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Scar Culture by Toni Davidson

Rebel Inc, 1999, 253 p Including 9 p Appendices. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Scar Culture cover

Had it not been for that 100 best Scottish books list I would never have sought this out. As it was I couldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly but it was interesting and well written. It has an odd structure though, broken up into five sections titled respectively Click, Fright, Sad, Preparation, The Experiment; and the viewpoint shifts between Click and Fright and Fright and Sad are a bit jarring – but probably intentionally so.

The first two are memoirs of two inmates in The Breathhouse, a psychiatric institution, where the inmates have all been given nicknames by the staff to illustrate their quirks (not only Click and Fright, but also Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth.)

Click took photographs both in actuality (once he was given a camera by his parents) and in his head. He calls his parents Exit (because she did) and Panic (because he was prone to.) Fright’s section is a transcript of tapes made of him relating his memories as part of his therapy. He and his brother witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of his father and were later subjected to dark experiences in a caravan. The last three sections are written from the viewpoint of Dr Curtis Sad who is indulging in psychosexual research in the area of inter-family sexuality. Sad calls his other professionals psychohacks, and receives communications from Peterson, a like-minded psychosexual researcher in the US (but whose letters, rendered in the text in italics, use British English spellings.)

Sad is obsessed with his Sister Josie, about whom he has memories/fantasies of a distinctly unbrotherly hue. These demonstrate he is as loopy as any of the inmates. He refers to “memory recovery as a form of lethal weapon,” is setting up an exercise in milieu therapy in which he will reconstruct the environments in which Click and Fright suffered their traumas. He enlists Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth to help construct these. Does this sound as if all will go well?

Three appendices provide us respectively with the Rules of Psychiatry which Curtis refers to in sequence at intervals in the main narrative, notes from his sister Julie’s (much needed in my opinion given Sad’s account of her childhood and adolescence) psychotherapy sessions, and an index of Click’s photos.

In Scar Culture Davidson has opened up the world of the psychologically disturbed (and perhaps that of the practitioners of psychiatric well-being.) It is certainly important to consider in fiction the plight of the mentally unwell – and of those whose upbringing has rendered them unstable – but it is by no means a comfortable experience to read of them.

Curiously, my edition has rough-cut page edges (though the tops and bottoms were smooth) as if it had been published in the nineteenth century.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its safe here’” (It’s,) “‘but I couldn’t been to look at him’” (couldn’t bear,) a missing end quotation mark (x2,) “was back here in that mountainside lagoon” (back there makes more sense,) out-with (it’s one word, outwith,) “tickled out feet” (our feet,) “he would researched” (he would be researched,) “an sheepish look” (a sheepish look,) “liked to fight too much, like to use her hands to scratch” (liked to use her hands,) “my parents lies’ left off” (my parents’ lies left off,) “that’s just kind of moronic psychobite” (just the kind of,) winge (whinge,) “in small coffin shaped cardboard box” (in a small,) “on the dolls back” (doll’s,) Breatthouse (elsewhere always Breathhouse,) a missing end quotation mark (x4, one in Appendix II,) snuck (sneaked,) “for the the first hour” (only one ‘the’ required,) “in regard, to why you are here” (no comma needed,) airplane (aeroplane.) “Every tree … had been stripped of their bark” (of its bark,) “nasal wines” (whines.)

Friday on my Mind 186: Let’s Be Natural – RIP Neil Innes

2019 kept taking away till the very end. Not content with removing Alasdair Gray from us it managed to take Neil Innes on the same day.

It was only four months ago I featured his big hit with The Bonzo DogDoo-Dah Band, I’m the Urban Spaceman.

That was the least of the band’s eccentricities. Innes contributed the most bizarre guitar solo to the utterly indescribable Canyons of Your Mind. Try out this video from the BBC’s Colour Me Pop for size.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: Canyons of Your Mind

Innes’s Beatles parodies for Rutland Weekend Television and subsequent recordings as The Rutles were sublime. The haunting Let’s Be Natural is the perfect example.

The Rutles: Let’s Be Natural

Neil James Innes: 9/12/1944 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

Alasdair Gray

Sad, sad news.

Alasdair Gray has died.

If he had never done anything else in his life his first novel Lanark (arguably four novels) would have made him the most important Scottish writer of the twentieth century’s latter half, if not the whole century. (Perhaps only Lewis Grassic Gibbon rivals him in that respect.)

But of course he published 8 more novels, the last of which I read in 2009, 4 books of short stories – see this review of one of them – 3 of poetry (I reviewed a couple here and here,) many pieces for theatre, radio and television plus books of criticism (as here) and commentary (eg see here).

Yet that was not the least of it. There is also his work as an artist and illustrator to take into account. His drawing/painting style was unique and uniquely recognisable; much admired and sought after.

A polymath and curmudgeon, learned and contrary, Gray was one of a kind.

Even as his work lives on we will miss his acerbic presence.

And I still have his The Book of Prefaces to peruse.

Alasdair Gray: 28/12/1934 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

Best of 2019

These are the books that stood out from my reading this year – in order of when I read them. 7 by men, 6 by women. 3 were SF or Fantasy.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Shiloh by Shelby Foote
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Reading Scotland 2019

This was my Scottish reading (including a Scottish setting) in 2019.

Those in bold were in that list of 100 best Scottish Books.

15 by women, 15 by men, one non-fiction,* two with fantastical elements.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner
Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig
Winter by Ali Smith
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
Independence by Alasdair Gray*
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Brond by Frederic Lindsay
The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh
The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Spring by Ali Smith
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland
The Citadel by A J Cronin

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
Where the Bodies Are Buried by Christopher Brookmyre

Where the Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre

Abacus, 2012, 411 p.

 Where the Bodies Are Buried cover

Aspiring actress Jasmine Sharp is another of Brookmyre’s innocents brought into contact with violent criminals. Her failure to get any parts has led her Uncle Jim to hire her to help out in his Private Investigator practice. Not that she’s very good at that either, yet The trouble is he’s disappeared and she needs to find him and to earn money. Her attempts to interest the police in looking for him fall flat.

We start, though, with the murder of a smalltime Glasgow gangster, Jai McDiarmid but the connection between this and what turns out to be the main plot is somewhat tenuous. Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod is put on his case, allowing Brookmyre to highlight the denizens of the Glasgow outwith-the-law fraternity. McLeod has the obligatory plagued personal life of the detective novel protagonist though her troubles are of a low-key variety.
A file on Uncle Jim’s desk reveals he was looking into a decades old disappearance of parents and a child on behalf of the left behind daughter. Jasmine’s efforts to follow this up lead her to hardman Tron Ingrams, once known as Glen Fallan, who has been thought dead for twenty years.

The lead characters are not as interesting as those in Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane and Angelique de Xavia novels. Or, are they just more perfunctorily drawn? Moreover the prose rarely if ever rises above the functional. Where the Bodies Are Buried feels like crime writing by the numbers.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe” which Brookmyre characterises as an eighties movie reference does however show his affinity with Science Fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “there are a select few semiologists” (strictly, there is a select few,) “… person to be sat in front of me” (seated, or, sitting,) Collins’ (Collins’s,) growed-up (surely even hard-boiled Glaswegians say ‘grown-up’,) Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Ingrams’ (Ingrams’s,) “coming off of” (I know it’s Glaswegian dialect but this was in ‘normal’ prose; coming off, no ‘of’,) middle-age spread (it’s usually middle-aged spread,) “oblivious of the tension” (it’s ‘oblivious to’.) Central station (it’s a proper noun, Central Station,) Motley Crue (I believe that band spells its name with erroneous umlauts, Mötley Crüe.)

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison

Women’s Press, 1985, 149 p. © 1962, First published in the UK, 1976.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman cover

I read this when I first bought it many moons ago but couldn’t actually remember much about it other than it was a bit dry. Re-reading partially reinforces that impression. Much of it is told not shown and the overall effect tends towards the intellectual. That said, it is never less than interesting.

Our narrator Mary is a communications expert who has gained employment on the intergalactic expeditions sent from Earth to contact and understand the aliens on the target planets. Non-interference with the alien life-forms is the guiding principle of the expeditions. On her travels Mary encounters radiates, a bit like starfish, who therefore have no binary view of the universe, and creatures who form grafts on others’ surfaces as a means of reproduction. Mary accepts such a graft and finds herself mentally dissociating somewhat and mysteriously attracted to water. All creatures who agree to such a graft (dogs for example) tend to be unwilling to repeat the experience.

Reference is made to Mary’s relationships with the various fathers of her children but there is more or less no exploration of these and not much more of the hermaphrodite Martian, Vly who somehow manages to engender her haploid child, Viola. (Martians communicate via sex organs.) Keeping contact – or even contemporaneity – with partners is admittedly made difficult by the time blackout caused by space voyaging.

The bulk of the text, though, is devoted to the life-forms on a planet which bears pattern-making “caterpillars” whose patterns are painfully disrupted by “butterflies” they refer to as “masters”. Teasing out the relationships between these creatures takes Mary and her companions a while. Some tension is caused by this as one of the expedition members becomes too close to the “caterpillars”.

In its depiction of a society in which women are on an equal footing with men as scientists and explorers – and in more general senses – as well as in its exploration of the details of alien reproduction Memoirs of a Spacewoman was something of a trail-blazer. That makes it an important (I hesitate to say seminal) pioneering work of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- Extra points for hyaena (now defunct, as hyena has become the accepted spelling.) Otherwise; “I liked in that he had tried” (‘I liked it that he had tried’ makes more sense,) “assemblement of data” (assemblement? Assembly, or assemblage, of data, surely?) “Peder was much interested” (‘very interested’ is the more natural expression,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, aureolus (that means golden. I suspect aureola was intended,) in, “We might unwittingly destroy some life which was not induced to move out by any of these stimuli, and of course we destroyed vegetation,” life is contrasted with vegetation (but vegetation is, of course, alive,) Silis’ (Silis’s,) furtheir (further,) Miss Hayes’ (Hayes’s.) Miss Hayes sent off on long expeditions” (Miss Hayes set off on…,) the text describes alien creatures in Earthly terms as eg ‘reptiles,’ ‘caterpillars,’ ‘butterflies’ (I know this usage is for purposes of familiarity for the reader but animals on other worlds would/will not come under the same biological classifications as on Earth,) “as regard” (usually as regards,) follicules (follicles.)

The Citadel by A J Cronin

BCA in arrangement with Gollancz, 1983, 347 p. First published 1937. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

This book has the dedication, “To my wife.” No name, just, “To my wife.” Of its time.

The Citadel cover

Cronin lived for a while in my home town of Dumbarton and was well-liked there. He had a long and successful writing career being best known for his “Doctor Finlay” stories which have been made into television series more than once. This is the first of his books I have read.

In it, newly qualified doctor Andrew Manson takes up his first post in the Welsh mining village of Drineffy only to find to his surprise that Dr Page, whose practice he has joined as assistant, is ill, therefore leaving the whole burden to him. It takes him some while to come to terms with his new existence, to overcome the hide-bound attitudes of others, and he bemoans the lack of recent knowledge amongst the elder doctors on the town. He then forms a pact with another young doctor to blow up the leaking sewer causing enteric fevers in the village. In a confrontation over isolation procedures for communicable disease he meets local schoolteacher, Christine Barlow. His dedication to his patients eventually leads to a confrontation with Page’s sister over an ex-gratia payment. He resigns on principle and seeks a post in Aberalaw, a few valleys away. This requires a married man, so his intended proposal to Christine is accelerated.

In Aberalaw there are still aspects of typical medical practice which he abhors but he has a chance to investigate the incidence and genesis of lung disease in anthracite miners. His paper on the matter is well received on both sides of the Atlantic. This leads to a brief spell at the Government Board overseeing mines, where his talents are misplaced.

His taking over a practice in a not too well-off part of London is the start of his ascent as he is gradually drawn into the web of venality and malpractice surrounding the higher elements of his profession there. Increasing affluence leads to an estrangement from Christine. His eyes are finally re-opened to the true state of affairs when he assists at an operation which is botched. The comeuppance he’s given for his misdemeanours is perhaps unduly harsh, though, as it is personal rather than professional.

Characterisations tend to be broad-brush and to a modern eye the conversations too long. Another historical note is that the text is pervaded with mention of cigarettes. You can almost feel the tobacco smell rising from the paper.

The book is to be commended for its main thrust, though, the indictment of the absolute racket that was private medicine. (And, no doubt, still is.) That people seek to profit from the gullible is a given of human nature but to do so from the ill is utterly despicable.

To those with sensitive dispositions I should mention that a character says, “‘He’s a white man,’” in that old casual usage, meaning sound, or reliable. Cronin probably thought it unremarkable.

Pedant’s corner:- signagure (signature,) “it was no mere slip of the tongue which has caused” (had caused,) doyleys (the usual spelling is doilies,) “her background previous to her marriage to Doctor Bramwell, had been” (needs no comma after Bramwell,) “caught he unguardedly fixing him” (caught her.) “There was also palms and a string orchestra.” (There were also palms and a ..,) marraiges (marriages,) ampule (ampoule is more usual,) “if I’d been the King of England” (Manson is a Scot; he would more likely have thought, ‘if I’d been the King’,) Rees’ (Rees’s – which appeared six lines later,) etctera (etcetera,) prtence (pretence,) “a county practice” (country practice?) cruciform (cruciform?) “at he could” (as he could,) “what an earth for?” (what on Earth for?) “he flung out of bed” (flung himself out of bed,) “tht night” (that night,) “at Vaughans’” (at the Vaughans’, or, at Vaughan’s,) Glyn-Jones’ (Glyn-Jones’s,) out-bye (out-by,) beieve (believe,)“could .. be inducted” (induced makes more sense,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a PS.,” Spahlinger (later [once each] Sphahlinger and Sphalinger,) “when we’re time” (when we’ve time,) “whiteheart cheeries” (cherries?) “there were signs of new life spring up” (sprung up,) “the crumped note” (crumpled,) “by Freddie’ gush” (Freddie’s,) Mr winch (Winch,) Rogers’ (Rogers’s,) wisteria (wisteria,) “more than usualy acrimony on her patchy features” (more than usual,) “ a stiff whicky and soda” (whisky,) “he isn’t so mart as Ivory” (smart,) “dity money” (dirty,) waggon (wagon,) “‘I’ve been thinking so much before you come in’” (came in.)

Nina Allan’s List

This is Nina Allan’s response to the BBC’s list of 100 Books that shaped our world.

As usual the ones in bold I have read. (18. 19 if John Banville’s Shroud and Eclipse count as two.) Some others are on my tbr pile.

Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers by John Burningham

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield

‘Adventure’ series by Willard Price

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

‘UNEXA’ series by Hugh Walters

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

‘Changes’ trilogy by Peter Dickinson

‘Tripods’ trilogy by John Christopher

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Drought by J. G. Ballard

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Search for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Shroud/Eclipse by John Banville

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Shriek: an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

Glister by John Burnside

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Kills by Richard House

A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Straggletaggle by J. M. McDermott

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Attrib. by Eley Williams

Berg by Ann Quin

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

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