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The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside

a romance. Vintage, 2008, 221 p.

 The Devil’s Footprints  cover

This is an exquisitely written novel whose title implies that it is going to be another in that long list of Scottish works of fiction which feature an encounter with the Devil, and in one sense it is, but it is also something entirely modern. I would submit, however, that it is not, as its description on the title page states, a romance – at least not in the usual sense of that word in a novelistic context – despite the narrator’s later claim.

Michael Gardiner lives with his wife Amanda just outside the seaside town of Coldhaven, where local legend has it that the Devil one night had stalked the town in the aftermath of a great snowfall, leaving his odd footprints behind. Not that the town is unused to strange events. It is also said that once a woman had given birth to a baby with two heads, one normal, the other mis-shapen and stunted. The baby had quickly died and the woman went mad.

Michael’s unravelling begins when his cleaner, Mrs K, who brings to him the town’s gossip (but only when she has verified it) tells him the details of the incident where Moira Birnie – née Gregory – and incidentally Michael’s first proper girlfriend, had dropped her fourteen year-old daughter, Hazel, off on a back road out of town before driving away and then, convinced her husband Tom was the devil, had killed herself and their two sons. The car they were found in was deliberately burned-out. This tragedy sets Michael off to wondering if Hazel is in fact his daughter, since the dates fit. It also reminds him of the bullying he had received in school at the hands of Moira’s brother Malcolm, and the secret he has kept all those years about Malcolm’s death.

Michael explains his subsequent actions with thoughts like “mostly we are creatures of chance” and that we “see ourselves from inside as we never appear to others.” He ruminates on the vagaries of marriage. “I had to wonder why anyone got married, when they had the evidence of their own parents’ lives right there in front of them.” He says marriage is a story, it needs some new event every so often, but “there is a moment when a husband begins to suspect his wife, or a wife her husband, of having another story altogether, a separate, private story, that remains, and perhaps always will remain, untold.” On the possible reasons for why his own marriage broke down he reflects that, “Things begin deep below the surface; by the time they are visible, they have a life and direction of their own. We don’t see that, so we call it destiny, or fate, or chance, when something unexpected happens.”

Coldhaven is well named, the inhabitants had never made Michael’s parents (mother a painter, father a photographer, both from down south) welcome. Such was the townsfolks’ antipathy towards the incomers that gifts of dogshit through the letterbox, anonymous letters, threatening encounters on the street, nasty phone calls were the least of it. Hence Michael is convinced his mother’s death in a road accident was a deliberate act. Most of Amanda’s friends – mainly local – had gone to college, but once back in Coldhaven, “their local accents were more pronounced than they had ever been, and you could tell they had been unhappy in their absence.” His father put up with all the harassment but Michael says, “People think tolerance is a virtue, but there are some things that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

While he acknowledges he did go, at least mildly, insane, on insanity in general Michael thinks, “Only the insane listen when the angel speaks, only the insane make wild-eyed denials and so confirm their guilt.” He also astutely remarks that, “when the devil has work to do, he makes it look like an accident …. in order to lure us into his trap, protesting mildly, if at all, but willing accomplices at the last,” which has undertones of Banquo’s speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the historical pursuit of supposed evil-doers Michael recognises that people who drowned or burned simpletons and scapegoats as witches were themselves really the ones who were afraid of being possessed, that they would find the devil touching their shoulder, that they were his chosen. In these passages Burnside is touching on the tradition of brushes with the Devil but not explicitly, since Michael’s devil is internal. (Arguably, I suppose, all the meetings with the Devil in Scottish fiction are internal.)

As to restitution, for Michael, penance “should be an everyday matter, a deliberate return from the glamour of sin.” He makes his own via a strange anabatic hundred-mile walk home to Coldhaven after his madness abates.

Through Michael, Burnside tells us a story is “not meant to be true, but it has to be real, it has to run.” In that respect The Devil’s Footprints runs, delightfully.

Pedant’s corner:- Mrs Collings’ cottage (Collings’s,) rowboat (rowing boat,) Vesalius’ (Vesalius’s,) Burntturk

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

King Penguin, 1987, 141 p. Translated from the Japanese 午後の曳航 (Gogo no Eikō) byJohn Nathan.

 The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea cover

Mishima, seemingly at the height of his literary powers and success, cut short his own life by committing seppuku in 1970, apparently in protest at the erosion of Japan’s values due to Western influence.

In this short novel, the first of his I have read, Fusako Kuroda has been widowed for five years. Unknown to her, her son Noboru has discovered a hole in the wainscotting between their bedrooms through which he can witness her bedtime routines. After a visit with Noboru to a tramp merchant steamer she takes up with the sailor, Ryuji Tzukazaki, who was attentive to Noboru but who it is revealed considers sex as a secret yearning for death. Their relationship is then consummated under the eyes of a not best pleased Noboru. Noboru is also number three in a group of schoolboys who enact nefarious rituals in their secret den. Boys have always tended to the wanton; as Shakespeare well knew.

Here is set the scene for an odd tale of love, alienation, dehumanisation and revenge. Things come to a head when after a final voyage away Ryuji decides to give up sailing and marry Fusako. Noboru presents his list of charges against Ryuji to his gang’s chief.

The tension between Japan’s past and present, which Mishima felt all too keenly, is reflected in the different attitudes of the characters. Fusako, with her job in a luxury goods shop, represents modernity, Ryuji a connection to Japan’s former seafaring glories, the boys a reminder of the insular past.

Pedant’s corner:- louvered swinging doors (louvred,) an unneeded indent of one space at one new line with a larger line spacing than usual below it.

Stratford-upon-Avon

We had a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon again on our trip south in February 2018.

As well as Shakespeare’s House:-

Shakespeare's House

behind which (you have to pay to get in) were actors parading about and declaiming lines from his plays,:

Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's House

Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's House From Rear

I spotted this Art Decoish building. It’s the stepping on the roofline and I suppose the rule of three in the windows below the diamonds that gives a deco feel:-

Art Decoish Building, Stratford-upon-Avon

Time Travel, Reviews, Hame and Rebellions

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian review, James Gleick examined the history of the time travel story since H G Wells more or less invented the form in The Time Machine. It was a skate over the subject really and veered into the territory of so-called Alternative History which of course I prefer to name Altered History but worth reading all the same.

In the same section of the paper was a review of Annalena McAfee’s new novel Hame. Many reviews are interesting, some make you think “definitely not”. Very few inspire you to go out and read the book concerned. Stuart Kelly’s did just that, as indeed did his review of Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant and Forever which I read a few months ago after also reading the same author’s A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde due to the same review. McAfee’s Hame sounds intriguing and possibly funny. Definitely one I’ll look for.

I recalled McAfee’s name. She had an article in the Guardian Review some weeks ago which I wished to post about then but at the time could not find on the Guardian website but which now pops up fourth when you search her name there. The article was about the relative importance of Robert Burns and the possible balefulness of his mythologising (Aside. Why does no-one ever question this about Shakespeare?) and the continuing battle over whether Scots is a suitable medium of expression for literature.

My take is if the author wishes to use Scots it is entirely up to her or him. It may reduce the psossible readership but that is a question for author and publisher, not reader. Myself, though not very well versed in it, my mother being the daughter of two English parents, thus hardly a native speaker and unable to expose me to its richness, I do not consider Scots – as some do – as necessarily inferior form to English. It is at times much more pithy.

I have a quibble with McAfee over a detail in that piece, though. She stated that Burns was born “two decades after the failed rebellion against the Union.” While Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Rebellion of 1745-6 was many things, not least the last flailing gasp of a failed dynasty, and the Battle of Culloden can even be considered as in some way (if you ignore its continuation into Ireland even into the twentieth century and possibly beyond,) the last of the Thirty Years War – though admittedly that was mostly fought out in German territories – it was not primarily against the Union. It was less general then that, more personal.

Friday on my Mind 114: Rhubarb Tart Song

The B-side of The Ferret Song (see last week) had a tune based on the middle part of one of John Philip Sousa’s marches, The Washington Post, and had a lyric which became typical of the Monty Python style since the song references a slew of philosophers and artists and also includes nods to popular culture as well as Shakespeare – all wrapped around an idea of the utmost silliness.

I really like the cleverness of the rhymes with the word tart, though.

John Cleese with the 1948 show choir: Rhubarb Tart Song

Fleck: a Verse Comedy by Alasdair Gray

A Comedy in Verse Derived from Goethe’s Tragedy of Faust. Two Ravens Press, 2008, 104 p.

Fleck cover

Gray is multi-talented; playwright, novelist, artist. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, he illustrates his own books (and those of others) in a distinctive style. His first novel, Lanark, instantly established him as one of the most important Scottish novelists of his or any generation. His left wing politics are not hard to discern and his enthusiasm for Scottish independence and Scottish culture has displeased some.

Fleck does what it says on the tin; reworks Faust in a modern idiom with the main character recast as a Scottish scientist, Fleck. Other characters include God, Nick and the journalists Pee and Cue. The book also includes a postscript by the author where he discusses the appearances of the devil in the Bible (there are only two,) Satan’s co-option by the established church to police sensuality, the evolution of the Faust story and its influence on Gray personally, and the drawbacks of Goethe’s version. Finally there are five Gray poems which deal with God. A packed 104 pages then.

Verse is a surprisingly good vehicle for Gray’s updated tale. (Or perhaps not surprising if you think of Shakespeare.) The rhythm of the iambic pentameter is a fine motor. And it throws up nicely judged juxtapositions, “Broadcasters think the public is a fool/ so sounding stupid is their golden rule.”

Very little that Gray has written is not worth reading. Fleck is no exception. Not just the play but the postscript and poems too.

Pedant’s corner: Labelling a year as Anus Domini looks like it may be a misprint but I wouldn’t put it past Gray to have used it deliberately. But oughtn’t tug-of-wars for supremacy be tugs-of-war? Bismark for Bismarck.

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.

A Shakespeare Connection

One of the reasons the good lady wanted to return to Warwickshire was to visit the village of Temple Grafton. (An acquaintance of hers had ancestors from there and she had promised to take photographs.)

My first point of interest was of course the War Memorial, a simple restrained structure inside the churchyard. World War 1 names are on the cross’s pedestal. Those for World War 2 are on the stone set in the flower bed.

War Memorial, Temple Grafton

The Church itself, St Andrew’s, Temple Grafton, is the one where Shakespeare was married; as this notice in the porch attests.

Shakespeare's Marriage

Here is how the church looks from the graveyard.

Church of St Andrew, Temple Grafton

We wandered round the village for a bit. The road winds up and down a little and there are houses of all ages, from old thatched cottages to modern bungalows. The village school seemed well populated judging by the sounds of play coming from the grounds. It must have been morning interval when we were there.

We found this old phone red telephone booth by the side of the road. These are rare now. Judging by the weeds around it it hasn’t been used in a while.

Phone booth, Temple Grafton, Warwickshire

It can’t have been so long though – well a few years maybe – if the “Coins Not Accepted Here” notice is anything to go by.

Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

Stratford-upon-Avon is only about ten minutes by car from Alcester. Apart from being Shakespeare’s birthplace I knew that the Royal Shakespeare Company building was erected in the 1930s adjacent to the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (see right, picture from Wiki) which had been destroyed in a fire.

The building has had a recent refurbishment though so it now has some modern features. Below is the view from a nearby bridge across the Avon.

Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Company Building  2

The brickwork and windows on the river side are still deco as is the blocky bit in the middle of the building.

A closer view of the river side of the building:-

Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Company Building  7

From the south side some deco fetaures are still apparent but the rounded bit – is it a survivor of the original Memorial Theatre or a homage to it? – looks like a cathedral’s Chapter House.

Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Company Building  5

From the green on the south side you can see two chimneys with deco styling:-

Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Company Building  6

I’m not sure about the modern tower on the right here but the deco-ness of the brickwork and the windows in the main part here is obvious:-

Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Company Building 1

We had menat to go go to a play but I didn’t get organised for it early enough. Maybe next time.

In the town itself I saw one deco building.

Sainsbury's, Stratford-upon-Avon

Some more pictures of the RSC building are on my flickr.

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