September 29, 2015


by Irvine Welsh
546 pages, Jonathan Cape

Review by Pat Black

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raffaele. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi. Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud. 

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting boys are part of the furniture now - like a fag burn on the couch, or a toenail you find embedded Excalibur-style down the back when you’re trawling for change. The Edinburgh quartet returned – with mixed results – in Porno, back in 2006. Skagboys looks at the earlier years of Leith’s finest in a prequel, set in 1984/85.

We start with Mark Renton’s handwritten diaries, a record of when he stood alongside his father and striking miners during their pitched battle with the police at Orgreave. We’re still unknotting the state’s tentacles from around the throat of that industrial dispute today. The clash, representing Margaret Thatcher’s ultimate victory over the unions, serves to lay out the slippery slope down which Welsh’s assortment of misfits, wasters and scumbags must travel. 

Aside from a policeman’s attempts to wedge a baton between Renton’s shoulder blades, he’s none the worse for his class war efforts as he returns to his summer job with a builder, before resuming his studies at Aberdeen University. There’s a girl up there that he likes, a fellow student from Newcastle. After an inter-railing holiday, they fall in love. Renton is a straight-A student, a driven young man with lots to prove. Things are looking up for our hero.

We know already that Renton throws it all away. This predestination lends Skagboys a sense of dread. You read these touchstone moments of a young man embarking on his first serious adult relationship almost through your fingers, knowing what lies ahead. Specifically, heroin.

Land of opportunity

The catalyst for Renton’s plunge into addiction is his disabled wee brother Davie’s death. But there’s already a sense of self-destruction about these working class boys, born out of a lack of choices and employment prospects as Mrs Thatcher’s free market war on the state and the heavy industries cranks up.

Renton’s the only one of the main characters with an arc, defined by heroin. We see his first contact with it, his growing addiction, and the way it squeezes everything of value out of his existence.

Spud, the one everyone likes, doesn’t get long in the spotlight, although his bleak experiences on the gear are more heart-rending than Renton’s. Begbie is already a well-established thug, and gets incrementally worse. Similarly, Sick Boy is just as cocksure and oversexed as his later incarnation. We see him embark on his charming entrepreneurial strategy of seducing young girls, getting them hooked on smack and then pimping them out. This leads to an almost unspeakably malicious encounter between a teenager and the man who killed her father.

In many ways, Sick Boy’s sociopathy is worse than Begbie’s psychosis. At least Begbie has animal instinct as an excuse. Sick Boy, the arch-schemer and manipulator, has everything planned out. Our Simon is definitely a thinker, if not quite a philosopher.

Renton’s journey from lad o’ pairts to junkie aside, we follow a pungent saga where Begbie impregnates a local girl, only to be threatened with vengeance by her brothers. They are made to regret this. In any aggregate of toxic masculinity, dear Franco is always going to come out on top.

I wouldn’t say Begbie inhabits a cycle of violence; that implies some sort of change in how he behaves, plotted points where he makes a turn, deviations. Begbie doesn’t have that subtlety. He’s a hurricane which can never be downgraded, destroying everything wherever he goes. Even a stretch in prison comes across as a slightly irritating but not insurmountable obstacle – another environment for Begbie to thrive in.

Away from the principals, Tommy’s story was the most troubling, because we know how it ends. This gives the handsome, morally upright athlete a tragic air, as he’s the only person in the book whom you would call heroic. He helps out his mates in a tight spot, and is more than capable of meeting violence with violence. We find out that he bested the seemingly unstoppable Begbie in the boxing ring - “a lesson in sweet science” for the street-fighting sluggard. Begbie even respects this; we suspect that in a square go, Tommy might be too strong and too brave for even that monster. He has a conscience, knowing that Begbie’s lust for urban warfare is fundamentally wrong. Tommy helps the weak, and provides comfort to those who need it. You can see he was raised well.

When Renton’s love life dies horribly, Tommy embarks on one of his own with Liz, an art student. He falls in love for the first time, a 22-year-old with a chance to get out of a bad situation. Salvation, Tommy realises, doesn’t mean moving anywhere. He just has to “step into a parallel dimension” and meet someone nice.

His heroism is underlined when other characters mention his likeness to Harrison Ford, as Tommy and Liz go to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Tommy’s fate in Trainspotting is a bitter finale to all this promise.

Mary Marquis

Violence, nihilism, cruelty and disgust come fitted as standard in Skagboys. Some episodes could happily slither into Trainspotting’s septic tank of horrors and barely cause a ripple. Wee Davie’s infatuation with the raven-haired, dark-eyed BBC newsreader Mary Marquis messed with my own childhood memories of TV news bulletins, just for a start… and then we find out how the poor lad gained release from his sexual torment.

One character’s rescue of a puppy in a filthy tower block basement after it is shoved down a rubbish chute, only to discover the foetus of his aborted child in its jaws, was literally a new level of depravity. There’s also a workplace “competition” among Renton’s happy band of labourers which I can’t see being copied any time soon by giggling office workers in social media videos.

You know this type of thing will happen in an Irvine Welsh book, though. For me, the erosion or perversion of a sense of family and the literal destruction of children – both recurring themes in Welsh’s work – were more disturbing than the urban myth-toned set pieces. His fathers are treacherous, unreliable, feckless or simply brutal; mothers are stupid, out-of-touch and befuddled, for all their warmth. Siblings spin off in their own directions, often in sharp opposition to the main characters, causing nasty collisions when they revolve back towards each other.

In a wider sense of fraternity, circles of friends become toxic. Tommy realises the only answer is to escape from it all, and build something else. This parallels Renton’s final treachery in Trainspotting. What a pity he can’t quite go through with it.

High seas

One thing has remained consistent in Welsh’s writing, and that’s the contempt he has for “straight pegs”. The ones holding down jobs, and not addicted to drink, drugs or violence. This attitude towards - let’s be honest - most of Welsh’s readership is most apparent in the “high seas” section. Here, Renton, Sick Boy and their London connection Nicksy get jobs with Sealink as a means of smuggling heroin from mainland Europe to the UK. We are presented with an officious middle manager with a cream shirt, spectacles and a clipboard. He appears to be gay, as well. A full house, you might say, in the eyes of Welsh’s 1980s Leith progressives.

I thought: “This guy is going to get smacked within two chapters, tops, and we’re supposed to enjoy it.” And so it proved.

Cream Shirt is a stock type, akin to Walter the Softy in Dennis the Menace; a walking excuse for a sore face. He has the full kit. There are lots of people like this in Welsh’s fiction - boring jobsworths and fond of rulebooks, to be sure, but basically harmless. Welsh snaffles these characters up like a shark meandering through a sh*t-slick seeping out the back of a ferry. The guy might well be inspired by a real-life figure, but he comes across as cartoonish. Renton and Sick Boy, clearly more talented and charismatic than Cream Shirt, snicker and sneer at his ilk as they buccaneer their way through picaresque adventures, streetwise hustlers in a world of grey drones. They’re always one step ahead of this stage of the Thatcherite game – though as Welsh craftily points out, lurking just two moves ahead on the board lies the McJobs generation.

Welsh had a surer hand at the helm nearly 25 years ago, when he showed the Leith gang for the small-timers they really were as they tried to sort out a drug deal in London. They get ripped off by the big dogs, but never know it. It’s strange that Skagboys’ earlier iteration of Renton and Sick Boy cotton on quickly that they are being exploited – capitalism’s long arm reaches every area of society, Welsh reminds us - and yet they’re so easily conned a couple of years later.

Inner peace

To be fair, although Welsh’s heroes fling out disgust, disillusionment or sarcasm for breakfast, by lunchtime it has usually boomeranged back. This is the prism of disgust through which everything is visualised. Welsh surely knows that in the rat race it’s the Cream Shirts and Clipboards who end up sitting pretty, or at least doing alright, not the Rentons and Sick Boys. Perhaps the author is simply venting against dull, austere authority and petty rule-making. Fair enough. I’ll drink to that.

Welsh is better with personal confrontations, particularly those involving the short-fused, yet spine-chillingly canny Begbie. He’s from the stone age, assaulting friend and foe alike as a means of keeping tight control of his territory. We also see him take his first steps in the world of organised crime. Begbie’s eagerness to impress leads to a clash with a family member which he resolves with what must seem like perfect logic to someone who is absolutely, certifiably off their nut.

How beautifully Welsh sketches his monster. That chilling plunge in temperature when someone says something Begbie doesn’t agree with; the million and one ways you can offend him; the hair-trigger outbursts and burst mouths; the palpable fear and loathing among supposed friends, conditioned to dread his approach, his very voice.

I especially liked the way Begbie’s highly-strung antennae twitch at the merest hint that some of his friends are doing something without his consent, such as spending a day in bed with a girlfriend as opposed to joining an organised brawl between football casuals. Begbie’s cousin lives in the flat below Tommy’s girlfriend, and so, armed with the knowledge of where his mate might be hiding out, he stomps over to drag Tommy out of bed. “There’s nothing going on in Leith I don’t know about,” Begbie says, to the astonished Tommy.

Generalissimo Franco also gets one of the most poignant moments, when he reveals his beautiful singing voice at a New Year party. After he is praised for his performance (the song is never identified, though someone says it’s Rod Stewart), Begbie, of course, Takes It The Wrong Way. “It’s just f*ckin’ singin’,” he snarls.

I saw this as an inversion of that glorious part in Porno, when Spud helps a girl tidy her house. (“Come on! Let’s just get intae it! We can dae this!”) It said so much about the character, without resorting to showering us with muck.

Welsh isn’t quite so good when the action moves out of the tenements and crappy pubs, into the world of middle class people, offices, suits, wine bars, tawdry affairs and quick paddles in dangerous waters. The sub-plot involving one of the female characters, her boss and a scam his brother’s got going with some bikers was vital to the historical context, but not to the novel. It’s curious that even though Irvine Welsh has enjoyed a successful career and presumably doesn’t live anywhere near a tenement flat, it’s his depictions of working class strata which he is at least 25 years removed from that are the most convincing and compelling parts of his work.

Cultural capital of Europe

Heroin forms a prolific double act with HIV, which went on to claim dozens of lives in a spate of cases in the 1980s and 90s linked to shared needles which saw Edinburgh branded the “Aids capital of Europe”. Its growing effect on the main characters is fully chronicled by Welsh, who intrudes on the narrative at key points to give us an overview.

By far the best set-piece is Renton’s Moment of Crisis. Badly needing to fix, Renton and a couple of jangly friends decide on a whim to rob a newsagent’s of a collection for a cat charity. The ensuing farce involves a junkie jailbreak from a parental balcony, a woman playing host to baby budgies in her bra and a desperate attempt to break open the charity box from the fourth floor of a block of flats, while chittering schoolchildren lie in wait below. It was my favourite part of Skagboys, and it recalled Trainspotting’s best qualities. No matter how grim the scenario, and perhaps even despite yourself, you laugh.

From there, at the invitation of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, Renton has a stretch in a pioneering rehab facility. The isolated setting features some mystery guest stars from Leith, and the stint begins to resemble some sort of internal war between discrete shards of Renton’s psyche. His handwriting reappears, if not quite his soul. With the junk gone, cracks begin to appear in Renton’s foundations. Mates, getting wasted, burds, fitba; if that all goes, what else is there?

Anyone expecting some sort of redemption for our favourite Alex McLeish lookalike shouldn’t hold their breath, though. There’s some deft probing by the counsellors and fellow “guests” at rehab, but Renton either doesn’t remember what it was like to have a good life, or dismisses the idea completely. W*nking and passive-aggressive contempt fills his days, with the odd foray into weightlifting alongside the foreboding bulk of Seeker, the biker and drugs kingpin. Only when he writes, page after page in his diary, does something purer, less wasteful, quicken in his blood. Once Renton’s out the door, and has negotiated a surprise party thrown to celebrate his mockery of a graduation, he’s back on the gear within hours.

Renton has made his choice, and doesn’t care what others think about it. This looks awfully like freedom, but not as we know it.

The book finally shudders to a halt opposite Trainspotting’s platform. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and a couple of other cellar dwellers attempt a ludicrous heist at the motherlode, a pharmaceutical complex on the outskirts of Edinburgh next to a railway line, from which the initial flood of pure, uncut white heroin once gushed. The fact that the jangly Renton puts his big old brain into gear to formulate his laughable plan, and the rest of them all buy into it so readily, shows the corrosive effect of the drug on even the sharpest minds. Their whole lives, all their efforts, are sacrificed for the sake of one thing: scoring. Everything else is just a pointless habit. Like trainspotting.

Acceptable in the eighties

It’s never nice to think of our lives as minuscule, often insignificant parts in a larger historical narrative. Welsh is on the same page as Tolstoy in this respect. Skagboys is an examination of a blighted part of modern Scottish history, tying together the toxic threads of Thatcherism and concomitant mass unemployment, the ready availability of heroin and the spread of HIV. It is an indictment of the age and its masters. I’m from a Scottish town which gurgled down a plughole during the 1980s, and it still strikes me as astonishing that there are lots of people out there for whom that decade was a non-stop success story, who might have only the dimmest concept of the social and cultural trauma that was inflicted, quite deliberately, on working communities in Scotland, the North East of England, Wales and elsewhere (to say nothing of Northern Ireland). It was a neat move by Welsh to relocate part of the story from Edinburgh to London, with this effect undiminished, against my expectations. There are no yuppies, wine bars or Loadsamoney moments here; just simulacrums of Leith’s sh*tholes, but on a bigger scale.

But you could wring your hands over societal injustice all you like. They’ve no excuses. Renton’s a pr*ck. Sick Boy’s a pr*ck. Spud deserves better friends. Begbie should be put down.  

It took me a horribly long time to read this book. It’s a strong meal, even sampled in small bites. Sweet moments are few and far between; you could have said the same of Trainspotting in this regard, but this prequel is ponderous in comparison, even as it ships filth and fury by the bucketload. Trainspotting, for a novel which had heroin use front and centre, was ironically more like a dab of speed in a carpeted nightclub. In comparison, Skagboys, despite its depiction of men just out of their teens - all piss, balls and gristle - comes across as more of a comedown after a few days away; that point when you just want to get away from your mates and the weekend at large and find blissful unconsciousness in your own bed.

Skagboys is stripped of the glee – my blasphemous soul wants to call it “the joy” – that characterised Trainspotting, that celebration of casual malevolence and grubby debauchery which makes it so beloved of teenagers desperate to be known, and to be in the know. It was similar to Porno in that regard, but it doesn’t drag quite so much.

Skagboys was clearly written by a much older man, a guy in his fifties a long way from the streets he illustrates so memorably. There’s analysis being offered here, but I would stop short of calling it “cool”. Welsh’s wrath at a squandered generation and the appalling forces that converged on it may be buried beneath a growing eloquence in his prose, but it’s there, all right.

What of modern Scotland? I’d like to read Welsh’s views on the rise of the SNP, the disconnection between Labour and its heartlands, and a new Tory government at Westminster which threatens to make Thatcher look almost benign, the same way George W Bush did for Richard Nixon. I want to see the Trainspotting boys in middle age, grappling with the modern world as it bypasses them in favour of a new cast of disenfranchised youngsters – no longer the poster boys for a generation, but old, and worse still, irrelevant.

Please don’t film it, though. And certainly, don’t film Porno. We all know deep down that Trainspotting’s lightning can’t strike twice. 

September 19, 2015


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Manhole diver: Pat Black

According to the author’s note, “Michael Slade” is a pseudonym for several Canadian lawyers, specialising in cases of criminal insanity.

In an effort to escape their difficult and sometimes horrifying professional lives, they constructed a series of gentle, bucolic novels about Hazey Galoshes, a farmer working in the flat English countryside, ploughing fields and loading carts with the help of his faithful donkey, Nubbins.

No, wait. That was just a dream I had.

Slade wrote horrific novels about thrill killers and the police’s efforts to catch them. When I was a teenager I read four of these books. Without re-reading them (but cheating a little with fact-checking on the net), here are my recollections.

Headhunter (1984)

Jesus, that cover.

Horror boom artwork rarely erred on the side of subtlety. In tandem with the garish thrills on offer from VHS rental boxes during this era, many of them etched their promises in blood, and lots of it. But even in a crowded field, you’d be hard-pressed to find artwork quite as disturbing as the image which illustrated the front of Slade’s debut, Headhunter.

This is one book where you can make a secure judgement based on its cover.

It’s a painting of a woman’s severed head on a stick. That’s nasty enough, but there’s something about the expression on the face, the large eyes and the bluish pallor of the skin… It’s just awful.

When we think back to when we were teenagers and the lack of sensitivity many of us had in those awkward years (perhaps I speak only for myself), it can be embarrassing, sometimes horrifying. But I can’t believe I walked out of a second hand bookshop with this paperback in my hands, and read it on a bus. Blame my dwindling thirties, or recent fatherhood, for this re-evaluation. But you can’t deny that the front cover is an absolute shocker. Apparently it sparked controversy after it featured on posters in the London Underground.

However, nasty as it is, it would be a mistake to categorise Headhunter as exploitative schlock.

Like all of Slade’s novels, Headhunter is mainly set in Canada, and features the Royal Candian Mounted Police, of red serge and strange 1980s TV series fame. Headhunter sees a maniac decapitating women in Vancouver, and taunting police with photographs of the missing heads. It’s up to retired Special X department detective Robert DeClerq to catch the killer.

Perhaps in homage to the giallo thrillers it takes for inspiration, Headhunter is part gruesome horror story, part sober police procedural. The seventies and eighties saw police using more sophisticated databases as a means of collating data to help catch criminals – such as the HOLMES system in London and the FBI’s Vicap. These form a key part of the investigations of DeClerq and his colleagues. Here, we can see the sprouting seeds of psychological profiling, mathematical analysis and computer models being used to work out patterns of offending – the place where raw science interfaces with jagged psyches. I bet you the computers and databases seem prehistoric, reading about them in this decade. Even so, gold star for homework.  

The horror element speaks for itself, and no slice is left to the imagination. But there’s a stranger section of the tale, taking in some hallucinogenic experiences a character called Sparky has in the Ecuadorian jungle. Then there’s some childhood traumas set in a New Orleans S&M dungeon, which may be the killer’s reminiscences… although you’re never quite sure until the end, when the disparate strands of the story come together.

There are pungent ingredients in the mix; psychosis, trauma, perverse sexuality, voodoo and of course, some truly disturbing murders. It all leads to a final pursuit in a snowbound setting.

Deliciously, Headhunter does not reveal its killer’s identity until the very last line. I remember being utterly wrong-footed, and having no idea who the culprit was out of its cast of suspects. Whether I’d be so easily duped nowadays is difficult to say, but I recall thinking that Slade had put together a clever package in spite of the gruesome subject matter. If you’ll forgive the expression, the author uses the head – it’s a more cerebral book than you’d think.

The RCMP’s finest were back in the sequel, Ghoul (1987). During study leave for my school exams in 1993, I lay in bed one night and read the whole thing. I finally put the paperback down at about 4am, wondering what the hell I had just read.

It would be difficult to describe Ghoul to anyone nowadays without causing laughter. Headhunter, as I said, wasn’t quite as schlocky as it appeared, but Ghoul is unashamedly so. I couldn’t see it being given such a prominent release today in high street bookshops, front and centre alongside Barbara Taylor Bradford, Wilbur Smith, Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, as it was in the 1990s. Like a particularly debauched night out, after this book is over you’ll doubt your own recollections. Ghoul is barking mad, but it is brilliant.

Originally released in the same year Axl Rose’s pterodactyl screech was unleashed on the world in Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, Ghoul was inspired by the Gothic-tinged world of 1980s heavy metal. There are references to Alice Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft and premature burial. It has some astounding kill scenes, fiendish contraptions and booby traps, including a particularly sadistic home-made guillotine. Set in Canada and London, Ghoul has a complex story considering its subject matter, following a series of murders seemingly linked to the rock band Ghoul and its horror-themed stage stylings. It is cartoonish in places, but undeniably entertaining.

Our hero this time is another Mountie, Zinc Chandler – as the name suggests, more of an action man than the cerebral DeClerq - following a deep-pile red carpet of bodies. Ghoul is bonkers, seems to have been highly regarded among the horror cognoscenti and, yes, when I was 16 I loved it to pieces. It has featured in some all-time lists of dark fiction over the years, no mean achievement, although I suspect modern audiences might find its scenes of rock n’ roll theatre ludicrous compared to today’s airbrushed, streamlined pop idols. Think Anne Rice’s hilarious attempt to depict a rock concert in The Vampire Lestat.

When you discover Slade worships Alice Cooper, it begins to make more sense. Indeed, Mr Furnier decorates the inside cover with a recommendation, alongside none other than The Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. Slade must have been cackling when he realised his rock n’ roll idols had gotten on board that crazy train.

Out of all of Slade’s output, Ghoul is the one I’d most want to revisit.

Chandler returns in Slade’s next novel, Cutthroat (1992), as does Headhunter’s crusading detective, Robert DeClerq.

The clanging sound you hear as you open this book is the kitchen sink falling out. This one has a lot going on. The set-up is almost too complicated – but then, as Slade knows from experience, what goes on in any maniac’s mind is bound to have obscure, complex, bizarre roots.

Cutthroat mimics the first novel’s dedication to historical detail, taking in the massacre at Little Big Horn and the search for a fugitive Native American by Blake, the mad Scottish Mountie whose bloodline has such nasty consequences in Headhunter. We have the hunt for one of the Big Two of cryptozoology, the Sasquatch/Yeti (alongside Nessie of course). We also have a nice cutlet of cannibalism linked to the activities of a sinister Chinese pharmaceuticals firm controlled by a modern-day warlord. The killer in the title is suffering from a degenerative brain disorder and needs a mystical “yeti” skull – the missing link between man and ape - to improve his condition, a lunatic prescription of Chinese alternative medicine.

I’m shattered, writing that. Need a rest. A cuppa tea and a sit down. There’s enough material for half a dozen books in there.

Along the way, of course, slicing and dicing ensues.

One other thing: the ending to Cutthroat was a shocker on a par with the final revelation in Headhunter. “Wait! What? No! That can’t be right!”

My final encounter with Slade was Ripper (1994), his attempt at an Agatha Christie-style isolated house/locked room mystery. It has lots of inventive kills by a pair of occult-obsessed psychopaths. As you’ve probably guessed, it takes for its historical inspiration Jack the Ripper’s handiwork, and the contrived “occult” significance which fantasists, hacks and chancers keep trying to attach to those sordid killings.

Ripper felt lightweight compared to the three previous novels, but was still a lot of fun. It sees Zinc Chandler (having survived something he probably shouldn’t have in Cutthroat) and DeClerq joining forces to chase the two crazed, but educated killers. The world of horror novels and the distaste they elicit among critics was a key part of the book. It amuses me to think of some reviewers shuffling uneasily in their easy chairs as they read about the fake novel Jolly Rodger, which contains clues to the killers’ identities. I’m sure one or two critics suffer appalling deaths. Talk about making a statement!

This one was a true giallo/slasher with typically inventive kills as the cops and supporting cast - which might include the two killers - are trapped in an isolated, booby-trapped mansion straight out of Agatha Christie.

That was my lot. I never returned to Slade.

I notice some of his paperbacks are going for silly amounts of money online. I think I might dig these out of the garage and see if I get some bites… although I may have a wee flick through them first.

In the course of my research I used Slade’s excellent website... I should warn you, though, it features some graphic images of historical crimes). In the “morgue” section he describes in fascinating detail exactly what inspired his novels – with particular reference to his childhood and career in the law, and the sometimes gruesome cases he dealt with.

We all know that police and ambulance workers have Seen Some Stuff, but we forget that people in legal circles also have to deal with visits to crime scenes and police photographer “hamburger shots”. Slade reveals that he writes out his anxiety and fears related to this gruesome stuff. Although his books may be grim, he “sleeps like a baby” and never has nightmares.

So he says, anyway.

Having gone through all this I’m still not sure who or what Michael Slade is, or if these biographical details refer to one person or several – or no-one at all. I’ve even heard that Slade is a father-and-daughter team. He, she or it remains unsettlingly vague.

They could be anyone, anywhere…  

:: Next up, we wash our hands of that nasty gloopy horror stuff, grow our hair long, put on a hot pink bandanna, pull on some green tights and sing strange songs of heroes, monsters, magic and girdles… Equally, we could just take a look at Terry Brooks’ Shannara series instead. 

September 1, 2015


Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago…

by Stieg Larsson
608 pages, MacLehose Press

Review by Pat Black

So, back to the previous decade’s literary hits. I’ll get to Game of Thrones soon. By 2020. Promise. After I finish Flowers In The Attic.

I enjoyed The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Swedish murder, shagging and sanctimony trilogy. Its sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, sees abuse survivor and ace hacker Lisbeth Salander getting on with her life, taking fancy holidays and buying a luxury pad after embezzling millions from a crooked businessman.

Our other hero, the journalist Mikael Blomqvist, continues his liberal crusade at Millennium magazine, fully vindicated and nicely remunerated after solving a series of nasty murders, finding out what happened to a missing heiress and clearing his own name following a libel case.

But there’s some trouble in store. A journalist attached to Millennium and his girlfriend are shot dead in the middle of an investigation into people trafficking. Round about the same time, Bjurman, the repellent lawyer who is Salander’s state-appointed guardian and also her rapist, also has his head turned into Ikea meatballs.

Salander’s fingerprints are on the weapon used to kill all three. Soon, the eidetic super-hacker and unarmed combat expert is the subject of a nationwide manhunt. The tabloid press feast on details about her exotic personal life thanks to a leak in the police inquiry. For a while, we are led to wonder if she actually is the killer.

It’s just as well that Blomqvist, general do-gooder and Salander’s erstwhile lover, doesn’t think so.

The book focuses on Stieg Larsson’s favourite theme: how we challenge the denigration of women, professionally, personally, institutionally and sexually. When we think of Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries we usually imagine sophisticated social democracy, sexual liberation and easy-to-assemble furniture. But Larsson’s trilogy shows Sweden as no different to the rest of the world in terms of corruption, scandal, hypocrisy and toxic masculinity. The book’s villains are people traffickers, pimps, gangsters and men in authority who use and abuse women, whether for money, power or pleasure. Blomqvist, part John Pilger, part boy scout, is ruthless when it comes to exposing these people. Salander, however, tends to go one step further, employing violence in her quest to destroy men who hate women.

The book begins with vengeance visited upon a wife-beater at the storm-hit tropical paradise our girl holidays in. Then, prior to his head being blown off, Bjurman – so memorably accounted for by Salander in the previous book – is again the subject of our heroine’s sinister ministrations. Salander, who hacks into computers and steals data as easily as you or I might flick through the TV channels on a bored Tuesday night, knows precisely what Bjurman is up to. If she sees something she doesn’t like, she breaks into his house and threatens him.

Now, Bjurman deserves all he gets, no question of that. But Salander’s scrutiny of every aspect of his life made me uncomfortable. It is a two-way scenario, as Salander needs Bjurman’s artificial reports on her social progress in order to live her life unhindered, having been declared incompetent and mentally defective. Bjurman is a pig, hardly deserving of sympathy. But why not simply deliver him to justice?

The answer is that Salander likes punishing him – not only physically and mentally, but in terms of controlling the entire structure of his life. His every move is scrutinised. He dare not indulge his violent, criminal sexual preferences without incurring Salander’s retribution. Like me, you may have a vindictive side which appreciates the savage justice in this, but in its own way this is sadism. This element of Salander’s character helps make her so compellingly unique, but also poses serious questions about her morality, and ours.

This is a violent book, and most of the aggro is meted out by Salander. True, it’s mainly for self-defence purposes, and any nasty encounter she has is visited upon people who bring it upon themselves. Let’s say Salander is not the type of girl to bring a knife to a gunfight. Her actions are balanced by the more cerebral approach of Blomqvist, who starts from the premise that Salander has been set up.

Blomqvist is a libertarian, hell-bent on exposing corruption and unfairness wherever it exists. He’s also sexually incontinent, though not quite as prolific here as he was in the first book. Blomqvist is fond of Salander, and cares about her welfare – but the sex they enjoyed in the first story seems almost incidental. He mainly focuses his affection on Erika Berger, his editor at Millennium, with whom he enjoys an open relationship with the full approval of her husband.

This gets even more kinky when we get Berger’s view of things. She reveals her ultimate fantasy is a threesome with Blomqvist and her husband – a desire she has indulged before with another third party. Her husband has bisexual tendencies, which she wishes Blomqvist shared. Unfortunately, she reflects wryly, Blomqvist is “too straight” for such a scenario. Berger, who seems to have given just about everything a go sexually, chides Blomqvist for being a square.

This libertine attitude continues through Salander, whose chief romantic interest is a performance artist called Miriam Wu, but who appears to have only ever loved Blomqvist. She also beds a teenage boy after meeting him on a beach while she’s on holiday. She doesn’t seem particularly fussed about questions of sexual orientation, simply attending to whatever itch she wishes to scratch in a given situation. Again, the typical response to these acts is to say: “Bloody Scandies! What are they like?” But I do wonder if this kind of laissez-faire approach to who sleeps with whom reflects reality in Sweden.

To play devil’s advocate: if you’re that free and easy with your sexual boundaries, then at what point does your behaviour become unacceptable? Larsson draws a very firm line at prostitution and people-trafficking. Allied to this delineation, his villains, both primary and secondary, are absolutely repellent, toxic males. As Salander says prior to one confrontation with a pair of bikers; whenever she wants to do something, there’s always a beer-bellied oaf in her way.

The big baddies are up to their necks in criminality and vice, but even the secondary villains – such as Salander’s former colleague at the security agency and a boorish detective who’s too cross-eyed at the idea of Salander’s sexual behaviour to think straight – see women as simple “bitches” who need to be brought to heel. They are happy to lie and cheat in order to do so.

There are no grey areas. It’s black hats and white hats.

On the goodies’ side, Blomqvist is the moral core, while Salander is the woman of action comfortable with swinging a bat when she needs to. The third-person narrative reminds us directly that both our heroes are flawed. Salander’s thought processes and convictions are painted as unusual, if not outright mentally ill, while Blomqvist’s idealism is frequently dismissed as na├»ve. Despite this, we are rarely in any doubt who’s in the right.

There are ways in which the story’s sexual politics and libertarian values could have been challenged. Imagine Berger, a beautiful, accomplished, mature woman, decides that she wants to sleep with a 21-year-old trainee at the magazine. Imagine that, after a while, he decides her advances aren’t welcome.

Or let’s say Miriam Wu isn’t interested in being restricted to desultory encounters with Salander - often summarily dumped until her strange partner drifts back onto the scene. What if Wu is in love, and decides to say so? Salander might not understand, and try to pull away. But what if Wu doesn’t want to let Salander go? What if passion over-rides blurred moral lines?

It can go darker still. Let’s imagine Blomqvist gets that little bit older, and finds himself in possession of a receding hairline, a proliferation of chins and a swelling beer belly. Let’s consider a scenario where pierced, tattooed and yet still gamine computer hackers nearly three decades his junior and beautiful urban sophisticates with an exciting lack of restraint stop being interested in him.

We know Blomqvist drinks, occasionally to excess. Problem drinking in Nordic climes, where in some places the sun only makes a brief appearance in the darkest parts of the year, was subtly portrayed in that other great piece of noughties popular art from Sweden,  Let The Right One In .) Let’s say one night, when he’s not had any of that fun, free-wheeling, anything-goes sex for a long time, Blomqvist gets drunk, stumbles down to one of Stockholm’s less salubrious areas, and…

I digress. Idle speculation.

As for the baddies, we focus on two antagonists. One is a Terminator-style blond giant slabbed over with muscle who appears not to feel any pain, while the other is a sinister puppet-master known only as Zala. Investigating the latter shadowy figure gets the journalist and his girlfriend killed. There’s also a link to the ill-fated Bjurman. What this has to do with Salander is for her to know and everyone else – primarily Blomqvist – to find out.

The book relies on vast coincidences which stretch credibility. My favourite of these was the introduction of the heavyweight boxer, Paolo Roberto, who used to train Salander when she was a young girl. Hearing that Salander is in trouble and smelling the same rat Blomqvist does, Roberto involves himself in the search, and crosses paths with the blond hulk at just the right time.

Hmm. You don’t suppose they’ll have a fight, do you..?

This book has a twist which you’ll figure out quite quickly. It bears similarity to another famous trilogy which I will not name for spoilers’ sake. The link seemed so obvious that I actually dismissed it at one point, chuckling at my silliness, before being proven right. I wonder if Larsson was aware of this parallel line, or if anyone ever got the opportunity to point it out to him?

In any case, this bridging chapter follows the conventions of modern trilogies perfectly. We end on a cliffhanger, with key questions unanswered, and some intriguing new information about one of the main characters.

Like its predecessor, this is a fantastic thriller, a true page-turner which merrily dispenses with all known creative writing course advice. There’s lots of telling instead of showing, and we couldn’t care less.

This book is now more than 10 years old. The big giveaway is the description of obsolete tech. “Palm” device and Powerbook references were the most jarring, although the first generation smartphones Larsson describes are not too dissimilar to the handsets we have today. These anachronisms aside, technology is a major facet of these books, revealing a creeping level of intrusion into our private lives. Salander’s hacking skills and the ease with which she breaks into secure systems to find out every little morsel she could ever wish to know about her targets is hair-raising, and all too believable. One moral blind spot of Blomqvist’s is that he does not question this activity, seeing it as a tool to utilise in bringing the unjust to book.

Fair enough; but that’s a two-way street. What would Blomqvist have made of phone-hacking, for example, or mass surveillance by government agencies, tech giants and advertisers? He surely wouldn’t have approved, but it can’t be one rule for Blomqvist and Salander, and one for everyone else. This is a sticking point which is never quite explored, and again, you wonder if Stieg Larsson – who had planned several more Millennium books – would have questioned increasingly intrusive technology given a bit more time.

Larsson’s ultimate tragedy is similar to that of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole. He died suddenly before his books achieved success beyond his wildest imaginings, a genuine worldwide phenomenon. He never enjoyed the fame and riches this would have brought him, and had no idea that his characters would become familiar to millions. We can lament this, but having read two of these books, I also grieve for the loss of Stieg Larsson the journalist.

It’s dangerous to draw parallels between fictional characters and their creators, but in Blomqvist there must surely be an element of Mary Sueism. Like his creator, Blomqvist is a middle-aged man with liberal principles who fearlessly tackles far-right extremism, upholds individual liberty and champions women’s rights. In the wake of the Millennium Trilogy’s success, I imagine that Stieg Larsson might have used his fame and fortune as a platform to pursue criminal and political injustices not just in his native land, but across the world.

Equally, he might have retired somewhere warm and taken a great big bath, but I don’t think so.

In his journalistic career, Larsson was known as a risk taker who made dangerous enemies. It can be habit-forming. Perhaps here, looking beyond the strange, compelling and sometimes twisted world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, we see the face of the true hero.

August 24, 2015


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Stinger! They Thirst and The Wolf’s Hour, by Robert R McCammon

Dancer in the dark: Pat Black

For this nineties teenager who grew up polluting his mind with everything the Horror Boom had to offer, one of the biggest names to be found on the shelves of John Menzies was Robert R McCammon.

McCammon, hailing from Birmingham, Alabama (try reading that without hearing Skynyrd), was popular right in the middle of the horror gold rush lasting from the late 1970s to early 1990s. This was Stephen King's imperial phase, and everyone in publishing wanted a slice of that nice, fat pie. 

Writers such as Dean R Koontz, James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker and others found prominence on British shelves in a way that I suspect wouldn't happen today. One man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and was easily their equal at the pounds-per-book weigh-in, was McCammon. 

Out of all the writers from this period, McCammon's career was the one I most wanted to emulate. When I dreamed of being a novelist as a boy, I used to plan out my "big novels" - sub-genres, basically, which I then tried to flesh out with hackneyed storytelling and stock characters. There'd be my Big Vampire Novel (this would very much resemble Salem's Lot... which, to be fair, very much resembled Dracula). There'd be the Big Werewolf Novel. And there'd be the Big Alien Invasion novel. They Thirst, The Wolf's Hour and Stinger! embodied these three concepts perfectly. 

All three books are very long, 450-pages plus. They're cinematic in scope, packed with action, and I sliced through them in short order. Did I read The Wolf's Hour in a single day during Easter 1992, when I should have been studying for my Standard Grades? I think I did.  
While, thank god, I got the Standard Grades, I no longer have these books. I borrowed one of them, and gave the other two away to my niece. How does my memory treat them, nearly a quarter of a century later?

Stinger! – exclamation mark very much intended - was a terrific romp, set in a US-Mexico border town called Inferno. There are two teenage gangs, and - wouldn't you know it? - one of the gang leaders falls for the sister of the rival hoodlums’ leader. Caaaapulet!! Montaguuue!!

Oh yeah... and there's the little matter of the alien who crash-lands in Inferno, chased to Earth by Stinger, another, more fearsome extra-terrestrial. 

Stinger can change shape and turn out clones, like many of the monsters who lumbered through the sci-fi B-movie classics this novel mimics. Except it can't quite disguise itself properly, allowing needle teeth, blue blood and other odd characteristics to poke through. We get plenty of tension as some of the characters are assimilated and taken over, some of whom remain hidden until vital moments; shades of The Thing (or indeed “Who Goes There?”). 

On top of that, the town is completely covered by a force shield, meaning no-one can get in or out - Stephen King, take note? - while Stinger hunts down the goodie alien (who I think has taken over the body of a young girl). This leads to a showdown over the course of 24 hours of mayhem between the teenage delinquents, united alongside the goodie alien, versus Stinger!

Yes, Stinger! 

It's nigh-on impossible to judge Stinger! on any kind of literary merit, at such a distance; but I am prepared to make the tragic admission that if I had a great time with it at age 14 or 15, then I might still find pleasure in it nowadays, guilty or otherwise. 

Partial Recall: Just off the top of my head, I can recall a motorbike chase, which I think was revealed to us in the unusual "foreshadowing" prologue chapter. There's an eerie section when we discover how Stinger manages to make copies of the villagers - and also how hard he is, when one of the cloned monsters laughs off a shotgun blast to the face, albeit lop-sidedly. 

There's plenty of aggro porn early on when the gangs knock lumps out of each other; there's a whole alien backstory, charting the beef the goodie alien has with Stinger, involving genocide and mucking up an entire species' reproductive cycle. And there's the obligatory big showdown, about which I can recall next to nothing. 

I do remember a coda scene, where a geeky boy ends up falling asleep in a bathtub with an older, glamorous local girl, and gets a peek at her boobs. All's well that perves well. 

They Thirst is one of McCammon's earliest books, and sees an ancient vampire taking over modern day Los Angeles, using a mock Gothic castle in the Hollywood hills as his power base. Our hero is a well-meaning but violent parish priest, coming on like Batman in a dog collar as he visits righteous hidings upon the hoodlums in his neighbourhood prior to getting wise to the vampire threat. The King Vampire, whose name I think is Vulkan, is a 17-year-old boy in immortal form who creates an undead army that swarms over the city. 

As with Stinger!'s force-shield, an apocalyptic event visits LA in the form of... well, I'm not sure. Either it's a storm or a tidal wave; I can't remember precisely which. But the place gets levelled, evening up the odds between the goodies and the bities. I recall how the final showdown between the fighty priest and the head vampire goes down, but I can remember precious little else about this whacking great book. Ultimately I was a little bit bored by its size and scope – disaster movies tend to get on my nerves. 

Perhaps I was finally starting to grow out of my horror phase.

Partial Recall: Basically the final showdown, which I can't talk about because, you know, spoilers... although if you've ever seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, you might have a wee smile to yourself. Unlike Stephen King's undead in Salem's Lot, these vampires can change shape and become dogs and bats, like Dracula. There's some sort of Renfield-esque henchman looking out for King Vamp during business hours when the sun shines, who may have been a serial killer. I can't remember any other characters. I do recollect a totally unnecessary sex scene quite early on, which might have introduced the main female character, as she has fun with a boyfriend and his buzzy little friend before they are rudely interrupted by bloodsuckers. As I said, I was about 14 when I read this. 

Last, but certainly not least, comes The Wolf's Hour. In our review of The Last Werewolf a few years back, I lamented the fact that we haven't yet had the definitive lycanthropy novel. The Wolf's Hour is the only vaguely modern book I can think of that runs Glen Duncan's teeth, guts and sarcasm classic close for the title. Set during the first half of the 20th century, it follows the fortunes of Michael Gallatin, an Allied spy parachuted into occupied Europe to take on the Nazis in 1942. 

Gallatin has a talent that puts James Bond's flame-thrower shaving foam and Cuban heel switchblades to shame: he can turn into a big bad wolf. Not a bad skill to have if you like sneaking around at night, doing secret stuff... and killing Nazis. 

The narrative splits into two, the wartime action spliced with flashback sections following Michael's adolescence in Russia as he discovers his shape-shifting abilities, becomes an outcast from his family and joins a werewolf pack. 

The separate storylines and time-shifts integrate well (not unlike Connor MacLeod's New York/Scotland scenes in Highlander). When you get bored of the wartime espionage, here's some wolf carnage in Russia; when you get tired of that, here's some wolf carnage in occupied France... Yes, more wolf carnage, please, I'm a greedy boy.

This was a book I got through in a very short time, considering its length. Gads, to look back on those years when I had time to sit and read novels in just a couple of sittings... balmy days... in which I could have been spending my time much more profitably and sociably. Hey ho. That's who I was. In fairness, I packed in a good belt of under-age drinking, too. Back then I was only a closet square; now I'm out and proud.

Partial Recall: Again, the showdowns were perfectly set-up and executed and I remember how the main baddie and his fantastic henchman, Boots, get theirs. Apart from that, I can mostly recall the rural scenes as Gallatin hunts with the pack. It's a little bit like White Fang in this respect, as Gallatin the newcomer must fight for supremacy to become top dog among the shape-shifters - not to mention gaining the right to mate. 

I also remember that Gallatin's pack gets a nasty case of lungworm, which turned my 15-year-old stomach - so it must have been particularly grim reading. 

The rest of it's gone down the memory hole. But I do know I enjoyed it, and wanted to write a book just like it. 

I'm happy to tell you that McCammon's entire backlist is currently available to buy on your Kindles and Kobos. Now in his early sixties, McCammon seems to be publishing regularly again after an apparent hiatus from the late 1990s onwards. As I lurch closer to middle age, I'm tempted to go back and take a look at his work to see if it was actually any good. I have to fight a nostalgic hankering to revisit The Wolf's Hour in particular. 

But I've got too much stuff piled up to read as it is. Our time is precious, and if it must be spent reading books then there are better ones out there more worthy of our attention. 

I also no longer want to pen big Vampire, Werewolf or Alien Invasion novels at time of writing... but, never say never.

Next time, The Blind Reviewer will try to cast his mind back to the weird and bloody work of mysterious 90s schlockmeister, Michael Slade. 

August 5, 2015


A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain
by Roger Deakin
340 pages, Vintage

Review by Pat Black

I started Roger Deakin’s Waterlog while I waited for a mechanic. It was a frigid January morning, but not a bad one; freezing but fresh, with lots of sunlight. I snapped on a pair of Speedos, tucked in the pants moustache and sideboards, and dived in.

Having a glorious, unbroken reading experience is a rare thing for me these days, and despite the wait I felt blessed to have that early morning all to myself, with no-one else near me in the car park, the mint green grasses glazed with frost and the low winter sun taking its own time to rise.

Drawing inspiration from John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”, Deakin decided to swim his way around the UK – taking in wild places, rivers and the seaside as well as municipal pools and Lidos. His thoughts and experiences were documented in Waterlog in 1999, an instant bestseller.

We must be wary of the term “British eccentric”, but we can happily apply it to Deakin. Aged in his fifties when he undertook his adventure in the 1990s, the writer, naturalist and film-maker enjoyed a life outside the rat race - and it looked f*cking great. As I sat there scrunched up in my treacherous car on the outskirts of industrial hell, I coveted his lifestyle and his freedom. I still do.

The opening swim begins in the moat he’s dredged around his country home in Suffolk, a morning routine of laps in an arboreal paradise. Deakin bought Walnut Tree Farm in the 1960s and renovated the property and grounds over many years, but he was content to allow nature to reclaim parts of it. Deakin is the sort of fellow who hears swallows nesting in the roof of his home in the springtime, and instead of phoning an exterminator, calls a friend to express his delight.

I can appreciate this. In one house I rented, I had a decent sized garden fringed with flower beds. Having grown up in an eight-in-a-block in Glasgow, I’m no gardener, but I decided to sow some seeds in the beds at the right time. I was delighted, then, to see bright flowers appearing the following spring, reds and oranges and yellows and blues. They grew thick and wild, and even though it wasn’t the tidiest display in the world I enjoyed considering that floral riot while I sipped my tea in the morning.

And then someone in the know came to stay with me. “Want me to do your garden, Pat?”
“What do you mean?”

“Look at that flower bed. It’s choked with weeds. They’ll all have to go.”

Deakin likens swimming to flying – or those sublime dreams of freedom you get on the first night of your holidays, or after you’ve had a particularly nice, satisfying cuddle. He breaststrokes through his own mind and memories as much as he does physical locations up and down the land. When Deakin island-hops in the Scillies and elsewhere, it’s like he’s going through an old toybox in his parents’ attic. He checks out ancient Pullman carriages he remembers as a boy, left to rust in the sea air – at one time the height of luxury, now subject to that inevitable reclamation by nature that everything must face.

The lost grandeur of seaside resorts fascinates the author. I’ve always loved visiting these towns off-season for the same reason. They’re at the cutting edge of time and inevitability, something under constant attack from entropy even on calm, warm days. You’re watching the destruction of the land, a demonstration of how time washes everything away eventually. Even if it’s a grim seafront, it’s still epic in scope and scale.

Riparian matters follow as Deakin dunks himself in Hampshire – getting into an argument in the process with a couple of Colonel Blinky types who wonder what the devil he thinks he’s doing in the water. This is an almost perfectly-crafted moment of English farce, but it brings the author to a serious point. Deakin’s English whimsy flows through his very blood, but he betrays a keen dislike of petty rules and lower-case conservativism. He fulminates against waterways being closed off to the public for no other reason than ownership (of a river?). He also cannot hide his distaste when beautiful rural parts of the country are exclusively linked to the enjoyment of people with plenty of money, who can afford exorbitant fees for fly-fishing or boating. His anger seeps out over faceless, monolithic big business, and you sense he held in reserve a scalding torrent for firms who skip off scot-free after having polluted waterways for decades to come - with the public picking up the cleaning bill.

Deakin describes himself as a competent swimmer, but no more than that. In these days when we seem to be bombarded with images of friends and relatives putting themselves through increasingly brutal athletic challenges, there’s something refreshing about dear old Roger pottering through streams, brooks and ponds at his leisure.

I’m sure he was better than he let on, but it is fun to imagine him pulling prim old-lady breaststrokes, totally unabashed while bullet-capped human torpedoes gnash their teeth in his wake, unable to buffet him aside.

He’s as happy in a private pool owned by millionaires as he is swimming through greenish soup in remote places which barely merit a blue blob on the map, a drifting human thicket of algae and fronds buzzed by dragonflies. He’s also a lover of the small creatures you might encounter in English waterways, particularly newts.

He seems perfectly comfortable in his own company, but that’s not to say he is a loner. Deakin seeks communion with fellow swimmers, getting to know people who enjoy recreational dunks in Britain’s great, and sometimes neglected public pools. It’s nice to imagine him bobbing at the side of a Lido, having a chat with some elderly ladies who’ve come to the same place for 40 and 50 years for their daily exercise.

There’s one part that really resonated with me, where Deakin and a friend head up the hills in the Lake District in order to find remote, icy tarns to splash in. After a brilliant day with a mate, rounded off with a few pints and a nice dinner, he describes his child-like sorrow that his companion has to leave and go back to work; that the fun time is over.

Another part which will strike home is when Deakin describes that paranoia we all have when swimming across gloomy water, where we can’t see the bottom. He has some big fish stories, particularly regarding pike, which can occasionally grow large. There’s one chilly moment in a dark run where monsters are reputed to lurk. Deakin grows paranoid, wondering if he’s been nudged by something large under the water. That fear of a big fish is imprinted on our DNA.

I’m not sure I get what Deakin describes as the erotic import of public bathing. I’d blame the swimming pools and beaches of my youth for this, places where you were less likely to obtain sensual experience than you were to be dragged to your doom by swarms of detached sticking plasters, cotton buds and used tampons. I remember the swimming pool at my old school (subsequently shut down over asbestos, health fans) with our PE teacher encouraging us all to wash our feet in the little bath prior to jumping in. The surface of this greenish swamp – supposedly to help with hygiene - was carpeted with dead silverfish.

Anyway, back to eroticism. A couple of times, Deakin bobs past nudist beaches, describing oases of flesh pocketed in the sand. He never says as much, but you suspect he half-fancies joining them. Certainly there’s a sense of liberation in taking one’s clothes off prior to bathing, linked to the trans-dimensional freedom of cheating gravity in the water itself – your body hidden, your weight neutralised, your mind free. Deakin himself never gets wet, so to speak, but he is keen to recount other people’s stories, and is curious about the link.

Deakin delves into the history of local bathing spots, too. Many of them are closed off or barely used bar the odd faithful patrons. He uncovers the champion swimmers and record breakers, the high-board divers thrilling pre-wartime crowds with their acrobatics; the local heroes.

There’s also some derring-do as Deakin tests himself in remote or dangerous places. He gives Hell Gill in Yorkshire a go, marvelling at the bampots throwing themselves into the water from a great height. These include spelunkers and bikers either on a dare, taking part in initiations, or simply having no regard for their own safety.

The books leads up to a final big effort in Corryvreckan off the Isle of Jura in Scotland, a wild stretch of water with a whirlpool like a monster out of antiquity. It’s the place where George Orwell nearly killed himself and his family after getting his tidal timetable mixed up. Deakin is keen to swim this raging torrent… but decides not to at the last minute. This didn’t seem anti-climactic to me, more an affirmation of Deakin’s sweet, easy-going nature. There’s no need to go crazy. Some waters are fine to just look at.

This is a strange book – gentle and bucolic, but also thoroughly engaging. Deakin was a man after my own heart. So I was saddened to discover that Roger died in 2006 after the sudden onset of cancer – just four months in between diagnosis and death. He was 63. I was sadder still to discover that the house with the moat now belongs to someone else, and was (perhaps understandably) changed from the semi-feral state its famous incumbent preferred.

Walnut Tree Farm as it was - like the author - has gone beyond the physical realm. But with this book and two others he left us, we can dip into that wet, green paradise whenever we like.

As he swims in the Cam, Deakin imagines nymphs and dryads sharing the lonely places with him. He reflects on how many of the great poets were swimmers, and enjoys following in the wake of Frost, Byron and others. If their shades do haunt these drenched spots, then Deakin has surely joined them.

Roger Deakin enjoys cult appeal and famous admirers – to mark his 70th birthday two years ago, many of them gathered to celebrate in several public events. Many of his adepts, such as Robert Macfarlane (his literary executor) are working in letters today, contributing to what I feel sure is a golden age of British nature writing. As financial uncertainty hobbles the western world and the global environment seems throttled by nefarious human agency in pursuit of profit, it’s fitting that our thinkers and poets increasingly turn to nature for succour. Deakin’s name must be included in the pantheon of great English pastoral voices.

He left us two other books to enjoy, which I’ll get to sooner rather than later. But if I’m granted the time, I’ll return to this one, and hopefully in more pleasant circumstances than those in which I found it. It’ll feel less like a life ring, and more of a jolly paddle by the seaside on a lovely day.