Tag Archives: Scottish fiction

The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

In an article from The Scotsman, James Robertson explains his interest in and his concerns regarding the Lockerbie case. His latest novel, The Professor of Truth, is certain to come in for its share of criticism given its very obvious connections to the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced for the bombing. In 2009, diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was allowed to return to Libya, and he died in 2012. Case over? Well no… there are the families of those killed who still have to live with the memories and the loss, and then there are those who are not satisfied with the investigation into the tragedy. One of those not satisfied happens to be James Robertson, and while the words “Lockerbie,” and “Pan Am 103” do not appear anywhere in these pages, their glaring absence only serves to underscore the similarities between the novel and the case surrounding the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.

Robertson will come in for his share of criticism for this novel probably on several levels–for creating a fictional story inspired by a true event and probably also for taking that fiction into a very definite direction. For Robertson’s defense, I’d say that he’s carved an area somewhere between reality and fiction, and that’s a fascinating zone for exploration–especially since the Lockerbie case itself is fraught with some very strange occurrences.

the professor of truthBut back to the book….

Professor Alan Tealing, a 55-year-old lecturer in English Literature, lost his wife and daughter in an airplane explosion that occurred over Scotland 21 years before. He’s never ‘recovered’ from his loss, and instead a large portion of his life, and an entire room in his house, have been given to what he calls The Case. Initially he tried to understand the logistics of what happened, but that turned into an investigation which then morphed into a dissatisfaction with the official “narrative” of events. A man, Khalil Khazar, was convicted of the bombing, but Tealing is convinced that Khazar is innocent and convicted on the flimsiest, highly questionable “evidence.” Although to most people, the case is ‘solved,’ Tealing is convinced that the ‘truth’ is still out there somewhere. During all the years of his research and his fight with various official institutions, Tealing has lost friends–including the parents of his dead wife. He’s a man obsessed, and he describes his life as an existence in a “succession of cells in a vast old prison that refused to release” him. Existing in a state of limbo, not free from the past, and unable to move forward, he exists in a space he calls “Château d’If.”

One day, Tealing receives a visitor–a dying American who “had the look of a man who might recently have returned from a long expedition, in the Antarctica perhaps, on which many things had gone wrong.” This man, who calls himself Nilsen, obviously has connections with some American Intelligence agency, is there, he says, “to settle” his debts.

“You’ve always interested me,” Nilsen said. “You were an awkward fit. You were assessed as not having any allegiance.”

“Allegiance?” I could equally well have challenged the word “interested” or the word “assessed,” but they surprised me less.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on. “Your first allegiance was to your loved ones, we all understood that. But beyond that. Beyond country, even. What was your philosophy, your world view? When you started to make a fuss”–he saw me bridle again and made a small concessionary gesture with the palm of one hand–“when you gave us trouble with your questions, it wasn’t clear what boundaries you recognize, or if you recognized any. It wasn’t clear where you would stop. You could have been a unifying force, someone who spoke for all the victims’ families. You bridged the Atlantic with your loss. but you were obstinate. You weren’t prepared to shut up. Not so long ago that enraged me. Who was this guy? Did he think he was smarter than we were? But now, you know what, I respect it. I admire you. In your shoes I would have been the same. I see that now.”

I did not want his respect or his admiration.

“The only thing I’ve ever felt an allegiance to,” I said, “is the truth.”

“That’s a slippery substance, truth,” Nilsen said.

It’s an uneasy meeting–one that Tealing barely endures as he’s suddenly face to face with a man who embodies the very sort of government opacity he’s struggled against for the last 2 decades. Yet Tealing finds it impossible to not listen as Nilsen says some curious things:

The log of the journey. You start an investigation and you’re starting a journey. Sometimes you set off and you draw the map as you go. You’re looking for some end point but you don’t know what or where it is. And other times you do know, and it’s just a matter of how you get there. The narrative is how you get to the right destination.

In an attempt to atone for past sins, Nilsen leaves Tealing with a single piece of information. This information may hold the key to the act that ripped apart Alan’s life, and so his obsession leads him to perhaps the final step in his journey towards the truth–a very important word to Tealing.

I had begun to think the unthinkable: that I might die before the truth was known about who had killed Emily and Alice. I hadn’t ever doubted that the truth would come out eventually, but if it came out when I was dead what use would it be to me? Or if it came out long after all of us–all the fathers and mothers and sisters and lovers of the dead–were gone? By then it wouldn’t really be the truth at all. It would be information, of historical interest only, provided to people untouched by the event. It would be like news of some atrocity in a foreign, distant land, unreal and therefore, in a way, untrue. They would want to feel it, those people, but they wouldn’t be able to, or the feeling would not be sustainable. Human sympathy can only travel so far.

Okay, it’s a bit clunky to jump-start the final leg of Tealing’s search with a Spook smitten with remorse or a desire to pay his moral debts, but the story had to be jump-started somewhere. But apart from that, Robertson shows incredible mastery when creating atmosphere–the tension in Tealing’s house between the two men, the chaos at the site of the plane crash–even as officials swoop in and begin collecting evidence of wreckage, Tealing’s vivid dreams of his dead daughter, and the last lap of Tealing’s journey which takes him to the sweltering heat of a seaside town in Australia, where he plays the role of an incongruous tourist plagued by food poisoning, a scuffle with locals and stuck with a low-rent hotel room.

The story goes back in time to the day of the plane crash, moving painfully through Tealing’s discovery that his wife and only child are dead, and then the story takes us back to the present, with occasional glimpses into the past. This is, in a way, a detective story with Tealing, a man of books, desperate to discover the truth about the established/official “narrative” surrounding the explosion. Author Robertson shows terrific empathy and understanding of a life gutted by grief and loss, and also how an average man is spurred on by the desire for the truth, whatever that may be, as a way of finally being able to have some sort of peace. For this reader, The Professor of Truth was a page-turner.  Tealing’s grief and sense of living in a state of limbo are palpable, and his sense of urgency, in spite of a 21-year delay, intensely conveyed. This is primarily an excellent novel which explores how ordinary lives become swept up in crimes committed by governments, but at no point does the author dally with preaching any particular political beliefs beyond asking the value of a human life and perhaps underneath it all, exactly who determines why some humans should be worth more than others.

Review copy

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Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

“Families dont finish. You run away but they catch you up. Families are ghosts. Presences.”

James Kelman’s, Mo Said She Was Quirky (and it’s a great title, btw) begins with a young croupier named Helen, riding home in a taxi after working the night shift. As the taxi approaches  the traffic light, Helen notices two homeless men about to cross the road. A quiet drama takes place–part of it in Helen’s mind, and completely unnoticed by her two workmates, as Helen speculates whether the men will make it across the road before the lights change. There’s tension in the air. Helen and the taxi driver both feel it as this  is a moment when the incident could explode into something ugly. The homeless men move on and moment passes.

The incident is significant for Helen. While watching the homeless men, she initially, through interior dialogue, notes the awkwardness of riding in a taxi “with poor people seeing her, as though she was rich, she wasn’t.” But then as she watches the two men, one of them seems familiar, and in a split second, she is convinced that this is her brother, Brian. While the other two women giggle about the condition of the two homeless men and the desire to take their picture, Helen sinks into the knowledge that her brother–she last saw him twelve years ago– now lives on the London streets. The meaningless, cruel chatter of the two workmates fades into background noise as Helen grapples silently with the brief vision of the homeless men.

Mo said she was quirkyThe novel follow’s Helen’s life for the next 24 hours. She returns home and begins searching through old family photos as if she will find answers to unsolved questions. We learn that Helen, originally from Glasgow, now lives with her restaurant worker boyfriend Anglo-Pakistani Mo and her six-year-old daughter. To Helen, Mo is “like normality,” against some pathological family relationships, including Helen’s mother’s general “lack of interest.” Mo and Helen met in Glasgow but moved to London partly to escape her violent, bullying ex. While to Helen, Mo is a sanctuary, there are problems here too.

The rest of the novel is approximately 24 hours in Helen’s life told through interior monologue with a stream of consciousness narrative. I am not fond of stream of consciousness. Although I recognize its possibilities and its cleverness, it’s a narrative form that can be hard on the reader. In the case of Mo Said She Was Quirky, the stream of consciousness narrative isn’t particularly hard to follow.

Just being alive was a gamble. You opened a door and what was behind? You never knew. Everybody took risks. Helen too, she had done. Never again. Never. never never. Oh my god the thought, the very thought! The one she went with made her shiver. Even thinking about him. It was true. Who made her feel like that? Nobody. Oh how he looked at her, he just had to, even away over, he would be standing away over and she would be dealing and perhaps somebody asking for a card and she happened to see him, just glancing across. Then he was gone; she looked and she didnt see him. She couldnt stop thinking about him, he just arrived and she saw him and then he was away and she couldnt think of anything else. That was so against the rules. You could act ordinary in the job but when it came to men it took away and it took away your concentration, oh no, then their hands were in the till and you were out of a job.

Helen is a very ordinary person, and by this I mean she is a single mother, overworked and underpaid, living in poverty in a flat not much bigger than a large dog kennelit’s so small that Helen’s daughter, Sophie sleeps in a modified cupboard.

There’s a brief affair in the past with the mysterious married Mr Adams which served as a lever to spring Helen from her miserable marriage:

Knowing Mr Adams let her see about her ex what she didn’t want in life. Him! It didnt affect their relationship because that was already finished. Only she hadnt told him. She knew and he didnt. How many times lying there beside him in the dark and he was awake, and she could have said it to him, she could have. And she knew he was awake. Oh she knew alright because when he swallowed. People dont swallow, not if they are asleep. He was wondering if she was awake. She hardly breathed. She wouldnt have, not for him, never. Her mind could go any place. She was able to lie there and think it, whatever it was, whatever she wanted to think, and he was powerless because he could not stop her brains. He would if he could but he couldnt. Except if he nudged her. Horrible.

Stream of consciousness allows access to an unfettered flow of thoughts without inhibition or social constraints. It’s a narrative that is especially rewarding in its unleashing of a rich, inner life. However, in Helen’s case, her inner life is fraught with concerns, worries, bad memories and anxieties. It’s not very exciting, and it becomes almost claustrophobic and wearing at some points. Yet at the same time, there’s an undeniable pull to the sincerity of Helen’s thought processes. Helen emerges as a very real character, the sort of woman you might pass on the street and not notice, and yet Kelman’s tickertape narrative reveals her isolation and the extraordinarily difficult inner life of an average working, single mother.

On a final note, all apostrophes for contractions appear to be absent. At first, I thought that this was an issue with my kindle version, but the print copy is the same. It’s a tic I found annoying.

review copy

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Bad Attitudes by Agnes Owens

bad attitudesAs a fan of the books of Alasdair Gray and Robin Jenkins, I always hope I can find another Scottish author to read, so when I came across the name Agnes Owens, I decided to try one of her books. This led me to Bad Attitudes–a book that includes two unconnected novellas: Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party. I read some reviews that praised one of the novellas while finding the other tale lacking. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and while the stories were quite different, they also shared some common characteristics.

There’s something a little off about the characters in Owens’ grim, darkly funny stories, and if you like the novels of Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark (I’m a fan of both), then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy Owens. Although, Owens’ characters are working class–not quite the genteel crowd you might expect to find in a Muriel Spark novel.

Even though Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party are novellas and not full novels, the characters are very well developed, larger than life, strong, and distinct people. The most disturbing feature of the stories is that these characters–a little off, a little strange, all varying degrees of antisocial–seem very real and could very well be people who live next door or very like people you know. But more of that later….

In Bad Attitudes, the Dawson family is relocated from a slum scheduled for demolition to a new block of flats. This is, I suppose, a process of gentrification as the Dawsons are moved from the slum to a bright new shiny upstairs flat, but according to the fussy, nosy elderly Mrs Webb who claims she hasn’t had a “minute’s peace” since the family moved in, the Dawsons have a “seedy, untrustworthy look.” The Dawsons–mother Rita , father Harry and two sons: Peter and Jim really just want to mind their own business and be left alone, but Mrs Webb begins gathering complaints against the family. In her vendetta against the Dawsons, Mrs Webb looks for support from a neighbour named Frances. But  according to Mrs Webb, Frances remains blissfully unaware (or chooses to remain unaware) of any wrongdoing on the part of the Dawsons.

Unfortunately, Mrs Webb’s persistent complaints pay off, and the Dawson’s dog is the first victim of gentrification. This sets off a nasty chain of events as Peter Dawson begins ditching school to visit his old neighbourhood and Shanky Devine, an old neighbour who refuses to leave the derelict building. Meanwhile the Dawson’s marriage, now subject to a number of new pressures begins to collapse, and Mrs Dawson, desperate to leave her husband, needs a different roof over her head. This leads Rita Dawson into the lecherous schemes of an opportunistic, unscrupulous councillor–a man who fancies himself as Marlon Brando and whose wife isn’t quite as dull and stupid as he imagines.

In Jen’s Party,13-year-old Jen Boulting lives with her mother Maude and her derelict Aunt Belle. With Jen’s 14 th birthday on the horizon, Aunt Belle decides to organize a party for her niece. Both Maude and Jen should know that any party ‘organised’ by Aunt Belle is going to be at best–haphazard–at worst–a total disaster, but fueled by excitement and hope, Jen prepares for the best birthday party of her life….

In a different world, Aunt Belle would be a Mary Poppins type who makes magical things happen for her unpopular, dumpy niece, but here in Agnes Owen’s poverty-stricken working class world, Aunt Belle is a bizarre, middle aged delinquent who shoplifts, and sometimes trades sex for numerous favours:

“Everything had seemed so cheerful when Belle arrived on the doorstep like a plump gaudy fairy bestowing gifts such as cheap perfume and hand cream. It had been like Christmas for weeks on end with wine on the table as regular as sauce bottles and Jen listening to them both as they reminisced, mainly the laughable bits for the past hadn’t been wonderful. She preferred not to think of scenes in the months that followed , particularly the one with the policeman standing in the kitchen and accusing Belle of shoplifting. It was even better to forget how Belle had managed to pay the fines that were always cropping up. Maude visualised her going round the supermarket and filling her bag straight from the shelves. So far she’d got away with that, which wasn’t so bad,  and the tins of salmon came in handy, but it still wasn’t right. Even now she could be arguing with the manager in broken French which she usually assumed to get out of a hole. Then like an apparition she was suddenly present, jarring Maude’s sense with her orange hair and purple eye shadow.”

At the same time, there is something wonderful about Aunt Belle’s unorthodox approach to life–she does makes things happen and she isn’t hampered by the same worries as her much more conventional sister. While Maude worries about what the neighbours might think, Belle isn’t troubled by such “petty bourgeois” concerns. In one scene in the novella, Aunt Belle charges over to the home of the snotty, pretentious Mrs Woods, and convinces her–through an Oscar-worthy acting performance that appeals to Mrs Woods’s snobbery–to allow her daughter to attend Jen’s Party.

The stories are the stuff of everyday life. Owens’ characters don’t worry about the underlying meaning of existence. They are too bogged down in the everyday petty concerns of life: nosy neighbours, paying the rent, dodging government officials,  and putting food on the table. Here hypocrisy joins forces with pettiness, poverty aligns with reality and women are subject to the vagaries of the men in their lives. Owens leaves no corner of privacy for her characters to hide in, and by including very real bickering exchanges, some of the scenes recreate the gossipy claustrophobia of living in poverty–where nothing is private and everyone knows everyone else’s business. In one brilliantly funny scene, social worker Tom goes to the Dawson’s flat to investigate why Peter isn’t attending school, and at first the Dawsons are hostile and uncommunicative. But then Harry and Rita Dawson both sense a potential ally and drag Tom into their simmering domestic dispute:

“Tom decided to intervene. ‘I don’t think belting solves anything. What you both should do is sit down with Peter and find out why he stays off school. Perhaps he’s getting bullied, or perhaps being a new pupil he feels left out of things. I know it can be difficult but -‘

‘You’re bloody right, it can be difficult,’ said Harry. ‘I’ve tried talking to him but he doesn’t listen. His eyes go blank and he stares into the distance. He’s supposed to be my son but I sometimes wonder.’

‘He doesn’t listen because all you do is nark,’ said Rita.

‘And what do you do, give him money for fags so as you can go to bingo.’ He looked at Tom. ‘Do you know, nearly every night she goes to bingo. That’s a lot worse than narking.’ “

Even the characters’ sex lives are not sacrosanct and this creates a sort of humourous, undesirable intimacy with some of the unpleasanter facts of life–when Mr Dawson, for example, reestablishes his rights by repetitive reclamation sex.

This was my first Agnes Owens and what a delightful, marvellous and wickedly funny discovery.

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1982 Janine by Alasdair Gray

Bondage–the ultimate solution….

In 1982 Janine the protagonist, Jock McLeish, an alcoholic security installations supervisor, indulges in sado-masochistic fetishistic fantasies in his lonely hotel room. The fantasies–which have been refined since childhood–involve a regular cast of characters: “Superb,” –” a ripe housewife in her early 40s” sometimes known as Joan or Terry–a married woman whose affair inevitably leads to bondage, Max–Superb’s ineffectual and cuckolded husband, and of course, Janine–she’s shorter and slighter than Superb–and much more pliable. Other minor characters invented by Jock include: Big Momma (she likes to wear leather) Helga, von Strudel, Stroud, and Charlie–Superb’s lover–he acts as Superb’s instructor, and he likes to discipline.

Jock Mcleish amuses and distracts himself with the fantasies which can be rewound and replayed until they are perfected. Interspersed with these fantasies are glimpses of Jock’s real, far-from-perfect life. Jock desperately squashes these painful memories with more fantasies and alcohol. Unfortunately, for Jock, his fanstasy women bear rather uncanny resemblances to the real women in his life, and Jock’s fantasies occasionally slip into reality as the fantasy women repeat phrases and incidents from his past.

Fantasy allows Jock to create a world in which he maintains control, but his real life is flawed, full of mistakes, and laced with regrets. In reality, his sexual experiences are rather sparse–and that’s putting it mildly, but he does lead a rich fantasy life, and it is through this other life, that Jock attempts to work through his unhappiness by creating a world in which he controls the players.

I loved this book–it was original, and written with bold, brilliant style. 1982 Janine is a serious commentary on human sexuality–its functions and importance in life, and Jock represents the millions of lonely people who lead unsatisfying and lonely lives while drowning their sorrows with alcohol and trying desperately not to think about life–the mistakes they’ve made, and the regrets they nurse. No doubt 1982 Janine is offensive to some, but to me, it was fresh, brave and funny–in a rather odd way. It is not pornographic as some critics claim, and the style reminded me quite a bit of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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