The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Have just seen the Artworks Scotland progamme on George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies - a simple, touching blend of poetry, literature, music and marvellous photography. I proposed to my wife at the top of Brinkie's Brae, overlooking Hoy, and I did consider Magnus (Orkney's saint) as a name for our son, but was forced to reject it on two grounds - total resistance on my wife's part, and the knowledge that I had no right to claim for him a name so thoroughly associated with a country I admire but don't belong to.

I feel the same way about GMB - I've read two of his novels (Magnus, Beside the Ocean of Time), his autobiography For the Islands I Sing, and a smattering of journalism and poems, and yes, he's good, very very good, and I read him with real pleasure...and yet. All of his work is set on and inspired by Orkney, and it's this tight focus which has made him a writer known the world over - the particular made universal - and therein lies the problem. I see it, I appreciate it, I admire the artistry, but I cannot respond to it, which is not the case with the Englishman Alan Garner. The irony is not lost on me. Despite Orkney being culturally, historically and linguistically distinct from mainland Scotland, the ties are still pretty close, much closer than those between, say, the Moray Firth and Cheshire.

Perhaps the key lies in this anecdote - I went into a cafe in Kirkwall to ask directions from a waitress who couldn't have been out of her teens. I like to think that I'm usually pretty good with accents, and I enjoy them, my own included, but from the first word she'd lost me completely, and we were both embarrassed when I was forced to ask her to repeat what she'd said. It's the only time this has ever happened to me, and it's like suddenly being dunked out of your depth in cold water (which has never happened to me, but the comparison stands).

The fact remains that, thus far, it's Edwin Muir who speaks more to me - but then Muir left Orkney for Glasgow when he was in his teens, and went on to work within an English and European mainstream.

* * *

The signal to noise ratio on the Web is unfavourable most of the time, but I came across this site completely by chance: a selection of Horace's Odes, with multiple translations. Their range is wonderful, like a theme and variations. I'm not sure that the site's author does much more than work, read and post, given that it seems unnervingly comprehensive in places, but it's well, well worth a look.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


John Sweeney does it again. Ten years ago I saw a programme he made on the complicity of Dutch UN troops in the massacre at Srebenica (basically, they abandoned the people they were supposed to protect). Now he's done a pretty hard-hitting report for BBC 2 on the election campaign by former UK ambassador Craig Murray in Jack Straw's constituency.

Murray was ridiculed, smeared, leant on and finally sacked by the FCO for speaking out against the systematic use of torture in Uzbekistan. Details can be found on his site here, and there are a good number of articles on the Grauniad website, including this one by Murray himself on the reasons for the continuing US and UK support for the Uzbek government - oil and gas.

Pass it on.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


While clearing out some old papers, I came across a copy of the New Statesman and Society dated 12 April 1991. It induces vertigo thinking how much personal and global history has taken place since then; in particular, there are some horrible ironies in the comments on Gulf War I, such as: “Propaganda in the west generally took Bush at his word, which was also the word of the British government. It is now becoming increasingly clear to many people who honestly defended the war on the basis of Bush’s word and John Major’s word that their trust was betrayed and that they were misled, even deceived, by those in the media who say it is their job to keep the record straight.” (John Pilger, “Who Killed the Kurds?”)

And this: “Boxed into administrative districts and agencies, often in politically sensitive zones, the problems of these groups [tribal minorities such as the Kurds] in the 1990s will judder many states, even threatening their very existence.” (Akbar Ahmed, “Death of the Noble Savage”.) He was writing about Iraq, but the resonance of it makes me nauseous thinking that the beginning of the fall of Yugoslavia was just a few months down the road.

Graham Greene had died the previous week.

And, weirdly, there is this, in Sean French’s (half of the crime writer Nicci French) Diary on page 8:

“I came across the strangest example in a book over Easter. Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, first published in 1837, is about a mutiny after which four sailors are cast adrift in an open boat. At their final extremity they draw lots as to whom shall be killed and eaten. The lot falls on a sailor named Richard Parker.

“In 1884 a yacht called Mignonette, bound for Australia, foundered and the four crew members escaped in an open boat, but with only one can of food and no water. To survive, they drew lots, then killed and ate the 17-year-old cabin boy, Richard Parker. Of all the coincidences that have been used by Arthur Koestler and his acolytes as evidence that there is some unifying force in the universe, this is the one that gives me a real shudder.

“The book in which I read of the case gave me a number of these. It is by legal historian A W Brian and has the wonderful title, Cannibalism and the Common Law (it was published in the mid-1980s by Penguin) […] as Simpson demonstrates in grisly detail, sailors quickly turned to human flesh and blood, on which it is also possible to survive for long periods. And, until the Richard Parker case, the law played no part in preventing them.”

You may recall that the Bengal tiger cast adrift with the boy in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is called…Richard Parker.

* * *

On the subject of Koestler’s unifying force, I reject it. I’m increasingly thinking that I’m an existentialist, without being hugely sure of what one is. The little I’ve read about it, I agree with. One of the interesting things about it is how it includes the notion of the absurd - not only is the universe meaningless, it’s ridiculous. Which I didn’t quite get, until I thought of the line from Macbeth:

“It is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”

Not only is the tale meaningless, it’s told by an idiot. That Shakespeare. There really is nobody he can’t lick.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I don't care that it's a sermon when it's this well-written:

It was an exhausted world - beaten, raped, robbed, mutilated by industrial greed and political stupidity, and left for dead. Malachi himself knew exhaustion, hours when his head could hold little except despair at human folly. He looked then on Jesse, the boy's uncalculating goodness, simplicity, power to love and to wonder, and could only think: This is the world they left you. The rain itself as it falls on your head is poisoned. Sometimes instead of they he said we; but Malachai was not given to wallowing in unearned guilt. A yeasty college student at the age of twenty, there wasn't much he could have done to prevent the idiot from pushing the button. If burning himself with gasoline in front of the White House would have had that effect, he was just the sort of ardent youth who might have done it; plain reason told him it wouldn't: the Juggernaut is mindless. The danger would remain simply because those in power had not the intelligence nor the good will to remove it, and what had been representative government had given way to the corporate state. To say these things in the Twentieth Century usually seemed like hooting down a rain-barrel. In the pig-scramble to be good consumers for the blessed state, honour and virtue and reason could not be heard; it was natural to assume that they had died.

- from The Children's Crusade (short story), Edgar Pangborn, 1974

Thursday, September 08, 2005


It must be something in the water. Rachel Cusk had an article on joining a book group in the Grauniad review section a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty good, with a couple of terrific anecdotes and some nice turns of phrase, though I find it a bit overlong (like a lot of broadsheet writing). Key line: As if for the first time, I understood that reading is a private matter.

Re: her dismay that the book group women aren't prepared to try something which reflects their own day-to-day experience, that they keep escaping into these impossible fictive worlds, I take her point. However, it does bring to mind the following exchange -

Henry James: I enjoyed Treasure Island, but it's really too much. I have never been on a hunt for buried treasure.
RLS: You've been a boy, but you've never been on a treasure-hunt? Come on!

Just because it's fantastic doesn't mean it can't be true as well. Hence, Mars, Earthsea, Freeside, Vermilion Sands.

A good and fun on-line interview with UKLG here.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I knew this would raise comments. Thought about deleting or amending before posting, then second-thought, naah: ginger sooner than tofu. No doubt I’ve been excessively mean about book groups. There are good arguments that can be mounted in favour of them - not least, that they allow you to meet new people, with the benefit of even a mild intellectual stimulation; being compelled to find the time to read regularly; being forced to read outside your normal range, including the classics you always meant to get around to; developing and arguing a case; supporting writers and the book trade in general; improving the literacy of the nation. All of this is worthy and defensible. It can also be said that the book group is like any other tool - it can be used well or badly.

My problem with them is that they seem - and here the weakness comes in, ‘cos I admit I’ve never actually attended one - to be too vulnerable to submitting to the lowest common denominator, partly out of a desire not to offend. Worse, to spreading the perception of literature as a mere pasttime, a commodity, a piece of entertainment on a par with going to the movies - see Joe's comment on blog entry of July 19th. (No, of course we have right to be entertained. There are two reasons for reading fiction that I can think of - enlargement, and delight. But many of the novels on the Vintage list are about a hell of a lot more than just “a good read” - they have a cultural and artistic weight which has to be accounted for.) Worse still, that they grant legitimacy to the two-bit opinion of the semi-literate and unthinking. Alright, unfair to a degree: how else are the semi-literate going to become literate? How will any of us improve? Perhaps rather, the same legitimacy as that given to the opinion of the informed, insightful reader. One of the pitfalls of our brave new people's whatever.

I think SF is significantly different and this must have an effect on reading groups. Most SF readers come with a well-developed awareness of the genre (tonstant weaders, many of 'em) and certain common expectations intrinsic to it. These have been argued over endlessly and fruitfully, but include the “sense of wonder”, technological or social extrapolation, problem-solving or problem-exploration - in other words, there’s an agenda, which can be used as a standard for judging to what degree a piece of SF succeeds or fails. It’s also worth noting the longstanding invovement of SF fans in supporting, promoting and providing feedback to SF writers. There’s a closeness, a sense of common ownership. SF readers don’t have to ask permission to be let in - which it often seems mainstream book groups are aimed at doing - because they’re already there.

Also, despite the flood of new titles produced every year, the SF canon - the cultural frame of reference - is smaller, younger, easier to get a handle on, than that of mainstream fiction. It’s easier to see where a given novel fits, the sources it draws on, the traditions it builds on. The limits of the genre focus and channel attention. Ironically so, given that so much of SF is, superficially, outlandish, bizarre, extraordinary. Mainstream fiction doesn’t have that advantage - in a field where theoretically anything is fair game, it’s often the ordinary, the everyday, that bamboozles us. You would have to be Anthony Burgess to be able to give a considered critical judgement on every title in the Vintage list, and that’s why the involvement of reading groups seems to me to be false.

I drive a Fiat Uno. I can maybe give you a crit on the capabilities of a Saxo or a Metro or a Volvo 340, but don’t give me the keys to a Maserati and expect my opinion to be worth a damn after a test drive. Doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to get into one, doesn’t mean it won’t put a smile on my face that’ll last a week. This is not about denying people the right to read what they want, or to enjoy or reject it as they see fit. But to quote Harlan Ellison: no, people don’t have the right to an opinion - they have the right to an informed opinion. You need to know the cultural context, and you need to understand the artistry behind the work, the thing that drives it; this takes time, wide reading, and maybe repeated reading. Took me three goes - and indeed three years - to get Garner’s The Owl Service, and I love the way Garner thinks. I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. All I saw was this neat, fairly hokey, underwritten story with a crap ending, seemingly perfect for analysis in an ‘O’-level Eng Lit class. I just wasn’t reading it the right way - slowly, and close up. It was a revelation.

To close, on “A Good Read” the other day, Matt Harvey and Simon Evans were praising Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. By contrast, Sue MacGregor said she’d dragged her way through it, hadn’t enjoyed it at all, couldn’t get to grips with it, found large sections of it incomprehensible. [Riddley Walker is set in a post-apocalyptic Kent where technology, historical knowledge and - crucially - language have all degraded. The novel is written - well, like so: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I ain’t looking to see none agen.”] Fair enough.

She then noted that it took Hoban five years to write it, and that it sometimes felt during the reading of it that it would take five years to finish. At this point I began to twitch - well, yeah, Sue, if that’s what it takes. Then she read out a line of the novel, I believe taken at random, to illustrate what she meant. Sue MacGregor is an experienced broadcaster, but she won’t be presenting Jackanory any time soon; in her dislike of the novel, she succumbed to the temptation of reading it badly. Always a bad move. If there’s a badly written sentence, and you read it to friends, colleagues or passers-by to show how bad it is (and how smart you are for having seen it), always read it well. Give the line the most generous chance, and let it fail on its own. Don’t condemn it beforehand.

She read it in a monotone. Now, it should be clear from the line I’ve quoted above that Hoban - or Riddley, the narrator - eschews conventional punctuation and spelling, but nonetheless there is a music, a rhythm in the language, and a definite accent. (The accent is, I suspect, pretty close to that of my great-aunt Doris, who despite having lived in Glasgow for sixty years retains the voice of her childhood in Bures, a village in East Anglia.) Not to respect that is to wilfully misrepresent the writing. Even Vicky Pollard (sp?), who probably speaks the longest sentences ever emitted in the Engish language, has a certain rhythm.

Then came the finisher. MacGregor whined - and I promise that's the word for it - “Why couldn’t he have written it in simpler language, made it easier for the reader?”

Because that’s what the work demanded! Because that’s the truth the vision led him to! Because the medium is the message! Because he’s a fuckin’ artist and you’re too dumb even to realise that there might be a point behind the way he choses to do things, even if you can’t see it!

I’d love, I’d really love, to hear her response to Finnegan’s Wake. (“Sorry Jim - it’s just not reader-friendly enough for us.” Incidentally, Sean Connery has given the best response to it I’ve heard. Mark Cousins was interviewing him and expressed surprise and respect that Connery had actually read it all the way through. “Well,” Connery said, “the thing is that it gives the world’s greatest scholars exactly the same problems it does to you and me.”)

Ignorance and stupidity are fine, because that’s our lot. It’s permitted to us. If we’re lucky, we manage to develop some awareness, some knowledge, in a few areas of experience. But not to acknowedge even the possibility of our own ignorance is inexcusable, the action of a moron. One has to come to literature with the contradictory attitudes of humility and arrogance: knowing that it's ours - it's ours - and we don't need to ask anyone's permission to claim it - but that we have to give the artist his or her due respect. Rejection of a work is one thing - but dismissal is another.

I’ve had my eye on Riddley Walker for a while now, and there was an interview with Hoban in the Guardian a couple of years back which piqued my curiosity. Bought a copy today. First impressions are that it is truthful, honest and genuinely exciting, and that the difficulty of the language doesn’t bar you - not too much - from the story, but denies literary artifice and convention, forces you to engage with it, makes the experience of reading it raw and direct. (I find this is the effect of some surrealist art - and of Red Shift as well. It gets harsher, more pitiless, with each re-reading.) We’ll see how it goes.

[Amended 10/09/05]

Monday, September 05, 2005


In sympathy with literates across the country, I heaved a sigh on seeing that the Vintage Future Classics list includes such novels as To Kill a Mockingbird, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Master and Margarita, The Leopard and many others which have yet to make their mark on world literature, popular imagination and civilisation in general. Or maybe it's just that civilisation stops where the marketing department of Random House begins. A wholly revolting and cynical exercise, designed to increase sales on the cheap, and without going to the trouble and expense of reading, editing and promoting work by new writers.

The involvement of reading groups, presumably to give the appearance that this is somehow a "people's list", that it enjoys popular support and legitimacy, only makes it worse. Reading groups are - caveat: almost without exception - an activity for encouraging the banal, the mediocre, the second-rate. You never get excellence from committees. They do not raise: they level. You get excellence from individuals striking out on their own. That's the beauty - indeed the whole point - of the written word. One person speaking; one person listening, thinking, arguing. Hopefully, growing. OK, so call me an elitist.

Alan Warner's article in last Saturday's Guardian is worth a look. His comments on Scott are interesting, and I agree with what he says in the last paragraph about the benefits of browsing in second-hand bookshops, away from the horror of 3 for 2.


"The best children's novel for adults since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (Time Out).



"The evictions have gone off far more peacefully than was feared" (ITN journalist).

Another eviction, involving a window, is overdue.


And my all-time favourite, from a poster last year to promote Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close: "There's a fine line between cop or killer."

Please join me in summoning the ghost of Bill Hicks: "If you work in marketing - kill yourselves."


It's enormously satisfying when the ground you've covered makes a surprise connection. (Note that storytelling, in Australian Aboriginal culture, is myth, history and territory). From Sciascia's The Knight and Death (Granta - though I'm not keen on their synopses):

"The final words of the conversation, however, left him with a yearning for the deserted island, for a spot where, as though huddled over some map, he could give free rein to an ancient dream and an ancient memory: in as much as certain things from childhood and adolescence were now ancient to him. Treasure Island: a book, someone had said, which was the closest resemblance to happiness attainable. He thought: tonight I will re-read it."

Just so. Although I admit that for me, Kidnapped is the thing. I took a look at a page at random recently and marvelled at it. You just can't break down the prose. Every sentence follows the last one and leads on to the next one perfectly, as if the entire thing had sprung fully-formed from Stevenson's mind, like Mozart's music. Obviously that's not the case - he had to work at it like anyone else - but what a gift he had to work with!




I think we should be told.