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.


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.

The Sound Of My Voice

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ron Butlin seems to be one of Scottish writing’s best kept secrets and I don’t quite know why. Scotland is lucky to have the writers we do, and Butlin can show his medals with the best of them. He is perhaps best known as a poet, he is Edinburgh’s Makar after all, but even in this field his fame falls behind that of Morgan, Lochhead, Kay and Patterson. How he should be best known is as the writer ‘The Sound of My Voice’, for which he should be carried shoulder high. When people ask me to recommend a Scottish novel to them this is inevitably the one that I suggest. It is still ‘The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (probably) Never Heard Of’.

The quality of writing is evident from the first page. The novel is written in second-person narrative throughout, what must have been a mentally exhaustive undertaking, and the result of this decision is that the reader is disorientated, encountering a novel that is written in a manner that is not only unusual, but importantly, is uncomfortable. There is no better way to explain what I mean than to give you an example, so here is the opening of the novel:

“You were at a party when your father died – and immediately you were told a miracle happened. A real miracle. It didn’t last, of course, but was convincing enough for a few moments. Then, an hour later, you took a girl home and forced her to make love. You held onto her as she cried and pleaded with you: even now her tears are still the nearest you have come to feeling grief at your father’s death. You are thirty-four years old; everything that is happening to you is still happening”.

At first the reader is made to feel for this man who has had a traumatic, life-changing experience. This is someone who is feeling lost and confused, and has to be told what has happened to him. Then, as the picture of what is being described becomes clear, sympathy starts to disappear. It takes a couple of readings to realise that the above is the opening paragraph of a book in which the main character is describing how he raped a girl, there is no ambivalence about any acquiescence on her part (and in the next chapter this scene is described in terrible detail) and yet the only feelings of sympathy from the narrator are being directed towards the rapist. It is an understatement to call this a brave opening to a novel.

Butlin uses the narrator’s voice to report on the feelings and actions of his central character Morris Magellan, the chronic alcoholic whose story this is, and this gives distance from the actions caused by his drinking. It allows readers to have a rational, sensible voice to lead them through this story. We are inside the main character, but distanced from his actions, as Magellan’s narrative voice is separate not only from the reader, but apparently from himself. It also allows Butlin to portray what is happening in a calm and reflective way, disguising, at least at first, the chaos that is caused as Magellan’s drinking spirals out of control.

Butlin beautifully conveys the hold that drink has over Magellan , describing the need for alcohol as a life or death situation: “for you, alcohol is not the problem – it’s the solution: dissolving all the separate parts into one. A universal solvent. An ocean.” It is difficult to write sympathetically about addiction, or to explain clearly what it feels like to be addicted. Butlin manages both; but it is interesting for the reader to step back and attempt to have a clear picture of what is happening on the page. There is a crucial episode where Magellan has to rush from his wife and children, smash open his drinks cabinet, as there is no time to search for the key (and as we later discover, badly cutting himself in the process), and then drink neat gin as if it was water and he had just crossed a desert. There is no thought for what his watching family will think. We are dealing with a man whose addiction has destroyed his pride and the strength to continue any deception, all that matters to him at that point is drink, but the text itself appears to tell different story.

It is difficult for me to imagine that a writer could create a central character that was completely abhorrent to them. There would have to be some aspects that were of the writer themselves. Could a main character be successful if they did not have the sympathy, at least in some way, of the writer? Even the most famous monsters in literature, such as Dracula, or a morally ambivalent ‘anti-hero’ such as Joe in Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Young Adam’, still have qualities in them which, if they don’t endear themselves to the reader, clearly do to the author. Of course there will be writers who may seem monstrous to others, but they will not see themselves in this way, at least not wholly so.

This creates a problem for a writer such as Butlin whose main character, at least for the majority of the book, acts, especially towards those who love him, in a despicable and cruel manner. Butlin uses the second person narrative to make Magellan’s actions seem, if not reasonable, then perhaps understandable, in a way that would not have been possible if the novel were written in first-or third-person narrative. First person would leave the reader appalled at the actions of Magellan; it would be too graphic. Similarly it is hard to imagine telling Magellan’s story in third person and it having anything like the impact that Butlin creates.

The ‘Sound of My Voice’ is all about man’s ability to survive, even when faced with the greatest obstacles. It may seem as you read the book that this is a thoroughly depressing story, but stick with it. The pay off justifies the journey and it is based around the feeling that where there is hope, even if it is the hope of others, there is a chance of a better life. But ultimately the hope of others is not enough; change has to come from ‘You’.


Next month’s novel: Duncan McLean’s ‘Bunker Man’. To say this novel will not be for everybody is my understatement of the year. And it’s only February. Not much shocks me anymore, but there are scenes of graphic sex and violence in the book which are genuinely disturbing, as McLean means them to be. They are not meant to be titillating. What we witness is the slow unravelling of Rob Catto; it is his increasingly violent reaction to those closest to him that is under examination, and McLean goes to such lengths for that reason.

People have compared the book to Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, but where later Welsh in particular shocked for shocks sake, I don’t think this is the case with ‘Bunker Man’. But there are plenty of people who disagree with me, and strongly so. If you decide to go for it I’d be fascinated to know what you think.

Next 5 books:

  1. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
  2. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
  3. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
  4. Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
  5. Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)


May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

When books are at their best they teach us not only about the lives of others but something about ourselves. That’s why it is important to any culture that it has as diverse a selection of voices and writers as possible. White males, Scottish or otherwise, have been overrepresented historically and artistically, and anyone who argues otherwise is plain wrong. Have a look at your bookshelves. One of the impressive features of contemporary Scottish literature is the proliferation of great female writers, but more variety of viewpoints and perspectives can only be positive for a better understanding of Scottish culture and society. ‘Psychoraag’, the 2004 novel by Suhayl Saadi, is proof of this.

As a Glaswegian, Saadi’s novel showed me a side to the city and a culture that was familiar yet unknown. He talks of gangs in Kinning Park and life in the ‘Shields, and portrays the colours, smells and sounds that mix together in the Asian-Scottish experience. Saadi brings colour and life to a city that is too often portrayed in grey. He also uses language to highlight this particular clash of cultures. So there are references to Pakistani and Indian tensions, but also to Glasgow’s more infamous religious divisions, and there are wonderful uses of Glaswegian dialect mixed with Urdhu as well as Standard English, and the odd Gaelic and Arabic phrase (there is a handy Glossary included), and even some Burns poetry. Saadi makes sure that this mixture of language never jars, and it is in evidence right from the opening lines:

Salaam alaikum, sat sri akaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat, hoat summer’s night! Fae the peaks ae Kirkintilloch tae the dips ae Cambuslang, fae the invisible mines ae Easterhouse tae the mudflats, welcome, iviraywan, welcome, Glasgae, welcome, Scoatland, tae The Junnune Show.”

‘Psychoraag’ takes place over DJ Zaf’s ‘final six hour nightshift radio show on Radio Chaandi. Over those six hours Zaf plays the records that he wants, and introduces the reader to quite a cavalcade of characters from his past and present; family, friends, enemies and, most importantly, lovers. Two of those loves, Babs and Zilla, represent more than it may appear at first, and they seem to be tearing Zaf in different directions. The book aches with regret and pain, it is often about endings and loss, and as it reaches its climax Zaf comes to appreciate his own part in that loss.

The book is a dazzling mix of sights and sounds and Zaf’s music sparks his vivid memories. In a way it is a 400 page stream of consciousness and Saadi has written a realistic novel that often has a surreal quality about it. He moves seamlessly from the radio station to the places and people who have shaped Zaf’s life, and the pace of the novel never drops. The term ‘raag’ is roughly translated as ‘music to create particular emotions’ and just as Zaf uses his ‘Psychoraag’ to create his moods, so Saadi uses language to similarly affect the reader.

Music is of huge importance and Zaf’s life, and his level of immersion in all sorts of music is another part of the book that I identified with. When Zaf states that “He’d been weaned at Thatcher’s breast and, boy, had the milk been sour! Music had been his one salvation.” It sets his history and character in a couple of sentences in a manner that other writers may have taken pages to achieve. You get immediate understanding of his obsession.

There is a fantastic soundtrack to ‘Psychoraag’ and Saadi not only goes to the trouble of including Zaf’s full playlist, but also an accompanying Discography. It includes bands as diverse as Primal Scream, Les Negresses Vertes, The Kinks, and Nitin Sawhney, and it works as a great guide to not only the music in the book, but that which inspired it. The first track that Zaf plays is Asian Dub Foundation’s ‘Naxalite’, but I prefer their single ‘Buzzin’’, the video for which captures the band’s incredible energy, so here it is followed, in the eclectic spirit of the book, with The Thirteenth Floor Elevator’s ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’:

‘Psychoraag’ is a novel that doesn’t try to hide its ambition. On the cover there is a quote from Angus Calder from a review in ‘The Sunday Herald’ alluding that some critics had seen the novel as a cross between ‘Trainspotting’ and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’. As Calder points out Saadi’s novel is so much more than that. Such lazy stereotyping is unhelpful, and actually the novel it reminds me most of is Jeff Torrington’s ‘Swing Hammer, Swing’, at least in terms of feel and pace. The use of language is almost Kelmanesque, used by Saadi to express Zaf’s background and lifestyle. How he says things is as important as what is being said.


Suhayl Saadi was one of the writers involved in last year’s ‘The Year of Open Doors’ short story collection, and publications such as that one point the way ahead in terms of the possibilities for Scottish literature. It had a grand and diverse mix of voices and stories that told us much more about Modern Scotland than more conservative collections. What such fiction tells us is that any idea of what constitutes ‘Scottishness’ must constantly be revised and is more complex today than it has ever been. I don’t know about you but I think that’s a wonderful thing.




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

Next month’s novel: Someone once made the bold claim that Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’ was the greatest Scottish novel that you’ve (probably) never read. I’m going to stick by that youthful bluster and suggest that of all the books that we’ve looked at this is the one that I would force upon you.

It is a stunning piece of writing by Butlin, someone who is perhaps better known for his poetry. It is not an easy read in any sense, but you become absorbed by this tale of a man whose life is falling apart before your eyes. I have yet to meet anyone who has regretted reading ‘The Sound of My Voice’.

Next 5 books:

  1. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
  2. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
  3. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
  4. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
  5. Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)

Kieron Smith, boy

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

There are few more divisive figures in Scottish writing than James Kelman. He is the Marmite of modern novelists. You either regard him as a visionary and a culturally relevant writer whose use of working class Scots dialect make him a representative for those who rarely appear in novels except when fulfilling a stereotype for comic or dramatic effect, or you think he’s a foul mouthed dyslexic; a man out of time who only appears these days to slag off J.K Rowling. I’m firmly in the former camp, as you’ll probably gather.

His most recent novel Kieron Smith, boy is his best since the 1994 Booker Prize winning How Late it Was, How Late, and maybe his best ever. It sees Kelman returning to Glasgow and also his childhood and follows the early life of Kieron Smith, a young Glaswegian protestant boy who is trying to come to terms with his surroundings. Rarely has a writer managed to capture the language and view of a child with such believability. From the first page you pick up the rhythm and childish rhyme of his voice and viewing the story through the eyes of Kieron brings fresh perspective to the reader.

I deliberately mention the religion of Kieron because part of the story is his inability to come to terms with the sectarian madness that is part of his everyday life. He is teased because ‘Kieron is a pape’s name’, thinks that a girl he likes won’t like him back because she goes to chapel, and he believes that people that do that don’t mix well with his family, and, tellingly, he is excited by the sights and sounds of an Orange Walk, where all he sees is adults merry and singing songs, being taken along with the music. Such a day has got to be a good day, right?

There is a scene where Kieron is watching his father as he watches the boxing. He is trying to work out how his father picks which boxer to support. Kieron is aware that there is a system at work, and is determined to decipher it. What is made clear to the reader is the twisted priorities of Kieron’s father’s prejudices. If it is a white boxer against a black boxer, then he shouts for the white man. But if that white man has blessed himself as he enters the ring then he doesn’t know what to do. He tries to trick himself into missing such a show of faith, and if that man loses, he calls him all sorts of bigoted nonsense. Seen through Kieron’s eyes this becomes even more ridiculous behaviour than it would appear anyway.

Kelman is not only famous for his use of dialect but also his literary flourishes. In ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ the most notable example of this is the use of asterisks in the swearing in the book, at least at the beginning. Kieron has a sense of right and wrong attached to some words, and the text is censored to indicate this. Kelman has suffered from people claiming that there is no need for the ‘bad language’ in his work, as if that somehow lessens it. I read Kieron’s self censorship of his language, both spoken and heard, as a literary two-finger salute to such critics, saying that if you are put off a story by the use of bad language then you need to grow up.

There is much that confuses young Kieron, but perhaps the most telling is the way that language is taught to him at home and at school. His mother wants him to speak properly, and at school he is made to speak something called ‘The Queen’s English’, yet out of school he hears a different language spoken. At home this division is even more pronounced and confusing. His father speaks in broad Glaswegian, something Kieron has been told he is forbidden to do. His grandfather is also told off by Kieron’s mother and his own daughter for speaking ‘incorrectly’. Kelman once said that through such institutionalised censorship Scots are made aware not only what society thinks of them, but of their parents. It’s a powerful argument that is again enhanced when seen from the point of view of a child.

If you are not aware of Kelman’s work then ‘Kieron Smith, boy’, or ‘The Busconductor Hines’, are the best places to start. He is a writer who it is better to be introduced to gently, and diving in with ‘Translated Accounts’ for instance would be a mistake. Kelman asks the reader to think about language, class, education, art, morality, responsibility and so much more. He is not always an easy read (although he’s not always the difficult one that many think) but many of the most satisfying things in life don’t come easy.

I mentioned at the start of this column that Kelman is a writer who provokes strong reactions and it is worth looking at this in a little detail. When ‘How Late it Was, How Late’ won the Booker in 1995 it split the judges as never before. The following is a review by Simon Jenkins which appeared The Times at the time, where he said that giving the award to Kelman was ‘literary vandalism’ and then proceeded to write the following:

‘I once found myself alone in a no-smoking compartment of a corridor train to Glasgow. An ambassador for that city lurched into the compartment and crashed down opposite me. He took out a bottle of cider, rolled himself a cigarette, lent across to me and belched, “Ye git a light, Jimmy?” For almost an hour I humoured him, chided him, remonstrated with him, fearful for the safety of the Indian conductor who I knew was coming down the train (and who wisely passed us by). My reeking companion demanded attention like a two-year-old. He told me his so-called life story, requested money with menaces, swore at me and eventually relieved himself into the seat. Reading Mr Kelman’s book was a similar experience.’ (The Times)

 For me, any book that can promote such an astonishing and patronising reaction is doing something right.

James Kelman is the most important writer at work in Scotland today, but he does have a problem which he openly admits. He is critically lauded and appreciated, but hardly anyone is buying his books. Last year saw him have what should have been one of his greatest years. ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ was released in paperback and won two big literary prizes, and folk like me proclaimed it was his best novel for some time. It has reportedly sold poorly and I worry that his reputation for being difficult now goes before him. He will remain critically admired but awards and plaudits don’t put food on the table. When he had a well publicised pop at ‘genre’ fiction at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival it must partly have come from frustration at his own situation. Writers such as Kelman are rare and Scotland would be a culturally poorer country without them. It’s worth considering next time you think about buying a book.


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

Next month’s novel: My hope for ‘Indelible Ink’ is that it introduces new writers to new readers, and next month’s author is one that you should get to know. Suhayl Saadi is simply a great writer (have a look at ‘The Malt Kiln’ in ‘The Year of Open Doors’ short story collection as further proof) and ‘Psychoraag’ is one of the best novels of the last 10 years. Fans of other pop culture novels such as Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’ and Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’ will love it.

Next 5 books:

  1. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
  2. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
  3. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
  4. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
  5. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)

The Fanatic

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

There is a book which has arguably influenced modern Scottish literature more than any other, and it’s not the one you’re thinking of. James Hogg’s 1824 ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ has come to be many writers’ favourite Scottish novel, but few wear their hearts on the page like James Robertson. His third, and some say best, novel, ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, is a conscious homage to Hogg’s magnificent text, but ‘Justified Sinner’s influence can also be felt in his first novel; ‘The Fanatic’.

Like Hogg’s novel ‘The Fanatic’ is concerned with doubling, so much so that the text itself is divided, split between events in1997 and 1677. In the present day Andrew Carlin is given a job as a guide on a ‘Haunted Edinburgh’ tour, and has to dress as the ghost of the infamous covenanter Major Thomas Weir, also known as The Wizard of the West Bow. Carlin throws himself into his new role and researches Weir so that he can give a ‘realistic’ performance. This leads him to become fascinated with another historical figure, and friend of Weir’s, James Mitchel, the ‘fanatic’ of the title, who was tortured then hung for the attempted murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews. Carlin becomes unhealthily obsessed with Mitchel’s story and it is that which makes up the historical sections of the novel.

Andrew Carlin is a fantastic central character. Unashamedly odd, apparently unsettling to those he comes into contact with, but charismatic and appealing to the reader. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. The novel is about impressions and perception and the reader gets to see the side of Carlin that he seems unable to convey to others. But that in itself is just another layer of perception. Carlin’s grip on reality is slight, and his conversations that he has with himself in the mirror echo not only ‘Justified Sinner’, but are reminiscent of another famous loner and fanatic; ‘Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.

Carlin’s mirrored conversations are the most fantastical aspect of the contemporary storyline, or the most disturbing depending on your reading. Although they essentially are there to ask questions about Carlin’s state of mind, or insinuate the presence of an evil ‘other’, they also allow the author to comment upon Scotland and how its history and literature, at least how it is popularly contextualised, has shaped the way that the country is encouraged to consider itself. The mirror image of Carlin, who is much fonder of an expletive than the ‘real’ thing, rants: “…The last thing we need’s anither split fuckin personality.  We’ve got mair than enough o them.  Fuckin Scottish history and Scottish fuckin literature, that’s all there fuckin is, split fuckin personalities.  We don’t need mair doubles, oor haill fuckin culture’s littered wi them….”  (p25) Valid points all, and to place them in a novel that is so concerned with these questions is not only playful, but also challenging. ‘The Fanatic’ can make your head spin at times.

The historical passages are the ones that owe most to ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, particularly in terms of tone. Carlin discovers a ‘lost’ memoir about James Mitchel at the library and the story it tells touches on the themes of good versus evil, religious obsession and predestination. If there is a downside to having two stories running through the novel it is one of comparison. Carlin’s life is that of a loner and his sections, at least to begin with, don’t have the dramatic punch of Mitchel’s tale. Although this balance is redressed as the novel progresses, for the first half I found myself looking forward to the 1677 passages more eagerly. This is partly because they are crammed with dreadful behaviour such as murder, claims of bestiality and witchcraft. The influence of Satan looms large. Present day Edinburgh couldn’t hope to compete.

It’s a bit of a struggle to come up with a relevant video to accompany this film, so I’ve decided to go route one. From the underrated early 80’s movie ‘Valley Girl’ this is Felony with ‘The Fanatic’:

James Robertson is a man who is comfortable in the past and the 1677 sections of this novel are historical fiction of a similar type to Allan Massie. He manages to find the drama in the events of the past and avoids the dry writing that can be the style of many historical novelists. In a review of the book in ‘The Scotland on Sunday’ it was said: ‘Robertson takes not just history but the notion of history; not just the question of what truth is but the act of questioning itself…’. However, like Massie, Robertson cannot be simply called a historical novelist. This is a writer who is passionate about the social and political state of Scotland, and he uses the historical passages to help comment on the present day. ‘The Fanatic’ is not only a gothic tale but one that makes cultural comment about modern Scotland.

Like Hogg’s ‘Justified Sinner’ ‘The Fanatic’ deliberately confuses the reader. We are never sure if what Carlin experiences are real or the result of his imagination and often fevered mind. Like the earlier novel, ‘The Fanatic’ can be read as a supernatural text or a psychological one, but, in the end, it doesn’t overly matter. The two stories bleed in to one another and the gothic sensibilities span the centuries. Whichever way you view both the lives of Carlin and Mitchel this is a terrific example of how to spin a tale. It is this ability that separates Robertson from many other critically acclaimed novelists. He never forgets that while it is a great thing to educate a writer should never forget to entertain.

James Robertson is rightly seen as one of Scotland’s greatest living, and most celebrated, writers. As well as being a successful novelist he is an intriguing poet, a political commentator and, along with fellow writer Mathew Fitt, a publisher of children’s books through their company ‘Itchy Coo’. He has just had his latest novel, ‘And the Land Lay Still’, published which I have yet to read but is described as ‘Scotland’s epic social novel’, to which I can only say that it’s about time. If it is as good as what he has written previously I’m in for a treat. My hopes are high as Robertson is one of those rare writers who appear incapable of writing a bad sentence.


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

Next month’s novel: Most of the novels in this series have been debuts, but next month’s title is the most recent James Kelman novel Kieron Smith, boy and I’ve chosen it because I think it may just be his best.

Kelman is one of those writers that splits the critics into a love/hate divide. He is seen as a ‘difficult’ writer, but, on the whole, I find that an unjust summation. However, his reputation precedes him and I think it puts a lot of people off reading him. What he does do is to capture the way people speak, and think, better than almost any Scottish writer around, and he understands the political importance of language, how we use it and how it is used by others to repress.

Next 5 books:

  1. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
  2. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
  3. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
  4. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
  5. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)


May 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

How do I begin to sum up Alasdair Gray? Writer of fiction and non-fiction, painter, illustrator, dramatist, poet, cultural and political commentator, and even, as part of the ‘Ballad of the Books’ project, songwriter. Most people would be happy to have mastered one of these things. Alasdair Gray is not most people. And ‘Lanark’ is not your average novel.

In hindsight ‘Lanark’ is the book with which I should have started ‘Indelible Ink’. It is not only the most impressive Scottish novel of the last 40 years (which is a different thing to the best) it is the novel that has taken the greatest influence from, and in turn made the greatest impression on, Scottish literature. It connects the modernism of the early part of the century with the predominately urban sensibilities of the second half, but its influences are many and more varied than that suggests. There are nods to James Joyce and to T.S Eliot, but it also harks back to the 19th century with echoes of James Thompson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’, dips into Freudian and Jungian theory, and there is a hefty influence from ‘Leviathan’, Thomas Hobbes 1651 socio/political treatise that gave the world the sobering thought that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The illustrations in the book are surely a nod to William Blake, and, like the text, he uses them to marry the real and everyday with the fantastical. There are many other influences and quotations, more than I can mention here, and uncovering them is part of the joy of ‘Lanark’. It is a novel written by someone who, by his own omission, knows when, where and from whom to ‘borrow’; it is constructed by someone with impeccable taste, but it is a vision that is absolutely unique.

I use the term ‘constructed’ deliberately. In the TLS in 1996 John Sutherland wrote: ‘Where other novelists write fiction, Gray creates books’. Perhaps the easiest way to convey that ‘Lanark’ is unusual is to look at its structure, one which means that the often asked rhetorical question of ‘where do I start’ becomes a genuine concern. The novel is carefully constructed, with an almost architectural precision, as follows:

Book 3-Prologue-Book 1-Book 2-Book 4-(Epilogue)-Book4

Books 1 and 2 deal with the story of Glaswegian Duncan Thaw. They are a portrait of the artist as a young man and Gray has openly admitted that these books are thinly disguised autobiography. Thaw is a man who, like Gray, grows up to suffer illness, most notably from eczema. After a happy childhood his life becomes an unsatisfying one, particularly in terms of his relationships. You don’t need to read too far to soon realise this is all about Gray, and it is not a particularly happy story. What many people don’t realise, as the fantastical Books 3&4 are often focused upon by critics, is that 1&2 have as much ‘grit and realism’ as anything written by his contemporaries, although the fact that this is such a personal tale gives it an extra, more humane, dimension.

Books 3 and 4 are about the eponymous Lanark, a man who finds himself in the often Kafkaesque nightmare that is Unthank, a place which resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting. His journey is reminiscent of Dante’s, and when you consider the Thaw books, you could also say that he is through the looking glass. It would be a mistake to think that Thaw’s and Lanark’s are separate stories, they are closely intertwined. Lanark begins to develop ‘Dragonhide’, the eczema like disease that begins to cover his body with scales, another clue to the close links between Thaw and Lanark, and Gray, but also a ‘nasty and brutish’ metaphor for modern life. ‘Lanark’ is subtitled ‘A Life in Four Books’, in fact it is a life in two books, told twice but from a different perspective.

The Prologue and Epilogue see the author himself appear, firstly to instruct the reader, and Lanark, as to how and why the story must unfold as it does, and then to give further explanation and to defend the book. To this end the Epilogue comes with an ‘Index of Plagiarisms’, a stylistic flourish that was to become typical of Gray. By setting out his novel as he does Gray sets the reader a challenge right from the beginning, but it is more out of playfulness and love of perspective rather than an intellectual exercise. This is a novel to enjoy, not one to work at.

I consider Gray in a similar way as I do Mark E. Smith. With both these men it appears to me that they have to produce art. It is as much a compulsion to them as breathing, and is not about fame or reward (at least not predominately). They may both like a little attention and certain notoriety, but they will do it their way, and damn the consequences. Smith once said that he didn’t dislike his audience, as many claimed was the case, he just didn’t consider them at all. He may not admit it, he would be too well mannered, but my hunch is that Alasdair Gray feels much the same way. This is not an accusation. In fact I think it may be a necessity for the very best artists.

In the 2002 revised edition Janice Galloway write the foreword and said that ‘Lanark’ is:

‘A novel full of voice and voices, of Art concealing and revealing Art at one and the same time, it makes multiple invitations to its reader to reject distanced analysis and enter, “headfirst and naked,” into the story itself,’

The point that Galloway is making is that you should put aside the mythology that has built up around the novel (through columns such as this one) and simply read it. Everything that you may have heard about it suggests that it is going to be a difficult read, but that is not the case.  ‘Lanark’ rightly has a reputation as a great novel, but that reputation should not put potential readers off. Here’s a clip of Alasdair Gray interviewing Alasdair Gray. I hope you’re beginning to get the picture: .)

As part of Philip Hobsbaum’s influential creative writing group, Gray’s direct peers are Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Jeff Torrington. But, in another sense he is peerless. I don’t mean to say that he is better than the others named, just that he stands apart by having a different aesthetic sensibility. It’s a difficult difference to pin down, but if his peers are distinctly ‘Glasgow’ writers, then Gray is more of an ‘Unthank’ writer. His view of the city and its people, including himself, is askew. ‘Lanark’ is the great Glasgow novel in a similar way that ‘Ulysses’ is the great Dublin novel. Both books are recognisable in terms of people and place yet completely alien at the same time.

Scottish novelists can be accused of being parochial, and this is not about what or where they write about, but is more a state of mind. It is a narrowing of focus that concentrates on the local or national, which is perfectly understandable, and sometimes desirable, but which became the standard for Scottish fiction for many years. The idea of writing an epic novel seemed anathema to modern Scottish writers, yet that is what ‘Lanark’ is. Strangely, perhaps, for a novel which is so feted, its direct influence is perceived to be slight. There are other novels of Gray’s that are more influential. Perhaps this is not surprising. Who could comprehend such an undertaking?

If Alasdair Gray had never written another thing he would be acclaimed for writing ‘Lanark’. As it is he has a back catalogue that is to be admired. At least two other genuinely great novels in ‘1982 Janine’ and ‘Poor Things’, six others which are simply very good (and which most writers will never come close to) some of the best collections of short stories from any Scottish writer, and many underrated plays. Sometimes people who are as prolific as Gray, or who have had the audacity to have longevity, get taken for granted. His last play ‘Fleck’ has still to be produced by a major theatre company, which considering some of the plays that get commissioned (I’m looking at you National Theatre of Scotland) is absurd.

Perhaps it is because he is not ‘just’ a writer that Gray stands apart in Scottish fiction, but I think that too simple an answer. I go back to where we started and point out that Alasdair Gray is an artist in every sense of the word. Dean Martin once said about Sinatra that ‘this is Frank’s world, we just live in it’. Well Alasdair Gray has his own world, and we should be grateful that he chooses to share it with us.


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

Next month’s novel: Jealousy is something I generally try and steer clear of, but if there is any current writer who I envy it would be James Robertson. He is someone who is probably better known, although not well known enough, for his superb third novel ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, and in the space of four novels has proven to be one of Scotland’s most versatile and involving writers.

Like many of the novels dealt with so far, Robertson’s ‘The Fanatic’ is a debut and is a terrific introduction to his work. It manages to bring together old and new Edinburgh, and, by extension, ancient and modern Scotland, something that can be found in all his fiction, either implicitly or explicitly. Like Alasdair Gray, James Robertson demands concentration from his readers, but it is always worth the effort. He educates as he entertains, which is surely what we want from a novelist.

Next 5 books:

  1. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
  2. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
  3. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
  4. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
  5. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)

Buddha Da

May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

If I was to recommend a Scottish book to you that is based on religion you may rightly have some preconceptions as to what it would be like. It may be a generalisation but Scotland and religion tend to mix like oil and water, or perhaps oil and fire is a better example. Many of the books looked at in these pages have alluded to religious divisions even when they don’t deal with them head on, so it is perhaps understandable when a writer decides to write a novel that concentrates on one religion they make it Buddhism.

But this is no cop out. Anne Donovan’s debut novel ‘Buddha Da’ is about a man feeling lost and looking for something new. It is important to the story that we realise that the man in question, Jimmy, begins the novel as a confirmed atheist having been raised Roman Catholic. This is someone who does not decide to change faith, but goes looking for something new, or at least a system of belief that will make sense of his, as he sees it, unfulfilled life. Often mid-life crisis are stereotyped with ear rings, affairs, motorbikes or disappearances. Jimmy feels that his life is missing purpose and a chance meeting with a Buddhist monk in a café gives him the idea of where to look for it.

The novel deals with notions of the individual, their needs and desires, within a family unit. Jimmy believes he wants to better himself, at least spiritually, but in attempting to do so alienates his family. How far do you subjugate your own ego to keep things sweet with those who you live with? At the beginning his wife Liz is bemused, but amused, at Jimmy’s new found interest, happy that he has not fallen for the more base mid-life stereotypes. But when she realises that this includes a vow of celibacy, and leads to his missing family events including his daughter Anne Marie’s school play, her concern grows and patience runs out. Indeed it is Liz who is tempted into an affair with a young philosophy student who she sees as her chance to also ‘better’ herself.

Anne Marie is the third character and, as is often the case, it is the child who is the voice of relative reason as she watches her parents grow further apart. She provides the karmic balance and it is her faith in her parents that pulls her family through this particular crisis. Although the drama comes from the older two, it is Anne Marie’s voice that is most considered and identifiable to the reader.

Donovan’s mastery of the three individual voices is a standout of the novel. Written Scots dialect is a hard thing to get right, and is terrible to read when it is wrong. If you don’t believe me try it for yourself. Donovan not only manages to pull it off, but does so three times with the characters of Jimmy, Anne-Marie and Liz all having their own voices, but also speaking in a language that recognisably belongs to each other. Sometimes the language verges on the poetic, or at the very least lyrical. Donovan manages to make the Glasgow dialect sing from the page.

One of the accusations against ‘Buddha Da’ is that it is too a comfortable novel, one that begins to morph into ‘chick-lit’ territory as it progresses. I can’t agree with this. While it is true that the two female characters take precedence in the second half of the novel, I think it is too simple to view this as a lessening of the novel’s worth. I see it as a move from the often broad comedy as worlds collide in Jimmy’s sections, to a more moving story as it becomes increasingly possible that Anne Marie’s parents will separate. Perhaps it does become a more recognisable story, but books don’t work like that. We need the characterisation as set out at the beginning of the novel to care for these people right to the end. I agree that Jimmy’s character is the most enjoyable in comedic terms (although some readers find him infuriating), but the heart of the story is to be found with Anne Marie. She is the innocent, the one who deserves the most consideration, but finds herself trying to rectify the often selfish actions of her mother and father.

There is an argument to be had that the novel is disrespectful to Buddhism, but I don’t buy that, and I don’t think many Buddhists would either. Having visited and had conversations with some of the monks who work in the Buddhist Centre on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow they are more like Jimmy, or me for that matter, than you may imagine. It is obvious that Donovan, who has been to several Buddhist retreats and practices meditation, has also been to the same centre as her descriptions of its interior when Jimmy visits then stays there are photographically accurate. I doubt that she would have written this novel without thorough knowledge of the religion and those who practice it, and some of the novel’s most glowing reviews can be found in Buddhist magazines, journals and websites. I know that humour and religion can be uncomfortable bedfellows, people can get very upset, but I believe that few if any Buddhists would be upset by the portrayal of their religion in this novel.

The humour is directed towards Jimmy and his search for some form of enlightenment, and while it is one that takes over his life for a while, you feel it is always going to pass. It seems to require more stamina than he can muster, and it is the idea that appeals most of all. The meditation, the solitude, even the celibacy that he practices are his attempts to have some form of control over his life. His flirtation with Buddhism typifies a certain modern western desire to turn to the east in an attempt to find meaning in life as the certainties of Christian based religions appear to fade. You can read this as saying ‘faith is futile’ or you can say that this novel is about tolerance, religious or otherwise. This is not a judgemental novel, it is one of understanding. It is not that Liz must respect Jimmy’s needs, but that he must also respect hers, and they both must consider their daughter first.

‘Buddha Da’ is not your typical Scottish novel, but then Anne Donovan is not your average Scottish novelist. Both this and her second novel ‘Being Emily’, while not denying many of the Scottish types, give them more humanity and warmth than many other Scottish writers would even consider is necessary. The writer I’m most reminded of when I read her stuff is Roddy Doyle, particularly the ‘Barrytown Trilogy’. I said when previewing this novel last month that Anne Donovan is one of Scotland’s few optimistic writers. In case you’re in any doubt, this is a good thing.


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

Next month’s novel: Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ is one of the few modern Scottish novels that can properly be considered a classic. Gray is an incredible artist who is perhaps as well known for his painting as his writing these days, but it is in his writing that he truly excels. ‘Lanark’ is a complex novel, one which was over 25 years in the writing, and which is artful in every detail. It is biography, fantasy, realist novel and puzzle. Reading ‘Lanark’ is a real undertaking, but your life will be better when you finish the last page.

Hugely influential not only on Scottish literature but further afield, if it was up to me ‘Lanark’ would be taught in all Scottish schools. It is not only one of Scotland’s great novels, but simply one of the great novels.

Next 5 books:

  1. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)
  2. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
  3. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
  4. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
  5. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)

The Wasp Factory

May 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Sometimes a writer comes along who is difficult to categorise, who doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Iain Banks is one such writer. Of course as Iain M. Banks, his other writing title, he is an out and out sci-fi novelist, but even that isn’t as clear cut as it at first appears. He is a writer who loves to confuse and confound and I think it will please him to be so hard to pin down. He is, to use the title of one of his ‘M’ novels, ‘The Player of Games’. For Banks, life is an absurd game that we are all forced to partake in, a compelling puzzle that may have no solution, and this is reflected in his fiction.

This playfulness was obvious right from the beginning. When his debut ‘The Wasp Factory’ was published in 1984 it received as many brickbats as it did plaudits and Banks, in conjunction with his publishers, decided to include a selection of both to preface and advertise the book presumably in the belief that all publicity would be good publicity. Here’s just one of those critiques that show the strength of feeling the novel provoked:

‘As a piece of writing, The Wasp Factory soars to the level of mediocrity. Maybe the crassly explicit language, the obscenity of the plot, were thought to strike an agreeably avant-garde note. Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.’ The Times.

Such a view was by no means unusual. It’s difficult to think of another novel which split reviewers so dramatically. Perhaps there is a case for Brett Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’, but there is much more substance to Banks’ novel and those critics should have been able to see past the gothic and gore and understand the philosophical and social commentary that runs through the book. Banks deals with questions of family, gender nature versus nurture and determinism versus free will. What some dismissed as a sensationalist novel was actually very serious indeed, and this mix between the sensational and the serious set the template for all his fiction.

That’s not to say that it is an easy read. There is one scene in particular, set in a hospital morgue, which is almost unreadable and can make you feel ill long after the page has passed. In many ways Banks is a writer of excess be it sexual, violent or horrific. In the novels that followed there is S&M, torture, expensive car habits and expensive drug habits. Banks uses excessive behaviour to sidetrack his heroes, (or heroines; his female characters are almost always stronger than their male counterparts) from their quest to be better, more enlightened, people. His protagonists are all on personal journeys, and along the way they must put aside the more base pleasures to follow their paths. This quote from the end of ‘The Wasp Factory’ backs up this idea of a personal quest: ‘Our destination is the same in the end, but our journey – part chosen, part determined – is different for us all’. One of Banks’ central themes is ‘you might not be able to save the world, but you can try by beginning with yourself’.

This is a difficult book to discuss in the usual fashion. Normally when I talk about a novel I would mention the actual text and plot but ‘The Wasp Factory’ contains a spectacular twist which I worry I’ll spoil by talking specifics. I can say that it is about an unusual family, the Cauldhames’ who live on a small Scottish island and that ‘The Wasp Factory’ of the title is a device built with the specific purpose to torture and kill wasps while trying to predict the future. The rest I’ll let you discover for yourself. If this seems odd then you’ll have to read the book to understand why. In way this is the ‘The Usual Suspects’ or ‘The Sixth Sense’ of Scottish novels. Like those films the twist at the end of ‘The Wasp Factory’ is not the key to enjoying the book, but it does force you to reassess what you have just read. It’s no exaggeration to say that when I read it for the first time I went back and started again to see how many clues I could find. I still read the last chapter if I have a spare 15 mins as it is an incredible piece of writing. ‘The Wasp Factory’ was Banks’ first literary puzzle.

But you would be mistaken in thinking that he is simply making mischief. His games and puzzles only barely hide his anger, and sometimes fail to altogether. His novels have varying levels of anger driving them, from the comparably mild mannered ‘Walking on Glass’ to ‘Complicity’ which is seething with rage. Often there is a passage which is an out and out rant against a specific political or social problem. I often wonder if these passages are the sparks that precede the writing of the novels. They then become the vehicle that carries his views, and the characters become the mouthpiece, and sometimes avenging angels, of this apparently mild mannered man. In this sense the mainstream novels are as much fantasies as any of his sci-fi output.

Banks’ is a writer who embraces the new. His last novel ‘Transition’ was serialised as a free podcast in an attempt to reach a new audience and he was never content with just writing fiction. His book on whisky ‘Raw Spirit’ is one part travelogue to two parts social commentary. He also took part in a very short series, the Songbook Series, which had novelists compiling CD’s of their favourite music. (Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Barker and Robert Crumb also partook in the venture) Here’s one of Banks’ better choices. This is Richard Thompson with ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’:

Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful novelists, but I think he is also the most under appreciated. The more sensational aspects of his writing seem to overshadow the serious moral, social and political debates that are to be had, and that is a great shame. Partly this is because he doesn’t appear to take himself overly seriously, as any one who’s ever tried to get a straight answer out of him will testify, but I think that is a front. You only have to read the novels to understand that this is a man who takes the business of writing, and of living, very seriously indeed. And that’s how it should be. These days we want writers to tell us what it all means, but why should they? It’s all in the book, as they used to say. Focus on the writing not the writer.

In a very different way Iain Banks is as much of a social commentator as James Kelman. Both write to bring attention to perceived injustices in the world, and attempt to move the reader into action or at least empathy. If you’ve avoided Banks because you thought he was ‘fantasy’ or ‘sci-fi’ then I would ask you to reconsider. Just because a writer can spin a good yarn doesn’t mean that they’re not important and worthwhile, something we often seem to forget. Iain Banks; ‘he means it, man’.


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

Next month’s novel: Last month I said, with reference to optimistic Scottish authors, that off the top of my head I could think of two (I’ve since doubled that number, but the point remains). The second of those writers was Anne Donovan, and next month’s novel is her debut ‘Buddha Da’.

Written in 2003 ‘Buddha Da’ was one of those books that those who read raved about to those who had not. It is a Scottish urban novel that doesn’t need the accompanying ‘gritty’ to describe it. Donovan has written a warm, involving and moving book that deals with family and faith in a most engaging manner.

Next 5 books:

  1. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)
  2. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)
  3. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
  4. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
  5. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)


May 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

There are many ways to start a novel, but surely one of the most arresting of recent times can be found in Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’, which opens:

‘like rebel angels, bright, restless, sensually attuned to the flux and flow of mortal Falkirk, Belinda our chariot, our spirit guide, the wind rushing up and past her face thrust against it like some wide-o Helen of Troy.’

Straight in. Nae messin. It puts me in mind of an early Springsteen lyric, if The Boss had been brought up near Callender Park, Falkirk rather than Asbury Park, NJ. The novel doesn’t relent in the pace set by this opening gambit, at least not until near the end when reality starts to invade the Boyracers lives.

I mentioned last month that there are similarities between Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’, and Bissett’s debut. Both deal with the lives of a close group of friends as they make the transition from school to whatever comes next. Re-reading ‘Boyracers’ made me realise that the main difference between the two novels is to do with pace, both of life and in terms of writing. There may only be 12 years between the two novels, but they seem further removed from each other than that.

The reason for this can be found with the respective groups. Until I compared the two I had forgotten just what a difference a couple of years can make in your teens. 15-16 year olds lives tend to be very different from those of 17-18 year olds. In Legge’s book there is a sense of what has been left behind, and the characters are being pulled towards adulthood and all that threatens to entail. Their hopes and dreams are already being dashed. ‘Boyracers’ pull is from the other end of the teenage spectrum. For them the stronger pull is from school, as Alvin, Brian, Frannie and Dolby find themselves desperately holding on to the lives that they need to leave behind. This is classic teen angst material, as poignant as ‘The Last Picture Show’, ‘American Graffiti’ or any John Hughes’ movie. The group are being threatened with disbandment but don’t want to face this fact, so live their last days together at breakneck speed to avoid impending reality.

There is no plot as such, just time spent with the boys as they drive the streets of Falkirk and the surrounding area and dream of escape (some with more intensity than others), football, favourite movies and music, and girls. There is a natural energy that occurs when they are together, with Frannie bursting into song or Dolby criticising the group’s respective cultural tastes, although they escape relatively easily when compared to other characters that they encounter. That is how people are judged, and this jury is a harsh one. Watch the wrong film, listen to the wrong tunes, and your dead to them.

Music and popular culture are hugely important to the dynamic of this group, placing it not only alongside ‘The Shoe’, but also ‘Morvern Callar’, Trainspotting’ and John Niven’s ‘Kill Your Friends’ in the novels featured here in the past few months whose characters, and authors, show similar obsessive tendencies. The excitement that is felt, for instance, at the prospect of a new U2 album is brilliantly captured and reminds the weary and cynical just how important music is to a teenage fan. The scene where they argue over the respective meanings of Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’ and ‘Wages Day’ is typical of the varying levels of banter. When Alvin claims that ‘Progress is a capitalist myth.’ Brian retorts ‘You’re a capitalist myth, ya cunt!’ and the cracks that are beginning to show, and which will eventually lead them in different directions, are made clear. Even their arguments, although they are about so much more, take place in a pop-cultural context. What gives this scene a cinematic quality is the fact that ‘Wages Day’ is playing on the car stereo as the argument progresses. Is it an attack on capitalism or a simple celebration of payday?

‘Boyracers’ is not really a typical Scottish novel. It owes a lot to American writers such as S.E. Hinton or even Kerouac. Kerouac crossed with Kelman perhaps.  But most of all I think it owes a debt to American cinema, both in terms of the character’s tastes and the overall feel. Frannie rates women in terms of ‘Star Wars’ characters (a spectrum which ranges from Princess Leia to Jabba the Hutt), Dolby is stunned when he meets a girl who has never read an X-Men comic, and Alvin’s reading material is ‘The Great Gatsby’. There are plenty of more localised references, but American cultural rules rule, and I feel that the spirit of the novel also feels American, in the best possible sense. It seems to me that Bissett is an optimist, and that is incredibly rare amongst Scottish writers. (If you feel that’s harsh then please name me another five. I can think of two).Yes, there is the storyline about Alvin’s dysfunctional family, but the reader is always sure that he is heading for better things. The hope, for once, isn’t false.

Scottish books for teenagers are, as far as I can tell, few and far between. Scottish literature in Scottish schools is still under represented, and after you’ve done ‘Sunset Song’, a bit of Burns, Liz Lochhead and/or Edwin Morgan and, if you are lucky, something a bit more modern you’re considered to have done well. If anyone wants a suggestion as to a book for older school kids, Scottish or otherwise, then I propose Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’ as he manages to avoid the cynicism of his contemporaries, while never being less than honest and entertaining. The book’s central characters are living lives that are recognisable to most young people; and to those of you who remember what that time was like, and those who have forgotten, this is a book to bring a knowing smile to your face, and an ache for your own salad days.


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

Next month’s novel: Iain Bank’s debut novel ‘The Wasp Factory’ was that rare thing when it was published in 1984, a genuinely shocking successful novel. It really split critics and readers into a love/hate divide. Banks, being the man he is, embraced the negative criticism with greater vigor, indeed was more comfortable with it, than the praise, something that was there for all to see when he used some of the most critical reviews to promote the book.

Many of the themes that regular readers of Banks would come to expect appear in ‘The Wasp Factory’. Family, religion, questions of nature versus nurture and the evil that (mostly men) do are all examined with the blackest of humour. It won’t be for everyone, but if it’s for you then you’ll love it. It is a novel which doesn’t allow for mild opinions.

Next 5 books:

  1. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
  2. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)
  3. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)
  4. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
  5. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)

The Shoe

May 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

It has been decided by those who decide such things that there are only ever seven stories to be told. Roughly speaking these are; The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy (otherwise known as The Misunderstanding), Tragedy (or The Fall), Defeating the Monster, Rags to Riches and Rebirth.  To this can be added an eighth, ‘A weekend in Grangemouth where nothing much happens’, because this is the plot, such as it is, of Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’.

Like James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late’, and one of the great lost Scottish novels Jeff Torrington’s ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’, ‘The Shoe’ is set over three days and like those earlier novels Legge’s deals with alienation, boredom and the feeling of being trapped. The difference is that Kelman and Torrington’s narrators were men apart, looking for escape by any means necessary. ‘The Shoe’ taps into the feeling that was abound in the late 80’s that these situations are so much easier to cope with when the problems are shared, ignored, or preferably, both.

Archie, Big Davie, The Mental Kid and Richard are the foursome attempting to make their way in the world. The main character in ‘The Shoe’ is Archie, but this is really an ensemble piece of writing. I can’t think of another Scottish novel which represents a group of friends so warmly and evocatively. They share more than just history, they have a real friendship that you feel will see them through dark days. This is partly as the novel is set just after the group have left school and still have the roles that were defined in the heat of the playground, and the optimism of youth is still strong enough to block out the feeling that life may never be that easy again.

This group dynamic is fortified by shared love of football, (but, pointedly, a hatred of sectarianism. Davie is a Rangers fan; Mental and Archie both Celtic fans.) drink, sex (or the quest for sex) and, most significantly music. These are the ways they suppress the reality of the dole, or poorly paid jobs with no prospects. Ok, it’s not an original premise, but it is written with a real sense of humour and empathy which is rare, and the novel never becomes sensationalist or mawkish, which actually makes it all the more poignant.

As the novel moves towards its conclusion and the group to the pub Legge picks up the pace. He manages to convey the surreal atmosphere that only exists in a pub, where time becomes relative as the rounds progress and it’s a toss up if the night will end with a kiss or a kick. The sort of place where old grudges which are still harboured from school are replayed as there are no other places for anyone to go, and all the various ‘tribes’ still have their own patch. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. The characters revert to the roles that they spend the rest of the week trying to escape as they try and understand the adult world. All the hopes and fears belong to the world that they’ve just left behind, as these are easier to deal with than those that are to come. But there is never a sense of despair. Legge manages to convey that, as these events are happening, this may just be the best time of their lives.

Perhaps the reason that the reader doesn’t worry about Archie, Davie, The Mental Kid and Richard is that these are obviously intelligent and capable people. A criticism of the novel from some people is that the dialogue is too articulate and knowing, that it is unrealistic. But such a point of view strikes me as more than a little condescending. The language is fantastic; the patter between the characters brilliantly replicates that between those who are comfortable in each others company. The piss-taking stays the right side of cruel, and the cultural references don’t grate with me. Except the naming of the dog as ‘Dostoevsky’; Gordon, you’ve taken that too far.

Music is important in a lot of the novels that have featured on these pages, but in 1989, when the novel was published, this was another rarity in Scottish literature. As I’ve said before, this is something that is difficult to pull off without the writer appearing as if they are just showing off their record collection. Legge manages the trick with ease. He manages to convey the eclectic tastes of the music fanatic, the line between certainty of knowing what constitutes good music, and the need to devour the thoughts of others. The section where we are told of Richard’s reading tastes: ‘Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Jane Suck, John Ingham, Jon Savage and the old guard: Charles Shaar Murray, Giovanni Dodoma and Nick Kent’ says so much more than lists of records ever could.

It’s a clever move by Legge to have the secondary character of Richard as the novel’s arbiter of musical taste as that adds distance to the writer himself. Writers who make music a central part of their novels should take heed at the casual confidence that Legge shows. It’s the sort of attitude that sees an interviewer at a job interview ask the question: ‘Right, name 50 singles by The Fall’, or, when looking at a picture of a triumphant Marvin Hagler Archie comment ‘Hagler looked like the first few seconds of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ come to life’. This is a novel of obsession and passion, be it for unattainable women, football, movies, but more than anything else music. It is the glue which keeps these four together.

I’m currently reading Alan Warner’s new novel, ‘The Stars in the Bright Sky’, which brings together most of the characters first encountered in his 1999 novel ‘The Sopranos’. It makes me realise the debt that certain successful Scottish writers seem to owe to Legge, and this book in particular. Scottish novels that had been around before ‘The Shoe’ had tended to concentrate on a single character who stood apart from any group. While there is still an aspect of this in Legge’s novel, (this is Archie’s tale after all), the sense of camaraderie and shared experience between a group of friends was unusual. Afterwards there were successful novels such as the aforementioned ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Trainspotting’, John Burnside’s dark novel about the middle-aged ‘friends’ ‘The Mercy Boys’ and next months novel, Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’, all of which looked at those well worn themes of class, politics, gender and the like within a group dynamic. This may be coincidence, but I’d like to think not.

Re-reading ‘The Shoe’ is as comforting and enjoyable for me as listening to Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Grand Prix’ or Prefab Sprout’s ‘Steve McQueen’, or sticking on an early Woody Allen film. They may be familiar, but that familiarity makes them all the more enjoyable. It’s like catching up with an old friend. This is a book to keep in the box marked nostalgic treats, ready to break into when you’re feeling the world’s weight bearing down.


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: Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’ makes such a good accompaniment to this month’s ‘The Shoe’ that you may think this column is cunningly planned.  Published in 2001, this is perhaps the book that Legge would have written 10 years on. Legge’s novel is set ‘somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow’ (Legge is from Grangemouth) while ‘Boyracers’ is unashamedly set in Falkirk, just up the road.

Bissett is one of the best novelists in Scotland today, and going for the title of ‘hardest working man in show business’. I almost picked his brilliant second novel, ‘The Incredible Adam Spark’ but I think it’s important to follow some of these writers from the beginning.

Next 5 books:

  1. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
  2. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
  3. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)
  4. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)
  5. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)

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