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Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1985, 151 p, plus vii p Introduction by Elizabeth Longford. First published in 1952.

Travel Light cover

It wasn’t till I read Elizabeth Longford’s Introduction (after the story itself) that I realised this is a sequel (of sorts) to Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen – apparently the best historical novel of the twentieth century – which is on my tbr pile but a much bulkier volume than this one so I had passed on it as yet. I must admit I was slightly annoyed to have read them out of sequence but Travel Light can stand alone. It is, though, a fantasy rather than a straight historical novel, the tale of Halla Bearsbairn, later Halla Heroesbane, and later again Halla Godsgift, born the daughter of a king of Novgorod whose second wife persuades him to get rid of her. She is saved by her nurse who turns into a bear and takes Halla into the woods where the bears are waking from their winter sleep. Halla spends the year with them picking up bear ways but is too lively for them as they begin to hibernate and so is adopted by the dragon Uggi as part of his treasure, most of which is kept at the back of his cave. Encounters with Norse heroes and Steinvor, a red-headed Valkyrie, suggest this may all be a Norse-based fantasy but events conspire to force Halla to leave. She has an encounter with the All-Father who tells her to travel light. She does, down the Volga to the Black Sea and the town of Marob, then sailing to Byzantium which the Norse had known as Micklegard. The bulk of the book is spent in this environment where Halla learns to navigate the ways of the human world, realising among other things that the emperor is merely a man not the near-mythical entity she had previously supposed. Halla’s ability to communicate with animals comes in handy for betting on the results at the Hippodrome and procuring the money needed for her friends from Marob to petition the court. Halla’s detachment from her human interlocutors, her air of wafting through the proceedings means that we never really feel a sense of jeopardy on her behalf, her other-wordliness, which might have been a danger, is a coat of protection. Along with this, in Travel Light, Mitchison also plays tricks with time.

The book is an example of Mitchison’s interest in other times and places, compare Blood of the Martyrs, and I did wonder about the significance or otherwise of the name which results when Halla is spelled in reverse.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction Dneiper (Dnieper.) Otherwise; mankind were (mankind was,) dispirited (dispirited,) one missing full stop.

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

Scotland’s Favourite Book Update

You may have noticed from my sidebar I am currently reading Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood.

This is my latest from the list of Scotland’s Favourite Books I posted about here.

Of the thirty books shown there that will be 27 I will have read, the only exceptions being:
An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell which being written in Gaelic I could not attempt except in translation,
Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which simply does not appeal to me, and
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

That last is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of only two books to appear on all four lists of Scottish books I have slowly been working my way through.
(The other lists are:- the 100 best Scottish Books; the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books; the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.)

I have long doubted that Trainspotting could be as good as Sunset Song and have so far resisted its charms. One day I suppose I’ll bite that bullet but for now The Wire in the Blood is the last from this particular list.

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

Canongate, 2017, 211 p, including 3 p Glossary: plus ii p Dramatis Personae and vi p Introduction. First published 1930.

 The Weatherhouse cover

I don’t normally pick up a book according to its cover but I did in this case. It helped that the novel was by Nan Shepherd whose The Quarry Wood I enjoyed a year or so ago. Yet I was also attracted by the illustration which is almost in the style of a 1930s railway poster – a very Art Deco form – even down to the lettering. The house shown is actually wrong though; in two ways. It is much more of an English type of building rather than Scottish and it bears no relation at all to the hexagonal construction described in the text. Pretty, just the same.

That titular Weatherhouse is the home in Fetter-Rothnie of the Craigmyle family, which consists of matriarch Lang Leeb plus her daughters Annie, Theresa and the widowed Ellen. The story though, is more to do with how Garry Forbes, the intended of Lindsay Lorimer, in turn the daughter of Andrew, Lang Leeb’s cousin, came to become a proverb in Fetter-Rothnie.

The former Minister’s daughter, Louie Morgan, claimed after Forbes’s friend David Grey had died in the Great War that she and Grey had been secretly betrothed and carries Grey’s mother’s ring about her neck as proof. Forbes, home from the war as a convalescent, is convinced that can not be the case. He attempts, first to bring the falseness of Louie’s claim to the attention of the Kirk Session (which upsets Lindsay) and then to prevent his knowledge of Louie’s theft of the ring becoming more widely apprehended.

Despite what appears to be a focus on small matters The Weatherhouse nevertheless has a wider resonance, and has some humorous observations. The incidental mention of the man who, because of his brother, waited twenty years to wed his fiancée (who nevertheless brought him children “as a wedding gift”) shows life in those times was not entirely as straight-laced as might perhaps be thought.

Human dilemmas and emotions occur in all places and at all times. Shepherd shows us the humanity of her characters, in all their complexity. This is a fine companion piece to The Quarry Wood. Both these novels bear some similarities to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Cloud Howe but don’t quite have the sweep of the first of those.

Pedant’s corner:- Amy Liptrot’s introduction says Shepherd’s writing is very localised to the foothills of the Grampian mountains and quotes two of the words she uses, stravaigin and collieshangie as being specific to that area. Stravaigin certainly has no such specificity.
In the glossary: keeing (keeking,) snored (smored.) Otherwise: “you’re as light ’s a feather” (light’s,) knit (knitted,) chose (choose,) “a moment before made up on her sister on the road” (before she made up,) a missing comma before a start quote mark.

Phantastes by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1858.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

This takes much the same form as the same author’s Lilith, which was originally published forty-three years after it. The narrator travels to a strange land – in this case Fairy Land – and has there certain adventures. On the face of it MacDonald had learned no new tricks over that time span but there was a slight difference in The Princess and the Goblin (1872) where at least there was in evidence something in the form of characters it was possible to care about.

In Fairy Land – reached seemingly by walking through a wood – the narrator (unnamed here, in Lilith at least he had a surname) among other things encounters a long dark shadow not attached to his body, deaths in various guises and more observations through a mirror.

As to MacDonald’s prose I can only agree with C S Lewis who says in his introduction that, “The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.” But where Lewis detects a mythopoeic quality in Macdonald, I cannot.

MacDonald’s narrator seems to have forgotten Shakespeare’s dictum that, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” when he pleads, “‘But tell me how it is that she could be so beautiful without any heart at all – without any place even for a heart to live in.’”

Definitely of its time. I would not have read it but for it being in the same set of covers as Lilith (and that I only read because it was in the 100 best Scottish Books list.)

Pedant’s corner:- shrunk (shrank,) drank (drunk,) sung (sang, used correctly four lines later. Were these possibly misreadings of MacDonald’s handwriting by the typesetter?)

Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Chroma, 2005, 446 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Psychoraag cover

From its opening sentence “’Salaam alaikum, sat sri sakaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat summer’s night!’” this novel proudly proclaims its uniqueness. The tale of the last broadcast of Radio Chaandni, “’Sax oors, that’s right, sax ooors ae great music, rock an filmi an weird, weye-oot there happenins an ma rolling voice,’” on “ninety-nine-point-nine meters” sic FM. The voice is that of Zaf – “’that’s zed ay eff’” – DJ of The Junnune (madness) Show, scion of a pair of romantic (but adulterous) runaways from Pakistan.

As the above quote shows, Zaf’s monologues to his microphone are rendered in a very broad Glaswegian indeed. They are presented on the page with an unjustified right margin, a feature distinguishing them from the more normal narrative interspersed with them which relates the events of the night in a slightly more refined Scots dialect. Meanwhile sections devoted to his parents’ life together are in Standard English (except when their back story has caught up to times Zaf can remember.) To render the Glaswegian Scots, Saadi spells most participles (indeed most words ending with “ng”) without the final g – even when they occur inside longer words as in increasinly.

The music he plays (ranging from Asian Dub Foundation through Kula Shaker and Corner Shop to The Beatles, The 13th Floor Elevators, the golden hour and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) is integral to Zaf’s conception of himself and for those interested in such things a Play List and Discography of his many and varied tastes are appended after the glossary of Urdu and other terms with which the novel is liberally sprinkled.

Zaf’s stream of consciousness sees him ruminate on life, the universe and everything, with an emphasis on Scotland and Pakistan, “the land of the pure”, often mixing things to great effect, “if Dante Alighieri, in his exile, had had Irn-Bru, he wouldn’t have needed Beatrice. He wouldn’t have needed poetry.”

His thoughts also whirl around both the important women in his adult life, present girlfriend Babs, prone to jaunts to the wilds on her blue Kawasaki motor bike, and previous occupier of that position Zilla. Babs is white and – once – called him her brown god. Like Zaf, Zilla is of Asian descent but has fallen into drugs and prostitution, a circumstance for which it turns out Zaf is partly responsible.

Considerations of race inevitably loom large in Zaf’s thoughts. “The aspiration of all good Asians, finally, wis to be as white as possible. To marry white, to generate white and to strive incessantly for depigmentation.” To be half white or part white gave you, “one foot in the door… You became an honorary person.” He ponders acronyms and abbreviation as aspects of western life, “the whole pompous culture of indecipherability and wilful obscurantism had arisen from the collective mind of the grey men.” He articulates the Asian experience of Glasgow, especially the part which has become known as Wee Faisalabad, mentions the activities of local gang The Kinnin Park Boys, desirous of taking over the station franchise, and his experience of living in the slightly more upmarket area of the Shiels. He has, too, recognised that Calvinist sensibility, knowing that Glasgow had “turned its hard Presbyterian face away from its own children, it averted its thin lips,” and hence reasoning, “So why on earth should it bother to acknowledge a changeling like Zaf?” Neither does society’s attitude to women escape him, especially that of those keen on patriarchy and the primacy of the word. If they fall from an ideal, women are never forgiven, “There wis no such entity as the prodigal daughter,” he notes. Even the possibility of such a fall proscribes them.

Where the narrative breaks away from Zaf and instead tells the story of his father Jamil Ayaan and his mother Rashida, their meeting and falling in love, their affair and her desire for them to be together (only possible if they left Pakistan,) their long journey in a Ford Popular from Lahore to London then Glasgow; a city Jamil had never heard of before, and which he therefore thought would be safe from “prying eyes, ears tongues,” only to find on arrival the sole job he could find was in the sewers, the prose becomes lyrical. Saadi is no mere Shock Jock, he handles straightforward English narrative with as much skill as his demotic flourishes.

There are dream-like sequences where Zaf seems simultaneously to be in the studio at Radio Chaandni and at the same time roaming the city’s streets. This may or may not be because he has drunk some absinthe lying about the studio or perhaps a result of Zaf’s general sense of dissociation. The scenes where Zilla has turned up in the studio have a particularly hallucinatory feel.

Psychoraag is a tremendous achievement, managing to distil both the essence of immigrant experience and of Scottishness and to embody them in one character. It is certainly an admirable piece of work, utterly memorable, worthy of a place in that list of 100 Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- “ninety-nine-point-nine meters FM” (FM radio tuning is characterised by frequency, not by wavelength; Zaf must mean 99.9 MHz,) “but, to Zaf’s right, was a partition wall” (unnecessary parenthetical commas,) zndabad (zindabad,) off of (just off, please,) “poking out from of the back pockets of their jeans” (from or of; not both,) “on account he was” (on account of he was.) “Cognito ergo sum” (The context implies this re-rendering – I know therefore I am – of Descartes’s philosophical statement, I think therefore I am, is intended,) “more dif icult to maintain” (difficult,) “aren’t I?” (OK Zaf says this to his mum and “Indian” English perhaps uses this formulation; but the Scottish English is “amn’t I?) “‘It’s finishes tonight.’” (It,) “she will have she have OD’d” (no “she have”,) Glasgae (Saadi – as Zaf – often uses this but no West of Scotland person says this; Glesca or Glesga maybe, never Glasgae,) re-appeared (in the middle of a line? reappeared,) outside of (outside; ditto inside of,) “it’s three thirty in the morning” (Zaf thinks this during a disturbance in the show’s fifth hour, ie after four a.m.) posonous (poisonous,) “as if it there had been” (as if it had been.) Peter Sellars (Sellers,) “the music swelled tae a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the swelling; “swelled to a climax” maybe,) “hud been lain” (laid,) ivirthin (previously, and subsequently, ivirythin, with one iviryhin,) “just a little, as. underneath the sunshine” (no full stop.) Fundmentalist (Fundamentalist.) “A certain section of the community were” (a section was.) Polyethelene (Polyethylene,) “ninety-nine point-nine wave-length” (it’s frequency not a wavelength; and wavelength isn’t hyphenated,) cadeceus (caduceus?)
In the glossary:- a shopkeepers, (a shopkeeper) “the commercial films or South Asia” (of,) “a person who own a lot of land” (owns,) “of which there are an enormous variety” (there is a variety.)

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.)

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