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Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin

Salt, 2014, 246 p.

 Ghost Moon  cover

Curiously that’s two books in quick succession where the main character has been named Maggie. Here it is one Maggie Davies, though in the care home where she endures her declining months she is known as Maggie Stewart.

The story is told in interleaved sections. Those which recount from his point of view the visits of Maggie’s son Tom to his uncomprehending, dementia suffering mother, are always headed Sunday (though, one, on Maggie’s birthday actually occurs on a Monday,) and other, longer, numbered chapters tell the story of the life which led her there; a life not exactly flashing before her eyes but recollected in non-tranquillity. The final chapter, titled Sunday Afternoon, interweaves paragraphs from the two time-lines as the end nears.

Maggie spent the post-Second World War years seeing her twenties fade into thirty without attracting an admirer and fell prey to the dubious charms of the first man who gave her some attention only to be promptly dumped. When the inevitable happened, her parents threw her out. She travelled to Lewis to the home of family acquaintances but, forewarned, they also treat her with disdain and contempt. Only in a guest-house does she encounter any warmth, when she and the landlady’s war-blinded son, Michael, fall for each other. Lewis is a small place, though, and her secret causes her to be thrown out from there too. Returning to Edinburgh, it is only her sister-in-law, Jean, who shows her any compassion or sympathy. She struggles to find a job in her unmarried condition and she is little better treated at Woodstock House where she contracts to be confined and for her child to be looked after until she can get on her feet. Butlin really brings out the utter callousness of “polite” society at this time towards those who had made a mistake or been too innocent – or both. Only her correspondence with Michael, carried out via his best friend, and her visits to Woodstock House to see Tom give her any comfort. When Michael contrives to travel to Edinburgh it seems a happy ending might be in store – but we know from the ‘Sunday’ sections this will not be forthcoming.

This is a wonderfully written slice of an aspect of social history and a blazing indictment of those blinded to compassion and consideration by self-righteousness.

Pedant’s corner:- Jenners doorway – later Jenners’ doorway (Jenners’s,) Queens Crescent (Queen’s Crescent – used later,) Mrs Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) “that the woman’s heart being turned over” (that the woman’s heart was being turned over,) Miss Davies’ (Davies’s.) “The Forth Road Bridge was a cat’s cradle of red” (the Road Bridge has never been red and wasn’t built till the early 1960s: this part of the novel was set in 1950. The Forth Bridge – the rail bridge, which requires no such distinguishing adjective and was completed in 189o – was meant,) “to start to paying Jean back” (to start paying Jean back,) “would would stop her” (only one ‘would’ needed,) an opening quote mark which wasn’t necessary as it was a descriptive passage, not dialogue, “in her wellingtons boots” either, ‘in her Wellingtons’, or, ‘in her wellington boots’.)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1979, 286 p. First published in 1813.

Pride and Prejudice cover

Again, as with Sense and Sensibility, it is difficult to assess this novel without being influenced by prior knowledge, the number of TV and film adaptations which make the plot familiar.

The novel’s register requires easing into, its famous opening line “It is a truth universally acknweledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” designed to draw the reader in, but undoubtedly more pithy than many of the following sentences. But you don’t approach a two hundred year-old novel expecting brevity.

Austen has a reputation for dialogue and indeed her touch is sharp here but it is striking how often speech is reported (some of Mr Colllins’s meanderings for example) rather than being direct. There are wonderful characterisations – the skewering of hypocritical, sycophantic clergy in Mr Collins, Lydia’s air-headedness, the lack of awareness and tact of Mrs Bennet, Mr Bennet’s resignation to, but irritation with, “silly” female company, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s sense of entitlement. Yet Mr Bingley is almost a cipher, his sisters hardly more than plot devices, and Jane Bennet’s reserved nature scarcely makes her leap off the page. But that is the fate of relatively minor characters in any book.

The heart of the book is of course pride and prejudice, the “First Impressions” that was Austen’s working title for the book; Lizzie Bennet’s on Darcy’s first disparaging her, his seeming aloofness and regard for his station in life, her initial credulity of Mr Wickham due to his appearance and ease of manner. Warnings still.

Lizzie’s statement, whether a joke or not, that her affection for Darcy arose, “‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,’” coloured by Darcy’s letter of angry rebuttal of her accusations against him regarding his treatment of Wickham, is grounded in her reflections as she toured the estate with her aunt and uncle. A single young man in possession of a good fortune indeed has certain advantages.

There is only one direct mention of the Napoleonic Wars – raging at the time Austen was writing – and it is on the penultimate page, “even when the restoration of peace dismissed them,” but then her concern was not with world affairs but rather with human nature and interactions (which are timelessly recognisable) and with the habits and mores of the time.

Pedant’s corner:- many archaic or Austenian spellings [develope, exstacy, ancle, synonimously, skreens, stopt, stile (style,) recal, staid (stayed,) mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) unfrequently, sprung (sprang,) dependant, “all had ate” (eaten,) chaperon (chaperone,) uncontrouled, Kenelworth (Kenilworth,) East Bourne (Eastbourne,) laught, intreaty, expences, the same flip-flopping between ‘chuse’ and ‘choose’ as was evident in Sense and Sensibility.]
Otherwise; “the Miss Lucases”, “the Miss Bennets”, “the Miss Webbs” (the names here are in effect adjectives. The noun is Miss, whose plural is Misses, hence we ought to have ‘the Misses Lucas’, ‘the Misses Bennet’, ‘the Misses Webb’. After all, the plural of ‘Bennet sister’ is not ‘Bennets sister’,)
A closing quotation mark without an opening one anywhere in the paragraph preceding it, “the whole party were still standing” (the whole party was ..,) Mrs Philips’ (Philips’s, two lines earlier there was Philips’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the whole party have left” (has left,) Grosvenor street (Street,) “the whole family were indebted” (the whole .. was indebted,) “to stay supper” (to stay to supper.)

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2018, 393 p.

 Rosewater cover

Rosewater was a nominee for the BSFA Award last year and won the Clarke Award. Its successor The Rosewater Insurrection is on this year’s BSFA Award short list. As I hope to get round to reading that before voting I thought I’d better look at this first.

Rosewater is a doughnut-shaped city that surrounds the biodome, an alien outcropping in Nigeria. The biodome opens once every year for twenty or thirty minutes and everyone in the vicinity is cured of all physical ailments. Even dead people can be reanimated, but the results tend to be soulless and mindless, and have to be killed again.

Narrator Kaaro is a sensitive, able to discern the thoughts of others by accessing the xenosphere, strands of alien fungi-like filaments and neurotransmitters, which link with the natural fungi on human skin and penetrate the nervous system. His abilities have made him useful to S45, a branch of the Nigerian security services. He is also a finder, and a thief. Later his abilities are referred to as those of a quantum extrapolator. He is also a misogynist and sexist, notwithstanding his entering a relationship with a woman called Aminat. Not that strong women are missing in the book, his initial S45 boss, Femi Alaagomeji, and Aminat being cases in point.

The novel is structured into scenes taking place in Kaaro’s Now of 2066, the Then of when the biodome first appeared and its subsequent evolution, and interludes describing his previous missions for S45. This tends to render the reading experience as bitty. Just when getting into the swing of things in one timeline we are jarred out of it, often with a cliffhanger. Coming across in the background we find that the thing humans call Wormwood was an amœbic blob of alien organic matter that fell to Earth in 2012 in Hyde Park, London. Unlike previous such incursions, Wormwood survived and (apparently) tunnelled its way to Nigeria.

Not that it has any real connection to any part of Kaaro’s story, but we are informed that in this world, as a response to the alien incursions, the US has withdrawn into itself, letting nothing in or out, not even information.

At the start of the book Kaaro has a job protecting a bank’s customers from the attentions of other sensitives out to steal their information. This is one of the hares Thompson sets running but never quite catches. There is the biodome itself, the appearance of a character known as Bicycle Girl or Oyin Da, and, in an apparent signal to a thriller subplot that never arrives, sensitives are dying. In the wider xenosphere, where reality is very distorted, Kaaro uses a gryphon as an avatar. Aminat’s brother, Layi, is kept chained in her flat to prevent him burning things using his own xenospheric power.

As can perhaps be gleaned from the previous paragraph there is too much going on in the novel which, as a result, fails to achieve focus. Thompson can undoubtedly write but hasn’t yet found the virtue of economy. Quite why Rosewater has been accorded the accolades it has is therefore a bit obscure.

Pedant’s corner:- “crimes perpetuated in the xenosphere” (crimes perpetrated,) “Ascomytes xenophericus” (elsewhere Ascomytes xenosphericus,) smoothes (smooths,) “amuses me to no end” (‘to no end’ means ‘without purpose’, ‘amuses me no end’ [‘no end’ = infinitely] was meant,) aircrafts “OK it was in dialogue but the plural of aircraft is aircraft.) “None of the people around me are harmed” (None …is harmed.) “None of them want to live in the refugee camps” (None of them wants to live….)

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Hodder, 2019, 292 p.

 Trail of Lightning  cover

Roanhorse is something of a rarity as an SF author. She may not be the first writer of Native American heritage to write SF and Fantasy but I confess if she isn’t I can’t recall reading any others. That heritage infuses Trail of Lightning, the first in a series of tales.

Narrator Maggie Hoskie is a Navajo, or Diné as they call themselves. Their former reservation is now a bastion against an outside world devastated by an environmental catastrophe referred to as the Big Water. Known to its inhabitants as Dinétah, the Diné’s land is protected by a Wall and there are few incomers. Despite the outer world being largely drowned, Dinétah is suffering from a prolonged drought. Water is one of the many scarcities, coffee an almost impossible luxury.

We first meet Maggie when her help is enlisted by a family whose daughter has been abducted by a monster. Somewhat reluctantly, Maggie, who has what the book calls clan powers – one of hers is to be taken over at times of stress by K’aahanáanii, a source of speed in movement, liable to be useful in a fight – takes on the task of finding the abducted girl. She reaches her too late, though, as she has already been infected by the monster and cannot be returned to her parents intact. The killings of the monster and the girl are only the first of many in the book.

Maggie’s training in the ways of her powers had been undertaken by a man called Neizghání, said to be an immortal (as opposed to the ‘five-fingered’ normal humans.) Maggie may still be in love with him. She is certainly tormented by his disappearance after an earlier incident.

Maggie’s only other friend, a medicine man called Tah, introduces her to his grandson, Kai Arviso, (who is Big Medicine, with healing powers – and silvery eyes.) Reluctantly Maggie takes him along on her quest to defeat the monsters and find Neizghání. Along the way we are treated to what is in effect a supercharged cage fight – to the death.

One of the story’s fantastical apparitions, Coyote, is a familiar figure in Native American folklore. He met Maggie, “before the end of the Fifth World, when my kind still lived mostly in the dreams of the five-fingered people,” and persists in annoying her by calling her Magdalena. Always dressed like one of those be-suited gents in cowboy films, Coyote is one of the book’s more intriguing, if elusive, characters but his interest in Maggie is for purposes of his own.

Some authorial hand-waving is evident when Coyote, also known to the Diné as Ma’ii, at one point says, “This last flood, the one you call the Big Water, ended the Fifth World and began the Sixth. It opened the passage for those like myself to return to the world.” Any rationale for monsters and clan powers is otherwise absent but it is The Sixth World which gives Roanhorse’s sequence of novels its overall title.

While the Native American background makes for an unusual and welcome twist on the norm of SF and fantasy the novel’s apparent relish in weaponry and killing is more by the book and sadly typical of many practitioners of the form.

Roanhorse can write though and, relish in weaponry aside, Maggie is an engaging enough narrator.

Pedant’s corner:- there were several instances of the formulation “time interval” later. Othewise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (many times,) “that soak up the hot” (the heat,) “the evil deeds every man and woman leaves behind” (leave.) “All that ugly, the sickness, the loss and unhappiness” (is missing a noun after ugly it would seem.) “Viscera pools at his feet” (viscera pool,) “it will portent something bad” (portent is a noun, the verb is portend.) “His smiles fades” (fade,) diced chiles (chilis,) later we had ‘chilé’ (again, chili.) “None of them even look back” (None of them even looks back,) “and set in on the bar” (set it on the bar,) chamisa (chamiso.)

Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019

TTA Press, 96 p.

Interzone cover

Joanna Berry takes over the guest editor role and asks how much of themselves players take into decision making when playing video games. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda makes a plea for stories to tackle the threats of the subtle and pervasive surveillance and tracking technologies rampant in the modern world. In Climbing Stories Aliya Whiteley seeks solace from the news in films. Speedy Sci-Fi adventure won’t do but conspiracy thrillers will. She now wants to go back to the source books. In Book Zone I review Rokurō Inui’s Automatic Eve and Wole Talabi’s Incomplete Solutions welcoming both, Val Nolanb finds Duncan Lunan’s collection of stories and articles From the Moon to the Stars too fond of “rigorous maths” and primarily of interest to those who enjoyed them at time they were written, Maureen Kincaid Speller engages in hand-to-hand fighting with concepts of language and meaning in the ‘very strange’ novel Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko but concludes that is only a good thing, Jo L Waltonc heartily recommends The New Voices of Science Fiction edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman, though thinks some of the stories might be a bit too polished, Graham Sleight appreciates the quality of Ted Chiang’s stories in Exhalation (and Chiang’s previous collection) as being worth the price of their scarcity, Stephen Theaker praises the “grown-up, fiercely feminist” The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs, warns against the cover and blurb of Earwig by B Catling though he recommends it to “some readers” and says Stephen Palmer’s collection Tales from the Spired Inn is pretty much the ideal small press SF title, Ian Hunterd laments the passing of Dianne Wynne Jones as he considers her Poems while Duncan Lunan discusses the history of Dyson spheres in SF as his take on the stories in Around Alien Stars by G David Nordley.

As to the fiction;
In The Kindest God is Light by Joanna Berry a poet is engaged to provide an embodiment of humanity – warts and all – to aliens. Typographically unusual in that it involves a lot of glossed over (crossed out) inner thoughts.
She and I and We1 by Timothy Mudie is a time travel story. Poet (yes, another one) Nathaly Evariste is stalked by someone from the future who says she has come back to save her from being killed. This is no All You Zombies… or even By His Bootstraps but there’s a neat twist to the ending.
Dent-De-Lion2 by Natalia Theodorou is set on a planet to where Thomae has been sent to find a silicon plant-based cure for an endemic sickness back home. She finds it – and more.
In Parasite Art3 by David Tallerman our narrator is an artist who has gone to the planet of Culcifa to find one of the Zobe, an alien race which has appeared there and can merge with people who can then experience the Zobe’s dreams.
The Duchess of Drink Street4 by Tim Chawaga on its surface charts the relationship between a cupcake seller on the eponymous street and the food reviewer who damns those cupcakes with one word, inauthentic. With a globally flooded background featuring floating cities it is about fads, gentrification and its reverse and the elusiveness of memory.
Against a background of the end of the world in which the rich are sending samples of their hair skin and semen into space to save the species, Dream of the High Mountain5 by Daniel Bennett relates the experience of a poet (yes, a poet again) who goes on a retreat.

Pedant’s corner:- aCastells’ (Castells’s,) Aldiss’ (Aldiss’s.) b“are a series” (is a series.) c“None of the stories feel out of place” (None feels,) hijinks (high jinks.) “Much as I stan Luce, social and economic consequences of technological developments are never inevitable” (???) dJones’ (Jones’s,)
1Written in USian, “neither of you react” (neither … reacts.) 2Written in USian. 3“soon be discarded” (soon to be discarded,) “she must recognise as her and I” (as her and me.) “Conceivably we were one of its ancestors. Seeing it, my muscle memory recalls what it’s like to make those spasmodic movements” (‘descendants’ for ‘ancestors’ is the only way to make sense of this, and it would be ancestral rather than muscle memory,) canvasses (canvases?) 4Written in USian, at first I read ‘chicest part of the city’ as a misprint for ‘choicest’, but they’re much the same in meaning. “The difference in textures … work well together” (the difference works well,) “New Lagos’ greed” (New Lagos’s.) 5“‘This the survival of’” (This is the survival.) “Upon the fourth floor” (Either, ‘On the fourth floor,’ or, ‘Up on the fourth floor’,) “inside of him” (inside him, no need for an ‘of’.) “His group were among the last” (his group was among the last.)

The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma

faber and faber, 1990, 346 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat Употреба човека (Upotreba čoveka) (Nolit Belgrade, 1980) by Bernard Johnson.

The Use of Man cover

At first this book appears to have an odd structure, starting as it does with a description of Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek’s diary, as if this is to be her tale, but she is soon dead following a gall-bladder operation. Then Chapter 2 is devoted solely to descriptions of various habitations. In addition there are later chapters which deal only with descriptions of characters, or their nightly preoccupations, or their deaths – whether natural or violent.

Fräulein Drentvenšek, however, was a teacher of German and her services were much sought after in the then Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad. In her final hospital days she entrusted her diary to her Jewish pupil Vera Kroner, with instructions to burn it after she died but instead Vera inscribed it with the details of Anna’s death before replacing it on Anna’s shelves. The book is thereafter mainly concerned with the lives of four of Anna’s pupils, Vera, Milinko Božić, Sredoje Lazukić and Sep Lehnart. As these events occurred in 1940 the book becomes an exploration of the Yugoslavian experience during the Second World War. There is obvious scope here for a novelistic focus on love, sex and death. The first of those is in short supply here (perhaps it’s a luxury in a time of war and the breaking of nations) but there is plenty of the latter. Whether due to the filter of translation or the author’s own intentions sex, though, is observed in a somewhat detached manner in the book – it’s something people do (or have done to them, in Vera’s case) but never described in any detail nor as a means to joy.

Being Jewish, Vera is of course predestined to the concentration camps, which she survives in the only way one could, by endurance and luck, Sep, her cousin on her non-Jewish mother’s side, joined the SS, Milinko became a partisan, Sredoje a sexual predator. All are changed, after the war unable to settle to a life at odds with dark memories and broken minds or bodies. The utter disorientation which camp survivors must have felt is summed up by Vera’s thought on returning to her childhood home after her experiences, “It was not home at which she arrived, though it was Novi Sad.” And the war’s end is not the story’s, the idiosyncrasies of the new communist regime also have to be negotiated.

The Use of Man is both easy to read (since Tišma writes well,) yet not an easy read. The countries of central Europe and the Balkans have unenviable histories. For readers to explore those histories in fiction might be one of the best ways to prevent their repeat.

Pedant’s corner:- “he like luxury” (liked.) “In their, furnished room” (no need for the comma,) “mount of Venus” (this may be a literal translation but in English it’s ‘mound of Venus’,) heavey (heavy, unless ‘heavey’ is a word meaning ‘having to be dragged’,) a missing comma before, or at the end of, a piece of direct speech (several instances, with more of the former,) teen-agers’ (teenager’s,) “came to nought” (naught,) cozy (cosy,) willd (wild,) “she lost her husband from a bullet” (the English idiom is ‘to a bullet’,) dumfounding (dumbfounding.)

Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2004, 474 p.

 Voyageurs  cover

This formidably researched novel is set mainly in North America before and during the War of 1812 which was fought between the US and Britain (plus its Native American allies) but it is not concerned with that conflict except peripherally. The book is an example of a found manuscript, as supposedly written by Mark Greenhow, a Quaker from Cumbria – topped and tailed by an Editor’s Preface and Afterword, signed MNE, January 2003.

Greenhow was a Quaker from Cumbria. Most of his life was spent on a farm called Highside where the manuscript was ‘found’ hidden away when the ‘editor’ moved in. It reveals Mark’s life was turned upside down when his family received a letter from Canada telling them that his sister Rachel, previousy disowned from the Quaker Society of Friends for marrying her husband, Alan Mackenzie, before a priest, had disappeared somewhere in what was known as Upper Canada and therefore presumed dead. For Mark the ties of family outweighed the strictures of the Society and he resolved to go to Canada and try to find her. All his voyages (barring his final return home) as well as some incidents of his home life in the time before Rachel left for Canada are described in detail. Like most Scottish writers Elphinstone has a gift for landscape description, here deployed to convey the vastness of the North American continent and the local conditions. The customs of the time and the politics of fur-trading by the SouthWest Company are all necessary ingredients to the tale while the background to the war, whose prosecution, barring one small incident, remains off-stage, forms part of the novel’s plot as does Greenhow’s Quaker pacifism – or, I should say, his refusal to be involved in killing people.

The narrative is unavoidably tinged with Greenhow’s Quaker beliefs, with much talk of Monthly Meetings, the vanity of clothing, his soul-searching about relationships with the opposite sex and his failures fully to live up to the Society’s ideals.

A serious injury to Alan, who had additional reasons for undertaking once more the arduous journey to the island where Rachel disappeared, forces the three-man expedition to over-winter in the climate of north Lake Michigan, which even the indigenous peoples find inhospitable, and whose exigencies end up with Mark accommodating to what he considers pagan beliefs. They also bring home the unlikelihood of Rachel having survived. The sojourn also allows the three trapped men the opportunity to tell each other their life stories and so expand Elphinstone’s portrayal of their times. And far from being a hindrance Mark’s refusal to kill people ends up as an asset.

The ‘manuscript’’s text is peppered with Scots words – feart, clarty, grat – which I suppose could easily have been in the Cumbrian vocabulary in the early 19th century but will have to take on trust. And we have footnotes! Always a delight.

It is the characters, though, that shine through. Even the least is given careful consideration and expression. The puzzlement and, on being informed of its significance, the subsequent acquiescence of a local Ojibwa Chief when Mark extends his hand for shaking to seal a deal is a lovely vignette. Elphinstone makes you believe that this is really how people of this time were, and how they lived.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Acknowledgements; a capital letter after a semi-colon. Otherwise; “our line of the family have lived” (our line … has lived,) “if I ever I did” (only one ‘I’ needed,) “cost me Jaques favour” (Jaques’s,) “Kerners’ agent” (Kerners’s, though I concede it would probably not be pronounced with two ‘s’es,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s, ditto,) wigwam (from the limited descriptions in the text of the structures concerned it isn’t entirely clear whether these were in fact tepees,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “that we’re used to here” (that we were used to,) span (spun, as used later,) James’ (James’s,)

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2005, 158 p.

The Finishing School cover

On reading this I found my dissatisfaction with Spark’s writing beginning to crystallise. Clearly people find it engaging and worthwhile but to me there is something cold and detached about it, observational yes, but uninvolving. Her de haut en bas style renders her characters flat and merely going through whatever motions Spark intends for them. They don’t come alive. They certainly don’t leap off the page and into my mind.

This one all starts promisingly enough with a lecture on scene-setting in writing delivered by the joint owner of College Sunrise, the Finishing School of the title. He is Rowland Mahler who runs the place along with his wife Nina (who actually does most of the work.) One of the attendees, Chris, a seventeen year-old, is writing a novel where he speculates the death of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was instigated by a desire for revenge on the part of Jacopo, brother of David Rizzio in whose murder Darnley was deeply implicated. Rowland has aspirations to be a novelist himself but having read Chris’s first two chapters finds himself blocked and increasingly obsessed with Chris.

That first page is deceptive though and we are soon pitched into a narrative where too much is told, not shown; where information is dispensed to the reader in a way that is like reading author’s notes for characters rather than experiencing them behaving as themselves. They may have passions but we are not given the opportunity to feel them but Spark does find space to include a few sideswipes at the publishing industry.

There are some interesting ideas here but they are not fleshed out. In the end this is not so much a novel, more like a series of preliminary sketches for one. Or an extended outline.

Pedant’s corner:- wirey (the word is spelled ‘wiry’,) automatons (automata,) a missing comma before a quote (x2,) to-day (why the hyphen? It’s spelled ‘today’,) “on the grounds of imputed, activities unbefitting her one-time royal connections” (doesn’t need that comma after ‘imputed’,) “‘Is that it’s natural colour?’” (its.)

Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan

Scotland’s Football Grounds in the Black and White Era, D C Thomson Media, 2018, 257 p. With a foreword by Chick Young.

 Lifted Over the Turnstiles cover

Annfield, Bayview, Boghead, Brockville, Broomfield, Cathkin Park, Douglas Park, Firs Park, Love Street, Muirton, New Kilbowie, Shawfield, Telford Street, Kingsmills. Names to conjure with – and all gone to dust (or housing, or supermarkets.)

To Scottish football fans of a certain age (which I am) this book is a magnificent nostalgia fest. It features 41 of the historic grounds of the present day SPFL football clubs, plus two more, Shielfield (at time of publishing Berwick Rangers were still in the SPFL,) and Firs Park. The only ones missing are Peterhead’s former ground at Recreation Park and Annan Athletic’s Galabank. The criterion for inclusion in the book was that a photograph had not been widely published before or else illustrated some quirk of the ground concerned. (I was somewhat disappointed that only one photo of Boghead, former home of the mighty Sons of the Rock, appears; but I have my own memories to savour.) And of course for Inverness Caledonian Thistle you get two former grounds, Telford Street and Kingsmills. In the course of following the Sons I have visited most of the stadia here in their heydays, excepting only those belonging to the ex-Highland League clubs (though I have walked past Telford Street Park several times and even been to Clachnacuddin’s Grant Street Park in Inverness for a game – a pre-season friendly they played against East Fife; in 1976, while I was in the town.) I have frequented many over the years since.

The book is a delightful celebration of the history of the beautiful game in Scotland – and also a memorial to what has been lost. Cathkin apart, all of the grounds on the list above have been replaced by bright(ish) new(ish) stadia but most of those have yet to invoke the glories of these now mouldered (Cathkin again) or vanished (most of the rest) temples to Scotland’s abiding sporting obsession. With only one exception, Hampden, the book tends not to delve as far back as pre-World War 2, hence the absence of even longer gone grounds such as the Gymnasium, home to St Bernard’s FC, of which photographs would in any case be vanishingly scarce.

There is a 1930s, Art Decoish-looking, building in the pictures of Shawfield that I don’t remember from my only visit there and which I assume was demolished years ago. My favourite old ground, Firs Park, is shown in the days before that huge concrete wall was erected at one end to stop the ball going on to the access road to the retail park beside the ground; before, even, the office building that overlooked that end of the park in the 1970s. That other redolent relic, Cliftonhill, is shown lying in a natural bowl perfect for siting a football stadium.

The text is studded with various titbits of arcane information. Glasgow had at one time three of the biggest football grounds in the world in Hampden, Celtic Park and Ibrox. And there were plans to extend Shawfield’s capacity to add to that list of superstadia. The world’s first penalty kick was awarded against Airdrieonians (away at Royal Albert in a charity Cup match) and was scored by a James McLuggage. (Not from a penalty spot, that had yet to be invented; from any point along a line twelve yards from goal.) A WW2 pillbox was constructed at Borough Briggs with slit windows/gun ports all round (those sly Germans could after all have attacked from any direction) and remained in place till Elgin City joined the SFL in 2000. It was Ochilview which hosted the first ever floodlit match in Scotland. Falkirk once held the world record for the highest transfer fee and Brockville was the venue for the first televised floodlit game. Rugby Park used to be ‘mown’ by a resident sheep – three in total over the years. Hampden’s square goal posts now reside in St Etienne’s museum as they were held by that club to be responsible for their defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final of 1976 since two of their team’s efforts rebounded out from the goal frame instead of scraping over the line. Les poteaux carres is still used as a phrase for bad luck in the city.

Attending football matches is no longer as economical as it was back in the day. One photo shows a 20 p entrance fee at Firhill in 1970. After inflation that 20p would equate to £3 in 2018. Try getting into even a non-league ground for that now! Some things definitely were better in the good old days.

Pedant’s corner:- “the current club were established” (was established,) “the club were on the up” (the club was) sprung (sprang, x2.)

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller

Women’s Press SF, 1988, 150 p

Carmen Dog cover

All over the world women are turning into animals and animals into women. The narrative focuses on the adventures of Pooch, a dog turned woman, who has a yearning for opera and a pure singing voice. (She briefly thinks of calling herself Pucci.) Her particular interest is Carmen, hence the book’s title.

The men in this scenario are non-plussed by the changes, seeking either to deny or exploit it. (And their carnal desires are never very far away.) Chapter headings are quotes from the likes of Nietzsche, Apuleius and Marcus Aurelius and the text has embedded references such as, “stare at each other with wild surmises.”

It’s all gloriously over-the-top but at the same time an oblique look at gender relations in the 1980s. In particular, one gent has come to the belief “that motherhood should be dealt out, even to infants, in small insignificant doses so that it can be held within reasonable bounds.”

Pedant’s corner:- “that moves her mosts of all” (most of all,) sharks teeth (sharks’ teeth,) concensus (consensus,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “None of the others return” (none returns,) “107s is” (it was a possessive, 107’s,) “‘I know its doesn’t match’” (it,) “if worse should come to worst” (the phrase is ‘if the worst should come to the worst,’ as was employed elsewhere,) “none of them come at all” (none … comes,) “will surely be one of the last, if not the last, building to fall” (one of the last … buildings to fall,) “like three phoenix” (phoenixes or phoenices,) nowdays (nowadays.)

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