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King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

Michael Joseph, 1982, 725 p, plus ii p frontispiece showing the lineage of Kings of Scotland (Alba) and Northumbria, ii p backispiece (I apologise for the coinage) of rulers of Orkney, Norway, Normandy and England, iii p maps of mid Europe in the 11th century, Alba (Scotland) and Northern England in AD 1050, and of the Orkney islands and Caithness of AD 1050, and ii p lineage of Danish and Norwegian rulers.

The sparseness of the historical record for Scotland in the Dark Ages leaves something of a blank canvas for the novelist to exploit. In Dunnett’s account of the life of Macbeth MacFinlay (whom Shakespeare portrayed as a villain) she has chosen to fill that canvas by conflating him with a certain Earl Thorfinn of Orkney. (See here.)

In Dunnett’s version, Thorfinn (in the book he is rarely referred to by his Christian baptismal name of Macbeth,) although the grandson of King Malcolm II is more proud of his Orcadian heritage than his Scottish one and keener for that to be passed on to his own sons, to whom he gives Norse names.

He is not the only character to have more than one name. His wife was born in Norway as Ingibjorg Arnason, has the baptismal name Margaret but is known to him as Groa (and in Gaelic as Gruoch.) Aged fourteen she was forced into marriage to a middle-aged Mormaer of Moray, Gillacomghain, who had killed Finnlaech, our hero Thorfinn’s stepfather. When Thorfinn in his turn killed Gillacomghain to regain his lands of Moray he married the widow.

Such was life for high-born women in the Dark Ages; destined only to cement alliances and to breed. (Spoiler alert [Really? Are the outlines of the story not well-known?]: she was to suffer a similar fate when Thorfinn is killed by the man who became Malcolm III who also made her his wife.)

This was the time when the Norse kingdoms had only recently become (at least nominally) Christian and a fair bit of the narrative deals with the merits of the Celtic as opposed to the Roman Church in particular as Thorfinn is trying to unify the Kingdom of Alba’s only loosely held regions of Fife, Angus, Buchan, Caithness etc. Though Thorfin has some sway in Galloway (and Cumbria plus alliances with Ireland) the Lothians were territory disputed with Northumbria. England’s regions (Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia) likewise owed allegiance to one king but their rulers had ambitions of their own.

The novel’s main attention, though, is given to Thorfinn’s Scottish lands and those in Orkney but ranges widely over the Northern Europe of the time and has mentions of King Stephen of Hungary. Thorfinn even makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek the Pope’s imprimatur. In his youth he had spent some time in the English court of King Canute whose wife Emma (another who had been taken as a wife by her first’s successor,) after her second husband’s death still has her matrilineal fingers spread across England and Normandy.

At times, then, the book reads more like a historical account than a novel. Shifting alliances and manoeuvrings make up most of the intrigue with the interests of the Godwinsson family and William the Bastard of Normandy (which would eventually collide at the Battle of Hastings) begin to loom large towards the book’s end.

King Hereafter can be seen as one of many attempts to rescue the historical Macbeth from the obloquy to which Shakespeare consigned him.

His periglour Sulien here says to him, “‘Men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people. …. The name each man leaves is a small thing compared with the mark he puts on the world.’”

The book is long, with fairly small print, and paints Thorfinn and Groa’s relationship sympathetically and humanly but also serves as a primer on late 11th century history.

Pedant’s corner:- dwarved (dwarfed,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) unfocussed (unfocused,) aureoles (areolas- or areolae,) chorussed (chorused?) pleat (it was hair, so ‘plait’,) basalm (balsam,)

The Puritans by Guy McCrone

Black & White, 221 p. In Wax Fruit, 1993. First published in 1947.

This is the continuing chronicle of the Moorhouse family (from Antimacassar City and The Philistines) who have risen from a farmhouse in Ayrshire to prosperity in Victorian Glasgow, though much of the tale in this one is set in Vienna. The focus is on the relationship between Phoebe, the youngest Moorhouse, and Henry Hayburn who had become engaged towards the end of The Philistines even though he and his family had lost their money in the crash of the City Bank of Glasgow.

Suitable work for Henry being scarce he takes the opportunity presented by Maximilian Hirsch to oversee the setting up of a factory in Vienna to produce new agricultural machinery. First he travels there alone and lodges with the Klem family in a less salubrious part of the city but comes back to marry Phoebe and take her there. They take to the life in Vienna so much that they can laugh at their lack of guilt at availing themselves of the pleasure-grounds in the Prater in Vienna on a Sunday. Henry has few outlets beyond his work but Phoebe makes friends with Hirsch’s maiden aunts.

However, Aunt Bell back in Glasgow is displeased when Phoebe decides she will have the baby she is now expecting in Vienna and intrigues to have her come to Glasgow for the birth – with tragic consequences.

The writing in these tales never rises above the workmanlike. Too much is told not shown. Before Henry ever reaches Vienna the introduction to the narrative of Sepi Klem only ever portends one outcome. She performs much the same function in complicating our main characters’ lives as Lucy Rennie did in The Philistines. I note that – again like Lucy – she is a singer (though in Sepi’s case an aspiring one to begin with) a potential career of which her parents disapprove, wishing her to marry safe bank clerk Willi Pommer. Her flightiness is highlighted by her leaving home without explanation not long after Phoebe arrives in Vienna.

Her return months later allows McCrone to further contrast life in Austria and Scotland by expressing Herny’s internal discomfort of the Klem family’s display of emotion in his origins; coming “from an Island where the show of feeling is counted as weakness.”

The Wax Fruit trilogy is not great literature by any means but it is quick and easy to read.

Pedant’s corner:- “doing it’s best” (its best,) “slid them over over the stanchions of the pier” (has one ‘over’ too many,) “whether Sir Charles was pleased or sorry about his, Henry could not discover” (about this,) hoofs (in my youth the plural of hoof was always hooves,) “He took of his hat” (off,) Island (this was not a proper noun; ‘island’,) “for her seriously to flaunt Bel” (to flout Bel,) “the Hirschs’ landau” (the Hirsches’ landau,) bouganvilia (bouganvillea.) “‘But what’s wrong?’ She asked.” (But what’s wrong?’ she asked.”)

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Weidenfeld & Nicolson Essentials, 2021, 212p, plus vi p Introduction by Maggie O’Farrell First published 1991.

From the outset we know where this tale of growing up as a misfit is going; Barker shows us in her prelude, titled Janet. This is not foreshadowing as such – it goes beyond prolepsis even – but it does set up an intriguing question. Why will what Barker tells us happened, happen? Why was Janet’s misadventure so easily glossed over? What was it about her that made her dismissable? But this is arguably fairer on the reader than Kate Atkinson’s revelation in A God in Ruins which turned upside down what we thought we had learned in all its pages up to that point.

Some reviewers have observed similarities to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (written much earlier than O Caledonia) but the characters of Cassandra Mortain and Janet are very different and Barker is a much subtler writer but I did wonder while I was reading O Caledonia if Kate Atkinson was familiar with Barker’s novel. I found the weird incidents of Janet’s childhood oddly similar to the manifold earlier days of Ursula Todd in Life After Life; there were perhaps even greater similarities to Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (from 1995.) Still, it allows Barker the acid observation “The subject was closed in favour of the living, who offer continuous material for persecution.”

Janet is a child in wartime living in the manse inhabited by her grandfather and subject to many an admonitory sermon. Scotland’s religious heritage, though never pushed, is an intermittent drum beat through the book as in, “At this time there were many Polish officers in the village. The Marine hotel had been requisitioned for them. They were popular with the lonely girls and the more flighty wives, so that after the war some stayed on and married, while others left behind girls who were even lonelier now, alone with tiny children in the unrelenting chill of a Calvinist world.” (This sort of memory of Polish soldiers was familiar to me from the tales told by an acquaintance who had lived in Kelso during the Second World War.) Barker also has Janet remark, “There seemed no place for gallantry and romance among Calvinists,” and, in a particularly self-flagellating moment “the nature of Caledonia was a pitiless nature and her own was no better.” That it had unintended effects is illlustrated by a passage wherein nannies asked children if they had done what they should today (ie moved their bowels) and unwittingly unleashed dissembling- “a horde of artful dodgers on the world.”

It is when the family inherits Auchnashaugh, a crumbling pile in the Highlands, that Janet’s alienation blossoms. She resents her younger siblings, fails to comprehend adult concerns or live up to their expectations and when older retreats into books, having an appetite for things beyond her age, Latin and Greek tags and the like. Her experience is summed up by Proust’s phrase ‘l’étouffoir familial’ the family suffocation chamber. Of how many sensitive souls has that been true.

She similarly fails to fit in at St Uncumba’s, the boarding school she is sent to far south in England where her distaste for, and inability at, games and liking for literature are mocked. Until she learns to dissemble.

The signal feature of her otherness is her adoption of a not yet fledged jackdaw whom she names Claws and who is her constant companion at Auchnashaugh.

O Caledonia is far too little known for a book so accomplished. How it did not get onto the list of 100 best Scottish books is beyond me. Perhaps its reissue far too late (2021) could explain it.

Pedant’s corner:- The young Janet sees the beam of a lighthouse sweep her bedroom (but this was in wartime; the lighthouses were switched off as part of the blackout precautions,) “she sucked a vengeful Pandrop” (a pan drop,) “the baby prone within” (the baby supine is more likely,) “golden rod” (goldenrod,) “je men fous” (je m’en fous,) “Miss Wales’ grizzled hair” (Wales’s,) “the gaping maw of the furnace” (stomachs do not gape,) standing in a great Victorian cemetery in Glasgow for her grandfather’s funeral (at that time in Scotland women did not go to interments, still less children,) clipe (usually spelled clype,) “Sir Patrick Spens’ lords (Spens’s,) Sawney Bean is said to have carried out his cannibalistic activities on the Aberdeenshire coast (most accounts put this legendary tale in Ayrshire,) “True Thomas’ faery queen” (Thomas’s,) “Euripides’ Medea” (Euripides’s,) “Barr’s Iron Brew” (the proprietary name is Irn Bru,) “came Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “the war memorial” (War Memorial – used later,) “‘a wee Doc and Doris afore ye gang awa’!’” (usually spelled Deoch-an-Doris,) Kiichen (a manuscript misreading of Küchen?) “Watt and Grants” (Watt and Grant’s,) swop (swap,) “Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “she was couched out there” (crouched makes more sense,) “Propertius’ poem” (Propertius’s,) “Tiresias’ description” (Tiresias’s) “Claws’ residence” (Claws’s,) “jeune jille” (jeune fille,) “passage from the Georgies” (the Georgics that would be,) “Orpheus’ final loss” (Orpheus’s.)

Fishnet by Kirstin Innes

Black & White, 2018, 345 p.

I read and reviewed Innes’s second novel Scabby Queen two years ago. Fishnet was her first novel and her expertise as a writer is evident from the start.

Six years after her sister, Rona, had disappeared, Fiona Leonard learns that Rona had been making her living as a prostitute. This sends Fiona anew into a search for Rona, trying to track her down, to contact people from Rona’s past, a search complicated by having daughter Bethan to worry about, and an office job as a filing clerk to maintain. In the end her search becomes a quest into the sex industry, what leads people to that line of work, how they feel about it.

The text is interspersed with extracts from prostitutes’ blogs, their online adverts and a few client’s comments on rating sites. Most (though not all) of the clients only want what these adverts call the “girlfriend experience” – vanilla sex, a kiss and a cuddle, a sympathetic ear.

A few passages towards the start and end of the book give us some of Rona’s experiences in her own words.

It is all extremely well written with rounded characters – nobody here is a stereotype, all impress as living, breathing humans.

As Fiona delves deeper into the culture of the sex industry the book almost by default makes the case for better understanding of the nature of such work, that attitudes to prostitution, the perception of it as something to be deplored and whose workers need rescuing from it, comes from a deep-rooted (and no doubt patriarchal) sense that women don’t – indeed can’t – like sex, that those who sell it have no choice in the matter and are necessarily being exploited. A prostitute calling herself Sonja tells Fiona, “‘What people call “the sex industry” is not always, not completely, a bad thing. That just because a person sells their sexual skills, it does not mean that their life is – bam! – forever ruined.’” (Sonja is herself engaged to a man who knows what her line of work is and is not much troubled by it, and later they get married.)

However, the women Fiona meets and talks to are by and large not “street girls” nor those who have been trafficked for the purpose. Instead, they work for themselves, from home (incalls) or occasionally in clients’ hotel rooms (outcalls,) in what might be called the more salubrious end of the sex industry. They also tend to look out for each other. I idly wondered if all sex work became more like this, as well as not being criminalised nor kept under the carpet, would there even be an insalubrious aspect of it?

Innes’s extensive research is nevertheless worn lightly, the knowledge she imparts about the sex industry is unfolded organically, never gratuitously. The story within Fishnet is compelling and its telling assured.

Pedant’s corner:- “In a dumpster” (this is not a Scottish – nor British – usage,) “shrunk away” (shrank away,) a missing quote mark at the start of a piece of dialogue, “fresh air kniving my skin” (knifing my skin,) “I take fulsome, competent notes” (the context was not one of unnecessary, over the top, praise, or oleaginous [which is what fulsome means,] but of excessive attention to detail,) “pyjamed limbs” (pyjama’d limbs,) shrunk (shrank.)


Antimacassar City by Guy McCrone

Black &White, 1993, 208 p. In Wax Fruit. First published 1947.

Wax Fruit is  atrilogy of novels set in the  glasgow of the late nineteenth century. Antimacassar City is the first in the sequence.

We are dealing with the saga of the Moorhouse family, originating from an Ayrshire farm in the mid-1800s, though the setting is mainly Glasgow in the 1870s. The youngest Moorhouse, Phoebe, is the result of her father’s second marriage, to a Highland woman, and the book’s first scene describes the night she was orphaned by an accident. Phoebe is portrayed as a restrained, self-possessed girl and, later, young woman. Her older (half)-brother Mungo is the only one of the family left at the farm, the others have moved to Glasgow and are going up in the world. Her brother Arthur’s wife Bel determines to take her in, even though she is expecting their first child.

Phoebe takes a sisterly interest in the child, Arthur, when he is born. A few years later a maid, taking a shortcut home from a visit to his grandmother, loses him in a slum area when distracted by her sister’s presence there. On her own initiative and though still a child Phoebe sets out to find him, braving the shocking – and frightening – conditions of the overcrowded slums, and earns Bel’s everlasting gratitude for his rescue. McCrone’s attitude to the slum dwellers, couched through the middle-class values of the upwardly mobile Moorhouses, is disparaging and dismissive. They are depicted as depraved and dissolute; there is, it seems, nothing to redeem them.

The rest of the book deals mainly with Bel’s attempts to persuade her husband to move out of the city centre to the more salubrious West End and Mungo’s surprising attractiveness to Miss Ruanthorpe of Duntrafford, the local Big House in Ayrshire.

Henry Hayburn, tongue-tied except when enthusing about steam engines and engineering and a friend of another of Phoebe’s brothers, develops on sight a yearning for her. She is less enthusiastic but his family’s exposure to ruin in the collapse of the City Bank of Glasgow brings out her protective side.

The prose here is efficient but fails to spark. Elements of this are a bit like the works of Margaret Thompson Davis (though of course McCrone was published much earlier) but Davis’s attitude to the poor was more empathetic. But she was portraying the honourable poor.

As a cursory representation of Glasgow (a certain echelon of Glasgow) in the mid-Victorian age this is a good enough primer. Literature, though, it is not.

I still have two instalments to go. Maybe it will improve.

Pedant’s corner:- “Gilmour Hill”, “Kelvin Bridge” (1870s designations? now Gilmourhill and Kelvinbridge,) “‘you’ll can move out to the West’” (‘you’ll move out to the West’ or ‘you can move out to the West’,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech. “‘What way, can she not stay at the farm?’” (no need for that comma, it’s not two phrases,) “begging at he door” (at the door.) “Had she been unhappy here she was?” (where she was.) “Sophia as only too prompt” (was only too prompt,) missing quote marks around one piece of speech, “she turned way” (turned away,) “a coil of barbed wire lying rusty and hidden” (Barbed wire was only invented in 1873. There would hardly have been time for it to have been used on an Ayrshire estate and left to rust.)


The Oath Takers by Naomi Mitchison

Balnain Books, 1991, 174 p. With illustrations by Barbara Robertson.

Almost the last novel Mitchison wrote, this is set in the Frankish Empire a few years after the death of Charlemagne. Narrator Drogo is the son of a Lord who owes his fealty to the new King Louis but he is not close to his father. His true influences are his confessors at the local Abbey, where he has learned the noble speech, Latin. His is a world dominated by Christian belief, of God’s Empire, Holy Roman, under an anointed King. A world where oaths are not merely a solemn undertaking, but sacred.

So it is that his father is troubled when he is called to take the oath, not to the King himself but, in his name, to the Count of Paris. Yet the words will be personal. Wriggling on the hooks of conscience will be required if, as the Count seems to presage, he begins to act against the King.

Other important characters in Drogo’s young life are his half-brother Haimo (got on the wrong side of the blanket) and Wolfin, a Saxon hostage whom they meet in Paris. Their first taste of battle comes when Vikings make a raid up the River Seine – a diversion which at least puts off the dread day of oath-taking. Drogo acquits himself well but Wolfin is killed.

In the aftermath Drogo becomes part of a band of swords for hire – all but brigands -stravaiging about the lands of what is now southern France, the agitation of his soul mounting, while waiting for the chance to deliver a letter from his Abbot to one in the monastery of Gellone. While there Dhuoda, the local Lady, asks to see him. She has a task; for him to deliver a letter to her childhood friend, now in Cordoba, in the Saracen lands,  a thought which almost appals Drogo. Yet his confusion at the acceptance he finds there will add to his experiences as he grows into knowing who he is.

In this slim volume, a minor work by any standard, Mitchison has delved into the mediæval Christian mindset, as dogmatic as any, and still shone a light on the deep roots of some of today’s antagonisms.

Pedant’s corner:- waggon (wagon,) Charles’ (Charles’s,) Gomez’ (Gomez’s.)

Something Like Happy by John Burnside

Vintage, 2014, 253 p.

Like all Burnside’s prose this collection is exquisitely written. The best word to describe the effect he produces is, perhaps, liminal. The places where his stories are set are familiar, recognisable as the real world, but also strange, somewhat askew.

Something Like Happy is the tale of two siblings, Stan and Arthur McKechnie, as told by Fiona the sister of Stan’s girl-friend, Marie. The McKechnies are infamous in the town (a source of friction between Marie and her parents) but Arthur, whom Fiona only knows of through her work at the bank, is the quiet one of the family with his own strange ways. Occasionally he borrows stuff from Stan without permission.

Slut’s Hair is apparently the name for the stuff which gathers in dark corners where nobody has cleaned. Here a woman with an overbearing husband who has just removed one of her teeth with pliers since the dentist will be too expensive discovers some when she thinks it is a mouse. Her husband will not be pleased either way.

Peach Melba is the delicacy prepared for the narrator in his youth by the mysterious female owner of the House of Ice-Cream on the day that has haunted him for the rest of his life.

Sunburn is narrated by a man who, possibly due to an incident in his adolescence, cannot help every year on the first day of summer going out into the sun and falling asleep.

The title of Perfect and Private Things is taken from a poem ‘The Smiles of the Bathers’ by Walden Kees. The tale is of a not happily married woman lecturer, “She had learned long ago that matrimony was not so much the occasion of romantic desire as its final, and inescapable, cure,” whose annual ritual of sending flowers anonymously to one of her students is, this year, tainted by the presence in the pub where she has a drink after visiting the florist of a group of students.

Godwit relates how Jamie’s mate Fat Stan, goes off the rails after Jamie prefers to spend time with a girl rather than him, which is an extremely reductive description of a thoughtful, finely wrought story.

The Bell-Ringer is narrated by another woman in a becalmed marriage. From a Slovakian background (with family in unmarked graves, presumably Holocaust victims) she lives in her husband’s family home and finds it unsettling, imagining the ears of listeners from times past. Her unease with life is assuaged a little by taking up bell-ringing at the local church but crystallises when her sister-in-law reveals she is having an affair.

The Deer Larder updates the ghost/fairy story for the internet age. The narrator suffers from iritis and after a day of treatment receives an email – apparently by mistake – from someone called Martin trying to entice a former lover back. Its mention of Maupassant bypasses him at first but subsequent emails draw him into wondering if he is being tantalised by an author relating Martin’s experiences. The emails stop but the story doesn’t.

The Cold Outside is what a man who has just had a diagnosis of terminal cancer and regretting the distance (physical and emotional) between his wife and his daughter feels he has more in common with than his everyday life.

In A Winter’s Tale a young lad left in temporary charge of a junk shop one afternoon brightens the place up with Christmas decorations before being rudely interrupted.

Lost Someone describes an incident from earlier story Godwit from another viewpoint. The incident, when it comes, is bewildering to the narrator but not the reader.

In Roccolo a woman on the Amalfi coast makes it her project every year to initiate a young boy holidaying in her Father’s villa complex into her strange activities with birds in the roccolo.

The Future of Snow features a policeman looking out for a wandering man whose wife died in the snow a couple of Christmases ago. She apparently mistook the day of a clandestine meeting with the policeman and slipped and fell off the path.

Pedant’s corner:- Mathers’ (Mathers’s,) semester (the British usage is term,) staunch (stanch.)

A Would-Be Saint by Robin Jenkins

B&W Publishing, 1994, 233 p.

Despite the impression that might be given by the front cover the would-be saint in question is not an aspirant to play football in the colours of either Paisley’s or Perth’s best known football teams (or, given the story’s setting in time, even at The Gymnasium) but is instead one Gavin Hamilton, who at first seems a fairly normal lad growing up in the village of Auchengillan. We are shown Gavin’s immersion in village life through the lens of the Great War where his father is off fighting. The tone of the writing in these early chapters portends his father’s inevitable death. All Gavin’s young life he has had no contact with his father’s parents due to some dispute that occurred before he was born but his grandmother introduces herself to him one day in the street, a fact he instantly knows he must conceal from his mother.

In the post-war years Gavin secures a scholarship to Cadzow Academy which creates a barrier with his contemporaries as they shy away from his now perceived difference. At the Academy he forms a friendship with a lad called McIntyre from the intervening town of Lendrick whom he meets on the bus taking him there on his first day. Apart from McIntyre the only other pupil who has time for him is Rachel Hallad, whose father is a writer. However, McIntyre’s father is ill and not long for the world.

When McIntyre has to leave, Jenkins gives us a reflection of that stoicism instilled by the lads’ background and times. “If they had been men they would have shaken hands, if they had been girls or women they would have embraced or kissed cheeks. Being boys, and Scottish boys at that, they nodded, smiled, and turned away.”

Gavin’s life trajectory is changed again when his mother also dies. His grandmother and grandfather come to look after him and he is immediately removed from the Academy as his grandmother thinks folks like them should not get above themselves, (grandfather doesn’t get a say,) so instead of University and perhaps a teaching career he ends up with a job with a solicitor in Lendrick.

Gavin is graced by his talent as a footballer and his involvement with the Church. As right half for Lendrick Rangers he helps them win the Junior Cup which brings to the town much needed glory a time of joblessness in the 1930s. He takes the opposition’s buffetings with equanimity and never retaliates. He is clean living (his prospective fiancée Julia, the solicitor’s daughter, is frustrated by his lack of interest in physical matters) as opposed to the team’s other stalwart the notoriously dissolute Grunter Houliston, whose resolute displays meant there was “no necessary connection between a man’s private morals and his public performance, whether as a footballer, a clergyman, or a politician.”

It is when the Second World War comes, though, that Gavin’s real difference shows itself. Kind to a fault, his beliefs mean that he decides he must become a conscientious objector. The relevant Board sends him to work in forestry in the far west of Scotland. Those who live locally do not much take to having conchies nearby but again Gavin shows his indifference to other’s ideas and again shows his prowess in a football match arranged between the forestry workers and the villagers. Even here, though, Gavin is as strange to most of the men he works with as with his fellow villagers in Auchengillan.

The early parts of the book – and not just the football aspect – reminded me of the same author’s The Thistle and the Grail, (some of the incidents have close similarities,) while the forestry scenes echoed The Cone Gatherers. Its structure is made oddly bifurcated by the two settings (village and forestry) but all the characters ring true and come to life on the page. As a depiction of rural Scottish life in the mid part of the twentieth century and of a man apart, A Would-Be Saint is excellent.

Pedant’s corner:- bannister (banister,) Iron Brew (did Jenkins not wish to use the brand name, Irn Bru?) “Mind you ain fucking business” (your ain,) ice-flow (ice-floe.)

Paper Cup by Karen Campbell

Canongate, 2022, 334 p.

I was inspired to read this book by a very complimentary review it received in The Guardian several months ago. Having now done so I can only concur with that assessment. Campbell writes very well. There are no undue frills to her prose – perhaps as a result of her history as an author of crime novels – but she communicates effectively and insightfully.

The protagonist is Kelly, a woman very down on her luck and with an acute alcohol dependency problem. She is stumbled on in George Square, Glasgow, by an inebriated hen party (in my young day that sort of enterprise was known as a bottlin’ – not a word I ever expected to write in a review.) The bride-to-be takes pity on Kelly and hands her the bag of pound coins she had collected in return for granting a kiss to each man the party had encountered that night. The future bride also inadvertently leaves behind her engagement ring, which Kelly picks up along with the information the bride is from Gatehouse (of Fleet,) a location Kelly knows well as she was brought up in (relatively) nearby Kircudbright. A bag of money not being the thing to donate to an alcoholic, Kelly of course buys drink with it.

The next day Kelly witnesses a gruesome bus accident in Royal Exchange Square where several people are injured. She uses her coat – manky though it was – to try to stanch the bleeding of a man who had all but ignored her on the steps of the Gallery of Modern Art, quitting the scene before the authorities arrive.

At the drop-in centre which he runs Kelly relates her experiences to Dexy, who has a soft spot for her, before she decides to leave Glasgow at least for a while, accepting a lift south from lorry-driver Craig, and maybe try to return the engagement ring. On the journey, Kelly’s thoughtfulness is revealed through her conversation with Craig. But she is still skittish and does not want to rely on others, alighting at Portpatrick where she spends the night in a disused lighthouse with Critall windows. An encounter with a group of US religious types plying her with leaflets gives her the idea of following the Pilgrim Trail through Galloway. The locations she passes through – Glenluce Abbey, St Ninian’s Cave, the Isle of Whithorn, Wigtown – were all made more redolent for me by the fact I have visited them. (As indeed I have Gatehouse and Kircudbright.) On the way she rescues from a barn a mistreated puppy she calls Collie(-flower) which becomes her bosom companion.

In her absence Kelly has become a minor heroine in Glasgow due to journalist Jennifer Patience publishing her act of compassion, identifying her from a photo taken after the accident when Kelly was coming to the man’s aid. This leads to her occasionally being recognised by minor characters whose interest in her she believes is occasioned by her taking Collie from its owner.

The book is not quite entirely seen from Kelly’s angle. Jennifer, Craig and Dexy all have a few passages related from their viewpoints. However, this is Kelly’s story, the salient points of Kelly’s life recalled by her in italicised passages relating her childhood closeness to her sister Amanda, her journey into alcoholism (with few sober interludes) and the trigger for her descent, a drunken mistake which led to her imprisonment for two years. The travails of being part of the benefits system, the series of Catches-22 which she endured, the all-but impossibility of getting out of the traps of joblessness and homelessness are starkly laid out by Campbell.

This might have been a bleak novel but Campbell’s insight into Kelly’s situation, her illumination of Kelly’s humanity, lift it out of thoughts of despair. The cruelties of her world are also lessened by Kelly’s fortitude (despite her lapses,) her caring for Collie, her determination to return the ring and the frequent kindness of strangers.

If the book has a weakness it is perhaps the dénœument, where reconciliation and redemption are possibly achieved a little too easily. As an account of a life on the margins, though, it is excellent.

Pedant’s corner:- “A skein of oncoming motorbikes blare past” (a skein … blares past.) Midgies (Midges,) “staining the glass with colour though it is clear” (implies coloured glass isn’t clear. If you can see through it, the it is clear – whatever colour it is,) Darren Carruthers’ (Carruthers’s.) “‘It’s a wee big snug’” (a wee bit snug,) “the Ettrick Shepherd” (usually the Shepherd bit is capitalised too,) “a row of small cups and saucers line a shelf” (a row … lines a shelf,) “a slab of cod, crisp and golden” (cod? In a Scottish chippie? Haddock is the usual fare,) “she has no clue where, or what time, or where” ( don’t know why where is repeated,) a missing end quote mark when a piece of dialogue is interrupted by description (x 1,) crenulations (crennellations.)

Hieroglyphics by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2004, 173 p.

This is a fine collection of short stories by the author, whose novels Buddha Da, Gone Are the Leaves and Being Emily I enjoyed immensely. As a glance at the titles shows, most of the stories here are written in very broad Glasgow dialect.

Title story Hieroglyphics is narrated by Mary, a schoolgirl who cannot read nor write because all she sees is the letters “diddlin aboot.” Inspired by her knowledge of Egyptians her class studied in Primary School she can however express herself using pictograms.
Clare, the narrator of All That Glisters, is also a schoolgirl. Her father is bedridden from asbestosis but she brightens his life with a Christmas card she made for him using glitter pens. The ending is bitter sweet.
The Ice Horse is a rocking horse kept in the cold shed at Anna’s grandfather’s home. Her dearest wish is to look into its un-ice-covered eyes.
Virtual Pals is in the form of an exchange of emails between Siobhan and Irina. The latter was supposed to live in Shetland but her replies are emailed from Jupiter. This gives Donovan the opportunity to comment on the mores of young teenage life in Glasgow.
In Dear Santa another young girl who feels her younger sister is her parents’ favourite swithers about asking Santa for what she really wants for Christmas.
Wanny the Lassies is the tale of a schoolgirl causing problems for her male teacher through an essay indicating he had inappropriate relations with her.
A Chitterin Bite draws a parallel between the betrayal of a young girl by the friend she goes swimming with who drops her by taking up with a boy, to her later affair with a married man.
Me and the Babbie tells of the intense bond a mother feels with her new-born son.
In Away in a Manger a mother and her child go to see the Christmas Lights in Glasgow’s George Square. Both are shocked to see a homeless man in the background of the nativity tableau.
The Doll’s House her father made for her is being decorated by a mother for her son.
While out Brambling a woman and her child get lost.
A mature student takes some children for drama classes in The Workshop. It brings her into close contact with their male teacher.
Marking Time tells of a South European immigrant to Glasgow who remembers his time sweeping the beach of his home town when news of a bequest reaches him.
A Ringin Frost is the story of a woman whose husband is the only person who can warm her cold heart.
In A Change of Hert a woman searches for the reason why her husband’s preferences have changed after his heart transplant.
Dindy is told in short paragraphs illustrating fragments of memory.
Loast is narrated by an unmarried woman losing in old age her memory for words.
Zimmerobics is the bright idea of a young woman to lighten the existence of people in an old folks’ home.

Pedant’s corner:- “chitterin bite” (usually spelled chittery bite,) “aware that this eyes scan the room” (his eyes,) “painted the it coral pink” (no ‘the’ needed,) “round the the cars” (has a ‘the’ too many.)

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