Book Review: Whaleback City, Ed. Andy Jackson & Bill Herbert

Whaleback

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 21 Nov. 2014

‘Ask most Scots to name a Dundonian poet and it’s a pound to a peh they’ll say McGonagall.’ So say poets W. N. Herbert and Andy Jackson in their introduction to Whaleback City, and if this anthology of poetry stemming from Dundee and its hinterland does one thing it will be to convince such folk that there is far more to this city’s poetic output than McGonagall’s ‘magnificent mangling’. Though Dundee is, admittedly, ‘in the second rank of Scottish cities, leaving Edinburgh and Glasgow to fight for primacy in political, economic, and, usually, cultural terms’, it quite clearly ‘punches well above its weight in literary terms.’ In a 1994 episode of The South Bank Show exploring the new generation of UK poets, five of the twenty poets featured were ‘based within thirty miles of Dundee’. Such an impressive statistic is unsurprising when the poetry on offer here is considered.

Whaleback City is split into five pleasingly alliterative categories: The Tay, The Town, The Times, The Types and The Temper. The first section revolves around the famous river, from the ‘epic outlines’ of Douglas Dunn’s exquisitely rendered ‘Tay Bridge’ to Kathleen Jamie’s beautifully unsettling ‘The Tay Moses’, a weird and biblical take on an expectant mother’s fear that she might not bond with her unborn child. Lorraine McCann’s ‘A View of the Tay’ is a darkly atmospheric depiction of the river, made all the more troubling by the startling line: ‘This is where we dumped the body’.

The second section includes the rousing, heroic bombast of Arthur Johnston’s ‘Taodunum’, translated from the Latin by Robert Crawford: ‘The marble palaces of Genoa, / The pyramids of Memphis, count for nothing / Compared to you.’ Kate Armstrong’s ‘Blackness Road’ depicts the coal-stained faces of Dundee buildings, blending the industrial with the natural: ‘Great gaps in the buildings now / let light wash in like the stirring sea / into Fingal’s Cave.’ Colette Bryce’s ‘Self-Portrait in the Dark (With Cigarette)’ is a fresh and modern poem, full of the acid wit of a bitter ex and laced with dark humour: ‘… Morrissey / is jammed in the tape deck now and for eternity’.

Robert Crawford’s ‘Mary Shelley on Broughty Ferry Beach’ is an imaginative and playful take on the beaching of the Tay whale, alluding to a certain ‘sad girl’ who ‘walks from the beach’, stepping over the ‘monster littering the promenade’, perhaps inspiring Frankenstein itself. In Douglas Dunn’s ‘Broughty Ferry’, the poet’s humanity is inherent in his perception of a ‘winey down-and-out […] Defiant in his cap of weathered tweed’, his poet’s self-awareness (‘My comfortable, mind-aggrandised visions’) undercut by the true beauty of the scene: ‘… roselight’s neutral flawlessness, / Dismissing what I think of what I see’.

Anne Stevenson’s gorgeous and celestial ‘Night Wind, Dundee’ evokes a nocturnal vision of the city: ‘Someone’s ripped cobwebs from a great vault’s rafters, / Revealing a moonface, a starfield, / Barbarian Orion crucified in God’s heaven.’ David Fyans’ ‘Haiku for the Law’ sees style and form combine as this simplistic and lovely haiku swells across the page in the shape of a hill. W. N. Herbert’s ‘Port Selda’ is packed with images that are at once familiarly couthy and pleasurably surprising: ‘his helmet gleams like a pie-dish on the drainer […] A policeman like a column of oatmeal’. Jim Stewart’s ‘Night Gulls, Dundee’ locates the eerie in the ordinary, a ghostly poem despite the speaker’s opening statement: ‘… I know there are no ghosts’. It is full of a poetic deference to nature (‘The night is theirs not mine’) and yet the speaker imposes his own unease onto the birds, making phantoms of them. In in the end, however, it is the speaker who becomes spectral: ‘… I / haunt their streets, untimely, revenant.’ J. B. Salmond’s delightful ‘Mount Pleasant’ is sweet as a nursery rhyme, revelling in wordplay involving Dundee’s unusual street names.

The third section includes Pippa Little’s spine-tingling ‘Slant’, which resurrects Dundee’s dead, hidden amongst the streets or in black and white photographs: ‘look slant, you’ll see us, / and through all the layers between the light / we’ll see you.’ Judith Taylor’s funny but affecting ‘The Life Cycle of the Barracuda’ describes a naff Dundee nightclub, ‘like a nightmare based on a Wham song […] And God, the desperation […] By the nineties it was property / like everything else in the Nineties.’ Now there is ‘nothing but dust and buddleia’ where the nightclub once thrived. Mary Brooksbank’s ‘Strike Sang’ is rousing and, sadly, still pertinent today, whilst Hugh McMillan’s moving and haunting ‘Dundee Jute Mill, Turn of the Century’ bewails Dundee boys lost to war as well as industry lost to shifting times: ‘He will not live to see the skeleton of his mill / or hear the women, weeping still.’

Section four sees Joseph Lee’s excellently titled ‘Grizzel Jaffray’ conjure a fascinating account of a Dundee woman burned for being a witch, as well as C. B. Donald’s ‘Death of a Comic Artist’, a darkly comedic take on one of those three ‘J’s’. John Glenday’s ‘Etching of a Line of Trees’ is one of the most musical and bewitching poems Whaleback City contains: ‘Some shadow’s hands moved with my hands / and everything I touched was turned to darkness / and everything I could not touch was light.’ Dorothy Lawrenson’s ‘Peggy’ dissects the status and plight of Dundee women who worked ‘among the din and the dust’ of the mills, ‘their coarse beauty / strong as spun jute’, whilst A. D. Foote’s ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ tells the tale of a fantasist mill worker, the kind of pub-lurking blowhard everybody seems to know.

John Burnside’s ‘Children Sledding in the Dark, Magdalen Green’ is laced with challenging but beauteous imagery: ‘the sky is glass, the distance is a train, / angels are sealed in the gaps / of walls …’ Andrew Murray Scott’s ‘Reaney’ is steeped in affection, a poem about a Dylan Thomas-style pub-dwelling literature lover, the air around him thick with booze fumes and fag smoke, full of fabulous imagery: ‘And when Reaney talked / The redsea waters of our ears / Divided and were strange / In a backroom bar in the Hawkhill.’ The mingled grief and hope of Douglas Dunn’s elegiac ‘Leaving Dundee’ is set alongside the startling brevity of Joseph Lee’s ‘Bullet’: ‘Perhaps I killed a mother / When I killed a mother’s son.’ The poignancy of Brenda Shaw’s ‘Auction’, about a deceased amateur painter’s legacy, is matched by Andy Jackson’s powerful but tender ‘Sour Jewel’, a poem about Dundee-born singer Billy MacKenzie, who killed himself aged thirty-nine: ‘his steep falsetto rise let off the leash, / foreshortened by the accidental melting / of the precious piece of vinyl, out of reach, / a limited edition, perhaps the only pressing.’

The final section contains Michael Marra’s jazzy and inventive ‘Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar’, a song which quite perfectly does what it says on the tin. Sean O’ Brien’s ‘At the Wellgate’ includes wonderfully rich evocations of homeless men: ‘The boreal flaneurs donate their stains / And thick cirrhotic sherries to the bench / Outside the precinct where they’re not allowed …’ Don Paterson’s ‘11.00: Baldovan’ is a deceptively simple tale about two wee boys taking the bus to the Hilltown (‘I plan to buy comics, / sweeties, and magic tricks’) with a sting in its tail so potent it will stay with you for days. The anthology ends with Sean O’ Brien’s ‘Dundee Heatwave’, its last line ripe with hope: ‘At the foot of the page, the beginning’; a fitting ending given Dundee’s continuing flow of first rate poets.

A great deal of the poems in Whaleback City have a set rhythm and rhyming scheme, with simple, monosyllabic rhymes deployed in the classic a/b/a/b pattern. Whilst such poems are often technically masterful, such a repetitive and predictable framework may well render many of them old fashioned, even, at times, plodding for some readers, particularly those of a younger generation. However, as Herbert and Jackson rightly state in their introduction, the poems here are intended to represent the works that have emerged from Dundee throughout the centuries, and therefore omitting the more traditional poems would do the city’s writers and history a disservice. Quite often, traditional forms are used to great and stylish effect, such as Herbert’s ‘Ode to the New Old Tay Bridge’, a deft but affectionate pastiche of McGonagall’s clunky and embarrassing verse: ‘but it disnae tak a Storm Fiend tae plant some gelignite, / like it disnae tak a genius tae pen a load o shite.’ But it is the younger, fresher, non-rhyming poems about modern life that elevate Dundee – and Whaleback City – above the pithy, tourist-friendly, but ultimately reductive label of ‘journalism, jam and jute’.

There are therefore pits and peaks in the quality of the anthology, which is understandable given Whaleback City‘s bold ambition to represent the poetry of Dundee from the past six centuries. As Herbert and Jackson state from the start: ‘The editors have […] selected that aspect of the work of excellent writers which focusses on Dundee; and the most successful work by those writers who may, in the compendious scheme of Scottish literature, be regarded as representatives for the city.’ Because the anthology encompasses work from such a vast time period, it would perhaps be useful to have dates unobtrusively listed next to each poem, as it is sometimes difficult to contextualise individual works.

The anthology is lovingly dedicated to Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra, who died in 2012, and it is washed through with the warmth of Marra’s songs. Some are perhaps better heard than read, but others, like the elegant and emotional ‘The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke’, are as good to read as hear: ‘They say he fell for an Indian maiden / Who was more lovely than mere words could tell / Hey lay in her arms and they bathed in the moonlight / He sang softly of the Bailieborough Belle …’ Marra’s work is described by the editors as ‘a perfect ambassador for the Dundonian character’, and if Whaleback City introduces a younger generation to his songs then so much the better. Whaleback City will tug at the heartstrings of those who were born or live in Dundee as much as it will inspire those who’ve never visited to jump on a train and cross the Silv’ry Tay into a city still blazing with poetic promise.

Book Review: Play With Me, by Michael Pedersen

playwithmepederson

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14

Michael Pedersen’s aptly titled Play With Me is full of the writerly joy of playing with words, a delight in their sound and appearance as much as their meaning. Pedersen is drawn time and again to alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, rhymes and half‐rhymes, as if he is making patterns as much as poems; but his particular skill lies in combining this richly textured word‐play with his powers of storytelling.

‘Colmar’ begins as a straightforward narrative about a school French exchange. It is a self‐effacing poem which mocks the speaker’s past pretentiousness and the faux‐pas of his thirteen‐year‐old self. There are some lovely, whimsical similes here—’linked / together like salted pretzels’—and the long lines and enjambment give the poem a flowing, narrative feel. It’s a comical piece, but at its end the poem makes a serious point about first love and poetry alike:

[…] a poem is like a bomb,
a bomb like a poem; assembled correctly, both
explode, they don’t arrive, become
instantly important—as she did and could again.

‘RIP Porty High School’ concerns the demolition of a school, filled with sci‐fi film imagery—’Armageddon’, ‘space-age’, ‘portals’—undercut with old wifies speaking Scots lingo (‘It’s the parliament / aw over again’) which brings the poem back down to earth. Borderline‐absurd alumni of the school are listed (Gail Porter, Kenny Anderson, James Carlin), and this sense of absurdity is continued with references to ‘Mr Big Banana’, ‘Bojangles’ and ‘Thai brides’. The poem ends with a fantasy of the poet carrying stacks of Collected Poems bearing his name on their spines; he is teasing himself as much as he is teasing others.

‘Midnight Cowboys’ has a mythological feel as a father and son set off to shoot a star down from the sky with a bullet, but instead witness a real shooting star. It’s a fantastical but sad story with a moral at its end, just like a fairy‐tale. The stars become ‘brilliant bulbs’ which ‘dangle like decorations’ or else are plucked from the sky ‘like a thistle from the cairns’. They then move from being bulbs and thistles to fruit, a strangely successful mingling of metaphors: ‘for such beauties are screwed in / tight, falling only when ripe.’

‘Laddie at Heart’ relates the story of the poet’s five‐year‐old self telling a lie about a man trying to abduct him. The police become involved, which earns the boy the attention he craved: ‘tuckshop booty and lip kisses’. This is shown to be a merely silly thing to do aged five, but ‘It’s what I do / at 25 that gets my mother going’, he says, ending the poem with a sting in its tail.

‘Greenhouse Ganglands’ evokes the natural world as sensual and vaguely predatory: ‘Buttercups solicit ladybirds, pansies woo bees, / sparrows raid the strawberries.’ The speaker’s mum peacefully gardens amongst the looming Edinburgh landscape as the place crawls with life. He describes the memory of this as ‘my teenage years’ elixir’, gentle thoughts sustaining him like a magic potion in darker years when personal traumas occurred and ‘beetles / crunched underfoot like celery’.

‘Quitting Cheese’ looks back at a doomed relationship, describing a day spent with an ex‐girlfriend in Nottingham, with all the pubs, parks and picnics that entails:

we
feasted on each other, spinning
the conversational equivalent
of a roly‐poly.

The pair revisits Nottingham but things just aren’t the same; the weather is harsher—’winds / scraped against our bones’—and he has a feeling of ‘a cheese cube too many, / bellyache, that fateful feeling / of having peaked too early.’ ‘Shapes of Every Size’ explores how we can be damaged by a past relationship such as this, whilst attempting to begin a new one:

This is the way to walk
when in love with your new shoes,
still blistered
by the old pair.

‘Feathers and Cream’ likens a story from the past to ‘a secret / conglomerate of crumbs / smooshed into a carpet’. The speaker relates memories of the death of his friend’s father, the strange rumour about his corpse being taken to the dump, ‘tipped from skip to local dump, / where metallic, apocalyptic jaws / minced through his brittle bones.’ The mundane truth is bad enough without this obscene rumour, which his friend is badly damaged by. The poem trips back to a time before the tragedy, when he and his friend were ‘fourteen forever— / paused in fairytale parlours’, a fleeting, sadly sweet image.

‘Owen’, about a lost friendship, is full of startling similes. Owen’s hair is all ‘long black locks / like dirty cat tails’ and his lungs are ‘power stations’. ‘C.J. Easton’ mingles the mundane and exotic—’As pylons streak the sky / a ferocious sun sets over Glasgow, / bleeding, looking almost African’—and paints a lover’s body as ‘that puny frame, its bag of bones / in winsome skin, will coruscate / and carousel’, a gorgeously weird description.

‘Manchester John’, about a friend who becomes brain‐damaged after an overdose, describes drug‐use in a perversely positive and surreal fashion: ‘medical diction fails to touch / on the warm tingling bliss of horse / trotting up the arm’. But now his friend is ‘Zimmer-framed, / shuffling as if you walked / on constant snow’, and the speaker is no more than an ‘ambulance hitchhiker’, filled with guilt and shame at being complicit in his friend’s problem.

‘The Raven by My Writing Desk’, with its shades of Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe, is another self‐flagellating poem. The ravens’ ‘black tongues ooze like poisonous slugs— / medusa among the animals’, and the poet paints himself as equally monstrous:

next time
I wield a conversational pickaxe
with mistimed velocity
or head off on a squint orbit,
bear in mind, I probably ruined my night too.

The ravens haunt him like bad memories, stalking him as weird harbingers of death, and his role as a writer becomes inherent in this.

‘Tom Buchan (1931-1995)’ celebrates the famous Scots poet, whose eloquence is beautifully evoked by Pederson: ‘so / like the comets flew he spoke’. He describes Buchan as ‘a turtle-necked warrior’, painting a funny and affectionate picture of the man, and there is also a sense of affinity here between the old and younger poet: ‘It’s possible we were, at some point, synched / in time and place’. ‘Edinburgh Festival’ evokes the weather and geography of the city with panache, with its rain that ‘skelps make‐up from faces’. The faintly depressing aftermath of the festival is knowingly described: ‘Come September, posters / in gutters turn to pulpy gruel’. No matter how well or badly things go for performers, it will all turn to mush in the end.

The dazzling, stand‐out ‘Cowgate Syvers’ describes Edinburgh stairwells as:

erudite elders: folded skins
and muckle beards they’re twizzling
constantly, each a bard of handsome ken,
a hoarder of cadged chronicles.

It’s a romantic image, but funny too, and wonderfully original:

As for the rats,
gremlins and even more sinister
goings‐on they host … well, we can’t
all choose who comes to visit,
or at what hour they call.

This mixture of horror and humour, the light and the dark, infuses the collection, though ‘Heredity’, written in Scots dialect, is a bleaker affair exploring inherited violence: ‘Like his faither afore him, / ma faither kicked fuck oot ma maither, / ma maither battered us bairns’. The speaker is capable of violence too, except now it’s (apparently) just the pets that get it: ‘clobbering / only the cat.’

‘Jobseeker’ will strike anyone who has ever gone through the degradation of claiming benefits: ‘Like a marsupial conceals / a cub, I cradle a book / of Armitage’s poems’. It is sad that he has to hide this important side of himself, sad that he’s there in the first place. This poem is explicitly about the poet himself (‘come right this way, Mr Pedersen’), though all the poems in Play With Me share this feeling of intimacy and immediacy. ‘When I Fell in the Bog’ recounts the speaker almost drowning as a child, and the strange feeling that came over him when he did: ‘Funny thing— / when it seemed I was going under, / my body relaxed’, a ‘surprisingly Zen’ feeling at odds with the presumably normal response of dire panic.

‘In Marrakesh’ is one of a group of poems set in Cambodia and establishes the difference between tourists and locals, with ‘us piggy visitors’ set alongside the ‘ragged fingers’ of locals. ‘Newscast’ describes red roads that ‘clump, bubble and cook in the heat’ in a country where ‘Bees are bigger, beer is cheaper’. ‘Justice Locale’ recounts the tale of a boy killed by a 4×4 and the driver who is forcibly removed from his vehicle by local folk:

A seventy-strong siege
of swipes and stamps
leave him writhing
a crushed worm.

‘Arching Eyebrows and a Chalked Door’ describes, with hissing resonance, ‘cracked lips, thin as slits on wrists’, and ‘a gravy‐blooded, Xed, hexed body filled with AIDS.’ ‘Hello. I am Cambodia’ personifies the country, contrasting the picturesque ‘pina colada and sugared cherries’ with its bleak past:

I’ve forgotten
the old regime […]
My monuments await
restoration, half my population
is children.

‘Boom Town’ recounts the finding of an unexploded bomb, the differing reactions of tourists and locals: ‘At the whites full of worry, Khmers giggle’. The speaker’s reaction is one of fear: ‘something stirs inside my gut, / disturbs the sticky rice and stomach worms’. ‘From the Right Bank’ mingles humour with romantic imagery as the speaker:

limps
to the bank’s edge and spurts
triumphantly
out into the current
like a rogue pup, as the moon, giddy,
gawks from above.

‘Network: Cambodia’ likens the sun to a gang, a surprising and original image: ‘Sunrise springs from behind dustbins, / pours through alleys, pounds down streets / like a terrible gang’, the alliterative patterns of ‘my belly / bubbles full of fish’ adding to this rhythmic, playful but slightly sinister feel.

‘X Marks the Spot’ scrumptiously evokes the optimism of new love: ‘Life was a sack / of strawberries, the future, jams / and spice’; but then the speaker spies on his new love, looking through her phone and assuming infidelity where there is none, exposing how mistrust can spoil a good thing. ‘Expired Treasure / Broken Bulbs’ describes the wrecks of old vandalised buildings, with ‘mangled prams, / hijacked trolleys, / 80s electronics’ abandoned in a Burn. Pub landlord becomes ‘head honcho with first dibs / on the local munters’ whilst the ‘town beauty’ dreams of escaping abroad. The quotation marks round ‘abroad’ show the girl’s naivety and lack of concrete plans; it’s unlikely that she’ll ever escape.

‘Paris in Spring’ describes the speaker’s body as being wrecked by booze: ‘After three days of heavy saucing, / I am in tatters, bowels barking’. He reads of Paris in Spring from within a damp bus, and the contrast between his reading material and material surroundings could not be more marked. ‘Dead Skin and Stray Fingernails’ recounts the new inhabitants of the house where someone special used to live before ‘tragedy’ struck. He and this special person ‘forgot to finish / our most important conversation’ which sounds as if it will never be concluded. ‘Water Features’ describes a lover being left behind, with the speaker comparing himself and his lost love to water: ‘one of us running, / the other stilled’, ending the collection on a muted note. Playtime is over.

This is joyful, sensual, frequently heart‐wrenching poetry filled with a richness of language that is brought to life by Pedersen’s startling imagery and storytelling skills. Whether he’s in the gutters of Edinburgh or on the red roads of Marrakesh, his infectious delight in description and pattern‐making makes it a unique pleasure to play with Pedersen.

 
Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Play With Me by Michael Pedersen is published by Polygon, 2013.

Book Review: Ghost Moon, by Ron Butlin

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This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14

Pity the poor heroine of Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. Maggie Davies is subjected to more abuse, rejection and humiliation than most mortals can stomach. Cast out of her parents’ home in 1950s Edinburgh for being pregnant and unmarried, we follow her as she veers from place to place, suffering torment after torment in a world that seems firmly set against her from the start. Men are cruel to her, women even crueller, and her pious, judgmental family shows her nothing but disdain. Even in the present day, as Maggie’s adult son Tom visits her in a care home, she is in the cruel grips of dementia, figures and events from her past merging with those of her present as the tangled threads of her life combine to torment her.

Narratives with such grim subject matter can often veer into voyeurism or mere titillation, descending finally into a sort of fictional misery memoir; but in the hands of a writer as skilled as Butlin something rather different happens.

For a start, the gender issues highlighted by Maggie’s status as a victim of misogyny provoke the reader’s righteous rage. The infuriating imbalance between the roles of men and women is expressed strikingly through Maggie’s thoughts:

Yes, far out at sea—that was where she really was. No land in sight and her only cargo her unborn child. Men, it seemed, always had some sort of harbour to make her. That was the nature of their world—a map of place names like Normandy, Amiens, Berlin. For men it was enough to identify aims and objectives, and then draw co‐ordinates—that done, and with bayonets fixed, they marched, marched, marched into the future, whatever the cost.

When Maggie goes against the ‘proper’ way of things and becomes an unmarried mother, the narrow and prescriptive labels stamped onto women at this time are revealed succinctly by Butlin in a few telling lines: ‘Girls became women became wives became mothers—that was the proper way of it, the only way. If a girl couldn’t wait, then she had to marry whoever made her pregnant. Call it divine intervention, call it Russian roulette.’

Worse still is the way in which women are penalised by a religion that operates on a system of breath-taking hypocrisy. The God worshipped by Maggie’s parents insists on neat hair but not on a mother supporting her daughter during a crisis. When a young Maggie sees her mother meticulously combing her hair, despite the fact that she is about to cover it up with a hat, she comments: ‘But no one sees through your hat, Mum’. God does, little one, replies her mother—and so do other women.

A particularly chilling scene involves Maggie’s parents pretending their daughter is simply not in their living room when she is, in fact, standing right in front of them. As she pleads with them to help her, they play the football on the radio louder and louder until they drown her out. When Maggie, defeated, goes upstairs to her bedroom she finds that it has been gutted.

Thank God, then, for the kindness of Maggie’s down-to-earth sister-in-law Jean, a baker who allows Maggie to stay above her place of work when she is cast out by her awful family. Garrulous Jean smokes, talk in a thick Scots dialect and offers Maggie respite from the harrowing events of her life: ‘It’s my own fault, Jean. If I hadn’t let myself be—’, says Maggie, blaming herself for her troubles. ‘Dinna talk daft,’ replies Jean. ‘That’s the wey men talk, but we ken better.’ Maggie, understandably, finds herself ‘storing up Jean’s cheerfulness inside her’ like an antidote.

When we hear how Maggie got pregnant in the first place—inside a thoroughly unpleasant man’s car—we realise she is really not to blame for her predicament:

The smell of the leather seats, the heavy rain clattering onto the thin metal roof only inches above her head. The offer of whisky from his hip flask […] The memory made her want to gag, to turn away like she was still trying to avoid the man’s lips, to squirm away from his touch.

Another upsettingly rape‐like encounter occurs when Norrie, a nasty acquaintance of Maggie’s, forces alcohol into her mouth and clamps his hand over it: ‘Guid lass’, he says. ‘We’ll hae some fun nou, you and me.’ When he realises that the struggling Maggie is pregnant his response is predictably caustic: ‘Fuck’s sake, Maggie. Fuck’s sake. Up the stick, an yer making me work fer it? Ye fucking keelie! […] Fucking hoor!’

And it’s not just men who attack Maggie. When she tries to better herself by getting a job in an office, a young female worker sabotages her chances with a few choice words: ‘Indicating Maggie with a nod of her head, Snooty Junior gave an emphatic cough, then leant down to whisper something into her boss’s ear.’ When Maggie leaves her baby in Woodstock House, an establishment which shelters babies before offering them up for adoption, she is told by the women working there that abandoning her baby is the best option for all concerned: ‘Getting upset like this would only make things worse, they told her. Always best to be separated as soon as possible. It was easier that way. Easier for everyone.’

Maggie is told to ‘forget all about’ her son; as if that were humanly possible. She is forbidden to breastfeed him, an infuriating command which goes against nature. Powerless, she is told by the women of Woodstock House: ‘[…] we’ve been very patient with you, letting you come and go as you please, letting you take him for a quick tour round the block from time to time …’, and, finally, is given no further access to her baby.

But Maggie is not just a one‐note victim in all this. She shows flashes of strength and defiance that are joyful to witness. After her parents’ rejection of her, Maggie, tormented by the relentless tick of their grandfather clock, snaps off its pendulum (with pleasingly castration‐like symbolism) and throws it in the sea: ‘Up into the air it rose, glittering as it arced briefly in the afternoon sun, suspended motionless for an instant before falling straight down into the blue‐green depths.’ When she hears her callous mother’s voice inside her head saying You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie on it she responds triumphantly: ‘”I will,” she heard herself reply out loud, “just watch me!”‘

Maggie seeks and finds employment in Fusco’s Fish Restaurant on Gorgie Road by displaying a similar level of gumption. She walks ‘straight in’ to the chip shop and bags herself a job, displaying little timidity. When the women of Woodstock House forbid her to breastfeed her baby she simply ‘shift(s) Tom to her other breast’. She uses fake personas and weaves a web of lies in order to gain a better job: ‘[…] during the week when she visited Tom at Woodstock House she’d say she was out at Gogarburn visiting her invalid husband; at the weekends she’d say she was going to Flotterstone to see Tom. A bit complicated, but couldn’t be helped.’ She proves herself to be a cunning and single‐minded survivor.

Alongside the plight of women, the plight of the elderly is tackled throughout Ghost Moon. When Maggie finds a suitable room to rent she walks in to find the remnants of the past inhabitant’s life:

The dead woman’s bed stood in the corner. Opposite was a family‐sized tombstone of a wardrobe that reeked of shoes, old clothes and camphor. The top of the dresser was a clutter of postcards, photographs, some letters in a rack, a comb, nailfile, a Present from Dunbar ashtray; wisps of greyish hair were tangled among the bristles of the hairbrush. Maggie dumped the lot into an old tartan shopping bag she found hanging behind the door, to go out in the next bin collection.

A whole life reduced to rubbish.

The care home in which present‐day Maggie lives also highlights this plight: ‘High‐backed armchairs lined up against the day‐room walls. Meals, meds, bath, bed […] The sky no longer yours. The TV that’s always on.’ The atmosphere of the old folk’s home is evoked with olfactory explicitness: ‘the overheated hall, into the combined smells of floral air‐freshener, yesterday’s macaroni cheese, urine, today’s stew and vegetables, laundry, disinfectant.’ Days bleed into one another with cloying monotony: ‘Thursday? Monday? Saturday? Different names for the one same day that slides backwards and forwards along one same week that never comes to an end, but keeps starting over keeps starting over keeps starting over …’

Butlin’s first‐person portrayal of Maggie’s struggles with dementia is moving and, at times, distressing. As we enter into Maggie’s head we feel her terror:

Struggling to get to your feet, pointing your finger at the screen: “That poor, poor woman. CAN’T SOMEDOBY DO SOMETHING? CAN’T SOMEBODY HELP HER? HELP HER HELP HER HELP HER!” Next moment it’s all turned to horse‐racing and a red‐faced man talking into a microphone. Which is nothing much, so you sit down again.

The horror of one’s own mind becoming an unreliable place is, for some, worse than death.

In split‐time books such as this there is usually a narrative thread preferred by the reader, and that thread (personally speaking) is usually the one set in the past. Butlin makes a sort of virtue of this imbalance by immersing his plot in the past, breaking it up with interludes set in the here‐and‐now which serve to highlight the themes of the meatier historical narrative. These interludes avoid tediousness thanks largely to Butlin’s poetic knack for stylish brevity. Tom’s point of view is less engaging than Maggie’s, but when we get a first‐person insight into the elderly Maggie’s situation the sadness of her present scenario is revealed by the way it slices cruelly into her thoughts of the past. Thinking of Michael, her great love, Maggie daydreams:

You’ll know him by the touch of his fingertips upon your face, their gentleness, his sightless eyes brimming with—
“Med time, Mrs Stewart.”

Such weighty themes are buoyed by Butlin’s gem‐like style of writing. His use of imagery is consistently playful, injecting light into the darkness of his protagonist’s situation. Whether he is describing Maggie’s bed as a pie (‘she could hardly wait to climb in under that welcoming crust and get baked to sleep’) or linking her longing for rest with the drudgery of her work in the chip shop (‘she’d stay in bed and enjoy a double‐shift of deep‐fried sleep’) his prose elevates the story into pleasurable territory. He captures the atmosphere and geography of 1950s Edinburgh, its streets and trams and shops, with panache, and whilst the subject matter is fraught with sorrow, Butlin’s stylish writing means the painful events of Ghost Moon, though never less than affecting, can be read with relish.

 

Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, 2014.

Poetry Review: Yellow & Blue, by Thomas A. Clark

yellowandblue

This review first appeared in The Literateur Thursday 24 April 2014

The experience of reading Thomas A. Clark’s Yellow & Blue is much like taking a walk. The small and unassuming stanzas, resting in the clean white space of a page without capital letters or punctuation, lead us on a journey past sea rocks and skerries, gables and gardens, sandwort and shells, bog-cotton and birch, mountains and moss. Clark delights in simple, natural things and the power and beauty inherent in them:

 

————————————after rain
————————————briar leaves
————————————have a scent
————————————of apples

 

This is quiet, contemplative, Zen-like poetry that records what Kathleen Jamie termed a ‘walking-pace life’; a life in which time is taken to pay close and careful heed to the natural world surrounding us. As Clark puts it: ‘If we have been given the gift of the world, the very least we can do in return is give it our attention.’ His poems act as ‘little spaces of quiet where things can be seen clearly’.

Though Clark’s is a peaceful sort of poetry, Yellow & Blue is filled with a sense of liveliness and humour. It is poetry with a wink:

 

————————————here is a garden
————————————of tansy run riot
————————————around anyone
————————————bright enough
————————————to neglect it

 

Though he revels in rivers, flowers and mountains, he does not turn his back on human life. The stanzas which linger awhile on domestic scenes are some of the most powerful sections of Yellow & Blue:

 

————————————in a back parlour
————————————the best furniture
————————————is seldom used
————————————linen is folded
————————————neatly in a drawer
————————————fresh for an occasion
————————————that never arrives
————————————the clock ticking

 

The apparent simplicity of such stanzas belie the close attention Clark pays to language and sound. Indeed, this is poetry for the ear as well as the eye:

 

————————————in a wilderness
————————————or bewilderment
————————————of sandwort
————————————and bladder-wrack
————————————small shell place
————————————sheltered

 

So much is going on beneath the still surface of these lines; Clark’s work may be quiet and contemplative, but it is bustling with life. The visual and half-rhyming repetition of ‘wild’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ evokes the untamed nature of the landscape Clark is describing, and the alliterative quality of ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’ gives an onomatopoeic effect of a hushing shush, the quiet nature of this sheltered place. Visual and aural patterns are created by the assonance of the ‘i’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’, the ‘a’ in ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘wrack’, and the ‘e’ in ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’, as well as by the consonance of the ‘d’ and ‘r’ in ‘wilderness’, ‘bewilderment’, ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘sheltered’. These patterns aptly echo the rhythmic, flowing quality of a well-paced walk.

There are so many layers to this one small stanza, which reflects the multi-faceted nature of the landscape Clark is describing; the open land may appear vast and clear, but look closer and you will find it packed full of the intricate details of living things. Such richly textured evocations of a peculiarly Scottish landscape are brought to life by the cadences and lilt of Clark’s words, their rhythmic quality and the patterns of sound that emerge as each line progresses. The multisyllabic ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ are reduced to the shorter ‘sandwort’ and ‘bladder-wrack’, followed by the monosyllabic ‘small shell place’, ending in the one-word line ‘sheltered’, the hard ‘d’ acting as an aural full-stop and mirroring the simplifying, quieting act of finding shelter, of being enclosed and protected from the noisy elements.

Clark’s literary snapshots of his journey could be classified as ‘the art of the ordinary’, a term which highlights the painterly nature of his verbal landscapes. Robert Stacey has commented on the three categories into which Clark’s work falls – still life, landscape and domestic interior – referring to his poetry as ‘a still life in action’. This can be seen most clearly in lines like:

 

————————————by a window
————————————blue cornflowers
————————————in a yellow cup
————————————continually
————————————wake up

 

These ordinary objects are brought to life by Clark’s close attention, and the titular colours of yellow and blue are a recurring theme in his work. In one of his installations, the phrase ‘one blue moment’ is printed in blue on a white wall in a room containing a blue bedspread, and in another room the phrase:

 

————————————Anyone
————————————who comes
————————————to yellow
————————————wants more

 

is printed in yellow on a white wall beside a yellow wall. Such rooms, in which Clark’s words find the space to breath, demonstrate how his work does not fit quite so comfortably in magazines; the texts require a different kind of reading process. In book form, their spare, isolated situation on the pages of collections like Yellow & Blue provide this crucial breathing space. Poetry outside the clustered pages of a conventional book or magazine, in Clark’s words, ‘takes you by surprise’. Rather than being tucked away out of sight, arrived at through deliberate searching, it can be stumbled upon accidentally.

The sense of poetry being part of our everyday world, whether it is placed in a hospital in Glasgow or an old kimono shop in Nagoya (where Clark’s poems have appeared), makes poetry accessible rather than lofty. Clark’s belief in ‘poetry as making, as a practical rather than an intellectual activity’ underlines this down-to-earth appeal. Though the poems of Yellow & Blue appear in book form, there is still a craftsman-like quality to their shape and movement; they could just as easily be carved into stone or painted on a wall. Indeed Clark’s own publishing endeavour Moschatel Press, which he runs with the artist Laurie Clark, produces hand-made artist books that bear out this sense of poetry as craft or practice.

This meticulous, crafted and objective quality grounds Clark’s poems in their linguistic materiality and in that of the natural world they gesture towards; they are pastoral but never Utopian. As John Freeman has commented of Clark’s work: ‘To value the light is to be aware of the darkness’. Though the beauty and joy to be found in natural things is felt throughout Yellow & Blue, they are not quite idealised. There is a sense, felt in the silences around the words, that these things we cherish might someday be lost. The act of valuing something stands alongside the horror of losing it, and how awful would it be to lose our connection to certain landscapes and the things they contain through apathy and negligence?

Recording and revelling in a particularly Celtic type of landscape that might someday be lost brings to life shades of myth and folklore, found in lines such as:

 

————————————sylphs and nymphs and kelpies
————————————might slip between
————————————silks and shocks and sulks
————————————of water into real bodies

 

Such images escape the pages of fairy-tales and emerge into the very real world witnessed throughout Clark’s walking poem. Yellow & Blue closes on another stanza in which the fantastical is placed in the real, a magical image that could have emerged straight out of a tale of bygone days:

 

————————————a lamp of fish oil
————————————with a wick of rushes
————————————gathered by the light
————————————of a full moon

 

Through taking this imaginary journey with Clark, we come to realise that we have not yet lost our connection to a host of precious places and things. They are there, waiting to be discovered and treasured, if we would only take the time to walk and listen and look.

Book Review: The Waiting by Regi Claire

Waiting

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)

Lizzie Fairbairn, protagonist of Regi Claire’s The Waiting, might just be one of the most surprising septuagenarians you’re likely to encounter in literary fiction. Visited in her Edinburgh home by the vaguely sinister Rachel, granddaughter of her childhood friend Marlene, Lizzie is forced to confront incidents from her history that put her repressed,  seething nature through the wringer. As the story shifts from the 1930s through to the present day, Marlene’s complex influence over Lizzie’s past unfolds as Rachel’s intrusion  into her current life grows increasingly alarming.

An ominous atmosphere settles over Lizzie’s story from the start. As a child her perception of the world around her seems skewed, as if she views nature as inherently cruel  and predatory. Through Lizzie’s eyes, trees reach into the sky and tear it apart, the wind viciously tears leaves from branches ‘by the fistful’ and the sun sears human flesh like a branding iron. Seagulls screech and jeer at her, and a bunch of chrysanthemums are perceived by Lizzie as ‘stiff and uncompromising. Callous.’

Even as an old woman, at a time in life when tempers are assumed to have mellowed, Lizzie’s view of the Edinburgh landscape surrounding her is laced with violence:  ‘On good days I sometimes picture the hill coming furiously alive, tossing its giant head to cast off the human fleas crawling all over it.’ Her neighbour Miss Erskine’s battle with aggressively spreading skin cancer seems only to reinforce this notion that nature is remorselessly uncaring. Lizzie’s spite becomes fused with her malevolent view of the natural world, and she appears to take pleasure in her fantasy of the hill harming the humans who have dared to walk upon it.

An incident in Lizzie’s childhood, when her little dog Liquorice becomes pregnant even though she is far too young to bear a litter, seems to have a profound effect on her.  How could Mother Nature allow such a wicked thing to happen? Lizzie’s mum blames her daughter for allowing the dog to fall pregnant, and Lizzie keenly feels the torment of this  blame: ‘My heart felt stone-heavy with grief and guilt. Ignorance is the root of so much harm. So much evil.’ Lizzie, for her part, blames the unrepentant Marlene for the tragic incident, and attributes it to her friend’s remorseless immorality, leading her to wonder whether ‘the world would be a better place if people were truly without conscience, as  wilful and capricious as Marlene.’ At least that way we would be spared the agony of contrition.

This lack of morality in Marlene raises the much-explored issue of ‘nature versus nurture’, a matter examined in countless texts, from Oliver Twist to Lionel Shriver’s  We Need to Talk about Kevin. Whether a child can simply be born ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or whether we are always a product of our upbringing, is sensitively documented by Claire  throughout the development of Marlene’s character. More than once, Marlene’s mother Mrs Gray asks the question: ‘Why on earth did I go and make her?’, a question which explains a  lot with regards to the woman Marlene becomes. This callous dismissal of her own child, as if Marlene was no more than a hindrance or an error, is compounded by the fact that Marlene is illegitimate, the shameful by-product of a sexual affair Mrs Gray had as a widow. Rumour has it that twice Mrs Gray tried to leave the baby on the doorstep of the child’s father  and twice had the bundle returned to her.

This rejection is repeated years later when primary school teacher Mrs Robson gives Marlene the role of Mary Magdalene in the school nativity play, a calculated act with  significant repercussions. As a bastard child, apparently unfit to play the part of anyone but a ‘fallen woman’, Marlene’s Mary Magdalene is crow-barred into the story, despite  the illogical chronology, and made ‘to stumble about the stage like a drunk, searching and searching, unable to find her way to the stable.’ Lizzie notes that no one, not even Marlene or Mrs Gray, seems to see anything wrong with this, but Lizzie’s ‘heart still bleeds for Marlene’ when she thinks of it, years later.

Lizzie puts a great deal of emphasis on another incident from her and Marlene’s childhood. Marlene has no idea that she is a bastard child, a product of perceived sin,  until Lizzie tells her one day as they sit on a primrose covered riverbank. Lizzie becomes convinced that this is the moment Marlene loses her innocence and childlike faith in people, that it is perhaps she who is to blame for Marlene’s unravelling; that this is why her friend stopped being ‘the trusting child she had once been — before the  primrose bank …’ Was Marlene born ‘bad’, as her mother seems to suggest? Or was this a self-fulfilling belief, the very reason why Marlene turns out as she does? Was the  social stigmatizing to blame, or is it all Lizzie’s fault?

And yet, it is apparent to the reader from the very beginning that it is Marlene who repeatedly leads Lizzie into horrible situations, not the other way round. Whether it is Marlene persuading Lizzie to take a colleague out for lunch so that she might humiliate him by probing him on his past crimes, or getting the pair of them sacked from jobs in a hotel, or leading Lizzie into a museum where she is assaulted, Marlene is shown to continuously lead her friend astray.

This malignant influence appears to lead to a gradual decline in Lizzie’s own sense of morality. When Marlene comes into some money she decides to visit a poor tenement family as an act of charity, taking Lizzie along for the ride. Merely mimicking the act of helping the impoverished family, the pair fails to do anything but  take from them: ‘These people were poor alright. Yet they made us sit down on their least rickety chairs, closest to the fire, spread a fresh tablecloth and offered us  tea and homemade pancakes. And we, who had come empty-handed, ate their pancakes, drank their tea, and left.’ Even when the newly moneyed Marlene humiliates her friend by visiting the dressmaker’s where Lizzie works and abusing her newfound position of superiority, Lizzie still remains her friend.

Indeed, Lizzie seems to keep missing her chance to leave this noxious friendship, which is perplexing and, on occasion, infuriating to read. When Lizzie muses ‘How come  I hadn’t ditched her long ago?’ the average response is surely an exasperated: ‘Yes, how come?!’ Lizzie knows her friend is a user and a thief (‘She just took things, used them,  then lost interest’) and yet she stands by her, forgiving her time and time again, perhaps because of her guilt over the primrose bank incident, or perhaps because, in her heart,  Lizzie believes she is as bad as her friend. Indeed, there is a destructive side to Lizzie, even in her old age, a nastiness that rises to the surface as she surveys the young  folk surrounding her in the city’s Meadows: ‘I feel like pulling the wires out their ears, feel like grabbing hold of their sloppy jeans, chopping off the excess cloth and tossing it to Yoyo for chews.’

Where this unprovoked rage stems from is unclear, but Lizzie’s bitterness suggests she is a thwarted individual, burdened by the experiences of her past. Unlike Marlene,  however, Lizzie chastises herself for her less noble actions. She refers to herself as ‘a selfish beast’ and admonishes herself in a shocking fashion: ‘Bitch, I scourge myself,  bloody bitch. How can you be so heartless?’ It is alarming and yet strangely thrilling to witness an old lady, a figure endlessly caricatured as dotty and benign, acting  in such an unconventional and vivid manner. It is as though Lizzie has been infected by her friend, and Lizzie’s husband certainly seems to believe in the toxic effect that  Marlene can have on others: ‘She’s poison, believe me.’

Lizzie’s husband Alan raises another important issue explored by Claire, namely the social position of women throughout this period. Alan is of a decidedly old-school  mode of thinking, and treats his wife with a dismissiveness bordering on disdain: ‘Even now I can see his hand swat me away like a fly, Into the kitchen, woman, I’m waiting for my  tea, then reach for the Scotsman or the tumbler of whisky on the coffee table.’ Alan takes a biblical stance on how women should be treated and what their role in society  should be: ‘he held forth on how a wife was decreed to be the helpmate and support of her husband — made from his very own rib, after all …’

It is for this reason that he so detests Marlene; she does not conform to his idea of a moral woman, so far is she from his ideal vision of loving wife and mother.  She is unfaithful to her husband, a sexual tease of the first order, a heavy drinker, and a negligent mother. This link between women and morality — the idea that women  should be kind, nurturing and self-sacrificing above all else — is broken by Marlene in a way that is simultaneously deplorable and exhilarating. Her husband and children suffer terribly, which is unforgivable, yet Marlene bursts from the restrictive mould imposed by Alan and his ilk, something which, if not quite deserving of admiration,  is nonetheless deeply satisfying to read.

Regi Claire tackles these weighty topics with sensitivity and nuance, deftly weaving them through a narrative which time-trips between numerous decades without being reductive.  There are moments when the quality of her writing is truly stunning, whether it is the comical image of a group of old women hobbling over a yard and sweeping the ground with their  flap of skirts, or an elderly Lizzie listening to rock music and thinking of WWII, the boom of the drums intermingling with the boom of anti-aircraft fire, ‘The sounds of destruction  visited upon the living.’ Claire’s characterisation is subtle and precise, whether she is describing Marlene’s husband consumed with regret for not following his career as a research  scientist, or Lizzie having never held a grown woman’s hand until she holds Rachel’s, or Marlene, for all her flaws, living life to the absolute heights and depths, raging  in the throes of death.

This is a novel full of the pits and peaks of life, of humour and pathos, of joyful light and nightmarish darkness, and the crisp, clean, razor-sharp style of Claire’s writing  cuts to the heart of a story that will linger in the reader’s imagination for long after the final, dazzling passage ends.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

The Waiting by Regi Claire is published by Word Power Books, 2012.

Book Review: Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

This review first appeared on The Bottle Imp website, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). It is edited and produced by Gwen Enstam, ASLS’s International Project Developer, and Duncan Jones,  ASLS’s Director.

It’s no easy task to produce twenty-two short stories of startling diversity and successfully unite them by a select handful of themes, but in Republics of the Mind James Robertson does just that. Whether the stories here are set in a decaying Scottish safari park or a graveyard, a South Dakota reservation or an abandoned mental hospital,  Robertson continuously returns to the same group of dilemmas: entrapment and the wish to escape, inertia, nightmarish visions of the present and future, existential crises,  mortality and, throughout it all, fear. Robertson’s gritty, realistic style and evocations of Scottish working-class life have earned him comparisons with the likes of Irvine  Welsh and James Kelman, but is it when he enters into the realms of the nightmarish and surreal that his explorations of certain ideas are at their most vivid and compelling?

Many of the characters here are trapped in some way, united by their inability or unwillingness to free themselves from their fate. In ‘Giraffe’, Jimmy and Dave are sent to  clean up a run-down safari park’s ‘meat-room’, opening the door to find the room heaving with maggots and cockroaches, rank with decomposing flesh and oozing black blood.  There isn’t much else they can do but clean it; they’re poor and need their jobs: ‘That was it really. They were stuck. They didn’t have great prospects in front of them.  They had to take what they were given.’ They are just like the animals in the safari park: trapped and surrounded by decay. Poverty has entrenched them.

Likewise in ‘The Jonah’, Billy tries to make a better life for himself but is burdened with his immoral, womanising friend Sean, as well as by the poverty that  restricts his movements. Hitch-hiking with his irksome friend, the pair briefly splits up, and Billy is given a chance to take a lift and part ways with Sean. A thousand things race through his head as he decides whether to accept the lift or refuse it: ‘This was all in a moment. A moment like all these moments in his life when he felt he was  being tossed like a coin. For a moment the chances hang spinning in the air, and then you call.’ Chance does play a role in our lives, but so does the act of making choices,  and in liberating himself from his friend we hope Billy has finally found some semblance of emancipation.

In the titular story, a couple rail against the new government, disgusted that Scotland is represented by such corrupt and detached politicians. They discover a mental  state which seems to remove them from the strife their country is experiencing: ‘It was a state of being in which all the people understood themselves, and what they were doing, and why they were where they were.’ Is this their mode of dealing with their own sense of powerlessness, a way to find inner peace, purpose and contentment? Or are they just  running away from reality? Is their method of escape not really an escape at all?

In ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell You Everything I Know)’, a housewife seeks escapism from her mundane life. She is a slave to schedule and wants to experience energy and life, to finally feel something. She visits a record shop and listens to the blues, music ‘unlike anything she’d heard’, and this offers her a momentary escape. The young man in the store who introduces her to this exotic music feels similarly trapped, though by the very opposite of what traps the housewife: there is no one waiting for him back home, and the excess of freedom is oppressive.

‘Willie Masson’s Miracle’ reveals the plight of the elderly, the poor souls who are mentally fit and healthy but whose sound minds are trapped inside bodies that are  failing them. Willie’s arm is paralysed, but as he is being severely patronised by a home help he manages to summon up some unknown force to exact his revenge: ‘…he was amazed  to see his hand flip up and catch the wifie a neat wee skelp with the knuckles right on the end of her nose.’ In this he finds a brief respite from being babied and misunderstood, a brilliant act of defiance.

This sense of entrapment bleeds into the feeling of inertia that plagues so many of the characters here. In ‘Screen Lives’ Shona plucks at her loose skin, ‘…filled with a terrible dread of being old, of not having done all these things.’ She fears wasting her life but can’t seem to summon the courage to do anything about it. Likewise in ‘The Dayshift’, a nameless man runs through the motions of his dull job and repetitive home life, his stultifying routine devoid of diversity or spontaneity. He muses on ‘the ten-minute walk  that he would make to his house where his wife would be in the kitchen. The smell of soup. Always the same smell, always the same soup.’ He is well aware his life is humdrum  and monotonous but doesn’t do a thing about it. Though Dean is only twenty-five in ‘The Future According to Luke’, he feels ‘like he wasn’t fully alive, like somebody had reached in and taken some vital organ out of his body while he was sleeping.’ He wants anything to happen, even something bad, just to lift him out of his ennui.

Fear of time running out intensifies in ‘The Claw’, a story about a young man who visits his grandfather in an old folks’ home. He sees that his grandfather is ‘caught between history and hope, but history weighs heavy in his scales now, and every year it gobbles up hope.’ The young man’s dismay at his grandfather’s failing body — particularly his  arthritic ‘claw’ — is made particularly wrenching when we discover that the young man is HIV-positive, that he is terrified of decaying like his grandfather. The old man’s predicament is a horrible premonition of what his own will be. Similarly, the poor soul sitting on the toilet in ‘Facing It’ looks at the blood in the bowl and feels like  ‘everything has failed him, he knew it was all coming apart in there…’ He does not want to face the road to death — his family’s distress, doctors, hospitals — and instead wants to just walk into the hills and die. These men’s dread of time passing is not just a symbol of their inertia but a terrible fear of a more imminent threat.

If these real life events are nightmarish then they are nothing compared to the surreal events of ‘The Plagues’, ‘Pretending to Sleep’, ‘The Dictionary’, ‘The Rock Cake Incident’, ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, and ‘Sixes and Sevens’. These six tales mark Robertson out from the usual comparisons with the gritty realistic style of Kelman and the like. True,  Robertson’s stories are filled with the stuff of real life, but his ghoulish flights of fancy are arguably the most memorable tales of this collection.

‘The Plagues’ sees a man’s apartment overrun with a biblical swarm of frogs, seemingly a manifestation of his depression. The ominous last line is like something straight  out of a horror film. In the sci-fi-esque ‘Pretending to Sleep’ people start lying down in the middle of the street for no known reason, and in ‘The Dictionary’ letters spill  out in all directions from the titular tome, a staunchly reliable thing made unreliable and perplexing. ‘The Rock Cake Incident’ has a Hitchcockian atmosphere (including an  intensely creepy dentist), and portrays normal things as unsettling and frightening, ultimately unknowable.

The most disquieting story is surely ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, set in a future dystopian version of Scotland where ethnic cleansing occurs. Whether the events of people being  herded into a shed to be executed are real or imagined is uncertain. The man who witnesses these events, Chrissie, is certainly told that he’s dreamed it up: ‘Ye’ve been watchin  too much shite on the telly. Aw these news programmes ye watch, the documentaries and aw that. That aw happens somewhere else. Other countries. No here. Ye’re away wi the fairies.’

In ‘Sixes and Sevens’ we find an equally unsettling read, during which the reader doesn’t know quite what to think. This too has a Hitchcockian feel, set in an abandoned  mental hospital and focussing on a man who may be a visitor and may be a patient. The man’s grandfather lived here during the war, blighted by shellshock, and it is deliberately  unclear if he is visited by his spirit or if he is time-tripping, or if perhaps he himself is a ghost. At one point the man turns to see that the armchairs have ‘all crept a little  closer to the fireplace’, an event which would seem well at home in a ghost story.

Republics of the Mind is an altogether fascinating and unsettling read, expertly crafted to lead the reader direct into the psyches of a host of characters placed in situations ranging from the familiar to the preternatural. The dialogue is spot-on (Robertson has a particular knack for transcribing Scottish dialects) and each story  is shot through with a tangible sense of time and place, even when the action strays into the eerie and unknown. It’s an eclectic collection of tales, given a strong sense  of structure by Robertson’s encompassing themes, and is sure to provoke as much thought as it deserves admiration.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson is published by Black and White, 2012.

Book Review: Captain of the Steppe

captain-of-the-steppe-195x300

This review first appeared in The Literateur (21 June 2013)

From the gallows to the trenches, the most desperate environments can give rise to humour, and the ferociously bleak landscape of Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe is no exception. But can humour act as a means of expressing rage at a despotic system, or does it in some way make light of an unavoidably dark situation?

Set during the dying days of the Soviet Empire, Captain Khabarov is stationed in the godforsaken steppe, an enormous plain stretching far across the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. It is an unfathomable place, so bitterly cold the light-bulbs pop like boils and the inner walls grow skins of ice. The soldiers stationed here to guard exiled prisoners (or “zeks”) are sent last year’s newspapers and rotten food, surrounded by lice and rats, their wages as frozen as their bones. It is a place of stagnation and decay, of sickness and overcrowding, where the men feel cheated, lost and overlooked. Pavlov describes the penal colony as a blood clot, a glob of phlegm, a kennel and a graveyard, stinking of fried food and soiled laundry. He paints a vivid, often nauseating, picture.

And yet, despite taking place within this grim enclosure and the confounding landscape that encroaches so relentlessly upon it, Captain of the Steppe is far from a demoralising read. This is due in large part to Pavlov’s macabre sense of humour, vibrant language, startling similes and vivid characterisation. Pavlov, who was just twenty-four when the book was published in Russia in 1994, spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan, infusing the narrative with a strong dose of authenticity. Though the plot is fictional, the petty officiousness, political corruption and obscene injustice depicted are so sad, funny and engrossing because there is a resounding ring of truth to them.

One particularly illuminating source of the book’s grotesque humour is obese Cossack Ilya Peregud, a non-conformist, resourceful escapist – and hopeless drunk – who lives in fear of having his ponytail cut off. Ilya does not want “to turn into a worker ant” and knows “a hundred different ways of making vodka… from rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”; when he drinks, “Ilya would take wing!” It is a heavenly depiction of drunkenness, and who can blame him when he has been placed in such dire circumstances?

What of the eponymous Khabarov? The novel centres round its hero’s decision to plant potatoes in order to feed his half-starving men. It is a simple act, done out of goodness, yet has lasting repercussions. The fact that Khabarov has not been ordered, or sought permission, to plant the potatoes angers and frightens his military superiors:

“So the matter has nothing to do with potatoes, really, but with the fact that a man like that, with nothing to lose, like this Khabarov, has dared to go against the rules. Turns out this is a political problem. Such people are more dangerous than any infectious illness.”

The potatoes are a demonstration of rebellion to the officials but represent hope for Khabarov, and in their green shoots the reader can see a symbol of the captain’s conviction, tenacity and humanity.

Though such events take place in the faraway land of the Kazakh steppe, there are a surprising number of vernacular words and phrases included throughout the narrative (“go on a bender”, “taking the piss” and “bullshitting”, to name a few), giving the dialogue an earthy, authentic feel. Credit for this should go to translator Ian Appleby, whose light touch makes a topic foreign to most British readers feel accessible and intimate. Equally arresting are the surprising similes with which the book teems: “a link of smoked sausage, curled round like a mongrel’s tail and with the same sort of red, crimped arsehole”. There are also some magically surreal moments: potatoes are personified; a wolf talks; and a man fuses with the wood of his chair. Such familiar language and left-of-field imagery add colour and life to the bleached-out, dead nature of the steppe.

Men dominate this barren landscape and yet, peripheral as they are, a whole article could be devoted to its women. They seem to fall into one of two categories: lascivious, cruel and ugly; or frightened, mute and submissive. Pavlov expresses a strikingly ageist vision of female beauty: “The young women were fair-skinned and slim, while the old women had skin like cured ham and were fat.” True, he might have witnessed such women in this particular landscape, but with no other more varied depictions of women on offer it is hard to excuse such dismissive, binary descriptions, especially when the male characters are so diverse and nuanced. However, it is a story that can be firmly classified as a product of its time and environment, and Pavlov should perhaps be forgiven for lacking feminist ideals in Russia, 1994.

Yet, while Russia remains plagued with corruption and totalitarianism, while media compliance and electoral irregularities add to the sense of a deeply flawed democracy, Pavlov’s work will continue to strike a chord. It is filled with black humour, but within this lies the heart of the men’s despair; you either laugh in such terrible situations or you cry (or worse). By showing the men’s humanity, their lack of otherness, Pavlov highlights the injustice that has been done to them and makes us feel their torment. In this way, Captain of the Steppe becomes a brilliant and lasting expression of a bitter, righteous rage.