Look, I'm going to be honest here. I thought it was going to be the clash of the Titans. Katie Grant and Maggie Lennon together in one room? Irresistible force meets?... well, irresistible force. There would be blood spilt on the Divine Ms Anna's floor. Her elegant literary salon would be transformed into a bear-pit, all Maileresque brawling and braggadocio.
But La Lennon, sporting a haircut as spiky as her normal personality, was indisposed this week. On antibiotics. Good grief, she couldn't even drink. She retired early, leaving the floor to the whip-thin and whip-smart Ms Grant, whose novel Sedition is riding high in the bestseller lists. It's currently 58 on Amazon's literary fiction chart, if she cared to look, which she doesn't because she reckons it drives writers mad. Having heard of a divorcé
who kept comparing his novel's standing with his ex-wife's, I reckon she's right.
The evening started with soup the colour of the prospective blood on the floor. Beetroot, according to Ms Anna, impeccably sourced, of course, from Saturday's farmers' market. It was pronounced superb by the more sophisticated among us, though I have to confess Ms Anna found me staring into my bowl in dismay. I think red soup may be an acquired taste.
Katie Grant's book is set in 18th century London at a time when the French Revolution was in full swing and the spirit of dissent was fomenting in the city's coffee houses. There aren't many books which can be described as original but this is one of them, a darkly humorous brew of sex, revenge, betrayal and music that is as seditious as its title and yet also deeply touching. With its two extraordinary female heroines and a Dickensian supporting cast, it's a book that stays with you. In the kitchen table discussion Katie herself said she thought that books lingering was random, but I don't think so. The imagery, the spiritual quality of the descriptions of music, but above all, the people in Sedition embed themselves in your mind.
The reviewers agreed. One described it as the kind of book that 'bookworms burrow inside to devour with relish from cover to cover. The kind you'll secrete behind all the other books on your shelves in case friends steal it and somehow "forget" to give it back. The kind from which you'll read chosen snippets to your offspring when they're old enough. An induction into the magical unruliness of words.'
Actually, it's an induction into the magical unruliness of lots of things: rape, incest, castration, and most alarming of all, apparently, the wildlife that roosts in grand houses when left to themselves. The usually unsinkable Maggie seemed to have been particularly disturbed by a scene where curtains are drawn back in a drawing room and a swarm of bats and spiders emerge from the dust-laden drapes.
'But that's what happens!' exclaimed Katie, regaling the salonistas with tales of similar occurrences from her own family home, a once grand(ish) house (main family house now a museum and art gallery) in Lancashire. On one visit her parents reported that a wall had fallen down in a child’s bedroom. When Katie and her sisters trooped upstairs to see it, the wall had indeed fallen down and was seething with zoological specimens. Her intrepid parents, with true aristocratic insouciance, simply moved the bed a couple of feet away from the epicentre of insect activity.
Picture: Debbie Toksvig
'I suppose that did breed a sort of callous jollity that is part of me and has found its way into the books,' pondered Katie. She has previously written nine children's books, one of which deals with the severed head of one of her ancestors, who was executed for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie. The head travelled widely, sometimes in a hatbox, and spent some years in the early twentieth century in a basket on a table in the drawing room. Finally buried in St. Peter’s Church in Burnley, the tomb was re-opened in 1978 to discover that Uncle Frank's head had been befriended by another head, origin unknown. The two heads are together still.
But it may have been the ferrets that finally finished Maggie Lennon off. One of Katie's sisters apparently keeps them as pets and had let them out in the night. For reasons which escape me, Katie's children came into the room and saw these little red eyes staring at them out of the blackness. They, having been brought up in Glasgow's leafy West End, were deeply upset, but Katie and her siblings had learned it was best to laugh. 'If you didn't laugh, the darkness of life would take over too much,' she said.
Maggie was looking pale by now, though managed to get in a comment about the Daily Mail and how no decent human being could be liked by the paper. Katie, who often writes for the Mail, ignored the remark and sailed on with a description of an article she'd written about primogeniture. Sedition has generated all manner of themes for debate.
Thankfully, the Divine Ms Anna's delicious orange and clementine cake restored equilibrium and literary pugilistics were averted. Maggie had clearly decided to conserve her energies for her next opponents. She's going on a night of speed dating before flying off to Berlin to hear Rufus Wainwright. 'So I won't give a damn,' she said. Her great charm is that she never does.
Katie Grant sallied forth into the night, plotting her next book, a novel set in 1985. Sedition startled many of her friends and family. After so many children's books they weren't expecting its dark content and savage wit. Her father, in fact, grumbled to one of her sisters, 'How does Katie know about all these things?' Katie, though, is relishing her freedom to write what she wants. I don't think she gives a damn either.
DOMESTIC NOIR AT THE DIVINE MS ANNA'S
'The pork pie is v.v.good,' said the Divine Ms Anna. Those of you with a literary bent will recognise the quotation, from the Helen Fielding masterpiece, Bridget Jones. But then that's the sort of high quality allusions you get at Ms Anna's literary salons.
There's also roasted red pepper soup, loads of wine and sparkling conversation—
a focus group with soup, as Mark Douglas-Home called it when he was the featured writer, just doesn't cover it.
We gathered in Ms Anna's high-ceilinged flat in Glasgow's West End to hear the Australian writer, Helen Fitzgerald, whose book The Cry struck a nerve with every woman in the room. A crying child on an aeroplane to Australia, an overdose, a cover-up—
the ingredients sound like those of a thriller, but The Cry is a psychological study of guilt, of motherhood and of women's immersion in the world of the men they love.
Although the book's subject matter is dark, it is so compelling to read that most of us devoured it immediately we got it. The unsinkable Maggie Lennon (her discreet hair colour offset with a pair of large earrings), identified so closely with the characters that she was up at eight in the morning to finish it off. 'How did you know all about me?' she demanded. Her life, it transpired, had contained similar patterns to those of the book's central character, Joanna—
affairs with unsuitable men and crying children who she claimed to calm down with brandy in her breast milk. 'I had the only children on the planet allergic to Kalpol,' she said.
This may have been poetic licence, it being a literary evening. There was certainly no criticism, only laughter, from the other women there. Many of them had been through the crying baby on the plane nightmare which starts off The Cry, one of whose major themes is the way people sit in judgement on women's motherhood skills. 'If it's a man they just say, Oh, what a good daddy he is, but women get blamed,' said Sara Hunt, publisher at Saraband Books.
Helen Fitzgerald, tall and austere looking but with a fine turn of wicked wit, said she hadn't done many events like this. She'd been invited to a book group in one of Glasgow's leafy suburbs after her first novel, but the good ladies of Netherlee uninvited her once they discovered that Dead Lovely dealt with 'adultery, weird sex and madness' during a hike along the West Highland Way. 'Clearly such things don't go on in Netherlee,' noted the Divine Ms Anna, wearing a bright red cardigan with a black and white polka-dotted dress tonight. Unusually for her, this did not seem to match any of her household accoutrements.
Discussion of the book moved into discussion of the characters, whose traits most of us recognised in ourselves. 'I always use the things about myself that I dislike,' confessed Helen, though all the female characters in The Cry are feisty, thoughtful women whose only flaw is that they fall in love with manipulative men. (Not the case for Helen herself, who is happily married to screenwriter Sergio Casci.)
The Cry, it appears,falls into a new category, domestic noir, though Helen said that her publishers, Faber & Faber, wanted her to make the next book more 'thriller-y,' a requirement that the focus group (now on to almond cake and wine) found quite unnecessary. Faber gave her a two book deal after she submitted a half page synopsis of the novel, which came to her suddenly one day in Beanscene, but they were not so keen on her next idea, a novel about the sexual abuse of a dementia sufferer. Not willing to take their word for it, she consulted several other publishers, who were all equally unkeen. She seems to be going ahead anyway, incorporating the storyline into a wider plot. It's not hard to see where her feisty characters come from.
Having published ten books since 2007, she is now, unsurprisingly, fed up with writing. But those of us who have become fans of her mordant wit, penetrating psychology and taut writing style are going to try and tempt her into Beanscene soon. Who knows where her clever, funny imagination will take her next?
The picture of Billy Connolly on the front of this week's paper says what most of us in Glasgow feel. There's a heaviness about him, as if grief is a physical presence he carries with him. He flew from New York to be here, wearing a jacket with the American eagle on the front, but his presence at the Clutha said that however far he has gone from his native city, it is always there inside him.
His journey was over 3000 miles and took nearly six and a half hours, and at the end of it he laid some flowers on the ground beside a pub he used to go to and walked away. You wondered had he come straight from the airport—he had the weary look of a man who might have done so—and where he had bought the flowers, a mixture of white roses, gerbera and unopened lilies, whose scent, so powerful in an enclosed space, would be lost in the open air beside the river, would be lost amongst the thousands of bunches of flowers already there.
But Billy Connolly's gesture will not be lost.
On the weekend of the Clutha Vaults helicopter crash a London paper ran several articles criticising the way our media refract tragedy through celebrity, but, as usual, they failed to understand Scottish reality. Both the Clutha and its sister pub, the Scotia, define themselves through their customers and history and Billy Connolly was a huge part of that for both of them. You wouldn't talk about either of them without mentioning Connolly and James Kelman and Gerry Rafferty. It would be perverse not to. Connolly is not really regarded as a celebrity in the normal sense at all here. He's not seen as someone elite and apart; he's seen as one of us.
I vividly remember John McGarrigle, who died in the crash, talking about a short story competition in the Scotia Bar. Billy Connolly had heard some of the heats and had asked, 'Did McGarrigle's story win? It should have.' I don't think it did, but Connolly's endorsement was enough for McGarrigle. It was a token of its authenticity and as such, more valuable than any prize or medal could be.
I can't claim to have been a very close friend of John McGarrigle but I had a real soft spot for him. Since it happened, his death is with me all the time. I can't stop thinking about his last moments and hoping he died instantly, that he wasn't gasping for breath as he was entombed in dust. I can't stop thinking about his son, who stood outside all night waiting for news that some instinct already told him was the worst.
When the current manager took over the Scotia Bar eight years ago, she revived the famous writers' group, which had finally petered out under the last owner, the legendary Brendan McLaughlin. John was one of the first wave of writers to come to the re-formed group, reading baroque stories of banshees in tower blocks and classical characters in Castlemilk. Apparently he was known originally as a poet, but it was prose he was focusing on then and the prose that I liked, with its surreal fusion of the gritty and the imaginative. So much so that I've become addicted to the banshee as a literary idea and wrote my own banshee story some time later.
McGarrigle always believed in telling it like it is and I'm going to too. He had sometimes been violent, sometimes caught up in the compelling world of Glasgow's gangsters. No doubt it was something to do with where he lived, something to do with being a man in the west of Scotland, or maybe just a writer—sometimes criminals have the best stories. But underneath he was a gentle person who got angry for the right reasons. He cared for his elderly mother and always asked about mine, when she was alive. Once he spent a whole day with a friend of mine who was researching a book, taking her all over the Cathkin Braes to show her a forgotten well. 'I had the best of him,' she said simply. When I wrote a story about someone he knew, a gangster who lived next door to me, it was enough for me that he said I'd got it right. His endorsement was as much an endorsement for me of the authenticity of the story as Billy Connolly's was for him.
We relate in such profound and unknowable ways to each other as human beings. I will miss John though I didn't see him often. What drew Billy Connolly to travel all those miles for all those hours, bringing him to a pub he probably hadn't been in for years? He hasn't been in the Scotia for years either, the other pub his name is inextricably linked with in this city. Neither pub can ever be to him what it was before—the people are different, he is different—but in coming, he reminded us of how strong the small ties are between us, the invisible bonds that bind us together as a species.
People have been making big claims about how the behaviour of people after the crash said something about the nature of Glaswegians, the nature of Scots. People were trying to return to the pub to help those trapped inside, they were forming a human chain, they were tending as best they could to the wounded before the emergency services got there. Afterwards, a few young lads acted the goat for the television cameras as Labour MP Jim Murphy was talking with quiet dignity about his experiences of the crash, but for the most part people were selfless and self-effacing that night. As ever, the professionals behaved with dogged courage, but it was the ordinary people who didn't have to do any of it who behaved with something more, with grace. Is it really just Glaswegians or Scots who do such things? I preferred the man who said the people behaved with humanity.
Yet there is no doubt all of us in Glasgow are connected in mourning. Even for those of us who never went to the Clutha, there's something very poignant about this tragedy, that people were out having fun, enjoying themselves, when disaster struck. Strange how little we think of the joy in that everyday word, enjoy. Could there be any more joyous sound than that of a ska band? But joy was taken away that night.
That night I saw the police helicopter hovering in the sky, as it often did—it always seemed to be in the East End though I'm sure people commit crimes in other parts of the city too. I suppose it made a noise, though from my house it was silent, simply a cluster of lights winking in the darkness above the orange glow of the city. I lost track of it after a while, didn't see it tumbling eerily to the ground, didn't hear any loud bang. There was no harbinger of death that night, no banshee predicting the horror that was to come. But if McGarrigle was here, I think he might have written one in.
LOSING WITH STYLE
I've been a loser at award ceremonies before and it's always difficult. They can say what they like about taking part and everyone on the shortlist being a winner, but you can bet every nominee is as desperate to win as I always am. My previous losses have been at journalism events, where the drill is that you all get drunk and behave badly (including the winners.) But the Gordon Burn Prize, in conjunction with the Durham Book Festival and Faber & Faber, offered a more graceful experience, the chance to lose with style.
The announcement of the shortlist had been in the mediaeval grandeur of Durham Castle; the finale was in the equally splendid Town Hall, whose hammer beam oak roof, richly coloured wooden wall plaques, and magnificent stained glass windows provided a dramatic backdrop for the shortlisted writers to talk about their books and read from them. This in itself was unlike journalistic events, where it's considered too dangerous to let the writers actually speak. The newspaper industry's attitude to writers can be summed up by the Christmas party I once attended at a national magazine. It was held in a trendy warehouse, thronging with double-barrelled Camillas in little black frocks. 'We nearly didn't invite the writers,' said one editor. 'All they do is stand in the corner, getting drunk and talking to each other.'
Writers do tend to talk to each other, having a mutual belief in the importance of words. I was proud to be on the shortlist with such amazing authors—Anthony Cartwright, as gentle in person as his moving novel about growing up in the 80s, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, is powerful; Ben Myers, dark and saturnine, with a reserved demeanour unlike the linguistic fireworks display of his novel Pig Iron, about generations of violence in a travelling family; Duncan Hamilton, whose formal suit made him look like the sports journalist he once was, though his The Footballer Who Could Fly goes beyond mere football writing, using the beautiful game and its characters to illuminate his relationship with his father. I'd have loved to meet Richard Lloyd Parry, author of the brilliantly forensic study of the death of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darkness, but unfortunately he was back in Japan, where he's Asia editor of The Times.
We sat together, sipping wine at one of the cabaret style tables arranged round the main hall. (The more appropriate word at journalistic events is guzzling.) For me, the most wonderful part of the evening was that each writer had incidental music specially composed in honour of their book by Dave Brewis of Field Music. Mine was strange and unsettling, beautiful in spite of the fact that it evoked Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, my novel which takes the premise that Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, didn't die when the authorities said but was released to a secret life and identity. Afterwards Dave told me he'd done the music three times, unsatisfied till he realised that the Myra Hindley of the book was blank. It was exciting to realise that he had so sensitively related to what I'd written. I look forward to more literary events, entering to my own theme music like Rocky coming into the ring.
I know some of my fellow authors hated having to perform, but I was relieved to be there for a purpose. My reading had some elemental help. I was reading a chapter where Myra and her lover, upper class Sophie, are together while Sophie's cat is dying. Myra tries to persuade her lover into a mercy killing. Just as it got to the point where people were realising, Myra wants to kill the cat, a storm started up behind me, thunder and lightning suffusing the stained glass windows with electric white. I may not have won but I had the best lighting effects.
The announcement of the winner, Ben Myers for Pig Iron, was made without ceremony. I couldn't raise even a smidgen of Vidalish venom—Gore Vidal famously said, Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little—as Ben's book was brilliant and I could only be happy for him. Claire Malcolm of New Writing North said all of the judges had shortlisted the same five books, and that each one had been ahead at some point. While I'd have liked the clock to stop on the day I was winning, I thought Pig Iron was extraordinary, as indeed were the other books.
I don't know what the others felt, but I had a sense of us all being in it together and of representing something different from the usual literary shortlist. Gordon Burn was an unusual writer in that he managed to survive while casting a cold intelligence and unflinching eye on human behaviour. This makes editors of all kinds uneasy. While none of the writers on the list were quite like him, we all had a determination to follow our own path. and I know a number of us, including Ben, had a difficult road to publication—I'm personally indebted to Rod Glenn and everyone at Wild Wolf Publishing, a small independent in the north east, for bringing Myra, Beyond Saddleworth to fruition. As Ben himself said, it's not a competition between competitions, but the Gordon Burn prize shortlist was just as interesting and accomplished as the Booker. It was also braver, spikier and more challenging, in keeping with the writer in whose honour it has been set up.
The day after the ceremony, a party of us went up to Gordon Burn's cottage in Longformacus in the Scottish Borders, where his partner, the artist Carol Gorner, hosted a riotous and joyful lunch. Gordon Burn apparently said the best parties were given by artists and it turned out to be true. Cassoulet that had been lovingly prepared all week by Richard and Chantal, a cauldron of flames permeating the garden with woodsmoke, delicious crumble made by nine year old Esme, and the busy sound of water from the river running like song underneath all our conversation. Best of all was the company. It was worth the white knuckle ride back to Berwick at ninety miles an hour on winding roads with the deliciously crazy Richard to be with people so full of life and fun. Thank you to Carol, Phoebe and Dan, Martin and Zoe, Ben and Adele, David and Jane, the above mentioned cooks and drivers, and the delightful eccentrics from neighbouring cottages for making losing so much fun.
What a Puritan society we've become, when Miley Cyrus and her twerking can be considered the end of both civilisation as we know it and the end of feminism. I'm a lifelong feminist and I'm going to put my hands up here and admit I think she's fun. If nothing else, the way she has people falling over themselves to be either politically correct or prudish is highly entertaining.
Yes, the music business puts pressure on women to be sexual, but I don't think it's a coincidence that today's female performers go farther than the generations immediately preceding them. These young women are an assertive bunch who're not afraid to display their sexuality. So what if Rihanna and Beyonce and the rest strut on stage with minimal costumes? You'll see similar outfits on the streets of our big cities every Saturday night. And in the north east they wear pelmet skirts and bare legs even in winter.
What's particularly striking about the reaction to Miley is all the elder stateswomen of music weighing in with 'motherly' advice. Could the Cher criticising her for unprofessionalism really be the same Cher who bestrode a gun barrel on USS Missouri, singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' the Cher whose costumes for the video included a see-through black lace dress and a modest little ensemble featuring a transparent bodysuit, suspenders, a leather jacket and a thong that flashed all she had to offer every time she turned her back. If ever there was a female performer who colluded with male expectations it was Cher, yet no-one in their right mind could look at her sheer joie de vivre and accuse her of not feeling 'empowered.' Just a shame she had to be empowered by endorsing military values, the one obscene thing about her video if you ask me. Miley Cyrus looks positively demure in comparison.
Sinead O'Connor's sincere letter was a kind gesture, and correct in its assessment that the men running the music business care only for profit, not the performer, but her constant references to Miley as 'young lady' sounded like my old headmistress talking— and she was a nun. It's a very curious way to address a young woman when you're talking about sexism. If there's one role Miley Cyrus clearly doesn't want to be stuck in it's that of young lady. I never saw her Hannah Montana series, but I do know it was made by Disney and if it's anything like the bland slop they usually serve up as a representation of human experience, then the character Miley played was undoubtedly too cutesy to be tolerated by any red-blooded female.
In fact, the only shocking thing about Miley's performance at the Video Music Awards awards was the length of her tongue, a stupendously lewd and lascivious appendage that rivals Mick Jagger's lips for iconic value. Even the fabled twerking is just a new name for a fairly common dance move that's been around for years. In the inaugural issue of Feminist Times, musician Dana Jade of Clitrock (a charity to combat female genital mutilation) claims it for her native Trinidad, where it's called win'in', (winding) but I've seen it at parties, on music videos and have even been known to do it myself, though not perhaps in as empowered a fashion as Ms Miley.
Feminism is absolutely right in fighting the constant commodification of women, but what worries me about the response to today's performers is that instead of asserting one kind of power over women, we're simply substituting another, the fascism of good behaviour, which demands that every woman be kind, caring, nurturing—and ladylike. Miley Cyrus's dancing with Robin Thicke at the MTV awards was gangly, sassy and humorous, a point which seems to have been missed by those comparing it to prostitution. Anyone watching street women hanging round the cold streets of our major cities waiting to be picked up, whether by punters or police, would not see anything funny in it. Cyrus herself has said, 'If I wanted to do a raunchy sex video I wouldn't have come out dressed as a damn bear.'
Robin Thicke's own Blurred Lines video has been heavily criticised for its 'rapey' lyrics and the fact that the men in the video are fully clothed while the women are half-dressed and trot about like horses. But if you examine what's actually going on, the men preen and posture, ogling the women and bragging about their prowess and private parts. They get nowhere with the women, who strut about in see-through plastic mini-dresses, looking aloof. Even the suspect lyrics don't hold up: the singer has tried to 'domesticate' the woman but failed. She's the animal who can't be tamed, not him. He sees beyond her appearance and tells her she's not plastic. There's no excuse for the crassness of a line like I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two, but it's clearly the man bragging about the size of his organ, a point made in the video with the graffiti saying Robin Thicke has a big dick. In the end, You know you want me sounds like wishful thinking rather than a threat. The video was directed by a woman.
The surprising thing about the recent controversies is that women have been taking their clothes off for entertainment for hundreds of years. In Belle Epoque Paris, more than a hundred years ago, women danced the can-can wearing split crotch drawers that revealed their private parts. In nightclubs from Paris's Crazy Horse to the nude tableaux of the Windmill Theatre to the spectacular strip shows of Las Vegas, they go topless or bottomless. Some women have brains or personality to offer but there is no shame in offering beauty, a wonderful gift in woman or man. Yet we get ourselves in a moral frenzy over a young woman clowning around in elastoplast knickers and a sports bra, which is more than Kate Middleton wears on holiday.
Like most women I get fed up of gratuitous sexualisation from the advertising industry, which uses women's bodies inappropriately to sell all sorts of consumer goods, from the female bodies painted to look like a Fiat car to the American unisex shirt ads that feature fully dressed men staring straight at the camera in their tartan shirts while the women are half naked in theirs. I sympathise with the mothers who fear for their daughters in this normalisation of sexual imagery all around us, but if we're talking about really pernicious imagery, those in the fashion industry are far more dangerous—British designer Jenny Packham, beloved of the rich and royal, recently showed her collection of the most romantic, ethereal dresses, but the girls who wore them had frangible legs and scary-skinny arms. That seems more frightening to me than an athletic-looking young woman briefly showing off her healthy body or licking chains and wrecking balls.
Do we really want to say that naked bodies are pornography? Or that men and women shouldn't look at each other? A lot is said about the male gaze, but women look at men too. I remember a programme years ago where a middle-aged woman was unknowingly linked up to some kind of scan that monitored her eye movements when she met a young man. She was mortified when it was revealed that her gaze constantly returned to his crotch. The naked body has its own power and to say that a young woman displaying the beauty of hers is a victim is just disingenuous.
I was a teenager in 1960s Scotland, which had heard about Swinging London but hadn't quite caught up. The pressure to conform to the good girl template was stultifying. So when I hear women of my generation tut tutting about the drunken ladette behaviour of some young women today, I just want to remind them how far we've come. Women may still not have caught up economically with men, but we certainly have more personal freedom, more space to dream of lives other than those of wife and mother than we ever had in the past. Miley Cyrus clearly knows what she's doing and is determined to follow her own path. I'd like her to be a little kinder to Sinead O'Connor, but niceness is not mandatory in a performer or a woman.
However, as it seems to be the fashion for older women to give Miley Cyrus advice, I do have one thing to say to her. Take a look at Josephine Baker dancing her sensual, comic numbers in the 1920s and know you're in a proud tradition. Baker was one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, a performer whose mixture of erotic and eccentric (and topless) dancing won her admirers all over Europe. She was one of the rare few who have brains, personality and beauty. Courage too. She helped the French Resistance during the Second World War and fought racism in her native US after it. Her adopted family of children was known as the Rainbow Tribe because she chose them for their differing races and religions.
But Miley, she wouldn't have dreamt of wearing that ugly underwear. Shake a tail feather, baby!
PAMPHLETEERING AT THE SALTIRE SOCIETY
I wasn't expecting to have to censor myself at an event on freedom of expression. But just at the moment when the words fuck and off coalesced in my brain, I suddenly remembered there was a wee girl of about four in the audience. Having to search for the more discreet alternative of Get lost was a reminder that freedom of expression is not an absolute and that all societies have boundaries.
The event was at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, the launch of a new pamphlet, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland, written by me and the novelist, Alan Bissett. Where Scotland's boundaries will be at this crucial moment in our history, the moment when we must choose what we'll be as a nation, was what Alan and I had to wrestle with in the pamphlet, a new joint venture between Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society, who aim to stimulate debate about important issues in our culture. Ours was the third in a series. (The other two are A Plea for a Secular Scotland by Dr Richard Holloway and The Artist and Nationality by Meagan Delahunt.)
I hadn't met Alan Bissett before we started our dialogue, though knew he'd be fun as he describes himself on Twitter as your friendly neighbourhood Falkirk novelist. It was like meeting Tigger. As a child I refused to let my mum read me AA Milne's books, which I considered silly, (Ed. This seems like a rather draconian act of censorship from a champion of free expression.) but Alan, warm, unquenchably enthusiastic, and eminently likable, made the concept of the bouncy Tigger seem absolutely plausible.
We met up in a couple of trendy Glasgow cafes and chewed over Leveson, the McCluskey Report, phone hacking and football chants as well as halloumi salad and tiger prawns in garlic butter. PEN President Drew Campbell directed the discussion, otherwise known as refereeing.
Actually our views weren't so far apart that we had major disagreements, but we did initially approach the subject from different viewpoints. As a former journalist who often saw her best work dropped or altered for economic reasons, I'm dead against state regulation of the press—we censor ourselves enough already. Alan, on the other hand, was deeply concerned about some of the grotesqueries committed by the tabloids prior to the Leveson Inquiry. 'But freedom of expression is like a thread on your jumper,' he said. 'The more you unravel, the more you see how important it is.'
Just how important was flagged up by our chair for the event, PEN President Drew Campbell, who had recently attended PEN International's Congress in Reykjavik. He relayed the inspiring news that PEN America has instigated legal proceedings against the US government for breaking the Constitution by illegally spying on its own citizens. A number of European PEN centres, including Scottish PEN, are exploring European law for the possibility of pursuing their own governments for similar abuses of power. If there's one thing the Bissett and I agree on, it's that we don't trust governments.
Perhaps because the Saltire Society thoughtfully included a glass of wine in the price of the ticket, our audience needed no invitation to indulge in their own freedom of expression. 'Hmm, I thought we'd just have a question and answer at the end,' said Drew Campbell. He was wearing a tie for the first time since I've known him, but a tartan one in deference to the Saltire Society.
Richard Holloway made the point that laws are a blunt instrument in dealing with matters of freedom of expression, one we make in the pamphlet too. More startling was the fact that UEFA had consulted him about whether football supporters' songs were hate speech. I'm still trying to get my head around the thought of the former bishop standing on the terraces with a meat pie in his hand.
Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre commented that freedom of expression is not an absolute and is defined by each society at a particular point in time, which is why it's so important to us now, at the moment when Scotland will make itself anew, whatever choice it makes about independence.
There was much discussion on the future of the internet, with Ruth, the mother of the little girl who raised standards among some of us, deeply worried about the amount of pornography constantly being directed at us. Alan Bissett agreed. 'I'm particularly concerned with the pornification of mainstream society, since much of what we call pornography is in fact misogyny,' he said. 'But I can't work out how to resolve that with freedom of expression.'
My fellow pamphleteer had been the victim of extreme internet abuse, with some radical feminists objecting to him writing about the late Andrea Dworkin, whom he impersonates in his show, Ban This Filth! For daring to embody a female icon (otherwise known as acting) they had even branded him a rapist. Ironically, he was performing later that day in aid of the Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Depending on his audience's reaction, he might or might not be stripping off. Pornography or art, who gets to decide? Sounded like it might be Alan himself, working out where the boundaries were with his particular audience.
If the multiplicity of voices at the pamphlet launch is anything to go by, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland is only a starting point for discussion. In Scottish PEN we're proud to be taking part in it and to be working alongside the Saltire Society.
'It feels like a natural fit,' said Jim Tough, the Society's Executive Director.
It feels too like an exciting opportunity for us in Scotland. Not many countries have the chance to consider the basic freedoms they want in their society. We do. I hope people will read all of the pamphlets—and keep talking.
CHAMPAGNE AT DURHAM CASTLE
What a strange life it is, being a fiction writer. Journalism was crazy enough, but with fiction you go from high to low in a heartbeat. Or low to high.
My week started with some troll making a comment on my website's blog. The usual broad-minded stuff, accusing me of justifying the Moors Murders. 'I'm going to seek legal representation to stop you publishing the inner workings of that sick pervert, Ian Brady,' he wrote. At least it wasn't my eyeliner this time.
Things started to look up with the news that my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, had been shortlisted for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, along with four other titles. The judges' choice will be the book which 'most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods... Literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading.'
Gordon Burn was a writer of great integrity, unafraid to explore the darkest crevices of the human psyche. He wrote with a unique mixture of cynicism and lyricism and, like most of Britain's best writers, felt himself to be in the tradition of the New Journalism's holy trinity: Capote, Mailer and Wolfe. It's an honour to be associated with him.
I met him once, years ago, at a snooker tournament. It was the briefest of meetings and I was disappointed he was too busy to stop and talk as we shared many interests. After I'd finished my first book, The Cruel Game, about a year on the snooker circuit, the publisher asked me what I'd like to do next. Write a book about the Yorkshire Ripper, was my response. Peter Sutcliffe had been convicted a couple of years previously of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder a further seven and I was fascinated by his relationships with women, particularly his wife Sonia.
My publisher, Roger Houghton, was a most charming, old school English gentleman. 'Oh goodness, he said. 'It's far too early for that.'
Gordon Burn must already have been working on his Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, because it came out the following year. It focused mainly on the serial killer's relationship with other males, particularly his father and brother, so there would have been room for both books. I've always regretted being too naive to argue the case for my Sutcliffe book. Gordon Burn's was then followed by his book about snooker, Pocket Money.
So I felt there was a spooky kind of synchronicity at work when I heard my novel had been nominated. Not the sort of thought that would have occurred to the man himself. He was far too cool-headed for such mumbo-jumbo. (Apart from his enthusiasm for the work of Damien Hirst, but I suppose everyone has their Achilles heel.)
The announcement of the shortlist was one of the most enjoyable literary evenings I've attended. My novel was being rewarded, and there was no stress attached, because the winner won't be announced till October. Just five shortlisted authors: Anthony Cartwright, Duncan Hamilton, Richard Lloyd-Parry, Ben Myers and me. I have no doubt they're all as desperate to win as I am, but it was a beautiful sunny evening, there was free champagne and nibbles and we were in the courtyard of Durham Castle. 'No, there's nowhere near there to park,' an official had said incredulously when I phoned to ask. 'The castle is part of a World Heritage Site.'
Well, I could see that when I got there. Battlements, Norman towers squaring off against each other, rich green grass. The literati were out in force in their cream linen blazers and sharp little frocks, though few reached the sartorial splendour of me and my friend Pat Hagan, journalist and law lecturer and the most elegant woman there in her chocolate brown linen sheath and baroque pearl necklace. She said it was an old dress, as was mine, though unworn—I'd found it at the back of the wardrobe with the sale label still on it. Clearly I'd felt guilty at the time, splurging on something I didn't need, and had stuffed it out of sight. Now I felt virtuous, not considering a new dress for such a big event.
After champagne in the courtyard, we all went into the Great Hall for the launch of the Durham Book Festival and the prize announcement. There can be few more dramatic settings than this huge mediaeval space with its dark wood panelling, stained glass windows and portraits of assorted dignitaries, who I guessed were professors or something—the hall is part of a working university. And a wedding venue, of course.
The literary component of the evening was sublimely surreal. A lady poet had been to Australia and written a poem about an ant, and a chap had been to the Arctic and talked for at least fifteen minutes before declaiming a poem of four lines. I'm pretty sure there's more to come. Most surreal of all, perhaps, was the witty American who'd grown up playing cricket—in Texas. For a Glaswegian like myself, cricket is incomprehensibly English, a game with such labyrinthine rules you can't always be sure who's won. I've always thought they play it through the Looking Glass, so what on earth was an American doing writing about it?
David Peace read an extract from Red or Dead, his new book about Bill Shankly, its hypnotic rhythms causing Pat to whisper, 'It's beautiful.' In announcing the shortlist, Peace gave a brief description of each book, including one he said was 'a fantastic novel,' which may point to his own favourite. Mine he said was 'daring.'
I just hope the SAS motto is true and that who dares wins.
The Divine Ms Anna and her Domestic Accessory
I missed the bit about pants. Unfortunately. I’m sure it was very enlightening, though have no idea where the discussion roamed. Thongs? Those bum-cleaving shorts with the seam up the back? The return of the tanga? (If only.)
That’s the beauty of the literary salon, that you are free to explore the most profound philosophical questions of the age, to debate politics, the economy, history, and books, of course. Plus pants.
The book in question was Dennis O’Donnell’s The Locked Ward: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Orderly, a compelling read whose humour and humanity outweighed the horror of the subject. Dennis, who comes from the spooky sounding 'hinterland of West Lothian,' has also written a series of novels about Jack Black, a Bathgate (yes, really) private eye. His rite of passage novel, I Am the Eggman, is set in the swinging sixties— he says he was once a hippy and you can sort of tell from the natty, Jaggeresque trilby he sports on his Facebook page.
Our hostess, the divine Ms Anna, was sporting a disappointingly muted combination of cropped jeans and soft grey shirt, no doubt to avoid comparison with her household appliances. But she surely can't think we failed to notice her planting of a domestic accessory?— her one male guest, former Herald writer Ken Wright, was wearing pink socks the exact shade of that kettle of hers.
After the gazpacho, fresh and tangy on Glasgow's brief attempt at a summer evening, we went through to Ms Anna's salon, where Dennis read from the book. The section, about a trip to the local garage with an assortment of inmates from the locked ward, was both funny and touching, as so much of the book is.
Dennis swore he'd fictionalised the characters by merging characteristics and even changing people's gender, but the pen portraits are so truthful and vivid that I can't help feeling people recognised themselves and were pleased to be included. I once wrote a book (The Cruel Game) about a year on the snooker circuit and found that few minded being lampooned or teased— what people really objected to was being left out.
The Locked Ward raises enormous issues about how we treat the mentally ill, questions about drugs, restraints and above all, compassion. Some in the group, which this time included museum curators, teachers and the unsinkable Maggie Lennon with yet another vivid hair colour, had actually had experience of the locked ward through family and friends, so there was much discussion of the ethics of it all, the black humour of the staff, and the need for commonsense. RD Laing's theories of mental illness being a valid response to the craziness of people around us was condemned by various members of the group, who saw mental illness as just that, illness that (like any other) would need treatment.
I think we were all agreed on one thing, that if we were to end up in the prison of the mind, Dennis O'Donnell would be the person we'd choose to help us through it, though I have to say he occasionally regarded the group with a look of both bemusement and amusement, the sort of look we might have for his collection of eccentric patients. Probably it was the far-ranging nature of the discussion, which was not confined to literature or mental illness.
Plus the pants.
SHOWDOWN AT THE SCOTIA
It's a notoriously hard nut to crack, the short story. How do you corral life into a couple of thousand words, ensuring that you have a recognisable structure and real characters? Somehow it's easier with shorter forms like flash fiction, where everything's compressed, or longer forms like the novel, which gives you room to breathe.
So as I took my place with my fellow judges at the final of the Scotia short story competition last night, I knew they might not have high expectations of the standard of stories we were to hear. Drew Campbell, president of Scottish PEN, is a novelist (Dead Letter House) and writer with extensive experience of analysing other people's work through his various stints as writer in residence and now, reader in residence for East Renfrewshire libraries. Dave Manderson is a novelist (Lost Bodies) and short story writer who teaches creative writing at the University of the West of Scotland. 'The marking,' he sighed, 'takes forever.' Between them they've read hundreds of thousands of words by hopeful writers.
But I could see their faces relaxing as the first reader began. Ray Evans, the Scotia's current poet laureate, launched into a misanthropic, subtly written tale of a megalomaniac artist who may be about to change the political climate forever.
'Well, that's set the benchmark really high,' Dave said.
The Scotia, of course, is one of the iconic literary pubs. James Kelman and Billy Connolly set up a writers' group which ran short story competitions and even published a couple of collections. The tradition was carried on by Brendan McLaughlin, but had dwindled away when Mary Rafferty took over as manager. She has restored the group, which meets on the second Monday of the month, and it now features some of the finest new writing in Scotland. Recently Kelman himself was in with some friends when the group was on. He dispatched a pal to see what it was like.
'Same sort of shite as when you were running it,' reported his mate.
We took that as a compliment.
Even as exacting a writer as Scotland's lone Booker winner would not have been disappointed last night. We heard stories of children whose lives were buffeted around by adults, a foray into the darker side of the property market, and a delicious confection on competitive duck feeding by Linda McLaughlin, whose writing is always beautifully crafted and pitch perfect.
'Charming,' pronounced Drew.
There were, though, three outstanding stories. Paddy Hughes is a newcomer to the Scotia, a young Liverpudlian whose work crackles with energy and invention. His story, Steady Hands, encapsulated the life of a hitman into the moments before he pulls the trigger. John Savage's Meeting Danny Boy was a darkly humorous story of Christmas Eve in the high rise home of two alcoholics. John is a previous Scotia poet laureate so it was no surprise that his first attempt at the short story was so powerful. The evening's finale was One Hot Day by another Scotia stalwart, Mo Blake of the Read Raw collective. A vivacious young woman, a stuffed-shirt young man who wants to become a priest, a walk in the country, in her hands became high-spirited, subversive comedy with a serious edge.
From left, John Savage, Mo Blake and
We had our prizewinners and it was only left to decide the order. The structural sophistication of Paddy Hughes's story, which took a complicated back story and wove it together with the drama of watching a hitman about to commit a murder,
was technically superb and we were unanimous in selecting it as the winner, unusual in my experience of judging competitions, when people's personal tastes often clash. How, though, do you separate two brilliant stories, John's hugely powerful with a playful edge, Mo's hugely playful with a powerful edge? In the end we decided to award two equal second prizes, which sent Mary, the manager, scurrying off to get new envelopes and divvy up the cash equally.
Paddy's story featured a murderous father, who had stabbed his mother and was now dead. But Paddy's dad was very much live and proud! 'And Mum's fine too,' he said.
Pictures by Mary Rafferty
Interestingly, Paddy had tightened up his work since the heats, when he'd gone over his time limit and been halted by the rattling spoons of Ray Evans, our timekeeper. The previous ending had lessened the impact of the story and we discussed how useful it is to read your work aloud and to sense fluctuations in the energy of those in the room.
'Sometimes it's when you sense that, that you realise what your story's really about,' commented Drew.
Modern writers have to be prepared to read their work aloud, something which is excruciatingly difficult the first time you do it. The Scotia competitions and the open mic policy at its monthly meetings offer writers the chance to practise this necessary skill in a safe environment, where people understand how terrifying an experience it can be to expose yourself in that way. So come along, all you writers aspiring to be Scotland's second Booker winner or simply to get published. Find out if you're hard enough.