Tag Archives: Iain Banks

Braveheart

No Sign Of Mel Gibson!!………Ten Books That Represent My Country

………….. I first read of this idea of choosing books that represent your country on Savidge Reads and subsequently on Annabel’s House Of Books. I liked the idea of it from the start. Both of their lists were fascinating and ranged to every part of the British Isles. But doing it myself for the UK was never an option for me – partly because they’d both done it better than I could have but mainly because I think of Scotland, rather than the UK, as my country – even though I’ve not lived there for over 30 years! This isn’t a tub-thumping, Scottish Nationalist thing,  for I’ve been an exile for far too long to have any right of opinion on the politics of independence. It’s just how it is – I’ve lived more of my life out of Scotland than in it, but it’s still my home, my country. So the notion of a Tartan Ten, was already in my head when Annabel mentioned it in her comments to me – after that I began making up a short list almost instantly!

The parameters set by Simon originally were

1. Books set in your home country (I think I’ve followed that rule if you allow me a bit of poetic license here and there!)

2. Books by authors from your home country ( I think I’ve followed that rule).

3. Books that represent your country geographically ( I’ve followed that rule sometimes but where it didn’t suit me I ignored it!)

4. Books written post World War 2 (I’ve ignored that too!)

5. There should be ten. ( I didn’t exactly ignore that rule but I may have miscounted!!)

So two out of five isn’t bad – though admittedly it might only be one cos I’ve no idea if I followed Rule 2! So in the list below the caveat is I think they were born in Scotland, but if they weren’t I’ve decided to unilaterally adopt them into the race known to one and all ( well mainly known to ourselves) as Gods Chosen People – the Scots!

And I managed to avoid one rule that I set for myself – no mention of the greatest film of all time – Braveheart (unless you count that one just there!).

My Ten (or so) Books To Represent Scotland

Lanark by A Gray

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

If there is such a thing as the great Scottish contemporary novel, then I think this might well be it. It tells the story of Lanark and Duncan Thaw, moving between Glasgow of the 40′s and 50′s and the hell-like other-world of Unthank. At the time I read it, in the early 1980′s, with Scotland in the vice-like grip of Thatcher, the novel was just stunning to read. What fascinated me at the time was the contrast – and at times lack of contrast, between Glasgow life and Unthank life. I remember wondering if Unthank was a kind of vision of Glasgow and Scotland’s future during and post-Thatcher. I don’t think the collapse of morality and decency at the hands of capitalism that I’d imagined at the time came to fruition, though the banking crisis of recent years is a pretty sobering lesson! But outside of that, Lanark is a wonderful read,. It was called “the best book in 20th Century Scottish literature” by Iain Banks – and I’d wholeheartedly agree!

black-blue_rankinBlack and Blue by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin’s creation, Detective John Rebus is so much a wonderful depiction of the Scottish psyche for me. He’s a kind of William Wallace for today in my eyes, albeit without the kilt, the saltire war paint and perhaps carrying a bit more weight than Wallace did!! And of course his books are a wonderful tourist guide to Glasgow’s posh neighbour over the road – the good city of Edinburgh (although in fairness as a tourist guide it won’t necessarily show you much tartan or shortbread or castles in this tour!)

Rebus does represent so much of the Scottish character for me – on the surface he’s all sharp edges, curmudgeonly, argumentative, cynical – what we in Scotland call “thrawn!”. But underneath he’s absolutely human – there’s his generosity of spirit, the kick back at authority and posturing, his down to earthness and above all his appreciation of a decent pub! I love every Rebus story and there are many to choose from but I’ve gone with “Black and Blue” because it wonderfully weaves together a fictional story and a true life unsolved mystery – the “Bible John” murders in Glasgow in the 60′s. It’s simply Rebus and Rankin at their very very best!

Espedair StreetEspedair Street by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is simply my favourite Scottish author. From the first novel to the last I loved his books. His death in June of this year was a tragic loss to Scottish writing but he left a wonderful legacy. So I can’t envisage my country in books without an Iain Banks novel. I picked Espedair Street for three reasons – firstly Daniel Weir the main character is the most fantastic of anti-heroes, secondly it’s a brilliant tale of sex, drugs, rock and roll so what’s not to love about it and thirdly I used to live near  Espedair Street in Paisley!! We have a word in Glasgow for something that’s wonderous in every way – we call it “gallus”. However, being Glaswegians, we can add to that to make it EVEN MORE wonderous in every way – because in the way the rest of the world uses “very”, in Glasgow we use “fuckin”! Iain Banks and all his books, but especially Espedair Street, are fuckin gallus!

Cutting RoomThe Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

There are lots of shades to Glasgow like all cities – this novel includes what I think of as the dark heart of the city and the slightly more upmarket part of Glasgow – or what my mother might call the “all fur coat and no knickers” part of the city! It tells the wonderfully black tale of Rilke – he’s an “auctioneer” – which sounds dreadfully “Home Counties and BBC” – but in Glasgow “auctioneer” is simply a posh word for someone who clears crap from other people’s houses. He’s employed by the wonderfully named Miss McKindless to clear the house of her dead brother. Rilke starts by thinking he’s found a treasure trove including some lovely old porn novels in the old man’s study – however hidden in among them is a brown envelope stuffed with photographs of a woman being sexually tortured and murdered. From there on, as Rilke turns into a sort of amateur sleuth, you journey with him through a Glasgow awash with bent coppers, transvestites who’d fancy their changes of beating the shit out of Mike Tyson and a kind of inner sanctum of pornographers! It’s a wonderful portrayal of the Glasgow that all the stone-blasting of buildings, all the city regeneration schemes and all the investment in being European City of Culture and the like never had a chance of washing away!!

swing-hammer_torrington

Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

This is another tour of Glasgow in some ways – but this one is of the city working class in the 60′s, the bars they frequent and their love lives. Thomas Clay is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – but then everybody in Glasgow is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – even the ones who are a success at something are usually tormented by the novel that got away! Clay is being tracked by a sinister presence so he tries to stay one step ahead of whatever it is that’s coming his way. His wife Rhona is pregnant, his bit on the side, Becky McQuade is a form of sex-on-tap and much of Glasgow is waiting on something better – it’s just not sure what! In some respects there isn’t really a plot to Swing Hammer Swing – it’s more a diatribe of every thing Thomas thinks, says, hears and does. It’s shot through with Glasgow dialect – Christ knows how anybody from anywhere outside of the M8 motorway is able to read it. At one part of the novel Thomas predicts that someday, bingo will be on offer in public libraries! I loved the idea then and still love it. I work in local government – if there’s ever a brainstorming session about the future of our public libraries I won’t be able to resist chucking this in!

Not Not While The GiroNot Not While The Giro by James Kelman

This collection of stories focuses on the working class communities, people who are socially very much on the periphery of life. They are mainly about young men who are rootless, directionless and lost and they are all in some way or other waiting for something – usually for a pint in a pub, or their turn at a snooker table or for their “dole money” in the post. I chose this because above all it reminds me of my home town in Greenock. As a young man in the early eighties I was unemployed at a time when much of Scotland was in the same boat! There has always been a debate about whether or not Kelman’s books are literature at all never mind whether or not they are good! Even when he won the Booker, his book was famously counted as having used the word “Fuck” 4000 times throughout it’s pages and one of the judges described it as “crap really!” But there is  no debate for me – these stories are part of my growing up and I adored them!

Para handyPara Handy Tales by Neil Munro

We are not all gritty kitchen sink social realism in Scotland! Neil Munro’s tales of the crew of the ‘on-its-last-legs’ boat “The Vital Spark” sees Para Handy, the skipper, (if I remember rightly ‘Para Handy’ is the Gaelic name for the skipper, Peter) and his crew of Dougie the first mate (a man who puts the super into superstitious”!), Dan McPhail the engineer and Sunny Jim the deck hand, who lives up to his name in name only! The Vital Spark plies its trade (barely) on the River Clyde, and up and down the West Coast of Scotland. It visits all the Firth of Clyde places of my childhood – Dunoon, Rothesay, Inellan, Millport etc. !! The desperate barely seaworthy state of the boat is pretty much matched by their sea-skills! But much as the chaotic and shambolic situations they get themselves into are hilarious, what is really special about the stories are the characters themselves from the tight-as-a-duck’s-arse, crafty, Para Handy to the slightly camp, slightly effeminate engineer Dan, with his mutual love of engines and bodice-ripper paperback stories!! They made it into a television series in Scotland and the Para Handy role was played by a masterful Scottish actor called Roddy McMillan. When I re-read the books after the TV series all I could see and hear in my head was the indignation on the face and in the tone of the voice of McMillan at the latest scandalous remark from the hapless Dan McPhail!

Scots QuairA Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I’m cheating just a little here by including this in my ten as it is actually three books, Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, that tell the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman in the North East of Scotland, moving from the hard, rural life of her adolescence to adulthood and marriage. It’s a wonderful depiction of rural Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century and describes the development of the working class of Scotland up to, through and beyond the horrors of the 14-18 War. There’s such a strong socialist feel to much of the books and this is hardly surprising for Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was a committed Marxist. But for all the politics and social commentary in the books, Chris is simply a wonderful heroine. I read her first as a young man, not long after I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I loved. For me Chris Guthrie was, and remains in my head, the Scottish Tess! Although she’s not as lost or as vulnerable as Tess she still made me feel that all I’d want to do would be to wrap her up and protect her! Generally the first book, Sunset Song, has long been regarded as a classic of Scottish literature but for me Cloud Howe was the best of the three – and together they are wonderous!

Rapture by Carol Ann DuffyRapture by Carol Ann Duffy

In the same way that I couldn’t even begin to contemplate listing 10 books that represent my country without Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, equally I couldn’t envisage it without Carol Ann Duffy. Although she spent much of her life in England she was born in Glasgow so I’m happy to claim her as one of our own! Rapture isn’t about any part of Scotland, but it is about love – especially the twists and turns of it and the highs and lows of it. We do that as well as anybody else – and from the days of Robert Burns we’ve been bloody good as a nation at writing about love. Rapture is a collection that seems to capture love at every turn and in every facet – it goes from the longing to the downright creepy in places! As she writes “Falling in love is glamorous hell!”. It certainly is – maybe that’s what we love about it more than anything else!

A Choosing by Liz LochheadA Choosing by Liz Lochhead

For all that Carol Ann Duffy is the best loved and the best known of Scottish poets, she’s not for me as naturally and wholly Scottish as Liz Lochhead is. Perhaps that difference between them isn’t so surprising when you think that Duffy is the poet laureate for the UK whereas Lochhead is the Makar, Scotland’s National poet. I first came across Liz Lochheads work as a student more than 30 years ago when I read two of her poems “An Inventory” and “The Choosing” – I loved them back then and I love them still – and I’ve loved everything she’s done in between. And besides, anybody with a double “h” in their name is properly cool in my book! There is always something intimate and up close in Liz Lochhhead’s poetry – she seems to me to get under the skin of people and their thoughts, motivations, hopes, frustrations. She’s a sharp and wry observer of the world, but in particular she sees people, especially women, with such insight. She often takes up a cause in her work, be it the rights of working class girls in Glasgow to the rights of the Scottish dialect itself. But she never gets sucked into soap-boxing – everything she writes always seem to me to have such an easy, chatty, conversational, feel to it. And perhaps ultimately that’s why I chose her – we Scots have a love of chat and conversation!

Burns 9Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect – The Kilmarnock Edition by Robert Burns

Having been round some of our geography, and some of our history and even perhaps parts of our psyche in the books which I’ve chosen to represent my country so far, it’s right and appropriate that I end in Ayrshire with Robert.

Burns is so ingrained in Scotland’s past and present, and no doubt future, that he is everywhere. His poetry is the soul of much of our subsequent literary heritage. He captures the essence of the “lad o’ pairts” – the working class boy made good. He represents the origin of the Scottish working class for me – I romantically think that Robert symbolises Scotland punching above its weight in the modern world for here is the ploughman’s son who conquers the world!! But underneath all that, Roberts work is wonderful and the “Kilmarnock edition” encapsulates his genius. When it was first published in 1786 it sold out in a month! A first edition back then would have set you back about 15 pence. Today first editions of the Kilmarnock Edition will set you back £40,000! Above all though Robert just gets us, he gets the Scots and he captures us wonderfully. My Dad’s name is Willie Stewart. Burns wrote a song for one of his best mates – who was called Willie Stewart. In one verse he wrote “And may she whose arms shall enfold thy charms, posses a loyal and true hairt,for to her be given, tae ken the heaven, she holds in Willie Stewart!!” My mother might not agree but I think my Dad would! And that’s what is special about Robert – he writes a love song to a male friend and it’s beautiful and effusive and charming! And so I think anybody and everybody in Scotland can find their own little bit of Robert that means something to them – he’s in all of us so of course he represents my country and he does it wonderfully!

book week scotland

Wha’s Like Us? Gie Few….and They’re A’ Deid! …..Celebrate How Wonderful Scottish Literature Is While You Can!!!

whas like us……………As a nation we Scots don’t just think we are great – we KNOW we’re great! Even when all the evidence says we’re not, like with our football, deep down we tell ourselves we are but somehow the fates have conspired to thwart our greatness coming to the fore!!! And if you’re going to think like that you need someone to blame and take it out on – which is pretty much where the English come in! ( But keep that to yourself as I don’t want my English born family to know that’s their role in life!)

But occasionally we can justifiably blow our own trumpet a bit. Occasionally there’s a ring of truth to ‘Wha’s like us? Gie few….and they’re a’ deid!’ ( It roughly translates as Who’s as good as us? Very few – and those that are as good as us are dead anyway!’ – Moral – We’re the best living thing we Scots)

As part of the Book Week Scotland celebrations, the Scottish Book Trust is inviting readers to vote for their favourite Scottish book book week scotlandof the last 50 years. The short list they’ve complied reads as a veritable great and the good of modern Scottish literature – Iain Banks (with and without an M!!!!), Ian Rankin, Bernard MacLaverty, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Alasdair Gray, Robin Jenkins, AL Kennedy, Muriel Spark, Alexander McCall Smith……and the list goes on and on. I could list them all but you might think I’m boasting about just how bloody fantastic Scottish writing is -and you’d be right because I am blowing our trumpet and it is fantastic!

Now those of you who are on the geeky side might have spotted one or two of those names and are thinking ‘ Hang on! William Boyd’s not Scottish and Kate Atkinson’s not Scottish!’  Well if you were thinking that, you completely underestimate us and you are unable to appreciate the power of Scotland and all things Scottish! You see there are three ways that genius is inspired by Scotland. The first and best is of course to have been born one of us. But if you’re not lucky enough to have been blessed by the stars fear not – for you can be inspired just by being near us Scots!!! So the criteria they used for the short list was that if you weren’t fortunate enough to be born one of us, as long as you had either written the novel in Scotland or currently live in Scotland then Scotland would welcome you as a writer of our own!

The short listed books are all available at the Scottish Book Trust site. If you have 2 minutes, follow the link and simply tick the checkbox beside your favourite title or titles (and you can vote for more than one). I hope you will – but be quick as voting ends on 22 November! The short list will get whittled down from there to a top ten and then a winner to be announced during Book Week Scotland, between 25th November and 1st December

Now I’m a believer in freedom of choice, democracy, the sanctity of the ballet box. So if you go to the site and have a favourite, go ahead and choose it. That’s fine by me. BUT, just in case you’ve no idea I’ll give you a wee clue!!! Among the nominees are two I’d most like to see win – the genius that is Ian Rankin and the much-missed, magnificent Iain Banks. Equally there’s one I wouldn’t like to see win – Irvine Welsh – just a bit too much of a professional Scotsman for me!!!!

So – if possible, my request is – DON’T Choose Irvine’s ‘Life, Job, Career or His Big Fucking Television!’

Choose Banks or Choose Rankin instead!

The Bridge by the Great Man - nominated for the Scottish Book Trust Best Book of Last 50 Years
The Bridge by the Great Man – nominated for the Scottish Book Trust Best Book of Last 50 Years

What I Thought Of……….Under The Skin By Michael Faber

 

………..From the start I guess I should offer a kind of health warning for this review. I’m writing this the morning after reading Jonathan Jones review of the new Damien Hirst exhibition in London. If you’ve not read that review – well, I’d encourage you to have a look – but if you can’t be bothered, suffice to say it is one of those “kicking where it hurts” reviews! For example, said Mr Jones likens the talent shown by said Mr Hirst to be on a par with that of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif-al-Islam’s attempts at painting!!!! And that’s one of the kinder comments! Later on he makes comparisons between Hirst and Nero and Hirst and Hitler!

So, bearing in my mind I’ve got the fresh scent of that Jones review in my nostrils, my thoughts on Under The Skin by Michael Faber should be read in that context!

Firstly, I really did not like this book. In fact I doubt I’ve disliked a book more than this since I finally left the turgid narratives of ‘Janet and John’ behind in Infant School! I thought it was an awful book! It’s grimy, bizarre and twisted –  and that’s the good bits!

It starts with the main character, Isserley, as a sort of ‘avenging angel of death to hitchhikers’, scouring the Scottish Highlands for men to pick up, with a particular preference for those who are muscular, well-sculpted specimens. She only picks up men, she spends most of her time travelling up and down on the A9 ( and so as you read you feel you are schlepping up and down the A9 as well!!!) and when she picks them up she fires a sort of metal prod up their arse (honestly! I’m not making this up! Michael Faber did!) from the depths of the passenger seat which leaves them instantly comatose. After that she delivers them to a sort of experimental-body-farm-cum-human-meat-processing-plant! In the first chapters of the book you get the sense that it’s going to be a standard psychological thriller with a standard psycho killer – but from the outset you get clues that there’s something much weirder than that going on. Much of the novel is then spent looking at Isserley’s search for male meat samples, while it unravels the mystery of what the hell is going on. As you read on the novel quickly turns from psychological thriller to something much more unusual – a world that’s fictional in every sense of the word. I won’t say much more about the plot itself, for though I disliked it intensely, I wouldn’t want to spoil the “fun” for anyone else who reads it!

The book left me very cold. After only a few chapters I didn’t have any feeling towards any of the characters other than disinterest! Even though they all range from mildly psychotic to off-the-richter-scale nutters, I couldn’t even feel any disgust or distaste in them or their actions. There seemed to me to be some themes in the novel around organised cruelty, the attitude of the human race, the influence of the big powerbrokers over the way societies develop and the way it’s inhabitants lead their lives, but to me that was all buried under an avalanche dull violence and more significantly violent dullness!!!

On the plus side, it’s certainly a work of towering imagination, for which Michael Faber has received many plaudits. And having said how much I disliked it, I would admit that I think it’s pretty well written. It seems to have been crafted with some skill and care although for me even this was a bit overdone in places.

“She was driving towards the midpoint of Kessock Bridge, gripping the steering wheel in anticipation of the fierce side-winds trying to sweep her little red car into space. She was acutely conscious of the weight of the cast-iron under-carriage beneath her – the purchase of the tyres on the bitumen – paradoxical reminders of solidity. The car might have been protesting how heavy and immovable it was, in its fear of being moved”

I think this is typical of a book that’s just trying too hard to be literary and too hard to be shocking. I remember years ago reading the press reviews of Ian Banks “The Wasp Factory”. The opinion on that book was split between work of genius and work of a sick mind. Personally, I thought it was great – and this feels like it’s trying to go down similar territory, but for me, Under The Skin seems a much, much, much, poorer relation of The Wasp Factory!

And in essence I thought that this was the crux of the problem I had with it. It wasn’t the griminess, or the shocking nature of the bizarre, twisted plot or the violence in it that put me off  - I’ve read other books in a similar vein and really enjoyed them. It was the fact that the book had nothing other than these in it! The first half meanders, it’s slow, repetitive and as a result even the “shock” stuff is muted by the fact that it’s shockingly dull! The second half is more convoluted and complex, but in all honesty, by then, I didn’t care any more. So my eventual dislike of the book was because it just didn’t go anywhere, I thought it was utterly pointless, and I wish I could get back the hours of my life I wasted reading it (and wasted reading about the bloody A9!)

Of course, according to the publisher, the reviews are great, and the book references very glowing tributes from the Observer, The Sunday Times, the New York Times etc, etc, etc. And before I had read Jonathon Jones piece on Damien Hirst, this might have been enough to dampen my own opinion coming through as forcefully – I mean, can I really say this is rubbish, if Kate Atkinson no less, is quoted as saying it’s “…a wonderful book. Painful, lyrical, frightening, brilliant….”!

Well, now I think I can!

I draw solace, comfort and confidence that I should say what I think from the same Jones article on Hirst. He writes: “The exquisitely produced catalogue has an essay by a senior curator at the Prado in Madrid, who draws comparisons with Caravaggio and Velázquez. Yikes. It would be impressive stuff if we did not have the paltry reality of Hirst’s paintings before our eyes. At White Cube, I pass from picture to picture, trying not to crack up laughing or actually swear out loud. …………At their very best these paintings lack the skill of thousands of amateur artists who paint at weekends all over Britain – and yet he can hire fools to compare him with Caravaggio”

Nuff’ said!

£50

Simon Cowell, the “filthy” rich and fifty pound notes……………………………..

A while ago, while visiting a zoo or a theme park or somewhere, my daughter bought a packet of paper tissues with £50 notes printed on them (like most kids our best efforts to educate and introduce her to culture, heritage and nature founder on the inevitable truth – what she’s really interested in is going to the shop!)

This morning she decided to take them to school and share with her friends in the playground! All well and good. But she then broke the sleepy ease and soothing silence of our school run with the following statement “Some rich people use real £50 notes to blow their nose you know!”. She then went on to regale me with the details of how they will use a handkerchief if they have one but if they haven’t they just go into their wallet (it’s always men who display this decadence never women – I think she believes that even fabulously wealthy women have some sense!) and then they take out a £50 note and wipe their nose with it! To this tall tale she then added slander by stating that she knew Simon Cowell did it. When I asked her where she heard this and how she knew this was true she told me “It was on the internet!”

This got me thinking about three things

1. I’m thinking of writing a novel and currently gathering ideas (I’ve shared the basic plot with my daughter – her constructive and practical criticism was “Sounds boring!”). I’m inclined to use this information about the filthy rich and their nose blowing techniques for one of the characters! In addition I think I’ll litter the text with odd and a-typical uses of £50 notes!

2. If Simon Cowell and the filthy rich do this in real life (I’m sure they don’t, although the evidence that “It was on the Internet so it must be true” is powerful stuff!!!) then I’d dislike it intensely - I’m too plain to like anything ostentatious or bizarre in real people! But in books – that’s a different matter! It struck me that instead of being put off by outrageous behaviour such as this in book characters I tend to rather like them for it. I loved Cameron Colley in Iain Banks’ “Complicity” sitting behind the wheel of his car driving with no hands at 100 miles an hour while rolling a joint on his knee – I admired the sheer chutzpah of Don Emmanuel washing the fluff from his genitals in the stream in Louis De Bernieres “The War Of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” – has there ever been a more charming and likeable asocial serial murderer  than Sebastian Faulks’ “Mike Engleby” – and on the nose side of things my favourite book character ever,  Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, was in part at least, a glorious evocation of all things snot!

I wondered if I only like the outrageous side of life on the page rather than real life – but that can’t be true because I really didn’t like Bernie Salazar in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad” (mind you I didn’t like anybody or anything about that book!) and in real life I love Eric Cantona!

3. I worry like hell for my daughter and her generation and those to follow – we seem to be making a right bloody mess of the world we live in and which they’ll inherit – but my worry increases a little further when I realise that at the moment she thinks if it’s on the Internet it must be true! If that was the case then Nicholas Cage really might be a vampire, Steve Jobs may well have been a ninja warrior and the Seven Dwarves really were a metaphor for the different stages of cocaine addiction! (This garbage and much more is out there – why aren’t there warm and comforting rumours on the internet like “God sends a message to Earth that Scotland will qualify for and win the next World Cup”!). But, more than anything, if what is on the Internet really is all true then it would also mean the most ludicrous thing of all was true and that I’ll never accept, so I’ll end my post by stating it clearly – Katie Price is NOT a proper author and as far as I am concerned never could be and never will be!!!

Now excuse me while I go blow my nose – where have I left my wallet……………………………………!