Lessons From History: A Review Of Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained…

Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.

There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.

Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.

With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.

But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.

Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.

In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.

The Talk On The Street: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Jemma Neville…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali headed to Edinburgh to chat to writer Jemma Neville all about Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety (published by 404 Ink), her fascinating and inspirational book which SWH! described as, “a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us.”

Talking in the welcoming surroundings of The Hideout Cafe (below) on the very street itself the two discuss the ethos behind the book, the way it is structured, and how both are reflected and inspired by the place and the people who live and work on Edinburgh’s Constitution Street.

Jemma talks about what prompted her to write this book, the importance of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the responses of her interviewees, how an area can change but still retain an identity, the importance of communal spaces for meeting and more, how the issues and themes of Constitution Street relate to communities of any size and place, and a whole lot more. You’ll never look at your own locale in the same way again.

This podcast is the perfect partner to the book, expanding on some of its themes, but by no means all and the best thing you can do is to discover that for yourself. To convince you further you can read the full SWH! review of Constitution Street here.

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, on Podbean, with Spotify, 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:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 2: A Review Of David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall…

*Before you read this review I would advise you go to Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 1: A Review Of Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time which explains why we are considering the two novels together.*

You wait for one novel examining the unreliable nature of memory and then two come along at once. The first was Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time about which we said, “The Space Between Time offers hope for the future no matter the tricks and tribulations of the past. […] Pictures, events, and remembrances are reappraised and a different story emerges, one which will have the reader returning to the book’s earlier sections to see if they could have read them differently.”.

It just so happened that a second novel appeared around the same time looking at similar themes and ideas, but in a rather different way. It is award-winning poet David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall (published by Into Books), and to say it is unusual in structure and form doesn’t begin to tell the story. In fact it’s a novel which is as much about the way the story is told as the story itself.

Split into distinct parts, what you get are two unreliable narrators for the price of one as businessman Martin Prendergast’s life unfolds in different and distinct directions, first on the way down during the ‘fall’ (real or imagined, we’re never certain) and he remembers and examines the events which brought him to the edge of that ledge, his life flashing before his, and our, eyes – journeying all the way back to Prendergast’s first breath.

Once you have reached that point you then flip the book around, start at his very beginning, and work your way back through now familiar events which inevitably leads us back to that ledge. (I have been told that is the way the book is meant to be read, although it would be interesting to speak to someone who did so the other way around).

You may think that this just amounts to reading the same text twice, but there are differences, often subtle ones, which lend the telling of the life of Martin Prendergast a literal different turn of events. It’s an inspired twist which asks the reader to reflect on their own past, and how memories are central to the idea of self and individual identity.

Prendergast’s existence, on the first reading, appears to be one of increasing disappointment, with life, with others, and with himself. Things have not worked out as they should, and he feels he has failed as a son, lover, husband, and father. Even work, which seems successful to others, causes him anguish instead of pride. While it is way too simplistic to say that his life unfolds once as tragedy, again as comedy, there is more positivity to be found in Prendergast’s younger life which makes a greater impact in the second telling. It shows that where a story begins can be as important as where it ends.

With Prendergast’s Fall Cameron has written one of the most inventive and interesting novels of recent times (and the best book by anyone called David Cameron of 2019). The structure may be eye-catching and unusual, but it is the writing which stays with you – nuanced, insightful, and exacting. If you are looking for comparison’s then in terms of structure there are echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Andrew Sean Greer’s novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli – but only echoes as it stands alone.

In terms of themes and ideas I would offer you Andre Gide, Albert Camus, and James Kelman as all examine the nature of existence and being, and what that means to the individual. You also can’t avoid comparisons with Proust’s examination of involuntary memory, In Search of Lost Time. However your own experience of memory will be enough to make an immediate connection with Prendergast’s Fall.

It is a novel to take your time and pour over (and possibly become mildly obsessed with). If you’re anything like me you’ll return to the story for a third time, making direct comparisons between the two versions. It is a novel which demands a degree of commitment from the reader but then all the best novels do.

Prendergast’s Fall is available now, published by Into Books (Into Creative).

The Scottish Opera Interviews #7: Resident Stage Manager, John Duncan…

John Duncan backstage at The Magic Flute in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal

For the latest in our series of podcasts in conjunction with Scottish Opera we spoke to John Duncan, the company’s Resident Stage Manager. Over the course of the conversation he provides a fascinating insight into a role which is vital to all theatre, but which rarely gets discussed.

Recorded backstage at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal (so beware the passing fire engine) John talks about how he initially fell in love with the theatre, his early years in the role, how the team dynamic works, the different productions he has worked on, the challenges he has faced over the years, a horse named George, and much more. If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the curtain then John has many of the answers.

These podcasts attempt to give greater understanding into the workings of Scottish Opera and the different roles of those involved, lending a rare and engaging appreciation of Scotland’s largest national arts company.

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, on Podbean, with Spotify, 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:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will with you in November.
In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

So much great new music, so little time! Over the last few weeks there has been a delightful deluge of damned good tunes in many styles, forms, shapes, and sizes. By the time we hit October you can usually start to tell how a year is going to be judged and 2019, against many odds, is turning out to be a brammer.

This month we have songs from three of the finest albums of the year, one of the most intriguing and important EPs of any year, a new favourite who feels like an old friend, a local-to-SWH! band who may have released one of the best pop songs for ages, an unexpected and fine cover version, and the return of a national treasure with a tune to break your heart. Strap yourself in – it’s going to get emotional…

We have welcomed Broken Chanter to these pages before but make no apologies for doing so once again, especially as the eagerly awaited self-titled album was released last month. It’s quite simply one of the finest collection of songs this year, (or most years), with David McGregor proving that he is a writer of songs which once heard are not easily forgotten. If the name is familiar then that’s because he was integral to Kid Canaveral for many years, but this album takes his music to another level entirely.

If you want a gauge of the standing in which McGregor is held by his peers then you only need to look at those involved with this album. They include Audrey Tait (The Girl Who Cried Wolf, Hector Bizerk), Gav Prentice (ULTRAS), Jill O’Sullivan (Sparrow and the Workshop, bdy_prts, Jill Lorean), Hannah Shepherd (eagleowl, Withered Hand), Emma Kupa (Mammoth Penguins,) & more. But, for all the talent involved this feels like an intensely personal project, songs which are torn from a life lived, and not always easily. At once expansive yet intimate, it’s a record which marries hard-times to hope, and we could all do with some of that. This is ‘Should We Be Dancing’:

Oblivion & Beyond is the new EP from Distant Voices, the musical project created by Vox Liminis, which is an arts and community organisation working with people involved in all parts of the criminal justice system in the Highlands area. Distant Voices sees some of Scotland’s best songwriters collaborating with people who’ve experienced the criminal justice system in one form or another. On Oblivion & Beyond the songs were co-written by musicians Donna Maciocia, Fiskur, Martha Ffion, Raukarna, and Jill Lorean in workshops which took place in communities and prisons.

The tracks, most of which have a tie to Inverness, are about the rather intangible notion of ‘recovery’ and examines just what that means. It’s a record which is as important as it is excellent, which adds to the current discussion about crime and punishment (see also Fergus McNeill’s Pervasive Punishment project), and once again shows how music and art can aid wider discussion and understanding. This is ‘Autopilot’, featuring Jill Lorean & Lee:

Alasdair Roberts has been in a musical vein of form in recent years that few others could boast, with recent releases including What News with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness, his work with Green Ribbons, and with The Furrow Collective. Undoubtedly a proud serial collaborator, his latest release, The Fiery Margin, is a solo affair (albeit made with a one of the finest bands around), and it is arguably his best yet, bringing all his knowledge and understanding of the traditions of folk music to bare on his songs, but lending them a distinctly contemporary feel, something we have come to expect from Roberts. Nobody does it better. This is ‘False Flesh’:

Future Pilot AKA, aka Sushil K Dade, has long been one of the more experimental and interesting musicians around, and a new album from him is always a cause for celebration. So have a shower, and then phone your brother up, as that’s exactly what we have. Like Alasdair Roberts (above), Dade is a man who loves a collaboration, and his latest, Orkestra Digitalis, lets no one down.

Nine years in the making, it’s an album which was not originally destined for wide release, proposed as a one-off edition in the format of a picnic hamper, but luckily it was decided that we all deserved some nourishment. Featuring Emma Pollock, Ron Sexsmith, Robert Wyatt, R.M. Hubbert, Mairi Campbell, and Mulatu Astatke, this is a record which gives up more of its many secrets with each listen, and you’ll want to do so over and over. From it this is ‘The Art Of Good Breathing’:

New favourite band alert!!! Flying Penguins released their latest single ‘Antimony’, from the EP Bodies & Artefacts, and it swiftly became a firm favourite, reminding me of some of SWH!’s best-loved musicians such as King Creosote, Modern Studies, Lomond Campbell, Admiral Fallow, eagleowl – basically those bands who make classy, affecting, and poignant music which puts you in that state of musical melancholia which feels just right.

It’s rare to discover a band who feel like you’ve been listening to them for years when you haven’t, but that’s how I feel about Flying Penguins – as if they were the soundtrack to a better time, and the memory of that has just come back to me. I’m sure there is a word for that feeling, but before we all rush to find out just what that is – sit back, relax, and enjoy ‘Antimony’:

Ian Smith from Last Night From Glasgow got in touch last month to say that Foundlings had a new single coming out and would I like to hear it. Of course the answer was yes, as he knew full well it would be, but he gave me no further clue as to anything else about it. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover an excellent cover of ‘I Love You All’, a track from the Jon Ronson/ Lenny Abrahamson film Frank, inspired by Ronson’s relationship with Frank Sidebottom, and which has Michael Fassbender on vocals.

How do you approach that? Well, if you’re Foundlings you stay faithful to the original and showcase the song to full effect. If the above paragraph means little to you then press play below. I’m not saying all will become clear, but your life will be notably better. In the name of Frank…

I may have mentioned it before, but Scottish pop music is in fine and rude health, and the final two tracks of this review make that point perfectly. First up are Slouch, a Glasgow band whose single ‘Duplicity’ has had a couple of plays on the SWH! show on LP Radio (news of which soon) and it has been as warmly received as anything played on the show so far. It’s a song which gets its hooks into you early doors and refuses to let go. If John Hughes was still making movies this would be solid soundtrack material, most-likely playing over the closing prom scene as the credits start to roll. ‘Duplicity’ is pure pop and it makes me hugely excited about what Slouch do next. Share the anticip…ation…

When we have our regular end-of-year chats at SWH! (which we record as podcasts – doesn’t everyone?) Bossy Love always receive a mention as one of the best bands around, especially when seen live. By doing what they love to do with no apologies – making R&B inflected pop music which takes their influences and make them all their own – they are a band like no other, and it is little wonder that the devotion they inspire is so strong. Their latest single, ‘Me + U‘, is a winning mixture of strength and vulnerability with Amandah Wilkinson’s unmistakeable vocals never better. Imagine a track Prince wrote for TLC then forgot to send, with all the sadness that entails, and you’ll have some idea as to what you are about to listen to. It’s also the perfect end to this review. This is ‘Me + U’:

That’s all for this month but we’ll be back before you know it with another selection of the best new music around. See you back here soon…

Passion Play: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Tosca…

Every so often you go to an event where the excitement and anticipation among the audience beforehand is palpable, and that was the case at the opening night of Scottish Opera’s Tosca at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. You could feel it building in the walk up to the doors and by the time the curtain was raised the atmosphere was electric. With such anticipation this Tosca had a lot to live up to but luckily for all of us it managed to and so much more.

The stage in Act One was set in the Roman church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, and it reflected the wealth of the church itself – using marble greys, sepia, and burnished gold as its main colour palette, every so often given a splash of colour of white and papal purple by visiting cardinals, priests, choirboys, and cross-bearers, as well as the yellow and red of the Swiss Guard. It was an imposing set, made more atmospheric by the way the stage was lit from the side rather than from above, the long shadows cast adding to the sense of foreboding that something wicked was on its way.

That something wicked came in the form of Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police who is determined to steal famed singer Tosca from the arms of her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, by any means necessary. Played with a real sense of menace by Roland Wood in the finest tradition of the theatrical villain (and proving the adage that “the devil has all the best tunes”), he and his gang of fascisti followers strode the stage as if they owned it. However, even for them there is increasingly the sense that this tale is not going to end well, something only strengthened by the brief appearance of Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini.

By this point we had already witnessed the depth of feeling that Tosca and Cavaradossi have for each other, with Natalya Romaniw and Gwyn Hughes Jones being at times loving, passionate, playful, jealous, and everything in-between as their love is threatened by circumstances as well as Scarpia’s evil intent. As events unfold they reveal just how far they are prepared to go for each other, and what they believe in. These two characters have the most to suffer, and Romaniw in-particular expressed the highs and lows of being in love in a manner which at times was almost unbearably moving. Hers is a Tosca to whom others will aspire.

This is an especially cinematic production, with a distinct style to each act. Act One had the look and feel of Derek Jarman, with religious iconography and sensuality interweaving, and the passion of the artist to the fore. Act Two had more than a hint of Martin Scorsese, with corruption, violence, and betrayal, looked at with an unflinching and often brutal eye. Act Three, with the stage dominated by a huge statue of an angel at Castel Sant’Angelo, was Wim Wenders meets Powell and Pressburger – the perfect setting for the fatal final acts. Whether you know the story of Tosca or not the end still has the power to move and shock, something which is a testament to everyone involved.

This Tosca is a production to get lost in, to be overcome by and surrender to – resistance is futile. Often with longer pieces of theatre you are aware of audience members checking their watches or shifting in their seats. I didn’t witness one example of this on the night as the audience was rapt from beginning to end, completely absorbed by what was unfolding on stage. If that sounds like something you would like to witness for yourself then you can do so in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Edinburgh. If it doesn’t, then go to the top of the page and start reading again. I’m sure you’ll change your mind.

Cosmic Entities: A Review Of Amadeus & The Bard…

In the fourth of our Scottish Opera podcasts we spoke to the Director of Education & Outreach, Jane Davidson who explained the ways SO reach out to all areas of Scotland, and work with all age groups. The latest example of this in practice was Amadeus & the Bard: 18th Century Cosmic Brothers which has just finished a tour some of the High Schools, Academies and museums of Scotland before ending its run in Glasgow.

The final shows were held in Scottish Opera’s Edington Street building, which has a wonderful performance space. The Bard in question is Robert Burns, and he was well represented in body as well as spirit at the performance SWH! attended with at least one fellow national Makar, as well as an actor best known for his portrayal of Burns, in the crowd. They were part of an audience whose aged ranged across the generations, and who were immediately involved with the show, greeted at the door by the players themselves with wonderful musical accompaniment. This, as Burns would have wanted it, was a performance where all were made welcome.

As the title suggests, this was a tale of two geniuses, Burns and Mozart, affectionately referred to as Rabbie and Wolfie. To distinguish them on stage a simple but effective wardrobe technique was applied, with a green coat for Mozart, and a blue one for Burns. The two were compared and contrasted, but it was the similarities of their lives which were the main focus, with Rabbie’s words and Wolfie’s music interweaved throughout.

Born three years apart, both died in their mid-thirties, they achieved fame, if not fortune, for their music (Mozart) and their words (Burns), and are more celebrated today than they had been in their all-too-brief lives. Staged in the convivial setting of Burns’ favourite boozer Poosie Nansie’s, the regulars tell tales of the two men’s lives, loves, and losses – referencing their most famous work as they do so. As matters progress the two stories are brought closer together, until a mash-up of Don Giovanni and ‘Tam O’Shanter’ proves a supernatural and devilish highlight, before a rousing ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ brings matters to a suitable and moving conclusion with the audience joining in.

With their eagerly-awaited production of Puccini’s Tosca beginning this Wednesday, Amadeus & the Bard: 18th Century Cosmic Brothers was a reminder that while Scottish Opera is rightly known for its spectacular, large-scale productions the work they do on a smaller scale, all around the country, should be acknowledged and supported, and on this showing, and the reaction to the current ‘Opera Highlights Tour‘ (SWH! review here), they are rightly receiving both.

West End Girl: Pat’s Guide To Glasgow West End Is 20…

This week sees Glasgow’s OB (Original Blogger) Pat Byrne’s Guide To Glasgow West End celebrate its 20th anniversary. When it comes to supporting the arts & culture in Glasgow few have shown the passion, commitment, and enthusiasm that Pat has and to keep that burning for two decades means that this is a significant, and inspirational, milestone – one which should not go without comment.

The stats (right) speak for themselves, but it is the joy, warmth, and breadth of knowledge that Pat brings to her role as THE premier champion and chronicler of all things West End that makes her stand apart. Her editorial stance is to share, celebrate, and enjoy the things she is passionate about – one which chimes closely with SWH!

Although being a regular reader for years, I only really got to know Pat and her husband Jim when they asked me to get involved with the Ten Writers Telling Lies project, which married short stories and poetry to Jim’s songs. Since then they have become firm friends, and I always know I’m at a good event when I see Pat’s smiling face in the room. I for one will be raising a glass in her honour and I’ll hope you’ll join me. Here’s to many more.

For a great overview of the previous 20 years I recommend reading this interview Pat gave to Ian Marland for Glasgow WE recently – Guiding Star

And here is the podcast with Pat, Jim, and Samina Chaudry which Ali recorded in 2017 where they talk all about Ten Writers Telling Lies.

His Bloody Valentine: A Review Of Alan Parks’ February’s Son…

The Glasgow crime novel has a rich, varied and celebrated tradition. Many would cite William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw as the first true classic of the genre, but before that you have to consider the phenomenal success and notoriety of No Mean City, Herbert Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur’s 1935 novel which did more than any other to shape and colour the notion, for a generation of readers, of the city as a place where razor gangs ruled. However, even before that classic novels such as Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had scenes set in the city which suggest that of all Scottish towns and cities Glasgow had long held a reputation as a dark and dangerous place where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap.

Recent notable writers to have enhanced this literary legacy include Denise Mina, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Craig Russell, Liam McIlvanney, and many more – so many that you may think that there was little new to tell, or ways to tell it. Enter Alan Parks. With his previous novel Bloody January he introduced us to Detective Harry McCoy and a coterie of characters who made an immediate impact. His second, February’s Son, proves that was no fluke and strongly suggests that this is a series set to run and run.

Set in the early 1970s, Parks has managed, in the space of just two books, to create a world which avoids wallowing in nostalgia, instead using the past as a setting for crimes and events which remain relevant today. This is achieved by populating them with individuals who avoid well-trodden stereotypes while being immediately recognisable. For Parks, it’s never as simple as having white hats versus black, there is moral ambiguity throughout, and it is testimony to his skill that we forgive, or at least excuse, some truly appalling behaviour.

February’s Son begins almost immediately after Bloody January, with McCoy returning to work only after consultation with the police psychiatrist after his near-death escape on a Glasgow rooftop. With only the merest sympathy on show from his colleagues he is thrown into another case where the lines between the law and criminality quickly become blurred, and the past threatens not only to haunt him, but destroy him one way or another. Harry McCoy is a character who is good at his job not despite everything thrown at him, but because of it.

Be under no illusion, for many of the characters in February’s Son life is nasty, brutish and often short, or at least some combination of the three. This is a world where extremes meet and McCoy thrives as a detective in no small part because he understands both worlds in which he resides. His paternal relationship with his superior Murray is balanced by his “friendship” with rising gangster Stevie Cooper – the latter forged in a particularly unforgiving and brutal childhood. Imagine Trainspotting’s Renton had joined the police and Francis Begbie had risen to run a local firm and you have some idea as to the nature of their relationship, the complexity of which is at the heart of this story in-particular.

February’s Son is full of contradiction, confrontation, deception and deceit, yet retains a humanity which is perhaps unexpected and difficult to define. It all comes down to the characters, and the justification for their actions. Parks asks us to consider the statement (often ascribed to Machiavelli) that “the ends justify the means”, and in the majority of McCoy’s cases the ends are so shocking and horrific that almost any means seem justified, or at least they are to those involved. Perhaps the greatest feat the writer achieves is to carry us along with these arguments, until, as with McCoy, we revaluate not only what has happened, but our reaction to it. There’s a level of reader complicity which is rare, and potentially troubling for some. When posed with the question, “what would I do?” the answer could be unexpected.

In the last few years we have reviewed many novels on these pages sold under the banner of crime. Sometimes it appears a banner of convenience, but Alan Parks is writing unashamedly in the genre along the lines of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Anne Cleeves and Christopher Brookmyre, and that is the company in which he belongs. However there is also a link to the British pulp fiction of the ’60s and ’70s – often sold as cheap paperbacks with the promise of sex, drugs and violence between racy and sensationalist covers. When you consider those touchstones and references, and most importantly the writing itself, it becomes clear that Alan Parks is writing crime fiction which is both familiar yet unexpected – simultaneously incorporating the old, new, borrowed, and black and blue. Roll on March.

Both Bloody January and February’s Son are published by Canongate.

Ali will be in conversation with Alan Parks as part of the Imprint Festival at Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute on 10-10-2019. Details and tickets are here…

The Scottish Opera Interviews #6: Staff Director, Roxana Haines

Roxana Haines. © Julie Broadfoot – http://www.juliebee.co.uk

For the sixth in our series of podcasts in conjunction with Scottish Opera Ali spoke to Staff Director, Roxana Haines. It’s a fascinating and informative discussion with someone whose job brings her into contact and collaboration with most areas of the company.

Roxana explains her professional journey, her training in theatre and how that translates to the specific demands of opera, her role in terms of productions and the challenges that different ones bring – with particular reference to the current ‘Opera Highlights Tour‘ and the opera for young children ‘Fox-tot!‘ – and a lot more.

Through it all her enthusiasm and love for what she does shines through, and we hope you enjoy listening to the conversation as much as we did recording it.

Roxana with the cast of Fox-tot!

These podcasts attempt to give greater understanding into the workings of Scottish Opera and the different roles of those involved, lending a rare and engaging appreciation of Scotland’s largest national arts company.

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, on Podbean, with Spotify, 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:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will with you in November.
In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.