Bernard MacLaverty (2021) Blank Pages and Other Stories

Many stories I read blend into one another. Some of them I can vaguely remember. They tend to be—by that measure—the best. I’m thinking here of George Mackay Brown, Celia, which is arguably the best short story in The Devil and the Giro, edited by Carl MacDougall. I met Carl a few times and he was great, but not great enough to get in the collection of the best of The Scottish Short Story. Bernard MacLaverty short story A Time To Dance is a standout. That was great. Carl talked about another of MacLaverty’s short stories. A young Catholic Irish woman that cleans a big-wig, Protestant guy’s house and he’s always pestering her for sex, offering loads of cash. But she’s loyal, even though her husband beats her and spends all the housekeeping money on booze. Then she’s not loyal. Or loyal to herself. Carl couldn’t mind the title of it. And neither could I. But remembering it means something has stuck. That’s a long-winded way of saying Blank Pages and the eleven Other Stories won’t stick around very long in my memory. They’ll go the way of another Irish writer, Frank O’Connor, who writes on similar themes of Irishness and Britishness and never the twain shall meet, until they do.

In Blank Pages, the narrator is a writer. It’s not Bernard MacLaverty, of course, but it is Bernard MacLaverty. Stephen King does that. When he can’t think what trade the narrator will be, his fall-back position is writer. I guess we’re in Midwinter Break territory, but the narrator’s wife is dead. She left the cat, Lui, she chose when it was a kitten, or the kitten chose her. A freebie from a farmer’s wife on the edge of Loch Lomond. There’s not much kittenishness left, but there are fleas.

‘For ages after Kathy died, the cat was in mourning. She knew there was something very wrong. A place was missing and the man was no substitute.’

Kathy had left box files for Frank: ‘PENSIONS, TAX, HOUSE, ROYALTIES, BANK’.

The reader knows therefore Frank, to be frank, is a successful writer (with Royalties), much like we imagine Bernard MacLaverty, but it’s the cat in mourning, not the man.

But he can’t write, but still goes through the motions of sitting down at his desk (like many of us do).

Teresa has dropped in to help clear out Kathy’s old clothes. Donate it to charity. It seems sudden, but it’s been two years.

‘The writing comes and goes,’ she said. ‘Hasn’t it always?’

‘I suppose so.’

She pats his arm. And there’s a moment when the old man could have been Nelson, in A Time To Dance, when he could have done something stupid and destroyed everything.  

The collection of short stories begins with ‘A Love Picture: Belfast 1940.’ There are other stories with dates and place names. ‘Searching: Belfast 1971’ (Cal territory). ‘The End of Days: Vienna 1918.’ ‘Blackthorns: County Derry 1942.’ The opening story is the most memorable.

Soup Mix had the narrator forced by his boss to go to a face-to-face meeting in his home town, and seeing his mum and a crocodile of other old women out for a walk, but continuing on the Home, and buys her a spray of flowers to score Brownie points, to be seen to be doing the right thing. A feeling I know well.

In Wandering, the narrator is a teacher, another would-be writer, another feeling I know well. Her mother is very much with her. And she wonders if the Zimmer in the Hall is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own plea for would-be writers, with the pram in the hall killing the muse, just as effectively? Discuss.

Memory, like writing, is a strange beast. MacLaverty knows better than most when to pick up the beat. When to let silence do its work. What resonates with one reader won’t resonate with another. Read on.

Carl MacDougall (2017) Someone Always Robs the Poor

someone always robs the poor.jpg

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