It’s a lovely warm night, a night for rosé wine and sitting on the steps admiring the tulips. Spring is most definitely here because nine year old Joe has resumed his seasonal mountaineering practice and is climbing in and out of the front window. But the Divine Ms Anna, dressed all in black, has darker things in mind. No vernal frolics for us - the guest of honour at tonight’s literary salon is Helen Fitzgerald, whose affable exterior and laconic manner hide a seething mass of twisted preoccupations. No wonder the soup tonight is deep red borscht, curdling in the plate like blood.
Last time Helen came to talk to the salon it was about The Cry, a piece of domestic noir that became a bestseller. Her latest novel, The Exit, falls into the category of dementia noir, a sinister tale of Alzheimer’s, danger and unspeakable sexual proclivities promulgated on the internet. She decided to write it when she came back from Australia after the death of her own father two years ago. ‘Then I discovered everyone was writing about dementia,’ she says, laughing.
Her initial thought, she admits, was to write about elderly people being sexually abused. A shudder goes round Ms Anna’s living room at the very idea. ‘I know. No-one wants to read about that,’ says Helen, whose publishers did however agree to her writing about an equally esoteric form of sexual abuse, no less repellent, though I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t yet read the book. Suffice to say that the ways of the publishing world are mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. Religions have been founded on less gnomic principles than the book industry.
From dementia to sexual abuse may seem a strange leap of thought to those unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald oeuvre, which is dark, taut and deals with the very worst of human nature. This nihilism is clearly a family trait. Helen’s sister Ria, stylish in short dress and cowboy boots and as blonde and slender as Helen is dark and slender, confesses that she has frequent mental rehearsals for the day she has to get out of the back seat of a car sinking in the river. ’You don’t want those electric windows. They could just stop working altogether if water gets into them,’ she insists. Those of us without the Fitzgerald gene for imagining Gothic life events would clearly be at a distinct disadvantage in case of vehicular flooding.
Helen’s first encounter with dying was the death of her grandmother when she was 19. Visiting her in a Melbourne hospice left her shaken.
‘I was young and frightened of old people. I felt I was in there forever but it was only five minutes probably.’
Her grandmother confided that the staff were poisoning her, something Helen dismissed as the fantasies of a demented old lady at the time. It was only later that the thought began to emerge. What if it wasn’t?
Perhaps because of her own family history, her sympathetic portrait of Rose, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, is one of the triumphs of the book. Rather than showing the disease, she shows the person - who she was both as a child, when she suffered a traumatic experience that she is forced to re-live now, and as an adult, when she was a writer and illustrator of children‘s books.
Helen has herself published ten books, with another out next year, a level of industry that is in itself staggering - until you learn that she also works part-time as a social worker in the criminal justice system, helping offenders.
One of her great preoccupations in The Exit is the way the internet facilitates sexual offending, which leads the salonistas into a discussion of the problems of controlling how younger generations use computers.
We’re technologically outsmarted by our children,’ sighs Ms Anna, recalling an occasion when Joe, then only seven years old, wanted her to fix his i-Pad. She forgot to re-set the parental controls, and by the time she realised her mistake he’d already downloaded an app called 100 Best Sexual Positions. Although this now provides fertile material for blackmail - If you don’t eat your Weetabix/ stop climbing through the front window/go to bed this minute, I’ll tell so and so what you were watching - it does fill her with anxiety. ‘Young people’s brains are developing neural pathways differently,’ she sighs.
Joe is clearly more interested in obtaining a second piece of Ms Anna’s delicious courgette cake (one of your five a day, really, according to the cook) than in renewing his study of anatomical adventures, so she may be worrying prematurely. Maybe it’s just that the Fitzgerald family penchant for contemplating the darkness of human existence is infectious, though The Exit is more hopeful than the salonistas - its most touching element is the alliance achieved between the young and the old, between Rose and the other central character, Catherine, a young, thoughtless woman who lives her life through social media. When she has to, she grows up fast, as Joe and his generation undoubtedly will too.
The Exit, by Helen Fitzgerald, Faber and Faber
Pictures by Ria Fitzgerald
Summer is causing seismic shifts among the salonistas. The Divine Ms Anna greets her guests this evening in the garden - dressed in a onesie. A onesie! The garment of choice for those who want to hide away from the world, slumped on the sofa while watching the Kardashians and eating Cheesy Wotsits.
The garment used to humiliate prospective grooms on their stag dos, in a far more agonising way than the traditional stripping naked and zapping with shaving foam. Guaranteed to lead to the calling off of the wedding if the bride ever sees him in pale blue nylon fur adorned with pink cow’s udders.
What, you might ask, is the Divine Ms Anna thinking of? Thankfully hers is a spectacular garment, charmingly summery and spattered with multi-coloured flowers. It emerges she bought it in Asda in Elgin when she realised none of the clothes she had with her were suitable for the unseasonal summer that seems to have descended on us this week. (It’s only June and we have a heatwave, for goodness sake.)
‘The funny thing is,’ she reflects, ‘that I stood out in Elgin not because of my onesie but because I was the only person there whose skin was completely free of tattoos.’
The arrival of Elginer Marion, with tattoos on both arms and goodness knows where else, rather confirms her statement.
But the summer break with tradition is not limited to Ms Anna’s wardrobe. The redoubtable Maggie Lennon has, it transpires, become a bird-watching expert since our last salon. A recent glamping trip has confirmed her status as a deeply knowledgable ornithologist. She stayed for four whole days in a log cabin somewhere in Perthshire, eating in the open air, having to fight her way to the communal washhouse for showers.
’Oh yes,’ she says authoritatively. ’Most unusual to see the siskin so far north at this time of year.’
Or maybe it was some other bird. Not being a twitcher myself I can only marvel at the wealth of knowledge she‘s acquired from The RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds. In such a short period of time too.
The culinary traditions of the salon are also thrown to the winds tonight - no soup. Ms Anna bought the makings in Elgin but has arrived back home just fifteen minutes before her guests. Or most of them - La Lennon has been here since six, supervising Anna’s daughter Nina’s homework and casting a benign eye over her eight year old son Joe’s attempts at mountaineering in and out of the flat’s front windows. As it’s extremely hot and we’re eating in the garden, no soup is a good decision. Bread and cheese, roasted peppers and the best pork pies in the city are delicious and easier to eat.
My own collection of novellas, The Four Marys, published by Saraband, is the featured book tonight, bringing the salon full circle as my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, kicked it all off just over a year ago. That night Ms Anna stated her preferences in salon readings. ‘They should always have sex,’ she said firmly.
In deference to this I’ve chosen a scene from The Diva, a story about a Glaswegian woman who becomes a great star on the operatic stage. She falls in love with a famous tenor when they appear together in an open air concert at a stately home.
Authors always have a certain amount of trepidation just writing sex scenes, given the various Bad Sex awards on offer. But reading them out loud? Is there no limit to the challenges facing the modern author? I’ve had to learn how to tweet, where to sign a book (the flyleaf), even how to take a selfie. Becoming a performer is the last straw, but the Divine Ms Anna is stern when I talk about choosing the reading.
‘Let’s be honest,’ she says. ‘Your book is full of squelchy bits.‘
There seems to be a general consensus that the book is pretty female, which is no surprise to me as I am pretty female. I’m more startled by the fact that no quarter is given to the male characters in the book. Having been a rabid feminist all my life, I’m now finding that other women leave me standing in their lack of tolerance of ordinary male behaviour. No-one likes my kind tenor because he‘s been unfaithful to his wife and the husband of the baby snatcher is written off as a waste of space. Even the hot art teacher who marries the sealwoman is roundly condemned.
‘He’s exploitative,’ says Ms Lennon in crushingly final tones.
The male gender having been dismissed, we go on to more literary discussion. The stories feature shape-shifting, baby-snatching, two infanticides and a hanging, so are not gentle domestic dramas - the book’s strapline, Is Motherhood Every Woman’s Destiny? was worked out in conversation with the fabulous Sara Hunt, Saraband’s publisher. With such subject matter there are few options for the reassuring ending. I’m thinking of adopting No Redemption as my new motto, though my publisher is not entirely convinced. (‘I can actually conceive of a situation where redemption might be appropriate,’ she notes.)
As the carrot cake is handed out and more wine is poured, there is discussion of the demands society makes on women, the myths around motherhood, and of women finding their own identity outside marriage and childen. Though it seems I have failed as a writer: ‘I thought the baby in the second story was going to turn out to be a demon child,’ says Maggie Lennon accusingly. ‘That would have been a much better story.’ A plotline I’ll save for future use.
Despite the breaks in tradition Ms Anna is in contemplative mood tonight, looking back to the past and the start of the salon. She had just separated from her husband and wanted to find out what she liked rather than what they had done as a couple. ‘It’s totemic for me,’ she says. ‘I had to work out who I was again, what I wanted to do.’ She gestures round the high-ceilinged room with its elegant cornices, its feeling of space.
'This place can soak up a lot of people. I like it when it's full of friends, noise, wine, books. Joe complained after one salon that he couldn't get to sleep because we were laughing too much. Sorry Joe, but that's the way I like it.'
Looking round at everyone still volubly discussing identity and stereotypes and gardens and Asda’s bread, I can only agree. Divine, Ms Anna.
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.
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.
THE DELICIOUS INGREDIENTS OF A
First, take one stylish hostess, Anna Burnside, in fabulous wedges that she confides are the sensible alternative to her 'mad shoes,' and pink cropped trousers that match her kettle.
Throw in a bunch of mixed professionals, including journalists, social workers, a film producer and a gardener.
Stir in home made pea soup, runny soft Brie, countless nibbles and copious amounts of drink and conversation and you have the recipe for a splendid evening.
I'd never been to a literary salon before and was honoured to be invited to talk about my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, in the divine Ms Anna's elegant flat in the West End of Glasgow. Not being familiar with salons and how they're conducted, I was a bit flummoxed to be asked to do a reading but luckily I'd appeared at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival the week before and still had the print-out of the extract I'd chosen. I'd like to say it was forward thinking that led to its presence in my handbag, but alas it was blotched with either coffee or wine stains (my two staples) and had an email address scrawled on the back. I'm sure I'll remember soon why I was to contact the lady.
A literary salon, according to Wikipedia, 'is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.' They've rather fallen out of fashion since their heyday in 18th century France but this is perhaps the moment for their revival, when the literati are mulling over the paradox that women are the main consumers of fiction, yet wield much less power than men. A recent breakdown of the gender balance of literary magazines showed an astonishing bias towards men, with a magazine such as the London Review of Books, for example, featuring 174 female book reviewers, authors reviewed and bylines compared to 574 male. No wonder Spare Rib is making a comeback.
The glittering French salons gave women the opportunity to shine. The most famous were run by fashionable hostesses famed for their erudition and brilliant conversation. Just like us Weegies really, though Ms Anna, the Glaswegian Mme de Staël, confessed that some colleagues at the magazine where she was working found her 'strong meat' because of her lack of inhibition in expressing her opinions. They clearly hadn't encountered the irrepressible Maggie Lennon, who was also there that night.
Anna eschewed the French tradition of lounging on her bed with her guests around her and instead brought out an eclectic collection of funky modern chairs. The other Jean Rafferty (Jean Bond Rafferty), an American who lives in Paris and whose invites to fashion shows I'm always receiving, would no doubt have been able to identify them. I just know they weren't IKEA.
It's an interesting process for writers to be in such an intimate setting with their readers. I've appeared at a couple of literary festivals and there's almost a protective veil between you and the audience—you're on a platform, you have a chairperson to moderate. I know Ms Anna would have jumped in if things had got heated, but this was a more democratic forum. And there was wine!
'I was very stern with them,' she told me. 'I insisted they all had to read the book beforehand.'
The result was a group of people genuinely addressing the issues of the novel—why did the Moors Murderers do it? why were they so reviled when subsequent serial killers have killed far more people? was their background enough to explain their actions?
The group were, of course, all women—they rather than men seem to have embraced the novel as an art form, perhaps because it doesn't require specialisation. In general women, no matter how elevated they become in their chosen profession, are still involved in the minutiae of domestic and family life. They're the ones who get off the red-eye from New York and still spoon yoghhurt into the kids or drive them into school. They never get too far from reality, so stories of human beings seem viscerally important to them in a way they don't seem to be with men.
Fiction ranges through every level of human activity, from philosophy to morality to passion to shoes. You can refract science or religion or love through its lens; you can use it to reflect on literary form or to reflect on eternity. That's what makes it such a useful vehicle for discussing big issues, the nature of reality.
And some small ones. Our inspiring hostess Anna Burnside led the discussion into unexpected areas, such as when did M take the wig* off after she met the priest who became her lover? And wasn't he hot? She also produced the most delicious banana bread which, like Proust's madeleine, stirred distant memories—in my case, that of chewing a bar of banana split toffee and jumping over puddles after I'd got my pocket money.
The whole thing was a delightful experience and I look forward to the next one, which will feature a male writer whose name Anna would not disclose. That's the other ingredient of the successful literary salon, a pinch of spice—and that Ms A has in abundance.
* M didn't sleep with the priest at their first meeting. The next time they met she brazened it out and turned up with her normal brown hair. He, being a hot male, wasn't looking that far north anyway.
** Men and haircuts: they're dimly aware you've changed something but they're not sure what.