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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dante (with Stephen Thom far right).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Walrus Mutterer is published by Saraband Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyroclastic Fantastic: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Fault Lines…

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Let’s lay our cards on the table before we begin – Doug Johnstone is not only one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but among our favourite people, holding the joint record for podcast appearances with the equally loved and admired Louise Welsh. As such, a new novel from the man is a cause for celebration round our way, so we have dug out the bunting out for his latest, Fault Lines, which is finally with us.

To say “finally” is admittedly harsh for such a prolific writer. From 2011-2016 he had written and published a book a year – Smokeheads, Hit & Run, Gone Again, The Dead Beat, The Jump and Crash Land  – a remarkable run of some of the most genuinely thrilling writing of recent times. 2017 was the first year with no Doug Johnstone novel for six, and while it is stretching a point too far to say we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, he was definitely missed. This is because a large part of the appeal of his writing is that there are many traits of true noir/pulp fiction in his work – quickly devoured leaving a keen desire to read what comes next. Continue reading

Listen Closely: Ron Butlin’s The Sound Of My Voice (Revisited)…

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post for the much missed Dear Scotland website on Ron Butlin’s 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice as part of the monthly Indelible Ink column. In it I made the claim that it was “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. A new edition is being published by Polygon, and I thought this was the perfect time to revisit it to see if that assertion still stood strong.

I should lay my cards on the table before we start. The Sound Of My Voice is one of those cultural touchstones which have become part of my identity. As with the music of The Blue Nile, the writing of James Kelman, the films of Bill Forsyth, and everything that John Byrne has ever done, it is something I evangelise about, attempting conversions whenever possible. These are important relationships and returning to them after time away brings the possibility of disappointment and disillusion if you find they no longer affect you as they once did. It’s a risky business.  Continue reading

The Quines Of Crime: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Burnout…

DSC_0778.jpgWhen writing in any genre, new writers in particular have a balance to try to get right. They want toCP_cover introduce something fresh while still making the writing recognisable to regular readers who expect certain tropes and conceits from their fiction. If you can get the balance right then there is every chance you have a successful novel on your hands.

One of the finest crime fiction debuts of recent years was Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose (right). Published in 2017 on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books, it introduced two new crime fighters in the unfamiliar form of Maggie Laird and “Big” Wilma Harcus, an odd couple in a fine and long tradition from Holmes and Watson to the vast majority of recent TV detectives (Morse/Lewis, Scott/Bailey, Creek/Magellen and Hayes/Addison being just a few personal favourites). Continue reading

Stinking Thinking: A Review Of Martin Geraghty’s A Mind Polluted…

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There are often claims that ambition and risk are increasingly resisted and discouraged in contemporary fiction – sure things are what booksellers are after leading to books being published which are easy to market and sell. While I’m sure there is evidence to back this up, I would suggest Scottish writing has rarely been as healthy in terms of different voices and visions, and this is cause for celebration.

In the last couple of years, on these pages, we have reviewed novels as diverse and challenging as David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, M.J. Nicholls’ The House Of WritersOlga Wojtas’ Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden SamovarPolly Clark’s LarchfieldHelen McClory’s Flesh Of The PeachEver Dundas’ GoblinCharlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re DeadKenneth Steven’s 2020, David F. Ross’ The Man Who Loved IslandsKevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant & Forever, and many moreAll of them are distinctive and diverse, and add fresh and invigorating perspectives to the Scottish cultural conversation. Or, to put it another way, and in the words of Chic – “These are the good times”. Continue reading