Alan Parks (2017) Bloody January

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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.

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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.