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Friday 11 November 2011

The Next Stop is Croy and other stories


It is much easier to become a father than to be one.  ~ Kent Nerburn

The first time I heard the word ‘understated’ used I thought is was a bad thing or at least a negative thing like ‘underwhelmed’ or ‘underhand’. The dictionary’s definition doesn’t really help:

un·der·state [uhn-der-steyt]
to state  or represent less strongly or strikingly than the facts would bear out; set forth in restrained, moderate, or weak terms: The casualty lists understate the extent of the disaster.

The context where the word was used more than any other was in reference to actors. Critics would talk about an “understated performance” as if it was a good thing – it can be a good thing – and there are numerous performances that I could cite but here are three: Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, Colin Farrell in Ondine, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner – three actors renowned for their over the top antics who dialled it back to deliver pitch perfect performances. And all a long way away from Croy.

Croy is a village in North Lanarkshire), Scotland. A former mining community, Croy is situated some 21 km (13 miles) from Glasgow and 60 km (37 miles) from Edinburgh on the main railway line between the two cities, with a frequent service to both. Croy station is also served by local trains between Glasgow and Stirling. – Wikipedia

I’ve been to Edinburgh a few times and Stirling once and so I must have passed through it, but if you’d asked me a week ago where Croy was I wouldn’t have had a clue; the Inner Hebrides maybe. Croy is understated – it gets its mention over the intercom but, unless you’re going there, I’m sure most regular commuters pay it little heed; it just looks like any one of a thousand local railway stations: nowhere in particular on the way to somewhere you need to be.

It’s unfair to generalise but I’m going to anyway. As a race the Scots can be a terse, laconic, inexpressive bunch. We’re getting better but when I started to read the first story in Andrew McCallum Crawford’s e-book, The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories, there was something awfully familiar about the relationship between the father and the son and I’m sure that there will be readers all over the globe who feel the same because there are men like Alan’s dad the world over. All I have to do is think about the early plays of Dennis Potter, the two featuring Nigel Barton, and we have a similar dynamic, the working-class father with an educated son he can’t quite decide whether he’s proud of or ashamed of, a bit of both most likely.

In the foreword to this collection Andrew says:

The stories in this collection were not written in the order in which they appear here; they certainly were not conceived as part of a continuous narrative. However, I have decided to bring them together because of the chronology and themes which, it turns out, run through them. Please bear in mind that this is in no way a novella or novelette. It is a collection of short stories, and each story stands or falls on its own, as short stories must.

The word count is just shy of 12,000 words so if this were a single piece of text it would be a novelette and although Andrew is keen to emphasise that each story should be able to stand on its own, and as some of them have appeared separately in print and online before this, there are three editors out there who obviously agree with him; I, on the other hand, read them straight through from beginning to end in the order in which they appear in the book and it is very hard not to see the stories as chapters: they follow a natural chronology and all revolve around the same three characters, Alan and his parents, Robert and Jean. Because of that it’s impossible not to feel a bit cheated as the narrative lurches forward through the years from Alan’s boyhood to manhood. There is much unsaid. There is much unsaid within the stories too. This is what started me thinking about how to describe the collection and I kept coming back to ‘understated’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part comprises of ‘Golf Balls’, ‘Saw Set’ and ‘The Watchmaker’s Wife’; the second contains only two stories, ‘Teeth’ and ‘Norwood Junction’ leaving only, ‘The Next Stop Is Croy’, to bring up the rear.

When my wife first arrived in Scotland – Carrie is an American for those who don’t know her – one of the things that took her aback a bit was the aggressiveness of the language and not just the tone, the actual words we use to talk to each other. We know when we’re being serious even if the words are exactly the same. So non-Scots readers when they open up this collection might think that Alan comes from the most dysfunctional of families. He does, but all Scottish families are dysfunctional – that’s how we function. For me Andrew hits the nail on the head in the title story. Now a grown man and living in Greece, Alan’s returned home for his father’s funeral at which he gives the eulogy. Later he finds himself in the pub with his mate Cliff:

Laphroaig-10-CSAAlan ordered a Laphroaig, but Cliff spotted a porcelain bottle on the middle shelf. The barman took it down and uncorked it. ‘Try this for size,’ he said, and passed it to Alan. ‘Smell the peat? Ten pound a nip, mind.’

Alan laughed and handed the bottle back.

‘Make it a double,’ said Cliff. ‘And a double Balvenie for me.’

They returned to the table. Maybe now’s the time, thought Alan. Maybe this was the way. The Scottish way, over a dram. He took a deep breath. I gave the Eulogy at my father’s funeral, he didn’t say. He wanted to, though. Why did he want to? He wanted to tell Cliff, this stranger who wasn’t. He wanted to share something with him. He had told everyone in the church that he loved his father, which was more than he had ever told the man himself. He had wanted to say it so often, but had been unable to bring himself to. What was the point? Love is a feeling. You feel it, you don’t have to say it. Not in Scotland, anyway, not to your dad.

Was that true? Alan had been away a long time, and had exotic ideas of how sons talked to their fathers. He’d been away so long that Scotland was exotic. Maybe things had changed. Maybe nowadays Scottish fathers and their sons were all over each other, smothering one another in kisses and words. But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what other people did or didn’t do. What mattered was how he felt, here and now, this. And it was too late. It was done, it was finished. Too late for anything but inner monologues and regrets. At least he had kissed him. He had laid his fingers on his father’s forehead, which was cold, like glass, as he knew it would be. He had leaned and placed his lips on the flesh where his fingers had been.

I never gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. I never even went to the funeral director’s to view the body. My dad wasn’t a Scot; he was a Northerner (i.e. from the north of England) and they’re every bit as bad. Once you understand the culture, though, each of these stories opens up like, as Steve Alker, an Amazon reviewer put it, “a flower sprouting out of cracked concrete.”

I’ve written a few stories set in Scotland and it’s hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to dialect. Some authors like Irvine Welsh take it to one extreme – I’ve lived my whole life here and yet I struggle with his prose – whereas others include just enough touches to give us the feel without burdening the readers. For my tastes Andrew is a little light on the Scotticisms. I would have written part of the above as:

Love’s a feelin’. Ye feel it, ye don’t have to say it. No in Scotland, anyway, no to your da.

but it probably sounded more like:

Love’s a feelin. Ye feel it, ye don hufftie say it. No in Scoatlan oanyway, no t’ yer da.

It’s a hard call. He includes the odd word like ‘skiting’ (which means ‘skidded off’ – if your dad hit you on the head he’s given you a skite), ‘chittering’ (which means something different in Scottish as opposed to English, it means freezing) or ‘cludge’ (meaning toilet) but I would have spelled it ‘cludgie’ to stop their being any confusion with the word ‘kludge’ which can also be spelled with a c. I would have preferred a bit more consistency over the whole volume, but I don’t think anyone outside Scotland will bother; if anything they’ll probably be grateful for his restraint.

Golf BallI used to live beside a golf course when I was young and so the idea of looking for lost balls is not new to me. Although there was a pond close to one of the holes that must have contained a decent supply of lost balls, I would never have dreamed of getting my feet wet to recover them, let alone diving for them, but that’s what the story ‘Golf Balls’ that opens the collection is about. When Alan announces his intention to go looking for them one day the following interchange ensues:

‘I’ve told you not to go up there by yourself,’ said his dad. ‘There’s a pipe at the bottom of the Resi. It pumps water down to the BP. There’s an undertow. I thought you knew.’

Of course Alan knew. Everyone knew the story about the undertow. There was no need to tell him. He wasn’t a baby. Anyway, it was just a story.

‘Is this you being precocious?’ said his dad. Precocious. He sneered the word like he’d just learned it. Sarcasm. ‘Golf balls? How many?’

‘Loads,’ said Alan. He regretted telling him.

His dad folded his newspaper and put it on the table. ‘Can you swim?’ he said.

‘Aye,’ Alan lied.

‘Tomorrow morning,’ said his dad. ‘We’ll get up early.’

The ‘Resi’ is the local reservoir. It would be easy to read this as an attempt to belittle his son but that’s really not the intent. Robert is constantly throwing down the gauntlet hoping that Alan will rise to the challenge. The second story, ‘Saw Set’, begins:

He didn’t want to be there. Morning sunlight was struggling to penetrate the dust on the front window, but the shop was still dark. The place had been stripped bare. He couldn’t explain the shadows – there seemed to be corners where in fact there was nothing. All that was left was a huge counter running the length of the wall. He felt as if he were in a cave. A long, dark cave. With a counter in it.

‘It’s like something out of Malamud,’ he said.

His father looked up from the saw he was sharpening. ‘Eh?’ he said.

Alan wiped the window with the side of his hand, to little effect. The outside was dirty, too. The sun disappeared behind a cloud.

‘Pay attention to this,’ said his father. ‘You might learn something.’

When I read this I thought of the many, many hours I spent standing beside my father in our garage handing him spanners and hammers and tools with daft names like torque wrench and needle-nose pliers. My dad was a proper dad; a dad that worked with his hands; a dad who’d started “in t’mill” (remember he was a Lancashire lad) when he was something like thirteen and never had a day off discounting his National Service and a few weeks following his heart attack Saw Set(probably caused by overwork). Before I read this story I had no idea what a saw set was but I bet my dad had one. He had all kinds of saws. He wasn’t a joiner by trade but he’d have a crack at anything: bricklaying, plumbing, electrics, you name it. I can change a plug and I can change a tyre but that’s about my limit.

The third story is the only one not to feature Alan. In it we get to see what his mum’s life is like, creeping out of bed early in the morning so as not to wake Robert and then heading off to the local school where she works as a cleaner. When Robert was made redundant for a while she was the sole breadwinner but now he’s taken a course and decided to set up shop in the High Street fixing watches and clocks. Like most of the pieces in this volume there’s not much of a story here but that’s not the kind of story Andrew writes; these are slices of lives which is another reason why this feels like the skeleton of a novel but I won’t labour the point because I like this style of writing very much. It feels less contrived than more carefully structured pieces; more real. Lives aren’t neat and so stories about people’s lives shouldn’t be neat either.

In this story we get Jean’s insights into her husband:

She would have stayed longer, but she had to be back here again for 4 o’clock and her afternoon shift. It was tiring, but it was worth it. Anything to keep him happy. He hadn’t been very happy lately. Something had happened. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. They’d spent a few evenings making display mats for the window, nothing fancy, just small sheets of plywood covered in green felt, stuffed with tissue paper. It was her idea. They’d laughed about it. It would do for a beginning. Then on Monday that woman from the fancy Jewellers had come in for a nosey. ‘You must have had a good time making your wee mats for the window,’ she’d said. Robert had clammed up there and then. He was still in the huff. Three days; it wasn’t a record. She knew the signs. He needed time to work through things, until they were worked out. And his temper. But his late nights were back – the ashtray that morning had been full to the brim with cigarette ends. God knows what time he had come to bed. She knew he wouldn’t sleep in, though. He had an alarm on his watch. He slept with it under his pillow.

The book’s dedication reads: “For sons, and for their fathers.” I’m not saying that daughters and mothers won’t enjoy the book but the mother-daughter dynamic is different to the father-son dynamic. Andrew didn’t ask me to review this book; I offered. He’s from Grangemouth on the east coast and the only thing that connects us is the Forth and Clyde Canal – literally.

In a recent interview he was asked who his literary heroes were. This was his answer:

Literary Heroes – got to be Bernard Malamud, JP Donleavy (both American, interestingly enough). James Kelman – ask any Scottish writer, and they'll mention James Kelman. John Irving for the way he crafts a tale.

He’s right, Kelman is an obvious choice, but the sad fact is, as elsewhere, when you start to look for outstanding Scottish short story collections there aren’t that many to pick from – Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly and AL Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains jump out for me. While The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories is not substantial enough to knock these two and Kelman off their perches, it is well worth the read. The great thing about the recent changes in technology is that we would likely never have seen these six stories collected like this under any other circumstances because it wouldn’t be financially viable. And that would have been a crying shame because this is a good (albeit slim) collection. The asking price on is £2.42 which you might think a wee bit steep when there are so many e-books out there for 99¢. It’s like everything in this life: you get what you pay for.

If you fancy having a read of some of Andrew’s work free and for gratis – we Scots love a bargain – there are a number of his pieces online including two from this collection:


AndrewAndrew McCallum Crawford grew up in Grangemouth, an industrial town in East Central Scotland. He studied Biology and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and went on to take a teaching qualification at Jordanhill College, Glasgow. He started writing when he was twenty and has been hard at it for twenty-four years now. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in Lines Review, The Athens News, Junk Junction, Ink Sweat and Tears, McStorytellers, Weaponizer, New Linear Perspectives, Spilling Ink Review, Drey 2 (Red Squirrel Press), Ironstone, The Legendary, The Midwest Literary Magazine and The. His first novel, Drive!, was published in 2010. He lives in Greece where he works as a teacher.


Elisabeth said...

I enjoy this review, Jim, very very much. There's something in the way you write about this lim volume, understated as you suggest and the excerpts you share that make me want to read this writer.

It's the raw honesty of it all. To me understatement goes a long way when it comes to writing about emotion. And the cultural underlay is also fascinating to someone like me.

When I was growing up there were two girls, Janis and Lesley, who lived down the road from us and went to our school. It was strange to see Scottish kids in a Catholic school. I loved their accents and the way they introduced new words. They did not catch the bus, they 'bussed' it. They wore 'knickers' instead of underpants. And that wonderful word 'wee' which I of course associated with urine littered many a sentence. they taught me a different appreciation of english. And although I lost track of them when we moved suburbs, their voices stay in my memory.

This 'Croy' book for all the absence of dialect, unlike some of your work, reminds me of them.

Thanks, Jim.

Anonymous said...

Nice work, Jim!

You write: "For my tastes Andrew is a little light on the Scotticisms." Well, there's no pleasing everyone, that's for sure.

There are many variants of Scottish English, but many of them are pretty much just English with a Scottish accent so that on the page the Scottishness is understated. And alhough there is always the tendency to heightened formality in prose as opposed to speech, my guess is Andrew's not tailored the language much beyond his everday use of it. When you hear him reading "The Next Stop is Troy"...

...the Scottishness is less understated.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m a big fan of understatement, Lis. I’m not sure I’m as good at it myself as I’d like to be but I do appreciate a writer who knows just where to leave things off and allow the momentum of the story, fuelled by his readers’ imaginations to do the rest. Of course I never think twice of expressions like ‘bussed it’ – I’ve been using it all my life – but then there are plenty of Australian expressions that I’m sure you do the same with – ‘chooks’ was one of the first you used that I thought was quaint.

And, Gists, you are quite right and it is a taste thing. I’ve lived my entire life in Scotland and yet, even though I was born here, there are people who still pick up on my parents’ Lancashire twang, although they usually suggest Yorkshire. It’s been a while since that happened mind; my accent was stronger when I was a kid and my parents were still living. I think most foreign readers will get on just fine with Andrew’s prose. I struggle writing dialect even though I’m surrounded by it but I do like to hear a decent Scottish accent irrespective of where in the country they hail from.

I would have embedded the wee videos but I wrote this a while back and they’ve only just been posted. But thanks for highlighting them.

who said...

I'll have to admit, I was thoroughly confused about the knowing/stranger person Cliff and possibly thought the answer was he was the bartender. The clips video clips enabled me to see what a failed to wrap my mind around in the story.

I'm interested enough to still read the book, I was more likely to pick it up because of that connection I failed to pick up on.

I was intrigued either way though by the mention of the part where he kisses the dead body. Eerie because I had just read of another person doing just that when his friend Phillip Whalen had passed. I don't think I could bring myself to do that. As a young boy the first funeral I had ever attended was my grandfather's and the mortician had me touch his hand to experience the cold of it.

I want to find out what he does with his hesitant urge to tell his just met internet friend. I think more times then not the social pressure of certain words going unsaid causes people grief. It makes me wonder if the society whose custom is to not speak of those situations is worth being a part of. But a suppose it only causes grief to one who has the overwhelming urge to cross lines, yet fails to do it.

It also reminds me that some of those social constrictions themself cross lines to only affect specific familiar and private relationships (like father and son) And how much has changed in the way those two characters interact yet I think the intent of fathers hasn't changed at all. That intent being to raise a good, responsible son.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can see where you might get confused about Cliff, who, in fact I just reread the story to make sure myself but you’re spot on. That’s the thing about the writing here. It’s stripped to the bones, but you still have the bones, enough to make sense out of the piece. My sister once said that about my writing, that you had to pay attention because every line counted; if you missed a line you missed a point. And Andrew is a lot like that. He gives you the data you need without feeling the need to embellish. Personally I appreciate that approach to writing. I was reminded of the conversations I had with my own siblings after the death of our mother and how little we actually needed to say out loud.

who said...

you know, when it comes to death of a family member, I would have to agree with you Jim. People get pretty weird when they lose immediate family. There is definitely a time and place for just about everything. Everything that is except for the words that are later regretted.

What I mean by that is there is never a time to say [the wrong thing at the wrong time]

Dave King said...

The first time I ever ordered a Laphroaig at a bar the bar man - who later told me that he was from Scotland - said "We call it mouthwash". I thought that said a lot about the the way the Scots refer to themselves.

I enjoyed the review, and I am pretty sure I would enjoy the book.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never been a whisky drinker, Dave. Odd thing for a Scot I know. I do like Glayva though with some American ginger ale. Never thought to try whisky with ginger ale though. I suppose that might be tolerable. I went to a conference once in Peebles and they had a whisky-tasting thing there so I had a few sips to see if maybe I was a single malt man but no. I haven’t had a drink in years, not since my breakdown. I’m off all meds but I was never much of a drinker in the first place so I can’t say I miss it. I did a Q+A recently where I needed to list my favourite drink: I wrote ‘raspberry milkshake’.

Anonymous said...

Tempting commentary again, Jim. My Scottish radar is finely tuned at present: I'm in the middle of 'At The Loch Of The Green Corrie' by Andrew Greig. It's part meditation on fishing, part contemplation of the work and influence of Norman MacCaig and part a great deal more.

Re whisky. Lagavulin was my great indulgence, although at £43.00 a bottle now it'll have to go on the Christmas list!

Jim Murdoch said...

I used to fish as a kid, Dick, with absolutely no success whatsoever in fact I’ve only ever caught one fish in my life and that was the very first time I tried with a piece of orange fishing line, a hook and probably a mussel for bait. After that small success I asked for a proper rod and for several years afterwards would trudge down to the harbour and fish. Seeing this as an opportunity for family bonding my dad bought my kid brother a rod and we’d go off on expeditions. He had a friend who was a successful salmon fisherman and we went off with him and tried our hand at fly fishing with the same level of success. God alone knows why we kept at it so long.

Whisky I’ve talked about above so all I’ll add here is that if I was to see a bottle of anything for £43 the first thing my mind would do is work out how many books and/or CDs I could buy with the money and that would usually be enough to decide that pouring £43 down my throat was not the best use of the funds.

Anonymous said...

‘cludge’ (meaning toilet) -- That's a new one for me, and I'm 1/4 Scottish! Great review, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

It wasn't an expression I used as a kid, Milo. In the school-yard we talked about 'the bogs' - which were outside toilets - but the location is irrelevant. 'Lavvy' wasn't uncommon either.

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