Last Train To Glasgow Central, Ye Better Catch This Wan, N’ Ye Better Huv A Ticket Cos Here’s The Man!

……….I thought I’d start this post with the words of a classic Billy Connolly song, as I plan to write a little about Glasgow, my home and the best city in the world! I always have this song in my mind any time I go home – only in Glasgow can you have a song with a chorus which includes the lines “Beedie Beedie Bare Bum, Yohoo, Who He!”

The prompt for recalling this song, for thinking about home, and for writing about Glaswegian literature, was a news story about the new Ken Loach film, “The Angels Share”. The film is set in Glasgow and is about 4 men, sentenced to community service, who hatch a plan to steal priceless malt whisky (the title refers to the fact that about 2% of whisky evaporates each year during the ageing process). The Daily Telegraph reported that when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival it came with sub-titles – but NOT for translating the English into French which you would expect! Instead it had subtitles to translate the Glaswegian dialect into English! I watched the trailer, which doesn’t have subtitles, and it seemed fine to me – but I guess that’s easy for me to say! If you want to try out following the Glaswegian for yourself, here’s ‘The Angels Game’ trailer, in all its sub-title less glory, on the Guardian website. What do you think?

It got me thinking about Scottish literature which makes frequent use of local dialect and of literature set in and around Glasgow in particular. I can understand why people can find the Scottish accent hard to decipher at times and equally I can understand that it’s not easy to read either. And it’s been that way for centuries. A look at any Burns Poetry Anthology will show either a glossary or notes on each page translating the relevant parts of old Scots tongue to English. But while this sort of sub-titling is feasible in poetry or in fiction where there’s intermittent use of the local dialect, in novels where there’s a lot of use of dialect, sub-titling isn’t a feasible option. It would be the equivalent of reading a novel in a foreign language you don’t speak and relying on a translation dictionary every step of the way!

There have been some magnificent Scottish / Glaswegian novels that I’ve read over the years and some have certainly not been impeded in reaching a world-wide readership by their use of dialect. It also been a subject which has provoked some debate on occasions. While some people think dialect adds authenticity to a novel, others argue that’s it’s merely a gimmick, used to either bring it notoriety or to excuse liberal use of swear words. I guess the challenge in reading an unfamiliar dialect is that it is either something that becomes a barrier or something that makes you enjoy the book more, because it adds to the experience of reading the novel. And of course it’s not just those outside of Scotland who take issue with novels written in strong dialect. Even in Glasgow itself, you’ll find people who dislike the portrayal of Glasgow dialect in films and books as being bad for the city’s image. They can read it easily enough, but they’d rather that they, and the rest of the world, didn’t have to! But to me, that “not good for Glasgow” stance doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the people who read these books or watch these films.

Perhaps the most well-known and widely read book in a Scottish dialect is Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”. However it’s mainly set in Leith and around Edinburgh. So instead, I’ll focus on my own favourite novel, set in Glasgow, James Kelman’s “How Late It Was, How Late”. I thought it was a brilliant novel and I for one was delighted when it won the Booker Prize in the mid 1990’s. At the time I remember quite a debate in the media about whether or not a book of its kind, written in working-class Glaswegian dialect as it was, should be honoured with the Booker. (This is the book which apparently has the word “fuck” written over 4000 times throughout the narrative!). The book tells the story of Sammy, a drunk, ex-con, who awakes one morning in a shop doorway after a drinking binge which has left him with no recollection of the previous days and wearing another man’s shoes. Following a fight, he ends up back in jail and on coming to, discovers that as well as the usual cuts and bruises from the scrap he’s also gone blind. The story follows him through his shambolic, drunken attempts to get through his life, and his subsequent brushes with both the police and the bureaucracy of local government. Throughout the novel, it’s the internal dialogue which Sammy has with himself, that was the strength of the book for me – for it reveals that while Sammy may be a Glasgow drunk, he is also a man with hopes and fears and frustrations just like anyone else. The monologues are literally and metaphorically dark. Some describe Sammy trying to come to terms with his loss of sight and others his reactions to the who, why and what of everything going on around him. And it does that right from the beginning when Sammy awakes after his drinking binge.

” Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps you from doing it, why can ye no do it;the words filling yer head; then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man; ye’re just no a good man”

It’s both tragic and magnificent in the same breath. What elevates this novel above any accusation of gimmicking in its use of Glasgow dialect, or it’s controversial use of four thousand “fucks”, is the humanity of it – James Kelman looked at a man like Sammy and tried to explain him from the inside out. It’s this depiction of Sammy as a human being that makes the book worthwhile. Too often in literature the “Sammy’s” of this world are background – this novel brought them into the spotlight.

There have been many novels in Glasgow and Scottish dialect since, and while I’ve enjoyed many, I’ve not yet read one that comes close to matching “How Late It Was, How Late!” If you’ve not read the book, I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a try and don’t be put off by those “Glasgow-looking” words on the page – the secret is when in doubt, read it out – aloud! Nine times out of ten, you’ll get it! And there won’t be a Scottish to English sub-title in sight!

What I Thought Of ……….The Last Werewolf By Glen Duncan……….#TheReadersSummerBookClub

………They say that the world loves an underdog and in a sense, in a world seemingly obsessed with vampires, this could in some ways be a book for the ultimate underdog – though in this case it’s a huge, fearsome and ravenous-every-full-moon underdog!! At the moment, compared to the see-them-in-every-bookstore vampires, the werewolf is the much less glamorous and much less popularised part of the modern fiction roll-call of horror creatures. So this is certainly as good a time as any to focus on the werewolf as underdog, except that the underdog in this case is Jake Marlowe, the last survivor of the werewolf species and a man who has to devour one of us every full moon. Not quite the underdog after all!

Jake has been a werewolf for over 200 years,having survived a werewolf attack on him while in Snowdonia. But these days, there are no survivors of werewolf attacks, because even if anyone is lucky enough to be merely injured rather than devoured, a fatal virus acquired by the werewolves is also passed on to humans. With no “new” werewolves, and with the assassination of the only other living werewolf,  Jake becomes the last werewolf in existence.  The main threat to Jake comes from the sinister WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and in particular it’s two head-hunters, Grainger and his protege, Ellis.  However, there is also an additional threat from the vampire families, who have discovered that a virus within the werewolves is beneficial to them in resisting sunlight! So while one force wants him dead, another needs him alive. And so the hunt begins.

But the book is much more than just a tale of a desperate struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pursuit. There is a great balance of action and introspection from Jake throughout the book and this lifts this novel way beyond some thrill-a-minute, cheap, gory story of death and destruction.

Glen Duncan has taken a really clever mix of some archetypal ideas about werewolves and vampires, layered in an almost thriller-style plot of twists and turns and then blended it all together with a wonderful main character in Jake.  Jake is funny, smart, well-read and yet cunning and complex. There’s a wonderful matter-of-fact feeling to much of what Jake says and thinks and this tone is maintained throughout whether it’s Jake telling of his horrific origins, or of his friendship with Harley, or his mix of love and lust sessions with the high-class whore Madeline, or telling of his gruesome killings every month at full moon. Right from the outset, Glen Duncan adopts this world-weary tone for Jake (and it makes sense – he’s been alive for 200 odd years – who wouldn’t be world-weary after that lot!). It’s a master-stoke because for me it was instrumental in making the book so much more than a blood-and-guts fest. The book begins with Jake being told by his man on the inside of WOCOP, Harley, about the demise of the Berliner, the only other werewolf besides Jake.

“I thought of the Berliner, whose name (God being dead, irony still rollickingly alive) was Wolfgang, pictured his last moments: the frost reeling under him, his moonlit muzzle and seating pelt, the split-second in which his eyes merged disbelief and fear and horror and sadness and relief – then the white and final light of silver.

‘What are you going to do?’ Harley repeated.

All wolf and no gang. Humour darkens. I looked out of the window. The snow was coming down with the implacability of an Old Testament plague. In Earls Court Road pedestrians tottered and slid and in the cold swirling angelic freshness felt their childhoods still there and the shock like a snapped stem of not being children any more. Two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist. I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.” 

In spite of the fact that he eats hedge-fund managers and other people, you can’t help but like Jake! (Actually on the eating bankers thing, it might be a help rather than a hindrance to liking him!!!!). He tells the retrospective parts of his werewolf existence and of some of his kills with an intriguing blend of gory detail, self-awareness, emotion and dry humour! It’s yet another master-stoke! It also allows the character to maintain a beautiful balance between doing just enough to keep going and yet being aware of much of the ills in his life and perhaps the feeling that though his end may be near, it might be what he actually wants. He’s also of course cast as the narrator and generally this works well. The only slight issue I had with this part of the character was the fact that Jake is supposedly writing what we read in a journal and it then gets referred to periodically through the novel. This felt a bit forced and unnecessary to me. (It felt a bit  – “and in between doing the last twenty-six things and waiting for the next full moon – I wrote up my journal!”) Personally I’d have been happy to accept it throughout the book after reading that it was Jake’s journal at the start and without it being referred to at the end. However I can see from how the book ends that Glen Duncan might have had reasons to keep reminding us about the journal aspect but I’ll say no more as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Much of the story revolves around the hunt for Jake and this allows the author to mix the traditional and the modern and it’s perhaps where the most imaginative parts of the book lie. The transformation from man to wolf is the literary equivalent of watching the cinematic transformation in “An American Werewolf In London” which I watched almost thirty years ago! The book keeps much of the archetypal folklore around werewolves. The hair, the wolf’s sly cunning, the deadliness of silver, the hunts in green forests and the equally sly and powerful werewolf head-hunters Grainger and Ellis have all those Hammer Horror characteristics of coldness, fearlessness and the supreme confidence of those who know the cards are stacked in their favour. Equally the plot moves the chase around and mixes up hunter and hunted. The best way to describe the action plot sections is to say it’s a bit like watching a hairier man-eating version of Jason Bourne! And yet for me, it absolutely worked! So much so that when the plot deviated from the hunter and hunted in the last third, albeit for good reason, I felt the pace dropped a little and it meandered a bit. The deviation is central to the book and it works brilliantly – I just found it a little too slow in getting back to the chase/hunt part of the plot – but when it did, it picked up with all the humour laden force of the previous parts of the book. I got a similar feel of it being a little overdone with the descriptions of Jake’s sexual urges and conquests in both his man and wolf personas – they were needed, and they are well-written but occasionally either some passages over-did the description or it felt like there was too much thought and deed sex – but maybe that’s what you do when you know your end is nigh!

Within the gore and action and sex, there’s something strangely gentle at the core of the book – about what gives us the instinct to go on, to fight for survival and in particular the impact that other people have on our will to live. On finishing the book, and putting it down, I definitely had a thought of “Mmmmmm…..”. In fact I know I actually said “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm” out loud on reading the last page.

Now there are two kinds of Mmmmm for me – one has a question mark at the end and the other an exclamation mark. And in the case of The Last Werewolf, it was definitely a puzzled Mmmmmm? I’ve thought about that since. I think it was partly the fact that reading this took me way outside my comfort zone – I hadn’t expected to like this at all but it was so clever and well-written, I’d actually liked it from the off. Another part of it was the ending – for me it didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. So if, in spite of the ending, I liked it, why Mmmmmmm?

The question that’s been in my head since I finished it has been  – although I liked it, did I really enjoy it? (Which isn’t the same necessarily as did I like it?!) And I’ve come to the conclusion, almost in spite of myself, that I enjoyed this book immensely.  It feels kind of strange to say that a book about a man-hunt for the last surviving werewolf, who stops off to slaughter and eat innocent victims every few weeks, had me rooting for the werewolf and was great fun to read! But it was! It was a terrific book and a very good start to the list chosen for “The Readers Summer Book Club”. If the others are as good as this, then it’ll be a few weeks of reading joy ahead! Can’t wait.

And though of course there is no such thing as werewolves, I may carry this review with me on late night walks with the dog in the nearby woods – just in case Jake’s kind are out there it’ll prove that in this human v wolf struggle for survival, I was very much on the side of the werewolves!

Something In His Genes, Told Him To Pretend, ‘Twas Something For The Weekend……….

……….You probably recognise these lyrics from The Divine Comedy’s “Something For The Weekend!”. I love the song, it’s lovely mix of a decent melody, slightly eccentric vocals and equally slightly eccentric lyrics. Anyway, it gives me an excuse to write a post about things for this weekend. This is nothing more than a list of things that I’m either doing or thinking about doing or just things that amuse me. Here goes!

Something To Listen To……….

Poetry Please With Roger McGough on BBC iPlayer

My love of Roger McGough is a hangover from my days as a teacher – I loved reading his poetry to my class and I think the kids in my class loved them back – well some of them did! This edition of  Poetry Please includes a reading of Seamus Heaney’s The Play Way. He was a teacher like me. His career went from Belfast to Harvard apparently. Mine went from Glasgow to Basildon! Not as exotic but every bit as enjoyable I reckon!

Something To Watch……….

England v West Indies Second Test

Even with the football season ending – sort of – there’s still a wonderful weekend of sport ahead including the Football League Play-Offs, the Monaco Grand Prix and the PGA Golf at Wentworth. However the sun is out, the sky is blue and there’s a Test Match – all is well with my world when these three joys are in alignment in the heavens. Do you know, I once saw Andy Roberts, the West Indian fast bowling machine of the 70’s, in a service station on the M1! Oh joy, oh joy, oh joy!

Something To Learn Off By Heart……….

Sixteen by Brian Patten (Verse 3)

I got into learning at least snippets of poetry or other words through my English teacher Ma Biscuit. She encouraged it and I learned many but gave up in my twenties – it seemed unnecessary and irrelevant to learn things off by heart. However as I got nearer to 50 i was keen to find ways to keep my brain as active as possible – and so I have slipped back to learning some things off by heart – after al there’s only so much Sudoku a man can take! This is from Brian patten’s poem “Sixteen” from the Jubilee Lines anthology I’m reading at the moment. It’s the poem for 1962 – just after I’d been born in December 1961. I like to think that it reflects that poetry was in the air when I was a baby in 1962 and I absorbed it through my lungs and my skin! Fanciful rubbish I know but it keeps me happy!

Something To Eat…………………

Weightwatchers Sausages!

We are on a diet chez nous and so we buy lots of stuff with the “Weighwatchers” label / logo. Some of it is pretty grim – they do a kind of chocolate biscuit thing which reminds me of the sorts of things I used to bake and then send home with the kids when I was teaching a Reception Class! (It involved sponge fingers, icing and Smarties! – 8 million calories, a million more e-additives and tasted like an old shoe!). However a pleasant surprise is Weightwatchers sausages – they’re all right!

Something To Read…………………

1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami

I started Murakami’s 1Q84 Book Three yesterday and already, a couple of chapters in, I’m wallowing in the world of Aomame and Tengo! It”s a brilliant book. If you’ve not read it, you should try it. You really should!

Something To Ignore……….

I read this pun somewhere – and it made me smile! I’d guess I’ll be the only one amused by it though!

“Be A Lumberjack And Saw The World!”

And Something To Puzzle Over……….

……….The newspaper’s are always full of puzzles, and challenges and quizzy type things at the weekend – so if this is going to be a self-respecting, grown-up, book blog, I guess it has to do the same. So I’ll leave with this……….

Which book begins with an authors dedication to ‘The Duke Of Bejar, Trusting in the favourable reception and honour your Excellency accords to all books, as a Prince so well disposed towards the liberal arts, more especially those which, out of nobility, are not abased to the service and profit of the vulgar…?’

The Social Difficulties Of Glaswegians Reading Poetry In Anything Other Than Splendid Isolation……….

……….I was listening to Today on Radio 4 yesterday, and there was a story about the Royal Academy’s Diamond Jubilee which took place last night. At the end of the piece James Naughtie was interviewing Dame Judi Dench and she was talking about Shakespeare and how her feelings towards acting in Shakespeare’s plays had changed over the years. She described a shift from getting goosebumps in delivering the lines to increasingly becoming emotional and even tearful as she got older. She ended by saying that she tries to read a Sonnet every day! It made me think of a few lines of Wordsworth:

“Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours;with this key

Shake-speare unlocked his heart”

If I had a hundredth of the talent and voice for Shakespeare that Judi Dench has,I guess I might read a Sonnet everyday myself – but whether with a gloriously intoned and hushed Shakespearean accent like Dame Judi Dench, or with the sharp, harsh, glottal-stopping Glaswegian accent I carry around with me, I’d still have one quandary in my head which I’ve had for many years – how should you read a play script or more commonly for me anyway, poetry. How would Shakespeare have wanted me, a Glaswegian, to read his heart unlocked?!

You see I love poetry, but when I read it I need to enunciate the words and hear their sound and flow – so I have to read it out loud. I’m one of those people who struggles to get into a poem unless I read it out loud. At the moment I’m reading the Carol Ann Duffy edited anthology “Jubilee Lines” (it’s very good, by the way!) and I usually dip into one of the Nicholas Albery, Stephanie Weinrich edited anthologies “Poem For The Day” several times each week. And I always read them out loud.

Or rather I do eventually read them out loud! First I scan them, then I read them to myself in my head and usually there’s very little change in my voice tone or stress. And when I’ve thought about that, THEN I read them out loud. The “voice” I use becomes deeper than normal and I like to linger over some words and phrases or leap suddenly on a different word. It all comes out like I’m a really bad ham-actor (If I ever act, I will assuredly be that really bad ham-actor!)  – the voice is a kind of Billy Connelly-Mark McManus aka Taggart-Rab C Nesbitt-all-together-reading-the-news type of thing!!!!

It must sound awful – it does sound awful – and hence the social dilemma. I need to read poetry out loud to get it – but with the hybrid-voice of the Glaswegian Holy Trinity I just mentioned – it just isn’t possible to do that in public – at least not without a paper bag over my head!

So my poetry can only be enjoyed in isolation – and that kind of complete isolation is not that easy to find. At the moment I’m guiltily snatching time to read poetry in the early hours after dawn when only the dog and the birds are awake – and even then the dog looks at me a bit funny and the birds seem to chatter ever-louder as if trying to drown me out!

I wonder how other people read poetry. Is everyone like me? Is there a knack or technique to mastering reading it in your head which I might learn? Can I learn some clever trick to ditch the dulcid tones of Billy-Taggart-Rab and sound like Judi Dench instead? I’d love to know whether or not others read poetry, and if you do, how do you read it?

And to close, here’s one I made earlier – it’s yesterday’s ‘Poem For The Day’ (I’m not keen on today’s!!!!) – I’ll leave you to read it in whatever way and in whatever voice you like! Me, I’ve already stretched my Billy-Taggart-Rab tonsils all over it and despite the racket – I enjoyed it!

This is from ‘Poem For The Day Two’, edited by Retta Bowen, Nick Temple, Stephanie Weinrich and Nicholas Albery, published by Chatto and Windus. This is by Michael Donaghy and is the poem for yesterday, May 24th, 2012.

The Present

For the present there is just one moon

though every level pond gives back another.

But the bright disc shining in the black lagoon,

perceived by astrophysicist and lover,

is milliseconds old. And even that light’s 

seven minutes older than its source.

And the stars we think we see on moonless nights

are long extinguished. And, of course,

this very moment, as you read this line,

is literally gone before you know it.

Forget the here-and-now. We have no time

but this device of wantonness and wit.

Make me this present then: your hand in mine,

And we’ll live out our lives in it.

Michael Donaghy

Anger, fear, aggression… the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny………

………..Well no sooner have I succumbed to the Dark Side, than Waterstones, my favourite High Street shop (in fact the ONLY High Street shop I like!) has followed suit and gone over to the Dark Side too!

About 10 days ago, I wrote here in a post-cum-confession that I’d finally succumbed to the Dark Side and was now in possession of a Kindle. As I said in that post, even though my reasoning was maximising my reading time, and therefore my reading pleasure, I still felt very uncomfortable in taking ownership of a Kindle. And even though I had rational reasons about using time and the ease of taking books on holiday, deep down it felt like a bit of a dirty, grubby little act on my part – somehow I felt I’d betrayed books and everything bookish!

Then a couple of days ago the news filtered through of the commercial deal between Waterstones and Amazon – and suddently it seemed that Yoda’s words above had taken on the most prophetic of rings!

I was initially very surprised at the news, and now, having had a couple of days to consider it, I have to say I remain pretty concerned. I really do like Waterstones and I desperately want it to survive alongside the independent bookshops I love. I’m often struck by the impersonal feel of the bookshelves in my local Tesco – it leaves me cold and I studiously avoid buying there or at any other supermarket. There is for me a fundamental difference between buying a book as a function and buying a book as an experience – you can get the former in Tesco but you sure as hell don’t get the latter! Old-fashioned I might be, but I loathe the idea of reducing the joy of buying books to an experience on a par with buying milk!!

One of the things I like most about Waterstones is the variation between stores and the ways in which they reflect different situations – I guess that’s partly about the people who shop in a particular branch and the people who work in it. But it means that I go to certain stores because I’m more at ease in one than another. I’d hate Waterstones to lose this policy of individuality for different stores when it gets into a commercial bed with a behemoth like Amazon. I’ve read many of the articles in the past few days, noting the seeming about-face by James Daunt at Waterstones from his initial view of Amazon as “a ruthless money-making devil” to now talking of the partnership as “truly exciting”. To be honest I think it’s one of those things where we’ll have to wait and see what happens – I hope that Daunt will be right and that it’ll strengthen Waterstones.

On the news of their deal becoming public, one of the Waterstones stores ran a very funny and clever on-line Twitter poll to choose their new enemy from a list of five candidates – Tesco, Sainsbury, WH Smith, B and Q and Dreams (every poll needs a spoof candidate – although only the Liberal Democrats tend to be outvoted by them!). The winner, was Tesco and I tend to think the voting public are right. And yet, perhaps, the real enemy for Waterstones is the one they’ve just invited in – a bit like in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea – will the Kindle be a benevolent friendly tiger or ravenous beast?!! Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm – jury’s out I guess!

And as for Yoda’s prophecy about the implications for my destiny having let the Dark Side in, well following on from my own capitulation and that of Waterstones to the all-consuming attraction of the Kindle, yesterday when I was walking the dog and reading Beryl Bainbridge via the Dark Side at the same time, further evidence emerged that now Mother Nature can’t resist reading the Kindle either!

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!

I Wonder If My Favourite Albums And My Favourite Books Would Talk To Each Other If They Met At A Party?……….

……….I got this odd, fanciful notion years ago when I read something similar in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. In the book they had a discussion about the idea of vetting potential girlfriends through a questionnaire focused mainly on their record collections – it was a very funny dig in the ribs for musical snobbery which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve indulged in myself in the past.  I mean there’s no way that a man who loves Ryan Adams and The Cardinals could go on a date, never mind spend their life, with a woman who enjoys listening to Gloria Gaynor screeching about survival!!! (This is as you might imagine a far from random example – my love for all things Ryan Adams can only speak its name when she who loves Gloria Gaynor is not at home!)

Anyway I’ve often wondered if my record collections and book collections are well matched – or if they signify some deep-rooted, sub-conscious, split personality on my part! One of the ways I’ve reassured myself on their compatibility over the years has been the frequent references to music I’ve got on my shelves, in either books I’ve read, or in comments by authors I like. I’ll give you an example. I know from listening to Radio 6 and from his Twitter feed that Ian Rankin likes Teenage Fanclub. So in my mind I then perform the following psychological equation:-

I Think Ian Rankin Is Great + Ian Rankin Thinks Teenage Fanclub Are Great + I Think Teenage Fanclub Are Great = My Book and Record Collections Must Be Compatible!

Obviously, authors use musical tastes and preferences as part of the development of characters in their books and from these I make connections like the one above! In addition there are books, like High Fidelity, or Salman Rushdie’s “the ground beneath her feet” with popular / indie music as the setting or context for their novels. Since I loved both of those books and they focus on much of the kind of music I like, it is of course further evidence of the compatibility of my music and book collections! (Of course when evidence occurs to the contrary – such as some of the country music that DI Thorne likes in the Mark Billingham crime novels – well……I ignore that!)

However as I was listening to the radio this morning I heard Lloyd Cole and The Commotions singing “Rattlesnakes”, with it’s name-check for Simone de Beauvoir in the lyrics, and it suddenly struck me that while I can think of several references to music in my books, the number of references to books in my music are few and far between. So I tried to compile a list and this is what I came up with!

First up is that Lloyd Cole song ‘Rattlesnakes’, which has the wonderful lines “She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront, She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance!” Secondly, The Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” makes a reference to Lolita with the line “just like in that old book by Nabokov!

Next up is a Green Day track called “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” (Personally my sharp intellectual guess is that Billie Joe Armstrong already knows the literal answer to this question!). Most influentially of all for me, the genius that is Ryan Adams wrote a song called “Sylvia Plath”. I love it ( in fact I may have written this post just so I can encourage anybody who reads this to listen to the song!). It goes:-

I wish I had a Sylvia Plath
Busted tooth and a smile
And cigarette ashes in her drink
The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week
The kind that goes out on her
To give me a reason, for well, I dunno

And maybe she’d take me to France
Or maybe to Spain and she’d ask me to dance
In a mansion on the top of a hill
She’d ash on the carpets
And slip me a pill
Then she’d get pretty loaded on gin
And maybe she’d give me a bath
How I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

Beyond those it starts to get a bit tenuous I think. I know the Beatles made a reference to Edgar Allan Poe in I Am The Walrus and I know that while the lyrics to Aqualung’s “Strange and Beautiful” don’t specifically mention Shakespeare, the song is based on the story of A Midsummer Nights Dream –  at least I’ve always thought it was! Even more tenuously, I’ve got a Sheryl Crow album in which one of the songs makes a reference to Aldous Huxley, but as I have never read anything by Huxley and as I hardly ever play the album this isn’t one that’s big with me!)

And, for a final two suggestions, both linked to classics, I’ll first offer Kate Bush going all “out on the wild, windy moors” with Wuthering Heights and lastly the lyrics to Don’t Tell Me To Do The Maths by Los Campesinos refers to Jane Eyre – but not perhaps in the way I’d like. They wail out ” We know that we could sell your magazines, if only you would give your life to literature just

So as I’ve reached the point where I’m struggling so much to list references to literature in my record collection that I am reduced to quoting a song slating one of my favourite books I think it’s time to give in!

Though of course, if you can think of any other songs which make references to great books or authors, let me know! (And let me know if you like Ryan Adams! – I might use the weight of popular opinion to try to re-introduce him at home! Then again, on second thoughts…………………………..)

What I Thought Of……….My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young

There is so much that’s promising and good about this book and yet overall, by the time I reached the end, I found myself slightly disappointed in it and in a way frustrated by it. It should have been great – and it was nearly great – but the ending………..oh no, no, no, no, no!

The story follows the lives of two young people, Riley Purefoy, a working-class boy with talent, intelligence and what I would be call “a glint in his eye”, and his initial friendship and eventual love for Nadine Waveney, whose middle-class family initially befriend Riley and then nurture him and his abilities. It’s set in the years leading into the First World War, through the trauma and tragedy of the destruction of that generation between 1914-1918 and then on through the aftermath of war. Riley is one of the first to join up and sets off in 1914, like so many others expecting to be ‘home by Christmas’. Riley somehow lives through years of the hell that is the trenches until he is injured in 1917 at which point he fills in the pro-forma letter provided by the army for his loved one.

In that lie about the seriousness of his injuries and in the absence of any words describing what those injuries are (and I’m not giving anything away here that you won’t get in the book’s blurb) the novel turns from the physical and emotional struggle for survival at the Front to Riley’s struggle for survival and recovery from his horrific wounds, and to the aftermath of that lie for Riley, Nadine and those who most care about them.

The book has of course been a hugely popular best seller and has gathered many plaudits in reviews, including short-listing for the Costa Prize in 2011 and there is so much about it that is really, really, good. From the start I liked Riley. He’s talented but flawed, in many ways the emerging “new” Edwardian man.  But the times are not without their impact and the stiff class snobbery and prejudice towards working-class people takes its toll on Riley both before and during the war. The stiff attitudes and class barriers impinge on Riley’s confidence, chip away at the love between Riley and Nadine, and of course influence his own emotional response to his injuries and to his future. Nadine on the other hand is a beautiful counterpoint to Riley in many ways and it’s absolutely right that she falls in love with him. For all the wealth and privilege in her background Nadine is much less aware and much less encumbered by the norms and expectations of Edwardian Society than Riley is. When she rolls up her sleeve and takes a post nursing injured soldiers it’s not what you’d expect from her class, but it is exactly what you’d expect from Nadine.

The parts of the book about the chaos and savagery of trench warfare are superb. The relationships between the men at the Front give the reader a real sense of the different ways individuals coped, or in some cases did not cope, with the living hell into which they’d been led. What comes through in the book is the sense that these men know that the battles and attacks are utterly pointless, and that they have been devised by men like Haig displaying a breathtaking ignorance and lack of any humanity. There’s also that sense of an undercurrent for both men and officers, and while the lid stays on that rippling of change during the war, everybody knows that things will change drastically for those who survive to the end of the war.

There’s real emotion and love too, in the relationships between Riley and Captain Locke, between Riley and Burgess (his kind of working-class other self – the Riley he might otherwise have been) and between Riley and Jack Ainsworth (who is perhaps the key influence on Riley). The different relationships between the main characters at the Front, and again when Riley is recovering, are conducted almost at two levels. On one level there are the usual characteristics of relationships between men, filled with humour, drinking, lust, rivalry, jealousies, slights real and imagined.  At another level however, there is such a deep bond between all of these men and it is the most secure and yet the most fragile of bonds at the same time – they are so dependent on each other and yet the nearness of death at every moment means that the instant that dependency is broken, they have to move on. For me, this portrayal of life at the Front was the real strength of this book.

However I also loved the emerging love story between Riley and Nadine, and though I found it a little difficult to follow some of the technical stuff, the passages about Riley’s recovery and recuperation in the military hospital are clearly meticulously researched and brilliantly written. Throughout the book is well-paced and tight. There are passages with description of setting or of a battle or of a medical procedure – you never get the sense that they are there for any other reason than they are necessary and they never feel out of place.

Overall I really did enjoy this book, but for me, as I said at the beginning, it didn’t quite reach the heights of a great book. I won’t give any detail about how the book ends but I didn’t think it worked. Like every other part of the book it’s well-written, but as I went through the last few chapters I found myself detaching slightly from the characters. It was almost as if what had seemed to me so human and believable and so alive in Riley, Nadine and the other main characters, began to slip back into the pages of the book. Sadly they became just that – names in a book –  and there were words written about them on the pages in front of me, but it didn’t seem quite as powerful, nor quite as real, as it had done in the rest of the novel. Somehow I lost touch with the Riley and Nadine and their story, and I’m sorry about that.

The blurb on the back includes a review quote from Tatler magazine which describes My Dear I Wanted To Tell You as Birdsong for the new millenium”. Well, for me, Birdsong it isn’t. But falling short of the heights reached by Sebastian Faulks’ wonderful book is no disgrace and while it might not be the new Birdsong, it’s still well worth a read!

’Twas in that season, when a simple Bard……….

……….Unknown and poor – simplicity’s reward / Ae night, within the ancient burgh of Ayr / By whim inspir’d, or haply prest wi’ care, / He left his bed, and took his wayward route, / And down by Simpson’s wheeled the left about:

These are lines from Robert Burns poem “The Brigs Of Ayr” and I start with them for three reasons – I want to write about Robert (and I admit I think of him with that kind of close, almost filial familiarity, that I feel I can call him by his first name only!), secondly I want to write a little about Ayr (Auld Ayr whom ne’er a toon surpasses / for honest men and bonnie lasses) and thirdly no thoughts about Burns would ever be complete with referring to a pub (the ‘Simpsons’ referred to in the poem was a pub by the Auld Brig in Ayr!)

The prompt for writing this post actually came from a recent post I read on Book Snob’s blog in which she shared her unfettered joy at having secured a place to do teacher training and fulfil her ambition of becoming a teacher. It got me thinking about my own teacher training, in the early 1980’s and what drove me to choose to leave home and train at Craigie College  in Ayr. My reasons weren’t as laudable as Rachel’s! One reason was predictable – a friend told me Ayr had lots and lots of great pubs! One reason was shameful – the college where I trained had the highest proportion of female students to male students in Scottish further education and I liked girls!

And one reason was fanciful – Ayr was the birthplace and home of Robert Burns, the Bard as we Scots think of him. And I loved Robert, his poetry and everything about him (at that age even Robert’s love of drinking and women suited me to a tee!). So I chose it because I had dreamy notions of walking on the cobbled streets where Robert had been, seeing spires and hills and rivers he’d seen and of course sitting with friends in many, many, taverns where he’d once sat with his cronies! So I lived in Ayr’s pubs, tried to chat up Ayr’s female population and when I ran out of money for the former and was struggling for success with the latter, I retreated to wonderful Alloway, to Burns Cottage where he grew up, and to the surrounding area! Wonderful times!

I got into the poetry of Burns at school, having been first nudged, then pushed, then dragged kicking and screaming towards it by my then English teacher Mrs McFarlane (known affectionately as Ma Biscuit!). I soon fell in love with Robert’s poetry, the stories of his life and of course all the folklore surrounding him. He really did have that rock-star-rebel-lived-hard-died-young sheen to him that was so attractive to me at that age. I eventually borrowed a copy of his poetry from the school library and then promptly “left it on the bus” ahem, ahem! (I didn’t have much money and so ‘acquired’ several books I loved this way! I still have books today with “Greenock Academy” stamped inside them!). And from there I was hooked!

Burns’s poetry has been reviewed and discussed by academics, writers, journalists and politicians over the years and so I won’t be naive enough to attempt to review it here for that’s far too well trodden a path. Instead I’ll simply set out why I like it and what it means to me.

Burns is the ultimate in ‘working-class man’ made good in so many ways. He had that ability to take the peasant culture of songs and tales and turn it into the most beautiful and articulate literature. It was an ability that screamed out genius, and he’s certainly lauded as this now, and was in the later years of his life. But there’s that contrast between the charismatic, witty and clever Burns we celebrate, and his flaws as a man – to say he had a complex love life is putting it mildly! His love poetry is probably the thing for which he is best known but there’s so much more to him. Some of it is the celebration of man’s love for his fellow man, and some of it is in the unambiguous way he wears his political heart very much on his sleeve – and I so admire that. And of course, underpinning all of this, Burns to me epitomises Scotland and the Scottish culture, warts and all, and I think he’s the foundation of much of Scottish writing and song even today. We are, I believe, a nation who collectively and individually have punched above their weight (if you want proof there’s a great little parochial, patriotic book called “How The Scots Invented The Modern World”!) and nobody “punches above their weight” more than Robert does – the son of a ploughman who rose to become the greatest Scottish writer of all time, a worldwide literary phenomenon that has lasted to this day, and someone who is to me and countless others the equal of Shakespeare in many ways.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to get hold of several biographies and studies of Robert’s life and work and I’m looking forward to reading and then writing about them. But I think two stories captures the magical charisma of Robert perfectly.

He wrote a song about one of his drinking friends, Willie Stewart, and as I’ve written before that’s my Dad’s name so it has an extra resonance for me! The lyrics were then adapted by Eddi Reader and Molly Rankin and in one wonderful verse in particular the song is provocative, very funny, and very Robert. It describes the all-wonderful Willie Stewart:

“A flower, it grows, it fades, it falls / And nature cannot renew it / But worth and truth, eternal youth / We’ll gie to Willie Stewart / And may she whose arms / will enfold thy charms / posses a loyal and true heart / To her be given, tae ken’ the heaven / She holds in Willie Stewart!”

The second story is, to me, the most romantic of tales.

A young woman in Edinburgh, Agnes McLehose, fell head over heels in love with Robert when she saw him perform in Edinburgh. Burns was equally in love with Agnes and they conducted a passionate love affair through letters and snatched meetings (to disguise their identities he was known as Sylvander and she was known as Clarinda). But Agnes had married young and though essentially abandoned by her husband (who’d gone off to make his fortune in the slave trade) the conventions of the time meant that they could not be together and she remained living with and dependent upon her middle class family. But she never fell out of love with the ploughman’s son. At the time Agnes was in her late twenties and Robert was in his mid-thirties. They split up – in no small part due to Robert’s other sexual conquests – and they last saw each other on December 6th 1792.  Not long after they last saw one another, Robert died aged only 36, in Dumfries. Agnes lived on for many years in Edinburgh, till well into her eighties. After she died, her family found the diary she’d kept for around sixty years. And in it, every single year on December 6th, she wrote “Today was the last time I saw Robert!”

And that’s the essence of what Robert means to me – romantic notion that it is, he’s just so unique and special that whatever mistakes he made in his life, you can’t help but love him, his work and everything about him!

If you’re interested you can learn more about Robert Burns at a great BBC site, which includes a number of archived readings of his poetry, there’s a National Trust site about his birthplace which is of course a fabulous museum, and there’s a kind of cornucopia of everything Burns at the Robert Burns Country site.

And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up……….


……..These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is A Man’ by Primo Levi.

In the ‘Thought For The Day’ slot on the Today Programme on Radio 4 last week I heard someone describe their thoughts and feelings on visiting Auschwitz  concentration camp. A few days later I began to read the magnificent novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, which I reviewed here. The shadow of the concentration camps and the man-made hell on earth to which millions of Jews, and others, were subjected hangs over the novel, a kind of evil that felt like it sat by my shoulder throughout my read of that book – I just couldn’t shake the feeling even though I was immersed in the novel.

That feeling while reading ‘HHhH’, and the words from that “Thought For The Day”, have echoed in my head, and I’m reminded of how I’m drawn to fiction and non-fiction about the Second World War and about the Holocaust in particular. But of course, as well as acknowledging that it holds some moth-to-the-flame appeal to me as a topic for reading, I’ve also been thinking about why.

At the age of 18 I was fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz. This was in 1979, when Poland was still Communist and behind the Iron Curtain. Somehow a group of teachers and youth club leaders I knew persuaded the then Local Authority of Strathclyde Regional Council to lend us tents and a mini-bus to travel around behind the Iron Curtain. God knows what they were thinking of (!) but somehow they agreed to it. After months of preparation and interminable paperwork to secure visas, we spent about 6 weeks touring around East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The trip was hugely influential for me in so many ways, but none more so than the day we visited Auschwitz near the Polish town of Oswiecim. I recall the entry through those gates, the words above me, watching a documentary of the Holocaust in a small cinema, listening to the commentary in French because there was no English version in those days and quickly realising the language of the commentary was irrelevant as these were images which needed no words, the flowers and candles freshly placed in remembrance against the Execution Wall and the huts converted to long glass cabinets and filled floor to ceiling with hair, and spectacles, and suitcases, and shoes. I can’t describe how it felt now anymore than I could then.

But what affected me more, and what has stayed with me more, was the camp at Birkenau. Auschwitz then had been converted into a monument and museum by the Polish Government whereas Birkenau had been left to lapse into ruin and decay and was all the more chilling and awful as a result. The grass was knee-high, the huts broken down, rotting, with little glass left where the windows had once been and the bunks on which so many had tried to sleep and survive were piled high and haphazard. Somehow this desolate, windswept, and barren place made much more of an impression on me and it has never left me.

When I returned from that trip, I tracked down a copy of Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”, the story of his year in Auschwitz and “The Truce” the equally moving story of his nine month struggle to survive after liberation and get back through a war-ravaged Europe to his home in Turin. Reading that book was the beginning of so many books I’ve subsequently read over the years about the Holocaust, those who perpetrated it, those who turned a blind eye to it, those who suffered it and those who survived it. It’s only as I take stock of what I’ve read over the years do I realise how much I’ve read on that subject.

As a teacher I was amazed at the clever, subtle way the Holocaust was handled for children in the books When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and the magnificent I Am David by Ann Holm, both of which I read to pupils over the years. As a young man  I read the incredibly powerful book Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally, and watched in awe as it was transferred magnificently to the cinema years later as Schindler’s List.

In recent years I was impressed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, and I went on to watch the film of this with my daughter and it made me realise that it had brought much-needed awareness of the Holocaust to a whole new generation of children and young people, in the same way that I Am David had done in previous years.

I read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer and immediately followed it with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I preferred. My first introduction to the writing of Bernhard Schlink was The Reader. I thought it was such a good book and one that made a very powerful impression on me. I’ve now got the film of The Reader on my Sky + but it’s been there sometime and I’m avoiding watching it. I have a feeling I’m going to be disappointed in the film, despite the fact that I’ve read good reviews of it in several places.

But good as all these books, and several others, have been, none of them have had that profound effect on me that the first reading of Primo Levi did. There was a simplicity about the survival instinct he wrote about and a perfect balance between observation and emotion in his books. Above all they are books of such dignity and gentleness in the midst of a world which was the very opposite. He describes in his afterword to If This Is A Man that his time in Auschwitz was in some respects his “university”  But his latyer reflections on that time are the most powerful and moving. He ends  the afterword thus

“And, finally, I was helped by my determination., which I stubbornly preserved, to recognise always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck”