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Garnethill by Denise Mina

Orion, 2014, 427 p.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 Garnethill cover

Maureen O’Donnell is an abuse survivor in a relationship with a psychiatrist at the same hospital where she is receiving treatment for her continuing trauma. After a night out with a friend she tumbles straight into bed and wakes up in the morning to find her (married) boyfriend tied up in her living room with his throat slit. The police, the man’s wife and politician mother all believe Maureen, or her drug dealing brother, did it. In an attempt to make sure her name is cleared Maureen begins to investigate the crime herself.

The proximal subject matter, sexual abuse in institutions, is an important issue but I am astonished that this book could appear on anyone’s list of best or favourites as Mina’s writing leaves a lot to be desired. There is a profusion of telling not showing plus acres of unconvincing dialogue. Chapter titles tend to be people’s names but quite often those people barely appear within them. Every time there is a police interview we are told about the tape recording protocol. It is as if Mina believes the reader must be shown every little detail of her hero’s experience. We really don’t. In what must surely be a breach of police good practice one of the investigating officers conveniently gives her privileged information.

The novel is set in Glasgow but the city itself seems absent. None of its vibrancy or character comes across. Also there are constant references to the Byres Road, the Great Western Road, the Maryhill Road. No Glaswegian I have met has ever mentioned a street by name and used the definite article. It’s always just Byres Road, Great Western Road, Maryhill Road. No “the”.

Yes, the purpose of this sort of thing is the unfolding of the plot and the unravelling of “whodunit” and in this respect it just about meets the need. Yet even here there was a hiccup. Quite near the novel’s end Maureen is told the name of the murderer by one of her interviewees but Mina does not let the reader know it at that point. I don’t read much crime fiction but I would submit such an attempt to prolong suspense artificially is unfair on the reader. (That the murderer’s identity could be worked out fairly easily vitiated that attempt in any case.)

The more the book progressed the harder my suspension of disbelief became. Towards the end I wasn’t believing any of it.

Moreover the book is riddled with punctuation errors (see Pedant’s corner.) The edition I read was a reprint; the latest of numerous editions. (Goodreads lists well over ten.) How can these errors not have been spotted and rooted out long before this? Does no-one care about quality control? Some might say these are niggling concerns but when they stop a reader in his/her tracks and force a line, sentence or paragraph to be re-read to decipher the sense it becomes non-trivial.

This one is for die-hard crime fans only.

Pedant’s corner:- cagoul (cagoule,) no start quote mark for a piece of dialogue (x 9,) a missing full stop (x 7,) for badness’ sake (badness’s, x 2,) butt naked (I believe the phrase is buck naked,) a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) snuck (please use sneaked instead of snuck,) smokey (smoky,) “really don’t want to tell you” (I really don’t want to tell you,) “for implicately slagging her mammy” (implicitly,) the team are known (is known,) teathings (tea things,) Germoline (Germolene.)

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.)

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.)

Standing Female Nude by Carol Ann Duffy

Picador, 2016, 67 p.

Standing Female Nude cover

A reprint of what is stated to be Poet Laureate Duffy’s first collection but both Wiki and Fantastic Fiction have it otherwise. The slim volume contains 49 poems. A few are only 7 or 8 lines long, most are of longer length, some are sonnets and employ that most passé of poetic devices, rhyme. Much of Duffy’s verse here tells stories. Several deal with unsympathetic husbands.

This is a strong assortment of poems with the most memorable including Lizzie, Six which seems to be about child abuse, while Ash Wednesday, 1984 employs rhyme to emphatic effect in imploring parents not to subject their children to religion, Jealous as Hell uses unusual stripped-down syntax and grammar to help make its point, Terza Rima SW19 varies from classic terza rima rhyming but does so to good effect, Where We Came In is a modern take on La Ronde with divorcees meeting up complete with new spouses, Free Will dwells on the lingering effects of an abortion, A Clear Note’s three sections tell a story of three generations of women. The title poem examines the distance between an artist and his sitter, What Price? is about The Hitler Diaries and those who thought to make money from them, Borrowed Memory the reality of incidents in novels to some people’s sense of themselves, while Shooting Stars is a plea not to forget atrocities.

The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil

Hamish Hamilton, 2005, 269 p

The Stornoway Way cover

“If you are easily offended, consign this book to the flames immediately, or return it to the shop from which you stole it.” So begins The Stornoway Way, but not the novel of that name contained within this book. The conceit is that the embedded novel is a manuscript sent to our author Kevin MacNeil by one R Stornoway (yes, the schoolboy joke is acknowledged) whose real identity – the town of the surname being one where everyone knows everyone else; and their business – MacNeil has sworn to keep secret. I doubt we are supposed to be taken in by any of this. In any case there is not really too much to be offended by; except I suppose if you are one of those determined killjoys for whom “the Old Testament was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough” with which the Western Isles and Scotland generally have historically been saddled.

The cover is a work of genius, by the way, invoking both Whisky Galore and the island obsession, also shared by much of the mainland, with alcohol. The cartoon figure, blotto, with bottle still in hand, is a particularly apposite touch. Unlike in Compton MacKenzie’s book though, the dark side of alcohol dependency gets an airing here. In case this sounds gloomy I should say that in many ways The Stornoway Way is an amusing book, but while at times comedic it is never light, and always serious. (The recitation entitled “The Neighbours We Could Have Had” might not find favour in southern parts of these islands though.) And it has copious footnotes!!!! Who doesn’t love footnotes? Admittedly a lot of these are translations of various Gaelic terms – some of which aren’t even in the text – but better footnotes than a glossary. In them for example we find the Gaelic Sasanach has no pejorative connotations, unlike its Scots/English borrowing.

Before the internal novel begins we are presented with a map of Scotland upside down compared to the usual occidentation*. This helps to illustrate the point that in Stornoway, “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond, “Our blood relatives in Scandinavia to the left, our blood relatives in Ireland to the right.” Though “R Stornoway” perhaps overdoes it when he says, “The Western Islander’s response to our diminishing way of life is that of the oppressed the world over, from Native American to Australian aborigine: a powerful urge to drink oneself underground.” The Western Islanders – and the Scots – have been drinking themselves underground for centuries.

When the novel proper starts, poverty has brought would-be artist “R Stornoway” back to Lewis and his childhood home, which he had been avid to leave as soon as possible. From there we range over various incidents from his life, his first experience with alcohol being a seminal moment. In all of these, even his relationship with Eva, a student from Hungary, alcohol plays a significant part – as it does for Stornoway the town.

An example of the narrator’s sardonic humour occurs when he is accused of being uncaring – and an alky. He replies, ‘Some people will believe anything if you tell them it’s a rumour.’

His existential crisis comes when he wakes up beside a beautiful woman and, due to the booze, cannot remember who she is, how she came to be there, nor exactly what happened between them the night before. His decision to fetch the ingredients for breakfast without waking her backfires when he returns to find her gone. At this point there is still a substantial part of the novel is to come though. Eventually he comes to terms with himself and his relationship with alcohol. “Drink doesn’t give you a better sense of who you are, it gives you a nonsense of who you are.”

The latter part of the novel has a more downbeat nature than the delicious early chapters, concomitant with the cumulative effects of alcohol on the individual personality, but even with that The Stornoway Way is overall brilliant stuff.

*One of MacNeil’s coinages, see also gloominous clouds, muselicious.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothe (smooth,) Captain Moses’ place (Moses’s, several instances,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s.)

The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

Picador, 2012, 59 p

 The Overhaul cover

Winner of the 2012 Costa Poetry Award, shortlisted for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize.

35 poems, most one pagers, one six pages, the rest two. 2 are eftir Hölderlin (as is one in Jamie’s later collection The Bonniest Companie). Hölderlin seems to be one of her favourite models. Most poems here are in English with the odd Scots word but some are entirely Scots. Nature, or those working in the outdoors, is an inspiration for many and there is an abiding seriousness to her poems, though she is not beyond essaying a pun for a last line. An odd quirk was that some poems had missing full stops at their conclusion, as if they’re unfinished. Understandable enough for those two entitled Fragment 1 and Fragment 2.

I most enjoyed Excavation and Recovery with its evocation of deep time partly because I have seen (in Perth and Abernethy Museums respectively) the log boat whose archaeological recovery it partly describes and a depiction of the dig process.

Divided City by Theresa Breslin

Corgi, 2006, 236 p. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

Divided City cover

One night Graham (surname never specified) is taking a short cut – against which his parents have repeatedly warned him – on his way home from football training when he witnesses a gang chasing and stabbing a young lad whom they call “asylum scum”. Graham comforts the wounded boy, Kyoul, uses the mobile phone Kyoul has dropped to call an ambulance and accompanies him to the hospital then slips away but not before Kyoul asks him to take a message, and the phone, to his girlfriend Leanne. This leads to Graham almost by accident involving another boy from training, Joe Flaherty (who is of course from across the sectarian divide to which the book’s title mainly refers) in finding Leanne’s house. She is grateful but has kept her relationship with Kyoul from her own parents and so asks them to visit Kyoul for her. This strand of the book where they find common purpose off the training pitch is intertwined with the background of both footballers.

Graham’s Granda Reid is a proud Orangeman who wants Graham to march in the big Orange Walk which is coming up. Graham’s parents have always resisted pressure to make him take part when he was younger saying he should make his own mind up when he is old enough. However, this is the year he must do so. Joe’s family members are equally committed to upholding their Catholic traditions.

But this is where Divided City is too diagrammatic. Nearly every domestic conversation in the book centres on sectarianism and how the “others” mistreat “our” side.

There were other infelicities. The football training is for a youth team to be known as Glasgow City which is about to take part in an inter-cities youth competition. Here credulity becomes strained. If both boys were as good at football as the novel tells us they’d most likely already be attached to a club and probably not allowed to play for anyone else. Another unconvincing aspect is that Leanne is said to be “not yet sixteen” but she met Kyoul who had wandered in off the street at one of Glasgow University’s school open days and both ended up looking at a stand where they were each wondering what courses they would choose and struck up a conversation. Fifteen is rather young for such a trip. Also, the first time home ground of Rangers is mentioned it’s by a supporter, who calls it “Ibrox Park.” A fan would just say “Ibrox”. Similarly we get “the Celtic Parkhead stadium”. Then there is the description of an Old Firm game where the phrase “unleashed a stinging right kick” is used. It’s called a shot, not a kick. Later one fan is enjoined to ‘Watch the play’. It would be ‘Watch the game’.

Granted the dilemma of an asylum seeker from a ‘White List’ country, deemed to be safe but which isn’t, may need elucidating to a wider audience, yet while the novel is even-handed enough as between Protestant and Catholic viewpoints I struggled to see for what audience this could have been written, whom it was intended to educate. The book’s cover is emblazoned with the phrase “Carnegie Medal winning author” implying it’s for young adults. But young adults in Glasgow will know about sectarianism, those elsewhere likely not care (Northern Ireland excepted.) The incidental illustration of the usual parental restrictions on adolescent comings and goings do not expand the scope. Divided City’s earlier chapters reminded me of a certain kind of not very good Science Fiction which doesn’t trust its reader to make the connections, so too much is spelled out. And there is an overuse of exclamation marks. I would submit that YA readers deserve better.

There is a good novel about sectarianism – and/or football – in Glasgow out there. This isn’t it.

Pedant’s corner:- “the dark openings of the tenement building mawed at him” (the openings stomached at him?) the local senior boy’s club” (boys’ club, I think,) refers to winning the League Championship (it’s just “winning the League” not League Championship,) Rangers’ (Rangers’s,) ‘How are we going to do that without getting caught.’ (Needs a question mark, not a full stop.)

Waverley by Walter Scott

Or: Tis Sixty Years Since.

The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, Edinburgh University Press , 2012, 368 p, plus 90 p Essay on the Text, 38 p Emendation list, 2 p list of end-of-line “hard” hyphens, 26 p Historical Note, 98 p Explanatory Notes, 21 p Glossary, i p Dedication, vi p General Introduction to the Edinburgh Edition, and iii p Acknowledgements. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.
See my review of The Heart of Mid-Lothian for the intent behind the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

Waverley cover

This is the one that started it all off for Scott in the prose sense and was also the beginning of the historical novel in the Western tradition. Its title has resounded down through the years, giving its name to a whole series of Scott’s novels, to Edinburgh’s main railway station, to a kind of pen nib (They come as a boon and a blessing to men, the Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen,) a class of GWR locomotives and to the last ocean-going paddle steamer in the world.

Our hero, Edward Waverley, English and heir to an estate there, is encouraged by his uncle to take up a commission in the army. After arriving with his troop in Scotland he receives leave of absence to visit an old friend of his father, the irredeemably Jacobite Baron Bradwardine of Tully-Veolan. Events and an indisposition contrive to keep him there beyond his commanding officer’s pleasure, an unfortunate circumstance as this is 1745 and historic events are afoot. His troop has shown rebellious leanings and this along with his absence leads to his commission being revoked. At the same time comes news his father has been disgraced and removed from his government post in London. The friendship Waverley has struck at Tully-Veolan with Fergus Mac-Ivor (also known as Vich Ian Vohr, the latest of his line to accede to this honorific,) Waverley’s change in circumstances and the interference in Waverley’s affairs by one Donald Bean Lean, delivers him into the company of Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobite Army now in Edinburgh. Waverley’s presence as an English adherent is a boost to the Prince’s cause, as it promises more such support.

As a member of the Jacobite Army Waverley takes part in the Battle of Prestonpans – or Preston as it is usually described by Scott (except when Jacobites call it Gladsmuir,) where he saves the life of a Government officer, Colonel Talbot, who knows his father well. Waverley goes all the way down to Derby and back up before he is separated from the retreating army during a skirmish at Clifton south of Penrith and makes his way to London to try to reinstate his reputation with the paroled Colonel Talbot’s help.

I would not advise anyone to start their reading of Scott’s novels with this book. In addition to his usual long-windedness, here it is more or less obvious that Scott is here feeling his way into the writing of a novel. In the last chapter “A Postscript, which should have been a Preface” Scott informs us he had at one time abandoned the book but some years later came across the papers again and went on to complete it, an interval which could not have helped. Later novels of his are more approachable but in Waverley there are many longueurs in the early passages and too much of a rush towards the end. That Scott himself makes the point in the text, “earlier events are studiously dwelt upon, that you, kind reader, may be introduced to the character rather by narrative, than by the duller medium of direct description; but when the story draws near its close we hurry over the circumstances,” does not render this imbalance any less marked. Certain of the characters are fond of Latin tags; which was to be a recurrent trait in Scott’s works. Some names are also clearly jocular, there is a Laird of Killancureit, and a pair of lawyers, Messrs Clippurse and Hookem.

Waverley is, though, necessary reading for anyone interested in the history of the Scottish novel.

Pedant’s corner:- By my reckoning, when Waverley was first published in 1814 it was more like seventy years since the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, not sixty. The narrator’s comment that the novel was being written in 1805 would make more sense but the Essay on the Text reveals that may have been an insertion by Scott’s publisher, a man notorious for being overly literal, but also that Scott’s original subtitle was actually ‘Tis Fifty Years Since’. That abandonment of the project only to take it up again, could account for some of the slippage.
I found I could skate over Scott’s 19th spellings – eg dulness, chuse, expence, centinel, whiskey, stupified, extacy, cieling – and once again we have the archaic sunk, sprung, sung, rung for sank, sprang, sang, rang.
Otherwise: “resumption of his commission” (resumption is here used in the sense of revoking,) the English flag (this must actually have been the Union flag,) feodal (feudal, possibly due to a misreading of Scott’s handwriting.)
In the essay on the text:- there are a number (there is a number.) “There are number of surviving anecdotal records.” “… two female Scottish writer” (writers,) and an opened parenthesis which is never closed. In the Historical Note:- events relating the 1745 rising (relating to the,) of Highlands (of the Highlands,) the visits the (then visits the,) raising of the ‘the Standard’ (raising of ‘the Standard’,) epicentre when centre was meant, “there are a number” (is,) “another body of MacIvers were” (another body was.) In the Explanatory Notes:- to the ‘the Seven Lovers’ (to ‘the Seven Lovers’,) Latin literally (several instances) – and French literally (once) – (there is no need for “literally” to be italicised, it’s not in a foreign language,) Domincan (Dominican,) Lindor is is not (only one “is” necessary,) Great Britian (Great Britain,) “in opposition the Engagers” (to the Engagers,) Janazaries (usually Janizaries or Janissaries,) fiar price (fair price?) insignium (the Latin singular of insignia is insigne – neuter of insignis – not insignium,) medieval, Lillibuero (Lillibulero, as elsewhere,) the Jacobites army (Jacobite or Jacobites’,) enaged (engaged,) Abbotford (Abbotsford,) “refers to indecisive battle” (to the indecisive battle,) one the seven (one of the seven,) hung (hanged.) In the Glossary:- Latin, short for (Latin, short for,) all the words glossed are in bold except the entry for een, the Scots word for eyes.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, Reprint of 1964 edition, 237 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

To The Lighthouse cover

Quite why this is on any list of Scottish books is something of a mystery. Yes, the nominal setting is somewhere in the Western Isles but it could really be anywhere. There is nothing intrinsically Scottish about the subject matter nor the characters and certainly not their speech patterns. I always suspected that Scottishness would be a false premise under which to read the book. Granted, there are references to the Waverley novels, but that is not enough to make a book Scottish. Neither are there sufficient descriptions of the landscape to bring it under the umbrella.

I understand Woolf is revered by some (a cover quote from Jeanette Winterson says, “Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.”) Yet I found this novel to be …. odd.

To The Lighthouse is structured in three sections, The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, of which the first is the longest and the second not much more than a placeholder but mercifully more cogent than the other two. We begin eavesdropping on the Ramsay family and their acquaintances as they contemplate a visit to the titular lighthouse the next day. There is little conflict between the characters (except in their unspoken thoughts) – certainly none that is dramatized, only Mr Ramsay saying he doubts they will be able to make the trip. Not a lot happens. Arguably the most important event in the book occurs offstage in Time Passes and is only reported – but people reflect on the little that does happen either at length or a tangent.

I have no problem with stream of consciousness as a technique – Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon uses it well – but without a focus it can reel off into irrelevance. The narrative viewpoint here can flit from mind to mind within the same paragraph (sometimes it felt like the same sentence.) As a result any insight into the human condition ends up drowned in the deluge. Any wood here is difficult to distinguish amongst all the trees. The copy I read was the good lady’s and she has told me she didn’t take to the book either.

I note from the entry on Woolf in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that she co-founded Hogarth Press – the original publishers of To The Lighthouse and others of her works: this is surely tantamount to self-publishing – and from her Wikipedia entry that her first novel was published by her half-brother’s company; which smacks of nepotism to me.

It’s the first of her works I have read and maybe I ought to sample more but I’d be delighted if someone could tell me just why Woolf is supposed to be good. On this evidence, and as that advert used to have it, her writing is dull, dull, dull.

Pedant’s corner:- galoshes (galoshes,) stood (x2, standing,) trapesing (I had not previously come across this alternative spelling of traipsing,) a comma at the end of one paragraph, shrunk (shrank,) waterily (what an ugly word; “like water” would have conveyed the sense,) sunk (sank.)

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

William Heinemann, 2012, 333 p. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

The Panopticon cover

Narrator Anais Hendricks has spent her life in care; from birth to her age now, fifteen. There was a short period when she had what was in comparison a stable home life when she was adopted by a prostitute. Unfortunately her adoptive mother was killed while Anais was in the room next door. Anais has been in and out of homes fifty-one times and in more trouble at school (which, of course, she barely attends) and with the police than you could count. She has a particular bent for stealing school minibuses then crashing them; and for fire-raising. The book, then, does not promise to be a bundle of laughs and Anais not a likely candidate for salvation. She is bright, though, and reads voraciously, has a keen sense of herself; and of injustice. As a sort of compensation she plays what she calls the birthday game, imagining all sorts of different beginnings for herself, and she dreams of a life in Paris.

We meet her when, under suspicion of having put a policewoman into a coma (of which she vehemently denies her guilt,) she is being transferred to the Panopticon of the title, a building from the centre of which the inmates are under the view of the staff at all times. A clue to her possible mental state is when she sees the stone cat at the entrance – which she dubs Malcolm – move its wings. She also thinks she is the subject of what she calls the Experiment, the project of a mysterious group which may be from another universe or dimension – and for whom the only evidence the reader has is Anais’s words – and she is being tested to destruction in the sense she thinks the Experiment wants her to commit suicide. But, despite the Experiment, she feels that, “I, the young miss Anais, understand wholly that I am just a human being that nobody is interested in.”

She has a keen sense of morality, “I’d lay sic down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. … I’m honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. …. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.” However she cannot reveal this to any of the care workers; not even Angus Everlen, who is the only care worker who has seen any good in her.

Her relationships with fellow inmates, Tash, Isla (a very well-drawn picture of a mother devastated that her HIV positive status has been passed on to her twin children) and Shortie are vividly realised. They become almost a surrogate family but of course cannot look out for each other as much as each of them needs.

Anais’s biological mother may have had psychotic schizophrenia, as may Anais. A man who claims to have witnessed Anais’s birth tells her she is the daughter of an Outcast Queen, who could fly (as Anais imagines she does. But, then, she does take a lot of drugs.)

A rumbling sub-plot concerning Anais’s boyfriend, who it is always apparent has used her (very few of her acquaintances don’t) but is now in prison and owes people a lot of money, comes to a hideous head, triggering Anais’s resolve.

This is a book about the lives of those are not often represented in fiction – nor ever sympathetically in the normal way of public discourse – and so of course acts a necessary corrective.

This is not an easy read but it is so well written it was easy to read – at least I found it so. The stream of consciousness had a flow to it, logic even, though perhaps it helps to have some knowledge of the culture from which it springs. The splattering of the text with Midlothian demotic and expletives did not offend me (as it might others.) This is the way some people talk, especially those who tend to be discounted by the organs of the state. Anais has a distinct voice – even if you cannot quite be certain what to believe of what she says and it is at times perhaps a little too assured. “I’m a bit unconvinced by reality full stop. It’s fundamentally lacking in something and nobody seems bothered…” “…all the time this infinite universe surrounds us, and everyone pretends it’s not there.” The details of life as an inmate in the care system were convincing enough, though.

The symbol of a Panopticon as a metaphor for teenage existence – especially in the care system – was potentially a good one but at timesbecame a trifle overblown and wasn’t actually entirely justified by the set up shown us in the book .

As a novel I’ll doubtless remember The Panopticon for a long time. I don’t think I’ll ever describe it as a favourite, though.

Pedant’s corner:- Anais refers to The Experiment as plural throughout, also – apart from one “lie” – she uses “lay” for being horizontal and “kosh” for cosh: all of these are direct expressions of Anais though. Otherwise; “he’s always owe them money” (owed,) take the edge of the colours (off, I think,) “‘Vive le révolution’” (Vive la révolution: the speaker is supposed to know her French, she’d get the noun’s gender right,) ditto “vive le” 3 lines later, naïvist (naïvest,) “for something I dinnae do” (didnae.)

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