged,) Reeves’ (Reeves’s,) fleur-de-lis (it was plural, so, fleurs-de-lis, or fleurs-de-lys,) sung (sang,) “the way another women” (either other women, or, another woman,) sunk (sank,) “the Barralands Ballroom” (is often pronounced that way but is actually Barrowlands,) an extraneous single end quote mark, “a homemade stigmata” (stigmata is plural, one of them would be a stigma.) “He’s been one of” (He’d been,) “‘Aren’t I?’” (the speaker was Scots, so, ‘Amn’t I?’) “Murray dropped their speed to crawl” (to a crawl.)

Adam Blair by John Gibson Lockhart

Also known as “Some Passages in the Life of Adam Blair, Minister of the Gospel at Cross-Meikle.”
The Saltire Society, 2007, 172 p, plus xxii p Introduction by Ian Campbell and vi p Notes.
One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Adam Blair cover

This book squarely targets that intersection of Scottish life with religion which so firmly shaped the national character during the centuries of the Calvinist ascendancy – not always to the good. A critic quoted in the introduction (which again it is wise to avoid till after the book itself has been read) says its characters are “earnestly attached to a religion which makes little appeal to taste, and rejects every allurement of art,” while another opines that “Lockhart feels that in destroying the presence (or indeed the possibility) of beauty in the services of the national church the Scottish Reformers damaged the national imagination.” Yet there is a glimmer of salvation to be found as the book proceeds to its close, its unfolding providing signs of a first crack in that edifice of stern righteousness in the attitude of the populace to a fall from grace.

First published in 1822, Adam Blair is, like the works of Lockhart’s father-in-law Walter Scott, to modern eyes over-written. It also has an odd approach with regard to the placement of commas. Parenthetically Lockhart provides a comment on the passing of time with the thought, “in those days, Scottish widows and Scottish grandmothers were not a whit ashamed of being dressed like widows and grandmothers.”

The book’s focus is almost entirely on Adam Blair, minister of the parish of Cross-Meikle, situated somewhere in the Argyll/Dunbartonshire area. At the novel’s beginning, Blair’s wife has just died and is buried in the churchyard, her body lying beside their three dead children. Other characters appear but are not explored in any depth at all. Even his surviving daughter Sarah is only a fleeting presence. The measure of consolation Blair finds in his daily act of worship, shared in by the whole household, is shown in all its bleak stoicism.

Change begins to come with the arrival at Cross-Meikle of Mrs Blair’s cousin Charlotte, a woman with a colourful past – including a divorce from the young man she had eloped with and who in turn ran off with an Italian opera singer. Her devotion to Sarah commends her to Blair and when she rescues Sarah from drowning his gratitude is effusive. Wagging tongues promote Charlotte’s father to demand her return to the family home, despite Blair’s protestations of innocence. His decision to follow her there provokes the novel’s crisis point. Four lines of eight asterisks begin Chapter 14, masking the exact nature of Blair’s lapse but we are in no doubt as to what it was. He confesses his sin to the Glasgow Presbytery and is stripped of his pastoral role. The interesting thing is the response of his parishioners; not condemnation, but understanding. His subsequent taking of a cottage in the town and working the land is seen as a confirmation of his belonging to the community and a penance beyond duty.

The story of Blair, his struggles with and against his conscience, is an illustration of the hold Calvinism exerted on the Scottish psyche, its baleful effects and meagre consolations. One of the 100 best Scottish novels? Yes, in terms of the significance of its subject matter to the Scottish historical identity.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction; “the two or three across of land” (acres of land. This is correct in the actual text in the book!) The introduction also quotes the same passage twice, the second time in a longer form, and has an extraneous single end quotation mark plus a varied approach to the placing of the numbers indicating a footnote. In the Notes; Jesus’ (Jesus’s.) Otherwise; as in Scott we have shrunk for shrank, rung for rang, sunk for sank, sung for sang; Benlomond (now always written Ben Lomond,) “a fine herd of cattle were passing” (a herd was passing,) faultered (faltered. Is faultered an archaic spelling?) “The family sit” (the family sits,) “in twos arid threes” (twos and threes; is this possibly a compositor’s misreading of the original handwritten manuscript?) “A merry party were busy curling on the ice” (a merry party was busy,) “fourthly and lady, the gay lady” (context demands “fourthly and lastly” – another compositor’s misreading?) “Mrs Ardens beautiful face” (Arden’s,) Loch-Fine (nowadays spelled Loch Fyne,) bosomn (bosom,) Pere la Chaise (Père Lachaise,) scorm (scorn,) “beneath then” (beneath them,) boundlng (bounding,) roundedwith (rounded with,) Camnpbell (Campbell,) “what he most do” (must do,) “in few minutes” (in a few minutes,) “waive of his hand” (wave,) perfecfly (perfectly,) imme diately (immediately,) “not with, out some suspicion” (not without,) a missing full stop.

The Stone Sky by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2017, 423 p.

Like The Fifth Season, the first in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, this last instalment has a three-fold structure. Again, the sections focused on Essun are narrated in the second person, while those featuring her daughter Nassun are, as in The Obelisk Gate, in third person. The third strand here, set in Syl Anagist and counting down from Four to Zero, is a first person historical (in the overall trilogy’s terms) account of how the orogenes, who can manipulate matter and temperature to initiate or quell earth movements, came into existence. The first page of the prologue refers to fossilized insects – “a whole that can only be inferred from fragments” – and is suggestive that this is how we as readers may decode the text of the complete story. Once again though, as in The Fifth Season, this final book’s architecture is a bit of a trick played by the author as it eventually becomes clear exactly who it is who is narrating each strand.
As far as resolution is concerned, the Syl Anagist project to use a Plutonic Engine to exploit the Earth by improving on the talents of a group of people known as the Neiss backfired when the Earth – as a living organism itself – having lost the Moon by the engine’s operation got its own back on its troublesome inhabitants by initiating the seasons. The Moon, with a huge chasm reaching right through it – is now on its orbital return and Essun wants to use the obelisks to recapture it in order to placate the Earth and so end the seasons. Nassun, whose natural orogenic talents far outweigh her mother’s has other ideas. She simply wants to destroy everything.

There is “no need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment” would seem to be a comment on slavery (or even patriarchy.) There are too, grace notes such as naming two incidental characters Oegin and Ynegen. I also liked the coinages magestry and biomagestry.

Jemisin pulled off an unlikely hat-trick in securing the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the successive books in The Broken Earth. While the second instalment dipped in quality – perhaps inevitably since it was in effect the middle third of a larger narrative – the narrative dexterity and skill deployed in the first and third books certainly betoken a story telling talent of a high order. Her invented world, while not really bearing scrutiny at the level of actual possibility (it is Science Fiction though, predicated on at least one at present impossible thing – but perhaps more akin to fantasy in the level of its various impossibilities,) has been thought through and as an imaginative response to the lived history of prejudice against slaves and their descendants, all while embedded in a tale which impels the reader on with – among the extravagances – rounded characters who struggle and bicker, love and lose in the most interesting of times, is an impressive achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “none of us understand” (none of us understands,) “‘The potential for significant gains are why you will go’” (the potential for significant gains is why you will go,) “to not shake her head” (not to shake her head,) force-march (forced-march.) “None of them care.” (None of them cares.) “None of them are angry” (none is angry,) tableaus (tableaux,) “chewed up in its maw” (a maw is a stomach and hence can have no teeth,) “imagine that disaster times two hundred and fifty-six” (imagine that disaster multiplied by two hundred and fifty-six,) “like a child willing the monster under the bed to not exist” (like a child willing the monster under the bed not to exist,) “a low, bone-shaking blat” (context implies blast.)

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey

Penguin Popular Classics, 1997, 265 p, including Original Preface (7 p,) Preface to the Collected Edition (4 p,) The Daughter of Lebanon (6 p,) Appendix (9 p.) First published 1821-22. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater cover

I doubt I would have read this had it not been in that list of 100 best Scottish books but what place it has in such a list I have no idea. While describing the author’s peregrinations through England – taking in Manchester, London and the Lake District – and Wales there is nothing at all to indicate any sense of Scottishness within it. The only mention of the place is in a footnote which states that from Hammerfest in Norway in the north to Naples and Gibraltar in the south “Glasgow … is the one dearest place for lodgings known to man.” What in Edinburgh “could be had for half a guinea a week, in Glasgow cost one guinea.” De Quincey did spend the latter part of his life living in Edinburgh but I’m not sure that allows this work, even if it is a seminal piece of autobiography, to be claimed as Scottish.

The footnotes are copious and include the information that filibustier is the original and, De Quincey asserts correct, spelling of filibuster and that the word objective in the sense of dispassionate was almost unknown in 1821. (This last must be a footnote to the collected edition of 1856.)

The prose is of its time and to modern eyes appears long-winded. As with Walter Scott it takes getting used to but once attuned is straightforward enough.

The main interest lies I suppose in the author’s use of opium which he took originally in order to relieve a toothache and the effects of which he asserts were not addictive – to him at any rate. He takes issue with Coleridge over the suggested drawbacks of opium use and contrasts the drug with alcohol. “Whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in the proper manner) introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony. Wine robs a man of his self-possession, opium sustains and reinforces it ….. most men are disguised by sobriety, and exceedingly disguised; and it is when they are drinking that men display themselves in their true complexion of character.” However discussion of opium does not begin until more than two-thirds through, the early parts of the book giving a blow by blow account of his schooling – and dropping out – and his penniless sojourns in the streets of London.

Other concerns intrude at times, “If in this world there is one misery having no relief, it is the pressure on the heart from the Incommunicable,” which is of a piece with sentiments expressed both in Time Was and I Capture the Castle which I read immediately prior to this.

However, De Quincey’s implicit reproof of others in his statement that, “at no time of my life have I been a person to hold myself polluted by the touch or approach of any creature that wore a human shape,” sits uneasily with his aspersions elsewhere on those who did not adhere to Christian beliefs or did not live in these islands – and even some of those: “Wales, as is pretty well known, breeds a population somewhat litigious. I do not think worse of them for that.” To which I immediately posed myself the question, what does he think the worse of them for, then?

A historical curiosity. But one more struck off that list.

Pedant’s corner:- Due to the book’s antiquity 19th century spellings are fairly prevalent; eg Shakspere for Shakespeare. Most page numbers are in large print at the top left (even pages) or right (odd pages) margin but pages 13 and 249 are in small print centred at the bottom,) “the whole race of man proclaim” (the race proclaims,) “the household at the Priory were released” (the household was released,) “the brother Talbots” (the brothers Talbot,) “by-the-bye” (by-the-by,) an opened but unclosed parenthesis on page198, parantheses (parentheses.)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Virago Modern Classics, 2003, 346 p plus vii p Introduction by Valerie Grove. First published 1949.

I Capture the Castle cover

This is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, whose reclusive father – a writer of a succès d’estime called Jacob Wrestling but whose experimentation has been overtaken by others and now suffers from writer’s block – and whose family, sister Rose, step-mother Topaz (a former model given to roaming the local hill at midnight while naked) and brother Thomas along with lodger Stephen live in Godsend Castle in a fair degree of penury. Strictly speaking, since it is written in three sections, The Sixpenny Book, The Shilling Book and the Two-Guinea Book, these are the journals.

Much is made of Cassandra’s speed-writing – which helps to keep her secrets – and the journals do mostly read like the jottings of a girl on the cusp of adulthood (she writes, “‘I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them,’” and the introduction says one critic described Cassandra as a young girl ‘poised between childhood and adultery’ which to my mind is going a bit far; she seems too in control of herself for that,) but there are occasional subtle signs of true authorial interjection nudging the whole into the form of a structured story. Smith apparently laboured mightily over the details of the book.

The early parts reminded me strongly of the Sunday afternoon TV serial of long ago, giving it a kind of familiarity, we know there is going to be an element of star-crossed love somewhere; but that is to some extent misleading, I Capture the Castle is also undoubtedly its own thing. The title may derive from Cassandra’s early habit of stating she wishes to capture a particular character or other in prose but she (or Smith) soon gives up on the phraseology.

After the laying out of the family’s straitened circumstances, the daily grind of making do, things begin to change when half-brothers Neil and Simon Cotton from the US inherit nearby Scoatney Hall, to whose owners the rent of Godsend Castle is due. They come upon the Mortmains inadvertently and seem to be intrigued.

To be sure, what will then transpire appears to be laid on tram-lines and somewhat predictable, especially Cassandra’s lack of full awareness of the extent of Stephen’s regard for her. But that, I would assume, is precisely the point. Cassandra is supposed to be not yet worldly-wise. Smith, of course, isn’t unaware of it at all and does, to a degree, subvert the expectations.

To Cassandra’s and Rose’s minds Simon’s beard makes him resemble a devil but despite her initial desperate flirtation with him (she has already said she would do anything to escape poverty) he eventually becomes enamoured of Rose, giving the novel’s plot its drive. Both Simon and his mother are familiar with James’s novel and enquire as to his current work, thus sending him scuttling back to his study. Yet much to Topaz’s discomfiture Mrs Collins eventually manages to encourage James out of his writer’s block.

It is Simon, though, who brings Cassandra out of her rawness, playing her music she is unfamiliar with and telling her that, “art could state very little – that its whole business is to evoke responses.”

Evoking responses is something Smith does well here. This book must (have) be(en) irresistibly enchanting to adolescent girls but also has its recommendations to other readers.

Pedant’s corner:- on the cover blurb; dessicated (desiccated.) Otherwise; missing commas before quote marks at the start of a piece of direct speech (numerous instances,) “we were gloriously bloat” (nowadays that would more usually be rendered bloated.)

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