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The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Allison & Busby, 1984, 426 p including 11 p Bibliography and 28 p Appendix plus i p Map of San Domingo, i p Contents, iii p Foreword and iii p Preface to the First Edition. First published in 1938.

 The Black Jacobins cover

C L R James was a Trinidadian historian and journalist whose book on cricket has been described by none other than John Arlott as the finest book written on the game. He was also a Marxist which if you didn’t already know could be divined here from the frequent use of the word bourgeoisie and many mentions of class. Note also, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

The San Domingo Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in history. It eventually led to the establishment of the state of Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who changed his name from Toussaint Bréda when he joined the revolt, was its undoubted hero. James says however that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

San Domingo was a prodigious source of wealth for its white sugar planters and the merchants back in France who traded its product; wealth built on the backs of the slave workers imported from Africa, a slave trade which James says had turned Central Africa from peace and happy civilisation to violence and ferocity, the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples. Of those who dispute that statement we have, “Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.”

Before the revolt San Domingo was riven by differences; between the planters and the bureacracy, big whites, small whites, Mulattoes, blacks. (For some reason I couldn’t fathom James always capitalises the word Mulattoes.) For the small white with not much in the way of property, “race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental.” An illustration of the central importance of colour to San Domingan life was that, “They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of pure white and pure black, a quarteron was the child of a Mulatto woman and a white man. This went all the way down to the sang-mêlé of 127 parts white and one part black but who was still a person of colour. These distinctions exemplify “the justification of plunder by any obvious differentiation to those holding power.” I note here that James describes pure blacks as negroes. I suppose the usage was common in the 1930s when he was writing but it strikes an odd note now.

Free Mulattoes were able to save, to own property and eventually to lend money. Their threat was such that, “white San Domingo passed a series of laws which for maniacal savagery are unique in the modern world.” But the Mulattoes were too numerous and the colonists had to be satisfied with humiliations such as restrictions on dress, meetings, travel, and so on. Black slaves and Mulattoes hated each other, and those who were more white despised people with blacker ancestry. This internalisation of racial prejudice was still prevalent in the Jamaica of James’s present.

In 1789 San Domingo accounted for 11 of the 17 million pounds of France’s export trade. The beginning of British efforts to abolish slavery was an attempt to undermine this economic powerhouse. “The slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution.” The fortunes made, “gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to emancipation.” But then came the French Revolution and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité, which took root in the fertile ground of the plantations.

When the uprising finally came James says that the slaves in their vengefulness were surprisingly moderate, far more humane than their masters had been, not maintaining it for long – unlike the systematic and enduring abuse the slaves had suffered. Toussaint himself established early a “great reputation for humanity, a very singular thing in the San Domingo of those days.” The crucial event for the sustenance of the revolt was the abolition of slavery by the Constituent Assembly in Paris, a reason for the slaves to cleave to revolutionary ideals thereafter.

Britain then promptly rowed back on the abolition of slavery and attempted to take over San Domingo. Under Toussaint the former slaves inflicted on Britain “the severest defeat that has befallen a British expeditionary force between the days of Elizabeth and the Great War.” The British lost more men in actual deaths than Wellington did to all causes in the entire Peninsular War, “‘her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralysed.'” Held by Toussaint and his raw levies Britain could not attack the revolution in France.

James has an undiluted admiration for Toussaint (along with Nelson and Napoleon one of the three outstanding personalities of the times) though admits his one fatal flaw. His allegiance to the French Revolution made him what he was; but in the end this ruined him. “His desire to avoid destruction was the very thing that caused it. It is the recurring error of moderates when face to face with a revolutionary struggle.”

The rise of Napoleon is seen by James as the bourgeoisie reasserting itself. Under Bonaparte it was the French intention to restore slavery on the island and their actually doing so in Guadeloupe that led to Haiti’s final independence. Toussaint’s blind spot had seen him acquiesce to the new French Governor, eventual imprisonment, transportation to, and eventual death in, France. It was Toussaint’s more ruthless deputy Dessalines who came to see independence was the revolt’s only hope.

James keeps describing the slaves and their culture as primitive (as he also characterises those of Africa.) Is this as a result of his Marxist view of history and its laws? He notes that slaves brought from Africa were compelled to master European languages, “highly complex products of centuries of civilisation.” There was therefore “a gap between the rudimentary conditions of the life of the slave and the language he used.” (Note also that inclusive – exclusive? – “he”.) It seems to me these sentiments are profoundly condescending – to African and slave alike.

Everything in the book is seen through the prism of Marxism, an approach which seems almost quaint these days as does James’s conclusion that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa.

Aside:- For a fictional treatment of the slave revolution I would recommend the excellent All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell. Having looked that up I discover Bell has published two subsequent books on the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- “All the slaves, however, did not undergo this régime.” (Not all the slaves underwent this régime,) “All of them did not submit to it.” (Not all of them submitted to it,) illtreatment (more usually it’s ill-treatment,) knit (knitted,) “adventurers seeking adventure,” (well, yes,) “72 million pounds’ weight of raw sugar and 51 million pounds of white,” (either use the apostrophe or not, don’t mix them,) the the, “both Hyacinth and another men” (man,) Francois’ (Francois’s,) Laveaux’ (Laveaux’s,) understod (understood,) acutal (actual,) Dessalines’ (Dessalines’s.) “It is a typical example of the cloud of lies which obscure the true history” (the cloud of lies which obscures,) “to neglect the race factor as merely incidental as an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (as merely incidental is an error,) Maurepas’ (Maurepas’s,) Capois’ (Capois’s,) strewed (strewn,) Clairveaux’ (Clairveaux’s,) wirter (writer,) indpendent (independent,) a missing parenthetical end-comma, tonelle (tonnelle?)

The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy .. was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

The Vorrh by B Catling

Coronet, 2015, 510 p.

The Vorrh cover

I had this on the back burner until I read the recent favourable review by Brian Kelly in the Guardian of The Erstwhile, the second part of Catling’s trilogy.

The book is an eccentric thing to be sure – featuring a mysterious forest, robots in basements, a more or less human cyclops, a bow forged from human bone and which has strange powers of attraction, a pioneering photographer, anthropophagi (a smaller species of cyclops – Catling seems to have a thing about one-eyed creatures – but whose heads protrude from their chests,) a ritual involving still-born or aborted children – but I fear you may have to be in the mood for it. And I wasn’t.

The Vorrh is a forest in Africa which may be the site of the Garden of Eden and may even still have living somewhere in its centre, Adam. Most of the action of the book, though, occurs in Essenwald, a European city “imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent” which lies to the Vorrh’s south-east. The time is sometime after the Great War – yet there are sections from the Victorian era featuring the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The more or less human cyclops is Ishmael, raised in the basement of 4 Khüler Brunnen by the Kin, gentle dark-brown robotic machines. He is rescued from them by the building’s inhabitant, Ghertrude Tulp, whose lifelong chastity is broken by her attraction to Ishmael. But having tasted freedom from the basement and seen the city via a camera obscura in 4 Khüler Brunnen’s upper levels Ishmael is not content and on Carnival weekend (a time of masked, licenced debauchery) travels the city, encounters and has sex with the blind Cyrena Lohr. The next morning, Ishmael disappeared, Cyrena finds she can see. As a result of this miracle she dedicates herself to finding him. Meanwhile the ability to cure or cause affliction has become transferable from person to person.

The city’s fortunes are tied up with trade with the Vorrh for timber, trade which can only take place via creatures known as the Limboia, whose cooperation is only achieved via the delivering to them of the bodies of still-born children, an enterprise in which a Dr Hoffmann is closely involved.

There are also passages featuring a Frenchman who is based on the real life Raymond Roussel, in whose book Impressions of Africa appeared a forest called the Vorrh. Likewise the names of Ishmael and Dr Hoffmann are, I’m sure, intended to have resonances.

In that review Stuart Kelly waxed lyrical about The Erstwhile as did Michael Moorcock about The Vorrh in his review. but none of this really grabbed me.

And the Muybridge strand was odd in that it did not link to the others. I suppose it may do so in subsequent volumes but that, along with the occurrence of at least 30 instances of “time interval later”, meant I found completing this something of a chore. Those subsequent volumes may have to wait.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was a publisher’s proof (or advanced reading copy as they are now known) so some or all of these may have been changed in the final published book.
“He had been in a slithering ditch at Passchendaele for two years” (no British unit was ever in the line that long) “had witnessed spectral visions .. Angels of the Somme” (Passchendaele isn’t on the Somme – and the Angels were seen at Mons,) at 23 “he stepped from a plane” 200 miles to the southeast of the Vorrh (a plane? in what must be the very early 1920s?) Prone (in the sexual encounter described “supine” is meant,) silkand (silk and,) workingmen (working men, cargos (cargoes,) “I loosen an arrow” (x3, arrows are loosed, not loosened,) “he had survived far worst” (worse,) leeched (leached, ditto for leeching vs leaching) “the surface is clear and highly reflective” (it can’t be both those things; clear = transparent, reflective = mirror-like, mirrors are not transparent,) affliction (affliction,) Misstress (Mistress,) a missing end quote mark, octopus’ (octopus’s,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb,) gotten (got,) vise (vice,) skeptics (sceptics,) fit (fitted,) “‘She’s just a bit ruffled, that all’” (that’s all,) staunched (stanched,) parquetflooring (parquet flooring,) “’I am the only person ever to ever have photographed it’” (one of those “ever”s is unnecessary,) the butlerhad (the butler had,) on all matter of things (manner,) no start quote when dialogue started Chapter 29. “He had aged seven years enough time for every cell in his body to change. A different man climbed these shadows and stairs, so why did he feel the same?” (in Victorian times was it known that every cell in the body changed over seven years?) lay low (lie low,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) undrgrowth (undergrowth.)

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Orbit, 2015, 379 p

The Water Knife cover

The south-western US states have run out of water. Federal authority has all but broken down; there are patrolled borders between states to cut down on refugees. Phoenix is a dust-bowl, any refugees that have made it from Texas face a life scraping on the margins, doing what they have to do. The South Nevada Water Authority under Catherine Case aggressively pursues its water rights over the Colorado River making Phoenix’s problems worse.

There are three narrative viewpoints; Angel, the water knife of the title, one of Catherine Case’s enforcers; Lucy, an investigative journalist; and Maria, a refugee from Texas scrabbling to survive. The plot centres round ancestral water rights which once belonged to Native Americans and which outweigh all others.

It is an almost relentlessly misanthropic endeavour. Only one character states a view approaching anything compassionate, “‘We’re all each other’s people…. When everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.’” Yet he then goes on to say what an immigrant from India had told him, “‘… people are alone here in America. And they don’t trust anyone except themselves, and they don’t rely on anyone except themselves….. India would survive all this apocalyptic shit but America wouldn’t. Because here, no one knew their neighbo(u)rs…. in America everyone had left their homes in other countries, so maybe that was why we’d forgotten what it was to have neighbo(u)rs.’”

More representative is when Angel describes “a view of the world that anticipated evil from people because people always delivered.” Contrast that to the essentially optimistic view of humanity in Naomi Mitchison’s The Bull Calves which I read just beforehand. If anything, The Water Knife actually shows the necessity for a resilient, well-ordered, balanced society, even in times of stress; but that is not an argument which Bacigalupi makes.

The back cover here reads (in part,) “One of the most exciting and original novels you will read this year.” I must disagree. It’s the same picture of degradation and selfishness peddled by too much recent SF. Only the details differ. Bacigalupi does it well though.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was an uncorrected proof (ARC) riddled with “a”s or “the”s or “it”s or other words either missing or extraneously interpolated eg “His was face was puffy” and “just another of victim of”. There were so many I gave up noting them. I hope most of these were cleaned up before actual publication. Missing start quotes if a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “she wrapped her arms around her herself,” (no second “her” needed,) “The went after the Calies” (they went after.) “Do find that’s true?” (Do you find?) “out of Hell , he’d,” (out of Hell, he’d,) “Lucy’s sister was the kind of people who broke eas(il)y” (the kind of person.)

The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 460 p. £14.99 Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 The Paper Menagerie cover

In the preface to this collection Liu says he doesn’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction – or, indeed, between genre and mainstream. For him fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over (an irreducibly random and senseless) reality; some stories simply literalise their metaphors a bit more explicitly. His position is borne out by this collection’s contents as many of the stories straddle those boundaries. Most are informed and coloured by the author’s Chinese heritage but the first few are more conventional fare.

The Bookmaking Habits of Selected Species is not about gambling but rather the ways in which different species (every sentient species it would seem) produce and consume books. In State Change Rina goes through life keeping her soul frozen in case she loses it – and her life with it. The Perfect Match reads a bit like a 1984 for the digital age. Tilly’s algorithm makes suggestions for you, finds partners for you, remembers for you. Its parent company Centillion’s mission statement is “to arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race.” Tilly, however, doesn’t switch off.

The only story in the book with no real fantastical content is The Literomancer, who is a Mr Kan, and can tell fortunes via calligraphy. He befriends Lilly, the daughter of a US secret service operative. In 1950s Taiwan that turns out to be dangerous.

Good Hunting is set in late 19th century China, and comes over as a fantasy and steampunk cross wherein a werevixen and her former hunter’s lives become intermittently intertwined. The inventor of the titular technology in Simulacrum disgusts his daughter by using his invention in a debauched way. After their estrangement he keeps a copy of her childhood self, which despite her mother’s entreaties she still finds off-putting. The Regular sees us in gumshoe territory. Police investigators have software to inhibit their emotions and, to access their data for use in blackmail, a serial killer is targeting only those upmarket call-girls who have had security cameras built into their eyes. The police aren’t interested and (the rather programmatically named) ex-cop Ruth Law takes the case.

Multiple award winner The Paper Menagerie gains its title from the collection of origami animals the protagonist’s mother, a mail-order bride from China, made and breathed life into. As he grows, her lack of integration to life in the US embarrasses him so that he neglects his Chinese roots. Partly written in the second person An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition deals with a project to use the gravitational lensing of the sun to search for extraterrestrial signals. This necessitates sending the receiver (and the humans to operate it, one of whom is “your” mother) to a point 550 AU away. The Waves is a strange beast wherein the occupants of a generation starship face a dilemma when life-prolonging technology becomes accessible. This on its own would have been enough for most authors but Liu goes further. When the ship reaches 61 Virginis the rest of humanity has got there before them and its members are so changed new choices must be made. The Japanese narrator of Mono No Aware (Japanese for the sense of the transience of all things) is faced with a threat to the solar sails of the generation starship carrying the last remnants of humanity fleeing from the destruction of Earth.

The longest story in the collection, All The Flavours, has little fantastical content bar the traditional Chinese tales with which it is interspersed in its account of the incoming of Chinese workers to 19th century Idaho and their (ultimately successful) attempts at fitting in. Boasting a Formosan narrator, A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is an alternative history wherein Japan proposed the project in response to the 1930s Great Depression. This being mainly an endeavour of Shōwa era Japan, regrettable incidents occur during its construction.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King features a peasant lawyer (or vexatious litigant according to taste) who can see and converse with the demon spirit Monkey King. His coming into knowledge of a suppressed book describing the atrocities of the Yangzhou massacre a century before constricts his options. In The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary the discovery of quantum-entangled Bohm-Kirino particles allows the past to be witnessed but the process of doing so destroys the evidence. Its inventor wants to demonstrate to the world the realities of Unit 731, the site of Japanese medical experiments on prisoners during World War 2 in Harbin province. Politics remains politics though.

Liu’s stories are never less than well-crafted, he has an excellent range, and a clear eye for the subtleties of human relationships. You will read worse.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- a team trace out (a team traces out,) “Eliot could not have written, and the world would have understood, Four Quartets without the scent of Eliot’s soul,” (either “not” is missing before “have understood” or the tense is awry – “nor the world understood” instead?) “so much of their lives are lived in..” (so much is lived in…,) over this shoulder (his shoulder,) to not ask (not to ask,) “the jade from which the cups were made had an inner glow to them” (the jade had an inner glow to it,) “all you’ve said simply show” (all you’ve said simply shows,) one of the older man (men,) of of (just “of”,) accused with murder (accused of murder,) Femal (Female? But this was in an extract of a poem in olde style language,) sprung (sprang,) “the flight of neutrons are determined” (the flight is,) “about ten years in age” (of age,) sheepherding (okay; shepherding has a different ring to it,) “a 120 miles per hour” (120 means one hundred and twenty; there is no need to preface it with “a”,) United Stat es (United States,) “more and more evidence … have come to life” (has come to life,) “reformed through ‘re-education’, They were released” (they.)

Shoreline of Infinity 3; Spring 2016

Shoreline of Infinityy 3 cover

In this issue there is an interview with Dee Raspin winning author of Shoreline of Infinity’s Story Competition for readers (from issue 1.) In SF Caledonia1, Monica Burns looks at the work of David Lindsay, especially A Voyage to Arcturus. Reviews2 gave a thumbs-up to five of the six novels considered. MultiVerse3 has two poems apiece from Jane Yolen and Marge Simon. Parabolic Puzzles4 asks how many aliens and fingers there are in a bar full of them.

In the fiction:-
Time for Tea5 by J K Fulton features an embedded 1.0 human-equivalent AI coming back to consciousness after over 3,000 years to find everything has changed but its Imperatives. Since it’s a kettle, those are to make tea.
The Slipping6 by Miriam Johnson. A new personality takes over a body from inside then sloughs off the old covering.
Lacewing7 by Edd Vick is a one-pager where two lovers have all of time and space at their fingertips. In the Jurassic they see and name a butterfly.
In Into the Head, Into the Heart8 by Thomas Broderick, a bar that successfully banned all modern technology has started to decline when a young inventor brings in a machine that will give people the nostalgic experience they want. Business booms, but the response of the inventor when the machine’s flaws are revealed is, to my mind, almost the opposite of what would be likely from the type.
It’s Been a Long Day by Tracey S Rosenberg. Lindia has foreknowledge of the deaths of people she meets. Her attempts to prevent that of newscaster Balcan Dobbs fail in a way she hasn’t foreseen.
We Have Magnetic Trees by Ian Hunter is narrated from the points of view of former sheep farmers who have tried everything to make a success and yielded to WEErd Wonders products genetically modified to withstand constant downpour. They worry it’s the thin end of the wedge. Notable for the use of the Scots word gubbed.
Pigeon9 by Guy Stewart conflates a real Wellsian time traveller with a past USA in which the passenger pigeon was not wiped out.
*The Great Golden Fish10 by Dee Raspin sees a widowed crofter from the time of the Highland Clearances rescued from his plight by a giant robotic golden fish.
The Beachcomber11 by Mark Toner is a graphic story using the ploy of an interplanetary beachcomber to enable a retelling of part of E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s The Skylark of Space (which on this evidence must have been the most godawful tosh. I may have read it as a boy but if so I’ve blanked it out.)
Extract from A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. Chapter Six in its entirety. This seems no less odd now than did the whole book when I read it in the long ago.

Pedant’s corner:- 1A in the Editor’s introduction an “of” is missing. 2 “her heavy modifications…. puts” (put,) “on the way to a hanger in Texas” (a hanger? A hangar is more likely,) a list of “what is”es none of which has a question mark after it, the Dettman’s (Dettmans; it was plural.) 3two lovers (lovers,) “with it fierce seers” (its.) 4“A gaggle … were” (a gaggle was,) “from the dangers gravitational waves (of gravitational waves.) 5“Their qualia, their subjectiveness, has gone” (OK subjectiveness is singular, qualia isn’t; but “their subjectiveness” was parenthetical: so, have gone,) “not what I remember dogs and rabbits to look like” (not what I remember dogs and rabbits looked like would be more natural but the narrator is an AI.) 6Written in USian – though curiously “manoeuvre” is rendered the British way, “I don’t know if he thought he could reverse it?” (is not a question,) “pulled handkerchief out” (a handkerchief,) too many instances of “time interval” later, “a multi-national cooperation” (reads oddly but this is SF, could be a portmanteau word formed from corporation and cooperative,) “I may have lost it” (might have.) 7Written in USian. 8Also written in USian, mat black (matt), “finally talking a look around” (taking.) 9Written in USian, H G Wells’ (Wells’s.) 10fit (fitted.) 11One speech bubble carries the phrase “46.72 light-centuries right?” as a calculation of distance from Earth, the next has a “character” say “We’re nearly five thousand light-years from Earth.” To compound this, then is added “and getting further at a rate of about one light-year per minute.” !!!!

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Richard Drew Publishing, 1985, 533 p including 1 p Note on the illustrations, 5 p prefatory poem, 4 p Haldane family tree and 125 p Notes on the text,

The Bull Calves cover

The novel is set in 1747, the year following that of the Jacobite cause’s final downfall at Culloden. Its plot unfolds over two days at Gleneagles, seat of the Haldanes (and Mitchison’s ancestral home) but the backstories of both Kirstie (Haldane) Macintosh and her husband William of Borlum delve into the long shadow thrown by the 1715 rebellion and the now all but forgotten Glenshiel rising of 1719.

The Jacobite rebellions are an itch that Scottish writers were seemingly unable not to scratch. (That this is no longer self-evidently true is, perhaps, a measure of how times have changed.) Walter Scott arguably had an excuse when he kicked off the historical novel with Waverley, Culloden was only ‘sixty years since’ as his subtitle attested (though see my caveats in that post’s Pedant’s Corner,) but this book was first published in 1947 a full two hundred years after the last of those events. (Then again, consider Zhou En Lai’s remark about the ramifications of the French Revolution -though it seems he was slightly misunderstood.) It cannot be denied however that the defeat of Jacobitism cemented the Union (which was then tempered by the acquisition of Empire) and the changes it brought about altered the Highlands, and their relations with the Lowlands, for ever.

Mitchison herself provides copious, very readable, sometimes intriguing notes on her novel, covering incidental details of the Scotland in which the book is set, the history of the Union and its effects on Scotland, the evolution of grouse shooting and much more.

The main characters in The Bull Calves are Kirstie and William Macintosh who are making a visit to Kirstie’s childhood home at Gleneagles. William’s family had been “out” in 1715 and his land was confiscated as a result. William himself had a price on his head and fled to the American colonies. On his return he managed to regain his Highland lands but despite not joining in the ’45 his assumed Jacobite sympathies mean his in-laws regard him with some suspicion. In that same interim Kirstie had made an unwise marriage to a dour Minister with the typically unsympathetic attitude of his type to the miners in his Ayrshire parish. There were doubts about his death and she has confessed to William that she had indulged in what may have been witchcraft, something which he dismissed out of hand. An on-the-run Robert Strange, who had been contracted to design and engrave Bonnie Prince Charlie’s (never distributed) banknotes – and was one of the author’s great-great-great grandfathers! – turns up, whereon William and a Haldane nephew contriving to hide him in the attic. Lachlan Macintosh of Kyllachy, who had set his cap at Kirstie in the long ago and therefore holds a grudge against her and husband both, and now believes he has compromising information about William’s sojourn in America, also arrives, thus putting all the plot motors in place.

Mitchison’s characterisation is delightful, extending even to minor figures such as Phemie Reid, Kirstie’s childhood nursemaid, and Mrs Grizzie, the Gleneagles housekeeper.

On the treatment meted out to the Mcgregor clan one character says, “‘If evil is done to one man or woman they may be able to … forgive their enemies. But if evil is done to a whole race of folk, they will be bound to do evil again.’” A more general, and still true, observation is that “…’those who are making the best living out of a country, they will be expressing their fine moral sentiments… But they will not be seeing the kind of a lie they are telling themselves….. they will believe that the present ordering of life was ordained of the Lord. Which is …. blasphemy…. But… (Highlanders) will do best when they are sharing, with everything held in common, the old way.’”

A flavour of the times is given by exchanges such as (between William of Borlum and Mungo, head of Gleneagles,) “‘It seemed to us that the Union with England was destroying Scotland. It had been bad enough with Queen Anne, but the new lot had no interest at all in Scotland, we were thought of as a county of England.’
‘Ach, yes,’ Mungo replied. ‘We found that down in Westminster, “Have we not bought the Scots and the right to tax them?”’

About the unequal conditions Scotland was subject to in the Union’s early days we have, “‘Our fisheries could compete with the bigger Dutch boats but the salt tax ruined them, our coal trade with Ireland suffered from a duty not put on English coal, our linen trade was attacked, for all it was our staple, …they wouldna buy our timber if it would mean spending money on roads.’”
Of the Ayrshire miners Kirstie incidentally remarks, “‘They would even keep the Popish holidays, such as Christmas.’” And Mungo supplies us with the typically Lowland sentiment, “‘English or Highland, what’s about it? You canna be trusting either of the two of them, although they have different kind of villainies.’”

Many people may ignore the Notes but I would urge you not to as for me that was where a lot of the interest lay. In them Mitchison made a plea for Scottish children to be allowed to express themselves in spoken and written Scots of their own district. That plea is no longer unheeded though it took nigh on forty years to be so.

She says, “At that time, as now in Scotland, a married woman was known by her maiden name.” This perhaps became slightly less true in some of the 70 years after her book’s first publication but has become so again, less as a cultural practice than an assertion of a woman’s individuality. In any case Scottish gravestones always attested to this phenomenon.

We are told that on his peregrinations down the country and back up again Bonnie Prince Charlie “paid for everything that he and his household got. Doubtless it was good policy for the Prince to pay, but – he did so. Cumberland was less particular.” On piety – or lack of it, “The Pharisees are well in control now, just the same as they used to be,” and, on the west coast, “in each succeeding generation the Elect manage to torture their children slightly less with fear of hell-fire,” On Scotland’s clinging to tradition, that” a church of hell-fire will be against change. In Scotland attention is still directed on personal sins, such as fornication, drunkenness and playing football on Sunday rather than social sins such as usury, and the forcing of the destructive facts of poverty on millions.” A cultural tic that has vanished in those 70 years is that, “God is called to save (the King) after every stage and screen performance, as well as by the BBC.”

We find in a note on Robert Strange that his betrothed, Isabella Lumisden, “did actually do the traditional thing, and hid him under her hoop, when a sudden searching of the house took place. Which only shows how much more gentlemanly, or less efficient, the soldiers who did the search were in those days.” Quite.

Much Scottish anxiety rested (rests?) on the tension between respectability and the desires of the flesh. Historically, respectability outwardly prevailed but Mitchison counters, “We would have it supposed that sculduddery (lewd behaviour, fornication) is far removed from our kailyards. Our illegitimacy statistics prove otherwise. So does our great national song, to a strathspey tune, of which not one verse is publishable.” Which last has me mystified. Does anyone know the song to which she refers?

In the context of authors seeking a new symbolism there is a mention of SF visionary Olaf Stapledon. Unlike others’, his was external rather than internal.

Pedant’s corner:- Forbes’ (occurred one line after a Forbes’s, but this one was in dialogue,) span (it was in dialogue but there was a “would be spun” later in the same speech,) Bearcrofts’ (Bearcrofts’s,) James’ (James’s,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) “better than it had use to be” (used.)
In the Notes:- Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “now that the Department of Agriculture provide” (provides,) Blythwood Square (Blythswood Square,) out there is was possible (it was,) the Elect manage (strictly manages,) King of England (an odd thing for a Scot to write,) a Dago thing (not an expression likely to find favour today,) Cloud Cookoo Land (Cloud Cuckoo Land,) Americars (Americans,) “The evidence seem to come” (seems,) Mickie (Mickey,) less (fewer.)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

NAT TATE An American Artist 1928 – 1960 by William Boyd

21 Publishing Ltd, 1998, 71 p.

NAT TATE cover

Complete with cover flap comments from David Bowie and Gore Vidal attesting to its subject’s importance this is an account of forgotten US artist Nathwell ‘Nat’ Tate, whose final artistic act was to burn as many of his works as he had managed to lay hands on (“perhaps a dozen survive”) before committing suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The usual biographical conditions apply, obscure origins, father unknown, mother died young, adoption by her rich employer (emphatically not Tate’s father but an avid admirer and buyer of his work,) an influential teacher at Art School, chance viewing of his work by the founder of a gallery, socialising with other artists, the development of his style – aslant to that of his contemporaries and details of which Boyd provides – descent into alcohol, meetings with Picasso and Braque, disillusionment. The text is interspersed with photographs of three of the surviving paintings and various important stages of Tate’s life, four of which depict Tate but in only one is the adult artist the sole subject. Boyd gives us a convincing, if short, portrait of an artist and his life.

Yet the story of Tate is of course entirely fictitious. Not fictional, such biographies imagining the circumstances and lives of real people abound, but fictitious. Tate never existed. He is a total invention by Boyd.

On the book’s publication in 1998 the cover picture, containing as it does a cropped version of that black and white photograph of the adult “Tate” obviously photoshopped over a coloured one of New York, might have provided a clue to those not in on the joke but anyone at all familiar with Boyd’s work coming to it post hoc would be immediately aware of its confected nature on its first mention of Logan Mountstuart, protagonist of the author’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart. Boyd would also employ photographs to an equally verisimilituding end within the text of his 2016 novel Sweet Caress.

A hint of Boyd’s purpose in writing this book (apart from sending up the hagiographic artistic biography of the forgotten genius) may be gleaned from the passage where there are speculations on possible reasons for “Tate”’s destruction of his work and his suicide. “Tate was one of those rare artists who did not need, and did not seek, the transformation of his painting into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold on the whim of a market and its marketeers. He had seen the future and it stank.”
Pedant’s corner:- “the layers of white turps-thinned paint that was repeatedly laid over them” (Boyd treats this as if paint is the subject of the verb laid; that subject is in fact layers, hence “were laid”,) swop (swap.)

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 254 p including ii p list of principal characters and ii p map of the North Atlantic Ocean. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Sea Road cover

This is the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed beyond the end of the world, gave birth to the first European to be born in the Americas beyond Greenland, voyaged to the court of the King of Norway and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Her tale is so extraordinary that I was irresistibly drawn to the parallel of Poilar Crookleg, whose first sentence (see here) I have echoed above.

Expanding on her source material in the Icelandic sagas, Elphinstone in The Sea Road has Gudrid’s story framed by a Praefatio and Postscriptum written by Icelandic monk Asgar Asleifarsson who is – at the behest of Cardinal Hildebrand for the sake of some ephemeral Vatican political intrigue – taking down the memories of a Gudrid now a grandmother. On her dark (to Icelanders) appearance – though in Italy she is fair – she says, “Now it makes no difference. Old women are the same the world over.” The text is mostly Gudrid’s as supposedly written down by Asgar but there are occasional scenes observed in the third person and rendered in italics.

Elphinstone’s handling of her tale is exquisite. The characters live on the page and the relationship between Gudrid and Asgar is deftly portrayed. Despite his replies to her never being transcribed we still get insights into his thoughts and feelings. There is a prefatory list of principal characters which is unnecessary as there is never any difficulty in distinguishing them.

Gudrid was born just after Christianity had come to Iceland and on the death of her mother was fostered out by her father to his sister’s home. She herself was baptised when she was fourteen. There is tension between the old religion and the new in Iceland and Greenland both and some in Gudrid herself. Her first crisis comes when she is asked as a young girl to help a witch (this is the word used in the text) by singing along with the old songs.

Her father Thorbjorn, a friend of Eirik Raudi (Eric the Red) had always hankered after adventure and finally undertakes the voyage to Greenland taking Gudrid with him. Though of course the winters are harsh, through Asgar Gudrid tells us that “Eirik’s land is better than any she saw till she went to Norway” and at least till the time she left, “There have been no killings in the Green Land.” Leif Eiriksson, Raudi’s son, has by this time discovered Vinland. Gudrid might have been married to him but for his dalliance with an earl’s daughter in Ireland. Instead she marries another of Raudi’s sons, Thorstein, with whom she made her first voyage to Vinland, but he falls sick one winter in Greenland and dies along with Grumhild, the wife of their host Thorstein the Black. The two survivors spend five months in the same hut with the dead bodies, haunted by their ghosts. “In that place the dead watched everything,” she tells Asgar. “All that winter we were outside the boundaries of this world of yours,” and, “You look as if my callous attitude shocked you, and yet you’d not be shocked at all if I were a man and told you I’d wiped out a whole settlement in blood feud.” Spirits were never very far away in Gudrid’s world. “The launching of a ship is no place for new gods.” It is with a second husband, Thorfinn Harlsefni, come to the Green Land to make profit, that she again sails to Vinland and this time beyond.

Among Gudrid’s many insights we have, “You think there is a pattern to the way people behave… But I have never got to know any household well, when I didn’t find out quite soon that they don’t keep to the pattern….. the pattern doesn’t exist. I’ve never met a family that behaved normally. Have you?” which may be a comment on Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families. Then we have, “Girls are much harder to deal with generally but as far as I can make out boys of that age never think about anything except sex.” Make that boys of any age perhaps.

The Sea Road is a wonderful reminder that the Dark Age world was not as parochial as we might believe; a magnificently told tale about an extraordinary woman and extraordinary times, yet times which to Gudrid herself were unexceptional.

Pedant’s corner:- In the list of characters; Chirstianity (Christianity.) Otherwise:- Asgar mentions the clock; mechanical clocks were not invented till the late 1200s – but water clocks were well known, “the herd of ponies come out” (comes out,) Halldis’ (Halldis’s,) “the family quarrel with their neighbours” (the family quarrels with its neighbours,) Eirik says ‘Aren’t I enough for you?’ (Do Icelanders say this so ungrammatically? Wouldn’t they say, “Amn’t I?”) “none of her children believe” (none believes,) “the household have discussed” (has discussed,) staunch (stanch,) unfocussed (x2, unfocused,) “In the darkness Gudrid eyes escape the blank face of the dead” (Gudrid’s eyes,) Freydis’ (Freydis’s,) Chistendom Christendom.)

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