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Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Chroma, 2005, 446 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Psychoraag cover

From its opening sentence “’Salaam alaikum, sat sri sakaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat summer’s night!’” this novel proudly proclaims its uniqueness. The tale of the last broadcast of Radio Chaandni, “’Sax oors, that’s right, sax ooors ae great music, rock an filmi an weird, weye-oot there happenins an ma rolling voice,’” on “ninety-nine-point-nine meters” sic FM. The voice is that of Zaf – “’that’s zed ay eff’” – DJ of The Junnune (madness) Show, scion of a pair of romantic (but adulterous) runaways from Pakistan.

As the above quote shows, Zaf’s monologues to his microphone are rendered in a very broad Glaswegian indeed. They are presented on the page with an unjustified right margin, a feature distinguishing them from the more normal narrative interspersed with them which relates the events of the night in a slightly more refined Scots dialect. Meanwhile sections devoted to his parents’ life together are in Standard English (except when their back story has caught up to times Zaf can remember.) To render the Glaswegian Scots, Saadi spells most participles (indeed most words ending with “ng”) without the final g – even when they occur inside longer words as in increasinly.

The music he plays (ranging from Asian Dub Foundation through Kula Shaker and Corner Shop to The Beatles, The 13th Floor Elevators, the golden hour and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) is integral to Zaf’s conception of himself and for those interested in such things a Play List and Discography of his many and varied tastes are appended after the glossary of Urdu and other terms with which the novel is liberally sprinkled.

Zaf’s stream of consciousness sees him ruminate on life, the universe and everything, with an emphasis on Scotland and Pakistan, “the land of the pure”, often mixing things to great effect, “if Dante Alighieri, in his exile, had had Irn-Bru, he wouldn’t have needed Beatrice. He wouldn’t have needed poetry.”

His thoughts also whirl around both the important women in his adult life, present girlfriend Babs, prone to jaunts to the wilds on her blue Kawasaki motor bike, and previous occupier of that position Zilla. Babs is white and – once – called him her brown god. Like Zaf, Zilla is of Asian descent but has fallen into drugs and prostitution, a circumstance for which it turns out Zaf is partly responsible.

Considerations of race inevitably loom large in Zaf’s thoughts. “The aspiration of all good Asians, finally, wis to be as white as possible. To marry white, to generate white and to strive incessantly for depigmentation.” To be half white or part white gave you, “one foot in the door… You became an honorary person.” He ponders acronyms and abbreviation as aspects of western life, “the whole pompous culture of indecipherability and wilful obscurantism had arisen from the collective mind of the grey men.” He articulates the Asian experience of Glasgow, especially the part which has become known as Wee Faisalabad, mentions the activities of local gang The Kinnin Park Boys, desirous of taking over the station franchise, and his experience of living in the slightly more upmarket area of the Shiels. He has, too, recognised that Calvinist sensibility, knowing that Glasgow had “turned its hard Presbyterian face away from its own children, it averted its thin lips,” and hence reasoning, “So why on earth should it bother to acknowledge a changeling like Zaf?” Neither does society’s attitude to women escape him, especially that of those keen on patriarchy and the primacy of the word. If they fall from an ideal, women are never forgiven, “There wis no such entity as the prodigal daughter,” he notes. Even the possibility of such a fall proscribes them.

Where the narrative breaks away from Zaf and instead tells the story of his father Jamil Ayaan and his mother Rashida, their meeting and falling in love, their affair and her desire for them to be together (only possible if they left Pakistan,) their long journey in a Ford Popular from Lahore to London then Glasgow; a city Jamil had never heard of before, and which he therefore thought would be safe from “prying eyes, ears tongues,” only to find on arrival the sole job he could find was in the sewers, the prose becomes lyrical. Saadi is no mere Shock Jock, he handles straightforward English narrative with as much skill as his demotic flourishes.

There are dream-like sequences where Zaf seems simultaneously to be in the studio at Radio Chaandni and at the same time roaming the city’s streets. This may or may not be because he has drunk some absinthe lying about the studio or perhaps a result of Zaf’s general sense of dissociation. The scenes where Zilla has turned up in the studio have a particularly hallucinatory feel.

Psychoraag is a tremendous achievement, managing to distil both the essence of immigrant experience and of Scottishness and to embody them in one character. It is certainly an admirable piece of work, utterly memorable, worthy of a place in that list of 100 Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- “ninety-nine-point-nine meters FM” (FM radio tuning is characterised by frequency, not by wavelength; Zaf must mean 99.9 MHz,) “but, to Zaf’s right, was a partition wall” (unnecessary parenthetical commas,) zndabad (zindabad,) off of (just off, please,) “poking out from of the back pockets of their jeans” (from or of; not both,) “on account he was” (on account of he was.) “Cognito ergo sum” (The context implies this re-rendering – I know therefore I am – of Descartes’s philosophical statement, I think therefore I am, is intended,) “more dif icult to maintain” (difficult,) “aren’t I?” (OK Zaf says this to his mum and “Indian” English perhaps uses this formulation; but the Scottish English is “amn’t I?) “‘It’s finishes tonight.’” (It,) “she will have she have OD’d” (no “she have”,) Glasgae (Saadi – as Zaf – often uses this but no West of Scotland person says this; Glesca or Glesga maybe, never Glasgae,) re-appeared (in the middle of a line? reappeared,) outside of (outside; ditto inside of,) “it’s three thirty in the morning” (Zaf thinks this during a disturbance in the show’s fifth hour, ie after four a.m.) posonous (poisonous,) “as if it there had been” (as if it had been.) Peter Sellars (Sellers,) “the music swelled tae a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the swelling; “swelled to a climax” maybe,) “hud been lain” (laid,) ivirthin (previously, and subsequently, ivirythin, with one iviryhin,) “just a little, as. underneath the sunshine” (no full stop.) Fundmentalist (Fundamentalist.) “A certain section of the community were” (a section was.) Polyethelene (Polyethylene,) “ninety-nine point-nine wave-length” (it’s frequency not a wavelength; and wavelength isn’t hyphenated,) cadeceus (caduceus?)
In the glossary:- a shopkeepers, (a shopkeeper) “the commercial films or South Asia” (of,) “a person who own a lot of land” (owns,) “of which there are an enormous variety” (there is a variety.)

Challenge Cup Draw

Well, it used to be the Challenge Cup. Now it’s sponsored by Irn Bru.

It’s a home tie, against Rangers Colts.

I’m not happy about Colts teams being involved in Senior competitions. I fear it is a stallking horse to get them into the league structure – as if the presence of the full sides did not distort Scottish football enough.

But this is as it is and I suppose we have to put up with it.

There is a potential here for a serious riddy to rank alongside the game of which we do not speak – especially given our utterly dire history in this competition: far and away the worst of any of its regular participants.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Curious Lives of the Elements, Viking, 2011, 428 p.

The first thing to say is that, despite its title(s), this is not a Chemistry book. In its index there are eight references to Shakespeare (only one fewer than for the chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius and more than for any individual scientist barring Humphry Davy, Carl Scheele, William Ramsay, Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev) – four to Goethe, three each to Wagner and Van Gogh. Other seemingly unlikely name checks are given to Wilfred Owen and Barbara Hepworth, not to mention Hunter S Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

What it is, is a book about how Chemistry permeates our lives, not just in the biological sense – for without Chemistry our bodies could not work – but in the cultural sphere, in our day-to-day existence. (There is even a reference to Irn Bru! – in a frankly bizarre context.) As such the book ought to appeal to the general reader rather than just Chemists. But the importance of Chemistry in painting, sculpture, opera, poetry, fiction, even architecture ought not to surprise. As the back of the book reminds us, “Everything is made of them [the elements,] from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book you are holding in your hands, including you.” English words for white (apart from snow) are bound up with the compounds of calcium they embody, marble, alabaster, chalk, ivory, bone, teeth. (I object, here, that the “White Cliffs of Dover” are anything but; unless seen from a distance.) The Latin calx yields the Italian calcio for what Aldersey-Williams calls soccer, perhaps because a goal is scored by the ball crossing a chalked line. The word for railway in nearly every language except English reflects the iron from which it is constructed, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn, ferrovia, vía fería, järnväg, tetsudou. Akin to gold in its chemical unreactivity, the valuation of platinum – the only element first isolated by pre-Columbian Americans – over gold is a cultural choice; not due to rarity but snobbishness.

The book contains photographic illustrations every so often but they can at times be a little indistinct as they are reproduced only in monochrome.

Like his Swedish compatriot Carl Scheele (who has a fair claim to have discovered oxygen) Jöns Jacob Berzelius is all but forgotten – despite pioneering laboratory staples like filter paper and (the now superseded) rubber tubing for connecting laboratory equipment together, first using the words catalysis and protein, inventing chemical symbology and coming up with the idea that elements combined in fixed proportions and hence chemical formulae. If his name had been attached to these as Bunsen’s was to his – admittedly splendid – invention that might not be the case. But it seems the Swedes were/are reticent about blowing their trumpets. Due to their chemists’ wielding of an essential piece of technology – the blow-pipe – no less than seven elements – ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, erbium, holmium, scandium and tantalum – were identified from ores that came from a single mine near the town of Ytterby but there is now no trace of the mine nor is there a visitor’s centre. The Swedes may be missing a trick there.

Discovery of “new” elements has always to an extent depended on available technology. Better furnaces and higher temperatures explain the historical progression of metal extraction through the Bronze and Iron Ages and the isolation of zinc in India by the 13th century, the alkali metals, highly reactive and thus resistant to chemical extraction, were only torn from their compounds by the greater power of electricity – not harnessed till just before 1800 – the spectroscope enabled elements to be inferred from the incursion of additional lines in the resultant spectra, transuranics could only be synthesised when atom–colliding machines became available. New liquefaction techniques allowed William Ramsay in the 1890s to conjure new elements out of thin air. (Well, since it was liquefied, I suppose it was really thick air.) Ramsay populated a whole previously unknown Periodic Table Group, the noble gases – neon et al – using this method.

Aldersey-Williams has a tendency to employ the words light or heavy instead of low/high density respectively and to refer to an element when strictly it is the presence of its compounds, atoms or ions that is under discussion. Plus he infers ozone is bonded in a triangle. Its atoms may be arranged in a triangle but its bonds are not. He also says “sodium is now the colour of the city at night” as well as “our principal means of knowing this element.” My local street may be “lit from above by the sodium lamps,” but these have been largely replaced by the blueish white of mercury vapour lights on main roads.

He has however written an interesting and informative, at times quirky, book.

Kiss of Death?

And so the inevitable has happened and new Dumbarton manager Ian Murray has been named SFL Div 1 manager of the month for January.

This is usually the cue for a downturn in a manager’s team’s performance. Let’s hope not in this case.

And I see we’ve taken on to the staff a Scotland international goalkeeper.

But only as a coach.

Irn Bru

The title to yesterday’s post was, of course, an allusion to an advertising slogan used by Barr’s, the Scottish soft drink manufacturers, to promote Irn Bru, which outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland. Barr’s use of their Scottishness is astute. I have posted their High School Musical parody before.

Irn Bru has had a few slogans, starting off in a comic, The Adventures of Ba-Bru and Sandy.

The two best, however, are undoubtedly, “Made in Scotland From Girders” and “It’s Your Other National Drink.”

The last is doubly appropriate since the first national drink – whisky – has unfortunate side-effects (hangover) for which Irn Bru is widely thought to be a sovereign cure.

And it does contain iron – at least as a compound – in the form of ammonium ferric citrate.

Here is their parody of The Snowman, which showcases some iconic Scottish landscape features. It’s just a pity the boy treble doesn’t manage to roll the “r” in Irn enough. (I’m not sure he rolls it at all, in fact.)

Irn Bru: The Snowman

The Angels’€™ Share

Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions and Wild Bunch. Directed by Ken Loach.

I saw this on one of my occasional jaunts to the local part-time cinema, which is a theatre most of the time.

This apparently won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

This reminded me a lot of Christopher Brookmyre’s books. Comedy is mixed in with violence but here the violence isn’€™t overplayed. It starts off with a very funny scene set on a railway platform where a remote Station Master berates a drunken would-be passenger over the tannoy to stand back as there’€™s a train coming. The bemused recipient of this warning behaves as you might expect but it‒s very well played. This character, Albert, is the butt of a lot of the humour in the film as he is presented as incredibly thick.

The plot revolves around a group of four convicts on community pay-back sentences being introduced to the arcane delights of whisky tasting by their overseer, Harry, a somewhat unbelievably sympathetic character. One of their number, Robbie, has just become a father and wishes to leave behind his life of brushes with the law and make a stable home for his girlfriend and child. He turns out to have an excellent nose for whisky and hatches a scheme to (ahem) spirit away – the angels’€™ share is a whisky industry term for the portion of a barrel which evaporates between it being laid down and finally tapped off so the phrase seems apposite – some of a recently discovered barrel of an extremely rare and well regarded whisky.

The movie does trade a lot in Scottish cliché – whisky, kilts, Irn Bru, violence -€“ but is very entertaining. A knowledge of West of Scotland demotic and a tolerance for expletives are necessary for full appreciation, though.

End of Year Revelries?

Well. I’ve got some shortbread in (thanks to son no. 1) and I bought a cherry cake. Also on the table will be some cider for the good lady, beer and Irn Bru – my favourite advert for which remains this one:-

Hogmanay’s all sorted then.

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