It was an interesting development in Scottish writing that two of the most talked about books from the end of 2018 were published by record labels – Stephen Watt & Friends poetry collection MCSTAPE on Last Night From Glasgow, and Beerjacket’s Silver Cords on Scottish Fiction. There are good and understandable reasons for this. The former contains poems about all manner of music related experiences, many of which were written by some of Scotland’s best known musicians, while Beerjacket’s Silver Cords is not only a book of short stories and lyrics, but also the name of the accompanying CD – his first collection of new songs for some years. However, you can’t help but wonder if this music/publishing industry crossover is, in some small way, a sign of things to come.
If you have listened to the recent SWH! Podcast interview with Beerjacket (also known as Peter Kelly) then you will know much of this. What you won’t have is a clear idea of just what the book Silver Cords is like. Musicians have tried their hand at fiction before with varying degrees of success. For every Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel or Louise Wener’s The Half Life of Stars there’s more than a few which rank (rotten) alongside Bruce Dickinson’s The Adventures Of Lord Iffy Boatrace or Morrissey’s List of the Lost. Taking that in to account an understandable question must be, “Is Silver Cords any good?” Well, I’m here to tell you not to worry. The short answer is undoubtedly, “Yes”. The longer answer begins below.
I need to talk first about the structure of the book as it is deliberate and shapes your reading. The forward and afterword (which Peter reads on the podcast) frame the book in terms of themes, ideas, and intent. In them he touches upon the enduring nature of songs, the importance of giving things value, the significance of physical things, and examines why people write or sing their thoughts and dreams and choose to share them.
Each “chapter” then begins with a song’s lyrics, followed by a page which reflects on that song before the accompanying story. Each section is vital to the whole, with Kelly’s reflections working as philosophical aphorisms and poems that are bridges between song and story. These should not be overlooked as they provide the writer’s insight into what you are reading while allowing you plenty of space for your own. When you add the hand-drawn illustrations, which are also Kelly’s, then it is clear that Silver Cords is not just an exercise in writing fiction, more a labour of love that the author felt he had to get out.
This is clear in the content and themes. Silver Cords is a very personal investigation of modern life which will chime with every reader. Philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, and questions on social and cultural concerns, are all examined, and the stories have characters who are dealing with existential crisis and self-doubt, often brought about by everyday living. Family, work, relationships, technology, individual and social expectations, all of these are touched upon as Kelly explores the concept of ‘happiness’ and what cost is paid in its pursuit.
The relationship between dreams and ‘reality’ also runs throughout, asking questions which are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem ‘A Dream Within A Dream’. Kelly’s stories also put you in mind of some of the short fiction collections of Helen McClory (Mayhem & Death) and Kirsty Logan (The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales), and the recent poetry of Jenni Fagan (There’s A Witch In The Word Machine), in that they all examine the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, and where the desire and compulsion for story telling comes from.
For Kelly dreams are the ‘silver cords’ connecting the creative and practical aspects of a person’s psyche, firing the imagination and inspiring an individual to create something from what occurs, whether in song, story, drawing, or poetry, all of which are a feature of this extraordinary book. It’s rare that an artist sets out a thesis on the importance of the creative process as clearly and then sees the resulting vision realised so fully.
The best art makes you understand yourself better through other people’s thoughts, ideas and expression. With Silver Cords Peter Kelly has created a work so unashamedly personal that we should be thankful he has shared it with us. We’re all the better for it.
You can hear Beerjacket talking to Ali on the SWH! Podcast.