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“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”.)

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.)

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.)

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 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.)

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.)

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