Fiona Scarlett (2021) Boys Don’t Cry.

I’m weird, I find reading Acknowledgements instructive. Writing is a singular process, but a team game.  When you write, or try to write, you look at books differently. You look at the cover and artwork [tick]. You look at the publisher: Faber [tick]. Fiona Scarlett has got the backing of the one of the major league publishers for her debut novel. You look at the blurbs on the back. What famous writers have been hooked in to add for added publicity, verification of their writing talent, or quality control? [tick] Donal Ryan [don’t know who that is]. Kit de Waal [liked her debut novel]. Louise O’Neil or Ruth Horgan’s work [not read their work]. These are big hitters and my guess is they publish with Faber and they write about dysfunctional families. The biggest hitter of them all, Marian Keyes, sums up this book with one word ‘Beautiful’. Marian Keyes sells books in the tens-of-thousands-per day. If you can get a blurb from Marion Keyes, you put it on the front cover [tick].

Fiona Scarlett acknowledges:

‘To Cat, who after reading my first round of edits convinced me it wasn’t all a total pile of shite…’ [tick].

Less than a handful of debut authors get published by the big five publishing houses. A smaller number are worth reading. Writers that know what they’re doing are worth watching and reading. Few of us can see what they’ve written, what we’ve written. Saccades are rapid eye movements on a fixed point in a visual field. What we see is not what we’ve written, but what we think we’ve written. Measurement of saccades by other readers tends to flicker for a longer time (measured in milliseconds) on, for example, grammatical mistakes. That’s a large measure of ‘shite’ that kills the self-publishing industry. If you’re like me, you can’t see them, and jump ahead then you’re dead to publishers.

Where the eyes stray and tend to stay is a good place to start picking apart your edits. But you need other readers for that, machine reading can help with pattern-recognition. Acknowledging it’s a whole pile of shite is a good starting point. Humility gets you further into the words than, for example, two writers whose work I’d read congratulating each other on their great work, and wondering if they needed to edit it.

Don’t bother, the publisher will do that for you, was their way of seeing the world.

Fiona Scarlett did bother. She did the work. Write what you know included end-of-life caring. Her style of free- indirect discourse transforms the world of Jane Austen’s middle-class Sense and Sensibility, but it can also be tweaked to spill over into the common language of different tribes. It’s often a class thing.

On the page, Bojaxhiu, known as the Jax, one of four high-rises near Dollymount Strand, good for day excursions and ice cream. Being pushed around the back of the flats in a Tesco trolley, a no-go area for the Garda in Dublin paints a different word picture.

Joe O’Reilly, and his wee brother Finn, take turns telling you their story (from their point of view) [tick].

Their Da is a hardman, who beats their Ma [tick]. Working class. But their Ma doesn’t let him hit the kids. All rules aren’t equal. Life is never fair.

‘…His foot was on hers now. ‘Are you making a fucking charity case out of us now?’

‘Finn, to your room. Now,’ Ma ordered.

‘That’s right, send your little Mammy’s boy to his room, God forbid he sees what a real man must do to get some fucking respect,’ he said, pushing up against Ma.

‘Finn, you’re in goal.’

‘My arse, I was in last time.’

Myself, Jasmine, Dunner and Shane were the first ones there. We flung our school bags under the bench and stripped off our jumpers, running to mark the goalposts’

Jumpers for goalposts is a throwback to the kind of life we never lived, nostalgia sells [tick]. But there’s something the matter with Finn and he doesn’t even know it—yet.

Foregrounding and flashback [tick] lets the reader into the family’s secrets.

The bogeyman is Murphy, who Da works for as an enforcer. Everybody works for Murphy, or they mind their own business. Ma works in the local pub, which is Murphy’s gang hut.

Carthy, who Joe grew up with and lives in the same high-rise, is putting the squeeze on Sabine. Her mum’s borrowed money. Joe’s kinda in love with her, but Carthy’s just following Murphy’s orders. Only Murphy says when a debt it paid in full. Joe wants to right every wrong.

His Da is telling him, everything he thinks he knows—he doesn’t. But Murphy wants to bring Joe into the fold, make him work for him, like his da.

Boys Don’t Cry, aye, right. Read on.

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.

Darren McGarvey’s Class War, Episode 1, Identity Crisis, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, presented by Darren McGarvey.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s7hd/darren-mcgarveys-class-wars-series-1-1-identity-crisis

Darren McGarvey from Pollock admits he’s lucky, incredibly lucky. And he’s right to do so. He’s on a roll after Poverty Safari. The go-to man when the BBC, or any other media organisation, wants to signal that they’re doing the right thing. Giving the working class a voice. The equivalent of a black woman in the moron moron’s cabinet of his 45th American Presidency debacle. The alternative view. The Fool in Shakespearian plays, such as King Lear, who is allowed to speak truth to power. Invisible, but a place holder. Greta Thunberg addressing delegates at the United Nations, patted on the head, before they get back down to adult business of maintaining the status quo. Class War?

Not in my lifetime. Capitulation would be a better word. All the post-war gains since the second world war taken away. Marxism, is like liberalism or capitalism, difficult to summarise, but Marx argued that the point wasn’t to philosophise or interpret the world, ‘but to change it’.

The crudest formulations of class are clichéd.  If I working class man throw dice and keep throwing double sixes. Then the dice are taken to be loaded. The system flawed. He’s regarded as a crook. But if an upper class man throws six after six after six. Dice aren’t taken to be loaded. The capitalist system not flawed. When actors such as Darren pop-up they are pointed at as the exception to the rule-rule. They show how fair the system can be.  The end of history. The end of theory. The triumph of capitalism.

But clichés are also reservoirs of meaning. Darren flings out a few ideas and asks various characters—one of whom looks out of his face—what their thinking is on particular topics. ‘Buckfast’, for example, brought a satisfying chortle. Lower class, of course. But hey, it used to be a tonic wine, for middle-class folk.

I like the parody of class that features in The Frost Report: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hhrwl

The first thing to be noted is height. The upper class with better diet and access to proteins lived longer. Literally, walk taller. Those that own the land, own the people on the land. Windfall profits of billons for our monarch who also owns large tranches of our offshore sea, where windfarms will be situated. If you need to work for money, you’re in the wrong game. Money for the richest one-percent makes money by investing capital. After reaching a certain mass it’s a no-lose gain. It’s in all of Belzac’s books. And try a bit of Jane Austen. I’m a fan of Emile Zola, although he has a tendency to assume the working class get more sex and are sexually active earlier. Maybe they are. I must have missed that bit.

  Darren gets pulled up about his posture. Watch any programme about long-lost families. You’ll find those that went abroad, including those transported to Australia, are taller, more muscular. Fish and cheap cuts of meat for the less well off at home. Starvation is back in fashion in Old Blighty. Food banks as a solution to hunger. In Shakespeare’s day people that got to around thirty-eight were the equivalent of our old age pensioners. Thirty-nine was ancient. Gladstonian liberals allowed for a pension for those aged over 65 in 1909. Less than a fraction of one-percent of the population was expected to live that long to collect it. We know now that is no longer the case and pension age has risen to over sixty-eight. But for the first time since records began the average age of British citizens has stopped increasing annually. It’s a class thing. A working class thing. Our babies die first and in greater numbers than their middle-class or upper class cohorts. A negative impact that carries on throughout life.  Like those infected with Covid-19 we’re dying off quicker and pulling down the average age of our general population.  

The second thing to be noted is dress. Darren plays that dressing up game too.  All of our characters wear hats. The upper class character wears a bowler. A marker of rank. Bowler hats were a useful tool in preventing directors, such as Stevens of Steven’s shipyard, knocking his head. His father would have worn a top hat. Workers in the yards didn’t wear hats. Their heads were thicker. They wore overalls.  

Winston Churchill wore a top hat to his public school. Accent speaks of breading. Churchill was regarded as a bit of a thicko. But he had the right kind of accent, Received Pronunciation. He famously barked at an opposition Labour MP to take his hands out of his pockets. And as a reflex action to the upper-class demands the MP complied.  Here a butler is brought in to give Darren the once over when he’s dressed as a toff. The butler demands he take his hands out of his pockets and pull his socks up. Ho-hum, bit of playing to the camera.

Then we have the big reveal. The butler reveals he’s one of us. He’s working class. But he worked harder than everybody else at learning to be a butler. He got up to bed earlier. Went to bed later. He’s using Thatcheristic language reiterated by George Osborne in his debate about ‘strivers versus shirkers’. The universality of a Dickensian appeal to an imagined past that never existed. One hand destroying the welfare state, and the other clapping NHS workers, before crashing the economy into Brexitland and calling it a triumph.

Darren does cricket. I’m working-class enough to hate it. Just a little reminder here, wasn’t that the Malcolm Rifkind that was caught selling access to our British Parliament for ready cash? Cash for questions?  Like the whisky priest in Father Ted I can’t help jumping out my chair and shouting ‘Tory Scum’, and for good reason. In a propaganda war they set out to destroy us, and largely succeeded.

Darren touches on it with the seeming contradiction of the ever-shrinking working class.   Two-thirds of the population at the end of the nineteen century to around a third today. A mix and matching of definitions of what is meant by the working class relating to income. Weberian definitions as opposed to Marxist definitions where those that need to sell their labour are authentic working class. The proletariat. Academics toyed with these ideas in the sixties, the embourgeoisement thesis. Luton car workers because they were so well-off were the new middle class. Yet, when interviewed they claimed still to be working class despite having enough money to be considered bourgeoisie. Ronnie Corbett instead of wearing a bunnet would wear a flat cap and vote Tory. Corbett’s working class character, ‘I know my place’. You hear that kinda crap all the time, rich folk have money and they must know how to manage it. The answer is simple. By claiming working class origins, the middle (or indeed, upper) class gain greater kudos for achieving what they have achieved. They’ve rolled more sixes in life because of their skill. Look how far I’ve come, narrative.

Funny, until you consider 170 million Americans voted for the moron’s moron, and ‘red wall’ constituencies in deindustrialised areas such as Yorkshire voted for the equivalent here and for Boris Johnson and Brexit. Racist, dog-whistle politics, triumph. Eugenics is back with a bang, but dressed up in the clothes of morality.

In short, follow the money and the stories of machismo. Boris Johnson shouting through a microphone about returning £165 million a week to the NHS, while pedalling the same old bullshit as the moron’s moron, the other side of the Atlantic, about making America great again.

Marxism follows the evidence. Going against the grain. Prejudices are so engrained they need to step back and look at them.

Gramsci’s view of popular culture. Class is ideology in action. Pattern recognition of narrative the stories we’ve been told again and again until they have substance. Truth is relative.

 Cul-de-sac of boring, often impenetrable theory to develop ideas of what is meant be class. Premises, methodology, perception.  Examining the ideas behind our assumptions. We better be quick talking about class before we all become middle class tomorrow.  

Darren examines the idea of marrying outside our class. It happens less often. Money becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands Remember 7:84, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil?   The history of Scotland in Brechtian theatre. How our sovereign wealth went to pay for Unemployment Benefit in Thatcher’s Britain in the mid-80s. Eighty-four percent of the land owned by seven percent of the population. We’d expect that figure to be a lot higher, now. And with green energy relying on having access to land, we can also expect those that hold the people to ransom, the capitalist and rentier class to become even richer. Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century documents this process. To be working class is to be powerless and treated as expendable scum. I’m not sure I learned anything here. But it’s a reminder of how far we’ve fallen. More of a hotchpot rant than a review. But this class stuff gets in my wick.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Film 4, 11.05 pm, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (2013).

https://www.channel4.com/programmes/blue-is-the-warmest-colour

Wow, Mary Whitehouse, this was a sizzler. To think back in the 1970s I used to get red faced watching The Sweeney, when they showed a bit of tit. This would have been a swift case of spontaneous combustion and my charred remains found glued to the false leather settee. Whoopee, finally, a blue movie on the telly, but I’m too old for it now!

But if you cut away the nudity, which I gawped at and enjoyed being a voyeur for a few hours, this was a tremendous film. Honest in a way I recognise in the best writing and could—honestly—say that could have happened. Emma ( Léa Seydoux) is a fifteen-year old Parisian schoolgirl who likes books and reading (Jane Austen’s Emma, like many of her protagonists is in love with the idea of being in love). Our first glimpses of her are in the classroom, discussing—you’ve guessed it, love at first sight—and there’s a play on this theme. Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) fancies Adèle and her girlish friends are soon letting her know, hinting that the senior schoolboy isn’t Brad Pitt, but isn’t bad and he’d be good in bed. Emma is part of the queen-bee school set, a French Mean Girls, with sex and more sex a constant topic. Emma’s unsure, but she plays along. She agrees to date Thomas. But her head is literally turned when she sees Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) a young woman with eye-catching blue hair in the street, with her arm flung around another young woman. They are obviously lovers. Emma’s and Adèle’s eyes briefly meet. Love at first sight, definitely, maybe.

When Emma masturbates in her bedroom it’s not Thomas she fantasises about, but the girl with blue hair. She does have sex with Thomas, but that soon fizzles out.

One of her girlish school friends teases her with a kiss, but when Emma follows it up, wanting more, she’s shunned as a dyke. But her best friend at school, Valentin (Sandor Funtek) is gay (that old trope of Hollywood movies) and takes her to a gay nightclub. Emma wanders away to another club, following a gaggle of women into a place that is a lesbian-hang out. Here’s where the meet-cute takes place.

The law of the meet-cute is nothing happens, but everything happens. Camera work tries not to beautify but make Emma uglier and therefore more human, emphasising her teeth or the way she plays with her hair. It works by not working. She’s a stunner. Adèle isn’t as pretty, but has a girlfriend in tow. She pays for Emma’s drink at the bar, and tells her girlfriends that they are cousins. She knows she’s underage, but gets her phone number.

She appears outside Emma’s school and Emma gets into a fist-fight when her school-girl friends hassle her about being a dyke. She denies it.

Adèle is a fine art student on the cusp of graduation. They hold hands, but Emma wants more, needs more, and when they kiss for that first time you know she’s going to get it. Boy does she. Only it’s not boys, it’s girls. The camera doesn’t miss a trick.

We play a game of meet the parents.  Adèle’s parents are solid middle-class, unfazed about sex and their daughter and step-daughter, respectively, having a girlfriend and not a boyfriend. Emma said she hates seafood, Adèle says something like shellfish tastes like pussy, so she loves it. Anyone for oysters?

Emma’s mum serves bolognese. She is grateful for all the tutoring Adèle is doing to help her daughter’s grades improve. Her dad asks Adèle about what kind of jobs she can expect to do when she finished swanning about with a fine-arts degree and what her boyfriend does. Adèle plays along and tells him, her boyfriend is a businessman, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do after graduation.

Emma, beautiful, nude, Emma is Adèle muse for her graduation and her up-and-coming exhibition. By this time they’re living together. While Emma does the grunt-work of keeping the house running and doing the dishes and at the end of the night, wants a kiss, a real kiss, Adèle turns away.

Emma is also working in school, training to be a schoolteacher. One of her male colleagues obviously fancies the pants off her. You know when she goes along to one of the teacher’s night’s out, well, you know. But it’s off camera.

Adèle finds out and they split. It’s messy because it’s no longer about sex, but love. Emma is eminently loveable, but she admits to having fucked up. We root for her. We want her to succeed. But you know, Adèle, older, wiser, we want her to bend a little. That’s how much of a good movies this is. We want characters on a screen to be more unlike characters on a screen, or in real life, because we’re not really sure.

They meet again. Don’t know where. Don’t know when… And Blue Is the Warmest Colour… Great film.

Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

Karl Wiggins (2015) Self-Publishing! In the Eye of the Storm!

karl

I’m not sure why Self-Publishing should have an exclamation mark! But I’m not going to argue with an exclamation mark. This book cost less than a pint of beer and more importantly I spent about five hours reading it. I dutifully followed all the links to some impressive Amazon sites that featured self-published authors have set up to sell their novels. I was familiar with some of the names featured. Joe Lawrence and East End Butcher Boy is mentioned, which is a terrific book. Vera Clarke, writer, is mentioned. Linda Cresswell and Denise Marr and the chief executive of ABCtales Tony Cook also get air-kissed. Karl Wiggins has according to Amazon listings self-published seven books. He has gained the experience necessary to give aspiring authors such as myself  advice. And he is generous in the praise of other self-published authors. The problem with Karl Wiggins is Karl Wiggins.

A typical blurb features in the same format several times. Someone is falling over and pissing themselves laughing.

‘…Anyone who …doesn’t mind peeing slightly when they laugh too hard…’

‘…you will have a damp patch in an embarrassing place.’

‘…Due to the laughter you owe my secretary one pair of knickers.’

‘…Best not to read this book on the train if you have a full bladder.’

‘Publishing is easy, but you need to get your name out there.’ The line between selling books and self-aggrandisement, where does it begin or end? Karl Wiggins tells the reader he is no Mark Twain, but he also tells us several times he has been compared to Socrates and Bukowski. What advice would the budding Socrates give Jane Austen, for example? No Facebook page or profile. No Twitter account.  She published her work anonymously and little is known about her life.  I’d be inclined to follow humourist like Twain and his suggestion:  ‘Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.’   Take him or leave him, Karl Wiggins is the equivalent of Bernard Manning talking about those coloured chaps with big lips is all he asks. Jane Austen get your tits out for the boys.  ‘…To use piss-taking humour to bring to the fore situations that don’t stack up.’ ‘Oh, the banter,’ as comedian Ford Kiernan as Jack in Still Game is apt to say, before raise his eyebrows to signal dramatic irony to the camera.

‘Can you imagine arriving back on a time machine in the 60’s [sic]  with the quick, ready banter from the 21st century while everyone’s still laughing at a pie in the face?’

Yes, I can, and it wearies me. The sixties were not ruff collars and Elizabethan England. The Rolling Stones as far as I’m aware are still touring. The theory that how the speaker perceives and reacts to the world is dependent on the language they have at their disposal (Whorf’s hypothesis) is not new. Humour was not invented in the twenty-first century as Mark Twain and Laurel and Hardy show.

Other straw men include chavs: ‘I hate toilet seats because they is better than me. At least they have a job’.

The beardie is the kind of highbrow that Karl Wiggin’s despises. He’s skint because of his ‘superior intelligence’. I’d guess an online group such as the Mc Renegades fall into the beardie category: ‘We’re a bunch of Scottish writers who have some things in common. We write for pleasure, not money…’ I write for pleasure too, but I’d be more inclined to follow Spike Milligan’s lead: ‘This book is dedicated to my bank balance’. But as anyone knows the average earning of an author are under £4000 per annum. Even ‘vegetarian bicycle wearing, [I’m not sure what a vegetarian bicycle is or how to wear it] frowning, long-faced, stupid hat, stupid beard, stupid glasses, miserable twat, disapproving wanker into the broken, bitter mind, that is Bearded Hattie’ or people like me, would find that difficult to live on.

Harpie, one of my favourite authors, but one or two punctuation errors such as putting ‘Lizards Leap’ in italics and adding apostrophes [one or the other, but italics for the modern writer is better] gives ready ammunition to Beardies that self-publishing is not real publishing. In ‘Delusions’, she put it this way, her son ‘has gone without to fund my vanity and ego’. Later she says ‘Amazon sales is the definition of fool’s gold.’ But for the self-publishing author Amazon’s algorithm is god. Twitter’s algorithm tells others who we think we are. And the Facebook algorithm is fairground hall of mirrors in which nobody looks at the same thing, but everybody seems to be laughing. This book is a hotchpotch of different elements drawn from different sources. It needs a good edit. Would the real Karl Wiggins please stand up?

Val McDermid (2014) Northanger Abbey.

 

Northanger Abbey isn’t so much a place as a time. In the introduction to Jane Austen’s (2000) Northanger Abbey the reader is informed it was written in 1897-8, but not in publication until 1803. So it’s a relatively old book, written in English, in a style of indirect free discourse (whatever that means) which Austen patented. It is also steeped in the sensibilities and, in particular, the Gothic literature of the time. The reader is addressed directly and enters into a conspiracy with the writer as she maps out, in a knowingly ironic tone, Catherine Morland’s episodic  journey into society; a journey from innocence to experience – or something like that.

Look at the opening of both books and guess the modern reading. ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition were all equally against her.’

‘It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not resemble her books. Or rather, the books in which she found its likeness were so unexciting. Plenty of novels were set in small country villages and towns like the Dorset hamlet where she lived…Piddle Valley…Cat as she preferred to be known.’

Cat, in Jane Austen’s time, was of course, something you skinned or kicked on the way to the barn. Moore’s law has led to many innovations. I hope that one day we can sic one book, like fighting dogs, against the other and watch them battle it out. My money would be firmly on Jane Austen.

The plot demands that Cat is mistaken for sole heiress to Mr Allen’s fortune. Write what you know is a literary convention. The spa town of Bath were socialites gathered like pigeon shit around an open loft is updated to contemporary Edinburgh with its theatre and book festivals.  General Tilney when he finds this not to be the case flouts social convention and sends Catherine home -ALONE- from Northanger Abbey, unescorted by a gentleman relative or lady friend. Shock, horror, gasp. It doesn’t really translate nowadays. The right of primogeniture is a more nuanced foreign concept to a contemporary audience, but perhaps the rights of a married lady as a chattel to be herded like sheep is more easily understood. Henry Tilney’s impotence can only be understood in reference to the former and Eleanor Tilney’s quite courage in terms of the former.

Similarly, the boorish and ill-bred John Thorpe is a stock character. His ability to see shortcomings in all but himself translates into logorrhea about his two-seater red sports car, how fast it goes, and how much he paid for it – and how he always duped the other fellow – to Austen’s John Thorpe, who purchased a two-seater gig and how his horse is a marvel. Simply a marvel.

But when John Thorpe interrogates Catherine about her relationship to Mr Allen and he tries to wheedle from her how much her benefactor is worth he refers to him as an ‘old Jew’. This is a term McDermid’s Thorpe also uses. The structure in the book is broadly identical, but the meaning is lost in translation. McDermid, as an ex-reporter, adopts punchy sentences and a Bridget Jones- type approach which lacks the subtlety and melodic variation of Austen’s prose. There’s no sin in that.

I’d sic, Grace, a character from Alice Munro’s story, ‘Passion’, on both of them: ‘she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but they wheedle and demand’.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole