Louise Welsh (2002 [2011]) The Cutting Room.

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This is Louise Welsh’s debut novel and the first of her work I’ve read. That old cliché applies here, it won’t be the last. It’s great, up there with Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory. I’m biased that way and like things to be parochial and have resonance with people I know and places I recognise. The setting is just up the road, a square mile of Hyndland and Crow Road. Not may folk understand that Downhill is a place and not just a state of mind.

Rilke is the first person narrator. I recognised the name, but there’s not many Rilkes cutting about Clydebank. I had to google it. For those less savvy than myself, Rilke is an (obscure to me) Austrian poet. Byres Road Rilke is the type of guy, hitting middle age, and everything going downhill fast (but not that downhill). He looks like Nosferatu on a dark night. And that’s one of the kinda in-jokes. He’s gay and fancies Derek, but Derek wants to shoot him, not in real life, but on film.

Plots are for turnips but here it’s quite simple and complicated. Rilke works for an auction house. He’s asked by an old biddy to clear a house and sell everything. The ticking clock is he’s got to do it in a week. The gun to his head is the auction house is on its uppers and this sale could make or break them. Rose, his boss, tells him he needs to get the finger out. But Rilke’s finger is in many places it’s not supposed to be. With a few exceptions all the characters are brilliantly drawn. That’s the beauty of this book. McKindless  (hint kind less or cruel to a cunting point) who owned the house in Hyndland and is ostensibly now dead has a collection of pornographic books in the attics and mementos that his spinster sister wants cleared out and burned. But Rilke finds photographs of something more sinister and evil. They seem to show McKindless documenting himself, with a few cronies, picture by picture, tableaux, of getting his sexual kicks by cutting a prostitute’s throat. This withered flower in the attic of the Gothic house is Rilke’s quest to find out the truth.

I won’t add a Taggert spoiler by telling you there’s been a murder. Read on.

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Lucy Grealy (1994) Autobiography of a Face. Ann Patchett (2004) Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

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I never read the same book twice, but this is my third, or fourth, reading of Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face. Joyce Carol Oates may yammer on, in fictional terms, about her characters finding their one true thing, but for every David Bowie there’s millions of Davie Bowieless strumming a guitar and never making anything of their life or art. There’s more writers than people with cancer. One reading of these books (and there are many ways of viewing them) is these books are about the common bond of two established writers. Ann Patchett describes herself in Truth & Beauty as the ant, grinding out word after word, fictional page after page, while Grealy was the grasshopper jumping from brilliant idea to brilliant idea. A greater difference has to do with money and security and where they’ve come from. Grealy picks up on that fundamental class difference:

‘The difference isn’t who has what in their checking account,’ she said. ‘The difference is the safety net. If you bottom out, you have people who’ll rescue you. If I bottom out, it’s free fall.’

I shook my head. ‘That’s completely stupid. You have the exact same safety net that I do. You have me.’

Elsewhere Patchett decribes Grealy as a ‘firefly’. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, in her Neopolitan novels focus is on such an intense and lifelong friendship, and on Lena, who burns brightest and longest in their corner of the world, which could be transported to 1985 and Iowa City, where the two twenty-one year old, former Sarah Lawrence undergraduate students, now share a house and teach writing classes at graduate school and learn, ostensibly, to polish their own writing. But Patchett describes the move as more a holding operation, before real life starts. They leave Iowa behind, but take their friendship and love with them. Patchett acting as Grealy’s North Star, always there for her true friend, and for the next twenty years, until Grealy’s death of a heroin overdose, offering a place to find her way home.

One of the things I found was I’d read Patchett’s book on Truth and Beauty before, which was a surprise to me.  I guess the title comes from John Keats,  Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, and there is great beauty in Pratchett’s book, but memory fades. I laughed at Patchett and Grealy’s attempt, well, largely Grealy’s attempt, whilst dragging Patchett along, to make Ohio into the equivalent of 1930s ‘La Boheme’ Paris. Dancing in the kitchen for hours. Lucy moved like water, Patchett tells the reader, while I hung against the wall. It’s such a great descriptive phrase she uses it a few other times. The music was so loud and ‘they laughed so hard, our neighbor Nancy had no choice but to come over and dance with us for a while’. Grealy, finally, loses her virginity, aged 22, and Patchett says she has more sex than all of their friends put together, but was always waiting for that one true person that would love her for herself and see beyond her lack of a jaw.

After being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma (with a less than five-percent prognosis of staying alive) Grealy was always waiting for life to start. Thirty-nine operation to fix her face and to fix her life.  But Grealy, writing about her face, Pratchett wrote, ‘felt like she had just slipped a knife into the ground and sliced open a diamond mine.’ She goes on to say, ‘the writing was stunning, better than her best poems.’ Poets often make the best fiction and non-fiction writers and Grealy saw herself at this time as a poet. That’s what gave her identity, who she was and what she was. ‘Not only had she found her story,’ says Patchett, ‘she had found all the room that prose allows. Her life was no longer a metaphor for something else.’

Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others suggest that this ‘ “We”- this “we” is everyone who has never experienced what they went through- don’t understand. We truly don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like…and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine.’

Grealy’s great gift is she takes the reader straight there. Language matters. She didn’t want to be known for her face and lack of a jawbone. She wanted to be known for her art. Her luck. Her magic. Her charmed life. Or charmed lives, each one larger than the one before. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is a truly wondrous book, one of the books I’d like to think most people would read in their lifetime. Beauty & Truth plays John the Bapitist to Grealy’s life and Christ-like suffering and the great joy she brought to the page and to the literary life ever after.

Joyce Carol Oates (2017) A Book of American Martyrs.

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Books don’t usually have corners. But (I guess) this one does. That’s one of the things that (kinda) annoyed me, Joyce Carol Oates has a tended to add extra bits of information in brackets. Her writing style didn’t (really) annoy me. What annoyed me was I felt the book was too long.

War and Peace and the rebirth of the Russian nation as a leading European power in 1815 took less of a word count than it took for Soldier of God, Luther Amos Dunphy to shoot and kill Augustus Voorhees  and his escort, a retired Vietnam veteran and the blow back that ensues.

Edna Mae, Luther’s wife, finally works it out for herself. ‘Her Luther had killed two men in cold blood as a way of ending her marriage and changing his life utterly.’

A reader can, of course, leave a book at any time. We are not required to push (relentlessly) forward in the way that Luther’s daughter, Dawn, D.D. Dunphy, The Hammer of Christ, moves in the boxing ring. Here’s where I come to the (provisional) idea of corners.

I didn’t find Dawn or Edna Mae or indeed much of Dunphy family, who have their mirror image in the rich and educated life (and times) of the Voorhees’s family, convincing. I also scoffed at Jenna Voorhees, Gus’s wife, and mother of little Naomi, aged around twelve, after the killing telling her she could no longer be her mum and driving away. Dickensian Dawn Dunphy, however, fills out as a character when she begins boxing. Joyce Carol Oates is an expert on boxing.

I was  also intrigued with botched State killings on Death Row and the rise of hate-mongering American right. The election of the moron’s moron in  Trump country makes a dumb  (kinda) sense when you read these these pages. (The patience of Job needed).

Similarly, I turned a page and came to another corner, in which Dunphy believes himself to be touched by God and applies to become a minister. It’s a simple year-long course in ordained hate. Hate outsiders. Hate women. Hate science and love the lord. And of course, hate baby killers that perform abortions like Dr Voorhees. But Dunphy is not academically gifted enough to pay his fee and pass his exam and become one of God’s chosen.  The belief that god stands over and marries the two haploid  cells inside the womb in that first division of those that believe it is just a collection of cells and those that believe it to be a baby. Language is instructive. Cancerous cells need to be excised cut out, but baby cells need to be breed because ‘No baby chooses to die.’ (No cancer cell chooses to die either.)

Dr Voorhoo’s half-brother (who should have been aborted on the page) points out fairy- tale endings are something added on, like the resurrection of Christ, but both Dr Voorheese and Dunphy were fanatics and willing to put their life on the line. Different sides of the same coin.  American Martyrs.  (Ho-hum, coming to a clinic near you soon. Already appearing on London streets.)

Kalahari Bushmen are really Scotsmen in disguise.

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https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/oct/29/why-bushman-banter-was-crucial-to-hunter-gatherers-evolutionary-success

Kalahari Bushmen have lived in southern Africa for over 150 000 years, perhaps longer, no one was counting, but, roughly, almost as long as Scotsmen have lived in Scotland. Like the Scotsmen they are in exile in their own land. Marginalised they have managed to eke out an existence and survive and prosper ‘working’ as little as fifteen hours a week hunting and gathering. They adapted and made a good living wherever they went based on sharing what they had. No scarcity. No surplus. No what Robert Burns in his poem Man Was Made To Mourn, ‘A hundred labour to support/ A haughty lordling’s pride.’ The Scottish institution of slagging folk off that though they were something special is the key to the Kalahari tribesmen’s survival.

Of course some Kalahari tribesmen were better hunters then others. But when he brought back the trophy of say a young antelope to eat, he’d be put in his place in case he got above himself. The Scottish equivalent of your da would have brought back something better than that, he’d brought back a couple of elephants and at least one tiger. And the meat looks stringy. We’ll be lucky if we get a bite out of it. The best thing we can do is probably bury it without denting our teeth.

In the same way our footballers are slagged off for only scoring hat tricks, which should really have been four or five. And a goalkeeper’s amazing save would be described as the ba hitting him on the hand. The invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming as an accident waiting to happen. Modern life and the rejection of Tory scaremongering is something we learned from our Kalahari forbearers.  I’m sure they’d have a thing to say about Cameron, May et al. The principle of inequality is something they wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure I understand it either. Our ancient way of life is under threat by some recent poisonous fad.

Robert Burns, Halloween

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Robert Burn’s poem Halloween was in many ways a sidelong glance at many of the rites, ritual and superstitions of an Ayrshire lad and farmer’s son in a Christian community of  1785 rural Scotland.

Some merry friendly country folks

Together they convene,

To burn their nits and pon their stocks,

And haud their Halloween.

Of course you could tell a lot about a person by the type of lice they had. And in his poem To A Louse it showed that the wee beasties were no respecter of rank. Each nit is named after a lad or lassie and those nits that burn together prophesies they will stay together. Those nits that jump and start from one another imply the courtship will be fiery and perhaps come to grief.

The auld guidwife’s weel-hoordit nits

And round and round divided,

And many lads’ and lasses’ fates,

Are that night  decided.

But the first ceremony of Halloween is the pulling of the kail (kale). Hand in hand partners must go with their eyes shut and pull out the first kail they touch. Its root crooked or straight, big or small will spell out their future husband or wife. The runts of the kail crop are placed above the head of the door and visitors to the house are given the honour of placing them and alluding to the runt in question and who will meet their match.

Then first foremost through the kail,

Their stocks maun a’ be saught ance,

They stuck their een, and graip and wale,

For muckle anes and straight anes,

Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,

And wander’d through the bow-kail,

And pou’t for want o’ better shift,

A runt was like a sow-tail,

Sae bow’t that night.

You can tell a lot, of course, from a man or maid’s corn or oats. They have a pick of three and each will tell what kind of courtship will be and whether the maid will remain a maid, or unmade.

The lasses staw frae among them a’

To pou their stalks of corn:

The hempseed spell is an invocation that brings the future beloved to the mind’s eye, or indeed puts in a personal appearance. By sewing hempseed and harrowing it behind you and repeating the invocation: Hempseed I saw thee, hempseed I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee. Looking over the left shoulder the invoker of the spell will see their true love.

He got hempseed I mind it weel,

And he made unco’ light o’t;

But many a day was by himsel,

He was sae sairly frighted

That very night.

 

Then up get fetchin’ Jamie Fleck

And he swore by his conscience

That he could saw hemp seek a peek

For it was a’ but nonsense

 

…He roared a horrid murder-shout

In dreadfu’ desperation

And young and auld came runnin’ out

To hear the sad narration:

He swore ‘twas hilchin Jean McCraw

Or crouchie Merran Humphie,

Similarly the winnowing of corn can be a predictor of fate. This charm must be done alone. Opening the barn doors and taking them off the hinges if possible so as not to trap unwanted spirits inside with you and do you harm. Take the wecht, the instrument used to winnow corn and go through the ritual of flinging the corn in the air and letting the wind blow through it. Repeat the action three times. On the third attempt an apparition will pass through one door of the barn and out the other. From its appearance or retinue the person casting the charm will be able to tell his or her future prospects in life.

Meg fain wad to the barn hae gaen,

To win three wechts of naething;

But for to meet the deil her lane,

She puts but little faith in

 

… A ratton rustled up the wa’,

And she cried Lord preserve her!

And ran through midden hole and a’,

And prayed with zeal and fervour,

Fu’ fast that night.

A similar spell involved stacking of crops, fashioning it in a particular way so that in the last attempt the invoker will for a second catch in his arms his future partner yoked to him.

They hoy’t out Will, wi’ sair advice;

The hecht him some fine braw ane;

He chance’d the stack he faddom’t thrice,

Was timmer-propt for thrawin’

Other spells involve the elements of water and fire. Here ‘the wanton widow Leezie’ dips her left shirt sleeve in a south-running stream. By the fire that night she hangs the wet sleeve to dry. At midnight her future beloved or object of desire will appear and turn the sleeve to dry the other side of the garment.

She through the whinns and by the cairns,

And owre the hill gaed scrievin,

Where three lairds land meet at a burn,

To dip her left sark sleeve in

Was bent that night.

In the final stanzas Burns pokes fun at poor auld Uncle John. I guess the laughs on us, poor auld Uncle John is probably aged about 30. A charm is made with three buckets representing three future outcomes. He or she is blindfold and led to the hearth and he or she dips his left hand into one of the three buckets ranged in front of him or her. If he picks clean water his wife will come to the marriage bed a virgin. Dirty water means she’s not a virgin, perhaps a widow. If he dips his hand into an empty bucket then he will remain unmarried. Great care is taken in swapping the buckets about and the blindfold man or maid repeats the same action three times in a row.

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,

The luggies three are arranged.

And every time great care is ta’en

To see them duly changed:

And Uncle John, wha wedlock’s joys

Sin’ Mar’s year did desire.

Because he gat the toom’s dish thrice,

He heaved them on the fire

In wrath that night.

Casting spells, conjuring ghost and predictions of the future, for farming folk, for Christian folk, Halloween was a bit of fun, which they took seriously always looking over their left shoulder and waiting for the devil to appear.

Celtic 1— 2 Bayern Munich

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We all know how it works. The diddy team, in this case, Celtic, need to play at the top of their game, if they get a chance they’ve got to take it and our goalkeeper has got to play a blinder for us to win. We all know how it turned out. Stuart Armstrong missed a sitter in front of goal in the first five minutes, Kieran Tiernay had skipped past a few Bayern players and a great bending pass from James Forrest set it up. Craig Gordon wandered outside the Celtic penalty box after a long punt from Bayern goalkeeper Ulreich was missed by central defender Dedryck Boyata who allowed the ball to go over his head. Coman waltzed past Gordon and Michael Lustig’s last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation came to nought. Celtic were one down with defending that was more Welfare League than Champions League. Gordon tried to claim that Coman had handled the ball, but we all know that should be Gordon’s job not Coman’s

That apart, Celtic played well. Tiernay did a good job on Robbins and also marauded forward in the way he usually does when playing domestic fixtures. On the other side of the park Lustig got to grips with Coman in a way that Gamboa did not in Munich. And James Forest was arguably man on the match, the player that Neil Lennon used to rhapsodize about when the rest of us where scratching our head and saying, really? Scott Sinclair took that mantle last night. His chances of an England call-up on this performance about the same as Johnny Hayes’.  When we talk about unsung heroes everyone knows Rodgers is referring to Callum McGregor frequently when he’s brought him off the bench. Last night McGregor started in front of Tom Rogic. I’m a big fan of Rogic, but McGregor does what he does, keeps the ball well, tracks back and scores valuable goals as he did last night, slotting home a Forest pass that split the Bayern defence and putting it through the goalkeeper’s legs. Celtic looked as if they could win it.

Three minutes later the Scottish disease struck and we settled for glorious defeat. Coman for once got to the byeline, he stood the ball up Nir Bitton made a belated challenge on Javi Martinez blooding his face, but the ball was already in the net. Celtic had given the Germans a goal of a start and just couldn’t peg them back twice. At this level that’s not unexpected. Next up PSG and the last group game at home against Anderlecht. The latter is the game that matters. If we play like we did last night then European football is within reach. But it’s worth remembering we’re Scottish so it’s only fifty-fifty, and we hope Gordon stay in his box and doesn’t decide to go walkabouts.

Bloody Scotland (2017)

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I’m familiar with the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival. I’m vain enough to imagine my work may appear in it someday, but the chance seem as remote as Rangers winning ten-in-a-row. Historic Scotland asked novelists  whom they considered to be the top twelve crime writers in Scotland to write a story for them. The starting point was not character, or plot, but place. Easy-peasy for any writer or would-be writer and as reading is the engine of writing it gives me the chance to look at some seasoned writers’ work.

My favourite stories were Kinneil House, Sanctuary, written by Sara Sheridan. This inspired me and was a jumping off point to write a story of my own. Edinburgh Castle, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, written by Denise Mina – with echoes of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – ran Sheridan’s story close and I’d gauge it here as my second favourite. It’s all a matter of interpretation, of course. There’s no story stinkers, but there are a few predictable turns and not unexpected endings.

Maeshowe, Orkahowe, by Lin Anderson – haunting.

The Hermit’s Castle, Ancient and Modern, by Val McDermid – Old Testament justice.

Stanley Mills, Kissing the Shuttle, by E S Thomson – incestuous.

The Forth Bridge, Painting the Forth Bridge, by Doug Johnstone – no return ticket.

Bothwell Castle, The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle, by Chris Brookmyre – gallus.

Kinnaird Head Lighthouse, Stevenson’s Castle, by Stuart MacBride – Janus-faced.

Crookston Castle, History Lessons, by Gordon Brown –old school.

Crossraguel Abbey, Come Friendly Bombs, by Louise Welsh – eat your heart out.

St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, The Twa Corbie of Cardross by Craig Robertson– Bard and Burns and corvines too.

Mousa Broch, The Return, by Ann Cleeves – doppelganger revenge.