First Time Solo

February 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain hadn’t been as intensely discussed as it was last year since the Act of Union in1707. This was not only because of the Referendum, but also due to the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and other events during 2014, such as the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The concepts of nation and national ‘pride’ were there to be considered and discussed in many forms, and aspects of this, such as Scotland’s often overlooked role in the building of Empire and the construction of Great Britain, were finally being examined, talked about and acknowledged.

Iain Maloney’s debut novel, ‘First Time Solo’, was published against this backdrop, and this adds to the novel’s impact, giving it layers that it may not have revealed even 12 months earlier. Timing and cultural context are crucial to any reading of a novel, it can’t be any other way, but they effect some more notably than others. On the surface ‘First Time Solo’ is about Aberdeenshire farmer’s son, Jack Devine, as he leaves to join the RAF in 1943, but what it reveals says much about Scots and Scotland, both then and now.

For training Jack is sent at first to London, where he meets, among others, fellow Scot, Joe, and Welshman, Terry. They bond over their shared love of jazz, forming their own trio which gives them something to take their mind of what is unfolding in the rest of Europe and which offers some hope of a future once the war is done. However, as their differences become clearer the initial bonds of friendship are tested and eventually break. Maloney gets the banter between the group, and the rest of the prospective pilots spot on, verging between the only recently left behind playground patter to the more explosive matters of politics and nationality between young men to whom a little knowledge is often more dangerous than none at all.

Maloney makes it clear that for all popular history may want to think of those who fought in World War II as being united against a common enemy, the truth is if you put that many young men from different backgrounds together then divisions are bound to reveal themselves. This is a realistic account of national service at the time, when the prospect of not returning home was only too real, and although there is always humour and irreverence on display in the novel it is clear this a defence mechanism used by all the boys to hide real fear and a lack of understanding as to what is ahead of them, and what is expected of them.

The music is key to the novel as it not only offer the boys an initial bond, it gives them lives and interests outside the war, and the writing is never better or more exciting than when they are getting ready to play, or when they talk about music. The only sections which come close are those when Jack is learning to fly, the other dream that has brought him to this place and time. His youth and naivety are too soon to be lost, but it is his excitement at the new, as well as his joy for the things he loves, and his compassion for the people he loves, which gives the novel a warm heart and is a welcome balance to the more cynical, or damaged, characters that are to be found.

‘First Time Solo’ appears initially like a boy’s own tale which could be easily lampooned in the manner of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’; with young men joining up to fight the bosh for King and Country, but, like that show, there is something more subtle going on. Maloney’s, and Jack’s, initial positivity mean that when tragedy does touch upon their lives it is more moving and believable than if it appeared inevitable from the beginning, as the reality of the situation comes crashing in on the young men. This is a book which will surprise you when you least expect it.

It is also further reaching than you may initially expect, with questions of class and culture closely examined, as is the concept of loyalty and just what that means on an individual and collective basis. Jack learns that everyone carries their own baggage, even when they don’t realise it, and that you can’t save everyone. As for what the novel says about national identity, it is a timely reminder of how that notion can be abused, and that there are often more important things to consider than where you are from or where you belong, something which can be forgotten.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: Kei Miller is writer probably best known as a poet rather than a writer of prose. His collection ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion’ was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize for Literature in 2014, but both his novels, 2008’s ‘The Same Earth’, and next month’s featured novel, ‘The Last Warner Woman’, (written during his time as first a student, then as a teacher of creative writing, at the University of Glasgow), are well worth your attention.

‘The Last Warner Woman’ is set in Miller’s home country of Jamaica, and is a fantastic example of a writer who is a master of style and language, and which touches upon the sort of magical realism that fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will recognise and delight in.

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The Cry

December 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

James Kelman once stated that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and certainly the same could be said about real horror. The supernatural and fantastic may give us a shock or inspire nightmares, but our greatest fear and terror is surely based in reality; the dangers which can be found in the everyday. This is at the heart of Helen FitzGerald’s 2013 novel ‘The Cry’ which asks the reader to consider, not ‘whodunit’, but the much more challenging question of ‘what would I do?’. You may be quite clear in your mind to begin with, but FitzGerald makes you doubt yourself as perceptions are challenged, lies are uncovered, and dysfunctional relationships are exposed.

On a flight from Glasgow to Melbourne, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson’s 9-month old, Noah, is unable to settle, and his constant crying is not only shredding the nerves of his mother, but also disturbing their fellow passengers, which only adds to the pressure on Joanna. This very public disturbance means that there are plenty of character witnesses available for what unfolds later. As any parents’ worse fears become realised, Joanna will come to understand only too well that judgment comes easily to those with only a few of the facts. However, their judgment is nothing compared on that she pronounces on herself.

‘The Cry’ is a psychological thriller that is genuinely disturbing, partly because it is so believable, and because FitzGerald understands how vulnerable people can be manipulated. She is also aware of how the media works, as shown all too clearly in recent high-profile cases involving children, and while it would be wrong to overplay any similarities with those, the willingness for the media, both mainstream and social, to create and share their own narratives is spot on, something which Joanna eventually uses later in the book to get the reaction that she thinks is just.

Although the horrific situation is ostensibly Joanna and Alistair’s to share, this is not the reality, at least not equally. As she grows more distant from her partner the book becomes two women’s stories, Joanna’s and Alistair’s ex, Alexandra, the wife who left him when she found Joanna and he in bed together. When Alexandra takes their daughter, Chloe, to Australia, it is one of the few times when Alistair is foiled and doesn’t get what he wants, something which gives the reason for the trip even more credence, and a horrible irony.

Although his voice is never directly heard, Alistair Robertson is the one who is pulling the strings of every one else involved for his own gain, and for all the wrong reasons he is one of the most memorable characters of recent times. His final note to Chloe, which uses the same language he has used to seduce and convince both Joanna and Alexandra, is chilling, especially after certain truths have finally been revealed.

What’s perhaps most unsettling about Alistair is how he is routinely forgiven by the women in his life. His mother, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his lover; all of them come to realise that he cheats and lies, often as a matter of routine, but they all make excuses for his behaviour, or at least forgive it, to a greater or lesser degree, and it is only when Joanna decides she can take no more that this pattern is broken in spectacular style.

Often thrillers build tension and then let it ebb and flow. In ‘The Cry’ FitzGerald creates it in the first chapter, and it doesn’t let up until you close the final page. If you’re like me you’ll read it in one sitting as you can’t put it down until you know how things resolve themselves. There are times when you find yourself literally holding your breath as Joanna tries to make sense of what has happened and tries to work out what is going to happen next.

The idea of the genre ‘domestic noir’ is one that has grown in popularity recently, partly due to the success of ‘Gone Girl’, but the fear of something awful happening to family and friends is eternal and ever present, and ‘The Cry’ would make a rather macabre if moving double bill with Doug Johnstone’s equally excellent novel, ‘Gone Again’. But what I kept returning to is Kelman’s belief in the drama of the everyday, because although a tragic event brings matters to a head, all the characters in ‘The Cry’ are involved in lives which are challenging yet in some ways mundane. Helen FitzGerald proves herself an expert in telling stories which deserve to be heard, and which will strike a chilling chord with all readers.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: It’s incredibly difficult for any writer to get their debut novel published, never mind get noticed. As a result there are many books which deserve to be read but get overlooked. Iain Maloney’s First Time Solo came out earlier this year, and if you missed it, then I hope next month’s column will encourage you to search it out.

If you are the sort of person who judges a novel by the quotes they use, then one from Art Blakey and another by Aneurin Bevan should encourage you to read on, but this tale of love, jazz and poetry set against the backdrop of the World War II has the perfect balance of the poignant and the uplifting.

The New Road

November 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

What can be said about Neil Munro? In a Canadian obituary, it was written:

“Neil Munro – the very name o’ him is grand to hear. A grand name, wi’ something baith braw and hamely in it. A name wi’ a sniff o’ peat reek, the bloom o’ heather, a skirl o’ the pipes, an’ a glint o’ the claymore. A tartaned name, that stirs Scottish blood.”

Blimey! That’s a fair claim for this Scottish writer who is little known, or at least celebrated, today. It’s the sort of praise you could imagine being laid upon Walter Scott, or even written by Scott in one of his more purple patches. But Munro was born almost 100 years after Scott, and was a man of industrial Scotland as much as anything else. Working at one stage in an ironmongers not 200 metres from where I write this, he then became a journalist in Greenock, Glasgow and Falkirk. His knowledge of the Central Belt would feed into some of his fiction, but it is in the past where the best of Neil Munro is to be found.

If you know the name, it is likely because Munro wrote ‘The Tales of Para Handy’, couthy, comic stories set aboard the Clyde Puffer, The Vital Spark. These were adapted for TV in the 1960s with Roddy McMillan as the titular skipper, and again in 1994, this time with Gregor Fisher, and they were hugely successful slices of kailyard Scotland set at sea. Their popularity has overshadowed the rest of Munro’s writing, which is a shame as he is someone it is worth seeking out. He was called, by noted critic and Glasgow minister Lauchlan MacLean Watt, “the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”. That claim may not be shared by many, but it does give some idea as to how highly he was thought of at the time of his death in 1930.

His last novel, ‘The New Road’, is his best. Set in 1773, which places events 30 years after the Jacobite rebellion and at the time of the Highland Clearances, (two events are pivotal to what unfolds), it is the sort of murder/mystery that Scottish writers have done so well, from the earliest Walter Scott to those who fall under the umbrella of today’s Tartan Noir. The new road of the title refers to the military road which General Wade tore into the Highlands to destroy the Clans in the 1700s, and it is along this road that events unfold. Anyone who has read Scott’s ‘Waverley’ will be familiar with the landscape and themes, but Munro has greater humour and brevity than is to be found in that earlier novel.

Actually, it is not Scott, but Robert Louis Stevenson that ‘The New Road’ most closely resembles, as Scottish history is examined through the modern day ideas of 1914. The central characters of Aeneas Macmaster and Ninian Macgregor Campbell bear more than a close resemblance to Alan Breck Stewart and Davie Balfour from Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’, but the novel it most reminds me of is ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, in that Aeneas and Ninian are really one character divided, as are the brothers Durie in RLS’s book, and between them they represent all sorts of Scottish concerns. It may be old hat to even allude to ‘two’ distinct Scotlands, yet this idea was positively embraced by Scott, Stevenson and Munro respectively, and many others, and just because we may have heard this theory many times since, we shouldn’t dismiss it wholly.

One of the reasons Munro fell out of favour is a by now familiar one. His fiction and themes didn’t fit in with the ideas of that arbiter of Scottish Literature, Hugh MacDiarmid. He saw Munro as in thrall to Scotland’s past and MacDiarmid’s desire for Scottish modernism made any romanticising of Scotland’s past anathema to him. Many critics hung on MacDiarmid’s every word, and although ‘The New Road’ was praised by John Buchan, who called it ‘one of the finest romances of our time’ and Francis Russell Hart, amongst others, Munro’s reputation declined as the 20th century progressed. But, just as his contemporaries JM Barrie and Lewis Grassic Gibbon have been revaluated and rediscovered in recent decades, surely Munro deserves the same. We all deserve a bit of romance in our life.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: I have a love/hate relationship with literary categories. On the one hand, they are very useful on giving people an idea of what to expect from a writer or book, on the other, they don’t allow for much subtlety. If they are to be applied, it’s important to pick them apart to do the writer in question justice.

‘The Cry’, by Helen Fitzgerald, is one such book, ill served by calling it Tartan Noir. For one thing, it is set in Australia, for another you could call it a psychological thriller, a horror or a black comedy. In reality, it is all of these things and much more.

Debatable Land

October 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

One of the never ending discussions about books is whether the meaning comes from the reader or the writer. Of course, the answer is both, but where the balance lies is constantly shifting, and often circumstances and situation dictates this as much as the writing itself. Candia McWilliam’s ‘Debatable Land’ is full of rich metaphor and allegory, but reading it again, both during and after recent events surrounding the Scottish Referendum, I started to read things which may or may not have been originally intended, and some which I can guarantee were not.

The novel is set in two places and times. First off we are introduced to an odd collection of travellers. There are three Scots; Alec Dundas and Logan and Elspeth Urquhart, as well as Nick and Sandro, and the siren-like Gabriel, all of whom are on a sailing boat bound for New Zealand from Tahiti. Their boat is the ‘Ardent Spirit’ and the following passage explains why, where Alec discusses his first wife’s drinking:

“She said that, when her hours allowed her, she was happy drinking alone. It was I who made the pain. We were leaking money. Spirits cost more than fuel. It had to be spirits. It is a national obsession with the Scots, to ride the world having taken ardent spirits.”

The book is full of such wonderful and vibrant writing, and is a master class of how to layer prose, and use it to set a tone and tempo; often obscuring meaning as much as expressing it. ‘Debatable Land’ is as thoughtfully crafted as any poem, with such wonderfully arresting imagery and ideas that a second reading is not just desired but required. I doubt I’ll read a better sentence this year than “He thought of death so quickly all it did was give flavour to his wine.” No doubt, some will think it overwritten and purple, but while it is true you have to work hard to discover and understand McWilliam’s intentions, it is well worth the effort.

The book is about belonging, or rather if such a thing really exists, and if not, what ideas of nationality or state actually mean. The ‘debatable lands’ are conceptual as much as actual. Alec has taken to sea as he cannot find peace or settle on land, but it takes going to the other side of the world for him to start to contextualise and understand his relationship to and with Scotland. Another strand of the novel is memory, both individual and collective, and some of the most vibrant passages are when Alec thinks back to his younger life in Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh depicted is similar to that depicted in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, with a lot of architectural history explained as Alec takes us through the streets of both Old Town and New while he thinks about his upbringing and the life he has tried, and failed, to forget.

‘Debatable Land’ is reminiscent of Muriel Spark in its style, but the obvious comparison is with Robert Louis Stevenson, especially his ‘South Sea Tales’ (McWilliam admits this up front by quoting from ‘Songs of Travel’ at the beginning of the book). As with RLS, McWilliam looks at Scotland from at home and abroad, and she evokes the atmosphere and of both places beautifully. Edinburgh’s historical streets are lent a real austere, almost Calvinist, feel while the heat in the Pacific is palpable off the page.

In many ways this was the perfect time to revisit ‘Debatable Land’, and if you haven’t read it you really should. Technically, the term relates to the land of the Scottish/English Borders which has been claimed and claimed back over centuries, but McWilliam stretches that to comment on the whole of Scotland. There’s a passage in the novel where Elspeth discusses the relationship between Scotland and England (or ‘the South’, as she puts it, which perhaps refers more to the Tory heartland) which I haven’t been able to get out of my head in recent days, so I’ll leave you with it here:

“There could be a split. People want it. They sing about it. There was the fish, there is the oil. The stupidity of the South has hurt, the tactlessness that has looked like pillage, the willingness to treat the place like plaid, to throw on for its ancient rustic glamour and to throw over puddles to save them from getting their feet dirty.”

That was written in 1994, but could have been written yesterday, 40 years ago, or tomorrow. These lands have been debated for a long time and they will continue to be long into the future, and any vote and the accompanying result won’t stop that.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: I’m writing this while aboard one of the last coal-fire puffers in the world (it’s a long story), and it has put me on mind of Neil Munro. He is best remembered for writing the ‘Tales of Para Handy’, all of which took place on a puffer and which were immortalised on TV, but it is his final, I will argue best novel which I’ll look at next month.

‘The New Road’ is a historical murder/mystery, set in the time of the Jacobite rebellion, and it has been compared favourably with both Scott and Stevenson. Munro is an underappreciated writer, and this is an excellent place to start to discover his work.­

Quite Ugly One Morning

August 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

We have said before in these columns that the early to mid-nineties in Scotland was one which was politically bleak, no matter what your persuasion was. The victory of the John Major led Conservatives in 1992’s UK election saw Labour victorious in Scotland, and with no power in the rest of the UK, the promised rise of the SNP fail to materialise, and, if you were a Tory, you could have held your victory celebration in an Edinburgh phone box. Many Scottish writers responded to this dire situation by writing about characters who couldn’t see a way to change things, so didn’t bother trying.

Prime examples of these are Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’ and, explicitly, Duncan McLean’s misunderstood ‘Bunker Man’, all of which we have already discussed, but I can only think of two who had novels which dealt with the political landscape head on at the time, promoting direct action; Iain Banks’ 1993 novel, ‘Complicity’ and Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’. Both books are filled with anger and frustration towards Scotland’s political impotence and how that was being taken advantage of by politicians and big business alike. What separates the two is that Brookmyre makes you laugh out loud while doing so.

Brookmyre has said that his writing was influenced by Carl Hiaasen, Robertson Davies and Douglas Adams, but there is comparison to be made with Irvine Welsh, (few writers can write a scatological scene as these two can), and also William McIlvanney. ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ has been called ‘the book that gave us Tartan Noir’, but McIlvanney was arguably writing that before anyone even new what it was, and with Jack Parlabane, Brookmyre created a central character who could stand toe-to-toe with McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’.

Parlabane becomes involved with a brutal, and downright weird, murder case which has happened in his building, and leads him to begin an investigation which uncovers the sort of corruption which is surely inevitable when you bring in capitalist-minded businesses to be involved in your national health service. But, the inevitability doesn’t lessen the anger felt when it occurs, and for all that Parlabane crosses all sorts of lines to get to the bottom of the mystery, you are always on his side as those he comes up against are so repulsive and amoral.

Aside from Parlabane, all the characters are bold enough to be recognisable and memorable, but Brookmyre avoids stereotypes by playing with them, and with the readers’ expectations. If you have ever seen the Steve Martin movie ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Brookmyre is aware of the conventions associated with noir and crime fiction, and he gives them a very modern, Scottish twist.

I hadn’t read ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ since it was first published, and I was worried that it wouldn’t have dated well, but, the odd reference to Zalman King and Norman Tebbit aside, it is as relevant today as it was then, and a timely reminder that Scotland had long years with no political power to speak of, and how that was repeatedly abused as we were used as the testing ground for all sorts of unappealing acts and political experimentation. Brookmyre was right to be angry, and we should never allow that to happen again.

Brookmyre has gone on to become one of Scotland’s most reliable and readable writers, someone who never lets you down, something else he shares with the aforementioned, and sadly missed, Iain Banks, but ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is where it all began, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already. If that’s the case, I advise you to get the latest edition, published by Abacus in 2013, which has a fascinating Introduction from Brookmyre explaining the background to the book, and just what a personal undertaking it was. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be furious, and you’ll probably never eat a rum truffle again. But one lesson you should definitely learn is to never fuck with a Scottish landlady, especially when it comes to her dug.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: I thought a timely novel to look at next month would be Candia McWilliams’ ‘Debatable Lands’, her prize winning novel from 1994 which looked at the questions of Scottish devolution which were raging at the time.

Set in the South Pacific, the characters each have their own stance on what devolution would mean, and, indeed, they come to embody them. Looking back to those debates as Scotland decides its future should be enlightening and informative; at least that’s the plan.

But n Ben A-Go-Go

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the last couple of years there was a lot of debate about which Scottish books and writers should be taught in Scottish schools as part of the set texts for the Higher English exam. If I had had a vote, Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’ would’ve been in my top three choices for the prose element. Published to much acclaim in 2000, to describe it as a sci-fi novel, set in Scotland, and written in Scots would be accurate but doing it a great disservice as it is so much more. Fitt shows a mastery of language as well as giving a sharp commentary on Scotland then, now, and as it may well be.

Sci-fi is quite rare in Scottish writing, Iain M. Banks and Ken McLeod being the most notable purveyors, but in this case it is the perfect vehicle for what Fitt wants to achieve. The book is set in the year 2090, and melting polar ice-caps have caused ‘God’s Flood’ which has left Scotland mostly submerged except for a few ‘Parishes’, floating cities named after Scottish towns, which are all attached by cables to the now sunken town of Greenock. Living in such close proximity has led to the rapid spread of illness, and an new super virus, Senga, is the latest danger on a long list to threaten inhabitants, and which makes actual sex, as opposed to virtual, too risky.

If all of this sounds unremittingly bleak, then the novel is far from that. There are wonderful touches of knowing humour in the book, with references to ‘a Jeremiah Menzies plastipoke’, the ‘Evelyn Glennie Music Faculty’ and Oasis’s ‘Goodbye Planet’ World Tour. But, fittingly, most of the comedy is black in hue, and Fitt’s vision of the futurem is bleak, with Global Warming taking a terrible toll, a totalitarian government in control, and those who are ill contained rather than cured.

As with Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’, a dystopian future setting allows the unusual use of language even more impact than it may have had otherwise, fitting a world we are not used to. In the case of ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’, the language is an incredibly rich mixture of Scots from all over the country, and it is easy to imagine that in the years between now and when events take place there will have been such a cross-fertilisation of dialects and phraseology. If you live in Scotland there are many words you’ll recognise no matter where that may be, and that allows you to put the ones you don’t into context. This is close to what Hugh MacDiarmid was aiming for with his promotion of the use of ‘Lallans’ which he foresaw as being a hybrid of Scots dialects as well as some English. Here’s just one great example of what to expect from Fitt’s prose:

“Puggled. Snochterin. Paolo’s broo wis creeshit, the oxters o his battle tunic mawkit wi swite. The craitur’s guff wis on his claes. Owre his hauns. The caircass, no ten yaird’s doon the brae, wis awready stertin tae ming in the foreninn heat.”

Matthew Fitt, along with James Robertson, founded Itchy Coo which publishes books in Scots for children and young people, and he has been at the forefront of promoting Scots as a language to be used in Scottish schools, and not left in the playground. As he says at the end of the handy ‘How To Read But n Ben A-Go-Go’;

“Once the initial culture-shock – of seeing words your granny liked tae use and your mither tellt ye no tae use in the unusual setting of a modern novel set in the future – subsides, the reader should be able to relax and enjoy the story.”

You will enjoy the story, and it will take less work than you think, but that generational shift is important to note; the fact that many of us will recognise that for decades speaking in our own language, and that of our forefather and mothers, was not only discouraged but was often punished. That can’t be right, and we should make sure that situation, for all sorts of reasons, never happens again.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one which has taken hold in recent years, so much so that there are festivals devoted to nothing else. For a while there has been a bit of sniffiness at this branch of genre fiction, but it’s the case that some of Scotland’s best writers are to be found proudly sitting under that banner.

One of the very best, whose work has arguably had more effect on recent Scottish writing than any other, is Christopher Brookmyre. Dark, funny, and savage, his debut novel, ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is the perfect introduction to his own take on Tartan Noir.

A Very Quiet Street

June 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

The history of Polygon Books is one of the most interesting in Scottish publishing. From its beginnings as an arm of Edinburgh University Press it quickly became known as a home for experimental and challenging writing, something it still does better than most to this day. Frank Kuppner’s 1989 novel, ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is a prime example of this. It was part of Polygon’s Sigma series of books, which set out to “ ..challenge the barriers between disciplines. It will include weird fictions, half-truths, plagiarisms, anarchisms…”. A ‘Very Quiet Street’ contains some, or perhaps all, of those; it depends on how you choose to read it.

It is described on the cover as ‘a novel, of sorts’, and this immediately puts you on the back foot. Kuppner himself is the narrator and the book begins as an exploration into an apparent miscarriage of justice in the case of Oscar Slater, an infamous trial and conviction which occurred in Glasgow in the early part of the 20th century. The case was one which caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was to write about it himself, and his thoughts on the matter are to be found throughout Kuppner’s investigation. There are a couple of reasons not to worry if you are not aware of the case. Firstly, Kuppner sets out the events as reported before Chapter One, and secondly, it doesn’t really matter because, as the book unfolds, it becomes about so much more.

So far, so unlike any novel you have encountered. If you have been reading the books which feature on these pages (and I hope at least some of you have), then this is a little similar to Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’ in that it is a “who done it?”, (and who didn’t do it?), which shares an obsession with architecture, the construction of cities, and of stories. That last point is key, as Kuppner looks at how stories are told and unfold, and how the ‘truth’ is arrived at from differing points of view (think Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’, or Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’, but set in Glasgow, and you have a small idea of what occurs).

The style of how the book is constructed is interesting on many levels with short chapters, many unreliable witnesses (including our narrator), reportage, (auto)biography, travelogue and finally philosophical and moral meditation. You may think I have over used brackets in this column, but that is nothing to how Kuppner uses them (the only punctuation to rival their use is the full stop and the question mark), and it takes a great deal of concentration to follow what is separated from the main text, and why.

You don’t have to be from Glasgow to enjoy the book, but it undoubtedly helps as Kuppner takes the reader through the streets of the city, concentrating on the Charing Cross area where the original crime took place. Kuppner became interested in the story as he was born and raised in the close where it occurred (or was he?) and the book is also an autobiography of his life. He tells his own tale through his relationship to the Oscar Slater case, his encounters with strangers, his life in libraries, and his walks through the city. You could say that the book moves from being about Slater, to Kuppner, to everyone, but that would be far too simplistic, and Kuppner weaves together these three strands with many more.

‘A Very Quiet Street’ is also a fascinating history of Glasgow’s architecture as well as an examination of Scotland’s famed system of justice (with its third verdict of ‘Not Proven’). As it draws to a close it becomes more of a treatise on good and evil, or rather guilt and innocence. This is a novel of many parts, and multi-facets. To say it is ‘a novel, of sorts’ is to underplay its ambition and impact. When you consider that Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ was perhaps the most influential Scottish novel of the day, you suspect that was a major inspiration on Kuppner. Indeed, in the last paragraph of the book he mentions a ‘Burgess. A.’ (Anthony Burgess called Alasdair Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”) and a ‘Gray. A.’, which confirms such suspicions. Perhaps ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is Kuppner’s answer to Gray’s call to arms in ‘Lanark’ that Glasgow, ‘a magnificent city that no-body notices’, needed greater artistic representation to become better noticed both at home and abroad. If so, he does that with a style and invention that is all his own.

Alistair

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

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel:

There has been a distinct absence of sci-fi on these pages, and that’s something I will put right next month with Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’. Set in the year 2090, in a Scotland flooded due to climate change, the country is literally divided between high-land and lowland.

If the thought of anything sci-fi leaves you cold, then I would ask you to put that aside and give this novel a chance as the real triumph is in Fitt’s use of language, a Scots/English hybrid that allows the text a richness, and strangeness, to matche the subject matter perfectly.