The Glass House

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sophie Cooke’s 2004 debut novel, ‘The Glass House’, fits comfortably into the fine Scottish literary tradition of portraying dysfunctional families, and uncovering the accompanying secrets and lies. It’s a painful coming of age novel juxtaposed against the beautiful Perthshire countryside, and it’s the terrible reality set against an apparent idyllic life that makes the novel so affecting, that and Cooke’s poetic language.

What sets ‘The Glass House’ apart is that the family in question are decidedly middle class, something rare in Scottish writing outside of an Iain Banks’ novel. Unlike Banks, there is never a sense that things are going to come to some sort of happy, if hard won, ending. From the beginning there is the uneasy sense of inevitable tragedy about to unfold,

The novel is narrated by Vanessa, a fourteen-year-old who has been expelled from her private school and so is forced to attend the local comprehensive. From the beginning it is obvious that Vanessa’s ideas of what love and hate are have been distorted by an intense and often abusive upbringing. This is a novel where extremes meet.

Vanessa falls in love with local, Alan McAlpine, and there are many scenes which are as Romantic and imbued with symbolism as anything by Austen or the Bronte’s. Alan offers her the hope of happiness and security, something which she can’t receive at home as her father has left, and she is under the spell of her troubled mother. This relationship is the most complex in the book as Vanessa is regularly ‘punished’, some may say tortured, by her mother, but this makes her crave her approval even more.

Vanessa’s narration is, if not quite dispassionate, certainly disconnected throughout, as if she is an observer in her own life and all that happens to her is actually happening to someone else, as if through the looking glass. There are many dramatic events which she recounts, but as if she is never truly involved, even when physical and psychological pain is being inflicted upon her. It’s as if she lives her life in what Sartre calls Bad Faith, refusing to choose one action or the other, instead letting events move her around. Her desire for the perfect family life has blinded her to reality. The rest of her family shout, scream, fight and flee as Vee continues to hope for better days, convincing herself that things will improve even as the evidence grows that matters can only take a turn for the worse.

If I have made ‘The Glass House’ sound unremittingly bleak, then I have misled you. There is joy to be found, and that comes from Cooke’s use of language, which is staggering at times. On every page you will discover a sentence or phrase that you want to commit to memory and use as your own. The sense of place and the natural world which she manages to convey make what is unfolding even starker. Its tone put me in mind of the end of the film ‘The Wicker Man’ which is all the more terrifying for being set against a glorious sunset. Both settings hold human failing up to even greater inspection, in the cold light of day. ‘The Glass House’ is beautiful, troubling, and ultimately tragic, a reflection of Vanessa’s life, and Cooke’s refusal to give any easy answers or compromise the story is what makes it one of the most engaging novels of the last decade.


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: Over the past couple of years I have reviewed books from writers who, while originally from places such as Bulgaria, Manchester, China and Zimbabwe, sit easily in the world of Scottish writing in that their work has added to the depth and breadth of our culture, and have shown that Scotland is, or should be, a country which is inclusive, rather than the alternative.

I remember clearly the first time I picked up a copy of Leila Aboulela’s ‘The Translator’ in an Oxfam bookshop, and it gave me a view of this country and its people which I had never encountered before, and new perspectives are vital if any culture is to better understand itself and its ever evolving nature. It is a pleasure to revisit it, and I hope a few of you read it before next month’s column.

  1. Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
  2. 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)

The Driver’s Seat

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

It could be argued that Muriel Spark was the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century, and it’s an argument I would have sympathy for. Even if you only know her for the 1961 novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ you’ll be aware that her writing is dark, playful and often wilfully obtuse. More than most writers you get the feeling when you read her that not only did she not bother if people liked her work, she perhaps didn’t expect it. There is a confidence in her writing, and a miraculous consistency in terms of quality, that makes her stand apart. Like most of the central characters in her stories, Muriel Spark couldn’t be ordinary or less than exceptional if she had tried.

* (I would skip the next paragraph if you want to get the full effect of reading the novel for the first time.)

I say stories deliberately, as Spark was a master of the short story as well as the novel, and I would recommend a collection of her shorter prose to everybody. ‘The Driver’s Seat’ falls between the two forms, being only 100 pages long. It is Spark at her most extreme, and shows just how she would play with readers, almost taunting them by subverting their expectations. How else could you explain her decision to tell readers at the beginning of Chapter Three that Lise, the central character, “…will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie.” ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is less a whodunit than a ‘whydunnit’, and the novel is about her journey towards that point in her life.

When we first meet Lise she is dress shopping for her trip abroad, and immediately the reader is made aware that all is not well. When offered a dress which ‘doesn’t stain’, she rips the offending item off as if it burns her, angry that she should be offered such a thing. If she is going to have a new dress, she wants it to stain, for reasons that will soon become apparent. It’s an arresting opening, and sets the uneasy tone which runs through ‘The Driver’s Seat’.

As she travels, Lise meets an array of strange characters. She spends time with Mrs Fiedke, an older lady who is waiting for her nephew to join her. The reader is aware that Lise’s behaviour is most unusual, but Mrs Fiedke is just glad of the company and doesn’t seem to notice, or care. Then there’s Bill, the macrobiotic diet guru who has to orgasm once a day as part of his strict lifestyle. Lise soon decides he is ‘not her type’. And that is the constant problem she has. She is looking for a man, but most of them turn out to be not her type, and she is very specific in what she wants. The men she meets constantly let her down, presuming that she is looking for sex, or at least sure that they are.

The final chapter of ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is as dark and macabre as anything I have read, and in a lesser author’s hands could have been not only unsettling, but highly distasteful. There is a jet black comedic tone which runs throughout the novel, and it is evidenced in Lise’s matter-of-fact approach to her undertaking. It turns out all her odd behaviour from page 1 onwards was leading to this point, and she has planned it meticulously, just waiting for that last piece of the puzzle to arrive.

‘The Driver’s Seat’ is one of the most disturbing yet honest books you will ever read. Is it about mental illness? Well, Lise seems ‘crazy’ from the start, but then so does everyone else she meets, and at least she has purpose in her life. It’s more about the value of life, and who gives that life value. Is it the individual, or society, or something else? I think that Muriel Spark saw existence as a cruel joke, with her fiction a reflection of her world view, and that was never more clearly, or memorably, expressed than in this novel.

I said that the top of page that Spark was one of the greatest novelists of her time. In his introduction, John Lanchester states “There are no bad Spark novels”, and I cannot argue against that. So why is she not more widely read? It’s hard to know, although the fact that she is so hard to categorise may have something to do with it. But that refusal to conform is part of her greatness. She looked at the world with equal parts wonder and horror, all with the hint of a knowing smile on her face, and that is what is expressed in her writing. Did she think she was better than everyone else? Probably, but once again, it’s hard to argue against her.


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: Sophie Cook’s debut novel, ‘The Glass House’, fits well into the fine Scottish literary tradition of portraying dysfunctional families, and uncovering secrets and lies.

It’s a painful coming of age novel juxtaposed against the beautiful Perthshire countryside, and it’s the terrible reality set against this apparent idyllic life that makes the novel so affecting.

  1. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
  2. Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
  3. 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)

Me and Ma Gal

August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some people have said to me that they just don’t have time to read books these days. Personally, I would say that their priorities are a tad askew, but I do understand that there are many things vying for everyone’s time, and the thought of tackling a 600 page novel can seem like too much of a commitment. This month’s selection is perfect for such folk as it’s only 114 pages long. But that’s not why I’ve chosen it. It is included because there has rarely been a better snapshot of childhood friendship, and because if you have never read Des Dillon then you really should remedy that.

Dillon could be described as one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, a prolific writer of prose and drama who has never really had the recognition he deserves. Perhaps this is because he commits that cardinal sin of being genuinely funny, something which many see, wrongly, as less than serious. His debut novel, ‘Me and Ma Gal’, showcases this aspect of his writing brilliantly. It’s a book which moves at a breathless speed, but what is Dillon’s greatest strength is his mastery of language. If ever you thought that writing in Central Belt Scots is somehow less than artistic, then you must read this book.

‘Me and Ma Gal’ is the tale of Derek and Gal, best friends for ever, which is the way of it in those days where summer holidays lasted forever, and the future is something which happens to other people. While the tales of walking down pipelines, staying clear of the bigger lads and their strange obsession with girls, learning to run sideways down hills, playing places which their parents specifically disapprove, and the moral dilemma which was collecting eggs, will spark memories in many readers, it is the command of the language of the playground which makes the stories ring true.

I hadn’t thought about the word ‘grogger’ since I was Derek and Gal’s age, and that is only one small example of how Dillon captures the world through a young boy’s eyes. He also details the obsession about the correct way to write your name in a ‘mention’, and the odd illogical logic of parents trying to keep their children safe from harm. The other book it reminds me of which has appeared in Indelible Ink is James Kelman’s ‘Kieron Smith, boy’, but there is more energy in ‘Me and Ma Gal’, a youthful exuberance which comes almost entirely from the language. The novel finishes “All I could see was her bum”, which sums up its childish glee.

Dillon went on to write other must read novels, ‘Six Black Candles’, ‘The Glasgow Dragon’ and ‘My Epileptic Lurcher’ among them, but he is probably best known now as the writer of the popular play ‘Singin I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim’, which continues to be performed regularly, but I would suggest that he never bettered ‘Me and Ma Gal’. It’s a childhood tale as written by Joyce, or imagine Mark Twain had come from Coatbridge instead of Missouri and you have an idea as to just how good this writing is.

Dillon has been an influence on writers such as Alan Bissett, who called ‘Me and Ma Gal’, “one of the most frenetic and kinetic, living and breathing of all Scottish novels”, and Alan Wilson, amongst others, and he is one of those writers who once read is never forgotten. In 2003 ‘Me and Ma Gal’ was voted winner of the World Book day ‘We Are What We Read’ poll, a prize awarded to the book which readers thought best represented present day Scotland. This may surprise those of you who haven’t yet read him, but once you do you’ll understand why this got the popular vote. Dillon manages to make you laugh while remembering things past, and takes you back to a time when life seemed simpler, but actually just had a different set of rules.


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

Next Month’s Novel: Muriel Spark is still best know as the writer of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, and even then more people have seen the film rather than read the book. What you may not be aware of is that Spark was one of the most deliciously dark, and often macabre, writers you will ever read.

‘The Driver’s Seat’ is perhaps the best example of this. It’s less a whodunit than a ‘whydunnit’, as we learn early on that the central character of Lise will be murdered, and the novel is a journey towards that point as her life unravels. It is one of the most astonishing examinations of human frailty you will ever read.

  1. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)
  2. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
  3. Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
  4. 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)





Island of Wings

July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Recently Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have been the setting for all sorts of interesting and diverse books, from Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Stornoway Way’ and the fabulous collection of poetry which he edited, ‘These Islands We Sing’, through Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Happie Laand’ and Neil Butler’s ‘The Roost’ to the recently published ‘Orkney’ by Amy Sackville. Not only do they add to the literary landscape, they tell tales of a part of the world that the majority of the people in Scotland have never visited. They add to the cultural whole.

‘Island of Wings’, by Karin Altenberg, is set on the island of St Kilda, perhaps the most remote setting Scotland has to offer. The young Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie are recently married, and without really knowing each other they leave the familiarity of the mainland to live in a place which will not only test them mentally, but physically as well.

Set between 1830 and 1843, this is a novel of manners, one which, at least to begin with has the style of Jane Austen, or even John Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, in that there are constant battles between what is socially expected and what the human heart desires. Most of the Seven Deadly Sins are in evidence, with lust, envy and pride being most prevalent. Both Neil and Lizzie are affected by the place and its people, and although he speaks Gaelic while she does not, he finds it as hard to communicate with his parishioners as she does, and eventually she is the one who ‘settles’ more easily, while Neil’s religion becomes a barrier rather than something which unites.

St Kilda of the time is a brutal place, one where the neonatal death rate is higher than 50 percent, and where you are constantly battered by the elements. The title ‘Islands of Wings’, comes from the noise made by the birds which fly overhead and nest in the rocks. The noise is relentless, and wearing, and this is the feeling you get from the novel, that this is a place which is wearing both Lizzie and Neil down, and their relationship suffers from the start. Neil becomes more involved with his calling as tragedy upon tragedy visit the pair, and the island. Although the narration focuses on many different characters, this feels like Lizzie’s story as she has to endure her life in increasing loneliness, separate from the Islanders, and her increasingly fervent and fractured husband.

‘Island of Wings’ is based on real life accounts, but Altenberg uses those to create a fiction which pulls you in to a world which is as unfamiliar and terrifying as any fantasy land.  You feel that the land is a character all of its own, and it is the one which will endure eventually. Altenberg captures the place as well as the time. What I will say is that there is a section in the book which pulled me up short, and shows why research and proofing is vital. Lizzie has an oil painting of a seascape, bought by her sister on a trip to the seaside in East Kilbride. I feel petty pointing it out, (I am petty pointing it out! I’m sure she means West Kilbride rather than the land-locked New Town), but I mention it because it’s interesting how you can be engrossed in another world, and then such a factually incorrect piece of writing can break the spell. It’s a lesson to any prospective writers.

But that is such a small point, and it shouldn’t put you off the book. If you like a doomed romance, with dark & handsome strangers, accusations of adultery, simmering passions, righteous indignation, fire, brimstone and even the possible appearance of Auld Nick himself, then you will love this book. It is a sensual novel where you can almost taste the salt on the wind and hear the birds in the sky. Writers who deal in historical fiction often let the fiction down by being obsessed with the history. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, but with ‘Island of Wings’, Karin Altenberg has done this with some style.


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

Next Month’s Novel: Des Dillon could be described as one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, a prolific writer of prose and drama who has never really had the recommendation he deserves.

Perhaps this is because he commits that cardinal sin of being genuinely funny, something which many see, wrongly, as less than serious. ‘Me and Ma Gal’ showcases this aspect of his writing brilliantly. It’s a book about childhood and friendship, one which moves at a breathless speed, but what is Dillon’s greatest strength is his mastery of language. If ever you thought that writing in Central Belt Scots is somehow less than artistic, then you must read this book as it will prove you wrong.

  1. Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
  2. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)
  3. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
  4. Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
  5. 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)

No Wonder I Take A Drink

June 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

It has to be said that there is not a great deal of humour in many of the books we have covered in Indelible Ink so far, and when there is, such as with Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Spence’s ‘Way To Go’ or John Niven’s ‘Kill You Friends’ it is so dark that many will not be able to see it. Laura Marney’s ‘No Wonder I Take A Drink’ is a few shades lighter, but only by comparison. It’s still a case of ‘You might as well laugh, otherwise the only option would be to cry’.

This is clear from the opening, when the narrator, Trisha, is remembering the last hours of her mother’s life, where she sneaks vodka in to the hospice to comply with a dying woman’s last wishes, only to be upbraided for watering it down. To the end her mother is hyper-critical of her daughter, and in this scene are the roots of the story that unfolds.

Approaching 40, Trisha’s life is on the verge of falling apart completely. As well as her mother’s death, her husband and teenage son have moved out of the family home and there is little chance of reconciliation. When it is proposed that they move back in together, but including Dad’s new girlfriend, Helga, then Trisha decides to head north, but not before she redecorates the bedroom in spectacular fashion.

She inherits a house in the Highlands, and rather than dealing with her situation in Glasgow, she grabs the chance to start again. Unfortunately not only does she take her problems with her, she finds a whole new set of complications to add to them. Dreaming of meeting a new man, when she does, in the shape of her near neighbour Jackie, it seems that she scares him off in no uncertain manner.

The ideal highland life which she imagined fails to unfold, with the locals dealing in gossip and innuendo, and the landscape dominated by mist and midges. Meanwhile, her son is failing at school and then goes missing, and she has to try and deal with this while miles away. As the title says, no wonder she takes a drink.

That is how Trisha copes with her life, or at least avoids coping with it. Her drinking is not the chronic, hallucinatory, alcoholism of Magellan in Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound Of My Voice’ or Hannah Luckcraft in A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Paradise’. This is something which will be recognisable to many people either in themselves, or in others. A double instead of a single measure, an extra drink at the bar when getting the round in, the regular rituals involved in hangover management. Trisha mistakenly believes that her drinking is under control and manageable. Until it isn’t.

It would be a mistake to think that because Marney writes with a dry and often cynical sense of humour that her work isn’t to be taken seriously. In my experience this is the way that most people cope with the bad things in life. They make a joke against themselves, and those nearest and dearest, attempting to make light because they don’t know what else to do. At times you may laugh with, and even at, Trisha and the situations she finds herself in, but you’ll also sympathise and perhaps even empathise with her plight. Hers are the tears of a clown.


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

Next Month’s Novel: Recently Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have been the setting for all sorts of interesting and diverse books, from Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Stornoway Way’ and the fabulous collection of poetry which he edited, ‘These Islands We Sing’, through Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Happie Laand’ and Neil Butler’s ‘The Roost’ to the recently published ‘Orkney’ by Amy Sackville. To those you can add next month’s novel, ‘Island of Wings’ by Karin Altenberg.

Two newly-weds are going to live of the remote island of St Kilda, where their relationship will be sorely tested against the backdrop of one of Scotland’s most remote locations.

  1. Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
  2. Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
  3. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)
  4. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
  5. Leila Aboulella, The Translator (Nov)

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.


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)

Mr Alfred MA

May 19, 2013 § 1 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.


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.


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)


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  )  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.


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)


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.


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)