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Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2010, 398 p.

The Stars in the Bright Sky cover

This is a sequel of sorts to Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos where a group of girls from the school Our Lady of Perpetual Succour went on a trip to Edinburgh from their town – known in Warner’s novels as ‘the Port’ – for a choir competition, but they saw it instead as an opportunity for a night on the razz in the big city.

Now adults, Kylah, Chell, Manda, Kay, Finn and Finn’s friend from university, Ava, are planning a holiday abroad. They meet up on a Friday evening at a hotel near Gatwick Airport preparatory to utilising a last minute booking for taking off to Europe, settling on Magaluf as a destination.

Much has changed since The Sopranos. In the interim one of them has had an abortion, another a baby – always referred to by mother Manda as ‘wee Sean’ – by a waster of a father, and Finn’s studies at Oxford have created a distance between them. She has, for instance, never been to Rascals, the Port’s newest night venue, which Manda in particular regards as the height of sophistication. (I use that last word in its modern sense rather than the original of world-weariness.) Despite, though, Ava’s upper middle class background they begin to settle down together and forge – or re-forge – bonds. Manda is something of a force of nature, overbearing and scornful, but also vulnerable. It is through her mislaid passport that the group’s plans go awry and they are forced to forfeit the already outlaid money and to spend the weekend in or around the airport and its hotels waiting for a cheap flight to Las Vegas. The interlude provides time for an eventful trip to Hever Castle and back plus copious drinking opportunities.

Incidental comments and snippets underline the contrast between those who stayed in the Port and those who left and Warner’s focus on the girls’ relationships lends a creeping claustrophobia to the situation. Their knowledge of and regard for each other, though, remain the central core of the book. Yet there are still revelations. In one break away from the others Finn describes Ava to Kay as “a legendary, awful cokehead” who, she hopes, has given it up.

Perhaps a not-so-subtle note of class consciousness on Warner’s part occurs when Ava says, “‘When you’ve plenty money there’s no such thing as a drug problem,’” because your parents can get a lawyer to get you off on a first offence. Yet if you live on a council estate the authorities will throw the book at you. Ava continues, “‘It’s all semantics. What problem? You have a supply, you have no drug problem.’”

As befits his characters the dialogue tends to the earthy but Warner’s ability to get inside the heads of young women eager for a bit of hedonism (some of whom are customarily given small chance of that) is impressive.

I did not much take to The Sopranos when I read it, nor to the rest of Warner’s early work, as I said here on his later novel The Deadman’s Pedal. However I found both that and his The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven more congenial. The Stars in the Bright Sky was published between those two books. Does it say something about me or Warner’s later writing that I had less of an aversion to it than to The Sopranos? (I’m not in a hurry to go back to that book and check, though. Too much else to read.)

Pedant’s corner:- ballisters (balusters,) a missing end quote mark, “‘you credit card’” (your credit card,) ass (it’s ‘arse’ – which is employed later,) “the swinging toilets door” (toilets’ or toilet’s.) “Hanging from … were a gang of” (was a gang of.) “A moody pocket of lads were stepping out” (strictly, a pocket .. was stepping out.) “A babble of excited voices were …” (strictly, a babble … was,) “a vast mass of …were visible” (a vast mass … was visible,) “high jinx” (high jinks,) sprung (sprang.) “The vast bulk of … were back” (the vast bulk …. was back.) “‘That a sweet thing ..’” (That’s a sweet thing,) “the camera was a snugged, tight lump was in the skirt pocket” (no second ‘was’ needed,) “laying in the lap” (lying,) shrunk (shrank,) “she was laying out long upon her bed” (she was lying out,) sunk (sank,) “with a curled lips” (no ‘a’.) “‘You don’t seems nervous.’” (seem,) “a dossal attached to their sides” (dorsal?)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Harper Collins , 2017, 342 p.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

This novel is divided into three sections, the very long Good Days, the shorter Bad Days and the even shorter Better Days. Viewpoint character (and narrator) Eleanor Oliphant is a loner who affects to be precise and fastidious, with supposedly little grasp of cultural norms, a bit of a joke to her work colleagues. But she sends herself to sleep at the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka.

Eleanor Oliphant is, of course, far from fine. It is apparent from very early on that her narration is likely to be unreliable – the vodka alone would suggest that – but Eleanor’s past is obviously very troubled indeed. Her abusive, and abusing, mother talks to her once a week over the phone from prison. The crime she committed we don’t know until much later (but a series of hints, subtle and otherwise, the biggest being the fact of Eleanor’s facial scarring, allows us to guess) and she is responsible for many of Eleanor’s attitudes to society, her peers, officialdom and herself. It is her mother’s inner voice that Eleanor hears when she is considering any course of action.

It’s a fine line to tread as an author where the reader knows that bit more about what might be going on than the narrator seems to, an even finer one when the narrator is hiding things from herself (and therefore necessarily from us.) By and large Honeyman succeeds in this, though.

Eleanor has conceived a liking for, an attachment to, singer Johnnie Lomond, whom she thinks might be the one to make her whole. She has, of course, never met him; so has no idea of his character. Into her orbit comes the IT man at her workplace, Raymond, who to Eleanor’s eyes is slovenly in dress and appearance and repugnant in habits due to his smoking. (Drinking vodka to excess seems to be all right, but smoking isn’t.) Nevertheless, Raymond and she begin to go out for lunch occasionally. It never crosses the narrative’s mind that this may be a prelude to more than friendship (but then Eleanor is obsessed by Mr J Lomond.)

When Raymond teases out some details of her past she denies it was so bad and says she thinks herself lucky because, after her mother was off the scene, she was looked after by adults. That did not stop her from again suffering abuse – mental, physical and sexual, mercifully briefly described – by a boyfriend she had at University.

Perhaps the crucial point of the novel is when Raymond and Eleanor witness the collapse in the street of an oldish man called Sammy, to whose aid they come, calling an ambulance and accompanying him to the hospital. In the aftermath of this they become almost part of Sammy’s family.

Her inevitable breakdown comes and Eleanor starts to see a therapist. Initially reluctant to reveal anything of herself she eventually lets her guard down and we learn the details of her childhood trauma.

Or do we? We only have Eleanor’s word for it that those events as described to us are true. It is a testament to Honeyman’s handling of the narrative (a few slips in Eleanor/Honeyman’s precision aside) that even after the revelations there is still a niggling doubt as to who was responsible. It remains possible that hidden deep inside her there is an alternative, much darker, explanation for the tragedy that befell Eleanor’s family. After all Eleanor Oliphant is an unreliable narrator, and quite possibly, disingenuous.

Pedant’s corner:- “bon mots” (bons mots,) “Mr J Lomond Esq.” (the correct description is either Mr J Lomond, or, J Lomond Esq.) snuck (x2, sneaked,) Mearns’ (Mearns’s.) “None of his muscles were visible” (none … was visible,) “there were a variety of” (there was a variety of,) “at the hairdressers” (hairdresser’s,) sprung (sprang,) crystalizing (crystallising.)

Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1986, 461 p plus ix p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel is the only dissenting place of worship in Carlingford. New Minister Arthur Vincent has come from Lonsdale to take over from old Mr Tufton. The congregation has been largely approving. One day, though, Vincent sees Lady Western – a dowager who is younger than her step-daughter-in-law – on a visit to Mrs Hilyard, and his head is turned, despite her being an adherent of the Church of England. His parishioners would much prefer he has nothing to do with such people, though the Chapel’s senior deacon’s daughter, Phoebe Tozer, is also thought to be a bit above herself in setting her cap at him.

Mrs Hilyard is living in reduced circumstances and on a pastoral visit to her Vincent finds her background convoluted, not to mention melodramatic. She prevails on him to put her daughter into the care of Vincent’s mother and sister in Lonsdale, without quite explaining the need. In the meantime Vincent’s sister, Susan, is being wooed by a Mr Fordham. The reader senses immediately there is something awry about the relationship. This gentleman is indeed the villain of the piece, and has used Fordham’s name to disguise himself. His connection to Mrs Hilyard and abduction of her daughter from Lonsdale when Vincent’s mother is visiting her son in Carlingford provide the motor for a rather lurid sub-plot.

Oliphant was obviously a keen observer of the politics of a parish and congregation. Vincent’s lack of enthusiasm for visiting and cups of tea had already been looked on askance but his distraction by the plight of his sister (which has to be kept as secret as possible) and the necessity of seeking her whereabouts lead to dissatisfaction in his congregation at his regular absences and eventually a call for his resignation. A resounding speech by Mr Tozer at the meeting to decide on this rouses all but a few in his defence.

It’s a perfectly respectable example of the nineteenth century novelist’s art but, overall, has that era’s tendency to wordiness, exacerbated here by descriptions like “the Nonconformist,” “the young Dowager” and “the worthy deacon” instead of the character’s name, not to mention a tendency to end a clause – or even a sentence – with a preposition. It might make a decent televisual alternative to the usual Austen remakes, however.

Pedant’s corner:- the Miss Hemmings (the Misses Hemming,) the Miss Wodehouses (the Misses Wodehouse,) “and stanch to her chapel” (staunch,) syren (siren,) stupified (stupefied,) “if there are Squire Thornhills” (strictly, Squires Thornhill,) sen- sations (in the middle of a line? sensations,) “were worthy the occasion” (usually ‘were worthy of the occasion,) “ a mistake unworthy a philosophic observer” (usually ‘unworthy of a’,) “in his behalf” (usually ‘on his behalf’,) villany (usually villainy,) “when the gray morning began to drawn” (dawn.) “‘Where you not afraid, Susan?’” (Were you not,) “‘These sort of people’” (ought to be ‘sorts of people’ but it was in dialogue,) rung the bell (rang,) a missing quotation mark at the resumption of a piece of direct speech. “‘The doctor is is very good.’” (only one ‘is’ required.) “Vincent had rising hurriedly” (had risen hurriedly,) hooping-cough (whooping cough.)

Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2012, 248 p.

 Reality, Reality cover

The title of this second collection of Jackie Kay’s short stories reflects the contents. Most of the stories have shifting perspectives or protagonists who are unsure of their surroundings. All are very well written.

Reality, Reality is a stream of consciousness narration by a woman who is attempting to reach the final of a TV cookery competition, or thinks she is.
Another stream of consciousness, These are not my Clothes is told from the point of view of an inmate in a care home – who is not receiving very good care. The title is a phrase she keeps repeating to the nurses who dress her. Her only confidante is the part-time cleaner Vadnie.
From its first sentence I could sense from the way it is written that The First Lady of Song is a piece of Science Fiction; which is what, indeed, it is. It is narrated by a female singer, who centuries ago, was drugged by her father with a potion that meant she would not die. Her performing names always start with the letter ‘E’ – Elina, Eugenia, Ekateriana, Elisabeth, Ella, Emilia. The only change over time is that her skin darkens. Kay doesn’t bring much that is conceptually new to the old SF chestnut of the life eternal but she does write it well.
In The Pink House a heavily pregnant woman – also heavily debt-ridden – finds refuge in the house that Elisabeth Gaskell once lived in.
Grace and Rose is the story of the first lesbian wedding in Shetland, told by both its principals. A joyous tale of love and fulfilment.
In Bread Bin the narrator’s grandmother tells her she has never had an orgasm – but always had a clean bread bin. The narrator is similarly starved of sexual ecstasy; till the age of forty-nine.
Doorstep sees Cheryl decide to spend Christmas on her own; to the displeasure of her latest girl-friend Sharon.
Hadassah is a retelling of the Moses story, updated to feature a young refugee, Hadassah, who becomes the King’s eyes and ears. The King is running a people-trafficking and prostitution operation.
Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, The White Cot features two women in a holiday let picking at the cracks in their relationship. One had wanted a child, the other hadn’t. The white cot in their room becomes the material focus for the first’s longings.
In Mind Away the narrator’s mother is gradually losing her memories and thoughts. Together they seek out the doctor into whose head the thoughts have gone.
Two girls who were on holiday together aged ten and nine the year their parents swapped partners, forever after call themselves Barn and Tawny due to witnessing the activities of an Owl.
In The Last of the Smokers two life-long friends contemplate giving up by comparing smoking to ex-lovers.
A woman seeks to find the Mini Me inside her by dint of dieting. Repeatedly.
Mrs Vadnie Marleen Sevlon (the same Vadnie as in These are not my Clothes) took the title Mrs as she thought I it would engender respect. She also invents a husband and children for herself reflecting that, ‘Only people with money have choice.’
The Winter Visitor appears to our narrator every so often without fanfare, taking over her life, until vanishing again as mysteriously.

Pedant’s corner:- “like she is tossing a ball” (as if she is tossing a ball,) “the river Mersey” (river here is a proper noun, so River Mersey,) “and, and” (only one ‘and’ needed, no comma required.) “None of them have” (strictly ‘none of them has’ but it was in the narrator’s voice so perhaps true to that,) “coming forth to carry me home” (I had always thought the words from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were ‘coming for to carry me home’ and it seems that is indeed the case (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_Low,_Sweet_Chariot#Traditional_lyrics)) homeopaths (homoeopaths, please; or even homœopaths,) “I clamour through” (it was through a window, so ‘clamber’,) sprung (sprang,) edidn’t (didn’t,) “as if it was the scene a crime I had committed” (scene of a crime I had committed,) doubt (a cigarette end is spelled dout,) lasagne (lasagne. Narrator’s spelling? Or author’s?) “‘could of’” (could have; but this was in dialogue.)

Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence

Corgi, 1987, 238 p.

Its Colours They Are Fine cover

Called “A vivid portrayal of Glasgow life” in the title box on its front cover Its Colours They Are Fine is divided onto three sections – each itself made up of five, five and three connected stories respectively.

Section One illustrates the young life of Aleck, growing up in the crowded conditions of Govan before the slum clearances. Tinsel relates the boredom of a pre-Christmas trip to the Steamie and contrasts it with the fulfilment of putting up seasonal decorations. Sheaves finds Aleck at the Harvest Festival at his Sunday School, one of a crop of souls destined for Christ. The Ferry deals with the exoticism and fear of an adventure across the Clyde to Partick. Gypsy tells of the delights and otherwise of the Kelvin Hall carnival and the mutually mistrustful relationship of Govan folk with those they call Gypsies, the people of the travelling shows. Silver in the Lamplight describes life in the back courts and games such as KDRF (Kick Door Run Fast.)

Part Two is more diffuse, featuring episodes from different stages of life. Its Colours They Are Fine recounts the anticipation of and satisfaction from taking part in an Orange Walk. Brilliant repeats this for an evening out, tribalism – of a more parochial sort – being again in evidence. The Rain Dance relates the immediate precursors to and the events on the day of a “mixed” wedding (ie between a Catholic and a Protestant.) Neither family is best pleased. The Palace sees an older man, now jobless but with little prospect of new employment, make a human connection in the Kibble Palace. The chimes of an ice-cream van in Greensleeves lead a retired widow living on the twenty-second floor of a tower block to reflect on her isolation.

Section Three is the most elegiac in tone. In Changes a man returns from a New Year spent in London visiting friends pondering on the fullness and transitoriness of little lives. Auld Lang Syne describes the events of a quiet Hogmanay (for the narrator) but one who is still bound by the traditions attaching to it. All meanings ofBlue, as in the colour of Rangers shirts, and of the Virgin Mary in Art, its associations with sadness and a patch of sky caught between clouds, resonate in the narrator’s memory of the day his mother died.

Glasgow life is here to be sure; working class Glasgow life especially. Its attitudes and habits, its prejudices, the odd casual violence, but also the camaraderie, the fellow feeling. The book in total has become something of a series of snapshots of the past though. Many of the circumstances that led to the sorts of lives portrayed here are gone now – though some will remain – but still Spence has peopled his tales with recognisable characters with full inner lives and descriptions of the Glasgow urban environment to match those of the countryside of other Scottish authors. The prose is written in straightforward English but the dialogue is in an uncompromising Glaswegian.

For those of a sensitive disposition note that the word ‘darkies’ is used twice. (In Glasgow in the days Spence is writing about, though, its use was mainly descriptive and usually not meant derogatorily.)

Pedant’s corner:- Little star of Bethlehem (later given as Little Star of Bethlehem,) a missing end quote, a Roman thumbs up said to mean survival, thumbs down to mean death (this was a common belief at the time these stories are set but I’ve since read that gladiators’ fates were determined the opposite way.) “On the platform were a number” (was a number,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3.)

The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams

Published as Straw Dogs by Bloomsbury Film Classics, 2003, 157 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

I have not seen the film into which this was made and which provides the title for this reprint of the original text of Williams’s novel. The subject matter did not attract me. It still doesn’t. I only read this for completeness, because it’s on that 100 best list.

 Straw Dogs cover

In the run-up to Christmas a snow storm cuts off the village of Dando Manchorum in the English West Country. At a do in the village a young girl, Janice Hedden, goes missing. Search parties are organised. George Magruder, a US citizen, decides to take his English wife Louise and daughter Karen back home to Trencher’s Farm for safety before returning to the search. In the meantime Henry Niles, convicted child molester and murderer, has been thrown out of the van in which he was being transported from a hospital procedure back to the local prison for the criminally disturbed and is wandering the roads. Magruder’s car hits him and the family takes him back to the farmhouse till a doctor can come out to see him. When George finds out who Niles actually is he phones the police but due to the snow drifts they won’t be able to get there for hours.

Several of the locals, especially Tom Hedden, the missing girl’s father, convinced Niles must have abducted her, hear the news Niles is at the farm and they decide to take justice into their own hands. The siege of the title is their attempts to get in and those of George and, less so, Louise, to resist them. The beseigers are partly inspired by the tale of Soldier’s Field when some of their ancestors collectively killed the rapist and murderer of a young local girl but as none would talk weren’t subsequently prosecuted.

Niles himself, portrayed here as a bewildered, inadequate soul and of course totally innocent of abducting or killing Janice Hedden (though not the crimes for which he was incarcerated,) plays an off-stage part for most of the novel, locked in the Magruder’s bathroom before being stuffed into the loft.

The relationship between George and Louise is gone into in some detail but in the end reduces to the kind of sexual politics reflective of the decade in which The Siege of Trencher’s Farm was written (the 1960s.)

There isn’t really much insight into the human condition in these pages. The locals are depicted as very insular (which may be true to life) but the besiegers are more or less unthinking yokels – or else disturbed. I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone unless they like descriptions of violence. It’s yet another crime book on that 100 best list. Presumably it’s only on there due to its – or the film’s – notoriety. It certainly hasn’t much by way of literary merit.

Pedant’s corner:- “worked as a mechanic as the Compton Wakley garage” (mechanic at the Compton Wakley garage,) hung (several instances; hanged,) Niles’ (Niles’s,) “‘he won’t say nothin’. all right.’ “ (comma after ‘nothin’’ rather than a full stop.)

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2006, 375 p.

 The Bullet Trick cover

The novel is set variously in Glasgow, London and Berlin and intercuts between the three at intervals. It starts with William Wilson, mentalist and illusionist, having fled back to Glasgow to hide after a sojourn as a conjuror in the Berlin night club Schall und Rauch has gone wrong. He had only taken that job after a one-off gig at a London venue – a benefit for a retired policeman, Jim Montgomery, nicknamed ‘the Wizard,’ – was followed by the violent deaths of the club’s proprietor Bill and his boyfriend Sam, whose knowledge of Wilson had got him the gig. Bill had prevailed on Wilson to use his palming skills to remove a package he said belonged to him from the detective’s jacket pocket. Montgomery wants it back – even tracking him down to Berlin. Wilson’s need to return to Glasgow depends on his awareness of this and of the possible dangers of the conjuror’s bullet trick of the title. Only once back in Glasgow does Wilson open the package to see what it contains.

This is where the whole enterprise falls into what I might call the standard thriller plot. A single untrained individual besting the world and solving a decades old mystery don’t ever strike me as very likely. Welsh’s gifts as a novelist are many, a feel for character and an eye for description among them. She does this sort of plot well enough but somehow or other the reader (well, me) always suspects that Wilson’s situation isn’t going to turn out to be as black as he paints it.

There is a reminder of the buttoned-up attitudes inculcated into Scots by centuries of Calvinism when Wilson says of an old friend that he, “pulled me into a hug that was traitor to his west coast of Scotland origins.”

The cover of the edition I read is emblazoned with a quote from Kate Atkinson, “Her most thrilling yet.” I was not quite so enthralled, maybe because of the conjuring business. If a faker is telling you something then you must expect fakery. Of the four Welsh novels I have read so far the best has been Tamburlaine Must Die, perhaps due to its historical setting.

Pedant’s corner:- conjurer (I prefer the spelling conjuror,) Saturday Night at the London Palladium (that Palladium TV show was on Sunday nights,) “her bosoms” (a person traditionally only has one of those,) “there were nothing but shadows” (there was nothing,) junky (junkie,) “licensed grocers” (grocer’s.) “The crowd were clapping” (the crowd was clapping,) “the audience were getting used to” (the audience was getting used to.) “He’s doing his standard grades now” (it is – was – a proper noun, Standard Grades,) “over an over” (over and over,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘You could of found me’” (You could have found me. This was in dialogue but the speaker was German and I suspect would not be so ungrammatical when speaking English.)

Brond by Frederic Lindsay

Polygon, 2007, 220 p. First published 1984. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Brond cover

Glasgow University student Richard sees a man throw a boy off a bridge into the River Kelvin but at first thinks he must have imagined it. Through the medium of fellow student Margaret Briody, whom he fancies and who asks him to deliver a package for her, it is not long before he is drawn into a complex situation involving IRA sleepers, multiple murder and the machinations of agents of the state against Scottish independence activists (though this last does not become clear until quite late on in the book.) Chief of those agents is the mysterious Brond of the title, whose baleful presence pervades the novel.

Before settling into the more or less standard thriller mode, though with the odd philosophical aside, the narrative has a tendency to be slightly overwritten, as if Lindsay is trying too hard, though there are some fine touches. (Of the noise-propagating acoustics of the University of Glasgow’s Reading Room Robert says, “It was such a drawback in a library I was sure the architect must have won a clutch of awards.”)

The politics of the plot are mostly relegated to the background. One character describes Scotland as a valuable piece of real estate, another opines, “here in Scotland we have this difficulty finding our voice.” One English girl questions Robert, “‘What do you mean “accent”?’” before adding, “‘I don’t talk like a Cockney… I talk like ordinary people who sound as if they don’t come from anywhere.’” One of the spooks speaks of the necessity “‘to forestall … the risk, however remote, of the natives here getting restless.’”

In my view there are too many thriller/crime novels on that “100 Best” list. Brond is yet another. I can see, because of the background politics, why some people might regard it as a significant Scottish novel but it doesn’t, to my mind, really address the nature of Scottishness, or go much beyond “the state acts in its own interests” trope though it incidentally reflects attitudes of some English people to their neighbours.

It does, however, all pass easily enough but I was never able to suspend my disbelief to the required degree.

Pedant’s corner:- like lightening (lightning,) sulphur lamps (they did give off a yellowish light but they were sodium lamps,) the Barrows (always known as the Barras, never the Barrows. Its name above its gates even says ‘the Barras’,) contigent (contingent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, comitments (commitments.)

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