Carl MacDougall (2006) Scots the Language of the People.

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This anthology of Scottish writers, poetry and prose, was a TV series. I’d quite like to have seen it. I’m not sure how it would have worked off the page, but no matter. The piece that stuck a real chord with me, was from someone I’d never heard of James Kennedy ‘The Highland Crofter’ (below). It was a lament for the Highland Clearances. Kennedy, a blacksmith and evicted crofter left Loch Tay and settled in Doune, Canada. Scottish history you might think, but with Scotland’s Oxfam revealing that the richest 1% in our wee country have more wealth than the bottom 50% and the very poorest are pilloried for being poor and feckless, treated as subhuman, less valuable than sheep, I ask myself what has really changed. Those that owned the land own the people on the land, as they do now, but they have mortgaged other’s lives in new ways. The answer comes from Blind Harry’s description of ‘The Wallace’ and what it is to be fully human.

Woundis he had many divers place,

Of riches he keepit no proper thing:

Give as he wan, like Alexander the king.

The Highland Crofter  by James Kennedy.

Frae Kenmore to Ben More

The land is a’ the Marquis’s;

The mossy howes, the heathery knowe

An’ like bonnie park is his;

The bearded goats, the towsie stots,

An’ a’ the braxie carcasses;

Ilk crofter’s rent, ilk tinker’s tent,

An ilka collie’s bark is his;

The muir-cock’s craw, the piper’s blaw,

The ghillies hard day’s wark is his;

From Kenymore tae Ben More

The warld is a’ the Marquis’s.

The fish that swim, the birds that skim,

The fir, the ash, the birk is his;

The castle ha’ sae big and braw,

Yon diamond crusted dirk is his;

The roofless hame, a burning shame,

The factor’s dirty wark is his;

The poor folk vexed, the lawyer’s text,

Yon smirking legal shark is his;

From Kenmore to Ben More

The world is a’ the Marquis.

But near, mair near, God’s voice we hear

The dawn as weel’s the dark is his;

The poet’s dream, the patriot’s theme,

The fire that light the mirk is His

They clearly show God’s mills are slow

But sure, the handiwork is His;

And in His grace our hope we place,

Fair Freedom sheltering ark is His;

The men that toil should own the soil,

A note as clear as the lark is this;

Breadalbane’s land –the fair, the grand –

Will no’ aye the Marquis’s.

Carl MacDougall (2017) Someone Always Robs the Poor

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I was aware of Carl MacDougall in an oblique way. I hadn’t read any of his work, but knew him to be the editor of one of the classic Scottish texts The Devil and the Giro: The Scottish Short Story. When I found out the Scottish Book Trust had approached him and he had agreed to be my mentor for my second novel I was chuffed.

I googled him. This is his latest short-story collection, by the now defunct publishers Freight. I admit to a bias here. A hatred of what we’ve become. Mean minded and petty. In a word it’s about class and lack of it.  Tim Winton touches on it his essay ‘Using the C-word.’ Carl MacDougall gets it right here. Someone Always Robs the Poor. The theft has become more systematic since the nineteen-seventies when we lost the propaganda war and the advent of Thatcherism/ Reeganism, the growth of individualism and if it was going to end in farce it ends in Trumpism. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in apocalyptic tragedy.  Someone always robs the poor, but with the added element of hatred –it’s all their own fault- and we’re to blame for society’s ills.

Someone Always Robs the Poor is the second story in MacDougall’s collection. It begins with the narrator watching the pigs eat her book of fairy tales. They leave behind the feudalism of Poland, the coming genocide of Nazi Germany and their family has a golden to ticket to the promised land of America. Look at the title again.

All day my father stood at the back of the cart waving his hat, and when my mother told him to sit down, he said, I am waving goodbye to Poland. I am looking to see what I have to take with me.

The narrator’s father is an older man. He has purchased his wife, who is very beautiful, and kept her as his own. Hubris leads to nemesis in Leith, Edinburgh, which is not America as the father believes. The streets are not paved with gold, but the sweat of indentured labour.  Someone always robs the poor.

‘After the dance’ is not about romance, but rape and how it curdles a person and poisons families.

In Sunset Song, Chris Guthrie’s mother dies and his father almost kills himself working the land. He calls to her from his sickbed, she’s the flesh of his flesh and he wants her. In MacDougall’s story ‘Spitting it Out’ an old man gets out of his sickbed to go and visit his estranged daughter. She’s no right in the heid he says, with they accusations. But we know the story is as old as the bible.

‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis,’ alcohol in the blood, wet brain. You know the score. Last chance for sanity. Get off at this stop kind of story.  The narrator, like many of us, have been in the wards, been in the wars where there’s no winners, only losers and those that think they can drink the same as everybody else, or like they used to, when things were better. Amy Liptrot does a smashing job in The Outrun of sinking into the words and the ways we explain to ourselves how we need to drink because that’s how we reward ourselves, and when we’re down that’s just the thing for a pick-me-up. When we see a sunset, how the day is so much sunnier with a beer in our hand. Korsakoff is that Glasgow thing. We drink to be happy and we drink to be sad. Drink it our mentor and tormentor.

Carl MacDougall writes about violence, rape, incest and murder. I guess we’re singing from the same hymn sheets. We speak the same bastardin’ language.

In the preface to Scots The Language of the People, MacDougall uses the c-word. Class. ‘The educated classes struggled to rid themselves of “Scotticisms”’.   What was left was the dirt and people that roll in it. That’s me. I’m holding my hand up. It’s no surprise that Billy Connelly is quoted on the back leaf of Someone Always Robs the Poor, ‘Carl is a hero of mine…a great storyteller’.

I envy Carl MacDougall the breadth of his education, the depth of his reading. But the thing about books are they don’t care who you are. Anyone can turn the page and if they’ve got a wee notion, they can read and they too can learn.

I was thinking for example about fucking. You’ve probably heard of it. But more in the dialect sense. When I was writing about Jaz, for example, I wrote. You fuckin’ cunt. Then changed it to you fuckin cunt. The latter is closer to the style that Bernard MacLaverty uses in his short stories. Then one of the characters in Carl MacDougall’s stories says you fucken cunt. Oh, dearie, dearie, which one of us is right?

Well, it’s Carl MacDougall, obviously, because he knows better than most than language is a living thing. Bastard. If you turn to Scots the Language of the People, the section marked Tom Leonard – read on:

The poster for the Makars’ Society advertises a






And the admission price is Thritty pee (a heid).

This wasn’t the only anachronism in the language argument Tom Leonard spotted. On the publication of Six Glasgow Poems in 1969 he altered the argument and rules of engagement by introducing the urban voice and insisting it should be heard, transcribing living Glaswegian speech to prove that language is defined by class as much as by region or country and that working-class speech is as suitable a vehicle for poetry and serious thought as any other;

Tom Leonard: The Voyeur.

what’s your favourite word dearie

is it wee

I hope it’s wee

wee’s such a nice wee word

like a wee hairy dog

with two wee eyes

such a nice wee word to play with dearie

you can say it quickly

with a wee smile

and a wee glance to the side

or you can say it slowly dearie

with your mouth a wee bit open

and a wee sigh dearie

a wee sigh

put your wee head on my shoulder dearie

oh my

a great wee word

and Scottish

it makes you proud

Big Cats, BBC 1, 8pm, BBC iPlayer, Narrator -Bertie Carvel

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Big Cats are killers. They have adapted to every corner of the globe (not that a globe has corners). So successful are they in the Australian outback Tim Winton tell us readers in his book The Boy Behind the Curtain they have pretty much helped destroy most of the indigenous wildlife.  I’ve also read in the papers about leopards in India taking children. My own cat seemed unconcerned. It does bring back mice.  Of the 40 big cats, 33 are small cats. Downsizing seems like a good idea in these difficult times. The real killer is, of course, man. We literally create deserts of lands and seas.

This celebration of cat life is one of the wonders of the world. Beautiful and full of awe. What’s missing, of course, is David Attenborough. We might see a rusty-spotted cat 200 times smaller than its carnivore cousin the lion, but with an impressive 60% strike rate (where do they get that stat and who’s counting the mice and small birds?) it’s king of the Sri Lankan jungle. In the Himalayas we see a snow leopard doing a pee, otherwise known as marking its territory and hoping a mate might swing by. I’ve done that as well.  There’s a pride of Africa lions – no jokes here please about Gloria Gaynor and I torch songs I Will Survive. (No you willnae) Then there’s those cubs whose mum looks like BagPuss, but it’s wee  Pallas cat from the steppes of Outer Mongolia. Not Steps on Top of the Pops singing the Bee-Gee’s number Tragedy.   But the next best thing if you’re a cat fan, which I’m not. But you know the next line. I wouldnae be cruel to one.

Miram’s Big American Adventure BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, directed by Nicola Comber and Narrator Julian Barratt.


You know the format, actress Miram Margoyles, a self-proclaimed fat, Jewish, lesbian old lady, travels across America finding out what’s what or who’s who or something intelligible to report or see. Here she visits a summer camp in Indiana. Stars and stripes and saluting the flag, hand on the chest at 7am in the morning, type of place. That’s how you build a nation. About 30 years ago, or more, I applied to go and teach soccer in Summer Camp in America. Needless to say I was a charlatan with two left feet, but they weren’t to know that. I remain a charlatan with two left feet and watching Miriam is the nearest I’ve been to America or Summer Camp. $700 a week sounds a bit pricey, but they run programmes for poor kids, so they too can turn into good Americans.

Miriam’s next stop was a correctional facility. America jails about two million of its citizens, more than every other nation in the world combined. Every year that number grows larger.  If you’re black and poor you can expect to be corrected as some point in your life. But this is a quick in and out visit for Miriam. A good public relations exercise  for sheriff, Richard K Jones who runs a jail in Butler County, Ohio.  He’s an elected official. Looking at him you can see why Ohio has one of the highest overdose rates in the country. Richard K Jones is shown acting as cheerleader for the now President Trump. This is Trump country. The kind of place where the solution to the war on drugs is more war on drugs, build more prisons, shoot more black men. At one point that’s practically what the good Sheriffs wife said at the dinner table. I may be guilty of putting words in her mouth of course. She did say it was a man’s role to work while she brought up her fat daughter. No she didn’t say that exactly either. Having a photo of her husband and the smiling rapist and sex pest of a president smiling at the camera does that to me. It would be interesting if Richard K Jones could find it in his heart to find a place for President Trump in his Ohio prison. The revelation that Ronald Reagan thought that all mental hospitals should be closed because they were full of mental people not prepared to work puts him higher in my estimation than Trump.  He was fruit bat crazy but not dumb. And it was President Reagan with his Star War’s programme and massive state spending that ushered in the defence mania while cutting the budget of every other department. Hold that. He admitted he was a ball hair from starting a nuclear holocaust. Yet we look back on that charlatan with nostalgia to the good old days. Let’s hope Holocaust stays off the menu. Miriam, despite being a daft old bat, was wondering exactly what I’ve often thought –how can a nation claim to be Christian while screwing their neighbour into the ground and praising the lord and their country?

Last visit for Miriam was some backwoods Tennesseans.  Well, they weren’t actually from Tennessee but they were white and thought that by digging a hole and hiding out they could survive nuclear winter. Oh, dear, hide behind the blanket time. One of the backwoodies said to Miriam that the Lord had spoken to him and told him Trump was his man. Bring on nuclear winter is all I can say if we’ve become that dumb.

It’s perhaps worth quoting Kafka here to save our sanity.

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

The Storm That Saved the City, BBC 1, 9pm, BBC iPlayer directed and filmed by Ian Lilley.

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On the 15th January 1968 winds gusting from 80 – 120 miles per hour hit Glasgow (and Edinburgh, and Central Scotland but who cares about that mob?) Twenty four people lost their life. Tens of thousands more were made –at least temporarily homeless – and there was full employment fixing the roofs of Glasgow for the next two years. One young medic remembers out walking his dog and the dog blowing away. Down Shep! Young fashion designers in their studio flats remember the windows blowing in. All over Glasgow the lights went out. But the message here is something good came from the plight. The 1968 storm put the kibosh on Glasgow Corporation’s plan to knock down most of the city centre and relocate its tenements to the periphery.

Have a wee look and you’ll see a very young looking Richard Holloway talking about the housing problem. Back then the very Rev Richard believed in God. He also believed in housing the poor. It was a Faustian pact. Glasgow Corporation will give the tenant a new house, a slum in the sky or as Billy Connelly said of Drumchapel a graveyard with Christmas lights.

Wee had the wee bit of history. Glasgow at the beginning of the century the fastest growing city in Europe. This was exacerbated by the First World War. More jobs meant a growing population, but with the same number of houses private landlords who owned ninety five percent of the housing stock, mainly in tenement building, decided to cash in and push the rents up 25%. In a free market that makes sense. Some of us might remember that stupid idea of erecting a statue to a woman that helped organise the rent strikes. Red Clydeside and Mary Barbour may go together with the government freezing rent at pre-1914 levels. One of the rare successes at the time. But then as now we don’t need more statues but more affordable housing.

Back in 1968 20 000 homes were falling into such disrepair as to become uninhabitable with another 100 000 homes needed immediately. What this documentary doesn’t mention was local authorities were paid to buy wholesale and reach for the sky. More government money was available for high rise and the higher the high rise the greater subsidy. It made sense to bid high. Economic sense. Ironically, those houses that were rarely homes, such as the Red Road flats were knocked down. But the problem remains. We need more affordable homes. This may be a pat yourself on the back documentary. We lucked into saving the Glasgow we loved. But ask Richard Hollow and I’m sure he’s say the problem is still with us. Glasgow is not Miles Better unless you’ve got dosh. We’re still the heart-attack capital of Europe and those in the poorest schemes have a life expectancy of around sixty-five. Let’s not get above ourselves with the plaudits. What did we save and for whom?

Hard Sun BBC 1, BBCiPlayer, director Brian Kirk, written by Neil Cross.

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Ironically, the coldest night of the year and BBC give us Hard Sun. Oh, yeh, and an expose is on News at Ten that President Trump is a moron. Wow, real surprise.  What else can go wrong? Well, in no particular order. You’re a woman that looks like a man and your son tries to kill you in the opening scenes. We are firmly in Lionel Shriver We Need to Talk About Kevin territory, but with the added edge that Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn) is akin to a Detective Inspector in The Sweeney  flying squad.  But she has no plans to go to the moon soon, although her teenage son is locked up in state hospital. But the clock is ticking.

You see when some kid with Asperger’s manages to hack into our National Data Base and finds out that the world is going to be hit be an asteroid (Hard Sun) in five years it’s M15’s job to stop the world from knowing, or else there would be mass panic and all the tins of macaroni sold out in ASDA. M15 dicks, of course, fling Asperger kid off the high flat. We know from secret databases how they disguise this ‘accident’, by pulling his cock out of his trousers and downloading kiddie porn. I guess it’s a job somebody’s got to do. Why not the American President – he’s childlike – or so I heard on the news so it must be true. Obviously, he wasn’t involved with Russian prostitutes and didn’t pee on a bed and say a big boy did it and ran away.

But not only has DI Renko got to worry about her son, she’s also got to worry about her partner. DCI Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess) is under surveillance. In a word, bent. But not bent in the same way as Renko. Although it is a two-hander, Renko and Hicks against the world.  None of this matters when everybody is going to die and M15 are blundering around killing the wrong people and putting it down as collateral damage. Will M15 catch Hicks and Renko? Will they keep all their balls in the air? Or will the world explode and President Trump be found to be the only single cell organism to survive mass extinction? Perhaps in the future all wild life will have orange weave.


Tim Winton (1991) Cloudstreet.


Cloudstreet, Tim Winton’s homage to his homeland in Perth Australia has been kicking about for a few years. Winton wrote an afterword in 2015. Sometime you find a book and sometimes a book finds you. The novel I’m rewriting has many of the features of Cloudstreet. If it ever hits the light of day…well, we’ll see.

I’m not really sure who the narrator of Cloudsteet is and being a pretend writer I’m usually pretty good at hiding that kind of thing. I guess the authorial voice belongs to Fish Lamb.  He’s a beautiful boy, everybody’s favourite, and his ma Oriel’s blue eyed (although his eyes are dark) but he drowns early on. This also happens to one of my characters Angela. Like Angela, Fish is brought back to life, but he’s not right in the head afterwards (oxygen starvation) and brings back something else with him. Another sensibility.

But the book begins with the same kind of thing, but couched in a different language.

Sam Pickles was a fool to get out of bed that day…you turn in your bed and you smell your dead father beside you and you know that the shifty shadow of God is lurking. And Sam knew damwell that when the shifty shadow is about, you roll yourself a smoke and stay under the sheets and don’t move till you see what happens.

Sam Pickles, of course, doesn’t stay in bed. He gets out of bed and pays the price. The hairy hand of fate takes his hand as payment. It’s fate made manifest. His wife Dolly isn’t best pleased. She’s the kind of woman other men ogle and some men get to touch, but not too much. When Rose her daughter goes to tell her the news about Sam, Dolly is shacking up in the hotel room with some Yank, helping with the war effort.

Rose Pickle’s two brothers Ted and Chub are none the wiser. Neither of the brothers rarely are. As characters they fade into the background. This is Rose’s story. And Sam’s story. And Dolly’s story. And the story of the Lamb family too.

It’s also the story of the river, that gives life and takes life. And when the shifty shadow is lurking the Pickles family need a place to hide. They need asylum. In the way that’s what the house in Cloud Street Perth was. A rich old bitch’s folly with too many rooms and too many memories that still haunt it. When the Pickles family inherit Cloudstreet they inherit its ghosts. Fate brings them the Lambs.

The Lambs believe in hard work in the way that Sam believes in the hairy hand. Oreil the matriarch is more battalion than mother. Lester, her husband, does largely what he’s told. He’s grateful for her strength in the way most other are. Her children Hat, Elaine, Lon and Red, are like Ted and Chub in the Pickles family, distant tunes, dimly heard. Literally, that is, when the two families agree to share the same dilapidated house. The Lamb family renting rooms from the Pickles.

This is the story of Fish, the boy that drowned,  and Quick who sees things other folk can’t. He sees himself running out of the wheat fields, when, for example, he’s shoot kangaroos at a waterhole. He sees a blackman that warns him he should go home. Later with Rose and Fish, Quick and them see a nation of black children blowing through the wheat fields.

After reading this book you might see things differently too. Here it is in print, long before junk bonds was the marvel of the eighties and a house was a box you kept your assets in. A house too can have soul and breathe its characters , but only if you let it, as Cloudstreet does.

McMafia BBC 1, iPlayer, written by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, directed by James Watkins.


I watched the first two episodes of McMafia and it’s great. I’ll be watching the other six. It’s based on a novel by Misha Glenny. I’ve not read it so I don’t know how good an adaptation it is. Not only does the director get the kudos of being the director, he also gets to play writer and gets half the writer’s pay. That’s the kind of leverage Theresa May would love when she’s trying and failing to work out a Brexit deal.

McMafia reminds me of The Godfather in some ways. Remember when Michael Corleone starts off a war hero and ex-marine that is squeaky clean that wants to settle down with Kay his girlfriend and start a family, and all he needs is papa’s blessing? We all know how that went.

Here we have fresh-faced Alex Godman (James Norton) that is squeaky clean and wants to settle down in London and become a successful hedge-fund billionaire and not rely on his old papa the ex-Moscow mafia boss.

The backstory is a bit Bill Browderish. Bill Browder, of course, is on Putin’s hit list for exposing how the Russian state stole his fortune and killed his friends. Then, of course, we’ve got the problem with polonium. It’s meant to be as rare as decent Brotherhood of Man single, but real people, former ‘businessmen’ from Moscow seem to keel over dead from uranium poisoning. That’s no good propaganda for Russia or the McMafia.

Here American actor David Strathairn plays former Moscovite and Jewish member of the Knesset,  Semiyon Kleiman who aims to topple his former nemesis Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze, who looks a bit like the current Swansea manager, contact your local M16 agent). Kalyagin is the kind of guy that is not on Putin’s hit list, the kind of guy that is on Putin’s speed dial. The kind of man that Bill Browder would recognise as a state-sponsored assassin.

McMafia doesn’t mean there’s a Scottish branch. They’re not like the Masons. Well, maybe they are a bit. But it refers to a bit of advice Kleiman gives young Goldman, McDonalds is the number one for fast food because quite simply there are more of them and they are everywhere. McKleiman and McGoldman must multiple until McKalyagin is reduced to washing cars and not laundering money. Worth watching. Go along  for the ride.

Jane Harris (2017) Sugar Money.

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The story behind the story of Sugar Money seems the usual hokum of a neighbour digging out an unpublished manuscript which turns out to be the extraordinary story of Lucien, a ten-year old slave boy. How he and his elder brother Emile, in a few weeks in December, 1765, got involved in a remarkable attempt to liberate slaves from slavery and bring them back into, em, slavery. Read the title again and you’ll understand – money. When money is involved greed talks.

Rabbie Burns, despite his talk about love being like a red, red, rose would understand. He planned to emigrate to the West Indies and make his fortune. And a regiment of Glasgow Greys were stationed in Grenada and play a key part in the novel’s plot.

For Father Cleopas, of St Pierre, Martinque, Western Antilles, les Freres de la Charite, it’s all black and white. His order of friars had taken out loans to purchase slaves to help tend the sick in the hospital they maintained on a sister island in Grenada, but the order of friars were reliant on the wealth created by the slave labour working the plantations initially growing indigo, later sugar cane. Even more money could be made by distilling sugar cane into rum.  That required even more labour. Father Cleopas’s solution was to steal slaves from other slave owners. His reasoning was  even thought the English had conquered  Grenada the slaves were not part of the island but part of The Brothers’ of Charity  property portfolio. Father Cleopas created a document and gave it to Emile, who is illiterate, as justification for his theft and tells him that it has been signed by the English Colonial Governor on Grenada. Illiterate does not mean stupid. Emile does not believe Father Cleopas, but he’s been told, like a mulatto Moses, go and gather together 42 slaves and all there descendants and I’ll arrange a ship and we’ll bring them home. Home, of course, is a nebulous idea.

Lucien the first-person narrator imagines it as a big adventure. Emile tries to talk Father Cleopas out of taking Lucien with him, asks a friendly French soldier to take him off the yawl they are travelling on before they leave harbour and asks the supposedly deaf and dumb English sailor of the boat to take him back to Martinque. The narrator thinks his big brother is treating him as a child, part of the charm is Lucien puffing himself up to be a man. Emile simply wants to save his brother. He knows better than most he’s been sent on a suicide mission. He tries to talk sense into him by about ‘How many runaway stories you heard about in Grenada?’ Then give him a dose of reality.

Sharks…Nowhere safe to paddle that’s close enough. All those islands owned by the Beke and no matter be they French or English, Spanish or Dutch, they all have us under the yoke.

To be black is to be less valuable than a cow Lucien later works out for himself. The great escape attempt is peopled by real characters. Just because they’re black doesn’t make them novel savages. Saturnin, the overseer, for example, organises a group of young and fit slaves, mainly men, but some women that can travel swiftly on foot around the island and they are prepared to leave the old and sick and nursing mothers behind to fend for themselves. Survival of the fittest.

Emile makes it clear that he’ll help whoever wants to escape and he’ll travel with the slow-moving party, but everyone must make their own mind up whether they want to take the chance of being caught and punished.

When a man in a thing, punishment can come in many forms. Rape of women, mulatto children such as Lucien and Emile are the product of greed and seed. Stripping of a man’s back with metal-tipped whips are a given in their society in which life tends to be nasty, brutish and short. But the English settler or Goddams as they are termed here with spike metal collars on slaves, missing hands and fingers, stumps for arms, ears nailed to wooden doors and having men shitting in other men’s mouths and wiring the jaw shut for several days tends to make anywhere else a better deal, even breaking bread with the lecherous, rapist, greedy Brothers of Charity on Martinique. It’s a heart of darkness scenario, in short, the kind Joseph Conrad later wrote about in the nineteenth century Belgian Congo.

Jane Harris turns over the rock of the world of them and us. Her boyish narrator thinks he can save the world. Ah, poor, deluded soul, with nowhere to run, it’s an adventure story of last man standing, but more than that it’s a morality play. We no longer whip black people do we?   We no longer lock black people up in cages do we? We no longer make the poor labour and toil endless hours to feed the rich, do we? Of course not. That’s all gut-rot ideas and  Sugar money.