Another loopily busy week, shuttling between different events across the country, at least has the consolation of a lot of reading time. On Tuesday night we swung down to Galashiels to see my sister-in-law’s degree show at Heriot Watt (and have a gloomy supper in Asda since everywhere else seemed to be closed).
Then on Thursday I was off to Glasgow to chair the Gliterary Lunch. Being the only man in the room, with 178 women, is a disconcerting experience; even more so when one of the authors was the actress and comedian Elaine C Smith. It fell on my unworthy shoulders, as the sole representative of the “macho, football crazy male gender” to concur with Ms Smith on any chromosomal connection to understanding the offside rule. In her memoir she takes a rather nippy swipe at critics, with which, unsurprisingly, I disagree. Admittedly there is a lot of snobbery around certain genres, but most critics I know genuinely want to be inspired, and if we’re not we write more in sorrow than in anger. The other guest was Sarah Hall, whose How To Paint A Dead Man is unashamedly serious, literary and poetic: hats off to anyone who can stand in front of an audience, two glasses of champagne down, and extol the virtues of existentialism. I’m particularly taken with Hall’s appropriation of the Cumbrian landscape and language: over the past few years there’s been a number of English novelists – Ross Raisin, Nicola Monaghan, Ray Robinson, Nicola Barker – even Pauline McLynn’s superior mid-list novel, Missing You Already – who are alert to regional voices in English. Perhaps Scotland has taught something to England. Then on Friday I was filming for the BBC – a documentary about Scotland and tourism – which took three hours for perhaps six minutes of footage. It seemed as if every scaffold-builder, bin lorry, package tour, Brake Brothers articulated lorry and ambulance was determined to get into the shot. Still, we came across a very weird shop on Johnstone Terrace selling “Teddies for Tragedies”: basically, knit your own teddy and sell it for a charity of your choice. But the phrase “Teddies for Tragedies” has stuck in my head since.
After that I was at Edinburgh Napier’s Merchiston Campus to chair an event for my friend Anne Schwan’s conference on Reading and Writing in Prison. The panel featured Derek McGill, the governor of HM YOI Polmont; Sophie Moxon and Katharine Brash from the Prisons Readers and Writers Network Scotland (which has the unenviable acronym PRAWNS) and Caspar Walsh, the Guardian columnist. His memoir, Criminal, is an articulate and clear-eyed book. Basically, his father was a not-small-time crook who inducted Caspar into the underworld – he reckons they spent £60,000 on heroin over a single Christmas. Walsh managed to turn his life around: his father didn’t, and the account of his suicide is gut-kickingly moving. Caspar spoke exceptionally eloquently about the tug he still feels towards crime and towards breaking boundaries, which led to an interesting discussion on the lack of male rites of passage. It formed a curious bookend to Elaine C Smith’s event: how can one be manly in today’s society? (Incidentally, my friend Todd McEwen has the earliest cited OED reference for manly used as an adverb). On manliness in general, I find to my shame I’ve downloaded Poker Face, but chose the version by the cast of Glee not Lady Gaga.
Anyway, what you’re really wondering is “What has McShandy been reading?” and the answer is less than he hoped. Stacked up at the moment are Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Bret Easton Ellis’s and a book on insomnia. I was a little staggered that both Caspar and Elaine Smith expressed outright surprise that I would have read their books before chairing them: unfortunately not all my fellow scribblers are as assiduous and conscientious when it comes to such matters. This week’s review is up at Scotland on Sunday: Jackie Kay’s lovely memoir. And she’s interviewed by my colleague David Robinson in today’s Scotsman.
I’ve devoured a brilliant volume called Restless Cities, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart and published by Verso, which has reignited all my passion for psychogeography. Beaumont’s essay on convalescing is particularly nimble and agile in its use of sources. It’s paralleled by a typically daring piece by Iain Sinclair on sickening and the city. But the question keeps on coming back: why has Scotland failed to develop a psychogeographical self-awareness? Are Edinburgh and Glasgow too overtly planned to allow for the chaotic free-association Sinclair finds in London and Aragon found in Paris?
I intend to spend the weekend planning an Edinburgh Psychogeography Book. Here’s a few of the mental notes I’ve been keeping on how the project might develop.
Filming with the BBC, I pointed out the glowing toe of David Hume – students and convicts touch Sandy Stoddart’s statue’s hallux for luck, a superstition the great Hume must be not chuckling at in the non-existent afterlife. Hume’s statue is outside; Knox is inside, across the road, in St Giles. I once went to Midnight Service there, and was slightly shocked that they had a swirl of purple tinsel around his neck.Is Edinburgh actually channelling other cities? It tries to be Athens (on Calton Hill); London (in the Tollcross redevelopment, mingling lap dancing clubs and bank buildings with names like Uberior House); Amsterdam (in Leith); Paris (in the New Town but also in the banlieues of Stenhouse, Pilton, The Inch).
The legacy of Patrick Geddes: the organic city versus the “machine for living in”. The Camera Obscura as the real Castle, the hidden Panopticon. The city of many bridges and few rivers. The opposite of Edinburgh: is it Glasgow or Little Sparta? And if Little Sparta creates a disruptive ley-line linking Edinburgh, Rosslyn and itself, why does it extend into Samye Ling and even into the Concrete Menagerie at Flodden? Edinburgh, Edenborough, Endberg.
I wrote a piece a long time ago when aforementioned Todd McEwen gave me a book called Edinburgh Revisited by James Bone from 1913, which was published in Richard Price’s excellent magazine, Painted, Spoken. It’s not a poem; but a critical reading I now think: I took the book and took one phrase at random from each page, to find the ulterior meaning of the book. I’m always loath to revisit my “poetic” past, but here it is, for posterity:
1 The incidents which I will now relate are offered as a footnote:
Somehow I found myself in the middle of a labyrinth of lanes,
disappearing into entrances of impenetrable darkness,
long passages leading to inner and still darker stairs,
this, and many another wild passage.
After their endless stairs,
enter these impressive doors and you are immediately in the attic.
A number of black wooden boxes can set some mechanism in motion;
A stone dado-rail and a mahogany balustrade
lie about in indescribable confusion:
a sort of a parallel to this is
the persistence of the bartizan-like stair,
the sharply diminishing perspective of
‘droven’, ‘stogen’ and ‘scabbled’ work, ailing chimneys,
and – yes! – Ionic columns a quarter engaged,
said to make the observers giddy.
A house is only a cave for the night,
designed for the discomfiture of pigmy man.
Picturesque things are meaningless.
Photography has confirmed the story of old travellers:
A jetsam of grey monuments, so detached and alien
it is difficult to bring these facts in line with one’s grasp of reality.
The author, in the mask of a Londoner,
in the graveyard reserved for himself,
sniffs disdain and sneers reputations away. Be that as it may,
a good deal has gone, and the lovers,
blae as a dead-man’s eye,
held fêtes champêtres under Chinese lanterns,
dancing shadows among the coloured meats.
Brave Dr Cameron, with blood in his hair,
the first living authority on the Great Roc’s eggs,
standing by with watchful curiosity,
has been broken and atrociously repaired.
Two strangers, pausing to admire
the unending flow of humanity flowing swiftly past the unchangeable rock,
were able to summon
the unhuman phantasmagoria.
The incorrigible ghosts at the game of peever
drawing cabbalistic chalk marks on the pavement flags
somehow fell out and fought together.
They liked the taste of actuality.
According to the urbane Captain Topham
suicides are supposed to be deterred by
red-herrings and pianofortes.
When they die, they are changed into seagulls.
Their bright troubadour costumes were faded.
Italian gallants, lacking opportunity to identify their pleasures,
horribly excited, yelp in sympathy
enthusiastically, even comically.
In front of fictitious portraits of fictitious kings
Mr So-and-So the Artist
signed with blood instead of ink.
Like a man made o’ haar, developed, as it were, in this dark room.
Desiring an impressive ruin (it would seem) they did not wait for Time.
My people were torn to pieces.
To the Superfluous Library!
A diverting piece of Piranesian rhetoric in stone
(they say it was a library)
(a well-kept, old-fashioned, half-deserted library) –
in coldly elegant pentagons
symbols have changed.
A book was borne as part of the ritual.
Each Sphinx, from its eyrie,
Made their own fancies about it.
(the hum of a necromantic wheel)
(which, alas, I cannot imitate)
I felt like Zoibedé in the Petrified City.
Something surely would have happened.
But all have gone now.
It is not that the night confuses.
The lights disappeared from the windows,
the re-arrangement of Nature
plays a queer effect in the interior of the rooms.
If all reports were true,
the original building, disappearing piece by piece
with ‘eldritch screech and hollo’
cracked the massive tombs in the wildest ways,
the pallid light, now cold and rifled and degraded
in an old cracked rose-bowl,
lying in an ash-heap