The Dear Green Place

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

There have been a few great Glasgow novels discussed on these pages; Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’, Jeff Torrington’s ‘Swing Hammer Swing’ and James Kelman’s ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ are just three examples, but perhaps the most recognisable literary depictions of the city can be found in Archie Hind’s ‘The Dear Green Place’. Hind didn’t opt for the fantastical, surreal or unreliable as can be found in the above. His Glasgow is a much more realistic city, and as such what happens in the novel has a greater intensity and a profound impact on the reader.

It was Hind’s only novel published in his lifetime, but that’s perhaps not surprising once you’ve read the book. It has at its heart the difficulties that occur if your dreams are to live your life as an artist, and they are then placed against the need not only to feed yourself and family, but to fulfil the expectations of others. You get the feeling that Hinds poured his life onto these pages. This is a powerful novel with a story which will be recognisable to many.

The central character is Mat Craig, a young man who wants to be a writer, something his family cannot understand or accept. 1960s Glasgow plays an important role in the novel as its often bleak and unforgiving landscape seems to suppress Mat’s artistic leanings as much as the majority of people who live there. Both seem to be telling him, ‘know your place, and don’t get ideas above your station’. Becoming a writer, even suggesting it, is not macho enough for this city. The title of the novel becomes ironic, if not downright sarcastic.

Mat is pulled in different directions, not only by his family and friends, but by his own heart and head. Part of him feels it is his destiny and legacy to work with his brother, believing that blood, sweat and tears is the true nature of the working class, but he cannot shake the voice which says that he must pursue his dreams to be true to himself. Whichever route he chooses he will be betraying one or the other.

‘The Dear Green Place’ is perhaps closer in feel and subject matter to the kitchen sink dramas set mainly in the North of England than to other Scottish novels; films such as ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’. They all share an urban realism and angst that avoids self pity or misplaced sympathy. What they reflect is lives where no decision comes without consequence when set against a background of poverty, and that the mythologized ‘swinging ‘60s’ were not as free and easy as some historical reflections would have you believe.

At the beginning of ‘The Dear Green Place’, there is a wonderful description of the River Clyde as it moves from the hills down through ‘Hamilton, Bothwell and Blantyre’ into Glasgow itself, following the twists and turns of the journey and detailing the history that occurred on and beside the river. It is a wonderfully vivid description, one that I have often thought would make a great opening to a film or TV adaptation, and Hind’s marvellous descriptions of people and place make me wonder why his novel has never been dramatised on screen.

The questions which ‘The Dear Green Place’ poses are as relevant today as they have been at anytime in the recent past. The idea of making a living from writing, or any other art form, is, for most people, as unrealistic as ever. The vast majority of writers ‘Indelible Ink’ has featured have had to have, or continue to have, other ways of surviving. Perhaps that is inevitable, but ‘The Dear Green Place’ reminds us that most people who follow a life in any of the arts are bound for a struggle, but how much would our lives be lessened if they did not do so. These books we read are not just hobbies, they are people’s lives, and we would understand our own much less without them. Same as it ever was.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: Scottish writing is awash with alcohol. This column alone has featured books such as last month’s ‘Mr Alfred M.A.’ (in fact everything George Friel ever wrote), ‘The Sound Of My Voice’, ‘Paradise’, ‘The Ossians’, ‘The Immaculate Heart’, ‘The Stornoway Way’, ‘Kill Your Friends’ and ‘Be Near Me’, all of which have alcohol as one of their central themes.

Laura Marney’s ‘No Wonder I Take A Drink’ is a blackly comic tale of a woman’s desire to escape, both mentally and physically, from her life. The subject matter may be familiar, but Marney’s style makes this one of the most surprising novels you will have read for some time.

  1. Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
  2. Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
  3. Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
  4. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)
  5. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
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Mr Alfred MA

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nothing is completely original, but sometimes it is harder to discover some influences than it is others. This is partly because history, cultural or otherwise, is often sold to us in convenient packages of dates, people and places. If you were to read many an overview of Scottish writing in the 20th century you could be excused for thinking that nothing of note was written between the renaissance of MacDiarmid, Muir, Gunn and Soutar and that which is purported have begun in the 1980s, which included Gray, Kelman, Lochhead, Owens and Leonard. Such a view not only overlooks great writers such as Muriel Spark, Robin Jenkins and Eric Linklater, but also lesser known talents who were to influence those that followed.

George Friel is one of those writers. He was published between the 1950s and ‘70s, and it is widely agreed that his greatest novel is 1972’s ‘Mr Alfred MA’, which is also his most autobiographical, at least in as much as he shares a distrust and disappointment with his narrator about their careers in teaching and how it let down both teachers and pupils. There is weariness and disaffection in the novel that is not Alfred’s alone. If Friel himself is not quite giving up, he is struggling to give Alfred any hope that life is worth the trouble.

‘Mr Alfred MA’ is a man for whom life has got in the way of his hopes and dreams from an early age, starting with him having to give up his promising academic career to look after his mother. As Alfred is not the most reliable of narrators it is difficult to discern how much of his reflection is true, and how much is a rewriting of history from a man for whom things have not turned out as he expected. There can be little doubt that he is widely read, and his words and thoughts are peppered with references to, and quotes from, Milton and Shakespeare. In his introduction to the 1987 publication, Douglas Gifford states that Friel is himself trying to do for Glasgow what James Joyce did for his home city in ‘The Dubliners’, and the language, which is a wonderful mixture of high brow references and local vernacular, reflects this.

As in many Glasgow novels, the only hope that Mr Alfred can see comes in the form of a female, in this case his pupil Rose, someone he imbues with an innocence that she may not deserve. This obsession is more aesthetic and shallow than Alfred could ever admit, and there is more than a touch of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ in such scenes. The reader is never sure just who is in charge of Rose and Alfred’s confrontations (if any one is), or what is their motivation, and that is where the unease lies. Alfred cannot handle the increasingly aggressive pupils he is supposed to teach, so gives his attention to one who fulfils an ideal of what a pupil, and a young woman, should be.

There is disappointment, regret, guilt, and confusion throughout the novel. Alfred spends his evenings moving from pub to pub, using alcohol to dampen such feelings, and his intoxication adds to the increasingly surreal nature of his walks through the city. (Friel’s novels swim in alcohol, and few have written more honestly yet poetically about drink and the nature of a drinker’s den. If you have read any Bukowski you’ll have an idea).  The final chapters are some of the finest writing you will find as Friel depicts a man sliding into madness, paranoia and, perhaps most terrifying of all, invisibility.

To anyone growing up in Glasgow in the second half of the 20th century the messages on the walls which Alfred becomes obsessed with will be familiar; badly graphitised declarations of allegiance to various gangs of ‘Young Teams’, ‘Fleetos’ and ‘Toi’…Ya Bass. This is a world that Mr Alfred literally doesn’t understand, and shows once more that Friel is writing at a time of great change in the city and in the lives of at least some of the people who live there. This was a time when whole communities were being displaced to newly built housing schemes on the outskirts of the city, moving from areas where there had been generations of shared history to places where there was none. New is normally thought to also be improved, yet Alfred finds this new Glasgow a foreign land. He is an aesthete in a concrete jungle where there is no room for poetry or art except that writ large upon the walls.

There are more celebrated novels set in Glasgow that owe a great debt to Friel; Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ and James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late’ are just two that spring to mind, both continuing to be acclaimed decades after they were published. A final irony for George Friel is that it was a failing of the education system that both he and Mr Alfred came to despair of that meant that Friel and his contemporaries, those writers referenced in the opening paragraph, were not better known in their own land. It would be nice to think that such a state of affairs was never allowed to happen again, but that discussion is for another day.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: You wait ages for a novel detailing the city of Glasgow and then two come and once.  Archie Hind’s ‘Dear Green Place’ would be another text influenced by Friel, but Hind’s depiction is more precise than the surreal streets that Mr Alfred walks.

‘Dear Green Place’ is specifically set in Glasgow but the place itself is secondary to the central dilemma that narrator Mat Craig faces, the struggle to create art and still put food on the table, a problem that is as relevant today as it ever was.

  1. Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
  2. Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
  3. Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
  4. Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
  5. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)

Red Guitars In Heaven

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Music and religion. Add in football and you’ve probably got the top three divisive topics in Scotland, even with the Yes/No vote on Independence approaching. In 1994 journalist and broadcaster Tom Morton wrote ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ a novel which deals with the conflicting nature that a love of pop/rock music and a life devoted to the church presents. Surely even the most devout of believers must admit that the devil has all the best tunes.

The opening paragraphs, which include a fetishistic account of a love for a red 1962 Fender Stratocaster guitar, are not promising, and there are times when Morton’s prose strays into cliché, but if you can over look this you have a brilliantly entertaining, often riotous, book written by a man who doesn’t just know his music, but is obsessed by it.

Of course it isn’t rock ‘n’ roll which is the cause of all temptation, it is just one of the most effective vessels. The fall of man, as this week has once more spectacularly revealed is, all about sex. That is where the real temptation lies, and the reason so many people sing about it. From the moment the never named narrator hears The Rolling Stones playing ‘Brown Sugar’ he puts the two together and is doomed, in the eyes of his Lord at least. Once again The Glimmer Twins get the blame.

As the narrator constantly tries to marry his two obsessions life goes on and he goes to university, gets married, cheats on his wife and his saviour, runs away and eventually embraces a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle which doesn’t end on stage, but with writing about those who are. What job is more depraved than that of a rock star? The answer is a music journalist as anyone who has read the memoirs of the legendary Nick Kent will know. Is it a coincidence that as the narrator loses his religion he gets closer to, and finally finds a home, in the city of dreadful night that is Glasgow? Probably not.

Once Morton gets into his stride he introduces us to a variety of memorable characters such as the hapless Fergus Mandelson, the excellently named Venturo Venissimo, and the various members of up and coming band ‘Truth Drug’. He also tackles head on many of the stereotypes of West of Scotland life such as love of whisky, sheep jokes, sexual naivety, a fantastic character assassination of the humble midge, and extreme, evangelical, Old Testament, religion. All of this is done with a black humour, and often filthy phrasing, that may come as a surprise to regular listeners to his radio show. It is this humour (the mystery of the severed ‘willie’ springs immediately to mind) that will stay with you once you turn the last page.

Our narrator’s attempt to make it as a ‘religious Gerry Rafferty’ comes to little and the references to Iggy Pop, Prince and Bowie only highlight that most of us like our music sinful. So can the apparent opposites of music and religion be reconciled? ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ suggest not unless compromises are made on one side or the other. Morton makes the same point that South Park’s Eric Cartman would put into action year’s later with his band Faith+1, that to make Christian rock you simply have to change the subject of the song from a boy or girl to Jesus or God (try it, it invariably works, especially with songs with the words ‘darling’ or ‘baby’).

Tom Morton is one of those people who has been there throughout many of our lives, playing and recommending new music. ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ has a lot to commend it, but I can also understand why, to date, it has been his only foray into fiction as it feels as though he threw everything into it. I know that many of Dear Scotland’s regular visitors love Scotland and love their music and for that alone I think you should hunt down a copy.  And any book which quotes Alexander Trocchi, references the Cocteau Twins, Merleau-Ponty and Kenny Dalglish, and mentions Café Gandolfi, where I was working at the time it was written, is all right by me.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: In my local pub there is a quote framed on the wall from George Friel’s novel ‘The Boy Who Wanted Peace’ which sings the praises of early afternoon drinking and worshipping at the altar of the gantry. I often wonder how many fellow barflys have been inspired to search out the writer’s work.

‘Mr Alfred MA’ is Friel’s best novel and that’s the one we’ll be looking at next. Although not widely known it can be argued that without Friel’s vision of Glasgow the novels of Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney and James Kelman would not have been the same.

  1. George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
  2. Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
  3. Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
  4. Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
  5. Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)

Brond

May 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Scottish writers have had an obsession with the nature of evil since they first placed quill to parchment. ‘Good’ is all very well, but the devil has all the best tunes, and the most charismatic representatives. Much of this interest is a result of culturally deep rooted religious belief clashing with a more folk tradition, but also comes from the need to examine just what men will do (and it is almost always men). The best examples of such stories ask questions of the reader often concerning the supernatural versus the psychological. This perhaps explains the success of ‘tartan noir’ and writers such as Val McDermid, Alex Gray and Ray Banks in modern crime fiction, as the ground work has already been done by their predecessors. The successful runs of Ian Rankin and Denise Mina on the ‘Hellblazer’ comic book series is another example of this, where anti-hero John Constantine is the ultimate fallen angel. When it comes to bad men, Scots seem to understand them only too well.

Another successful crime writer is Frederic Lindsay, probably best known for the DI Jim Meldrum detective novels, but it is his 1984 novel ‘Brond’ that most easily fits into a Scottish literary legacy which includes Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Banks’ ‘Coimplicity’, Irvine Welsh’s ‘Filth’ and Louise Welsh’s latest novel ‘The Girl On the Stairs’. Brond opens with a scene of terrifying, casual brutality which sets the tone horrifically.

The central protagonist of Robert, a student at Glasgow University, sees a murder but due to his fevered illness is not sure if it is real or in his mind (sound familiar)? In the next 200 odd pages Lindsay races through poverty, nationalism (Scottish and Irish), religion, sex, and violence. Sometimes the writing is laughably over the top (a scene where Robert thinks of himself as a mass murderer, surrounded by his dead corpses, after he knocks one off in the bath springs immediately to mind), but this is more a case of Lindsay’s tongue being firmly wedged in his cheek rather than any major failing.

Like the best pulp fiction there is a visceral quality to the writing, particularly with reference to what happens to the hapless Robert who has to deal with projectile vomiting, burst appendix and ‘burst toes’ as his life falls apart before everybody’s eyes. A certain reading would have it that he is being punished for the unrequited lust that propels him through the novel, the emotion which causes him to over come his fears rather than any sense of right or a new found courage.

The style of writing is Louise Welsh crossed with Robin Jenkins in that there is a disturbing, gothic flavour to the story, but it also has Jenkins’ love of detailing the failure of human nature. Everyone in ‘Brond’ is flawed, but only some seek redemption. The almost mute giant, Primo, has some terrible secrets from which he is trying to escape or atone for, and it is notable that the character most comfortable in his own skin is the one who not only accepts his immorality and the resulting actions, but revels in them.

That character is the titular Brond, and he is one of the great figures in recent Scottish writing. In the 1987 Michael Caton Jones TV version on Channel 4 he was magnificently portrayed by Stratford Johns with a performance which captured the easy menace of  Lyndsay’s ‘Brond’. The thriller (which you can read about here http://dearscotland.com/2010/12/10/you-have-been-watching-tv-special-brond  )  was also famous for introducing John Hannah to the screen, a mixed blessing some may say, but he is perfectly cast as the innocent and often feckless Robert. It is interesting how closely the drama stuck to the source novel, and if you get the chance to watch it I highly recommend it.

I may be overstating things to say this is a great Glasgow novel, but it is one where the city plays a great part. Lindsay takes the reader from the Reading Room and Quadrangle of Glasgow University to the bedsits of the less salubrious parts of the city, lending them equal menace. This is a city where now where, and no one, is safe. If you don’t know where to start with Scottish crime fiction, if the sheer volume of books from the big names seems off putting, then I would suggest that ‘Brond’ is the perfect place as it touches upon themes which you will be familiar with from other Scottish novels. ‘Brond’ is pulp fiction in the best possible way and once again shows that Glasgow can be the perfect setting for the most terrifying of tales.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: Tom Morton has been a regular radio presence in music lovers lives for many years. He is one of those rare DJs who plays, and writes about, music without prejudice and he has apparently spent time on every radio station the BBC owns, bar 5-Live Extra, in the last 20-odd years.

In 1994 he wrote a semi-biographical novel ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ which looked at those twin Scottish obsessions of rock n’ roll and religion. Add in some sex and drugs to the mix and you have something for everyone. An unexpected treat.

  1. Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
  2. George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
  3. Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
  4. Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
  5. Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)

Trumpet

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

There have been a few novels featured in these columns by writers who are as well known, and sometimes better known, as poets. These include Ron Butlin, Kevin MacNeil, John Burnside, James Robertson, Alan Spence, and this month, Jackie Kay. Re-reading her debut novel ‘Trumpet’ I found myself asking if there are any conclusions that could be made from reading these writers together. Is there a poetic sensibility that sets them apart from those who concentrate purely on prose? I came to the conclusion that there just may be.

I suppose it could be in the detail. Butlin’s depiction of an alcoholic life in ‘The Sound of My Voice’ is intricate, lyrical (think melting snowmen) and the best I have read, and there are plenty of other examples in these writers’ novels in particular that have them describing mental states and emotions in particularly memorable fashion (McNeil’s final paragraph in ‘The Stornoway Way’ springs to mind). They appear to be men, and women, of feeling. I’m not saying this is a rule, but it’s worth considering. In ‘Trumpet’ Jackie Kay writes about love, specific and universal, in a manner which is as familiar as it is unexpected. It is gorgeous and moving from cover to cover and will have you reassessing your own relationships, past and present.

It begins after the death of jazz trumpet legend Joss Moody who has had a long, happy and successful life married to Millie and with their adopted son Colman. Due to the necessary checks that happen on any dead body it comes to light that Joss was born Josephine. This is something which Millie accepted from the beginning of their relationship, and if at times it made her curious, she never let Joss know. If this was to be the secret that they had to carry to be together then so be it. They were two people in love, which was all that mattered.

‘Trumpet’ is an incredible love story, one which takes in all the joy, pain and inevitable grief that entails. Living in Britain in the mid 20th century as a mixed race couple, Joss’s ‘secret’ would only be another barrier to their happiness, so it is little wonder that they keep it to themselves. The novel asks important questions about identity. Are we brave enough to define who we are or must we wait for others to do so? Joss wills himself into being, with all the effort and care that involves. He becomes the man he always meant to be.

But is it only their secret to keep? Colman, their son who thought he had been brought up in a reasonably conventional household is stung by the revelation, and the novel is as much about his coming to terms with his father’s death as Millie’s. Colman feels betrayed and deceived, as if his parents have been laughing at him all this time, and it is hard not to have some sympathy with him. But as the novel progresses he, like the reader, comes to realise that he is fixating on the wrong things. What was important about Joss was not what he was, or even who he was, but how he was; a loving father and husband and an inspiration to many.

‘Trumpet’ also puts focus on the public obsession to know other people’s business. Once the Moody family secret is exposed then Millie is chased back to Scotland by the press intrusion. Colman is offered large sums of money to solve a thriller to which the answer is already known, and Joss’s past is uncovered causing little but pain and sorrow for all who are contacted. Colman sees this as a way to get back at his father, and mother, but he soon realises that this is in nobody’s interest except the newspapers. Sound familiar?

How you read a novel is always shaped by when you read it and your own experiences. I first read ‘Trumpet’ when it came out in 1998 and thought it good, but not spectacular. Reading it now its themes of gender, sex and identity are particularly poignant. It is a timely reminder that as people are still being persecuted for their sexuality, at home and abroad, simply for being who they are; that our lives and how we decide to live them are nobody’s business but our own should we choose it to be that way. ‘Trumpet’ is a love story, one which reminds us that, sometimes, that’s all you need.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: The first I knew of ‘Brond’ was as a supernatural/political thriller directed by Michael Caton-Jones on Channel 4 in the ‘80s, which starred a young John Hannah and an imposing Stratford Johns. I recently found a copy of Frederic Lindsay’s source novel in a charity shop and it reminded me just what a good thriller should be.

Set in Glasgow, ‘Brond’ touches on the nature of evil; how seductive and attractive it can be. Although it touches on nationalism, politics and terrorism, they are a backdrop to the central examination of what men (& in this case it is almost always men) are prepared to do, and why.

  1. Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
  2. Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
  3. George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
  4. Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
  5. Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)

Swing Hammer Swing

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

This month has seen two of Scotland’s greatest living writers in the news. Alasdair Gray has had his short fiction collected into one impressive volume, while James Kelman won the Saltire Book of the Year award for ‘Mo said she was quirky’, and in time honoured fashion managed to make the newspapers by forecfully restating the point that the language many Scots use is still seen as lesser in terms of social/cultural worth, and thank god he still does. Once more many commentators make his point for him by concentrating on the swearing and refusing to properly engage in the argument. Haven’t they read his books?

This month’s novel is by a contemporary of Kelman and Gray’s, but one who neither matched their fame or productivity. The man is Jeff Torrington and the novel is ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’. Not only does it support Kelman’s argument more eloquently than any amount of critical conversation, but it is one of the top ten Scottish novels of the last 30 years, and I’m going to be making even wilder claims for it than that, so hang on to your hats.

Its easy going use of colloquial Glaswegian is only one feature that makes it exactly the kind of book that Kelman would approve of. In fact ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ is a book in love with language, and it is a language anyone familiar with Glasgow will recognise. Call it patter, banter, or the ramblings of the smart arse weegie (and I include myself in this category), there is a richness in Torrington’s language which is rare and exciting to read.  It is also incredibly funny. I wish I could quote huge chunks of it here, but you’ll have to read it to get the full picture.

Imagine a John Byrne scripted drama with a young Billy Connolly in the lead and you have some idea of what to expect. For anyone who has read Kelman and thought him too serious then you must try ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’. The language is used as a shield and to charm, it is honed and learned, and is absolutely authentic. You never doubt any of the characters that appear. This novel is all about character and voice, there is no real story to speak of. It’s about the journey rather than where anyone ends up. As central character Tam Clay says, ‘plots are for cemeteries’.

It is the closest Glasgow has come to a novel that could rival James Joyce’s Dublin set ‘Ulysses’, the difference is that ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ is a much more enjoyable read. Don’t get me wrong, Joyce’s novel is obviously a masterpiece, but when you finish it there is as much a sense of achievement as one of pleasure. Torrington doesn’t make the same demands from his reader, but that does not make it a lesser book, just a more inviting one.

Tam Clay travels from the Gorbals, up the High St, which he calls ‘the vestigial spine of ancient Glasgow’, to Townhead, then further North to Springburn, before oscillating wildly here, there and everywhere and ending back in and around the condemned tenements and dive bars of the Gorbals. All this rushing about is so that Tam can avoid real life as he is about to become a father and his house is under threat. There are the usual touchstones of drink, poverty and black, black humour. There is also an unexpected surrealism. Torrington’s imagination is captivating and he lends this to Clay who sees a deep-sea diver emerge from the local cinema, and who has a Kafkaesque fascination with fleas, beetles, and other minute life forms. Again, the surrealism comes from the language rather than the situation. Not so much magical realism just looking at life through a glass, oddly.

‘Swing Hammer Swing! is the work of a well read man who has no problem referencing Nietzsche (who Clay calls ‘The Liepzig Lip’), JP Sartre, Kierkegaard and Chekov but these are referenced in the same manner that he refers to Paul Newman, John Mills and Roy Orbison. There are no differentiations made in terms of high or low culture, they are simply frames of reference, except in one important aspect, that of place.

Many of the popular references show the love affair that the west coast of Scotland in particular has had with American culture, be it country and western, rock ‘n’ roll, the Wild West, Hollywood and House music. It could be argued that Glasgow in the 70s and 80s saw itself as the 51st State, its denizens enjoying nights out to the tunes of Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline or Derrick May. It appears that Torrington thought that Europe was for thinking, the US for dancing, and that’s an attitude I have some sympathy with.

If ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ isn’t the great Glasgow novel I would suggest that it is at least in a three horse race alongside Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ and Archie Hind’s ‘Dear Green Place’ for that title. All three books were more than mere projects to their writers, they were all consuming undertakings. Torrington and Hind never approached matching their debuts, and some would argue the same applies to Gray. These are novels which weren’t just labours of love, for years they all consuming obsessions.  Torrington did also have published ‘The Devil’s Carousel’ in 1998, but it is ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ which is how he should be remembered.

If you know someone who loves literary novels and who is looking for something that genuinely stands shoulder to shoulder with Gray and Kelman, and I would suggest Joyce and Chekov, then this is the book to give them. Like all of those writers Torrington never apologises and never explains, trusting that readers will get it, something that is a feature of all the best artists. The only sadness is that he didn’t leave us with more, but to have produced something this perfect is more than most people will ever do.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: Jackie Kay is best known as a poet, and one of our finest at that, but her fiction should not be over looked. This year she released a great collection of short stories, ‘Reality, Reality’, but the place to start is with next month’s novel, ‘Trumpet’.

Set against the world of jazz, the novel asks questions about identity, family, love and loss and is written with the eye and command of language that you would expect from a writer who couldn’t write a dull sentence if she tried.

  1. Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
  2. Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
  3. Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
  4. George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
  5. Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)

Weekend

May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

With the recent success at home and abroad of Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks, Ali Smith, Ian Rankin, A.L Kennedy etc, it’s perhaps odd to think of a time when having Scottish novels post R.L. Stevenson in a Scottish house was the exception rather than the norm, at least with most of the people I knew.  In the 70s and 80s if a family had only one writer on their shelves there was a good chance it would be William McIlvanney, and I’ll give you good odds it would be one of ‘Laidlaw’, ‘The Big Man’ or ‘Docherty’.

McIlvanney is the overlooked giant of late 20th century Scottish writing, perhaps too prolific and popular to be taken critically seriously. More likely is that he was writing when even Scots didn’t take Scottish writers that seriously as evinced by their near absence from the country’s education system of the time. But I doubt the man cries himself to sleep over this.

McIlvanney’s writing is as good as anyone else around today, and although some claim it falls into gritty, urban, cliché (it doesn’t), it does depict a West of Scotland that many were looking to distance themselves from; an apparently masculine, violent place where people are quick witted and quicker with their fists. I only write that last sentence to show you the sort of thing that critics of McIlvanney believed he wrote, but he would never stoop so low.

It would be wrong to think of McIlvanney’s writing as being confined to a time and place, or even genre. The best introduction to his work is his superb 1989 collection of short fiction, ‘Walking Wounded’, but this month I want to look at his 2006 novel ‘Weekend’, which was ignored by many critics on its publication, perhaps because it confounded their expectations of just what a McIlvanney novel should be or because they had dismissed him already.

Set over the unlikely setting of a weekend of a university study trip, it still touches upon his favoured themes of class, morality, youth vs. maturity, guilt, and gender, but it also examines the complex issue of education, the power it has to change lives, but also how it often divides. This is something which recurs in Scottish writing. The idea that getting an education can be seen as a betrayal of friends and family, even when they pledge their support, is a powerful one in Scotland. It is in the work of writers such as Robin Jenkins, George Friel, Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and perhaps most memorably in James Kelman’s ‘A Dissafection’.

Most of the central characters in ‘Weekend’ are entering a world which is unfamiliar, and to which some people may feel excluded due to class, age or gender. By switching narrators at ease the novel manages to convey various points of view, and in this sense it is a master class in how to incorporate different characters while never losing focus. As the weekend begins the scene is set for a titillating, even farcical tale, of bedhopping and the promise of playing away. Some of the characters could have been stereotypes; the teenage virgin Kate, the womanising lecturer David, the troubled mature student Vikki, and the invited guest writer Harry who it is tempting to view as McIlvanney’s conscience in deed and thought, a man who has suffered slings and arrows but is still able to inspire and create.

As the novel unfolds their different stories intertwine while their lives simultaneously unravel. As they discuss great works of literature the novel asks us to consider what is important. Education and understanding has not led to any sort of fulfilment for lecturers David and Andrew, both needing to dull the pain of their lives with different vices. They are admired without being understood, and it does seem that McIlvanney is warning readers to be careful what you wish for. Or, more likely, he is suggesting we judge people on how they treat others rather than what they know.

A trait of McIlvanney’s writing is that behind the dry humour and his way with a winning one-liner, he is concerned with humanity and the harm, and help, that it individuals can do to each other, angered by life’s injustices, if not surprised. He is a deeply moral writer who never preaches to his readers, rather he shows them slices of life and asks them to consider their own. For all the cheating, lying and resulting sadness in ‘Weekend’ this is not a book that gives up on people and their capacity to do the right thing, and if there is a lesson to learn it is that it is never too late to begin.

‘Weekend’ was McIlvanney’s first novel for ten years, and we are still waiting on the next. There is talk of his entire back catalogue being reissued soon, and it certainly deserves to find a new audience, but I want to read something new. There are not many Scottish writers that can deal with serious subjects with his sense of perspective and humour. Some people may think that the perfect Scottish writer would be someone with the political sensibility of James Kelman married to the broad appeal of the Ia(i)ns, Rankin and Banks. Well, perhaps he’s been with us all along.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae

Next Month’s Novel: Jeff Torrington is the Pete Best of Glasgow’s famous Hobsbaum group of writers. Where James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Agnes Owens have all had varying levels of productivity and success, Torrington only ever completed one novel, ‘Swing Hammer Swing’.

But what a novel it is. Like ‘Weekend’ it is set over a few days, but is a Joycean journey through Glasgow’s Gorbals, surreal in places, only too real in other. I may make the claim that it is Scotland’s great lost novel, but you’ll have to read next month to find out.

  1. Jeff Torrington Swing Hammer Swing (Dec)
  2. Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
  3. Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
  4. Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
  5. George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)

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