Douglas Stuart (2020) Shuggie Bain

Hi Dougie, I’ve had a look at your manuscript. We both know that it’s hard trying to get anything published when we write about people like us, using the language we speak—Scottish dialect. Remember all that fuss when James Kelman, for example, wrote in stream- of-consciousness, working-class dialect and a judge ofThe Booker Prize winner 1994, a Rabbi, no less, resigned because she (it might have been a he) thought How Late It Was, How Late was shite? Dialect in your manuscript isn’t as combative as Kelman’s and runs light touch as, for example, William McIlvanney. You’re far more likely to pick up readers and have far more chance of finding a publisher because of this.

The trick is to be consistent. And I must admit you did a great job. I only spotted two slippages and both were the same (you were consistent in that too, which is a good sign). When the narrator leads with ‘It got her goat’, when, for example Agnes Bain questions her son, Shuggie, while living in Pithead, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’  I think you mean: It got on her goat. He got on her goat. Not he got a goat. Small things, but you might want to look at that again.   

Your debut novel will never win the The Booker Prize, but if you’re looking for a publisher most people that write books offering writing advice tell you to never start with mood music or the weather.

‘The day was flat.’

Do you need this?

The day was flat. That morning his Shuggie’s mind had abandoned him and left his body wondering down below. The His empty body went listlessly through his routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights,  as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.

That’s an intriguing opening paragraph to your manuscript. And it leaves the reader with a question, why is tomorrow different from today? Your book begins and ends in the same place: Glasgow, The South Side 1992. The titular Shuggie Bain, fifteen, going on sixteen, going out into his past and coming back to himself. Time doesn’t stands still. He bears witness to his mum, Agnes Bain’s passing.

But Shuggie is not the sole narrator. That would tie your book to his life experience. And when you take the reader back to Sighthill, 1981, Shuggie’s experience as a boy aged four going on five isn’t enough to carry a book. He’s not old enough to know what marks him out as being different from other wee boys, as being shunned, bullied, spat upon. Different in a way that his brother, Alexander, aged 15 and nicknamed Leek is different, able to retreat somewhere inside himself. Or the way his eldest sister Catherine, aged 17, is different but the same, as the other women at the Friday night card school in Agnes’s mum and dad’s high-rise flat. By giving yourself an omniscient narrator you give license to travel through time and follow your characters to where the story takes you. This works well, in your circular narrative journey, but like any superpower it must be used cautiously.

Agnes Bain, telling, not showing, since the novel is mostly about her being an alky, is a good place to start.

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Him, her man, who when he shared her bed, now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things.’

Shug Bain raping his second wife, Agnes, beating and humiliating her on a trip to Blackpool worked great. It showed exactly the kind of psychopathic narcissist he remains in an aging body with is sweep-over bald head. His holy of holies was his hole. The father of fourteen children, none were loved, but some like Shuggie were an embarrassment, not a chip off the old block and best jettisoned.  If Shug Bain was born a rich American he might well have been elected 45th President. But in telling, not showing, his true vindictiveness finds an art form. When he takes Agnes and his children from the relative safety of Sighthill and her mum and da’s house to Pithead, it had been a test to see if she would follow him to the gates of hell.

‘She had loved him, and he needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces for another man to collect and repair later.’

Crawling around the warped logic of his psyche works well. But the constant mirroring shift in point of view from one character to another can be overdone.

Catherine looking at her half-cousin Donald Bain, who she marries to escape her mum’s alcoholism and back again, to show what the other is wearing, or how they feel, is a neat trick, but could be classified as overwriting. A shift from Agnes’s lover and potential saviour in Pithead, Eugene’s point of view, for example, back to Shuggie’s in the following paragraph tells the reader little we need to know.

‘For a while Eugene said nothing. The strange little boy had stunned him to silence. ‘You know son, maybe it’s time you thought more about yourself. Leave your mommy for a while.’

Here again we have someone looking queerly at Shuggie. We get it at that point. No need to over-emphasise and over-write.

‘The secondary school was bigger than any he had seen. He had waited and cautiously followed a boy that lived on the landing downstairs. The boy was tanned and the colour of summer holidays. At the street corners he turned around and with big brown eyes he looked suspiciously at the little boy who followed him like a stray.’

‘Following like a stray,’ is clichéd.  And I’m not sure you need a change in point of view.

For example, a simple tweak such as:  at street corners he turned and his big brown eyes glanced in my direction. You retain your (Shuggie’s) point of view, which carries on into the following paragraphs and his experience of disappointment and alienation the East End school that he felt in Pithead. Dreams of a new start—dashed.       

These are only suggestions. As the author you are omniscient, but also omnipotent. It’s your shout. Your characterisation stays the right side of caricature. Most debut novelists when trying to decide whose story it is, for good reasons such as they lack a more mature writer’s experience of life and what it takes to write a book, go to narrow. Agnes Bain is the focal point of your book. Shuggie Bain whose name is on the cover is the most consistent, but you go wide. Other characters get to tell their story.

Agnes is brutally raped by her husband, and another taxi driver. She’s also found with her tights ripped off at a party under a pile of coats. She’s diddled into sex by Big Jamie and countless others. She’s beaten and demeaned. But by going wide in your characterisation you highlight an episode even more chilling, and give your novel greater resonance and stickability with readers.

When Little Lizzie, Agnes’s god-fearing mother, somehow finds herself pregnant by the greengrocer she owes tick-money, while her husband, Wullie, is away fighting in the second world war, the reader fears the worst when he comes home. Agnes is still a baby, daddy loves and coos over. Little Lizzie doesn’t get it in the neck as we’d expect. Wullie understanding and soothing. He reassures her even after she admits to have done everything she could to get rid of the child before it was born. He takes the bastard child out for a walk in the pram, but comes back without the child or the pram. He no longer wants to talk about Little Lizzie’s mistake. He’s dealt with it. This sub-plot or story within a larger narrative helps set the background tone to the world Agnes lives in. Poverty isn’t just about money, it’s about circumstances and choices, who gets to say what.  A mother can’t even mention the child she held and lost, because that wouldn’t be right, isn’t a fiction, and had the ring of a world-weary truth.  

Poverty is the living coffin. Being an alky the nails in the coffin for Agnes and her dependents. Every generation writes its own epitaph. You got it with your sign spray-painted outside the pit in Pithead. ‘No Coal, No Soul, Only Dole’. In particular, you nail what it’s like to be dependent on the Monday book, followed by the Tuesday book of £8.50. No waffle. No generalisations. Being explicit ties you in with so many other great writers from Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012) Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (2019) to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and writers like Emile Zola that know the price of everything, especially failure.

I was brought up with the Provie man and Radio Rental for our telly. I imagine you stretching it a bit here. I thought renting tellys—paying 50p for programmes—went out in the seventies. But I bow to your judgement. Diddling the gas meter or electricity meter, well, that’s still an ongoing story. But I imagine it’s more difficult, if not impossible, now.

There’s a caveat I just don’t get. No milk in the fridge. No food on the table. No electric fire to turn on. Everything that can be pawned or sold is gone. Yet, Agnes is always on the phone. Where I came from, phones cost money. There was a waiting list for them to get installed and it cost (roughly) £110. That doesn’t include rental charges or call charges. When Agnes moves to Pithead, she’s immediately on the phone. When she moves to The East End, she’s on the phone—for taxis she can’t pay for—yet still on the phone. She even sends a phone cut off at the wire to Leek, like a severed head, emphasising their relationship was done. Yet, again, she’s on the phone afterwards. I suggest you look at that again.

Agnes’s relationship with her phonebook is part of who she thinks she is. Her relationship with the drink curdles the soul. I recognise the symptoms and you’ve caught them in flight.

‘Well, you get a little bit stronger every day, but the drink is always there waiting. Doesn’t matter if you want to run from it, it’s still right behind you like a shadow. The trick is not to forget’.

We know what’s at stake. And we care enough about your characters knowing they’ll fail, but we can’t just look away. That’s page-turning power.

I hope my suggestions make sense. And I wish you well with your debut novel. I’d a similar novel set in Clydebank in the early ninety-seventies and nobody wanted to publish it. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough. But I hope you do better. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your novel is great. If in doubt, write another, better, novel. Send me it, I’ll have a look. Writers write, reading always.

Circling a Fox, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Presenter Matthew Zajac, Director Brian Ross.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s083/circling-a-fox

Matthew Zajac is an actor. Acting is a precarious profession. The same old faces crop up with regularity. Trying to make a living from acting is akin to trying to make a living from writing. I’ve did a few shifts as an extra. I’ve no interest in being the next what-ever-you-call him/her. Writing, well, that’s a different story.

Writing is my game. I don’t expect to make a living from it. And with over one million self-published books appearing on Amazon every year if you’ve been paying attention, as I have, then you’ll know why.

Matthew Zajac in his downturn between acting and being invisible wrote his own play, The Taylor of Inverness. He took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and with the help of a fiddler, and some projections acted out the part of his dad. It received plaudits. Plaudits don’t pay the rent.

Next his—let’s call it an award winning play, because if it didn’t win something Edinburgh’s culture elite have fell asleep at the wheel—is taken up by BBC Scotland. The peasants up North, us, receive a fraction of the BBC budget to produce content for the fraction of the British population that are interested in that type of thing.

Matthew Zajac gets to play his dad again, for the cameras, in his award-winning play. He  gets to travel to his father’s birthplace which was part of Poland until 1939, then in Stalin’s pact with Hitler, became part of the Soviet Union and designated as part of the Ukraine. His dad, Matthew’s grandfather, was Polish, and his grandmother, Ukrainian. The programme also becomes one of those finding about your past kind of road trips where the viewer see nice scenery and meets quaint folk that don’t speak our lingo.  Money for old rope.

Zajac’s  father told him (and us) how was fox is hunted in his birthplace. Cornered in a field, a fox runs in ever decreasing circles until its captors can bludgeon it to death.

Ukraine used to be thought of the bread-basket of Russia. Soil so rich that to plant a stick was to grow a tree. I’m going off at a tangent here as Zajac did with his da’s story. His dad was buried in Inverness. Whisper it, as a head mason. He was flexible about religion and risen through the ranks. (My understanding is you can be both a Roman Catholic and a Mason, as my da’s pal, Jimmy Mac, was). Zajac’s dad, despite coming from the Ukraine, fought with the Polish army for Britain in the second world war against their common enemy, Nazi Germany.

It all kind of adds up. Before the first world war Glasgow was booming and growing at a rate faster than London. In the interwar years this growth declined, but it was still enough of a metropolis to take a refugee from the Ukraine and for him to find a job as a tailor in Glasgow. And then head to the back of beyond to Inverness to find a shop of his own, a life of his own, a new life and kids. It’s the refugee made good narrative.

The Ukraine of the interwar and postwar years was one of bloodshed. Let me fling some figures at you. 20 million dead. Stalin brought the Ukrainians to heel by mass starvation. Most children under ten would die first. Millions more sent to gulags such as those in Siberia. Ukrainian nationalists fighting the Soviets who had ‘liberated’ them shot and their families deported. Acts of savagery, mass murder and rape. Teenagers, in particular, in the vanguard.

Let’s remember the death camps in the East and the Jews. Jewish tailors that had trained Zajac’s dad. We know around six million Jews were exterminated. But around half, as they were here, were taken into forests and fields and shot.

Zajac finds in the old reels of his father’s tape something unnerving. His story of being swept up by the Soviet machine and being deported to Uzbekistan has a facsimilia of truth. His escape along the Soviet railway, with its own gauge system for train that took three months, seems possible. He joins the British Army.

An alternative story and shadow self emerges that is completely compelling as narrative, as history, or as drama, and a combination of all these.   This is much-watch TV. It shouldn’t be given a graveyard slot on BBC Scotland, but a Sunday night slot at 9pm. The kind of slot Small Axe: Mangrove demands and gets because Steve McQueen is a somebody. Zajac is a Scottish yokel, he’s give what he’s got and likes or lumps it territory. Listen up, I watched both and Zajac is better.  Watch and learn what a thing man is.

Craig Robertson (2018) The Photographer

Craig Robertson (2018) The Photographer.

Craig Robertson publishes a novel every year, and the setting is Glasgow. Full of places I know and people that speak and think like me, it’s therefore much easier for me to like his work. Random, his debut novel, established him as a writer worth following.  This is the second of his novels I’ve read and, like its predecessor, it’s a page turner.

The setup is simple. There’s a bad guy out there. The Glasgow equivalent of John Worboys, the ‘Black-Cab’ rapist, who committed more than 100 sex crimes, before he was caught. This is a Glasgow in which Robert Louis Stephenson is quoted by forensics at a crime scene:

‘Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder. Certain old houses demand to be haunted.’  

The good guys are mostly women. Detective Inspector Narey leads the charge. She’s vulnerable having a baby at home while she does nightshifts at the local police station. But she’s got a sidekick, her husband, aptly named, Winter, a reporter on a Glasgow rag (author Craig Robertson was a reporter so authenticity is guaranteed). He’s conducting a parallel investigation into Richard Broome the suspect, and The Photographer, of the book’s title. He’s the serial rapist, possible murderer, they need to catch. Winter’s delving into the paper’s archives finds that over ninety people go missing in Scotland every day.

[https://www.abctales.com/story/celticman/davie-mccallum-1971]

DI Narey has already arrested Broome, found his stash of photographs of over 100 women in Glasgow that have been stalked and their pictures taken without their knowledge, or consent. Stalked.  

Victims such as:

‘Leah Watt was twenty-seven going on fifty-five. Her premature aging wasn’t her fault.

Narey often found herself wishing that she’d known Leah before Broome wrecked her life, her confidence and her future. Everybody said that she was the heart and soul, a party girl with a big laugh and eyes that lit up a room. A personality stolen.

Broome’s modus operandi was consistent. ‘Jennifer,’ a victim tells rape counsellor Lainey,

‘I was raped. A man broke into my flat and raped me…

He just kept thumping me. Pounding his fist into my nose and cheek. Slag. Slag. Slag. Punch. Punch. Punch. I couldn’t see. Just heard the noise. Heard my nose breaking. My cheek being smashed.’

Lainey’s secret is she too was raped, by the same man and in the same brutal way. The police have been ineffectual. Lainey has been tracking similar cases to her own, and to ‘Jennifer’s’, she’s determined to find him.

Robertson plays with the genre of whodunnit. The reader knows who committed the crimes. The Photographer, Richard Broome, is identified early on as a women hater, with a sense of grievance and entitlement. He rapes them because they’re ‘slags’ and asking for it. He owns them, even though they don’t know it—yet.

But Richard Broome is not a black-cab driver. He’s a millionaire that owns his own hi-tech company. He hires a QC, ready and willing, to do his bidding, because he can, because of who he is. When the case against Broome collapses, he does not fade back into the dank gardens and murky houses, he goes on the attack. Narey and Winter and their child come under threat. Their middle-class sense of privilege and security comes under threat.

The least convincing part of the book is when Winter brings in his uncle, an ex-cop, to babysit them and their baby. The ex-cop goes online and tracks down the women haters, the trolls and cyberwarriors wanking in their bedroom and outs them. A lead into Broome’s misogynistic cult.

And while Broome as an arch villain, the kind that might well have been elected to the Presidency of the United States, hung together before sliding into stereotype, his mother as victim, didn’t ring true. But, hey, this is fiction. A great read. Read on.    

Craig Robertson (2010) Random

This book is a bit of set-up for a debut thriller writer. The tag on the front cover tells the would-be reader, ‘Six Victims, One Brutal Killer, No Rhyme, No Reason, No Mercy’. The hard-sell for crime fans.  And in smaller font it tells you this guy is like Mark Billingham and Val McDermid. Wow, I say, I’ll need to read this, it’s been lying on my shelf, getting dusty for two years and when I read the first chapter it might have been another ten, because I don’t know who Mark Billingham is and if he writes like this, I don’t care. But then I read the book in one go. It took a few hours.

The background noise inside the book is motive. Why is this guy killing random people? What made it attractive for me was the setting – Glasgow.

The cops are the good guys, trying to capture the bad guy. But there’s also bad guys, trying to capture the killer, because he killed one of their own, a drug dealer. A loss of face, for an Arthur Thompson like kingpin, means somebody else needs to pay and loss their face too. Then you have the fourth estate, mainly the Daily Record, reporting on the case.  (Craig Robertson was a former journalist, writing what he knows.)

I guess in all Tartan Noir there’s a bit of Laidlaw philosophising, about taking revenge and needing to dig two graves, one for the victim. Not having a pattern, is itself a pattern. Serial killers and the mistakes they’d made. The ones that got away, Bible John and Jack the Ripper. The narrator is called by the press, Jock the Ripper. One theory was the Ripper’s murder of prostitutes was a cover up, of his real motive, protecting someone higher up, perhaps a member of the Royal family. Nudge, nudge.

Family plays a big part in the narrator’s life, but we know he’s fucked up, but when he kills a lawyer, you get the feeling he kinda deserves it. But when he kills a newly married man, the narrator’s motive become blacker and twisted and when he sets out to stalk and kill a random teenage student in the pubs in Ashton Lane and ends up in the Twisted Thistle with a cop at his back, it seems justice has been served. That would have taken him too far into the dark side. He backs off.

The book gallops along at a fair pace. The narrator reading press reports, we the reader too can scan, word for word. He’s a pal on the inside of the gangster underworld that reports back to him the latest doings. We know the type. And as a taxi-driver he listens to what the people of Glasgow are saying about the killer they’re now calling The Cutter, because he takes a finger from each of his victims with a pair of secateurs and sends them to the press or to the police. He doesn’t take a finger from his last victim, but still manages to give the police and gangsters the finger.

Here’s where it goes a bit iffy. We know why he done it. We know how he done it, because he’s telling us his thoughts and feelings and we’re looking over his shoulder, seeing what he’s seeing, hearing what he’s hearing, smelling what he smells. You want me to paint a picture, pal? Unfortunately, that’s what Robertson does. The denouement is too protracted. Too many loose knots are tested and tied, even down the last, falling, prayer from the narrator’s lips. Less is more. Jesus wept. Read on.     

Alan Parks (2017) Bloody January

alan parks.jpg

I read the review of Bloody February in The Observer and it’s like deja-fuck-you, somebody had wrote the song that you wrote and sings it better. Set in Glasgow, in the 1970s. My turf and my time and my subject matter.  This book fucking scared me big time. I was scared this book would be everything I was not. Leading writers of Scottish noir praise Bloody January on the cover.

Ian Rankin, Alex Gray, Peter May and Louise Welsh, ‘Bloody and brilliant’.

Here’s where I got to, Chapter Seven, p51.

Funny smell in here,’ said Wattie.

‘Shut it,’ said McCoy.

The waiter took their coats as Wattie looked around suspiciously. A big blown-up photo of an Indian market filled one wall. Windows overlooking the Kelvin making its slow and muddy way through the city the other.

I know Gibson Street. But I’m not sure about the last sentence, which makes me, I guess, a plonker. Windows are walls and the Kelvin is muddy. The real McCoy and his sidekick, Wattie. A whodunit.

I care too much. It’s not Alan Parks’s fault I’ve picked him and his books as a kind of Rorschach-Inkblot test.

I don’t write whodunnits. I write about us, or like to think I do. Whydunnits (that nobody wants to read or publish, perhaps for good reason). Nobody writes in the same way, because its like forensics, like fingerprints, and nobody sees the same things. Especially, if you are a nobody. We both look for the extraordinary in ordinary working- class experiences.

Remembering is not a monopoly experience. Axons and dendrites do not recreate our past, but remake it. We rewrite our own lives in different ways, encrypting each word and sentence as we go with a sense of self. Pieces of life are never whole and always blemished.

A writer’s job is to highlight those blemishes and to give them to his characters. Parks’s characters to me are clichéd and therefore untrue.

Books are holy things and in the black stone of rubble the writer must make flowers grow. Doesn’t happen.

The invisible world is our world. Listen with your eyes. See with your heart. No sound, no sight and no heart.

Parks opens a lens to the past. Sight, sound, colour and the writing of wrongs. Not for me, but we all see the world differently, write the world differently. Bloody hell.  Read on.

 

 

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.

The Storm That Saved the City, BBC 1, 9pm, BBC iPlayer directed and filmed by Ian Lilley.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09lsq54/the-storm-that-saved-a-city

On the 15th January 1968 winds gusting from 80 – 120 miles per hour hit Glasgow (and Edinburgh, and Central Scotland but who cares about that mob?) Twenty four people lost their life. Tens of thousands more were made –at least temporarily homeless – and there was full employment fixing the roofs of Glasgow for the next two years. One young medic remembers out walking his dog and the dog blowing away. Down Shep! Young fashion designers in their studio flats remember the windows blowing in. All over Glasgow the lights went out. But the message here is something good came from the plight. The 1968 storm put the kibosh on Glasgow Corporation’s plan to knock down most of the city centre and relocate its tenements to the periphery.

Have a wee look and you’ll see a very young looking Richard Holloway talking about the housing problem. Back then the very Rev Richard believed in God. He also believed in housing the poor. It was a Faustian pact. Glasgow Corporation will give the tenant a new house, a slum in the sky or as Billy Connelly said of Drumchapel a graveyard with Christmas lights.

Wee had the wee bit of history. Glasgow at the beginning of the century the fastest growing city in Europe. This was exacerbated by the First World War. More jobs meant a growing population, but with the same number of houses private landlords who owned ninety five percent of the housing stock, mainly in tenement building, decided to cash in and push the rents up 25%. In a free market that makes sense. Some of us might remember that stupid idea of erecting a statue to a woman that helped organise the rent strikes. Red Clydeside and Mary Barbour may go together with the government freezing rent at pre-1914 levels. One of the rare successes at the time. But then as now we don’t need more statues but more affordable housing.

Back in 1968 20 000 homes were falling into such disrepair as to become uninhabitable with another 100 000 homes needed immediately. What this documentary doesn’t mention was local authorities were paid to buy wholesale and reach for the sky. More government money was available for high rise and the higher the high rise the greater subsidy. It made sense to bid high. Economic sense. Ironically, those houses that were rarely homes, such as the Red Road flats were knocked down. But the problem remains. We need more affordable homes. This may be a pat yourself on the back documentary. We lucked into saving the Glasgow we loved. But ask Richard Hollow and I’m sure he’s say the problem is still with us. Glasgow is not Miles Better unless you’ve got dosh. We’re still the heart-attack capital of Europe and those in the poorest schemes have a life expectancy of around sixty-five. Let’s not get above ourselves with the plaudits. What did we save and for whom?

The Scottish Bounty Hunter, BBC 1, produced, directed and narrated by Matt Pinder.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08dww6z/the-scottish-bounty-hunter?suggid=b08dww6z

Here’s the tagline Christian Matlock, aged 28, is a professional bounty hunter in Virginia. He used to be Scottish and now he’s an all-American action hero, spending days and nights hunting prisoners that have skipped bail. This is a three-act piece with a photogenic star, rock and roll music, guns, drugs, outlaws and shiny fast cars.

ACT 1. Meet Christian Matlock. The camera follows him to a lorry park in Virginia. He explains that you can get pretty much anything you need there. With a wave of his hand, the left-hand side, drugs, right-hand side, prostitutes. Heroin is on the main menu. 800 people die each year in the state from heroin overdoses.  Eighty-percent of his clients use drugs, mostly heroin.  Christian is paid by results. A bondsman posts bail so a prisoner can leave jail. If the parolee doesn’t make his or her court date the bondsman loses his money. Christian takes parolees who have skipped bail back to prison. His powers seem pretty much unlimited. He can break in and search properties of cars where he suspects a fugitive is hiding. He cuffs them and takes them to prison. Then he gets paid. Christian has diversified from subcontracting from other bondsman to working for himself and posting bail for those already in prison that can’t post bail. That way instead of getting ten percent of the fee for taking them back he gets all of the bail money. The downside is, if he doesn’t take the prisoner back, or if the police pick him, or her, up first, he loses time wasted searching for them and money.

We see Christian trying to track down two fugitives that haven’t made their court date. These people are cheques he’s waiting to convert into cash. Duanne is a heroin addict. Raven is a heroin addict. He finds both of them on Facebook. That’s his fist pit stop. Most folk he tells the camera tell you exactly what they’ve done and where they’re going to be. He compares the mug shot of Raven from prison with the glamourous posting of her on Facebook. Duanne’s profile, true to form, shows where he is. Christian phones him up, and his Scottish burr, turns into an American accent as he makes the connection, pretending he’s looking to score heroin. Christian uses Google Maps to look at possible parking places where he can observe properties unseen.  Duanne arranges to meet him at his parent’s business and Christian rolls up and takes him into custody. Some folk are just dumb that way. Raven is much harder to find. She’s gone underground and is likely working as a prostitute from hotel rooms to feed her drug habit. Later he find out the police have arrested her. Money lost.

ACT 2. Christian comes back to Scotland for his sister’s wedding. He’s already explained that he went off the rails when he was younger, and was heavily into drink and drugs, ecstasy mostly. But he’d left it all behind when he followed his father to America and made a new start. This is classic William McIlvanney territory transported from Glasgow to Brechin. ‘It was Glasgow on Friday night, the city of the stare.’  Brechin, is the ugly sister, he’s left behind. The camera follows him about, his mates crowd him. At one point, he has to give one of them a warning, ‘Enough!’ The message is clear. Even in Scotland, without a gun, he’s still the big man. And he is, about a head bigger than most of his wee pals that are nutters. Look at them, he’s saying, the left behind.

They all play their part. His mum saying how shit Brechin is and how it’s went downhill in the last ten years. We’re shown shots of the High Street. This is Christian; he could have been as depilated as those empty shop fronts.

ACT 3 Christian flies home to the United States. As long as he doesn’t get shot or injured and health insurance eats him alive, he’s a made man. He takes on the case of Colby. He’s a kid, eighteen, that’s been smoking pot. He takes him back to prison. The kids crying in the back of his car, but it’s for his own good. There’s lots of people thanking Christian for taking them to jail. They think it’s best, or they’d be dead from drugs. He thinks it best too. In fact, not only is he providing them with a service, he’s saving them from themselves. But now he’s got a big decision to make, an ex-cop Johnny Milano and his wife, to try out a different life, working for him in Florida. A bond in Florida can be $40 000 and upwards. In Virginia it’s a tenth of that, if he’s lucky. But it’s the same job. Milano is that rich he’s got the big house and more money than he knows what to do with. All courtesy of the justice system. Christian decides to stay home in Virginia. He feels a sense of duty to his clients. You know in the end I get to quite like Christian and his sense of Christian duty. Here’s hoping he never gets sick or poor.

Jackie Kay (2010) Red Dust Road.

jackie kay

I was vaguely aware of Jackie Kay and had read an extract of this book a few years ago. Heard her speak about her novel Trumpet and knew she was a poet. Poets make the best prose writers. What stuck in my memory was her parents. Two white working class people that adopt two kids that happen to be black or coloured, or whatever term you’re comfortable with, because this is not about race, or about class, although both her adoptive parents are staunch Communist, this is a story about love.

John and Ellen were both from Townhead in Glasgow, but met whilst working in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was 25, she 18. They went to see Death of a Salesman on their first date and were married six months later, the day after April Fool’s Day 1954. Willy Loman often has that effect. They wanted children and couldn’t have children. They adopted.

Adoption agencies in the 1950s were run by Church groups. The Kay’s religion was Communism. Both had been pilgrimages to Moscow and John was organising and proselytising for Communist Party members in Scotland. They weren’t willing to lie about their affiliation and say they supported a Christian church group to help them get a much-wanted child. They were a straight talking couple and in many ways the heroes of the book and I liked them very much.  Indeed one of the lines I laughed out loud at was later in the book, in 2009. Ellen is taken to  Gartnavel hospital because her nose won’t stop bleeding and she’s lost lots of blood and been given a transfusion. The nurse asks her if she wants to see a minister and she answers: ‘Only if he’ll resuscitate me’.

Ironically, the book opens with Jackie meeting her birth father at the Nicon Hilton Hotel, Abuja, in Nigeria and he embarrasses her with his dancing, singing, praising of the Lord and calling for his daughter to be saved. He tells her he is a minister, but takes a sleazy interest in the mechanics of her lesbianism. He is also married to a woman Jackie’s age because the Lord has provided him with a younger partner because of his high sex drive. He wants to keep Jackie a dirty secret. He acknowledges her as his daughter. She is a professor. He too is a professor that studied trees and botany at Aberdeen University in the late 1950s. Jonathan, her birth father, is in some ways the villain. Jackie works hard to uncover how he got from a bongo playing good-time man about town who got a young white nurse Elizabeth from Nairn pregnant to the preacher, patriarch and arsehole he became.

This is a biography of what-ifs, the past less travelled. If Jonathan wasn’t black would Elizabeth have been allowed to keep the child she was carrying? She admits to wishing when she was younger to being white, like everybody else, but when in Northern Nigeria and her ‘red dust road’ homeland to being darker and blacker. Jackie’s quest to find out more about her birth mother are hampered by a different kind of fog. Elizabeth when they first meat has dementia. She wants to acknowledge Jackie and Jackie’s son, but she keeps forgetting. She like Jonathan has found salvation, but in her case the Mormon Church.

I like Jackie Kay, the questions she asks herself as the questions we ask ourselves. The Kay’s her father, mother and adopted brother are a godsend. The rest leave us blest to be who we are.