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.






John Lewis-Stempel (2016) Where Poppies Blow. The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.


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John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is a hotchpot of different things. That’s usually a criticism, but in this case this is the books strength. Pre-war England is the baseline, a kind of Arcadia to which the British soldier on the front’s mind often returns. Fuck off I say to that kind of crap. The majority of troops came from slum housing and if they were lucky enough to be in regular employments worked between 12 and 15 hours a day for 364 days a year and were considered old by the time they were thirty and ancient by the age of forty. Yet trenches that divided warring nations were a great leveller. An officer, which was a shorthand for a gentleman, and the working class, really were in it together and shared the same bit of dirt and while the former had it slightly easier with better rations, where more likely to end up dead or injured.  Britain, generally, was an animal loving nation, regardless of class.

The other great social leveller Robert Burn recognised in his poem ‘To a Louse’ was lice. ‘Lice observed neither rank nor class.’  A ‘cootie hunt’ was the creed of the trenches. Rats were also fair game, but this war the British soldiers lost. Rats outbred any attempts at controlling them and corpses galore to feed on they grew to the size of legend and treated the living and the dead with equal contempt. One of the positive effects of German gas attacks was it killed many of the rats, but they quickly recovered a decomposed foothold.  Fungal infections such as clostridium perfringes, ‘Trench foot’ sent 20 000 to hospital in the first winter of 1914-15 and this was combined with bacillius fustiformis helping to produce the ulcerating gingivitis ‘Trench Mouth’. Foot and mouth disease wasn’t confined to animals. A Great War for microbes.

Just under a million British army hospital admissions for sickness were made in 1918, with just under 10 000 deaths. At the end of the war 500 permanent cemeteries were created with 400 000 headstones. [Compare this to the over 27 million and upwards killed in the USSR to give you some idea of scale, or indeed, the almost 500 000 American troops sent overseas to Vietnam ostensibly to fight Communism in 1969].

At the end of the War To End All Wars the Animal War Museum’s plaque in Kilburn commemorated the 484 143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks, hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other creatures that died working for the armed forces.

In contrast, 11th November 1918, 735 409 horses and mules and 56 287 camels were given their demob papers. Their fate, like the working class soldier, was to be put on the market. The book ends with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade End: ‘How are we to live? How are we to ever live?’

I prefer Burn’s version: To a Mouse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominon

Has broken nature’s social union

And justifies that ill opinion

…But mousie, that art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a’gley,

And lea’s us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy…



Jean Faley (2008 [1990]) Up Oor Close. Memories of Tenements 1910 – 1945 Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie (2006 [2003]) She Was Aye Workin’. Memories of Tenement Women in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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Jean Faley (2008 [1990]) Up Oor Close. Memories of Tenements 1910 – 1945

Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie (2006 [2003]) She Was Aye Workin’. Memories of Tenement Women in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

I’ve just finished Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie’s book, but I read Jean Farley’s Up Oor Close a while ago but didn’t bother reviewing it. This has a bit to do with time and opportunity cost. If you’re reading you’re not writing about tenement life, as I’m doing with my series Grimms, which has reached number 100 and is sure to be a first-draft over 100 000 words. And if you’re writing you’re not reading, which is the engine of writing. Blog posts like this in particular serve no discernible purpose other than to put a marker down in hyperspace, ‘I WIZ HERE’ first, even though I wisnae.

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These books make me laugh, but not in a bad way. There’s recognition that these women, these wee superwomen, are my ma. There’s a lot of love here, but dreadful, dreadful poverty. Women eat last, and at times, not at all, first up and last to go to bed. I naively used to think those times were gone forever.  Aye workin’. Aye cleaning. But there was a very good reason for that beyond the domestic. Medicine cost money that nobody had, especially in the Depression years of the 1930s  and some doctors would stand of the doorstep until he got paid his 7 s 6d fee. Home remedied invariable involved poultices. ‘Father’s sock filled with salt for toothache… and sore ears. Hold salt over the fire until heated.’

‘Bread poultices mixed up with grated soap and made up with boiling water, put into a cloth, squeezed out and put on your chest.’  You guessed it, the cure for colds or chest pains.

‘Sulphur and treacle,’ the obvious cure for constipation.

Try this one at home, slice an onion, stick it on your back, with sellotape or something, or carry it in your back pocket. That will cure your rheumatism. Soak it up.

There was no cure, of course, for scarlet fever, tuberculosis (consumption) diphtheria or in most cases pneumonia. Glasgow up until the First World War had the fastest population growth in Europe, outstripping London, it also had the highest rate of TB and child-birth mortality. We Scots were good at something. Dying.  When I read about concentration camps there were certain zones the Nazis were scared to enter because of the high risk of contagion. Obviously no high ranking SS officer would have dared enter a tenement block in the Gorbals. But the Green Ladies did, those women whose job it was to protect the public health.

We didnae know we were poor. You’ll hear that quite a lot. Making soup from sheep’s head was the equivalent of our food banks. I remember my Uncle John telling me how he used to half to get up at half five because it was his turn to go and queue for broken biscuits sold cheap from the factory across the way and there’d be a queue there when he arrived.

We thought those days were gone. You’ll hear quite a lot of that from me. These books remind us what it was like to have nothing and to be treated as nothing and yet, hope and pray that a better world will be there for our kids. The Burro and the Parish. A Pawnshop on every corner. Welfare cuts and the highest ratio of borrowing to income in Europe. Starting a day in debt and ending the day in more debt. Don’t bang on to me about progress. People in Scotland still do not have a bed at night. People in Scotland and their children still starve. Twenty-first century poverty is a greater abomination that it’s twentieth-century counterpart and the reason is like the TB virus we thought we had defeated it, but it has simply mutated into a more toxic version. God help us. Even my wee mother would never have dreamed of such a thing.


Bernard MacLaverty (2017) Midwinter Break

As usual I was trying to remember if I’d read Bernard MacLaverty’s work before. I’m a great reader but not very good at it. His work Cal strikes a note, but what kind of note I’m not very sure. Memory wise, nothing. Midwinter Break is quite a simple story that follows that clichéd pattern of nothing happens twice.

An elderly couple Gerry and Stella Gilmore go on a short break from their home in Glasgow to Amsterdam. They’re Irish enough to split their faith between them. Religion is woman’s work and Gerry, once an architect and then a lecturer, is happy enough to indulge her and get on with his drinking. MacLaverty is good on this one. The little sins of indulgence that becomes obsession and then possession. One of Gerry’s pals, for example, once told him that he shouldn’t drink alone that people like him needed other around him to slow him down, he was a pace setter, drinking more and faster than others. I’m in the slow lane here. At home Gerry can away with it because they live separate lives, him with his music and his few drams before bedtime. Stella with her school-marmish ways and memberships of local committees and church groups.

One of the dramatic principles often repeated is characters must want different things and this produces conflict. When in Amsterdam Gerry has a bit of a fall and finds it difficult to hide how much he’s drinking from Stella. She throws a bombshell of her own, not as large as when her and her first-born son were almost killed by a bullet during the Troubles in Ireland in the early seventies, forty-two years earlier, but small enough to hurt and cause pain. Her reason for the Midwinter Break wasn’t just a holiday, but an exploration of dedicating her life to God, fulfilling a vow after that bullet had passed through her and joining a semi-religious community in the city called Beguines. Gerry’s hidden alcoholism is old news for her and she demands separation and a new life, a turning of the page, away from settled ways and shores. Dramatist as he is MacLaverty, of course, shows that resolution is not always resolution.

M. Scott Peck (1983 [1990]) People of the Lie. The Hope of Healing Human Evil.

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I sped read through the 309 pages of this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. I’m good at that kind of thing, but I’m not sure if good is the right word. I read lots, but remember very little. M. Scott Peck is of course better known for his ten-million bestseller, The Road Less Travelled. Yep, read that too. Writing this now I can’t remember a word of it, but I’m guessing it’s full of folksy wisdom.  Americans love that kinda shit. As a lapsed Catholic I can’t say I’m immune either.

Scott Peck is a psychiatrist, but he’s also a Christian. He believes in the risen Christ. The flip side of this is the devil, Satan, who has fallen from grace. He wasn’t sure about that archetypal character. As a scientist and a Christian he looked at the evidence. You’ve guess it. The devil does exist he concludes and evil is a real force. He offers some case studies of people he feels are evil. And touches on the use of exorcisms to drive out the devil. He believes a very small number (my analogy would the around the number of what can be truly called compassionate conservatives) have something inside them which is not of them, which is fundamentally evil. The old argument of whether a person is mad, bad, or sad when they commit crime finds Peck siding with the rhetoric that some people really are bad, or in this case evil.

What I found interesting was this book written in the early eighties describes the American President Donald J Trump to a tee. Remember those games you played when you were younger when it was shown conclusively that by allocating Hebraic letters and mixing them with Greek numbers to Hitler’s name and finding conclusively it matched the number of the beast, as did, Emperor Nero. Peck does much the same thing here, but he does it blind. At the time of writing Donald J Trump was a multiple bankrupt who cheated and lied his way into maintaining the front of a business tycoon and property-estate entrepreneur encapsulated by the vainglorious Trump Tower. Now, of course, he’s the American President and more importantly Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Emperor Nero could only burn Rome. Trump can burn the world.

Peck offers as a case study of group evil the Vietnam war in general and, in particular, the case of My Lai, in a morning1968, and the cover-up which happened almost immediately afterwards. Anyone that has been watching the series on Vietnam, as I have, know that neither President John F Kennedy or his successor the Texan Lyndon B Johnson  believed in this war, but they admitted privately that to say so would end their hope of becoming President. Richard M Nixon was of course asked to stand down because of the lies he told about Watergate. These Presidents look like rank amateurs when placed next to the father of lies Donald J Trump. The coming war with North Korea is based on the same great lie. As one veteran said I killed one human, after that all I killed were gooks. The metrics used in Vietnam was the number of bodies killed. Some soldiers kept human ears as trophies. What Peck doesn’t say is most of the Task Force Baker had taken turns raping their young female victims before killing them. Most of the men serving that day got away with their crimes. Gooks don’t count. Demonization of the other is the first step in the murder of the soul.

Peck’s first case study is titled ‘The Man Who Made a Pact With the Devil.’ I guess there’s a similar story in Stephen King’s Needless Things.    An innocuous old man sells people exactly what they want. Trump has been selling fear and hatred for a long time now and drawing evil to him like a magnet. His lies got him elected to the highest office in the land.

Pecks gives us a loose definition between those that are mad, bad and sad.

If people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds, or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them? The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle the consistency of their sins. This is because those “that have crossed over the line” are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate sense of their own sinfulness.

This is something Richard Holloway the agnostic former arch-bishop talked about. Those who are narcissistic enough to believe they are always absolutely right and have a God-given right to do exactly what they want, are absolutely wrong. The problem here, of course, Trump would rather see the world burn than admit to getting things wrong. There’s a race running between his impeachment and him ending it all with a bang. God, I hope, is on our side and if He’s not available, perhaps we should phone Stephen King.

AA Gill (2015) Pour Me: A Life.

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This book is a delight to read. I’m not really sure why, I guess it’s because the author is honest. No waffle. He doesn’t believe in dyslexia even though he and his son have been given that moniker by earnest professionals. Early in life he wanted to be an artist, and went to among others, the Slade Art School in London. It’s not so much as he pissed the chance away, he realised early that he didn’t have what it takes. He was at the first Sex Pistol’s gig, memorable for being so forgettable and Adam Ant fell into his lap and asked to lick his companion’s nipples. His brother disappeared, but sometimes he wondered if he’ll get back in touch. He learned cookery from his brother, a Michelin starred chef, but the impetus wasn’t food, but saving money spent on greasy snacks so he could buy more drink and drugs.

Alcoholics get sick of themselves before everybody else. When a doctor cornered him and asked about his drinking Adrian didn’t lie to him, he didn’t drink when he was pregnant and he didn’t miss work through drink, but that apart he ticked most boxes.

He fell into journalism because he had the right middle-class connections. Although he had problems with spelling, syntax and grammar when he joined the Tatler he had something that those nobs that had a PPE from Oxford or Cambridge didn’t have, he’d life experience. He’d been on the front line and when he was sent to the frontline of South Sudan by the Times to report on the murderous Janjaweed he’d a knack for getting the job done and sending back impressive copy. And he’d a knack for humour.

Tony Rennell, news editor of the Daily Telegraph summed him up. ‘You’re a good writer. But there are lots of good writers. The thing is you’re a lucky writer and we can’t teach that.’

Lucky writers, are like penalty box strikers, always in the right (write) place at the right time. AA Gill was there when food was taking off and a food critic was required. Television that working-class snack food was looked down on by the broadsheets, but Adrian saw its potential and he loved TV. Then when he was asked to do real reporting, many thought outside his comfort zone he’d choke and burn. But, hey, when life sucks and you’ve been at the bottom, you know what it looks like. I like AA Gill and I like his writing. I can’t say any fairer than that.

Louis Theroux: Dark States – Heroin Town, BBC 2, 9pm, BBC iPlayer, directed by Dan Child, editor Ann Price.

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There’s a funereal feel to most things Louis Theroux is in. He’s like the Stephen King of documentaries and with a title like Dark State – Heroin Town you expect the residents to rise up from their crypt and stab you with a used syringe and make you part of the problem. The fortunate thing about Louis is he’s already undead. He’s like the actor that plays Steve from Coronation Street, he’s got one mock expression –horror, shock, indifference, oh that ice cream looks nice – and he tends to use it a lot.

Louis has dropped out of the sky and given himself a stake in the problems of Huntington, West Virginia. The party is long finished the heavy industries that used to dot the landscape long gone, the Appalachian population addiction to heroin is thirteen times the national average. This is Trump country, so we can’t say they are no good junkies, or crack heads because these are black diseases, white people suffer from opioid addiction problems. The medical mythology is that with all these heavy industries there was lots of work-related injuries and prescription drugs, freely administered, allowed workers to keep working. Backbone of the community and all that. Then doctors got scared and stopped prescribing. Heroin filled the pain-relief gap.  What surprised me was the fire brigade, not the ambulance service, is on the front line of the heroin epidemic. Fire fighters most common job is to apply antagonists to opiate addicts that have overdosed. There’s talk of law suits against big pharma. One in ten babies born in Huntingdon is born with opiate addiction. Louis follows an addict and her partner to full term and the baby being born. Both receive methadone prescriptions. What’s the answer?   More Theroux eyebrow wiggling.