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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.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2006, 390p.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven cover

Warner has been known principally for stories featuring women, eg Morvern Callar and The Sopranos, or with Scottish settings, The Man Who Walks. The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven represents a departure, a different focus. None of its themes nor concerns could be considered narrowly Scottish.

A man is told by his doctor he has The Condition, which is nowadays not an inevitable death sentence. The novel is constructed from his activities of the next few weeks and his memories of the women he has known. (Not as many women as he once planned.)

There are striking stylistic and narrative echoes of other authors; William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms and John Banville’s The Sea, The Sea but more particularly of JG Ballard. This tendency was clinched on page 94 when a sentence was begun with the word already – a typically Ballardian usage. Reflecting this there is a Science Fictional tone to some of the language. A winter festival of gift giving is known as Three Kings, an area of construction and development is Phases Zones 1 and 2, a train destination is Kilometre 4. The Heaven in the title may be the local cemetery, which is mentioned several times.

As with Ballard and earlier Warner novels the tone is dry and distanced, hence none of the characters entirely springs to life. Indeed certain characters are not named but only given attributes, The Woman Who Watched, Puta of Asuncion, Beautiful Screamer, Manic Coma, though admittedly these last few are inmates of an asylum.

Despite hints – a past Civil War, a fascist regime – which clearly point to Spain, the author, through his narrator Manolo Follana, resolutely refuses to name the country in which the story is set, only saying variously our language, our country, our region, the Capital City. Said narrator has a particular animus against English as a language, with its similarly spelled words with totally different meanings, eg tear. He is, incidentally, capable of the spectacularly ugly (and ungrammatical) sentence; for example, “I showed Teresa the new units my Agency were designing the interiors of,” and occasionally uses “less” when “fewer” is the better choice.

A flavour of magic realism tinges the narrative, albeit at a less heightened level. A more or less adult Manolo is taught to swim by two Vietnamese girls in the confines of the rooftop water tank of the hotel where he was brought up. An old man dies in a bath in one of the hotel’s rooms with the taps still running; the bath ends up cascading through the ceiling of the dining room below where his granddaughters were eating. On two occasions, one fatal but offstage, the act of sex is accompanied by the shedding of blood.

In amongst all this there was the – in context rather jarring – Scotticism of the phrase “sweetie” wrapper.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven is an example of accomplished modern world fiction. For me, though, too many of the characters are insufficiently fleshed out.

Books I Have Read (And Some I Intend To)

I’ve gone through the Guardian’s list of 1000 novels you must read to find the ones I actually have read. Italicised books await my attention.
I’ve kept them under the Guardian’s groupings.
Titles followed by question marks I believe I read during my schooldays but can’t quite be sure.

What this list says about me I have no idea.

Love (4)

Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose (1941)
Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (1987)
Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Family And Self (9)

Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)
Lynne Reid Banks: The L-Shaped Room (1960)
William Boyd: Any Human Heart (2002)
Jim Crace: Quarantine (1997)
Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)
Shusaku Endo: Silence (1966)
JD Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
Alan Warner: Morvern Callar (1995)

Crime (12 + 2)

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)
Joseph Conrad: Under Western Eyes (1911)
Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (1980)
Graham Greene: The Third Man (1950) ????
Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)
Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male (1939)
John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
John le Carré: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963)
Thomas Pynchon: V (1963)
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Patrick Suskind: Perfume (1985)
Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time (1951)

Comedy (12)

Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989)
William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa (1981)
Richmal Crompton: Just William (1922)
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (1908)
Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (1958)
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity (1995)
Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England (1983)
AG Macdonnell: England, Their England (1933)
Magnus Mills: The Restraint of Beasts (1998)
Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast Of Champions (1973)

State Of The Nation (7)

Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)
James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)
Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)
Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children (1981)
Salman Rushdie: Shame (1983)
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

War And Travel (33 + 6)

JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)
Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991)
William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War (1982)
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1902)
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)
Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (1904)

Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)
Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers (1844)
Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong (1993)
William Golding: To the Ends of the Earth trilogy (1980-89)
Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) ??
Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)
Thomas Keneally: Confederates (1979)
Thomas Keneally: Schindler’s Ark (1982)
AL Kennedy: Day (2007)
Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)
Alastair Maclean: The Guns of Navarone (1957) ??
Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (1948)
Gabriel Garcia Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Frederick Marryat: The Children of the New Forest (1847)
Iréne Nèmirovsky: Suite Française (2004)
Baroness Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
George Orwell: Burmese Days (1934)
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (1819)
Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice (1950)
Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)
Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886)
Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island (1883)
William Styron: Sophie’s Choice (1979) ??
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)
Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days(1873)
Jules Verne: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) ??
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
HG Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

That makes a non-SF total of 77 (though some of them I would classify as SF.) Add in the 60 from the SF/fantasy list and I’ve read 137 of the thousand. I must be spectacularly ill-read.
The good lady notches up 145 with quite a few in common between our two lists.
I could also add the parts of series and the converted short stories from the SF list but that would only take me to just above 140.

Still a long way to go, then. I won’t have time.

For some of them I’ve seen a film or TV adaptation so feel I perhaps don’t need to read them.

A lot of the rest, however, I have no intention of ever picking up.

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