Isle Be There: A Review Of David F. Ross’s The Man Who Loved Islands…

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Those who have read David F. Ross’s first two novels The Last Days Of Disco and The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas  will approach his third with anticipation, excitement but also a little regret as it promises to be the closing part of his “Disco Days” trilogy which means no more Max Mojo, Bobby Cassidy or Joey Miller and no more music from Heatwave Disco or The Miraculous Vespas. But put aside those fears for now and rest assured that if The Man Who Loved Islands is to be their swan song, they are leaving the stage in some style.

This is a more mature book than the other two in both content and approach. Having previously been taken back to the ’80s we are now in, or are at least quickly approaching, the present day, aside from some timely flashbacks to explain how we got here. While once the main characters had their life before them, for the most part full of promise and potential, Ross now concentrates on them as 50-something men reflecting back on their lives and finding them wanting.

The Man Who Loved Islands examines the enduring nature of those defining friendships that you can count on one hand. The ones which are as much part of you as any family bonds, and perhaps more so. At the centre of events are the two central male friendships in Bobby Cassidy’s life, and when taken together they are an astute commentary on a recognisable character in Scottish culture – the west-of-Scotland male, somone who is loyal to a fault but also quick to take offence. These are individuals for whom harsh words and perceived and received slights are not easily forgotten or forgiven.

Ross has a forensic eye for detail which makes what he writes ring true. When commenting on the ageing process Joseph Miller looks at himself and notes, “His skin, his teeth, and – bizarrely – his fingernails have all degenerated as if his body was a squalid apartment recently acquired by Peter Rachman.” It’s a typical Ross sentence. That third detail about the fingernails is exactly the sort of extra element that many other writers would miss, relying on the more readily known and clichéd observations. It is then finished with a darkly humorous flourish of the sort this writer seems to have to spare.

In the first part of the book matters jump between present day and the previous decades, with Bobby and Hamish “Hammy” May’s time in Ibiza particularly well observed. It may resemble Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ video at times; all tans, teeth, statement t-shirts, espadrilles and extended mixes, but if you were there, or near, that was what it was like. A large part of this exactitude comes from the writer’s encyclopaedic knowledge and love of music which he uses to get time and place spot on. As with the first two novels music is as much a character as any person.

The Man Who Loved Islands opens with a quote from The Jam’s ‘Thick As Thieves’, and it strikes me that Ross writes like a storytelling songwriter, managing to relay times, people and places in paragraphs and chapters rather than verse and chorus, but the result is the same. I keep thinking of how Springsteen tells stories about specific characters, more often than not from small towns, in his songs, and if The Last Days Of Disco was Ross’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, then The Man Who Loved Islands could be seen as his Wrecking Ball. Those who haven’t read Ross yet may see this as a stretch, but I can’t shake the feeling that he is more influenced by his record collection than by any novelists, and it shows. And it works. The reason that music means so much to the central characters is because it does to the writer, and once more he includes a playlist as an appendix which makes for the perfect accompaniment while reading.

There are less of the japes, scrapes and one-liners that are to be found in the earlier work (although pleasingly they are not jettisoned entirely), but they are replaced by pathos and poignancy which is bound to accompany the passing of time. There are also sections here which catch you by surprise such as Joseph’s writing on the nature of Chinese democracy (the political system, not the Guns ‘N’ Roses album), the cult of the “Blood Oranges”, and Bobby and Hammy’s brief but successful musical career, but you are never allowed to forget what is driving the novel – the characters and their determination to put right past wrongs and do right by those who they love and who they hope still love them.

The Man Who Loved Islands is David F. Ross’s best novel to date, but it also offers the promise of even greater things for the future. This is a writer who is improving with each book. Here, the sentences are tighter, the jump from character to character and between time periods is clear, the humanity at the heart is never lost in the plot, and he even makes what should be an unbelievable event seem perfectly plausible. But his greatest achievement is to have characters grow old in a manner which is not just believable, but recognisable, empathetic and moving. They are clearly still those boys and girls we met in the early ’80s, but, as with all of us, growing up and growing old hasn’t been as easy as they once thought it would be.

The launch of The Man Who Loved Islands will be at The Admiral Bar in Glasgow where Ali from Scots Whay Hae! will be in discussion with David F. Ross before a book signing and a night of great music:C8utepuXcAA-k04.jpgSee you there…

New Musical Success Special: The Premiere of The Strange Blue Dreams’ In My Nature…

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We have long been fans of The Strange Blue Dreams at SWH!, so new music from them is always greeted with whoops, cheers and hollers. Previously on these pages we have said, “Taking ’50s influences and rockabilly stylings and adding a dash of country, (and even some southern gothic), to proceedings, they are one of the tightest and most captivating bands around. Exuding effortless cool, and knowingly noir – if you get the chance to see them live you really must.”

Well now you can see if they are as good as our word as Holy Smokes presents the launch of The Strange Blue Dreams’ new EP Towards The Warm Place at MacSorleys in Glasgow, Saturday 8th April. If you need further convincing, here is an exclusive play of one of the tracks, ‘In My Nature’:

Yesterday Once More: A Review Of David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device…

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What makes a cult novel is hard to define, but here goes. It will alienate as many people as it attracts. It will pitch itself against the status quo, answering the question “What are you against?” with “What have you got?”. It will display attitude, angst, anger and alienation. Such novels are often culturally aware and precisely of their time, yet the best ones are timeless. They are also unapologetic in their attitude of not giving a fuck. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t, move on – nothing for you here.

Great Scottish cult novels include Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, Toni Davidson’s Scar Culture, Martin Millar’s Lux The Poet, and Duncan McLean’s Bunker ManAnd then there’s Trainspotting, which is a reminder that cult does not necessarily mean unknown. Way before the film it was a book which was handed around school playgrounds, and shoplifted from John Menzies. Cult novels should be infamous, not necessarily unfamous or obscure. A Clockwork Orange, Naked Lunch and American Psycho can all be called cult, but are also best-sellers. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is his great cult novel, rather than the lesser known Doctor Sax. This is because the former chimed with and helped define the Beat Generation, and the latter shows that hanging out at William Burroughs’ house can seriously damage your muse.

If, as some people claim, “You just know a cult novel when you see it”, then David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device literally wears its credentials on its sleeve with a reference on the cover to Iggy Pop, and quotes from Andrew O’Hagan, John Niven, Alan Warner and avant-garde artist and Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti. It just so happens I’ve started reading Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography Art Sex Music and there is little doubt that if Throbbing Gristle had come from David Keenan’s Airdrie not Hull they would have fitted right in, possibly supported by local heroes Memorial Device. At least that’s what it would have said on the posters.

Keenan’s Airdrie is one of post-punk freaks and geeks and is all the better for it. For those with only a passing knowledge of the area you may be surprised by the music, inspiration and creation which he relates. But what is described was happening all around the country, and often in towns rather than cities. Set in the early ’80s, this was the time of new towns and old industry, the two clashing in many ways, but both producing a generation with an indeterminate future. Music and art didn’t offer a way out, it offered a way to belong, to define yourself.

This is a novel about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. Look at the cover shot of the novel at the top of the page. I would guess that those boys are anything between 14 and 17 years old. If John Hughes had set a film in Airdrie Academy, that’s what the cast would have looked like. So many of us spend such a long time trying to “grow up” we forget what it’s like to be young. This Is Memorial Device is well named as it takes you back to a time when everything was felt more keenly, without a weary, ironic, knowing filter dulling the effect. It felt like the first time because it was.

It’s become a cliché to talk about Postcard Records being the ‘Sound Of Young Scotland’ in the early ’80s, but there’s a truth to that. When Edwyn Collins formed the Nu-Sonics he was 16. Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame was the same age when Postcard released his debut single ‘Mattress Of Wire’. Josef K’s Paul Haig was a positively geriatric 19 when their first single was released. Meanwhile, in East Kilbride, The Jesus and Mary Chain were going through 16-year-old drummers like a post-punk Spinal Tap. 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. It’s a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant.

I haven’t even mentioned the writing itself. If I read a better novel this year I will consider myself lucky. There are so many characters who will stay with me. Sexy, dirty and damaged creations who would not be out-of-place in ’80s New York, or even Bellshill, never mind Airdrie. Also, the detail and dedication on show tells of a writer obsessed and obsessive. Among the appendix (this is a novel, remember) there’s a ‘Memorial Device Discography,’ a ‘Necessarily  Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978 – 1986’, as well as an astonishingly thorough index, called ‘A Navigational Aid’ of the like I’ve never seen, and I’ve been involved in a few. The level of attention to detail and the sheer-bloody mindedness to follow this through reminds me of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and in the same way it reflects the writer rather than any desire to inform the reader. If only more writers would put themselves first.

If Trainspotting deserved to sell more copies than the Bible, (as was the infamous claim on the original cover), then This Is Memorial Device deserves to sell more copies than Trainspotting. Some people may take that as a dig at Welsh, but if you do you are looking at things from the wrong point of view. It’s a reflection of how highly I rate this novel. 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.

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

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The early months of a Glasgow year require a lot of moving around the city between festival events. January has Celtic Connections, February means Glasgow Film Festival, and in March the focus moves to Aye Write!. Few other cities in the world can boast that sort of festival action occurring before the clocks change, and a quality soundtrack is required to accompany the necessary toing and froing. Luckily for all concerned a very classy one emerged as some fine, and particularly melodic, new music was released.

We’re going to begin by going back to late February when Glasgow band Quick brought out their EP This I Know. It’s a beautiful collection of songs which stride that line between melancholy and inspiriting. The harmonies in particular are almost tangible as they wrap themselves around you, immediately improving your lot in life.

At times travelling to the more alt side of country, reminiscent of The Cowboy Junkies and Jessie Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, at others dealing in the more traditional, Quick don’t just remind me of some of my favourite bands, on this evidence they are quickly going to join them. Listen for yourself, and for goodness sake if you like what you hear get yourself a copy. That goes for all the music featured in these reviews. Support your local musicians – we’ll all miss them when they’re gone. Here endeth the sermon, from now it’ll be just the music all the way – promise:

 

While we are keeping things classy, State Broadcasters release their new album A Different Past this month on Olive Grove Records. SWH! saw them play as part of Celtic Connections in January, and it was a reminder, if one was needed, that this is a group of musicians who cannot help but make memorable music together. The album is launched in Edinburgh and Glasgow later this week, and from it this is ‘Break My Fall’, with a fabulous video directed by Kris Boyle. From the opening piano refrain the song builds slowly introducing the rest of the instrumentation and harmonies in a manner which appears effortless and organic. If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’re a hardier individual than this reviewer, and I wouldn’t swap places with you for all the world:

James Yorkston appears a man in a hurry. Last year not only saw his excellent debut novel Three Craws published by Freight Books, but also a solo tour as well as the release of the debut album from Yorkston Thorne Khan, his collaborative project with Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan. The three are back with a new album, Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars, released on April 7th. They are also touring it, including a night at Glasgow’s Oran Mor on the 31st March. If you get the chance to see them you should grab it as however good they are on record (and they are very good indeed) seeing such fine musicians live is a rare and special treat. The first taste of the new album is ‘Bales’:

Pop song of the year so far comes from Sacred Paws in the form of ‘Strike A Match’, the title track from their new album. Wearing their pop-sensibilties with pride, Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodger make music to put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. It’s a magic which is difficult to define, but it appears that it’s in large part due to the wonderful marriage of Rodger’s chiming guitar, Aggs’ mesmeric and beautifully understated drums, and vocal harmonies which tell of musicians comfortable with each other and what they play. If you’re a fan of Tuff Love then you’ll love Sacred Paws, but then if you’re a fan of Tuff Love you’re probably already well aware of Sacred Paws. For everyone else, have a listen and see if everything said above is not true:

We have long been fans of Eugene Twist at Scots Whay Hae!, and you can still hear him being interviewed on the podcast from a few years ago. He’s always had a winning way with angular pop songs and arch lyrics which would put the Wainwright family to shame, but his new music is proving to be his best to date. Backed by a full band, with suits as sharp as his hooks, and an old-school new wave sound to match this feels like Eugene Twist’s moment as he brings the music and aesthetic of Stiff Records bang up to date. All of this would mean nothing it he didn’t have the tunes, but the latest single ‘Stuntman’, (from the album of the (nearly) same name), proves there is no need to worry:

Most of the music in this roundup has been based on close and correlative collaboration. This certainly applies to Audrey Tait and Michelle Low, who are The Miss’s. They have been making music together, between other ventures, for some time. Their new album Crash is a little bit country, a little bit rock and soul, and is made up of eleven songs, each one as memorable as the last. It is a proper album, one to be listened from beginning to end. How rare is that?

They have made the brave, and correct, decision to keep the production on Crash minimal which lets the mostly acoustic music speak for itself, and allows Low’s extraordinary voice to shine. The songs are intimate and empathetic, tales of lives lived and love lost told in a manner which will speak directly to those who take the time to listen. The truth is music like this never dates, it only gets better with time. My favourite track changes with every play, but you can listen to ‘It Won’t Happen’ here and now to give you a flavour of what to expect. Quite simply, Crash is a bona-fide classic. This is one to tell your friends, family and strangers about. They’ll thank you for it:

We’re going to finish with music which demands to be called ethereal, and I make no excuses about it. L-Space, (who take their name from Terry Pratchett’s name for libraries in the Discworld universe), are suitably otherworldly in their music and outlook. More an artistic collective than band, their core members are Lily Higham, Gordon Johnstone, Dickson Telfer and Maggie Tam, and together they push the boundaries of their music, how it is made, played, and presented.

It’s great to discover a band who bring such a sense of wonder to the table. You have no idea as to what they may do next, and you suspect that they don’t either. You can, and should, explore more fully over at their Bandcamp page, where you can buy their Sol 0 EP as well as receive some compelling free downloads. From Sol 0 this is ‘Blue Flowers’, where Goldfrapp meets Slowdive, but it only tells a small, if beautifully formed, part of the L-Space story. Prepare for liftoff:

And that’s all for the moment. There were other terrific new records released, such as Vukovi’s eagerly anticipated debut album, and Alasdair Roberts’ latest solo outing Pangs, but we have all got homes to go to so we have to draw the line somewhere. But have no worry, the next roundup should be with you in around six weeks time. Before that there will be a preview of Record Store Day (14/4/2107) and the best of what it has to offer.  In the meantime you can always contact us at scotswhayhae@gmail.com with new music you love and think other people need to hear.

Literally Literary: A Preview Of Aye Write! 2017…

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For 10 days in March there is only one place to be as Glasgow’s Aye Write! takes up its annual residency in the Mitchell Library between 9th-19th to cement its reputation as one of the best book festivals around. Pedants will point out that there are also events at the CCA, Kelvin Hall and Royal Concert Hall, but it is only right that Glasgow’s most famous library is the focus point for a book festival which is international in scope, but has its roots firmly planted in this city.

Here are a few selected highlights to give you something to think about, but you can peruse the full programme at your leisure here. They are all at the Mitchell unless stated otherwise.

You can also keep up to date with events as they unfold by following @AyeWrite on Twitter or on Facebook. Tickets can be bought here.

Thursday 9th – the much discussed and celebrated new publishers 404Ink are presenting a night of eclectic readings, with Helen Sedgewick, Kevin MacNeil, Karyn Dougan, Chris McQueer and Nadine Aisha Jassat. It promises to be one of the most varied and vibrant events of the whole festival. Other favourite SWH! writers, Sara Sheridan and J. David Simons, will be talking about their latest novels at the CCA, focusing on the importance of compelling characters.

During the festival there are a series of talks, The Books That Made Me, and on the 9th John Byrne kicks them off. The writer of The Slab Boys, Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart, this will be the chance to spend time with a master of written Scots. Nobody currently does it better.

Friday 10th – Few write as knowledgeably and even-handedly about the philosophy and history of religion as  Richard Holloway, and it’s the latter he’ll be discussing. There is plenty of music this year, collectively under the banner of ‘Aye Tunes’, and singer-songwriter Roddy Woomble will be talking to Nicola Meighan about his recent collection of lyrics Instrumentals. The Scottish Highlands and Islands are increasingly, and rightfully, better represented in contemporary Scottish fiction, and two writers who have their best known books set in Shetland and Orkney, Ann Cleeves and Lin Anderson, will discuss what makes them such an apt setting.

Saturday 11th – Food, politics, music and poetry provide the highlights of the day. Start your Saturday by joining Bake Off semi-finalist Flora Shedden and ‘ethical carnivore’ Louise Gray talking to Joanna Blythman for a ‘Foodies Forum’. Then walk your literary brunch of by heading to the Royal Concert Hall to hear Lesley Riddoch, Gerry Hassan and Alex Massie discuss ‘What’s Next For Scotland?’.

In the afternoon, Vic Galloway talks to Karl Geary and David Keenan. Keenan’s Airdrie set novel This Is Memorial Device is one of the most eagerly awaited of the year, and there will be a review on these pages soon. You’ll be getting your exercise today as it’s back down Sauchiehall Street to hear music journalist and cultural commentator Paul Morley talking all things Bowie. If you’re running late you can maybe catch a lift with Vic as he’s chairing this event as well. To get you in the mood, here’s David:

Round Saturday off with poetry and crime. You get three Makars for your money at the Mitchell as Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay and Jim Carruth join together for what should be an unforgettable event. Then, in another three header, Steph Broadribb, SJI Holliday and Russel D. McLean (whose novel Ed’s Dead is reviewed here) present ‘Three Slices of Crime’. Don’t have nightmares.

Sunday 12th – It’s always exciting to discover new writers, and Alan Bissett introduces two of the most keenly anticipated, Luke Kennard and Katie Khan. Sunday also features some of Scotland’s finest purveyors of quality fiction. Two of the very best, Carl MacDougall and Ron Butlin,will be discussing their latest books (Someone Always Robs The Poor and Billionaires’ Banquet) as well as the notion of ‘The Root Of All Evil’. Chaired by Adrian Searle, for those interested in Scottish fiction I would suggest it is the essential booking.

Meanwhile, at the CCA, Una and Maria Stoian will be discussing ‘Feminism in Comics’. A form of writing where the attitudes towards women have long been often indefensible, the two will be talking to Sasha de Buyl-Pisco about the ways comics and cartooning can be positive mediums for sharing new feminist narratives. Back at the Mitchell, Unspeakable and Pelmanism author Dilys Rose joins Beatrice Colin to discuss the pros and cons of writing historical fiction. This leaves you with a difficult choice as at the same time elsewhere in the library, Denise Mina will be discussing her latest novel The Long Drop with Neil MacKay.

Another example of the sort of Sophie’s Choice which all festivals necessarily throw up is when A.L. Kennedy talks about the Man Booker longlisted Serious Sweet at the same time as Doug Johnstone, Louise Beech, and Michael Malone will be discussing the writing of thrillers and why the genre’s appeal endures. Elsewhere in the library, another fine cultural commentator with a background in music journalism, Miranda Sawyer and her book Out Of Time will interest anyone who has reached a certain age with fear and loathing.

Thursday 16th – There are events on Wednesday 15th, including the appearance of Labour grandee and Spitting Image puppet made flesh Roy Hattersley, but the next recommendation is music-biographer Tom Doyle talking about his book Captain Fantastic: Elton John In The ’70s. It may seem odd now, but for a time in the early ’70s John was as successful a musician as anyone you can think of, scoring seven consecutive No1 albums in the US, and Doyle will try to relate why. Here’s a clue:

Chris Leslie’s photography and films about Glasgow document a an ever-changing city which has had to cope with the decline of industrialisation more drastically than most. Here he talks about his excellent and moving collection Disappearing Glasgow. 

Friday 17th – More music as Daniel Rachel & Dave Randall (ex-Faithless) discuss mixing pop music and politics as a force for social change, with reference to Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone and Red Wedge. Down at the Royal Concert Hall, Charlatans’ front-man Tim Burgess talks to Peter Ross about the second part of his memoir, the excellently titled Tim Book Two. Finally for this Friday, it is widely acknowledged that Glasgow seems to be the perfect city to set crime novels in, and this is discussed by Alex Gray, Les Wood and Douglas Skelton (review of his novel The Dead Don’t Boogie here).

Saturday 18th – One of the finest writers at work in Scotland today is Kapka Kassabova. Her latest book is Border and she will be discussing ‘Hard Borders’ with Garrett Carr, chaired by Roland Gulliver. Four further debut novelists will be introduced to an eager readership on this day. Polly Clark and Sarah Day will be talking to Louise Welsh in the early afternoon, then round the day off when Peggy Hughes introduces Irish novelists Rory Gleeson and EM Reapy.

Music fans are again well served, first by the appearance of Brix Smith Start. Smith Start is likely best known as being a central part of Mancunian legends The Fall during their most commercially successful period of the mid-80s, but the rest of her life is equally extraordinary. Here’s Brix with The Fall. This is how you do it:

David Hepworth, alongside good friend and fellow journalist Mark Ellen, is responsible for some of the best TV and magazine music coverage of the last 40-years. He has a theory that some years are seismic in their culture importance, and 1971, the subject of his book 1971: Never A Dull Moment, is his ‘Golden Year’. Poetry lovers should seek out the event ‘500 Years Of Gaelic Love Poetry’ with Peter MacKay and Iain MacPherson. 500 years in an hour? That’s yer money’s worth.

Sunday 19th – So soon?  There’s a timely discussion of ‘Refugee Tales’ with Jason Donald and Laura McVeigh at 1.15pm. At 3pm Catherine Mayer, founder of the Women’s Equality Party, is going to be discussing her book Attack Of The 50ft Women and the research and analysis behind it, as well as the party’s growth.

Susan Calman talks to Val McDermid about the former’s memoir Cheer Up Love. Two of the most engaging speakers you are likely to encounter, they will talk about Susan’s experiences living with depression and how she has become a leading figure in British comedy while living with, what Calman calls, “The Crab Of Hate”.

The perfect event to finish any book festival is to hear John Burnside read his own work, and this is what is promised, as well as conversation with fellow novelist Rodge Glass. Then why not round things off with some quiz action as The Great Scottish Books Quiz which takes place in, where else, the Mitchell Library.

That’s all folks. See you there. I’ll be the one whistling ‘Crocodile Rock’…

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Carter The Unstoppable Killing Machine: A Review Of Russel D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead…

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Is there a more unreliable narrator than one who is themselves a writer? The idea of a fiction within a fiction, of stories being told, are more pronounced. In Russel D. McLean’s latest novel, Ed’s Dead, struggling writer Jen Carter earns herself the title of “The Most Dangerous Woman In Scotland”, yet even she is unsure whether it is deserved or not. Is she discovering she has innate and previously unused skills as a cold-blooded killer, or is she simply and spectacularly unlucky? If it’s the latter, that’s a hell of a lot of broken mirrors.

It’s no spoiler to say that in Ed’s Dead, Ed dies. He is Jen’s boyfriend, a man who is at one-moment keen to seem her knight in shining armour, the next he is looking around for another potential conquest, doing so in plain sight. Jen is swiftly coming to the realisation that everything he does is what’s best for Ed – what makes him feel good and look good. As his associate Dave puts it, “He’s a dick. But he’s cool too, aye?”. At least one half of that statement rings true to Jen and she decides enough is enough. However she soon finds out that with some relationships, like the mafia, just when you think you’re out they pull you back in.

Ed meets a worryingly pleasingly grizzly end, and this is where the reading of the novel gets interesting. Jen is left with a dead boyfriend on one hand, a pile of cash and a stash of drugs on the other. McLean does a very clever thing in leaving enough ambiguity as to which events are accidents and which are less clear-cut, so to speak. Ed’s Dead would be a perfect choice for a book group as I can imagine arguments ensuing which could lead to blood shed themselves. Is Jen a new avenger, protecting herself and her own? Or, is she a cold-blooded killer who gets a taste for danger and death? When she isn’t sure herself, how can you be?

Ed’s demise  kickstarts events which develop so quickly you have little time to take it all in before the next twist is introduced and the body count increases. At times you begin to think that Jen must have some dormant training in assassination, like The Bride in Kill Bill, or Samantha Caine in The Long Kiss Goodnight. At others you believe that she is just a victim of extraordinary circumstances which gather pace quicker than a Labour Party leadership challenge. McLean’s writing is visceral and in your face, placing you right there in the room. At times it almost feels like a platform video game – 18 certificate of course.

The influence of other mediums and genres is throughout the novel. The potential influence of gaming on attitudes to violence is referenced. Chapters have titles such as ‘Smiley’s People’, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’, films whose themes of corruption, horror and institutionalised double-crossing are all present in Ed’s Dead. The workings of the modern media, where clickbait headlines are deemed more important than the story itself, are commented on as Jen becomes the perfect fodder for a media hungry for the next sensation.

There is also the constant presence of the Glasgow gangster, a theme well-known enough to be satirised in Ed’s Dead while still retaining a real sense of danger. For anyone familiar with the tabloid stories of east-end dynasties and ageing crime bosses, there are characters here who will be recognisable as a type, if not actually specific. The amount of books written about gangs in Glasgow may make them feel as if they are in themselves fiction, and McLean again uses this idea as to what is real and what is legend to great effect. Most myths are based in truth somewhere along the line.

Ed’s Dead is a thoroughly contemporary crime thriller which has its tongue in its cheek while maintaining the suspense and tension that readers would expect. At times it threatens to lose you with a plot twist too many, but it reigns itself in by having an anti-hero you care for, a supporting cast who are all memorable individuals, and by simply being terrific fun to read. I think it would be a shame if we heard nothing more from Jen Carter, but if that is the case then Russel D. Mclean has left us with a memorbale creation. As a result, he raises the question, “What would you do?” in similar extreme circumstances. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself in a situation where you think, “What would Jen do?”. If that is the case then things have got complicated, to say the least.

You Have Been Watching…Benny

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Any informed discussion of the greatest all-time Scottish sports stars will throw up familiar names. Alongside the likes of Alan Wells, Liz McColgan, the Lisbon Lions, Andy Murray, Denis Law, Jackie Stewart and John Thomas ‘Jocky’ Wilson will be that of boxer Benny Lynch. However, the passing of time increases the risk that those who have been members of this elite group for the longest are in the greatest danger of being forgotten. The fact that the Lynch legend has lasted this long is testament to his impact on sports fans and beyond. Like Ali, Leonard, McGuigan and Chavez, he transcended the sport of boxing to become a national icon and hero. But Lynch last fought in 1938, lest we forget.

Andrew Gallimore’s documentary, Benny, which previewed at the Glasgow Film Festival last week, is timely for this very reason. It is not only a reminder of a great boxer, arguably one of the very best, but of a time and place, namely Glasgow in the 1920s and ’30s, which is also in danger of being forgotten. Glasgow was overpopulated, ripe and rotten, and at the heart of it was the Gorbals, which had a population density six-times higher than anywhere else in the city.

This is where Benny Lynch was formed and forged, and for all of its decay and despair, it was a place which had a hold on him. If anyone has ever wondered why they demolished the old Gorbals this film will answer that for you in the most direct manner imaginable. Benny is an important social document as well as a sporting one, on the man and his city, as, if they are forgotten, then the lessons which should be learned from both are in danger of being repeated.

Lynch was as famous as any other Scotsman of his day, revered at home and abroad, fighting in front of tens of thousands of fans who loved his ‘gallus’ style, dancing around the ring, daring his opponent to try and hit him. He was a fighter ahead of his time, and one who would take on anyone. I had heard of Lynch, of course, but mainly from my granny and great-uncle who used to talk about how no one could lay a glove on him. For many Scots he was their representative in the wider world, putting the ‘wee-man’ from the wee country on the map.

Benny  is not a groundbreaking film in terms of style, but that’s no criticism as it is what its audience will expect. There are interviews with relevant talking heads, boxing historians, academics, social commentators, and boxers, including Lynch’s fellow world champions Jim Watt and Irishman Bernard Dunne. Each of these interviews makes the most of the individual’s knowledge and expertise to weave together a rounded picture of Lynch; what made him, and what led to his eventual downfall. What Gallimore’s documentary does which you won’t have seen before is to reveal footage of Lynch’s better known fights, and even on the often sped up and ageing film you can tell that this was an athlete working on a different level to those he shared the ring with.

Of course, the film mentions the lows as well as the highs.  A familiar tale is told of hangers-on and parasites who would be there when the times were good, and disappear when things turned bad. Benny Lynch died at the age of 33 having lost a battle with alcohol and ill-health, but to focus on this is to miss the extraordinary life which he lived. It would be similar to the way that some people focus on George Best’s latter years rather than his performances on the football pitch, when, like Lynch, there is a strong argument that at his peak no one-could match him. The legend of Benny Lynch endures, and Benny eloquently tells us why.

If you can’t see it in the cinema Benny should be on a Scottish TV screen near you soon. For sports fan  and beyond it is a must see.

Talking Movies At GFF17 – #3: An Interview With Bodkin Ras Director Kaweh Modiri…

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The third of our interviews with directors at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is with Kaweh Modiri, a Dutch filmmaker of Iranian descent. Strange then, perhaps, that his film Bodkin Ras is set in the town of Forres in the north of Scotland, but such movement of people and place has been a feature of the films we have been highlighting at at this year’s festival, and those who have made them.

Our previous interviews have been with David Graham Scott, whose film The End Of The Game begins in Caithness and then moves to South Africa, and Hope Dickson Leach, who wrote The Levelling in Glasgow but filmed it in Somerset. You could make the claim, so I will, that they typify the Glasgow Film Festival in that they mix home with the international.

Bodkin Ras shows a part of Scotland which is rarely seen on screen, and it has been critically lauded wherever it has played. Kaweh Modiri kindly took time out from a very busy festival schedule to speak to Scots Whay Hae!

SWH!:  Could you give a brief synopsis of Bodkin Ras?

KM: It’s the story of a young boy. We don’t know who he is, where he’s from or who he is escaping, but he is on the run. He turns up in a small town in the north of Scotland called Forres. In the film, all the ‘actors’ play themselves, and many of the men spend all their days in a bar, The Eagle, which has a reputation as a rough place. As the film progresses we learn many of these men have tragedies which overshadow their daily lives.

Once the stranger arrives into this small town, one where everyone knows each other, slowly the locals begin to project their desires on this fictional character. His story intermingles with theirs.

SWH!: Why have Bodkin arrive in Forres – why that setting?

KM: I had visited the town a few times going back to 2007, and I got to know some of Unknownthe locals, including Red James (see right) who is in the film. I walked out of the pub and from a distance he said, “As-Salaam-Alaikum”. He called me over and we started talking. He made such an impression on me, as had the town, as had other characters from the town, that I wrote the story called ‘Bodkin Ras’ in which a stranger much like myself, who is clearly not from that place, arrives.

The town had been an inspiration. On one hand there was the banter and humour – the wit of the people I got to know. On the other hand it felt like the last destination in Europe, you can’t go much further than that point. It was a combination of things, but it was always going to be set in Forres.

SWH!: At a time, in the UK at least, when it seems that suspicion of ‘outsiders’ has never been higher. Is that something you wanted to examine?

KM: Definitely. You know, it’s something that is playing in the UK, but also else where in Europe, and in the States. It is something which is defining our times, the way people see a stranger, the person who wants to come in, as an intruder. There is fear, a threat that they represent, but at the same time there is a sense of excitement, of expectation almost, and there is tension between these two things, these two connotations – that a stranger can bring a sense of threat but also the potential for change and acceptance. The film plays with these tensions.

SWH!: It sounds, from your description, that you found this mix of suspicion and acceptance in Forres yourself, would that be fair?

KM: Definitely, definitely. And therefore as well as these thematics, there is also a wink there, because the people Bodkin gets to know are full of acceptance, and there is also lots of humour to be found, often in unexpected things. This plays a great part in the film as well.

SWH!: I’ve seen Bodkin Ras described elsewhere as “docu-fiction”. How would you describe the style of film?

KM: (Sighs) You know, it’s a film. I used documentary elements and fiction elements, because that, for me, was the best way to tell the story I wanted. So the local characters, like Eddie Paton and Red James, they are such an inspiration to the film that I wanted to have them, their characters, in the film. I wanted them to be themselves and then infuse the documentary storyline with the fiction. For me, it was very natural to use the real elements, the documentary elements, and I didn’t really make the distinction. We certainly didn’t make the distinction when we were shooting, or in the edit.

SWH!: Do you think that an audience shouldn’t worry about what is real and what is fictionalised, just take the film as a whole?

KM: Exactly, and once you start working with the story it becomes all about the characters, and for the audience it is fiction. Because once you start believing in the characters you follow their story. As with any characters in any film, there are parts we, as filmmakers, keep and parts we leave out. I think the difference between a fictional film and a documentary is very small.

SWH!: There are well-worn stereotypes about the north of Scotland, and towns such as Forres rarely fit into that image. Did you have ideas about how that part of Scotland would be before you visited?

KM: I knew the area before we started filming, and I had done a lot of travelling there, so it wasn’t unexpected to me. But of course I zoom in on only a part of Scotland, and even only a part of this town, those which were of interest to me. There were aspects which surprised me, though. The humour, but also the talent for drinking, and the stories behind both. The men of The Eagle Bar – once they are in there they are all laughing and dancing like they are the happiest people in the world. But, once you talk to them outside, they are also open, intimate and honest, and the difference was very striking.

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Bodkin Ras is on at the CCA on Friday 24th Feb and Saturday  25th Feb.

Here’s the trailer:

You Have Been Watching…The End Of The Game

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Our first film review of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is of David Graham Scott’s The End Of The Game. And what a place to start. When documentary is at its best it trumps fiction every time as it gives us stranger and more telling tales. It is certainly the case that if someone was to write a character such as ‘Sir’ Guy Wallace, the focus of The End Of The Game, then an editor would dismiss him as being unbelievable. But when faced with the real thing, he is impossible to ignore.

He is a man whose story needs a film-maker as fair and even-handed as Graham Scott for audiences to see behind the facade and try to understand just what makes the man who he is. It would have been all too easy for the director to hold his subject up to ridicule. There is a lot of humour in the film, but it is as much pointed to the man behind the camera as to the one it is trained on, and much of it comes from their two very different  worlds colliding. But, as with the likes of fellow documentarian Jon Ronson, Scott tries to understand the personality and the driving passion of his subject. It is the result of an inquisitive mind, and one which is keen to see the best in people, even when initial evidence may prove otherwise. Other filmmakers could learn a lot in terms of approach and perspective

There will be people who bring their prejudices to the film, in fact it would be almost impossible to do otherwise, but as you see Guy through Graham Scott’s lens you share his empathy, if not exactly sympathy. For as much as this is a film about the realities of hunting big game it is also about ageing and trying to remain relevant in a world you no longer recognise as your own. I’m sure everyone can think of someone they know for whom that description is apt. They may not spend their life savings on a last great buffalo hunt, but they are certain that “things ain’t what they used to be” and we are all the worse for it.

I should also say that the film is quite beautifully shot. From the wilds of Caithness to the dusty landscape of the South African reserve, the camera paints beautiful and epic pictures which give a sense of the transient and ultimately insignificant lives on-screen, both human and animal. There are also some stunning black and white stills near the end which are incredibly powerful due to the juxtaposition of their beauty and their subject matter.

The End Of The Game is an honest and brave film to make, but is also funny, bittersweet, sad and poignant – it is all those things because it is an intrinsically human story which has been told, highlighting failings, pride, guilt, embarrassment and ego not only from its central character but from the film maker as well. This can be seen in moments such as when David Graham Scott protests his innocence in the undertaking to a local woman, then in voice over admits feeling guilt at his complicity, or when Guy tries to show off by talking about “Kaffirs” to the white hunters, then realises he has been overheard by a black African and appears mortified and contrite, or at least embarrassed.  It is in these moments that you will recognise yourself, not in the specifics, but in men trying to present a front but deep-down knowing they are flawed. For all of the above reasons and more The End Of The Game is an unforgettable film, and one which I urge you not to miss.

If you’re quick you can get tickets for today’s (21/2) 15.45 showing at Glasgow CCA, and you can go here to read the SHW! interview with director David Graham Scott.

..and here is the trailer:

Talking Movies At GFF17 – #2: An Interview With The Levelling Director Hope Dickson Leach…

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The Glasgow Film Festival offers something for everyone, but each year there are films which arrive having  created a buzz through word-of-mouth and critical reception. This certainly applies to The Levelling which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and it has been earning rave reviews wherever it has been shown.

The film’s writer and director Hope Dickson Leach was kind enough to take time before the festival to talk to Scots Whay Hae! about the film.

SWH!: Could you give a brief synopsis of The Levelling?

HDL: The Levelling is a drama which plays out as a thriller about a young woman (Ellie UnknownKendrick – see right) who returns to the family dairy farm to confront her father (David Troughton – see bottom of page) about the death of her brother. She had been told it was an accident but it soon becomes apparent that it was a suicide. So the story is her trying to work out why her brother would take his own life and this investigation leads to a change in her life and in the relationship with her father.

SWH! Why did you want to tell this story?

HDL: I’ve always been very interested in stories about grief – about the response to tragic events and how they in turn have the potential to affect your life. I think there is a period of time after such events when you have to examine what happened and also yourself and decide whether or not to make changes as a result. But I think it is a very brief window and often we let the chance for change go by. I wanted to find a character who would really wrestle with the reasons this specific event has happened and try to prevent it from happening again.

She is part of a family who don’t talk, who don’t communicate. She wants to challenge this, and has to face the possibility that she may be part of the problem as well. That was something that interested me. Being British, a story about a family who can’t communicate or talk about their emotions was one which felt immediate and recognisable.

SWH!: The background of the floods makes a big impact on the film. Why did you choose this as a setting?

HDL: When I was developing the family story the flood story was happening. I went to meet some of the farmers who had been affected and saw how their lives had been turned upside down by the floods, something which could have been prevented. It felt like the perfect setting –  an appropriate context for the family story because there is a similar scenario being played out, but on a bigger scale. It was also a story which needed attention. Both sides of the story would serve each other well.

I had seen the photos of Matilda Temperley which focused on the Somerset floods. I got in touch with her and she introduced me to some of the people who had been flooded. As I looked into it I realised that this was something that had come about because of a lack of understanding and communication between the people making the decisions and the people working on the land. It felt like an apt metaphor for the family story. I think that is very cinematic – finding a context that fits with the drama in a way that makes the smaller story relatable on a wider level.

SWH!: The film is beautifully shot, and really engages with the landscape and nature. How did you approach the style of the film and how you wanted it to look?

HDL: Because the setting is such a big part of the story I wanted to give it character. So, the cinematographer, the location manager and I scouted a lot of places to really tell the story of not only a broken family but also a broken community and even a broken landscape, but one which was coming together and going through a process of rebirth. It was about finding the right locations – those farms which were at a certain point in their lives. They looked as if they were falling apart but there was hope for their future, that they would come alive again. That was really important.

We also looked at a lot of Belgian cinema, such as the Dardenne brothers, and the French cinema which deals with rural life and does so in a straightforward manner. These aren’t stories we see in British cinema that often. But we were very much led by the real world. Authenticity is so important to me. To make the film emotionally authentic I knew we had to get the true story around what farming life is like, and what that part of the world is like, absolutely right. We had to look at the way people lived, but also the colours and character of the landscape and have those feeding into the story we were trying to tell.

There’s a hare in the film which appears as a motif and that came about from a story a farmer told me about evacuating his farm at two in the morning, in the pitch black, when he had to get his 400 cattle to safety. He saw a hare in the water and wanted to save it but he knew he couldn’t, and that was such a striking image to me. It became a metaphor for the boy who died, what he was up against, how he was fighting to stay alive and keep his farm afloat. It was about trying to embrace the poetic as well as nail the authenticity.

SWH!: You said the film is partly about telling stories rarely told, and when we see broken communities on film in this country it’s often in urban settings, so to have a rural setting is unusual, and I’m sure there are many stories like this which just haven’t been told.

HDL: Absolutely. I think rural stories in British cinema are often told in a bucolic “Nanny McPhee” kind of way, which are lovely, but lots of people live in the country and if we don’t start listening to one another and understand each other’s lives this is what happens. Bad decisions get made, and I think that is something which is increasingly applicable to food production. Most of us take for granted where our food comes from. But there are the farmers and this is their livelihood, and understanding what they are up against might make us feel OK about paying a little bit more for a pint of milk. That’s the sort of thing which might make a difference with regard to sustaining these farms.

SWH!: Are you looking forward to the Glasgow Film Festival?

HDL: I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Mark Cousins’ film Stockholm, My Love, but it’s going to be great just to be back in Glasgow because that’s where I wrote the film, in the An Clachan Cafe in Kelvingrove Park every day, so for me it feel like the film is coming home.

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Here’s the trailer:

You can read our interview with End Of The Game director David Scott Graham here.

The SWH! Preview of the Glasgow Film Festival has some suggestions as to what to see.