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This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan

An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986

Faber and Faber, 2017, 302 p.

 This Is Memorial Device cover

To say this is an imaginary history of the music scene in the Airdrie area in the post-Punk era would be true. It would also be a bit like saying War and Peace is about domestic affairs in Moscow during the Napoleonic era. It is a picture of Airdrie and its music at the time but is also much more. The line on the back cover (also found in the text) “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” stands in for all those towns in the West of Scotland – and I dare say beyond – where expectations were/are crabbed, hopes frustrated, ambitions crushed – and all before the attempts to overcome that deficit were made. “… back then anything seemed possible, … back then being … the glory years. ….But really that would be untrue because back then everything seemed impossible.”

The text is made up of twenty-six different reminiscences, interviews, letters, conversations, emails, transcripts of telephone calls (in other words various forms of device encapsulating memory) from people either involved in or connected, however tangentially, to the legendary band around which the novel revolves, a band which captured the sound of Airdrie. But, “The thing about Memorial Device was that you always had the feeling that it was their last gig ever, like they could fall apart at any moment.”

Keenan’s tale builds up as a mosaic of all these contributions. (Among them is a wonderful rant about the extreme shortcomings of Kilmarnock as a town which is all the funnier for being written by someone from Airdrie.) Keenan is himself using the mosaic as a device for chronicling life in a Scottish industrial town in the mid-1980s. In the book’s first line the supposed assembler of these testimonials – one Ross Raymond – tells us that in compiling the book he “did it for Airdrie.” He “did it because later on everyone went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs.” Because then, of those crushed hopes, those impossible dreams, because of the compromises people make with their younger selves as they grow older. If you like, this is Albert Hammond’s Free Electric Band in reverse. But what a glorious reversal it is. The line, “I would talk about the new groups and encourage people to drop out and go see the world, all the while living at my mum’s house in Airdrie,” sums up the contrast between the aspiration and the reality.

The conceit that this is an actual set of true reminiscences is bolstered by no less than four Appendices: A; a Memorial Device Discography (- self explanatory,) B; A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 – relating the interconnections between the various bands mentioned in the book (the names of the wheelchair bound members of the group calling themselves The Spazzers are brilliant,) C; This is Memorial Device (- short descriptions of the characters in the book,) and D; A Navigational Aid (ie an index.)

There are some longueurs but Keenan ventriloquises the voices of his “contributors” well; each of the twenty-six chapters is internally consistent. (One is excessively fond of brackets.) Another, in a vigorous West of Scotland demotic – the only piece that isn’t rendered in a kind of “standard” English – explores philosophy, “ma existence wus closer tae a state o suspended animation, a series a frozen gestures caught between the impossibility uv the future and the improbability uv the past,” creativity, “Ah became obsessed wae the idea o automating, o inventing a form o music that wid play itsel and wid form its inspiration fae itsel … a form o spontaneous birth that held within itsel the DNA that wid facilitate endless versions and restatements o itsel,” and a disquisition on the amniotic night, “wur just seeing things the wrang way roon, the fervent dream that we ur, but then I began to see the dream as a computation, the specifics o the dream as distinct variables what could be slotted intae reality, as intae a circuit board that would then send the whole thing aff on a different trajectory althegether.” A third asks of The Who, “Has there ever been a more depressing vaudeville take on rock n roll to this day?” The personal interests the contributions reveal are many and varied. I particularly enjoyed the aside on the lack of merit of a certain translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Michael Karpelson’s) as compared to another (that of Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor.) Others celebrate their existence, “thank God we have many headcases in Scotland, many headcases in Airdrie,” others their universality, “We all live out our unhappiness on different scales,” a metaphor which manages to be both dimensional and musical.

Then we have, “I had grown up in the sternest, most backwards, illiterate, repressed motherfucking viper pit in the west of Scotland.” (There’s competition for that title I can assure you.) “I fell in with the music scene. The art scene was up itself. The fashion scene was vacuous. The book scene was going on behind closed doors.” (The book scene always does.) “You have to understand that when you’re talking about a local scene you’re talking about an international scene in microcosm….It fostered belief. It encouraged you to take the music and lifestyle at its word.” An invitation to disappointment.

Though there is not really much about music in it (music and its emotional effects are of course notoriously difficult to describe in prose) This is Memorial Device is by turns funny, mordant, poignant, profound and elegiac; an attempt to convey the elusive. It is a hymn to music and youth, a threnody for the passing of time, a celebration of a spirit as relevant to the world as it is to Airdrie – and Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- burglarising (the book is not set in the US. The word is burgling,) ass (ditto, the British usage is arse,) lip-syncers (lip-synchers surely?) “the first summer after I graduated from high school” (there is no graduation ceremony in Scottish schools and therefore no graduating; if they are old enough and wish to leave pupils just get their teachers to sign their leavers’ forms – and go,) a wee tin solider (soldier methinks,) no siree (sirree,) ambiances (ambiences.)

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Harvill, 1996, 302 p. Translated from the Russian Белая гвардия, (Belaja gvardija, first published in 1925,) by Michael Glenny.

The White Guard cover

There is a sense in which – like Tolstoy’s happy families – all Russian novels are alike. A blizzard of polysyllabic names potentially confusingly embellished with the corresponding patronymics not to mention the seemingly obligatory diminutives, with always a sense of foreboding in the background, if not the foreground. You certainly don’t turn to them for sweetness and light. Then again, love, sex and death are the wider novel’s perennial preoccupations.

To be sure there isn’t much focus on love in The White Guard, no sex at all, and I can recall only three actual deaths described in the text; but the prospect of death hangs over everything. Here there can be, too, as I also noticed when reading War and Peace, a sudden lurching through time from a particular chapter to the next. One surprising thing I discovered from it is that a Ukrainian clock seems to make the sounds tonk-tank rather than tick-tock.

The novel is set in Ukraine, in “the city” (only once identified as Kiev,) amid the turmoil that followed the 1917 revolution and centres round the affairs of the Turbin family and those who live in the same building. During the novel the city starts out under the rule of the Hetman – in whose army the male Turbins serve as officers – but is threatened by Ukrainian Nationalist forces led by Simon Petlyura; and beyond that, the Bolsheviks. The disorganisation and unpreparedness of the defending forces is well portrayed – a bit like Dad’s Army but without the laughs – and the mist of rumour and counter-rumour accompanying the situation when the city falls to Petlyura conveys the commensurate sense of febrility.

Bulgakov’s first novel and the only one to be published in the USSR in his lifetime, The White Guard is an insight into an all-but forgotten moment in an interregnum of upheaval and change and is worth reading for that alone. But a marker of the futility of it all is the thought that, “Blood is red on those deep fields and no one would redeem it. No one.”

While it has touches of the fantastic, including several dream sequences, The White Guard does not (cannot) touch the heights of the same author’s The Master and Margarita but it is well worth reading on its own terms.

Pedant’s corner:- While at the end of a piece dialogue a full stop, question mark or ellipsis is included inside the quote marks; if the sentence carries on and so requires a comma this, against the accepted practice, is almost – though not quite – invariably set after the quotation. Otherwise; the Ukraine (when first translated this usage was common, but nowadays its inhabitants prefer “Ukraine”.) “As if at by unspoken command” (“As if at”, or “As if by”, not “As if by at”,) Karas’ (Karas’s,) négligé (usually négligée,) Tubirn (Turbin,) hung (hanged, but it was in dialogue,) Toropets’ (Toropets’s.) Exct ed (????) a missing start quote mark, french window (French window,) I thought earlier on I had spotted a waggon but did not note its place (later on there were wagons,) St Nicholas’ church (St Nicholas’s.)

A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) by Mikhail Bulgakov

Translated from the Russian Театрализованное Роман (Teatralizovannoye Roman) by Andrew Bromfield. Penguin Classics, 2007, 174 p including 5 p notes: plus iv p chronology, xii p introduction by Keith Gesset, i p Further Reading and A Note on the Text ii p. First published in Novy Mir 1965. The book seems also to have been published in English in 1968 under the title Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel.

 A Dead Man’s Memoir cover

Sergei Maksudov has written a novel: but it cannot be published. All who are shown it comment unfavourably, critically or dismissively and universally tell him it won’t pass the censor. He makes an abortive suicide attempt but then is invited to a meeting with a theatre director who has read the book and wants him to turn it into a play. It is only then that Sergei’s troubles begin. Not only does he sign an onerous contract on poor terms, he has to put up with interference with the text, actors’ jealousies, a misguided director and sundry other difficulties.

A Dead Man’s Memoir is semi-autobiographical, satirising Bulgakov’s experiences in the theatrical world of Moscow. This edition’s text is annotated with references to the real-life models for various characters. There is apparently a lampooning of Stanislavsky among others. The novel, however, remained unfinished as Bulgakov began instead to put his energies into work on his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. It stops on the eve of the first performance of Maksudov’s play.

I know the roman-à-clef is a well-established form but I have reservations about it as it leads some to believe that no characters in a work of fiction are ever entirely made-up. In this instance, though, the book can also be read as an allegory of the labyrinthine workings and the absurdities of the Soviet bureaucracy but in this it is nowhere near as powerful as The Master and Margarita.

Pedant’s corner:- in the introduction; Likopastov (Likospastov.) Elsewhere: “a sturdy man with a beard by the name of Vasily Petrovich.” (I didn’t know Russians named their beards….. The translator could have avoided this ambiguity by writing “a sturdy, bearded man by the name of,”) wee cucumbers (a Scottish translation of a Russian term is unusual,) span (spun.)

10 Great Books You Didn’t Know Were Science Fiction or Fantasy

So it says here.

The ten are:-

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Stories by Karen Russell
Smilla’s Sense of Snow* by Peter Høeg
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Golden Days by Carolyn See

I’ll perhaps look out for some of these now.

*I have read this as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and as I recall the SF elements were the least convincing thing about it.

The others I haven’t read at all – but I’ve seen the film of The Tin Drum** and would have no problem with its inclusion in this list. I have read another by Bulgakov – though a glimpse of the cover of Heart of a Dog in the link would suggest that it is fantastical – and a short story by Kobo Abe.

The link shows Stories by Karen Russell variously involve girls raised by wolves, and vampires so where is the difficulty in categorisation there?

**I have since read The Tin Drum. See my review here.

Goodbye 2012

I don’t usually do end of year round-ups – mostly because most folk write theirs before Christmas and that offends my sensibilities. The year ends on 31st Dec, not before.
Whatever, I looked through all the fiction books I read this year and found twelve that stood out. In order of reading they were:-

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
the Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
D’Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey

That’s four by women and eight by men, which is a pretty high strike rate for the distaff side compared to my fiction reading as a whole, 12:45 – is that shockingly low or a reflection of publishing? Four were SF, eight not; though that ratio alters if you count the fantastical – the Lord, the Obreht, the Bulgakov, and the Crumeys which feature stories from a city made up within one of the two. Only the Robertson and the Pamuk lie wholly within the realm of the naturalistic.

I don’t propose to rank the twelve in any way.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Penguin Red Classics, 2006, 563p. Translated from the Russian, Master i Margarita, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997.

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita displays its oddness from the start. A stranger appears to two men in the Moscow district of Patriarch’s Ponds and makes predictions of weird events – including the death of one of the pair. These predictions, of course, come true; and in short order. For the stranger – accompanied by someone who appears as a large black cat – is the Devil. Thereafter we are treated to all sorts of wonderful happenings: instant transition to Yalta, various illusions disguised as fantastic stage tricks, flying witches, a man transformed into a donkey, a party at the Devil’s house.

The Master of the title is a would-be author whose novel about Pontius Pilate has been roundly trashed in the press (despite it not having been published.) Margarita – married to a man she does not love – is the Master’s mistress, resentful of the effect the novel’s reception has had on him and of those who caused it. Extracts from this novel (an account of the torment Pontius Pilate undergoes as he is forced to condemn one Yoshua Ha-Nozri – who avers that all men are good – for comments about Cæsar) are intermittently included in the larger narrative. This is an excellent piece of writing in its own right, especially the descriptions of Yershalaim (Jerusalem.) Other recognisable names here include the priest Kaifa and one Judas of Kiriath. This internal novel (whose manuscript has been burned by the master) is apparently responsible for the Russian phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” – as the Devil tells the master in the main narrative when returning it to him – but its contents intrude into the main body only twice, when Matthew Levi, Ha-Nozri’s sole follower, pops up in modern Moscow and when Pilate is finally reconciled.

Reflecting the Stalinist era in which The Master and Margarita is set there is much talk of possible arrests (some of them for foreign currency violations, though, which could be irregular in any polity) but the apprehension of the police and the necessity for secrecy are never far away.

Any work of fiction is an attempt to describe circumstances to which the reader has no other access but whether the full flavour of a novel such as The Master and Margarita is ever captured by any translation is problematic. The cultural assumptions under which it was written are always different to those of the reader. In the end, for me, the characters lacked sufficient agency as the fantastical elements of the book overpowered all the others. As a metaphor for lack of political and judicial accountability, though, violation of cause and effect is fair enough.

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