Bernard MacLaverty (2021) Blank Pages and Other Stories

Many stories I read blend into one another. Some of them I can vaguely remember. They tend to be—by that measure—the best. I’m thinking here of George Mackay Brown, Celia, which is arguably the best short story in The Devil and the Giro, edited by Carl MacDougall. I met Carl a few times and he was great, but not great enough to get in the collection of the best of The Scottish Short Story. Bernard MacLaverty short story A Time To Dance is a standout. That was great. Carl talked about another of MacLaverty’s short stories. A young Catholic Irish woman that cleans a big-wig, Protestant guy’s house and he’s always pestering her for sex, offering loads of cash. But she’s loyal, even though her husband beats her and spends all the housekeeping money on booze. Then she’s not loyal. Or loyal to herself. Carl couldn’t mind the title of it. And neither could I. But remembering it means something has stuck. That’s a long-winded way of saying Blank Pages and the eleven Other Stories won’t stick around very long in my memory. They’ll go the way of another Irish writer, Frank O’Connor, who writes on similar themes of Irishness and Britishness and never the twain shall meet, until they do.

In Blank Pages, the narrator is a writer. It’s not Bernard MacLaverty, of course, but it is Bernard MacLaverty. Stephen King does that. When he can’t think what trade the narrator will be, his fall-back position is writer. I guess we’re in Midwinter Break territory, but the narrator’s wife is dead. She left the cat, Lui, she chose when it was a kitten, or the kitten chose her. A freebie from a farmer’s wife on the edge of Loch Lomond. There’s not much kittenishness left, but there are fleas.

‘For ages after Kathy died, the cat was in mourning. She knew there was something very wrong. A place was missing and the man was no substitute.’

Kathy had left box files for Frank: ‘PENSIONS, TAX, HOUSE, ROYALTIES, BANK’.

The reader knows therefore Frank, to be frank, is a successful writer (with Royalties), much like we imagine Bernard MacLaverty, but it’s the cat in mourning, not the man.

But he can’t write, but still goes through the motions of sitting down at his desk (like many of us do).

Teresa has dropped in to help clear out Kathy’s old clothes. Donate it to charity. It seems sudden, but it’s been two years.

‘The writing comes and goes,’ she said. ‘Hasn’t it always?’

‘I suppose so.’

She pats his arm. And there’s a moment when the old man could have been Nelson, in A Time To Dance, when he could have done something stupid and destroyed everything.  

The collection of short stories begins with ‘A Love Picture: Belfast 1940.’ There are other stories with dates and place names. ‘Searching: Belfast 1971’ (Cal territory). ‘The End of Days: Vienna 1918.’ ‘Blackthorns: County Derry 1942.’ The opening story is the most memorable.

Soup Mix had the narrator forced by his boss to go to a face-to-face meeting in his home town, and seeing his mum and a crocodile of other old women out for a walk, but continuing on the Home, and buys her a spray of flowers to score Brownie points, to be seen to be doing the right thing. A feeling I know well.

In Wandering, the narrator is a teacher, another would-be writer, another feeling I know well. Her mother is very much with her. And she wonders if the Zimmer in the Hall is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own plea for would-be writers, with the pram in the hall killing the muse, just as effectively? Discuss.

Memory, like writing, is a strange beast. MacLaverty knows better than most when to pick up the beat. When to let silence do its work. What resonates with one reader won’t resonate with another. Read on.

Great Scottish Writers: Janice Galloway.

Great Scottish Writers: Janice Galloway.

Janice Galloway’s autobiographies This is Not About Me and All Made Up begin in the same way: ‘This is my family’.

Stylistically, she doesn’t use quotation marks. There’s no standard way of writing in the Scottish language and dialect. I was checking her work out to find some kind of consistency in my writing. Reaching for the musicality of speech mixed with social realism. She’s light-touch and mostly Standard English. Not into writing as we speak. No, Ah, for I or even A, for the subjective pronoun. Think James Kelman, How Late it Was, How Late. A style mimicked by Graham Armstrong in his autobiographical novel, The Young Team.

 In the short story ‘Still an Animal’ from Galloway’s collection Jellyfish, for example, the narrator and her wee boy, Calum have finished playing Crazy Golf:

‘They took the balls and putter back but the attendant was no longer there, just a man holding a child by the hand.

Stop fucking whining he said. You’ve had plenty, you greedy wee cunt.’ [quotation marks my own]

This is speak so we can see territory. Looking at that, or listening, we know exactly what kind of man, what kind of person is talking. We can work out what kind of relationship he has with his son. Work out what he’s wearing and where he lives. And how his son is going to be a chip off the old block or dying to prove he’s not.  I’m quite a connoisseur of fucking. Well, in the written sense. Carl MacDougall, for example, tends to use ‘fucken,’ and, if I remember correctly, Bernard MacLaverty ‘fuckin’. I’ve used the latter in my writing, but sometimes with the apologetic apostrophe for non-Scottish readers, fuckin’, or reekin’ or boggin’. There’s no wrong or right orthography, but apologising for how we think or write seems stupid.

Galloway’s great strength isn’t in the use or non-use of a fucking apostrophe it’s with telling us the things we already know. Her characters are people that speak, like us, dress like us, but are a major disappointment to themselves. We can stand outside our reading of the text and think I’d never do that, when, in fact, Galloway’s only holding up a mirror. There’s such a great descriptive phrase in her first autobiographical book she uses it again in her second. The character that gets to speak it is Janice’s Granny McBride, and she’s lived in Saltcoats so long Saltcoats lives in her.

My Granny McBride, near blind and unable to swim, had been pool attendant for three summers by the time I was two…It was only for one fortnight or summer, after all, the fortnight of Glasgow Fair.

‘They’re on holiday, she’d explain. Anything might happen.

More often than not, the Glasgow visitors sat on the sand in the thick of genuine Saltcoats drizzle, crazed with freedom, eating dry bread straight from the packet…The mistook rafts of bladderwrack for sharks or submarines, and harmless jellyfish were pounded to pieces with rocks, sticks and penknives…’ [quotation marks, my own].

In ‘It’s Still an Animal,’ Jellyfish, much the same thing happens. The reader (me) can make tenuous connections to her autobiographies. In a similar vein suggest that ‘and drugs and rock and roll’, from the same collection has similarities to her breakout novel, The Trick is To Keep Breathing shows—without telling—the hierarchical relationships in Glasgow’s psychiatric wards between nurses and patients and patients without patience, and some that are simply mental, and can’t help themselves, poor dears. Similarly, ‘that was then, this is now (1)’ isn’t about love but sex, adolescent sex and finding out what your body is for.  The nascent pubescent sexuality expressed so well in her autobiography. I could even stretch it a bit and draw a relationship between George Orwell (Eric Blair) in ‘almost 1948’ and a young Galloway, who also crashes her moped, but is largely unharmed. Her boyfriend had taught her the basics, but they still had sex when they split up, because she thought it was a fair exchange.

Her sister Cora, of course, was a different kettle of fish. A Cruella de Ville type that would happily skin Dalmatian pups for a nice jacket, or hand them to her mum, their mum, to do the job for her. She’s eighteen years older than Cora and has abandoned her kid and husband (we find out later it should be kids, plural). She breaks Janice’s nose, routinely beats her up, and also smacks their mother around. Waited on hand and foot. If she was a man, we’d find it perfectly normal, if not perfect. But as a character she gives leaven to Galloway’s stories. Without a Cora-type character, they’re pretty much of a muchness. Cora is gold, deeply engrained and deeply mined.

We know Cora. In Cora we trust. And because we can trust her, in Galloway we can trust, singular and plural.     

Graeme Armstrong (2020) The Young Team

Gore Vidal is attributed with the quote, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. Graeme Armstrong is not a friend of mine. But the title of his book, The Young Team needs no detailed sociological explanation. I don’t need to go searching for definitions in The Urban Dictionary.  I’m proud to be working class, less proud to have a chib mark on my face and knocked guys out and been a baw hair away from being killed. I know about drink and drugs. When I started writing short bits about people I knew that had died, the bodies started stacking up. Many of them were suicides. Armstrong is telling me nothing new. But he’s on my turf. When I try and get my manuscripts for novels published and get knocked back that’s a lot of work. And I need to rise again. Go again. He succeeds. And part of me is glad, but part of me isn’t, because publishing is a small world. When I think of it I think of it, think of them, I recall the  D.H. Lawrence poem, The English Are So Nice.

Publishers are so nice

so awfully nice

they’re the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more they’re so very nice about being nice

about your being so nice as well!

If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Publishers are middle-class. Armstrong and me are working class. His is a niche publication. He’s taking up my space, but it’s not his fault we live in a middle-class world. It’s not my fault. The exception to the rule is used to prove the rule. A bit like coloured cabinet ministers in Tory land. Look, we’re not racist, their leader can say. His success is my failure.

But Armstrong is braver than me. His first-person, personal account, is in Scottish dialect. That’s a killer. James Kelman gets away with it in books about working-class life such as Kieron Smith, boy—a coming of age novel that covers some of the same ground—because he won the Brooker Prize with How Late it was How Late. Armstrong’s two sponsors of the book, Kerry Hudson and Janice Galloway use dialect, but only in direct speech. Alan Bisset also wants to let his characters in Boyracers, speak like he speaks, with a Falkirk twang, but descriptions are in the Queen’s English. Carl MacDougall’s characters when they swear say ‘fuckin.’ No apostrophe. Bernard MacLaverty (an honorary Scot) characters say ‘fucken’ (or it might be the other way about – I can’t remember). William McIlvanney’s characters swear, but perhaps less than you’d think.  Maggie O’Farrell’s characters don’t swear much, but then again, they tend to be more middle-class and go to university. Geniuses such as Lewis Grassic Gibbons (James Leslie Mitchell) create their own hybrid written-spoken language of North East dialect for a young Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to tell her story. Language can be a bit of a fuck-up and the more extreme can sound like pastiche of proper Young Team patter.

The beginning of the book, when the narrator is thirteen or fourteen-years old sets the tone. The book follows him and his muckers progress for about eight years. The Young Team, the Airdrie team, are living the life. The book is set out like a report. Part 1, Crucible. I’m not sure I like that. Or think it’s necessary. Let’s just tell the fuckin story, like Bernard Hare does in, for example, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew  (but then again his chapters in his novel begin with crappy poetry). Here’s the beginning of the book. Judge for yerself.

Urban Legends 2004

The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin. We’ aw stood intae a wee corner oot the wet n away fae the eager eyes ae Strathclyde’s finest. At weekends our area is jumpin wae polis, aw lookin tae bust yi. They never wanted tae git their boots muddy, walkin doon the Mansion but, so yi wur usually safe here. There’s two community police that sometimes ventured doon n busted cunts rollin joints, the fat wan called Muldoon n the skinny wan we aw called the Roadrunner, cos he’s rapid. The elder wans had told us aboot the polis raidin it once before we knew of the place’s existence.

Writing the gallus is easy. Writing the vulnerable is what makes characters walk and talk and become human. Azzy might be a hard wee cunt, but he’s just a wee boy and as he grows up he discovers clan loyalty isn’t enough. It offers no way out and he has panic attacks and becomes depressed. He’s not the only causality. Every day is ground-hog day and it’s wearing on the body and mind. With no way out, some of the not-so-young team become smack addicts in their teens, some kill themselves, some are killed. There are statistics in the chapter headings. But Azzy carries on his battle and it becomes with himself.

Higher education is the escape route. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced. And for such a poverty-stricken area, The Young Team, wae Azzy it’s leader, seem to be smoking dope and drinking all the time. Aye, I get that. But where’s the cash coming from? That I don’t get. It’s never made clear, in the way the music the kids listen to is, the tracksuits and sannies they wear and the cars they drive when they become older are.

Aurally, aye, I say to the way it is written. But those that need to read a book like this would be put off by the language. The dialect makes reading hard work. The middle-classes are so nice. So very, very nice. They might be surprised by what Armstrong writes about. I’m not. I know the score.  Azzy is not very nice, but his life is worth reading. Read on.   

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.

Beginnings:

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.

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 and mitch and match with the author.

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.

Carl MacDougall (1989) Stone Over Water.

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This is an old book in that Carl MacDougall received a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council to write his debut novel. How quaint that sounds now. It’s like having a governess or a government that valued literature.  I ripped through the book quickly. The story pays homage to Jane Eyre. The hero and narrator of the novel is Angus McPhail. ‘Give me the child until and I will give you the man’ is the maxim of Aristotle, or Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits and the documentary series 7UP tested that idea. Here Angus is a foundling at Greenbank House, the next minute he’s told to pack his stuff, he’s to be adopted. He’s twelve, the couple adopting him wanted a child with blue eyes. Angus has blue eyes, his new mother and father are quite happy with him. His brother Cameron and sister Euphemia (Phammie) treat him as if he’s one of the family. Cameron takes Angus to school and introduces him to everyone as his long-lost brother. Angus felt wanted.

His new father works in a bank writes a diary and might be working on a novel of what it means to be Scottish. Angus works in a bank writes a diary and is working on a novel of what it means to be Angus McPhail. His mother takes wee white pills and can be forgetful. It’s the 1960s. Phammie goes to find herself, but gets a bit lost. Cameron embraces Marxist dialectic and the working class. He proves himself to be less bourgeoisie than others might think by robbing banks for the cause.

Part One, Part Two and Part Three, or the beginning, the middle and the end are prefaced by a different kind of Marx, Groucho. ‘The party in the first part will be known as the party in the first part.’

The party of the third part takes us up to Thatcherism and the rewriting of history and it seems vaguely familiar. Take, for example, the film Darkest Hour. And listen to what Angus is telling his bit on the side Miranda.

Fiction is so pessimistic, which obviously has the effect of making people like me feel powerless, which is what it’s supposed to do. We’ve been told we’re powerless and now we feel powerless. The bourgeoisie have taken over everything.

…They even won the war.

Churchill won the war. He had a little help from his generals and their officers, but the soldiers merely did what they were told, the men and women who did the fighting and died for fuck-all simply responded to good leadership. So how can you compete with that, how can you come to terms with, far less survive in, a system where everything is subject to reassessment and that revision is adopted and fed back as propaganda?

Amen to that. Angus McPhail is a prophet. I’ve been saying that for the last ten years. Here it is in print from 1980 before we had ever second programme on Channel 4 and 5 with the tag Benefit and the unwritten script – scum. And here we have the latest tale of Churchill saving Britain by writing a speech about Never, Never, Never. I guess like the recent hokum about the King learning not to stutter Britain would have lost the war if it wasn’t for wordpower. Dream on. I’m a McPhail. 1% own more than the bottom 50% in Scotland is not a headline that shocks, it’s something that passes largely unnoticed. That’s the power of propaganda.   Stone Over Water, aye.

 

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

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

Woundis he had many divers place,

Of riches he keepit no proper thing:

Give as he wan, like Alexander the king.

 

The Highland Crofter  by James Kennedy.

Frae Kenmore to Ben More

The land is a’ the Marquis’s;

The mossy howes, the heathery knowe

An’ like bonnie park is his;

The bearded goats, the towsie stots,

An’ a’ the braxie carcasses;

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

An ilka collie’s bark is his;

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

The ghillies hard day’s wark is his;

From Kenymore tae Ben More

The warld is a’ the Marquis’s.

 

The fish that swim, the birds that skim,

The fir, the ash, the birk is his;

The castle ha’ sae big and braw,

Yon diamond crusted dirk is his;

The roofless hame, a burning shame,

The factor’s dirty wark is his;

The poor folk vexed, the lawyer’s text,

Yon smirking legal shark is his;

From Kenmore to Ben More

The world is a’ the Marquis.

 

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

The dawn as weel’s the dark is his;

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

The fire that light the mirk is His

They clearly show God’s mills are slow

But sure, the handiwork is His;

And in His grace our hope we place,

Fair Freedom sheltering ark is His;

The men that toil should own the soil,

A note as clear as the lark is this;

Breadalbane’s land –the fair, the grand –

Will no’ aye the Marquis’s.