Tag Archives: Short Stories

For the Joy of Reading: Gutter 18

Listen do you want to know a secret. Gutter Magazine is an essential read, especially if you are a librarian or a bookseller, and you want to know who the up and coming voices are in Scottish Literature. Of course, this assumes that you have not outsourced your purchasing so that you can cut costs to the bare minimum, and reduce the number of professional staff that are employed in your outlets. Gutter has survived the tribulations of the last year or so, and it has produced a wonderful issue for Autumn 2018, timed to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and coupled with the Freedom Papers, sponsored by the Festival, to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote in the UK and the birth of Nelson Mandela.
All you have to do is look at the content. There is an interview with Louise Welsh on the art of writing crime stories, showing that crime novels are an examination of the human psyche, and that they are much more than a Cluedo-type mystery. There is a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ostensibly about body parts deciding to co-operate for the greater good, but really about how the individual cannot function without the community, the African concept of ubuntu. This stories has been translated into Shetlandic and English from Gikuyu. I would recommend reading the Shetlandic first, not because I can really understand it because you can hear it rolling off the tongue.
William Letford has written a short story that is essentially about how we, as a society, deal with manhood and masculinity, and how they are not the same thing. William Letford is a poet that I came across through Gutter and the Discombobulate evenings at the Arches in Glasgow. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant and if you have not read his poetry collections, Bevel and Dirt, then you have a treat in store. And that is something that can also be said about Gutter.
Then there is the poetry. These are names that are worth discovering: Penny Boxall, David Hale, Bridget Khursheed, Lavry Butler, Charles Lang, David Ross Linklater, Jay Whittaker, Kevin Williamson, Ross Wilson, Hamish Scott, Sara Clark, Maria Sledmore, Iona Lee, Lucy Cathcart Froden, Rosa Campbell, Hannah Van Hove, Vahni Capildeo, Caroline Hume, Ingrid Grieve, Barbara Johnston and that old favourite, Anonymous. All of these will be names worth watching out for. If publishers have any sense, all of these will be names worth nurturing. I presume that the same can be said for Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, but I do not know because this poem is in Gaelic, and I cannot read it.
Even the reviews tell you what to look out for. You do not have to agree with them. Indeed, how can you if you have not read the books, but if a book is reviewed in Gutter then that is a good indication that it is worth reading.
Gutter Magazine is a phenomenon. Just be glad that it has survived the last year. Read it. Make sure that it survives to continue promoting good Scottish literature. Libraries should buy it, if only for their purchasing staff. Readers should read it so they know the names to look out for.
If you have not read Gutter, have never come across it, and you love books, then this is a treat and you should wallow in it.

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For the Joy of Reading: Hings

The problem with writing in Glaswegian is that you limit your audience.   The advantage is that you write in a vibrant, poetic, exciting language that gives you a feeling for the street, for the everyday speech of an extraordinary people.  There will be some people who will not make the effort to read these stories, and that will be their loss.   Chris McQueer is a genius at the writing.   He has lines like “Look pal, if ae wanted tae hear an arsehole talk…ah wid’vd farted”.  How can you not like something that reflects Glasgow pub patter so well.   And, if you don’t, take that as fair warning not to read this book.    Because the language is far worse than that, as is the everyday language of Glasgow.

These stories have a wonderful logic, of which Myles na Gopaleen and Gerard Hoffnung would have been proud.   [And if you don’t know who I am talking about, Google them because I can’t be bothered to explain.   Or as Chris McQueer would undoubtedly say “arsed”].   You can feel the characters on a trajectory to, not necessarily, disaster but to a sort of unavoidable future, whether it is Postman Pat, stoned out of his mind, Sammy having been given a samurai sword or Maureen, Annie and Daz ending up in Tokyo because they were filmed by Japanese tourists in Easterhouse.   Chris McQueer is Billy Connolly on speed, with a touch of the Sean Connery gravitas to make it believable.

Sammy is one of the characters who appears in three of these stories, and we follow him from his Da dying of food poisoning, through the funeral to his uncle’s Christmas present.   As Sammy says, it is mental.   Big Angie, the bowls player, is the one who dominated this collection of short stories for me.    This is partly because she is the main character in the longest of these short stories, and partly because she is not as hard as she seems.   She is a comic creation on a Falstaffian scale, and not just because they are both fat.

Anyway, if you have not got by now that this book is a treat, then you never will.   So I will “haud my wheesht”.   Just read it, unless you are a “prissy wan” offended by bad language.   Because this has bad language at Point 15 on the Richter Scale.

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.