July 12, 2020


by Billy Connolly
336 pages, Two Roads

Review by Pat Black

I was born a sort of fart…

Signed by the author. That’s what it said on the Waterstone’s email promo. I don’t think I would have bothered actually buying a copy, had the autograph been by any other author living or dead outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

There it is, on the flyleaf. Billy Connolly’s signature. An autograph by a guy with Parkinson’s. Perhaps there’s a joke to be told there, but I’ll leave that stuff to the experts.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories is a best-of, a transcript of his best comedy routines. We all know it.

Jobbie wheekers… I needed somewhere to park my bike... Tarantulas and their wily ways... This awful longevity of sex... “I know you…” But in the North Sea, you don’t…

You can hear him saying it as you read. The thing you lose on the page is Connolly’s sublime talent as a mime; to paint a picture in your mind by gesture and movement. The only editorial intrusion on these basic transcripts comes when the book fills in the gaps where it needs to. The descriptive parts that he never actually said jar a little against the recording that plays in your head. The routines are so good, though, that the book made me laugh out loud at jokes I’ve heard many times before.

They are bastards, and they do it on purpose… “It’s him, mammy… it’s him again”… This thing arrives at your f*cking house in a taxi... And there it is, a wee beige jobby...

There are murals with Connolly’s face on them on the side of buildings in his home city, Glasgow. It seems remarkable that this iconography should be bestowed upon someone still alive, but it’s apt. Billy Connolly feels like a folk hero even while he’s still alive. Which is hardly an inconvenience, for him or us. It feels a wee bit like – yes - the songwriter who laments being far away from Scotland, while he’s still there.

Glaswegians, or those of us privileged to live on the outskirts, feel as if he is one of us. He has seeped into our consciousness at a national level. He is single-handedly responsible for Glaswegians thinking themselves funny, as opposed to hard. Mixed feelings for many people, on that last one.

The first time I saw him was at Celtic Park, when he opened a rebuilt stand – I think before Celtic played Sporting Lisbon in a friendly, in 1996. Ancient history in itself. I remember thinking: I’ll always tell people that I saw Billy Connolly in the flesh.

I remember he had a purple beard. He’d only just brought the beard out of retirement. It suited him better, no doubt about it. He didn’t always advertise his football allegiances, but everyone knows the talented guys support the Celts. I grew up thinking he supported Partick Thistle. (“I thought they were called Partick Thistle Nil.”)

“Just phuck off.” Peas and mince. It saves a lot of time…

Then, a few years later, I saw him up near Woodlands, in Glasgow, when I was a passenger in a car. He was right behind us in a Range Rover, and you could not mistake him for anyone else. I was 24 years old, and when I spotted him I did something utterly ridiculous – I turned around and waved, as he took a turn on a roundabout. I suspect he was going to see up-and-coming comedians at The Stand, which was not too far away. “Hullo Billy,” I said.

Our eyes definitely locked. I can easily imagine his response. If “prick on a roundabout” becomes a thing in his routines, it was probably me.

Next time I saw him, it was at a live show, at long last, in 2012. The Doncaster Dome. Ominously, he repeated one or two old bits and pieces, but still got big laughs for them. It’s fine for a band to play the hits, but that is less well accepted in a comedian’s act. Connolly proves a rare exception to that.

Also, if we’re being critical, he has punched downwards once or twice in his career. Overweight people and the disabled have been awkward components of some of his patter, through the years. But we forgive him, as we do not forgive others.

“Now say Jesus!” “Jeeeesus!”

The next time I saw him was five or six years later - his last stand. The Parkinson’s was becoming apparent. He slapped “flies” out of the air and referred to them non-stop. And despite my initial scepticism, it turned out there were one or two bugs flying around.

Finally, he hit one, and I could see a black thing on the stage floor. “Got ye, ya bastard.” But whether he was plagued by flies or not, I think it was either a stalling tactic for him to remember his lines, or a means of distracting his hands from doing what they wanted to do – which seemed to be to crawl up his chest and strangle him. He was in a bad way.

He grew confused once or twice, badly losing the place and filling it with dead air. It was excruciating. He stopped what he was saying completely, and did not return to that line of thought. This was at a gigantic arena in Sheffield. The silence, and the sympathy, was near absolute.

After one extra-long gap, he said: “I just want to leave.” I’ll never forget it. As one, about 10,000 people inhaled.

But, like a pro, he got on with it, and he finished the show. There was an air of sadness outside the venue as everyone filed out into the car park. I thought, like many others: that’s the last time I’ll see him. We’ll never know how much he suffered to bring us those last shows, what he must have put himself through.

A hero is a person who does the right thing, no matter what they have to suffer. He was my hero that night. He was my hero anyway.

The true Billy is the guy on all those home videos – and before that, the vinyl records, including a load of scratched ones I was duped into buying when I’d had a few pints, one time. He's the guy the whole family settled down to enjoy. As a very young child I was well aware of the slightly scary, bearded man from as far back as I can remember; but I also remember my dad’s reaction, howling with laughter at the videos and vinyl records. Billy came from the same streets, the same flats and tenements, the same back courts, the same uniquely Glaswegian background. He was one of us.

As a boy, I thrilled at the bad language before I got any of the jokes. I remember a wonderful night with the buzzy old black and white turn-dial portable in the bedroom I shared with my brother, both of us in bed watching a repeat of An Audience With Billy Connolly. (“Spot the dead celebs” becomes more horrifying with every fresh viewing of that one.)

A couple of years later, my eldest brother brought home a VHS rental of Billy And Albert. “What are you laughing at?” my dad barked at me, during the masturbation gag. In truth, I didn’t know. The correct answer was: “I’m laughing at the funny man.”

A hero could also be described as someone who brings sunshine to people when it’s been raining. Billy is my hero for that, too.

A reservation on the outskirts… The place with the vans…

Billy’s still with us, even though the family members who I watched the videos and TV specials with are long gone. The bastard will outlive me, now that I’ve written that.

Regardless, when he goes, this is how people will remember him – the warmth and laughter among family and friends; the bits and pieces that ring true for us, whether that’s as Glaswegians or simply as people; the parts we repeated among ourselves in playgrounds, pubs and workplaces; and the universal laughs at ourselves and our bodies and our embarrassments.

He is up there with the Beatles and the Stones, the Pythons and David Bowie. Someone who defined an age. I can see him painted as a Renaissance figure, certainly with a ruff collar. Someone, please do it.

February 7, 2020


Country matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part three

by Robert Macfarlane
496 pages, Hamish Hamilton

Review by Pat Black

There’s a lot going on under there, beneath your feet.

Underland is Robert Macfarlane’s most ambitious book. Instead of his usual trails across mountain ranges, clifftops or other high roads, this work goes low, looking at the relatively unexamined world of the underground. That can mean caves, caverns, sink holes, mine shafts, bore holes in bright blue glaciers, labyrinths, hidden rivers, hidden cities, ancient tombs, future tombs, and some teeny tiny wee crawlspaces that you just wouldn’t get me in, for all the lube in Lubya.

In his introduction, the author quotes from a section of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, a book I haven’t read. I have read descriptions of the passage in question before, though – a nauseating journey the characters take through an underground cave that’s too tight to turn your head in, with places that you can barely scrape your ankles through, as you literally inch your way forward in complete darkness, with no way back. And then it gets tighter, and tighter…

If you’re already white-knuckling it, then so was Macfarlane. He admits that this part of the book terrified him as a child. So, in the early part, there’s an element of confronting natural fear, or maybe it’s just masochism, as Macfarlane tries to squeeze through some similar gaps accompanied by a spelunker in the Mendips.

The book thankfully isn’t a series of palpitation-inducing compressions, but broadens out into an erudite examination of what goes on beneath the crust of the planet, and humans’ need to interact with it. That can be for simple exploration or adventure; or for burial and concealment, sometimes for nefarious purposes. On other occasions, the world simply collapses on us. There are sinkholes and shafts, which can open up without warning. There are almost certainly skeletons down there. And there is hidden treasure: most major cities have hidden layers underneath, such as Edinburgh, Paris and of course London. I can recommend one of those tours in the Scottish capital. If ghosts exist, then they must surely stalk those gloomy, dripping spaces.

Then there are hidden worlds that we couldn’t even conceive of until recently, such as the wonders of the wood-wide-web. This is a theory that trees can actually communicate and interact with each other in the forest via an underground network of fungi and spores. Regular readers will have run into this idea before in our coverage of the work of Roger Deakin – a close friend of Robert Macfarlane.

Along the way, of course, there’s some derring-do involving trips to places that I’m not sure I’d ever want to visit. Macfarlane does it, so you don’t have to – and isn’t that the essence of every great piece of travel writing?  

Throughout Underland, there’s a sense of extra dimensions, a trippy element that I thoroughly enjoyed. This starts with the author’s appraisal of a map. You can gain an idea of the terrain and the topography, but there’s no sense of true depth, with the world underneath us and all its riches occluded. Things get even spacier, literally, in one early chapter sees MacFarlane joining physicists in a former mine at Boulby in Yorkshire, underneath the sea bed, where they try to unlock the secrets of dark matter free from the interference of surface radiation. So, this texture and topography, this extradimensionality, can stretch out into the cosmos, as well as growing roots into the earth beneath us.

I was tickled by the section where McFarlane joins a plant scientist called Merlin Sheldrake to examine the wood wide web in Epping Forest. He rarely fails to address the man by his first name, every other sentence - and who could blame him when you can write stuff like: “I joined Merlin for a walk in the forest one misty morning”? The wood wide web shows us that there are states of existence on our own planet, never mind in outer space, which are almost beyond human comprehension. The book is packed with uncanny landscapes. In one chapter, Macfarlane describes beaches of black ash which have never seen the sun during a kayak trip through underground rivers in Italy, home to whole thriving ecosystems and animal populations which get by without human interference perfectly well. There must be loads of this we’ve yet to discover. It makes our blundering progress across the planet and the waste we choke it up with all the more disgusting.

The Anthropocene era casts a shadow over the whole book. Though he’s never preachy, the end of existence on earth – a process which might be well under way thanks to humans - is never far from Macfarlane’s thoughts. Everywhere he looks, there are signs of our impermanence, and proof that in deep time, our greatest achievements and mightiest edifices will be as significant as the gravel on someone’s driveway.

There are a couple of scrotum reducers, such as when Macfarlane visits the catacombs in Paris, and has to follow an almost supernaturally bendy guide as she angles herself through impossible turns in the pitch-black labyrinth ahead of him. On top of that, there’s our opening section when the author crawls through some tight spaces underneath the Mendips in Somerset, a prisoner of brutal darkness underneath a perfect English summer’s day.

This kind of thing is the height – and depth – of Nope, for me. This is a journey to the bottom of the Mines of Nope. This is two thousand fathoms down, inside a Nopeyscape. Verily this is the Nopey-ist of Nopes. This is Pope Nope the Noughth of Noples. And so on. I’m not claustrophobic, as a brief examination of the some of the places I’ve lived in would show you. But this doesn’t really qualify as an irrational fear. It’s a bit like saying you’re not arachnophobic, then having to style it out when a giant spider is dropped on your face. I loved my time on the mountains and I’ve swum with sharks, so I get the appeal of more hirsute pursuits. But that spelunking stuff doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve no desire to die this most Freudian of deaths.  

Macfarlane tells us one horror story, about a caver who got stuck so fast in a twisty pipey natural tunnel far beneath the English soil that he died. They couldn’t even get the body out. The poor lad’s father decided to concrete the tunnel up, with the body inside – ensuring no-one else takes the same path. What a nightmare. For me, that’s up there with “eaten by an animal”, “burned alive” and “plane disintegrates” for the absolute worst ways to go.

Macfarlane also looks at a pit in Slovenia where an atrocity took place during the war, a place so redolent of evil it seems to want to reach up out of the darkness and throttle you. It’s somewhere Macfarlane is quite sure he’ll never return to. It’s no place for us, down there, really.

It isn’t all about close, creepy places, though. There’s high adventure as Macfarlane gets his crampons on and checks out entombed places in the far north, with polar bears to worry about as well as avalanches and other dicey events in Norway and Greenland. In one episode, he abseils down a hole bored in ancient ice by glaciologists who can glean as much from the layers of permafrost as a geologist can divine from layers of rock. I’m guessing they have never seen The Thing, but we’ll let that one slide.

Then there’s a strange episode where Macfarlane checks out ancient cave paintings on an ultra-remote Arctic island, and postulates that ancient people left their artworks in one spectacularly inhospitable cavern of ice as a rite of passage, or an offering to a god. Macfarlane makes one himself, an obeisance to the spirit of adventure. This is fantastic Boy’s Own stuff, although I imagine that Macfarlane’s hairy moments would have led to his family Having A Word with him upon his return.

Macfarlane’s grand finale sees him examine how humans prepare for a post-human future – by trying to prevent an unknown population many years from now from disinterring nuclear waste which is likely to remain hot and extremely dangerous for millennia.

It poses a delicious problem: how do you effectively warn the descendants of the rats and cockroaches or the visiting alien societies that no matter how interesting the burial chamber is, they really, really shouldn’t mess with it?

You could leave all sorts of scary warnings or traps, but we’ve all seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark. That’s just going to spur them on. “Danger? Keep out? I click my chitinous mandibles at your danger.” You’ve got to play it a bit cooler than that… The techniques worked out by scientists are ingenious, but we’ve no way of knowing if they’ll work.

Thankfully, it’s somebody’s else’s problem. Or maybe nobody else’s problem. Nothing’s permanent. Even the ground beneath our feet must shift and change, given the passage of deep time; it could turn out to be desert, or a forest floor, or the top of a mountain, or a cavern half a mile underground that will never see the sun again, or more likely a seabed - and finally it might be nothing at all, turned to stardust within the fatal boundaries of our engorged red sun.

Everything that ever existed on this earth might have come to absolutely nothing, and been of no consequence, an interesting flash in the sky for whatever life might exist out there as we all boil away.

Imagine that? In deep time, nothing we ever do matters. I can’t decide if this prospect is terrifying, or awesome. All that remains might be what’s on the Voyager probe’s information disc. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode might be one of the few things in all of human artistic endeavour to survive the passing of the planet itself. Strewth.

There is the smallest chance that Earth will survive the sun’s greed as it expands, billions of years into the future. It might just, just sneak into the “survival zone”, leaving a crispy outer shell and nothing still living, like one last round at the pub swiped on your bank card in the hours before your pay arrives.

Whether there will be anything left of the human race anywhere in the universe by then is debatable. There’s something in Macfarlane’s tone which tells me which side he’s on in that one.

Speaking of endings, I finished this audiobook when I went out for a walk quite late on New Year’s Eve, at the very end of the decade. I loved the poetry and synchronicity of this, and its entirely unrealistic sense of closure. The definition of a book.

February 3, 2020


by Brendan Gisby
90 pages, Createspace

Review by Pat Black

I’ve met bridges people before. They’re like aeroplanes people, or classic cars people, or (they fit together with bridges people like bank holidays and wet weather) trains people.

I am not one of those people – I am a guitars person - but I am fascinated by one particular bridge. The one that links North and South Queensferry; the one that used to be a punchline for a Sisyphean task, before they invented some fancy paint.

Iain Banks wrote about this bridge. And it is awesome. Were Godzilla to make his way across the Firth of Forth, he might stay his hand a while before smashing it to pieces.

A bridge goes somewhere, but the places on either side don’t. In The Burrymen War, Danny Jaffrey finds himself back in one of these places, in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, attending the funeral of his friend Muldy.

As Danny walks the familiar streets in South Queensferry, he gets to reminiscing. Not just about good times spent with Muldy and another mate of theirs, Lennie. There’s bad stuff in there, too – particularly a murder that haunts Dan. One he was involved in.

There are a lot of laughs in The Burrymen War, but it is a serious examination of a serious subject - a perfectly-pitched look at prejudice and violence in Scotland. Brendan Gisby focuses on South Queensferry, but he could be looking at any number of Scottish towns affected by sectarianism.

You might have a working knowledge of sectarianism in Scotland owing to a well-known sporting rivalry – a topic the tourist bodies do well to stay clear of. I still chuckle at a recent translation of Japanese tourist advice – “beware the green and blue men”. But as Gisby points out, the problem isn’t confined to the west of Scotland. Some might try to convince you that it begins and ends with football. But this is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Sectarianism’s roots go very deep. But we don’t have time to go into that, here.

Back to the story. Danny, Muldy, Lennie and a few others from the Irish side of the street hatch a plan to get one over on their “opposite number” in the town. It’s greens versus blues, if we’re sticking to football analogies.

South Queensferry has a bizarre tradition, still popular to this day, whereby a “Burryman” is steered through the town during the summer fair in August. The Burryman is a monstrous green figure covered in burrs – the seeds of a sticky weed more commonly known as burdock – and paraded through the town by attendants. A man in a suit, basically.

It seems to be a pagan rite which has survived to the present day. No-one quite knows how the tradition started or what it actually refers to. The first recorded mention of the ceremony comes in the 17th century, but it pre-dates that by a long way. It could have something to do with The Green Man, Celtic fertility symbols or any number of things. It could even have its roots in blood sacrifice, but the truth is – no-one knows.  

It would certainly scare the weans. The Burryman looks like a Scooby Doo villain, pre-unmasking. I’ve got a few monstrous ideas cooking for this clodding creature. In these visions of mine, the Burryman may be plant-based, but he ain’t no vegan. 

Gisby made a much smarter choice in presenting this rite, carried out unthinkingly by its followers on a holiday of obligation, as the basis of a deadly tribal feud.

In the story, the Burryman parade is controlled by the boys in the loyalist pub down the street. So, Muldie hatches a plot to steal a few yards on them by creating a Burryman of their own, and parading it through the town before the other pub begins the actual, official Burryman march. In the process, they seek to give themselves a generous helping of the charitable collection which accompanies the parade.

As you might expect, Danny and co’s rivals don’t take kindly to this. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation.

What I liked most about The Burrymen War was Danny’s sense of regret, remorse and anger over the violence of the past. The author makes it clear from the start that the prank of 30 years ago had tragic consequences – the story shows you the who and how of it.

Gisby also examines misplaced loyalty, something that fascinates me the older I get. Young men form strong bonds with their friends, but sometimes, once the business of jobs and families and children intrude, these friendships can become toxic. They lead us down paths we shouldn’t follow. Once unbreakable ties are severed.

But on the other hand, there’s the purer ideal of sticking by a mate, no matter what the circumstances. What price is loyalty? If you can’t pay it, we are inclined to wonder: what sort of person are you?

The book also examines how bad blood can stain a community for years. Some people only do 10 years for murder. There are some whose actions have caused irreparable, generations-deep damage - but 10 years isn’t forever, and all too soon, they’re back on the same streets, mingling with the same people.

Danny’s conclusion is that there’s really only one firm step you can take to avoid these circumstances.

The Burrymen War is a short but devastating read. It’s the real Scotland, in all its humour, all its contradictions, and all its bared teeth.

November 29, 2019


by Brian Garfield
192 pages, Mysterious Press

Review by Pat Black

Or, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll know about the Death Wish movie.

Charles Bronson, droopy moustache, feet braced, Saturday Night Special… Michael Winner! Blam!

It tells the story of a middle-class architect living in 1970s New York who decides to execute every street punk he encounters after his wife and daughter are attacked.

Brian Garfield’s original novel tells the same story, in a different way. But only slightly.

In it, Paul Benjamin is an accountant, a liberal (in the sense we used to understand it) in New York City in the same time period. He’s good at his job in the world of finance and sees no apparent irony as he takes on lots of crunchy causes in tandem with his role as a sharp cog in the pitiless capitalist machine.

Liberal guilt, I think they call it; organising fundraisers for softball teams in underprivileged areas, that kind of thing. If he was around today, Benjamin would be the sort of person who might criticise you for drinking from a plastic bottle of water – someone with firm convictions and a strong moral compass, but also a bit of a twat.

His house is raided by a teenage gang, with his wife and daughter inside. There are tragic consequences. This event takes place off-the-page and does not feature any sexual assault. This differs from Winner’s exploitative cinema vision, which spared you few details.

After this terrible shock, Benjamin slowly transforms into a vigilante who stalks the Big Apple’s seamier streets with a handgun, and in the process becomes something of a cause celebre.

“Is that a gun in your pocket, or… ? Oh, it is a gun, and you’re not pleased to see me.”

Justice isn’t exactly blind, but it is indiscriminate in Death Wish. Benjamin never levels the score with the criminals who destroyed his life – he doesn’t really look for them. Anyone committing or attempting to commit a violent crime is fair game for this unlikely avenger.

Garfield didn’t like the movie version of his story, which is a puzzler as it follows the novel’s plot, and its politics, to the letter. It is more cerebral than the movie series would have you believe, but that’s not difficult. At heart, Death Wish is a novel about grief – internalised, corrosive, manifesting itself in other symptoms, and finally exploding. But you’d be foolish to ignore the anger and the retribution, and the catharsis that follows.

In the same way, you could say Jaws is about an honourable man tackling endemic corruption in the face of a public health crisis - and you’d be right. But you’d be ignoring the shark.

For “shark”, read “guns”, here.

Benjamin grinds his teeth at the well-intended efforts of his work colleagues as they pat him on the back in the wake of personal disaster. He occasionally loses his temper with his granola-grating son-in-law, an idealist who accepts the terrible hand he has been dealt with an unnerving equanimity. The man even calls him “Pops”. For god’s sake – get mad, mate! Scream! Swear! You’re on Benjamin’s side in these parts.

This grief odyssey takes several strange paths, including one digression involving a woman our lonely hero picks up in a bar. I liked this illustration of Benjamin’s melancholic state, the devastation of a man with a home and a family and a purpose in life, suddenly set adrift. This is a moment of calm, if not peace, before he gets down to business.

The pivotal moment comes when Benjamin is sent to the South to look after a big account. He sees a gun shop and realises he can just stroll in and buy a firearm if he feels like it.
He does. And he feels empowered. No other word for it.

This is after Benjamin has experimented with taking down a teenage mugger, using a sock loaded with coins for a cosh. I have always wondered at the effectiveness of this DIY weaponry, given the state of some of the ancient socks I’ve got. If I tried that, I’d most likely see my loose change roll away across the street before a blow was struck. Then having to explain myself to the young man I’d just interrupted.

Maybe it’s a status symbol among gangsters – high-quality socks, for use in punishment beatings.

“What you packing?”

(solemn intonation) “Doubled-up Pringle.”

“Yeah? Look at what I got.”

(gasp) “Granpaw’s hiking socks!”

Benjamin’s longed-for confrontations arrive quite close to the end of this novel. They are not played for the sake of gore – I admit, this material would have been far worse in my hands – but they are disturbing. He walks into unsafe areas after dark, literally looking for trouble. If anyone tries to mug Benjamin or is spotted committing any kind of serious crime anywhere near him, they’re going to grow some holes.

How easy it is. Point and shoot. Down they go.

I’m maybe not the best person to criticise here, as I’ve just published a book about a person taking revenge. But Death Wish’s themes felt current.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they didn’t in some way empathise with Benjamin’s rage. If you play by the rules, then at some point you will be crossed by someone who doesn’t, and that can be very disturbing. Most liberal consciences would struggle to remain completely intact after any major trauma as a result of crime. It takes incredible strength and virtue not to give in to anger in the face of random, violent events carried out by unpleasant people.

They say you should hate the game and not the player, but this is difficult if the player is someone who has stripped your house of anything valuable before crapping on your favourite rug. There are many time-worn arguments against revenge and retribution. Some are as old as the written word, and most are valid. But few of them address the joy of striking back. A dish best served cold? I don’t know about that.  

Lots of our novels, movies, TV shows and plays know this instinctively. It’s a button they know how to press, even as they appear to tell you something different. It’s a fundamental flaw. It’s deeper than storytelling. It seems like a trace memory, folklore, something in the genome. Get them back. An eye for an eye.

Like the Big Explanation scene which serves as a coda in Psycho, Death Wish offers a built-in analysis of its troubled hero. Benjamin picks up a magazine in the toilet at a house party and reads a psychologist’s assessment of the vigilante whose killings electrify the city. The shrink’s insight is spot-on, and Benjamin begins to worry for the first time that he might get caught.

The book suggests that many people are on his side – including the police. Death Wish examines its hero’s conscience and paints him as a man undergoing a mental breakdown. But there’s no doubt that his behaviour is tweaking something primal in us. That revolver is about taking back control.

We hear that phrase a lot, these days.

Revenge as a driver of plot is as old as storytelling itself. But consider that familiar figure, the lone man with a gun, the reluctant avenger, forced to act for the sake of justice. This is often characterised as “individualism” and is a staple in stories of tough guys doing tough things, particularly in the mythology of the old West in the American tradition.

But zapping people arbitrarily and believing you’re doing the right thing is the work of a demagogue, and worse. “It’s right, because I say it is.”

There’s a lot of that about, these days.

How many damaged people around the world, but particularly in the United States, have pictured themselves as the man with the gun who had a legitimate grievance they’ve seen in the movies? The school shooters, the mosque invaders, the guys at work with a grudge, the people who suddenly open fire in malls and nightclubs.

Often, their issues are phantoms of the mind. But whatever their problem, they thought they could resolve things by ventilating people. They’ve seen it done quite a lot in the movies, after all.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that fictional content causes crime – if that was the case, I’d be a great big criminal. I’ve read about the studies examining violent video games, and that troublesome statistic about other countries who enjoy this kind of entertainment – with little or no gun crime. However, there’s no denying that stories on the page or the screen do model destructive, vindictive behaviour. Watch enough films where problems are resolved with a shoot-out, or a fight, and – if you had certain mental health conditions or a serious personality disorder - you might start to forget it’s abnormal in an ordered, peaceful society; that we have mechanisms like manners and polity and laws so that we can avoid these things happening, as far as possible.

Have you ever met someone who wanted to be a gangster in real life? Have you ever noticed that they really like gangster movies? There’s a reason for that.

But make no mistake. The main ingredient isn’t movies, or gunfights in the movies, or first-person perspective shooting games. It’s easy access to deadly weapons. Add some laws which provide for that, and maybe a dash of entitlement, and you have a disaster at all levels of society.

Making yourself judge, jury and executioner isn’t a good thing. No one person should have the right. It’s taken thousands of years for human society to arrive at that conclusion, and for many even in the bosom of the so-called free world, it isn’t quite clear yet.

I am reminded of an old stand-up routine: if Bruce Wayne really wanted to stem the tide of crime in Gotham, he could use his billions to fund community projects or open a factory in a deprived area, instead of dressing up as a furry and battering poor people, addicts, or the mentally ill.

Death Wish is about a person who doesn’t follow the rules. As a piece of fiction, it’s a great conversation starter, among people you should probably avoid at parties. In real life though, that decision to transgress is a disaster for all of us, as rules in the form of laws – deeply flawed as they can be – are sometimes the only thing keeping us from total chaos.

At times we need rule-breakers, certainly. Some conventions and ordinances deserve to go in the bin. To take one example, imagine if Rosa Parks had meekly surrendered her seat and gone to the back of the bus. But “it’s bad to shoot someone because you feel like it” is not one of them.

When it comes to being able to go about your life and livelihood peacefully, and also – key point - being treated equally and fairly by authorities who have to toe the line the same way as you, then these rules are essential.

Losing a rules-based system would be like having your back door open out onto the Stone Age. Crumbling rules and wobbling democratic systems can be seen all over the world. Even in places where you didn’t think it would happen: specifically, the United States and the United Kingdom.

If you’re not worried yet, you’re not paying attention. At least on this side of the pond, the guns are under control. But who knows where we’re going, politically?

If there’s an analogy for the mythology of the Wild West in modern life, then surely it lies in global finance and information technology. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same cut-throat, merciless practices manifest themselves elsewhere in life.

Another question that’s been bothering me: in a time when we can watch movies or TV shows which feature violent incidents involving firearms as normalised, why haven’t there been any dramas about mass shootings, whether fictional or adapted from real events? It hasn’t been tackled in a big, serious, well-funded mainstream movie yet, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine documentary.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is the closest match I can think of, but Lionel Shriver sidestepped the entire guns debate by having that book’s psychopathic title character use a bow and arrow rather than a Smith & Wesson. Also, both book and movie adaptation pulled away from directly showing us what happened.

Gus Van Sant addressed Columbine in another thoughtful piece, Elephant, but without showing us the actual massacre. That’s as close as you get from Hollywood. The only other dramatisations I can see are well-meaning TV movies, or small-scale dramas which weren’t given mass publicity or a widespread release. Not even in the same galaxy as the latest Avengers or Fast And Furious movie, at any rate.

You could argue on taste and decency grounds here – but this doesn’t seem apply to other types of murder. Just this year we had another series of Mindhunter, and we also saw a former teen musical idol become Ted Bundy on the big screen. We’re open to the idea of dissecting the behaviour of sex killers and military dictators responsible for thousands of deaths, but not the horribly prosaic world of the lone gunman.

Why the shyness about the reality of gun crime? What’s the purpose of art, if not to reflect reality in some way?

Surely we should be shown the utter horror of these situations. We should have make-up geniuses or digital artists show us, as realistically as possible, precisely what happens when a round from an AR-15 assault rifle hits a child in the face. A few filmmakers have had a go at 9/11, the ultimate millennial true-life horror, so surely they can apply this industry to a gun massacre – something which becomes horribly real, and horribly current, on a regular basis. We should see the panic, hear the screaming, experience the tears and pleading, people losing control of bladders and bowels. Give people their pornography, as lexicographers understand the term. The grim, unbearable reality. Without a shred of glamour.

Do we need a movie tough guy to play the gunman? Someone comfortably masculine enough for us? Why not? They so often play gunmen. Let’s have it. Let’s see it. Make it real for people. Who has the nerve?

Back on-topic. I’ll say this about Death Wish: even allowing for its brevity, in an age when books can lie on my bedside table for months before I reach the end, I read it in the space of a day or two.

It’s wrong on many levels, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shootings. Tension, and release. Zap, zap, zap, down they go. I have to accept and admit to this duality. You like Space Invaders? I like Space Invaders. You just line up the shot and squeeze the trigger. Easy as that. Disintegrate the dehumanised. Has anyone ever completed Space Invaders? Is it even possible?

Like I say, this feeling doesn’t make me a criminal – it doesn’t even make me a bad person. But there’s a line to be drawn, like it or not, between these confected fantasies and true-life end points almost too horrific for words.

I will repeat: I’ve written a book about revenge. My heroine breaks the rules and feels justified. Everyone does, in taking revenge. Right and wrong isn’t part of that picture. She’s no better than Paul Benjamin, really. Mea culpa.

But surely a sensitive, intelligent person would realise that Paul Benjamin’s way is not the answer.

NB: This review was written before the recent tragedies in California, Texas and Ohio. I’ve held it back for a while.

November 24, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part two

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd (160 pages, Canongate. Audio version read by Tilda Swinton)

Review by Pat Black

During her lifetime, Nan Shepherd achieved a degree of success thanks to her modernist novels. But her literary legacy has arguably been secured almost four decades after her death by a non-fiction book about her beloved mountains which she almost didn’t publish at all.

The Living Mountain has become a classic of its kind, a touchstone of modern nature writing. Since a modest first printing from Aberdeen University Press in 1977, it has acquired a quiet power and permanence which she would never have imagined when she wrote it, in the years after the second world war.

The Living Mountain refers to the Cairngorms, the type of mountain range in the Highlands of Scotland that demands to be placed on a postcard, or framed above a grandmother’s mantelpiece. As the title suggests, Shepherd sees the hills, peaks, lochs, wildlife and foliage as a constantly shifting, mutable thing, formed by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age, and prone to the immense changes in geography and climate over time that render our lifetimes insignificant.

She speaks of the shifting colours with every season – the reds, browns and yellows of autumn, the stark white and black of the snowbound winters. And then there’s the sublime summers, when Scotland enjoys more light than many other places, edging towards the short Arctic nights when the sun plays up, refusing to go to bed, the skies dancing with the Northern Lights.

There’s plenty of rain, of course. You won’t read much about that on the Scottish tourism websites. Two good Scottish words for you learn, if you’re planning a trip there: drookit and dreich.

Water features prominently in this book; particularly how it forms the land and continues to have an effect on its topography, especially when transmuted into snow and ice. And she doesn’t half like swimming in it. When Nan Shepherd goes for a dip in the bitter waters of a remote loch, she reveals the sudden thrill, if that’s the right word, of seeing the rocky shelf at her feet drop away into untold depths. She might be a forebear of today’s wild swimmers, though she would have chuckled, as most of us do, at the sight of people in neoprene.

I am glad Robert Macfarlane picked up on the sensual thread that runs through The Living Mountain; I would have been a little bit embarrassed to talk about it here, otherwise. I’d say it runs beyond the sensual and edges into the erotic, at times. The thrill of cold water running over her body; the mention of companions alongside her, without ever identifying them in any way; even the bite of the wind, is all rendered in unmistakeably charged terms. Ekstasis is a good old Greek word to learn if you’re planning a trip through this book.  

There’s death on the living mountain. Shepherd details scary incidents involving mountain rescuers, who are sometimes sent out into appalling conditions with little hope of finding the lost. Sometimes the bodies are found within hours; sometimes you have to wait for the thaw. Shepherd highlights the case of two young lads, and their excited jottings in a communal logbook just before they set out to walk in snowy conditions. At time of writing, they had just hours to live. Confused and hypothermic, they got into trouble on the hills. Their bodies bore scrapes and abrasions which revealed they had been crawling on their hands and knees at one point. You could see their excited chatter as a ghastly joke from fate’s filthy mouth. I prefer to see it as a tribute to their destroyed, and yet curiously preserved innocence.

There is plenty of wreckage on the living mountain. During wartime, the Highlands were a training ground for air crews and commando units, and one plane crashed into the mountainside with no survivors. Shepherd details the work of the mountain rescuers in locating the wreck and retrieving the bodies. The work, the grim work, is often highlighted over the leisure by this author.

Shepherd has a bit of a sharp tongue for young people who arrive ill-prepared for the hills, or who subscribe to a more away-with-the-fairies view of this beautiful, but deadly place. She’s a tad unkind – surely Nan Shepherd used to be one of those young people, craving adventure and romance in remote, gorgeous places? This harkens back to a distinctly Presbyterian attitude we see in Scotland and Scottish writing which we struggle to throw off to this very day. In his afterword, Robert Macfarlane notes Shepherd’s references to the hard work involved in climbing the hills and the actual graft of people who earn a living off it.

It can be hard work at times, to be sure, but I would never relate the pleasure in climbing hills and mountains to anything as degrading as work. It’s been a while since I climbed any mountains, and I feel horror when I realise I might not climb another one. By the time my kids are old enough to take into the mountains, hillwalking might be the last thing I want to do.

Of course, Shepherd takes note of the creatures who scurry across the bleak hillsides - and the things that hunt them. There’s encounters with stags, with mountain hares whose whitewashed coats are life during the frigid months, but death should there be a mild winter or a sudden thaw. She has a keen eye for the birds of prey, in particular the awesome golden eagles. Shepherd is amused to note that some observers confuse these wheeling bringers of death up in the sky with planes and gliders. What’s my favourite animal? It’s got to be up there, Les. Top five answer for sure.

Where she is particularly strong is in describing the plants, trees and animals which thrive in seemingly inhospitable places. She notes that some of these flowers were proven to have actually survived the Ice Age.

Like JA Baker’s The Peregrine, this is a short book, but shot through with a profundity and a clarity that most books would kill for. Certainly it doesn’t hurt matters to have Tilda Swinton narrating the audiobook, a case of the poet and her figures being matched to lethal effect much as Odysseus might string his bow. Whether piped into your ears or sweeping across a page in your lap, this has become an essential book, and one you really have to experience if you’re a fan of nature writing. Or maybe just writing.

What of our author? She’s an enigma. I guess she liked it that way. Wikipedia tells us she was “unmarried”, which tells us nothing. If you go to that page, you’ll see an extraordinary photo of her, with a brooch fixed to what appears to be a bandanna wrapped around her head (it’s actually a length of photographic film – apparently she just took a notion). It’s an image the Royal Bank of Scotland saw fit to put on its £5 notes, which you might struggle to spend south of the border if you are faced with a particular kind of idiot behind a counter. She wouldn’t have taken kindly to that, I feel sure.

Considering her today, she looks like something from fantasy artwork and literature – not a figure of male lust from Frank Frazetta or Robert E Howard, but utterly formidable, someone not to mess with. A queen, or a mighty warrior. She was both of these things.

July 12, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Planters’ and Potters’ Almanac, Part One

by Pat Black

Here’s a nice fresh bunch of the tulips I’ve been tip-toeing through this past while.

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Doubleday

I’d happily read JLS’s diaries every year. Well, not his secret diaries. That would be weird. I mean his nature diaries, which he cunningly disguises as books.

Thankfully, his publisher sees fit to release them on a yearly schedule. The books usually have a distinctive underlying theme, but the format is pretty much the same each year, and I’m happy with that.

Still Water is framed as a look at the life of ponds, particularly in Britain. Beloved of those Victorians who had a bit of garden space, these plashy holes in the ground are a haven for creatures such as frogs, toads, ducks, dragonflies, water boatmen, moorhens, coots, pond skaters and sticklebacks. And not forgetting a creature beloved of conservationists but perhaps less so of town planners and construction companies - the great crested newt, Britain’s funkiest animal. If anyone finds one of these amphibians on a building site, then you ain’t building no buildings, folks.

JLS’s pleasant, meandering style skims over the history of ponds and references to them in other literature (we learn that the word pescatorian was an insult in days of yore). It perfectly sums up the tranquillity of sitting in his own English garden, waiting for the sun.

We jump between a pond in Argenteuil, France, and the author’s own backyard in Herefordshire, but there are also entirely pond-free digressions. One of these takes in JLS’s interest in the First World War, and a walk he undertakes in the Lakes in memory of the men killed at the front more than 100 years ago. You won’t mind a bit.

The First World War is one of the author’s common themes, and he returns to it and several others in this book. Sometimes I read bits and pieces that I’m sure I’ve heard about before, whether in Meadowland, The Running Hare or The Wood. I’m sure JLS has previously mentioned his first memory: being bitten in the face by a dog. New information is the fight he gets into as a kid, and his father’s refusal to stop the scrap, plus the bloody steak he is given as a reward for putting on a good show. Fathers are such strange creatures. He also mentions his parents’ divorce, which I don’t think he did before, either. Similarly, we learn that the author was desperate to join the navy, like his hero, Sir Peter Scott, but this was ruled out owing to a lack of facility with numbers. I feel his pain.

In the present day, JLS channels Roger Deakin by trying some wild swimming in a pond. He gets covered in muck and beasties, and is perfectly happy with it - until he encounters a leech. Cue a digression about leeches, and the staggering observation that the leech quacks of olden times might have been onto something.

These personal reminiscences and digressions bring colour and comedy to an already rich meal. And if the author leans a little too hard on John Clare and Edward Thomas references… Well, most of us come back to our favourite things, whether in life or in writing. Hence, this review.

by JA Baker
224 pages, Collins

This one has been referenced in many of the modern era’s great nature books. It’s a slow-burner in publishing terms, written by a fiercely private man who tracked and recorded the movements of peregrine falcons through the flat countryside of his native Essex in the 1950s and 60s.

JA Baker’s slight volume is a condensed version of 10 years’ worth of journals. Championed by Robert Macfarlane and others after being out of print for a long time, The Peregrine could be described as a work of poetry rather than a conventional narrative. Taking a diary format, Baker’s masterwork underlines his remarkable gift for describing the exact same things in several different, but equally enthralling ways.

He can’t get enough of the peregrine’s stoop (or swoop, as muggles would call it), as the world’s fastest bird descends, tyrannosaur claws agape, to snatch other birds and mammals and then tear them to pieces. The language is sparkling, a visceral, immediate delight best consumed quickly. Like the bird itself, it’s all lean muscle.

Baker’s tone is curious. This book is as romantic as they come in terms of language, but there is not a shred of sentiment involved - and anthropomorphism is out of the question. The predator is brutal, and yet described as a thing of beauty. While Baker deplores humanity’s revelry in killing, he cannot help but luxuriate in it himself. The author asks us something like: ‘Blood red’ – was there ever a more useless description? What else could red look like that could match it better than the colour of blood?

He sees predation as a dirty business - all the more on humans’ behalf, because we have the luxury of being able to consider whether or not to kill, before doing it anyway. Even so, Baker has a kind of rapture when describing the falcon turning its prey into gore, strewn guts and feathers.

The author is not quite so keen on his own species. In light of his various disabilities and painful health problems, not least his myopia, you wonder if Baker gained a sense of freedom from watching the falcons on the wing. Perhaps he discovered the true meaning of ecstasy, or ekstasis, as Robert Macfarlane points out: being taken outside of ourselves.

There are signs of the environmental rage which has become close to the norm these days. The Peregrine was written in a time when the birds were being poisoned through the use of pesticides, after they had been shot as pests themselves during wartime. Baker deplores the use of chemicals, wholesale culling and other industrial horrors. Were he still alive, he would have been dismayed at our continued descent into the gargantuan act of self-harm that is the Anthropocene era, although not greatly surprised.

Going by Mark Cocker’s introduction, The Peregrine still attracts controversy. Some descriptions of the creature in the title do not tally with common observations by seasoned bird watchers. The amount of kills the raptor makes by Baker’s reckoning are under dispute, as is his observation of one of them eating worms. There is also a suggestion that Baker might have gotten confused with a kestrel, in noting hovering behaviour – something the peregrine apparently doesn’t do.

Countering this, Cocker asserts that it hardly seems likely that a person so deeply ingrained in the appearance and habits of his quarry would make such fundamental mistakes over details – or indeed fabricate them, as many have suggested. Perhaps it was just as he described it, at one particular time, with one particular bird?

Either way, if you’re a lover of gorgeous descriptive prose, I’d say these small details don’t matter too much. Baker is one of those writers with a great gift for making any scene, thought or image sparkly with unique light. If the price of making a true story gorgeous is Doubting Thomases getting sniffy about it, then it’s one he would have paid, no question.

by Roger Deakin
320 pages, Penguin

We were robbed of Roger. He might still have been merrily turning books out, as he might fashion a table and chairs from driftwood in his workshop. Even better, he would have been all over BBC4, any given weeknight. Fate had other ideas.

He might have turned his ire over pollution and corporate slovenliness into a fulminating masterpiece fit for 2019. I feel sure he’d have been involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests.

It’s nice to wonder about this. But we can only make do with what we’ve got.

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is Deakin’s third and final book, edited together posthumously by his partner Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker from journals written in his last six years. It follows a diary format from January to December, although it meanders back and forth in time, with one date sometimes having more than one entry. So it’s kind of a “greatest hits” of Roger’s diaries.

Apart from some seasonal framing, the author has a free hand. I think this style suited him.

We get reminiscences about his childhood, recollections of his adventures both close to home and far away, and impressions of the farm in the title, a semi-wild Suffolk retreat he called home for the closing decades of his life. That’s the place with the moat, the one he swum around every morning in Waterlog. What a life!

We get Roger’s thoughts on sleeping in his little shed in all weathers, fixing the house up, and looking after any human or animal that passes through his front door. He details all the little creatures he loves, and their readily accepted invasions of his home, from the birds in the attic, to the cats prowling the yard, and the spiders stringing silk across his furniture. He’s the type of guy who would become anxious at the idea of crushing ants as he steps onto the path outside his front door every morning – in fact there’s a moment involving a tiny creature on the loose in his study that shows a childlike empathy with all creatures great and small.

Countering this, there’s his disdain for human agency and petty rules affecting his beloved Common. Gentrification also annoys him. If you’d won the lottery and bought a big country pile down the road from Roger, I suspect it might have taken him a long time to like you.

This might be my favourite of Roger’s books. And yet, I’m struggling to give you an overview of what it’s like. The best example I can give is one entry on the joys of what he calls jotting - writing freeform, and letting your observations, memories, fears, ecstasies and personal mysteries tumble out onto the page any way they choose.

Roger was a wanderer, a freebooter with a bit of a gypsy heart - and yet also an ardent conservationist, with a strong sense of home. More conservative, you suspect, than he liked to admit, but no lover of fences or the inequalities they contain, and certainly a detester of chauvinism and disrespect for nature. He was every inch the English radical, with tones that remind me of Orwell at his best. His influence is still strong among writers, readers and lovers of British natural history, part of a pantheon that grows year on year.

In particular, the 20 years since Waterlog came out have seen an explosion of interest in wild swimming. He definitely had a hand in this.

Going by the esteem he enjoys from his proteges and contemporaries, it’s safe to say Roger Deakin’s legacy is secure. Many have reported an odd sense of familiarity with the author through his work that they don’t quite get with other scribes. He feels like someone we know and like; that rare friend you might feel compelled to actually pick up a telephone and talk to.

In part two, we’ll check out Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Kate Humble and Kate Bradbury. Although I suspect we might have to wait out the summer before I get there…