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As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Greig

Bloodaxe, 2011, 62 p

 As Though We Were Flying cover

One of the best authors I have discovered since starting the blog, Andrew Greig, started out as a poet. His first publications were books of poetry and then in amongst those he took to writing prose about another of his interests, climbing. He only took up novel writing after twenty years or so. He has also written a book about golf, another on fishing and the Scottish landscape, and, with Mike Heron, one about The Incredible String Band.

I thought I should sample his poetry, hence reading this, one of his most recent collections of poems.

The slim volume (nearly all poetry books are slim) is divided into three sections, Home for Now, The Light of Day and A Moment’s Liberty. The first poem, The Tidal Pools of Fife, is a lament for those lost pleasure grounds and there are five other poems set explicitly in Fife. More than a few deal with marriage – in especial A Long Shot compares the incredulous certainty of holing a putt as it moves across the green with the equally chancy outcome of being in the estate of matrimony. All are thoughtful and illuminating. But they need to be read, not written about.

Pedant’s corner:- In the contents page a poem is titled Eck Hutcheson but on page 20 is Eck Hutchinson (and twice in the poem itself,) “the fruit … are so nearly ripe” (the fruit is so nearly ripe,) “How could I live so long ……. and somehow failed to grasp” (and somehow fail to grasp,) “the crowd stream” (the crowd streams,) “her eyes propels the bird” (propel?) “above the river ,” (no space between river and comma.)

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You may have noticed in my side-bar that I am now reading Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

 Fifty-One cover

I bumped into the author at Follycon and vaguely remembered his book was on a list for review from Interzone a few months back.

Not knowing whether it had been sent to anyone else I blagged a review copy anyway with the promise of trying to get it into Interzone or else posting about it here.

IZ hadn’t sent it out so I’ve got the gig. The review might even be in the next issue (275) along with Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing.

It’s a time travel story.

The cover (okay it has a doodlebug, but….) totally misrepresents the contents by the way.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2016, 270 p.

Autumn cover

This is a short novel, very short. Nevertheless it has no fewer than five epigrams. That it starts with the sentence, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is perhaps a signifier that it aspires to literary memorability. It was written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on the EU and reflects (though only in asides) the divisions in the country which that revealed but addresses more fully the latent racism which it brought to the surface. The book has that unjustified right-hand margin that is a feature of Smith’s publications and like Andrew Greig’s When They Lay Bare, which I read immediately prior to this, does not use quotation marks for dialogue, which impairs comprehension not at all.

The narrative is mainly concerned with Elisabeth Demand who as a child formed a friendship with her much older next-door neighbour, Daniel Gluck, but also has an eye for the absurdities of everyday life. Along the way Elisabeth develops an interest in the female Pop Artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth finds has been all but removed from the histories of British Pop Art because she was a woman.

The novel is good on Elisabeth’s problematic relationship with her mother but appears a little unfocused, indeed rambling at times. It’s all easily taken in and has some amusing moments but like most of Smith’s writing (with the possible exception of How to be Both) it’s all a little flat. I don’t feel the burn.

Pedant’s corner:- “it’s one of those coincidences ……but in real life mean nothing at all” (one of those coincidences … but in real life means nothing at all,) “to taxiderm real children” (is taxiderm a verb? I thought the verb was stuff,) dismissible (dismissable.)

When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 1999, 326 p.

When They Lay Bare cover

So much enduring literature is about love, sex and death. Greig is good on all three, especially love and its tragedies. In When They Lay Bare David Elliott comes to the family home to show off to his father, Simon, his intended. Meanwhile a strange woman has moved into a cottage on the estate. In David’s childhood Simon had had an affair with Jinny Lauder – for whose death he had been tried for murder, and found not proven. The shadow of those events lies over the book, as, since it is set in those same debatable lands Greig would return to in Fair Helen (but here we are in the twentieth century,) does the history of the borders. Border Ballads are frequently quoted and the book’s epigram is an extract from The Twa Corbies. Throughout Greig does not separate off direct speech by quotation marks but this is never a problem to decipher.

The novel has a central conceit wherein the story is foreshadowed by the descriptions of illustrations on a set of eight plates belonging to the woman in the cottage who at first gives her name as Mary Allan but then says she is Jinny’s daughter, Marnie. The eight sections into which the novel is divided are designated as Plate 1, Plate 2 etc – though 4 and 5 are titled Lover’s Plates (Rose and Red respectively.) These descriptions are rendered in italics. The rest of the narration is carried from the viewpoints of David, Marnie, Simon (from whom we learn the details of his doomed affair with Jinny, a grand passion indeed) and his factotum Tat, a voyeur in his youth whose evidence was crucial to the verdict and who leveraged his knowledge into gaining his position on the Elliott estate. Tat’s narration is littered with Scots words and phrases, as is Simon’s but to a much lesser extent.

Marnie is one of those women whom Greig draws so well. She often alludes to Spook, her word for manifestations of sixth sense, a phenomenon not at odds with Borders history (though in that regard the appearance of Jinny to Tat at the novel’s crux was perhaps a step too far.) Important, too, is a precarious bridge over the Liddie Burn, the scene of one of those Border tales from times past.

Marnie is the heart of the book, the driving force of its motor, the hinge around which the other characters revolve – though Jinny’s actions and her motivations for them are almost as influential – but the most Greigian of sentiments is voiced by David, “Sin and sex make us glow like coals in the dark. That’s why we do it. To burn.” One of the reasons we read novels is to experience that burn, if only at second hand.

Pedant’s corner:- Quite why the title is all in lower case on the cover is beyond me. It isn’t on the title page. Otherwise: “the prosecution were” (was,) “only a name and a brief tale remains” (remain; in an extract from a piece about border legends,) usually before a piece of dialogue or unspoken thought there is some sort of punctuation. In one instance it was missing, smoothes (smooths.) “That is the cause of the love he feel for his companions” (feels,) “‘he’d had to have grovelled’” (OK it was in dialogue but, “he’d have to have grovelled”,) imposter (impostor.)

The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2009, 381 p.

The Gathering Night cover

This is set in Mesolithic Scotland, a time about which very little is known. This gives Elphinstone scope to portray a fully imagined subsistence society with its own mythology and belief systems. Its characters live off the land (and sea) and feel close to the animals they hunt and the spirits which govern all their interactions. (Since it makes sense to the people in the book, that the belief system doesn’t actually cohere is neither here nor there. In any case very few such things do cohere.)

The tale is told (literally) by various of the characters taking turns to narrate the central events round a campfire, perhaps at one of the various gatherings the Auk people, around whom the book revolves, attend throughout the year. The people are prone to humble-bragging of the “I’m sorry this catch is so meagre” or “I’m sorry this gift of food is so inadequate” type.

As events unfold the tightness of the plot becomes apparent. This is cleverly done, things that at first appear unrelated turn out to be pivotal, and the characters within are all believable as actors in the scenario and as people full stop. Apart from their belief in the closeness of their spirits and reincarnation (if a child isn’t recognised by a family member within days of birth it will be cast out,) their intimate connection with their environment, they could be you, me, or anyone you meet. “People like to think their lives are very difficult, just as they like to think their troubles are unlike anyone else’s,” applies to any society as does, “I’m old. I know that people have always cared about the same small things, and they always will,” and the lament that, “There aren’t enough tears in this world for all there is to weep about.”

The cover dubs this “a wilderness adventure” but it isn’t an adventure as such. It is a description of a way of life that may have been, of a simpler kind of existence. It occurred to me a few days after reading it that it therefore bears similarities to the same author’s The Incomer and A Sparrow’s Flight. It also aligns itself firmly with the Scottish novel in general in its descriptions of land- (and here especially) seascape.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by an Elphinstone novel.

Pedant’s corner:- Amets’ (Amets’s,) Aurochs’ (Aurochs’s,) “that man would never had given us his name to pass on” (would never have given,) Oroitz’ (Oroitz’s.)

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The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone has sent me Andrew Crumey’s latest novel, The Great Chain of Unbeing, for review. Review to appear in Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

Not the most prepossessing of covers, but I shan’t judge it on that.

Crumey has been one of my favourite authors since I first read Mobius Dick in 2010. Not one of his books has so far proved a disappointment. Let’s hope The Great Chain of Unbeing lives up to the standard he has set for himself.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 213 p One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles cover

This takes the usual form of the Sherlock Holmes story. A client comes to Baker Street to enlist Holmes’s help in unravelling a mystery, in this case a Dr Mortimer, friend of the late Sir Charles of that ilk, who relates the legend of the hound of the title, said to be the curse of the Baskervilles and apparently responsible for Sir Charles’s death and seeking Holmes’s protection for the heir, Henry, about to arrive in the country from overseas. After some preliminary shenanigans in London our narrator Dr Watson is packed off to the Devonshire countryside to seek information and act as a kind of bodyguard while Holmes does his thing, supposedly on other cases but in reality following his own path to the answer. Throw in a few red herrings like the light on the moor at night, disguises of various sorts, people who are not who they pretend to be, and the mix is complete.

The attractions of the form are readily apparent. The book is easy to read, comforting (Holmes rarely fails to set the world to rights,) as well as formulaic. It is not, though, literature of the highest quality. The prose never rises above the workmanlike, the characters are little more than stereotypes and it surely appears on that “100 best” list only because Holmes has become so familiar as a cultural reference point.

The piece of dialogue, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he,” incidentally shows that Doyle did put that word into Holmes’s mouth (though without appending to it, “my dear Watson.”) It also illustrates Doyle’s irritating use of “said he” rather than “he said.”

Pedant’s corner:- “If he would, confine his energies to this all would be well” (surely has an extraneous comma,) rosterer (roisterer is the best fit.)

Living Nowhere by John Burnside

Vintage, 2003, 377 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Living Nowhere cover

Some books announce themselves from the outset, one way or the other. Within two sentences (and long before their seven lines ended) I knew this was going to be good; for all that I also knew it wouldn’t be straightforward. This is unapologetically a work that makes demands on its reader; but only in so far as it doesn’t lay its cards on the table openly. Burnside approaches his tale obliquely but in a way that reflects his characters, moreover the book’s structure is unusual in that it starts with sections dedicated to four viewpoints, not always following in the same order but doesn’t stick to those four throughout. They are Alina Ruckert, daughter of immigrants, refugees in World War 2; her mother Alma; Tommy Cameron, come down from Fife to Corby to make a better life for his family; and his son Derek. Alina is a somewhat detached young woman who has made a (non-romantic) friendship with her brother Jan’s bosom companion Francis (another of Tommy Cameron’s sons) who bonded most over photography. Alma feels alienated by her non-Britishness and her husband’s determination to give nothing of himself away. Tommy has brought up his sons to be aware of how tough the world is and always to be on their guard. Derek feels to be not altogether a man as he doesn’t experience the rage all the males around him seem to. That first part of the book is set in Corby, a town which, as Burnside tells it, in the late 1960s/early 1970s was in part a vision of Hell, dominated day and night by main employer The Works, spewing copious amounts of smoke, ash and iron ore into the town’s atmosphere so that clothing always reeked of sulphur and with the threat of violence never far away from its nightlife.

There are strong echoes of previous Scottish literature in the book. Tommy has been influenced by his Uncle Arthur whom he used to visit in rural Scotland and remembers his tales of the old days, “Tommy had never understood how the people tolerated the inhuman behaviour of the rich landlords.” Arthur had once admonished him, “‘Take a look around when you’re back in Cowdenbeath, walking down the High Street. Look carefully and see how many ghosts you can see.’” The tales of supernatural apparitions were about more than superstition, or the casual fatalism of people whose lives were governed by the random, they weren’t about something invented. “They were about something that had been lost. Something important.” Tommy knows to be hard only if the occasion demands it and skewers hard men as, “The boys who sat lonely in their own reputations, cold as stone, afraid to smile or say too much. Tommy knew you had to be afraid of something to spend that much time and energy on an image.”

Alina realises men treated everything they touched with contempt because it was life itself they hated and feared (feared more than hated) and is astonished by her workmate’s determination to get married, recognising, “that real, self-deluding affection that every bride-to-be harbours, against all the odds, till the week, or month, or year after the wedding, when she finds out what the man she married is really like.”

Derek contemplates the oddness of the life of the ex-pat. “He didn’t know what Scotland was. The mythology said it was The Sunday Post. The White Heather Club. The Highlands. But they never had shortbread at home, not in Scotland, and not here, except at Hogmanay when everybody turned into cartoon Highlanders, wandering the glassy streets with coal and bread in their coat pockets, leaving their doors open so anybody could walk in as tradition demanded,” he reflects on the New Year rituals. “Scotland was a myth. Burns suppers, tartan, Bonnie Prince Charlie, knowing what clan you were supposed to be in, it was all a bad myth.” But though none of the people around him at New Year came from that misreflected Scotland of the mind, “they were all going back there to die,” and he knows, “they didn’t want home. They wanted the same Scotland the tourists got.”

He has doubts about religion, “He didn’t want anybody’s love, he just wanted to be treated with basic decency. All these people talking about love, they were lying and cheating and robbing one another all the time, and nobody seemed to care. Maybe that was why they’d made up that impossible religion of love: because it was impossible, and everybody knew it, there was no real pressure to live up to it, no real need to do anything but go through the motions.” In another system based on the “ordinary possible decency of which people were capable, everything would be different.” If instead of having to love them, you just treated your neighbours as human beings.

The first half of the book weaves its overall narrative between the four viewpoints, sometimes seeing the same incident from more than one perspective, and the inevitable incident, brewing for 200 or so pages, which precipitates Francis’s flight from Corby occurs, like so much in this book, off the page, or at least we only come upon it in its aftermath.

Burnside seems to comment on his storytelling when Francis thinks, “the world is divided into two camps: (a) people who believe in stories and (b) people who trust the isolated, fleeting moments that stories seek to string together.” Here it looks as if Burnside has made a novel out of such isolated moments. It’s a bit of a pity that he then then over-eggs this underlining by adding, “like the little black points in one of those old join-the-dots puzzles you used to get in comic books,” but almost saves it with, “It never works. The picture turns out awkward and ugly, the story is, at best, a half-truth.” But Burnside’s story is neither awkward nor ugly.

The second half of the novel is couched as a series of letters from Francis to his absent friend Jan, telling of his life as a wanderer and some of the people he meets, before a coda section provides a resolution of sorts.

Francis meets all sorts, including privileged undergraduates in Cambridge, “they were the inheritors, boys who would be middle-aged in ten years’ time, working in the city or Whitehall, or running the family business, property owners, members of the club, men to be reckoned with….. moral within the narrow bounds of a system that refused to consider the intrinsic immorality of their position.” The pull these types can exert he sees as, “Women are always lamenting the fact that men are attracted to looks and nothing else, but they should see themselves when it comes to men with money.” Not big spenders, not flash but, “that quiet confidence that comes of having a trust fund behind you ….of wearing the right clothes, driving the right car, going to the right ski resorts for Christmas……” In a word, “Glamour.” In this context he tells us, “I love that expression ‘chip on the shoulder’: I bet nobody ever said it who was ever hungry and it was somebody else’s world.”

Of his experience of the US where he works for a while, he suggests, “If these people could only give a damn about something other than their own beautiful lives, they would be extraordinary.”

He excuses his lack of commitment by rationalising, “It’s the best luck a man can have liking women. Not just the pretty ones, or the ones who want to go to bed with you, but all women. It’s the worst luck when he chooses one woman and sets her apart, then lets his imagination go to work on her.”

He winds up in a Fife fishing village, making a living mainly through painting, and characterises the locals, “On the coast the people weren’t so much hard as indifferent,: their regard was fixed wholly upon themselves; if you weren’t from there, born and bred, you didn’t really exist, you were an incomer, a non-person.”

The one woman he settles down with for a while, Sally, eventually says to him, “‘You don’t want to stop moving, you don’t want to belong anywhere, because you think that’s how you are. But it isn’t. It’s because you’re grieving, it’s because you’re angry. Maybe you’re guilty too.’” She adds, “‘Your trouble is that you don’t want to live anywhere.’” And his inevitable reply, the one the book has necessarily been building to, comes. “‘No,’ I said, “my trouble is that I want to live nowhere,” but, crucially, Francis adds, “‘There’s a difference.’” For, “Home, wherever and for however long we find it, is, by its very nature, provisional and tainted.” His knowledge of himself is hard-won. “We think it’s the big dramatic happenings that make a difference, but it isn’t. It’s the long-drawn-out, drip-by-drip processes of loss and betrayal or grief that break us down; it’s the weeks and months of growth after some revelation, and not the revelation itself, that make us wise.”

Perhaps Burnside’s style in Living Nowhere is analogous to Francis’s musings on his painting. “To get it right, I realised, I had to abandon the literal: the meaningful juxtaposition, the telling contrast, no matter how well camouflaged didn’t quite work.” And then there is Francis’s idea of the pentimento. “What if the pentimento was the very point of the painting? What if you did just enough almost to conceal the thing you wanted the viewer to see, almost to hide the image that, because it wasn’t too obvious, would be all the more haunting?”

Substitute reader for viewer and that could describe Burnside’s achievement in Living Nowhere, a novel well worth its place in that list of best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- homeopathic (homoeopathic, please; or even homœopathic,) staunch (stanch,) math (even if he was in the US at the time concerned the narrator here is British; so maths.) “A range of theories were proposed” (a range was proposed.)

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 569 p. First published in 2003.

 The Distant Echo cover

I probably wouldn’t have read this – I wasn’t particularly taken by the author’s The Wire in the Blood – but the good lady had just finished it and mentioned it was set partly in my old stamping ground of Kirkcaldy and partly in St Andrews (which I know well.) So I thought I’d give it a go. The locations in the book aren’t restricted to Fife, it does stray to Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, and even Seattle but the main events take place in what the locals like to call “the Kingdom.”

The prologue lets us know of a Fife Police press announcement of a cold case review and a shadowy figure haunting a cemetery before Part One plunges us into the 1978 discovery of the dying body of Rosie Duff by four students at St Andrews University (schoolfriends calling themselves the Lads Fi’ Kirkcaldy) taking a short cut back to their flat after a party. One of them is a medical student and tries to save her life but fails. As discoverers of the body and covered in blood they naturally become suspects. The investigation cannot summon up evidence even to charge them and the case is unresolved but they are still subjected to suspicion, threats and violence – especially by the dead girl’s brothers. McDermid makes a lot of this finger of suspicion and the effect it has on the four and their relationship(s). Part Two sees the resurrection of the case and its reintrusion into the four’s lives. But in the intervening twenty-five years the main evidence from the victim’s clothing has been lost and there seems little hope of progress. But the review has stirred the old suspicions and someone has the four firmly in the frame.

McDermid’s prose is certainly efficient but rarely rises above the workmanlike. The book’s structure, too, made it slightly odd. Part One was more or less scene setting, involved a lot of information dumping and therefore dragged somewhat. McDermid makes passing reference to the fascistic fringe and government encroachments on citizens’ rights in the late 1970s. (That sort of thing has become even worse of late with intolerance having been adopted into the political mainstream and governments eager to seize any excuse to restrict citizen’s rights.)

I would have said that it was cleverly executed except that the resolution was disappointing. It has more holes in it than Stoke City’s defence and depends too much on the prior withholding of information from the reader. In the last (tie-up) chapter it is revealed that one of the four Lads had a piece of information that would potentially have pointed to the murderer but never told the other three – nor the Police – during all those twenty-five years of suspicion. We can only suppose this was to create an artificial sense of suspense and it kind of obviates the point of the book (no matter what reason he might have had for his reticence.) Moreover the murderer seems to have been able to carry the body up a hill to where the Lads stumbled upon it without seemingly getting any blood on himself, even though the victim had a gaping wound.

McDermid has a wide readership. I assume they don’t like taxing their brains overmuch.

Pedant’s corner:- the main drag (St Andrews has a main drag?) Roger Waters’ (Waters’s. And I know he wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond but did he sing on it? Wasn’t that David Gilmour?) “[Kirkcaldy’s] Town House looked like one of those less alluring products of Soviet architecture” (is more than a bit harsh. It’s a fine buiding.) Raith Rovers’ (Raith Rovers’s,) Brahms’ (Brahms’s,) “had strode” (stridden,) “‘Gonnae no dae that’” (is referred to as if it were a catchphrase from the early to mid 1970s. It wasn’t. Chewin’ the Fat, where it originated, was first aired in 1999.) “‘We lay low’” (we lie low – but it was in dialogue and the character had lived in the US for years and they can’t seem to get the lay/lie thing correct over there,) Soanes’ (Soanes’s.) “The sky was clear, a gibbous moon hanging low in the sky between the bridges.” (sky….sky,.) Sainsburys (Sainsbury’s.) Plus several instances of “time interval later”.

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

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