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The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2019, 377 p.

 The House by the Loch cover

This is the story of three generations of the MacMillan family, grandfather Walter, his children Patrick and Fiona, and grandchildren Carson, Iona and Peter. But before we get into that, in a preface which signals that not all will be sweetness and light, we are shown Walter’s childhood memory of witnessing the wartime crash of a Spitfire piloted by a Czech Flying Officer, Frantisek Hekl, into Loch Doon in the Galloway hills. Subsequently Walter built a cairn to Hekl’s memory on a hill above the loch.

In the present day of the narrative, Fiona’s philandering husband, Roland, a successful architect who piggy-backed on her design aesthetic, has built on the shores of the loch a modern, hi-tech replacement for one of the two log cabins Walter had given his children. Patrick and his wife Elinor meanwhile, are content with the more modest lifestyle of a teacher and illustrator respectively. Occasional chapters give the history of Walter’s meeting with his wife Jean (Thompson) and their life together.

Coming down from their house in Ayr for holidays on the loch is an idyllic relief for Carson from her irritations with younger sister Iona which are, though, exacerbated at times by Iona’s idolisation of cousin Pete. The strains in Roland’s and Fiona’s marriage bear echoes of Walter’s with Jean though Fiona’s drinking is less of a fatal flaw then Jean’s. But lochs have their dangers and, when tragedy strikes, each of the characters is in some way to blame for it and all their lives are turned upside down.

Wark has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape and she handles character well enough but her prose sometimes leaves a bit to be desired as occasional phrases lean to the tin-eared or ill-considered. There is, too, a jumpiness to the sequencing, lending a feeling of skittishness to the text.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: high – including two successive sentences starting, “Ten years later.” Bonus points though for “amn’t I?” said by characters brought up in Scotland. I also note that the cousin raised in England says, “aren’t I?”
Otherwise; “a timpani” (timpani is plural; one of them is a timpano,) “walked away towards to his son” (either ‘towards’, or, ‘to’, not both.) “‘Are you, hell,’” (that comma removes the sense, which was, ‘“are you hell”’,) a sentence which started with ‘Within seconds’ and finished three lines later with ‘disappeared out of sight in seconds.’ The Black Narcissus (the film – and book it was derived from – was titled simply Black Narcissus, staunch (x 2, stanch,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “two candelabras” (as a word ‘candelabra’ is already plural; one is a candelabrum,) “until a torrent of tears forced their way through” (a torrent … forced its way.) “The sat drinking” (They sat,) “she saw pure white vapour trail” (she saw the pure white vapour trail.) In the Acnowledgements, “where the remains of Frantisek Hekl’s Spitfire rests” (where the remains rest.)

Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Faber & Faber, 2014, 349 p.

This book’s first page after the epigraph (which is from Proverbs 24:2 and also provides the novel with its title) simply gives us the date. 1984. While the Thatcher government and the miners’ strike are an intermittent background concern they never impinge directly on proceedings. Narrator Douglas Cunningham, a Scot, has been thrown out of his rented flat in London, plus his course in English Lit at University College, and is surfing hospital A&E departments as places to spend the night. In one of them he meets Welshman Llewellyn Smith (Lou) whose stitches following a heart operation have burst. Learning of Douglas’s predicament Lou invites him to stay at his flat in Acton where he lives with his girlfriend Aoife McCrissican and their very young daughter, Lily. Lou is also well versed in literature and wants to be a novelist. On entering the flat Lou quotes “‘that Cyril Connolly bastard. The enemy of promise is the pram in the hallway,’” then adds, “‘Is it now? Our hallway is too narrow to fit the bloody pram in.’” His generous offer seems to be taken in her stride by Aoife, who accepts Douglas readily into their lives (helped initially by the bribe of an Indian carry-out.) However, even as he settles down to live with them for a while we suspect where this will all be going when Douglas tells us she is menacingly beautiful.

Theirs is a curious tripartite relationship. Lou, like Douglas, is fond of drink and the odd bit of financial finagling as the trio’s existence is one long round of trying to find money to live on and secure enough alcohol to get by. All take turns at looking after Lily. (She seems uncannily placid for a pre-toddler, though.) Slight monetary relief is secured when a publisher engages both men to write one-line puffs for schlocky horror novels. Aoife is a former model and hankers to get back to that, an aspiration on which Lou is less keen. Aoife’s best friend, Abingdon Barbour, also a model, acts as occasional foil to the others. At Lou and Aoife’s Register Office wedding Douglas and Abby are best man and bridesmaid.

Lou is a (somewhat lapsed) Catholic and refers to Douglas as an atheist because of his assumed Presbyterianism. Douglas’s narrative comment that, “Summer was agony for the idle Scot. It was September, and I had a natural right to some driving sleet, or at least a blessed frost,” takes homesickness a little too far though. Lou also sometimes ends a sentence addressed to Douglas with the word boyo. I have never personally heard a Welsh person say this. Is it a reflection of Warner’s experience with Welsh people or merely a lazy attempt at characterisation? If the latter it is misguided. Lou’s behaviour and speech are comprehensible enough and need no prop to give them verisimilitude. All the main characters – and the minor ones too – live and breathe as people with their own motivations and habits.

Lou is the most pass-remarkable of them. He describes a bunch of squaddies who tried to chat Aoife up while they were on their way to her parents’ house for Christmas as, “‘king’s shilling fascists, restless since the Falklands, I should guess. Itching to poke their Armalites into another country’s business. The English are never happy unless they are.’” Of his father-in-law he says, “‘Never trust a Catholic who doesn’t drink. They’re either converted, poxed or psychotic.’”

I have said before that Warner’s early novels left me cold but as in The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, The Deadman’s Pedal and The Stars in the Bright Sky Warner has captured here a slice of life in convincing detail. One more novel to chronicle the perennial fascination of love and sex. (Death does occur here but it is a natural one, of Lou’s grandmother, Myrtle, who brought him up. Her funeral recharges his Catholicism though, which more or less leads to the novel’s final crisis.)

Humans can be bewilderingly complex creatures. Novels such as this give us the vicarious experience of knowing others, feeling their loves, betrayals and, on occasion, nobility, without having to live with them and the consequences of their actions.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its affected, boyo.’” (‘It’s affected’,) shrunk (shrank,) a missing comma before – and after – a quoted piece of speech, ass (several times; is used annoyingly in that USian way to refer to the female posterior. The nearest – and more true to the narrator’s background – British equivalent is ‘bum’,) “the baby was laying in Aoife’s lap” (the baby was lying in Aoife’s lap,) “and immediately ascended stairs with banisters and blank walls on either side of you” (I got the imprsession this was a stairway flanked by walls, in which case there would be no need of banisters. Handrails maybe, but not banisters,) “gin and limes” (‘and lime’ here is an adjectival phrase to the noun ‘gin’, the plural is ‘gins’; so, ‘gins and lime’ or ‘gins with lime’”,) Wales’ (x 2, Wales’s,) “he was sat” (he was sitting,) “I was sat” (I was sitting,) “I turned to look and her” (to look at her,) “my zipper” (my zip,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.)

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2020, 331 p, including 5 p Author’s Note and 1 p Acknowledgements.

At first this promises to be solely the story of Isabel Aird, married to a doctor, Alexander, who is disgusted by the conditions of the poor working class of 1856 Glasgow and wishes to alleviate them. To this end he is drawn to the position of physician to the construction works of the scheme designed to carry the pure waters of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to the city in order to combat the ravages of cholera, an arduous project requiring tunnelling through extremely hard rock wth nothing but pickaxes, sweat and gunpowder, “the greatest engineering marvel since the construction of the aqueducts of Rome” – a system still in existence, whose flow is driven by gravity alone. The novel soon broadens out though into a wider account.

Isabel has suffered a multiplicity of miscarriages or still-births (the irony of her being married to a doctor is not lost on her) and at first is not keen on a move to the wilds but on her first visit to Loch Chon she is enchanted by the views and for all its deprivations becomes enthusiastic about living there.

Many of the chapters are related in third person from Isabel’s point of view but there are two first person contributions, one from the viewpoint of Robert Kirke, a kirk minister who disappeared into the world of faery in 1698 but has now returned with a commission from what in Gaelic are known as the sìthichean, and the other from Kirsty McEchern, the wife of a navvy working on the project, written as if it is the verbatim transcript of her memories as told to someone who for a long time remains unidentified. There are also curious interpolations from the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, mostly in the form of letters from the Prince. (The Queen was famously entranced by the Trossachs – and Scotland in general – and did open the waterworks in 1859.)

Like many Scottish lochs Loch Chon has a legend of a supernatural denizen, in this case a black Dog who at times will rise from the surface to swallow human victims. This is one of the many tales of the sìthichean known to Kirsty, who, being an islander from Mull, is well versed in Gaelic superstition (or knowledge as she would have called it.) This legend is central to Kirke’s commission from the land of faery and to the novel’s denouement.

It is with this part of the book that I initially had least patience. Then I reflected that dealings with the supernatural – the Devil especially, but also faery – are a staple of Scottish literature. So too, exhibited here by Robert Kirke, is psychological duality. (In her Author’s Note Magnusson calls that a familiar trope. To my mind that enduring concern is something more profound than a trope; it is a deep reflection of the Scottish character – see the third and second last paragraphs in the link.)

A parallel between the lives of Isabel and Queen Victoria is that both had nine children. Well Victoria did, only Isabel’s ninth (the one of the book’s title) survived gestation and birth. The plot and the denouement both of course depend on this.

Magnusson writes really well, she expresses the ups and downs of the Airds’ marriage sensitively, captures superbly the voices, doubts and thoughts of both Kirke and Kirsty and her descriptions of the Trossachs landscape are evocative, while the necessary conveying of information about the construction works is never intrusive.

This is another example of the enduring fascination of the novel with love and death but unlike in Magnusson’s earlier The Sealwoman’s Gift sex is absent from the pages, though its consequences of course are not. The Ninth Child is not quite as accomplished as that previous novel but it is certainly good enough to be going on with.

(At the end of the book are appended eight “Reading Group Questions,” a practice I find patronising. Not reading groups themselves I hasten to add, rather the fact that they are held to need some sort of prompting to ask questions of a text.)

Pedant’s corner:- “‘as soon as another epidemic hoves into view’” (hove is the past tense (and it is in any case ‘hove’ not ‘hoves’,) so here it should be ‘heaves into view’,) “a Yorkshireman with exuberant facial hair by the name of Bateman” (his beard was called Bateman?) “he had sawed a couple of fingers off” (sawn,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “‘the taste of those mean cruelties were back on my tongue’” (either ‘the tastes’, or ‘was back’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) Athole Highlanders (Atholl) powder your nose, (the phrase was in juse in the nineteenth century but I would have thought it an unlikely expression for a navvie’s wife though it was said many years after the events in the book and she had been in “polite” company in the interim,) maw (it’s not a mouth, it’s a stomach.) In the Reading group questions; “navvie’s wife” (navvy’s wife.)

Being Emily by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2008, 316 p.

I doubt the novel as a form will ever fade away so long as it deals with those perennial biggies love, sex and death. That and the fact that people find stories irresistible. There may only be seven different plots but boy meets girl – with complications ensuing – is usually a winner. Being Emily gives us that proposition in reverse. It is, though, a grounded book, redolent of and true to its milieu. The characters’ speech is rendered in italics, which effectively does away with all that quotation marks and commas gubbins, and the text – not just the dialogue – is written in Glaswegian dialect, with phrases like “from the resty us,” (rest of) “in fronty” (in front of) “thegether,” (together) “mines” (mine,) photies (photos,) used firmly and unapologetically.

Fiona O’Connell has been brought up in Glasgow in a loving Catholic family. She has an older brother, Patrick, and twin younger sisters, Mona and Rona. (The family joke is that if they had been triplets the third would have been named Shona. Even Fiona’s name follows the rhyme.) She has long held a fascination for Emily Brontë, on whom she wishes to write her Sixth Year Studies assessment essay, but also has a talent for art.

Her life changes when her school can not provide all three subjects she wishes to take in Sixth Year and consequently has to attend the non-denominational (her father calls it ‘Proddy’) school. There she meets Jaswinder (Jas) Singh, a more talented artist but one who is destined to join his family’s pharmacy business and so will take Chemistry at University. This relationship gives Donovan the opportunity to kick against the automatic assumptions people make about others. Jaswinder is, for example, a vegan through choice, not for religious reasons. Both he and his brother Amrik – through different motives – upset their now dead father, one by taking up the sitar, the other by cutting his hair.

Fiona’s life is thrown into turmoil when her mother, the bedrock of the family, dies in childbirth along with the child. Here. Now (as Fiona rails angrily,) in the twenty-first century. Her father goes to pieces with Fiona trying to keep things together in the family without the authority to do so. She channels her feelings into her art and, despite the competing allure of Brontë, winning the local section of a nationwide art competition persuades her to go to (Glasgow) Art School. But it is Fiona’s burgeoning relationship with Jas which is the story’s pivot, a deep friendship which is on course to develop into something deeper but has never been consummated.

Then, within two days, it’s over. Fiona asks us rhetorically, But how do you break up with your best friend? then provides her own solution. Answer: You don’t. You betray him.

Foreshadowing is an essential literary technique, but this is not foreshadowing so much as outright telling us what’s about to (or, from Fiona’s point of view, as she’s recollecting all this from a later date, what did) happen. Yet those two lines have undeniable power. Even though Fiona has already told us of her regret at her actions, they come with the force of a punch. And they convey the gravity of her choice – though she is in retrospect hard put to it both to understand and to justify (most of all to herself) how she behaved, beyond the confusion and bodily discomposure she felt at the time. Treachery is of course another literary staple, guilt a powerful emotion.

There is still the major part of the book to go at this point and although Fiona kind of flits through her degree course – though her degree piece is a strain – we are given acute portrayals of her father’s confusion at modern life, Jas’s mother’s kindness, Rona’s fairly abrupt transition into adult responsibilities, Amrik’s preciousness about musical performance, not to mention the almost unnoticed drifting away of her schoolgirl friendships. The characterisations here are sound. The reader feels she/he knows these people.

It would be unkind to suggest that through all this Donovan forgot about the Emily connection but it is only returned to very near the end where it does seem a bit of an afterthought. But in any case the novel doesn’t actually need it; Fiona’s story is sufficient unto itself and well capable of holding the attention on its own.

Like Donovan’s previous novel Buddha Da and her later, absolutely magnificent, Gone Are the Leaves, Being Emily is a very good novel indeed and needs no other prop. And it is not so much about being Emily as being Fiona.

Pedant’s corner:- sometimes “to” is given as “tae” at others it is as usual. “they’d of,” “never of,” “would of” etc (I know this is perhaps true to the characters’ phonetic speech but I hate that use of ‘of’. In any case the way I hear those phrases uttered in real life they sound like ‘they’d uv,’ ‘never uv,’ ‘would uv,’ etc,) “Jas could sense the tiniest molecule of carbon monoxide sighing into the air” (this was in the context of global warming, so, carbon dioxide,) a missing coma before the quote mark at the opening of a piece of direct speech quoted within dialogue, “simmet” (though ‘simmet’ is how it is pronounced the usual spelling of this undergarment is ‘semmit’,) “a couple of month after” (months,) shaughly (is usually spelled shoogly.) “I’d work late at Art School then went hame tae my da’s” (should really be ‘then go hame’,) swopped (swapped,) “that have laid derelict for years” (lain – even in Scottish dialect.)

The Gleam in the North by D K Broster

Windmill, 1958, 302 p.

The Gleam in the North cover

This is the second of Broster’s Jacobite trilogy (the first of which, The Flight of the Heron, I wrote about here.) Again it follows the fortunes of Ewen Cameron of Ardroy and also once more starts with a scene set at the Loch of the Eagle on his estate. Ewen’s son Donald pushes his younger brother Keith into the loch as revenge for him throwing his favourite object, a sword hilt memento from the Battle of Culloden, into the loch. Ewen has to effect a rescue but Keith becomes ill and the local doctor is summoned but is on a call. Meanwhile Ewen’s cousin Archibald Cameron, still in the service of the young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, and so subject to government attainder, turns up at the house and, as a doctor himself, ministers to the child. When Doctor Kincaid arrives he surmises the Camerons’ visitor is indeed the wanted man and informs the authorities. So Ewen’s adventures begin once more, as he is taken in to Fort William to be questioned and eventually bust out.

In his peregrinations about the Western Highlands trying to avoid government soldiery Ewen comes across Viscount Aveling, half-brother of the Major Keith Windham whom he befriended in The Flight of the Heron and from whom he learns that Archibald Cameron’s whereabouts have been betrayed. In the process, though, he makes an enemy of Aveling. Trying to warn Archie, Ewen only ends up injured during his capture.

After convalescing, Ewen makes his way to London to attempt to secure Doctor Cameron’s release and one night rescues a gentleman from street thieves. This turns out to be Lord Stowe, Aveling’s father. Coincidences being stretched a mite too far here perhaps. The rest of the book is made up of Ewen’s encounters with Aveling’s mother, Jacobite turncoats and trying to intercede with the Duke of Argyll, a Campbell and so sworn enemy of the Camerons but the government’s man for Scottish affairs.

While not as immediate in its chronicling of historical events as was The Flight of the Heron Broster manages to keep the level of peril reasonably high. A description of the Aurora Borealis could be taken to be the gleam in the north of the book’s title, as well as an allusion to the residual glimmer of the hopes of the Stuart dynasty, but the aurora’s relatively quick disappearance “as if it had never been” does not, quite, apply to the ramifications of the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Sensitivity alert. In a piece of stereotyping racist to modern eyes, a black servant of Lord Stowe is named Sambo.

Pedant’s corner:- had …. sowed (sown,) “would none of the thanks” (would have none of,) an extra comma in “‘Yes,, you may do that’”,) “once for all” (once and for all,) “They an prove nothing” (They can prove nothing,) gillie (ghillie,) “requires, it for his chaise” (no comma necessary,) a missing single quote mark at the end of a thought followed by a missing start one at the direct speech following on from it, a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech where the sentence carried on, paplably (palpably,) Gailbraith (elsewhere Galbraith,) Lock Arkaig (Loch Arkaig,) caryatides (caryatids.)

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

It is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights, to remedy the transgression at its heart (usually a murder) by bringing its perpetrator to justice. The literary novel, however, affects to resemble the world in all its aspects – albeit mostly via a microcosm of that world – and therefore, unlike in the classic crime novel, good does not always prevail.

Massie’s series of books set in Bordeaux during wartime and occupation (of which the previous three were Death In Bordeaux, Dark Summer in Bordeaux and Cold Winter in Bordeaux,) seeks to square that circle, employing a literary sensibility but examining various crimes highlighting the more sordid aspects of human nature. In this final instalment things are again seen mainly from the point of view of Jean Lannes, Superintendent in the police judiciaire, who has been suspended from duty for being less than cooperative with the German occupiers, whose marriage has seen better days, whose sons are variously working for Vichy or acting as an agent for the Special Operations Executive and whose daughter’s boyfriend is on the Eastern Front with the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism. Wartime France in microcosm then.

Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is of course dealing, albeit obliquely, with an almighty transgression, the enormity of Nazi ideology. Inextricably bound up with that in these novels is the reality of French collaboration; willingly or not most French people were compromised by it, soiled by association. These are, however, matters that Lannes cannot remediate in any way. While the reader knows the outcome of the war, the prospect of the usual consolation of the detective novel is nevertheless withheld. It is to Massie’s credit that he illuminates the sheer grubbiness of life in such circumstances and intimates the deceptions with which the French people will reassure themselves after the war. Even the Allied landings in Normandy do not lift the gloom as the Germans still hang on in Bordeaux and their adherents, such as the Milice, continue to persecute those they deem traitors either to (Vichy) France or to what they would call decency.

The incident which starts proceedings here isn’t a crime, though. Lannes is asked privately to investigate the disappearance of Marie-Adelaide d’Herblay, a nineteen year-old who has gone off with one Aurélien Mabire, apparently of her own volition. This is something of a red herring as it serves only to draw Lannes once again into the sordid realm of the advocate Labiche whose various misdeeds have preoccupied Lannes for the whole Quartet, but it does relate back to earlier events where a music teacher was procuring very young girls for those who had a taste for them. Lannes is desperate to find someone to testify against Labiche, of whom he has a compromising photograph, but when Marie-Adelaide eventually turns up to see him her reaction is not what he expected.

Massie’s object is not to have justice done. It is to illustrate the complexities of human nature – especially under stress. No-one in the book is without fault of some sort – except perhaps the prostitute Yvette, for whom Lannes developed a soft spot and who of course, as a horizontal collaborator (even if out of necessity,) suffers the consequences of being labelled as such when the occupation ends.

In the end here, no-one is as they were at the beginning, the war has changed everything, except the influence of the powerful, or those who gravitate towards it. As is usual the literary novel unveils evolution; hence that circle isn’t squared. I’m not sure crime aficionados will be satisfied with this. The literary reader may also find the quartet’s focus to be too narrow.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (all names ending in ‘s’ are given s’ for their possessive form; but still, Lannes’s,) staunch (stanch,) Chemin-les-Dames (Chemin-des-Dames,) “no older that Dominique” (than,) Francois’ (since the ‘s’ in Francois is never pronounced its possessive demands ’s after it; Francois’s,) a question mark at the end of a spoken sentence that wasn’t a question, “and distrusted rather that envying the rich” (rather than envied.) “‘Expect it is, really’” (in context ‘Except it is’ makes more sense.)

Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin

Illustrated by John Sibbald. Serpent’s Tail, 2004, 210 p, including 14 p Notes about the composers and philosophers. Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

This is a collection of 26 short stories, none of which is longer then twelve pages and even that includes one of the illustrations. Their tenses shift from past to present and back again. Trappings of the present day irrupt into the past or vice versa, modern day phenomena like pizza deliveries precede composing by candlelight with quill pens. Within the context, though, it all makes a surreal heightened sense. Unlike a lot of Scottish fiction the writing is laced with humour. Seventeen of the stories are listed under the heading “The lives,” four under, “The letters,” three are “The thoughts,” and, finally, one is “The last word.”

All of it is delightful stuff.

The lives:-
Sheep being scarce in Venice would-be priest Antonio Vivaldi – familiar with McDonald’s, TV and spaghetti westerns – tries to sleep by counting cardinals jumping off the papal balcony, one of whom brings to him both God and music via the number 3. 500 concerti later Vivaldi tries to go on holiday but is caught up in a war. A later incarnation learns to walk on water by channelling his anger at a Stravinsky comment that he always writes the same concerto.
In the glass box of her marriage Alma Mahler writes down the notes of the string quartet she is composing only for them to disappear from the paper as soon as she’s finished. Bach, who in his youth had aspired to be a professional footballer until a retired player suggested his true vocation, struggles to respond to the deluge of parcels he receives following the publication of an article titled ‘If Only Bach Had a computer’ in the previous month’s Digital Digest. Beethoven anticipates the benefits due to flow to him from a pyramid scheme while striding the mean streets of Edinburgh till he comes to “the Zone-of-Everything-and-Nothingness” that is South Bridge, which always defeats him. A Hamburg perpetually mist-bound and stuck at 4.45 in the afternoon due to the composer’s previous failures waits for Brahms to complete his first symphony: a fantastic interlude brings resolution. Antonin Dvořák finds his knowledge of Science Fiction and fairy-tale useful while stalking the Bohemian wilds for musical inspiration. Fresh from an invitation onto The Jerry Springer Show, Haydn hears a voice telling him just how many trios he still has to compose. Enthused by a cable channel film noir series, Mozart decides on a new career as a private investigator in a story which also features him bicycling through the air like the ident scene at the start of a Dreamworks© film. Schubert glides through the streets of 1828 Vienna on his skateboard before being given a magic business card. In a manifestation which may be an indication of Schumann’s state of mind Liepzig morphs its architecture daily: then he takes the underground to Herr Wieck’s flat where he meets Clara. An aged Sibelius is in his last hours invited to join the circus by three clowns. Richard Strauss and Amenhotep IV share their dreams of finessing Nazi racial policies and building pyramids respectively. Tchaikovsky laments the madness of his marriage as he considers a last ballet. Georg Telemann writes his best-selling concertos amongst the mountain of mail order goods he has requested (or not) while his agent adopts his identity. One of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers who form a five-a-side football team conceives the idea of introducing passing to their game; their results get worse.

The letters:-
Composer Q makes a compact with the Mr Sinclair who turns up at his door: thereafter the music flows and Q’s domestic life becomes blissful. There is a catch of course. Composer X’s career creating music for films has given him all the trappings of success – girls, glamour and real estate. He flees the Calvinistic persecutions of messages in the Edinburgh sky to Tenerife only to find the stars have rearranged themselves into a message in Spanish. Composer Y labours under the affliction of coming between “the celebrated X and the no less renowned Z” (perhaps due to his fondness for the double-bass) till one day the world pauses and the sky becomes a Tiepolo-style ceiling of angels; suddenly he is in constant demand. Composer Z gazes from his window into the vista beyond the end of the alphabet through the large plate-glass window installed for just that purpose. In one universe the glass becomes insubstantial and he is pulled through. (This story contains a comparison between Scottish midges and the dead in Hades – both are summoned by human blood.)

The thoughts:-
A drunken David Hume cosies up to a woman “who had come so close to freezing to death on the pavement outside the Caledonian Hotel she had never warmed up again” before he is, in a phrase which could summarise this whole book, “stranded in this makeshift world put together from the sweepings of history.” Nietzsche tries to break free from monetisation at the hands of his University by keeping chickens. Seneca settles on Edinburgh’s Southside as the perfect place to prove Stoicism firmly as number one of all the world’s philosophies. Socrates attends the opening of Greece’s first supermarket, ‘Zealous Hellas’.

The last word:-
On her death bed Nadia Boulanger is visited by other female composers – her sister Lili, Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” and “within seconds” count; substantial – a few had gone by before I noticed the prevalence but they soon become extremely intrusive. Otherwise; crochets (crotchets,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) vermillions (vermilions,) “a set of garden furniture say with no memory of ever having ordered them” (ordered it,) extendible” (extendable,) the text implies the great Real Madrid team of 1959 had invented the passing game (they didn’t. It was the mighty Sons of the Rock in the 1880s/90s who did that,) “Puskas, Di Stefano, Santa Maria … [were] … to secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row” (Real won that cup five years in a row, the first five of its existence; those three players may not have been present for all five, of course.) “A few second’s later” (seconds,) “duvetted by straw and feathers” (should the spelling be ‘duveted’?) An unindented paragraph, Socrates’ (Socrates’s.)

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Matador, 2017, 493 p.

When I picked this up I wondered if it might be a kind of Glasgow riposte to Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh set 44 Scotland Street novels. Close is of course the Scottish word for the entranceway and stairwell of a tenement block and the inhabitants of such a building do live in proximity to each other – if not necessarily always on good terms – and there are certainly differences between the two cities to be exploited in a project of that sort. However, Close Quarters, while still genteel in its way, has a more earthy, more Glaswegian, approach to the aspects of communal living, and is its own thing.

There are faint echoes of A Christmas Carol in the opening line, “Walter Bain was dead,” but McAllister is not providing us with a ghost story. What he does is outline the various reasons why the building’s occupiers over the years might have had a motive to kill Bain. As the officer in charge of the case says to his sergeant in the prologue, “We’re talking about Walter Bain. The Walter Bain. Did any of them not have a motive?”

For Walter Bain was one of those self-appointed, nit-picking guardians of moral and social welfare, forever peering out through his windows at visitors or residents arriving at the close to check they’d shut the gate of the small enclosure at the front of the building, posting through doors misspelled and ungrammatical missives scribbled onto scraps of paper regarding the stair and window cleaning rota, or the undesirability of wheelie bins being left outside for hours on end, harping on disturbances to the tranquillity of the family nature of the building; or else arranging meetings of tenants to discuss problems with cleaning, maintenance and upkeep, though reluctant to take on himself his portion of any financial burden that might necessitate.

We are shown the experiences with Bain of new tenants Jenny Martin and Joe Robinson, of long-term residents Gus McKinnon, George Anderson and his girlfriend (later wife) Cathie, Billy Briggs, Henrietta Quayle, and that of more recent occupant Tony Miller. Most are rendered in third person past tense but Anderson’s (a lecturer in English at Strathkelvin University – a recently upgraded technical college) is couched as a set of diary entries he composes for Cathie to read as practice for the novel he intends to write and Henrietta Quayle’s is in the form of a psychiatrist’s report by one Philomena Warner who treated Quayle when she had a breakdown after her mother’s death.

The story also centres round the Centurion pub on the corner of Byres Road. Several of the drinkers there are lawyers and McAllister has a lot of scope in his tale to send up both the law and academia. Since Briggs is a dealer in comic books we are also provided with a history of the graphic novel.

Despite the body on the carpet this is not a typical crime novel. McAllister’s interest is not in the murder per se and his treatment is far from po-faced. At several points in reading it I could not suppress giggles. Close Quarters, is also, due to the time frame of McKinnon’s, Briggs’s and Quayle’s occupancies, a social history of the 1980s and 1990s.

It is not difficult to guess who the murderer was. I had my suspicions from early on and indeed it turned out to be the only person it could possibly have been, revealed in an epilogue titled Who Done It. However, working that out in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book. The gratification here is in the journey, in the many ways in which Bain could wind up his neighbours, and in their reactions to him.

Pedant’s corner:- “the epicentre of the West End” (I don’t think McAllister meant it was off-centre,) a missing punctuation mark – either a comma or full stop would have done the job – before a piece of direct speech, margarene (margarine,) a projected graphic novel is titled Last Exit to Salcoats (that town is spelled Saltcoats,) e-mails (the passage was set in 1999, so fair enough, but this book was published in 2017 so, ‘emails’,) “e mail” (inconsistent with the previous instance,) “‘put his gas on a peep’” (usually ‘gas at a peep’,) syllibi, (syllabi, or, syllabuses.) “None of our classrooms … were big enough” (None …. was big enough,) “divided about half in half” (half and half,) “which would allow me make these appearances” (allow me to make,) “which he he’d recently missed” (remove ‘he’,) “that Matilda has aked me to collect” (the rest of the passage was in the pluperfect so, ‘had asked me’,) “‘glad to be assistance’” (glad to be of assistance’,) “had showed” (had shown.)

The Gates of Eden – A Story of Endeavour by Annie S Swan

Read Books, 2008, 319 p. First published 1893.

This is a facsimile reprint (presumably via photocopy) reproducing the original in all its aspects – including illustrations at each chapter heading and one of Swan opposite the title page – of an edition published in 1893 by William Briggs. The title page has the writer’s married name (Mrs Burnett-Smith) after her author’s credit.

I would not have picked this up (my previous reading of Swan left the impression of her as an adequate talent but not worth seeking out) had it not been lent to us by a friend since part of it is set in the nearby village of Star (aka Star of Markinch.) I am therefore familiar with the local places mentioned, Star (Swan has her characters refer to it as the Star,) Markinch, Kennoway and the Lomond Hills. Swan actually lived in Star for two years but in her biography said she didn’t much like the place. However, “it did give her two books.” Of which I assume this is one.

It is essentially the tale of two brothers, Alexander (Sandy) and Jamie Bethune, whose mother had died in childbirth. Sandy is apparently favoured academically and his father sets him down for the Church. James is designated to keep his father’s holding at their croft. His better education, eventually graduating from University at St Andrews, leads to Sandy having a high opinion of himself and coming to look down on his young adult sweetheart, Mary Campbell, whose broad Scots manner of speaking he thinks will ill become him in his first charge at Lochbroom where he is in any case captivated by Beatrice Lorraine, the daughter of a widower recently moved to a big house in Lochbroom.

Meanwhile James is taken under the wing of the local schoolmaster and taught Latin and literature but it is only once the boys’ father has died that James strikes out on his own, seeking a job on a newspaper in Edinburgh to work his way up. His attendance at St Giles leads to its minister, Doctor Kinross, inviting him to his home and befriending him. It turns out that Kinross and Lorraine are brothers-in-law and James too meets Beatrice but recognises a deep sadness in the Lorraines’ lives.

What follows is fairly predictable, Sandy proposes to Beatrice, who turns him down, James eventually gets a job in London whereupon Beatrice asks him to seek out her disgraced brother, whom her father has sworn never to see again.

The Gates of Eden is a reasonably typical Victorian novel, overly sentimental at times, not too taxing, and one where virtue is rewarded. Even Sandy comes to his senses. It has the style and cadences of its origins but some people may have difficulty with the very broad Scots of the inhabitants of Star. There are, too, occasional interpolations by the author which tend to break the suspension of disbelief.

And once again we have that intimation of the Scottish character of yore, “she belonged to a stern, undemonstrative race, who deemed any exhibition of the finer feelings a sign of weakness.”

Pedant’s corner:- cotttage (cottage,) “‘these sort of gatherings’” (strictly speaking ‘sorts’ but it was in dialogue,) ““Lux Benigna”” (later rendered as ‘Lux Benigna’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “insolvable problem” (Victorian usage? – insoluble/unsolvable,) a missing full stop, a missing ‘close quote’ mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt

Or, The Covenanters.

Edited by Patricia J Wilson. Scottish Academic Press, 1984, 375 p (including 33p Notes on the Text and 10 p Glossary) plus xii p Introduction ii p Notes, ii p Acknowledgements and iii p Note on the Text. Originally published in 1823.

Ringan Gilhaize cover

Compared to the lost cause of the Jacobites, endlessly retrodden by Scottish (and other) writers, the rise and defence of Calvinism in Scotland has been relatively neglected in the Scottish tradition. James Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeckis an exception, as is Scott’s Old Mortality whose unsympathetic treatment of the Covenanting cause impelled Galt to write this riposte, and much more recently James Robertson gave us The Fanatic. The relevant events are seen through the eyes of the Gilhaize family but only in so far as any of its members were directly involved in them. The book is narrated by the titular Ringan Gilhaize and its first section tells of his grandfather’s activities during the Scottish Reformation, which in later life he endlessly recounted to the family round the fireside, and features his encounters with, among others, John Knox and James Stuart (the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots and whom on taking up the throne on her return from France she made Earl of Moray. A confirmed reformer, after Mary’s exile to England he became Regent of Scotland.) This time period was when the groundwork for the stern Calvinistic bent of Scottish Presbyterianism was laid and the text contains many examples of invective against prelacy, papistical idolaters and the Whore of Babylon.

The latter two sections deal with Ringan’s own life and times when, first Charles I and later his son Charles II, tried to reintroduce elements of episcopacy into Scottish religious observance. This led in the former’s time to the signing of the National Covenant and a few years later the Solemn League and Covenant, which latter was essentially an anti-royal but certainly anti-Catholic agreement between Scottish Protestants and the English Parliament for Presbyterianiam to become the established religion south of the border. (These two Covenants are sometimes rolled into one in people’s minds but it was from them that the Covenanters – in that word’s pronunciation the emphasis is placed on the third syllable – gained their name.) The Covenanter’s insistence on the view that no king could interfere between a man’s conscience and God and that rebellion against any king who attempted to do so was justified, effectively made the Covenanters heirs to the Declaration of Arbroath and holders of the Scottish conscience.

The text of “Gilhaize’s” account is mainly in English larded with Scots words and forms of speech but has that wordiness that is characteristic of novels of its time and of course is reflecting the language of between two and three hundred years earlier than when Galt was writing. The dialogue, moreover, tends to be in very broad Scots indeed.

The novel is in part a history lesson since “Gilhaize” has to provide the background to the events he himself took part in. He therefore mentions the protests in St Giles Cathedral against the prayers in Charles I’s new Prayer Book as supposedly started by Janet (aka Jenny) Geddes (though her name does not appear in contemporary accounts,) a defiance of authority which led to open rebellion and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. (For a long time these were known as the English Civil War despite the fact that they were precipitated by the necessity for Charles I to recall the English Parliament to provide money to suppress his Scottish religious rebels.)

After the Restoration of the Stuarts, fierce resentment resulted from Charles II’s apostasy in the matter of the Covenant which he had signed essentially in bad faith in what would now probably be called an act of real politique to bring the Scots Parliament onto his side in his war against Cromwell – a hopeless endeavour given the outcome of the Battle of Worcester. To the Covenanters signing was a sacred and binding act. Reneging on that could not be forgiven.

Galt’s focus on the affairs of one family allows him to illustrate the build up of both the petty and the major injustices of the anti-Covenanter legislation as well as Covenanters’ hatred of the favourite General of both the latter Stuart kings, James Graham of Claverhouse, whom the Covenanters dubbed “Bloody Clavers” for his enthusiastic prosecution of the sequestrations, fines, imprisonments and hangings which feed into the slow descent by Ringan into a haze of self-righteousness and moral zeal. A minor drawback of this is that most of the battles mentioned in the book take place off-stage since neither his grandfather nor Ringan himself were present at them. (Exceptions are Drumclog, Rullion Green in the Pentlands, and Killiecrankie, in all of which Ringan took part.)

The final vindication of the Covenanting resistance was the outcome of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – here Galt has Gilhaize believe in the false propaganda that a man child was palmed off on the nation as the lawful son of James VII (and II,) known to Covenanters as “the Tyrant,” and his papistical wife – which secured the Protestant ascendancy in the form of William and Mary.

Two hundred year-old fiction is problematic for the modern reader at any time – patterns of language have changed, writers no longer need to pad out stories to reach a required word count, sentences tend to be less laboriously constructed – but the remoteness here is compounded by the dense nature of the history, the numbers of historical figures, the intensity of the religious discourse. Throughout, the book rings with Biblical imagery and allusions.

Though in their particulars its concerns have now passed into history in Scotland (except for their remnants being attached to a certain football rivalry) Ringan Gilhaize, as an examination of the mindset of the religious zealot, the firm believer in a higher calling, is salutary, and still has resonance for the present day. I’m glad I read it even if the prose does not always flow as smoothly as I might have wished.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “worthy the attention” (worthy of the attention, or, worth the attention.) Otherwise: “the Earl of Angus’ house” (Angus’s,) St Giles’ kirkyard (St Giles’s,) her Highness’ presence (Highness’s.) “When she heard the voice or anyone talking in the street” (the voice of anyone talking,) juncutre (juncture,) a capital letter in the middle of a sentence (this may have been to signify a spoken phrase immediately after it; but that was followed by an opening quotation mark to signal the speech’s continuation,) thougt (thought.) In the Notes; divive (divine.)

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