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Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Ossians


[I]t’s not as simple as “It’s shite being Scottish.” The truth is, it’s both shite and great being Scottish, often simultaneously. – Doug Johnstone, The Ossians

If you’re thinking of taking a tour of Scotland you can either flick through a travel brochure and gawp at all the picturesque places there are (and there are) or you could treat yourself to a copy of Doug Johnstone’s The Ossians. The difference? The travel brochure will present you with the skin of Scotland (photoshopped to within an inch of its life) but beauty, as the old adage goes, is only skin deep. If you want to get to the heart of Scotland read The Ossians. There you'll also find the kidneys, its sickly liver, the spleen, the intestines and the arsehole. Several arseholes in fact. One of the arseholes is the book's antihero, Connor Alexander, “an egocentric, introspective, self-absorbed, narrow-minded bigot” (his words), the founder and lead singer of The Ossians, “a shit, narrow-minded indie band, with pretentions of intelligence”—again Connor’s words, not mine, but you’ll get no argument from me on either count.

When I first heard that Doug was looking for reviewers for this book I hesitated thinking it might be a Tartan Noir crime novel or a thriller, which is how his other books have been described, but while there are numerous criminals within its pages (mostly petty) that's not what the book is really about. I personally hoped it was going to be a cross between two films that I’d enjoyed immensely in the late nineties: Trainspotting and Still Crazy. The former I would imagine needs no introduction but it was the film that reminded the world that snooty, culturally rich Edinburgh was also the crack capital of Europe. Rather than focusing on the official face of the city—on Princes Street, the castle and the Royal Mile—the story revolves around a group of heroin addicts in an economically depressed area of the city (portrayed, in the film, by economically depressed areas of Glasgow actually). Still Crazy is a film about a fictional 1970s rock band named Strange Fruit who are persuaded to get back together to perform at a reunion of the same concert venue where they played their last gig; comedy and pathos ensue. Now I’ve finished the book I have to say it lived up to my expectations—The Ossians: Trainspotting meets Still Crazy.

Trainspotting is definitely a touchstone for Doug. It’s referenced a number of times in the book, for example:

Here’s your Scotland, delivered just the way you like it, straight off a fucking shortbread tin or postcard, with snow-peaked turrets, a bridge and the lapping waters of the loch, and only eighty years old. In Scotland, you either had this piece of twee tourist bollocks, or you had Kyle of Lochalsh up the road – nasty, ugly and depressing. You either had Edinburgh Castle and Brigadoon or you had Trainspotting. But then Trainspotting had become another version of the same thing, hadn’t it? They ran Trainspotting tours of Leith, for Christ’s sake. Didn’t that just misrepresent the country as much as Highlander?


Trainspotting, if you’ve ever tried to read it, is hard work even if you’re a Scot. Irvine Welsh takes no prisoners. It was long listed for the 1993 Booker Prize and was apparently rejected for the shortlist after, so says Welsh in his autobiography, “offending the sensibilities of two judges”.

Welsh explores in depth the absence of a true Scottish national identity. Renton displays a great self-loathing of his country, which he views as a nation "colonised by wankers". Welsh suggests that the idealised image of "Scotland the Brave" is a false heritage, a sentimentalised vision of Scotland perpetuated by events such as the Edinburgh Festival. Welsh also attacks Unionism through Renton's description of his father's Protestant loyalist family. (this is portrayed in the movie after Renton tells Sick Boy "It's shite being Scottish!" and proceeds with his diatribe). – Wikipedia

Just comparing the quote from Wikipedia and the quote from The Ossians it’s easy to see the similarity between the two books. Doug’s book is nowhere near as graphic or violent as Trainspotting. It also pretty much sticks to standard English which, if you’ve ever tried to read Trainspotting, you’ll thank him for.

OssianThe Ossians (named after the narrator and purported author of a cycle of epic poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson published beginning around 1760) are a fictitious Edinburgh-based band comprising Connor (vocals), Kate Alexander (bass and backing vocals), Danny McIntyre (drums) and Hannah Reid (guitar and keyboards); the latter three's relationship to Connor being twin sister, best friend and girlfriend in that order. They have been together as a band for five years but have yet to hit the big time. They’ve released three EPs, have a small, loyal fan base and, at the end of the tour that comprises the bulk of the book, are headed for a gig in Glasgow where there will be people from some London labels waiting to (hopefully) sign them. All they have to do is get through all the other gigs first. Simples, yes? So it’s a fairly common trope—think of both Bill and Ted films—they have to survive a series of challenges and get to their final trial on time upon which everything hangs.

The self-destructive tortured artist is a cliché: Pete Doherty, Courtney Love, Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne still hanging in there; Joplin, Cobain, Morrison, Vicious and Hendrix among the not so lucky.

Artistically, it's best approached the way David Bowie did it in the mid-1970s. His cocaine addiction turned him into a withered stick-insect figure of a man but also inspired the best music of his entire career. Then he sorted himself out and became the golden-haired survivor we know and love today. That's the trick of course: to "destroy" yourself but somehow "redeem" yourself artistically in the process and become stronger as a result. – Nick Kent, ‘Stairway to Hell’, The Guardian, 19 April 2001

It’s hard to say where Connor sits. The keyboard player in Spın̈al Tap had a simple philosophy of life: "Have a good time all the time […] Pain—who needs it?" Connor could never say that. He’s in constant pain, mental and physical:

He felt the joint top up his level of stonedness, which was combining with the smacky aftermath of what had turned out to be a pretty dodgy E. In turn, the alcohol was taking the edge off the stoned feeling, and the speed was sharpening up the boozy fuzz. On top of it all he’d snicked a couple of Feminax off Kate for the pain in his mouth and this bloody headache, and they were starting to ooze through him. Just another night in the drug cocktail cabinet of his body.

The hope is, of course, that this will be one giant learning curve for Connor. It’s him who made the decision to tour up north “looking for the real Scotland, a tangible nation, something he could call home at least.” So, on top of being egocentric, introspective, self-absorbed, narrow-minded and bigoted, he’s also a bit naïve. But then he is only twenty-four.

We don’t get much back story here. Did Connor become wrapped up in the rock and roll dream or was he simply ill-prepared for it and has turned to drink and drugs to help him cope? I suspect the latter.

In an interview Connor talks about his drug of choice:

Drugs are supposed to get you fucked up, right? And what gets you more fucked up than booze? Nothing. And it’s fucking legal, which is genius. It’s amazing what the human body and mind can achieve fuelled by booze. Great works of art can be created and great pains can be numbed, and all you get is a wee hangover, and probably some chilli sauce stains on your trousers from a kebab on the way home. I’m not advocating that anyone dabble in kebabs, you understand. Evil, nasty things, kebabs. Never touch them.

Withnail and IEveryone drinks too much in the band but no one drinks more than Connor who’s perpetually wandering around with a large lemonade bottle filled with gin and tonic. If this is ever filmed—and I do think it’s eminently filmable—I can see it becoming a cult with its own drinking game like the one associated with Withnail and I. Seriously Connor puts a lot away during this book. As he says to his girlfriend after she expresses concern for his health (in particular his headaches and his insomnia):

        ‘Fucking hell, love, give it a rest. Everyone drinks.’
        ‘Not like you.’
        ‘I’m the troubled artist, amn’t I?’ said Connor, wagging a finger. ‘The old Cobain syndrome, nobody understands my torment and all that pish.’


        They all drank a lot, a shitload in fact, but he drank differently. They all relaxed when they got pissed, but Connor only became tighter and tighter with every gin.

Now as if watching the train-wreck-in-progress that is Connor isn’t entertaining enough there is an actual story here. In Trainspotting the nasty piece of work is Begbie; in The Ossians its Nick Simpson to whom Connor is in debt and Nick is not the most patient of men:

        As he came out the cubicle he was grabbed by a massive pair of bear mitts and thrown hard against the far wall, banging his head against the cold tiles.
        ‘What the fuck?’ he said, shaking his head. In front of him was a tiny man, not much more than five feet, with a bald head and heavily creased face. Behind him loomed a big bastard mountain of a guy, rubbing his hands together like a kid eagerly awaiting his dinner.
        ‘Nick, I was going to come see you tomorrow,’ said Connor to the smaller guy. ‘Honestly, I just had to get this gig out the way then . . .’
       The short man held up a hand gently as if trying to flag a bus.
        ‘Save it, Con,’ he said in a high-pitched Highland accent. ‘You’re just embarrassing us all with that bullshit. We both know you’ve been avoiding me, and we both know why. The little matter of thirteen hundred quid for drugs which, I assume, you either gave away when you were cunted, or just took yourself, with no intention of ever paying me back. It’s my own fault, of course. I should never have let you run up a fucking tab. Stupid really.’
        ‘I’ve got the money, Nick, I just need to get it . . .’
       Nick held up his hand again, this time gesturing slightly to the big lump of meat behind him, who strode forwards.
        ‘Shug, wait . . .’ said Connor as the big guy punched him square in the face, making his head crack off the tiled wall again.
        ‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ said Connor, holding his nose. Blood seeped through his fingers.
        ‘Hold your head back,’ said the big guy in a friendly voice, handing Connor a tissue. ‘And pinch the bridge of the nose, that helps stop the bleeding.’
        ‘Listen to Shug, he knows what he’s talking about.’
        ‘Fucking cheers,’ said Connor through his hands, but tilting his head back nevertheless.
        ‘Now,’ said Nick. ‘What are we going to do about this debt?’
       Connor kept quiet. Pain throbbed back and forth across his face and his forehead as he dabbed at his nose and lip with the tissue.

Nick’s solution is simple. He knows about the band’s tour and insists Connor take four packages with him that he is instructed to exchange for four other packages: drugs for money and money for drugs Connor assumes. Failure to comply is not an option nor is failure to execute the drops as planned (and we all know right from the off that’s not going to go as planned). As the tour gets under way Connor becomes increasingly paranoid. He’s convinced he’s being watched from the shadows. The thing is, he is. Is it the cops or perhaps a guardian angel? Or something else entirely?

Glasgow rainThe tour takes them from Edinburgh through South Queensferry, St Andrews, Dundee, Arbroath, Aberdeen, Inverness, Thurso, Durness, Ullapool, Kyle of Lochalsh, Fort William, Corrour (not actually part of the tour but another nod to Trainspotting) and culminates in Glasgow:

Of course, it would be raining by the time they got to Glasgow. It always rained in Glasgow, as if that blighted city had invented the stuff.

The adjectives used to describe any one of these stops are pretty much interchangeable: “grey”, “dingy”, “miserable”, “ugly”, “crumbling”… Here, for example, is how he describes Thurso:

Within two minutes they’d driven round the centre, a small grid of houses in mushy brown and splashy grey with shop fronts poking out on the ground floor, and a tiny pedestrian precinct that looked straight out of an Edinburgh housing scheme.

The band are well and truly out of their comfort zone but they soldier on. Few of the gigs could be described as successes. A number end in punch-ups.

The book when it first came out in 2008 (it’s just been rereleased as an ebook) was well received. Ian Rankin called it, “A powerful and moving commentary on the country and its defining myths,” although I’m not sure that I’d call Connor a “visionary” as did Niall Griffiths. I tend to agree more with the Amazon reviewer who said:

My main gripe though is with the main character who I've heard described in other reviews as [e]nigmatic, talented, out-spoken, a visionary. Well, I don't know about that but he came across to me as just a bit of a git who in the main and on most occasions just had me thinking `what are you doing that for?' So hat's off to the author for moving me to feel so strongly about the guy. All I can say is – He gets punched a lot and I can see why.

I do think his star rating—he awards the book a measly two stars—is harsh although he’s not the only one to criticise the editing and the slow start. The real question for me was: How was Doug going to handle the climax? Was Connor going to “redeem” himself in the fashion of David Bowie, was he going to hurtle off the stage at the end and go out in a blaze of glory or was he going to fade into obscurity choking on his own vomit? I’m not going to say.

“I’m the biggest fuck-up you’re ever likely to meet. I’m a complete arsehole, a selfish wanker, a pretentious dickhead. Just ask the rest of the band if you don’t believe me.” Connor is not far wrong there and yet there is a decent guy at the heart of this pain in the arse. I found him hard to relate to but not hard to root for.

This is a far more talky book than one might have expected. It’s not without action but it really is more of a meditation—albeit something of a foulmouthed one. In a comment to the review on Vulpes Libres Doug writes:

Safe to say, reaction to Connor has been mixed, but I was trying to prove you could spend 300 pages with someone who you wouldn’t necessarily want to share a pint with. Whether I succeeded or not is down to the reader I guess.

The national identity wasn’t a “red herring” … it was the main theme of the book, kind of. I wanted to try and tie in Connor’s search for meaning in his own pampered life with his and his country’s search for a meaningful identity. The juxtaposition of rural Scotland and rock ‘n’ roll was another thing I wanted to explore … I was trying to tie in the myth of national identity with the myth of rock ‘n’ roll, both empty promises. Ultimately, of course, Connor doesn’t find a home, or meaning, or anything, really, which was kind of the point.

I, for my part, liked the book a lot. It was literary, intelligent and appealed to my sense of humour. It may not be his best novel—“the recently published Smokeheads is a real step forward in terms of style and voice” according to Dear Scotland—but just as its flawed protagonist is hard to dislike I also found myself willing to be more forgiving of his creator than maybe he deserved. The only way you’ll know is to find yourself a copy and make your own mind up.

You can read the first chapter here.


doug johnstoneHere’s the bio from his website:

Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. His fourth novel, Hit & Run, was published by Faber and Faber on March 15th 2012 and was recently an Amazon #1 Bestseller. His previous novel, Smokeheads, was published in March 2011, also by Faber, and has been nominated for the Crimefest Last Laugh Award. Before that he published two novels with Penguin, Tombstoning (2006) and The Ossians (2008), which received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre.

Doug was writer in residence at the University of Strathclyde 2010-2012 and before that worked as a lecturer in creative writing there. He’s had short stories appear in various publications, and since 1999 he has worked as a freelance arts journalist, primarily covering music and literature.

He is a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, part of the Fence Collective. Northern Alliance have released four albums to critical acclaim, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians. Doug also plays drums in Achilles and released his debut solo EP, Keep It Afloat, in 2011.

Doug has a degree in physics, a PhD in nuclear physics and a diploma in journalism, and worked for four years designing airborne radars and missile guidance systems.

He grew up in Arbroath and lives in Portobello, Edinburgh with his wife and two children. He loves drinking malt whisky and playing football, not necessarily at the same time.

You can hear some of the songs referenced in the book here.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

In the Country of Last Things


Our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies, and no matter how diverse they might be in their details, they all share an essential randomness in their design: this then that, and because of that this. – Paul Auster, The Country of Last Things

Where will it all end? It’s an odd expression when you think about it, rather poetic, because it doesn’t ask when or how but where as if the future is an undiscovered country we are all travelling to. Auster describes this place as the country of last things but once you start reading through this book you find yourself wading through an alien world, not simply a country, despite the fact all the action takes place in a single unnamed city, most likely New York. In that respect it might have even made more sense to call the book The City of Last Things but really the city is just an example of what is most probably happening throughout the entire country. From what little we glean it may not be quite so bad in the rest of the world but that looks like only a matter of time.

As in The Road we are faced with a dystopian future without any clear explanation how things got to be this bad. Society still exists after a fashion. The city is governed yet no one stays in power for very long. There are still policemen and soldiers. People have jobs, families and lives. But everything I’ve just mentioned could have “of sorts” tagged on afterwards. People continue going through the motions with less and less at their disposal until there is nothing left but the motions and it’s hard to remember what good these actions ever did. When your every waking moment is devoted to the present there is no time to remember things that aren’t essential to that day’s survival. The book’s narrator, Anna Blume, a girl in her early twenties who has travelled from overseas to this city to look for her missing brother William, at one point is trying to find a way out of her predicament and asks someone about an airplane. He doesn’t understand what an ‘airplane’ is and so she explains that it’s “[a] machine that flies through the air and carries people from one place to another.” The man she asks says there are no such things:

That’s ridiculous, he said, giving me a suspicious kind of look. There’s no such thing. It’s impossible. Don’t you remember? I asked. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he said. You could get into trouble for spreading that kind of nonsense. The government doesn’t like it when people make up stories. It’s bad for morale.

This is only five years after the last film has been shown in a cinema and cars are still to be seen on the street. Aeroplanes are not a part of this man’s world and are never likely to be. Just as the city’s material resources are dwindling so is the intellectual capacity of its citizens:

Entire categories of objects disappear – flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands – and for a time you will be able to recognise those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean, But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottal and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish. The word “flowerpot” will make no more sense to you than the word “splandigo”.

The book is written by Anna a few years after she has come to the city on an aid ship (which does suggest that things are better elsewhere). We learn a little about her upbringing and it all sounds quite comfortable; she hasn’t wanted in any way. Considering the amount of time Auster devotes to painting a picture of how things work (or don’t work) in the city it might have been nice to hear a bit of the history – there are certainly enough older people who would remember even farther back than Anna – but we get very little. What we do learn is that even though Anna thought she was prepared to take the city on she really has no idea just what life was going to be like there. This book is her letter to someone from her past – which she fully expects will never reach them since all postal deliveries have now broken down and no ships are being allowed to dock – but she writing it anyway. We know from the opening line that she doesn’t survive but whether the intended recipient, a childhood friend, gets her message is unclear. The book opens with the line:

These are the last things, she wrote.

and at the start of the book at least we get the odd interjection from whoever it is who has acquired her letter but after a while, like everything else, they disappear and all we are left with is a narrative and the hope perhaps that they might reappear at the end and append a few lines telling us what happens to Anna. She may not have died. Simply because she stopped writing doesn’t mean she’s died but it’s hard to conceive any other future for her as you start to work your way through this book. The whole world is dying and most of them before what, under any other circumstances, we would regard as their time.

One of the big problems with science fiction is the need to provide often-detailed descriptions and expositions so that the narration and the author’s arguments can get lost in the mêlée. Writers of historical fiction face similar problems and so, clearly, do writers of future histories. The book abounds with expressions that need to be explained like:

    • Runners
    • Leapers
    • Euthanasia Clinics
      • Return Voyage
      • Journey of Marvels
      • Pleasure Cruise
    • Assassination Clubs
    • Transformation Centres
    • Resurrection Agents
    • Scavengers
      • garbage collectors
      • object hunters
    • Fecalists
    • About the future
      • Smilers
      • Crawlers
        • Dogs
        • Snakes
    • About the weather
      • Drummers
      • End-of-the-Worlders
      • Free Associationists
    • Tollists
    • Vultures

Some are fairly obvious but not all. Although learning about all these groups and organisations is interesting Auster does present most of it by way of what basically amounts to an information dump about forty pages long.

The book itself falls into four distinct sections although there are no discrete chapters, just occasional breaks in the narrative:

  • Alone on the street.
  • With Isabel and Ferdinand, a married couple. Ferdinand has retreated inside himself, never goes out, relies on his wife for everything and spends most of his time building ships inside progressively smaller and smaller bottles
  • With Sam in the library. Sam has abandoned his career as a journalist to write a book chronicling the demise of the city.
  • With Victoria in Woburn House. Following a fall from a window Anna miraculously ends up in a private care facility where she ends up working. The problem is they’re running out of money at an alarming rate.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the book – you can get that from Wikipedia – but I can tell you that this is a character-driven piece of writing, there’s really not much of a plot at all. Anna looks back on what she can remember of her time in the city acknowledging that she’s probably forgotten much (a symptom of life in the city) and apart from a few flashbacks the story progresses in a straightforward linear fashion: she arrives, tries to find William or Sam (the reporter sent after him when William stopped sending reports), realises how futile that is and gets swallowed up with day-to-day existence before fortuitously running into a library where someone has heard of Sam; they eventually get separated, she is injured and ends up in Victoria’s care, realises that she’s not going to be in a position to escape from the city in the foreseeable future and so makes the best of where she’s landed. But nothing lasts forever in the city:

These are the last things…When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you.

Those who have read Auster’s metafictions might feel a little disappointed by this book. Those who have never read him will probably enjoy the book more but compared to other dystopias like Orwell’s and Huxley’s it falls short. The thing you have to do with this book is not dwell on what it is not – it is not many things – but instead you need to focus on what he provides. That he has the opportunity to do more is obvious – Anna could have provided us with a whole history of the collapse of society gleaned from Sam’s many, many interviews – but that is not what the book is about. It is about her experiences in the now. We might find it interesting to hear how things got to be the way they have but she’s preoccupied with getting through each day’s sufficiency of evils, if I can paraphrase Matthew 6:34.

soylent-greenThere are inevitable similarities to other imagined futures quite simply because many of the things Auster imagines will happen are the kind of things that logically will happen. In Soylent Green, for example, we are introduced to the notion of assisted suicide at a government clinic, a process referred to as "going home" which is very similar to the “Return Voyage” Auster proposes; the “Journey of Marvels” and the “Pleasure Cruise” are simply alternatives for those who can afford them. There are issues Auster doesn’t explore like drugs or disease. Most things only get brief mentions, in fact, like the various governments that have come and gone. But what he does talk about is quite riveting. Like the subject of food:

Often you will overhear a group of people describing a meal in meticulous detail, beginning with the soups and appetisers and slowly working their way to dessert, dwelling on each savour and spice, on all the various aromas and flavours, concentrating now on the method of preparation, now on the effect of the food itself, from the first twinge of taste on the tongue to the gradually expanding sense of peace as the food travels down the throat and arrives in the belly. These conversations go on for hours, and they have a highly rigorous protocol. You must never laugh, for example, and you must never allow your hunger to get the better of you. No outbursts, no unpremeditated sighs. That would lead to tears, and nothing spoils a food conversation more quickly than tears. … There are even those who say there is nutritional value in these food talks – given the proper concentration and an equal desire to believe in the words among those taking part.

It’s positively medieval but it’s still a modern city, there are still cars, albeit cars powered by methane rather than petrol. That’s where the Fecalists come in. Needless to say there is no sanitation as we know it: “[p]ipes have corroded, toilets have cracked and sprung leaks, the sewer system is largely defunct.” But this is a future we all have to look forward to, a world where everything that can be recycled is, including human bodily waste:

Shit and garbage have become crucial resources here … Each census zone has its own power plant, and these run entirely on waste. … Shit is a serious business here, and anyone caught dumping it in the streets is arrested. With your second offense, you are automatically given the death penalty.

The same goes for dead bodies. It is even a crime to bury the dead. Towards the end of the book Victoria breaks this law and it’s not long before someone complains to the authorities. When a member of the Central Constabulary arrives to investigate this is what he has to say to her:

This is most irregular … The selfishness of burial in this day and age – imagine the gall of it. Without bodies to burn, we’d go under fast, that’s for sure, the whole lot of us would be sunk. Where would our fuel come from, how would we keep ourselves alive? In this time of national emergency, we must all be vigilant. No one body can be spared, and those who take it upon themselves to subvert this law must not be allowed to go free. They are evildoers of the worst sort, perfidious malefactors, renegade scum. They must be rooted out and punished.

Strong, clearly heartfelt words, but not so heartfelt that the man cannot be bribed; a handful of “glots”, the currency of the day, buys his silence. Victoria evades incarceration but the corpse does not escape incineration.

THX1138This is an awful book. It describes an awful world. How could it be anything other than awful? And yet it manages to be. If there is one thing that dystopian fictions have in common it’s a hero, someone who tries to rise above even if they can’t escape from the squalor or oppressiveness that they find themselves being sucked into: Winston Smith, Montag, THX 1138, V, John the Savage – in In the Country of Last Things we have Anna who keeps getting up no matter what the city throws at her. This is what my fellow Scot, Steffan Hamilton had to say about her:

Part of what makes Anna the remarkable heroine that she is, is her continuing ability to love, in a city where it is an achievement to retain even the determination to live. Whether it is sexual love – for a man or a woman – or sisterly love, her propensity for passion under such duress is a testament not just to her own character but to humanity as a whole. It is perhaps this undying heart, more than circumstance, that enables Anna to become pregnant, a happening otherwise unheard of in the city. This wholeness of being, along with that of others … is vital to the underlying feeling of hope that is pervasive throughout. Readers of holocaust biography might be reminded of the great love and stoicism that writers like Primo Levi impart.

Without Anna this book would have ended up swallowing itself in its own awfulness. If I was to compare the book to anything I’d probably go with The Children of Men rather than the predictable ‘Orwellian’ – as one reviewer put it, “ALL dystopias are Orwellian.” What we have here is utterly believable. He could have done the same as Dmitrii Bykov in Living Souls and turn his projected future into a sprawling epic but all credit to him for trimming the fat. Much as I would have liked to know more – there’s always more to know – he tells us enough, more than enough really, to enable us to envisage the kind of society Anna has become lost in:

In spite of what you would suppose, the facts are not reversible. Just because you are able to get in, that does not mean you will be able to get out. Entrances do not become exits, and there is nothing to guarantee that the door you walked through a moment ago will still be there when you turn around to look for it again. That is how it works in the city. Every time you think you know the answer to a question, you discover that the question makes no sense.

I read though a great many of the reviews on Goodreads, as I did with The Road, and I found the opinions weren’t quite as polarised as with that book; The Road really does seem to be a love-it-or-loathe-it kind of a book. With this book a lot of the time people were unhappy because it wasn’t what they expected from Auster – “Every time I read another book by Paul Auster, I'm always disappointed when it's not as good as City of Glass,” says Mary.

But why “the Country of Last Things” and not ‘lost’? The `Last Things' of the book's title reference the `Four Last Things' of Catholic theology – death, judgement, Hell and Heaven so is this an eschatological fantasy in a dystopian setting? For me an Amazon reviewer, Paul Bowes (the only one to give the book 2-stars), hits the nail on the head:

It seems easiest to understand In the Country of Last Things as a meditation on the role of memory and language in the creation and maintenance of human identity, but the philosophical themes are not sustained: for long periods Auster seems to forget about the 'last things', and Anna's observations on time and memory are banal.

I think ‘banal’ is a little harsh myself but I do think Auster loses his way a little. He starts off writing one kind of a novel but once the story takes over, once Anna starts interacting with other people and doesn’t spend so much time in her own head, Auster’s arguments are subverted by the needs of the book’s narrative.

The bottom line is I liked it. I’m a great fan of dystopian fiction and I think Auster holds his end up well. No, it is not a perfect book and I very much doubt that when the book is turned into a film (it’s currently in production) that will help because all the interesting stuff – to me at least – will probably end up being ditched in favour of action. I will still be keen to see this world come to life on the screen. The really big question is what they’ll decide to do with the ending. Will they tag on a happy ending or leave things the way Auster does? That is a concern. That said Auster has written the script so he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Lucia on Holiday

Lucia on Holiday

Truly, Lucia was the irresistible force for which no immoveable object seemed to exist. – Guy Fraser-Sampson, Lucia on Holiday

After having found occasion to dream up collective nouns to suitably describe sets of crows (murder), bishops (bench), capercaillies (tok) and orchids (coterie), it seems strange that the English language, that bedrock of intellectual illumination, has (to the best of my knowledge) neglected to settle on a single word that adequately describes a gathering of egocentrics. Being the lingua franca of a country famed for its eccentrics this seems somewhat remiss. I feel the need to rectify this because the book I am about to talk about concerns a confrontation of egotists.

Everyone can be self-centred from time to time. Mostly selfishness is considered, if not a crime or a sin per se, then at least a less than desirable quality to cultivate in oneself or encourage in others. Selfish people are not considered nice people. The dramatic personae that populates Guy Fraser-Sampson’s latest novel, Lucia on Holiday, appear, on the surface, to be nice people; they are civilised, polite and punctilious with regard to matters of etiquette and decorum. Appearances, which we all acknowledge are prone to untrustworthiness, anyway, are paramount to these people but not in that the-show-must-go-on-stiff-upper-lipped-British fashion; more the all-fur-coat-and-no-knickers sort of way. Not appearing to be what one is expected to be is tantamount to social suicide. Odd that such self-centred people would be so dependent on being seen in the right light by their betters, their peers and even their servants if it comes to that.

Mapp and Lucia were the creations of the English writer E.F. Benson. The novels—there are six by Benson, two by Tom Holt and now a further two by Guy Fraser-Sampson—revolve around humorous incidents in the lives of (mainly) upper-middle-class British people in the 1920s and 1930s, vying for social prestige and "one-upmanship" in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery. Comparisons to P.G. Wodehouse are inevitable and perfectly reasonable for both writers are interested in the comedy of manners. It should also come as no surprise too to learn than Benson was a friend of Oscar Wilde although when you read what Benson wrote about him in later life one might wonder. As it happens Benson was also a homosexual but, unlike Wilde, managed to stay safely ensconced within the confines of his own personal closet until his death; being the fifth child and third son of the Archbishop of Canterbury one can perhaps understand why that might have been important to him.

I enjoyed Guy’s first crack at a Mapp and Lucia novel. It’s called Major Benjy and you can read my review of it here. My opinion?

Bottom line, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. As long as you know what you're getting into. The simple fact is I was smiling by the end of the first page and I continued to smile throughout the book. Is it an easy read? Yes and no. You could rush through this book and get the gist but the whole point of a book like this is to stroll through it like any of the residents wandering up Tilling High Street on the lookout for some juicy gossip. If you tread carefully you will be rewarded.

I had hoped he would write another and so I was delighted to learn he had. I didn’t even try to wangle a free copy. I bought my own. I was pleased to discover that all was well with the folk in Tilling. It is 1929 and the events contained therein could be seen to be the final hoorah of the Roaring Twenties because the book ends with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

There are a number of reasons why people are selfish. Self-preservation is one of them. “Major Benjamin Flint, now officially Mapp-Flint since his marriage to the redoubtable Elizabeth Mapp” is a survivor, a relic of the Empire and a caricature of the first order. Despite big talk of his courage during military campaigns—especially when his memory has been fogged by one too many “chota pegs”—he has for many years now been on the constant defensive. To say he his hen-pecked is putting it mildly. There is, however, something endearing about him. He’s like most of the males you find in Last of the Summer Wine, still a schoolboy at heart and only really happy when he thinks he’s getting away with something even if that ‘something’ is as innocent as slinking off to the golf links. Matriarchs frequent Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, too, in the form of a quartet of demanding aunts: Agatha, Dahlia, Julia and Emily. As with the likes of Compo and Bertie Wooster, there is an innocence about the major. I think that’s why I enjoyed Major Benjy so much.

Lucia’s husband, Georgie, also has to contend with a domineering and manipulative wife. He, to my mind anyway, is a dandy. The excellent Mapp and Lucia Glossary, which Guy readily admits he “has plundered shamelessly” describes him as follows:

George Pillson, Georgie ~ brother of Hermione and Ursula and lately married to Lucia or Emmeline Lucas, widow of Phillip Lucas.

Residents of Riseholme and later of Tilling always thought of George Pillson as Georgie. His main role in life was as cavaliere servente, gentleman-in-waiting or ADC to Lucia. Her devoted henchman, he was the implacably Platonic but devout lover of Lucia. He was her devoted subordinate and courtier with the complete trust and approval of Lucia's first husband Philip or Pepino.


Such masculinity as he possessed was boyish rather than adult and the most important ingredients of his nature were feminine. He was surprisingly tall. His face was pink and round, with blue eyes, a short nose and very red lips. He made up for an absence of eyebrows by a firm little brown moustache clipped very short and brushed upwards at its extremities


In his blameless 45 years, Georgie had never flirted with anyone. He had never been the least in love with Lucia, but somehow she had been as absorbing as any wayward and entrancing mistress.  

Of course by the time we get round to Lucia on Holiday the two have spliced the knot although, unlike the Mapp-Flints, they don’t condescend to anything as vulgar as sharing a bed.

MappLucia“Emmeline Pillson, known universally as ‘Lucia’ in honour of her late Italianophile husband, Philip (‘Pepino’) Lucas” and Elizabeth Mapp are nemeses. There is no better word for it. A veritable state of vendetta has existed between the two of them for years. It’s a word either of them would have used since Mapp is as fond as Lucia of inserting apposite (if only in their minds) foreign expressions into the conversation to underline the fact that they are suitably cultured; Mapp’s preference is to butcher French; Lucia, Italian, obviously. The likelihood of them using any phrase or quote correctly is another matter entirely and this, and all other books, are filled with them embarrassing themselves in public, not that either ever acknowledges it and so it never happened. As Guy explains in his introduction:

Mapp’s grasp of the French language is of course either legendary or infamous, depending on your viewpoint. Even having made allowances for her not knowing that ‘cracher’ is ‘to spit’ rather than ‘to crash’, and that ‘rognons’ are kidneys rather than onions, what are we to make of ‘tout égout’? It is likely that what the dear lady really meant was ‘tout égal’, as in ‘c’est tout égal à moi’ (it’s all the same to me), whereas ‘égout’ is of course a sewer. Her unfortunate substitution for ‘carte blanche’ (full discretion) is explained in the text. There again, it is possible that Mapp is deliberately avoiding being heard to speak French well for fear of being accused of having had a grammar-school education.

Shades of Mrs Malaprop.

Lucia’s weakness is facts. She studies guidebooks and texts before entering any situation where she might be called upon—or, more likely, might call upon herself—to pontificate for the benefit of those assembled. For example:

Those unversed in the history of horticulture may be mystified by Lucia’s reference to John Transcendent. Come to that, so might horticultural experts. It is likely that she actually had in mind John Tradescant, who designed the gardens at Hatfield House.

Lucia has money; bucketloads. Elizabeth does not:

[I]n the space of a mere six months the gains on Lucia’s share portfolio had been equivalent to Mapp’s total worldly worth, grimly husbanded and, where possible, augmented over several generations.

This affects the dynamic but be assured that were their financial affairs suddenly switched—as we come to fear they might be during the events of this book, since Lucia has taken a fancy to a new way to invest her small fortune—nothing essentially would change. “Elizabeth had previously been the proud owner of Mallards, but had speculated less successfully than Lucia” and now lives well out of the town in Grebe in the marshes leaving Lucia as “chatelaine of Mallards”. Money gives Lucia scope; Elizabeth has now to be more imaginative. In this book, however, money turns out not to be a problem for once for the Mapp-Flints. The major’s claims concerning his feats of bravery are not unfounded even if his embellishments have caused their veracity to be questioned. Apparently between one and three tigers had been bearing down on an old maharajah and only Benjy’s quick wits and sharp blade had prevented the man from entering the grave sooner than he had planned. Whatever the actual truth was the maharajah was most certainly real and, clearly, so had been the threat upon his life. One day the man’s son advises the Mapp-Flints that he will be calling on them. Needless to say Elizabeth does not fail to make the most of this potential opportunity to upstage Lucia. After Lucia announces her holiday plans Elizabeth counters with:

        ‘But how silly of me! I have news of my own.’
         ‘No!’ said Diva automatically, but somewhat half-heartedly.
         ‘Yes!’ countered Elizabeth equally automatically, but much more enthusiastically. ‘We’re entertaining a maharajah to lunch tomorrow. There! What do you think of that?’
        This time the chorus of ‘No!’ was spontaneous and heartfelt.
         ‘Would this be the maharajah whom dear Major Benjy saved from a tiger with a sword?’ asked Lucia, recovering quickly.
         ‘Oh, dear me.’ She pressed her knuckles against her forehead with a puzzled expression. ‘Or was it a rifle, or perhaps a revolver? I really should know, shouldn’t I? After all, I’ve heard the story so many times.’
         ‘His son, dear, I assume,’ Elizabeth said curtly. ‘I would imagine that Benjy’s dear old maharajah would be pretty ancient by now, wouldn’t you?’
         ‘But no older than Major Benjy, surely?’ Lucia enquired innocently, at which Elizabeth looked most disagreeable and clutched the handle of her shopping bag very tightly indeed.
         ‘Well, we shall see, dear,’ she said with some acerbity…

The young maharajah who arrives shortly thereafter has clearly been brought up on stories of the fine major’s bravery and has come to ask a favour. He requires someone to babysit his son while he himself is off on other “business” in Rome—Benjy immediately gets the maharajah’s gist—and wonders if the couple might be willing to take the young man (he’s actually at Eton) on what he assumes will be the annual holiday to the Continent completely unaware that their finances can barely stretch to a week in Worthing. That unseemly matter never has to raise its ugly head because the maharajah, the consummate gentleman, insists on Bellagiopaying for everything. The key word here—and the one that he will regret uttering—is everything. Some people can be trusted with a blank cheque; others, including someone with an imagination like Elizabeth Mapp-Flint’s, ought not to be. That said, the idea to not let on that she and her husband are going to descend on the same little town of Bellagio in Italy comes not from her but, innocently enough, from Benjy:

         ‘And of course,’ she continued with a smile, ‘it will quite spoil dear Lulu’s summer. She’s told everyone where they’re going now. They can’t change their plans without making it clear that it’s because of us, and then we’ll have won, won’t we?’
         ‘I suppose so, old girl,’ the Major muttered uncertainly, ‘though it seems a shame to spoil the surprise, what?’
         ‘The surprise?’
         ‘Yes, I was assuming you weren’t going to say anything about it, and let Lucia just pitch up on holiday to find us staying at the same hotel, but obviously I got it wrong.’
         ‘Benjy!’ she gasped, clasping her hands together in what she felt sure was girlish glee, ‘But of course – that’s brilliant!’
         ‘Eh?’ he enquired.
         ‘That’s exactly how it shall be.’
         Elizabeth got up from her chair and positively skipped across the room to the Tantalus, emitting a distinct creaking of whalebone as she did so. She poured a generous measure of whisky and came back to hand it to her husband, the light of adulation shining in her eyes.
         ‘Clever boy,’ she said, patting him on the cheek.
         ‘Ah!’ he responded, seizing gratefully upon this most unusual gift.

Out of the mouths of babes and retired majors, what?

There is not much of a plot to this book. Most of the sparring between Mapp and Lucia revolves around Mapp’s attempts to dine at the same time as the Pillsons and the Wyses, another family from Tilling who have decamped to Bellagio to avoid a cholera epidemic in Naples:

         ‘How did you escape?’
         ‘In a fishing boat,’ Amelia boomed. ‘Had to bribe the coastguard, of course. So silly. Why, there hasn’t been cholera in our family for years.’
         ‘But isn’t it infectious, rather than hereditary?’ asked Georgie.
         ‘Nonsense,’ Amelia asserted, ‘and anyway my cheroots would keep any infection at bay. Cheroot smoke is very sterile, you know.’

There are a couple of minor subplots, the most entertaining concerning the relationship between Georgie and his valet, Francesco; he’s no Jeeves but he does have his moments. Whereas Benson underplayed any overtly homosexual elements in most of his books this is now the twenty-first century and so Guy can afford to have a bit more fun at Georgie’s expense even if things do not lead where we think they might. The same goes for the drug references. It’s little wonder that Francesco’s Turkish cigarettes prove so popular.

The book is set, as I have said, in 1929. Guy is quick to point out in his introduction that trying to fit this book within the loose chronology of Benson’s original novels might not be so easy, for which he apologises in advance:

By way of mitigation, it can however be safely submitted that Benson himself was obviously not much concerned with the time and space continuum of the physical world. Anyone who can change the spelling of people’s names (a proud tradition occasionally also practised by the writer), allow characters to disappear without explanation, move an entire town at will from one county to another, and completely ignore any mention of the First World War, is most unlikely to have been troubled by such trifles as international conflicts, the fall of thrones, and the gyrations of financial markets. Thus it is to be hoped that any readers who exhibit a dreary attachment to reality may be prevailed upon to treat any such aberrations as occasions when Homer has nodded.

Gaby01He does, however, include one character from history, Gabriele d’Annunzio. The reason? Guy explains in a note at the end of the book:

When the idea occurred of introducing Lucia to someone even more self-obsessed than herself, there really could only ever be one candidate.

At the time he runs into Lucia he is planning a museum to his honour. The museum was, in fact, built: l Vittoriale degli Italiani, adjacent to his villa at Gardone Riviera on the southwest bank of Lake Garda. Needless to say this inspires Lucia, the current mayor of Tilling in case you were unaware, and she immediately begins planning a museum of her own:

         ‘I was wondering,’ Lucia mused … ‘whether we might not attempt something else in Tilling, but perhaps on an altogether grander scale. Something celebrating the cultural life of our dear Tilling, and its place in the world. Our musical evenings, our new church organ, our splendidly equipped hospital and sporting facilities ...’
         ‘Yes,’ Georgie said, pretending to be preoccupied with inspecting the menu, ‘that’s all very well, Lucia, but don’t you think there might be just the teeniest possibility that some people might accuse you of constructing a museum to your own achievements, like that frightful d’Annunzio fellow?’
        Lucia decided that now was not the time to launch a frontal assault on Georgie’s position, and so gave her silvery little laugh.
         ‘So ridiculous, dear, of course. No, a civic museum, perhaps, a museum of the mayoralty even, celebrating all the famous mayors in Tilling’s proud history.’
         ‘Capital idea!’ said Mr Wyse, with a little bow to Lucia, ‘and as one of our most prominent mayors, dear lady, it would be only right if at least part of a room was indeed dedicated to your own achievements.’
         ‘Oh,’ said Lucia, as if greatly surprised, ‘well, if you think so, Mr Wyse, then I suppose we must give the idea every due consideration.’
        In truth she felt acutely disappointed. She had been envisaging at least two separate rooms of her paintings, together with photographs of her proud record of public patronage. Perhaps there might even be room for a bicycle and a piano? However, part of a room, though sadly demonstrating a paucity of imagination on Mr Wyse’s part, was better than nothing.

This is a book that will be best appreciated by those who are already au fait with Benson’s world. That said it could easily be read and enjoyed if one knew nothing about any of them. Nods to events in past books are never so vague that you can’t get the idea. The events detailed in Mapp and Lucia are summarised perfectly here, for example:

The period during which Lucia had been ‘lost at sea’ during a flood, in tandem with Elizabeth Mapp, was indeed not one upon which her memory chose to linger. Carried out to sea on Grebe’s kitchen table in a thick fog, they had been rescued by the crew of an Italian fishing boat which, despite their entreaties, had then carried on to their customary fishing grounds on the other side of the Atlantic before returning them to Tilling some months later. Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole saga had been that despite Lucia’s fabled fluency in Italian she had been completely unable to communicate with their hosts (or ‘captors’ as Mapp had insisted on calling them). Naturally Lucia had explained that this was because they spoke not ‘la bella lingua’ but some barbarous dialect dating from well before the time of Garibaldi.

As it happens they were lost at sea on Boxing Day, 1930 but, as Guy has already explained, since Mapp and Lucia’s universe cares little for the space-time continuum, we’ll say no more about that.

Bottom line: if you know Benson’s work then you know what you’re getting into and will be delighted by this. If not and you enjoy the humour of PG Wodehouse then this is well worth the effort. I particularly enjoyed the ending where we get to see Lucia on her own, separated from all her usual sparring partners for a few pages, having travelled to London to see her brokers, which is where she hears about the Wall Street Crash. Not sure purists will appreciate it but I liked that we get to see Lucia off-stage, in natural light, and not just the glimpses we get throughout the book c/o the omniscient narrator but a long, lingering look at her without her makeup. So it’s a bit of a downbeat ending but spot on.


GuyGuy Fraser-Sampson originally qualified as a lawyer and became an equity partner in a City of London law firm at the age of 26. In 1986 he left the law and has since gained twenty years' experience in the investment arena, particularly in the field of private equity. His is the author of a number of best-selling non-fiction books on finance and investment: Alternative Assets: Investments for a Post-Crisis World, Multi-Asset Class Investment Strategy, No Fear Finance: An Introduction to Finance and Investment for the Non-Finance Professional and Private Equity as an Asset Class. He has appeared many times on radio and television in the last year or two talking about the current financial and economic crisis which is the subject of his most recent non-fiction book The Mess We're In: Why Politicians Can't Fix Financial Crises.

In 2008 he published his first book of fiction, Major Benjy, and in between he’s also written Cricket at the Crossroads which discusses three episodes of crisis that occurred between 1967 and 1977 that changed the structure, organisation and complexion of the English and international game forever; the Close affair, the D'Oliveira affair and the Packer affair. His first book on the Plantagenets (working title A Family at War) has been nominated for a Royal Society of Literature award and will hopefully be published later this year.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Five years after


Rory: Are you still going to school too?
Dean: Part-time, but everything's good, I've got a five-year plan.
Rory: Five years? Cool... I've got about the next two-and-a-half hours planned... then there's just darkness... and possibly some dragons.

Gilmore Girls: ‘The Incredible Sinking Lorelais’

I am not big on reflection. Like most people I can’t pass a mirror without taking note of what I look like. It’s not vanity. I just want to make sure I don’t look like a tube. Retrospection is something I shy away from too. I have no problems with introspection—I’ve lived inside my own head for years quite happily—but although that’s where my past hangs out we tend to keep to ourselves. I’m not big on anniversaries either. I remember my wedding anniversary but since it’s so close to Christmas we never make much of a fuss about it. Birthdays have become a moveable feast.

I have been churning out these blogs for five years now. My first was on 6th August 2007. I never mentioned to anyone when I reached my first anniversary and most other years by the time I’ve realised that another year has bitten the dust it’s too late to do a post. What would I say anyway? I’d say, “It’s been x number of years,” and you’d go, “Yay you,” and that would be that. So if you feel like going, “Yay you,” don’t let me stop you. I should probably go, “Yay you,” too for sticking with me for however long you’ve been following me. If, of course, this is your first visit, all I have to say is that you’ve got a helluva lot of catching up to do. Helluva lot of catching up. Over 450 entries. Over a million words (and that’s a very conservative estimate).

The Caslon Analytics site had this to say about blogging:

Several studies indicate that most blogs are abandoned soon after creation (with 60% to 80% abandoned within one month, depending on whose figures you choose to believe) and that few are regularly updated.

The 'average blog' thus has the lifespan of a fruit fly. One cruel reader of this page commented that the average blog also has the intelligence of a fly.

The Perseus report … indicates that 66.0% of surveyed blogs had not been updated in two months, "representing 2.72 million blogs that have been either permanently or temporarily abandoned".

That page was last updated in 2009 but even then the author acknowledged that the young were moving away from blogging in droves. It makes sense. If you don’t have much to say—i.e. if you’ve not a deep well of life experience to draw from—then Facebook and Twitter are much easier waters to navigate.

DaveLooking around at the blogs I follow most have been going for years and a few even longer than mine. The oldest is now nine years old. Almost all of them are maintained by individuals who have well and truly passed the bloom of youth. I doubt many are under forty. Dave King is in his mid-seventies and has blogged regularly since December 2006. Over 1250 entries! And showing no signs of flagging. But many others have slipped away quietly and their loss has barely been noticed because if there is one thing the Internet can’t stand it’s a vacuum.

There are a number of reasons why blogs fail. For some real life takes over and that’s great. If only we all had real lives. Mostly the problem is finding stuff to talk about because few of us live exciting lives. As I wrote in a recent comment, “I read, I write, I watch TV. I’m no Stephen Fry.” I made the decision early on to not talk about myself if I could possibly avoid it. I value my privacy, yes, but the real reason was I didn’t think I could entertain people. I’m no Erma Bombeck either. Nor am I much of an expert on anything and those topics I do know a few things about were quickly exhausted which turned the focus of the blog into one of discovery which was fine; I like learning new things. I research things that interest me and write about them. But research takes time and if you’re going to post twice weekly (which is what I started doing) then that’s setting the bar quite high but I did manage that for quite a bit. But a while back I cut back to once every five days which took the pressure off and gave me a bit more time to do other writerly things.

Now I’m looking ahead rather than looking back—I said I wasn’t big on retrospection—and wondering where I’m going next year. This does require a little looking back on where I’ve been, thinking about the goals I set and what I achieved. I never had a five-year plan per se but five years on is a reasonable point to assess progress. I started this blog because everything I read about being a writer in the 21st century said, “Get a blog.” So I got a blog and I blogged—regularly but not so regularly that I bored my readers and burned out myself—and I kept self-promotion to a minimum because I hated following blogs where all they talked about was their ruddy books. And what do you know? I actually sold a few books. Not a huge amount you have to understand but enough to justify going back to the printer for a second run. Followers increased steadily if not rapidly and it looked like I’d ticked all the boxes. For quite a while now—assuming the stats are to be believed—there has been very little growth on this blog. Oh I pick up the odd new follower but mostly it feels as if I’ve levelled out. In fact I’ve just had a look at my stats for the last month and it’s as close to a straight line as you can get. And it’s been that way for months. I’m starting to think that investing so much energy here isn’t necessarily the best use of my time. Most of my hits come from search engines anyway and are rarely to the latest post. I’m also beginning to wonder whether or not even posting every five days is still a burden on my readers because one or two have admitted privately that they don’t always read everything I write. I don’t feel bad about that because I don’t have the time to read everything all my friends write; not properly anyway.

Anyway from now on, for a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to cut back again. This will give me time to think about guest blogs which I’ve only done a couple of times up until now. I’ll also be able to spend more time looking for new ways to promote my writing elsewhere. I’ve just, for example, sent out about 200 poems and stories. The last time I did a mass submission like this was two years ago and that’s no way to get read. I don’t think I approached this project with unreasonable expectations. I did the research—a lot of it—and followed what seemed to be the best advice. What I am starting to realise is that a lot of that advice was never going to work for me because of the kind of writer/person I am. I always prided myself on the fact that I was in this for the long game. Five years is nothing. I could still be here slogging away in another twenty-five. Where else is there to go?

Making Sense smallTo all my regular readers let me just say a sincere thank you for sticking with me. Starting on Sunday 12th August this will now be a weekly blog. The ratio will be three book reviews to one literary article. Not sure what I’ll do on the months with an extra Sunday. If I have news of reviews of any of my own books I may chuck in the odd ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ midweek but we’ll see. There haven’t been many reviews of Milligan and Murphy to shout about. Hopefully my short story collection will fare better. It will be called Making Sense and is a group of stories all revolving around the senses, not simply the five physical senses— ophthalmoception, audioception, gustaoception, olfacoception and tactioception (aren’t they great words?)—but the other ‘senses’ we all rely on to make sense of the world we find ourselves in: sense of humour, sense of justice, sense of impending doom etc. Not set a date for the release but it won’t be until spring 2013 at the earliest.

So lots to do. If you’ll excuse me I’d best make a start. Daylight’s burning.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Part-time wise man


Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself. – Tom Wilson

I should be wise by now, at my age – beginning to be at least. But I'm not. Not especially. I have my moments. Wisdom is a by-product of a good memory. As Aeschylus said, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” If you can't remember stuff it's hard to be wise. I am intelligent, I'll own up to that and I can, on occasion, follow fairly deep lines of thought, but I can't retain them ergo it's hard to be wise for any length of time.

Do you necessarily need to be especially wise to be a writer though? Or clever? Or even that knowledgeable? Isn’t it enough to be entertaining? For some people, perhaps, but not me. Does that make me a show off or a snob? I’d like to think not but I find myself rejecting stuff I write these days left, right and centre because it lacks, for want of a better word, profundity.


n. pl. pro·fun·di·ties

  1. Great depth.
  2. Depth of intellect, feeling, or meaning.
  3. Something profound or abstruse.

I’ve always viewed wisdom as a natural progression that begins with data, moves through information and knowledge, onto insight arriving at wisdom which philosopher Will Durant defined quite succinctly as “total perspective.” The trouble with our perspectives is that they tend to fall into two categories: objective and subjective—the inside of a ball cannot see what’s outside nor can the outside of a ball see what the inside is like. It’s an either/or thing.

Every writer faces this question at some point during their career: What impact does my writing have? What difference does it make anyway? Does what I say matter? I find myself coming up against these questions more and more these days. When I was, to use the term Gerald Murnane uses, a “secret writer” the only person my writing had to satisfy was me and me alone and, for the most part, it did just that. I wrote to work things out, things got worked out and the writing got stuck in the proverbial drawer or big red folder as the case may be. Now I’m a published writer. (Yay me.) Now there are people out there—not a lot I grant you—who have put their hands in their pockets, pulled out their credit cards, bought and read one or more of my books and I have to face the fact that there is a very good chance that the next book I write will follow the ones that have already appeared in print and there is something terribly off-putting about that.

Once a book becomes a product everything changes. Products get marketed. Products appeal to demographics. Demographics consist of people and those people come armed to the teeth with opinions and expectations. Bob Dylan had a huge fan base and then one day he—on a whim from all accounts—swaggered onto the stage at Newport with an electric guitar and didn’t do what his fans had come to expect of him and I suspect there are still one or two hardliners out there who still Jerry Lee Lewishave never quite forgiven him. Was that wise? Well it worked out okay in the long run but it might have ended his career. When Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen-year-old third cousin twice removed that didn’t exactly go down so well with his fans.

I don’t think being online as much as I’ve been over the last four or five years has been all that good for me as a writer. Okay I’ve met a bunch of nice people—hell, you’re probably one of them—sold a handful of books and I feel a bit more like a real writer these days even though I’m not exactly sure what that might be. But I’m also rubbing shoulders with people who have a very different idea about what it means to be a writer, people who are (or at least it seems as if they are) only interested in sales as if that’s the benchmark, that that somehow vindicates them: I’ve sold x number of books so I’ve arrived. When I was that secret writer I never really thought about what other writers did or were doing. I wrote my books, put them in that proverbial drawer I keep going on about and just got on with it. Now I’m surrounded by all these people who aren’t doing things my way, who aren’t writing books like mine, who aren’t writing for the same reason as me and they make me feel as if I’m doing it wrong. I’d thought that I was fairly secure within myself but I’m not quite so sure because it does get to me.

Wise men tend to be a bit on the isolationist side, antisocial bordering on misanthropic even. They secrete themselves away in caves and hermitages and people have to seek them out and beg audiences with them. That was me until a few years ago, going through the motions of being wise and hoping that actual wisdom might descend upon me somewhere along the line. Now I need to be social which goes against the grain. Is this perhaps because I imagine that if people spend too much time around me they might start to realise that I’m nowhere near as wise as they might have thought at first and that I’m really only a part-timer?

There wasn’t a great deal of mud-slinging when my first wife left me but one thing she did say to me in the heat of the moment in the midst of our living room was, “And do you know something else? You’re not deep. You’re shallow.” And that hurt. Let her slag off my performance in the bedroom by all means, my dress sense, my taste in music but not my intellect. Of course in many, many ways I am shallow although I prefer the term narrow-minded. I don’t have the broadest of tastes nor the widest of experiences and if all the TV channels started to broadcast nothing but science fiction programmes back to back night and day you’d get no complaints from me. I was in my early twenties when she left me. Of course I wasn’t deep. But it’s true that I didn’t just have a chip on my shoulder, I had a whole fish supper. I believed in my writing like at no other time and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t spend much time around other writers because they would have told me the God’s honest truth: You’re not very good, son. And neither I was but the potential was there.

There is something conceited about writing things down. You are making out that these things are worthy of being recorded permanently, that what you have to say is worth listening to and that it will benefit others to read them. Do I believe that about my writing? Actually, yes; yes I do. I think what I write matters and I don’t think I would have written any of it if it didn’t matter and even though I wasn’t that fussed about people reading I still liked it when people did. I liked that I had the power to affect people. That said I’m not very comfortable wielding any kind of power. I don’t like motorbikes. I don’t like guns. I don’t like politics. I like being in the backroom just getting on with things. I also like that every now and then I come out with something that might be construed as actual-factual bone fide wisdom.

I’m not much of a storyteller when push comes to shove. I can enjoy a good story but I’ve never really thought once I’ve read one: I wish I could write something like that. Because I don’t. I was asked recently why I wrote fiction and not essays. It’s a fair question and I thought about it for a while before answering it. The most obvious answer is that it never occurred to me and if I think about why it never occurred to me it’s because I don’t think I could pull it off. Writing an article for Wikipedia is one thing and I wrote a whole slew of them before I started blogging but they were all about what other people had thought, said and done. These kind of essays would be about what I thought and despite the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve written in this blog, once I start to think about what I think it never takes me very long to say it. Look at any of my poems—pick three or four at random—and you’ll see that most of them have an aphoristic quality about them.

I am not a philosopher—let’s get that straight from the start—I am a poet. But philosophy interests me. The word "philosophy" comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means "love of wisdom" so perhaps I’m being too harsh on myself. Maybe I am a philosopher. One would hope we all are. Or at least aspire to be. Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language and when you read my poetry you’ll see that these are exactly the kind of topics that I tackle over and over again. An example:


A long time ago
someone bound me
to the pillar of reason.

It might even have been me:
I can't remember now.

But don't think me tamed
after all these years.

When was the last time
you looked at my eyes?

When was the last time
you really looked
at my eyes?

Even the finest chains rust in time.

6 August 1989

It’s probably not my finest poem but it does make one think. My first thought actually is: What the hell was I thinking when wrote that? You bind wild animals to posts not reasonable men. Reason is like a straightjacket though. Think about the falling downfilm with Michael Douglas, Falling Down. What happens when a reasonable man gets pushed too far? By 1989 I had been ‘reasonable’ for thirty years. The eyes, of course, are the windows of the soul. My body was still going through the motions of being good, being reasonable, but inside I was heading for a breakdown and a few short years afterwards it came.

Of course when it came I got packed off to see a psychologist for a bit of behavioural therapy. I’ve seen three over the years and they’ve always found me a bit of a challenge because of the degree of insight I showed as to what was wrong. I’m sure they coped better with overeaters, dipsomaniacs, self-harmers and drug addicts. But we always struggled. Writing is therapeutic. It is for me. Some mental health professionals recommend it and I would go along with them wholeheartedly. What gets produced might not be great literature but if it provides an individual with insight then it’s done its job. It can get tossed in the bin afterwards. What’s more important, the sum or the answer? They tell you at school to show your workings but, at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters in the answer. Unless you want to communicate your insights to another and that’s why I don’t toss my poems in the bin once I’m done with them because the kind of things that preoccupy me are the kinds of things that preoccupy most of us and I was taught never to be selfish:


There are so many types of truth.
Some are simply answers
others are good reasons.

There are excuses too,
sad, watered-down half-truths,
and, of course, platitudes and lies.

Some people refuse to count them.

The deepest truths are called meanings
which don't only answer,
they explain or excuse.

Then comes understanding
and finally insight:
the power to look within and

not be afraid of the dark.

31 August 1997

If you’ve had a look at my website recently you might have noticed that, at the top right of each page there is a quote. They’re all short quotes from my poems and stories. I had to keep them short because of the way the page is formatted and I know in some browsers they don’t look quite as perfect as they do on my machine but my HTML skills are limited. They’re just a few examples of the memorable ways I’ve found to say certain things. And a lot of the times that’s all that wisdom boils down to, a memorable way of saying something.

Robert Frost memorably said that “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I wonder how many of us can tick those two boxes once we’ve put our pen down or hit CTRL-S?

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