The Scottish Opera Interviews #3: Programme Editor, David Kettle

For the third of our series of podcasts with members of Scottish Opera we spoke to the Programme Editor, David Kettle about his role and what it entails. He explains how he came to the job, the approach to writing a programme, the balance required between information and other articles and content, the collaboration required with the rest of the company, and much more.

If you have ever wondered, or even if you haven’t, how Scottish Opera’s beautiful programmes are put together then your questions are answered here. Below are just three examples that David has been involved with.

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, 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 be out in late August.

You can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Melody Makers: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Half Formed Things…

Cover for ‘To Live In The Flicker’, credit – Louise McLachlan

For the latest podcast Ali went to Edinburgh to talk to Edwin McLachlan and Morgan Hosking, two members of Half Formed Things (unapologetically one of SWH!’s favourite bands). They talk about their astonishing album To Live In The Flicker, the origins of the band, what it’s like to work with close friends and family, the importance or otherwise of place, their shared philosophy, themes, influences, and a whole lot more.

Half Formed Things – (l-r, Morgan, Matthew, Nici, Edwin), credit – Louise McLachlan

You’ll also get two tracks from the album which will give you a clear idea as to just how good it is. And if the other two members of the band, Nici Hosking and Matthew Bakewell, disagree with any of what was said we are more than willing to record a follow up to give their side of the story! If you are interested in making music, or in how music is made, then this is a must listen, and one of the most in-depth and interesting podcasts to date.

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, 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:

Here’s an extract from SWH!’s review of To Live In The Flicker,
“From the opening ‘Flicker’ to the closing ‘The Calm’ you are taken to another place by a soundtrack which makes your head swim – with instruments being used for different purposes – drums and cymbals take the lead, piano riffs keep the rhythm, and harmonies (oh, the harmonies!) becoming an instrument all of their own.”
And you can read the full review here.

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

Pride & Prejudice: A Review of Karen Campbell’s The Sound of the Hours…

Sometimes a novel comes out of nowhere to delight and surprise you, not following any current trends or themes. That is the case with The Sound of the Hours, Karen Campbell’s latest. Set in Italy in 1943, just after the arrest of Mussolini, it uses an unlikely romance, set against the backdrop of World War II, to examine religion, politics, race, family, and what it means to belong. Perhaps the least surprising thing about it is that Campbell is the author as there are few writers who have the range of subjects and styles evident in their bibliography as she now does.

The Sound of the Hours is her seventh novel and, after her initial series of Glasgow-based police procedurals, she wrote This Is Where I Am, a powerful account of the relationship between a Somalian refugee and his mentor, (which was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime). She followed that with Rise, a novel that takes some of the familiar themes and tropes of Scottish literature and art and plays with them to great effect.

The Sound of the Hours is the first time Campbell takes her readers outside of Scotland (with a couple of notable exceptions)setting the majority of the story in Barga, a Tuscan town with strong Scottish connections to this day. She has clearly got a keen sense of the place and its history – knowledge that you suspect comes not only from time spent there, but also from extensive investigation.

This allows you to immerse yourself in this world, and you feel you could find your way around the streets, and to the houses, markets, churches, and graveyards that are portrayed, with little trouble. Yet, it’s a novel that wears such research lightly, getting the balance between entertaining and informing just right. As with all of Karen Campbell’s novels her characters are the key.

We are introduced to seventeen-year-old Vittoria ‘Vita’ Guidi and her family whose split loyalties and the tensions that result mirror the Italy of the day. It is a country that became disputed territory in the last throws of the Second World War, with German occupation under threat from an encroaching United States Army. Many Italians became pawns in this dangerous game, having to react to changes in who was in charge on a regular basis. Campbell captures the pressures on civilians as war rages around them, and how that heightens day-to-day living as well as emotions. Vita and her family are caught in the middle and have to find new ways to survive.

The other strand of the novel is the story of Frank Chapel, a ‘Buffalo Soldier’, the nickname for African American U.S. Army personnel. Frank is an educated liberal, a Berkeley College straight-A student who believes he is destined for officer status but soon finds out that the army is not going to allow him to reach the higher ranks, and he becomes a victim of institutional racism for the first time in his life. Frank has to quickly adjust his view of not only what the army has to offer, but also how his life may unfold.

Campbell puts us in the boots of men fighting for a country that does not let them vote. Even after swearing an oath to lay down their lives they find themselves eating and sleeping in separate areas from other soldiers. When even the army becomes segregated then it becomes clear where cultural priorities lie. Shipped to Italy to help liberate the country from German occupation, and make sure that Mussolini and his acolytes remain out of power, Frank finds himself in a strange land where his uniform creates one response, the colour of his skin another.

When Frank and Vita meet (an unforgettable scene) it is clear that theirs is a relationship that will have to overcome huge odds, and it unfolds beautifully with Campbell eschewing the easy and obvious route of love conquering all for a more nuanced and believable story. Rather it’s the other strands of their stories that are brought to the fore as they are separated almost as soon as they meet, making not only for a more interesting read, but adding a romantic tension and suspense that it would not have otherwise. Vita’s priority is to keep herself and her family safe, while Frank must negotiate fighting battles internally and externally as he tries to make his way back to her.

As I mentioned earlier, Campbell uses this relationship to examine wider concerns. She looks at how carrying fundamental positions and prejudices, whether religious, political, or ideological, can tear families, and nations, apart, themes that have rarely been more expedient than they are today. She also considers the role of women in times of war, and how that alters family dynamics and relationships. As the boys play at soldiers the women have to not only patch them up, but also try and live as normal a life as possible all the while fearing the worst. Questions of heroism and sacrifice, and what forms they take, are never far from the surface.

If you can imagine Captain Corelli’s Mandolin meets Catch 22 you’ll have some idea as to what The Sound of the Hours is like. There is the romance of place and its people of the former, the absurdity and madness of war of the latter, and the clash of cultures of both. It’s a novel to get lost in – one that transports you to another time and place, and you cannot help but become involved and emotionally invested with the lives of those who live there. It’s also a timely reminder that any discussion about the best contemporary Scottish novelists should include Karen Campbell.

version of this review first appeared on Publishing Scotland’sBooks From Scotland website.

The Sound Of The Hours is out now published by Bloomsbury, and the Glasgow launch is at 7pm, at Waterstones on Sauchiehall St, Tuesday 16th July.

Man O’ Pairts: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Kevin P. Gilday…

For the latest podcast Ali headed to Glasgow’s Tron Theatre to talk to poet and polymath Kevin P. Gilday about his Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Suffering From Scottishness‘, his new collection of poetry ‘Sad Songs For White Boys‘ (right), his work with Cat Hepburn as the instigators and organisers of spoken word house party Sonnet Youth, his band Kevin P. Gilday & the Glasgow Cross, and a whole lot more.

It’s a fascinating chat, one which, when taken as a whole, is an instructive insight into what it takes to make your living as an artist today. All that and Kevin reads his poetry as well – we always aim to please!

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, 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.

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

We try and make these reviews as varied and diverse as possible to showcase the full range of the music on offer. However, you can’t force these things and often certain themes, styles and genres dominate, and if we want to point you in the direction of the best music – and we do – then you have to face facts, and the facts are the following…

This month’s review is bookended by two of the best, and most thought provoking, albums of the year so far. Between them you will find a righteous celebration of great pop music, songs that will go some way to soundtracking your summer. When taken together you have a perfect balance of light and shade, yin & yang, upstairs for thinking, downstairs for dancing, and…well, you get the idea with that. What we always aim to give you is the best new music to reach us over the last month.

First off we have the double-album Crow Hill from Meursault, which is so much more than a collection of songs. The titular ‘Crow Hill’ is a town full of interesting characters whose stories need to be told, with each track doing just that. It’s dark, disturbing, and completely absorbing. It’s an album to get lost in as it demands your attention and time. You can’t just decide to sit down and listen to track 2, side 3. This has be listened from start to finish as it has a narrative throughline to follow.

The music can be delicate and harmonious, then moves to discord, storm and stress, and at one point almost primal scream (but not Primal Scream). If you want a comparison then I could suggest early-mid period Nick Cave, but not just his music – I would also ask you to consider his novel And The Ass Saw The Angel. But have no doubt – Crow Hill is a singular vision unlike any other. Some may call it a concept album, but that description sells it seriously short. It’s fiction, musical theatre, poetry, graphic novel, and more. Put simply, it’s art – using the personal to make comment on the universal. I recommend you invest, make yourself comfortable, dim the lights, put your headphones on, and take a trip to Crow Hill. And it is a trip.

If ever anyone deserves praise for their name alone it is surely Edwin Organ, a Glasgow-based producer and songwriter about whom little is known. Or, to put it another way, about whom I know little. But as TV detectives tell us you begin with the clues in front of you, and exhibit A is his single ‘Gabriel’. On first listen it’s a catchy bittersweet indie pop song in the vein of Tracey Thorn, Aberfeldy, Camera Obscura, or the Magnetic Fields. But after spending time with it, and absorbing his lyrics, you soon realise that Organ is looking at modern masculinity and wider societal considerations, all through the prism of exquisite and unusual music. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship – No shit, Sherlock.

Those of you who know me well will know that there are few things I treasure more in life than a great pop song, and that’s just what you are about to hear. It is Anna Sweeney‘s latest single ‘Way Back When’ and it is one of those tracks which could come to define a summer – revelling in nostalgia for better, simpler, days in a manner similar to classics of the genre such as ‘The Boys Of Summer’ or ‘Summertime’ (or ‘Summertime’) the slick pop production carrying more than a hint of melancholy. It’s where the Jackson 5 meets Haim and they both ‘Want You Back’. Play it once, play it again – play it all summer long – ‘Way Back When’ is a song which once it has its hooks in you will not let go. Sit back, relax, and surrender.

We all love a good comeback. Be it Elvis in a leather suit, or Robert Downey Jr in an iron one, there is something to be celebrated when the good and the great return to us once more. Which brings me to The Martial Arts who are back for the first time in a long time with a new EP, the aptly titled ‘I Used To Be The Martial Arts’.

The ‘I’ in that title is Paul Kelly, well-known to many Scottish music lovers having played with, and continue to play with, the likes of BMX Bandits, Ette and Carla J Easton, Radiophonic Tuckshop and many more. If a great pop record has been made in Scotland in the last 10 years or so there’s a good chance that Paul Kelly has been involved. I Used To Be The Martial Arts is a distillation of all the music he has played on and listened to – in that sense it’s essential, and evidence of a musician with a pure pop sensibility. From it this is ‘New Performance’.

New music from Emme Woods is always worth raising a glass to. Whether with full band or solo (or any incarnation in-between) she is one of those musicians you never want to miss live if you can help it as she is one of the most charismatic and commanding stage presences around. Arguably previous recordings have not quite captured the magic of the live experience, but it if her latest releases are anything to go by that is about to change.

Recently she gave us ‘Kill Yer Darlin’ and now we have ‘It’s Ma Party’ both of which pare the production down so that Woods’ unmistakable – unforgettable – vocals are rightly to the fore. The latter in-particular is a song to take to your heart and cherish, with grungey guitar and driving drums building to a crescendo. Both tracks are co-written with another SWH! favourite, Barrie James O’Neill, and that is a musical marriage made in heaven. This is ‘It’s Ma Party’.

Once a member of the SWH! family you are never let go – a bit like the Cosa Nostra. So it was with great excitement that we received the news that Arran Artic, a podcast guest from many years ago, and once regularly reviewed on these pages, was back making music with a new band, The Map Dept. They released a new single last month called ‘Carousel’ and while Arran’s vocals are unmistakable, this is a full band collaboration with everyone playing their part.

And that playing is exquisite, as can only be done by musicians who know exactly what they are doing. The sound is clever, ethereal electronic pop music, not unlike Tears For Fears or China Crisis, or, (taking my faded ’80s t-shirt off for a moment), Empire Of The Sun or Phoenix. If this is the shape of things to come then we are all in for future treats.

I’ve been waiting for this for a while. St Christopher Medal’s 2017 single ‘Wayne, Moon Pilot’, (complete with a reading of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Bonnie Broukit Bairn’) was one of those songs which have come to shape SWH!’s musical identity, one we regularly recommend when people ask, or even when they don’t. There is now an album, Hoof!, which is a collection of carefully crafted and lyrically interesting songs (Including ‘WMP”) of the kind which are all too rare.

They include the latest single ‘Fallen Angel’ which is an excellent introduction. There’s unmistakably a Neil Young feel about it, in a similar manner to The Replacments, Wilco, or Ian McNabb’s solo albums. It is said that the best things come to those who wait, and if you, like me, have been awaiting Hoof! for a long time then I am here to tell you it was well worth it. Be prepared to make way in the ‘most played’ section of your record collection for St Christopher Medal and Hoof!.

We started this review with an intensely personal and individual collection of songs, and we are going to end in similar fashion. I bought Harry Harris’ latest album after just one listen to the title track ‘I Feel Drunk All The Time’ – sometimes you just know. The album is “a guide on how to stay cool when the world is ending”, and it has the feel of a man trying to make sense of a world in turmoil. And aren’t we all? Harris’ songs are searching, heart-breaking and thought provoking. And what thoughts. Like Crow Hill it’s an album for our times, and when you consider those times then both are appropriate and considered responses.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I made such a connection with this record when you find out who appears on it. Harris has put together a supergroup of musicians who include Martha Ffion, Rosie Bans, Pedro Cameron (Man of the Minch) and Angus Munro (among others) – favourites of SWH! one and all. It’s an indication not only of Harry Harris’ impeccable credentials, but also how seriously his peers take his music, and so should we. I Feel Drunk All The Time is the sound of a man literally fiddling (or at least having a literal fiddler) while the world burns. It just so happens that sound is spellbinding.

That’s yer whack for this month – meet you here in August for more of the best in new Scottish music.

But while you wait, remember that SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm.

You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #2: Head Of Music, Derek Clark

For the second of our series of podcasts with members of Scottish Opera we spoke to the Head of Music, Derek Clark about his role and what the job entails. Derek talks about the how he came to the job, how it has changed over the years, and how it is essential to Scottish Opera.

He discusses programming, collaboration, and the difference between approaching contemporary work and the classics. It’s a fascinating insight into the working life of someone central to Scottish Opera and their productions.

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, 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 be with Programme Editor David Kettle and it will be out in late July…

You can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Teenage Kicks: A Review Of Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me…

It’s hugely heartening that Young Adult fiction is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland, with recent examples, including Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman, Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope and Ross Sayers’ Mary’s The Name, among the very best.

The latest, published by champions of the genre, Cranachan, is Ross Sayers’ follow up to Mary’s The Name, Sonny And Me and the bottom line is it’s simply a fantastic read no matter what label is applied to it. It’s exactly the book I wish was available when I was a teenage reader (although you don’t need to be a teenager to read it) as it accurately and believably portrays not only what it’s like to be that age but what it’s like to interact with an increasingly adult world which you can see heave into view all too quickly. It’s also in a language and setting which is immediately relatable and anyone who thinks that isn’t important is wrong

That ‘inbetweener’ age which pulls in different directions is perfectly portrayed – wanting to be a kid for just a bit longer, with all the freedom and fantasy that entails, and an increasing desire to be part of this apparently mystical club of ‘grown-ups’ (and what a useless term that is) with its ages of consent, forbidden establishments, and being able to speak your mind and not get sent to your room.

The narrator is Daughter who we are introduced to along with his best friend Sonny, and immediately they find themselves in a situation which could go all sorts of wrong. It’s a scenario which exemplifies the time when the innocence of childhood clashes with the growing awareness that the adult world carries more judgement and condemnation than has previously been the case, and that behaviour which may have been dismissed as (as Frank McAvennie might say) “daft-boyness” will have greater consequences the older they get.

Imagine The Inbetweeners meets Alan Bissett’s seminal 2001 novel Boyracers and you have some idea as to Sonny And Me. It’s arguably, and I am happy to argue it with you, the best Scottish coming of age novel since. It is funny, thrilling, and entertaining, but more importantly it’s honest and unflinching. Fair play to both writer and publisher in not diluting the language in any way, a decision which pays off in spades. This is writing which feels vital and real.

There is more than a little of the classic teen cinema of John Hughes in evidence as well, with friendships strengthened through detention, unrequited and unspoken crushes, clubs and cliques, and cliches which are played with and often overturned. The comparison shows that the teenage experience (at least in the western world) is not so different. Another film reference I would point you in the direction of is Rian Johnson’s superb Brick – a high-school noir crime caper which blurs the lines between childhood and adulthood in a similar manner to Sonny And Me. Both have a serious crime as an important plot point experienced through young adult eyes, with the attitude, language, and point of view to match.

Sonny And Me is one of the best books you’ll read this year. At its considerable heart it is a book about friendship, those which are not calculated or carefully considered but which just happen – the connections made naturally not knowingly. If you’re the age of Sonny and Daughter then you’ll recognise all too vividly what they experience and have to deal with. If you used to be Sonny and/or Daughter (and that’s surely all of us) it’ll all come flooding back.

It’s about the experience of being a teenager and all too often, and all too quickly, that time can be forgotten, but it is important we remember and Ross Sayer has written a novel which will help you do just that. By all means buy a copy for the book-loving teenager in your life, but make sure you read it as well. It will not only help you understand them better, but also yourself.

Ross Sayers’ Sonny And Me is published by Cranachan.

The Ties That Bind: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers…

As Scots Whay Hae! moves towards its 10th year one writer in particular has been with us most of the way – the estimable Doug Johnstone. Since 2011’s Smokeheads he has published novels at a rate of almost one a year (a fantastic run which should be celebrated) all of which have been reviewed on these pages, and, (along with Louise Welsh), he is the writer who has guested on the most SWH! podcasts to date. As such, a new novel is always eagerly awaited and welcomed, and with Breakers (his second with the excellent Orenda Books) he may just have given us his best yet.

You could argue that his novels can be split into two categories. First off there are the no-holds-barred joyrides of the aforementioned Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land and last year’s Fault Lines, each of which leave you breathless as the action unfolds at breakneck speed. It’s as if he has taken Tom Petty’s cri de cœur concerning rock music,”Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and applies it to those books.

The other strand of his work focuses as much on family drama as crime, and are arguably when his writing is at its most powerful. Certainly I would suggest that Gone Again and The Jump are his most affecting and memorable novels to date. With Breakers, however, he has managed to marry these two strands together as never before, taking the poignant and heartfelt familial drama of the latter and adding the thrills and spills of the former. As such it is the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ book yet, and suggests the best may be yet to come.

Breakers focuses on the life of Tyler, a 17-year-old whose home life is a Daily Mail reader’s’ worst nightmare/wet dream. His incestuous elder siblings use him as their own Artful Dodger when they go to work, which happens to be housebreaking around Edinburgh’s more salubrious areas. Tyler would leave this life, acutely aware as to what he is involved in and carrying the guilt that goes with it, although also acutely aware that those they target are the haves who have more than they could ever need.

But his reason for reluctantly accepting his terrible lot is that he can’t abandon his young sister to the uncertainty of a life with their addict mother, or to the mercy of the social services, a fate which is surely only a phone call away. Johnstone asks serious questions about what can push people to criminal behaviour, the pressures brought to bear, and asks us to consider what would we do in Tyler’s shoes. The answers aren’t easy, and nor should they be.

When a housebreak goes spectacularly wrong Tyler and his family face new threats, from the police, but more worryingly from one of Edinburgh’s most feared criminal families. With the turmoil that is his life just turned up many notches, Tyler picks a fine time to fall in love with the enigmatic Flick who, although living in the same city comes from another world entirely. Yet, as with the better John Hughes’ movies, they find that they have more in common than their backgrounds would suggest. While never trivialising or lessening the impact of the dark and disturbing themes in Breakers, their relationship offers hope and, for Tyler, a shot at redemption.

If you are a fan of crime fiction then Doug Johnstone will always deliver the twists and turns that you are looking for, and there are few writers who do this with the brio he does. However, his writing always marries brutal honesty – and barely concealed anger – with compassion, eschewing simplistic ideas of good and evil, gods and monsters, to confront the more complex reasons why people do what they do. He understands people and how relationships work, and fail, and that very often it is the ties that bind families which can be the hardest to address.

Breakers is published by Orenda Books.

Fiercely Independent: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Ringwood Publishing…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali spoke to Chief Executive of Ringwood Publishing Sandy Jamieson, one of their authors Dr Anne Pettigrew, and their Assistant Managing Director Laure Camail. Celebrating their 20th birthday this year, Glasgow’s Ringwood show that it is possible to publish and survive in a city which has notoriously had problems sustaining and maintaining a publishing culture in recent years.

The panel discuss the reasons for starting Ringwood, their co-operative business model and how that has evolved, Anne’s novel Not The Life Imagined and the publishing process from the writer’s point of view, how Ringwood has had to adapt to the changes in the marketplace, and their plans for the future.

With their focus on publishing and supporting first time authors, and a willingness to address the themes of “politics, football, religion, money, sex and crime”, they are an independent publisher with a strong idea of who they are, and what they do. We’re saying this is a must listen for anyone interested in publishing as the talk offers rare and honest insight, touching on many practical aspects of the process, both positive and negative.

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, 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:

You can follow Ringwood on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The next podcast will be the second in association with Scottish Opera and it will be with you very soon…

Cult Hero: A Review Of Ewan Morrison’s Nina X…

With all the turmoil, storm and stress of recent times one literary voice has notably, and unexpectedly, been missing from much of the public and artistic debate – that of Ewan Morrison. While that’s not entirely fair as he has been working widely in film and TV, it is with his fiction that he has previously made the most telling and memorable contributions to the cultural conversation.

His most recent novel, Close Your Eyeswas published in 2013, which, considering the seismic shifts socially and politically (globally and locally) since, makes it seem a lifetime ago. This makes his return to publication most welcome as there are few writers who deal as intelligently, courageously, and often confrontationally, with the modern world as Morrison does.

All of which applies to his latest novel, Nina XIt’s a fictionalised account of what became known as the ‘Lambeth Slavery Case’, where, in 2015, self-styled Maoist cult leader Comrade Bala (real name Aravindan Balakrishnan) was sent to prison for abuse and false imprisonment. Morrison’s collective consists of Comrade Chen, four women followers whom he has a powerful and dangerous hold over, and a child who they view as ‘The Project’ – the person into whom they pour their hopes and dreams of a better future.

We first meet that child years later, now known by others, if not yet herself, as Nina, trying to come to terms with her first days of ‘Freedom’ after years kept prisoner. The novel is constructed from entries in Nina’s journals – numbered jotters that often have addendums from her ‘Comrades’ where they offer ideas and suggestions as to how her behaviour, and each other’s, should be modified. Certain words and sections are faint on the page, difficult to read and understand. It is as if they are being whispered, or fading from Nina’s mind, and the story has to be pieced together as scraps are discarded, lost, and found, and Nina’s fractured mind and memory offer varied, and often conflicting, explanations of people and events.

In particular, there is a terrible incident which Nina witnesses and which the Comrades try to make her forget, or at least re-remember – with self-preservation trumping nurturance. Morrison has always had a keen eye for portraying human weakness, and piercing pomposity, and the Comrades descent from high-and-mighty pontificating to petty squabbling, and increasingly desperate, and violent, measures to try and regain some control over the situation, is as believable as it is dispiriting. However, things are little improved when Nina becomes caught up in the world of social services, hospitals, and the law where different rules and regulations are enforced. Morrison is interested in constructs, philosophies and faiths of all kinds, but more so with how the human element is always destined to undermine, compromise and ultimately sabotage them.

Nina X is not simply an examination of nature versus nurture, but rather how a vulnerable mind can be pulled apart by conflict and confusion, and that human frailties (a term which seems horribly inadequate) such as envy, lust, jealously, hubris, anger and pride guarantee failure. The portrayal of Nina/The Project is as complex as it is heart breaking, with a long-suppressed individual voice trying to break through, to be heard and understood. In that sense Nina reminds me of Ron Butlin’s Morris Magellan in The Sound Of My Voice trying to get to a personal truth that has been suppressed for years in an attempt to survive.

It is also a novel about the importance of language and the written word, how they are used to understand, but also to obfuscate – deliberately or otherwise. The nomenclature of people and things takes on greater significance in a world as limited and suffocating as Nina’s. The naming of pets as Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, or the forbidden contraband of Dairy Milk, Coca Cola, and glossy magazines, all carry multiple meanings. Nina has been told her whole life that some words are acceptable while others come at a cost. With her newfound freedom she finds that it’s not just the rules that have changed, the language has too, and even how she refers to herself becomes a battle.

With Nina X (as with Close Your Eyes, to which ‘Nina’ makes a great companion piece) Ewan Morrison challenges readers to think about what writing is for, believing that an engaged writer has a responsibility to address difficult issues. Some may regard him as a professional contrarian, using his mastery of the written word and ability to understand all sides of an argument to push people’s buttons for his own pleasure, but that would be to underestimate him as a writer, and a thinker. Rather he challenges prevailing cultural trends and beliefs, no matter who holds them. If you have a sacred cow to hand you might want to secure it as Morrison takes great delight in running them through, which makes him one of the exhilarating and exacting writers around.

As artistic as he is antagonistic, he believes in intellectual discourse and the rigorous thinking that accompanies it. Nina X is a reminder that the best writing should challenge and confront, and that there are few who do this as well as Ewan Morrison. He asks the questions that others avoid, or would never even think of asking, and offers no easy answers in return. This doesn’t always make his novels easy reads, but it does make them important ones and I know which I prefer every time.

A version of this review first appeared on Publishing Scotland’s Books From Scotland website.

Nina X by Ewan Morrison is published by Fleet.