Rude Awakening

Few indeed are the subjects that would tempt me from the splendid isolation of my hillside redoubt and back into the echo-chamber of cyberspace, but since the Government has, after a year of due consideration and purposeful engagement, decided to publish it’s response to the Literature Working Group Report – hereafter referred to as The Stushie – I’ve decided to end my hibernation early. And let you know what to expect hereafter. The first thing to say about the Response to the Stushie is that it’s taken a year. The second thing is to say “this has taken a year?” A year is a long time, ranging, in my experience, anywhere between 365 and 366 days. A lot can happen in that time, such as the election of a Coalition Government of Right-Wing Ideologues, the systematic undermining of the public library sector, the closure of three major Scottish publishers, the formation of a new arts bureaucracy, the move to Curriculum for Excellence, the loss of Borders, the achievement of parity between e-book sales and paperbacks on the world’s largest online books retailer, and a Great Big Recession. So many of the proposals put forward during the Stushie are already hamstrung by a rapidly changing set of situations. Nevertheless: the default position of the Response – “that’s a matter for Creative Scotland” – seems inadequate. They may acknowledge there is a thistle to be grasped, but merely saying that they are fairly sure they know who might have the requisite gloves to do any future grasping is not enough. The headline grabber was the nixing of the proposed Scottish Academy of Writers. The excuse was the emptiness of the coffers. Now, there were various questions that needed to be addressed about an Academy – the process of election, the nature of their role and so forth – and it may be that the Academy can be resurrected when there’s (a) more money and (b) a fully worked out proposal. However, to say the new Makar, Liz Lochhead, will do all the Ambassadorial Stuff is limiting. She’s only one writer. She only represents one strand of contemporary Scottish literature. As for the idea of a National Book Week, my anxiety is that it’s a great way to not think about books for 51 weeks of the year. When will it even happen? From March to October there are literary festivals across the country anyway. Who will deliver it? Ah, there’s a consultation to decide all this. The Mills of God grind slow, and exceedingly fine. The future of Publishing Scotland is a matter for the members of Publishing Scotland, quoth the Response. That’s a rather two-edged phrase. It is indubitably true, but there is the slight matter of Public Funding. If a group of Scottish bakers want to have an Alliance for the Promotion of Potato Scones they are liberty to do so, and nobody can tell them to cease and desist. But nor is the Government required to provide money for them to continue in promoting potato scones, even if they decide to give money to the best potato scone producer. We await the Flexible Funding decisions with no small degree on interest. Once you strip away all the “over to you, Creative Scotland” stuff, there are a number of areas which will still require attention. There is much praise for the Live Literature Scheme, and rightly so: but remember, folks, it’s a match-funded scheme. More money going in means nothing unless schools, libraries and community groups have the money to access it. And guess what the Coalition is putting under threat? Err, that would be schools, libraries and community groups. Rather than providing direction, the Response is another yawning void of expectation. Since I’m now re-awakened, here’s a few teasers for the next while: What is Project Ararat? Should 1981 have been different? McShandy vs The State of Nature – only one will survive!


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Notes Towards A Gothic Understanding Of The Present Days

Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air. Now, England having brought about the revolution of China, the question is how that revolution will in time react on England, and through England on Europe.

Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, June 14 1853

China, the rotting semi-civilisation of the oldest State in the World…

Engels, New York Daily Tribune, May 22 1857

There is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep – if he awakes he will shake the world.

Attributed to Napoleon

Sometime on November 1st, 2004, hackers sat down at computers in southern China and set off once again on their daily hunt for U.S. secrets. Since 2003 the group had been conducting wide-ranging assaults on U.S. government targets to steal sensitive information, part of a massive cyberespionage ring that U.S. investigators have codenamed Titan Rain.

Time Magazine 25 August 2005

“What the bourgeoisie produces above all is its own gravediggers”

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

“Fears Grow Over Repossessions”

Scotsman November 11 2010

“Capital is dead labour, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”

Karl Marx, Das Kapital, I: 10

“A man’s heart is a wonderful thing, especially when carried in the purse”

Karl Marx, Das Kapital I: 9

“The continuing prevalence of pale, sexy vampires (and the rise of related comic sub-genres), the growth of teen-focused dystopian fiction and the transformation of the children’s publishing niche into a big advance–along with big financial pressure–publishing category, were just some of the topics covered by a panel of agents at Publishers Weekly‘s “Beyond Twilight: What’s Hot in the Teen Market in Publishing and Hollywood.”

Publishers Weekly, April 7 2010

“’The vampire will not let go while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited’”

Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1: 10

Spending Cuts Trap Poorest In Boarded-Up Ghost Towns

Guardian November 18 2010


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Heriot Pastoral, Ghost Buses and This Week’s Review

The selfish part of me hopes that nobody is reading this, and that, to paraphrase the words of the 70s TV programme Why Don’t You, you’ve all just switched off your television sets / hard drives and gone out to do something less boring instead. I know that’s what I’ve been doing and it’s a very happy-making thing. Re-reading that first sentence, in fact, I’ve forgiven myself any feeling of selfishness and decided that it actually reveals an altruism I didn’t think myself capable of expressing. Anyway, the combination of guilt and loquaciousness means that I’ll be trying to update this more frequently.

By the way, does anyone else find it peculiar that on Friday night broadband went down all over the place – just as a new terror plot was uncovered?

Heriot continues to be idyllic. We had guisers last night, and compared to the “extortion with menaces” I was familiar with in Leith, it was picture-postcard cute. We’ve had the in-laws to stay and cooked a Sunday lunch for eleven people, all of whom managed to get round the kitchen table. The Major Work on the garden has commenced, in enthusiasm if not in earnest, with bulbs and a long hard look at the mountains of clinker in what will be the composter. I discovered I can watch a nuthatch for twenty nine minutes and that a pheasant looks strikingly like an Chinese print version of itself in the dawn light. This morning, we looked down on the valley and saw it swathed in fog. It felt rather High Romantic.

The New Cottage

Even the commute is enjoyable, and has led to a minor psychogeographic intrigue. For a while, we’d been seeing what I called the Ghost Bus – a bus with the number zero instead of a route designation. I cooked up all kinds of schemes about rogue buses that deviate from their established circuits and go native, hiding out on B roads and conducting clandestine meetings. Then we saw the real Ghost Bus – a bus with no number whatsoever, not even a zero, and all its lights switched off. A kind of Spartacus or Scarlet Pimpernel of the omnibus world. Now finding buses awry from their usual routes has become a hobby, and I’ve spent far too long looking at route maps, finding the areas furthest from the bus comfort zones, and wondering far too much about how the routes come into being. There are also odd gaps in the numbering sequences: so in Edinburgh there’s no number six, nine, thirteen, seventeen, twenty-eight, thirty-nine or forty. I think I might resurrect some of these cursed routes: who knows, they might even pass straight through buildings nowadays.

This week’s review: a book everyone should read. And I don’t say that often.

THIS is the kind of book that restores my faith in publishing. It is serious, erudite, weighty (just shy of 1,000 pages long), ambitious and successful in all those categories. Peter Watson attempts nothing less than a complete survey of the intellectual, scientific and cultural life of Germany and German-speaking peoples from the 18th century to the present day.

At its heart is a simple question. Imagine a pair of scales. On one side place Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Wagner; Goethe, Schiller, Hoffmann, Heine, Thomas Mann and the Grimm Brothers; Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud; Euler, Gauss, Reimann, and Gödel; Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck and Bohr; Brecht, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder; Paul Klee, Caspar Friedrich, Gustav Klimt, Joseph Beuys, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Gropius, Herbert Marcuse, Dietrich Boenhoffer and Paul Tillich. On the other place Adolf Hitler. Do the achievements of these philosophers, writers, artists, physicists, mathematicians, film-makers, theologians and thinkers weigh more heavily towards the popular conception of “German-ness” than the achievements of an Austrian demagogue and failed water-colourist?

Watson is clear that the contribution of Germany – he refers to it as the Second Scientific Revolution and the Third European Renaissance – has been overshadowed by the horrors of the Nazi regime, and that the British remain stubbornly and pompously dismissive of German culture (he cites a German academic lamenting the lack of an English equivalent for the word Kultur and being rebuked by an Oxford academic that there was a perfectly good English word for one obsessed with the “high arts”: a prig). He is, however, shrewd enough to realise that the question won’t disappear under a flurry of facts and enthusiasms. Indeed, it is a question that vexes contemporary Germany. Was there a Sonderweg, a “special path” unique to Germany, as first advanced by the historian von Ranke in 1833, and did this special path lead inevitably to Auschwitz?

Watson ingeniously argues that the very predispositions that allowed for such an intense cultural flowering were identical with the preconditions for the rise of the fascists. He identifies features such as a disdain for the public sphere, the cultivation of Innerlichkeit, or “inwardness”, and a deep-rooted sense of intrinsic purpose: the personal Bildung, or self-realisation, transformed to national manifest destiny.

In the period that he calls “between doubt and Darwin”, different approaches to determining what humans were for were advanced by artists, scientists and philosophers, and the key theme was inwardness. Nazism was not inevitable, but it became more probable, yoked to factors such as Germany’s rapid and belated industrialisation.

It is a book where the gathering night brings the reader up sharply. As we move from the heady days of Weimar Classicism and Beethoven’s Ode To Joy there is a perceptible darkening. From Heine, insisting he was German first and Jewish second, to the rise of Bismarck (“the solution of the great problems of these days is not to be found in speeches and revolutions, but in blood and iron”: 1862) and his armourer, the “cannon king” Alfred Krupp, to the philistine posturing of Wilhelm II (who said Liebermann’s art was “poisoning the soul of the German nation”), the scene is gradually set. Watson brilliantly evokes the exodus of intellectuals – and not just in terms of the apocryphal American claim to the Soviets, “our German scientists were better than your German scientists”. Their influence was as great in Britain: think of the architectural guides by Nikolaus Pevsner, the Story Of Art by Ernst Gombrich, the liberal thinking of Karl Popper, the publishing magnate George Weidenfeld, or the Hungarian Germanophile Emeric Pressburger, who lauded the RAF in The Lion Has Wings.

About those who stayed behind, Watson is almost embarrassed. There is a fascinating section on Hans Baumann, who wrote Tomorrow Belongs To Me (originally a Catholic Youth Movement song) and over 150 songs lauding Hitler as the saviour of the nation, who became a children’s novelist after the war (Barnabas The Dancing Bear was one of his). But the career of Ernst Jünger is sketchy; and Hanns Johst, Hitler’s poet laureate, is mentioned only for Thomas Paine, his anti-Brecht drama of 1927. He died in 1978. Although IG Farben’s ambiguous war record – Zyklon B and aspirin – is mentioned, the book is silent on IBM’s equally tainted stance.

A book such as this will have to sacrifice some detail to the broad scope, and in general Watson’s choices are judicious and apt. In the post-war period he has an interesting line on Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology; but the brush strokes, in general, are more hasty. Part of this may be that the literature of Austria and Switzerland has been more interesting; boasting such figures as Thomas Bernhard, Gert Jonke, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Glavinic and Christian Kracht. Nor is there room for extensive discussion of the curious phenomenon of Östalgie – nostalgia for the old GDR.

Watson amply proves his case that German Kultur is both rich and deep, and the British stereotypes of Herr Flick do not do justice to this vein of intellectual history. He concludes with “35 Under-rated Germans”, a list I fear was demanded by the publishers, since the book must have at least 350 such case studies.

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This week’s review

The Future and Past of Literature

The wonderful Colin Heggie came up with this brilliant montage to illustrate this week’s review: a double header of Philip Roth’s Nemesis and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe. The divide between the tradition of literature and the possibility of literature has never seemed as clear to me. And I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition, and the manner in which so many of the emerging generation of Scottish writers seem to be intent on aping their elders rather than japing them. It’s as if they want some kind of ghastly literary dinner party, to be given the imprimatur of the established, rather than knocking them over. Perhaps – heresy, I know – we’ve actually had our time in the sun in Scotland, and are embarking onto a neo-Edwardian, post-Popean, new Caroline period of rather dull, imitative literature. Anyway, this week’s review…

“These two novels present a neat compare and contrast exercise on the state of contemporary fiction. Roth’s novel is his 29th, and he is the winner of the Gold Medal in Fiction. Yu’s novel is his first, and after a publishing some short stories he was chosen for the “5 Under 35” programme, where former winners of the National Book Award selected one young writer whose work impressed them (Yu was, incidentally, the choice of the under-rated Richard Powers). Both interrogate questions about manliness and failure, but while Roth’s novel manages to be both onerous and slight; Yu’s is both light and deep.


Nemesis is set in 1944, and introduces “Bucky” Cantor, a well-meaning physical education teacher in Newark, whose poor eyesight has disqualified him from participating in the war. As his class-mates battle Nazism, he is thrust into combat against a polio epidemic. Despite his initial sensible agnosticism about the causes of the disease, the meaningless suffering eventually leads him to see the world as one where “their merciful God will have blessed them… before He sticks His shiv in their back” and is a combination of “a sick f*** and an evil genius”. That he blames himself for having infected another part of the community and has been crippled by the disease himself makes his pseudo-theological pessimism no more convincing. Roth constantly nudges the reader with supposedly profound ironies: Bucky’s real name is Eugene, and his quest to help the children avoid being “Jewish weaklings and sissies” is overcast with the eugenic overtones of his given name. He escapes Newark to be with his fiancée at a camp called Indian Hills, where each dorm is named after an Indian tribe, each of which has been blighted by infection and genocide. None of this is made any more convincing by lacklustre prose. At times Roth is just careless – split infinitives, bald clichés – and at others, the combination of information dump and unwieldy sentences is the opposite of elegant; for example: “now even in an year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they’d been back in 1916, a paralytic disease which left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung – or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death – caused the parents in our neighbourhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings”. Roth may be a great writer, but this is hardly great writing.  

How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, on the other hand, buzzes with ideas, takes stylistic risks successfully, and is tightly focused on the emotional impact of the story. The protagonist, Charles Yu, is a time-machine repair man, in love with his onboard computer TAMMY and tormented by his father’s disappearance. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that at some point, Charles will see himself coming out of a time-machine and will shoot his future self in the stomach; but not before future Charles has given him a book entitled How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. A brief précis might well lead a reader to dismiss this as sophomoric post-modern antics. But the skill of this novel is twofold. On one hand, Yu has immense fun with his futuristic setting (“Do you want to know the first thing she (i.e. TAMMY) ever said to me? ENTER PASSWORD. Okay, yeah, that was the first thing”); on the other, he uses the literal convolutions of time, memory and imagination to make serious points about how we actually live. The time-machine may be a science fiction concept, but the desire to imagine better futures, the urge to revisit painful or blissful memories, and the desperation of clinging to a moment are all recognisable psychological realities. The “wisp of now” eludes us.  Although Yu has evidently read his literary theory (and there is a glorious set piece where his character reads, writes and edits the book from the future simultaneously which is as good an account of literary creation as I’ve read), this doesn’t hobble his emotional acuity. The novel is especially ingenious in using the language of grammar more than “techno-babble”. When the engines cannae take it any more, Yu is thrown into the subjunctive and meets The Woman My Mother Should Have Been. He learns why his father, having invented time travel, became stuck in the Past Tense. And by the end, he might have found a way to live, Unconditionally, in the future – something we all have to do anyway.


Roth’s hyperventilating novella is a melancholy encore, and made me want to read his early books. Yu’s enthralling debut makes me yearn for his next one.”

Next week: John Ajvide Lindqvist’s new horror novel. While I’m at it, where are the great contemporary horror novels from Scotland? Given that horror has a wonderful intersection with political anger – a spectre is haunting Europe and all that – why is it all tartan noir and no tartan ectoplasm?


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Sunday, No Sermon

Heriot’s slightly miraculous nature is confirmed by the most pleasant weekend I’ve had in a long while. We were woken by a fox in the back woods, making that awful teething baby sound; then by hedgehog, making that baby with croup sound. Still no sign of either the nasty thing in the woodshed that Sam saw when I was in Wigtown – and which, frankly, I think was brought on by a heady combination of codeine and white wine – nor the sound of “badgers shagging” – which, frankly, I think was brought on by the heady combination of codeine and white wine. The rough arc of the 48 hours after the alarum of nature roused up from our slumbers went: coffee with parents and Aged Grandparent; a bit of a mad dash around a supermarket; party at our friend Hannah’s (and, by chance, a meeting with Mark, through from Glasgow); a leisurely and moderately sober walk back from the bus to the cottage (where I was being an ass by turning off the torch and making badger shagging sounds until I stood in a load of horse gifts); sleep; breakfast; Church – with decent sermon about yet another bloody weird parable — Luke, the Widow and the Corrupt Judge: inexplicable in so many ways — wrote an article that would have been overdue tomorrow; a little light reading (Homa Katouzian’s The Persians, followed by Michael Moorcock’s Dottore Qui novel (sounds so much more avant-garde that way); a little light log chopping; cooking and firestarting. Most, however, of the day seemed to be spent watching birds at our bird feeder and then trying to figure out what the Blinking Moses they were using only a 1950s Observer Guide. I think we saw: blue tit, great tit, coal tit (this one is definite as one got into the porch and I rescued it, like a slightly speccy Francis of Assisi); nuthatch; wren; robin; chaffinch; female robin [this one was pretty confusing: I spent a long time being excited it might be something really rare]; hedge-sparrow and great spotted woodpecker. There was a thing that might be a twite as well, but that page has a black and white illustration so it’s a bit confusing. Reading the bird book made me quite annoyed that there are so many linguistically possible birds that don’t seem to have been created or evolved. I intend to keep a list of them and re-name any really dull birds. So far, I’m on the lookout for

  • a marsh puffin
  • a hedgepecker
  • a shrikeless lark
  • a sedge gannet and
  • a carrion tit

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Bad Words

The return from Wigtown, via the infinitely melancholy Lockerbie Station, was meandering and the office was waylaid by 20 sacks of unopened books. But I’m now back on the hillside, having woken at five thirty by the keening of a fox in the back garden.

This week’s reading has included Philip Roth’s Nemesis, Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, Peter Watson’s The German Genius, The Verso Book of Dissent, the first and last page of Susan Boyle’s The Person I Was Born To Be and a stack of graphic novels – Unwritten Volume II, which is quite the best thing I’ve read in ages, more of Brightest Day and the confusing and unsatisfactory Fall of the Hulks. We had the pleasure of a visit from Rob Shearman – I don’t know what I admire him for more, the fact he has a personal library of 17,000 volumes or the fact he wrote “Dalek”. (His book, Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical is a gem, by the way). I even, shock horror, managed to write an article – the first non-reviewing finger to keyboard since we arrived in Heriot.

Me vs Shearman in a Bibliophagophilous Face-Off

I’ve also taken up my new hobby of chopping logs. There is a very strangely lovely satisfaction to be had from the arc of an axe and its sheering into wood.

But, to the point, bad words. Some people are being very bad with words at the moment. I don’t mean wandering apostrophes or split infinitives: some people are making words to the exact opposite of their normal function. I’ve been collecting examples and slowly stewing in anger at the political backdrop to it. For example – “citizen journalist”. Anyone in the UK that calls themselves a citizen journalist is frankly a moron. They’re not a citizen – we are all, unfortunately, subjects of the crown. And they’re not a journalist: they don’t fact check, research, quantify or qualify. They just pass on something they’ve heard. The proper term is not “citizen journalist” but “craven tatler”. Another one is the much vaunted Big Society (like the Big Read or the Big Coffee Morning, that matey adjective is infuriating). Under the Big Society, I’m volunteering as a brain surgeon – might take a few false starts, but my heart’s in the right place, even if your corpus callosum won’t be by the end of it. Big Society is fork-tongue for Small State. And the State isn’t the monolithic, 1984-style entity – the Big Society will still monitor, survey and infringe liberties with gleeful abandon. It’s the State as education, health, child benefit, road maintenance, rubbish collection, social care, playground attendants and all the rest. One final gripe – reality television. Like lush desert, dry ocean, flat mountain, dark light. If, as Confucius said, the first business of the wise ruler is the regulation of names, The X Factor would be renamed The Schadenfreude Show.


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One Million Seconds in Wigtown, Part 2

There’s a patina of mist over the town this morning, and it’s no overstatement to say Wigtown’s looking idyllic. Yesterday I chaired John Lanchester, whose book Whoops! is by far the best account of the credit crunch. At points, the absurdity of it all is giddying (especially the so-called 25 Sigma event: an event so unlikely that were the entire history of the Universe run one billion times it should only occur once – and yet they were happening daily). Lanchester also gave me my Fact of the Festival, namely, that Ayn Rand liked Charlie’s Angels (“It’s the only romantic television show today. It’s not realistic. It’s not about the gutter, it’s not about the half-wit retarded children and all the other kind of shows today. It’s about three attractive girls doing impossible things, and because they’re impossible that’s what makes them interesting.”)

The immensely sane Ayn Rand

Best of all, the entire event was sponsored by the Baillie Gifford Investment Trust. No irony there.

I also chaired two historical events – Tim Clarkson on the Brythonic peoples of south Scotland and then David S Ross on Sir George Mackenzie (“Bluidy Mackenzie” may be Scotland’s first novelist, although not its first good novelist).  This weekend we have Candia McWilliam, John Byrne, Iain M Banks, Kei Miller and Sally Magnusson as well as more 15 minute Inspirations. This week’s review was of a new biography of William McGonagall, which spun out into a news story as well…


Norman Watson

Birlinn, £20

IT SEEMS remarkable that this is the first proper biography of the national treasure – or national embarrassment – that is William McGonagall. Norman Watson’s thoroughly researched and pacily written study of the “Bard of the silv’ry Tay” certainly sheds new light on aspects of McGonagall’s career. But it fails to answer the central question: did McGonagall take himself seriously or was he a carefully constructed persona, a leg-pulling masquerade?

Watson puts McGonagall back into the context of 19th century Dundee, and this is revealing. His conversion to the Muse in 1877 came after his participation in Dundee’s thriving amateur dramatic scene, and came at the time of severe recession within the linen-weaving trade. McGonagall diversified: where others sank into quiet desperation and alcoholism, he sank into flamboyance and teetotalism. He was evidently no fool – along with his own poems, he performed scenes from Shakespeare, and work by the then-popular Mrs Hemans and Thomas Campbell (but not, oddly, either Burns or Scott).

Watson seems uncertain of how to evaluate McGonagall’s idiosyncratic verse. He predictably calls it “inept”, “mutilated” and “mawkish”, but tries to rehabilitate him as a “performance poet”. This seems to me to be an anachronistic sleight-of-hand – he is not a precursor to John Cooper Clarke and Marshall Mathers. But it is important to realise that poetic recitation was a very different phenomenon 100 years ago. Recordings of Tennyson and even T S Eliot show a far more histrionic and over-the-top style than the soulful mumblings on Poetry Please.

My overwhelming reaction to McGonagall’s life, however, was one of terrible sadness. The physical, verbal and mental abuse that was poured on him makes the grooming and crushing of dreams on The X Factor seem positively tame; the baiting of SuBo is joshing in comparison. His own “noises in the head” and his equally pitiable penury and optimism make uncomfortable reading. An unspoken undercurrent in Watson’s book is the importance of class. McGonagall was a man adrift: his autodidact learning raised him out of one class and prevented his entry into another. Only a slightly different set of circumstances would have made McGonagall an eccentric dominie, not the whipping-boy for Scotland’s self-harming combination of cultural cringe and “wha’s like us?”

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One Million Seconds in Wigtown, Part 1


Wigtown Book Festival is up and running – hence my usual mea culpa over silence – and I’m spending eleven days here, which works out neatly at nearly one million seconds. It’s one of the best book festivals, with a mixture of the popular and the literary, the weel-kent and the utterly bizarre (ah, the “Wigtown’s Got Talent” night! What can I say? I have never seen anything like it).

Here’s a selection of things I’ve learned over the million seconds thus far:

According to Andrew Greig, Norman McCaig could be beastly about Edwin Morgan – “Edwin Morgan, poet or ventriloquist? Discuss”, he would drawl.

Allan Massie, were he not a novelist and man of letters, would be an actor.

Janice Galloway has nearly finished her second volume of memoirs – or so she assured her publicist.

Sara Wheeler broke off from her interesting talk on the Arctic to comment on how weird Ed Milliband looks. The audience agreed.

Jim Crace, despite being the sharpest-tongued literary satirist alive, is charm personified. He nearly made the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins dissolve on stage, mostly by quoting John Buchan on “dagoes” a lot.

Robert Twigger has mental powers. The ambiguity is intentional.

Shaun Bythell of the Wigtown Book Shop is like a drug dealer to me. Having supplied me with a complete Stevenson, he shamelessly brought out a complete Galt. I may well be bankrupt by the end of the million seconds. Henceforth, he should be called Shaun “The Man” Bythell.

Ian Rankin doesn’t like serial killers. To be fair, not many people are all that keen on them. He met the Pope and told me about the photograph which is at the end of this post, after this week’s review, which coincidentally also mentions the Pope.

THERE can’t be many points of agreement between Pope Benedict XVI and Robert Kilroy-Silk, but both have subscribed to the view that the European Renaissance was a rediscovery of “our” classical past, and that Islam played a very minor role in that: a t best it is seen as a kind of theological aspic that preserved Aristotle and Euclid during the Dark Ages.

Jim Al-Khalili’s spry, informative and timely study should do much to redress that misconception. As he shows, the scientific revolution of the 14th century onwards had its roots in Baghdad and Cordoba. It was not “Graeco-Roman” but “Graeco-Roman-Arabic”.

Al-Khalili takes the reader through a brisk survey of the highlights of the period, especially the scholars associated with the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun’s “House of Wisdom”. In rapid succession we meet the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, the philosopher al-Kindi, the polymath al-Biruni, the physicist Ibn al-Haytham (who feigned madness to get peace and quiet to write) and figures better known by their Latinised names; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The list of their achievements ought to be general knowledge, and often overturns a “Eurocentric” notion of who discovered what and when. So Ibn al-Haytham was calculating the refraction of light 600 years before Newton; from al-Khwarizmi’s book al-Jebr (or The Compendium On Calculation By Restoration And Balancing) we get algebra; and from the medical writer al-Razi we get the first accounts of clinical trials.

Al-Khalili is careful to the point of pedantry not to make grandiose claims. As a scientist (and secular Iraqi) he is well aware that discoveries are, in the words of Newton, pygmies on the shoulders of giants. He does, however, make a very acute case for the idea that the scientific advances attributed to these figures is less important that the scientific method they adopted. They relied on observation and experimentation and, when their results differed from what they read in Aristotle or Ptolemy or Galen, they went with the results not the doctrine. There was a spirit of open-mindedness and rationalism, called Mu’tazilism, which predated the Enlightenment by a millennium.

Why did the Arabic scientific revolution falter? Al-Khalili claims that suspicion of printing impeded progress (the printed Korans sent by the Venetians to the Ottomans were so full of errors that they seemed almost blasphemous). That the Golden Age waned is no reason to discount the achievements of these scholars. Indeed, another book on the humanities rather than the sciences would be most welcome.


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This week’s reviews…

Just when things seemed to be getting quieter, they got a lot louder again. I’m frantically trying to do a hundred and one things in advance of going down to Wigtown for their Book Festival – as “media partner”, I’m committed to spending ten days in the Hay of Galloway. That, and writing a speech for the prizegiving at my old school, which is prompting unwanted memoirs of Gussie Fink-Nottle.

I’m gradually assembling the Lexicon Heriotiana – we’ve just learned about “Marriage Monday”, which doesn’t involve local landowners wearing antlers on their heads or anything like that. Because of being so close to Edinburgh, it sometimes happens that it’s an Edinburgh holiday while still being a normal working day in the Borders. So the children have to go to school while the parents get a day off.

The reviews: Will Self is a genius. Here’s some thoughts…

THERE is no doubt that Will Self is an exceptionally talented writer – his pyrotechnic vocabulary, his giddying imagination and sardonic, clear-eyed tone have always been evident on every page. There remains a suspicion, however, that he didn’t quite have a form in which to contain these copious gifts. Walking To Hollywood strikes me as the most successful book he has written, and it establishes, perhaps, what kind of writer Self actually is: a modern-day Jonathan Swift. He has the satirist’s interest in exaggeration, distortion, snarling anger and linguistic verve, but more seriously, he is serious. There is a deeply moral core to Walking To Hollywood, and a raw emotional quality his previous fictions may have repressed or sublimated.

Ostensibly, this is a memoir of three walks: a Canadian book tour and associated jaunts with a conceptual artist, “Sherman Oaks”; an account of Self’s walk from his London home, via Pinewood Studios and a transatlantic flight, to Hollywood (where Self attempts to determine who murdered the cinema as an art form); and a final walk along the crumbling Bridlington coastline, a place so gnawed by erosion that the journey would be “impossible for anyone ever to make again. By the time another year had passed the solid ground that had risen up to meet my feet would have disappeared forever”.

But it’s a memoir that Self manipulates and slaps around as if the genre were made from the same pliable material as Daffy Duck’s features. So, in Hollywood, Self discovers he has superpowers, transforms into the Hulk, grows Laura Harring’s breasts and is hunted down by Scientologists; on the Yorkshire coast he meets one of Swift’s pitiably immortal Struldbruggs and somebody does something unspeakable with Margaret Atwood’s patented LongPen in Toronto.

Each section also has a totemic mental illness – obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoid psychosis and amnesia – which is translated stylistically as repetitions, as mnemonic games, and as the hilarious but horrifying conviction that “Self” is played by Pete Postlethwaite or David Thewliss, and everyone he meets is also an actor (so Bret Easton Ellis is actually a young Orson Welles, and a tramp is Salman Rushdie). The fantastic elements are, curiously, the realistic depiction of mental illness.

Mortality hangs heavily over Walking To Hollywood, and Self is unflinching in the face of it. An epiphany at Spurn Head is not that he wants a longer life, but that he wants to live forever. He even includes a photograph of his naked body, and no reviewer could be as lacerating on Self as he is on himself: “Sherman” lashes his “micro-satires, dirty doodlings in the margins of history”. The walks almost seem like a frantic form of impetus: part fleeing Cain, part wandering Jew condemned to pace the earth till Doomsday.

That is not to say that it is either a morbid or a depressing read: quite the contrary. There is an awful glee, which reminded me of Nietzsche’s aphorism that the thought of suicide has kept many a man alive through the night.

Almost every page has a description or a turn of phrase so memorable and arresting that, as Self powers across the blistered landscapes of post-industrial ruin, the reader lingers. He can conjure phrases like “a Zoloft of interiors”, pharmaceutical products are named after “the bastard offspring of a Turkish fisherman and a planet-eating robot”, Self’s “smouldering feet are stubbed out”, and there are “incisors the size of dentists”. His ability to say and having something profound to say have finally aligned.

And here’s an oldie on one of Self’s prior works…
IN HIS Being And Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre tried to explain his philosophy by an example: “It is in fact appropriate to note first that an act is in principle intentional. The clumsy smoker who, by inadvertence, exploded a powder dump has not acted.” It’s a fair bet that Tom Brodzinski, the hapless hero of Will Self’s new novel, has not read his Sartre – just as it’s odds-on that Self himself has, as the whole thing begins with a flicked cigarette butt.

Tom, on holiday in an exotic (and wholly imaginary) country decides to give up smoking – particularly since the ludicrous smoking bans are making the habit less convenient. He smokes his last cigarette luxuriously, and flicks the dog-end off the balcony. Unfortunately, it lands on the bald pate of his downstairs neighbour, resulting in a nasty, septic blister. To make matters worse, the old man is technically a member of the Tayswengo tribe, who don’t believe in accidents, and don’t believe intentions matter in the slightest. Soon, Tom is contending with a boozy honorary consul, a sharp local lawyer and various witch-doctors. He is charged with injuring by “a projectile weapon with a toxic payload”, and under tribal law and custom, has to travel to the Tayswengo homeland to make reparation.

So begins a picaresque road-trip, a kind of livid and grotesque Pilgrim’s Progress through insurgent-controlled badlands, out-of-season tourist traps and native sanctuaries. The American Tom is accompanied by a caricature Englishman, Prentice, on a similar quest. Tom strongly suspects he is a convicted paedophile.

There is ample room on the journey for Self’s distinctive and dyspeptic brand of satire, from romper-suit wearing hunters who service the pet food market to a vision of hell in a bauxite mine. Tom reads up on the Tayswengo, and the sinister anthropologist Von Sasser, who studies, and maybe rules, them. There is an especially grotesque sequence concerning the Townships, a lawless enclave run by the rules of the tontine (an agreement where the last surviving member of any group inherits everything, leading to a state of perpetual vendetta). In Self’s hands, it becomes a monstrous vision of the stock market run riot.

Stylistically, we’re in Self territory from the outset. Self does the sesquipedalian (in the first chapter there is the “orchidaceous perfection of her breasts”, and you can expect “mephitic”, “gibbous”, “lenticular” and “cicratization” as well). Then there’s copious slang, and variations of spoken English, from Tom’s “ferchrissakes” to Prentice’s “bally stressed”. And then there’s all the invented language – natives are called “bing-bongs” by racists, and there are numerous ambiguous local words for flora, fauna and folk: binturangs, makkatas and engwegge. The linguistic exuberance might not be as firmly tethered to the plot as in Self’s previous novel, the wonderful The Book Of Dave, but it’s enjoyable and teasing in its own way.

Plot-wise, the novel occasionally feels more riff than tune, with Self going on a frolic of his own, scatter-gunning his targets as they come to him. There are hints of a comic Heart Of Darkness; but the more obvious parallels are novels like Graham Greene’s The Comedians or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold, with an innocent – or not so innocent – stranded abroad. The jacket-flap bills the novel as an allegory. If so, it’s a particularly opaque variety. A writer as smart and savvy as Self won’t be content with simply disguising and lampooning obvious types. There is a clear strand about an Anglo-American alliance coming to grief because of their crassness in dealing with foreign societies: equally, there’s a caustic undercutting of “noble savages” and the liberal disinclination to say that anything “culturally different” might actually just be plain wrong. In The Butt, there’s a but for everything.

But at its core, Self’s moral compass is clear. Tom, who “was only doing what he had always done: passively conforming to an invented belief system”, is culpable because he is unthinking. Other characters are equally guilty of thinking too much. Intellectual idealists get as short shrift from Self as apathetic blobs. If The Butt doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Book Of Dave or How The Dead Live, it’s still a far more inquisitive and stylish novel than the soap-operas rendered in prose that pass for novels usually could ever hope to be

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Squire McShandy

I had intended my Return Blog to be mostly about this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival – which now seems a hazy memory compared to the joys of living in the countryside. Suffice to say I think any initial scepticism about Nick Barley’s directorship has been laid to rest. Among the highlights were the transhumanism debate (Iain M Banks declared that, whilst there was much to say in favour of age-enhancing technologies, at least at the moment Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher were going to die); the Story Machines day and the McSweeney’s event, where Eli Horowitz has all his hair shaved off while discussing the American avant-garde. I particularly enjoyed chairing Lydia Davis and Tom McCarthy; and David Mitchell was charm itself. Ticket sales being down 2% hardly seems a crisis: once one has factored in that the Unbound events were unticketed and the book sector as a whole shrank by 13% last year in Scotland, the Festival still seems in a strong position.

Anyway: the countryside. It’s astonishing. Among my observations are that pigeons are not in fact all gammy-legged, vomitophagous mutants, but rather beautiful.

a real pigeon

a city pigeon

 We’ve had bats, frogs, spiders (that sounds a little Macbeth), sheep, horses, dogs, robins, pine-martens, squirrels and plenty other Red In Tooth And Claw dropping by. Mrs McShandy, hitherto petrified of spiders, has learned she finds the ones in the countryside “cute” and is cataloguing the myriad variants of arachnid. Village life is fundamentally different from the city; even from parts of the city which retain a vestigial memory of having been a village. Neighbours are actually neighbourly – we got a lift along the road from the Heriot Car Boot Sale on the back of a truck, since we were carrying four oak chairs which we got for a tenner. The church – don’t worry, I’m not singing hosannas yet – is integral in a proper community way (and the sermon was actually very fine indeed: my atrophied ecclesiastic nerves sparked in a worrying fashion). The cottage is nearly finished – curtains still to be taken up, but the Library is built (and indeed, I am now sitting in it, surrounded by 4000 books).

Work beckons: I’ve got to read a book on Arabic science, write a piece about Alexander Dumas, do a radio interview today about book burning and, time permitting, read more of The Unwritten.

But a quick post scriptum. Mrs McS and I have heard a strange snuffling noise outside the cottage at night. So far, the shortlist of suspects is:

  • Hedgehog
  • Badger
  • Fox
  • Mole
  • Child of brother and sister that live far up the valley and which has escaped its woodshed


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