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Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2010, 397 p.

 Pandaemonium cover

I’ve mentioned before that distinct similarity in the set-up of most of Brookmyre’s non-Jack Parlabane or Angelique Di Xavia stories (and even in some of them) wherein a group of more-or-less innocents come to a confined place – usually in a remote part of Scotland – and are brought into confrontation with others intent on criminality or mayhem, who are overcome in the end. Pandaemonium conforms to these parameters precisely, except in one respect.

The innocents here are a cohort of schoolmates on an Outward Bound type expedition to help them come to terms with the violent deaths of two of their contemporaries. The danger they meet is of an extraordinary kind though, as it is not human. Scientists funded by the US military have been conducting experiments to find the graviton but instead broke the boundaries between the different worlds of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics whereby each decision ever made spawns an alternative universe and less than a molecule’s width separates us from universes not our own. In this case daemons – horns and tails and all – have been brought through the portal between the worlds and kept in captivity under the former Fort Trochart. On the basis that the Church knows most about the potential threat from such creatures a Catholic Cardinal has been brought in to help investigate them. It turns out that demons have been “coming through into our world for centuries, most probably for millennia” and the Vatican knows all about it.

At the outset the disconnect between the two story strands is jarring. After a prologue set in the laboratory where the scenes are par for that sort of course, but with the usual conflicts between scientist and soldier exacerbated by the presence of Cardinal Tullian and his acolytes calling the shots Brookmyre’s tone alters considerably as he illustrates the pupils’ attitudes to the other sex and the prospect of the act itself; or, more pertinently, the lack of it. The peculiar mixture of bravado and innocence of the teenage boy is portrayed well enough as is the girls’ cliquishness and stoking of ammunition for point-scoring against each other but there are too many characters and they are insufficiently distinguished. Throw in among the adults in the party a martinet of an older teacher, a youngish Priest unsure of his faith and an unmarried woman of his age and parts of the story could write themselves. The balance between the two strands is also off-kilter.

Brookmyre illuminates the pressures of a Scottish Catholic upbringing and schooling. His clearly left scars. To his three dedicatees he says, “Be glad you went to PGS.” PGS is of course not a Catholic school. The baddies in his scenario are not the daemons – they are merely innocent victims of the project to find the graviton and only cause the destruction and bloodshed that they do because they have been starved of their soul food and in any case see us as the daemons, bent on their destruction. The real villain is the man who lets the daemons out of their confinement.

His later novel Bedlam was presented as Brookmyre’s first foray into SF. In fact, in its serious consideration of the many worlds theory, higher-dimensional space and expounding thereof, this has a greater claim to the title: even if the treatment more belongs to the coming of age and, perhaps, horror genres.

Pedant’s corner:- sat (placed,) crenulated (crenellated,) “none … are” (none is,) rarified (rarefied,) Rocks’ (Rocks’s,) “epicentre of this beam-quake” (not off-centre; so hypocentre,) “gas at peep” (at a peep,) gotten (got,) “an acid and an alkali, these last two of corresponding pH” (an acid and an alkali can not have corresponding pH; one must have pH lower than seven, the other greater than seven,) “a record altitude below sea level” (altitude is a descriptor of height; not depth,) “a strong alkaline solution” (a concentrated alkaline solution: chemically ‘strong solution’ means ‘fully ionised solution’ – it is possible to have a dilute solution that is nevertheless strong, and similarly to have a concentrated solution of a weak [only partly ionised] alkali or acid,) “close enough to the centre” [of the galaxy] “to allow the higher elements to form” (the higher elements form in supernovae, I’m not aware proximity to the galactic centre is pertinent,) Jimmy Hendrix (Jimi,) adrenalin (adrenaline,) Copernicus’ (Copernicus’s,) “when the situation behove it” (behoved,) “‘the most binding non-disclosure agreement outside of Cose Nostre’” (Cosa Nostra,) “‘Our sun isn’t actually hot enough to fuse hydrogen to helium’” (it is and it does,) epicentre (centre,) “and show up all the pooks on their clothes” (???) Miss Ross’ hand (Miss Ross’s.)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 352 p. First published in 1892. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cover

Being not much of a fan of crime novels I would not normally have picked this up but it is on that list – it even made the top ten – of Scotland’s favourite books (see link above) of which, having recently ticked off Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners – which is separately among the 100 best Scottish books while this is not – I have worked through all but four now. But it was available at a local Library.

So: how to account for the perennial attraction of these Sherlock Holmes stories? While they are easy to read they are not particularly well-written, being prone to exposition and, taken as a whole, remarkably repetitive in form. Nor are they particularly diverse. Not less than three of the ones here hinge on attempts to thwart possible inheritances. Moreover, our narrator, Dr Watson, is usually not present at the crucial points of an investigation, only for the reveal. And quite often the criminal – or malfeasant, there is not always a crime involved – ends up not being punished.

As to the stories themselves: A Scandal in Bohemia isn’t; either a scandal or set in Bohemia. The Red-headed League is an invented body whose advert is intended to attract applicants for the purposes of diversion from a crime. The perpetrator of the misdemeanour in A Case of Identity is obvious from the moment of its description by the victim. So too from early on is the murderer in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. The Five Orange Pips are the Ku Klux Klan’s equivalent of Treasure Island’s black spot while The Man with the Twisted Lip turns on an ingenious way to make a comfortable living. The Blue Carbuncle is a stolen diamond that ends up in the crop of a Christmas goose. The Speckled Band is a tale of murder by unusual means. The Engineer’s Thumb is barely a mystery at all. The Noble Bachelor’s bride does a bunk almost as soon as the wedding ceremony is over but Holmes soon divines why. The Beryl Coronet is a piece of jewellery entrusted to a banker as security for a loan and part of which is subsequently stolen while in his care. The banker’s dissolute son is given the blame until Holmes gets on the case. Once again the true perpetrator (or at least one of them) is not hard to pick out. The Copper Beeches is the house to which a governess is invited to work but there are odd conditions attached to the post.

Well, I can now say I’ve read Doyle’s Holmes (two years ago I reviewed for Interzone one of James Lovegrove’s homages) but I can’t say I’m keen to repeat the experience. The Hound of the Baskervilles, though, is on that 100 best list. I suppose I can always hope Doyle is better at novel length.

Pedant’s corner:- hurrah for encyclopædias! Otherwise – The King of Scandinavia (there is no such person; but I suppose Conan Doyle did not wish to name actual royalty.) “‘The form do so when the security is good,’” (ought to be “does so” but it was in direct speech,) shrunk (shrank.)

The Magic Flute by Alan Spence

Black Swan, 1991, 410 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Magic Flute cover

Starting from the point at which their destinies are about to diverge The Magic Flute chronicles the lives of four pupils from the same Glasgow Primary School, Tam, Brian, George and Eddie, from when they are about to move on to Secondary School at the turn of 1950s/60s up till just after John Lennon’s death in 1980. When the book starts two are shortly to sit the bursary exam for the fee-paying High School, two to progress to the local Junior Secondary. They all make their way to audition for the Orange Flute Band but only one of them manages to get a sound out of the instrument they are given to try and he gets to take it home. (The next week though it is the Mason’s son who has that privilege.) Inspired by music and especially Mozart’s The Magic Flute Tam becomes a musician, Brian sticks to his studies and ends up as a teacher of English, George drifts even after he is inducted into the Masons following his father, and Eddie escapes a life of crime by joining the Army only to be sent to Northern Ireland.

A possible different path for most of them is signposted by an improvised show in which they perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but only Tam breaks free (set partly on his way by LSD) and even he cannot quite escape the drag such an upbringing imposes. Brian’s aspirations to being a novelist are stunted by that Scottish sense of knowing your place. “Part of him always stood back…. a wee Scottish gremlin that narked in his head. Ach away ye go. I know fine what you really are. He supposed it was a variant of the old put-down. Him? A writer? He couldnae be. I kent his faither. Only this was more insidious, was the end result of such programming, and the form it took was Me? Ach, naw, no me. I couldnae.

Life in the West of Scotland at that time is conveyed well enough, the setting of paths and narrowing of opportunities caused by educational apartheid (long since gone in the main,) the background of sectarianism and the strains it causes (not gone – at least in certain spheres,) the hidebound nature of the older generation, the attraction for some of radical politics.

The initial prose is a touch diagrammatic and the characterisation a little perfunctory so that the boys are not sufficiently distinguished from one another. Also, too many of the scenes in the book start in the middle before flashing back. Spence’s jokes are more intrusive and less integrated than in Way to Go and that signalling of the story’s thrust by the initial scenes is something of a misdirection. For those of sensitive dispositions I note use of the “n” word plus the “d” word and the “P” word.

It’s a good enough read. One of the 100 best, though?

Pedant’s corner:- recordplayer (record player,) the tune from That was the week that was (That Was the Week That Was – very often in this book where Spence quotes a title he only capitalises its first word, which is against the usual convention and looks downright odd at times,) threedimensional (three-dimensional,) had showed (shown, x 2,) “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind in life unkind” (I believe Spence has misheard these lines from Ruby Tuesday which are, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Ain’t life unkind?”) workingclass (working class,) beat-up (beaten up,) tryng (trying,) “‘it had it’s moments’” (its,) CSE class (a big blooper: CSEs were a qualification in the rest of the UK but not in Scotland, where we had Standard Grades, so there would not have been a CSE class. Maybe Black Swan made the change in order not to confuse English readers,) alsation (alsatian – used later,) hung (hanged, okay it was in dialogue, but it was uttered by an English teacher, who should know better….) hotching (hoaching.)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan

An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986

Faber and Faber, 2017, 302 p.

 This Is Memorial Device cover

To say this is an imaginary history of the music scene in the Airdrie area in the post-Punk era would be true. It would also be a bit like saying War and Peace is about domestic affairs in Moscow during the Napoleonic era. It is a picture of Airdrie and its music at the time but is also much more. The line on the back cover (also found in the text) “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” stands in for all those towns in the West of Scotland – and I dare say beyond – where expectations were/are crabbed, hopes frustrated, ambitions crushed – and all before the attempts to overcome that deficit were made. “… back then anything seemed possible, … back then being … the glory years. ….But really that would be untrue because back then everything seemed impossible.”

The text is made up of twenty-six different reminiscences, interviews, letters, conversations, emails, transcripts of telephone calls (in other words various forms of device encapsulating memory) from people either involved in or connected, however tangentially, to the legendary band around which the novel revolves, a band which captured the sound of Airdrie. But, “The thing about Memorial Device was that you always had the feeling that it was their last gig ever, like they could fall apart at any moment.”

Keenan’s tale builds up as a mosaic of all these contributions. (Among them is a wonderful rant about the extreme shortcomings of Kilmarnock as a town which is all the funnier for being written by someone from Airdrie.) Keenan is himself using the mosaic as a device for chronicling life in a Scottish industrial town in the mid-1980s. In the book’s first line the supposed assembler of these testimonials – one Ross Raymond – tells us that in compiling the book he “did it for Airdrie.” He “did it because later on everyone went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs.” Because then, of those crushed hopes, those impossible dreams, because of the compromises people make with their younger selves as they grow older. If you like, this is Albert Hammond’s Free Electric Band in reverse. But what a glorious reversal it is. The line, “I would talk about the new groups and encourage people to drop out and go see the world, all the while living at my mum’s house in Airdrie,” sums up the contrast between the aspiration and the reality.

The conceit that this is an actual set of true reminiscences is bolstered by no less than four Appendices: A; a Memorial Device Discography (- self explanatory,) B; A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 – relating the interconnections between the various bands mentioned in the book (the names of the wheelchair bound members of the group calling themselves The Spazzers are brilliant,) C; This is Memorial Device (- short descriptions of the characters in the book,) and D; A Navigational Aid (ie an index.)

There are some longueurs but Keenan ventriloquises the voices of his “contributors” well; each of the twenty-six chapters is internally consistent. (One is excessively fond of brackets.) Another, in a vigorous West of Scotland demotic – the only piece that isn’t rendered in a kind of “standard” English – explores philosophy, “ma existence wus closer tae a state o suspended animation, a series a frozen gestures caught between the impossibility uv the future and the improbability uv the past,” creativity, “Ah became obsessed wae the idea o automating, o inventing a form o music that wid play itsel and wid form its inspiration fae itsel … a form o spontaneous birth that held within itsel the DNA that wid facilitate endless versions and restatements o itsel,” and a disquisition on the amniotic night, “wur just seeing things the wrang way roon, the fervent dream that we ur, but then I began to see the dream as a computation, the specifics o the dream as distinct variables what could be slotted intae reality, as intae a circuit board that would then send the whole thing aff on a different trajectory althegether.” A third asks of The Who, “Has there ever been a more depressing vaudeville take on rock n roll to this day?” The personal interests the contributions reveal are many and varied. I particularly enjoyed the aside on the lack of merit of a certain translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Michael Karpelson’s) as compared to another (that of Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor.) Others celebrate their existence, “thank God we have many headcases in Scotland, many headcases in Airdrie,” others their universality, “We all live out our unhappiness on different scales,” a metaphor which manages to be both dimensional and musical.

Then we have, “I had grown up in the sternest, most backwards, illiterate, repressed motherfucking viper pit in the west of Scotland.” (There’s competition for that title I can assure you.) “I fell in with the music scene. The art scene was up itself. The fashion scene was vacuous. The book scene was going on behind closed doors.” (The book scene always does.) “You have to understand that when you’re talking about a local scene you’re talking about an international scene in microcosm….It fostered belief. It encouraged you to take the music and lifestyle at its word.” An invitation to disappointment.

Though there is not really much about music in it (music and its emotional effects are of course notoriously difficult to describe in prose) This is Memorial Device is by turns funny, mordant, poignant, profound and elegiac; an attempt to convey the elusive. It is a hymn to music and youth, a threnody for the passing of time, a celebration of a spirit as relevant to the world as it is to Airdrie – and Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- burglarising (the book is not set in the US. The word is burgling,) ass (ditto, the British usage is arse,) lip-syncers (lip-synchers surely?) “the first summer after I graduated from high school” (there is no graduation ceremony in Scottish schools and therefore no graduating; if they are old enough and wish to leave pupils just get their teachers to sign their leavers’ forms – and go,) a wee tin solider (soldier methinks,) no siree (sirree,) ambiances (ambiences.)

“It’s Not Easy Being Iggy Pop in Airdrie”

The above is the first line of the back cover blurb (and a line in the text) of the novel I’ve just started reading.

The second line of the blurb reads, “The year is 1983 and Memorial Device are the greatest band that never existed.”

The book, This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan, claims to be “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986.” Who could resist reading that?

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Windmill, 2016, 314 p.

 The Sunlight Pilgrims cover

Though I have some caveats about it this is a beautifully written, engaging novel touching on those three novelistic perennials love, sex and death, and peopled with sympathetic, rounded characters.

Dylan MacRae’s inheritance, an art-house cinema in London, has been forced to close with heavy debts. With his mother’s – and grandmother’s – ashes he retreats to a caravan his mother had bought in the area of Clachan Fells in Scotland. Once there he finds himself attracted to his next door neighbour, Constance, whose twelve-year old daughter, Stella, is in the process of transitioning from a boy and is the object of local curiosity and sometime bullying from her classmates. All this is occurring as the ice-caps melt, the seas in the northern hemisphere are being diluted by fresh water run-off, the North Atlantic Drift is switching off and Europe is being plunged into a deep winter. The book’s four parts are headed “November 2020, -6 degrees”; “8th December 2020, -19 degrees”; “31st January 2021, -38 degrees”; “The End Has Almost Come 19th March 2021, -56 degrees”. (I have no idea why, in the text, that last date is italicised.)

Those dates might suggest this is a work of Science Fiction but it is hard to sustain that reading. If it is actually a metaphor, which I doubt, the increasing temperatures are not literalised in the way Science Fiction deals with such things and are not manifested in the characters’ interactions.

Fagan’s story is told through Dylan’s and Stella’s viewpoints and it is in effect one of relationships and family, one that could be told without any reference to external factors of climate or setting. There is a hint of fantasy in the appearances of Dylan’s grandmother to Stella but one of these was in a dream. In addition, Clachan Fells is described as if it is a remote location yet it is near a motorway and there is an IKEA within easy travelling distance, both of which would place it near a city. The deep freeze extends as far as North Africa – a touch unlikely I’d have thought. The metal door of a caravan is mentioned frequently. If anyone touched it at those temperatures their fingers would stick fast to it.

These are cavils and do not reflect on Fagan’s ability to conjure character. Dylan, his mother and grandmother, Constance, Stella, even local vagrant Barnacle, felt like living, breathing people. If the circumstances of, and reasons for, Dylan’s mother’s purchase of the caravan strain credulity a little it does not detract from the depiction of the characters and their relationships.

Constance mentions trick-or-treating to Dylan. The Scottish (and Northern Irish) term is guising. Fagan may have placed the USianism in Constance’s mouth when speaking to him since he grew up in London and she might have assumed he wouldn’t be familiar with it. In Stella’s thoughts, though, the activity is described as guising. This is a very subtle piece of writing by Fagan which would go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the original term.

It is somewhat ironic that the woman who has for years had ongoing relationships with the same two men, adds Dylan to the list, and has had other liaisons, is named Constance. I’ll presume Fagan intended this though.

The Sunlight Pilgrims contains excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the adults were slightly less to the fore. Here all are wonderfully realised.

Pedant’s corner :- morgue (mainly USian, the British term is mortuary,) and later, mortician (the British usage is undertaker,) “a trail of empty wine glasses lead to” (a trail leads to,) “a pile of unpaid bills are stacked” (a pile is stacked,) “a stack of records have still not been put back in their sleeves” (a stack has not,) “none of these things are going to happen” (none is going to happen – after a while I gave up counting these failures of verbs to agree with their subjects,) “the wind farm’s nacelle rotate” (I doubt the plural of nacelle is irregular as in “sheep” or “aircraft”, so nacelles,) Ikea (it’s IKEA,) in the corner of her eyes (corners,) then they gone (they’re,) bended heads (I know “bent heads” would have meant something different but so does bended [compare bended knee,] bowed heads conveys the sense, though bowed is used on the next line,) a quoted news report says “there have barely been any bird sightings for weeks now. Those that are in nests have just frozen,” (no birds would have been nesting as late as November, when the freeze is said to have started.)

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Canongate Classics, 1987, 285 p plus iv p Introduction by J B Pick.

 Imagined Corners cover

Through its own Calvinistic lens the Scottish novel treats as much of the three novelistic perennials love, sex and death as any other. In this, Imagined Corners, the first book Canongate published in its Classics series, is no exception. It contains, however, not much of a preoccupation with death but a more unusual emphasis on love – and (I would have thought for 1931) a quite startling discussion of sex in its philosophical aspects; though Muir somewhat euphemistically refers to “embraces” when alluding to such relations between her characters.

The book is set in the seaside town of Calderwick, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen railway line north of Dundee, and starts off in the household of William Murray, the local United Free Church Minister, where his sister Sarah is worried about their brother Ned’s mental wellbeing. Even though they are returned to at several points affairs at the Murrays are something of a red herring as the bulk of the book is concerned with the doings of the Shand family. Black sheep Hector, who had had to sojourn in Canada for a few years after an unfortunate incident involving a local girl, Bell Duncan, has returned to the town with his bride Elizabeth, a University graduate. His elder half-brother John owns a mill in the town in which he has placed Hector in a job. John’s wife Mabel, very mindful of the proprieties of life in a small town, has managed to “hook” him, marrying him for his money. Aunt Janet Shand is a prime example of the upright old school. In the first two parts of the novel the claustrophobia of small town life is well-established as are the accommodations (or lack of them) newly married couples have to make to one another. The third part brings into the equations the return of the Shand brothers’ sister Lizzie, who many years ago ran off with a married man, and a foreigner to boot. She quickly dumped him but is now a respectable widow. However, such scandalous behaviour runs in the Shand family. Their father Charles in his day was a notorious womaniser and drunkard, Hector a chip off the old block.

The strands of the novel are not particularly woven together. The dilemmas of characters from the different families do not really illuminate each other. They relate only in so much as they come into contact because they live in the same town. William Murray’s crisis of conscience in relation to the degree of his responsibility for his brother Ned’s mental instability is not germane to the marital difficulties of the younger Shands nor Mabel’s lack of excitement in her own marriage.

It could never have been described as such in its day but Imagined Corners is in fact a feminist novel avant la lettre. Such thoughts as, “All men were queer and unaccountable,” and, “‘It’s damnable the way a girl’s self-confidence is slugged on the head from the beginning,’” illustrate the point, while, “all men… accepted unthinkingly the suggestion that women were the guardians of decorum – good women, that is to say, women who could not be referred to as ‘skirts’. Good women existed to keep in check men’s sexual passions,” depicts the curious – and still prevalent – notion that women are the necessary gatekeepers to men’s sexuality.

Muir applies this curious bind to Elizabeth who, “had been subjected to the subtle pressure of the suggestion that a husband is the sole justification of a woman’s existence, that a woman who cannot attract and keep a husband is a failure,” and then explores its ramifications in the conclusion, “That some such theory should emerge in a society which regarded the sexual act as sinful was inevitable; one cannot train women in chastity and then expect them to people the world unless the sinfulness of sex is counterbalanced by the desirability of marriage.”

At a time when, “In Scotland man’s chief end was to glorify God and woman’s to see that he did it,” women’s responsibilities were strict. “The perfect wife was not only selfless and loving – she was sympathetic, understanding, tactful, and above all, charming…. she must always look ‘nice’,” and demanding, “The perfect wife is bound to assume that without her” her husband “would be ‘lost’. This …. fits loosely over the real problem, of one individual’s relationship to another.”

The manifestations of this include, “The sexual instinct has such complicated emotional effects on men and women that its masquerade as a simple appetite ought not to be condoned. Mankind has an inkling of this fact, and much ingenuity is applied to shielding the young and inexperienced from the bewildering effects of sex,” which is an approach that still holds true.

When such thoughts pervade society, innuendo and gossip are never far away, and the slightest deviations pounced upon. But there is a counterbalance, “an undercurrent of kindly sentiment that runs strong and full beneath many Scots characters, a sort of family feeling for mankind. … It is a vaguely egalitarian sentiment, and it enables the Scot to handle all sorts as if they were his blood relations.” Yet that too has its darker side, “Consequently in Scotland there is a social order of rigid severity, for if people did not hold each other off who knows what might happen? The so-called individualism of the Scots is merely an attempt on the part of every Scot to keep every other Scot from exercising the privileges of a brother.” Heaven forfend!

Elizabeth’s confusion over her role, Mabel’s susceptibility to flattering attention, Aunt Janet’s rigidity, John’s stolidity, all bear the stamp of authority. In this small world Lizzie is almost an alien, a pointer to another way of living. Hector as a roué is close to being a type, though. William Murray’s crisis over being his brother’s keeper can only be resolved one way, Sarah’s frustration an expression of constrained life but Ned edges towards being a device to highlight his siblings’ natures.

Among the grace notes Muir deploys that wonderful Scottish phrase black affronted, ‘Oh, no, John, no John, no!’ reminded me of a song while there is a wonderful aside in the thought, “Surely? People who defend an indefensible position always begin with ‘surely’.”

Imagined Corners is a vivid slice of early Twentieth Century Scottish life, a life still lived in the shadow of the Reformation.

Pedant’s corner:- someting (something,) “laid a paw on on Ned’s knee” (only one “on” needed,) againt (against,) a closing quote mark with no preceding opening one, recoverd (recovered,) powered (powdered,) gong (going,) grandiose (grandiose,) “‘so far I know’” (so far as I know,) extentions (is this a 1930s spelling of extensions?) “in another world that this” (than this,) “‘I’d throw up the sponge’” (nowadays it’s “throw in the sponge”,) discovered (discovered,) tranquillity (tranquillity,) Mains’ (Mains’s,) “we’re all John Tamson’s bairns” (more usually rendered as “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns”.)

The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan

faber and faber, 2004, 273 p. First published in 1995. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

 The Missing cover

This was O’Hagan’s first book and unlike his later fiction works is a piece of investigative reporting.

It begins as a series of histories; of O’Hagan’s family, on both sides, of Glasgow’s troubles with sectarianism, of O’Hagan’s childhood, the Bible John murders, of Kilwinning and Irvine old (that of John Galt) and New, but transforms into a meditation on people who have gone missing; as a three year old boy and, later, a young woman of whom the only trace was her handbag, did during O’Hagan’s youth in Irvine to where his family had moved in the early days of the New Town’s construction. In the text he writes that he has, since childhood, fuelled by those two incidents in his home town, had a morbid fear of disappearing. Of that ongoing sectarianism O’Hagan says, “There’s sometimes too much pleasure, and too much social cohesion, involved in an ongoing mutual hatred for it to be surrendered just like that. In the absence of much else, of course, prejudice is just a form of tradition.” Which perhaps goes a long way to explaining sectarianism’s persistence.

In the book’s course O’Hagan meditates on the cruelties children perpetrate on one another when there are no adults around; with particular emphasis on an incident from his youth – when he was a joint perpetrator – and the James Bulger case (“There was something unhelpful about the way that case was discussed….. the two Scouse boys were called devils, treated as complete anomalies, and they were hounded outside the court by adults sick with the desire for retribution,”) before finally coming to the heart of his investigation, 25, Cromwell Street, Gloucester, by way of Fred West’s connections to Glasgow via his first wife, whose body, with those of her friend and daughter, was eventually dug up in the garden of West’s previous home in Much Marcle, Herefordshire. The last quarter of the book is taken up with West’s life and activities and the missing and, up till the discovery of their bodies, his seemingly unmissed, victims.

There are different ways to be a misper (as police jargon for missing persons has it.) Some people have reasons for going missing – and want to remain so. Many folk O’Hagan met in an occasional shelter, for drop-ins, fell into that category. He also notes an increasing category of missing who are simply unnoticed until their bodies are found in their homes months or years after their deaths.

While it is the thought and possible plight of missing persons that toll through the book it is the autobiographical details of O’Hagan’s family and early life which are the most immediate and memorable to the reader. (O’Hagan refers to going to school for the first time – in long trousers. Such a change there was in fifteen years or so; in my day such sartorial splendour was not sported until Secondary School.)

In the afterword to this 2004 edition O’Hagan writes that he opened the US publication of the book with the sentence, “We are none of us safe in this world,” and now does not wish to limit its “ominous tenor”. But surely that has always been true? We could fall under the proverbial bus – or cart as was. A close examination of the awful events that take place, of the lives cut short or compromised, will inevitably lead to such a sense of insecurity. Feeding and encouraging such thoughts is what fuels the tabloid press and right wing politicians eager to reduce freedoms for the populace and scrutiny of themselves. Perhaps O’Hagan’s journalistic endeavour has obscured to him a wider perspective. There is no such thing as absolute safety. And protection from threat – terrorist or otherwise – can never be complete. Yet notwithstanding what goes on today in the world – and the UK – my generation and that of my children are generally – and statistically – safer than those of my parents and grandparents. (This may not apply to the missing of course.)

It is a usually neglected yet necessary endeavour to reflect on and pay attention to people who are perhaps too easily forgotten and whose fate may or may not be grim. Even in this digital and camera-surveilled age it is possible to disappear, apparently without trace. The light O’Hagan shines on the problem is not sparing neither is it comfortable.

Pedant’s corner:- Conopticon Variety Theatre (Panopticon I think,) elevator (in Irvine that would be a lift,) the knave (it was of a church; so, nave,) “up to high do” (doh,) “there’s other places” (there are,) “the audience are able” (is,) “than to most anyone else” (USianism; than to nearly anyone else.) Dr Chambers’ (Chambers’s,) “who has made the trip” (the rest of the sentence argues for “had made”,) “she would be beat-up” (beaten up.) “Isa had began an affair” (had begun,) absense (absence,) sat (seated, or sitting.)

Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Vintage, 1998, 281 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Grace Notes cover

MacLaverty is from Belfast but moved to Scotland in his thirties. Grace Notes is partly set on Islay, with some scenes in Glasgow. However, Part One occurs entirely in Northern Ireland to where Catherine Anne McKenna is returning to her childhood home for the funeral of her father. She has been estranged from her Catholic parents for years, effectively since leaving home to go to University. They were very strict when she was young, with an embedded sense of right and wrong, and she drifted away from them, her failure to come home one Christmas causing her father to say she would no longer be welcome. In the meantime she has, unknown to them, had a child, Anna, out of wedlock; a child whose father, Dave, “is no longer on the scene.” She still suffers from the effects of post-natal depression but has begun to ascend out of it. While back “home” she takes the opportunity to visit her first piano teacher, Miss Bingham, showing us the roots of her vocation as a composer. Before she leaves again, her mother seems to be coming round to her situation but is still aggrieved at the thought of a grandchild her husband never knew.

Part Two deals with Catherine’s early composing career while a teacher on Islay, her relationship with Dave, Anna’s birth, the descent into depression, Dave’s increasing distance as his alcohol consumption gets out of control, and Catherine beginning to come out of her despond on a beach as she hears in her head a set of notes which will become the new symphony whose first performance ends the book.

The portrait of Catherine’s feelings as she gives birth and the ensuing onset of her depression is finely done and Dave is a familiar enough character if a little undercooked. In the end though the novel is about music (grace notes being non-essential “notes between notes” but which add colour to a piece – the literary equivalent being detail in description of scene and action.) MacLaverty conveys music’s power and atmosphere very well and at one point deploys that tremendous Scottish phrase “black affronted”.

Throughout we get the sense of Catherine as a real person. So too are her parents and Miss Bingham but Dave seemed less of an individual and more of a type. It has to be acknowledged though that there are many versions of him about.

MacLaverty’s skill as an author means the book is very readable. One of Scotland’s 100 best? Better than quite a few which feature on the list.

Pedant’s corner:- Lilliburlero (Lillbulero,) the Ukraine (Ukraine,) “neither of whose name was” (neither of whose names was,) thran (Irish, the apparently identical in meaning Scottish word is spelled thrawn,) Miss Bingham had arthritis (as I read it this was at a time before Catherine went back to Ireland for the funeral and hadn’t yet been told Miss Bingham had the disease,) Capercaille (Capercaillie, more properly Capercailzie as it derives from the old Scottish letter yogh, written as ȝ,) jamjar (jam jar,) huzzies (usually hussies,) a pain in the ass (Catherine is Irish, she would say arse,) “what was bad were her nerves” (nerves is the object of this sentence; its subject is what, so, “what was bad was her nerves”,) the orchestra …. are playing (is playing.)

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, 2005, 333 p including iv p Preface. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

 44 Scotland Street cover

The narrative of this book covers the lives of various characters inhabiting the titular property and those with whom they come in contact. In the building live Pat, a young woman on her second gap year; her landlord flatmate Bruce, a narcissistic chancer; Irene, a pushy mother, with Bertie, her saxophone playing, Italian speaking five year-old who just wants to be a normal boy; and Domenica, an older woman more wise to the world. Pat takes up a job at an art gallery run by an incompetent set up by his father. Along the way we meet Bruce’s boss, a mainstay of the local Conservative Association, his wife and daughter; Big Lou, who runs a pub in the same street as the gallery; and Dr Fairbairn, Bertie’s psychiatrist – not to mention author Ian Rankin. There are occasional illustrations (by Iain McIntosh) at least one of which gave away an incident yet to occur on the page.

The problem with all this is its genesis as a periodic publication, appearing daily in The Scotsman. As a result none of the scenes is ever fully developed, they are sketched not drawn, and there is too much telling in place of showing. The characters are insufficiently fleshed out, types, not individuals.

What plot there is centres round the authenticity or otherwise, the disappearance and recovery, of a painting which might be a Peploe; but this is exiguous at best.

McCall Smith perhaps betrays his leanings when he puts these words about The Guardian into the mouth of five year-old Bertie, “Because it’s always telling you what you should think.” Then again it might just have been so he could add the rider, “Just like Mummy.” And don’t all newspapers in effect “tell their readers what to think”?

McCall Smith’s writing is easy on the eye but undemanding on the brain as the whole enterprise is very lightweight, admittedly suitable for quick, and perhaps not necessarily attentive reading. Quite why it appears on a list of 20 Scottish Books everyone should read is beyond me, though. That it is The Scotsman’s list is a bit too much like that newspaper blowing its own trumpet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Matthew’s father, despaired of his son ever amounting to much” (no comma,) a missing quote mark at the end of a chapter – the same speaker started the next so that’s fine – except the chapter number and title came in between, an extraneous quote mark between two paragraphs spoken by the same person, “and there was not reason to imagine” (no reason,) “aren’t I?” (Grrrr. The speaker was Scottish, the phrase is, ‘Amn’t I?’) “She realised sounded grudging” (realised she sounded,) an extraneous full stop at the end of a speech quote when the framing sentence continued, Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “on the shore of their rivers” (shores.)

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