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.

Louise Welsh (2012) The Girl on the Stairs.

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(Shit. I’d a whole spiel in my head about this being the tricky second novel, after the great debut novel and international success of The Cutting Room. But when I checked publication date, it was Louise Welsh’s fifth novel. Not her second. Anyway, I was going to fling in Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington’s debut novel and his follow up novel The Devil’s Carousel. I raved about the first and emm, didn’t rave about the second.  I’d segue away to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird and fifty years later, the unfortunate book that buried her, Go Set a Watchman.  If Harper Lee had written the first we’d probably not of heard of her and would not associate Gregory Peck as being a real-life Atticus Finch and his career would have nose-dived too. I’m lucky because I’ve not got a career to worry about. Nobody much has read my first novel Lily Poole. Although Scottish Book Trust are currently searching for a novelist daft enough to mentor my second novel, it’s a fair bet that it won’t get published and if it does nobody will read it either. But I’m in good company.  I’m a reader more than a writer. There’s consolation that Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin) with a dedication to his lover W.H. Auden and a protagonist William Bradshaw who is fleeing Oxbridge and England to the Weimar Republic and Berlin because he had only sold twelve of his published poems. Snap.)

William Bradshaw finds playing the relationship game with Mr Norris very boring. It’s a mark of how you are related to whom and where are you in the social standing pecking order. In twenty-first century The Girl on the Stairs with the backdrop of a unified Germany and Berlin as the new star we find old hates and Venn Diagrams.

There were many different worlds, Jane thought, but they didn’t exist in different planes: one slotted on top of the other, as Alban Mann implied. They overlapped, like Venn diagrams, and you could be at the intersection of several realities without even knowing it.

Jane the peely-wally narrator is from Glasgow, and she’s an outsider in many ways. She’s pregnant. Her lover and wife Petra, is another woman. Jane has moved to Berlin to live with her, but is largely languageless, dependent on the kindness of strangers to speak to her in English. Jane is dependent on Petra for money. And although Petra and Jane stay in a reconverted and modern apartment complex, they live next to a graveyard and Gothic chapel, the haunt of prostitutes and corvines that call to her. It’s haunted house territory and Jane is made to feel like the madwomen in the attic when she accuses Dr Alban Mann of beating and raping his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anna.

Jane remembers a fairy tale about a mother who has gone to lift her baby from its cradle and found it transformed into a wrinkled old man. In the story the mother has let the old man drink from her breasts, until he has drained her dry.

Here we are in the Emperor has no Clothes territory and Dr Mann has to convince others that he not naked, and certainly his daughter is not naked. Anna of the red lipstick and Little Red-Riding Hood red coat and red herring territory.

I liked this book and ripped through it. It’s perhaps not as good as Rilke –and the space between silences- but there’s no shame in that. There was a line that caught me and it’s nothing to do with the Scottish or German language.

Far away in Vienna someone said something in German and Petra laughed. ‘Sorry,’ the laugh was still in her voice.

That’s a great line, but, minor quibble, repetitive. The laugh was still in her voice is attributed to several characters. It reminds me of when I was trying to describe something and had all my characters leaning back in their chair so I could describe the room. See, even great Scottish novelist, Louise Welsh makes mistakes.  We’re all human. I’d say that’s a theme. But when we start talking about themes we lose the plot.

The Girl on the Stairs. Well worth a read. And now on to Louise Welsh’s second novel. I’ll just need to work out which one that is.

Jeff Torrington (1992) Swing Hammer Swing!

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Swing Hammer Swing! won the Whitbread Book of the Year. I like whitebread, but scientists with Twitter feeds say it’s not good for ducks or swans. The latter can’t moult and the young are unable to fly. This book does fly, but doesnae go very far. It’s the Gorbals, Scobie Street, when all the houses were falling down and the less-well heeled populist sent on their way. The ne’-er-do-well narrator Tam Clay, 28, wordsmith and would-be-author is aware that Scabie Street has its faults, all of which he’s keen to document, and even the rats have tucked their tails in and, moved out, enmasse, but an invitation to visit the housing office in Castlemilk, or the option of the high-rise ‘Barlinnies in the sky’, doesn’t appeal. It’s a Friday to Friday stretch in the falling-down life of Tam Clay.

Plot is where you bury somebody so he would have the reader believe, but you can’t believe a word Tam Clay says. On the day of Talky Sloan’s funeral, for example, Matt Lucas pelted by snowballs, undisguised as bricks, and dressed in strips of sheet as The Mummy to advertise Planet Cinemas screening of a film of the same name, stumbled onto the road and is knocked down by a bubble car. But a lot has happened since the reader had come in on the opening paragraph a week and 406 pages prior to that, with Matt’s wife Rhona in the Maternity waiting to have their first child and his in-laws none too happy about Tam’s decision to devote himself to drink, and dereliction of duty and finding the right path not to work, so he can find time to work on his writing, isn’t as easy as it sounds. A problem many of us are familiar with.

Something really weird was happening in the Gorbals – from the battered hulk of the Planet Cinema in Scobie Street a deepsea diver was emerging. He hesitated, bamboozled, maybe by the shimmering fathoms of light, the towering rockfaces of the snow coraled tenements. After a few moments the diver allowed the vestibule door to swing closed behind him then, taking small steps, he came out onto the pavement which in the area sheltered by the sagging canopy bore only a thin felt of snow. Up the quiet little grave for privileged snowflakes desecrating feet had trudged a pathway which shone with a seal-like lustre.

Characters like Tam’s bosom buddy, Paddy Cullen, who ‘would spend Eternity chasing a mobile pub barefooted across a jagged terrain of smashed whisky bottles’ leap from the page, but no very quickly, because they’re usually pissed. I think this is called, indirect free style. But like the Dab Four, the Beatles 1968 hit film, which come Judgement Day they hope can save Planet Cinema shutting once and for all, all you need is love. Jeff Torrington loves his city and loves his characters. He does not bring them to life and leave them stumbling around a cardboard Glasgow mumbling like a Mummy lines nobody want to listen to. Nor does he fall from character to caricature, which, admittedly is easily done, and as Torrington tended to do in his follow up novel (The Devil’s Carousel) and which really did not have a plot, or even a story worth listening to.

Swing Hammer Swing! really does sing. If you want to know what it was like in Glasgow, in the Gorbals for the ordinary man, or even the odd woman, like Becky that bit on the side whose man beats her, then read this. If you want to know how to mix four parts hypocrisy to three parts religion read this. It’s right up there as a Glasgow and international classic alongside that jewel in the crown, Ralph Glasser, Growing Up in the Gorbals.

Jeff Torrington (1996) The Devil’s Carousel

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After the success of Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing!,  The Devil’s Carousel is his follow-up novel. Only it isn’t. It’s not a success and it’s not a novel. The Devil’s Carousel is a collection of short stories, versions of which are listed and have appeared elsewhere, such as ‘The Poacher’ in the Glasgow Herald, ‘The Sink’ in BBC publications, ‘The Fade’ in the Scottia Bar Writers prize. The setting in each story comes from the same place, Centaur Car Co in Glasgow and the dinosaurs that roamed the planet when workers used to make things. Think of Linwood as a place where they used to make cars and I don’t suppose you’ll go far wrong. It’s an Us and Them world; management and workers. The end of a line when the opening bars of the song ‘You won’t get me I’m part of the Union’ meant something. A time when fax operators in the plant where ‘finkle fingers’ and high-tech whizz kids in the plant. A sequencer who sent telexes and worked in the MAD squad and not on the Widow, ‘a nickname from the main assembly track’.  The play on words is familiar from Swing Hammer Swing. Thus, here in the opening page, you’ve got ‘Starting’, and you’ve got much the same story of booze and derring-do, with not much derring and with stoppages and the threat of strike action, even less do.

                Shoes in hand, each boozy breath cautiously drawn, mindful of the notorious creaking seventh tread, Steve Lake tipsy-toed up the dark staircase. His stealth paid off, he made it to the bedroom landing without disturbing the snoozing trio. It was an accomplishment that even the most experienced cat burglar would have applauded, but he was only too aware of what proverbially follows pride.

Joining together each chapter is, ostensibly, reproduction of a samizdat Centaur Car Co publication called Kikbak, A Laffing Anarkist Publikayshun. Issue 97, for example, offers a poem. ‘The Coming of the Centaurs’ ‘Where cars stand now/There once grazed cows/And ‘hairy engines’ / Pulled the plough/ As close to heaven/ As the Lord allows/ That was Chimeford/ Before the Centaurs came.’

I didn’t bother reading any other ‘Kikbak’ publication, but I did finish the book. Characters such as Tombstone Telfer who believed that smiling caused cancer didn’t make me smile. There was recognition of an industrial past long gone, but in Swing Hammer Swing we have the real thing, this is cardboard tatters full of punch-hole japes, by larger-than-life men, in the wrong place, in the wrong space, and clocking out was more of a relief than a hand job. Job done. This is the second time I’ve read this book. I couldn’t remember it.  I won’t be back.


Des Dillon (2008) My Epileptic Lurcher

I went to Dalmuir library yesterday and got three books. Two by Des Dillon and one by Jeff Torrington. Ewan had mentioned Torrington in one of his posts. Although I know I’ve read his book, Swing Hammer Swing, like most books I read I can’t remember anything about it. Nothing. Well, the bit about it being set in Glasgow. Since hearing Des Dillon speak at Dalmuir library I thought he’s one of us and I better read something he wrote. When I got his books home I realised I had read something he’d written, Six Black Candles.  I suspect this was Des Dillon’s first book. Don’t ask me what it’s about. But I’m not daft. I can read the blurb at the back of the book. I read it years ago. Vaguely remember there was a drama on the telly. Not impressed by either. But I read My Epileptic Lurcher between the three matches of the Euros and enjoyed it.

Write what you know. That’s what they tell you. That’s right up there with advice about murdering your darlings. That’s why you get so many books about middle-class writers giving up journalism or leaving a cushy job to write and, horrors of horrors, finding they have a mental block. Think the smary Karl Ove Knausgaar, My Struggle, and the subtext I never thought I was going to make it as a writer, because people didn’t really understand me. I proved you doubters all wrong.  Fuck right off I say to that. But in Manny Riley the protagonist and narrator we have a guy that’s trying to write screenplays. He has a mental block because he’s mental, with anger issues, -‘I was so angry I was going to fling myself under a bus, or jump through a plate glass window’ – stymied not by his inability to produce ideas and finished projects but the real possibility nobody wants to read them. From the little I’ve picked up about Des Dillon he’s Manny right down to a tee. The gallus walk he could mimic, the working-class swagger, the anger issues and him telling us he’d turned BBC down for a £100 000 project because they had fucked up the independence debate. Integrity, that’s what it’s all about, integrity, he, and Donny the West Dunbartonshire Reading Champion (yes there is such a thing, such a person that exists outside comic books) told us that’s what being  a writer means. I remember thinking, fuck that, I’d have took the money. Here Manny Riley does take the money. It allows him to buy a house for the knockdown price of £20 000 and set up home in Dumfries with the love of his life Connie and their two dogs and a cat, in the supporting role. In the blurb on the front page Dillon writes, ‘Dogs love you…end of story’. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

            -Mummy, Mummy, I say and they go to Connie.

-Daddy, Daddy, she says, — Yum yum. Daddy’s got the biscuits, and they back they came.

There’s quite a lot of doggy talk. Some of that so bad you’ve got to look away. For example, a bit-sized morsel from the point of view of Bailey, the eponymous, epileptic lurcher:

Me flakken the Daddy he comes in from the alkies. Flakkens me flakkens me shouting he. The Daddy go on the cou and me go oof oof an flakken him. Big long paws on he chest an lickty lick his fay an bite his noy with teethy teethy no no. Nages Blongo goes like that for and Connooroo and gets toy an give toy to Daddy.

Connor is the name of another dog Manny and Connie have rescued. Blongo, you have probably guessed, is another pet name for Bailey, so called because of the colouring of the lurcher. But after reading that description of doggy love, if you are a bit callous like me, you’re probably thinking it would be best for all humanity and for literature if both dogs (and the cat) had a bolt through their head. But there you’d be wrong. For take out all the shite and this is an entertaining book about a working class bloke trying and failing to make a life as a writer, but perhaps succeeding after all.

Anger is a big part of his life, as if resentment. Manny has spent ten years in prison.  The chapters follow him picking up life and learning how to love someone else and something else and learning to love himself. It’s Odysseus in the bottom of a wine bottle. ‘Thanks to my ex-cellmate Paddy I’d not stopped drinking and I was living on my own in the pink cloud of early sobriety’. Paddy knows the score. He’s Manny’s AA sponsor and a gambling addict. He talks Manny into going to a casino with him because there’s a girl that works there that’s that bit special. It’s Connie. For Manny it’s love at first sight, but the odds of them getting together he figures in the thousands to one.

When they marry within four weeks and move to a flat away from the schemes and hassle to an unnamed Scottish island that had me thinking Rothesay, there life’s sorted. Only it isn’t. Neither of them drink and the dole pays the rent, so they’ve enough to get by, but rejection after rejection letters leave Manny full of resentment, which leads to anger, which leads to violence. After reading this I don’t think it was such a good idea to send those poor refugees to Rothesay. First there’s the resentment. People there hate outsiders. And they hate poor people. They hate people that don’t work and that falls into a zeitgeist need to hate others for the sake of social cohesion. Manny is not going to be anybody’s fucking scapegoat for fuckin anybody and neither is his fuckin dogs. Manny swears too much. He can’t help it. That’s the way he thinks. I like the way he thinks I like the way Dillon captures that animosity, the low level snipping of dog walkers getting up earlier and earlier to get their dogs out first and…fuck right off. It’s wearing, very wearing. But that gives Manny his first screenplay success. He’s commissioned by the BBC, well, not commissioned, commissioned, but his first draft is paid for, he’d given £40 000 to produce a shooting script for a series about a guy walking his dog in some out of the way place full of know-it-all arseholes that are quick to express an opinion, not just about dogs, but about life.

But there’s tension, the kind of tension needed for any good story, in that Manny needs to go to London to network and do all the kind of wanky things to make himself a big shot and have a real chance of being a writing success and just at that point he needs to do that Blongo has his first epileptic fit and it seems like the dog is going to die. Manny has a choice: stay in London or fly home. He does the latter, which leads to resentment with Connie. Blongo’s fits escalate. Manny starts to resent losing sleep. Resnts losing Connie and having to pander and revolve their life around a dog that refuses to get better. This is familiar territory with anyone with someone chronically sick in their family.  There’s no answer. That’s the way of life. But the beauty is in the telling. Dillon makes that work. He shows integrity.