52 pages, Kindle edition
Review by Pat Black
Think Loch Ness Monster. Think Ben Nevis. Think Edinburgh Castle and William Wallace. Think Rabbie Burns hastily pulling up his britches. Alright, you’re in the Scotch Zone.
Now, up there in your mental flipbook alongside those landmarks, icons, ciphers and memes for Scotland might be the Forth Bridge – that spectacular piece of engineering spanning the River Forth between Fife and Edinburgh, for my money the greatest bridge ever built. The act of painting it to combat corrosion has become a metaphor for a hopeless, never-ending task, a modern day version of the Sisyphean myth. They have in fact invented a paint which has called a halt to this chore for another 25 years; but as recently as late 2011, you still had men clinging to gantries on the side of the structure, 365 days a year, applying slap to the old bird.
You can see this grand structure and its more rough-n’-ready sibling, the Forth Road Bridge, from South Queensferry, where Brendan Gisby worked as a barman during his teenage years in the late 1960s and early 1970s in between school and family life. Lost Between The Bridges is a collection of short stories inspired by his this time. Although Gisby refers to them as “lost” years, he also appreciates that they were formative, rich with characters, incidents, joys and tragedies. There can be no more fertile ground for a storyteller.
This short collection begins with “The Barman”, looking at the narrator’s first application for a job at a plush motel on the shores of South Queensferry. He’s underage, but it was far easier to bluff it back then. The young barman quickly finds his feet, learning the alchemy of cocktail-making as well as getting handy at splitting up bar fights. However, our wonder years are about learning life’s harsh realities as well as their joys, and quite often, when you’re at the bottom, this includes being harassed by quite awful people in middle management. Not flying as high as they’d wish, and taking it out on anyone they see as beneath them. Mr Thom, the undermanager of the motel, fits that description, but his story has – literally – a lovely pay-off.
“The Cowboy” was probably my favourite tale here, and it recalls the bard’s words about seeing ourselves as others see us. Our barman has a chat with a young customer who has just been let out of Borstal, an establishment in Polmont forming part of a UK-wide chain of sunshine and lemonade holiday camps for young offenders. The lad has just seen a film, and he says that the barman reminds him of one of the characters in it. The film is Midnight Cowboy, and the barman, his ego tickled, imagines himself as the Virginian, or Clint Eastwood, or Matt Dillon, or John Wayne, posing in the mirror behind the gantry, doffing an imaginary Stetson and firing a gun. And then another customer gives him a more detailed review of the movie.
This reminded me of a funny story I overheard from an old boy in a barber’s talking about how he bought some knocked-off DVDs in the pub. He was particularly drawn to one of them on account of the two cowpokes depicted on the badly-printed box cover, both in Stetson hats. And so he sat down to watch a good old fashioned western, only to be confronted with the majesty of Brokeback Mountain.
“The Boxer” is a straightforward revenge tale, and none too subtle either as the title implies. A lot of work goes into making the antagonist in the story seem villainous and completely unsympathetic before his confrontation with the narrator during his stag party. And to be fair, he doesn’t seem like the jolliest trooper in the platoon. This one’s beauty was in capturing the sweaty, bullish, unpleasant atmosphere that can result in a bunch of blokes being cooped together in a place where the drink flows too easily. When a full-scale brawl breaks out, Gisby has a wonderful line about “newly-angered men” trying to settle “a lifetime of old scores and grudges” in an eruption of tables, chairs and pint glasses. How easy it is for these ancient traumas and intransigencies to surface once drink has been taken.
“When the World Changed” is a sketch, a homage to one of the peaks of human achievement in the summer of 1969. The young narrator finishes his shift in the bright morning sunshine, basking in the epiphany of having watched along with the rest of the world as a man set foot on that silvery ball in the night sky.
“The Survivor” looks at a down-at-heel room-mate the narrator gains during his time at the bar, a man whose heavy drinking is tolerated by management, even if he’s draining pints on the job. The story of how this man came to be such a wreck is revealed in full, and there’s a compassionate look at the world of the alcoholic. No matter how they got there, and no matter how monstrous they become, these people can have very sad stories.
Lastly, it’s “The Ballad of Billy G”. Time is as important as place in this one, with the 1960s giving way to 1970, Woodstock morphing into Altamont and the flowers in the hair becoming brittle and withered. The narrator shares a walk home with the boy in the title, a formerly dapper man-about-town turned into a gaunt wreck owing to the influence of ever-heavier drugs and ever-dodgier people. This lad idolises Hendrix and Joplin, but it turns out 1970 didn’t end so well for them, either.
Lost Between The Bridges manages the difficult trick of being affectionate about the past without soft-soaping it, or developing that old Scottish affliction, nostalgia. Those teenage years are the ones where you can easily lose yourself. Perhaps, like Gisby, you can look back on those days and smile… but only if you’re lucky.
Now that a new crossing is being constructed across the Forth, and with Scots soon being asked to consider full independence, I wonder if there are new tales inspired by the area to come from Gisby’s pen?
North of the border, the times they are a-changing.
Read the author interview here.
Read the author interview here.