The Cutting Room

May 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

At last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival James Kelman complained that genre fiction was being packaged and promoted to the detriment of ‘literary’ fiction, such as, by coincidence, his own. His argument was that we don’t properly celebrate and engage with the country’s ‘difficult’ literature preferring the comfort of genre. He is reported to have claimed that if Scotland had an equivalent of the Nobel Prize for literature we would give it to a writer of ‘detective fiction or else some kind of child writer’, by which I assume he means a writer of children’s fiction rather than the writing of a child.

Of course Kelman knew that his outburst would receive publicity, and the real target of his rage was the booksellers and they way they choose to promote fiction. It was not necessarily directed at the writers themselves, although it did hint at an artistic snobbery that is not like the man. I know that he was just shouting his corner, but such accusations suggest that genre fiction is not of literary worth. This is clearly not true as any reader of Conan Doyle, Poe, Chandler or Bradbury would acknowledge. Louise Welsh’s fiction, which at first inspection may appear to belong to the ‘thriller’ genre, gives the reader so much more.

‘The Cutting Room’ is a stunning debut novel. It is noir in every sense of the word. It is worth quoting critic George Tuttle here who explains noir with the following description; ‘the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters.’ All of these apply to ‘The Cutting Room’.

Welsh’s novel is dark, dirty, dangerous and erotic with a gothic sensibility that excites and unsettles. Welsh manages to create real tension throughout, and in the central character of Rilke Welsh has created one of Scottish literature’s most memorable men. Here is an intellectual, lonely man who finds brief solace in drink and casual sexual encounters, a man whose strong sense of right and wrong draw him into places he would rather avoid, but where he is ultimately comfortable. There are echoes of Mr Hyde, or even James Hogg’s Robert Wringham, in his character as he lives a life that exists mainly in the dark, and is drawn to the seedy and dangerous. What makes him different from those characters is that Rilke is perfectly aware of the life he leads. There is no room for self denial in his life.

The sex scenes are graphic, although I don’t think gratuitous, and are self referential as to some they will be seen as pornographic, and questions about societies relationship to sex, and particularly sexual imagery, are central to the novel. The apparent dichotomy about being attracted to, but disgusted by, the sexual, and the nature of taboo, are important themes which are to the fore in ‘The Cutting Room’. Rilke’s homosexuality is not used as a twist, but it is vital to the novel and allows further comment on the hypocrisy involved in how sex is viewed by the majority of society. Welsh reminds us that one person’s titillation will be another’s filth.

Louise Welsh uses the discovery of pornography at a dead man’s house as the catalyst to the mystery of the novel and this lends it a feel of deceit and deception right from the beginning. The reader is made aware that this novel will expose double lives and dark secrets.

I don’t want to go into the plot here, it is a thriller after all, but I should mention just how well Louise Welsh writes. For a novel that could have been riddled with cliché she manages to appeal to those who understand the noir/gothic genres, while also allowing more literary references. Like Rilke, Welsh feels at home in the darker corners of her fictional world, but there is also the sense that there is much more going on in that world. This sense is confirmed in her second and third novels ‘Tamburlaine Must Die’ and ‘The Bullet Trick’. Make no mistake; this is clever, poetic writing that manages to be tough and lyrical at the same time.

Glasgow is very much part of’ The Cutting Room’, and Welsh takes us from the leafy West End which most people who know the city will be familiar with, to the darker corners of Glasgow that most would avoid. Welsh has that underrated ability to make her settings so real that the reader can visualise, if not the exact location, then one very like it. Welsh takes us on a tour of the city, naming the streets, parks and buildings as she does so. If you wanted to, and I doubt most people would, you could literally follow in Rilke’s footsteps.

Scotland’s ageing cities are the perfect locations for darker drama, and they have been put to good use in fictions such as Denise Mina’s ‘Garnethill’, Alan Grant’s comic book series ‘The Bogie Man’, David Kane’s Dundonian TV thriller ‘Jute City’, John Byrne’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, Michael Caton Jones’ TV adaptation of Frederick Lindsay’s ‘Brond’ and numerous detective fiction from William McIllvaney’s ‘Laidlaw’ through ‘Rebus’ and even including ‘Taggart’. If James Kelman really believes that genre fiction is taking the food from his mouth then he is fighting a losing battle.

Louise Welsh’s latest novel ‘Naming the Bones’ has just been published and should be in a bookshop near you. Again she writes a male narrative voice with the bookworm Murray Watson the central character. I’m fascinated by writers whose best work comes when writing from a different gender perspective than their own, and in awe of them as when it goes wrong it can do so spectacularly. All of Welsh’s novels feature a male narrator, and every one of them is a convincing character. It’s interesting that Alan Warner, whose best work includes the previously featured ‘Morvern Callar’ as well as ‘These Demented Lands’ and the female ensemble ‘The Sopranos’, is returning to the characters in the latter book for his new novel. But that is for another day.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

Next month’s novel: When we first started with this column I got a few suggestions as to future books to discuss. Billy, of this parish, suggested something by Gordon Legge and I realised I had forgotten about ‘The Shoe’. Legge was one of those writers, along with Duncan McLean, Toni Davidson and Kevin Williamson, who was overshadowed by the success of Welsh, Warner and Banks but he deserves to be read.

‘The Shoe’ is a great place to start, and his portrayal of friendship is warmer and more realistic than other, more celebrated, Scottish novels and the referencing to music is natural rather than forced. I think that everyone will like this novel, but some people will love it as will remind them of days gone by.

Next 5 books:

  1. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
  2. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
  3. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
  4. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)
  5. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)

Garnethill

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Scottish crime fiction is generally held to be a helpful category to be filed under if you want to sell books. The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one that many find grating, but it has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of some of Scotland’s finest writers. The downside is that some may prejudge those writers, believing them to be an homogenous group dealing in crime clichés and formulaic prose. Nothing could be further from the truth. The gothic horror of Louise Welsh, the domestic nightmares of Doug Jonhstone, the black comedy of Christopher Brookmyre, the teak-tough working class dramas of William McIlvanney; all have found themselves collected together at festivals and on book shelves, but they are all gloriously different from one another. What does unite them is their ability to challenge the reader in a manner few other writers would dare.

Denise Mina is one of the most challenging in that she isn’t out to simply shock or unsettle, she wants to make you think. Her debut novel, 1998’s ‘Garnethill’, is notable not only in introducing one of Scotland’s most versatile and successful writers, but also because it brought crime fiction back to Glasgow after it had been largely absent since McIlvanney had stopped writing it in the early ‘90s. Christopher Brookmyre’s detective in ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, Jack Parlabane, may have been Glaswegian, but we first meet him in Edinburgh, and Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’ was still four years away.

The reasons for this are interesting to consider. The best-known writers in Glasgow at the time were Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. Through association with those two, people also thought of Archie Hinds, Agnes Owens and Jeff Torrington (whose ‘Swing Hammer, Swing’ is arguably THE great Glasgow novel). Glasgow seemed obsessed with literary fiction, as concerned with form and politics as much as content or plot. In Edinburgh, the success of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels overshadowed a lot of other crime fiction, and it was a while before his influence would have its full effect. Also, infamous 1935 novel ‘No Mean City’ cast a long shadow over Glasgow even at the end of the century, and it was an image many were keen to shake off. That meant that a lot of artists avoided referencing the violence and fear that novel perpetuated. It just so happened violence and fear were right up Denise Mina’s city centre street.

I remember ‘Garnethill’ being published and picking a copy up straight away on the name alone. It was a bold move to give your novel such a definite sense of place, but it added extra interest for those who new the area. It had, and retains, its own quirky identity. Built on a hill in the middle of the city, it was multicultural, an artistic centre, a mixture of the new and old, and with plenty of bedsits and B&B’s for its residents. The geographical detail grounds the novel and makes what happens all the more visceral, and the novel announced a new voice in Scottish writing that refused to be ignored.

Mina’s writing is as refreshing today as the first time I read it; humorous, frank, fearless and with serious intent, and ‘Garnethill’ is the perfect introduction. It begins with Maureen O’Donnell becoming the prime suspect for murder after her boyfriend is discovered dead in her flat. Everyone seems to think she may have done it, which, considering the brutal nature of the crime, immediately asks questions about Maureen’s character. It soon becomes clear that she is part of a dysfunctional family, to say the least, and she has had mental health problems that others look to use as an excuse for any behaviour they see as ‘not fitting’.

It is in dealing with such matters that Mina is at her best. She cuts through the crap and reflects honestly on topics such as mental health, physical and psychological abuse, addiction, bigotry – not necessarily about these things directly, but more about people’s attitudes towards them. The stance of ‘pull yourself together’ is one which Maureen encounters, and even uses herself with reference to other characters. There is compassion in the novel, with some wonderfully strong relationships, but there is also intolerance, deception, selfishness and doubt. When Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it appears he could have been describing it as viewed from a Garnethill bedsit.

There is also a lot of violence in ‘Garnethill’, but it is not gratuitous. There are descriptions that are incredibly vivid and graphic, but that is to convey the nature of the crimes and the brutality behind them. Late in the novel there is a discussion between Maureen and her close friend Leslie about what male body parts a woman would cut off as opposed to a man, and while there is a black comedy on show, serious points are also being made. It’s another area where Mina excels; getting the balance between serious and funny just right, a notoriously difficult thing to pull off. She also has an eye for a spot on cultural reference, such as Alex Cox’s movie ‘Repo Man’, a Shakin’ Stevens’ key ring, ‘Planet of The Apes’, Brylcreem and The Selecter, who play a pivotal role in events.

Denise Mina has become one of Scotland’s best known and revered writers. Aside from the Garnethill Trilogy, all focusing on Maureen, she has written the Paddy Meehan novels, (including ‘Field of Blood’ which was brilliantly adapted for TV), and the Alex Morrow novels. She has done fine work in the field of the graphic novel, with a run on Vertigo Comics’ ‘Hellblazer’(seek out the Glasgow set ‘The Red Right Hand’ which is a riot) as well as the Stieg Laarson Millennium Trilogy. She is one of the most accessible and thought provoking writers at work today. If you are one of those who never visit the crime section of your local bookshop, Denise Mina is well worth making that trip for.

Alistair

Next Month’s Novel: Today there are many celebrated Scottish women writers, some of whom appear on these pages, but this wasn’t always the case. If you were to ask someone in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s to name a contemporary Scottish female writer they would more than likely say Muriel Spark, or perhaps look back to the ‘30s and cite Willa Muir and Catherine Carswell.

One name they should have mentioned was Jessie Kesson. Her 1958 novel ‘The White Bird Passes’ was critically lauded at the time, but she was largely forgotten when anthologies of 20th century Scottish Literature were being written. It’s an autobiographical novel that is as poetic as it is heart breaking. A forgotten classic.

Trainspotting

May 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

‘The best book ever written by man or woman…it deserves to sell more copies that the Bible.’ Rebel Inc

If you’re going to grab people’s attention with a cover line, that’s the way to do it. In 1993 Irvine Welsh’s debut novel ‘Trainspotting’ was brilliantly packaged to an unsuspecting public with the title in red on a silver cover which featured two figures wearing death masks and then that quote. Kevin Williamson was the man who ran the small publishers Rebel Inc, and it was in their magazine that writers such as Alan Warner, Laura Hird and Toni Davidson were first published. It was also the first home for the work of Irvine Welsh, and it was a typical piece of Williamson hyperbole to give such good quote for the cover. The thing is, I’m sure he meant it. Because ‘Trainspotting’ isn’t a case of style over substance. Once people had their attention grabbed it was the quality of the novel that reeled them in. Reading ‘Trainspotting’ for the first time is a life changing experience, and I place the novel alongside ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for the impact it had on the people who read it. It certainly did it for me.

‘Trainspotting’ the phenomenon, by which I mean the book, the film, the soundtrack(s), the poster etc, has become so iconic that it is easy to forget how important the novel was in Scotland when it came out. It was a book for a generation who we were told didn’t read, a book which introduced readers to people and places they had either ignored, or had never encountered, a book that understood the culture of the early 1990s. Welsh’s characters were turned on, tuned in and had dropped out and there were many who recognised the reasons behind the choices made in ‘Trainspotting’, even if the lives themselves were unfamiliar.

What else ‘Trainspotting’ heralded was Scottish writing that reflected Scotland’s situation politically. After all the years of Conservative rule despite constantly, overwhelmingly, voting otherwise ‘Trainspotting’ caught the frustrations and understandable apathy of a large percentage of the population who felt that if there is no way you can affect change, why bother trying. It should be noted that not all Scots writers felt that this was the appropriate response to Tory rule from Westminster. Also published in 1993 was Iain Banks’ ‘Complicity’ which is one of the most graphically violent, and angriest, novels to have come out of Scotland and portrays a very different reaction to Scotland’s social and political problems. In that year Banks was the Hunter S. Thompson to Welsh’s William Burroughs.

The structure of ‘Trainspotting’ betrays the short stories from which much of it was formed. It is split into seven sections and multiple narrators. The fact that Welsh manages to work these disparate voices and stories together to make it a coherent whole is testament to his skill, and there is no doubt that this broken form of narrative (some sections are first person, some are third) adds to the confusing but exhilarating feel that the novel has. If there’s a storyline or a character that is not for you, then there’ll be another one along in a minute. But this also hints at the problem with a lot of his later fiction. His most successful writing post ‘Trainspotting’ can be found in the four collections of Welsh’s short stories.

This is partly because I think the shocking nature of a lot of his fiction works best in short punchy doses. If it is spread out over a longer novel, and the characters do not provoke any sympathy, then it starts to become predictable, and a little dull. One of the reasons that ‘Porno’ is perhaps his most successful novel since ‘Trainspotting’ is due to the fact that the reader is reintroduced to characters that they have met previously, and, due to the film’s success, can visualise them clearly whether they like it or not. It also allowed Welsh to return to the structure of ‘Trainspotting’.

Irvine Welsh’s greatest success lies in his use of language. His ear for dialogue, his fantastic ability to make banter and abuse believable (never an easy thing) is the main reason for ‘Trainspotting’s success. The best writers of dialogue manage to pull off a difficult balancing act of portraying characters whose patter is close enough to what the reader experiences to make it credible, but slightly better, sharper and funnier. Welsh writes not as a group of friends actually are, but how they might like to be. There is a rhythm to the language that makes it so quotable. Think of the famous sections such as ‘Choose Life’, ‘Fuckin failures in a country ay failures’ and even the opening line ‘The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’ It’s poetic. It must be this that makes fans of ‘Trainspotting’ hold the book in the affection that we do as the characters are actually, on the whole, a despicable bunch, yet we want to read on.

The cast of ‘Trainspotting’ are selfish, sad, horrific or a combination of all three. Yet there is a sense of shared experience and a gang mentality, their names only highlighting this. Rent Boy, Sick Boy, Tommy Gun, Second Prize, Spud, Franco ‘the beggar’ Begbie, each central character has their own characteristics used as badges. Even that fact that Davie Mitchell doesn’t have an alternative nickname tells us a lot about his perceived status. The names give the reader clues as to where each character stands in this (anti)-social group.

It appears that they need each other yet despise, or at least disrespect each other. The fact that Renton is nominally the hero of the piece is difficult to marry with his final deception (and, unlike the film, his recompensing of Spud is only suggested). But what should we expect from someone who can justify shagging his widowed sister in-law at her husband’s, and his brother’s, funeral. It’s a masterful piece of writing to make us care for Renton, although perhaps it is only done by comparison to the others.

The ear for language that Welsh has suggests he was certainly tuned in, and ‘Trainspotting’ is packed with reference to music; David Bowie, Simple Minds, The Velvet Underground and The Fall are only a few of the acts regularly mentioned. In the ‘Exile’ section of the novel there is a chapter named after The Smiths song ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and the detailed musical references help set the novel, and give it an authentic feel. But it is Iggy Pop who is the musical hero and Welsh understands that sometimes people follow musicians like they follow their football teams. If they make a bad record or career move then it is ok for those who follow them to make comment, but they’ll defend them to the death if others were to do so. Even when they decide to sell insurance.

It is this immersion in popular culture, married with brilliantly quotable dialogue, which made ‘Trainspotting’ perfect for film adaptation and in hind sight it is no wonder that the film became as huge as it did. It appears that from the last twenty years the two images of Scotland that have endured around the world are ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Braveheart’. At least that’s how it seems when I talk to overseas students who wind up in Glasgow. If I’m mistaken then please let me know.

‘Trainspotting’ made the Booker Prize long list for 1993, but the story goes that it upset two of the female judges. Why the sex of the judges offended needed to be made public is unclear, but it does lead me to touch on my biggest problem with Irvine Welsh’s work. For as much as I love ‘Trainspotting’, there is much of his later work that I really dislike. I want to stress that his ear for language endures, he can still turn a phrase, or abuse a pal, better than any other Scottish writer, and this makes the situation all the more annoying. I’m not even bothered that scenes of depravity have become more extreme as the novels progress. It is his treatment of women in his work that sticks in my craw. It may not be as obvious in ‘Trainspotting’ as it is in ‘Filth’, ‘The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs’ or, most notably, ‘Marabou Stork Nightmares’, but it is suggested and I leave it up to you to decide if his writing can become misogynistic, or is merely misanthropic as the man himself claims it to be. But maybe that’s for another time and another column.

‘Trainspotting’ has left a lasting legacy, and one that is far more positive than many would give it credit for, and this is due to a mix of language and representation. Working class Scots in novels was nothing new by the nineties, but it had tended to have a west coast lilt. Most readers found the language that Welsh used difficult at first, but once you had got used to the phonetic spelling, and had become accustomed to the rhythm, it became a joy to read. People compare his use of Scots dialect to that of James Kelman, but Kelman’s language is more of a mix of Standard English and Scots. Perhaps Kelman needed to write first to allow Welsh and others to follow, but ‘Trainspotting’ was a step up from what we had read before and presented Scotland with a new written Scots.

Irvine Welsh managed to pull off the trick of writing a book that not only the people he wrote about wanted to read, but had mass appeal, and his success helped to pave the way for some of the best Scottish writers of the next decade, writers who may not have had a chance to be widely read otherwise. For all the criticism that may come his way that alone should make him proud as it’s a hell of a legacy to leave.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

Next month’s novel: It’s rare to discover a completely new voice in Scottish Literature, and Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’ was just that. Some have argued that the novel is crime fiction, as if that is an accusation. Actually, ‘The Cutting Room’ was the gothic thriller that the city of Glasgow had been crying out for. With the central figure of Rilke Louise Welsh had written a convincing gay male character that was also rare to the distinctly straight world of Scottish fiction. Rilke’s sexuality, while central to his life and the plot, is dealt with in a way that leaves cliché and stereotype behind.

Louise Welsh takes the reader into a world that they may have never even considered existed, and the pace of ‘The Cutting Room’ is relentless.

Next 5 books:

  1. Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
  2. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
  3. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
  4. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
  5. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Let’s reflect on the state of Scottish literature of the 1980s. James Kelman and Alasdair Gray and the Iains’ Banks and Rankin came to wider public attention and William McIllvaney continued to write gritty stories of West of Scotland hard men. As another cultural icon of the 80’s Frank McAvennie might have asked; ‘wherz the burdz?’ There was a new movement in Scottish writing, a renaissance that could also be found in other areas of the arts, but across the cultural board female voices were rare.

Liz Lochhead, known for her poetry and her plays, seemed to stand alone. Agnes Owens was writing incredible prose but no-one was promoting it or reading it and Muriel Spark, while still being lauded, was better known for her earlier work. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the situation was rectified, and it was changed in spectacular fashion. In 1990 two books by new female writers were published; A.L. Kennedy’s collection of short stories ‘Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains’ and Janice Galloway’s novel ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ and these introduced readers to two of  Scotland’s best writers who would produce consistently brilliant work over the next two decades.

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ is ostensibly a novel about mental health, but is also about gender roles and expectations at the end of the 20th century. The central character of Joy Stone has just lost her married lover, a fellow teacher from the local school, in a terrible drowning accident while they were on holiday. The book contains short dream-like passages which piece together that dreadful event. On returning from overseas Joy is ostracised by her colleagues and friends. She is the unwanted reminder of a less than perfect life, and it is not how people want to remember the dead. Everyone wishes Joy would disappear.

This includes Joy herself, at least in part. The novel is about coping, as the title suggests, and it pulls no punches in its depiction of a woman who is struggling to live. Galloway manages to convey a life where every little task becomes unimaginable, overwhelming and virtually impossible. The detail and the effort are beautifully rendered in Galloway’s unsentimental and often disconcerting writing. There is humour, but in context it is of the blackest kind. Joy Stone’s life has become a struggle and the struggle is one that she has to deal with on her own.

Although the secondary characters in the novel are important, this is Joy’s story.  Her relationships with her sister, mother, young lover and boss see her trying to fulfil expectations. Some of the different roles that are expected of women in the West Coast of Scotland are clearly set out. Joy is expected to be a daughter, a sister, a mother (figure), a lover and a whore. She tries to fulfil these roles for everyone, to be what is expected of her as the last time she did something for herself, something that offered happiness, it ended in tragedy. There is the undoubted sense that Joy feels she is being punished for having once putting herself first and she is terrified to do this again.

Her illness leaves her looking for ways to either control her life or escape it. But really her anorexia, excessive drinking and unfulfilling sexual encounters are all aspects of the punishment that Joy feels she deserves. At one moment she clarifies how she feels: ‘The More Something Hurts, The More it can Teach Me’. The use of capitals adds to the importance of the sentence, but also apes the headlines of the magazines that she reads as another source of instruction as to how women are meant to act. It takes a subtle moment of recognition, of brief clarity, to signal hope for Joy’s future. This occurs when she says ‘No’ to her bookie boss Tony. It is the first time she says ‘No’ to anyone in the novel, and it is the moment that she begins to regain control of her life, and is the beginning of the end of the novel. When we leave Joy she is alone in the house, all is quiet except for the voice which says ‘I forgive you’. The voice is her own.

The subject of mental health deserves as serious consideration as ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ provides, but it rarely gets it. Many people who have either suffered from mental illness, or have known others who have, (which must be everyone) will recognise passages from the novel, and such recognition, the realisation that no-one is alone in suffering mental health problems, is hugely important. The terrifying depiction of Joy failing to cope on her own should make the reader realise that support and understanding are the least that people should expect when such illness strikes. It is this aspect of the novel, its incredible honesty, which makes this one of the most important Scottish novels of the last 30 years.

The novel’s influence didn’t end on the page. It was turned into a successful stage play by Michael Boyd when he was the artistic Director of Glasgow’s Tron theatre in the early 1990s. In the play the role of Joy was split between three actresses who each played an aspect of her personality. As a way of explaining the turmoil of Joy’s psyche this simple move was inspired, and I’m surprised that the play hasn’t been produced more often.

Galloway went on to have one of the most interesting and diverse careers of any Scottish writer. Her second novel ‘Foreign Parts’ was well received but it is her third novel ‘Clara’ that is perhaps her masterpiece. However, nothing she has done has the immediate impact of reading ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ for the first time, and no Scottish writer would match her depiction of someone whose life is falling apart until A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Paradise’ in 2004. I hope no-one is put off reading ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by this column. I can’t tell you that it is an easy or even truly enjoyable read, but it is one that enriches your life and your understanding of others. In my experience people either love this novel or hate it, but you can’t ignore it and we can ask no more from a book.  If you’ve read it I’d love to know your thoughts.

Many commentators look at the 1980’s as the time when Scottish literature, and culture in general, was reborn, but it is the 1990’s that are far more interesting in terms of writing. Kelman and Banks produced their best novels (‘How Late it was, How Late’ and ‘The Bridge’ respectively), Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ exploded around the world and its success allowed writers who would never have been published to be read. This period produced writing that was of a quantity and quality that has been hard to follow.

Most importantly the nineties finally saw a real gender equality appear in Scottish writing, and in terms of quality I would argue that alongside Kennedy and Galloway, writers such as Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, Anne Donovan, Laura Hird, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith (who, in my opinion, stands shoulder to shoulder with James Kelman as the best Scottish writer at work today) were the real stars. At a time when many male writers were aping Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, it was female writers who were writing the more diverse and stylistically interesting novels and prose.

Alistair

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Next month’s novel: It’s the big one. It’s Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ and I imagine that opinions on it will be strong. It’s perhaps difficult to remember just what a phenomenon this book was when it was released as the success of the film version tends to distort that memory. But here was a book that everyone I knew would read, some of whom wouldn’t read another novel all decade. We can argue at a later point about the quality of what Irvine did next, but if only for ‘Trainspotting’ he secured justified legendary status.

Next 5 books:

  1. Irvine Welsh Trainspotting (April)
  2. Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
  3. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
  4. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
  5. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)

Kill Your Friends

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Rarely can an epigraph have summed up the novel to come better than the Hunter S. Thompson quote that appears before John Niven’s 2008 novel ‘Kill Your Friends’. It reads as follows:

‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.’

Niven’s novel revels in the horrors and highs that Thompson alludes to. Set over the year of 1997, an important date to consider as the London based music industry is coming down from the high of Britpop’s success, we follow the life of Steven Stelfox, an A&R man in his late 20’s who is staggering his way through the music business on a mixture of chemical induced bravado, bullshit and sheer luck. ‘Kill Your Friends’ is deliberately out to create shock and awe as the excesses of Stelfox and his ‘friends’ are relayed with every gory detail. This is a world where the only rule is to be successful, and that tag allows you to do and take anything that you fancy. An alternative epigraph could have come from the pen of Ian Dury; ‘Sex, n’ drugs and rock n’ roll, are all my brain and body needs.’

Except Steven Stelfox has come to hate music; he hates it because he can’t work it out. Music has become a commodity to him, his way of making money and keeping his job. All questions of quality or artistic value are of little to no use to him. For Stelfox the good music is the stuff that sells. So Elton John’s re-released ‘Candle in the Wind’ becomes the record of the year. If bands don’t fit into the categories that Stelfox understands then they are treated with suspicion and derision. At one point, admittedly while high at Glastonbury, Stelfox realises that what he is listening to, and finding beautiful, is a song by Radiohead.

As he recognises who the band are his first thought is ‘I don’t like Radiohead because I don’t know what they want’, while he simultaneously fixates on terms such as ‘marketing spend’, crossover’ and ‘120 grand unrecouped’. Listening to ‘Paranoid Android’ he has a minor epiphany, the only moment in the novel where he is at peace; ‘…for a moment there I lose myself.’ This doesn’t last long as in the next paragraph he sexually assaults someone in the dance-tent, then rides a ferris-wheel ‘snorting poppers and roaring with laughter as the cold black air swirls around and around us…’ To borrow the quote attributed to Elvis Presley at the start of the March chapter: ‘I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.

And this is the central theme to the novel. Yes, there are lots of scenes of sexual excess, violence, ridiculous levels of drug taking, racist and sexist sentiment and all round shocking behaviour. But that is something that anyone who reads a lot of modern fiction will be well used to. In fact I would suggest that the writer Niven most closely resembles in this respect is Irvine Welsh, particularly novels such as ‘Filth’ and ‘Glue’. What makes this novel such a joy is the loathing that Niven obviously has for Stelfox and those like him. The novel reads like the lancing of a boil, something that Niven needed to get out. You get the feeling that Niven does love music, but was infected with the cynicism that surrounded him during his time working in A&R.

It would be a mistake to equate Stelfox with Niven. More likely he is what Niven was terrified of becoming. Niven’s knowledge of the music scene is encyclopaedic. The section in the January chapter, where Stelfox lists about 50 bands who were signed in 1996, references real bands, singers and DJ’s who were backed to be successful. Elsewhere conversations are about people who, to a greater or lesser degree, have had success. This gives the novel an essential feeling of reality and authority.

Niven mixes these real bands with fictional musicians. These tend to be thinly veiled versions of real people in the music business, and you often get the feeling that Niven is not only attacking the industry, but is using this opportunity to settle some personal scores. Characters such as young female singer ‘Ellie Crush’, drum and base ‘genius’ Rage and all girl group ‘Songbirds’ are fairly easy to decipher.

The contempt in which Niven holds the music business, or at least the A&R part of it, is palpable. A&R (artist and repertoire) is handily described at the beginning of chapter one as ‘The branch of the music industry concerned with finding and nurturing new talent.’ Niven portrays them as a confederation of dunces. He constantly reiterates that no-one really knows what they’re doing, and that any success is 90% luck. To highlight this every month’s chapter is prefaced with quotes from industry figures that have proved to be spectacularly wrong.

My favourite examples include:

February: ‘By the second of third record we’ll sell five million. I’m serious. They’re going to be huge.’ Alan McGee talking about the debut 3 Colours Red album.

March: ‘I see her developing the way Madonna has. This is probably the dance album of the decade.’ Warner Brothers A&R man Steve Allen. He’s talking about Gina G.

April: ‘I can see D*Note at the Royal Albert Hall. The sky is really the limit for them.’ Andy Thompson, head of VC Recordings.

It’s easy to laugh with the benefit of hindsight, but these little quotes, and the confidence with which they are made, are the basis on which this novel is built.

This book isn’t really about music, it is incidental. It’s about selling. These people could be selling shampoo, laxatives or cola. The difference is that a bottle of cola won’t overdose in a hotel room as you’re about to release a statement announcing their next tour, won’t decide to sell the furniture from the studio to buy drugs, and won’t decide to record a 64.33 minute long, single track, drum and bass concept album called ‘Birth’. That’s the problem with music and musicians; you never quite know what’s going to happen next, which is one of those things that make music great. What frustrates Stelfox and his peers is that they are looking for certainties in an industry where nothing is ever certain. It’s like trying to bottle lightning.

That’s why Steven Stelfox’s wise words to aspiring musicians have the wring of truth about them. He says ‘You may as well spend you guitar-string money on lottery tickets – your chances will be much the same’ before going on to set out the argument why this is the case. But it should always be remembered that the advice comes from a cynical, sour, money and success obsessed character. He is measuring merit by record sales. If that’s the reason you go into music then the chances are you will be disappointed. But most people still pick up a guitar because they love music, an idea that means nothing in Stelfox’s world.

I recently read Luke Haines (lead singer with The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhoff) autobiography ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall’ which looks at the music industry at roughly the same time period as ‘Kill Your Friends’, but from an artist’s point of view. It is fascinating to compare them. Haines book is a master-class in sarcasm and loathing, both of himself and everyone else that he’s ever met, and he names all the names. If you enjoy ‘Kill Your Friends’ then I highly recommend reading ‘Bad Vibes’.

In fact both of these books should be given to any budding musicians you may know. It might not dissuade them, and of course that’s a good thing, but at least you’ll sleep better knowing that they are aware of just what’s out there. If there is a message to be taken from ‘Kill Your Friends’, particularly with reference to ‘Breakthrough Artist of the Year: Ellie Crush’, it is ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage…’

(If you want to hear John Niven being spectacularly indiscreet about his time in the music business then you should download episode 45 of The Word’s weekly podcast, which you can do for free at I-tunes. The conversation about ‘bad-cocaine albums’ is particularly interesting. Scottish music fans may be surprised at one of the claims.)

Alistair

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Next month’s novel: Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This novel takes a specific event as the catalyst to explore mental health, attitudes towards it, and trying to live with it. As the title suggests, the novel is really about survival. There is humour, if of the black variety, and in the end it’s a paean to the human spirit.

This is one of the best Scottish novels of the last 30 years. I won’t pretend it’s an easy read, but then great novels rarely are. Janice Galloway beautifully conveys the inner thoughts of the narrator ‘Joy’, and makes the reader empathise, if not always sympathise.

Next 5 books:

  1. Janice Galloway The Trick is to Keep Breathing (March)
  2. Irvine Welsh Trainspotting (April)
  3. Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
  4. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
  5. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)

Be Near Me

May 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

Andrew O’Hagan’s Booker nominated 2006 novel Be Near Me tackles themes which are common in modern Scottish literature, but in a manner which is very much of his own styling. Religion, politics, bigotry, class, nationality and sexuality are explored in the novel but with a more considered eye than many of his contemporaries. There is also the overriding idea throughout the novel concerning what it means to ‘belong’.

Setting the novel in the (just about) fictional town of ‘Dalgarnock’ in the West of Scotland, O’Hagan seems to be criticising ‘small town mentality’, and, by extension aspects of Scotland’s mentality, if we can talk about such a thing. But the novel is much more complex than that. Although such criticisms exist in the novel, no one escapes O’Hagan’s searching view and all the characters are examined as individuals rather than reducing them to generic stereotypes. This is never truer than with Be Near Me’s narrator.

A wiser man than me once said that a major difference between Scottish Literature and other nation’s literatures is that whereas most have the outsider or the damaged character on the peripheries of the story, as either warnings or figures of fun and/or pity, Scots writers often make these characters the heroes of the piece, the narrators of the story.

All the narrators in Trainspotting, Rilke from Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room, Hannah Luckraft from A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise and even Morvern from last month’s novel, Morvern Callar; these are just a few examples that support such a theory, and there are plenty of others. All are seriously flawed but are our (main) guides through the stories. Andrew O’Hagan sticks to this pattern, but again in a surprising way. His central character of Father David Anderton in Be Near Me turns out to be as flawed as any of the above, but the individual reader’s attitude to who he is; his life, work, and actions may mean that they condemn him for very different ‘crimes’.

Born in Scotland, but raised and educated in England, David is a priest who is hiding from the life he feels he could have had. He has condemned himself to live a number of lies and be content with a comfortable life filled with fine wines, food and classical music. This was the life he aspired to as a young man at Balliol College before he fell in love and it is the life he retreats into after losing that love. Ironically it is the possibility of love, or even the possibility of the possibility, that brings this world crashing down. Here is a man who comes into a world about which he knows nothing except his own prejudices, and it is the relationship between the people of Dalgarnock and David that allows O’Hagan to explore beyond the individual characters.

There are no easy answers in Be Near Me, especially where David is concerned. An educated, apparently intelligent, man, he lets himself get into situations that can only lead to his downfall. Nothing about David is what it seems. O’Hagan manages to pull off that difficult trick of making the reader care for a man who is at times portrayed as a pompous snob, a hypocrite, and possibly much worse.

I believe that David Anderton is one of the great fictional figures of recent times. Complex, kind and idealistic but also proud, stubborn, pretentious and weak; he is beautifully nuanced and subtly drawn when in less successful hands he could have been monstrous or stereotyped. Or a monstrous stereotype.

Instead we have a largely sympathetic portrayal of a man who is accused of paedophilia and of abusing his position. It is one thing to tackle such a subject, but it is a brave writer in the extreme who tries to keep the reader on the side of the accused. O’Hagan has never shied away from uncovering the less palatable aspects of society and holding them up for inspection. That the reader wants to read on instead of turn away is testament to the writer’s skill.

O’Hagan creates characters that the reader can care about without shying away from portraying their flaws. The supporting cast in Be Near Me are as well defined as David Anderton. His housekeeper Mrs Poole, who has a very realistic and warm relationship with her employer, is a wonderful character. But it is the portrayals of the teenagers Mark and Lisa, and their doomed relationship with David, that could have been unbelievable, and that would have reduced the impact of what is to follow. O’Hagan deals with subject matter that other writers would sensationalise, and does so in a humane, personal and subtle way which is vital to the novel’s success. In the end this is a novel about humanity, or perhaps its absence, so it is crucial that we believe in those involved.

Andrew O’Hagan is a real craftsman who, unlike many Scottish writers, is not afraid to criticise Scotland while still remembering his roots. This applies to his work as a columnist and essayist as well, (his book of essays The Atlantic Ocean comes highly recommended). Of course journalism is looking for different truths than those the novelist does, and there is an element of journalism which infiltrates his fiction; 2003’s Celebrity for instance is unashamedly based on the tragic story of Lena Zavoroni, and Be Near Me may have its roots in real life events in the West Coast of Scotland. His journalist’s eye for detail can be a positive, but sometimes means that the details of the character’s surroundings can over power the story, and can sidetrack the reader.

But even this criticism was turned into a positive when Be Near Me was adapted for the theatre by the National Theatre of Scotland ,starring Iain McDiarmid, Blythe Duff and a with couple of great performances from Richard Maddon and Helen Mallon as Mark and Lisa. The detailed set-pieces of the novel, such as on Ailsa Craig, or the dinner party at David’s house, worked fantastically well on stage.

I’ve concentrated on the character of David in this column as it is his voice that guides us through the novel, and therefore how the people and place are viewed. It is this view that I am most interested in, and am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on. As I mentioned at the top of the page, Be Near Me stands apart from most recent Scottish fiction, as does Andrew O’Hagan. I believe that the critics who have said that this novel attacks small town life are fundamentally mistaken. The novel is about small minds, wherever they are to be found. As with his earlier fiction O’Hagan struggles between love for Scotland, and his despair at some of the problems that come along with such a love. As with any love you must often accept the good with the bad, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the latter to justify our feelings.

Like James Kelman and Iain Banks, O’Hagan holds a mirror up to modern Scotland not to entertain or amuse, but to criticise and provoke thought. His writing shuns the idea of moral certainties to deal in uncertainty, and he is constantly questioning and asking his readers to do likewise. How do Scots deal with class, with religion, with their children and with their neighbours? It sometimes an uncomfortable view, but it is vital not to look away.

Alistair

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Next month’s novel: Kill Your Friends by John Niven (Vintage 2009)

I can’t think of another novel written in the last ten years that will appeal to the .Dear Scotland community more than Niven’s 2008 debut. John Niven was an A&R man for London Records and Independiente in the 1990s (he was responsible for Mike Flower’s version of Wonderwall don’t you know) and it is in this world that the novel is set.

Kill Your Friends is a no holds barred look at that life, with barely disguised portrayals of some of the 90’s more high profile artists. I would describe it as a cross between High Fidelity, American Psycho and Iain Banks’ Dead Air. Hopefully that sounds like a full recommendation, because it’s supposed to be. I would say it’s a must for any music lover, with the proviso that it contains sex, drugs, violence and some of the poorest behaviour imaginable. I look forward to hearing what you think.

A-Z of Books

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

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