Ali Millar (2022) The Last Days. A memoir of faith, desire and freedom.

Memoirs are made-up stories based on a subjective version of truth. But if you are a Jehovah Witness the only truth worth knowing comes from the Bible. The literal words of God. Ali Millar’s mum was a Jehovah Witness in the same way I was brought up a Roman Catholic. She was brought up in the truth, but she couldn’t keep up the lie.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit coming-of-age drama shone brightly. It illuminated the truth of what it is to be neither one thing, nor another, but to be fully human. Tara Westover’s Educated did for the Mormons what Winterson did for a form of Christianity. I can’t think of  Sikh or Muslim versions of these stories. The Roman Catholic version follows a similar pattern of elderly men gorging themselves on power and money. Women and girls subservient to their male leaders. We’re well-schooled in where that leads. Women’s rights being overturned. Taliban refusing to educate girls. The rejection of Roe v Wade shows the upswing of another right-wing patriarchy under the guise of religious freedom.

The Last Days reminds us that those buried under male ideology real people struggle and suffer. It’s also a reminder that Jehovah Witnesses’ leaders got the date of The Last Days wrong publicly twice. They have their martyrs and not just from the refusal of blood transfusions. Jehovah Witnesses were in Hitler’s Death Camps. They quietly refused to fight and follow.

 Ali Miller didn’t ask to be born into Jehovah Witnesses, in the same way I didn’t ask to be born Catholic. Family and friends indoctrinated us. Crin is an interesting word. A shortened form of crinoline.  Those big gowns women used to wear. A cloth ball gown or force field that set them apart. Crin is also short for endocrine. Feedback loops. Force field that make us who we are. Endocrinology is about emotions. We can’t just shuck off our beliefs especially if they’re ties into a sense of self. Our North Star, all of which we know and love coming from our mum.  

  What that mean for me was Mass on Sunday and some other Holy Days of Obligation and supporting Celtic. We went to a different school from Proddies. We were going to heaven. They were going to get relegated and go to hell. Fuck them.

For Jehovah Witnesses it isn’t that simple. They use the analogy of a burning building. It’s not them or us with a wall running all the way through heaven. They need to try to save us. Even if we don’t want to be saved. Jehovah Witnesses try and save us from ourselves. They need to show their Elders that they tried either by selling the Watchtower magazine, or chapping doors. Even though they shun higher education, choosing jobs were they can devote more time to their real work, they are on the clock for Jehovah. They need to tally up any door they have chapped and how they were received and report back to their Elders. Follow up in potential recruits. Proselytising is part of the package. What they’re selling is certainty in uncertain times.

As a child Ali was scared of the dark but not scared of spiders or creepy crawlies. She had a recurring dream:

‘of war, of Great Tribulations, of clearing the dead from the streets or being one of the dead cleared from the street. I should not be scared of any of these things, but I am scared of them because I don’t have enough faith’.

The structure of her book mirrors her world. Book One: Genesis; Book Two: Exodus; Book Three: Revelations.

The certainty of a child breeds the uncertainty of adolescence. Millar finds certainty in not eating. She wants to disappear. She wants control. She wants to gorge on her newfound sense of self.

Millar matches Janice Galloway in her writing and discovery of boys. Your parents might fuck you up. Boys and later men are happy to help finish the job. She recognises the twisted duplicity of the church and its Elders towards boys’ and girls’ sexuality. She is judged wanting, even after she is married to a fellow Witness and rising star of the Fellowship. The pettiness of wives happy to twist the knife and call her out. Her own judgement of herself is, of course, harshest.

Revelations, of course, uncover feet of clay. The Fellowship is always a test of faith. Ali Millar’s mother can choose to be its church and keep attending meetings at Kingdom Hall. She can choose to visit her daughter and grandchildren. But she cannot do both. Ali Millar is deemed one of the worldly. Outside the Church. Outside of God’s coming Kingdom. Her body will lie on the streets when the great reckoning happens. Her mum chooses the certainty of Kingdom Hall. Ali Millar chooses the uncertainty of real life. That’s one reading of it. What’s yours? Read on.

Aidan Martin (2020) Euphoric Recall

‘My name is Aidan and I am an addict.’

So what, you might say. You probably know the trajectory that follows.

You’ve got Damian Barr, who grew up near Ravenscraig steelworks, a solid working-class town. Him being gay wasn’t his fault—or even a fault—but being a fucking Tory, Maggie & Me, was just a step too far.

Deborah Orr, Motherwell: A Girlhood, which just about sums it up.

You’ve got Kerry Hudson’s whimsical, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (fiction) and Lowborn (factual) that deals with what it means to be working-class poor.

Meg Henderson’s wonderful Finding Peggy, but a bit before Hudson’s time.  

Darren McGarvey, with his Poverty Safari.

Janice Galloway’s autobiographies This is Not About Me and All Made Up are my clear favourites.

She mentored Graeme Armstrong and The Young Team, the story of Azzy and Airdrie, if you’re fucking asking, and it’s told in dialect.  

Scottish actor and comedian, Jane Godley, described as Nicola Sturgeon’s alter-ego (before she fucked up and went a bit too far and behaved like a politician—grabbing the money). Handstands in the Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival, which told a tale of incest and marrying into a gangster’s family in the East End of Glasgow was, to my thinking, underrated before clicking on to Amazon to find over 2000 five-star ratings, which shows I was deluding myself, but not as much as Sturgeon.

We can even fling in Alan Bisset, Boyracers, which tries to do the impossible and make Falkirk cool.

And if we’re stretching it, Maggie O’Farrell  I Am I Am I Am, seven brushes with death. She’s from Northern Ireland, but kinda Scottish.

The real daddy of fictionalised memoir, Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain. A gay boy growing up in Glasgow’s housing estates and watching his mother slide under the couch with drink, while drowning, but claiming to be simply waving and doing her hair.

What does Aidan Martin add to this amorphous list, or, in other words, what kind of story can a guy in his late twenties tell us that we’ve not already heard?  In terms of markets, what’s his Unique Selling Point?

Livingston isn’t very cool, which is a good starting point.

First chapter, ‘Groomed’. He’s standing outside McDonalds. ‘Heart racing.’ I don’t like heart racing, because it’s clichéd city.  But we know what he’s talking about. He’s not there to have a Big Mac and chips. It’s in the chapter title. He’s fifteen and meeting an older man, with a North English accent, who calls himself Derek.

White-van man is a world of disappointment, but he’s organised. He’s got a room in a hotel booked and a cover story. He’s brought a bottle of Buckfast for Aidan, because that’s what you do. Fantasy is never reality.

‘Escapism,’ Sexual addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction.    

 ‘You’re fuckin’ dead, after class…

‘Truth be told I wasn’t as violent as the lads I was always fighting. Some of them seemed at ease taking it to the next level. But the idea of jumping on someone’s head or stabbing them felt sickening to me. Survival was day to day.’

Plotting of beginning, middle and end is quite straight forward. Aidan is suicidal, but the reader knows that if he’s written a book he can’t be much good at killing himself. The writer’s job isn’t to make things simpler, but more complex.  

Grandpa dead. Grandma deteriorating fast with depression and diagnosed as bipolar. His wee brother, ‘DJ was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma one of the rarest soft tissue cancers in the world’.   

Bargaining with yourself. ‘Money was getting tight, so we started on the cheaper drugs too. Back on the eccies, speed and valies. We had a few attempts at crystal meth, and I found myself smoking an unknown stuff from foil.’

Aidan had yet to hit his rock bottom, in Alcohol and Drug Anon language. But he’d a Higher Power looking out for him. This is shown in graphic form.

 ‘I self-harmed with knives…some otherworldly force flung the knives out of my hand.

All I can say is I know it truly happened.’

The reader knows Aidan is going to make it. But he’s honest about it. His relapses were to do with a lack of humility. I’ve heard the same story in so many forms. My brother, for example, telling me he was just going to have a few pints. Aye, we knew, what that meant. Deep down, so did he.

We’re in the world of repetition. Even the language becomes boring and clichéd. Recovery is slow. Aidan at 25 is at West Lothian College. He will have relapses. He will find himself. The reader knows that. God help us, if I start quoting Rumi and Leonard Cohen, We’re all broken. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

I’m a reading addict. The pleasure of recognition lies not in revelation—although that has its place—but in resonance.  

‘I am grateful to be clean.’

Hallelujah has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with a clean heart that cries out. Read on.

The Booker Prize 2020, won by Douglas Stuart for his novel Shuggie Bain.

Who will speak for us? —is sometimes as simple as who speaks like us. We all might be Jock Tamson’s bairns, but in the real world debut novelists, and those using Scottish dialect don’t win prizes.  How Late it Was, How Late, well it was 1985 when something like this happened. James Kelman caused a kerfuffle. Rabbi Julia Neuberger saying the book was ‘crap’.  I prefer Jeff Torrington, Swing Hammer Swing, or a Janice Galloway’s memoir that’s not a memoir, or even Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, but I don’t get to choose. I’ve not even got around to reading Douglas Stuart’s book—although like many others I will, instead of reminding myself I should—so why should I be going on about it?

Because I’m a reader. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and last thing at night. I’d brush my teeth with a book in my hand, but it’s just not practical. But books should never be practical. They should be otherworldly.

I don’t change, but the world around absorbs me molecule by molecule. I look at the world differently after reading. I’m even one of few readers with input into a small Scottish literary prize. It’s not glamourous. An unpaid task to box-tick and summarise a novel in a pithy line that few will bother reading and which is churned up with other’s lines and average scores.

But, hey, I write stuff too. I’ve got a whole number of novels lying about like scrap cars with their wheels off waiting for that spark of the ignition key. When something like this happens the literary bar doesn’t come down. Failure and me get along just fine. We’ve been in a regular relationship so long some folk assume we’re married. And every spring a guy in a dress puts a black mark on my head and reminds me.

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’

I’ll leave the afterlife until after life. Still, we dream of leaving a mark—on a page. The Pied Piper of public opinion is playing our tune. We’re marching today from a slightly different beat, one that I recognise, one that others might recognise too. I’m not the type of person who writes a book. It’s only brainy and successful people that do that sort of thing. Only those sort that get published. Aye, right!  Dream on.

Graeme Armstrong (2020) The Young Team

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

Publishers are so nice

so awfully nice

they’re the nicest people in the world.

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

about your being so nice as well!

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

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

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

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

Urban Legends 2004

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

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

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

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

Pat Black (2011) Suckerpunch

Suckerpunch is a collection of 36 short stories and a Post Script. All for two quid to download, the kind of loose change that makes a five-year old wain scowl at you and poke their lip out when you hand it to them. It’s a great deal. Not all of them are of equal quality. I’m thinking, for example, a bit of ‘Tongue’ action here. I also think as we get nearer to the end of his collection, well, you know, there’s a bit of extra padding being added. But in saying that I’m still glad I’ve read them.

Let me put that into context. Janice Galloway’s short story collection isn’t as good, can’t put a glove on Pat Black’s.  And he mentions an online writing tutor we both shared, Elizabeth Reeder. And she was, a great Reeder and brilliant at critique, but really, you wouldn’t want to read her debut novel. I’m half way through The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (£9.99). The Times is quoted on the orange cover: ‘Rich, deeply involving, extraordinary, remarkable.’ Daily Telegraph in typography below: ‘Brilliant, exciting, thrilling, extremely funny.’ I must be living on the moon. ‘Funny?’ Sure she can parse a sentence to death. And like Gertrude Stein there are no mixed metaphors and no slippage into verbiage. If you find the writing of an overly neurotic white woman funny then Pat Black isn’t the writer for you. Stick to the rip snorting antics of Stein and Davis. I can take or leave them and in 99.9% of the time it is the latter. That’s funny, eh?

Pat Black is funny. He dives into the Glasgow dialect and creates some great characters who talk the talk, and walk the walk, that I recognise. Fuck sake Pat Black, although he seems to have some fishy thing going with Jaws, and crustaceans in general, sounds like the folk I know. In ‘Your Number’s Up, Let’s Go Crazy,’ for example, the narrator is in a dead-end office job he hates and he’s been in that long that he’s used to being miserable. He’s got a thing going with one of the female staff that kinda makes him less miserable, but apart from that his life is shite. Even worse he’s made a mess of some big account and the boss has shouted him into the office to give him what for. He flicks onto his emails and finds out he’s won £27 million on the lottery. He lets rip with all his frustrations telling those in the office what he really thinks of them. The boring beardy guy, the kind we all know, that’s always droning on about adventure holidays is told he’s got a bushy face like a fanny. It’s funny. And I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator hasn’t really won the lottery. It’s a hoax from fanny face.

If you want to seem smart and with it stick to Getrude Stein. If like me you like reading about fanny faces and guys that get lost going to the toilet read this book. I guarantee you’ll like it.

p.s. sorry Ms Reeder, but you always did say try and give an honest critique. You stick with Stein.

Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) Interpreter of maladies.

 

jhumpaThis collection of nine short stories was winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2000. It gets my vote. Not that anyone asked me to vote, or even to read the long list or the short list. But if anybody had asked me which was the best of these short stories I would be flummoxed. I’d ask myself if they were all equally good. Janice Galloway, a writer I hold in the highest esteem, in comparison, wrote about the same number of stories in her collection of short stories and I’d have said seven were pretty rubbish, one quite good and one good. Lahari has nine exceptionally good short stories. That’s the kind of batting average that Alice Munro would be proud of.

The first story in the collection, ‘A Temporary Matter,’ takes the European reader into a different Asian culture, near the Muslim butchers, Haymarket, Calcutta, in which Shoba shops. But it is also Shoba who goes out to work as a proof-reader, the breadwinner in the family, leaving the gangly Shukaumar studying to gain academic qualifications, so he could gain tenure, or at least get a foot in the job market. They both have become ‘expert at avoiding each other’. This is classical storytelling, their arrangement is temporary, as is the notice they receive that ‘for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight pm’.

In the darkness of that hour they talk freely for the first time and tell each other stories of the things they would not dare tell in the light. They grow more intimate. When the electricity is fixed there is a pause. The future current could go backwards to the way it had been before, or forwards to a new beginning. And it does seem to be moving in the former direction, but when the denouement comes it is both unexpected and highly plausible as a volte-face typical of Munro at her best.

In ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner’ and ‘A Real Durwan’ the narrative follows Bangladesh refugees from the war and split from Pakistani, but on different continents. Boori Ma, ‘sweeper of the stairwell,’ is in Calcutta,  Mr. Pirzada is in America studying, as Shukumar also had been. ‘Mrs. Sen’s, husband in one of other stories has an academic position, and in ‘The Third and Final Continent, the first person narrator, leaves India 1964, travels to a job in London and gets a job in the library at MIT, another kind of tenure, but what is common in many of these stories is dissociation, living in one country, but longing to be in another with the family and friends they have left behind. Assimilation is never easy and, in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’, only occurs after she is raped. There are no chocolate-book answers, but gritty and absorbing narratives that leave you wondering and wanting more.