Carl MacDougall (2017) Someone Always Robs the Poor

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I was aware of Carl MacDougall in an oblique way. I hadn’t read any of his work, but knew him to be the editor of one of the classic Scottish texts The Devil and the Giro: The Scottish Short Story. When I found out the Scottish Book Trust had approached him and he had agreed to be my mentor for my second novel I was chuffed.

I googled him. This is his latest short-story collection, by the now defunct publishers Freight. I admit to a bias here. A hatred of what we’ve become. Mean minded and petty. In a word it’s about class and lack of it.  Tim Winton touches on it his essay ‘Using the C-word.’ Carl MacDougall gets it right here. Someone Always Robs the Poor. The theft has become more systematic since the nineteen-seventies when we lost the propaganda war and the advent of Thatcherism/ Reeganism, the growth of individualism and if it was going to end in farce it ends in Trumpism. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in apocalyptic tragedy.  Someone always robs the poor, but with the added element of hatred –it’s all their own fault- and we’re to blame for society’s ills.

Someone Always Robs the Poor is the second story in MacDougall’s collection. It begins with the narrator watching the pigs eat her book of fairy tales. They leave behind the feudalism of Poland, the coming genocide of Nazi Germany and their family has a golden to ticket to the promised land of America. Look at the title again.

All day my father stood at the back of the cart waving his hat, and when my mother told him to sit down, he said, I am waving goodbye to Poland. I am looking to see what I have to take with me.

The narrator’s father is an older man. He has purchased his wife, who is very beautiful, and kept her as his own. Hubris leads to nemesis in Leith, Edinburgh, which is not America as the father believes. The streets are not paved with gold, but the sweat of indentured labour.  Someone always robs the poor.

‘After the dance’ is not about romance, but rape and how it curdles a person and poisons families.

In Sunset Song, Chris Guthrie’s mother dies and his father almost kills himself working the land. He calls to her from his sickbed, she’s the flesh of his flesh and he wants her. In MacDougall’s story ‘Spitting it Out’ an old man gets out of his sickbed to go and visit his estranged daughter. She’s no right in the heid he says, with they accusations. But we know the story is as old as the bible.

‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis,’ alcohol in the blood, wet brain. You know the score. Last chance for sanity. Get off at this stop kind of story.  The narrator, like many of us, have been in the wards, been in the wars where there’s no winners, only losers and those that think they can drink the same as everybody else, or like they used to, when things were better. Amy Liptrot does a smashing job in The Outrun of sinking into the words and the ways we explain to ourselves how we need to drink because that’s how we reward ourselves, and when we’re down that’s just the thing for a pick-me-up. When we see a sunset, how the day is so much sunnier with a beer in our hand. Korsakoff is that Glasgow thing. We drink to be happy and we drink to be sad. Drink it our mentor and tormentor.

Carl MacDougall writes about violence, rape, incense and murder. I guess we’re singing from the same hymn sheets. We speak the same bastardin’ language.

In the preface to Scots The Language of the People, MacDougall uses the c-word. Class. ‘The educated classes struggled to rid themselves of “Scotticisms”’.   What was left was the dirt and people that roll in it. That’s me. I’m holding my hand up. It’s no surprise that Billy Connelly is quoted on the back leaf of Someone Always Robs the Poor, ‘Carl is a hero of mine…a great storyteller’.

I envy Carl MacDougall the breadth of his education, the depth of his reading. But the thing about books are they don’t care who you are. Anyone can turn the page and if they’ve got a wee notion, they can read and they too can learn.

I was thinking for example about fucking. You’ve probably heard of it. But more in the dialect sense. When I was writing about Jaz, for example, I wrote. You fuckin’ cunt. Then changed it to you fuckin cunt. The latter is closer to the style that Bernard MacLaverty uses in his short stories. Then one of the characters in Carl MacDougall’s stories says you fucken cunt. Oh, dearie, dearie, which one of us is right?

Well, it’s Carl MacDougall, obviously, because he knows better than most than language is a living thing. Bastard. If you turn to Scots the Language of the People, the section marked Tom Leonard – read on:

The poster for the Makars’ Society advertises a

GRAN MEETIN’

THE NICHT

TAE DECIDE THE

SPELLIN’

O’ THIS POSTER

And the admission price is Thritty pee (a heid).

This wasn’t the only anachronism in the language argument Tom Leonard spotted. On the publication of Six Glasgow Poems in 1969 he altered the argument and rules of engagement by introducing the urban voice and insisting it should be heard, transcribing living Glaswegian speech to prove that language is defined by class as much as by region or country and that working-class speech is as suitable a vehicle for poetry and serious thought as any other;

Tom Leonard: The Voyeur.

what’s your favourite word dearie

is it wee

I hope it’s wee

wee’s such a nice wee word

like a wee hairy dog

with two wee eyes

such a nice wee word to play with dearie

you can say it quickly

with a wee smile

and a wee glance to the side

or you can say it slowly dearie

with your mouth a wee bit open

and a wee sigh dearie

a wee sigh

put your wee head on my shoulder dearie

oh my

a great wee word

and Scottish

it makes you proud

 

 

 

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Scottish Book Trust.

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Writing is the easy part. That’s what I tell folk. That’s when I learn what I think. And others think about me. Reading is the engine of writing. I’ve had a long love affair with books, with bouts of promiscuity. As I get older I find time not reading is time wasted.  Selling yourself, well, that’s the hard part. Not many folk know about Scottish Book Trust. It’s a national charity.  Until I started writing a few years ago I hadn’t heard of it either. Here’s what they do, they encourage children and adults to read books. http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/about/what-we-do. They link it with that buzz word, wellbeing. Whisper it, the key factor is class. Literacy rates in Scotland (and elsewhere) have been falling and this is linked to the gap between rich and poor. The earlier you get kids to read the better quality life they will have. The postcode lottery of what school you attend, whether, for example, Drumchapel High or Bearsden Academy a mile or two away, but on a different planet, determines life chances. Reading is the one thing we can get right, but we’re getting it wrong. The gap remains and has grown in recent years, despite much bluster. The Scottish Book Trust tells us it gave one million free books away last year. They organise festivals and supports authors. I’m a supporter of the charity work of the Scottish Book Trust. I attend most of their festivals in West Dunbartonshire libraries and write about the authors on my blogs. And last year, I gave a reading in West Dunbartonshire’s Dalmuir library of my debut novel Lily Poole (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356).  In a way I’ve worked for the charity for free. It’s win-win, as I get free publicity. My debut novel was novel of the week in West Dunbartonshire libraries. That’s as good as it gets. Most debut novels get published and are pulped within a week. Mine is no different. But for me, books are holy things. To be a published author is a big thing and to be on library shelves next to other novelists that’s a blessing.

My gripe with Scottish Book Trust is I’ve found they’re not to be trusted, don’t acknowledge me as a published author, even though I’ve appeared at one of their festivals as a published author. They can’t deny that I’m Scottish, I’m guess it may be a matter of number of books sold. The underlying question is quality. They don’t want to acknowledge a numpty like me as an author or the whole edifice of Scottish Book Trust will crack and fall to the ground. They may be right.

I’m a big fan of the Scottish Book Trust and have been trying to join them for years, but I fear it’s easier for a Catholic to join the Masons. Over the years I’ve applied for mentoring, the New Writer’s Award and later the Next Chapter Award. The first time I got an email back saying we enjoyed reading your application I thought it was true. After ten or twelve emails saying the same thing you recognise that no they didnae, it’s junk mail. Published authors can apply for inclusion in the Live Literature Database. It makes such applications easier.  BBC Script room, in comparison, are a lot better at that sort of thing. Over the same period I’ve been longlisted twice. They tell you for example, you got an A, but not A-plus for your attempt and your thirty pages script got a full read through. And they give you numbers, out of 13 000 scripts submitted, you were in the top 10%, perhaps even 1%,  but they don’t say we enjoyed reading your script, because they didnae, that’s their job.

To be honest I don’t really think of myself as a writer either. You probably wonder why I keep bothering the Scottish Book Trust with my lame efforts. Simple, they offer a gateway to writers that have been where I am, that will read my work and give an honest critique, point the way forward. That saves me time. Saving time and money, that’s what it’s all about. Unfortunately the Scottish Book Trust enjoyed reading my novel, but they didnae, I don’t exist.  Yet I persist.  Writing is a strange beast.

Gail Honeyman (2016) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

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This book has not been officially release yet. I was lucky enough to buy a copy at West Dunbartonshire Festival of Words at Parkhall library on Monday night. Gail Honeyman was doing her first gig. Ahhhh, that’s nice. She seemed very nice and self-assured. It was the usual format of someone asking her questions about the book and Gail reading two short excerpts from the book. And later questions from the audience.  She read, first page, first paragraph:

When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with the idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people here the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves –

First-person narrative for almost four hundred pages can be hard work. I must admit that if I’d picked this book up on spec and read a bit I’d have put it down again before the second chapter. A simple tale of boy meets girl isn’t really my thing. It does help the boy is a figment of Eleanor Oliphant’s imagination. He exists, but doesn’t know she exists. The other boy, Raymond, that works in IT, is the kind of anorak that anoraks avoid. Eleanor and Raymond seem a good match, but Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine in her own company. Other people are the problem. Will they? Won’t they?  I’ve only read to page 70, but I take it Eleanor’s mum, who plays a big part in the book, is a controlling Myra Hindley type figure that set out to destroy her daughter and largely succeeded, and may yet have the last snarl. Eleanor is weird, even by Glasgow standards. I’m sure Eleanor and her mum set themselves apart, by being different, and this proves to be the point. As a child, Eleanor does not watch telly and doesn’t know what an oven chip is. There was a bit of brouhaha at the reading about not giving too much away. Oh, no, I may be indicted, but it’s all there on the first page for the reader.

I’m nearly thirty years old now and I’ve been working here since I was twenty-one. Bob, the owner, took me on not long after the office opened. I suppose he felt sorry for me. I had a degree in Classics and on work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.

A budding author in the front row of the Parkhall gig asked Gail about agents and getting published. Like Gail she had won the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award. Like Gail she wanted to create a buzz, have her book reviewed, sold internationally, be optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s company, with possibly Witherspoon playing the part of Oliphant. Yep. That’s a good question. I’d quite like to know the answer to that one too.