Carl MacDougall (2001) Painting the Forth Bridge: A Search for Scottish Identity.

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I’m sure I’ve got a Scottish identity. You might have one too.  I wasn’t looking for mine, but here it is. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.  It doesn’t lie in that ear squeal we hear on every channel when counting down to New Year. Or the cheuctering twirling plaid and stripping the willow. Or the Scottish and Rye of The Still Game. These to me are fanny water.

Listen instead to Anton Chekhov in A Dreary Story which sounds to me very Scottish, and not just a remark about the weather, he offered the observation ‘Tell me what you want, and I will tell you who you are’.

Funnily enough as Roman Catholic of quasi-Irish parentage I want much the same as the individual described by Edwin Muir ‘as the most important figure in Scottish history’.  I want the same as John Knox. ‘I want a school in every parish, a college in every town and a university in every city…and regular, organised provision for the poor.’ In other words, I want to be Norwegian.

The only thing that seems to unite Scots is summed up by Sorley MacLean in the fact we’re not English. We’re not a Braveheart nation, but we are a nation. The future in not in the cheviot, the stag or the black, black oil, even although more of the black stuff has been found in the North Sea. Fossil fuels are the past. The future is green. Scotland can be one of the greenest nations in the world. Let us adapt to it together and stop listening to rich men’s lies. And in the words of Norman MacCaig let Scotland and its people be like its ballads and poetry of the people and for the people:

All of them different –

Just as a stoned crow

Invents ways of flying

It had never thought of before

No wonder now he sometimes

Suddenly lurches, stalls, twirls sideways,

Before continuing his effortless level flight

So high over the heads of people

Their stones can’t reach him.





Carl MacDougall (1993) The Lights Below.

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Carl MacDougall’s grandfather was a head waiter in a hotel before the Second World War. What’s that got to dae with anything? you might be asking. Well, it changes the nature of time and the ordinary working day. When other workers are knocking off service staffs are going to work. They have a different sense of time. Andy Paterson was a waiter before he was fitted up on a drugs charge and sent to prison. Prison also changes a man’s sense of time.  He shared a dormitory with a couple of blokes that weren’t too bad, although one of them, Charlie Sloan, had killed his wife. Wullie Shakespeare might get away with The Taming of the Shrew, but Charlie Sloan, the press nicknamed the Nebbed Killer didn’t do much for a man’s reputation. Andy Paterson doesn’t know what to do with his life. Set during the Poll Tax debacle in Scotland, he wants to know who fitted him up and why. More than that he wants to know how his life fits together, even though it doesn’t.


At the back, when they opened the door, he rocked himself forward, back and forward on his feet, trying to empty his mind.

Just me, he was thinking. Only me.

Narrative and time in The Lights Below is like pebble dash and memory. Jacob, Andy’s father was also in the waitering game. He was killed by Malky his mum’s lover, but his dad’s ostensible killer was found Not Proven at Glasgow High Court and marrying his mother he creates the kind of family problems that make for a convoluted present.  His sister Eileen went to live with his mother and Andy went to stay with his granny, his dad’s mother. Andy’s granny has a sideline in making soup and selling cardboard for homeless people to sleep on. Ten pence for a comfortable-uncomfortable bed.  She is not a charity but is charitable. A wee Glesga women ready to take on the world. She creates a new extended family for Andy. But a rhapsodic Glasgow is The Lights Below real celebration. A place we know and characters we can trust if not to be honest, or likeable, at least to be themselves.

*Disclaimer I bought this book in good faith from Amazon and don’t want to end up in Dungavel or Barlinnie. It’s got the imprint of Castlebrae High School. Whatever wee thief stole this book it wasnae me. Own up ya book stealing rat and shame the devil.

Zenit St Petersburg 3—0 Celtic.

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Last Thursday night Celtic showed what they are all about. Defended stoutly. Hard into the tackle. Passed the ball really well and scored a sublime goal. Dorus de Vries even made a save in the first leg. Goalkeepers makes mistakes. Let’s start with that. But they also makes saves, but de Vries doesn’t. He’s no great saves in the bank that fans can look back on and give him a bit of leeway in the way they do Gordon or before that Artur Boruc. Celtic have a history of signing dud keepers and he is probably top of the pick right now. To talk of Daler Kuzyaev’s ‘knuckleball’ is knuckleheaded.  We’re not buying that nonsense. The second Zenit goal was gifted by what de Vries didn’t do which was make a bog standard save. Amateur would flatter him.

The first goal after eight minutes set the tone for the night. Amateur defending. Branislav Ivanovic has been out injured and initially Tierney down that flanked looked to have the beating of him. Here Ivanovic was given a free header from a corner and scored from around eight yards. It’s not as if we’ve not got anyone big enough in the Celtic team to mark Ivanovic. Our back line is all over six foot tall. Simunovic is about six-foot four.  I’m not sure who was meant to be marking Ivanovic but Jozo was quicker to blame others, most notably Lustig than he was to get to the ball.

Lustig was involved in giving away the third goal, ball watching as Kokorin sneaked in at the back post to bundle the ball into the net. Lustig’s had a shocking season, and his European performances, in particular, have been marked by poor passing and slack defending. Only Tierney achieves passmarks and that is for his early marauding. This performance reminded me of the twos and threes that a Parisian newspaper gave Celtic players after they’d been gutted by PSG in the first leg. Here they were playing a mediocre team and slummed below mediocrity.

I’m a great believer in the dog’s chance. I’m that rubbish at games like snooker and pool  and most other sports (I’ll put that in the past-tense) I was stupid enough to believe we could sneak it. Celtic here, even at 2-0, had a dog’s chance. Zenit looked a poor team that defended deeply that had been gifted two goals. Yet we were still in the tie. We gave away a third goal then chased the game for the last ten minutes Unacceptable in so many ways. Players shrinking from playing for the Hoops. Accepting they are inferior. There are no positives from last night’s game. None. Ranger’s supporters are sniggering. It’s up to our players to wipe the smile from their faces. If they’re not good enough, and on this evidence de Vries never was and Jozo is on a shoogly peg then we need to start there. Bye-bye to Europe and bye-bey  to those that shrink away from the responsibility of representing Celtic.

Zenit St Petersburgh v Celtc


While others feast on Champions League Celtic finds themselves in the Europa. The first leg at Parkhead was a brilliant team performance. I watched it in the pub and was that twitchy way. I kicked every ball. But as John Urquhart said ‘if you kicked every ball Celtic would be at least four doon’. Fair enough. You can’t argue with that. But look at De Vries. He hasn’t made a save for about seven years, yet there he was making a vital save bang on 15 minutes. Look at Jozo, gifted goals against Hearts and Partick Thistle, but here you’d think he was Robbocop.  Calumn McGregor, never good enough for Celtic, but awright. He was man of the match. Eboue Koussai is best known for coming on as a sub and going off again without anybody noticing he’s been on the park. He was outstanding as was the other midfield trident. James Forest, flatters to deceive. No he didn’t. Brilliant. Dembele, never a thirty-million- pound player. He was here. All over the pitch Celtic were smiles better. Charly Musonda cameo got us that goal. Let’s hope the first leg is repeated in the second.

Carl MacDougall (1996) The Casanova Papers

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I’m a duff reviewer. The narrator is a former Glasgow journalist trying to make sense of his life after his wife dies, but I don’t know his name. I’m not sure he has a name. Let’s call him every-man adrift. His background is on the page. And I like to play detective.

She was a second-year student and I was her tutor; a disgraceful state of affairs, as popular then as now. I was attracted by the difference. My own background was poorly genteel, with Scottish qualities of hard work, thrift and hypocrisy. She was an Edinburgh girl away from home.

The recognition of hypocrisy is what makes a writer. We’re all at it. But some of us don’t care to look. Others look the other way and distance themselves and blame others. I do that too. But at least I know, or think I know.

What keeps the writers sane after the death of his wife is his work –and an affair with AnnA in Paris. The former journalist has nicked papers, diaries and journals related to Giacomo Casanova de Signault from a former Nazi sympathiser during the Second World War. Most everybody knows who Casanova is, but hardly anybody knows what he was really like. The former journalist has the jigsaw of Casanova’s hand-copied edition of My Life in front of his as well as reports from courtiers and spies. As the narrator puts together the jigsaw of Casanova’s life he hopes to put his own life in order.

Two stories running in tandem. One then. One now. I liked the nitty-gritty of leeches being applied for almost any illness and Casanova saving someone from certain death by taking a mercury poultice from the man’s chest. Some patients paid for their medicine by offering their hair and teeth in advance payment.  I’ve heard of an arm and leg (also convertible currency) but that takes the biscuit. My preference was the Glasgow stories, the narrator running after his daughter, his beautiful daughter, who turned out to be a junkie and disappeared. Common humanity is often muck, but that’s where things grow. Read on.

Heather Morris (2018) The Tatooist of Auschwitz

On the flyleaf Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz is ‘based on the powerful true story of Lale Sokolov’. You see that kind of affirmation attached to film titles. Lion, for example, was based on the screenplay of a book by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose and it’s Saroo’s story that is told. Morris’s book is based on the screenplay she wrote based on the life of Lale Sokolov (Ludwig Eisenberg). Gita (Gisela Fuharmannova [Furnam]) also features as the love interest. The reader knows before reading the book that both survive the Nazi concentration camps. So this should be a life affirming book on the model of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and it’s worth quoting Wiesel here.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.


The problem I have with Heather Morris’s book is I find it forgettable. It’s a remarkable story of love and survival spanning countries and continents. We are at the heart of the Nazi genocide that killed six million Jews and millions of others. Lale was transported to Auschwitz on 13th April 1942 and his number was 34 407. Low numbers were a mark of success and it was Lale’s job to tattoo numbers on others. Gita was transported on the same day from Slovakia and her number 34 902 indicates they were on the same consignment of cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz. Think about that. Lale would be tattooing increasingly long numbers 6 666 666 before both of them escaped to the advancing Russians. In between their low numbers and the high numbers that follow is human ash. Those that have been forgotten and this book seek to commemorate.

My problem with reading it can be summed up with this sentence take from an extract set in May 1943. ‘The selection process is taking place a small distance away.’ That jars with me. It should read ‘short distance away’.

The passage goes on,

‘They are too busy to pay attention to it. An arm and a piece of paper appear before them and they do their job. Over and over again. These prisoners are unusually quiet, perhaps sensing evil in the air.’

People that have been starved, beaten, stuffed into a cattle truck with no water or food, with not enough air  and have to stand and pee and shit themselves, standing among the screams of those that die and are left among them. People that are shot and babies ripped from their arms. People that are ripped apart by guard dogs. These are not people that sense evil in the air. They are living it.

‘Lale looks up at Leon, who has turned pale. Barteski materialises behind them.

‘What do you think of our new doctor?’

‘Didn’t really introduce himself,’ murmurs Lale.

Barteski laughs. ‘This is one doctor you don’t want to be introduced to, trust me. I’m scared of him. The guys a creep.’

‘Do you know what he’s called?’

‘Mengele, Herr Doktor Josef Mengele. You should remember that name, Tatowierer.’

In the film version of this after the appearance of Doktor Mengele there’d be scary music. Here no need for scary music. It reads like a film script to me. Scratch the surface of the characters and you get more surface. Barteski in particular lacks depth. He’s not a character, he’s an ethnic German that arrived in Berlin and joined the Nazis Party and convicted mass murder. Here he talks like an American, ‘that guys a creep,’ and although he does commit the odd murder the way Lale manipulates him make him sound like a knockabout kind of guy you’d find in Abbot and Costello.

Jargon-filled prose is a kind of authorial self-harming. Here we have Lale going weak at the knees when he sees or meets or makes love to Gita. Cliché city. It gives me no pleasure to say authenticity deserves better.





Viktor E. Frankel (1959 [2004]) Man’s Search For Meaning.


Why should we listen to Viktor E.Frankel? Well, he’s a scientist, philosopher, a psychiatrist and author, but the real reason we should listen to him is because of the time he spent as an inmate in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. That gives what he says heft, he’s walked the walk and suffered the indignity of being regarded as less than human and treated as a throwaway thing. His life and death as a Jew having little or no meaning for larger society.

So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense.

Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.

And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

I’d fling in global warming and the threat of Trump and nuclear war, but I think Frankl covered it in his twofold sense, but such has been the propaganda war against the poor, common decency has been drowned out by the blaring voices, greed and sense of entitlement of the super-rich who have learned little or nothing of what it means to be human.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps cannot be summed up in trite phrases, but he calls for a ‘tragic optimism’. In other words how it is possible to ‘say yes to life in spite of everything’. Life can be made meaningful if a human being learns he has ‘nothing to lose except his ridiculously naked life’. But there must be purpose in suffering. We must come to realize the truth of Nietzche: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ [I’m not a fan of that idea] but the truth or in jargon-speak the will to meaning of the Nietzchean precept: He who has a WHY to live can bear any HOW.  In other words, how you live can be determined by outside forces, for example, the Nazis or Kapos in concentration camps, or President Trump’s persecution of poor people in America, but you choose how to interpret this.  Only you can be judge and jury of your better self. My better self says I’ve read this book before, but forgotten many of its lessons.

The prisoners were only average men, but some at least, by choosing to be “worthy of their suffering” proved man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate.

Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, we make choices. They determine the kind of people we are. In Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, he remembers his mother as being a great one for offering up her suffering to God. As a Catholic that’s something I recognise. Cal was unemployed. Frankl deals with unemployment neurosis as putting themselves in the wrong box. The unemployed are not useless but equate being useless as having a meaningless life. His answer they should volunteer and their depression would disappear. As should the tens of millions of the working poor. Because as Frankl says, ‘man does not live by welfare alone’. One way of viewing this is putting Frankl in the same box as Jeremy Kyle, get a job, even if you’ve got one. But that is to pander to my lesser self. To pander to a hatred of those Nazis that rob the poor and call it natural justice. There is wisdom in this book but if you search for meaning you’ll find what you look like. I once wrote a story (I think) in which the protagonist judges his own life. No god or the devil needed. I guess we all do that day by day. But I’m only happy when I’m unhappy. I’ll give the last words to Frankl.

‘Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful it not only renders him happy, but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.’




Bernard Mac Laverty (1983) Cal.


I really enjoyed this short novel. Many of the themes resonate, identity, disillusionment, a search for meaning in a life that has no meaning.

He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir, his hands thrust into his pockets, his stomach rigid with the ache of want. Men in white coats and baseball caps whistled and shouted as they moved between the hanging carcases. He couldn’t see his father, yet he did not want to venture in. He knew the sweet warm nauseating smell of the place and they had no breakfast. Nor had he smoked his first cigarette of the day. Smells were always so much more intense then. At intervals the humane killer echoed round the glass roof. Queuing beasts bellowed in the distance as if they knew.

Cal hasn’t the stomach to work in the abattoir. His da Shammie had got him a job, even though they were Catholics and jobs were hard to come by, but Cal hadn’t lasted the week. Cal signed on the dole and peeled the potatoes waiting for his da to come in at six for dinner. His mum was dead and their Troubles didn’t end there. The house they lived in was the wrong side of the divide. They were the only Catholics left. Shammie wasn’t moving for no one. The trouble with that was they were Fenian bastards and others were determined to move them whether they liked it or not. Up the UVF.

They had protection of sort. An old revolver in the attic. But the price they paid was too high. Cal had to do a few favours. Drop things off. Do a bit of driving for Crilly for whom any cause that allowed him to create chaos was good enough for him and the unctuous Skeffington, whose fight for Irish freedom is a glorious thing – as long as it doesn’t directly involve him. Cal hasn’t the stomach for fighting. His terrible secret is he’s already acted as driver when Crilly shot a reservist in the police force.

Cal mopes about looking for a way out. Fate throws him in the path of the new librarian who’s come to help out. She’s the widow of the man Crilly shot. Coup de foudre. Merde. Shit.  Cal likes to talk to himself in a foreign language to make life interesting. But there’s no laughs here. He’s in love. But the reader know it’s going to end beautifully but badly. Marcella is as strikingly drawn character as Cal. Read on.

James Bulger: A Mother’s Story , ITV 9pm. The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done, Channel 4, 9pm.

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The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done?

James Bulger: A Mother’s Story

I watched both of these programmes. We know what happened. Twenty-five years ago, when Tony Blair was Shadow Home Secretary, ten-year-old  Robert Thompson and Jon Venables took toddler James Bulger from a shopping centre in Liverpool to a railway track near their home and killed him.  CCTV images showed them taking James Bulger. They were quickly tracked down and caught. Tape recording of police interviews of Venables and Thompson were used in both programmes, but in James Bulger: A Mother’s Story these same tapes were given subtitles and the parts of the interviewing officers and suspects were re-recorded by actors. For what purpose, I’m not quite sure. The actors sound like ten-year old Liverpudlian boys denying, crying, trying to put the blame on each other and then admitting their guilt.

There’s no doubt ITV’s production takes seniority. Sir Trevor McDonald fresh from interviewing inmates on death row in America is sent to talk intimately with the mother of the James Bulger. ‘All I want is justice’ is what she says.

Both Thompson and Venables are out of prison and have been given new identities in 2010, but by 2017 Venables was back inside, found guilty of downloading and distributing child pornography.

The presiding judge when finding Thompson and Venables guilty of killing James Bulger labelled they ‘evil’. Look at the footage of grown men attacking the police van when they were taken to court. Police officers were unanimous in their verdict and Sir Richard Henriquies Queen’s Counsel for the prosecution at that time looks back at the case and tells us they knew the difference between right and wrong.

Subtext, there’s ten-year old boys and there’s this pair. Albert Kidd a senior investigating officer called them devils. Damien out of The Omen was another officer’s viewpoint.

One of the moderating voices in both programmes was journalist and author Blake Morrison. He reasoned if immature ten-year boys could be tried for the crime of murder, then juries could also be made up of ten-year olds. A moral panic whipped by Kevin McKenna at The Sun called for justice to be done. Cut-out tabs could be sent from the reader to their MP demanding justice. Over a million signatures were collected denouncing the lenient sentence given to the child murderers. It was doubled by the Home Secretary, but it still wasn’t enough. Albert Kidd said he went to interview Venables at a secure children’s home and they had duvets and TV.

Justice is another word for hanging, beating, whipping, slapping and getting what’s coming to them. Venables should not have had the luxury of a duvet on his bed. He should have been in a dark dungeon with water dripping onto his forehead, dirty water and rats gnawing his feet.

James Bulger’s mum has a right to call for this kind of justice. But to pander to the lowest common denominator demonises not the villains but ourselves. The Bulger killing on 18th February 1993 was not an accident, but it was a tragedy.

The following year two six-year old boys killed a five-year old girl.  No one called them devils. They continued with kindergarten education and their identity was protected. This was Trondheim, in Norway. No further reports of these kids re offending have reached us. Children in Scandinavian countries are different, of course, because they’re not born evil. Happy is a world that does not need heroes. God save us.  Happy a world that does not need devils.

Tim Winton (2017) The Boy Behind the Curtain: Notes from an Australian Life.

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Tim Winton is one of those annoying kids. He wanted to be a writer when he grew up and by the time he was nineteen he was publishing. Pisses you off, doesn’t it. It’s the story of the exception to the rule. Here’s a white, working-class kid, from Perth of all places, that won all kinds of prizes and made it not just in Australia, but world-wide. Good on yer cobber I say.

My mock-Australian is like my writing, to be avoided, but I just keep doing it anyway. Anyone that has read Cloudstreet will recognise his dad. Here he is a traffic cop with a backstory in which he’s nearly killed, not expected to live, expected to be invalidated out of the service. Life with a single wage then no wage suddenly becomes something that even a kid recognises as life changing. Quick in Clouldsteet finds his feet in the love of the water and in  ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’ life changes in a heartbeat.

In fiction I’ve been a chronicler of sudden moments like these. Because the abrupt and headlong are old familiars. For all the comforts and privileges that have come my way over the years, my life feels like topography of accidents. Sometimes, for better or worse, they are the landmarks by which I take my bearings. I suppose they form a large part of my sentimental education. They’re havoc’s vanguard. They fascinate me. I respect them. But I dread them too.

Others like his father often carry what you cannot, but it can lead to a kind of strangeness evident in Cloudstreet with the mother of one household that shared the house sleeping outside in a tent, literally, her own space, much the same as Winton’s granny. And if you read a homage to ‘Betsy’ and find out that it’s a car built to last and last and last and embarrass a boy forever and a day then you’ll know that these smart adverts we watch about Renault is nothing new.

In ‘The Battle for Nigaloo Reef’ we see a Blue Planet and David Attenborough kind of world. A world Tim Winton grew up in and he’s held his granddaughter’s hand as she finds her feet in the waves. A shrinking world. The miracle here is like Winton’s father walking again is that the battle was won, Nigaloo Reef was saved – momentarily- but the world is shrinking and things change.

I’d read ‘In the Shadow of the Hospital’ before. This is another epicentre in which suffering seeps out and there are no civilians. People suffering and in pain have no boundaries. A car, for example, crashing into accident and emergency was no accident.

The opening story/essay ‘The Boy at the Window’ is a cautionary tale.

When I was a kid I like to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people. I hid behind the terylene curtain in my parents’ bedroom with the .22 and whenever anyone approached I drew a bead on them.

There might have come a time when he pulled the trigger. He didn’t. But that’s happenstance or circumstance or just plum good luck. Winton recognises the power of guns and having one changes who we are. All those gun nuts really are nuts. Taking away a gun is like taking away a woman’s breast or emasculation. It lessens the person they think they are. Think how having a mobile phone, even in the same room, as others, changes the focus and narrative, how much more powerful is having a gun. When we’re young we’re impetuous. Having access to a gun makes us dangerous. That’s what he’s saying, dangerous and callous.

In ‘The Demon Shark,’ for example, Winton remembers a time when the good old boys would bait shark with whale oil and meat and shoot at them because they were sharks, there to be shot at and butchered for the common good. But not the good of the shark or the health of the sea.

‘Using the C-word’ is something I’m quite partial to. Winton recognises that he’s come a long way from the working-class kid he was. He’s comfortable, by many measures, rich. But he isn’t blind and he isn’t deaf and he isn’t dumb. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns. And those that are getting screwed big time are the poorest in society. We, the working class, have lost the propaganda war and the winners are hanging us from hooks and skinning us to the bone and blaming us for being poor and stupid. Hatred. Things there were once taboo is mainstream. We don’t need to look to the moron’s moron in the White House. Look closer to home Winton is saying. Middle class Australians are quite happy to screw the working class and in the blame game the c-word is often used as a handbrake and shorthand meaning not one of us. Fuck you I say to that. It’s not the politics of envy it’s the reality of being screwed again and again and calling it Austerity – for who? – cunts.

‘Barefoot in the Temple of Art’ is a reminder that black is never white and white is never black. There’s no profit without people. And there’s no life, but just existence, without art. Read on.