Scotch & Wry: A Review Of Rachel McCormack’s Chasing The Dram: Finding The Spirit Of Whisky…

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Now, I love books, and I love whisky, but I haven’t come across many great whisky related books over the years. Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram is one, Tom Morton’s Spirit Of Adventure: Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails another. Michael Jackson (no, not that one) always writes well on the subject, last year saw the publication of Iain Hector Ross’s informative and entertaining The Whisky Dictionary, and for something a little different Doug Johnstone’s whisky driven novel Smokeheads will always do the trick.

To those we can safely add Rachel McCormack’s Chasing The Dram, which is a personal yet meticulous tale of her love affair with whisky as well as an examination of the people, places, rituals, rumours, and even recipes which go with it. McCormack believes that limiting whisky as just a drink does it a disservice, underselling its complexities. As someone who, in a previous life, cooked for a living this was fascinating to me. Over the years I can probably count on one hand the dishes in which I have incorporated whisky (whisky sauce, Cranachan, Christmas cake, tablet, and chocolate truffles are those which spring to mind). One of the many joys of Chasing The Dram is that it is part cookbook, and a fine one at that.

McCormack knows of which she writes. She is a well-regarded food writer who regularly appears as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and some of the recipes in the book are irresistible. From the mouth-watering Venison Biryani, through Lobster Loaves and Oysters with Whisky, Duck Stuffed with Prunes, and Roast Syringed Lamb, to Zabaglone with Arran Amarone Cask, and a Whisky Tiffin which I can attest is as delicious as it is simple to make, there are dishes described here which will change the way you view the relationship between whisky and food. I’ll certainly never have a port with cheese again when there’s an appropriate dram on offer.

But that is only part of the story. Introduced to whisky in purely medicinal hot toddies in her teenage years, McCormack was lucky enough to have a father who would use good Macallan, (as opposed to a slug of High Commissioner or similar), to cure what ails. Her relationship with her father could be said to mirror that of Scotland with whisky. Put simply, both are complicated, and McCormack doesn’t shy away from the personal, bringing family and friends into the book to help her put this obsession (and it does seem to be just that) into perspective as she is determined that other people should share in her passion. It is this combination which makes Chasing The Dram such a captivating read.

It’s a book which examines how Scotland’s national drink has come to define the past, present, and future of a nation which increasingly relies on a product it doesn’t really understand. McCormack travels the country to try to separate the fact from the fiction, and there is plenty of both. What raises Chasing The Dram over most food and drink books is the writing itself. McCormack is funny, engaging, irreverent, honest and insightful. She is not afraid to go against convention and take a pop at a sacred cow or two if she believes it is justified (although I do feel she is a little harsh on Walter Scott, but then I think I’m one of the few people who still read him).

It is a book for the whisky fanatic, (with a glossary of terms and, perhaps more importantly, the addresses of Scotland’s distilleries included). But it’s also a book for anyone interested in food and drink, and Scotland in general as McCormack casts a keen and critical eye on the country – through a glass, darkly at times. The result is one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I have read in ages. By the end you’ll be convinced that everything in life can be improved by the right whisky, and you’ll find no argument here. Slainte.

Rachel McCormack’s Chasing The Dram: Finding The Spirit Of Whisky is published by Simon & Schuster

Fine And Dandy: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison…

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Against all expectations, the Christmas/ New Year period allowed for the reading of some of the books which have been sitting on SWH!’s ever present ‘must-read’ pile, and the next few posts will review at least a couple of those. First up is Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison, which introduces us to Leo Moran, a Glaswegian private eye who is unlike any you’ll have met before, which is in itself a reason for cheer.

In the world of crime-fiction, and Scottish crime-fiction in particular, the belief persists that the genre is one which relies on familiar tropes, stereotypes and cliches. However, I would hope that the work of many of the writers of crime who have featured on these pages, including Louise Welsh, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Douglas Skelton, Michael J. Malone, Alice Thomson and Russel D. McLean, would have changed readers’ preconceptions if they persisted. All of those mentioned, and many others, have very distinct styles and are wildly and wonderfully different to one another. If you’ve yet to embrace Scottish crime fiction, you’re missing out.

Which bring us back to Leo Moran, the decidedly dapper Glaswegian detective who takes on the case of the suspicious death of a young woman in Argyll. McGarry depicts Moran in wonderful detail, and there is a lot of detail to detail. For instance, this is a typical evening meal, “He started with some exquisite Oban scallops with braised pig’s cheek, followed by mock turtle soup, braised halibut, and then saddle of venison in a beetroot and sloe gin jelly, all washed down with a bottle of Chambertin.” This is not your typical Clydeside gumshoe, but someone who presents to the world a desire for the finer things in life, and a sensibility bordering on foppish. How you react to that last sentence will probably dictate if you instinctively warm to Leo Moran or not, but either way he is worthy of your attention.

As someone who likes to delude themselves that they know their collars and cuffs, and the difference between an Oxford and Derby brogue, Leo Moran’s sartorial style and eye-for-detail appeal greatly. He likes to think himself a man of elan and taste, but this, as it almost always is, is part of his armour against the world, a costume which he chooses with great care. More Sherlock Holmes than Laidlaw, Parlabane, or Queste, you initially feel he just wasn’t made for these times.

However, a great detective is defined by their deeds rather than their duds, and Moran’s first case is a complex one, with lots of possibilities as to whodunnit. Having been introduced to Leo it is all to easy to imagine how he could wind up local police and other residents of Argyll, not only bringing his individual style to their locale, but an attitude to match. Have no doubt, this is a flawed character, and just as he has to uncover the secrets and lies of those he meets to try to discover the killer, so the reader must look past the surface layers to understand what motivates and drives Leo Moran.

Add to this his abilities as a ‘seer’, able to communicate with the dead – (a supernatural twist which will surely be developed in future) – and you begin to understand that this is no ordinary detective novel. The titular ghost of Helen Addison becomes an accomplice in solving the case, although not enough is made of her infrequent appearances until the very end.

The Ghost Of Helen Addison is named as being “The First Leo Moran Murder Mystery”, which is welcome as this is a detective and a writer who I want to spend more time with. That would allow McGarry not only to explore other aspects of Moran’s personality, but, more importantly moving forward, that of other characters. The problem in having such a memorable protagonist is that every one else struggles to make an impression.

Not only could more have been made of Helen, but also DI Laing, the Fettes’ educated and fabulously monickered Fordyce Greatorix, and significant others. This is particularly applicable to Moran’s “friend” and confidante, Stephanie, who brings welcome insight and cynicism to proceedings when she appears, and who has the potential to be the Watson to his Holmes, puncturing his pomposity and calling him out on his prejudices when need be.

With The Ghost Of Helen Addison Charles E. McGarry has presented a new voice to Scottish crime fiction, and a memorable character to match. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novels develop as they not only have the potential to become a series which bring something fresh to the genre, but could also transfer to screen. I for one would like to see Leo Moran made flesh, if only for the wardrobe hints and restaurant recommendations.

The Ghost Of Helen Addison is out now, published by Polygon Books.

Get Connected: SWH!’s Pick Of Celtic Connections 2018…

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“January, sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me”, sang Edinburgh’s Pilot in 1975 and even if you’re not quite sure what it means, you get the gist. For me, a year doesn’t get going properly til Celtic Connections begins. A festival which never fails to deliver, and which continues to grow in terms of number of gigs, breadth of music, and international stature – deep, and wide and tall.

This year is the 25th anniversary, which is worth celebrating in itself, but which would mean little if the quality wasn’t maintained. Have no fear as Celtic Connections shows no signs of slowing down.

As always, we’d like to point you in the direction of lesser known gems which can be found at the festival alongside the headliners and more well-kent attendees, which this year include Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Kate Rusby, Shawn Colvin, Kathryn Williams, Beth Orton, Joe Henry and The Mavericks!

You can peruse the full programme at your leisure at Celtic Connections, and receive all the up-to-date news by following on Twitter, and Facebook.  But before you rush away to do so, here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Picks, (complete with links to further details), or, what we like to call, ‘the best of the rest of the fest’…

Findlay Napier’s Glasgow – 20th Jan, The Mackintosh Church

SOUNDING Modern Studies & Lomond Campbell with The Pumpkinseeds Chamber Orchestra – 21st Jan, Saint Luke’s

Last Night from Glasgow: Carla J. Easton, Zoe Bestell and The Miss’s – 25th Jan, The Hug & Pint

Lizabett Russo – 27th Jan, Oran Mor

Last Night from Glasgow: Sister John, Annie Booth and Andrew Nicol – 28th Jan, The Hug & Pint

Northern Flyway – 29th Jan, Tron Theatre

Eugene Kelly (The Vaselines) and Special Guests – 29th Jan, The Hug & Pint

James Yorkston and Sarah Hayes & Sara Kazmi – 30th Jan, The Glad Cafe

Colin Macleod and Wallis Bird – 1st Feb, Saint Luke’s

Sound of Yell, Ilk and Aby Vulliamy – 2nd Feb, The Glad Cafe

Siobhan Wilson with the Demi Octet and Jamie Sutherland – 3rd Feb, The Mackintosh Church

Out Lines and Hamish Hawk – 4th Feb, Saint Luke’s

Hopefully see you at at least one of the above…

Scots Whay Hae!’s Alternative Hogmanay Night In, 2017…

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Once again Montgomery Scott raises a glass to see out the old year and ring in the new and that means it’s time for Scots Whay Hae!’s annual selection of New Year’s Eve treats. It’s an alternative to the Hogmanay telly, so if there’s little you fancy on the box there might be something here to your liking.

There’s audio, video, music, comedy, documentary, drama, and more involving some of our favourite folk, including Vic Galloway, Muriel Spark, Alan Cumming, Forbes Masson, Benny Lynch, Peter Mackie Burns, Vikki Reilly and Kristian Kerr, Pocket Knife, Sandie Shaw, and Hamish Imlach. How’s that for a guest list? There’s quite a lot to get through, so without further ado….

We’re going to kick off with a radio documentary from Uncle Vic Galloway all about the past, present, and hopefully the future of Glasgow’s iconic Barrowlands Ballroom, with music from Iggy Pop, Public Enemy, Franz Ferdinand and more. Click the link below for the full programme:

Vic Galloway’s Barrowlands

Next is the chance to watch the infamous film version of Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, which stars Elizabeth Taylor, Ian Bannen, and a cameo from Andy Warhol! You can read Ali’s thoughts on The Driver’s Seat in the latest issue of The Bottle Imp, which may help you decide if the film is for you or not – but, for better or worse, you won’t see a movie like this for some time:

A wee treat now – some rare footage of Kelvinside’s Victor & Barry performing at the Edinburgh Fringe back in the day, with messrs Cumming and Masson on the finest of form. Not the best quality, but that’s VHS for you:

One of the best films of last year’s Glasgow Film Festival was a small budget sporting documentary, Benny. It focuses on the life and times of the boxer Benny Lynch, a man who has a strong claim to be called Scotland’s greatest ever sporting hero. You can read the SWH! review here before clicking below to watch on iPlayer:

Benny

Earlier this year we spoke to Daphne director Peter Mackie Burns about that film and a whole lot more. Here’s one of Mackie Burns’ earlier short films, Stronger, based on August Strindberg’s ‘The Stronger’, and which stars Kate Dickie, Kathleen McDermott and some chancer as the mysterious barman:

If you’ve heard our recent Best Books Of 2017 you’ll be familiar with the voice of Birlinn and Polygon Books’ Vikki Reilly. She also presents The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Scottish Literature alongside her fellow Birlinner, Kristian Kerr, which SWH! is calling the best new podcast of the year, and a must listen for any book lover. The latest is on the aforementioned Muriel Spark, focusing on her debut The Comforters, as well as talking to Alan Taylor about his latest book, Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark, and you can hear it below, then catch up on the others on Soundcloud:

We’re going to wrap things up with an alternative mini-Hootenanny. One of the best releases of the last month is Olive Grove Records Christmas compilation From Olive Us To Olive You which features songs from Carla J. Easton, Eugene Kelly, Randolph’s Leap, Woodenbox, Jo Mango, The Son(s), Henry & Fleetwood, Campfires in Winter, and this excellent track from Pocket Knife, Half The Presents:

You cannae whack a good cover version, and the following fulfils all the criteria. It’s Sandie Shaw on The Whistle Test during her mid-80s indie years (when she also covered The Smiths and Jesus And Mary Chain) doing Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’. Great singer, great song:

Talking of covers, one of the best albums of 2017 was Findlay Napier’s Glasgow, which has lots of great original songs, but also a couple of well-chosen cover versions including his take on Hamish Imlach’s ‘Cod Liver Oil & The Orange Juice’. Here’s the original from the legend himself, lest we forget:

And that was 2017. We’ve no idea how 2018 is going to pan out, but whatever happens we’ll be there reviewing, commenting, and conversation with some of those who are going to shape it.

From everyone involved with Scots Whay Hae!, Happy New Year and we’ll see you on the other side…

*Reeling In The Years: A Review Of Polly Clark’s Larchfield…

Larchfield-300x467If you believe the reports that attention spans are in terminal decline then it must be more important then ever for a writer to grab readers’ attention from the off, to avoid their eye moving to the next Amazon recommendation or Sunday supplement review as they try to complete the Sisyphean task of keeping up to date with the new. This struck me as I read the early chapters of Polly Clark’s ‘Larchfield’. Few novels have an opening as arresting as it has, using imagery and language as visceral as it is unexpected. It’s a novel that, like its two central characters, refuses to be ignored

Clark takes the two years that the poet W.H. Auden spent teaching in Helensburgh at Larchfield Academy as the basis for her book. There are two stories to be told, at first distinctly individual before beginning to overlap. The first unfolds in the chapters named ‘Wystan’, Auden’s Christian name, and is a fictional account of his life at the school. Leaving the literati of London just at the point he is starting to be known as a poet, he feels compelled to escape due to a mix of controversy and personal crisis; his coming to terms with his sexuality as important a reason as any other. When he arrives to take his role at Larchfield, replacing his friend and fellow poet Cecil Day-Lewis, he finds his reputation has somewhat gone before him.

The other storyline takes place in the present day where a pregnant ‘Dora’ and her husband Kit arrive to start the next chapter of their lives together. Like Wystan, Dora is an academic and poet (or “the poetess” as she is soon named locally) who has left that life behind for the promise of the perfect place for the perfect family, something which she believes she understands how to achieve. They move into what should be their dream home, but it is one that proves to bring only heartache for Dora.

Both poets find writing in their new location almost impossible. Wystan struggles to accept where he is, and who he is, while Dora is beginning to believe Cyril Connolly’s maxim that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Connolly was a literary critic who was a close friend of Auden’s, so much so that he penned one of his poems in his honour, ‘The Fall Of Rome (For Cyril Connolly)’. Such literary allusions and connections are throughout the novel, and it is part of the pleasure of reading it to put these pieces together.

Helensburgh, (“the Wimbledon of the north”, according to C. Day-Lewis), is portrayed as a town where curtains twitch and “outsiders” are treated with suspicion. Certainly both Wystan and Dora feel that they are unwanted, and not without good reason. While his fellow masters and pupils treat Wystan with suspicion, Dora feels that the whole town is against her from the start. Her neighbours seem to be fundamentally Christian, and blame her for something that she cannot as yet comprehend. But when even the nurses and midwives take against her, primarily for not being able to “breastfeed on demand”, a mantra which takes on increasing menace, it is little wonder that she starts to question that even if she is being paranoid, it doesn’t mean “they” aren’t out to get her.

The psychological versus the supernatural are familiar themes in Scottish writing, but Clark manages to present them anew. Aside from any supernatural reading, which would be more magical-realist mystery rather than Gothic or ghost story, the physical and the psychological are intrinsically linked, the one having a distinct and quite profound effect on the other. Themes of love, longing and loneliness are central to both stories, but so is the importance of the urge to imagine and create – a reminder that the heart and the head must work together or not work at all – and it is little wonder that the two strands being to intertwine. Polly Clark is a poet of note, (her collection 2009 collection ‘Farewell My Lovely’ is particularly recommended) and her eye for detail and the ability to express the fears, doubts and insecurities that we encounter in our everyday lives, will be familiar to those who know her work. With ’Larchfield’ she has written a novel that, while being technically complex and literary, is heartfelt and human with out being sentimental. A rare achievement.

* A version of this review first appeared in Issue 22 of The Bottle Imp.

That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2017 Podcasts – Part 3 (Books)…

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This year we are recording three separate Best Of 2017 podcasts, one each for film and music, (which you can still hear), and this, Part III, concentrating on the best books of the year and all things literary.

Catching up at the fabulous Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, Ali chats with Birlinn Vikki PicLtd and Polygon Books‘ very own Vikki Reilly (see right) about the highs-and lows of the year in Scottish publishing, as well as offering their own recommendations and suggestions as to the best books of 2017 (some of which are pictured at the top of the page).

NLS-exhibitionThe talk touches upon many, many things, including the welcome emergence of 404 Ink, the recent Saltire Literary Awards (where the aforementioned 404 Ink were named Emerging Publisher of the Year, & Birlinn were awarded Scottish Publisher of the Year), the positive influence of recent podcast guest Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s Booker short-listing, the continuing revival of the printed word, the importance of publishing writers from outside of the Central Belt, the sad and strange demise of Freight Books, the titles Vikki wishes she had been involved with, and how the next 12 months look as though they will be dominated by the centenary of the birth of Muriel Spark and all the events, (and Birlinn’s re-publishing of her novels), which will accompany it. Continue reading

That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2017 Podcasts – Part 2 (Music)…

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This year we are recording three separate Best Of 2017 podcasts, one each for film, music, and books. For the first two, Ali and Ian are once again joined by irregular podcast guest and resident film expert Chris Ward, and Scottish music man & manager, Wesley Shearer.

In this, Part II, we concentrate on the year in music, beginning with the best Scottish music of 2017 (much of which features on Track Of My Year: SWH!’s 10 Best Songs Of 2017 or on SWH!’s Best of 2017 Spotify list), before we widen it out. The conversation touches on the continuing success of indie labels, including Olive Grove Records, Last Night From Glasgow, Song By Toad, Holy Smokes Records and Errant Media, as well as lots of chat about the records and gigs that have impressed us over the last 12 months. Continue reading

The Tracks Of My Year: SWH!’s 10 Best Songs Of 2017…

a1260797498_10In this writer’s opinion, 2017 has been a belter for Scottish music with exceptional albums from Mark W. Georgsson, BMX Bandits, Blue Rose Code, Findlay Napier, Stephen McLaren, State Broadcasters, The Miss’s, Annie Booth, Quick, Storm The Palace, The Sweetheart Revue, Best Girl Athlete, Campfires In Winter, Sun Rose, and many more (some of which feature below). Here’s hoping for more of this sort of thing in 2018.

But before we get ahead of ourselves – you’ll more than likely have had yer fill of ‘Best Of The Year’ lists , but if you can fit in one more, small but perfectly formed, this is our annual choice of the 10 best songs reviewed on these pages over the last 12 months. As ever, it’s a list which focuses on individual tracks, but if you like what you hear you should investigate further as most of them are to be found on equally awesome albums or EPs.

If you aren’t sated by what follows you can discover more of the new music we covered on Scots Whay Hae! by listening to our Best of 2017 Spotify list.

But enough preamble, here’s the countdown listed in chronological order and what we thought about them at the time, with a few relevant updates…

Yakima – Wabi Sabi

There are times, and these are times, when you need a band and a song who will sort things out for you, and, at least for a short while, make everything all right. Yakima are that band, and ‘Wabi Sabi’ is that song, taken from their single Medicine For Family Entertainment. Sounding like the cooler young cousins of The Afghan Whigs, or a less cynical Buffalo Tom, this is a song guaranteed to brighten your day or your money back*. I suspect Yakima have an excellent record collection from which they have learned some important lessons and used them to make something brand spanking new and all of their own:

*(This is clearly not a binding promise – clearly).

Continue reading

That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2017 Podcasts – Part 1 (Film)…

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This year we are recording three separate Best Of 2017 podcasts, one each for film, music, and books. For the first two, Ali and Ian are once again joined by irregular podcast guest and resident film expert Chris Ward, and Scottish music man & manager, Wesley Shearer.

In this, Part I, we concentrate on the films of 2017, and give you some recommendations. As usual, Ali kicks things off talking about his favourite Scottish films of the year, including T2: Trainspotting, Daphne, Benny, The End Of The Game, and Lost In France before Chris and Wesley widen the discussion to talk about the best films they have seen in the last 12 months. As well as their recommendations, they talk about the continuing success of the Glasgow Film Festival, the growing influence of streaming services, the possible threat to cinemas, and more. Continue reading

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books Of 2017…

 

dsc_06491.jpgYou may have had your fill of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is small, beautifully formed, and well worthy of your attention.

These are the books which stood out against stiff competition in 2017. The list could easily have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting of five novels, two short story collections, a musical/historical biography, a collection of journalism, and a peerless book of essays, they take you to Memphis, Airdrie, Springboig and the Alsace, with detours to Firhill, London during the Blitz, New Mexico and Millport along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the breadth of artistic and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

DSC_0382David Keenan – This Is Memorial Device

This Is Memorial Device is spot on in terms of time and place, but it’s so much more than that. It’s rare for a writer to capture both in a manner which avoids nostalgia and feels relevant, but Keenan manages to do so. This is a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant. It’s about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. I’ve read it twice and will do so again before too long. At the age of 46 it’s had a palpable effect on me. If I had read it when I was 15, (as happened with The Busconductor Hines and The Wasp Factory),  there’s every chance it would have changed my life. That’s your definition of a cult novel right there.

You can hear David Keenan talking about This Is Memorial Device on the SWH! podcast. Continue reading