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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The Silence of McShandy

Book Festival, house move, covering for a colleague, my own book, my own writing – the reasons for the Silence are endless. But it will be broken tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

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Sunday Sermon

Re-reading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder on the train to Glasgow – a journey I’ve forgotten how often I’ve taken – I had the kind of epiphany that might be described as climacteric. The train slowed, just between Falkirk and Croy, and I looked at a tree in the middle of a field. The thought struck me, un-forewarned, that I will in all likelihood never touch the bark on the trunk of that tree. I will never walk down the road I could see in the distance, or know the names of the people who live in the farmhouse. Indeed, I may never even alight at Croy. It wasn’t weltschmertz but something for which we or I have no word: pre-emptive nostalgia? The déjà vu of anagami? The optative pluperfect?

Hugh Everett’s many worlds theory, in which the garden of forking paths is real but we only ever know the fork we took, has always seemed attractive to me. Quantum theory might allow for all the universes to be real and discrete, and therefore elsewhere I have touched the bark of that tree, or am touching the bark of that tree, or will touch the bark of that tree, or have never existed, or am sitting opposite my twin. There is a kind of consolation in all these shimmering shadows and a kind of sublime terror: if all is possible then there is the universe where I am murdered, the universe where I am a murderer. There is a kind of thankfulness in the mundanity of just being in the universe which has an untouched tree glimpsed from a window, rather than the infinite universes with no tree, no train, no I, no theory of many worlds.  

But the field of possibilities is narrowing. There is neither time enough nor sufficient reason to dally on ifs and maybes and perhaps. I suppose that making the decision to move to our new cottage throws into sharp relief all the decisions I haven’t made or didn’t take; I suppose that I’m now at the point where there will be more of my past than my future. (I am reminded of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and the narrator’s awareness that life would make sense if only we knew when it would end).   

I would like to keep a splinter of that “I will never” in me, like the shard of glass in Kay’s eye in The Snow Queen. In “I will never” is all ethics and all metaphysics.

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Media Overload

Well, I’ve been out and about doing media promotions: on Newsnight Scotland, and podcasting for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, (twice). It’s weirdly tiring. But do check out Derek’s film on the Newsnight clip, if only for the Worst Ever Statue Of Sir Walter Scott.

Thinking in the taxi on the way home, it struck me that part of the problem with having a coherent strategy for literary tourism is the sheer number of bodies with a vested interest. Off the top of my head, you’d have to include Creative Scotland, Visit Scotland, Festivals Edinburgh, Unesco City of Literature, The National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the new Book Nation (an umbrella organistion for the non-Edinburgh book festivals) – and then there’s the Book Trust, Storytelling Centre, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, National Library, Museums and Galleries Council, the Scots Language Centre, the Scottish Poetry Library, The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland, The Gaelic Books Council… and then all the individual trusts, such as Abbotsford or Little Sparta… then the council-managed properties, like the Grassic Gibbon Centre, or the Buchan Museum, or the Souter House… hopefully when we get the Ministerial Statement on the Literature Working Group (due September, I hear) there might be some light on how we’ll be progressing. That, or some fudge: it is Scotland after all, and confectionary has a central role in most decisions. 

Meanwhile, the house is gradually packing itself up. The festival is descending. The next books are clamouring at the back of my brain. Och well, onwards.

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Friday Roundup

Back to Abbotsford this week, to film a segment for Newsnight Scotland on literary tourism. I was delighted to hear that visitor numbers are up 25% on last year – a rise I would think that has more to do with “staycations” than the publication of any Scott-related books in recent months. Anyway, it’s an opportunity for me to share the photograph the great Phil Wilkinson took of me the last time I was at Abbotsford. With any luck, next time I’m there I’ll be able to find the spare keys and move in.


It’s the calm before the storm of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but that doesn’t mean there’s a large number of toothsome literary factoids for you.

Firstly, a very ironic pair of stories cropped up on The Bookseller. John Blake, of John Blake Publishing, has a blog with the heading “No-one Likes Us”, going on to say “taking a populist approach to publishing does not necessarily make you particularly popular” – Blake, for those who don’t know, publishes celebrity memoirs and their darker ilk. Next to said story, as if to prove the point, was the news item “Blake to publish book on Moat killings”. A cut-and-paste job on the Cumbrian spree killings is also in the pipeline, a propos of which Blake said “We feel it’s a very raw subject so we don’t want to seem like we’re exploiting the dreadful murders.” Is that a weeping crocodile I see?

As if news for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown couldn’t get any worse, Private Eye reports that The Change We Chose: Speeches 2007-2009, published by Mainstream Books, has sold a derisory 32 copies. If it were a work of avant-garde poetics that might almost be respectable.

I finished reading The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning, a concise but deep look at the entire spectrum of arts and their relationship to that nebulous concept, “Romanticism”. I learned a great fact: Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Man And Woman Contemplating The Moon was, according to Samuel Beckett, the “source” for Waiting for Godot. This week’s review is The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis, and I’d encourage you all to buy a copy. Just read the new Iain M Banks – Surface Detail – which is out in October and is the best Culture novel since Excession – if you want any more whetting, how about the Culture versus Hell?

So whatever happened to the woman?

Ad your heartwarming story for the day: Superman really does help people in need.

I should add a few words about the Booker longlist, but I nearly fell asleep reading the list, let alone the books. Personally, I’d be delighted if it went to either Tom McCarthy or David Mitchell – although Mitchell has sold most copies of anyone on the longlist, and the Booker has never gone to the best-selling book. Thrawn or independent-minded? Disappointments: no James Robertson or Andrew O’Hagan, no Nicola Barker or Jonathan Coe, no China Mieville (always a long shot, but one can dream). There are no debut novels this year either, which might make the Costa a more interesting field come January.  

The rest of this week’s reading included the Essential David Shrigley, a new book on the History of Reading and Geoff Nicholson on walking. The History of Reading has my favourite ever Amazon review – an over-enthusiastic fan of the Christian apocalypse-porn Left Behind series claimed he/she “literally inhaled this book”. Ouch.

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