I took Ewan Gault’s novel with me to get my Covid booster and flu jab. An hour-and-half waiting. It’s a pocket-sized book with the print a bit too wee for my liking. But I got stuck in and read most of the short twenty-six chapters in one long wheeze. I kept a few of the pages back to enjoy the denouement when my mind was a little clearer.
Crime/Thriller category. Tartan Noir. Ian Rankin, who wrote William McIlvanney’s latest Laidlaw, knew better than most, the Glasgow detective didn’t solve crimes but solved the world. The setting, Port Cawdor, bypassed by an A-road. Train station closed by the Beeching cuts. The headland were everybody knows everybody else’s business, and it’s a crime to be young. Not that they need much help with the heroin problem in a wee fishing village making national headlines. We’re more in Alan Warner’s Morvern Caller and The Sopranos territory.
First lines. Any aspiring novelist or story writer is told it’s the first line that reels the reader in. You need to feel it on your tongue that this is the story for you.
The morning I got out of my dead cousin’s bunk and went to the mirror. I still wasn’t used to being at sea and felt sick half the time.
Books ask questions of the reader. The obvious one here is how did his cousin die? Which has to do with plot.
The less obvious one is who is the narrator? Well, that’s simple and complicated, as it should be.
We’ve got both insider and outside accounts. By insider I mean first-person accounts, the story as told by ‘I’ seventeen-year-old Malky Campbell. Bildungsroman. When he gets off his uncle’s fishing boat he buys a bottle of vodka and Great Expectations. I could witter on about the symbolism between the child Pip and the convict Magwitch, but really, nobody gives a fuck.
Amid the Dickensian poverty of Port Cawdor is the dual income, Tory voting, affluence, of those that have had a leg up and made it. Characters such as Inspector Stark, his headmaster wife and Zoe, the head girl at the school. One of the ‘brainiacs’ destined for medical school and better things, which meant never having to return to Port Cawdor.
Inspector Stark as his name suggests, is not one of the chummy insiders at the local nick. He’s the outsider that knows he’s becoming a cliché, investigating the case of why and how Malky Campbell’s cousin, Joe, died on board his da’s fishing boat. We are no longer with the ‘I’ narrator, but third-person, distanced, but close enough to the action. His goal is clear, he’s not overly concerned with the local crime family, the Kerr’s, or the collateral damage they’ve caused, but wants to get Mr Big.
Junkie Josh sums up the gap (lines so good it was used twice):
‘We are the unprofitable bycatch of humanity. They’d like to throw us in the sea’.
Literary representation or merit. I’m often not sure what that means. But I’m jealous of how good some of the writing is.
…long days of summer break sweet as a drunk girl’s mouth. Honeysuckle.
I tried to catch the cleaning woman’s eye, she was standing sentry still…A shabby pigeon bobbled across her newly cleaned floor, drawing a wing over its face, like a person going to court trying to hide behind a blanket.
Weaknesses—not really—but things I’d have looked at.
Plot: Although Zoe mirrors Nicky as the good girl/bad girl Malky could hook up with. Nicky’s shambolic and heroin addicted lifestyle means that they meet when they meet. Seems to me naturalistic (whatever that means).
Zoe meeting Malky in a petrol station off the A9, seems forced and unnaturalistic.
Secondary Characters: You don’t want them to be like the identikit Highland towns with shortbread and tartan that Malky hammers through with Zoe in the car. I can’t remember the name of the entertainer who explained that when the curtain goes up, his character had to be dressed a certain way, with shiny black shoes, and sound a certain way. In the next act, his character could be wearing carpet slippers and the audience wouldn’t notice. But the Council workers—Gav, Iggy, Pete and Frank—whose jobs I’m sure Ewan Gault is familiar with (as I am) seem much of a muchness. I couldn’t pick them apart. But perhaps that’s my failing and not the author’s.
Port Cawdor lives, dive in deep. Ewan Gault has much to be proud of. Read on.
Hi Dougie, I’ve had a look at your manuscript. We both know that it’s hard trying to get anything published when we write about people like us, using the language we speak—Scottish dialect. Remember all that fuss when James Kelman, for example, wrote in stream- of-consciousness, working-class dialect and a judge ofThe Booker Prize winner 1994, a Rabbi, no less, resigned because she (it might have been a he) thought How Late It Was, How Late was shite? Dialect in your manuscript isn’t as combative as Kelman’s and it runs light touch as, for example, William McIlvanney. You’re far more likely to pick up readers and have far more chance of finding a publisher because of this.
The trick is to be consistent. And I must admit you did a great job. I only spotted two slippages and both were the same (you were consistent in that too, which is a good sign). When the narrator leads with ‘It got her goat’, when, for example Agnes Bain questions her son, Shuggie, while living in Pithead, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ I think you mean: It got on her goat. He got on her goat. Not he got a goat. Small things, but you might want to look at that again.
Your debut novel will never win the The Booker Prize, but if you’re looking for a publisher most people that write books offering writing advice tell you to never start with mood music or the weather.
‘The day was flat.’
Do you need this?
The day was flat. That morning his Shuggie’s mind had abandoned him and left his body wondering down below. The His empty body went listlessly through his routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.
That’s an intriguing opening paragraph to your manuscript. And it leaves the reader with a question, why is tomorrow different from today? Your book begins and ends in the same place: Glasgow, The South Side 1992. The titular Shuggie Bain, fifteen, going on sixteen, going out into his past and coming back to himself. Time doesn’t stands still. He bears witness to his mum, Agnes Bain’s passing.
But Shuggie is not the sole narrator. That would tie your book to his life experience. And when you take the reader back to Sighthill, 1981, Shuggie’s experience as a boy aged four going on five isn’t enough to carry a book. He’s not old enough to know what marks him out as being different from other wee boys, as being shunned, bullied, spat upon. Different in a way that his brother, Alexander, aged 15 and nicknamed Leek is different, able to retreat somewhere inside himself. Or the way his eldest sister Catherine, aged 17, is different but the same, as the other women at the Friday night card school in Agnes’s mum and dad’s high-rise flat. By giving yourself an omniscient narrator you give license to travel through time and follow your characters to where the story takes you. This works well, in your circular narrative journey, but like any superpower it must be used cautiously.
Agnes Bain, telling, not showing, since the novel is mostly about her being an alky, is a good place to start.
‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Her man, who when he shared her bed, now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things.’
Shug Bain raping his second wife, Agnes, beating and humiliating her on a trip to Blackpool worked great. It showed exactly the kind of psychopathic narcissist he remains in an aging body with is sweep-over bald head. His holy of holies was his hole. The father of fourteen children, none were loved, but some like Shuggie were an embarrassment, not a chip off the old block and best jettisoned. If Shug Bain was born a rich American he might well have been elected 45th President. But in telling, not showing, his true vindictiveness finds an art form. When he takes Agnes and his children from the relative safety of Sighthill and her mum and da’s house to Pithead, it had been a test to see if she would follow him to the gates of hell.
‘She had loved him, and he needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces for another man to collect and repair later.’
Crawling around the warped logic of his psyche works well. But the constant mirroring shift in point of view from one character to another can be overdone.
Catherine looking at her half-cousin Donald Bain, who she marries to escape her mum’s alcoholism and back again, to show what the other is wearing, or how they feel, is a neat trick, but could be classified as overwriting. A shift from Agnes’s lover and potential saviour in Pithead, Eugene’s point of view, for example, back to Shuggie’s in the following paragraph tells the reader little we need to know.
‘For a while Eugene said nothing. The strange little boy had stunned him to silence. ‘You know son, maybe it’s time you thought more about yourself. Leave your mommy for a while.’
Here again we have someone looking queerly at Shuggie. We get it at that point. No need to over-emphasise and over-write.
‘The secondary school was bigger than any he had seen. He had waited and cautiously followed a boy that lived on the landing downstairs. The boy was tanned and the colour of summer holidays. At the street corners he turned around and with big brown eyes he looked suspiciously at the little boy who followed him like a stray.’
‘Following like a stray,’ is clichéd. And I’m not sure you need a change in point of view.
For example, a simple tweak such as: at street corners he turned and his big brown eyes glanced in my direction. You retain your (Shuggie’s) point of view, which carries on into the following paragraphs and his experience of disappointment and alienation the East End school that he felt in Pithead. Dreams of a new start—dashed.
These are only suggestions. As the author you are omniscient, but also omnipotent. It’s your shout. Your characterisation stays the right side of caricature. Most debut novelists when trying to decide whose story it is, for good reasons such as they lack a more mature writer’s experience of life and what it takes to write a book, go to narrow. Agnes Bain is the focal point of your book. Shuggie Bain whose name is on the cover is the most consistent, but you go wide. Other characters get to tell their story.
Agnes is brutally raped by her husband, and another taxi driver. She’s also found with her tights ripped off at a party under a pile of coats. She’s diddled into sex by Big Jamie and countless others. She’s beaten and demeaned. But by going wide in your characterisation you highlight an episode even more chilling, and give your novel greater resonance and stickability with readers.
When Little Lizzie, Agnes’s god-fearing mother, somehow finds herself pregnant by the greengrocer she owes tick-money, while her husband, Wullie, is away fighting in the second world war, the reader fears the worst when he comes home. Agnes is still a baby, daddy loves and coos over. Little Lizzie doesn’t get it in the neck as we’d expect. Wullie understanding and soothing. He reassures her even after she admits to have done everything she could to get rid of the child before it was born. He takes the bastard child out for a walk in the pram, but comes back without the child or the pram. He no longer wants to talk about Little Lizzie’s mistake. He’s dealt with it. This sub-plot or story within a larger narrative helps set the background tone to the world Agnes lives in. Poverty isn’t just about money, it’s about circumstances and choices, who gets to say what. A mother can’t even mention the child she held and lost, because that wouldn’t be right, isn’t a fiction, and had the ring of a world-weary truth.
Poverty is the living coffin. Being an alky the nails in the coffin for Agnes and her dependents. Every generation writes its own epitaph. You got it with your sign spray-painted outside the pit in Pithead. ‘No Coal, No Soul, Only Dole’. In particular, you nail what it’s like to be dependent on the Monday book, followed by the Tuesday book of £8.50. No waffle. No generalisations. Being explicit ties you in with so many other great writers from Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012) Lowborn:Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (2019) to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and writers like Emile Zola that know the price of everything, especially failure.
I was brought up with the Provie man and Radio Rental for our telly. I imagine you stretching it a bit here. I thought renting tellys—paying 50p for programmes—went out in the seventies. But I bow to your judgement. Diddling the gas meter or electricity meter, well, that’s still an ongoing story. But I imagine it’s more difficult, if not impossible, now.
There’s a caveat I just don’t get. No milk in the fridge. No food on the table. No electric fire to turn on. Everything that can be pawned or sold is gone. Yet, Agnes is always on the phone. Where I came from, phones cost money. There was a waiting list for them to get installed and it cost (roughly) £110. That doesn’t include rental charges or call charges. When Agnes moves to Pithead, she’s immediately on the phone. When she moves to The East End, she’s on the phone—for taxis she can’t pay for—yet still on the phone. She even sends a phone cut off at the wire to Leek, like a severed head, emphasising their relationship was done. Yet, again, she’s on the phone afterwards. I suggest you look at that again.
Agnes’s relationship with her phonebook is part of who she thinks she is. Her relationship with the drink curdles the soul. I recognise the symptoms and you’ve caught them in flight.
‘Well, you get a little bit stronger every day, but the drink is always there waiting. Doesn’t matter if you want to run from it, it’s still right behind you like a shadow. The trick is not to forget’.
We know what’s at stake. And we care enough about your characters knowing they’ll fail, but we can’t just look away. That’s page-turning power.
I hope my suggestions make sense. And I wish you well with your debut novel. I’d a similar novel set in Clydebank in the early ninety-seventies and nobody wanted to publish it. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough. But I hope you do better. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your novel is great. If in doubt, write another, better, novel. Send me it, I’ll have a look. Writers write, reading always.
Gore Vidal is attributed with the quote, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. Graeme Armstrong is not a friend of mine. But the title of his book, The Young Team needs no detailed sociological explanation. I don’t need to go searching for definitions in The Urban Dictionary. I’m proud to be working class, less proud to have a chib mark on my face and knocked guys out and been a baw hair away from being killed. I know about drink and drugs. When I started writing short bits about people I knew that had died, the bodies started stacking up. Many of them were suicides. Armstrong is telling me nothing new. But he’s on my turf. When I try and get my manuscripts for novels published and get knocked back that’s a lot of work. And I need to rise again. Go again. He succeeds. And part of me is glad, but part of me isn’t, because publishing is a small world. When I think of it I think of it, think of them, I recall the D.H. Lawrence poem, The English Are So Nice.
Publishers are so nice
so awfully nice
they’re the nicest people in the world.
And what’s more they’re so very nice about being nice
about your being so nice as well!
If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.
Publishers are middle-class. Armstrong and me are working class. His is a niche publication. He’s taking up my space, but it’s not his fault we live in a middle-class world. It’s not my fault. The exception to the rule is used to prove the rule. A bit like coloured cabinet ministers in Tory land. Look, we’re not racist, their leader can say. His success is my failure.
But Armstrong is braver than me. His first-person, personal account, is in Scottish dialect. That’s a killer. James Kelman gets away with it in books about working-class life such as Kieron Smith, boy—a coming of age novel that covers some of the same ground—because he won the Brooker Prize with How Late it was How Late. Armstrong’s two sponsors of the book, Kerry Hudson and Janice Galloway use dialect, but only in direct speech. Alan Bisset also wants to let his characters in Boyracers, speak like he speaks, with a Falkirk twang, but descriptions are in the Queen’s English. Carl MacDougall’s characters when they swear say ‘fuckin.’ No apostrophe. Bernard MacLaverty (an honorary Scot) characters say ‘fucken’ (or it might be the other way about – I can’t remember). William McIlvanney’s characters swear, but perhaps less than you’d think. Maggie O’Farrell’s characters don’t swear much, but then again, they tend to be more middle-class and go to university. Geniuses such as Lewis Grassic Gibbons (James Leslie Mitchell) create their own hybrid written-spoken language of North East dialect for a young Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to tell her story. Language can be a bit of a fuck-up and the more extreme can sound like pastiche of proper Young Team patter.
The beginning of the book, when the narrator is thirteen or fourteen-years old sets the tone. The book follows him and his muckers progress for about eight years. The Young Team, the Airdrie team, are living the life. The book is set out like a report. Part 1, Crucible. I’m not sure I like that. Or think it’s necessary. Let’s just tell the fuckin story, like Bernard Hare does in, for example, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew (but then again his chapters in his novel begin with crappy poetry). Here’s the beginning of the book. Judge for yerself.
Urban Legends 2004
The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin. We’ aw stood intae a wee corner oot the wet n away fae the eager eyes ae Strathclyde’s finest. At weekends our area is jumpin wae polis, aw lookin tae bust yi. They never wanted tae git their boots muddy, walkin doon the Mansion but, so yi wur usually safe here. There’s two community police that sometimes ventured doon n busted cunts rollin joints, the fat wan called Muldoon n the skinny wan we aw called the Roadrunner, cos he’s rapid. The elder wans had told us aboot the polis raidin it once before we knew of the place’s existence.
Writing the gallus is easy. Writing the vulnerable is what makes characters walk and talk and become human. Azzy might be a hard wee cunt, but he’s just a wee boy and as he grows up he discovers clan loyalty isn’t enough. It offers no way out and he has panic attacks and becomes depressed. He’s not the only causality. Every day is ground-hog day and it’s wearing on the body and mind. With no way out, some of the not-so-young team become smack addicts in their teens, some kill themselves, some are killed. There are statistics in the chapter headings. But Azzy carries on his battle and it becomes with himself.
Higher education is the escape route. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced. And for such a poverty-stricken area, The Young Team, wae Azzy it’s leader, seem to be smoking dope and drinking all the time. Aye, I get that. But where’s the cash coming from? That I don’t get. It’s never made clear, in the way the music the kids listen to is, the tracksuits and sannies they wear and the cars they drive when they become older are.
Aurally, aye, I say to the way it is written. But those that need to read a book like this would be put off by the language. The dialect makes reading hard work. The middle-classes are so nice. So very, very nice. They might be surprised by what Armstrong writes about. I’m not. I know the score. Azzy is not very nice, but his life is worth reading. Read on.
I recently read Doug Johnstone’s The Jump. I enjoyed it, so had a look at his back catalogue. In many ways we all write the same story again and again. I liked the Godfather of Scottish noir, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series, more for the characters and the Glasgow landscape than his ramshackle plots in which Laidlaw didn’t so much solve the case but tilt the world off its axis, which made him slightly less miserable. That’s Glesgca fer you.
Doug Johnstone does Edinburgh (I write about Clydebank). Johnstone keeps things simple. Man, woman and child. One of them is in jeopardy. Two word—explanatory—title, in The Jump it was the man and woman, because the child had already jumped. It was a tale of redemption set around the waters of the Firth of Forth and Queensferry Bridge.
Here we have Mark, who is married to Lauren and they have a son, Nathan. Mark works as a photographer, freelance, gig-economy (that’s the new 1 in 10 of use working in shitty jobs) and he’s trying to get the money shot, a picture of pilot whales, ‘spyhopping’ in the waters of the Firth. That’s a technical term which means poking their noses into other folk’s business. Mark’s on the shoreline of Portobello beach and he’s out of luck, he doesn’t get the shot he wants. When one pilot whale beaches, the others do too. It’s a kind of mass suicide and a suitable backdrop, or second string to the main narrative, which is Lauren has went missing.
Gone Again, implies, none too subtly, it’s happened before. When Lauren had Nathan she disappeared for about ten weeks. Postnatal depression was the diagnosis, but like those pilot whales in shallow water and beaching themselves, it was a way of hanging together some descriptions and some current idea about behaviour we don’t understand.
Lauren in the character in jeopardy here, but her disappearance destroys any semblance of normality. Johnstone is saying it could happen to us. Fling in the usual mix of gangsters, property rackets, incest and cops that are a bit stupid and last to know and you’re talking about one of my books, but since this is Edinburgh it’s Doug Johnstone’s turf. I’ll bow to him. Keep it simple and keep it moving.
You need to love your characters. That’s the real strength of Johnstone’s writing. These are people we know. Mark and Lauren and Nathan. These are people like us. Read on.
Denise Mina’s The Long Drop won Bloody Scotland’s William McIlvanney Prize for crime fiction. You expect it to be good. The first-year philosophy student in me, or indeed William McIlvanney’s, Detective Laidlaw, would be the first to ask, what do you mean by good? I mean I did like it. But if I hadn’t read it that wouldn’t bother me that much. I wouldn’t be pressing a copy of the book on acquaintances and saying you must read this. There’s good and there’s good. And this is good, but not that good.
The Long Drop is set in my part of town, and the plot revolves around the trial of Peter Manuel for murder in the High Court in Glasgow in 1958. Denise Mina the omniscient narrator informs the reader,
The public are no longer allowed to witness hangings. Death has moved indoors.
Scotland uses the ‘long drop’ method. It is as clean as hanging gets and resolves the two main pitfalls: the head being pinched from the body like a grape from the stalk, or slow strangulation.
We already know that Peter Manuel hangs, one of the last to take the ‘long drop’ in Scotland. He was a kind of bogeyman, accused of multiple murder and rapes, which he denied. To get an intimate portrait of Manuel is for a fiction author to step inside his head. Denise Mina’s manual of Peter Manuel in which she builds up what it means to be a serial-killer and lie to yourself and everybody else as easily as you would strangle a seventeen-year old girl, have a wank over her dead body, and make yourself a sandwich in the kitchen isn’t pretty. The writer’s job is to make him human and plausible. The question then become who is he lying to and why is that lying bastard lying.
Mina begins with a meeting Peter Manuel had with William Watt and Lawrence Dowdall at the end of December 1957 in Whitehall’s Restaurant/Lounge. Lawrence Dowdall was the leading legal figure of his day and William Watt was his client. The purpose of the meeting was because Manuel had promised to identify and provide the gun that had been used to kill William Watt’s wife and her mother, bang, bang, dead in their beds, but his daughter takes a bit longer, her killer toyed with her as a cat toys with a mouse. Manuel has a history of rape charges stretching back to when he was fourteen. He has an intimate knowledge of the Burnside house, where the murder took place. Watt portrays himself as a successful businessman an up-and-coming figure but he was charged with the Burnside murders, before Dowdall got his release. The Webley guy Manuel has offered him would free Watt from further police enquiries and keep his good name intact. Watt is willing to pay Manuel for the gun. This is not a path that Dowdall advices his client to take. Manuel and Watt need to ditch Dowdall so they can trade information about what they want and need.
What follows, in flashback of alternate chapters, with the High Court trial of Peter Manuel, is what happens after Manuel and Watt leave the Whitehall Restaurant together and stumble drunkenly through the mean streets of Glasgow. A world both are intimately connected to as they are to each other. This puts the flesh of the bones on the characters and tells the reader who committed the murders and why. Scottish Noir.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the zeitgeist book of the seventies. Like Harry Potter but for adults it came with its own mythology. The reader can study pre-production notes between James Landis who commissioned the book for the publishers William Morrow and Robert (Bob) Pirsig. In a note by Bob Pirsig dated June 15, 1973, the author admits to anxiety and moots changing the title of the proposed book from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to ‘The Bendable River’. Landis dissuades him. In earlier correspondence admits the book ‘is not a marketing man’s dream’. Robert Pirsig’s book was rejected by 121 publishers and he didn’t write his novel but live it. It wasn’t considered ‘“commercial” in the way that term is understood by most people in publishing’, but prior to publication was judged a work on genius by among others book reviewers on the New York Times. After publication Robert Redford bid for the rights to film the book, which was rejected. But what would a film of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance look like?
I can’t remember when I first read Pirsig’s book. I guess late teens, perhaps early twenties. I loved it. Pirsig’s IQ measured aged nine was 170, he was a child prodigy with, we later learn, ‘a near photographic memory’. I don’t know what the opposite of photographic memory is and if I did I’d probably forget it, but if anybody asked me what the book was about I’d say it was about this guy that takes his son Chris, who’s aged eleven, on a road trip across the backroads of America on his motorcycle and blabs to him, and the reader, for almost 400 pages and also tries to emotionally reconnect with his son and explain he’s not the man he was, which is quite difficult, because he’s emotionally guarded and not in touch with his feelings. Pirsig jokes that if he were writing a novel he’d have to give an extended backstory.
On a motorcycle, ‘You’re in the scene’. There’s a comparison with cars and the way the world is experienced. ‘Through a car window…everything is just more TV. On a motorcycle you’re an active participant in life. In a car, a ‘passive observer’. This is a value judgement. In the theoretical, film of the book, a world-weary narrator played by someone like Harry Dean Stanton would explain how to fix a motorcycle isn’t just a question of mechanics, but a question of life and who you are and who you want to be at that moment and in the future. He’s nostalgic for a simpler life (that probably never existed) when ‘a sort of Chautauqua… a travelling tent show, moved across America, this America…giving popular talk shows to improve the mind.’ He compares this unfavourably with faster paced radio, movies and TV. This is another value judgement. And now the narrator tells the reader about his friends John and Sylvia.
Sylvia says of those in the cars, going the other way. ‘The first one looked so sad. And the next one looked exactly the same way, and the next one and the next, they were all the same way.’
In other words, there’s something about modern life that is alienating. She is in agreement with the narrator, but offers no solution. The narrator’s quest is to find out what it is and where it comes from and perhaps suggest a tentative solution to this ‘mass hypnosis’. It’s in the title of course. Zen.
But John and Sylvia differ from the narrator. They are romantics. John, for example, buys a BMW motorcycle and doesn’t want to know about mechanical problems. He just wants the bike to work and if it doesn’t work it has nothing to do with him. The narrator is more a classicist. His classical education allows him to suggest an extensive nomenclature of tolerances and intolerances of different parts. But he comes unstuck when an elderly welder fixes the bike guard in a manner closer to art for art’s sake than his understanding allowed for. Rationality is always bounded. In Phaderus’s face off with Chairman of the Committee of the University of Chicago he raises his hand to contradict the speaker and suggest the Socrates’ suggestions of duality between those riding the white horse of reason (classicists) and others the black horse of passion (romantics) was actually an analogy. In terms of drama, his photographic memory allows him to quote verbatim from the Chairman’s own writing, unseating him. Classicists had rather a romantic view of themselves as the bearers of light and truth. Evidence suggests it was based on common myth. Mass Aristotelian hypnosis which separates subject from object and bounded by rationality that is impermanent and not rational.
Quality is neither of the subject or the object, but suggests no answer, but rather we ride both horses, simultaneously, as Pirsig did in his writing. ‘Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialisation. It implies contempt for efficiency, or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.’ Or as William McIlvanney’s great Glasgow detective Laidlaw said, ‘I don’t like questions. They invent the answers.’
a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.
The narrator can figure out how to fix almost anything mechanical, but he can’t fix himself. He works endlessly trying to pin down the idea of Quality. But ‘The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.’ Sleeping four hours. Sleeping two hours. The journey back to self begins with self. Thoreau’s maxim, ‘you never gain something, but lose something’.
‘I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,’ he recalls. ‘I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers …’
This is a different kind of hypnosis to the mass variety. This is Socrates listening to the voice of his demon. This is Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This is the Mohammed listening to the voice of God in a cave. This is Buddha gaining enlightenment. Or this is madness. I’d go with the latter.
You cannot recant without believe. Phaedrus was institutionalized and his brain zapped by electro-shock therapy as his carers tried to press the default button and reset him on the straight and narrow path to normality. I guess the world has moved on and we no longer use electro-shock and call it therapy.
I guess if we were making a movie of the book the Hollywood-type denouement is a bit too tinsel, Phaderus is giving a different font, which stands out on the page, so that when the ancient Greek Sophist, and ghost, behind the glass door that stalks the narrator as his alter-ego speaks to Chris, it’s not Robert Pirsig, but the man he was, admitting, no he was not mad, bad or sad. Just your normal genius. Amen to that.
I think this was the first William McIlvanney novel I read. It won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. When McIlvanney was writing the book there were still such a thing as a coalminer. There’s probably a picture of one in the Daily Mail hate archives, the equivalent of a Lascaux cave drawing to remind them what these men that held the country to ransom, the aristocracy of the working-class, trade-union movement, looked like. Coal powered the industrial revolution, but the men who dug it out saw little of the rewards. Such was its value coal miners were exempt from conscription in the First and Second World Wars. In the latter war 1939-45, men could be conscripted not only to the army, navy, or air force, but also to the coal face and coal mines near the industrial heartlands. Bevan’s boys kept the machinery of war and killing going It must have been around the 1980s when I read the book. And according to the right-wing hate mail propaganda machine, Arthur Scargill, and the coal miners were again holding the country to ransom. The strike of 1984-85 was notable for the coal miners out on the streets collecting donations and food – we had food banks even then. Scargill, of course, suggested that Thatcher and her cronies, including Ian MacGregor, had stockpiled coal and oil and set out to break the unions and to do away with the coal-mining industry. History proved Scargill right. It doesn’t take Agatha Christie to tell us there were 84 000 coal miners then there was none. Policing operations were particularly inventive. The cover up at Hillsborough part of that sad tradition. Hi, you might be shouting, what happened to the book you’re meant to be reviewing?
Well, it’s quite a simple book, a love story of the working class. It’s quite a difficult job to make a superhero out of an ordinary working man, Tam Docherty, who died, how he lived, a working class hero, laying down his life for another. There is another argument that the real hero of the book is Jenny, his wife, who gave him three boy and a girl, but who, with little money and loaves and soup pots works miracles that Jesus would be jealous of. He only fed the 5000, Jenny has to do it every day for over 25 years. You’d need to look at Maheau’s wife in Emile Zola’s classic story Germinal to show how one wage is never enough and each child is sacrificed to the pits, for an adequate comparison of how little miners made and how far it had to stretch. Or Jenny’s daughter, Kathleen, who marries Jack, who beats her and spends his wages on booze. Realism begins with reality and not fake news.
Mick, Docherty’s oldest son, loses the sight in one eye and one arm in the trenches in the First World War and he accepts he’s one of the lucky ones. He made it back. But his search for meaning has contemporary resonance and one of the books he reads to make sense of the post-war world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. What he says to his wee brother, Conn, after his fight with his other brother Angus, is relevant today as it was then. Angus has broken with his father and his family. He’s got a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. He marries someone else, Annie, and fathers another child. But Angus represents everything his father detests. Individualism, an atomised life, and every man for themselves. Tory dogma. Angus’s brute strength, he deludes himself into believing, will safeguard the future of his family. The older brother’s bitter experience, when the sky might be up and it might be crashing down, has taught him better.
‘Whit’s happenin’? is that folks don’t ken whit’s happenin’. They just want wages an’ they canny accept that they’ll hiv tae tak mair. Tae get whit ye want, ye’ve goat to settle fur mair, that’s a’.’
His father understood that better than anyone, he lived it. A community is not a collection of individuals looking after number one.
‘He was only five-foot four. But when yer hert goes from yer heid tae yer toes, that’s a lot of hert.’
The William McIlvanney’s and Docherty’s of this world would have their work cut out making sense of Tory councillors elected in Ferguslie and a moron’s moron elected as President of the United States. It makes a pleasant change to read about a working-class hero without the tag, Benefits, being added. Coal miners, aye, I remember them well and I understand what they stood for, what they stand for.
Roll up. Roll up. You too could become one of the super-rich. The kind of person that if they won a couple of million on the National Lottery would hand the winnings to their son or daughter and advise their child to buy lunch and keep the change, but don’t give any to some poor bastard, because they’ll probably spend it on drink and drugs.
SECRET #1. DON’T BE THE BEST. BE THE ONLY.
I’ve been reading the Sunday Mail’s sly propaganda campaign against Abellio who run the train network in Scotland. It has focused on things that many of us would be familiar with from the days of British Rail. Trains overcrowded and late. The use of rolling stock that is antiquated and dirty. A relatively recent innovation has been to criticise the pay the director running such service gets (I can’t be bothered googling who that is, and does it really matter?) British Rail was a monopoly. Scot Rail a branch of that monopoly had to put its operations out to tender. Are we any better off? The answer is no. And my concern isn’t solely with our poor, dilapidated, rail network. James Meek Private Island:Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else shows that in rail, we subsidize other nation’s taxpayers, in this case Holland. Energy companies, water companies, postal services and council housing there has been that old cliché winners and losers. The winners have been the rich and losers the poor, with a regressive tax system taking away the institutions we built and giving them to the rich. Then taxing us again, because they aren’t efficient enough. The big beast (or elephant) in the room is our NHS. Scotland and England have different systems but both use around a third of our taxation budget to fund the NHS. This is a beneficent monopoly system under siege. And as Nicholas Timmins a biographer of the welfare state observes, post-war America used to come over here looking for ideas on how to run a health service. We’ve flipped that now and look increasingly likely to sell out in the interest or dogma of efficiency savings, that mantra of the rich that penalises the poor and blames them for being poor.
For every Rockefeller rolling up and eating up competition as with Standard Oil in a series of horizontal and vertical acquisitions and mergers there’s a Carlos Slim, who won the right to operate a monopoly in fixed-line telephone services. That might not sound that great. Certainly nowhere near the value of our NHS, but a 2012 OECD report suggested he was the richest man in the world. How did this happen? Simple. Meek touched on it. We can do it or we can let someone else do it for us. Think of the stupidity of not building schools, letting someone else do it, paying them economic rent over an extended period, then complaining later because the walls to schools fall down. Like cheap and nasty food we always pay more in the long run. Someone eats for free.
SECRET #2. BIGGER IS STILL BETTER. The argument goes that diseconomies of scale set in when a business, such as healthcare gets too big. Or the US military, the biggest user of oil in the world. Nobody much argues with the US military. Or Amazon. Or Walmart. Or Microsoft. This reminded me of Philip Green, that former -or is he still- darling of the Conservative Party. Green whom they asked for advice, gave him a knighthood. Green notorious diddler of pensioners, whom like everyone else, he ripped off to fund his extravagant life style in a tax haven. Try this trick at home. One of his regular suppliers was told she was getting x price, then when she fulfilled her quota was taken aside and told she’d need to take y price. Why? Because Green, like Walmart, Amazon or the US military has the big stick, or leverage. A valid argument here is that the NHS, for example, doesn’t use its leverage to ensure profits for drug companies are not excessive. But for the super wealthy, there’s no such thing as excessive.
SECRET #3. THE WORST PLACE TO DO BUSINESS IS REALLY THE BEST. Perhaps not North Korea. But perhaps soon it may be. Bill Browder Red Notice showed that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the USSR economy contracted by 50% and the average return on capital was 5% his company, Hermitage Capital, generated returns of 1500%. What’s not to like? Hans Chung’s mantra that economics is politics applies here. The workshop of the world is China, but he reminds us that like his country, South Korea, these used to be considered economic basket cases. The African continent would be a good bet, but with the moron’s moron as President of the richest country in the world and the likelihood of nuclear war ratcheted up, if fallout doesn’t get us, global warming will. Place your bets.
SECRET #4. WHEN LENDERS CAN’T LOSE. YOU WIN.
That old favourite if we give you money we must have a reasonable expectation that we will get it back ( a return on our investment). Unless of course, you’re a too-big-to-fail bank. Let me put that into perspective. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) losses since 2008, £50 billion. RBS loss this financial year, around £7 billion. Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond’s budget giveaway to Scotland under the Barnett formula, £350 million, a figure disputed by the Scottish National Party. That’s one bank. Rich people don’t get punished for not paying their way.
SECRET #5. YOU’VE GOT TO OWN IT, BABY, OWN IT.
If you live in a council house you are scum. If you rent your house from someone else you’re a sucker, throwing away good money after bad. If you own your own house, outright, you’ve got a revenue stream and money to burn, or borrow. But, of course, to be truly rich you don’t just own property. For example, only around 130 of the 1600 fortunes listed in Forbes Global Rich List are in real estate. You own a portfolio of wealth because you own the people on the land and they create wealth for you. In the post-Soviet collapse billionaires mushroomed overnight.
SECRET #6. SPIN LAWS INTO GOLD.
Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich. It’s a county that keeps giving. The United States advisers, such as Steve Bannon’s aim is, like Lenin’s, to destroy the state. A simple formula: give money to the rich in tax breaks and it will trickle down. It doesn’t. Get rid of red tape. That sounds great. What it means is displacing costs onto the poor for things like health care and to everyone else for necessities such as clean air and water. Simple solutions to complex problems always work for the rich. To borrow a phrase it’s ‘dictatorship by tedium’. Nobody pays much attention to Phil Hammond’s budget speech. We’ve heard it all before. Yawn, more tax on whisky. I don’t drink whisky. Less welfare spending. Serves them right.
SECRET #7. IF YOU WANT TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS, NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK.
Sam Wilkes uses the example of Cornelus Vanderbilt in the 1860s taking over the New York & Harlem Railroad. The incestuous banking network J.P. Morgan created described in a report to U.S Supreme Court sounds very Putinish or indeed Trumpish, or both together:
J.P. Morgan (or a partner), a director of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, causes the company to sell to J.P.Morgan and Company an issue of bonds. J.P.Morgan and Company borrow the money to pay the bonds from the Guarantee Trust Company, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The New Haven spends the proceeds of the bonds in purchasing steel rails from the United States Steel Corporation, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. United States Steel Corporation spends the proceeds of the rails in purchasing electrical supplies from the General Electric Company of which Mr Morgan (or partner) is a director…[and so on].
I’m not with the rats. I’m with the common working man. We find secrets in strange place and, funnily enough, I’m quoting here from a character in another Scottish writer, William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ novel, Strange Loyalties:
Any social contract is a two-way agreement. It’s one thing to make the people serve the economy. But the economy must also serve the people. If we disadvantage the present of one section of society, we disadvantage the future of all society. The children of the well-off will not just inherit the wealth of their parents. They will also inherit the poverty of the parents of others. Even self-interest, if it is wise, will concern itself with the welfare of all. Not just the poor will inherit the bad places. All of us will.
One in five children in Scotland are classified as living in poverty. My loyalty is with these people, not the pampered rich, super-rich or mega-rich. Whatever way you want to put it, they haven’t been paying their way. The problem is ours. Rat race. You better believe it.
Here’s the tagline Christian Matlock, aged 28, is a professional bounty hunter in Virginia. He used to be Scottish and now he’s an all-American action hero, spending days and nights hunting prisoners that have skipped bail. This is a three-act piece with a photogenic star, rock and roll music, guns, drugs, outlaws and shiny fast cars.
ACT 1. Meet Christian Matlock. The camera follows him to a lorry park in Virginia. He explains that you can get pretty much anything you need there. With a wave of his hand, the left-hand side, drugs, right-hand side, prostitutes. Heroin is on the main menu. 800 people die each year in the state from heroin overdoses. Eighty-percent of his clients use drugs, mostly heroin. Christian is paid by results. A bondsman posts bail so a prisoner can leave jail. If the parolee doesn’t make his or her court date the bondsman loses his money. Christian takes parolees who have skipped bail back to prison. His powers seem pretty much unlimited. He can break in and search properties of cars where he suspects a fugitive is hiding. He cuffs them and takes them to prison. Then he gets paid. Christian has diversified from subcontracting from other bondsman to working for himself and posting bail for those already in prison that can’t post bail. That way instead of getting ten percent of the fee for taking them back he gets all of the bail money. The downside is, if he doesn’t take the prisoner back, or if the police pick him, or her, up first, he loses time wasted searching for them and money.
We see Christian trying to track down two fugitives that haven’t made their court date. These people are cheques he’s waiting to convert into cash. Duanne is a heroin addict. Raven is a heroin addict. He finds both of them on Facebook. That’s his fist pit stop. Most folk he tells the camera tell you exactly what they’ve done and where they’re going to be. He compares the mug shot of Raven from prison with the glamourous posting of her on Facebook. Duanne’s profile, true to form, shows where he is. Christian phones him up, and his Scottish burr, turns into an American accent as he makes the connection, pretending he’s looking to score heroin. Christian uses Google Maps to look at possible parking places where he can observe properties unseen. Duanne arranges to meet him at his parent’s business and Christian rolls up and takes him into custody. Some folk are just dumb that way. Raven is much harder to find. She’s gone underground and is likely working as a prostitute from hotel rooms to feed her drug habit. Later he find out the police have arrested her. Money lost.
ACT 2. Christian comes back to Scotland for his sister’s wedding. He’s already explained that he went off the rails when he was younger, and was heavily into drink and drugs, ecstasy mostly. But he’d left it all behind when he followed his father to America and made a new start. This is classic William McIlvanney territory transported from Glasgow to Brechin. ‘It was Glasgow on Friday night, the city of the stare.’ Brechin, is the ugly sister, he’s left behind. The camera follows him about, his mates crowd him. At one point, he has to give one of them a warning, ‘Enough!’ The message is clear. Even in Scotland, without a gun, he’s still the big man. And he is, about a head bigger than most of his wee pals that are nutters. Look at them, he’s saying, the left behind.
They all play their part. His mum saying how shit Brechin is and how it’s went downhill in the last ten years. We’re shown shots of the High Street. This is Christian; he could have been as depilated as those empty shop fronts.
ACT 3 Christian flies home to the United States. As long as he doesn’t get shot or injured and health insurance eats him alive, he’s a made man. He takes on the case of Colby. He’s a kid, eighteen, that’s been smoking pot. He takes him back to prison. The kids crying in the back of his car, but it’s for his own good. There’s lots of people thanking Christian for taking them to jail. They think it’s best, or they’d be dead from drugs. He thinks it best too. In fact, not only is he providing them with a service, he’s saving them from themselves. But now he’s got a big decision to make, an ex-cop Johnny Milano and his wife, to try out a different life, working for him in Florida. A bond in Florida can be $40 000 and upwards. In Virginia it’s a tenth of that, if he’s lucky. But it’s the same job. Milano is that rich he’s got the big house and more money than he knows what to do with. All courtesy of the justice system. Christian decides to stay home in Virginia. He feels a sense of duty to his clients. You know in the end I get to quite like Christian and his sense of Christian duty. Here’s hoping he never gets sick or poor.