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Reading Scotland 2018

The ones in bold are in the 100 Best Scottish Books list.

I’ve read 33 Scottish (in the broadest sense) books in 2018, 7 SF or Fantasy (italicised,) 13 by women, 20 by men. E M Brown (aka Eric Brown) qualifies by having a small part of Buying Time set in Scotland and by living near Dunbar for the past few years.

I’ve not a good balance this year between men and women, mainly due to exhausting the women on the 100 Best list.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
Living Nowhere by John Burnside
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
The Lie of the Land by Michael Russell
As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Geig
Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim I Bermant
Hame by Annalena McAfee
The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
The New Road by Neil Munro
Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Supercute Futures by Martin Milllar
The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey
Adam Blair by J G Lockhart
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy
Interrupted Journey by James Wilson
The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston
Buying Time by E M Brown

Interrupted Journey by James Wilson

Arrow, 1963, 190 p. First published 1958.

Interrupted Jurney cover

A group of soldiers on a more or less routine trip in Cyprus during the “Emergency” is ambushed by EOKA members. The fighting scenes that ensue take up almost half the book and are vividly described with the individual British soldiers’ characters well delineated but in the end only the officer, Captain Giddings, survives the encounter – and that more by luck than judgement. His empathy with and understanding of the Cypriot rebels and their families (amongst whom he finds himself in the skirmish’s aftermath before he makes his final escape) marks this out as a thoughtful exploration of an incident from the retreat from Empire even if he is later instrumental in the arrest of the chief suspect.

The ongoing story is illuminated by Giddings’s memories of his time on Cyprus a decade or so earlier during the Second World War. The dynamics of military life are also well portrayed but these are seen through the lens of Giddings’s lack of true suitability for the role. (He is in truth a bit of a misfit all round.)

Pedant’s corner:- radiator grill (grille,) staunch (stanch,) swop (swap,) “the band were playing” (the band was playing,) “stach away” (nowadays it’s stash away,) waggon (wagon,) “he had been mislead” (misled.)

Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2017, 525 p.

Serious Sweet focuses on the activities of London dwelling Jon Sigurdson, a civil servant who has come to hate his work, and Meg Williams, bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, over the course of one day in which they do not come together till late on. The book tends to follow each in turn with their actions and encounters in normal text and their inner thoughts rendered in italics. Smaller snippets, snapshots of daily life in London, intersperse the time denoted incidents of their day. It all makes for a rather dense reading experience.

Jon is divorced after his wife had a series of affairs but loves his daughter Rebecca. Meg has just had an all-clear appointment at the gynaecologist, after treatment for cancer of the womb, which has nevertheless left her sad at the loss of the possibility of having children.

Jon had previously had a wheeze of inviting women, via an advertisement, to pay him to write them letters expressing kind thoughts. They may write back to him but the idea is that they never meet. (It is hinted that on Jon’s part this may be an elaborate cover to reveal government secrets in letters to someone called Lucy though this is not fully explored.) Meg took up his offer and they met when she tracked him to the PO Box where he picks his letters up. But they do not have a formal relationship. A series of everyday obstacles – and a crisis meeting – prevent their planned dinner date but they do eventually get together late in the day.

Through Jon, Kennedy provides a commentary on the indifference – almost savagery – of the prevailing attitudes of those in power, “Suffering no longer indicates hardship, it indicates bad character and celestial punishment. And if God has seen fit to punish – well that invites further loss,” is followed by, “Tell the average mug punter to put ten quid in the communal tin, wake him up the following morning and he’ll accept without hesitation that asking for ten pence back because he needs it would be a sin.” The mantra is “Opinions Not Facts. These are our watchwords.” Its effect is that people are forced to fail and then they are blamed for that failure. The strategy is to, “Advise them badly, advise them misleadingly and issue threats.” Which only compounds their – and society’s – problems.

Jon says to a colleague, “‘We’ve had more than ten years of being told about the undeserving poor. If you’re poor enough to need benefits you must be doing something wrong – you must be something wrong and undeserving. Want shouldn’t get – that’s our departmental motto. Our national credo – we all love royal babies and hate the poor.’”

The reply he gets is that, “‘Conservatives know you can’t change human nature and therefore the suffering … have brought their pain upon themselves. They could only be forgiven if they thrived …. and no longer need any help. And if you can’t change human nature, you don’t need government …. except for those posts occupied by those who believe you can’t change human nature.
‘And progressives believe that you can change human nature and therefore the great plunging herd of voters must be restrained and managed at all times.’”

(That “knowledge” which conservatives have, though, is merely a belief. Thriving is no signifier of virtue, nor even of effort. Not thriving is certainly not an indication of lack of either. It might simply be bad luck or lack of opportunity. Human nature may be a given but human behaviour isn’t, or else why are there laws to influence it?)

That this is embedded in a narrative which tends to meander takes off its edge somewhat. The book is not one that rewards light reading. Persevere though and it has its moments.

Pedant’s corner:- “to not speak” (I suppose there may be a gradation of meaning with “not to speak”,) shtum, “The he leans in” (Then he leans in,) on-board (why the hyphen? On board is fine,) “a mass of individuals undergo” (a mass undergoes,) “‘I though you were’” (thought,) he is trying make sure (trying to make sure.)

Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel

Canongate Classics, 1987, 181 p, plus v p Introduction by Douglas Gifford. First published in 1972. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Mr Alfred is an ageing teacher of English unable to make connections with the pupils at the school where he teaches – a comprehensive in a rough area. Never married, his sense of failure is compounded by the lack of success his poetry collection found. His only solace is to habituate the local and not so local pubs. Not even ladies of the night hold any attraction for him. Strangely – the practice was not followed in the schools I attended as a pupil at much the same time as this book is set – the classes in Mr Alfred’s school are segregated by sex; until halfway through the book he has never taught girls.

Alfred is particularly irritated by the habitual misbehaviour, in and out of school, of Gerald Provan, a child whose mother indulges and cossets him, perhaps as a counterbalance for the absence of his father – though it was not uncommon for mothers of that generation to favour sons unduly. Gerald’s younger sister, Senga, is under no illusions as to Gerald’s unpleasantness as she has to bear its brunt at home. Mr Alfred’s mistake in striking Gerald in class becomes the source of the abiding resentment of and animosity towards Alfred of both son and mother.

A particular example of Scottish perceptions lies in the incidental exchange, “‘How is she qualified to improve anybody?’ Mr Alfred asked.
“I told you,’ said Mr Dale. ‘She’s English,’” which speaks volumes.

We also have, “Scotch reserve looked askance on kissing even between kin.”

An odd interpolation comes with the passages concerning the doomed relationship between relatively well-to-do Graeme Roy and the working class Martha Weipers, whose respective parents disapprove of the liaison. Both go on to University but while Martha does well Graeme fails his first year exams. Neither was taught by Mr Alfred but Martha’s sister, Rose, is in his first girls’ class and he forms too close an attachment to her, sending her to buy his lunch, rewarding her with pocket money, inviting her to his classroom at lunchtime. While he is aware such relationships can overstep the boundaries of decent behaviour he shies away from the thought – or act – of exploiting theirs in any sexual way. His conduct is nevertheless highly unprofessional and it provides the two Provans with the perfect excuse to accuse him. He is forced out to another, rougher, school – a Primary – and his descent accelerates.

Much of the latter part of the book sees Mr Alfred wandering the streets at night pondering the writing on the wall, a host of graffiti asserting different gang allegiances, each name followed by the words YA BASS. This sense of societal breakdown had been presaged by Gerald Provan’s encouragement of after-school fights in the Weavers Lane, the casual psychological cruelty he and his cohorts visit on Granny Lyons, their baiting of and petty theft from Italian shopkeeper Mr Ianello, and is accentuated when Mr Alfred witnesses encounters between gangs in broad daylight. Alfred even takes up chalk himself to reproduce that original writing on the wall, MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN, in a cri-de-coeur against Philistinism. This protest is only too redolent of Alfred’s estrangement from the world he inhabits, an estrangement mirrored in the text by Friel’s use of uncommon words – kyphosis, pandiculating, messan, raniform, poplitic, ophidian, invulting, claudication, lycorexia, perlustration, battology, nuchal, diplopia, prosthodontia, pyknophrasia, and indeed by the untranslated reference to Belshazzar’s Feast above. Alfred’s subsequent arrest leads to a psychologist pronouncing him to be suffering from a whole list of phobias.

While the book is rooted in Scottishness – or at least in the experiences of the Glasgow conurbation – Alfred’s feeling of dissatisfaction with the world as it turned out has a more universal resonance.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction: “she borde the kitchen” (the book’s text had borded.) Otherwise; “she borded the kitchen sink (bordered?) “you hands” (your hands,) comming up (coming up,) invulting (I can’t find a definition of this,) lushus (of a blonde, but why not luscious?) Mr Briggs’ (Mr Briggs’s,) “so remoted from the world’s slow stain,” (is an awkward way to phrase it. Was it perhaps meant to be so removed from the world?) broadshouldered (not one word surely? Or at least hyphenated,) the Garelochhead (Garelochhead is a village/town, it does not require a ‘the’ before it,) apotrapaic (apotropaic,) Mr Brigg’s (Mr Briggs’s,) Pythagoras’ theorem (Pythagoras’s,) a missing full stop.

The Shipbuilders by George Blake

B&W Publishing, 1993, 267 p. First Published 1935. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The sentence, “Not a single order was on the books,” tolls through the first chapter of this novel, reflecting the thoughts of Leslie Pagan, son of the owner of Pagan’s shipyard. It is the day the last ship on the blocks, the Estramadura, is launched. His father is reluctant to acknowledge it but Leslie sees the necessity of laying off all but the fitting-out crew and foresees the end of the yard as a whole. Events are also seen through the eyes of Danny Shields, a riveter in the yard and Pagan’s batman from the Great War. These perspectives allow Blake to explore two Glasgows, the milieux of both the more than comfortably well-off and the working class. In that latter aspect, The Shipbuilders has echoes of No Mean City, set around the same time, but it is much better written.

Both men have domestic problems, Leslie’s English wife Blanche hates Glasgow and wants to move back south, not least as their son, John, is in delicate health. As the novel progresses Danny becomes increasingly estranged from his wife Agnes who gravitates to the world of her sister Lizzie and her upwardly mobile husband Jim. Danny’s life is lightened by his relationship with his other son Billy and very young daughter, who is always referred to, strangely, as Wee Mirren but his oldest son Peter, jobless, falls into bad company.

The importance of football as a means of temporary escape is given due emphasis – especially in the descriptions of a Rangers-Celtic game and of the deliberations gone into over the filling of the weekly pools coupon – as is that of alcohol, whose allure and drawbacks are given equal weight. At a regimental reunion Pagan wonders, “did the drink produce false illusions of grandeur, or did it merely stir the things, fine and foolish, that lay dormant in every man?”

In the end though, this is an elegy to a lost way of life (a theme I was to mine myself in my short story SHIFT, published in Spectrum SF 3, 2000.) On the Estramadura’s trip downriver to its sea trials Pagan witnessed, “the high tragic pageant of the Clyde.” Through his eyes, Blake details the litany of empty shipyards lining the banks of the river, “all the acquired and inherited loveliness of artistry rotting along the banks of the stream .…. The fall of Rome was a trifle in comparison …. How in God’s name could such a great thing, such a splendid thing, be destroyed?” Describing the town at the base of Dumbarton Rock where lay Denny’s yard, bringer of the turbine to Clyde shipbuilding, as “mean” is perhaps a little harsh, though – but only a little.

Leslie’s intense appreciation of his Scottish roots is exemplified when on travelling back to Glasgow on the train from a trip south he notes that it is, “Queer … how definitely the fact of nationality asserts itself even in the matters of landscape and domestic architecture.” It still cannot alter the ineluctable arc of history. “Now one man and a boy, working a machine, could do in the way of making hatches, what it used to take fourteen craftsmen to do.”

The use of the word dago, and descriptions of other characters as Jews show the unexamined attitudes and thoughtlessness of the time when The Shipbuilders was written.

This is a fine book, thoughtful and sympathetic to its characters.

Pedant’s corner:- sauvity (suavity), the Dumbarton Road (multiple instances of Glasgow streets’ names prefixed by “the” are in the text. I have never experienced this usage, it’s always just been “Dumbarton Road” or “Great Western Road”, no “the”,) steadfastness (stedfastness?) coupoon (coupon,) “it has done with” (context suggests “it was done with”,) “a CPR Iiner” (liner,) filagree (filigree,) strategem (stratagem,) the ref and linesmen have khaki jackets (the officials possibly wore blazers rather than uniforms back in those days,) “knawed at his subconscience” (gnawed, and subconscious, I would think,) workshies (earlier written as workshys,) once-more (once more,) portentiously (portentously?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “There was need to begin again” (there was a need.) “The fact at the drinks were served to him” (the fact that the drinks,) “children guzzled and champed” (chomped?)

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2011, 395 p.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English, having an affair with Rachel, the wife of his head of department, Fergus Baine. Murray is about to go on sabbatical to research the life and untimely death by drowning of all-but-forgotten poet Archie Lunan. He also has a complicated relationship with his brother, Jack, an artist who is mining the dementia of their father for his art.

Watson’s researches take him to the ex-department head, Professor James, who knew Lunan in his youth, and suggests Blaine had greater knowledge of the poet than he admits to, and to the island of Lismore off which Lunan died and where Lunan’s lover, Christie Graves, still lives. She wrote a book in the aftermath of Lunan’s death of which Professor James says, “I think it had something better than authenticity. It had integrity, and that’s all the truth we can ever hope for.”

On the island, with some input from his B&B proprietrix Mrs Dunn and Graves’s more-or-less unwilling assistance, Watson untangles the circumstances of Lunan’s death and Blaine’s connection to them.

The book is readable enough but in the end becomes an uneasy crossover of a novel of contemporary manners and crime story. Still, Welsh has an eye for characterization and description.

Pedant’s corner:- Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) “maybe she had always intended to it end like this” (it to end like this; or, to end it like this,) “a new wave of Scottish poets were throwing off the class-consciousness, self-obsession and non-poetic subject matter of the previous generation” (a new wave was throwing off,) “the management were simply optimistic business would pick up” (the management was optimistic,) “watched them slide slowly through the yellow viscous, like migrating stars” (the viscous what? Viscous is an adjective, not a noun,) “a root aboot in” (about,) “the Great Western road” (it’s always just been Great Western Road, no “the”,) “the prospect of whole new exhibition” (a whole new,) politeness’ (politeness’s,) rawl plugs (rawlplugs,) Meilke (elsewhere always Meikle,) “had hung himself” (hanged,) Reeves’ (Reeves’s,) fleur-de-lis (it was plural, so, fleurs-de-lis, or fleurs-de-lys,) sung (sang,) “the way another women” (either other women, or, another woman,) sunk (sank,) “the Barralands Ballroom” (is often pronounced that way but is actually Barrowlands,) an extraneous single end quote mark, “a homemade stigmata” (stigmata is plural, one of them would be a stigma.) “He’s been one of” (He’d been,) “‘Aren’t I?’” (the speaker was Scots, so, ‘Amn’t I?’) “Murray dropped their speed to crawl” (to a crawl.)

Adam Blair by John Gibson Lockhart

Also known as “Some Passages in the Life of Adam Blair, Minister of the Gospel at Cross-Meikle.”
The Saltire Society, 2007, 172 p, plus xxii p Introduction by Ian Campbell and vi p Notes.
One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Adam Blair cover

This book squarely targets that intersection of Scottish life with religion which so firmly shaped the national character during the centuries of the Calvinist ascendancy – not always to the good. A critic quoted in the introduction (which again it is wise to avoid till after the book itself has been read) says its characters are “earnestly attached to a religion which makes little appeal to taste, and rejects every allurement of art,” while another opines that “Lockhart feels that in destroying the presence (or indeed the possibility) of beauty in the services of the national church the Scottish Reformers damaged the national imagination.” Yet there is a glimmer of salvation to be found as the book proceeds to its close, its unfolding providing signs of a first crack in that edifice of stern righteousness in the attitude of the populace to a fall from grace.

First published in 1822, Adam Blair is, like the works of Lockhart’s father-in-law Walter Scott, to modern eyes over-written. It also has an odd approach with regard to the placement of commas. Parenthetically Lockhart provides a comment on the passing of time with the thought, “in those days, Scottish widows and Scottish grandmothers were not a whit ashamed of being dressed like widows and grandmothers.”

The book’s focus is almost entirely on Adam Blair, minister of the parish of Cross-Meikle, situated somewhere in the Argyll/Dunbartonshire area. At the novel’s beginning, Blair’s wife has just died and is buried in the churchyard, her body lying beside their three dead children. Other characters appear but are not explored in any depth at all. Even his surviving daughter Sarah is only a fleeting presence. The measure of consolation Blair finds in his daily act of worship, shared in by the whole household, is shown in all its bleak stoicism.

Change begins to come with the arrival at Cross-Meikle of Mrs Blair’s cousin Charlotte, a woman with a colourful past – including a divorce from the young man she had eloped with and who in turn ran off with an Italian opera singer. Her devotion to Sarah commends her to Blair and when she rescues Sarah from drowning his gratitude is effusive. Wagging tongues promote Charlotte’s father to demand her return to the family home, despite Blair’s protestations of innocence. His decision to follow her there provokes the novel’s crisis point. Four lines of eight asterisks begin Chapter 14, masking the exact nature of Blair’s lapse but we are in no doubt as to what it was. He confesses his sin to the Glasgow Presbytery and is stripped of his pastoral role. The interesting thing is the response of his parishioners; not condemnation, but understanding. His subsequent taking of a cottage in the town and working the land is seen as a confirmation of his belonging to the community and a penance beyond duty.

The story of Blair, his struggles with and against his conscience, is an illustration of the hold Calvinism exerted on the Scottish psyche, its baleful effects and meagre consolations. One of the 100 best Scottish novels? Yes, in terms of the significance of its subject matter to the Scottish historical identity.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction; “the two or three across of land” (acres of land. This is correct in the actual text in the book!) The introduction also quotes the same passage twice, the second time in a longer form, and has an extraneous single end quotation mark plus a varied approach to the placing of the numbers indicating a footnote. In the Notes; Jesus’ (Jesus’s.) Otherwise; as in Scott we have shrunk for shrank, rung for rang, sunk for sank, sung for sang; Benlomond (now always written Ben Lomond,) “a fine herd of cattle were passing” (a herd was passing,) faultered (faltered. Is faultered an archaic spelling?) “The family sit” (the family sits,) “in twos arid threes” (twos and threes; is this possibly a compositor’s misreading of the original handwritten manuscript?) “A merry party were busy curling on the ice” (a merry party was busy,) “fourthly and lady, the gay lady” (context demands “fourthly and lastly” – another compositor’s misreading?) “Mrs Ardens beautiful face” (Arden’s,) Loch-Fine (nowadays spelled Loch Fyne,) bosomn (bosom,) Pere la Chaise (Père Lachaise,) scorm (scorn,) “beneath then” (beneath them,) boundlng (bounding,) roundedwith (rounded with,) Camnpbell (Campbell,) “what he most do” (must do,) “in few minutes” (in a few minutes,) “waive of his hand” (wave,) perfecfly (perfectly,) imme diately (immediately,) “not with, out some suspicion” (not without,) a missing full stop.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1977, 104 p.

The Abbess of Crewe cover

On its surface a tale of nefarious goings-on in a nunnery involving electronic eavesdropping, a nun’s assignations with a Jesuit and a stolen thimble, all against a backdrop of an election for the post of Abbess, the cover’s assertion that it is “a wicked satire on Watergate” could nowadays be applied to political machinations more widely.

Sister Felicity had been stirring up the nuns before the election with her stance on what you could designate as modernity, certainly in her espousal of sexual freedom (she is the one nipping off Compline or Nunes or Lauds or Vespers to meet with her Jesuit,) but the old guard, Alexandra and Walburga, even if their disapproval of her activity is nuanced, (“‘I must say a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would elect to be laid by,’ says Alexandra. ‘A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.’ To which Walburga observes – in a sentence that shows such proclivities on the part of clerics were never exactly a secret in some circles – ‘That type of priest usually prefers young students’”) is determined she should not prevail.

As could sometimes be her wont Spark does not present us with a straightforward linear narrative, chapters set pre- and post the Abbess’s election being scattered throughout the short tale. Occasional lighter moments arise in the content of telephone calls to Sister Gertrude, off doing good works in Africa.

There are occasional bons mots such as, ‘Philosophers, when they cease philosophising and take up action are dangerous,’ and, “‘Invariably a man you feed both ends,’ Gertrude says. ‘You have to learn to cook and to do the other,’” and it’s all very readable, but somehow off-hand.

Pedant’s corner:- covent (convent,) Gent’s (Gents’.)

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Vintage, 2012, 358 p plus i p Author’s Note and vii p introduction by Tom Rob Smith. First published 1957.

I did not have great hopes for this. If it hadn’t been on the list of the 100 best Scottish Books I would never have picked it up, still less paid for it. It was, however, available from a local Library – these need as much patronage as they can get – I therefore borrowed it. Even so my expectations were not met. The novel is written in journalese, the prose fails to rise even to the utilitarian, the characters are barely one-dimensional, never mind rounded. And info-dumping is rife.

Then there is the implicit racism. “It was a strong Western handful of operative fingers – not the banana skin handshake of the East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails.” The casual misogyny of the time, too, is shown by the sentences, “All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams they long to be slung over a man’s shoulder and taken into a cave and raped,” and, “I got her to my place and took away her clothes and kept her chained naked under the table.” True, Fleming puts these into the mouth of a Turk but it’s still misogyny. Unexamined misogyny, to which Bond does not demur. An organised fight between two gipsy girls over a man (which reads as merely an excuse to describe their clothes sequentially coming off) is misogynystic and racist both. Bond’s right wing attitude – so by extension Fleming’s? There is nothing in the text that would contradict this – is exemplified by him saying, “As for England, the trouble today is that carrots are all the fashion.” That is, as opposed to sticks.

Moreover the structure is a bit odd. Bond isn’t mentioned till page 61 and does not appear himself till page 151. Tom Rob Smith’s Introduction regards this as a strength but the focus of Part One, Donovan Grant, a half-German, half-Irish psychopathic hitman employed by Smersh through expediency rather than approval of any sort, does not reappear till the climax (and then instead of just killing Bond this supposed total psychopath Grant explains to him the nature of the plot against him thus giving Bond some time to formulate a way out.)

That plot concerns the supposed falling in love with Bond via his photograph of Tatiana Romanova, in order to entice him into a trap – the additional bait being her bringing to Bond a Spektor cryptographic machine – whereby he will be disgraced. The egotist Bond cannot quite work out why this is a red flag. Cue, though, many goings-on in Istanbul and a trip back west on the Orient Express; a singularly unlikely escape route.

I suspect these things work much better on a film screen than on a page. Whatever, this book certainly is not worthy of a place on any list of 100 best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- a masseuse is described as having tufts of fair hair in her armpits but has short coarse black hair (genetics doesn’t work like that and there was no mention of dyeing,) “one of the men-servants” (the word is manservant, the plural is surely manservants,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, long-chassied (the word is chassis, so long-chassised,) “there was a diminishing crescendo” (crescendos rise to a climax, they do not descend. A descent is a diminuendo.)

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