Archives » Alan Warner

Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

After the Dance

Selected stories of Iain Crichton Smith. Edited and with an introduction by Alan Warner. Polygon, 2013, 256p plus 4 p introduction. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 After the Dance  cover

Of the many characteristics Scottish literature habitually exhibits – a preoccupation with the dark side of human nature, a fascination with the devil (or at least manifestations of the supernatural,) a questioning of identity, a sense of being peripheral, or isolated, a lack of communication, a love of the land – humour does not come high on the list. The former do appear in these pages (to great effect) yet humour is also here, in spades; a reflection of the author himself, as Alan Warner’s introduction to this collection attests. Warner considers Crichton Smith’s creation, Murdo, to be one of the most unpredictable, and most welcome, characters in recent Scottish writing. I can only concur.

Born in the islands, Crichton Smith straddled Scotland’s own two cultures, Highland/island as contrasted to Lowland, Gaelic versus English. Adept with prose and as a poet, his Consider the Lilies is in the list of 100 best Scottish books. I’ll get round to that sometime.

Murdo Leaves the Bank sees misfit Murdo, kilt, red feather in his hair and all, leave the staid bank branch he had tried to liven up. Mr Heine is an ex-pupil who turns up unannounced to the house of his former teacher to commemorate his retirement. In The Play a new young teacher of English finds the only way he can enthuse his raising-of-the-school-leaving age class is to have them improvise. The Telegram is being carried through the village by the elder, watched by two women each dreading it is bearing news of the death of her son in the war. Murdo’s Xmas Letter details the exploits which he got up to during the year; including running a Scottish short story competition – “What I look for first is good typing, then originality,” – and a crusade for truthful In Memoriams – “May James Campbell’s randy bones rest in peace.” The Red Door has been mysteriously painted that colour overnight. When its owner discovers the change it causes him to reassess his life. The Button has loosened from the jacket of a man whose wife and himself had come not to speak to each other. The untidiness obsesses her. Murdo’s Application for a Bursary is to help write his novel about a private eye, Sam Spaid, who is a member of the Free Church. (“I do not see why the Catholics should have Father Brown and we Protestants nobody.”) From there it digresses. The Mess of Pottage is one of Sam Spaid’s cases. A man has left his overly religious wife. In the interview with her Sam ponders the delights of predestination, then follows the trail to the flesh pots of Inverness. The Old Woman and the Rat is a total change of style, as it relates the violent encounter between the two titular characters in the woman’s barn. So too, is The Crater; an account of a World War 1 trench raid and its aftermath while The House is the tale of the delayed construction, over five generations of the Macrae family, of a stone house.

On A September Day young Iain comes home by bus from his school in Stornoway and walks through the village. The talk is all of the international situation and his thoughts become suffused with images of war. The inhabitants are proud of The Painter despite his less than flattering portrayals of the village, until one day he starts to paint, dispassionately, a fight between Red Roderick and his father-in-law. In Church, an abandoned one, in a wood behind the lines, is where Lieutenant Colin Macleod chances upon a deserter dressed as a priest. The Prophecy he has been told about is unwound by an English incomer to a Highland village who muses, “Life is not reasonable, to live is to be inconsistent. To be consistent is to cease to live.” To test out the prophecy he constructs a shed. This leads to a clash between the young (who want to use it for dancing; well, we know what that leads to) and the local minister. In Do You Believe In Ghosts? Iain and Daial go out hunting for ghosts while A Day in the Life of… chronicles said day of a woman who never married, whose parents are dead and who takes pointless holidays. She wanders Edinburgh, thinks what about what her mother would have said of illuminated bibles in an exhibition she visits, “’Nothing but candles and masses. Heathenism,’” before deciding she can’t bear total freedom any more.

Murdo and Calvin is another jeu d’esprit wherein Murdo goes to a police station to denounce Calvin, “a dangerous lunatic….responsible for the Free Church, for the state of Scottish literature, and for many other atrocities too numerous to mention. And especially the Kailyard.” He also believes him, “to have invented the Bible,” that (Calvin) hates women and deceives men, and is a man who uses boredom as a weapon. In After the Dance a man goes back to a woman’s house, they talk, and he asks to watch television. What he sees strikes a chord with him. Mother and Son portrays the eponymous pair in all their backbiting, resentful hopelessness. “He had now become so sensitive that he usually read some devilish meaning into her smallest utterance.” An American Sky sees a now retired emigrant to the US return to his island home for a visit. He reflects, “Perhaps those who went away were the weaker ones …. unable to suffer the slowness of time.” But there is no going back to the same place. Murdo and the Mod relates Murdo’s money-making schemes surrounding that annual celebration of Gaelic culture – protection for adjudicators, procuring B&Bs for choirs, invisible hearing aids (for turning off on the seventh hearing of the same song,) soundproofing rooms for pipers to practise their pibrochs etc. etc. Sweets to the Sweet tells of how a mini-skirted, peroxided, motherless, daughter of a shopkeeper behaves towards the owner of the shop next door. The Bridge is a story about legends and hauntings and being careful what you wish for set against the backdrop of a trip to Israel. The Long Happy Life of Murdina the Maid is a swipe at tales of the olden days, written in the style of a legend, and tells the story of a maid who was inveigled to the great metropolis, was disillusioned there and returned to set up business at home, where there is no competition for her trade. The Wedding is a Highland one but held in a city where no-one speaks Gaelic. The bride’s father makes an awkward speech and seems like the proverbial spare…. until the songs in Gaelic start. The Hermit plays his chanter – badly – when the local bus stops outside his hut. The Exiles are an old woman once from the Highlands but now living on a Lowlands council estate and a Pakistani law student doing a door-to-door round to support himself. In The Maze time seems to accelerate for a man who cannot navigate it. A boy is left In the Silence in a field when his playmates disappear.

After the Dance is a glorious collection; well worth reading.

PC:- For those of a nervous disposition the word negro is used; there is a mention – as depicted in a television programme – of the hooded axe-man at Anne Boleyn’s execution. (Someone’s got this wrong. Boleyn was executed with a sword, by a man clothed unexceptionally in order to keep her at as much ease as possible.) Each left hand page header is Selected Stories of Iain Crichton Smith but the right hand header is the particular story’s title – except on the last right hand page of Sweets to the Sweet where the header was Survival Without Error – which appears nowhere else in the book.

More Referendum Reflections

No. Not the one on the EU. Last year’s on Scottish Independence. (For my immediate thoughts on its result see here.)

The subject of the consequences of the “no” vote were referred to once again in The Guardian, on Thursday, this time by Alan Bissett in which he mentions Alan Warner’s view that a “no” vote represented a schism between the voters and the writers, which I also mused on.

As followers of this blog will know I have been reading a lot of Scottish literature recently, both modern and otherwise. It is safe to say that there is such a beast as Scottish writing and its recurring concerns and themes do tend to differ – at least in emphasis and psychology – from literature emanating from elsewhere in the UK. Is this insular? The wider community certainly does not afford it the status of a national (or even regional) literature; perhaps because it is liable to be misunderstood or seen as parochial even where it’s not neglected.

Yet how parochial are the sentiments expressed in Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier – a poem widely considered as being serious in purpose (if nowadays also seen as just a touch wrong-headed, though not as wrong-headed as those in the same poet’s Death) and included in many an anthology of First World War poetry? To my mind it is impossible to conceive of a Scottish poet of those times writing such words about his land in such a way. And if he had (it would have been a “he” the times being what they were) he would most likely have been ridiculed, certainly not still being reprinted one hundred years later.

Bissett mentions the view that the 2015 General Election result in Scotland was politics catching up with Scottish culture. An alternative take is that the Scottish Labour Party failed to recognise that after devolution the centre of gravity of Scottish politics had shifted decisively to Holyrood (which it saw as a sideshow – and probably still does) and as a consequence neglected to pay it enough attention or put up for election to it sufficient numbers of its best politicians. That Labour in the UK has consistently failed to “protect” Scotland from Tory policies – even as New Labour which often felt like a mildly diluted Thatcherism – only compounded this mistake. It is possible that, for Labour, Scotland is gone, and is unrecoverable in the short term. Whether Corbynmania is enough to overturn that perception remains to be seen. Some Labour voters may return to the fold but once political trust is lost it is usually hard to regain.

Yet in many ways it is as if the Scottish people feel that the country did become kind of independent on devolution; or at least that the Scottish Parliament was an adequate reflection of their political desires. Yes they do know that Westminster holds sway on many of the most important aspects of political life but they feel it’s at arm’s length, divorced from them almost.

Bissett concludes that there can be no “schism” between Scotland and its artists. My reading of Scottish literature and its history suggests that, even if some may transcend such labelling, while the idea of Scotland and a distinct Scottishness persists writers will continue to reflect those origins in their stories and the characters they describe. As Scottish writers that is arguably what they are for.

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

(Edited to add:- Those with a *I have now read.
Edited again to add:- I have added even more than these to the “have now read” list.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue* (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free* (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work. (As of May 2016 on tbr pile.)
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers* (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies* (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002) (tbr pile)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place* (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961) (tbr pile)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998) (tbr pile)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe* (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931) (tbr pile)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons* (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal* (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972) (tbr pile)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door!* (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood* (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy* (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this. (tbr pile)
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935) (tbr pile)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings* (1941) Of Gunn’s work I recently read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde* (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps* (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) (tbr pile)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day* (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947) (tbr pile)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956) (tbr pile)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822) (tbr pile)

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Scottish Referendum Reflections

In the end I suppose confidence and hope lost out to fear and timidity (or caution if a less harsh word is required.)

I didn’t watch the results coming in as nothing was going to happen for hours. I woke up to the news on the radio.

My first thought was one of relief that none of the apocalyptic things predicted of a yes vote – flight of capital, businesses and jobs, the loss of the BBC to us forever (not that that organisation cares much for Scotland) etc etc – would now be happening, my second that Westminster could now safely go back to ignoring that part of the UK where I was born and live.

My third was a profound sadness that the country I had always suspected I lived in was not the one I had hoped I lived in.

Given, for the first time (the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 was carried out over the heads of the populace at large,) the opportunity to affirm that Scotland was a nation rather than an idea, the Scottish people had declined to do so.

I found myself thinking of Alan Warner’s views on the Scottish literature project – see my earlier post – and changing my mind.

In the light of the result Warner may have a point. If the majority of Scotland’s people see no utility in an institutional reflection of Scottishness on the world stage why should there be a Scottish literature at all? What is the point of reflecting Scottishness when, philosophically – the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” was a philosophical one – the place doesn’t exist.

I also mused on the fact that there is now an argument that, the people having rejected independence, sporting teams representing Scotland become even more of an absurdity, and that, for example, the Scottish FA and SPFL should be dissolved and merged into their southern counterparts. (Whisper this to UEFA or FIFA, though.)

As to the no campaign’s promises of further powers to the Scottish Parliament I’ll believe in promises of Devo Max when further devolution happens, not before. (See the Alan Warner link above.) In this regard please note that I am entirely in favour of devolution of powers from the Westminster Parliament to all other areas of the UK which wish for that.

I spoke to one of my sons yesterday, who I suspect voted no, and he was of the opinion that there is now a momentum, that independence will come inside 25 years.

Perhaps. Perhaps if Scottish sporting teams were absorbed into a GB framework the process would be accelerated. I had long said that the only way Scots would vote for independence was if the Scotland football team was no longer allowed to play against anyone. Since Scotland ceased to qualify for tournament finals, since we became more or less rubbish, even that might not be enough.

Scotland’s Literature and Scottish Independence

Last Saturday, in its Review section, the Guardian printed the views of a few Scottish writers on the Scottish Independence Referendum taking place on September 18th this year. Most of them seemd in favour of splitting from the UK.

Alan Warner, while in favour of a “yes” himself, pondered on the implications of a “no” vote. Think on this: if there was a no vote, has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement? With a no vote, a savage division will suddenly exist between the values of most of our writing – past and present – and the majority of our people.

Leaving aside the question of whether inclining to yes is necessarily progressive does he have a point? While the tradition of the country has been to strive towards literacy it is undoubtedly true that reading has declined in my lifetime – as it has elsewhere in the UK, and beyond. Many Scots nowadays do not read and – as Warner himself acknowledges – probably don’t care that those who cater for those who do are “progressive” and favour yes.

But does it necessarily follow that a no vote will negate the whole Scottish literature “project”? Warner sees independence as a liberation from the internal war in the Scottish psyche that has raged since the Act of Union. (I presume he means being on the one hand Scottish but with no institutional focus for that identity and on the other not “really” being British as by sheer force of numbers English attitudes/attributes overwhelm all others in the UK.)

Might it be, though, that it was precisely that lack of institutional focus that fuelled Scottish literature? That, in the absence of a country to call their own, Scottish writers clung ferociously to what they saw as their distinctiveness? Would that same imperative not still apply in the event of a no? Might it even become more important?

It is at this point that the promises of the no campaign are relevant. All three main UK parties say that Scotland’s Parliament will be granted greater powers in that event. (Those of us with memories of the 1979 devolution referendum might greet that with a hollow laugh.) Even in the minds of younger voters these powers can by no means be guaranteed. There hasn’t been a Bill to enact them. Even if there had it is an established tenet of the informal UK (lack of) constitution that no parliament can bind its successor. Consider the return of a Conservative Government in the General Election of May 2015. Can we seriously believe they will cede power away from themselves? Will Scotland’s relative insulation from the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the dismantling of the education system down south survive a no vote? Even under a Labour Government the Barnett Formula (under which Scotland is granted a slightly higher sum per head of monies from the UK Treasury than elsewhere in the UK – but this takes no account of government spending on things like defence and procurement) will most likely be abandoned. Hard(er) times may be ahead – as, of course, they may be if the vote is yes.

Later in that same Guardian Review in a companion piece (the website contains an extension compared to the printed version) Colin Kidd reflected on the link between literature and nationalism in Scotland stating that for the first two hundred years of its existence the union was unquestioned and largely uncontroversial. [If that was so might it have been due to the fact that any questioning was beside the point? Until universal adult suffrage – which, don’t forget, did not arrive until less than one hundred years ago – what mechanism existed to attempt to alter the union? (Apart from rebellion; and that option didn’t work out too well for the rebels.) Efforts to change things were understandably channelled into extending the franchise.]

Kidd also says the great unionist novel doesn’t exist but he adds Nor, surprisingly, has a lost nationhood been the dominant subject of the modern Scottish novel. The morbid excesses of Calvinism provided a far more meaty bone to gnaw, from Scott’s Old Mortality and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 19th century to James Robertson’s ingenious updating of these themes in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006).

I haven’t read Old Mortality but the others I have and they certainly do address nationality; in Hogg’s case prototypically so (and I might add bang in Kidd’s “unquestioned” period.) As I wrote to the Guardian once before and I alluded to above; what struck me on reading his Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 1990s was the doppelgänger concept as a metaphor for the Scots psyche. Probably since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 that creature has not known what precisely it should be, neither wholly Scots, since the country lacked an institutional focus, nor indeed British, notwithstanding the attachment some Scots may have felt to the Union – Britishness was to a large extent hijacked by the overwhelming bulk of England and English concerns in the so-called United Kingdom.

This crisis of dual identity was of course memorably explored by another Scotsman, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the tradition of doppelgänger literature still looms large in Scottish writing.

I suspect a no vote (which is the most likely outcome as I write) will see that fissure in the Scots psyche sustained, if not exacerbated.

Descent by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2014, 407 p.

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner

Alan Warner enjoyed critical success from his first novel Morvern Callar which was mainly set in a never named West of Scotland seaside town (but clearly identifiable as – indeed an almost undisguised – Oban.) He followed this up with These Demented Lands, The Sopranos and The Man Who Walks. I found all of these well worth reading but not quite fully successful. However his 2006 novel The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven in retrospect worked very well, though I seem to have been excessively grudging about it in my post. I have not yet read The Stars in the Bright Sky from 2010 but his latest, The Deadman’s Pedal, while I have minor quibbles about it, is a very good piece of fiction indeed.

We are once more in Warner’s reimagined Oban. It is 1973 and 15 year old Simon Crimmons, son of the owner of a road haulage firm, is fed up with school and wants to leave. On his last school day, 8th June, (Really? That’s at least three weeks earlier than most of Scotland’s schools break up for the summer) he is awaited at the school gates by Nikki Caine who becomes his girlfriend. However, a few days before their first actual date, out on a walk in the hills he is tantalised by glimpses of Varie, the daughter of the local toff, Andrew Bultitude. Bultitude has the title Commander of the Pass and his family lives in the delightfully named house Broken Moan. Unusually, Bultitudes are buried in the house’s grounds, in glass graves, so that the dead can be seen. The book, apart from a small preamble evoking the sensations of driving a train through the Argyll night, starts off with a scene set in those grounds prior to a 1961 visit from the Queen. Though each chapter is given a date for a title and relates the events of a single day, the chronology isn’t linear. In particular chapter three flashes back to the funeral of a local railway worker in early 1973 where tales are told of a railwayman’s prank which took place on the royal train for that 1961 visit. Without really meaning to Simon ends up being interviewed for a job on the railway as a diesel locomotive driver to replace the deceased. This leads to passages devoted to the art of driving a diesel train – the novel could almost be a primer for that activity. A deadman’s pedal is of course the safety device which ensures that a train cannot be driven if the driver is unconscious – or dead at the controls.

The conversations of 1970s adolescent boys are very well captured, their bluster and crudeness, as is the banter between the railway workers. The parts of the book dealing with the train drivers could be a eulogy to that vanished sense of solidarity and socialism which James Robertson also touched on recently in And The Land Lay Still. A possible intrusion from the twenty-first century comes when staunch union man John Penalty says, “One day there’ll be nae union and they’ll be shovelling the management’s shite from under their arses as it comes out. Then they’ll be told to tip it over their own heids, and they will.” Pretty much a description of present day workplace conditions.

Not that other perspectives are omitted. Simon’s dad has the outlook of a small businessman; he is also a DCM and bar from the North African and Italian campaigns in World War 2, though unlike those who weren’t at the sharp end he is reluctant to speak about his experiences. Andrew Bultitude – as those in his social position do – assumes his own wishes will always prevail.

Warner portrays excellently the more or less stifling experience of growing up in the early 1970s in a West of Scotland town with only one cinema and dodgy television reception – the mysteries of STV are here known to only a few. Curiously, though, he refers to the transmitter mast on the hill above the town as an aerial. However his decision to transliterate part of the West of Scotland dialect by using “should of,” “would of” and “could of” irritated me immensely. More annoyingly he was not always consistent with this. His use of “nut” for the West of Scotland “no” also didn’t feel quite right. While the “t”s in button and so on are not pronounced – it is sounded more like “buh’n” – I still often read it as a kernel. It’s a pity too that there were infelicities like Scholl’s for Scholls, Balqhuidder for Balquhidder, calomine for calamine, lay for lie, snuck for sneaked, blaise for blaes. And we had the phrase the Queen of England; which is annoying on several levels. As I exemplified above, in these islands the woman in question is usually referred to simply as the Queen. In addition she is not merely Queen of England but of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia and loads of other places besides. Someone in Simon Crimmons’s shoes would surely have been aware of this.

A back cover puff from the Scottish Review of Books says, “This is the best Scottish fiction since Lanark.” While I wouldn’t go quite so far, The Deadman’s Pedal is, quibbles above notwithstanding, without doubt a superior work. It will be in my best of the year for sure.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

free hit counter script