Tag Archives: Glasgow

For the Joy of Reading: That Was a Shiver

This is a difficult book.   By that, I do not mean that it is not worthwhile.   That is precisely what it is: worthwhile.   It is simply that James Kelman demands that you should stop and think about what he has written.   This is a book about the confusion of human life.   For instance, at the moment I know precisely what I mean by that last sentence.   You, however, will probably think that I mean something else.   And a third-party reading it will probably have another, completely separate idea of what “the confusion of human life” actually means.   That is at the heart of these stories: the “noise” between what we think we have said and what other people think we have said.   In these stories, that is especially the case between men and women.

These are also stories about what it is to be a man.   The title story “That was a Shiver” sets this out for us in a bleak manner.   Robert and Tracy, a Glasgow couple, are going out shopping in the Barras, the covered market, on a Sunday.   They are not young any more, but they certainly are not old and decrepit.   They go their separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch.   We follow Robert.   He is quite comfortable, mooching around.   Then you learn things about him.   He does not like carrying bags in case he has to use his fists.   He was in the army, where he became a champion boxer.   Then he was in prison.   He thinks of himself as a hard man, but realises he is not as hard as he was.   He is fearful of young men because he is not as hard as he was.   But he is defiant.   He is willing to take on all comers.   He may not be as articulate as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the meaning of what he is saying cannot be doubted.   He is belligerent.   He swears a lot.   He is in your face.

It should be said at this point that if you are uncomfortable with the use of “bad” language, then this is not the book for you.   Robert talks in the language of ordinary working men in Glasgow.   If you do not like it, then this is definitely not the book for you.

When I say that you cannot mistake his meaning, I mean that you cannot mistake the aggression.   He is an alpha male facing down younger rivals.   He is nostalgic for his younger self, and recognises that he is not the man that he was when he was younger.   He is uncertain.   To me, his aggression is a cover for his fear, but it might be that this behaviour has become engrained in him.   It may be that he behaves like this because it is a survival strategy learned over the years.   It may be both.   Who knows?   Certainly not me.

These stories have a theme of a man dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties of life.   They deal with male insecurities whether they are about sex, status, strength, money – a man’s place in the world.   They are about the nature of manhood.   They are brilliant.   You should read them.

 

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For the Joy of Reading: Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLaverty is one of those authors who you can imagine holding an audience around the fire absolutely spellbound.   You can imagine him, in the Great Hall of Brian Boru or some other Irish King, plucking his harp and letting the story pour out of him.   I would certainly be one of those sitting there entranced.

This is the story of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, an aging couple on a midwinter break in Amsterdam from their home in Glasgow.   They have been married for a very long time and it is Stella who has decided that they need to have a little holiday in Amsterdam.    She has a reason for this which becomes clear at the start of the story.   She is interested in visiting the Begijnhof, a community of women withdrawn from the world, but not nuns, and in finding out about membership.

Gerry is unaware of this, but he has his own little secret or, at least, he thinks it is a secret.    It is his liking for the bottle.   Gerry, drunk and lost in the hotel corridor, is a comic tour de force.   This is the kind of little touch at which Bernard MacLaverty excels.   It is very funny and very human at the same time.   This is one of the moments when the reader warms to Gerry.   It is impossible not to like him.   He is a man who likes music, and who like his comforts, such as a dram of Jameson’s.   [Paddy does not get mentioned but then Gerry and Stella are from Belfast.   I am sure that Gerry would like Paddy too].

Stella is the more spiritual of the two, a devout Catholic, seeking the solace of her faith.   This is why she is interested in the Begijnhof, and has been researching it.   She remembers someone telling her about it, many years ago, and that memory has been haunting her.   For Stella, it holds out the possibility of a change in her life.

I have let slip here that Gerry and Stella fled to Glasgow from Belfast because of the troubles.   Understandably, they did not feel that Belfast in the 1970s was a safe place to bring up their son, which is why they moved to Glasgow.   The whole story is about uncovering the reason for their fear.   The whole story is about how they became the people that they are because of one event, one major traumatic event in the lives of two, until then, ordinary people.

I am in many ways chary of that phrase “ordinary people” because I do not think that Bernard MacLaverty considers anyone to be ordinary.   He sees what is unique in all of us, and that is what he brings to the fore in his storytelling.   That is why he is an absolute master at the art of storytelling.   That is why you must read this book.

For the Joy of Reading: The Long Drop

Denise Mina is a phenomenal writer.   She can take a subject as unpleasant as Peter Manuel’s killings and turn it into a compulsive read.   She just hooks you in and convinces you that you must read the next page.   If you think that you are going to be able to put this book down, you are very much mistaken.

So who was Peter Manuel?   He was a multiple murderer, who committed his crimes in Glasgow in the late 1950s.   He does not fit the usual profile of a serial killer in that there was not always a sexual motive in his crimes.  Some people he murdered for the sheer pleasure of it.   Some he raped and murdered.   It seems to me that his motivation was to make himself important, to boost his own self-esteem by bullying people and making them afraid of him.   He was a nasty little man, both in his physical and mental stature.

What is extraordinary about this book is that Denise Mina convinces you that you want to read it.  She introduces you to the Glasgow of the 1950s, a city that was still hankering to be the “second city of the empire”; a grimy, dirty declining industrial city; a city of hard men and long-suffering women; a city riven by sectarian violence; a city of slums, where inside toilets were unheard of, and a city of wealth, and merchants and lawyers and power.

This was the city in which Peter Manuel grew up, the son of a Glasgow hard man and a devout Catholic mother.   He grew up and went from bad to worse, graduating from petty crime and robbery to rape and murder.  This is the story of his progress through the Glasgow underworld.   But he is no Jack Shepherd, cocking a snook at the authorities, nor does he have the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.   He is someone who aspires to be important in his own vicious way.

Denise Mina takes us through the story, introducing a Rogues’ Gallery along the way – bent lawyers, gangland bosses, thieves and petty criminals.   Then there are the authority figures – priests and policemen and politicians who are certainly no better than they ought to be and probably not as good.   And casting its shadow over all of this is Glasgow itself, from the tenements of The Gorbals to the wealth and power of Trades’ House and Merchants’ House.

Peter Manuel could have been born and brought up anywhere, but he was a Glaswegian and this is a Glaswegian story.   I am not sure that the Glasgow Tourist Board will be too happy with Denise Mina.

But you as the readers have a treat in store.