Tag Archives: Alan Bissett

For the Joy of Reading: The Book of Blaise

Welcome to the breathtakingly logical world of Ian McPherson.   It is just that he does not use a logic that is remotely recognisable to the rest of the world.   The hero proceeds from a completely false premise to an inevitable conclusion, wreaking havoc as he goes.   Myles Na Gopaleen would be proud.

A little explanation is needed.    I first came to know the work of Ian McPherson through his performances at the Edinburgh Festival and at the wonderfully named DisComBobuLate [did I spell that right, Alan Bissett?] cabaret evenings in Glasgow.   He is a standup comedian with an acerbic wit, leaving you breathless with laughter at the sheer absurdity of life, and his life in particular.   To say that his act is based on things going wrong is like saying that Genghis Khan was a warmonger.   It gives you the idea, but does not indicate the sheer scale of the enterprise.   And The Book of Blaise is the Everest of absurdity.

There is something awful about this book.   You watch helplessly as the unnamed hero walks, with a certain insouciance, towards his inevitable fate.   You can see what is going to go wrong and, of course, there is nothing that you as a reader can do about it.   And when it does go wrong, it is beyond your wildest imagining.

To understand all this, you need to meet the characters.    There is the hero who is the epicentre of disaster.   There is Blaise, his long-suffering partner, who is a writer.   There is Bonnie, his 17 year old daughter, who the hero cannot accept as having grown up.   There is Isobel, Blaise’s octogenarian, gadget-obsessed mother, whose extreme Presbyterianism makes Ian Paisley look reasonable.   There is PC Clint struggling with the fact that his mother is marrying a woman.   There is the drunk who the hero mistakes for AL Kennedy.   There are Catholic priests,including a Jesuitical Jesuit, mad academics, a famous African feminist writer, and, of course, AL Kennedy, who is ignored.   All of this comes together in a sort of trifle, an Eton Mess, as the hero collides with the unexpectedness of life,and the inevitability of things going wrong.

Some words of warning.    It may be necessary to have an ambulance crew on standby, in case you hurt yourself while falling about laughing.

And do not read this book on public transport, as I did, in the quiet coach of the train.   The quietness of the coach will be shattered.   This is not popular, especially if it is the 4.26am train from Glasgow to London.   People do not take kindly to having their sleep interrupted by riotous laughter.   You may be asked to move.

So lock yourself away somewhere safe, and enjoy this book to your heart’s content.

For the Joy of Reading: Young Blood

Sifiso Mzobe draws a picture of township life that will have you gripped from the very first paragraph.   His tale is set in Umlazi, one of Durban’s townships, and tells of the lives and deaths of young men in what is a violent and dangerous place.   In some ways, this story could be set in any township, favela or slum throughout the world, where the lives of young men are cheap because they are not considered, not respected, and not valued.   It is also a tale of Umlazi, a township where HIV and Aids is prevalent, and where the people have been demeaned and insulted for decades by apartheid, and are now still trying to deal with the legacy of apartheid.   In other words, this is a tale that is very firmly set in modern South Africa, and simply could not be set anywhere else.   To that extent, Sifiso Mzobe is very definitely a child of his country.

I am as sure as I can be, without checking, that the word “apartheid” is not used.   But it is a brooding presence throughout the story.   You simply cannot right a story set in today’s South Africa without considering the consequences of apartheid.   Sifiso Mzobe is simply too good a writer to ram apartheid down the throats of his readers.   He lets you come to understand through his story of Sipho, Vusi, Musa and Sticks.

From the moment that Sipho decides that “money now” is the route to everything that he wants, and that he is therefore not going to go back to school, the reader is lured into this tale of a young man looking for a way out, hoping to become successful.   He had thought that his soccer skills would be the path to success, but knows that township soccer rarely pays.   So he turns his attentions to stolen cars.   And so the reader is led into a world of gangsters, shebeens, prostitutes, violence and guns, while watching, with fear, a young man of seventeen risking throwing his life away for quick gains   This, then, is a story of a young man, of his impatience, of his ambition, of his idiocy and of his courage.   It is a story that could be written about young men anywhere.

The obvious comparison is with Alan Bissett’s “Boyracers”.   Both are stories of young men, of cars, of chasing girls, of competitiveness, and of seeking to establish a place in the world.   Both Sipho and Alvin find their escape through education, and both of them learn something about being a man.   Both authors write with passion, with energy, with joy and with affection for their characters.   Both of them choose their words and the way they present language with care.   Both of them reflect the speech rhythms of their chosen location.   Alan Bissett’s story, however, is more light-hearted and exuberant, lacking that threat of murder that hangs over Sifiso Mzobe’s Umlazi.   In some ways, a better comparison is with Samuel Best’s “Shop Front” because of the explicit threat of violence on which the plot hinges.

Sifiso Mzobe is a young South African author that the reading public should be more aware of, so that they can welcome him with open arms as an outstanding storyteller, and a true poet of the language.   This is the kind of excellence that must not be overlooked.