This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Protestant town in the west of Scotland.
The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions.
Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly.
The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time.
There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time.
Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort.
The Old Man and The Boy service an off shore wind farm out in the North Sea, way beyond being able to see land. They live on a platform (I imagine Sealand) and their view is just the sea and various generations of decaying turbines. As one turbine dies, they cannibalise its parts to repair others. The Boy is there to replace his father who broke his contract. The Old Man has always been there. They are serviced by a quarterly supply boat whose master runs a black market trading racket. He trades the lagan and jetsam that the Old Man is able to fish up from the seabed in return for the supplies that might stretch the lifespan of the turbines.
There is no beginning and no end. The Boy and the Old Man have no past life; they have no future. There is no boundary to the wind farm and the sea. There is no hint of anyone who might benefit from the wind farm.
The Boy and the Old Man are suspicious of each other. With just one another for company - and the creaks and grand and bangs of the plant as it is ravaged by the sea - they try to live independent lives despite being mutually dependent on one another. They care for each other and they hate each other.
Bizarrely, this reminded me of the vast cattle stations in Australia, remote and isolated, farmers living in grinding poverty to supply a wealthy nation that they seldom see with their meat. And inevitably - probably intentionally - it reminded me of The Old Man and The Sea. Almost nothing happens, just the battle between man and nature that nature always wins. And then, there were also shades of the final scenes of The Truman Show as Truman sails for a shoreline he doesn't even believe exists.
The book is short, the writing is spare and stylised. But despite the bleakness, there is a warmth in the writing that keeps the reader engaged. Through the boredom and drudgery and backbiting we see genuine affection that the odd couple feel for one another. We see that some of the mutual suspicion and prying might have come from good hearts.
The novel is interleaved with occasional fragments from a past when Doggerland was dry land, inhabited by people who could never have imagined the horror of the grey, windswept sea. It is never clear whether these snippets were long ago and the sea is the present day, or whether the land is the present day and the sea is the future we all face.
Either way, it has made me feel that we all owe a greater gratitude to those who endure hardship to support the comfortable lives that many of us lead.
Doggerland is a short novel, but one that leaves a deep impression.
Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders.
Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down.
This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity.
The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting.
The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John.
The Last was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Set in a hotel in Switzerland, a mixed bag of staff and guests find themselves survivors of a nuclear holocaust that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. When the initial tweets and news stories started to circulate, many of the guests fled for the airport. Those left behind were the ones who had nothing to flee for.
Jon Keller is an American academic who was at the hotel for a history conference. His fellow delegates left but Jon, an uber-rationalist, saw no point in fleeing. The roads would be jammed, the planes would be grounded. Why run?
So we have a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story where people consume their way through a dwindling supply of food and clean water in the hope that a better plan might come to mind. Instead of a better plan, they find a dead body. Despite the entire planet now consisting of dead bodies, Jon decides to pass the time by playing Miss Marple, interviewing everyone and searching their rooms. Armageddon affects people in different ways: some become leaders, some become whingers. Jon becomes a securocrat.
There's a standard fare of journeys out into the wilderness, raiding ransacked supermarkets, fighting off predators and such. There are unlikely friendships, amusing animosities. The supporting cast conveniently includes a doctor, a head of security, a desk clerk who understands the record keeping. There's a rapist and a feminist, a Japanese family with young children... It's all a bit like a 1970s disaster movie but without the nuns. Oh, and with occasional use of mobile phones.
At points, the plot becomes impenetrable. The pacing seems wonky, there are moments when people seem to behave with great irrationality. There are enough loose ends to run at least six sequels. It should be corny, but somehow it manages to be fun. I suspect the thing that holds it all together is the pomposity of Jon, recording everything in a self-serving tone of spurious even-handedness - for posterity - and imagining what the fellow survivors really think of him busy bodying around and playing detective while they focus on the future of humanity.
Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews.
The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole.
The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town.
Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated.
The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean.
Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land.