great Scottish writers – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory

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Iain Banks (1985) The Wasp Factory.

I’ve read this book before and after reading it again I kinda remembered what happened in the end. But I didn’t appreciate it as a work of genius, the kind of thing I’d like to write, as I do now. Perhaps in the week that Philippa Gregory took time out slate other writers and make it clear she sees herself as the big I AM (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/aug/14/philippa-gregory-lazy-and-sloppy-genre-writing-pornography), it’s good to look back at the deceased writer Iain Banks’s humility and what he says in the Preface to this book:

At the start of 1980 I thought of myself as a science fiction writer, albeit a profoundly unpublishable one. I’d wanted to be a writer since primary school and had started trying to write novels when I was fourteen, finally producing something loosely fitting that definition two years later; a spy story crammed with sex and violence (I still scorn the idea of only writing what you know about).

The Wasp Factory is science fiction fable in twelve chapters with elements of genetic, Frankenstein, social engineering. The narrator, Frank Cauldhame, (Cold Home, Banks has a Dickensian ear for guttural names) aged sixteen, lives at home with his father in an isolated house in the East of Scotland, where Iain Banks came from, separated from the fictional village of Porterneil, by a bridge and the sea. Frank tells the reader his dad is ‘eccentric’, which in the nuanced Scottish way turns out to be something of an understatement. His only friend in a dwarf, Jamie, who Frank lets sit on his shoulders so he can see when they go to the mosh pit of the local boozer for a punk gig. The housekeeper Mrs Clamp is tiny, an ancient crone and his half brother Eric is in the loony bin, a local legend for setting fire to dogs and trying to make the younger children in Porterneil eat worms and maggots, which he says has plenty of protein. Eric is the other, the threat from out there that threatens the safe space of (cold) home. All of the characters are in some way warped. The narrator is no exception, he tells the reader he is a serial killer, having murdered his younger brother, Paul, his elder cousin, and to balance up the cosmic equation, a younger female cousin. He has a very low opinion of females, equating them with bovine animals, such as sheep and cattle that have been dehorned and domesticated. He has no intention allowing that to happen to him.   When Diggs, the policeman, comes to tell his father Eric has escaped from the asylum and is likely coming home Frank’s secrets and his dad’s, entwined, locked rooms and existence are threatened. Frank tells the reader,

‘[the house and land]was the centre of my power and strength, and also the place I had most need to protect’.

Frank has developed a series of rituals to protect home. He uses the wasp factory he has constructed in the loft to read visions of the future. But he also consults the bones of Old Saul (related to Paul) in the bunker temple on the dunes of the beach.  The Wasp Factory is a Gothic novel. Frank in the opening chapter, ‘The Sacrifice Poles,’ tells the reader about his rituals, ‘I had two poles on the dune. One of the poles held a rat head, with two dragonflies, the other a seagull and two mice.’

The Wasp Factory is a coming-of-age novel in which everyone is a liar, and protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is as like a more cynical version of Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn after they have sniffed glue and taken magic mushrooms and only he knows, or needs to uncover, the real truth, which is revealed in the denouement.

The Wasp Factory like any novel worth reading is a detective story and a thriller that asks questions of the reader. At its centre is played out the myth of Hermaphroditus and the logic of hermeneutics from the Greek ‘interpret’ with Frank’s father also acting as his mother, and his brother Eric, dressed in girl’s clothes from an early age with its suggestions of the mutability of gender. Eric’s divine madness, however, came from his humanity, from his studies as student doctor, a kind of extended post-traumatic-stress disorder played out away from the safety of home.

The Wasp Factory isn’t about wasps, but there is a sting in the tale. Everything changes and everything stays the same, like re-reading a book worth reading you see the world differently.

Evelyn Waugh (1988 [1930]) Vile Bodies.

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I bought this book for one pence on Amazon. I think it’s overpriced, but I don’t want my money back. The dedication in the book is to Bryan Moyne and Diana Mosley. I don’t know who Bryan is, but Diana, friend of Hitler, married Sir Oswald Mosley, Vile Bodies, indeed. I wanted to have a look at this book because Selina Todd mentions it, in her history, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. Characters in Vile Body, think here of spitting images, Diana Mosley and her fascist friends treat the General Strike of 1926 as a lark in which the can dress up and act differently. Of course they could. A government decree held that strikers and working people, in general, could be and should be manhandled in any way those Middle and Upper Class strike-breakers saw fit. They would not be prosecuted, but commended in beating the brutes and showing them who was boss. Shades of the miner’s strike 1984- 85. Winston Churchill’s plan to use soldiers to shoot strikers would, however, regarded as a tad excessive by Margaret Thatcher’s loose standards.

I’ve got off-track here. In the preface to Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh writing in 1964, says:

This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of 25, to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 5000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened…Vile Bodies caught the public’s fancy.

In other words Vile Bodies was a best seller. Think of every cliché written about vanity publishing and multiply it by ten. I’m biased. Normally, I wouldn’t read a book with upper- class protagonists and we don’t need satire when we have the moron’s moron as President. Vile Bodies. I was robbed your honour. I could give this book to a charity shop, but probably better pulped, less than a penny’s worth but more than the book’s worth.

 

Mitch Albom (2003) the five people you meet in Heaven

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I read this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. For those of you that don’t know Mitch Albom is ‘Author of the international bestseller tuesdays with Morrie’. For those of you that did know, but forgot, it’s tagged below the author’s name on the cover. I’ve read tuesdays with Morrie and I can probably tell you the plot, Mitch Albom goes to visit this old guy called Morrie on a Tuesday, and then one of them dies and it’s not Mitch and it’s not Tuesday. I read quite a lot and my memory is terrible, books swirl around like corks in an empty ocean, some of them stick, but most of them don’t. I remember I liked tuesday with Morrie and I’m sure it had some home-spun wisdom.

I’m sure Morrie went to heaven and I’m sure Eddie, who is over eighty-years’, is the same kind of ageless hero that went to heaven, because the narrator tell the reader the end is the beginning.

The last hours of Eddie’s life was spent like most of the others at Ruby Pier, an amusement park by a gray ocean. The park had the usual attractions, a board-walk, a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars, a taffy stand, and an arcade where you could shoot streams of water into a clown’s mouth.

I was trying to remember where I’d read this kind of stuff before. When I was a kid we used to get two Sunday papers. The Sunday Mail and The Sunday Post. The Post had ‘The Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’ and  carried pages of homilies to the salt-of-the-earth everyman and everywoman that went that extra step to make life better for everybody else. People a bit like Eddie. Eddie dies saving a little girl’s life, but he’d lived a full life and now he’s on the other side there’s some lessons he’s got to learn before he progresses to Heaven mark II. When salt of the earth meets sugar something has to give.

Eddie meets the guy with blue skin, who worked in the carnival as a freak. He meets his wife and his dad and Ruby who the pier was named after. Each one tries to decrust his salty exterior to get to that mushy heart within. Eddie asks big questions like is God in heaven? Yeh, Eddie, he really is. And can he talk to Him? Yeh, Eddie, you can. We all can!

I guess the character that sticks with me is the Captain. He’s waiting for Eddie on top of a tree in some unnamed island in the Pacific. Eddie has joined up. Of course he did. Anybody worth their salt joined up (President Trump got five deferrals from the Vietnam war because his dad was rich, rich, rich, rich and very rich) and Eddie is no exception to the non-rich, salt-of-the -earth rule. The Captain is one of the good guys but he shoots Eddie, because it was necessary. That’s what good guy do. They do the necessary and salt of the earth that they are, don’t try and claim the credit (compare with the marauding band of Trumpters). Eddie was mad about it. Of course he was, but he had a lesson to learn, don’t be a Donald all your life. Let it go.

The surprise here is Eddie, the Captain, and a few of his good  buddies, get captured by the sneaky Japanese. You know the kind. They look like North Koreans, crudely written caricatures of real people, easily fooled and found wanting in the end. Eddie has to kill a couple of Nips. Listen up, salt of the earth wasn’t brought into this world to bow to the masochistic, no good bastards that like torturing poor soldiers and aren’t even American Trumpters. Eddie does what a man’s got to do. So does the Captain. In a heavenly body he understands better the choices he had to make. There’s a line rattling about somewhere about everybody affecting everybody else, even those not yet born.  I want one of those heavenly bodies, but not right now Mr –Apocalypse Now- Trump for Dummies. Not now.

So tueday with Morrie. Yeh, I’d like a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday too, if you don’t mind. Thanks Mitch for reminding us. There’s sugar and sugar puffs. Salt of the earth. You better believe it – or else.

 

Anniversary of Lily Poole.

31st July 2016, Lily Poole finally stumbled word wearily over the finishing line and hit the paying book market. Eleven months later, I finally got a copy of the print used on the cover of Lily Poole framed and hung on the wall facing me in the cupboard in which I write (yes, I’m writing this in a cupboard, I’ve always been weird that way). The cover is perfect. A beautiful piece of smudged artwork. Look closely at the outline of the man and wee girl holding hands and above the second O, in the title, a crow is perched. I like that. It’s a difficult book to place in any one genre and that about sums is up.

I had a ready response for those that asked what the book is about and usually it was ‘it’s a ghost story without a ghost’. That sounds kinda smart and witty. Most folk that didn’t know me probably thought I was just some tosser talking shite, and most folk that did know me knew I was a tosser talking shite. The last guy to ask me what the book was about was the poet William Letford whose latest work Dirt I’d bought because I like the title. He’d never heard of me, of course, and I’d never heard of him, but one of the library staff whispered I too was a writer. Write what you know as Mark Twain supposedly said.  I liked William and told him that my book was about us, the people of Clydebank, and that’s about as near as an honest answer as I can give.

Ratings: Amazon keeps the score and the format of “Lily Poole” is currently ranked #320,211 in the Kindle Store (updated hourly) the highest it achieved was #11 in a subcategory.

I’m not really sure how sales work, but I do know it bores me senseless constantly trying to sell, sell, sell is like a bulimia of the soul.

None of the mainstream media showed interested, which is understandable, there’s no hook. I’m not as photogenic as a seal pub, more like a selfie of last night’s dinner (Scampi and chips, in case you’re interested in my fixation with food). I’ve not been in any soaps or been on the telly, unless you count a triumphant re-run of me playing the back of Dr Finlay’s head (see the start of a bald spot of my career on YouTube) or a non-speaking nobody that saunters past Taggart in Taggart, but everybody in Scotland has been in Taggart.  I’ve not played football for Scotland and wouldn’t even get in the woman’s team that got gubbed 7-0 by England.  I got 23 reviews on Amazon. That’s pretty good. I guess around a third were from people I know, which hints at nepotism. I got a mention in The Clydebank Post and West Dunbartonshire Council made my book novel of the week in their libraries which delighted me, and must be a high point.

I didn’t want a launch party but the gathering in The Cabin was a hoot.

A low point is Scottish Book Trust refusing to acknowledge me as a published author.

I’m nothing noteworthy and my book is one among millions of others. I’m invisible and my book fades away. That’s OK, a year in book life is 100 years in ordinary life. I’m like that wee smudged crow that doesn’t crow.

 

 

 

Robert Pirsig (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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Robert Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the zeitgeist book of the seventies. Like Harry Potter but for adults it came with its own mythology. The reader can study pre-production notes between James Landis who commissioned the book for the publishers William Morrow and Robert (Bob) Pirsig. In a note by Bob Pirsig dated June 15, 1973, the author admits to anxiety and moots changing the title of the proposed book from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to ‘The Bendable River’. Landis dissuades him. In earlier correspondence admits the book ‘is not a marketing man’s dream’.  Robert Pirsig’s book was rejected by 121 publishers and he didn’t write his novel but live it. It wasn’t considered ‘“commercial” in the way that term is understood by most people in publishing’, but prior to publication was judged a work on genius by among others book reviewers on the New York Times.  After publication Robert Redford bid for the rights to film the book, which was rejected. But what would a film of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance look like?

I can’t remember when I first read Pirsig’s book. I guess late teens, perhaps early twenties. I loved it. Pirsig’s IQ measured aged nine was 170, he was a child prodigy with, we later learn, ‘a near photographic memory’. I don’t know what the opposite of photographic memory is and if I did I’d probably forget it, but if anybody asked me what the book was about I’d say it was about this guy that takes his son Chris, who’s aged eleven, on a road trip across the backroads of America on his motorcycle and blabs to him, and the reader, for almost 400 pages and also tries to emotionally reconnect with his son and explain he’s not the man he was, which is quite difficult, because he’s  emotionally guarded and not in touch with his feelings.  Pirsig jokes that if he were writing a novel he’d have to give an extended backstory.

On a motorcycle, ‘You’re in the scene’.  There’s a comparison with cars and the way the world is experienced. ‘Through a car window…everything is just more TV. On a motorcycle you’re an active participant in life. In a car, a ‘passive observer’. This is a value judgement. In the theoretical, film of the book, a world-weary narrator played by someone like Harry Dean Stanton would explain how to fix a motorcycle isn’t just a question of mechanics, but a question of life and who you are and who you want to be at that moment and in the future. He’s nostalgic for a simpler life (that probably never existed) when ‘a sort of Chautauqua… a travelling tent show, moved across America, this America…giving popular talk shows to improve the mind.’ He compares this unfavourably with faster paced radio, movies and TV. This is another value judgement. And now the narrator tells the reader about his friends John and Sylvia.

Sylvia says of those in the cars, going the other way. ‘The first one looked so sad. And the next one looked exactly the same way, and the next one and the next, they were all the same way.’

In other words, there’s something about modern life that is alienating. She is in agreement with the narrator, but offers no solution. The narrator’s quest is to find out what it is and where it comes from and perhaps suggest a tentative solution to this ‘mass hypnosis’. It’s in the title of course. Zen.

But John and Sylvia differ from the narrator. They are romantics. John, for example, buys a BMW motorcycle and doesn’t want to know about mechanical problems. He just wants the bike to work and if it doesn’t work it has nothing to do with him. The narrator is more a classicist. His classical education allows him to suggest an extensive nomenclature of tolerances and intolerances of different parts. But he comes unstuck when an elderly welder fixes the bike guard in a manner closer to art for art’s sake than his understanding allowed for. Rationality is always bounded. In Phaderus’s face off with Chairman of the Committee of the University of Chicago he raises his hand to contradict the speaker and suggest the Socrates’ suggestions of duality between those riding the white horse of reason (classicists) and others the black horse of passion (romantics) was actually an analogy. In terms of drama, his photographic memory allows him to quote verbatim from the Chairman’s own writing, unseating him. Classicists had rather a romantic view of themselves as the bearers of light and truth. Evidence suggests it was based on common myth. Mass Aristotelian hypnosis which separates subject from object and bounded by rationality that is impermanent and not rational.

Quality is neither of the subject or the object, but  suggests no answer, but rather we ride both horses, simultaneously, as Pirsig did in his writing. ‘Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies contempt for efficiency, or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.’  Or as William McIlvanney’s great Glasgow detective Laidlaw said, ‘I don’t like questions. They invent the answers.’

koan

ˈkəʊɑːn,ˈkəʊan

noun

  1. a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.

The narrator can figure out how to fix almost anything mechanical, but he can’t fix himself. He works endlessly trying to pin down the idea of Quality. But ‘The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.’ Sleeping four hours. Sleeping two hours. The journey back to self begins with self. Thoreau’s maxim, ‘you never gain something, but lose something’.

‘I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,’ he recalls. ‘I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers …’

This is a different kind of hypnosis to the mass variety. This is Socrates listening to the voice of his demon. This is Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This is the Mohammed listening to the voice of God in a cave. This is Buddha gaining enlightenment. Or this is madness. I’d go with the latter.

You cannot recant without believe. Phaedrus was institutionalized and his brain zapped by electro-shock therapy as his carers tried to press the default button and reset him on the straight and narrow path to normality. I guess the world has moved on and we no longer use electro-shock and call it therapy.

I guess if we were making a movie of the book the Hollywood-type denouement is a bit too tinsel, Phaderus is giving a different font, which stands out on the page, so that when the ancient Greek Sophist, and ghost, behind the glass door that stalks the narrator as his alter-ego speaks to Chris, it’s not Robert Pirsig, but the man he was, admitting, no he was not mad, bad or sad. Just your normal genius. Amen to that.

 

Celtic 0—0 Rosenberg

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The Invincible Treble winning team of last year is no more. This was the first real test of the current Celtic team. A flat Celtic performance more akin to Ronnie’s reign. We no longer have Patrick Roberts, which is a great pity as he showed he can play centre-forward when Dembele and/or Griffiths are out as they were tonight. Rogic showed here he is no number 9. He was possibly Celtic’s worst player, but James Forest would give him a run for his money. Back to being the James Forest we know, but don’t want to know. Neither Forest not the substitute Johnny Hayes are a patch on Roberts. So Celtic are weaker and it’s that old cliché they could have played all night and not scored. Hayes came on for Nitcham after 70 minutes. The latter and the former are we’ll a wait-and-see player. I’d like to say Celtic had chances. I suppose Forest was closest to scoring and Rogic had a few efforts which were over the bar.

But the truth is seventy minutes gone and de Landner for Rosenberg missed an absolute sitter from the centre of the goal, eight yards out. Bedner also fluffed his lines minutes later and if he was any kind of centre-forward he too would have scored. Rosenberg also had the first credible scoring chance of the game.

Celtic poor all over the park. I thought it was quite a difficult draw getting Rosenberg. I hate all the talk about getting to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. It’s a kind of deceit. I’m just happy to get into the Champions League. We can score away from home and beat Rosenberg. But if Rosenberg had any quality finishers this tie would be done and Celtic would be out. Fifty-fifty now and this could go either way. Oh how the Rangers’ fans will gloat if we got out. C’mon the Celtic. But even if we do make it through to the next knock-out round this should knock on the head all that rubbish about being too strong for teams from so called weaker nations. Remember we’re Scottish and we’re guff. That’s a good starting point.

Accidental Anarchist: Life Without Government, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, directed by John Archer and Clara Glynn.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08z007p

This is the kind of programme I felt I should watch. For a start it’s got Anarchist in the title. I could mention Kropotkin, but I don’t know who he is, or Sid Vicious, Anarchy in the UK. For me it’s more an attitude. Life Without Government? Like Huxleys’s Utopia, I’m not sure it’s possible but Carne Ross seems to think it is. I hope he’s right.

What privileged position does Carne Ross come from that he gets his own documentary and an hour of our time to espouse his views and tell us what he thinks? Well, he’s an ex-diplomat. That should be impressive and for someone like me, working class and poor, you’d probably assume I don’t know, or meet, very many diplomats. But you’d be wrong. Old Lawrie who drinks in the same shithole as me, has a daughter who was a diplomat, and he’s been to Moscow, visiting her in the Foreign Office and some other places in China, but we’re not really interested in world peace because we’re watching Celtic and that’s all that matters. He loves Celtic and is always wants to ‘put one on him’ (punch him in the face). It’s his war cry when watching. His daughter is diplomatic when she hears him or comes to pick him up when he’s had one too many, but listen, who’s counting.

Carne Ross isn’t that kind of diplomat. You’ve just got to listen to his name. He’d fit in with the Brown and Blairs and ex-public school boys that do the right thing by serving their country, and even then he claimed he wanted to be –you’ve guessed it – not Prime Minister, like servant of the people David Cameron, nor Chancellor of the Exchequer, like that nice man George Osborne, but a diplomat.  He’s the kind of guy that stood behind Blair at the United Nations in New York ready to whisper in his ear and briefs him on the latest embryonic imbroglio in the Middle East.

What we need now is a Damascene conversion. You probably read in Acts about Saul’s conversion. He’s happily going along working day and night persecuting men and women that are Christian in a fashion similar to the way George Osborne persecuted poor people. A flash of light from heaven blinds Saul and allows him to see.

Carne from his apartment witnessed 9/11 and the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. He remembers the smoke and the ash lying on his window for months afterwards. These are novelistic details. He watched George W Bush ramp up the search for bad guys to blame so he and fellow Americans could play the good guys and take care of business. This led to wars in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. He was friends with government scientist David Kelly, who in his role as weapons expert, said unequivocally there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In other words there was no reason for the invasion of Iraq. He had a front-row seat of the cover-up of ‘fake news’.

Pause there. Carne took a year’s sabbatical to think and read.  If you’re an ordinary Joe don’t try that at home. Don’t shout at your boss on the way out, I’m outta here, see you next year and I might come back as an anarchist you fuckwitt.

He didn’t know that at the time. He lucked into it in the same way that Saul/Paul bumped into Christians. It seemed obvious that those rich guys that were screwing the poor and were quite happy to invade other nations weren’t to be trusted.

Evidence that we can do things differently. Ho-hum. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Carne interview Catalans that were there and some that were not. They all agree that if Stalin hadn’t betrayed POUM (the Anarchist Movement and Hitler hadn’t been developing his new blitzkrieg tactics and if Mussolini hadn’t sent troops) then things could have turned out different. Even if not the roots of Anarchism remain in a collective that took back some unused land and used it to farm and build houses. Here we see them building their own houses. These are called outliers. Think of the images of deprivation George Osborne used to slaughter those on welfare. Outliers that smoked and drank and had eight children.

He sees Anarchist roots in the Kurdish-run region of Rojava, which helped defeat ISIS but is bordered by Turkey and Syria.

He sees it in the ‘Occupy Movement’.

I don’t. And I’m sure the Chechens also thought they would be able to get autonomy from Russia, only to be crushed. Let’s not mention China, the new number one superpower and hardly a case for free speech and anarchism. And let’s not forget George W Bush was so dim he had to wear socks labelled ‘left’ and ‘right’ but compared to the moron’s moron that is the current President, well, I’ll let you fill in your own analogy (if you need any help with what analogy means don’t ask Donald J Trump). And the hawks of yesteryear seem like Christian doves compared to this US cabal of warmongers. I’m not betting against a world war. North Korea, of course, is only too happy to show the world its weapons of mass destruction. And let’s not forget the moron’s moron and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change he did not sign. That means in the short term millions on the move. I see anarchy, but not the vision  Carne Ross has of it. More like the four-horsemen-of-the apocalypse anarchy so beloved by novelists and the bible.  I pray he’s right.