October 19, 2018

AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Pat Black speaks to David Olner about his novel, The Baggage Carousel. It’s about travel… it’s about romance… it’s about every interconnected positive and negative…

Pat Black: The Baggage Carousel has a lot to do with global travel – how much did you draw on your own experiences for the novel?

David Olner:  I used to go backpacking a lot, back before I sacrificed my personal freedom at the altar of capitalism.  So, all the locations featured in the book are ones that I’ve visited.  Some of the incidents are based on real life but heightened for dramatic effect.  Others are made up, because that’s how fiction works.  How much is true and how much fabricated?  You, the jury, must decide. 

David Olner
PB: How do you think the book portrays modern Britain, and where it’s going as a society? Or to put it another way – is the book Club Tropicana or Sleaford Mods?

DO: I never really thought of The Baggage Carousel as a social document until you highlighted it in your review, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s always interesting to see how your writing is perceived by others.  If anything, given the main character Dan’s demeanour, I saw it as more of an anti-social document.  I just wrote about what I know – life in a small town and the lure of the big world beyond it.  I didn’t have any particular political agenda in mind when I wrote it, but if that’s what people take from the text then it’s fine.  I’m just happy it’s being read at all. 

PB: Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing background.

DO: I reside in…well, in a small town.  It’s in East Yorkshire.  I lead a pretty monastic existence there – devoid of sexual intimacy but with plenty of wine.  I work the nightshift in a kitchen warehouse and cower from the sun during the day.  I started writing The Baggage Carousel years ago, used to chip away at it when I had time, honed it with the help of other writers on an online forum (I’m sure you know the one I mean, Pat) and subbed it out when I couldn’t do any more to it.  I had some sparks of interest from agents, but nothing that ever caught fire.  When I’d exhausted all possible lines of enquiry, I shelved the MS and started writing another book.  

Somewhere down the line, I was contacted by Nathan O’Hagan, a writer I knew from the online forum.  He’d gone on to become a published writer and told me he was setting up his own indie press with another author, a hirsute fellow named Wayne Leeming. Nathan and I had admired each other’s work on the website and, when he found out I hadn’t got my book placed, the two of them offered to consider it for the new roster they were building. 

And…wallop…now it’s a book, a tangible thing you can hold in your hand, or wedge under a wonky table leg.  So, the message here is this: never delete any of your work and never consider it done with – you never know when its time might come. 

PB: Tell us what’s next for you.

DO: My next book will be a period romance entitled Minnie the Cigarette Girl Has Been Deemed Obstreperous.  Nah, just messing, it’s called Munger – another dark comedy, this one centring around a sex-tourist coming undone in Thailand. It’s already written and awaiting rejection. Beyond that, I’ve recently started a new project, which will be more in the dystopian/YA vein. I wanted to try something different, something less murky that my mum wouldn’t be embarrassed to pass on to her Book Club.  

At this early stage I don’t really know how it’ll work out.  It might well be terrible, but it’s always good to try new things. 

PB: Obliterati Press are quite new – tell us a bit about them.

DO: They eat cat food. 

The Baggage Carousel is available now. Read our review here.

October 10, 2018

THE BAGGAGE CAROUSEL


by David Olner
Obliterati Press, 260 pages

Review by Pat Black

They say travel broadens the mind; so does an industrial crusher.

In David Olner’s debut novel The Baggage Carousel, Dan Roberts is a person who travels the world, but doesn’t like to go on about it.

Neither does he over-share things on Instagram, Facebook or wherever else feels like turning your personality into sellable data this month. Dan doesn’t travel to show off, or even to gain experience, or, god forbid, to Find Himself.

He isn’t quite running away, but he has a powerful need to be Somewhere Else. Along the way, quite by accident, meaning not by design, he Makes A Connection  - with Amber, an Australian nurse with her own powerful need to be absent from the place she calls home.

Something nice happens. And maybe that’s the problem.

Like luggage which inexplicably bursts in a plane hold, The Baggage Carousel comes wrapped in tape which triggers a near-autonomic response in us as readers. This tape is marked “Romantic Comedy”, slashed through with strawberry red and vanilla.

You might think you’re about to read a crazy romance set in lush places. The book parenthesises Frank Zappa’s venomous line, “many well-dressed people in several locations are kissing quite a bit”.

At various points, the book fools you into thinking that a romantic comedy is what you’re going to get. Point one – it’s very funny, with some brilliant gags and set-ups throughout as Dan and Amber meet, become attracted to one another, and act on those impulses. Point two - you are rooting for this couple to connect, and have a future. That their story will continue past the final full stop.

The book plays with our expectations of these stories. It throws in a love rival in the form of a German hanger-on in the group, who is also interested in Amber. Who wouldn’t be interested in Amber? Despite her cynicism, you suspect she doesn’t quite realise how attractive she is. Until Dan shows up – someone a bit more worldly-wise, a bit less loud, but a bit more self-confident than the rest of the backpacking team as they jaunt across the continents.

But this sweet connection doesn’t quite arrive. There are no meet-cutes. You get something that’s a bit closer to reality, and bitter truth. This is what elevates The Baggage Carousel beyond the merry journey it first appears to be, and into the realm of something important.

We follow Dan and Amber’s thoughts - Dan looking back on the events where they meet, Amber following them as they happen. Then we get strange inserts, emails that Dan sends to Amber, starting off gentle, and then importunate, and then pathetic, and finally downright worrying.

Dan and Amber have clearly Gone Wrong, but we don’t know how or why. Dan mentions something about money he’s owed, but much like the locations Dan and Amber take us to, it’s kind of irrelevant. There’s something more combustible lurking in the baggage hold – a broken heart. Is “broken heart” a fair description after such a short courtship? Maybe it’s something worse than that. A sense of hope removed. An idea that life could be different. Being robbed of a sense of purpose. A better future being thwarted.

Dan’s sections set back home in Britain illustrate this latter point very well indeed, without referring to Amber. Dan reminisces upon his childhood experiences in the north of England, which range from “a bit difficult” to “absolutely nightmarish, as if Clive Barker had a dirty dream about David Cronenberg then felt compelled to tell a priest about it”.

Dan has suffered the trauma of losing a parent at a very young, absolutely crucial age. Like the Big Bang, that is a bombshell that never stops detonating. We see the immediate wreckage that his father’s death leaves, and also the peripheral damage it causes in a wide radius, particularly to his mother, who loses the plot and dives into the bottle, and his grandmother, who desperately tries to help even as her own health fails. Whatever parts of the young Dan’s life were unf*cked, are very quickly uber-f*cked.

Dan wrestles constantly with the past, and his alienation, throttled grief and despair manifests itself in violent outbursts that put more than one person in plaster.

Allied to this is a sense that everything might in fact be crap these days. This idea is more economic than political, but it’s sketched out unflinchingly.

The book’s snapshots of modern Britain were chilling. Dan wanders the streets in search of a job, or maybe just occupation. He goes into the charity shops that have come to dominate town centres the length of the country. Charity shops, stocked with things people have donated for nothing, staffed by people who are not paid to be there, for the benefit of those who should never have to resort to desperate measures.

Between these places, the bookies, the slot machine emporiums and bingo halls, these seem to be the only places that still thrive in large chunks of our high streets. It doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s not reassuring to think back to 1989 or 1990, and realise that many city centres have gotten worse across the board – and 1989 and 1990 or thereabouts was not exactly a boom period if you worked outside the City of London. It doesn’t feel like progress.

I did not expect these sort of scenes when I started reading The Baggage Carousel. This book is more Ken Loach than Richard Curtis, and it isn’t scored by Coldplay – that is a job for The Sleaford Mods. There’s a lot of anger in the narrator, some suppressed, some right in your face. This book is angry about where we are now, inside and out. And through Dan and Amber, it is angry that one miserable little chance to turn things around has been dashed.

It is dashed very quickly, and – most painfully for Dan – it is dashed with good reason. “Baggage” is the key term; Dan has plenty of it. But there’s scope for improvement. Escape routes can take various forms, not just fire escapes and emergency chutes. It can only take a side-step to change a bad situation, and you end this book hoping that Dan can make it. You might sleep in the same old bed, in the same old town, but you can live in a different world.

Despite its sense of wrath and injustice, The Baggage Carousel is a tightly controlled, beautifully composed novel with far more laughs than I’ve given it credit for here. It upends our entrenched ideas of where romantic comedies can go, and what our expectations of love and fulfilment actually are. And there’s a strong, authentic working class voice at work, too.

No-one wants to be that poor bugger who ends up standing alone at the empty carousel when everyone else has f*cked off, waiting for the bag that will never arrive through those plastic curtains, as if a cremation vomited. But you see it; this happens all the time.

Olner reminds us that you don’t have to be happy about it, but sometimes you’ve got to shrug, give some things up as lost, and get on with your day. And, obviously, buy yourself some socks and pants.  

Read the author interview here.


August 27, 2018

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:


John Rebus

Rather be the Devil, by Ian Rankin
384 pages, Orion

Review by Pat Black

Rebus is off the force, but still on the case, in Rather be the Devil.

There were fears that when the inspector finally turned in his warrant card, we’d seen the last of him. But as he nudges his golden years, Rebus still likes to carry out inquiries in his own way – it’s just that while in retirement, he isn’t exactly following the letter of the law. He never did anyway.

I will admit that I found Rebus hard to get into at first. The first three novels in Ian Rankin’s long-running series were okay, but nothing special – it was only when I got an omnibus edition featuring Let It Bleed, Black And Blue and The Hanging Garden that I recognised how good they had become.

Black And Blue – which sees Rebus going after Glasgow’s true-life serial killer Bible John, while a copycat murderer stalks Edinburgh – is one of the finest modern Scottish novels, period. Twenty years after that Tartan Noir landmark, Rankin’s books are enviably smooth, fine-tuned machines. The lesson for muggles is: You do something for long enough, and you enjoy what you do, then you will get good at it. You might even become the best.

This is the 21st Rebus novel. I felt Rankin painted himself into a corner by having his inspector age in real-time, but he’s sticking to it, and even using time’s relentless work as a means of opening up new and interesting territory. Now retired, in his sixties and not in the best of health, Rebus spends his time looking into old, unsolved cases.

One of these dates from the late 1970s, and concerns Maria Turquand, the wife of a wealthy businessman who was strangled in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel on the same night a big touring rock band was in town. There were lots of suspects, but little evidence, and the killer was never caught.

The case gnaws at Rebus. So does something else – an intrusion on his lung, subject to tests. Rebus calls this Shadowy internal foe Hank Marvin, and refers to it almost affectionately, but he’s worried about it. After a lifetime of cigarettes, bacon rolls, real ales and neat Scotch, a series of health kicks are under way for this classic central belt male. He attempts a diet, he’s canned the booze and the ciggies, and he’s even flirting with exercise in step with a new pet dog – but you get the feeling that horse has all but disappeared over the hill.

Rebus speaks to a fellow former cop who worked on the Turquand case, who is now earning pin money as a bouncer. The day after their chat, the retired policeman bobs up in the Water of Leith, quite dead, totally murdered.

Next up, Darryl Christie, a young pretender to “Big Ger” Cafferty’s gangland throne in Edinburgh, has been given a solid beating. This raises fears among Police Scotland’s finest that the two men’s armies might be gearing up for a turf war. Like Rebus, Cafferty is more or less retired, but suspicion comes the ageing Mr Big’s way - despite the fact that known flake and troublemaker Craw Shand has confessed to carrying out the doin’.

We’re not finished yet. There’s another plotline, concerning a businessman connected to Christie who has disappeared, along with a big chunk of cash which the police suspect was being laundered for some shady people from former Soviet territory.

Closing in on thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, we seem to have gone back to using eastern Europeans as a trope for “indescribably bad people” in fiction. Is this racist? It’s certainly a cliché. I’ve done it myself, I have to confess. “Aw naw – it’s McGlutsky! The baddest comrade in town! You’ll know him by his hard consonants!”

It’s not on the same level as the “yellow peril” racism of Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless (is the latter the green peril, in fact?), but it rests in the same wall-mounted unit. Next thing you know, we’ll be worrying about hard Glaswegians. We have to be wary of cliché, and that’s true of big or small writers, whether they’re producing candy floss or filet mignon. I guess Sax Rohmer and others had no idea how terrible their work would appear to readers 100 years later (though they caused a fair stink at the time).

Before the Wall came down, a very wise teacher of mine said in response to a gag someone made at the expense of the Soviet Union: “It’s all propaganda. Focus on the people.”

In Rankin’s defence – and my own – Russian and Ukrainian gangsters  exist, all right, and dirty money and power linked to property owned by people from these places are an issue in British society; no doubt about that either. We might blame capitalism at this point, assume a sage expression, and withdraw.

Looking after the Darryl Christie and dirty cash inquiries are Malcolm Fox, last seen haunting Police Scotland’s internal affairs department, and series stalwart Siobhan Clarke, a detective working at the recently unified force’s Gartcosh nerve centre with a team who don’t take kindly to newcomers.

I have to admit, at one point I was struggling to remember what the Gartcosh team were supposed to be investigating.

Ian Rankin has stated that he doesn’t write these stories to a detailed plan – reasoning that if he can fool himself, he can fool the reader. In some of the older books, this haphazard method really shows. Hide & Seek, his second novel, was a 200-page search for a plot, rather than a series of clues for Rebus to follow in order to solve a mystery. In this, an old observation about the series comes into play: that they’re not really crime novels, more of an anatomy lesson dissecting Scotland’s dark, divided heart. I wondered at the time if Rankin knew himself where he was going with it when he started writing; it seems not.

Now, though, the books are tightly and convincingly plotted. If Rankin truly does just wind himself up and go, carrying all this stuff in his head, or discovering it as he travels, then it’s a remarkable skill. Any one of the plot strands in this book would have made a decent case alone. Rankin untangles this spaghetti junction of storylines and protagonists with a deft hand.

Deliciously, Rebus and Fox don’t really get on. The internal affairs guy is a straight shooter, while Rebus rarely colours inside the lines. Fox is also easy to wind up, which Rebus mercilessly exploits. However, Fox is an excellent copper, and the two men recognise each other’s strengths, and help each other out. Clarke, while certainly no mother hen, keeps the pair of them in line. Fox and Clarke are also fond of each other, and there’s surely a situation brewing there.

The principals are all compromised in some way. Rebus is almost pally with Ger Cafferty, his crime lord nemesis. This put me in mind of Smiley versus Karla in John Le Carre’s work – there’s a bit too much respect on the part of the good guy, whereas the baddie will simply do the dirty without any hesitation. In order to bring down Cafferty for good, Rebus will surely have to sink to his level. Elsewhere, Fox is badly exposed by a family member with a problem, while Clarke has been caught on camera after getting out of control on a night out.

Rebus has a few things to worry about as his clock begins to run down – chiefly “Hank Marvin”, lurking somewhere in his chest cavity – but he’s still the same snarky, natural-born Scottish cynic we’ve all grown up with.

The former inspector is a curious character. I sometimes forget that he is meant to be a tough guy, having joined the police after leaving the SAS. But I never think of him as the type to bust heads or get into scraps, even when he does.

Rebus is actually a flyman – crafty, full of tricks, outsmarting people first and foremost because he enjoys it. Someone you can’t really trust. Rebus seems more of a natural thief or mountebank than a policeman or a guardian. He’s closer to Craw Shand than Ger Cafferty, on the masculinity spectrum.

Everything ties off nicely, and (a curious effect you get with e-readers that don’t give you a percentage count) the book seems to finish all too soon despite being a good length.

It’s an excellent read. Fans will be well pleased. There’s a new one of these every year – with another due out in a matter of weeks, in fact. What more can you ask for?

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 naïve, 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.