Denise Mina (2017) The Long Drop.

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Denise Mina’s The Long Drop won Bloody Scotland’s William McIlvanney Prize for crime fiction. You expect it to be good. The first-year philosophy student in me, or indeed William McIlvanney’s, Detective Laidlaw, would be the first to ask, what do you mean by good? I mean I did like it. But if I hadn’t read it that wouldn’t bother me that much. I wouldn’t be pressing a copy of the book on acquaintances and saying you must read this.  There’s good and there’s good. And this is good, but not that good.

The Long Drop is set in my part of town, and the plot revolves around the trial of Peter Manuel for murder in the High Court in Glasgow in 1958.  Denise Mina the omniscient narrator informs the reader,

The public are no longer allowed to witness hangings. Death has moved indoors.

Scotland uses the ‘long drop’ method. It is as clean as hanging gets and resolves the two main pitfalls: the head being pinched from the body like a grape from the stalk, or slow strangulation.

We already know that Peter Manuel hangs, one of the last to take the ‘long drop’ in Scotland. He was a kind of bogeyman, accused of multiple murder and rapes, which he denied. To get an intimate portrait of Manuel is for a fiction author to step inside his head. Denise Mina’s manual of Peter Manuel in which she builds up what it means to be a serial-killer and lie to yourself and everybody else as easily as you would strangle a seventeen-year old girl, have a wank over her dead body, and make yourself a sandwich in the kitchen isn’t pretty. The writer’s job is to make him human and plausible. The question then become who is he lying to and why is that lying bastard lying.

Mina begins with a meeting Peter Manuel had with William Watt and Lawrence Dowdall at the end of December 1957 in Whitehall’s Restaurant/Lounge. Lawrence Dowdall was the leading legal figure of his day and William Watt was his client. The purpose of the meeting was because Manuel had promised to identify and provide the gun that had been used to kill William Watt’s wife and her mother, bang, bang, dead in their beds, but his daughter takes a bit longer, her killer toyed with her as a cat toys with a mouse. Manuel has a history of rape charges stretching back to when he was fourteen. He has an intimate knowledge of the Burnside house, where the murder took place. Watt portrays himself as a successful businessman an up-and-coming figure but he was charged with the Burnside murders, before Dowdall got his release. The Webley guy Manuel has offered him would free Watt from further police enquiries and keep his good name intact. Watt is willing to pay Manuel for the gun. This is not a path that Dowdall advices his client to take. Manuel and Watt need to ditch Dowdall so they can trade information about what they want and need.

What follows, in flashback of alternate chapters, with the High Court trial of Peter Manuel, is what happens after Manuel and Watt leave the Whitehall Restaurant together and stumble drunkenly through the mean streets of Glasgow. A world both are intimately connected to as they are to each other. This puts the flesh of the bones on the characters and tells the reader who committed the murders and why. Scottish Noir.

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Celtic 0—1 Anderlecht

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I’m delighted with European football after Christmas and I love Celtic playing in the Champions League. It doesn’t bother me that much that Celtic get whopped 7-1 by PSG, obviously I don’t like it, but funnily enough there were encouraging signs and on another day Celtic might have sneaked a draw, or even won, as the newly-promoted French team recently did. Hyperbole? Here we’re back to reality and I said before the game that it wouldn’t surprise me if Anderlecht won. The manner in which they won was the most disappointing aspect. The bones of Ronnie Deila’s team shone through here. This was probably Celtic’s worst performance in Brendan Rodger’s reign and that includes the Barcelona and PSG gubbing.  Three players got pass-marks, our much maligned goalie, Craig Gordon, whose safe after two minutes from the Anderlecht midfielder, Sven Kums, who really should have scored, unfunnily enough, kept up in the match. Scot Brown, who does what Scot Brown does. And James Forest, Neil Lennon’s love child, was Celtic’s man of the match. It’s a difficult one here. I think Paddy Roberts was the better player, but he’s injured and gone for the season, gone forever.  Forest has stepped up to wear the green-and-white jersey.

The biggest loser last night was Leigh Griffiths and he didn’t even get to kick a ball. Moussa Dembele, yeh, I have these arguments with my mates. He’s bigger, stronger and better that Griff, but Griff is great. We have the best two striker in Scottish football. But Moussa was shit last night and missed two reasonable chances. He only stayed on the park because Stuart Armstrong couldn’t manage to keep the ball and his first few passes went to Anderlecht players. Hooked at half time. Sinclair was also hooked at half time. This was the Scottish player of the year. A goal a game man. That was last year. The man Rodgers never took off was Dedryck Boyata. Remember the guy that bottled it in the Scottish Cup semi-final with Rangers. Here he was and is. When Boyata worked his way back into the heart of the Celtic defence he was there on merit. He won his headers and kept it simple. Now he’s an Effe surrogate.  I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see Boyata go. Joso Sumunovich scored an own-goal for the visitors, but he does keep it simple and is worth keeping. But when Rodgers brought on Odsonne Edouard for Dembele, Griffiths must be thinking not of his Celtic future, but his footballing future. Celtic have the best three strikers in Scottish football, but second choice is sitting on the bench and third choice is nowhere good.

Domestically, Celtic continues with their unbeaten sixty-seven match run. But with so many players out of sorts and out of form it seems time to freshen things up. I’m a big fan of Tom Rodgic, who came on for Sinclair. The debate goes on about whether Armstrong should play in front of Olivier Nitcham. No contest, last night Nitcham came on and did well. This is the first time Rodgers has come under any flak. It’s a good position to be. I remember Ajax coming to Parkhead and playing Celtic off the park and winning 1-0. But in the Martin O’Neil era with Henrik and Sutton and the like that was good enough. This game will be forgotten about, but there are some lessons for Brendan Rodgers to ponder. I love it we’ll have Europa League after Christmas and look forward to the draw. Bring on an English team.

Alan Bisset (2011) Pack Men

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Pack Men is a simple story. It features many of the same characters as Boy Racers who roamed the wilds of Falkirk in a broken down car called Belinda, apart from Brian who is offscreen and ostensibly in California. For me it read like a film script, a road movie The Rangers’ Bairns go to the 2008 Uefa Cup Final in Manchester, but get fucked by Zenit St Petersburgh.  Alivin, the narrator, is still The Runt, the oddball, the one that could never get into pubs because he was too small, never had a girlfriend, the virgin and the chosen one that left his pals behind to go to the University of Stirling. That’s where Iain Banks went. That’s where the Runt goes to and enters into a new world. He wants to be a writer like Iain Banks and write science-fiction. But he graduates with a decent degree, lives in Edinburgh and works in a bookshop, or Pottershop, because all they sell is Harry Potter books. All his grown-up pals have changed but remained in the same trap of thinking they’ve not. Frannie, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Rangers, is still a shagger that thinks women have a hole and he might as well use it. Dolby has change forced upon him, his wife has left him and taken his son Jack with her. Jack is taken along on the road trip with them to bond with his dad and to learn how to love the mighty Rangers. Three hours to Manchester, but half of Scotland empties and it becomes another hostile planet.

Wee Wifie, Chrissie, who travels with them on the minibus, and mourns her youth, when she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and all the men wanted to fuck her, but is now just a pest, demanding constant attention, is somebody we all know well.

As is Cage, big the way empty buildings are big, but with nothing much roaming about his head but Rangers and fuck the Celtic is another character we know well.

I won’t spoil the ending by telling you Alvin admits to sucking cock. Fuck sake. Grow up. What’s the big (or wee deal) nowadays?   You know I went to Seville with some nutters. I should write it down.

 

Kit de Waal (2012 [2017]) My Name is Leon

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Poverty is always a simple story full of missing people. In a week when American Congress has passed a Bill to give over a trillion dollars American taxpayer’s money to the obscenely rich, Kit de Waal’s, My Name is Leon, is a fictional, child’s account, of what it means to be poor and forgotten in Britain in the nineteen-eighties. The irony here is things were better then.

Leon is nine and he takes care of his mum, Carol, as best he can, his favourite programme is The Dukes of Hazzard. His mum’s life is chaotic. Drink, drugs and men. Leon has never seen the father of the new baby, Jake. Jake is white, his mum is white, but Leon is black, or more dark brown, but big for his age. Leon needs to take care of his mum and now he needs to take care of baby Jake. Jake is beautiful and funny and Leon loves him very much, but his mum is unravelling in front of him. Sometimes Leon gets help from Tina upstairs, but Tina can’t cope with Carol and Carol can’t cope with life. Leon and Jake are taken into care.

Maureen, the black and elderly foster carer, is an oasis of calm for Leon and Jake. I was recently looking at somebody’s story for them, and it was all tell and not show. That’s one of those gimmicky phrases like you need to kill your darlings that make you want to stick the head on them. But here is it, show not tell, translated into a world of caring in the term ‘neck-back’.

Right below the base of the skull, right where the knuckly backbone pokes up towards his brain, Leon has a little dent. It’s a groove that dips in between two hard bits and Maureen made it.

She must have made some kind of mark by now after six months living with her. It’s when she pushes Leon with her thick fingers whenever he has to do something, to go somewhere, to pick something up, to watch what he’s doing. Go to bed. She never pushes him hard, but it’s always the same place, same spot right on the neck… ‘his neck-back’.

Leon’s life would be perfect, if he had his mum and Maureen to live with them. But then he loses Jake, who is adopted by a white couple. Leon knows Jake need him to take care of him, but he’s powerless. And he’s powerless when Maureen gets ill and is taken into hospital. Maureen’s sister Sylvia is a harder kind of Maureen, but she agrees to take Leon in until Maureen gets better.  Leon’s not sure about Sylvia, but he is sure Jake misses him and he has a plan to steal him away and bring him up himself, perhaps with his mum’s help. Leon’s sneaky that way, stealing change from purses, nicking things he might need, preparing himself.

He meets Tufty at the local plot, a safe place where locals come to feel their fingers in the soil and grow themselves into better people. Tufty is angry, of course, he is angry, at the casual racism and the way the police trample over his plot and trample over poor black people’s lives. Castro, Tufty’s mate, is killed by the police, but, of course, it’s not the police’s fault. The race riot that follows provides a kind of denouement of the book. But first Tufty gives Leon some advice. Gives all of us working-class people some advice that in the propaganda war against the monopoly of the rich that we got battered and lost, and we sometimes forget.

When people fuck with you, you got a choice. You fuck back or you swallow down…Swallow down enough times and you start to choke.

Amen my brother, sister, mother.

 

 

A Frozen Death, BBC 4 iPlayer, 9pm, written and directed by Harve Hadmar.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09h3nwt/witnesses-a-frozen-death-episode-1

I love Wallender and I’m a big fan of The Killing, wouldn’t say no to A Bridge or two, in fact, put subtitles on it and stick it on BBC 4 and there’s a more than fair chance I’ll be watching. The eight episodes of A Frozen Death will take us up to Christmas. Time to clean out that freezer and make way for fifteen dead bodies found frozen like turkey-wings on a bus that leads nowhere. That’s the kind of mystery that gets any detective chewing over the facts. This is France, the home of Zola and Rimbaud, so we don’t have a motive but a motif. It’s scrawled on the bus-stop wall. ‘Crazy mothers drop their children/who smash their skulls. ’

Easy-peasy, you might say, anybody that likes turkey wings in Paris the capital of French cuisine is a nutter and must be stopped.  This job falls to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier). Her fatal flaw isn’t bevvying, she’s French, and likes the odd glass of wine, or even smoking, that’s allowed as long as it chic and she can carry it off. She does. She’s pretty impressive. Her fatal flaw is she has children. Let’s face it. Kids get in the way when you’re trying to solve the mystery of 150 frozen fingers. Her eldest Chloe (Nina Simonpoli-Barthelemy) is twelve and drips disdain and treats her mother as some kind of bag-lady, as all kids do, but made worse by mama always nipping out for another dead body to work on. There’s a subplot that Chloe wants to go and live with papa, who’s downsized to someone younger, but not prettier than mama. Sandra’s youngest, I don’t know her name, let’s call her baby, is a problem easily solved. Sandra just takes her in the car seat to scenes of crimes. There must be a law against that. Specifications for what size of baby to take to what crime scene are stringent in this county, but over the other side of the Channel it doesn’t matter. The baby’s pretty cool about it and will, no doubt, be a top detective when she grows up into mama’s petite feet.

What baby has to watch out for is not sleeping on the job, but amnesia. There’s an epidemic of it about. I Know Who You Are is a series based on the fact that no you don’t. Here Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot) has been brought out of the deep freeze, where she’s been held for three years, like the victims on the bus, but she can’t find a thing. And conveniently seems to have lost her baby. She gave birth when in captivity. All the victims on the bus seem to be her former lovers. But she has amnesia and forgotten what she did with her life and her handbag. Roll on Christmas with all those weird delights like a guy that kidnaps women, and stages mock marriages with his victims, and makes their former partners watch the ceremony while being sloshed enough with non-prescription drugs not to care. Amen to that.

Where are all the working class writers? Radio 4, BBCiPlayer.

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Where are all the working class writers?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09fzmjt

That’s the question Kit de Waal asked. She published her first novel, My Name is Leon, at the age of 55. I’ve placed an order to read this book. Well, you know what happened next. International acclaim and all the happy-ending stuff. If you read very carefully between the lines you’ll see the lie that works so well in politics and book publishing and in real life. The exception to the rule, in statistics they are called the outliers, are used to justify a particular ideology and support the status-quo.   Thirty thousand shipyard workers become unemployed but one of them gets a job shelf-stacking in ASDA, 29 999 immediately become lazy bastards that don’t want to work. We don’t think, we feel the answer.  You might think that story an exaggeration. One of the stories that stuck with me was all those matchers from Jarrow trekking to London in the 1930s and they stop off and get a sandwich. It’s ham. One of the workers takes the ham from his sandwich and posts it home to his wife. His children haven’t seen meat for over a week. Ah, you might say, but that’s the 1930s. But the Grenfell fire did not take place in the 1930s. Listen to what Emma Dent Coad the Labour MP for Kensington tells us about a cost-cutting ideology marked only by those with money and powers contempt for the working class that, ironically, Lord it above them. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/19/emma-dent-coad-grenfell-interview-shaun-bailey

The same pre-war contempt of the poor and working class exists today. We lost by a very big margin the propaganda war. The moron’s moron in the Whitehouse is evidence if you are looking for it of a new world order. Well, not actually new. Read your Great Gatsby. Read your Grapes of Wrath. Your Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur Scargil. Well, Mark Twain did coin the term ‘a gilded age’, but his timing was all wrong.

Kit de Wall proved that to be black, to be an older woman and above all to be working class was no barrier to becoming a writer. Good on her I say. But she asked a very salient question. Where are all the other working class writers?

She has a quick dekko in Waterstones.  Nothing but middle-class crap. Well, not crap, somebody buys it. Sixty percent of university graduates are readers, some talking head tells us (middle-class talking-head presumably). But, hey, fifty percent of the working class are readers. That’s me. My hand waves in the air, I’m a reader. But fifty percent of the working class spend the same proportion of their money on restaurants and food. That’s not me, unless by restaurants you mean pubs that sell cheese-and-onion crisps.

It depends what you mean by working class. Here’s where there’s wriggle room for those defending the indefensible. My mum was working class so I’m working class. Donald Trump, the moron’s moron is by that definition working class and Brigadoon is in Scotland. If you start the day in debt and end your day in more debt then there’s a very good chance your working class. If you use the bus or public transport (outside London) there’s a very good chance your working class. If you live in a high rise that burns down then there’s a very good chance your working class. Rich people don’t burn. They just start the fires that incinerate common humanity.

Part two of wriggle room is by definition a writer is no longer working class because he or she has worked his way up to middle-class sanctuary. Here we go again. The old embourgeoisement thesis that the Luton car workers on the assembly line were no working class because they were coining it in. An old idea given a new jacket and fitted onto writers. One of Alan Bisset’s characters in Pack Man,  a would-be writer, jokes that he work in Potterstones, because all they sell is Harry Potter books. She’s no longer working class is she? She no longer needs to sit scrawling in some dismal café, does she? Remember the story of the outliers that applies here. The perception writers make a fortune is laughable, but I’m not laughing. Some talking head (middle-class) tells us the average writer makes on average eleven-thousand pound a year in 2015. I wish I could make ten-bob a year writing. But I don’t. Therefore I’m not middle-class and I’m not average. Thank god for that. I was worried there.

We all like a tear-jerker. They bring in the guy from Penguin, who’s not a penguin but is upper class, because the upper classes are far more representative –sixty percent or more – of being the right kind of bloke to give us working class advice.   Think Winston Churchill turning up in Dundee canvassing and telling its mill workers to keep smiling and work harder and they’ll all become Vera Lynn.

So what do working class writers lack apart from life chances, education, any chance of a career path in writing and role models you may ask? Well, money would be a good start. It would be good if working class people, and not just writers and artists, get paid for their work. Weren’t stigmatized, treated as scum and talked down to. Weren’t treated as something other and a threat that needs to be dealt with.

Hi, I admit it. I want to be a writer when I grow up. Like Kit de Wall I’m 55 and past it. But, hey, I believe wholeheartedly in the exception to every rule model. I’ve taken time off from writing that big glorious novel to write this for nowt. Maybe it’ll pay off in the future. Doubt it very much somehow. I write realist novels. Get real.

Louise Welsh (2002 [2011]) The Cutting Room.

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This is Louise Welsh’s debut novel and the first of her work I’ve read. That old cliché applies here, it won’t be the last. It’s great, up there with Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory. I’m biased that way and like things to be parochial and have resonance with people I know and places I recognise. The setting is just up the road, a square mile of Hyndland and Crow Road. Not may folk understand that Downhill is a place and not just a state of mind.

Rilke is the first person narrator. I recognised the name, but there’s not many Rilkes cutting about Clydebank. I had to google it. For those less savvy than myself, Rilke is an (obscure to me) Austrian poet. Byres Road Rilke is the type of guy, hitting middle age, and everything going downhill fast (but not that downhill). He looks like Nosferatu on a dark night. And that’s one of the kinda in-jokes. He’s gay and fancies Derek, but Derek wants to shoot him, not in real life, but on film.

Plots are for turnips but here it’s quite simple and complicated. Rilke works for an auction house. He’s asked by an old biddy to clear a house and sell everything. The ticking clock is he’s got to do it in a week. The gun to his head is the auction house is on its uppers and this sale could make or break them. Rose, his boss, tells him he needs to get the finger out. But Rilke’s finger is in many places it’s not supposed to be. With a few exceptions all the characters are brilliantly drawn. That’s the beauty of this book. McKindless  (hint kind less or cruel to a cunting point) who owned the house in Hyndland and is ostensibly now dead has a collection of pornographic books in the attics and mementos that his spinster sister wants cleared out and burned. But Rilke finds photographs of something more sinister and evil. They seem to show McKindless documenting himself, with a few cronies, picture by picture, tableaux, of getting his sexual kicks by cutting a prostitute’s throat. This withered flower in the attic of the Gothic house is Rilke’s quest to find out the truth.

I won’t add a Taggert spoiler by telling you there’s been a murder. Read on.