Great Scottish Writer—Neil M.Gunn (1941 [1989]) The Silver Darlings.

The Silver Darlings, referred to in the title, are herring. Neil M.Gunn’s most popular novel was published by Faber & Faber in 1941. Think about that. T.S.Eliot was the main man at Faber & Faber. The phony war with Germany was over. Britain was in retreat and awaiting imminent invasion and possible starvation as U-boats sunk tens of thousands of tons of merchant shipping. Gunn dedicated the book ‘to the memory of my father’. And men like him, men of deep faith that have been torn from the land by bailiffs and absent landlords, but still cling onto hope ‘because no landlord owned the sea’ (or so we thought). William Faulkner’s, much quoted requiem to neologisms, still holds true, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’  

The first trickle of the herring boom allowed ordinary men and women to cling to the land, by going to sea, in much the same way the oil boom regenerated the Scottish economy. Its surplus squandered by Thatcherite monetarist policies that continue causing misery to the poorest while rewarding the richest for nothing much more than being rich. This is a love story, but it’s also a lesson in economics.

Chapter 1, The Derelict Boat.   Toland aged 24, ‘felt full of a great competence. Catrine was only nineteen,’ and pregnant. Like many others they’d survived the winter on shellfish and seaweed. Colic and dysentery their bed companions when they ate the wrong things.

‘Old men, trying to live on nothing to give the young a better chance, had become unbelievably gaunt, so that children would run from them frightened.’

Catrine clings to Toland. She’s hysterical. ‘All along these coasts—the coasts of the Moray Firth—there was a new stirring of sea life.’

The sea is their common salvation. Listen to the almost biblical language of Gunn.

The landlords who had burned them out in order to bring a suitable desolation for sheep (italics my own).   

[They] had set about making a harbour at the mouth of the river, the same river that, with its tributaries, has threaded the island valleys. Money had been advanced by him (at 6 ½ per cent, interest) to erect buildings for dealing with fish.’

I thought this would be a book about Catrine and Toland, but by the end of chapter 1, he’s gone from Dale. And Catrine is with child. She travels to a strange country, Dunster, to stay with her older friend Kirsty. Kirsty has a large croft with only her father to keep, but they also speak the common language of the people, the Gaelic.  Catrine is almost raped on the way from Dale to Dunster by a shepherd. But it’s subtly done. These things didn’t happen in Britain at the end of the Napoleonic era, not to good girls.

She meets skipper Roddie Sinclair. And old woman instructs Roddie to take her to Kirsty’s father’s croft. He’s no rapist (well, to jump ahead twenty years, she says ‘no’ but means yes, I’m not sure how that would translate nowadays). Roddie declares he’s married to the sea, but we know that he’s the strongest, bravest and best skipper, while she’s the bonniest, (mirror, mirror on the wall) she’s the prettiest of all.

But she’s still married to Toland. He’s been taken by a warship, while fishing off the coast, press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Catrine has a vision that he’s dead. But Roddie and Catrine’s lives must run in parallel, because that’s what the good book says.

Catrine gives birth to Finn. The good book follows his life as he grows up, and establishes a relationship with Roddie. A preacher teaches arithmetic with examples from the sea.

‘How many women are in a gutting crew, and what do they do?

Three. Two gutters and one packer.

What do they jointly earn for gutting and packing one barrel of herring?  You!

Fourpence, said the fisherman.

How many herring are in a barrel?

… There can be 800.

What does a woman get for gutting 100 herring?

… Now we have in our midst, a distinguished craftswoman in net making… How much is this woman paid for a net?

Finn raised his hand. ‘The number of knots along the top is 1801. The number down that 504…The total is 909 500 knots.

How many knots does she have to tie to earn one penny, ignoring fractions?

Mag had to tie 5790 knots to earn one penny.’

Finn had listened to endless arguments over the years. Mr Hendry at first said that they might as well haul their boats and close down. From four shillings on the barrel the [government] bounty had gone down to three shillings, to two shillings, to one shilling, to nothing.

Finn’s coming of age is marked by a seeming downturn in fishing. He falls in love, but cannot admit it, especially to himself. This is Toland and Catrine, but for the next generation, and for our generation. The story of love does not grow old and weary in the way our bodies do. In the way his mother’s body does. Only Roddie seems to defy the laws of aging. A hard man and hard taskmaster, he has the patience of Job.

When Roddie and Finn clash, as they must, both have some growing up to do. Catrine, ever virgin, despite being married and having a child, is the ballast.

The Silver Darlings is rooted in Scotland’s past, when those that owned the land, owned the people on the land, and created ‘a desolation’ of wealth. Much as now. They still do, even as fishing has dwindled to less than 1% of GDP, with boats coasting tens of millions of pounds that can catch and package fish for the market while still at sea lying rusting in dock. The lie of Brexit, fouling the nets. Gunn’s requiem for his father and his father’s father way of life and fishing so they might live and prosper. It’s all here. Open the book and read one of the classics of Scottish literature.

Visiting Time. Poems, essays and stories from behind the walls of HMP Shotts (2019) various authors.


Visiting Time. Poems, essays and stories from behind the walls of HMP Shotts (2019) various authors.

I’m well-disposed to liking this book, as Pat McDaid will tell you. The judge said I was ‘an educated man’ but a ‘danger to society’.

I’d never been called educated before. I was pretty chuffed and my mind jumped to that Tobias Wolff short story when the guy laughs at the bank robbers with guns because they keep talking in clichés. Snobbish, I know. I admitted I was a danger because I kept losing my sobriety and finding my car keys.

The judge didn’t laugh.

Anyway, back to Visiting Time. I like many of the poems, written by Anon, whoever he is. They all seem to rhyme, which is so old fashioned. Outlawed by T.S. Eliot who measured his life in tea spoons.

Six Wishes by Anon.

He wishes things could be more peaceful.

He wishes he’d never done it.

He wishes he was going home to his family.

He wishes he’d stayed at school.

He wishes he had listened to his mother.

He wishes he could turn back time.

It’s an easy enough book to read. I took about an hour. Honesty comes from the heart. Aphorisms and humour, anon, anon.

As Alan Bennett remarked, ‘Reading can feel like a hand reaching out and taking yours’.

Writing can often feel like a slap on the wrist and not for the likes of us.

Think about diegesis and the difference between narrative and plot. The king is dead and the queen died too tells a story. The king is dead, and the queen died of grief, is the plot of a story. It’s got the bounceabilty of a longer narrative, such as, ‘The judge didn’t laugh.’

There are some plays and some songs, but mostly the stories here are simple narratives.  

In a short-story by S, One man’s pain is another man’s laughter, for example, the narrator Stuart gets drunk and attends the wrong funeral. I’ve done that too, although my name isn’t Stuart and I wasn’t drunk, or at least I think I wasn’t drunk. Sit tight or bolt? Then like Stuart, you’ve got everybody lined up, the whole clan waiting to shake your hand, greeting.  What do you do? Tell them you’re no’ really sorry. I never knew the man, or risk getting caught out in the lie? Aye.

rendezvous, another poem by Anon has a wee secret at its heart. It’s an in joke for the alkies.  Only those in the know, nod and wink, know rendezvous is a pub on Dunbarton Road.

sittin in the hoose/bored oot ma heid/telly’s snide/might go back to my bed/then the dog starts to wimper n gee me that stare/get your arse in gear daddy or I’ll shite on the flair/…/arrive at the rendezvous lounge n bar/ plant our weary arses n order a jar.’

Perhaps my favourite story is a fairy-tale. I used to love fairy-tales and big books are just fair-tales too. This a knock-off of a story of auld Nick. You know how there is meant to be seven basic plots, well auld Nick squeezes his way into about three of them. Offhand, think Macbeth, story of the witches.  Rabbie Burns, the Deil and Tam o’shanter.  Walter Scott, Wandering Willie’s Tale.  Robert Louis Stevenson, The Bottle Imp. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The list goes on. There’s a devil in all of us.

Old Nick and the Lottery Winner (inspired by a Mayan folk tale) by  Anon follows Chekov’s dictum, a short-story should be a glance, with the Scottish believe there should be a bit of a smirk added.

Deal with the devil and you strike a bargain. It’s there in the title.

‘And that’s what he did. That night the clock struck twelve, the man arrived at the crossroads.’

The devil appears in the form of his long dead da.  We know what the devil wants –your soul. The Edinburgh man wants a hundred-million pound Lottery rollover, which isn’t too much to ask.  

Your plots set up, the deal is done, how to end it all in fewer than 1500 words and diddle the devil?

Read on.

Book of the year. Peter Wadhams (2016) A Farewell to Ice. A Report From the Arctic.

blue planet.jpg

A writer has one imperative, or simple rule – read. Often I have little understanding of what I’m reading. Usually there is a but here. I do not understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but…kinda like a meme from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started.’ Or Rumi’s parable of the elephant and six blind men. One holding onto a leg, or trunk, an ear, and explaining to the other what in the world stands true. Wadhams’ A Farewell to Ice is a familiar tale and it is distilled into a line of poetry he quotes from mystic Francis Thompson: ‘Thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star’.

Like Jonah preaching to the Ninevites and warning them they have forty days, Wadhams is telling us much the same thing about the accelerating effects of Arctic Feedbacks on our once blue planet. He is not giving us forty days, but perhaps forty years and we’re pretty much gubbed, sackcloth and ashes.

The trigger is fossil fuels, measured in parts per million, and what he is saying is mankind has already fired the bullet. I employ a simple rule of thumb, when a pessimist is also a realist, usually he’s right. Think of Thomas Piketty Capital documenting how after the end of the 1970s money flowed at increasing rates from the poor to the rich in the developed world. Like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, I don’t need to know all the details. I can believe it is true, or not, which is an act of faith. But Piketty as an economist showed us how he got to where he is and said, very simply, prove me wrong. Wadham does the same. Here is my data and here is my message: ‘We must not only go to zero emissions, we must actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere’ (italics around text are Wadhams’). He suggests a real danger with hundreds of millions starving, and also  the possibility of nuclear war.

What Wadhams didn’t factor in was the Donald Trump factor and the appointment of former General ‘Mad Dog’ Maddis as United States Defense Secretary, or the President Elect’s provocation with China over the sovereignty of South Korea even before he takes office. We live in interesting times.

But Wadhams is on more familiar ground with his outing of ‘The Black Tide of Denial’ and how fossil fuel interests have taken a hatchet to budgets and attempted to discredit those that support the claims of global warming in the same way that Communists were thought to be under every bed in the McCarthy era. Wadham gives several examples of attacks on himself and other scientists, but perhaps the best example comes from Jamie Doward, The Observer, ‘How the trolling of a tech pioneer reveals a new assault on climate science’: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/elon-musk-trolling-us-conservatives-green-tech

Wadham could not have predicted prior to publication this year that the trolls that produced such propaganda would not only try to influence decisions about climate change, but would be appointed as judges of what was right and wrong. All that ‘green crap’ referred to by David Cameron is dead in the water. An analogy would be fifty years ago appointing directors of the big five tobacco companies as independent advisors of whether there was a link between smoking and cancer. The difference now, of course, is we’ve not got fifty years. The enemy is at the door now. And our blue planet does not care what you believe, or whether you believe it is right or wrong. The earth will keep turning. One million years is not the equivalent of a minute in the day. Pseudo-science and greed has given voice and grown arms and legs. Perhaps reason will meet sense, but I doubt it. We are too far down the path. As above, so below and all parts are interconnected.

Listen to a quote in Wadhams from a voice of reason, scientist and Professor Robert P. Abele.

As we inflict violence on the planet to the point of mortality, we inflict violence on ourselves, to the point of our mortality. A dead planet will result in dead people, and a people and/or its leaders who are psychologically and/or ethically desensitized to the consequences of this Terran violence have no chance of long-term survival.

Read this book. Share this post. Ask a simple question: what can we do?

Poetry Week on BBC

in their own words

Helen Ivory and George Szirtes (eds) (2012) In Their Own Words Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry.

It’s poetry week on BBC 4. Last night I watched a drama that uses Simon Armitage’s poetry to dramatize the life and death of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. She and her lanky boyfriend were attacked in a park by a group of feral boys. Their attackers shoe prints and the pattern of their laces were left embedded in Sophie’s head. Black roses were the imprints of the bruising on her body. She died in hospital; her boyfriend survived. Their crime was to be different. To be Goths was their putative death sentence.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b055kpfm/black-roses-the-killing-of-sophie-lancaster

There’s a vast ocean of words, nouns, adjectives, prepositions and alliteration, pushing and pulling with powerful undertows, but very little of it washes up on BBC, or is generally read. The days of carrying poetry in our head is long gone. School syllabus shepherds survivors to A level and sometimes beyond, but rarer still does the bond survive, a C grade, or less, it sinks, it stinks and who is to blame for making poetry so flint hard and insufferable its only eggheads that gain immortal fame. I must admit here I am to blame.

I can’t tell the difference between carrots or poetry. But these contemporary poets can. They offer words of wisdom. Every prose writer should read this book. Open it at random (even though there’s no such thing):

            [Helen Mort]I’d been reading Rilke earlier in the day and had set off running with an idea, or rather with a set of questions in my mind – what would beauty look like personified? Would it be a terrifying thing?  The poem’s first line (or form) came to me about a mile into the run, and from then on narrative began to present itself, led by the rhymes (which were insistent early on).

[Rilke] Beauty…is nothing but the beginning of terror.

[Helen Mort] When beauty stumbled down my road, tapped on my door

I saw her from the lounge and hid – her eyes were raw

from smoke, her cheeks like risen dough from where she’d wept

and worse I didn’t like the company she kept:

a red-faced drunk who towed a dachshund on a string.

I like this. I appreciate what Helen Mort is saying, but like many others I’m no initiate or intimate with the language of poetry. My response is often what’s it got to do with me? Or indeed the likes of me. T.S. Eliot that great pillar of the poetry establishment life may have been measured in teaspoons and church candles, but I don’t understand the man or his work. And to me it is work, reading poetry. The contemporary poets in this collection do make sense to me. Perfect sense.  But here’s the rub, there commentaries of how and why make sense, but when it comes to poems on the page, there’s no aha moment, no heavy water that blows me away. There’s sometimes lines stringed together that was quite nice. Bravo old boy or girl. Sometimes I think I’ve opened a Chinese cracker and I’m reading it upside down and the answer will come to me. Poetry like prose washes through and sometimes over you. Poetry should change the world, but it doesn’t. That’s a familiar pattern. Something we should recognise, but don’t. I guess God or Old Possum knows. I’ll need to begin reading this good book again. Maybe one day, I pray, I’ll understand poetry.