Unreported World. Putin’s Family Values. Channel 4, 7pm. Director Jessica Kay, Presented by Marcel Theroux.

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Just when you thought you’d seen enough of writer, producer and documentary maker Louis Theroux his brother Marcel pops up in Russia in a programme about Putin’s Family Values. There are two narratives here, one which we in the West will no doubt be familiar with. Tatanya is the Russian matriarch who opens her heart and opens her home. She has adopted 48 children and is currently fostering another 28. Six-year-old Kostya, for example, was abandoned on the streets by his alcoholic parents and brought to Tatanya three days later to care for him. Five-year old Kolya has a bad squint and even worse temper tantrums. He was adopted by a family with his other three siblings, but returned to Tatanya. Kolya really wants to go to Kindergarten with the other children and the camera follows him there with Tatanya. She complains she doesn’t get enough money from the state to feed the kids in her care. From what we see the house is dilapidated, but the kids playing in the basement seem happy (there’s no way of knowing if they are unhappy).

Ivan Osaki is a Patriarch of the Russian Orthordox Church in Cossack County near the River Don, on the borders of the Ukraine. He is the face of Russia Putin wants the West to see. He lives in a palatial home with his 18 children, their ages ranging from seven to thirty-three. He also has 25 grandchildren, and his sons are also Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. His lifestyle is sponsored by the billionaires who cashed in on the breakup of the Soviet Union and ‘liberalised’ its assets. They include Konstantin Maleeov a banker with Kremlin connections, who has also set up Russia’s first Christian TV channel. Alexander Dugen a Putin cheerleader and—for the moment—a supporter of President Trump’s conservative values. Ivan Osaki’s wife, Nadeszhda, jokes that she went on maternity leave twenty-eight years ago and has been pregnant pretty much every year since then. Her services to the Russian state has been rewarded with Order for Parental Glory.

My reading of this is Russia’s population has been shrinking since the size of the economy halved with liberalisation and the gap between the rich and poor was once those in the Kremlin drove a Skoda and had six times the income of their comrades. Now there’s a unhealthy Western-style gap between rich and poor, with the latter choosing to have fewer children. The Order for Parental Glory – for good parents – has similarities with the Cross of Honour the Nazi Party gave to mothers who produced four or more children. The annexation of parts of Ukraine because the so-called majority of their citizens speak Russian has similarities with the Anschluss between Austria and Germany and the annexation of countries bordering the enlarged state. But you’d need to go back to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and read Nicholas Rostov’s sycophantic ravings such as ‘Oh God, what would happen to me if the Emperor spoke to me?’ thought Rostov, ‘I should die of happiness’, to appreciate the mind-sets and public pronouncements of Patriarch’s like Osaki that call Putin their father.

The strong man isn’t a uniquely Russian trait. The moron’s moron in the Whitehouse plays the same role. And both strong men seek to turn back the clock and put women firmly in their place. In America Trump seeks to appoint judges that will repeal Roe v Wade and take all federal funding from clinics that sanction abortion. Maleeov’s Christian commentators on television call for the sanctity of private property, no interference from the state in family life and compare abortions to the practices of Nazi doctors in the Death Camps. Money talks and conservatism speaks very loudly, women are not only different from men, they are lesser than men.

Yuval Noah Harari epigram in Sapiens about the crime of married rape, for example, being an oxymoron ‘as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet’ sums it up exactly. The proposed bill to decriminalise domestic violence in the Russian Duma supported by Maleeov was passed into Russian law. Men, of course, don’t get off Scot free. It will cost them around 5000 roubles (£70) if they are found guilty of beating their wife and 7000 roubles for beating their children. Harari cites precedents from among other books the Bible, if a man meets a virgin and rapes her he must pay fifty shekels to the father of the virgin and then marry her. Nobody can argue with the laws of the bible or the laws of the market. Both are God given. The world is becoming a much smaller and harsher place for poor women.


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.