April 16, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

by Roger Deakin
416 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

The blossom’s out, the sap is high, and so am I. It’s time to don the tweed, slip on the thigh-high wellingtons, keep the Savlon handy and tiptoe through the cider bottles with some great British nature writing.

A couple of years ago, I fell helplessly in love with Roger Deakin. His wild swimming masterpiece, Waterlog, was a charming, engaging book - an exercise in fraternity, nature, literature and English dottiness. I was held fast in its current. It was my favourite read of 2015, and if the Folio Society was to bring out a ruinously expensive illustrated hardback edition and slipcase, I’d dive right in.

Adding to the charm is the man himself – an affable dreamer, seemingly unconcerned by the world of commerce and brute competition, a lover of newts – so cruelly stolen from us by cancer only a few years after making a splash in the literary world. Like watching Bowie videos on YouTube, he is as close as we get to a real ghost – thrillingly present in his art, chillingly absent in reality.

Even Walnut Tree Farm, the arboreal idyll in which he so happily shared bed and board with mother nature, is gone now – sold up, redeveloped, and possibly unrecognisable (understandably so – sorry mate, but f*** having a flock of birds in yer loft).

As well as being a compelling writer, Waterlog’s author had a compelling existence. He lived a wizardly life, swimming in his own moat every morning, then poring over ancient maps and scrolls for remote ponds to dunk in. He might have been the first human to ever swim in some of those plashy glades. You expect him to sit down to tea on giant toadstools; you imagine trees sprouting from the floor in his front room, talking rooks cawing at him from the branches. You expect him to write on parchment with a quill. You picture him high-fiving squirrels and supping pints alongside centaurs down the local pub - surely called The Green Dragon, and run by an ogre and his wife. He might ride a gryphon there and back. Well, I imagine all this, anyway.  

Seldom if ever have I wanted to go back to the start of a book and start reading again after the final page was turned, as I did with Waterlog.

The same was true of Wildwood – but for different reasons.  

This is a difficult thing to write. Wildwood bored me. Some of it was like watching trees grow.

This wasn’t the case right away. I had a wee holiday last year in the middle of a forest. Wildwood had joined my to-be-read pile the Christmas before; the circumstances were irresistible. I got through the first 90 or so pages on one blessed morning in the rarity of absolute solitude, sat outside the cabin in the early May sunshine. Pheasants padded through the trees, safe for the moment from being blasted to oblivion by shotgun or car grille.

I took my time, savouring the book, and I needed to do so. It was quite heavy going, but not unpleasant – a challenge, not a slog, like approaching the summit of a mountain. It was scholarly rather than brisk. But I was in the right setting, and the right frame of mind.

I came back from holiday. I set it on the bedside table, the bookmark lodged at page 90.

Wildwood book barely moved from its berth for nearly a year. When I shifted it for a house move, I made a clean spot. Once we’d moved, I put it back in the same place. I forced myself to get back into it in March of this year. One full ring grew inside the trees before the last page was turned.

I felt a sense of grief when I towelled myself off after Waterlog; but I felt only exhaustion at the end of Wildwood. I rarely get a chance to sit down with a book these days, and others nudged ahead of it, brash, insistent pupils sucking up the teacher’s attention. I literally dusted off the book more than once. I could barely get through a chapter before turning the light off. Something had gone wrong.

It’s billed as a journey through trees, and I suppose it is. But it’s unstructured, and it focuses too much on using wood to build, or create art from. Some of it is like reading a real-time description of a guy building a table and chairs. I’d liken it to a garden allowed to grow wild, but that at least can be interesting. Untidy things usually arrest the attention. Wildwood frequently doesn’t. I found large parts of it a painful struggle, like cramming for a long-dreaded exam.

Much of this book is dull. Like the sound my head might make upon contact with a two-by-four of solid oak.

This is my failing, as a reader, as a person, and maybe, as a man. Writing too dense in detail can turn me off. But I’m also a hugely impractical guy. You get a certain type of person whose soul stirs when they contemplate building sheds, redecorating rooms, stripping down engines, and watching James May build Airfix Spitfires. The sort of person who might take time to stop and appreciate a bridge, and know who built it, or how many rivets were used in its construction. The kind of person who, in hearing the car roar when they floor the pedal, doesn’t focus so much on the rapidly unfurling road and the wind shrieking in chorus with the music, but what’s going on inside the engine, the churning axle, the pressing plates and spinning cogs, all laid out before them in explosive 3D, their own internal Haynes Manual.

I am not one of those sorts of people. They might absolutely love Wildwood.

Practical matters annoy me. In this, I’m a familial aberration. My dad and my two brothers worked on the tools – oily hands, calluses you could take a blowtorch to, able to tell the calibre of fittings down to the millimetre by sight, possessed of the ability to have copper wiring twined, latticed and hung as if by telekinesis, and dexterity with screwdrivers and spanners to rival that freak at school who could finish a Rubik’s cube in 10 seconds. It isn’t me. To this day, screws slither out from between my sausage fingers and laugh as they roll under the furniture. In my frustration at an angle not sitting right, or a nail splitting the edge of the wood, I go beyond simple swearing and start to speak in tongues. Neighbours knock the door and ask if everything’s okay.

Something went wrong. It is a failing. If the apocalypse comes I’ll need to develop other skills in double-time or we’ll all die. I wish I was a bit more practical, but I’ve probably lived more than half my life now and I must admit I’m not, and maybe never will be. It’s a source of disappointment.

A bit like calculus, it isn’t that I don’t grasp it, or can’t do it - it’s just that I’d rather not. Ask me to put up a fence, and I can (and in fact I have). I’d just rather be doing other stuff. In considering building flat-pack furniture, I do it, but only after a lot of sighing. Anything more complex than fitting slot A into B is more often done badly than not.

If I ever want to make my missus laugh, I tell her the truth of the matter: I’m not a builder, baby. I’m not a farmer either.

I’m a killer.

Show me a castle and I imagine a siege, boiling oil, clashing swords, and perhaps dragons. Show Roger Deakin a castle, and I suspect he’d wonder how he could construct battlements and a drawbridge along the edge of his moat; or if he could perhaps steal some of the loose stonework and use it to build a sauna with an ergonomically pristine wood-fired boiler requiring no gas or electricity.

Roger does actually consider making this contraption in the course of Wildwood.

Perhaps fuelled by my desire to propel the book to its conclusion, like shoving a length of timber into a sawblade, I picked up the pace near the end. I was rewarded; Wildwood takes off, right after Roger does, away from England’s sleepy hollows in search of the motherlode of apple trees in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and one or two other places in need of an emergency aid drop of vowels. This provided the kind of action and adventure which drenched Waterlog, and whose absence leaves us pawing along the desert in Wildwood.

Here was my dearest Roger again – off-road, meeting people living simple rustic lives, marvelling at the simplicity of their lives, lived in harmony with nature instead of destroying it. Roger is very much at home in this peaceable, Zen state. He speaks of a moment of communion with a beekeeper out in the middle of nowhere, a guy who speaks not a word of English, and yet Roger knows he has met something of a soul-mate, someone he could form a lifelong friendship with. He is left with a deep sadness when he says goodbye, knowing their paths will never cross again.

I was reminded of a similar meeting during a trip to Peru years ago, an author and local character I had an uproariously boozy afternoon with during a guided tour. “I shall not forget you, my friend!” he told me. The feeling was mutual.

But this section is all too brief. Back on Ent Time with Treebeard, there’s lots of splicing, coppicing and grafting, and appreciations of humanity’s interaction with wood – how it became a vital part of building civilisation, and how it remains a labour of love to this day, a compact between structure, Euclidian geometry and wild nature.

Roger turns things out in his workshop and even considers the sawdust as he blows it away. I sorta get that. I’ve always been fascinated by timber warehouses; something to do with the epic space, the smell of the wood. He wonders about the trees and bushes encircling his property, at some length (in both senses). And he speaks to artists who work with wood, from the UK to Australia and back. They turn living trees into monuments, they collect and reshape driftwood from the beach, they get busy with planes and chisels and hammers and whatnot, and there we go, another day done, lights out, zzz.

More than once I confronted an ugly truth: these are people with lots and lots of money, and lots and lots of spare time. There’s a big chink in the armour of the English eccentric and the sweet art they make, a petty point, but one worth making: it takes serious money to be a gentleman itinerant. Like it or not, you have to buy yourself out of the rat race.

As well as outlining my lack of practical skills, Wildwood also exposes a gap in my education. I love nature, I love looking at it, I love being in it, I love interacting with it, I love writing about it, and I love reading about it. But if you sent me a link to one of those clickbait quizzes identifying trees and their leaves, I’d score about 21/100 (matching my Higher Maths prelim percentage, December 1992). Botanical ignorance is a grave disadvantage when you read this book. Roger blithely witters on about walnut this, oak that, and for pages at a time he might as well have been talking about cycads, krynoids, the Thing From Another World, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, whatever.

What this book repeatedly nailed down – angrily, burying the metal into the trembling pine, and at a f****** angle – was that I am ignorant, and I need to educate myself, about trees for a start. One is waving at me out the window as I type, and I couldn’t tell you anything about it except that it’s green. Pine… willow… sycamore… birch… yeah, I could spot those. After that, I’m chapping. You better knock, on wood. I hear John Cleese saying, “The larch,” and see a slide flipping over, but I do not laugh. It’s a terrible irony that I love British nature writing yet know so little about it, like Jesus earning a living as a carpenter before being nailed to some shoddy woodwork. My next book on this subject will be the Collins Guide To British Trees. I’m going to sit down with it, I’m going to study it, and damn it, I’m going to learn it.

I’ll go back to Wildwood. I’ve failed, not Roger. I want to say sorry to him. It’s a beautifully-written book by a lovely bloke, who was cleverer than I will ever be. I feel a bit like I’ve been invited to tea by that nice quiet boy in class, and he’s showed me his collection of acorns, and I’ve sniggered. Maybe I’ve even given him heat for it, back in class, among the wolves.

One day I hope to be sat before a log fire, cracking open my ancient copy of Wildwood, and starting again at the proper pace in the proper setting, in the old age Roger was so unfairly denied.

For now, I’ll struggle on, at many things. We can’t all be craftsmen, more’s the pity. 

March 27, 2017

LATE TO THE PARTY:

Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago

by Hilary Mantel
674 pages, Fourth Estate

*This review is of the audio version, narrated by Simon Slater*

Review by Pat Black

I was a little intimidated by Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning slab seemed to be everywhere, all at once, for most of this decade. A TV adaptation starring Baftabator actors hoovered up awards and applause while the book was falling off three-for-two tables in clumps. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, but opted for the audio version rather than the book. At my current pace, I suspect I would have been reading the paper version until the grave.

Even with someone reading it aloud to me, I feared I’d get swallowed up by the details. Historical novels have to be well-researched, and you’re required to show your working. So I expected a descriptive avalanche of castles, disease, drapes and hideous food, which is probably not the best thing to take my mind off the drive to work.

I needn’t have worried. Wolf Hall is rich, but it’s a smooth meal. In an insane alternative universe where I’m teaching a writing class instead of ball-aching about books here, I’d use Wolf Hall as the perfect example of how to put in “just enough” detail to keep folk interested – a flare of jewellery, a swish of silk, a clank of armour – but not much more. It’s chiefly about dialogue, events, people, and gossip – good storytelling, in other words. Elmore Leonard would have approved.

If you’re the type of person who winces when English kings and queens come up on quiz shows, then the book is an education, though never a chore.

This is Thomas Cromwell’s story. Viewed as a sinister figure in English history until a recent reappraisal – this book is part of that – Cromwell came from nothing to become a lawyer, then a member of parliament, then King Henry VIII’s senior counsel and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had no name, title or property, and when we first meet him he has literally crawled from the mud at Putney.

Although he is scoffed at by the noblemen he orbits, Cromwell is clever, pragmatic, educated, perfectly mannered and, best of all, discreet. He makes himself indispensable to Cardinal Wolsey – at one point, England’s most powerful statesman – then to the king himself, all without making much of a noise or a fuss.

He’s a guy who always knows a guy who knows a guy. He’s also tellingly skilled with a blade. He can hint lightly or heavily, as he pleases, but he’s not averse to cracking a skull or kicking a door in. Cromwell’s natural habitat is the shadows.

“You… you person, you,” one duke sneers at him.

Cromwell’s king, and the time of his reign, came to define a country. Against the background of the Protestant reformation, Henry split the Church of England, and English sovereignty, from the Catholic Church in Rome. It’s hard to escape the notion that this was all because he fancied Anne Boleyn and wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, whose principal fault as a wife was failing to provide a son.

Henry is consistently fascinating in the same way as a child running around a garden party with a chainsaw. Wielding terrifying authority, and yet an almost complete arsehole, the monarch requires a steady hand at the tiller. Cromwell is the man for the job. Henry is bright enough to recognise that, noting Cromwell’s competence and unswerving support of his first master, Cardinal Wolsey, even after the cleric falls out of favour.

Cromwell speaks to all the major players of his time as he becomes a person of rank and influence in his own right. Inevitably, he makes a full cast of enemies as a result, including Sir Thomas More.

Cromwell is always referred to as “he”, never addressed by name unless it comes from the mouth of another character. It suits his shadowy persona very well. But Cromwell sometimes takes on the guise of a hero in this tale – interceding and attempting to save the lives of plotters, calumniators and heretics who seek to impede Henry’s progress to supreme authority at the head of his own church in his own land. This includes deadly enemies – and so Cromwell employs the morality of a comic book superhero in a tale of real people in real times. It was a little too cute, but it does put us on Cromwell’s side.

What are we to make of the book politically? Our sympathies naturally lie with Cromwell. It’s great to see him pulling the strings like some Reformation era Michael Corleone, taking the blows and slights until he brings events under his control. Not a few of his enemies have their necks split before the end.

But he is also driven by a sense of devotion and duty, the kind of service that the privileged expect from underlings, whether talented or not. In terms of intellect and guile, Cromwell is the master of just about everyone he meets. But he can only go so far in life, owing to the system he operates in. A question you must ask yourself is: how is it fair that a man like Cromwell, so clearly suited to power and authority, is obliged to bend his knees to a hereditary crown?

There is a heavy anticlerical bent to Cromwell’s thoughts and feelings. He’s not much of a man for churches, and certainly not a great fan of public burnings carried out in god’s name. Another memorable “just enough information” part comes when Cromwell recalls the first time he saw a heretic barbecued, and the woman’s relatives tidying up afterwards with brush and shovel.

Mantel is from a Catholic background and she has said negative things about that, so it’s easy to read anti-Catholic sentiment in her novel about a country kicking out the influence of the papacy.

That’s the easy interpretation. What fascinates me more is what I see as a latent anti-monarchical attitude.

It is a curious disease of the English in particular that some will spit blood like Bruce the Shark at the very idea of the Roman Catholic church, and yet in the same breath they will toast the health of a family who wields supreme power in the state and unimaginable riches through land ownership simply as a result of their birth and breeding. This paradox is evident in Mantel’s Cromwell, who couldn’t contrast any more sharply with clodding oafs like the Duke of Norfolk. Then there’s the king himself, happier pissing around with his horses in the woods than attending to his solemn duty, with Cromwell scurrying around afterwards, metaphorically wiping his arse for him.

Mantel does explore these questions, but in a very careful way. She was more forthright in recently published comments expressing sympathy for the Duchess of Cambridge – living her entire life in the public eye as a hobby horse for the British public, enduring constant scrutiny at best, and potential threats to her life at worst.

This seemed like honest sympathy to me, but it raised eyebrows in the press. Mantel must have anticipated that reaction, and it made me think that there’s more going on in her grand history play than blind devotion to royalty.

Whatever the case may be, it is worth noting that Hilary Mantel was made a Dame. Maybe any attention is good attention when it comes to promoting the British Monarchy as a global brand.

Like much else he encounters, Cromwell’s attitude towards the church and its potentates is one of simple utility: How can it help him – and his master – succeed? The same applies to armies, and large-scale usury. In one memorable passage, Cromwell muses on how the click of an abacus is more important than the rattle of a thousand sabres; how the greatest power of all lies not in arms, but in the pen which scratches the signature on a bill.  

“I heard you were a ruffian,” one chopping block-bound enemy notes to Cromwell, near the end. He does not disagree.

Cromwell’s journey is all the more exciting because in those days, when you had power and influence, you were playing for the highest stakes of all. Never mind some brief humiliation on Twitter and a P45 - upset the wrong guy in public life back then, and you could end up with your head decorating his front gates.

Wolf Hall made me think that we’re closer to people who lived in those times than we realise. In terms of matters of the heart, pettiness and ambition tending to bloodthirstiness, the difference is nil. Perhaps what truly separates us from our ancestors striking flint in caves is not just access to food and tools, but the written word – and its most powerful application, enforceable laws. Mantel acknowledges this in her examination of how early printing and dissemination of literature was viewed with suspicion and fear in Henry’s reign. I wonder where our current relationship with the written word and its ready availability through electronic devices will lead us? I assume it’ll be bad by default… but maybe not. Perhaps instead of fake news and poison-fanged comment sections, there’s a more utopian future for the written word in the digital age, something just beyond the horizon we can’t see yet.

That’s not to say Wolf Hall is heavy going. Happily, the story unfolds like a soap opera (in this regard, it reminded me of War And Peace). There are a few clandestine meetings, plenty of overheard gossip, and even one corny moment involving a knife in the dark that felt like an escapee from melodrama.

This got me thinking about the liberties that are taken of necessity in stories about real people who lived real lives. Mantel took five years to research this book – five years, man – cross-checking who spoke to whom on what day and matching dates with official records. But the dialogue is still basically made up. The dots connect beautifully but it’s still all… well, fiction.

There’s about 24 hours of listening in this book, all provided by the splendid Simon Slater. My attention rarely wavered in all that time. Wonder if any voice actors have ever tried to record big novels all in one go, as a bet?

Whether read on the page or performed aloud, Wolf Hall is an impressive, even mighty piece of work. I may need a wee break before tackling its sequel, though – about five years, say.

There’s one big problem with historical fiction - unless you’ve taken a dressage side-step involving zombies, vampires or Mel Brooks, there’s no avoiding those spoilers.

February 19, 2017

MR. ALFRED, MA

A Glasgow Trilogy
by George Friel
590 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

George Friel was known as a bitter chronicler of post-war Glasgow. This puzzled me at first. Although he salted his prose with sudden, shocking moments of violence, I couldn’t see any bitterness – until I read the final part of A Glasgow Trilogy.

Mr Alfred, MA looks at a late-fifty-something teacher reaching the end of the line. It was published in 1972, three years before Friel died and, probably, written not long after he retired from his day job as a teacher. The author rages against the dying of the light, but his is a cold fire. He sees Glasgow as irredeemable, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where nothing good happens to anyone decent. In the time he was writing, it may well have seemed that way.

Mr Alfred’s troubles begin with one of his pupils, Gerald Provan, a sly, cowardly bully who organises fights after school. Mr Alfred, who has already lost his temper with the boy in class (this was an era when teachers disciplined children with leather belts), singles the lad out after breaking up a brawl in a lane near the school. This draws the attention of Provan’s conniving mother. She reckons - with justification - that Mr Alfred has “taken a spite” against her son. Together, they conspire against him.

Mr Alfred has few family members to call on and no friends. He uses digs in the city simply as a place to crash, and spends his spare time and all of his salary touring the city’s pubs after work. He idly lusts after barmaids, listens in on conversations without participating, and after last orders he wanders through Blythswood Square, protesting a little too much when the working girls offer him some business. He is a man on thin ice.

Mr Alfred wants the things he cannot have – a wife; a family; a loving home – but he doesn’t realise it. Mr Alfred’s only relative is Granny Lyons, an aunt who draws some bad cards with the housing department when she is placed in a bottom flat near the alley where teenagers congregate to fight. The pair cower in her kitchen while bricks are lobbed through the window and threats are hissed through the letterbox.

Gerald Provan is a villain, but all too believable. An impish Iago, he instigates nastiness, pressing knives and other weapons onto the combatants he has matched up in the school lane - but he never participates in the aggro himself. He has an excuse for everything, and takes responsibility for nothing. Friel notes Provan’s feral cunning, but he has not a single strand of decency.

The boy’s spoiled but depressing home life is carefully crafted. There’s no father on the scene, and the mother slaves after her son, a petulant king in his castle. Provan’s younger sister, Senga, who is brighter than her mother and brother combined, is put to work in service for his lordship, cooking for him when he comes home from school. She burns with resentment over this, but has to get on with it, or face violent consequences. She is secondary, at best. Her path in life is laid out for her.

Friel sketches Mr Alfred’s work in school, his drunken peripatetic lifestyle after the bell rings, and his time with Granny Lyons. Then there’s Gerald Provan’s thug life, his home comforts, his little sister’s friendship with another girl, and that girl’s older sister and her posh boyfriend. And, always in the background, frequently in the foreground: the city.

Mr Alfred teaches in a thinly-disguised rough scheme in the north of Glasgow, and the school seems to be going to hell. Appropriately for a teacher, Friel is somewhat didactic in how he shows us the disintegration of decency and common regard. Homes don’t have fathers; teachers don’t have respect; the rights of children are seen as superior to those of adults, and so they get away with murder (sometimes literally). Discipline cannot be enforced. Vandalism becomes the norm. Smashed windows and graffiti are commonplace. And violence is ever-present, immanent, and endemic – you get tough, or you get eaten.

Vandalism is a distinct force, a direct enemy, in this book. It reaches everywhere; it breaks into the very classrooms, and it burns the place down. Mr Alfred’s customary day-to-day problem is entropy, but this is something more direct, more malevolent – it’s pure chaos.

Mr Alfred’s sentiments almost certainly echo Friel’s feelings as his teaching career wound down. What’s the point of educating the little bastards? Mr Alfred wonders. It’s difficult to fashion an argument against such all-pervading cynicism. This is a very sour house, built on more optimistic foundations degraded by time and experience. One of Mr Alfred’s many tragedies is that he actually wants to teach, but no-one wishes to learn.

His primary tragedy is falling in love with a pupil. The object of his affection is a very young girl, Rose Weipers. I don’t think anyone would dare to write about such a thing today, Friel included, even in a supposedly literary novel. Maybe no-one should, after Nabokov.

The book doesn’t seek to excuse Mr Alfred in any way; nor does it flinch in its depiction of his feelings. It happens in miserable, predictable stages. Mr Alfred entices the girl to spend time with him at lunch in his class, alone, after asking her to buy him rolls and a paper and then entreating her to keep the change. He moves on to cuddling her while she sits on his knee, then kissing her head – nothing more. He gives her more money, though he does not demand that she stay quiet. He does not touch her sexually, but he really wants to. There can be no doubt that his feelings are adult, and carnal. If they weren’t stopped in time, they would have progressed to more intimate acts. Mr Alfred, MA, is a pervert.

Nowadays of course, as soon as anyone got wind of what Mr Alfred and Rose were doing in the classroom, he’d be subject to instant suspension, a police investigation and prosecution. But there’s a queasy sign of the times in this book when we listen in on the staffroom gossip of the other teachers. They all know about what’s happening, but no-one wants to stop it. Some decry Mr Alfred for being a creep, others seek to understand him, and a few think it’s funny. “Imagine old Alfy losing his mind over a wee lassie!”

There are consequences for Mr Alfred after Gerald Provan’s mother hears of what has taken place through her daughter and writes a letter to the school, but even these are superficial in relation to what we identify today as a serious crime. He is transferred to another school; and then, after a humiliating moment when he loses control of a class of badly behaved boys, he is bumped down again, into a primary school.

Mr Alfred’s disintegration continues apace, finishing with a beating (of course; everyone gets a beating in Friel’s world) and then an odd encounter with a demoniacal teenager in a derelict house, who may well be Satan. From there, after one more drunken mistake which has consequences which far outweigh their effect, Mr Alfred ends up in a mental hospital.

Unfairness is as common as concrete in Friel’s Glasgow. Nothing nice happens to anyone good. Death and violence preys upon the innocent. The culprits simply point and laugh. Even those who show promise – Martha Weipers and her boyfriend, for example – will be smitten by the mighty smiter (and that couple’s fate is particularly appalling – surely a joke taken too far). Worse still, if you’re expecting the guilty to be dealt a bad hand in this book, for justice to be blind - forget it. There is no hope. There is no spark for change. There is no point.

I hesitate to say the book is unduly harsh on Glasgow. That’s easy to say for an ex-pat who has stairs in his house and relatively non-psychotic neighbours. But I come from the schemes and the schools Friel describes, and my childhood is only a decade’s remove from the time depicted in Mr Alfred, MA. The corrosive effect of violence, of lawless youth, and all-pervading vandalism, cannot be overstated. The horror of not feeling safe behind your own front door, or walking down your own street; the anxiety involved in simply turning a corner, or wandering into a place you don’t know too well. “Who d’ye know, mate?” I wonder how many lives were lost for having given the wrong answer – or no answer – to that challenge?

The futility of kindness and decency is never more horribly outlined than in the Italian cafĂ© owner whose business is turned into a latrine by teenage gangs – and also an arena for turf warfare. His crucial mistake was catering for them, by installing a jukebox.

Friel was shrewd in showing the influx of immigrants into the city, working hard, trying to integrate - and being treated with open hostility by the indigenous population. One black bus conductor is left astonished during one scene – not just by the racial abuse he suffers, but by the fact that people simply refuse to pay their fare; to participate in the society he has travelled to be part of. None of today’s anti-immigration bile in the popular press and social media would have surprised Friel.

The author’s previous good humour and compassion is in short supply in this final novel. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, which is a shame. He deserved better. There is one sparkling comic renaissance, where Friel analyses the phrase “ya bass”, which you can see appended to graffiti throughout the city to this day. But these linguistic gymnastics can give way to outright smart-arsedness, often involving very big, very obscure words. You get the impression Friel is sneering at us. I don’t mind a bit of playfulness with unusual words, siding with Will Self on the issue – but if you have to dive for the dictionary every few pages, I think either the writer has failed, or he’s at it.

I can picture my stern English teacher swiping his red pen across some sections, then scoring in the margin: “GLIB. FLIPPANT. CUT.”

Times and cities change. The Glasgow of Friel’s day wasn’t the Glasgow of his parents’ day; similarly, the Glasgow of today will be totally different to the 1980s, when I was a child. It’s a great place to study and work.

What a terrible pity George Friel didn’t see that bad situations can change; that talent can blossom; that even the meanest city can flourish. Decay may be a natural part of existence, but so is renewal. 

January 3, 2017

SQUAWK OF THE YEAR

Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2016.

Bill Kirton:

A lot of my 2016 reading was escapist – stories by the best sellers who’ve earned their reputations as reliable providers of thrills, suspense, twists and satisfaction and who don’t need reviews from me to confirm their excellence. On the other hand, there were others who had nothing like the exposure of these big boys and girls and yet who produced highly individual, accomplished novels which deserve a wider readership. Black Sheep Boy is one of them.

I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, otherwise I don’t think it would have registered on my radar. As the title suggests, it’s a series of episodes in a life, but a life far removed from that of a comfortable old guy living in Scotland. The first person narrator is a young boy who lives in the Louisiana bayou and, as well as sharing his personal pains and pleasures with us, he evokes this highly individual context and its customs. Throughout, the fact that he is, as the blurb warns us, ‘small, weak, effeminate’, frequently creates conditions, oppositions and alliances which set him at odds with that same culture with its fixed notions of how men and women should be.

So the exoticism of the content is already fascinating to a reader far removed from its everyday manifestations, but the main power of the book is the voice in which it’s related and the way he shares with us the discoveries his experiences bring to him. The rhythms and music of the prose, the delicacy of the images he conjures up, and the beautiful mix of ‘normal’ English and the gentle patois of the bayou are captivating. Interest never wavers, from the simplest stories he recounts to the questions of identity he asks of others and himself as he grows into and struggles to understand and withstand the dilemmas and threats posed by his sexuality and his gender. Themes of mysticism, justice, impotence and survival weave through it all, taking different guises in the various relationships he forms and experiences he enjoys and/or endures.

And, in the end, so closely do we empathise with his thoughts and feelings that the specificity of his sexual and gender-related issues broadens into reflections on identity and purpose which relate to the whole process of how we become who we are and continue to evolve through more of its iterations. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, essentially human and an excellent read.

Pat Black:

I thoroughly enjoyed Frances Larson's Severed, a grisly but compelling history of decapitation. I also loved Peter Hill's memoirs of his time working on Scottish lighthouses, Stargazing.

But the blue rosette goes to a book I haven't reviewed - I, Partridge, by Alan Partridge. The audiobook is narrated in-character by Steve Coogan and was probably the funniest book I've ever come across. As if I needed to look any more of a lunatic on the morning commute. Eat my goal! 

Marc Nash:

I had a year of big thick post-modern works and lots of non-English fiction in translation.

Most of the Po-Mo was pretty disappointing with the honourable exception of Sergio de la Pava's "A NakedSingularity", but it was the non-English fiction that blew me away this year. Valeria Luiselli's "The Story Of My Teeth" was good fun, both of Yuri Herrera's 100 page novels were very evocative and lyrical in their brevity. Both of those authors are Mexican. But the winner was Korean author Kan Hang's "The Vegetarian" which despite a completely redundant third section, parts one and two were so stunning and beautiful and haunting that the limp part 3 simply didn't matter. Highly recommended. 

Worst read of the year Gillian Slovo's "Ten Days" purportedly about the London riots of 2011 in which just a single rioter makes an appearance and he's rescuing a child from a burning building. utterly misses the point. 

Melissa Conway:

After a lifetime spent reading whenever a spare moment presents, I’m lately in this weird bubble of book avoidance, with the excuse that I simply can’t spare the time. I didn’t read much in 2016, but even if I had, my year’s best pick would have stood out from the rest. Rebecca Lochlann’s The Sixth Labyrinth is the first book in the second Child of the Erinyes trilogy, a love triangle driven by divine destiny to be reincarnated through the ages. Great writing, highest recommendation.

J.S. Colley:

My have-read list for 2016 is woefully short. I will mention HillbillyElegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance.  The author’s family moved from addiction-ridden Appalachia to Ohio, where he was able to overcome his inherited geography and make it to Yale Law School. Although it didn’t fully live up to my expectations, it came close.

I’m currently reading Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes, published by the newly-formed Aardvark Bureau, about South Africa’s only “ethical pest removal specialist.” So far, I’m enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll write a review when I’m finished.

I wish you all happy reading in the new year!






December 17, 2016

PIETR THE LATVIAN

by Georges Simenon
176 pages, Penguin Classics

Review by Pat Black

Penguin has done alright by Georges Simenon. Perhaps sensing an opportunity alongside a new series of TV adaptations starring Rowan Atkinson, they’re currently reissuing the Maigret stories.

All of them. Seventy-six novels. That’s beaucoup de books. I…

Look, I’m not a racist, but I dunno if I can be bothered with these italics. My “I” key is taking a fearful beating and we’re only two pars in. From now on, I might go easy on the Franglish - and the emphasis. Spare us all some grief.

Penguin has reissued a lot of the author’s other stuff as well, though they surely can’t get around to it all – because Georges Simenon wrote almost 500 novels. The Belgian’s prolific literary output was perhaps only matched by his infamous sexual appetite. Mick Jagger’s pointy-finger dance had absolutely nothing on Simenon’s rigid digits machine-gunning the typewriter. Did he take a shagbreak from all that writing, or a typing break in between all the shagging? Mais be oui’ll never know.

God, I’m so sorry.

Pietr The Latvian is the first Maigret novel, originally published in 1930. The Parisian detective is introduced as a burly fellow in a bowler hat with a pipe clamped between his jaws, as broad as he is long. He’s the type of lump who doesn’t really fight that much, because he doesn’t have to. If you smacked him one, he might frown a bit, and take a few seconds to decide what to do with you.

Maigret works hard, but usually finds a bit of time to warm himself by an open fire that’s kept well stocked in his office. There’s something about that big old fire, which Maigret rubs his hands in front of as he ponders his next move. I fancied I felt warmth seeping into my bones whenever it flickered into life on the page; there’s something very clever going on there.

Pietr the Latvian of the title is a master counterfeiter, who’s been spotted on a train into Paris. On a tip from a primitive form of Interpol, Maigret is on hand to arrest him… so it’s tres embarrassing when he discovers his target has been murdered on the train.

Things get even odder, as the late Pietr the Latvian is clocked by witnesses just a few hours later at a swanky Paris hotel, alive and well and supping alongside an American millionaire.

There is some suspicion that Georges Simenon knew nothing about police procedure – that he made it all up on the hoof. He happens to have a crime, and he happens to have a detective on hand to solve it. That’s all he really needs for his tale to be told. I’ve no way of knowing if that’s true, but things do seem quite haphazard, even for a detective novel which first appeared as a serial in 1930. It’s short and pacy, with time for a couple more murders as Maigret attempts to uncover the mystery of how Pietr the Latvian managed to cheat death, and just what he’s up to in the five-star hotel.

Perhaps Simenon didn’t have time to finesse the detail, as he was too fully immersed in the story… or maybe he was banging. “I think I’ll take a walk down to the police station and ask a gendarme for some tips… Cripes, I’ve ended up banging instead. Zut! I’ve done it again! Au secours ma Boab!”

Breakfast: banging. Lunch: banging. Extended two-hour lunch: extended banging. Dinner: banging. Cheeky petit digestif? Cheese et bisquets before bedtime? Not before some banging. And so forth.

He must have had a few days like that, because it seems that Georges Simenon was a veritable Duracell Bunny when it game to Le Banging. He claimed he had slept with 10,000 women. Even if he’s telling les porcees, and say it’s just half that… blimey… even a tenth of that… folks, admittedly I’m no James Bond, but that still seems like an unfeasibly big final score to me. To even compute it is an act of lunacy. A simple numerical representation seems insufficient. It would send anyone of a mathematical bent, never mind puritanical, into a rubber room.

He claims he began his banging career at the age of 13, but for the sake of clarity let’s condense the stats into a peak period, aged 20-60. That being the case, his scorecard breaks down to more than 240 different women – that’s different women shagged, not the actual amount of shags – every year. That’s 20 a month. That’s five a week. Five different women every week! Even that number assumes a smooth, even distribution in bangs. If he had a super peak period, he could have been banging 2-3 different women every day at the top of the graph.

It seems unfeasible, but in interviews, Simenon’s son has corroborated the long-standing myth of his father’s swordsmanship. It seems the Buoyant Georges would bob off down the brothel on his lunch break every day… so it seems seduction wasn’t the whole story. But even if he was using prostitutes, that still seems rather a lot. You’d think he would get tired; some nights, instead of a bang, he might fancy watching the snooker. Dipping his balons in an ice bucket, perhaps. But non! Nous allons bang on! Je pense, donc je bang!

If you express it in fractions or decimalise it, it gets worse. How many nights did he do half a bang and give up – say, at the end of a big session, and he’d already gotten through 99% of his daily ammunition allocation? How many centilitres per bang, per day? What was the probability of him running into women he forgot he’d banged in the street? What percentage of his mates’ wives and girlfriends did he bang? Did he get bored, seek out a bloke and get banged himself on rare occasions – expressed as binary figure 0, and not 1? Did he ever do four-fifths of a bang and stop suddenly, for a laugh? It’s not like he was worried about where the next one was coming from. Did he overbang it in fact – revving up to 150% and passing out?

If he had a Fitbit, would it calculate he had banged for ten miles per day? What was the probability of him not having a bang one day? Minus or equal to 0.0000005 to the nearest 0.1 percent I reckon. What was the standard bangiation? Could the exact figure be turned upside down, to spell out “boobies” on a calculator? Did he buy his French letters in hundreds, tens or units? Statistically, if one in a hundred johnnies is a potential felt-ripper, how many split parachutes did he get over a lifetime? Can we represent his banging coefficient in any given social situation with the Greek letter Shagma?

…Paris between the wars comes across as a damp, seedy place. Maigret tails Pietr in and out of various bars, watching him drink heavily, gaining a picture of the man and his movements. Most controversially, le Commissaire heads into a Jewish ghetto and the author states some racially unpleasant things. “Different races have a peculiar smell,” Simenon says, before hinting that the Jewish smell isn’t very nice.

Usual flimsy excuses apply – it was the 1930s, and racism was a hot topic for the chattering classes, a bit like fleek eyebrows and really bad beards these days. I think.

Maigret doesn’t give a lot away about himself. A taciturn gargoyle taking a keen note in everything which occurs beneath his high cathedral perch, his method is all in the observation of behaviour. He’s looking for that one little detail which can unlock character, and ultimately crack the case. We know little of the detective’s personal life and only meet his wife at the end. Among the sparse character details, we find out that he likes to refuel during long, sleepless investigations with piles of sandwiches and bottles of beer poured into a glass - best consumed, of course, in front of that roaring fire.

Surprisingly, there’s no bed-hopping, although Maigret is particularly interested in a poor Jewish girl who has some connection to the man in the title. Maigret doesn’t process her in entirely complimentary terms, but there’s an undercurrent of raw attraction there. During a scuffle in one of the climactic scenes, Maigret manages to tear her dress, displaying her “magnificent” bosom. I heard a sleazy saxophone lick when this happened; I wondered if we’d taken a hop across the Channel for a hit of extremely low farce.

It was all too telling. The bloke doth protest too much. Maybe when you’re as oversexed as Georges Simenon, the idea: “Could I have sex with this woman?” has been completely usurped in favour of: “How long do I have to wait before I can get her clothes off?”

Maigret is tough. He gets shot at one point, but has the wound bandaged up and carries on with the job. He’ll worry about changing his dressing and mild inconveniences such as blood loss and infection much later. Again, rather than striking back hard, Maigret is a brooding goat instead of an angry bear, mulling over situations and possibilities as he chews on the end of his pipe.

There are many parts where I said to myself: “That’s so French!” Part of my understanding of what constitutes “French” comes from Allo Allo!, Inspector Clouseau and art house films shown way past my bedtime on Channel 4 in the 1980s, so we should tread warily here. All the same, there are some bungling policemen who allow people to slip away during surveillance for the daffiest reasons. There’s wildcattish hysteria from some unfathomable women. And there are lots of exclamation marks, raising their hands brazenly amid the quiescent sea of text.

The climax to the story was remarkable. Maigret tails his quarry to the seaside, and they have a sloppy, indistinct fight on a sighing shingle beach which takes on the tones of foreplay. It’s a kind of Olly Reed/Alan Bates wrestling match scene (all it needs is a roaring fire, in fact). There’s even a point where the villain has a chance to kick Maigret into the sea, but doesn’t. Out of a sense of resignation? Or fraternite? Who knows? It’s a wee bit like the Musketeers, drawn into friendship after an original arrangement to cross swords.

It gets stranger still, as the two men check into a hotel and get out of those wet things. The man Maigret is chasing reveals all, explaining what he did, how he did it, and why he did it. This might be the most French part of all – love affairs are detailed, follies are regretted, and motive is tenderly exposed. We are treated to the sight of the hulking police inspector and his adversary, fluffy and dry in soft cotton dressing gowns, going over the whole story like a pair of old ladies preparing for a spa day. More than anything else in the book, this total oddity of a scene will bring me back to Maigret. It was quite incredible.

Ah, go on then. Incroyable.

December 8, 2016

STARGAZING

by Peter Hill
336 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

Scotland has a long, treacherous coastline. It looks fantastic on that gumby watercolour your granny might keep above her mantelpiece, but in real life, the lights have to be kept burning. You could make an island with the bones of sailors drowned in those waters.

Being a lighthouse keeper seemed like a romantic job to me as a kid. We think of the sea, of course – calm and gentle as your mother one minute, an unstoppable, raging fury the next. Then there’s the fog, the solitude, old CB radios, and of course, the sweeping light. It helps that Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

The job has long been outmoded by technology – everything’s automated, and has been for decades. This phenomenon of redundancy is something many of us will have to get used to in the coming years if progress continues at its current pace, unless a nice nuclear war sets the clock back a few millennia. Whatever humanity survives might have to go back to burning beacons to show wooden ships the way to safety. Assuming they’d harbour good intentions towards strange vessels.

Stargazing, Peter Hill’s memoirs of his days spent as a keeper on several lights on Scotland’s west coast, is a step back in time. It looks at 1973, when Hill halted his art school studies in Dundee in order to take a job on the lights. He’s just 19 years old, his head full of Jimi Hendrix, Kerouac, the Watergate hearings and Vietnam. Peter wants to write haikus, paint pictures and write novels in his downtime on the lights, and he does. But he also gets to know the crazy characters he has to share the living quarters with. This is the lifeblood of the book. It’s good to consider a starry night, with the moon drizzling silver over indigo waters; but it’s better to have someone to talk to about it - or Coronation Street, whichever you prefer.

You’d think there’s not much to describe once you get past the rugged coasts, the seas and the lights, but… imagine the stars. Imagine basking sharks the size of lorries knifing their way across the water. Imagine thousands of seabirds nesting overnight on the rock, using the lighthouse as a sort of avian Travelodge to break up their journeys across the continents. Imagine the things people might say to each other in the dead of night, their psyches on the fringes of sleeping and dreaming. It’s magical stuff.

“At least you’ve got your art,” one late-night companion tells Peter. “You’re lucky. It’ll sustain you for life.”

In truth this book only takes up a few months out of Hill’s life – a matter of weeks, really - but you can imagine the impression it made on the young man. I was a postie for one summer when I was a similar age, over a similar period of time, and I was a turn of a card away from doing it full-time. My destiny took a different course, but I think I learned more about life, the universe and everything that summer than I have in nearly two decades since, sat on my arse in offices, getting fat, cynical and bitter.

Hill’s fellow keepers are incandescent characters. We meet Finlay, the highlander and gourmand, who teaches Peter how to cook as well how to look after the light; then there’s the tough guy who used to work on the boats, whose taciturnity becomes comical rather than threatening; the Doctor Who enthusiast, who could answer any question on the show in between blasts of the fog horn; the colonel Blinky type, who used to be a sailor during the war but now does all his fighting with Scrabble; the traumatised wartime secret agent who had Done Stuff; the polymath professor, who you suspect could have done anything but ended up working on the lights; and many more.

It’s not an essential, but having an idea of the locations described helped anchor some scenes in my mind. I know Arran and Ailsa Craig - the latter being familiar to golf fans from any time the Open is held at Troon, as it is during Hill’s time spent on the light; Peter Alliss even gives the keepers a mention live on the telly. Corsewall in the Borders is mentioned in passing; it’s a hotel and restaurant complex now. I’ve stayed there, on one of my best ever birthdays. These are all dramatic, gorgeous settings which Hill sketches beautifully.

As for the lights I don’t know about – what about those titles? Pladda! Muckle Flugga! Everything about these places is a pleasure. Saying their names out loud; looking them up on the maps; and, surely, going there.

There’s even some action and adventure, as a fishing trip to intercept a juicy shoal of herring turns into a potentially fatal incident as Peter and a workmate are almost swamped by a rogue wave.

You might ask: How do lighthouse keepers deal with having no sex for weeks on end? The same way anyone else does, is Hill’s reply. There’s a big, obvious, vertical, shiny bright metaphor we could use here, but Hill ignores it, and so shall I. I’m reminded of an interpretation I once heard of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from years ago, but I shan’t go into it; I promised myself I’d get through this one without any smutty jokes.

Most of all, this book is a tribute to youth. The hope, the potential, the energy, the ambition, the chutzpah. Some parts transported me back in time to my own younger days – an encyclopaedia full of mistakes, stupidity and fool’s errands, to be sure, but wonderful and unforgettable and romantic in their own way. There’s one part where Hill uses shore leave to go hostelling in Amsterdam with a female friend, who he might be in love with. She knows this, of course, and tells him in that beautifully nonsensical way that she can’t sleep with a friend, as it’d spoil the friendship. Some people must think this tactic amounts to “letting you down gently”. This stirred memories and feelings from my own youth I’d almost forgotten. It was a lightning bolt, a sudden rekindling of how you felt when you were that age, doing the same things.

Stargazing reminded me of the good stuff; the parts a man of 39 thinks he might have left behind with the lad of 19. But I’d recommend this book to anyone, of any age, from any background.

It’s a reminder to keep your light burning; you never know who’ll need it out there in the dark.