William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

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Carl MacDougall (1989) Stone Over Water.

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This is an old book in that Carl MacDougall received a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council to write his debut novel. How quaint that sounds now. It’s like having a governess or a government that valued literature.  I ripped through the book quickly. The story pays homage to Jane Eyre. The hero and narrator of the novel is Angus McPhail. ‘Give me the child until and I will give you the man’ is the maxim of Aristotle, or Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits and the documentary series 7UP tested that idea. Here Angus is a foundling at Greenbank House, the next minute he’s told to pack his stuff, he’s to be adopted. He’s twelve, the couple adopting him wanted a child with blue eyes. Angus has blue eyes, his new mother and father are quite happy with him. His brother Cameron and sister Euphemia (Phammie) treat him as if he’s one of the family. Cameron takes Angus to school and introduces him to everyone as his long-lost brother. Angus felt wanted.

His new father works in a bank writes a diary and might be working on a novel of what it means to be Scottish. Angus works in a bank writes a diary and is working on a novel of what it means to be Angus McPhail. His mother takes wee white pills and can be forgetful. It’s the 1960s. Phammie goes to find herself, but gets a bit lost. Cameron embraces Marxist dialectic and the working class. He proves himself to be less bourgeoisie than others might think by robbing banks for the cause.

Part One, Part Two and Part Three, or the beginning, the middle and the end are prefaced by a different kind of Marx, Groucho. ‘The party in the first part will be known as the party in the first part.’

The party of the third part takes us up to Thatcherism and the rewriting of history and it seems vaguely familiar. Take, for example, the film Darkest Hour. And listen to what Angus is telling his bit on the side Miranda.

Fiction is so pessimistic, which obviously has the effect of making people like me feel powerless, which is what it’s supposed to do. We’ve been told we’re powerless and now we feel powerless. The bourgeoisie have taken over everything.

…They even won the war.

Churchill won the war. He had a little help from his generals and their officers, but the soldiers merely did what they were told, the men and women who did the fighting and died for fuck-all simply responded to good leadership. So how can you compete with that, how can you come to terms with, far less survive in, a system where everything is subject to reassessment and that revision is adopted and fed back as propaganda?

Amen to that. Angus McPhail is a prophet. I’ve been saying that for the last ten years. Here it is in print from 1980 before we had ever second programme on Channel 4 and 5 with the tag Benefit and the unwritten script – scum. And here we have the latest tale of Churchill saving Britain by writing a speech about Never, Never, Never. I guess like the recent hokum about the King learning not to stutter Britain would have lost the war if it wasn’t for wordpower. Dream on. I’m a McPhail. 1% own more than the bottom 50% in Scotland is not a headline that shocks, it’s something that passes largely unnoticed. That’s the power of propaganda.   Stone Over Water, aye.

 

Alan Johnson (2014) Please Mister Postman. A memoir.

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I’d a vague notion of who Alan Johnson was. I read this book because I wanted to chart his journey from ordinary working-class bloke—when the book begins, ‘a seventeen-year old shelf stacker at Anthony Jackson’s supermarket on the Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen’— to becoming an MP in the Conservative government under Thatcher, or John Major. I couldn’t remember which Prime minister it was. Alan Johnson became a Labour MP and severed in the Cabinet under Tony Blair. Same difference some of you might say. The journey is still the same one. But back then as he shows time and time again we had vague notions about equality. Government wasn’t entirely a more-it-tocracy increasingly serving the rich and their own interest. Economics wasn’t entirely about funnelling money from the poor to the rich under the pretence that it made the country stronger and more self-sufficient. The difference between Labour and Tories couldn’t be reduced to a simple equation of sacking as many workers as possible, make the remainder work harder to increase productivity and sell, pass the parcel of the company on, as quickly as possible to get an increased profit for the rich without the holes in the balance sheet and in people’s lives showing. Labour were for more and better government. Think about it for a second. Labour grew out of trade unions demanding rights for workers. It’s easy to forget that with this lot going to the same public schools, the same Oxbridge education and hob-nobbing with the Tories. Same old Tories, then as now, but we at least had a partial alternative.  The Tories were for less of everything, light-touch regulation and less being spent on things that didn’t and no longer matter to rich folk. Common things like having a home, being able to heat it and having food on the table. These were to be left to the market.

So I got it wrong he was in the different carriage of a train and got off at different station. Alan Johnson Labour MP. But here he is. ‘It’s Christmas Eve 1967. A Saturday. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m waiting for Mike.’ Mike’s married to Alan’s sister. An all-round good guy who likes a good drink. Back then drink driving was a laughable offence of finding your car key and being able to open the car door, rather than a criminal offence. Everybody did it. It never did you any harm school of tough love. Mike’s loveable, but his sister Linda is a little mum, their own mum, Lilian May Johnson, born 1921 had died 1964. Mike was his hero, but Linda provides the quiet corner of his life in which he can stretch and grow. Alan isn’t just a shelf-stacker. He writes songs, has started a band and hopes to hitch on the sixties zeitgeist and become a pop star.

The future Alan has planned out hits a speed-bump. He meets Judith Elizabeth Cox. He’s seventeen. She’s an older woman, twenty-one, with a child to another man. Melodrama. Not really. They are young and in love. They get married. Linda’s pregnant three months after the wedding. Thoughts of being the next Rolling Stone get shoved aside. He needs a steady job and a council house for his growing family.

Alan Johnson become a postman. He cycles from his digs in Notting Hill to Barnes Green, one of the smaller postal delivery routes in London. He’s a natural, it’s a steady job, a lot of ex-forces personnel. No corner cutting. No excuses.  The mail gets delivered come what may. He’s found a vocation. Something he’s good at.  But the money’s not too good. Overtime is the answer. Postman can work night and day, their job never ends (or so it seemed then).

Fast forward a few years. Alan’s got a council house in Slough. A little green were ten council houses nestled.  He can’t quite believe his luck. He can still cycle to work in Slough. Their neighbours are posh, the get-up-and-go type. And they do. When council houses are given away by the government they take theirs and move on. So does Alan.

Alan becomes a union rep. It’s not something he’s thought about a great deal, but he like to read and think. Only a fool can see that the workers were being screwed. It wasn’t all politics. Working class men had their clubs and after they put the politician in themselves to bed they had a shindig. Characters like ‘Big Joe Menzies’ a former railway worker from Perth, were both an inspiration and a role model. He tapped into reservoir of people that had worked with their hands and workers with fine minds that wanted to serve others like them.

Alan finds he’s spending more time on his union duties than on his postman’s job. He keeps working. He need to keep in touch with his colleagues. Their gripes are his gripes. Their causes his causes. He finds a sponsor and is promoted to full-time union officer. He travels the country. He’s a natural union rep as he was a postman. It’s a good combination, but his marriage suffers. He divorces. But life’s on the up and up.  But there’s a reminder that life isn’t something you can plan. Mike, his sister’s husband and one of his best friends, loses his job, admits he’s an alcoholic and hangs himself. Sobering.

But the years ahead with Cameron and his cronies gaining the levers of power are even more so. This book is a reminder that we once did things for ourselves, paid a decent(ish) wage, took pride in our work and did it well.  Perhaps that is the lesson that needs to be re-learned. No more to the robber-barons of government share issues, like the selling off of the post office, and an increasingly large share of any enterprise to the bloated and rich that produce nothing but stir the pot of the poor and take the honey. Alan Johnson’s memoir, it seems like Dickensian times now, rather than then.

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Anniversary of the Miner’s Strike 1984/5 today (all those years ago) they went back to work.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “In Loving Memory.”

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My brother phoned me today. He works in Fife, Longannet Power station, been there about twenty years. Longannet is one of the few coal-fired power stations that is still on grid. It was opened in 1972 and has a capacity of 2400 MW. Most of the other coal-fired power stations in Scotland are closed. That’s not a bad thing. With global warming mankind is on life support and we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. I understand he really doesn’t give a fuck. Year after year his company gets taken over by another company. They all tell him the same thing. I want you to do more with less. So they tell him what shifts he’ll do. If they say nightshift there’s no extra. If they say dayshift no extra. Weekends no extra. Be thankful you have a job. They’ll shut down one unit. Then another. Then he won’t have a job. That’s life as we know it now.

Let’s look at the options. My brother-in law is a nuclear engineer. I used to go down and visit my sister in Dunbar when she had kids and they both worked in the plant. Torness capacity is 1300 MW.  It opened in 1988. All the other power plants in Scotland provide MW power in hundreds not thousands of MW.

Longannet was literally built on coal. Coal powered the industrial revolution. Not oil or gas. Coal. During the Second World War coal was so important that men were directed into army, navy, air force and coal mines. Jimmy Saville modelled himself as being a Bevan boy. Coal miners were hard men. Life was hard, brutal and short.  In my recent review of Red Dust Road Jackie Kay mentioned that (I think it was) her dad’s brother a miner in Fife got buried in landfill and had to get dug out. George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier goes down a pit. This is the 1930s, but his descriptions of getting to the coal face, which could take an hour and half of cracked head and crawling in insufferable heat, blindness, dampness and putrid air could have come straight from Zola’s Germinal of the 1850s French coal fields and the wages, as in the novel, were subsistence level. No more, no less. Workers had to live, but each mining office had an official stamp which they frequently used, to save time, because miners died every day.

Miners really were in it together and this sense of solidarity translated into union leaders that wanted a fair share for those that produced the society we now live in. In the 1960s and 1970s coal miners were the aristocracy of the working class.  Their fathers and fathers before them may not have been paid a living wage, but their unions made sure that they were as well paid as school teachers. Up until the 1990s Britain was reliant on coal for its power stations.

Bankers didn’t hold the country to ransom, because of course nice middle-class men would never do that sort of thing. Whereas miners produced coal that powered the country, bankers produced esoteric algorithms and ways of moving money from A to B so that their increasing share of C and D was moved into their accounts. When bankers weren’t doing that they were producing bespoke ways of moving cash out of the country to avoid taxation. Cheating isn’t cheating when dealing with billlions as the HSBC scandal shows and not for the first time. Government of course being a bad thing and being caught and facing a fine, well nobody died, nobody hurt.

Miners paid their tax and they paid for the nation’s wealth with their blood and the blood of their children. What has happened to the miners has happened to us all. Arthur Scargill said there was a government hit list. He said the Thatcher government stockpiled coal and wanted to fight. Then, of course, he said the NUM had been infiltrated by MI5 and we would be better investing in alternative forms of energy such as wind, wave, and solar. The man was clearly cuckoo. There used to be 84 000 miners, now there are a handfull. Longannet still uses coal in 2015. We bring it from abroad.

Lessons learned. Every man for himself.  Don’t trust the police. Don’t trust the law. Hundreds of miners fitted up by the Scottish constabulary that waved loads-of-overtime-money in miner’s faces. Being charged with an offence meant not just a criminal record but automatic dismissal by the coal company that employed them. Double wammy.

Lesson learned, employers call the shots. Wealth flows from the poor to the rich. Be grateful you have a job. Be grateful there are food banks because almost quarter of a million children in Scotland live below the poverty line. Be grateful Arthur Scargill wasn’t a banker because there would be no telling what victory would have looked like.