Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Harper Lee

Harper Lee is to publish a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.

I'm afraid I can't help thinking it's a bad idea. It's never going to create the same resonance as the original. It can only detract from it. I think we all have our own ideas of what kind of woman Scout Finch would have turned into. I think it's best left like that.

That said, I'll still buy it and read it...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

First draft complete

Thanks to the delights of on-demand printing, for £5 I've just ordered a printed copy of the first draft of my novel for correcting. It's cheaper than I could get it printed at home...

So. It's been a busy month. Since 2nd January, I've written 51,221 words of the novel, plus 4656 words of other material, plus comprehensive re-writing of 16,000 words of existing material.

The first draft weighs in at 71,500 words. I expect the second draft will go up to around the 100,000 word mark and the third version will slim back down to around 90,000 words. I've had these ideas, and various versions of bits of them, in my head for the past nine years, but it is remarkable how they've solidified in the past two months when I've written the vast bulk of the 71,500 words. I can look at the characters in the early exchanges and see that they've totally shifted by the end. I now know they wouldn't act in those ways or say those things.

Monday, January 19, 2015

An update

It’s been a while again. I’ve been busy. Nano month came and went. I managed 20,000, but couldn’t make it all the way through. I’ve never been good at doing things to order and, if I wasn’t ready to write it, it wouldn't be written.

January, though, has been phenomenally productive. In the past 17 days I’ve written 31,347 words. My novel now stands at 55,000 words. More importantly, I now feel that it’s going somewhere. Until now I’ve been unconvinced, almost going through the motions. Now it feels real. It’s nothing like ready, of course, but what I’m writing now is a good first draft and I feel it’s working.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. That's all very well, but there was a more significant happening for me today. I killed two of my characters. These two men have been in my head for nine years now and I've chatted with them pretty much every day in that time. They first emerged in a very strange little story I wrote in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp. The story itself was virtually a verbatim account of a dream I had had, and these two characters emerged, fully formed from it. For a long time, though, they were (intentionally) two-dimensional. The original story was essentially a cartoon and that’s how they were drawn. That story has haunted me ever since. It’s been at the centre of pretty much all the fiction I've produced in the past few years. The central character, Jack, has changed dramatically since the initial story but Joss’n’Jules, my two characters, have remained largely constant.

I’ve known for several months how they were going to die. That came to me in a dream, too, as it happens. It’s not the case, by the way, that I dream a lot of my storylines. In fact, I can only think of these two instances and one other, which will also feature in the novel somewhere, although I’m not sure where yet.

Anyway, I’ve known how they would die for some time but I’ve been putting off writing it. Now I have. It was hard. I hated it. Soppy old git, I know, but it changes things. I’ll never be able to think about them the same again. I won’t love them any less but they are different now. It’s ironic, of course, that these thoughts I’m struggling with are actually at the centre of Joss'n'Jules's entire presence in the novel. Joss will be laughing at me, Jules sympathising.

So I’m three-quarters of the way through this draft. I can’t wait to start rewriting it. The Jasmine Orchestra will play Clair de Lune.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hello again

This blog has gone through a couple of metamorphoses in the past and it's about to undergo another.

It started off, back in 2006 or whenever, as a chronicle of my creative writing. At the time I was in Alex Keegan's Boot Camp and about to start an MA in creative writing. I had a fair bit of success with short stories, winning a few competitions and getting some small scale publications.

Then I took a break from creative writing to concentrate on my PhD, and devoted five years to the study of Cormac McCarthy. It's not something I recommend: McCarthy does things to your brain...

Anyway, that is now complete, and I've been scratching around for stuff to do since February. I brought out a history of my football club which has sold pretty well and now I'm getting that writing bug back. The lure of characters is too strong to repel for long...

Ultimately, I would like a change entirely and I'd like to move full-time into the writing arena, teaching creative writing and creating a nurturing environment for aspiring writers. Like the Magister Ludi, I think I've always had a pedagogical bent. Some sort of cafe cum writing space cum teaching space would be ideal.

But for now - let's write. NaNoWriMo is upon us again. I tried it once, back when I was in Boot Camp, but there was just too much happening and I couldn't manage it. This year I'm giving it another go, not because I expect to get a novel out of it, but because it's the best way to try to shape the multitudinous ideas that have been floating round my head for the past few years. The novel is set in Scotland in the mid 1980s, that much I know. There's a transgender main character, and another main who is very much like the legion of disconnected men who peopled my short fiction all those years ago. And an American girl because - why not? And lots more. It'll be a bit of a mess, but from that mess I hope something interesting will emerge.

So off we go...

Monday, May 26, 2014

No fascists here

We've just had the European elections, and a fairly dismal set of results they present, with that dismal bunch of little Englanders, the UK Independence Party winning the popular vote.

But I can't be too disappointed because the election saw the wipe-out of the British National Party. Last time around, they picked up so much of the protest vote they ended up with two MEPs, one of them in my consituency. Today's results mean that, after today, I no longer have a fascist as my elected political representative in the European Parliament.

And that's something worth celebrating.


You may have noticed I've been quiet of late. I'm very busy

Aside from literature, my other abding passion is football (soccer) and specifically my club, St Johnstone. Always unfashionable and under-achieving, last Saturday did the astonishing deed of WINNING the Scottish Cup. We've been in existence for 130 years and in that time have won precisely nothing of note, so this is a stupendous occurrence, and one that St Johnstone fans are taking some time to assimilate.

I'm in the middle of compiling and writing a fans' history of the club at the moment, with the aim of it being published in late July for the start of the new football season. So that's taking up all my time at the moment. So for the time being William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy will just have to play second fiddle to Henry Hall and John Connolly and Roddy Grant et al...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. It's been coming for quite a while and, I believe, he was suffering from Alzheimer's, so the world lost that wonderful mind some time before, but it is a great sadness to lose someone so remarkable.

I have three reading experiences which have shaped my life. One is reading Tess and falling in love with her and falling in love with literature at the same time. Another is discovering little Oskar in The Tin Drum and understanding that the world can be changed if you make it happen but, even if you do, the results will never be controllable.

And the third was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and realising the astounding scope available to writers and readers of literature. Until then, I'd read a fairly sober diet of western classics and modern thrillers. Marquez's magic realism was something I'd never encountered before. I will never forget the experience of reading the last half dozen pages of that novel for the first time. I was so excited I couldn't sit still. I had to stand up and walk about as I read it. I have never felt so personally and emotionally involved in the act of reading before or since, and I will never experience so close a connection again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil is a novel just asking to be misunderstood. And misunderstood it it.

The trouble with postmodern playfulness arises most significantly when that playfulness is at its most serious. Take Donald Barthelme’s "The Indian Uprising", for example. It’s a postmodern analysis of the pernicious nature of our avaricious modern society, but no-one takes offence because its potshots are general, its targets largely undefined.

Yann Martel’s strange novel, Beatrice and Virgil, on the other hand, is a playful analysis of the Holocaust. Hence the difficulty for readers: something as baleful as the Holocaust is difficult to approach on any level; turning it into a fable about a talking howler monkey and its donkey companion is only ever going to leave readers perplexed at best, apoplectic at worst. But beneath the postmodernism is something timeless – not for nothing does Martel quote –at length – Flaubert and even Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. And it is intensely serious, too, asking questions about the nature of memory and the ways in which human beings can reconcile themselves to the evil inflicted by ourselves on ourselves. It is a debate that has perhaps stilled since the immediate postwar years, when Hannah Arendt and others tried to comprehend the banality of evil, and since the fifties and sixties when the critique of modernity was its peak – or do I mean nadir? – with Horkheimer and Adorno and their analysis of post-holocaust meaning, but the debate has not gone away. How can it, when answers are still as elusive as they always were? Cormac McCarthy, for one, has devoted a career to the questions posed by Martel in this novel and, as we can see from McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, he’s no closer to getting to the truth. Nor is Martel. But Beatrice and Virgil is a brave, intriguing, intelligent exploration of intensely difficult material, which many critics simply misunderstand.

For Ron Charles, it is “dull”, “misguided” and “pretentious”. He suggests “the allusion to Dante's Divine Comedy is just one of several dead ends”. Well, they are only dead ends if you don’t see the doorways leading from them, and Charles most certainly does not see those. Rather, he suggests: “Martel clearly has set out in all sincerity to commemorate the Holocaust and consider its effect on victims, survivors and perpetrators.” But this is only part of what Martel is attempting to do in the novel. Charles is missing the thematic depth. For him, Beatrice and Virgil is “well-meaning sentimentality dressed up with postmodern doodads.” No it isn’t.

Michiko Kakutani’s critique is more trenchant still. Never one to mince her words – or, usually, get them right – she suggests: “Mr. Martel’s new book, Beatrice and Virgil, unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as [Life of Pi] was fetching.” It reads, she argues, “as an allegory about the Holocaust in which the tragic fate of the title characters — a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil, who are stuffed animals in a taxidermy shop — is seen ‘through the tragic fate of Jews.’” Maybe it does, but only if you’ve read the novel completely wrongly. Kakutani sees an unfortunate conflation of the Holocaust and animal rights:

[Martel’s] story has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke “the extermination of animal life” and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who “could not speak for themselves.”
Again, this is not so. Other critics have expressed similar reservations, however. For James Lasdun it’s “perplexing”, a mixture of “clarity and confusion, insight and banality, boldness and a persistent, self-monitoring nervousness.” The nervousness, Lasdun suggests, is understandable, because: “What author wouldn't be nervous offering up a fable about the Holocaust featuring a talking donkey and monkey?” This presents the major difficulty with most critical readings of the novel: they underplay the thematic content to a significant degree. For this reason, Lasdun sees the story’s structure, with the intricate layerings of retellings of the same story, as “a kind of serial distancing of author from content”. As we shall see later, this is not the case at all. Kakutani makes the same observation, when she reasons:
Mr. Martel tries to distance himself a bit from this narrative strategy by attributing the story of Beatrice and Virgil to an amateur playwright, who mourns the dying of animal species around the world and who may actually have been a Nazi collaborator.
This is wholly wrong. It is as though these critics believe Martel came up with the conceit but did not have the courage to see it through to its conclusion and sought, instead, to set himself at an ironic distance from the allegory he has created. That cannot be the case. Thus, Lasdun suggests:
Likely objections to the material are foreseen and articulated, presumably as a means of defusing them: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play.
Well, no. The opposite is true. This is taking literally what Martel is presenting, in typical postmodern fashion, ironically. The result for Lasdun, then, is that the idea of the novel is “dimly appalling”. That is because he hasn’t understood it. He is concerned that:
as the book progresses we discover that, far from using animals to think about Jews, the taxidermist is more interested in using Jews to think about animals. This does seem problematic, if only because the Holocaust is a concrete historical event, and to use it as an integer in a fable about something else is inevitably to falsify it.
Having comprehensively underplayed the novel’s themes, Lasdun then reaches the extraordinary conclusion:
Beatrice and Virgil seems, despite its evidently large ambitions, strangely trivial and narcissistic: a book that ends up thinking about neither Jews nor animals, but using the extermination of both to think about, of all things, writer's block.
Such an explanation is almost perverse in the way it wilfully ignores the depth and range of thematic concerns Martel explores. The Holocaust is certainly used as an important device in the novel, but this in no way means the novel is “about” the Holocaust. It’s about much more than that. It’s about how we remember the Holocaust. It’s about how we reconcile the Holocaust with our human aspirations, with human love, with community. It's about memory, truth, time. Pasha Malla begins to get close to this in her critique when she states:
There are ruminations on how the Holocaust has been aestheticized and commemorated through writing, but if the book is about the Holocaust, it focuses more on what the Holocaust represents than how it is represented - and then only tangentially. So what is Beatrice & Virgil about?
She quotes Henry in the novel itself, who suggests that all good novels are essentially about truth. And that is so. Specifically, however, this novel explores truth in the context of a world fallen into, first, horror and, second, despair. Thus, you could argue it is a critique of modernity. But it is more than that: in true postmodern fashion it is also a critique of the critique of modernity, and that is something wonderfully refreshing in the depressed and depressive literary Weltanschauung that seems to have taken hold in the early twenty-first century.

The exploration of truth in a desperate world would appear to recall Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and many critics note, not altogether flatteringly, the similarities between the play-within-the-novel written by the taxidermist and Godot’s play. Michiko Kakutani calls it “a derivative recycling of Beckett”. For Benjamin Secher, the novel’s “language echoes Beckett, but lacks both his poetry and his wit.” James Lasdun refers to the “odd, pastiche-Beckett” of the play in which Beatrice and Virgil appear. Joy Lo Dico is more positive, writing of the “beautiful Beckettian scene in which a donkey asks a howler monkey to describe a pear to her – and a note asking for help.”

While the references to Godot in the novel are obvious and intentional, however, perhaps a more striking similarity could be found in Beckett’s Endgame, where the action unfolds in a failing, possibly dying world in which the characters appear fated to live and relive and relive their lives, their mistakes, their crimes. This existentialist nightmare begins to probe questions of time and its meaning, or perhaps meaninglessness. The continual cries of “Me to play” by the central character, Hamm, are instructive. Playing what? Playing a role? A performance? So he is a performer? Perhaps the teller of the story. Or stories. If he is a storyteller, what is his story? How does it link to other stories? How does it link to life? All of these questions could be applied, too, to Henry in Beatrice and Virgil and, indeed, to Beatrice and Virgil themselves, and the taxidermist who created them (twice, once as stuffed animals and once as characters in his play). All of them, then, are players, players in a game, the game, in games, all games, all games are one game, over and over, endlessly recycling, everywhere, everywhen. This is the cloistered, claustrophobic world of Endgame. And it defines what happens between Henry and the taxidermist, between the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil, between the oppressor and the oppressed throughout history. So, in Beatrice and Virgil, the Holocaust is a particular, certainly, but it is only a particular. The Holocaust is not so named in the taxidermist’s play. Rather, it is called “the horrors”: the nomenclature is important. Despite what Kakutani thinks the Holocaust is not used here as a metonym for evil; it is but a particular example of it. And this evil exists through time and ever will and it will return and there is nothing that any of us can do about it. So argued Beckett and so argues Martel.

Therefore, evil must be considered a principal thematic concern of the novel. This comes across most strongly in the beautiful and stark relationship between Beatrice and Virgil. Virgil says to Beatrice at one point: “But there’s evil every day of the week.” “Because we’re around every day of the week,” replies Beatrice. “But we’ve done nothing wrong!” exclaims Virgil. Except, of course, they have, as we have, all of us, if one accepts the doctrine of original sin, if one accepts the fall of man, if one suggests, in particular, that the Holocaust, because it happened in human history, is the guilty secret of all of us, even the “children of ghosts” who have come after. Virgil asks Beatrice: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible. It’s an insult... how are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”

This takes us to a key question in post-holocaust philosophical debate. How can we reconcile the evil that was undertaken by humanity? Returning to Endgame, German philosopher Theodor Adorno made a study of that text in 1961 as part of his Notes to Literature. More famously, along with Max Horkheimer, he produced the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the Second World War, and Education After Auschwitz in 1966. Horkheimer and Adorno began the Dialectic of Enlightenment thus:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.
This provoked them to question “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly new human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism”. Later, in a much-quoted and little understood conclusion, Adorno suggested: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. This is, to an extent, a dangerous argument. However repulsive the Holocaust was, it must never be allowed to stand metonymically for human nature. It is one aspect of human nature, certainly, but it does not represent it. Adorno was clear about this. Martel is clear about this. I am unconvinced that his critics understand it.

There is a very conscious allusion to Adorno’s reference to poetry and Auschwitz in Beatrice and Virgil, when Beatrice asks: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through?” Again, however, one should be wary of assuming this therefore proves the novel is specifically about the Holocaust. For German thinkers in the immediate postwar period, such as Adorno and Eric Voegelin, attempts to “master the past”, in the context of postwar Germany’s understanding of its Nazi history, are entirely problematic and, indeed, impossible. Adorno, in Education after Auschwitz argued that unreconstituted National Socialism survived in the make-up of postwar German institutions, much like the residue of plague that lingers after the outbreak in Oran has been overcome in Albert Camus’s The Plague, ready to reinfect an unwary world. Thus, Adorno argued in Negative Dialectic that Nazi barbarism imposed a “new categorical imperative” on human beings to ensure that “Auschwitz would not repeat itself [and] nothing similar would happen”.

This is what Martel is seeking to explore in Beatrice and Virgil. In Beckettian fashion, he creates recycling and replaying worlds in which the same horrors are rehearsed over and over – in Henry’s flipbook alternately presenting the fiction and non-fiction of the Holocaust, in the taxidermist’s play, in the narrative of Henry and the taxidermist – and in each iteration the same vile results are reproduced.

Thus, the story of Beatrice and Virgil is mimicked by the actions of Henry and the taxidermist, so that they begin to meld into one another. In this, we are seeing a rehearsal of a theme which has dominated the late fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the notion of all stories being one story, all history written in a seed, everywhere, everywhen. Just as Virgil reads about the new category of non-citizen and realises it describes him, making him feel instantly self-conscious, Henry, too, is disconcerted by the eccentric behaviour of the taxidermist in the cafe and is conscious of being observed. Later, Henry admires a soliloquy in the taxidermist’s play, noting that “[t]he change of pronouns was effective, from ‘someone’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’, hinging on ‘one’ in the ironic ‘life goes on, triumphant, one might say.’”. A page later, Henry performs in a play himself and the same formulation he admired in the taxidermist’s prose is used to describe his performance: “The play ran Thursday to Sunday two weeks in a row and it went well, although one can never tell about a play in which one is a participant because one never sees the play oneself.” The change of prounoun is marked, and it permits a Husserlian examination of intentionality.

It seems likely that the taxidermist and Henry (and, probably, Martel as well) are one and the same – everyman, all of us, hubristic man simultaneously seeking understanding, love, pity, redemption. Early in the novel, Henry tries to explain his flipbook novel to the philistine editors who cannot understand its worth:

My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.
Once more, the thematic resonances behind this are pure McCarthy, right down to the idea of “bearing witness”. The whole of our existence, for McCarthy, is an act of bearing witness. As the heretic priest tells Billy in The Crossing: “Acts have their being in the witness. Without him who can speak of it”. This is broadly Hegelian, in the way it seeks to present the unity of vision of God and his children. In Beatrice and Virgil, Henry develops the theme when he quotes Meister Eckhart:
The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him; my eye and his eye are one. In justice, I am weighted in God and He in me. If God were not, I would not be; if I were not, then He would not be.
It is clear that too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil miss this essential theme. It seems a strange omission, given the highly theological turn Martel took in the latter stages of Life of Pi, and the use of Beatrice and Virgil as the names of his central characters in this novel. They, of course, guided Dante through purgatory and paradise respectively in The Divine Comedy, the essentially Thomistic allegory of the search for understanding of and access to the transcendent God. Thus, while too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil dwell too much on the manifest evil of the mundane world, not enough give sufficient attention to the novel’s aspiration for release from this evil into redemption and transcendence. This is why Joy Lo Dico, in a broadly sound critique, is wrong to state: “Where Life of Pi was about belief, in stories and God, Beatrice and Virgil is about crushing belief.” Late in the novel Beatrice expresses the desire “To remember and yet to go on living.” This is the belief that matters in the novel, a humanist belief in humanity and the reflection that the fight, however painful, is worth it.

Gordon Smith

I have a tendency to make the glib statement “I don’t have heroes”. It’s obviously not true. I even qualify it by citing Oskar Matzerath, a character from The Tin Drum, who is such a hero to me he’s tattooed on my arm. Of course I have heroes. We all do. Norman Russell and Bob Fyall, my Latin and English teachers, respectively, are heroes. And Gordon Smith was my hero.

Gordon Smith has died. I can almost guarantee that none of my regular readers on this blog will have heard of Gordon Smith. Probably not many people will have, full stop. But he means a lot to me, and I’m very sorry to hear of his death.

On a very sunny April day in 1975 I was taken to Muirton Park for the first time. Muirton Park was home of St Johnstone Football Club, and it was the last day of the football season, and Saints had to beat the mighty Celtic in order to win a place in the new Premier League which was starting the following year. For a ten year old boy it was an overwhelming experience. I remember climbing the dark wooden stairway into the Centre Stand and emerging from the gloom to see a pitch that was more vividly green than anything I’d ever seen, exactly like the experience of the kid in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. There were thousands of people already in the stadium, filling the terraces surrounding the pitch, huge swathes of green and white directly opposite, the blue and white of St Johnstone all around. And the noise. The Celtic fans in full voice. I didn’t know then it was mainly sectarian bile they were singing, of course. I was just swept along by the tide of noise they created, and the Saints fans returned that noise with songs of our own. It was my first ever football match, and it hooked me for life. Everything seemed so important.

We won. We won 2-1 and gained our place in the new league. That evening I was so excited I danced around my bedroom, waving my scarf, singing “When the Saints go Marching In”. I couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t want to talk about anything else. It was a magical day. You can never recapture your childish sense of excitement and that will always remain one of the greatest days of my life.

Gordon Smith was the matchwinner. We went 1-0 down in the first half and the dream looked over. Then Jim O’Rourke equalised and the tension ratcheted up another notch. And mid way through the second half we were awarded a penalty and the world stopped spinning and I stopped breathing. Silence in Muirton Park. Up stepped Gordon Smith, the right back. I can’t really remember the details of it, but he scored and we were 2-1 up and we held our lead until the end and won the match. And in this way Gordon Smith became a hero.

From his obituaries, I discover he was only 59 when he died. That means he was only 20 when he took that penalty, a mere ten years older than me, scarcely older than a boy himself. But to me he was – and always will be – impossibly heroic.

The point of this is that heroes are not gods or saints or impossibly exotic individuals. They are the ordinary people who do things which change the course of your life. They can do so in subtle ways and you may not even be aware they are doing it. Gordon Smith never knew me, never realised the impact he had on a young boy’s life. But what he did that day has had a profound effect on me. Ever since, St Johnstone have been a constant for me. I haven’t lived in Perthshire for twenty-seven years, and I don’t suppose I’ve seen Saints play more than twenty or thirty games in that time, but I’m still fanatical about them. I get nervous before matches, I follow the results religiously, still experience the (occasional) highs and (frequent) lows of being a true supporter. It's an irrational thing, but it is as much a part of me as my left arm or the tattoo of little Oskar.

Yesterday, St Johnstone beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final to reach the final for the first time in our 130 year history. We won 2-1. Both of our goals were scored by a 21 year old kid, a striker called Stevie May. Well done, Stevie. You don’t know this, but yesterday you will have become a hero to some young boy or girl who was at that match. You will have changed them. You will have created a moment, a memory they will never forget, will always cherish, will talk about in years to come.

Just like Gordon Smith, on 26 April 1975. Thank you, Gordon.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Crows in a Winter Landscape by Colin Andrew McLaren

Crows in a Winter Landscape is children’s author Colin McLaren’s second novel. Like the rest of his works, it is out-of-print. I think that’s a pity, as they are exciting and fast-paced novels, intelligent but with sufficient gore and detritus to keep any bloodthirsty young reader interested.

The novel begins with an “Animadversion to the Reader”, in which the fictitious J. Wellesley Gunn, Professor of Mediaeval Antiquities in the University of London, explains that the manuscript that follows is a work of fiction by journalists of his acquaintance, Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, based on the Professor’s own researches in the archives of mediaeval Bohemia. Gunn’s researches uncovered, he states, the suggestion of “a hitherto unknown strand in the Prague Plot of 1394”. He has been unable to verify his conjecture, however, which is why he passed the information to his journalists friends, who turned it into the fiction that follows.

Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, of course, were the central characters of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, and this device thus offers a link between the two novels, despite them being set almost 500 years apart. There is, in truth, a further link, because the two central characters of Crows in a Winter Landscape, the charlatan Kreuss and the young trainee doctor Alan, are clearly further iterations of the same Rimmer and Mark characters, playing out broadly similar adventures.

The setting for this ambitious novel is the Holy Roman Empire. Life is brutal and dangerous. As the novel begins, our two heroes narrowly avoid execution by a gang of mercenary soldiers called the Crows who are in the employ of the king of Bohemia for the purpose of quelling a rebellion. It is the cunning of Kreuss that saves the day, when he manages to negotiate a reprieve by dint of promising to uncover, in the archives of the town recently overtaken by the mercenaries, Milovice, evidence which would lead the mercenaries to the doors of traitors and creditors who are bankrolling the rebellion against the king.

Set to peruse the archives, Kreuss and Alan do, indeed, find the evidence they suggested they would and this sets in train a series of events which unfolds rapidly and with bloodthirsty relish. Kreuss and Alan team up with the Crows, and they are sent to Divohora where, it is suspected, illegal silver mining is being undertaken in order to raise sums of money for the rebellion. They arrive in a town which is catastrophically afflicted, with most of the citizens dead and those who remain blinded and dying. A web of intrigue is uncovered, putting the Crows and Kreuss and Alan in grievous danger.

As I said, there are similarities with the plotting style of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, although, of course, the two stories are very different. They do remain resolutely boys’ fiction: in Rattus Rex there was only one strong female character; in Crows in a Winter Landscape there are two. All the same, they are well written and entertaining novels, with rich and intriguing settings and highly imaginative set piece adventures.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Rattus Rex by Colin Andrew McLaren

I first read Rattus Rex by Colin McLaren maybe 25 years ago, when I was a children’s librarian. It’s a rattling good children’s story, clever but very briskly plotted, appealing to younger children. I think it’s long out of print, which is a shame. I’d like to think that whoever owns the rights, if they read this, might consider republishing it.

The story is narrated by Matthew Mark, a poorhouse boy set to work in the Dickensian misery of Pratt’s the engravers but released from this drudgery into a world of excitement by the mysterious Rimmer, a larger than life, one-eyed adventurer straight out of central casting. Peter Carey used much the same character (and also the same character as Matthew Mark) in his recent Parrot and Olivier in America. Together, Rimmer and Matt become embroiled in a dangerous battle against time to defeat a monstrous invasion of giant rats, who appear to be mobilising the millions of ordinary rats in 1860s London into organised armies, systematically waging war against humans.

There is a fine sense of place in the novel, and a breathless rush of adventure. The plot unfolds briskly and without sentiment: characters come to wholly unpleasant ends and none of this is sugar-coated. There is a battle between good and evil, in the form of the giant rats, but also between good and evil in the human world, and between altruism and self-interest, common sense and arrogance. There are real characters interwoven into the narrative – much of the drama takes place in the sewers being built, at that time, by Joseph Bazalgette, and he is a main character in the novel, as is the artist William Powell Frith, who painted,among other things, scenes of the deprivation of Victorian England.

The novel is by no means perfect. There is only one strong female character, for example, which feels unbalanced these days. The use of phonetic dialect in the dialogue – for an Aberdonian, and Irish and London characters, is a mistake and feels amateurish. But that can be overlooked and, overall, this is good fun.

It’s also, in some ways, a forerunner of steampunk. It was written in 1978, some time before the term was invented (to describe, according to Wikipedia, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and Homunculus by James Blaylock, and I’d heartily recommend both of these novels, too). Although we’re set in Victorian London, we’re firmly in the age of technology, and Rattus Rex features an iron-clad train, a dirigible balloon and a subterranean vacuum tube designed to circulate parcels quickly across the city but used, here, to surreptitiously move people about.

If you know of reluctant readers, this is a cracking entertainment for them to get their teeth into.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


You may have noticed I've been quiet on here for the past three weeks or so. I've been preparing for my viva for my PhD defence.

Delighted to say that I passed it today. Looking forward to a quiet night doing nothing tonight...

I'd like to thank all the regulars on here whose comments and observations and ideas have fed in, however tangentially, to my final thesis. I love the discussions on here and hope to be able to enter into more of them, now that I'm free to read normally again.....