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Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2008, 316 p

 Romanno Bridge cover

Set in the mid 1990s – someone “says there’s going to be an election soon and things can only get better” – this novel reunites the reader with all the main characters from Greig’s earlier book The Return of John Macnab and throws in two more here for good measure in the shape of Maori rugby player Leo Ngatara and Norwegian musician Inga Johanssen.

The plot has more of a thriller touch this time, centring round the genuineness or otherwise of the Stone of Destiny. In her job as a journalist in Dumfries Kirsty Fowler meets Billy Mackay, an old man in his last days, who tells of his participation in the making of two replacement stones during the time the “original” was missing in 1950. This leads to designations such as fake fake as opposed to the real fake foisted on England’s Edward I and kept at Westminster ever since (until recently at least.) It is the whereabouts of Columba’s Pillow, the real crowning stone, hidden from Edward at the time and kept in the care of Moon Runners – whose guardianship is embodied in rings inscribed with runes (Moon rune-ers, you see, with only ever three extant at one time) – ever since that drives the plot. Mackay gifts Kirsty one such ring and thus unwittingly places her in danger at the hands of a ruthless intermediary calling himself Adamson who came to know of their existence via Inga’s brother Colin – and has a buyer for the real stone. The goings-on in uncovering the hiding places of the two fake fake stones and the original fake itself, take the characters to various parts of Scotland and even on an excursion to Norway.

All this gives Greig an opportunity to display his familiarity with the art of rock climbing and the music scene and to comment about Scots’ habit of revering their homeland, “‘Ye’d hae thought Scotland was Helen of Troy the way some folk sighed over her,’” even as seen through the eyes of foreigner Inga, “Strange place to inspire such belonging.” There are wider ruminations too. We are told an ancient Sumerian manuscript bemoans the times as violent, chaotic and strange, the young don’t speak properly, the gods are unrespected, etc, etc. – which only means the writer was elderly. And Leo Ngatara comes to reflect bleakly that, “None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children – nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.”

Greig is never less than an insightful novelist but here the thriller plot sits a little uneasily with his gifts for illuminating character, describing landscape and revealing the complexities of human affairs.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “The last thing he saw were the three stones” (The last thing he saw was… ,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) “George V was dying” (George VI,) bonzer (is that NZ speak or only Aussie? Only Aussie if you check this though it seems “rack off” and strewth are used in NZ,) midgies (midges,) medieval (we had had mediaeval before,) “‘Hey Johnny Cope are ye wakin’ yet?’” (more usually ‘Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet’,) reorted (retorted,) “the passage way” (passageway,) bonzer Scone? (bonzer stone makes more sense,) rowboat (rowing boat,) “only the remnant” (the only remnant makes more sense,) the Irish bazouki, bazouki, (both bouzouki,) Merkdal (was Myrdal earlier,) snuck in (sneaked in.) “The crowd were spellbound.” (The crowd was spellbound.) “‘Yes, but we didn’t know that.’” (Yes, but he didn’t know that,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) Taynult (Taynuilt, spelled correctly a few pages later,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) Firth of Lorn (more usually Lorne,) iron grill (grille.)

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2018, 93 p, plus iv p Foreword (common to the edition?) and xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published in 1970.

The Driver's Seat cover

Polygon seems to have published all Muriel Spark’s works in a uniform edition to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. As I have others of hers on my bookshelves I might not have read this particular one had the good lady not picked it up at a local library.

The novel starts with Lise buying some clothes in absurdly clashing colours after she left a previous shop in high dudgeon when the saleswoman informed her the fabric was stain resistant. Lise clearly wants to draw attention to herself. The clothes are for wearing during the holiday she is about to embark on.

She spends her time on the plane looking for a man who is her type, thinks she has settled on him but he is frightened off. On the ground she engages with random people she meets, constantly looking for her “type” and dismissing men who don’t fit the bill, taking up with Mrs Fiedke, having unusual encounters in shops and (deliberately) leaving her passport in a taxi.

About the only flash of humour is the sentiment spoken by one character, “I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.”

As the – very short – book hastens to its denouement it becomes obvious that Lise is the one in control of her own destiny. She, a woman, is in the driver’s seat, unlike in most fictions covering dark subject matter. Spoiler alert. Responsibility for the crime, when it occurs does not lie with its perpetrator.

This is another odd one. Like in others of Spark’s books I found her style unengaging. It’s as if you’re observing her characters through a layer of glass. Lise’s psychology may be sound but since we only observe her obliquely it comes across as just weird.

Pedant’s corner:- “Lise and Bill pull down the table in front of their seats” (tables,) “moving quickly away and away” (away and away?) “a charging head of buffalo …. cross the two patches” (a … herd of buffalo … crosses the two patches,) curb (kerb,) “another pair appears” (strictly, another pair appears.) “I was away out” (I was a way out makes more sense.)

Scotland’s Art Deco Heritage 51: Laurencekirk

Laurencekirk is a small town in the former Kincardineshire in north-east Scotland, now administratively part of Aberdeenshire. We dropped by there on our way up to the cup tie at Peterhead last year (which sadly was postponed so I missed one of our few wins last season.)

Kincardineshire lies in the Mearns, so splendidly delineated in the fiction of Lewis Grassic Gibbon who lived in nearby Arbuthnot.

I was quite surprised to see a minor example of Art Deco there, Hantons Garage:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk

Frontage. Stepped roofline, rule of three in central first floor windows:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk Frontage

Clearly no longer in use as a garage but the Clydesdale Bank sign marks the presence of a cashpoint so it seems it still serves the town:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk Again

A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner

Polygon, 1990, 195 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 A Concussed History of Scotland cover

Any novel which starts, “Go away – I wish to have nothing to do with you. I insist on it. Go away!” signals immediately it is not going to be a straightforward read. To follow that in the second paragraph with, “the Universe is merely something which I created as an illustration of my own non-existence,” only compounds that impression.

Then too, the cover bears the sub-title a novel of another sort. Flick to the back cover and there appear the author’s name, a title “A Concise History of Scotland” and a sub-title another novel of sorts – all in mirror writing – framing a black and white montage of the moon in various phases, an ear and a clothed female torso. Clearly literary games are being played.

The text contains 500 chapters none of which stretch to two pages; the shortest contains only two words. It is a fractured mosaic of the narrator’s personal recollections and observations, possibly describable as a stream-of-consciousness, except a stream flows. It is more like a successively dammed river, or cataracts of consciousness, if you will. Is this how a concussed person thinks?

The book is certainly no history. Various places in Scotland receive a mention. (For example, “Ah, will I ever forget Vienna? It reminds me so powerfully of Paisley.”) But there is no apparent connection between them other than their Scottishness.

None of the usual consolations of the novel apply. There is really only one character (the narrator,) and all but no dialogue to go along with a complete absence of plot.

There are some phrases which arouse admiration. There really ought to be a wine called Chateau Calvinblanc. (It would have to be grown in Scotland and taste sweet and bitter at one and the same time.)

The lines, “all families bar one were assembled by pure chance… all families are the same in different ways … That is to say all happy families are unhappy in one of two ways,” put a spin on Tolstoy, and while “males and females probably exist so that each sex has another one to blame,” may be there to provoke, “what does prayer most commonly consist of, but in begging the non-existent to do that which he could not do even if he were to exist?” certainly is; as is, “Man invents fears, and then invents gods to allay those fears.” And what can one do but concur with this attribution, “a private joke – or life as it is sometimes called,” while, “You would not deny that certainty is almost certainly the opposite of wisdom, I hope,” is a sentiment that applies to our divided times with more force than when it was written.

A Concussed History of Scotland would be no easy starting point to that 100 Best books list. Its entry there underlines that. There are far more accessible books with which to test the Scottish literary waters but, take the plunge, and you may find yourself rewarded. Expect to stray to the limit of your depth though.

Pedant’s corner:- “a flock of lame birds hobble past” (a flock hobbles,) “I sometimes think think this would explain” (only one “think” needed,) “all those artists mothers” (artists’ mothers,) an unindented chapter heading (all the rest are centred on the page,) negociate (negotiate,) “than than than than” (possibly to indicate the narrator’s state of mind,) back vertebrae (there was only one, so vertebra,) ungainlyly (yes, it’s an ungainly word but surely its spelling is ‘ungainlily?) arachnoepterate? (I can find no instance of this word. elsewhere.)

Best Reading of 2018

Listed below in order of reading. 16 in total; 7 by Scottish writers, 4 SF or Fantasy (+ 1 non-fiction about SF,) 3 in translation, 10 by men, 6 by women:-

Living Nowhere by John Burnside
All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky
Science Fiction: A Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst
The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
Hame by Annalena McAfee
I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G Coney
Not so Quiet …. stepdaughters of war by Helen Zenna Smith
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston

NEL, 2003, 316 p. First published 1998.

 The Bone Yard cover

Being the renewed adventures of Quintilian Dalrymple (after Body Politic) in an independent Edinburgh in 2020 where the inhabitants lead circumscribed lives ruled over by a Council and guardians while tourists to the year-round Festival are afforded every luxury.

Two people are found with their throats bitten out, tongues and genitals removed, and a cassette lodged in the wounds, in each case with a blues song (the Blues are banned in this Edinburgh) on the tape. When the first body is found Dalrymple is assigned the case due to his success in solving earlier murders. The usual conflicts with his nominal overseers ensue. Along the way we find out what the mysterious Bone Yard is, plus its connection to both the mothballed Torness Nuclear Power Station and pills dubbed Electric Blues – which are potentially fatal to those with weak hearts. We, Dalrymple, and his sidekick Davie, also make re-acquaintance with Quint’s love interest from Body Politic, Katharine Kirkwood. Her experiences outside Edinburgh in the interim, as recounted to Quint, have been grim (and a touch gratuitous) but provide a link to the killer.

The voice in which Johnston describes Quint and his attitudes is of the usual couldn’t-give-a-toss, rule-bending, I’ll-go-where-the-leads-take-me, would-be irreverent maverick type. While it seemed bright and almost fresh in Body Politic, here the similes and metaphors are either strained or overcooked.

Johnston has certainly hit on an unusual situation in which to set a crime novel. The speculative aspects are only trappings though. This is first and foremost a crime novel. A good enough one at that. But he’s since written five more Dalrymple books (plus eleven others.) This one didn’t much encourage me to look out the rest.

Pedant’s corner:- “the temperature swapped a minus for a plus reading” (the temperature went down, so a plus was swapped for a minus,) “didn’t use to turn up” (didn’t used to.) “Tonight was the only night of the year when the curfew isn’t enforced.” (conflict of tenses; wasn’t enforced is more natural,) had a accident (an accident,) bunsen burner (Bunsen burner,) e-string (E-string surely?) span (spun,) “a clear liquid” (colourless I think,) ouside (outside.) “Even though the numbers of Moslem tourists has fallen” (either ‘number of’ or else ‘have fallen’,) the Forth Rail Bridge (aka the Forth Bridge: since it’s the original only any others need a qualifying description,) a missing re-opening quote mark when a piece of dialogue resumed. Asshole, ass and smartass (this is Edinburgh; even there they put the “r” in. Arsehole, arse and smartarse,) “didn’t use to be like this” (used to be.)

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.)

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