Book Week Scotland, Karen Campbell (2019) The Sounds of the Hours, presented in Parkhall library.


Long story. I was in Dalmuir library yesterday. For some reason I wanted to check out Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Diaries.

As you know Gramsci was leader of the Italian Communist Party.  Gramsci writes about how capitalism mutates and appropriates art and literature to establish a cultural hegemony. If that sounds pretty long-winded it’s probably because I don’t understand it either. Gramsci did. And it’s increasingly relevant today. The working class (that includes me) lost the propaganda war. What’s normal, just seems so.

Gramsci was imprisoned when Benito Mussolini’s blackshirts marched on Rome, which is the kind of lie Gramsci would recognise as myth making. Mussolini who wore a bowler hat and spats when taking flying lessons and petted a lion club in his lap, while his driver chauffeured him around the streets of Rome is a leader who sounds vaguely familiar. His switch from supporting the Communist Party to supporting Fascism also resonates with leaders whose only ideology is self-glorification.

Fascism shorn of its spats and bowler hats and lassez-faire disguise sounds to me just capitalism with added imperialism. Making Italy great again, by invading Ethiopia.   Making Germany great again by Anschluss and Lebensraum and seizing the lands of the lesser nations to give the German people breathing space.

Volksfuhrer, Adolf Hitler, demanded Jews and Communists be kept apart and concentrated in camps, caged as Trump cages refugees and immigrant children.

Business leaders’ demands of the fascist leaders were deregulation and a cutting of red tape.  Deregulation = no regulation.

Work makes you free. Himmler’s SS were paid a fixed fee by employers such as Volkswagon for them to provide labour. The SS provided food and accommodation and took a fee, in much the same way Sports Direct Workers or Amazon workers are not employed directly be the company. Zero-hour contracts, mandatory.

Short story. The Prison Diaries wasn’t in Dalmuir library.  Library staff said they’d purchase a copy, even though it’s been long out of print. There’s something beautiful in that.

I noticed there was a leaflet for an author, sponsored by Book Scotland, who was selling her book The Sound of the Hours in Parkhall library.

I couldn’t be arsed going and it was cold outside. But I’d been there. I’d did a gig 2016, Book Scotland, Dalmuir Library, when I was a writer, trying to sell my book Lily Poole (West Dunbartonshire library book of the week).  I decided to go to Parkhall and show solidarity with my fellow worker.

Karen Campbell was great. She talked about her journey as a writer. The Sound of the Hours was her seventh book, but her first historical novel. There were things I can relate to, her setting was often Glasgow, and her having been an ex-cop, but admittedly, not a very good one–write what you know –  she’d wrote detective novels. She also wrote about immigrants and the homeless.

The Sound of the Hours was a harder sell. It was set during the Second World War in Italy, but the Glaswegian part of Italy. Barga. You’ve probably spotted the contradiction. She told me things I was vaguely familiar with, how immigrants from the poorer Southern regions had come here to work, mainly to sell ice-cream and chips to the Scottish working class. A niche market and culture.

They were immigrants like my Da from Ireland, standing outside shipyard gates waiting for that call.

My hand was first up when she asked if we’d any questions. I said, ‘My Da, when he was drunk would always shout about the Gothic Line. That we should get on the blower to Paki.’ Paki I explained, was an Italian and was called Paki because he had black hair. I guess we could say those were more innocent times, but I’d be lying.

‘Was the place she was writing about anywhere near the Gothic Line?’ I asked her ‘Because that’s were my dad served in the army and watched his pals die’.

‘Aye.’

Barga was the Gothic line. Italy is mountainous. The Germans when they’d freed Mussolini from his hilltop prison split Italy like the Brexit vote. She said she’d thought about having the word Gothic line in her title. I was a step ahead of her here. That would have put her in the wrong camp, with Dracula and co.

We don’t judge a book by its cover. She admitted her cover was of the Friday night coup d’état from Bloomsbury order. I’m reminded of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy in Truth & Beauty: A Friendship discussing how a bad cover can kill your book. And many of my readers reminded me the best part of my book was the cover. So I’m up to speed on the cover issue and she admitted on the foreground it’s got hanging branches with lemons. That fruit doesn’t grow anywhere near Barga, or Italy, generally.  A bland, blue-greenish cover is a bitter lemon for any author to swallow.

Luckily, I was already hooked. I bought a copy…Having read the first few chapters…well, that’s another story. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have, usually, have picked this type of book. Read on.     

Lucy Grealy (1994) Autobiography of a Face. Ann Patchett (2004) Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

autobiography of a face.jpg

truth and beauty.jpg

I never read the same book twice, but this is my third, or fourth, reading of Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face. Joyce Carol Oates may yammer on, in fictional terms, about her characters finding their one true thing, but for every David Bowie there’s millions of Davie Bowieless strumming a guitar and never making anything of their life or art. There’s more writers than people with cancer. One reading of these books (and there are many ways of viewing them) is these books are about the common bond of two established writers. Ann Patchett describes herself in Truth & Beauty as the ant, grinding out word after word, fictional page after page, while Grealy was the grasshopper jumping from brilliant idea to brilliant idea. A greater difference has to do with money and security and where they’ve come from. Grealy picks up on that fundamental class difference:

‘The difference isn’t who has what in their checking account,’ she said. ‘The difference is the safety net. If you bottom out, you have people who’ll rescue you. If I bottom out, it’s free fall.’

I shook my head. ‘That’s completely stupid. You have the exact same safety net that I do. You have me.’

Elsewhere Patchett decribes Grealy as a ‘firefly’. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, in her Neopolitan novels focus is on such an intense and lifelong friendship, and on Lena, who burns brightest and longest in their corner of the world, which could be transported to 1985 and Iowa City, where the two twenty-one year old, former Sarah Lawrence undergraduate students, now share a house and teach writing classes at graduate school and learn, ostensibly, to polish their own writing. But Patchett describes the move as more a holding operation, before real life starts. They leave Iowa behind, but take their friendship and love with them. Patchett acting as Grealy’s North Star, always there for her true friend, and for the next twenty years, until Grealy’s death of a heroin overdose, offering a place to find her way home.

One of the things I found was I’d read Patchett’s book on Truth and Beauty before, which was a surprise to me.  I guess the title comes from John Keats,  Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, and there is great beauty in Pratchett’s book, but memory fades. I laughed at Patchett and Grealy’s attempt, well, largely Grealy’s attempt, whilst dragging Patchett along, to make Ohio into the equivalent of 1930s ‘La Boheme’ Paris. Dancing in the kitchen for hours. Lucy moved like water, Patchett tells the reader, while I hung against the wall. It’s such a great descriptive phrase she uses it a few other times. The music was so loud and ‘they laughed so hard, our neighbor Nancy had no choice but to come over and dance with us for a while’. Grealy, finally, loses her virginity, aged 22, and Patchett says she has more sex than all of their friends put together, but was always waiting for that one true person that would love her for herself and see beyond her lack of a jaw.

After being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma (with a less than five-percent prognosis of staying alive) Grealy was always waiting for life to start. Thirty-nine operation to fix her face and to fix her life.  But Grealy, writing about her face, Pratchett wrote, ‘felt like she had just slipped a knife into the ground and sliced open a diamond mine.’ She goes on to say, ‘the writing was stunning, better than her best poems.’ Poets often make the best fiction and non-fiction writers and Grealy saw herself at this time as a poet. That’s what gave her identity, who she was and what she was. ‘Not only had she found her story,’ says Patchett, ‘she had found all the room that prose allows. Her life was no longer a metaphor for something else.’

Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others suggest that this ‘ “We”- this “we” is everyone who has never experienced what they went through- don’t understand. We truly don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like…and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine.’

Grealy’s great gift is she takes the reader straight there. Language matters. She didn’t want to be known for her face and lack of a jawbone. She wanted to be known for her art. Her luck. Her magic. Her charmed life. Or charmed lives, each one larger than the one before. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is a truly wondrous book, one of the books I’d like to think most people would read in their lifetime. Beauty & Truth plays John the Bapitist to Grealy’s life and Christ-like suffering and the great joy she brought to the page and to the literary life ever after.