Graeme Macrae Burnet (2014) The Disapparence of Adele Bedleau by Ramond Brunet, Translated with an afterword by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

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I recently read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I also reviewed. He uses much the same framework in his debut novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. Here he claims the book’s author is not himself but Raymond Brunet and he is simply translating it, much the same as he claimed the leading authorial voice in His Bloody Project was not Graeme Macrae but the triple murderer, his Scottish ancestor, Roderick Macrae. I’m usually last to work out an anagram on Countdown, but Brunet and Burnet wouldn’t exactly have me scratching my head and searching for a pencil. The difference between the two books is I can’t believe why anyone would bother translating The Disappearance…I got to page 34. Then this reader disappeared.

It got me thinking about why I review books. I like to know how books work and it gets me thinking about how to structure what I’ve found out and present my findings in a couple of hundred words. I also forget very quickly what I’ve read (or written) and blogging is a form of keeping a diary. There’s a degree of narcissism. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me, I’m saying. I’m also wildly enthusiastic about books. I’ve even written one. Here it gets a bit murky. Most of the books I review are wonderful. I’m jealous, but glad they are so good, and want to spread that joy. Not all books are wonderful. So it seems a bit dishonest not to mention, in passing—before moving swiftly—on the few I pick up and quickly put down again.

It’s a competent first 34 pages, but I’ve read better unpublished manuscripts. I could list reasons, but nobody cares much.  Have a look, perhaps you may feel differently.


Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015) His Bloody Project. Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.

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His Bloody Project was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. Fiction often dresses up as fact. In the preface Burnet cites Gaelic Ossian poetry as a fake widely lauded for being factual, but the best fiction always does seem factual, or else it’s not worth reading. As a murder there’s no mystery. In the small crofting community of Culuie, with around 55 residents, seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae took a croman and flaughter, a kind of pick and spade used for tending the rocky soil, and killed three of his neighbours. He was covered in blood and made no attempt to escape. Macrare freely admitted to killing Lachlan Mackenzie, his teenage daughter Flora and infant son Donald at the Mackenzie house on the 10th August 1869.

Graham Macrae Burnet claim to have in possession various reports of what happened on that day and afterwards. They include statements from Residents of Cuildrie, Medical Reports and what we now could call mental health, but was then called lunacy, and transcripts of the trial. But the most contentious piece of evidence is a purported hand-written account by Roderick Macrae of why he carried out these killings. The question of being a reliable or unreliable narrator Burnet sidesteps with sleight of pen arguing that it was possible a boy educated in the Kirk school of Camusterrach, taught Latin, Greek and science, incarcerated in Inverness Castle, could produce such remarkable and descriptive prose and all Burnet had done was tidy up his punctuation.

‘I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot,’ we are all phonies as the narrator Holden Cauldfield said in the novel Catcher in the Rye, which of course, Cauldfield and not J.D.Salinger obviously wrote.

Roderick Macrae argued he’d done what he done, because he had to stop the persecution of his father John, ‘a crofter of good standing in the parish’.

A different viewpoint of John’s father is detailed in a section of the book by the supercilious J. Bruce Thomson, Resident Surgeon as the General Prison for Scotland in Perth and acknowledged master in the nascent discipline of Criminal Anthropology. Burnet need not stray far from the truth to find characters like Thomson, buttressed by the belief of the natural order of things, God had created man and the British Empire and at the peak of both was Thomson, standing slightly below Jesus. We see many of the same characteristics in the White House and the same eugenic beliefs that reached their peak in the Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, but have bounced back in a remarkably short time and now also reside in the White House. Here Thomson visits John Macrae and finds it difficult to differentiate him from the cattle sharing his house and a sheep grazing on his croft. ‘Could you describe your son’s state of mind on that morning?’

‘One man can no more see inside the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’

Thomson might never be wrong, but he modifies his belief system and admits John might have a sense of animal cunning, shown when he asks the question. But the question remains was Roderick a lunatic, driven to murder? Was he indeed what we would call nowadays a psychopath, having the facilities of thought and reason, but no moral understanding? This is an anti-twee Scottish novels not based on lungfuls of clean air and clean water and living lives of remarkable virtue and little modesty.   What Macrae does so skilfully (and I’ll not say which Macrae) is show when the bully gets the whip and is promoted into a position of power, as Lachlan MacKenzie so obviously is,  survival of the fittest, becomes a great deal harder for those under the whip. In creating an order lauded by Lords, landlords and baillies, Lachlan MacKenzie creates a greater disorder that festers and burns. Despite his crimes such is the skill of the novelist the reader’s sympathy remains (mostly) with Roderick.

Graham Greene (2010 [1940]) The Power and the Glory.

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I read The Power and the Glory years ago. But there’s no glory in forgetting the books I read faster than the faces I meet. If pushed I might have known it was set in Mexico and I would have remembered the main character was a whisky priest, but not that he was the narrator. What stuck was a scene in which the whisky priest comes to a small village and one of the peons that come to meet him goes back to his family and friends and urges them to go to the priest for the sacrament of Confession because he’d travelled all that way and it would be a discourtesy not to. That’s not what happens in the book, but something of that truth remains.

I came to Greene’s book from a strange angle. I’d read about 100 pages of Neil Gaiman’s weighty and well-received book American Gods and knew I wouldn’t read any more, or finish the other 500-odd pages.  Then I wondered what it reminded me of. I could have gone the Gothic-Dracula- route and ended up with a Stephen King surrogate, but Graham Greene sprung to mind.

If anybody ever says something like you never step into the same river twice, do me, and mankind a favour, and drown them. The Power and the Glory is about redemption, salvation even, but there are no heroes, just human beings with ordinary failings and some virtues that might not be virtues. The suffering of the Mexican people is evident. Poverty, endemic hunger and sickness march alongside the whisky priest and the choices he makes endangers everyone he meets. There is a narrative running alongside the hunt for the whisky priest and that is the hunt for a gringo, an American bank robber, armed and dangerous that is hiding out in the state, but for the lieutenant hunting both of them it is the priest that matters. One is only stealing money from banks, the other is a true subversive taking money from the poorest people and propagating false ideas that there is a god that cares about them. Neutered versions of the whisky priest such as Father Jose who have renounced their vocation and married are examples of moderation and the mockery of a man. Yet, he too, is offered redemption of sorts by the lieutenant when he offers him a chance to hear the confession of the whisky priest. The lieutenant is no Pontius Pilate figure, but an honourable man, who unknowingly, at one stage, gives the whisky priest money to buy food. And the half-caste with his gopher-like front teeth while closer to a Judas figure is no villain, as the whisky priest comes to realise. No heroes, no villains, just humans.

At the heart of the book is the believe in transubstantiation, quite a mouthful for most folk, a believe that the whisky priest is man that is able to bring god to earth and turn water into Christ’s blood and bread into Christ’s body. This believe is shown most clearly by the half-human Indians that walked fifty or more miles overnight, to kiss his hand and wait patiently for a miracle to happen. It is the Judas figure that springs the trap, with his story that the bank robber had picked up a child and used her as a human shield to escape from the police. But the police had shot through the child, because it was only an Indian, and wounded the bank robber, although not fatally. He was a Catholic, asking for the last rites of Confession, something the whisky priest had no right to deny him. But the whisky priest is not a prisoner, he can turn the other way, back to his old life of big meals and fawning older women kissing his hand.

One of the things that confused me reading the book now, rather than a younger version of me (with hair) was when the whisky priest returns to his old village, where he’s sure he’ll receive a warm welcome but doesn’t. The police have been shooting hostages from villages they believe have sheltered him and the villagers are anxious for him to leave. But he meets a child, with the devil in her eyes. A child that the priest recognises and admits that he’s committed a great sin. I immediately thought Graham Greene was somehow prophetic, over 50 years ago he recognised that priests were abusing kids and having sex with them. As we know now they were (and are). But the whisky priest’s big sin was to have a few minutes pleasure with a woman, a villager, whom he got pregnant. Ho-hum, hardly a revelation nowadays, but I guess back then it was a big thing. Shocking, in the way child abuse is. A man that humbly submits to his fate for the good of all, there’s a revolutionary idea that doesn’t feature much in politics or in life. Does it matter if there’s a god? Not really. What matters now is the zealots are on the march, hating everybody that is different. These are the guys that are winning hearts and minds and they don’t mind shooting through the bodies of Mexicans, Indians, or watching whoever washing up dead on beaches, as long as they are right. And they are far right, but far from right, god help us.

Smile! The Nation’s Family Album. BBC 4, 9pm.

Connelly Clan - 18th August 1984

Produced and directed by the aptly named Kath Pick this programme interested me for a lot of reasons. I’m of the not-another-fucking-baby picture generation that doesn’t feel the need to endlessly catalogue what I’ve eaten or drank or where I’m going or have been on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. My mobile phone isn’t very mobile. Half the time I can’t find it. It hasn’t got a camera. I’m not alive to every beep or tweet and need to check my existence in on a phone. There are very few photographs of me. The one above is of my mum and her family.  No snaps  as far as I’m aware of me as a child. I think I’ve another when I’m about 18 and another, passport-size, which I’ve kept and which does indeed make me smile. I don’t want to be photographed. But with mobile phones I’ve never been so snapped. In other words, I’m an old grump, set in my ways and joke, without joking that every baby will come out of their mother’s womb (obviously we see pictures of them in the womb, which are posted online beforehand and we know the sex) and they’ll be able to look back and see every single day, and feel no need to ask the question what was I doing mum?

We have it here, predating the digital era. Yorkshire dad, Ian MacLeod took a picture of his new-born son every day until his twenty-first birthday and still continues to do so. The cost now is virtually zero. Back then printing cost money, real money, and not just time. He uploaded his efforts to YouTube and had over 5 million hits. Get a fucking life, I can say, but it’s not my life.

I liked John Dobson best. His endless snaps of meeting his first girlfriend on a blind date, marrying her and having kids is all carefully documented and narrated in albums. He said his wife was phowrrr when he met her and wowrrr, looking at them onscreen, I tend to agree.  Model figure. Model face. Much the same as my partner Mary once had. Most of us haven’t, but that doesn’t seem to stop us. Or is it really about something else?

I’m hypocritical and narcissistic. I post my witterings here and online for others to read. I wish I’d five million likes on YouTube. I’d see that as a business opportunity to get others to read my stuff and perhaps be able to sell my writing. Writing into a void is the same void others fill with pictures. And if I keep a diary and am endlessly trying to recreate the past how much more useful it would be if I could just flick back and see what I was wearing then and what others were wearing and how they looked.

I looked up a word ‘shrive’. Verb. Archaic. (of a priest) hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve. Old English, scifan, impose as a penance, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch, schrivjven and Germanic schreiben, ‘write’, from Latin scribere ‘write’. I guess from the earliest images in caves we’ve been trying to write ourselves into existence. The equivalent of Jack was here scratched into a toilet stall. Perhaps there is a snobbery about people and their phones and endless photographs of nothing much. But although I’m not in a position to judge it is difficult to look away. Hell is other people’s photographs. That’s not changed.


Elena Ferrante (2012) My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein.

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Poco a poco I’m working my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, starting with Book 1, My Brilliant Friend.  When I put it like that it seems like a chore, and that is not the case. Ferrante helps me enormously, and I guess other readers, by providing an index of characters.

The first-person narrator looking back to childhood and adolescence is Elena Greco, also called Lenuccai, but known by the more popular diminutive Lenu. Elena is the oldest of the Greco children. Her father is a porter at the city hall. Her mother a housewife. They share a tenement-type house with Cerullo, the shoemaker’s family and  many others, but it is Raffella also called Lina and by Elena, Lila, that really is My Brilliant Friend a polymath that burns brightest and lights up the poverty of a district in post-war Naples where everybody knows everybody and nobody knows anything but violence and hate and jealousy, and girls and women are coveted and loved and protected by walls within walls. Lila dares to dream and think herself beyond those walls but is always dragged back to the fray of everyday life, not least by her courtship by Marcello Solaro, whom, for good reason, she hates and despises, but his relative wealth and social position makes it difficult for Lila’s father, Fernando, to discourage the suitor.

All of these things take place in the second part of the story, in Adolescence, 13 to 16 when Lila blossoms from ugly duckling to queen of the male gaze, and Elena who had initially thought herself in front once more falls behind. In everything that mattered then Lila takes the lead, but it’s not as simple as that. In life there is a mirroring action, but the very thing that Lila most wants, continuing with her education, Elena has, and is flourishing in a way that her friend can be proud of. When Elena, for example, when she hears that her friend is getting married she becomes cynical but her friends lifts her in a way that is instructive.

‘Two more years: [says Elena] then I’ll get my diploma and I’m done.’

‘No [ says Lila] don’t ever stop. I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.

‘I gave a nervous laugh, then said: “Thanks but at a certain point school is over.’

“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”’

The brilliance of My Brilliant Friend is in the dissenting voices of others. When the school teacher Maestra Oliverio urges Elena to abandon her friend, with the disparaging remark ‘Do you know what the plebs are?’ I hear horsey laughter and the Conservative Party trumpeting the believe that we need to leave others behind. We need more grammar schools.  There’s winners and losers and losers are always the same familiar faces. That’s a conclusion Elena also reaches.

The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, the dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious laughed his mouth gaping at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

I enjoyed this book because I too am a pleb and my reading of this is fuck off with your grammar school and excluding over 80% of the population on a vision of society based on pre-First World War Britain. A vision that excludes the Lila of this world. I’ll be moving on to the next of the Neapolitan novels. The brilliant polymath Lila lights up any book and obviously her betrayal at her wedding is a good omen, because it’s bad.


Celtic 1—1 Rangers


A draw that feels like a defeat. That’s how far we’ve come. The demolition of Rangers when they last visited Parkhead by five goals was comprehensive. If you can remember back to that day the big worry was that in-form Leigh Griffith was out. And Rangers would be nipping on our heels for the league. Joey Barton would be the best player in Scottish football by a mile (or so he said, but don’t misquote him). Since then Celtic have beaten Rangers comfortably. Yesterday they didn’t. And Rangers deserved their draw. And if Waghorn was a striker that could finish then it really would have been a victory and not a pyrrhic victory, because if Celtic are going to lose a game – and they didn’t here, then this was a good time to do so. Defeat against Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final will bring the season to a grinding halt. And it will lift Rangers.

It’s easy to point out Celtic’s failings. They were all over the park. Craig Gordon a stand out. Stuart Armstrong best outfield player. He scored a wonderful goal just before half-time. Five shots all on target, one of which hits the post. Scott Brown had a decent game. That old cliché, win all your duels. He did that, while all around him others did not.  Pass marks to Tierney, who came onto a game and there was that wonderful cameo of nutmegging an opposition defender. All the other defenders, woeful. Sinclair, who can usually be relied on to score, went missing. And his fellow striker, Dembele on a better day could have had a hat-trick, here more puff than powder puff. On any other day those two would have been first for the hook. Bitton was hooked at half-time, for MacGregor. Roberts came on for Forrest. Griffiths came on for Armstrong. After Craig Gordon had produced another great save, the Celtic defence if they weren’t playing Keystone Cops falling over and backing into people and falling over again, most notably Erik Sviatchenko, then they were last to react as centre half older than Methuselah, beats them to the punch and Clint Hill scores. Two other Rangers players were behind him. Celtic defenders? Oxymoron.

Worst performance of the day, however, by popular acclaim was Bobby Madden the referee. Leigh Griffiths said it was a penalty. The Ranger’s player who made the tackle admitted it was a penalty. The referee didn’t see it that way. He also didn’t see Kenny Miller’s kung-fu tackle or Jason Holt’s X-rated scissor-tackle on Roberts.

Celtic’s big-game players didn’t turn up. Now with a new manager at Ibrox, and a 1-1 victory for Rangers, we’re hearing the same old shit, there’s no real gap between the teams, or the gap isn’t as big as some people think or poor Pedro or poor Ranger’s ‘I’ve inherited the best group of players in Scotland’. Ho-hum. Celtic let us down in a big semi-final last year, it’s of the let’s just not go there places we don’t want to visit.


Sam Wilkin (2015) Wealth Secrets of the 1%. How the Super Rich Made Their Way to the Top.

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Roll up. Roll up. You too could become one of the super-rich. The kind of person that if they won a couple of million on the National Lottery would hand the winnings to their son or daughter and advise their child to buy lunch and keep the change, but don’t give any to some poor bastard, because they’ll probably spend it  on drink and drugs.


I’ve been reading the Sunday Mail’s sly propaganda campaign against Abellio who run the train network in Scotland. It has focused on things that many of us would be familiar with from the days of British Rail. Trains overcrowded and late. The use of rolling stock that is antiquated and dirty. A relatively recent innovation has been to criticise the pay the director running such service gets (I can’t be bothered googling who that is, and does it really matter?) British Rail was a monopoly. Scot Rail a branch of that monopoly had to put its operations out to tender. Are we any better off? The answer is no. And my concern isn’t solely with our poor, dilapidated, rail network. James Meek Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else shows that in rail, we subsidize other nation’s taxpayers, in this case Holland. Energy companies, water companies, postal services and council housing there has been that old cliché winners and losers. The winners have been the rich and losers the poor, with a regressive tax system taking away the institutions we built and giving them to the rich. Then taxing us again, because they aren’t efficient enough.  The big beast (or elephant) in the room is our NHS. Scotland and England have different systems but both use around a third of our taxation budget to fund the NHS. This is a beneficent monopoly system under siege. And as Nicholas Timmins a biographer of the welfare state observes, post-war America used to come over here looking for ideas on how to run a health service. We’ve flipped that now and look increasingly likely to sell out in the interest or dogma of efficiency savings, that mantra of the rich that penalises the poor and blames them for being poor.

For every Rockefeller rolling up and eating up competition as with Standard Oil in a series of horizontal and vertical acquisitions and mergers there’s a Carlos Slim, who won the right to operate a monopoly in fixed-line telephone services. That might not sound that great. Certainly nowhere near the value of our NHS, but a 2012 OECD report suggested he was the richest man in the world. How did this happen? Simple. Meek touched on it. We can do it or we can let someone else do it for us. Think of the stupidity of not building schools, letting someone else do it, paying them economic rent over an extended period, then complaining later because the walls to schools fall down.   Like cheap and nasty food we always pay more in the long run. Someone eats for free.


SECRET #2. BIGGER IS STILL BETTER. The argument goes that diseconomies of scale set in when a business, such as healthcare gets too big. Or the US military, the biggest user of oil in the world. Nobody much argues with the US military. Or Amazon. Or Walmart. Or Microsoft. This reminded me of Philip Green, that former -or is he still-  darling of the Conservative Party. Green whom they asked for advice, gave him a knighthood. Green notorious diddler of  pensioners, whom like everyone else, he ripped off to fund his extravagant life style in a tax haven. Try this trick at home.  One of his regular suppliers was told she was getting x price, then when she fulfilled her quota was taken aside and told she’d need to take y price. Why? Because Green, like Walmart, Amazon or the US military has the big stick, or leverage. A valid argument here is that the NHS, for example, doesn’t use its leverage to ensure profits for drug companies are not excessive. But for the super wealthy, there’s no such thing as excessive.

SECRET #3. THE WORST PLACE TO DO BUSINESS IS REALLY THE BEST. Perhaps not North Korea. But perhaps soon it may be. Bill Browder Red Notice showed that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the USSR economy contracted by 50% and the average return on capital was 5% his company, Hermitage Capital, generated returns of 1500%. What’s not to like? Hans Chung’s mantra that economics is politics applies here. The workshop of the world is China, but he reminds us that like his country, South Korea, these used to be considered economic basket cases. The African continent would be a good bet, but with the moron’s moron as President of the richest country in the world and the likelihood of nuclear war ratcheted up, if fallout doesn’t get us, global warming will. Place your bets.


That old favourite if we give you money we must have a reasonable expectation that we will get it back ( a return on our investment). Unless of course, you’re a too-big-to-fail bank. Let me put that into perspective. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) losses since 2008, £50 billion. RBS loss this financial year, around £7 billion. Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond’s budget giveaway to Scotland under the Barnett formula, £350 million, a figure disputed by the Scottish National Party. That’s one bank. Rich people don’t get punished for not paying their way.



If you live in a council house you are scum. If you rent your house from someone else you’re a sucker, throwing away good money after bad. If you own your own house, outright, you’ve got a revenue stream and money to burn, or borrow. But, of course, to be truly rich you don’t just own property. For example, only around 130 of the 1600 fortunes listed in Forbes Global Rich List are in real estate. You own a portfolio of wealth because you own the people on the land and they create wealth for you. In the post-Soviet collapse billionaires mushroomed overnight.


Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich. It’s a county that keeps giving. The United States advisers, such as Steve Bannon’s aim is, like Lenin’s, to destroy the state. A simple formula: give money to the rich in tax breaks and it will trickle down. It doesn’t. Get rid of red tape. That sounds great. What it means is displacing costs onto the poor for things like health care and to everyone else for necessities such as clean air and water. Simple solutions to complex problems always work for the rich. To borrow a phrase it’s ‘dictatorship by tedium’. Nobody pays much attention to Phil Hammond’s budget speech. We’ve heard it all before. Yawn, more tax on whisky. I don’t drink whisky. Less welfare spending. Serves them right.


Sam Wilkes uses the example of Cornelus Vanderbilt in the 1860s taking over the New York & Harlem Railroad. The incestuous banking network J.P. Morgan created described in a report to U.S Supreme Court sounds very Putinish or indeed Trumpish, or both together:

J.P. Morgan (or a partner), a director of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, causes the company to sell to J.P.Morgan and Company an issue of bonds. J.P.Morgan and Company borrow the money to pay the bonds from the Guarantee Trust Company, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The New Haven spends the proceeds of the bonds in purchasing steel rails from the United States Steel Corporation, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. United States Steel Corporation spends the proceeds of the rails in purchasing electrical supplies from the General Electric Company of which Mr Morgan (or partner) is a director…[and so on].

Good luck making those billions. Just remember to love money more than your friends, because you won’t have any. Not really. You’ll have servants and shape-shifting alliances. I could quote Jimmy Reid’s rat-race polemic here, it still stands true.

I’m not with the rats. I’m with the common working man. We find secrets in strange place and, funnily enough, I’m quoting here from a character in another Scottish writer, William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ novel, Strange Loyalties:

Any social contract is a two-way agreement. It’s one thing to make the people serve the economy. But the economy must also serve the people. If we disadvantage the present of one section of society, we disadvantage the future of all society. The children of the well-off will not just inherit the wealth of their parents. They will also inherit the poverty of the parents of others. Even self-interest, if it is wise, will concern itself with the welfare of all. Not just the poor will inherit the bad places. All of us will.

One in five children in Scotland are classified as living in poverty. My loyalty is with these people, not the pampered rich, super-rich or mega-rich. Whatever way you want to put it, they haven’t been paying their way. The problem is ours.  Rat race. You better believe it.

great Scottish writers – William McIlvanney


I was out watching the fitba yesterday, having a couple of pints and old Lawrie was trying to explain what pub he’d been in, years ago, not by telling us where it was, rather by telling us who’d once owned it and who’d given him the money to buy the pub, but he couldn’t remember that either. ‘It was a great Scottish author.’ That was the clue to unravelling the mystery.

‘William McIlvanney,’ I said.

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘A great Scottish author’.

Let me tell you a wee secret, William McIlvanney is a great Scottish author and like Spike Milligan with Hitler, I’ll explain my part in his downfall. I’m going to read Docherty again just to prove that point to myself again. If you’re Scottish and you’re of a certain age and generation you’ll remember Taggart.  You might even remember it if you’re not Scottish. And if you’re drunk and want to overdose in nostalgia Taggart is still part of STV broadcasts in the same way that Dad’s Army still pops up on BBC (too frequently). The classic line in Taggart, ‘There’s been a murder,’ was so recognisable that talk show hosts used to mouth it cast members and smile, inviting the audience to laugh at them. Taggart became a cliché, to be mocked and so Laidlaw and Scottish noir also became something to be looked down on.

You probably don’t remember me being in Taggart, but at one point in time everybody in Glasgow featured in Taggart. You may have saw me featured in a bar chatting to someone, or walking past Taggart (Mick McManus) and looking very much like me, with the wrong coat on. I did also feature in a tracking shot as the back of Dr Finley’s head. A J Cronin is another of Scotland’s writers greatly neglected.

William McIlvanney allegedly tried to sell a series to STV featuring a straight talking Glasgow detective. But they didn’t fancy the idea. The next thing Taggart appears. Ahem. Do the maths. One-word detectives, that human aphorism, with the answer to a question you don’t know, in the title. Taggart. Laidlaw. Taggart is an older dour detective inspective showing a fresh-faced new start behind the ears the ropes. There’s been a murder. No son, there’s been a theft, the stealing of a body of work from an author. Detective Inspector Laidlaw is an older, dour detective, much given to philosophising and doing what he’s got to do, even though it’s not in the handbook, but because it’s the right thing to do and there is no handbook. Just life.  His sidekick Detective Constable Harkness, a fresh-faced new start has been appointed the higher-up heid yins to keep an eye on Laidlaw, and also, incidentally to help him in the murder of Jennifer Lawson.  That line – there’s been a murder – appears in the first of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, Laidlaw, followed by The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties.  Laidlaw doesn’t attempt to solve murders, he attempts to understand them and does so by wrestling to the ground Glasgow punter’s prejudices and inhumanity to humanity. Murder comes in many forms, in hopes and dreams.

The reader already knows who the killer is in Laidlaw’s first case, when the reader meets the detective. It’s the guy running away from the scene and we know he’s a poof and we know somebody is protecting him and we know why, because they love each other, or once did. But Jennifer Lawrence is not just another wee lassie that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, her da is a Glasgow hardman that lives in Drumchapel. Laidlaw has a soft spot for hardmen, he speaks their language and knows how their arcane rules work, and he knows where to find them in their natural element, Glasgow’s pubs.

Poppies was in a court behind Buchanan Street, along with a couple of abstruse businesses and an anonymous second-hand bookshop. It was the most recent example in Glasgow of a pub with adjoining disco, recent enough for Harkness not to know it. He knew The Griffin and Joanna’s in Bath Street, Waves and Spankies at Custom House Quay. The pub here, the Mavrick, was closed just now but the door to Poppies was open.

An open door is always an invitation. Laidlaw and Harkness need to find the murderer of Jennifer Lawrence before his poofter pal helps him to escape, or the Glasgow underworld help Lawrence’s dad find him first and bring the Old Testament eye for an eye vision of justice into view. The smart money is always on Laidlaw, but if you think it’s about solving a murder you’re missing the point. It’s about the writing. It’s about Laidlaw’s epigrams for living and way of seeing the world.

The Papers of Tony Veitch is a case in point. Laidlaw gets a tip off from a reporter, who talked to a porter in The Victoria Infirmary. ‘Old bloke brought in. Chin like a Brillo-pad. Smelling like a grape harvest. Just about conscious. But he kept asking for Jack Laidlaw’.

A doctor explains their predicament to Laidlaw.  ‘Having trouble with his airwaves. They had him in E. God he was filthy. Didn’t know whether to dialyse or cauterise. A walking Bubonic.’

Laidlaw does know the old bloke, he appears in his first part of the trilogy, an alky and a tout who no longer had his finger on Glasgow’s underworld pulse, because he doesn’t have a pulse. But Eck Adamson leaves Laidlaw a cryptic message. ‘The wine wasnae really wine.’

For colleagues such as Laidlaw’s nemesis Milligan it’s an open and shut case. An alky dies the world applauds, one less problem to worry about. The same wipe-your-eye principles apply, another thug, Paddy Collins, who died of stab wounds in the Victoria Infirmary at around the same time. But Paddy Collins is connected, his wife’s brother is one of the dons of the Glasgow underworld and he insists on finding the killer, before the police. Characters from the first Laidlaw novel bleed into the second. And Laidlaw applies the same detective methods, he solves crimes by osmosis. One clue lies in the deranged idealism of a potential murderer, with connections of a different kind, into Scotland’s elite society. Tony Veitch like Laidlaw has dropped out of the University of Glasgow because he believes it cannot give him the education he requires. None of these things, in isolation matter, but for McIlvanney and Laidlaw nothing ever happens in isolation.

In Strange Loyalties Laidlaw’s brother Scott is killed in a car accident. Nothing is ever an accident in Laidlaw-land. McIlvanney and Laidlaw’s strength is in documenting the social nuances between people. Here, for example, he goes to meet Scott’s father-in-law and his mother-in-law, Martin and Alice.

Their togetherness looked as cosy as an advertisement for an endowment policy…Martin had been a building contractor and a friend of many local councillors. The word was that the two aspects of his life hadn’t been always kept effectively apart…Martin was one of the smiling ruthless. Self-interest and callousness had been so effectively subsumed in his nature that they emerged as a form of politeness. He never raised his voice because he hadn’t enough self-doubt to make it necessary. He could listen calmly to opinions violently opposed to his own because he never took them seriously. He offered the conventional forms of sympathy effortlessly because there was no personal content to mean they might not fit…How long does it take to analyse a vacuum?

Alice, Martin’s wife, is beautiful enough to think the world is beautiful too, but that allows her to be empathetic, in the way that Martin is pathetic.  In Laidlaw-land the perpetrators aren’t all locked safely behind bars. They are pillars of society. Everybody is in some ways culpable and knows something, even if they don’t understand what it means. Neither does Laidlaw, but by the end of his book the reader might. That’s why McIlvanney is a great writer.

Harry Ballantyne RIP.


Funerals are more modern now. A Celebration of the Life of Henry Ballantyne. I always knew him as Harry. I’d have never have guessed he was a Henry.  Instead of some dirge of a hymn, Neil Diamond for the Entrance Music and America as the first track, and for the Retiral Music (that’s when they shut the curtains in the crematorium and usher you outside) Crackling Rosie  (Cracklin’ Rosie) also by Neil Diamond. When we were standing outside the crematorium the joke was the first hymn would be the Sash and the last hymn would be the Sash. I recognised many familiar faces. All getting older. All nearer being the next one measured for the sliding box and hiding behind the curtains. A game nobody wants to win.

In the middle we had a Christian service and the hymn Abide With Me. That’s the boring bit. You wait for the vicar to tell you something new. That Harry was really Henry and all those years of supporting Rangers was a ploy to hide his deep love for Celtic. He did tell me a few things I didn’t know. A good story always starts at the beginning. Jesus and the wise men following the star and saying to them don’t go there, that’s where Harry lives in Trafalgar Street. Harry managed the Park Bar. Don’t go there. I never knew that. He was born in Townhead in November 1942, when the German Luftwaffe were blitzkrieging Clydebank. Harry would have told you they were after him. He might have been right. Harry worked in John Brown’s shipyard as a sheet-metal worker. Odds on that’s where he got asbestosis. Asbestos was cheaper than worker’s wages, fire resistant and easily cut into any pattern. Great for boats, not good for lungs or hearts. I didn’t know Harry then. I only knew young Harry his son and Callum (deceased).

Abide with me. Harry (senior) would be around the age, mid-fifties, when I met him. He favoured the purple shell suit and tartan bunnet. I think he dragged it into fashion. Over the years that look didn’t change much or grow old. You probably remember films such as the Mean Machine, with Burt Reynolds, when the grizzled old coach comes up to Burt and, out of the side of his mouth, says something like: ‘we’re putting a team together that’s going to beat the prison guards.’ Then came the big question. ‘You in or out?’ You’d ask a daft question like is Tam Scanlon in the team? And when you found out not only was he in the team, but was assistant manager, there could only be one answer and that was ‘Naw, Harry, are you fuckin’ mad?’

Daft question. For the record, the prison guards won almost every game. Our pub team specialised in glorious defeat. Harry would shake his head and smile and blame the ref, even if he was the ref. He’d blame the park. Too big. Too small. They’ve played on grass before. And who could forget Harry and the magic sponge. One bucket. One sponge and a spray of Ralgex to cure everything from gravel rash, broken leg to baldness. When Harry ran on with his bucket, anybody with a brain, and let’s face it, there weren’t many of us that way inclined, would roll off the park and start running. The best thing about playing for Dalmuir, apart from Harry, was our fans. They were legendary and a lot better than the team. Who can forgot the cup final or semi-final where everybody played at being wrecked, probably Terry Ross was the worst (RIP) and nobody been fit enough to drive the coach home and nobody could remember the score. Harry would, because Harry remembered everything. All he had to do was tweek his tactics. We’d get it right next week. We had a pint and relived those days often. Rest in peace Harry, we had a blast.

Under Lock and Key


Under Lock and Key highlights many of the problems discussed in caring for vulnerable people with complex needs. This shows how ‘total institutions’ work. I tackled this theme directly in my unpublished novel Hut’s and more indirectly (I like to think in a Hitchcock fashion) in my novel Lily Poole.