August 18, 2018

MEG: GENERATIONS


by Steve Alten
Kindle/Kobo edition, A&M Publishing

Review by Pat Black

You know what a Meg is now, don’t you? No, not Pete’s daughter off Family Guy… no, not the actress who went a bit funny that time on Parky…

Yep, you’ve got it now. Giant feck-off shark from prehistory, eating people. That was the working title for The Meg, I think.

God bless Jason Statham – the movie is doing well. I think we might have a series on our hands. Or at any rate, a sequel. The ultimate goal for Megheads has to be seeing The Trench up on the big screen.

On the page, we’re up to the fifth sequel now in Steve Alten’s Meg series, with Meg: Generations. I am old enough to have been in on it from the start – yeah, sprinkle that on top of your avocado on toast, millennials – having taken a bite of the original Meg 20 years ago this very month.

I’m delighted that the Philadephia author has finally seen his creation hit the big screen. It seemed like we’d never get there. Development hell is the phrase, alright; Steve Alten had to put up with two full decades of it.

Quick recap: megalodons are giant prehistoric sharks which died out tens of thousands of years ago. The only remnants of these animals are their fossilised teeth, which are longer than Michael Myers’ top-performing filleter, and twice as lethal. They’re ancestors of today’s great white shark, judging by the shape of the teeth, only in XXXXL, super-Jacamo size.

In Alten’s world, these sharks still live in the sunless depths of the Mariana Trench, which sounds a little bit like a sandwich that makes you feel dirty but also satisfied. The trench is in fact the deepest point of the known ocean. Megalodons aren’t the only nasty prehistoric surprise slinking about down there. We also meet a variety of dinosaurs, such as kronosaurs, mosasaurs and, star prize, the Liopleurodon, the largest predator known to science. In Alten’s books, these animals reach the upper surface of the seas and merrily munch on people. They’re also chased by people with lots of money – Arab oil tycoons, Russian oligarchs and Chinese tech barons – as coveted exhibits in giant theme park lagoons. Except they have a habit of escaping and eating spectators, running wild, uh-oh, full speed ahead on the boat captain, etc etc.

Ace submersible pilot Jonas Taylor is our link between all six books. He’s getting a bit older now, but he’s still handy at the joystick of special Manta submarines, specially designed, it seems, to be chased by giant prehistoric sea beasts. The latest model of the Mantas come equipped with lasers (makes Dr Evil air speech marks). Yep, he went there.

Like most dads, Jonas is called upon when his family needs a hand or gets in trouble, or needs a shelf putting up. Trouble comes most often. His son David is a chip off the old block, getting into the same sort of scrapes with aquatic predators as his dad. Jonas’s wife Terry is also on board for the ride, as is the uncouth helicopter pilot James “Mac” Mackriedes, a useful friend who, you suspect, could be doing with another wipe or two of a morning.

We catch up with the action right where Nightstalkers finished off, as David Taylor helps his former squeeze Jacqueline Buchwald capture a junior Liopleurodon for UAE-based, super-rich backers. However, they also captured a livvyatan melvillei, a Miocene whale with similar bad manners to his prehistoric bros. This ‘roided up Moby Dick manages to burst out of its holding pen inside a cargo ship, inadvertently releasing the Liopleurodon. Carnage ensues once again.

David is tasked with recapturing the Lio; meanwhile, Jonas Taylor has more grounded problems to solve, when it turns out his wife Terry has terminal cancer. It’s just as well that one of the prehistoric fish to be found in the Panthalassa Sea – a giant underground sea haven for all the monsters to be found in these books – harbours the cure for cancer in its liver, then…

On top of this, there’s another Megalodon problem – or two, to be precise. The offspring of Bela and Lizzy, the Meg twins, are also out and about, hunting in pairs off the coast of northern Canada and causing havoc among the human and orca population alike. These two killers must also be rounded up and brought back to the Tanaka Institute to keep the books balanced for the Taylor family.

Meg: Generations soon finds a groove and provides plentiful meg-dinosaur carnage for us to get our teeth into. Again, Alten relishes scenes of peril where hapless humans come into contact with the monsters – this “guess the redshirt” game is one of the key pleasures in this great big dirty pleasure of a book.  

There’s a cage diving trip involving great white sharks which has an unexpected visitor. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment where a woman seeks revenge on one monster shark with a shotgun for having eaten her friend, with predictable consequences. In the creepiest scene, two characters we’ve come to know, but not like, are removed from the plot, and existence, by a creature with unexpected land-lubbing skills on the Farallon Islands. And best of all, one of the Megalodons discovers it doesn’t like the taste of human flesh… meaning it only chews people up and spits them out, rather than ingesting them completely. That’s polite for a Megalodon.  

There’s some more delicious monster-mashing as two of the oceanic titans go head-to-head, a rematch I’ve been waiting for since book four. But there are even more incredible prehistoric creatures to be found in the deep, after Jonas Taylor and friends are forced to go back into the Trench one last time… and then beyond, down into the Panthalassa Sea.

We finish on a cliffhanger, which would be annoying if Alten didn’t have book seven, Meg: Purgatory, ready to go shortly. As ever, I’ll be there…

The book has a preoccupation with real estate, legal entanglements and other contractual headaches which made me think that Alten had to contend with similar issues in real life while he was writing. There’s a comic moment near the end where we’re meant to be on a knife-edge, wondering whether a lawyer is going to be able to send signed paperwork off on a fax machine before a giant underwater bastard breaks free from its pen. I wasn’t interested in this at all, although I suppose Alten wanted to inject a sense of realism into proceedings. If someone was eaten at a theme park, you can bet that there’d be some litigation to follow.

Other than that, it’s terrific fun, a book I cut through in no time at all. I didn’t use the word “guilty” as an adjective for “pleasure” above, in a space where it might have fitted well. That’s deliberate, because I don’t feel guilty about liking this series. Meg is my “thing” – a wee step back into cosy, warm bath water, like when I splashed around with my dinosaur toys as a wee laddie. I’m chuffed to bits to see Steve Alten’s big fish tale is making a splash with cinema audiences around the world. Who knows, I might even get to see it myself any day now, family life permitting.

In the meantime, there is a job lot of monsters to play around with here. Onwards to book seven, and all-new critters.

August 11, 2018

FALCON BLUE


by Rebecca Lochlann
438 pages, Erinyes Press

Review by Melissa Conway

Falcon Blue is book six in author Rebecca Lochlann’s eight-book mythic historical fantasy series Child of the Erinyes. This is the epic story of Athene’s Wanderers reborn into the Early Middle Ages following their first incarnation in the Bronze Age.

Eamhair is the only daughter of Bericus, brutal chieftain of the fortress of Dunaedan, perched high on the wind-swept northwestern cliffs of Gaelic Scotland. Promised to the king when she was an infant, her reputation among men has been deliberately cultured by her father as that of a “goddess among women.” Despite this deception, her true status is that of a lowly servant, with no more value to her father than that of a bartering tool. To countermand her bleak existence and even bleaker future, Eamhair clings to the fanciful tales of magic her mother regaled her with as a child – that the Seolh-king would someday come to take her away to his kingdom in the sea. She attributes her mother’s influence to her occasional glimpses behind the veil of an incorporeal place, completely unaware that she was once Aridela, Queen of Crete.

When Cailean, a mysterious blue-eyed warrior from a foreign land arrives at the fortress atop his imposing stallion Bharosa and accompanied by his wolf Vita, Eamhair is immediately struck by an intangible sensation of familiarity. Cailean himself is inexplicably enchanted by the untouchable daughter of his new lord. Like her, he has no recollection of his prior life as Menoetius.

At the same time, unbeknownst to either of them, a monk named Taranis has also found his way to Dunaedan. He’s been skulking in the hidden passages of the fortress, stalking Eamhair. Of the three, he’s the only one whose memories of his life as Chrysaleon of Mycenae are intact, but this impossible knowledge drives him to the brink of insanity. He cannot resist his undying obsession with Aridela – born in this time as Eamhair.

As each of them struggle to reconcile these otherworldly notions, Harpalycus is drawn to Dunaedan and Eamhair as surely as Cailean and Taranis were. After centuries jumping from body to body in an orgy of malevolent indulgence, he is now masquerading as Fathna, powerful brother to the king, and is determined to seize the opportunity to even the score with the hapless trio.

In true Rebecca Lochlann feminist fashion, Falcon Blue immerses the reader in an entangled saga of magic, eternal life, and divine prophecy, while shining harsh light on male dominance throughout history. As always, her novels are highly recommended by this reviewer.



August 5, 2018

NATURESQUAWK:


by Gavin Maxwell
224 pages, Little Toller Books

Review by Pat Black

Stuck on a picture postcard Scottish island with the birds and the beasties for company? Sounds great.

(Waits for the “but…”)

Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water was a huge bestseller when it came out in 1960. Fifty-eight years later, Maxwell seems like the kind of man who simply wouldn’t exist nowadays.

The son of old-money landed gentry from Galloway in the south-west of Scotland, Maxwell describes himself as a massive snob in his youth, bumbling through higher education, affecting a kilt in a time when people didn’t even wear them at weddings, and generally being many things I dislike. Naturally, he excelled at field sports and was handy with a gun. Something happened to this ace hunter, though, between his teenage years and his thirties, when he took up residence on a remote Scottish island. His experiences there gave birth to this fondly-remembered natural history classic.

Like many nature writers of his social status, Maxwell renounced his propensity for blowing holes in animals, his metamorphosis taking him from a Sir Victorly Blunderbuss type to a modern day equivalent of St Francis of Assisi. This is surprisingly common among today’s crop of nature writers – only John Lewis-Stempel remains unrepentant, shooting for the pot as need dictates on his land. A fair few of them have taken that road to Damascus, going from tweeds, wellies, springer spaniels and outright ecological vandalism to having nothing to do with killing animals. Perhaps this tells us something about the social class of the type of people who write successful natural history books.

The book starts with Maxwell’s travels with the friendly Marsh Arabs in Iraq – this was only sixty years ago, folks – in which he becomes enamoured of the smooth-coated otters he encounters there. He brings one home, which doesn’t live long, but this leads him to import Mijbil, the star of the show.

Maxwell takes a run-down cottage in Sandaig, an island off the Isle of Skye, close to where the author had set up a base for slaughtering basking sharks years before. More on this later.

It is here that Maxwell and Mijbil have their time in the sun, frolicking in wild, beautiful surroundings. We all have our times and places in life where we found little bits of heaven, and this was Maxwell’s. I feel almost as compelled to visit Sandaig as I once was with Loch Ness. It’s one of many gorgeous islands in the Hebrides which are served by the Gulf Stream, producing white sandy beaches and blue water poured straight out of a Cezanne painting, in a place you might not expect it. 

In truth, only about a third of this book takes place on Sandaig – which Maxwell calls “Camusfearna”, Scots Gaelic for “The Bay of the Alders”, so as to preserve the island’s purity. Sandaig itself means “The Butt of Squawk” in the ancient tongue.

There, Maxwell lives in a ramshackle cottage, collecting driftwood and tea chests washed ashore for his furniture. He takes a long time to fix the holes and do the place up. It seems he’s been granted use of the house as a favour, having lost all his money in the disastrous shark fisheries venture. He seems to pursue an itinerant, somewhat monastic life out there. He’s a pretend bum, though, splitting his time between Scotland during the good seasons and knocking around London in a vintage sports car. He also has some crazy adventures on the capital’s streets with Mij on a leash, prompting Norman Wisdom-style double-takes from the ragamuffins he encounters.

British eccentric? With frigging bells on.

“British eccentric” is ancient Anglo-Saxon for “person with money”.

All three of the otters in this book are comic figures, who put their love of fun and chaos, not to mention their well-developed forepaws, to good use - ripping, dismantling, disintegrating, and destroying. Maxwell is the Tommy Cannon to Mij’s Bobby Ball.

There are great comic set-pieces, such as one episode where Maxwell has to take Mij on board a plane, on his lap. Try that one nowadays, if you would. Again, you’re reminded that this was nearly sixty years ago. 1960 shouldn’t feel like ancient history, but it’s getting that way.

Maxwell’s name lives on in zoological as well as literary history, as it turned out his otters were unknown to science. He agonises over giving them his own name once the discovery is confirmed, but he does. He recognises the childish drive to stamp his Latinised moniker on one of god’s creatures, outlining the desire beautifully in his own voice from when he was seven: “But can’t I just have it? This one thing? Just once?”

Thus, Lutrogale perspicillate maxwelli has its place in the textbooks to this day.

The comedy involved in these playful animals brings up a key tension for the modern reader, though. An otter from the Iraqi marshes doesn’t really belong in a house, even if it was one on the banks of the Tigris, never mind one off the north-west coast of Scotland. Maxwell resists overly anthropomorphising his animals, but never quite grasps the idea that Mij is out of his element, even though the animal takes to his new home and thrives there.

Maxwell does address the fact that otters are in fact quite dangerous. One of Maxwell’s proteges, the late Terry Nutkins, could have told you this, having lost part of his fingers to one of the otters described in such scampish detail here. Cute they may be. Domestic pets, they are not.

Maxwell’s natural history writing is on a par with his comedic flair, and he outlines the flora and fauna of the bay with some skill – torpedoing porpoises, the menacing six-foot sails of the orcas, the rutting red deer on his very doorstep, and flights of geese come to charm him for a whole season from thousands of miles away. For all I might get sniffy about how and why Maxwell managed to get into publishing, the quality of the prose is beyond reproach. One description of a lemur he adopts before he finds his otters – “his habits were unfortunate, and solitary” – afforded me the increasingly rare joy of having to stifle laughter on a busy train.

Finding out a bit more about Maxwell raised a lot of questions about the book after I’d finished it. His father died in one of the very first engagements of the First World War, when Maxwell was a mere infant. Maxwell slept in his mother’s bed until he was eight, when he was taken away to boarding school. Far from becoming a bed-wetter or a mummy’s boy, Maxwell got into sporty, outdoorsy activities. When the Second World War came a-calling, Maxwell was a trainer for the Special Operations Executive, which is now known as the SAS. Apparently his party trick was to shoot moving ping pong balls out of the air during table tennis matches.

Maxwell reveals nothing of this in his most famous book; nor does he hint at being gay, although to be fair you could expect to be chemically castrated or sent to prison if you did come out of the closet in 1960. Again, sixty years ago, etc.

The book’s title comes from a poem written by Maxwell’s close female friend, Maxine Raine. This is where a dark cloud dapples the sugar beaches at Sandaig.

Raine was hopelessly in love with Maxwell, but Maxwell preferred men – and she cursed him for it.
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I mean, literally cursed him. Proper witchy woo stuff.

Misfortune duly befell Maxwell, including one or two things which would count as spoilers for this book. But then, misfortune befalls us all – it’s one of only two absolute guarantees left in life (as some people avoid taxes with little fuss). I was struck by the poet’s rage, and also her oft-expressed guilt when Maxwell started to encounter major problems in his life. Happily, the curse didn’t extend to book sales.

The author’s legacy as an environmentalist has come in for a bit of a kicking in recent years. Maxwell’s a bit class-conscious when it comes to his favourite animals, with fish being well down the pecking order (nibbling order?). He has a lot to answer for in his shark hunting days, when he blithely persecuted immense basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland in order to harvest their livers. The ocean becomes quite literally red with the creatures’ blood, as he spears them with harpoons and drags their 30-40ft bodies onto the beach, where they are hacked to pieces. Some of them might have been still alive.

He was only reflecting the feeling at the time that basking sharks were simply a nuisance, often getting snagged up in fishermen’s nets or providing a potentially life-threatening collision risk on the surface. So, sure, why not slaughter ‘em? And there was money in them thar livers, in those days.

God knows what effect his bloody work – outlined in another book, Harpoon At A Venture - had on the population of these immense, but peaceable plankton-feeders. Like the whales, their numbers have never quite recovered from the days when they could expect a jab with a harpoon from any humans they met.

Maxwell reasoned, as he does again in Ring Of Bright Water, that because these creatures don’t have the same sized brains as whales or dolphins, they simply don’t matter. Basking sharks are now beloved of nature-watchers, and people flock to the Scottish islands off the west coast for the chance to see them in early summer months. The idea of killing one for any reason is abhorrent to most of western civilised society.

Bankruptcy followed this endeavour - this was well before Maxwell was cursed, we should note - but perhaps sweetness came with it, once Maxwell had renounced his man-of-action leanings.

Maxwell was a complex man. Prone to great eruptions and fissures in his mood, he’d almost certainly be diagnosed as bipolar were he alive today. He didn’t seem to lack for company, despite squirrelling himself away on his wild island. Several strapping young lads, having read and adored Ring Of Bright Water, volunteered to take up residency on Sandaig and help out the author with life on the island. Nutkins was one such boy; John Lister-Kaye, who recently appeared on the Wainwright Prize shortlist with his latest book, was another.
Thus the ripple effect continues to this very day.

Drawing a line from Nutkins (how sad to think he’s dead; it’s jarring, in its way, like when you remember Donna Summer, Prince, Rick Parfitt and David Bowie are dead), Maxwell has had a strong influence on many British people’s love and affection for the natural world through the small screen, either with Johnny Morris’s Animal Magic or its successor, The Really Wild Show.

Ring Of Bright Water was a phenomenon in its time, and was all the more remarkable as it viewed nature as sublime, rather than something to be tamed, or murdered for trophies. It certainly struck a chord with people all over the world, and sold millions of copies, spawning a fictionalised movie starring Bill Travers and Ginny McKenna.

I harbour dreams of living somewhere remote. I wonder if it’s truly possible, though. Once I get set up in my remote cottage by the mountains or the sea or the forest, I’d start inquiring about wi-fi passwords and 4G coverage. Then of course I’d have to think about shops and the pub – aside from the basic need to eat, it wouldn’t be good to get totally remote. There’s a law about closed systems. Then I’d need some to get some craftspeople in to fix the place up, because I have no building skills. I’m no farmer either, and while I am of course a total and utter killer, hunting isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t even consider being self-sustaining. It’s too much like hard work. And perhaps there, we gain some understanding over why we are compelled to destroy this planet.

It turns out lemmings don’t jump off clifftops, after all; but humans do. That’s the great big “but” I was talking about, at the top. How to have a modern life, and yet freed from the pitfalls of human civilisation; how to sustain yourself, and yet live sustainably.

Maxwell’s beyond all this, thankfully, his ashes long spread across the bay of the alders. But for all his faults while he was on earth, his spiritual legacy is a good one. Parts of his masterpiece have dated in a bad way, but I try to be kind when it comes to this sort of hindsight regarding art. In case it’s not clear, I adored this book.

July 23, 2018

WALKING ON GLASS


by Iain Banks
352 pages, Abacus

Review by Pat Black

Bit of blasphemy, now.

Walking On Glass is Iain Banks’ second novel, published a year after the neo-gothic shock of The Wasp Factory. It must have come as a disappointment to many people intrigued by what the young Scots author would do next.

It tells three different stories. First, there’s art student Graham Park, who is in love with the exciting, enigmatic Sarah ffitch (not a typo) after meeting her at a party.

Then there’s Steven Grout, a labourer suffering from paranoid delusions that he is an admiral in an intergalactic, interdimensional war, marooned on earth. He needs to escape from his earthly confines, and must somehow endure the tedium of life on this planet until then – but how?

Finally, we follow Quist and Ajayi, who actually are two admirals from an intergalactic war, imprisoned in a strange, fantasy-land castle where they are set an old philosophical problem: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

As you might suppose, the three stories interlink in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

I’m a big fan of Iain Banks, but I’ll say this early on: this isn’t a very good novel. I’m glad I didn’t read this one first; I might never have gone back. I wonder what his publishers thought? Banks himself seemed apologetic in later interviews.

The big problem is that the three individual stories just aren’t very interesting. No faulting the prose, just the lack of events. Graham Park is young and na├»ve, dawdling through what he thinks is a love affair with Sarah, his head in the stratosphere. There is a rival on the scene – divorced Sarah’s sometime lover, the hulking biker Bob Stock. But he’s a presence in the background, something to occupy Graham’s mind as interest becomes obsession.

More interesting to me was Richard Slater, Graham’s gay friend. Slater’s “great ideas for stories” were the first thing to get me fully engaged in the book. In the bizarre plots and pay-offs Slater outlines to a bored and sometimes exasperated Graham – including an overt nod to Douglas Adams – this, finally, was the Iain Banks I know. 

But by and large this segment of the story is that very strange thing: a love affair without any sex. I was frustrated. Perhaps I am a dirtier devil than I thought.

Steven Grout was even more difficult to listen to, and in fact almost drove me into the arms of Muriel Spark. Grout’s imaginings are perhaps clinically insane – his intergalactic enemies are everywhere and nowhere; he is blasted by microwave weapons, and the hubcaps from cars seek to destroy him with death rays. It was difficult to listen to after a while. This was a hat-tip to realism, as it replicated the sensation of paranoia which we’re all familiar with, but it was a curious ordeal for me. Perhaps Banks essayed paranoia too successfully.

Worse than his invisible foes, Grout runs up against the world of bureaucracy, as he is sacked from his job and then seeks to draw unemployment benefit. There are forms to fill in, details to be attended to, nosey landladies to be lied to and smirking ingrates with clipboards to be endured. Grout is fuming, all the time, a ticking bomb, and also makes some absolutely hopeless mistakes in his day-to-day life which had me slapping my forehead. When he started being careless with his pay-off from his job, it was as unbearable as his psychic warfare with his intergalactic jailers.

Topping off this awkward triptych is the story of Quist, imprisoned in his castle with Ajayi. The castle is very well described by Banks, and that’s probably the biggest problem with this section. The outline of the Heath Robinson-esque architecture and its strange mechanics and engineering in the bowels of the castle were probably significant to the story and the overall themes of the book, but by god I found it dull. If you’re excited by the idea of bridges and thought Meccano was a great toy for a kid, then read on, and be glad. Anyone else – beware.

Quist and Ajayi are tormented by the custodians and guards of the castle, led by the sarcastic red crow, a talking bird. The pair are imprisoned for deadly mistakes they made in the past, and although they are sci-fi characters, the castle has a fantasy/fairytale style. The dwarfish servants are abused and tortured by Quist, a sour old boor who can’t get the central problem they must solve right – but to no avail.

The stories do interlink, and I guess there are extra marks on show for anyone looking for the more subtle parallels and callbacks. Stacks of books is one; the sheer tedium of bureaucracy is another.

There’s no faulting Banks’ prose, and he illustrates Graham’s infatuation with Sarah ffitch as beautifully as he ever did. The small details and tiny torments of a young man in love were exquisite – the feeling, gone all too soon, that the birds sing just for him.

Slater, always in the background, is a mischievous presence rooted in 1980s student politics but quite endearing with it (like Banks forever was). He enhances the plot as best he can.

One thing I will say about this part is that Banks captures sexual naivety very well. You know that Graham is heading for trouble from the first moment he meets Sarah – and that in his first rush of adult love, he may be as delusional as Steven Grout. Again, the longer this went on, the more painful it was to read. We have probably all been there. Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

By the time the glass shatters and all secrets are revealed, the book does shift gears, but all too late. I remember thinking: well, this is a strange book for one big reason - there’s none of Banks’ usual pervy preoccupations with incest, for a start.

Erp.

There are other Banks tells, such as a fascination with games of every kind, whether played on boards, computers or battlefields. And then there’s the idea of infidelity as a weapon – the realisation that the object of one character’s affection has been f*cking someone else, and then the humiliation and mockery that follows the shock of realisation.

It’s a nasty thing to do and to take pleasure in. If it happened once or twice in Banks’ work, I could shrug it off. But it happens quite a lot. I wonder what Banks got out of it. Same with the incest – Banks, an only child, we should note, has put this in quite a few of his books. The Crow Road, Use of Weapons and even right at the end, with The Quarry. That’s just off the top of my head, and giving the benefit of the doubt to the air of sexual obsession that haunts The Wasp Factory as Frank’s terrible secret is revealed.

Maybe Banks was just trying to shock us – he enjoyed doing that, all of his days.

In summary, Walking On Glass is possibly the author’s worst out of the ones I’ve read so far, and definitely one to avoid if you’re thinking of giving Banks a try.

I can’t decide if it’s too clever for its own good, or nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. In sum, that’s nowhere near a recommendation.

June 26, 2018

THE DEVIL'S TEETH


by Susan Casey
304 pages, Owl Books

Review by Pat Black

Susan Casey watched a documentary made by the BBC in the mid-1990s about great white sharks, and became obsessed with the giant predators. A few years later, she wrote a book about it.

I saw the same film. April 1995. Sir David Attenborough narrating. It was amazing. I’m gutted that you can’t get it on DVD or Blu-Ray – god knows I’ve looked.

Back in those merry analogue days, I taped it on VHS, and watched it again and again (re-record, not fade away…). Great white sharks had been filmed many times before from within cages, but this hour-long special went that bit further – following the phenomenal fish into the depths with state-of-the-art remote cameras.

Some of the shots captured are gold-standard natural history film-making. One, taken from a float in the shape of a seal, shows a 16-foot fish rushing to the surface like a torpedo, in full attack mode. I still see this footage popping up here and there – most recently in an online prank where people walk into a room facing a giant screen… and then oh my god, giant shark attacks!

Other images revealed the fish breaching, leaping clean out of the water with luckless seals clamped between their jaws. I’m not sure if this was the first time the “Air Jaws” phenomenon had been filmed, but it was certainly the first time I’d seen it. It made the idea of Bruce the shark stage-diving the deck of the Orca seem less fantastic.

The documentary featured the work of scientists Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, who had spent years studying these animals near a chain of jagged rocks around thirty miles off the coast of California called the Farallones. These serrated peaks are inhospitable to the point of murder. You can just about see the toothy outcrops from the Golden Gate Bridge, but the proximity is deceptive; although surfers take to the waves not too far away, these are dangerous waters.

It’s incredibly tough to land a ship on the Farallones, for a start – far easier to turn your vessel into matchsticks against the cliffs. From there, if you do decide to take a dip, you face the added danger of the sharks, who congregate in the area every autumn. We know that these creatures don’t want to hunt humans, and rarely do – but they have done in the past, and the rarity of such events would come as no comfort should you have your legs bitten off, accidentally or not.

I want them protected, and I love them, but they are very dangerous animals. This is their brute allure. Would you take your child swimming knowing one was nearby? If not, why not?

These are the big buggers – straight-up, no-messing Jaws-a-likes. Some of the Sisterhood, as the giant females are known, are thought to reach as much as 22ft in length. We only know this because the wounds found on the body of a surfer who had his entire chest cavity excised in one bite corresponded to a fish approximately that size – going by the old “bite radius crap” Hooper was talking about in Jaws. Although it’s fair to say the 16-18 footers would still give you a nasty wee nip.

Casey, a senior editor at Time Magazine, attaches herself to Pyle and Anderson’s research community on the Pacific rock, and is soon heading out in 8ft boats in heavy seas to record the activity of 16ft sharks. Go figure.

She starts off with a shark encounter straight out of Hollywood, as she watches one of the fish surge towards her boat. But this book isn’t so much about sharks as it is the Farallones themselves. There’s plenty of sharkage, but it’s not the main component.

The author looks at the curious history of these unlovely islands, from their discovery through to their unlikely status during the “Egg Wars” of the mid-19th century, when prospectors fought among themselves for control of the then-lucrative guillemot eggs trade. (To begin with, there were no chickens or egg industry in California. But which came first?)

The author also looks at the history of the research group’s dwelling-place, a musty, wind-blasted old house of dubious plumbing. Naturally, there are ghost stories attached to the property, and Casey is given an extreme case of the willies one night.

The Farallones don’t seem to like Casey very much – she’s dive-bombed by gulls and other birds, and clattered by the sea as she makes her way up ancient staircases carved into the rock. Later, she hires out a huge sailing boat so that she can remain at anchor during Shark Season in the autumn, supposedly helping Peter and Scot out.

Problem being, Casey isn’t much of a sailor, and the weather is awful. Hiring the vessel is a means to an end, allowing her to sidestep some strict environmental protection laws governing visitors to the islands.

“I’ve never been a big fan of rules,” she states.

Neither are weather systems. Several times, Peter and Scot come to the rescue, berthing up alongside the moored boat, as the heavy seas threaten to snap the anchor and carry Casey off to the middle of the ocean, or hurl her against the rocks like a toddler in a tantrum.

You get the impression that the two veteran researchers - solitary men who spent much of their lives cloistered on a wild scrub of land haunted by giant predators because they enjoy it - tolerate the author, but only just.

I was reminded of wee boys running around at a wedding, joined at their play by a little girl maybe a year or two younger. This becomes less of a wry observation when the final twist of The Devil’s Teeth is revealed.

Casey briefly sketches other researchers stationed on the island over the seasons, but the most interesting tertiary character was Ron Elliott, an abalone diver. This guy gets into a wetsuit and dives down into the Red Triangle every other day to bring up the seabed-dwelling delicacy – a sea snail that commands a hefty price on the Japanese market. Ron has the whole of the Red Triangle to himself. Reason being, giant killer sharks regularly come around to carry out spot-checks on his business, and literally no-one else is crazy enough to do it.

Imagine that, every working day: seagoing titans with butcher knives for teeth, broad as a minibus, grinning at you in the gloom. And that’s just the ones you can see. No-one can stop them; and no-one can help you.

At time of writing, Ron is still unchomped.

There is something of a death wish in people who wish to get so close to these animals. As soon as the scientists spot seals and sea lions being transformed into gushing red chunks, it’s action stations – they drop everything, and head out to sea to tag and identify the sharks, and record their behaviour. There’s inherent danger in simply going to sea off the Farallones – you have to be winched off a cliff in an 8ft boat before you interrupt a creature twice as big and twice as broad as your conveyance at its repast. You could spend all day worrying about causing indigestion in a ludicrously big fish, only to get tipped off the boat and head-first into some rocks, while an audience of gulls shriek with glee.

Peter Pyle expresses a desire to go surfing there, noting a sweet eight-foot wave. Bear in mind that a big part of this man’s job is to entice the sharks by dragging a surfboard across the surface of the water, in order to trigger an attack.

Death is all around in the Farallones – even in humans’ early interaction with the place, there was conflict and homicide, tragedies, disease outbreaks, famine. Even today, tensions can arise. There’s something in the very geology of the place, snarling at you among dark, rough waters, that warns humans to keep away. When they’re there, the researchers can feel as trapped as scientists stuck in the Antarctic for the sunless winter. Lots of complications can arise, even among people who feel they might be well-prepared for isolation. There are instances of people who have arrived on the island as a couple, only for one of them to leave the other for a fellow researcher across the hall. That’d be a fun old breakfast table.

The place would be a first-rate setting for a horror story (makes entry in Someday I’ll Write These notebook).  Casey captures the feel of the Farallones beautifully.

Fun facts provided by this book: when a whale exhales, the spectacular geyser it emits absolutely stinks, the foulest fishy breath imaginable.

Also, the sea just off the coast of San Francisco is stuffed with red hot nuclear waste. The US navy took a ship which was so close to the first mushroom clouds that its plating caught fire, crammed it with barrels of nasty material, and sunk it a few hundred feet under the ocean. No-one knows exactly what’s down there, how toxic it is, and how much it has already affected the food chain.

And thirdly, when they attack, great white sharks attempt to decapitate seals. They’ve expended so much energy in the initial surge from below that they need to be as sure of a kill as they can, and a precision strike is the best way to achieve that. In many of these “mistaken identity” attacks on humans – single bite; realise mistake; let go - that is one big reason for fatalities. As if the idea wasn’t horrific enough. I don’t think even Bruce the Shark was that cold. Just one extra thing for you to think about, if you go surfing.

This book has a shocking ending. But it has nothing to do with jump-scares or nasty bites, or indeed fish of any size, and no-one is killed or injured. It does have something to do with misfortune at sea and no small amount of human folly. The entire book seems like a fool’s errand given the consequences of human interference in Peter and Scot’s research nirvana.

The author comes across as contrite, but only just. Her book leaves certain big questions hanging. I hope justice and common sense prevailed. In any case, I want Peter and Scot to know that their research made a huge impression on people, and they were part of one of the best natural history documentaries ever made.   

June 16, 2018

DEAD MEN'S TROUSERS


by Irvine Welsh
432 pages, Melville House
audio version read by Tam Dean Burn

Review by Pat Black

FOUR WIDOS AND A FUNERAL

Choose getting middle aged.

Dead Men’s Trousers catches up with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie as their train prepares to stops at a destination few expected them to reach: their fifties.

Director Danny Boyle managed expectations about as well as he could with T2, the movie sequel to Trainspotting which caught up with the boys two decades after Mark Renton’s betrayal. The film sidestepped much of its source novel, Porno, and did a smashing job. Now, with Dead Men’s Trousers, Irvine Welsh presents an alternate-reality T2.

The four principals are well into middle age now, and three of them have, improbably, found success. Renton manages DJs, and earns enough money to be able to get a monkey off his back by refunding Sick Boy and Begbie after he ripped them off in Trainspotting, and again in Porno.

Sick Boy is running an escort agency in London, and doing well with it, though he doesn’t always succeed in his efforts to instil a sense of class in his operation. I’ve always wondered what a Masters was for…

Most intriguing of all is the missing piece of the puzzle. I’ve never read The Blade Artist, but know that it concerns Begbie following his rehabilitation and reinvention as a sculptor. He has an international profile, a gorgeous wife and kids, lives in a big house in Santa Barbara with millions of pounds in the bank. Celebrities want to make friends. This is what is known as an outside bet.

Most people who know Franco would think this idea was ludicrous – unless you’re Scottish, in which case it’s almost a true story. Begbie’s turnaround was surely inspired by Jimmy Boyle, a Glasgow gangland enforcer jailed for murder who found redemption through a controversial artwork programme in prison. Boyle published the best-selling book, A Sense of Freedom, and upon release from Glasgow’s Bar-L in 1982, he married a psychiatrist and became an internationally renowned sculptor. Last I heard, he was living in a humongous house in the south of France, and is presumably still laughing.

Next to this once-notorious character’s astonishing reinvention, Begbie’s story doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The only one who hasn’t done anything with his life is of course Spud, who is begging on the streets of Leith when we meet him.

Following a chance encounter on a transatlantic jet, the four are drawn together as Begbie decides to make a cast of each of the boys’ heads, to mark the passing years.

JUST DESERTS

Although the four have very distinct stories, Dead Men’s Trousers does have a few plot lines interlinking them. As in Porno, the fragmented structure of Trainspotting is gone in favour of something more linear.

Renton wants to pay his mates back. Sick Boy is tasked with finding his brother-in-law, who has gone missing, because of… Sick Boy. Meanwhile, Begbie has to contend with a rogue cop in LA, an ex of his wife’s, who knows about some unpleasant things dear Franco has done in the previous novel. Spud gets mixed up in a black market organ donation racket, with predictably disastrous results. After he leaves some meat unattended in the presence of his dog (didn’t something similar happen in Skagboys?), Spud is brought into conflict with the sinister Edinburgh gangster, Victor Syme.

The weakest storyline of the four is Renton’s. In between managing the petulant demands of his motley crew of clients, he picks up a venereal disease, seemingly after one night of weakness back in Edinburgh. He fears he has passed it on to a promising partner back home in LA. “First world problems” indeed, as Sick Boy sneers at him.

It shouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that one of the four dies.

The marketing placed this bombshell front and centre, and it is a great big hook for casual readers as well as fans. From page one, Welsh plays with the idea that we’re well aware one of the four is heading for the crow road. It’s not so much a whodunit as a whosgettinit.

All four characters face mortal peril in their own individual stories. You sense Renton’s knob, and his irresponsible use of it, is going to land him in trouble. Plus he has a strange zeal when it comes to paying back Begbie, who insists he isn’t bothered about the rip-off from all those years ago. Plus interest.

Meanwhile, Sick Boy also draws the attention of Edinburgh brothel keeper Syme, a violent man who hatches a wicked plot of his own after he is inconvenienced by the hapless Spud. And Begbie has the rogue cop to contend with in the States, a man with a gun and a grudge.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. I will say that I had a bet with myself on who I thought was going to bite the big one. Was I right? I’ll tell you at the end.

DEAR FRANCO

The big joke in Begbie’s case is that while the older iteration may be calm and considered, he is still psychotic, and only too happy to use violence wherever he sees fit. “You don’t mess with what’s mine,” he growls at one character.

Perhaps his art is the work of a Leith chancer, too – we’ve all entertained a suspicion that some of the most famous people in contemporary arts are quite simply at it. Dots? Squiggles? Abstract? What? When Renton sees some of the end product – clay moulds of famous faces, disfigured with a knife - he reckons Begbie (or Jim Francis, as he’s known in the art world) is still at heart a con man. “That isnae art!”

There’s a sense that the three successful ones are all frauds, in fact. Sick Boy is still a manipulative, devious man – the sh*t mate who would feel no compunction over dipping your pockets when you’re drunk, or trying to cop off with your girlfriend. He is still just about good-looking enough to get away with it, even as he heads into his fifties, but he’s still the last man in the room to realise that he’s just a Leith radge, and that’s all he’ll ever be. No amount of Sean Connery impressions, embossed business cards, verbose drug-fuelled rants about the modern world or, indeed, money, can change that.

Similarly, Renton’s chosen line of work, while lucrative, hints that he isn’t a hugely talented person. He gets by through flannelling his clients, skivvying after their every whim and massaging promoters’ egos. As one of his DJs notes, he seems to have forgotten that he first got into the business because he loved music.

Poor, guileless Spud is, again, the most honest, open-hearted of the four. As usual, he suffers for it.

Leaving aside their formative years, the one piece of connecting tissue left between the four of them is that they all f*ck up. Not just little mistakes, but huge, pavement-cracking ones. It is this propensity - more than debauchery, more than drug addiction, more than cynicism - that defines these four men.

FREAK OUT THE SQUARES

Classic Welsh preoccupations aren’t slow in coming out. His continual excoriation of family life and straight-shooters is apparent in his treatment of Sick Boy’s brother-in-law, the douce, Calvinist foot surgeon Ewan. Sick Boy spikes him with MDMA while they’re out for drinks on Christmas Eve back in Edinburgh, and the repercussions from this affect the rest of the novel.

Sick Boy indulges his selfishness and sadism with barely an afterthought. The subsequent unravelling of his sister Carlotta’s marriage is viewed with a sense of exasperation at the inconvenience of Ewan going missing. There is no question of guilt.

That said, Ewan’s subsequent behaviour, whether out of his mind on eccies or not, was the least plausible part of the book. Again, it shows Welsh’s contempt for squares. People who abide by the rules always get f*cked in his books. People with jobs, degrees, vocations, relationships, children, responsibilities. People who choose life.

Irvine Welsh’s readership, in other words.

Welsh’s female characters are sometimes viewed as a weak part of his game, and it’s true. But something in this criticism bothers me. There are a lot of prostitutes in this book, granted.

There are a few victims as well. And one or two angels. Many of the women encountered here are simply used and dumped. You won’t get anything like the same character beats that you get from the four principals. At best, women (such as Spud’s ex Ally) are seen through the prism of a drunken uncle at a wedding, passing on his approval to the rest of the tribe when wee Jenny decides to do something radical, like completing her education. “Aye! (slams down pint glass) That lassie hus done well!”

But Welsh doesn’t have to break out of his four main men’s heads if he doesn’t want to. He isn’t writing books by committee in order to satisfy the social constructs of the day. It’s his ba’, and he decides who plays. No-one has a go at Lesley Pearce or Sheila O’Flanagan for sticking with mainly female characters.

It’s a man’s world in these books, though. That’s becoming something of an acquired taste these days. I see the difficulty. But for what it’s worth, this central belt schemie found the quartet’s first-person thoughts and reactions to be absolutely authentic, completely genuine. Likeable? That’s something else entirely.

4/4

Similar to the Musketeers, Irvine Welsh’s not-so-fantastic four could be seen as discrete sections of one psyche. There’s Renton, the lad o’ pairts, a clever boy from the wrong side of the tracks whom you could easily see becoming famous for writing, say, gritty novels. Maybe this is why “Svengali to international superstar DJs” doesn’t seem like a good fit for him.

It might have suited Renton better if he’d been a philosophy lecturer in a former polytechnic. Lucky Mark? That would help Welsh explore one of his fundamental tensions as a writer, and, I suspect, as a person – the predicament of the well-read, articulate schemie. He never quite fits in with the intelligentsia who would dismiss him in a heartbeat over his background, but he never quite fits in with the underclass he came from, either; people whose first impulse when faced with a book would be to deface it. The perpetual outsider. Ironically, there’s even more scope for chaos in that scenario, and he would inevitably get himself into trouble with young women.

In Sick Boy we have the manipulator, the schemer, the weasel – no less clever than Renton, easily more charismatic and coercive, but his lack of conscience edges into sociopathy.

The dreadful tough guy chat your dad gave you probably went something like this: if you can’t fight, you better be able to run. There are two other directions you can take, though – you can be the “funny guy”, or you can be the flyman. Sick Boy is the latter.

Dead Men’s Trousers is easily Sick Boy’s book, though, as much as Trainspotting was Renton’s. Tam Dean Burn has the most fun with this character in his audiobook narration. Sick Boy is so wide he could be Glaswegian. He is not a nice man, but there is an awful lot to cackle at.

Begbie’s type is all too familiar – the hard man, living up to a hard heritage, an illustration of how toughness can be a lifelong ambition for some. Welsh has spoken of some spine-chilling moments when he’s been back in Leith, and people have accosted him in the pub with words to the effect of: “Haw. That Begbie yin… that’s me, isn’t it? Ye based him on me.”

That character’s turnaround is the most intriguing element of this book, but as we discover, although Begbie’s calm, he’s still mental. At one point, he carries out a breathing exercise in order to hold his temper, even as he is strangling someone.

Does he still hold a grudge against Renton? For most of the book, we are inclined to wonder – even as the rest of the boys unquestioningly accept the “reformed character” narrative.

Once he’s back in Edinburgh, though, Franco falls back on bad habits. There’s something toxic in the very air that changes his accent, his outlook, returning his default settings to factory mode, prompting recidivist tendencies. Part of us has been waiting for this. There are strange, violent interludes, before the man goes full psycho. When he kicks off, you’re reading a horror novel – or a bovver boy NEL nasty from the 1970s. Possibly Guy N Smith wrote it, under a pseudonym.

Violence is Begbie’s true art, and he revels in it. You might not…

And then there’s Spud, the peaceable, fun-loving dope, the unlucky one everyone likes.

Speculating how much any character is like their creator is a mug’s game, but most people tend to see Renton as the Irvine Welsh proxy. Interestingly, the author mentioned in a recent interview that when he was at primary school, he was more like Sick Boy – manipulating, putting other kids up to things without actually doing them himself. Maybe you have to be a little bit like that to be a writer? It’s what we do to people on the page.

I wonder how Welsh felt when Danny Boyle took things in a different direction – showing Spud as the creative one, having turned out a manuscript called “Trainspotting”, and by implication, identifying the author most closely with his goofiest character.

Mixed feelings, I suspect. Though there is a nod to this in Dead Men’s Trousers.

HAMPDEN ROAR

When T2 came out early in 2017, I remember thinking that Danny Boyle must have been kicking himself. Round about the time principal photography wrapped, in spring 2016, an epochal event took place in the life of Hibernian FC supporters like Trainspotting’s main characters, and Irvine Welsh. The Edinburgh football club won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years, beating the artists formerly known as Rangers thanks to a last-minute goal in one of the best finals for years.

The coincidence was so strong that I felt sure Boyle would try to make some capital out of it in a reshoot, inserting Renton and Sick Boy into the events that day at Hampden Park. Either he resisted, or it all came just too late.

Welsh, though, has carte blanche, and much like David Gray rising to meet that corner kick in stoppage time, he plants his big baldy napper right on the opportunity.

I’m not a Hibs fan, but I have fond memories of that day. First of all, there’s the pure romance of it. Even Hearts supporters grudgingly admitted on under-the-line chat in internet articles that they had a wee smile to themselves when Sunshine on Leith rang out at Hampden. Secondly, it was another well-deserved slap in the face for Scottish football’s robber barons, “Rangers”. And, last but not least, my turf accountant offered me quite ludicrous odds against a Hibernian victory during normal time. 15/2? For a cup final? After Hibs had already skelped them a couple of times in recent months? So, as you can imagine I was a wee bit emotional when Hibs won it in the last minute.

“Bad boooooyyyy!!!!”

This section sees Welsh going sentimental on us, but it would take the hardest heart, or hardest Hearts fan, to begrudge him this. It’s a celebration of friendship, with all four of the main men present at the match and basking in the glory of the day. They also take a tremendous amount of drugs. Improbably, Renton and Sick Boy drop eccies at just the right time, peaking just as David Gray gets his head on Liam Henderson’s corner kick. Arguably, only Juice Terry Lawson’s own “David Gray” moment could possibly rank above this.

DOORS AE PERCEPTION

Drugs are a permanent fixture in this book, but don’t dominate it. They’re so casually taken that you forget that people used to find the idea quite shocking. It’s like a set of curtains which have somehow clung to your wall for about a decade, so long in the tooth that they’re almost fashionable again; or your neighbour’s lairy tree, which you’re working up the gumption to complain about. It’s mostly ching on the menu these days for Renton and Sick Boy, reflecting their incomes, I guess. Someone else has a wee accident with ketamine.

Heroin is conspicuous by its absence. But a new player has entered the game.

All four of the main men take a DMT trip. Their consciousness is expanded accordingly. It is theorised (I should stress, I don’t think there’s clear evidence for it, and doctors have rubbished the idea) that DMT naturally floods our perception as our bodies prepare for death. This is thought by some to be the catalyst for visions of long-dead loved ones beckoning us away, or tunnels of light. 

Whatever the truth of this, the boys are very impressed, and draw their own conclusions from what they hallucinate. Whether the DMT link is intentional or not, it signposts which direction the story’s going.

(Sees title… sees letters D, M and T… penny drops)

It’s not long after this that they all start stitching each other up again. Renton’s fervent wish to pay back his friends ends up backfiring in a grimly ironic way. It stirs dormant animosities and grievances. Along the way, as the plot lines resolve, there is a death.

TERMINUS

Dead Men’s Trousers attracted some bad reviews, but for me it’s the second-best book in the Trainspotting series (bearing in mind I’ve yet to read The Blade Artist). Many of the episodes are simply bawdy jokes, complete with punchlines, but then that’s always been Welsh’s way.

The audio version is an absolute slam dunk – surely no author’s work was better suited to the form? I’d argue these stories work best when they are performed, rather than read to oneself. I would go as far as to say, I’ll never hold a physical copy of an Irvine Welsh book again.

It was fun, despite some black cynicism. Renton’s self-loathing in particular is so bleak it’s almost poetry. Apart from one grand-standing speech at a funeral, the book flirts with its political themes instead of delivering the kind of heavy-handed lecture we endured in Skagboys, and it takes its head out of the filth long enough for a quick breath of clean air here and there, unlike Porno.

It isn’t Trainspotting. It can’t be. Welsh didn’t try to write in the same style as that book, nor should he have. People feel an affinity with Trainspotting because, for some, it represents their youth. Even though it was filthy, we cherish it, and we want to tend the memory.

And that’s nostalgia – a very Scottish disease. Irvine Welsh is wise to steer clear of it. He is astute in allowing his voice to age as much as his characters.

However, there is a glimpse of light. While Welsh mocks the straights, he does, in the end, tip his hat to the idea of family. But not as we know it. Some ties aren’t defined by blood, but by the sh*t you’ve gone through together. Blood is thicker than water; sh*t is thicker than blood.

I surprised myself by responding so well to the boys’ mid-life depravities. I suspected I might hate them – that the constipated schoolteacher who lives somewhere in my genes would be piqued, as he was in a university tutorial many years ago. But I was entertained, and laughed a lot. Like Sick Boy, I cheerfully tossed aside all moral considerations.

It was like a long-dreaded reunion with school friends which actually turned out alright. As Renton says of Begbie, once he understands that dear Franco doesn’t want to kill him: “I realised that life had got boring without him, without that chaos. On some level, I’d actually missed the c*nt.” 

In among the hilarity, there’s an acceptance that we’re all getting older, much like Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie.  

This is no longer true for one of them.

As for my wager…

My reasoning was that the character we were most likely to lose would be the one with no interesting stories left to tell, rather than the dead cert.

I lost my money. I was wrong. But that’s not to say the dead cert crossed the line first.
You’ll have to read the book to find out who goes to the big banana flats in the sky. Or, you could cheat on the internet.