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At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2011, 324 p, including i p Reading and ii p Acknowledgements.

This non-fiction book is Grieg’s tribute to Norman MacCaig, one of that generation of Scottish poets which included Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh McDiarmid,) Sidney Goodsir Smith, Sorley MacLean and Edwin Morgan, to whom Greig as an aspiring poet himself looked up. Not long before MacCaig’s death he laid on Greig a request that he catch for him a fish at the loch of the green corrie (which isn’t the loch’s real name) in MacCaig’s beloved Assynt in the western Highlands. But it is much more than a mere tribute. It is an appreciation of MacCaig’s poetry, a voyage into Greig’s past and present relationhips, and into the Deep Time which geologist James Hutton divined must be the case from his studies of the native rocks of that area and the changes which had been wrought on them, a threnody to the landscape of Assynt (and Scotland as whole,) a paean to friendship, a meditation on the usefulness – or otherwise – of literature, a celebration of what it means to be human. Anyone familiar with Greig’s fiction will recognise the affinities with it that this book displays, the same sympathetic observation of people and customs, the same sense of a writer exposing the human soul.

That disposition makes itself felt from time to time, “Most team games have their roots in warfare or fertility rituals – shinty dispenses with the fertility part,” a consideration of Deep Time with the present moment leads to a comparison with bifocal lenses, “the close-up and the long distance are true, while the middle distance is fuzzy and befuddled. Unfortunately that is where we live most of the time,” a reference to “the curious indifference of our English friends and partners to being English” indicates the vagaries of nationality. The culture of the western Highlands is illuminated via the thought that drinking is sacramental as long as it’s done in company, “what possible pleasure could there be in drinking alone?” Grieg touches on the importance of scale and size in making the Scottish landscape so alluring. The hills of Wales and the Lake and Peak districts of England are somewhat tame in comparison, “domestic,” while the Himalayas are too austere and grand. (As well as fishing, composing poetry and writing fiction Greig has mountaineering as one of his pastimes. How does he find the time to write?)

But it is literature that is a continual spur – and disappointment, a poetical apprehension of failure. “The word is an arrow that will always miss its mark. ‘The curse of literacy’.”

Pedant’s corner:- “A phantom pantheon of poets come trooping up these winding stairs” (a phantom pantheon comes,) “the short, direct terms that Low Dutch imported into English to such forceful effect” (surely Low Dutch exported these and English imported them?) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “two core principals” (principles makes more sense,) sprung (sprang,) “born off downstream” (borne off,) “ropey weed” (weed like rope, used, I suppose, to distinguish from ‘ropy’ weed, weed that’s not good at being weed,) “Johnson‘s Baby Powder” (Johnson’s.)

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong

Picador, 2020, 391 p.

No question of cultural appropriation could possibly be held against Graeme Armstrong in this his debut novel. The Young Team is firmly rooted in his background and experience of growing up in a working class housing estate in Airdrie in the West of Scotland. The book is written in language steeped in those surroundings. Raw, visceral and confident, it is profoundly demotic and could be called dialect (some may even dub it slang) but is certainly far from the genteel prose of the usual literary novel. Yet it is also undeniably expressive, and capable of handling all the nuances of a novel.

The first person narrative follows Alan Williams (aka Azzy Boy,) member of the Young Team Posse gang, from the brash bravado of barely teenage youth, “Obviously, A’ve hud ma hole,” looking up to the previous generation of gang members, through young adulthood, the creeping influence of hard drug dealers and a more reflective sense of time passing, of putting away childish things, “Yi huv tae break free fae aw these demons n live tae the fullest yi kin.”

There are several accounts of violent confrontations with the Young Team’s rivals the Toi (‘defendin yir scheme’.) Here we might comment on the narcissism of small differences; one West of Scotland housing estate is much like another, to construct rivalries on the basis of which side of a road you live is an exercise in nit-picking, but nevertheless the thing that gives the Young Team – Wee Broonie, Kenzie, Azzy, Danny, Addison, Finnegan and Wee Toffey – a focus for living, for anticipating Friday night. Girls, while part of the extended gang, are peripheral to its main activities but still strange creatures, with their own motivations. Azzy holds a lingering torch for Monica Watson, a bright girl flickeringly receptive to Azzy’s charms but always destined to leave the estate and not willing to settle for less. (Late on in the book when the prospect of a new life beckons Wee Broonie tells Azzy, ‘Yi pure luv her so yi dae.’)

Music is a more constant companion. Many passages refer to the sound track to Azzy’s life.

In one brilliant descriptive passage Azzy expresses what it’s like to be at a rave. “Everycunt is yir pal in here. Maybe it’s cos we’re aw fuckin oot oor nuts on pills that we’re feelin the love. The ecktoplasmic euphorian fellowship wae our common man. Harmony wae aw humanity. A love the strangers next tae me n they love me back. Peace n love tae aw mankind. Utopian society,” where there is, “No a sea, but a fuckin ocean ae people aw bobbin n weaving, knitted together by sound, ecstasy and passion fur the tunes. … The crowd is a single entity, a cult, n our deity behind the decks,” and the effects of the drugs and adrenaline on cognition, “A’m pushin against the current, goin against the grain, The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Pure random thoughts n mince n tatties in the brain.”

Azzy doesn’t ignore the down side of such indulgence, depicting the aftermath of imbibing a cocktail of drugs and alcohol – “A come down is beyond roughness. Stomach cramps, cracked lips, a white sandpaper tongue, a blocked nose, chest pains and feelings ae total run-down deterioration. Yi feel sad, depressed n on the verge ae total misery, cripplin longin and melancholy. It’s a confusin n paranoid pathos tappin intae hardwired emotional issues, fears and desperation ae aw forms. There’s nae escaping the ecstasy blues” – more terminal velocity than gentle drift back to earth. “Yi sink further doon than the place yi left fae. …. Ironic, in’t it? The place yi were so desperate tae escape wid noo be a near paradise.”

The indulgence eventually takes its toll and Azzy succumbs to panic attacks, forswearing drugs and seizing the chance of the always likely tragedy to move to Gateshead with Nicola, who’d always had her eye on him. When the inevitable happens and he comes back, “Aw the normal folk hud been driven oot ae the town centre, fadin one by one. The rest ir stuck here, forever wheelin roon this nightmarish carousel ae degradation that used tae be a proud n thrivin market town. Any dreams ae that huv vanished.”

Background is not so easy to avoid, gang culture sucks him in again, made more dangerous by the intrusion of drug cartels and the concomitant brutal enforcement of their will, culminating in a hospital vigil. “This is where it always ends. Sittin in a fuckin magnolia room, waitin.”

Azzy, like Armstrong, comes to the understanding that, “Our conditionin, two hundred years ae hard labour, made us believe this shite is aw there is fur us – our lot, the drink n drugs, anaesthetic n elixir tae this social nightmare. A didnae believe that.”

The content and language of The Young Team may not be to some readers’ tastes but Armstrong’s illustration of that conditioning, his use of a means of expression totally true to its origins, his depiction of characters normally dismissed by literature, is eloquent demonstration that their, his, language is as expressive – and nuanced – as any other, as capable and worthy of delineating the world.

Pedant’s corner:- Williams’ (x2, Williams’s,) “in elder cunts motors” (cunts’,) “bang tae rites” (rights,) “takin mare pills” (mare is usually spelled ‘mair’.) “A’m thinking A’ve just huv a brush wae death” (just hud a brush.) “The polis’ words” (polis’s.) “‘How yi hoddin up, son?’” (hoddin is usually spelled ‘haudin’.) “The rumours aboot developers building flats hus finally come tae pass” (huv finally come to pass.)

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Viking, 1992, 878 p, plus ii p Contents, ii p Author’s Note, viii p Cast of Characters, ii p Map of Revolutionary Paris.

A Place of Greater Safety cover

There is a view in certain circles which questions the legitimacy of authors describing milieux and inhabiting characters of which they have little or no direct experience, of writing, as you might say, outside themselves. This attitude focuses on the potentially dubious aspects of what is sometimes described as cultural appropriation; what some might go so far as to call exploitation. It is not a new issue: authors – aspiring authors at any rate – have over the years frequently been advised to write what they know. (There is a similar debate in the acting profession over who ought to be allowed to play certain roles. While in this context I recognise the point about adequate representation and lack of access by some actors to particular parts in a production or film it seems to me to be slightly off the point. An actor’s job after all is and always has been to pretend to be someone else. Who actually gets to do that, though, is a different challenge.) For writers an opposite problem exists though, that if they do write outside what is deemed (by others) to be their experience they could be ghettoised or even ignored, barred from any acceptance. Both the extremes are best avoided. In the best of all possible worlds they would be. This is not, of course, the best of all possible worlds.

Hilary Mantel is not a French Revolutionary, that turbulent era – one of many to try to seek the best of worlds – is well outside her experience, yet had she stuck to her lane readers would have been deprived of a very fine work of fiction indeed. In A Place of Greater Safety she has produced perhaps the most convincing novelistic account in English of what those times were like. That this was effectively her first novel is astonishing. All the hallmarks that made her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell so compelling – getting into her character’s minds, formidable research, attention to detail, sympathetic portrayals of people who in most respects were far from admirable – are here.

The narrative focus of the novel lies mainly with three principal revolutionaries, Camille Desmoulins, good with words, making him a highly successful pamphletist but afflicted with a stutter, the charismatic Georges-Jacques d’Anton (later Danton) marred by a facial disfigurement, and the reserved and ascetic Maximilien Robespierre, but also encompasses their respective households and acquaintances. Desmoulins and Danton are more or less serial womanisers, Robespierre’s reticence means he is a reluctant lover when it comes to the point.

As Wolf Hall began with incidents in Cromwell’s childhood so too does A Place of Greater Safety with those of its three main characters. The background political situation, the slow tipping into insurrection, is dealt with mainly by asides, rarely carrying the thrust of the story. History unfolds in the margins of these lives – as it does more generally, to all of us. In particular Mantel shows us the daily concerns and thoughts of Desmoulins’s and Danton’s wives, respectively Lucile, and Gabrielle then Louise. There is a comment on another woman’s appearance, “she had employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you’ve never been near a hairdresser in your life,” that has no doubt occurred to many.

The scenario inspires a few sardonic exchanges. Someone asks, “‘Would they kill the king?’” and is replied to with, “‘Heavens, no. We leave that sort of thing to the English.’” The same topic arises later in an exchange between Camille and Fabre d’Églantine when the latter asks, “‘Do you think that Mr Pitt really cares whether we have Louis executed?’
‘Personally? Oh no, no one gives a damn for Louis. But they think it is a bad precedent to cut off monarch’s heads.’
‘It was the English who set the precedent.’
‘They try to forget that.’”

The changes and dislocations revolutions entrain are summed up by, “Because of the changes in the street names it will become impossible to direct people around the city. The calendar will be changed too, January is abolished, goodbye to aristocratic June. People will ask each other, ‘What’s today in real days?’” Camille says acidically, “The situation of the poor does not change. It is just that the people who think it can change are admired by posterity.”

The Terror comes on bit by bit, apparently without anyone consciously willing it, but has its own momentum. The characters ride the times as best they can, while they can, towards the end under the increasingly looming menace that is Saint-Just.

The best advice is given by Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to Lucile, “‘Concentrate on surviving yourself, my love. I do.’” Not that it can necessarily be followed.

A Place of Greater Safety is not perhaps for the faint-hearted reader, but it is brilliantly achieved.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Cast of Characters; “a delicatessan” (delicatessen.) Otherwise, “about the price of a woman’s hats” (strictly that should be ‘prices’,) epicentre (context did not imply ‘off-centre’; so, centre,) Champs-de-Mars (Champ-de-Mars,) uncurably (usually incurably,) “if the crowd let the police take him” (the crowd is a single entity here; so, ‘if the crowd lets’,) “M Soulès eyes were drawn” (Soulès’s,) “kicked around like a football” (football, as such, had not been codified in 1789.) “A Bodyguard” (no need for the capital ‘B’.) “The crowd cheer” (The crowd cheers,) “Georges’ mother” (Georges’s,) publically (publicly,) stongly (strongly,) “to his army command the frontier” (at the frontier is more natural,) “as they stoved in the door” (stove in, or, staved in,) “stray voices in the street that call – line break from the middle of a line, next line starts – pass on.” “‘I’ll tell it you when I get back.’” (‘I’ll tell you it’ is more natural,) “and accusation drip from unseen mouths” (accusations,) “he called the members, opinion-mongers” (doesn’t need the comma,) “a jury retiring at this hour were unlikely to agonize over their verdict” (was unlikely; its verdict.) “The jury were back” (was back,) “‘Is that Danton’s plan.’” (is a question and so requires a question mark rather than a full stop.) “The only sound in the apartment were the dissonant chords and broken notes” (sounds … were,) Cassius’ (Cassius’s.) The public applaud (applauds.)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2006, 377 p.

It is early 1982. Jason Taylor is about to turn thirteen. His elder sister Julia treats him as an annoyance, his parents are forever arguing and he, like all more or less diffident more or less misfits, is bullied at school. In Jason’s case the fact that he stammers only makes things worse. Thoughts he attributes to figures in his head occasionally intrude. The one he calls Hangman knows he is about to stammer and therefore can allow substitution of a different, less problematic – though delayed – word, while Unborn Twin sometimes offers a commentary on proceedings. Black Swan Green, with its view of the Malvern Hills, is the small town in Worcestershire where Jason lives. It has no swans, black or otherwise. Another burden for Jason is his poetry which he submits to the local church magazine using the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar but he cannot reveal this to the wider world for fear of further ridicule.

As a novel Black Swan Green is peopled by a range of well-drawn characters – distracted parents, various schoolmates (or enemies,) out of touch teachers, supercilious cousins, a frightful uncle, suspicious but not ill-meaning gypsies – and the minutiae that make up a thirteen-year-old’s life. A lot is packed into the year spanning Jason’s thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays in which the book is set. Dad’s forbidden study where strange phone calls are received, an accident on the frozen lake in the woods, interviews with the intimidating Madame Crommelynck who acts as intermediary for transmission of Eliot Bolivar’s poems to the vicar, unfruitful appointments with a speech therapist, a local secret society for young bloods, the Falklands War, an accident at the Goose Fair, his mother’s suspicions and vindication, numerous instances of bullying, plus the ordeal of negotiating school with a stammer, but above all the terrifying unknowableness of girls.

Occasionally Jason’s awareness betrays signs of being assigned to him by an older person, “Human beings need to watch out for reasonless niceness too. It’s never reasonless and its reason’s not usually nice,” and, “A disco’s a zoo. Some of the animals’re wilder than they are by day, some funnier, some posier, some shyer, some sexier,” but others of his thoughts ring truer to someone on the cusp of adolescence, “But all this excitement’ll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People’ll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world,” though “Neil Young sings like a barn’s collapsing but his music’s brill,” could be said by anyone.

In particular “not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” is fine for an author to put into the head of a character who’s barely a teenager but even though it’s spot-on would, in print, appear humdrum coming from an older person.

Jason’s thirteen year-old enthusiasm, primed no doubt by his Dad and intolerant right wing uncle, for the outpourings of the Daily Mail and utterances of Margaret Thatcher are counterbalanced by Julia’s Guardian reading perspective. The anti-Romany prejudice of a town-hall meeting to discuss the County Council’s proposal to place a permanent site for gypsies near the town (one contributor says, “Dark as niggers,” about what he calls ‘real’ gypsies) is allowed to speak for itself. When Jason has an accidental encounter with some travellers we learn their take on it; the relevant legislation is all a plot to expunge their way of life. Put like that the incident seems an unnecessary interpolation into the book but it reads much more organically.

Mitchell appears to have successfully got into, or remembered well, the head of an adolescent boy and conjures up 1982 convincingly. His control is such that the reader knows right from the start that Jason’s parents’ marriage has deeper flaws than he thinks and that Julia is not merely an annoying sibling but is on his side against them. This picture of a young teenager struggling to come to terms with the mysteries of the adult world (and the utterly bewildering conundrum of the salience in that world of sexual intercourse) and trying to fit in to that of his peers is beguiling, but Black Swan Green is notable above all for the sympathy with which Mitchell treats all of his characters.

Pedant’s corner:- I noted Scalectrix, (Scalextric,) British Bulldogs (British Bulldog,) Milk of Magnesium (Magnesia,) and Metro Gnome (Metronome) before I recognised that Mitchell was probably trying to represent the spellings of a thirteen year-old. It’s strange though in that case that memsahib is spelled correctly even though Jason tells us he doesn’t know what a memsahib is.
Otherwise; occasionally commas were missing before a piece of direct speech, Margaret Thatcher’s injunction to the nation to ‘Rejoice! Just rejoice!’ is said to come at the end of the Falklands conflict; my memory is that it was on the retaking of South Georgia, before the war proper started, she said that; “put then on the chest of drawers” (put them.) “I wasn’t going to solve this equation and it knew it” (‘and I knew it’ makes more sense,) “black-and-orange Wolverhampton Wanderers tracksuit” (Wolves play in gold and black, not orange,) “Guy Fawkes’ Night” (Guy Fawkes Night,) Socrates’ (Socrates’s,) vacuumed (vacuumed.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2021

This is the first such BSFA booklet to contain nominations for the Best Book for Younger Readers. The extracts seem to be mostly first chapters from the nominees. I didn’t read any of those since I doubt I’ll ever go on to read the whole book for any of them. I may get round to some of the Best Novel contenders – already have done so for Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn – but probably not all.

As to the Best Shorter Fiction we have:

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard1
Thanh is the daughter of the Queen of Bình Håi, but had spent time in the overseas country of Ephteria effectively as a hostage. Strange instances of small fires plague her. She is assisting her mother at a trade meeting with representatives of Ephteria when she is surprised by one of the delegates, Princess Eldris, and even more surprised when Eldris reveals she wishes to rekindle the affair they had had in Ephteria. This ends inconclusively, as if it were an extract from a longer piece – but it isn’t labelled as an extract.

Light Chaser by Peter F Hamilton and Gareth Powell2
This too ends inconclusively. Perhaps they’re all extracts. Interstellar legend Amahle the Light Chaser travels the Domain at near light speed on a cycle through the worlds. The story begins with her deliberately crashing her ship the Mnemosyne into a red giant to create a quark star before moving into a scene from one of her trading visits.

O2 Arena by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki3
For some reason this story is preceded by a “Content Warning; Cancer, Death or dying, Sexual assault, Terminal Illness, Violence.” Leaving aside the fact that these could be said to apply to just about all modern Science Fiction at least one of them isn’t true. There is no sexual assault described in the story. Sexual harassment and requests/demands for sexual favours in return for good exam grades are imputed by two of the characters as applying to another (minor) one but no actual assault occurs in the narrative. (The other warnings stand.)

But to the business of the story (which does have an ending.)
Global warming has killed off phytoplankton. Oxygen is so scarce it is rationed by cost. Currency is by means of O2 credits. Our narrator has gone through University but is now at a strict law school so as to get the best job possible to earn credits. (The school is riddled with sexism and favour-seeking lecturers.) His friend Ovuke is also a student but is dying of ovarian cancer and her family is running out of money, leading the narrator to resort to desperate measures to get some. The story here is fine but its execution is marred by excessive info dumping and unnecessary insertion of acronyms.

Things Can Only Get Better by Fiona Moore4 also comes to an ending. It is one of those light-touch would-be humorous tales that can be extremely irritating if they don’t work. Moore just about gets away with it. Our narrator is an autologist called in by the police to investigate a case of illegal gambling in a syndicate centred on the hospital where she used to work. This is in a future where people and machine intelligences (Things) both work on the wards.

I also read the bits from the non-fiction works. These are mostly precis/preambles to the full work. How anyone can choose between such diverse works which is the best is a moot point.

The winners were announced here.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“sharp inhale of breath” (inhalation,) vermillion (x 2, vermilion,) “laying low” (lying low,) “that room Giang falling to her knees” (needs a comma between room and Giang,) unneeded paragraph indentations and line breaks. 2“was very different beast” (was a very different beast,) stranglet (later ‘strangelet’,) relatavistically (relativistically.) 3 “Not that the air there was any better there” (has one ‘there’ too many,) “letting her lay back” (lie back.) 4 “even if the only things to which that description could be implied was to Wills and me” (were to Wills and me,) no full stop at the story’s end.

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

faber and faber, 2013, 380 p, plus i p Table of Pipers at The Grey House, i p definition of piobaireachd, iv p Foreword, lxvii p Appendices, ii p Glossary, v p Bibliography, xix p List of Additional Materials and i p Index.

 The Big Music cover

This is a variation on the ‘found manuscript’ novel – or in this case manuscripts, being the papers left behind by bagpiper John Callum MacKay Sutherland in the little hut he had built for himself in the hills beyond the Grey House at Ailte vhor Alech (the End of the Road) in Rogart, Sutherland, (turn left somewhere between Golspie and Brora and keep going to the unmarked fork in the road then follow it to the right.) This is the house, expanded and extended over the years, where the Sutherland piping dynasty set up its school of bagpiping and later, in an attic room, also a proper school for children from the area, now all defunct. Other relics, transcripts of radio and TV broadcasts and illustrative extracts from monthly journals contribute to the overall mix.

The human story in the book concentrates on the latest Sutherlands to be brought up in the House, those from the twentieth century to now, the aforementioned John Callum MacKay Sutherland and his son Callum Innes MacKay Sutherland. Both had left this Highland home to pursue careers in London, both were/are drawn back to confront the imminent death of a parent, in John’s case his mother’s and in Callum’s his father’s.

The novel itself begins early one morning with John taking from her cot Katherine Anna, the grand-daughter of his housekeeper Margaret, and spiriting her away with him. He intends to take her to the little hut as inspiration for part of the final piobaireachd he is composing. This act of kidnapping persuades the household – Margaret, her husband Iain Cowie, and daughter Helen – that Callum must be summoned back from London.

It becomes obvious (though heavily foregrounded earlier in the footnotes by invocations to note the increasing intrusion of the word ‘I’ to the text) that the guiding hand in the assembly of the text is meant to be that of Helen. This is highlighted by the information that the title of her dissertation was, “The Use of Personal Papers, Journals and other Writings in the Creation of Modernist and Contemporary Fiction.”

The family dynamics are complicated. Margaret and John had had a long-standing affair that produced Helen. While John was away down south Margaret had married Iain who now looks on Helen as his own daughter and on John’s return to the house resolutely tried to avoid any knowledge of his wife’s past (and rekindled) affair with Helen’s true father. Helen and Callum had become lovers when she was seventeen – some time before they both moved away for further education. Thankfully Katherine Anna is not Callum’s child.

The narration is not straightforward. It often adopts that form of Highland speech heavily influenced by Gaelic (to which is not difficult to accommodate) but it is interspersed with passages on the history of the Sutherlands, the Grey House itself, and of bagpiping. And it has copious footnotes.

Now; I love a footnote. But there are footnotes and footnotes. In a novel they are ideally used sparingly but here they appear very frequently – almost, but not quite, on every page, sometimes three or more to contend with. There is such a thing as overkill. Moreover, many of these impart the same information as previous ones or recapitulate something that has already appeared in the text. In some of them, too, there are comments on the text, as if the author is telling us how to interpret it, what to look for, which smacks of hubris and reads as if the author does not respect us as readers.

However, The Big Music is a bold venture. It attempts to set out in novelistic form the characteristics of the apotheosis of the art of bagpiping, the piobaireachd (usually rendered in English as pibroch,) while also making the case that it is an extremely complicated and worthy musical form, requiring a large amount of training by previous pipers as its essence is not truly captured by any musical notation. To that end we have sections of the overall story relating to the structure of piobaireachd, the ground, Urlar, a variational development, Taorluath, more variation, Crunluath (the Crown,) and a conclusion, Crunluath A Mach, which returns to the Urlar and ideally fades away as the piper recedes over the horizon.

But therein lies its main flaw. The playing of piobaireachd necessarily entails repetition, of notes and phrases. While some recapitulation and some emphasis by repetition may be necessary in a novel, it ought not to be taken to extremes. “Running over the same old ground” is not generally desirable. Mirroring piobaireachd unfortunately obliges it. That tendency in this novel may not quite be ad nauseam but certainly leans towards ad irritatem.

Occasionally the footnotes contain snippets that read as comments on the text. In piobearachd “Like in a story, one may return to a central idea that is never quite resolved, as in a fable or a myth there may seem to be an ending but the ending is not there.” A piobeareachd has no formal conclusion and in its performance, “The two extremes to be avoided are dragging and hurrying. …. Steadiness is more important than speed.” This commenting is made explicit when we are told “the idea of music that sits behind the words, of entire lines and phrases that sound rather than represent … Is at the very heart of the project here in hand.”

We are told that at the heart of John McKay Sutherland’s attitude to the music of his forefathers is “A loneliness that some might describe as a quality of mind that won’t let anyone in, come close. A loneliness that may be described as a quality of heart that can’t admit love.” I read this as a reflection of the influence of Calvinism on the Scottish male’s soul. In this context the observation that “The history of women in these places is always a quiet story, it’s quietly told” holds a harsh mirror up to history.

As a novel The Big Music certainly has ambition – especially in its attempt to extend the limits of the form. In its execution, though, it strays too far from the reason why people engage with novels. Its concentration on its characters – well drawn as most of them are – is too episodic, too sparse, too smirred, to resonate as it might.

A note on the book’s title. Within the piping fraternity piobaireachd is known as the big music, Ceol Mor (as opposed to strathspeys, reels etc which are regarded as Ceol Beag, little music.)

Pedant’s corner:- missing commas before and at the end of a piece of direct speech embedded in a sentence, “post offices” (Post Offices,) fine’ness (why the apostrophe?) green’ness (again, that unnecessary apostrophe,) stubborn’ness (ditto,) clean’ness (ditto,) Arogocat (elsewhere Argocat,) “someone taking over on a bad corner” (someone overtaking on a bad corner,) scared’y (‘scaredy’ would be fine,) “Then Callum hears his father’s breath starts coming again” (hears his father’s breath start coming again,) “smirring of the tune” – a footnote says “the glossary defines smirring as a general smudging but it is often used in the Highlands as a metaphor for light rain” – (the dictionary definition of smir is ‘light rain’ not ‘smudging.’ Smir is in widespread use in Scotland as a description of rain so light it can hardly be seen but nevertheless soaks through to the skin. I suspect the word’s use in piping actually derives from that rather than the other way round. Aside: when I visited Bilbao I was delighted when a local said a particular similar weather condition there – now, with climate change, no longer so prevalent – and had been called ‘smirri-mirri’ and I told her of the Scottish equivalent.) “Slowly, year by year, in every country except one the bagpipe either disappeared completely or was left ‘to the lonely hill-men or the occasional crank’.” The text says this is because mediæval conditions lingered in the Highlands longer that elsewhere in the world. (Yet later parts of the book acknowledge that different bagpipe traditions than Scotland’s still exist. Off the top of my head I can think of the uillean pipes, the Northumbrian pipes not to mention Galician and Cornish versions,) “the general lay of it” (lie of it.) “The connection between piobaireachd and lyric ….. and come to bear” (comes to bear,) footed’ness (again; what’s with the apostrophe?) Eric Richards’ (Richards’s,) “and how you could call someone a wife who doesn’t look to the man she’s married?” (how could you is the usual word order in English.)
In the Appendices: “the boundary between the districts of Sutherland and Caithness were slightly redrawn” (the boundary …was slightly redrawn,) an extraneous apostrophe, “the area of grounds and land surrounding the Grey House amount to some 400 acres” (the area … amounts to,) “the earliest references to a MacCrimmon (who was also a piper) appears in Campbell lands” (the earliest reference,) “a good representation of the terms of tuition etc that is available” (of the terms .. that are available.)

Feather Stroke by Sydney J van Scyoc

Avon, 1989, 266 p.

Scyoc’s default setting seems to be an agrarian/mediæval social organisation. Feather Stroke shares this with her previous novels but has an added dimension.

Dara is the daughter of a headsman of a village of smallpeople in a society where a generation or so ago people emigrated to a different continent to escape both the influence and domination of the powerful priesthood of the Sun God Tith and the associated suffocating social hierarchies. Local indigenous inhabitants called Ilijhari make occasional trading visits in the form of a man called Te-kia who is always closely accompanied by an eagle-like bird known as a quirri. Since Dara has strange dreams in which she inhabits the bodies of birds we know this to be significant.

Dara’s life is changed when Kels Rinari, an important, self-made trader from the city of Port Calibe, comes mob-handed with uniformed, armed men and a damen-kest to demand the hand in marriage of her sister Mirina in return for “protection.” This assertion of the renounced continent’s privileges is an unwanted harbinger of the old ways coming to the new home. Mirina can either accept the offer, refuse it, or take the third traditional option, suicide, which last would leave Dara to become the object of Rinari’s designs.

Mirina’s suicide leaves their father to take the news of her death to Rinari. On the way he persuades Dara to go to the Ilijhari for safety. Her journey is fraught but she meets and is befriended by Kentith, a renegade priest from the other continent.

Among the Ilijhari she finds she is descended from them, her true mother died in child-birth and she was given to the smallpeople to bring up since one of the village mothers had had a stillbirth around the time. It is with the Ilijhari that Dara’s affinity with birds is confirmed, her ability to inhabit their consciousnesses.

In a sequence which resonates with the history of the Americas in our world, Te-kia tells her, “The land was here, sweet and rich. And there were men and women appointed to guard the land. Wisely, they treated it as a thing of soul, living and aware, to be respected, to be preserved. …. They called themselves its children, but they understood they were its guardians as well. But after a while, others came from far shores who were stronger than the guarding peoples. The intruders were greedy and full of destructive powers. They had stolen from the earth itself and from its surrounding sphere, and they thought that whatever they chose to inflict upon the living earth and its creatures was only their right.”

On finding her father has not returned from Port Calibe Dara resolves to go there and confront Kels Rinari, relying on her Ilijhari nature to put him off marrying her. Kentith, despite the dangers involved for him demands to accompany her. The priests of Tith are anxious to capture him but in any case can bring down fire from the sun and use him as a vessel for that. Mpreover his distinctive priestly eyes make him a target for suspicious locals .

Once in Port Calibe, Dara finds Rinari to be a more complicated character than she had initially assumed and all three determine to undertake the business of combating the influence of Tith’s priests.

Feather Stroke is a pleasing enough fantasy not too demanding on the reader.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘I was only waiting for to ask’” (for you to ask,) “at it center,” (at its center.) “Perhaps the orchard was in some was as much a manifestation” (in some way as much a manifestation,) “two year later” (years,) “before Dara could calm him, before she should orient herself” (before she could orient herself.) “Finally she saw that it would surely dash itself against the walls – and not so harmlessly as Ti-ri-ki had done” (the opposite is the case: the smaller a creature the less likely it is to be damaged in a collision; Newton’s second law, F = ma.)

The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins

Polygon, 2006, 296 p, plus vi p Introduction by Harry Reid. First published 1954.

 The Thistle and the Grail cover

The thistle of the title is the local team of the small town of Drumsagart, Drumsagart Thistle Junior Football Club, whose blue shirts have a red thistle crest. The grail is the ultimate quest for a Junior* football team, the Scottish Junior Cup.

Despite the apparent thrust of the title that the novel will be about football, it isn’t really. There may one day be a definitive novel that deals with that perennial Scottish obsession but this isn’t (quite) it. The quote from John Cairney on the cover to the effect that this is “easily the best book written on the relation between football and society in Scotland” may well be true but the novel’s narrative more or less skirts football. Instead, it is more about a small town, the characters who inhabit it, and the distraction from their lives that football represents. Bill Shankly is supposed once to have said, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.” While at times, in the throes of a match, it can perhaps seem that way, it really isn’t. But as a distraction from life’s tribulations it can be a temporary balm – even while adding to them.

At the start of the novel Drumsagart Juniors are hopeless, suffering regular drubbings – usually to nil – every week. This culminates in a mass protest after a 7-0 humiliation at the hands of their fiercest local rivals, Lettrickhill Violet, wherein the committee members are the subject of intemperate threats and club president Andrew Rutherford is in danger of being dismissed. Mysie Dugarry, granddaughter of the club’s most famous player, who had gone on to play for Scotland, suggests they try one Alec Elrigmuir whom she describes as the best centre forward in Scotland. (He plays for a pit team and she is sweet on him.) Under pressure Rutherford agrees. Committee member and local pub owner Sam Malarkin offers to provide a free drink to everyone should the Thistle go on to lift the Cup, safe in the knowledge it won’t happen.

Apart from the possibility of Elrigmuir, a further potential hero arrives when Turk McCabe, a former centre-half, returns to the town from a sojourn in England. Now in his mid-to-late thirties he is an unlikely saviour but has determination and turns out still to have positional sense. And so the journey to the grail begins. There is a brief description of the first-round game at Carrick Celtic but Jenkins’s writerly gifts are not convincing here. (I suspect this may be true of any attempt by any novelist to depict an imaginary football match.)

There is a whole cast of minor characters each of whom is drawn realistically and sympathetically. Sam Malarkin’s interest in Alec Elrigmuir is more than football related as is his sister Margot’s – a source of dismay later on when Mysie gets to hear of it and Elrigmuir threatens not to play as a result of her displeasure. Elrigmuir himself may be a good footballer but off the field he is all but a simpleton.

Despite not being published till 1954 this reads like an interwar, even a 1920s, novel. Harry Reid’s introduction tells us, though, that Jenkins was a reluctant author with many manuscripts kept in his locker.

The attitudes to women of the male characters in the book read as being decidedly off-kilter these days. “The apple had been a gift. Eve’s to Adam had been free too, and it had soured the world,” and, “With women it was, of course, different; their brains were lighter, no-one could expect them to be as serious as men.” At a club committee meeting discussing the team’s problems we have, “‘Have you noticed, gentlemen,’ said Wattie Cleugh, ‘how it’s women causing all the trouble? …. It would seem that what started in Eden’s still going on.’” However, Agnes Elvan’s observation that, “‘There’s not a woman in Scotland doesn’t know the importance of football is exaggerated,” is probably still widely applicable. There is also a wonderful Scotticism when a character describes another as having, “the mind of a five-year old lassie whose backside was underskelped.”

That the times have changed in other ways too is illustrated when a doctor – called in to examine Turk after his put upon mother had poured boiling water over his feet – says of the offer of a cigarette, “‘Do him good.’ The doctor intercepted the packet and took one himself. ‘Do me good.’”

Turk is of course an habitué of the pub. When the local minister, who does not like football – or pubs – came to proselytise, Turk, in his eagerness to berate religion but wanting to show some knowledge, responded with a misquote, saying, “‘I am become a sounding brass or a tingling simple.’ That’s Bible.” A few lines later Jenkins transforms this double Malapropism into an inspired pun. On leaving the pub McCabe castigates those who remain as, “A shower of tingling simples.’”

The novel does not neglect wider issues. There is a small diversion into Politics. Rutherford’s father is a long-time socialist councillor, while Rutherford himself runs on behalf of his brother-in-law a biscuit factory, producing Drumsagart Bannocks in their distinctive blue and red liveried packets. His dismissal of Lizzie Anderson for theft, leaving her and her mother to likely penury excites his father’s ire. That Lizzie has falsely implied Rutherford had got her pregnant does not weigh in the balance for him. In his turn Rutherford interprets his father’s concern for the poor as a desire not to have the latter’s grandson well provided for. Poverty and the misery of unemployment are described but presented as matters of fact. Fecklessness on the part of impecunious men spending money on a triviality like football is implicitly deplored.

Yet it does not escape Scottishness. On a trip to an away game Rutherford reflects, “Scotland was a country where faith lay rotted like neglected roses, and the secret of resurrection was lost. We are a dreich, miserable, back-biting, self-tormenting, haunted, self-pitying crew, he thought. This sunshine is as bright as any on Earth, these moors are splendid: why are not the brightness and splendour in our lives? Seeking them, here we are speeding at fifty miles an hour to see what – a football match, a game invented for exercise and recreation, but now our only substitute for faith and purpose.” But there is still the lingering shadow of Calvinism, “too much pleasure on Earth weakened the promise of heaven and strengthened the threat of hell.”

*This designation does not mean for young players. It was a peculiarity of the Scottish footballing landscape that up until a year or so ago there were two separate non-amateur grades of football in Scotland; the Seniors, all those whose names are familiar from the Saturday football scores plus some in four non-national leagues, and the Juniors, still (semi-)professional but playing in a different set of closely geographically-based leagues – except for the all-encompassing Scotland-wide Junior Cup. The former Junior sides have now all joined the Scottish football pyramid system.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “fifty miles and hour” (miles an hour.) Otherwise; “Wheehst” (Wheesht,) “‘They’s come flocking in’” (they’ll come flocking in,) “crotcheted tie” (x 2, crocheted,) Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “as any owner at potential Derby winner” (at a potential Derby winner.)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 2017, 552 p. First published 2000.

I almost certainly would not have read this if the good lady had not borrowed it from the nearest public library. (We feel we have to patronise it as otherwise it may suffer the same fate of closure as our local one did a few years ago now.) She is on a project to read as many James Tait Black Memorial Prize winners as she can. White Teeth won it for 2000. I’m glad I did read it though as it’s very well written.

If you were unkind you could describe it as a family saga but at the same time it is more specific and broader than that. In addition it is peppered with living, breathing characters who appear overwhelmingly real to the reader, even in their contradictoriness.

The main relationship in the book is that between Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, who met in the latter stages of World War 2, when they manned a tank in the Balkans. After his immigration to Britain and arranged marriage to Alsana, Samad met up again with Archie and their friendship ensued. The novel starts with Archie, depressed on his divorce, flipping a coin to decide his fate and subsequently meeting Clara Bowden, daughter of the half-Jamaican and very religious Hortense. Archie and Clara soon marry and have a daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, of around the same age as Irie, who in adolescence moons after Millat.

Samad claims descent from Mangal Pande, the man who fired the first shot in the Indian Mutiny (and was hanged for his pains.) Samad says Pande wasn’t the fool that he has been portrayed as, that Pande couldn’t have been drugged up, but instead sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India. Archie remains much more sceptical about the circumstances surrounding Pande’s actions.

Samad berates himself for failing to live up to his Muslim beliefs – in particular for an affair with his children’s music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones – and as a result packs Magid off to Bangladesh to ensure he is brought up in true Muslim correctness. Alsana doesn’t forgive him for this removal of one of her children and thereafter no longer speaks directly to him. This gives the narrative a touch of comedy as does her description of a near relative as Niece-of-Shame.

Samad’s stratagem fails, Millat has an attractive persona, women seem to find him irresistible, yet despite his many conquests, joins a fundamentalist Islam movement called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (they are aware of the “unfortunate” acronym, KEVIN,) while in Bangladesh Magid becomes a rationalist and scientist.

The lives of Irie and Millat become entwined with the middle-class Chalfen family, who have a philosophy of questioning everything. Marcus is a genetics engineer and his wife Joyce is one of those people who is convinced she knows better than the people she is talking to what is happening to them and how they feel.

Teeth are mentioned infrequently. A (minor) character says, “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they died because of it, you see?” Irie is ‘bitten’ by her mother’s false teeth one night when she knocks over her glass in the darkness.

The novel of course interrogates the immigrant experience. “‘Who would want to stay?” Samad says to Irie. “Cold, wet, miserable food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.’”

Elsewhere he adds, “There is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that.” However, “The fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation,” are “small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance ….. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure homogenous I.” (Often spoken as ‘I and I.’)

There are also warnings, “When an Englishman wants to be generous, the first thing you ask is why, because there is always a reason,” and explanations, “It is not that he ….. doesn’t love her (oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.)”

The final scene in the book echoes back to the reason why Archie is forever flipping coins to make a decision and brought to my mind Sophie’s Choice, though Archie’s critical one had no potential devastating consequences for his immediate family.

Pedant’s corner:- curb (kerb.) “Wrapped around the room in a panoramic” (a panoramic what? Panoramic is an adjective it requires a noun to describe. ‘A panorama’ would have been okay,) “someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters” (either ‘someone who fucks his sisters’ or, ‘people/men who fuck their sisters’.) “‘Show’s how much you know’” (‘Shows how much,) collander (colander.) “’O’Connell’s’ said Samad” (missing comma; ‘O’Connell’s,’ said Samad,) dypsomaniac (dipsomaniac,) bannister (banister,) “the largest community of Earth, the animal kingdom, were oppressed, imprisoned and murdered on a daily basis” (the largest community … was oppressed… .) “Didn’t use to be” (Didn’t used to be.)

This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise

Gollancz, 2021, 356 p. Reviewed for ParSec 1.

In the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s British SF consisted mainly of stories of worldwide disaster – a subgenre which Brian Aldiss somewhat unkindly dubbed cosy catastrophes – whose most prolific contributors were the Johns, Wyndham and Christopher, but also to which, at a stretch, J G Ballard’s early novels could be assigned. While the disaster story never disappeared completely the vogue did ebb and British SF began to cleave the paper light years with the best of them.

In recent times SF writers more generally perhaps sensed the coming contagion. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven helped to revive the concept of a fictional worldwide disaster and Caroline Hardaker’s Composite Creatures (also reviewed for ParSec 1) has elements of the form. In this book Susannah Wise inhabits that global catastrophe tradition full on – and in a British context.

It is an altered Britain though, which has a heavy Chinese influence. Six year-old Jed’s schoolteacher is a Miss Yue, a supermarket chain is called Lianhua, noodles and rambutan are common foods and a mysterious company called Shīluò zhì lurks in the background.

The common elements of the catastrophe novel are present: communication breakdown, food queues, barricaded roads, troops on the streets. Less usual ingredients here are that bees have gone extinct (though attempts have been made to restore them synthetically) with their pollination tasks in the meantime replaced by tiny drones; following on from beetle blight a rampant disease called Bovine Staph is apparently transmitted through rainwater and can affect humans; venturing outdoors requires UV goggles to be worn to protect against eye damage from sunlight; the currency is exclusively digital – Litecoin spent via Lite-cards.

Pre-disaster just about every service is accessed wirelessly or via AI robots such as BinX, DoctreX, MediX and WaitreX. GScopes, mediated by a system named GQOS, have replaced mobile phones. Roads are constructed from fibre-glass panelling and road signs are exclusively electronic. Agrico-bots roam the countryside.

Then one day the drones start to malfunction, the electricity goes off and everything shuts down. Viewpoint character Signy comes home to a fridge in meltdown, its food rotting. Despite the resultant lack of amenities her partner Matthew keeps saying things will be all right “tomorrow” but one night, while Signy and Jed hide in the loft, Matthew confronts burglars at their house and is killed. Signy sets off from London with Jed to try to reach her mother’s home in Northamptonshire – by bicycle. Along the way they meet the usual assortment of people who either help or steal from them but also uncover the importance of TrincXcode and its links to musical form.

Wise’s writing is fine but in what is presumably a striving for immediacy she exhibits an over-fondness for verbless sentences. Like this one. Her characterisation is generally convincing enough but her portrayal of Jed is inconsistent. As indications of his youth he sometimes has to have words defined to him and he refers to “Mr Mack Wrecker” from the Peter Rabbit books but he also comes out with absurdly adult phrases supposedly remembered from Miss Yue. Things like, “Quantum field which allows the system to work out infinite possibilities,” and, “The system can work out in milliseconds every possible outcome that can happen from any action it takes in multiple universe models and make the best choice.” OK, the reader is getting the info dump but these sentences read as unlikely to come from the mouth of a six year-old, however tech savvy. There is also his memory from three years earlier of his grandfather telling him something “terrible and important,” to wit, “TrincX is the birth of true Artificial Intelligence – God’s daughter come to walk on Earth,” a warning now come true.

This central role of AIs in the background of the narrative has the effect of making the book’s resolution a literal deus ex machina, or, rather, dei ex machinae. Whether that makes it cosy or not is a fine judgement but it certainly leans towards it.

Pedant’s corner:- GQOS’ (GQOS’s,) “the Orkneys” (the locals prefer the designation Orkney, or, the Orkney Islands,) “more combustible that the old carbon boiler” (than,) gotten (in dialogue? In Britain?) Signy rushes out the front door with no mention of its mechanism previously not working due to the shutdown of communications, hummous, (hummus.) “‘Danny!’.” (doesn’t need that full stop, the exclamation mark provides that function.) “It lay uncertain rays across” (It laid uncertain rays,) “‘I bought it from home.’” (brought it.) “‘It’s wasn’t Lau Chen was it?’” (‘It wasn’t’.)

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