Frank Woods (2019) Where the Bridge Lies.

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Where the Bridge Lies was Scottish novel of the week recently, which is quite an achievement for debut author Frank Woods. He can be proud of that. This novel should tick all the boxes for me. It’s set in Clydebank. And Clydebank is where I set most of my stories. It features a family that died in the Clydebank Blitz. I’d guess it’s loosely based on the Rocks’ family, who apart from the father, who agreed to work his son’s shift, died not far from a street in which I lived for years. It also has a second-strand story-line set in a castle used as a school. Yeh, that one that’s on the way to Drymen. I know somebody that worked in it and I wrote an unpublished novel, loosely based in another castle, Lennox Castle. I know exactly how Ervin Goffman’s total institutions are organised and most schools, especially residential schools, tick the boxes. And some of us remember Billy Connelly’s story of working in the shipyards and setting a rag alight in the troughs they used to shite in and sailing it like a model ship down wind and burning the worker’s arses. Hilarious. Not really.  In other words I’m like one of those street bores that ask you how you are and you can’t get a word in edgeways as they yitter on about themselves. I should be talking about Frank Wood’s novel and not my own well-documented addiction to scribbling words nobody bothers reading. And I don’t blame them. So what I’m trying to say is I never finished this novel. I got to page 58.

The protagonist Keir Connor, a photojournalist who suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder after working in Vietnam, is taking a sabbatical in Clydebank and trying to trace his long-lost family is in alternate chapters with the night of the Clydebank Blitz and the aftermath. I even get a mention, Father O’Donnell.

You’ve got to love your characters. I didn’t. You might. Read on.

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True Horror, Channel 4, Thursday 10pm.

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http://www.channel4.com/programmes/true-horror/on-demand/62853-003

This is my guilty secret, takes me right back to my childhood. I’m a BBC 4 kinda guy. The kinda guy that sneers at people that watch soap operas like River City, Coronation Street, Emmerdale or Question Time. Yet, here it is, factual stories based on a recipe borrowed from Hammer House of Horror. Remember the rule. Vampires. Scary Christopher Lee. Wrap the blankets around your neck and hope they bite your wee brother in the bed next to your own. Sit in the sunlight. Or if it’s a shark, do that Billy Connelly thing and hold up two fingers with your feet planted firmly on the ground.

Terror in the Woods.  Do not get lost in woods with a capital W and camp beside the most haunted cathedral in the world which has access to a long forgotten plague pit and the gate to hell. Two teenagers that like to mess about in front of the camera and play at being dead gay with each other, but not in that way, spend a night in a wood. There’s a mock-up of what happened. Scratching on the tent. The portable DVD doesn’t work. Your torch doesn’t turn on. And you keech your pants as the ghost of a wee lassie with no eyes floats through the tent. Who need the Blackpool rollercoaster?

Then you go home – with a big scary ghost in your haversack. Aye, the ghost knows where you live now. Ghost sat-nav. So you call in the Scooby Doo bunch of ghost busters. What do they do? Whistle it down. Hi, silver bullets. Crosses. Exorcisms and priests. Nah, tell the ghost to go and shaft itself, but it doesnae.

And you get the two wee guys, now a bit older saying we kidded on about ghosts until we met a real one. See telly, that’s educational, doesn’t need to be BBC 4 or a version of Ghost on Benefits. Smoking.

Ghost in the Wall. So you’ve got this woman with dyed red hair telling you, aye, I’d seven kids and eh, my man’s dad died in that chair. We could smell his cigarette smoke and he was doing a bit of haunting. He dragged my baby daughter through the walls and held her like a rat in the spaces. When I dragged her out her eyes were black. You know what they say, don’t go into the cellar. Move house. Nah, hang about. He was only kidding on. He’s settled down to baby sitting and making knocking noises. Families, eh, they fuck you up.

Hellfire Farm is right next to Terror in the Woods, but without the trees. It’s deepest darkest Wales, boyo. Look out for a massive electricity bill hitting you right in the eye. Ghosts are murder on the electricity. Shining pupils in the corner of the room. Farmyard animals that mysteriously hang themselves and a pig that does laps of the farm and runs itself to death. The focal point seems to be the dad. He seems cursed, but quite likes it. He’s like a pig on speed, drawing all these pictures that look vaguely like something you don’t want to look at, but can’t look away. Option A, go to the local cinema and watch The Shining, or jump in the car and fuck off. No. This couple and their children carried right on. It nearly cost them. They brought in an exorcist. He burned the Harry Potter books and the Satanic Bible and all of da’s painting and the outstanding electricity bill no one on earth could pay.  You know what happened next, don’t you? It followed him home. I want a legless leyless lined  map where these places with capital letters are so I can avoid them.  No floaters. Can’t wait until next week.

 

 

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, incense 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

GRAN MEETIN’

THE NICHT

TAE DECIDE THE

SPELLIN’

O’ THIS POSTER

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

 

 

 

Jackie Kay (2002 [2011]) Why Don’t You Stop Talking.

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I’m one of the few that reads short stories. They don’t sell. There are exceptions such as Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahari and George Saunders. Poets sell even less of their work than short-story writers, but usually make the best writers. I like Jackie Kay’s autobiographical writing and I admire her parents, who I’ve met on the page. They’re the kind of people that make the world a better place. But for all her awards and glitz and glamour I found this collection a bit boring. The first story in the collection ‘Shark! Shark!’ to me read like one of Billy Connelly’s jokes. If you’re so afraid of sharks just don’t go in the water. Nobody’s shoving you. So the second story ‘Big Milk’ about a different kind of fixation, a lover’s breast fixation…ho-hum. I never went in the water. I quite liked ‘Married Women.’ Possibly, the best story in the collection is ‘Out of Hand’.

Fifty years ago, hand over heart. Rose McGuire Roberts stepped off the Windrush, with her dab hands.

Britain, then as now, wasn’t ready for her. We hated immigrants, especially black immigrants. Black women immigrants that think they are something. Yes, Rose remembers how it was, the hostility, the monkey noises, the night-shifts at hospital nobody else wanted to do. All the worst jobs in the hospital given to the black woman, who should be grateful. Yeh, that strikes a note. That resonates with me. As all good stories must. Perhaps there are some stories in this collection you will appreciate in a way I could not.