Gráinne by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1985, 175 p.

Gráinne cover

A man lies in a hospital bed being asked questions. In answer he begins to tell his life story. It is a curiously detached process: he thinks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as Bevan. (In this Roberts may be utilising aspects of his own young life to flesh out his story – or carrying out a double bluff to make us think so. He used the name Alastair Bevan as an early pseudonym.) The man doesn’t name some of the characters from his early life, merely gives them titles; The Mother, The Headmaster. His early discomfort on dealing with women is well conveyed. Things change when he meets the enigmatic Gráinne, however, though to begin with he only worships her from afar. She is named for the mythical Irish princess.

Roberts’s prose is oblique, meaning is not immediately transparent, it has to be teased out by the reader. By the end, though, the process does become less opaque. The intercutting between “Bevan”’s reminiscences and his interlocutors is an important part of this. It highlights and comments on his tale, allows Roberts to ask the questions the reader might – and answer them. He tells his story in five “sessions” named Anuloma, Abhassara, Brahmacariya, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. These titles are not from Irish mythology but relate to Hindu customs and tales.

The Gráinne ‘Bevan’ remembers has aspects of a goddess, or an everywoman, and she has the gift of prophecy. “Right down through history religion had backed the state. She said the end result of money sticks” – some man had invented these centuries ago and things had gone downhill from then on – “was three World Wars. Two down and one to go. She said she wanted something to survive, But not a God. Or it would all start again.”

Some time after their relationship ends she lands a job as a TV presenter on Channel Five (a fifth UK TV channel was fictitious in 1985) and becomes famous. As part of a project she is working on she asks the advertising firm Bevan works for to devise a campaign for her, knowing he will have the idea she wants. The ramifications of her programme cause the authorities some problems and this is the ultimate reason for Bevan’s questioning. It is only at this point that aspects of SF creep in to the novel. In common with most of Roberts’s œuvre the whole, however, has an unsettling effect, always teetering on the borderline of the fantastic, as if Gráinne might have been a figment of ‘Bevan’’s imagination.

For Roberts completists this is a must though those unfamiliar with his work might be best to start with earlier novels.

Pedant’s corner:- I note “mike” as the abbreviation for microphone. Hurrah!
Otherwise; woffle (waffle,) Guy Fawkes’ night (I believe it’s just Guy Fawkes night; if it had an apostrophe it would have to be Guy Fawkes’s night,) staunched (stanched,) “an old tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) “his Dad had given for his twenty-first” (had given him?) Fitzsimmons’ (Fitzsimmons’s,) Éirann (more usually Éireann,) verandah (I prefer veranda.) “He left the door stood open” (standing open,) “a line of men in saffron robes plod east” (a line plods.)

Reelin’ In the Years 144: Sixty Years On/Have Mercy on the Criminal. RIP Paul Buckmaster

Master musical arranger Paul Buckmaster died last month. I only got to know about it when his obituary appeared in the Guardian. I first knowingly encountered Buckmaster’s work on Elton John’s second album Elton John but I had heard it before on David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Buckmaster’s importance to the overall sound of that eponymous album is most to the fore on Sixty Years On. I hadn’t heard anything like that on a pop record before (not even from The Beatles) except possibly for the orchestral backing to Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends on the Bookends album.

Elton John: Sixty Years On

Elton’s next two studio albums Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water also used Buckmaster’s arrangements to great effect as did his film score for Friends but his presence was missing on Honky Chateau. Elton turned to Buckmaster again with the stunning Have Mercy on the Criminal from Don’t Shoot me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Elton John: Have Mercy on the Criminal

Paul John Buckmaster: 13/6/1946 – 7/11/2017. So it goes.

Wigtown War Memorial

This lies down Bank Street from the Town Hall beside the road that leads down to the Martyr’s Stake.

Wigtown War Memorial

Memorial from southwest:-

Wigtown War Memorial from Southwest

Wigtown War Memorial From East. Upper names, World War 2. Lower names, the Great War:-

Wigtown War Memorial From East

Memorial from Northwest:-

Wigtown War Memorial from Northwest

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris, 2016, 498 p. Reviewed for Interzone 267, Nov-Dec 2016.

 Europe in Winter cover

This third in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence of novels (previous knowledge of which is not necessary for reading this instalment) starts with a bang. Under the Urals a young couple blow up both themselves and a train in the tunnel belonging to the Trans-European Republic (aka the Line.) The significance of this, its ramifications, just who was responsible, do not become clear till much later.

Then, what at first seems merely a re-run of the “Hungarians trash the restaurant in Kraków” scene from Europe in Autumn leads to an encounter wherein chef Rudi meets an older version of himself. He is told, “You, and your entire world, are very, very sophisticated computer programs.” Not much later Rudi steps out from the restaurant and the wall behind him fades. The tone of this is of a piece with other scenes in Hutchinson’s trilogy. It is present here to introduce the idea that simulations of various futures are being run in the very secretive polity of Dresden-Neustadt in an attempt to realise a prediction engine. But that concept renders the scene problematic. Indications of unreliable narration are usually welcome, but this revelation verges on the dangerous for an author. How do we then have any faith in the depictions of all that follows?

Trust; and enjoy the roller-coaster. Rudi (what we must assume is the “real” Rudi,) an agent for the smuggling organisation known as Les Coureurs des Bois – a more or less essential organisation for those wishing to get things across Europe’s now innumerable borders – but here seemingly more free-lance, has a large part to play in the remainder of the book. His observation that, “Working in Intelligence is just a case of continually winging it,” neatly describes his approach but is probably more widely apposite. We are also reacquainted, from Europe at Midnight, with The Community, the parallel world created by the English Whitton-Whyte family who, “seem subsequently to have lost the knowledge of how to do it. Either it was lost, or stolen, or destroyed, no one knows, not here or in the Community. There are stories of a book of instructions, floating about somewhere, which tells how to map a new landscape over an old one.” Powerful, and dangerous, the Community had precipitated Europe’s ultra-Balkanisation by unleashing the Xian Flu before official contact was made with it. “There was no way to defend against an enemy who could walk across invisible borders anywhere on your territory whenever they wanted, while you were quite unable to retaliate.”

Hutchinson’s unravelling of the interactions between the (by now essentially former) EU – “The Schengen era was just an historical blip, an affectation” – the Community and an entity known as The Realm (up to something in Luxembourg) is never straightforward but always intriguing. He also finds time to comment on the proceedings. “It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.” Despite the appearance of SF grace notes – stealth suits reduce you to a transparent patch of barely-roiling air, there are time dilation effects between the Community and Europe with even longer ones in a certain cottage by the sea, someone steals part of the Community, it in turn steals Heathrow – the overall treatment is less redolent of the genre. “A solid reliable fellow” is not common SF phraseology. And not many SF novels mention a spectacularly catastrophic bowel movement, or AJP Taylor or, indeed, deliver an amusing aside on the interrogation methods of TV detective Columbo. Other allusive touches include the punning chapter title “The Justified Ancients Of Muhu” and a character named László Viktor. Another character opines, “England is a constant pain in the arse; always whining, European only when it suits them.”

Rudi’s attempts to comprehend the convoluted relationships between the Realm, the Community, his father’s involvement in a billion-dollar trust fund, the murder of a Professor Mundt, the significance of a photograph of attendees at the Versailles Peace Conference and the importance of a group of mathematicians, topologists and cartographers known as the Sarkisian Collective are never oppressive. His discovery of just what his role in Les Coureurs des Bois actually is adds an ironic twist.

Europe in Winter’s essence is really that of a Cold War spy thriller – it even name checks Mutually Assured Destruction – but in SF terms it does not add much to the two previous novels. It’s a good, excellently written Cold War spy thriller; but one nonetheless. That, though, is a strength. When a novel deals with an organisation which is capable of rewriting worlds, that looking-glass, nothing is quite what it seems ambience may be the only suitable medium. Hutchinson executes it superbly.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner. (Some of these may have been amended since the proofs):- mediaeval (Hurrah!) but…. none were (none was,) “at one point” occurred in one sentence which was followed only two lines later by a sentence which started with, “At one point,” avis (the context suggests axis rather than a bird,) three-d is an odd contraction, it’s usually 3-d or 3d, would at very least (at the very least,) the crew were prepping (the crew was,) metropoli (metropolis is Greek in origin; so the plural is metropoles,) Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries (if you capitalise Seventeenth and Eighteenth so also should you Centuries,) Polish Border Security were famously savvy (Polish Border Security was,) broke branches off nearby trees to conceal it with (doesn’t need the with,) “with a passport in either hand” (in each hand,) again a chapter number appeared at the very bottom of a page. “Facing them were the Community delegation” (was,) cats-cradle (cat’s-cradle,) in an dialect (in a dialect,) a missing full stop, cammo dudes (two lines later is camo dudes,) off of (no of required,) miasm (miasma,) Forsythe (Forsyth,) on either side (on each side,) “she watched a wild boar sow and half a dozen piglets” (wild boar, sow and…) Tipped his/her head to one side (a Hutchinson tic.)

Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway

Wigtown formerly in Wigtownshire and then Wigtown and Kircudbright and now Dumfries and Galloway is in deepest southwest Scotland.

Main Street looking south:-

Main Street, Wigtown

Main Street looking north, town hall to centre right:-

Main Street, Wigtown, Reverse View

Looking north past town hall, War Memorial in middle distance:-

Wigtown Street 3

Wigtown sells itself as Scotland’s book town, its Hay-on-Wye if you like. Unlike in Hay-on-Wye I actually bought a book. The bookseller was much taken when I told him the tale.

THE Bookshop:-

bookshop 1


The Scottish room:-

THE Bookshop, Wigtown

There are several shops selling books but not much else there apart from coffeshops and the like.

We took a walk down a path leading to the Martyr’s Stake.

In southeast Scotland they had a particularly innovative method of execution in those parts back in the day. Tying the victims to stakes and letting the tide rise to drown them. This is a memorial (now well away from the sea) to people martyred in such a way for their beliefs:-

Martyrs' Stake, Wigtown

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Windsor/Paragon, 2013, 423 p. First published 1984.

 Nights at the Circus cover

In fin-de-siècle London, Fevvers – so-called because of the downy nubs on her back when she was born – has fledged into a stage act, the leading aerialiste of her time. Among others she fascinates the Prince of Wales. It is through American journalist Jack Walser, also besotted with her, that we make her introduction. The book begins as he interviews her backstage after a performance. To Walser the evening is made more peculiar as midnight seems to strike several times while Fevvers and her companion Lizzie (who may be her mother) relate her life story up to that point – a fabular tale of a foundling and brothels of varying degrees of harshness. The mixture here of mundane detail of discarded, more or less grubby stage clothing and the removal of tawdry theatrical make-up with the fantastical unfolding of the story of Fevvers’s wings and hesitant attempts at flight – her life as a whole – adds verisimilitude to the narrative while not undermining its fantastical elements. It may even emphasise them.

Fevvers is engaged by US circus owner Colonel Kearney – guided in his actions by his pet pig, Sybil, who picks out lettered cards to spell the relevant decision – as one of the acts he will take on his tour to St Petersburg then across Russia to Siberia, with Yokohama the eventual destination. Walser persuades his editor to give him time off to follow his fascination with Fevvers. He joins the project as a member of the Clown circle. Wandering the circus Walser finds apes with their own school (complete with blackboard) which they break up as soon as they realise it is being observed, tigers enchanted by music and a Strongman with a cowardly streak – an interesting echo of The Wizard of Oz.

In the text it isn’t really seriously questioned if Fevvers’s wings are real or a stage fabrication. Only at the end, in an unrelated matter, is her reliability as a witness undermined, by which time there have been enough fantastical happenings to make this seem a misstep. Carter’s intention seems to be to interrogate the boundary between the real and the imagined. Magic realist touches flavour the narrative but the everyday degradations inflicted on some of her female characters (highlighting sexism, a feminism slipped in to the tale but unremarked on save in the case of the unlikeliness of a prostitute to undertake her work for pleasure, or to find any in it) are all too believable. Her prose flows and bounces, occasionally soars. Her characters are well-drawn. In the end, though, I found the flights of fancy a bit overblown. Are the South Americans just better at this sort of thing or is my cultural bias blinding me to its merits in this case?

Those thirty or so years ago when this was first published the descriptions of Carter’s work which I read failed to enthuse me sufficiently. For anyone so minded now I would say she is definitely worth reading and I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- Fevvers’ (Fevvers’s,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) ripost (usually riposte; ripostes was used as a verb later,) ballock/s (Carter consistently uses this as a demotic word for testicle and reserves bollocks for the expletive = balls,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) exort (exhort,) cartilege (cartilage,) orizens (orisons?) tealeaves (tea leaves as a single word?) he lirruped and chirruped (lirruped?) “to whit” (to wit,) Lyons (in English now more often spelled Lyon,) pects (more often pecs,) liquifying (liquefying,) wrapt (the sense is rapt but it was describing two lovers so most likely a pun,) “identified the figure of that of Father Time” (it makes sense but “as that of Father Time” is more natural,) lassoo (lasso,) “when the sun temporarily laid low” (lay low,) oblivious of (oblivious to.)

Fly Over Mercury

Courtesy of today‘s Astronomy Picture of the Day. A composite of images taken by Nasa’s MESSENGER probe.

Mercury of course has a very slow rotation – onky three turns for every two trips round the sun.

Newton Stewart War Memorial

Newton Stewart’s War Memorial is situated in a fairly prominent location in Dashwood Square outside the McMillan Hall beside which the road through the town takes a slight turn.

A Celtic cross on a stepped granite base.

Newton Stewart War Memorial

The two inscriptions say:- “To the glory of God and in memory of those of Penninghame Parish who gave their lives for king and country in the Great War 1914-19,” and “Greater love hath no man than this.” WW1 Names.

Newton Stewart War Memorial Plaque

Side view. WW1 names on upper plaque, WW2 on lower:-

Newton Stewart War Memorial Names

Reverse View. WW1 names. Lower inscription reads, “”More than conquerors through him that loved us.”

Newton Stewart War Memorial Reverse View

Postponed Game

Sons match yesterday was called off due to a frozen pitch.

That’s a bit of a pity; we were on a good run.

I hope next Saturday’s away game at Inverness CT is not also a casualty of the weather. The longer we go without a game the more likely we will be rubbish when the next one comes round.

River Cree and Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway

Newton Stewart has a lovely situation sitting by the banks of the River Cree:-

River Cree, Newton Stewart

River Cree, Newton Stewart

Unfortunately the river sometimes comes a bit too close. In this photo you can see work on flood defences at centre right:-

River Cree, Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway

There is a lovely bridge over the river:-

Newton Stewart bridge

It seems to be a good place for birds:-

Bird, Newton Stewart

Heron just to right of and above centre:-

Heron, Newton Stewart

The plant growth was making this chimney loook dodgy, though!:-

Chimney Plants, Newton Stewart

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