“The Glasgow accent was so strong you could have built a bridge with it and known it would outlast the civilization that spawned it.” (Val McDermid)

Continuing my jaunt around our fair isle, last week I was in Glasgow. If you’ve not been, go immediately. Edinburgh gets all the good reviews as the Athens of the North (& it is a great city – how many high streets can you stand on with a view of a castle and a dormant volcano?) but it does steal Glasgow’s thunder a bit. Glasgow is absolutely gorgeous and contrary to popular myth, the people are really friendly. I had a lovely time, and if Scotland manages to negotiate to stay in the EU I’ve a pretty good idea where I’ll be moving to.

Artist David Shrigley engages with Glasgow’s famous Armadillo building

To summarise in a way that helps no-one: because Edinburgh is Alec Baldwin, everyone thinks Glasgow is Stephen Baldwin, but it’s not, it’s William Baldwin. Glad I’ve been able to clear that up 😉 I’m now on a one-woman mission to persuade everyone of Glasgow’s greatness, starting here by looking at two novels by Glaswegian writers.

Firstly, Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi (1954),  which tells the story of Joe, a young drifter working on the canals near Glasgow, who finds the dead body of a young woman floating in the water.

“She was like some beautiful white water-fungus, a strange shining thing come up from the depths, and her limbs and her flesh had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom. But it was the hair more than anything; it stranded away from the head like long grasses. Only it was alive, and because the body was slow, heavy, torpid, it had become a forest of antennae, caressing, feeding on the water, intricately.”

This odd, detached tone gives an excellent introduction to Joe. He is an outsider and views people with no affection. He manipulates to his own ends and does not care who he hurts.

“I derived a powerful sense, a vindication of my own existence. To exercise power without exerting it, to be detached and powerful, to be there, silent and indestructible as gods, that is to be a god and why there are gods.”

What saves Joe from being wholly despicable to me, is that he doesn’t deliberately set out to hurt people. He isn’t vindictive or malicious, he just has a total disregard for other’s feelings. He also has a desire for something more from life, but has no idea what it is, and so there is a desperate quality to him, even as it emerges that he may know more about the dead woman than he’s letting on.

“These men, whoever they were, would sleep with their wives, take their children for a picnic on Sundays […] there was something nightmarish about it- my nightmare, for the machine might include me in its intricate pattern-making at any moment.”

Young Adam has been compared to L’Etranger, and while it is not quite to the heights of Camus’ masterpiece, it has at its centre a man in existential crisis, and a narrative broadened out by philosophical considerations:

“There is no contradiction in things, only in the words we invent to refer to things. It is the word ‘I’ which is arbitrary and contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction.”

Young Adam was made into a film in 2003, with a stunning cast – Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer:

Secondly The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman (1984), which much to my surprise I found warmly affectionate and a good balance after the bleakness of Young Adam. I’d read & enjoyed the Booker prizewinning How Late It Was, How Late many years ago and for some reason hadn’t picked up Kelman since. The Busconductor Hines was Kelman’s first published novel and features his brilliant ear for Glaswegian dialect and conversational rhythms that he would go on to develop more fully.

Kelman is a controversial figure, because his vision is uncompromising. He is interested in capturing authentic working-class Glaswegian lives (which involves much swearing), and he does not make allowances for the reader: you have to meet him on his own terms.  For me, a born-and-bred Southerner, I find this invigorating rather than alienating. The Busconductor Hines follows the titular character through his daily life, capturing the extraordinary amongst the ordinary.

“He was standing at the sink, whistling quietly, gazing through the slats in the blind; in the backcourt opposite the rear of the tenement building which was not yet demolished, the sky with that reddish glow, light reflecting on the ripples of the enormous puddle that stretched from the middens to the mouth of the back close; a smell of smouldering rubbish from somewhere, but vague.”

Hines is frustrated, always on the verge of being fired. This is very funny, but also enables Kelman to make some pointed comments about the wielding of power and authority. Like Joe in Young Adam Hines wants more, but unlike Joe he recognises his common humanity, even in the frustration of having to deal with the bus travellers of Glasgow.

“Hines can marvel. He can look at faces and not look at faces….They are hypocrites. The men and the women, the children. It is not that he knows this in particular but that everyone knows this and is also known to know it, by everyone else. Such a thing cannot be concealed. …In the windows he could see their reflections, the strange frowns every now and again. That concentration.”

In some ways nothing happens, but everything happens. Hines recognises his life as a “perplexing kettle of coconuts”, ridiculous but real and wholly his. I’ve seen it described as an existential novel and I suppose it is, but it’s so fun, written with such verve and bite, that ultimately it is life-affirming even while pointing out the poverty, injustice and pointlessness that fills a lot of daily life for the characters.

And of course the city itself is the second hero of the story, a constant, pervasive presence:

“Glasgow thoroughfares can be mysteriously still, the slightest breath of wind seeming not to exist. The smell of fresh tobacco on the nostrils first thing is an astonishing item.”

To end, there are a plethora of Glaswegian musicians I could have chosen, but I’ve picked Camera Obscura’s French Navy, because I like the brilliantly twenty-first century love lyric “You with your dietary restrictions/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction…”

“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name./Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.” (Robert Burns)

Saturday is Burn’s Night, in honour of Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  I’m posting today however, because tonight I am going to a Burn’s Night supper.  This will consist of Arbroath smokies, followed by haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by clootie dumpling, followed by an argument as to whether I’m going to dance at the ceilidh.   Although I have two left feet I quite enjoy a dance, but my suggestion that we do it before a three course stodge-fest has been met with derision.  Needless to say, I think I’ll be lying down in a corner while the more hardy among my number whizz around in Celtic fashion. To celebrate I’ve chosen a novel written in Scottish vernacular, and a poem by a Scottish writer. I like them both so I hope Burns won’t find me to be one of the “cutthroat bandits” he refers to with such derision. Slainte Mhath!

Firstly, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2002).  This was Anne Donovan’s first novel, and it is a confident and accomplished debut.  It tells the story of Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, who becomes interested in Buddhism.  His desire to put his newly-discovered beliefs into the practice of his daily life cause strain in his relationships with his wife Liz and daughter Anne-Marie, and all three lend their voices to individual chapters to tell the story.

Jimmy learning to meditate: “It was as if ah’d never felt ma body afore; felt the tightness in ma airms and legs, the openness of ma chest, the wee niggles that ran aboot inside me that usually I never even think aboot. Then as ma breathin slowed doon and ah sterted tae feel mair relaxed he took me through each person in turn.  That was the really hard bit because as each feelin came up he tellt me no tae judge it.  Wi Anne Marie ah just felt ashamed that ah’d let her doon […] Then Liz. That was haurd too cos ah love her – always have – but somehow ah cannae get her tae unnerstaund how this is that important tae me. There’s a gap openin up between us. Ah can feel it and ah’m scared.”

The relationships do start to break down, but Donovan is very even-handed and you don’t apportion blame, you can just see how it’s happening as people grow apart.  The first person narrative from all three characters means you can empathise with them all.  Liz doesn’t always behave in the best way, but I still felt sympathy for her as she struggles to make the life she wants:

“It was five o’clock in the morning but ah didnae want tae go back to sleep in case the dream started again.  It wasnae the most frightenin dream ah’d ever had but it was confusin.  Usually if ah have a dream it’s dead obvious what it means, but this.  Ah leaned back on the pillows, shut ma eyes and the feelin came back tae me; the cauld of the water beneath ma feet, the panic as ah started tae sink and the relief as ah sprung up oot the water, the green castin an eerie light all round the sky and this dark, shadowy figure waitin for me on a rock on the other side.”

And between them both, their daughter Anne Marie.  After she plays her parents a song she’s made with her friend:

“And ah was dead chuffed that they liked it but efterwards, sittin in ma room, ah kept feelin that there was sumpn missin. As if they hadnae really got it. And ah really wanted them, no just tae like it, but tae unnerstaund it.  And ah didnae think they did.”

And that really is the crux of Buddha Da.  It’s about how the people we love may not always be the ones who really understand us.  It’s about the gaps that exist even in our closest relationships.  Donovan writes with real affection for the characters, and so these themes aren’t depressing.  It’s a warm novel about living with imperfections and muddling through together. If you’re interested in Scottish vernacular novels, two famous examples you may want to try are Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.

Secondly, a poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow.    I love Duffy’s writing, and she’s managed the rather astonishing feat of writing decent poems within her remit of commemorating national events. Warming Her Pearls (from Selling Manhattan (1987)) was written long before she took office, and is one of her more famous verses.  However, I still went ahead and chose it rather than something more obscure, as I do think it’s brilliant.  You can read the full poem here.  It is spoken in the voice of a maidservant to a rich society woman:

“Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress

bids me wear them, warm them, until evening

when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them

round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her”

This to me is a good example of Duffy’s writing: accessible, simple language to convey an unconventional literary voice, in this case, a maid’s erotic love for her mistress.  The power dynamic of the relationship with its “bidding” and the rope of pearls adds a slightly BDSM element, and Duffy plays with the idea of power throughout the poem.  The maid is emboldened by her desire outside of social class, rather than cowed by it.  I love the following image:

“[I] picture her dancing

with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent

beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.”

The insidious nature of the maid infiltrating her mistress’ life through her body odour is so clever, slyly humorous and evocative; the idea of bodies betraying themselves is carried on in the next stanza: the soft blush seep through her skin/like an indolent sigh.   The tenderness with which the maid approaches her mistress, a reflection of her feelings, is wonderfully evoked through this beautiful language.  Warming Her Pearls is as delicate and subtle as the situation it portrays.

Finally, a little bonus, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, this is from The World’s Wife, where she imagines the stories of the wives of famous men.  ‘Mrs Darwin’ is one of the shortest, so here it is in its entirety:

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.

I said to Him –

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

I could end with a picture of the books, but I doubt Burns would approve of such a prosaic choice.  Instead, here’s one of the most Scottish things you’ll ever see:

Image

(Image from http://www.sattlers.org/mickey/culture/clothing/kilts/hallOfFame.html)