Great Scott!: A Review Of Allan Massie’s The Ragged Lion…

61RpmCjwEtL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

The first book of Allan Massie’s I read was his historical novel Augustus (I think in the late ’80s) and it made a deep impression on me. I hadn’t been a huge fan of historical fiction up to that point, preferring the modern and contemporary even then. Written in the form of a memoir by the titular Roman emperor in old age, what was so impressive was how Massie managed to get into the character and make the reader believe that this was his life, at least from his point of view.

It’s a style which served Massie well in 1991’s Tiberius, the second of his “Memoirs of the Emperor” novels, and it is one he similarly applies in The Ragged Lion, his 1994 novel about the life of Walter Scott which has just been republished by Polygon Books. For those who are fans of Scott’s fiction it is essential, but, as with the Roman Trilogy, it is also a great read for those interested in the history of the time as it looks at the people, places, events and attitudes through the prism of arguably the most famous Scottish writer, and, certainly at the time, the most celebrated.

There has been a renaissance of interest in Scott recently, both abroad and at home, with his novels, and his often overlooked poetry, being reassessed, and this new edition of Massie’s novel feels timely. He is as thorough in researching the detail of Scott’s life as readers’ of his other historical fiction would expect, but where the story comes to life is in the voice which, while not Scott’s certainly reads like it.

As the name suggests, The Ragged Lion is far from being a hagiography. Massie’s Scott displays the pride, ego and financial naivety you would expect from the man who built a home such as Abbotsford, but also insecurity and jealousy at the success of others. However, there is never any doubt that Massie is on the great man’s side. Throughout he details the writing – both poetry and the novels – taking us through Scott’s favourites, and why. As such it also works as a guide to Scott’s work in that it points a reader in the direction as to where best to start, and what to leave to completists.

As well as examining the life of one of Europe’s most successful and influential writers, The Ragged Lion also gives perspective and insight into the history of the time, including King George IV’s infamous visit to Edinburgh which Scott had such a big hand in organising. We also get an insight into Scott’s contemporaries, from Austen to Wordsworth. His relationship with the latter could be described as complicated, as could the one with his near neighbour, the Ettrick Shepherd James Hogg whose own brother worked for Scott.

But the most memorable literary love-in, if our narrator is to be considered a reliable one, was between Scott and Lord Byron who were involved in what can only be described as a life-long bromance. Having said that, you can’t shake the feeling that Scott’s admiration for Byron’s poetry and appearance were not reciprocated with the same strength of feeling.

Other notable figures of the time to feature are Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, and Francis Jeffrey, as well as Scott’s close friends and family. These include John Gibson Lockhart whose own biography of Scott, his father-in-law, is widely respected and would undoubtedly be an influence on, and source for, Massie. But it should never be forgotten that The Ragged Lion is a novel, and comparing the two asks many questions about literary and historical fiction versus biographical “fact”.

Clearly a fan himself, Massie suggests that reading Scott will well reward the “intelligent reader”. Since you have chosen to read Scots Whay Hae! that surely includes you, and if you haven’t read any Walter Scott yet, or not for some time, I would recommend The Ragged Lion to put the books and the writer into clearer perspective. Sir Walter was not just a Great Scot(t), but one of the greatest, and his legacy and literature should not be forgotten. Luckily it looks like that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

The Ragged Lion is published by Polygon Books, who you can follow on Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s the SWH! video podcast all about Walter Scott which was filmed at Abbotsford, and the University of Glasgow, with Ali, Dr Ronnie Young and special guest Professor Douglas Gifford:

City Of Culture: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Visits Dundee…

IMG_20180708_195623.jpg

For the latest podcast Ali visited Dundee to talk about all things cultural in relation to that great city. To help him do so he was joined by the co-founding director of Creative Dundee Gillian Easson, the writer and playwright (and long-term supporter of SWH!) Anna Stewart, and the TV and theatre actor, (currently to be seen on the brilliant drama ‘The Terror‘ on AMC) Gordon Morris.

All three are proud Dundonians who have close connections with the city’s culture. They talk about the past, present, and their future hopes for the city and its artistic community, examining how it has become an internationally renowned centre for the arts while remaining determinedly committed to engaging with its citizens. It’s a fascinating discussion which gives a great overview of a place, its people, and its culture.

Thanks to all three for taking time out from what was a beautiful day to talk to SWH! and share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Thanks must also go to Ryan McLeod who hosts the Creative Chit-Chat Podcasts (which you can subscribe to on iTunes) and who graciously allowed us to use his excellent podcast studio. If you are in the area and looking to record your own, he is the man to contact.

There are far too many other people, places, online resources and organisations mentioned to list them all here – you’ll just have to listen for yourself – but below are links to a select few:

99 Things to See and Do Guide Dundee 2018                  Anna’s Variant Magazine Article
Creative Dundee                    Dundee Contemporary Arts               Dundee Culture
Dundee Libraries                     Dundee Rep Theatre                           Lamb Collection
Make-That-A-Take Records             McManus Galleries            V&A Dundee
Verdant Works

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We can’t confirm names as yet, but we do have some very exciting podcasts lined up, so keep checking in to avoid disappointment…

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…

a4094438180_10.jpg

A recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland’s Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop exhibition was a reminder, as if one were needed, that Scotland’s pop music heritage is deep and wide and tall. It’s a must visit for anyone interested in music, and it is also the place where you can pick up a copy of Vic Galloway’s book of the same name (a review of which will appear on these pages shortly).

But, as nice as it is to look back, these reviews are all about the here and now – and what, and who, you are about to hear prove that while the past may be memorable, the present is pretty darn good as well. We start with bands new to Scots Whay Hae! before the return of some firm favourites, and finish with a new release from one of the best records of 2018. It’s a summer soundtrack which is lazy, hazy, and little bit crazy, but, hey, don’t we all just love that?

The music man himself, Warren McIntyre of Starry Skies fame, asked SWH! to host one of his legendary Seven Song Club nights at The Tron Theatre last month. It was an honour to do so, and as usual it proved to be a memorable occasion with singer/songwriter Lynnie Carson, the fabulous Xan Tyler, and an acoustic set from The Whispering Pines. The latter have just released their album, A Reminder. It’s an impressive and assured record made by muscians who know what they’re doing, boasting a mix of styles while always remaining distinctly original.

There are beautiful harmonies and melodies, some lovely drumming, and good old-fashioned lead guitar – unfairly maligned these days. Moving from the quietly contemplative to epic and back again, it’s the sound of a band who don’t just love playing together, but who love playing together well, with Barrie Neilson’s plaintive, almost world-weary, vocals lifting the music to another level. If you’re looking for comparisons, I’ll give you The Bible, The Bathers, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Matthew Sweet to start – the classiest of company I think you’ll agree. From A Reminder, this is ‘Snow’:

 

Cloth are a recent signing to Last Night From Glasgow, and, as any fule kno, that’s quickly become a guarantee of quality. ‘Demo Love’ is their debut single and boy, is it a touch of class. From the opening bass (which can’t help but put you in mind of The Pixies’ ‘Debaser’), there are ethereal vocals, chiming guitars, riffs which reminded me of Johnny before he went electronic, and a quiet/loud dynamic perfect for a shoegaze shuffle. This is indie music for the ages, evoking, among others, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, Mazzy Star and The Sundays. You’ll find your own touchpoints, but if you, like me, think there are few finer things in life than a great indie-pop record then ‘Demo Love’ could just be your song of the summer.

Those lovely people at Fitlike Records sent SWH! a selection of their recent releases, and among them was C.S. Buchan & FriendsIf you can judge a person by the company he keeps then Charley Buchan must be among the finest of men as the record features many of the best musicians around today. These include SWH! favourites Lizabett Russo, Iona Fyfe, Pete Harvey from Modern Studies, and The Little Kicks‘ Steven Milne, as well as Buchan’s daughter, Kate, who you are more likely to know as Best Girl Athlete, and whose self-titled album was one of the best of last year.

Its a wonderfully eclectic mix of songs which are reflective, meditative, even introspective, but avoids falling into melancholy through a mix of wry wit, melody, and more than a little help from his friends. It’s reminiscent of fellow musicians of a certain age (no offence!) Malcolm Middleton, King Creosote, James Yorkston, Aidan Moffat, and particularly the recent recordings from Steve Mason. Buchan more than holds his own in such company, and if you own music by those mentioned then do yourself a favour and get your hands on a copy of C.S. Buchan & Friends. It’ll do you the world of good to spend time in their company. This is ‘Home From The Sea’ (featuring Alexander Ironside), but it really only tells a small part of a compelling story:

Megan Airlie’s debut single ‘After River’ appeared in our March review, and it suggested the arrival of a huge talent. Her latest, ‘Honey’, proves that was nae fluke. Once again it boasts a subtle and understated production so as best to showcase Airlie’s incredible voice. While it remains the star of the show – think Billie Holiday meets Portishead’s Beth Orton – the music is a lovely slice of jazz-tinged folk, leading with acoustic guitar and piano before building to a surprisingly emotional end. Megan Airlie is clearly in it for the long run, and that’s good news for us all. This is ‘Honey’:

Sacre Noir have regularly featured on the pages of SWH! over the years, making innovative and interesting music which made them stand apart. Alexis and Carrie from the band have a new project, Macon Heights, (presumably named after the village in the Philip K. Dick short story ‘The Commuter’). Their single ‘The Line’ is out now, and it could be described as old-school synthpop, reminiscent of early Depeche Mode, Visage and Gary Numan, but you can also detect the influence of French house and techno, such as Daft Punk and Miss Kittin. But it is Carrie Beattie’s unmistakable vocals, never sounding better, which make this a more soulful and emotional experience than you might expect. On this evidence this could be the start of something very special indeed. This is ‘The Line’:

While we’re at the electronics – L-Space will be releasing their eagerly awaited debut album on the aforementioned Last Night From Glasgow later this year. In the meantime they have a new single for your pleasure, ‘Backup Baby’. It’s arguably their most commercial song to date, showing a real pop-sensibility while retaining the dreamscape and sci-fi feel which we have come to know and love, and with a dystopian twist in the tale. Old Philip K. Dick once again comes to mind. The song is also an undeniable earworm – you just can’t get it out of your head. It proves once more that L-Space are one of the finest bands around and that their album can’t come quickly enough. Until then, this is ‘Backup Baby’:

We’re going to end with a record you probably already own. We have already mentioned Tracyanne & Danny’s self-titled album in a previous review, but the song which is their latest release from that record, ‘It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts’, is just too good not to acknowledge. It would be remiss. Reminiscent of the best of Camera Obscura, and with a cracking video to boot, this is a favourite track on an album chock full of great ones. If by some chance you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Tracyanne & Danny then may I suggest you do so at the earliest possible convenience – it’ll improve your life beyond measure. But if you don’t believe me perhaps this’ll convince you:

That’s all for now, folks. See you around these parts soon…

Words & Music: A Review Of Stephen Thom’s Beachcomber…

0011497348_10 2.jpg

Back in March we included Dante’s excellent album I Wear Your Weight With Mine (below) in our monthly musical roundup. At the time we said this –

a4159485687_10“Sounding like a Celtic Arcade Fire or Band Of Horses, like those bands they are not easily pigeonholed or categorised. Their music has been described as “subtly anthemic”, which may seem like a contradiction in terms until you hear the songs and then it all makes sense. Rooted in folk music but taking it to new places, their songs have a resonance and vitality which grows which each listen. Dante are a band who you cannot ignore.

Dante got in touch to ask if we knew there was an accompanying book of short stories, written by their mandolin player Stephen Thom, called Beachcomber, the name of the first track on I Wear Your Weight With Mine. The more cynical among you may think this is one band member taking the chance to release his words on the back of the music, but you would be wrong. Thom is already a published writer, and these stories are intrinsically linked to the songs, with titles and lyrics shared across both.

Thom’s tales are dark, almost supernatural in places, but also deal with subjects such as love, loss, drink, depression, regret, recovery, fucking-up and forgiveness. There is little dialogue, with an inability for characters to communicate something else which these stories share. Thom uses internal thoughts and arresting imagery to tell the story, showing the reader what is going on rather than telling them. The central character of K struggles to make sense of his place in the world, overawed by life and struggling to get through.

While this may seem bleak, there is a humanity and searing honesty in Beachcomber’s depiction of a man falling apart, trying to put himself back together, and start again, and also makes clear the effect this has on others. There is more than a hint of Ron Butlin’s The Sound Of My Voice or John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, but also the short stories of Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth. However, Thom’s is a style and voice which stands aside, and I hope there is more to come from him soon.

I Wear Your Weight With Mine is a terrific album – one which gets better with every listen and which is well on its way to being one of the best of the year. Beachcomber is an insightful, emotional and at times heartbreaking collection of stories which contain some of the most memorable short fiction I have read for some time. While both record and book stand on their own, when taken together they make a greater whole, and you can get a copy of I Wear Your Weight With Mine and Beachcomber on their Bandcamp page.

One of my favourite stories in Beachcomber is ‘Rose’, and here is the “matching” track to give you a better idea as to what Dante do:

Dante (with Stephen Thom far right).

0011382584_10.jpg

Read All About It!: A Review Of M.J. Nicholls’ The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die…

1002.jpg

M.J. Nicholls’ previous novel The House Of Writers was, as the title suggests, a book on and about writers and writing, but it was so much more. He has followed it with The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die which, as the title suggests, concentrates on readers and reading, but to say it is so much more than that would be understatement of the highest order. It is a love-letter to literature, but one which casts a delightfully cynical and often incredulous eye over all the hype and hoopla which surrounds the publishing industry. From writers, through agents, festivals and their organisers, literary panels and prizes, book sellers, publishers, and critics, to you, dear readers, (and me), Nicholls is coruscating in his condemnation, but remains droll and darkly comedic throughout, his tongue just far enough in his cheek for us to get the joke.

It begins with a Legal Disclaimer which reads, “The Scottish Arts Council strongly repudiate all the claims made in this novel.”. This sets the tone for a fantastically inventive novel where fiction meets fact, and while the lines between the two are mostly clear, it is surprisingly exciting to read a novel where living and breathing writers mix with each other, and with Nicholls’ characters, building to some unforgettable scenes. In lesser hands the amount of referencing of authors, writers, and other cultural touchstones could have been a distraction, or an exercise in showing how clever the writer is, but here it all feels a necessary part of the bigger picture.

The novel introduces us to Marcus Schott who, after leaving his job at E-Z Monee Loans, decides he is going to immerse himself in literature, not entirely for reasons of his intellectual betterment. Moving to Orkney to make his way through the novels named in Dr. Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, he works out in detail the time, budget and itinerary required, as long as there are no hidden costs to complicate matters. Marcus soon discovers that life is little but hidden costs. As Marcus’ story continues ‘the author’ makes regular appearances in chapters which are there to explain the greater whole, in a manner not dissimilar to Alasdair Gray’s appearance in Lanark. Both strands work together where they could have pulled the reader in different directions, and it is to Nicholls’ credit that he succeeds.

The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die asks you to consider just what it means to be a reader. Can it be called a pastime? What, if anything, can a writer expect, or even demand, from readers? Can you experience “reader’s block”? It also asks questions about why we read, (I can recommend early nights with The Brothers Karamazov for taking your mind of a broken heart. Well, perhaps “recommend” is the wrong word.) Do you read more keenly when the rest of your life is less than satisfying? If the pram in the hall is the enemy of good art, does the same fate befall the ‘good reader’? And, ultimately, does it matter? While reading The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die I was reminded of Bill Shankly’s quotation, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Nicholl’s novel seems to take a similar fundamentalist stance towards literature, and how you feel about that will go a long way to deciding what you feel about Nicholls’ novel.

In his essay ‘What Is Literature?’, Jean Paul Sartre writes about “committed literature”, specifically prose, which should always be engaged with the present day. Does this mean the reader is required to be equally as committed for this to exist? Surely it must, otherwise there seems little point. That idea gets to the heart of The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die. It will make you examine how you read, why you read, and even who you read for. There is no doubt a combative and challenging edge, (there’s a surprising amount of spitting encouraged), and you’ll find yourself disagreeing as well as agreeing, often in the same sentence. That is part of the point. Nicholls makes you confront your own truths and prejudices, asking if you really believe or are simply falling in line with the consensus.

The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is a comic novel which takes its subject matter very seriously, and demands to be read in the same manner. It is a literary undertaking which needs the reader to engage fully. To do otherwise would be to miss out on what is, at times, an exhilarating experience. Although there are other Scottish novels which come to mind, such as Kevin McNeill’s The Brilliant & Forever, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Graham Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, M.J. Nicholls is doing something which feels and reads as new and exciting. If you love books then The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is one to read, before it’s too late.

The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is published by Sagging Meniscus.

The Glasgow launch for The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die has M.J. Nicholls talking to writer Kevin MacNeil at Waterstones Argyle Street on 27th June.
The Edinburgh launch at Blackwells on 28th June sees Nicholls in conversation with SWH!’s own Ali Braidwood.
Tickets for both events are free, but book to avoid disappointment.

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…

a2824481564_10.jpg

Looking for something new to listen to? Well, you have happened upon the right place as the latest music roundup has an eclectic mix of tunes from old friends and new. They are all great songs, and while they are distinctly different to each other, there is more than a little reflection, dissafection, introspection, but also stimulation, invigoration, and songs approaching pop-perfection. All this and a whole lot more before we’re done.

There are few things to brighten a dull, dull day like the recent news from Armellodie Records that The Scottish Enlightenment are back with a new album, Potato Flower. One of the first bands to be reviewed on Scots Whay Hae!, they hold a special place in our hearts. After far too long (since 2010’s St Thomas, if memory serves) they return to fill that Scottish Enlightenment shaped hole in all our lives, which are immediately improved because of it.

In their time away it is clear that life is something which happened between records, and Potato Flower reflects on the highs and lows which are ever-present in the every day. Tackling everything from cradle to grave, these are songs which touch upon love, loss, secrets, lies and some unbearable truths. Taken as a whole, Potato Flower is a thing of fragile beauty, with understated melodies to match David Moyes’ often heartbreaking lyrics. If you’re looking for comparisons, in terms of tone at least, I get American Music Club, Red House Painters, Jason Molina, and even the more reflective work of The Cure.

I was, in a fit of exuberance, going to call it my favourite record of the year so far, then I remembered those from Roberts, Skuse & McGuinness, Modern Studies, Zoe Bestel and Kirsty Law (as well as one mentioned below – no spoilers) and realised that 2018 is shaping up to be one hell of a year for Scottish music. For now, let’s just say, “Potato Flowers by The Scottish Enlightenment – every home should have one”. From it, this is ‘Fingers’:

While we’re talking old friends and favourites, Marie Claire Lee has long been one of Scotland’s finest singers, with the excellent The Lotus Project, as part of Paul McGeechan’s collaborative Starless album, or on her own. You could argue that she is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets, but it looks like that is about to change as she returns under the moniker Seil Lien. Her single ‘A Little While More’ has been chosen for No7’s ‘Inspiring Women’ ad campaign, and it’s taken from an EP of the same name. It’s down and dirty swamp rock that’s a little bit Bad Seeds, a little bit White Stripes, and should be on a David Lynch movie soundtrack sometime soon if there’s any sense to the world. It’s also proof, if some were needed, that the first sentence of this paragraph is undoubtedly true. This is ‘A Little While More’:

At SWH! we always try to educate as well as entertain, and did you know that The Men of the Minch are mermaid like creatures that inhabit the stretch of water between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland of Scotland, often luring sailors to their doom? Well, now you do, and it explains the name Man of the Minch which is the alias of singer songwriter Pedro Cameron, formerly the fiddle player in the The Dirty Beggars.

As Man of the Minch, Cameron has released his first EP Helping Hands. It’s a fantastic, and moving, collection of songs about his life, loves, and growing up gay, and is an eclectic mix of traditional, electronica and pop. Featuring some astonishing fiddle playing from Laura Wilkie (Shooglenifty and Bothy Culture), and an appearance from poet Sam Small, it’s a real collaborative work while always remaining personal to Cameron.

He is also involved with Bogh-fhrois (Rainbow), the LGBT + Folk Musicians Project, and I’ll let the man himself explain the aims of the project,

“The project is aimed at LGBT folk musicians in Scotland. The idea at the moment is to gather LGBT folk musicians from all over the country to write, collaborate on and perform songs in the folk tradition, which tell stories about life as a member of the LGBT community – with the ultimate aim being a record release and a series of shows, which help to open up a link between the Scottish folk tradition and 21st century issues and values.” 

If you would like to more about Bogh-fhrois, then you can get in touch with Pedro by emailing manoftheminch@gmail.com and he’ll give you all the relevant info. In the meantime, this is ‘Ordinary’, from Helping Hands:

 

Warren McIntyre is man who lives and breathes music. The host of the monthly Seven Song Clubs at the Tron Theatre, he has worked with too many muscians to mention here, and has welcomed to the stage many, many more. His latest project is fronting Starry Skies, who will be releasing their album Be Kind later this year. 

SWH! were lucky enough to have had a preview of Be Kind, and a it’s a record packed with pop songs in the classic tradition – music to uplift while making you think, and with more than a hint of ‘60s psychedelia sprinkled throughout. We’re surely well overdue another summer of love and Starry Skies could provide the perfect soundtrack. The single ‘Starry Skies’ is released on 27th July:

New to SWH! – the music of Peter Cat, and if it’s the same for you you’re in for a treat. Making irreverent and smart pop music in the mold of Neil Hannon, Jarvis Cocker, Luke Haines, with a sprinkling of Scott Walker, Cat casts a wry eye over the world and is then moved to make music to match. Regular readers will also be reminded of the work of Eugene Twist, and even Franz Ferdinand. With a riff running through it that could have come from The Sweet, and that Noel Gallagher is almost bound to steal, the single ‘Hand Through Hair‘ is a delight from start to finish. Let’s hope there is plenty more to come from Peter Cat as on this evidence it’s going to be quite the ride:

I mentioned at the top of the page that there was another contender in this month’s roundup for album of the year, and that is Aidan Moffat & R.M. Hubbert’s Here Lies The BodyAs you would expect, theirs is a marriage heaven-sent with Moffat’s mournful vocals backed by the always astonishing virtuoso guitar of Hubbert. Put simply, Here Lies The Body sees two of the finest musicians at work today at the very top of their game, pushing each other to new heights. It may just be the best thing either have been involved in.

The album also features Rachel Grimes on piano, John Burgess on saxophone and clarinet, and, regular on these pages, Siobhan Wilson who plays cello but also sings – her lilting vocals softening Moffat’s gruff delivery to great effect. This is never shown more clearly than on the single ‘Cockcrow’, which you can marvel at yourself right now:

And finally… Let’s end as we began, with a band signed to Armellodie Records. This time it’s Cuddly Shark and their latest single ‘La Barba‘. Reminiscent of SWH! favourites Dumb Instrument, and the legendary Ween, it’s a cracking song which clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. With horns, Spanish guitar, and a smattering of castanets, it’s an uplifting, and surprisingly faithful, slice of Latin influenced pop which is just perfect as you make your way through the streets of your town. Perhaps the most joyous and infectious song of the summer, ‘La Barba’ will make your day:

That’s all folks, I’m off to grab a fancy beer and a tequila…

The Vital Spark: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Celebrates The Life & Work Of Muriel Spark…

thumbnail.jpg

In the latest podcast we look at the life and work of Muriel Spark with our guest Dr Colin McIlroy who is the Muriel Spark Project Curator at the National Library of Scotland, and who was instrumental in their recent The International Style of Muriel Spark Exhibition.

This year is the centenary of the birth of Spark, and the exhibition was just part of DSC_0789the #MurielSpark100 celebrations which are ongoing throughout 2018. Colin tells us all about the exhibition, before he and Ali talk about the novels, Spark’s unconventional life, her other writing, and so much more.

If you are a newcomer to Muriel Spark, or think that she begins and ends with The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, this is the perfect podcast to persuade you to investigate further. Even if you are already a fan you’re bound to find something new to interest you.

If you want to keep up to date with all the events which are part of the Muriel Spark centenary celebrations then go to the Muriel Spark 100 website which has all the details you need, as well as how you can get involved. You can also keep in touch with them on Twitter and Facebook.

As mentioned on the podcast, all 22 of Muriel Spark’s novels are being published by Polygon Books, with new introductions by some of Scotland’s best-known writers, from Allan Massie (The Comforters) to Jackie Kay (The Finishing School). You can also find Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo which we also discuss.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We’ll be back with you before you know it…

*The picture Ali is holding is part of Glasgow artist Colin Johnston’s series of Scottish writers meet Aladdin Sane, (also including Scott, Stevenson and Burns – below) and they can be bought exclusively from The Braemar Gallery.

28166983_1606329446121554_4754402581661321986_n

Fantastic Voyage: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Walrus Mutterer…

DSC_0783.jpg

Perhaps more than any other medium fiction is able to transport you to other times and places – placing you in the company of strangers but making you feel you belong. A consummate example of this is Mandy Haggith‘s latest novel The Walrus Mutterer. Set in 320 BC, during the Iron Age, it follow the trials and tribulations of Rian, a young woman learning her skills as a healer, as well as helping with communal duties, before she is suddenly and unexpectedly sold into slavery. What follows is a depiction of the harsh reality of slavery added to the dangers of life at sea, and often more so in strange lands. The hunt is on for the mythical Walrus Mutterer as Rian struggles to comprehend her new life, and how to survive.

Haggith grabs the reader right from the start. Within pages you are with Rian watching an unusual parade of passengers depart a recently arrived trading boat. The author wastes no time in introducing characters who are immediately captivating – the drunken foster-father Drost, Ussa – a cruel and intimidating female trader, and Gruach and Fraoch who are described as “the dragon man and the dwarf” respectively. And then there is the slim, curious, and clearly out-of-place Pytheas, a wealthy Greek traveller and writer who Ussa says is “Part child and part god and part, I don’t know what”. It’s a cast who you can picture quite clearly in your mind, and once the players are introduced the action begins, in this case with such pace it takes your breath away.

Rian’s future seems fairly set out, living and working in her community, but that all changes as she is lost to Ussa in a game of chance played with Drost. In slavery Rian is treated more like cattle than a human – poked, prodded, and eventually branded, as her new owner tries to decide her worth. Her change in status sees her viewed differently by all, either overtly or less obviously. She finds some comfort and understanding as others on board try to teach her the best way use her talents to persevere and survive. But it is the change in Pytheas that Rian finds most disturbing, although at first she can’t put her finger on why. All she knows is that this man who she once thought she may come to love now disturbs and even disgusts her, a feeling which will prove horribly prescient.

It’s a novel dominated and defined by woman. As well as Rian, whose trials and tribulations are almost biblical in their extremes, there is Ussa who proves to be as bitter and twisted as any of the men, the aforementioned Fraoch whose understanding and support prove invaluable to Rian when she needs it most, the predatory and jealous Maadu whose favours come and go depending on which way the wind blows, and the mysterious and mystical Shadow who provides shelter from the storm. The men pale in comparison, with the exception of the charismatic and poetic Manigan, and singing sailor Toma, whose songs awake something primal within Rian.

The Walrus Mutterer is as much about the present day as it is about the past, commenting on gender, eco-concerns, the environment, and the importance of respect for and understanding of the natural world. It is also about community and the power of folklore, ritual, and song. The language and imagery are rich, poetic, visceral, and often moving. If you enjoy discovering new worlds then this one is as strange and beautiful as anything science-fiction or fantasy has to offer. It is Book One of the Stone Stories Trilogy, and Book Two can’t come quickly enough. Mandy Haggith has created a world which, despite the struggles and strife of everyday Iron Age life, you’ll be keen to return to.

The Walrus Mutterer is published by Saraband Books.

Back To The Old School: A Review Of J.V. Baptie’s The Forgotten…

41WtxWXRyfL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

1977. The year the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks, Elvis died, Star Wars broke box-office records, Bowie told us “We could be heroes”, and Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish moved across the border from Celtic to Liverpool – momentous events one and all. The way history remembers it, it was a time when real change was in the air, and for many it was the year which saw the beginning of the end of the ’70s and where the sparks which would culturally ignite the 1980s can be found.

1977 is also the year in which J.V. Baptie’s latest novel The Forgotten is set, and there is also that sense of change in the air as newly promoted Detective Sergeant Helen Carter struggles to be accepted by her colleagues in the Edinburgh CID. Helen has a family background in the police, her father being a retired Inspector, but this fact hinders her rather than helps. Those she works with accuse her of having an easy ride, yet her father is against her choice of career as well. Her older, alcoholic, partner Ted also disapproves, looking for alternative work opportunities for her behind her back, and believing that her leaving this life behind will make things all right between them, instead of taking a good look at himself. As she works on a multiple murder enquiry, she is hindered by prejudice and preconception at every turn. Continue reading

Translated Accounts: A Review Of Alison Moore’s Missing…

9781784631406.jpg

In our recent podcast with Helen McClory the subject of literary fiction, and what makes it so special, arose. You can still hear the full discussion by listening here, but a brief summary of the conclusion of the conversation is that it is in literary fiction where the human condition is best explored, and more fully understood, with a depth and resonance which is almost impossible in other art forms where such exploration is more fleeting. You may disagree with that assertion, but when it works at its best literature inspects shared human experience and gives us a better understanding of what that means.

Alison Moore’s latest novel Missing fulfils the above criteria, and proves to be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Told in an apparently straightforward and deceptively modest manner, the emotional punch it delivers is all the more significant because of it. The best writers never allow style to overcome substance. Even those who experiment with the form, such as Joyce with Ulysses, or Gray with Lanark, are looking at what it means to be human, to live. Jessie Noon is living her late 40s in the Scottish Borders with her cat, dog, a large collection of books, and possibly a ghost. But Jessie is haunted more by her past rather than what resides in the spare room, and her inability to come to terms with that past is apparently preventing her from moving forward. However, Moore understands that life is rarely that straightforward. Continue reading