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The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J Macdonald

In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, Warner Books, 1988, 187 p. First published 1984.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This final instalment of the author’s childhood memoirs sees him, having at the second attempt passed the bursary exam, finally off to the “big” school in what he perceives as the metropolis of Tarbert though by wider standards it is little more than a village. In his new school the headmaster “didn’t really expect boys to behave themselves – he had seen too many boys for that – but he did expect them not to get caught.”

Before that, though, the author had time to aid Old Hector, debilitated by malaria contracted in his sole journey away from the village as a seaman, with milking his cow daily – which has the side advantage of providing the opportunity to have a sly smoke without the knowlegde of his parents. Hector wasn’t really old but his infirmity meant he depended on others, a dependency made worse by the death of his sister who had dedicated her life to looking after him. Macdonald, in considering how Hector would have to sell his cow when he leaves for school, conceived of the idea of advertising for a household companion ‘with a view to matrumony’ for Hector, a plan kept secret between the two of them. (Later, however, Macdonald’s father surprises him with his knowledge of Finlay’s part in the scheme. How did he know? “You never could spell matrimony.”) The first replies were unsuitable in various ways but in Macdonald’s absence at school someone did come to fulfil both aspects of the design. These machinations give the opportunity for some light humour as does the visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, that particular incumbent being a Gaelic speaker.

There is a more reflective aspect to the text when the author mentions the melancholy of being present when a language goes into its death throes. (Though nearly ninety years on from the times described here the Gaelic language still manages to survive.) The assumption in the village and more widely on Harris and elsewhere in the Hebrides was that to get on a child had to get out, that not to do so would be a failure, a factor which would inevitably lead to a hollowing out of life on the islands. Macdonald’s going to the big school was a first step on that journey. This quality of Macdonald’s memoir is of a piece with one of the perennial considerations of the Scottish novel; the sense of nostalgia, of things lost, of a strange incompleteness. I suspect that is one of the hangovers of the Union of the Parliaments and the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Macdonald also has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape description.

Macdonald’s growing to adulthood lay under the shadow of the looming Second World War. There is a grand set piece when the lads who have signed up are piped on to the ferry to the mainland to join their regiment, the ill-fated 51st Highland Division. This was before the actual formal commencement of hostilities when, “Nobody heard Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the Sunday because, in the Hebrides in those days, radio sets were never switched on on a Sunday – not even for the news.” The “wireless” in those days had vagaries of its own which is illustrated by the author with a comparison that is now itself outdated, “the sudden demise of the accumulator tended to have the sort of explosive effect that the telephone bill has nowadays on a house with daughters.” Macdonald’s thoughts on the whole matter are expressed by the sentiment that, “Nobody ever had a ‘good’ war and I can’t imagine how anyody could coin the phrase in cynicism or in jest.” He had a near escape himself when he and his brother unscrewed the spikes from a mine that had floated onto the shore and then hammered them onto their door as a makeshift knocker. His father was appalled when he discovered this.

He himself had been a sniper in the Great War (a conflict to which he never referred) and would not touch a gun since. So its is that on one of Macdonald’s returns home for the holidays he is surprised to find his father kitted out in khaki and with a rifle. He had joined the Home Guard. He allows Macdonald one shot of the rifle (wildly inaccurate of course) but on practice with his platoon merely jerks the rifle instead of firing it.

The drawbacks of progress are illustrated by the demise of the corncrake whose cry is Macdonald’s abiding memory of his childhood and whose habitat was destroyed by the improvement of the soil’s richness by the application of fertiliser reducing their scrub ground cover. Also the local oysters and wolf mussels die out because the run-off from the new internal toilets was being directed straight into the sea. The Lysander in the title refers to an RAF spotter plane which patrolled the waters round the islands in search of U-boats.

It is odd to see words such as ‘carry-out’ and ‘screwtops’ given quotation marks but English was Macdonald’s second language.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) a closing inverted comma where there hadn’t been an opening one, Coolins (a curious Anglicisation given Macdonald’s Gaelic childhood, in most texts in English Skye’s mountains are spelled as in Gaelic, Cuillins,) “since the balances of males to females was totally disproportionate” (the balance … was,) some commas missing before or after pieces of direct speech, miniscular (x2, minuscular,) “honoured more in the breech” (breach.)

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1981, 459 p. First published 1814.

 Mansfield Park cover

Well, this started out well enough: with one of those pithy Austenisms on page one, “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them,” but I think it is safe to say that had Austen’s literary reputation rested on Mansfield Park alone it would not be so high as is usually asserted. The main man of large fortune here is Sir Thomas Bertram (owner of a plantation in Antigua) who married a Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon. Her two sisters married less well, one to Rev Mr Norris, who then was able to secure the living in the gift of his brother-in-law and was therefore reasonably situated financially, but the other “disobliged” her family by marrying a Lieutenant of Marines without education, fortune or connections and so ensured a breach with her sisters.

The Rev Norris having died, his wife moved into Mansfield Park – and fancied herself as running the place. She took it into her head one day to relieve her poorer sister of the care of one of her children and, with the assent of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, Fanny Price came to stay at Mansfield Park. There she is treated very much as the poor relation, receiving her cousins’ cast-off toys, the room she is given to use having no fire laid, and treated as a dogsbody by Mrs Norris – though less so by Lady Bertram – a dogsbody who should nevertheless be grateful for her condition. Sir Thomas she finds scary and aloof. The only one of the family who treats her with any consideration is the younger Bertram son, Edmond. The older son, Tom, is a bit of a wastrel (as was the wont of older sons with the prospect of inheritance.) Mrs Norris is always complaining about Fanny’s habits and supposed deficiencies and similarly misguidedly sagacious-seeming about what is right and proper. We all know a Mrs Norris. The local clerical living has been taken over by a Rev Grant whose wife’s sister and brother, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to stay and so enter the social circle of Mansfield Park.

Sir Thomas’s fortunes go up and down and he is forced to make a voyage to Antigua. In his absence the Bertram children and their friends hit on the idea of putting on a play. There follow several utterly tedious chapters on which play should be chosen (one called Lovers’ Vows is eventually selected,) who should play whom, and what alterations to the house are required to stage it. Fanny is mostly a bystander in all this but agrees to help with rehearsals.

Okay, this all has a plot function since it illustrates Henry Crawford as not to be trusted – he uses his part to try to suborn Fanny’s elder female cousin, by now engaged to the wealthy (but dull) Mr Rushworth, away from her fiancé – and so forms Fanny’s opinion of him. At the same time she has become friends of a sort to Mary Crawford. In one of their conversations there appears another Austenism as Mary tells her, “there is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry …… it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

The play is destined never to be performed as Sir Thomas’s early return – and high disapproval – puts an end to it. Henry Crawford later sets his sights on Fanny, whose refusal of his proposal mystifies all and sundry. A return to her family in Portsmouth for a period of reflection is settled on and while she is there the later unfoldings of the plot take place, off-stage in London.

As a novel this has severe limitations. Fanny is not a very active protagonist, almost an absence in fact. She has to be self-effacing due to her station in life but as a result becomes all but invisible as a character. The omniscient third person narrator (who only twice interpolates an “I” into the text as a sort of commentary on what we are being told) more often relates events and characteristics rather than illustrating them. This may though be to attribute twenty-first century expectations of a novel on to one two hundred years old. The whole is of course as long-winded and circumlocutious as any other early nineteenth century novel but that cannot really be held against it.

From a modern perspective it is signal that the text directly mentions slavery only once, but that institution was of course the foundation of all that the denizens of houses like Mansfield Park, and their frivolous pursuits, depended on. It was not Austen’s main focus in any case, which as is customary were the vagaries of the marriage market and the gradations of social class. The sections set in Portsmouth do bring out the contrast between the hustle and bustle of life in more constrained circumstances and that in a supposedly sedate house like Mansfield Park.

Pedant’s corner:- Some Austenish spellings – everybody, everywhere, everything, anybody, nowhere, anywhere, background, akin, are all written as two words – staid (stayed,) stopt (stopped,) stampt (stamped,) chuse (choose, but ‘choose’ itself did appear once,) headach (headache; though ache itself was spelled in the usual manner, as was heart-ache, albeit with the hyphen,) buz (buzz,) cruize (cruise,) birth (berth,) or early nineteenth century usages, fulness (fullness,) intreat (entreat,) cloathe (clothe,) sunk (sank,) sprung (sprang,) shrunk (shrank,) etc. Otherwise; “the Miss Bertrams” (the Misses Bertram,) “the Miss Bertrams’” (the Misses Bertram’s,) “the Mr Bertrams (the Mrs Bertrams would be misconstrued; so ‘the Misters Bertram,’ or ‘the Messrs Bertram,’) “the two Miss Sneyds” (the two Misses Sneyd,) “the Miss Maddoxes” (the Misses Maddox.) “‘How many Miss Owens are there?’” (Misses Owen.) “Mrs Grant has has been” (only one ‘has’.) Mr Yates’ (Mr Yates’s,) Beachey Head (Beachy Head,) “a last look at the five or six determined couple” (couples,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech. “‘- So many months acquaintance’” (months’ acquaintance,) “to stay dinner” (to stay to dinner,) similies (similes,) “by the bye” (later expressed as ‘by the by’, which I prefer anyway,) “‘I did not use to think’” (did not used to think,) “better that Maria” ( better than,) “heir apparents” (heirs apparent.)

The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace by Eric Brown

Titan Books, 2020, 343 p.

 Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace cover

I have mentioned before that the detective story/crime fiction isn’t really my thing – nor Shelock Holmes for that matter. This however is by my friend Eric Brown who, although he has written in the crime genre, started off in the SF field and this certainly counts as Science Fiction. It is, as its title suggests, a mash-up (I was going to say curious mash-up but that is its whole point) of the work of H G Wells and Arthur Conan-Doyle. As is the way of such things we have many references throughout, starting early with the presence of Mr Herbert Wells himself – here a scientific liaison officer in the Martian Embassy to Great Britain and an aspiring writer whose output is deemed too fanciful to appeal to the public – and his love interest, Cicely Fairfield, whose writing efforts have been more successful.

This is a world where the Martians of War of the Worlds have returned, complete with their signature tripods and nightly cries of “Ulla, ulla,” and armed with antibodies to Earthly pathogens, transforming life on Earth with technological advances. This is a good brand of Martian, who came in peace, having overthrown their acquisitive predecessors. Or so they say. Some people on Earth doubt this story and there is an active political resistance to the Martian influence. Among their number are George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton.

Holmes, having established his credentials by solving the case of the murder of the Martian ambassador two or so years before the main plot of this tale begins – albeit by concealing the identity of the true culprit – is invited to Mars to investigate the murder of Delph-Aran-Arapna, one of the finest Martian minds of the era. Curiously no reference to this creature can be found in any of the Martian literature which Holmes has read. (The great detective has of course made himself fluent in Martian.) Our narrator, as is customary, is Dr Watson, who in an anti-Martian public meeting has made the acquaintance – or rather by design been made her acquaintance – of a Miss Freya Hamilton-Bell, a prominent member of the anti-Martian faction.

The journey to Mars having been made (also making his appearance here is a certain Professor Challenger,) Holmes and Watson are soon contacted by Miss Hamilton-Bell and told of the Martians’ plan to replace well-known or powerful men from Earth (or mostly men) with simulacra – with all the attributes, memories and brain-power of their originals’ but controllable at a distance – as a means to taking over Earth and eradicating humans entirely. Fortunately there is an underclass of Martians who were recently at war with the dominant aggressive faction who are able to help.

Unsurprisingly in a series of novels trading on the Holmes mythos, Professor Moriarty – indeed a whole series of Moriartys as the Martians have cloned his body multiple times – is a pivotal figure. More surprisingly he is less of an antagonist to Holmes than the reader might have thought.

All first-person novels (all novels, perhaps?) are an act of ventriloquism but that act is surely more difficult if the voice being simulated is not of the author’s own devising. Brown has made a good fist of the mash-up, capturing the stilted, repressed, awkwardnesses of “Watson’s” style and character, but also made it more accommodating to a modern audience. (Words like antibodies, pathogens and feisty seem unlikely for the 1910s. The agency of Miss Hamilton-Bell as active and important in the anti-Martian movement seems also to be a more modern note – but then again the book is set in the age of the suffragettes, who could be an unruly lot – though they are unmentioned.)

Holmes fans might hanker for more of the supposed deductive reasoning powers of Conan-Doyle’s hero (which are used sparingly here) but the Wells influence, the flavour of the scientific romance, is more to the fore. Brown is primarily an SF writer after all.

An enterprise like this is surely not meant to be conceived as a serious work of fiction and should not be read as such. As an entertainment, though, it succeeds admirably.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: substantial, plus variants such as “in due course” etc. Otherwise; Cicely (the real-life Miss Fairfield was named Cicily,) nought (naught,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) smidgen (I prefer ‘smidgin’,) cannister (canister,) imposters (I prefer ‘impostors’,) cicatrise (cicatrice.) “The content of their originals’ minds have been reproduced” (The contents of their originals’minds,) “nine pence” (ninepence,) “the two Miss Fairfields” (the two Misses Fairfield.)

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

Hamish Hamilton, 1956, 382 p, including ii p Bibliography and x p Index.

 Gallipoli cover

This book has been languishing on my tbr pile for decades. Quite why I left it so long I’m not sure but I’m glad now I picked it up. The author was clearly well versed in his subject. It is lucidly written and mercifully free of the alphanumeric soup of formation designations which tends to bedevil works of military history. This one focuses more on the personalities central to the story of Turkey’s involvement in the Great War – the Young Turks, Mustafa Kemal, Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, and the various commanders – as well as the details of the many military engagements which marked the Dardanelles enterprise.

The idea out of which the landings on Gallipoli arose came from Lt-Col Hankey, Secretary of the War Council, as an attempt to evade the impasse on the Western Front, where the Allies were neither advancing nor killing more Germans than British soldiers were being killed, by a flanking move through Turkey and the Balkans. Moorehead outlines the political manœvrings between Kitchener and Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) on the for side and Lord Fisher (First Sea Lord) with various others against. The issue would lead in the end to the break-up of Churchill and Fisher’s hitherto close friendship.

The aim of the operations was first, using obsolete battleships (whose loss could be borne) to force a passage of The Narrows, a pinch point between the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, and then, on to Constantinople in the hope of prising Turkey out of the war. The initial solely naval effort to do so having foundered on an undetected minefield, plans were made for an amphibious landing (actually two) to take the Gallipoli peninsula and protect the flank of a further naval expedition though the Narrows. This amphibious landing was the biggest in history up to that point. It was planned in three weeks. (Compare Operation Overlord in 1944, which took nearly two years to prepare.)

Turkey had recently suffered a series of military humiliations in the Balkan wars of the early Twentieth Century, leading to the Young Turks seizing control of the government. Their hold was precarious though, and another defeat might have brought their downfall. The withdrawal of the Royal Navy, seen as all-powerful, and its French counterpart after their initial setbacks led to an upsurge in Turkish confidence and, Moorehead goes on to say, acted as a trigger for Turkish resentment to find for itself a target in its minority (and Christian) Armenian population upon whom the government thereupon instituted a policy of genocide – murder, rape (Moorehead uses the words “molest women” the first time he deals with this but the more accurate term later) and forced migration amounting to a death march. The strong implication is that without the Allied ships’ withdrawal the persecution of the Armenians would not have occurred.

The Great War in general was a catalogue of lost opportunities or doomed attempts to follow up early success. Moorehead says that over Gallipoli in particular hung a peculiar lethargy, a miasma of indecision. The one exception to this was Mustafa Kemal, who would come to be known later as Kemal Ataturk and who twice, in the hills above Anzac during the first landings and again near Suvla Bay for the later one, managed to be by happenstance in the correct spot to appreciate the danger for the Turks inherent in the situation and to forestall Allied progress. (Some idea of his desperation and borderline fanaticism is that one of his orders at Anzac read, in part, “I don’t order you to attack. I order you to die.”) None of this excuses the failure of General Stopford, commander at Suvla, (with his insistence, the weariness of his men notwithstanding, that no advance could take place without artillery support) to understand there were no Turkish entrenchments there which required such an insurance, nor of overall Commander Ian Hamilton to impress upon Stopford the necessity of quick movement into the hills when briefing him in the first place.

Moorehead is good on the conditions endured by the troops – not least the depredations ensured by the infestations of flies as summer approached, landing on food as soon as it was uncovered so that no mouthful was without its insect accompaniment – and their diverions when no fighting was taking place. With dead bodies and excrement also prevalent it is no surprise that dysentery was soon rampant among the soldiers – even the headquarters staff. British soldiers’ rations were almost entirely of bully beef, whose fat melted in the can, supplemented by plum and apple jam, with no vegetables to vary the diet. By contrast any army officer invited aboard one of the ships – away from the flies, the lice and the smell of death and decay – marvelled at clean linen, glasses, plates, meat, fruit and wine. (Of course, on land there was a decent prospect of surviving a battle; but if a ship went down you most likely drowned.)

As a precursor to Turkey’s entry into the war, and without their say, so the Germans had mined the Dardanelles (obstruction of which was an act of war) so blocking the vast majority of Russia’s exports. Russia’s grain and other exports piled up in the Golden Horn before their ships had to sail back to Russia. When the time was ripe once more to reopen trade the Revolution in that country had removed (the now Soviet) interest in the trade. According to Moorehead (at time of writing in 1956) that pre-war trade through the Dardanelles had never revived in the forty years since.

One of the aspects of the Gallipoli battles I had not realised before was the extent of submarine operations. Several British submarines penetrated into the Sea of Marmara and devastated Turkish shipping there. One submariner even swam ashore to blow up an important railway line. German submarines – easily able to access the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar as no technology then existed to detect or prevent them – managed to torpedo some Allied warships.

The campaign saw military innovation on a large scale: as well as the experimental use of submarines and aircraft, radio, aerial bombs, land mines and other new devices, it trialled the firing of modern naval guns against shore artillery and the landing of soldiers by small boats on an enemy coast. But the story is mainly of opportunities missed and

Nevetheless it may have continued for much longer (and Moorehead suggests even succeeded in its aims) had not the Australian journalist Keith Murdoch arrived and witnessed the danger and squalor in the dugouts, the sickness, the monotonous food, the general depression. Despite being only a few hours at the front, in collaboration with the only British journalist Kitchener had allowed on the expedition, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, he planned to bypass the usual channels and break the agreement not to send reports without submitting them first to the censor at headquarters. His private letter to the Australian Prime Minister reached the eyes of Lloyd George (by now UK Prime Minister) who himself bypassed official channels by circulating it directly to the Dardanelles Committee without first asking Hamilton for his comments. The man sent out to take over from Hmailton and assess the situation for himself, Lt-Gen Charles Monro, already firmly believed that the war could only be won on the Western Front by killing Germans, Turks did not count.

Thus was set in train the process, sanctioned in the end by a visit from Kitchener himself, which led to the withdrawal of troops, at first only from Anzac and Suvla. That this was accomplished without the Turks getting wind of it – at Anzac the opposing lines were in places no more than ten yards apart – and with no loss, with the help of the famous improvised device of the self-firing rifle using dripping water from a can to fill another attached to the trigger or fuses and candles to burn through string and release a weight, in retrospect still seems astonishing.

That left only the beachhead at Cape Helles, upon which the German commander of the Turks, Liman von Sanders, unleashed a delayed attack accompanied by the heaviest artillery bombardment of the campaign on the now depleted British force the day before the final 17,000 troops were to be taken off. The British fire in response, perhaps inspired by desperation, was so devastating that the follow-up Turkish infantry refused to charge – something rarely seen before on the peninsula. This repulse convinced von Sanders that there would be no further British evacuation, but of course there was. Yet again the withdrawal was completed in the utmost secrecy and highly successful. Despite widescale destruction of supplies as the withdrawal took place the booty of food, weapons and ammunition retrieved from Cape Helles by the Turks took two years to clear up.

The hopes of those who advocated withdrawal never came to fruition, none of the troops from Gallipoli (save the Anzacs) were ever sent to the Western Front. Many more than had landed on Gallipoli were posted instead to the Salonika front or drawn into the long desert campaign against Turkey in Sinai and Palestine. Towards the end of 1918 plans were even well advanced to try again to force the Narrows by ship but were pre-empted by the Armistice.

While never neglecting the other side of the argument Moorehead’s position on the Gallipoli campaign is clear throughout the book; that its objective was worthwhile, and achievable, that its success would have shortened the war, given succour to Russia and even prevented the Revolution there and so given history a different direction.

A cruel comment on the whole business is that no special medal was awarded to those who took part.

Pedant’s corner:- “England” or “English” are used extremely often as the descriptive term for the UK or British respectively, which last also of course encompassed Empire/Dominion troops. Otherwise; Novorossik (Novorossiysk,) De Robeck (at the start of a sentence x 2. The man’s surname was de Robeck, the capital ‘D’ is therefore erroneous,) Keyes’ (several times; Keyes’s,) “on the tide” (this was in the Mediterranean. I always understood that the Mediterranean had very little in the way of tides,) “for all the control exercised on then” (on them,) Liman von Sanders’ (von Sanders’s,) thtat (that,) d’Oyly-Hughes’ (d’Oyley-Hughes’s,) commandos (these didn’t exist in units called such until World War 2,) Xerxes’ (Xerxes’s.) “At the the front” (only one ‘the’,) “rising to a crescendo” (a perennial favourite, this; the crescendo is the rise, not its culmination.)

Interzone 289

Nov-Dec, 2020, TTA Press

 Interzone 289  cover

Editorial duties are taken by artist Jim Burnsa where, in the light of Covid, he reflects his roads not taken are most likely now behind him. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted considers “the slow cancellation of the future,” the recycling of cuture in all its forms, the lack of innovation during the past forty or so years. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb relates the thoughts and fears engendered in her by finding slow worms in her compost bin at the allotment.

Book Zone returns to its place just after the fiction. Duncan Lawriec finds Stephen Baxter’s World Engines: Destroyer and World Engines: Creator a muddle as if he’s crammed all his favourite SF tropes into one (double) package, seemingly designed to provide a “complete history of the solar system and the evolution of life as we currently understand it.” Stephen Theakerd notes Machine by Elizabeth Bear is heavily influenced by James White’s Sector General stories and so promised too much but was ultimately entertaining while The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem is like a post-apocalyptic Gilmore Girls but was very good and the author is now a new favourite of his. Maureen Kincaid Spellere thinks Mordew by Alex Pheby is amazing, not a thing she says lightly: the author shows an extremely thorough knowledge of the fantasy formula but constantly resists its confines. Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic, a reworking of the story of Joan of Arc in which she is chosen by fae spirits who are “as dangerous as they are brilliant,” didn’t work for Juliet E McKennaf but may well for others, while she is enthused enough by Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke, the second “A Poison War” novel, to read her next book. I review Cixin Liu’s collection Hold Up the Sky whose stories mostly deal with mind-expanding concepts but sometimes lack emotional engagement.

As to the fiction:-

In Cryptozoology by Tim Lees a man whose marriage is breaking down tries to rescue it by embarking on an expedition with his wife (who believes they exist) to find all the legendary monsters (in which he doesn’t believe.) When they argue, and she leaves he carries on on his own. The story ends the way we know it will.
The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay by John Possidente1 combines two stories in one as a journalist on space station Humboldt has a starship captain relate her experiences on a planet with odd seasons at the same time as murders are occurring on the station.
The Way of his Kind by James Sallis2 is a very short tale of the advent of a new kind of human – or are they aliens?
The Smoke Bomb of Matt Thompson’s story3 is an unusual type of drink, concocted by the altered digestive system (seen through skin and organs rendered transparent) of an indentured woman. Her keeper becomes wary of a new customer.
Again very short, There’s a Gift Shop Now by Françoise Harvey tells of an experimental school with oddly proportioned rooms and spacious ceilings – which had unfortunate effects on its pupils. It’s now a tourist attraction full of warning signs.
The narrator of The Third Time I Saw a Fox by Cécile Cristofari4 is an old man working the night shift in a museum. He talks to the exhibits, dinosaur and whale skeletons, (all casts rather than the real fossilised bones) and to the anatomically extreme “circus man”. They talk back.
Rather appropriately this year’s James White Award winner, Limitations5 by David Maskill, deals with a medical problem being suffered by a fluorine-breathing alien, an alien which can protect itself via Biological Quantum Optimisation.

Pedant’s corner:- aa missing comma before a piece of direct speech. b“Aren’t there are number of” (Aren’t there any number of.) c“humanity has recognised the destruction they inflicted on the Earth” (the destruction it inflicted,) ditto “They have pulled back” (‘It has pulled back’.) d“Helen Alloy (a pun apparently on Helen of Troy)” (maybe but possibly – more likely even? -on Helen O’Loy from the 1930s SF story by Lester Del Rey which had that title,) steam-rolled (steam-rollered.) e“around feet” (around the feet,) “all fulfil their purpose very effectively all while” (no second ‘all’.) f“None of these tensions are” (None of these tensions is.) “None of these central characters are” (None of these central characters is,)
1Written in USian. 2Written in USian. 3wettened (usually ‘wetted’,) “time interval later” count: 3. 4“None of us have.” (None of us has,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 5accepter (acceptor?) CaF2 (makes the chemical equation it’s in unbalanced, because it’s the wrong formula for carbon fluoride. It ought to be CaF4,) “one less friend” (one fewer,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “off of” (just ‘off’ please,) focussing (focusing.)

My 2020 in Books

Goodreads has a list of the books I read in 2020. 114 apparently, out of a target I set for myself of 80. (At one point I was on track for 120 which would have been ten books a month!) The 114 total was probably helped by Covid restricting outings and adventures and leaving time free for reading. Even so I read a fair number of longish books in 2020 and didn’t have to cram in short ones to meet the 80 – which I did the previous year when I was shooting for 100.

The list is here if anyone needs a reminder.

I’ve set myself the same target again this year.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2014, 445 p.

 The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle cover

Like Sally Magnusson, Wark is a female Scottish journalist who has turned her hand to writing novels – though Wark is probably more widely known and her novel was published first.

The titular legacy here (though its nature makes the reader suspect it may have a double meaning) is of a house in Arran – an island of which we are provided a map between the title page and the story proper – in response to a written request Elizabeth Pringle received from Anna Morrison, a summer visitor to the island in her daughters’ youth, that if she ever wished to sell, Anna would be interested in buying. Years later Pringle remembered this and almost on her death bed and with no close relatives to consider made the bequest. By this time Anna is developing dementia and it falls to her daughter Martha to accept the offer on her behalf and occupy the house. Chapters dealing with Martha’s experiences are interspersed with extracts from a journal Pringle made shortly before her death at the behest of a US citizen, Saul, now a Buddhist on the off- (Arran’s) shore Holy Isle, wherein her life story is unfolded.

Martha is troubled by the bequest, not least due to the presence of a Cadell ink-and-watercolour painting on one of the walls. (Cadell was one of the Scottish Colourists and his work is valuable.) The solicitor assures her Pringle was in her right mind and surely wished the painting to be included. She forms a friendship with Catriona, proprietrix of a hotel where she stays while setting the house to rights. Catriona’s brother Niall was Pringle’s gardener and very attractive. Martha’s problems with her mother’s ongoing dementia are exacerbated by the absence of her younger sister, Sue, working in Copenhagen, with whom her relationship is strained.

Pringle had on the surface an uneventful life, marred by the death of her father and subsequent loss of the farm he worked, which necessitated the move of her mother and herself to the house she would leave in her will. Her fiancé Robert had ambitions, and, given a chance of running a sheep station in Australia took it, but Martha was too attached to Arran and distressed by the recent death of her mother to go with him. She enjoyed walking in the Arran hills and during the Second World War helped with the parties searching for the many aircraft downed in fog or other unfortunate circumstances. Her only other liaison apart from Robert was with a US airman in his brief spell on the island. It is Pringle’s recollections which form the most interesting strand of the book even if Martha’s difficulties with her mother and sister are well enough handled. An entry in Pringle’s journal tells us one of her “favourite books was Sunset Song….. I would like to have met someone like Chris Guthrie…. If I had a heroine, it was her.” However, neither of the lead female characters here approaches Chris Guthrie’s stature. The journal also comments on the repressions endemic in a Scots upbringing before recent times. “It had always been a mystery to me why ministers would encourage children to believe they were sinners.”

The modern sections are more heavy going. There is something about the prose that is plodding, leaden, adjective-laden, with too much description of interiors. Despite Wark’s knowledge of Arran the occasional forays into its landscape do not fully spring to the mind’s eye and her handling of Martha’s romantic attachment to Niall verges on the Mills and Boon. The central event of the tale, Martha’s main discovery about Pringle’s life, is not adequately foreshadowed. We are told Martha feels apprehension about opening the door into the eaves which had been wallpapered over but have been given no prior reason for her to feel any such thing. Wark has written a second novel: I’m not in any great hurry to read it.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: 8. Otherwise; St Clements (St Clement’s,) “wiled away the years” (whiled away,) missing commas before and after pieces of direct speech, “aren’t I?” “Aargh!! Wark is Scottish, the speaker was Scottish. The phrase is, ‘amn’t I?’,) “the Botanical Gardens” (Usually referred to as the Botanic Gardens,) “before” (appears three times in the space of two lines, twice in succession at the end one sentence and the start of the next; a might excessive, I would submit,) “to go the graveside” (to go to the graveside,) Yeats’ (Yeats’s,) crafts (of ships, the plural then is ‘craft’,) a reversed double quotatiom mark at the beginning of ‘”splinter filled…”’, “since she’d had been” (either ‘she’d’ or ‘she had’,) “‘I looked it up the imternet’” (up on the internet,) Mrs Beetons’s (Mrs Beeton’s,) twin-engine (usually twin-engined,) airplane (aeroplane, please,) “the Waverly paddle steamer” (Waverley,) artemesia (artemisia,) soflty (softly,) clam (calm.)

When I Whistle by Shūsaku Endō

Quartet, 1979, 275 p, including iv p Preface. Translated from the Japanese, 口笛をふく時, (Kuchibue wo Fuku Toki,) by Van C Gessel.

 When I Whistle cover

A chance encounter on a train with a former schoolmate forces a man called Ozu (I can’t remember being told his first name) to think about a boy at school who was dubbed Flatfish. Flatfish, a new arrival in Ozu’s class (not the top set by any means,) unfortunately had an odour but, because he was seated next to Ozu, by default became his best friend. Ozu had to explain to him all the unwritten rules but Flatfish continually managed to get himself in trouble both by accident and by being himself. The defining moment of Flatfish’s life was an encounter the pair had with two girls from the local girls’ school – with whom they ought not to have had any contact by the strict rules of the time – on the way home one day. Flatfish formed a lasting but doomed attraction to Aiko, the girl who, in an act of compassion, bandaged his injured hand. These schooldays were in the 1930s, Japan was embroiled in China and militaristic attitudes abounded but the nature of schooling (harsh) and the trials of dealing with the opposite sex come over as being not too dissimilar to Western experiences of the time.

In the novel’s present day, Ozu’s son Eiichi is a practitioner at the dispensary of the local hospital and eager to climb the greasy pole of the medical profession so does not demur from the outmoded prescribing and treatment practices of his superiors. He notes, in particular, the habit of telling soothing platitudes to patients. Despite his liaison with a nurse, Keiko, he sets his designs on his boss’s daughter, but has a rival in Doctor Kurihara who also has a nurse on a string. Relations between the sexes in Japan had clearly also undergone a more liberal change post-war. Eiichi then is complicit in administering a new, otherwise untried, cancer treatment devised by a firm owned by Kurihara’s father.

Flatfish not being academic quit school and got a poorly paid job but when war with the Western powers came (the feeling was that Japan would easily defeat them, of course, and at first it seemed so) was swiftly drafted into the miltary and sent to Korea. Nevertheless, he inveigled Ozu to seek out Aiko and give her a pen as a token of his esteem. She in the meantime had married a young naval officer. The reader suspects, rightly, that none of this will come out well. This thread between Aiko, Flatfish and Ozu is what binds the book together.

When I Whistle isn’t one of Endo’s better novels even if it is one of his later ones. There is something about the writing that is sketchy or ill-considered (which doesn’t seem to be because of translation) and more than once information or characters’ thoughts are repeated that have no need to be.

Still, the reflection, “People often wonder when they will die but they rarely wonder where they will die,” is original but, “Now, when all was lost, he felt he understood the meaning they had given to his life,” is a novelistic thought if there ever was one.

The Preface tells us that the author was himself in hospital for a considerable time with various complaints and during one operation his heart stopped. But he survived and continued smoking. It is noticeable that the doctors in this novel all smoke. Then again, it was first published in 1974.

Pedant’s corner:- “if worse came to worst” (if the worst came to the worst,) “None … were” (several times. ‘None …was’.) Opthamology (x 3, Ophthalmology,) knit (knitted, please. Okay the translation is into USian, but still,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax; the crescendo is the rise.)

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle

Ebury Press, 2016, 312 p, plus vip Introduction by Irvine Welsh.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 A Sense of Freedom  cover

Boyle was at one time dubbed by tabloid newspapers as the most violent man in Scotland. The book is an account of his life and, in part, a description of why he feels that designation was perhaps unwarranted. Not that he was in any way a shrinking violet. I most likely would never have read this had it not been on that 100 Best Scottish Books list. That the book is there is most probably due to the light it shed on the conditions inside Scottish prisons during the author’s various incarcerations, his attempts to stand up against them and the violence to which he was treated in order to control his (and other unco-operative – ie recalcitrant – prisoners’) behaviour, his rebellions against the system and those upholding it at times channelled into what have come to be known as “dirty” protests.

The early parts dealing with Boyle’s childhood and early adolecscence had echoes of No Mean City – back courts, middens, rooms-and-kitchens, single ends, initiation into crime and violence – not least in the self-imposed pressure to act up to the stereotype of the hard man. Boyle’s slide into a life of crime was compounded by poor schooling combined with lack of expectations, and an apparent relative ease of committing petty crimes without detection. Despite his revulsion at young offenders’ institutions and Borstal, on coming out he quickly fell back into his old ways and progressed into more serious crimes.

He was twice tried for murder but acquitted the first time – and he claims he was unaware of and therefore not responsible for acts of intimidation against witnesses which occurred while he was on remand. By his account he was innocent of the murder for which he was found guilty and suggests that evidence against him was planted by the police who also put pressure on witnesses to testify against him. But after that earlier acquittal (and no doubt because of his reputation) they were out to get him. (In the afterword to this edition he provides the identity of the real culprit; something he had not done when the book was first published in 1977. Honour amongst thieves, and all that.) For that reason and the harsh conditions inside, he saw police and prison officers both, as enemies and acted accordingly. The same is obviously true in reverse. He was seen, justifiably, as a danger.

His life was turned round when he was taken in by the Barlinnie Special Unit, set up to provide a more ameliorative means of coping with prisoners and to rehabilitate them. An art tutor left behind some modelling clay one day, Boyle worked with it and so found he had a talent for sculpture. Almost as an aside he reflects on the mutual incomprehension of the guards and prisoners; while the former still saw them as ravening wolves, he says it would never have entered the heads of the latter to harm any woman entering the unit as a visitor.

The Special Unit did not succeed with all its inmates and was the subject of suspicion by some in authority who thought it was ‘soft’ on prisoners. It closed in 1994. Irvine Welsh’s introduction to this edition laments its passing and the deterioration of social conditions in Scotland in the years since, the increase in drug use etc, the loss of an escape hatch via education, not to mention the overcrowding in prisons leaving them nothing more than containment facilities “with rehabilitation pretty much an afterthought.”

It has to be said, poor schooling and Boyle’s lack of interest in it or not, the book is well-written, even though it occasionally feels the need to define terms such as “steamie” and “altar boy” which are surely widely known, certainly in Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- Lots of instances of singular nouns (such as “a group” or “each of us”) having a plural verb form. Otherwise; St Francis’ (St Francis’s,) scarey (scary,) near-alchoholics (near-alcoholics.) “Started cutting my on the back of the neck” (started cutting me,) “vocal chords” (cords,) “and took Ben away, leaving, me alone” (took Ben away, leaving me alone,) “Dostoevsky ,” (should have no gap between Dostoevsky and the comma,) “too much But” (either the full stop is missing, or, ‘too much but’,) discoloration (discolouration is surely to be preferred,) grill (grille,) Alex Stephen (elsewhere ‘Stephens’,) Parkhufst (Parkhurst.)

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