Book review – The Reader on the 6.27

I have, on occasion, kept rooms in pubs ‘entertained’ by reading from a book grabbed from bookcases provided by thoughtful publicans, so this taut, short novel about a man who reads aloud to fellow passengers on his morning commute short sections of literature retrieved randomly from the throat of the book pulping machine in his workplace, had instant appeal.

A little old now (published in French in 2014, and in this English translation in 2015), Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s first novel (although the author is already an international prize-winner for his short stories and this is, in reality, a novella) is likely to be the choice of many book clubs and thus needs little by way introduction. Ultimately a romance, and which calls to mind aspects of the whimsy and the gentle good humour both of Amelie, Gregory’s Girl and Sliding Doors, The Reader on the 6.27 is likely on the surface to appeal or to repel readers on that basis.

It does, nevertheless, remain absolutely its own work and there are occasional dark elements to the theme and to the plotting which absolutely defy a categorisation of ‘romance’. Guylain and Julie, the two lead characters who are both searching for something and who fall into each other’s lives by fate, are both strongly drawn while the minor characters in the cast might be bit-part players in the story but all enjoy the luxury of Diderlaurent’s attention to detail which brings them to a fully-drawn 3D life. This includes The Thing, the massive beast which pulps the books where Guylain works and whose relationship with it is a strong feature of the development of the work. Even the goldfish – who shares a name with the author of what became La Marseillaise – also provides an interesting comment on the continuity of la Republique. The scenes – short chapters all and many of them short stories in their own right – offer colour, drama and poignancy and are also superbly sketched and located (including where Julie’s aunt gets her weekly fix of chouquettes). Diderlaurent has a very light touch and the ending is both well-judged and finely tuned to the novel’s theme of the predominance of fate and in how ordinary people lead their lives.

In the circumstances, it would be churlish to wonder how a lover of literature finds himself working in a book pulping plant, which is only making him more unhappy than he already is; and how an intelligent woman finds herself in a career as an attendant in a shopping centre lavatory but who is clearly able to overcome the unhappiness of such an existence. We know little of the backstory of either – and neither, essentially, do we need to given the theme. We may each of us find ourselves in inexplicably lonely situations or in workplaces in which choice is sometimes little evident or the product of paths created from previous decisions, and that lends reality to Diderlaurent’s wry, clever observations on modern life/work and modern (workplace) relationships. And I think it would also be churlish to criticise a slightly haphazard sense of timing with regard to the readings of the extracts.

And, in closing, a word for a generally first-rate translation by Ros Schwartz (and also Ruth Diver) which has a rhythm and a flow which allow the story’s love of words to breathe. A highly-experienced and rated translater, Schwartz has done the author a great service which is illustrative of the resources which the publisher has committed to it. A book which is, ultimately, about the love of words and whose story is so well crafted demands a great translation, as well as a print run on appropriately high-quality paper, and this one has both.

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Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I picked this up in an airport bookshop fairly recently, and for the first time. It seems that it has been given a new lease of life as a result, most likely, of the re-release of the 1975 Oscar-winning film by Milos Forman. My Penguin Classics copy was printed in 2005, and contains a new introduction written in 2002 – in the book’s 40th anniversary year – but with the new edition sparked by Kesey’s death from liver cancer (in 2001).

The novel remains an excoriating drawing of the life and treatment of the residents of a hospital mental health ward, for which Kesey’s research is legendary: a night shift worker at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he volunteered for government-sponsored research (actually: CIA) into the effects of psychoactive drugs. His research bears strong fruit in the book in terms of the processes, the approaches to treatment and the effects of institutionalisation on the residents of the ward, and it makes some dramatic points about the brutalising impact of the remorseless, ratchet-like regime of ‘Big Nurse’, the female figure in charge of the ward. As the story cranks up towards its tragic, inescapable conclusion, the end does not leave the reader without hope and it is a continuing reminder of how thin the line is which divides clarity (and sanity) from confusion (and clinical madness); and not only when clinical madness may be being faked.

The allegorical aspects of the work, with the galvanising effects of McMurphy (the Jack Nicholson character in the film) on the atomised, isolated residents of the ward, speaks clearly of the importance of working together, as a collective, and of the vulnerability of people who only learn both that, and the power of the collective, unevenly and over time. At the same time, the costs of leadership, of bringing people together to challenge the authority to which they are subject, are made clear. The story is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a man of native American descent, and whose previous encounters with authority give him insight into the powers of ‘the Combine’ which he understands as the power behind the organisation of wider society replicated within the power structures of the ward.

And yet some aspects of the book have survived very, very poorly. There are (very minor) references to under-age sex within McMurphy’s backstory. More overtly, there is an astonishing amount of casual racism in the novel: Bromden himself is the stereotypical dignified Indian, apparently a mute with a deeply-buried story to tell; the African-American aides in the novel – frequently un-named and in many ways Nurse Ratched’s dogsbodies – are lazy, speak in a stylised way, like basketball and are fond of a joint. And the language in which they are addressed is frequently that of Mark Twain, although my concern here is less the choice of language in a modern-day setting than the manner of their depiction and their witless insertion as black men into low-lying roles within the prevailing power structure as servants of it.

But my biggest criticism is of the levels of sexism within the novel in which the only female characters are, with just the one exception, either mothers or sex objects; while Nurse Ratched herself is frequently depicted either in an amorphous, asexual way or, alternatively, as the target for the most appalling fantasies, including in her humiliation at the novel’s conclusion. This is not to feel pity for Ratched, which would be difficult given the brutal nature of her role in charge of the ward and in the psychological aspects of the central part she plays in its tragic conclusion, but I am seeking to highlight the shockingly sexist manner of her portrayal, as well as of that of the other female characters, throughout the novel. It would be stretching the point beyond snapping to argue that Ratched is as much a victim of the Combine as the residents – there is absolutely no evidence for this – but we do need to be aware of the misogyny which underpins the ways she is depicted and the way she is viewed by the residents. Given the theme of male panic over emasculation which is also a feature of the novel – an odd theme even now in a society which remains patriarchal – Kesey was certainly aware of some aspects of how he approached his theme.

In both its racism and sexism, the book is thus of its time, although this by itself should not excuse it. We have, thankfully, come a long way in race and gender politics since the early 1960s (as well as having still a long way to go, as Andy Murray demonstrated only this week). However, in terms of criticism, this makes the novel less of a ‘roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the Rulers who enforce them’ (in Time‘s review quoted proudly on the back cover of my copy). The role that sexism and racism play within middlebrow society’s Rules (and power structures) means that no such roar can take place within the confines of a novel unless that novel consciously seeks to overthrow them – and so much less so when it incorporates them as an integral part of its telling, as this one does. (A telling which is, extremely disappointingly, echoed within the 2002 Introduction, by the way.)

To the modern reader, then, this is a novel with sizable structural weaknesses – which, incidentally, an aware editor could address, and reasonably simply. This is a great shame since, at its best, it has a powerful story to tell and does so, in other respects than these, with great skill and realism. But, these are weaknesses that are too great to overcome when they play such a central role in how that story is told. Whatever tripping that Kesey and his Merry Prankster mates were doing on the road, this might well have inhibited an awareness of the problems of patriarchalism which, thereafter, took at least another decade to emerge.

Book review: Nutshell

It is quickly apparent that Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, is a re-working of the tale of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about usurpation and revenge, extending from plot to characters to themes – but with the critical twist that the Prince of Denmark is replaced here by an unborn child, critically observing events from inside the womb. Here, the narrator, un-named and of non-determined gender, is indeed ‘bound in a nutshell’ and yet ‘king of infinite space’. As such, the child – with thought processes, critical faculties and tastes which are fully developed, informed trough the consumption and habits of Trudy, the mother – is able to observe and comment on the surrounding universe. Yet, in contrast to Hamlet, whose flaw of inaction underpins his personal tragedy, the baby is able to seek to be active and influential in the world, including via well-timed kicks and sometimes quite shocking extensions of the narrative.

McEwan’s conceit is quite remarkable – imagine the (eventual) frustrations of a baby with fully developed thought processes but unaware in the womb that s/he is unable to speak – and in our unborn narrator we have another in the author’s long line of memorable characters. The prose, as we might expect, flows freely and apparently effortlessly; the handling of plot and theme is confident and assured; and there is wit and humour in the telling as well as in the conceit. The narration itself is informed, eloquent and ultimately reliable – indeed, how could it be anything other?

Excess alcohol consumption – in Hamlet’s view, the cause of the ruination of the nation – is worked in by the continual appearance and consumption of bottles of wine (although, amusingly, the plot hinges on a juice bar’s smoothie); the portentousness of the moments in which people’s futures are shaped and directed by the sometimes hasty decisions they make is, again – this being a regular theme in McEwan’s books – stunningly realised; and the resolution is thoughtfully and aptly described.

Of course, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark – not, in this context, in the womb of the mother but in the dilapidated state of the decaying, crumbling house in the midst of the heat of a London summer in which she lives and which is visually well-captured by McEwan. The metaphor is clear – and yet the platform it provides for well-chosen observations about the state of the world around us, akin to Hamlet’s own soliloquies, is something that McEwan doesn’t effectively take up. It is not that there are currently no targets to pick – and McEwan has done so in the past: notably, global warming in Solar; and the state of international relations in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in Saturday. Here, however, the discourse on the targets he picks – chiefly, the human condition leading to it being ‘dusk in the Age of Reason’; the struggle to escape poverty; identity politics – is lazy, occasionally somewhat illiberal and actually rather peevish. It’s not the result of having an unborn child as narrator – this is a middle-class sophisticate, advanced and articulate in thought. Perhaps it is the essential brevity of the exposition – this is a short novel and these are indeed mere soliloquies – that make it seem so. Perhaps he thinks he’s done it all before. But McEwan is of course capable of better than that; and, in these times, we do need the poets (as well as the novelists) down here to write something (at all) to help prompt us into action.

Nevertheless, the central challenge – that we all ‘do something’, whatever we can, to change the fate of the world around us – is, if it is one that may even be taken up by an unborn child, one that can also be picked up by others seemingly otherwise better placed. The conveyance, perhaps implicit, of that ultimate message is McEwan’s biggest contribution in Nutshell – and it does, of course, remain a fundamentally important one.

Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy‘s Hot Milk is the third of my dips into last year’s Booker Prize shortlist and, as a hot favourite prior to the announcement of Paul Sellers‘s win, I had high hopes. This is a powerful, literary novel (though its references are not worn as badges of honour), and it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. In particular, it’s good to see strong, confident writing from a woman recognised at such a level.

Weighing in at just 218 pages, this is a short novel (actually, it is probably a collection of earlier short stories written into one tale) about individual people’s ‘struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ (p. 201), with the shadows cast by events being long and, sometimes, ill-understood. Levy’s unifying theme, nevertheless, is the power of maternal love and the strength of the mother-daughter bond in which Sophie, a 25-year old post-graduate currently working as a barista in a London coffee house, travels to Spain with her mother, Rose, to a clinic in search of a cure for an unexplained (or inexplicable) illness in her mother. It immediately becomes clear – the screen of Sophie’s laptop, containing ‘all my life’, is shattered on a concrete floor in the opening paragraph of the novel – that it may equally be Sophie who is in need of a cure and that, from the framing quote at the outset, ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’, that her cure, at least, may lie in her own psychological make-up. The link is made perfect by the origin of the quote – a 2012 article on feminist writing by Helene Cixous entitled (in translation) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa‘ – making an allegorical appearance in the opening chapter as Sophie is stung while out swimming by jellyfish (= medusa in Spanish, and a noted symbol of female rage although rage itself is not a major theme of Hot Milk). The physical appearance of the clinic, and the graffiti which appears on it, provides further source material for Levy’s themes of maternal and wider female sexuality and psychoanalysis.

Set in 2015 austerity-ridden Spain, and encompassing a visit to Greece by Sophie to visit her absent Greek father, Hot Milk is of its time, containing more than a cursory glance at austerity politics (Rose’s medicines are first withdrawn at the Spanish clinic, and then re-instated at a general hospital): not so much Levy’s view that the patient needs to ‘keep taking the medicine’ as a comment on political reactions to and developments in the crisis in both Greece and Spain. This is not a novel about the post-2008 crisis, but the author’s ability to incorporate such references adds colour as well as bringing the novel a little more to life. There is, throughout the work, a sense of collapse, of people clinging on to what is left of shattered lives in the face of continuing impending (economic) disaster.

Levy’s prose is economic in its construction – she is not, it seems, one for flowery phrases – but, nevertheless, this is a richly written tale which is likely to repay a second read to revisit the themes more fully in the light of awareness as to its end. The heat of the Spanish sun, and the tempers that it provokes not least in those not used to heat, and the search for a variety of forms of sustaining coolness, bring a welcome contextuality in which Levy’s themes run their course. The many people who pass through Sophie’s life on her Spanish and Greek sojourns are rather sketched, although this acts to heighten the characterisation of Sophie herself and her own struggles. Words and phrases are repeated in different contexts, creating motifs that deliver both dissonance and echoes as we grapple (indeed, sometimes in a most peculiar way) for shards of meaning as well as dimension. Levy can over-reach herself with metaphors that, on occasion, bash the reader over the head rather than drawing him or her on but this is a minor criticism of style rather than of substance. Similarly, the regular repetition of the medusa theme – extending to snakes, and decapitations – in Levy’s exploration of female sexuality does become a little wearing.

Ultimately, however, the biggest criticism is that the book rather fizzles out during, and after, Sophie’s visit to her father and his new family in Athens and the more or less single paragraph closing denouement comes, it might seem, as a relief more to the author than to Rose and Sophie. Conversely, how in the light of that denouement these two take their relationship forward might form an interesting future novel(la), although I suspect at this juncture that Levy might well not be pitching herself as its author.

Book Review: His Bloody Project

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s successful second novel, short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and sub-titled ‘Documents relating to the case of Roderick McRae’, sees, like The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, the author taking another creative approach to the structure of the modern novel. Here, Burnet appears essentially as an editor, curating a collection of documents about three murders taking place in the north-west Scotland village of Culduie. The murderer – Roderick (Roddy) McRae – is not in doubt, but the question of whether he was responsible mentally for his actions and, indeed, the motives for them are the major themes of the novel as Burnet – who ostensibly came across the documents while researching some family history in Applecross – explores the approach taken by the courts to criminal insanity in Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

Along the way, Burnet’s subject matter covers the vicissitudes of day-to-day life in a small crofting community in post-Clearances Scotland, class-based attitudes to crofting and crofters, and the state of gender relations in the sexist, patriarchal societies of the time in which women and girls – inside such communities in addition to the way in which women were frequently observed by outsiders – lived shockingly targeted, highly vulnerable and sexualised lives. Additionally, the role of outsiders in a small community is also well-explored with the McRaes’ stock – it is likely, although this is never discussed in the novel, that they are of traveller/Roma origin – featuring heavily in the development of Roddy McRae’s character.

The novel has been well-researched and the period detail – despite the author’s understandable confession that he is a novelist and not a social historian – rings heavily true. The role of, and attitudes towards, the Gáidhlig language is well explored. The blurring of fact and fiction – there were no such murders by a McRae in north-west Scotland at this time, although Culduie certainly exists, and pretty much on the plan sketched out in the book (indeed, the owners of a B&B in the village have gone to some lengths to explain the connections) and several of the characters appearing in the novel are real-life ones – is, aided by the documentary structure of the novel, done to such good effect that it is likely to leave some readers confused and looking for hard evidence to support the conclusions that they draw. That, by the way, is not a bad thing.

This is a good novel, but it’s not a great one. The reporters and journalists in the ‘trial’ section of the novel are stereotyped in the interest of a few cheap (though funny…) jokes. More seriously, John McRae – Roddy’s father – is weakly drawn: suitably withdrawn and subject to laconic pronouncements when called upon, his religious life, as an elder in the kirk, is almost completely ignored: seemingly, a major omission given the theme. Providence – divine intervention – features strongly as the crofters look for ways to explain and rationalise their lack of control over the lives and, here, the role of the Church in the service of the interests of the landed gentry might have been better explored. Neither is this in other respects – given the subject matter – the radical novel it might have been since Burnet again pulls his punches on the key point of the story, here leaving the reader to draw conclusions (indeed, to write his or her own novel) around the several various, and extremely important, loose ends left hanging. Tying some of those up, without compromising the period detail, might well have made for a more impactful novel on the life and struggle of crofters after the end of the Clearances but for whom land ownership remained an unresolved question (indeed for whom it would continue to be unresolved until some forty years later than the period covered here, after the desperate, but determinedly focused, actions of the Vatersay Raiders saw the first approaches to land reform for crofters). It is, perhaps, asking a lot of a young author on his second book to write such a novel, but it’s one that does need to be written (and for which, I might add, there would be a considerable audience for a Scottish publishing house like Saraband).

And just what is it that Burnet has against teachers? As in The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, representatives of the teaching profession appear weak, easily bullied and unable to exercise much authority.

Nevertheless, Burnet is capable of spinning a good yarn and his natural flair for the development of very solid, very credible characters – in just a few sentences in the sections dealing with the community’s resolution of the loss of Lachlan McKenzie’s ram, as well as at the Gathering in Applecross, the reader is left in no doubt as to what kind of man McKenzie was. Additionally, Burnet slyly manages to pack in a few choice words at the close around the dangers of social media and – although this pre-dates the publication – the way in which false stories were manufactured and spread in the nineteenth century which has a strongly topical flavour following the US presidential election. I’ll certainly buy the next one although again, as with The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I’ll next be looking for a much stronger voice from the author himself, with a resolution of the issues presented rather than the reader being left to interpret (or even invent) resolutions against the backcloth that the author has so skilfully developed.

*This is not a post about Nigel Farage although, given political developments this week, I am reserving it for possible future use in this respect.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau

Like probably a lot of readers, I picked this up fairly recently in the wake of Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s second novel – His Bloody Project – being shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize (and which has just now worked its way to the top of my reading pile). And absolutely fair play to his publisher – Saraband, a tiny but brilliantly creative Scottish publishing house (check out the video to support part of the backstory of this first novel) – for using the Booker to add a bit more juice to an earlier novel.

Bedeau purports to be the author’s translation of a French cult classic by one Raymond Brunet (see what he did there?): one that has been effective enough to confuse more than a few poor souls. It is, of course, a novel, with the ‘translation’ constituting an elaborate structual device whose purpose is conjectural but which seems to have been to support what is arguably the book’s main purpose. John Fowles of course deployed similar structural devices in several of his works.

The novel itself need not detain us too long: it is, in truth, a rather slight story with the disappearance of Ms. Bedeau being simply a MacGuffin on which to hang a study of two men – one being a detective; the other a social misfit who may know something about the disappearance but who has a complex psychological history – located in smalltown France (the very real town of Saint-Louis, close to Strasbourg). Having himself spent some time living in France, Burnet’s observations are well-informed and the novel’s keen sense of atmosphere and place, particularly around the role of food and drink in French society, is likely to owe significantly to his experience. The tale is assured and well-told, with chapters consumed by your reviewer at a rapid pace and unfolding in a well-described timeframe, partly in the current and partly in flashback for both the main protagonists; and there is an appreciable level of sly humour surrounding the author’s observations. And yet ultimately the author pulls his punches on the main plot; sub-plots are left undeveloped and, in one case, completely hanging; and the key to the denouement of the main plot appears trivial and would, thus, be unsatisfactory in a more major work.

It is interesting to learn (from the author’s profile page on the Saraband website) that Burnet is returning to his detective – Inspector Georges Gorski – in his next novel, since this gives us the key to Bedeau‘s main purpose: it is a homage to Georges Simenon, the French writer whose Inspector Maigret books are modern classics and who (alongside other European crime novels) is a declared major influence on Burnet as an author. It is in this novel-as-homage that we might view some of its weaknesses (weak and poorly developed female caricatures; bad sex scenes; a level of misogyny in describing the women characters and one instance of casual racism towards the book’s end): this is not Burnet’s voice, necessarily, but that of the purported author he is translating and whose roman fits into a genre of cheap, and rather dated, French detective novels which are themselves Simenon pastiches. Consequently, we should probably cut Burnet a little slack on such weaknesses: in this reading, this novel of his is only partly his own and the weaknesses may stem, more or less built-in, from the purpose of the novel-as-homage rather than from the mind and the pen of Burnet as himself. It will thus be interesting to see how Gorski features next, what device Burnet will use to support his re-appearance and how much of Burnet’s own voice, as opposed to him acting as a channel for forgotten (and minor) French authors, is contained in that work.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward immensely to hearing a little more of Burnet’s own voice sans the influence of French crime novelists in His Bloody Project.

CD review: Love and Hate

I’m coming a little late to this one, Michael Kiwanuka’s second CD, released in July 2016, being a present (thanks, Tracy!) to which I’ve only now got around. Nevertheless, this was quite a timely listen since Kiwanuka has been sitting in on a Sunday afternoon during February on 6Music for Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (some episodes still available for listening).

A look at the playlists for the shows reveals a lot about the influences on Kiwanuka at this point, alongside the playlists he has also put together on iTunes (apparently…) in support of his 2017 Brits award nominations (for male artist and for album of the year); and on his own Spotify account (subscription required). (Though listening on the radio is always better, right?) Alongside the well-known influential figures from soul and jazz (sadly, most of them dead), there are some surprises too, revealing Kiwanuka, evidently a shy and even introspective man (there’s little of himself on his website or on his Twitter feed – and fair enough for all that, although artists are by definition public figures and, perhaps, need to give a little of themselves if their work is to be understood), to be something of a rocker, too (something which becomes also clear on the CD, which heavily features blues guitars and the influence of Ernie Isley (‘Summer Breeze’)).

On to the CD, and the most immediately obvious reference points vocally are Richie Havens and Ted Hawkins, but, primarily, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ in both the themes of the songs (spiritualism, racism and agonised pain at the state of the world) but also in the over-riding ethos of orchestral soul drawn from the shimmering, soaring strings that underpin the key moments in the majority of the songs, in the chorus of voices providing backing for them and in the sudden key, and mood, shifts in the melodies within them. Extraordinarily tough footsteps to follow, perhaps (although, alongside the utterly sheer brilliance of some of its songs, it has to be said that ‘What’s Going On?’ also contains moments of unlistenable psychedelic filler: it’s an album of great songs, but it’s not a great album). Nevertheless, Kiwanuka manages successfully to tread on similar ground while not plummeting as many of the depths – a fact betraying, despite his apparent introspective nature, a level of confidence about his abilities and in the strength of his songs.

After a period of time-out to re-appraise himself and his music, this makes a bold statement. The otherwise somewhat overblown review of ‘Love and Hate’ in The Guardian points to the inner belief involved in putting a ten minute track (‘Cold Little Heart’) as the first song on the album, with Kiwanuka’s own vocal (though of course his voice is heard also in his guitar…) heard for the first time only after nearly five minutes. This is perceptive in some respects, although it’s also possible to see this as an attempt to put off the moment of saying something as long as possible. The moment he does is not only joyous but joyously cathartic: against the stirring strings, the repeated intonations of his backing singers and in his bluesy guitar in that first five minutes, it’s also clearly possible to see this as a man re-awakening, revitalising, drawing strength from the voices that surround him, overcoming his doubts and, finally sucking in air, gathering himself to say what it is he has to say.

Which brings us to his vocal (and his lyrics): cracked and pained, doubtful and unforgiving of himself, and cuttingly honest, but nevertheless capable of positive and even upbeat moments, Kiwanuka’s is finely tuned to his own, deeply personal observations and experiences. If the predominant feel of ‘Love and Hate’ is downbeat, geared towards a Sunday afternoon and a soul searching for answers even in the first, let alone from the second, half of 2016, Kiwanuka is clear that, while we need to look for sources of strength within ourselves, we can’t do this by ourselves: that we have to walk with each other, not just in someone else’s shoes but alongside them.

Key songs: the title track; and ‘Cold Little Heart’ – that gorgeous, raw opener. In fact, if you don’t like that, simply move along – there’s nothing else to see here. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a thing of great beauty and emotional power. And this is a great album.

Between the sunset and the sea

No, not the title of one of my photo blogs (not yet, anyway): Between the sunset and the sea is instead the evocative, and slightly gnomic, title of the first book by Simon Ingram, Editor of Trail magazine (the title is taken from a line of a poem expressing the joy of climbing mountains by the poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young).

In it, Ingram takes us on a journey up a personal selection of 16 UK mountains (some of them just hills, though 😉 ), nine of them in Scotland, four in Wales and three in England (all of these in the Lake District). The book has been out for a couple of years now but I’ve not long picked it up – a tribute to the work a good bookstore can do to keep titles alive by the use of good browsing displays. A hill walker myself – albeit largely in the ambition than in the actual and effortful reality, my Munro bagging to date having reached the princely total of one – Ingram had me entertained, educated and substantially enthralled. Each of his sixteen chapters – substantial essays in their own right – has a one-word and abstract title (Vision, Science, Light…), lending an appropriate degree of sparseness, mystery and isolation, which Ingram then expands upon in terms of accounting for his choices of mountain within his individual themes, and then relating his progress up them (the climbs are, mostly, solo) interspersed with lively and carefully researched accounts of the place each one has in our folklore, our social history and our culture. Along the way, we meet (metaphorically) a sturdy cast of characters: those involved in the Kinder Scout trespass (whose cousins in Scotland are also worth paying tribute to); Welsh slate miners; artists and poets; dedicated (to the point of obsession) Victorian scientists, early meteorologists and geologists; land reformists; and eccentrics. And, of course, plenty of wildlife.

The effect in reading is akin to being dragged from one’s armchair up a mountain by a friend who’s both enthusiastic and intelligent about the mountain in question and its weathers, but also about its history and its place. Ingram would, it would seem, be extremely good company for a mountain walk (it is something of a surprise that the dialogue with the people he meets, or climbs with, is by turns rather stilted and somewhat laconic, his climbing partners in particular tending to contribute gruff practical reality in contrast to Ingram’s knowledgeable romanticism). And he has an acute eye not just for the things he sees but for memorable ways in which to phrase them – a ‘malingering’ of midges, for example, or a popular mountain ‘bewigged’ by climbers.

Beware, of course: for sometimes Ingram on his solo climbs gets it wrong in terms of equipment, sustenance or timing – somewhat poor form, you might think, given his day job – while his apparently unerring ability to get into risky scrapes on many of them might well endanger those with lesser experience. Additionally, his research very occasionally lets him down: poor folk cleared from the Highlands in the Clearances to make way for sheep and other ‘improvements’ desired by landowners could not in any way be said to be ‘thriving’: that they were clearly not thriving was, after all, the point.

Nevertheless, Ingram reminds us in a brief reference that processes similar to the Clearances also happened in England, under the Enclosure Acts (and, indeed, this was part of a wider European movement of rural depopulation and urbanisation as societies sought to provide sufficient growth to deal with the effects of technological change – a process that has interesting parallels to what is happening today under the so-called fourth industrial revolution). The Clearances were, essentially, a class-based attack on the poor; they were not, as may be easily assumed, a result of absentee (English) landowners visiting attacks on Scottish people (although, in some places, they may well have reflected part of the undoubted process of repression which carried on in respect of the havoc wreaked, within Scotland too, by the 1745 Jacobite rebellion). That such attacks happened on the poor in England and elsewhere in Europe seems to have something important to say in respect of the sovereignty debate, whether we are talking about Scotland vis-a-vis the rest of the UK, or the UK vis-a-vis the European Union; as well as the need to build unity among the working class regardless of background in defence against the attacks which are to come.

Ingram’s own preferences for not only climbing mountains via less established routes and in hostile weather but spending the night on them too is, I suspect, likely to mean that the book is more of interest to the fireside armchair walker than the climbing enthusiast who is, in turn, going to have to work a little harder to establish the practical functionalism of routes and practical difficulties – though these things are here, too. But in providing a wide-ranging and beautiful set of reasons to climb mountains other than (dread phrase) ‘because they’re there’, Ingram has done an excellent job in giving an additional helping hand to those of us who, while feeling the pull of the mountains, nevertheless manage to find too many reasons to stay in the comfort of our armchairs.

NB edited on 1 March to add the link to the piece about the Craigallian Fire memorial, which I’d read previously and searched unsuccessfully for when writing this review.

Book Review: The Sellout

I picked up my copy of Paul Sellers‘s latest work four days after it won the Booker Prize. Not only was ‘Winner’ proudly stamped on the front cover, and the author’s bio consequently updated on the inside back; such fresh-minted copies had also made their way as far north as my local bookseller in the City of Perth. That’s quite impressive going by Oneworld, which publishes Sellers in the UK.

Actually published in the US as far back as March 2015, and now marketed in the UK as a ‘lacerating satire’, a quote from Guardian (although, interestingly, the Guardian in question doesn’t appear to be this one), it is certainly satirical on the state of race relations in the US. There is a doubt, however, which is sustained throughout the novel, as to the major target of the satire. Famously, the author has said that he doesn’t know what point is being made in The Sellout – an odd admission, on the face of it, although that might be an entirely legitimate device to allow the reader to approach it in his/her one way, particularly given that this interview was made in launch publicity). Regardless, Sellers is excoriating in his attacks on a variety of targets, from individuals wrapped up in a multitude of petty concerns, to street gangs no longer sure why they’re fighting each other, to intellectuals distanced from what the real issues are, to the failure of senior black figures (Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all make (disguised) appearances) to achieve real change for ordinary black men and women. The multiplicity of Sellers’s targets makes for confusion as to the purpose and aims of the novel (this reader spent a lot of – ultimately wasted – time considering that the sellout of the title was, quite simply, POTUS) but through such confusion comes the truth that, actually, we’re all to blame for the current state of things.

A US presidential election won on the basis of a racist discourse and with the use of racist tropes, and a resignation of a mayor for an approving, if thoughtlessly naive, response to a clearly racist comment about the First Lady, on top of the evident need for a Black Lives Matter campaign to be fought, all prove the point that race – the fault line throughout modern US history – continues to be the issue which divides the nation despite the election of a black man as President.

Which, it seems, is Sellers’s main point. Race relations appear to have come a long way since the 1950s and Birth Of A Nation, but the events of the past week in the US, on the one hand, and the credible testimony of Bernie Noel, Adrian Chiles’s friend in the BBC’s #blackandbritish campaign, on the other, not only demonstrate how depressingly far they have yet to go but indeed call into question the notion that they have actually come very far at all.

Carrying humour that is sometimes wearingly sardonic and cynical, but always bitingly sharp, The Sellout is genuine satire in that the novel contains little in the way of characterisation and the plot – such as it is: the narrator (a black man) is brought before the Supreme Court for having reinstituted segregation and for slavery offences – is not only weak but features some mystifying developments. The characters are mere playthings, puppets whose strings are all too visible. The narrator, an urban fruit and veg farmer and surfer, but who appears to do very little of the former, has sufficient clout, apparently on the basis of the quality of his produce, to persuade school authorities to embark on a programme of re-segregation. The reason: a segregated bus caused people travelling on it to become more polite since they realised what their parents had been through. And, apparently, this led to improved school results. (BTW: on the issue of intergenerational relations and the spark for passivity or activity in societies torn apart by racism, it’s worth hearing the ‘born-free’ Gigi LaMayne and the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa.)

Nevertheless, Sellers’s rapier prose and his ability to leave few lodestones in the black emancipation movement untouched (clearly, to start with: school segregation; Rosa Parks) leaves us wondering what we need to do next to deliver a society that is truly post-racial. The complacency of our own selves – Sellers’s ultimate and most meaningful target: specifically in the novel, the black community but, ultimately, absolutely all of us – surely continues to be our most dangerous enemy.

In the context of the direction of contemporary politics in a post-Obama, pre-Trump US and a pre-Brexit UK, The Sellout is a worthy, if flawed, winner of the Booker Prize which, in asking us to confront that complacency, will have done exactly the job an international Prize ought to achieve if it elevates its 2016 flagbearer to a much wider readership.

Gig review: Iain MacFarlane

Iain MacFarlane, the fiddler from Glenfinnan, pitched up in the Uists on Tuesday this week with his band touring ‘Gallop to Callop’, his new CD – his first as a solo artist – despite being involved with Blazin’ Fiddles for over fifteen years since he set up the band.

Playing a well-balanced combination of sets of strathspeys, jigs and reels, and airs, interspersed with tales laced with humour and with more than a whiff of shaggy dog, as well as insights into how a traditional musician goes about his craft of collecting tunes and writing (and naming) new ones, MacFarlane and his band kept a capacity crowd royally entertained. The core band – MacFarlane; Ingrid Henderson on keyboards and clarsach; fiddle player (and stepper) Megan Henderson; guitarist Ewan Robertson; and Dermot Byrne on melodeon – played two sets of about 50 minutes each, plus an encore, and supplemented their number with stand-in guests including soundman Iain Macdonald, Artistic Director at Ceolas Uibhist, on whistle, who had been instrumental in bringing the band to the Uists; and Allan Henderson, MacFarlane’s old mucker from Blazin’ Fiddles. This helped bring about an atmosphere of a proper pub session to the gig – no mean feat when the venue is the (otherwise very well-appointed) drama hall of Lionacleit School – and brought a real warmth to a chilly November night. Indeed, despite the obvious lack of a bar, in the context of a style of music which more or less demands a degree of looseness to be enjoyed at its best, the music held up well, assisted chiefly by MacFarlane’s own swinging virtuosity, at its best on the faster tunes, and Robertson’s effortlessly fluent underpinning rhythm.

Good local support for the gig, and the growing musical scene in the Uists, all help to prompt the need for a proper musical venue, in which the required ambience for traditional music to thrive, and in a larger setting, can be found more readily. In this direction, it is to be hoped that Ceolas is successful in its ambitious Cnoc Soilleir project.

Meanwhile, ‘Gallop to Callop’ is available direct from Old Laundry Productions. Go on – inspire your Friday night with the degree of energy and musical chutzpah it demands!